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Susan

 

 

Smoke And Mirrors

Many thanks to KC for her beta work.  She's amazing.
Disclaimer:  No, I don’t own them.
Rated: PG to R for language and sexual situations.
Feedback: All feedback welcomed.

 

Part 1

With a whispery, pain-filled groan, Scott Lancer rolled slowly from his side to his back and stared up at the low ceiling of his cell.  The paper thin mattress did nothing to comfort the ache in his head.  He remembered that he had awoken once already, in the near dark of a rain-filled early morning, awoken just long enough to determine that he actually was in a cell, and then, with an alcohol-soaked, fuzzy brain, he had closed his eyes and drifted back into sleep without even trying to figure out why he happened to be here.  At the time, it had just seemed like more trouble than he was ready to deal with.  He was also pragmatic, knowing that the whole thing would still be there to worry over once his drunk had worn off some.  And besides, in Scott’s opinion, waking up in jail was never a good thing, never, and thinking about it with a hangover could do nothing but make things worse.  Putting off thinking about it seemed prudent.

But now he was well and truly awake, and he fumbled around in his mind trying to figure out how to deal with his situation.  His familiarity with this exact sort of thing was limited—however, during those hellish, black days of the war, that last nightmare year, he had woken up in a crowded, stinking prison cell more mornings than he wanted to remember; and each time he awoke, there in the filth and sickness, it had been with a feeling of pure astonishment that the whole experience was actually real, and not simply a vivid nightmare.  Those were mornings that were always just damned bad, and, frankly, mornings that he would rather forget about and was completely unwilling to discuss with anyone, including his brother. Although, he really did hope he might find the words to do so someday.

But this “awakening” was different; for one thing, it was less crowded, and it was far, far less pestilent; actually the place was clean and smelled of freshly cut wood.  Maybe this was normal, this wood smell and the cleanliness; his “waking up in a small town jail” experience really was limited.  In fact it was limited to exactly two times before now, and both had involved active participation from his brother, Johnny.  The first time was when the two of them had been “persuaded” by their father to rescue sweet, but unwilling-to-be-rescued Melissa in the mining town of Camp Juniper, a trumped up charge if he had ever seen one, and then there was that one time in Green River when he and Johnny had gotten into that little altercation with Montgomery and Clinton Newquist—well, Val had called it a brawl, and really that did describe the situation a bit better—over Lizzie MacMillen’s lace handkerchief.  Well, it hadn’t really been about the handkerchief, but that was beside the point.

Ah, Lizzie McMillen, sensual and soft, sweet as sun soaked honey.  Scott closed his eyes and let his thoughts loop around and linger with sweet Lizzie for awhile, dawdling near her soft brown hair and laughing black eyes, dallying over her round, lush figure, softly dallying.  His fingers ached with the memory of that ripe figure, until he happened to notice that his thoughts had gotten lazy, that he had wandered a very long ways away from this tiny jail cell.  He was definitely having a hard time focusing around the pounding in his head.  And visualizing Lizzie’s luscious, um, assets wasn’t helping.  The point? The point was that waking up in jail couldn’t possibly be a good thing, especially when one neither remembered the circumstances of the incarceration, nor knew the name of the town in which this particular jail was located.

Scott turned his head slowly, his massive, pounding boulder of a head.  He looked at the bunk on the far side of the cell.  And even though up to this point he hadn’t seen him, of course, there lay Johnny.

His brother was sleeping, or possibly unconscious; he seemed quite peaceful though.  Whether he was unconcerned with their situation or still unaware of it, Scott didn’t know.  At that very moment, as though he knew Scott was thinking about him, Johnny began snoring lightly, a soft sighing kind of snore.  So not unconscious then, Scott thought; he studied his brother for a moment and noted that he was sprawled on his back, one arm draped across his stomach, the other curled above his head.  He had a large, dark bruise across his cheekbone and another, a less purple one, feathering across his jaw.  He looked…disheveled, like he had been unceremoniously dumped there, probably had been, now that Scott took the time to think about it—his shirt was untucked and partially unbuttoned; one sleeve was torn.  Johnny’s always mutinous hair was in even more disarray than usual.  One leather-clad leg hung off of the side of the small bunk, and that foot, the boot coated with dried mud, was planted flat on the floor.  His far leg, near the adobe wall of the cell, was bent at the knee, leaning against that wall, with that equally muddy, booted foot on the bunk.  Next to him, on the floor, lay his hat, its crown crushed in, and a wadded up pile of leather jacket.

Scott used the damply chill wall behind him to help himself sit up.  Groaning softly again and running his fingers across the back of his head to locate the lump he knew he would find, the Boston-bred rancher continued to study his brother as he shifted himself into a more comfortable position.  With a careful finger, he could feel that a scab had formed slashing away from the center of his bottom lip.  Looking down he could see that blood was spattered across the front of his favorite beige shirt.

Surely the blame for whatever had brought him to this place and time, to these aches and pains, could be placed squarely on Johnny’s shoulders, although he wasn’t quite sure how—yet.  He knew though that he would remember eventually, and he knew it would be his brother’s fault.  He was anxious for Johnny to wake up so he could give him a hard time about it.  Although it pulled at his sore lip, he let a slight smile slip out when he thought about the ration of trouble he would give his brother, at the inevitable sass he would get back from Johnny in return.

With a sigh, he thought back over the last few days, made his first real attempt to work out this problem of the Lancer brothers doing jail time.  He began sifting through a shifting fog of memories, trying to determine what exactly had led up to them being in this unfamiliar place, what had led them into what appeared to be a little bit of a mess.  Somehow, there seemed to be something about singing and mud, and someone with the unlikely name of Moose, but what exactly about singing and mud and Moose, he couldn’t even begin to say.

Try as he might to figure out their exact situation, mostly Scott just remembered that it had been such miserable weather lately, just amazingly depressing weather.  For weeks now it had done nothing but rain, and then it would rain some more.  Rain was playing a starring role in his memories.  As he looked to the small, barred window high in the back wall of the cell, he could see that, even now, rain was pouring past it in a solid silver and gray veil.  A small stream of water spilled over the lip of the window and gathered in a puddle under it.  But he had known it was still raining even before he had looked; he could feel it in the air, could feel the oppression of it, the damp clinging to him tenaciously.

Lately, for weeks now, it seemed that the sound of rain on the roof had become their constant companion.  At first, Scott had actually found it to be kind of soothing, had wondered at Johnny’s instant, mopey depression when it had all started up.  The tattoo of raindrops, as a background beat, serenaded them as they worked in the barn, as they ate their supper around the long dining room table, as they played chess and drank brandy before bed.  The soft rhythm of rain playing on the clay tiles of the house had whispered him to sleep at night----night after night---after night---then it rained some more.

So, it wasn’t long before the sound of the drip dripping water had begun to torture rather than to soothe, no longer a background beat, more of an all encompassing barrage, a sound vaguely reminiscent of shadowy, long-dead battlefields, rumblings like an arsenal of artillery, moaning wind. As the days wore on, no longer vaguely so, the sounds became instead horribly reminiscent of those days of war.  And not only had the sound of drip, drip become tortuous, the rattling rain was boiling the ground all around into acres of mud, a seething sea of mud, and was causing the walls of the hacienda to close in, closer and closer every day, slowly squeezing the life out of everyone and everything.

Of course, not much could get done at Lancer in the deluge of chill water pouring from a gun-metal gray sky, aside from tack and wagon mending, shoeing the horses, and of course, Johnny’s favorite, the bookkeeping.  And still, no one could escape getting soaked, even with just a quick trip from the house to the barn to see to the horses.  It put the lot of them out of sorts.  Jelly had done nothing but complain, yackety—yackety—yack, about his elbows, about the leak in the roof of his room, about the mud, about everyone else complaining, for what seemed like an eternity.  Normally sweet-natured Teresa prickled at them all too, loudly, when they tracked water and mud into the house.  How in the hell did she expect them not to track water into the house?  And Murdoch, the big man was so irritable, he acted as though he might just snap one of them in two with his bare hands if he heard the word “mud” one more time—with Johnny inevitably edging ahead as the most likely candidate for snappage.

Then there had been those wonderfully memorable times when he and Johnny had been called on to help pull out some incredibly stupid cow which had found itself wallowing in a mud-filled gully.  Why did they always manage to end up wallowing?  And why did it always seem to happen in the rain? If Scott had thought he was wet before, it was nothing compared to how he felt after wrestling a thankless, brainless beef while knee deep in icy mud with water sluicing down his back in buckets, soaking him to the core, filling his boots, filling his whole damn life.  He shivered as he remembered the misery he had felt, his hat dripping, his shirt and jacket plastered to his goosebump-covered skin, his gloves ineffectual. And the chill wind, the heartless wind, it had pulled at him, clutching at his clothes, his hair, with corpse-cold fingers.

He recalled the last time they had spent the evening cow wrestling—three days ago?  four?  He had looked over at Johnny and had seen his own misery reflected in his brother’s eyes, in his stooped, shivering shoulders and in his dripping wet hair, which was plastered to his head, his hat nowhere to be seen.  And that particular adventure, and a couple of others just like it, had nearly made him grateful that he and Johnny were mostly relegated to household duties, even though both were beyond tired of adding up columns of numbers, of moving furniture for cranky Teresa or lugging tubs of water around for Maria, of smelling the wet wood and the mildew and mold.

There was no doubt that with each passing, soggy day, the lulling background “tattoo” of rhythmic rain had become more and more maddening—the sound incessant, infuriating, until Scott thought that one of them was definitely going to break, that one of them was going to resort to extreme violence, and he really couldn’t say which one of them it might be.  It was a toss-up.  But, he had noticed Johnny hiding Teresa’s sewing scissors, although if they were being hidden for later use or to keep them out of the hands of the irritable girl, he had no idea.

As the relentless days of wet weather wore on, to Scott, worst of all, even worse than the wet smell which seemed to cling to the house, the clothes, the people, was that everything inside of the hacienda felt damp all of the time—the sheets when he went to bed at night—the chair he sat in by the fire each evening—a fire which tried so hard, but failed to dispel the weather—even his clothes when he got dressed each morning.  He started each day damp.  He ended each day damp.  He spent each day in varying stages of dampness.  He had begun to wonder how long it might be before he sprouted gills.  And the days weren’t only soggy; they were cold as hell, dropping down near freezing on some nights.  He knew Johnny had been feeling it too, but mostly he was just too wrapped up in his own misery to find the energy to be interested in what the rest of his family felt about it all.

 

As he continued to try to remember how they might have ended up in this unfamiliar jail cell in a town, the name of which would not come to him, one thing he did remember was that he had come upon Johnny several evenings ago, just as the gray, rainy daylight was turning to full dark.  His “baby” brother was sitting in Murdoch’s desk chair, had it turned towards the big arched window behind the desk.  A frown creased his face, and he was deeply lost in thought as he stared out at the sheets of rain pouring down the glass.  Scott knew that he wasn’t really “seeing” anything; he was just staring.  “What’s on your mind brother?” he had asked, interrupting the man’s reverie, although, truth be told, he really had little interest in what was actually on Johnny’s mind. How was he supposed to care about anything with the constant hammering of the rain on the roof?

“Rain,” had been Johnny’s cryptic answer.

“Rain,” Scott had agreed, with a sneer in his voice.

“Murdoch,” Johnny continued.

“Murdoch,” Scott had wondered how long this extremely fragmented conversation might continue.

“Stupid bull. Damned Sacramento.”

Again Scott had agreed in monosyllables.

“Well, let’s go pack then, so we can get an early start tomorrow.”

“Okay----What?”  Scott watched as Johnny pulled himself resignedly to his feet and headed for the stairway.  “What are you talking about Johnny?” he called after his brother.

“I just told ya, Scott.”  Johnny had turned and, frowning, had looked down at Scott from his place on the third step up from the bottom.  He was holding the polished wooden railing with one hand and raking through his damp hair with the other.

“You didn’t tell me anything.  All I got from our little truncated conversation was ‘rain,’ ‘bull,’ ‘Murdoch,’ and ‘Sacramento.’”

“Well, yeah, that’s about the size of it.”

 

Part 2

“Johnny.”  This time as Scott spoke, with a threat clear in his voice, he was moving menacingly forward, towards his brother, with his hands clenched at his sides.  With his mood worsening with each soggy day that passed, he was very near to drowning the man in the nearest puddle if he didn’t get some kind of straight answer.  As he moved forward, he wondered if the rain had finally caused both him and Johnny to fall over some sort of steep ledge into an abyss of insanity.  Of course, if he had gone crazy, he wouldn’t be wondering if he had gone crazy.  Would he?  No matter.  If they hadn’t fallen already, he knew that the trip to get there was a very short one.

Johnny saw the look on his brother’s face and took another two quick steps up the stairway.  He put his hands in front of himself in a “stay put” gesture and poured his explanation out in a rush: “Like I said, Murdoch’s sendin’ us to Sacramento to check on that bull he bought from Randall Richardson.”

“You did not say, and we can’t wait until the weather breaks because---?”

“He said he didn’t care if it was rainin’, he expected us to be ready to leave at first light tomorrow.”  As he turned and continued up the stairs, Johnny’s voice had floated back down to Scott.  “Seriously Scott, have you actually tried to have a conversation with the Old Man lately?  I’m not gonna ask him why this can’t wait; but you’re welcome to if you’ve a mind.  And, if ya do, well, it’s been nice knowin’ ya, brother.  Personally, I’ll take my chances with the rain.”

And, of course, they had donned their rain slickers, downed their last dry cup of coffee for a while, and headed out at dawn the very next morning, in spite of the torrents of rain which soaked them to the bone before they had even passed beneath the Lancer arch.

 

Scott’s attention was forced back to the present with the sound of the front door of the jailhouse opening.  A rain-spattered wind blew in, barely sneaking its way around a large round man with a large round face.  As he stepped through into the jail, that wind, which managed to swirl its way across to Scott, was also flapping at the tails of the man’s jacket and pulling at his broad-brimmed hat.  Scott figured this must be their jailer, so he studied him for a bit.  He noticed the man was sporting a dull gray shirt, black pants and a very fancy pair of boots.  At least he thought they were some kind of fancy, exotic leather, rattlesnake or something, but it was kind of hard to tell as large parts of them were coated with mud, just like everything else in Scott’s world seemed to be lately.  The man also wore a shiny, non-muddy sheriff’s badge.

He gave Scott a quick glance and then ambled over to a potbellied stove in the far corner of the room and poured himself a cup of coffee into a thick white mug.  The entire room smelled of the coffee, and Scott would have killed, or even begged, to have a cup of it, if not for a certain little problem which had begun to plague him.

With just a bit of desperation, looking away from the man, Scott searched the tiny cell slowly and carefully for a moment, taking in the starkness of it, the lack of amenities.  He nearly moaned with the injustice of his position, the indignity he was about to face as he spotted a bucket in the corner.  If only he were still sleeping like his brother.  He would even settle for being unconscious rather than face this humiliation.  But there was nothing for it, and he put one hand flat on the wall to help himself stand up.

“Um, Sheriff?”

Without allowing Scott to ask, the sheriff simply said, “bucket,” and pointed his chin towards it.  Resigned, Scott straightened his shoulders and stiffly moved towards the back of the cell.

The big man did not turn away as the prisoner contemplated attending to his personal business.  In part, the sheriff figured the man, criminal that he was, didn’t deserve the courtesy, but even more than that, turning away was just too darn much trouble.  Really, the man in the cell and his physical needs were not on the sheriff’s mind anyway.  Instead, he was busy thinking about how he needed a good long morning nap because Walter Graves was a lazy man.  He had been a lazy boy.  Then, he had lazied his way through his young, indolent manhood, never marrying because he had seen what women did to men, always creating some job or another they thought needed to be done and then nag, nag, nag—nag a man to death. That’s exactly what had happened to Walter’s father; Walter was sure of it—death by nagging.

That kind of life definitely did not suit Walter.  Wedding some gal would have been just too darn much work; women in general were just too darn much work, and so, always on the alert for a prowling woman or a stern boss, he had arrived at the age when many men thought of retirement, all without changing his lazy ways.

And Walter Graves surely did know a good thing, a lucrative thing, when he saw one, knew how to take advantage of blessings that fell in his lap.  Yes, Walter had a pretty sweet deal going on here in this tiny town of Kleinstadt, California.  He had wandered his way out west from St. Louis years ago, lured by the promise of easy money in the newly discovered gold fields and the desire to get away from the hard, life-eating, profitless labor of the shoe factory, although at the time of his journey west, he had only slaved at the factory for a month or so.  It just didn’t suit his lazy ways.

He had thought looking for gold would be the perfect job for a lazy man, to wander around picking up hen egg sized nuggets of gold right from the ground, there for the taking.  He could picture himself gathering a basket full of gold in a day or two and then living high on the hog for the rest of his lazy life.  But it had proved to be anything but easy.  Rather than picking up nuggets of gold right from the ground as he had been promised by the Wells Fargo Stage people, and by the local newspaper stories, the reality was that panning or digging for gold was hard work, much too hard for a lazy man.

So he had wandered away from the American River and away from Sutter’s mill and the swarming humanity pouring into the area, all intent on getting rich quick.  He had wandered and lazied his way around much of Southern California for a number of years.  Then, somehow, he had found himself in Kleinstadt, the right place at the right time, for sure.  He had thought the town a quiet, pretty little place, and then, while spending some precious pennies on a meal at Sudie’s diner, he had accidentally tripped a hapless thief who was intent on making off with the diner’s profits.  Instantly, on the spot actually, the good people of the town had appointed him and paid him well to be their sheriff—had been paying him well for more than ten years now—and then they had all pretty much gone about their non-lazy business, never causing much trouble, never bothering Walter much at all—a peaceful, hardworking lot, the people of Kleinstadt.

He’d only had to hold a few people in this pretty little jail, which the good citizens had built for him nearly a decade ago.  Mostly, his guests had been rowdies from bar fights, or drunken cowboys found causing trouble over at Mama Lena’s come a Saturday night.  One memorable time, he’d had to jail a drifter who had tried to run off without paying Gustav down at the livery for the privilege of boarding his horse; of course, Gustav had done all of the work, with Walter simply shutting the door and turning the key.

Oh, and then there was Tommy Sunderland.  Walter smiled a small gap-toothed smile as he thought about how he had locked that boy up good and tight when he had tried to get out of marrying young Betty May Ridder after he had gotten her in the family way.  Imagine, that young hooligan had tried to run out on his responsibilities, but Tommy had been forced to sit his butt in Walter’s jail while Betty May’s big, blonde daddy had gone looking for his shotgun and the Methodist preacher.  The two were married right here, right in front of this desk, with him as a witness, neither one, bride nor groom, looking at the other, and Betty May had wept huge tears all throughout the entire ceremony.

But really, mostly, Walter just sat here in the jailhouse quietly, and more than content to do so.  He would sit with his feet propped up on his spare chair at this brand new desk, built for him by Thadeus Grimm after the most recent “election.”  The desk was so new that the room still smelled of its freshly cut wood, along with the bitter smell of the coffee he brewed each day on the pot-bellied stove.

For hours every morning, he would sit at this new desk and play solitaire with an old pack of greasy playing cards, or sometimes he would jaw with Thadeus, who was similar in temperament and ambition to Walter, over thick, black coffee.  Then at noon each day, Sudie would leave Aloys in charge of the diner for a short while and bring him lunch in a basket covered with a checked napkin.  That lunch was a part of his pay; he’d even had them put it in writing in his contract.  And didn’t Sudie make the best damned fried chicken in three counties?

Most afternoons found the sheriff napping the time away on one of the cell bunks.  Then, finally, after another meal at the diner, he would make a round of the stores in the evening, to make sure everyone was locked up tight, and then head off to bed in his room behind the office.  Once in a blue moon, his beauty sleep would be disturbed by a ruckus at the Hog’s Breath Saloon or there would be a problem with one of Mama Lena’s soiled doves, or more likely one of the dove’s customers, but other than that, he would sleep sound the night through.  Yes, life was good around these parts for a lazy man.

Today though, he had the extreme good fortune to have two visitors locked in the small cell; it looked as though the one, the blonde one, couldn’t decide if he really needed to relieve himself or not.  Walter turned away from watching him and crossed the room to reach the stove and to pour himself another cup of coffee.  He could hear the other one, the one not worrying over using the bucket, snoring quietly.  Last night, although drunk and not speaking completely clearly, they had claimed to be brothers, claimed it very loudly, in fact and more than once.

Could be true, he guessed; he had no way of knowing for sure, but what he did know for a fact was that one of the two of them was Johnny Madrid, though he had called himself Johnny Lancer when Walter had hauled the two of them in here and locked them up late last night—although, with the boy’s liquor-thickened tongue, the name had sounded more like Lansher.

They had both been singing loudly and slightly out of tune, and the song of choice had sounded a little bit like “Old Dan Tucker,” although, really, it was hard to tell.  As they sang, with their arms draped around one another’s shoulders, they wandered in a meandering and haphazard manner down the center of Kleinstadt’s main street.  They had been plowing their way through ankle deep mud and jumping up and down and splashing in each puddle they came to, laughing like maniacs, both looking like they had been in a whiskey and water soaked brawl.  Coming along behind them had been Ol’ Jasper from the Hog’s Breath claiming that they had busted up his place good and proper.

And Walter may be lazy, yes, he knew he was lazy, but he surely wasn’t a stupid man.  He knew he had the notorious Johnny Madrid locked up here in his jail because he had personally had the pleasure of seeing the man in a shootout a number of years ago on a trip he had made to Butler County, had been pretty much awed by the display the young man had put on, actually, would never forget it.  It had been two against one, and them both laying dead in the dirt when the smoke cleared.  Imagine that Mex gunhawk, as he had been hauled, his face battered and his nose bleeding like a stuck pig, into Walter’s jail last night, imagine him claiming kinship to Murdoch Lancer, one of the most important men in the San Joachim.  Now that was a laugh.

And this particular, lazy sheriff wasn’t above letting the good people of Kleinstadt know just exactly who it was he had languishing here, gracing his first class accommodations.  In fact, he had announced that Johnny Madrid was his guest to anyone willing to listen, as he sat at Sudie’s diner this very morning working his way through a monstrous plate of buttermilk biscuits and red-eye gravy.  Madrid was a real feather in Walter’s cap, a big money-colored feather.  He just knew there had to be a reward for the man floating around out there somewhere, probably down nearer to the border.  And if he couldn’t find a poster on the gunhawk, he would send out some telegrams, would go fishing for a taker.

And the other one—Scott was it? With his fancy yellow gloves—Walter had never heard of Scott Madrid, but that didn’t mean the man didn’t exist.  Madrid had called him “Boshton,” which Walter figured must be “Boston.”  Maybe he went by an alias—The Boston Kid or The Boston Butterfly, or some such silly thing.  They all thought they needed fancy names to go with their fancy reputations.  All Walter knew was that if he was brother to the other one, as they claimed, it would stand to reason that he must be a gunhawk too, must be worth at least some bit of money more to the sheriff.

Maybe they were the backbone of a notorious gang. Yes, the more he thought about it, the more he decided that was it exactly.  Walter had captured, all by himself mind you, two very important parts of the Madrid Gang—desperate criminals, the likes of which this town had never seen.  Why they had probably just come from murder and mayhem in some other small town, and Sheriff Graves was saving the entire area a whole lot of grief by locking them away here, by sending them along to someone, there must be someone, who would be offering a substantial reward for their capture.  Maybe he would even think about retiring when this little adventure was over.

Just wait until everyone in the whole territory heard the story of how Walter Graves had taken down the infamous Madrid Gang.  People would probably sing ballads and write dime novels about it.  Yes, Walter surely did know a good thing when he stumbled on it.

 

Part 3

The Boston Kid—Walter had settled on The Boston Kid for the blonde-haired Madrid brother; it sounded the best when he considered titles for those dime novels they were surely going to write about him—Johnny Madrid and the Boston Kid—it certainly did have a nice ring to it.  He could see one of the book’s covers now, the dashing sheriff with the drop on the cowering brothers Madrid.  He smiled at the image he had conjured and turned back around to see that The Boston Kid had finally found a supply of courage and had completed his conversation with the bucket.  Walter could see that the man was rebuttoning his trousers as he turned to stare with contempt at the sheriff.

To the rotund lawman, the blonde’s eyes, studying him from a slightly pink-hued face, looked flinty and mean, an outlaw’s eyes, of that he had no doubt, and Walter visibly flinched under the hard, icy gaze.  He looked away from the unforgiving stare and down into the pits of his coffee mug.  Without looking up, he moved a step back to settle into his desk chair.  The only sounds in the room were the hiss of sap dripping into the flames in the depths of the stove, Johnny’s soft snores, and the merciless clatter of rain on the roof.

Then everything changed in less time than it took for Walter to get settled comfortably. Both men, jailer and jailed, jumped at the sound of sudden, staccato gunfire accompanied by shouting in the street outside of the building.  The sheriff juggled and then dropped his white mug as he turned to face the front of the jailhouse, spilling coffee in a scattered pattern across the floor.  As Scott became aware of the vague outline of slicker-clad men on horseback moving quickly past the rain-shrouded window, he instinctively turned to connect with his brother on the bunk.  As he did, the sound of confusion grew noticeably louder, closer.

“What the hell?” With a surprised snort, Johnny, in spectacular fashion, came up off of the bunk in one swift, economical move, groping at his thigh for a Colt that wasn’t there, but as he became more aware of himself and his surroundings, he stumbled, nearly fell, an uncharacteristically graceless move.  Finally, he stood fully, still fumbling at his side with one hand for a gun which he wasn’t going to find, and pushing the other against his aching forehead.  He looked at Scott for information through pain-narrowed eyes, but he received only a shrug in return.

Within moments, chaos erupted even more fully in the street just beyond the adobe walls of the jail.  With this passing of confused noise, the men in the jailhouse could see even more mounted horses pounding past the front of the building, throwing mud and water in every direction, and the sound of gunfire intensified. High pitched screams, cut off before they had reached their completion, mingled with the sounds of gunfire and shouting.  The riders were simply hell-bent. But, in only a few moments, they also seemed to be moving on.  By the time Johnny had completely located his lost equilibrium, to some degree at least, when he finally peered through the window at the front of the building, he could see nothing more than the ever present curtain of rain.  Then, abruptly, the sound and motion pulsed back towards them again, and Johnny and Scott both instinctively hit the floor as a bullet crashed through that rain shrouded window and imbedded itself in the sheriff’s desk.  Being large, round and lazy didn’t keep Walter Graves from moving quickly either, as he hunkered down behind his newly marred desk.

Over the sound of even more gunfire, Johnny called to Scott.  “Are you okay?”  He turned his head so that he was facing towards his brother, who lay stretched out next to him, but still kept himself flat to the floor, even though, now, the noise and confusion was getting further away again with each passing second.  As he tried to concentrate around the blacksmith’s hammer which was rhythmically hitting him in the head, Johnny wondered where the hell he was, beyond the obvious fact that they were in a jail cell, just why they were in this jail cell, on the floor of a jail cell, why he felt the need to thank someone named Moose, and who in blue blazes might be shooting at them, or if not at them, then shooting randomly at this unnamed town in which they seemed to have found themselves.

Scott’s voice broke into his thoughts.  “I’m fine so far.  What about you?”

“Well, I’m not okay, but it’s not got anything to do with these shots.  More to do with last night’s shots, I think.”

In spite of their interesting and possibly dangerous situation, Scott grinned at his brother.  “What do you suppose is going on out there?  It’s gotten pretty quiet; do you think they’re gone for good this time?”

“Wish I had my gun---“  As Johnny spoke, mostly to himself, the jailhouse door flew open forcefully and banged against the wall.  A young, pencil slim boy in baggy, denim pants, a bulky, brown, mud-splattered corduroy jacket and a battered hat stood in the doorway holding a Spencer rifle, nearly as big as he was, and creating instant puddles all over the plank flooring.  For quite a few years, Johnny had kept himself alive by being quick to observe and analyze, and as he lay on the jailhouse floor, he observed and analyzed the boy with the big, mean looking gun.

The most interesting thing he noticed about this visitor, beyond the rifle he was staring down the barrel of, and the kid’s ease with it, was the tube slung over the boy’s shoulder which hung under his arm and buckled to his belt.  Johnny caught glimpses of it as the boy’s coat opened and closed with his moving, enough to recognize exactly what it was.  It was a Blakeslee Quickloader for the Spencer.  Johnny had seen only one before, but he had heard all about them; the Quickloader held a sort of legendary status down around the border.  The man he had met who owned one had been from Chicago, had fought for the Union in the War, and that’s where he had gotten the Blakeslee.  The canvas sling held tubes of cartridges, as many as a dozen tubes, usually seven shots in each one.  A well-trained man could reload the rifle and fire up to fourteen shots in about a minute.  It was a very deadly piece of equipment.  Johnny couldn’t help but wonder if this young boy knew what he had, knew how to use it, but, again, he could feel the ease with which the boy held the gun, much like he had been born holding it.  If he had to bet his life on it, and it might come to that, Johnny would guess that this one knew exactly what he was doing.

With a quick look into the cell at the two men still lying on the floor, the boy then swung  his gun away from them and turned it on Sheriff Graves.  The sheriff, who had clambered to his feet when he, apparently, recognized the kid, stood staring down the barrel with his mouth gaping open.  “Willie?”

Their well-armed intruder motioned with the gun towards the ring of keys hanging on a peg on the far wall.  Johnny had an uneasy moment to think about the shame of Johnny Madrid being taken down, defenseless and unarmed, cowering on the floor of a jail cell, and by a slip of a kid,  and that was plenty of motivation to send him scrambling up to at least meet his fate on his feet.  As he pulled himself to his full height, he heard “Unlock that cell, Sheriff.” 

 

Maybe the kid was going to give them a chance to defend themselves.  Maybe he knew Johnny was, had been, Johnny Madrid and wanted to make a reputation for himself, wanted to attempt to best him in a fair gunfight.  Johnny could see Scott getting to his feet from the corner of his eye.  Then he turned briefly from the kid to observe the sheriff, who hadn’t moved a muscle, who just stood there staring, as though he didn’t really believe that any of this was happening, and muttering, “Willie.”

Finally, Johnny saw the man give himself a shake, and he more loudly addressed the boy with the big gun, “Willie Lucas, what the hell do you think you’re doing?  I ain’t unlockin’ that cell.  Do you know who that is in there? That there’s Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter, and his brother, The Boston Kid.”

“The Boston Kid?”  Both brothers repeated this line with incredulous voices.

“Actually, you managed to let the whole town know who’s in there, Walter, and you damn well know it.  They’re just exactly who I’m looking for.  I’ve never heard of The Boston Kid, but I sure as hell know who Johnny Madrid is.”  The bedraggled, dripping youth had a surprisingly soft voice, but Johnny was well aware of the fact that most people who could back up what they had to say didn’t have to be loud about it.

Well, Johnny thought, that answered one question.  The kid was looking for Johnny Madrid.  How did they even get the idea that he was Johnny Madrid?  He was pretty darn sure he hadn’t said anything about it last night when this hulking mountain had arrested them.  With a flash of memory, he recalled that he and Scott had somehow ended up in a tension-releasing bar fight, with a broad-shouldered man named Moose taking their side of it against darn near the rest of the town.  That explained his previous desire to thank the man.  He didn’t really remember much about the fight, but he didn’t think they had won it, didn’t think he had started it either.  Maybe.  No, now that he thought about it, it was probably Scott.  Yes, he was sure it must have been Scott’s fault. He did remember, after the breaking of chairs and liquor bottles, that he and his brother, without Moose, had wandered out of the saloon and down the street singing through their tequila.

He distinctly remembered that he had told several people, including a very pretty someone named Sophie, that his name was Johnny Lancer.  No, he was quite sure that he hadn’t told anyone that his name had once been Johnny Madrid.  He was even more sure that he hadn’t told anyone that Scott’s name was The Boston Kid.  The only explanation, at least for a part of the puzzle, was that one of the saloon patrons must have recognized him as Madrid.  With the conversation in the jailhouse turning to talk of Johnny Madrid, Johnny saw Scott spin his head around from staring at the Spencer to look at him, but the action must have been too sudden for Scott, and with the pain clear on his face, he pulled up short and fisted his hands at his temples.  Instead of looking at his brother, he had no answers for him anyway, Johnny searched the hooks on the wall behind the sheriff, looking longingly for his gun belt and Colt.

“Now, I want you to let them boys out of there nice and slow, Sheriff.”

“Willie, have ya lost what little mind ya had?  These two would just as soon shoot ya as look at ya.  They’re desperate criminals. They’re part of the dreaded and deadly Madrid Gang.”  At this Johnny turned to look the fat sheriff fully in his fat face and raised one eyebrow.  Then the big man continued, “Lord only knows what they might do to ya.”

“Damn it, Walter, did you even hear those gunshots?  Did you see those horses tromping back and forth through our town?  Do you even care what went on out there in the street?”  The boy was gesturing wildly with the gun, and the Lancer brothers both dodged and ducked whenever the gun ended up pointed in their direction.  After a wait to see if the sheriff would ask what had gone on, the kid continued, “Oh wait, I forgot, you only care about what Sudie’s cooking up at the diner and whether or not there’s some way for you to make a buck that doesn’t involve work.”

“Willie, I don’t have to take your smart mouth.  You get on home now.  Your father is gonna have a fit when I tell him what---”

“Not going anywhere, Sheriff.”  The tone was derisive.  “Those shots were from a big bunch of hard-looking men, ten or twelve would be my best guess.  They rode through fast and hot, shooting in every which direction.  Gustav took a bullet in the leg trying to stop them.  They didn’t even bother to stop their horses, just leaned down from their saddles and grabbed up whoever they could get their hands on, what women they could grab.  If it hadn’t been such a miserable day out there, they would have gotten away with more.  We’re just damn lucky it’s still raining and most everyone was inside.”  Then, in an even softer voice, their visitor continued, “They took Clairie, Walter.  We were just coming out of Connery’s.”  For a moment, Johnny thought it looked as though the boy might cry, but then he could see him consciously put his hard face back on, and he continued, “They took her, Sheriff, along with Leisle and Katarina from over at Mama Lena’s and Sophie Carter from in front of the Hog’s Breath.  Here’s your chance, Walter, here’s your chance to be a real sheriff.  Just what do you plan to do about it?”

“Took them?  Took them for what?”

“I don’t know.  For God’s sake, Walter, can it be for any good reason?  Unlike the rest of the people in this sad, deluded little town, I don’t expect you to get off of your fat ass and actually do anything about it.  I need these men to help me get those girls back.  If nothing else, I know Madrid can handle a gun.  Now get their guns and give them to me, and then let them out of that cell.”

“Now Willie, I think you should think about this a little bit closer.  You don’t really want to let these desperados out of this here cell.  Besides, how you gonna get them to do your bidding if you give ‘em their guns?  This just don’t make no sense, Willie.”

“Are you prepared to raise a posse and go after my sister, Walter?”  The sheriff just stood there with his mouth open.  “No?  Of course you’re not.  I didn’t think so.  Now do it.”  The boy stepped aside so that the sheriff could get by him to unlock the cell door.  When Walter hesitated again, made a move to turn and talk some more, he received a friendly “nudge” in his ample backside from the kid’s gun.  Finally, he unlocked the door, swung it open and stepped back.

 

Part 4

Johnny and Scott stood there, unmoving.  Both had their mouths hanging open unattractively.

The kid gestured at them with the gun.  “Well, come on then.  I’m bustin’ you out of this lousy hoosegow, or don’t you recognize freedom when you see it?  Let’s move it.  You, Walter, get their guns and give them to me.  I said move it, gentlemen. Let’s go.”

Johnny was the first to “move it,” scooping up his hat and coat and stepping forward.  “C’mon Scott.”

But Scott remain rooted.

“Well come on, Blondie,” the kid prompted.  “Do you want outta there or not?”  Willie began to tap an impatient foot.

“Yeah, c’mon, Scott. Do you want outta here or not?”  Johnny was grinning like this was the most fun he’d had in months.

But Scott wasn’t convinced that getting out of this “hoosegow” was a good idea at all, and he gave his brother a frown.  “That depends.  I think I need a little more information before I add jail-breaking to our list of offenses, Johnny.”

“The kid here said that women have been kidnapped.  That’s plenty of information for me.”  Johnny started towards the door.

Scott reached out and grabbed Johnny’s arm as he passed.  “Surely they’ll send a posse out, Johnny.  I think we need to straighten out our own mess first.”

Johnny looked at Scott, considering what he had said.  Then he looked at Willie, who looked resolutely determined and decidedly antsy.  Finally he looked at Sheriff Graves.  Ultimately, that was what convinced him—it was pretty clear that fat, lazy Walter Graves wasn’t going to be rescuing any women.  “A posse?” he finally said.  “You know, I really don’t think that they will be raising one.”

And even though Scott had a strong feeling that he was going to regret it, he had to agree with his brother that this particular sheriff most likely wasn’t going to be saving anybody.  He had to wonder if this town had any able bodied men at all.  Why hadn’t they already started raising a bunch to follow after the kidnappers?  At home, there would have been men riding out after them before the smoke cleared.  Why did just one lone kid show up at the sheriff’s office asking for help?  It was hard to admit, but it probably was up to them to get the boy’s sister back for him.  With a long suffering sigh, he gave his brother a hard look, but then he picked up his hat from the bunk, grabbed his gloves from where they had fallen to the floor nearby and followed Johnny through the gaping cell door and across the room.

 

As Johnny opened the jailhouse door, a damp wind almost leapt through the opening, and it invaded their clothing and ruffled their hair. Johnny and Scott both jumped a little as lightning crackled and forked across the rolling clouds, giving a brief bit of sudden brilliance to the monotonous gray of the day.  Thunder growled along right behind the lightning as the boy motioned for the brothers to head on outside in front of him.  Johnny saw that Willie continued to look at the two of them, but kept the big gun trained on the sheriff.  As they made their way outside, Walter, reluctantly slung the two gun belts on the kid’s shoulder, putting them tantalizingly close to Johnny’s reach.  The sheriff fluttered his hands and whined loudly about the loss of his dreaded Madrid Gang cash cow: “Willie, you stop this here foolishness right now.  I’m the law around these parts; you can’t just come in here and take my notorious prisoners.  That gun don’t make you a man.”  But Willie was unaffected by the fluttering or the whining, really just completely unimpressed by Walter, period.

Johnny very quietly reached out for his gun belt, while Willie’s attention was momentarily diverted by the sheriff, and he was instantly and firmly discouraged with a gun-barrel in the gut. He pulled his hand back abruptly, as though he had been snake bitten, and instead of pushing the matter, he settled his hat and shrugged into his jacket.  Johnny wasn’t exactly sure about their situation yet, and he didn’t want to take any chances.  He hoped to eventually convince Willie that they would willingly help the kid find those girls.  “Look, um, Willie is it?”  His question went unacknowledged, so he plunged right along.  “The sheriff’s right about one thing; we do need our guns, you know.  Or, maybe you’d like to explain how we’re gonna help you get those gals back if we don’t have ‘em.”

“You’ll get your guns when I say you get them and not before.  Let’s get going; we’re wasting time.  Are your rides at the livery?”

When they both nodded an affirmative, Willie pointed the gun towards the edge of town, to the north, urging them to get started.  Considering their foggy recollections of this town, a nod in the proper direction was greatly appreciated.  In fact, Johnny had a fleeting thought that he really wasn’t completely sure, couldn’t quite remember, if they had taken the horses to the livery before they started blowing off steam last night.  Surely they had; both brothers were scrupulous in the care of their mounts.  Then he had another one of those sharp, quick memory pictures, an interesting effect of his current hangover, and saw a man introducing himself as Gustav, and Gustav was insuring him that he would see to it that the weary horses got an extra measure of oats.

The three of them managed to get out of the door, although they could still hear Walter calling Willie’s name from inside.  The rain pounded down unrelentingly, the storm building in its intensity with each passing moment.  The wind was wildly furious, and as soon as they walked out from under the overhang of the jail’s small porch and onto the puddle-littered, wooden sidewalk, another streak of lightning flashed around them, followed almost immediately by a bone-rattling, rolling chorus of thunder.  A lake of mud nearly filled the main street of the small town, and the drops of hard-driven rain created a drum-beat of sound as they pelted down.

As though the earlier excitement had never happened, the town now looked completely deserted.  Not a soul braved the miserable, muddy street.  Not a single face could be seen spying at them from doorways or peeping from behind curtains.  It almost seemed as though they had stepped out onto the street of a rain-soaked ghost town.

Still questioning his sanity just a little, Scott felt a momentary longing for the warm, mostly dry cell they had just left.  Then, the thought of the young boy’s determined face and the kidnapped sister helped him to have more confidence in his decision to allow himself to become a fugitive from the law. For a moment, with the hard rain pelting him, he was reminded of an extremely rainy April he had spent in Virginia, and he shook his head to banish that particular memory.  Instead of dwelling on it, he hunched his shoulders and pulled his hat down further in front of his face to shield himself from the wind-driven rain.  “Nice day.”  Scott raised his voice a bit to be heard as the wind lashed at the flapping tails of his jacket. “Not gonna be easy tracking in this rain,” he added over his shoulder to the boy.  “Rain’ll wash out most of the tracks.”

“There were nearly a dozen horses,” Willie answered him.  “That many should have churned the mud up good and proper.  We should be able to find some trail if we hurry.”

“For a while,” Scott conceded.

As they sloshed their way down the boardwalk, the first bit of humanity they had seen since coming outside hurried towards them, a woman with sooty black hair, which had obviously been elaborately styled before being subjected to the rain and wind, and who was decked out in a purple, mud stained velvet dress with a matching and equally muddy cape.  As she approached, Scott became momentarily mesmerized, wondering if the lace-trimmed low-cut neckline would continue to contain her. “Willie,”  she called.  “Oh God, Willie.  Those men—they took Leisle and Katarina.  My girls,” she sobbed, “My sweet girls.  They took my girls.  We gotta get the sheriff.”

Scott saw that she was wringing her hands dramatically, and she tossed her head in an unsuccessful attempt to keep her falling hair and the dyed red ostrich feathers adorning it out of her eyes.  Her rouged cheeks were tear-streaked, or possibly rain-streaked, and she had black running down her face from her kohl-painted eyes.

“Lena.”  The woman was attempting to barrel past Willie to get to the door of the jailhouse.  “Lena.”  This time, Willie grabbed her arm so that she couldn’t enter the building.  “They got Clairie and Sophie too.  Lena, listen to me for a minute.  Why are you bothering going in there?  The sheriff’s too dang lazy to go after those girls, and you know it, even if no one else in this stupid, little town does.  Me and these two boys are going after them.”

Lena turned to take a more careful look at Willie’s companions.  “These ‘boys’?” she asked with a hint of suspicion.  “The sheriff said he had Johnny Madrid in his jail.”

Johnny touched the dripping brim of his hat.  “Pleasure, ma’am.”

“Willie.  What the hell?  You can’t do this.”  The woman was furiously shaking her head, causing hair and feathers to bounce.

“Look around, Lena.  Who else is gonna do it?  Gustav took a bullet in the leg when he came out to try to stop them from taking Clairie.  He’s one of the few in this town I might have expected to go with me.”

“At least let me send Moose to help.”

“Fine, yes, send Moose, but we’re leaving as soon as we can.  Send him on down to the livery.  If he gets there before we leave, he can tag along, if not he’ll have to catch up to us.  Tell him to bring that shotgun you keep in the parlor.”

Lena threw a quick glance at Scott and Johnny, and then spoke in an over-loud voice.  “Now Willie, you dang smart aleck, you quit your teasin’ with me.  You know I don’t have no gun at my house.  What are you talkin’ about?  I run a quiet, peaceful establishment.”  Lena bristled and puffed up a bit as she spoke, her red hair-feathers quivering.

“Sure Lena, if you say so.  Get on back home and find Moose.  I’ll appreciate his help.  We have to go now if we want to find a trail.  Don’t forget, tell Moose to bring that gun you don’t have hidden behind the couch.  And don’t worry; we’ll find the girls; we’ll bring them home.”

Through the rain, Lena looked over at Scott and Johnny again with a practiced, appraising eye.  “You boys are both right handsome then, aren’t you now?  Although, you are kinda wet and a bit bruised up.  Yes, you look capable enough, I guess.  You best take care of Willie now, you hear me?  Anything bad happens and you’ll answer to me.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny and Scott both felt compelled to assure her.

“Lena, if you want Moose to go with us…”  Willie let the sentence hang there.

Lena bunched up her heavy, velvet skirt to reveal a sturdy pair of cowboy boots and stepped off into the muddy street with one last warning floating behind her.  “You be careful, Willie Lucas.  I’ll warm your britches if you get yourself dead.”

As they turned to head on towards the livery, Johnny heard a soft, “damn it” from behind him, so he turned to see what was riling the kid now.  Coming up the walk fast and hot was an ancient man wearing a white shirt and armbands.  He had a huge cigar clamped in his teeth on one side of his mouth, and he yelled after them from the other side.  “Willie---Willie Lucas.”

Willie gave Johnny a little shove to get him moving again.  “Go on.  Hurry up.  That’s Jasper from the Hog’s Breath.  Way I hear it, you two darn near tore down his place last night.”

“Way I remember it, we had some help.”  Even if Scott couldn’t really quite remember what had taken place, and couldn’t quite pin this on Johnny, yet, he wasn’t prepared to take full blame for the saloon carnage.

“Doesn’t matter how much help you had.  He’s the one made sure Walter got out of bed to lock you up.  He isn’t gonna be real happy with any of us.”

“Willie, you stop right there.  Where you goin’ with those prisoners?  They owe me for my mirror.  And tables.  And a bunch of whiskey.  Come back here.”

“Move faster.  Go on.  He’s old and slow, but he ain’t dead.”  Willie stopped and swung the Spencer around.  “Hold it right there, Jasper.

 

And so it came to pass that, feeling bone shivering cold, inevitably wet through and through, purely miserable and still slightly hung-over, the Lancer brothers found themselves no longer in Kleinstadt’s coffee-scented jail, being guarded by an imaginative and cowardly sheriff.  Instead, they now found themselves on the backs of their horses being led out of town by a bulldog of a man on a white mule and guarded from behind by a dripping youngster with a very big rifle and the sure knowledge of how to use it.

They had saddled their horses, and another for Willie, with the boy holding that damned Spencer on them the whole time, well, when not checking the barn door to make sure that Jasper stayed away anyway.  Johnny doubted the old man would be recovering quickly from the surprise he got when Willie put a bullet in the post right next to his head.

Actually, Scott expressed a moment of real worry that the boy had literally scared the old man to death after Jasper had gone down like a chopped tree.  He had even insisted on going back to check on the man where he lay sprawled on the sidewalk, even though Willie had assured him that Jasper was “a tough old coot; that shot just scared him a mite,” and he did find that bar owner still had a pulse.  So, the three of them had moved on down the sidewalk, with Scott muttering his thanks to the soggy heavens that they did not need to add murder to their growing list of alleged wrong-doings.

And although it seemed fruitless, Johnny and Scott had both pulled their rain gear from their saddlebags and put the slickers on before they had led the horses from the livery.  Couldn’t hurt.  Once they were mounted, it took only moments for them to reach the edge of tiny Kleinstadt, and the kid, Willie, had been right, the ground was pretty torn up from the passing of so many horses.  The trail would actually be fairly easy to follow, for a while, as Scott had added, although eventually the rain would obscure even that much of a mess.  The problem was, the trail very obviously split into two directions.

Johnny reined Barranca to a stop behind Scott and Moose and called back over the sounds of the storm to the kid following them.  “Well, you’ve put yourself in charge of this rescue mission, Willie.  Appears like it’s time to make a decision.  Which way should we go?”

 

Part 5

Willie had pulled up short behind them as the three men sat their horses, or in Moose’s case, his mule, contemplating the two-pronged trail.  As he looked back at their young keeper, Johnny saw that the kid, not surprisingly really, was drenching wet and looking like a twice-drowned cat.  The corduroy coat was heavy with water, hanging long, the sleeves hanging long.  In addition to Willie’s sogginess, the kid was awkwardly burdened down with their gun belts over one shoulder, both of the Lancers’ rifles and the Spencer too.  It made quite a sight.  In spite of the miserable weather, and the purpose for their expedition into it, Johnny had to work very hard to keep a grin from his face.  Then, he turned his horse to face Willie.  “You know the area; which way do you want us to go?”  He could see that, for the first time, the kid looked less than in complete control of the situation.

From his position in front of his brother, Scott could see Willie’s hesitation too.  “Look, why don’t you tell us what the terrain is like around here.  Maybe we can figure out logically which way they took the women.  They may have split up to confuse a posse and made plans to meet up later at some sheltered spot.  Johnny and I,” he looked to his brother to confirm his statement, “well, to tell you the truth, after our, apparently, interesting evening in the---in the Hog’s Breath was it?—well, we’re not even quite sure where we are.”

Johnny nodded, agreeing with Scott’s assessment as he made a mostly futile attempt to wipe the dripping water from his face with the damp bandana he had pulled from his back pocket.  He continued Scott’s line of thinking.  “What we really need here is a whole lot of information.  Has anything like this happened before around here?  What exactly do we think is going on?  Is this just a bunch of men looking for---wanting to---”  Johnny stopped himself.  “Well, um, you know, with them taking women, could it be anything but---“  Again, he pulled up short.  He just couldn’t quite figure out how to word his question to Willie.  He couldn’t be sure of the kid’s age, but he would guess it to be somewhere around 14, definitely not more than 16.  And granted, Johnny knew better than most that maturity comes to different people at different times, but, in spite of the big gun, the quickloader and the determined attitude, for some reason, he just didn’t feel quite right about discussing sex in front of this particular kid.

This time it was Scott’s turn to work at hiding a grin.

The four of them had stopped in the middle of an open pasture as the wind and rain raged around them.  Their mounts stamped and tossed their heads at the fury of the storm, and the rescuers had to hold a tight rein to keep them from bolting.  Over the ever-increasing volume of the howling weather, with one hand at the crown of his hat, for fear that it would be torn from his head, Scott had to raise his voice even more than he had just a few moments ago in order to be heard.  “We’ve got to make a decision.  The rain is going to wash these tracks out in no time.”

“Willie,” Johnny’s voice joined his brother’s, “you’re the one holdin’ the big gun.  What’s your call?”

Willie’s face looked suddenly---uncertain, was the word that came to mind.  It was a softer look, and it fleetingly took the place of the more determined one which had been worn since the kid had come barreling full blast into the jailhouse behind that big gun Johnny had just mentioned.  Looking closely, as closely as was possible through the veil of rain surrounding them, Johnny had the strangest feeling that, for the first time, he was seeing the real Willie, that the hard, determined Willie they had been witness to up until now was nothing more than a mask.  For a moment, it reminded Johnny of a small child playing make-believe.

Then, the kid again pulled on the hard look from before, slipped into it pretty easily actually, like pulling on a well-worn, favorite pair of boots, and then spoke with what Johnny was sure now was manufactured confidence, a false brittleness.  “We don’t have time to discuss this to death.  While we sit here planning and being logical about it, the rain is working on washing away our trail.  We have to move now.”

Scott studied both paths, one to the east, one to the west.  He felt like Willie needed a little help making a decision, so he offered it.  “We should split up.  Follow both and then regroup.”

Willie straightened against the force of the rain and was purely business once again, that softer, unsure look put firmly away.  “Yes, I think you’re right.”  After looking both ways, east and west, Willie came to a decision.  “Moose, you take the blonde one,” the kid pointed the Spencer briefly at Scott, “and go east, osten, in den wald, verstehen?”  Now, Willie was pointing over Scott’s shoulder with the long gun to the wooded area behind him.

“Ja, Verstehen.”

“Here, take his firepower too.”  Scott’s rifle and rig were passed from Willie to Moose.  “Me and Madrid will follow the tracks heading west.”  Again Willie used the Spencer to make the directions clear to Moose.  Then to Scott, “Don’t do anything if you find them, just watch them, try to figure out where they’re headed.  We’ll meet up this side of Snake Creek at nightfall--that small cave by the Widow’s Rock.  Moose?  Verstehen?  Widow’s Rock.”  Willie waited for Moose to nod his understanding.  “Surely one of us will find out something, at least find out where they might be headed, if they’re circling around to meet up or what.”

Moose nodded again, and now he pointed his shotgun at Scott.  “Gehen wir.”

“Now hold on just a minute.  Me and Scott will stick together.  We’ll go east, and you and Moose go west.”

“And who exactly is going to hold the gun on you, Mr. Madrid, if Moose and I go the other way?”  And then, in a smaller voice, “besides, like the Kid here said, you don’t know the area.”

“Look, my name is Scott, Scott Lancer.”

Johnny couldn’t help but send a small smile towards his “desperado” brother.  Then he turned back to Willie.  “Look, we’re helpin’ ya okay?  You can give us back our guns.  We’re not gonna leave ya ta do this alone.  Believe me when I say you can trust us.”

“We’ll go west, and Moose and the Kid will go east.  And no guns—not yet anyway.”

“My name is Scott—not Kid—S.c.o.t.t.—Scott.”

Moose reached out and prodded Scott with the barrel of his gun.  “Gehen wir, Kid,” he said with his own tiny, ghost of a smile, earning him a hard, blue-eyed glare.

With the wild-horse fury of the storm swirling around them, Scott and Johnny exchanged resigned looks.  They both knew that with or without Willie, at this point, they were a part of this, that they were going to get those women back somehow.  With one last nod to one another, they kicked their horses to head off in separate directions.

“Stay out of trouble, Scott,” Johnny called out over his shoulder as he watched his brother head off towards the wooded area to the east with Moose close behind him.  But, he was pretty sure that the fury of the storm had swallowed his well-meant, but probably futile, words before they could reach Scott.  There was little doubt that the whole of them were headed for trouble, and no words of warning were going to ward it off.

And even though he knew that Johnny probably couldn’t hear him, Scott had called out to Johnny as well as he and Moose loped away, following the tracks leading to the east across the open pasture and into the woods.  The trail was relatively easy to follow for now, and with the rain and wind at their backs, Scott and Moose were soon under a canopy of old growth trees.  The wind couldn’t reach them quite as well here with the towering pines to block it, and the branches of oak and sycamore trees met overhead to create a woven, leaf-tossed umbrella, protecting Moose and Scott to some degree, but, even more importantly, helping to preserve the tracks they were following.

In spite of the sheltering trees, the wind was still loud and infuriatingly persistent.  Shivering slightly, Scott reached up under his slicker and pulled his jacket tighter around himself.  He wondered if the security the trees seemed to offer might be a false one. With its driving rain, shrieking wind, its blown and battered leaves and the wild dance of the upper branches where the storm still reached, the storm was providing the only sounds he could hear.  The kidnappers could be having a raucous party with a marimba band and fireworks, and he and Moose would never hear them.

The path was narrowing now, and Scott and Moose headed down it single file, of necessity, just as the horsemen ahead of them obviously had as well.  And, although the trees provided some shelter from the storm, they also served to conceal.  For Scott, the real worry was that those trees not only concealed these followers, but perhaps those being followed as well.  He was afraid that they would come upon the kidnappers before he and Moose even knew they had done it, and that they would be discovered.  He pulled up on Charlie’s reins, and turned in the saddle to talk to Moose.  “Moose,” he pitched his voice to be heard above the storm, even though he wondered if he was giving himself away to the kidnappers by doing it.  He figured if he couldn’t hear them, though, that they wouldn’t hear him either.  “I really can’t hear a thing over the storm.  Those men could be right in front of us, just around that turn in the path, and we’d never know it.”

Moose sat as still as stone and stared at Scott through his tiny, rimless, rain-spackled glasses.  His black, unblinking eyes were expressionless.  Scott stared back at him, unintimidated, willing to wait it out.  As he stared, he noted that the muscle-bound man hadn’t bothered to don a hat for this little excursion.  His head was completely bald, and he presented a formidable figure as he sat on his pure white mule, his head slick with rain.  Scott thought about how all of those years he had spent studying French and Latin had really been an unintentional unfortunate choice, had done him absolutely no good since coming to live in California.  In the past year or so, there wasn’t a day that went by when he didn’t wish that Spanish had been a part of his matriculation instead.  Now, he found that a bit of German would have come in handy as well.

As he sat holding Charlie still and pondering his expensive, classical education, he realized, that, really, they didn’t have time for this little staring contest, so he decided to take the initiative.  “Well, I guess that you just can’t quite understand me, can you?  And I’m just not going to quite understand you, either.”  Scott waited for a response.  When none came, he tried again.  “Um, let’s see…I think that we should get off of the main path.”  He made an exaggerated swooping gesture with his hands towards the side of the narrow trail.  “Those men are obviously expecting someone to follow them, or they wouldn’t have split up.”  He used two of his fingers to mimic a person walking.  “We have to be sneakier—quieter.”  He put his finger to his mouth in a “shhh” gesture.  Then he shook his head to think about how ridiculous he must look.  “Damn it, anyway.  You couldn’t have just spoken perfectly good English could you?  Or even some French?  Parlez-vous francais?  Comprendez-vous?  Si’l vous plait, please understand.”  Nothing—it was like talking to a bald-headed statue.

Scott held up both of his hands in an attempt to show the man he wasn’t going to “try” anything.  Then he gestured towards the ground, then towards the trees at the side of the path again.  Moose remained unmoved and, seemingly, unengaged.  Scott found himself pretty much at a loss.  He was a talker.  He knew he was.  He had solved many of the problems in his life by talking.  He constantly tried, usually unsuccessfully, to get Johnny to slow down and talk through a problem instead of plunging in headlong.  Now, without the option of language and conversation, without being able to put his skills of negotiation and diplomacy to any use, Scott figured headlong plunging must be in order.  “Look, Moose.  I’m going to get down off of this horse.  Don’t shoot me, okay?”   Without waiting for an answer that he knew wasn’t coming anyway, Scott very slowly swung his leg up and over Charlie’s back, his eyes on Moose the entire time.  When he wasn’t blown out of the saddle by a half-expected shotgun blast, he continued his way off of the horse and onto the ground.  With no warning or ceremony, Moose immediately slid from the mule as well and began leading it into the trees.  “Okay, that’s a good idea,” Scott said to the man’s retreating back.  “Let’s get off of the main path so that maybe we don’t get caught by the bad guys.”

Nearly a half an hour of quietly weaving their way through trees and cautiously venturing out to check the trail from time to time found them on a path that was curving away to the north and west.  The fresh-washed pine smell of the woods followed them on their trek, and even though the rain had slowed, nearly stopped, water that had gathered into large drops on the leaves above them fell constantly. It was becoming more and more obvious to Scott that Johnny and Willie were on the true trail.  All signs pointed to this group making a huge, looping circle.  Scott felt Moose’s hand on his arm, and he looked over to see what the problem was.  In an exaggerated manner, mimicking Scott’s earlier performance, Moose pointed at Scott and then pointed at the ground right in front of Scott. “Aufenthalt hier,” the man said, slowly.

And although he couldn’t understand German, Scott could recognize an order when he heard one.  This sounded very much like one of his cavalry officers calling for the column to “halt,” and that is exactly what Scott did as he watched Moose drop the mule’s reins, but keep a grip on  both guns.  “What do you have in mind, Moose?”  Scott asked pleasantly, just like he might ask someone he really expected an answer from.  But, of course, the man just stared at him.  “Fine, I’ll just stay here and cool my heels for a while; you go off and do…whatever it is you’re going off to do.  Just don’t be gone too long now, you hear,” he added, “or I might decide to escape.  I am a notorious gang member you know.”  After a few moments of more staring, Moose turned suddenly and took off, almost instantly disappearing like smoke into the confusion of trees and vines around them.

Standing next to his horse, and preparing to wait for an indeterminate amount of time, Scott slowly removed his gloves and tucked them into his belt.  He took off his hat, pushed his wet hair back from his forehead with the other hand, and then resettled it more firmly on his head.  With a pat to Charlie and a long-suffering sigh, he looked briefly at the heavens and wondered for the hundredth time how they always managed to get themselves into these messes.  But really he knew.  It was all Johnny’s fault. 

 

Part 6

By taking the trail which slashed away across the meadow to the west, Johnny and Willie had been forced to push into the prevailing winds of the storm, and the horses balked with every step.  The two trackers had to keep their heads down, their chins pulled in tight, and the rain blew at them unmercifully, their eyes watering to near-blindness from the wind each time they raised their heads to look forward.

Johnny’s arms already ached with the work of keeping Barranca on the trail, and he wondered how the kid was faring with a borrowed mount, although, he had heard no complaints.  The farther they followed the trail along, the more convinced Johnny became that they had chosen to, or in his case had been forced to, follow the false trail, that Scott and Moose were the ones after the main party of the kidnappers.

His main reason for this conclusion was that if the horsemen had come this way with their precious bounty, they had surely chosen a most difficult path.  Not only were they headed into the main fury of the storm, but also, the terrain changed so rapidly here from pastureland and rolling scrub hills to nearly-bare rock arroyos.  There were huge boulders strewn about creating winding pathways, leg-breakers, Johnny had heard such places called.  And the area was littered with twisting, narrow maze-like canyons, difficult travel for anyone, more so for a large group.

On the other hand, the ground here was so rocky that it barely contained enough dirt or sand to hold a print; a passing would be less noticeable than in many other areas.  And, with the rain lashing the ground around them, the tracks that were being left were fading fast, washing away.  So, it could be that someone with even a slight knowledge of the area might enthusiastically pick this path as a get-away route.  There were surely plenty of places to hide, and, and this idea was weighing heavily on his mind, plenty of places from which to launch an ambush.  If this bunch had any brains at all, they would have a rear guard, and he was becoming more and more anxious with every passing moment that he and Willie would soon be discovered.

The two of them, gunless man and overgunned kid, seldom spoke as they tracked.  It was hard enough to keep a firm grasp on one’s breath before the wind snatched it away, without attempting to talk too.  Only the occasional “That way” or “Look there” could be heard.  And there was much pointing.  Besides, Johnny really didn’t have anything left for chatter; it took everything he could muster to track, to keep on the alert, for the trouble he could almost feel hiding in the rocks, and to fight the elements.  Of course, he wondered what exactly he could do about trouble without his gun, if he did discover some, but, gun or not, the hair prickled on the back of his neck, and he knew trouble was there, if not hiding in the rocks in front of their path, then perhaps coming up behind them.

Finally, after an eternity or so of backing and forthing, the rapidly disappearing tracks led them forward into one of the many steep-sided canyons winding away to the north.  The walls towering above them served to shelter Johnny and Willie some from the rain, but even more so, thankfully so, those walls also worked to release them from the exhausting strain of forcing the reluctant horses into the wind.  This particular canyon was a bit wider than some of the others they had passed, with a dry wash creek running down its middle.  The creek bed showed a trickle of water, maybe three or four feet across, but the canyon could still accommodate at least five or six horses riding abreast.  However, the men they were following had apparently elected to ride single file, probably to try to disguise their numbers.  Another plus about riding into the canyon was that the very sheerness of these particular walls, the height of them, would seem to discourage hidden sharpshooters.  There were really few places to station a bushwhacker, except at the very top, and someone leaning in from up there would be easily spotted.

The quiet of the canyon was almost disconcerting after their past turbulent half hour of sound and wet fury.  They could also tell now that if the kidnappers were anywhere nearby, they were being incredibly quiet about the whole thing; they could hear no sounds of humanity at all—no talking, no shifting rocks or falling pebbles, no horses’ hooves.  This offered Johnny some added relief as well, but did not completely allay his fears.  Unfortunately, the quiet also signaled that they were nowhere near to closing in on their prey.  The rain appeared to have let up some though, and that was more than a small blessing.  In fact, in Johnny’s mind it was actually a really, really huge blessing, a monstrous blessing.

The gunless ex-gunhawk figured that this might prove to be a good time to try a bit of his “famous” Madrid charm on the kid.  He was well aware that kids usually responded to him.  Scott always said it was because Johnny was a big kid himself, which he couldn’t really see at all, but he did know that he liked their company most times, maybe even preferred it sometimes.  Besides, what exactly was so wrong with sliding down banisters and jumping on beds?  Anyway, he needed to get on this particular kid’s good side; he really, really missed his gun.  A little casual conversation seemed to be in order.  After a moment of thought, he turned to the kid.  “So, Willie, your sister, Clairie, you said right?  How old is she?”

“None of your business, Madrid.”

Okay, that didn’t seem to be an avenue of conversation, a stupid move on his part, really.  Reminding the kid of his sister and her troubles was definitely a tactical error.  Johnny frowned a bit in concentration.  After a minute or two, he tried again.  Although Johnny himself hadn’t liked it one bit as a kid, he reasoned that most boys liked talking about their fathers.  “I heard the sheriff mention your pa.  How come you didn’t go get him to help you get your sister back?”

“Shut up, gunfighter.”  Willie didn’t even bother to look at Johnny to see if the spewed venom had hit its mark.

Okay, another sore subject apparently.  Johnny shook his head a little and silently berated himself.  He felt like he must be losing his touch.  It must be the hang-over.  Yep, that must be it.  Or, maybe he was feeling less than himself, not quite his true self, without his rig strapped around his hips.  Clearly this “charming” he had planned was going to prove harder than Johnny had first imagined it might.  He was beginning to think that maybe he should just go for the direct approach.  So, he plunged headlong.  “Okay, look kid, I’m helpin’ ya.  Really, I want to help ya get those gals back.  Seems to me this would go a whole lot easier if we could at least try to get along----Oh, and if you could see your way clear to give me my gun back, I think that would smooth things a bit too.”

“I don’t trust you, Madrid.  I don’t trust you, and I don’t like you much either.  I do need your help though, so I gotta say I’m beholden to you.”  From the look on Willie’s face, Johnny could easily see that this admission left a really nasty taste in the kid’s mouth.  Then he continued, the look on his face not changing a bit.  “The thing is, you and me, we’ll get along just fine if you just keep your damned lyin’ mouth shut.”

“Nice mouth ya got on ya kid.”  Willie didn’t even look at him.  Johnny’s patience was beginning to be sorely tested, was stretched out paper thin.  What the hell did this kid know about him anyway?  What was up with the lying mouth comment?  “Now see, that lyin’ mouth thing, that’s not really fair then is it?  Just how the hell do you know if I’m a liar or not when we’ve barely spoken half a dozen sentences to one another?”  Johnny’s question was answered by a long string of complete silence.  Willie had turned what little attention had momentarily been spared to answer Johnny’s comments back to looking for the wet whisper of a trail they were following, back to carefully studying the ground, much more carefully than Johnny felt was really necessary at this point.

Frustrated, and with his temper uncharacteristically starting to get the best of him, Johnny reached across and caught Willie by the arm.  “Hey, I asked you a question, kid.”  Rarely had anyone, other than Murdoch Lancer of course, caused him to slip right out of his calm so easily and completely.

Willie ripped away from Johnny’s grasp violently and then hissed at him through clenched teeth. “And you keep clear of me.  I don’t cotton to you being within reaching distance of me or of your gun.” With a black look at Johnny and a jerk at the reins, Willie pulled ahead.

Johnny just stared at the kid’s back as Willie huffed softly and then rode off ahead of him without a backward glance, splashing through the creek as he moved across it, and then, Johnny shook his head again, exasperated beyond belief, and kicked at Barranca to catch up.  He surely could think of better places to be, lots of better places, hundreds of better places, in fact.  But instead, here he was, definitely still hung-over, wet and cold, and in the company of this kid, who was about as pleasant to be traveling around with as a coyote with a sore foot, with two sore feet.

So, instead of thinking about Willie riding there, stiff-backed, in front of him, Johnny pondered some of those better places.  The great room at Lancer came to mind—a fire crackling away in the hearth, him sitting in that one leather chair that he had nearly worked into fitting his butt like a glove, a glass of Murdoch’s expensive Scotch for sipping hanging loosely in his hand.  Or the big friendly kitchen of the estancia would be a good choice—Maria at the stove stirring away, and the spicy scent of her cooking drifting around him as he sits at the table snapping beans for her, Teresa laughing and teasing him about doing “woman’s work,” which he doesn’t mind one bit, as she kneads bread dough, flour flaring across the apron she wears to protect her dress, flour on one of her cheeks.  Then there was always the barn, his own personal favorite refuge—dust motes and bits of straw floating languidly in the spears of sunlight which streak in through the cracks in the walls on early sunny mornings, him moving the brush across Barranca’s golden hide, long, even, hypnotic strokes, the action rhythmic and soothing, the smell of leather and horse, straw and liniment, even the odor of manure, familiar and comforting.  Hell, for that matter, Walter Grave’s jail cell was even looking pretty good right about now when compared to where he was, when compared to his “sweet-natured” traveling companion.

As Johnny pondered other places to be and better things to be doing while being there, an amazing miracle took place right before his very eyes—it was a wonder to behold—the clouds parted, like in one of those Bible stories in the Old Testament, and a shaft of golden, wonderfully warm sunlight broke through.  That pretty little shaft shimmered down into the canyon and lit up the red walls around him.  Johnny turned his face up to get the full effect and smiled a smile of pure joy.  Just a little ways ahead, he could see that Willie was looking up too.

Unfortunately that peaceful moment was destined to only last for a very short time; in fact, it was almost a memory before it began.  For, as he enjoyed the first bit of sunshine he had witnessed in…weeks really, Johnny could also feel a gentle vibration in the floor of the canyon, in the walls around him.  He looked around and noticed that while he had been gathering wool, the creek had been slowly rising, was beginning to spread out and fill the canyon, leaving very little bare rock behind, wiping out the remainder of any path to follow.

He could almost hear something.  Almost.  Something was building in the air around them; he could almost touch it; it was so nearly within his grasp, just beyond his consciousness, just beyond, and it caused a feeling of unease to shiver its way down his back.  He knew that the horses could feel it too, and they began to dance nervously, stirring up the shallow water at their feet, and nod their heads in agitation.  Willie turned to look at him, and Johnny could see that the kid could feel it now too, knew something was happening.  Something was coming.  Something big and loud and fast, something deadly.

A look passed between them, and they both knew.  The knowing lit up their eyes.  “Higher ground,” Johnny shouted in a sudden voice.  “Hurry. Hurry, Willie.  Go.  Go. Go.”  Willie dropped Johnny’s rifle and it clattered against the rock floor of the canyon and sent up a spray of water as it landed half in and half out of the rising creek.  Johnny watched it fall, but didn’t really recognize it, was too focused to allow it to register.  Then he looked back up and saw Willie as he tucked the Spencer under one arm to get a better grip and pulled at the reins, manhandling the frightened horse, forcing it to head on into the canyon.  A truly frightening sound, something like a frantic, out of control train could be heard building behind them, building, louder and louder, building in intensity, building in volume, coming, without a doubt, from the dry wash where they had entered this canyon.

Only seconds had passed since Johnny had called out his warning.  And they were both off, nearly flying down the narrow canyon, as quickly as they could go.  The horses’ hooves drummed against the stone floor of the canyon as they ran at a full gallop, flinging red-stained water in all directions, away from the sound and tension building behind them, heedless of what or who lay ahead.

It didn’t matter what lay ahead anyway; there was no other way to go.  What mattered was what lay behind, what mattered was the rising water around them.  Johnny scanned the sides of the canyon.  What had been a blessing before, the straight sheer walls, now might become their undoing.  They needed to get to higher ground.  They needed to get to higher ground now.

 

Part 7

Not going for stealth at all anymore, Moose returned to the small clearing kicking up sodden leaves in his wake, like a child meandering home from school.   He eventually kicked his way through the soggy mess to Scott, who was sitting on a fallen tree, enjoying the newly awakened sun.  The damp rancher had pushed his hat off and allowed it to dangle by its string around his neck, much as his brother was often wont to do.  The feeling of warming sunshine on his face as it filtered down through the trees was going a long way towards improving Scott’s recent testy mood.  He could nearly forget the seriousness of their task here in the newly awakened sunshine.  In fact, he was feeling rather expansive and friendly, and he spoke to Moose as though greeting an old friend.  “What did you find out there Moose, my good man?  I’m guessing it wasn’t our kidnappers, or you wouldn’t be so casual about it.  In fact, I’ve got a twenty dollar gold piece that says it wasn’t.”  Moose held up two fingers. 

“Well, either you want two gold pieces, or you found two of the bad guys.  So, which is it?”  Scott also held up two fingers.

“Ja, zwei.”  Again, he held up two fingers as he nodded his head.  Then, he flung his arm outward in a wide circle to the north.  “Sie gehen Norden .”

“North, they’re headed north.  Hey, I’m getting pretty good at this.  North, eh?  Then so shall we be. Lead on, gendarme.”

“Ja, north, Kid.”   The use of the name “Kid” had Scott snapping his head around to scowl at his taciturn companion, but Moose just stared back at him, a cool smile lighting up his eyes.  Scott shrugged, figuring he was fighting a losing battle with this Kid situation.  With a small hop, he pulled himself up on Charlie and carefully folded and creased his slicker in preparation for putting it away into his saddlebag.  If nothing else was looking up on this sad, sorry, one-sided conversation producing trip, at least the rain had stopped.  Maybe he should amend that.  At least the rain had stopped for now.

As the two of them left the protection of the trees and followed the sloppy trail across rolling pasture land to the north and west, Scott thought about the fact that he was incredibly hungry.  His stomach rumbled and groaned, easily audible all the way to Moose, and Scott felt his cheeks grow slightly warm with a moment’s embarrassment.  He tried very hard to remember when was the last time he had eaten.  He remembered breakfast yesterday, on the trail, coffee, skillet bread, Johnny’s limp-fried, pathetic bacon.  He grinned to think of that bacon.  It was a long-standing argument between the two of them—a real difference of opinion—Scott, of course, preferred crisp bacon, the right way to fry and eat it.  Johnny’s idea of bacon was half-done, soft and bendy.  It was disgraceful.  He also remembered that they hadn’t stopped for lunch, only stopping to fill their canteens, gnawing on hardtack as they rode.  Had they eaten supper last night?  He had a vague memory of something spicy, some tortillas maybe, but holding onto that particular memory was like trying to catch dandelion fluff.

It was easy to see that he and Moose were some ways behind their quarry.  The tracks were becoming more indistinct all of the time, but his companion seemed to be on a mission.  He rode as though he knew exactly where he was going, had even stopped looking down at the tracks, and, having little choice to do otherwise, Scott followed along.  He grew increasingly weary of the silence, so he began to talk.  He figured, at this point, a one-sided conversation was better than none.  “So, Moose, have you ever heard of Pythagorus?  Did you know that he is the father of something called vegetarianism?”  This topic of conversation really wasn’t as random as it might seem.  He and Murdoch had been discussing the philosopher several weeks ago, before the rain had drained the civil out of all of them. The conversation had grown from Murdoch’s rereading of a book about famous Greek and Roman philosophers.  His cattle-raising father had railed about the very idea that someone would consider living his life without including beef in his diet.

There was, of course, no answer from Moose, but that didn’t discourage Scott.  “I was thinking of old Pythy just the other day, you know.  I had a philosophy class in college, oh must have been nearly 5 years ago now; the professor went on about Pythagorus for several days.  Even though the philosopher professed to never eat meat, he had an unnatural aversion to beans as well.  That fact isn’t nearly as well known.  Did you know about that?”  He paused, a natural spot for it, to allow for Moose’s silent input.  “It’s not exactly a secret, but not common knowledge either.  Oh, everyone knows who Pythagorus is—Mr. ‘with any right triangle the sum of the squares of each of the two sides is equal to the square of the hypotenuse’—but I’ll bet you didn’t know that he actually said it was evil to eat beans.”  Again Scott paused, as though he were having a real back and forth conversation with the burly man on the white mule.  Into the silence, he spoke again.  “Back in his day, wise men weren’t slotted into one kind of being wise, you know?  Not like it is now, how everyone is a specialist—so and so is an expert on Theology.  His friend so and so is the top man in Literary history.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that.”  Pause.  “I knew you had.  But not Pythagorus.  He expounded on lots of different subjects.  Although what he had against beans, I really don’t know.  I’ve often wondered if, during one of his metaphysical lectures, some slob, well, you know, let go, passed gas, and broke, no pun intended, the serious mood entirely.”

“I read one time that he observed a triangular shadow cast by the sun shining through an open door, and he took that and figured out the vast arcs described by the stars and planets wheeling over our heads.  He was an amazing man really.”

“Well, yes.  Yes, he was.  I’ve read that very thing you did.  It was even more amazing, I do believe, when he also figured out the nature of strict ratios when listening to someone pluck the strings----“  Scott pulled Charlie to a complete and abrupt stop.  Moose pulled up too.  The “Kid” then stared at the man, stunned beyond words.

“Is there a problem Mr. Lancer?  Mr.---Scott---Lancer.”  Moose smiled slightly as he looked over at Scott, who sat as still as stone and stared back at him like a statue.  A blue-eyed, blonde-haired statue.

“You speak English.”  After he started out with an actual sputter in response to this development, by the time he got to “English,” Scott’s face went blank; his voice became expressionless.

“Ja, ich spreche Englisch, Scott Lancer.”

“I guess I’ve made something of an ass of myself haven’t I?  I do apologize.  Although, maybe I’m not the one who should be apologizing.  There really wasn’ t any need to deceive me that way, was there?”

“Ja, there was a very good reason for making an ass of yourself, Scott.  I had to know you well enough, to trust you enough, to give these back to you.  It seemed prudent.”  Moose handed Scott’s guns back to him.  He grinned at the stunned man for another moment and then turned his mule back to the north and started off again.  After a moment, Scott pushed his rifle into its boot and holstered his gun.  Then he followed after Moose, feeling embarrassed at his swooping hand signals and his overly loud voice, but also feeling much, much better equipped for what may lie ahead.

 

####################################################################

 

The water coming from behind, as well as from below, was upon Johnny and Willie before they could do much of anything about it.  The deluge came swirling immediately up the legs of the horses, pulling them off their feet some, causing them to stumble.  The quickness of it was astonishing.  Johnny could feel the chill as it crawled up above his knees.  It was building, rushing, growing deeper with every moment that passed, and even though the horses were game, were trying to keep moving forward, pushing their way along, they couldn’t outrun it; it was just too fast.  And they couldn’t out muscle it; it was just too powerful.  Within moments, Barranca’s feet left the ground, and he was swimming, trying to swim.  And it was loud.  It was loud, and Johnny could tell that Willie was shouting something to him, could see the exaggerated mouthing of the words, but he couldn’t hear anything except the water rolling around and past them and the distressed shrieks of the horses.

Johnny leaned forward some, clutched his knees tightly to Barranca’s sides, grabbed two hefty handfuls of mane and determined to hold on for as long as he could as the torrent seethed around them.  Ahead, almost immediately, he saw Willie suddenly roll from the borrowed mount and splash spectacularly into the rushing water.  With his heart plummeting, Johnny watched the kid being carried along in the newly created current.  He was all flailing arms, head above and then below the brown, churning water, then above it again, a flash of blondish hair plastered to his head, his hat no longer anywhere to be seen.

And Johnny’s heart sank as the foaming water pulled Willie completely out of sight then, under the water, under and gone, and he waited for the longest time, but the kid did not reappear, not that he could see, but there was so much confusion, so much pulling for his attention, so much thundering his senses, he could have missed him, could have missed him.

With little forethought, but desperate, so desperate, knowing he needed to get to Willie somehow, Johnny pulled himself up, standing in the stirrups, after a fashion, and he lunged from Barranca’s back and into the watery chaos, aiming himself as much as he possibly could in Willie’s general direction.  As he hit the water, he was immediately sucked completely under, the cold of the water like a quick slap in the face.  He had thought he was cold before, but it couldn’t compare to the ice wrapped around him now.  And he was being pushed forward by the now-unstoppable force of the flood, out of control, his slicker wrapping around him, tangling his arms into uselessness. 

After some moments, nearly too many moments, his lungs burning, he broke through to the surface by pure luck alone and gulped at the air frantically.  Water poured down his face from his sodden hair, blinding him.  He tried to kick himself forward, but his boots were filling, dragging him down.  Johnny could swim, thought of himself as a good swimmer, but there was no swimming involved in this situation, there was only compliance.  The water was definitely in charge, angry, bossing him around, the ride a wild one.

And in the way it sometimes happens, in the midst of madness, Johnny’s thoughts fragmented, drifted, time slowed around him, and he found himself growing calm.  He stopped fighting the deluge, and his thoughts began to eddy away, piecemeal.  For some reason he was reminded of something from his childhood, something he hadn’t thought of in years.  When Johnny had been a nino, six or seven at the most, one of his many “stepfathers,” one who had actually stayed for a while, hadn’t minded having the little mestizo around so much, had sometimes entertained him by creating little people out of matchsticks and string.  He had called them marionettes, Johnny remembered them, had been fascinated with Felipe’s little men.  And, that’s exactly how Johnny felt right now as he tumbled in the rolling water, like a boneless matchstick man, like a marionette.  For a man who had once made his living by having complete control over his body, an athlete’s control, who still employed that skill, only now with roping and breaking mustangs, well, and in other even more pleasurable “acrobatic” pursuits, who always knew exactly where he was “in space” at all times, this feeling was more than disconcerting.  He felt boneless---stringless.

He concentrated hard, pulled his thoughts back in and twisted around in the water some, facing back, trying to face back, from where he had come. The sheer, red walls of the canyon were blazing past, blurring past, and he could see a swirling branch still covered with most of its green leaves heading straight for a frightened, screaming Barranca, who bobbed, mostly upright, about eight or ten feet away from him, only his head and neck visible now, but there was nothing Johnny could do about it, nothing.  There was nothing he could do about any of it but ride it out and pray like crazy.  Dios, por favor.  Things were happening so fast, he really wasn’t even able to put together a decent prayer in his mind. The branch took a last second, squirting spin and only just brushed the horse.  Johnny then got himself twisted back around somehow, and when he finally caught enough of a breath, he called out for Willie, but he got nothing back in return, could hear nothing now over the roar of the water, couldn’t see very far ahead to know if the kid had ever come up for air.

Incredibly, the farther they traveled, the more the walls narrowed and the more they picked up speed.  He could tell that the canyon was about to take a sharp turn, and Johnny had time, just barely, to worry about Willie again, as the main force of the flood decided to fling him into the wall.  He had enough sense to throw an arm up to protect his head before he was pushed into the rough, red stones lining the canyon, pushed and held there, held there, scraping along the wall, struggling to keep his face above water, his head from being battered, struggling to breathe, but still, as he worked to gasp a breath, still he worried about Willie.  Was the kid pinned to the canyon wall too?  Was he still traveling down steam with Barranca and the borrowed brown mare?  Were any of them going to survive this?  Johnny tried to push away from the wall with arms that felt as limp as one of Maria’s dust cloths.  Where was his strength?  His perception of time passing was non-existent.  How long had this all been going on now?  An hour?  All day?  Madre de Dios, he was tired enough for it to have been his whole damned, waterlogged life.

Debris tumbled into him as the current held him pinned like an animal hide nailed to a wall.  Rocks that seemed too heavy to be pushed around by mere water pummeled him, as did more branches of the scrub oaks he remembered passing before the ground had become so rocky.  Over the general aches and pains of being pounded into a wall of rock, he could feel something large and heavy slam into his leg, a rock, a submerged tree limb, he couldn’t see anything, but he could feel it, and it was dragging him down, something was dragging him down.  He could feel panic that had been curiously absent begin to consume him.

And then, nearly as quickly as it had started, the water stopped raging quite so furiously, stopped pulling him apart so thoroughly, stopped frothing quite so much around him.  Now, sore and exhausted, Johnny was able to push himself away from the wall, muscle his way back from the punishment of the red rocks.  He threw his arm around the next sizeable branch to come by and held on, floating with the current.  All of his concentration was on keeping his head above water, and trying to get a glimpse of Willie, and maybe even Barranca, until he could find his way to solid ground.

 

Part 8

“Moose,” Scott’s voice seemed loud to him after the two men had been so quiet for the better part of this leg of their trip, since Moose’s informational bombshell, actually.  They were now moving well beyond the wooded area and into the rolling hills to the north.  Scott urged Charlie to hurry a little so that he could catch up with the man on the white mule.  “Moose,” he spoke again as he pulled abreast of his traveling companion.

“Ja?”

“Back there, in the clearing, you said there were two men—you saw them?”  Moose nodded, and grinning, he held up two fingers.  Scott, smiled back at him, wondering at the change he saw in the man ever since he had revealed his knowledge of both English and Pythagorus.  This must be the real Moose.  A man who read about philosophers, loved a small town Madame, rode a mule and who was busy having a little bit of  fun at Scott’s expense.  Smiling even more and holding up his own fingers, the notorious gang member then swooped his arm in a big arc.  He had realized immediately that Moose was not really teasing him, but was, on the contrary, bantering with him and that reminded him of his absent brother.  With a shake of his head, Scott then continued with his earlier line of thought, “How far behind those two men are we, do you think?”

“Oh, we’re not behind them at all.  They went south.”

“What?  If they went south, why exactly are we going north?”

“Widow’s Rock.  The day is getting away from us.  We need to get to the meeting place.”

“Oh.”

“They’re still laying the false trail, Scott; I even saw them working at making the trail more clear, bending down branches, turning over stones.  We can only hope that Willie and your brother have information on the true trail.”

Scott could definitely see the sense of it.  Moose was right; it wouldn’t do them any good to continue following the two men.  Thinking about the men they weren’t following, led him to think about the ones his brother was following.  He hoped that Johnny and Willie hadn’t gotten themselves into a mess, or, knowing Johnny, maybe he should hope that they hadn’t gotten themselves into too much of a mess.  There were nearly a dozen men in all, according to what Willie had said earlier at the jail, and that meant Johnny and the kid were on the trail of nine or ten of them, along with their four female captives.  However, even though Scott knew that Johnny could sometimes be, well, impulsive, he was also most definitely a survivor.  He would be as smart and as calm as he could be about these kidnappers and about Willie too.  Scott had more faith in his brother than in anyone else in the world to pull himself out of seemingly impossible situations.  He had survived gunshot wounds, collapsing general stores, and falls over sheer cliffs.  Why just a month ago, Johnny, who had been courting two very different women at the same time for several months now, had managed to survive taking one of them, Isabelle, to the Fall Festival dance in Green River without being murdered by the other one.  In fact, Lynetta, the one who was not invited to the dance, and the one more likely to resort to homicide, in Scott’s opinion, made Johnny a picnic lunch the day after the dance and, if his brother could be believed, had massaged his spiked punch-induced aching head as they lay in the grass eating apple pie along Potter’s Creek.  He figured any man who could do that could probably pull off other miracles as well, loaves and fishes, walking on water, charming a teenager into returning his gun, finding kidnappers without being shot for his trouble.

“Moose, I’m a little worried about Johnny and Willie,” he confessed.  “Not only is Johnny not going to be easy to get along with without his gun on his hip, he’ll need some firepower if they run into those kidnappers.  Will Willie trust him?”

“Hard to say.  Willie doesn’t trust easily, but wanting to help Clairie will be powerful motivation.”

“How long have you known Willie and Clairie?”

“Well, nearly all of their lives, I guess.”

Scott waited, expecting more.  When nothing more came, he prompted Moose to continue, “How long have you lived here, in California I mean?”

“What makes you think I wasn’t born here?”  Moose looked over at Scott, the low-hanging sun flashing off of his glasses.  Without waiting for a response, he continued.  “I came here, to Kleinstadt, with Mama Lena in 1853.  I was just another one of those forty-niners, a green kid, who really didn’t speak much English at the time, who found out that gold was more allusive than he had been led to believe.  I left Meppin, that’s in the Black Forest region of Germany, a beautiful place, and I came around the Horn, landed at San Francisco.  It wasn’t unusual you know.  People came from all around the world to get their hands on some of that gold.  Where I had set up my claim, there were men from all over Europe; the man panning next to me was from Belgium—spoke some German; that was good.  There were also men from Boston, Philadelphia and New York, farms, cities, small towns.  There was even one man, I think his name was Yuri; he had found his way to that muddy creek all the way from Russia.”

Moose was looking off into the distance as he spoke.  Scott felt the man must be lost in his memories of twenty years past.  “I’ve always considered that time in our country’s history to be somewhat romantic,” he said.

Moose turned to look at him again and continued, “Romantic?”  He gave Scott an incredulous look.  “It was long days of amazingly hard work which produced very little reward.  Romantic?”  This time he snorted.  “It was dirty and backbreaking, dangerous too, so many claim jumpers you could hit one every time you tried to spit.  But then it wasn’t long before I met up with Lena.”  At this point, Moose smiled broadly, and Scott noticed for the first time that the man had a gold tooth.  “She had her girls traveling from camp to camp in a fancy painted wagon back then, and she desperately needed someone to watch out for them, someone big and strong; she called it being their “caretaker.”  It paid a lot better than those few grains of gold I was dragging from that played out creek, and it was a lot easier too.  So pretty soon, there I was, making my way from camp to camp too—driving the wagon, encouraging the hasty exit of overly rowdy customers.”  He punched one meaty fist into the air, busting the jaw of an imaginary troublemaker.  “Then, before you know it, the paint on the wagon was fading, and Lena was just plumb tired of the constant traveling.  We put a period on our travels instead of a comma and settled in Kleinstadt.  No one’s getting rich with it, that’s for sure, not even Lena, but it’s a living, I guess.  Besides, well, Lena and I---“  Moose looked over at Scott, who was looking back with a smile.  Then, the man blushed, very suddenly, rosy pink from his collar to the top of his bald head, whether from his near-confession about himself and Mama Lena or from the fact that he had pretty much spilled his entire life story to a near stranger, Scott didn’t know.

To relieve his embarrassment, Scott changed the subject, “Moose, I’ve been wondering, why didn’t the town form a posse?”

“That bunch of worthless---“  Moose stopped and seemed to pull in strength and calmness from the soft afternoon sun and the rolling hills around them.  He spoke in carefully measured tones, “The good people of Keinstadt aren’t lazy, Scott, that’s for sure, lots of German immigrants, lots of hard workers.  And they aren’t cowards, exactly, either, although there’s been very little to test that theory over the years.  They just all have something of a ‘live and let live’ attitude, I guess.  Not all, just most.”  He stopped and got that far off look again.  “Actually, I’m thinkin’ me and Lena need to find a new place to set up shop.”

“What about Willie’s and Clairie’s dad?  I heard Graves mention him.  Why isn’t he out here looking for his daughter.”

Moose stiffened in the saddle.  It was easy for Scott to see that Willie’s dad was a sore subject.  “That man should be horsewhipped—drunken bastard—Willie and Clairie are both good people.  How that demon spawned them, I’ll never know.”

 

 

Johnny opened his eyes and then quickly closed them again.  The sun was slanting across the sky from the west, angled straight at him as he lay on his back with the left side of his face on wet rock.  He heard the soft but unmistakable sound of jangling harness.  He lay still for a moment reveling in the warmth of the sun and slowly making an effort at gathering in his fractured thoughts, piecing them back together slowly into some workable order.   The wonderful, gorgeous sun was puzzling for some reason.  It came to him then that his recent days had been filled to the brim with rain.  It had, in fact, been raining and raining.  He determined then and there that the next time he heard someone say “oh well, we need the rain,” that he would start shooting first and take no prisoners.

His thoughts felt just a little bit like swooping, soaring birds—in an out, over and under.  He would grab at a bit of sense, hold it close and then it would slip through his fingers.  Now, as he lay on his hard rock bed, he worried about his clothing.  He was soaked through and through.  His pants and shirt clung to him, sopping wet, uncomfortable; huge droplets of water ran down his cheek and neck from his sodden hair, onto the rock next to him.  He suddenly noticed and worried about the fact that he was not fully and properly dressed. Most notably, his rig was missing, but then he generally didn’t sleep with it on.  Why was he sleeping on the rocks?  And he had on only one boot.  Another mystery—if he had been sleeping, he should have both of his boots off, and his rig off too, but within reaching distance.  On the other hand, if he had been unconscious, and his pounding head told him that could be the truth of it, he would more than likely have his boots on, along with his rig.  This one boot on, one boot off situation was just plain confusing, too confusing for his aching head to sort out right now.  Then, he realized that his slicker was wrapped tightly around him, twisted around him, and he could feel that he was lying on something soft but lumpy, which pushed at him right between the shoulder blades; from the tight pull of string at his neck, he guessed that the lump was his hat.

He remembered now that he was out tracking someone, for some reason.  Oh, now that was a detailed bit of memory.  Lying there with his eyes closed against the sun, he smirked at himself and his elusive thoughts. Okay, he was following a trail with someone, someone other than Scott, someone other than a bald man on a white mule.  That thought stuck tight in his brain for a moment.  It seemed an odd thing, to think that he wasn’t with a bald man on a white mule.  When had he ever been?  Hell, he wasn’t with a lot of people.  He wasn’t with a pretty girl in a ball gown or a gypsy fortune teller either, but he didn’t automatically think of that.  For some reason, he thought that maybe Scott was with the bald man, a bald man named Moose.  He was with Willie.  Yeah, Willie.  The image of the skinny boy with the big gun brought it all back, the jail, the fat sheriff, the kidnappers.

Then, the chaos of the flood tumbled through him, his fear for his own life a sharp memory, being pinned to the red rock, being battered with flood debris, choked by muddy, red water, and all of that eclipsed by his fear for the kid.  Now, as he remembered, he lay with his hands pushed against his aching temples.  He recalled that after an age of time, he had thrown his arm around the big, gnarled limb that came barreling past and had ridden it along, concentrating on keeping his head above water, on gasping for air, on holding on until he finally felt solid ground beneath his feet.  Finally he remembered that he wanted desperately to know if Willie was okay, if Barranca had managed to get through it all, but he was just too damn tired.  He had only had the energy to drag himself most of the way out of the surging creek, to slump down on one hip on the natural rock bar he had floated to, and to slowly collapse on his back, dead to the world.

 

Now, he knew that he needed to get up and find Willie.  He rolled to his stomach and then pushed up to his hands and knees.  His leg, the bootless one, gifted him with a lancing pain, and he groaned quietly, but he breathed in and out slowly for a moment and then got slowly to his feet.  He looked around at where he had landed.  The canyon had opened up into a broad plain, and the water had spread out, soaked in and run off.  A soft nicker caught his attention, and he could see that just beyond the rocky area where he had been deposited, Barranca and the borrowed mare were quietly cropping grass and weeds.  Both looked tired but, really, none the worse for their watery ride.

He turned to look behind him towards the canyon, and there, not ten feet from where he had been washed, was Willie.  Dios, gracias.  It made sense that they would all be pulled along and spit out at the same place, really, almost like being funneled down a drain.  Limping badly, wincing, he walked to Willie’s side, praying the whole way that he wasn’t approaching a corpse.  “Willie, can you hear me?”  Willie lay face down.  The Spencer, almost miraculously lay near by.  And Johnny’s rig was still hitched over Willie’s shoulder.  It was a mystery that the kid could hold onto most of their firepower—pure stubborn determination or luck, or, most likely, a little of both.  It was almost as much of a mystery as how Johnny could have lost one boot in the maelstrom.  This close, Johnny could see the rise and fall of Willie’s back.  Yes, thank God, the kid was alive.

He reached down and carefully pulled Willie over.  The kid was just as soaked as Johnny and a small, jagged gash over one eye sluggishly seeped blood.  As he got Willie fully turned over, Johnny shook his head a little and sat down abruptly.  Willie’s wide green eyes looked back at him solemn and slightly confused.

“What’s your real name?”  Johnny whispered without preamble.

“Wilhelmina Roderica Lucas,” she answered, just as quietly.

 

Part 9

“My name is Scott Lancer.  It’s not Scott Madrid, never was Madrid,” Scott informed Moose as they continued on their journey, now headed straight for Widow’s Rock.  After Moose’s condemnation of Willie’s and Clairie’s father, which the man refused to flesh out with sordid details—not that Scott had pressed for them—the conversation had ebbed for a bit, Moose riding quietly, solemn and distracted.  

But now, nearly out of the blue, Scott felt the sudden need to be very clear with this man on the subject of his name, about the circumstances of his and his brother’s incarceration, of their current life at Lancer, and so he announced his name as he dabbed at his sore lip with his white cotton handkerchief.  His dabbing revealed that it had started to bleed slightly again.  His sore lip led him to a clear memory of someone helping them last night in the Hog’s Breath, someone who had looked a great deal like Moose.  Had it really only been one day since their drunken saloon brawl?  “My brother’s name is John Lancer,” he continued.  “He was Johnny Madrid, but that was in another life.  He hasn’t been Madrid, not really, for a while now.”

“We all have pasts,” Moose answered him simply with a shrug.  “Our pasts lead us to where and who we are, no matter how broken the path.  I have a past; Lena does; even Walter Graves has a past of some kind, I guess.”  The man paused here to look over at Scott with a slight grin,  “Although everything in his past seems to have led up to him being an idiot.  Oh, and I never thought you were The Boston Kid, Scott.”

“Really?  Does that mean I don’t look like a desperate criminal to you?”  Scott grinned back at the big man, in spite of the pull to his lip.

“Oh, I didn’t say that.”  Moose’s smile grew.  “I just knew you looked way too smart to pick that Godawful name.  To my way of thinking, ‘The Boston Kid’ would strike fear into the hearts of pretty much no one; a person might be better off calling himself the Boston Cream Pie.”  Scott could tell that although he was trying, Moose was having a hard time schooling his face to seriousness by this point.

“Well, it’s better than the other one I heard Graves considering in the jailhouse before he settled on The Kid, ‘The Boston Butterfly’, I think he said.”  This announcement was accompanied by a smirk.  “And, Ol’ Walter was right about one thing.  The Boston Kid does have a certain ring to it when you put it with Johnny Madrid.”  Both men smiled briefly at the absurdity of the fat, lazy sheriff and his latest get rich quick scheme.

“Ja, you know, I might even be inclined to shell out the money for a dime novel with that name myself,” Moose added.

They rode on companionably, continuing ever northward.  The rapidly setting sun was still drying them out, but the terrain was beginning to change again.  Scott and Moose had ridden now from dense woods, to rolling scrub-covered hills, to these red rock walls of a deep canyon in a little less than two hours, passing much of the time with good conversation.   It was easy to forget the seriousness of their task as their mounts moved on through the day and their philosophies were aired.  Scott was amazed at the depth and variety of topics on which Moose could converse, and with some authority too—art, agriculture, wine, animal husbandry, architecture.  The man was nearly a walking, no, a mule riding, library.

As they splashed through the shallow, but swiftly running creek at the bottom of this particular canyon, it brought about another interesting and pertinent topic.  The two men were discussing the merits of the schemes of a Mr. R. M. Brereton who was becoming quite well known throughout northern and central California.  The man’s plan was to get enough money, although mostly from the government, which Moose pointed out meant that the project was likely doomed, to irrigate nearly three million acres of  the San Joaquin valley, using ditches and canals, methods the industrialist had learned about in India.  Just as the two men were getting well into their arguments for and against Brereton, Moose pulled up short and pointed to a soaring, flat-topped rock less than a mile away.  “Our destination.”  He swung the mule’s head and plodded towards a tangle of vines and low-hanging trees.

Scott gaped as the man completely disappeared.  “I don’t see a path,” he called, but as he got to the spot where Moose had vanished, he pushed aside some branches to reveal a well-hidden, but fairly well-traveled animal trail, and he could just see a white rump, tail swishing, as greenery closed around it.

 

                                                *******************

“So ‘Willie’, is Clairie’s real name ‘Clarence’ then?”  Johnny asked as the girl looked up at him.  The face which turned to him now hadn’t changed since that first moment of their “acquaintance,” which had taken place among the dying echoes of frantic screams and gunshots and the crashing of a jailhouse door, but Johnny’s perception of it had.  As he stared at and considered this face, Johnny closed his eyes for a moment and put a hand to his forehead in an attempt to slow down the earth’s lop-sided rotation just a little bit.

When he opened his eyes again, to a slightly more stable view, he found that this heart-shaped, finely boned face looking back at him, curiously now, was much more mature than he had noticed before, had taken the time and interest to notice, he guessed; the eyes which looked at him from this face were decidedly more worldly than he had thought, far too aware to belong to a child, and he wondered that he had ever thought that Willie was an adolescent.  He remembered that he had despaired mentioning the obvious sexual implications of the kidnapping because he felt that Willie was far too innocent to hear about it. He could see now that these eyes looking back at him had seen things, had seen Life, and probably not always the sweet side of it.

“Uh,” she said.  As she lay sprawled on the pebble strewn shore of the rapidly diminishing creek, Willie’s long hair was spread out around her.  Johnny couldn’t help but notice that the wet, wavy strands were the exact color of fully ripened wheat.  His vision swam again for another moment, and with this wavering, he had a quick flash of a tightly-held memory, a quick flash of someone with hair that very color, that golden, ripe wheat color, and it spilled across a large, satin pillow, all but one errant strand of ripe wheat hair.  He remembered, felt the brush of, that one strand which fell across faintly pink lips that were swollen from passion, swollen too from rough-sweet kisses; he saw a glimpse of straight white teeth in a stray, mischievous grin, brown eyes flaring with intensity, with excitement.  He saw too a glimpse of his own face in an oversized, oval bedside mirror—and that face was smoky-dark, smoldering; and his eyes were heavy-lidded.  And there was a brass headboard in this honeyed vision and bedsprings that creaked and moaned.

He shook his head a little, clearing a final bit of roaring floodwater from his brain, clearing away that sweet moment too, for now, and he looked down at this girl, in this place and time.  He decided that these particular ripe wheat strands of hair were a mite longer than those others from the past, must hang long enough to brush this girl’s denim-clad, and—how had he ever missed it?—really very non-male rear end, now that the lot of those strands had been loosed from braid and hat.

And she was wet.  She was wet, and as her bulky corduroy coat lay splayed open, he could see that her shirt clung to her in some most interesting ways, some most decidedly interesting, female ways.  And she was cold.  He could see that she was cold, and he wondered that he had ever thought that she was a boy, although he could easily see that she did not dress like a girl, not even at skin-level.

Johnny had the presence of mind, just barely, to take advantage of her embarrassment and confusion and to reach across her as she stared at him without complete comprehension.  She blinked as he pulled his rig from her arm, and it worried him that she had only blinked.  He had been expecting more.

But then, “No,” she said, suddenly, and without giving up his grasp on the gun belt, he jerked back, thinking that now she was arguing his retrieval of the gun.  Then she continued, “No, of course her name isn’t Clarence.  Don’t be a dolt.  Her name is Claira Frederica Lucas, and she’s my baby sister.  She’s only 16.” And then, very softly, “We gotta find her.  She’s just a baby.”

“We’ll find her, Willie.  Here, let me help ya.”  From where he sat cross-legged on the stones beside her, Johnny leaned in and hurried to help Willie sit up as she put both elbows under herself and pushed, but she flinched and jerked back and away from him almost violently.  He pulled his hands from her, holding them up, palms forward, an obvious gesture of non-aggression, and studied her face, looked fully into her eyes; he had seen that exact look before, was very familiar with it in fact.

Thinking about that look, connecting it with Willie made his heart ache.  Although it had been some years ago, yes quite a few years ago, when he was very small, he had seen that same look reflected back at him from store windows and rain puddles.  He would be startled to see it each and every time he did, but there it would be.  For nearly a year, a year when Roberto had lived with him and his mama, he had seen that face reflected in the quiet pool of a central fountain in a tiny town along the Mexican border.  The town had been called Santa Lucia, maybe, he thought, or maybe not; the towns, they blended.  And always, always, he had seen it reflected back at him from that oh so precious broken piece of mirror his mother packed with her no matter where or how often they moved, wrapping it in a colorful lacy shawl, packing it away carefully, reverently.  The thought of that mirror made him hitch a quick breath.  It wasn’t the first time he had wrestled these particular ghosts.  And Willie had the look; it was a wary look that spoke of too-quick, too-rough hands, of too-loud voices.  Johnny schooled his own features to calmness, gentled and slowed his hands and his voice to compensate.  And she responded, to a degree.

Then, as Willie finally sat up fully, she started to cough, a gaspy, wheezy cough, nearly choking, and even though he wasn’t sure she would allow it, with infinite care, Johnny patted her on the back until the coughing lessened.  She grasped at her throat with both bird-fine hands, and then looked down at herself as she got control of her breathing.  He couldn’t help a small grin as he watched her frown fiercely and pull her wet shirt away from her body in an effort to conceal her curves once again.  Then, she pulled the edges of her coat together with some force, unwilling to meet his eyes as she did so.  “Are you hurt?” he asked.  “That was one hell of a wild ride we just took.”

“I’m. . .I don’t know.  I think I’m okay.  My head hurts some, my throat—think I swallowed half the damn creek.”  And then she stopped speaking abruptly, looked down at her hands, and, quietly, but with a hint of her old self, her unique Willie-ness, she added, in a raspy whisper, “What’s it to ya, gunslinger?”

So, from carefully looking at her face, from studying her eyes, Johnny turned away too and looked down at his own leather-clad legs, at his one, once-white, now muddy-gray sock, and worked hard on orienting himself.  His left leg throbbed pretty much continuously—he would have to look into that eventually—his shirt, thoroughly wet, clung to the planes of his chest and was torn across his stomach where a long, shallow gash that bled, but only a little, could be seen through the ragged edges of the tear.  And he could see water-thinned blood too on his hand each time he wiped at his face, but on the whole, he knew that they had both been pretty damned lucky.

He desperately needed to get his bearings again; he had pretty much misplaced today’s particular bearings somewhere back there in that canyon, against that red-rock cliff face.  He laid one hand, one infinitely quiet hand, on Willie’s arm, ignoring her earlier outburst, and used the other to push his dripping hair from his eyes once again.

It seemed unnaturally still to him now, here on this little rock bar, after the furious-train roar and clatter of the flood.  Now, little more than their breathing, his and Willie’s, laboring in and out, broke the silence.  Only that and the soft sounds of the horses’ gear jangling and the amazingly gentle sounds from the lapping creek behind them punctuated the silence of the waning day.  Johnny’s thoughts still seemed to be scrambled some, and he could see from Willie’s face that she wasn’t doing much better.  He counted it a blessing that the sun was shining now as it slipped low in the sky, that the rain had moved on, but the waning daylight reminded him too of why they were here, wherever the hell here was, in the first place, reminded him that time slipped away, and that they had people to rescue, that he had a brother he desperately needed to meet up with.

“Willie, do you know where we are?  Are we close to Widow’s Rock?  There’s no way we are going to track anything now.  We just need to meet up with Scott and Moose.”

Willie was struggling to stand, and Johnny came up with her, still holding on under her arm, the movement far from graceful, but this time his support was accepted without protest from the shivering girl, accepted as a gesture of protection and shared experience.  He turned away from her and swallowed hard to keep from groaning as their combined weight churned up the throb of pain in his leg.  She looked around at the canyon, at the rock beach they had found themselves washed up on, at the canyon walls, at the grasslands just beyond, trying to tell exactly how far the ferocity of the flood had carried them.

“Actually, I think we may be pretty close.  We have to ride north some.  I’m not quite positive that I’ve ever been here, exactly, though; at least I don’t think I have been.  The flood’s changed things a little, changed my seein’ of it too.  We’ve gotten pretty close to the coast though, I think.”  She turned to Johnny and watched him as he buckled his rig around his hips.  He thought that she was about to protest the having of it, but then she just turned, hunted around on the rocky ground for a moment and stooped to retrieve her Spencer.

As the two of them moved slowly towards the horses then, both battered, but alive and grateful to be so, Willie, watching Johnny’s careful movements, seeing his bloody forehead, asked softly, uncharacteristically,  “you okay, cowboy?”

”M’fine,” he answered her just as softly.  “Wow, Willie, you worried about me?”  At Willie’s words, he had looked over at her, and, for a moment, he thought he saw a softening of her look, around the mouth, through the eyes, but it closed back hard and tight right away, leaving him to wonder if he might have imagined it.

“Not worried about you, do need you though---worried about what we’re gonna do, how we’re gonna help Clairie and the other girls.  It’s just that with your hair stickin’ up in 16 different directions like that and that one pathetic sock a flappin’, I’m thinkin’ you’re not likely to convince anyone to give up anything.”

Johnny looked down at himself, and then over at Willie.  It was true; the two of them looked like a bad night in a cheap bed, not really much like The Madrid Gang at all, or maybe that’s exactly what they looked like, a pathetic, failure of an outlaw gang, but he had his gun back, and as soon as he had his brother back too, he knew that, prayed that, everything would work out, that everything really would be just fine.

 

Part 10

Scott sat as quietly as possible, planted firmly on the still damp stone of the canyon ledge, his feet dangling over the sheer, red-walled cliff.  Down below, far, far down below his lofty vantage point, the creek looked to be about as wide as his finger, by his “scientific measurement.”  Distance made the birds that still swooped and floated on the late afternoon air currents throughout the canyon seem to range from speck-sized to fly-sized, all except for the supremely mad mama hawk which buzzed his head periodically, screeching as though she meant to beat back all of the demons of hell.  She was most definitely not speck-sized, but instead, angry, mama bird-sized, and Scott speculated that she was just about as mad as the good Reverend Johanson during a particularly fiery sermon—and just as loud.

With her first terrifying swoop at their position, Moose had ducked right along with Scott and then had said that there must be a nest in the rocks just under their position, her protective instincts fueling her anger.  And it turned out that this hawk was one determined protective mama, flying her figure-eight flight patterns through the still oppressively damp and heavy air, coming in far too close to Scott’s head at the top of each eight, in an heroic, though misguided, attempt to save her fledgling, or possibly fledglings, which Scott and Moose had no intention of harming; the damn bird was on a mission to save baby birds the two men couldn’t actually even see.  But, in spite of her ire, Scott wasn’t truly afraid of her, was instead content to stay very firmly put—with his knuckles bleaching out white from the grip he had taken on the sparse grass waving lazily around him.  In his mind, getting back away from the edge of the cliff had actually become more trouble than it was worth.  He felt like he just might stay right on this ledge for the rest of his natural life and had begun to consider how he might convince Moose to stay up here with him and supply him with periodic food and water, or maybe Johnny would, once he showed up.

When they had first ridden up to this place, this particular spot that he now believed might well be one of Dante’s descending circles of hell, Scott had been suddenly gripped by what must be the phenomenon called vertigo.  He had never experienced this strange feeling before, but he had heard of men who reacted strongly in similar situations, some who, when approaching a cliff, even had a strong, and completely irrational, urge to just keep right on going and fling themselves into space.  Personally, he had never been afraid of heights like some he had met, not really, enjoying the tall buildings of the city, and riding in the mountains around Lancer—he had even once gone up in a hot air balloon during the war, a bit frightening at first, but on the whole, an exhilarating experience—so this odd, wavery, dizzying feeling was a new thing for him, and really, it wasn’t fear of falling which made his stomach lurch, but the fear that he might just convince himself to step off into infinite space, or that he might not be able to tell the difference between infinite space and solid ground.

At first sight of the yawning gap next to which they had found themselves, his eyes had slammed closed without conscious thought, and he’d had to pull Charlie back sharply.  Then, more safely situated in the middle of the clearing atop Widow’s Rock, he had dismounted on hard to conceal, wobbly legs.  Finally, after several deep breaths, and a stern internal dressing down, he had crawled to the edge of the precipice on his hands and knees, clutching at the ground to keep himself anchored, determined that a cliff-edge would not get the best of him.  For a while, he lay flat on his stomach with his head at the very edge of the cliff, sweat beading his forehead.  Then, as being there became more comfortable, relatively speaking, he had managed to, first, open his eyes and look around, and, then, to sit up and scoot towards the drop off; finally, he sat with his legs dangling off of the soaring ledge, never once losing his grip on the sparse but tough weeds growing around him.

After scouting out their location a bit—for intruders, for wood—Moose had dismounted and walked up slowly to join Scott.  It was obvious that the big man wasn’t completely comfortable with the situation either, wasn’t smiling, wasn’t readying a bit of teasing for Scott, but, to the young man’s chagrin, the big German hadn’t had to crawl on his belly like a snake to reach the edge.  With a quick glance down, he checked on Scott’s state of mind, “You are all right, Scott, Ja?”

“Getting better now I guess.  At least I can keep my eyes open.  Whoa---”  he instinctively hunched his shoulders and ducked his head as the hawk screeched loudly and buzzed by them again, this time skimming as closely as possible without touching.  Scott looked up just in time to see Moose stumbling backwards with a surprised shout and windmilling his arms in the vague direction of the distinctly angry bird, moving back quite quickly for a big man, actually.  Then that quick, big man gracelessly tripped over a stray rock in his backward travels and sat hard, his momentum carrying him eventually down completely to the inelegant position of flat on his back.  “Are you hurt, Moose?” Scott called out to the prone figure after a moment of Herculean effort to control an almost irresistible urge to laugh at the absurdness of Moose’s cliff dance.  He watched while his new friend lay there gasping with his eyes closed.

After a moment to get his lost breath back, Moose answered with a groan, “Ja, Scott, embarrassed, but intact.”   Then, slowly, after polishing his glasses for a while, on his hands and knees this time, Moose joined Scott at the edge of the cliff, keeping a vigilant watch for the hawk’s return.  He maneuvered himself next to the blonde, and the two men sat in companionable, if tense, silence for a while, staring at the red rocks, watching for angry birds and sweating profusely.

Although part of their perspiration was undoubtedly due to nerves, Scott also couldn’t help but wish for a cool breeze, a stray cloud to shade the low-hanging sun, and then, with some shame, he remembered that he had only this morning been wishing with everything he could muster for the very sunshine he was cursing now.

They spent nearly an hour on the edge of the world, and though Moose still flinched occasionally, they had mostly learned to ignore the shrieking bird.  In that hour there was no glimpse of the other half of their rescue party. Soon, the two men watched the sun slip quietly below the hills across the canyon from them, a study in red and gold, soft violet, and as the sun set, Scott found himself nearly awestruck by the beauty of it all, in spite of his still churning stomach.  He also found himself wishing that his brother was there to share the sight with him and wondering if Johnny and Willie were near or, and with Johnny it seemed likely, if trouble had found them.

 

                                   ***************************

On their isolated rock bar, Johnny and Willie had only walked a short distance towards the grazing horses before they had both felt the distinct need for a rest and had sunk down to sit on the soggy ground once again.  At the rate they were traveling, Johnny figured they might make it to Widow’s Rock by Christmas, so he finally pushed himself slowly to his feet again, leaving Willie behind and started forward hesitantly.  He looked down with a frown at the puzzle of his bootless foot once again and could see that his limp was becoming more, rather than less, pronounced with the passage of time, could feel the deep ache of it too, so he moved up to Barranca slowly for two very different reasons—to keep the excitable horse calm and to keep his leg from chattering at him like an old scold of a schoolmarm.  

The horses were still dripping wet, as were their human companions, and Johnny could smell that familiar wet horse and leather smell that had been following him for weeks now right along with the deluge of rain.  With a litany of calming sounds and words, he began running his knowledgeable fingers down the thin legs of Barranca and sighed with each solid, healthy limb he encountered.  With the same care, he worked his way carefully down each leg of the rented mare as well, but he knew what he would find there—he had noticed immediately that the horse would not put full weight on her back left leg, and there Johnny found a long, angry area which was swollen and hot.  This one would have to remain unridden for several weeks or risk permanent injury.  

He could feel the boy---the girl---“Aww hell,” ---Willie---closely watching his every move, could see her studying him with hooded eyes, as though she thought he might spin around suddenly and put her down, instantly dead, on the wet rocks with one expertly laid shot.  Or perhaps she believed that he might pull out a carefully concealed knife, somehow overlooked by the fat sheriff, and gut the horses as an act of some sort of cruel criminal insanity.  Who knew what foul acts she might think Johnny Madrid was capable of?  Obviously nothing she thought of him could be toted down in the “good” column.

“Not gonna shoot ya, Willie,” he called back to her softly,  “no matter what you might think of me.”  Then, he turned to her fully, “your mare’s in a pretty bad way.  You’re gonna have to ride double with me.  So don’t you  think it’s time for me and you to start havin’ some trust?  I’m thinkin’ you’ve run outta options.”

“Nope.”

“What d’ya mean ‘nope’?”

“Don’t trust ya, gunslinger.  Can’t.  Too dangerous.  Just need ya, that’s all, like I said before.  Just need ya and need your gun to get my sister home.  I‘ll walk to Widow’s Rock.”

“Well, I’ve got my gun now, Willie.  And, clearly, I’ve got more horse than you do now too.   Also, know your secret.  Don’t see as ya got much choice but ta trust me.  C’mon, ya can’t walk.”

“I can walk.  I’m fine, just fine.”  And, in an apparent attempt to prove it, Willie struggled to her feet, still clutching her shirt  and coat around herself with one shivering hand, as though that might hold in the now obvious fact that she was female.  He watched her as she planted the barrel of the Spencer next to her leg on the rocky beach and used it for support.  She stumbled, of course, but lifted her head immediately, defiantly, to glare at Johnny, obviously trying hard to ignore the blood running into her left eye.  When she noticed him reaching out to her, she nearly snarled at him, “Don’t touch me gunslinger,” and he wondered what had happened to the bit of trust he had established before.

He turned his back on her, turned back to Barranca.  “Will ya just cut that out?  I haven’t hired out my gun for. . .hell, it’s been even longer since . . .Look, I’m just a boring rancher.  My brother is a boring rancher.  My old man is the most boring rancher of all.  We run around doing boring things—we fix fences and brand cattle and clear out creeks.  We sit around playing checkers for God’s sake.”

As he turned again to look at her, he saw Willie’s eyes shift to the pebble strewn dirt at her feet, her mouth pulling into a serious frown.  Clearly Johnny’s “boring” speech had given her something to think about.  “Does that mean you can’t help me—that you can’t get my sister back for me?  Cause, actually, I really think I do need a fast, smart gunslinger, not a slow-witted, amazingly irritating, boring rancher.”

“I told you that I would help you, and I will.  Now get over here and get on this horse right now.”  With his patience wearing to a ragged thread, Johnny shifted his attention back and forth between attending to and gentling the weary horses and peering at Willie.  He looked back at the bedraggled girl just in time to see her slump with exhaustion, or possibly from the effects of blood loss.  They were certainly a pair. “Willie---“  He stepped towards her as she slowly sank to her knees.

Between the two of them, they managed to stay upright, although just barely, and after some interesting and decidedly sloppy maneuvering, they were finally both on Barranca, after a fashion, Willie holding on from behind, clutching Johnny with one shivering hand and Cleo’s lead with the other.  That’s what Willie claimed anyway, that the horse was named Cleo, and Cleo followed  along behind slowly, haltingly.  As he urged Barranca forward, Johnny could only hope that Widow’s Rock was close.

But, it was long past the arranged meeting time before the exhausted girl finally found the true path leading through the tangle of vines and upward to the meeting place on Widow’s Rock.  The two floodworn riders had made several false starts, and Johnny was beginning to think that it was just a condition of this whole sorry trip.  Several times, animal trails and long dead Indian paths seemed to look the part at first, but were false prophets, with vines and thorn bushes pulling at the weary travelers’ hair, whipping across their hands and faces and tangling in their clothes with the soft sounds of ripping, tearing and mumbled curses becoming their traveling music.  After a while, the worst part of treading the false trails for Johnny wasn’t his exhaustion or even his pounding head and leg, but the fact that he only had a rag of a ruined shirt to protect him from the plants’ stinging self defense.

Both riders and both horses were so exhausted that not one of them could keep his or her head up for any length of time.  Cleo was very obviously failing fast, and Barranca was starting to slip more and more often on the wet vines and leaves which littered the trails.  Johnny was something of an old hand at covering his passing, but there was no way he could do it with Willie a dead weight at his back, and to his chagrin, once they started up any path, the smell of freshly crushed plants sent out a green, wild scent which did little to disguise the fact that the trail had been traveled very recently.  Anyone with half a brain and a little desire could certainly find them faster than one of Lena’s girls could get out of her fancy dress.  And then, to add to their miserable ride, one trail was so criss-crossed with cobwebs that the nearly invisible heal-alls tangled in the riders’ hair and laid across their faces, across their eyes and sputtering lips.

Johnny was beginning to believe that Widow’s Rock was a figment of Willie’s imagination.  He truly felt like they had been moving up and down these trails in fits and starts for days.  Finally, even though he had hoped he wouldn’t have to, Johnny had to wake Willie again.  He’d backtracked the last dead-end and was now back to where they had started nearly an hour before.  “Willie?  Do you know the way or not?  Are we there yet?”  Johnny leaned forward a bit and turned in the saddle to try to get a glimpse of her face.  He felt if he could get a look into her eyes, he might know if he was being led on another snipe hunt or not.  He was reaching the end of a rope that hadn’t been very long to start with.  “Willie?”  This time the tone and volume of his voice made Willie jump a little and lift her head from where it had rested on his back.

“Uh---where are we?”  Willie punctuated her question with an enormous yawn.

“An excellent question, Willie.  My question, actually.  Where are we?”  Johnny’s head ached and his leg throbbed.  He wanted nothing more than to lie down on the hard, red, vine-tangled ground and sleep.

“Oh, um,”  Willie scanned the base of the cliff one more time, “here, take this path, yes here.  I’m sure of it this time.”

“You’re sure, Willie?  ‘Cause, to tell the truth, I’m not even sure your eyes are open.”

But, they moved forward and upward more easily this time, in fact, Johnny could tell that the trail had been used very recently.  After a surprisingly short time, they rounded a final curve and emerged from the grasping foliage just as full-on dark—with only the tiniest sliver of a grinning moon providing light—finally spread across the country of the red walls and hills.

 

Part 11

Once it was fully night and the stars began to appear, scattering themselves lazily across the pitch-dark sky, Scott and Moose had scooted back away from the edge of the precipice together, holding on to one another’s forearms, without a word being exchanged concerning the doing of it.  Although he had thought he was destined to sit permanently on the red ledge, Scott found that it was scary enough to be there when a man could see without dangling one’s legs over the jaws of hell in the dark.  Moving became an attractive option.

The two men were quietly discussing their worry over the lateness of Willie and Johnny and debating the wisdom of building a small fire when they heard the sounds of horses approaching slowly on the well-hidden path.  Scott thought that he could hear that something wasn’t quite right with one of those approaching horses; its steps seemed to stutter and falter.  He believed that there were probably at least two horses, both traveling with either extreme care or extreme fatigue, but couldn’t decide if there might be more riders farther behind.  He looked over quickly at Moose, and both men fell still and crouched low to the ground, creating the smallest targets possible, with guns at the ready, hoping their visitors were Johnny and Willie, but preparing for the possibility of strangers.

Scott knew from several quiet, much-cherished conversations over brandy in the great room, and from a few more boisterous, bawdy, story-filled ones over beer and tequila in Green River, that years of watching his own back had helped Johnny to develop and hone instincts that had contributed to keeping him alive in a dangerous world.  Scott would easily admit that Johnny often amazed him with his ability to know when someone was approaching, long before it seemed that the person could be seen or heard.  A life which sometimes crossed a rail thin line between lawful and unlawful had also helped his brother to develop a keen sense of caution.  Scott had rarely seen his brother take anything for granted or be taken by surprise.

So, when the two men saw Barranca heave himself up the last bit of path onto the table-flat top of Widow’s Rock—carrying two riders, Johnny and, presumably, Willie—and his brother didn’t have his gun drawn, apparently wasn’t much interested in what he might be riding into, Scott had no way of knowing what had gone before with Johnny and Willie; he only knew that at this moment something wasn’t completely right.  This slumped unaware figure in front of them was not Johnny in normal circumstances.  Normally, the soft sounds of boots scuffling quietly on gravel, of a gun whispering across the leather of a holster, and especially the clicking sound of Moose cocking the shotgun, would have had Johnny hitting the dirt in an instant, gun drawn, target sighted.

Moose stood frozen next to him, doing that statue thing again that he did so well, and Scott was being cautious too, completely aware that anything might have happened; his most prominent thought was that some of the kidnappers may be coercing these two riders to lead them here, but the possibility of injury to his brother or to the boy were also ideas to be considered.  After several seconds of absolute and complete nothing, Scott shifted his stance slightly and leaned to his right to get a better look behind the two horses which stood stock still in front of him; the only thing moving seemed to be Barranca’s tail.  Then, as soon as he was reasonably sure that the two riders were alone, Scott softly called out to his brother, more than curious, working toward pretty darn scared, about why Johnny and Willie both rode the palomino, about why his cautious brother was being so incautious.

 

Johnny, for his part, was flat-out exhausted, clear down to his center, and on this night, with Willie a dead weight at his back, breathing softly on his neck, ruffling his hair, and with the feeling of floodwater still in his bones, soaking his brain, those famous, well-honed survival instincts had obviously abandoned him.  Somewhere, deep down, he knew that he should be more cautious, but he just couldn’t seem to find the energy to care.  His sense of self-preservation had taken a bit of a beating, and the number of aborted attempts to reach the top of the Rock had made it seem to him that they just weren’t ever going to find the correct path anyway, made him believe that this little trip to buy a bull for Murdoch had obviously become his own personal torture in hell, that breaking out of the grasping foliage this time was just another illusion.

And to tell the truth of it, at the moment when Barranca came to a stop in front of his brother, Johnny wasn’t really there at Widow’s Rock; he was actually back in the canyon again, going over their trip down the roaring creek in his mind, trying to decide if the flood-flung tree branch which had crashed spectacularly into his leg had been the weapon of his destruction, or if maybe it was his encounter with the sudden red wall where the river turned which had been his downfall.

He was also remembering their circuitous route to Widow’s Rock.  How, as the two of them had slowly made their way off of the canyon floor and wound their way towards where Willie thought the Rock might be, Johnny had sent up a quick prayer that they would find the meeting place, and even more, that he would be able to stay in the saddle until they did.  Willie had drifted off to sleep almost immediately—with Johnny waking her occasionally for directions—still clutching at Johnny around the waist, still holding onto Cleo’s lead, but loose-limbed and soft, draped behind him.  Her long wet hair hung down between them as she turned her head to rest on his back, soaking Johnny, his shirt, the waistband of his pants, making him even more wet than he already was, but her body heat warmed him some, and that made him drowsy too, so for the most part, he simply pointed Barranca in the general direction she had indicated and let the horse trudge his way along.

Having actually found Widow’s Rock at sunset, confirming it with a soft “yes” from Willie, came as more than just a simple surprise to the exhausted man; it had nearly seemed miraculous. But popping out on the top of the Rock just didn’t seem real, and after so many false trails, breaking free of the clutching vines was completely unexpected.  When he heard Scott calling his name, his eyes opened—he was having trouble deciding just exactly when they had closed—and he nearly slipped from the saddle with surprise.  Willie, sound asleep behind him, but holding on tightly, would have undoubtedly gone right along with him.

 

No, Scott could see that Johnny wasn’t quite himself.   In fact, instead of being himself, his brother’s eyes started to roll up in his head, and, as Scott and Moose stood watching, as they started forward, he did slide from the horse,  He tumbled slowly off of the near side of the horse, towards his brother, and as he slid, he made a pretty good attempt to appear as though his inelegant descent was planned to work out just as it did, with Johnny down on one knee, somehow grasping the boy, Willie, like one might cradle a small child.

The four of them all stayed completely still for several heartbeats, with only the quiet sounds of the night intruding into their silence. Night insects clicked, stiff grasses whispered at them, and the few trees dotting the cliff-top rattled their limbs and leaves in the cold breeze which had begun and grown after darkness had fallen.

“Johnny,” the odd spell was broken with that one word, and Scott was again able to think, to move.  “Johnny, are you all right?  Is Willie?  Is he okay?”  Scott moved closer to the huddled pair as he spoke.

“I think we’re okay, Scott.”  Johnny said softly, “just tired beyond the knowing.”

Then, Moose was there in two quick steps, reaching for Willie.  “Willie?”  His hand hovered near the cut above Willie’s eyebrow.

“No, it’s okay.  Willie’s okay.”  Johnny held onto the girl tightly as Moose hovered over them.  He was speaking slowly, articulating each word, hoping that the big German would somehow understand him.

“Johnny, let Moose take Willie.  It’s all right; he’ll take care of him.”  Scott knelt next to the two of them, helping Moose to get a grip on Willie and lift the exhausted child from Johnny’s arms.  “C’mon Brother.  Let me get a look at you.  What the hell did you get yourself into this time?”  As soon as Moose had Willie in his arms, Scott’s attention was focused completely on Johnny.  “You didn’t confront those kidnappers on your own did you, Johnny?”  As he spoke, Scott ran a hand down the side of his brother’s face, a stray beam of moonlight helping him to note that several small cuts and scrapes had been added to the bruising that was already there in the jail that morning.

“No, no kidnappers, water, lotsa water.”  Johnny shrugged Scott’s hand off and ran a hand through his still-damp hair.  “M’okay, Scott, just really wrung out.  We need to check Willie; there’s a pretty bad cut that needs bandaging.”  Johnny made an attempt to stand and walk over to where Moose had laid the sleeping girl and was building a fire, but he failed miserably, and Scott grabbed for his arm to help him.  “Damn, Scott,” he muttered softly.  “I’m about done in.”  They stumbled their way towards the bulky shapes in the distance, counting on narrow moonlight to guide their steps.  A sudden squawking from the edge of the cliff caused Johnny to jerk sharply, and only Scott’s quick response kept the two of them from falling in a heap.

When they reached the stone circle and pyramid of miraculously dry wood which Moose had put together, they found that Willie was awake, after a fashion, and pushing Moose’s hand away, as though irritated by the man’s attention.  As Scott got Johnny settled, he could hear the boy mutter, “leave off, Moose.” He gave his brother’s arm a pat and moved to light the fire.  He was still concerned about the kidnappers seeing it, but they needed light to assess Willie’s and Johnny’s injuries, and the night was cooling rapidly.  Scott could see that the other half of their quartet was wetter than it ought to be and needed to do some drying out and warming up before the night got any colder than it already was.  

Johnny turned to look at Moose and Willie, and his eyes widened as he listened to Moose who, very succinctly, and in only slightly accented English, suggested to Scott that anyone looking from below would not be able to see the fire anyway.  He suggested, again very clearly, that they needed to keep it as smokeless as possible, and went on to say that they would be fine if the fire wasn’t allowed to get too big or too smoky.

Scott looked up to see his brother trying to stand once again, doing a poor job of it.  “What Johnny?  What do you want?  I’ll get it.”

“I have to see to the horses.”

“Sit.”  Scott was giving Johnny “the big brother look.”  It was instinctive; he couldn’t really help himself.  He knew, of course, that Johnny couldn’t possibly see “the look” clearly in the darkness which had draped itself around Widow’s Rock.  He hoped that he could hear it in his voice though.  “Knock it off, Johnny.  I’ll take care of them in a minute.”  Scott looked over at Willie and Moose as the fire took hold and blazed up a bit, and this time it was his eyes that widened as he took in the long hair hanging down Willie’s back.  There was long wavy hair hanging loosely down the boy’s back, falling across the boy’s shoulder, long blonde hair was framing Willie’s finely boned face, setting off Willie’s long-lashed, wide green eyes, and Scott wondered for a split second what the boy was doing with such long, pretty hair, hair like a girl.  And then, the obvious truth of it hit him, and his mouth dropped open with an almost audible pop.

 

Part 12

Everett Winthrop clearly was not a happy man, and he didn’t care who knew it, not really, not too much anyway.  “Fat Herbie” Simms had been forced to shake him with some force to bring him to wakefulness at 3:00 this morning, and now it was nearing dawn, close to the end of his three-hour watch.  He had wandered slowly up and down this long stretch of beach restlessly, scratching at himself and picking his nose, for such a long time now, and the whole time he was so temptingly close to, within 10 feet of, two soiled doves, a dance hall girl, and that oh-so-sweet little red-headed piece of innocence, all of whom were asleep on the beach by the fire.  Someone had bound their hands firmly, deliciously, in front of them with lengths of strong rope when the group had finally stopped riding yesterday afternoon and set up camp here within only a few yards of the ocean’s high tide mark.  Normally the tied hands would not have made him even a little bit unhappy.  He smiled as his thoughts wandered.  Yes, he had been known to let that type of thing get him a might bit excited.  A little bit of sweet bondage wouldn’t stop him from what he had in mind, might even act as encouragement, but The Boss wouldn’t even let the boys touch a one of them; even the damned whores were strictly off limits. Well, actually, Fat Herbie had touched one of them, one of the fancy whores, after their meager supper last night, a quick backhand to the face when she wouldn’t stop flaunting her goods, asking questions, trying to tempt them all into saying something about why they had been “encouraged to join this little party.”

To add to Everett’s frustration of being able to look at all of the ripe bits of fruit those sweet girls were dangling so blatantly in his face, and him not having even a possibility of plucking any of it, he was more than a little disgusted that, in spite of the miserable, soggy chill of the last few weeks, there was nary of drop of whisky in the whole damn camp, Boss’s orders.  He had known about this pesky rule of course, coming into the job, but he really hadn’t thought it through quite thoroughly enough, that was for sure.  What kind of thieving was this anyway then?  No women, no whiskey, no fun.  What the hell was there to living this kind of outlaw life if a man couldn’t drink and whore?  Of course, there was always the promise of gunplay, a thought which added just a bit more tightness to his pants.  Maybe whoever had been following them in the canyon yesterday would catch up to them, and he would at least get to shoot somebody.  A pleasurable thought, but not nearly a strong enough one to chase away the lustful or thirsty ones which had taken a powerful hold on him since yesterday’s raid.  All Everett knew for sure though was that this night was turning out to be one of the longest of his life.

And, as the night moved ever so very slowly by, on top of everything else, Everett was starting to get just downright cold.  He scuffed the toe of his well-worn boot  in an aimless pattern across the sand once again.  The shivering guard had created a series of scuffed squiggly marks all along this part of the beach.  He looked up from this most recent mark and over at the merchandise.  Everett just couldn’t stop himself.  A little creamy, soft flesh, rounded in all of the wonderfully right places, would definitely help to chase away the cold, help to warm him inside and out.  He could practically feel the heat pulsing through him.  Nearly as good as a bottle of expensive whiskey, he thought, and a small smile replaced the frown he had worn for hours now.

Still, no matter how he turned it around in his brain, Everett just couldn’t understand why those girls were off limits, especially the whores; it was their job, wasn’t it?  And who needed privacy?  Hell, he really didn’t care if the other boys wanted to watch the festivities.  Everett Winthrop had never needed privacy for a little rutting around, or there was always that tree line they had crossed through to get to the beach, if the others were a mite squeamish.  No one would see.  No one would hear—much.

But he knew his thoughts were just thoughts, just torture for him really.  He gave his head a shake to try to clear the whispers of lust clouding his thoughts.  He was just so damned miserable, cold and hankering for some flesh, and he couldn’t conceive an end to his misery.  The rise and fall of the little red-head’s sweet chest as she slept practically had him gasping.  The forbidden pleasure was lying there so close that he could damn near smell the honeyed scent of it.

With a heavy sigh, Everett reached down and squeezed his thigh until it nearly brought him to tears.  He was sorely tempted to just go ahead and move his hand a bit and pleasure himself without the help of the girls, beyond the looking at them of course, the thinking of them; a little hand action wouldn’t hurt anybody, would it?  Nope, it surely wouldn’t hurt a soul.  His right hand curled into a soft fist at the thought of it; he pounded once on his leg; his breath quickened.  If only Fat Herbie hadn’t assigned these watch shifts in pairs, that is exactly what he would be doing right this very minute.

Everett wavered between just getting to it and taking care of his growing problem and forcing himself not to give in to sweet temptation. Unconsciously, his hand strayed towards the waistband of his pants, but with a quick jerk, he grabbed at his thigh again instead.  With his eyes slamming closed in concentration, he finally decided that this job paid far too generously for him to mess it up for a quick roll in the sand, or even for a quick hand down the pants  At least for now.  He had to admit that these raids were the best paying bit of larceny he had ever had the pleasure to commit.  With another long-suffering sigh, the weary, put upon man looked down the length of the dark beach to see Flip still awake and vigilant as always, pacing and hitching.  If he had been keeping watch with anyone else, anyone else at all, he would have taken care of the problem of his too-tight pants and no one would be the wiser, but that damn kid thought the sun rose and set on The Boss.

If he tried touching any of those girls--‘No touching the merchandise’ The Boss had said--Everett just knew that Flip would practically be drooling to rat on him.  “There will be no touching of the merchandise, blah, blah, blah,” he muttered, and then looked up quickly to make sure that the kid hadn’t heard him.  There was no way Flip would let him get away with touching any of those girls, or even with a bit of touching of himself; a man ought to have the right to that at least, without some wet behind the ears, twenty year old virgin making an issue of it, informing the entire loud-mouthed, smirking bunch of them no doubt, just like that last time, running to the big man, creating trouble, flapping his jaw.  Everett mumbled again, “scrawny-assed whining. . ..”  Once again, he looked at and then away from the huddle of girls by the low-burning fire and then spit a stream of tobacco very deliberately in Flip’s general direction.

If only that boy would drift off and take a little nap, Everett might do some “searching of the prisoners for weapons,” or possibly some warming of his palm, but he knew that he had no hope that the creepy little piece of crap standing there so watchful and alert down the beach would fall asleep on his shift; the boy was carrying around a powerful load of hero worship for The Boss, which Everett, quite frankly, could not understand.  And on top of that whole “the sun rises and sets” attitude, that damnable Flip had more energy than a squirrel drinking camp coffee; in fact, Everett was beginning to wonder if the kid ever slept, ever stopped his damned twitching.

This is the last job I do with that boy, he thought.  Third time’s the charm.   I can’t take his whining any more, his rule-book thumping. “The Boss this and The Boss that,” he whispered with a slight whine in his voice.  And all that energy—dear God.  Everett was beginning to think that Flip was the one who needed to test out the merchandise.  He just knew that a little tussle in the sand would do that boy a world of good, calm his ass right down, maybe stop that annoying twitch under his left eye.  I don’t care if he is Ramona’s boy, and Everett frowned as he thought of his oldest sister and her unquenchable thirst for money and goods.  Blood can only count for so much.  That annoying son of a bitch can just sign up to be The Boss’s nephew from now on because Everett Winthrop was calling it quits.  He was going to take the money after this job and hightail it far, far away from Flip and The Boss and the untouchable whores.  In fact, he felt much better, much calmer, now that he had decided on a plan.  Yes, he had a surefire plan.  He was gonna get the money from this job, find himself a supply of whiskey and a whole big batch of touchable whores and never look back—without Flip and his rules.  Now that was a plan. 

***********************************

And there on that dark beach, from her comfortless bed by the dying fire, Clairie watched the man prowl his aimless guard and turned from her back to her side as slowly and as carefully as possible.  She had been quietly awake for nearly an hour now, covertly watching the big, ugly man with the brown teeth, making sure he didn’t come too close to where she was lying, ready to jump up and move if he did.  At least she guessed it had been near to an hour, although it seemed more like half a day to her, half her life maybe.  She just knew for sure though that a sudden move would have him staring at her again, maybe moving closer, so she had been concentrating all of her energy on staying as still as she could.

She huddled next to Sophie with her bound hands up near her chin, one hand clasping the crucifix she had worn since her ma died nearly four years past now.  With her eyes hooded, just open enough to keep an eye on the man, she heard their guard mumble something, something like ‘the boss,’ something about ‘merchandise,’ and she wondered just who this boss was they all kept talking about.  The skinny, jumpy one in the plaid jacket kept saying, ‘The boss won’t like it if you….., or if the boss finds out I wouldn’t wanna be you,’ things like that.

Yesterday she had seen that one—that one out there on the beach—staring at her, staring at her and spitting out tobacco juice.  When they had first left town, in the confusion and the rain, she had been nearly paralyzed with fear, but even then she had seen him, noticed him.  He had been riding right beside the one who had grabbed her from the street and held her in front of him on the saddle.  And throughout the whole long day, that one, the staring one, the one with the brown teeth, he had been eyeing her like she was a big old glass jar of salt water taffy.

Then, when they finally stopped riding, ever since then, dear sweet Sophie from the Hog’s Breath, and Lena’s girls too, had been doing their best to stay between Clairie and Brown Teeth. The whole bunch of them, the loud, frightening men, had set up camp here on the beach.  At first they had tied them, tied their wrists together achingly tight with strong, scratchy rope, and Clairie was so very thankful that Sophie was staying right beside her the whole time, holding her hand, looking after her as best she could.  But she was also so very scared.

Willie had talked to her once,  in the hayloft when they were hiding away from Pa, not more than a year ago now, about what men wanted from girls, especially young, innocent girls like Clairie, Willie had said. Willie had tried hard to be a Ma to Clairie, but honestly, Clairie thought she didn’t seem real clear on the details either.  And because of that talk, and because she only about half understood what Willie had been trying to say, had been saying none too clearly, Clairie now knew just enough to be scared beyond reason.

And really, one of the worst parts of this whole sorry, scary situation was that no one would tell them what was going on.  Katarina had tried to get the men to tell.  Once the men sat around their campfire on the beach, she had started talking to them, talking in a low, breathy voice, batting her eyes, though her eye-black had streaked and run down her face in the rain.  She had gotten up, and they had let her, watching her with eyes that darn near burned her clothes right off of her from what Clairie could see.  “What’s the plan boys?” she had said in her growly, German-accented voice.  And Katrina, in spite of having her hands tied tight had walked around like she owned the place, flipping her red skirts around, showing off her legs and her chest, rubbing herself up against the men, one after the other, which had Clairie blushing some, but even though everyone was watching, and no one was jumping to stop Katarina, no one was talking, either.  The most they could find out was when the one called Flip had told her to “shut your whoring mouth.  The Boss will tell you all you need to know tomorrow,” just as the fat one had snarled at her. “Cusca,” he had said—or something like that, Clairie wasn’t sure—just as he had reached out and hit Katarina, had made her fall back in the sand, had made her mouth bleed.  She was quiet after that.  They were all quiet as the night around them after that.

*********************************************

In that quiet space of time, just on the edge of morning, with a whispered groan, Scott rolled slowly from his side to his back and blinked up at the pink-gray, awakening sky.  The blanket from his bedroll did nothing to add any comfort to the hard ground beneath him, but in spite of sleeping last night on a stone bed, he felt worlds better than he had yesterday morning waking up hung-over and newly-bruised in the amazingly clean jailhouse in Kleinstadt.  He remembered that he had awoken once already this night, in the pitch black, a stone the size of a hen’s egg pushing at the small of his back, and it had taken him several long minutes as he lay there to puzzle out where he was and why he was here.  After moving away from the egg and getting comfortable again, relatively speaking, he had drifted off once again to the soft sounds of sleep around him.  But he awoke this time clear-headed.  He had been thinking about the important task ahead of them this day and hoping that his brother was up to it.  

He turned his head slowly and looked over at Johnny who lay deeply asleep beside him, his hair sticking up at odd angles.  Scott could see that his brother had mostly dried out overnight.  He had changed into a different shirt from his saddlebag before stretching out by the fire and had used the damp tatters of the other one to scrub at his face and hair before tossing it into the fire as a lost cause. They had talked, the four of them, described their separate, round about trails to Widow’s Rock, sorted out their various deceptions.

As the evening had worn on, while Scott had stolen covert glances at a female Willie, Johnny had been fish-mouthed every time Moose opened up and spun articulate, non-German conversation at them.  For their part, Willie and Moose had finally truly begun to believe that the Lancer boys were nothing more than ranchers—ranchers with an interesting history and not nearly as boring as Johnny claimed, but ranchers none the less—laying to rest the Johnny Madrid and the Boston the Kid Gang myth.

Here and now, in the early morning light, Scott got his first clear glimpse of his brother’s battered face and could see that the ride down the flood driven creek had definitely taken its toll on him.  He wondered if Johnny had lost his coat and boot to the greedy rush of water he and Willie had described last night, if his brother was hiding deeper hurts than Scott could see.  Johnny had talked about the flood as though it had been some sort of “wild ride,” like breaking a bronc, or riding Barranca at a scorching pace, but Scott suspected that it had been more intense than either his brother or Willie was willing to admit.  The cuts and scrapes on Johnny’s face were superficial, the long cut Scott had doctored in the dark last night and the bruising across his stomach only marginally worse, but he couldn’t help but notice that his closed-mouth, stubborn brother limped badly as he wandered off to relieve himself late last night.

“Scott?”

“Johnny, I thought you were still asleep.  You should be still asleep.”  Both men kept their voices pitched low so as not to wake their companions on the far side of the small fire.

“Can’t sleep, Scott.  You know we gotta figure out how to get those girls back, and we gotta do it now and hope we’re not already too late.”

“I know Johnny.  Believe me, I know.”

 
Part 13

Scott turned slightly when he heard a soft sound behind him.  He looked over his shoulder to find that the sound was Willie shifting slightly in her sleep, her hand coming to rest even more firmly on the Spencer.  He had noticed that she had placed the wicked looking rifle right beside her as she settled down to sleep last evening, and then all night long, she had apparently kept it close by.  It had been lying there along her leg, seemingly mute.  However, in reality, the somewhat battered gun was far from silent.  It told a story as eloquently as any book in the Lancer library, if one would only take the time and interest to read it.  Scott didn’t know Willie well enough to know exactly what history had written that story, but it was there none the less.  It was there in the glow of the often-handled, well worn stock; it was there in the obvious care the gun had been given.  But most of all, it was there in the easy familiarity with which the girl handled the big gun.   

In the gradual lightening of the morning, he could also make out several long, angry scratches across the back of the hand that was using that gun as an anchor, and he could almost visualize the fight that Willie had had to wager to keep a grip on the Spencer during the mad rush of the flood.  It wasn’t difficult to see that she was quite obviously a stubborn young woman.  Her insistence that Johnny Madrid find her sister yesterday morning in the jail, her tenacity to keep possession of her own weapon and Johnny’s during the flood, and even staying on Barranca when she so obviously needed to be lying down somewhere proved that she had the grit.  Scott thought that she might possibly even be stubborn enough to out-stubborn Johnny and, he could admit it, himself.  But, then he really took a moment and thought about it, about some of the verbal brawls that had rung loudly through the rafters of Lancer, and he grinned briefly and shook his head, deciding that no one could be that stubborn without some of Murdoch’s blood flowing through him, or, in this case, her.

Moose was lying there next to the girl of course, closely, protectively, but Scott could tell that he was trying very hard to appear as though he wasn’t hovering.  The man was facing the brothers, and though Scott had assumed his new friend was asleep, he was indeed looking over at them with curiosity, his eyes, and the dark circles beneath them, just discernable in the weak light of morning, betraying his inability to sleep soundly in the night just ending.  He watched as Moose slicked a hand across his bald head and groped around in one of the many big pockets of his coat and pulled out his glasses.

Scott’s vision came full circle around the small, overgrown flattop on which they were camped and back to his brother as he attempted to order his thoughts before speaking.  More acutely aware of Willie’s presence now, he spoke even softer than before.  “You and I have been thinking along the same lines, Brother.  In fact, I’ve been thinking on the best way to accomplish this important task of ours since we rode out yesterday.”

Moose joined in on their quiet conversation.  “As have I,” he whispered.  He pushed himself up fully and moved quietly to join them.  They could all hear the early morning song of the robin as they silently considered the fate of the four women.  It called to them in the crisp air of the morning.  ‘Cheer up,’ it called.  Cheer, cheer, cheer up.’

Trying without complete success to suppress a breathy moan, Johnny sat up stiffly, glaring in the general direction of the cheerful bird.  He sat awkwardly, with one leg stretched out in front of him and the other bent at the knee, and pulled his blanket up with him, draping it across his shoulders and holding it together in front of himself with one hand.  He was still just flat worn out.  The night just past hadn’t changed that a bit, and the day hadn’t really even gotten a good running start yet.  He looked over at the big man, still sorting out this particular Moose from the one he had carried around in his head yesterday.

“We followed their tracks to a narrow canyon west of here,” Johnny began softly, reminding them of what he had told them as he had battled exhaustion and pain the night before. “They weren’t really doin’ much to hide their trail, not after that first little bait and switch outside of town, splitting the trail and sending those two decoy riders off for you to follow in a different direction, a much dryer direction, I might add.”  He grimaced at this smallest of jokes, but turned a sad smile to Scott and then to Moose to let them know he was just trying to lighten the mood some, that he was handing them a parcel of dawn before the dark they all knew must be coming on this day.  “And since Willie said she thought the flood carried us near the coast,” he continued, “from what she could tell anyway, well, them following that canyon, it makes me think that’s where they were headed too.”

As Johnny spoke, his throat still sore from swallowing nearly half a creek the day before, he couldn’t help but be reminded of his and Willie’s adventure in a watery hell, and more specifically, of their ride down the flooded creek.  What a day—first the hangover, then the driving rain and wind, the roaring river, and finally the seemingly endless search for Widow’s Rock.  The flood reared up and roared around him again as he remembered.  The thought of it all rattled him some, he could feel a shiver run down his spine as he sat hunched in his blanket, and he got a sudden feeling that they may have been closer to the raiders than he had thought.

He surely hoped that the stolen girls weren’t caught in that canyon as he and Willie had been.  It struck him that if they had, it could well be that there was no one left to rescue or to arrest.   The two of them really hadn’t seen any evidence of other flood victims though, except for a poor drowned fox and quite a few already stinking, beached fish, but the raiders and their bounty could have been carried farther away than where Johnny and Willie had walked and ridden, would have been most likely, and, really, they hadn’t been the most observant of travelers once the two of them had dragged themselves up onto Barranca and worked their way away from the canyon.

He had a quick flash of memory, a memory of lying on the gravel bar on his back, of opening his eyes to the far-too-blue of the freshly scrubbed sky, of seeing a bird swooping by where he lay sprawled out and aching, wondering idly on the disappearance of his boot.  It had been a snowy white seagull.  It had been a seagull checking him out on that little beach, laughing at him with its high-pitched screech.

Johnny looked up from his thoughts to find Scott studying his face with a serious, and a seriously curious, expression.  He wished he had a twenty dollar gold piece for every time he had caught his brother doing that to him, looking at him like that.  Usually, when he caught him, Johnny would bark at him some, mostly just for show though.  Hell, Scott expected it--- ‘just what do you think you’re lookin’ at Boston?’--- “What?  I got somethin’ on my face?’--- something like that, but there was no barking this morning.  This morning was too solemn, this situation was far too serious, for barking.  So, without prompting, he just shared what he had remembered, “We were definitely close to the ocean.  Saw me a gull there where we washed up.  My guess is those girls slept on the beach last night.”  If they survived, he added silently.

Scott agreed, “I believe we’re all thinking along the same lines, Johnny.  I’m afraid they may be meeting up with a ship.”  And then he pitched his voice even softer. “Could be slave traders.”  Scott had finally voiced aloud one of the fears they had all harbored.  As he spoke, he had moved to offer his brother the canteen, and Johnny snaked his hand out from beneath the blanket to take it. They hadn’t taken the time to stock packs for this rescue mission, what with a Spencer poked in their backs, the misery of the relentless, driving rain creating a swamp all around them, and the frantic hurry of their departure.  Even Moose, who’d had a small amount of time for thought and preparation, had only brought along meager supplies.  They would have to be content with hardtack and water for their breakfast, and lunch, and dinner as well.  As Scott put together their spartan meal, Moose was on the move too.  He had gathered up some few sticks of wood and had the fire back to a sputtering life in moments.  They didn’t have any coffee to heat up, unfortunately, but the morning wasn’t fully with them yet, the sky gray and from what it looked like, likely to remain that way, so the comfort and light of the fire was welcome.

“Slave traders?”  From across the fire, Willie’s voice came to them rough with sleep and even more so with fear.  “You think they might be sellin’ those girls as slaves.  My God.  Oh, my dear God, Clairie.”  The last was whispered.  Moose moved towards her quickly and wrapped her in his arms, pulled her to his broad chest, enveloped her.   Johnny and Scott could see his big hand as it spread across the back of her head and pulled her to him.  All day yesterday, even last night in the wavering light of the fire, she had been keeping her features carefully schooled; it was as though she knew she had to be hard, had to be strong, and it appeared as though she’d had plenty of practice at it too, but she just couldn’t hold back when she heard these words spoken aloud.  Scott and Johnny could still hear her voice, even though she was folded in that big pocket-filled coat of Moose’s.  Over and over they could hear her whisper, “Clairie, Oh my God, Clairie.”

“Willie, we’re just explorin’ the possibilities here.  I know you have to know that what Scott said is one of the possible reasons they might have been snatched.  If they’re waitin’ on a boat to come pick them up, maybe we can get to those girls before...”  Johnny saw the terror on her face and amended his comment, “we will get to them on time.  This could be a good thing.  Those ships have to follow the tides, right?  It’s not the right time to bring in one of them big ol’ boats.  Right, Scott?”

"Right,” Scott said, turning his back fully on Willie.  He was well aware that his face always gave him away.  He had been told many times to avoid bluffing at the poker table, especially by his brother, who carefully studied him now as he turned.  He would have to think a bit about the moon phases, get back into a seaside mindset before he would be able to work out high tide.  It had been some time since that concern had been a part of his everyday life.  And really, even if they could get to the girls before a ship arrived, what were the chances that they hadn’t been molested anyway?  Willie had to know that Clairie’s virtue was more than likely compromised by now.  She didn’t seem to be unaware of the ways of the world.  But, he was nearly sick with the thought of revealing his thoughts to her.

Moose pulled away slightly from Willie, gently tipping her face up to look her in the eyes as he did so.  He handed her a white folded handkerchief from an inner pocket of his coat, searching her eyes for several long seconds.  They could hear him whispering to her in German, “mein armes kind,” and then he turned back to the brothers, his face so easy to read, just like Scott’s.  He cleared his throat.

Scott was starting to get into a rhythm with Moose, starting to understand his habits and quirks.  He knew the big man had something important to say.  “You have a plan, Moose.”  He didn’t even ask it as a question.  He already knew without a doubt that the man did have some sort of a plan, most likely a very good one.

“Well, ja, actually I think I may have an idea for working out an idea,” he said.  The Lancer brothers both nodded at him to continue, an amazingly identical motion, pegging them as brothers when their looks surely didn’t.  “First, we need to get a look at these men,” he began slowly, still thinking things through, “a look at their firepower.  How many of them are there for sure?  Have they set up a camp?  Who’s in charge?”  Johnny nodded again at his words, finding this part of the plan identical to what he had in mind.  Then, as Moose continued, he seemed to gain confidence. He took a deep breath. “If we can get a lay of the land, then, yes, I have some suggestions.  Have you ever heard of  Tan Daoji?”

Though Johnny looked completely puzzled at this question and its undecipherable words, Scott knew exactly what Moose was talking about.  “You’re talking about the ancient Chinese strategies of war.”  Scott’s mind quickly sorted through what he had learned about the 36 strategies.  He had survived Dr. Heckenkemper’s class, “The Art of War,” with much more ease than many of his classmates.  Okay, in truth, he had thrived in that class, although he wouldn’t go so far as to say “Teacher’s Pet.”  He guessed there might be a few in the class who would beg to differ on that point though.  The course was difficult, that was true, and for many it must have seemed completely irrelevant to their futures, to their daily existence at the time, but Scott had found the strategies fascinating, and later, under very different circumstances, he had even seen the relevance on a very personal level as quite a few of the strategies were employed in battles he had participated in during the war.

“Ja, Scott, the ancient strategies.  Specifically, I think we might try tying silk blossoms to a dead tree and luring the tiger down the mountain.”

For the first time since he had been dragged from his cell in Kleinstadt by a gun-toting “boy,” Scott felt like they may actually have a chance of rescuing the kidnapped girls.  “Yes, yes,” his enthusiasm was obvious.  “And Moose, depending on their numbers and location of course, why don’t we also throw out a brick to attract some jade?”

At this, Johnny’s confusion was complete.

 

Part 14

Nearly an hour later, the four would-be rescuers had all explained and argued and discussed their strangely named plans from every possible direction.  Eventually, Johnny’s confusion was not as profound as it had been. In fact, much of what the two men described made good sense to him, was really only common sense, he decided, with a funny Harvard name.  He wondered why people couldn’t just call a cow a cow, instead of always having to fancy up everything.  At first, Willie’s part in the drama was met with a burst of profanity and heated anger from both Johnny and the sputtering girl.  Finally though, after Scott had said the word “sex” so many times it had begun to lose all meaning, the two had hesitantly agreed that Willie’s role in the deception was necessary and inevitably hers to play.  

It took some time to convince Scott that Johnny should be the silk blossoms in the dead tree.  When he had imagined this part of the plan, Scott had seen himself in this exposed role.  He argued that Johnny was in no condition.  He pointed out that his brother could barely walk.  Playing this part definitely included walking and, it was pretty even odds that it might also include running, while being chased.  Scott also argued that God knew what other hurts his stubborn brother was hiding from them all.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  However, in the end, Johnny’s tattered and bruised appearance, thanks to his tangle with floodwater and red cliff walls, and his acknowledged abilities with a hand gun, which was definitely more easily concealed on one’s person than a rifle, had finally won Scott over.

For his part, Johnny felt much better about Willie’s brick-for-jade act when he realized the function of the silk blossoms.  Moose would deal with luring the tiger down the mountain, and Scott would deal with, in Johnny’s opinion, the most important role of all, providing one last person up high with a rifle to cover all of their sorry, sitting-duck butts.  He just knew, in the end, as these ancient Chinese stories which Moose and Scott had rattled on about--a hodge podge of wars and kings and dummies soaked in oil and set afire--began to unravel out here in their modern California reality, he just knew that they would be in need of some good old-fashioned, western firepower, and with his skills with a longgun, Scott was just the man to provide it.  

In spite of his brother’s initial, rather vocal, misgivings and Willie’s reluctance to play her particular role in the drama, with the plan explained and their parts cast, Scott, accompanied by Moose, had taken the hidden path which wound down to the floor of the canyon. The morning sky was filled with churning gray clouds, which Scott could only pray wasn’t a black portent of some kind.  They left Johnny and Willie behind from this little reconnaissance mission to “get a little more rest if you can for a while and then make yourselves more appropriately attired.”  Once they left Widow’s Rock behind, the two men had followed some landmarks related by Willie, and additional ones vaguely remembered by Moose.  These guideposts led them to an isolated and protected stretch of shoreline, which both locals believed to be fairly accessible to ships.

Ultimately, it had taken longer than they had hoped it would to find the kidnappers’ camp.  The two men moved parallel to the ocean, always with an eye to possible discovery. When they had gotten close to where they suspected they would find their prey, Moose and Scott had left their mounts behind, safely tethered to some low bushes, nearly a quarter of a mile inland.  They had then made their way carefully, quietly onward by foot.   They couldn’t really risk getting too close to the action, but, whatever the risk, they had needed to at least get near enough to accurately assess their opposition.

They hoped that they were nearly coming to the camp when they noticed weak tendrils of white smoke drifting upward from the direction of the beach.  They were concentrated on moving carefully toward it, keeping a low profile, when their quiet, careful footsteps inadvertently flushed a covey of frightened and excitable quails.  The abrupt crash of frantic wings had sent both men instantly to the ground, and they remained silent and still for several long moments; the other shoe was surely only seconds away from dropping.

Scott’s mind was anything but silent and still as he lay there in the dirt and the fragrant, bruised weeds.  His imagination worked overtime, in fact, and he believed that they were caught and convicted because of a damnable flock of damnable birds. He imagined that Johnny and Willie would be left there at Widow’s Rock to wonder about their missing companions.  That they would fuss and worry for awhile, and then they would be forced to save him and Moose right along with the girls, or at least to try.  And he had little doubt that they would try, just the two of them, no matter how inadvisable it would be. In less than a minute, he had himself tied hand and foot, back to back with Moose, with scratchy hemp. He had the girls loaded, kicking and screaming onto a ship to China, or somewhere equally exotic, and he had Johnny and Willie both sprawled dead on the ground, their stubborn blood staining the landscape, after an ill-advised, poorly strategised rescue attempt.  However, the commotion created by the birds must have seemed a natural part of the environment to the men guarding the girls.  No one came to investigate at all.  So Scott and Moose simply stood and continued on with their task.

Finally with an ever more safe and circuitous path and in spite of extra time well spent to keep an eye out for other “natural disasters,” particularly bird disasters, here they were, lying flat, just short of an open expanse of beach.  They had wiggled their way forward and were sheltered under the cover of a scrub-littered tree line.   Rolling dunes began just beyond Scott’s and Moose’s location and worked their way down to a fairly wide stretch of flat beach.  Intently studying the situation and the terrain, Scott was deep in “the art of war” mode, his mind considering and rejecting a number of possibilities.  He jumped slightly when he felt a quick tug on his sleeve.  “Look there,” Moose mouthed, as Scott turned to look at his companion.  With an economical gesture, the big man pointed to the far south end of the area they surveyed, which was scattered with rough looking men, going about various morning tasks.  And in that direction, Scott saw the four girls who were huddled together near the embers of a dying campfire.  The girls all looked tired and bedraggled, but blessedly alive.

Scott could easily tell that the pretty little red-head was Clairie.  She had tendrils of hair hanging in her eyes and down her neck, from a disintegrating, twisted bun of a hairstyle.  Even from this distance, the girl looked younger than the others, and softer somehow too, her clothing far less flashy.  Next to her, a blonde, with obviously bleached hair, sat shoulder to shoulder with the girl.  The older woman looked vaguely familiar to Scott, and he wondered briefly if she had been in the Hog’s Breath during the Lancer brothers’ songfest.  Even from this distance, he could see that she appeared to be lending both emotional and physical support to the young girl as she spoke to her and gestured broadly with her bound hands.

Scott and Moose had a clear enough view of the girls that he could see how Clairie sat with her head bowed, but, thank God, her clothes didn’t look too much the worse for wear.  They were mud stained and wrinkled, but although he couldn’t be sure, it didn’t look like her homespun skirt and blouse had been pulled at by hasty, hurtful hands, and he couldn’t see any obvious bruises on her, on any of the girls, except for a broad streak of dark green and purple bruising across the cheekbone of the busty one dressed in crimson lace.  He couldn’t wait to tell Willie that her sister was alive, and, from what he could tell, that she was reasonably well.

Scanning the expanse of beach, Scott took in and filed away other details which their small group would need in order to finalize their plans.  He noted the best areas of cover, which added up to not many, that was for sure.  Although slightly rolling dunes and their hollows might prove useful.  Remarkably, he also spotted a higher spot off to the right, slightly behind where they lay hidden, which looked down upon the camp.  Scott knew that to have such a spot for his rifle would definitely make his brother a much happier man.  He also looked around for deadfall Moose might employ when they were ready to lure the tiger down the mountain.

As he studied the camp, and the land around it, he couldn’t help but consider that the area they had found themselves in was so very desolate, mostly hard angles and sharp lines, in spite of the contrast of the lapping, soft waves of the ocean and the rolling dunes of the beach.  And even though they had  suffered torrents of rain in the last few weeks, it was really quite unrelentingly brown all around them.  It seemed that the only varied colors he could see were those of the clothing adorning the girls and the deep blue backdrop of the ocean.

The quickly changing terrain in this area--cliffs, canyons, forest, beach—did not lend itself at all well to traditional farming or ranching, so people didn’t naturally settle here.  And, of course, these men had obviously chosen this particular spot for its isolation as well, along with its accessibility by ship.  Still, it took him by surprise sometimes, how so much of this territory he now called home could be so completely empty.  His life had, until recently, been full to the brim with people, with crowded comings and goings.  He knew his grandfather thrived on it.  And while he sometimes missed Boston, missed the people and the activity, he remembered that he had sometimes also felt caged by the crush of so much humanity.

There were times when he found the physical closeness of his fellow man difficult to handle, particularly after his experiences in the war.  There had actually been occasions, while sitting in his well-appointed office at Garrett Shipping, when, out of nowhere, out of the damned ether or the dark memory of his soul or something, his heart would begin to pound, and his breath would come in quick, jerking gasps.  Others didn’t ever seem to notice his distress, but he would simply have to get out.   No, not just get out, he would have to get away.  It didn’t matter if he was working with a client, sitting in a meeting, or lunching with Grandfather.  When he felt the walls closing in, he could do nothing else but make polite excuses, saddle a horse and ride out to the countryside—away from everything—completely willing to risk his grandfather’s wrath for some blessed solitude.

Now, at the estancia, there were times when he didn’t see anyone but those who called Lancer their home for weeks on end.  He didn’t even have to try very hard to find a little seclusion, had found some wonderfully secluded spots, although Johnny was harder to shake than most others.  And that was all quite fine with him, really, most of the time, the lack of people, the wide openness; although, it still continued to overwhelm him at odd moments, the amazing vastness of it all, the lack of warm bodies to fill that vastness up.

He shook off his thoughts of seclusion and empty landscape and took a moment to look up at the sky.  With a frustrated sigh he noted that the threat of more rain once again hung heavily all around them, pushing at him with its inevitability.  What had happened to the sun which had reappeared only late yesterday?  He knew that if they were to lure that tiger, they desperately needed for any but the lightest rain to hold off for just a while longer. 

He turned his attention to a matter as pressing as the girls’ location and the numbers and probable skill and firepower of the opposing forces.  He could see from the high-water marks on the beach that they were most likely close to low tide.  In fact, from what he could tell, the lowest tide was just about right now, and with that thought, he checked his watch—10:32.  Admittedly, he hadn’t spent much time pondering the coast here in California; there was little need for it, nor was he near the coast, except on rare occasions.  His world had turned abruptly from docks and ships to fences and cattle.  But, he had once been intimately aware of the clockwork ebbing and flowing of the tide in his “gentleman’s job” with his grandfather’s shipping business.  He did some quick calculations.  The moon last night had been nearly non-existent, which meant they had about six hours before high tide, 4:00 or so this afternoon, at least he was pretty certain of the time.

It appeared that Johnny was right.  These 11 tattered men who strung along the shoreline were obviously waiting for a ship.  They looked to be a desperate, mean-spirited bunch, their clothes somewhat ragged.  It occurred to Scott that these particular kidnappers didn’t seem to be profiting greatly from their lives of crime, which then led him to wonder exactly who was profiting from their activities.  But, whoever it was, it didn’t really matter to him anyway; what did matter was that it had become abundantly clear to Scott, as he took in the details of his surroundings, that he and his brother had indeed innocently, drunkenly and definitely stumbled their way into the middle of a slave-trading operation, and a ship would undoubtedly be arriving to pick up the girls on the beach within the next six hours.  They needed to set their plans in motion as quickly as possible.

Another nudge at Scott’s arm had Moose pointing to the north this time.  Coming slowly down the beach was a pure black gelding carrying a large man in a broad brimmed hat.  As they watched his progress, they could see the man sweep his beefy arm out, swatting at the noisy seagulls which were chattering around him.  And as he rode ever closer, they could hear the profanity he spewed at the birds as well.  The identity of the man made both Scott and Moose draw a breath.  From near the water in front of them, Scott heard one of the scum on the beach calling out; he was a skinny man, more of a boy really, with a pimple-strewn face and long dark hair pulled back into a rough ponytail. This boy had apparently noticed the big man on the horse only a beat before Moose did, and with an odd, rolling, bowlegged gait, he was now running towards the visitor, calling back over his shoulder, “It’s The Boss.  The Boss is here.  Y’all look alive over there now, do ya here?  It’s The Boss.”

After waiting until the man was closer, close enough to absolutely confirm his identity, this time it was Scott who reached out to get his companion’s attention.  As Moose turned to look at him, his face incredulous, Scott jerked a thumb over his shoulder, and the two of them began to slither their way quietly backwards, away from the beach, away from The Boss.

 

Part 15

“C’mon Willie.  You look real pretty.”

Willie very deliberately turned her shoulders so that she faced as far away from Johnny and his softly spoken compliments as she could.  Even sitting down, she could close herself off from him, turn her back on him.  “No, damn it.  I’ve decided I’m just not doin’ this,” she responded.  “Get your sneaky hands away from me, Gunslinger.  Quit pawin’ at me.  And where the hell’s my shirt?”

“Willie, be reasonable.  You know for a true fact that I can’t be the brick.  You are the only one of us who can be.”  Johnny reached out to Willie’s long hair, extending his arm across the blanket that had been placed very deliberately over the girl’s legs.  It covered her completely from the waist down and then draped across and spanned a small space of bare ground, pooling between the two of them.  “Now, sit still; we’ve gotta do something about your hair.”
“Don’t you touch my hair.”  She jerked away from him. “Just back off.  I’m warnin’ you now.”

Johnny kept his voice pitched low.  “You know yourself that this is the only way, Willie.  We all talked this to death already.  Scott and Moose know what they’re doin’ here.  You can do this, be this person, for just a little while.”  And then, with full knowledge that he wasn’t quite playing fair, he added,  “You can do this to help Clairie.  Even if you don’t trust me, I know you trust Moose not to hurt you.”  Johnny reached out again and took up a silky handful, and this time she allowed it, although he could feel that she held herself closely, unyieldingly.  With infinite care, he began to separate the strands with the ivory handled comb his brother always kept in his saddlebag.

Gently, he started working his way through her long tangle, starting at the bottom, where it hung near the ground, and then carefully, just inches at a time, he combed through it all.  The memory of doing this very thing so many times before to darker, thicker hair, with smaller, less capable hands, went swirling through him in a wild wave, swept him along for a while.  Then the memory left him, albeit reluctantly, as he blinked several times.  Willie had suddenly turned her profile to him, dragging him from his reverie.  He could see unshed tears brimming in her eyes.  She stared off into the unsettled sky, though clearly she was seeing somewhere else, somewhere she didn’t have to hide behind a mask of toughness, and he wondered at the exact cause of the brimming tears.  Was she crying for her sister, or was he conjuring some bittersweet memory for her, as he had for himself?  “You have beautiful hair, querida,” he whispered to her as he worked his way through the wavy mass, thinking once again of its likeness to wind-rippled wheat.

It took some time and patience, but finally her hair lay against the deep blue of Scott’s spare shirt.  It poured down the young girl’s back and across her shoulders like calm water.  The two of them stood as one, his hand under her elbow, and as they did, as the blanket fell away from her, Johnny could see that the shirt’s tails hung about mid-thigh on her, clearly making his inability to notice her gender earlier seem even more exceedingly dense.  He had helped her tighten his belt around her waist, and he’d also had her unbutton first one and then two buttons at the top of the shirt, amidst many “damn you Gunslingers.”  It would be very difficult for anyone with eyes to mistake Willie for a boy anytime soon.  She stood before him twisting her hands together nervously and  alternately studying the tips of her boots and then the big Spencer rifle that lay on the ground at her feet.

Using his index finger, he tipped her face up to him.  “Usted es un ángel del cielo,” he told her, quietly.  “Si, a beautiful angel, nina.  If you aren’t a temptation, I don’t know what one is.” His face was still and serious, but his eyes sparked with quiet humor, and with something else as well.

“Damn it, Johnny.  I really just can’t do this.  Look at me,” she demanded.  “I can’t be no ‘temptation.’  You’re all as crazy as I thought you were, and that includes Mr. ‘don’t you worry, I take care of my Willie’ Moose.  You two have adelpated him or somethin’.  And just where the hell am I supposed hide my gun in this get up?”  She turned her back on him completely and stiffened her shoulders in what he was coming to know as a characteristic gesture.

Johnny knew that he needed to be careful here.  This tough-fragile girl had no idea of the power she held in her expressive eyes and the toss of her head, no idea just how well she could play the part assigned to her.  He wanted her cooperation to help in rescuing the girls, but he didn’t want to invoke the specter of Clairie too strongly at this point, or Willie might become too distraught to carry out her part of the plan at all.  It was a little bit like walking the fences back at Lancer---tricky, but it felt damn good, a real accomplishment, when you found just the right balance.

“Look, Willie,” he touched her arm as he spoke.  “You’ll be fine.  You’re not doin’ anything but makin’ a few false promises to some very bad men who don’t even deserve the truth.  This may be about sex, Willie, but it isn’t sex.”  Dios, he thought, now I’m doing it.  I sound just like Scott did earlier this morning.  It momentarily and quite suddenly amazed him how often he and his brother were starting to think and sound alike.  He reached out to her again, “You don’t even have to say anything, just toss that pretty hair a yours around and wiggle your hips a little.  I just know you’ve watched Lena and her girls enough times comin’ down that boardwalk in Kleinstadt to know how to put a little ‘come on boys’ in your walk.”

This comment brought her head whipping around so that she could kill him right there, right there on the spot where he stood, with the hell’s fire that shot out of her eyes, but Johnny sidestepped it and just kept on talking.  “Then you just turn around, twirl that shirt out a bit; show some more of your legs, you know, and walk away real slow-like after you get their attention,” he continued.  Obviously, seeing that he was still standing there, still talking, talking, talking, her evil eye glare must be defective.  Really it should have scorched him to death by now.  “Show ‘em how pretty that goin’ away side of you is too.”  He really was taking his life in his hands.  That Spencer was in damned close proximity.  “Look back over your shoulder, like this and … maybe . . . I don’t know . . . wink or somethin’.”  Johnny was broadly demonstrating the motions as he spoke the words.  “Oh, and if ya got any smiles in there ya been savin’ up for some special occasion, now might be the time to pull one out.”

At this point, he stopped, wiggled his hips suggestively, winked again and quirked an eyebrow at her.  She was very close to hissing when she answered,  “Smart-mouthed lyin’ shootist.  Why should I listen to a word you say or do a thing you ask?  In fact, give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just shoot you down like a mangy cur dog right this minute.”  She reached down to pick up the gun at her feet.

In spite of the fact that she had now armed herself, Johnny grinned at the scowling girl and backed away from her, taking a few limping steps, not through fear of her, but to get a better overall view of his handiwork.  Over the course of the last 30 hours or so, he had definitely learned, as Scott had once said about Murdoch, that Willie’s bark was much worse than her bite.  In fact, buried deep in his heart, he could feel the tiny, scary, beginning stirrings of something so incredibly sweet, it made him a little weak in the knees.  Then, abruptly, he noticed that he had been staring at her just a little longer than was strictly polite.  It was so damned hard not to.  But finally, when she looked as though she might turn and take a frustrated and angry flying leap right off of the edge of Widow’s Rock, he looked her in the eyes, raised an arm to about shoulder height and twirled one finger in the air, urging her to do a little spin for him.

She stared back at him for a moment too, but, where his look was fairly indecipherable, her look quite plainly said she thought he might have finally and completely lost his mind, and that, really, it was no surprise to her that he had.  He stood there very still, looking at her with a smile, until finally she had laid the Spencer down, stuck her tongue out at him, and with obvious reluctance, twirled around so that he could see his handiwork from all angles.  “Prettiest damn brick I ever did see, Willie,” he said as she completed her spin and turned back to face him.

And then, there it was, what he had been working so hard for, an unexpected, barely-there grin pulled at her mouth, a rare gift, and looking at it, looking at her, Johnny momentarily lost his ability to breathe or think.  He could feel her filling him up, and turned away quickly to regain his control.  “Let’s go over the plan one more time,” he said, after a moment, to the clouds and sky which crowded around the flat-topped rock on which they had found themselves.  He cleared his throat after his words came out a bit rough.  “We have to be sure you’re real clear on your part so you don’t go getting your ornery ass shot or somethin’.”  As he spoke, he turned to face her again.

************************************************************************

Willie watched Johnny turn back towards her slowly, apparently struggling with something, some difficulty, and then, without conscious thought, she started moving forward, wielding some newfound power she didn’t really quite understand, but had found lingering inside of herself when she had looked into Johnny’s eyes only moments ago.  She wasn’t stupid by any means, but she didn’t recognize this feeling at all.  However, even though it was unfamiliar, it felt . . . potent.  She felt security that didn’t come from holding her rifle or cradling the Blakeslee quickloader when it was strapped under her arm.  And she could very clearly see that this man was looking at her differently now than he had been just a short span of time before; his eyes were softer, larger somehow; it was a subtle change, but it was there, and she was affecting him; she just knew it, although she wasn’t completely sure what it meant.  He stood stock still before her as she approached him slowly, his eyes locked with hers, his expression interesting, but unreadable to her, closed up tight, where it had been raw and open just seconds before. 

And, where before he had been simply a conveniently jailed gunslinger, just a ticket to Clairie’s freedom, now, Willie was suddenly, achingly aware of everything about him, about not Johnny Madrid, but about Johnny.  She noticed first that he had the bluest eyes she had ever seen or probably ever would see, ocean eyes, and that those eyes were rimmed with beautiful black lashes, longer and much more lush, in fact, than Willie’s own.  Five minutes ago, she wouldn’t have been able to tell someone the color of his eyes under threat of death; now she knew that she would forever see that color in her dreams.  His dark hair, which she had only noticed before when it had stuck up at all angles after the flood, had been combed now, to some degree anyway, but she would bet the farm that it was perpetually unruly, like him she was sure, could see that it curled slightly where it hung too long behind his ears.

She saw that his skin had the softest, warmest color, unlike any she had ever seen before.  The sun loved him.  She thought of the light freckles dusting across her own nose and shoulders and hands and longed to reach out to him, to touch the softness of him, to compare and study their contrasting skin tones.  She let her eyes linger on him and noticed that his pants clung to his body in wonderful ways, that his legs looked strong, muscled.  And his hands----even if she hadn’t noticed his beauty in other ways, how could she not have noticed the grace and strength of his expressive hands?  Mostly though, she noticed that he seemed to live in his body in total comfort, and again Willie envied him.  She had spent the better part of her life denying her body, hating that she had been born a girl, had lacked the strength and the power to completely protect Clairie from the ugliness of life.  She felt that somehow she could have protected her more effectively if she had been a different person.

As she studied Johnny with new eyes, she noticed that he was balancing most of his weight on one leg, and she remembered just at that moment that he had been limping consistently and pretty deeply the night before. She also saw that the unbuttoned front of his shirt, as it moved with him, was concealing and revealing a makeshift bandage, and she had a vague recollection of watching his brother put it there, that the bandage covered a long, angry cut across his torso.  She had only half-noticed it before, had been unconcerned. For the first time, she wondered if he was badly hurt.  This concern for him was a sudden feeling for her, like the surprise of new, yellow-green Spring grass, and it pulled her towards him.

*********************************************************************

When she had moved the four or five paces across the flat rock surface to stand right in front of him, it took some effort, but Johnny stood his ground, still kept his eyes on hers, although he wanted to look down, to fidget with his shirt tail, to run.  He knew as soon as she started toward him that he had been had.  He had let his guard down for less than a heartbeat and this savvy child-woman had seen right through him.  She rolled her hips and tossed her “Oh Dios, so beautiful” hair as she approached him, and she was either unaware of the actions, moving on instinct, or a damned quick learner.  Johnny wrenched himself, an uncharacteristically ungraceful movement and turned to move away, but was stopped instantly by a small hand lightly touching his arm.  For a moment, a splash of silence hung between them.

Then, “let’s get you ready too, Johnny,” she whispered up to him.  “Silk blossoms can’t just walk right in like they own the place, you know, not without the proper get-up.  Scott said that you should appear as non-threatening as possible.  So, you need some fixin’ up too.  Let me take you in hand this time.”  Johnny stared at her and nodded, just barely.  It was beyond his power to do anything else. And with his nod, she suddenly grabbed the shoulder seam of Johnny’s white shirt and ripped the sleeve half off.

“Hey!  Just what the hell do you think you’re doin’?”  The magical spell which had bound him was broken in an instant. The ripping of his shirt had jerked him right back to the top of Widow’s Rock.

“Helpin’ you be ‘more appropriately attired,’ just like you helped me, Johnny,” she said in a small, hurt-feelings kind of little girl voice, a voice he’d heard no evidence of from her up until just this very moment, and all he could do was raise a dark eyebrow and stare.  “I know the plan is that we are hiding your gun in the back of your waistband,” she continued, “so, of course, the shirt tail stays out.  But, I think we need to convince these men that you were pretty badly hurt in the flood, that you cannot protect me from their advances.  It will make you seem more blossom-like, don’t ya think?  We need to make it seem like bouncing off of too many rock walls has scrambled your brains, yep all scrambled up, just like a skillet full of guinea eggs.”  When Johnny could do nothing but stare at her, didn’t answer, she finished her thought,  “Shouldn’t be too much of a stretch, Johnny, what with your torn clothes and missing boot and all.  And if we stumble in there with me practically carrying you, they won’t find you too much of a threat, at least that would be my guess.”

For just a moment, the two simply stared at one another.  “Damn, Willie, I didn’t know you were capable of stringin’ together so many words all at once.  I’m right impressed.”  He used humor and insult to distract himself from her small hands, which pulled at his shirt, pulled at his awareness of her.  But she nearly had him mesmerized, and he watched her without really seeing her actions as she reached down as if to wash her hands in a standing mud puddle near their bedrolls.  “Hey,  what the hell?”  He suddenly realized her intentions and moved to turn away from her, but he wasn’t fast enough to escape two small handfuls of mud which she had managed to smear down the front of his favorite, white, one sleeve torn at the shoulder shirt.  Johnny grabbed at her wrists and pulled her forward to stop the onslaught of mud.  She tried half-heartedly to dig in her heels some, but Johnny wasn’t having it.

As she came closer to her prey, the lines between hunter and hunted had blurred to an unrecognizable web.  “I’d say that now we’re ready, Johnny.”  She looked up at him, and her eyes were dark, half closed, so beautiful.

I’d say we’re more than ready, Willie.”  And he pulled her even closer to him, meeting only a very little tug of leftover resistance.  As they got close enough that their chests were touching, he could see some confusion in her eyes, but then her muddy hands reached up and curled instinctively around his neck.  He could feel dirty handprints decorating his collar, his neck, the back of his head.  He wound his arms around her waist and pulled them together even tighter.  They fit.  “Willie,” he whispered, as he placed a tiny kiss on her temple.  “Willie.” He hung a string of butter soft kisses down the pulse in her neck and across her collarbone.  “Willie.”  As he turned his face upward to look into her eyes, she leaned toward him, fit herself even closer to him, and captured his lips with her own.

 

Part 16

“Willie?”  The two people standing before Scott and Moose were so wrapped up in one another, neither one, man nor woman, appeared to have heard the horses coming up the trail.  At the sharp crack of Moose’s voice though, they jumped apart as if a bolt of God-flung lightning had pierced the ground between them, scrambling back and apart.

“Johnny?”  Scott knew precisely what he had seen for a frozen moment as he pulled his mount alongside Moose’s, but the sheer unexpectedness of the situation was causing him to have a little trouble processing the sight.  Willie and Johnny stood there before them, now several feet apart, but both were heavily draped with a posture of guilt.  For a quick second, before she turned away from the two mounted men, Scott saw that Willie’s face, partially concealed within the veil of her surprisingly long hair, was blushed bright red.  She pulled viciously at the tails of Scott’s blue shirt as though she could make them longer, could make them hide her more effectively.  On the other hand, it was nearly impossible to judge Johnny’s level of embarrassment, although he didn’t turn away from the two men.  Instead, he had immediately pulled his hat up from where it hung on his back, had yanked it low over his eyes.  Then he stood very still.  To Scott, he appeared to be looking steadfastly at something extremely interesting at his feet.

For just a moment, the air seemed to rush completely away and leave the four of them mute and motionless.  Then, as his brain began to function again, thinking it was the wisest course he could take, Scott quickly acted as though nothing unusual at all had happened, or been witnessed, that he didn’t suddenly realize that Willie had the most shapely legs he had ever seen, and he spoke. “We found them; they don’t appear to be injured,” he said, choosing his words for both clarity and brevity.  He was watching Willie’s back carefully now, noting the exact moment when his news filtered through her discomfort.

She whipped around and looked him straight in the eye now, looked at him hard, searching his face for the truth of it.  She seemed totally unaware of anything but the words he had spoken.  “Oh, my God,” she whispered, her face breaking into a slow smile.  And then she ran to him, her earlier uneasiness forgotten.  She reached out and clutched onto Scott’s arm as he dismounted.  “You’ve seen her?  She’s all right?  Are they on the beach?  Can we get to them?  Why didn’t you bring her back with you?”  The words tumbled over and around one another.

As Willie pulled at his sleeve, Scott’s horse skipped away a little, spooked by her jittery movements.  Then, the tugging girl looked over at a Moose, who had also gotten down from his mount, and finally she looked over her shoulder at Johnny.  “Let’s go,” she said to the three of them.  She was shaking at Scott’s arm, the excitement plain in her voice.  “Let’s go,” she urged again.  She turned away from Scott and Moose when they didn’t move fast enough to suit her and moved over to Johnny.  She captured his hand in both of hers.  “Johnny, come on.  We have to go.  Get Barranca ready.”  She pulled him forward for several steps before she turned from him and picked up her rifle from where she had abandoned it on the ground earlier.

“Willie, wait.” 

“Willie, stop for a minute.”

Moose and Scott spoke at the same time, both trying to slow the frantic girl.  Then Moose walked to her from where he had dismounted, and he rested his big hand quietly on her shoulder.  “Willie,” he said again, his voice softer this time. He was waiting patiently for her to look at him.  “Calm down, mein mädchen.  We still have to talk this through.  We can’t just run off.  We’ve done our looking.  Now, we have to explain the lay of the land to the two of you.  You need to be able to see it like we saw it.  And there is an added complication.”

“No, Moose.  We have to go get Clairie.  We have to go now.”

To Willie, Johnny said, “Willie, we have ta stick to the plan.”  His voice was soft, but emphatic enough to help slow her flustered urgency.   He could tell when she became still, and then turned to look at him, that the quiet calm of his voice, having been added to Moose’s reasonable tones, had helped to pull her back to Widow’s Rock.  Her eyes had lost some of their wildness.  She was anxious, but she had slipped on her customary mantle of control once again.  “What kind of complication we talkin’ about here, Boston.  We talking gatlin gun level complication or extra men complication?  How many men ’re there, Scott?” Johnny directed his question to his brother, but he kept his eyes locked with Willie’s the whole time, willing her to remain calm.  He continued to speak softly, hoping that his composure would keep her with them, would keep her focused on their task.

“I counted 11 men.  No, wait, make that 12.  That’s our complication Johnny, that twelfth man.  The man in charge showed up just as we were leaving.”  Scott reached out to grab the reins of the white mule so that he could lead Moose’s mount along with his own to the tiny patch of sparse grass they had roped off for the horses.

“The man in charge?”

Moose stood polishing at his glasses.  He appeared to be nervous, distracted.  “Ja.  I couldn’t believe it when I saw him.  One of the men on the beach called him The Boss.  That lousy hurensohn rode in like he owned the place.”  He turned and spat emphatically over his right shoulder.

“Our very good friend, Sheriff Walter Graves,” Scott answered Johnny’s and Willie’s questioning faces as he rejoined the group.

“He’s gonna know us,” Johnny’s mind was adding and rejecting possibilities to the plan as he spoke.

“I don’t think it will matter, really.  He won’t see me or Moose until it’s too late.  And you two are going to look like easy pickings.”

Willie had walked away from them a few paces, but they could still hear her as she spoke in a low voice.  “Bastard.  I’ll kill him.”  It was a simple statement of fact.  Willie didn’t sound the least bit frantic now.

*****************************************************************

Mounting up nearly two hours later, Scott led the way down the now-familiar path away from the Rock.  With Willie’s mare still nearly lame, they still led her, so Willie and Moose followed behind Scott riding together, both on Helmut’s broad back.  Johnny rode last.

Along with having a solid blueprint to follow, it also comforted Scott a great deal to have witnessed the fact that Moose was even more doggedly insistent than he was when it came to the details of the three-pronged attack being understood and committed to memory.  Johnny had tried to insure the man that he shouldn’t worry,  that Johnny himself was a master improviser from way back, but Moose wasn’t standing for it.  If Walter Graves sounded an alarm, Johnny assured the man that he would deal with it.  “No, by das buch, Johnny,” he would say, “verstehen ‘by the book’?  No improvising.  You’ll improvise us all right into hell.”  And each time he said it, he got just a touch more insistent, and a touch louder.  As for Willie, she simply paced and nodded whenever she was asked if she understood.  Occasionally they would hear a quietly irritated, “Ja Moose, verstehen,” from the pacing figure.

Then, at last, they were finally on the move, and the trip to the outlaws’ camp was much quicker this time, only about half an hour, even allowing for their extreme caution to avoid any quail catastrophes.  They had left their animals inland again and split up to perform their respective jobs within 30 minutes more.

Now, with uncharacteristic impatience, Scott pulled his watch from his pocket for the third time since he had crawled to the top of the tallest dune in the area and had taken up his prearranged post.  He wasn’t exactly concealed, but he was bellied down, and his position was . . . unlikely.  He felt relatively safe here hiding nearly in plain sight.  He glared at the finely crafted, ebony hands of his timepiece as though he could change what they told him by doing so.  He noted that the time—ten minutes until 3:00—was pretty much the slow crawl he expected, since he couldn’t seem to keep from pulling out and looking at the watch every few moments.  As he snapped the case closed and pocketed the watch once again, he considered that if his cohorts didn’t hurry, these men would no doubt have reinforcements joining them from the Pacific Ocean.  And they really knew neither how many men that might include, nor exactly when they might appear.

Nestling once again into the slight hollow his body had formed in the damp sand, Scott picked up Willie’s Spencer and snugged it up under his arm for quick access.  His own rifle lay at his side and next to it the Blakeslee Quickloader.  Holding Willie’s gun, seeing the Quickloader also within reach, reminded him of how it had taken the combined and very vocal efforts of all three men to convince the girl that she couldn’t sashay into the camp with the big gun in her hands and keep up any pretense of helplessness or innocence.  Getting her to give up the gun had been even more difficult than getting her to play the part of the brick in the first place.

Earlier, as they had prepared to split up, from the depths of one of the many and useful pockets scattered about his coat, Moose had pulled out a pair of opera glasses and had silently pressed them into Scott’s hand.  Now, Scott pulled them out of his own jacket pocket.  He looked out at the rough-edged men who went about their business as though it were a normal day, as though they weren’t in the middle of trading slaves; and, he naturally searched out the whereabouts of the girls.  He was fairly close to the activity, seemed closer still holding Moose’s opera glasses.  As it was, he could clearly see the blackened wood of the dead campfire, but was closer to the northern most end of the beach.  As he had taken up his position, he noticed all four girls moving down to the edge of the water in a bunch.  They began washing their hands and faces and pushing their straggly hair back from their eyes, a difficult task since the kidnappers had not removed the ropes binding their wrists.  With the aid of the glasses, it was even easy for Scott to see the strong resemblance between Willie and her sister.

Near the girls, two men kept watch; one stood casually by the dead fire and looked out to sea, his rifle cradled carelessly in his arms. The other, a man who rivaled Moose in size, sprawled indolently on the sand nearby, his gun abandoned off to one side; he looked to be cleaning his fingernails with the very tip of a wicked looking knife.  Clearly he was not expecting company and assumed that the other man would have no trouble controlling four frightened girls.  Not too far from this group, four men were playing cards on a red and black striped blanket.  The game seemed to be hotly debated, and the men were loud and rowdy.  Clearly they were feeling safe and invincible here on this beach.  Scott said a quick prayer that Willie would entice, that Johnny would confuse this group of men, at least for a short while, and that Sheriff Walter Graves was as big of an idiot as they all thought he was.

Closer to Scott, halfway up the beach, one man had waded into the water several yards, knee deep, and was fishing with a homemade line.  He would throw the hook and bait out to sea and then lazily pull the string back in, over and over.  The lack of any positive results didn’t seem to deter his efforts. Near him, another man was sleeping flat-out on the sand, or at least he appeared to be sleeping.  He had probably been the last guard of the night.  Finally, scanning to his right, near where Moose was planning to spring his little surprise, Scott could see the good sheriff where he was holding court over two others, including the small man with the ponytail.

Scott knew that Johnny and Willie were supposed to enter the scene from the south end of the camp, near where the girls were being held, that Moose was supposed to work his magic shortly after from the north.  He had been expecting his brother and Willie to come stumbling in for at least the last five minutes or so, which would alert the tiger that it was time to roar. Where the hell was his brother?  What was taking them so long to get this party started?  He couldn’t imagine what was holding them all up.  Actually, he could imagine several things that could be holding them up, and none were good.  The waiting was making him crazy.

Shifting his weight a little to pull his watch out again, Scott stopped, clenched his hand into a fist, and put it back without looking.  It wasn’t doing him a damn bit of good to look at it anyway.  He had a pretty good view of the entire beach and all of its activity; he would know when things began to heat up.  For his own part, he felt he had a relatively small chance of being discovered, until it eventually became necessary for him to stand completely and provide support, of course; he could feel the inevitability of having to do so.  When that time arrived, he figured that he would have to practice the time honored shoot and duck method, and hopefully the confusion they planned to generate would keep him somewhat safe, even if he had to stand.  He kept watching the beach carefully; he knew that he would see Johnny and Willie as soon as they rounded the area where the land curved slightly out of sight.  Unfortunately, for a while at least, things were out of his hands.

Just as he was about to completely lose any small bit of patience he had left, was about to wiggle himself down the backside of the dune so that he could find out what the delay was, Scott saw two figures, dark and light heads together, stumbling their way slowly toward the camp.  Soon the men would see them too.  “Hope you’re seeing this Moose,” he whispered.  It was nearly time for the big man to make a commotion.  Come on.  Come on.  It appeared that the curtain was about to rise on their little show.  In the space of a moment he saw his family, all dressed in their Sunday best, against Johnny’s protests, of course.  They had all traveled to San Francisco for a week, even Theresa, and he couldn’t help but be reminded of the variety show that they had attended, something absolutely brand new called Vaudeville.  It was all bright sounds, flash and motion, color and sleight of hand.  There was even a fairly skilled magician with doves and rabbits and red silk scarves.  In fact, Scott wished that he was in that theater right now with its rich, velvet-draped walls and its crystal dripping from the ceiling, rather than lying in the cold, wet sand waiting for the opening act of this little tragedy.

Several hundred yards away, Johnny and Willie were edging ever closer to the camp.  Soon they would be noticed.  Johnny had come hatless, and, as he and Willie headed for their grand entrance, he ran his hands through his hair and pulled randomly, creating a wild array.  Then, just before they stepped into full view of the lounging slave traders and began to make their way towards the southern edge of the camp, he reached down and smeared two fingers through the wet, sandy dirt and then down the side of his face.  He checked his gun again, an automatic action, and finally, right before they rounded the last small crescent to the straight part of the beach, Johnny threw one arm across Willie’s shoulders and leaned a part of his weight on her.  His leg throbbed with a deep ache, and he limped a bit, but the action was more for show than out of necessity.  He noticed that the nearer they got to the slave traders’ camp, the less Willie trembled.  Johnny figured that her desire to deliver Clairie from her fate was bringing forth tough-Willie once again.  She was adept at playing the part; from what he could tell, it was her most often donned persona.

He whispered into her ear.  “Everything will be fine,” he said.  “We’ll get them.  Clairie will be okay.”  And she answered him with a small nod, her face a study in concentration as she ducked her head and looked up at him through the dark fan of her lashes.  They kept walking as he spoke, and very soon they had wandered nearly to the edge of the camp.  “Toss out a brick to attract jade,” he whispered to her.  Toss out a brick.  Johnny mentally reviewed their plan one more time, thought about Willie’s role in their deception.  “Prepare a trap,” Scott had said.  “And bait it well.”  Johnny repeated his brother’s instructions in her ear.  Willie was the bait, the illusion of gain, the illusion of sex, a distraction.  “You’re the brick, Willie.  Don’t forget---smile, wiggle and wink.  Distract your pretty little backside right off.”  Even as she nodded, she elbowed him, a soft jab in the ribs.

Then he took the time to think about his part to play in this plan.  To tie silk blossoms to a dead tree, Johnny’s deception, was to make something appear different than it really was.  In this case, they needed for something that was a threat to appear non-threatening.  Johnny would look hurt, confused, unarmed.  Even if Walter Graves recognized him—probably would recognize him as his lost dime novel desperado—then, hopefully, he would think that Johnny was no longer dangerous, and the gun he could feel tucked into the waistband in the middle of his back meant that assumption could prove to be a very serious mistake on the sheriff’s part.

Finally, Moose would play his part, he would lure the tiger down the mountain.  “Strategy number 15, one should never attack a well-entrenched enemy,” he had informed them.  “Instead, lure him away from his stronghold.  Don’t worry, meine kinder,” he had said.  “When the time is right, I will lure.”

As the two moved slowly closer to the group on the beach, Johnny caught his foot on an exposed root and stumbled a little, putting more of his weight on Willie for a moment.  She turned to him to make sure that he was capable of carrying on, and he gave her a look that said he was game if she was.  As they turned to move forward again, Johnny saw the man with the rifle slowly turn in their direction, slowly register their presence on the beach.

 

Part 17

Willie took a purposeful step away from Johnny.  She drew her shoulders back, tilted her chin up, and started moving sinuously towards the guard, rolling her hips as she walked.  Johnny watched her as he followed a few steps behind.  He could almost see her confidence build as she moved closer to her sister. “Oh, thank the good Lord . . . real live people.  Hello,” she called out, smiling and waving at the armed man.  She looked back at Johnny. “Praise God, we’ve found us some people heah, Hectah.”

“Hector?” he whispered.

“Excuse me, suh,” she continued.  Her voice was smoother than a warm summer evening, and her words, that voice, pulled the guard’s eyes away, though reluctantly, from the flash of her legs, then from the opening at the top of her shirt, and up to her smiling face.  His mouth was open and slack.  When she seemed to have his full attention, no matter how astonished that attention might be, she continued, “Ahm wonderin’ if y’all could help me and mah friend heah.”  She gestured delicately in Johnny’s direction as he moved haltingly closer to the man as well.

Johnny looked down at the ground, his shoulders slumping, his head bowed.  He was making every effort to appear the very picture of non-threatening.  Willie adopted a pretty pout and shook her head sadly.  “He was hurt in that nasty, little ol’ flash flood yestaday,” she continued.  “Hectah, as you can see of course, has lost his horse, and look,” another wave of her hand, “his boot’s gone missin’ too.”  She put her hands on her hips, looking as though the idea that ‘Hector’ had lost his boot was a personal affront to her.  “And, on top of that, he’s been a tad bit confused ever since Ah found him wanderin’ around after the whole dreadful business.” She looked in Johnny’s direction.  “Why, he can’t even remembah his propah name, the poah boy.  I’ve decided he looks like a Hectah though.  Isn’t that right, Hectah?”

She tossed her long, wild hair back over one shoulder with a quick hand and a seductive shake of her head as she spoke, and then she just stood there, now looking once again at the man, her eyes wide, one hand lightlt caressing her hip.  For his part, the man before them still seemed to have been struck dumb.  He stood and gaped at her.  And after her little performance, the guard wasn’t the only one staring at Willie; Johnny studied her carefully as well.  Her actions had caused his mouth to go desert dry; he simply couldn’t help it.  Watching her had reminded him so vividly of the warm feel of her in his arms that he was exceedingly glad his shirttails were untucked. She certainly hadn’t learned these tricks from his little hip swaying demonstration at Widow’s Rock earlier today.  He wondered suddenly just how much time she had spent observing the ways of the girls from Mama Lena’s. This complicated young woman had definitely picked up a few pointers somewhere, either consciously or unconsciously.  And, in his mind, those seductive tricks rested comfortably on her, layered there on her sweet innocence.

Johnny gave his head a small shake to clear his thoughts.  He truly needed to pay less attention to Willie’s playacting, no matter how interesting it was proving to be, and more to his own part in this plan.  He couldn’t afford to think about this newly awakened desire for her right now, in spite of the pleasure of it.  Hopefully there would be time to examine that particular lovely mystery later.

Taking a step back towards Johnny, Willie grabbed his hand.  He noticed that she was careful to make sure it was his left hand she latched onto.  She started pulling him with her even closer to the camp.  In fact, they were now nearly on top of the cold remains of the campfire and the armed man who stood near it.  And still he simply stared at them.  It was almost like he didn’t believe they were real, and there behind him, the rowdy men on the blanket continued with their card game, unaware.

When they were very close, Johnny stumbled back from Willie with deliberate exaggeration, as though unsure of himself, as though afraid to go further, afraid of the man before them.  Willie, however, continued forward without him, reaching a hand out like she would caress the confused guard once she was close enough, offering him the promise of her touch.

They were much nearer to the rest of the slave traders now too, of course, closer than Johnny ever thought they would get without raising an alarm, and their actions now drew the attention of the two on the red and black blanket who were facing in their direction.  Johnny heard one of them call out, “what the hell?” and then all four were standing quickly, as if one person, staring at them, their guns drawn without fanfare and with little forethought.  Another man, a big man, who had been watching the raucous game, unfolded much more slowly from the sand.  He didn’t reach for his gun, but he was holding a large Apache hunting knife with which he seemed very comfortable.  Although the other five stayed where they stood, this man, with his knife, edged very slowly toward the captives, who had also turned to see what was going on.

Johnny took a moment to hope that none of those girls would recognize him, or, more likely, say anything about recognizing Willie.  Johnny and Willie now had the full regard of a half dozen slave traders and four bound girls.  “Gentlemen, my, my, my” she said, oh so sweetly, “I would be just downright beholden if y’all could help us.”  With a wink, she turned her back on them and slowly swayed her hips as she walked the short way back toward where Johnny had stopped. The feel of the cold, hard gun tucked into his waistband at the small of his back was a solid comfort to Johnny.   He could tell that things were about to get very interesting.

******************************************************************

Scott was concentrating hard on the scene playing out before him.  He couldn’t hear what Willie and Johnny were saying; he just caught shadows of words and phrases on the wind.  But he could see what they were doing.  Where had Willie learned to walk like that?  One thing was certain; they had definitely attracted plenty of attention.  From what he could see, the men at that end of the camp were all very carefully concentrating on the brick and her charms, just as they had hoped would happen.  The Chinese strategies were beginning to fall into place quite nicely.  As he mentally patted himself on the back, a feeling he couldn’t put a name to had him pulling out the opera glasses and making one last sweep of the sea.  And there it was, topping a swell, just what the traders had been waiting for, what the rescuers had been fearing, the topmast of a ship.  Their time was about to completely run out.  

Hurry.  We have to hurry.  He laid the glasses down next to him in the sand and pulled the Spencer up, readying it for the coming fight.  Peering through the gun’s sight, he slowly swung the gun around, taking in all of the slave traders one by one.  Four men no longer playing cards and two men not quite so carefully guarding the girls—that made six, all now apparently enjoying Willie’s display.  One man still fishing, another sleeping, neither had noticed Johnny and Willie yet, were still unaware that the curtain had gone up on this drama.  But, they would soon, of that Scott was very certain—that added up to eight.  That left the sheriff and his two buddies down near the horses, too far away to really be aware of his brother and the girl yet.  And that made 11 . . .and that made 11.  Damn me, he thought; all of his fretting and clock watching and peering around with opera glasses and he couldn’t even count to 12.

And it was a fact that Scott had reached his position on the tall dune far too late to see Everett Winthrop wander off alone into the scruffy, wooded area behind the beach.  The man had finally had enough of staring at the untouchable girls and had gone looking for a private place to slowly and thoroughly contemplate the sweet charms of the curvy, little redhead.  The way Everett had figured it, Flip would keep Graves busy for a while, for long enough anyway, with his slobbering and bowing over the man like he was some kind of a king or something.

And now, as satisfied as he was likely to get until he could get away from this damned business and get to a town where he could pay for some real affection, Everett had buttoned himself up, not more than five minutes ago, and had started making his way back to the beach to await the ship.

Soon, he would get his payment from that fat sheriff, and Everett would use it to escape that little asshole, Flip, once and for all; his sister could go to hell for all he cared.  He was going off to find free-flowing whiskey and touchable whores, lots of whores.  Sneaking his way back to camp, Everett walked into the open at the edge of the trees and was startled to see an unfamiliar man stretched out near the top of the sand dune with a rifle in his hands, a rifle he appeared to have squarely pointed at their camp.  Falling instantly silent, he slipped his gun from its holster and stepped over the slim, rotting trunk of a fallen tree, intent on dealing with this intruder.

Scott saw a tiny slip of motion in his peripheral vision, heard a small sound.  It’s nothing, he thought, a bird maybe, a scattering of breeze blown rain drops.  It’s nothing.  But then, there was a slightly louder scraping sound that didn’t fit in with the rest of the natural sounds around him, the small cracking of a branch that spoke of something bigger and more important than a bird or chipmunk..

In less than an instant, Scott curled up and around.  He fired his rifle almost at the exact time as a shot was fired at him.  Sand kicked up next to his left foot.  Too close.  Too damn close.  And just like that, Everett Winthrop toppled over with a large hole blooming red-black in the middle of his chest.  With his heart kicking erratically, Scott moved quickly to check on him, to insure himself that this man was no longer a threat.  The brown-toothed slave trader stared up at him.  His eyes had already taken on that look of leaving.  “You’ve killed me, haven’t you?” Everett asked in a blood-choked voice.

“I have,” Scott answered him.

“Always thought I’d die in some whore’s bed.”  Everett gasped, and then he was completely still.  His eyes were looking at Scott, but the man was seeing nothing.

“Guess not,”  Scott said, closing his eyes for a moment in relief and regret.  And even though he assumed that the man was well and truly dead, Scott had learned never to take anything at face value; he kicked Everett’s gun as far away from his hand as he could manage.  Then, he turned and bellied back down into his position once more to see what kind of a commotion their gunshots had created on the beach.

And, it had begun, with Scott playing the part of catalyst, not his intended roll at all.  The crack of gunshots and shouts of “Gehen, Gehen,” could be heard, along with frantically screaming horses.  Scott could also hear the sounds of a revolver from Johnny’s end of the beach.  Then from the north, he caught his first sight of Moose luring.  He could see that the man had cut the ropes of the gangs’ remuda and was making enough noise to scare the devil himself, let alone this string of animals.  He was shooting Scott’s handgun into the air with one hand and waving the other, which held an unfurled and flapping bedroll blanket, in big swooping arcs as he stomped his way from the woods and across the sand.  There was a riot of bird-sound laid over the top of Moose’s commotion, chaotic flapping and loud calls, and the horses, a dozen or more, thundered away in confusion and in every direction.

Then, as Scott watched, Moose ran back towards the woods again, still flapping and shouting like a madman, and within seconds, fire erupted with an explosive “Whoosh!” near where the horses had been tethered.  Scott jerked at the unexpected blast. Gunpowder.  Where had Moose been keeping that much gunpowder, one of his wondrous coat pockets for God’s sake?  Then the treetops were suddenly alive with crackling flames.  Hell of a distraction, Scott thought as he pulled the stock of the gun in next to his cheek again and peered through the sight----one hell of a distraction.

Down the beach, he saw Sheriff Graves, the two men who had been near him, and the determined fisherman all start towards the fire, towards the rampaging horses, away from Willie and Johnny.  The short man with the ponytail was grabbing for, but not capturing, horses as they passed him, trying to catch onto their trailing ropes.  He could hear the sheriff calling to the other men to “Get the damn horses.”  Even the sleeping man had been roused and was now running in the direction of the blaze.  Did they think they could put out such an inferno?

Scott swung his sights back to his brother’s situation.  Willie was moving quickly now.  She appeared to be gathering the girls for a run to the woods.  He could see that she had thrown one arm around the shoulders of her sister, that she kept herself between Clairie and the gunfire.

For as much time as they had spent planning this operation, they hadn’t thought too much about what they would do after they got the girls, hadn’t really discussed much beyond the getting of them, perhaps worried that if they planned it, it wouldn’t come to pass.  That ending part of the plan was simply that they would all meet back at the horses.  Scott could see that his brother had now put himself between the running girls and the men on the beach.  Johnny was down on one knee in the sand, engaged in a general exchange of gunfire, miraculously unscathed.  On the other hand, two of the slave traders were already stretched still and bloody on the ground.  Scott aimed and took down another man who had his gun pointed at his brother.  

**************************************************************

The moment he heard two nearly simultaneous gunshots from the direction of Scott’s dune, Johnny had his gun in his hand and was in motion.  He gave Willie a small shove towards the girls, and the eyes she turned to him were filled with fear, but for the first time in the two days he had known her, also with hope.  “Go on, Querida.  Go.  Stay low,” he said.  “Run.”

For a split second, as Willie turned to do as he instructed, the jumble of slave traders on the beach stood frozen.  They seemed indecisive, were unmoving.  Then, Johnny watched as every head turned towards the direction of the shots behind the dune.  To his left, he could hear Willie calling to the girls, calling to Clairie, telling them to follow her.  And they did, all of them, stumbling across the sand in a flurry of satin and lace.

The man who had been closest to them, the one Willie had been working so hard to charm and distract was the first to turn back, and Johnny quickly put a neat hole in the center of his forehead as he raised his rifle to aim it at the girls.  From the corner of his eye, Johnny could see the captives, along with Willie, as they started running now, running for their lives. He went down on one knee in the sand to make himself a slightly smaller target and instantly took away the threat of a second man, one of the card players, who had swung around to fire on him.

More of the men from the aborted card game were turning back around now, suddenly very aware that Johnny and Willie did indeed represent a threat, and Johnny didn’t even have time to complete the thought needed to worry about Scott and the prematurity of gunfire from that direction before a loud roar shook the ground around them.  He threw himself flat on the ground, fired again from there, and another man went down, screaming and rolling in the sand.

Across the way, he could see flames rising up to meet the overcast sky, black smoke rolling furiously, and at least a dozen horses racing throughout the camp, churning up small showers of sand with their fast hooves and squealing as though their tails had been caught in the blaze.  All right Moose, he thought.  That man sure knows how to lure.  He heard a shot from the top of the dune; with relief, he realized that his brother must be still alive and kicking.  Another shot came from that direction, and a man to his left slumped over onto the sand, his dead hand still clutching his gun.  Next to him, a tall Mexican looked around at all of his fallen companions, looked back at Johnny, dropped his gun to the ground, and raised his hands high in the air.  “Me rindo,” he shouted, “me rindo.”

“Kick that gun over here,” Johnny said to him in Spanish.  And when the man hesitated, he repeated his command more forcefully.  “Do it, Chilito.  You will get no sympathy from me because of the color of our skin.  Usted es uno de estos pimp.  Do you understand pimp?  Estos abadesa?”  This man was making money off of the innocence of young girls, and there was no forgiving that.  “Mula!” he spat at him.  He just couldn’t understand how someone like this, someone who had very likely grown up in poverty just like Johnny had, had probably seen the exploitation, how could someone like this trade in human lives, condemn girls like Clairie.  “Did you learn this craft by selling your baby sister, hombre?  Did you go on to bigger and better things from there?”

The man dropped to his knees and spoke to Johnny in English.  “No, no, Senor, no.  I am good Catholic. No abadesa.”  And the man vigorously crossed himself as though to do so would prove his innocence.  With a frustrated snarl, Johnny’d had enough talk and simply reached out and tapped the man on the side of his head with the butt of his gun, sending him down, instantly unconscious.  Then he took a piece of rope someone had abandoned on the ground and quickly tied the good Catholic’s hands behind his back. When he was done, he looked up the beach to find that Moose was now firing on the group at the far end along with Scott.  At least one man was down; it looked like the fisherman to Johnny.  All he knew for sure was that at this end of the beach, four men lay dead or dying around him and one was tied.  There was no sign of the girls, except their footprints.  They had melted into the woods at least two or three minutes ago.  As far as he knew, that left six men, all still armed.

Johnny lifted his revolver to aim it at someone farther down the beach—in fact, he had decided that Walter Graves, who, failing to capture a horse, had turned to run away on foot, made a fine, fat target—but just as he was ready to pull his trigger, a gigantic speeding steam engine plowed into him, from the direction of the rising tide, screaming like one of hell’s demons, and this steam engine came equipped with a very sharp, very long Apache knife.

 

Part 18

Their sudden path across the beach was frenzied and desperate, a flailing of arms and legs.  The two men rolled over and over in the rain-dampened sand, finally coming to a jarring stop against the ring of campfire stones.

This man was just too damn big to fight hand to hand.  His terrible bulk, resting on Johnny’s chest, made breathing a difficult task, something he had to think very hard about doing, and, starved for air, he pushed frantically at his attacker with both hands.

Drawing every shallow breath was a hard fought battle.  Hell, Johnny was beginning to pray ardently that he could just stay conscious. Under the weight of the man, he pushed and struggled frantically to get free, but the huge slave trader simply snarled down at him and leaned even harder, his sweaty face far too close for comfort, his breath a rank blast of evil.

And, all the while, although self-preservation was a prime focus, breathing a priority, and the man on top of him a definite distraction, Johnny still registered gunshots in the distance.  He thought of Scott and Moose, hoped they were all right.  But the furor of his opponent, the intensity of this struggle, made everything else seem so far removed that Johnny could almost imagine he was home at Lancer, lying late in bed, could hear the faint popping sounds in the distance, but turned them from being gunshots, turned them to the sound of hammering, as though someone were pounding nails out by the barn.  For a moment, he truly believed it was Jelly working away out there, waking him up with those soft ‘pop’ ‘popping’ sounds.  “Damn it, Jelly,” he muttered in a small, breathless voice,  “quit pounding.”

And then, the man above him shifted, grinding Johnny’s sore leg into the unforgiving sand with a hard thrust of his knee, and, just like that, Johnny knew exactly where he was.  Mercifully, pushing down on his leg also caused his opponent to lift slightly from his chest as he completed the leg grinding action.  And Johnny, in spite of the blaze rekindling in his leg, was given a brief respite, the gift of a deep breath, which was quick and then gone, but he was able to focus again.  He spoke to the slave trader, his voice angry, but barely above a whisper, “Get off of me—ballena gorda—go wallow in the sea where you belong.”

His gun had been ripped from his hand during the surprising and violent initial impact, so Johnny couldn’t simply shoot the great oaf, as he would have preferred at this moment, and he was rapidly losing the battle to keep the slave trader’s arms contained. It seemed that in spite of his bulk, this big man was quick and strong.  His arms were like small tree trunks.  And, on top of everything else, the misting rain had made both men slick with moisture.  It was harder than hell to get and keep a grip on anything.

Then, Johnny could see the flash of the wicked knife he had been trying so hard to avoid.  The big slave trader’s left wrist slipped from his grasp.  He would never quite know how he managed it, but a last second desperate shift to the side kept the man from embedding the weapon in Johnny’s chest.  Instead, he felt the knife slide effortlessly into the fleshy part of his upper arm, felt the stomach-churning impact as it scraped against bone, hung up there for an agonizing moment, and, at last, slid on past that resistance.  Then he noted, almost like it was happening to someone else, the lack of further resistance as the knife continued through. From some distant place, he decided that it must have buried its tip in the sand below.  He was impaled.  The warmth of his blood as it began to well up and seep into the sand beneath him was not unexpected.

The big man growled at him now, bared his teeth, his mouth smirked with perverse pleasure at Johnny’s silent but obvious suffering.  He breathed his foul breath in Johnny’s face, and he twisted the knife, for good measure.  Johnny yelled then, unable to stop himself.  The pain was hot and white, and it seemed that it might possibly be eternal.  But then suddenly, thank God, his tormentor was gone.  His leering grin was replaced almost instantly by the concerned face of Willie. His vision was blurred, but he knew her, could see that she stood above him with a large rock from the fire ring held between trembling hands; he could see that she was crying.  The huge slaver was in a heap right next to Johnny, most of him flopped in with the charred wood of the dead fire.

“Johnny?  Johnny?”  But Johnny couldn’t speak; he was too busy gulping in huge draughts of air.  Willie heaved the stone away and knelt next to Johnny as he struggled to sit up.  The big slave trader was very obviously dead.  The rock had done its job and had neatly split his skull.  She pushed at the dead man until she had freed Johnny from him.  “Dear God, Johnny, your arm.”  Instinctively, she reached out to try to offer comfort to the bleeding man, placed her hand on his shoulder.

Finally, he was able think around the pain, to get enough air to speak.  “Dios, Willie,” he gasped.  “What in hell are you doin’ here?  You’re supposed to be with the girls.  You’re gonna get yourself dead.”

She snatched her hand away from him.  “Right now, those girls are a sight better off than your ungrateful ass.  I just saved your life, Gunslinger.”  Willie’s words were harsh, but she looked near panic.  Then, “you’re hurt, Johnny,” she said, in a very small voice.  She sat completely down now in the sand, right next to him, leaned over him, ducking her head and hunching her shoulders at the sound of the gunshots which still exploded farther up the beach.  She reached out to him again, reached out towards the big knife that protruded obscenely from Johnny’s arm as though she didn’t quite believe it was real; blood soaked the sleeve of his shirt, the sleeve she had so playfully torn on the top of Widow’s Rock, blood soaked the sand on which he lay.  He pushed her hand away, and with one quick yank, pulled the knife out.

“Johnny,” she yelped.

He was running on pure adrenaline.  He let the knife fall to the sand and stood quickly, only swaying just a little; she stood too, and Johnny reached for her, shaking her some to get her to focus on something besides his bloody arm.  “Go on,” he said as he searched the ground for his gun.  “I’m okay.  You go get those girls away from here, Willie just as far and as fast as you can.  Take care of Clairie.”

“But your arm . . . ”

Johnny had already turned from her; he scooped up his gun from the sand and headed across the camp in the direction of the continued firefight.   

****************************************************  

The entire north end of the beach seemed to be filled with frightened horses, burning trees and random gunshots.  In the midst of the lingering chaos, Scott broke cover and stood to his full height to get a better line on the slave trader who stood below him shooting wildly and often.  Right at the moment though, rather than being random and wild, this particular desperado seemed to have calmed enough to take aim and was about to shoot Moose in the back. 

Scott did a another quick count as he stood, hoping, with a little mental slap, for more accuracy this time; he could see, there in the confusion of plunging animals and shouting men, that there were only three slave traders left at this end of the beach.  This number did not include Sheriff Walter Graves.  It would appear that the man was as cowardly as he was lazy.  He seemed perfectly willing to leave his men to the mercy of their attackers.  Scott had watched him, but had been unable to get a shot at him, as he had fled to the north in his fancy rattlesnake boots.  The man seemed to be an expert at saving his own fat hide.  He had rounded an outcropping of rock and disappeared as soon as he had seen his lackeys falling around him and, apparently, realized he would not be able to catch a horse.  

Scott took the shot he needed to make now, and the man who had been peacefully sleeping on the beach so recently, but who had soon joined the fight with a vengeance, lay crumpled on the ground.  Moose whipped around and looked up at Scott as the man fell to the sand right behind him.  He nodded a brief thank-you, touching two fingers to his brow in a mock salute, and then quickly put a bullet in another man who was aiming at something farther down the beach.  Then he turned back and continued doggedly with the task which had taken his attention before and had opened him up to being a target in the first place.  One of the traders, the short man with the bowed legs, had finally managed to capture the rope of one of the horses, and he now seemed determined to mount that horse without the advantage of a saddle.  Moose seemed equally determined to stop him.  Scott could hear the small man calling out as he tried unsuccessfully to jump high enough to get on the horse.  “Wait for me Boss, wait for me,” he yelled.

 

Scott slipped and slid down the other side of his dune to join Moose, and as he did, he saw his brother coming towards them.  He could see that one of Johnny’s arms hung limply at his side, and his progress was somewhat awkward.  His shirt sleeve was spectacularly blood-stained, but his other hand held his gun straight and fairly true, although it appeared unnaturally stiff.  Scott detoured immediately to intercept his brother.  Behind him, he could still hear the whining, long-haired slave trader.  Even though this small man could obviously see that he was the last one of them all still standing on the beach, he continued to call out to Graves, as though he actually believed that the man would turn around and come back to help him.  “Mr. Graves,” he called, his voice pitiful and pleading. “Boss?”  And then, to them he said, “You best leave me alone.  The Boss will be back for me, and then you’ll be damned sorry you messed with me.”  But, bless Moose, with a heavy fist to the young man’s jaw, he shut his yammering mouth.

Scott continued on in Johnny’s direction, and the closer he got, the better he could see that his brother was in big trouble.  Johnny’s steps had become so faltering, he looked like he was drunk, and his left arm, the arm holding his gun, now hung at his side.  With a worried frown, Scott broke into a run and called out, “Johnny.”  Moose looked up at Scott’s shout and followed his line of sight to the staggering man.  He too started running in that direction.  Before they could reach him, Johnny sank to his knees in the sand.

“Johnny, my God, your arm.”  Scott reached out and caught his brother by the shoulders right before he would have pitched forward.

“Scott?”   Johnny’s arms hung heavy; he dropped the gun in the sand.  “Scott.”

Then, someone was helping him to lie down.  Someone was talking to him, telling him he was going to be okay.  Hell, he knew that.  Who said he wouldn’t be?  No whale of a slave trader with a giant knife could get the best of him.  Dios, his arm hurt.  It was Scott; Scott was talking to him.  He was using that voice—the one he used when he was mad, but not really, just being all “big brother” with him.  Moose’s face swam into view.  Moose was saying something to him.  Why were they babbling at him?  Be quiet.

He had nearly lost his fragile hold on the world completely now, didn’t know if it was day or night, couldn’t separate the highs and lows, couldn’t hear the beach sounds anymore, the surf crashing, the gulls screaming, couldn’t hear the horses—he remembered that only moments ago the horses had been loud, very frightened—couldn’t hear the trees crackling and burning—and what a great job Moose had done with that—but he could still hear Scott, not the words, just the voice and that damned irritating tone.  He could hear Willie—Willie was here with her mass of ripe wheat hair and the sexiest mouth he had ever seen, ever kissed, a mouth spouting a southern drawl—she sounded scared now though, before she had sounded confident and in control.  What’s scaring you now, Willie?  We won didn’t we?  But, she was supposed to go back to the girls, stubborn ornery woman.  Why couldn’t she just for once in her life listen?  And suddenly, someone was pushing on his arm, making it scream at him, making him scream.  It was too much.

And then, the next thing he knew, someone was leaning over him, holding a wet rag to his forehead.  She was pretty, a younger, redheaded version of Willie.  More freckles – the thought came to the front of his consciousness with no prompting.  His arm burned like hellfire, causing his stomach to roll and churn.  He looked away from redheaded, freckle-faced Willie and down at his burning arm, expecting flames.  Instead, he saw that someone had fashioned a sling for it from what looked suspiciously like a petticoat.  “Willie, he’s awake,” the redhead called out too loudly, making his head ache fiercely.

“Johnny.”  His brother was there now, appearing like an apparition, and he was holding his head up a little, holding a canteen to his mouth.  Johnny was truly awake now.  He could see that they were back where they had left the horses, could see Barranca standing peacefully nearby, and he wondered how they had gotten here, how much time had passed.  He could see that the Good Catholic slave trader was conscious, was tied to a horse nearby, sitting there impassively, his eyes downcast.  Johnny caught his eye, and the man began vigorously crossing himself once again, hampered by the bound state of his hands, which made the action seem even less convincing than before.  Next to him was a weasel-like boy, really, with a greasy, black ponytail.  This particular slave trader was anything but impassive.  He was whining and fussing at Moose as the big German tied his bound hands to the saddle horn. His voice was cutting straight through Johnny’s already-pounding head as he rambled on, something about a boss.  He could see the bright hair and flashing skirts of the girls and knew that they had been successful in their rescue attempt.  He could also see the worried face of his brother peering down at him.  “Johnny, can you hear me?”

“Course I can hear ya.  Stabbed me in the arm, not the ear.”  Even to Johnny, his voice sounded weak.

“We need to hurry, Johnny.  Men from the ship will be on the beach soon.  I saw the topmasts nearly 45 minutes ago.  We’re going to put you up in front of Moose on Helmut.”  Johnny could see that as Scott spoke, Moose was busy getting the girls organized, who was riding what with whom.

“Like hell you are.”  Johnny pushed himself up.  His head still swam a little, but the world came into focus fairly quickly.  His arm hurt like hell, but he could damn well ride.  His eyes sought Willie, and he found her tending to Cleo.  She had put her baggy denim pants back on under Scott’s shirt and her mud-splattered, corduroy jacket on over it. He could also see she had pushed her hair up again under her hat.  She had the Quickloader buckled under her arm, where it seemed to fit quite naturally, and she looked every bit that pencil-slim boy they had first met in Walter Grave’s jailhouse.  It didn’t matter now though; he had seen the real Willie, seen clear down to her playacting heart.  She wouldn’t fool him again.  He tried to catch her eye, but she was resolute in appearing to ignore him.  “I’m okay, Scott,” he said, as his brother took his arm to steady him.  “I can ride.  Haven’t fallen off my horse since I was a kid.”

“Johnny,”  that big brother voice again.

“No, Scott.  I’ll ride Barranca.”  And he did, alone, actually made it for nearly an hour, with Willie riding quietly beside him, offering silent, if somewhat distant, support.  And then, barely realizing how he got there, he rode up in front of Moose for the rest of the trip to Kleinstadt, although he remembered little of it, except that his stomach sure wouldn’t settle—he might have thrown up on poor Helmut if he had eaten anything in recent memory—that his arm had stopped hurting eventually and was simply numb for the rest of the trip, that Moose and Helmut were strong and steady, and that he had caught Willie looking at him three different times with a worried frown.

****************************************************************

Then, they were in Kleinstadt.  The whole bedraggled bunch of them made their way slowly along in a string.  The good citizens watched their passing from behind partly-drawn curtains and with very little comment.  But, very soon, Mama Lena was there, loud and bustling with motherly concern as she ran to meet them.  “Lord, you’re home.  You’re all safe.  My stars, my stars.”  She nearly vibrated with the excitement of seeing the girls back. 

She hugged them all—her own dear girls, then Sophie Carter from the Hog’s Breath, a smiling Clairie, and finally, Willie, to the girl’s supreme embarrassment.  Johnny could hear her yelp of protest: “Lena, I’ve told you before to quit motherin’ me quite so big.”  

And Lena was very particularly pleased to see that Moose was safe and whole.  In fact, she must have been very, very glad to see him.  She grabbed the bald, big-hearted man as soon as he slid down from Helmut and enveloped him in her arms, pulled him to her ample bosom.  Watching the display, Johnny figured the kiss she gave him might just last the man well into next week.  In fact, the heat of it nearly scorched Johnny where he sat.

As for Johnny himself, he was busy being slumped still, but trying not to be, on the white mule’s back, and was also busy puzzling out how he might get down.  He contemplated the long, long way to the ground, and then, deciding it was too hard to figure out, without moving, he watched the activity around him silently, the hugs, the passionate kiss, and the two prisoners being hustled towards the jail cell that had been so recently, and hastily, vacated by Johnny Madrid and the Boston Kid.  He watched a man come and take the two men off of their hands, heard Moose ask about his leg, and the man had answered that it had been, “just a scratch, my friend.”  Of Walter Graves, there was no sign, not that they had expected one. 

Moose had called out to man leading the prisoners off as he walked away.  “Um Himmel’s willen, Gustav, and for your own sanity, keep the little one gagged.”

Johnny’s descent from Helmut was taken out of his hands, and Johnny had been carried, damn them anyway, to a big feather bed at Mama Lena’s House.  And while he didn’t want to put anyone out, or interrupt the workplace dynamics, so to speak, he just really didn’t have the strength to argue about it.  Just give him one good night’s sleep though, and then he would do plenty of arguing, just one night’s sleep. They had cleaned his wounds, old and new, sewn him some, and bandaged his arm again; Mama Lena, for all of her sugar-sweet words and hugs, was a damned she-wolf with a bottle of carbolic.  And she wasn’t shy at all with a needle and thread either.  Her abrupt and thorough nursing skills left him panting and weak, left Scott frowning, but outmaneuvered.

Scott was there, giving him a cool drink of water from a tin cup.  Johnny drifted some and wondered if they were at home.  His brother had pulled a brightly patterned quilt up to Johnny’s waist, and had gone to shut the window against the a new round of relentless rain pattering away on the roof. Other people were moving about the room too.  Teresa maybe.  Johnny, confused and tired, had asked,  “Are we home, Scott?” And his brother had simply said, “No, Brother.”

So, no, not home then.  Kleinstadt, he remembered.

Then they had all left him, Lena and Moose were there, but he realized it only as they left.  Scott had walked out too, had stood in the doorway for a moment and had ordered him to “get some rest.”  And he would, really wanted to, but it was just that, right now, his thoughts all seemed to be hung there in front of him, suspended like icicles on a branch, and he felt like he needed to examine them some; all he could manage to do though was to touch each one briefly and then move on.  He thought of the buckets of rain and of Lancer, of that bull they hadn’t yet retrieved from Sacramento.  He touched on the flood in the red-walled canyon, the gunplay and the rescue of the girls.  He examined thoughts of his brother, of singing and drinking with him before they had met up with Sheriff Graves, of Chinese strategies and burning trees. He wondered about Moose and Lena, about their heated kiss.  Of course, he thought of Willie, of her amazing combination of hard and soft, of her openness and secrets, of her silences and quiet joy.  And, as he drifted towards sleep at last, his eyes heavier than he could ever remember, at the edge of the circle of golden, flickering lamplight, there she was.

“Willie?” he whispered.

“Shhhh.  Yeah, it’s me.  Just go to sleep, Gunslinger,” she answered him softly, moving to the bed, her hand reaching out to brush back his unruly hair.

“Willie?” he said her name again, his eyes dropping closed.

“What Johnny?”

“Hector?” he asked.

She leaned over him, her hair hanging long and loose, draping around them, and she kissed him softly on the mouth, her lips so very warm.  “Go to sleep, Hector,” she said, and then just like smoke, she was gone.

 

Epilogue

With a whispery, pain-filled groan, Scott Lancer rolled slowly from his side to his back and, in the dim light of very early morning, stared up at the wood-beamed and whitewashed ceiling of his room. Even though it definitely continued to feel good to be in his own bed once again, on this particular morning, his head pounded rhythmically.

In spite of that achy pounding, he remembered that he had been having a very pleasant dream involving Lizzie McMillan, her laughing black eyes, and her assets, and he longed to slip back to it.  But instead, unfortunately, he awoke more fully, letting go of Lizzie and her lace handkerchief very reluctantly.  As he lay quietly, trying to will the drumming in his head away, he thought about the fact that he had earned this small hangover the night before by sipping at more than several snifters of brandy.  He and the others had been lounging in the great room after supper.  A warm fire worked its hardest to take the pervading dampness from the room.  Those brandies, sensuous and earthy, had followed a fair number of glasses of surprisingly excellent and locally grown California wine, which had accompanied his evening meal.

It was raining again.  It had started in earnest nearly a week ago, and it hadn't stopped. Once again, the sound of rain on the roof had become a constant companion.  The drip, drip, dripping had become, as before, torture.  Lord, how he wished for the heat and sweat of summer, for the chance to complain about things being "dry as dirt." Again, tempers were flaring, nerves were stretched to the limit, and sewing scissors had been hidden.

Truly, the wine and brandy had been self-medication.  He remembered watching through his brandy haze as Johnny tossed back quite a few shots of tequila, so Scott figured that he wasn't the only one feeling the pervading evil nature of the rain.  In fact, Johnny had seemed particularly prickly ever since they had returned from Sacramento, at last, with Murdoch's bull.  The bull had been as docile as a virgin in church on their trip home, so it hadn't been the animal's doing that his brother was so moody. In fact, it had been nearly three weeks now since their return, and Johnny's mood had been quietly, but consistently, black.

Finally, Scott pulled himself from lethargy and from bed and dressed for his day.  As with every other long, long day this week, he anticipated short tempers, angry words, and pervading dampness.  He buttoned his limp shirt and stuffed his feet into his clammy boots,  listening as a crash of thunder rolled into the room.  He could feel the air tremble with it.

The echoing thunder reminded him of how they had suffered through a similar drenching storm on that first night of Johnny's recovery in Lena's big feather bed in Kleinstadt.  After his brother had been doctored, the good Madame, who seemed to have many diverse talents, had fed them all a savory stew and had insisted that there was plenty of room for everyone to bed down in her multi-bedroomed home.  And, in fact, it had been the best and most restful sleep Scott could remember in many weeks.

The next morning, with the rain now just barely clinging on, he had slogged across the muddy main street of the town and had sent a wire to his father.  It had amazed him, when the answer had come from Lancer, how Murdoch could sound so angry in a telegram, in amongst the lack of subjects at the beginnings and the "stops" at the ends.  He had very clearly not been happy that Scott and Johnny had found "a way to get into trouble, stop."  But, Scott had also heard, or at the very least, imagined, a tone of concern underlying the words, in spite of the brevity and terseness of the message.

He finished shaving now, wiped the remnants of soap from his face, and wandered to the window to pull aside the curtain and take in the stormy morning.  Puddles stood everywhere in the stretch of land he could see in his limited view sweeping across to the barn, and they dimpled with the continued onslaught of silvery drops.  As he watched, lightning lit the sky again and was reflected in those puddles.  But, the thunder was slower in coming this time, and he hoped it was a good sign.  As he stood and daydreamed for a moment, his eye caught and stayed on The Tree.  In his mind that particular tree should always be spelled with capital letters.  He looked at it often from this very spot.  It was the first place he had ever stood with a true and loving knowing of what it meant to have a brother.  Now he would always know. Thinking of Johnny that day, of Johnny's blood on his shirt, on his hands, sent him straight to thinking about the day of the girls' rescue and the blood and hurt of that day.

Johnny had frustrated him with his typical stubborn attitude.  "I can ride.  Haven't fallen off my horse since I was a kid." he had insisted.  And he had definitely started to scare Scott when he then, very suddenly as they rode along, began to slump in the saddle and did nearly fall from Barranca's back.  In the background of his thoughts, as he worried about his brother, the rescued girls had sounded like a flock of twittering birds to Scott, their relief making them all very light and as shiny as polished copper.  Willie, on their slow trip home, had seemed to be caught between that lightness of relief for her sister and a heavier worry for Johnny.  And, overlaid on everything else, that damned kid slave trader with the pimply face had nearly driven them all completely insane with his whining and boasting.  But, soon, Moose had taken over the transportation of Johnny, and Scott had efficiently and completely gagged the kid, and the trip went more smoothly after that.

Scott was a little surprised that they had only needed to spend a week at Mama Lena's as Johnny built his strength back up from losing so much blood.  But his brother had been fairly good about it, for Johnny, had stayed in bed, even though it had sometimes taken the combined efforts of Scott, Lena and Moose to keep him there.  Scott suspected that Johnny was just a little bit afraid of Lena.  She had proven to be the most successful at shutting his complaining mouth. Willie spent some time occupying his brother as well.  In fact, he was slightly suspicious that, for once, Johnny may have been ready for the trip even sooner than he had let on, rather than his usual trick of trying to move around too soon.

For the most part, Scott had spent his week dealing with their prisoners, and watching as the townsfolk tried to decide who might become their next Sheriff, which they hadn't done by the time the brothers took their leave, and looking around the countryside, with Moose's help, for the elusive Sheriff Walter Graves.  They never did find the man, not even a footprint from those fancy boots.  He had disappeared, like a mirror's reflection, with only the clothes on his back.  And, they had, ultimately, finally, left the details of the whole awful business to the territorial authorities.

One of the most interesting things that happened that week in Kleinstadt was that Mama Lena sold her business to Leisle, and she and Moose started packing up to move away.  They packed up clothes and furniture.  They packed up dishes and knick knacks.  They packed up a player piano. And they even packed up Willie and Clairie.  The whole bunch of them were headed off with their lives packed up tightly and neatly in the old painted wagon for a fresh start in Sacramento.  The girls' father could apparently care less where they went or with whom they went there.  And during the week he was there in the town, Scott never once saw the man.

None of them were quite sure what their fresh start would involve, but they were all sure about what it wouldn't involve.  Mama Lena was done being a Madame; Moose was done with not being married to Lena; Clairie said she was most assuredly done with slave traders; and Willie was done with being a boy.  Johnny seemed to be pleased about that particular development, and the sight of Willie in a dress made it very clear to Scott why.  It made him smile when he thought about how, as soon as Johnny was able to move about the house a little, then around the town a tiny bit, Scott had caught the two of them, Johnny and Willie, more than once, "getting to know one another a little better."

As he headed down the stairs to his breakfast on this rainy morning, Scott's musings had helped him decide that Johnny's shots of tequila last night probably had more to do with Willie, an absence of Willie, than with the evil rain.

"Where's Johnny," he asked, as he sat down in his usual place at the well-used kitchen table.  "Just because it's raining doesn't mean he gets to lie in bed."

Maria set a plate of eggs and biscuits in front of him and answered. "Mr. Johnny is not here."

"I can see that, Maria," he teased her gently.   "Where is he?"  He looked across to his father who was reaching out blindly, and accurately, f or his cup of coffee from behind an open newspaper.

"Well, isn't that what she's tellin' ya, Mr. Smarty Pants.  We don't know, where he is."  Jelly always joined them for breakfast these days, and it often made for some interesting meals.  "She found a note at Johnny's spot this mornin'," he continued.  "I swear 'at smart aleck just don't make no sense at all sometimes."

Murdoch put the paper aside and picked the note up from where it lay by his plate.  He passed it to Scott.  "Maybe you can make sense of it, Son," he said.

"Well, I'll certainly try, Sir."

Scott opened the note and began to read.  It seemed straightforward enough at first.  "Murdoch.  Don't worry," it said.  "I'll be back in a few days."  Then, "Tell Scott I've gone to lure a brick down the mountain with some silk blossoms.  Johnny."

"Well?"  Jelly was ready to burst with the not knowing of it.

Scott looked at the man and shrugged his shoulders.  "I don't know, Jelly," he said with a broad smile,  "sounds like gibberish to me."

 

~end~

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