The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Suzanne

 

 

A Matter Of Trust

The hacienda was sitting pretty in the light of a full moon when Johnny rode up, reminding him of that white stallion he'd come across in the high country one night. It had been a wily old thing; too clever to be caught by his itty bitty lasso the following day.

He knew where he'd find Lancer's white stallion: sitting at his desk - or maybe by the fire. That's where Johnny found him the last three nights when he'd walked inside.

A lantern had been left burning outside the barn. He grabbed it then led Barranca into his stall.

He knew he was being watched as he lifted the saddle off. Watched and judged and found wanting if the grunts he heard were anything to go by. He didn't look up as he brushed Barranca's coat. “Nice night out there, Jelly.”

From the corner of his eye he saw Jelly pick up the rake, as if he'd always been intending to come in the barn at midnight and rake the straw some. Jelly sure had a knack for showing up – like a bad smell, Scott said - when you'd figured he might be someplace else.

“Only for those who've got nothin' better to do with their time than stay up half the night gallivanting around town. That ain't how I'd let any boy a mine spend their time, I can tell you that. An' you call yerself a respectable rancher.”

Well at least he got a reply – and that was more than he got most times when he talked to Jelly - even if it was little better than a dressing down.

He latched the stall door then headed out the barn, scuffing the toe of his boot a couple of times as he went. Sometimes he wished they'd never heard of Jelly and his kids.





Maria had just taken the tray of biscuits from the oven when Teresa heard the scuffle of boots on the flagstones.

She turned around then put her hands on her hips and watched them for a moment before she said. “Morning Scott. Johnny.” It was Scott who managed to come in the kitchen first. At times like this she wondered what happened to the man who stepped off the stage; the one who looked like his only concerns in life would be the cut of his jacket and finding the nattiest hat.

Scott stopped short. “Morning, Teresa.”

As usual, his greeting was Boston smooth but always warm - and that was remarkable this morning, seeing as he was trying to hold Johnny back with his outstretched arm. Johnny's “T'resa,” on the other hand, was haphazard. He barely looked at her as he took a swipe at Scott's arm.

She had no desire to be trampled before she'd even had breakfast, so she stepped aside and let them both pass. When she turned back to the stove she could hear them jostling for a seat; no doubt the one closest to the plate of eggs.

She took the platter of hot biscuits from Maria and set them down on the table, then sat down opposite the two of them, just in time to catch Johnny elbow Scott in the ribs. Johnny was changing too. Less and less she saw that look in his eye; the one that said he was weighing every word you said, like he was deliberating if you were worth his while.

Scott held up his hand. “Now, Johnny, don't be a sore loser.” He scooped two eggs onto his plate. “Teresa these eggs are fried to perfection.”

Johnny was scowling. “And you call yourself a gentleman. You call tripping me in the hallway fair?”

“Where breakfast is concerned, there's no such thing as fair. You showed me that when you set the clock in my room back an hour yesterday.”

“That was only because you finished off the eggs Monday before I even got to the table.”

Scott offered Johnny the lone egg left on the plate. “Solely because no one told me you hadn't eaten and how was I to know the hens were broody not to mention Teresa feeding nearly all our remaining eggs to Jelly when he was lying at death's door?”

“You could've asked.”

“Would you?”

Johnny didn't even try to hide his grin as he forked the egg onto his plate. “Nope.”

Teresa sat down opposite them. “Oh, you two. Haven't you got anything better to do than haggle over the eggs?”

Johnny's fork stopped mid-way to his mouth and for a second there his stillness made her think she'd said the wrong thing. But then he shoved the egg in his mouth and looked across at Scott. “You got anything better to do?”

Scott looked to be thinking about it – for all of two seconds. “Ah – no.”

“Well I'll give you both something better to do.” All three of them looked up as Murdoch came into the kitchen. He was looking awfully smug.

“And just what would that be?” Johnny was sounding cautious.

“Jelly's putting the tools together to finish repairing the barn roof. But he needs help. One of you.”

Scott grimaced. “How is it that last word sounds like a death knell?

“You know, Murdoch, I've got this thing about heights. Maybe Scott oughtta…”

“I hate to tell you this, Johnny, but I've already promised to take Teresa over to the McClure place this morning.”

She blinked. He had? Well that was news to her. She opened her mouth – and almost missed the wink Scott gave her.

Johnny leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. He was looking downright suspicious. “I don't remember T'resa asking you to do that, brother.”

Scott kept on buttering his biscuit. “If you'd come to church on Sunday instead of snoring your head off you would've known about it.”

Well that explained it. Scott must have overheard Amy inviting her when they were talking after church about that poetry book Amy got for her birthday. She poured Murdoch his coffee as he sat down. “Thank you, Teresa. And Johnny, you'd better get out there right after breakfast. We could be in for some rain later on.”

“Murdoch, can't one of the hands do it? I mean, ain't that the reason we've got' em, so they can do all the chores we don't wanna do?” Johnny grinned at Scott as he said that last part.

Scott grinned back but then he started frowning. “I thought I saw Hank working with Jelly on the roof yesterday? Why can't he finish it off with Jelly today?”

“Because Hank's going into town to get the mail.” Murdoch spoke in that bracing tone he used when he wanted to cheer one of them up. Only it sounded a bit forced this morning.

“I thought I was meant to do that after checking on the kids.” Johnny wasn't smiling now.

“Johnny, you've checked on those boys every day this past week. It's time we left them alone - give them a chance to settle in with their new families.” Murdoch took one look at his face. “John, there's always tomorrow.”

But Johnny was giving Murdoch one of his shrewd looks now. “That still doesn't answer why Hank can't help Jelly before he heads into town.”

It was only then that she remembered the ruckus. “Oh, I know why.”

Two faces, full of curiosity, looked at her and she was happy to oblige. “Well, I heard Hank tell Jelly that if…” She happened to glance at Murdoch just then, but he wasn't looking curious at all. Far from it.

“Go on. If what?” Johnny was saying.

“If…if…” She swallowed.

“If he had to work another minute with Jelly he'd quit?” Scott finished for her.

Thank heavens Scott said those words and not her. “You were there?” She hadn't thought he'd been anywhere around at the time.

“I didn't have to be.”

“Oh.”

“You know we aren't going to have any hands left if Jelly keeps this up,” Scott announced to no-one in particular.

Murdoch picked up the paper. “Come on now, Scott. You're exaggerating. Teresa, are there any more eggs?”

“Look, I felt sorry for him too when he we took the kids away from him, but it's obvious now that he has to go. Jelly's done nothing but cause trouble from the time he's been here.”

“I seem to remember you two needed time to settle in. I learned my lesson there.” Murdoch put the paper down. “Where are the eggs?”

Teresa jumped up. “Let me pass you the biscuits. They're fresh from the oven.”

“Settle in?” Scott's knife clattered onto his plate. “How much time do we have to give him? Time enough for him to offend every hand we've got until no one wants to work for us?”

Murdoch forked some bacon. “Scott, it's been a long time since he's had a regular job. It'll take a while for Jelly to learn to get along with people.”

“Murdoch, have you heard the outcry from the hands? It's only been four days and they've had enough of him already. Not one of them wants to go near Jelly with a ten foot pole.”

She looked at Johnny. He hadn't said a thing. Just sat there sipping his coffee.

“I admit there's been a few teething problems,” Murdoch said.

“A few?”

Johnny put his coffee down but he didn't look up. “Scott, he ain't that bad.”

Scott's face was set. “I propose we fire him – for the good of the ranch.”

Murdoch shook his head. “He's still got another sixteen days to go before he's paid us back the twenty he owes us.”

“Forget the rest of the money. I'd consider it sixteen dollars well spent to be rid of him.”

Johnny looked up now. “Yeah, an' if we fire him, how's he gonna get to stay around here and be close to those kids of his?”

“He can search for work someplace else. There are plenty of jobs around for a good handyman.”

“Scott, you're talking about a ‘good' handyman.”

“Well, maybe Jelly could get some other type of job. Frankly, I don't care what job he gets, as long as it isn't here.”

One part of her agreed with Scott but surely someone who'd cared for eight boys who weren't his own couldn't be all bad? “Scott, don't you think you're being a bit hard. I admit he'd try the patience of a saint but…”

“Teresa, we tried.” Scott's voice was softer but the determination was still in his eyes.

“Do you want to take a vote on that Scott?” Murdoch asked, his gaze taking Johnny in as well.

Johnny pushed his cup away. “I'll work with him.” He gave Scott a whack on his arm as he got to his feet. “The old buzzard don't scare me none.”

Scott didn't smile. He put his napkin to his mouth but she could see his lips were pressed tight.

Johnny paused at the kitchen door. “You'd lose the vote, brother.”

Scott threw the napkin down as he stood. “Johnny, you've done all you can for Jelly. You made sure all those kids were placed in good homes.”

“Yeah?” He looked first at Murdoch then back to Scott. “Then how come I feel like we didn't do enough?” With that he left the room.

Scott replaced his chair at the table with more force than usual. Still gripping the chair-back he looked at Murdoch as if he was about to speak. She winced, ready for the storm, but Scott pressed his lips together and looked at her instead. “I'll have the buggy ready whenever you are.”

It was awfully quiet with them both gone – and breakfast had started out with such fun, too. She started gathering up the plates and was just about to take them to the sink when Murdoch exploded with, “Is it too much for a man to expect an egg at breakfast?” He looked immediately sorry for his outburst, and went on in a far more reasonable tone, “Teresa, could you please ask Maria for some more eggs?”

She took a deep breath then gave him her brightest smile. “Murdoch – about the eggs. It's like this…”





Jelly stomped out of the barn carrying the fixings to mend the roof in a wooden tool box. The pile of shingles were still up top where Hank had left them yesterday.

He looked about and shivered some. It was a mite airish outside after sweating in the bunkhouse. It'd be just his luck if he caught his death of cold and that'd serve Murdoch Lancer right because then he'd never get his twenty dollars back.

Starting the day with a full belly sure took some getting used to. He'd probably do nothing but belch half the morning. He'd slathered his stack of pancakes with axle grease but they were still tough as his granddaddy's old boots and the coffee tasted worse than watered-down mud.

He looked about and took a gulp of air. The mist that settled in the valley sometime in the night had just about lifted. And just as well, because no matter how high and mighty Murdoch Lancer might be, he sure weren't going to get Jellifer Hoskins up on a slick roof to mend a few holes. And if that Hank had done his job yesterday, instead of jawing half the day about how it shoulda been done, then the darn roof would've been finished. That Hank, funny how he could lay down the law to Jelly ‘bout how he should go about mending the roof but ask him one word about the Lancers and he'd clam up afore the question'd even been asked. Talk about downright suspicious.

Any fool could tell them two weren't brothers. Not with Mr Scott talking all plum and the like and smelling as if he'd never done a day's work in his life. Only city bred folk took a bath more'n once a month.

As for Johnny Lancer - why, they must've thought Jelly came down in yesterday's shower if he was s'posed to believe Johnny Lancer was nothing but a rancher's son. He'd picked him for a curly wolf just as soon as he laid eyes on him up in the cabin. Course his kids didn't know any better; they stared at Johnny all starry-eyed just ‘cause he wore his rig tied low and dressed like a peacock going to a ball in that red shirt of his and those fancy pants. How he hadn't ended up as bull fodder in a get-up like that was anyone's guess.

“Howdy Jelly.”

Jelly belched. He looked behind him, then all around, before turning back to the man who stood in front of him. “That me you're talkin' to?”

Johnny Lancer looked around, just like Jelly had done. “There's no-one else out here right now so I guess I must be.” He pointed at the box under Jelly's arm. “You and me've got a roof to fix.”

Jelly rolled his eyes. “Like you'd know a darn thing about fixing a roof. Why I was fixing rooves afore your ma was even old enough to have a kid.”

“I'm sure you were, Jelly. And if I listen real close, maybe you can teach me a thing or two.”

Jelly looked at him real hard. “Humph. I doubt it.”

They worked like the dickens for more than an hour. Of course, Jelly had to do most of the work; he sat astride the peak of the roof and told young Lancer how it had to be done. Fixing shingles was man's work. He pointed a finger. “Half an inch apart. Any closer and they'll swell when it rains an' then they'll buckle. That's probably what happened in the first place.”

Johnny, squatting a few feet further down, shifted the shingle a tad. A thatch of dark hair was all Jelly could see of his head and face right then. “Sure, Jelly.”

Jelly held out a couple of nails. “And mind you hit the nail clean or else you'll split the wood in two.”

Johnny put one nail between his teeth and stuck the other into the shingle, then swung his hammer. “Like that?” The blow sang sweet as a songbird.

Jelly rolled his eyes. “I guess that'll do at a pinch. You got the overhang even?”

This time Johnny looked up. He talked through the side of his mouth, the nail glinting in the sun like a silver filling. “I think so, Jelly.”

“That shingle don't look straight. You want a line that's crooked?”

Johnny twisted his head sideways. “It looks straight.”

“Well it ain't. A two year old could see that.”

Johnny straightened it, took a nail from between his lips, then swung his hammer. “I guess Toogie must've been not much older than two when you found him wandering in the woods.”

Jelly stuck his hand out, armed with another shingle and a couple of nails. “That ain't none a your business.” A set of eyes rested on Jelly - blue eyes that looked to see clear through a man with a gentleness that made you want to bare you soul. Jelly's heart started a'thumping and his breath felt like it was glued to his ribs. “So you just keep yer mind on what yer doing,” he managed to get out.

After what felt like an age, Johnny put a hand out for the supplies. Once Jelly could only see a thatch of dark hair again, his heart started to slow some and he took a deep breath. He never could cotton to a man who said an earful with just a look. No-one had any right to look into another man's heart like that. What Jelly felt was private – not fodder for gossip around the campfire.

Johnny Lancer stuck the nails between his teeth again, then took his time laying the next shingle straight. His hand had a surety about it; the sort of thing Jelly had seen in card sharps – or worse. “All the same, you did a real fine job looking after those kids, Jelly. More than their own…”

“You gonna keep jawing all day like some no-good coffee boiler? I got other work to do, you know.”

Johnny glanced up just the once before taking a nail from between his lips. His hammer swung through the air and hit clean – like it did every time. “Nope.”

The boy didn't ask any more questions after that. Jelly watched him set the last of the shingles in place and hammer some more.

The sun was fiery hot now. Jelly closed his eyes for a minute – but they ached all the same with every blow.

Once he'd climbed down from the roof, Johnny Lancer lowered the toolbox down on a rope. While Jelly untied it, the boy put his boots either side of the ladder and slid down the last few rungs. Of course Jelly could've done that the whole way down if he'd a mind to. Which he didn't.

With the toolbox untied, Jelly turned to head back to the barn.

“Your boys are asking after you, Jelly. They're hoping to see you.”

There was that same soft voice again – the one that went with the look before. The devil himself couldn't have sounded any more friendly. Well Jellifer Hoskins wasn't having any part of it. He kept his back turned and shut his eyes – against the sun. “I'll be tied up here another sixteen days. I ain't got time to go gallivanting around the country side.”

“I thought you might like to get together. I could arrange to have them all meet you in town.”

“Like I said, I'll be mighty busy the next couple of weeks and after that – well, I've got plenty of roads to travel down yet and it'll be a heck of a lot easier without a passel of grubby kids clinging to my neck.”

“Sure, Jelly. Well, if you change your mind, you let me know, huh.”

Jelly pressed his eyes shut even tighter. He didn't know what was wrong with him – he couldn't talk, his throat ached like he was coming down with the miseries and he could hardly think with the way everything felt like it was crowding in on him. The only thing that made him happy was the silence – at last that darned boy had finally shut his big bazoo.

Jelly started walking - and he walked and walked and walked and walked. And some time later he found himself back in the barn, in a corner where the sun never reached, with a hand that ached from gripping the toolbox so hard that his knuckles showed white.

A thought came to him; for the first time in a very long while, he didn't know what to do with himself. So he just stood there.





After lunch, Johnny headed out to the new fence line they were building because of Murdoch's idea to dig a new well in the wash. He made a face when they showed him the maps and he heard all the work they'd have to do. It meant having to fence two sections so the beef could graze all the way to the flats. But Murdoch and Scott seemed happy with the idea so he'd done his part and said, “Sure.” Hell, fencing two new sections was just what they needed after spending three grubbing months doing open range round-up. Who said ranching was dull!

As he rode up he could see Hank and a team of six hands working on the line. “Hey, Hank, don't tell me you didn't even stop for a beer in town? My old man got you that scared?”

Johnny dismounted then tied Barranca to the wagon.

Hank let the fence posts he'd just taken from the wagon fall with a thud at Johnny's feet. “I didn't get to go to town. The Boss sent Jelly instead.”

Johnny remembered the morning's conversation. Hank was a good hand – and a good friend - who always pulled his own weight and with a smile never far from his face. Only he wasn't smiling now.

“How come?”

Hank pushed his hat back. “He's your pa. I guess you oughtta ask him.”

“Well, I guess that'll have to wait til tonight. We got ourselves a fence to build.” Johnny grabbed a spade from the wagon. “Five dollars says I can dig more post holes than you in half an hour.”

Hank still didn't smile.

Johnny stripped off his shirt. “What d'you say?” He took out his watch and held it up. “You think you can take me?”

By this time the other hands had heard and started milling around. “Go on, Hank. You can take him.” Others started cheering for Johnny.

It was more like a twitch at the corner of Hank's mouth than a smile, but it made Johnny grin at him all the same. He tossed his watch to one of the hands to time them.

Hank grabbed the other spade. “Say goodbye to your money, Johnny Lancer.”





Jelly slapped his hand down on the counter four times before the curtain at the back of the store was pushed back. A man in a white apron bustled out – then slowed when he saw who was standing by the counter.

Jelly puffed his chest out. “You intending to make me wait half the day? I got an order for the Lancer ranch that needs to be filled – from Mr Murdoch Lancer himself.”

The clerk was one of the snippety kind who spend half their day counting the stock after every customer walks out, just in case they find a stick of liquorice has gone missing - and the other half of the day they spend picking their teeth. He sniffed at Jelly. “You trying to tell me Murdoch Lancer hired you?”

“I never told you any such thing because it ain't none of your business.”

“But you just said Murdoch Lancer sent you here with an order.”

“Well, bully for you: it looks like you've got some brains fixed to those ears of yours.” Jelly took the sheet of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it over. “And make sure you give me exactly what's on the list. Murdoch Lancer don't like to be diddled any.”

The clerk sniffed again. “And you'd know a lot about diddling a man.”

Jelly looked around to see if anyone in the store heard that last remark. It looked like news travelled fast in this town. A lady holding a little girl's hand was just walking out the door. That left a man in a blanket poncho browsing through the hats. Jelly was about to tell the clerk he should be thanking Jelly for saving the bank money when the clerk called across to the other customer.

“Hey mister, if you want to buy a hat, then buy one. We don't want paw prints all over the merchandise.”

Jelly stuck a thumb through his braces. “Seems to me a body's gotta try one on before he makes his decision.”

The other customer walked up to the counter. “That's right. I sure do. You got a problem with that, little man?”

The storekeeper took one look at the man then seemed to shrink right before Jelly's eyes. “No, sir. You take all the time you want and try on as many hats as you need.” The clerk then turned to Jelly. “Give me half an hour to fill this.”

Jelly barely had time to nod his head before the clerk disappeared behind the curtain again. Jelly blew out a breath. “Darned trumped up nobodies. Anyone'd think they run the town the way they carry on.”

“I guess you'd know about that.”

“About what?”

“About running things. If I heard right, you said you worked for the Lancer spread. I hear Murdoch Lancer's the big bug around these parts.”

Jelly puffed out his chest. “You might say Murdoch Lancer an' me have got ourselves a business proposition.”

The stranger took a half dollar out of his pants pocket and flipped it in the air with his thumb. “I've got me a spare half hour. Least I can do is buy you a drink for standing up for me.” He caught it neatly then flipped it in the air again.

Jelly looked at the man. He'd clearly spent time south of the border if that blanket poncho he wore was anything to go by. But there was nothing dark about his skin or hair. Jelly's nose twitched. Juan had wanted Jelly to take him and the kids to Mexico but the thought of taking the kids through border towns…well, he'd heard enough scuttlebutt to know how wild things were down there. Of course, if it'd been just himself he wouldn't have cared; it takes more than a few tall stories to make Jellifer Hoskins turn tail. But the gun tied low on the left leg made Jelly pause.

The coin sailed through the air again. “So what'll it be – whiskey or beer?”

It'd been a heck of a long time since anyone offered to buy Jelly a drink. And the way the Lancers worked him, who knew when he'd get the chance to go to the saloon again. And a beer was probably just the thing for that ache in his throat. Jelly pulled the edges of his vest together. “Well ordinarily, I'm a busy man, but I guess I could spare me a few minutes, just to be sociable.”





“Can't say as I blame you for being sore at the Lancers. Not after all they've done to you. What sort of a person takes a man's kids away from him?”

The saloon was mostly deserted, except for a bored looking saloon girl who sat on the counter polishing her nails.

Jelly stared blearily at the array of glasses on the table – but instead of eight glasses, he saw eight faces and heard eight voices:

“Willie.”

“Pokey.”

“Sawdust.”

“Soso.”

“Chief.”

“Boomer.”

“Juanito.”

Well, seven voices. And Toogie also.

He'd found Willie first. All freckles and red hair and no front teeth, digging through the garbage behind a saloon in Denver. No shoes – just two stick legs wearing pants he'd outgrown at least three years before. Jelly had been drunk that day, too. But not a day since – until now.

“You want your kids back?” a voice asked somewhere.

He'd found Sawdust sleeping on a riverbank, curled up beside a sawn-off tree. Almost stepped on him in the dark, getting some water for his coffee. Sawdust didn't know his own name. Was barely old enough to talk. How he didn't drown was a miracle only the good Lord understood.

But Jelly found him. Then seven more. Toogie last of all. He'd taken care of them: clothed them, fed them, washed them, tended their cuts and dried their tears.

“I can pay you two hundred dollars,” the voice said.

Two hundred dollars? Jelly looked at the voice. Sitting opposite was the man in the poncho. He'd said his name was Bart. “Why would you give me two hundred dollars?”

“You want to get back at the Lancers, don't you?”

For a second there, he felt the flush of panic wash over him. He hadn't meant to spill his guts on everything that happened to a stranger. Hell, now he came to think of it, everyone was a stranger to him nowadays.

Then another man pulled up a chair. Younger than Bart. Bart's hair was flecked with grey but this man's beard was all brown, just like Jelly's used to be.

Jelly stared at him, waiting for his eyes to focus. “And who are you?”

“A friend of Bart's. Name's Powell. Matthew Powell.”

Jelly looked around. The saloon was mostly deserted, except for a bored looking saloon girl who sat on the counter polishing her nails. He sat up straighter, but that didn't stop the room from tipping. Then he remembered why he was in town; he had to get back to the store then collect the mail. But there was the matter of two hundred dollars to be discussed. “What do I have to do?”

Powell leaned close. “Nothing too hard. Just arrange for Johnny Lancer to ride out by himself. Far enough away for us to meet him; some place quiet where no-one will go looking for him.”

Jelly looked at the both of them. “Why? What's he done to you?”

“You don't have to worry yourself over that old man. Just bring us Johnny Lancer.”

Bart pushed another drink in front of Jelly. “You can go a long way on two hundred dollars.”

“Yeah, and that's a lot of food and clothing for those kids of yours,” Powell added.

Jelly scrubbed at his face. That'd be the easiest two hundred dollars he'd ever make – and he could get his boys back!





Jelly pulled the wagon up, opposite the schoolhouse on the edge of town.

There didn't seem to be anyone around, so he got down from the wagon and walked around to the side window. Now he could hear voices inside.

The window was covered in lace curtains but he could see past them clear enough to get a glimpse inside. He looked and he looked and he looked. It didn't seem possible that these were his boys – all dressed proper in clean clothes, with combed hair and shoes on their feet. Worse than that, they looked happy. Real happy. Nothing shoddy about this school. They had slate boards and chalk and primers and the teacher was a pretty young thing with the kind of smile that'd make a kid trust her. Heck, it would make anyone trust her.

He stumbled down then climbed back up on the wagon. The road out of town led to Lancer. The same road he'd travelled when Murdoch and Scott Lancer took him to their ranch. And he was probably driving the very same wagon.

So much had happened since then, in so short a time. Sometimes it felt like a dream – the kind that made Toogie wake up and cry and shake and the boys would gather all round and take turns just holding him and wiping the wet from his little face. Not Jelly though. Nope, he just stood there aching something fierce from head to toe, everything inside him wanting to reach out and hold the boy. He guessed he had something to thank the Lancers for – Toogie finally spoke to him and he got to hold him in his arms, even if it took a bang on the head and a broke arm to do it.

Jelly held the reins slack in his hands and stared unseeing at the road. The horses plodded on, familiar with the route.

Jelly didn't bother to wipe the tears from his face. There wasn't a soul around to see, not even a bird or a critter – and even if they did see, there wasn't a soul left on earth who'd even care.





Johnny spent the following day working with Scott on the new section of fence while the bulk of the hands were down in the wash clearing the area where the new well would be dug.

“It'd be a whole lot easier just painting a white line and telling the steers not to cross,” Johnny grunted, easing a pole into the hole Scott had dug.

“In the six months I've been here, I've yet to see a cow that had even a morsel of sense.”

“You're right,” Johnny grunted again, trying to ram the post down further. “Some fool animal'd probably lick the paint off and then they'd all be bawling and lost.”

“One good thing about cows - they don't have any feathers.”

Johnny stopped ramming and leaned on the post. “Nothing to ruffle?” Then his face cleared. “Oh. Yeah, I ran into Cookie.”

“Was that when he was brandishing his skillet and chasing Jelly or when he'd packed his bags and was ready to leave?” Scott squatted and tried to pack as much dirt as he could around the post in the hole. “You'd think when you're being given three decent meals a day, you'd have enough sense to eat up and shut up, instead of telling the cook what to do.”

Johnny shrugged. It wasn't often he felt helpless. “I know. Anyway, Murdoch smoothed things over.” He tried wobbling the post. “That oughtta do it.”

Scott stood up then headed across to the pile of posts to pick up some more. “Hopefully Murdoch managed to ‘smooth' him all the way off the ranch.”

Something pulled at Johnny's chest. “Scott…”

“I know, I know; give him a chance, he needs more time.” Scott hefted four posts onto his shoulder. “Next you'll tell me underneath that scraggly old fraud's exterior, beats a heart of gold.”

Something caught Johnny's eye coming over the hill. “Why, that wily old so- and-so.”

Scott looked around. “Who?”

“Our old man.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don't look now brother, but he smoothed Jelly out all right – all the way out to us.”

The posts hit the ground almost as fast as Scott's jaw. “What the hell is Jelly doing out here?”

Johnny couldn't help grinning. “He's probably coming out here to tell us how to build a fence.”

“He'd better not try to tell me anything.”

They both stood and watched as the wagon lumbered up with Jelly at the reins. He looked like his usual happy self.

Johnny called out to him. “Morning, Jelly. What brings you out here?”

“The fact we're the only hands who aren't liable to jump up and quit when they see Jelly coming,” Scott said under his breath.

Johnny elbowed him in the ribs as they watched Jelly clamber down.

“The Boss thought you might need some more timber. But if this is all you've got done – well, it'll be days before you'll be wanting more. I got a couple of fresh canteens for you as well.”

Johnny was careful not to look at Scott. “Well that was real thoughtful of you, Jelly.”

“Don't go thankin' me. It was your pa's idea.”

Scott walked over to the wagon and grabbed a canteen – and that left Jelly standing there staring at Johnny.

Johnny clapped his hands together and moved across to the next hole they'd dug. “Come on over here, Jelly. You might as well make yourself useful while you're here.” Jelly didn't look too happy about being asked to work but he went across to Johnny anyway. “Come and hold this post for me and I'll see if I need to dig some more.”

Jelly peered at the hole. “Well of course you'll need to dig some more. It doesn't take a genius to work that out.”

Johnny took a deep breath. “Just hold it for me, huh, so I can check?” The darned hole was short by maybe half an inch of loose dirt and he had half a mind to leave it that way just to avoid Jelly crowing about being right. But he didn't. Instead, with as much patience as he could muster, he asked Jelly to hold the post up a little so that he could scoop out some more.





“Hey, Johnny, where'd you put the wire cutters?” Scott called to him.

“In my saddlebag. Now Jelly, let's try this again.”

“What's this – you've taken to playing marbles again?”

Johnny was still squatting down, clearing the last of the dirt away when wham, the post slammed down on his hand. He yelped, struggling to get his hand free from the hole. Mercifully, Jelly pulled the pole out and Johnny's hand came free but it hurt like hell and his only thought was to strangle the old guy. He jumped up. “Jelly, didn't you see my hand?”

But Jelly's face had gone white. “Where'd you get that – where'd you get that?”

For a minute there Johnny thought he was having some kind of fit. “Jelly, calm down…”

“There's nothin' would make him give that away. I knew you were up to no good in that cabin. Trickin' my boys with yer traps an' yer stories and…”

“Jelly, will you just calm down a minute and tell me what you're talking about?”

“You tell me where you got it from! You tell me how that marble came to be in your saddlebag.” He was yelling by now, yelling and shaking and mad fit to burst but at least he was beginning to make some sense. Johnny had barely heard Scott's words about the marble – Toogie's marble – the one he'd wrapped up in the blue bandana and put in his saddle bag. It had been there ever since – sort of like a good luck piece.

Johnny tried to keep his voice even and at the same time, warned Scott away with a look. Last thing he needed was his brother swinging a punch at Jelly - and that's what it looked like he wanted to do. “Toogie gave it to me - when I was leaving.”

“You're a liar.”

Johnny stiffened but he kept his voice quiet – only now it had something of an edge. “I said he gave it to me when I was leaving the cabin up at Elk Canyon.”

“Toogie'd never give that away. It's the only thing he's got from his folks. He was clutching it in his fist when I found him wandering in the woods.”

“Jelly, this is the last time I'm telling you. Toogie gave it to me up at the cabin, when I left.”

“You've got some kind of devil in you, trickin' my boys into trusting yah.”

“Jelly, that's enough.” If they were the same height, Scott would've been eye-balling Jelly – but the old man didn't back down an inch. “Help me unload the wagon, then get back to the ranch. And there'd better be a damned good explanation for what you just did or I'll be escorting you off the ranch myself.”

Scott gave Jelly a bit of a shove towards the wagon - and Johnny figured that was pretty easy considering what Scott clearly wanted to do - then came across and held out his hand. “Yours, I believe.” There was the cat's eye, blinking blue in the sunlight. “How's the hand?”

Johnny held it up. “Stings some. I'll live.”

“Well that's more than I can say for Jelly if he stays on this ranch a single day longer.” Scott stalked across to the wagon. He and Jelly got it unloaded without a single word, and that was probably a miracle in itself. Johnny paced under the tree, half to take his mind off his hand and the other to think of a plan to right everything that was wrong just then.

Johnny rattled the cat's eye in his left hand, remembering Toogie's smile that morning at the cabin. Now that he knew what it was, the child's gift meant even more than it had at the time – and he admitted, he'd been pretty touched that morning. Just like he'd been with Soso's gift of biscuits – Teresa's biscuits. All the same, it takes a special kind of kid to give away food when he never knows how long it'll be before the next meal comes. And then there was Willie – wise enough to see through Jelly's blustering but loyal all the same. How many times did he tell Johnny, “Jelly takes care of us.”

Once the wagon was unloaded, Scott saw Jelly to his seat. “Okay, get going.”

Johnny looked down at the cat's eye, rattled it some more, then had an idea. He walked across to the wagon and held out his hand, showing the marble in his palm. “You want it, Jelly? You can have it. It's yours.”

For a second he thought the old geezer was going to say no, but in the end Jelly reached out and took it without a word, then drove off.

Scott unplugged the canteen he held in his hand. “I'm going to strangle him.”

Johnny watched the wagon disappear over the rise. “Leave it be, Scott. He's sore at the world, not at me.”

“Yeah – well you could've fooled me. Hold out your hand.” Johnny did as he was told and Scott poured some water over the bruising. “I don't like it, Johnny. I think Murdoch's made a mistake taking Jelly on. I told him that right from the beginning. I mean, what do we know about him anyway, other than the fact that he's a thief?”

Johnny had to smile at that – what did anyone know about Johnny when he first came to Lancer, except for him being a gunfighter? All he knew, all he could think to say, was, “He just needs time, Scott. That's all.”

“Johnny, you tell me one thing that fraud's done since he's been here, one thing that proves he's worth having on this ranch.”

Now that was one question Johnny didn't have any trouble answering.

“Eight kids, Scott. He cared for eight little kids.”





Jelly came to a fork in the road. One road continued onto the ranch and the other road led to town.

He didn't even have to stop and think about which one to take – as soon as he saw that marble in Johnny Lancer's hand, he knew exactly what he had to do.





They managed to get another couple of posts done, but in the end Scott insisted they ride back - although Johnny wasn't too sure if that was because Scott was going to have to dunk himself in a cold tub to cool his boiling temper or because Johnny's hand was getting sorer by the minute. Johnny was just as happy – working with a tight-lipped brother was never much fun.

When they got back Murdoch made him sit at the kitchen table and soak his hand in a bowl with some of Teresa's dead flowers floating in it. ‘Arnica' Murdoch called it.

When he took it out the swelling had gone down a lot. The worst of the bruising seemed to be around the thumb. Murdoch took his hand and felt around some, making Johnny twitch. “Sore, huh?”

Johnny nodded.

“It doesn't look like anything's broken. We'll bandage it and see how it is tomorrow.”

Johnny nodded again. He didn't feel much like talking, so he just sat there and watched as Murdoch took the strip of sheeting and started binding his hand.

After a few moments, Murdoch said, “You want to tell me what happened out there?”

“Nope.”

“Scott said…”

“Scott's got a big mouth.”

Murdoch was silent then but Johnny had a feeling it wouldn't last long. Sure enough, after a few moments he said, “He's really got to you, hasn't he.”

He gave in with a sigh. “I guess. That old man's as lost as those kids were before he found them.” He looked into his father's eyes. “We took his life away from him, Murdoch.”

“Johnny, those kids needed a proper home. Do you think the life they were leading was any good for them?”

Johnny stared at the table. “Maybe not. I don't know.”

“Now they've got good homes, plenty of food, a warm bed to sleep in at night. They'll learn to read and write.”

“I know all that, Murdoch. But I just can't help wonder if…” He stopped. He didn't even know for sure what he wanted to say.

“If what, Johnny?”

He shrugged, showing his good hand. “I guess I can't help wonder if that's all that matters? What have we got – we've got Jelly and he's like a bear with a sore head. He's lashing out at everyone and everything but – damn it, I don't blame him.”

“It'll take time, Johnny.”

“Murdoch,” this time his voice rose. “We took his kids away from him. They were all he had in this world and we just marched in and told him they weren't his anymore and that we know better.” He shook his head. “What's that supposed to do to a man?”

Even as he said the words, he wanted to take them back – but another part of him had wanted to ask that question since he'd come to Lancer. But all he could hear was the quiet - and it was so loud it almost made his ears hurt.

Murdoch took his time tying off the bandage. A pair of scissors probably never made so loud a snip. He placed the scissors on the table, then sat completely still. Johnny felt like he shouldn't be there but he didn't know the right way to get up and leave. And just when he made up his mind to stand, Murdoch said, “It hurts a man, Johnny – a hurt so deep some days you think you can hardly bear to breathe.” He looked at Johnny. “You're right. Just because they weren't his kids, doesn't mean Jelly didn't love them like his own.”

Johnny looked down at his hand. He had his answer to one question at least.

Murdoch dropped a hand to his shoulder. “Question is, what are we going to do about all this? I still can't see the children being given back to Jelly's care as an option, but…” He shrugged.

“Sometimes there's no easy answer, is there, Murdoch.”

Murdoch looked as glum as Johnny felt. “I'm afraid not, son.”





“Give us two beers, Charlie.” Murdoch turned around at the bar, just in time to see Johnny push open the swinging doors then scan the room. “Johnny, over here,” he called out. Murdoch watched him approach. Johnny's face wore a smile – one of those half smiles that made you wonder what it was he found so funny. As soon as Johnny was close enough, Murdoch spoke. “Okay, out with it.”

“Out with what?”

“Whatever it is about me you find so funny. Am I wearing this morning's breakfast on my face?”

Johnny's smile broadened. “No, it's not that.”

“Well then?”

“Murdoch, it's just that – well, if you're standing in a room, it's pretty hard to miss you, with you being so tall an' all.”

Murdoch grinned. “The wave was unnecessary, huh.”

“I didn't even need to hear you call.”

“I'll remember that next time.”

“Well, tell the truth, I kinda like it.”

“But you just said…”

“I just said it wasn't needed. Never said don't do it.”

Murdoch clapped a hand to Johnny's shoulder and looked about. “You want to sit down?” He certainly wanted to himself. He still hadn't worked out how to tell Johnny what he had to say – not with the boy full of ideas during the ride to town; suggesting they clear out the storeroom and make it into a room for Jelly, so as he'd feel like he had a place of his own; how to get Jelly to meet up with the kids, maybe Jelly could take them camping or fishing some time - and a dozen other ideas. Johnny wasn't usually that talkative and he'd enjoyed hearing his suggestions, but it made what he had to say to Johnny that little bit harder.

Johnny had half turned from the bar and was scanning the room. That was Johnny. He guessed he was getting used to his son's wary behaviour by now.

The saloon was crowded. Murdoch looked around for a table. “There's one free over near the piano if you can stand the noise.”

Getting no answer, Murdoch turned – and found Johnny leaning on the bar with his hat pulled low. “Murdoch, d'you mind if I don't join you for a beer?”

The change was so sudden that Murdoch stared at him for second. “Oh. I guess not Johnny.”

“I'll go check if there's any mail, seeing as Jelly forgot to the other day.”

Murdoch swallowed his disappointment. “Good idea.”

Johnny nodded with his eyes on the mirror behind the bar, then he turned and walked out - just as Charlie slapped their beers down.

Murdoch watched Johnny weave his way back around the tables then go out the doors he'd so recently come through.

“Johnny's gone, huh?”

Murdoch just looked at Charlie. The barman started chuckling. “You ain't the first if that's what you're thinking.”

Murdoch wasn't sure what he was thinking, to tell the truth.

Charlie crossed his arms. “Hey, look, I might be paid to serve beer but I got eyes you know. I notice a thing or two.”

Murdoch changed his expression. “I know that Charlie, believe me. You're probably the best set of eyes in town.”

Charlie's gaze went to the beers then back to Murdoch's face.

“Oh, sorry Charlie.” Murdoch fished in his pocket for some coins. The thought of drinking a beer alone wasn't nearly as…

But Charlie started waving his hand. “Don't bother Mr. Lancer. No sense in paying for a beer you ain't gonna drink.”

Murdoch's mouth twitched. “I guess not. Thank you.”

He turned around again. Most of the men he knew but there were one or two who were strangers to him.

“If you're askin' me, I'd say it was him.” Charlie had his head down, wiping up a spill that wasn't there. “Sitting at the table in the right hand corner.”

Murdoch looked. Sure enough, that was one of the strangers he'd picked out. There was nothing especially telling about the man, but he still prided himself on recognising the ‘look' from his lawman days.

Charlie reached down below the counter. “He's got himself a friend, too.”

Murdoch leaned back against the bar and rested his elbows on the counter. “They been around long?”

Charlie stuck out his bottom lip. “Last four days, maybe.” He held up a bottle. “What about a shot of whisky?”

Murdoch's eyes lit up and he stood straight when he saw his favourite bottle of fine malt Scotch. “Where have you been hiding that, Charlie?”

Charlie winked. “Under the counter, of course. And I wouldn't worry about those two, Mr Lancer. Young Johnny has a good head on him. He knows how to keep out of trouble.”

Murdoch downed his drink. He hoped Charlie was right.





Johnny was waiting by the horses when Murdoch came out, leaning against a post on the other side of the road. As Murdoch went to cross, someone called his name. It was William Tate, a local farmer - he and his wife had taken in Toogie.

Murdoch waved across at Johnny – remembering at the last Johnny's comment about how unnecessary that was – then waited for Tate to catch up to him. “Will, good to see you.”

They shook hands, then Tate looked across and saw where Johnny was waiting. “Johnny might want to hear this as well.”

“Nothing's wrong I hope?”

“Not wrong, exactly, but Hilda thought you should know.”

Once across the road, Tate went to shake Johnny's hand but Johnny showed him the rainbow colouring that had appeared overnight and held out his left hand instead. “Everything going all right with Toogie, Mr Tate?”

“Johnny, my wife just adores him. We all do, especially after losing Billy like we did last year. And Toogie just loves having two older sisters to fuss over him.”

Murdoch frowned. “Then what is it?”

“This morning Hilda took Toogie into town with the girls. They were having a fine time. She'd just taken them to the store and bought each of them a stick of candy, when all of a sudden, Toogie went kind of stiff, like he was frozen to the spot – and he hasn't said a word since.”

Murdoch exchanged a troubled look with Johnny. “Will, you remember we told you Toogie wouldn't talk to Jelly the whole time he had him.”

Tate nodded. “I know – but this time he won't talk at all.”

Johnny's eyes bore into Tate. “What was Toogie doing at the time? Where was he standing?”

“I'm not sure. Hilda said they'd just come out of the store. One minute he was smiling and happy and then – just nothing.”

Murdoch ran a hand along the back of his neck. “I confess, Will, I'm at a loss. Did you get Doc Jenkins to look at the boy?”

Tate nodded. “He said there was nothing wrong with him that he could see. That we should just give Toogie some time.”

Johnny looked up at Murdoch. “I don't like it, Murdoch.”

Neither did Murdoch. The child had had a bad concussion when he fell in the barn. “He doesn't seem to be suffering any head pain?”

“That's the puzzling thing, Murdoch – he seems perfectly well in every way but he won't talk or even smile.”

Johnny started pacing. “Maybe we should get Jelly to take a look at him. If anyone knows that child, it's Jelly.”

“I'm afraid we can't do that, Johnny.”

“Sure we can. I can go fetch him and bring him into town…” A flash of some sort of understanding flickered over Johnny's face. “There's something you're not telling me, Murdoch.”

He hadn't wanted to tell Johnny now – not like this. He cursed himself silently. “Jelly's gone, Johnny. Hank and the boys found the wagon and the team on the road to Lancer. There was no sign of Jelly.”

“Did they look? Did they check for bloodstains? You know what bushwhackers are like Murdoch, they'll…”

“Johnny.” He put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. “I checked Jelly's bunk myself. All his things are gone.”

Johnny looked away, then he took a few steps and kicked the post.

“We did our best, son. Maybe this is best for the kids?”

Tate was looking crushed as well. “I'm sorry to hear that, Murdoch. Hilda and I were hoping this Jelly person might know what to do.”

All three of them stood there while life in Spanish Wells bustled on around them – but Murdoch felt like they were standing alone on an island of trouble.

Suddenly Johnny hit the post with his left hand. “I think I've got an idea.”





Scott looked about him as they rode into town. “So this is Petersville. It hardly seems deserving of a name, let alone a dot on a map.”

Johnny had to agree, not that he'd ever say the words exactly like Scott did, but his feelings were the same. “Murdoch said they found gold here back in the fifties but it petered out pretty quick.”

Scott looked across at him. “Hence, the name – Petersville.”

Johnny grinned. “Trust you to come up with a joke like that.”

“It's the only way to prove to you my Harvard education wasn't completely useless. Shall we visit this humble edifice?”

They'd pulled up outside the sole building in Petersville that showed any sign of life – if you didn't include the piles of dead leaves the wind blew down the only street. It would have been a pretty little town in its heyday, with forest on all sides – but now the forest was taking over again, like it was trying to get rid of any trace a town once bustled with business and where kids were born and fortunes made and lost. Probably mostly lost, in a place like this.

Johnny trudged up the steps after Scott. He had a feeling they were on a wild goose chase, but with Jelly gone, he couldn't think of any other way of finding out something about Toogie's past. They'd done the adoptions as best they could. While Gabe had Jelly locked up, he'd had Jelly tell him anything he could remember about where he found each of the kids, then they'd sent out wires. They didn't get a single reply to any of them.

“Let's hope the old coot was telling the truth when he mentioned this town,” Scott muttered, as he held open the door for Johnny to walk through. “But somehow, I doubt it.”





“A fire?” The old woman scratched her head. “There hasn't been a fire in these parts for a long time. We had one back in forty-two. Burned half the mountainside.”

Johnny looked at Scott. He hoped this wasn't going to take all afternoon – they still had a long ride home. “Not a forest fire, ma'am. We think this might have been something smaller. Maybe just a house – or a cabin – somewhere in the forest.”

She'd made them sit at the only table in the store – a rickety thing, with one leg half-broken off and held up with a pile of old books. But her coffee was strong and hot and her smile had been welcoming when they walked in the door – even with just a couple of teeth to show.

“Well, young feller, let me think about that now.” While she was thinking she scratched under her arm and then her head again. Johnny's eyes fell on three old hound dogs asleep in the corner by some bags of flour.

Scott caught his eye and mouthed, “Fleas.”

“The only other fire I can think of was a sad, sad affair. A mother and her baby boy.”

Johnny stopped slouching. “How long ago, ma'am?”

“Would've been a couple of years ago? No, Jack was still alive, because I remember him barking and carrying on when we went up to see what could be done.”

Scott leaned forward. “Would it have been three years ago?”

“Are you sure the boy died?”

“Honey, if you'd seen that cabin, you wouldn't be asking me that. We did our best to bury'em but it was hard. We only ended up digging two graves – and just left a marker for the child.”

If they had the right place - if Jelly told them the truth - then the woman was wrong about the kid dying; but he didn't want to confuse her with any of that. “Who else was in the cabin? What happened to the kid's folks?”

“So sad. Poor Sookie. She was the sweetest little thing. But how she ever got mixed up with that husband of hers, I'll never know. He was a four-flusher that one. And mean as they come when he was full as a tick - and that'd be most nights - when he was home at any rate. Half the time she was nothin' but a California widow.”

Scott's eyes turned soldier blue. “In that case, his death was no great loss to the world.”

The old woman looked surprised. “Why do you say that?”

“Six feet under is usually the best place for his type, ma'am.”

“But he isn't dead.” Then she looked at them both real closely. “Unless you two know something I don't know.”

Johnny scratched the back of his neck. “Ma'am, you're confusing us. You just said he was dead.”

She started to laugh. “Bless you, boy, no! The man who died in the fire was a drifter. A real nice young feller.” She peered at Johnny. “Looked a bit like you. I talked to him more than once. Said he'd been drifting since the war finished.”

“Were they…” Johnny stopped, not quite sure how to go on.

But the old woman was cackling away, then leaned forward and patted Johnny's cheek. “Now don't you go a pretty shade of red, dearie. And in answer to your question, I've got no idea if there was any hanky panky between them but I wouldn't blame her a mite if there was. I never did understand why he made her and the boy live up here away from decent folk.”

“She had you,” Scott said.

That made her cackle again. “Oh honey, if you'd seen me in my prime I doubt if you'd be saying that. But I thank you, I truly do.” And the old woman put a hand to her hair like she was pushing a bunch of pretty curls back in place, instead of wispy strands of grey.

“I don't suppose you remember the husband's name?”

“I do, but I'd wager you my life's earnings it wasn't the one his mama gave him. He called himself Albert Smith.”

“What about the boy's name?” Johnny asked.

This time she lifted a tattered skirt and scratched at her knee. “Nope, funny thing is I don't recall the boy's name. Something biblical as I remember.”

Johnny wasn't sure he'd wanted to know Toogie's real name, so he didn't feel too let down when she couldn't remember. But he did want to see the place where all this had happened. “Can you tell us where to find the cabin – leastways, what's left of it?”

“There ain't nothing left of it, honey. You put a match to kerosene and you don't usually end up with much left over of anything.”

Scott got to his feet, like he couldn't sit still a second longer. “You're saying her husband deliberately lit the fire?”

She shrugged. “There weren't no-one else around here to do it – and I pray God doesn't have the least bit of mercy on his soul.”





They found the site easily enough – but it didn't tell them anything. Like the old woman said, kerosene and fire didn't leave much behind - just a pile of ashes and charred wood in the middle of a clearing.

Johnny took off his hat and held it in his hands. The forest was thick around them but not even the weeds had tried to grow in the ruins. But the graves were overrun with weeds and wildflowers and the markers had fallen down. Johnny picked one up and stuck it in the earth again.

“It must've been some fire,” Scott muttered.

“It must've been a miracle Toogie made it out.”

“Unless the boy's father deliberately let him go?” Scott shrugged, staring around the clearing.

“Guess we'll never know.”

They both walked around for a few minutes more but it was the kind of place that put you off your food.

“I don't see how this helps us any, Johnny.”

Johnny slapped his hat against his thigh. “It doesn't. It doesn't help at all.”





It was dark by the time Johnny and Scott rode into Spanish Wells – and they still had another hour's ride to get to the ranch.

Johnny pulled Barranca up outside the saloon where a few patches of light spilled onto the street. “Scott, you go on home. Tell Murdoch I'll be back tomorrow.”

“What are you going to do?”

Johnny stretched out his back. His hand felt like it was on fire but that wasn't the thing that bothered him the most, only he wasn't sure Scott was the one he should talk to.

“Johnny, you've done all you can. It's probably best for everyone if Jelly's gone. He can make a new start somewhere else and the kids can settle down here and get used to their new lives.”

“Just tell Murdoch for me, huh.”

“Why, Johnny? Why can't you just let this go?”

“Scott, it'll break those kids' hearts if Jelly just up and disappears out of their lives. I've got a feeling the old buzzard's hid out in town some place and I guess I'll just have to keep looking til I find him.”

Scott wheeled his horse in the other direction. “Okay. I give up – and my bed is calling me. Just tell me one thing.”

Scott's face was in shadow but Johnny didn't need to see it to know this was a question Scott wouldn't let him squirm out of. “Okay, fire away.”

“Murdoch told me there was someone in the saloon you didn't want to meet. I think he'll be worried if I ride home without you.”

Johnny started shaking his head. He almost laughed out loud. “That was the question?”

“You think it's funny?”

He quickly got serious. “No, not funny, Scott. I guess it just wasn't what I was expecting.” Not that he knew what he was expecting. And he didn't really take Murdoch for the worrying type. “Scott, they were just a couple of hard cases. I didn't know them but I know their kind. You and Murdoch keep telling me I'm a rancher now. I don't go looking for trouble.”

“But it sure has a way of finding you anyway, doesn't it.” At least Scott was smiling now.

“Some. You don't do so bad finding trouble yourself, brother.”

Scott laughed outright now. “That's a compliment coming from you. Okay, I'll tell Murdoch you're staying in town and you'll be home tomorrow – with or without Jellifer Hoskins.”





Johnny searched every inch of Spanish Wells he could possibly think of. Even with Gabe's help, there was no sign of Jelly anywhere.

Johnny slumped against the wall while Gabe blew out the lantern that hung outside the jail and locked up. “If you ask me, you're well rid of him, Johnny.”

By now Johnny was feeling sour and grumpy and just wanted to go to bed. “Who said I'm asking you?”

Johnny had already left Barranca at the livery stable so he trudged across the street to the hotel. He was just about to put his key in the door of his room when he had a thought – there was one place left where Jelly might have gone that he hadn't tried.

But it could wait til tomorrow.





Johnny took his hat off as Will Tate showed him into their parlour. “Morning Mrs Tate, Melinda, Fanny.” The two girls blushed and giggled and even Mrs Tate looked a bit out of breath. He could see an apron string sticking out from under a sofa cushion. “You're looking might pretty today, girls.” He'd had fun teasing them while he was getting Toogie settled in with the family.

Fanny stepped forward. She was the braver one, even though she was only nine. “Thank you, Mr Lancer.” But Melinda giggled more and went an even deeper shade of red.

Johnny tweaked one of Fanny curls. “Didn't I tell you to call me, Johnny. That's all right, isn't it, ma'am?”

“Of course it is, Johnny. You're practically one of the family since you've been so much help with Toogie.”

Johnny looked around. “Where is Toogie? He's usually outside playing with that puppy you gave him.”

Mrs Tate's eyes filled with tears and she looked at her husband.

Will Tate patted her hand. “He wouldn't come down to breakfast today, Johnny. He just sits up in his room, rocking in a chair. It's the darndest thing.”

Mrs Tate put a hand on Johnny's arm. “Do you think you can do anything, Johnny? He trusts you. We all see that in his eyes.”

Johnny looked about the room. Even the girls weren't smiling any more. “I'll do what I can, ma'am.”





Toogie didn't even stir when he opened the door, even though he was facing Johnny. It was kind of scary to see the kid's face so lifeless – almost like he was dead.

“Hey, Toogie. It's me, Johnny.” He didn't want to move too close, but he took one more step into the room, hoping to get the kid's attention. “It's a real fine day out there. I bet your puppy's wanting a friend to wrestle with.” Still nothing – not even a sign he'd seen Johnny was in the room.

Now he wished he hadn't given the cat's eye to Jelly. Maybe the marble would've jogged Toogie's mind or something – anything to make him come back.

Johnny took another couple of steps closer – and this time Toogie looked up. Johnny held his breath. He didn't know whether to keep moving closer or stay where he was. In the end, he squatted down in front of the boy. Toogie stared and stared and stared. And just when Johnny was beginning to lose any feeling in his legs, the kid leaned over and threw his arms around Johnny's neck and clung to him like he'd never let go.





The Tates were a bit unsure about Johnny taking Toogie off for the day, especially when he still wasn't talking, but they seemed to take some comfort in the fact that at least Toogie would hug Johnny and his eyes were showing a bit more life than when Johnny first walked in.

Barranca tossed his head and sidestepped but Toogie didn't move a muscle. Johnny wasn't sure if he was asleep in his arms or just relaxed but either way, he seemed happy enough. Which was more than Johnny could say for his hand. It didn't seem to matter which way he held Toogie, it meant pressing where something was sore. But even that wasn't enough to make him feel blue-devilled – he had a feeling he was going to find Jelly today. Why it mattered so much to him he had no idea. It wasn't as if there was anything especially likeable about the old coot when you first met him. Come to think of it, there hadn't been anything to like about Jelly when he met him the second time, either. He looked down at Toogie's blond head. But those eight kids thought the world of him and somehow it just didn't seem right to break up a family.

Johnny looked up at the sun. It was high in the sky but not quite overhead. He had a little bit of food in his saddlebags. Hopefully Jelly had done his usual trick and smuggled some of Maria's best cooking into his sack when he left Lancer.

He wasn't far away now. He rode Barranca down into a small copse – the boys told him this was the place where he'd passed out. The cabin was just the other side of those trees – and as it turned out, so was Jelly.

“What in blazes are you doin' here.”

Johnny looked down on him. “I came looking for you.”

“Well, what the hell did you do that for? You loco or something?”

He knew Jelly would be mad at him but even for Jelly this seemed a bit much. “The boys need you, Jelly. Toogie needs you.”

“They don't need me. I saw them in the schoolhouse. They're getting along just fine without old Jelly.”

“Toogie isn't.”

“What is it? Is it his head?”

“We don't know what it is. He won't talk to anyone. He won't even smile.”

“Well that's not like him. What did those Tates do to him? They beat him or something?”

“Who's that over there?”

“Over where? There ain't nobody over there.”

Johnny narrowed his eyes. “What are you up to, Jelly?”

“I'm not up to anything. This is a free land and you Lancers don't own Elk Canyon and I got every right to be here – and I got here first and I'm telling you to leave.”

“Don't you wanna see Toogie?”

“Toogie! He's here?” Jelly clutched Johnny's arm. “You gotta get him outta here. You've both gotta go. Now.”

“Are you in some kind of trouble?”

“Dammit boy, don't you have the sense you were born with. I'm telling you, you you've gotta leave.”

Johnny couldn't make head nor tail of what Jelly was going on about – but the old coot looked genuinely afraid. “Okay, Jelly. I'll get going. For now.”

“If you've got any sense you'll ride outta here and never come back. I mean it, boy.”

Jelly started walking backwards, like he was afraid if he turned his back, Johnny would gun him down. Johnny looked around. The cabin had been a peaceful little spot on earth when he'd been here with the kids – but right now it felt about as dangerous as a dark alley in the worst border towns he could think of. And that was when he saw the movement. “Jelly, stay still. Jelly, you old fool, stay still.”

“Not till you've ridden outta…”

Johnny drew and fired then fell to his knees, nursing his hand. Dios, it hurt. The inky blackness swimming in front of his eyes cleared fast enough, and he looked around for his gun.

“Is this what you're looking for?” Johnny squinted up at the sunlight, and saw Jelly holding his gun. But it wasn't Jelly's voice he'd heard.

“Congratulations Mr Hoskins. You've just earned yourself two hundred dollars – and captured Johnny Madrid.”

They bundled Johnny into the cabin, then made him hold his hands behind his back while the younger one tied him up. “I knew you two were up to no good the minute I laid eyes on you,” Johnny managed to get out between grunts. It was the two hard cases he'd seen in the saloon – but what they wanted with him was anyone's guess.

“You don't recognise us, do you,” the older man said.

Johnny shrugged and looked away, like he wasn't even interested.

“I think you'll recognise Raphael De Polo when you see him.”

Johnny's eyes glittered. “Why would I be interested in seeing a barrel boarder who'd kill his own mother for a lousy fifty cents?”

The other man gave Johnny's hand a final tug then pushed him towards the wall.

“Powell, tie his legs. I don't trust this one.”

Johnny grinned at him. “You'll be dead meat before sundown.”

“Just what is it you did to De Polo? He's hates your guts.”

“Not as much as I hate his.”

Jelly came back inside just then, holding up the remains of the rattle snake Johnny shot. “It's real handy of you to kill us our supper, Johnny.”

Johnny eyed him. “I wish I'd aimed a little higher.”

“Now, now, no need to take on so. No reason why we can't be civil about all this.” He looked at Bart. “I checked through his saddlebags. Ain't nothin' there worth taking.”

Bart grinned down at Jelly. “I gotta hand it to you, Hoskins. I never thought you'd be able to do it. Powell here thought you were trying to diddle us out of that two hundred dollars.”

Jelly lifted his chin. “Jellifer Hoskins ain't one to welsh on a deal. Never has been.”

Johnny began to breathe easier. At least Toogie was safe. Question was, how the hell was he going to get them out of here?





“Where's Toogie?”

“I got him hid some place safe. They'll never find him.”

“Then get here and untie me.” Johnny whispered as loud as he dared. He didn't know how much time they'd have before Bart and Powell came back.

But Jelly shook his head. “I can't do that. There's not enough time. They've only gone outside to check on the horses and do their business.”

“Jelly!”

“It ain't even likely they trust me. If I know anything about it, they'll just be hoping I try to cut you loose so they don't have to pay me my money.”

Johnny felt like banging his head against the wall. “Jelly, they're not going to pay you any money. They never were – even if they fell for whatever stunt you were trying to pull.”

Jelly puffed up like a toad. “You think I don't know that? What I want to know is how you fooled them into thinking you were Johnny Madrid!”

“Because I am Johnny Madrid.”

Jelly's eyes went wide. “You mean shooting that rattler was no accident?”

“Jelly, just tell me where you put Toog…ie.” But before he'd even got the word out he knew exactly where Toogie was.

“Oh, Lordy Lord.” Jelly went white and the door crashed in. Even Johnny flinched.

Matthew Powell came in, carrying Toogie over his shoulder and grinning from ear to ear. “Just look what we found out in the woods.”

Bart followed him. “Ain't this one of your boys you were telling us about, Jelly?”

“You leave him be. You can have your two hundred dollars but you just leave him be.”

Toogie had made that one scream but now his mouth opened and nothing was coming out.

“You breaking our deal, Hoskins? You hear that, Powell – he's breaking our deal.”

Johnny shut his eyes. Things were getting worse by the minute. He never believed for a minute they planned to do anything other than kill Jelly – but now that was likely to be sooner rather than later. “Why don't you let the kid go, huh? He can't hurt you none. By the time he makes his way to a road, if he ever does, you'll be long gone.”

“You're right about that, Madrid, because we aim to leave right now. Get up.”

Johnny got to his knees but couldn't do much else the way he'd been tied. “What are you gonna do about the boy?”

Jelly just stood there, looking like a man standing on hot coals.

“At least put him down. Look, I don't know how much De Polo has offered to pay you two but my old man'll pay you twice as much if all three of us get back to Lancer in one piece.”

Bart threw back his head and laughed. “You trying to tell me your old man is really Murdoch Lancer?”

“Jelly, will you tell him.”

“It's the gospel truth all right. Cross my heart. I told you I worked for Murdoch Lancer. I only knew Johnny here as Johnny Lancer, not Johnny Madrid.”

Bart went still, his eyes on Johnny. “Powell, put the kid down.”

Powell dumped Toogie down but the kid was too scared to even stand on his own two feet.

Jelly scooped him up and cradled him. “Now you just rest here with old Jelly. And look what I got, see? I got your cat's eye back.” Jelly hold the marble in front of his eyes and for the first time Johnny saw a sign of life in them.

Bart stood over Johnny. “Just how much do you think your old man'll pay us for his boy's return.”

“I know for a fact he can get his hands on a thousand dollars.”

Bart didn't look too impressed. “Old Man Lancer's gotta be worth more than that.”

“He is – but we're a ranch. Most of his money's tied up in land and stock and feed. We don't keep a lot of cash on hand. But we just did an open range round-up and we got paid a thousand dollars. That's the best I can offer you.”

Powell was looking interested. “We're only getting two hundred a piece from De Polo.”

Jelly looked up at that. “Why you dirty, thieving, two bit chiselers. You never planned to give me my two hundred.”

“Let Jelly and the kid go. You can keep me to make sure my old man makes good on the deal.”

Bart was thinking about it, Johnny could see that.

Toogie looked a bit calmer. He was holding tight to the cat's eye but he wouldn't take his face out of Jelly's vest. What a mess. So much for his idea of helping Toogie.

Bart suddenly turned around. “You and the kid,” he said to Jelly. “Get outside.”

Jelly stood up. “Come on, Toogie. We're goin' home.”

“Toogie?” Powell was staring like he'd seen a ghost. “Where'd you find this kid?”

“That ain't none of your business.”

Powell pulled out his gun. “You tell me where you found this kid.”

“Albert Smith!” Johnny yelled the name, then ducked as a bullet ploughed into the wall behind him.

Powell was shaking now. “I don't know that name. I don't know that name.”

They were all staring at Powell now – even Bart – so Johnny dived. His head connected with Bart's arm and his gun went flying, then Johnny rolled on top of him and head-butted him on the nose. That left Johnny seeing stars and Bart lying out cold. Jelly was nowhere to be seen but he had bigger problems than that – Powell was two feet from Johnny and his finger was squeezing the trigger of a gun pointing directly at Johnny's head. No man could miss from that close. Johnny shut his eyes – then kicked out with his bound feet as the gun went off. Something red hot exploded in front of his eyes and then he was falling and falling and falling and falling…





“Morning Jelly!”

Jelly turned around, broom in hand. “There ain't nothin' good about a morning when there's no eggs for breakfast.”

Johnny looked at Scott. “Those darned hens are broody again.”

Jelly looked at them suspiciously. “If the hens are broody, how come I saw a whole plate of eggs in the ranch kitchen this morning.”

Scott shook his head. “If you're living here, Jelly, you'll have to learn that Murdoch always gets an egg for breakfast.”

Johnny nodded. “That's right, Jelly. Otherwise life just ain't worth living around here.”

Johnny watched the old coot. A week ago he wasn't sure he'd even see Lancer again, thanks to Powell and Bart. He put a hand to his forehead. Powell's bullet took almost the same chunk out of his head that Jelly's bank robbers did.

Johnny didn't know what happened but Scott told him when he woke up. Murdoch and Scott, acting on a hunch, arrived at the cabin just as Jelly broke a chair over Powell's back. The doc said Powell, or Smith as turned out to be his real name, would probably never walk again. But then a man doesn't get to do much walking from the end of a rope.

Jelly came out of the barn, chasing Teresa's chicken. “If you're darned well not gonna lay me an egg, then I don't aim to have you getting in my way when I'm working.”

Scott grinned. “Do you think we should tell him about the basket of eggs we collected this morning before he got out there?”

Johnny thought about it. “Nah. I'm having too much fun watching him grumbling about the eggs.”

Scott laughed and threw his arm around Johnny. “You know what, I think I can think of several good reasons why Jelly should stay at Lancer.”





~end~

 

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