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Tina

 

Love, Pure and Simple
Chapters 26 - 30

Part 26

 Johnny and Jelly spent a good portion of the night going over the details of what they would need to do at first light.

Teresa kept them well supplied with coffee and constantly spent the rest of her time checking in on both the injured men who lay sleeping peacefully upstairs in their rooms. 

Chuck returned and reported that Ray had been found walking back to Lancer with his horse in tow after losing a shoe out on the range. He told Johnny that Ray had been on herd watch when Rusty and Jake had disappeared without a trace of him knowing about it.

“Where’s he at right now?” Johnny asked.

“He’s out there hollerin’ at the smithy to git up and get his horse shod.” Chuck replied with a grin.

“All right, tell Ray and Cipriano I said to come see me first thing in the morning.”

Chuck put his hat back on his head and said, “Sure thing Boss. First thing in the mornin’,” he repeated and turned to leave.

Johnny stared after him and then closed the front door. Jelly watched him stand there for several seconds with his hand on the handle just staring at it; the list of things to do made earlier, hanging limply from his dangling left hand.

‘Come on Boy, hang in there,’ he said silently to himself.

Johnny stood up straight as if he heard his friend speak out loud and made his way to a corner stuffed chair and plopped down in it crossing one leg over the other and rubbed at the tired lines on his face, sighing with frustration.

Behind the cover of his hand he said laughing softly, “What else can go wrong?”

“Nothin’ you cain’t handle Johnny,” the old man told him from the sofa.

Johnny lowered his hand to the arm of the chair and leaned his head against the cushiony backrest, “I don’t know if I can do this Jelly,” he said with his eyes closed.

Jelly, who was always full of cantankerous ponderings, withheld his first retort and decided that speaking with the utmost candor was what Johnny needed at the moment, “You cain’t know that Johnny. A body cain’t never know what they can do til they try. And that’s all ya can do boy, is try. I got faith in yuh.”

Johnny opened his eyes and looked at Jelly thoughtfully, “Thanks Jelly.” Letting out a long sigh he stood up and said, “I’m gonna go sit with Scott. You should get some shut eye.”

They said their goodnights and Johnny made his way to Scott’s room and sat for several minutes watching his brother sleep before finally succumbing to his own body’s need for rest.

It was several minutes later that Teresa found him sitting bent over onto the mattress, his head resting on crossed arms near Scott’s head sound asleep. Picking up an extra blanket she placed it over his shoulders and gently swiped her hand down the inky softness of his hair, before going back to sit with Murdoch for the rest of the night. 

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

It was well before the cock crows that Johnny awoke. He shrugged the blanket off his shoulders and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, noting that it was still very early in the morning and Scott was still asleep. He made his way to his room and washed his face, deciding that a shave could wait til later or possibly even as late as tomorrow morning. He didn’t feel up to doing anything more than he had to and right now shaving wasn’t on the top on his priority list.

‘The list,’ he thought, ‘Guess I must have dropped that.’

He made his way down the stairs and smiled when he smelled the fresh aroma of brewing coffee. ‘At least I’m not the only one up early,’ he thought as he trudged down the stairs and made his way to the kitchen.

The lights were on and Maria was bustling around the kitchen getting the pans she needed to prepare breakfast and smiled warmly at him as he entered, “Sit Chico, I have coffee ready and soon a good breakfast.”

He noticed that Maria sat his cup at the head of the table that was usually reserved for Murdoch. When he went to move it to his customary spot, Maria clucked at him and took him by the arm, propelling him into his father’s chair. “You sit here Chico. Today you are el jefe. (the boss.) So act like it. It will give you mucha fuerza y mucho valor, sí?” (much strength and much courage, yes?)

Johnny chuckled, “It might, but I doubt it.”

Maria was about to make a retort to his statement when Teresa was heard coming down the stairs and found her way into the kitchen. She looked as tired as Johnny felt. He watched as Maria ushered her toward an empty chair and placed a hot cup of coffee in front of her. Teresa glanced up at her and smiled saying, “Gracias Maria.”

Johnny’s eyes met hers and they smiled at each other in turn as they both lifted their mugs and took a sip of coffee. “Mornin’,” he said just before taking his first swallow.

Setting her cup down after her first sip, she smiled warmly and said, “Mornin’,” just as casually.

“They awake yet?” Johnny asked.

“No, not yet. I suspect they will be soon.”

“They both might try and come down you know,” Johnny stated.

“They can try,” she replied. “I think I’m going to be hard pressed to keep either one of them in bed this morning. I just hope that Doc makes it here early.”

No sooner had the words left her mouth than a knock was heard at the front door. Teresa started to get up but Maria’s gentle hand on her shoulder and a firm look toward Johnny kept them both in their seats. “I will answer the door, both of you remain here and I will bring whoever it is to you.” She smiled and left the room as Johnny and Teresa both drank their coffee, too tired to argue.

Within minutes Maria ushered Sam through the kitchen doorway telling him to have a seat. He set his black medical bag on the floor next to a chair that Maria pulled out for him and gratefully took a seat at the table looking at both Teresa and Johnny with a critical eye, “I see you two didn’t get much sleep.” He took a cup from Maria’s hand when she offered it to him and smiled, “Gracias Maria,” he said. As she poured him a cup of coffee he asked, “How are my two patients doing this morning?”

Teresa set her cup down and said tiredly, “They’re both asleep. At least they were a few minutes ago. They won’t stay that way for long with all the noise going on outside.”

Sam eyed Johnny who seemed too quiet and thoughtful this morning. “And how are you two faring this morning?” he asked, hoping to get Johnny to open up and talk a little.

It didn’t work; it was Teresa who spoke, “We’re fine Sam. A little tired.”

Sam tilted his head and tried to read Johnny’s face, there was nothing, no hint of nervousness, no words of discontent about what he was facing, just that same tired look of determination and focus, as if he had prepared himself for the tasks that lay before him with a stoic resolve.

“Well this was a mighty fine cup of coffee, but I’d best be getting up there and take a look at my patients. Teresa, I’m going to need your help soon, but finish your breakfast and give me a little time before you come up. I’m going to check on Scott first and then we’ll work on Murdoch together.”

Teresa smiled gratefully at Sam, glad to have these few minutes to spend with Johnny before things got too hectic with his impending departure, “Thanks Sam, I’ll be up shortly.”

The old doctor had only just left the room when the back door to the kitchen was opened and in walked Cipriano, Ray and Jelly. Each man removed their hats as they entered the kitchen upon seeing Teresa at the table and Maria at the stove. Cipriano gave his wife a smile of greeting that was hardly noticeable before they each moved toward the table and addressed Johnny. With hats in hand they stood near his chair and Cipriano was the first to speak, “Buenos Dias Juanito. You wished to speak to us.”

“Buenos Dias Cipriano. You men have a seat at the table so we can go over a few things this mornin’.”

The men took a seat and after being served coffee by Maria, Johnny spoke to each of them in turn, “Cipriano, I made a decision last night after talking to my father and you will not be going on the cattle drive with us. I need you here to protect the ranch and my family while I’m gone.”

Cipriano was not surprised to hear the news that he was staying behind and nodded his head in agreement. “Should I pick the men I think should stay behind or do you want to do that task?” he asked Johnny.

“I want you to do it. Pick eight men, the rest will be goin’ on the drive.” Johnny answered. He knew that eight men were hardly enough to protect the ranch but it was all he could spare at the moment. “Have the rest of them ready to move out within the hour.”

“Jelly you all packed and ready to roll?” he asked the unusually quiet man who sat to his left.

“Yer darn tootin’. Got the rest of the supplies loaded this mornin’.”

Johnny smiled knowingly at the older man. He knew Jelly had hardly slept a wink any more than he had and yet he had gotten up even earlier and was ready to go before the morning sun had shown its face to the world.

Maria sat platters of food on the table and Teresa interrupted their conversation by telling them all to load their plates, “Dig in men, it’s going to be a long day.”

As they filled their plates with heaping mounds of scrambled eggs, fried bacon and potatoes Johnny spoke to his second in command, “Ray I want you and Jelly to get things movin after breakfast. I’ll meet up with the herd later.”

Ray scratched the morning stubble on his face and said, “Sure thing Johnny.”

“Hear anything from the men about Rusty and Jake?” Johnny asked quizzing the man as he drank his coffee and then took a bite of eggs.

Ray shrugged, his eyes gleaming with anger at the mention of the names, he drank from his cup and looked at Johnny from the corner of the table, “Nope, nothin’ more ‘en what you already heard from ‘em. Don’t expect to see ‘em either if they know what’s good fer ‘em. They’re both dead meat if I git my hands on ‘em.”

“You gonna talk to Val afore you leave Johnny?” Jelly asked.

“I’m plannin’ on it,” Johnny remarked.

Breakfast was soon over, the heaviness of the day only just beginning to dwell in all their minds. Cipriano would pick the eight men who were to stay behind with him while Ray and Jelly got the rest of the men moving the herd just as the sun was making its way above the eastern horizon.

Before Jelly climbed up onto the seat of his chuck wagon Teresa gave Jelly a final hug and kiss on his whiskered old face, telling him to be careful and to look after Johnny once they were all together. The old man hugged her back, he was going to miss her while he was gone, “We’ll be alright, so dry them tears of yorn and you make sure not to let them two upstairs run ya ragged.” He kissed her on the forehead like the father that she missed so very much, “That’s my job ya know,” he said wiping off a stray tear from her cheek, “Runnin’ ya ragged,” he reminded her. Teresa smiled, the tears still gleaming at the old man who had become so dear to her. Before she knew what he was up to, Jelly reached into his pocket and pulled out a little bell, placing it in her hands with a grin on his face, “Remember?”

Teresa looked at the hated bell that Jelly had driven her crazy with when he had first come to the ranch. She swallowed the lump in her throat knowing what it represented and nodded her head, “Yes I do.” She stood on the tips of her toes and hugged him again, whispering in his ear, “I love you Jelly, take care and come back soon.”

Jelly quickly pushed her from him, as he pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and swiped at his eyes, “Dang blasted dust!” He turned away from her and climbed the side of the wagon and settled onto his seat, still grumbling about the dust and hollering loudly at the horses to get a move on.

Johnny watched them move out, putting his arm around Teresa’s waist when she came to stand by his side. He saw the bell in her hands and gave her a tighter squeeze with his arm, both remembering the bell as a symbol of a time now long ago past. A time when the old man had come into their lives forever to live as part of a new found family struggling just as hard to stay together as he had done for all his boys.

Johnny bent his head toward Teresa and lovingly touched the representation of that time of their lives, “Don’t worry querida, he’ll be fine and we’ll both be back before you know it.”

She nodded her head, “I know.” She put the bell into her pocket, smiling up into Johnny’s eyes.

Even with all that had happened in the past twenty-four hours Johnny was stunned by the strength he saw in her eyes. Love for her filled his heart, he wanted to kiss her right there, right in front of God and everyone and just when he thought he might, the sound of a hailing voice intruded upon his thoughts.

Johnny looked toward the Lancer archway to find Val riding through, along with a buggy that carried two women from what he could see.

Teresa squinted her eyes and held her hand over them trying to make out who was coming up the drive. She couldn’t make out their faces and turned to Johnny wondering if he could make out whom they were.

Johnny dropped his arm from Teresa’s waist and placed his hands on his hips as he narrowed his gaze, from beside him he heard Teresa ask, “Do you know who they are?”

Teresa heard him softly snort under his breath, “Looks like Scott’s gal, Sadie and I’m not sure just yet, but I’d say that all that blonde hair belongs to Grace Richards.”

Teresa looked at Johnny once again with awe written on her face, “Do you think they know what happened and they’ve come to help?”

Johnny shrugged, “Could be. Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

Johnny pulled on Teresa’s arm gently and led her back toward the front entrance of the house where he knew Val would have the ladies in question bring their horse and buggy to a stop. A few minutes later the trio pulled up in front of the house and Val dismounted as Johnny grabbed the harness to still the horse.

He wasn’t sure if he should be irritated at Val for letting the women come to his home when so much was going on but his overriding need to speak to Val before he left on the long trip won out over those feelings.

It was to Johnny and Teresa’s surprise that not only Sadie was in the buggy but also Grace Richards. They both wondered why she would be here, but quickly hid their surprise at her presence by the time Val helped both ladies down.

Val turned his scraggly head in Johnny’s direction, smiling as he helped first Sadie then Grace, “Hey Johnny,” he said.

“Hey Val,” Johnny responded, wanting to save the questions and talk after the ladies were ushered into the house.

Sadie and Grace surrounded Teresa, each giving her a hug, “Teresa, I hope you don’t mind the intrusion dear, but we heard what happened last night when Charlie came tearing into town lookin’ for Val yesterday. The bank was robbed you know.”

Teresa reciprocated the hug given to her by Grace, “Yes Mrs. Richards, we found out last night when Charlie came home.”

“I’m sure it’s been just dreadful for you darlin’. Sadie and I were together outside my shop when Charlie came to town. Poor Andy was doing his best to calm everyone down, including the two of us when Val and several of his men took out after the robbers.” Grace smiled as she let go of Teresa’s shoulders giving room for Sadie to step in and give Teresa another heartfelt hug.

“We thought you could use some help,” Sadie said into her ear when she hugged Teresa in greeting. “How’s Scott?” she asked, a worried expression on her face when she pulled back.

“He’s as well as can be expected. Doc is upstairs with him and Murdoch right now.

Johnny and Val joined the ladies after handing the horse and buggy over to a hand that came to take the rig away. “Ladies,” Johnny said as all eyes turned in his direction. Before he knew what was happening, Grace Richards gave him a hug and a kiss on his cheek. Embarrassed by the show of affection from the petite woman, Johnny smiled and lowered his eyes to the ground not knowing exactly what to say to her. He swallowed hard as he looked back up to her face and said, “Mrs. Richards.”

Grace wiped the side of his face with a handkerchief she produced from out of nowhere it seemed saying, “Now enough with the Mrs. Richards title from both of you. I’m here to help and you must call me Grace, Mrs. Richards sounds way too formal.”

Johnny, still mildly embarrassed smiled and glanced at Val to see if he was going to make fun of him. For once in his life Val didn’t seem as if any of the display was out of the ordinary.

Sadie too walked up to him and gave him a hug as well. It was brief. She knew from her short time seeing Scott that Johnny might be a little uncomfortable with all the hugging and kissing but after Grace had greeted him so personally she felt that a simple greeting would not show how concerned she was, not only for the family but for him as well. “Johnny,” she said.

“Sadie…Scott’s upstairs in his room. He’ll be glad to see you,” he told her as she pulled away from him.

Johnny took a step back when the women were done with their greetings and said, “Teresa why don’t you take them inside. Val and I have some things to discuss, then I have to get goin’.”

Teresa smiled, nodding her head at the request. She was anxious to find out what happened in town and she was also grateful for their presence. Before they turned to go inside Sadie said, “Teresa I’ll come inside in just a moment, I have something I want to say to Johnny first, do you mind?”

Teresa quickly looked over at Johnny who simply shrugged his indifference, “No of course not. We’ll be just up the stairs past the dining area, first room to the right when you get there.”

Sadie smiled sweetly at her, “Thank you Teresa, I’ll be up in just a few minutes.”

“Come on honey, Sadie can find her way,” Grace said gently, giving Teresa a small tug on her arm. Both women took their leave and Sadie was left standing with an awkward Val who had taken his battered hat off and was now twisting it in his hands and a silent Johnny who stood waiting for whatever it was she had to say.

Sadie gave Val an uncomfortable look before speaking and was rewarded by his decision to walk away so that the two of them could talk privately. “What is it Sadie?” Johnny asked.

“I just…I just…” Sadie stammered, not knowing how she wanted to put what it was that she had to say. Now it was her turn to look uncomfortable and she wasn’t sure that what she wanted to tell Johnny would be received in the way that she hoped it would.

Johnny took pity on her, knowing that whatever it was she wanted to say was making her extremely nervous in front on him. Johnny got closer and took her hand in his, this was Scott’s girl and Scott loved her, or so he beginning to think. “What is it Sadie? I promise I don’t bite,” he said with mild humor in his tone.

Sadie smile at that statement and relaxed a little, “I just wanted to tell you that my family is very concerned about what has happened to Scott and your father. I was in town yesterday when Charlie rode in and told Andy what happened.” She stared at the strong fingers that held her hand, “I was so scared.”

Sadie lowered her eyes from Johnny’s and seemed to be studying the ground as she continued her thoughts. Johnny gave her hand another gentle squeeze urging her on. Feeling more confident with his patient manner, Sadie said quickly as she brought her eyes back up to his, “They want to come out and help. I told them it would be all right but I said it before considering what you might think about it. And now it’s too late if you don’t like the idea. They were packing just as I left with Grace and they are probably well on their way by now.”

Johnny let go of her hand and took a step back placing his hands on his hips and turning away from her. He wasn’t sure how he felt. He didn’t really know these people and yet they were on their way to his home, to his family, the ones he desperately hated leaving in such a time of crises. With quick resolve he turned back to her, noting the stinging tears that were in her eyes, turning them even greener than before.

“Thank you Sadie, I know Teresa will appreciate all the help she can get.” He watched as the light in her eyes brightened and was glad he had said the right thing, “And I do too.”

She practically jumped into his arms, hugging him fiercely with pure abandonment, happy that he wasn’t angry with her or her family. “Oh Johnny, I’m so glad that you don’t mind. I know none of us started out on a good footing but we really do care about what’s happening to you, to Scott, to your family.”

Johnny took her arms in his hands and pried her away from him. He wasn’t used to all this show of affection and it unsettled him that she and Grace were so free with their display of affections.

He heard Val cough into his hand and smiled at Sadie as she worked to regain control of her emotions, “Thanks again Sadie. Do me a favor and let Teresa know when you get upstairs.”

Sadie stifled the tears of joy and turned away from him to go into the house, a lighter step in her walk as she made her way to where the other women were.

Johnny watched her leave, feeling like things were way out of control and taking a direction he wasn’t sure he was altogether happy with. But if it meant that Teresa had more help with Scott and Murdoch and someone to stay with her while he was gone, then who was he to deny her that little bit of comfort. He thought of Milo and though he didn’t know the man any more today than he did the day of the fight, he knew that at the very least he was protective of his family. And if that included taking care of his as well then he knew they would at least be in good hands.

Val walked up to him after Sadie had departed, “Well Johnny boy, looks like ya done got ya a built in family addition,” he said laughing.

Johnny took off his hat and swatted Val on his midsection, “Shut up Val.”

Val tried to dodge the hat that came his way, but was unsuccessful, “Come on Johnny, lets git inside, I can use me a hot cup of coffee if Maria has any, an if she don’t, well then I’ll just have to make us some, if ya have the right kind of fryin’ pan.”

Johnny groaned at the statement, hoping that Maria did have coffee still heated from breakfast, if not he would sweet talk her into making more or do it himself. Any thing was better than that black sludge Val called coffee in his home or office.

They entered the kitchen and gratefully there was a new pot of coffee on the stove and Maria was just finishing the last of the cleanup from breakfast. Johnny grabbed two cups and set them on the table then took the coffee pot and poured them both a full cup.

“Sorry to hear bout Murdoch and Scott. Ya wanna tell me what ya found out when ya went back to the site?” Val inquired once they were both seated at the table.

“It wasn’t any accident.” Johnny remarked seriously.

“Didn’t think so.” Val said, his tone turning just as serious now that they were down to figuring out what might have happened.

“Nope. Both horses were shot from a rise several hundred yards off the road, the best I can figure.”

“Any tracks?” Val asked his friend, knowing that if any were to be found then Johnny would have found them.

“Brushed away,” Johnny said, “but I found this.” He fished into the waistband of his pants and pulled out the shell he had found the day before and had shown to Jelly.

Val studied the shell, “It don’t make no sense. Now why in tarnation would someone want to shoot the horses out from underneath your Pa and brother?”

“That’s what I’ve been wonderin’.” Johnny said.

“You hear bout Rusty and Jake?” Val asked.

“Yep and that’s got me puzzled too.”

“Yeah it’s kinda got me wonderin’ a might also.” Val said as he blew on the hot coffee and took another drink. “It’s got me to wonderin’ iffen them two ain’t involved in the accident someway.”

“I been thinkin’ that’s a possibility. How many men you figure robbed the bank?” Johnny asked him.

“Not zactly sure. Five, six, mebbe more. It happened just before closin’ time yesterday. If they was part of a group, then that means them fellas was probably hangin’ round long before the bank was robbed. And it ain’t likely they just met up with some varmints and then made the decision to rob the bank. Peers to me there was some plannin’ involved.”

Johnny studied the coffee cup held between his hands, “Yep that’s pretty much what I’m thinkin’ Val.” He took a drink of his coffee, then carefully set his cup back down on the table, “How far did you get trackin’ em?” he asked.

“Not near far enough. Seems to me like they knew just where they was goin’ and we lost ‘em down around the foothills where the ground is harder than a witches tit. Got most of the men back up there today tryin’ to find another sign of where they might have got off to.”

“Whoever did this might try again Val while I’m gone,” Johnny remarked.

“I know. I wish ya didn’t have to go Johnny. I could sure use your help catchin’ these fellas. Ain’t ah one of my men as good at trackin’ as you are.”

“I wish I didn’t have to go either Val, but the Old Man insist. We need that money I’ll be bringin’ home and there ain’t no way around it,” Johnny told him with resignation in his voice.

“Well don’t worry bout your family. I’ll make sure tah check in on em now and then, just to make sure there ain’t no more trouble. You leavin’ behind some men I ‘spect?”

“Yeah, Cipriano and about eight others,” Johnny answered.

“All of ‘em good shots?” Val asked.

Johnny nodded his head, “Most are fair enough.”

“What about Murdoch and Scott, they gonna be bed ridden the whole time yer gone?”

Swallowing his coffee, Johnny shook his head as he set his cup down, “Naw, don’t think so. Scott’s banged up good and Murdoch’s got a broken arm and a concussion, but nothing that should keep ‘em both bed ridden the whole time.”

Having finished their coffee, both man sat silently thinking of the days to come. Both men felt like the chips were stacked against them and all that was left was one more turn of the cards to play the hand out and see who would come out the victor.

“Well it looks like Doc ain’t comin’ down any time soon and I know you gotta be getting’ outta here Johnny Boy,” Val said as he scraped his chair back and stood to leave. Johnny followed him to the front door, sliding his hand along the edge of it until it was well above his head.

“Thanks for coming out Val.”

Val grinned and it was the same old lopsided, whiskered grin that Johnny had come to know so well, “No problem amigo. Iffen yuh git close enough to a good sized town, send me a telly and I’ll let yah know how things are runnin’.”

Johnny dropped his arm to his side and stepped the rest of the way onto the foyer, “I will amigo. Just don’t go getting’ yourself all shot up while I’m gone. I don’t want come back and have to rescue your butt too if there is trouble.” Johnny smiled back at him, the same devilishly handsome grin that Val had come to know as well. They were friends, lifelong friends and neither one had to say more than that to know that their words held more in them than anyone else would know. They shook hands and Val mounted his horse, riding off with his battered hat held firmly to his head with his hand.

 

Part 27

Johnny’s grin faded from his face as he watched Val ride away. The time had come for him to leave. He went back inside the house and started to gather his personal things he had strewn together on the sofa in the great room. Before he left he decided to give his family upstairs one more visit just to make sure that all was well with their health. 

He climbed the stairs two at a time, wishing with all his might that things were different. He didn’t know why his father and brother were attacked the way they were and he felt the most uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach each and every time he thought of leaving either one of them behind, injured as they were.

Reaching the top landing his spirits soared a little as he heard the unmistakable grumbling coming from his father’s room as Doc Jenkins worked on plastering his arm. He decided to save his father’s visit for last and turned to the left to go to Scott’s room first.

The door was open, and he saw that Scott was sitting up on the bed, his hands completely wrapped in new bandages as well as his chest and forehead. Sadie was sitting next to him a dainty palm on top of one injured hand while the other was testing the fit of the bandages on Scott’s head.

Leaning casually in the door frame, Johnny said, “Well it don’t look like you need me here big brother with a nurse like her takin’ care of ya.”

“Oh Johnny, I’m so glad you’re here, tell this stubborn brother of yours that he has to stay in bed,” Sadie exclaimed turning in her seat to look at him, a look of exasperation written on her face.

“I think your nurse is right Scott,” Johnny said watching the cloud on his brother’s face darken perceptively.

“I’m perfectly fine little brother and completely able to get out of this bed without everyone hovering over me like some kind of drowning puppy,” Scott retorted from where he sat.

His tone sounded like he was perturbed but Johnny noticed that he wasn’t making the effort to get out of the bed, contrary to what he was saying.

“Just stopped by to say I’m leavin’. You gonna be all right with all the hoverin’ or do I have to make some changes before I leave?” Johnny asked with mock seriousness in his voice.

Sadie looked at Scott as if his answer had better be a good one. Hesitating briefly before answering Scott gazed into Sadie’s eyes, “No brother, I think I have it all under control,” he replied then smiled when his answer brought a grin to Sadie’s mouth.

“Good. Take care and I’ll see ya in about a month then.”

Pushing off the doorframe Johnny turned to leave and it was at that moment that the reality of the situation hit Scott, “Johnny!”

Johnny turned back into the doorframe once again leaning against the frame as if nothing in his world was turned upside down, “Yeah?”

Scott swallowed the lump that had staked a claim in his throat, “You take care yourself and don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine. And watch your back trail, you hear me?”

Johnny grinned, his eyes squinting as he eyed his brother from across the room, “You know big brother, you look like one of them mummy’s you told me about in one of them fancy college books you showed me once.”

“And you look like one of them dime store novel heroes that I’ve seen you reading, little brother, when you thought no one was looking.”

Johnny laughed softly, the sound rich and vibrant as he lowered his head and studied the floor for several seconds, “I do?” he asked looking back up in his brother’s direction, a shock of hair falling across his forehead with the move.

“Yeah, you do,” Scott said, his voice quiet with pent up emotion.

Johnny nodded slightly, the grin on his face still firmly in place, “See ya Scott.”

Swallowing hard, Scott said, “See ya Johnny.”

This time there were no more words as Johnny turned from the door and made his way down the hall to his father’s room. He grinned again as he heard the same muttered grumbling coming through the door. He wondered briefly how he had ever lived through his life without these people, his family, the ones he had come to love so very much.

Shaking off the thoughts that clouded his mind he turned the knob and went inside his father’s bedroom. Doc Jenkins was washing up at the stand near the bedroom window, a helpful Teresa by his side with a towel draped across her arm. Grace Richards was on the opposite side of the bed tucking in the newly straightened covers around Murdoch’s legs.

Johnny noticed that Murdoch’s eyes followed her every move and he grinned thinking how quickly things had changed in just the past couple of days between all of them. He wasn’t sure just yet how Murdoch was taking the idea of having this pretty little woman from town fuss all over him, but from his vantage point it didn’t seem like it was going to be a bad thing. He figured a man could get used to having someone as beautiful as Grace waiting on him hand and foot.

As if his thoughts found their way into her head, Grace looked up and saw him standing in the doorway, “Johnny Lancer come on in sweetheart. Your Pa’s been a real grizzly bear, but I just know he’s gonna be real pleased now that you’re here.”

The tiny woman ushered him into the room with finely manicured fingers, the smile on her face a beacon of light in the room. Grace came around the end of the bed and took him by the arm, pulling him toward the seat next to his father’s side.

He sat down and had to grin at the look on Murdoch’s face. He seemed pleased and a might perturbed all at the same time. Without words he lifted the heavy plaster encased left arm just slightly, “See what that bag of bones has done to me?”

“UH HUMMM! I’m still in the room Murdoch Lancer in case you haven’t noticed,” Sam said from the washstand, “And I’ll thank you if you don’t mind, by setting a better example for one of my more frequent patients,” Sam grumbled as he turned from the washstand, taking the towel that was offered by Teresa.

“Well I’m still not sure that this,” Murdoch held the arm slightly up into the air again, “was completely necessary.”

“Oh? And since when do you have a medical degree?” the doctor asked as he put the last of his supplies into his black satchel.

“Ever since you started incapacitating a man for no good reason,” Murdoch said grumpily from his bed. “Look at this,” he said turning to Johnny who was grinning at the exchange between the two older men, he wiggled his fingers, “I ask you, does this look like it’s broken?”

“Murdoch Lancer I swear by the Holy Bible if you keep up this nonsense I’m going to break your other arm and then…”

Giggles erupted around the room and Grace had the good sense to walk up to Sam and say as she took his arm between her hands, “Now boys, both of you stop it right now, you hear.”

“BOYS!” both men exclaimed.

Grace laughed and nodded her blonde head, her ruby lips spreading into a huge wide smile, “Now that’s what I said,” she replied still laughing with that same little lilt to it that almost sounded like a it contained a trace of a squeak in it. “Little boys.”

“Ma’am I will have you know that I haven’t been a little boy in years,” Sam said as Grace began to lead him toward the bedroom door.

“And neither have I,” Murdoch grumbled from his bed.

Unperturbed Grace replied gently but with laughter in her voice, “Well you sure can’t tell by the way you’re both acting right now.” Grace turned her head when they got to the bedroom door, “Teresa honey, why don’t you come down with us and we’ll both make sure he gets a nice cup of coffee and a treat before he leaves.”

“I’m coming.” Teresa picked up Sam’s bag and followed the two of them out of the room, giving Johnny a gentle squeeze on his shoulder as she made her way past the back of the seat he occupied.

Johnny grabbed her hand before she left. Stopping she turned to meet his eyes, “I’ll be down in a few minutes, then I’ll be leavin’,” he told her.

Nodding her head, Teresa left the room and followed the irascible doctor and the elegant Grace down the staircase and to the kitchen, closing the door behind her.

When the door finally closed, Johnny turned back toward his father, “Looks like you’re gonna have a lot of fussin’ and mother hens at your beck and call while I’m gone.”

Murdoch harrumphed at his son’s words. Johnny pursed his lips and tried hard not to grin. He knew how it felt having so many people hover when all you wanted was a little space and time to recover without being the center of attention.

“You all set to go?” Murdoch asked changing the subject.

Johnny nodded, “Just about.”

“Did you check on your brother?”

Again the dark head gave another nod.

“How’s he doing, really?” Murdoch asked.

“He’s fine. Sadie’s in there with him right now.”

“Sadie?”

“Yeah, she came in with Grace. Looks like you’re gonna be meetin’ the whole family soon enough. They’re on their way out here now from what she told me,” Johnny informed his father.

A deep groan filled the room and Murdoch closed his eyes and counted to ten before speaking.

“You Ok Murdoch?” Johnny asked, a tinge of worry in his voice when Murdoch continued to lay against the back of the head board without saying a word, his eyes firmly closed.

Murdoch opened his eyes when he heard the note of concern in Johnny’s tone, “I’m fine son. Why are those people coming out here, now, at a time like this?” he wanted to know.

“Sadie says they want to help,” he replied, hanging his head, “I couldn’t say no,” he said with a deep sigh.

Murdoch reached over with his good right hand and gave Johnny a pat on his arm, “It’s alright son, don’t fret over it. We’ll survive.”

Johnny looked up, not sure if his father was being serious or not. When his gaze met his father’s and he saw the mischievous grin on his face, Johnny relaxed visibly and laughed. There were times when his father had a tremendous sense of humor and he could tell that this was one of those times that he was using it.

“Guess it could be worse,” Johnny told him.

Murdoch nodded, “Yes son, it could be worse. I could be all alone again. Something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy after having you boys come home.”

Johnny lowered his face and stared at his lap. Hearing the words made him feel good but at the same time it bothered him. He didn’t want to leave them after everything that had happened to them.

Murdoch watched Johnny finger the fringe of his bedcovers and covered his nervous hands with his one good one. “Talk to me son.”

Johnny ever so slowly shook his head and swallowed the lump in his throat. He wanted to tell his father how much he cared and how grateful he was for being home but the words just wouldn’t take form. He felt guilty for all the times they had argued and fought over the most insanely stupid things between them. Raising his eyes to meet those of his father, Johnny finally said in a hushed whisper, “I’m sorry.”

Murdoch’s brow furrowed as he watched his son dip his head back down again. He wondered what it was that was going on in Johnny’s mind and what it was the boy was sorry for. “Johnny, look at me.”

Lifting his head, Johnny looked at Murdoch. His father smiled and said, “What is it that you feel sorry for son. I don’t understand.”

Johnny lowered his eyes to the edge of the mattress, “For arguing with you all the time. I don’t mean to.”

There was a long moment of silence throughout the room, Murdoch knowingly squeezed his hand, “Me too son.”

Johnny quickly nodded his head in acceptance of his father’s words and pulled his hand from Murdoch’s. “I gotta go.”

He stood up and walked around the chair to the door. He was just about to leave when his father spoke abruptly to him from where he sat holding his broken arm in his hand, “Come home soon Johnny.”

“I will,” Johnny said in that silky tone of his. He left, leaving behind a very subdued and thoughtful father thinking only of his son, and how he wished he had told him before he left how much he loved him. 

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

Johnny picked up his black leather bolero jacket and shoved his arms through the sleeves. He could hear Teresa and Grace as they made their way back through the front door after seeing Sam Jenkins off in his buggy.

They stopped in the front foyer when they saw Johnny getting ready to leave. Grace felt the difference in Teresa’s demeanor immediately as they watched him shrug into his jacket over a strikingly blue shirt and strap on his gun belt.

He caught them both staring at him and Grace noticed that he smiled brightly at Teresa his eyes never leaving her face until he had to turn away to gather more of his arsenal he planned to take with him.

Grace squeezed her arm, “I’m going upstairs sweetie and make sure everyone’s all right.”

Teresa smiled back at her; grateful that she was going to leave her and Johnny alone to say their goodbyes and watched as she gracefully left the room to go upstairs. On her way up Grace called back over her shoulder, “Come home soon Johnny and take care.”

“I will Mrs. Richard’s,” Johnny responded, propping a booted foot onto the table in front of the sofa. He stuck a large knife into a hidden sheath and laughed when he heard Grace call back for him to call her ‘Grace’.

Now feeling fully dressed after making sure he had his gun and knife, Johnny grabbed his saddlebag from the sofa and slung it over his left shoulder, then hefted up the repeating Winchester in his right hand. Grabbing his hat he shoved it on his head and started to make his way to the door only to stop beside Teresa who stood watching him solemnly from the front entrance.

“Time to go honey,” he told her quietly.

Teresa followed him out the door and onto the front foyer, her hands clasped tightly together in front of her as she watched him walk away. Her heart pounded in her chest, her eyes welled with unshed tears. Licking her lips she called out, “Johnny!” The sound of his name sounded like a croak coming from her throat but she couldn’t just watch him walk away from her without some kind of goodbye. Some kind of reassurance from him that he would be all right and come back to her and Lancer, safe and sound.

Johnny came to a halt; he licked his dry lips, not wanting to turn around. Leaving was hard enough and having to say goodbye to her was the hardest part of all. He had hoped, but knew it was impossible, to just walk away without looking back. His heart beat an unsteady rhythm in his chest, he could feel her eyes upon him and it was his undoing. He turned to her and they stood there for what seemed an eternity, staring into each other’s eyes.

Johnny wanted to be able to picture this moment every time he thought of her, with rosy cheeks, pink luscious lips just begging to be kissed and bright sparkling eyes made bigger by long curling lashes that fanned her cheeks when she closed them. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders, just the way he liked it and for a moment his mind was filled with visions of running his fingers through its thick silky softness. He could smell the honeysuckle fragrance of her perfume and imagined his face buried in her neck as he softly kissed the tender sweet spot just below her ear. He remembered doing that once, not so very long ago when they had both found themselves alone in the barn for a few precious minutes just before they hurriedly parted from each other when Jelly had come through the doors.

Teresa was remembering it too. She unclenched her hands and unconsciously lifted one dainty hand just beneath her left ear, touching the spot where his lips had touched her neck. She felt that day as if she had been branded for all time by his searing kiss. The feeling lingered for days afterward and even now the memory of that kiss burned her with a heat of such searing intensity she thought she would melt if he but touched her again.

Johnny dropped his saddlebag to the ground with a resigned shrug and leaned his rifle against the stone hitching post. His heart wouldn’t let him leave her yet. He had to say goodbye no matter how hard it was going to be. He loved her and he wanted her to know in some small way, how much he really cared for her, “Come here,” he said holding out his arms out to her.

Teresa ran the few steps it took to be in his embrace. She wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her face in his chest, “Oh Johnny, I’m going to miss you so much,” she cried, tears burning brightly in her eyes, her chest filled to the brim with heated emotions overwhelming her.

Johnny wrapped his arms around her shoulders and held her tight. He laid his head on top of hers and drank in those wonderful smells he had just been thinking about and closed his eyes, holding her next to his heart. He rocked her gently from side to side, shushing her with soft tender words, his Spanish prose a lilting tune in Teresa’s ears.

Johnny lifted his head and held her face between his hands, “I’m only gonna be gone a month querida, maybe less if things go well on the trail,” he said just above a whisper to her.

Teresa shook her head and placed her hands on Johnny’s chest, “A month is a long time,” she choked, trying unsuccessfully to contain her tears.

Johnny didn’t miss the hitch in her voice or the mournful tone with which she voiced her opinion. Pushing his hat off the top of his head, he let it dangle down his back by the storm straps for a better view of the woman in his arms. “A month isn’t so long querida,” he told her bending slightly at the knees and tilting his head so that he could see into her velvety eyes. His heart lurched when he saw that there was the sparkle of tears, “What’s this?” he asked, running the pad of his finger under one dewy eye, “A tear for me just cause I’m goin’ to work?”

Teresa pushed away from him but it didn’t work, Johnny held her firm against his chest and wouldn’t let go, “Don’t make fun of me,” she said in mock anger, pounding his chest gently with her fists, “A month is a long time. Too long!” she stressed.

Johnny laughed softly from deep down in his chest. Right now his girl sounded just like that, a little girl. He was stunned to feel the love he had for her overwhelm his soul so completely and thoroughly as he held her in his arms and watched the petulant tip of her chin as she lifted her eyes to look deeply into his own, “I get worried when you’re gone so long,” she cried. “Anything could happen and I wouldn’t know about it until it’s too late.”

Johnny tightened his hold on her with his arms and said, “Don’t worry querida, nothin’ is goin’ to happen to me. I promise to be very careful and to come back in one piece, safe and sound.” He watched her, waiting for her to say something, “You trust me don’t you?”

Teresa blinked, unable to keep the tears from falling down her face, “I trust you with my life querido. I just don’t know if I trust you with your own.”

He laughed and Teresa pushed at his chest with indignation. She knew that Johnny thought he was expendable in this world but she wanted him to know that he wasn’t in her world. She needed him and she wanted him like no one else she could remember having feelings for on the planet. Teresa thought of her father and how she wished he were here with her today. But even his loss would not begin compare to how she would feel if something dreadful were to happen and Johnny was taken from her world before they ever had a chance to find happiness with one another the way a man and woman in love should.

Johnny swiped at another falling tear and held it out for Teresa to see. She looked at the tiny teardrop on the tip of his finger and her heart lurched when he put his finger in his mouth and sucked the tear off. “Now I’ll be takin’ a little bit of you with me, mi querida, mi amor.”

Teresa sucked in a breath and held it as they stared longingly into each other’s eyes. Teresa wondered if he could hear the pounding of her heart inside her chest and Johnny wondered if she could hear his. He decided that there was only one way to tell. Taking her face between his hands Johnny lowered his head and at first gently touched his lips to hers. As the heat between them increased and both thought they could hear the beating tom toms of their hearts the kiss deepened and the world seem to spin around them.

Johnny lowered his arms around her and pulled her in as close as he could. He wanted her to feel the hardness of his body, the pulsing rhythm in his blood, the primitive need held in check by sheer mind numbing will power. He forced his tongue inside her mouth and felt only the slightest hesitation from the flower in his arms as he swirled his tongue around hers, tasting the sweet nectar of her innocence as he never had before.

Teresa was overpowered by Johnny’s fervent kiss. His mouth was seductive and confident as he took what he wanted from her, setting off tiny explosions of wanton need somewhere deep inside her. Her legs felt like jelly and if he hadn’t been holding her tight she would have collapsed from the pure heady sensations that made her feel like she was floating on air.

The deep kiss ended and Johnny’s mouth moved from hers to the column of her neck, his tongue swirling and caressing the downy softness beneath her ear. He worked his way down the side of her neck and suddenly stopped where the pulsing vein invited him to suck gently, causing her body to buck against the hard core of his chest and stomach. She moaned deep in her throat and Johnny held tighter as his left hand went in search of and found her breast. He captured the thinly covered breast in his hand and repeatedly rubbed his thumb across her nipple feeling it harden beneath his touch.

When she groaned again and Johnny thought he was going to lose control, he pulled away from her neck and dropped his hand. His breathing was ragged; his pulse thumping a rapid beat in his chest and ears. He stumbled back from her and the power she had over his body and mind.

Johnny bent at the knees and held on with his hands trying desperately to catch his breath, “Teresa honey?” he asked inhaling and exhaling sharply.

With her hand on her chest to steady her own breathing Teresa asked, “What?” and swallowed hard.

Johnny stood up and said with his head cocked to one side, “How old were you on your last birthday?”

Teresa looked at him as if he had two heads but answered, “Seventeen.”

Johnny pursed his lips and turned sideways from where she stood, “Seventeen,” he said quietly, unevenly to himself and sighed heavily through his nose he said even more softly than before, “Two more years.”

Teresa was much calmer now that Johnny didn’t have his mouth on her and his hands touching her, but his words didn’t make any sense to her, “Two more years?” she said, looking puzzled.

Johnny dropped his hands from his hips and said, “Never mind honey. We’ll talk about it later.”

He grabbed up his saddlebag and rifle once again, not daring to look at her. If he did he didn’t think his resolve would hold out and he needed his things in his hands to remind him that he needed to leave.

He started to walk away but turned to her instead one last time, but not so close that he couldn’t resist the pull to have her in his arms again, “I really do have to go querida.”

Teresa swallowed hard and said, “I know. Come back soon.”

Teresa watched him throw his saddlebag across the back of his horse and slide the rifle into the scabbard. She walked to the stone-hitching rail and laid her face on the backs of her hands and waited for him to mount up.

Johnny has just reached up to the pommel but hesitated when he saw the look in her eyes, letting go he hurried over to her and quickly grabbed her up into his arms, lifting her off the ground in a loving embrace, “Te amo, Teresa. Don’t forget what I told you. Trust me.”

Johnny dropped her to the ground, sliding her down his body and quickly gave her one last kiss. It was short but it was enough to last them both. He started backing away from her and then turned to mount Barranca.

“I’ll leave a lamp on in your bedroom window for when you come home,” Teresa said to him.

Johnny looked at her quizzically and Teresa said, “You know? It will guide your way home. When you see it, you’ll know I’ll be waiting. If you don’t see it then you’ll know there’s something’s wrong.”

“Still taken care of me querida?” he asked her. But the smile on his face told her he loved her.

“Always Johnny, Just like you care for me,” she replied.

Johnny tipped his hat and waved goodbye, riding off. He stopped after only a short few seconds and reined up hard on Barranca twisting him around as the horse’s hooves pranced sideways, “Hey Teresa!” he yelled.

Teresa lifted her hand over her eyes and looked toward Johnny waving with the other.

“I’ll miss you too. I’ll be lookin’ for that light to guide me back home to you.” Johnny covered his heart with his right hand and patted his chest. Teresa did the same and when she was done, Johnny reined Barranca back around and the two of them sprinted off towards Jelly and the moving herd.

Teresa lowered her arm and silently went back inside the house, reflecting on the day, the hours and the minutes until Johnny would come home to her.

 

Part 28

As Johnny rode from the hacienda and away from Teresa, his mind went back to the heated shared kiss. He knew it would be considered improper or even indecent of him had they been seen by any of the remaining ranch hands or for that matter and more important, his family. His emotions and desires had momentarily taken control leaving him breathless and feeling shaken to the very core of his soul. He loved Teresa as no other and hoped that they would one day have a future together where their volcanic passions could ignite and rain free with the blessings of his family under the holy guise of matrimony.

He knew too, that until that day, he would have to curb his desires for her and concentrate instead on learning what it meant to be committed not only to himself but to the others in his family. The road that lay in front of him was a long trek and he had decided well before today that he would give them both the time they needed to grow and mature into the responsible people he knew his father expected of him and at times demanded of him.

Johnny felt sure that Teresa would think they were both ready now, but he knew he wasn’t. His relationship with his father, though better than before the accident, was still too new and too rocky for him to even contemplate taking away the one person he knew his father felt extremely responsible for.

One of the first things he had learned, coming to Lancer, was that a man needed to set goals for himself and work hard to achieve those goals. His goal was to learn how to put Madrid behind him and concentrate on learning what it was to be Johnny Lancer, son and brother, partner and owner of a vast working ranch. Titles and labels he had never had placed on his head or shoulders before.

He also knew he had a penchant for falling in love too easy too fast, a trait that had led him down one road of misery after another in his short lifetime. He wanted to make sure that what he was feeling for Teresa was real and lasting, not just some veiled emotion he fell prey to because of his internal need to love and be loved after all the failed relationships he had endured. He didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps where love always seemed to find a way of deserting him in one fashion or another.

Johnny knew he needed to grow up and that meant setting those goals his father deemed were the most important quality a man could have, if he wanted to change his life around. He wanted to build his relationship with his father, his brother and yes, even Teresa, into something that was rock solid. His first goal was his father and their relationship. The past couple of days made him realize that they did love one another and that the strain between them had more to do with the two of them learning to deal with each others personalities and their past more than anything else.

He made a mental promise to himself that he would give it at least a couple of years. By that time, their relationship, if they still had one, should be on firm, solid ground. Two years sounded like a long time even to him, but if they couldn’t make a go of it in that amount of time, they never would.

Some days were harder than others but the events of the past few days filled him with hope. The thought of losing Murdoch at this point in his life was one he wasn’t comfortable with and one that had caused him great heartache when he had seen his father lying on the ground, hurt and unresponsive when he first rode up to the grisly scene of the accident. Visions of his mother, dying in his arms, her head bloody, her eyes lifeless and boring into his as death took her away, was almost his undoing when he tried in vain to wake Murdoch.

 There was also Scott, his brother. The mere idea of anything taking his brother away from him nearly drove him beyond the brink of sanity and into the world of the insane. His brother had become his lifeline to the living world around him, and if not for Scott and the short time they had come to know one another, he would have left Lancer back when his gun was no longer needed, back when his heart wasn’t fully opened to the welcoming arms of family.

Johnny shook his head and cleared his thoughts. Thinking of his family, of all that he wanted to do with his life, made it that much harder to leave them behind. He smiled though, thinking of Teresa again. He liked the idea of coming home and finding a light in the window to guide him home.

They had listened with rapt attention to one of Scott’s many tales one evening about a sea captain, Barannabas and his wife Lorette, who always left a lantern in the window to guide him home after his long voyages on the sea. One day Barannabas had sailed home to find that the light was not in the window of their home. Thinking the worst, Barannabas, hurried ashore and ran as fast as his sturdy sea legs would carry him to their residence, ready to tackle the devil himself, only to find his sweet wife, in bed, giving birth to the son he hadn’t known about until that very moment.

If not for the light, which could be seen far from across the waters Barannabas would have taken his time getting home and missed out on what was the happiest experience of his life, the birth of his son Jonas.  While the birth of Jonas was nothing spectacular to those who had given birth before, to Barannabas and Lorette, it was a miracle, for a doctor had told them that Lorette would never be able to give birth to a child as long as she lived because she was too small and her womb was barren.

“Just goes to show that the doctor isn’t always right,” Scott had said, closing the book firmly in his hands that night. A debate soon started around the room as each member of the family gave their opinion of the story and remarked on the theory of whether or not a doctor is always right.

Johnny smiled, he had forgotten about that story, when Teresa had first told him she would leave a light on in his window. Now he realized that she was reminding him of it and letting him know that she would be waiting, just as Lorette had always waited.

Johnny squeezed harder on Barranca’s sides and urged him on faster. The day was half over and he still needed to catch up with Jelly and the rest of the men. The next month, if it took that long was going to be long and hard, he decided that the best thing he could do, was put his family from his mind and concentrate on doing this job right. The first of one of his goals, show Murdoch he could handle responsibility.  

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

Cotton Eye Joe crouched down near the edge of the stream and dipped his pan in the cold running water, scooping up sand, and rocks from the bottom. He swirled the tin pan in his weather worn hands and chewed the thick wad of tobacco in his mouth, spitting a stream of brown juice to the ground next to him. He hummed and listened to the sound of the water as it rushed past him, picking out the bits and pieces in the pan that weren’t worthy for him to keep. The old grizzled panhandler sloshed the pan round and round, cackling when he found a tiny speck of yellow in the bottom of the pan.

Picking up the yellow pea sized nugget between two dirty fingers, Cotton Eye Joe eyed the piece with his one good right eye, holding it up toward the sky while rolling it between his fingers. His gray whiskers bobbed up and down with his chin as he continued to peruse the piece and chew on his tobacco. Pushing back the floppy hat riddled with holes and nicks in the brim, he turned to his companion and said, “Looks like we’ll be havin’ us some supper tonight Whitey.” He held the yellow piece out to the dog that lay beside him and with a gap tooth grin smiled when the dog yawned wide and then sniffed at the hand in front of his face. “See, I tol’ ya I’d git us enuff to make sure we got fed good an proper. Didn’t I boy?” Cotton Eye Joe scratched behind the white ear of his companion and put his newest find in a small pouch hidden inside the tattered vest he wore.

Whitey watched the man, his white tail wagging lazily behind him as he stretched his snowy paws on the dirt, closer toward the boots of his master. Cotton Eye Joe pulled the strings on the small bag and tucked it back inside his vest for safekeeping. He was no sooner starting to gather his supplies when Whitey jumped to all fours, laziness forgotten when an angry growl rumbled from deep within his chest as his black eyes watched the stream further down.

Cotton Eye Joe was immediately on the alert as he looked in the direction of his companion of five long years. His vision was hampered by scarring on his left eye so he depended greatly on his dog to warn him of dangers beyond his hindered sight.

He could see a man riding up to the waters edge and slowing to a halt not too far from where they were. Cotton Eye Joe never trusted a soul and he wasn’t about to make this tall stranger the first. He placed his crusty hand on Whitey’s back, “Shhhhh Whitey!” he whispered. From where he sat, Cotton Eye Joe pulled on Whitey and urged the dog to join him behind a nearby boulder.

They hunkered down behind the large rock, the old miner scrambling to gather his meager supplies as they went. When he thought there might be a chance of peering around the edge of the rock, the old miner chanced a peek at the stranger to see what he was up to.

He watched as the stranger dismounted his eyes going wide when he saw him pull out a small spade from the other side of his horse and start digging in the dirt by a large tree that grew near the stream.

Cotton Eye Joe tried his best to see everything the stranger was doing, his cloudy left eye and good right eye squinted hard to see better in the fading light. He watched as the tall wiry man spent the next fifteen minutes digging a hole and then tossed what looked to be a bundled cotton sack in it when he was done. Ten minutes later and with the freshly dug hole now fully covered, the stranger put the spade back where it had come from and was now squatting down where the water lapped at the toes of his boots. He watched the man shove his brown vest away from his side and bend toward the water, cupping a handful in his hands and then drinking from them.

A loud snap was heard from somewhere behind the stranger and Cotton Eye Joe watched as the man jumped up pulling a gun from his holster with lightening quick speed, facing the direction from where the sound had come from.

“Who’s there?” Cotton heard the man grind out between his teeth. “Show yerself or git a belly full of lead!” the stranger demanded. No one answered and no one came forth. “Fred, if that’s you, I’m gonna rip yer heart out with my own bare hands!” came the shout from the stranger. Still there was no answer.

Cotton Eye Joe held on tight to Whitey when they heard and watched a volley of shots fired from the stranger’s gun toward the wooded area where he had just been digging.

Whitey was used to his master’s commands and kept quiet with the slightest of pressure from the hand that covered his muzzle. His solid white body fought the urge to surge forward and attack the stranger who so wantonly fired his weapon but was held still by his master’s words, “Shhhhh, not now Whitey, not now. That hombre will kill us both iffen he finds out we’ve been watchin’ ‘im.”

The stranger reholstered his gun but not before he looked all around from where he stood. Fearing the new arrival may have seen their hiding spot, Cotton Eye Joe grabbed up his roll, lantern and pack speaking in hushed whispered tones to Whitey, “Come on boy, we’re gittin outta here while we still got the skin on our backsides.” Cotton urged the dog to follow him and together they shuffled off while the man’s back was turned, remembering to stay low.

They reached the edge of the woods further upstream and made their way to a secluded overhang that was dark enough and far enough away from the man not to see them. Setting down his supplies Cotton lay down on the mossy undergrowth and made Whitey do the same. They could still see the man, though he was much further away and Cotton sighed a huge sigh of relief when he watched the stranger mount his horse again.

His relief was soon ended though when the stranger rode as if straight toward them. Holding his breath and clamping a hand over Whitey again, he watched as the man rode directly to the spot where he and his dog had just been.

The stranger pushed back the hat on his head, revealing a thin-scarred face. Light blue eyes seemed to bore directly into him as the rough neck cowboy’s eyes ventured toward their hiding place. It was dark where they hid and he didn’t think the stranger could see them from where he was. Cotton prayed that he had left no tell tale signs near the boulder where they had hidden earlier. If he had, then the man would surely come after them.

Keeping silent and barely daring to draw a breath, man and dog watched and waited.

Bruce Craddock peered steadily into the dark woods. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and gave him pause before turning away. He scoured the ground around him, finding no signs that someone had been there. Pulling right on the reins, he lead his horse back the way they had come, never knowing he was being watched from the darkened overhang just feet away. “I must be gettin’ edgy,” he grumbled to no one but himself.

The dog Whitey started to get up from their hiding place but Cotton kept a firm hand on his neck, waiting, he wanted to be sure the ‘tough’ was gone before they put themselves into any unnecessary danger. “Hold still Whitey. Ain’t no sense in gettin’ our heads blowed off iffen that sidewinder is still out there.” The old miner sat up and pulled the dog’s head into his lap and they waited till darkness-descended before shuffling out into the open.

Darkness came and with a full moon shining brightly on the surface of the water. Cotton Eye Joe lit a lantern and scrambled out from underneath the heavy overhang of thick piney branches and with Whitey leading the way they found the spot where the stranger had dug his hole.

Cotton kicked the dirt and leaves from the freshly dug dirt. “Whatcha think is in there Whitey?” he asked the dog. “Somethin’ good I spect since he was spooked enuff to pop a load off into the woods. I’m thinkin’ mebbe we should have a little look see. Whatcha  think?”

The white dog whined and sniffed at the dirt, wagging his tale as if in answer to the scrawny man’s words. Cotton Eye Joe went back to their hiding spot and grabbed his pack. He carried it back to where Whitey sat and waited for him. Taking a small pick and hand shovel from his pack he began to dig. It didn’t take too long before he found what the stranger had buried. Pulling up the sack and dumping it unceremoniously to the ground, Cotton picked up his lantern and held it close. There was writing on the bag but it was covered in dirt. Swiping at the dirt with his gnarled hand Cotton read the words out loud, “Green River Bank and Trust.”

“Well I’ll be, would ya look at that!” he exclaimed to his dog. Cotton rolled from his knees onto his seat and placed the bag in the center of his crossed legs and began to untie the bag. The string was tied tight and it took several minutes for Cotton to get it undone. When he at last got the bag open he reached inside and pulled out several pieces of paper. Holding them closer to the light Cotton saw that they were money bills. “Whoo whee, Whitey, we done hit the mother lode.” He glanced at the dog that sat silently watching him cackle with glee over their find. “Now there ain’t no need to be lookin’ at me that away,” he told Whitey. “Can’t blame a man fer havin’ a little fun. No siree.”

The dog whimpered and nudged at the old man’s hand holding the money, “All right, all right. I’m puttin’ it back.” Cotton stuffed the bills back into the sack, all the while eyeing his friend who watched him with dark knowing eyes. “Guess ole Val had him some kind of trouble back in town. Yuh reckon he’s out lookin’ fer this?” he asked the dog.

As if Whitey understood everything the old miner was saying to him, he lifted his inky nose to the moonlit sky and let out a mournful howl. “All right, all right. Now don’t go gittin yer dander up Whitey. Sides that, ya keep up that infernal howling and you’ll bring the whole pack down on us,” Cotton said, hearing the far off howls of Whitey’s canine relatives.

He tied the sack again and stuffed it into his pack. The old miner knew he and Whitey could really use the stake they had just found, but he also knew it wasn’t right to keep what didn’t belong to him. “Tain’t nothin’ good can come from keepin’ ill gotten gains,” he mumbled in the night.

“Come on Whitey, we got us some trekkin’ to do afore the night is over.” The old man stood up on wiry legs, brushing the dirt from the seat of his worn out trousers. “Hey Whitey, do you reckon ole Val will have a reward waitin’ when we return this here money sack?”

The white dog stood up on all fours and shook his body as if in answer to the old man’s question. “Yeah, I’m thinkin’ he will too. Glad ya agree with me on that one,” Cotton replied to his friend laughing and giving the dog a rub on his head.

Cotton reached into his pocket and pulled out a fresh plug, popping it into his mouth and savoring the sweet taste of the tobacco. Another search produced a piece of hardtack, which he threw into the air and Whitey caught in his mouth. Together the two of them took off through the night toward the town of Green River.

In the darkness Cotton Eye Joe could be heard talking to his dog, “Someone’s gonna be a might riled when they don’t find what they are a lookin’ fer.” He laughed, and the sound got fainter and fainter as they disappeared into the woods, the only sign of their presence the fading glow of Cotton’s lantern.

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

Bruce Craddock rode into his camp just before sundown, noting with a quick eye that everyone was there. Dismounting he threw his reins at Fred Wallace who quickly ran up to him upon his arrival, grabbing the leather straps as they sailed into his hand and grabbing Bruce by his free one, “Hey boss, the men are getting’ riled good. They say they don’t like havin’ to sit her and wait while you horde over the money.” Fred’s black eyes glittered in the night and the irritating little mustache twitched just above his upper lip.

Bruce looked down at the hand that was holding his arm and glared at Fred menacingly, “Git yer hand off me now Fred while you still have a hand to remove.”

Fred quickly dropped his hand, “Sure thing Boss.” The greasy black haired little man hesitated briefly but continued, “The young bucks is raisin a ruckus over havin’ to stay put,” he informed his boss. “They want their share of the money and they want it now.”

Bruce shoved the short man on the shoulder and said, “Git over there and unsaddle my horse. I’ll take care of them. If they have a problem with the way I’m handlin’ things they can tell me to my face. Now git!”

Bruce watched Fred lead his horse away toward the others and then turned toward the bunch that sat staring across the campfire at him. They looked good and riled just as Fred had told him. ‘Good,’ he thought. He’ll need that kind of energy when it came time to attack Lancer and the infamous Johnny Madrid. Until then he had to find a way to control them all or find himself in one hell of a mutiny.

Bruce entered the camp area and with hands firmly planted on his hips and within easy reach of his gun he asked, “So what’s this I hear about you boy’s getting’ all het up about havin’ to wait and wantin’ yer cut of the money now?”

Bruce waited but no one spoke up. Fred returned and stood next to Bruce mimicking his stance and glaring at the group as if he had the same kind of affect as the man beside him. Fred reached up and began to twirl his mustache in his right hand, smiling when he saw the fear on the faces of the so called ‘young bucks’ who now didn’t seem to have the guts to say what they were saying only minutes before Bruce got back.

Quick as lightening Bruce whipped his left hand out and swatted the hand from Fred’s face. Momentarily stunned, Fred blinked rapidly and took a staggering step back. His hand involuntarily reached for his gun, but before he could pull it out of the holster Bruce had already drawn his own and had it planted squarely at Fred’s chest.

“Don’t even think about it pardner, lessin you want tah meet yer maker right here, right now,” Bruce said in a deadly tone.

Fred considered the harsh gleam in Bruce’s eyes, the cold stance of his body and the heightened redness of the long scar that ran from his eye to his chin as his jaw clenched and unclenched with suppressed fury. He relaxed his hand and the half drawn gun slid silently back into its sheath. Without a word he cautiously made his way to the left and over to where the other men sat, plumping down on the ground and holding off any retort he might have made.

Bruce turned back to them, his gun still drawn and pointing in their direction, “You men got anything to say?” He lowered the gun and slowly put it back in his holster.

Kirk Means glanced at the other men and decided to speak up when the others stayed quiet, “Me and the boys, well, we were thinkin’ mebbe we could have our cut of the bank hold up now. We don’t like sittin’ around waitin’ a month of Sundays for Madrid to get back. Sides, what if he changes his mind and wires the money back to Green River? We’ll be out here waitin’ fer nothin’. In the meantime we could be havin’ us some fun.”

“This ain’t fun boy, it’s work, in case you haven’t noticed. I’ll tell you and I’ll tell the rest of ya. The money’s gone…hidden…until we get Lancer and his eight thousand dollars we ain’t goin’ nowhere or havin’ no fun.”

Butcher Drake stood up, his fat face and thick sideburns quivering with heated anger, “What do you mean, hidden?” he asked hotly. “I oughtta cut ya up fer takin’ our share and hidin’ it.”

“You wanna come try Butcher?” Bruce crouched and held his arms out signaling with his fingers in a come get me gesture, for the big beefy man to come at him, “Come on, what are you waitin’ for.”  When he saw the hesitation in his eyes and the anger subside a little, Bruce stood up, “Yeah that’s what I thought, yer too damn smart for your own good Butcher. We both know that even if you could get to me and cut me down, you’d never find out where I hid that money.”

Bruce walked closer to the fire pit, wanting to show each of the men he had no fear of any of them. “I told all of you before. We hold out with the provisions that we have and we stick to the plan.”

Butcher sat back down and eyed the other members of their group. He wanted his cut and he wanted a chance to get back at Johnny Madrid. But as he looked at the other men around the campfire he wondered which of them would make it out of this deal with their hides still in tact.

Bruce sat down across from them, “Any of you want to pull out now, tell me and I’ll let you go. Simple as that.”

Rusty and Jake spoke in unison at that remark, “But what about our shares?”

Bruce looked at each man directly in turn, “Ya forfeit your shares.”

Angered by Bruce’s words Jake said heatedly, “That ain’t fair! We robbed that bank same as you! We deserve our cut!”

“And you’ll get it greenhorn just as soon as I get Lancer,” Bruce replied through gritting teeth.

Jake jumped up from his seat and jumped the fire toward Bruce with his fist raised, “Who you callin’ a greenhorn?” he shouted.

Bruce jumped up and just as he was about to get a punch in the face he side stepped the young boy and watched as he fell to the ground behind where he had been sitting.

The men laughed and it was all the fair-haired young man needed to fuel his ire even more. He scrambled to his feet and ran toward Bruce who grabbed him around the neck when he got close enough and held him tight to his chest. Pulling out the long blade knife from his side, he held the shining blade to the boy’s throat and twisted their bodies around for the others to see. “Should I slice him open Rusty?” he asked the brother with and evil grin.

Rusty was standing and just about to help his brother when he was stopped by the deadly look in Bruce’s eyes and the knife held at his brother’s throat. “Don’t do it Bruce. He’s just a kid. He don’t like it when people call him names. He won’t do it again. I promise.”

Rusty held out his hands, as if to ward off the inevitable and took a step closer to his threatened brother and tormentor.

Bruce grabbed the young boy by the back of his long blond hair and shoved him toward Rusty and his waiting arms. “Let that be a lesson for you boy. Next time there won’t be no askin’.”

Rusty pulled his brother back while Jake held his hands to his throat and tried to calm his uneven breathing.

“You need to settle down Bruce. You and the boy’s, otherwise we’re all gonna be in a heap of trouble when the time comes,” Clyde said quietly. “I don’t know bout the rest of yall, but I’m hungry so lets rustle up some grub and stop all this belly achin’ afore I decide to put a bullet in all yall.” No one had noticed the quiet older man pull his gun and hold it in his hand like he was born to it. He pulled on the smoke in his mouth and then threw it on the ground, rubbing it out with the toe of his boot. “Now who’s cookin’ the grub?” he asked sliding his gun back into his holster and taking a seat as if this was just any other ordinary day.

Jake kicked the ground with the heel of his boot and said reluctantly, “Guess I am.”

Clyde spit off to the side and picked up the small knife and piece of wood he had been whittling on earlier, “Good. Get started then.”

Bruce watched as each of his men went to do whatever chores they deemed necessary to keep them busy and out of his way. Bruce sat down and grinned at the older man who whittled away across from him, “You could have had me Clyde,” he said low and for his ears only.

Clyde looked up and laying down his wooden project pulled his tobacco pouch from his shirt pocket and began to roll another smoke, “Yeah I reckon,” he said in a slow drawl, licking the thin white paper with his tongue.

Bruce watched Clyde methodically roll his smoke and lick the outer paper when he was done, then reach into his pocket for a match, “So, why didn’t ya?” Bruce asked.

Striking the match on the heel of his boot Clyde said with that same lazy drawl, “I reckon ya already know the answer that, so there ain’t no sense in goin’ over it.”

Bruce cast his eyes to the ground and ran his finger down the scar on his face, “I reckon I do Clyde. But…”

Clyde narrowed his eyes and the cigarette glowed a brilliant orange red in the dusk of the evening, he slowly exhaled letting the smoke circle around his head, “But what?” he asked.

Bruce looked up at him and glared at him from beneath the brim of his hat, “But the next time you pull a gun on me, you better use it.”

Unlike many of the other men, Clyde wasn’t frightened of the man in front of him or the intimidating power he used to control others, “Next time I will,” came the fearless answer. 

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

It was late in the day by the time Johnny caught up to Jelly and his rolling chuck wagon. He could hear the old codger yelling at the horses and cursing every bump and rut in the ground as he rolled along the uneven prairie.

“Hey Jelly!” Johnny shouted when he drew abreast of the wagon.

“Bout time ya showed up!” Jelly shouted back.

Johnny grinned, “Glad to see you too, Jelly,” he said riding along and taking off his hat to swipe at the sweat and dirt that now clung to him after riding past a large part of the herd and the dust that billowed behind them.

“Have ya seen Ray?”

Jelly held tight to the reins in his hands and glanced over at Johnny with a huff, “I reckon he’s on up ahead. Least ways that’s where I saw him last.”

“Everything been goin’ all right?” Johnny asked, knowing he was disturbing Jelly’s concentration but having a little fun at his expense.

Johnny saw the old man’s shoulders go slack and with another heavy handed sigh Jelly said, “Right as rain. Now git on up thar and scout me out a parkin’ place for these ‘she devils’ I’m drivin’.”

Johnny laughed and urged Barranca on. It would be several more hours before any of them would stop for the night. The chuck wagon would take a more direct route toward their scheduled stop and make it there long before the cattle did. In the meantime, Jelly would set up camp and start the evening meal. It was only their first night but the routine would stay pretty much the same if nothing unfortunate happened to cause them a delay.

Their first stop was at Millers crossing, a small stream just outside the Lancer property. It was low this time of the year and neither Johnny nor Ray expected there to be a problem crossing over tomorrow morning.

Johnny found Ray well ahead of the herd, circling back and forth issuing orders to the men who rode along side the moving beeves. Ever so often a single cow would part from the herd, bellowing and straying as far from the melee as it could get before one of the vaquero’s or cowhands steered him back with the ease of long practice and hard work.

Ray saw him riding up and waved good-naturedly to him circling around once more to finally meet up with Johnny when he was done.

When Ray pulled up next to Johnny he said, “Hey Johnny. Everythin’ good back home?”

“Good as can be expected I guess,” he told him. “A couple of women showed up just before I left to help Teresa.”

Ray grinned, “Scott’s new gal?” he asked.

Johnny’s eyebrows rose, “Yeah and I think one for Murdoch too.”

Ray gave him a questioning look, “Who might that be iffen you don’t mind me bein’ a bit nosy?”

Johnny liked Ray very much. He couldn’t think of anyone besides his brother who he trusted more to watch his back than this man, he had proven himself on more than one occasion that he was extremely loyal to his family and even more surprising to him. “Naw, I don’t mind. Guess it ain’t gonna be no big secret that Grace Richards is there too by the time Sadie’s family gets there and finds her helpin’ out.”

“Sadie’s family?” Ray asked.

Johnny snorted softly and laughed, “Yeah who would have thought? Sadie told me they were on their way before I left.”

Ray narrowed his eyes and studied Johnny from his side view, “You trust ‘em Johnny?” he asked with all seriousness.

Johnny studied his hands that held Barranca’s reins and then glanced up ahead and off to the side away from Ray’s piercing stare, “Guess I have to,” he said quietly, with Ray almost missing the words.

As an afterthought he turned back to Ray, “Scott’s met them several times and he seems to think they’re ok.”

Ray looked at his own set of reins, “Milo too?”

Johnny laughed softly, “Yeah Milo too. He says the guy ain’t so bad once you get to know him some.”

Ray smiled remembering how he felt when he had first learned that Johnny Madrid was coming to the ranch as Murdoch Lancer’s long lost son, “Yeah, I guess you just have to get to know someone a little before you know what they’re really made of.”

Johnny didn’t miss the double meaning of his words and smiled back at him, “Thanks Ray.”

Ray stuck out his hand and Johnny grasped it, “You’re welcome…boss.”

 

Part 29

“What are ya doin’ Da?” Milo asked his father as he felt him pull up hard on the reins and bring the team to a stop. He had turned around on the bed of the wagon behind the seat his parents sat on and grasped the backrest to bring himself to his knees.

“We’re stoppin’ and lookin’ like ye sister done told us to do,” Boyd answered back, turning his head slightly to that of his son.

“It’s just as grand as Sadie said it was,” Fiona said in awe bringing her hands to her face and staring below into the valley where Boyd pointed in accompaniment to his statement.

Milo couldn’t see a thing with his head stuck between the shoulders of his parents and stood up to see what his parents were looking at.

Far below them in the valley he could see a large Spanish style home nestled in the glorious greens and gold that was Lancer. The rusted red roof tiles of the house and outbuildings flamed bright in contrast to the pale coloring of the adobe walls and the large leafy trees that dotted the surrounding landscape.

“It is grand Ma, to be sure,” Milo responded, a bit awed himself at the spectacular view.

“She told us what to expect but I never imagined it to be so…so,” Fiona stammered.

“Huge!” Milo filled in for her.

“Beautiful!” Fiona countered.

“All right now, the two of ye,” Boyd said in a mild response to their observations. “It’s just a home, same our own. Nothin’ for ye to go swoonin’ over if ye was to ask me,” he continued. He was taken aback just as much as his wife and son, but he wasn’t about to tell them he was surprised at the vastness of what he saw below him. In fact their little ranch would most likely sit in the Lancer valley with room for at least two other spreads the size of theirs. “Sit back down Milo,” he told his son, picking up the reins from his lap and giving them a flick with his hands, “Sadie will be ah waitin’ for us.”

Milo sat down and the McIntyre family made their way down the winding road that led to the Lancer home. From where Milo sat among the supplies that his family brought with them in case of an extended stay, he watched far off into the distance a lone rider, riding off on a golden horse and wondered briefly if it was Johnny Lancer. He had seen a palomino that first day in town being tied behind the bed of Scott Lancer’s wagon as he and Sadie drove away after a misguided fight had taken place between him and the Lancer brothers.

Milo hoped it was the Lancer kid. He didn’t want his father to see him just yet after the big whopper he had told his father about how big Johnny Lancer really was. Somehow, someway he was going to have to let Boyd know that Johnny wasn’t nearly as big as a mountain, but try as he might he couldn’t come up with a plausible reason for describing him the way he had other than he had been embarrassed by not coming out the victor in that fight. ‘Oh well,’ he thought. The time would come eventually and when it did, Milo would make sure he was out of firing range of his father’s temper.

They pulled up to the big adobe home and Milo jumped out from the side of the wagon, reaching up with both hands after landing on his feet to help his mother down.

Boyd got off on the other side and came around to stand next to his wife and son. All of them looked up and around taking in the house, the yard, the giant trees that shaded the home from sun and inclement weather, noting the fine structure of the heavy front door and the tiled front entrance.

They all jumped when a middle-aged man of Mexican descent came around the corner of the house and greeted them, “Buenos tardes, señor.”

The front door suddenly opened and Teresa walked out smiling a greeting at the new arrivals. “Hello you must be Sadie’s family,” she said stating the obvious.

“Yes we are my dear, this is Sadie’s father Boyd McIntyre and her brother Milo,” Fiona told the pretty young girl touching the arms of each man as she introduced them.

“I’m so pleased to meet you all. Sadie is inside, won’t you please come in. I’ll have Carlos bring in your things and put your wagon and horse away.”

“No need to have the man bring our things in lassie, Milo and I are more than capable of carrying them on our own,” came the burred response from Boyd, “But thank ye for your kindness nevertheless.”

Teresa smiled at the older heavily accented man, her eyes darting toward the giant of a man that claimed to be Sadie’s brother. Both men looked nothing like Teresa expected with their dark red hair, bulging muscles and towering height. She wondered briefly how it was that Johnny had been able to fight Milo and still come out in one piece. Sadie and her mother though were the spitting image of one another, both were petite women compared to the men, with soft auburn hair and gentle voices that hid their inner strength.

Fiona took Teresa by the arm and watched her husband and son grab their bags from the back of the wagon and heft them out as if they weighed nothing at all. When the bags were unloaded Teresa spoke to Carlos, “Gracias Carlos. Ponga sus caballos y carro lejos, por favor. ” (Thank you Carlos. Put their horses and wagon away, please.)

The older man nodded his head at her request, “Sí Señorita,” and led the team and wagon away, leaving Teresa on her own with her guest. With Fiona McIntyre at her side, Teresa led them through the front door and had them set their bags down in the foyer.

Teresa watched as they took in her home and made their way into the great room, “You have a fine home lassie,” the elder McIntyre said with great appreciation in his voice. “A mans home to be sure,” he said noting the heavy furniture and masculine feel of the room.

“Thank you Mr. McIntyre, we like it,” Teresa replied, glad that they felt comfortable with the surroundings. “If you give me a moment I’ll go upstairs and let Sadie know that you’re all here and then show you to your rooms.”

“That would be fine dear,” Fiona said, leaving Teresa’s side to follow her husband and son into the great room.

Teresa made her way to Scott’s room and paused in the doorway with a gentle knock on the frame, “Your family is here,” she told Sadie, watching her clear away the lunch tray that had been sitting on Scott’s lap.

At the news that Sadie’s family had arrived, Scott began to push the covers away with his bandaged hands, “Good, I’m going to go down and great them properly,” he said.

“Oh no you’re not Scott Lancer. The doctor told you to stay in bed and that’s what you’re going to do,” Sadie reprimanded with her hands full. She quickly set the tray down on the bedside table before Scott could move any further and with deft hands pulled the covers back where they belonged, ignoring the frown that appeared on his face.

Teresa giggled from the doorway at the hurt expression on Scott’s face, but Sadie was right, he needed to stay in bed. She crossed the room and took the tray that Sadie had set down saying to her, “Why don’t you go down and look in on your family Sadie. I’m sure they want to see you. I have two summer guest rooms being readied for them now and as soon as Maria lets me know they’re ready we’ll get your family settled in.”

“Thank you Teresa,” Sadie replied giving Scott’s blankets one last final pat. “Stay put!” she commanded with a smile on her face, but with a bullheaded determination in her voice, much to Scott’s chagrin.

“It’s not right for me to be laying up here in bed while your family is downstairs Sadie. I don’t think Sam would mind if I took a short trip down to the great room and did my recovering from an easy chair,” Scott said a with a petulant tone, hoping she would relent.

“That may be, but first you should get some rest. You and your father both have mild concussions and I don’t think that managing a staircase and sitting up all day is exactly what the doctor had in mind. You and I both know that my family can be a handful on the best of days. It would be better if you spent time resting up so you’re capable of handling them later on,” Sadie reminded him with a rueful grin.

Scott sighed and watched Teresa take his lunch tray away as Sadie joined her at the door before parting, “Get some sleep while we spend the afternoon getting my family settled in. Then we can talk about you coming downstairs. I’m sure that once your father finds out my family is here, he’ll be wanting to do the same, so we might as well make it one big adventure after you’ve both rested up.”

“Oh my God, I forgot about Murdoch. Does he know your family are planning on staying here for a few days?” he asked scooting down deeper in the bed, his eyes drooping with tiredness now that he had eaten and knew he wasn’t about to go anywhere, let alone downstairs.

Sadie smiled, knowing that meeting her parents was always a trying experience at best, “If he didn’t before, he will soon. It’s nothing for you to fret over, so go to sleep and I’ll be up when I can.” And with that, Sadie left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

Scott stared at the closed door and groaned, murmuring softly to no one but himself, “Nothing to fret over? Sounds like she’s talking to a child…nothing to fret over...” The words trailed off and died softly on his lips as his eyes closed and sleep drifted upon him.

Murdoch was another problem altogether Sadie reckoned, when Teresa came out his room with Grace right behind her. Both ladies were giggling and joined Sadie at the top of the staircase landing all of them enjoying, for what it was, the power they were holding over each of the men for the time being.

Grace shrugged her shoulders smiling at the two younger girls, “He’s alright,” she waved her long tapered hand at them, “The older they are, the louder they get.” She giggled and in turn the girls giggled with her. “My mama said it once if she said it a thousand times, men are just big ole babies.”

All three women descended the stairs giggling like little girls, Teresa heading for the kitchen while Sadie and Grace made their way to the great room. As soon as Sadie saw her family she ran across the room in delight, greeting them as if she hadn’t seen them in a month of Sundays, when in fact it had only been that morning that she had left them behind to follow later. When they were done hugging, Sadie remembered her friend Grace and introduced her to her family, “Grace, this is my mother Fiona and my father Boyd McIntyre.”

Grace held out her hand smiling, “Well it sure is nice to meet you. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about both of you.”

“And this,” Sadie said grabbing her brother by the arm and pulling him to her side, “is my brother Milo.” Sadie looked up at her tall brother, smiling and full of pride that her family was here to support her and the Lancer family, most especially her brother.

Milo smiled and took Grace’s hand in his giving it a gentle shake and said, “Ma’am,” as he nodded his head at her.

With her hand in Milo’s, Grace looked up into the tall man’s face, “My, my but you are a tall one. Just like your Pa.” She squeezed his bicep, “And strong too!” she said admiringly of the bulging muscles in his arm.

A red blush crept up on Milo’s face and he quickly pulled his hand and arm free from Grace’s grasp feeling uncomfortable with the attention he was receiving while his parents stood just a few feet away from him.

Grace turned her attention toward Fiona and took her arm, leading her to the couch where they could sit. “Honey, you just have to tell me all about the birth of your boy. He must have been the biggest baby ever born from such a tiny little thing like yourself.”

Fiona flushed, thinking maybe the conversation was a little out of the ordinary in the company of men, but Grace’s easy manner and honey sweet tone, rang with true sincerity in her questions and Fiona soon found herself at ease telling everything she remembered not only about Milo’s birth but that of Sadie’s as well. 

Boyd settled in the chair next to the fireplace and Milo, embarrassed by the topic of conversation, decided to go outside and have a look see, leaving his parents alone with the affable Grace Richards. Teresa came back into the room just as Fiona was explaining that Milo had actually been a very small baby in birth compared to his sister, who blushed when she heard the bit of trivia about their weights when they were born. As it turned out, she heard her mother say, Sadie had been the heavier baby weighing in at almost nine pounds while Milo, big as he was now, had been a mere six pound baby at birth.

Teresa handed drinks of lemonade around the room, taking great delight in the stories that were being told. She wondered where the hulking Milo had run off to, but decided that no harm could come with him just looking around outside and left the matter alone for the time being.

“This if fine lemonade lassie, but I hope there’s something stronger for later on,” Boyd said out loud after downing the entire contents and smacking his lips to show his satisfaction of the taste. “A body can’t live on lemons alone, and while this here brew it mighty fine, it’s a wee bit tame for me taste buds,” he continued giving Teresa a questioning look as he sat his empty glass down on the table with an overly loud thud.

“Now Boyd McIntyre, you mind your manners and remember we are in someone else’s home,” his wife admonished him. “It won’t do you no harm to go without a bit of brew for a day or two.” She smiled sweetly at her husband but the look she gave him left no room for any back talk on the subject, though his face looked as if a thundercloud had just settled upon him.

Grace laughed, pumping her manicured hands up and down on her lap as she said with faint trace of laughter in her voice, “My old pappy used to love his brew too. Don’t think there was a day on this earth that he didn’t have a least one-cup or two…” she giggled the sound coming out in almost a squeak, “or three, or four…”

The slight amount of tension in the room diminished completely with Grace’s cheerful reminiscing and easy laughter. Fiona went back to her tales of birthing babies, while Teresa got up and told Boyd she would fetch him another glass of lemonade, “I’m sure that when Mr. Lancer comes down later, he’ll find something a little more to your liking Mr. McIntyre,” she told him lightly. She understood what he had been trying to say, the men of Lancer liked their drinks just as much as any man and she didn’t figure Boyd McIntyre to be any different than her own family.

Boyd rapped his large palm upon his thigh, “A good Scotsman always has a good brew hidden away somewhere. Can’t wait for him to come down then. I’m curious to find out from what part of Scotland he hails from,” he told her exuberantly from his seat, glad that this young lady understood what a man wanted and was kind enough to tell him so.

Teresa smiled and left the room, wondering just how it was that Scott had found a place in the hearts of this family as animated and boisterous as they were. ‘So different from Scott,’ she thought. She was just wondering about Milo as well when she heard the front door open and close with a loud bang and Milo’s booming voice telling his father he needed to come outside and look at the few remaining horses still corralled next to the barn. “Da, ya gotta come out and take a look at these horses. There’s some mighty fine stock outside. Don’t look as if any of ‘em are broke yet either, but there’s few of ‘em that we might want to buy if any of ‘em are for sale.”

“Think I’ll do just that lad,” Boyd said standing up to follow his son outside. The door had hardly closed behind them when Teresa came back with another glass of lemonade for the older man, “Did I just hear your father go outside with Milo?” she questioned Sadie as she set the glass down next to his vacated chair.

Fiona was the one to answer for her daughter, “They aren’t much for staying indoors, dear. It’s probably best they’ve found something to entertain themselves with until Mr. Lancer is able to come down.

Teresa smiled, knowing full well how hard it was for grown men, used to being outdoors and busy all the time, to stay cooped up inside with little or nothing to do other than listen to their womenfolk expound on the difficulties of birthing babies or other woman talk as the two older ladies seemed happy to do. She didn’t blame the men one bit for going outside, but in her heart she was glad that neither Scott nor Murdoch were hurt seriously enough to keep them completely bedridden the whole day. She looked forward to the time when they could come down and help entertain Boyd and Milo, even though it would mean doing it from the comfort of the chairs or the couch.

She was grateful for the McIntyre’s presence in her home. There was still the fear that what had happened to Murdoch and Scott was not an accident and if it wasn’t, she wondered if the men who did this to her family would come back to finish the job they started. The idea petrified her some, especially since Johnny thought it best to leave Cipriano behind to help guard the hacienda and it’s inhabitants. In all the years since she had been born on the ranch, she couldn’t remember a single year that the older Mexican vaquero had ever been left behind for any reason.

Teresa thought about Johnny and wondered if he was doing all right. She supposed he was. Ray was there to guide the drive and Jelly to cook for all of them and if there was one thing she knew with a certainty, it was that neither of those men would stand by and let any harm come to Johnny if it was possible to prevent it.

‘I have it bad,’ she thought. ‘He’s only been gone for part of one day and I already miss him like he’s been gone the whole month.’ Sitting down in the chair vacated by Boyd McIntyre she relaxed and smiled at the ladies when they spoke in her direction, answering and nodding without much reflection to their questions while her mind remained on the one she missed desperately. The heat of Johnny’s last kiss still burned on her lips and without thinking she reached up and touched them lightly, wondering how something so simple as the touching of lips could make a person feel as if their whole body was on fire. ‘God, If I miss him this much and It’s only been half a day, what am I going to be like a month from now?’ she mused, not hearing Gracie as she posed a question in her direction.

Before she knew it, Sadie was standing by her side and was touching her shoulder gently bringing her out of her reverie, “Teresa?”

Teresa shook her head saying, “I’m sorry. I guess I got caught up in my own thoughts there for a moment.”

“It’s all right. Grace was just asking you a question,” she laughed. “Maybe it’s better you don’t answer her though,” she told her impishly. “I think she’s setting us both up to be mama’s in the near future, just so she can play the role of Aunt Gracie.”

“Oh!” Teresa exclaimed, her eyes opening wide. “What was the question? I’m afraid I wasn’t paying much attention.”

“Oh honey it’s all right. I was just wondering if you wanted children in the future?” Grace asked laughing at the surprised look on Teresa’s face.

Teresa’s heart lurched in her chest and she wondered briefly before answering if they knew she had just been thinking of Johnny. “I suppose Sadie and I both want children in the future,” she answered hastily, casting a quick look up into Sadie’s face, hoping that had been her answer as well.

Sadie smiled down at Teresa, “Exactly what I just said,” she told her.

“My Sadie has always told me she would like to have two children, a boy and a girl. Isn’t that right Sadie?” Fiona asked her daughter.

Sadie grinned, “Yes Ma, that’s what I’ve always said. She laughed, “But I didn’t think you were going to go around announcing it to the world.”

“I’m not announcing it to the world lassie, only to the ladies here and present. Now what’s the harm in that?” she questioned her daughter with a bemused smile.

“I don’t know. It just seems sort of personal is all,” Sadie replied. She felt strange if the truth be told, having Scott lying upstairs in the bedroom above them. They hadn’t known each other all that long and here her mother was already telling everyone how many children she wanted and for all she knew, Scott’s sister could be thinking she was already planning their future when no such thing had ever been discussed between the two of them at so early a stage in their relationship.

Her discomfort was greatly eased some when Grace, came to her rescue with her usual carefree way of making them all feel comfortable in a very uncomfortable situation, “Now honey, don’t you fret over your mama talking about babies and how many you do or don’t want. At one time or another I’m sure there isn’t a one of us that hasn’t thought about the day when we have our own little baby to hold in our arms. I know I have,” she said, her white head shaking with laughter. “Only I made a decision not to have any babies a long time ago.” She stood up and walked to the center of the room with her hands held onto her very slim waist line, “If I’d have had babies, I wouldn’t have this lovely figure and,” she put her hands under her breast, “these things would most likely be falling clean down to my knees,” she said squealing with laughter as she pushed her bosom up to emphasize her statement.

Fiona, Sadie and Teresa all gasped and then laughed uproariously as Sadie spun around, showing off her tiny figure which looked mighty fine considering she was no longer at an age where giving birth was an option. “But that don’t mean that I can’t be the prettiest and best Aunt Gracie to a whole passel of younguns someday once you little gals have your own little babies for me to snuggle up and love,” she told them laughing, wagging her finger at the two younger girls.

The front door burst open during the last part of Gracie’s little speech, and all the ladies heard a groan from Milo as he entered the house, “Da,” he said, stopping his father at the door, “They’re still in here talkin’ ‘bout babies.”

Boyd McIntyre gave his son a push in the back and ushered him into the room saying gruffly, “Not any more they ain’t, unless they want tah do it in front of me and you lad. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I could do with some lunch ladies,” he said to the room in general, effectively ending their conversation about birthing and babies, at least while they were present.

Lunch was served and soon afterward, Teresa took the McIntyre’s to the guest rooms adjoining the house, making sure they were properly settled in. Sadie and Grace were both shown guest rooms on the upper level of the house, with the rest of the afternoon spent relaxing until it was time for their two invalids to wake up.

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

From outside of the Green River sheriff’s office one would have thought there was a brawl going on as the sound of breaking glass and muffled curses made their way through the closed door and window that belonged to Val Crawford. The day was late and shadows spilled across the street, ending by the edge of the boardwalk, making it difficult for Joe Mesker, better known to the locals as Cotton Eye Joe because of his scarred left eye, to see clearly through the glass window pane and into the jail. The commotion inside had the white dog at his side growling low and fierce, the closer they stepped toward the heated anger coming from the closed office.

Cotton Eye Joe laid an old and gnarly hand upon Whitey’s head calming him instantly with just his touch. Urging the dog onward they cautiously, wearily stepped up onto the wooden boardwalk and up to the closed door. The night had been long and at times difficult as the two made their way through forested trees, long meadows and finally down the road that led them to their destination, Val’s office.

The old man didn’t expect or want a reward. He didn’t work that way, but in this case, he did hope that his friend Val would put him and his dog up for the rest of the day and night, with maybe a good meal and few drinks thrown in, for all his efforts to see that object of the heated argument got safely back into the hands of the man that was yelling at the top of his lungs in Val’s face.

“What do you mean, you and your men haven’t been able to track them down?” Terrance Littleton yelled as Cotton Eye Joe opened the door and stepped in with Whitey by his side. “We pay you to be able to track them down.”

Val leaned back in his chair, pushing the tattered hat back off his forehead, eyeing the bank owner thoughtfully from his seat, “Now Mr. Littleton, I know yur upset and I don’t blame you not one damn bit, but…” he nodded his head to acknowledge the entrance of the old timer who stepped into the room, “there’s not a damn thing I can do when they take off into the rocky terrain of the mountains. We’ve tried and there’s no sign of ‘em.”

Terrance Littleton paced the room; ignoring the older man and his dog, “Then you keep looking by God!” he said rubbing his hands down in face in agitation. “I want that money found and those men to pay for what they’ve done.”

“And you think I don’t?” Val questioned rubbing a tired hand through the scruff of his beard.

“I didn’t say that. I’m just saying that we have to try harder Val. We have the community to think about. The livelihood and trust that the townspeople have in both of us is at stake. I’m only suggesting that we try harder, look longer.”

Val sighed, understanding where the man was coming from but feeling ill equipped to do anything more than what he was already doing in the hopes of finding a sign or trace of the men who had so callously robbed them, “I have the best trackers workin’ on it Mr. Littleton. Believe me, I want to find the varmints just as much as you do, but I can’t squeeze blood from a stone, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner you and me will start to see eye to eye on this.”

Whitey padded across the floor and behind Val’s desk, pushing his black wet nose against Val’s leg, “Not now Whitey,” he said quietly, brushing the dog’s head and giving him a crooked grin. The sheriff sat forward crossing his arms on the desk, hearing Joe grunt as he dropped his pack onto the floor. He gave him a look that said, ‘save it for later’; only Joe didn’t appear as if he was going to.

The old miner sat down in a chair near the unlit stove, picking up a speckled enamel coffee pot, hoping it would still be warm and that there might still be some of Val’s thick black coffee left inside for him to drink; there wasn’t. “Ya got any coffee Val?” he asked, “And another coffee cup?” he continued, eyeing the broken shards of Val’s coffee mug in the far corner of the room.

“Dat gum-it Joe! Can’t ya see that I’m conversatin’ here? Why don’t you go on over to tha’ saloon and I’ll meet up with ya later,” Val told him irritated by the situation he found himself in and his inability to give the bank owner a more satisfactory answer.

Terrance Littleton rubbed his hands together and then splayed them through his dark hair, mussing it up in a fashion that had he seen himself in a mirror would have appalled him, had his anxiety over the theft not been so great. He slammed his hand against the wall, whipping around to confront the sheriff once more, “This is insane! There has got to be more that we can do. Maybe you should call in a state marshal. Surely there is something he can do that we are overlooking.”

Val sat up, grabbing his hat off his head and slammed it onto the top of his desk, “Now there ain’t no reason to call in a state marshal when sooner or later those hombres are gonna slip up and make a mistake. We’ll find ‘em Mr. Littleton sure as shootin’. I just need ya to quit ridin’ me so hard and let me do my job.”

Terrance Littleton walked up to Val’s desk, placing his hands on the surface while gripping the edge, “There was over ten thousand dollars stolen Val. Ten thousand! Do you understand how much money that is?”

Cotton Eye Joe raised his eyebrows at this news. He new when he dug up the stash the cowboy buried, it had been a lot, but he never suspected it was so much. He crinkled his eyes and Whitey who had found his way back to his master, gave the older man a soft ‘woof’ as if telling him what to do. Bending over, his back popping as he stretched, Joe picked up his large pack, unfastened the flap and pulled out the large bank gunnysack he carried inside. In the silence that filled the room after Terrance Littleton’s outburst, Cotton Eye Joe, miner and old time prospector, carried the moneybag to the desk and plopped it down between the two men, with a satisfied and gleeful look at both. “This what you two fella’s been lookin’ fer?”

 

Part 30

Old Cotton Eye Joe’s eyes gleamed with amusement as he watched two sets of hands reach hurriedly for the soiled moneybag deposited unceremoniously on the desk between Val Crawford and Terrance Littleton. A mischievous grin spread across his scraggly face when he noted the difficulty both men had as their fingers simultaneously fumbled and pulled at the coarse hemp cord he twisted and tied into a double knot to keep the coins and bills safely inside until he could get it back to the rightful owner.

The more the two men tugged and pulled the tighter the cord got until Joe was left standing laughing hysterically at their failed attempts to get it open. To make matters worse, his dog Whitey decided to join in on the antics and pushed his wet nose under Val’s arm, nudging and pushing, tail wagging furiously the more frustrated Val got.

Val finally gave up the fight throwing both hands into the air and with a loud ‘humph’ coming from his toothy mouth said, “Have at it Mr. Littleton.” He shoved the bag across his desk scattering the few official papers that were still laying on the surface.

Terrance Littleton grabbed the bag, pulling it to the edge of the desk, giving Val his most sanctimonious look, waiting for what, Val didn’t know. He knew he had perturbed the man but he didn’t care. Val threaded his fingers together, his hands held close to his stomach and pushed against the back of his chair. When Whitey nudged his arm again, the sheriff, keeping his eye on Terrance Littleton reached over and without looking ran his hand down the dog’s head. “Well whatcha waitin’ fer. That there bag ain’t gonna open itself with you standin’ there gawkin’ at me like I done lost my head.”

When Terrance Littleton lowered his eyes to try and untangle the knot Joe had made, he heard Val say, “Don’t let me…the sheriff…of this here town. The one responsible fer the health and well bein’ of its fair citizens stop yah.”

Terrance Littleton raised his eyes glaring at Val across the desk, the right side of his lips quirking upward as he appraised the disheveled man who was their town sheriff, “Oh shut up Val. Instead of sitting there being sarcastic, you could try helping me out and working with me instead of against me.

Val laced his fingers again then casually propped his worn boots on the top corner of the desk crossing them at the ankles, “Well now, the way I figure it, is like this, I was helpin’ yah but all yah was doin’ was makin’ my duty as sheriff more difficult by not lettin’ me do my job!”

Cotton Eye Joe shuffled behind the bank owner, waving the enameled coffee pot in his hand, cackling gleefully as the two men argued back and forth, “Hey Val, I asked ya iffen ya had any coffee?”

Val quickly pulled his legs down from the desk and stomped his boots onto the floor as he stood, his chair sliding back behind his knees and hitting the wall of the building, “Is that all yah can think of Joe. We got us a mess here and all yah wanna do is keep askin’ me over and over agin about the dang coffee. Yah know where it is, so go make a pot and let the grand president of the bank here get on with our business. Or yah could do what I done tole yah in the first place and go wait fer me over at the saloon.”

Terrance Littleton sighed heavily his hands sitting lax on the top of the moneybag, “He can’t go anywhere Val. We have to find out where he found this money.”

Val stomped around his desk and opened the door to the back room that contained the cells and a storage room, “In there Joe,” he said pointing to the storage room. “Now can we git back to business?”

Joe left them in the room to get his coffee, while Val reaching down to the calf of his boot withdrew a long blade knife and advanced toward the wary bank manager who took a step back when Val elbowed him away from the bag. With a sure hand, Val stuck the point of the knife under the cord and with a quick slice upward cut the ties that held it closed.

Val held up the knife in the air in front of his face, a devilish gleam in his eye, “I can be real dangerous when I’m a mind to.”

“You better remember who you’re talking to Val. It would behoove you to remember I’m on the committee who decides whether or not to re-elect you.”

Val shrugged his shoulders and replaced the knife in the hidden sheath of his boot. An’ you better remember who it is that’s goin’ after the ones that took your money in the first place.”

Terrance held his hands up, “All right, all right. Can we stop this bickering and get on with our jobs?”

Val rolled his tongue in his cheek and walked back around to his side of the desk, “I reckon we ought to. Want tah git a drink when we’re done countin’?” he asked, sitting down and pulling himself back up to the desk.

Terrance Littleton smiled, “Sure. If you think you’re done badgering me.”

Val laughed, “Well I didn’t say I was done badgering yah, but I’d sure like that drink.”

The bank owner pulled the chair that sat next to stove up to his side of the desk, “I’ll take that as a yes.” He opened the bag wide and was surprised to see that it looked as if all the money was there. But to be on the safe side as to their losses, he began to pull the money out and together as Cotton Eye Joe made coffee and Whitey lay on the floor near the front door the men began to count.

By the time they were done, they found that all the money was indeed there and Val now had a pretty good description of the man who Joe had seen bury the money, “Ya think you could take us to where the money was found Joe?”

Joe Mesker scratched his gnarled fingers through his graying beard on his chin and shoved his tattered hat back off his forehead, “I reckon so. It’d be a might faster iffen we was to ride though. Me and ole Whitey here walked the whole night through and most of the day just to git it back here.” His voice trailed off and he eyed the bank manager for any sign that he might be willing to compensate him for his time and trouble. When none came, Val was quick to nudge Terrance in the foot under the desk as he watched his old friend Joe yawn with exaggeration from the corner of his eye.

Terrance Littleton, lost in his thoughts about the return of his money and how grateful he was that it had miraculously come back to him without a fight, looked up at Val when he got booted. He watched as Val’s eyes darted toward the old miner a couple of times and the dawning of what he was doing suddenly struck him, “Ah hmm, Joe?”

Cotton Eye Joe opened his eyes wide and leaned toward the bank owner with expectancy clearly evident even in with his one bad eye scarred and lifeless in his head, “We’d be obliged if you would have supper and drinks on me and the sheriff this evening.”

Joe’s wrinkled brows lifted, “And?” he asked with anticipation, glancing over at his faithful companion Whitey.

Terrance Littleton let out a soft laugh, “And Whitey too. Of course we’ll put you both up in the hotel if you’d like as well, until you’re ready to go back to what ever it is that you do.”

Joe smacked his gums and rubbed his lips together in high anticipation of the comforts that would be afforded to him and his dog, “That’s right nice of yah, Mr. Littleton. Right nice. Ain’t that right Whitey?”

The white dog lifted his tired head lazily off the floor and gave a gentle ‘woof’ in response to his master’s question. His tail thumped against the floor and he laid his head back down on his paws, his black eyes watching all three of the men silently.

Val stood up and walked to the corner of his office where his rifle stock was kept under lock and key against the wall. Taking out a key from his pocket he poked it in the keyhole of the lock and open the barred door grabbing one of the rifles and then another.

“What’s that for?” Terrance Littleton asked from his chair.

“We gotta get that money back into the bank. It’s late and I’m not taking any chances.” Val tossed the first rifle through the air and to Terrance Littleton’s surprise and wonder, the old time prospector caught it in a firm grip with one hand.

At the look on the bank owner’s face, Joe Mesker cackled, “I may be old and dirty, blind in one eye, but I can shoot like the dickens if there’s a need.”

Whitey’s head came up off his paws and he growled low and deep in his throat, “And iffen my bullet don’t get yah right between the eyes then ole Whitey there will see to it that you don’t ever have young uns as long as yah live and breathe,” Joe told him with a serious grin on his face. “Ain’t that right Whitey?”

Whitey’s head bobbed up and down, his nostrils flaring in and out sniffing and after another long deep growl he jumped to all fours and gave a sharp bark that seemed to answer the old man’s question.

Loaded up and ready for bear, Val opened the doors to his office with Terrance Littleton at his back and Cotton Eye Joe coming up on the rear. Both rifles were fully loaded and though Val really didn’t expect there to be any trouble this early in the game, he meant what he said, he wasn’t taking any chances. The sooner they got that money back in the bank behind the vault the happier he would be. There was only one problem that he could see right now, and that was whether or not to play his hand just yet and let the towns people know the money was back to where it belonged. The more he thought on it, the more he was convinced that there was more to this gang of thieves than the fact that they had just simply robbed the bank and as sheriff of Green River he was bound and determined to find out what it was. It hadn’t slipped his mind that there were eyewitnesses that had seen Jake and Rusty Fletcher with the rest of the men who had robbed the bank.  On that same day Murdoch and Scott Lancer had been hurt in a terrible accident that he had a feeling in the pit of his stomach, same as Johnny, that it wasn’t and accident at all.

He hoped that by keeping the news quiet about the finding of the money he could kill two birds with one stone. Find the crooks that robbed the bank and find the ones who dared to harm the father and brother of his best friend. Right now there were only three people who knew the money had been returned. It was his idea to come up with a plan between the three of them that would hopefully, if pulled off right, would not only capture the thieves but also bring the would be assassins to justice since he felt that one incident was connected to the other. First things first and that was to get the money back into the vault. He would then go over his plans with Terrance Littleton and Cotton Eye Joe once he was sure the money was safely put away. 

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

Johnny sipped on his coffee staring into the fire pit, his thoughts far away and with his family. He wondered for as many times as there were stars above his head how Murdoch and Scott were faring, knowing they were probably worried about how things were going and most likely going stir crazy as they lay about recuperating from their injuries.  There was so much for him to think about. He wondered about Val and how things were going with finding the crooks that had robbed the bank and whether or not he got any more information as to who they were. It galled him to think of Jake and Rusty being part of that particular night in question after the reservations he had in Murdoch hiring them on in the first place. He hadn’t liked them any better than Jelly had and now he wished for the hundredth time that he had listened to his instincts and fired them before they ever got so much as one day of time in at the ranch.

He jumped when a towel hit his shoulder and turned to find Jelly staring at him with a coffee pot in one hand and the towel now slung carelessly over his shoulder, “You ponderin’ agin?” the old man asked.

Johnny smiled at him and even in the dim light of the fire, Jelly thought it radiated with warmth, taking great delight in the fact that there were few others than him that ever got to see that easy devil may care smile directed at them, “Yeah I guess so.”

Jelly sat down on the log next to his friend, “Want some more?” he asked holding the tin coffee pot out.

Johnny shook his head, “Naw, at this rate, I’ll be up all night and lookin’ for a spot to go every half hour.” Johnny held up his cup, “Side’s that, I still have some.”

Jelly snorted setting down the pot after pouring himself a cup, “It ain’t like yuh been doin’ much sleepin’,” he said. “Iffen you ain’t gonna sleep, the least ya can do is drink some coffee to help yah stay in the saddle.”

Johnny shrugged, “I ain’t in the saddle right now,” he told Jelly. 

“Nope, you ain’t yet. But I done know yah boy and as soon as we’re all bedded down you’ll be out there prancin’ around, countin’ ever head and croonin’ like they was all yer little biddy ones out there.” 

Johnny sighed and stared off again into the fire, listening to it crackle and pop as the sparks flew high into the air on the gentle breeze that swept through the camp, “I ain’t tired.” 

Jelly shook his head and sipped his coffee, his gray beard bobbed on his chin as he turned to Johnny and said, “I know you ain’t. But yuh got to try and git some sleep sooner or later. Ray’s out there now and ya can trust him to come git ya iffen there’s any need.”

Johnny lowered his head, another sigh escaping through his tight lips, “When I get tired, I’ll lay down. I promise.” He turned to face Jelly in the night, “Ok?” he asked holding up his cup and taking a drink out of it, then releasing another one of those smiles that Jelly had a hard time resisting when he was trying to get Johnny to listen to him.

There was silence between them and both the men could hear the gentle lowing of the cows through the darkness, and a peace settled on their conversation for the time being.

Jelly put his hand on Johnny’s knee and stood up after giving it a quick squeeze, “I’ve got grub to put away and a few more pots and pans. Iffen ya change yer mind about the coffee give me a holler. I’m keepin’ it warm fer the rest of ‘em when they come in as it is.”

Johnny nodded, “I will.” He watched as Jelly started to walk away, “Jelly?”

Jelly turned and squinted across the camp at Murdoch’s youngest son who had the world on his shoulders this night, “Yeah?”

Johnny blinked, his long black lashes brushing the crest of his cheeks as he dipped his head and then back up again, “Thanks,” he said so softly that Jelly wasn’t entirely sure of what he said. He knew in his heart though and he answered as if he had heard the barely spoken word, “Welcome.”

Johnny watched his friend walk back to the chuck wagon. He knew Jelly wanted to say more but he was grateful that the old wrangler let it drop. Truth be told, he was tired, but at the same time he felt wide-awake. The week had droned on with little or no problems that hadn’t been dealt with swiftly.  The trek across Miller’s creek went easy as expected with the waters being low and aside from the occasional steer that decided to ramble off and get caught in the brush the entire crew had done little more than they would have on any normal working day on the ranch.

He did his best to stay in touch with Ray who led the drive and often rode his horse up and down the line, checking in with the men and making sure those that were riding drag were keeping up and doing there best to make sure and round up any strays that fell behind. He dogged a few ornery cows of his own, scouted ahead for the predetermined campsite and helped anyone who called out a shout, gaining a newfound respect from all the men.

He had found it hard to accept the men calling him boss or Mr. Lancer but after a short conversation their third night out with Ray he decided not to press the issue of what they called him any longer, at least until they all got back home. He remembered the conversation vividly and smiled fondly at the words that were said to him as he sat his cup down on the log and made his way over to Barranca just as Jelly had predicted he would do.

On that night most of the men were still out with the cattle, getting them settled in for the nightfall as Jelly clanked and banged his way around the chuck wagon preparing the evening meal, “Hey Johnny,” Ray said as he sauntered up to him.

Johnny pushed his hat back and rubbed a wet handkerchief over his face, “Ray.”

Ray took his hat off and dusted the side of his pant leg with it before finding a seat on the ground with his canteen. “I need to talk to you about somethin’ boss.”

Johnny craned his neck and sat down opposite Ray, crossing his legs in the same fashion as his lead drover, “You don’t have to call me boss, Ray.”

Ray took a long swig from his canteen and then offered it up for Johnny to take a drink, “Well now that’s just what I want to talk to you about.”

Johnny drank his own long swallow of water, glad to get the taste of dust out of his mouth, “What do you mean,” he asked corking the canteen and handing it back.

Ray watched as Johnny pulled his gun from his holster and began to clean it while they talked. He hadn’t seen Johnny pull his gun or shoot it once since they started the drive but he did notice that the first thing the boy did as soon as he got back to camp for the supper hour was pull it out and clean it thoroughly just as he was doing now. He guessed it was from habit, but he wondered if it wasn’t also a form of fear and the necessity to always be ready just in case he ever had to draw his gun and shoot down on another human being.

He shook his head as he wondered not for the first time, what kind of life his mother had raised him in and the life soon after she died to make this young boy so meticulous and caring of his weapon, that even now, surrounded by the safety of dozens of men, the boy still felt the need to be constantly ready for anything. He supposed it came from him having been a gunslinger for the better part of the last five years, but that seemed like such a short time to be so wary, so untrusting. There had to be more to his story than just the tales that he and the men on the ranch had heard. Most if not all, knew about him having been Johnny Madrid, but Ray thought it was Johnny Lancer that had the most troubled thoughts and feelings all wrapped up in his head. And it was that part of his life that the men knew nothing about other than what they had heard from the old timers who had been living on the ranch when Johnny was born and had lived there the first two years of his life. It was that part of his life that Ray couldn’t see being the torment of Johnny’s childhood. He didn’t know Murdoch Lancer as anything other than his boss but the one thing that stood out clear to him was the love the man had for his son, even if Johnny couldn’t see it for himself. Therein he thought was probably a good part of the problem too.

Casting aside his reflective thoughts Ray continued, “You gotta let the men call ya boss Johnny or Mr. Lancer if that’s what they’re prone to sayin’,” he told him quietly.

Johnny stopped rubbing on his gun and laid it on his lap, “Mr. Lancer is my father. It’s not me.”

Ray saw the unflinching look in Johnny’s eyes but he was determined to get his point across, “The men are showing you respect. And when I talk to them…you are Mr. Lancer.”

Those unflinching eyes blinked and Johnny looked down at his gun contemplating the words of his head drover, a man who had shown he was a friend and respected him for who he was and not what he had been. “I feel funny when they call me that,” he told Ray quietly. “It doesn’t sound right. I’m just Johnny. I ain’t ever been Mr. Lancer…ever.”

Ray was a bit older than Johnny and right now he really felt that age difference as he tried to talk to the young man sitting across from him, “Johnny, you plannin’ on ever gettin’ married someday?”

Johnny’s head shot up sharply from the gun on his lap, “Why you askin’?” he wanted to know, wondering why him getting married someday had anything to do with the men calling him boss or Mr. Lancer.

Ray smiled crookedly, “Just answer the question boy,” he told him quietly.

Johnny shrugged, thinking of Teresa and him standing in front of the Catholic priest someday. His face flushed and he hoped his thoughts concerning Teresa weren’t apparent on his face, “Mebbe,” he said ducking his head to hide his eyes from this man who seemed hell bent on probing him with questions that were just too personal for him to talk about.

Ray sighed not missing the flush the boy got on his face, “Well someday, she’ll be Mrs. Lancer and you’ll be Mr. Lancer. And one day, it will be you that will be callin’ the tune and not your old man.” He waited for Johnny to say something and when he didn’t he said, “The men are showing you who you are Johnny and who you will be one day. Don’t take that away from them. You’ve got their respect and mine…now keep it. It’s yours.”

Ray stood up and walked away, leaving a thoughtful Johnny left behind to ‘ponder’ as Jelly would say, on the words that were said to him.  He hadn’t expected this dramatic change in attitude the men were having with him and it scarred him just a little to have them call him by those names. Saying them was like not having his father in his life anymore and though they still fought and argued, he had come to realize over the course of the past few weeks that he wouldn’t want his father out of his life, not for any reason at all. But he understood what Ray was telling him and made the choice then and there to do as the man requested. To Johnny, the load he was bearing now seemed that much heavier but he was set on making this drive a success and becoming the Lancer that his father would be proud of.

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

“I said break it up!” Bruce Craddock yelled from across their campfire.

Frank granger rubbed the back of his hand across his swollen lip dragging the sheen of red blood across his face, his brown eyes shooting darts at the redheaded Kirk Means who staggered back from the last blow thrown into his gut.

Still bent over he pointed a finger at Frank and yelled, “He’s cheatin’!”

“So what if he is?” Rusty Fletcher said from his seat around the game of cards the men had been playing until Frank got wise to the fact that Kirk was slipping aces from the dirty sleeve of his shirt.

“Peer’s to me you were cheatin’ too,” Jake said brushing his blonde hair out of his eyes. “Seems to me that if you can’t take the heat you shouldn’t play with the fire.”

“Shut up yah loud mouth little punk or I’ll give you some ah what he got,” Kirk said heatedly and pointing at Frank.

“Both of yah need to shut up right now before I decide to blow both your heads off,” Bruce commanded from his seat where he had been studying the plans he had written down on a piece of paper. “We got at least two mebbe three more weeks of waitin’ and I don’t plan on listenin’ to either one of yah. Now sit down and shut up.”

Clyde Willows spat out a stream of tobacco juice from his mouth, “Maybe we oughta let the boys go into town and loosen up. What do yah say boss?”

“Why don’t we just tell ‘em to go turn themselves in to the sheriff while we’re at it Clyde?” Bruce said to him sarcastically.

“I’m not sayin have ‘em go into Green River. Let ‘em go into Morro Coyo. It ain’t nothin’ but a place for the Mex. Not a damn one of these hombres speaks Spanish and there ain’t a sheriff. Sides that, there’s one or two of ‘em that could do with a bath.” Clyde spat at the fire watching his boss’ face for any sign of relenting on his decision to stay the whole month holed up in the hidden arroyo they were in.

Fred Wallace twisted his moustache and nodded is head in agreement, “Come on boss. It can’t hurt any.”

Bruce Craddock shook his head, “No! That posse is still out there lookin’ for us and I’m not about to put all our plans in jeopardy just because you boys want to let off a little steam.”

“What about you? You took off and didn’t tell us where you were goin’ a week ago. And I haven’t seen that money bag once ever since then,” Butcher Drake said roughly from his seat by the campfire. He held the knife he was sharpening up in the air and watched the light as it glinted off the cold steel. “I don’t rightly recall you askin’ any of us if we minded havin’ you take off with all our cash like that.”

Craddock wiggled his back against the tree he was sitting in front of scratching an itch that was low on his back. It had been hard keeping the men from sneaking out or killing one another for the best part of the week. And the tone toward him was getting more and more fierce like the one that Butcher Drake was addressing him with just now. “I got our cash and it’s in safe keeping for now until our job is done. I didn’t ask cause you belly achin’ sons of bitches don’t need to know until I get what I want. Is that clear?”

Quick as lightening the steel of Butcher Drake’s knife sailed through the air and stuck in the wood just over Craddock’s head. Bruce took off his brown felt hat, his light blue eyes flashing fire as he craned his head and watched the knife vibrate back and forth in the trunk of the tree. Hearing that his large antagonistic knife wielding crony was getting up on his feet, Bruce jumped up and before the big lumbering man could come within two feet of him, he pulled the knife from the tree and flashed it at his rotund belly. “You want some of this? Come on. Take it from me,” he growled.

Drake stood still, all eyes from the camp watched him warily wondering what he would do next. “I see ya can’t take a joke and you’re just as pent up as the rest of us.”

“This!” Craddock yelled back at him, “Ain’t no joke!” The knife sailed through the space that separated them once again and the air held an ominous hush as the blade landed between the boots of Butcher Drake nearly missing his right foot by an inch.

Butcher Drake bent over and retrieved his knife, wiping of the sand and grit that coated it from being drilled into the ground nearly to its hilt. “That ain’t now way to treat a good skinnin’ knife…Boss.”  Drake went back to his seat and started polishing up his knife as if nothing had happened.

Bruce looked to Fred Wallace and on a sudden impulse told the man to saddle up. They were goin’ for a ride. “Watch the camp,” he told Clyde who whittled away on his stick and spat tobacco juice carelessly toward the fire.

The stream of brackish spittle steamed and hissed as it hit the golden embers and faint flames that burst brightly as Rusty and Jake took turns poking at it with sticks. “Mind tellin’ us where yer goin?”

Craddock slapped his hat back on his head covering the thinning light brown hair that hung limply from his head, “I’m gonna bring you boys back some entertainment.”

Clyde nodded his head giving Frank and Kirk a warning glare to keep their mouths shut. Looking up at Craddock’s face he said, “Bout damn time.”

To Chapters 31 - 35

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