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d.b.brisbin

 

 

Coyote Wishes and Peyote Dreams

Only warning is for profanity.

 

Chapter 1

Riding out in search of his brother, Scott Lancer wondered if the arguments would ever stop between his father, Murdoch, and his younger brother, Johnny.  If he were honest with himself, they were all three cut from the same mold, not just Murdoch and Johnny, but neither of the other two had an inch of give in them.

Johnny and Murdoch were like matches and dynamite.  Sometimes he likened them to the coalmines where the tiniest spark could light mere fumes and cause catastrophic explosions.  Once one of them sparked, the fire started and nothing, nothing, could extinguish the flames.

Lately, the two of them argued almost every day, or every night to be more precise.  Johnny worked harder than two men did during the day, and when he would get home for dinner, Murdoch would start in on him, and if Johnny were late for dinner, it was even worse.

Murdoch rode the boy hard.  Scott couldn’t figure out if Murdoch was trying to break his wild son’s spirit or if he was punishing him for being a gunfighter.  It was hard to believe that his father could think that the caustic manner that he used with Johnny was fatherly guidance.

Tonight had been the worst of this week’s fights.  Murdoch had been to town and learned that Johnny had left the ranch a couple of nights during the week and spent them in town.  When they thought he was upstairs in bed asleep, Johnny had been in town playing poker and sleeping upstairs in the saloon with a couple of the girls.

Yet Johnny had been at breakfast every morning and worked his usual double load.  That wasn’t good enough for their father.  Murdoch was concerned about the gossip.  Their words were still ringing in Scott’s ears.

 “Johnny, I won’t tolerate your behavior.  We can’t have the townspeople talking about our family that way.  I expect you to conduct yourself as a gentleman and to set an example for the community.”

“What the hell are you talkin’ ‘bout now ol’ man?”

“I’m talking about your visits to town this past week.”

“Visits to town?”

“God damn it, John!  I won’t tolerate you lying to me either!”

That, he knew, hurt his brother, as Johnny’s reaction was as fast and as deadly as his draw.

“Lying?!  Lying?  I never lied to you old man.  Fuck you and all those fuckin’ crones in that fuckin’ town.”

Johnny had been palming the paperweight from Murdoch’s desk before their father lit into him.  With a flick of his wrist, he had launched the paperweight right through the plate glass window behind their father’s desk.  The shattering of the glass was loud.  Pieces had continued to fall, one by one, after the main event, daggers of sound slowly stabbing the silence that followed.

He had never seen his father move as fast as he did then.  Johnny appeared to have shocked himself by breaking the window.  The look of bewilderment on his face led Scott to believe that it was an unconscious action.  Johnny’s hesitation, while he stared at the window, gave Murdoch a chance to catch him off guard.  Their father had grabbed Johnny with both hands, by the collar of his bolero jacket and slammed him into the wall.

Although Johnny looked dazed, his reaction was swift.  As Murdoch raised his hand to strike him, their father found himself looking into the barrel of the Colt.  The Colt used to kill God knew how many men.

“No you don’t ol’ man.  You take your fuckin’ hands off me now.  You are not gonna hit me.  You understand?”  Johnny Madrid was addressing Murdoch, not Johnny Lancer and it was frightening to watch.

Murdoch had let go of his smaller statured son and had remained speechless.  Scott had been more stunned by his father’s actions than his brother’s.  Johnny had turned and left via the French doors as fast as he could walk.   The jingle of his spurs giving rhythm to his anger.  Moments later, the familiar sound of Barranca’s gallop came through the broken window as he and his master fled from the hacienda.

The sound of the slamming French doors had seemed to shake his father from his stupor and he had dropped into one of the stuffed chairs in front of his desk, while he had gone over to the liquor cabinet and poured two stiff drinks, one for each of them.

“What the hell just happened?”  Murdoch had asked him.

“Sir, I think you may have lost both your temper, and, your younger son.”  He had replied.

Jelly had made his presence known about that time, entering from the same French doors through which Johnny had fled.

“Boss,” he stopped, staring at the shattered window and continued, “Well what in tarnation happened here?”

“Nothing much, Jelly.  Murdoch and Johnny had another disagreement.”

“Looks like morn’a disagreement.  That’s gonna cost a pretty penny to replace that winda.”

“Not now, Jelly.  Just go get something we can use to board this up with.”  Murdoch growled.

 

Well, here he was, three days later, looking for his brother who hadn’t been seen since that night.  Murdoch was desperate and had begged Scott to find Johnny.  When he had calmed down after the fight, he was devastated that he had almost hit Johnny.

His brother was good at not leaving tracks, and even more so when he didn’t want to be found.  He had already searched the line shacks, taking half, and Jelly, the other half.

Now, he had arrived at the last shack.  There was no evidence that Johnny had been there.  He was at his wit’s end.  He was tired of being in the middle of Johnny and Murdoch, yet, there was no way to avoid it.  He needed them both and couldn’t stand to see either unhappy, even more so, Johnny.

As for Murdoch, well, he had survived worse, and with the ranch to keep him busy as it always had, he would continue with that part of life, but everyday life with him would be hell if he didn’t find Johnny.

He didn’t feel that Johnny had taken off for good.  He left too fast, and despite having few possessions left upstairs in his room, he felt certain that Johnny would have never left without coming back and saying goodbye to him, Teresa, Jelly, and Maria. 

The line shack was on the side ranch nearest Green River.  Stymied for clues to his brother’s whereabouts, he decided to seek out the one person who might be able to help him, Val Crawford.  Crawford was the new sheriff to Green River, paid for by the Cattlemen’s Association.  Applicants had responded to Murdoch, and when Johnny heard his name, he gave Murdoch a glowing recommendation.

Crawford and Johnny had been associates and friends off and on for the last ten years.  Having started out as gunfighter like Johnny, but tired of the lifestyle, he gave it up, and joined the Texas Rangers for a few years and then became sheriff of a small town.

So far, he had been the best thing to happen to Green River, despite his unkempt appearance and rather unconventional methods of enforcing the law.  He took no lip from Johnny either, having locked him up several times.

It was hard to read Murdoch’s feelings about Crawford.  He figured the old man must have mixed emotions about the sheriff.  He never appeared jealous that Crawford knew more about his young son than he did, but as much as it angered and embarrassed their father to learn of Johnny’s arrests by the sheriff, he did seem somewhat relieved to know there was someone who seemed able to rein in Johnny Madrid.

 

Arriving in Green River, he rode straight to the sheriff’s office and found Val leaned back in his big chair behind the desk looking at wanted posters.  As he opened the door, the scruffy sheriff looked up.

“Well, what’s Johnny done gone and done now?”  The sheriff asked as he looked back down at the wanted posters and picked up a new one to look at.

Stepping inside Scott couldn’t help but ask, “How’d you know?”

“Hell, Scott, I can tell by the look on your face.  ‘Sides, you don’t often come in here ‘less it’s ‘bout ya brother.  Pull up a chair.”  Val laid the poster down on the desk, leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the large battered desk, ankles crossed, revealing large sliver Spanish style spurs similar to Johnny’s.

He placed his hands behind his head, interlocking his fingers and said, “Let’s hear it.”

Scott pulled up a large wooden chair with arms, took his hat off and sat down, hat in his lap to give his hands something to do.  The sheriff had a way of looking through him that always made him feel a little unsettled.

“I guess it’s no secret between you and Johnny about the arguments that he and Murdoch get into.”

“Nope.  I know they’re two of the most stubborn men I’ve ever come across.  Johnny hates it when I tell him he’s just like his daddy.”

Scott chuckled.  That would get his brother’s ire up.  “Well, the last couple of weeks, the two of them have been arguing almost every night.”

Val nodded, listening, and his complete attention on Scott.

“Well, it seems Murdoch came into town a few days ago and overheard a couple of the widows talking about Johnny and the fact that he had spent a couple of nights here in town at the saloon.  Then, he heard a couple of men over by the general store talking about the same thing, how Johnny was spending the nights with the saloon girls in the middle of the week, and, well, you know, it got down to the old gossip and about him being a gunfighter.”

Val rolled his eyes and blew out a loud breath.  “Damned gossips.  The way information travels around this town, you’d think there wouldn’t be no need of a telegraph.”

Scott frowned, and continued, “Anyway, Murdoch confronted Johnny in his usual fatherly manner.”

Interrupted by Val’s scoffing, he continued, “Anyway, Murdoch accused him of lying about it and, well, you know Johnny.”

“Yep, the powder keg exploded.”

“You got it.”

“Well, was Johnny out working durin’ the day or was he laid up and skippin’ out on his work?”  Val inquired.

“That’s just it.  Johnny was on time for breakfast every morning, got his orders and worked just as hard as he always does.  We had no idea he’d even been gone all night.  Murdoch’s just angry over the way things look to the townspeople.”

“I swear.”  Val shook his head.

“So anyway, when Murdoch accused him of lying, well, Johnny lost it.  He cursed the gossips, the town, and Murdoch himself.”

“Oh shit.  That set the old man off, huh?”

“Yes, but the next part, well, I’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself.”

“Scott, anything you and I talk about when it comes to ya brother or ya daddy, needs to stay between us.”

“Agreed.”  He stopped to compose himself.  “Well, Johnny had been playing with that big paperweight on Murdoch’s desk.  You know how restless he is.  So, when Murdoch lit into him and accused him of lying, in addition to cursing everyone, Johnny threw the paperweight through the glass window behind the desk.”

With that, Val dropped his feet to the ground, and leaned forward onto the desk, elbows propped on the desk, his head resting atop his hands.

“I bet Murdoch lost it for good then.”

“Yep.  You’re right.  The thing is, I don’t think Johnny meant to break the window, I mean, he looked as stunned as the rest of us.  I think he was the one who was the most shocked, otherwise, Murdoch would’ve never gotten his hands on him.”

Val closed his eyes for a moment and looked away, taking a deep breath.

“Murdoch has never moved so fast in the time I have known him.  He was on top of Johnny in a heartbeat, grabbed him with both hands and shoved him against the wall.”

Val swallowed hard.

“When he went to hit him,”

“Johnny drew on him.”  Val finished for him.

Scott nodded in agreement.

Crawford leaned back in his chair again and was quiet.  He took in another deep breath and let it out.  He leaned forward again onto the desk.

“Scott.  I mean it, this needs t’ stay between you and me, comprende?  If it don’t I won’t ever help you again.  Probably wouldn’t be able to anyway, ‘cause I’d probably have to find another job, that is, if I was still alive.”

“I swear, Val.” He was worried now.  Val’s face wore a look of deep concern.

“Fact is, I know somethin’s been eatin’ at the boy for awhile now.  He’s been comin’ to town and spendin’ the night at least once a week for about two months now.  The last few weeks, he been spendin’ at least two nights, and this past week, three.”

“I had no idea.”

“Yeah well, somethin’s goin’ on in that head of his.  I did ask him a coupl’a times, but all he’d say was the old man was ridin’ ‘im too hard.”

“That he is Val, and I don’t understand it.  Johnny works twice as hard as any hand and Murdoch still just keeps up the pressure.”

“Well, there’s more and it ain’t good.”

Scott froze in his chair, that hot, numb, breathless feeling creeping from his midsection in opposite directions, until he felt that way, head to toe.  He looked at Val, waiting.

“Well, Miss Ellen over at the bordello, she got in two new girls from down near the border coupla weeks ago.  I reckon that’s where Johnny first met up with ‘em.  Anyways, they brought a bunch of peyote with ‘em.”

“Peyote?”

“It’s a cactus.  Anyhow, it’s used as a drug, you know kinda like opium.  People cut ‘em up, dry ‘em out, and either make tea out of ‘em or chew the dried pieces.  The Indians use it a lot; it gives ‘em visions.”

“What’s this got to do with Johnny?”

“Well, Scott, two weeks ago, Miss Ellen sent one of the girls to come get me about ten o’clock.  Seems Johnny was upstairs with one of them girls and they were taking peyote.”

Scott felt his stomach churning.

“Well, the stuff, it affects folks different ways.  I mean hell, Scott, me and Johnny both have had peyote plenty a times ‘fore when we were down on the border.   .   .  . Anyways, Johnny was gettin’ a little crazy.  He was all paranoid about people bein’ after ‘im an all.  He was messin’ round with his gun and scarin’ ever body.

I was able to get ‘im to come with me and I locked him up for the night.  He was alright by mornin’ so I let him out.  He was all upset ‘bout gettin’ home ‘fore ya daddy missed him.

Miss Ellen, well, she didn’t like that situation one bit, so she fired the two girls.  Course, they just went right over to the saloon and got jobs there.  I reckon that’s what got the rumors started, people could see him leavin’ the saloon.  Nobody ever knows when he’s over at Ellen’s.”

“Val, you’re telling me that my brother is taking narcotics?  I find that hard to believe.  That’s not like him at all.  He doesn’t even drink that much.”

“I know Scott.  But peyote ain’t like opium, laudanum, and the like, it don’t get a hold on ya like them others do.”

“I ain’t had no trouble with ‘em since then, but he started goin’ to the saloon to see them two gals.  If ya ask me, things are gettin’ outta hand.  I ain’t seen him all week neither.  So I reckon your ol’man has pushed him too far.”

“Well do you think he’s gone for good?”

“Naw, he’s holed up around here somewhere.  That’s what he does when he gets upset.  Whatever it is that’s bothern’ ‘im, well, it must be pretty bad.  If your daddy don’t lay off ‘im, he will leave for good though.  He’s had enough abuse in his life when he was a kid.”

“You got any ideas where he could be?”

“My best guess he’s on Lancer land somewhere.  He knows he’s about as safe hidin’ out there as anywhere.”

“I’ve already checked all the line shacks.”

“Scott, don’t take this the wrong way, but I know, growin’ up like ya did, it’s hard to understand that Johnny wouldn’t need that kinda shelter.  He’s as likely to be in a copse of trees, in a cave, anywhere outside, just not sittin’ out in the open.  Not to mention he’s a sneaky son of a bitch.  You could ride right up t’ him and never know it.”

“Great.  Any words of wisdom when I find  him?”

“Ya got me.  I ain’t got no more magic with him than you.  I reckon ya need to get yur daddy to lay off him though.  The boy ain’t looked good for awhile, circles under his eyes, losing weight.  .  . what’s goin’ on with them two?”

Scott was embarrassed as he had not noticed those things, ‘but come to think of it, Johnny had looked a little weak around the eyes.  Not surprising he’d lost weight.  He’d not finished any dinners in the last two weeks with Murdoch tearing into him.’

“I don’t know Val.  Murdoch, he, well, I don’t know.  Johnny kills himself working and it doesn’t seem to be enough.  No matter what he does, Murdoch finds fault with it.”  He paused in thought, “I appreciate your help Val.  I agree, this information needs to stay between us.  Murdoch doesn’t need anymore ammunition.”

Scott stood and put on his hat. 

“Again, Val, thanks.”

“Don’t reckon I was much help in findin’ ‘im, but just be careful if ya do find  him and he’s been into the peyote.  He’s dangerous enough without bein’ under the influence of them visions it gives ya.”

 

Chapter 2

That evening, after dinner, Scott scoured the map of Lancer, trying to figure out where on Lancer his brother might be ‘holed up,’ as Val put it, and form some type of organized search.  Life with Murdoch’s foul mood needed to end, and soon.  There had been little conversation at the dinner table the past few nights beyond Murdoch’s ‘Did you find Johnny?’ and his reply of ‘no, not yet.’

He could feel Murdoch’s eyes on his back as the older man looked up from his post at his desk.  “What are you looking for, Scott?”

“Well sir, as I was trying to tell you at dinner, I rode into town and talked with Val Crawford, to see if he had seen Johnny or if he had any ideas where Johnny could be.”

“You didn’t tell him what happened here did you?”

“Well sir, I told him that you and Johnny argued and that he took off.”

“Yes, well, I don’t want our dirty laundry aired in town.”

“Val’s not going to tell anyone.  Besides, he already knew Johnny was unhappy.”

“Unhappy?  What the hell does that mean?”

“He just said the last few times he had seen Johnny that he seemed to have things on his mind.  He did point out that he thought Johnny looked like he had lost weight and mentioned dark circles under his eyes.”

“What?” Murdoch asked in disbelief, “He hasn’t lost any weight.”

“Actually sir, he has.  I was embarrassed when he mentioned it because I had not noticed myself until I started thinking about it.  I think you’ll remember too that he was starting to look tired.”

Scott thought that he detected a look of guilt on Murdoch’s face.  ‘Serves him right.’

“Anyway, he thinks Johnny is still on Lancer somewhere.  Said that Johnny knows he’s about as safe on the ranch as anywhere.”

“Really?”  Murdoch had propped his elbow on the desk and now rested his head on his hand.

“Yes, and I think that makes sense.  He also mentioned that Johnny wouldn’t necessarily look for shelter in a line shack.  He thinks he could be anywhere.”

“So I guess we should stop all the work here at the ranch, organize the hands into a search party and comb the ranch for him?”

“I think that’s an excellent idea sir.  We could divide the ranch into grids, the hands into teams and with a little coordination.  .  .   .”

“Scott, I wasn’t serious.”

Scott, stopped short by his father, stood silent with a questioning look on his face.

“I’ve decided that Johnny will just have to come back on his own.  I’ve wasted enough time with his petulance.”

“But sir .   .  .   . “

“Scott, the boy needs to grow up and take responsibility for his actions.  If he can’t do that, then I don’t need him here.  I’ve spent seventeen years looking for him, given him a third of this ranch, and he’s done nothing but get into trouble and cause disruption here on the ranch.  When he’s called on it, he throws a temper tantrum and runs away.  I’m through with the matter.  He’ll come back of his own accord, or he won’t.  This ranch can’t wait, we need to get back to work.  A lot of people’s lives depend upon the success of this ranch, including ours.”

Scott was stunned.

“Murdoch, I can’t believe you’re saying that.  Johnny is your son.  He’s my brother.  We can’t let him disappear and not look for him.”

“We can and we will.  I’ve had enough.  I’m sorry I shoved him, but he broke a window that will cost a thousand dollars to replace and is going to take two more weeks before the glass comes in.  In addition to the inconvenience, that money could have gone to better use.”

“Is that all you care about Murdoch?  Your damned window?  What about Johnny?  What about our family?”

“Scott, with or without Johnny, we are still a family.”

“An incomplete one.  I cannot believe you feel this way.  What about all that time spent looking for him?  You’re just going to let your son, your flesh and blood ride away?”

“Yes, and I suggest you get used to that fact.”

“Murdoch, this is hardly fair.”

“Fair?  What about all the work he’s failed to do, the cost of the window, the fights in town that result in me having to pay for damages?”

“What about the fact that he almost died protecting this ranch, protecting us?”

Murdoch paused and took a deep breath.  “To tell you the truth son, I don’t think your brother’s being shot and almost dying meant as much to him as it did us.  You’ve seen the scars.  Being shot and dying is just another day’s work to him.”

Scott walked over to the bar and poured himself a drink.  He had to in order to keep himself calm.  ‘What was his father thinking?’

“Murdoch, I will not listen to this.  Johnny has worked twice as hard as any hand on this ranch since day one.  He’s the first one to take the less desirous work and tries to get his work completed before he even comes home to eat.  I have listened to you for the last two months.  You’re on top of him every moment, and for what?  Why are you being so hard on him?”

Murdoch was getting angry now.  “I’m not being hard on him.  This is a hard life.  He needs to understand that.  That it takes years, a lifetime, to build something like this.  It takes sacrifice and dedication.  It takes discipline, and your brother has no discipline whatsoever! ”

“That’s not true Murdoch and you know it!”  Scott snapped back.

“It is true.  Have you forgotten about the wild horse fiasco?  He almost got you killed and cost this ranch precious time and money!  I’m tired of discussing this.  Tomorrow I want you to go with Cipriano and take a look at that bridge to the north at Mecca Springs.”

“Fine, but I’ll be looking for Johnny on my time off!”  Scott turned with an officer’s precision on his heel and stormed out of the room and upstairs.

The slamming of his bedroom door reverberated throughout the large empty hacienda.

 

****************************
 

Murdoch could no longer concentrate on his figures in the ledgers.  How had things gotten so bad so fast between him and his sons?  It seemed as if one day, things were fine and the next, well, it was all out of control.

‘Why had he gotten so angry with Scott?  He was a good son despite being left with his grandfather for so long.  Maybe because I’m so worried about Johnny.’  The boys had seemed to have forged a strong bond since the Pardee incident, and more so after the Stryker business.

Johnny.  He was all that had consumed his mind for the last week, yet he just sat here and lied to Scott.  He was worried out of his mind.  He just couldn’t figure the boy out.  He just wasn’t thriving under his tutelage like Scott.

And that mouth.  The boy had such an insolent mouth on him.  That was the accelerant for him and he had let Johnny light it.  But, he should never, never, have shoved him against that wall.  What the hell had come over him?

For as slow as their relationship was progressing, he had seen changes in Johnny’s eyes, those deep blue, angry eyes he had arrived with, had been gradually softening, and showing signs of other emotions, happy emotions at times;  although, he had seen him looked relaxed just once, maybe twice.

When he had him pinned against the wall, those eyes had sent a chill down his spine a mile wide.  He never wanted to see that look again in them nor did he want that look directed at him again.

Not able to get Johnny Madrid’s eyes out of his mind, he stood up and stretched his back before proceeding, with a lessening limp, to the liquor cabinet for a stiff drink.  Knocking the first one back with one swallow, he poured himself a second, a double, and walked over to the map of Lancer.

‘So, Val thinks he’s still at Lancer somewhere.’  He stared at the map, sipping his scotch.  Nobody knew Lancer better than he did, and, to date, no one seemed to know Johnny better than Val did.  ‘Where the hell would that boy be?’

He continued to look at the map, thinking about Scott having checked the line shacks.  ‘Johnny wasn’t stupid.  Maybe roughing it wasn’t something that bothered him, but knowing Johnny .  .  .  .  .  Knowing Johnny?  Who was he kidding?  He didn’t know Johnny.  If he did, he wouldn’t be in this predicament.  The best he could do was to try to figure out what he himself would do and go from there.’

He stared at the map some more, looking at the line shacks.  Why wouldn’t Johnny have stayed in one of even the more remote ones?  They were furnished and stocked.  Scott and Jelly had reported that there wasn’t so much as a can of beans missing from any of them.  Granted, it would seem that he would have figured out that it would be days before they could check them all.

His eyes dropped to an area on the map that he hadn’t thought about for some time.  There were a few abandoned line shacks.  Buildings no longer strategically placed due to the expanding boundaries of the ranch.  That area had one.    He should be the one to find Johnny and talk to him.  He wouldn’t put past Johnny to have a stash of supplies up there either.  Not as many times as he’d run off.

That’s what he would do, first thing tomorrow, he would begin checking those three shacks himself.

He downed the rest of his drink, sat the glass down and decided to turn in for the night.  He would need the rest if he were to be able to talk with Johnny tomorrow.  He hadn’t slept well the last few nights, but now that he had a course of action planned, he felt better.

 

Chapter 3

Sitting at the table in the crowded room, Johnny and Scott waited for the President of the Cattlemen’s Association to announce the latest “Cattle Grower of the Year.”  Their father sat between them and they each felt confident that Murdoch would be this year’s recipient.

“This year’s recipient has done great things in the past year.  He’s been successful in getting new legislation passed in favor of the cattle industry, has assisted numerous smaller ranchers to expand their bloodlines and enhance their programs so that in the future, the state of California will be known for the best quality cattle in the United States!  In addition, he has headed several committees to develop new strains of cattle and is working on a program to develop new grasses.  But more importantly, he fought a successful fight against land pirates that not only saved his own ranch, but the entire San Joaquin Valley, one of the largest and most important areas for the cattle industry in the state!

Please join me in celebration of Murdoch Lancer, Cattleman of the Year!”

Everyone in the room stood and applauded, with quite a few cowboy yells as well.  Murdoch stood and shook hands with him and Scott.  He had never seen the old man as pleased as he did then.  He scooted back his chair and stepped back to allow him passage to the aisle way that led to the stage and the podium.  The people continued to applaud and cheer as the old man with just a trace of his limp remaining, made his way to the front.

At the podium, the President of the Association shook Murdoch’s hand and gave him several hearty pats on the back.  He also handed him a silver belt buckle and a silver trophy.  When it was time to speak, Murdoch’s smile was almost as bright as one of Johnny’s.

“Gentleman, first I want to say Thank You from the bottom of my heart!  You have no idea what this award means to me.  However, I have to say, I share the credit with my two sons, Scott and Johnny.  Boys, come on up here.”

He stepped back again, and waited for Scott to go first and followed him.  Scott looked so confident, but he was never comfortable with crowds.  He had to call on Madrid to get him down that aisle.  Up on stage, standing next to their father at the podium felt good though.  His old man had never really shown any feelings of pride in him.  This was a first.

“Most of you know the story of my sons, how we were reunited just last year.  I couldn’t have defeated the land pirates without them, especially my son Johnny.  It’s no secret that he was once a gunfighter, but those skills were exactly what we needed to be successful.”  The crowd stood and cheered for Johnny.

“He, uh,” Murdoch’s eyes glistened with tears, “I uh, almost lost him then, but while he recovered, Scott helped get the ranch back on track.  For this, I am most grateful, because without these two, I wouldn’t be standing here today, and the Cattlemen’s Association might not be here either.”

More cheering and applauding interrupted him.

“So please, allow me to share this award with my partners, my sons, Johnny and Scott Lancer, Cattlemen of the Year!  I love you boys!”  Murdoch put and arm around both and pulled them against him in a tight embrace.  It felt so good.

The room was in an uproar.

Johnny sat up blinking at the bright light.  His sleep had been heavy, and his head felt fuzzy, he was still a bit groggy.  For a moment, he wasn’t certain of his surroundings other than knowing he was on a bed.  He looked at the post at his head for reassurance that his long time friend, the Colt, was hanging there in his gun belt.  It was, and with relief, as he realized that he was in the abandoned line shack, he allowed a big yawn to overtake him.  ‘Mierda, that dream would never come true.’

He turned and put his bare feet on the floor, resting his face in his hands, elbows propped on his knees.  Another yawn, and then he rubbed his eyes.  He felt a rather urgent call from Mother Nature and stood up, running his hand through his hair, and stretching, limb by limb like a cat.

Letting out a big sigh, he trudged outside dressed only in his calzoneras to the front porch.  Because he could, he walked to the end of the porch to take his relief.

Buttoning the fly of his leather pants, he turned and looked out in front of the cabin.  Barranca, who had been grazing, lifted his head to look at him.  He flashed the golden horse a small smile and greeted him, “Mornin’ amigo.”  The palomino dropped his head down and began grazing again.

Inside, he walked around the one room shelter looking around for signs of change from last night.  Everything was the same, he saw, as he sat back on the bed and leaned against the wall where he had pushed the bed.  ‘Well, except for this.’

He picked up the empty tequila bottle lying to his left, near the head of the bed and his pillow.  Turning it in his hands, he frowned.  He still didn’t have any answers.  Well at least the ones he was looking for anyway.

He got up, took the bottle to the table, and sat it with the other two that sat empty there.  He walked over to the stove and started a fire.  He grabbed the coffee pot and walked outside, dumping the leftover coffee and padded barefoot down the hill to the small creek that ran across the bottom of the hill from the front of the cabin.

At the creek, he found the flat rock that protruded over the sparkling waterway and lay flat on his stomach.  The sun washed stone felt warm to his bare chest.  He splashed water up onto his face and into his hair, the coldness, sending needles of cold over his skin, almost sucking away his breath.  When he was finished, he shook his wet hair like a dog, to rid himself of the excess water.

When he was finished, he reached for the coffee pot and lowered it into the stream, filling it with water and rinsing it out.  He refilled it with fresh water and got up.  Padding back up to his respite, he stopped to lean on Barranca and give him a big pat.  The horse nuzzled him back and hard, almost causing him to drop the coffee pot.  He laughed, something he hadn’t done in days, and turned to go inside.

While the coffee brewed, he sat down at the little table.  Next to the empty tequila bottles was a small pouch of smoking tobacco and some papers.  He wasn’t much for smoking, but did indulge on rare occasion.  Funny, it always reminded him of time he spent with Val, and that brought comfort to his troubled soul.  Maybe that’s why he felt like it now.

He and Val had spent two weeks together guarding an old abandoned mine shaft.  A mining company had hired them after discovering that the mine was full of gold further down from where miners had left off.  There was nothing to do up there except smoke, drink, play cards, and practice their shooting.  Val had smoked a lot back then.  He didn’t do it so much these days.

He sat on the steps outside taking long draws from the cigarette, releasing the smoke in similar soft puffs, while he waited for his coffee.  He wondered if Val would want to give up his job as sheriff and hit the trail with him, that is, if he decided to leave.  ‘I must be getting’ soft.  Can’t be alone, shit.  Got no choice though.   Well, that’s not true either.’

He wondered what was happening at the ranch.  By now, most of the hands would be almost halfway through their day.  He tried to picture Scott and the old man at mealtime.  Bet it was quiet.  He wondered if Teresa had cried again when she found out that he had left.  Jelly, well, he bet the old codger was givin’ the old man hell.  That thought caused him to give a half-hearted snort.

After a last puff, he rubbed the remains of the cigarette into the step.  He stood, taking a last look at Barranca, who had wandered down by the stream, and went inside, dropping the lifeless stub of the cigarette into one of the empty tequila bottles.  ‘No need to have the old man after me for burnin’ down the ranch too.’

Like his cigarette, he took his coffee outside.  He also brought along a small pail full of oats, which he scattered on the ground for Barranca.  The horse nickered and trotted up from the stream at the sight of the pail.

Finishing his third cup of coffee, he went back inside and sat down at the table.  He felt so numb.  He didn’t know what to do.  He sat and pondered recent events for a long time before he developed a headache and decided to stop thinking.

‘Well, let’s see if the gods will give us a better vision today.’

From another small leather pouch, he pulled out the last of the peyote.  He popped the dried buttons of cactus in his mouth and began to chew.  Not too long afterward, he ran outside and holding the porch post, began to vomit.

When he was finished, he continued to hold onto the post and slid down onto the porch, his feet on the step.  

 

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

 
Murdoch, after seeing Scott and Cipriano ride away, called one of the hands to saddle his horse.  He asked Maria to pack him a lunch and then went into to the great room and took a bottle of tequila and a bottle of whiskey to pack in his saddlebags.

He was tucking the two bottles of alcohol into his saddlebags when Jelly walked into the barn.  “Goin’ somewhere Murdoch?” the small bearded man asked, his voice not letting on that he saw the bottle of tequila Murdoch had just packed on top of the bottle of whiskey.

“I’m just gonna take a ride, look at a couple of places to see what needs to be done.”

“Want some company?”

“No, Jelly, you’ve got a lot to do.”

“It can wait, boss.”

“No, Jelly.  No offense, but it’s such a nice day, I think I’d like to have some time to myself.  I’ve hardly been alone since the boys came home; not that I’m complaining mind you, but sometimes, we all need to be alone to clear our heads.”

“Well, I reckon I kin understand that.  I’d best be gettin’ to my chores, then.”

“All right, Jelly, I’ll see you at dinner tonight.”

“Yes sir!”  Jelly left, but hung around long enough to see which direction Murdoch had taken.  He’d bet a month’s wages he was goin’ lookin’ for Johnny.  No other reason he’d pack a bottle of tequila in his saddles bags, “No siree!”

 

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

 
The ride lifted Murdoch’s spirits.  It was warm and nature was at her best.  The pastures were green and the cattle were fat and healthy.  The creeks and streams had plenty of water.  There was plenty of wildlife moving around, all busy with the intricacies of survival.  The light fragrance of the wildflowers floated around him.  All would be right with the world once he straightened things out with his son.

He wasn’t sure what he would say when he found Johnny.  He felt certain he would find him.  The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that Val Crawford was right. Johnny wasn’t safe anywhere, but the closest he had come, had been the ranch.

 

 

Despite his and Johnny’s tumultuous relationship, the boy would never have left for good without saying something to the rest of the family.  In fact, he had to admit that Johnny would not have left permanently without telling him.

He would have to apologize, that, he knew.  There was no excuse for slamming the boy into the wall.   Every time he thought about it, it made his stomach turn.  The fact that he had come close to physically harming his boy, his son, already abused so much and bore the scars to prove it, sickened him.

He had lost his temper, a trait he was holding against his youngest, cursed with a good dose of hot temperament from both himself and his mother, Maria.

She was a hot head.  She could fire up faster than dynamite with a quarter inch fuse.  It had been funny in the beginning, making her angry and watching her rave.  ‘She was so beautiful when she was angry…

‘Hell, she was beautiful all of the time,’ and she had passed those looks onto her son, looks that were a blessing and a curse.  He was blessed with her looks that made him as stunningly handsome as his mother was beautiful, even Murdoch didn’t need to be told that.  It was clear when he went to town with the boy, every woman there, young or old, turned pink at a mere glance from his son.

The curse was how much Johnny reminded him of Maria.  With the memories came the anger.  Anger he had harbored for seventeen years at her irresponsible actions and the agony it had caused him.  It was hard when he looked at Johnny not to see her.  ‘Was that why he was so hard on him?’

If so, it wasn’t fair.  He had thought a lot about that last night.  It hadn’t been the first time that Scott had told him that he was harder on Johnny than him.  Others had said the same thing.  His old friend Sam Jenkins, the doctor, had said it, but then he was partial to Johnny.  Actually, so was everyone who had said that to him.  All, people who were good judges of character. ‘What was he missing?’

Lost in thought, he was startled when he came upon the sight of Barranca standing in the shade of the trees by the little stream.  The stallion nickered in greeting at Murdoch’s horse.

He stopped his horse.  Barranca was untacked and looked fine.  Either he escaped, or Johnny felt confident enough in his horse to let him roam free.  He knew the horse would come at Johnny’s whistle.

He took a deep shaky breath and peered up the hill at the old shack.  He caught a glimpse of Johnny, barefoot and shirtless heading inside from the porch.  Had he seen him down here?  He hoped so.  Surprising Johnny was never a good thing to do.

He gave a squeeze with his legs to the bald-faced bay, and they crossed the stream and headed up the hill at an easy pace.  By the time they were halfway up, he could see Johnny come out onto the tiny porch again, gun in hand, held down by his side.

As his horse neared the porch, he could tell that Johnny recognized him as he slouched against the post.  Scott and Val were right.  He had lost weight.  He looked gaunt, much as he looked when he first arrived.  His face bore the dark circles they had described.

The horse stopped and their eyes met.  Johnny’s eyes looked strange.  They were Madrid eyes, different from the other night, but they still frightened him.

“Johnny.” His voice was soft.

“What the fuck you doin’ up here ol’ man?” The growl was reminiscent of a rabid dog.

“I came to talk, to apologize.”

“Apologize?  For what, throwing me and mama out?”

“I thought we settled that son.”

“Don’t call me son, you bastard.”

“Johnny, there’s no need for that language.”

“Language?  I’ll give you language.” Johnny let his tongue roll with some of the most hateful and filthy Spanish language Murdoch had ever heard, and had ever had directed at him.  The vehemence was unsettling.

“Johnny, please, I came to apologize.”

Johnny shifted his slouch against the post, “Apologize? Too late for that, Viejo!”

“Johnny, let’s sit down and talk.”

“Talk?  Too late to talk.  I became a gunfighter so I could kill you, you fuckin’ bastardo!”

“Johnny, son, what’s wrong with you?  I understand you’re angry, but you don’t seem like yourself.  Are you okay?”

“DON’T CALL ME SON!  I AIN’T YOUR FUCKIN’ SON!  YOU THREW ME AWAY, DON’T YOU REMEMBER?  YOU THREW US AWAY LIKE SOME KIND OF TRASH, SO DON’T COME BACK HERE NOW, BEGGIN’ ME TO HELP YOU SAVE YOUR PRECIOUS RANCH BECAUSE OF WHO I AM NOW.  I HAVE LIVED EVERY MOMENT OF MY LIFE FOR THIS MOMENT, FUCK YOU MURDOCH LANCER!  I’LL SEE YOU IN HELL!”

Before he could open his mouth, he saw the flash of the gun and felt the bullet slam into his chest.  ‘Johnny,’ Was his last thought as everything went black.

 

Chapter 4

“It’s just not like him to go off and not tell anybody, much less be so late.”  Teresa turned imploring eyes upon him.

His heart told Scott she was right.  Murdoch never went off alone like that.  He was too responsible and he cared too much, about what might happen to ‘his ranch.’  He and Johnny still thought of it as Murdoch’s ranch, even though they knew that each of them were equal partners.

One thing was for certain, Murdoch was a stickler about dinner.  ‘Precisely at six,’ he had told him and Johnny on their first day, and from that day on, it had been a ‘bone of contention’ between Johnny and Murdoch.

For Murdoch to have disappeared like this gave him a bad feeling.  Jelly came into the great room via the French doors.  “I ain’t too late for a drink, am I, Murdoch?”

“Murdoch’s not here Jelly.  Was he expecting you?”  Scott stood up from behind his father’s desk, whiskey in hand.

“Whadda ya mean he ain’t here?  It’s time for supper.  He told me he’d see me at supper.”

“When was that?”  Both Scott and Teresa moved closer to the whiskered man.

“This mornin’ in the barn.  He was gittin’ ready to ride out.  I reckon he’s done found Johnny.”

“Found Johnny?  What gave you that idea.”  Scott asked.

“Well, I saw him put a bottle of tequila in his saddlebags.”

“Are you sure?”

“As shore as I’m standin’ here.  I might be old, but my eyesight’s still as good as ever.”

They heard hoof beats outside and the callings of a ranch hand.

As the threesome moved towards the French doors, a hand came barging in.

“Señor Scott, it is the Patron’s horse.  He is back without the Patron.  Is no good.  There is blood on the saddle.  Lot’s of blood.”

The three followed the vaquero outside and saw the blood splattered all over the saddle and the horse.  Teresa gasped, hand to her mouth.  Jelly reached up and pulled off the saddlebags.  He flipped one open and held it towards Scott who saw the bottle of tequila still packed away.

“See here.  I told ya.  This other one had food in it.”  He flipped it open and found the food, just as Maria had wrapped it, that morning.  The gravity of the situation apparent now that they all realized that the unopened sandwich might mean that whatever happened may have happened before lunch.

Fear gripped his heart at the thought of his father lying wounded since lunchtime.  By now, he would most likely be dead.

Cipriano appeared with two vaqueros and four saddled horses.

“Cipriano, Jelly says that my father went to look for Johnny.  It looks like he might have found him.”

“Si’, Señor Scott.  We are ready to ride.”

“Jelly, which way did he go when he left?”  Scott looked at the old man, hoping against hope that he knew where Murdoch had headed.

“He went out back, that away, and then looked like he headed up towards the hills.”

“Okay, Jelly, get a wagon ready and come along behind us until it gets too dark.”  Scott was already mounting, as were the others.

“Teresa, get the bandages together and be ready.  We’ll send for the doctor as soon as we find him.”

“Okay.  Scott, you don’t think, Johnny?”

“Honey, I don’t know what to think right now.  I’ve got to find Murdoch.”

He kicked his horse and took off, followed by his father’s Segundo and the two vaqueros.”

 

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

It was easy at first to follow the large hoof prints of his father’s horse.  The waning light made it more difficult.  They had been riding for about an hour before darkness enveloped them.  They lit the lanterns that they had brought, trying to follow the trail in the darkness.  They made another hour in the dark when Cipriano spoke up.

“Señor Scott, I believe I know where your father was headed.”

“Where?”

“There is an abandoned line cabin up in the hills here.  Now that I am thinking, I believe I once saw Señor Johnny coming from there.  I think it best if you and I take another way, which is faster, and let the men continue to follow the tracks, until it is too dark.”

“Fine, let’s get moving.”

He and Cipriano took a more direct route, but it was also, much more steep and rocky.  The horses were slipping in the dark, once or twice he thought that one or both of them might go down.  However, he was determined to find his father and find him tonight.

His mind was heavy with the knowledge that finding his father was both good and bad.  He could feel in his gut that Johnny had shot their father, just as sure as he was riding in the dark of night.  He dreaded and feared that they might just find Johnny too, and what condition he might be in was questionable.  ‘I should have stayed back East.’

They reached the creek.

“It is just up the hill, Señor.”  The Segundo’s voice was soft.  “It might be best to extinguish the light.”

Scott agreed.  They blew out the lanterns and waited for their eyes to adjust to the darkness.  The moon was up now, and they could make their way to the cabin without the lanterns, which would serve as beacons as to their position if there was danger up ahead.  ‘Danger.’  He had never thought of Johnny that way before in regards to himself.

They paralleled the creek for a few hundred yards and then crossed.  They thought they could make out hoof prints on the other side of the crossing, but without the lanterns, they couldn’t be sure.  Their approach to the cabin was slow and quiet.  As they topped the rise, they saw a large form on the ground.

“Murdoch.”

They dismounted and walked in silence towards him, guns drawn.  Scott knelt down beside his father, his heart pounding in his chest.  Until this moment, he hadn’t realized how much he had come to care for the man.  Fear had a stranglehold on him, as Murdoch appeared to be dead.

He reached a shaking hand out to his father’s shoulder.  “Murdoch?”  He rasped.  There was no response.  The big Segundo knelt down on the opposite side and turned his head in order to place his ear over the still man’s mouth and nose.  He paused and looked up.

“He is still breathing, Señor Scott.  It is weak, but he lives, for now.  I will check the cabin.”

Scott breathed a heavy sigh of relief, realizing he had been holding his breath, and watched, as despite his size and age, the older man, stood with apparent ease and stealth, and moved towards the cabin.

Moments later, there was light inside the cabin and Cipriano was outside, firing the three shots, to alert the others to the success of their mission.  Holstering his weapon, he moved to assist Scott with moving the unconscious Murdoch into the cabin.

The wound was near the heart.  There was no exit wound and the bleeding seemed to have slowed due to the fact he had landed on his back, causing the fabric to help it to coagulate.  However, dark oozy blood saturated the front and left side of his shirt.

They stripped up the spare sheets they found in the cabin and wrapped the wound.  While they waited for the wagon, they looked around the cabin.  They saw the empty tequila bottles, one of which was on the floor now.  It was the special brand that Murdoch had begun ordering for Johnny after learning that his younger son preferred tequila.  It was expensive and they knew of no one else around the area that drank it.

Cipriano picked up one of the bottles and observed the remains of some homemade cigarettes.  He picked up one of two small pouches on the table and emptied the contents onto the table.  Out of one, fell enough smoking tobacco to roll a small cigarette.  From the second, two small round dried items.

“Peyote.”  He said.

For the second time that evening, Scott felt his stomach roll.  This time, he couldn’t stop it.  He ran out of the cabin and to the edge of the porch.

When he finished, Cipriano was there, with a canteen of water and a strong arm around his shoulders.  The man, for all his strength, was gentle.  “Señor Scott, your papa is a strong man.  I believe he will fight a good fight.  He has waited too long for you and Señor Johnny to come home.”

“Thank you, but what about Johnny?  How could he have done this?”

“Señor, if Juanito shot his papa, it would be because he is not himself.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“In Mexico, peyote has been used for many centuries.  Many people use it and no harm comes to them.  For many of the Indians it is part of their religion.  Some times, it gives people bad dreams and visions.  This is what I believe happened with Juanito.  I do not believe that he would harm his papa.  He loves his papa.”

The Segundo’s statement surprised him, ‘Johnny love Murdoch?’  He wasn’t so sure of that.  He hadn’t been sure that he loved the man until tonight, and the old man treated him far better than Johnny.

“I hope your right, Cip.  I sure hope you’re right.”

Soon they heard a rider coming and behind him, the sounds of a wagon.

 

Chapter 5

Jelly had packed the wagon with hay and placed the mattress he kept rolled up in the barn for such occasions in the bed as well.  Teresa had thrown in some blankets, water, and bandages.

It took all four of them to lift the big rancher and settle him into the bed of the wagon.  He still was unconscious and breathing, but blood still seeped out of the wound at a slow but steady rate.

Scott and Cipriano tied their horses to the back of the wagon and got in the buckboard to help steady Murdoch.  Cipriano had pulled out a bottle of whiskey from his saddlebags and passed it to Scott, who took a long pull on it.

It was a quiet ride back to the ranch.  Scott kept looking at his father to be sure he was still breathing.  He hoped that the vaquero Cipriano had told to go for the doctor as soon as Jelly met him and his partner on the trail, had found the physician and would be waiting for them when they arrived.

He stared at his father’s pale face.  He had finally gotten to know his father and brother and now this.  How the hell was he going to handle things if Murdoch died?  Johnny would hang for his murder and he’d be responsible for the ranch.  He wasn’t ready.  He wasn’t ready for his father to die, for his newfound brother to hang, or to run the largest cattle ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, alone.

He hadn’t had enough time with his father.  Sure, they got along better than he and Johnny, they had similar interests, but he didn’t really know his father.  He didn’t even know himself.  He needed guidance. He needed, he wanted, his father.  ‘Please God, don’t let him die.  I need him.  I need him and Johnny.’

Did Johnny even know he had shot Murdoch?  He realized that no one knew where Johnny was.  They hadn’t bothered to look around much, they were so concerned with getting Murdoch home.

Killing was nothing new to his brother.  It never seemed to bother him to kill people, but his own father?  Even on his coldest Madrid day, Johnny wouldn’t do that.   Would he?

Maybe before, but not now, not after all they had been through together, but  Johnny had confided in him while he was recovering from Pardee’s bullet that the thought of killing Murdoch had kept him going for most of his life.

 

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

 

When the lights of the hacienda were visible, the tension lessened in his body.  As they drew closer, he saw a vaquero leading the doctor’s horse and buggy towards the barn.

Jelly guided the wagon as close to the front door as he could.  He and Cipriano were out and had the tailgate down before they had come to a complete stop.  Vaqueros were waiting with a board to slide Murdoch onto before taking him inside the house.

Sam was there, and looked at him, the question clear on his face, “The bullet’s still inside.” Scott’s flat tone of voice evidenced his exhaustion.

“Take him to the dinning room table then.”  The doctor directed.

The support of the ranch hands and Teresa, as she had already prepped the dinning room as a surgery, was comforting, as he felt drained and lost without either his brother or his father.  Maria, their cook, was nearby and had called in two other vaqueros’ wives to handle the kitchen so she could assist the doctor with Murdoch.

Cipriano remained in the great room with him while the doctor operated.  The Segundo sat with no emotion on his face, drinking coffee that one of the women had brought in on a tray.

Scott sat in one of the stuffed chairs near the fireplace with a drink in his hand, catatonic, waiting for the doctor to come in.  His mind raced with so many thoughts yet, he was unable to think one clear one.

 

****************************
 

Sam Jenkins entered the great room four hours later, doused in blood and sweat.  He looked as if he had aged ten years and had butchered a steer.  He and Cipriano stood up waiting for the news.

“The bullet’s out.  I’m not stretching it to say that it’s a miracle.  Another millimeter and it would have hit his heart and he would be dead.  The bullet caught the edge of the rib, and changed the angle just enough, but his rib is shattered.  At his age, it’s going to be a long time healing.  He’s lost a lot of blood, but not as much as he would have had the bullet gone through.  From the entry wound, it looks like he was shot at close range.  Why it didn’t exit, I don’t know.  I think if there had been an exit wound, he would have bled to death.”

“Prognosis?” he had to know.

“Not good, Scott.”  I wouldn’t give most people a chance, but it’s Murdoch and he’s as strong and ornery as any bull out there on the ranch.  The one thing in his favor is that while the blood loss is very serious, it is not as bad as it could have been.  If infection doesn’t set in, then I would give him a little better odds.  We are far from me being able to say with certainty that he will make it.  He most likely will not.  I think you need to prepare for the worst.”

He sat down.  The weight of the world had fallen onto his shoulders, sending a cold numbness throughout his body at the doctor’s words.

“I understand Sam.  I appreciate everything you’re doing.”

“If you don’t mind Scott, Teresa has someone running a bath for me.  When I come back, I’d like a drink and we can talk.  I want to know what the hell has been happening out here.”

“Yes sir.”

Cipriano, ever vigilant, had already directed more vaqueros to the dinning room to move the Patron to a downstairs bedroom.  He followed, along with Teresa, to get a better look at his father.

After the men had settled their boss into the bed, they each made the sign of the cross, tipped their hats at Teresa and left the room.  Cipriano stood at the head of the bed and looked at Murdoch.  He touched Murdoch’s shoulder lightly and turned to Scott.

“Señor Scott, Sheriff Crawford will be here in the morning.  If you need me, please send someone for me.  I will be here in the morning to take your orders and to check the Patron.”

“Thank you Cipriano.  I appreciate all of your help.    I am going to need you to keep the ranch running.  Please give the men my thanks as well.  ”

“No problema.  Everything will run smooth.  Not to worry.”  His hand hesitated, but he followed through with the motion, placed it on Scott’s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze before he left.

“Scott, I’ll sit with Murdoch while you go talk with Sam.”  Teresa looked at him with her own exhausted eyes.

“Okay, but then I’ll come back and stay with him.”

“No Scott.  Maria is getting a nap in and then she will spell me.  You need to sleep tonight or what’s left of it, to be up in the morning to handle the ranch.”

“I guess you’re right.  I just can’t believe this.”

“I know Scott.  I can’t imagine Johnny doing this.  Not now.  Do you know where he is?”

“No idea.  Val’s coming out tomorrow.”

“He’ll know what to do.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t envy him.  I’d better get back to see Sam.”

 

*******************
 

When Scott returned to the great room, Sam was just entering the great room.  The doctor helped himself to a scotch and poured one for Scott.  The grandfather clock chimed the three o’clock in the morning song.

The two men settled, Scott on the sofa, Sam in a stuffed chair across from him.  For a few moments, they said nothing, each taking respite in their exhausted silence.

The doctor spoke first.

“Scott, Teresa told me that Johnny’s been gone all week.  He ran out after fighting with Murdoch, and that he might be responsible for shooting him.  Is that true?”

Looking at the drink in his lap, he nodded affirmatively.  “Yes, Sam, it’s true.”

“What the hell’s been goin’ on out here?  The town gossip is that Johnny’s sleeping in the saloon with two of the girls up there two or three times a week.  Val asked me to try and take a look at Johnny if I could.  He was worried, said the boy was sick and thought I might help him.  I only got a glimpse at him and he did look tired.  He’s dropped some weight too.”

He looked up at the kind, but blunt, doctor.  “I wish I knew Sam.  The last few weeks, Murdoch’s been on top of Johnny about everything he does.  Nothing he does pleases our father.  You know how he can be.  He’s not like that with me, and I know less about living out here and ranch work than Johnny.”

“I’ve tried to talk with Murdoch about that.  He always dismisses me or says the boy needs some discipline.”

“Me too, Sam.  But, the other night, it was bad.  After dinner, we were in here, having a drink, and Johnny was pacing around.  You know how restless he is.”

Sam nodded.

“Anyway, he was playing with Murdoch’s paperweight when Murdoch confronted him about the nights in town.  Murdoch had been to town and overheard the gossips, which had set him off.  He never even gave Johnny a chance to explain or defend himself, anything.  He just laid into him, and accused him of lying and then Johnny lost it.  He cursed everything, including Murdoch.

I think he just reacted, I don’t think he meant to, but he threw the paperweight right through the window.   .  .  .  .  .  .  God it was loud, and even worse, when some of glass started falling piece by piece, it just made me want to jump out of my skin.

Johnny just stood there, staring at the window with his mouth open.   Murdoch was so livid, he jumped from behind the desk and grabbed Johnny up by the collar and slammed him against the wall.  He had his hand up to hit him, but Johnny drew on him and he backed away.  Johnny took off and we haven’t seen him since.”

“Murdoch tried to hit the boy?”

“Yes, Sam, he did.”

“Oh my God!  Has he lost his mind?”

“I don’t know, Sam.  Afterwards, he was beside himself about it.  He practically begged me to go and find Johnny that night.  I thought it would be better to let Johnny cool off, sort things out like he usually does, but this time he didn’t come back.”

“Did you at least go look for him?”

“Of course I did.  The next morning, Jelly and I split up the line shacks and checked every single one.  Not so much as a spec of dust or can of beans had been disturbed.  I even rode into Green River, talked to Val Crawford.”

“What’s Val’s opinion?”

Well, he thinks Johnny’s on the ranch somewhere.”

“Well, Crawford knows more about the boy than anybody, I guess.”

“Yes, well, right after that, Murdoch told me he had changed his mind.  That he was sorry he tried to hit Johnny, but that he was too irresponsible and temperamental, and that he would have to come back on his own.

He sent Cip and me up north today to look at the bridge.  Then, according to Jelly, Murdoch packed a lunch and a bottle of tequila in his saddlebags and rode out.  That’s how we found Murdoch, we were able to track him part of the way and then Cipriano remembered the old shack up there.”

“But still, for Johnny to shoot Murdoch.  You don’t think he tried to hit him again do you?”

“No.  Worse.  I think Johnny shot him off the horse.  There was blood all over the saddle and the horse’s neck.”

He watched as Sam shook his head in frustration.

“Well, I’m staying the night, just in case.  We’d both better turn in.  Especially you son.  You’ve got some long days ahead of you.  We can talk some more in the morning.”

“That would be good, Sam.  Goodnight.”

“Goodnight Scott.”

 

Chapter 6

Val Crawford rode towards Lancer at a snail’s pace.  He was deep in thought and would rather have been shot himself than have to deal with what he was about to have placed in his lap.  It tore at his heart to think that Murdoch had tried to hit Johnny.

Johnny was a strong young man capable of taking a hit and giving it right back, but to be hit by his father, after all the abuse the boy had suffered seemed cruel.  Course if Murdoch had tried to hit him, he’d have drawn on him too.  The man was one big son of a bitch.

Johnny shooting his father?  After all this time? That just seemed, well, it just didn’t set well except for that damned peyote.  Well, that problem had been taken care of; at least for a while.  He also knew deep down, if Johnny had shot Murdoch, it was tearing the boy up.

‘Damn, damn, damn, what a mess.’  Depending on how all this played out, he might just find another job.  He might have to do it before.  He wasn’t gonna help hang Johnny for nobody.  ‘Specially that daddy of his.

He looked up and saw the Lancer arch.  He nodded to the two vaqueros that were riding out from under it.  As he approached the house, he could see the still boarded up window of the great room that Johnny had destroyed.

When he arrived outside the front door, it was just after ten.  Scott opened the door, it was clear he had been waiting on him.  “Val, thanks for coming out.”

“Well, you’re welcome Scott, but it’s my job, ya know.  How’s Murdoch?”

“Holding on.  He hasn’t been awake yet.  Come on in, do you want some breakfast?”

“Thanks, but naw, some coffee’d be good.” The bedraggled sheriff came inside and followed Scott into the great room.  Sam Jenkins was sitting in a chair with a cup of coffee.

“Mornin’ doc.”

“Val.”

Scott strode over to his father’s desk and poured a cup of coffee for his guest from a service sitting on the corner of the desk.

Val took it and settled on the sofa.

“Val, you look like you’ve been up all night.”  Jenkins commented.

“Well, reckon you’d be right on that account, Doc.  It was a busy night.”

“Oh?” Scott inquired.

“Yep, we won’t be worried with them two girls from the saloon no more.  I run ‘em outta town last night.  That is, after I had to shoot two cowboys.”

“Nobody came to get me.”  The doctor leaned forward in his chair.

“No need for you.  All they needed was the undertaker.”

Scott raised his eyebrows at that statement.

“Yep, they were out shootin’ up the town, howlin’ at the moon, and actin’ crazy from that peyote.  They tried ta shoot me, right in the middle of the damn street.

“Weren’t long after I got that mess cleared up, when Jose come inta town to tell me ‘bout Murdoch.

So, what’s happened or should I say, whaddya think’s happened here?  Where’s Johnny?”

Crawford settled back into the sofa and looked at Scott with a look that had made many a man uncomfortable.  It was a look that had a tendency to effect the truth from people on the receiving end of it.  

“Murdoch went off by himself yesterday.  He had Maria pack him a lunch.  If it hadn’t been for Jelly, he’d be dead.”  Scott stared at the floor as he spoke.

“When he didn’t come home for dinner last night, we were worried and then Jelly came in sayin’ that Murdoch said he’d be home for supper.  He told us that he’d seen Murdoch in the barn packing a bottle of tequila in his bags.  That’s when we figured he had gone looking for Johnny.

Guess he knew a few places that the rest of us didn’t.   Anyway, we started tracking him and then Cipriano remembered an abandoned line shack and we went up there.  That’s when we found Murdoch.”

“What makes ya think Johnny shot him?”

“Well, he was in a remote part of Lancer in an abandoned shack, and there were three empty tequila bottles, Johnny’s tequila, that Murdoch buys for him.  There, there was peyote there as well.”  Scott hung his head.

“Ya think they got into a fight or could it have been an accident?”  Val asked.

“He was shot at close range, blood all over the saddle and the horse.  I doubt he got off his horse.”  Scott looked Val in the eye.

“So what yer sayin’ is ya think Johnny shot him off his horse.”

“It would appear so.”  Scott hung his head.

“Where was he hit?”

“Just below the heart, shattered a rib, if not for that, it would have killed him.”  Sam responded.

Val nodded.  “Is he gonna make it?”

“I don’t know Val, most likely not.  He’s strong and he made it through the night.  Took me four hours to get that bullet out.  If it doesn’t get infected, he still only stands a very slim chance.”

“Scott, ya know if Johnny did this, I gotta find him and lock him up.”  Val turned to look at him.

“I know Val.  I just don’t know how everything went so wrong.”

“Well, ya got anybody that can take me up to that shack?”

“I’ll get Miguel to do it.”

“Well, I’d best get goin’.  Gonna be a long day I’m afraid.  Send word soon as Murdoch can talk or ya hear from Johnny.”

The Sheriff stood up and placed his cup on the table.  He nodded towards the doctor and said, “See ya in town, Doc.  Take care o’ Mr. Lancer.”

“See you soon Val.  Be careful.” The doctor replied, his eyes meeting the sheriff’s in a mutual expression of grief.

 

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

Standing on the hill of the little outbuilding, Val stared at the bloody spot in the grass where Murdoch had apparently lain.  Looking up, at the little building, he understood Johnny’s attraction to the place.  It was simple, hidden, and pretty.  It had water and a view, and no one had probably thought about it in years.

He stepped onto the porch and looked back at the spot.  Looked pretty good as far as being the place he stood to make the shot if the old man was mounted.

He walked the length of the porch looking over the railings.  There was dried vomit in the grass on one end.  With that discovery, he walked inside.  He saw the bed shoved against the wall in the corner.  He knew Johnny did that when he was alone or slept in strange places.  To be honest, he did too.

The table was the most interesting.  Two empty tequila bottles were on it and one dead soldier on the floor, along with some scattered cigarette papers.  He saw the remains of the tobacco and the peyote.  He found the two leather pouches.  He picked one up and noted the crude initials burned into one.  He recognized these as Johnny’s.  He remembered them drinking and smoking one night, years ago, and Johnny playing with the matches, wielding them like tiny branding irons to make the letters, ‘JM’.

He picked up the pouches, shoved them in his pocket, and poked around some more.  Johnny had spent time here before.  While the outside of the place looked abandoned and uninhabitable, Johnny had clearly done some work to the interior such as reinforcing the walls.  He had the stove and fireplace in working order.  There was also a good supply of food as well as a bag of oats in the pantry.  Not only did he find another bottle of tequila, he found a bottle of Murdoch’s Talisker’s stashed there.  Shaking his head at the deviousness of his friend, he walked back outside.  Murdoch and Scott would probably never understand Johnny; for that matter, would he?

He looked for tracks.  It took a couple of hours to figure out what direction Johnny had taken.  It was obvious Barranca had roamed free around the cabin, leaving about a million hoof prints.  Barranca was as restless as Johnny.

Following a feeling, he worked his way south, and there, he found where the tracks indicated that Johnny had ridden out.  ‘Headed for the border, no doubt.’

 

Chapter 7

Riding with his shirttail out and the rest unbuttoned, Johnny stopped to pull his jacket on. He had made a quick exit on Barranca after the shooting, but the effects of the peyote had him riding around in circles for most of the afternoon and now it was dark.

He was almost to Morro Coyo before time and cold air sobered him.  The reality of what he had done hit him like a sledgehammer.  First, it had seemed surreal, a dream, but he checked his gun and he could smell the gunpowder and saw a round missing.

He threw himself off Barranca, and grabbed hold of a nearby tree as the overwhelming nausea took command and he leaned over and began to retch.

When it was over, he slid down beside the tree, wrapped his arms around his knees and pulled them tight against his chest.  He buried his face in them, eyes closed. ‘Dios, what had he done?’

He sat there, breath coming in pants, a slight tremble in his body. ‘Murdoch, why’d ya have to come lookin’ for me?  Why?  Why? Why?’ He rocked back and forth trying to rock away the pain and misery drowning his heart and soul.  He pulled himself tighter as he fought tears and emotions begging for release.

Waves of emotion began to roll over him and he began to rock, still harder and cried over and over, “NO, NO, NO!”  Placing his hands behind his head, fingers entwined together with some hair, his arms wrapped around his head, he continued yelling, until he was almost wailing.

Breathless and hoarse, he stopped.  Exhausted from the release of his emotions, he sat with his arms around his knees, shaking, until his breathing slowed.

When it did, he stood and stumbled over to Barranca, who had shied a short distance away, but remained dutifully near.  Pulling his canteen from the saddle, he rinsed his mouth, spitting into the light breeze.

He held the canteen over his head and poured water over his upturned face, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.  He looked around and realized that he was almost in Morro Coyo.  The breeze was cool, so he pulled his coat around him and looked for a place to wait out the night.

Making a decision, he mounted Barranca and headed south to a small outcrop of rocks that formed a small cave-like shelter he could sleep in.  There, he could stay out of the wind and out of sight in case someone was looking for him.  ‘Shit, he was a wanted man now.  After all those years of being so careful, he would hang for killing his own father.’

When he got there, he unsaddled Barranca and tossed the saddle into the little alcove.  The horse, sensing his master’s melancholy, nuzzled him with affection.  Johnny reached around the palomino’s neck and buried his face in the golden steed’s mane.  He took a deep breath, inhaling the smoky, familiar smell of his horse, which always comforted him.

Letting go of Barranca, he buttoned his shirt and walked over to where he’d thrown his saddle.  He removed his gun belt and laid it on the ground, next to where he planned to lay down.  He lay down and pulled the saddle blanket over him.  Lying on his left side, he pulled the Colt from the right to hold in his right hand, as he tried to get control of his thoughts.

At last, he had done what he had always sworn he would do, kill his father.  Shot him in the heart.  A fatal wound for sure.  He would hang for it if he stayed here.  Even if by some miracle he missed, the old man would see him in prison.  ‘Fuck!  How did this get so out of control?’

He had found more peace at Lancer than he had ever had before.  He knew his father didn’t trust him, and he didn’t blame him, but somehow this whole family thing had turned him inside out and now he was lost without them.

Looking up at the stars, his thoughts turned to Scott.  ‘Jesus, what was he going through?  Did they even know yet?’  He didn’t just kill Murdoch, he killed the big brother-little brother bond along with him.  Scott would never get over this.  Never.  ‘Shit, he would have the whole ranch to run.  Dios, what have I done?’

‘Those fuckin’ whores, if I just hadn’t run into them.’  He knew he was kidding himself.  He and Murdoch would have had a showdown anyway, but not this kind.  ‘What the fuck did I do?’  He wrapped his arms around his stomach, unconsciously pulling his knees to his chest in a fetal position.

He finally had a father, the father he had always longed to be with, the father who did want him, the father who would protect him.  The father that he didn’t get along with so well, that rode him too hard and too fast, the father that had almost hit him in a moment of lost temper, was better than no father.  Now, his father was dead because he had killed him, and there was no taking it back.

Less than a year ago, he would have been drinkin’, dancin’, and howlin’ at the moon over this.  ‘Well, no use cryin’ over spilled milk.  Hell, who was he kiddin’? He was so numb, he couldn’t cry if he wanted too.  Best thing he could do now was get the hell out of here.’

 

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

He awoke just before dawn.  His first thought was that maybe he’d just had a bad dream.  One sniff of his Colt and he knew it wasn’t.  He could see thunderclouds forming in the distance, ‘Better get movin’.’

He placed the Colt in its holster and stood up, leaving the rig on the ground.  He took a few steps away from the shelter to empty his bladder.  When he was finished, he took off his jacket and tucked his shirt in.

He picked up his rig and put it on, pulling it as tight as he could.  ‘Damn, he had to use the hole he had punched in it when he first came to Lancer, he had lost that much weight.’

He pulled the Colt, and opened the chamber.  He took a bullet from his belt and placed it in the empty chamber.  He refused to allow himself to think about why he had to complete this action.  ‘Don’t look back, just think about now.’

Snapping the chamber closed, he re-holstered the weapon with practiced ease.  He splashed some water on his face from the canteen and then took his jacket and brushed it off as best he could.

Once he saddled Barranca, he mounted and took a last look around.  Another mile or so and he’d be off Lancer for good.  He dropped his head for a minute.   Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he looked up with his chin raised in a defiant air, and spurred the palomino into a gallop.

‘Bye, Johnny Lancer.’

 

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

 

He tied Barranca in an alley near the Baldemeros’ store.  It was still a little while until the bank opened, so he found a rocking chair in front of the hotel to wait in.  He pulled his hat brim low so as not to be disturbed, waiting for the town to awaken and the businesses to open, keeping his eyes on the bank across the street, for the teller to turn the ‘closed’ sign over.

As soon as he saw the sign turn, he stood and checked his surroundings.  He was tempted to run, but Johnny Madrid never ran.  He ambled over to the bank with his usual swagger, spurs jingling with confidence as he made his way into the bank to be the first customer.

The shocked look on the teller’s face told him he needed to hurry.  He knew he looked like shit.  “Mornin’ ma’am.  I need to close out my account.  Johnny Ma---, I mean Johnny Lancer.”

“I know who you are Mr. Lancer.  May I inquire as to why you feel the need to close out your account?  Did you find our services unsatisfactory?”  She sounded genuine in her concern, but he didn’t have time for it.

“Ma’am, it’s none of your business, now please, just close my account and give me my money.”

“Well, all right.  You don’t have to be rude.  But, you’ll have to speak to Mr. Martin I’m afraid.”

Fred Martin was already on his way out of his office after overhearing the tone of the youngest Lancer’s voice.  He walked out to greet Johnny.

“Mr. Lancer, did I hear you say you were closing your account.”  His facial expression resembled the teller’s when Johnny turned to face him.

“Yes, you did and I need ta do it now.  I don’t have time ta talk about it or be nice.  Just give me my money.”

“Okay, Stella, give Mr. Lancer his money and let him be on his way.”

The teller had already looked in the book for the balance, so she turned and walked back to the back room to the vault.  She retrieved the money, placed it in a large bank envelope and returned to her cage.

“Here you go Mr. Lancer.”  She pushed the envelope through the barred window and Johnny snatched it up and placed it inside his jacket pocket.

“Well, aren’t you going to count it?”  Martin asked.

“No, if it’s not right, I’ll come back and see you make it right.” Johnny gave him an icy glare to shut him up, turned and left, leaving only the echo of his spurs in his wake.

The two bank employees remained, staring at the door after he was gone.

He headed, with a quick jaunt straight to Baldemero’s.  Inside, he had to be rude to stop them from hovering all over him.  Mrs. Baldemero wouldn’t stop talking about his appearance. Finally, he had glared at her and shouted, “Silencio!”

 He didn’t dare look into the mirror they had for the gentlemen to use when trying on hats.  He knew he looked bad and he didn’t want to look into the eyes of a murderer.  Not today.

“I’m fine.” He pushed away from Señor Baldemero and started grabbing what he needed and putting it on the counter or handing it to the man to keep him away from him.  When he had finished, he paid for the items straight from the bank envelope, flush with cash.

He stuffed the items in his saddlebags and mounted Barranca.  He mounted and they walked out of the alley and headed down the main street headed south.  Just as they neared the cafe, a tall dark haired cowboy, holster worn low and strapped down, stepped off the boardwalk and in front of Barranca.

“Well, if it ain’t Johnny Madrid.” He drawled.  “I been waitin’ on you.  Didn’t figure to see you hereabouts in town today and so early in the mornin’ too.  I was just about to have breakfast.”

“Do I know you?”  Johnny shot back, reining Barranca to a standstill.  The horse slung his head and turned sideways before he stopped. 

“No, but you knew my brother.”

“Who would that be?”

“Bill Shearhorn.  Rode with Day Pardee.”

“Oh.  Sorry to hear that.  Now, if you’ll get out of my way, I need ta get movin.”

“No Madrid, I ain’t movin’.  I came here to call you out, now’s as good a time as any.  You killed my brother according Coley’s cousin.”

“Don’t remember everybody I shot.”

“Well, you’re gonna remember this when I send you to hell.”

“Ya gonna draw on me now, so I can kill you from my horse or can I get off?”  Johnny’s voice was ice cold, he was really in no mood for this shit, not this early in the morning and definitely not today.

“Get off, by all means.  I want my revenge and your reputation fair and square.”

Johnny snorted, “Fine.  It’s your dance.”

Johnny jumped off Barranca and dropped the reins, stepping away from the horse.

“Ya ain’t gonna tie ‘em?”

“No need ta.  This ain’t gonna take but a second and I’ll be getting’ back on.  He won’t go nowhere.  Let’s get on with it.”

Johnny stepped back and away from Barranca, as did the blond gunfighter.

He was aware of the early risers in the community gathering for the morning showdown.  Whispers heard, passed back and forth, about the disheveled look of Madrid, speculation that he had spent the night at the saloon again, and now, he was in a gunfight before most people had had breakfast.  None of it distracted him from the challenger in front of him.

“Whenever you’re ready.”  Johnny called, standing in his familiar crouch, his cold blue eyes never moving from those of his opponent’s, a smile on his face. His right hand relaxed near the butt of the Colt.  When he saw the faint flicker, he drew and fired.

The blond opponent stood still, unmoving for a second or two before his face revealed his realization that he had been shot.  He fell backwards as he reached for his chest with his left hand.  His right still gripped his weapon, which had cleared the holster.

Johnny glared at him for a moment, noting the blood coming from the area of the man’s heart.  He felt sick as his mind replayed the memory of Murdoch falling from the saddle.  He knew the gun hawk was dead before he had hit the ground.

Taking three long strides, he snatched up Barranca’s reins and mounted, urging the horse into a run before he settled in the saddle.  Together, they galloped out of Morro Coyo, the eyes of its citizens staring after him, leaving shouts for the sheriff and the undertaker behind.

 

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

 
Back in his office, Val pulled out the bottom drawer of his desk retrieved the whiskey bottle and glass kept there, and poured himself a drink.  It was close to dark when he had gotten back to Green River from Lancer.  His deputy, Tim Sherman, had been waiting for him with a message from Sheriff Gabe in Morro Coyo.

“Sheriff Crawford,

Just thought you needed to know Johnny Lancer was in town this morning and closed out his account at the bank.  He then went to Baldemero’s where he bought a large amount of ammunition and trail supplies.  As he was leaving town, someone related to one of the gang members of Pardee’s bunch called him out.  Johnny killed him. Legal gunfight.  Left headed south in a hurry.  Heard about Murdoch Lancer later in the day.  The Baldemeros’ and the bank folks all described Johnny as not looking or acting himself.”

 

Sheriff Gabe”

‘Headed for the border.  God damn.’ He poured himself another shot.

 

Chapter 8

In Tucson, Arizona, Brad Kelso and Wren Rogers were sitting in a saloon, enjoying a bottle of whiskey and one of the best poker games they had played in a long time, when the telegraph boy showed up.

“Mr. Kelso,” the wide-eyes of the boy took in the poker game, the beer, and the scantily clad saloon girls standing near by.

 “Just a minute boy.” Kelso’s soft brown eyes never left his cards.  “I’ll call and raise ya twenty.”  He pushed the money into the pot.

“Now boy, what is it?”  Kelso turned to look at the young lad.

“It’s a telegram, urgent.  Mr. Mulligan told me to bring it right away.”

The graying, but mostly blond-haired man, took the paper from the boy, and took a coin off his pile on the table and handed it to him.  He could see the boy was taking in the sights and told him, “Don’t you worry none, it’ll all still be here when you’re old enough.  I’ll bet yer momma would have a fit knowing you were in here.”

“Yes, sir.  She calls it the ‘den of sin’ but I don’t see no devil.”

“I’ll just bet she does.  Now get on outta here for we all git in trouble.”

As the boy left, Rogers looked over at him with curious brown eyes, “Urgent telegram, huh.  Reckon who that’s from?”  He fingered his long brown handlebar mustache while pondering his cards.

“Well, reckon I’m gonna find out.”  Kelso opened the paper and read it in silence.

“Brad, Wren,

Long time.  Juanito headed your way A and D as always.  Expect him to cross at the old crossing next three days.  Need him picked up easy and on the QT.  Keep under lock and key all times.  Wire me asa you have him.  Will instruct from there.

Val.”

“Well Wren, reckon we better finish up this game.  We gotta job.”

Wren said no more as they finished the game.  The two retired Texas Rangers gathered their winnings to take with them back to the hotel where they lived in exchange for informal security work.  On the way back, Kelso, explained the contents of the communication.

“So Juanito’s headed this way.” Rogers commented.  “Reckon what the hell he’s done got into now?  I thought Val said he’d done met up with his daddy and was a rancher now.”

“Yep, that’s what he said, but you know Juanito, trouble just follows him wherever he goes.  The life prob’ly wouldn’t let him alone.”

 

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

The next morning, the two ex-rangers went downstairs for breakfast at their usual table.  The blonde waitress brought their coffee and a newspaper as she did every day, her hair, not nearly as long as Wren’s shiny brown locks.

Kelso picked up the paper and began to read.  By the time their breakfast came, he had made his way to the inside portion.  “Well, looks like Juanito ought to be here soon.  Says here, he got in a gunfight and killed three people yesterday in Phoenix.”

“Damn, he ain’t slowed down a mite.”  Wren shoved a biscuit in his mouth.

“Don’t sound like it.  Reckon we best head over to the doc’s this morning and then get packed.”

“Sounds good.  Sure will be good to see him, no matter what he’s done.  Reckon he’s growed up any?”

“I guess we’re gonna find out.”

When they finished their breakfast, they went back upstairs and packed their saddlebags.  Back downstairs, they parted.  Kelso headed for the doctor’s office and Wren to the livery to saddle the horses.

 

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

The ride to Sahurita was hot and uneventful.  Glad to have it behind them, they found the town the same as the last time they had been there, hot, dry and dangerous.  It was a small town, not far from the border comprised of mostly adobe buildings and sparse when it came to vegetation and luxuries.

Before becoming Texas Rangers, they, Val, and Johnny had all worked in some range wars together.  They had also traveled a lot back and forth across the border and frequented the small towns along it, sewing their oats.

They had spent many a night in Sahurita, a safe haven for those on the fringes of the law.  It was an old stomping ground for them.  Their last stop before they crossed the border into Mexico so many years ago, they called it the ‘old crossing’.  After some of the other towns got bigger, they used them instead, but not Juanito.  He loved the little hellhole.

At the livery, they stabled their horses and walked back down to the cantina.  The street was crowded for such a small place and just as they got to their destination, two bodies flew out of the batwing doors, followed by a laughing group of men and a few women that scattered into the street, many still drinking their beers.

They stepped inside and made their way through the crowd to the bar.  They paid for a room upstairs, but took a table in the back corner to order some dinner and make friends with the girls.

 

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

Johnny sat next to the fire, knees pulled up to his chin, his arms around his legs.  In his hand was a cup of coffee.    He was tired.  Bone tired.  He had been gone from Lancer a little over two weeks and he’d been in four gunfights.

He looked over at Barranca who stood dozing nearby, “Not much longer amigo, not much further.”  At least he had Barranca, but even he reminded him of Murdoch.

He had some friends he planned to look up in Mexico, and if all went well, he would stay with them for a while, get some rest.  His thoughts turned to Lancer as they did every night.

He reached over to his saddlebags and pulled out the bottle of whiskey, he started to pour some in the coffee, but realized it was cold.  ‘What the hell,’ he flicked the wrist of his hand holding the tin cup, flinging the coffee across the desert floor, and sat it down.

He pulled the cork on the whiskey bottle and took a double pull on it.  Whiskey was the only way he could dull his thoughts enough to sleep a little, well, there was one other way and he would be able to do that tomorrow night.

Curling up on his left side, he tried to think of anything but Lancer.  ‘Let’s see, to take my mind off of it, I’ll count the men I’ve killed backwards.  Okay, three in Phoenix …'

He thought he would get out of there without being recognized.  He came into town late that night and went into the saloon.  It was a weeknight and the girls weren’t as busy, so he’d picked one up pretty soon after he got there.  She didn’t even care how grungy he was from the trail.  He did, Lancer had spoiled him.

He made her draw a hot bath for him in her room making her think it was to enhance the pleasures they would experience in the tub, when the truth was, he had enjoyed the clean hot water almost as much as fucking her in it.

When he awoke the next day around lunchtime, he had left her some money and headed towards the livery, when three men from his past had stepped off the boardwalk in front of the saloon and confronted him.

He had been lucky that day, as he had gotten the most rest he had had since he left the ranch.  That got him through the gunfight almost unscathed.  The last man had gotten a round off and it had grazed him across the neck, causing a burn there.

Before he had gotten to Murdoch’s shooting, he had drifted into an uneasy sleep.

“You’ll be dead before you’re thirty.”  Scott told him.

“That comes to us all brother.”

“Yeah, but when you go you won’t even leave a small ripple.”

“That it brother?  I mean the sermon’s over ain’t it?”

“Yeah Johnny, the sermon’s over and I will see you hang for the murder of our father!”

Scott stood up from his seat outside the cell.  Tapping on the huge wooden door he called out, “Val, I’m done.”

Val came and unlocked the door, allowing Scott to leave, but not before he overheard his brother tell the scruffy sheriff, “Val, I want to be next to you on the gallows when this, I mean, Johnny, goes down.”

“Sure thing, Scott, you can stand next to me.  If ya want, we can pull the lever together.”

 

######

 

It was hot, hotter than the desert had ever felt.  No wonder, there were flames all around him, but he couldn’t figure out why his clothes weren’t burning.  He heard screams in the background and looked around, hearing laughter.  It was Coley and Day, and that damned Indian.  Only this time, the Indian didn’t have the long gun, he had a pitchfork.

‘Mierda’ there was the captain of the rurales and the firing squad, they all had pitchforks and turned towards him laughing, their blackened teeth revealed by their parted lips.

‘Fuck,’ he was in Hell.

A familiar voice was calling his name.  ‘John, Johnny, John,’ he looked around, seeing no one, he looked up.  Murdoch was in the clouds above him.  He was larger than life, larger than the sun, taking up a big part of the sky.  He had a huge bullet hole where his heart used to be and he could see the sky through the hole.    He was reaching down to him.  ‘Here, Johnny, take my hand, let me help you.  John, John, John . . .’

Johnny sat up so fast he hit his head on the rock ledge above him.  Scrambling and disoriented, he found the Colt and pressed himself against the hard wall behind him.  Panting and looking around, he saw Barranca looking at him with his head cocked to the side.  He closed his eyes for a moment and opened them, shaking his head as he did so.  Again, there was just Barranca, giving him an eye that suggested that he resented the disturbance of his nocturnal doze.

“Madre Dios.  I’m going crazy.”  He told Barranca.  He shivered from the unexpected cold.  He grabbed a stick and poked at the ashes of what had been his fire, reviving them, and adding some more wood, which caught ablaze almost at once, revealing how dry it was.

He readjusted himself, sitting against the wall, pulling his saddle blanket over his front, and took up the Colt again in his right hand.  The sudden thought of Murdoch in the heavens, looking down at him made him scrunch against the rock even harder, trying to be less exposed.  He found the whiskey bottle and took another long swig.

In the distance, he could hear a coyote yip.  In that moment, he felt like the last man on earth and Murdoch was God, looking down at him, keeping an eye on him using one of those looking glasses that made things look bigger than they were.  Would he slowly burn him to death with that glass and the sun, much like cruel children burned ants?  ‘Jesus, he had to stop this shit.’

He would be in Sahurita tomorrow.  Maybe that would take some of the nightmares away.  At least the ones he had during the day, and if he was lucky, the ones at night, as well.

 

Chapter 9

Johnny rode into Sahurita just before dusk.  The adobe buildings looked the same, but with a few more cracks.  There were a few new buildings, and more people, but other than that, it felt just the same, dirty, dry, and dusty.

He rode down the middle of town, with the same poise he had ridden into McCall’s Crossing with.  However, here, people were smart enough not to stare.  Everybody in Sahurita was running to or from something.

He turned a corner and saw the cantina was still there.  More of the paint had faded from the word “Cantina” above the door, but otherwise, ‘Some things never change.’  He rode past it to the livery, where he bedded Barranca down better than most of the other poor beasts confined there.

He pulled the Colt and checked it before he left the stable.  He had cleaned the gun just that morning, but he never took anything for granted.  Seeing the six rounds in the chamber, he closed it with a firm click, and holstered it.  Slinging the saddlebags over his shoulder, he left, spurs singing just a little lighter than they had been in recent days.

He stopped at the batwing doors, searching for any old faces or new trouble.  He saw neither.  The table at the back corner of the room was empty and he headed for it, eyeing the Spanish beauty with her peasant blouse pulled down over her shoulders, coming towards him with a bottle of tequila in her hand.

From across the room, Wren looked towards the back table.  Their target had just arrived.  He looked towards the bar where Brad was standing with his back to the door.  It was obvious that Brad saw him too.

Johnny slumped down in his chair and pulled the brim of his hat low.  When the girl walked over to him with the tequila, he cocked his head looked up into her soft brown eyes.  She was just what he needed.  He gave her that soft shy smile that drew women to him.  It worked.  She flashed him a smile and sat down in his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“You want something besides tequila, Señor?”

“Yeah, yeah, I do.”  He stared into her eyes taking comfort that tonight his dreams might not torment him.  “But first, I would like some tamales.” He smiled.

“Si’!”  She jumped up and went behind the bar to the kitchen.  Brad watched her return with a plate of tamales and beans a few minutes later.  They made eye contact before she went to Johnny’s table.  She sat the plate in front of Johnny and poured each of them a glass of tequila.

“My name is Carmen.”  She told him.

“Carmen, that’s pretty.  I’m Johnny.”

“Johnny.  I like that name.  You will be staying the night?”

“If I can find a room.  Got any rooms here?”  He smiled at her with full knowledge that there were rooms upstairs.

“Si’, I will take you to your room myself.”  She sat down in his lap again and nuzzled his ear, and he rewarded her by leaning back in his chair and pulling her on top of him and giving her a long slow kiss.  When he released her, he nodded to the other chair and he patted her on the bottom as she left his lap for it.

The food was a welcome relief to the trail rations he had been trying to eat.  He had thrown up so much lately, he was afraid to eat most of the time.  He was surprised that he even had an appetite, but he ate slow, afraid he would make himself sick.  It was good and spicy.  It would have been even better to have a glass of milk with it, but it wouldn’t do to be caught drinking milk in this place.

As he ate, the girl rubbed her leg up and down his.  He could feel that familiar tingling in his groin.  He was relieved to be here at last.  He was perking up fast, and in ‘more ways than one.’

When he finished eating, he pushed his plate away and put some money on the table.  She picked up the empty plate and the money.

“When I come back, I take you to your room.”

He leaned back in his chair with a smile and nodded.  He had another shot of tequila while he waited.  ‘Yep, a good meal, a night with a woman, and he’d feel a lot better.’

She returned and he stood up, taking a quick look around for any potential threats before he tossed his saddlebags over his left shoulder, picked up the bottle, and followed her across the room and up the stairs.

Once they had disappeared, Brad moved from the bar and sat down at the table with Wren.  “Won’t be too much longer now, amigo.”

 

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

They entered the small, but clean, room.  Johnny waited at the door until she had gone inside and lit the lamp.  He was taking no chances.  Hand still near the butt of the Colt, he checked the closet and under the bed.  Satisfied, he walked back and locked the door.  He tossed the saddlebags on the floor and took a long pull on the bottle.  He threw his hat onto the chair.  

Carmen came close and he pulled her to him, wrapping his arms around her.  She looked up into twinkling blue eyes and he looked down into her big brown eyes ready to get lost in them.  He leaned over and smothered her lips with his.    

 

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

It was several hours however, before the young woman came back downstairs, with a look and a slight nod to the waiting Brad and Wren.  After a few minutes, they rose and went upstairs.  Wren carried a pair of saddlebags.

Finding room eleven, the pre-determined room number, they each took a position on each side of the door, guns drawn.  Brad eased open the door, and waited for a moment.

When there was no sound or movement, he stepped inside the room and looked towards the bed.  As he moved further into the room, he whispered back to Wren, “Come on in here.”

Wren cleared the threshold, closing the door behind him and locking it.  They eased toward the bed, one on each side, and stared down at Johnny.  He was on his back, head to the side naked, except for a sheet across his lower regions.  He was sound asleep.  They could hear rhythmic whispers of breath as he exhaled.

His rig hung above his head on the bedpost.  Brad leaned over, removed the Colt from the holster, and handed it to Wren, who put it behind him on the bureau.

Brad then stepped back and drew a bead on Johnny with his own Colt, and nodded at Wren.  Wren put the saddlebags down on the foot of the bed and opened one, removing a set of handcuffs.

He leaned over the still sleeping Johnny and placed one bracelet around the gunfighter’s right wrist, and closed it tight.  He picked up the hand, pulled it towards him, and pulled the left wrist up near it and placed the other bracelet around it.  He used the key to double-lock them.

After checking to see that the handcuffs were secure, he took out a set of leg irons and put them on the sleeping boy.  From the other side of the saddlebags, he produced another set of leg irons, and attached one to the ones on Johnny and used the other to secure him to the iron bedpost.

Once they had him secured, Wren let out a big sigh.  “Whew, that was nerve wrackin’.  How much of them powders you tell her to give to him?  Seems awful quiet.”

“I just told her what the doc told me.” Brad replied, “Looks like she might have given him a little too much though.”

“Man, he looks like shit.”  Wren said as he pushed his hat back off his head to hang by the stampede string.  He gathered his long, past his shoulders length brown hair back and pulled it into a ponytail.

“Sure does.”

“Look at all them scars on him.  I don’t remember him havin’ that many.”  Wren stepped closer to look.

“Well, I don’t believe he was more’n sixteen when we rode with him.  He’s still skinny.”

“Yep.  I sure thought he’d be dead by now.  Wonder what Val’s wants him for.”

“Reckon we’ll know tomorrow when we wire him.  For now, one of us oughta get some shut eye.  He ain’t gonna be none too happy to wake up bare assed and trussed up.”  

 

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

Johnny felt groggy.  He was awake, but his head felt heavy and clouded.  He lay there for a moment trying to remember where he was and what he was doing the night before.  He remembered the girl.  A slight smile began to cross his lips until he realized he was handcuffed.

He was still naked.  Thinking the girl had done this, he tried not to panic, but he felt the leg irons and panic set in.  He opened his eyes.  He needed to know.

“Mornin’, Juanito.”  He heard a familiar, but not feminine, voice.  He rolled over onto his back.  His eyes felt puffy, and were crusty with sleep.  His well-wisher sat in a chair on the door side of the bed.

It took a minute before his blurry eyes could focus on their target, but when they did, he recognized him.  “Wren?” His voice was thick and gravelly.  ‘This has to be a dream.’  He pushed himself up.

“Hey, Johnny boy, you okay?”  Wren sounded real.

Johnny looked around the room, blinking sleepily.  He was the same room he remembered from the night before.  “What the fuck is this?”  He asked, as Wren watched a pouty little boy take possession of Johnny’s face.

“Well amigo, you’re gonna have ta tell us.  We got a telegram from Val to pick ya up.  We ain’t gotta clue why.  Brad’s over sending the telegraph back to him that we got ya and findin’ out what ta do with ya.  We figured you’d tell us what happened.”

He just stared at Wren.  His mind was foggy, but he figured the girl had something to do with that.  “You put somethin’ in my drink?”

“Well, yeah, but she took her time.  You ain’t lost your touch with the ladies.  We didn’t think she was gonna go through with it for awhile.”  He laughed, “Guess she wanted a ride first.”

He gave a small snort and felt early morning call of nature.  “Can you let me out of these things?  I gotta take a piss.”

“Sorry.  I can’t unhook ya ‘til Brad gits back.”

“Oh come on, Wren, it’s me.”

“I know Johnny, but that’s why I can’t.  You’re wilier than a coyote.  So what the hell happened to you?  Last we heard, you was killed in Mexico, then we heard you were givin’ up the gun and living with your rich rancher daddy.  Now, Val’s put the word out quiet like to pick ya up?
“I don’t wanna talk about it right now Wren.  What time of day is it?”

“Oh, won’t be too much longer ‘fore lunch.  You been sleepin’ a long time.”

“Thanks to you and Brad.”

About that time, they heard heavy booted steps outside the door and then a knock.  “It’s me Wren.”  They both identified the voice as Brad’s.  Wren stood up and unlocked the door.

As he entered, Brad saw the awakened prisoner.

“Well, good mornin’ sleepin’ beauty.”  He addressed Johnny.

“Maybe for you, Brad.  Don’t look too promisin’ ta me.”

“Oh come on now Johnny, you don’t like wakin’ up to old friends?”

“Not when they look like you two!”

“I told the girl downstairs to bring us some coffee, ‘fore I come up.”

“What the fuck are you two doin’ this for?”

“Well, I reckon to save your ass, that’s why?”

“Save my ass?”  Johnny snorted.  “Ya got about as much a chance at doin’ that as a pig sproutin’ wings.”

“That’s not what Val says.”

“Well, Val Crawford can go to hell.”  Johnny’s tone was much harsher and angrier.  The pouty expression had taken over his face again.

Wren laughed.  “Johnny, you look just like a kid when things don’t go your way.”

“Fuck you, Wren, and fuck you too, Brad.  Now let me out of this, I told ya I gotta piss.”

“Keep talkin’ to us like that and you’ll have to wear a diaper or wet your bed one, ‘cause I ain’t puttin’ up with your shit all the way back to California.”  Brad spelled out for him calmly.

“You take me back to California, they’re gonna hang me.  Want that on your conscience, Brad?”

“They’re not gonna hang you.”

“Really?  Last time I looked, they hang people for murder.”

“Murder?  You ain’t murdered nobody, Johnny.”

“I damn sure did.”

“Yeah, well, Val didn’t say nothin’ bout what ya done.”

“Can I just take a piss?!”

“Okay, okay, hurry up before the girl comes.  Unhook him from the bed post Wren.”  Brad drew his weapon on Johnny while Wren fetched the key to unlock the chain.

He kicked the chamber pot out from under the bed, and then unhooked the irons that attached Johnny to the bed.

“You’re not gonna take these off?”  Johnny looked at them incredulously.

“No.  We ain’t lettin’ you get away Johnny.  Ya need Wren to hold it for ya?”

“I’ll manage.”  He knew he was beaten.  He had known them a long time and they were damn good at their job; too damned good for his sake.  Tangled in the sheet, he had to suffer the humiliation of having Wren remove it, leaving him to stand with his naked ass to them.

When he finished, before he turned around, he asked, “Can I at least have my pants?”

“Yeah, well, I reckon.  Wren, unlock the leg irons, but not the cuffs.  Help him if you have ta.  Johnny, you so much as flinch and you know I’ll shoot ya.”  He knew all right.  Brad didn’t play games when he worked, friend or no friend.

Wren picked up Johnny’s pants where they had landed over in the corner after their quick removal in the prior night’s encounter with Carmen.  He tossed them to Johnny.

“I don’t see no drawers anywhere.  Ya got any in your saddlebags?”  Wren asked.

“No, don’t wear any.”

The two Rangers stopped in their tracks and stared at him.

“These pants fit better without ‘em.”

“My God boy.” Brad commented.

Johnny did need help from Wren pulling on the once tight leather britches because of the handcuffs, but they managed, mostly because he had lost so much weight.

He was sitting on the bed, barefoot and shirtless while Wren put the leg irons back on, when there was a knock at the door.  Brad opened it a crack and then all the way.  Carmen entered and put a tray of coffee and sandwiches on the table.  She glanced at Johnny, but didn’t meet his eyes.

“Hey, Carmen, come here.” Johnny called to her.

She looked at the two men who had paid her to put the sedative in Johnny’s drink.

“It’s okay, I’m not gonna hurt ya.”

“Go on if you want ta.”  Brad told her.

She walked over to Johnny and stopped in front of him.  He patted the bed with his cuffed hands, indicating her to sit down.  When she did, he took her chin in them, and lifted it to look her in the eye.

“I hope these pendejos paid you well to do this to me.”

The regret in her eyes was plain to see. 

“It’s okay.  I don’t blame ya.  I’m sure you needed the money.  They would’ve gotten someone else to do it if not you, so don’t feel guilty.  I’m glad it was you.”

He kissed her on the forehead.  “Now go on.”

She touched her finger to her lips and then placed it on his and then she left the room.

“Juanito, if you don’t have the damnedest way with women.”  Wren sighed.

 

Chapter 10

A waterfall of relief flowed over Val, after receiving the wire from the boys in Arizona.  He read it again, trying to glean any possible further information from it about Johnny.  “Val, Longtime.  Juanito safe.  Looks bad.  Waiting for instructions.  Brad.”

He mounted up and headed towards the Lancer ranch.  Scott would sleep better knowing Johnny was in custody.  The poor boy had his hands full trying to run Lancer after living out here for less than a year, and then to have Johnny looming over his life like a dark storm cloud, well, it was amazing the boy was holding up.

He arrived at the ranch just after lunch.  As he stopped his horse by the hitching rail at the front door, Scott stepped outside from the French doors and called to him.

As he entered through the glass doors, he saw Scott already at the bar, pouring two drinks.  He looked tired and disheveled.  His immaculate appearance was gone.  There were circles under his eyes and he was thinner.  His hair needed trimming.

“What’s up, Val?  Is there word on Johnny?”

“Yeah, Scott, there is.  Let’s sit down.”

Val sat on the sofa and Scott in the stuffed armchair.  Val noted that while Scott’s appearance had suffered, there was no give in that straight military posture.  The expression on his face, though tired, was one mixed of hope and fear.

“Is he in Mexico?”

“No, but he’s close.  He’s in Arizona. He was getting’ ready to cross the border.”

“Okay.”

“Well, I been keepin’ tabs on him.  He’s been in some gunfights and after I saw one or two of those reports, I figured I knew where he was headed.”

“Gunfights, huh.  So he’s gone back to that.”  Scott bowed his head and shook it.  Val could read the disgust in his expression.

“Scott, he don’t know how to do nothin’ else other than what he’s learned on this ranch.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Anyway, once I figured I knew where he was headed, I wired some old Ranger friends of mine.  They know Johnny.  I told them to pick him up and they have.”

“So he’s in custody?” Scott sighed in relief.

“You could say that.  They’re not lawmen anymore.”

“Okay.  So where do we go from here?”

“That’s up to you.  I assumed you wanted him brought back here.”

“Absolutely!  What about the charges?”

“Well, I haven’t filed any official ones yet, and haven’t put out any warrants.  I figured it’d be easier to catch up with him and less dangerous for everybody if he didn’t have the whole world gunning for him.  Seemed simpler to find him first and we can charge him when we get him back up here.”

“Well, how long will it take to bring him back?”

“It depends on they way we do it.”

“Okay, explain the options.”

“Well, I can go ahead and make it official, write up the charges and the town’ll pick up the expense, which means it’ll take about four weeks to get him here.   They could bring him back on the stage or take the train up to Sacramento, but the town won’t pay for the train.  Town only pays for the stage for one hundred mile trips or less.  Besides, travelin’ either of those ways, everybody’ll know what’s goin’ on and there’s likely to be more trouble.”

“No, I don’t want that.  I want him here as fast as we can get him here, without too much attention.  I’m willing to pay, if that’s what you’re getting ready to ask me.”

“Well, yeah.  It’ll take about a week to get back into California from where they are, but they could take the train from San Diego to Sacramento, and ride from there to Green River.”

“Fine, Val.  I want them in a private car.  I want this to be as quiet as possible.  Lancer is the subject of enough gossip and bad talk as it is.  I’ll write a quick note to Mr. Martin at the bank, authorizing you to spend whatever is necessary to bring him back and as soon as possible.  Every day that Johnny’s not dealt with, well, it’s like a festering sore. I want to put this matter to rest, so we can move forward and Lancer can redeem itself.

“I agree, Scott.  I appreciate your doin’ things this way.  I know it’s ain’t easy knowin’ he shot your daddy.  Things runnin’ okay out here, with the ranch and all?”

Scott had risen and walked to the desk to draft the letter for the bank.

“I think so.  If it weren’t for Cipriano, I’d probably have to sell the whole damn place.  I gotta hand it to Murdoch.  Building this up all by himself.  There’s so many decisions to make and always something happening.  It makes military strategy look easy.”  He folded the note and placed it in an envelope.

“Well, I’d better let ya get back to it.  Thanks for workin’ with me here.  I’ll have your brother back up here with as little fuss as we can.”  Scott handed him the letter.

Val stood to leave, and Scott made to see him to the door.  Val turned towards the young man, “Thanks, Scott, and again, I’m sorry about all this.  I never would have imagined this happenin’.”

“Me neither, Val.  Me neither.”

 

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

 

They had moved to another room in the cantina.  This one had two beds in it.  Johnny now had on a shirt and socks along with his calzoneras.  Handcuffed and chained to the bed by the leg irons, he was propped against the headboard, his legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed.  His restless energy manifested itself in the incessant shaking of his ankle. His head turned to the side as he stared into space, lost in thought.

Wren had gone over to the telegraph office to check for a wire.  Brad sat in a stuffed armchair, pistol on his lap and stared at Johnny.   He saw the gaunt lines of the boy’s face, despite the unshaven beard, circles under his eyes deep as gullies, and dull, bloodshot eyes.  The once tight leather calzoneras loose around Johnny’s waist.

The door opened and Wren came in with a telegraph in hand.  “Well, wait ‘til you here this.” He told Brad and began to read.

“Brad, Wren, San Diego as fast as you can.  Train to Sacramento.  Private car, expense no matter.  Wire if you need money advanced and when you know arrival in Sacramento. Val.”

Johnny couldn’t help but hear.  ‘Mierda, Scott’s paying to haul my ass back to be hung as soon as possible.’  He felt sick to his stomach.  Well, what did he expect?

“Well Wren, reckon we’d better order some supper and get ready to head out first thing.  Johnny, whatcha want for supper.”

Johnny didn’t bother to turn and look at them.  “I ain’t too hungry.”

“Boy, ya gotta eat!”

“I ain’t gotta do a god damned thing Brad!”

“Wren, just get us all some tamales, well, get what ya want for yourself.”

“Gotcha”

“Make sure you get Juanito some too.”

 

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

 

A young Mexican girl brought the large tray up and sat it on the table in the room.  A younger Mexican boy followed her with the beverage tray of coffee and a pitcher of milk.  Brad paid them and tipped them well, receiving a big grin from the little boy.

When they left, Brad went over to unchain Johnny from the bed.

“Come on over here and sit at the table with us, Johnny.”

“I told you, I ain’t hungry.”  Johnny flung himself on his side away from Brad and lay down.

“Johnny, damn it!  I told you, I ain’t puttin’ up with your shit all the way back to California and I mean it!”  He grabbed Johnny by the middle of the handcuffs, hauling him up, and slammed him against the headboard.

“What the hell ya think you’re doin’ Brad?”  Johnny’s eyes were so hot they would have melted most any other man.

“Boy, you are way too damn thin.  I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you need to eat and you’re gonna eat if Wren has to hold you down while I spoon feed ya.  Ya hear me, Johnny?”

Johnny looked away and wouldn’t answer.

“Johnny, I asked you a question.  Are you gonna answer me and act like man?”

With that, he reached over to grab Johnny’s chin and Johnny shoved him using his bound hands.  He tried to get up off the bed, but Wren leaned over and grabbed the chain of the leg irons, sending Johnny sprawling through the air to land face down on the floor, still attached to the bed by one ankle.

Brad recovered and drew his gun.  The fall stunned Johnny, who had bitten his lip and scraped his face on the floor.

“Johnny, you know I’ll shoot your ass.  Now get up and sit down on that bed!”

Wren was already reaching into the saddlebags for more restraints.  Neither of them helped Johnny struggle from his awkward position, upper body and one leg on the floor, the other leg still hanging from the bed, where the chain had hung on the post at the foot.

Subdued, Johnny managed to do as told.  Wren pulled out four sets of irons with varying lengths between the shackles.  He attached them so Johnny, still handcuffed and shackled, had each limb attached to a bedpost, giving him little ability to move.  Johnny stared at his feet.

Brad holstered his weapon when Wren was finished.  Wren stepped back and Brad began taking off his gun belt.  He also pulled the knife out of his boot and the hideaway gun from the back of his pants.

“Wren, I want you to put him in the crosshairs and if he so much as spits, shoot him.”

Wren drew his weapon and watched as Brad poured a glass of milk and picked up a plate of food and placed them on the bedside table.  He sat down on the bed next to Johnny and picked up the glass of milk.

“Ya act like a baby, ya get treated like one.  I swear on all that’s Holy John.  You spill this milk and I’m gonna tan your britches like a kid and then make ya sleep in the mess.  Understand me John?”

Johnny didn’t speak, but raised his chin in a defiant sign of understanding.

“I want ya ta drink this milk.”

Johnny’s stomach, betrayed him after a whiff of the tamales.  His body needed the nourishment and for the moment, it overrode the thoughts of what lay ahead and his rebellion.  When the glass touched his lips, he drank, so lost in his own despair and anger that he didn’t notice the looks of loving concern reflected in the faces of his keepers.

After some of the milk, Brad began to spoon-feed him his dinner.  Johnny’s mind began to replay memories of Murdoch spoon-feeding him when he was laid up from Pardee’s bullet.  Memories of his father made him feel breathless and trapped.  He turned his head away, causing Brad to smear the food in his beard.

“God damn you!”

“Please, Brad,” Johnny whispered.  “I, I can’t, just let me up.  I’ll be good, just, I can’t take this.”

Johnny’s plea was so forlorn, Brad stopped to look at him and saw that he was trembling.  His face was starting to turn white.  His eyes held a wild trapped look he had seen before.  He looked back at Wren who shrugged.

“Okay, Johnny.  Just give me a minute.”

He got the key and freed they boy’s arms.  He stood and helped him sit back against the headboard of the bed a little better, placing one of the pillows behind his back.  Johnny sat with his head down and his eyes closed for a moment, trying to calm the overwhelming feeling of suffocation he had felt.

After a minute, Brad handed him the glass of milk.  He drank a good bit and handed it back.  Brad sat the glass on the table and spread a big napkin across Johnny’s lap.  He sat the plate there and handed Johnny a spoon.

Their eyes met for a moment and the concern from Brad’s eyes was so intense, Johnny had to look away.  Murdoch had looked at him like that so many times, but no more.  He choked on his first bite of food, but managed to keep it down.

He ate in silence while the two ex-Rangers watched.  He only ate half the plate before he pushed it towards Brad, indicating he was finished.

“I can’t eat anymore.”

“Okay, I understand.  Here, finish your milk.” Brad handed him the glass and Johnny did.

Brad put the empty glass next to the plate and without a word, unlocked one of the shackles that attached Johnny’s leg to a post.  Although still tethered to the bed, he could turn over and move with more comfort.

Johnny scooted down and curled up on his side.  Brad and Wren sat down and ate their dinner in silence.

When they finished, Wren poured them some coffee.  He looked over at Johnny, who was facing away from them.  “Johnny, want some coffee?”

He got no response and looked closer.  Johnny had fallen asleep.  He looked at Brad.  “Reckon what the hell’s happened?  I ain’t never seen him like this.”

“I don’t know Wren.  He sure is torn up over somethin’ and it can’t be killin’ somebody.  I don’t think he’s ever cared when it came to that.  But then he said it was murder.”

“Oh, come on Brad, you and I both know that boy ain’t no murderer.  If he did murder somebody, they damn well deserved it and he sure wouldn’t be actin’ like this.”

“Well, I reckon we’ll find out when we get up there to Sacramento.”

Wren stood and pulled the quilt from the top of the chest at the foot of the bed and spread it with the gentleness of a father over Johnny.

 

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

 

Brad was awake and pulling his Colt from its holster at the sound of screaming and yelling loud enough to wake the dead.  As soon as he realized it was coming from the other bed, he put his gun back and joined Wren who was sitting on Johnny’s bed, trying to wake him.  Johnny was thrashing around hard enough that Wren was having trouble keeping him down.

“No, no, no.  Mama, no, let go.  Murdoch!  Help me!”

His mother had grabbed him around the wrist with her long fingers, the nails painted red.  Her hands were so cold they numbed his wrist until his skin felt like it was on fire.  She had an evil smile on her face.  Her long black hair flowed around her waist and she wore a red dress, shear enough to see the outline of her well-endowed and curvaceous body through it.  The smell of roses was overwhelming.   ‘Come Juanito, come with me.  It is our destiny to be together.’

She was leading him, dragging him towards the flames.  He could see Day, Coley, Isham, and Sexton Joe in the background.  Sexton had a group of people around him and they were listening to him read from the bible he always carried with him.  Isham, Day, and Sexton had big wings folded behind their backs that were as long as they were tall, almost touching the ground at the bottom, their fingernails looked like talons.  They smelled like rotting flesh.

The he saw Absalom Weir standing there.  ‘Johnny Madrid, I’m especially pleased to see you here.  Don’t be ashamed of your past.’

Murdoch was sitting nearby on the bald faced bay, a sad look on his face, ‘I tried Johnny, I tried, but you killed me, I can’t help you now.’ He saw the bullet pierce his father’s heart, the blood and flesh explode from his chest and then he toppled backwards, hitting the ground with a loud thud.

Maria was dragging him with both hands away from Murdoch.  Day and Isham stepped in front of him and blocked his view of his father.  They each took an arm, their talons cutting into his flesh and the rotting smell enveloped him.  Isham leaned over and said, ‘Time to get ya wings Johnny boy, you’re a fallen angel now.’

Cold water slapped him in the face.  He tried to sit up, but his arms were pinned.  He was handcuffed.  The harder he struggled, the harder the two sets of hands gripped his arms.

“Johnny, Johnny, it’s me, it’s Brad, wake up Johnny!”

He looked to his left, eyes wild, he was breathing so hard it was rocking the bed.

“Damn it Johnny, wake up, it’s okay, it’s Brad and Wren.” 

He realized where he was when he looked into Brad’s brown eyes.

“Brad?”

“Yeah, Johnny, it’s me.  Me and Wren.  You okay?”

“Yeah.  Sorry, I guess it was a bad dream.”

“Bad dream?  It was more like a nightmare.”

“Yeah, reckon it was.  Did I wake you up?”

“Me, Wren, and probably the whole place.”

Wren filled the washbasin with water, dipped a washcloth in it, squeezed the water out, and wiped off Johnny’s face.  “Jesus, Johnny, you scared the shit outta me.  I almost shot myself.”

Brad got up and opened the whiskey bottle they had in their room.  He took a long pull from the bottle and passed it to Johnny who did the same.  His hands shook as he tilted the bottle up.  He gave it to Wren, who also took a shot.

Wren looked at Johnny and handed him the bottle again.  Johnny had another drink.  Brad took the bottle and sat it on the bed next to the table.

“Okay, maybe we can get back to sleep now, okay amigo?”  Brad pushed Johnny’s bangs out of his eyes ‘just like Murdoch used to do’.  Johnny looked down, but shook his head yes.  His bangs slid back down as he looked up again as, “Thanks, Brad.”

“Think nothin’ of it.”  Brad stood up and Johnny turned back over and curled up.  Wren picked up the quilt from the floor and spread it out over him again.  He looked across the bed at Brad and their eyes met.  Brad widened his eyes in an expression of bewilderment at Wren’s look and then went back to the bed.

 

Chapter 11

They had made it across the desert in five days, opting for the faster cross-country travel instead of the longer ride between towns.  They had to be careful, but it was better to camp out at night in the desert than to explain to hotel managers about Johnny.

Keeping him shackled wasn’t the problem, but the fact that he had awakened every night yelling to high heaven from nightmares didn’t leave them much choice.  They had taken to leaving a bottle of whiskey by his bedroll at night.

They arrived in San Diego in the early afternoon.  They rode straight to the train station, where Brad went inside and inquired about the schedule and tickets.  He came back out. “The train leaves at 4:30 and we’ll be there day after tomorrow.”

“Well, looks like we got here just in time.”  Wren commented and looked over at Johnny who was staring into space.

“Why don’t you two wait here and I’ll go get the money from the bank and send Val a wire.

Wren and Johnny rode behind the train station, to a more secluded area where Wren dismounted and unlocked the long shackle that ran between Johnny’s feet and under Barranca’s belly. He reached up and helped Johnny dismount as they now had Johnny cuffed and wearing a belly chain to which they attached to his hands.

When Brad returned, he found Johnny dozing in a chair and Wren reading the paper.

“This town’s grown.” He remarked as he sat down and handed Wren a bottle of beer.  Johnny sat up at the sound of his voice and he handed one to him as well.

“I got a wire off to Val and I reckon he was in his office, ‘cause I got one right back.  After we get off the train, we’re supposed to ride to a town called Green River, but we ain’t supposed to come in ta town.  Got some meetin’ spot he wants to meet at.”

Johnny listened to this and wondered.  Things must be in an uproar if he didn’t want Johnny brought in to the jail.  But where else would they take him?  Val’s jail was the most secure.  He also had more help than Gabe over in Spanish Wells.

When the thought struck him, he felt numb at the realization that the only other place that was secure and not public, was the guardhouse at Lancer.  ‘God no.’ He sat his beer down, and struggled to porch rail to throw up.

Brad looked at Wren who shook his head.  He leaned over and whispered into Wren’s ear, “I told Val we needed a doctor to look at the boy pronto.”

Wren shook his head in agreement.

None of them had slept well the entire trip.  Johnny woke up every night screaming and yelling like a mad man.  He wasn’t eating much and when he did eat, he tossed it up soon after.  He drank whiskey at a constant rate.  He never had enough at one time to be drunk, but the light and steady consumption kept his thoughts from betraying him during the day, and was enough to dull his senses so he could go to sleep, even if he didn’t sleep for long.

Johnny shuffled back to his seat on the bench.  “Sorry, lunch didn’t agree with me.”  He knew they knew better.

He also knew he had a rat’s chance in a barn full of cats of getting away.  They had kept him chained every moment of the trip and no doubt, they’d chain him to the train.  He couldn’t believe Barranca hadn’t bucked him off the first time they ran that chain under his belly.

It was just as well.  He might as well get it all over with if this week was anything like the rest of his life would be.  This was no way to live.  He couldn’t sleep through the night without waking up screaming his head off.  The looks on the faces of Brad and Wren told him all he needed to know.  He was losing his mind.

Every night the demons were worse.  He was starting to have the dreams in the daytime as well.  They didn’t know about that because he couldn’t get into a deep sleep on the back of a horse.  For the first time in his young adult life, he was afraid, afraid to sleep, not because someone would get the edge on him, but afraid because of the dreams.

He couldn’t eat his stomach was so knotted.  If he had never shown up at Lancer, he wouldn’t be in this predicament.  He would never have had people to care for him or to care for.  By now, he’d either be dead or so dead inside he wouldn’t feel the kind of pain he was feeling now.

‘Patricide.’  That was the sin he had committed.  He remembered Scott calling it that when they were talking about a family that had lived outside Morro Coyo where the son had killed the father.  The town hung the boy just as soon as the judge handed down his decision.

Poor Scott, his life destroyed.  He gave up everything to move out here and start a new life with a father and brother he had always wanted.  What did he get?  A hardass for a father, a killer for a brother, a ranch he was in no way ready to run, and now, the killer brother had done what everyone in town thought he would do, ruin everything.  Harlan Garrett must be dancin’ a jig with the devil about now.

The train whistle startled them out of their thoughts.

 

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

 

Val read the telegram again.  “Val, Arrival day after tomorrow Noon.  Need instructions.  J  bad sick need doc.”

‘Damn that Johnny, no tellin’ what the hell was wrong with him; ought to be his damned conscience, if he even has one anymore.’

He left his office and walked over to the doctor’s office.  When he opened the door, the bell above the door rang.  He waited a few minutes and Sam himself appeared.

“Hi Val, everything okay?” the doctor was drying his hands with a towel.

“Yep and nope.  Anybody else here?”

“No, no patients and the housekeeper’s gone for the day.”

“Well, I need your services but you can’t talk to nobody, and I do mean nobody.”

“You know I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

“Well, brace yourself.”

The doctor stopped with the towel, cocked his head, and raised his eyebrows.

“Johnny’s on his way back.”

“On his way back?”

“Well, he’s bein’ escorted by two ex-Ranger friends of mine, and his.”

“So, he’s in custody?”

“Yep.  But I just got the wire and they said he needed a doctor real bad.”

“Is he shot?”

“No, says ‘sick’.”

“Okay, what do you want me to do?”

“Be at Lancer day after tomorrow about four o’clock.”

“Lancer?”

“Yeah, Lancer.  Scott wants it this way.  “He’s callin’ the tune now, as Murdoch would say.”

“Poor boy.  He’s been through hell this last few weeks.  Well, I’ll be there.”

“I ‘preciate it doc.”

“Sure thing, Val.”

 

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

Johnny noticed the Pullman gave the two grubby men and their even grubbier prisoner a long look as he showed them to their private car.  As expected, as soon as they settled in, they found a way to chain him to the train, after discovering the table bolted to the floor.  

His heart began pounding faster once he boarded the train.  He felt trapped in the railroad car, despite its size.  He sat in a stuffed chair that they had pulled to the table for him and they had each settled in a similar chair.

He knew if he didn’t distract himself, that he’d go stark raving mad with the thoughts that were galloping through his mind.  He looked at Wren and said, “Tell me about when you two were Rangers with Val.”

The look on his face when he asked was that of a small child asking someone to tell him a story.  The two older men looked at each other.

Wren started the story, “Well Johnny, I reckon you don’t remember how we all got started.”

“No, I don’t think I ever heard that part.”

“Well, after we worked that range war outside Johnson City and you took off after the rancher found out about you and his daughter, well, me and Brad, well, we was tired of that life.”

“Yeah, that was a nasty one.”  He tried not to remember the fact that Day Pardee had been there too.

“So, we was headed back down towards the border, thinkin’ we’d meet back up with you somewhere.  Val, well, he had some notion about goin’ back home, but we talked him inta ridin’ with us.  Just outside of San Antonio, we come across a fracas.  These two men were facin’ off with about seven others that turned out to be bank robbers.  Well, you know us, always on the side of the underdog.  Guess we were lucky that they were the good guys, ‘cause it turned out they were Rangers and about out of bullets.”

Johnny nodded and his lips curved in a sad smile.  ‘Seemed like Val told him somethin’ about that.’  “I guess you won, huh?”

“Yep.  Killed every last one of ‘em.  Made short work of it too.  They were real impressed with Val’s rifle skills.  When ol’ Brad here whipped out that shotgun, well, that was all she wrote.”

Johnny envisioned Val picking off and holding the robbers at bay while Brad and Wren charged forward, Brad with the scattergun and Wren with his Colt.  Wren had the fastest and most accurate draw of the three.  He bet that was the real ‘draw’ for the Rangers when they him in action.

“So anyways, after that, we went back down to San Antonio with them, to help them protect the money that had been stolen from the bank.  That’s when they roped us inta bein’ Rangers.”

Johnny nodded again, and then asked, “So what was your first job as a Ranger.”

Wren took a long look at Brad before he said, “Brad, whatcha bein’ sa quiet for?  Help me out with these stories.”

Johnny knew that Wren had figured out that he wanted them to talk to him to keep his mind off his situation.  It wasn’t the first time they had escorted prisoners to be hung and he knew that they knew he needed some distraction.

They had him laughing soon enough and then the three began talking over old times they had shared.  Johnny was even joining in the conversation.  In their small universe of the private car, they were reliving happier days.

Brad and Wren kept Johnny entertained so well, that he was even able to eat some dinner.  After their dinner, they started passing the bottle around while the tales grew taller.

The steady rocking of the train car, along with the comfort of food settled in his stomach, and the whiskey, lulled Johnny into sleep.  Brad found a quilt in the sleeping quarters of their car and spread it over him.

“Looks just like a little kid when he sleeps, huh?”  Wren commented.

“Yeah.  He’s sure tore up about whatever it is he’s done.  I sniffed around the sheriff’s office back in San Diego ‘fore I came back to the train station.  Didn’t see no warrants on him.”

“Well, I cain’t hardly believe Val would have us drag him all the way back up to northern California just to hang him.  I don’t believe Val would let that happen no matter what the boy done.  Fact is, if that’s what they plan ta do with him, I don’t know if I ain’t gonna have to help him out.  Ya with me Brad?”

 “Yeah, but I’m not sure he wants help.  I think he’s decided that he wants it over.  I mean, what kinda life is it when you can’t sleep without all those nightmares?  I think he knows he’s losin’ his mind.  I know I’ve seen him dozin’ durin’ the day and he’ll sit right up all of a sudden, his eyes all wild, like somethin’ scared him.”

“Yeah, he looks haunted all of the time.  I never thought this would happen to him.”

“Me neither.   Guess one of us ought ta rest up.  Better start thinkin’ of some more stories to tell him when he wakes up.  It seems ta be helpin’.  Leastways, he got some dinner down.”

“Yep.  You go on in and sleep Brad.  I’ll keep an eye on him for now.”

“I won’t argue with ya.  I’m plumb wore out from talkin’.  Damn we had some good times didn’t we?”

“Yep.  If we get through this, we’ll have some more.”  Wren stroked his mustache.

“Wake me in a bit.”

“Okay.”

 

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

 
Johnny’s peaceful rest was short lived.  His mind played out his future in gory detail making up for the lost time during the ‘story hour’ with his old friends.

Murdoch had rescued him all right, but it was not what he expected.  Just after Day and Isham had attached those wings to him and he could feel the cold, but hot burn of his skin, his father reached out for him.

Seeing the big burly hand reaching for him, he reached out and grabbed it.  As Murdoch pulled him towards the blue sky, his mother grabbed his other arm.  ‘No Juanito, he is bad, he wants to hurt you Juanito, do not go with him.’

He felt his arms pulled out of their sockets as his parents played tug of war with him.  In the end, his father’s overwhelming strength won out, and just as he thought his arms would be ripped off, Murdoch gave a last hard pull and he felt his mother lose her grasp.  He rocketed, as if out of a slingshot, towards his father, passing through the big hole where his heart had been, and then there was an explosion and his father was no more.

He was in a cell.  Val came and unlocked the door.  Wren and Brad were there, armed with shotguns.  The three put him in leg irons, a belly chain, and handcuffs.  When they were finished, his escorts took him outside and onto the gallows where Scott and Teresa stood.

Sexton Joe was standing on the gallows with his bible.  Isham was there too.  They had those wings again and the talons were now dripping with blood.

“Hey Johnny boy, you didn’t think your ol’ man would save your ass did ya?”  Isham told him.

“Johnny Madrid, your father has denounced you from using the name Lancer and I hereby condemn you to hell, a fallen angel beyond redemption.” Sexton Joe proclaimed.

“I’ve been waiting for this day.  You broke my trust and my heart, but I was wrong about one thing.  You will leave a ripple.  No one will ever forget the day you killed Murdoch Lancer and all things good.” Scott spat at him.

Nature, all of a sudden turned black, there was no color in the world, everything green and happy was black and the rest was grey.  Only Scott, Teresa, and his three ex-Ranger friends were white.

“I can’t believe I ever shed a tear for you.”  Teresa cried.  “Damn you to hell, Johnny Madrid.”

He looked down and the rurales were there with their rifles.  Instead of putting a noose around his neck, they tied him to the back of the platform.

The captain gave the order and they shot, five bullets all in the gut, ‘God it hurt.  It was gonna be a slow painful death, just what he deserved.’

 

When Johnny awakened, he realized that Brad and Wren were there, and their touch was warm.  Brad was rubbing circles on his back, much like Murdoch had done, and it made him retch even harder, to feel the comfort of his touch.  He didn’t deserve it.

Wren fetched a basin of water and began wiping his face down again as Brad held him, waiting for assurance that he was finished losing his supper.  He shook his head indicating that he was okay, at least for now.

They helped him back into the chair from which he had fallen.  He was sweating and Wren wiped him down while Brad got him some water.

He could see the worry in both their faces.  “Just give me a gun and I’ll make it better for all of us.  Okay?”  He panted.

“Are you outta your mind?!  When we get to Green River, Val’s gonna have a doctor look at ya.  You’re worryin’ yourself to death.”  Brad told him.

“No, not Sam, please, I, I can’t see him.  I don’t wanna see anybody.  Just keep everybody away from me.  Just let ‘em hang me and get this over with.  I can’t live like this.”

“No Johnny, ya can’t, but I don’t know what else to do.  I damn sure ain’t gonna let you kill yourself, damn yourself to hell for certain.”

“Don’t you know Brad, that’s where I belong.  I’m damned to hell already.  Dios, I’m livin’ in hell right now.  Don’t say you don’t know what I’m talkin’ about.  I’ve seen you lookin’ at me.  We all know I’m losin’ my fuckin’ mind.”

“Johnny, just shut the fuck up!  We’re gonna work this out.  We AIN’T gonna let anybody hang you.  I don’t know what ya did, but it can’t be that bad.  If ya murdered somebody, then I’m sure you had reason.  Now come on and take a drink.”  Wren put the whiskey to his lips.  Johnny drank like a thirsting man in the desert.

When they had Johnny settled again, Brad and Wren walked into the sleeping quarters.

“Thank God we ain’t got but one more night of this.”  Brad sighed to Wren.

“No shit.  I’m about ready to give him my gun.  That boy ain’t scared of nothin’ and it just makes me sick that whatever’s goin’ on his head is causin’ this.”

“I know I’ve never seen anything like this.  That boy’s had one hell of a life.”

“Well, I ain’t gonna sleep no more.  Why don’t you try Brad.”

“I reckon I’d better, but damn, it’s hard after that.”

 

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

 
The next morning, both Brad and Wren began the day with more old stories, trying to keep Johnny’s mind off their impending destination.  It seemed to work as Johnny managed to keep his breakfast down until lunch.

Wren had gone up to the dining car and found some dime novels about some of their friends and Johnny.  He bought several of them and brought them back.

Johnny managed to eat half of a sandwich for lunch, but he had a full glass of milk.  After their lunch, Brad and Wren took turns skimming through the books, picking out scenes and incidents described that one or another had been witness or party to the actual event, and laughed over the inaccuracies and the outrageous writing.

Johnny had managed some light dozing, listening to Wren and Brad talk and read, staying just enough on the side of awareness not to dream.  It was nearly Dusk and he was beginning to feel tense, and could see the apprehension on the faces of his friends.

He started in on the whiskey again.  He knew he wouldn’t stand a chance of sleeping otherwise.  There was too much on his mind.  This time tomorrow, he’d be in Green River, or worse, back at Lancer.  It was bound to be a bad night for sleep.   He turned the bottle up and drank a good long drink before putting it down.  He did this three more times before resuming his steady sipping.

He made it through most of the night before hell swallowed him one more time.

He was floating along on his back in the warm water, the sun was shining on him and he had a feeling of contentment.

Scott grabbed him by the throat, squeezed tight, and shoved him under.  He sucked in water and began choking, his arms and legs flailing, trying to grab hold of Scott, but every time, his arms grabbed air.

‘Look, look what you’ve done, Johnny, look what you’ve done!  You’ve ruined it all, ruined everything, and for what?  Damn it, I want you to look!”

Scott flipped him over and pushed him face down into the water.  His attempts to fight back were useless.  He could see Murdoch, covered in blood, with that hurt look on his face, “Why Johnny, why?”  Murdoch reached out and wrapped his bloodstained arms around him in a great big bloody hug.  Murdoch pulled him into the darkness and it was getting darker and he could no longer breathe…

“Johnny, Johnny, damn it Johnny!  Breathe!”  Wren had slapped him on the face and the stinging made him take in a huge gulp of air.  He coughed, recovering from his choking and began breathing in huge gulps of air.

“What in God’s name?”  He could hear Brad, but his eyes wouldn’t focus.

“He was dreamin’ and got up and fell out of the chair.  I don’t know how the hell this quilt got around his throat.

Wren worked the quilt from around Johnny’s neck and the chains he wore.  Brad knelt down and grabbed him from behind by the shoulders.  He could feel him trembling all over.

Brad maneuvered himself to sit beside Johnny with one arm around him for support.  He gave Johnny a big squeeze as he reached for the whiskey.  The affection did not go unnoticed by Johnny.  ‘If I only had a gun.’

“You okay now amigo?”

Johnny nodded.  He was still breathing heavy, but his heartbeat was slowing down.

Wren handed him a glass of water, he gave it a second look before taking it and draining the glass.  He handed the empty glass to Wren and took the bottle from Brad.

They had Johnny settled in his chair again and Wren went to the dinning car to get a pot of coffee.  No one was going to be able to go back to sleep and it was just a few hours until daylight anyway.

 

Chapter 12

Scott hadn’t slept well at all.  Today his brother would be back at Lancer.  ‘Under lock and key’ Val had told him, in the custody of two retired Texas Rangers.

His stomach was in knots, remembering the last time he had seen Johnny was the night that he left, when he had run out after the argument with Murdoch.  That night seemed years ago.  Coming face to face with him today, well, that was going to take all he had to control himself.

Running the ranch had been more daunting that he had ever imagined.  He and Johnny definitely underestimated what their father had done.  Although, ‘calling the tune’ had its advantages.  Like what was happening today.  It was all happening the way he wanted it too, because he had the power, and chose to wield it.

He could understand just a little more about what made his father and grandfather tick now.  Harlan enjoyed being powerful and using his power.  The difference between them though, was that Harlan ran over people in getting his way, and he took satisfaction from the body count.  His grandfather did not drink to excess.  He preferred the intoxication of power.

Murdoch, on the other hand, preferred not to have to step on anyone.  He had used his power for the good of all as well as the good of Lancer.  His only abuse of power seemed to have been when someone in his family was threatened.

Murdoch and Johnny always seemed to have been on the opposite sides of a deep and wide chasm, but he had seen Murdoch run roughshod over more than a few, in defense of his younger son.

As for himself, he was much more like Murdoch, despite Harlan’s mentoring in how to use his power and money.  He took comfort in that fact and it made him feel closer to Murdoch somehow.

He wanted to send Teresa away, but he would need her.  Val had sent word that Sam would be out to the house as well.  It worried him that Val wanted Sam out here.  Either Johnny was injured or he had injured one of his guards.  Either way, it did not bode well with him as a positive sign.

After breakfast, he met with Cipriano and went over the morning work orders.  They had strategized to have as few men about the ranch when Johnny’s entourage arrived.  The guardhouse was ready and there were two men stationed there.

Despite the fact that what Johnny had done had spread like wildfire around the San Joaquin, he still respected his brother’s right to privacy.  Comfortable with the manners and decorum ingrained in him from his grandfather, it was too late to change.

 

*******************************
 

Val sat under the oak tree waiting.  His hand drummed on the butt of his Colt.  They would be here soon.  He had been worried about Johnny for a long time now, and the telegraph confirmed for him that Johnny’s insides were eating their way outside.

He, Johnny, Brad, and Wren had been about as close as anyone could afford to be in the world of hired guns.  Most of the time, they fought on the same sides of the range wars, but sometimes not.

Wren had almost traveled the same path as Johnny.  He was talented with a gun.  Johnny was better, but he’d back Wren against a lot of guns.  Too bad Johnny had run off after that range war.  Maybe he would have been spared a lot of hell.

Laughing to himself, he tried to picture Johnny, not just as the youngest Texas Ranger in Ranger history, but he would have been the youngest lawman in the country.  ‘Hell he wasn’t much more than sixteen when all that had happened.’  Johnny would have made a good lawman.  Shame he missed the opportunity.

He was still reminiscing about the days they had ridden together, when he heard the sound of hooves coming down the road.  He looked up and saw the three horses.  He knew it was his three amigos.  The blond horse in the middle was a dead giveaway.

As they moved towards him, he thought he had prepared for the sight of his best friend.  He was not.  He had seen Johnny bad off before, but not like this.  He looked as bad as or worse than when he got addicted to laudanum.

As they came to a stop, Brad and Wren gave half-hearted smiles and nodded to Val.  What would have been an otherwise joyous reunion spoiled by Johnny’s condition.

“Val.”

“Wren, Brad.  .  .  .  Johnny?”

He almost fell off his big buckskin horse, when Johnny lifted his head and looked at him, his blue eyes dark and emotionless.  He was filthy and had a week’s worth of beard on him, his hair down to his shoulders.  He was so thin. He could see inches of looseness in the waistband of his once tight leather pants, his appearance made even more morose, by wearing all the chains.  Johnny looked as though he’d been on a two week drunk and slept in a gutter.  He smelled like it too.

“Hey, Val.”  Johnny’s eyes met his for the briefest of moments before he looked away.  ‘How the hell was he gonna get through this? Trussed up better than a Thanksgiving turkey, he had no chance of riding off with that chain under Barranca’s belly.  His wrists handcuffed and then chained to his waist.

“Johnny, Sam’s gonna meet us at Lancer and have a look at you.  I hear you’ve been sick.”  Val’s voice was soft and loving, the one reserved only for women and Johnny, when he was sick.

“I don’t wanna go ta Lancer.  Just lock me up or hang me or whatever you’re gonna do to me.  I can’t live like this anymore.”  Johnny’s voice faltered.  He had never felt more like crying, but he had no tears.

“Johnny, ya need a doctor and the sooner the better.  Ya look like pure shit.  Let’s go boys.”

They headed towards Lancer with no conversation.  There would be time for a reunion of sorts later.  The task ahead was too somber to think or talk about.

When they arrived at the overlook where Johnny and Scott had had their first view of Lancer, they stopped.  Despite the seriousness of the situation, both Brad and Wren let out whistles.  Johnny couldn’t look up.  He closed his eyes against the nausea that was overtaking him.   He felt like he was suffocating again.

If only he could get hold of one of those three Colts belonging to his keepers.  He would end this now.  He knew he had no chance for an escape.  Leave it to Val to pick the perfect people to bring back a prisoner.  Brad and Wren would give him no leeway.  He understood.  They knew him well.

“Let’s get a move on and get Johnny boy down to the house.”  Val suggested after his old friends had had time to absorb the size and beauty of the ranch.

 

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

 

Scott and Sam paced the great room, drinks in hand.

“What do you know about Johnny, Sam?”  Scott was desperate for a clue to his brother’s condition.

“Not a thing.  Val said they wired and said he was sick and needed a doctor as soon as they got here.  I tell you Scott, I have never been so worked up in my life as I am today.  I may have to give myself a sedative to sleep after this evening.”

“We all may need one, Sam.  I hope you brought enough.  This is more nerve wracking than the day Johnny and I met Murdoch and each other for the first time.”

“I hear horses.” Sam looked up.  They moved towards the front door.  Sam looked over and noticed that Scott’s hand was trembling as he sat his glass down.  He took a deep breath himself, in preparation of the task ahead.

They both jumped at the knock on the door, even though they heard the footsteps coming towards it and stop.  Scott looked at Sam and he nodded that he was ready.

Scott pulled open the massive wooden door and looked into the face of Val Crawford.  He couldn’t read the expression on Val’s face, and he couldn’t see his brother who was behind Val, sandwiched between two larger men.

“Val.”

“Scott.  This here’s Brad and Wren.  They, and Johnny and me, well, we go way back.  You can trust ‘em.

“Brad, Wren, thank you for bringing my brother here.  Please come on in.”

He stepped back and allowed the men to enter.  Val stepped inside and to the right, out of the way, so that Scott could see Johnny.

Scott’s mouth dropped open.  What the two men presented to him as his brother, resembled in no way, the angry man who had stormed away after breaking the great room window.  “Johnny?”

Johnny looked up at Scott, not making direct eye contact, and then dropped his head, much as he did when Murdoch had been angry with him.  “Scott.” He whispered.

Scott stood motionless until Sam stepped over and put two fingers under Johnny’s chin and tilted his head up to look at his face.  “Hello, Johnny.”

Johnny glanced at Sam, but looked away, his eyes catching sight of the still boarded up window in the great room from the doorway.  “Sam.”

Johnny wanted to be anywhere but here.  That suffocating feeling was taking over again.  He was too tired and too sick to deal with this.  He glanced towards the great room and could see the window he had broken, still boarded up.  ‘Dios.   Just put me out of my misery.’

Sam gave him a look over and said, “Let’s take him back here to the bedroom.”  Scott led the way, the slow scraping sound of the chains from Johnny’s leg irons dragging across the tile echoing gloom throughout the silent ranch house. 

Scott stopped at the closed door.  Johnny glanced at the door and remembered the room.  Maybe they were going to keep him in here.  That was good because he figured no one else knew that the iron bars on the windows, were loose at the bottom.

He had used that as an entrance into the house a time or two when he was late coming home and wanted to avoid Murdoch in the great room.  He could find something in the room to get himself out of the chains.  Then he would find himself a gun.

Scott opened the door.  “Just take him over to the chair by the bed.”

Wren and Val took charge of Johnny, stepping into the large bedroom.

Johnny felt eyes upon him and looked up.

‘Mierda! Murdoch!’

He stepped backwards ready to flee, knowing he had finally gone over the edge, but Val had a hard grip on his bicep, as did Wren on the other side.  Frozen in place, he was unable to take his eyes off his father, the breath sucked out of him.  ‘It can’t be, I killed him’.  His body forced him to take a shallow breath.  He took that moment to close his eyes and open them again.  ‘Dios, please, don’t let this be another nightmare.’

 

***************************
 

Murdoch looked up from his bed as the door opened.

‘Johnny!’

Johnny lifted his head up and looked into his eyes.  Not until this moment, did he know he had never realized the true depth of his love for his son.  His heart broke as Johnny whispered, “Murdoch?” in his quiet voice.

At his son’s downtrodden appearance, his mind flashed an image of a waif-like baby Johnny and it made him sick.  His heart yearned to see those fiery dark blue eyes sparkling with a smile from the handsome, confident man his son was.  Instead, those eyes were haunted.

What stood before him looked nothing like his son.  It resembled a starved dog, left behind by its family.  ‘Dear God, what happened to him?’

“Johnny.  Thank God, you’re home son.  Come closer, let me see you.”  His own voice sounded strained and he had to clear his throat.

Val and Wren moved to assist Johnny over to the chair, but he didn’t budge.  His feet still frozen to the floor, he stared at Murdoch, unable to tell if he was dreaming or not.  “I killed you.”

“No son, you didn’t kill me.  You hurt me bad, but I’m alive and I’ll be fine.  Please, come and sit down.  You look, uh, well, you don’t look so well.”  He patted the side of the bed.

Johnny swallowed hard, closed and opened his eyes once and then shuffled over towards his father.  His breathing was shallow.  His heart racing like a scared rabbit, his relief at seeing his father alive, overshadowed by his fear of letting go of the returning emotions flooding his soul.

“Gentlemen, please, remove these chains.”  Murdoch smiled at the escorts.

Val nodded at Wren, who produced a key and methodically removed all the chains from Johnny.  Johnny rubbed his right wrist with his left hand.  He headed for the chair, and stumbled.  Used to moving with the heavy irons on, the extra strength to move was no longer required, offsetting his balance.

Murdoch called to him, “Johnny please.  Sit here.”  He patted the bed again.  Johnny acquiesced, sitting on the side of the bed facing towards the door, with his profile to Murdoch’s face.  His head down, forearms resting on his upper thigh, hands together.

Leaning forward, Murdoch took Johnny by the shoulders and turned him to face him.  When Johnny refused to look at him, he grabbed his boy, and pulled him to him in a long tight embrace.   He whispered in his ear, “I’ve been so worried about you son.”  He kissed the top of his head despite the foul odor of sweat, whiskey and vomit, emanating from his son.

He could feel the tension in Johnny’s body, but he relished the comfort of the close contact, and he suspected Johnny did too, when he heard him whisper, “Lo siento, Murdoch.  Lo siento.”  He felt his son’s body tremble.

“No, Johnny, lo siento.”  A tear streamed down his face.  He held on for a few more moments, not wanting to let go, ever.

Free from Murdoch’s grip, Johnny sat back up with his elbows propped on his thighs, his head in his hands.  Murdoch put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and squeezed with a gentleness that belied his physical and emotional strength.

“Son, I want you to go and get a bath.  Your brother will help you.  Then I want you to let Sam look at you, but I want you to come back in here for just a few minutes.  We have a lot to talk about later, but for now, well, I just want to, well, I just have a couple of things I want, I mean, I need to say.”

Johnny nodded and stood up, but didn’t look at his father.  Scott appeared at his side and walked him down the hall to the back stairs.  Johnny felt his brother’s support by Scott’s reaching over and putting his arm around his shoulders as they walked. 

Sam, Val, Brad, and Wren had long since gone to the great room for drinks and discussion of Johnny’s condition and merits of the trip.

 

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

 
Upstairs, Scott went into the water closet and began to run a bath, while Johnny went into his room to find some clothes.  He wandered around the room.  It seemed a lifetime ago that he had spent his nights in here.  His fingers touched the picture of his mother in its silver frame, but he picked up the photograph of Murdoch, himself and Scott, taken not long after Pardee’s raid.  Murdoch had insisted on having the photo taken.  He didn’t deserve Murdoch and Scott then, and he damned sure didn’t deserve them now.

He opened his armoire and pushed the hanging clothes back.  Still in their racks were his customized weapons.  He pulled the small drawers open and found all of his ammunition and other personal items untouched and as he left them.

He walked over to the mirror at the washstand.  Peering into the glass, he didn’t recognize the man looking back at him.  The eyes looking at him had a dead quality to them.  Dead eyes similar to those of many of the gunfighters he had faced in his past.  Now he understood how some of them got that way.

He opened the drawer of his bureau and pulled out a pair of soft buckskin pants and a white shirt.  He looked over in the corner of the room and found his moccasins paired and placed, by someone other than himself.

Before he left the room, he stopped to pick up and finger the small hand carved wooden horse that sat on his bedside table.  He didn’t remember it, but his father had carved it for him as a child.  Those who remembered said he had been inseparable from it as a boy.

He smoothed the white blonde mane of the horse.  Funny, how things had a way of working out.  His father carving and designing a toy horse, using palomino horsehair for the mane and tail, and here today, he rode a palomino.  The first gift ever given to him by his father, well the first gift he remembered, and like the first one, the palomino was the best friend he had ever had.

He turned at Scott’s soft knock on the open door.  “Johnny, your bath’s ready.”

Johnny took a deep breath and released it.  He looked his brother in the eye.  “Thanks, Scott.”

“Anytime, little brother, anytime.”  Those words were soothing.  For Scott to call him ‘little brother’ made him feel that he might be forgiven one day for what he had done.

Scott stepped back to allow Johnny to exit his room and turned behind him.

“Johnny?”

“You want some help shaving?  I got a new razor.”

Johnny knew his brother wanted to spend time with him, and this might be the only chance he had before tomorrow.  He could see Scott’s eyes held a hopeful look.

“Sure, big brother.  Just let me soak awhile first.”

“Sure Johnny.”

Johnny stepped into the room and saw the huge tub, custom ordered for Murdock’s size, was almost full to the top with steaming water topped with pine scented bubbles and suds.  Floating in the middle of the tub was a tiny yellow rubber duck.

Stripping off his filthy clothes, he prepared to step into the pool-like tub, when he spied a piece of chocolate cake and a large glass of milk on the table beside it.  He was home.  If he could cry, he would have, but there were no tears for him.  He was too tired.

He stepped into the hot, wet, steaming bit of heaven.  He sat down and leaned back, the water coming to his chin.  This was almost better than fucking a woman, almost.

He closed his eyes and savored the healing warmth of the bath.  Inhaling, he drew the scent of the pine into his nose, and he prayed in silence,

‘God, if you really are up there, gracias.  Gracias for letting Murdoch live, and for giving me Scott.  I need them somethin’ bad.  Please don’t let me mess this up again.  I know there’s no hope for me goin’ ta heaven, but just let me enjoy this little bit here on earth, just a little while anyway, okay?’

 

********************************
 

Scott, waylaid with his guests, realized that Johnny had been in the bath long enough to have become a prune, so he raced up the stairs two at a time.  He glanced at the open door to Johnny’s room first, and then stopped by the bathroom door.  There was no sound.

He opened the door just a bit and peeked in.  Johnny was still in the tub, dead asleep.  He was up to his chin in the water, his long slow quiet breaths pushing the suds away from his face.  The little rubber duck he had put in the tub had floated against Johnny’s neck and remained there, as if it were trying to comfort him.  Johnny’s arms, draped over the sides, were the only reason he hadn’t slid down into the water.

He tiptoed in and stuck a finger in the water.  It was lukewarm.  Johnny had to be exhausted or he would never be able to sneak around him like this.  Although, it could be the alcohol consumption, from what Johnny’s escorts had said.

“Johnny, Johnny?”  He had to touch him on the shoulder and shake him a bit before he awoke.  When he did, it was slow and heavy.  Johnny looked a little disoriented, but managed a half smile.

“Sorry, guess I fell asleep.  Water’s almost cold.”

“Why don’t you let some out and run some more hot in while I get the shaving appointments.”

“Okay.” ‘Appointments.  Couldn’t Scott just say razor or things?’

The fresh hot water invigorated him.  He leaned back with closed eyes, sipping on the rest of his milk, enjoying his brother’s ministrations.

When Scott finished, Johnny stood in the tub, drying with a towel.  “Thanks, Scott.”

“It was nothing.”

“No I mean it, thank you.  I uh, don’t say it like I should.”

Scott’s smile almost lit up the room.  He grabbed Johnny, still standing naked in the tub, embracing him in a bear hug, much as Murdoch did.

“Damn it, Johnny, I was so worried about you.”

“Scott.”  Johnny drawled, “I ain’t got any clothes on.”

Scott let go of his little brother, his face crimson.  Turning to pick up the shaving appointments, he said, “well get dressed before you catch a cold.”

The clean soft buckskin pants felt like melted butter.  They had a rawhide drawstring waist, so he could pull them tight despite his weight loss.  He pulled the shirt on and stepped into his moccasins.  For the moment, he felt better.

He left the bathroom while Scott had gone down the hall to his own room to put up his things.  He descended the stairs and entered the great room where he could hear Val, Brad, and Wren laughing along with Sam.  ‘Probably tellin’ some story about me doin’ somethin’ stupid.’

The laughter stopped when he walked in.  They all stared at him.

“For a minute there, I thought you wuz an Indian squaw with that hair, boy!”  Val laughed.  Everyone laughed, and he even managed a smile.  “Although, it’s an improvement.” Val cut him no slack.

Sam stood up and picked up his medical bag.  “Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment.”

Sam approached him put his hand on his shoulder.  “Where do you want to do this? Upstairs in your room?”

“Nah.  Let’s just use one of the downstairs rooms.  Murdoch wants me to come back in there after.”

“Lead the way.”  Sam held out his arm.

Johnny walked down the hall and one by one checked the rooms until he got to an empty one.  Besides the one Murdoch was in, it appeared that four others contained the belongings of their guests.

He walked inside and began pulling his shirt off, and sat down on the bed, the shirt beside him.

Sam closed the door behind them and looked at the young man before him.  Johnny sat, leaning forward, his forearms resting on his thighs, and his fingers interlocked, his head down, and his face covered by the long mane he had once called hair.

He stepped across the room and pulled a chair in front of Johnny and placing his medical bag on the table next to the bed.

“So, Johnny, your friends tell me you aren’t sleeping, and when you do, you wake up screaming bloody murder and scaring the life out of them.  They also said you can’t eat without throwing up and you can’t sleep without whiskey.   Is there anything else I need to know, or does that about cover it.”

“That’s pretty much it.”

“You thought you’d killed Murdoch?”

Johnny looked down again and gave a slight nod.  ‘Dios, Sam gets right to the point.’

“You didn’t mean to shoot him did you?”

Johnny shifted his posture, uncomfortable at being on the spot.  He shook his head.

“Were you smoking peyote when he came up there?  Is that what happened?”

“Jesus Christ, Sam!”  Johnny leapt from the bed.  “I thought you were gonna doctor me, not question me like a lawman!”  He ran his hand through his hair.

“I am treating you Johnny.  Mental health is vital to one’s overall health and right now, I think the root of all your physical symptoms is your mental status.”

“So it’s not just me, you think I’m crazy too.”

“No one thinks you’re crazy Johnny, just mixed up.”

“Mixed up?  I fuckin’ shot my own father!  What the fuck kind of person does that Sam?  Murdoch’s a good man and I tried to kill him.  Scott even had a word, for it, uh, uh,”

“Patricide.”

“Yeah, patricide.”

“But you didn’t commit patricide.  He didn’t die.  You didn’t mean to shoot him did you?”

“Shit, Sam, I didn’t even realize what I had done until that night.  I thought it was a dream and then I— I— ”

Shaking, he sat down and put his face in his hands.  “I checked my gun and smelled the powder and saw where the one chamber was empty.”

He grabbed his stomach with both arms across it.   He leaned over and Sam lunged for the chamber pot.  He threw up his chocolate cake and milk from his bath time snack.

When he was finished, he took the water that Sam offered him and rinsed his mouth spitting into the chamber pot.  He drank a little of the water.

“Well, there ya go, that’s my day for ya.”  Johnny was sarcastic, but his eyes were dark with pain and despair.

“Johnny, I think you have a stomach ulcer and I think all the stress you’ve been under, combined with poor nutrition, and all the whiskey has made it that much worse.”

His matter of fact explanation seemed to soothe the boy as he could see Johnny’s eyes had a hopeful look about them, and he continued with a physical exam, while questioning Johnny about his symptoms.  He applied salve on the cut above Johnny’s eye from where he fell out of the chair, two nights before.

There was some slight swelling on the side of his face and the black eye.  Johnny’s pulse and heartbeat proved to be more rapid than normal and he was breathing fast shallow breaths.

He made Johnny lie down on his back and he palpated his stomach finding some tender areas.  He made him flip over on his stomach to be sure there were no other new wounds on his back.

When he finished the thorough exam, he patted Johnny on the knee.  “Johnny, I want you to listen to me.”

Johnny looked him in the eye for a moment, but then looked down.  Pulling a pillow from the bed and putting it in his lap, he held it tight against himself.

“I’ve had a long, long talk with Murdoch about you.  I want you to do the same, not tonight, and maybe not even tomorrow.  This last month has been like the end of the world for us here, and I know it has been for you too.  I can imagine how this has affected you on the inside, but I can see what it has done to you physically.  For now, I’m going to treat you for the physical.  I think the mental healing will come with time, after having a good long talk with your father.  .  .   . 

With that said, I have some powders for you to take that will help your stomach.  Just mix them in a glass of milk and you’ll never taste them.  Take some at every meal, and I mean each of three, you hear me Johnny?  Three meals per day.  I want you eating, breakfast, lunch, and dinner at one of those two tables downstairs cooked by one of the ladies, or an otherwise qualified cook.  No jerky, no spicy foods, and no alcohol for at least a month.  I would tell you no coffee, but I don’t think it would benefit the family for you to wake up without it.  You’re going to have enough problems staying away from the whiskey for awhile.

These here, are sleeping powders.  I know you don’t like them, but you need to sleep.  Sleep deprivation, lack of sleep, can cause any number of illnesses, not to mention, it weakens your resistance.  Val, and the other two men are here to watch your back for you and to protect you.  You have your brother and your father.  I will be here tonight too, in case you need me.  If you want, I’m sure Scott would put armed guards outside your door.  But you have to start sleeping the night through.

I know Murdoch wants to talk with you, but then, I want you to go upstairs, take one of these powders and go to bed and not worry about getting up.  Sleep until you can’t.” 

Johnny nodded and whispered, “Okay, thanks Sam.”  The thought of sleeping in his bed was as appealing as it was frightening.

Sam began putting his instruments back into his bag.

“Johnny, I want you to know, you’re more than a patient to me.  I have worried myself sick every day since you have been gone.  From now on, I want you to promise me, if you have problems with your father, you will come and talk to me.  I am your physician; I will maintain your confidence.  Okay?”  He stood and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder.

Johnny looked up at him from his seat on the bed.  “Okay.”

“Now, go see your father, while I go find you a glass of milk and get you started on these stomach powders.”

Sam turned and left the room.  Johnny remained seated on the bed, shirtless enjoying the solitude.  He eventually pulled on his shirt and entered the hallway, feeling awkward about going into his father’s room.

Sam met him at the door with the milk.  He handed it to him and then smiled at Johnny, giving him another squeeze on the shoulder.  Sam nodded for him to go ahead.

Johnny knocked on the door as Sam turned away.  He heard his father call out, “Come in.” He took a deep breath and let it out before he opened the door.

No gunfight had ever made him this tense.  He knew the worst was over in a sense.  They had each apologized, but the talking, well, it was hard for him to express his feelings.  Especially when he didn’t know how he felt about so many things.  Being part of a family was so new and scary to him.  Having lost the ability to trust so long ago, he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to trust anyone ever again, not even himself, after this.  And Scott and Murdoch, well, he’d blown their trust in him to hell.

The late afternoon sun poured through the windows brightening the room in a celestial fashion.  Murdoch was still in the bed, looking at a book, when Johnny came in sipping on his milk.

“There’s the son I remember.”  He smiled.  Johnny headed for the chair and Murdoch cut him off, “Sit here on the bed Johnny.”

The big man moved over to make room for Johnny.  Still uncomfortable with being so close to his father, Johnny sat on the foot of the bed.  He pulled his legs up and sat Indian style, facing his father and drinking the milk.  He sure hoped he could keep this down.

“Johnny, I think this is as hard for you as it is me.  But I am the father, so I am going to try my best to tell you how I feel.  I have to warn you, I’m not really very good at this, never was.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons your mother left me.  I don’t know.

Anyhow, the most important thing I need to say to you is, is, that I love you, John.  I’ve always loved you, Johnny.  Since before you were even born, and even more so, once I laid eyes on you.  I don’t know why your mother left with you and I guess neither of us will ever know.”

Johnny tried not to squirm like a schoolboy, uncomfortable with the idea that his father would expect him to say it in return, but on the inside, where he was dark and cold, the sun had peaked out from a cloud and his soul was feeling a little warmth from it.

He knew Murdoch was being truthful.  It was too damn hard for anyone except a woman to say those words, and Murdoch, well, he knew his old man wasn’t one for bullshit.

He drank some more of the milk.  If Sam had put some kind of medicine in it, he couldn’t tell.

“I understand that you had been sleeping away from the ranch for quite some time and that it was our relationship, or my treatment of you that was driving you away.  I want you to know that I am going to do my best not to let that happen again.  This is your home and always will be.  I want you to feel comfortable and safe here.”

Johnny finished his milk and got up to place the empty glass on the table.  He was feeling more relaxed, and sat down at the head of the bed, leaning back a little, propping himself up with the two unused pillows there.  His knees bent, feet flat on the bed.  The sun shone through the window onto him, warming him on the outside as much as his father’s words were on the inside.

“As for the night that you left, Scott pointed out to me that he didn’t think you meant to break the window, that it was just a reaction.  I feel the same way now.  Regardless, there was no excuse for me to have grabbed you and shoved you against the wall.  Johnny, I swear to God I will never attempt to harm you again.  I still can’t believe that I did that.  It was a reaction, much like yours with the paperweight, I believe.  I still can’t believe I did that and I am ashamed and I am so sorry, son.”

Letting his legs extend, Johnny couldn’t believe his father was apologizing.  Murdoch Lancer saying he was sorry?  He half expected the sun to cloud over and to hear thunder.  He yawned.

“As for the peyote, I think we should talk about that later, but suffice to say, I realize now that I shouldn’t have left the ranch without anyone knowing where I was headed.  If I had told Scott, he could have warned me and I know while he wouldn’t have interfered in our trying to resolve things, that this incident could probably have been avoided.”

“As for shooting me Johnny.  I don’t know what to say or do, I think we can talk about that later, but …”

“You mean you’re not gonna have ‘em charge me?”  Johnny asked, slipping down in the bed a little more.  ‘Damn, this bed’s almost as soft as mine.’

“No son, what good would that do?  It would only take you away from me, and well, there were extenuating circumstances.  Anyway, John, I just want you to know that as far as what I said that night, about caring what the townspeople think or say, well, damn them.  You are my son, bad or good, right or wrong, and I love you.”

Johnny, warmed through and through now, from both the sun and his father’s words, turned on his side, facing his father, curled up against him and whispered, “Te amo, Papi. Te amo,” as the sleeping powder, that Sam had placed in addition to the stomach powder, to his drink took effect.

Murdoch looked down at his sleeping boy, the childlike softness to his face returning in sleep.  He placed the extra quilt that lay on top of the bedcovers over his son and said, “Thank you, God.  Thank you for bringing my boy home safe. I swear I will cherish every moment with him.”

 

 

~end~
March 2010

***Author note: I did do some limited research, there was rubber and rubber ducks during that timeframe.  You know Scott would have ordered one just to have the newest latest thing.

To Sequel : Coyote Trap

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