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d.b.brisbin

 

Coyote Trap

A sequel to Coyote Wishes and Peyote Dreams
Profanity warning and some mild sexual content.

Chapter 1

Murdoch stared at his ‘lost boy.’   The guilt was overwhelming.  It was as if Johnny was the one punished for the sins committed by him and Maria.  It went completely against his upbringing and religious beliefs to bed a woman out of wedlock, but he had not had the willpower to resist her intoxicating beauty back then.

He had married her, not because she was pregnant, but because he loved her.  All the same, it had been wrong according to his sense of morality.  In hindsight, he reflected that had they not gone so far so fast, that the relationship might have disintegrated before they even married, as he suspected that Maria had gotten bored with him and life at Lancer.

Brushing Johnny’s long bangs out of his face, he knew that he would trade nothing in the world for his son.  He loved him with every drop of blood in his body and every breath in his soul.

‘Again, thank you, God for bringing him back to me.’

Where were they to go from here?  Johnny had been sleeping so long.  Sam had come in and had dinner with him in the room, while Johnny remained almost comatose with sleep.  Sam had informed him that while the hell of thinking that he had killed his father was over, and that Johnny would probably stop having the dreams, now, his boy would most likely suffer the demons of alcohol withdrawal.

Johnny’s soul had been so tortured over what he thought he had done, he couldn’t function without a steady flow of alcohol to control the demons from his nocturnal dreams which eventually invaded his diurnal moments.

He had overheard the whisperings that Johnny was on the verge of becoming suicidal when he had arrived back at Lancer.  That suggestion took his breath away, and left him numb, every time he thought about it.

‘Just one more damnable thing to cause him pain.  Why God, why?’

He took advantage of Johnny’s near unconscious state and traced his face with his finger, down from the forehead to his nose, and onto his cheek.  He could feel the softness of his son’s face.  He then stroked Johnny’s cheek with the back of his hand.  God, how he wanted to hold his boy, to hold him as he did when he was an infant, before he returned a grown man.

In essence, that was the root of the problem.  In his mind, Johnny was still a boy, and in actual age, he was, but his soul was old.  Johnny had been alone and making a man’s decisions for more than a few years.  He treated him as a child, and Johnny rebelled against it, resenting it for many reasons, justified reasons.

Now it was going to be even harder, because Johnny would be ill and suffering according to Sam.   He would do anything to prevent it, but he couldn’t.  In any case, Johnny was going to be very angry at being in this state, and even angrier to have anyone witness it.

He would have to risk his son’s anger, because he would handle this job.  He knew that Scott had been more of a father to Johnny than he had been, and it was high time he took over the role that was his and his alone.  Scott and Johnny had a strong bond, but he and Johnny needed to bond with each other as father and son, and as friends, and this was the opportunity, as hard as it was going to be.

He ruffled Johnny’s hair one last time and checked to see that the quilt covered him before he leaned over and turned down the lamp.  He pulled the bedcovers over himself, letting the comforting sounds of his younger son’s light breathing lull him to sleep.

 

 

Johnny awoke with a head that felt stuffed with cotton.  He had a headache and his stomach burned.  He opened his eyes slowly as even his eyelids felt like cast iron.  The room seemed familiar.  He felt safe, but he couldn’t identify it right away.

Lying face down, on the edge of the bed, one arm hung over the side, he turned his head to look up, startled at the sound of the deep voice next to him, “Good evening, son.”

He almost fell off the bed his surprise so great, and the need to move away, equal to it.  A strong hand gripped his arm and kept him aboard.  He sat up which started his head spinning, nausea rolling over him.  He blinked, recognized his father, and then closed his eyes to stop the dizzying feeling that had enveloped him.

“It’s okay son.  I’m sorry I scared you.  Do you feel bad?” Murdoch’s tone was soft and caring.

His eyes still closed tight, as he fought off a wave a nausea, he shook his head in an almost imperceptible acknowledgement.

“I’ll call for Sam.  Just stay here.  There’s a pot under the bed if you need it.”

So miserable, he dared not move, and wasn’t about to complain.

His father returned with a cold wet cloth and wiped his face and then rolled it and put it under his throat.  It felt good there.

“How about I help you sit back against the headboard?”  Murdoch asked.

He thought he was dreaming again.  Was that really Murdoch being so nice to him?

His father stood by the bedside, and with his hands under Johnny’s armpits, helped him slide back against the headboard without too much motion, even tucking pillows behind his back and head.

“Better now?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny opened his eyes, dark blue with pain, and managed to whisper a shy, “Thanks,” as he continued to hold the cold cloth against his throat.  He slowly pulled his knees to his chest and sat, comforted by his father’s touch as he brushed his long black bangs back with his hand.

 

 

Sam entered the room with quiet efficiency.  One look at his young patient and he knew they were going to be in for a rough ride.  He could only pray that his long talks with Murdoch would pay off this time.

As he approached the bed, Murdoch stepped to the side, removing his hand from Johnny’s head.  Sam placed his own hand on Johnny’s forehead, and then, with his thumb, pulled the lids up to look at his eyes.

Stethoscope around his neck, he unbuttoned Johnny’s shirt and checked his heart rate, moving on to take his pulse.  Satisfied, he too, could not resist the temptation to push the boy’s bangs back with a slow delicate touch.

“Feeling pretty bad, I imagine.” Sam commented to him.

Johnny looked up, misery filling his blue eyes, and whispered, “Yeah.”

Sam sat down on the edge of the bed, at Johnny’s feet and put his hand on Johnny’s raised knee.

“Well son, Murdoch and I have had a long talk about what to expect for the next couple of weeks and now it’s time to tell you.”

“Is it like with laudanum?” Sam saw the angst in Johnny’s eyes and it hit him in the gut that Johnny had traveled this road once before.  Did Murdoch know this?  He doubted it, and hoped the stalwart rancher didn’t figure it out.

“Yes, I’m afraid so, Johnny.  Your body is dependent upon the alcohol level you’ve maintained for the last few weeks.  You can expect to be nauseous, shaky and nervous.  You’ll probably throw up some more, and you’ll probably sweat.  Fatigue, headaches, cramps, achiness, and emotional volatility are some other symptoms to expect.  You may have some bad dreams again, suffer from depression, and you probably won’t be thinking clearly some of the time.”

Johnny made another imperceptible nod.

“’kay doc.”

“How do you feel now?”

“All of what you said.”

“Well, I know it probably won’t appeal to you, but you’re going to have to eat something.  You’re clearly suffering from malnutrition.  I know you can’t eat much, but I want you to eat what you can.  Teresa will be bringing a tray soon.”

Johnny looked at Murdoch, “Don’t want Teresa ta see me like this.  Can’t take her mother hen act right now.”

Murdoch nodded his understanding.  “I’ll have her leave the tray outside the door. Do you want to move upstairs to your room?”

“If ya don’t mind, I’d like to just sit here for a bit.  The room’s not spinnin’ so fast anymore.”

“Sure thing.”  Murdoch’s heart was torn.  He was happy to be able to keep his son in close proximity to him, but it hurt to watch him suffer so.

They heard Teresa’s petite steps on the tile outside and Murdoch stepped to the door to intercede her.

“But Murdoch?”  Teresa’s voice revealed her hurt feelings.  “If Johnny’s sick, he needs me.  I’ll take good care of him.”

“No darling.”  Murdoch pushed some stray hair behind her ear.  “What’s happening with Johnny right now is not something fit for a young lady to witness, nor to be a part of.”

“I don’t understand, if he’s sick . . .”

“Teresa, that’s my final word on the subject.  Johnny needs a man’s help right now.  He needs his father.”

“But,”

“Teresa, my final word.  If it’s any comfort to you, Scott will not be attending his brother either.  If you would like to help, just be around with fresh sheets, pots, coffee, and whatever else we may need in there, Okay?”

“Okay.  It’s just that, well, tell him I love him and I’m praying for him.”

“Will do darling.”  Murdoch leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

“Well, I’ll get back to the kitchen with Maria.  We have two more hungry cowboys to fatten up!”

“That’s the spirit.”

Teresa left and Murdoch entered the room with the large tray, which he sat on the bureau and Sam helped him put the three plates on the table.

Murdoch poured coffee for all and a glass of milk for Johnny.

Sam mixed a stomach powder and another sleeping powder into the milk.

Murdoch had stepped over to help Johnny to the table, but Sam jumped in.  “Murdoch, careful, I don’t want you pulling or lifting.”

Johnny leaned against the bed.  “I’m not hungry.”

“Johnny, you have to eat.  I want you to come and sit at the table.  I’ll go and get help if I need to.”  Johnny knew not to buck Sam.

Johnny frowned, but stood up slowly.   Sam took his elbow and guided him over to the table where Murdoch awaited.

When Johnny had settled, the two older men sat down.  Johnny stared at the food.  Initially, he felt nauseous at the very smell of it.

“Stew for breakfast?  What time is it?”

“Johnny, you slept twenty-four hours.  It’s supper time.”  Sam explained.

“Shit!  I guess you put something in my milk.”

“Yes, I put a stomach powder and a sleeping powder in it.   You needed the rest.”

Johnny nodded and took up his cup of coffee.  It smelled both good and strong.  Its freshness was tempting.  He wasn’t happy as he noticed the hand tremors.  ‘Well, here we go.’

It took two cups of coffee before he felt good enough to try eating.  The stew was tasty and comforting with its beef, potatoes, carrots, onion, and celery.  It wasn’t overly seasoned, but he knew for now, his stomach probably would rebel had it been.

By the time Teresa had knocked on the door, leaving the dessert tray outside, Johnny was yawning.  He gave a half smile at the slice of chocolate cake Murdoch placed in front of him.  Halfway through it, he was nodding at the table.

Sam and Murdoch both helped him over to the bed where he no more than laid down before he was asleep.  As they made their way back to the table to finish their coffee and cake, Sam spoke.

“I’ve made arrangements with Val, Brad, and Wren to take turns here with you and Johnny.”

“Sam,”

“Murdoch, I don’t want to hear it.  We already agreed that you cannot risk helping him physically when it gets bad.  You’ve been through too much pain and you’re healing well now.  These men know Johnny and he trusts them.  He knows he’s safe with them.  They’ll sit outside the door if you want until they’re needed.  That way, you and Johnny can talk, and they can restrain him if need be, or whatever needs to happen.  I’ve given him another strong sleeping powder to keep him down until tomorrow.  He needs the rest so that he can fight this.”

Murdoch nodded.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?  Have you ever seen what this is like?  It’s not going to be pretty Murdoch.  It is gonna be hell on him and everyone around him.  He will be more volatile than you’ve ever seen him.   I have left a note at my office and spread the word that I will be spending the nights out here and working rounds from here.”

“I seem to recall a relative when I was young, but I don’t remember much except that it was pretty horrible.”

“Well, you’d better pray every night for that boy.  He’ll need it.”

Sam finished his coffee.

“With that, I will leave you for the evening.” 

 

Chapter 2

 

Johnny awoke to bright sunlight that hurt his eyes too much to keep them open.  His head hurt, in fact, everything hurt, and he was cold.  As he pulled the bedcovers up and rolled over, an unintended moan escaped.

He heard someone stir.  ‘Shit, here comes the ol’man I’ll bet.’  He had forgotten where he was.

He could feel Murdoch standing over him and imagined him with that sad look on his face.  God he felt like shit.

“John? Son?”

“I’m okay ol’ man.  Just don’t feel good.  Ain’t the first time, won’t be the last.”

“What can I do for you?”

“Nothing, just leave me alone  .  .  . Well, could you close the drapes, the sun’s hurtin’ my eyes.”

He could hear Murdoch limping over and heard the sound of the drapery hangers sliding across the rod.  The sound grated into every nerve sensory in his body.  He shuddered involuntarily.  ‘Shit.’

This was really gonna be hard.  He didn’t want Murdoch to know about his prior battle with laudanum, but before this was over, he was sure to find out.  Sam knew, but he would never tell.

He had learned that about the doctor and that was why he had confided some things to him that he never wanted his father to know; bad things that Murdoch would never understand.  Sam understood.  He had seen a lot of misery in his line of work.  He had seen people from every walk of life, including Johnny’s.

He grimaced and pulled his knees up as his stomach cramped.  ‘Mierda’ he was starting to sweat.  He could tell, it was about to get bad.  What the fuck had he done to himself?  It was bad enough to have to go through this, but to have Murdoch witness it.  What the fuck was he thinking?  He had to get out of here.  He just couldn’t stay here and have them all watch.  Murdoch wouldn’t understand, there was just no way.

“I’ll be back in a bit, John.  If you need anything, Wren’s just outside the door.”

“’kay.”

Murdoch touched his shoulder before he left.

He rolled over after the door closed, intending to get up and get dressed, but a wave of pain shot through his body causing him to curl up on his knees in the middle of the bed, head down into the mattress.  As is dissipated, it sent a shudder through his body rocking the bed.

Resigned to the knowledge that he couldn’t leave like this, he wouldn’t even make out the bedroom door, or the window for that matter, he curled up under the bedcovers again.  ‘If Murdoch still wants me here after seein’ this, it’ll be a miracle.’

Johnny opened his eyes at the sound of the door.  The coffee smelled good, as he was shivering again.  He eased himself into a sitting position.  He pulled an extra quilt from the foot of the bed around his shoulders.

Murdoch had returned carrying a tray of sandwiches and a pot of coffee.

“Sam’s out on rounds this morning.”

Murdoch took one look at Johnny with his hair all over the place, the quilt pulled around him, shivering, and poured a cup of coffee, handing it to him without a word.

Johnny’s hand was trembling so hard that he had to use both hands to hold it steady and then it was still hard to get his lips to make contact with it.

“Thanks.”

“I brought back some sandwiches.”

“If it’s okay with you, I’d rather just have some coffee right now.”  The thought of food made his stomach want to flip.

Murdoch nodded and poured himself a cup.

“What can I do to help you, son?”   A brief stab of warmth shot thorough his body at the way Murdoch called him son.  ‘Enjoy it for now.  He won’t lay claim to ya when he see’s what’s comin’.’

“Nothing.  Nothing can help me.”  Johnny looked down at the bed.  ‘Well, except a bullet to end all of this.’

Murdoch frowned and made his way over to the small desk where he had been dealing with some paperwork.

Johnny finished his coffee and with his shaking hand rattled the cup onto the table beside the bed.  He slid down in the bed, pulling the covers over his head, and curled into a ball.  There was nothing to do but wait it out.

He had spent the last six hours waxing and waning between sweating and freezing.  He was feeling worse by the minute.  The stomach cramps were almost constant.  He didn’t know how much longer he could stand it before he started out and out screaming, but he was trying hard not to.  He and Murdoch had already been growling and biting at each other.

‘Why the fuck had he let Murdoch talk him into staying in this room with him?’ Even worse, they were sharing Murdoch’s giant bed, brought downstairs for him after the shooting.  The bed could sleep four comfortably, but still.  This was never gonna work.  He knew what was ahead and he knew Murdoch hadn’t a clue, no matter what Sam had explained to him.  He had a sinking feeling that once this was over, Murdoch would tell him to leave.

‘God damn he hurt!’

Murdoch had stepped out for another pot of coffee and some more milk.

He could feel his stomach turning and churning and without warning, heat flashed through his body signaling that he had better find that basin, and now!

He rolled out of the bed and was on his hands and knees retching for all he was worth when Murdoch came back.  He quickly set the tray down and sat down in a chair next to Johnny rubbing his back.

“Son, I’d be down there with you, but I can’t bend over just yet.”

He could care less and could only give a vague nod as he continued to vomit into the basin.  ‘Damn, I didn’t eat all that much!’

The chills overcame him along with a sudden onslaught of all over body pain.  He curled up on the floor.  Chills racked his body from one end to the other.

“Johnny, Johnny, son?”

“Leave me alone.”

“Johnny, we need to get you back on the bed.”

“I said leave me the fuck ALONE!”  He ground out against the pain.

Murdoch reached down and tried to take his arm.  Johnny snatched away from him.

“FUCKING LEAVE ME ALONE!”

“No Johnny, come on, get up, let’s get you back in bed.”

Nausea overcame him again and he found himself leaning over the basin again.  He retched until there was nothing left, but he no longer had control of his body and retch it wanted to do.  It was as if his insides were trying to join the bile in the basin.

Finally, his body tired of the dry heaving.  He pushed the basin away, and still on his knees, pressed his forehead against the cool tile of the floor.  Sweat soaked through his nightshirt and it stuck to him in places.

“Okay, let’s get up, Johnny.”

“No.”

“John.”

“NO.”

“You need to get back in the bed.”

“JESUS CHRIST can’t you just leave me alone!  I’m fuckin’ dyin’ here.  Just let me.”

“JOHNNY, get up NOW!”

“FUCK YOU!”  Pain was taking over and his mercurial temperament had found that the distance between hot and cold was only a few degrees.

“God damn it, John, just get in the bed!”

The bedroom door opened and Wren stepped inside.  “Mr. Lancer, sounds like I need to make myself useful.”

Wren took one look at the situation, the elder Lancer had already violated doctors orders, and was on one knee trying to reach Johnny, who had curled up in the corner made by the bed and the beside table.  He was facing the bed, practically under it.

First, he took Murdoch’s arm and helped him up, and then indicated for him to move back.  He did and pulled the chair back with him.  Murdoch watched as Wren reached down and stabbed Johnny in the ribs with his index fingers.  As Johnny’s arms moved away from his body in the involuntary response, he grabbed him under the armpits and hauled him, struggling, out from almost under the bed.

“GOD DAMN YOU WREN!”

“Here ya go Johnny boy!”  Wren ignored the mouth and dumped him face first onto the bed.  Johnny rolled and pulled his legs onto the bed, a low moan escaping.  Wren deftly pulled the covers over him.  He turned with a quiet look towards Murdoch, “Can I getcha anything?”

“No.  Thank you, Wren.”

“That’s what I’m here for.  Johnny’s like my kid brother. I’d do anything for him.”

“I appreciate that, and I know Johnny does.”

“Okay, I’ll just be out here.  You call me when he gets physical.  Don’t be embarrassed, you need to heal so you can help him.”

Wren left and closed the door with a soft pull.

Murdoch turned towards the bed and Johnny.  Johnny had curled up shivering and had begun to rock.  He cursed himself for losing his temper earlier.

‘Johnny, I promised God I would cherish every moment with you, bad and good, and so help me I am.’

He stepped around the bed, pulled back the covers on the other side, and crawled in.  He propped himself against the headboard with a pillow to his back.  Once he was settled, he pulled Johnny, who didn’t resist, towards him until he had his head and shoulders cradled in his lap.

He was terrified at the way his son’s body shook.  He hugged Johnny to him, tears welling in his eyes.  As Johnny buried his face in his chest, he hugged him as tight as he dared without reinjuring his slowly healing rib.  He began to rock his son gently, and stroking his hair, much as he had done so many long lonely years ago.

Chapter 3

Johnny was on the floor again vomiting his insides out it sounded like to Murdoch.  He tried to get up, but his back was stiff and had no circulation from holding his son most of the night.  His ribcage was a little sore, but he would not complain, nor would he tell Sam.

Johnny had managed to fall asleep and had slept soundly for several hours before Murdoch had awakened to his diving for the chamber basin by the bed.

“Johnny, I’ll be there in a minute, it’s my back.”

“Don’t  .  .  .   . . .bother.” he managed between heaves.

Before Murdoch could get up, Johnny was sitting up with his back against the side of the bed, sweating and panting.  He tipped his head back.  Murdoch could feel the heat of his misery.

“Johnny.”

“Not now, Murdoch, please, just let sit here a minute.”  Murdoch started to get up anyway, but stopped himself.  ‘Just stop Murdoch.  He’s grown.  You’re lucky he was so sick he let you touch him before.  Just give him some space.’

And so, he sat, listening to his son’s panting slow, turning into regular breathing, and just before it became the soft sounds of sleep, Murdoch himself had dozed off.  

 

Murdoch awoke to the sound of moaning.  He sat up, grabbed a match and lit the lamp.  He looked around the room, but didn’t see Johnny.  He heard the moan again.  It was coming from the corner of the room.  He got up and walked around to the other side of the bed.

He could see Johnny on the floor, tangled in a quilt from the bed, and under the table.  ‘How the hell did he get there?’

“Johnny?”

“Johnny?”

Another soft moan.

‘Damn!’ he would have to get whoever was outside to get Johnny up.

He opened the door and Val stood up right away.

“Need some help, Murdoch?”

“Yes, Val.  Johnny’s on the floor.”

Val entered the room as Murdoch stepped back.  He saw Johnny under the table and got down on his knees.

“Johnny.”

“Johnny.”

He touched him on the shoulder and gently shook him.

“Johnny boy.  It’s me, Val.  Come on.”

“Val?”  Johnny’s voice was soft and pain filled.

“Come on buddy.”

“Hurt.”

“I know, I’m gonna help ya, just don’t fight me now.”

“’Murdoch?  Where’s Murdoch?  He okay?”

“He’s okay, he’s here.”

“Good.  Take care of him.”

Murdoch watched as the crusty sheriff reached under the table and pulled Johnny out with a gentleness he had never seen from the man, and for a fleeting moment, Val held his friend against his chest, pushed his hair back and looked at his face.

When Johnny didn’t open his eyes, he pulled the lids up and looked at each one.  Then, he got to his feet and reaching under Johnny’s armpits, he pulled him up, almost standing and then picked him up and carried him back to the bed.

Murdoch was there with the bed covers pulled back.  Val laid Johnny on the bed and he immediately curled up, hugging himself.  The sheriff tucked him in and pulled the quilt from the floor, shook it out and placed it over him.

“I think we should get Sam up.”

Val turned to Murdoch, “Nah, this is normal.  He’s okay.  Shouldn’t be too much longer.  ‘nother day or so and the worst’ll be over.”  Murdoch saw pain in the man’s eyes.  He knew Val loved Johnny as much as the rest of them.

“Thanks, Val.”

“No problem at all.”

“Night, Val.”

“Night.”

Murdoch saw Val out and returned to the bed.  After he turned the lamp out, he got back in, pulled the covers up, turned on his side, and looked at his son’s back.

“Hurting, Johnny?”

“Uh huh.” The words slurred with pain.

“Where?”

“All.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“No, just hafta wait it out.” He whispered.

“You’ve been through this before?”

“Kinda.”

Murdoch eased his way across the bed to be next to his son.  He reached an arm around him and squeezed his shoulder.

His boy was tough, that was for sure.  He wasn’t so sure he could handle what his son was going through.  Johnny lay there like a dying animal, his arms wrapped around himself, not making a sound.

He began to rub his son’s back, thinking of nothing else he could do.  After a few minutes, Johnny’s body felt a little more relaxed, but he was getting fidgety.

“Better, son?”

“Can’t sleep.  Hurt too much.”

Murdoch bit his lip and made a decision.  He snuggled closer to Johnny and pulled him against his chest.  He draped his arm over Johnny and gently massaged his head.

“Would you like me to tell you about how I met your mother?”

He felt the back of Johnny’s head rub against his chest in a nod.   Settling himself, he began.

“Well, you know that I was working as a deputy when I went down to Matamoros.  I was there off and on for about a month.  I met her the first week.  She was working in a very fancy cantina.  I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life.

I hadn’t really had any interest in women after Catherine, Scott’s mother, died.  It hurt so bad to think of her, and then losing him, but with your mother, well, I was, I was just, smitten.”  Murdoch closed his eyes, remembering Maria as she was then.

“The first night, I just watched her in the cantina.  The second night, I couldn’t wait to get there.  I thought about her all day.  That night, I stayed until closing to meet her.  We had coffee, and I walked her home.

I’ll never forget that night.  It was clear and the sky was full of stars.  It was a little cool, so I wrapped my jacket around her.  The next day, I couldn’t get her out of my mind.  Her scent was on my jacket.

After that, well, we became involved.  I had to come back here a time or two, and then about three months later .  .  .  .  .  . well, we got married, and I brought her here.

Son, I was so happy when she was pregnant with you.  I couldn’t wait for you to be born, to hold you in my arms.  I had so many dreams for you.  I wanted to bring your brother back here to grow up with you.

I wanted to teach you to ride, to shoot, and to hunt.  I wanted to send you to school.  I wanted so much for you.  I wanted everything for you.  I still do.

Johnny, I know I haven’t said it, but I do love you.  I love you with all my heart.  I know I’ve made mistakes with you and I will try to do better.  I realize we’re still going to have disagreements, but please, know that I love you and I don’t mean to hurt you.”

He could feel Johnny’s body getting tense, so he went back to his story, relieved that he had at least been able to get those three important words said.

“Johnny, your mother and I, we shared a lot of good times.  We were happy for a while.  I don’t know what happened.

We used to sit in the garden at nights with a drink and talk.  You were with us too.  You weren’t born yet, but you were there.  Those nights were so special.  We would sit and dream about what the ranch would be like one day, tried to picture what you would look like, and we even talked about a little brother for you if all went well.

A lot of the flowers, in fact, most all of the more mature plants and vines in the garden now were planted by your mother.  She loved being in the garden and loved the flowers.  She was beautiful and liked beautiful things.

We went on picnics and did many things together.  Times were a lot harder then, as far as running the ranch, but you, your mother and I spent time in several places that were special to us.  I’ll show them to you when you’re feeling better.

You, your mother, and I, all used to sleep in this very bed together, before and after you were born.”

 

Murdoch talked on for hours, remembering details he thought he’d forgotten, and dredging up feelings he thought he’d buried.

Johnny lay curled on his side, his body screaming in agonizing pain, but he wasn’t making a sound.  His concentration was on his father’s words, words that helped him deal with the pain in his muscles and the pain in his heart.                                                        

Chapter 4

The sun was up and well into the morning when Johnny awoke.  Still curled on his side, his father’s arm draped over him now.  Murdoch’s snores were loud and about as rhythmic as a stampede.

He felt washed out and sluggish, but he didn’t hurt anymore.  Careful not to wake his father, he eased out from under his long, heavy arm and sat up on the side of the bed.  Mother Nature was calling and he spent a few minutes debating as to whether or not he wanted to try to visit the water closet or use the chamber pot.

His mind made up, he stood, holding on to the bedpost to steady himself.  He felt weak and light headed, but thought he was strong enough to walk.  He made his way over to the door and rested against it for a moment, as a twinge of nausea passed quickly over him.

He turned the doorknob quietly, and pulled the door open only to look up into the face of Brad.

“Johnny?  Everything all right?  Where’s ya daddy?”

“Still sleepin’.”

“Where ya goin’?”

“Ta take a piss.” He nodded toward the door across the hall.

“Okay.  Need some help?”

“Na, I’m a big boy.”

“Well, I’m out here.”

Johnny nodded and took short slow steps across the hall to his destination.

 

Crossing the hall to go back to the room, he looked at Brad, “Thanks for lookin’ out for me, amigo.”

“Anytime, boy, anytime.  You’ve saved my ass a time or two.”

“Care if I go to the kitchen for some coffee?”

“Yep, I do.  You go back on in there and I’ll get you some coffee.”

“Thanks.”

Brad stood up and headed down the hall towards the kitchen.

Johnny stepped into the bedroom and closed the door with almost no sound, other than the clicking of the bolt.  He glanced at Murdoch, his eyes confirmed what his ears heard.  The man was still in deep sleep. ‘Poor bastard must have talked all night.’

He approached the washstand with hesitation.  He looked down at the basin first, and then dared to look at himself in the mirror.

‘Hell, even the saloon girls wouldn’t look twice at him now.’  His hair was as long as theirs was.  The circles under his eyes so deep, he touched them and felt the grooves.  He had about three day’s growth of beard too.

With a deep sigh, he poured some water into the bowl and splashed it on his face.  It felt cool and refreshing.  He dried his face and decided to sit down at the table, so as not to disturb his father. 

‘His father.’  Yeah, the old man had really been a father to him the last three days.  He couldn’t deny it anymore.  Not many people would have stuck with him through this.  He knew that for sure.  The only ones that would were here.

As for all that talk last night, well, he didn’t really know what to make of it.  It certainly shed a different light on his parents’ relationship than what he was led to believe.  Ever since Murdoch and Teresa had told him what they had, he had figured the truth was somewhere in the middle.  Deep in his heart, he felt Murdoch’s version was more accurate.

He knew how Maria was.  He always called her mama, but he always thought of her as Maria.  She was wild, crazy, temperamental, and not above lying.  She had lived for a good time and then alcohol had taken hold of her and refused to let go.  He had loved her all the same, even though she hadn’t been the best mother to him.

What his father had done for him the last few days, and most especially last night, well, he had no doubt now.  His father did love him.  Knowing that was enough to give him some peace in his mind and in his heart.

He looked over at Murdoch sleeping so hard.  ‘Where do we go from here old man?’

He didn’t know, but from now on, he would do his best to stop the intentional goading and baiting of his father.  He never was sure why he did it anyway, but he had found that he couldn’t help himself at times.

The sound of boots in the hallway, followed by a soft knock on the door, told him that Brad was back.  He got up and opened the door.  Brad came in with a tray of coffee, milk and orange juice.

He sat it on the table as Johnny closed the door.  Brad poured two cups of coffee and they sat down at the table.  Johnny smelled the dark aromatic brew and smiled.  It smelled good and strong.

“Feelin’ better, John?”  Brad’s voice soft, so as not to disturb the sleeping Murdoch.

“Yeah.  I think the worst is over.  I’m almost a little hungry.”

“Well, Maria and Miss Teresa are makin’ some breakfast for ya.  I kinda figured if you were up and around, you’d be hungry.  I think the worst might be over too.”

“I hope so.”

“You were looking pretty low there.”

“Low, hell. I look like plain shit.”

“Ain’t really my place ta say, but your daddy there don’t seem too bad.”

“No, I don’t guess he is.  We just can’t help lockin’ horns.  I guess some of that’s my fault though.”

Johnny’s elbows were propped on the table, his hands holding the mug in front of his face.

“Well, Johnny, I think that’s gonna happen still.  Ya’ll just gotta work around it.  Me and my ol’man never saw eye ta eye, but we still managed to git by.  Wren, his daddy, well, you know about that.”

“Yeah.  We almost had that in common.  I guess I learned my lesson about peyote and bad moods.  All the times I’ve had that stuff, never had anything like that happen.  Shit, Brad, I almost killed my own father.”

Johnny set his mug on the table and propped his hands on his thighs, looking down at the table.

“Yep, but ya didn’t, so don’t go frettin’ over it now.  I mean, he’s done forgiven ya for it.  Just move on and try to go on from here.  Ain’t many daddy’s woulda put up with all this.”

“You’re right about that.”  Johnny sighed, “So, how long ya stayin’?”

“Oh, a little longer.  Wanna see you back on your feet, go out and have a little fun ‘fore we leave.”

“Good.  I’d love to show you the ranch.”

There was a knock on the door.  Johnny looked at Brad, who stood up to answer it.  He took the tray from Teresa and carried it back to the table.

“Mierda, I can’t eat all of that.  I hope you’re hungry.”

“I am now.  Johnny, I don’t have to tell ya, you got it made!”

“Boy o’ boy, do I.  But it’s hard, ya know?  So many rules and so much to do and, well, it’s just a lot to get used to all of sudden.”

“What about the neighbors and the town folk?  How’d they take havin’ a gunfighter move in?”

“Well, you know.  Long as I’m helpin’ them, it’s okay.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of ‘em that have been real nice ta me and seem to be makin’ their own opinions.  But there’s more of ‘em that smile to my face ‘cause o’ the ol’ man, and then talk bad about me otherwise.  Then, there’s that bunch that just flat don’t want me around and don’t mind sayin’ it.”

“Shame ain’t it, the way people are.  Val seems to be doin’ good.”

“Yeah, I sure am glad he came ta Green River.”

“Next thing ya know, he’ll be gettin’ married.”

Johnny laughed.  “I don’t think so.  Not yet.  He ain’t even got his eye on nobody.”

“What about you?  You’re a pretty good catch.  Good lookin’ rich rancher boy.”

“No way in hell.  No decent girl wants anything ta do with me.  Even if one did, I’m sure her daddy wouldn’t allow it.”

“Yeah, well, they’ll get over it in time.”

“Don’t plan on it.  ‘Sides, I gotta work all this out first.”  Johnny waved towards Murdoch, whose snoring had stopped.

“I ain’t seen too much of that brother, he’s been workin’ his tail off runnin’ this place.”

“Scott.  Yep, that sure was a surprise, findin’ out the ol’ man had been married before and had another kid he hadn’t seen.”

“Man’s had some bad luck with women.”

“You can say that.  Scott’s grandfather in Boston raised him.  Complete underhanded bastard.  Thinks because he’s rich, he can do whatever he pleases.  I don’t see how Scott turned out to be like he did.  He’s the only reason I stuck around here at first.”

“Yep, Val was tellin’ me he was from Boston.  Strange you two get along so well.”

“I know, but, well, we just do.  I wish ya coulda seen those plaid ridin’ pants he showed up in the first mornin’.  I mean, I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that!”

“What’d he think of having a gun hawk like Johnny Madrid for a brother?”

“Well, I think it was a pretty big shock.  I mean, not just because of the fact of what I am, but ‘cause of my reputation.  I think when Murdoch explained to him that I had worked like Pardee, well, I think he didn’t like it one bit.  I think he was really pissed when he found out I had worked with Pardee.  But, at least he gave me a chance.  He knows I’m nothin’ like Day.”

“Nope, ya sure ain’t Johnny boy.”

“Well, I don’t think I can eat anymore.”  Johnny pushed his plate away, but he had managed some bacon, an egg, and a part of a biscuit, along with a bit of juice and some milk.

There was a strong knock on the door.  It woke Murdoch.  He propped up on his elbow at the same time that Brad opened the door to allow Sam inside the room.

“Well, well, young man.”  Sam said with a smile on his face.  “I hear you’re feeling a bit better.”

“I’ll be outside Johnny.”  Brad nodded as the doctor approached Johnny.

“What’s going on?”  Murdoch sat up with a yawn.

“Did I wake you Murdoch?  I’m terribly sorry.”  Sam apologized as he looked down at the plates on the table.

“You ate something?”

“Yeah, not much, but I was hungry.”

“Very good.”

“Morning, son.”  Murdoch called out, “Sam.”

“Mornin’, Murdoch.”  Johnny turned to look at his father, met his eyes and dropped his own back down, shyly.  The warmth he felt in them, hard to accept.

“There’s breakfast over here, if you want some, Murdoch.”  Johnny drawled.

Sam nodded for Johnny to sit down on the side of the bed.  The doctor checked his vital signs again and looked into his eyes.

“Well, Johnny.  You look a little better.  I want you to rest though.  Don’t tax yourself.”

“Don’t worry, Sam, I ain’t that good yet.  I do wanna bath though.  I stink if that’s me I smell.”

Sam and Murdoch laughed.

“Sure, Johnny, but I want you back in bed right after.”

“Okay, Sam, whatever you say.”

“Ain’t got any clothes anyway.”  Johnny sighed as he pulled another nightshirt from the top of the stack on the bureau.

 

Johnny sank into the hot water and sighed.  It felt good.  Almost as good as his last bath, but this time, he didn’t have Scott to shave him, and he was using some kind of bath salts that made him smell like Teresa.

After he washed his hair, he found some shaving ‘appointments’ as he remembered Scott referring to them as, and began to lather up his beard to shave.  His hands were shaky.  It took him longer than usual, and he cut himself twice.  ‘Good thing I don’t have to draw today.’

 

Sam and Murdoch sat at the table and dined on breakfast.  Both had large appetites as their concern over Johnny’s condition had lessened.  He seemed to be feeling better, and Murdoch was thankful for the calm look in his boy’s eyes.

“Sam, did you notice how much better he looked?”  Murdoch asked before taking in a forkful of eggs.

“I did indeed Murdoch.  I take it you followed my advice.”  Sam sipped his coffee.

“I did and I am grateful to you Sam.”

“Murdoch.”  Sam cocked his head.

“No, Sam.  I am.  You made me listen to you.  I know I’m stubborn, but I did my best to follow your advice and now I think I’m reaping the benefits, at least a little.”

“You’re not out of the woods yet.  Remember, he’ll be temperamental still for awhile, so you’ve got to keep your temper under control, even if he doesn’t.  All the same, it’ll still be a day or two before he’s ready to be up and around.  He really needs to rest and to eat.  He’s still going to have some moments when he doesn’t feel good.”

Sam pointed his fork at Murdoch and continued.

“Remember, if you thought it was bad in town when you brought him home the first time, it’s really going to be hard on him now.  People who were open-minded before are tainted now.  You’ve got to be supportive of him.  You’ve got to give him time.  This is a set back for him as much as it is a move forward in your relationship.”

“I hear you, Sam.  I just want him safe and happy.”

“He will be Murdoch, but you’ve got to give him time.  He’s not Maria, but he’s enough like her that you should recognize the traits and act accordingly.  He can, and will, bolt.  He’s also a lot like you too, Murdoch.  He’s got a double dose of hot temper and stubborn.  You’re the father here.  You have to set the example and be the one to guide the relationship, not bounce back with emotional reaction.  Remember, he is a grown man, but he still has a lot of emotion like a boy.  Just give him the space to make mistakes and not feel like he’s disappointed you.  He needs you to have confidence in him.  He’s a good boy, Murdoch, despite what his past might lead people to believe.”

“I know Sam.  I made a promise to God that if he would give him back to me that I would get this right this time.”

“Well it seems you’ve made a good start.”

“I hope so.”

“Well, he certainly has some friends ready to keep you in line I believe.”

“I agree.  I was almost jealous of them until I realized that they had a lot to do with Johnny’s being alive and safe.  Now, well, now, I’m just grateful for them.”

“Hiring Val was probably the best thing to happen to Green River.”

“Green River and Lancer.”

When Johnny returned from his bath, he looked fresh and had a stronger color to his skin.

“Better son?”

“Yeah, much.  I don’t see how you could stand being around me like that.”

“You’re my son, bad or good, right or wrong, clean or smelly.”

Johnny snorted at that line, remembering the first time he had heard most of those words.  Murdoch’s smile and the look in his eyes reassured Johnny that he had meant what he said the night before.

Sam stood up and poured a glass of milk, mixing in one of the stomach powders.  “Try and drink this now.”

Johnny took the glass and sat back down on the bed.  He propped a pillow behind him, stretching out and crossing his ankles on top of the covers.

He sipped on his milk and listened to his father and Sam discussing the happenings in town.  He turned his attention to the window, where a soft warm breeze drifted in, lightly saddled with the peaceful sounds of the ranch.  It wasn’t long until he was asleep.

 

Chapter 5

Johnny awakened slowly, His stomach felt a little queasy, and he had a trace of a headache, but overall, he felt a lot better.  He knew where he was and looked towards the chair where he expected to see his father sitting; but instead, it was Scott, reading a book.

His stirring had attracted his brother’s attention, and as their eyes met, Johnny saw Scott’s smile and couldn’t help but return it.

“Hey, Scott.”  He whispered, relishing the look in his brother’s eyes, much like sunshine after a rainstorm.

“Hey, yourself, brother.”  Scott closed his book and leaned over.  He placed a hand on his Johnny’s shoulder and squeezed.  “How are you feeling?”

“Better.”

“I’m glad.”

“Where’s Murdoch?”

“Taking a bath.  He told me I could sit in here with you while he was out.”

“Oh?”  Johnny was puzzled.

“He’s being the overprotective father right now.  Let him play the part.”

Johnny’s smile turned upside down.  He looked up at his brother, “Scott, I’m sorry about all this.  I never wanted this to happen, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.”  Johnny sat up, propping against the headboard of the bed, his arms around his knees.

“I think we are due for a long talk little brother, but not now.  For now, I just want you to get better.  Running this ranch alone has been hell.  I need help!”

Johnny laughed, “Yeah, I expect ya do.”

“Johnny, you have no idea.  This ‘calling the tune’ is hard.  Deciding on every little thing, no wonder Murdoch’s such a bear!  Although, it has advantages.”

“Yeah, like what?”

“Getting you home safe and sound, without a big stir in town.”

“Oh.  Thanks for that.”

“You can thank Val for most of it.  I just paid for everything.”

The door opened and Murdoch lumbered in. He smiled at them.  “Nothing like a hot bath to loosen up the back.”

Scott looked at his smiling father in his nightshirt, and Johnny in his, and said as he looked at himself, “It appears gentlemen, that I am overdressed!”

All three broke into a good-hearted laugh.

“Well then, son, I guess you can be the one to go and get some dinner for us.  Why don’t you eat in here with us.”

“I’d be delighted.”

Putting his book on the nightstand, Scott, stood in an easy, efficient manner, reminiscent of his military training, and left to fetch their dinner.

Murdoch eased himself into the stuffed chair next to the bed, vacated by Scott.  “How do you feel now, son?”

“Better.  Kinda queasy, my head hurts a little, but I’m okay.  Just need another day or two and I’ll be ready ta go back ta work.”

“You certainly look better.”

He smiled a little.  “I’m sure I do.  I scared myself when I looked in the mirror this morning.”

“Yeah, well, you’re not going back to work for at least two weeks.  I want you well.”

“Two weeks?!”

“John.  Those are Sam’s orders.  Besides, I thought you’d like to take some time to show your friends the ranch.”

“Well, yeah, but, I’ve already been gone so long, what about the ranch?”  Johnny was staring at the foot of the bed with his arms wrapped around his knees.

“To hell with the ranch!”  Murdoch saw Johnny flinch at the sound of his raised voice.

“You’re my son.  YOU are more important than the ranch.”  His voice was softer.

“Yeah, but,”

“No butts, Johnny.  I want you to understand that.”

Johnny gave a slight nod as an acknowledgement.  Propping his arms on his knees, he looked down at the bed.

“Look, Murdoch.  I’m not good with how I say things like you and Scott .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . But I want ya ta know, I am sorry about all this.  I don’t know how I’ll ever make it up to ya, but I swear I will.  I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive myself for what I did.  .  .  .  .  .  .

Well, what I’m tryin’ ta say is I need ya ol’man, not like ya think, I’m not a kid, ain’t really ever been one.  All the same, I need ya.”

He wrapped his arms around his knees.

“But ya gotta understand, all this is hard for me.  All these rules, and havin’ ta tell people what I’m doin’, where I’m goin’.  Back breakin’ work all day, and being on time, and being told what to do like I’m a kid.  I, I just ain’t used to it.”

Johnny stopped talking, but rocked back and forth ever so slightly.  Murdoch could see the corner of his mouth quirk before he blew out a breath.

“Truth is, yeah, I’ve worked on ranches, but not doin’ what I do here.  I worked protectin’ ‘em.  I didn’t punch cows or put up fence.  I tore down fences, burned fields, stampeded cattle, poisoned wells.  I don’t know as much as you think I do about all this.  I’m probably dumber than Scott when it comes ta some of this stuff.  The only thing I am good at is guns and horses.

I wanna better life, to live here. I do, I really do, but I don’t think you realize just how big my reputation is.  I ain’t tryin’ ta brag, but I am good and I am at the top of the heap, so people are gonna come lookin’ for me.  I just couldn’t take it if anybody here got hurt because of me. 

So ya gotta understand.  I need ta go to town alone sometimes.  Gunfightin’ is what it is.  I’ll either win or lose.  I accepted that a long time ago.  I know you don’t understand it.  I know it’s hard for you, but if you want me to stay alive, then ya gotta leave me alone sometimes.  Ya gotta let me keep my edge.  Ta do that, I gotta have time ta practice.  And, well, you and Scott, ya gotta stay out of things.  If I’m worried about you two, then I can’t concentrate.  I damn sure don’t need ya tryin’ to get involved.”

Pausing, he inhaled and blew out a deep breath before he continued.

“I ain’t no ‘social butterfly’ neither, as Scott calls it.  It ain’t ‘cause I don’t like a good time. It’s not safe for me.   It makes me so nervous I almost come outta my skin at those dances with everybody crowdin’ around me.”

He paused, and took another deep breath.  He gave his father a quick glance and carried on, running his hand through his long hair.

“But, I gotta thank ya for the last few days.  Not too many people would do this for me.  I know what it’s like to be on your side of this kinda thing.”

Wrapping his arms around his knees again, he started the slight rocking motion again.

“I don’t wanna talk about it right now, but I been down this road before.  I don’t take laudanum for a reason.  I don’t reckon I’ll have a problem with the whiskey, ‘cause I really didn’t crave it as much as I used it to keep my mind off things.  I mean, I ain’t sittin’ here wishin’ I had a bottle, like I did with the laudanum.

It means the world ta me that you did all this for me.  For me, after what I did ta you.  All I can say is I’m sorry, and that just don’t seem like enough.”

He peeked over at his father and then looked back down at the bed.

Murdoch waited to see if his son was finished.  Johnny hadn’t said this much to him in all the time he had been home.  He had watched him struggling with the words, and realized Sam was right.  If he would just be patient with his son, he would get what he wanted from him.    He had sat quietly, listened to his son’s words, and waited, and more had come.

‘God, Thank You’.

Johnny began to fidget and Murdoch realized he was finished.

He stood up and stepped over to the bed, where he perched on the edge near the headboard, next to Johnny, his shoulder against his son’s back.  Johnny’s head was still down.

He reached a long arm around his son, pulled him against him in an awkward embrace, and his eyes teared when he felt Johnny turn slightly into him and place his hand on his shoulder and returned it.

“Johnny, I’ve already forgiven you and now, I want you to forgive yourself.  I don’t want you torturing yourself over this, especially when I’m to blame as much or more as you for things getting out of hand.  Just for the record, that is an order, and while I know you’re not much good at taking orders, I would appreciate it, if this one time, you would follow it.  Okay?”

Johnny glanced up toward his father, meeting his eyes, and the words “yes, sir” gently floated across his lips as he pulled away, smiling at his father.  His eyes sparkled like diamonds, and the brief flash of white teeth warmed Murdoch’s very core.  It was the first time Johnny had looked at him in that way.  A look he had frequently given Scott, and one he had envied.

Scott opened the door as Murdoch moved away from the bed.  He picked up a tray from the table outside and Murdoch stepped out to pick up a second tray.

Johnny, hands trembling much less than they had been in days, helped his father put the plates on the table while Scott placed his tray of beverages on the bureau.  He poured everyone a cup of coffee and a glass of milk for Johnny.

As he placed the coffee cups on the table, Murdoch walked over to the bureau and mixed a stomach powder for Johnny into the milk.

Johnny watched his father and brother.  He just wasn’t worth all of this.  He didn’t deserve it.

Scott was happy to be able to spend time with his father and brother.  He had felt somewhat isolated, but Sam had made it clear to him that it was time for him to stand down and let Murdoch step up and take control of this situation with Johnny. Sam understood his concerns about Murdoch and Johnny, but the doctor assured him that he would be there to keep an eye on them and he had, without having to intervene.

He understood that the two of them needed to make peace and reach an understanding.  They needed to be able to settle their differences without his involvement.  However, he still felt his own guilt about not warning Murdoch about Johnny’s use of peyote.  Although, he never imagined Murdoch would have taken off like that either.      

Now, though, it seemed as if the last few days, as horrible as they had been, as described to him by Murdoch, he could see that something positive had happened.  Johnny’s eyes were peaceful, and Murdoch, well, he was all but glowing tonight.

‘Where do we go from here?’ he wondered.  Would they finally bond as a family, with only minor skirmishes rather than all out bloody war?  That, he figured, remained to be seen, but now was the perfect time to start, by first putting his brother at ease.

“So Johnny, you’ve known Brad and Wren for some time?”

“Yeah, a few years.  They and Val and me, we used to ride together.”

“Val says that he and they all joined the Texas Rangers together.”  Murdoch commented.

“Yeah, Murdoch, I might woulda been one too, except for a problem with a rancher’s wife.”

His father and brother both raised an eyebrow at him.

“Sounds like a story.  Mind sharing brother?”

Johnny, who was looking at his plate, glanced up at his father and then back down.

“Well, we were workin’ a job together and it seemed like everybody wanted to do somethin’ different when it was gonna be over.  Brad and Wren were goin’ back down to the border for a job, and Val, well, he wanted to go back home.  Me, well, I had to leave quick-like before the job was over.  The rancher we worked for found out about me and his wife.  Anyhow, I left before anyone else.”

“How old were you son?”  Murdoch interrupted.

Scott watched in amusement as Johnny froze in mid chew of his biscuit.

“How old?”  he mumbled back, eyes wide and eyebrows raised, staring at his plate.

“Yes, how old were you?”  Murdoch had a stern look on his face, but Scott could tell, despite the fact that his father wouldn’t approve of Johnny’s relationship with a married woman, that he was trying to tease him.

As Johnny stared his food down, Scott could swear he saw a bit of pink tingeing Johnny’s neck.

“I guess about fourteen or fifteen.  I don’t really remember.”

“I see.”  Murdoch growled and continued eating, the corner of his mouth tweaked up for a moment.

Johnny peeked up at him again and continued.  “Well, anyway, Val ended up ridin’ with them part of the way when they ran into a gun fight.  Seems like it was a bunch against two.  They sided with the two, who turned out to be Texas Rangers with some gold or somethin’.  They talked ‘em into comin’ back with them.  Anyways, if it hadn’t been for my situation, I woulda been with them.”

“So what all’s been happenin’ with the ranch?”  Johnny changed the subject almost without taking a breath and chewing on another bite of biscuit.

“Well, we’ve replaced that bridge on the north side, the one that keeps washing away.  Cipriano has a crew working on clearing that spot that you thought would be a good place to dam up and make a pond out of over on the east side.”  Scott replied.

“Really?” Johnny asked, looking at Scott and then at his father.

“Yes son, that was a very good idea.”  Murdoch looked at Johnny, who met his eyes with a shy smile and then looked at his plate.

“Well what else have ya been up too?”

“You mean besides paper work up to my eyeballs?”

Their conversation remained light throughout the meal.  Scott didn’t feel he should burden his brother with just how hard it was to run the ranch or raise any concerns with Murdoch that he couldn’t handle it.  They were enjoying themselves.  He noticed that Johnny actually ate some of everything on his plate, although, he didn’t finish it all.

By the time they finished the dessert that he brought back, Johnny was beginning to blink heavily and yawn.  The boy had been awake more hours than not today.  He and Murdoch put the dishes on the trays, and by the time they had taken them out the door, Johnny had curled up asleep on the bed.

Chapter 6

Johnny awoke to the early rays of the sun caressing his face.  He hadn’t seen such pale sunlight since he’d been back.  He felt pretty good.  He sat up and noticed that Murdoch was gone and so was most of the paperwork he had been working on during the times when he wasn’t tending to him.

He yawned and stretched, sitting on the side of the bed.  He stood up and stretched some more.  It had been awhile since he felt this good.  Needing to take a piss, he went to the door and opened it.  There was no one there.  He stepped across the hall.

When he was finished, he decided he wanted to get dressed.  He took the back stairs to his room.  At the top, he felt winded, but none the worse.

Inside his room, he found the clothes he had put on, on his first day back, cleaned and laying on his bed.  He grabbed them and headed across the hall to the upstairs bathroom where he ran himself a tub full of hot water.

A good soak was what he had needed.  He felt revived after he washed his long locks and shaved himself.  His hands, still had a slight tremble to them, and he nicked himself a few times.

After his bath, he pulled on his buckskin pants and white shirt again, and went back to his room.  There, he found his boots, cleaned and sitting neatly by his stuffed chair.  He sat and leaned over to put them on, and found himself a little dizzy.  He sat back up until the feeling went away.

His gun belt was hanging over the bedpost where he usually kept it.  He knew it had not been there before.  He stepped over and pulled his Colt from the holster.  He flipped it open and saw that it was loaded.  It looked freshly cleaned.  He suspected Wren had something to do with that.  He put it back and with his arms wrapped around himself, he took in a deep breath and released it.  He left it hanging there and walked downstairs.

He found his father in the great room at his desk.  It was hard to believe the smile that he received was for him.  He looked behind himself to be sure there wasn’t someone else back there.

“Morning, son.”  Murdoch called to him.

“Mornin’ Murdoch.”

“You’re dressed.  You must be feeling better.”

“Yeah.  I figured it was time I got up.”

“Well, I was serious about you taking it easy for a few days.”

“Brad and Wren around?”

“No, they both went into town this morning.  They’re helping Val with something.”

“Oh.”

“You’re welcome to have some coffee here if you like.”  Murdoch indicated the pot and cups sitting on a tray at the corner of his desk.

“Nah.  I think I’ll go see if Maria will make me some eggs.”

“Okay, I think that’d be a good idea.”

 

Johnny crept into the kitchen.  Maria was busy peeling potatoes at the table and had her back to him so she could watch a pot that was sitting on the stove.

He waited until she put the knife down before he pounced, cat-like, behind her, his arms reaching around the chair, trapping hers to her sides.  Just as she opened her mouth to protest, he hugged her tight and planted a large kiss on her cheek!

“Juanito!”  She admonished him as he let go of her, laughing.  She jumped out of her chair, turned, and gave him a hug.

“Bad niño, scaring me!”

Still laughing, he said, “Oh Mamacita!  It was too tempting!”

“Sit!  You need to eat!”  She stepped over to the stove and grabbed the coffee pot, pouring coffee into one of several mugs that sat on the countertop.  She put the pot back.  Johnny had followed her, and he took the cup from the counter.

She pulled out a skillet and placed it on the stove.  She retrieved some bacon from the pantry and placed it in the skillet.

Johnny leaned back against the cabinet and sipped his coffee as he watched her cook his breakfast.  “Not too much.  I can’t eat so much yet.”

She finished with the bacon and fried the eggs.  There was a basket with some biscuits on the table left over from the family breakfast.  He sat down with a second cup of coffee and began to eat.

Maria poured a glass of milk and produced more of the stomach powders that Sam had prescribed.  She mixed them into the milk and placed the glass in front of him, giving him a serious eye.

“Okay, okay, don’t worry, I’ll drink it.”  He wasn’t about to tell her or anyone else that he relished whatever was in those powders, as his stomach was feeling a lot better.

He was in the middle of his breakfast, watching Maria peel the potatoes, when Teresa came in, with a basket in each hand.  One filled with beans and the other with tomatoes.  When she saw him, she dropped both and rushed over to him.

He stood up and put his arms around her as she threw hers wide open and around him, she pressed against him tightly.  “Oh, Johnny.  I’ve missed you so much!”

“What, Scott and Murdoch didn’t tease you enough?”  He smiled at her, but it was a sad smile.  He felt guilty.  He knew he had caused all of them a lot of worry and hurt.  He knew it had hurt her to be banned from seeing him the past week.

“Oh, you!”  She stepped back and took a long look at him.  “You look terrible.”

“Niña!” Maria snapped.

“It’s okay, Maria.  I know I look bad.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.  Look, we’ll talk later okay, chica?  I need to go outside for a bit.”  He leaned over and kissed her on her forehead, glancing up, “Gracias, Maria.”

He was out the door.  He couldn’t take Teresa’s pestering right now.  He didn’t feel that good.  He found himself headed towards the garden.  He got there and took a seat on the stone bench, in the sun.  Leaning back against the wall, absorbing the sun’s warm rays, he looked around with a new purpose.

His mother had planted most of the mature plants here, Murdoch had said.  He took his time and looked at all of the flowers.  He saw many varieties of roses.  She had always loved red ones and there were plenty of those.  There were pink, white, and yellow climbing roses as well.

He took in a deep breath and inhaled the multitude of scents.  It reminded him of his mother.  In good times, she had roses around.  Men also gave her roses trying to win favors with her.    It was hard to believe that Murdoch hadn’t had them torn out after what she did to him.

He heard a noise behind him to the side, and looked up and up at Murdoch’s tall frame standing there with a cup of coffee in his hand.

Murdoch looked down at him, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“You didn’t.  I was just, well, just thinking.”

“About your mother?”

“Well, yeah, about what you told me.  I was wondering why you left it this way, after, after what she did.”

“Like I said son, we did have happy times, and the most of them were here.  I come here sometimes to remind me of that.  I used to come here to feel close to her, and to you, and to try and keep myself from becoming bitter over what happened.”

“I’m really sorry Murdoch.”

Murdoch stepped over and put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, giving it a light squeeze.  “Nothing for you to be sorry for, son.  She’s the one who made the decision to leave.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  I just wish she had left you with me.”

“Me too.”

It slipped out, ever so soft from Johnny’s lips, that Murdoch was sure that he imagined it. Johnny didn’t seem to even realize he had uttered the words as he stared down at some small tea roses planted near the bench.

Blinking hard, Murdoch squeezed his shoulder again, “Well, I’ll leave you to it.  Those books still need my attention.”

Johnny, staring at his boots, simply nodded.

The buzzing of a bee and the feel of it around his nose awakened him.  He had actually dozed off in the sunshine and peace of his mother’s garden.  He sat up and looked around.  The bee moved away, towards some pink roses on the trellis.  He felt like he had been asleep for a long time, but he looked at the sun and the shadows and realized it had only been a few minutes.  He stood and stretched.

Looking over towards the barn, he smiled and headed towards it.  He left the garden through the little wrought iron gate, wondering how many times she had entered and exited the little piece of heaven through that very gate.

He wandered over to the barn and found Jelly mending tack.  “Hey Jelly!”

“JOHNNY!  Boy if you ain’t a sight for sore eyes!  Looks like yur feelin’ better.”   The whiskered old man jumped off the bench with the ease of a man ten years his younger and shocked Johnny by grabbing him in a bear hug.  He felt a little uncomfortable at the action, but tried to hug him back, just slightly.

Jelly let go and stood back, looking embarrassed at his own exuberance.  “I cain’t tell ya how worried I been.  But it seemed like Murdoch had everthin’ under control.  .  .   .  .  .  .  .  Ya’ll work some things out?”

“Boy Jelly, you get right to the point don’t ya?”  Johnny looked down and away.

“Sorry, didn’t mean ta be s’ nosy.”

“Nah, it’s alright.  If it’ll make ya feel better, we did talk a little.”

“Good.”

Johnny looked out the window at Barranca grazing in the pasture.  “Been takin’ care of Barranca?”

“Yeah, I got ta tell ya, I ain’t none too sad to see you up and ready to deal with that spoiled creature.  I swear Johnny, he’s spoiled rotten and mean ta boot if thangs don’t go his way.”

Johnny laughed and let out a wolf whistle.  The palomino’s head went up and he let out a loud whinny before he galloped over to the gate by the barn’s back doors.  Johnny joined him with a happy greeting, patting and scratching him all over.  He grabbed a halter and placed it over the golden head that bobbed constantly, and as he did, the scent of the apple he had hidden in his pocket, floated into Barranca’s nostrils.  The head began to nudge him in a not so gentle effort to get at the treat.

He pushed the golden head away and pulled the apple from his pocket, being careful not to leave any fingers sticking out.  He palmed it for the horse who tried to pull it out of his hand as he sank his teeth into it.

He brought his horse in and saddled him up.  As he prepared to mount, he looked down at his waist, realizing he didn’t have his gun belt.  He hesitated, and saw the look Jelly gave him, as if reading his mind.

“Well, I’m just going down to the lake.  I gotta rifle here, I reckon I’ll be okay.”  He winked at the old man and with one graceful move, mounted the already moving stallion.

“Back in a bit.”

“See ya Johnny.”

Murdoch looked out the big glass window behind his desk, now finally repaired just two days before, and saw Johnny and Barranca, as they took off at a dead run down the driveway towards the Lancer arch.  He smiled, shook his head, and turned back to his too long neglected books.

The hacienda echoed with raucous laughter that evening at dinner.  Murdoch couldn’t ever remember the dinner table being so animated.  Sam had come out to check on Johnny, and Val had ridden out with Brad and Wren.  Johnny looked happy for the first time since he had come to Lancer.  To see him actually laughing aloud, looking relaxed, was something he never thought he’d see.

Brad, Wren, and Val kept them all howling with border tales about Johnny and themselves.  The men were careful to keep to cleaner stories in light of Teresa’s presence, and omitted some of the darker, deadlier details for everyone’s benefit.

It warmed his heart to know his son had such people as friends.  It was clear that while none of them had led saintly lives, they all had a sense of common decency and honor about them.  He felt they were partially responsible for Johnny’s living long enough to return to him, not once, but twice.

None of these men were to be taken lightly, most of all, his son.  It was hard to counter the image of Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter, with the laughing young man at the dinner table.  His dark blue eyes twinkled as bright as any star in the sky, and for the first time, he noticed just how perfect his son’s teeth were, a miracle since he felt certain the boy had had little in the way of proper nutrition after Maria had taken him from the ranch.

If only he could just be that laughing boy and not ever look back.  But as sure as he was sitting here, he understood the sad reality, Johnny Madrid would never be free enough to be just Johnny Lancer.

Breakfast was not quite as cheery for Murdoch as was the previous night’s dinner.  Johnny and his friends slept in, one more reminder of the lifestyle his son had lived, but again, he had told him to rest up and take the week off.  Besides, he knew they were going to tour the ranch today and it was hard to see in the predawn hours.

Scott joined him for breakfast, “Morning sir.”

“Morning.”

“I see Johnny and company are still sleeping.”

“Yes, well, I did tell Johnny to take this week off.”

“I’m sure he’s tired after last night.  I have to say, it was good to see him relaxed like that.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile so much.  Too bad every day can’t be that way for him.”

“I agree, but I’m afraid that we won’t see a lot of that side once his friends are gone.”

Sensing his father’s melancholy, Scott finished his coffee.

“Well, I guess I’ll go saddle up for us.  You do still want to ride out and take a look at that bridge?”

“Absolutely.”

Shots ring out with amazing speed.  Murdoch and Scott looked at each other in alarm, and headed quickly and quietly in that direct in the cover of some trees, as they heard another series of shots.

As they approached the little clearing by the stream, they dismounted and crept up to the edge.  They heard two more series of shots and then boyish laughter.  Peering into the clearing, they saw Johnny and Wren, spinning their Colts off their index fingers, revealing the perfect balance of the weapons and their ability to grip the weapon from a variety of positions.  They continued, added different movements and gestures while the spun the Colts, staring at each other, eyes never leaving the other’s as they spun their weapons.

Lying back against a tree by the stream was Brad, watching them with an amused expression on his face.  “You boys ain’t nothing but a couple a kids.”

With that, the two younger men turned and in a loud explosion, fired simultaneously at the bottles.  Smoke from the revolvers so thick, neither Murdoch nor Scott could tell how many of the bottles were down, but as it cleared, so had the bottles been.

“I think you’ve gotten a lot faster, Wren.” They heard Johnny laughing.

“Ya reckon, Johnny.  It ain’t like I ain’t been practicin’ longer’n you.”

“Yeah, well, what can I say?”

“You could tell me how good it felt when you danced with ol’ Wade Farnsworth.”

Murdoch and Scott’s ears pricked almost as long as Barranca’s.

“Well, it not only felt good, it felt DAMN GOOD to put that piece of shit down.”

A chill ran down Murdoch’s spine to hear the cold, flippant tone in Johnny’s voice.

“God I wished we’d been there to see it.”  Brad chimed in.  “Heard it was a sight.”

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t as easy as people made it out to be.  He was pretty damn fast for all the bullshit that came out of his mouth.  Fast, but not very accurate.  I got grazed pretty good on the neck.  Burned like Hell.  Gotta scar from it too.”

He pulled his collar back to reveal a two-inch long scar that Wren leaned in to look at.

“Shit.”

Wren toed the ground with his boot and then went over to sit on a nearby rock, opening the chamber of his empty Colt and reloading from his gun belt.

“Where’d ya hit ‘im?”  Brad drawled.

“First shot was almost right dead center of the heart.  I swear the bastard wouldn’t die.  He fell on his knees, trying to stare me down with those wild lookin’ eyes of his.  I walked towards him and mierda, he raises his damn gun up and draws a bead on me.”

Johnny paused for a moment.  “It was strange, I kept thinkin’ any minute, he’s gonna get up, even though he was pretty much dead.  But when he raised the barrel of that gun, I shot him right between the eyes.  He dropped the gun, and then, he died, but he didn’t fall over.  He just stayed on his knees with his head dropped behind him like and his arms all hangin’ out beside him, kinda like an upside down dead crow.”

He shook his head.  “Ya know they left him like that for an hour before the undertaker came and got him?  Least that’s what one of the girls told me later.

“Damn, I hated that loud mouth bastard.”  Wren commented.

“You and me both, amigo.  The whole thing was just crazy.”

“Well, the world is short one less asshole’s all I can say.”  Brad commented.

Johnny had been setting up more bottles and reloading while he talked and it seemed to Murdoch and Scott that one moment he was facing Wren, behind him, and then, he had turned, drawn, and fired six times, destroying six bottles before they could blink.

“I think we’d better go sir, before they find us here.”  Scott could see the tight set of his father’s jaw.

“Yes, I guess you’re right.  Don’t want Johnny thinking we’re here snooping around like a couple of those town widows.”

They crept back out to their horses and continued towards the hacienda.  It had been hard for him to hear his brother talk about killing someone like that, so nonchalantly, so uncaring, so cold.  Looking over at his father, and the expression on his face, he knew he it had affected him.  They had had a little glimpse into the real Johnny, or had they?  Seeing him and his friends with their guns and listening to their talk, was it all for show, or was it how they really were?

Murdoch was quiet on the way home and Scott had the sinking feeling that all the good things that had happened in recent days between his father and brother were going to be tested and very soon.

Scott’s fears were somewhat assuaged as dinner was again a relaxed affair, only tonight, the tales were of travels and cities, and even books, as Brad, while not a college graduate, had been heavily educated in his youth back in Kansas.

As the dishes were cleared from the dinning room table, Johnny suggested they play some poker.  Murdoch surprised everyone by agreeing to join them.  He even produced a box of cigars.  It was the first time Scott or Johnny had seen their father so relaxed.  Murdoch was trying to get to know Johnny and his friends, regardless of the chilling and casual manner in which he talked of killing the man earlier in the day.

 

Chapter 7

Johnny was surprised to wake up so late in the day.  The day before had been so pleasurable, in fact, probably one of the nicest days of his life.  He had spent the day with two of his closest friends, real friends, and the evening with his friends and his family.  His family.  It sure had a nice sound and feel to it.  The ol’man sure had been bendin’ over backwards lately.  So much that it was beginning to make him uncomfortable.  All the warm looks he had been giving him were tough to take.  He wasn’t used to it, and he sure didn’t deserve it.

He was rarely shocked by anything, but when Murdoch had agreed to a game of poker, and then brought out the cigars, well, he had been very surprised.  His father had played a good game, had stuck right in there too, before losing to Brad.  He would have liked to have thought that he got his own poker skills from his father, but he knew the truth was that he had learned all his poker tricks on his own, having learned from his mama’s men.

Yep, the only thing missing from yesterday would have been to get laid.  And today, well, today, he just might do that.  Murdoch and Scott had gone to look at some bulls on the other side of Spanish Wells and wouldn’t be back for dinner.  Brad and Wren had gone into Green River to help Val with something, and he knew they said they would be there most of the day and night.

As he did every morning, he woke up with a hard on, and today, it was bad.  Thinking about fucking made it all the worse.  Yep, that’s what he’d do today.  Murdoch hadn’t wanted him to ride into town yet without him, and Sam really wanted him to ‘rest’ some more, so he would be at least following doctors orders, by being in bed, he laughed to himself.  He thought he’d heard Val mention that Sadie was back at the bordello, if that were true, well . . . he could feel himself getting harder just at the thought.  He could get to Ellen’s from the back and no one would know that he was there.  Without thought, he reached down and squeezed his crotch before he flung back the sheet and sat up.

One of the great pleasures of the ranch house to him was the indoor plumbing Scott had all but demanded that they put in right after they signed the partnership agreement.  It didn’t take much to sway the ol’ man since Scott used Teresa’s virginity and the impropriety of potential exposure to their nakedness from traipsing in and out of the bath house as part of his argument.  When Scott offered to pay for it out of his trust, the old man almost busted a blood vessel and ‘authorized the expenditure’ out of the ranch account.  He didn’t even balk at the idea of there being a bath upstairs and downstairs.

He entered the bathroom and turned on the water for the large tub.  He had spent so much of his life dirty, and now, all he had to do was turn a handle and have hot water.  It was sheer heaven.  Of course he would never admit to Scott how much he liked being clean.

He found some of the bath salts that Scott had used for him his first day back and poured them into the tub.   After a good soak, he shaved and got dressed in his black calzoneras with the silver Conchos and the blue flowered shirt that matched Sadie’s eyes.

She liked that shirt.  Hell, what woman didn’t.  He seemed to draw a lot of attention in the red one, and the white one, but this one, well, this is what he wore if he wanted to fuck a woman.  As he buttoned the shirt, leaving it one button less than decent, unbuttoned, he wondered what Maria would think if she knew that the shirt she had made for him right after he came to Lancer was his ‘fuck me’ shirt.  Probably would tear it up and burn it.

He combed his long wet hair out and then shook his head.  He looked at himself in the mirror.  He still wasn’t back to his old self, he was still thin and gaunt looking.  At least he didn’t have the deep grooves under his eyes anymore, but there were still some traces of circles.  Oh well, it was his dick Sadie liked, and it looked and felt just fine, so what the hell.

Downstairs in the kitchen, he found Maria and gave her a kiss on the cheek as she poured him some coffee.  He sat down at the table and enjoyed the peace and quiet and Maria’s soft humming as she made his breakfast, quietly rattling pans and moving back and forth in front of the stove.  Could this have been what it would have been like if his mother had just stayed at Lancer?

After a hearty breakfast and several cups of coffee, Johnny pushed back from the table.  He felt about as peaceful as he ever had.  It almost made him nervous to feel so relaxed.  This couldn’t be happening to him.  His life had always been such a struggle.  He gave Maria another kiss on the cheek and a squeeze on the arm and left.  He could feel her eyes in his back as he sensed that she knew he was up to mischief.

Outside, as he passed by the garden, he caught the scent of roses, and an idea came to him.  He glanced around to see if anyone was watching.  Seeing no one, he broke off one of the pink roses and stuck it in his shirt pocket.  This would certainly get him some extra service.

He saddled up Barranca and headed down the road at an easy pace.

He had to admit to himself the ride to Green River was a little tiring, but it had not stymied his libido, which increased the closer he got to town and hopefully, Sadie’s dimpled chin and raven colored hair.  Thoughts of her rack made his groin begin to stir again.  They were so large, and firm, and, well, enough!

He came around from the back and saw no one.  He opened the little white picket gate and led Barranca into the backyard of the three-story house.  He tied his friend under the shade of a tree.  He sure hoped Ellen wouldn’t come out and see his palomino in her fancy backyard.  She and most all of the girls should still be sleeping this time of day.  He loosened the cinch a good deal.  He planned to be inside for a while.

He couldn’t believe his luck, when, as he approached the door, who should come out in a light blue silken robe with a drink in her hand, but Sadie.  She looked up and immediately her face lit up.  She ran down the steps to him and jumped into his arms, wrapping her long legs around him, juice flying out of the glass and onto the ground.  As he pulled her to him in a tight hug, she squealed, “Ouch” and pulled back, the top of her robe dropping open a bit from the strain it was taking to stay closed with her legs pulling against it.

“What?”

“Something stuck me!”  Her face turned into a pout that made him even hornier.

“Oh yeah, I forgot.  I brought ya somethin’ but I guess it ain’t too pretty now.”  He loosened his hold on her and her legs slid down the sides of his until her feet touched the ground.  ‘Shit’ he felt the bulge in his pants grow that much more.  He pulled the somewhat wilted, flattened rose from his pocket.

Her reaction was so animated he might as well have given her an engagement ring.

“For me?  You picked this for me?”

“Well, yeah, right out of the Lancer garden.”  He was beginning to regret the action, as it seemed to mean more to her than he meant for it to, but then, he caught sight of her pale breasts, partially revealed by the slightly open robe.  He caught a glimpse of her lower areas as well.  His pants were beginning to feel extremely tight against his balls.

She pulled at his shirt, tilting her head back and closing her eyes.  He glanced down at her pink lips and closed his eyes as his lips touched hers and their tongues entwined.

When they came up for air, he pulled her robe together, she retied the belt and they turned to walk inside the house and went up three flights of stairs to her room.  His spurs, which normally sounded light and pleasant, seemed to echo harsh and heavy in the stark silence of the hallway.  They saw no one else in the house, which would not be fully awake for several more hours.

Inside the room, he closed the door and backed up against it as he locked it.  She tugged at the buckle on his gun belt, something she always liked to do, it seemed to make her that much more excited to be able to undo the buckle.  He let her, but he always removed the belt himself and fastened it again for safe hanging over the bedpost.  For now however, he was content to feel her hands running through his chest hair, as, while he was fastening the buckle, she had unbuttoned his shirt, revealing the mass of dark curly hair. 

When she finished nuzzling her face in the dark curls on his chest, she stepped back and pulled on the tie of the robe, releasing it and allowed the robe to drop to the floor, leaving her completely naked.

He gave her a sly smile and she turned and stepped over to the bed where she sat down on it.  He followed and stood in front of her, hanging the gun belt over the post.  He reached up, removed his hat and tossed it behind him.

She reached up and pulled his shirttails from his pants, her hands roving around his waist and his stomach, wandering up to his nipples, which she ever so gently teased.  ‘Shit’ she could make him so hard.  She stood up slowly, the hard nipples of her naked breasts touching his belly and sliding their way up his chest, making him quiver.  When she was fully erect, he leaned down and kissed her again.

Her hands roamed through his long dark hair during the kiss.  They began to make their way down his back, as their lips parted.  She slid down to a sitting position, having kissed her way down the groove of his chest and down to his belly button, which was just peeking out over the top of his pants.

While she suckled and teased his belly button with her tongue, he unbuttoned the double buckle of the Concho-laden belt.  Once that was undone, she teased his navel with her tongue as her fingers traced around the top of his pants, the tips, just inside them.  When her hands met in the center, she began to unbutton the fly.

‘Jesus’ it felt good.  Her touch was so light, it sent shivers through his body and he broke out in goose bumps.  He felt weak.

Her hands ran inside his pants to his buttocks, which she squeezed and then pushed down the leather, running her hands back to the front, to pull his pants down further so that the object of her desire could spring forward, free of constraint for some very gentle attention from her tongue.

Her lips touched him there first, soft and wet. When her tongue flicked delicately across the tip, his head rocked back and a soft moan escaped his lips.  ‘Damn’ this felt good.

Three hours later, he felt satiated and they had been lying naked on the bed drowsing, when the sounds of the late afternoon stagecoach arrival awakened them.  She turned over and snuggled into him.

“You know I’m leaving first thing in the morning.”

“Leaving?  Why?  I was surprised you came back.”

“Well, the job I had in Kansas, it wasn’t what it was supposed to be.  I got another one, a good one, in San Francisco.  A girl I met in Kansas is there now.  I just stopped here to earn some more money.”

“Oh.  In the mornin’ huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I guess we’d better get busy sayin’ bye.”  He rolled over on top of her.

He awoke and felt great for those first fleeting moments until he identified the sounds of the town outside from the open window.  He wasn’t in his bed either.  Oh yeah, he was at Ellen’s and upstairs with Sadie.

Opening his eyes, he turned over to reach for Sadie and saw she wasn’t there.  Lying, instead, on her pillow, was a note.  About that same time, he realized it was morning, late morning, he could tell by the look of the sunlight streaming through the window.

‘Mierda!’ He had slept through the night.  Damn, he was for sure in hot water now!  Murdoch and Scott would be madder than couple of rabid dogs wonderin’ what the hell had happened to him.  Probably thought he’d taken off.  Heart racing, he jumped up and pulled on his clothes, picking them up from the floor beside the bed.  He pulled on his boots and stood up.

After securing his gun belt nice and tight, he splashed some water on his face from the basin.  He grabbed the note up and stuck it in his pocket.  ‘Shit! Barranca!’ He had been tied outside, saddled, half the day and all night!  At least he hoped he was still there.

He ran down the stairs and out the back door, spurs jingling like sleigh bells, unaware of the pair of green eyes watching him from the crack in another door down the hall.

There stood Barranca, head down, munching contentedly on some of Ellen’s bushes.  The horse had managed to loosen his reins from the tree and was exacting his own form of revenge.  Ellen adored her flowers, bushes and such.  She had a gardener who helped her keep up the little back yard area that was a lot like the Lancer flower garden, but a lot smaller.  He noticed some big clumps of dirt pulled from the carpet of velvety grass in the small yard.  Barranca’s handiwork for sure.

Reaching his blond friend, he apologized. “Sorry amigo.  I’ll make this up to you, but we gotta git, and now.”

He tightened the cinch on the saddle where he had loosened it the afternoon before.  He had known he was going to spend a long time in the house, but hadn’t meant it to be this long.  Barranca snaked his head around and laid his ears back and snapped at him, but stood steady for him.

Johnny mounted in one quick movement and Barranca turned and took off, as if he knew, that despite his friend’s poor treatment of him that he needed to get him home fast and safe.

The green eyes watched him admiringly from the window of the room he had just left, as he mounted Barranca and took his leave of Miss Ellen’s small, once elegant garden.

Johnny and Barranca raced across the dry, dusty, terrain, a stream of dust floating in their wake.  They were taking a short cut across the valley to cut off some of the excess distance of the main road that meandered above, flat and safe for wagon travel, intent on getting back onto the road that led from town out to the ranches sprawled out across the San Joaquin Valley and eventually out to Lancer further down.

Racing up a steep incline littered with rocks and scrub brush, they popped out onto the road from behind a large boulder, almost directly in front of the Widow Merry’s buggy, sending her horse sideways and almost overturning the buggy.  The horse then bolted.

‘Mierda, Mierda, Mierda!” Johnny cursed his misfortune as he and Barranca came to a rough sliding stop, Barranca rearing back on his haunches flinging his head in a cloud of dust.  Johnny, thrown forward from the sudden stop, turned his head just in time to avoid smashing his face into the beefy crest of Barranca’s neck as it rose to meet him.  Instead, his cheekbone took the brunt of the hit, hard enough, that for a moment he thought had broken his jaw.

Ever quick and surefooted, Barranca managed to stop and turn on a dime, pushing off haunches well muscled from daily work, into a bullet like run to chase down the speeding buggy horse before it crashed the bouncing, darting buggy.

It only took a few long strides for Barranca to catch up to the large draft horse.  The widow was screaming her lungs out and pulling as hard a she could on the reins with no effect.

As Barranca overtook the animal, Johnny leaned over and grabbed its bridle, pulling back hard on the bit and speaking Spanish to the animal, which finally slowed down and eventually stopped.

Before he could turn and apologize, the Widow, known to be the nastiest of the town’s widows and gossips, unleashed her viperous tongue, when she recognized him.

“You!  You devil’s spawn!  I could expect this out of such a wicked boy such as you.  The fire’s of Hell will be too good for you, you half-breed son of Satan.”

Out of breath, heart racing as fast as Barranca had just run, and feeling a little dizzy and nauseous from overextending himself, her words cut into him like the lash of a whip.  He stared at her with blue eyes that became ice cold and hard.  The widow stared back.

Pushing himself away from the buggy horse, which stood lathered and panting, he sat up straight in the saddle as his emotions turned dark and sinister.  God he hated this bitch, and to think, he could have let the horse go on running if he’d only known.  She’d be dead by now, or at least so wounded she would die, maybe even lie there alive for a little while, while the buzzards picked at her flesh.  That would be perfect.

With no more than a suggestive thought, he turned Barranca around, and stepped towards her.  His right hand rested on the butt of his Colt.  He stopped, his position on Barranca placing him just a little above her.

Leaning over into her face, which had gone white, a sign that she had realized her mistake, he spoke softly to her, his tone icy cold.

“Fuckin’ punta!  You ever talk to me like that again, and you’ll see the fires of Hell for yourself.  But not before I make your last few hours on Earth feel like Hell, and I don’t mean with this.”

He unhooked the catch of the holster and pulled the Colt out.  He held it so she could get a good, up close looked at the dark, shiny, modified weapon, responsible for so many deaths.  He rotated his wrist back and forth a little, so she would get a real eyeful of the smooth black steel.

He could see her begin to tremble, his eyes never leaving hers.  He replaced and secured the Colt, and spurred Barranca, who leapt away from the side of the buggy into a run.  For a second time, the widow’s horse spooked, but too exhausted to run, it was more flinch than run.

After he had completed the curve in the road that blocked her view of him, he slowed Barranca to a walk.  Angry with himself, he reflected, ‘I knew it was too good to last.’  But what the hell had gotten into him, swearing at the widow like that?

The words had bolted out of his mouth as fast as that old draft horse had taken off.  Mierda.  She was a fuckin’ punta, but to say that to her.  Yep, if she heard that, and the ol’ man found out that he’d said that to her, well, that big ol’ vein in his forehead that always seemed to be a part of their ‘discussions’ as Scott called them, would probably bust wide open.  That is, after Murdoch busted him in the mouth.

There was no way that little run-in wasn’t gonna spread like wildfire in a tumbleweed patch. She was real close to the preacher’s wife and Murdoch had them out for Sunday dinner every now and then. It was bound to be ‘mentioned’ to his father in some outrageous, dressed up version.  ‘Mierda’ was that what Sam meant when he said he’d be ‘temperamental?’

He wasn’t too sure what Murdoch would say if he told her what she said to him, but he knew he wouldn’t tell his father.  It would hurt his father to know that there were people who thought such things about him.  Hell, it would hurt his father to know that some of what she said was probably true.

Peaceful existence, now a mere memory, he resigned himself not to stress Barranca anymore by trying to get back to the ranch fast.  He was so late it wouldn’t make any difference whether he was any more or less late.

Around the bend, the Widow Merry took a deep breath and tried to calm herself.  When she felt she was steady enough, she picked up her lines with her still shaking hands, and asked the big draft horse to move off.  A gentle breeze blew across her face, cooling her, but the horse jerked again to the side, before it continued to move forward.  ‘Damn horse!  Don’t know what the hell’s wrong with him today.’

She never saw the piece of folded paper that had blown under the horse’s feet and then to the other side of the road and into the brush.

 

Chapter 8

Val Crawford, had just locked the door of the jail cell, incarcerating Nix Jacobs, one of the newer hands at the Conway ranch.  There were a lot of changes at the ranch now that Aggie had married Buck Addison.  Shaking his head, he headed back to his desk.  He never had trouble with any of the hands from out at Aggie’s place much, but now that she had married Addison, he was ‘calling the tune’ as Johnny’s old man would say, and he had hired a good deal more hands, hands that had come from out of town.

Funny, the rumors around town about Murdoch and Aggie had been going on since well before he or Johnny came.  He liked Aggie, and if anyone could or would be willing to take on the role of stepmother to Johnny, it would be Aggie, and he could think of no one else better.  Lord knew the boy’s own mother hadn’t done much of a job, and Johnny had only just gotten used to the fact that he had family at all.  Johnny liked Aggie.  He respected her for her knowledge and love of horses, something they had in common that had already bonded them as friends.

Strange she would just up and marry a man like Addison.  He didn’t seem her type and both he and Johnny had a bad feeling about him.  Johnny said Murdoch hadn’t commented on the marriage, but he didn’t think his ol’ man was too happy about it.  Not only did it end a meal at her place every week, but it did seem the neighbors weren’t as neighborly as they had been before Addison came to town.

He was just about to sit down at his desk when he heard the shots.  He didn’t need to hear the shouts of the town’s citizens of “they’re robbing the bank” to know what was happening.  He knew immediately that it was the bank.  It had to be.

He told the goddamned Cattlemen’s Association they should let him oversee the safety of their money, but no, they felt that the Pinkerton Guards would do for the extra bank security and would just reassure folks that the bank was looking after their money.  But no, they didn’t believe him, that the Pinkerton guards would just cause undue attention.  He told them they should have stuck with the original plan, to put the money in the small bank in Morro Coyo, where no one would expect it to be, and then let him and Brad and Wren bring it up that morning before the transfer into the armored wagon the railroad would send.

No time to argue now, he flung the keys onto the desk.

He yanked open the office door so hard, it slammed back and into the wall, making the indention where the knob had embedded into the wood from many other similar actions, that much deeper, before it bounced back and swung closed behind him, the shade flapping in the silent office.

Jumping off the boardwalk and into the street in two very balanced steps, he met Tim who came running out of the saloon, where he had been estimating damages.  Drawing their guns and running forward, they heard the screaming and the shots coming from the direction of the Green River Bank.  The smell of gunpowder drifted towards them.

The five bandits had mounted and were tearing down the middle of the street, running over anything and anyone in their way, taking wild pot shots to keep potential attackers at bay.  They looked larger than life on their horses, their faces covered by bandanas, the dust swirling up from the dry hard street, mingling with the haze of the gunpowder, giving the street a surreal feel and smell.  They had the good citizens of Green River fleeing the street, ducking, diving, and cowering.

It was too late to formulate a plan.  There was nothing to do but shoot it out.  The two men took their stance in the middle of the street, one in a stance all too familiar to him, the other stood his ground, but it was an unfamiliar feeling, one that he once thought that he would welcome, but the reality of which, was far cry from the rush he had though it would be.

The sun blinding them, another talisman of bad luck, bandits bearing down on them, together, they raised their pistols and fired.  Val’s shot met its mark and the rider fell dead off his horse and into the street, as his horse spooked and jumped over some dropped crates, landing on the boardwalk, running into the general store, from where shrieks and crashes emanated.

Tim’s shot grazed one bandit, who temporarily lost his balance, but hung on for dear life to the side of his horse, as another one leaned over and grabbed him helping him sit back up in the saddle.  That rider, wearing black leather pants with silver conchos and a red shirt, turned his palomino towards Tim who fired again at another bandit, and slammed into him at a dead run.

Tim, whose head collided with the golden animal’s shoulder, looked up and saw the blue eyes and long black hair of the bandit, his jaw dropping open, before the collision knocked him backwards into a nearby hitching rail, whiplashing his upper and lower body around it and dropping to the ground unconscious.

Val got another shot off before the riders enveloped him in their dust cloud.  As they passed, he turned around to fire again.  The rider on the palomino reined the animal back on a dime, leveled his own pistol and fired.

Val hit the ground hard, thudding to the ground on his back, as the bullet entered his chest and blood began soaking into his shirt.  His Colt fell from his hand on his way to the ground faster than his body.

The rider paused, then moved his horse forward as if to check his target.  Satisfied, he and the golden steed wheeled around and took off at a dead run.

As soon as the bandits were gone, the deadly, smoke filled silence of the main street of Green River resumed chaos of a different sort.  Sam Jenkins had peeked out the window of his office and saw the events unfold, yelling for his housekeeper to get the surgery area ready.  He ran outside where three men had already reached Val and looked up at him as he neared.

“Get him into my office, NOW!”  Sam saw the blood and saw that the wound was serious enough that without immediate action, Green River might be looking for a new Sheriff, and Johnny Lancer would lose his best friend.

Once Val was on the table, Sam began barking orders, “Joe, go get Mabel Hopkins to come and help me.  Somebody go get Jake and get him in here!”

At the same time, two other men were bringing in an unconscious Tim Sherman and others, two more wounded, including the bank robber Val had shot.  When they laid him on the table, the office went quiet.  Everyone recognized him as a Lancer ranch hand, one that had known Johnny in his past.

About that time, Jake the big burly bartender arrived.  Sam looked up from the back room where his housekeeper was helping him strip Val’s shirt off and sterilizing instruments.

“Jake, the mayor’s in San Francisco.  We got no law here.”

“Got ya, Sam.”

“Okay everybody, let’s clear out.   Billy, I want you to ride over to Spanish Wells and get Sheriff Gabe over here.”  Jake barked his orders in a tone reminiscent of the former Confederate officer that he once was.

The last thing Sam heard was Jake talking about sending someone to the Lancer ranch for Murdoch Lancer.  He cringed at the thought of what that was going to bring, as the vision of the shooter on the palomino flashed through his own mind.

The sound of racing hooves woke him.  Johnny, groggy from sleep, sat up in a panic.  ‘Shit! ’

He looked at the sky, it had been at least an hour or so.  His little adventure was gonna cost him dearly with the old man.  That was for sure!  Fuck!  Things were going good, too.

He found Barranca grazing near the stream, tightened his cinch and mounted slowly.  He really felt like shit.  He had felt nauseous and had stopped to throw up.  He had leaned back against a tree, and the next thing he knew, well, it was now.

He turned Barranca and headed for the ranch, not feeling like it, but trying now to make up some time, he took another cross-country trail.  They had traveled only about fifteen minutes before he felt it and heard it.

Barranca took an odd step, as Johnny caught sight of the object flying through the air before it struck a rock and landed with a ‘thunk’ on the hard ground.

“God damn it!”  He swore out loud.  Of all times to lose a shoe! Fuck!

Murdoch stared out of the window, worried sick, wondering what to do.  He and Scott had gotten home late last night and Johnny hadn’t been there, and no one had any idea where he had gone.  He hadn’t slept all night, listening for the soft jingle of his son’s spurs on the stairs, drowsing and jerking awake at every creak and squeak.  He was feeling the strain now.  Johnny still hadn’t come home and it wasn’t long until supper.

As soon as Scott got back from checking the stream from the north pasture, he was going to demand that he go looking for Johnny.  He wasn’t sure how he was going to handle this either when Johnny did come home.  Things had been going so well.  Johnny wasn’t a kid.  He couldn’t very well punish him like one, but somehow, he had to get it through to him that he had to be more responsible.  He had believed him sincere the night before.

He thought he and Johnny had crossed some bridges this week.  Each had revealed some deep feelings that only a situation like theirs would have provoked them to express.  He had managed to get those three, so hard to say, but so true, words, “I love you” spoken aloud to his son.

Johnny hadn’t said them back, but he had felt, seen, heard, the change in his son after that.  He hadn’t imagined that.  It was going to take more time for them, he knew that, but he felt it was a foundation laid to build upon.  What would have possessed him to take off without any word?

The other side of the coin was that Johnny had met with some misfortune and needed his family.  That seemed more the case after the past week they had spent together.  Had someone from the past shown up?  That worried him even more.  Where the hell are you Johnny?   Did they make it through all this for him to lose him again?  He’d been worrying about this one boy all his life.  Would it ever end?

Still staring out the window, he blinked twice to be sure.  It was Johnny, it had to be, the golden horse by his side a dead giveaway.  He could see him on foot, trudging along with Barranca flinging his head around coming from the Lancer arch.  Johnny’s walk still had a swagger to it, but his head was down.  God, it irritated him to see that.

Murdoch stood up and stepped out of the French doors.  He saw Johnny’s head come up.  The boy had some instincts.  There was no way he could have heard him open the doors, he was still too far away.

A young vaquero saw Johnny and ran out to meet him, taking Barranca from him.  He saw Johnny pat the horse on the neck as he spoke to the young man before he let him lead his horse away, and then his boy turned towards, him, head down.

Murdoch bit his lip as Johnny neared.  He was afraid to open his mouth, not certain what might come out.  But if he were betting, it wouldn’t be kind.  His emotions of relief, love, and anger were entwined and bound inside him like a spring release trap.

 

Gratefully, he didn’t have to speak first.  Johnny did.  The boy glanced up at him, almost peeking up at him before his head was back down and he ran his hand through his hair.

“I’m sorry Murdoch.  I really don’t have any excuse.  All I can do is tell you what happened, and you won’t like it.”

Murdoch closed his eyes, trying to keep calm.  “Okay, let’s go inside.” Relieved that his words didn’t come out angry.  He followed Johnny into the great room.  Johnny sank into the sofa, having tossed his hat onto a chair.

After closing the doors, Murdoch stepped over to the bar and poured a large glass of water from the pitcher there, refreshed regularly by Teresa and Maria.  He handed the glass to Johnny, who nodded his thanks and drank the glass down in one long gulp.

When he was finished, he held the glass out to Murdoch, who took it and refilled it.  Once he had handed it back, refilled, he poured himself a scotch, and settled in the large chair nearest Johnny, just at the corner of the sofa.  That’s when he noticed the side of Johnny’s head seemed puffy and a little discolored.

Johnny took a couple more sips, and leaned back and looked at him, the regret, easy to see in his eyes.  He was surprised that they weren’t cold and emotionless like they always seemed to be towards him, especially when they were about to be at odds, and they were about to be he feared.

Johnny’s look was awkward.  He had received that look several times before.  He wasn’t certain of its meaning, but if he didn’t know better, he would almost think that his son was afraid of him.  But it couldn’t be that, Johnny wasn’t afraid of anything.

 

“Well, I might as well just give you the short version, and get it over with.  I went to Ellen’s to see Sadie.  I was planning to be home by supper, but I fell asleep and when I woke up, it was this mornin’.”  He held up his hand to stop his father’s anticipated interruption.

“Then I started for home as fast as I could, even took a short cut, but then I got sick and leaned back against a tree and fell asleep again.  I woke up, and coming back, Barranca threw a shoe.  Son of a bitch probably did it on purpose for leaving ‘im out all night.  I had to walk the last five miles.”

Murdoch gripped his glass so tight he thought it might shatter.  Johnny’s last two sentences were vehement with anger.  He took a long slow draw on the drink to buy time before he had to answer.  He wanted to burst out laughing.  Here was his son, Johnny Madrid, feared gunfighter, pouting.  A look he would cherish forever.  It was probably the first time he had ever seen John Lancer as an adult.

God, these were the moments he would have had lots of, had his boys been here with him all the time.  As much as he felt the need to be stern and lay down the law, he couldn’t, not with his son looking at him like that.  His jaw jutted out just like Maria’s had, his lower lip puffing up a little too.

He couldn’t stop it anymore than he could stop a train.  The laughter rumbled up from deep down in his belly and all the way out in waves, until he wondered if Johnny thought he’d gone mad.  The confused look on Johnny’s face was even more priceless than the first, incurring another bout of laughter.  It took several minutes to get himself under control, the release of pent up tension in the laughter so rewarding.

Johnny remained seated on the sofa, but began scratching at the cushion.  Murdoch figured that he’d better say something before Johnny bolted from the room.  Taking a deep breath to calm himself and to become serious, he spoke.

“John.  I’m sorry I laughed.  I’m not laughing at you, mind you, just at your poor set of circumstances.  I’m not going to comment on the reason you went to town.  You already know my feelings on that subject.  I’m just disappointed that you went there without me.”

“Ta Ellen’s?”

“No.  To town.  I wanted us to present a united front in town together.”

“Well, I didn’t exactly go ta town.  I went in the back way, so nobody saw me.  Hell, the only person that did see me was Sadie, and she’s gone.  Left on the mornin’ stage.”

Murdoch couldn’t help but feel a slight bit of relief at that last bit of information.  He knew Johnny seemed partial to that girl.  He’d heard the whisperings, and he was terrified that she might end up at Lancer.  He had not been happy when he had heard she had returned to town.

“I see.  But she didn’t see fit to wake you?”

“No, I guess she figured I was sleepin’ too good.”

“Well, what happened to your face?  Is that swelling I see there?”  Murdoch leaned forward and cupped Johnny’s chin with his hand and turned his head where he could get more light onto it.  It was swelling and beginning to bruise.

“Barranca bumped me.”

“Barranca!”

“Yeah, it’s nothin’.”

“It’s gonna bruise.  You look tired.”

“I am.  I just walked five miles.”

“Well why don’t you go get cleaned up and go to bed.  I’ll have Maria bring you something to eat on a tray.”

Johnny stared at him, wide-eyed.

“That’s it?  Ya not gonna chew me out?”

Murdoch smiled.  “Not this time son, it seems the Gods and Barranca have punished you enough for one day.”

Johnny flashed him a shy smile, “Thanks, Murdoch, I am sorry.”

“You’re welcome son.  Let’s just not have a repeat.  I was worried sick.”

“I need to go look at Barranca real quick before I lay down.”  He stood and headed towards the French doors, he was too tired to deal with hurt feelings now.  Especially since, he was off the hook with the old man.

Murdoch could swear Johnny had a lighter stride, as his spurs jingled lightly as he headed towards the front door.  ‘Could it really be this simple to get along with his youngest?’

Johnny sat down in the stuffed chair in his room and looked at the perfectly made bed.  Boy was he ready to go there! But first, he was going to have a quick cool bath.  Scott’s indoor plumbing had him spoiled.  He started pulling his boots off.

It was a relief that the ol’ man didn’t bust a gut over his disappearance.  In fact, it was a downright miracle. He’d seen those blood veins standing out on his father’s neck and could see the one on his head begin to bulge when he walked up.  He couldn’t believe he laughed at him though.  Shit, he never would have expected that.  If he hadn’t been so tired and put out at Barranca, he might have laughed too.  In fact, had this happened to Scott, he definitely would have laughed, and probably as hard as the ol’ man did.

He threw his boots across the room, stripped off his shirt and his pants.  He snatched the pair of long john’s, once Scott’s, cut off for him when he was shot by Pardee, from a drawer.  He couldn’t very well sleep in the buff if Maria was gonna bring him a tray.  However, he did cross the hall completely naked with a tired smile on his face.

Scott opened the door to Johnny’s room.  He had prepared himself to meet the Colt head on, but instead, found his brother curled on his side, asleep under the covers for once.  Johnny’s right hand was tucked under a pillow, leaving him no doubt that the Colt was there.

The window was wide open and the cool breeze blowing in was refreshing.  His brother looked so peaceful he couldn’t bear to wake him.  He quietly placed the tray on the small table in Johnny’s room and left, pulling the door closed quietly.

Downstairs with Murdoch, he poured each of them a shot of whiskey.

“Johnny awake?”

“No, sir, sound asleep.  I left the tray in case he wakes up hungry.”

Brad and Wren stepped inside the great room from the French doors.  They had had a smoke and a chat outside.

“Drink?”  Scott looked at them, eyebrows raised.

“Sure.”  They both chimed.  They were enjoying the fine things that Lancer had to offer.  They were also grateful that the work they had been helping Val with was finished and off their plates.

Another day or two, and Johnny would be well enough to take him out on the town and then it would be time to head back to Texas.

The foursome stood and toasted Johnny of all things, and as they began to disperse to their places around the room, the sound of horses coming fast stopped them in their tracks.  Probably not good news.

Murdoch headed for the front door as Brad and Wren’s hands had automatically gone to their side arms.  Before Murdoch reached the door, there was a loud pounding.  He limped to the door, Scott behind him.

Scott was shocked to see Sheriff Gabe standing there.  From Murdoch’s stance, he was too.

“Mr. Lancer.”

The Sheriff took his hat off as his father stepped back and indicated with his hand for him to enter.  From the look on the Sheriff’s face, it was bad news, and inside, Scott’s gut tightened.  He had learned that trouble and bad news seemed to follow his little brother.

He could see two other men outside about to dismount before his father so adeptly closed the door to insure they remained outside.  His father never liked to have his business involve more people than necessary.

“Gabe, this looks serious.  Would you like a drink?” his father looked serious too.  He’d bet all his ‘listening money’ as Johnny called it, that Murdoch feared this had something to do with Johnny.

“Actually, Mr. Lancer, I could use one.”

Scott moved quickly to pour.

“Would you like to sit down?” Murdoch offered.

“No, I think this is better standing up, but first, I have to ask you Mr. Lancer, do you know where Johnny is?”

“Why, yes I do.  He’s upstairs asleep.  He’s been quite ill.”

“Are you sure sir? I mean no disrespect, but have you actually seen him?”

“Well not since this afternoon, but Scott just took a tray of supper up to his room and saw him there asleep not five minutes ago.”

“What’s going on?  Johnny hasn’t been to Spanish Wells in some time. Not since before he, he, well, he went to Mexico.”

“I guess I’d better get to the point.  It ain’t good.  The Green River Bank was robbed today.  Two armed guards shot and killed, Val Crawford was shot, Tim was hurt, run down in the street by a horse.  Val killed one of the bandits.  It was one of your hands, the one called Kick.  The worst part is, everybody in town saw the bandits and they say Johnny was one of them and say he’s the one that shot Val.”

“God damn it!”  Brad and Wren expressed verbally what Scott was thinking.

“The bank?!  You mean they got The Cattlemen’s Association money? DAMN!”

Murdoch threw his glass against the mantle.

I can tell you Gabe, that JOHNNY was not a part of any bank robbery!  I don’t give a damn as to who says any different!  As for Val, how is he?  How did this happen?  When?”

“Just before lunch time.  Five of ‘em rode in and four out.  Seems that one of ‘em split off from the rest.  They got the money bag from the Cattlemen’s Association, and a quite a bit more.  It’s a damn mess.  I don’t know how they could have known about that money being at the Green River Bank.  I’ve wired for the U. S. Marshall, he should be here tomorrow.  He’ll need to take over the investigation of all this.

Mr. Lancer, can I have your word that you’ll keep Johnny here at the ranch, ‘til we get this straightened out?  I know the Marshall’s gonna wanna talk to him.  It don’t set right with me that your boy’d do this either, but I trust you to keep him here.”

“Absolutely.   What else can Lancer do to help? How is Val?”

“Well, the doc got the bullet out, but he’s still pretty bad off.  Doc ain’t sayin’ one way or another.  I also need to know if you men,” he nodded to Brad and Wren, “could come to Green River and look after things while Val’s down?”

“On our way Sheriff!”

Wren left through the French doors to go to the barn and get their horses saddled.

“I think that about sums it up, Mr. Lancer.  It’s just a mess.  I figured you’d want to know about Johnny, your hand, and Val, and well, about all of it involves you in some kind of way.”

“Thanks, Gabe.  I appreciate your concern, and your courtesy.”  Murdoch walked the Sheriff and Brad to the door.

Murdoch returned to the great room and picked up his drink, downed it, and poured another.  He sat down behind his desk, dropping heavily into the chair.  It squeaked and groaned in protest.

“Kick hasn’t worked here for three weeks.  I fired him.”  Scott stated.

“Fired him?  Does Johnny know?”

“I don’t know.  I fired him right after Johnny disappeared.  I doubt anyone’s even thought to mention it to him.  Although I don’t think he’s had any contact with any of the hands except for maybe Jelly.”

“Scott, I’m worried about this allegation of Johnny being involved.  I know he didn’t do it, but I think we need to get a lawyer for him, just in case.   I mean, we only know what he told us he was doing.  I don’t look forward to sharing this news with him at all.”

“Well, sir, I think the worst for Johnny is going to be telling him about Val.”

“Damn!”  Murdoch slammed his fist on the desk.

 

Chapter 9

Johnny awoke feeling rested and ready to go, something he hadn’t felt in some time.  He could tell by the way the sun shone on the foot of his bed that it had been up for a couple of hours.  A loud growl came from his stomach and he realized that he was starving since he didn’t eat the day before.  Sitting up on the side of the bed, he saw the tray of food left on his table some time in the night and smiled.  Mierda, he never even woke up.

He stood up and stretched with a big yawn.  Grabbing his balls for a quick squeeze, he walked over to the washstand and looked in the mirror.  Deciding not to shave, he splashed some water on his face and ran wet fingers through his hair to tame it.   Looking at himself, he did need a haircut.  Maybe he could talk Murdoch into riding into town today.  Might not be too hard, since he’d been on him about his shaggy hair ever since he’d come back the first time.

He opened the armoire, grabbed his red shirt and put it on, his fingers much steadier today on the toggles.  He grabbed his black calzoneras from the bureau and stepped into them, buttoning the fly.  Rounding up his boots from their separate places on the floor, he pulled them on and buttoned the legs of the calzoneras over them.  He headed downstairs, looking forward to a big breakfast.

His spirits dropped the moment he hit the bottom of the stairs, seeing Murdoch in the great room.  The old man was at his desk and didn’t look up despite the noise he made coming down.

“Mornin’ Murdoch.” He called tentatively to his father from the bottom of the stairs.

“Mornin’ John.  Come and see me after breakfast.  I need to talk with you.”

Murdoch’s flat tone made him even more uneasy.

“’kay, but breakfast can wait.”

“Eat first.”

Mierda.  Maybe the ol’ man was pissed ‘cause he’d slept so late.  But what the hell?  He could have gotten him up.  It wouldn’t be the first time the ol’ man had physically dragged him out of bed.

He didn’t want to eat, but his body demanded that he did.  Maria seemed happy as she fried him some bacon, so she didn’t know what was going on.  Maybe Murdoch had changed his mind and was gonna give him another lecture on responsibility or something.  Well, the sooner he got in there, the sooner he’d know.  Dios, no one could make him worry like the ol’ man.

He ate as fast as he could and went back into the great room.  Scott was there, a dark look on his face.  This was bad.  Whatever it was, it was bad if Murdoch had Scott in here with him.  Mierda.

“Have a seat Johnny.”  Murdoch was standing near the fireplace mantle.

He was hesitant to sit down on the couch.  His hackles raised at the back of his neck when Scott sat down next to him and squeezed him on the shoulder.  Mierda was he about to be thrown out?  His stomach knotted up and for a brief moment, he thought he was gonna lose his breakfast.

Murdoch sat down across from him in the chair, trapping him between them, putting him on edge.  As Johnny looked between Scott and his father, Murdoch saw eyes that had sparkled brighter than the stars yesterday, replaced by dead cold spheres of blue steel.

“Johnny, son.”

“Spit it out ol’man, just spit it out.”

Soft words, hard and cold as ice, he braced himself for the blow.

“Val Crawford was shot last night.”

His outer demeanor, the result of a hard young life, gave no inkling of the overwhelming emotion his father’s words evoked.   Breathless, as the words punched him in the gut, harder than the old man’s fist would.  Flames flashed from head to toe and to the tips of the fingers of his gun hand, now twitching at his side.  Doused by emotional weariness, they left him cold, numb, and a hundred years old.

Death was just another punch in the arm in an endless game of arm punching until it didn’t hurt anymore.  However, unlike that little boy’s game, this punch did hurt, and bad.  The damn of hopeless, empty feelings that life had left him with, were broken as his mother’s temper flooded his veins with pure rage. Whoever had done this would pay, and pay with their life.  No one, no one, hurt a friend of Johnny Madrid.  Especially Val.

His eyes never leaving his father’s he asked, “And?”

“And?”  Murdoch looked at him.

“Is he dead?”  His voice was flat.

“No, but it’s not good.”

“Who shot him?”  He maintained his professional tone, and as he moved to stand, Scott grabbed him by the shoulder, “Wait a minute brother, there’s more,” but let go when he turned his glare upon his older brother.  He remained seated, however.

The fingers of his right hand began tapping incessantly against the leather pants.

Johnny, it seems the bank was robbed and Val was shot by one of the robbers.  The one who shot him, for some reason has been identified as you.”

“ME!  Why the hell would they think that?”  Johnny leapt up, jerking away from Scott and dodging Murdoch’s long legs, getting into some open space and feeling less trapped.

Murdoch and Scott both jumped up.  “I don’t know Johnny.  All Gabe said was that the whole town saw it and said it was you!  You were missing from the ranch all day yesterday!

“What? Did you tell them that?!”

“Of course not!  Now SIT DOWN and listen to me!”  Murdoch’s voice was loud enough to shake the rafters and Scott watched Johnny fling himself into a chair and saw the surprise in his father’s face that Johnny did as he was told.

“We are going to face this together, as a family!”

“Oh RIGHT, you’re not the one being accused of shootin’ the sheriff and robbin’ the bank!

FUCK!”  Anger and frustration released in that one vile word which echoed throughout the hacienda.

“Mind your language boy!  We have women in this house!”  Murdoch roared.

In response, Johnny kicked out at the ottoman, turning it over and flounced sideways in his chair, a dark, dangerous look on his face.

“John, listen to me.  I think the best action we can take is to meet this head on.  We need to ride into town and find out about Val and we need to get you an attorney.  We understand a U. S. Marshall is coming today to investigate and take over.”

“Where’s Wren and Brad?  They go ta town to see Val?”

“They did, last night.”

“Scott’s got the horses, saddled, and I . . .”

“Not quite sir.  It seems Barranca was out last night and I couldn’t catch him.”

Johnny jumped up and stalked to the door, snatching his gun belt from the rack, putting it on in record time, and grabbed his hat and left the house, the front door slamming behind him.

“Well, that went well.”  Scott offered to Murdoch.  They heard Johnny’s loud wolf whistle as he called for his horse.  “He took it better than I thought he would.”

“Did you see his eyes?  He took this way too well.  I’m worried Scott.  When we get to town, I want you to wire Jarrod Barkley.  I want the best for this.  I’ve already written it out.  I’ll take Johnny over to see Val and then over to see the Marshall.  As soon as you get the wire sent, go get Mr. Randolph and bring him over to Val’s office, I’m sure that’s where they are operating from.”

Murdoch stood and handed the note to Scott, who tucked it in his shirt pocket, and they made their way to the front foyer, putting on their own gun belts and hats.  They stepped outside and untied their mounts from the rail.  Johnny walked out of the barn with Barranca and was preparing to mount when the sound of horses could be heard coming up the road.

Murdoch and Scott retied their mounts.  Johnny stood in the middle of the yard, his relaxed stance giving no clue to his readiness to draw at the first sign of trouble, other than his hand near the butt of his Colt.

The riders neared.  A tall stranger rode up front on a dark bay horse.  Next to him was Gabe, and two more riders, one of considerable size.  When they got closer, Johnny recognized both the Marshall, and Jake the bartender.

When they stopped in front of the Lancers, the Marshall gave Johnny a long look.  Johnny returned it.

“Johnny Madrid.”

“Wilkes.”

“Marshall Wilkes to you Madrid.”

Jake, Gabe, and the other man all looked down at the ground, not meeting any of the Lancer’s looks.

“Excuse me, Marshall, I’m Murdoch Lancer and these are my sons.  You have business with Lancer?”  Murdoch stepped out and directly in front of the Marshall.

“Mr. Lancer, I have a warrant here signed by a judge for Madrid there.”

“His name is John Lancer.  You know my son?”

“We’ve met.”

“Well, I’d like to see the warrant.  And please, feel free to step down off your horse.  I prefer dealing with a man eye to eye.”

The Marshall took the suggestive order and dismounted.  He looked towards Gabe, who also dismounted.

Gabe took some handcuffs and approached Johnny.  “I’m sorry Johnny.  I gotta handcuff ya.  Marshall’s orders.  I need ya to take off your gun belt, first.  You can give it to Scott if ya want.”

Johnny looked at the Marshall, with the whisper of a smile on his face, and then slowly unbuckled his gun belt.  Scott stepped over and took the rig from his brother.  Johnny put his hands out front and Gabe gave him a sad smile, “Marshall specifically said behind the back.”

“I’m sure he did.” Johnny sighed as he complied, watching the facial expressions of his father, who was in an animated conversation with the Marshall in hushed tones, looking over the warrant.  His father looked ready to explode.  Wilkes could do that to a man.

Scott and Gabe helped Johnny mount Barranca.  By that time, Murdoch and the Marshall had finished their conversation for the time being.

They mounted up and the entire party headed towards Green River, seven silent riders alone with their own thoughts.

Johnny stared at the Marshall’s back the entire trip into town.  Dios, he hated that bastard.  He was almost as big as Murdoch and loved pushin’ people around with his size.  They had crossed paths more than once.  Not one time was it a pleasant experience, and their last time was disastrous enough to seal their relationship.  The Marshall hated him as much as he hated the Marshall.

Val.  What the fuck was he gonna do if Val died?  Well, he knew the answer to that.  It would destroy his relationship with Murdoch and Scott, but Val’s death would be avenged, no question.  If he lived?  Well, there would still be a reckoning for whoever shot him.  He felt certain that Brad and Wren would feel the same way.

Well for now, he was gonna have to figure out how the hell it came to be that the whole town saw him rob the bank and shoot Val.  Where the hell did that come from?  Did the townspeople hate him that bad?  Was this because he shot Murdoch?  Was it a set up? Coincidence?  Mierda!  What a fuckin’ nightmare!  Well, at least he had Sadie who could vouch for him.

Damn, two days of peace and all hell had broken loose.  Mierda!

 

Chapter 10

The townspeople stopped and stared as the seven riders traveled down the main street of Green River headed towards the Sheriff’s office.  No one had seen Murdoch or Johnny since the shooting, except the Sheriff and the doc.  Well, that is until they saw Johnny help rob the bank yesterday.

Johnny didn’t miss the Widow Merry standing outside the dress shop with two other women.  She wore a disgusted, but smug, look on her face.  The three of them stared at him with open disdain on their faces.  He just kept staring at the Marshall’s back.  When this was over, he and Wilkes would just have to have it out, once and for all.

At least Brad and Wren were there, and well, it looked like the ol’ man was gonna take his side.  And then there was Scott.  Poor Scott.  He had really put him in a trick bag.  Raised like royalty back east, then to be saddled with someone like him for a brother.  Because of his stupid shit, Scott had to run the ranch all by himself, and now there was this.  Dios!

They stopped in front of the Sheriff’s office.  Brad and Wren stepped out onto the boardwalk looking solemn.  Scott dismounted and tied his horse quickly, and moved to help Johnny, but Johnny threw his right leg over Barranca’s neck and leapt off.  Wilkes was staring at him with that disgusted look on his face.  Yep, he’d hated that little move.  He couldn’t help but take pleasure in pissin’ him off.  If that was enough to set him off, there was sure to be more to come, he thought.  He leveled his gaze with Wilkes and a tiny smirk of a smile crept across his lips.

“Marshall, before John turns himself in, so to speak, I’d like to take him over to the doctor’s to see Val.”  Murdoch had his arm around Johnny.

“Mr. Lancer, Madrid there is under arrest based on a warrant from a judge.  He is here to be placed in a cell, not to socialize.”

“I’ve already told you, Marshall, my son’s name is Lancer, John Lancer.  I would appreciate it if you would respect that and the fact that we are cooperating with you.  Because of that, I expect you, as a decent lawman, to allow him this small courtesy.”  Murdoch’s voice was calm and steady, asserting his wishes in a tone that said he expected compliance.

He did the best he could not to not to smile.  The two older men looked like two old bulls about to fight.  He had to look down and scuff his boot toe in the dirt for a moment to keep anyone from seeing his near grin.  He could just picture steam coming out of the Marshall’s ears, and Murdoch pawing at the ground.

Scott stepped to the other side of Johnny.  “Now, Sheriff, you don’t understand.  My brother is very close with Sheriff Crawford and just needs to see him for a moment.  Surely you can understand.”

“I know all about Crawford and Madrid,” He caught Murdoch’s glare, “I mean Johnny there.”

“Well Marshall, you might just want to play nice with Mr. Lancer.  You know he is a friend of the Lieutenant Governor and one of the biggest ranchers in the state.”  Brad stepped forward and spoke the words in a firm quiet manner, into Wilkes’ ear.

The Marshall’s face puckered up like he’d smelled a dead skunk, but he wasn’t stupid.  “You men gonna take responsibility for him?”

“Sure thing Marshall.  We’ll escort him right over to the doc’s and back, unless of course you want the job.”

“On second thought, I’d better go.”

Scott moved away to go to the telegraph office and the Marshall stepped over and grabbed Johnny by the arm and jerked him forward out of Murdoch’s grasp. 

Murdoch glared at the Marshall, but said nothing, remaining close to Johnny.

Johnny’s mood turned maudlin as they neared Sam’s office.  He and Val knew all along that they wouldn’t live to be old men, but mierda, why did this happen now?  Both of them had finally escaped the darkness of their prior lives and were making headway into the sunlight.

Inside Sam’s office, it was quiet.  The doctor led Johnny into the room that held two beds.  Val lay propped upon some pillows to elevate him a bit, but was as still and white as death.  Johnny had seen him like this just once before.  He was so pale and lifeless, like those wax figures they had seen once in Kansas.  Without the sarcasm and grumping, he seemed dead, just like those figures.

Yep, the one that did this would pay.  He would see to that personally.  Family be damned! Val was as much family to him as Murdoch or Scott, in some ways more.  Brad and Wren were there to watch his back.  He knew Scott would too, but he didn’t want Scott involved in this kind of fracas.  It would be too dirty, too ugly, and too dangerous for Scott, and he didn’t want his brother to see this side of him. 

He couldn’t even touch Val with his hands behind his back.  Just to squeeze his shoulder a little or touch his hand would have been comforting.  It would also be comforting to blow the bastard that did this, to kingdom come.  By God, he would do that as soon as he could get out of this mess.

He felt Murdoch’s large hand on his shoulder.  “Okay, John?”

He nodded and turned to go, leading Murdoch and the Marshall, who had hung back at the doorframe.

“Just one minute, Johnny.  I wanna take a look at you.”  Sam’s voice called from across the hall.

“That okay with you, Wilkes?”  Johnny let the sarcasm drip off his tongue.  He knew there was no way the ol’ man and Sam would take no for an answer on that.

Wilkes glared back at him, but said nothing.

“Come here, John.  Sit here and let me look at you.”  Sam patted the table but then remembered Johnny was handcuffed.

“Well, just stand right there.”

Johnny slouched against the examining table while Sam checked his vital signs, looked at his eyes, “I take it you’ve been eating and taking your powders?”

“Yeah, Sam.  Well, ‘cept for yesterday, but I did this morning.  Reckon I won’t have no problems long as I’m in that jail over there.”

“Are you feeling better?”

“A lot.  Still sleep a lot, but I wasn’t sleeping at all before, so, and then after, well, you know.”  Johnny glanced back at the Marshall.

“Okay, son.  I’ll be over to check on you.”

“Thanks, Sam.  I ‘preciate what all you’ve done for me.”

“You’re welcome Johnny.”

Sam patted Johnny on the shoulder and looked at the Marshall.  “I expect you to keep my patient well fed and comfortable, the old doctor stared at Wilkes who refused to face him.

Johnny turned and began to move towards the door, followed by Wilkes and his father.

Before the Marshall could step up an open the door, Scott appeared and opened it.  Johnny stepped out onto the boardwalk and waited for the Marshall and his father.   Once they were out, they headed down the boardwalk and across the street.  This time, Scott and Murdoch were on either side of him, leaving the Marshall to walk behind them.

He could feel the eyes of the town following them across the street.  It didn’t bother him so much, he was used to being stared at, but looking at his father and his brother, they weren’t.  He felt embarrassed for them, not for himself.  Yep, he’d sure caused them a lot of grief, yet here they were, standing up for him.  He didn’t deserve them, but this would be straightened out pretty soon and they could all go back to the ranch.

Well, after he took care of a little business.

 

Inside the sheriff’s office, free from his handcuffs, Johnny stepped into a cell.  After he entered, he turned to face Wilkes who was locking the door.  Their eyes met.  Wilkes gave him a smug look that said, ‘I got you now.’  He returned the look with one of his own, the one that said, ‘I’ll see you in hell.’

There were three cells in the jail, and Wilkes had placed him in the one nearest the big wooden door that separated the cells from Val’s office.  Murdoch stepped inside after the marshal had left, and pulled the big wooden door closed.

“There seems to be some history between you and this Marshal Wilkes, John.  Is it going to interfere with clearing you of this matter?”

“I have a history with a lot of folks, Murdoch.” He turned and walked back to the cot, where he sat down and leaned back against the wall, his profile to Murdoch.

“I don’t reckon it’ll ever go away, but what’s between me and him, well, it won’t affect the way he does his job, other than he’ll be an asshole to me whenever he can.”

“But there’s no crime he knows about, that we need to know about?”

The question slapped him in the face.  The ol’ man was already worried that he’d done something else, or worse, that he could be prosecuted for.

“NO, NO, There’s nothing he can do to me legally.”  He unconsciously wrapped his arms around himself as he huffed.

“Well, then, what is it?”

“It’s personal, that’s all, personal.  It’s over and done with.”  Telling the ol’ man he’d fucked the marshal’s girl, that wouldn’t set to well.  He hadn’t cared for her, he’d just fucked her to piss the man off.  It was a pretty shitty and cruel thing to do.  He knew that now, but back then, well, that was then.  Although, she had been quick to abandon the Marshall, to bed him.

Before Murdoch could press him further, the door opened and Mr. Randall, the attorney who had drawn up the ranch deed entered through the large wooden door, followed by Scott, who brought in a chair for the attorney who looked uncomfortable in the jail setting.

Murdoch stood and shook the man’s hand.  “Thanks for coming Mr. Randall.  I realize this isn’t your specialty, but I just want to be sure to cover things until John’s attorney comes from Stockton.”

“No problem, Murdoch.  We just need to get to work on the investigative side of things.”

“Now John, we just need to get your alibi straight, get a timeline so we can get someone to corroborate your side of things, get started on witnesses and the like.”

The attorney pulled on his spectacles that had been hiding in the breast pocket of his jacket, and then opened the leather valise he had brought with him, removing a pencil and paper.

“So where were you day before yesterday?  What time did you leave the ranch?”

“Well, I don’t know what time it was.  Since I’ve been sick, I haven’t looked at the time much.  It was late mornin’ for sure.  I got up late and Maria made me breakfast, so it must not have been too close to lunch.”

“What happened after you ate?”

“I came ta town, ta Ellen’s.”

“Ellen’s?” Randall raised his eyebrows and cocked his head with his unfamiliarity.

“You know, the bordello, the Soiled Dove.”

Recognition filled the man’s face and Johnny wondered at his ability to not look shocked or put out like Murdoch always did.  Hell, maybe he was a customer and maybe his wife didn’t know.

“So when you rode into town, who did you see that could vouch for you.”

“Nobody, ‘cept Sadie.  I came to the house from the back.  I left Barranca in Ellen’s back yard.”

“No one inside the house saw you?”

“No, everybody was asleep.”

“Asleep?”

“Well yeah, they work all night and sleep ‘til lunch or after before they start all over again.”

“I see.”

He watched the attorney jotting notes down in a quick, efficient, legible manner.  He chanced a glance at his father who was staring at the back wall of the cell next door.  The ol’ man hated discussing private affairs with outsiders.  This would be an embarrassment to him.

“Why did you go in the back way instead of using the front door?”

“Well, the ol’, I mean, Murdoch didn’t want me comin’ ta town without him the first time since I been back.  I just was tryin’ to do what he wanted and what I wanted at the same time.”

“What made you feel that you had the right to enter the house from the back?  It is a business establishment, is it not?”

“Well, Ellen don’t care, she told me to.  She knows how Murdoch feels about me goin’ there.”

He peeked at his father again and saw his jaw twitch.  Well, at least that blood vessel on his brow hadn’t popped up yet.

“So you are a regular customer?”

He glanced at Murdoch again and saw he had closed his eyes temporarily.  Wouldn’t be long at this rate that the vessel would be full and wigglin’ like a big old worm on his head.

“Ah, yeah.”

“Yes sir.” Murdoch spoke, but didn’t look at him.

“Oh, yes sir, sorry.”

“Quite all right.”

“Now, how did you enter?”

“Like I said, I went in through the back door.”

“Did you knock, have a key, just walk in?

“Oh.  No, Sadie came outside about the time I was walking up to the door.”

“I see.”

“So what happened, next?”

“Well, she ran out to me and well, ah, we went inside and upstairs to her room.”

“And no one saw you.”

“Nope.”

“No sir.”  Murdoch again spoke without looking at him.

“Oh yeah, no sir.”

He saw Randall frown and his eye movement told him that he could care less about the formalities.  ‘Course, he probably was used to it when dealing with the likes of people like himself.  Seemed he expected it.

“And did you leave the room at any time while you were there?”

“No sir.”  He glanced at Murdoch who had a pained expression on his face.

“What time did you leave?”

“The next moring.”

“The next morning?  You didn’t eat or go out of the room until the next morning?”

The slight sound of surprise in the man’s voice made him look up at Scott, who had been attentive to the attorney’s notes.  Scott glanced up at him and looked away, as when their eyes met and they almost burst out laughing.

“No, I mean, no sir.”

“Did Sadie ever leave to, ah, service any other customers?”

“Didn’t need no other customers.”

Murdoch took off his hat, slapping it down on the bench while Scott turned his head to hide the grin Johnny saw on his face.

“So, you were her only customer that day and night.”

“Yep, I mean yes sir.”

“And you two never left the room.”

“No.”

“Were you aware of your surroundings, I mean, did you hear any activities outside of your room of any significance, like shouting or fighting?”

“Well, I did hear somebody outside under the window say somethin’ ‘bout the afternoon stage being on time for once.  I heard the stage come in.  But that’s about all.”

“Any reason you stayed all night?”

“Well, yeah, but not ‘cause I planned it.  I guess I fell asleep sometime late that evening.  I’ve been sick since I came back and I sleep a lot.  I guess the ride inta town was took more outta me than I thought, ‘cause I fell asleep and then I just didn’t wake up ‘til the next mornin’.”

“You don’t think she put something in your drink or anything?”

“Sadie?  No, she wouldn’t do that to me.”

“Even if someone paid her?”

“Paid her?  Who would do that?  No one, includin’ her didn’t know I was even goin’ there that day.  I didn’t know ‘til I woke up that morning.”

“So what happened the next morning when you two awoke?”

“Nothin’.  She left before I woke up.  She was headed out on the early morning stage.  She left me a note.”

“A note?  Why didn’t she wake you?”

“I don’t know.  I guess to keep from crying like the last time.”

“Last time?”

“Yeah, she’s pretty attached to me.  I guess I’m pretty partial to her too, but,” he saw his father shift and knew that this part had raised his attention, “but she knows I ain’t gonna marry her.”  He tried to make eye contact with his father, but Murdoch didn’t return it.

“So Sadie would testify to this same story?”

“Well, yeah, yes, I mean but you’ll have to find her.”

“Where did she go?”

“I don’t know, some place in San Francisco.”

“Did the note have her address?”

“I don’t know.  Somebody will have to get it out of my shirt pocket.  When I woke up, I knew I was in trouble with the ol’, ah, Murdoch and Scott.  I knew they’d be upset with me, so I just grabbed it and took off for the ranch.”

“Did you see anyone when you left?”

“No, everybody was asleep.”

“How about on the way home?”

He took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly.  Murdoch was bound to hear about it one way or another, that much was clear.  He might as well get his own story told before her version came out and the ol’ man was too pissed off to hear his side.

“Well, yeah.”  He sat up on the bed, pulling his legs up Indian style, his fingers tapping on his thigh.  Although he was looking down, he could sense Murdoch turn, his interest evident.

“I ran into Widda’ Merry.”

“Ran into her her?”

“Yep.  I gotta tell ya, she don’t care for the likes of me, but I don’t reckon she’d lie about seein’ me.  Maybe exaggerate the circumstances, a bit.”

He looked up and met his father’s gaze as he uttered the last words.

“Tell me about it.  You’re certain she saw you?”

“Oh no doubt about it.”

Scott was looking at him now too.  He let out a sigh of resignation and rolled his eyes a bit before he told them.

“Yeah, I cut across the bottom tryin’ to get back to the ranch faster, cut out all those curves in the road, ya know.  When me and Barranca jumped up the bank onto the road, there was a boulder there, blocking my view and I didn’t see her coming, so when we popped out onto the road, we were almost on top of her.  Spooked her horse bad.  It took off with her.  I turned and chased them down and stopped the horse.”

“What would make her exaggerate about that?”

“Well, nothin’ I reckon.”  He clapped his hands on his thighs, unwound himself, stood up, walked to the back of the cell and then back to the front and sat back down on the cot.

“John.”

Damn, his father was startin’ to pick up on things a bit.  Maybe he could just pretend he didn’t hear him.

“John. What aren’t you saying?”

“Nothin’ Murdoch, we just had words, that’s all.  Don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll tell the judge she saw me.”

“Words?”

“Nothin’ all right.  Just leave it be.  She’s an old sour bitch, that’s all.”

“Johnny!”

“Leave it Murdoch!  Really, let it be.” He glared at his father.  He was tired of this anyway.

“What happened afterwards?”  Randall intervened.

“Afterwards?”

“After the two of you parted?  Did you go straight back home or did you see anyone else?”

“Oh.  Uh, no.  I got sick though.  I stopped for a few minutes under some trees not too far from Aggie’s place.  I sat down and I fell asleep again.  I woke up when I heard a horse runnin’ by, but I didn’t see who it was.”

“How long were you there?”

“I don’t know, more than an hour I think.”

“Did you go home from there?”

“Yep.”

“Didn’t see anyone on the road?”

“Nope.  Barranca threw a shoe not too much further down the road, so I cut across Aggie’s place to get back.”

“What time did you arrive at Lancer?”

He looked at his father who turned to the stoic attorney and said, “4:30.  I checked the clock.”

Yep, he’d bet the old man had checked the clock from dusk ‘til dawn and on.

“So what were you wearing that day?”

“Pretty much what I got on now, ‘cept the blue floweredy shirt that Maria made for me.”

“Why do you think everyone says it was you?”

“I don’t know, ‘cept it sounds like he was dressed like me.  If that’s the case, he’s probably Mexican, ‘cause no white man dresses like me.  White gunfighters are flashy, but not the same way.”

“I see.”

No Mr. Randall, you don’t see, but it’s okay.  Just get me the hell out of this mess. I gotta kill somebody and then try to  square things  with the ol’ man.

“So, have you and Sheriff Crawford had any disagreements?”

“No.”

“Did you know about the money that the Cattleman’s Association was depositing in the bank?”

“No idea what you’re talking about.”

“Your friends Mr. Kelso and Mr. Rogers didn’t tell you about it?”

“No.”

“You didn’t over hear anyone at Lancer talking about it?”

“No.  I have no idea what you’re talking about.  I’ve been sick until just a few days ago.”

“I see.  Anything else you have to say about that day?”

“Nope, other than I didn’t rob that bank and I didn’t shoot Val.”

“Well, so far, it seems we have some witnesses to interview.  We’ll have to locate this Sadie person, what was her last name?”

Johnny just shrugged his shoulders.

“Very well.”

He made a few more, lengthier, notes, and then put his paper and pencil into the valise and closed it.

“For now John, it would be in your best interest not to speak of your activities that day or of anything related to this case until your criminal attorney comes to give you some advice.  In the mean time, we’ll need to have someone locate your note and then locate Sadie.  Murdoch, we’ll save the interview with Mrs. Merry until John’s other attorney arrives.”

All three Lancers stood.  Murdoch shook Randall’s hand, thanked him and walked him out.  Scott stayed behind.  Johnny flopped back onto the cot.

“Well, little brother, you sure are calm about all this.”

“Why shouldn’t I be?  I didn’t do it.  I mean have people gone crazy?  I wouldn’t shoot Val.  I’m a gunfighter, not a bank robber.”

“No boy, you are a rancher!  Don’t forget it!  Well, it does sound like you have an alibi.  Anything I should know about that you left out of your statement?”

“Like what?”

“Anyone else you might have seen or left out.  You know, something you’d rather not tell Murdoch.”

“No.  But what’s all this about the Cattlemen’s money?  I have no idea what the hell he was talking about, but I bet you do big brother.”

“Yes, I do little brother, but for now, I think it best not to say, that is until after we talk to your attorney.”

“Say, Johnny, there’s something that I haven’t told you, that now we are alone, I guess I’d better. It might make more sense to you.”

He noted the serious look on Scott’s face, wondering how much more bad news there was.

“Let ‘er buck.”

“It’s about Kick.”

“Kick?  What’s he done now?”  Johnny was irritated.  He had tried to give the man a chance, but it just seemed he couldn’t stay out of trouble at Lancer.

“Well, first I guess I should tell you he’s dead Johnny.  I’m sorry.”

“Dead?  How?”  Johnny was surprised, but not shocked.

“He was shot robbing the bank.”

“Robbing the bank?”

“Shit!  Well Hell!  That would explain some of why people thought they saw me maybe.”

“Johnny, I had to fire him right after you disappeared.”

“Right after I left?  So he’d been off Lancer for what, almost a month?  He was still hanging around?”

“I guess so.  None of the hands have said anything about running into him in town though, and none of the other ranchers checked about hiring him.”

“Well, he was up to somethin’ if he was hangin’ around all this time, and then to rob a bank?  Something’s definitely wrong there, Scott.  Somethin’s up somewhere.  He ain’t the kind to come up with somethin’ like that on his own.  He was too lazy.  He was a follower and a soldier, not a planner.  He was workin’ for somebody.”

There was a pause before he continued, “What’d ya fire ‘im for?”

“Well, he just wasn’t doing his job, and one of the long term hands called him on it and they got into a fight.  I just couldn’t keep him around anymore.”

“I know.  It was comin’.  I just wanted to try and help him that’s all.”

“I know Johnny”

Johnny looked up as Murdoch’s shadow preceded him through the big wooden door.  Scott turned.

“Scott, are you about ready?”

“Yes sir.”

Murdoch stepped up to the cell and Johnny stepped up to face him. Murdoch reached between the bars and squeezed his shoulder.

“We’ll get you out of this son, don’t worry, we’ll get you out.”

“Thanks, Murdoch.”  He looked his father in the eye, “I swear to you I didn’t do it.”

“I know you didn’t son.”

Murdoch’s smiled blanketed him with comfort and security, something he had experienced little of in his life.

“We’ll see you tomorrow, Johnny.”

“Bye.”

They left and he stretched out on the cot, on his back, hands behind his head.  What the hell was Kick hangin’ around for?  He was gone and if Scott had fired Kick, there was no reason for him to hang around the area.  “What the hell was goin’ on?”

 

Chapter 11

Scott opened the door to his brother’s room and stood staring.  It still looked unlived in.  A man of sparse possessions when he arrived at Lancer, his brother had acquired few material things since that time.  Most of what he had gained since his arrival, gifted to him by Murdoch, Teresa, or himself.

The bed made, the furniture dusted and polished, the water pitcher full, as if they expected him to return.  He knew he wouldn’t find the shirt lying around here, not if the ladies had been at the room.  Having not found it in the basket in the bathroom, he had decided to check the room.

For that matter, by now, the shirt, most likely, had been washed, dried, and put back by the women.  He decided to peek inside his brother’s armoire.  He wasn’t surprised when he opened the door and saw how few clothes his brother owned.  There weren’t more than three shirts and two jackets hanging inside.  Well, at least his things weren’t all still packed in his saddlebags as they had been the for the first three months after his return to Lancer.

Visible behind them, were some customized long guns.  A rifle and a shotgun sat in a rack mounted for them in the back of the wardrobe.  An eerie feeling crept through his veins, leaving him cold as he looked at them.  The modifications were for killing, not for show.  He could see the scope on the rifle and few other frills.  Was this what Johnny spent his money on?  The rifle was expensive, but not flashy.  The shotgun sat, cut off, and almost looked like a toy compared to the rifle.  He knew though, that the shotgun was very deadly.  He didn’t recall ever seeing his brother with either of these weapons.  What did Maria and Teresa think about them when they put Johnny’s clean clothes away?

He wanted to pick up the weapons and examine them, but he dared not.  There was no telling what his brother had done to these guns.  He recalled the one time Johnny had let him examine his Colt and the damned thing had gone off accidently because of his modifications for speed to the trigger pull.  The hair trigger on the gun was frightening.  It seemed to take less than a breath to make the weapon fire.

He would never forget that day.  It was the one time he had seen his brother look scared.  Johnny had grabbed the weapon from him, breathless as he put it in his holster, and grabbed hold of him checking for injuries.

Scott assured him that he was okay, and that the only thing that had suffered any damage was a nearby tree.  Well, other than the fact that despite his proper upbringing and complete and total familiarity in handling weapons, he had come close to damaging his pride by almost wetting himself at the unexpected firing of the gun.

With that acknowledgment, he had then seen what he believed to be the real Johnny Lancer.  His brother began to laugh like a little kid.  It was an infectious laugh, irresistible, and he had joined him.  They had laughed, setting each other off each time the other managed to stop.

It was humorous in a morbid way.  It was that way in the military.  They had to find humor where they could because their day-to-day life was so raw.  If no one was seriously injured or died, it was funny.

He had wondered that day, maybe that was the way with gunfighters too.  They pretty much shared some commonalities in lifestyle.  Constant moving around, the killing, the wounding, exposure to terrible aspects of life he had never known about until he had joined the military.

Yes, the military had been an enlightening experience for him.  Seeing how the rest of the world lived and died, very different from the dry, boring, high society life he had lived until then.  The world was a hard place for those born without privilege.  To think about what his brother had gone through in his childhood was unbearable.

His brother.  That’s why he was here in the first place.  To help his brother by finding that note.  Now where would it be?

He knew he shouldn’t.  It went against his sense of honor, but he couldn’t stop himself.  He pulled open one of the small drawers on the side and peeked inside.  Not a lot happening inside there, a few paltry pairs of socks, darned several times over.

The next drawer held some new pairs of socks and ammunition.  The third, he was again greeted by the site of gleaming gunmetal.  There were three pistols lying in wait in the drawer.  Different sizes and barrel lengths, they lay ready to be ‘called out’ for duty.  Weapons of great power, they had an ominous look to them.  There were also two derringers with pearl handles.

Again, he decided to leave the weapons where they lay, and moved on to the next drawer.  There, he found a couple of pairs of black leather gloves.  He recognized them as the kind he had seen Johnny wear once when he caught him practicing his shooting.  There was also a religious medal lying in there.  It looked similar to the one he had seen Johnny wearing, but it looked older, smaller, and warped.

The next two drawers were empty.

Shaking his head, he suddenly felt no tinge of guilt whatsoever at looking through his brother’s belongings.  What he did feel was guilt about the fact that his brother had so little.

He saw no evidence of the note, which he had been looking for, having now snooped through his brother’s armoire.

He looked at the bureau, but decided to leave it alone.  Besides, the blue shirt was hanging in front of him, clean.  Just to be certain, he pulled it out and checked the pocket.  Nothing.

Time to see Maria.  At the threshold, he looked again at the room and then closed the door.

He found Maria downstairs in the kitchen amidst steaming pots and pans, their contents, tonight’s dinner.

“Maria?”

“Si’ Señor Scott?”

“Did you wash Johnny’s blue shirt?  The one you made him?”

“Si’, I wash it yesterday afternoon.”

“Was there a note in the pocket?”

“No, no note.  There was a rose petal.”

“A rose petal?”

“Si’.  A pink one.  But no note.”

“You’re certain.”

“Si’.  I always check behind Señor Johnny.  He is all the time leaving things in his pockets.”

“I see.  You didn’t find any notes lying around?”

“Notes?  No, Señor Scott.  Maybe Teresa, she brought the laundry from upstairs.”

“Yes, Maria, thank you.  I’ll ask Teresa. ”

 

He found Teresa out in the vegetable garden pulling weeds.

“Teresa?”  He stopped in front of her.  She looked up at him from under the brim of her sunbonnet, but continued to pull the weeds.

“Hi, Scott.”

“Have you found any notes lying around the house, in Johnny’s room perhaps?”

“Notes? Like what do you mean?”

“Well Johnny said he had a note tucked in his blue shirt that could help us prove his innocence.  I found the shirt, but Maria had laundered it.  She said that there hadn’t been any note, so I figured that maybe it fell out somewhere around the house.”

“Well, I haven’t seen anything, but we will keep our eyes peeled.  Did you look in his room?”

“Yes, and in the hamper.”

Okay, well, after dinner, let’s look around the great room.”

Dinner had been rather quiet with Johnny’s absence.  Murdoch and Scott tried to avoid telling Teresa exactly where Johnny had been during his day away.  They both hated lying to the young girl, but they hinted that Johnny had been with a girlfriend.  They were also on pins and needles waiting for a telegraph announcing the arrival of attorney, Jarrod Barkley, the son of an old friend of Murdoch’s and a very good attorney in Stockton, who practiced regularly in San Francisco.

After dessert, Teresa asked, “Let’s look for that note, Scott.”

In an impressive, methodical military manner, Scott directed Teresa and Murdoch, and the three made a very efficient search of the great room and the porch outside the French doors where Johnny had entered.  Teresa had pulled the cushions out of the sofas and chairs, while Murdoch and Scott moved them, to ensure it had not somehow made its way under the furniture.

“Three bullets, some change, and a hairpin.  That’s the sum total of all of our efforts.”  Teresa announced.  “I just don’t understand where it would have gone to.”  Teresa seemed exasperated, “I got the shirt from the basket in the upstairs hamper and I cleaned the entire room, and didn’t find it.  Maria and I both cleaned Johnny’s room and did not find it, even though we weren’t looking.”

“Well, Johnny did admit to running down Widow Merry’s buggy, maybe it fell out of his pocket then, or when he fell asleep under that tree. Or who knows, it could be anywhere.”  Murdoch sat down at his desk and began to pack his pipe.

“Scott, tomorrow, why don’t go into town and see if you can’t find where this girl has moved on to.”

“Certainly.  I’ll also see if Johnny can give me some idea of where he stopped along the way, maybe I can look around and find it out there somewhere.”

“Sure thing.”

Johnny sat in his cell eating some tamales and beans courtesy of the little cantina he was so fond of.  Smiling, he tried to picture big old Murdoch in the tiny little place paying them to feed him every night.  Wilkes hadn’t said much, other than he put the little mamacita through a ridiculous search and turned his nose up at the food.

Now that the Marshall was there, Brad and Wren had divided men into two groups and had gone out trying to pick up tracks of the gang outside of town.  He wish he knew what the hell was going on about the Cattlemen’s Association putting a big enough deposit in the bank that Brad and Wren would be involved in it.  He hoped they’d come back with the assholes that robbed the bank, but if not, he knew they’d tell him what was going on.

Wilkes was probably busy putting together enough bullshit evidence to convict him, but Sadie’s note and the widow’s testimony out to straighten things out pretty quick.  He sure hoped that the widow would leave out some of the details, but hell, at this point, he didn’t care if she told it all if it would get him the hell out of this cell.  He hated being locked up.  Never could stand it.

Wilkes had been smart enough to leave him alone after Murdoch and Scott had left.  He laughed thinking how the ol’ man had handled Wilkes.  Yep, the ol’ man sure could swing his weight when he needed to.  Maybe having a family wasn’t so bad after all.

 

Chapter 12

Scott was up earlier than usual, only to find Murdoch already up and at his desk before breakfast.  Probably hadn’t slept much last night, he thought, because he knew he hadn’t.  He’d been restless all night knowing Johnny was in the Green River Jail.  He had a bad feeling about this note business and the girl, Sadie, from the bordello being gone.

Murdoch joined him at the breakfast table though, and was all business.  He and Teresa had barely gotten their ‘good mornings’ out before their elder started in.

“Scott, I’ve drafted a wire for you to send when you get to town today.  Here’s a list of all the people who need to receive it.”  He laid an envelope containing the wire and the names listed were the governing body members of the Cattlemen’s Association.

 

“I’ll also check for an answer to your telegram to the attorney.”

“Yes, and take this by Mr. Randall’s office if you would.”   He pushed a sealed envelope across the table towards him.

“I also want you to go by the hotel and tell them that we will need the private dinning room Monday morning.  We’ll be having a cattlemen’s officer’s meeting there.  I want you there as well.”

“Yes sir.”

“Take the buckboard.  Here’s a supply list you can have filled while you do the errands in town.”

“I’ll be riding into town behind you.  I’ve got to go by Aggie’s and talk to them about the meeting.  Then I’ll be over to check on Val before I go to see Johnny.”

“Murdoch?”  Teresa squeaked.

“Yes darling?”

“Maria and I made up a few things for Johnny if one of you could take them to him.”

“Sure.  I ‘ll take them. Just have them ready right after breakfast. I’ll be leaving as soon as my horse is ready.”

“Okay.”

Scott wasn’t even sure Murdoch heard Teresa as he turned back to him issuing even more orders.  Teresa had excused herself and gone into the kitchen.

He turned to his father, concentrating on the seemingly endless list of errands and chores he had to do in town in as well as to the work he had to handle before leaving the ranch.

Murdoch rode towards the Circle C, or the Conway Ranch, but it wasn’t called that anymore.  He hated that.  It was now the Triple A for Aggie, Addison, and Acme.  He thought that it was ridiculous to change the ranch name and hence the brand, but Addison had insisted on it, and Aggie was acting like a teenager in love with the man.

It was hard to accept the fact that Aggie had married Addison, not only because he didn’t like Addison, but because he did have some feelings for her.  Sure, he had denied them the day that Johnny had confronted him with the town rumors.  They had been friends and confidants ever since her husband had died, and on occasion, a little more.  However, no one need know about that.

He hadn’t been prepared to marry her, he hadn’t been certain of his feelings for her.  Although, she was far more stable than Maria had been.  He knew he would never wake up and find her gone.  As for marriage, he hadn’t considered it and thought she wouldn’t be interested either.

Well it wasn’t the first time he had been wrong about a woman.  He was wrong most of the time when it came to understanding love and feelings with women.  Maybe it was why Maria left.

Nonetheless, it had been a blow losing her to Addison.  At least that’s how it felt.  Oh, they still had dinner together, about once a month at Aggie’s insistence, but Addison’s presence just made things awkward between them, and Addison always acted like a dog in a manger when they were together with Aggie.

It hadn’t made matters any easier when he showed up at that horse auction.  Addison didn’t know much about horses, it was easy to see, but he was a shrewd businessman.  He caught on to his scheme to run the horse prices up right quick.  A game he and Aggie had always laughed about and taken delight in, Addison took as a personal affront, and things had become sour between them.

He dreaded talking to them today.  Addison was outraged after the earthquake and the fact that he couldn’t build the railroad spur where he had planned to.  Scott had been ingenious in foiling Buck’s plan to build the spur at all.  He had realized that besides Lancer, which Addison had been unable to acquire, there were three small farms that would have made his railroad spur far more accessible and would have been suitable for building upon.

They had approached the farmers and purchased two of the three properties, and signed lease agreements with them to continue farming and keeping all of this quiet since deeds were recorded in Sacramento.  The properties didn’t adjoin Lancer, but he hadn’t cared at the time.  He just wanted to beat Addison at his own game.

An ornery old man, Ned Lawson, who had lived there before Murdoch himself, owned the third property.  He refused to deal with them at all.  He did assure Scott and himself that in the event he ever wanted to sell, it wouldn’t be to Buck Addison.

Glaring up at the new ‘AAA’ sign above the road to the house, Murdoch continued on, trying to get a handle on himself before he arrived at the house.  The news of the events would not be welcome, he knew, but more than the “I told you it was a bad business idea” that would certainly come out of Addison’s mouth, would be the comment that he would make when he told them about the accusations against Johnny.

Addison had never forgotten the day that Johnny had told him to leave or he would “bust his face open.”  After he and Addison had fought at the old mine, and Johnny had finally had the opportunity to use his fists on the foreman, Jim Pierpont, Johnny had been a source of additional contention between the two of them.  Addison was always looking to downgrade Johnny, even more so after Pierpont remembered Johnny from somewhere in Texas as Madrid.

He stopped in front of the house.  Aggie was out the door before he had even dismounted.

“Why Murdoch!  What a surprise!”  She floated down the steps towards him and out of habit, she ran straight into his arms, which he wrapped around her and squeezed, holding her perhaps, just a moment longer than was proper, relishing the familiar feel and lavender scent of her.

She kissed him on the cheek and he was about to return it, when Addison stepped out of the door.  “Murdoch, what brings you out here so early in the morning?”

Addison made no move to descend the steps and Aggie turned and grabbed his hand, “Come on in Murdoch, have some coffee.”

Only when he reached the porch did Addison step forward to shake his hand.  Even this was a competition, or had been until Addison once tried to manhandle him in a handshake.  His response was a grasp that he felt certain, left the man unable to perform tasks of dexterity with that hand for at least a week.

Addison turned and he and Aggie followed him into the parlor, still holding hands until she let go to fetch the coffee.

“Well, Lancer, what brings you here so early in the day?  I can’t imagine this being a social call.”

“No Buck, it’s not, but I’d rather wait to discuss matters until Aggie comes back.”

“I run this ranch now, it’s mine.  Didn’t you see the sign?”

“I know that Buck, but there is also some information that Aggie needs to hear from me.”

“What’s that?  You two fighting again?”  Aggie laughed as she brought out a large silver tray laden with cups, saucers, coffee pot along with condiments.

She sat it down on the coffee table and began to pour; black for Murdoch, one with cream and sugar for Buck, and cream for herself.

Once they settled, Buck and Aggie on the sofa and Murdoch in a chair, he began.

“This is unfortunately all bad news.”

He could see fear on Aggie’s face.  “The Green River Bank was robbed on Tuesday, and before you ask, yes, the money from the Cattlemen’s Association is gone.”

“Damn it!” Addison swore while Aggie’s concern was, as always, with people, “Was anyone hurt?”

“Yes, the two Pinkerton guards were killed.  One of the robbers, a hand that used to work at Lancer until a month ago, was killed.  Val was shot and may not make it.  Tim Sherman was run over by a horse and I’m not sure if he’s regained consciousness or not.  I’m headed into town after this.”

“Dear God.”  Aggie placed her hand over her chest and looked down.

“Are there any leads on this gang?  What’s the town doing for law?  I should go into town and get things organized.  Damn it Lancer!  I told you I was against this whole idea from the get go!”

“Now Buck!”  Aggie barely got the words out before Murdoch started in, “Addison, this is not the time to go on about this.  I’m scheduling a meeting of the officers for Monday and then an association meeting.  You can speak your piece then!”

“So this is what you wanted to tell Aggie?”

“No, to make matters worse, the entire town seems to think that my son Johnny was part of the gang and he’s in jail.  We are awaiting legal counsel for him from Sacramento.”

“Johnny?  Oh no, Murdoch, Johnny wouldn’t.”

“Sure he would Aggie.  He’s a gunfighter.  Even Murdoch knows he’s a criminal.  I heard you hired Pinkertons to find him, that he was about to be executed when they did, so you know he’s bad.”

“Wait just a minute Addison, MY SON, did NOT rob the bank!”  He slammed his cup onto the tray, sloshing coffee over its rim, and stood.

“Come on Lancer, we both know he’s no good.  Hell, he even shot you!  How the hell can you defend a mongrel pup like that?!”

Addison had stood and Murdoch was stopped from grabbing him by Aggie jumping in between them.  “No!  Now both of you!  STOP IT!  You hear me?  This is neither the time nor the place.  Buck shut up and let Murdoch finish.  Murdoch, SIT down!”

The two sat down, glaring across at each other like schoolboys.

“How did all this come about with Johnny?”  Aggie leaned over and placed her hand over Murdoch’s, and he took satisfaction at the sour look on Addison’s face.

“Well, for some reason, one of the robbers seems to have been dressed like him, and riding a palomino.  It doesn’t appear that anyone saw his face however, as they were wearing masks.”

“Poor Johnny.  I’ll have to ride into town and see him.”

“No need to do that Aggie, the boy probably won’t be allowed visitors, and I don’t like the idea that it’ll put in people’s heads, you going in to visit him like that.”  Addison growled.

“Actually, Aggie, I have to agree with Buck,” he glared at the man, “but for different reasons.  I think Johnny would be embarrassed for you to see him there.”

“Nonsense, Murdoch!”

“I mean it Aggie.  I know you’re heart is in the right place, but Johnny, well, he’s pretty guarded about his affairs.”  He took advantage of the situation to place a consoling hand on top of hers, and caught the glare from his peripheral vision that Buck shot him.

“So who’s acting as the law? Or is there any?” Addison changed the subject.

“There’s a United States Marshall named Wilkes in town, called in by Gabe.  He’s conducting the investigation.  Brad and Wren, the two ex-rangers who brought Johnny home, they have two posses out looking for the bandits and I’ve wired an attorney for Johnny from Sacramento.”

“Ma, I mean, Johnny have an alibi.”

“Yes, yes he does, so I think it will be no problem to clear him.   Mistaken identity is all.”

“I’m sure.”  Addison’s sarcastic reply made him want to punch the man in the mouth.

“In fact, I need to be on my way.  I just wanted to keep you all abreast of the facts and to tell you about the meeting Monday at 9AM at the hotel.”

“We’ll be there Lancer.”

Addison followed his wife and Murdoch to the door, but didn’t offer to shake hands.

“You tell Johnny I’m thinking of him, Murdoch.”

“I will Aggie, and thank you.”  He leaned over and finished what he had started earlier, kissing her on the cheek, savoring her scent one last time before his lips left her cheek.

Scott pulled the buckboard up to the barn-like structure attached to the back of the general store where fencing materials were sold and loaded.  He set the break and tied off the horses, stepping off in his usual efficient and aristocratic style.

Smiling up at the freckle faced kid on the dock, he handed him the list.

“Mind if I leave it here awhile. I have a lot of errands to run.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Lancer!”  the kid smiled back.

He entered the store and noticed that several of the customers were staring at him.  Clearly, word was out about the events.  It was hard to believe that people would think Johnny did something like rob a bank.  However, from the outside looking in, maybe it wasn’t so hard.  They didn’t know Johnny like he did.

He had glimpsed at Johnny’s Pinkerton report.  His brother was no saint.  He knew that.  Even Murdoch had told him once that Johnny was a ‘bad man.’  He had chosen to argue with his father then, but now, thinking back, he could see what his father had meant.  Johnny had done some bad things, and he did agree his brother was dangerous, but he still didn’t think his brother was bad inside.  He understood now, that his father had not meant it that way either.  He might not have much of a conscience when it came to killing, but he was not a thief, other than the incidents when he was a starving child stealing food, and that didn’t count.

It was hard sometimes to balance the traits and attitudes of what he called Madrid, with the sparkling blue eyes and shy laugh of his brother, Johnny Lancer.  Either way, he knew Johnny was no thief, in fact, he was the most non-materialistic person he’d ever known.  The expensive guns he’d seen in his brother’s wardrobe weren’t there because Johnny coveted them.  They were there because sadly, his brother needed them to feel safe.

Stepping out onto the boardwalk, he headed towards Mr. Randall’s office.  Murdoch’s package felt like money and he wanted to relieve himself of it as soon as possible.

The attorney was alone in his office when he entered.  The little bell on the door alerted Randall and he came out to greet him with a smile.

“Well, Mr. Lancer, what can I do for you?”  He extended his hand.

“It’s Scott, Mr. Randall, Murdoch is Mr. Lancer.”

“Scott.”

“Well, my father asked me to drop this off to you.”

“Okay.  How’s he doing?”  The attorney took the package he handed him.

“He’s pretty upset about things, but he’s doing what he can.”

As he turned to leave, the attorney stopped him, “Scott, do you have a minute?”

He turned and saw a very serious expression on the elder man’s face.  “Sure?”

“Why don’t you step into my office, I don’t want my girl to overhear us when she returns.”

Swallowing hard, he followed the attorney into the back.

Taking a seat in the chair in front of Randall’s desk, he asked, “What’s on your mind, sir?”

“Well,” the attorney began to pour himself a glass of water from a pitcher on a sideboard and held it towards him asking if he wanted any.  He shook his head.  The attorney sat the pitcher down, took his glass, and sat down in his own chair behind the desk.

“I take it Mr. Barkley hasn’t arrived yet.”

“No sir, we haven’t even heard back from him.”

“Well, I just want to let you know that there are a lot of rumors going around town about this incident and your brother, and they are not good.”

“Well, to be honest, negative rumors about Johnny aren’t that unusual.”

“No, but I heard from someone today that there are some alleged witnesses to an altercation between Val and your brother.”

“That’s impossible.  My brother hasn’t been off the ranch since he got home.”

“I’m just telling you what I heard Scott.  There’s more.  One of the girls at the saloon is saying that Johnny told her about the money some time back and how he could set himself up real well in Mexico with it.”

“This is crazy.  I promise you, with the exception of the one day we discussed, that my brother has not left Lancer since he was dragged back by Brad and Wren.”

“Well, Scott, I believe you, but you and Murdoch need to be sure about your brother.  I’d hate to see this rub off on you two, if it’s true.”

“Mr. Randall, I assure you, this is NOT true.  My brother has done some bad things, I know.  But he did not do this.  I appreciate the information Mr. Randall.  If there is nothing further, I need to go.  I have a full day ahead.” 

He left the office fuming, not so much at Randall.  He was, after all, looking after their best interest, but how could this be happening?  It wasn’t true.

He stepped across the busy street headed for the telegraph office, and could feel more eyes upon him as he crossed.  He hated the feeling.  How did Johnny handle having people looking at him all the time like this.

Inside, he found little Timmy, the son of the telegraph operator.

“Hi, Mr. Lancer.  I gotta telegraph for you.  I couldn’t bring it out last night ‘cause my pa was sick, but my ma was gonna come in after lunch so I could ride out if nobody came in from the ranch today.”

“Well, Timmy, I’ll trade you.  I need this same wire sent to these five people.”  He handed the young boy the note from the envelope and then showed him the names on the envelope.

“Sure thing.  That’ll be fifty cents.” Scott handed the kid a dollar and received a big smile and a toothy “thank you!”

He stepped outside to read the response from Jarrod Barkley.

“Mr. Lancer, please accept my sincerest apology, but I am involved in a two week trial and cannot represent your son.  However, I have retained the services of Ansley Bryant, the top criminal attorney in Sacramento on your behalf.  He will arrive by train on Friday.”

He folded the telegram, placed it in his pocket, and headed over to the hotel.  Ansley.  Had to be a family name.  Murdoch was sure to get a fat bill from this one.  He had one last errand before he could go over to the bordello.

It was cool and dark inside the house when he went in.  There were two girls up front.  They were happy to see him.

“Hey, Scott Lancer.  It’s a little early for you isn’t it?”  Amber, a voluptuous brunette with olive skin and yellow brown eyes slithered along side him, taking his arm.  He slipped his arm around her, pulling her to him, and gave her a squeeze.  “You think so?”

“Well, maybe you need some distraction since Johnny’s not around.  So sorry to hear about his trouble.”

“Yes, well, that’s why I’m here.  I wanted to talk to Ellen.”

“Ellen?  She doesn’t see clients.”

“I know that.”  He smiled and pulled her hand away from his stomach where he knew it was about to wander further down.  “Be a good girl for once and go get her.”

“Ellen?”  She puffed her lips in a pout, let go of him, and slinked into the back, returning with Ellen, still in her bathrobe.

“Well Scott, long time since you’ve been here.”

“Yes, well, I’ve been very busy out at the ranch.”

“I heard and I hear you’ve more trouble now.”

“Yes, that’s what I’d like to talk to you about.”

“Sure, come on back here.”

He followed her back into the hallway and into a door on the right.  It was her office, a tiny room filled from floor to ceiling with boxes and paper.  There were also some cases of liquor stored in there as well.

“How can I help you?”  She sat down in her chair.

“Well, it’s about Johnny.”

“Poor, poor, Johnny.  The girls and I have sure have missed your brother. ”

“Well, I’ll be sure and tell him.  You know he’s down the street.”

“You do that, but I’ll probably head up that way later on to visit too.  So what can I help you with?”

“I would appreciate that you keep this matter to yourself.”

“My lips are sealed.”

“Well, Johnny says that he was here most of the day before the robbery with Sadie, spent the night, and then left late morning to come back to the ranch on the day when the bank was robbed.”

“We were looking for the note that she left him, but I can’t find it, so I was wondering if you had a forwarding address for her.”

“A forwarding address?  I’m sorry Scott, all I know is San Francisco.  I’ll bet you know as well as I do, it’s a big town and there’s a lot of places she could be.”

“I was afraid of that.  Well do you or any of the girls know anything about his being here that day?”

“I’ll ask around, but I doubt it.  I’m sure someone would have said something.  You know how much we girls love you and your brother.”

He couldn’t help the shy smile that slipped out.  “Thanks.”

“Scott, you let me know if there’s anything I can do for Johnny, you hear?  ANYTHING!  Including, coming up with an alibi.”  The look in her eye was serious.

They stood and he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.  He could have sworn that she blushed.

“Okay, thanks, Ellen.”

 

Chapter 13

Murdoch arrived in front of the doctor’s office.  Gingerly stepping off his horse, his back had begun to ache as well as his still sore rib from the ride.  He tied the bald-faced bay and stepped up onto the porch, still angry over Buck Addison.

He opened the door and heard the bell ring.  Sam himself came out to greet him.

“Murdoch!  How are you?”

“I’d like to say good Sam, but frankly, I just came from talking with Aggie and Addison and well, it wasn’t good.  But I came to check on Val, not unload my irritations on you.”

“I know what you mean Murdoch.  The man just can’t help but be an ass.  Come on in.”

Sam stepped back and turned to face him.  “Val’s holding his own, and since he’s made it this far, I think he’s got a chance.  He’s got a lot of grit.”

“Yes he does.  How’s Tim?”

“Still unconscious, but hanging in there.”

“Good.”

“Johnny’s good too.  I went over this morning to check on him.”

“Thanks, Sam.  I really appreciate that.  Well, I’d better get over to the jail and take a look at him myself.  I don’t like him being in there alone with that Marshall.  He seems to have something against him, and of course, Johnny won’t say.”

“Of course not.  He’s a good boy Murdoch, he’s just having a rough time.”  Sam clapped Murdoch on the shoulder as they turned towards the door.

“I sure hope so, Sam.  This whole mess makes me uneasy.”

“I’m sure it’ll all get straightened out.”

“I hope so Sam, I really hope so.”

Murdoch entered the sheriff’s office and found no one in.  He stepped over to the large wooden door and looked through the barred window.

Johnny lay asleep on the cot, which he had pushed into the corner.  Lying on his back, one socked foot on the bed and the other on the floor, his upper body propped up slightly on his pillow against the wall.  His head turned to the side, his dark bangs feathered across his face.

His left arm lay folded across his chest, still clinging to a book, his right hand uncannily keeping vigil next to his right hip, where his gun would be, if he had one.  Murdoch shook his head.

Johnny looked so young.  He had noticed this before.  Hell, Johnny was young in years, but in other ways, he was older than his ol’ man.  No boy should have had a childhood like Johnny had, but more so it never should have happened to this one.  He would carry the guilt for this to his grave for his part in allowing it to happen.

The back door opened and the Marshall came in, startling him.  He turned to greet the man.

“Marshall.”

“Come to see Ma, Johnny, huh?”

“Yes.  How’s your investigation coming?”

“Well, Mr. Lancer, it’s coming along, but it ain’t good news for your son there.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say for now.  I can tell you that the circuit judge won’t be here for three weeks.  That should give your lawyer enough time to get here and come up with a defense.”

“Marshall, I assure you, my son will be found innocent.”

“Mr. Lancer, with all due respect, I don’t want to get into this with you.  You seem like a decent man to have someone, well, to have . . .”

“Wilkes, shut the fuck up!”  Johnny called from his cell.

“You shut the hell up, Madrid!”

Murdoch glared at the Marshall, who reached inside his drawer and pulled out the key to the big wooden door.  He stepped over and unlocked it, opened it a bit and made a gesture with his hand for Murdoch to go ahead and walked away.

Johnny was standing in his sock feet holding onto the bars as Murdoch entered and pulled the big door closed.

“Johnny, must you antagonize the man?”  Murdoch admonished ever so lightly.

“Mr. Lancer?  These things here on the desk for your boy?” They heard the Marshall call out to them and Murdoch patted Johnny’s fingers wrapped around the outside of the bars, “I almost forgot.  Maria and Teresa sent you something.”

He turned to retrieve the small bag and as he put his hand on it to remove it from the desk, he looked at the Marshall.  “Did you need to look through this first?”

The Marshall gave him a sour look and shooed at him with his hand.

Murdoch gave him a tiny nod of thanks for giving him the respect he deserved.

When he returned to the cells, Johnny had pulled the second cot up to the front and was standing there waiting for him.  He handed Johnny the pouch.  Opening it, he found it contained two batches of cookies and three slices of cake.  He saw Johnny’s face light up at the sight.

“Boy oh boy. This is all for me?  I don’t hafta share any?  Well, except with you.” A sheepish look on his face, he held the wrapper of cookies out to his father, who took a couple and then he pulled it back in, removed one and took a bite.

“I brought you something too.”  He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a couple of small books.

Johnny stopped chewing and mumbled “thanks.”  He wiped his hand on his pants and then reached through the bars and took the books from his father.  He placed them on the cot where he decided to sit, and looked at his father who also sat down on the bench outside the cell.

“How’s Val?”

“Holding on.  Sam seems to feel better about him.  Tim’s still unconscious.”

Taking another cookie, Johnny held out the wrapper again to his father who shook his head.

“So Murdoch, what’s this about the Cattleman’s Association money being stolen.  What was it doin’ here?”

“Remember when Buck wanted to build the railroad spur through here and then it didn’t work out?”

“Yeah.  Well, before you and your brother came home I had proposed to the cattlemen that we split the cost of a new spur with the railroad if they would build one fifty miles on the other side of Spanish Wells.  It is an ideal central location for a stockyard, which would benefit a major portion of the ranches in northern California.  It would also become a key stockyard in the future and stimulate the economy over there.  It wouldn’t be as close to Lancer as Addison’s, but all around, it’s a better idea.

The idea hadn’t really gone anywhere because of all the problems with the land pirates, and then Addison was going to build a spur.  After you left, it came back up, was voted on, and passed.  The money was collected and hand delivered from several locations and then made into one large deposit.  The deposit was moved around between the bank here, the Morro Coyo Bank, and the one in Spanish Wells.  That’s what your friends were helping Val with.  They moved the money every other day from bank to bank so no one would know where it was until the last moment.  It was supposed to be picked up by armored wagon the other day from Green River.”

“I guess I missed a lot.”  Johnny looked down at the floor.

Murdoch nodded.

“So it would stand to reason that whoever robbed the bank knew the money was there?”

“I guess it’s always a possibility, but only four people knew what bank the money was scheduled to be in on the last day, and I doubt any of them would be involved in this, since they were the major contributors.”

“Let me guess, you and Scott,”

“Well, five.  Scott told me since he handled most of the work after I was, was, well, hurt.  Aggie, because she’s the treasurer, Neil Harrington, and Pat Davis.”

“You mean six, Murdoch.”

“No, five counting me.”

“You don’t think Aggie told Addison?  Come on Murdoch, you know she did.  She thinks that bastard walks on water.”

“Johnny.”

“Murdoch, you know it’s true.”

“Even so, I don’t think Buck would be involved as they put in the same amount of money as Lancer did.  Their money is just as gone as ours is.”

“I don’t know Murdoch.  I don’t trust that man.  He don’t like you or me and he’s been nothing but a pain in the ass ever since he moved here.”

“Scott told me about Kick.  Let me tell you, he ain’t in charge of robbing no bank.  I think you saw for yourself he ain’t the plannin’ type.  He’s a follower.  He’s lazy, but he can smell a money job. Something had to come along to make him stay around so long.  Something’s wrong here Murdoch, but I don’t know what.  I wouldn’t put it past Addison to have a hand in this.”

“Johnny, you can’t accuse the man of being involved in this.  He and Aggie would have benefited as much as we would on this deal.  They’ve certainly lost as much.”

“I’m just sayin’.”

“I know what you’re saying Johnny but I don’t think Buck needs to rob a bank.”

“Maybe not, but come on, Murdoch.  The idea that everybody thought it was me?”

“According to the witnesses, the one who shot Val, was dressed as you are now and riding a palomino.”

“That still doesn’t mean it was me.”

“No, but then we can prove it with that girl’s testimony, although we have to face it son, taking the word of a prostitute, well, I’m just glad the Widow saw you.  I think she’ll make a more credible witness.”

Johnny sighed and rolled his eyes.  He stared at the floor.

Murdoch feared that they were about to have an awkward moment, but the sounds of someone entering the jail caused them both to look towards the door.  They could hear Scott’s voice as he greeted the Marshall.

Seconds later, the big wooden door opened and Scott appeared.

“Murdoch, little brother.” He greeted them.

“Any news from Jarrod Barkley?”

“Yes sir.”

Scott reached into his pocket for the telegram and sat down on the bench next to his father.  Handing it to Murdoch, he waited for him to read it, and handed Johnny a book.

“Hmm.  I’ve not heard of this Ansley Bryant, but if Jarrod recommends him, he must be good.”  Murdoch looked up at Johnny who was waiting on his cot for information.

“Johnny, it seems your attorney will be here tomorrow.  I’ll be here to meet with him and bring him over.  I want you to cooperate with him.  According to Jarrod, he’s the best in Sacramento.”

Johnny’s mouth quirked before he spoke.  “Thanks Murdoch.”

“Somethin’ on your mind, Scott?”  Johnny could see his brother’s expression was a little tight.

Murdoch turned and looked at him, “Well Scott?”

Scott sighed in acquiescence.  “When I was at Randolph’s office, he told me some things that don’t make sense and I don’t like it at all.”

“Spill it brother.”

“Well he said he’s heard that there are some alleged witnesses to you and Val having a disagreement  and that there’s a saloon girl saying that you were with her and talked to her about the Cattlemen’s money and how you could set yourself up real well in Mexico with it?”

“What the FUCK!”

Johnny leapt up and began pacing.  “Has this whole town gone loco?  I haven’t even been off the ranch except for the one day!”

He ran his hand through his hair.  “I’m telling you, Murdoch, something isn’t right here.  This is just crazy!”

“Just calm down Johnny.  We’ll straighten this out.”

“I damn sure hope so.  Scott, did you find that note Sadie left?”

“I’m sorry Johnny, you must have lost it.  Teresa, Maria, and Murdoch, and I looked all over the place for it.  I even had Jelly tear the barn apart looking for it and we can’t find it.  What did it say?”

“Hell, I don’t know Scott, I figured she was writin’ down where she was gonna be in case I came to San Francisco.  I never looked at it.  You gotta find her.  Shouldn’t be too hard.”

“We’ll try son.”

“Scott, did Randolph say who the witnesses were or when this was supposed to be happening?”  Murdoch turned to his oldest.

“No sir, that’s all he said.  I’ll be glad when this Bryant fellow gets here tomorrow.  We need to work on some trial strategy.”

“You sound like you know what your talkin’ ‘bout big brother?  You learn that at that fancy school?”  Johnny had a sly grin on his face.

“Well actually, Johnny, I did take some pre-law classes.”

“Why am I not surprised?”  Johnny laughed.

“Well, I suppose we’d better head on back to the ranch, Scott.  It’ll take awhile with the wagon.”

“Johnny, take care, son.  I’ll be back tomorrow.”  Murdoch hated to leave his boy there behind the bars.

“Not much gonna happen in here.  But Murdoch?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for dinner.  Ya didn’t have to do that.”

“Your welcome, Johnny.   You’re right, I didn’t have to, I wanted to.”  Their eyes met and Johnny had to look away.  Murdoch was the only man that could do that to him.  It almost hurt to look into his father’s eyes and see the emotion in them.

“Okay, little brother.  Until tomorrow!  Behave!”

“What would be the fun in that?”

Scott pushed the door open as he and Murdoch left, leaving the door ajar.  Johnny sat down on the cot, leaned against the wall, pulled his knees up to his chin, and picked up the books they had brought them.  He wasn’t the best reader, but he could read.

 

He remembered the first time his father caught him looking at a book Scott had brought him after Pardee shot him.  He could see relief on his face, but he still asked the question, “I see you like to read.”

He had told him he could read in Spanish and in English and it seemed to make the ol’ man happy.  He didn’t want to admit that he wasn’t all that good at it, but Scott had helped him some with the English, which was so different from the Spanish which was easier for him, but Maria was secretly helping him when there was time.

Picking up the book Scott had brought, he could see it was another one of those Charles Dickens books.  This one was ‘Oliver Twist.’  Wondering what Murdoch would pick for him, he saw both were by Mark Twain.  One was ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and the other was ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.’

He picked Tom Sawyer, because he liked the idea of an adventure.  Opening the book, he yelled, “Hey Wilkes!  How ‘bout you bring me a glass of milk!”

He heard the Marshall slam a drawer to, but heard the sounds of him heading out the back door to the restaurant next door to fill his order.  Sam had read the marshal the riot act the day before, about his ‘nutritional’ needs.

Wilkes returned with a pitcher and a glass, unlocking the cell and putting them on the little table that was in the enclosure.  While he locked the door back, Johnny poured himself a glass and leaned back again, snuggling back with his book, the open wrapper of cookies beside him.  With an innocent look on his face, Johnny beamed up at Wilkes, “Cookie Marshall?”

“Fuck you Madrid.  You may have that rich rancher daddy of yours fooled, but I know what you are, fuckin’ half breed gun hawk.”

“Wilkes, when this is over, I think we are just gonna have to have it out once and for all, what d’ya say?”

“Anytime Madrid, anytime.  But when this is over, you’re gonna hang, and I’ll be right there to watch.  Your rich rancher daddy won’t save your ass then.”

“Oh come on Wilkes, I got an alibi.”

“Ain’t what I heard, Johnny boy!”

“Well don’t you worry, I’ll keep my part of our little date!”

 

Chapter 14

Ansley Bryant stepped off the stage along with his valise.  He turned and assisted the two female passengers down and then stepped up onto the boardwalk.  Dusting his suit off, he waited for the drivers to unload his bags from the top of the stage.  Across the street, Murdoch saw the man and recognized him as being the attorney, although he had never seen him before.

He strode across the busy main street, avoiding the traffic of wagons, riders, and other pedestrians, making his way towards the attorney.  Upon closer look, he wasn’t certain what to make of the man.  He was small and dark, with spectacles.  A dark head of hair, accented with graying temples with a matching mustache.

Upon stepping up onto the boardwalk, he took one look into the sharp blue eyes of the man, felt the confident grip in his handshake, and knew that if anyone could help his son, it was this man.  “Mr. Bryant, I’m Murdoch Lancer.”

“Hello, Mr. Lancer, Ansley Bryant.”

“Jarrod Barkley says you are the best in your line of work.”

“Well, let’s just say that in Sacramento, I’m at the top of the food chain.”  The man’s confident, friendly smile complimented the serious eyes.

“Well, I’m very glad to have you here.  I’ve arranged a hotel suite for you here in town.  You’re certainly welcome to stay at the ranch, but it’s a long ride to make back and forth every day, when most of your work will be here in town.”

“Thank you for both your hospitality and the arrangements.  I think I will take the suite.”

“Okay, how about we take you over and let you get checked in.  If you’d like to take some time to clean up and rest a bit, I have some things I could do before we meet for lunch in the hotel.”

“That sounds perfect.”

Bryant listened over lunch as Murdoch explained the circumstances of his sons and their homecoming, and a bit of history concerning Johnny, before he launched into the most recent details leading up to the charges he was facing.  He could see the love and concern of the big rancher for his son in his eyes as he talked.

He had heard stories about Johnny Madrid and had even read stories about him in a few newspapers.  He was not about to confess to his new client that he had purchased a dime novel based on his son called “Johnny Madrid-Border Town Pistolero.”  He had found the book entertaining and light reading to get him through the boredom of the stagecoach trip.  It would be interesting to see how the real Madrid compared to his characterization by the writer.  Not to mention, the way his father spoke of him.

“I must say Mr. Lancer, your son has led an interesting and colorful life.  It sounds as if he has bought himself some trouble though.  I’m looking forward to meeting him and to defending him.  I like a challenge.”

“I’ll take you over to Randolph’s office and you can get his report, meet him, and then we can go over to the jail to see Johnny.”

With Randolph’s handwritten report tucked in his valise, Bryant accompanied Murdoch to the jail.  He noticed the way the townspeople looked at the rancher.  It was about fifty-fifty that many of them turned to gossip and others seemed to be maintaining their respect for the man.

At the jail, Murdoch introduced him to the Marshall.  “Marshall Wilkes, this is Ansley Bryant, he is John’s attorney.”

He held out his hand to the Marshall, who shook it reticently.  He didn’t miss the sour look of the man’s face.  “Marshall, I expect to review any statements that were made to you by my client.”

He smiled as the Marshall grimaced.  “He’s made no statement other than to say he didn’t do it.”

“Thank you.  Then I shouldn’t expect any surprises from you at trial.”

“Not from me.”

Wilkes unlocked the big wooden door and waved the two men in.  He pushed the door to again, leaving it ajar.

Johnny had been lying on his back with his hands behind his head; knees bent and socked feet on the bed as they entered.  He sat up slowly, and with a natural grace, and put his feet on the floor.  He flashed his father a radiant smile.  “Hey, Murdoch.”  He drawled.

“Johnny.  This is Ansley Bryant, your attorney.”

Their eyes met and locked as Johnny stood up.  Bryant could feel the brilliant blue eyes of his client scrutinize him.  “Good to meet you Mr. Lancer.”

Bryant reached towards the bars and Johnny met his hand with his own in a firm handshake.

“Likewise, but it’s Johnny.  Mr. Lancer is Murdoch there.”  Johnny nodded towards his father.

“Very well, Johnny.”  Bryant sat down and opened his valise, pulling out a pad of paper, the report received from Mr. Randolph, and a pencil.  “Let’s get started, shall we?”

“Mr. Lancer, would you mind excusing us?”  Bryant looked at the big rancher with expectation.

“You mean to say that I can’t sit in on this?”

Johnny never moved, but his eyes traveled back and forth between the two men.

“Well, sir, there is something to be said for attorney client privilege.  I respect the fact that you are paying my bill, but your son, Johnny here, is my client, and you sir, are a witness.”

Murdoch inhaled through his nose, pausing before exhaling.  “All right.”

As Murdoch left the sheriff’s office, he checked the street and saw his oldest riding towards him.  He waved and called out to him as he neared.

“Sorry I’m late, sir, some cows broke through the boundary fence at Aggie’s, so I had to send for a crew to go take care of it.”

“No problem.  Let’s head over to the saloon and get a beer.”

Scott’s face showed his surprise, “Sir?  What about Mr. Bryant?”

“He’s here.  The stage was on time for once.”

Scott dismounted and walked towards the saloon with his father.  “So what do you think?”

“Of?”

“Bryant.”

“I think he’s going to be very good.  He’s already kicked me out and is talking with Johnny alone for now.  He handled the Marshall pretty good too.”

“Well that sounds positive.”  Scott laughed.   “Let’s just see how he handles Johnny!  I’ve gotten most of my things ready to leave tomorrow for San Francisco.”

“Good.  We’ll go and talk with Bryant when he’s finished with Johnny.”

Scott tied his horse to the hitching rail and they entered the dark, dank, saloon.  It was stale refreshment from the dry, dusty heat of the street.

Ordering two beers at the bar, they had only been there five minutes before someone stepped inside the batwing doors and yelled for Digger, the undertaker, seated at a table playing a few hands of poker.

Morbid curiosity drove the clientele from the bar to the windows and doors as Digger had gathered his winnings and left.  Murdoch and Scott remained at the bar.

They turned and braced their backs against the bar, gazing out the batwing doors watching a rider leading a mule with a body slung over its back.

“Can anybody tell who it is?”  They heard someone ask.

“That’s Stan from out at Aggie Conway’s place.  I don’t know about the body.”

“I think that’s old Ned Lawson.”

At the mention of the name, the two Lancers looked at each other, took a long sip of their beers, and moved forward to the doors to look over the heads of the other patrons to see if they could identify the body.

Murdoch couldn’t tell from the body as it was thrown over the mule, but he recognized the old spotted mule that seemed older than Lawson.  It was ‘Spot’, which meant it was almost certain to be Lawson.

He turned to Scott, “Hmm, that that’s definitely Lawson’s mule.”

“I wonder what happened to him.”

As if he had heard them, one of the patrons who had headed outside to the boardwalk of the saloon, sipped his beer and then yelled back.  “Rider says he found him at the bottom of the canyon.”

Dinner was a tense affair that evening.  Murdoch was beside himself after Sam and Digger had examined Ned Larson’s body.  He had some injuries that were suspicious in nature.  He and Scott had been at the sheriff’s office when Sam had come to see the Marshall.

“Mr. Lancer, what do you make of this development?”  Bryant asked.

“Well, on the one hand, I’m relived for once that Johnny’s in jail so no one can try and pin this on him, but I’m not sure what’s going on around here.  It seems that something is.”

“Johnny seems to think that Buck Addison is behind the bank heist.”  Bryant replied.

“I know, but that’s just nonsense.  Buck and Aggie are our neighbors and members of the association and contributed as much money as the rest of us.  Their money is gone too.  Sometimes I just don’t understand that boy.”

“Well, sir, Johnny must have something to base it on.”  Scott added.

“All he’s got is the fact that we don’t get along with Addison.  Nothing more.”

“Do either of you have a theory as to why someone would want to dress like Johnny and rob a bank?  Is it coincidence, or do you think it is a direct plot against your son?”

“No.”  They answered simultaneously.

“What’s really disturbing is the idea that there are people now alleging to have heard Johnny and Val arguing and the girl saying that Johnny told her about the money.”  Murdoch looked into his drink.

“Johnny hasn’t been off the ranch but that one day since he came back.”

“Do you believe your son is telling the truth about his whereabouts that day?”

“Absolutely.”  Murdoch stared into the attorney’s eyes.  “My son has done a lot of bad things in the past and even now, he’s not perfect, but the one thing he is NOT, is a liar.”

“We are learning, Mr. Bryant, that my brother doesn’t lie, but you have to listen very close to what he does say.  He can be very evasive when he wants to be.”

Bryant laughed.  “Yes, well, I found him intriguing to interview.”

Scott laughed.  “Oh that’s one of many words you could use to describe him.”

“What are the chances you’ll find this girl in San Francisco?”

“I think very good.  I’ll start with the high-class bordellos and work my way down.  She’s very attractive and was very popular here, well until she met my brother.  If he was in town, she wouldn’t see any customers, until he either came to see her, or left town.”  Scott gave his father a sideways glance that did not go unnoticed by Bryant.

“Will she come back with you though?”

“Oh, she’ll come back all right.  She, well,” he snuck another glance at Murdoch, “well, I think she’s in love with Johnny.”  He could almost feel his father tense up.

“So how does the development of the death of Ned Lawson play into all of this?”  Bryant changed the subject after looking at his patron’s face.

“Not really sure.  Ned’s done nothing to anyone.  He’s been here longer than me.”  Murdoch answered.

“But what is there to gain because of his death?”

“Nothing really.  He just has a piece of scrub land.”

 

Chapter 15

Stepping off the train, he was relieved to have arrived.  His mission grim, it was still a welcome relief from the day-to-day strain of running Lancer.  He was grateful Murdoch had the reins once more, and realized that he and Johnny had a long ways to go before they were ready to take control of the ranch, and Johnny, more so.  His lack of patience and hot-blooded temperament were not qualities that would bode well with the business end of the ranch.  As it were, his own calm, rational temperament had faced difficulty.

He stepped up and waved a cab over.  The driver picked up his bags and he settled onto the seat to continue his thoughts.

Secretly, he was hoping that he could find Sadie right away, and manage at least one day to wander the streets, maybe attend the theatre or something cultural.  Hell, maybe he would take Sadie on a date.  He could use an escort to the theatre.  He wouldn’t have to worry about her.  She wasn’t attracted to him, whore or not, her heart was all for Johnny.  Besides, he and Johnny had an agreement about not sharing their women, be it whores or daughters of ranchers.

It was sad how she seemed to love his brother.  He didn’t know if it was because his brother was good at lovemaking or because he was kind to the girls, or both.  Johnny was popular with all the girls and he had overheard some of them talking about his little brother’s prowess in the sack.  He saw how they, and all the women in town, seemed to flock around the boy, as if hypnotized.

Johnny didn’t love Sadie.  He had told him so.  He didn’t deny a very strong attraction and fondness for her, even a level of caring for her.  However, love as in wanting to settle down and marry, was not in the cards for Johnny, at least, not yet.  He was too concerned about trying to make a go of his new life, and as it was, he was struggling to stay afloat.

The cab pulled up to the front of the big hotel.  He looked forward to a bath, a meal, and well, maybe in his search for Sadie, a little satisfaction of his own.  Running the ranch had not allowed him any time for play.  He could understand Johnny yearning for Sadie last week.

Madam Blaze’s was the largest bordello in San Francisco.  It was also the finest.  A perfect place to start, he could not only look for Sadie, but satisfy his own needs in a more elegant environment than he had become accustomed.

A butler greeted him in the foyer, offering him both a cigar and drink of his choice.  He was also offered the opportunity to change into either a smoking jacket or a bathrobe.  He declined the robe.  From there, the butler showed him into the main room, a large salon with several bars scattered about.  Men and women sat drinking and otherwise enjoying each other’s company in the parlor like atmosphere, before proceeding upstairs.

He didn’t make it to the first bar before two women, both brunettes, approached him.  In the end, the taller of the two won his attention.  She had green eyes, dark brown hair that flowed long and loose around the top of her dress, which revealed not only her ample cleavage, but also all of her shoulders and most of her back.

The dress was green to match her eyes, and was made of chenille and chiffon.  She wore earrings that looked to be diamond and emeralds.  She guided him to a love seat where he sat, and she snuggled her breasts against him and her face just inches from his, she sipped her champagne.

God she smelled good.  Her posture was that of a society girl.  She was exquisite.  Had he seen her on the street, he would have wanted to date her as well as, well, as well as what he was about to do to her.

“What’s your name, darlin’?”

Damn, she spoke the words with the softest southern drawl he had ever heard.  He was a sucker for a girl with a southern drawl.  Despite his horrible experience in Libby, he still loved to hear a woman talk like that.  Relaxed, easy, and lazy, it was sensual.

“Scott.  And you my dear?”

“Ellie.”

She made an almost imperceptible movement with her head, inviting him closer.  He responded, by pulling her close and kissing her.

He returned to his hotel room via cab, relaxed and satisfied in many ways, except the one in which he could help his brother.  He had clearly eliminated Sadie from working at Madam Blaze’s.  He felt disappointed somehow, as if he’d let his brother down.

Why, he didn’t know.  After all, what did he expect?  That he would find her the first try?  Not hardly.  With so many bordellos, brothels, and saloons in town, he would have to forego using the services at each location.  Should he have been moving on to another location and not satisfied his own personal needs tonight?  No, Johnny wouldn’t do so and in turn wouldn’t expect him to do so.

Well, tomorrow, he would start early and finish late.  But for now, all he wanted was a good night’s sleep.

Ansley Bryant was up early and ready to go.  He had made some outline notes about his client’s past that he thought needed addressing.  He also was looking forward to meeting with the prosecutor for the county.  His client was feeling confident about his alibi, but the rumors around town did not bode well for the boy.  He was going to see what they had on their side today and was ready to roll up his sleeves and go to work after the meeting.

Barnaby George was a tall man with disjointed movement that reminded Bryant of an insect.  He had long silver hair worn in a ponytail, reminiscent of the wigs the founding fathers had worn.  His suit well made, and impeccably groomed.  Arrogance spread across his face as he towered over the smaller defense attorney.

“Mr. Bryant, I presume.”  He stood and leaned over his desk offering his hand to the incoming Bryant.

“Yes, Mr. George.  I am Ansley Bryant of Sacramento.”

“I hear you’re a right fair attorney, Mr. George.”

“Oh, I guess you could say that.  I wouldn’t want to be considered a braggart.”

“No, no, I guess not.”  He waved towards a stuffed chair in front of his desk.  “Sit, please, by all means.  Care for a drink?”

“Just some water would be good for now.”

The prosecutor poured two glasses of water with his lurching movements and handed one to Bryant.

“Thank you.”

“Well, you look as if you’re ready to get down to business.”

“Well at the risk of seeming anxious, I am ready to get started.”

George stepped over to a bookcase and removed a leather binder that was several inches thick and placed it on his desk.  He sat down and untied the leather string that held it closed and pulled out the contents.

“What would you like to know?”

Bryant left the prosecutors office licking his lips like a wolf having just eaten his fill of sheep.  George was such an arrogant bastard.  He was way over confident of his case and, in Bryant’s mind, disseminated just a little more information that he should have.

But, he had to admit, the man had what sounded like a good solid case, three witnesses that overheard Johnny and Val arguing in the alley behind the sheriff’s office, two saloon girls that said the boy had talked about going back to Mexico after he got a big stake.  Then there were the bank witnesses, and townspeople.

If only the sheriff would wake up, he felt that he would be a key witness.  Then, there was the widow Johnny had mentioned.  After what the boy told him he said to her, he sincerely doubted that she would forget such a meeting, although he doubted that she would repeat those words.  She would be a key witness.  Then of course, the girl he called Sadie.

Well, his next stop was The Soiled Dove, where he intended to interview every single employee from owner, to whore, to dishwasher.  It would be a long day, but most likely made pleasant by the women in the bordello.  He smiled to himself.

Johnny stood, hands on the bars of the lone window, staring out into the alley for the tiny glimpse of sunlight that he could get.  He leaned his head against the bars and gently butted them with his head.

He was starting to worry.  Scott had been gone for two days and they hadn’t heard anything from him.  Murdoch had finally told him that they hadn’t found the note.  The ol’ man had even ridden out to find the spot where he had met up with the Widda’ Merry and still hadn’t found it.

What the hell was going on that there were suddenly witnesses to all this alleged arguing with Val, and with the two saloon girls that he had allegedly talked to about Mexico with?  All of it lies.   But why?  What had he done or what was it that someone wanted him out of the way for?

Kick.  What the fuck was he up to?  Helping to rob a bank was not his usual line of work.  Who was he working for?  God damned Cattlemen’s Association!  Why’d they have to decide on Green River to do their banking.  He knew the answer to this.  He was just frustrated.

To make matters worse, Brad’s posse that left shortly after Wilkes locked him in the cell had returned.  They had been tracking the three of the bandits, but lost them in the mountains in the fault full of shale.

Brad was helping Wilkes out as a deputy now.  At least that put him with Johnny at night.  A small comfort, but at least he could sleep better now, knowing his amigo was there watching over him.  As for Wren, his posse had taken off after the single rider that had split off.  They had tracked the robber all the way to beyond Spanish Wells and to the base of the mountains, but by then, it was such rough going, the posse returned, all but Wren that is.  The devil looked after his own, but Wren and the devil had their own agreement.  He wouldn’t be back until he found his man.  But, would that be in time for his trial?

Sam Jenkins was checking his patients again.  Val was improving despite it all.  A little color had come back into his face and he was sleeping, albeit deep.   The wound was far from healed. However, the fact that he was still alive after this many days gave him hope.   He had not developed a fever either.  That was due to the fact that the first thing the doctor did every day was to clean that wound to as close as he could to perfection.

Something told him that if the sheriff woke up, he would be as bad a patient as the Lancers were.  Especially being that he was a friend of Johnny’s, he’d be upset when he heard that Johnny had been arrested.

Personally, he didn’t believe for a second that Johnny had shot his best friend.  But it would be hard to overcome the circumstantial evidence.  He was relieved that Murdoch believed the boy and they seemed to be getting along despite all the trouble they had had in recent times.  Johnny had been cheated out of so much in life, he deserved some happiness, even if he wasn’t sure what that was as of yet.

He was pulling the covers back over Val when he heard a soft moan from the other room. Taking a last look at Val, he hurried across the hall to Tim’s room, where he found the young man with his hand on his head.

He hurried to his bedside.  “Tim? Tim?  Can you hear me?”  His voice was soft, knowing that if Tim were awake, he would have a tremendous headache.

“Doc?  Is that you?” His eyes opened and shut quickly, and put his hand over them.

“It’s me Tim.  Headache?”

“Like a mule kicked me in the head.”

“Close to it.  Take your time and open your eyes slowly.  I’ll pull the curtain a bit and soften the light.”

Sam moved to pull the curtains and when he turned back, Tim’s eyes were open, but blinking frequently.

“What the hell happened to me?”

“Don’t you remember?”

Tim lay there for a few minutes, clearly straining his mind, while Sam poured a glass of water.

“The bank.  Someone robbed the bank.”

“Yeah, what else?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t remember.  Am I shot? Val, where’s Val?”

“No, you’re not shot.  A horse ran over you.  Knocked you into the hitchin’ rail.”

“I don’t remember.”

“It’s okay, it’ll come back to you in time.  For now, I’d like to see if we could sit you up just a bit.”

“I don’t know doc, my head’s pounding like forty mules kickin’ now.”

“Well, then it can’t get much worse, can it?”  The doc laughed, but helped the young deputy ease up slightly and placed some pillows behind him.

“That’s not too bad is it?”

“No sir.”

“Now, drink this glass of water.”

“What about Val?”

“He’s across the hall.”

“Shot?”

“I’m afraid so!”

“Bad?”

“Yep, about as bad as one can get and not die.”

“Anyone in jail?”

“Johnny Lancer.”

Ansley Bryant left The Soiled Dove with concern.  He had believed his client when he told him no one saw him, but what he couldn’t figure out was that upon talking to him the second time about identifying the witnesses that the prosecutor would be putting up, the boy had told him surely someone would have noticed that he’d been at The Dove.  As he was running out to get on his horse, he had noticed the mess that the horse had made in the well-kept little back yard.

Ellen, the owner of the business said she had not noticed anything wrong in her little yard, and that the gardener hadn’t mentioned anything.  She had told him that she had eyes like a hawk and nothing had been disturbed.  She had found it odd that Johnny hadn’t been over to ‘see’ them during the time that Sadie was back.

Johnny had denied even knowing the three witnesses that allegedly heard him and Val arguing in the alley.  The two saloon girls, well, Johnny did know them, but denied having ever used their services, thus their motive for lying.  After interviewing the women at The Dove, well, it was clear to see why they were jealous.

Well, he still had quite a few more witnesses to interview.  Two bank employees, one bank customer, and then there was the Widow Merry.  From the way Johnny described her, she was definitely going to be an interesting interview.

He was crossing the alley opening when she stepped out in front of him.

 

Chapter 16

The result of the officers’ meeting of The Cattlemen’s Association was a unanimous agreement to call a full-blown association meeting in Green River, and today was the day.  Murdoch was not looking forward to this at all.  Not only was it bad enough that they had lost their money, but his son was charged with the crime, and now, Buck Addison was running around town spouting off about Lancer being bankrupt and that was the real reason ‘Madrid’ had robbed the bank.

He rode to the livery where he left his horse.  It would be a long day.  He decided to check in on Johnny before he went to the meeting.  He knew he would probably be in a foul mood when the meeting was over and he didn’t want Johnny to be his whipping boy.  His son had been that long enough.

Wilkes waved him towards the large wooden door that stood slightly ajar.  He was eating his breakfast and Murdoch found Johnny doing the same.

He liked the way his son’s eyes seemed to light up a little when he saw him these days.  They didn’t used to.  They used to be wary and full of suspicion.  It took a little of the edge off him to see his boy like that.

“Hey Murdoch.”

“Hi son.”

“So ya got your meetin’ today?”

“Yes.  I’m headed there, but wanted to come and see you first.  I probably won’t be good company after the meeting.”

Johnny smiled.  “I still think you oughta punch Buck Addison right in the mouth.  It’d do ya a lotta good.  Trust me.”

Murdoch couldn’t help but smile back at his son.  “Johnny, you know that’s no way to conduct business.”

“I didn’t say conduct business.  I said to make ya feel better.”  He stuffed a forkful of eggs in his mouth.

“Even so, what would Aggie say?”

“The Aggie Conway I knew would clap for you.  But the Aggie that’s married to Addison, who the hell knows what she’d do.”

“Johnny.”  Murdoch hated to hear his son talk like that, true or not.  “Well, I guess we’ll just have to see.  You know Scott’s not having any luck in finding Sadie.”

“I know.  Bryant told me.”  He took a bite of biscuit.

“What do you think of him?”

“Bryant?  He’s a good attorney.  I think he’ll put on a good show, but it seems like it’s my word against the town at this point.”

“Sounds like it.  But he sure seems confident.”

“Yeah, well.  I guess we’ll see.  He does play his cards close to the vest.  I get the feeling he’s not telling us everything.  I just hope he’s got an ace up his sleeve that we don’t know about.”

“Johnny.  Son.”

Johnny looked up and saw his father’s face cloud with sadness.  “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but know that I am not going to let you hang.  I, I, I can’t lose you.”

Patting the bars softly with his open hand, Murdoch turned and headed out the big door, never looking back.

Johnny sat there, fork halfway to his mouth, watching him go.  He shook his head.  He never would understand that ol’ man.

Murdoch knew that Buck had been campaigning against him hard when he walked into the hotel and saw the members of the association scattered about.  Everyone looked up at him and the whisperings began.  His true friends still nodded at him and two still came over to greet him, one of them being Aggie.

“Murdoch, I’m so sorry about all of this.  How is Johnny?”  She looked sincere, but now, he just didn’t know.  She was, after all, married to Addison.

“Thank you Agatha.  He’s just fine.  I think this is the longest he’s ever been in one place and still.”  He tried to laugh, but only managed a smile.

“Murdoch, I’m so sorry about Buck.  I don’t know what’s gotten into him.  I’ve tried to make him understand.”

“It’s okay Agatha, I understand.”  He patted her on the shoulder and walked away with Tom Hughes who had been his friend for over twenty years, leaving Aggie with her mouth open and watching.  He knew she would get the message, as he hadn’t called her Agatha in all of their seventeen years of friendship.

He had expected it to be a rough day, but he had not been prepared for what had occurred.  Addison made a proposal from the floor, that the association suspend his membership until after the trial, and in the event of an acquittal, he would be readmitted, but in the event that Johnny was convicted, that he be permanently barred from the association.

It had turned the association into a madhouse.  Tempers flared, old friends became enemies, and hotel management twice checked to see if they needed the services of the Marshall, after one particularly long shouting match.  Addison’s poisonous accusations about Johnny and Lancer were beginning to take root.

In the end, Buck’s motion failed and Murdoch retained his membership.  Little had gotten done other than they had decided to wait and take a final vote on whether to attempt to continue to honor their end of the deal with the railroad, or advise them that they would have to wait another year after some more number crunching and the results of the trial.

When the gavel struck, he stormed out of the hotel and across the street to the saloon.  In an uncharacteristic move.  He ordered a double shot and backed it as a stunned bartender and patrons watched.  He slammed the glass down, asked for another and after backing it, threw some money on the bar and strode out.

He got his horse from the livery and headed for Lancer, looking forward to some of his own brand of scotch.  Dinner was far from his mind.

Wren lay on top of the flat rock behind some scrub brush.  He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and then adjusted himself again behind the scope of the rifle.  Down below, unsuspecting, was his prey.

The conchos on his pants reflected the light back at him like beacons in a lighthouse.  A sardonic smile crossed his face.  Just a little longer and he’d have his man.  God, how he wanted to squeeze the trigger.  He could make the shot easily.  In fact, right between the eyes.  But that would be too easy.  Maybe one right through the upper thigh, incapacitating his prey.  Then his gun hand.  Then maybe the gut shot; a surefire slow and painful way to die.  When he was cryin’good and beggin, then, he’d give him one between the eyes to end the suffering.

He laughed to himself.  Those days were gone.  No more of that.  It was all on the up and up and nice and legal.  Well, most of the time.  Definitely had to be this time.  Johnny’s life was at stake.  He knew he’d break him out of jail before he’d let him hang though.  So would Brad.  They had gone too far together to let that happen to the boy.

What he couldn’t figure out was why the fucker was coming full circle back into the area.  He had tracked him from where he had broken away from the others and gone cross-country, across the Lancer ranch.  Near where the property line ended and the Conway or Addison spread, whatever the hell they were calling it, began, the tracks had ended.  He had made his way down the fence line until he found where the wire had been cut.  There weren’t any tracks, but he had found some broken pieces of scrub brush and eventually picked up the tracks again.

He had followed him in the direction of Mexico for the first five days before he suddenly began to turn back towards the area again.  Now, three days ride from Green River, he had him just where he wanted him.  Tonight was the night.  The anticipation was almost better than screwin’.  Almost.

He rolled over, slid down from the rock and slid the rifle into its scabbard on his saddle.  He pulled some jerky from his saddlebags, found the bottle of tequila, and took a pull from it.  He put it back in the bag, and then grabbed his canteen off the saddle.

With his horse tied in the shade, he crawled back up onto a second rock and leaned back against a tree.  He could see his victim beginning to set up camp by gathering firewood.  He settled himself down to a comfortable position, pulled the brim of his hat low, took a bite of jerky and began to chew.  He sure hoped the little bastard made better coffee than he remembered.

Scott sat staring out of the train window.  He didn’t think he could feel this bad.  He had never failed at anything before, when he had set his mind to it, and now he had.  He had failed himself, his family, but more importantly, Johnny.

He had been to every whorehouse; every business that ran any kind of prostitution, and still had not located Sadie.  He had placed an ad in the newspaper looking for her with no results.  Now, Johnny’s trial was days away, and he was no closer to finding the woman than when he first got on the train to come to San Francisco.

He didn’t know how he could hold his head up to face either his father or his brother.  He had been so cock sure he would find her.  It just never crossed his mind that he wouldn’t.

Even more upsetting was the way he found himself feeling about his brother.  Less than a year ago, he never knew or even imagined he had one.  Once he had first met Johnny and learned about what he was, he wasn’t sure he could ever welcome him with open arms or trust him.

Now, here he was. He felt like crying because of his inability to help someone that he cared for so deeply.  Johnny just had that way of working into a person’s soul.  If something happened to Johnny, it would be as if a part of him died.

But he did have one piece of information that might be useful.  On a hunch, he had stopped in Sacramento and checked at the courthouse for the property records of Ned Lawson’s property.  At his death, he willed it to his soul survivor, a younger sister in Spanish Wells.  However, two days after her brother’s death, she sold it.  Sold it to Acme Land.

Teresa excused herself from the dinner table and went to the kitchen to help Maria clean up while she waited for Murdoch to make his way to the great room.  Now she understood why Johnny was always calling it ‘the lion’s den.’  Murdoch was indeed acting like a lion these last few days.  Growling orders out and prowling about his den, he was unhappy, which resulted in everyone else being miserable.

Murdoch had come home spitting mad from the Cattlemen’s meeting.  He had broken three of the leaded glass whiskey tumblers in the great room this week.  He roared at anyone who irritated him, and that was everyone, from cook to ranch hand, to business associate.

He had even carried on with Sam in town the other day she had heard when she had been at the sewing circle.  The gossip around town that she had picked up there was unbelievable.  Aggie Conway and Buck were at odds and had a big fight right in the middle of the first officers meeting of the Cattlemen’s Officer’s meeting and an even bigger one after the association meeting.

What was going around town about Johnny was heartbreaking.  It was almost worse than when Johnny first came home.  People were calling him awful names and saying he was nothing more than a cold-blooded killer, a gun for hire.  They thought Murdoch was playing with fire bringing the boy home the first time, and that he had gotten burned when Johnny turned on him.  But now, if he didn’t realize how out of control the boy was, then they wanted no more to do with Lancer at all.

Scott would be home tomorrow.  Hopefully, he could help calm Murdoch down, but she doubted it.  In fact, it would probably make things worse since he had been unable to locate that woman.  Murdoch was angry about that and she was afraid that they would fight too, as she knew Scott would be feeling guilty about not finding her, and Murdoch would probably be accusatory.

The worst thing about was that there was absolutely nothing that she could do about any of this.

 

Chapter 17

Sam had set little Billy’s arm and was seeing the Olson family out when he heard Tim’s call.

“Doc, Doc?!!  Doc!!!!!”

He hurried down the hall.  “Doc, it’s Val!”  He heard the boy call after his footsteps could be heard coming into the hallway.

He turned into Val’s room to see the sheriff looking at him, and looking at him with recognition.  He almost collapsed from the sudden relief as it hit his veins.

“Welcome back, Val.”  The older man said as he approached his bedside.

“You call this a welcome?”  The words were not much more than a strained whisper.

“Yep, damn straight.  You are definitely back.”  The doctor laughed, knowing that Val Crawford was indeed back if he was grouchy.

“Here, take a drink.”  He offered him a glass of water, holding it to his lips.  The look Val shot him would have killed a stronger man, as he raised a shaking hand to take the glass.

The doctor allowed him to grasp it, but didn’t let go as when Val tried to move it towards his lips, his hand and arm shook and spilled water over him and he would have dropped it but for the doctor’s foresight.

With that, the grungy sheriff laid his head back against the pillow, closed his eyes, and then nodded his head before opening his eyes and allowing the doctor to hold the glass while he drank.

“What happened?”  He whispered, but a little more clarity.

“You were shot during the bank robbery.”

“Bank robbery?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t rightly remember.”

“It’ll come back to you.  You’ve been out for almost two weeks now.”

“Shit.  Who’s lookin’ after the town?”

“U. S. Marshall.  Gabe called him in.”

“Oh.”

“Sleepy.”

“Go back to sleep.  When you wake up again, I’ll have some broth for you.”

Val’s eyes had already closed.

The doctor stepped into Tim’s room.  “Tim, whatever happens, don’t tell him about Johnny.”

“Okay doc.  Doc?”

“Yes?”

“My legs aren’t so numb today.”

“Great.  That means the swelling is subsiding. It won’t be long, I don’t believe, until you’ll  be up and around.”

“Sounds good to me.  I’m getting tired of layin’ here like this.”

Scott stepped off the stage.  He was tired, dusty, and miserable.  It wasn’t enough that he felt like a failure to himself, the looks he was receiving from the townspeople were angry.  He sighed, took his bags and went inside to store them temporarily in the office.

Sal, the depot manager at least had a pleasant smile for him, and he returned it before he left through the door and headed down the street towards the jail.

As anxious as he was to get to his brother, he realized he had forgotten about Val.  He crossed the street and headed into the doctor’s office.

The little bell rang above the door announcing his arrival.  The familiarity of its sound was warm, and somehow, comforting.

Sam popped in from the back.  “Scott!  Good to see you back!”

He couldn’t help but smile back as Sam’s warm greeting took hold and lifted his spirits.  “Thanks, Sam.  It’s good to be back.  I just wish I’d had more luck.”

“So, you didn’t find her?”

“Not a trace.”

“She must have moved on, or never even went there to begin with.”

“Surely it was one of those.  I even had an advertisement in the paper.  Knowing how she felt about Johnny, well, if she’d seen it, she’d have made contact.”

“Have you seen your brother yet?”

“No.  I just got off the stage and decided I’d better check on Val before I went over.”

“He’s awake, and he’s going to make a complete recovery, but I swear he and Johnny must share some blood, because he is every bit as stubborn as your little brother.”

Scott laughed as another few pounds of weight lifted from his shoulders.

“Can I see him?”

“He’s asleep now.  Even when he’s awake, it’s not for long and he tires almost immediately.”

“Oh, but that’s still great news.  Has he made a statement about Johnny not being the one that shot him?”

“Doesn’t remember much about the robbery, and nothing about who shot him.”

“Damn!  And Tim?”

“Pretty much the same.  He’s almost ready to go home.  I just wanna make sure he’s gonna be able to take care of himself.”

“That’s good to hear.  Seen Murdoch lately?”

“Not for a day or two.  I’ve been busy delivering babies.”

“Okay, we’ll I’d better go see what my little brother’s up to.”  He shook the doctor’s hand.

The bell sounded colder when he left this time.

As he crossed the busy street, he saw the Marshall leaving his office and locking the front door.  Not to worry, he knew what the Marshall didn’t.  Val kept a key above the back door.  He had told Johnny and him about it a long time before.

He slipped down the alley and behind the building.  The key was easy to reach for someone of his height.  He pulled it down, unlocked the door, and replaced the key.   He opened the door and let himself in, closing the door quietly.  Striding across the office, he unlocked the front door, in case the marshal came back.  Wouldn’t do for him to find out how he got in.

He moved towards the large wooden door, pulled the key ring from beside it, and unlocked it.  By the time he had it open, Johnny was up and smiling from between the bars.  He had caught the look in his eyes, however, just before the smile and the dark look of them worried him.

“Hey, Boston.  No luck, huh?”  Johnny’s voice was soft and forgiving.

“I’m sorry, Johnny.  Really.  I thought for sure that I’d find her.  I did everything I could.”

Still holding the bars, he bowed his head into them and scuffed the floor with the toe of his boot.

“It’s okay Scott.  Finding a girl like that’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

“No, Johnny, it’s not okay.  I failed you.”

Johnny turned and walked to the back of the cell waving his arms.

“You didn’t fail me, Scott.  Hell, she might not have even gone there.  Who knows where the hell she is.  I mean, you’re not responsible for all this, so don’t go blamin’ yourself.”

“How’s the ol’ man?”

“Ain’t seen him for three days.  After that Cattleman’s meeting, he’s just gone crazy from what I hear.  I swear to you Scott, this is Buck Addison’s work if it’s anybody.”

“What happened in the meeting?”

“From what Clayton Rogers told me, Buck tried to get Murdoch kicked out of the association, for good if I get convicted.”

“What?”

“Yeah.  It seems Buck was carryin’ on that we’re broke and that Murdoch had me rob the bank, thinking what, I don’t know.  Just such a bunch of bullshit.  I swear Scott, I can’t stay in this cell much longer or I’m gonna go out of my mind.”  Johnny kicked the side of his cot with the middle portion of his foot.

“I go to trial in three days Scott.  I don’t know what the fuck’s happening.  Bryant seems to think he’s gonna win, but he’s not talking about how.  I hope he’s not hangin’ his hat on that fuckin’ widow, ‘cause that old bitch is just as likely to lie as anything with all the talk that’s goin’ on around this town right now.”

“Johnny,” The sound at the front door caused them both to look as the marshal came through the front door, after locking it thinking he was unlocking it, and then having to unlock it again.  The irritation showed on his face as he entered and saw Scott.

“What the hell are you doin’ in here?  I locked the door.”

“All I can say marshal, it was open when I got here.”

Scott turned to face Johnny who had walked back out of sight of the marshal.  He knew Johnny had heard him come in from the back and for a brief moment, his little brother looked just that, like a little brother, with a silly gin on his face.

All too quickly, though, Johnny’s face turned dark and serious.  Coming back to the front of the cell, he grabbed the bars again and whispered, “Scott.  I mean this.  I have no intention of hanging for some bullshit like this.  If it means I have to leave Lancer I will, but you need to be prepared for that and the ol’ man too, but I guess he’s already made up his mind about me, so it won’t bother him.”

“Johnny!”

“I’m serious Scott, if it gets down to me hangin’, I’m out of here by whatever means necessary, so get used to the idea.  I’ll get word to you here and there through Val or Brad or Wren.  Just don’t come lookin’ for me.”

“Johnny.”

“I mean it Scott.  Now git outta here and go see what’s happen’ with Murdoch.”

It was a long ride back to Lancer, made even longer with the burden he carried on his shoulders.  Johnny was obviously going stir crazy and Bryant seemed overly confident in Scott’s opinion, given the fact that Val and Tim’s testimony would be virtually of no use.

What condition he would find Murdoch in when he got back was also something he wasn’t sure he wanted to face.  After everything he had been through with Johnny recently, to know that he had not visited him for three days had him good and damn worried.

He passed under the Lancer arch, nodding at the two vaqueros standing guard.  They seemed glad to see him at least.  The entire way home, he had thought of nothing but what his brother had said about any means necessary.  He didn’t want to think about how that could end.

He knew how dangerous his brother was, and with those two friends of his, especially that Wren.   After watching him practicing with Johnny, well, he didn’t think that they would let Johnny go it alone, and God forbid, he had no plans to let his little brother hang either.  However, gun fighting wasn’t his way.

A hand walked out of the barn to take his horse.  “Good to see you back Mr. Lancer.”

He could tell by the look on the man’s face he was walking into disaster.  “Thank you Ben.”

He pulled his two bags from the back of his horse, took a deep breath, and opened the front door.

He could hear Murdoch’s gruff tone as he gave instructions to someone.  He placed his bags by the hat rack, pulled off his jacket and walked into the great room, where he saw Cipriano and Isidro standing beside his father and looking at a map.

Murdoch was giving them instructions concerning a large creek that ran from one portion of their property onto the Conway ranch.  “I want it blocked tomorrow.  I don’t give a damn how many men or hours it takes to do it.  I want it done before tomorrow ends.”

Scott slipped over to the bar and poured himself a drink as he heard the two men agreeing to the work and saw them nodding.  Murdoch looked over at him as the top of the glass decanter clinked when he replaced it.

“Scott, welcome home son!”  He moved past the two vaqueros, came towards him, and squeezed him on the shoulder.

“Thank you, sir.  It’s good to be home, although, I wish I had been more successful.”

“Well, you tried.  A girl like that, well, what can we expect?”  Scott could smell alcohol on his father’s breath.

“I guess you’re right son.”  He turned to his Segundo, “That’s all for now.”

“Si’ Señor Lancer.  Welcome home Señor Scott.”  The two vaqueros gave their welcome and took their leave out of the French doors.

Murdoch poured himself a drink.  “So tell me about your trip.”  He moved over to one of the sofas and indicated that Scott should sit as well.

“Well, sir, it’s as I told you.  I advertised in the paper for her, and I now know every possible place to pay for a woman’s services in all of San Francisco.”

“I was afraid that was a dead end.  We still haven’t found any note either.”

“Sir, I stopped by to see Johnny.”

“Yes, how’s he doing?”

“I think he needs his father.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, he said he hasn’t seen you for three days.”

“For God’s sake Scott, Lancer is a big ranch and somebody’s gotta run it.  With him in jail and you off in San Francisco, the work was piling up.  Surely he can’t expect me to run all the way into Green River to see him every single day.”

“But Murdoch, he’ locked up in that cell like a caged animal with that obnoxious marshal in charge of him.  I think he’s getting scared.”

Murdoch laughed.  “Scared.  I don’t think your brother’s capable of being scared.  He’s gotten himself into a mess and there’s not much we can do about it now.  We’ve done all we can do.  It’s up to his attorney now, and frankly, I’m not holding out for an acquittal at this point.”

“But sir.”

“But nothing.  I’ve got to deal with Buck Addison now.  He’s trying to run me out of the Cattlemen’s Association and take over for himself at the expense of my son’s life.”

“Johnny said there’d been trouble.”

“Yes, well, two can play that game.  I’m damning up the creek up on the north pasture.  See how he likes that!”

“Murdoch.”

“Scott, I was fighting these kinds of battles before you were born.”

“Well, I have some information that might be of use to you.”

“And what’s that?”  Murdoch downed his drink and stood to return to the bar to pour another.

“Acme Land owns Ned Lawson’s place.”

“What?”  Murdoch returned quickly and sat down.  “How do you know?”

“Well, when the train stopped in Sacramento, I slipped over to the courthouse and checked on the property.  I was thinking that we might be able to pick it up from whoever inherited it.”

“Good thinking.”

“Well, it was left to his sister over near Spanish Wells.  Two days after he died, Acme purchased it from her.”

“Damn!”

“I just can’t figure out why he’d do that now that the Cattlemen’s Association has agreed to build the one near Spanish Wells.”

“That’s just it. Now that this has happened, he’s planning to move in.  That’s why he wants me out of the association.”

“Pretty convenient don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t think all of this is just a little too coincidental?”

“Scott, your beginning to sound like your brother.  Buck Addison has plenty of money.  He doesn’t need to rob a bank to build his spur and he doesn’t need to kill to buy property.  He’s just taking advantage of an opportune situation.”

“Murdoch, I disagree with you.”

“Besides, Aggie would have nothing to do with anything like that.”

“Just like before.  I don’t think Aggie knows!”

Wren stood up, stretched and pulled the rifle from its scabbard again.  Crawling onto the flat rock again, he looked through the scope of the rifle and saw his victim as he pulled the blanket over himself as he settled back against his saddle.

“It’s time amigo.”  He whispered.

 

Chapter 18

With soft, quiet steps, he picked his way down the hill and through the brush, to the campsite.  His target had already drifted off by the time he had arrived.  He could hear soft snores as he approached, his Colt drawn.

He reached over and pulled the man’s rig away and out of reach.  Then, placing the end of the barrel of the Colt a few inches from the man’s ear, he cocked it with the slow practiced ease that was strong, steady, and smooth as butter.  Making sure that each click stood out in the silence of the night, he waited for the man to awaken.

He did, reaching towards his right where he had left his rig, his hand flailing like a fish out of water.  “Not there, pendejo.  Put your hands where I can see them or I’ll put this bullet right through your ear.”

The man sat up slowly and turned to face him.

“Wren?”

"Yep, it’s me all right.  Get up on your knees and face the other way.  Put your hands behind your back.”

The man did so and Wren nimbly put the shackles he had brought with him on the man’s wrists with one hand, holding his gun against the base of his prisoner’s skull with the other.   

“What’s this all about?”

“Okay, sit up against that tree there.”  The man knee walked to the tree, sat down, and scooted on his calzoneras clad butt, up against it.

Wren let out a shrill whistle and his horse came trotting down the hill.  When the big sorrel stopped beside him, he reached into his saddlebag and pulled out two more sets of shackles.  First, he shackled his prisoner to the tree and then pulled his boots off, checking for knives and other possible weapons before he shackled the man’s feet.

With that done, he stirred the embers of the fire to reheat the coffee left in the pot, and began to unsaddle his horse.  When he finished caring for the animal and stepped back into the light, he picked up the man’s blanket and tossed it over him.

“Wouldn’t want you to catch a chill and die on me.”

“Wren, por favor amigo, what is this about.”  The man’s Mexican accent was heavy in his English.

“Well, I reckon I just caught me Johnny Madrid.  Didn’t know he’d taken ta robbin’ banks, what with him makin’ good with his rich rancher daddy and all.”

“Oh come on Wren.  You know damn well who I am and you know damn well I ain’t Johnny Madrid.”

“Know what hombre?”

“What?”

“You’re damn straight on that!”

“You know damn well why I’m here.  And you know me, Carlito.  I will kill you if you so much as sneeze wrong.”

Wren pulled out his own tin cup from his saddlebags, poured some coffee from the pot, and settled back against his saddle.  Taking a sip, he smiled as he savored the rich dark almost thick taste of the coffee.

“Damn Carlito, you make some mean coffee.”

“Fuck you Wren.”

“No, fuck you Carlito.  And that’s the least of what Madrid’s gonna do to ya when I turn you over to him.”

Wren closed his eyes and ignored the strings of Spanish obscenities coming from Carlito’s mouth.

 

Brad and Johnny sat at the desk playing cards and drinking coffee.  They could hear sounds from the saloon from across the street.  Johnny had his chair tilted back and his feet on the desk.

“Juanito, I swear, you are not gonna hang, you hear me.  If you and me and Wren have ta spend the rest of our lives hidin’ out in Mexico, we will, or go to South America.  But I ain’t gonna let that happen.”

“I know.  I appreciate it.  No word from Wren?”

“Nope.  But I take that as a good sign.  If he ain’t quit, it means he’s on to somethin’.”

“I just hope it’s in time before this trial’s over.”

“Me too.  But if he ain’t back, it’s you and me amigo.  We’re out of here if they don’t turn ya loose.  Ya hear me?”

Johnny nodded.

“They might not let me look after ya, if ya get convicted, so it might have to be kinda make it up as we go, but we’re outta here.”

Johnny nodded, still looking at his cards.

“I’ve got some money stashed.  Just make sure I get my rig.”

“It’s over there in the bottom drawer.  The key’s in the top center drawer.”

Johnny drew a card.  “Why don’t you go out to the ranch tomorrow.  I gotta a nice shotgun and rifle in my room and there’s five hundred dollars rolled up in a pouch in a pair of old boots in the dressin’ closet.”

“Just ride out there and take them?”  Brad put a card face down on the table.

“Yep.  Tell them I’m giving the shotgun to you.  I’ll tell ‘em if any of ‘em come ta town before then.  They’ll probably come in for church so you could go then.”

“How’s that brother of yours gonna take it when you make a run for it?”

“He’ll hate it, but I don’t think he wants to see me hang.  The ol’ man promised he wouldn’t let it happen the last time he was in here, but he ain’t been back since then, so I don’t know what the hell’s up with him.  Must be something going on at the ranch.”

The sound of breaking glass shattered their peace and quite.

“God damn it!”  Brad said throwing down his cards.  “Cover me.”  Johnny laughed and watched Brad pull and check his Colt and grab a shotgun from the rack as he headed over to the saloon.

Johnny locked the door behind him and darted out back to the outhouse for some relief before Brad brought back any company.  While he was out there, he checked under the back steps for the two pistols that Val kept wrapped in a piece of torn tarp for emergencies.  They were still there and loaded.

He made it back just in time to unlock the door and dart back to his cell before Brad came back shoving two of the hands from Addison’s crew in the front door and back to the cell area.  He pushed them all the way down to the last of the three cells, leaving an empty one between them and Johnny.

“Hey, Johnny Madrid!”  They called out.

Johnny looked at Brad.

“It’s gonna be a long night.”

“Yep.”  Johnny replied it sure is.

Saturday morning, Buck Addison entered the sheriff’s office.  Wilkes was on duty by this time.  Johnny sat back on his cot listening to Addison argue with Wilkes.  He had mistakenly thought that he could buy his men’s way out of jail.

Johnny laughed to himself.  One thing about Wilkes, he was serious about his job.  Even funnier would be watching him tower over Addison as he explained to him that his men would remain in custody until the judge’s arrival.  Except, he would have to listen to their bullshit all day, after listening to it all last night.

He was somewhat disappointed that Murdoch didn’t come that day.  Scott had come but just said Murdoch was busy.  By nighttime, he had given up.  What the hell did he think anyway?  Maybe Murdoch had given up on him.  It would be good if he had because when he made his break it wouldn’t be pretty.  He, Brad, and Wren would tear up the town if needed, but he wasn’t going to wait to be hung.

When Brad came in that night, he still had heard nothing from Wren.

Saturday evening, Murdoch sat in the chair with his drink and stared into the fire.  It was his third and he was feeling the numbing effects the scotch had on his body.  Scott had come back late for dinner in order to get in a visit with Johnny today.  As he had sat down at the dinner table, at which, he and Teresa had already started dinner, the boy had given him a look that dared him to comment on his tardiness.

Scott was right.  Johnny did need his father.  He was in serious trouble.  But did Johnny want his father?  Was Johnny upset that he didn’t go and see him the last few days?  He doubted it.  Johnny had been on his own too long to want the advice of an old man like him.  The boy had been in trouble constantly since he had come home, and had never sought his advice nor took it before.  He never seemed afraid, and even now, he didn’t seem to take what was happening to him seriously enough.

Johnny knew what it took to run the ranch, especially now with all the trouble with Addison.  He knew what a hardship it would be for him to ride all the way into Green River everyday.  Didn’t he?  He looked over towards his desk and the large window behind it from which he could oversee his land.  There was nothing but darkness covering his land now.

His land.  It wasn’t his anymore.  It was their land.  His, Scott’s, and Johnny’s.  But without Johnny, the land would be just as dark for him in the daylight as it was now.  He knew that it would be the same for Scott.  Johnny was more than family to them.  He was part of their souls.   Without him, the ranch, their lives, would mean nothing.

He and Johnny had narrowed the crevasse between them here in recent times before this incident.  Johnny had been letting him get closer to him and he had even seen some trust in his eyes, and now, what had he done?  He had let the boy down. And why?

Then it hit him.  The real reason why he hadn’t gone to town the last few days.  He was afraid.  Afraid that he was going to lose his son and afraid because he had made him a promise that he wasn’t sure he could keep.

He had promised not to let Johnny hang, but the truth was, they both knew how he felt about the law.  The situation was out of his hands.  He wasn’t a risk taker.  What would he do if Johnny were convicted?  Break him out of jail?

Like a suckered gut punch, the reality of what he had promised hit home, and now he regretted that he had failed to spend every moment he could with his son.  He had been too busy and too distracted by Addison and the ranch, and instead of going to see his precious son, he was sitting home and drinking, awaiting what seemed to be the inevitable.

Now, he had wasted precious time that he would not be able to make up.  Johnny might not want his father, but his father wanted and needed him.

 

Sunday morning dawned clear and bright.  Johnny awoke feeling on edge. One more day to go and he would be in that courtroom tried for something he had nothing to do with, and sentenced to hang.

Well, not if he and Brad had anything to do with that last part.  They had worked out their plan last night.  If his family didn’t come into town to see him today, he’d have Brad ride out and get the items he wanted somehow without causing attention.

He ate his breakfast listening to the snores of the two men that Brad had brought in.  Wilkes was back on duty, cleaning the rifles and shotguns in the gun rack as if he expected trouble.

He was bothered by the fact that his father hadn’t come yesterday.  He was sure it was the ranch keeping him away.  He was getting too soft.  Did he really expect Murdoch to leave the ranch everyday and take that long ride into Green River?  Besides who knew what was going on at the ranch now that Scott had gotten home.  He was just being stupid and childish.  It still hurt all the same.  He was getting used to seein’ the ol’ man.  Dios, he had to stop this and now.  He wouldn’t be seein’ any of them again if he got convicted.

He was propped back against the wall staring at the bars when he heard the door to the office open and heard the voice of his father.  He was surprised and angry at how it comforted him.  He also heard his brother’s voice.

Moments later, he heard the big wooden door unlocked and sat up on the edge of his cot.  When it opened, Murdoch stepped through with Scott behind him.  He couldn’t help the smile that crossed his face.  He stood and walked up to the front of the cell and wrapped his arms around the bars.

“How are you, Johnny?”

“I’m okay.  Just wanna get this over with.”

“Me too, son, me too.”

Funny, how that three-letter word could calm him.  “So what’s up at the ranch?”

“The usual.”

“I heard you’ve had some problems with Addison.  That why you stopped coming by?”

“Uh, well, something like that.”

He knew that his father was hiding something.  He wasn’t much good at lying.  The ol’ man was tryin’ to distance himself, get ready for the blow.  He was trying to protect himself like before, with the wild horses.  He wasn’t a fool.  He knew this wasn’t going well.

“So what’s Buck up to?”

“Well, I’ve been busy blocking up the creek that runs down onto his ranch.”

“Good for you.  That’ll piss him off.  So are you gonna be there tomorrow?”

“Of course!  We’re all going to be there.  In fact, we’ve arranged hotel rooms so we are spending the night here in town tonight and ever how long it takes.”

Murdoch reached up and squeezed his elbow.  Guilt, like a hot dagger sliced into his heart when Johnny had asked in his subtle way, why he hadn’t come by.  The boy did want him.

“Oh.”

“Johnny, Murdoch asked me to bring you a suit for tomorrow.”  Scott stepped up.  “Wilkes promised he’d let you get cleaned up for court.”

“Thanks, Boston.”  Johnny leaned his head on the bars, and then looked up.

“Aren’t you all late for lunch or somethin’?”  He was smiling, but it never reached his eyes.  He hated how the words came out and hated what he knew he was going to do, but he needed to start putting some distance between them himself on his own accord.

 

 

Chapter 19

Wilkes and Brad escorted Johnny, handcuffed and shackled, into the packed courthouse of Green River.  He never looked at his family, including Teresa and Jelly, seated behind his table on the front row.  He looked directly at Ansley Bryant, who greeted him with a smile.  He knew his father would be angry at the fact that he had not worn the suit.  Not that it mattered anyway.  His rig was stashed under the bench, and Barranca would be tacked and ready in livery whether he was acquitted or not.  He and Brad had worked out several possible plans last night.

Brad had actually arranged for him to have a bath and to shave on his watch.  Johnny wore his calzoneras and the clean white shirt that Murdoch had Scott bring him.  Making a break for it, did not include in his mind, doing it in a suit.

“The Widow here?” he whispered to Bryant.

“Yes she is.”  He took cold comfort in that fact.  Surely, she would admit to seeing him that day.  He still wasn’t certain what she would say.  He had had too much experience with people to think that she would do what she should do.

Slouching back in his chair, he felt a large strong hand squeeze his shoulder.  He turned his head a little to the side to acknowledge his father, before looking forward again.

Brad had stepped back to the front doors where Gabe and his deputy were on duty, taking the weapons from the attendees and placing them in a room off the tiny vestibule.  Once they had all the weapons secure, Gabe locked the door.

“Why don’t you take the key, Brad.  That way, no one will know who has it, and if there’s trouble, you and Wilkes will be out of here with Johnny from up front, before anything else can happen.”

“Okay, sure thing Gabe.”  Brad was delighted, as this played right into his and Johnny’s plan.  It would take time to get the door open without a key and they would have that much more time to get out of town before anyone could get to their guns other than Gabe and his deputy.

The judge entered the courtroom as the bailiff announced him.  After the perfunctory beginnings of the proceedings, it was finally time for Barnaby George to make his opening statement.  Johnny settled back in his chair, arms crossed and his right leg crossed over his left.

George outlined his case impressively, but succinctly, outlining no motive for the bank robbery, but simply relying on the testimony of witnesses that could identify him, Johnny Lancer, as the bank robber.

When it was Bryant’s turn to give his opening, it was clear from the first sentence to the Lancers, he was worth the bill they were likely to receive for the case and that if Johnny had any chance, it would be because of this attorney.

His opening was also short and to the point, that he would prove that John Lancer had not robbed the bank.

Barnaby George called his first witness, the bank teller, Stella Abbott.

The fair-skinned young woman looked nervous to Johnny as she sat down in the witness chair.  When she placed her hand on the bible, it was clear that she took her oath seriously.  She looked down and straightened her skirt as George went through her identity and her employment.

“Now Miss Abbott, on the date in question, were you working at the Green River Bank?”

“Yes.”

“Did anything unusual happen that day?”

“Yes, the bank was robbed.”

“Can you tell please tell us about that incident?”

She shook her head and George stated, “You must give a verbal response, Miss Abbott.”

“I’m sorry. Yes.”

“Please, whenever you are ready.”

“Well, it was almost lunch time and the bank was unusually busy. I waited on Mr. Jones and then my next customer stepped up.  He was wearing a bandana around his face.  He pointed a gun at me and told me to fill up the bag that he pushed towards me with the money.”

“What happened next?”

“One of the other lady customers screamed when she looked over and saw the gun.  That brought the two guards out from the vault and that’s when all the shooting started.”

“Okay, was it just the one man, or were there more?”

“Well, there were more, I hadn’t noticed but there were three others in there with bandanas and guns drawn.  When the two guards came out, the one at the window shot them both before they even had a chance to get around the wall good.”

Her voice became shaky and she was almost crying.  “It was so scary.  I just got down behind the counter and hid.  I heard screaming and yelling for everyone to lie down on the floor.  There was so much gunfire and smoke.  One of the men broke into the back and I guess he got the money.”  Her hands were shaking as she took her handkerchief from her bag and dabbed at her eyes.

“Is the man who did the shooting here in the room?”

She nodded, “Yes.”

“Would you point to him, please.”

She pointed shyly at Johnny.  Who stared at her with his head cocked to one side.

“Let the records reflect that she is pointing to the defendant, John Lancer.”

“Miss Abbott, do you know the defendant?”

“Yes.  How do you know him?”

“He and his family are regular customers at the bank.”

“So you’ve seen him before?”

“Yes, many times.  He usually brings in the ranch deposits for his father.”

“So you’re certain that there’s no mistake.”

“Yes, he was even wearing those same pants.  He wears them all the time, and that red shirt; I’ve seen him wear that many times.”

“Okay.”

“Thank you Miss Abbott, no further questions your honor.”

“Very well, Mr. George, Mr. Bryant, your witness.”

Ansley Bryant nodded curtly at the judge and stood, taking his time straightening his jacket and tie before he approached the witness.

“Miss Abbott, you say you know my client John Lancer.”

“Yes.”

“What color eyes does he have?”

“They are blue.”

“And what color were the eyes of the bank robber at your window?”

“What do you mean?”

“Did you see his eyes, ma’am?”

“Well, no, he had his hat pulled down low.”

“Then how do you know he had blue eyes.”

“Because I’ve seen them, they stand out.”

“Do you mean the robber’s or Mr. Lancer’s?”

“Well they are one and the same.”

“Well no madam, I don’t believe they are.”

“OBJECT”

“Overruled.”

“So you are saying that you did not see the eyes of the robber?”

“No.”

“Then you can’t say if they were blue, brown, or green?”

“Well, not from that day, but I know he has blue eyes.”

“He, you mean my client?”

“Yes.”

“So you’re entire identification of my client is based on his clothes?”

“Well not exactly.”

“Not exactly?  I’m sorry, but you’ll need to explain.”

“He had darker skin.”

“Darker skin?”

“Yes, you know, Mexican like skin.”

“Okay, so your identification is based on the dress and skin color?”

“Well, when you put it like that.  But no one else here dresses like that”

“Miss Abbott, have you ever been to Texas or Mexico?”

“No sir.”

“Are you aware that those calzoneras are common there?”

“No.”

“Are you aware that bright colored shirts are common in Mexico?”

“No.”

“So, for all you know, the robber could have been a brown eyed Mexican instead of my blue-eyed half Mexican client.”

“Well, when you put it that way, I guess so.”

“What about his voice?”

“His voice?”

“Did he have an accent?”

She sat for a moment.

“Miss Abbott?”

“Well, now that I think about it, maybe he did sound Spanish, but Mr. Lancer speaks Spanish and I’ve heard him after he’s ridden in with some of those Mexican hands and when he’s with them, he sounds more Mexican than when he’s by himself.”

“So you can’t be certain that it was Mr. Lancer’s voice.”

“I was so scared, I don’t remember.”

“So it’s safe to say, that you have identified my client based solely on his skin type and clothing.”

“Well, I guess so, when you put it that way.  I just assumed.”

“Assumed?”

“Well, yes.”

“Miss Abbott, do you realized that if my client were to be convicted upon your testimony today, that he would be sentenced to hang?”

“Yes.”

“Are you certain enough of your identification of Mr. Lancer that he deserves to hang based upon it?”

She turned and looked at Johnny again.  “No, no, now that I’ve thought about it.  No.”

The courtroom filled with whisperings.

“Thank you.  No more questions you’re honor.”

“You may be excused Miss Abbott.  Mr. George?” called the judge.

George glared at his broken witness as she passed by, “I call Jim Ketchings.”

From the back of the room strode a rather unkempt cowboy, sporting brown pants, a tan shirt, a black leather vest and hat.  He had about two days growth of beard on his face, and his hair looked uncombed.

Johnny turned his glare upon this witness, who didn’t seem to give much consideration to his oath.  He hadn’t seen the man before, but had seen his type.  The man was a drifter, not a cowhand, not a gambler.

Barnaby George began his questioning.

“Mr. Ketchings, is it your testimony that you overheard some conversation in the alley three days before the robbery?”

“Yep.  I sure did.”

“Would you tell me about it please?”

“Well, me and Joe Higgins was comin’ outta the saloon late that night and we heard two men arguing in the alley.”

“Describe arguing.”

“Arguing, loud yelling, angry at each other.”

“Okay, what were they arguing about?”

“I couldn’t rightly say what the argument was about, but I heard the one fella tell the other one that he’d kill him.”

“That he’d kill him?”

“Yep.  Said, ‘Val, I swear to God if you interfere with me I will kill you, I mean it, Val.’”

“So one of the men was named Val.”

“Yes, he was the one wearin’ the badge.”

“So you saw him?”

“I saw both of them.”

“And how did that happen?”

“Well, Joe had ta take a leak, and so he stepped around the corner.  When he come back around the corner, we saw the two fellas from the alley come out.  That’s when I saw the one with the badge go into the sheriff’s office and the other fella walked down the street to his horse and mounted up and rode out.”

“Are either of those men in the room today?”

“Yep, one of ‘em is.”

“Would you point to him please.”

“That fella right over there.”

“Let the record show that the witness had identified the defendant, John Lancer.”

“Now, Mr. Ketchings, do you know either of these two men?”

“No.”

“Did you ever learn their names or see ‘em again.”

“Well, Joe come out from the corner and he saw ‘em and asked me if I heard all the yellin’.  I told him yeah.  He saw ‘em both leave the alley too.  That’s when he told me the one fella, the one not wearin’ the badge, was Johnny Madrid.”

“Johnny Madrid?”

“Yes.”

“What about the other man?”

“Well, Joe told me he was Madrid’s friend and the sheriff.”

“I see.”

“Did you see either one of these men again?”

“Nope.”

“No further questions.”

“Your witness, Mr. Bryant.”  The judge said with his eyes down looking at something on his desk.

“Mr. Ketchings, what were you doing in town?”

“Playing poker.”

“I see.  Did you have anything to drink that night?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Did you see this man up close that allegedly threatened the sheriff?”

“Well, not up close, but just across the street.  It was a full moon.”

“I see.   .   .   .  Do you work for anyone in the area?”

“Nope.”

“How long have you been in the area?”

“About a month?”

“And how are you able to support yourself?”

“I play poker.”

“I see.  And where do you play?”

“Well, in the saloon of course.”

“I see.  Everyday?”

“Well, no, not every day.”

“And where are you staying?”

“Uh, well, uh, me and Joe gotta campsite outside of town.”

“I see.  Anybody but Joe know where you are camped?”

“I don’t know.  We ain’t never seen nobody else.”

“And where is this little piece of nature?”

“It’s up in the hills, just north a town.”

“No further questions.”

Looking up, the judge called, “Mr. George?”

“Your honor, I call Joe Higgins.”

From the back came an equally grubby blond haired man, wearing tan pants, a green shirt and a brown leather vest.  Johnny had never seen this man before either, and again, sat glaring at him.

After his swearing in, he sat down and immediately spat tobacco into the spittoon next to the chair.

“Mr. Higgins, is it your testimony that you overheard a conversation between the defendant and the sheriff on the night in question?”

“Yeah.”

“And how did you come to hear this conversation?”

“Well, me and Jim was comin’ outta the saloon, and I hadda take a piss.” Gasps from the ladies, and whisperings floated throughout the spectators.

The judge banged the gavel.  “Enough.  Mr. Higgins, please be respectful of the women and children in the courtroom.”

“Ah, sorry yur honor.”

“So, you were saying, Mr. Higgins?”

“Well, like I said, we come outta the saloon and I, well, I stepped around the corner to take care of a personal matter.  Jim was waitin’ by the horses.  I heard the two men in the alley yellin’ at each other, but couldn’t understand too much about it.”

“What did you understand?”

“Well, I heard the one fella tell the other one that he’d kill him.”

“Were you able to identify these men?”

“Well yeah.”

“Are they here in the room today?”

“That one over there,” he pointed at Johnny, “was the one doin’ the threatenin’ and the other one was the sheriff.”

“Let the record show that he has identified the defendant.”

“And had you seen either of these men before?”

“Well yep.”

“Tell us about it.”

“Well I seen that over there, down in Nogales one time.  I knew him as Johnny Madrid.  I seen him in a gunfight, he killed . . .”

“OBJECTION!” Bryant stood up!

“Sustained.”

“So you knew him to be the gunfighter Johnny Madrid?”

“Yep.”

“Okay, well, what about the other man?”

“Well, he had come in the saloon for a few minutes while we was playin’ poker, and I saw his badge.”

“Thank you Mr. Higgins.”

Ansley Bryant stood up.  “So Mr. Higgins, you identified these men by sight?”

“I did.”

“Had you been drinking that night?”

“Well yeah.”

“I see.  Who else was in the saloon that night that you recognize?”

“Who else?  Nobody.”

“Nobody in this room?”

“Do you remember the bartender?”

“The bartender?”

“Not rightly.  We hadda girl waitin’ on us.”

“But you play there regularly?”

“Well yeah.  But we usually have a girl, not no bartender ‘cause we’re usually playin’ poker.”

“I see.  Same girl everytime?”

“Well yep, we’re kinda fond of one of ‘em.”

“I see.  Which one would that be?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Which girl would that be?”

“Kimmy.”

“I see.  No further.”

“You may step down.”

Higgins stepped down, and as he was passing between the two tables, Johnny caught his eye.  He saw the man swallow hard and for just a moment, he had that little glint of fear in his eyes, before he looked away, as he passed the table.

“Call your next witness, Mr. George.”

“The state calls, Marty Hamilton.”

Marty Hamilton strode up to the witness chair.  He looked better than the other two.  He was clean-shaven, had a neat haircut for his light brown hair, and wore tan pants, and a white shirt.

Sworn in, he waited for his questions.

“Mr. Hamilton, where do you work?”

“I work at the Conway ranch, I mean, the Triple A.”

“Did you happen to be in the sheriff’s office the week before the bank robbery?”

“I did.”

“Why were you there?”

“I was locked up.”

“Locked up?”

“Yes sir.”

“On what charge?”

“Drunk and disorderly.”

“Explain.”

“Well, I just had too much to drink that night and me and another fella from the Bar T got into an argument over a gal at the saloon, and the sheriff came over and locked me up for the night.”

“And while you were there, is it your testimony that you overheard a particular conversation that the sheriff had?”

“Yes sir.”

“Tell us about that please.”

“Well, the next mornin’ I was waitin’ for somebody to come bail me out.  I heard someone come into the office out front, and I heard the sheriff call him Johnny.  I didn’t think much about it.  I mean everybody knows Madrid and Crawford,”

“OBJECTION!”  Bryant stood, “My client’s name is Lancer!”

“Sustained!”  The judge turned to the witness, “Please refrain from calling the defendant by that name.”

“Uh, okay, sir.  Anyway, everybody knows that Johnny and the sheriff are old friends.  I couldn’t understand what they were talkin’ about at first, because the big door was closed to the cells, but then all of a sudden, I heard a crash, like somebody threw somethin’.  I stood up to see if I could see what was happenin’, and I seen Johnny and Val across the desk from each other.  I seen and heard him say that he would kill Val if he told his ol’ man.”

“Told his ol’ man what?”

“I don’t rightly know what they were talkin’ about, but Johnny sure was pis, I mean, mad about it.  Ain’t no secret he and his pa don’t get along too good.”

“Then what happened?”

“The sheriff, well, he told him to get out of his office, and he did.  Slammed the door so hard, I thought the window was gonna break.”

“This Johnny, is he in the room today?”

“Yes, he’s sittin’ at that table over there.”

“Let the record reflect that the witness has identified the defendant.  No further your honor.”

“Mr. Bryant?” The judge raised his eyebrows.

“Anybody else in that jail that morning?”  Bryant got up from his chair with a relaxed ease.

“You mean locked up?”

“Yes.”

“Nope, just me.”

“No further your honor.”

The judge looked somewhat surprised, “Very well.  Step down sir.”  Mr. George?”

“Your Honor, I call Lita Haynes.”

From the back came a middle-aged woman, with black hair, dark brown eyes, wearing a red dress that showed more cleavage than was proper and most especially since she was a little old for it.  Her hair was long and hung around her shoulders.  She wore bright red lipstick and too much makeup for the daytime.

She was swore on the bible and sat, seemingly enjoying being the center of attention.

“Miss Haynes, is it your testimony that you recently spent some time with the defendant?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me about it please.”

“Well, about two weeks ago, I was workin’ and Johnny came into the saloon.  There weren’t too many customers that night, hardly any at that hour.  So, since he was in so late, I figured he was lookin’ ta well, he was lookin’ for womanly attention.”

“And was he?”

“Yes.  He took his usual place in the back corner, where nobody could see him, but he could see everybody.  I took him the tequila bottle.  He asked me ta sit down.”

“Did you?”

“Well sure, he’s a handsome man, and well, I needed the money.”

“So what happened?”

“Well he seemed to be in a bad mood, complainin’ about his ol’ man ridin’ him too hard.  After a few drinks, we went upstairs.”

“And then?”

“Well you know, we had relations and,” Johnny’s loud, “PFFFT!” followed by his hand slamming against the table and his loud whisper, “LIKE HELL!” interrupted her.

Quiet laughter leaked out around the courtroom as Bryant turned and gave Johnny a look that would have melted ice.  Johnny loudly flounced to a new position in his chair where he could have a clear view of the witness and stared at her like a mountain lion waiting to pounce.

“And did anything significant come of your time together?”

“Oh yes.” She giggled.

Again, laughter wafted through the room, but Johnny began spinning his spur, loud enough that Murdoch leaned over, squeezed his shoulder and whispered, “Stop it.”

Johnny stopped, but began drumming his fingers on the table, releasing little of his anger at her lies.

“I mean, did you have any important conversation?”

“Well yeah.  He told me how he and his father didn’t get along and how his brother was the favorite and he was like the black sheep, and he was tired of it.  He told me he had heard them talking about all the money that the Cattlemen’s Association was collecting.  Said it was enough to give him a good stake in Mexico.  Enough money to live like a king and to not be surprised if I didn’t see him no more.”

“No further.”

“Mr. George?”  The judge spoke while looking over the room.

“Miss Haynes, how long have you been working at the saloon?”

“About a year.”

“And in that year, how many times has my client used your services?”

“Excuse me?”

“How many times?”

“Well, just the once.”

“Miss Haynes, you are under oath.”

“I know that.”

“Would it be fair to say that until that alleged night that my client had never spent any time with you?”

“What?”

“Had my client spent time with you before the night in question?”

“Well, no.”

“Don’t you think it odd that he would admit such a thing to you the first time he spent any time with you?”

“No.  Men are always tellin’ us girls secrets.”

“So tell me, Lita, what does my client look like naked?”

Gasps, laughter, and other sounds traveled around the courtroom.

“What do you mean?”

“Describe his body.  You know, scars, marks, tattoos?”

“Well he has a lot of scars on his chest.”

“He does?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of scars?”

“Scars.”

“My client informed me that this is quite common knowledge about town.  Can you tell me anything unusual that anyone might not know?”

“What do you mean?  I told you he has scars on his chest.”

“Yes, but my client has advised me that the Lancer ranch hands and anyone else who has seen him with his shirt off would know this.  Is there anything else that only someone who had seen him naked would know?”

It was as if the air had been sucked out of the courtroom.  Scott and Murdoch sat with their eyes closed, the rest of the spectators, holding their breath to keep from laughing.

“Well no, not that I remember, you know, I weren’t really thinkin’ like that”

“Well my client informs me that there is something about his body that most women notice.”

“Well, he’s, I mean he’s hung like a stud horse.”

Shrieks of laughter came from all over the room as well as gasps from some of the more conservative of the town’s citizens.

The judge banged away with his gavel, “Order now! I mean it!  Order or you will all be dismissed.”

Murdoch just put his head in his hands.  Scott closed his eyes and shook his head, laughing uncontrollably, breaking the tension that had been mounting in his temples.

Once the crowd stopped laughing and order restored, Bryant continued.

“So you can come up with nothing else?”

“Well no, I don’t reckon.  What’s he got that’s so special?”

“Well my dear, my client assures me that ALL of the other girls know what it is and has never met one that has not commented on it.  So can we assume that you have never really been with my client?”

“Just because I didn’t notice some little something don’t mean we didn’t fuck old man!”

More gasps from the spectators.

The judge hammered away and turned to the witness.  “Madame, you will refrain from using such language in my courtroom, or I will have you arrested.”

“Sorry.”

“So Miss Haynes, your testimony is that you noticed nothing but scars, and, well, my client’s anatomy.”

“Yes.”

“No further.”

 

Chapter 20

Barnaby George called Tim Sherman to the stand.  Tim hobbled to the witness chair, using a crutch, still unable to walk very well.  Sworn in, he took his seat.  His freshly cut and combed hair had fallen into his face during his struggle to the witness stand, and he was perspiring a bit from the exertion.

“Deputy Sherman, would you please tell the court what you were doing when the bank was robbed and what actions you and Sheriff Crawford took to stop it.”

“Well, me and Val had just broke up a fight in the saloon.  One of the hands from the Conway, I mean Triple A, started it.  Val had taken him over to the jail and I was tallying up the amount of damages.

I heard shots and screaming, so I ran out into the street.  ‘Bout that same time, Val came runnin’ outta the jail.  We, well, it was too late to do much.  They were already on their horses and runnin’ towards us.  We made a stand and started shootin’.  I know Val hit one, and I grazed another and then, the one on the palomino, turned and slammed into me.”

“The one on the palomino?  Don’t you mean the defendant?”

“Well sir, I ain’t too sure.  I mean it sure looked like Johnny, but last thing I remember was lookin’ up into his eyes.  I know it ain’t no secret that Johnny and I don’t get along too good, but I couldn’t believe Johnny would do somethin’ like that.  I remember thinking how his eyes don’t look so blue.”

“I thought you told me previously that it was Johnny Lancer that ran you down.”

“Well, at first I thought it was.  I mean he was dressed like Johnny, riding a palomino like Johnny, but I ain’t too sure now that my mind’s clear, that he had blue eyes.  I mean everybody knows Johnny’s a half, I mean mest, I mean half Mexican and his blue eyes stand out.  I don’t remember that man’s eyes, and I would know Johnny’s anywhere.”

“Deputy Sherman, may I remind you that you are under oath?”

“I understand that.”

“Well your statement to me before this trial was that it was Johnny Lancer that ran over you.”

“Well that statement was before I was all that well, and still had a concussion.  I ain’t got that no more.  So, I’d be lying if I said for sure it was Johnny that did it.”

Johnny looked at Bryant and Murdoch and Scott looked at each other.

“I see.  No further.”  George snipped.

“Mr. Bryant?”  Your witness.

“No questions your honor, I believe the witness has already given his statement.”

Barnaby George called three more witnesses from the bank.  All met with the same fate.  None could swear that the bandit had the blue eyes of Johnny Lancer.

When George rested his case, the judge decided to break for lunch.  As the gavel hit the desk, Brad grabbed Johnny and he, along with Wilkes, escorted him out the back door and to the jail.

Murdoch and Scott sat in the little cantina.  Murdoch felt there would be fewer prying eyes there, and he was right.  He sat dipping his tortilla in the sauce while Scott drank a beer.

“Well, Bryant seems to be earning his money, Murdoch.”

“Yes, well, that may be, but I’d really like to know what his defense plan is, other than having saloon women describe my son’s anatomy to the entire town.  I just don’t see how that has any relevance at all in this, other than humiliating our family.  That woman was disgusting.”

“Well, sir, there is the matter of the tattoo.”

“Tattoo?”

“You know, the one on his leg.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, why she didn’t say anything about it?  I mean we noticed it when he was shot and we weren’t being intimate with him.  It was just an easy observance.”

“True.”

“Well, she didn’t say anything about it.  Not to be crass, but several of Johnny’s girls have asked me about it.  They’ve all seen it, yet she hadn’t.  If it will ease your mind sir, I promise you, Johnny wouldn’t touch that woman with a ten foot pole.”

“HMMMPH.”

“She’s a liar, Murdoch, pure and simple, and I think Bryant had a brilliant, although unorthodox way of proving it.”

“Well, I don’t think I can take much more of that kind of testimony.”

“No offense sir, but I could take it all day long if it will get Johnny out of this.”

“Well, I hope his defense isn’t as coarse.”  Murdoch tossed down his tortilla and downed the rest of his own beer.  Throwing some coins on the table, he looked at Scott, “Let’s get out of here.”

The courtroom settled after the bailiff’s announcement and the judge’s entrance.  Once seated, the judge looked towards the defense table.

“Mr. Bryant, are you ready to call your first witness?”

“Yes, your honor.  The defense calls John Lancer.”

Brad stood and moved aside, allowing Johnny to get up and move towards the witness chair.

Each step was a rhythmic jingle, scrape, jingle, scrape, as his spurs and shackles sounded out the confident tone of his stride.

Hands still cuffed, he managed to raise the right one while keeping the left one on the bible, although the bailiff had to stand in the witness box with him as he took his oath.

He sat with a jangling scrape as Bryant approached him.  “Would you please state your full name?”

“John Lancer.”

“Do you go by any other names?”

“I used to.”

“And those would be?”

“Madrid.  Johnny Madrid.”

“Okay, John.  Until recent times, what was your career?”

“I was a gunfighter.”

“And now days?”

“I’m a rancher.”

“A rancher.  And how long have you been a rancher?”

“Not even a year.”

“Would it be fair to say that since you’ve been home that you’ve had occasion to leave for an extended time and return?”

“Yes.”

“Would you explain where you have been for the last month to the jury please?”

“I’ve been at the ranch.”

“The ranch?”

“Yes.  Lancer.  I’ve been sick.”

“Sick?”

“Yeah, I mean yes.  I guess it’s no secret about me and Murdoch, but I’ve been in bed at the ranch for most of the last month.  I haven’t left the ranch except for the one day.  I was too sick.”

“And the nature of this illness?”

“I uh, well, Sam, uh, the doc said, well, I hadn’t eaten much in the month before and I had been drinking real steady.  So I couldn’t eat much when I got back and, well, my body had to adjust to not having any alcohol.  I had what Sam called an ‘ulcer.’”

“So it would be fair to say that you were so despondent over shooting your father, that you took to the bottle and quit eating?”

“Well, yeah, I guess that’s more accurate.”

“I see.”

“What made you come home?”

“My father and my brother paid two ex-Rangers to bring me back.”

“So you didn’t come home on your own?”

“No.”

“And what day was it that you left the ranch?”

“I left the ranch the day before the bank was robbed.”

“Were you alone?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you go?”

“I went to The Soiled Dove.”

“What is the Soiled Dove?”

“It’s a bordello.”

“Well, who did you see and how long did you stay?”

“Well, Sadie was back in town and I came to see her.”

“Tell me about how you got there, who you saw on your way in.”

“I didn’t see anybody on the way in.  I rode towards town, but came in the back way to Ellen’s.”

Johnny saw the attorney’s raised eyebrows.  “I mean the Soiled Dove.  I left my horse in her back yard and then on my way to the back door, Sadie came out.  We went in and up to her room.”

“And how long were you there?”

“All night.”

“Did either of you leave the room?”

“No.”

“And when did you leave?”

“The next morning.  I woke up, Sadie was gone.  She left me a note.  She was supposed to leave on the early morning stage.  I guess I slept through.”

“What did the note say?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t read it.  The sun had been up a pretty good while and I knew that Murdoch and Scott were gonna be worried, so I stuck it in my shirt and lit out for home.  Somewhere along the way, I lost the note.”

“So your horse remained in the back yard, unattended?”

“Yes.”

“Did you see anyone on the way home?”

“Yes.  I cut across the valley floor and then when I jumped up onto the road, I ran inta the Widow Merry.”

“Did she see you?”

“Yes.  I didn’t see her, and I guess Barranca and me scared her horse.  It spooked and took off.  I had ta chase ‘em down and stop ‘em.”

“What happened next?”

“Well, she was pretty angry, but she was okay, so I rode on.”

“Did you go straight home?”

“I tried to.”

“Tried to?”

“Well, I got sick to my stomach and so I stopped for a few minutes and fell asleep against the tree.”

“And?”

“I woke up, when I heard a horse galloping by.”

“See a rider?”

“Didn’t see nothin’ but that sun risin’ higher in the sky.  So I jumped on my horse and took off until he threw a shoe.  I had to walk the rest of the way ta Lancer.”

“I see.”

“What time did you arrive home?”

“I don’t know.  It was late in the day.”

“Anyone home who could verify the time?

“Murdoch.”

“John, did you rob the bank?”

“No.”

“Did you shoot Val Crawford?”

“No.”

“Do you know who did?”

“No.”

“No further your honor.”

“Your witness Mr. George.”

“Thank you, your honor.”  Barnaby George stood slowly and took his time adjusting his coat and tie before he approached Johnny.  Johnny watched him with wary eyes. 

“So John, you want us to believe that you’ve been home for an entire month, and left the ranch the day before the bank was robbed.  No one saw you leave, no one can find the woman you allegedly spent time with, no one can verify your visit there, and the only person that saw you when you came home, was your father?

“The widow saw me.”

“Ah yes, the widow.  Well, we’ll have to see what she says later on.”

Murdoch and Scott turned to face each other, dark looks on both their faces.

“Isn’t it true that you shot your own father?  The father who saved you from a firing squad in Mexico?”

“Yes.”

“So, not only were you a gunfighter, you were sentenced to die for your actions in another country, yet managed to be rescued by your father and you thank him by shooting him.”

“OBJECTION!”

“Sustained.”

“But those are the facts, are they not?”

“Well, all those facts are true, yes.”

“Is it true that you and your father haven’t seen eye to eye since you came home?”

“No.”

“Might I remind you that you are under oath.”

“I know that.”

“Is it true that you and your father have had disagreements?”

“Yes.”

“Disagreements that resulted in screaming and shouting?”

“Yes.”

“These disagreements led you to spend more nights in town than at home.”

“Yes.”

“Is it true that you imbibed peyote with two of the former saloon girls, saloon girls fired from The Soiled Dove?”

“Yes.”

“Is it true you became violent and were arrested by Sheriff Crawford?”

“I wasn’t arrested.  He just locked me up for the night and let me out the next morning.”

Murdoch turned to stare at Scott who looked back and shrugged.

“It was shortly after this incident that you and your father argued until it became physical and you left the ranch.”

“A few weeks, I guess.”

“Where did you go when you left?”

“I went to one of our line shacks.”

“Our line shacks?”

“Yes, our line shacks.”

“Your father still allows you to be a partner?”

“Not allows.  I am by a signed legal agreement.”

“What were you doing up there?  Was anyone witness to your presence there?”

“Only Murdoch.”

“Your father?”

“Yes.”

“So did you and he talk before you shot him, or did you shoot him on sight?”

“OBJECTION!  YOUR HONOR!”

“Sustained!  Mr. George control yourself.”

“So what were you doing in town two weeks before the robbery?”

“I wasn’t in town then.”

“May I remind you that we have a witness . . . “

“She’s a liar.  I haven’t been to town and I never spent any time with her.”

“What about your disagreement with the Sheriff?  Would you please explain what that was about?”

“I haven’t had any disagreements with Val.  I haven’t been to town to even see him.”

“So you will have us believe that the three witnesses to this are lying?”

“Yeah, they are.”

“I see you are wearing what are they called?  Cazonoros?”

“Calzoneras.”

“Right.  Were you wearing these to town on the only visit you say you made?”

“Yes.”

“And a red shirt?”

“No.  A blue shirt.”

“Were you wearing a red shirt when you were arrested?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me John, how many men in the area wear red shirts besides yourself?”

“None.”

“None?”

“That’s what I said.”

“You own a palomino horse?”

“Yes.”

“How many men with Mexican skin, wear red shirts, calzoneras, and ride palominos in this area.”

“Seems to me there are two now.”

“Do you really expect the jury to believe that?”

“I don’t expect they will, but it’s the truth.”

“How did you find out about the money?”

“The money?”

“The Cattlemen’s money.”

“Oh.  Not until two or three days after the robbery.”

“You are a one third partner in Lancer and you didn’t know about the money?”

“No.”

“Why not?  How is that legal?  Your two partners made a decision without you?

“I don’t know about legal, but I trust Murdoch and Scott.  They outvoted me anyway, if I had been against it.”

“Is it true that Lancer is bankrupt?”

“Bankrupt?  No.”

“Did Murdoch Lancer put you up to robbing the bank?”

“No.”

“Come on, isn’t it true that your father put you up to this?  To steal back the money, give you enough to set your self up in Mexico and then keep the rest for himself?”

“No.”

“Isn’t it true that your father put you up to this to get rid of you?”

“No.”

“Why did you rob the bank?”

“I didn’t”

“Why did you shoot Sheriff Crawford?”

“I didn’t.”

“So this is your defense?”

“I didn’t do it.”

“Very well, it’s your neck.”

“No further questions, your honor.”

“Mr. Bryant, redirect?”

“No your honor.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Very well.  Step down young man.  Call your next witness.”

 

Chapter 21

“Your honor, the defense calls Miss Eulalie Merry.”

All eyes were on her as she stood.  Johnny watched as the Widow Merry pulled her black jacket tighter across her breasts, smoothed her dark gray skirt and moved towards the front with her stick up the ass walk.

Truth was, while he felt like she would admit to seeing him, he was suddenly nervous as to what she would have to say, knowing that his life, according to the law, was in her hands.  He just hoped that he and Brad didn’t have to make a run for the border today.

After taking her oath in her haughty way, she seated herself with upright and straight posture, putting on the usual airs.

Ansley Bryant stood, patiently waiting for her to settle.  Once she had, he approached her.

“Good afternoon Miss Merry.”

“Good afternoon, sir.”

“Miss Merry, if you would state your full name please.”

“Eulalie Merry.”

“Miss Merry, how long have you lived here in Green River?”

“Nearly fifteen years.”

“That’s a very long time.”

“Yes, yes it is.”

“I expect that you know pretty much everything and everyone in town.”

“Well, I do try to keep current.”

“Miss Merry, do you know the defendant, John Lancer?”

“I know him by sight and reputation, but I am not acquainted with him.”

“I see.  Miss Merry, on the date in question, did you see John Lancer?”

“I certainly did.”

“Where did you see him?”

“I saw him on the road coming into town, near the fork.”

“And what was he doing?”

“Well, he was ridin’ like the devil was after him.”

“Which direction was he riding?”

“Well, he jumped up the bank from behind one of those big rocks onto the road, but when he left, he was headed away from town, like he was going back to his father’s ranch.”

“I see.”

“Did you and he speak to each other?”

“Well, yes.”

“Would you please share your encounter with us?”

“Well,” she pulled at her skirts and nested herself into the chair much like a hen on a nest.  “I was driving back from visiting with the Donovan’s when he just suddenly jumped onto the road in front of my horse.  Scared both of us half to death and Jimmy took off.”

“Jimmy?”

“My buggy horse.”

“Continue please.”

“Well, as I said, he scared poor Jimmy half to death and he took off down the road.  I couldn’t stop him.  It, it, was terrifying.  The buggy was teetering sideways and Jimmy was running for all he was worth.  I thought I should be killed any moment.”  She had placed her hand on her heart.

“But what happened to stop you?”

“Well, the Lancer boy, he came flying up beside us on that palomino and grabbed hold of Jimmy’s bridle and got him stopped.”

“I see.  Did you converse afterwards?”

“Well, I was, I was so frightened, I fear I may have said some unkind things to him.”

“Unkind?”

“Yes.”

“Such as?”

“Well, I called him a wicked boy.”

Snickers broke out around the courtroom, including Scott’s, and Johnny could sense Murdoch jostling his brother and bit back a smile of his own.

“You called him a wicked boy?  Anything else?”

“Well, I don’t rightly remember, I was so frightened.”

Johnny did not feel comforted by the fact that she was lying.  While he would hate to have to repeat what he said to her, he preferred that to the fact that if she lied about what she said; she might lie about something that was important.

“Do you recall what he was wearing?”

“Well, I remember it was a pretty blue shirt.  Flowers on it.  I thought what a pretty dress that would make.  I was surprised to see a man dress in a shirt like that, but then, he is part Mexican and he’s always so cocky looking.”

More snickers wafted around the courtroom.

“Did he speak to you?”

“Well, yes.”

“What did he say to you?”

“Well, he scared me half to death.”

Johnny braced himself.

“He said something about a punta, which I think is Mexican for puma or mountain lion.  He also said madre, which I do know is mother.  So I think he was warning me about a mother mountain lion in the area.”

A couple of quiet snickers and one outburst of laughter spewed from the back.  Johnny had to look down at the table and run his hand through his hair before he could look up again with a straight face.  He could feel heat in the center of his back from Murdoch’s glare, who knew damn well then, what he had said.

“I see.  And about what time of day was this?”

“It was definitely late morning.  Around 10:30.  I was trying to make it back to have lunch with my friend Eudora Hartley.”

“Are you certain of the time?”

“Yes I am.  I checked my locket watch at the fork and I know I left the Donovan’s house at ten because I heard their grandfather clock.

“Did you see any unusual items on his saddle or any bags, like bank bags?”

“Well no.  It was just him and that yellow horse.”

“I see.”  Bryant was facing Johnny, his arm resting on the front of the witness stand.  With a gleam in his eye, he stared straight at Johnny and asked, “Other than the warning,” he paused and took a deep breath, “about the mountain lion, was there any other conversation?”

“Well, I think he was telling me he shot it.  I don’t hear too good in my left ear these days and he had taken out his gun and was showing it to me.  I think he was trying to say he shot it or was going to shoot it.  I really don’t understand Spanish very well.”

Johnny felt his face go hot.  He was grateful for his darker complexion, which hid the tell tale signs of blushing.  If he got through this, he’d get an earful from Murdoch for damn sure.  The snickers from around the courtroom didn’t help at all.

“Which way did he go when he left.”

“Well, he went towards the fork and I headed back to town.”

“I see.  Anything else happen?”

“No.  But it was the strangest thing.”

“What was?”

“Well, I found a pink rose petal trapped under Jimmy’s collar when I got him home.”

“A pink rose petal?”

“Yes.  It must have come from his shirt pocket.  I saw one fall out of it when he leaned over to catch Jimmy.”

“I thought he had been to see a girl, but now, I hear he doesn’t go near the nice girls, just the bad girls.”

There was more giggling from the back of the room.  He could hear his father clear his throat.  Mierda!  The bitch had helped him after all, but damn if she didn’t make things bad for him.

“No further questions, your honor.”

“Very well.  Mr.  George?”

“No questions your honor.”

“Call your next witness Mr. Bryant.”

“You’re honor, the defense calls . . . Miss Jessie Monroe.”

 

Chapter 22

Johnny watched as the petite blonde haired girl walked towards the witness stand.  He knew exactly who Jessie Monroe was, but doubted that anyone else did.  He sure as hell hoped she knew something he didn’t.  Maybe she was the ace that Bryant was keeping so close to his vest.

The wide-eyed little girl looked solemn as she took her oath.  Sitting down she looked out at the spectators.  There were whispers around the courtroom.  He could tell she was nervous and so, when she dared to glance at him, he gave her a big smile.

Bryant approached her.  “Hi Jessie, how are you this morning?”

“I’m fine thank you.”

“Good.  .  .  Jessie, have you ever testified in court before?”

“No sir.”

“How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“Are you nervous?”

“A little.”

“Most people are, especially on their first time.  But don’t be.  We are just going to talk a bit.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Jessie, do you know my client John Lancer?”

“Yes sir.”

“How did you come to meet him?”

“He caught me stealing food from the trash in the alley.”

“Stealing food?”

“Yes sir.”

“Why would you steal food?”

“Because my daddy had died and I had nowhere to go.”

“What about your mother?”

“She’s dead.”

“Any other family?”

“No sir.”

“So what did he do about you stealing the food?”

“Well, first he took me to the cantina and got me some food.  After that, he took me over to Miss Ellen.”

Murdoch turned and stared at Scott, who shrugged his shoulders.

“Miss Ellen?”

“Yes.  She owns The Soiled Dove.”

“He took you to a brothel?”

“Yes sir.”

“Why there?”

“Well, because, well, my daddy, well,” she looked down at her lap, her voice trembling.

Once again, the air seemed to have exited from the silent room.

“He said I was too grown up for the orphan’s home.  That I had been ex… exposed to too much.  He talked to Miss Ellen, who took me in.  She takes care of me and gave me a job and she’s been teaching me how to read.”

“I see.  So what kind of work do you do for Miss Ellen?”

“I help with the housework.  I clean the rooms for the girls and take their sheets down to the laundry, keep their water pitchers filled; sometimes I help in the kitchen.”

“Okay.  Now Jessie, were you at the Dove the day the bank was robbed?”

“Yes sir.”

“Did you see Johnny there?”

“Yes sir.”

“You did?”

“Yes sir.”

“Did he see you?”

“No sir.”

“How come?”

“Well, I was dusting in the empty room next to Sadie’s when I heard them come upstairs.”

“Them?”

“Sadie and Johnny.  I looked out the door to wave, but they had already gone inside.”

“How do you know it was him?”

“Well, I saw the back of his shirt and I could hear his spurs.  Nobody’s spurs sound like his.”

“What color was his shirt?”

“It was my favorite, the blue floweredy one.  He wears it a lot when he comes to see Sadie.”

“Did you see him any more?”

“Yes.  The next morning, after Sadie left on the stage, I had to wait for him to leave to clean the room, so I was in the empty room reading when I heard him leave.”

“You heard him leave?”

“Yes.  He went tearing down the stairs, I think he even got a spur caught in the rug, ‘cause I heard him kinda stumble and swear.”

“What did you do then?”

“I went into the room and then I went to the window and watched him get on his horse.  He took off at a run.  When I looked down, that’s when I saw the mess the horse had made of Miss Ellen’s garden, and Paco was supposed to come the next day.”

“What did you do then?”

“Well, I ran down the steps, as quiet as I could.  I went out in the garden and found a rake and raked up the horse poop, and put it under the bushes.  The horse had dug up some of the grass with his feet, so I smoothed it back down and then did my best to cover up where he had pulled up clods of grass with his teeth.  I had to take the pruners to the bushes.  I was lucky that Paco had shown me how to use them before.”

“You like Johnny Lancer don’t you?”

She turned her green eyes up towards the attorney and smiled and nodded, “yes sir.”

“Have you seen Johnny since that day?”

“No sir.”

“Had you seen Johnny before that day?”

“I hadn’t seen Johnny since the night he caused all the ruckus with the two girls Miss Ellen fired.  I wasn’t ‘sposed to see him then, but he woke everybody up and I was scared for him, so I hid in the hallway downstairs and watched.”

Scott felt his father fidget.

“Miss Jessie, have you ever seen Johnny naked?”

“Naked?  Not exactly.”

Murdoch huffed and looked down at his lap.

“Well tell me what you mean by ‘not exactly.’”

“Well, one afternoon, Sadie had gone downstairs; I went to clean her room.  I, I didn’t know Johnny was there.  It was the middle of the week and he wasn’t usually there that early in the day.”

Bryant nodded, indicating for his little witness to continue.

“Well, I went in to clean her room and he was there, asleep in the bed.”

“And?”

“Well, he was, well, he didn’t have any clothes on, just the sheet was wrapped around his middle.  His leg was hanging out.  I couldn’t help myself.  He had this drawing on his leg, just on the inside.  It was kind of green.  I wanted to see it better and I tripped over some clothes on the floor.  He woke up and well, I scared him and he scared me.  He laughed and let me touch it.  He told me it was what they called a tattoo.  He said he did it himself when he was around my age.  Said he got the idea from some sailors that came into the cantina where his mama worked.  It was supposed to be a spider, but he never finished it, and that’s why it only has six legs.”

“So what you’re telling the court is that you saw that he had a six legged spider tattoo on his leg.”

“Yes sir.”

“What happened then?”

“He told me to get out of there, that it wasn’t decent for me to be in there and to fetch Sadie and to tell her to bring him up a drink and something to eat.”

Scott glanced at his father and saw that his jaw was clenched he was possibly grinding his teeth.

“Did you clean Sadie’s room after he left on the day the bank was robbed?”

“Yes sir.”

“Did you find anything interesting? While cleaning it?”

“Well yes.  I found two pink rose petals.”

“Rose petals?”

“Yes sir.  Sadie told me that he brought her a pink rose.  She even showed it to me that morning before she left.  She said it was the only time a man had given her a flower.”

Johnny closed his eyes for a brief moment.

“I kept the two petals.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I don’t know, they were so pretty and he’s so nice.”

“Where are they now?”

“In my bible.”

“Your bible?”

“Yes sir.”

“Did you bring your bible today?”

“Yes sir.  Miss Ellen’s holding it for me.”

Bryant turned and looked at the judge, “If I might your honor.”

The judge nodded and Bryant turned to the spectators and nodded towards Ellen, who stood and brought the bible to him.  The people in the courtroom stared at her, especially the women, all taking in the conservative dark blue silk dress she wore, along with the elegant matching hat and shawl.  She looked every bit the part of an elegant ‘lady’ and nothing like the madam that she was.  What they expected her to look like.

Bryant handed the bible to the judge who looked inside the tiny leather bound bible, noting its dog-eared pages and the names written on the inside.  He flipped through the pages and found the dried out rose petals.  He nodded and handed it back to Bryant who handed it to Barnaby George who looked and nodded affirmatively.  

“I have no further questions your honor.”

Barnaby George stood.

“You like Mr. Lancer don’t you Jessie?”

“Yes sir.”

“He’s done a lot for you.”

“Yes sir.”

“So you owe him a lot don’t you?”

“Yes sir.”

“So you’d lie for him wouldn’t you?”

“No sir.”

“No?”  His disappointment in not tricking her into saying yes reflected in his voice.

“Young lady, is the reason that Johnny took you to the Soiled Dove is because you are no longer chaste?”

The young girl looked helpless and looked over at Johnny and Bryant, who nodded ever so slightly.

“Well, I reckon you could say that.”

“Have you ever had relations with Mr. Lancer?”

The girl’s eyes opened wide with shock as she shook her head slow, with emphasis, “No.”

“Aren’t you really just another one of the girls?  Reserved for special clients?”

“No.  I don’t do that.”

“Then why are you there instead of the orphan’s home?”

“I already said.”

“I’m sorry?  I must not have heard your answer.”

“You did too.”  She glared at him.

Johnny bit back a smile.

“Young lady.”  The judge eyed her.

She began to tremble and her eyes welled with water, overflowing and sending tears softly down her cheeks.  Johnny glared at George and decided that they would have a little talk about this one day.

George could feel the anger of the courtroom spectators and saw the frowns on the faces of the jurors.  He had stepped on something he should have left alone.

“Because my daddy did things to me that he shouldn’t have.  Okay?  Do I have to say exactly what?”  She looked towards Bryant, and before he could answer, George declared, “No further your honor.”

 

Chapter 23

Johnny had leaned back against the wall with his legs stretched out on the cot.  If he were lucky, the jury would set him free.

It seemed so simple. But if they didn’t, well, he wouldn’t have his family much longer.  He was okay with that in a way.  At least he knew that they stood by him and cared for him during some rough times, this one not being the worst, sadly.  Hell, nothing good ever lasted for him anyway.

It hurt to think about what it would be like if he couldn’t be with them any more.  He cared for them more than they knew and the only way he could think of to spare them the agony of seeing him die like that, was to take off with Brad and meet up with Wren.  What else was there to do?  He damn sure wasn’t going to let them hang him, especially since he hadn’t done anything wrong.  Mierda, that was loco.

He’d find a way to keep in touch.  He’d miss the closeness and contact, especially since he and the ol’ man had come to some sort of understanding, but at least he and Brad and Wren could make out okay without having to resort to his going back to gun fighting.  Surely, that would count for something with Murdoch.

His mind turned to the plans for the getaway.  Horses would be readied and tied behind the courthouse when it was announced that the jury had reached a verdict.  One of Ellen’s girls had dropped by yesterday and he got word to one of the vaqueros to retrieve his shotgun, rifle, and the money, and to bring it all into town and give it to Brad.  His shotgun and rifle would be on his saddle.

Brad sat with his chair rocked back and a booted foot on the edge of the desk held him there.  He stared at nothing, deep in thought as to what possible execution of a plan they would have to make shortly.

Wilkes sat behind the desk, leaned back in his chair with his feet crossed and propped up on the corner of the desk.  He was lost in thought too.  It was possible that they were going to let Madrid off.  His attorney had been very good.

It had struck him as strange that Madrid would rob a bank after all that had happened to him, finding his rich family and all.  Funny, he thought he would have liked to see him hang, but deep inside, he knew he didn’t.  He wanted his own personal time with the boy.  He would make him sorry he’d ever lain eyes, or anything else, on Margaret.

Despite all the witnesses, the attorney was good.  He had his own doubts now about the guilt of Madrid.  It did seem crazy and out of character, but all that talk by Buck Addison had gotten him going, and the witnesses had all been so sure when he had talked to them.  But if Johnny didn’t take the money, then who did?  How did they find out?  He wouldn’t be so sure that Addison didn’t have something to do with it.  He didn’t trust that slimy git, as his England born mother would call him, any more than he trusted Madrid.  Murdoch Lancer had a lot more class than Addison, even though he had sired a piece of shit like Johnny Madrid.

Locked inside the jail, hypnotized into their separate worlds by the steady ticking of the clock, they were jarred into reality by pounding on the back door.  Little Timmy from the telegraph office had been sent to advise them that the verdict was in.

Brad looked at the clock.  Three hours.  It had taken the jury only three hours to make their decision.  Three hours to decide whether a man he knew to be good, would live or die.  He wiped his eyes, dropped his foot, letting his chair down flat and got up stiffly.

He stretched and felt his blood begin to flow as his adrenaline kicked in.  In a few short minutes, he could be backing a horse and running for his life, guns drawn, in an old familiar scene, or he could be unlocking a set of handcuffs and shackles and setting a friend free.  He sure hoped it was the latter.

Johnny stood as Wilkes strolled into the cellblock.  “This is it Madrid.  If it’s guilty, I’ll make sure they get it built as soon as possible.  Wouldn’t want you sittin’ around frettin’ ‘bout what’s to come.”

“Wilkes?”

“Yeah Madrid?”

“Fuck you.”

Wilkes laughed.

Johnny held his hands out for the cuffs that Brad brought and placed around his wrists.  Wilkes watched until he had made them snug and then locked them with the key.  He missed the moment that Brad slipped the key into Johnny’s hand as they both turned away.

Murdoch and Scott sat in the corner of the cantina.  They were both on their second whiskey.  Each stared past the other as if they were alone.

Murdoch relived the birth of his youngest.  Maria’s pregnancy had been difficult and she had been miserable.  Moments after Johnny was born, however, she had transformed from a frowning, miserable, bitch back into the beautiful glowing woman he had first met.  It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, his wife, holding his son.

He relived the painful emotions he felt when he awakened that day to find Maria gone, and Johnny with her.  He should have expected it.  Not long after Johnny’s birth, she resorted to the miserable woman he had come to know.  He knew she was unhappy, but he had thought that Johnny would have drawn them closer together.  He never imagined that she would leave and take Johnny.  He could have dealt with her disappearance so much easier had she left the boy behind.

He remembered the angry, hate-filled, pleading eyes of his son upon his return home.  He was afraid and heartbroken at the same time when he saw those dark blue eyes.  Eyes that had only come from his lineage, had stared at him with such pure hatred and need.  Now, when those eyes had finally lost some of their anger and suspicion and had finally shown some snippets of trust, he had broken that trust.  Now there was a chance he wouldn’t be able to regain it, or his son for that matter.

On the face of things, it seemed that Johnny’s attorney had won the case.  On the other hand, there was no telling what the jury would do.  Johnny was not the most popular citizen in Green River.  His recent behavior did nothing to help matters.  Closing his eyes, he prayed silently, ‘God please don’t take him yet.’

A vaquero from a neighboring ranch stepped inside the cantina.  “Señor Lancer, the jury has decided.”

Murdoch breathed a heavy sigh, tossed his napkin onto the table and looked at Scott.  Scott’s face looked like his gut felt.  This was worse than when Johnny was shot by Pardee.  How they were going to make it if the jury returned a guilty verdict, he couldn’t fathom.  As they walked away from the table, he gave Scott a squeeze on the shoulder.

The courtroom fell silent as a stone as the jury entered their box.  Ansley Bryant had given Johnny a confident smile, but as the jurors sat down, his expression became solemn.

Johnny was unlocking his handcuffs, when Murdoch reached over and squeezed his shoulder.  The unexpected touch made him almost drop the key.  Murdoch sat back and Johnny took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, glancing casually at Brad.  He could tell his old friend was keyed up and as anxious as he, but so far, things were falling into place.

If they said the word guilty, he would reach under the bench and grab his rig.  Brad would hold everyone back with the shotgun while he went out the back door.  It was that simple.  All the guns were locked up in the front of the building and Brad had the key.  The horses would be ready and waiting.

He had made his mind up before coming over to the courthouse.  He wouldn’t look at Murdoch or Scott.  He couldn’t.  It was gonna hurt bad enough to leave them behind, but to see their faces as he made his escape, well it was for the best.  He did hate that his last view of Teresa was early this morning.  Murdoch had banned her from coming into the courtroom once he learned about the saloon woman witness.

The judge looked over, “Mr. Foreman, you’ve reached a verdict?”

The tall silver haired farmer stood, “Yes sir, we have.”

“Very well.”

The bailiff took the paper from the foreman and handed it over to the judge, who looked at it and handed it back.

“Very well, let’s hear it.  Mr. Lancer, stand for your verdict.”

Johnny stood and tried to keep the opened handcuffs from showing.

“We, the Jury, find the defendant, John Lancer, not guilty, on all charges.”

Johnny froze.  So prepared had he been for the words ‘guilty on all counts’ that he thought he had misheard.  A loud whoop ensued from the back of the room piercing the silence and setting off a loud instant buzzing of conversation.  He felt his father’s giant hand patting him on the back, and he nonchalantly slid the cuffs off, and turned to Bryant and extended his hand.

“Thanks Mr. Bryant.”

Bryant looked at his naked wrist, raised an eyebrow, and broke into a smile as he shook his hand.

“You are so welcome son.”

He looked back and gave his father a shy smile, but saw the surprise on his face and felt the stern stare from his brother as he laid the cuffs down and reached under the bench and grabbed his rig.  None of them spoke while he began fitting the belt around his waist again.  Damn it felt good.

Murdoch had turned his attention to Ansley Bryant who was packing up his valise.  “Mr. Bryant, thank you and congratulations!”  Murdoch reached over and shook his hand, as did Scott.

Once his rig was tied down and tightened, Johnny looked up and right into Bryant’s penetrating stare.

“I see you were not so confident of my abilities Johnny.”

“Well, it’s like this. I never let myself get down to one card.”  He flashed a brilliant white smile, accompanied by sparkling eyes.

“I’m really grateful Mr. Bryant.”  Johnny held his hand out again.  The attorney took it for a good shake.

He sat down and pulled off the never locked shackle on his leg attached to a ring in the floor.  By this time, the crowd was in full buzz, a few happy, but many not content with the verdict.  One Buck Addison was near the entrance and could be heard all the way back where the Lancers stood.

Wilkes was out at the front door helping Gabe and his deputy with the distribution of the citizens’ weapons and Johnny looked down at the floor and smiled to himself as he heard Wilkes tell Addison to shut up and get out of the building or he would arrest him for disturbing the peace.

“Mr. Bryant, why don’t you get packed up and I’ll send Scott over with the buggy and you can come on out to Lancer and celebrate with us tonight and spend a few days and see the ranch.”

“Very well Murdoch, I would like to see your ranch!  The Barkley’s have raved about it.”

“Well son, are you ready to go home?”  Murdoch turned to Johnny and was smiling now, as was Scott.

Standing up, and pulling at his rig on more time, he looked down and then up at his father.

“Well, I wanna go see Val first if ya don’t mind.”

“Certainly.  How about we meet you in front of the hotel in about half an hour.”

“Sounds good ta me.  Let’s go out the back way.”

Murdoch and Scott stepped through the gate and into the front of the courtroom.  Bryant was moving towards the doorway and Johnny turned to follow him when he felt Murdoch’s large hand over his shoulder and felt himself pulled around face to face with him.

He looked up, unsure of what was happening when Murdoch grabbed him by both shoulders and pulled him to him in a tight embrace.

“Thank God you’re safe, son.”

Johnny felt awkward and a little suffocated as Murdoch had his arms pinned against his sides.  He nodded as much as he could to give Murdoch the idea that he understood and to get him to let go.

When Murdoch did, he still held him by the shoulders and gave him a stern look, “But I think we need to have a talk later.”

He knew what Murdoch meant.  He looked down, taking a deep breath and let it out.

“Yeah, yeah, I guess we do.”

He turned and headed towards the door, before Murdoch or Scott could say anymore.

Murdoch turned to Scott. “I just don’t understand your brother at all.”

“If it’s any consolation, neither do I sometimes.”

“Well, let’s get moving.  I’d like to get home as soon as possible.”  Murdoch put his hand on Scott’s back to encourage him forward.

Out in the alley behind the courthouse, they saw Johnny turning several buildings down, into the narrow alley between two other buildings in order to make his way to the main street and avoid the crowd they still heard in front of the courthouse.

“Scott, you go on to the livery and get the buggy and the horses ready and I’ll go get Teresa from the hotel.”

“Okay.  I’ll meet you in front of the hotel then.”

“That would be great.”

They walked together in the alley for a few more buildings down and as they turned into the narrow alley between two of the saloons, they saw Buck Addison with his back to them, and facing both Addison and them, were two of the witnesses against Johnny.

“I TOLD you not to come near me.  I WILL pay you.  Tomorrow, just like we agreed, out near the turn off to the ranch.  It is far too dangerous to be seen together like this, now GET OUT of here!”

Johnny darted across the street, hoping no one would notice him.  He really wanted to have a visit with Val and then go home to Lancer.  Stepping onto the boardwalk, he smiled to himself.   His life had always been unpredictable.  Right now, he could be running like hell on Barranca, but instead, he was about to visit his old friend, go home and have good dinner, an ass chewin’ by his ol’ man, and probably his brother too, but it was a great alternative.

Stepping inside, he heard the familiar sound of Sam’s bell.  Sam poked his head out, “Johnny, I was hoping that was you!”

“Hey Sam.  I came to see Val.  Is he awake?”

“Hell yeah, I’m awake.”  Johnny smiled, Val was gonna be okay. He could tell by the grumbling.

Turning down the hall behind Sam, he followed the doctor into Val’s room.

“Hey amigo.”  Johnny grinned at his oldest friend.

“Hey amigo my ass!  What the hell is goin’ on around here?  You gettin’ tried for robbin’ the bank!”

“Don’t look at me like that!  You were there.  How come you didn’t testify?”

“Cause I don’t remember a goddamned thing and that’s what I told that fucker Wilkes.”

Johnny laughed and Sam disappeared down the hall.

Stepping over near the bed, he sat down and put his hand on Val’s shoulder.  “Damn Val, that was close.  I’ll get whoever did this to you when we figure out who it was.”

“I can tell ya exactly who it was.  It was Carlito.” Val whispered.

“Carlito?”

“Yeah.”

“Why didn’t ya tell Wilkes?”

“’Cause I’m the damn sheriff here and I don’t need any help from him.”  Johnny stared at him.

“Yeah well, it wouldn’t a done no good.  No one woulda believed me anyway if I did remember something.”

“Well I coulda been hung!”

“Nah, I’d a worked somethin’ out.  Besides, I didn’t know it was Carlito until a few minutes ago.”

“How’s that?”

“I got this telegram from Wren.  All in Spanish.  He’s got him.  Only problem is, the telegraph is three or four days old.  Seems he left the telegram to be sent and the lines were blown down in a storm between here and there, and so it didn’t come through until today!”

“Shit!” That was just a little too close.  “Okay.  Well that explains Kick.”

“Kick?”

“Nobody’s told you?”

“I guess not.”

“Well Kick was the one you killed.”

“Son of a bitch!”

They both looked up as Sam had returned with a bottle of whiskey and three glasses.

Johnny raised his eyebrows and asked, “Sam?”

“It’s a celebration Johnny.  Two of my closest friends have a lot to celebrate today.”

Johnny looked over at Val and laughed.  Val started to laugh, but pain stopped him.

“Slow down amigo.”

Sam poured two glasses, one with just a splash of whiskey and the second a bountiful shot.  He handed the smaller one to Val and the other to Johnny, before pouring himself a healthy shot.  He held his up and said, “Gentlemen, to long and happy lives!”

“Here, here” whispered Val as Johnny leaned over to clink his glass against Val’s as did Sam.  

Wren and Carlito entered Green River, riding down the main street.  They could see the large number of people milling about in front of the saloon and the courthouse.

“Look Carlito, they’re all ready to pick your jury.”  He drawled.

“Fuck you, Wren.”

“Don’t you know more than three words, Carlito?”

Carlito let loose with some profane Spanish and Wren laughed.

About that time, someone near the courthouse saw them and let out a yelp, attracting attention from the crowd like a soft, low tide wave.

Brad looked at Wilkes and Gabe.  “It’s my partner, and looky there, he’s got a Mex with him wearin’ calzoneras and a red shirt!”

 

Chapter 24

Johnny closed the door to Sam’s office.  Stepping off the boardwalk, heard shouting.  He looked up and saw Wren and another rider, in fact, if he hadn’t known who it was, he would have thought it himself.  Of course, it was Carlito.  No wonder Tim didn’t remember his eyes.  Carlito had hazel eyes.

He looked towards the hotel where Murdoch and Scott were talking with Brad, and Teresa was standing by the surrey, chatting with Clayton Moore.  As he moved to cross the street, he saw movement high on the roof to his right, a few buildings down.  As he pivoted to draw, he heard the shot ring out.

He had no time to see the target of the sniper.  He took the shot, felling the gunman down onto the street.  He rolled, and caught sight of Wren and Carlito on the ground and from the left, Wren firing at someone near the alley.  Then there was silence.

Wilkes came running towards him.

“What the hell, Madrid!”

“Whaddya mean, what the hell?”

The street had begun clearing when the first shot rang out.  There was a shout from Carlito as people flowed back out, their curiosity overwhelming their sense of safety.

“That’s him, that’s the one!”  Johnny could hear Carlito’s voice and then saw Buck Addison, scurry across to the alley, but not before his father had seen and followed him.

Johnny turned to follow his father when Wilkes grabbed him by the arm.

“Where do you think you’re goin’, Madrid?”

“To get the man behind all this!”

“Hold on.  Just what the hell are you talking about?”

He saw Scott following his father.

More shots rang out as Wren left Brad with Carlito and took off running down an alley parallel to the one the two Lancers and Addison had taken.  Townspeople scattered like marbles for cover.

Hearing the shots after seeing Murdoch and Scott disappearing down that alley sent a chill down his spine.  Wilkes was not only big, but he was strong, and had an iron grip on his left forearm.  He had no choice.

Another gunshot rang out, and Wilkes looked towards the alley.  A breath later, he was lying on his back on the boardwalk.  Johnny’s punch had landed square on his jaw.

Johnny, gun drawn, raced across the empty street, running in the opposite direction of the shots, and turned down the alley.  He made his way back towards the gunfire.  Then there was silence.

He heard voices.  Flattened against the wall, sweat began forming on his brow. It was muggy.  He glanced up and saw the sky becoming dark, not with night, but with storm clouds.   It was Murdoch, Scott, and Wren that he heard.

Addison was nowhere to be seen.  He closed his eyes and listened.

A woman’s scream came from the main street hearing her plea, “Buck!  Buck!”

Aggie.  She sounded terrified.

He rolled back to his right, away from the direction from where he heard his father, brother, and friend, and ran back to the side alley and towards the front of the building.

Peering around the corner, he caught a glimpse of Aggie dragged into another alley on the other side of the street.  People had come back outside when the shots died down but were scattering again.

He saw Addison step off the boardwalk from his side of the street and run towards the alley where he had seen Aggie disappear.  Addison stopped at the entrance to the alley.

Another movement caught his attention.  Damn it!  Murdoch!

His father was jogging towards Addison when gunshots sounded and the dirt scattered in front of his father’s feet.  He saw Murdoch jump onto the boardwalk and take cover behind a post.  Scott, who had been about to follow, had stepped back, peering out of the side alley on the other side of the building from Johnny.

A quick glance around, and he saw Brad half-carrying Carlito into the front door of the sheriff’s office.  Wilkes had made it to a sitting position.  He snorted.  Yep, rung the bastard’s bell pretty good from the confused way the marshal was moving to get to cover.  The big marshal leaned against the post in front of the office, but still couldn’t get himself to a standing position.

He saw Wren sprinting across the street and bullets darted into the dirt around him.  Wren hit the ground, rolling, drawing, and then moved onto the porch and behind the marshal’s post.

Addison was backing up into the middle of the street and Johnny could see a man holding Aggie, his arm around her and a gun to her head.  Damn if it wasn’t one of the so-called poker player witnesses against him in court.  Yep, this was all Addison’s doing all along.  No doubt in his mind.  The why of it?  It didn’t matter.  Right now, all that mattered was saving Aggie, and his father, if the ol’ man got any closer to the danger.

“Murdoch!”  Aggie cried out when the second gunman had fired at her old friend, and Addison turned around.

“Stay out of this Lancer!  I’ll handle it.”

“Then handle it Addison, before something happens to Aggie.”

“Buck, please!”  Aggie pleaded.

“Okay, Addison, go get our horses.  We’re gonna ride back out to the ranch and you’re gonna give us our money and then you can have her back.”

“What money?!  I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Don’t fuck with us Addison.  Carlito’s done told the law about all this, and we don’t intend to hang with you.  But we are gonna hang on to this here security until you get our damn money and then we’ll let her go, and not until then.  Just no tellin’ what might happen to her if you wait too long now.”

Addison cocked his head and began to point his finger in anger at the man.  “Now you wait one damn minute.  Who do you think you’re talking to here?”

“You, you cocky bastard!”

“You let her go right now or you won’t see a dime of any money.”

“Oh yeah?”  The man looked back at his partner, “Cover me Jed.”

He removed the gun from the side of Aggie’s head and grabbed her by both arms and spun her around to face him, and pulled her to him and began to kiss her, forcing his tongue into her mouth and holding her so tight, she looked to be suffocating.  The more she struggled, the harder he squeezed her.

“God damn it!  Stop that!”

Addison moved forward and the second gunman fired a shot that hit the dirt in front of him.  The first gunman, however, stopped and spun Aggie around, one hand across her chest, his wandering fingers entwined in the buttons of her blouse, and the other held the gun at her head again.  Her head drooped back against him, her breath coming in wheezes, she still managed to spit.

“I promise you.  I WILL KILL HER.  Addison, get the goddamn horses and let’s go!  NOW!”

Addison turned to fetch the horses when Johnny stepped out into view in the middle of the street.

“I wouldn’t.”

Addison turned.  “Stay out of this Madrid!  It’s not your business.”

“You made it my business the day you set me up Addison.  I’m not gonna stand by and let Aggie get hurt.”

As expected, shots rang out, but unexpected, they came from behind him, and Johnny dove back into his alley, just as three men came barreling down the street on horseback, slamming their mounts to a stop by Aggie’s abductor.  “Let’s go.”

“Bryce, get their horses” one of the riders commanded another.  The third man took off and rode down another alley.

There wasn’t so much as a whisper of a breeze until the man returned with the three mounts.  When he did, the riders spread out facing the town, guarding the three horses while the one with Aggie boosted her into the saddle and mounted behind her.  Jed mounted and they waited for Addison to mount.

Johnny glanced across the street and saw Wren standing behind a post.  Their eyes met and they were ready.  The way to the Conway ranch was between Wren and Johnny.  As the riders took off, headed towards them, Wren ran into the street, rolled and fired, taking out two men.  As the horse on which Aggie and her abductor were mounted, reared and spun, Johnny stepped out and fired.

The side of the man’s head seemed to explode, spewing blood and brain matter over Aggie and the horse.  He rolled off the back of the horse and into the street, while Aggie struggled to get control of the horse.

Shots splintered air and buildings alike as the two remaining men returned fire, while Aggie remained on an uncontrollable horse, and Addison’s horse was spinning wildly around, running backwards, as he tried to avoid the gunfire.  Aggie’s mount reared again.  A bullet creased his hindquarters, and he dropped down and bucked, catapulting her towards the stack of wooden barrels Murdoch was using for cover.

The fall almost knocked the breath out of her.  Murdoch took a quick look down the street and darted out.  As shots rained towards him, Scott covered his father by returning fire.

Two more men rode in from nowhere, guns blazing, and one attempted to grab Addison’s reins, as the horse backed into a water trough.  Addison took advantage of the suspended motion to leap off the horse, hitting the ground beside the trough, crawling behind it.

Johnny and Wren dropped the rest of the riders and two of the horses high tailed it out of town.  The sound of their departing hoof beats, faded in a world of silence, giving rise to the unsteady breathing and wheezing of the undead lying in the street.

The smell of gunmetal almost as thick as the smoky haze from the fired guns and dust stirred by the horses, remained suspended in the heavy air.  Johnny, Wren, and Scott stepped out and began to check the downed men for signs of life and weapons.

Their assessment completed, Scott called out, “We could use some help getting these two men to the jail.  Digger can have the rest.”

Murdoch had Aggie pulled close and she was sobbing and struggling to breath at the same time.  He stroked her hair and could be heard repeating, “There, there, Aggie.”

The gunfight over, Addison climbed out from behind the water trough, dusted himself off, looking towards his wife, just as Murdoch placed a gentle kiss on her head and squeezed her tight, in an attempt to calm her.

“God damn it Lancer!  Take your hands off my wife!  I’ve had enough of her being manhandled today!”

The couple looked up and parted slightly.

“Buck,” Aggie shook her head in disbelief, but didn’t move, despite his glare.

Murdoch put his arm around Aggie once more and said nothing.  Pulling her close he turned her with him to step onto the boardwalk.  A gunshot exploded.  Murdoch and Aggie went down.

Johnny and Wren let go of the injured man they were carrying and with blinding speed drew their Colts and hit the ground almost simultaneously with Addison’s body, but not before his weapon thudded to the ground in front of him.

Shocked silence followed as the reality of what had just happened set in.  Johnny glanced up at a movement to his left and saw Wilkes standing up against the post he had leaned against before the gunfight, where he was lowering his smoking gun to his side.

Aggie slipped away from Murdoch’s grasp, gathered herself up, and crawled over to Addison.

“Oh Buck, Buck, what have you done?”  Trembling hands surrounded his face.

Addison looked up as the sun disappeared, hidden behind Murdoch’s large frame, which cast a dark shadow over him.

“Like I said Lancer,” he rasped, “there can only be one bear to this mountain.  I guess now, you’re it after all.”  He closed his eyes.

“Buck? Buck? Buck?” Aggie shook him, tears streaming down her face.  He opened his eyes once more.

“I love you Aggie.  You were my world.  Take care of her, Lancer.”

 

Chapter 25

Johnny got up and dusted himself off, as did Wren.  Holstering their weapons, they picked up their injured prisoner and got him into the jail and into a cell.  Gabe and his deputy, who had made it up the street from the courthouse too late for the shootout, carried the other man inside.

The sheriff’s office was as busy as a beehive.  Brad and Wren working furiously to stop the bleeding of the two gunmen’s wounds until the doctor could get over to the jail.  Until then, Gabe’s deputy, Chris ran back and forth from the doctor’s office getting medical supplies.  Gabe and Wilkes were in and out, gathering the weapons and attempting to identify the dead, and helping Digger, the undertaker.  Johnny had helped with Carlito’s wound was and talking with him.

Sam had grabbed his bag, about to leave his office, when Murdoch barged in half-carrying a sobbing Aggie over the threshold, demanding he check her for injury.  After his exam and condolences, he had given Aggie a sedative before he left for the jail.

Murdoch had retrieved the surrey during Sam’s examination, and afterwards, transported Aggie a few blocks away to stay with one of her female friends.  Upon his return, he found Scott and Clayton Moore with Bryant and his luggage, standing on the boardwalk in front of the hotel, along with Teresa.

Clayton was helping Teresa into the surrey when Johnny stepped out of the sheriff’s office.  Johnny smiled to himself.  He’d bet a month’s pay Clayton had looked after Teresa during the shooting and that he’d be at the dinner table come Sunday.

Wilkes was outside on the boardwalk having a smoke and watching lightning finger its way across the sky.  Johnny looked up at him and then away.  “Hey, uh, thanks for lookin’ out for my ol’ man today.”  He stuck his hand out.  Wilkes took his time, dropping the remains of the cigarette on the boardwalk, blowing out a slow stream of smoke as he ground the butt out with the toe of his boot.  Johnny pulled his hand back and tucked both thumbs in the top of his belt.

Johnny saw it in his eyes as he cocked his head and looked up, but it was too late.  The punch to the jaw knocked him off the boardwalk into the street.  Damn but Wilkes could hit hard.  He might have just lost a back tooth.  He sat up, spitting a glob of blood out, feeling dizzy and his vision was blurry, but he jumped up, fast enough to make his stomach turn.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”  He placed his hand against his cheek, which felt lacerated and was already beginning to swell.

“That’s for today.”

Wilkes stepped down and punched him again in the gut, “And this is for fucking my wife, you piece of shit!”

Johnny’s body curled around his core as the hard, deep, punch hurled him backwards and to the ground once again.  Fuck did that ever hurt!  He would be damned if he’d let Wilkes get the best of him.  He hit the ground on his back and rolled.  Rage and adrenalin picked him up from the brutal blow.  He couldn’t have made it on his own.

Launching himself at Wilkes, he punched him as hard as he could in the jaw with his left hand and at the same time, threw a punch into the gut with his right, while he received an off-handed blow to the face, the ring on Wilkes’ hand hitting him across the eye. 

Disengaging himself to regroup he was grabbed from behind and as he began to struggle, “DON”T little brother!” was whispered into his ear.

He relaxed into the taller frame of his older brother as he saw his father step in front of Wilkes, struggling to stand up from where he had fallen back against the post.  He watched as Murdoch put his finger right into the man’s chest, so hard, he stepped back.   “Just stop right there marshal!”

Wilkes stopped, but had a menacing look on his face.  “This is between me and Madrid!”

“Whatever is between you and my son needs to end right here and now, or it will be between you and me!”

Wilkes squinted at the big Scot. “I think he’s got the point.”

“I’m sure he has, and if he hasn’t, I’ll address it with him. Now go and get yourself cleaned up and do your job. I have every intention of taking your two deputies home with me tonight!”

Wilkes glared at Johnny and in return, Johnny bowed up, earning himself a painful squeeze from his brother and “Oh no you don’t, Johnny,” whispered into his ear.

He hung his head as Wilkes turned.  “Okay, Scott, okay.”  He would never let his brother know how glad he was for the physical restraint.  Wilkes’ punches had hurt, bad.  If Scott hadn’t grabbed him when he did, he might have passed out.  He spit again and wiped his bloody mouth with the back of his wrist.  

“Let’s have Sam look at you.”

“No, I’m okay.” He lied.

“You’re bleeding.  March!”  Scott pushed him ahead of him for a few stumbling steps and then as he gained momentum, he felt his brother’s long arm stretch around his shoulders and pull him in tight against him.  Not only did it keep him from falling down, it felt good.

 

Dinner at Lancer that night was a festive affair, despite the bittersweet ending to the day in town.  The table was loaded with platters of Mexican food, with a few dishes made not so spicy for Scott.  Seated at the table in addition to the family were Wren, Brad, and Ansley Bryant.  The skies had unleashed a brutal tirade just as they had made it under the arch, and continued to vent their anger during their dinner.

Murdoch looked around the table and smiled.  Johnny’s laughter and smile were contagious, and he, like Scott and Ansley Bryant, absorbed every detail of the stories Johnny and his friends told of their border adventures.  The howling winds and heavy rain seemed to enhance the animated conversation.

After dinner, loud claps of thunder and vibrant bolts of lighting continued throughout drinks and additional tall tales in the great room, quieting just before everyone had turned in for the night.  Its exhaustion seemed to have drained the conversation from the men, inviting them to retire.

Murdoch checked the doors and turned down the lamp in the great room.  He limped upstairs to his bedroom door.  The rain and cooler weather had brought on aches and pains in his back and leg from the injury by Pardee.

He stopped with his hand on the knob.  He felt the need to check on his lost boy one last time to be sure he was okay.  It had been a long day.  Hell, it had been a long couple of months, and he knew that despite his son’s protests, that Wilkes’ blows had done a lot more damage than he would ever let on.

Johnny had turned in a little early.  Murdoch had seen the almost immediate bruising and swelling in the boy’s mid-section in Sam’s office.  By dinnertime, Johnny’s left eye had been almost swollen shut and there was a nasty, weepy cut under it.

The boy had been forced to ride home in the back seat of the surrey with Teresa, who assisted him as he held his head back to help stop his intermittent nosebleed.  Johnny did a good job trying to hide the pain from them, but he could tell as dinner wore on, that his son was in a great deal of pain.  He hadn’t eaten much of his favorite dishes either.

Stepping over to Johnny’s door, he placed his hand on the knob and took a deep breath and let it out, preparing himself to meet that mutilated gun head on when he opened the door.  Instead, a cool, cleansing breeze wafted through the open window, passing him gently on its way out the door.

Departing clouds had made way for the moon to shine down and through the open window.  The pushed back draperies waved a slow, almost sensual dance in the embrace of the breeze.

A soft glow illuminated his sleeping son.

Johnny lay curled slightly on his side, the undamaged part of his face turned into the pillow; the rest of him, burrowed under the covers.  It was a chilly breeze, but Johnny, who never liked the cold, always had his window open.  His relaxed features and long lashes gave Murdoch a glimpse of the little boy he had missed all those years.  Breathing softly through his just parted lips, Johnny looked peaceful, just as he did those many years ago.

Murdoch smiled at the sight of the Colt nestled in its holster hanging within quick easy reach on the bedpost.  Baby steps he thought.  His son was feeling a little more comfortable here at the ranch.  He wasn’t sleeping with the Colt under the pillow as his security blanket.  Perhaps one day, he would even leave it at the door with the others.

Smiling to himself, he shook his head and pulled the door closed.  A father could still dream couldn’t he?

 

~ end ~

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