Finding Justice by Terri

Word count 76,500

Second in the Justice series, a sequel to Final Justice..  You should read that one first for this one to make more sense. It was a WHI for The High Riders.
Thank you to my wonderful beta, Lacy.  Since I have the habit of changing things after she’s checked it, all errors are my own

Chapter 1

Johnny rode down the road on his black horse, Diablo, and leading the palomino he had gotten from his father. He was cursing to himself every step of the way. He’d had the chance to live his dream and he had stupidly walked away. He’d been offered everything he’d ever wanted and he’d turned his back on it. It was probably one of the dumbest things he had done in a long line. His mind wandered as he thought about the place and the people he had just left, and he forgot about the half broke horse he was leading. A sudden sharp nip on his leg made him yelp and brought his attention back to what he was doing, but the horse had already turned his head away from him.

The palomino waited a few moments, then reached over and this time nipped at Diablo. Diablo pinned his ears and nipped back. Johnny wasn’t in the mood for their antics so he took off his hat and waved it between the two horses. Diablo straightened up his head with a snort and continued down the road, while the palomino pulled back, shaking his head and trying to get away from the flapping headgear that was trying to eat him. Johnny took another hitch of the lead rope, wrapped it around the saddle horn and angrily spurred Diablo forward, trying to end the other horse’s mutiny.

The palomino pinned his ears and lunged forward, bumping into Diablo’s side. The black had had enough and pinned his own ears and crouched, ready to give the other horse both barrels. Johnny spurred him forward while once more waving his hat at Barranca, trying to keep him from attacking. The horse pulled back again, then reared up and lunged forward, coming down on top of Diablo. Johnny stepped down out of the saddle to avoid the legs coming at him and let the black horse teach the youngster a lesson with a hard bite to his neck. The palomino scrambled to get away from the other horse, and shook his head wildly while fighting the rope.

Johnny swung back aboard with a sigh. He should have at least stuck around long enough to get Barranca broke to lead. Barranca. What kind of name was that for a horse, anyway? He’d like to change it, but he had always been told it was bad luck to change a horse’s name, so he guessed he was stuck with it. Cipriano had told him they had given the young stallion that name when the horse had jumped off the side of a small gorge, or barranca, while being chased. Thankfully, it hadn’t been very deep, but the palomino had been going at a dead run and just sailed into it without even slowing, preferring possible death to being captured. Johnny sure hoped that didn’t indicate how hard he was going to be to break, but it probably did, he thought gloomily. After all, Cipriano was ready to shoot him.

Johnny glared at the horse, who had his ears pinned again, ready to fight. He really wasn’t in the mood to be messing with the horse right now and didn’t even have a safe place to work him, even if he wanted to. It would be too easy for the horse to escape if he tried breaking him in the open, and Johnny knew catching him again would be next to impossible. Barranca once more reached over with his teeth bared, but resentfully backed off when Johnny brought his hand up. Johnny knew the horse was just biding his time, waiting for him to let his guard down. So much for a nice relaxing ride. Maybe he shouldn’t have taken the horse to begin with, but he was too fine of an animal to just kill. If didn’t stop biting, though, he still might wind up with a bullet in his head.

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time a horse gave him a hard time. Diablo had damn near killed him a couple of times before finally accepting the man, but now he was a good horse. Johnny still couldn’t trust him completely, but he never trusted any horse. Never trusted any people, either. It saved a lot of disappointment. Of course, there hadn’t been many people he’d ever wanted to trust. He thought of Scott. Maybe. Maybe he could have trusted Scott if he’d stayed. Maybe even the Old Man. After all, he had been honest with Johnny. Hell, he might even have wound up trusting that grumpy sheriff. Nope, that wouldn’t do at all. One of them would have betrayed him for sure.

Still, it might have been worth a try, he mused. Having people who cared about him was a novel experience; something he’d never had before. Everyone in his life had always been out for themselves, even his mother. Especially his mother. After hearing her rants about Murdoch Lancer for most of his life, he had never expected the man that he had found. Instinctively, Johnny knew that the people at Lancer DID care. Just how much, he didn’t know, and now it looked like he never would. He sighed deeply, wondering what it would be like to actually be around people that he could genuinely trust. To live somewhere where he didn’t have to always watch his back; a place he could actually call home.

He thought briefly of turning around and going back, but nothing had changed. That little bit of hesitation in Murdoch’s answers to Johnny’s questions told him all he needed to know. It was better to leave now, before there were any deep attachments, before they could hurt him. Besides, what he had told Murdoch was the truth. He really didn’t want to see any of them hurt because of him. Just the thought of Scott, or heaven forbid, Teresa, taking a bullet meant for him made him feel sick.

The short time he had been there, he had become closer to Scott than he had to anyone in a long time. They hadn’t even talked much, but Johnny still felt a closeness that he couldn’t explain. He wasn’t sure if it was because they were brothers or just because they were alike in a lot of ways. Johnny snorted. A short time ago, if someone had suggested to him he was like a Boston dandy, they would have found themselves in a ditch, with ants crawling across their eyeballs. But there was more to Scott than simply being an educated fancy dresser. He was tough, honest and stubborn, traits that he himself had been accused of having more than once, no matter what his father thought.

His father. His whole life he had hated the man. A faceless monster who had haunted his dreams as a child and had fueled his rage as an adult. But, like everything else his mother had told him, it was a lie. Murdoch wasn’t a monster, he was a man. A man who had lived through tragedy and survived. A man who had built a kingdom with his own two hands. A man who had done his best through it all.

Johnny sighed. Murdoch deserved to have his family, and if that family didn’t include him, that was just the breaks. He was under no illusion as to just how hard it would be for him to settle down. Even if he managed it, he just might destroy his family in the process, and that wasn’t something he was willing to do. At least for a brief time he could say he had a family. A father and brother, and even a little sister.

A smile came to his face when he thought of Scott and Teresa. There sure hadn’t been any hesitation on their part in accepting him. Both of them had been open and welcoming from the beginning. He’d bet they’d give Murdoch an earful when they found out he had left, but it wasn’t really his father’s fault. The Old Man had tried, Johnny would give him that. It wasn’t Murdoch’s fault he couldn’t get past Madrid, and Corrales sure hadn’t helped matters. But as hesitant and fearful as the Old Man was, he had still told Johnny to stay. Johnny knew the offer was sincere, but the offer was to Johnny Lancer, not Johnny Madrid. No, it has been Johnny’s decision to leave, and he had made the choice that made the most sense. It didn’t mean he had to be happy about it.

With a sigh, Johnny stopped when he reached the crossroads . Which way? He sat and thought for a while. Before he’d left, he had just assumed he’d go south, toward Mexico. It was where he was comfortable, it was where he needed to go to stay in the game. But somehow things had changed. He wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted to do anymore. The game was getting old, and he knew it would eventually kill him. Before, it had been the only choice open to him, but Lancer had opened his eyes to something different. The question was, did he want to keep fighting? Being at Lancer, seeing how it could be, had changed something in him. It had left him with an ache to do something besides kill. Maybe, just maybe, he could.

He glanced over at the palomino that was restlessly shifting his weight before starting to paw, impatient with the delay. Johnny corrected him automatically, deep in thought. He was good with horses. Maybe he could get a job somewhere breaking cow ponies. There were other jobs too, but breaking horses was the most appealing. He never did like punching cows, and the thought of him being a sheriff made him laugh. It would only take one big mouthed drunk to guarantee he would be locked in his own jail on a murder charge. No, he’d stick to breaking horses, but he’d have to go far enough away that no one had ever heard of Madrid, and he wasn’t exactly sure how far that was. He knew he wouldn’t make the money he was used to, and he’d have to work harder, but Johnny figured money wasn’t everything. And maybe, after he was gone long enough, and after the name Madrid had faded, he could return to Lancer and try it again. It was worth a try anyway. With a nod of his head, he turned the horses north.

Chapter 2

It was almost evening before Johnny pulled off the road into a small clearing. He was happy to see that it had plenty of grass for the horses and a decent sized stream winding through the woods a few yards away. Most importantly, it had a big, stout tree off to one side, with some graze around its base. After fighting Barranca for most of the day, he decided he was going to tie the horse to that nice, friendly tree and let him argue with that for  a while.

Usually when he tied horses for their first time, he attached the rope to something that would move slightly. By doing that, there was a smaller chance of the horse hurting itself, but right now he wasn’t having particularly charitable thoughts about a certain palomino. He figured if the horse wound up with a sore neck it just might make him a little easier to handle.

Johnny rode right up to the tree, then stepped down from Diablo without letting go of Barranca’s lead rope. Keeping the black horse between himself and the palomino, he tied the lead securely around the tree, then led the black a few yards away and dropped the reins. He pulled off the saddle and started to put it down, then looked over at the palomino speculatively. He carried the saddle over to the horse and talking softly, brought it up to the horse’s back. Barranca skittered sideways, but Johnny followed until the horse couldn’t go any further. Carefully watching the horse’s head, he lifted the saddle a little higher and eased it up onto its back. Barranca’s eyes flashed white and he tried to rear, but the rope was too short, so he settled for attempting to cow kick the man who was trying to kill him.

Johnny stepped back and watched as the horse then kicked out with both feet in an effort to dislodge the heavy saddle. When that didn’t work, Barranca grabbed the stirrup with his teeth and pulled it off, then started pawing at it. Johnny picked up a broken branch and shook it at the enraged horse, intent on saving his saddle. Instead of backing off, the horse grabbed the branch with his teeth and tore it out of Johnny’s hands. He flipped it around a few times, then dropped it and stared at the man as if challenging him to come get it.

A slow smile formed on Johnny’s face. “You sure are something, aren’t you? Not going to take no sass from anybody.” Johnny cautiously walked over as the horse watched intently. Johnny slowly reached up and rubbed the horse’s cheek. Barranca flinched, but didn’t move. As the hand moved upward, the horse pinned his ears and bared his teeth, warning the man that he wouldn’t tolerate being hurt. Instead, Johnny rubbed the base of the ears with his hand, talking softly the whole time. The ears gradually came up, and with a last pat, Johnny walked away. He heard the snap of teeth behind him and he whirled around, but Barranca just looked back at him, an innocent expression on his face.

Johnny frowned, then walked over and picked up the saddle once more. He cautiously approached Barranca again, keeping the saddle between himself and the horse. With one hand he quickly shortened the lead rope, then talking quietly, he slowly eased the saddle onto the horse’s back. He picked up the discarded branch, and after a few tries managed to reach under and snag the cinch. Barranca once more whipped his head around to bite, but Johnny was ready for him and his elbow caught the horse on its tender nose. As the palomino stopped and thought about it for a second, Johnny quickly tightened the cinch so the saddle wouldn’t fall off, then stepped back as the horse started fighting. This time, the shorter rope prevented Barranca from reaching the saddle and he started pawing frantically and bucking as much as he was able.

“You sure do things the hard way, don’t you?” Johnny asked. “If you’d just simmer down I’ll loosen that rope and let you graze, but if you keep fighting you’ll be missing your supper.”

In answer the horse kicked out with both feet and squealed. Johnny shook his head and walked back to Diablo. He took off the horse’s bridle and slipped on a halter, then led him to the stream for a drink before staking him out in a nearby patch of grass.

Johnny looked over at Barranca. “See, if you behave yourself you can have some of this grass, too. Your choice.”

Barranca once more kicked out, and with a sigh, Johnny turned his back on the horse and started setting up camp.

After Johnny had started the fire, he went over to the small stream and washed up and filled his canteen. He looked over at Barranca and saw that he was grazing on the sparse grass around the tree. He knew it would be enough to take the edge off his hunger, but the horse still needed water.

“Damn horse”, he muttered as he whipped off his hat and filled it to the brim with water. He walked quickly over to the palomino, who backed away from the proffered hat as all of the water leaked out.

“Damn horse.”

Johnny headed north for another hundred miles, then turned east. He wasn’t sure just where he was headed, but he figured he’d know it when he arrived, and he sure wished he’d arrive soon. He was making lousy time because of Barranca and on top of that, it had been raining on and off the whole way. He was tired of being wet, tired of fighting that damn horse, tired of trail food, and tired, period. A signpost up ahead informed him he was approaching the town of Oak Grove. Oh joy. Another faceless little town on the road to nowhere. What he really wanted was to go into that town and get a hot bath, a hot meal and a dry bed, but that stupid horse made it impossible. He was sick to death of camping out, but Barranca was still fighting him and he knew that leaving him tied to a hitching post all night was just asking for trouble. If he didn’t manage to break loose, he’d probably kick someone, and knowing his luck, it’d be the sheriff. Johnny thought briefly of tying him to a tree somewhere outside of town, but knew he would never leave a horse tied by himself for that long. Barranca would be too vulnerable to predators, the weather, and horse thieves. Horse thieves he wouldn’t mind, but as angry as he was at the palomino, he still couldn’t leave him alone and helpless to defend himself.

Barranca suddenly lunged forward and tried to bite Diablo and Johnny pulled back hard on the lead rope, trying to keep the two horses apart. Johnny shook his head angrily. He was beginning to think Cipriano was right. That horse was just plain nuts. They’d been on the trail for over two weeks and Barranca was still fighting him, Diablo, and everything else that crossed his path. Instead of improving, the horse seemed to be getting worse. Johnny had tried every trick he knew to make peace with the horse, but Barranca refused to give even an inch. Johnny always had to be on guard, and if he wasn’t he’d pay for it one way or the other. He’d been kicked, bitten, butted, and had more rope burns than he cared to count. The horse still couldn’t be staked out, had to be hand grazed and watered, and had almost escaped several times. Johnny had come close to just letting him go more than once, but then the Lancer stubbornness had kicked in and he decided the horse wasn’t going to win.

Lancer stubbornness. He had always thought it was Madrid who was the stubborn one, but after meeting Scott and Murdoch, he realized it was a family trait. He never thought that he would think of Murdoch Lancer as family, but he did. With a sudden pang, he realized he missed the gruff old rancher, and he didn’t even want to think about Scott. He was afraid if he did, he’d turn the horses around and go back.

A sudden movement at his side interrupted his thoughts and alerted him to the fact that Barranca had once more tried to take a chunk out of his skin. Angrily, he turned off the road and started looking for a place to bed down as a sudden clap of thunder made him mumble a curse. Barranca jumped sideways as Diablo tried to bolt, but Johnny was ready for them and managed to keep them under control. He spotted a stand of pine trees tightly bunched together and figured that was the best shelter he was going to get tonight. He made his way over to the trees and quickly swung his leg over the saddle just as a bolt of lightning hit a big Cedar tree fifty feet away. The tree exploded with a huge bang and sent fiery splinters of wood flying all around them. Johnny was caught off balance as both Diablo and Barranca spooked once more, and the palomino’s lead rope slipped through his fingers while Johnny was trying to regain control of the black. He made a frantic grab at Barranca’s halter, but the huge clap of thunder that shook the sky once more sent the already panicked horses bolting in opposite directions.

Chapter 3

Scott entered the Great Room, swatting his hat against his leg, trying to get rid of some of the dust. It had been a long hot ride back from town. The rains that had pounded down for weeks on end, just a short month ago, had left huge ruts in the road, and it seemed as if the wagon had hit every one of them.

“Any problems?” Murdoch asked from behind his huge desk.

“No,” Scott shook his head as he went over and poured them both a drink.

Murdoch looked at his son with raised eyebrows. “A little early, isn’t it?”

Scott shrugged as he handed his father a glass and then seated himself in a nearby chair. “I picked up a letter in town.”

“And?”

“It’s from my grandfather.”

Murdoch felt a twinge of fear. “And?”

Scott shrugged. “The letter says he’s very ill and needs to see me.”

Murdoch nodded abruptly. He didn’t trust the old coot, but he couldn’t deny Scott’s right to see him. “If you leave now, you can be back by round up.”

Murdoch watched as his son looked down, and then took a large swallow of brandy.

”Scott?” Murdoch asked fearfully.

“I’m not…sure…if I’ll be coming back,” Scott admitted before draining the glass.

Murdoch felt like someone had punched him in the gut. “Why?” he pleaded.

Scott shook his head. “Grandfather will need someone to look after his interests while he’s laid up and if,” Scott took a deep breath. “If something happens to him, I’ll have to take over the business.”

“What about Lancer?” Murdoch demanded. “I need you, you’re my son!”

Scott shrugged. “Look, there’s no need of arguing. Grandfather may recover, and it’s possible I’ll be back.”

“Possible,” Murdoch snapped.

“I’m sorry, Sir. I really can’t say for sure. It will depend on what I find when I get back there, and…” his voice trailed off. “I need to think about just what I want and who I am.”

“You’re Scott Lancer, my son! You belong here, on this ranch, with me! Not in Boston, attending balls and going to operas!” Murdoch yelled, rising to his feet.

“That’s just it, Sir. That is EXACTLY where I feel I do belong. If you didn’t think I belonged there, maybe you shouldn’t have allowed me to stay there when I was growing up!”

Murdoch sank back down into his chair. “Do you think I wanted to? I had no choice,” he pleaded.

Scott shrugged. “Be that as it may, Boston is where I grew up. It’s where I feel comfortable. It’s home.”

“And Lancer isn’t?”

Scott slowly shook his head. “All we do here, day after day, is work.”

“I never thought a son of mine would be afraid of hard work, “ Murdoch ground out.

“I’m not,” Scott snapped, “and that’s not what I meant.”

“Then WHAT DO YOU mean?”

Scott dropped his head. “We work. We eat. We go to bed. Day after day after day. There’s no beauty, no joy, no…” he stumbled, searching for the right words.

“No Johnny,” Murdoch said quietly.

Scott’s head came up and he stared at his father. “No Johnny,” he agreed. “I guess I never really thought about why I feel this way.”

“Scott, I tried to get him to stay, whether you believe it or not.”

Scott nodded. “I believe you.” He hesitated. “I also believe that he felt as if he wasn’t truly wanted,” he said as he rose to his feet, “Just like I feel,” he admitted softly. He drew himself up and stared at his father. “I need to get away from here and take care of things for Grandfather. I’ll be leaving on the morning stage and catching the train for Boston at Cross Creek. After I get things settled in Boston and I’ve had some time to think, I’ll make my decision.”

Johnny left the hotel and hobbled over to the local café, trying to avoid the downpour. He shoved the door open and glanced around the room before selecting a seat in the back, but none of the many occupants posed a threat. After giving his order to the harried waitress, he leaned back in his chair, feeling renewed after spending the night in an actual bed and out of the weather. Even his ankle felt a little better after soaking in a hot bath and a getting a good night’s sleep.

After both horses had taken off the night before, Johnny had spent over an hour slogging through the mud trying to find Diablo. He had yelled himself hoarse, even though he knew the chance of the black horse even hearing him over the pounding rain was extremely slim. Pain and exhaustion finally forced him to sit down on a fallen tree, and as he sat there he wondered what he should do.

He had twisted his ankle during his abrupt and unexpected dismount when the horses had bolted, and it was now throbbing unmercifully. He was too tired and sore to keep looking, but all of his supplies were on his missing horse. He didn’t blame Diablo. He knew his horse never would have taken off if he hadn’t been so worked up over Barranca’s antics. Barranca. He was starting to hate that horse.

He knew he had to get to the town, but he wasn’t sure which direction to go. It seemed as if his luck had been nothing but bad since he’d hooked up with that blasted palomino. After feeling sorry for himself for a few more minutes, he finally decided anything was better than just sitting and waiting to get pneumonia from the freezing rain. With a sigh, he got to his feet and started walking, cursing Barranca with every painful step.

He had only gone about a mile before spotting Diablo peacefully grazing along the side of the road. The horse was standing next to a sign proclaiming he was now in the Town of Oak Grove. Johnny couldn’t believe something had finally gone right and he quickly mounted and rode toward the center of town. He was going to get a hot bath, a good meal, and wait out the storm.

The waitress putting his plate full of bacon and eggs down in front of him brought him back to the present. By the looks of things, he was going to be stuck here for  a while, but it was better than riding through the torrential rains, and he figured Diablo would agree. The black was now knee deep in straw in the local livery and stuffing himself on hay and probably eating a good hot bran mash. Johnny had a twinge of regret when he thought about losing Barranca, but the feeling quickly died. He knew the palomino was long gone, and the chance of finding him almost nil. Johnny snorted. That darn palomino was probably half way back to Lancer by now and good riddance. Life was just too short to spend half of it fighting a stupid horse. Without that bad luck horse, maybe now things would turn around for him.

Almost a week later Johnny finally rode out of town. It was still drizzling, but if he stayed any longer he was going to go crazy. He’d never seen a quieter town. Even the saloon closed at nine o’clock, and that was the only form of entertainment there was. The town didn’t even have a saloon girl, let alone a bordello, and there was no poker game in sight. He’d just about worn out a deck of cards by playing solitaire up in his room. Even a gunfight would have been a welcome diversion, but no one had paid him any mind. He didn’t know whether to be happy or insulted.

He still wasn’t sure where he was headed. In the back of his mind he thought Montana Territory might be as good a place as any. He thought it might be far enough away from his old stomping grounds that he wouldn’t be recognized, and he had heard that herds of longhorns were being brought up from Texas. If there were cattle, there would be ranches. He figured he’d head that way unless something better came along. He still thought he’d like to get a job working with horses, and ranches were always looking for good cow ponies. A grin flashed across his face. Maybe he wasn’t as good with horses as he thought. After that dang palomino, his confidence as a horse trainer wasn’t exactly as high as it had been. It still bothered him that he had been unable to tame that horse.

Johnny’s attention was jerked back to reality when Diablo came to a sudden halt, his nose quivering and ears pricked forward toward the woods on his left. Johnny eased his hand down to his gun and undid the safety as Diablo started dancing and blew out a loud snort through his nose. Johnny frantically looked for any sign of what was bothering the horse, but the woods hid whatever was causing Diablo’s unease. Johnny nudged the horse forward, down the road, while both horse and rider kept a wary eye on the bushes. A moment later Johnny saw movement in the woods and jerked out his gun as Diablo once again slammed on the brakes.

Chapter 4

Johnny kept his gun aimed at the place where he had seen the movement, not sure what he was seeing, but a weak whiney drifting out of the underbrush and an returned nicker from Diablo answered his question. He slipped his gun back into the holster and dismounted, then cautiously made his way into the woods.

He had only gone a few yards when he stopped and stared. Barranca lay on his side, covered in mud, with the lead rope tangled around his two front feet and caught under a large rock. The churned up mud around his hooves attested to the desperate and futile battle the horse had been waging with the rope. With a sigh, Johnny knelt down next to the horse’s head, speaking softly and reassuringly as he assessed the damage. Barranca’s mouth was bloody, and bite marks on the rope showed the reason. The horse had tried to bite through his bonds, but most of the rope was on the far side of the rock, holding his feet close against its side. He had been unable to reach the rope around his feet without scraping the side of his mouth against the boulder, but it looked like the horse had persevered and actually managed to bite halfway through before exhaustion had set in. A muddy puddle by his head showed where he had been able to get a limited amount of water, but it was obvious there had been nothing to eat.

 Barranca had kept his head up as Johnny approached, but lowered it with a pitiful whimper after a few seconds. Johnny shut his eyes and tears threatened to form as he imagined the horse’s futile battle. Seeing the proud horse humbled so badly tore at his soul. Gently, he stroked the horse’s neck, still speaking softly, and his heart clenched as Barranca whickered back weakly. Johnny drew out his knife and started working on the rope that was wrapped around the horse’s legs. It was so tight that he worried whether the circulation had been cut off and he would be forced to shoot him. He sawed at the rope, sure that his actions were painful, but the horse never moved, just kept his eyes on the man’s face.

With a last jerk, the ropes parted, but Barranca remained still. Johnny stepped back toward the horse’s rump and slapped him gently, but he still didn’t move. Johnny slapped harder and finally resorted to yelling and punching the horse on his rump, but there was no response. The horse had given up.

Johnny knelt by the horse’s side and spoke quietly to the exhausted horse, occasionally patting the muddy neck. After several minutes, Johnny got to his feet and went back to the road to get Diablo. He led the black into the clearing and unhooked his canteen before once more approaching the palomino.

The horse lay with his eyes shut, not even acknowledging the man’s presence. Johnny dribbled some water in the horse’s mouth, then sat back on his haunches and stared at the horse.

“Here I thought you were somethin’ special. Thought you had some grit. Instead, the first time things get rough you just lay down and die.” Johnny snorted. “Guess I shoulda just let Cipriano shoot you after all. Would a saved us both a lot of aggravation. Probably would a just run out on me the first time I needed ya, anyway.” Johnny stood up and started to draw his gun when Barranca opened his eyes and tried to nip the man’s foot.

Johnny smiled and nodded. “All right, then FIGHT, DAMN YOU!” he yelled as he reached down and slapped the horse.

The palomino tried to lunge to his feet, but he was just too weak, and fell back once more. Johnny grabbed his halter and pulled, trying everything he could think of to encourage the horse. When that failed, he once more resorted to smacking the horse on his rump.

After a half of an hour of yelling and slapping failed to get Barranca on his feet, he walked over to Diablo and removed the lariat from the saddle. There was no way he could get a loop around the downed horse’s body, so he would have to attach the rope to the halter. It was risky, Johnny knew, but he had no choice. He knew that if he didn’t get the horse on his feet soon, Barranca would die. It might already be too late, but he had to at least try. He tied the lariat to the halter, then took the other end and threw it over a sturdy branch on a nearby tree. After tightening his cinch and checking the breast strap , he stepped onto Diablo and wrapped the rope around the saddle horn. He hoped that by putting the rope over the tree branch, Barranca would be pulled up instead of along the ground.

With a last glance at the fallen horse, he nudged Diablo forward as the rope slowly tightened. Barranca was still dead weight, and Diablo scrambled for footing in the slippery mud. Slowly Barranca’s neck and shoulders left the ground, but the horse still remained limp. Johnny leaned over and encouraged Diablo some more, and the black horse lunged forward gamely, digging his hooves into the wet ground. He strained some more and threw all of his weight into the breast plate. Johnny twisted his body and looked back just in time to see the halter snap. Diablo, badly off balance, somersaulted forward over Johnny and landed heavily. His legs kicked out when he landed, catching Johnny on his side and sending him rolling into the base of a tree.

Johnny slowly opened his eyes, trying to figure out where he was. It took him a minute to remember what happened and then he shakily sat up. He was covered in mud and his ribs hurt, but nothing seemed to be broken. He heaved a sigh of relief as he tried to remember exactly how he had gotten in this position. A soft nicker drew his attention to the palomino, who was standing weakly with his head down several yards away. Johnny looked around in confusion, and a dark shape lying on the ground next to him made him swallow convulsively as he finally remembered. He slowly stood up and walked over to the dark shape that had been Diablo. He stared down at his beloved horse, his neck broken from the force of the fall, then looked angrily over at Barranca.

“I shoulda just shot you! He was worth ten of you!“ Johnny yelled at the palomino. “You’ve been nothin’ but trouble from the beginning! I wish I’d never laid eyes on you!” Barranca started to go down once more and Johnny ran towards him, screaming and waving his hands.

“Oh no you don’t! You’re not gonna die on me now! Get up! GET UP DAMN YOU!”

Panicked, Barranca lurched back onto all four feet and tried to run, but was only able to stumble a few feet before giving up and merely watching the man approach.

When Johnny saw that the horse wasn’t going down, he slowed down to a walk and took a deep breath. He stared at the horse who had become his enemy and fingered the gun at his side. He drew it out as the horse continued to stare at him. The two of them locked eyes for several moments, then with an oath, Johnny jammed the gun back into the holster and took several more deep breaths. As angry as he was at the horse, he realized it wasn’t Barranca’s fault that Diablo was dead. It had been an accident, pure and simple, but it still hurt. He and that black horse had travelled many miles together.

After getting himself back in control, he cautiously approached the palomino, talking softly. When he reached him, Johnny gently ran his hands over the quivering horse’s legs, and satisfied that there was no permanent damage, he stepped up to Barranca’s head. Instead of pinning his ears and trying to bite, the horse pressed his forehead against the man’s chest as if thanking Johnny for rescuing him. He looked at the horse in surprise, then finally reached out and rubbed the palomino’s cheek.

“I know, I know. It’s hard ta let go and trust, isn’t it? Don’t worry, It’ll be all right.” Johnny sighed and tweaked the horse’s ear. “Looks like it’s just you and me. How about we start over, ok? We’ll be compadres, and I promise you can trust me, deal?”

The horse kept his forehead pressed to the man a moment longer, then as if in answer, the horse nodded his head, and Johnny smiled back.

“All right. We’ll stay here till you’re back on your feet, and in the meantime, we’ll work on your manners.”

Barranca pinned his ears and nipped at Johnny, who sighed loudly. “I have the feeling we’ll be here  a while.”

Chapter 5

Three months later, Johnny finally crossed the Bitterroot Mountains into Montana. It had been a hard trip. They had climbed mountains and crossed rivers and battled the elements the whole way. Places to stay out of the weather or to get decent food had been few and far between, and towns even scarcer. Johnny hoped things would be a little more civilized once he had left the mountains behind, but he wasn’t counting on it. From what he had heard of Montana, it was still pretty wild.

He looked around in appreciation at the landscape. Tough buffalo grass stretched as far as the eye could see – nutritious graze that would put hard weight on buffalo – or cattle. Grass that was almost impervious to drought or flood or sharp hooves. Mixed in was tough Blue Joint, taller than the Buffalo grass, and brushing Barranca’s belly with its stalks as he walked. There were rivers and streams crisscrossing the landscape, with plenty of cutbacks and coulees to give cattle shelter. It was a bountiful land and Wild land, and one that could make a man rich if he was lucky, and break him if he wasn’t. Johnny wouldn’t mind having a ranch here someday, but horses, not cattle. For now he would just check things out and see what he could find.

The good thing was, he doubted if anyone knew him way up here. In fact, no one had seemed to have known his name since he had left California. That was one good thing, but he had to admit to himself that he was having second thoughts about the weather. He hadn’t really thought about it when he had decided to head north, but since then he’d heard plenty of comments about ‘Montana winters.’ He guessed if worse came to worse he could always turn around and head back south. He chuckled to himself. Who knows? Maybe he’d like snow.

He sighed. He hoped he’d like Montana. It wasn’t as good as California, but at least he probably wouldn’t have to go back to fighting. He allowed himself the supreme luxury of thinking about his family. Maybe someday he could go back, that is if they’d even still want him. He thought Scott and Teresa would welcome him back, but he wasn’t as sure about the Old Man. Murdoch had ‘seemed’ to be sincere, at least that last day before Johnny left, but maybe by now he’d changed his mind once more. The Old Man was probably glad that Johnny wasn’t there to stir things up in his nice, neat life.

Johnny shook his head sadly. He almost wished Murdoch and Scott had never sent for him. He couldn’t miss what he’d never had. Of course, if Murdoch hadn’t sent for him he’d still be down by the border, living by his gun. Or dead. Couldn’t forget that possibility. With a final sigh, Johnny decided there was no use thinking about it. Whatever happened, happened. If he could go back to Lancer someday without endangering his family, he would. In the meantime, he’d make the best of the cards he’d been dealt.

The land was rapidly changing for the better, and he expected to start seeing cattle any time He was glad he had just about reached his destination. It had been a long, hard journey, and he wasn’t looking forward to repeating it anytime soon. The one good thing about the trip, however, was that Barranca had turned into a first rate trail horse. After Johnny had rescued him, he had expected to have to start back up where they had left off, and had anticipated more prolonged battles with the horse. Instead, it seemed that once Barranca had decided to accept Johnny as his master, the horse had completely given the man his loyalty and obedience. Since then things had progressed at an almost frightening speed. A surprised Johnny realized that the horse was bright, bold, and willing to learn, and Johnny had spent every moment he could teaching the palomino everything he could think of.

Johnny was riding down a trail that let out into a small valley. He was concentrating on guiding Barranca using only his voice and weight when the horse suddenly stopped, pricking his ears toward the side of the trail. Johnny reached down and released the safety on his gun, then coaxed Barranca forward.

Tied behind a jumble of boulders were four horses. Barranca started to whinny, and Johnny immediately corrected him. He didn’t know what the horses were doing there, but the familiar prickling on the back of his neck told him that their owners were probably up to no good. As he was wondering what to do, a gunshot, followed by a woman’s scream pierced the silence. Johnny quickly urged Barranca toward the sound.

Johnny hesitated at the edge of the woods, taking in the scene in front of him. It was obvious that the four horses belonged to the men who were now in the process of holding up the stage. They had downed a tree across the road and were now relieving the passengers of their valuables. Johnny frowned as a woman was viciously slapped when she was slow to give up a ring. His frown deepened when he spied the body of the stagecoach guard which lay sprawled in the dirt next to the coach.

Johnny hesitated only a moment before nudging Barranca out into the open and toward the stage. His right hand seemed relaxed as he rested it on his thigh, but it was only a few inches from his Colt. Johnny had almost reached the coach when one of the outlaws finally noticed him and swung his rifle in Johnny’s direction.

“I saw the tree down and thought you might need some help moving it,” Johnny explained with a wide smile. He nodded at the dead guard, the smile still firmly in place. “What happened to him? Did he fall off the stage?”

All four outlaws gaped at the idiot who didn’t seem to realize that he had interrupted a robbery. As the men stared at him, momentarily stunned, Johnny noticed one of the passengers easing his hand inside of his coat.

“So do you need some help? I’m stronger than I look, I’d be glad to give you a hand,” Johnny asked again, trying to keep the attention on himself.

A moment later the blond passenger pulled a pistol from the inside of his coat and fired at one of the robbers. As the three remaining outlaws turned toward the sound of the gun, Johnny grabbed his Colt and took down two others. The fourth robber was hit by another shot from the blond man and one from Johnny at the same time. He fell silently, but managed to fire back before falling. The rest of the passengers stood in shock when silence finally descended.

Johnny swung down from Barranca and checked the fallen men to make sure there wouldn’t be any more trouble, and then he walked over to the blond passenger who was struggling to sit up, a crimson stain spreading out from his side.

Johnny reached down and grabbed the man by the arms, quickly checking his back to see if the bullet had gone through. “Just relax,” Johnny said as he gently eased the man back down. “That was pretty brave of you. Not real smart, but brave.”

The blond raised one eyebrow and glared at Johnny. “And you think riding down here and asking them if they needed help was smart?”

Johnny shrugged, then smiled. “Never said it was, just couldn’t think of anything better.” His smile faded. “The bullet’s still in there.”

The man grimaced, then nodded. “Hope you’re good at taking them out.”

Johnny looked at him doubtfully. “I think it would be better to get you to a doctor. Where’s the nearest town?”

The man chuckled weakly. “Too far.” His face darkened. “Besides, I might not get any help there, anyway. The sheriff of that town isn’t exactly a friend,” he spat.

Johnny studied him for a moment. “You wanted?” he asked softly.

“And if I was?” The man challenged, studying Johnny’s face.

Johnny shrugged. “Depends on why you’re wanted. Either way, I’d want to make sure justice won out.”

A small smile formed on the man’s lips. “And if the law said I was wanted…?”

“The ‘law’ ain’t always right.”

“So you wouldn’t turn me in,” the man clarified.

Johnny studied the man, then smiled. “Didn’t say that. The law ain’t always wrong, either. I guess it would just depend.”

The blond man studied Johnny, then smiled weakly. “Just what I need. A man with principles.”

Chapter 6

Johnny glanced up as the stage driver approached. “How’s he doin’?” the old man asked Johnny, nodding at the man lying on the ground.

“The bullet needs to come out. You and the other men take care of burying your guard, but as far as I’m concerned, you can leave the other men to rot. I’ll see what I can do here. We’ll have to camp out here for at least a day or two until he can stand the ride.”

The driver jerked his head toward the other passengers. “They ain’t gonna like it none. They’re already griping about the delay.”

“Oh, really,” Johnny snarled as he got to his feet. He strode over to where the passengers were standing next to the stage, studying them as he approached. There was a middle aged man who looked like a businessman, accompanied by his wife. They both wore identical frowns. A taller man stood next to them, glowering at Johnny. Another man looked like he might be a gambler, if the frills on his cuffs and his fancy suit meant anything. His face was neutral, and Johnny figured he was waiting to see which way the wind blew before tipping his hand. The final passenger was a Padre, dressed in monk’s robes and busily fingering his rosary.

Johnny nodded at the group. “The man over there is hurt. He has a bullet in him that has to come out, and we’re going to have to stay here at least a day or two until he’s able to stand the ride.”

The Padre crossed himself and immediately went over to the injured man. The businessman drew himself up and glared at Johnny. “I’m afraid that’s not possible. My wife and my brother and I have urgent business in the town of Granite,” he said arrogantly, as his prune faced wife nodded in agreement.

“And I’m telling you we’re staying here for a while,” Johnny shot back. He looked at the driver, who had followed him. “Where’s the nearest city that has a doctor?”

“Silver Bow. Back the way we came.”

Johnny nodded. “Then we’re going back to Silver Bow.”

“Now wait just one moment,” the businessman stormed. “I have no intention of going back.”

“Well, feel free to start walkin’.

The irate man took a step closer, and then suddenly stopped and stared at the gun that had appeared in Johnny’s hand.

“Look. This isn’t open for discussion,” Johnny growled. “And I don’t have time to try and get it through your heads. Like I said, I’m gonna take the bullet out of that man, and then we’re gonna stay here until he can be moved. I really don’t care if you agree or not. Now if you can’t help, shut up and stay out of way. But don’t even THINK about trying to change my mind, if you get my drift.” He glared at each of the men in turn until they dropped their eyes and nodded.

“Good. I don’t have time to be taking any more bullets out of anyone,” he said with a smirk as he holstered his gun. He walked over to the back of the stage and pulled out a shovel, then tossed it to the man who had challenged him. “You can take turns digging. The driver here will show you where,” he ordered.

Johnny watched to make sure they were doing as they were told, and was amused to hear the woman ranting at the men for backing down. He was satisfied there wouldn’t be any trouble when her husband finally told her to shut up and go back to the coach . He gave them one last glare for good measure, then went back over to where the blond was lying. The injured man was tall and fairly lean; he reminded Johnny of his brother, even though this man was a lot tanner and was sporting a luxurious mustache.

“Padre, would you please try to find some firewood?”

The priest nodded and left and Johnny squatted down next to the injured man.

“You think you’re going to have to cauterize it? the blond man asked weakly.

Johnny shrugged. “Better to be safe, just in case. Either way, I’ll still have to sterilize my knife.”

The man stared at Johnny for several seconds. “You handled those passengers real well.”

“They’re just a bunch of hot air. No fight in ‘em, if push comes to shove.”

The blond nodded. “Still, not many men know the difference.” He studied Johnny for several seconds, then nodded Imperceptibly. “Would you ask the driver to come over here?”

At a gesture from Johnny, the driver approached.

“Mr…? Wants to talk to you,” Johnny told the driver.

“William Wheeler,” the blonde offered. “Forgive me if I don’t shake hands.”

The driver’s eyes widened. “Wheeler?”

The blond nodded weakly, then glanced at Johnny. “William Wheeler, Federal Marshal for the Territory of Montana.”

“Guess you’re not wanted then,” Johnny grinned.

“Look,” Wheeler said, looking at Johnny. “You need to know, those men you killed are part of a gang that’s been terrorizing these parts for a while. That’s why I came here. There are at least five or six more of them out there, and they seem to be centered around Silver Bow. Before I left there, I had some words with the sheriff because I personally think he’s protecting them, or at least turning a blind eye. I told him in no uncertain terms that I was going to get him replaced, and he wasn’t very happy about it. I think that there is a fairly good chance that this hold up was just a cover up to kill me.” He stopped and took several deep breaths, in obvious pain, but struggling to finish what he had to say.

Johnny shook his head. “Well, they haven’t succeeded yet. But we’re still going to have to go back there after I take the bullet out. The driver said everywhere else is too far.” He looked at the driver for confirmation.

The old man nodded. “My names Hoskins, by the way. Jellifer B. Hoskins. And you’re right. Silver Bow’s the only place we can go.”

Wheeler sighed. “It looks like I don’t have a choice. He looked at Johnny. “And it doesn’t look like you have one, either.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I’m going to have to deputize you.”

Johnny snorted. “I don’t think I’m exactly deputy material.”

“I think you are. Besides, you are going to have to have some authority to override the sheriff if we go back to Silver Bow and I’m not able to speak for myself. Just remember, if I’m out of commission, you’ll have authority to do whatever it takes to keep everyone safe and try to stop that gang.”

Johnny shook his head. “I ain’t a lawman.”

Wheeler smiled. “Being a lawman isn’t much different that being a hired gun. You need smarts and confidence for both. I have no doubt you’ll do just fine.”

Johnny glanced at the driver, then looked back at Wheeler. “You know me?”

“I helped with an Indian uprising for a short time, down along the border. Look, I don’t know how much longer I can hold on. Let’s just get this done.” He looked over at the priest, who had started a small fire. “Padre! Come on over here,” he demanded hoarsely.

Wheeler studied Johnny. “We need to make sure your authority isn’t questioned. Now, do you, Johnny Madrid, solemnly swear that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that you will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that you take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which you are about to enter, so help you God?”

“Well, except for the part about freely and without reservation, yeah.”

Wheeler glared at him. “DO YOU SWEAR?” he ground out.

“Yeah, I swear,” Johnny affirmed reluctantly.

Wheeler looked at the driver and the Padre. “You two are witnesses.”

At their nods, he closed his eyes. “There’s a deputy marshal’s badge in my coat pocket. You’d better put it on. Now let’s get it over with.”

Chapter 7

Johnny finished bandaging the wound, then sat back and sighed.

“Will he be o.k.?” Hoskins asked.

“I don’t know,” Johnny replied glumly. The bullet had gone deep, had hit a rib and then fragmented. It had taken Johnny a long time to find it and get all the pieces out. He had done the best he could, but he wasn’t a doctor, and he was afraid his best wasn’t good enough. As far as he could tell there hadn’t been any damage to anything important, but with all the poking around he had done, the chance of infection was high. They’d just have to wait and see.

He fingered the badge that he’d taken from the Marshal’s pocket and his lips curled up in a small smile. Johnny Madrid, a lawman. Not just a sheriff, either. A marshal. He wondered what Murdoch would think about that. Probably wouldn’t think much of it; it would still be living by his gun. Of course, he didn’t think much of it, either. If he had a choice he would throw his gun in the nearest lake and peacefully train horses for the rest of his life. He snorted softly. Not much chance of that happening. With a shake of his head he slipped the badge in his pocket. With any luck, he wouldn’t need it. He sure didn’t want it. As soon as Wheeler was back on his feet, Johnny would give him back his badge and be on his way.

He looked over to where the other passengers were sitting around a fire. The driver had managed to shoot a rabbit and now had it cooking on a spit, but with the exception of the Padre, the other passengers still didn’t look too pleased with the situation.

Johnny looked over at Hoskins. “Would you sit with him for a little while? I need to tend to my horse.” At a nod from the driver, Johnny stood up and walked past the passengers, who were watching his every move. He didn’t even glance in their direction, but continued on past the stage where he found Barranca right where he’d left him. He rubbed the horse’s forehead, then gave him a pat on the neck.

“You’re a good fella.” Barranca nodded his head as if in agreement and Johnny grinned. The palomino had turned into a good horse; maybe the best he’d ever had. Of course, he’d had more time to train him than other horses he’d ever had, too. During the long ride here there hadn’t been any other distractions, and teaching the palomino had broken up the monotony. He gave the horse another pat, then quickly unsaddled him. After a good rub down with some dried grass, he turned the horse loose so he could move around and graze. He knew Barranca wouldn’t go far, especially with the stagecoach horses in camp.

After he had taken care of Barranca, he remembered the outlaw’s horses, so he hiked back over to where they were still tied. He swung up on a rangy bay and led the other three back down to the campsite. By the time he was done staking those horses out, it was nearly dark. He walked back over to where Wheeler was lying and noticed the Padre was now sitting next to him.

“Mr. Hoskins needed to take care of the stage horses, so he asked me to watch Mr. Wheeler, ” the Padre explained as he looked down at the injured man. “He’s getting a fever,” he observed.

Johnny crouched down next to the marshal, then reached down and felt the man’s head.

Wheelers eyes popped open and he looked at Johnny in confusion.

“You’re safe,” Johnny explained. “Just take it easy.”

Wheeler nodded and Johnny offered him a drink from a canteen he’d taken from one of the saddles.

“The bullets out, but I had ta poke around in there longer than I should have. You’re startin’ ta run a fever.”

The Marshal shrugged. “Not your fault. It always happens.”

“You really need to get to a doctor,” Johnny suggested. “I had hoped we could stay here a few days, but…” his voice trailed off.

Wheeler sighed. “I can travel.”

Johnny looked at him dubiously. “I’m not sure about that, but I don’t think we have a choice.”

Wheeler nodded. “I’ll make it.”

Johnny put his hand on the man’s shoulder for a second. “We’ll start tomorrow morning.”

Wheeler looked at him, and Johnny could see the glaze in the man’s eyes.

“Just remember what I told you, and remember you have jurisdiction over that sheriff and anyone else that’s there. We have to stop that bunch of thieving murderers, understand?”

Johnny nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

“If you can wait for me to recover, do it. They’re ruthless and cowardly, and I’d hate for you to have to take them on alone.”

Johnny cocked an eyebrow. “That’s just what you were going to do.”

Wheeler shook his head. “No, that’s why I was on this stage. I was on my way up to Deer Lodge to get some help from the sheriff there. I know he’s honest.”

“Well, you don’t have that option any more. You’d never make it that far. It looks like you’re stuck with me.”

Wheeler smiled and relaxed. “I think I’d much rather have the help of Johnny Madrid than the sheriff.”

Johnny shook his head as the sheriff closed his eyes once more. He sat there staring at the lawman for several seconds, then thoughtfully removed the Marshal’s badge from his shirt and put it in the man’s pocket.

The next morning dawned bright and cool. The padre was sitting with Wheeler, and told Johnny that Wheeler’s fever was still high, and he was only semi-conscious. Johnny nodded, then went over to the fire, where the rest of the passengers were huddled.

“You’re in luck,” he announced. I’ve decided to move the Marshal after all.”

“Back to Silver Bow?” the lady asked.

Johnny nodded. “Back to Silver Bow,” he affirmed.

“And you dont care at all about what WE want, do you?”

“Nope.”

The woman shot daggers at him, then turned and glared at her husband. After a moment, he stepped up. “Well maybe we’re not going to go to Silver Bow.” He looked around at the others. “After all, we DO outnumber you,” he said with a smirk.

The driver stepped up next to Johnny, his chin jutting out. “Don’t matter what you want. I’m the driver, and unless you want ta walk, you’re out of luck. This stage is going to Silver Bow.”

Johnny smiled at the old man, then turned back to the passengers, his smile sliding from his face. “Like I said before, it ain’t open for discussion. Marshal Wheeler is going to lie down on one of the seats.” He nodded at the woman. “You and your husband can ride on the other seat with the padre.”

“So just where does that leave us?” the woman’s brother asked, pointing to himself and the gambler.

“You can either ride up top with Mr. Hoskins here, or you can ride one of the robber’s horses. Your choice.”

The gambler nodded agreeably. “I’ll ride one of the horses.”

The other man glared at Johnny. “Why can’t he ride up top?” he asked, pointing at the priest.

The Padre nodded. “I would be happy to.”

“No!” Johnny snapped. “He’s riding down below.” He looked at the priest. “I need your help to keep Marshal Wheeler as comfortable as you can.”

“Of course,” the Padre assured him.

“We can do that,” the woman argued. “Then my brother can sit with us.”

Johnny smiled at the woman. “Ma’am, I wouldn’t trust you to watch out for my horse.”

The woman’s puffed up and glared at Johnny. “Well, I NEVER!”

“No, you probably haven’t,” he sighed.

Johnny rode along next to the stage, deep in thought. He never liked to leave things to chance, and he wished he knew a little bit more about what was happening. From what Wheeler had said, a gang of robbers had pretty much taken over the territory, and the sheriff had either thrown in with them or was too frightened to stop them. He figured everyone else was scared or just plain didn’t care, as long as it didn’t affect them. He sighed. There was no point thinking about what to do until he got into Silver Bow and could see for himself what was going on. Hopefully he could get the Marshal settled at the doctor’s before anything happened. If he was real lucky, the gang wouldn’t even be there, but he wasn’t going to count on that. With his luck, they’d be sitting in front of the doctor’s office.

As they topped a small rise, Johnny looked up and saw the town in the distance, nestled in a shallow valley. He watched it a moment, but it was still too far away to see any details.

“Hey, Hoskins! Hold up a minute!”

The driver brought the stage to a halt and looked enquiringly at Johnny.

“Just keep the stage nice and slow. I’m gonna ride into town and check it out. I’ll meet you when you get there.”

At the driver’s nod, Johnny spun Barranca around and loped down the hill.

Chapter 8

Johnny sat in the doctor’s office, waiting for word on Wheeler’s condition. The office was the first building he’d come to when he entered the town, and after he’d checked to make sure the doctor was in, he’d been able to stop the stage before it could be seen from the rest of the town. For once it seemed like luck was running his way. He and the gambler had carried Wheeler into the office, then the stage had disappeared around the corner to let out the remaining passengers. He had sworn them all to secrecy, stressing how important it was that no one know the Marshal was in town, but he wasn’t totally sure they’d comply. The lady and her husband hadn’t seem overly bright, or cooperative, for that matter.

He still wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He couldn’t even make a plan until he knew more about what was going on, and that was making him nervous. It wasn’t in his nature to just sit around waiting for something to happen. That wasn’t how he’d won his reputation. He always struck first, and struck hard. Usually that was enough to end things right there. That, and his name. More often than not, when his opponents learned just who it was that they were fighting, they’d suddenly decide that whatever they were fighting for wasn’t that important, after all.

He snorted. He’d ridden all this way to try and outrun his name, and now he wished that SOMEONE besides the Marshal knew just who it was that they were dealing with. Of course, it would be nice to know who he was dealing with, too. He hoped that Wheeler would be on his feet soon, and Johnny wouldn’t have to worry about it, but in his heart, he knew he’d stay and help the man no matter what. It just wasn’t in him to run.

The door slammed open and Johnny jumped to his feet, pistol in hand. The stage driver froze and returned Johnny’s stare.

“Well, either shoot me or put that blamed thing away!”

The old man nodded as Johnny holstered his Colt. “How is he?”

Johnny shrugged. “Don’t rightly know. Doctor Huffington is in with him now, Mr. Hoskins.”

Hoskins came over and sat next to Johnny. “You can call me Jelly.”

“Jelly?” Johnny asked, smiling.

The man stuck out his chin. “Jelly! I come over cause I thought ya might need some help.”

Johnny looked at him quizzically. “Don’t you have a stage to drive?”

“Nope. Quit. Tired of always having ta cart around a bunch of complaining idiots. Now do ya need help or not?”

Johnny sighed. “I really don’t know.”

Jelly nodded. “Figured as much. But I heard what the Marshal said. There’s a bunch more of them varmints out there and with Marshal Wheeler laid up, it’s only you ta fight ‘em. I figure those ain’t very good odds.”

Johnny smiled at the old man. “I’ve had worse.”

Jelly nodded. “I’ll just bet you have. But I figure I can still make the odds a little bit better. I’m pretty handy with a rifle.”

“I’m sure you are. Still could be that you’re signing up on the wrong side.”

The whiskered chin stuck out, a sign that Johnny had already learned meant the old man was ready for a fight. “There is only one side; that’s the right side, and it looks like you’re on it. That means I am, too. Besides, I owe it to Ben.”

“Ben?”

Jelly nodded. “He was my guard. The man those no account hombres shot. We’d been together a good while, and besides, he was a friend. They shot him down in cold blood.”

“Sorry, Jelly,” Johnny acknowledged quietly. “We’ll make sure they’ll pay.”

“Durn tootin’ we will.”

The door to the back opened and the portly doctor walked out, wiping his hands.

“Gentlemen, it looks as if your friend should be just fine.”

Johnny let out a breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding. “He’ll be up and about soon?” he asked hopefully.

The doctor shook his head. “Didn’t say that. It’s going to take some time to get rid of the infection and for him to heal up. There was a lot of damage, and it’ll take a while for him to get back on his feet.”

Johnny dropped his head. “I reckon the infection and damage were my fault. Had to dig around pretty good looking for all of the fragments. Not even sure I got them all.” He glanced up at the doctor with a questioning look.

The doctor nodded. “You got them all. You also did a darn good job getting them out. Couldn’t have done better myself, so quit beating yourself up. You saved his life.”

Johnny nodded reluctantly. “Can he stay here?”

“Of course. He shouldn’t be moved for a while yet.”

Johnny hesitated, studying the doctor, then came to a decision. “Doc, it’s real important nobody knows he’s here, especially the sheriff.”

The doctor’s expression became wary. “I can’t guarantee that. Sheriff Sommers and I are friends, and he stops by here regularly to check on me. He’ll know if I’m looking after someone, and he’ll want to know why.”

Johnny stared at the man, figuring his luck had just changed. He wondered if the doctor was telling the truth, or just trying to protect himself. “We’re not outlaws,” he said softly.

The wary look didn’t change. “Most men who come in with gunshot wounds are usually outlaws or lawmen, and I don’t see any badges.”

Johnny glanced at Jelly before reaching into his pocket and pulling out his badge. “Marshal Wheeler’s badge is in his pants pocket.”

The doctor’s eyes widened. “You’re marshals?”

Johnny grinned ruefully. “He’s a marshal. I’m an unwilling helper.”

Jelly rounded on him. “You’re a properly sworn deputy! Federal Marshal Wheeler swore you in himself, and you’re sworn to uphold the law, Johnny Madrid!”

“Guess I’ve been told,” Johnny admitted sheepishly. “Guess you heard, my names Madrid,” he said, then nodded toward the man next to him. “And this here is Jelly Hoskins.”

Jelly stuck his hand out toward the doctor. “Pleased ta meetcha.”

The doctor shook hands with both men, then looked knowingly at Johnny. “Marshal Wheeler is the one Sheriff Sommers said had threatened him,” Doctor Huffington accused.

Johnny nodded. “He told me. He also said that he thought Sommers was working with that bunch of outlaws.”

“That’s preposterous! Vic Sommers would no more back up that bunch of thieves and murderers that I would!”

Johnny just stared at the doctor, until finally Huffington dropped his head. “He’s weak,” the doctor explained. “He’s about the most honest man I know, but he’s in the wrong profession. He just doesn’t have the courage to face those men down. He knows he’s not particularly good with a gun, and when those monsters threatened his wife…” Huffington broke off with a sigh.

Johnny nodded. The sheriff being afraid was a whole lot easier to deal with than having the man working against him. “You’re sure about that? There’s no way you could be mistaken?”

Huffington shook his head vehemently. “There’s no way Vic Sommers would take sides with that bunch!”

When Johnny still looked dubious, the doctor continued. “They killed his little boy.”

Johnny’s eyes shut. “How?”

Doctor Sommers shrugged. “They said it was an accident. They said a bullet ricoched, but it was right after Vic had tried to get them to leave town. They told him to make sure his wife stayed away, because they’d hate to have a ricochet hit her, too.”

“Why didn’t he tell Marshal Wheeler about that?” Johnny asked softly.

“They saw the Marshal come into town. Mrs. Huffington happened to be in town shopping that day. A couple of those animals went over and went into the store with her. They brought her out and…well let’s just say they weren’t gentlemen, and they made sure Vic saw them.”

Johnny nodded slowly. To heck with waiting for the Marshal, this bunch didn’t deserve prison. He figured it would be a pleasure to introduce them to Johnny Madrid. He brought his head up and stared at the doctor.

“Are any of that bunch in town, now?”

The doctor took a step back when Johnny raised his head. He didn’t know exactly who this man was, but he knew he was dangerous. He shook his head cautiously. “I don’t know.”

Johnny thought for a moment, then came to a decision. “Can you get the sheriff over here without drawing any attention?”

“I think I can do that.”

Johnny nodded. “Don’t tell him anything about us, and especially about Wheeler. Just make up some innocent excuse. I don’t want him acting nervous if any of those men are around.” And, Johnny thought, I want to see his face myself, and make up my own mind about his motives before he told him anything. He believed the doctor, but he knew that friendship could sometimes blind people to the truth.

“All right,” Huffington agreed. “I’ll go get him. Don’t worry, I’ll tell him I want to check him out. Those outlaws roughed him up pretty good a few days ago.”

Johnny nodded. “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that bunch too much longer.”

“I hope not, Marshal Madrid. No one in this territory is safe with Pardee’s bunch around.”

Chapter 9

Johnny froze. He felt like he must be dreaming. “Pardee?” he asked incredulously.

Doctor Huffington nodded. “That’s the name of the man in charge of those outlaws.” He looked closely at Johnny. “Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Johnny shook his head, trying to make sense of things. “Maybe I have,” he said quietly.

“Do you know this Pardee?” Jelly asked.

Johnny snorted. “Oh, yes. I know him. He’s a gunfighter, and he’s pretty good. I just thought,” he hesitated, trying to make sense of things. After another moment, he shook his head. “NO! I KNOW old Day’s dead!

“Day? That was the Pardee you knew?”

At Johnny’s nod, the doctor continued. “This Pardee’s name is Dan.”

“DAN?” This was getting stranger and stranger. Johnny searched his memory, and then remembered a conversation he’d had with Day before Johnny had even gone to Lancer. Day had mentioned that he needed reinforcements and was waiting for his brother. He had told Johnny his brother would be there in about a month, so Johnny figured he must have been coming from some distance. It certainly could have been from Montana, although Day hadn’t said.

Yeah, it fit, he thought glumly. Besides, the name just wasn’t that common. This Dan had to be a relative, and was probably his brother. Johnny snorted. Just his luck.

He wondered if Dan knew his brother was dead, then figured he must know if he had never arrived to help Day. But how could he have known, and who had told him? He remembered another man who had been with Day; a man by the name of Porter…Jake Porter.

Johnny had never liked Porter. He always thought the man was nothing but a bullying coward, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. And a long time ago, when Johnny had run with that bunch before their brutality had made him move on, Jake had had a few too many drinks and bragged that he and Day were cousins. Johnny had never verified it with Day, but he doubted Porter would lie about something like that. It would have been an almost sure fire way to get on Pardee’s bad side, something no sane man would ever do.

Day had always seemed close to Jake, so it could be true. Porter had also stood by Day during that last fight, when most of Pardee’s men had scattered and run. Johnny was positive he had put a bullet in Jake, but he was pretty sure the man had survived. He certainly could have sent word to Day’s brother.

After trying to figure it out for several moments, he realized it didn’t really matter what had happened. It didn’t matter who this Dan was or what he knew. All that mattered was the fact that Johnny was going to stop him, one way or the other.

Johnny shook his head. He couldn’t believe he’d come all this way only to run into another Pardee and another reason to not hang up his gun. Fate sure must enjoy laughing at him.

Johnny finally looked over at Hoskins. “Well, it doesn’t make any difference.. No matter WHO this guy is, I’m going to take care of him.”

Jelly nodded. “Like I said, I’ll help ya.” He bit his bottom lip worriedly. “You said he was a gunfighter,” Jelly observed worriedly.

Johnny shrugged. “Maybe. His brother sure was, but I KNOW I am,” Johnny replied coldly. “At least I was, and I think I can return to the game long enough to handle that bunch.”

Jelly nodded. “Just don’t forget you’re also a deputy Federal Marshal.”

Johnny sighed in frustration. “Yeah, that could complicate things.” He turned toward the doctor. “Go see if you can get your friend over here. I need to talk to him before I can come up with a plan, and remember, don’t tell him anything.”

Huffington grabbed his hat, and with a last look back at Johnny, walked out the door. After the doctor left, Jelly studied the young man. “You really a gunfighter?”

Johnny nodded, not wanting to discuss it.

“What’re you doin way up here in the middle of nowhere? Doesn’t seem like there’d be much work up this way.”

“I was TRYING to quit,” Johnny ground out.

“Were ya any good? Marshll Wheeler seemed to think you was.”

Johnny slowly turned his head and glared at his new friend. “Do you want to find out?”

Jelly held the glare for a moment, then shrugged. “Don’t have ta get so prickly. Just askin’, is all. Seems like those fellas just might skedaddle if they thought they had a real fight on their hands. They don’t strike me as a very brave bunch.”

Johnny shook his head. That bunch might not be very brave, but it seemed like Hoskins was. Either that or Johnny was losing his touch. Most men wilted under Madrid’s stare. If he got the same reaction from that bunch of outlaws, he was in big trouble.

Johnny sighed. “A couple of them might leave, but most of them wouldn’t. Besides, nobody knows me up here, and I doubt if anybody would take my word for it.” Johnny smiled to himself, thinking about a gunfighter backing down just because he said he could take them. Besides, he thought as his smile faded, for all he knew, he couldn’t take them. He hadn’t used his gun much since he’d left Lancer, and he doubted this bunch would just give themselves up because they saw a badge, either. He’d have to come up with some sort of plan instead of taking them all on at once.

Whatever he came up with, he’d have to figure that it would just be him working alone. Unless that bunch was polite enough to wait for a while, the Marshal certainly wasn’t going to be in any shape to help him. The sheriff was useless if he was that afraid and if he was protecting his wife, and Jelly…

Johnny shook his head. Jelly meant well, and he thought he could trust the man, but even if Hoskins could use that rifle, he wasn’t exactly a spring chicken. Besides, even if he had held his own against Madrid’s glare, he still might bolt and run if things got serious. No, it looked like he was on his own for this one.

The door opened and Johnny looked up at the man entering with the doctor. He could tell just by looking at him that the man shouldn’t be a lawman. He was small of stature and had scraggly red hair surrounding a face that just begged to be hit, with thick glasses magnifying watery blue eyes. His shoulders were hunched and he looked like he just might faint if anyone even yelled at him. Johnny wondered how in the world he had gotten the job of sheriff in the first place.

The sheriff looked at him suspiciously. “Just who are you? The Doc said you wanted to see me.”

Johnny held the man’s gaze. “The names Madrid. Johnny Madrid.” At the blank look on the man’s face, a Johnny broke into a small grin. His name hadn’t failed to get a reaction since he was about fourteen, and now it hadn’t gotten a response three times in a row. Between the doctor, the sheriff and Jelly, he was seriously beginning to doubt himself.

“I need to talk to you about that bunch that’s been causing trouble.”

Johnny watched as the man’s face turned even whiter, if that was possible.

“What about them?” the man asked, a slight break in his voice.

“I want to know why you haven’t done anything to stop them!”

“Mr. Madrid,” the doctor broke in, “I explained…”

“I wasn’t askin’ you,” Johnny snapped, then turned back to the sheriff. “Well?”

“That’s none of your business,” the man blustered.

Johnny stepped closer to the man. “I think it is. I have a friend in there that’s been shot, and the snakes that did it are still runnin’ around loose. Now what’re you gonna do about it?”

“I’ll do what I can,” the man protested.

“And what is that?” Johnny snarled.

The sheriff drew himself up. “Just what gives you the right to question me? I’m the sheriff in this town, and I’ll decide how to handle things.”

“Not anymore,” Johnny said quietly as he reached in his pocket and pulled out his badge.

The sheriff’s eyes got big as he stared back at Johnny, then without warning, his face crumpled. “There was nothing I could do,” he admitted miserably.

“And why is that?” Johnny pressed relentlessly.

The man looked around hopelessly before catching the eye of the doctor, who nodded Imperceptibly. The sheriff dropped his head. “If I do anything to stop them, they’re going to kill my wife,” he explained plaintively.

“What about helping them? Did you have to do that, too?”

“I didn’t help them!” the man protested.

“So you just sat around and ignored them while they killed other people, as long as you and your wife were okay!”

The sheriff’s head came up. “They killed my boy!”

Johnny ducked his head. “I’m sorry. But that’s even more reason to stop them.”

“I couldn’t!”

Johnny snorted. “You mean you were too scared. You knew they were going to kill more people and that was all right with you, as long as they left you and your wife alone.”

The sheriff drew himself up. “NO!” It wasn’t all right!” He buried his head in his hands. “What could I do?” he asked plaintively.

“You know they killed Bill, the stagecoach guard,” Johnny continued relentlessly.

The sheriff moaned. “I’m sorry.”

“Did you know about the plot to kill Marshal Wheeler?”

The man blanched once more. “They killed the Marshal?” he asked, stunned. “Now what am I going to do?” he asked hopelessly.

Johnny had been studying the man’s reactions and relaxed slightly. He knew the man wasn’t acting; he was scared to death. “Nothing. You’re going to leave it up to me. Just stay out of my way. Wheeler’s not dead, just wounded. The hard cases that did it are dead, no thanks to you, but there’s more of them out there. I’m either going to bring them in or kill them, and at this point I really don’t care which.”

The sheriff looked relieved. “You don’t need my help?” he asked hopefully.

Johnny finally got the reaction he was looking for when he glared at the man. “What I need is for you,” he looked around the room, “all of you, to keep your mouths shut and go along with whatever I do, or you’ll wish you just had Pardee to worry about, understand?”

Chapter 10

Johnny sat in the darkened room, staring out the window. The saloon was across the street and down about half of a block, so he had a good view of all the comings and goings. So far, no one had given him any cause for concern. Most of the patrons of the saloon were miners, with a couple of cowboys thrown in, and only a few men wore sidearms. The ones who did were obviously not professionals. Wherever Pardee and his bunch were, it wasn’t here.

He glanced over at the man lying in the bed. They had moved Wheeler here to the hotel early yesterday, but the trip had worn him out and his fever had returned that evening. Johnny and the Doc had stayed up all night with him. Around daylight the Marshal’s fever had finally broken, but the man had remained unconscious and the doctor had finally left on his rounds. Jelly had sat with him the rest of the day while Johnny got some rest.

Doctor Huffington had returned in the late afternoon in time to give the then semi- conscious Marshal a much needed shot of morphine. Since then Johnny had been sitting with him, and allowed the doctor to get some sleep before he had been called out on an emergency late this evening.

Johnny had gotten another room at the hotel so he and Hoskins could sleep while the other man stood watch. He had told the old man that he needed to get some rest so he could take turns sitting with Wheeler later tonight, and now Hoskins was over there snoring loud enough to wake the dead. He had sure helped watch over the Marshal, but Johnny still wasn’t sure just how much help the old man would be if they got in a real fix.

At least Jelly was still hanging around and doing what he could to help. The sheriff had taken off after Johnny’s talk and hadn’t been seen since. Johnny snorted. That certainly wasn’t surprising, the man was as yellow as they came. But even though he was a coward, Johnny hoped he was still nearby, because he needed him for the plan that was starting to come together in his mind. At least the man might be talked into doing something useful.

As he went over the plan again, his attention was drawn to the saloon as a man came rolling out the door, probably thrown by the man following him into the street. The two men were both obviously drunk and eager to fight, but neither one was steady enough on their feet to do much damage.

“Anything exciting happening?”

Johnny’s head swung back toward the bed at the quiet words. “Glad to see you’re awake,” Johnny exclaimed as he picked up a glass of water from the bedside table and offered it to the lawman.

“Thanks,” Wheeler sighed. “I feel like I’ve been run over by a stagecoach.”

“I know the feeling,” Johnny acknowledged.

Wheeler nodded once. “I bet you do.” He shut his eyes for several moments before forcing them open once more. “Any trouble?”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of that bunch. And just so you know, they killed the sheriff’s son and were threatening his wife. I don’t think he’s in cahoots with them, but he’s about as useless as they come.”

Wheeler nodded wearily. “I’ll take your word on it.”

Johnny reached over and felt the man’s head. “I think your fever’s about gone, but you still need to rest. Hoskins or I will be here keeping watch, so get some sleep. Maybe tomorrow I can talk to you about a few ideas I had about corralling that bunch.”

Wheeler nodded. “Sounds like a plan. Thanks.”

“No problem,” Johnny replied as the Marshal’s eyes slid shut once more.

Johnny yawned and stretched, then sank lower into his chair. His own eyes were just slipping shut when the sound of hoof beats and raucous laughter jolted him fully awake. He leaned forward and looked out the window in time to see a half dozen men pull their horses to a stop a few doors down from the hotel. They dismounted, and two of them pulled rifles out of their scabbards as they all headed across the street to the saloon.

One of the drunken men who had been thrown from the bar earlier had the misfortune to still be sitting on the sidewalk. Three of the men who had just arrived went over and picked him up, then tossed him face down into a nearby horse trough. When he came up sputtering, another man, who had his back to Johnny, lifted his foot and stepped down on the victim’s head. While the rest of the bunch laughed uproariously, the man calmly took out a match and lit a cigarette as the drowning man struggled to lift his head above water.

Johnny rose out of his chair and pulled his gun from its holster. He hesitated a moment because he didn’t really want to start something now. After several seconds, he cocked his gun, but before he had a chance to fire, the bandit released his victim and turned around to say something to the man behind him. Johnny stared at the first man in shock. There was no doubt in his mind that this man was Day’s brother. In fact, they could have been twins. As the drunk finally clawed his way out of the trough, his tormentor gave him one last kick, then continued on into the saloon. Johnny slowly reholstered his gun and sank back into his chair.

Vic Sommers watched the goings on at the saloon from the safety of his office. He knew he should go over and break it up, but he just couldn’t. He tried to tell himself that the reason he couldn’t was the fear of something happening to his wife, but in his heart, he knew that wasn’t it. He was a coward, pure and simple, and he had come to terms with that long ago. The thought of firing a gun in anger nauseated him, and standing up to men like Pardee gave him the cold sweats. Even the thought of blood made him feel queasy inside. He didn’t understand how men like Marshal Wheeler and Marshal Madrid could live the way they did.

Personally, he wanted to be an accountant. He was good with numbers and enjoyed seeing figures line up and everything coming out even. He had always made good marks in school, but his father wasn’t impressed. His father was never impressed with him. He always went on about how real men were supposed to be tough. He said books and schooling were for sissies, and a real man earned his living with his hands or took what he wanted with his fists. His father had always been a big man with his fists, and Vic still felt them occasionally, even though he was an adult. And, he was ashamed to admit, his father still ran his life. His father had insisted he take this job and for once was accepting of his son. Vic had even heard him bragging on him once, and always called him “my son, the SHERIFF.”

Vic tried his best to do a good job and wished he could be a good sheriff, but it just wasn’t in him. What he wished even more was that he had the courage to stand up to his father. Just once he’d like to tell his father off and do what HE wanted instead if being his father’s puppet. If he’d had the guts to do that before and had been an accountant, his son wouldn’t have died … he swallowed hard and made his thoughts steer away from that line of thinking. Maybe nothing would have changed, but it sure felt like it would have.

What made everything worse was that his wife was completely understanding. She always stood behind him, no matter what. He shook his head sadly. Just once he’d like to make her proud.

Jelly lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. He knew he should try to get back to sleep, but his thoughts kept chasing each other around like squirrels after nuts. He still wasn’t sure why he’d up and quit his job. He knew part of it was because of Bill; they’d travelled many a mile together and they’d become almost as close as brothers. He reached up and wiped away a tear with his arm. It just wasn’t right, him getting shot down like that.

There was a moment right after it happened when Jelly thought about going for his own rifle, but common sense had won out and he’d carefully kept his hands in sight of the bandits as he’d slowly climbed down off of the stage. Once he was down and had gotten a good look at the bunch of outlaws, he’d realized that he probably should have tried going for his rifle after all. Something about those men had made the hair stand up on the back of his neck, and when he’d been standing there he’d figured he’d be lucky to get out of that one alive.

When Madrid had first ridden up to that stage, Jelly was sure the man was a simpleton. The open smile and bright eyes sure didn’t make him look dangerous. Jelly had felt sorry for him, because he knew that bunch of bandits was going to have that young man for lunch. Several moments later, all hell had broken loose, and it was Madrid who had been left standing. The way he dropped those men sure changed Jelly’s first impression, and he could have sworn the man’s eyes had changed from bright blue to almost black right before he had taken those shots. He was surely fast, so he guessed the man really was a gunfighter. Jelly was still worried, though. No matter how fast Madrid was and even with him helping, the odds against them were still lousy.

Doctor Huffington pulled his buggy up in front of the livery and slowly climbed down. He was exhausted and hoped there wouldn’t be any more emergencies today. He really needed to get some sleep. He’d just quickly check on the Marshal and then turn in. As he walked across the street to his office, a burst of drunken laughter drew his attention to the saloon. He noticed the horses tied up in front and knew that Pardee’s bunch was back.

He sure hoped Marshal Madrid could handle that bunch of outlaws. He knew the man wasn’t going to get much help. Marshal Wheeler was going to be laid up for some time yet, and sheriff Sommers was worse than useless. It was hard for him to admit that; the man was a friend. But the truth was the truth, and Sommers just had no business trying to be a lawman. That old guy, Hoskins, said he would back Madrid, but the doctor didn’t think he would be able to do much more than get himself killed against that bunch. They played mean, and they sure didn’t play fair.

He shook his head sadly. He was afraid that all Madrid and Hoskins would be able to do was to stir up a hornet’s nest and get themselves killed, leaving the people of Silver Bow to suffer Pardee’s wrath. He stood there with his head down, thinking. His first loyalty was to the people in this town, and he would do all he could to keep them safe. There must be some way to prevent the bloodbath that was sure to come.

Chapter 11

Doctor Huffington walked into the saloon and sat down near the bar. He leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes. He was still tired from the last few days and needed a good night’s sleep, but he doubted he would get it. Either way, he wanted to get something to eat before he went back to his office.

“You okay?” the bartender asked.

The doctor slowly nodded his head. “Just a few rough nights, that’s all.”

“Who’s sick?”

Huffington looked around furtively before answering. “Remember that Marshal who was here a week or so ago?”

“Yeah, but I thought he left,” the bartender said.

“He did. He went out on the stage and then the stage got robbed. They killed old Bill and shot the Marshal.”

“Do they know who did it?”

The doctor snorted. “The Marshal does, and that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?”

“Is he going to be okay?”

The doctor shrugged. “Probably, but he’s still pretty weak. I just gave him some morphine to put him to sleep for a while, but he might be awake later tonight. Do you think you could send some broth over to the hotel about nine or so just in case? Room 204?

The bartender nodded. “Be glad to. Who’s watching him now? Do they want something to eat, too?”

The doctor shook his head. “No one’s up there with him right now. That’s why I can’t stay long, I don’t like leaving him by himself.” The doctor thought for a moment, then smiled. “As long as I’m taking a break though, I might as well eat. What do you have that’s good? I’ll have some supper and maybe have a drink or two and then I can go back. He won’t be awake anyway.”

The bartender nodded. “I’ll fry you up a steak. Just take a minute.” He turned and went into the back room and the doctor leaned back and shut his eyes. Neither one saw two men from a nearby table stand up and walk out.

The men walked hurriedly over to their horses and jumped on, sending the animals into a run as they tore out of town.

A half mile out of town, Dan Pardee sat with a bottle of tequila in a rundown old farmhouse. It wasn’t very comfortable, but he sure wasn’t planning on staying there long. Besides, it suited his needs for now. It was close to town, and the land was cleared all the way around so no one could sneak up on him. Plus it had a well-stocked larder in case they needed it. When he had first spotted it, there had been a miner living in it, but Pardee and his men had quickly convinced the old timer to move on. The man had been kind enough to leave all of his supplies, too. Pardee chuckled as he remembered the man’s face when he’d been told to leave everything and go.

“But it’s all I have!” he’d protested.

Pardee had put his gun up to the man’s head. “Well,” he drawled. “Not everything.”

After a second, the man had swallowed convulsively and nodded his head. “I guess I’ll be on my way.”

“That sounds like a great idea, ”Pardee had replied sarcastically, then chuckled as the man had jumped on his mule and taken off. Dan had intended to shoot the animal out from under him for fun, but one of his men had approached him just then and by the time he’d answered the man’s question, the miner had disappeared. He’d thought about going after him, but it had started to rain, so Dan had abandoned the idea.

Now he sat at the table, in a bad enough mood that all of his men were keeping their distance. He had given four of his men the task of stopping the stagecoach that Marshal Wheeler was traveling on and killing the lawman. Instead, the stagecoach had come back into town two days later with reports of a robbery. He’d heard the guard was dead, but there hadn’t been any mention of the Marshal, and not even any word about the robbers. The driver had been scared enough to quit, and the other passengers had caught another stage out the next morning. He had been expecting his men to ride in anytime, but yesterday he had taken a ride out along the stage route and found the remains of them, sprawled in a pile on the side of the road and left for the vultures.

There had been another grave there marked with a cross and he’d had Teel and Hank dig it up, hoping it was Wheeler. He’d been disappointed to find out it was the body of an old man. Since then, he’d been sitting trying to figure out just what had happened to the Marshal and who had killed his men. He figured if he could get rid of Wheeler once and for all, there wasn’t anybody who could stop him. He could take over this whole valley and live like a king.

Now there was another setback. He was furious that he had lost those men. They had been faithful, or at least frightened enough of him that he knew they’d never turn on him. He guessed he’d have to replace them eventually. He only had five men left, and that wasn’t enough to keep control of this town, let alone the whole valley.

A moment later he bolted up out of the chair and grabbed his gun when he heard riders coming in at a run. He went to the door as it burst open and two of his men flew into the room.

“He’s in town!” one of the men shouted.

“Who?” Dan asked, annoyed.

“The Marshal! We overheard the Doc tell the barkeep. He said that Wheeler had been hurt and was over at the hotel. The Doc said he’d given him something to knock him out and he was all alone over there.”

“For how long?” Dan demanded, grabbing his hat and jamming it onto his head as he strode to the door.

“Don’t know. The Doc said he was going to get something to eat and then go back.”

“Are the rest of the men still in town?”

The man hesitated. “Casey and Hank are still in the saloon. I think Teel’s over at the blacksmith just outside of town. One of his horse’s shoes was loose.”

“Parks, come with me. Rance, go get Teel and meet me in town,” Dan snarled as both men bolted toward the door. “We’re going to end this today!”

Vic Sommers sat behind his desk, fingering the wanted posters that were stacked up there, but not really seeing them. A thin sheen of sweat was glistening on his face as he worked up enough courage to do what needed to be done to save his self-respect. He thought of his wife, waiting patiently at home, and he shakily stood up. He knew he could walk out that door, pick up his wife and leave. They could be well on their way to a new life by tomorrow afternoon and they could put this nightmare and his father behind them. Then his thoughts turned toward his son. Poor, doomed Toby. He had been such a sweet child and he’d been senselessly murdered. No matter what those men had said, he knew it was murder, pure and simple. No, he had to be brave for Toby, if for no other reason. He would still leave, but he had to do this first. He resolutely headed for the door, making sure his sheriff’s badge was on straight.

He stepped out onto the boardwalk and stared over at the saloon, his resolve running out of him like water out of a sieve. A small boy ran by, and he desperately reached out and grabbed his arm.

The boy looked at him quizzically and Vic let go of his arm. “I need you to take a note over to some men in the saloon. Can you do that?”

“My Pa said I’d get in trouble if I went in there.”

Vic smiled. “I’m the sheriff, and I promise you won’t get in trouble. There are two men inside, and one is wearing a green shirt. Just hand him this note, then hightail it out of there as fast as you can, understand?”

At the boy’s nod, the sheriff continued. “And don’t get within grabbing distance of them. In fact, you can even toss the note on the table if you need to. Just make sure they get it, okay? Here’s a nickel. Now go!”

The boy took off and Vic watched him until he disappeared into the saloon, then he slowly went back into his office to wait.

The boy cautiously entered the saloon, half afraid and half feeling very grown up. The men he was supposed to give the note to were sitting in the far corner, and not paying any attention to him whatsoever. He quickly walked towards them just as the bartender looked up.

“Hey! Get out of here, what’s the matter with you!”

The boy hesitated, then ran over to the two men. He dropped the note on the table, then blindly bolted out the door, followed by rough laughter.

The man in the green shirt picked up the note, and after studying it for several seconds, handed it to his partner. “Here, you read it, Hank.”

The other man took it, then called out to the bartender. “You read?”

“Enough to get by.”

“Then get over here and read this!”

The bartender slowly walked over and picked up the piece of paper. He studied it, then looked at the two men.

“Well?”

The bartender licked his lips nervously. “It says….” He hesitated and looked again at the men.

One of them reached down and drew out his gun then pointed it at the nervous bartender.

“It’s from the sheriff. He says he’s not going to back down any more, and if you don’t want a whole lot of trouble, to come over to the jail and give yourselves up.”

Both men’s mouths dropped open in disbelief. They had spent several days making fun of the cowardly sheriff, who had been too frightened to even open his mouth. The disbelief quickly turned to anger.

“I think it’s time to go teach the sheriff a lesson,” Casey fumed.

“Maybe we should wait for Dan,” Hank suggested.

“What for?” So he can make fun of us for being afraid to handle it ourselves? Besides, I want to have some fun.”

Hank nodded as he stood up and cracked his knuckles. “You’re right. We need to go teach that lily livered sheriff a lesson he’ll never forget.”

Chapter 12

Dan pulled his horse to a stop in front of the saloon and quickly stepped down. He glanced around but didn’t see any of his men, so he went inside, followed by Parks. He looked around in frustration until his eyes settled on the doctor, fast asleep in his chair. A smile appeared on Dan’s face; if they hurried, they still had time. He walked out of the saloon, followed faithfully by Parks. He didn’t want to take care of the Marshal himself, but he would if he had to. Just as he crossed the street, however, Teel and Rance rode up.

“Your horse okay?” Dan asked Teel sarcastically.

Teel nodded cautiously.

“Well, both of you get down.” Pardee looked around furtively and lowered his voice. “I have a job for you, and it has to be done now.”

Hank and Casey checked their guns, then after taking a quick look around, nonchalantly stepped into the sheriff’s office. A loud click by Hank’s ear stopped him in his tracks, and a second later, Casey also froze when he felt the business end of a rifle touch his head.

“All right, put your hands up,” Johnny said quietly, still keeping his revolver next to Hank’s head. “And believe me, you don’t want to make any sudden moves. This thing has a hair trigger, and I’d sure hate for it to go off. It’d be awful messy.”

Both men slowly raised their hands, and Johnny backed up a step before motioning them toward the cells. Sheriff Sommers also lowered his rifle and stepped back.

When they got close to the cells, Johnny stopped them. “All right, take off your boots and hats.”

The men glared at him, but did as they were told.

“Now turn around and put your hands behind your backs.” He looked over at the sheriff. “Go ahead and tie ‘em up.”

Vic stepped up and cuffed both of them, then gagged them tightly before pushing them into separate cells. He turned around and grinned triumphantly at Johnny. “We did it!” he exclaimed delightedly.

Johnny chuckled. “Yeah, and they didn’t even find out your gun wasn’t loaded.”

Both men’s eyes bugged out as they glared at Johnny.

“Don’t worry,” he said, grinning at the two men. “Mine sure as heck was.” He looked at them thoughtfully for a moment. “By the way, you’re both under arrest for murder, robbery, assault, and anything else I can think of. Now you might as well sit down and get comfortable. We’re gonna keep you tied up until everyone’s taken care of. We don’t want you warning Pardee. Sheriff Sommers here is going to keep an eye on you till I get back.”

Johnny turned and looked at Sommers. “Just stay here in the front, no matter what you hear. Whatever you do, don’t go near the cells, even if you think they’re dying. Wouldn’t be much of a loss, anyway. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Okay?”

Sommers pulled himself up proudly. “Don’t worry, Marshal, I’ll be careful.”

“I’m sure you will,” Johnny said, grinning. He took one last look at the two prisoners, then slipped out the back door.

Rance and Teel walked nonchalantly down the boardwalk before turning quickly into the alley next to the hotel. They walked around to the back and after a brief look around, cautiously climbed the outside stairs.

Rance pulled open the door and peaked inside before motioning Teel forward. “We’re in luck. It’s all clear.”

Both men drew knives from their belts before starting down the darkened corridor. They could hear voices coming from downstairs, but there wasn’t anyone in the gloomy hallway. When they reached room 204, they stood for a moment outside the room, listening.

Teel looked at Rance and shrugged. “Don’t hear nothin’.”

The men stood there another moment before cautiously opening the door and peering in. The drapes were drawn tightly over the windows, and the small lamp on the bedside had been turned down low enough that only vague shadows could be seen. A man shaped mound was covered with a blanket on the bed.

“Looks like he’s still asleep,” Rance whispered.

Both men silently approached the still figure in the bed, moving to opposite sides. Teel nodded at Rance, and both men viciously stabbed the form with their knives. They both stabbed several times before stopping in confusion. Teel jerked back the covers, exposing several mangled pillows and feathers scattered all over the bed.

The sound of two rifle bolts being levered made them jump.

“Don’t make one move,” Marshal Wheeler ordered as he stepped forward, holding his rifle on Teel. “Now drop those knives.”

The two men hesitated, figuring their chances.

“NOW!” Wheeler ordered.

“You heard the Marshal,” Jelly chimed in as he stepped into the light. “And you’d better do as he says, because my trigger finger is gettin’ mighty itchy.”

The two outlaws sullenly dropped their weapons and put their hands in the air.

“Mr Hoskins, if you’d do the honors,” the Marshal suggested.

“Be glad to. Be gladder if they’d try somethin’ so I could shoot em down like their friends did to poor Bill,” he said as he glared at the men. “Well,” he said impatiently. “You heard the Marshal, put your hands behind your back so I can tie you up.”

Jelly relieved the men of their weapons and boots while Wheeler covered him. After Jelly finished tying and gagging the two men, they made them sit back to back, then Jelly ran a rope around both of them. Jelly stood up and snickered. “Trussed up just like a couple of Christmas turkeys, and about as smart. Now you just sit here and relax till we can get you over to the jail with your friends.”

Wheeler collapsed into a chair with a groan, and Jelly went over to him. “You all right?”

The Marshal nodded. “Just need to rest a minute. Took more out of me than I thought it would.” He took several deep breaths, then reached for the bottle of laudanum on the dresser. He took several swallows, then closed his eyes as he waited for the pain killer to work. “ I hope everything else is running as smoothly as this did.”

Jelly nodded. “No reason it shouldn’t be. Besides, I haven’t heard any gunshots.”

“Madrid sure came up with a good plan. He cut them out and separated them just like wolves cut out a steer from a herd.”

“Yep. I figure he’s had some experience with stuff like that.”

Wheeler nodded solemnly. “He has. I just hope Pardee doesn’t give him any trouble.”

“I could go down and back him up,” Jelly offered.

“No. Madrid was real serious when he told us he’d handle it and for us to stay up here.”

“It’ll still be two against one,” Jelly argued as he studied the Marshal. “You don’t seem real concerned about that.”

“Mr. Hoskins, I saw Madrid down in Nogales a few years ago. He took down two of the best gunfighters around, then turned and shot one of their friends who was on top of a nearby building. None of them got off a shot, so no, I’m not too concerned.”

“But he wasn’t tryin’ ta bring those men in alive.”

Wheeler shrugged and smiled. “I doubt if he’ll try too hard this time.”

Jelly’s eyes widened. “And that’s all right with you?”

“The first thing we’re taught, is that to be a good Marshal we have to stay alive. Madrid isn’t a murderer; he’ll try to bring them in, but I doubt if Pardee will give him that option. If he won’t give himself up, Johnny will have every right to shoot him, don’t you agree?”

Jelly nodded. “Personally, I think shootin’s too good for that varmint, but I’ll be happy just knowin’ he can’t hurt anyone anymore.”

“Then you and I are in total agreement,” Wheeler said seriously. “Now why don’t you go to the window and let our friend know everything’s all right up here.”

Pardee sat in the saloon waiting for his men to come back. He was thinking that he might just take over the hotel and use it for his base of operations. It was sure better than that ramshackle old farmhouse he’d been using. Besides, it was time for him to move up in the world. With the Marshal out of the way, he’d be free to do whatever he wanted, and no one would dare to get in his way. This valley would be his own personal kingdom.

He absent mindedly took a sip of whiskey as he imagined the life that he’d be able to lead. He’d finally be somebody important, with more money than he would know what to do with. His only regret was that Day wasn’t alive to see his success. He had never particularly like Day, but he felt sort of bad that he was dead. From the telegram Jake had sent, his brother had made the fatal mistake of trusting the wrong person, something Dan would never do – he didn’t trust anyone. No, Day had been downright stupid. Personally, Dan planned on living a long, long life He was just sorry he couldn’t rub Day’s nose in it.

Dan drained his glass and stood up. He didn’t know what was keeping Rance and Teel, but he was going to go find out. The two of them shouldn’t have had any problem getting rid of the Marshal, but those two weren’t real bright.

“Come on, Parks, let’s wander over to the hotel and see what’s going on.” The two men left the saloon and stepped out into the street.

Chapter 13

Pardee and Parks strode into the street without even glancing at the people around them. Pardee knew he was top dog and everyone would give him a wide berth. That was just how it should be; he deserved respect. No one had dared to challenge him in a long time, not since he and Day had fought to see who was top dog and nearly killed each other before calling it a draw. They had parted shortly after that, because they both knew if they didn’t, one of them would wind up dead.

They had been forced to scrabble and fight their whole life. He and Day had been born ten minutes apart; the youngest in a family of six boys. Their mother was apathetic at best, and their father was a mean son of a bitch when he was sober and downright homicidal when he was drunk. Dan figured it ran in the family; two uncles were in prison, one had been killed by a lawman, and one had hanged. The one uncle who was left was as mean as their old man.

Dan and Day’s older brothers had paid forward the abuse they received, and he and Day had been at the bottom of the pecking order. When he had been six years old, out of desperation, he’d stuck a knife in one of his older brother’s leg during a particularly nasty beating. Instead of being angry, his father had put his hand on his shoulder and let him have a taste of his beer. It was the first time in his life he had felt loved.

He and Day had still taken their share of beatings from their brothers and father, as well as their cousins. Their father and uncle always encouraged the fights, and would even bet on them sometimes. As Dan and Day got older, though, they gave more than they received. After several of the fights had nearly turned deadly, everyone pretty much backed off.

They both got kicked out of school for fighting, and at the age of twelve Dan had killed his first man. It was ruled self-defense, simply because there were no witnesses and no one was willing to believe a boy that young was capable of murder. Six months later he and Day had attacked an elderly man with the intention of robbing him. This time, though, the man had lived long enough to tell the law what had happened. They both did their best to pin the blame on the other one, but it did no good. They were sentenced to prison. The deputy transporting them was furious that two youngsters would be coldly thrown into prison with adults, and did his best to be nice to them on the trip. His body was found three days later with his throat cut, and Dan and Day had both disappeared.

They had traveled together for  a while, just trying to stay alive, until they had run into Jake Porter, a cousin. He was a little older than they were and was one of the few who had never tried to beat them up. Jake became like a father to them both, even though he wasn’t much older. He did his best by them, but their ingrained need for power and violence had doomed any chance they had at normal lives.

After a vicious fight, Dan and Day had parted for good when they were fifteen, and Porter had gone with Day. Dan had been hurt and angry at the time, but he soon figured it was good riddance to both. He didn’t need them; he didn’t need anybody.

“Pardee.” The voice was so soft Dan barely heard it. He looked around curiously and saw a young man standing in the street opposite him.

“Whaddya want boy?” Pardee asked belligerently.

“You.”

Pardee’s eyes narrowed. “You callin’ me out?” he asked incredulously as Parks laughed.

The man slowly nodded, just once, his eyes boring into Dan’s.

Pardee felt the first twinge of unease and he turned to Parks. “Shut up!” he snarled before turning back to face the unknown man.

“You’d better skedaddle before you get hurt, boy,” Pardee warned. “You keep this up, you’re gonna wind up dead.”

“Doubt it.”

“Do I know you?” Dan asked, wracking his brain to figure out just who this was.

“Nope.”

Pardee started to sweat. He never had been much of a gunman. His aim was okay, but he knew he wasn’t fast. He relied more on surprise and back shooting to take down his enemies. If he had to fight, he preferred knives.

“Why don’t we just put our guns away and fight with our fists. Less chance of somebody gettin’ dead,” Pardee suggested, figuring the knife in his boot would give him a decided edge.

Johnny slowly smiled. “You can throw your gun away if you want. Personally, I’m keeping mine.”

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Madrid, Johnny Madrid.”

“You tryin’ ta get a reputation or something?”

Johnny grinned widened as he realized that was now the fourth time his name hadn’t been recognized. “Or something. Actually, it’s Deputy Marshal Madrid, and you’re under arrest.”

This time it was Pardee who laughed. “You’re a dead man.” He looked around quickly, then faced Johnny again.

“If you’re looking for your men that went after Sheriff Sommers, they’re already in jail. The two that went after Marshal Wheeler are either dead or tied up. Now it’s your turn.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“Maybe. And maybe I won’t shoot you if you drop your gun.”

“You’re not a Marshal.”

Johnny shrugged. “Haven’t been for long, but I AM a gunfighter.”

“Thought the name sounded familiar.”

“It should. I ran with your brother for  a while.”

“So if you’re a friend of his, why’re you coming after me?”

“Never said he was a friend. I put a bullet in him and my friend finished him off . He was a no good, cowardly snake, and he deserved to die. Just like you.” Johnny nodded at the man next to Dan. “Just so you know, if you keep standing with him, you’re gonna die with him.”

“You can’t take both of us. It’s two against one,” Day argued.

Johnny shrugged. “Won’t be a problem. The odds were better for Day, and he didn’t believe me, either. Course he still wound up dead. Now, like I said, drop your guns. You’re under arrest.”

“I don’t think so,” Dan snarled. “Take him, Parks!”

Parks grabbed at his gun. His fingertips had just brushed the butt of his revolver when the bullet found his heart. He dropped soundlessly at Dan’s feet as Pardee scrambled frantically for his gun. He stopped a second later when he saw the barrel of Madrid’s Colt pointed straight at him. He stared at Madrid, knowing it was all over, and feeling nothing but relief.

“Drop it, Pardee.”

“Not this time,” Dan answered.

“Do you want to die?”

A genuine smile formed on Pardee’s face. “Yeah, I do,” he said as he went for his gun.

A few moments later, Johnny walked over and kicked the guns out of both of the dead men’s hands. He knew he could have just winged Dan and taken him alive, but he figured nobody else needed to know that. Men like him needed to be dead. They were dangerous animals and needed to be treated as such. He could no more have spared the man than he would have spared a mad dog. He just hoped it was the end and there were no more Pardees lurking out there. He was tired of fighting.

Jake pulled his horse down to a walk. His hip was killing him, and the constant jarring of the horse beneath him was almost unbearable. For the thousandth time he cursed Johnny Madrid, the backstabbing whelp that was the cause of all of his misery. He had tried to warn Day, but Pardee had dismissed his suspicions, and even laughed. ‘Old Johnny may be a lot of things, but he ain’t no backstabber. He’s too damn honest. That always was his weak spot.’

Jake hadn’t agreed. There was just something about that kid and his cocky smirk that grated on his nerves. He smile grimly. Day had been wrong, and had paid for it with his life. Jake had only taken a bullet in his hip. He guessed he had been lucky, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

He had lain in that old doc’s office for a week, in more pain than he’d ever been in his life. He’d run a fever, and he’d heard the doctor arguing with that no- account sheriff more than once. Crawford had wanted to take Jake to the jail; he said he could be treated there just as well, but the Doc had finally won out.

At the end of the week, he had finally felt a little better, but he sure hadn’t let on. He’d milked it for another four days, but when the doctor had started talking about cutting him open and seeing what was wrong, he’d decided he’d stayed long enough. He’d given the old doctor a tap on the head with a bottle of medicine, then dragged himself out the back door. It was late and there was no one around, but he’d found a horse tied up in front of the saloon a few minutes later.

He’d headed out the main road to cover his tracks, and with the help of a full moon, had been miles away by the time the sun came up. Those first few days he’d lived on laudanum, water and a few pieces of Jerky he’d found in the saddlebags. He’d made it as far as Stockton before the infection and fever had dropped him in his tracks. He didn’t remember passing out, and everything was a blur for about a month.

After several operations by an old sawbones there, he had finally begun to feel better. He still couldn’t walk, so he’d had lots of time to think. He hated Madrid and wanted revenge; that was a given. But there were others that needed to pay, too. If all of Day’s men had stuck with him, they could have beaten the Lancers and Madrid that day in town. As it was, there were only a few who hadn’t decided to run. The others had stayed in the background, and when Madrid dropped Day, they had bolted.

He figured he owed them as much as he owed Madrid. Most of them headed north after the fight, and Porter had already run into two of them. They had both died very prolonged, messy deaths. He had heard two more of them had been seen in Sacramento so now he was heading there. He was going to track them all down and make them pay, and then he was going to go after Madrid.

Chapter 14

Jake took one last look inside the cabin, the quietly shut the door. He reached into his pocket and drew out a match, then after a moment’s hesitation, scratched it across the sole of his boot and tossed it on the floor of the porch. A flame erupted, then raced through the gap under the door. It took several seconds before the man inside saw it, then the screams began. Jake walked over to his horse and swung aboard, but didn’t leave. He wanted to hear every single scream and plea.

“JAKE! PLEASE! PLEASE! YOU AND I WERE ALWAYS FRIENDS! WHY? WHY? I NEVER DID NOTHING TO YOU! JAKE, PLEASE LET ME OUT OF HERE!”

Jake smiled. Another man getting what he deserved for abandoning Day.

“Jaaaake!” a bout of coughing interrupted the yelling and then the begging started again. This time it wasn’t long before the pleas turned to inarticulate screams and sobs with long interruptions of coughing. All the sounds died down long before the fire reached the cot where the man was tied, and Jake felt a little bit of regret that the smoke had claimed his victim before he had felt the fire.

He waited there in the clearing until there was nothing left but a pile of rubble, then he turned his horse toward town and his next victim. In the last two months, he had tracked down and disposed of six of the nine men he was after. He had made a point of killing each one in a different manner, the methods getting more and more elaborate and cruel. He had spent a long time in the saddle between towns and had more than enough to time to come up with interesting ideas.

As the number of men he was after dwindled, he found his thoughts returning more and more to Madrid. He wanted him to suffer more than the others, but he was no fool. Madrid was dangerous. If Jake wasn’t careful, the gunfighter would kill him instead of the other way around. He just might have to sacrifice a prolonged death for a sure one. Even so, he was having trouble coming up with an idea that wouldn’t end in his own destruction.

Of course, he also had to find him first. For all he knew, Madrid could be down in Mexico by now. But something told him he had headed north. He had heard whispers. Just a few, but enough to make him want to check it out. Besides, Dan was up in Montana, and he wanted to see him again. He’d always felt close to his cousin. Jake’s Pa had been killed just a few months before Day, and most of the rest of his family was dead or as good as, facing impossibly long time behind bars. He’d always liked Dan, even though he’d stuck with Day. He’d always felt that maybe Day had needed him more. After Jake took care of Madrid and what was left of the cowards that had betrayed Day, he’d look up Dan and maybe they could settle down on a ranch somewhere.

But first had to figure out a way to get to Madrid without getting himself killed. With a shake of his head, he urged the horse on. Something would come to him; it always did.

Johnny walked down the boardwalk of Silver Bow, his spurs jingling with each step. He was careful to tip his hat to all of the ladies and nod politely to most of the men. A few of them, though, he simply stared at until they dropped their eyes and stepped out of his way.

He had been here for over a month now, and he was pretty much getting the hang of this Marshal business. There really wasn’t much to it, at least not yet. Even though no one really knew about his past profession, they had quickly picked up on the fact that he could be dangerous if provoked. The two dead outlaws lying in the street had proved that, and the fact that the other four had been taken without a shot added to the respect he was shown.

Marshal Wheeler had been very outspoken about how Johnny had stopped those outlaws pretty much single handedly, no matter how much Johnny had tried to turn the credit away from himself. Johnny had finally given up graciously for the most part, but when a reporter from THE WEEKLY MINER had asked for an interview for an article, Johnny had turned him down flat. He told the reporter to go look up Marshal Wheeler or Jelly Hoskins. He figured by the time Jelly was done with him, the man would run off screaming.

He had stayed in Silver Bow as a favor to Bill Wheeler. He had gotten pretty close to the man in the last month and wasn’t in any huge hurry to move on. He’d even become fairly close to Jelly. The old man sure was a character, but Johnny knew he could trust him as much as the Marshal. It felt good to trust someone, and it felt even better knowing there wasn’t going to be someone gunning for him every time he turned around. He hadn’t even had to pull his gun once since he’d taken down Pardee.

Silver Bow needed a lawman and Bill was going to have to move on soon. He was planning on making Deer Lodge his base of operations and was supposedly going to be in charge of the new penitentiary there, among other things. He had asked Johnny to stay here until a permanent sheriff could be found, and Johnny had somewhat reluctantly agreed.

Vic Sommers was long gone. He had thrown his badge on top of his desk and nearly run out the door as soon as Johnny and Jelly had brought in the other two members of Pardee’s gang from the hotel. By the next morning he and his wife had withdrawn all their money from the bank and disappeared, but Johnny was glad Sommers had that one moment he could look back on with pride. Sommers father had ridden in to town the next afternoon, demanding to know where his son had gone, and Johnny had been delighted to tell him that he had no idea. He had hinted though, that Vic just might be on his way to Mexico, knowing that was one place the ex-sheriff would never go.

For the most part he’d enjoyed the last month. The worst time was when he’d had to walk the men they’d captured out to the gallows. He knew they deserved it; none of them were any better than animals, but it was still unsettling. Johnny knew just how close he’d come to walking that same path and winding up with a noose around his own neck.

Several years ago he’d run with Day for four or five months, and tried to turn a blind eye to the cruelty. The jobs paid well, and nobody messed with Pardee and his men. His own reputation wasn’t as big at the time, and being associated with Day made him feel important. They took what they wanted and did what they wanted, and no one ever challenged them, not unless they had a death wish.

But even though he’d had much the same childhood as most of the men, for some reason he had a conscience. He tried to hide it at first. He thought it was a sign of weakness and he would be laughed at or worse. The longer he stayed, however, the harder it was to ignore what went on. He couldn’t remember how many times he had secretly or subtly helped one of Day’s intended victims.

He’d never been caught, not until that last time. Day had taken over a town and turned his men loose to, as he called it, “have some fun.” They had started by shooting out every window in town, then they raided the saloon. Johnny went along with it, at least at first, but as the men got more and more drunk, he’d backed off and looked for somewhere peaceful to be by himself.

He wanted to block out the sound of gunfire and screaming, so he’d found his way to the small church at the end of town. As he approached, he saw several young women running into the building. The priest had stepped in front of the door and held out his hands to bar Johnny’s way inside. Johnny had just started to tell the Padre that he meant no harm, when a shot rang out and the priest fell into Johnny’s arms, a bullet in his chest.

He remembered sinking down to the ground with the priest, knowing it was a fatal shot. With his last breath, the priest implored Johnny to protect the young women.

“Save them, my son, and save yourself.”

Johnny sat there a second, until Day and another man had pushed past him and each grabbed one of the frightened girls. There was no doubt in Johnny’s mind what fate awaited the women. He hesitated for only a second before straightening and confronting the two men.

“Let them go, Day.”

Pardee had looked at him incredulously. Johnny had never even spoken back to him before.

Johnny’s hand hovered by his gun. “I mean it. Let them go.”

Johnny’s eyes had bored into Day’s, and Day was the one who blinked. With a laugh, he suddenly pushed the girl away from him. “Sure, Johnny. Whatever you say. But you’d better not be around tomorrow.”

Johnny hadn’t been. He’d made sure the young women made it back to their families, then ridden out that night, and never looked back. His reputation had soared soon afterward, and he’d never run into Day again, not until he’d tried to take Lancer.

Lancer. Teresa had called it the most beautiful place in the world. Maybe it was. But it wasn’t his. Maybe, though, he could find a place just as pretty. There was a lot of pretty scenery around here, and Johnny was seriously thinking about settling here. There was plenty of good ranch land and he’d already checked out a couple of wild herds. The horses seemed to be nice quality, and he knew there would be a demand for well-trained cow ponies. More and more ranches were calling Montana home, and several of the big outfits from Texas had already moved up here for the free land and rich grass.

The people here were nice, and the few that weren’t were at least respectful. Johnny doubted if he’d have much trouble with any of the locals after the gunfight with Pardee. He’d gotten faster and Pardee more dangerous with each telling until Johnny figured pretty soon he’d rank right up there with Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. He snorted softly. He wondered if they had gotten their reputations the same way; ten percent actions and ninety percent tall tales.

Well, it didn’t matter. If it helped him to keep the peace around here and avoid bloodshed, he’d take it any day. He ignored the small voice inside of him that said he’d rather not be doing it at all.

Chapter 15

Murdoch eased himself down behind his desk and stared at the pile of letters that awaited him. He had spent the last two weeks working alongside the men at the spring round up, but he knew he was too old to be out there competing with the youngsters. He sat back with a sigh and took a sip of scotch before finally starting to sort through the pile. He was halfway through when he noticed a letter from Boston. He picked it up and stared at it for several moments, and realized he was scared to death to open it. He ran his finger along the return address, written so precisely by his elder son.

He took a large gulp of his drink, then, with trembling hands carefully slit open the envelope. The letter fell out, and after taking a deep breath, he unfolded it and started to read. A moment later, his eyes closed in defeat. It had sounded like nothing more than a thank you letter one would write to a generous host. Scott had said he had enjoyed the time he had spent at Lancer, and learned many new things, but ultimately had decided that he was going to stay in Boston. Murdoch crumpled up the letter and started to toss it into the trash before changing his mind and gently smoothing the paper back out and putting it in his desk.

Jake sat at the saloon table, nursing a drink. He had found Wilson and Cooper in a tiny town right outside of Sacramento. They had greeted him like long lost kin, and he had done nothing to dispel that belief. He had bought them drinks and dinner and they had talked about old times and how much each of them would like to get their hands on Madrid.

Jake had realized that he might need some help to take out the gunfighter, and he figured he could use Wilson and Cooper, then kill them after Madrid was dead and buried. Until then, he’d make sure they had no second thoughts about throwing in with him. It was only after they’d outlived their usefulness that he would kill them. Until then, though, he would concentrate on Madrid.

As much as he’d hated the man before, that hate had multiplied tenfold last week. Jake had picked up a three week old copy of the Sacramento Bee, and on the second page had seen an article about a certain Montana Marshal by the name of Johnny Madrid who had single- handedly brought a notorious gang of outlaws to justice. Their leader, one Dan Pardee, had been killed, along with five others, and the remaining four had been hanged. Madrid himself had done the honors.

Jake had never in his life felt the kind of rage that he’d had at that moment. He had to force himself to stop and think, or he would have taken off then and there to try to get revenge. It took a huge effort, but he had remained where he was and put all of his energy into coming up with a plan. He still wasn’t satisfied with anything he’d come up with. He wanted Madrid to suffer, and the plans he had formulated just weren’t cruel enough. Something was missing, but for the life of him, he couldn’t come up with anything else. If he didn’t think of another plan soon, he’d have to simply be content with Madrid’s death.

He and the other two men had left Sacramento last week and taken the train to Salt Lake City. Once there, they had bought some horses and started toward Montana. They had stopped in the small town of Logan to get some grub and a decent night’s sleep, and were planning on leaving in the morning.

As he sat there, he realized he’d almost achieved his goal. Besides Madrid, there was only one more man that he wanted to get before it was over, but he hadn’t been able to find hide nor hair of him. Sonny had always been pretty slippery and Jake had never liked the man. He always dressed in a suit like he was going to church, and put on airs about his education. He even talked like he was somebody important. Jake always felt that Sonny thought he was a whole lot better than the rest of them.

Sonny had been in pretty tight with Pardee, and Jake thought Day might have been a little intimidated by the man’s manners and education. Jake couldn’t have cared less. Manners and education weren’t worth nothin’. The only thing that mattered was who was left standing at the end of the day, and a man’s pride. Anything else was just show. And Sonny had trampled all over Jake’s pride more than once.

The feud between the two had been festering for months, but it had come to a head right before Day had been killed.

The first time was when Day had managed to capture old man Lancer’s son, that dandy from back east. Jake had thought they should kill him and send his body back to Lancer as a warning. He had proceeded to beat the hell out of the young man, but Sonny had interfered and talked Day into keeping him alive, and Day had chewed Jake’s head off for beating the kid up.

Then Jake had told Day he didn’t trust Madrid, and both Day and Sonny had made him sound like a fool. Day told him that Johnny wasn’t a turncoat. Sonny had spoken up and said he thought Madrid was on the up and up too, and that Jake was just jealous. That seemed to settle the matter, and Jake’s warnings were dismissed.

Sonny was one of the reasons that Day was dead, and that he was crippled up with a bum hip. What made it worse was that Sonny was kin. Kin didn’t abandon family, no matter what. It made his desertion even worse. No, Jake would never forgive him and vowed that one day he would pay, just like Madrid would pay.

He was absent mindedly remembering other times when Sonny had crossed him when a man walked out from the storage room, carrying a large keg of beer. The man set it down before glancing over at the men at the table, then retreating once more to the back.

Jake’s mouth dropped open. Speak of the devil…He couldn’t believe it. He had just been thinking about him. He sat as if in a trance, then bolted to his feet. He strode over toward the bar and had almost reached it when the huge bartender stepped in front of him.

“Just where the hell do you think you’re going?”

Jake drew himself up and glared at the man. “I aim on having a talk with your helper.”

The man refused to be intimidated. “What about?”

“None of your business,” Jake snarled.

“Oh, I think it is,” the man replied calmly.

Jake ran his hand through his hair in frustration. “I just want to ask him a few questions about something that happened a few weeks ago,” Jake lied.

The bartender snorted and shook his head. “Good luck.”

Jake’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

The bartender shrugged his shoulders. “My wife found him just outside of the hotel a week or so ago. Apparently he’d been hit over the head and robbed. He was out cold for a couple of days, and when he woke up, he couldn’t remember a thing.”

“What do you mean, he couldn’t remember?”

“His memory was gone. Couldn’t even remember his own name or where he was from. Still can’t.”

“Didn’t he have any identification on him?”

“Nope. Just a clipping from a newspaper about some outlaws being caught somewhere up in Montana.”

Jake thought quickly. The clipping had to have been about Dan being killed. As Jake continued to think, he realized that this might somehow work to his advantage but he needed time to think and come up with a plan. He nodded as if satisfied. “Too bad. Guess he can’t help me then.”

The bartender was reassured by Jake’s attitude. “Do you still want to talk to him?”

Jake shrugged. “Maybe later. Me and my friends are going across to the hotel for now. Will he be here in the morning?”

At the bartenders nod, he turned and went back to the table. “Come on, boys. We have some planning to do.”

The next morning, Jake stopped Wilson and Cooper right outside of the saloon. “Now do you remember what we’re going to do?”

The two men nodded, but Jake wanted to make sure. “If either of you foul this up, I will kill you. Do you understand?” he said quietly.

“We ain’t stupid,” Wilson protested.

Jake just looked at him until the man dropped his eyes. “Well we ain’t,” he mumbled.

Jake just shook his head. “Just make sure you call him Sully,” he reminded them. “We don’t want him to remember who he is, at least not yet, that’s important. I don’t want to do anything to jar his memory until after he kills Madrid, and that includes hearing his real name. If I catch you using his real name, even if he can’t hear you, you’ll regret it.” It had taken him most of last evening to think of a plan and then get the two of them to understand why they had to use the made up name of Sully. He’d have to be careful to use it too. His plan wasn’t perfect. He still didn’t think either Madrid or Sully would suffer as much as he wanted, but at least they’d be dead. Maybe something else would come to him on the way, but in the meantime, he’d do everything he could to remind Sully just how much he hated Madrid.

Chapter 16

Jake swung the saloon doors open and walked inside, followed closely by Wilson and Cooper. He looked around, and spying “Sully” sweeping the floor over by the bar, he immediately walked over.

“Hey, Sully? Where’ve you been? We waited for you and you never showed up!”

The man looked up in surprise. “Are you talking to me?”

“Of course I’m talking to you. Do you see anybody else in here? Now where have you been?”

“Do I know you?”

Jake laughed. “Know me? You’re bein’ really funny. Now quit joking around and tell us what’re you doing here. Why didn’t you meet us?” He looked around, then asked quietly “Did something better come up?”

Sully looked at him in confusion. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I seem to have lost my memory.”

Jake managed to look surprised. “You’re kidding me, right?”

Sully slowly shook his head. “No, I don’t remember you.”

“My name’s Jake. Why don’t you remember? Did you get hurt?”

Sully nodded. “Evidently I was robbed and hit over the head. The doctor said I was lucky to be alive, but I couldn’t remember anything when I woke up. He hesitated a moment “My name is Sully?” At Jake’s nod, he repeated the name in his mind. It sounded familiar, but maybe that was wishful thinking. Finally he nodded.

Jake tried to put his arm around the other man’s shoulders, but Sully ducked out of the embrace and stepped back. “How do I know you?” he asked.

Jake shook his head sadly. “I feel real bad you don’t remember nothin.’ But you and I go way back. Hell, you’ve been runnin’ with us for almost three years.”

Sully’s eyebrows went up. “Running with you?”

Jake jerked his head at Wilson and Cooper, who raised their hands in greeting, then went back to their drinks.

“We’ve been riding together,” Jake explained.

“And doing what, exactly?”

Jake looked at him in consternation. It seemed Sully really couldn’t remember a thing. Apparently he didn’t even remember his time with Pardee, or what had gone on during that time. “Well,” he finally said, winking. “You know, a little of this and a little of that.”

“I see.” Sully thought for a moment, then asked “What was I doing here?”

“You came here ‘cause you was bound and determined to go kill that back stabbing piece of shit, Madrid.”

“Madrid?” Sully’s eyes opened wider and he dug into his shirt pocket and pulled out a tattered newspaper clipping.

“This was the only thing left in my pockets. Everything else was gone. Does it mean anything?”

Jake nodded. “You got that in Sacramento. As soon as you saw Madrid’s name, you took off and wouldn’t even wait for us. We had some business to take care of and we were supposed to catch up with you and meet a few miles north of here, but you never showed up.”

Sully studied the clipping. “It says here Johnny Madrid is a Deputy Federal Marshal.”

Jake snorted. “He’s a common bandit and a cold blooded killer. I don’t know how he got to be a marshal, but I can guarantee they don’t know who and what he is up there.”

“But it says he killed or captured this bunch of outlaws.”

Jake shrugged. “They probably crossed him somehow, and Madrid decided to get rid of them and make it look legal. He’s a sneaky bastard.”

“Just why do I want this Johnny Madrid dead?”

“That, my friend, is a long story. Why don’t I buy you a beer and the boys and I will fill you in.”

Sully shook his head. “I’m supposed to be working. I need some money and a place to stay.”

“You don’t need to be doin’ that kind of work. Besides, we owe you from the last job.” He took out a small wad of bills from his pocket and put it in Sully’s pocket. “We take care of our own. Now come sit down, and I’ll tell you all about Johnny Madrid.”

Jake stretched out on the lumpy bundle of cotton that passed for a mattress in the local hotel, and put his hands behind his head. He smiled as he replayed the conversation that they had had with Sully. It had delighted him no end to see the confusion in the man’s eyes as they wove a tale of wrongs done to him by Johnny Madrid. Sully had at first been skeptical, then outraged, and finally, after several hours of discussion, he had been ready to tear Madrid’s heart out with his bare hands.

Jake had told him a story about how Madrid had killed Sully’s father and raped his sister. Wilson had chimed in about how Sully’s sister had died after Madrid had thrown a lantern in the cabin as he was leaving, and his mother had lived just long enough to tell the whole sordid tale.

Cooper had added other crimes and transgressions that Madrid was guilty of, and through it all, they had emphasized how sneaky and underhanded the man was. They had purposely avoided the word “gunfighter.” They didn’t want Sully to have second thoughts about going after him. All in all, Jake was well pleased with the day’s work, but they would keep up the stories and lies until they found Madrid. By the time they reached Montana and finally caught up with him, Sully would go after him like a rabid coyote after a rabbit.

He would go after Madrid, and of course, the gunfighter would drop him cold, even if Sully did have ammunition in his gun, which wasn’t going to happen. Jake, though, would make sure that there weren’t any people close by when it went down. Just he and Wilson and Cooper, who of course would swear that Madrid had gunned Sully down in cold blood. Madrid would hang, which was good enough, but knowing the gunfighter, he would be devastated he had killed the unarmed man. The best part was, no one would ever connect a man named Sully to either Jake Porter or Pardee. He would just end up in boot hill, another unnamed saddle tramp.

Jake had thought a lot about his plan, and knew it would work. He might change it a little, when new ideas popped into his head, but he thought it would end pretty well. Now all he had to do was keep preaching his litany of hate to Sully. He wanted the man to go after Madrid without any hesitation.

He had played Sully like a fine fiddle. The man had at first been suspicious of Jake, but a couple of careless remarks about certain scars on Sully’s body and apparent knowledge of how he had received them had gone a long way toward reassuring him. He had to admit, Cooper and Wilson’s enthusiastic performance had finally washed away the last of Sully’s suspicions.

The four men sat by the fire, waiting for the rabbit to roast. Jake was getting awfully tired of trail food. He was getting awful tired of the trail, period. The one good thing about it was he had been able to keep goading Sully into killing Madrid. Jake was satisfied that Sully hated Madrid with every fiber of his being, and wouldn’t hesitate to go after him. He knew Sully wasn’t usually a physically violent man, he preferred to use his brains to bring someone down, but Jake also knew he was a crack shot when he needed to be. Even Day had been leery of the man’s capability with a firearm.

He looked over to where Sully was sitting, off by himself, as usual. Even though he obviously didn’t remember anything about himself or anything else, he still had that uppity way about him that Jake had always hated. Even though his suit was filthy and ragged, he still carried himself like some high society dandy. His reluctance to use his fingers when he ate, and his boringly proper way of speaking was starting to get to all of them. He didn’t know how Day had stood him for as long as he had. But as much as he disliked the man, he had done everything he could to seem like his best friend.

He looked over to where Wilson and Cooper were talking quietly. Those two hadn’t been very happy when Jake had ordered then to do all the camp chores. He wanted Sully to know he was being given special treatment. He was doing everything he could to convince him that they were best friends. He didn’t care what Wilson and Cooper thought, and Jake certainly wasn’t going to do the chores. They had seemed to go along with him all right, and hadn’t complained, but he didn’t like the looks they had been shooting him when they thought he wasn’t looking. He thought they were too dumb and too chicken to try anything, but he thought he’d still better keep his eye on them. He didn’t trust them as far as he could throw them.

Chapter 17

Jake started looking for a place to spend the night. He thought briefly of going into a nearby town, but quickly dismissed the idea. They were only about twenty miles from Silver Bow, and he wasn’t going to let anything ruin his plan now. He could almost taste his victory.

He pulled his horse up next to a small stream and dismounted. “We’ll camp here for the night.” Sully followed his lead and stepped down from his horse, but the other two men remained mounted.

“We ain’t gonna camp out anymore, and we ain’t gonna do all your dirty work, Porter.”

“Oh? And where do you think you’d rather stay? A hotel?”

Both men nodded tentatively.

“Do you think that’s wise?” Jake asked meaningfully.

“We’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Cooper spat. “No one is going to recognize us.”

“Recognize you?” Sully asked. “Are you wanted?”

Wilson laughed. “Now that’s a dumb question. Of course we’re wanted, you stupid dandy.”

Sully froze. “All of us?”

Jake glared at Wilson. “I told you not to say anything.” He nodded to Sully. “I was gonna tell you, just couldn’t bear to, somehow.”

You’re a liar, Porter. Why don’t you tell him the truth? Why don’t you tell him why you’re bein’ so nice to him? What you want him to do, and what his real name is…”

The sound of the shot made Sully jump. He saw Wilson slowly topple from his horse, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cooper grab at his gun. Instinctively, Sully drew his own and fired, and both guns went off simultaneously. Cooper fell to the ground, and a moment later, Sully heard a thud from next to him.

He turned and crouched next to Jake. The outlaw tried to grin, but it came out a grimace.

“What’s my real name? Who am I?” Sully asked.

Jake just stared at him, and Sully shook him in desperation. “What’s my name?” he pleaded. “I have to know!”

Jake smiled slowly. “Pardee. Your last name is Pardee.”

“Pardee? Then the man that Madrid killed…” He stopped, confused.

Jake coughed up some blood. “He was your cousin. Mine too. He and I were the last of your kin.” He coughed a few more times. “You get revenge for us, boy. Revenge for your whole family. No matter what. Promise me.”

Sully nodded. “I promise.”

Jake nodded weakly, then started struggling to breathe. Sully held the man’s head, with tears forming in his own eyes for the last of his family.

Sully angrily wiped the tears from his eyes as his cousin took a last gasp and died. He sat there for almost an hour, cursing fates and his own lack of memory. Gradually, though, an icy coldness came over him. He was going to get revenge all right. He was going to make Madrid pay, even if it was the last thing he did, and he didn’t care if he died doing it.

Sully woodenly buried the three men, then went through their saddlebags. He found some money but didn’t find anything that would give him any more information, so he tore the saddles off of the horses and let them go.

He automatically set up camp and got a fire going, but he didn’t eat. He was too consumed with rage. He also felt guilty. From the time he’d first seen Jake, Sully had held himself aloof. For some reason that now sounded weak, even to himself, he hadn’t completely trusted the man. All Jake had done was try to protect him, and Sully had pretty much ignored him. Why hadn’t Porter told him they were related? Sully slowly shook his head. He’d never know. The only thing he DID know, was he was going after Madrid.

He reached into his pocket and once more drew that paper out, smoothing the wrinkles that were making it hard to read. It said Madrid was in Silver Bow, so that was where he was going. Suddenly, he stood up and strode over to where the saddlebags were piled. He had thrown the men’s guns and holsters in the pile, for some reason not wanting to bury them with their guns.

He picked up Jake’s pistol and examined it. It looked custom made, and it was certainly a better gun than the one Sully had bought for a few bucks down in Logan. He carelessly tossed his gun aside and strapped Jake’s holster around his waist before snugging it down around his hips. He reached down and tied the holster down to his leg, wondering briefly how he knew how to do that. When he was done, he drew the pistol several times, then satisfied, went back to the fire. He decided he would stay here for a week or two and practice with his new gun, then head for Silver Bow. Madrid was dead and he didn’t even know it, he thought.

Johnny hit the dirt hard.

“Are you okay?” Jelly asked anxiously.

Johnny lay there for a minute, trying to pump some oxygen into his lungs. He held up his hand and waved it to reassure the old man, but to tell the truth, he sure wasn’t feeling his best. In fact, he believed that Bill Wheeler had described it perfectly when he said it felt like he’d been run over by a stagecoach.

“Should I get the Doc?”

Johnny shook his head. He wished Jelly would stop asking him questions when he couldn’t get enough air to breathe, let alone speak. He’d had worse, but he sure couldn’t remember when. After a minute, he pushed himself up into a sitting position, but the ground was still moving around. Maybe if he just sat here for another minute things would clear up. He shook his head slightly to clear it, then decided that was a big mistake. Everything started spinning faster, and Johnny grabbed onto Jelly’s arm, trying to stop the world from flying around.

“Just take it easy,” Jelly advised.

No shit, Johnny thought. Not much else he could do.

Finally, things settled down some and he cautiously struggled to his feet. Jelly kept hold of his arm and guided him over to the fence, where he sat down on the bottom rail.

“It was your own dang fault,” Jelly observed.

“My fault?” Johnny wheezed.

“Yep. I told you to take a break. Knew you was getting’ tired. But did you listen to old Jelly? No, you had to prove just how hard your head is. Well, it don’t seem quite as hard now, does it?”

Johnny closed his eyes. Maybe Jelly had been right, but he had just wanted to ride that gray horse one more time before breaking for lunch.

“Okay, Jelly, you win. Let me just put some hobbles on that Jughead and then I’ll buy us a couple of steaks. He can be fighting them while we’re eating. Might soften him up some.”

“Johnny, just let him go,” Jelly said plaintively. “He’s loco.”

Johnny shook his head. He remembered another horse they had said was loco. “Nope, gonna keep tryin’. He’s a good lookin’ horse and I could get top dollar for him.”

“Or a broken neck,” Jelly groused.

“You worry too much, old man.”

“Well, somebody’s gotta worry, because you sure as heck don’t.”

Johnny smiled. It sort of felt good to have somebody worry about him. Jelly had turned into a true friend, and Johnny trusted him with his life. He trusted Bill Wheeler, too, and hoped he’d see him again soon.

The Marshal had left Silver Bow a little over a week ago, heading toward Deer Lodge. Johnny had been talked into staying on permanently as Deputy Marshal for Silver Bow, and so far he was happy with his decision. There wasn’t much crime, and the little bit that happened was easily resolved, usually without even drawing his gun.

He had made it clear that he was going to take time out to break horses, and Wheeler and the townspeople had agreed. It wasn’t exactly the dream life he’d envisioned, but it was close enough. At some point, he still wanted to get his own ranch and break and sell horses full time, but he needed money for that. In the meantime, he’d play lawman and break horses, and save every cent he could.

That meant getting back to work. With a grimace that he hid from Jelly, he pulled himself to his feet and walked over to the patiently waiting Barranca. He slowly swung himself onto the saddle, then kneed the palomino toward the gray, who had stopped bucking and was standing warily at the edge of the corral. Barranca’s ears went up as he kept his eye on his quarry, just like a good cow pony should. Working with stock was new to him, but he was picking it up quickly.

Johnny settled a loop over the Bronc’s head, then quickly stepped off as Barranca backed up, keeping the rope tight, just like he’d been taught. Johnny shook loose his lasso, intending to rope the Gray’s front legs so he could throw him and put some hobbles on him.

He was halfway there when the ground tilted crazily. He held out his arm to catch himself, but there was nothing to grab, and he fell heavily on his side. He saw the gray charging at him, and through a haze heard Jelly shouting, but it seemed far away. Even the pounding hooves of the approaching horse seemed unimportant, although he realized he was about to be trampled. Maybe that would stop the pain in his head.

Chapter 18

Johnny came to slowly, blinking at the bright light that seemed to pierce his eyes. He heard the curtains being drawn and the light immediately disappeared.

“Better?” a quiet voice asked.

Johnny started to nod, but the motion made him feel sick, so he replied with a whisper instead. “Yeah.”

“Just stay quiet Marshal. You have a bad concussion and need to be still.”

“Don’t you worry, Doc. He’ll stay still even if I have to tie him up and sit on him. I told him not to go back in with that dab blamed horse,” Jelly chimed in.

Johnny recognized Jelly’s and Doctor Huffington’s voices and relaxed. He figured he was safe, even though he felt pretty rough. He tried to remember what happened, but his mind just wasn’t working right.

“What happened?” he asked in confusion.

“What happened is you didn’t listen to old Jelly. Now you shut them peepers of yours and get some sleep, and I’ll tell you all about it when you wake up. Now go on and get some rest. Doc or I will be here.”

Johnny allowed his eyes to slide shut and Jelly’s voice drifted away.

The next time he awoke, he knew it was dark outside. He could hear the crickets and tree frogs chirping in between Jelly’s snores, and, from further away, music and an occasional burst of laughter coming from the saloon. He lifted his head to see if there was any water on the table next to the bed, but the motion caused the room to tilt alarmingly. He put his head back down, desperately trying to keep from getting sick. He fought for several minutes before his stomach settled. He tried to relax with a soft moan, and soon his eyes drifted shut once more.

“Come on Johnny, open them eyes. You’ve been sleepin’ long enough.”

Johnny struggled to wake up, but he seemed to be fighting through a thick haze. His body felt heavy, and his mind seemed slow.

“Come on, now. You gotta wake up, or Doc’s gonna have both our heads.”

Johnny felt a light tap on his cheek, and he brought his hand up to swipe at whatever was annoying him.

“That’s right, boy. You fight, understand? Now come on and wake up so you can fight proper.”

Johnny swam up out of the haze and opened his eyes. All he could see was a bunch of whiskers.

“When are you gonna shave off that rat’s nest, anyway?” he whispered.

Jelly beamed at him. “Why would I shave it off? It’s what keeps me popular with the ladies. If you had any sense, you’d grow one, too.”

Johnny snorted softly. “Ain’t likely.” His eyes tried to shut again, but Jelly gave him another tap on the cheek.”

“Quit hittin’ me,” Johnny complained.

“Then you stay awake and I won’t have to. Doc said you ain’t allowed to sleep all the time anymore. We had a heck of a time wakin’ you up, so he says now we have to keep you from gettin’ so deep.”

“I’ll try.”

“You’ll do more than try, Marshal Madrid!” Jelly threatened.

Johnny managed a weak smile. “How long have I been out, anyway?”

Jelly shook his head. “Near on a week.”

Johnny tried to bolt up, but Jelly easily restrained him. “You just simmer down. You still aren’t right.”

“Who’s taking care of the town?”

Jelly smiled. “Well, it’s sort of a joint venture.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, everybody’s pretty much agreed to look out for everybody else. Hasn’t even been a fistfight since you got hurt.”

Johnny chuckled weakly. “Maybe I should get hurt more often.”

“That ain’t funny. They’re doing it for you. Sorta showin’ how much you mean to them.”

“Why? I didn’t do nothin’.”

“Johnny Madrid, you are the most exasperating person I know. Course you did something, and the towns just showing their appreciation. Now just lie back and rest. You don’t have to worry about a thing.”

Johnny nodded reluctantly, then suddenly he frowned. “I ain’t dead.”

Jelly chuckled. “Don’t seem ta be.”

“How? Last thing I remember is that gray comin’ at me with ears pinned and hooves poundin’. Thought I was a goner for sure.” He looked at Jelly quizzically. “You shoot him?”

Jelly snorted. “Didn’t have time. ‘Sides, I didn’t even have my rifle. No, it was that horse of yours that saved you.”

“Barranca?”

Jelly nodded. “Danged if that old pony of yours didn’t break his training and go after that gray. He hit that gelding so hard he knocked him clean through the fence, then he stood guard over you. Took a lot of sweet talkin’ to get him to let us near you.”

“He’s okay?”

“Site better’n you are, I’d say. He’s been getting the royal treatment down at the livery.”

“Good, he deserves it. I knew that old horse was worth something, ” Johnny said before dropping off to sleep once more.

Sully sat in an old rocking chair on the boardwalk, watching people go by. When he’d first arrived in town, he’d thought it would be easy. He’d find Madrid, call him out and shoot him, then leave. He’d forgotten the small fact that he had no idea what the man looked like. He’d done a little asking around, and he’d been told Madrid had gotten himself hurt almost two weeks ago. He had almost panicked, thinking he was going to be cheated out of his revenge, but had been assured that the Marshal was on the mend. Sully was afraid to ask what the man looked like because he hadn’t wanted to raise any suspicion, so he’d decided to just stick around until he figured out just who his prey was.

He’d been sitting there for several hours, and he was getting bored and tired. He kept flexing his hands and wrists to keep them from getting stiff, but it would have seemed too obvious if he kept jumping up and walking around, even though that was exactly what he felt like doing. He wasn’t a patient man, evidently. He’d studied every man that walked by, to make sure it wasn’t the man he was after, but none of them wore badges or looked like they could be the man he was after.

He decided he’d wait another hour or so, then get a bite to eat before turning in for the evening. He was tired from the long ride here, and he figured there was always tomorrow. He had the advantage because no one knew what he was in town for. He watched idly as a young man crossed the street down by the saloon. At first he discounted him because of his age; he didn’t look like he was much more than twenty.

“Marshal! Marshal Madrid!”

Sully came out of his chair in anticipation, waiting to see who responded. To his surprise, it was the young man he had just dismissed. The dark haired man turned and waited while a shopkeeper ran up your him and started discussing something. Sully studied him, but still wasn’t sure. He had a short jacket on and Sully couldn’t see a badge. He started getting agitated; he wanted to get this over with now, but he needed to know for sure who that man was. At that moment some boys ran by, rolling hoops.

“Wait!” Sully shouted desperately.

One of the boys stopped and looked at him quizzically.

“Who is that man in the black pants?” he asked, pointing at Johnny.

The young man looked at him in disbelief. “That’s our Marshal.”

“What’s his name?” Sully demanded.

“Madrid. His name is Johnny Madrid. He’s the one who killed the whole Pardee gang,” the boy offered eagerly.

A low buzzing filled Sully’s ears as the boy ran off. He stared at his quarry as the businessman walked off and Madrid started walking away. Scully knew it was time. In fact, it was past time. He took a deep breath and stepped down into the street.

“MADRID!”

Johnny whirled around and saw the man who was calling him out. He started toward him, but stopped as Sully yelled once more.

“I’m calling you out, Madrid! Now draw!”

“What?”

“I’m calling you out!”

“You crazy? I ain’t fighting you!”

“I said draw, or I’m going to shoot you down where you stand!”

Johnny stopped and just stared at the man. This had to be a bad dream. It just had to. “Why are you doing this?” he pleaded.

“You killed my father and sister, you son of a bitch. You killed my whole family, now draw!”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open and he just stared at the man.

Sully was getting angry that be couldn’t get the Marshal to draw, and no matter what he had planned, he wasn’t comfortable just gunning him down. “I’m going to count to three, Madrid, and then I’m drawing whether you do or not. ONE!”

“What do you mean I killed them? They’re dead?”

“TWO!”

“I told you I ain’t fighting you. Let’s talk about this!”

“THREE!”

Johnny never even moved even as the bullet slammed into his chest. He kept his gaze on the man who had shot him, and as he fell, he whispered one more question.

“Why, Scott?”

Chapter 19

Jelly stood up as the doctor stepped into the room. “How is he?”

Doctor Huffington shook his head as he addressed the crowd in his office. “It missed his heart, but he lost a lot of blood. It nicked a lung and broke two ribs. Right now I’m having trouble keeping the lung inflated. I just don’t know.”

“Can I see him?” Jelly asked.

Huffington nodded. “Just you for now.” He moved his gaze over the group of people filling his office. I’m going to need your help. He’s going to need round the clock care.”

Jelly nodded as he looked around. “He’ll get it. Just about everybody in town said they’ll be willing to help.”

“He has a lot of friends,” the doctor observed.

“He shore does.” Jelly looked around at the friends he and Johnny had made here. “You all go on home. We’ll let you know if we need anything, and keep you posted on his condition.”

Doctor Huffington waited until the others left, then turned to follow Jelly into the back “What about the man who shot him?”

Jelly stood next to the bed and stared down at his friend. “Well, I arrested that dirty sidewinder and got him in a cell, and then I took the liberty of posting guards. I was afraid of a lynching.”

The doctor nodded his head. “That’s a very real possibility.”

“Personally, I’d like to string him up myself, but I reminded everybody about the promise they made to not break any laws while Johnny was laid up. They didn’t like it, but it stopped it for now.” He looked at the doctor. “I sent a wire to Marshal Wheeler. I thought I’d better get him here before all hell breaks loose.”

“Good idea, but if Johnny dies, I don’t think the President himself could stop a lynching.” He shook his head. “I don’t understand what that man had against him, do you?”

“Nope. I even asked him. He just kept saying Johnny deserved to die.” Jelly hesitated. “Out on the street, he said Johnny had killed his family.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Jelly sighed in relief. “I don’t either, but I’m glad to hear you say it, too. The other thing I don’t understand…” Jelly hesitated, then continued, “Why didn’t Johnny shoot? He had plenty of chances and he just stood there.”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see it.”

Jelly looked worried. “Johnny acted like he knew him, and he acted…”

“What?”

“He acted guilty, like he was sorta shocked at what he was saying, but that maybe…maybe he was lettin’ the man get his revenge.”

Huffington took a deep breath. “We’re not going to jump to conclusions. We’ll just have to wait until he’s better, then ask Johnny.”

Jelly nodded. “Just make sure we’re able to ask him, Doc.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Jelly started up, grabbing his rifle as he came awake.

“Take it easy, Jelly. It’s just me,” Marshal Wheeler said quietly as he walked into the room. “How is he?” he asked as he approached the bed.

“Not good. Not good at all. He’s still havin’ trouble breathing and his fever’s already up, and it hasn’t even been 24 hours. Doc’s lookin’ real worried.”

“He’ll make it. I know he’s a fighter.”

“Yep, he is,” Jelly replied as he looked speculatively at the lawman. “You made good time,” he observed.

“I came as soon as I got the telegram. Did the prisoner give you any trouble?

“Nope. Didn’t fight me when I arrested him, neither. Just handed me his gun and came along quietly. I know I didn’t have no authority, but I wasn’t gonna let him just ride out after what he done.”

“You did the right thing. Saves us having to mount a posse and go after him. How are things at the jail?”

Jelly shrugged. “I haven’t been there much. I have several men from town watching the prisoner. There’s been some talk of a lynching, but nobody’s tried nuthin’ yet.”

Wheeler nodded. “As much as I sympathize, let’s try to keep it that way. I brought four men with me to help keep a lid on things. Not only do I not want him lynched, I don’t want anyone breaking him out, either.” He looked down at his friend. “I’m going to go interrogate the prisoner and see what I can find out. When I’m done, I’ll come back here and take my turn sitting with Johnny.”

Jelly nodded. “No hurry, Marshal. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Wheeler went over to the bed and touched Johnny’s arm. “Don’t worry, Johnny. I’ll make sure the man pays.”

The prisoner sat on the rough cot, he head in his hands, trying to reconcile in his mind what he had just done. Even though he couldn’t remember his past, he somehow knew that he wasn’t a violent man. He couldn’t be if this shooting was affecting him this way. Even though he hated the man that he’d shot, the way he had done it just didn’t sit right with him. Damn Madrid! Why hadn’t he fought back? He’d just stood there, waiting to be gunned down. Maybe he knew he deserved it. Maybe he knew he needed to die.

With a sigh, he rubbed the back of his neck, his thoughts going in a million directions. He hated the way it had happened, but he still wasn’t sorry he’d done it. The man was an animal that needed destroying, and he was glad he had been the one to stop him, even if it wound up destroying him, too. He just hoped Madrid was dead. He hadn’t heard one way or the other, but the way the townspeople had acted toward him, he assumed the Marshal had died.

That was the other thing. Why was everyone so upset that a man like Madrid was dead? Maybe he hadn’t shown his true colors here. They acted like he was some great hero; like he was a good person, like he was their friend. Was he the only one around here that knew the man for what he was? A cold blooded killer? Jake had told him numerous times just how underhanded and dishonest the man could be. Maybe he had managed to con all of these people.

With a deep sigh, he shut his eyes. Either way, it didn’t matter. Madrid had killed his family, and even though he couldn’t remember them, in his mind he knew that family was important. Some of his family might not have been the most upstanding of men, but they were still family, and he was honor bound to avenge them. The method he had used didn’t sit well with him, but in his heart he knew he’d done the right thing, even if no one else knew.

Wheeler stood outside the cell, glaring at the man inside. The prisoner raised his head and locked eyes with the Marshal, and Wheeler thought the man’s eyes looked haunted.

“What’s your name?”

The prisoner sighed. “Sully Pardee.”

“Pardee? You related to Dan Pardee?”

He nodded. “He was my cousin.”

“So you came to get revenge?”

The man nodded. “Not only for him, but for the rest of my family.”

“You think Marshal Madrid killed your family?”

“I KNOW he did!”

Wheeler looked at the man belligerently. “Well, maybe he had a reason. If they were all like Dan…”

“He raped and killed my sister and killed my mother.”

Wheeler shook his head. “I find that hard to believe.”

“Think what you like.”

Troubled, Wheeler studied the man. “You saw this firsthand?”

“No.”

“Then how are you sure it was him?”

“I KNOW! My cousin told me.”

“The same one or a different one?”

“A different one,” the prisoner ground out.

“Another cousin?” Wheeler asked sarcastically. “What’s THIS one’s name?”

The prisoner glared back. “His name was Porter. Jake Porter.”

Wheeler had never heard the name, but maybe Johnny had.

“It wasn’t just Porter who told me. The two men riding with him, Rob Cooper and Marv Wilson, were old family friends. They told me the same thing. They had no reason to lie.”

Wheeler’s eyes narrowed. “And just where are these upstanding citizens now?”

The man took a deep breath. “Dead.”

Wheeler’s eyebrows went up. “All three of them?” At the man’s nod, the Marshal continued. “Did you kill them?”

“I was riding with them. The others had been arguing, and before I knew it, my cousin had shot Wilson.”

“Just up and shot him for no reason,” Wheeler said sarcastically.

“Wilson may have gone for his gun first, because I couldn’t see from where I was. I was somewhat behind my cousin. Anyway, he shot him, then Cooper went for his gun. For all I know, he could have been trying to shoot me. I instinctively drew and shot him as his gun went off. That bullet hit my cousin.”

“So they’re all dead. Pretty convenient.”

The prisoner sprang to his feet. “I don’t think it’s convenient at all! My cousin DIED! Besides, what difference does it make? I’m the one that shot Madrid, and I’m glad I did for what he did to my family.”

Wheeler sighed. “Doesn’t make any difference, I guess. I’m just trying to figure out why you gunned down my friend in cold blood.”

The prisoner dropped his eyes. “I’m trying to figure out the same thing. I thought he’d fight back, I thought he’d draw if he saw he had to,” he said angrily, before looking up at the sheriff. “So now what?”

Wheeler shrugged. “The judge should be in town in a few weeks. We’ll make sure you’re safe in jail until then.”

“And then there will be a trial, and then…”

The Marshal looked into the man’s eyes. “Then you’ll hang.”

Chapter 20

Jelly was getting almost frantic. They had been fighting Johnny’s fever for days, but no matter what they did, it not only refused to break, it continued to climb. The Doc had tried everything he could think of to bring it down. They’d wiped him down with alcohol, immersed him in water, and even packed him in ice. Some of the things had worked for  a while, but before long his temperature would spike once more.

It had been four days since Johnny had been shot, and he still hadn’t even come to enough to get any water down. A couple of times he had come close to waking up, and each time he became agitated and mumbled incoherently before once more lapsing into unconsciousness. As hard as he tried, Jelly couldn’t make out any of the words that Johnny kept repeating. He’d asked both Doc and Bill Wheeler, and they had noticed the same thing when they were sitting with him. It was obvious to all three men that something was bothering Johnny, even as he lay unconscious.

The second day Doctor Huffington had been forced to put a tube down Johnny’s throat to give him water and a little bit of broth, but all three men could tell that Johnny was gradually getting weaker. None of them mentioned it, hoping it was just their imagination, and hoping if nothing was said it wouldn’t be true.

But deep inside they knew, and they were all becoming exhausted and gradually losing hope.

Jelly watched as the Doc listened to Johnny’s lungs for the hundredth time. “Well?” he asked as Huffington straightened up.

The doctor carefully folded up his stethoscope and placed it into his pocket before turning toward Jelly. “His breathing is becoming more labored and his heart rate is going up.” He shook his head. “I just don’t know what else I can do.”

Jelly stuck his chin out at the doctor. “What you can do is not give up on him! Now what haven’t you tried?”

“I’ve tried everything, Jelly!” Huffington snapped.

“Well, what’s keepin’ him down? Why isn’t he waking up?”

“I don’t KNOW!”

“You got some idea!” Jelly persisted.

The doctor bowed his head. “I THINK there might still be some infection inside of him. Maybe a pocket or abcess formed, or it’s possible that I missed something or there was some contamination. It could be anything, and I don’t know for sure that’s even it.”

“Well what do you have to do to fix it?”

“NOTHING! There’s nothing I can do.”

Jelly glared at the man. “If you missed something, or there’s some infection left inside, why can’t you go back in and fix it?”

The doctor glared back. “It’s not that simple. He’s too weak for me to operate again, he’d never make it through the operation. He’d die from blood loss and shock or his heart would give out. “Besides, It’s possible that I could open him up and there wasn’t anything I could even fix. It would just make him weaker. I could kill him.”

Jelly stood up and walked over to the bed. He picked up Johnny’s hand and held it, then stared at his face. “He’s dying anyway, isn’t he?” he asked softly.

When he didn’t get an answer, he looked over at the doctor, who was standing with his eyes closed.

“I asked you if he was dying!”

After a moment, Huffington nodded. “Yes.”

Jelly puffed up and stared at the man. “THEN OPERATE! At least then we can say we done all we could. Johnny deserves that chance, no matter how small. Don’t just let him go because you’re too yellow to try.”

The doctor stared at Johnny for several moments, then gave a weak nod. “All right. Help me get him ready.”

The house was dark when he rode up. There was no welcoming light in the windows or soft gray smoke curling up from the chimneys. The moonlight reflected off of the adobe, giving everything an eerie glow. He stepped off of his horse, watching for any sign of movement, but there was none. A sudden breeze moved a few dead leaves along the ground before swirling them up and carrying them away. As quickly as the breeze came up, it died, leaving the yard still and quiet. He looked around the empty courtyard, then moved to the back door that led to the kitchen and cautiously pushed it open. The only sound was the slow drip of water falling from the pump and hitting the bottom of the sink with a plunk. The usual jumble of smells of cinnamon, apples, fresh baked bread, and peppers, was gone. The kitchen smelled stale, with an underlying hint of vegetables just starting to go bad. He quickly moved out of there, feeling frightened; feeling that something was wrong.

He walked through the dining room, noticing the dust that covered the usually spotless table. He continued on into the Great Room, with its shelves of books and massive furniture. The model ship sat on its stand, the sails hanging drunkenly. Again, the smells were missing; the smells of home. Lemon and pipe tobacco, a hint of lavender, and the cloying smell from the huge honeysuckle vines outside the windows, planted to try to mask the pervading smell of cow. But even that smell was missing. There was no smell of manure, and there was no soft lowing of cows or bawling of hungry steers.

Just as it had been in the kitchen, the air in the Great Room had a faint smell of decay. It was like no one had ever lived here, no one had ever laughed or cried, argued or joked. It was like the air was dead.

He turned and headed for the staircase, not wanting to go upstairs, but unable to stop. He passed the grandfather clock, silenced by neglect and forgotten. A solitary spider had woven a great web between the spindles at the top of the clock, and a fly was buzzing and flapping as it desperately tried to pull free. He stood mesmerized, watching the struggle as he stood at the bottom of the stairs, a deep sense of unease washing through him. He finally put one foot on the bottom stair and started up. The air became colder with each step he climbed, and a sudden breeze rattled the windows before once more falling quiet. He could see an occasional spot on the steps, but it was too dark to see what it was.

He finally reached the landing, forcing himself to move away from the stairs and down the long hall. The spots were more frequent up here, and familiar scents finally reached him. They were odors he had smelled many times in his life, and that always signaled pain and death. It was the smell of blood and gunpowder. He shuddered suddenly, and then slowly walked to the first room and hesitated right outside.

The slick, coppery smell was stronger now. Strong enough to turn his stomach, but he had to see. He turned the doorknob and pushed the massive oak door inward. His father lay on the floor, eyes staring sightlessly up at nothing, a small bullet hole between his eyes. His pipe lay on the floor next to him, the tobacco sprayed out across the rug.

He slammed the door shut and hurried to another room, not even stopping to think. Pulling it open in panic, he stopped abruptly as he saw her lying on the bed, a small white hand turned toward him as if beckoning, her hair dark with blood and spread across the pillow in waves. He started toward her, but his courage left him and he ran from the room, the coppery smell following him.

He hesitated at the last door, and he ran his trembling fingers lightly over the wood, then moved his hand down to the knob. He grasped it, then jerked it away as if burned. He couldn’t do this, he just couldn’t. Finally he made his hand move once more, and he slowly swung the door open. With relief he saw that his brother was sitting by the window, staring out. He sighed softly and started over to him.

As he approached, the chair slowly swung around until he could see his brother’s face. Blood was dripping from his head, and his eyes were glazed and dead, but he held out his hand in supplication. “Why?” he whispered. “Why did you kill us?”

Johnny started to back up, then stopped and stared at the gun in his hand. It was still smoking, and there was blood on the end of the barrel. As he watched, it, the blood slowly formed into a droplet and splattered on the floor, joining the other spots. Johnny screamed and threw down his gun as Scott stood up and held out his hand. “Why?” he whispered again. Johnny turned and bolted down the stairs. He skidded into the Great Room, desperate to get away, when he saw the floor was now littered with the corpses of every man he ever killed. Frantically, he turned away to go through the kitchen. He heard shuffling noises all around him, but kept his eyes locked on the door. His fingers had just touched the handle when he felt hands grab him and try to pull him back into the house. He fought frantically, but they were just too strong.

Jelly and Wheeler struggled to keep Johnny still as he struggled violently against them. “Grab his arm, he’s going to pull out his stitches!”

“Hold him!” Doctor Huffington ordered as he filled the syringe with shaking hands. His patient had been resting peacefully just seconds before, although his heart rate seemed elevated. Without warning, he had suddenly started thrashing around, fighting them like a wildcat when they attempted to calm him down. He managed to grab Johnny’s wildly swinging arm and pushed the plunger home. Johnny kept fighting for several moments, then gradually relaxed. Jelly and Wheeler slowly released their hold and looked at each other with relief before sinking down onto the edge of the bed.

Chapter 21

Johnny slowly opened his eyes, then grimaced as he tried to shift his weight. A hand appeared and immediately touched his chest.

“How are you feeling?”

A small smile formed on Johnny’s face. “Like I’ve been run over by a stagecoach,” he rasped.

Wheeler chuckled, then lifted a glass of water up to Johnny’s lips. He drank eagerly, but the glass was removed after only a few swallows.

Johnny relaxed back onto the pillows, and Wheeler also relaxed, assured that the man was finally in his right mind. Suddenly his arm shot out and he grabbed Johnny, once more fighting to keep him quiet.

“Dang it Johnny, hold still! You’re gonna tear out those stitches! STOP IT! JUST CALM DOWN!”

Johnny finally lay still, panting with the exertion. Wheeler once more took his hands away cautiously, ready to grab his deputy if he started fighting again.

Johnny looked pleadingly at the deputy. “Where’s Scott?”

Wheeler shook his head and glanced over at Jelly, who had just entered the room. “I don’t know. Now just relax.”

Johnny tried to sit up. “Where is he? Is he okay?”

“I DON’T KNOW! NOW RELAX!”

Johnny struggled to sit up. “I gotta find him!”

“STAY STILL!” As the man continued to try and sit up, Wheeler struggled to keep his friend from moving around. “Jelly, go get the Doc. He needs something to calm him down. He’s still not thinking straight and I’m afraid he’s going to hurt himself.”

“I’M THINKING FINE YOU SON OF A BITCH! JUST TELL ME WHERE HE IS!” Johnny yelled as he fought against the man holding him.

“JELLY!” Wheeler shouted. “GO!”

“So help me, Bill, if you don’t listen to me, I’m gonna gun you down myself,” Johnny snarled. “Now where is he?”

Jelly started to leave, then stopped and stared at Johnny, who was obviously getting more frantic. He watched several seconds before stepping forward. “Let him go, Bill.”

“What?” Wheeler ground out. “I thought I told you to get the doc!”

Jelly nodded. “You did. I just want to make sure we need him before I go waking him up.” He turned and looked at Johnny. “Just calm down and talk to me, Johnny. JOHNNY! Talk to me!”

After several seconds, Johnny finally relaxed.

“Now that’s better. Just tell old Jelly what’s botherin’ you.”

Johnny nodded and shot Wheeler a dirty look. “At least somebody believes I’m not crazy.”

“I never thought you were crazy!” Wheeler protested. “Johnny, you’ve been out of your head and fighting us for over a week. If you’ll just calm down and tell us what’s wrong, maybe we can figure it out. Now what’s going on? Who’s this Scott?”

Johnny finally nodded and took a deep breath. “Okay, so where is he? Is he okay?”

Wheeler shook his head. “Who are you talking about? We don’t know any Scott.”

Johnny closed his eyes, and acted like he was struggling to speak. “He’s the one who shot me,” he said quietly.

Jelly and Wheeler looked at each other in shock for a moment before Wheeler shook his head. “You called him Scott.”

Johnny nodded.

“This guy’s name is Sully. Sully…Pardee.”

Johnny’s head shot up and he looked first at Wheeler, and then at Jelly, who nodded vigorously.

“You’re crazy,” Johnny argued.

“Johnny, he told us that’s what his name was.”

Johnny shook his head in confusion. The shooting, coupled with the nightmares he had when he was delirious all melted into each other. It was hard to tell where reality stopped and the dreams took over. Had he dreamed the part where he thought it was his brother?

“I don’t understand,” he said quietly. “I knew it was him.” He looked up at Wheeler. “He’s really another Pardee?”

The Marshal shrugged. “That’s what he says, and I don’t see any reason he’d lie about it. If anything, he’d want to deny it.”

“That’s sure enough true,” Jelly chimed in. “The Pardee name ain’t very popular around here.”

Johnny shook his head in confusion. “It was him!”

Bill put his hand on Johnny’s arm. “You were delirious off and on for almost a week. Maybe…Maybe you just thought you remember it being him.”

Johnny closed his eyes and sighed. “Yeah, I guess. I had some pretty mixed up dreams.”

Wheeler snorted. “From what we heard they were more than mixed up. I’d say you had some pretty good nightmares.”

Johnny hung his head. “Can’t remember most of them, but I’m not complaining.” He looked up at the two men. “It was so real,” he whispered. “I would have sworn it was really him.” He thought for several moments. “What does he look like?”

Wheeler thought for a minute. “Sandy hair, tall and fairly lean, no obvious scars.”

“Well, that fits. And his clothes?”

Wheeler shrugged. “Scruffy looking. Like his clothes used to be nice, but they’d sure seen better days. Pretty dirty, too, just like him. He hadn’t shaved for  a while.”

Johnny shook his head. “What about the horse he was riding?”

Jelly spoke up. “Nothin’ special. Sort of a ewe necked sorrel.”

Johnny sighed. “Well, the clothes and the horse pretty much rules Scott out. Guess I was mistaken.”

“Just who is this Scott?”

Johnny sighed. “Nobody I guess. Look, I’m getting a little tired. Think I’ll shut my eyes for  a while.”

“Just take it easy. No sense hurryin’ things,” Jelly cautioned as he helped Johnny stand.

“Hurrying things? I’ve been stuck in that bed for almost two weeks. It’s time I get up and go back to earning my keep.”

“You know Bill’s taking care of the town.”

“Yeah, but he shouldn’t have to be. I need to get back to work, and that’s not going to happen with me lying around.” Johnny took a few cautious steps and managed to make it to the chair by the window. He nodded in satisfaction. “Now I can at least keep an eye on things.”

Jelly rolled his eyes. “And what’re you gonna do if you see somethin’? You try and go down there, you’ll fall flat on your face.”

Johnny patted the gun he had stuffed in his waistband. “I can at least get somebody’s attention.”

“Johnny,” Jelly hesitated, not sure how to ask. “Why did you let that varmint just gun you down? Why didn’t you shoot him?”

“I don’t know. I thought I knew why, but I guess I was wrong. What I thought I remembered must have all been part of those crazy dreams I had. He looked up at the old man. “Pretty stupid huh?”

Jelly chewed his bottom lip. “I think he said somethin’ that bothered you. He said you’d killed his father and sister.”

“He really said that? It wasn’t part of my dream or whatever it was?”

“No, he said it, and you just stood there, like…”

“Like I’d done it?” Johnny snapped.

Jelly didn’t answer and looked at Johnny cautiously, expecting an explosion. Instead, the man’s head was bowed, and Jelly felt sick inside.

“Is that what you think of me?” Johnny asked softly. “You think I could hurt a woman?”

A wave of relief rushed over Jelly. “Nope. I don’t think that at all. Just wondered why it got to you so bad.”

Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know. I really don’t. He reminded me of…someone I knew  a while back. I guess It just threw me when he accused me of those things.” He shook his head. “I really thought it was him.”

“You’re sure it’s not?”

Johnny brought his head up and stared at Jelly. Then shook his head decisively. “The man I knew dressed well and would rather not eat than go without shaving. And he was a little bit of a horse snob. He’d NEVER own a ewe necked horse.”

Jelly shrugged. “Maybe he didn’t have a choice. Did you ever think of that?”

Johnny looked at him in contemplation and Jelly continued. “If it means that much to you, it wouldn’t hurt to check it out before it’s too late.”

“What do you mean, too late?”

“Well, the judge is supposed to be here by the end of the week. Bill doesn’t think it’ll take very long. Twenty people saw him gun you down in cold blood.”

Johnny sighed. “I guess. Maybe Bill can bring him up here in a day or two.”

Jelly nodded. “It wouldn’t hurt. Then at least you wouldn’t be second guessing yourself.”

“Guess you’re right.” He mentally shook himself. “Why don’t you go get something to eat and then get some rest, old man. You’ve been hovering around here non stop. You must be tired.”

“Don’t you be callin’ me old! I can keep up with you any day of the week, Marshal Johnny Madrid!”

“Go on. You know Bill will be up here shortly. Besides, I’m fine. I don’t need anybody babysitting me anymore. Now get out of here and go get some sleep. I’ll see you in the morning!”

Johnny smiled as Jelly harrumphed and mumbled all the way out of the room. He owed the old man more than be could repay, but Johnny needed some space. He wasn’t used to people hovering. He remembered how Teresa had hovered when he’d been shot fighting Day. For that matter, Scott and Murdoch had done their fair share of hovering, too. He remembered it was the first time he’d felt safe while recovering from a bullet wound. It had also been the only time until this last injury. Bill and Jelly had been here the whole time. If he couldn’t have his family, at least he had some good friends and he should be thankful for that. Somehow, though, it just wasn’t the same.

Johnny’s eyes spotted some movement over by the jail and his eyes focused on three men walking down the side of the building toward the back. Right after they disappeared, he realized some men were taking the prisoner to the outhouse. He sat up a little straighter. Maybe he could get a glimpse of his face when they came back.

He sat there for several minutes before the three men returned. He leaned forward slightly, but it wasn’t until the prisoner walked through a patch of moonlight that his features became clear.

Chapter 22

“You sure you’re up to this?” Jelly asked as he stood next to Johnny right outside the jail.

Johnny nodded. “The judge is supposed to be here tomorrow or the next day, and I HAVE to see for myself. It sure looks like him, but I just can’t imagine him letting himself go like that.” Johnny shook his head. “I need to see him up close. Then I’ll know for sure.”

“Okay. Bill’s waitin’ for us inside. He chased everybody else out, figured you didn’t need no audience. He didn’t tell the prisoner anything, either, just like you said.”

Johnny hesitated for another minute, then resolutely turned the knob and pushed open the door. He nodded to Marshal Wheeler, then walked back to the cell. He stared at the man who was sitting on the bare cot, his head in his hands.

Finally the man raised his head and looked at Johnny. They locked eyes for several seconds before the prisoner jumped to his feet and approached the bars

“You’re alive,” he snarled.

Johnny took a step back as he stared at the apparition inside the cell. “Scott?” he asked tentatively.

The man’s eyes narrowed. “My name is Sully. Sully Pardee.”

Johnny shook his head as he continued to study the man. “Scott, I know it’s you. What’s goin’ on? What’s this all about?”

“I TOLD you, my name isn’t Scott!”

Johnny desperately grabbed the bars. “Look at me!”

The man stayed where he was, looking furiously at Johnny through his shaggy hair.

Johnny locked eyes with the man for several seconds, then shook his head and turned toward Wheeler. “It’s him. I don’t care what he says.”

“You’re sure?”

Johnny nodded. “Look, I want to talk to him alone for a little bit. You can come back in a couple of minutes. Maybe he’ll tell me why he’s doing this if it’s just the two of us.”

Wheeler nodded, then grabbed Jelly’s arm and walked out, with Jelly giving one last worried glance at Johnny before shutting the door to the outer office behind them.

Johnny turned back toward the prisoner. “All right, we’re all alone. Now tell me what’s goin’ on!”

The man stood and approached Johnny. “The only thing that’s ‘going on’ is that I want you dead.”

Johnny ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “WHY? What did I do?” he pleaded.

“I told you before. You killed my family.”

Johnny felt as if someone had punched him in the gut. He had hoped that had only been part of his nightmares. “Murdoch and Teresa are dead?” he asked woodenly.

At the man’s blank look, Johnny continued. “You know, Murdoch? OUR father?”

The man recoiled away from the bars. “What?”

“Scott, what’s the matter with you? Don’t you remember? We’re brothers. Murdoch’s our father.”

“I’m not your brother!”

Johnny tried desperately to stay calm. “Do you remember Murdoch or Teresa?”

“I…” he stopped, confused. “No,” he whispered. “I don’t remember anything.” He staggered over to the cot and sat down. “Go away, please, just go away.”

“I’m NOT gonna go away! Not till I figure out what’s going on! Now what do you mean you don’t remember?”

“I just don’t remember, that’s all.”

“Oh, no big deal, right? You just HAPPEN to not remember. What are you hiding, anyway? Are you running for some reason?” The thought crossed Johnny’s mind that maybe Scott had killed Murdoch, but he shook it off immediately. His brother would never do that.

The man looked furiously at him for several seconds before finally starting to speak. “I’m not running.” He took a deep breath. “The first thing I remember is waking up in a doctor’s office in a town called Logan. They said I’d been found unconscious and had apparently been robbed, because I didn’t have anything but a newspaper clipping in my pockets. I couldn’t remember anything at all, not even my name. I still can’t.”

“So why are you so all fired determined that your name is Sully Pardee?”

“A man recognized me. He told me later that we were cousins.” He looked at Johnny angrily. “I believed him, and he said you had killed several members of our family.” He dug into his pocket and brought out the tattered clipping. “I had this with me.”

Johnny reached through the bars and held out his hand. The prisoner hesitated for several moments, then put it in Johnny’s hand.

Johnny read it quickly then handed it back to him, confused. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe you had that clipping because you wanted to find me?”

“I DID! I wanted to find you and kill you!”

Johnny snorted. “You’re not a killer, Scott.”

“Quit calling me that!”

“IT’S YOUR NAME!”

“My name is Sully Pardee,” he answered emphatically.

Johnny studied him for several seconds. “Boy, you are stubborn, aren’t you? That alone pretty much proves you’re a Lancer.”

“I thought you said we were brothers,” the blond quipped.

“We are.”

“But now my last name is Lancer and yours is Madrid?” he verified sarcastically.

Johnny took a deep breath. “I…I took another name.”

The prisoner snorted. “You have an answer for everything, don’t you?” He shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but like I said, my name is Pardee!”

“Why do you want to believe that? The Pardee’s were nuthin’ but thieving murderers. They deserved to die, and I think you know that.”

“Maybe they had their reasons.”

“Yeah? Like what?” Johnny asked belligerently. “What excuses are there for being a bunch of back shooting scum?”

“Like I said, I don’t remember, but no matter what they were, they were also my family.”

“Some family,” Johnny snapped. “The Pardee boys. You must be so proud.”

“I didn’t know them long enough to know whether to be proud or not. Either way, they were family.”

“NO, SCOTT! THEY WEREN’T!”

“The man said I was his cousin,” the man insisted implacably.

“YEAH? Well I’m tellin’ you you’re MY BROTHER! How come it was so all fired easy to believe him and not me?”

The man shook his head, then stopped and stared at Johnny. “For one thing we look nothing alike.”

Johnny’s shoulders slumped. “We’re half-brothers. Same father, different mothers.”

The prisoner thought for a minute. “I have some scars. Where are they and what caused them?”

Johnny opened his mouth, then closed it and dropped his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted.

“You’re telling me we’re brothers and you don’t know? What’s your excuse for that?”

Johnny glowered at the man, knowing how it sounded. “We didn’t know each other for that long. In fact we just met several months ago.”

The man’s eyebrows raised. “So you don’t know anything about me.”

“I know enough!” Johnny spat. “I know you’re honorable and tough. I know you’re good with a rifle. I know you’re smart and had a good education.” He glared at the other man. “Do you think the Pardees were educated? What about this so called cousin? What is his name, anyway?”

“Was,” he ground out.

“Okay, WAS.”

“His name was Porter. Jake Porter.”

Johnny felt like he just might throw up. “Porter?” he asked weakly.

“Yes!” The man insisted. “ Like I said, he was my cousin.”

“Jake Porter was the biggest slime ball there was.” Johnny thought quickly. “Did he see that newspaper article?”

“Yes.”

“Scott, Porter hated me, and he knew who you were. I’ll bet you any amount of money he cooked up this little scheme to get back at both of us.”

The man on the cot tiredly rubbed his temples. “Look, just go away. At this point I really don’t care. Besides, I don’t have any reason to believe you. If anything, your story makes a lot less sense than Jake’s. He at least looked a little like me, and he knew about my scars. Maybe it’s you who is trying to pull something.”

“If those scars are on your upper body, Porter probably saw them when he beat the hell out of you. Your shirt was pretty torn up afterward. He and Pardee had taken you prisoner to force OUR FATHER to sign over his ranch. You told me later that Porter was the one who beat you up.”

“That’s your story, anyway.”

“It’s the truth!”

The prisoner shrugged. “Like I said, Jake’s story makes more sense.”

“But Scott…”

“I TOLD YOU TO QUIT CALLING ME THAT! Now please, go AWAY!”

.

Both Jelly and Bill jumped when the door to the cells banged open. Johnny came flying past them and headed outside.

“Where are you going?” Jelly called.

“To send a telegram, and then go talk to Doc,” Johnny yelled as he slammed the door in their faces.

Chapter 23

Johnny knocked softly on the door, and then walked into Doctor Huffington’s office. A moment later the physician stepped out from a curtained off area and looked in surprise at the man standing there.

“Johnny! What brings you here? Everything okay?”

Johnny started to nod, then closed his eyes. “No, everything’s not all right.”

“Are you hurt?”

Johnny shook his head. “No, I’m fine. I just…I need to ask you some questions.”

Concerned, the doctor nodded toward a chair. “Sit down and let’s talk.”

Johnny slid into the chair, but wasn’t sure where to start. Just as he started to talk, the door opened and Jelly and Marshal Wheeler stepped into the room. Expecting to be rebuffed, Jelly stuck out his chin. “I know this is eatin’ at you, but me and Bill have a right to know what’s going on!”

Johnny scowled at them for a moment, then nodded reluctantly. “Pull up a chair.”

A few seconds later, Johnny began his story. He started with telling how his mother left Murdoch and his gradual transformation into Johnny Madrid, then his father’s summons that had saved his life. He told them about the fight Lancer had been forced into by Day Pardee, and how he had come to know and love his family. Finally he recapped what had happened earlier in the jail. An hour after he started, he finished his story, then sat back waiting for their reactions.

“Johnny, are you SURE it’s him?” Wheeler asked.

“As sure as I can be.”

Jelly bit his lip. “You said you only knew him for a short time. Maybe…Maybe it’s just wishful thinkin’.”

Johnny shook his head and then looked over at the doctor. “I guess that’s possible. But when I’m with him, I’m sure. It’s just later, when my mind tells me how impossible it is, that I start to doubt myself.”

“Is there any way to tell for sure?”

Johnny shook his head. “Not that I know of.” Suddenly, he jumped to his feet. “But it IS him,” he said emphatically . “Doc, I know it is, but…” he shook his head again.

“But what, Johnny?”

“It LOOKS like him, and his voice is the same, even the way he moves is the same, but certain things are different.”

“Like what?” Huffington asked.

Johnny shrugged. “He seems rougher somehow. Rougher and not as refined. The Scott I knew was a gentleman, no matter what. He was always clean, and even when he wore his work clothes, he somehow made it seem like he was wearin’ a fancy suit. His clothes were always spotless, except when he was workin’. He always had good manners, and always wanted things to be neat and in order. He was…” Johnny struggled to find he right word.

“Meticulous?” Doctor Huffington offered.

“Yeah, that’s it. Meticulous. And the man in the cell may not be a slob, but he’s close.” He looked at Marshal Wheeler. “Has he asked for a shave or to clean up?”

“No.”

Johnny shook his head. “There’s other things, too. The Scott I know wouldn’t shoot somebody down, not without a darn good reason, and even then I don’t think he’d shoot to kill. And he wouldn’t have called me out like he did. Scott would have wanted to discuss it first, made sure he was right before doin’ anything. I’ve never known anyone with a more developed sense of right and wrong than my brother. The man that shot me down acted like he didn’t care if it was justified, he just wanted to see me dead.” Johnny hung his head. “I don’t know, maybe I am mistaken.”

Doctor Huffington spoke up. “Johnny, from what you said, the man said he’d suffered a pretty severe head injury. If it kept him unconscious for several days, there had to be some brain damage. He’s lucky to be alive. Loss of memory, or amnesia, is fairly common in those circumstances. Not only did he forget his past, he also “forgot” how he used to act. His manners, his insistence on cleanliness, even, to a certain extent, his idea of right and wrong, they were all learned behaviors. If he was thrown in with men like this Jake Porter, he may have simply copied their standards.”

“You mean he’s like Porter or the Pardees? I can’t believe that. Scott’s too proper, too fair minded.” Johnny protested.

“I’m not saying he’s just like them. He still has his innate sense of self, his general way of thinking, even his inborn morals, although they might be bent a little bit because of the men he was with.”

“Will his memory return?” Johnny asked.

Huffington shrugged. “Maybe. That’s all I can tell you; he might get better. I CAN tell you that getting him around familiar and well known surroundings and people will help. Some small item, a familiar word, or even a person may be enough to jar his memory so it would come back, either partially or completely.”

“So he needs to go back to where he knows, “ Johnny reiterated.

“That is IF it’s really your brother,” Wheeler cut in.

Johnny nodded. “I sent a telegram to my father asking where Scott was. I should be getting a response back later today. That will tell me if I’m wrong about him.”

“Johnny, there’s still the trial,” Wheeler said carefully.

“I TOLD YOU, I ain’t pressin’ charges.”

The Marshal shook his head. “It’s out of your hands. He shot down a deputy Federal Marshal. It’s a federal offense, and a hanging offense.”

Johnny turned fully toward Wheeler. “I am not letting Scott hang,” he said quietly as he glared at the man. “Besides, he didn’t shoot down a Marshal, he shot a gunfighter who he thought had killed his family. There’s a big difference.”

“Not in the eyes of the law.” Wheeler took a step back at the look of venom that Johnny shot him. “I don’t know if it can be stopped. Besides, you already admitted you’re not even sure it’s him.”

“Unless I’m SURE it’s NOT him, he’s not hanging.” Johnny said threateningly.

“You are a Federal Marshal, sworn to uphold the law!” Wheeler snapped.

“I’m a DEPUTY Marshal that was pretty much forced into office. If you want, I’ll resign right now.”

“You’re not a deputy,” Wheeler argued.

“I’m not? What? You already fired me? Well that’s fine with me.”

“I didn’t fire you. I submitted your name to be considered for an appointment as a regular Federal Marshal. The appointment came through today. I found out about it on the way over here.”

Johnny stared at Wheeler, stunned. After a moment he laughed. “Do they have any idea just who they appointed?”

“They know everything there is to know,” Wheeler said seriously. “They know all about your past.”

Johnny snorted. “And they still appointed me? Are they crazy?”

“The area you would be assigned to is the lower western territory, which includes Arizona, Nevada and California. Most of your duties would be to take care of the numerous outlaws, gangs, and range wars in those states. Actually, they probably thought your background was very helpful. Marshals Cleburne and Rhoades take care of the court related duty, so you would be on special assignment to combat lawlessness in your sector.”

Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know if that’s what I want.”

“Well, think about it. In the meantime, here’s your badge.” He flipped the Marshal’s badge over to Johnny, who caught it and stared at it before slipping it into his pocket.

Murdoch fingered the telegram thoughtfully. Clyde had torn into the courtyard and nearly run his horse onto the patio to deliver it. Murdoch was ready to take the man’s head off, but all thoughts of mayhem disappeared when he saw who the telegram was from. He had said a short prayer of thanks, then asked Clyde to saddle a fresh horse to ride back into town to send the reply. Murdoch stepped into the Great Room to pen his answer. That the telegram was from Johnny surprised him, but the question that he asked made him stop and think. He had asked where Scott was right now. Murdoch wondered why it was so urgent that Johnny knew. The only thing he could come up with is that Johnny wanted to get together with his brother.

If he told Johnny the truth about Scott being in Boston, Johnny might actually try to go there and see Scott. If, however, Murdoch told a little white lie and said Scott was here at Lancer, there was a good chance he would soon see his younger son again, something he never thought would happen. Once he was here, maybe between them they could get Scott to come back. He had never lied to either one of his sons before, but maybe this time it would be justified. He thought for several more seconds, then resolutely picked up a pen to write his reply.

Chapter 24

Johnny sat in his chair by his window, looking out at the street below. His eyes watched the evening activity, but his mind wasn’t registering anything. He glanced down at the telegram he held in his hands and a sad smile formed on his face. The telegram had been brief and to the point.

“Scott in Boston stop Johnny please come home stop we’ll bring Scott home together stop signed your Father stop.”

It felt good, knowing his father wanted him, but the telegram really hadn’t helped. WAS Scott really in Boston? Or had he somehow gotten hold of that newspaper clipping and come to Montana looking for him? Would Scott do that? After all, they really were still strangers to each other. Was the man sitting in that cell really his brother, or was he actually a Pardee who just happened to look like Scott? Johnny sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. He had run out of time for any more investigation; the judge was in town and court would start tomorrow morning at nine a.m. sharp.

He still didn’t know what he was going to do. All he knew was that he had to get him out of that jail. What it really boiled down to was he couldn’t take the chance. Even if all the evidence pointed to him being wrong about the man, he couldn’t let him hang. He’d never forgive himself if the man died and then he found out it really had been Scott. No, he couldn’t let that happen, no matter what.

The problem was, he didn’t know how to prevent it. Even if he broke the man out, he doubted the prisoner would be cooperative. He’d probably fight him the whole way. As angry as the man was, he’d shoot Johnny the first chance he got, and then take off. The other problem was Wheeler. Beside the fact that Johnny would be betraying a good friend, he knew the Marshal would be honor bound to bring them back, and he knew he could never kill Bill Wheeler. He glanced down at the street, then leaned back in the chair and shut his eyes.

A light tapping on his door a few minutes later brought Johnny’s musings to a close. He stretched, glanced at the clock, then went over and opened the door.

“Getting kind of careless, aren’t you?” Wheeler asked.

Johnny shrugged. “I knew it had to be you or Jelly at this hour. Besides, I saw you come into the hotel.” He pointed to one of the chairs. “Have a seat.”

After they both were seated, Wheeler came right to the point. “Did you figure anything out, yet?”

“I know I’m not going to let him hang. Everything in me tells me it’s my brother, no matter what the evidence shows.”

Bill nodded slowly. “So what are you going to do?”

Johnny smiled. “Do you really think I’d tell you if I was going to break him out?”

Wheeler nodded. “Actually, I think you would. But I don’t think that’s what you have in mind, is it?”

“I really don’t know what I have in mind,” Johnny replied tiredly. “I’ve thought about it so long my mind’s just not working anymore.”

“And you haven’t been able to think of anything?”

Johnny snorted. “Oh, I’ve thought of plenty of things. Problem is, they’re all illegal and somebody would probably wind up dead.”

“Like me?” Wheeler asked.

Johnny looked at him sharply. “I wouldn’t do anything that got you hurt. I don’t turn on my friends.”

Wheeler hung his head. “I know. Sorry.” He thought for a minute. “If he somehow gets off, what do you plan on doing?”

Johnny shrugged. “After talking to Doc, I think it would be best for Scott if I took him back to Lancer. That might help his memory. I don’t know what else I could do. Besides, he can’t stay here in Montana.”

“It would help him If it IS Scott, “ Wheeler added.

“Yeah.” Johnny shook his head. I know that everything points to me being wrong, but somehow, I KNOW it’s my brother.”

“You’re really sure about that, aren’t you?”

Johnny thought about it for a second, then nodded. “Yeah, I am.”

Wheeler stared at Johnny, then dropped his head. “All right, we need to figure out how to get him out of here.”

Johnny snorted. “Seems like that’s what I’ve been tryin’ to do.”

“What if you, as a Federal Marshal for California, told the judge that California had first claim on prosecuting him?”

“Then I could take him to California,” Johnny continued, straightening up in his chair.

Wheeler nodded.

After a moment, Johnny shook his head and slumped back down. “It’s no good. He’d still be facing charges here.”

Wheeler smiled. “SULLY PARDEE would be facing charges. Scott LANCER is unknown here as far as I know.”

Johnny smiled slowly. “Think it would work?” he asked hopefully.

Wheeler shrugged. “Judge Cramer is a crafty old bird, but we might get away with it.”

Johnny’s smile slid off his face. “What about you? You’d have to agree, and it ain’t exactly legal.”

Wheeler smiled. “As a very wise man told me, ‘The law isn’t always right. What matters is that Justice wins out.’”

The two men smiled at each other, then Wheeler thought of something else. His smile faded. “What happens if you find out you’re wrong? If it isn’t your brother?”

Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I’d probably bring him back here. One way or the other, I’ll make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone again.”

Wheeler nodded, understanding what Johnny hadn’t said. “Have you given any thought as to whether you’re going to accept the appointment?”

“It looks like I won’t have a choice if I’m gonna be taking Scott out of here and back to California.” His look darkened. “Especially if I’m going to have to force him to go. If he still doesn’t remember, he’ll be fighting me. Porter did a good job of getting him to hate me, so I might even have to keep him tied up. It’ll save a lot of explaining if I’m wearing a badge.”

“And what about after you get things settled with your brother?”

Johnny hesitated, thinking about Lancer, then with an effort, he pushed the memory out of his thoughts. Even though his father had obviously wanted him there, nothing had really changed. He was still living by his gun. Finally he dropped his head with a sigh. “Looks like I’ll be chasin’ outlaws.”

Wheeler placed his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “I know it’s not what you really want, but you’ll make a great Marshal.” He punched the shoulder lightly. “I’ll probably be reading about you before long, just like Wyatt Earp.”

Johnny snorted. “I’ll settle for just stayin’ alive.”

The two marshals walked into the courtroom a half of an hour early. Judge Cramer looked up in surprise. “May I help you gentlemen?”

Wheeler nodded. “Marshal Madrid here is from California. He says he wants to take the prisoner back there to face justice.”

Johnny tried not to smile. Bill certainly hadn’t lied.

Judge Cramer’s eyebrows rose “Is that true, Marshal Madrid?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“And just why do you want to take him all the way to California?”

“Because that’s where he belongs,” Johnny replied glibly.

Cramer studied the two men. “And just why does California want him?”

Johnny hesitated. “He’s done a lot there,” he said finally, as Wheeler nodded.

“Specifically?” Cramer prodded.

Johnny thought of the battle with Pardee. “Well, he’s killed several people there.”

“Marshal Madrid, didn’t you also tell me he had been tied up with some land pirates?” Wheeler added.

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, he sure was. He was involved in a kidnapping, too.”

“A young woman was also involved in that, wasn’t that right?” Wheeler asked.

“Yeah. A young woman and the son of a rancher who was trying to stop the outlaws. Several people were killed in that fracas.”

“So you think the people of California have more of a reason to judge him?” Cramer asked.

“Absolutely,” Johnny emphasized. “He’s definitely done more there than he has here.”

“He could still be tried here, then taken to California if they want him so badly,” the judge suggested.

“No sense in that,” Wheeler said quickly. “Besides, once he gets to California, he won’t be coming back here.”

Cramer scowled at the two men. “And you couldn’t have decided all of this earlier? I could have saved myself a trip down here.”

Johnny shrugged. “Sorry.”

“Uh huh. By the way, what was the name of the Marshal the defendant was supposed to have shot here in Silver Bow?”

Both Marshal’s opened their mouths, then shut them and looked at each other.

“Gentlemen, I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but since two Federal Marshals for some reason want this man in California, I’m not going to stop them.” He looked severely at both men. “You’re not planning on killing him, are you?”

“No Sir!” Johnny said emphatically.

“Or doing anything illegal, beyond what you’re doing now?”

Johnny shook his head sheepishly. “No.”

“Well, I’ll take you at your word. But I want him out of my jurisdiction and on his way to California this week, understand?”

“Yes, Sir, and thank you,” Johnny said sincerely.

“No problem. Besides, it’s the least I can do for the famous Marshal Madrid,” the judge chuckled.

Chapter 25

Wheeler walked into the back of the jail, where the cells were. He stared at the man sitting on the cot for several moments before the prisoner finally raised his head.

“What do you want?” he spat.

The Marshal continued to stare, then walked closer to the bars. “I don’t know who you are,” he said quietly, “and to tell you the truth, I don’t think you know, either. All I know is my very good friend believes you’re his brother. He just stuck his neck out and put his career on the line to keep you from hanging. I went along with it because I didn’t want to take the chance of being wrong and having him lose his brother. Just remember this: Johnny is one of the most honorable and decent men I know. I can guarantee that whatever that piece of shit Porter told you about him was nothing but lies, designed to hurt both you and Johnny. Now you can believe me or not on that, it’s up to you. BUT, you’d BETTER believe me on this: If you do ANYTHING to hurt him, know that I WILL come after you. I don’t care where you are or how long it takes. If you hurt him, you’re a dead man.”

Johnny walked Barranca , a roan gelding and a dark Bay gelding over to the hitching rack in front of the jail. The bay was a nice looking horse with lots of chrome and decent conformation, and was well trained. Johnny had broken both geldings himself, and knew that in a race, Barranca could take them both with no problem. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he figured it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared. He’d decided to take the roan horse along for back up, and to pack some supplies. He was going to follow the route he’d taken to get here, and knew there was some rugged country between here and Lancer. He had thought about taking the longer route down to Salt Lake City and then cut over to California, but he knew this trail and was fairly comfortable with it.

He checked the pack on the roan and shook his head. The man at the livery had insisted he take the pack saddle and rigging for free, and both the owner of the mercantile and the feed store had told Johnny to help himself to all the supplies he needed. Johnny had tried to be frugal, but the store keepers kept heaping more supplies onto the pile. Johnny had finally had to insist that he couldn’t use any more, or he would have needed a whole mule train to haul the loot. When he tried to pay, the men had acted offended and shoved the money back at him. Finally, the lady that ran the local restaurant had presented him with a large sack full of sandwiches and cookies, so he knew they’d be eating good for at least a few days.

He walked up to Barranca and fingered the custom engraved Winchester rifle that had been given to him by Bill Wheeler. It was tucked into a beautiful hand tooled scabbard that had been given to him by Jelly. The knife had been a present from Doc Huffington. He still couldn’t believe that the town had done all this for him. It almost made him dizzy. He sure had made a lot of fine friends in this place, and he hated to leave. He knew that no matter what happened in California, he always had a home here, and it made him feel warm inside.

He looked up as a chestnut Molly Mule approached the hitching post, carrying large saddlebags – and Jelly. Johnny looked at the old man suspiciously. “Just where do you think you’re going?”

Jelly’s jaw jutted out as he replied. “I’m going to visit my sister in Stockton. Been meaning to do it for  a while now, but haven’t had the chance. Thought I’d ride along with you that far.”

“Jelly,” Johnny said threateningly.

The old man’s chin stuck out even further. “Course, if you don’t want me to ride with you, I guess I’ll just have to go it alone. Just thought it would be safer if we rode together, but I know when I’m not wanted.” He turned the mule around and had gone about ten feet before Johnny called him back.

“All RIGHT! You can come with us. Just don’t be griping about the conditions. It’s a rough trip.”

“I won’t hold you up, I’m not helpless, you know.”

“I know. I just don’t want anything happening to you, not on my watch. Like I said, it’s a rough trip, and I don’t know how much trouble Scott’s going to give me.”

“I trust ya, and if you’re right about him being your brother, I don’t think I’m in any danger.” His face crumpled. “Johnny, I really want to go,” he pleaded. “If somethin’ happens, well then, I guess it was meant to be. But I ain’t gonna stop doin’ things. Might as well just lay down and die.”

“All right, old man, you win. Just don’t take any chances.”

“Don’t plan on it. I ain’t stupid, you know.”

With a sigh, Johnny turned and walked into the sheriff’s office. Bill was sitting with his feet up on the desk, perusing wanted posters.

“Find anything exciting?” Johnny asked.

Bill shook his head. “Nope, and I’d just as soon it stayed that way.” He looked up at Johnny. “You getting ready to leave?”

“Yeah.”

Wheeler nodded and handed him a packet. “Here’s your identification, your orders, and a few deputy badges in case you need them. It looks like you’ll be going right where you need to be. There’s a range war starting in the San Joaquin valley.”

Johnny’s head snapped up. “Lancer?”

Wheeler shrugged. “No names were mentioned, but from your description, I think it’s north of your ranch.”

Johnny relaxed slightly, but he decided to waste no time on the trail home. Home. He had been here longer than at Lancer, and the people here really wanted him. His background didn’t matter. So why did he always think of Lancer as home?

He mentally shook himself and looked at the Marshal uncertainly. “Thanks for everything.”

Wheeler nodded. “You too. Until I hear from you I’ll send any correspondence to the Lancer Ranch, just like you said.” He hesitated. “Johnny…I know you think he’s your brother, and you’re probably right. But even if he is, he doesn’t remember you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking he couldn’t hurt you. This isn’t the man you knew and trusted.”

Johnny nodded slowly. “I know,” he said quietly. “But It’s still hard. I don’t want to treat him like a prisoner. I think it’ll hurt me more than him, but I also know it’s necessary, at least for  a while.”

“It is. And don’t be too quick to trust him, even if he acts like he’s come around. You told me yourself how smart he is. Just remember that.”

“Yeah.” Johnny picked up a set of handcuffs and studied them before turning and stepping into the back.

Johnny stood outside the cell and watched until the man raised he eyes and looked at him.

“You and I are gonna go on a trip,” Johnny said, staring at the now clean shaven man. He had bought the blond some new clothes and paid for a bath and shave. The transformation further solidified Johnny’s belief that this was his brother.

“Where?”

“California.”

The man ‘s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Can’t find a hanging tree closer than that?” he asked sarcastically.

Johnny knew he was being baited and he had already decided not to bite. He knew this wasn’t Scott talking, it was Porter. Johnny once more silently cursed the man to hell. “I’m taking you back to your home. Maybe your memory will come back if you see the ranch and our father.”

“My home, not yours?”

Johnny shrugged.

“How do I know I can trust you?”

Johnny snorted. “Well, if you want, you can stay here. Judge Cramer is still in town, and I’m sure he would be happy to go ahead with a trial. And there’s a real nice old tree right on the edge of town. Save me a trip.”

The prisoner took a deep breath and stared at the man he’d learned to hate. Finally he gave a quick nod. “All right, I’ll go with you. But I still hate you and I certainly don’t trust you.

“Fair enough. Well, I don’t trust you, either. At least now.”

“You mean you did at one time?” he snapped sarcastically.

Johnny stopped and stared at him. “There was a time I trusted you more than anyone on earth. I would have died for you and not even thought about it.” He thought for a moment. “Still would, I guess, as long as I know you’re really my brother.” He chewed the inside of his lip. “Doesn’t mean I’m gonna take any chances on you takin’ off or doing something stupid.”

“Fair enough,” Scott mimicked. “Don’t expect me to cooperate.”

Johnny smiled as he held up the handcuffs. “I don’t. And that’s what these are for. Oh, and if you want to eat, you’d better start answering to Scott, because I sure as hell ain’t callin’ you Sully.”

The prisoner cocked an eyebrow at his captor, a slight smile on his face. “Yes Sir, Marshal Madrid!”

Johnny smiled. In that moment he knew. The verbal sparring, the mannerism, the cocky look. There was no longer any doubt. This was Scott.

Chapter 26

They had been on the trail for a week, and had fallen into a routine. They would usually ride single file, with Johnny leading and Jelly bringing up the rear. Johnny took the handcuffs off of Scott during the day, confident that Barranca could chase down the bay if needed. At night, Johnny would attach one end of the cuff to Scott’s saddle and the other end to his wrist. Even though he was taking a chance, Johnny didn’t have the heart to tie him more securely. Johnny was a light sleeper and hoped he’d wake up if he heard any movement. So far, though, Scott had been remarkably compliant. He hadn’t tried anything and hadn’t complained. Johnny wasn’t sure if he was just biding his time, or whether he was beginning to believe Johnny.

The men seldom talked while they were travelling, but once they stopped for the night, Johnny worked on Scott. He told him about their father and the little bit he knew about Scott’s mother. He explained how Murdoch had sent for Scott from Boston and how Scott had talked him into sending for Johnny. He had talked till he was hoarse, but except for a few questions, that Johnny was unable to answer, Scott had basically remained inscrutable.

Johnny sat back against a convenient rock and sipped his coffee. They had stopped early today, because he thought Jelly was tired. To tell the truth, they were all probably tired. The trail they were on wasn’t the kind on which you could sit back and relax as you rode. Today especially had been hard on both men and horses. They had wound around boulders and ponds, and zigzagged up and down the sides of canyons. There were always rocks and branches to dodge, and wildlife to avoid.

An exhausted Jelly had set up camp while Johnny had seen to the horses. By unspoken agreement they had decided to eat trail food; it would have just been to much of an effort to try and hunt, then gut and roast the kill. Scott had made some coffee while the other two were busy, and had handed a cup to Johnny when he came back from watering the horses. Johnny took the offering, locking eyes with his brother for several moments before Scott turned away. For the first time, Johnny felt some hope that maybe things would get back to normal. As tired as he was, he vowed to try to talk to Scott again tonight.

Jelly rummaged in the pack and brought out some biscuits left over from the day before and a small package of jerky and sank down onto his bedroll with a sigh.

Johnny walked over and took a few biscuits and some of the jerky, then turned and handed Scott half before sitting back down with his back resting on a rock.

“Thanks for making the coffee,” Johnny started.

Scott nodded.

“Has anything come back to you?”

“No.”

Johnny sighed. “Do you still believe what Jake told you?”

Scott shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Scott,” Johnny pleaded, “I’m tellin’ you the truth. Why can’t you believe me?”

“Why?” Scott snapped. “If anything, you’re making less sense than Jake’s did. Everything I ask you, you don’t know.” Johnny started to speak, and Scott held up his hand. “I know, we haven’t known each other for very long. I just think it’s strange that you know virtually NOTHING about me, or even our supposed father.”

“I explained all that,” Johnny said sullenly.

“Well, so far you haven’t given me one good reason to believe you.”

“How about savin’ your life?” Johnny snapped. “If I wanted to hurt you, I could have just left you in that cell till they hanged you. I didn’t really want to leave Silver Bow, you know. I’m doin’ this for you!”

“Even the handcuffs? “ Scott spat. “I really appreciate that.”

“Will you give me your word you won’t take off?” Johnny asked.

“No.”

“Then I can’t take them off.”

Scott snorted. “If I gave you my word you’d forget all about those handcuffs, right?”

“Johnny…” Jelly cautioned.

With a last glare at Scott, Johnny jumped up and walked away from the fire. He knew Jelly had been listening in on their conversations, but he didn’t really care. The old man was almost like family. Scott on the other hand… Johnny shook his head. He knew he wasn’t making much progress. Scott always either ignored him or answered back with sarcastic jabs and remarks. There were times he felt like grabbing his brother and beating some sense into him, but so far he had managed to keep his temper. He just kept telling himself that this wasn’t Scott who was acting this way; it was Porter.

Johnny walked over to Barranca and buried his face in the horse’s mane. Maybe he was just fooling himself. Maybe it wasn’t really Scott. Or maybe the injury he had suffered really had changed him. Or maybe the Scott he knew before never existed. Maybe Scott had always been like this, and he had just put on an act around Johnny. He just didn’t know any more. He just knew that if something didn’t change soon, he had no chance of ever getting his brother back.

He thought back on what Scott had said. WOULD he trust Scott enough to keep the handcuffs off? No, not now. Not the way Scott was acting. Even if he promised, Johnny knew he wouldn’t mean it, and he wasn’t going to let Scott take off, never to be seen again. And if the worst happened and Johnny had been wrong, he didn’t want Jelly to get hurt. No, he had to keep being cautious, but he sure didn’t like it.

After several minutes, Johnny walked back to the fire, and sat down across from Scott. He picked up a stick and started scratching in the dirt as he thought, and then finally started to talk.

“You know, I never lost my memory. I sure as hell wish I had.”

Scott looked up sharply and stared at him.

“My childhood wasn’t the best,” he continued, so softly that Scott had to strain to hear him. “I did a lot of bad things, and had a lot of bad things done to me. I was just sort of drifting along, getting closer and closer to that line.”

“What line?” Scott asked.

“The line that once you cross, you can never go back.”

Scott dropped his eyes as Johnny continued. “You see, I was a gunfighter. Pretty good, too. As a kid, that was all I wanted to be: Johnny Madrid, a gunfighter who was good at his trade. I hadn’t much thought about the consequences, or just what that would mean. And by the time I DID realize it, it was almost too late. You see, I knew the difference between right and wrong, and I had a conscience. It would have been easier if I didn’t. Seems like rapin’ and cold blooded murder came easy to a lot of men I knew; men that I hung around with. But it didn’t to me. I could never cross that line. But deep inside, I knew that the longer I stayed in the game, the more blurred that line would get. And I knew that eventually, I’d step over it. I didn’t want to, but I knew it would happen, and I hated myself for it. I just didn’t see any way out. Except dying of course. For  a while I almost tried to get myself killed, even though I didn’t admit it, even to myself. I took chances, though. Chances that should have ended up with me dead. It didn’t happen. Somehow I always survived. And the more times I cheated death, the more chances I took.” Johnny shook his head. “All that happened is my reputation grew, and I got in even deeper, until finally I accepted that there was no way out for me.”

“Then, something happened. I was given a way out. And not just a way out, but a chance at a totally different life. You see, my brother talked my father into sending for me, and offering me one third of their ranch.” He hesitated, still hurting over the way his father had acted. “My father, OUR father, Murdoch Lancer, realized that he couldn’t handle the fact that I was a gunfighter.” He looked at Scott. “My brother didn’t care. He was willing to look past my background and accept me, not my reputation. In fact, he put his life on the line to make sure I did stay.”

Scott’s eyebrows rose as he realized what Johnny was saying. “But you didn’t stay,” Scott observed.

Johnny shook his head. “No. As hard as you tried, it still boiled down to Murdoch not being able to trust that I would quit. That, and my fear that one of you would get hurt because of me. I could never take that chance.”

“So you left and went back to fighting.”

“I left, but I came here, to Montana to get away from fighting. You had showed me that maybe I could quit, after all. I had planned on getting a horse ranch and settling down. Even after I was talked into being a deputy marshal, I had planned on resigning and starting my ranch as soon as I could.”

“What stopped you?”

Johnny stared at Scott for a moment, an unfathomable look on his face. “My brother.”

Chapter 27

Scott glared at Johnny. “Are you trying to make me feel guilty?”

“NO! I’m just trying to understand, that’s all.”

“Understand what?”

“The whole time I was fighting, if someone would have come up to me and told me it was all a mistake, that I had a family and a home, I would have jumped at the chance to change. I hated my life and would have made a deal with the devil himself to get out of it. I would have figured that you hated the idea you were related to that scum, and been happy to find out differently. Instead, you seem to be fighting to convince everybody, including yourself, that you really are nothing but a two bit outlaw, and you’re holding onto that idea with both hands. WHY?”

“I’m not trying to convince you or anyone else of ANYTHING. I just don’t want to get suckered.”

“it seems like you already were! Besides, how could I possibly be “suckering” you? I got you out of that cell and away from the hangman, and I haven’t exactly been beatin’ you up every day, now have I?

Scott took several deep breaths. “I just don’t know what you want.”

“I WANT my brother back!”

“Are you really sure that’s what I am?”

“Yes.”

“You weren’t before.”

Johnny deflated. “I know it’s you, I KNOW you’re my brother, but you act different.”

“How?”

Johnny hesitated. “Just little things. I can’t really explain.”

“Like what?”

Johnny shrugged and dropped his head. “I don’t know.” He looked up at Scott. “The problem is, I didn’t really know you for very long. I only know how you acted in the few weeks we were together.” Johnny snorted. “And most of that time I was flat on my back in bed.”

“So how can you be so sure that I’m Scott Lancer?”

“I just am.”

“That’s not very convincing,” Scott argued.

“So you’d rather believe Porter,” Johnny spat.

“I DON’T KNOW WHO TO BELIEVE!” Scott stormed. “And until I’m sure, I’m not going to believe anyone! Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to turn in.”

Johnny glared at him for several seconds before picking up the handcuffs and tossing them to Scott. “Fine. Here you go. Your choice.”

Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and looked back at the men following him. They were both concentrating on the trail, trying to keep their horses on the best path. Johnny watched anxiously as Jelly maneuvered the roan over some fallen rocks, and finally gave a sigh of relief when they were past the obstacle. Jelly’s mule had cut his hoof several days ago and was now following them, unwilling to be left behind. They had each put some supplies on their own horses and a small pack of what was left on the mule so he wouldn’t have to carry too much. Johnny was pleased to see the mule didn’t seem to be limping too badly and hopefully Jelly could ride him tomorrow. The roan had a lot of good qualities, but being sure footed wasn’t one of them, something Johnny hadn’t found out until it was too late.

First Scott and then Jelly pulled their horses to a stop next to Barranca and gazed down the steep trail in front of them. On the way here, obstacles like this wouldn’t have made Johnny think twice, but now that two other lives were on the line he was having doubts.

Johnny shook his head. “Maybe I made a mistake. It might have been better to go the eastern route.”

“Why didn’t you?” Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged. “Indians. We could still run into them, especially when we hit the Snake River Valley, but the Seminoles further east are on the warpath big time. They’re been attacking any travelers they see. I thought this might be safer, but maybe I was wrong.”

“Well, it don’t do no good cryin’ over spilled milk. We’ll get there ok,” Jelly chimed in.

“Personally,” Scott added, “falling over a cliff sounds much less painful than being tortured by indians.”

Johnny turned and smiled at his brother. “I’d prefer not to do either.”

Scott shrugged and raised an eyebrow. “Then we’d better be careful, hadn’t we?”

Johnny’s smile grew wider. This was the Scott he knew. Johnny took one long look at both men, then turned and nudged Barranca forward. The palomino carefully picked his way down the narrow path, and Johnny gave him his head to choose his own footing. The trail was merely a rock ledge approximately four feet wide, although to Johnny it seemed much narrower. To his left was a sheer rock face rising forty feet above them, and to his right was a steep drop off, with the tips of towering trees some distance below. Johnny tried not to look down; the sight made his stomach feel queasy, although he’d never admit it to anyone.

Johnny grabbed at the reins when Barranca slipped, his hooves scrambling for purchase on the hard granite. After a few seconds that seemed like years, the palomino regained his footing and continued on. Johnny wiped the back of his neck with his hand, trying to erase the sweat that had popped up at the sudden fright.

He cautiously glanced behind him, trying not to shift his weight too much in the saddle. Scott was studying the ground ahead of him, a frown of concentration on his face as his horse picked it’s way daintily along the ledge. Jelly was bringing up the rear, the roan slopping along as if it were crossing it’s own pasture, not even bothering to go around rocks, but kicking them along with its feet. Jelly was trying to guide the horse, but there was nothing he could do to make the horse be more careful and pick up his feet.

As he watched, the roan tripped and shifted his weight to the right, throwing Jelly up onto his neck. The old man turned white as he stared down over the abyss, and he desperately grabbed the horse’s mane before cautiously sitting back up. He looked up at Johnny, who had turned white himself, then he shook his head and nudged the horse forward once more.

Ten minutes later they reached the end of that trail as it widened out and then made a sharp turn to the left. Johnny heaved a sigh of relief as he pulled Barranca to a stop just before the turn, then swung the horse around so he could watch the other two riders.

“Well, that was fun,” Scott quipped as he brought his bay to a halt in front of Johnny.

“Glad you enjoyed it,” Johnny shot back. “Thought you might need something to wake you up.” He looked over at Jelly , who was just bringing his horse up to join them.

“As soon as we get off this damn mountain, we’re going to find you a better horse, ” Johnny promised.

Jelly nodded. “It might not be a bad idea. This Jughead could trip over an ant,” he said as he sidled his horse up next to Johnny, trying to stay as far away as possible from the ledge on his right.

Johnny reached down to get his canteen, then froze as a movement almost under Barranca’s hooves caught his eye. “Dammit, look out! There’s a snake!”

Johnny backed Barranca up, hoping the horses wouldn’t see the rattler, but the snake didn’t like the movement and whipped himself into a coil, shaking his tail angrily. Barranca started to dance and fight for his head as Johnny continued to urge the horse backward.

“Jelly! Back up your horse!”

Jelly hauled back on the reins, and the roan complied. Johnny took a sigh of relief as Jelly’s horse moved further away from the snake and parallel to the drop off below.

The snake, realizing it was in no danger, uncoiled and quickly headed for a small pile of brush next to the cliff edge in front of Jelly. Jelly’s horse threw up his head and started backing frantically away from the rattlesnake.

As the horse veered sideways and neared the edge of the cliff, Jelly leaned forward, trying to get his horse to stop backing. The horse lurched as one hoof went off the side.

“JELLY! GET OFF!” Johnny frantically yelled. “He’s going over!”

Jelly obediently threw one leg over his horse just as the second back hoof lost purchase and the horse began to fall backward. Johnny spurred Barranca hard and threw his arms around Jelly, grabbing him by the waist as the roan lunged forward, trying desperately to keep from falling.

The flying front hooves hit Barranca’s legs, causing the palomino to toss his head and jump away just as the roan tumbled over the edge. Johnny refused to let go of his friend and held on, pulling Jelly toward him, but an unexpected shove from behind sent Johnny out of the saddle and toward the drop off.

Johnny hit the edge of the cliff, but his momentum and Jelly’s weight propelled them both over the side. As they tumbled, the last thing Johnny saw was Scott’s face next to the drop off and then everything was a blur as he and Jelly slid down the mountain.

Chapter 28

Johnny opened his eyes, then started to move.

“Johnny! STAY STILL!”

Johnny moved his head cautiously and saw Jelly beside him. He felt a surge of relief that the old man wasn’t dead. “You okay?”

Jelly nodded. “A bit bunged up, but I’ll live.”

Johnny looked around , trying to figure out where they were.

“We’re lucky we landed on this ledge,” Jelly offered. “See if you can scootch yourself over this way a little bit. You’re right next to the edge.”

Johnny turned his head the other way and immediately felt his stomach clench. He was looking almost straight down into a canyon, with a river churning wildly at the bottom. He turned his head back around and wiggled his body toward Jelly. When he was far enough away from the edge, he cautiously sat up. Aside from a few cuts and a lot of bruises, he seemed to be okay.

“Sorry I got you into this mess, Johnny. You shoulda just let me go.”

Johnny shook his head. “If you remember correctly, I’m the one who got YOU into this. I guess I should have gone the other way.”

“Dont be blamin’ yourself. Besides, we’re still alive.”

Johnny looked around the ledge. It seemed stable enough, but he didn’t see any possible way off. After a long look around, he finally looked up. The edge they had fallen from was at least sixty feet above them and not quite vertical. He could see where rocks had been dislodged as they slid downward. The side was almost completely smooth rock and impossible to scale.

“Have you seen Scott at all?” he asked hopefully.

Jelly shook his head. “Nope. I think I was out for a couple of seconds, but I didn’t see nothin’ after that. I might a heard somethin’ though,” he added cautiously.

Johnny’s head snapped up. “What?”

Jelly hesitated. “When I first come to, I thought I heard…”

“Go on,” Johnny coaxed, not wanting to hear.

“Well, I thought I heard the sound of a horse leavin’.”

“He wouldn’t leave us,” Johnny snapped.

“Now how do you know that?” Jelly prodded. “You said yourself he ain’t actin’ right.”

“It doesn’t matter. Scott wouldn’t do something like that.”

“Johnny…there’s somethin’ else.”

“What?” Johnny snapped.

“Well, I thought I saw…”

“Get it said!”

“Right before we went over, I saw his arm come toward you. Next thing I knew, we were flying down the side.”

Johnny closed his eyes. He’d hoped he’d imagined it, but he’d felt the shove on his back that pushed him out of the saddle, and seen Scott’s face as he fell. He didn’t know what was worse; thinking his brother had once more tried to kill him, or the possibility he’d made a mistake and the man he thought was Scott really was a Pardee.

“Well, what’re we gonna do?” Jelly asked.

“Unless you can figure out how to fly, I don’t think we can do much of anything.”

“Well, we can’t just sit here.”

Actually, Johnny thought, that’s exactly what he wanted to do. Knowing he’d lost his brother, one way or the other, made him want to give up.

“Johnny Madrid, from what I’ve seen and you’ve told me, I thought you was a fighter. Are you gonna let that no good skunk win?”

“What am I supposed to do!” Johnny snapped.

“GET MAD! You’re sittin’ there like a love sick pup, just waiting ta die. I thought you had more heart than that!”

“What good will it for me to get mad! There’s still no way out of this mess!”

“Now how do you know unless ya try?”

“TRY WHAT? In case you haven’t noticed, we’re on a ledge with no way off. Unless, of course, you want to jump,” he said sarcastically.

Jelly cautiously looked over the side. “It’s a long way down. How far do ya think it is?”

“Too far.”

Jelly leaned back against the side of the cliff, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. “Here. You’re bleedin’.”

“What difference does it make.”

With a sigh, Jelly leaned back once more.

Johnny sat looking out towards the mountains in the distance. He still couldn’t believe Scott had pushed him, and no matter what his brain said, he knew in his heart it WAS his brother. DAMN him, anyway. Even if Scott didn’t have any memory of Johnny, there just wasn’t any excuse for what he’d done. Maybe he’d been suckered all along. Maybe Scott wasn’t the man Johnny thought he was. Maybe… He sat up. Maybe Scott really hadn’t lost his memory after all. It did seem a little too convenient. But why kill Johnny? Money? Johnny shook his head. He didn’t have anything valuable enough to kill for. Johnny went still. Lancer? Was Scott afraid he’d come back and take a third of the ranch? Could that be it? But Scott was already wealthy. At least that’s what everyone believed. Maybe he wasn’t. But, damn it, he’d wanted Johnny to stay. Even offered him money if he didn’t leave. He sat back with a sigh. He couldn’t figure it out.

Johnny drifted in and out, and Jelly actually slept for a short time. Finally Johnny realized they had to try something. Anything was better than sitting on this ledge till they starved to death. Johnny once more peered over the edge. The water was about a hundred feet down, and churning madly right below them. His eyes swept sideways, looking for a way out. A little below them on his left he saw the broken body of the roan, stuck on some rocks about halfway down the cliff and totally inaccessible. He continued looking, until his eyes caught something. A little to his right there was another ledge maybe forty feet down from them. It wasn’t very big, but it might be big enough. He studied it intently, then turned his attention to the water below. Right underneath the ledge the water had formed a pool. A small smile formed on his face.

“Hey, Jelly, wake up! See that ledge over there?”

The old man peered over the edge. “I see it. What about it?”

“Do you think you can make it down there?”

Jelly studied the ledge and the expanse of rock and soil between it and where they were. “Don’t know. Maybe. But what good will it do us?”

Johnny grinned. “See that pool down there?”

Jelly’s eyes widened. “You mean jump?”

“Well, you’re the one who wanted me to figure something out.”

“Yeah, I did. But I sorta wanted you to figure out something that wouldn’t get us killed.”

“One little detail,” Johnny quipped.

Jelly looked back and forth between the water, Johnny, and the ledge, then finally sighed. “Well, let’s get at it. It’s gonna be hard enough as it is and I ain’t gettin’ any younger.”

Johnny slapped Jelly lightly on the arm. “It’s gonna be a piece if cake,” Johnny assured him as Jelly rolled his eyes.

“I’ll go first,” Johnny commanded as he stepped to the end of the ledge. He studied the terrain for a while, then stepped off the side. He slid a few inches, took another step, then lodged his foot in a crack and held out his hand. “Come on, old man. Nice and slow. Just grab my hand if you start to slip.”

Jelly’s jaw jutted out. “Nope. Ain’t pulling you down again. If I fall, then I fall.”

“JELLY!”

“NO! And it ain’t your fault if somethin’ happens. This is our only chance. Now move outta my way!”

Jelly stepped off the ledge and slid a foot or so, then dug in his foot and stopped. Johnny swallowed hard, then turned and took another step. Johnny continued on, trying desperately to map out a path to get them both across, and listening to Jelly slipping and sliding behind him. By the time he reached the lower ledge, he was sweating as though he’d run a mile across the desert. He stepped onto the large piece of rock and immediately turned and held out his hand to help Jelly down. This time the old man grabbed it gratefully, and Johnny pulled him onto the ledge before both of them sank to their knees.

It took a while for them to catch their breath, and Johnny figured while he was on his knees he should probably say a quick prayer. When he was done, he glanced over at Jelly and figured the old man was doing the same thing.

After several minutes, Johnny stood up and looked over the side. It still looked a long way down and the pool seemed mighty small. There was no way of knowing how deep it was, but he guessed they’d find out soon enough.

“You ready?” Johnny asked.

Jelly took a deep breath and nodded. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Johnny turned back and studied the water. “ Maybe I should go first. If I make it ok, then you can try it.”

“And just what am I supposed to do if you don’t make it, Mr. Smarty Pants? No, we’ll jump together,” he insisted, his jaw jutting out.

“Okay, if you’re sure.” He looked over at the old man. “Jelly, I just want to thank you…”

“Save it for when we’re down. And just so you know, I feel the same way about you.”

Johnny nodded, a lump in his throat. “All right, you ready?”

At Jelly’s nod, Johnny stepped to the edge. “Let ‘er buck!” he yelled as he stepped off into space.

Johnny had time to know Jelly was right beside him as he fell, then he felt the water reach out and grab him. He went down forever, and then started struggling toward the surface. The first breath of air never tasted so sweet, and he laughed as he realized he was alive.

A second later Jelly popped to the surface, sputtering and coughing, and Johnny grabbed him and headed for shore. He pulled Jelly into the shallows, then for some reason looked up. His face darkened as he saw Scott up on the original trail, looking down at them with a frown.

Chapter 29

Johnny slogged out of the water, helping Jelly as best he could. He was bone tired and hurting, inside and out. As soon as he got to dry land, he sat down with his back against a small boulder and put his head back and shut his eyes. He was too tired to even think about what he’d seen. He put the puzzle away in the back of his mind and concentrated on what he needed to do to survive.

He slipped his gun out of the holster and looked at it in disgust. He had to dry it off before it rusted. With a sigh he reholstered his Colt and stood up.

“Where are you goin’?” Jelly demanded.

“Gonna get some firewood. We need to dry off.”

Jelly pushed himself onto his knees. “I’ll help.”

“NO! You stay right here. There’s plenty of dead trees around. It won’t take me long.”

Gratefully, Jelly sank back. He couldn’t remember ever being so tired, and he was starting to get cold, too. He hoped Johnny would hurry it up.

Johnny walked upstream until he found a small tree that had fallen. He snapped several dry branches off, then dragged them back to their makeshift camp. Johnny quickly stripped some branches with his knife and piled the kindling on a flat rock. He reached into his shirt and brought out a tiny metal canister, just big enough to hold a dozen matches. Within a few minutes he had a small fire started, and he took off his shirt and draped it over one of the branches to dry.

He thought about Scott and wondered if his brother was going to try to find his way down here to finish them off. The only thing Johnny could do was to try to get his gun dry enough to use, but in his heart he knew it didn’t make any difference. He couldn’t shoot his brother, no matter what, but he couldn’t just do nothing while he hurt Jelly, either. He guessed he’d figure it out when the time came, if it came. Since they hadn’t been shot from above, it probably meant that Barranca hadn’t let Scott catch him to get Johnny’s rifle. If be ever saw the horse again, he’d have to make it up to him. Or, maybe Scott had caught him and was long gone with the horses and gear, trusting to the elements to finish them off. He guessed it really didn’t make any difference; either way his brother had betrayed him. He didn’t know when he had felt more disappointed in someone. He almost wished that bullet Scott put in him had been fatal, then he wouldn’t have to worry about it.

With a sigh, Johnny moved his arms and legs and then moved his head around. He was stiff and sore from all the tumbles he’d taken, and if he didn’t move he’d stiffen up more. Not a good idea if he had to defend himself.

Johnny looked over and studied Jelly carefully. The old man had to be exhausted, and hurting a whole lot more than Johnny. He had to admire the old man; he hadn’t complained once. He wasn’t sure how much more Jelly could take, and they were going to have a long hard walk out of here. Johnny wasn’t even sure HE could make it. They had no supplies except his gun, the bullets in his belt, a few matches and the small knife he kept in his boot. It sure didn’t look good, but for now he’d settle for just getting dry.

Johnny settled in next to the fire and watched the flame as he tried to get his mind to relax. Worrying about what ifs wouldn’t do him any good. He’d just have to take things as they came. He glanced over at Jelly, and saw that he was already sound asleep. He reached over and lay the man down into a more comfortable position, then went back to feeding the fire.

Several hours later, Johnny put his dry and somewhat rumpled shirt back on. He had used it to thoroughly clean and dry his gun, and he felt a little safer. He made himself as comfortable as possible, then pulled his hat over his face and closed his eyes.

Johnny jolted awake, and looked around in confusion. It took him a second to remember where he was, and he quickly glanced over at Jelly, who was snoring noisily. The sun was just peaking over the nearby mountain and he realized he’d slept all night. Something had awakened him, but he didn’t know what. His hand reached for his gun, and slipped off the safety as he heard the noise again, but before he could place it, a voice rang out and Jelly sat up quickly.

“Hello in the camp!”

Johnny stiffened when he recognized the voice, still not knowing how he would react. He drew his gun and waited.

A minute later Scott walked into camp. He saw the gun pointed at him and raised his eyebrows. “Do you really think that’s neccesary?”

“I don’t know,” Johnny said coldly. “Why don’t you tell me.”

Scott stared at him for a moment, then shrugged. “Usually when one is being rescued, he doesn’t threaten his rescuer.”

“Is that what you are? My rescuer?”

Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Well since you’re here with no horses and no supplies, I think that would be a fair assessment.”

“Well, If you hadn’t pushed me over the cliff in the first place, we wouldn’t need rescuing, would we?” Johnny said softly as his fingers caressed the grip of his gun.

Scott’s eyes opened wider in surprise. “Is that what you think of me? That I could push you over a cliff?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know what to think of you.”

Scott shook his head. “If I had pushed you over, WHY would I spend all night finding a way down here when I could have just ridden off?”

“Maybe you wanted to make sure we were dead.”

“You’re the one with the gun,” Scott pointed out. “Look. Contrary to my previous actions, I don’t want you dead. I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said, and I at least want to visit this Murdoch Lancer and see what he has to say. You’re right about me not wanting to be an outlaw.”

“If you don’t want me dead, then why did you shove me over that cliff?”

“I didn’t!”

“Then who did?” Johnny shouted.

Scott turned and pointed at Jelly’s mule, standing just outside the camp. “THAT!”

“What?” Johnny asked in confusion.

Scott took a deep breath. “When I realized what was happening, I tried to reach you. I had just put my arm out to grab you when that…that…THING…slammed into us. His head hit you in the back and pushed you over the side, and then when he turned around, his butt knocked me out of the saddle, about two feet from that snake that started it all.” Scott ran his hand through his hair in frustration and continued, with his voice getting louder and louder. “Thank goodness there was a branch next to me, so I flipped the damn thing away from me. Unfortunately, it landed right next to the horses. They took off up the trail, and that damn mule went DOWN the trail. I looked over the side and saw you moving a little, so I knew you were both alive. I knew I had to catch the horses and get all the rope in order to get down there to you. I caught my horse first, but every time I got near that damn palomino of yours, who had most of the rope, he would take off just as I reached him. By the time I managed to catch him and Jelly’s mule, who had the rest of the rope, I got back just in time to see you jump.” He stopped with his hands on his hips and glared at Johnny. “By the way, your horse bites!”

Johnny started chuckling at the distraught man’s rant. “Barranca must not have bit you too hard, I don’t see any blood.”

“Where he bit me, I hope you wouldn’t see anything, but for your information, riding is extremely uncomfortable at the moment,” Scott ground out.

Johnny gave up and started laughing.

“It’s not funny!” Scott huffed.

Jelly looked worriedly back and forth, then grabbed Johnny’s arm. “You’re not gonna believe him, are you?”

Johnny shook his head. “Jelly, he CAN’T be making up that story. Of course, I could always have him show us that bite, just to make sure,” he said as he laughed some more.

“You’ll have to take my word on it,” Scott said stiffly. “By the way, why in the world did you jump?”

Johnny stopped laughing. “We figured it was the only choice we had.”

Scott kept Johnny’s gaze for a moment, and then dropped his head and nodded. “I still don’t know who I am, and for that matter, I’m not sure who you really are, but I’m sorry I shot you. I…I KNOW that doing something like that isn’t normal for me.”

Johnny smiled. “I know it isn’t. Don’t worry, we’ll get it straightened out.” He reached over and punched Scott’s shoulder. “That’s what brothers are for.” His grin got wider. “Besides, payback’s hell.”

Chapter 30

Johnny finished tying down a pack of supplies on the back of his saddle. “Sorry Barranca, you’re gonna have to haul some gear for  a while.” He gave the horse a pat and rubbed his cheek, then whispered “I’m glad you’re okay. You can bite Scott anytime you want.”

“I heard that,” Scott warned as he led his horse up next to Johnny.

“How’s your bottom?” Johnny smirked.

“I haven’t examined it,” Scott said frostily.

“Well, I was thinking…”

“Don’t think!”

“Boy you sure are prickly.”

“And your horse is a jerk.”

“I like him that way. Harder to steal.”

“Who in their right mind would want him?”

“Better’n that crowbait you’re riding.”

“I thought I was the one with the memory problem. In case you don’t remember, YOU picked him out. Besides Scout and I get along just fine.” He gave his horse a pat.

Johnny shrugged and changed the subject. “We’re going to have to get another horse or mule as soon as we can, probably in Fort Hall. We’re just lucky we didn’t lose anything important.” He turned and smirked at Scott. “Except those handcuffs. I could have sworn I had them in my saddlebags.”

“Guess they fell out,” Scott smirked back.

“Guess I’ll have to be more careful.”

“Apparently.”

Scott nudged Johnny and pointed his head at Jelly, who was gazing up at the body of the roan high above them. “WE didn’t lose anything important, but I think Jelly did. I assume everything he had was in those saddlebags.”

Johnny shook his head. ‘”I never even thought about that.” He looked up and studied the area around the dead horse. “Do you think I could make it up there?”

Scott looked up and examined the slope. “We’d have to go from up above him, then lower somebody down with ropes. It’s a long way and it would be pretty risky. It looks like the rocks are awful loose up there. We’d also have to backtrack quite a ways. It took me all night to get down here, and the trail is not very good.”

Johnny glanced back at Jelly. “Yeah, but it might be worth it.”

Scott shrugged. “You’re the boss.”

Johnny glared at him. “I want your opinion.”

“And I gave it to you. It would be hard and dangerous.”

“So you don’t think we should try?”

“I didn’t say that. Sometimes it’s worth it to take a chance.”

Johnny nodded, then walked over to his friend. “What was in the bags?”

Jelly sniffed as he turned away. “Nothin’ much. Just a few odds and ends and some pictures.”

“Scott and I were talking. We’re gonna try and get those saddlebags for you.”

Jelly’s head shot up and he turned and looked at Johnny. “You’ll be doin’ nothin’ of the kind! It ain’t worth it!”

“I can reach it ok. You’ll just have to lower me on a rope.”

Jelly’s jaw jutted out. “You ain’t doin’ no such thing, Johnny Madrid! Whatever was in those bags ain’t worth your life!”

“But Jelly, it was everything you had!”

Jelly’s head came up. “Not everything. Johnny, it won’t be the first time I’ve lost things that were important, and it probably won’t be the last. I hate losing those pictures mostly, but I’d hate losing you worse. The people in those pictures are gone, long gone, but you’re alive, and you ain’t gonna risk your life for some old memories.”

“But Jelly…”

“No! And we ain’t gonna talk anymore about it. I appreciate it, but I ain’t gonna let you do it. Now come on, let’s get goin!”

“Jelly, are you sure?”

“Durn right I am.”

Johnny put his hand on Jelly’s shoulder. “You’re somethin’ old man, you know that?”

“Just don’t you forget it. Now come on.”

Johnny walked back over to his horse and fingered the rifle. He thought for a minute, wondering if he was crazy. But if Scott had wanted them dead, he’d had the perfect opportunity before and hadn’t taken it. He’d seemed so much like himself this morning; the back and forth banter was just like old times and something Johnny had missed dreadfully. Maybe showing his brother a little trust would help things along. He figured Scott was worth taking a chance on. He quickly untied the scabbard, then walked around Barranca to where Scott was checking the rigging on Scout. “Here. Tie this on your saddle.”

Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Isn’t that being rather lax as a jailer?”

“I ain’t your jailer, “ Johnny growled. “I just wanted to get you home.” He stared at his brother. “You did say that’s what you decided to do now, isn’t it?”

Scott nodded. “Most definitely. I want my memory back.” He hesitated. “But I did shoot you, a federal Marshal. I understood I could hang for that.”

“You could have,” Johnny agreed, “But you’re not gonna.”

“But I still did it.”

“No, SULLY PARDEE did it. You’re Scott Lancer.”

“Are you really that sure?” Scott asked quietly.

“Yep.”

“And what if you’re wrong?”

“I’m not. You’re my brother, Scott Lancer, and one way or another, we’re gonna get your memory back so you know it, too.”

Scott nodded. “I hope you’re right.”

“I am. Now take the rifle. We’ll be heading down the Snake River Valley till we hit the California Trail. The chances are we’ll run into trouble somewhere along the line, either Indians or outlaws.” He smirked at his brother. “And in case you can’t remember, you’re a crack shot with a rifle.”

They rode into Fort Hall, Idaho a week later. Johnny hadn’t set a hard pace, giving Jelly’s mule more time to heal, and the men a chance to catch their breath. The trail had been easy and well-marked, and they had enjoyed the good weather, but were eager to sleep in some real beds for a few days. In spite of his fears, they hadn’t run into any trouble, but Johnny knew they still had a long way to go. He figured they’d stay at the fort long enough to get a few good meals and some baths, replenish their supplies, and then head out in a few days. They quickly dropped the horses off at the livery and went to the hotel to check in and get some hot food.

It was four days later before they rode out. They had purchased a big dun mule for packing their gear, and their horses were fresh and ready to move. About a mile from the fort, they passed a squad of soldiers heading in the opposite direction. Scott pulled his horse to a stop and studied the men intently.

“What’s wrong?” Johnny asked, coming up beside him.

“I’m not sure. There’s something familiar about them. It’s like I can almost remember something.”

Johnny nodded. “You were in the army.”

“I was?” Scott asked in surprise.

“Yeah. You told me you fought in the union army during the War.”

Scott craned his neck around to look back at the soldiers as they disappeared in the distance. Finally, when he could no longer see them, he straightened back up. “I thought I could remember something, but it just wouldn’t come. It’s like when you know a word, but just can’t quite remember it.”

Johnny reached over and put his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “It’s ok. You’ll figure it out. Just give it time.”

Scott sighed. “I guess.” He shook his head angrily. “I hate this.”

“It’ll come, Scott. We’ll figure it out together.”

Scott looked up and nodded. “Thanks, Johnny.”

They crossed into Nevada a few days later, planning on following the California Trail to the Humboldt River. They were going to follow the river across Nevada to Carson City, then go through the Carson Pass into California. This way was a little longer, but they wouldn’t have to cross any huge expanses of desert, and there were occasional towns and encampments along the way. As they rode, they passed a few covered wagons and riders like themselves, and once in a while they even came across someone walking.

They picked up some more supplies in Elko, and were about three days out when they saw a covered wagon heading toward them from the opposite direction. It was being pulled by a single sorrel mule that was straining badly, and the lady who was at the reins was having a hard time keeping the animal going.

“Ma’am,” Johnny greeted her as they came abreast. She shot a furtive look at the three men, then slapped the reins down harder on the mule, urging him on.

Johnny turned and watched her go, then looked over at Scott and Jelly. Both of them were looking at the back of the wagon in dismay.

“There’s something wrong,” Jelly observed.

Scott nodded. “I agree. She’s scared to death.”

Johnny wheeled his horse around, then reached into his pocket and brought out his badge and pinned it on before starting back towards the wagon. He quickly pulled up alongside, but when the lady refused to stop, he grabbed the mule’s bridle and pulled the grateful animal to a halt.

“Ma’am, I’m Marshal Madrid, and these are my deputies, “ he said, pointing at Jelly and Scott. “It seems like you might be in some trouble, and we’d like to help.”

The lady didn’t answer, but a moment later a man stuck his head out of the wagon behind the woman, and Johnny moved his hand down to his gun. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw both Jelly and Scott bring their rifles up.

Chapter 31

“All right, mister. Let me see both of your hands,” Johnny ordered.

After a second, the man held one hand up.

“BOTH OF THEM!” Johnny yelled as he drew his own gun.

“He CAN’T!” the lady cried. “He’s hurt.”

Johnny lowered his gun slightly. “Is he your husband?”

“Yes,” she sobbed. “Please don’t hurt us!”

Johnny holstered his gun. “We’re not going to hurt you. Like I said, I’m a marshal. Now what’s goin’ on?”

“It was the men that own the pass up ahead,” the woman explained. “They wouldn’t let us through unless we paid, but we don’t have any more money. We offered them some of our things, but they just laughed. Then one of them said…” her voice trailed off before she continued. “He said I could pay them a different way. He tried to pull me down off the seat, that’s when George pushed him away. They pulled him down and…and they beat him up. Then they shot one of our mules and told us they’d never let us through.” She looked at the three men. “We don’t know what to do. We don’t have any more money, and they took most of our supplies. We were going back to Elko to try and get jobs.”

Johnny snorted. “There ain’t no jobs in Elko, leastways for decent folks.” He thought for a moment. “What did you mean when you said the men who owned the pass?”

The man, who had managed to get out of the wagon, explained. “They said they owned it. It’s the only pass for hundreds of miles. The wagon ahead of ours must have paid, because they let them through.”

Johnny looked at his battered face and torn clothing. “Do you need a doctor?”

George shook his head. “I’m ok. Just good and bruised. I’ll be fine.”

“And your wife?”

“They didn’t hurt me,” she assured him.

“How many of them were there?”

“Two,” the woman answered.

“You’re sure?”

“That’s all we saw.”

Johnny sighed and looked over a Scott and Jelly. “I’m gonna take a ride up ahead. You two go with them and find a place for us all to camp tonight.

Scott turned to Jelly. “Remember that stream we crossed about fifteen minutes ago?” At Jelly’s nod, Scott continued. “That grove of trees next to it would be a good spot to set up camp. Why don’t you take Mr and Mrs….?” he looked at them questioningly.

“Matthews. Please call me George, and this is my wife, Kate.”

Scott nodded. “Take George and Mrs. Mathews there and start setting up camp. Johnny and I will be back soon.”

Scott glanced over at Johnny , who was grinning at him. “What?” Scott asked.

“Nothing, boss.”

“I was just trying to help,” Scott huffed.

Johnny laughed. “You’re getting’ like your old self more and more. Come on, let’s go.”

“So what’s the plan?” Scott asked as they rode.

Johnny shrugged. “Don’t know. Just follow my lead.” He reached down and removed his badge and stuck it in his pocket. “By the way, you’re deputized. Can’t remember all the words, but do you promise to uphold the law and protect the country?”

“Of course.”

Johnny nodded. “Ok. Good enough for me. I’ll give you your badge when we get back to camp.”

“Are you going to arrest them?”

“Nope. Don’t know what I’d do with ‘em once I got them. Besides, even if we took them back to Elko, I don’t wanna have to wait around for the trial. They wouldn’t get much time, anyway. About the only thing they’d get charged with is theft. Most of the people they fleeced are long gone.”

“Are you going to kill them?” Scott asked quietly, tensing as he waited for the answer.

Johnny slanted a glance at his brother. “Only if I have to. Ain’t my first choice.”

Scott relaxed back in the saddle and nodded, thinking Johnny was right. Maybe he really was a Lancer and not a Pardee. He certainly hoped so.

Johnny pulled his horse to a stop on a small rise and looked down at the trail in front of him. Two men were sitting in a camp right next to the road. The dead mule was laying in the road some distance away.

“I don’t see anyone else, do you?” Scott asked as he brought his horse up next to Johnny.

“Nope. Seems like they’re all alone. Not much of a camp, either.”

“I don’t see any horses.”

Johnny shook his head. “Well, let’s go find out what’s goin’ on,” he said as he nudged Barranca forward and undid the safety on his gun.

When they were about ten yards from the camp, the two men stepped out into the trail holding guns. “Hold up there.”

Scott and Johnny obediently stopped their horses about twenty feet from the men. “What’s going on? Johnny asked. “You boys need help?”

The larger man nodded and grinned. “You might say that,” he said as he pointed a gun at them. “See, that pass up yonder is ours. We own it, and you have to pay a toll if you want to use it.”

“But that’s the only pass anywhere near here,” Johnny protested.

The man grinned. “Well, it looks like you want to pay the toll.”

“But we don’t have any money. My brother and I got robbed  a while back.”

“Well, I’m real sorry to hear that, but you still need to pay somethin’.” He walked closer and nodded toward Barranca. “I guess I could take that horse as payment.”

“You can’t take my horse!”

“And who’s gonna stop us?” the smaller man asked. “I always had a hankering to have a palomino. Now get off!”

Johnny slowly dismounted and stepped back from his horse as the man stepped forward and grabbed the reins. “Don’t worry, I’ll take real good care of him,” he said as he gave the reins a yank.

Barranca pinned his ears, and when the man yanked again, he snaked his head around and bit the man on his shoulder. The man howled in pain, then brought his gun up towards Barranca.

The man howled again as the gun was shot out of his hand.

“I wouldn’t,” Johnny warned the other man who had finally started to react. The two robbers turned and saw both a rifle and a colt being aimed at them.

“He BIT ME! And you shot my HAND!”

“Yep,” Johnny agreed. “And I’m gonna shoot you again if you try anything.” He looked at the second robber. “Drop it.”

After a moment, the man complied, and his gun dropped in the dirt.

Johnny walked over and kicked away the two guns. “Now I want you boys to start walking.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere, just get going, and leave all your gear.”

The men’s eyes got wide. “That’s our stuff, you can’t make us leave it!” the big man protested.

“Wanna bet?” Johnny asked softly.

“But we won’t have anything!”

Johnny nodded. “Pretty much the same as all those travelers you conned.”

“But Elko must be fifty miles from here and we don’t have a horse.”

“Yeah, why is that, anyway?”

The large man dropped his head. “Our horses died. Got into some bad water.”

“That’s too bad, for the horses, anyway.” Johnny nodded toward the dead mule. “What happened to him?”

The man glared at his partner. “He shot him.”

“He bit me, too!” the smaller man protested.

Johnny chuckled. “It looks like you’re having all sorts of bad luck, doesn’t it.” His face darkened. “Now get walking!”

“We’re gonna report you to the sheriff!”

“Doubt it. Besides, if you do, you can give him my regards. My names Madrid, MARSHAL Johnny Madrid.”

The men gaped at him. “Marshal?” one of them asked.

Johnny drew out his badge and showed them. “Marshal!” he said firmly.

“Then why aren’t you arresting us?” The smaller man asked as his partner nudged him.

“Cause you ain’t worth it. But if I EVER run into the two of you again, I will. Now get going. You have about two hours till dark.”

The men took off, and Johnny walked over to the camp. Scott stepped down off his horse and picked up the two guns, tucking one in his waistband. “You should have made them leave their holsters.”

Johnny chuckled. “Guess so. You should have said something.”

“I didn’t want to intrude. You were having too much fun.” Scott went over and picked up their pack and started going through it. A moment later he tossed a bundle of money at Johnny. “It looks like their enterprise was quite successful.”

Johnny whistled and tossed it back to Scott, who quickly counted it, then handed it back. “There’s over two thousand dollars here.”

“Damn!”

Scott quickly looked up. “What’s wrong?”

“We have to find out where that money came from, or someone might end up arresting us! Anything else in there?”

Scott shook his head. “Just some personal belongings.”

“Come on, let’s go talk to those two,” he said as he picked up the duffel bag.

Scott joined his brother. A few minutes later, they came to the two men, who were bickering and cursing as they walked. They both stopped and watched warily as Scott and Johnny approached.

Johnny stopped Barranca and stared at them, and Scott did the same. “Remember when I said I wasn’t going to take you in?” The two men nodded and Johnny continued. “I lied.”

“But you promised!” The smaller man protested.

“I’m going to ask you a question that I already have a pretty good idea of the answer to. Now if you tell me the truth the first time, I MIGHT let you go. But if you lie, I can guarantee I won’t. Understand?”

The two men nodded.

“All right, where did you get the money,” Johnny asked. “And I’d be REAL careful to tell me the truth.”

Both men nodded. “Well,” one of the men started uncomfortably. “Most of it was given to us.”

Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Given to you?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“By whom?”

“Well,” the other man chimed in, “For some reason some of the people passing by thought they had to pay us to go through the pass.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “You got ALL of this? How long were you there ?”

The larger man shrugged. “About three weeks.”

Johnny just stared at him before shaking his head. “Well, easy come, easy go. I’m gonna see that at least some of them get their money back.” He tossed the men’s duffel bag down to them. “Here’s your gear.”

“You’re letting us go?”

“Yep. But like I said, you REALLY don’t want to run into me again. Now go on.”

As the men turned and walked away, Johnny turned to Scott. “I think we’re in the wrong business.”

Two hours later they rode into camp and were greeted by Jelly. “Well, what happened?”

“Nothin ’ much, but those hombres won’t be botherin’ any more travelers, at least for  a while.”

Johnny walked over to the Mathews and drew out the cash, then peeled off some bills. “Here. This should help you get where you’re going.”

“We can’t accept that,” George protested.

Johnny shrugged. “It ain’t mine. I’m gonna try and it get it back to the people who got fleeced, but that might not be possible. Here, take it. There’s five hundred dollars there, it’ll help you get a new start.”

“Thank you so much, Marshal Madrid, I don’t know what to say.”

“Just forget it.” He hesitated for a moment, his mind warring with his heart, then he finally shrugged. “Take that dun mule, too. We don’t need him, and you need two to pull that wagon.”

He turned around, expecting Jelly and Scott to be upset, but they were both grinning.

Johnny shrugged, then grinned back.

Chapter 32

They followed the Humboldt River west, toward Carson City. The river twisted and turned, and many times they were forced away from the river when canyon walls closed in. Because of the abundance of wildlife, however, there was no shortage of food. Johnny was fairly relaxed; his visions of fighting Indians and outlaws the whole way was fast disappearing. In a week or two they’d reach Carson City, spend a few days, then head up the Carson Pass into California. It was the right time of year, and they had plenty of time to get there before the first snow.

Except for the one bad time when he and Jelly had fallen, they hadn’t run into any trouble. Scott was pretty much his old self, even though he still couldn’t remember anything, but in his upbeat mood, Johnny knew that Sam would have a magic cure in that black bag of his.

Jelly was good naturedly complaining, but they all knew he didn’t mean it. As long as he was grumbling, everything was going fine. It was when he got quiet that Johnny knew there was a problem. Personally, Johnny thought the old man was having the time of his life. He still retold the story about how they had jumped off that cliff into the water, and the cliff got higher and the pond smaller with each telling. Johnny smirked; pretty soon they’d be jumping off a cloud into a shot glass.

When the gunshot came, it took Johnny a second to react, then he pulled his pistol and glanced back at the others. Both men had their rifles out and ready, but surrounded by trees and with the rushing water nearby, there was no way to tell where the gunshot had come from. Johnny scanned the surroundings, and a nearby hill caught his eye. He spurred Barranca up the slope, and he heard Jelly and Scott following. When he topped a small rise, he looked down into secluded camp. A man, obviously an Indian, lay on the ground, and three men who looked like trappers were wrestling with a heavily pregnant woman. As Johnny watched, she kicked one of her attackers and was rewarded with a hard blow to her cheek. She dropped to the ground and another man grabbed a handful of her long black hair and wrenched her head back. The man pulled a knife, but a second later, there was a report from Scott’s rifle and the man dropped. The downed man’s companions looked around wildly, then grabbed for their own rifles. Two more reports sounded almost simultaneously, and both men went down.

“I don’t know why I even bothered to draw my gun,” Johnny quipped as he re-holstered his Colt.

Scott was already part way down the hill, and Johnny turned Barranca and followed his brother.

By the time the three of them dismounted, the young woman had crawled over to the man on the ground and was cradling his head in her arms. As soon as Scott took a step toward her, she pulled a vicious looking knife from her belt and glared at them.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” Scott said softly as the woman stared at him. He took a step closer, but she waved the knife furiously, and he stepped back.

“Any ideas?” Scott asked.

“She’s your wolf cub, you tame her,” Johnny smirked.

“I could use some help!” Scott retorted. “I think her husband, or whoever that is, is still alive, but he won’t be for long if we don’t get that bleeding stopped.”

“Maybe we should just leave them alone,” Jelly said worriedly.

Both Scott and Johnny turned and stared at him in shock.

Jelly’s face turned red. “Don’t look at me like that. I don’t want to, any more than you do. But they’re Shoshone! If we get caught by their tribe next to a wounded brave and that gal, we’re gonna lose our scalps for sure!”

Johnny looked at Scott, who shook his head. “We can’t leave them. It would be the same as murder.”

Johnny sighed. “I was afraid you’d say that. Jelly, go ahead and ride on toward Carson City. We’ll catch up as soon as we can.”

Jelly’s jaw jutted out belligerently. “Now there’s no call for that nonsense. I ain’t afraid. Just statin’ facts is all.”

“Jelly…”

“Don’t you even say it, Marshal Madrid! I ain’t leavin and that’s final! Now let’s try and figure out how ta help that poor girl.”

While they had been talking, Scott once more approached the woman, trying to pantomime that he meant no harm. She studied him with shaded eyes, but didn’t raise the knife again.

He cautiously moved up to the unconscious man and felt for a heartbeat. After a moment, he lifted his head and nodded. “He’s alive, but he’s losing a lot of blood.” Scott carefully lifted the shirtless man and looked at his back. “The bullet is still in there. It will have to come out.”

Johnny and Jelly approached cautiously, trying not to make any threatening moves. The woman continued watching them, but didn’t threaten them further.

Johnny knelt down and put his hand on the man’s neck. He felt the pulse for several seconds, then shook his head. “It’s bad,” he said quietly. “I don’t think he’s gonna make it.”

“You have to try,” Scott insisted.

Johnny shook his head again, then looked at the calm face of the woman. Finally he shrugged. “Guess you’re right. He’ll die for sure if I don’t do anything.” He looked around and saw the remains of a fire in the camp. “Jelly, get that fire started, and start tearing up one of my shirts for bandages.” He looked over at his brother. “Come on, let’s see if we can get him over by the fire without getting ourselves scalped by an irate female.”

Scott pantomimed what they were going to do, and surprisingly she stepped back and allowed them to move the injured man, although she refused to let go and continued to hold the man’s hand.

Jelly quickly got a fire started and Johnny pulled the knife out of his boot and put it in the flames. He walked over to Barranca and reaching into his saddlebags, drew out a bottle of tequila and tossed it to Scott before turning toward the river. He washed his hands thoroughly in the fast moving water, then reluctantly moved back to the unconscious man’s side. Johnny knew it was hopeless; the way the man was bleeding, he was pretty sure the bullet had hit something important.

Finally, unable to put it off any longer, Johnny knelt by the man’s side. Jelly handed him the knife with a rag wrapped around the handle to keep him from burning himself, and after a quick prayer, Johnny delicately inserted the knife blade into the wound. Surprisingly, the woman didn’t object, but sat as if in a daze, watching. Earlier, Scott had gently tried to pull her away, but she resisted violently, so he let her be.

Johnny probed further with the knife, but the wound was deep. He could actually feel the vibration of the man’s beating heart through the blade of his knife and knew that any slip would cause the man to die almost instantly. He was just grateful the man was unconscious. There was no way he could do this if the man were moving, even a little. He had to feel his way in, because there was so much blood continuing to pour out of the wound, and there was no way he could see what he was doing. Finally, after what seemed like hours, he felt the grating sensation of his knife hitting lead. He sat still for a moment, giving himself time to rest his hands.

Finally, he took a firmer grip on the shaft and eased the blade down past the bullet, trying desperately to keep his hand steady. Slowly and smoothly he withdrew the knife, rolling the bullet along the side of the wound toward the top.

“Get ready with the bandage,” Johnny ordered as the bullet finally appeared at the top of the wound. He quickly plucked it out, then tossed his knife down and held out his hand. Scott slapped the bandage soaked in tequila into his brother’s hand, and Johnny pressed the bandage firmly against the bleeding wound. He put as much pressure as he dared on the dressing, while Scott and Jelly maneuvered the torn strips of cloth around the man’s torso and then tied them off.

Johnny sat back with a sigh and watched the man’s chest to make sure he was still breathing. After seeing several breaths, he forced himself to his feet. He felt like he had spent all day punching cows. All he wanted was to sit down and have couple of shots of tequila, but he doubted there was any left. He looked down at his hands, and they were both covered with blood almost up to his elbows. He wondered again if there was any possible way for the man to make it. He shook his head. It was out of his hands. He put his head back to stretch his neck and froze. Two dozen Shoshone braves in war paint were sitting on the hill, watching his every move.

Chapter 33

“Scott, Jelly,” Johnny said more calmly than he felt, “Don’t go for your guns, but look up on the hill.”

Scott stood up slowly, with Jelly right beside him.

“What should we do?” Scott asked.

“Nothing,” Johnny replied. “Let them make the first move. We don’t stand a chance against that many, so I don’t want to start anything accidently.”

“What’re they waitin’ for?” Jelly asked.

“Don’t know. Probably just figuring out what’s goin’ on.”

“Well I hope they don’t look too closely at your hands,” Scott observed.

One of the Braves started down the hill, followed by four others. The three men stood their ground and watched them come, ready to go for their guns at the first sign of trouble. The first brave rode into the camp and gracefully dismounted, totally ignoring Johnny and the others. He went over to the wounded man and put his hand on the young woman’s shoulder. She looked up at him and said something in her native tongue, and he replied, looking right at Johnny.

“What’re they saying?” Jelly asked.

“Don’t know. I understand some Apache, but this is totally different,” Johnny admitted.

After conversing for several moments, the brave squatted down and put his hand on the wounded brave’s head and said something that sounded like a prayer. After several minutes, the brave jumped up and headed toward Johnny, pulling his knife out of his belt as he came.

Scott started to bring his rifle up, but Johnny stopped him.

“Wait, Scott,” he said quietly. “Don’t do anything yet.”

The brave stood in front of Johnny, speaking for a minute or so before taking his knife and slicing off a beaded bracelet that he wore. He motioned for Johnny to hold out his hand, and the brave tied it on Johnny’s wrist, then spoke some more. He pointed to the bracelet, then Johnny, then at the other braves, who all wore similar bracelets. Finally the Indian nodded, and turned around and walked back to the wounded man.

At a motion from the brave, the four men who had accompanied him down the hill picked up the wounded man and carried him toward their waiting friends. The young woman rose to her feet and went over to Johnny, and pointed at the bracelet. Johnny’s eyes widened as she started to speak English.

“It is a talisman, to keep away the evil spirits and keep you safe. It was given to you by chief Nokomi for helping his son. It is a sign to all of our people that you are one of us.”

She turned and followed the others, and within a minute, they had all disappeared.

“Well, brother. It looks like you’ve made some friends.”

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed, the shot Scott a smile, wondering if he’d realized what he’d said. “But just to be on the safe side, I think we’d better move on a ways before making camp. If that man dies, they might not be as grateful.”

Scott nodded. “We have a few hours until dark. Let’s go.”

Despite the men’s concerns, they didn’t see anyone at all until they finally reached Carson City. Once a boom town for the famous Comstock Lode of Silver ore, the city now was more reliant on the railroad and other Commercial businesses to stay afloat. It still retained it’s boom town flavor, however, with bawdy houses and saloons mixed in with more respectable establishments.

After they took their horses to the livery and dropped off their gear at the hotel, they headed for the saloon. As they stepped up onto the boardwalk, a young boy about ten years old appeared from nowhere. He was carrying a pail with rags and brushes, and respectfully approached the men.

“Excuse me sirs, would you like your boots cleaned?”

Johnny shook his head. “Some other time, kid,” he answered as he walked past, followed by Jelly. Scott stopped long enough to give the boy a nickel, then followed the others inside.

The three men made themselves comfortable at a corner table and ordered a round of beers and some food. As he was eating, Johnny’s mind went back to when he was a kid, scrounging for whatever he could get. He remembered the joy he felt when he was able to earn a few pesos, and the shame he felt when he was forced to steal to survive.

Suddenly, Johnny threw his fork down and jumped up.

“Where are you going?” Scott asked.

“To get my boots shined,” he growled as Jelly and Scott chuckled.

Johnny found the boy about halfway down the block, sitting on the edge of the boardwalk in front of the mercantile. “You still want to give my boots a shine?”

The boy jumped up. “Yes sir!”

“Ok, get busy,” Johnny ordered as he sat down in a chair in front of the store.

The boy went to work, obviously happy to be working, and he was trying hard to do a good job.

“Where do you live?” Johnny asked.

The boy shrugged. “Here and there.”

Memories came flooding back and Johnny sighed. “Want to earn two dollars?”

The wary look the boy gave Johnny broke his heart. “I’ll give you two dollars to clean our saddles,” he hurriedly explained.

The boy’s eyes lit up. “Yes SIR!”

Johnny nodded. “Just ask the livery man to show you the saddles that came in with the palomino.”

“You own the palomino?” The boy asked cautiously.

Johnny nodded. “Have you seen him?”

“No, but I heard old Chuck talking to the sheriff about him.”

“About MY horse?”

The boy looked unsure. “He said the palomino came in with another horse and a mule, with three drifters.”

Johnny nodded. “Who is this Chuck you mentioned?”

“He owns the livery. He lets me sleep there sometimes.”

“What did they say about my horse?”

The boy hesitated, and Johnny dropped to his knees and looked the boy in the eyes. “That horse means a lot to me, and if they’re plannin’ something bad, I need to know.”

The boy shrugged. “If Old Chuck sees a horse he likes, when the owner comes back to claim it he tells them they owe him a bunch of money for boarding it. If they pay, he keeps the money. If they don’t, he keeps the horse.”

Johnny sat back and looked at the boy. “Does the sheriff know about this?”

The boy nodded. “If the owner gets too upset, Sheriff Masters will arrest them and charge them a fine before he’ll let them go. Then they’ll split the money.” He looked down. “They always make sure it’s drifters, not people from around here.”

“Well, isn’t that slick, “ Johnny growled.

“But your horse,” the boy said shakily, “they already sold him.”

“Sold him! To who?”

“Mr. Bixby. He’s the saloon keeper. He’s supposed to come get him in a few days.”

“Does he know about the scheme?”

“No Sir, at least I don’t think so.”

Johnny nodded.

“You won’t tell them I told you, will you?” the boy asked anxiously.

Johnny shook his head. “No. Don’t worry about that. And you promise me you won’t tell them, either.”

“NO SIR!”

Johnny handed the boy ten dollars. “Forget about cleaning the saddles, and try to sleep somewhere else tonight, if you can.”

YES SIR! THANK YOU! I can sleep in the schoolhouse.”

Johnny ruffled the boy’s hair. “Go on, now. Go get somethin’ to eat.”

“Yes Sir, and THANK YOU!”

Johnny walked back to the saloon, and after looking around, motioned for the men to follow him outside.

“What’s up?” Scott asked. “Did he steal your boots?”

“Funny. But what he told me ain’t funny at all.” He proceeded to repeat what the boy had told him.

“What’re we gonna do?” Jelly asked worriedly.

“I’m gonna go talk to the bartender,” Johnny answered. “I’ll meet you back to the hotel.”

.

The next morning, the three men rose bright and early, and after a good breakfast, they visited the courthouse and then went across to the livery. Old Chuck met them at the door. “Didn’t realize you boys were leavin’ so soon. Thought you said you were gonna stay a few days.”

Johnny shrugged. “Where are our horses?”

“Oh, they’re in the back. Why don’t you settle your bill, then I’ll go get them.”

Johnny nodded. “How much do we owe you?”

The man made a face as if he were thinking. “Well, I’ll have to charge you for three nights, because that’s what you told me. I had to turn other customers away. Three horses, three nights, hmmm, I guess that would be ninety dollars, even.”

“Ninety dollars, huh.”

The man nodded, a little disconcerted that the man didn’t seem upset.

“Why don’t I give you the goin’ rate of a quarter a horse for one night. That’s seventy five cents.” Johnny dug in his pocket to get the change, but the man stopped him.

“No sir! My charge is ten dollars a night. I have a lot of overhead, and this place is real busy. If you didn’t want to pay, you shouldn’t have brought them here.”

Johnny shrugged. “I ain’t paying, and before you offer to keep the horses, the answer is no, so why don’t you run along and get the sheriff.”

“That won’t be neccesary,” a man said as he stepped out of the shadows. “I’m Sheriff Masters.”

Johnny turned to him. “You in on this?”

The sheriff looked surprised. “In on what? A man has a right to make a living anyway he chooses.”

Johnny nodded. “Yep, as long as it’s legal.”

“There’s nothing illegal about charging what he wants for boarding.”

“No, no, I guess not,” Johnny affirmed. “It’s legal, but it ain’t…” he turned you Scott. “What’s the word?”

“Ethical.”

“Ethical, that’s it. It’s not ethical. As a sheriff, I think it’s your job to make sure the businesses in your fair town are not just legal, but ethical. Course, maybe you just can’t tell the difference. I mean for somebody with no conscience, it’s sorta hard.”

“You need to pay the man or give him a bill of sale on those horses,” Masters growled.

“Nope. I ain’t gonna be robbed just cause a dirty sheriff wants me to.”

“DIRTY SHERIFF! I’m going to teach you a lesson you’ll NEVER forget. You’re under arrest,” the sheriff snarled and started to pull his gun. He froze as Johnny’s Colt appeared in front of his face.

“Do you know the penalty for threatening a sheriff?” Masters asked.

Johnny shrugged. “Probably not as bad as the one for threatening a Federal Marshal,” Johnny smirked as he moved his jacket aside to reveal his badge.

The livery man turned to go, and Scott drew his own gun. “I wouldn’t. After all, you don’t want to add unlawful flight to the charge of horse thieving, would you?”

“I ain’t stole anything!” Chuck protested.

Johnny brought out a bill of sale and waved it in the air. “Selling a horse that’s not yours is the same thing.” He smiled at the two men. “And lucky for me, the man you sold him too thought something was fishy and had the good sheriff sign that it was legal. Guess you’re both gonna be tried as horse thieves. Now let’s take a walk to the courthouse. The judge is just waiting to see you.”

Chapter 34

Johnny stopped on the hill overlooking the valley. It been a long and hard trip, but they were finally home. They had found a couple of the travelers that had been fleeced by the two men, and had given them back their money. The rest of the money Johnny had given to Jelly. The old man had fussed and blustered, but Johnny had insisted. He felt like that was the least he could do after Jelly had lost everything he owned. After all, it wasn’t really Johnny’s money anyway, and it was extremely doubtful they’d ever run into the rightful owners at this point.

They had left Jelly with his sister, who lived halfway between Stockton and Modesto. The parting had been hard on all of them. Even Scott had become close to the old curmudgeon, and almost begged him to come with them. Jelly had toyed with the notion, but in the end had stayed because he knew his sister needed him. They had all promised to visit each other, but the parting had still been difficult. Johnny owed a lot to the old man, and he hoped he’d see him again.

Scott was acting and sounding more and more like himself, but still had no recollection of his past, and Johnny knew it bothered him badly. Ever since he had seen those soldiers, Scott told him that there were times he felt that he could almost remember, but it didn’t quite happen. Johnny hoped that if Sam couldn’t help him get his memory back, he would know someone who could. Scott and Johnny had become good friends on this long adventure, but Johnny wanted his brother, not just a friend.

Scott pulled up alongside him and looked out over the valley.

“There it is,” Johnny said. “Lancer. The most beautiful place in the whole wide world.”

Scott gazed out and took in the green pastures and flowing streams, with the mountains as a backdrop and the huge estancia dominating the scene. He had to agree that the place was breathtaking, but he still didn’t remember it. He looked at Johnny and shook his head with sigh.

Johnny led the way down off the hill toward the hacienda. Most of the men were out working, and the rest of them didn’t pay any attention to the two riders. They rode into the courtyard and dismounted. Johnny shivered as a long ago memory of a nightmare formed in his mind. With an effort, he shrugged it off. That’s all it had been, a nightmare.

A moment later, a high pitched scream rent the air.

“JOHNNY! SCOTT!”

Johnny turned around in time to grab Teresa as she launched herself at him and they hugged.

“Miss us?”

Teresa just laughed, then turned toward Scott. He stiffened up when she went to hug him, and she stopped, confused.

“BOYS!” Murdoch’s booming voice rang out as he approached them. Johnny stepped in front of him.

“Let’s go inside and talk.”

Murdoch glanced back and forth between Scott and Johnny, who was already moving toward the patio door, then followed, dismayed by the cold reception.

Johnny went to the sideboard and poured three drinks. He handed the first to Murdoch, who was standing nervously by the couch, then Johnny motioned for Scott to sit and handed him his glass before sinking onto the couch next to his brother. He glanced over at Teresa and gave her a smile before becoming somber again.

Johnny swirled his glass for a moment, then looked over at Scott. “Guess there’s no easy way to say this, but Scott here doesn’t remember us.”

“What?” Murdoch asked, confused, as Teresa said “What do you mean?”

“I met up with Scott up in Montana. He had a newspaper clipping mentioning me, but he didn’t know why. I think he had been trying to find me when he was robbed and hit over the head. He doesn’t remember anything at all from before he was injured.” He smiled at his brother. “It’s taken me from Montana to here to convince him that I really AM his brother, but he’s just taking my word on that.”

“I DO believe you, Johnny. I’ve been with you enough to know you wouldn’t lie to me.”

Johnny nodded, then looked at his father. “The doctor up there said he needed to be in a familiar place. That maybe seeing something or someone from his past could bring his memory back, so I brought him here. Maybe Sam can take a look, too. We need to do something.”

Murdoch nodded, then reached down and squeezed Scott’s shoulder. “We’ll do whatever it takes, son.”

“Thank you Sir,” Scott replied. “And I’m sorry I can’t remember you.”

“You will,” Murdoch insisted. “We’ll make sure of it.” He turned to Johnny. “Thank you for coming home, and for bringing Scott with you.”

“Well, I wasn’t gonna leave him up there,” Johnny smirked. He turned to Scott. “So any more doubts?”

Scott shook his head, a little reluctantly.

“Doubts about what?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny hesitated. “He thought he was someone else.”

Murdoch spun around and walked over to his desk and picked up a picture. “You left this here.” he said as he handed it to Scott.

Scott studied the picture, then turned to Johnny. “I guess that explains why those cavalry men seemed so familiar.”

Johnny nodded. “Yep. But they didn’t look as pretty as you did in this picture.”

Scott slapped him on the shoulder, causing Murdoch to smile. “You boys have had a long trip. Johnny, why don’t you show Scott his room and I’ll have some baths brought up if you’d like. Dinner will be in about three hours, and we can talk more then.”

Johnny nodded. “Maybe you can ask Sam for dinner.”

“I’ll do that.”

Johnny headed for the stairs, with his brother just a step behind him. Scott was looking at everything as he walked, desperately trying to see something he remembered, but everything was unfamiliar. He stepped into the room Johnny indicated, then walked around studying everything before plopping down on the bed with a sigh. “It’s no use,” he said resignedly.

“Scott, give it time, we just got home.”

Scott nodded. “You didn’t tell them how we ‘met’.”

“Actually, there’s no need for them, or anyone else to know what happened. It’s done, I’m fine, and besides, that wasn’t you who shot me, it was Sully Pardee.”

“It’s not funny. When I think how close I came to killing you…I’m sorry Johnny. I’ll never be able to make it up to you.”

“Scott, there’s nothin’ ta make up for, it was nothing but an accident. Besides, one of these days I’ll probably do somethin’ stupid and get you hurt and then we’ll be even.”

“You saved my life, too.”

“We’re brothers, Scott. It’s what brothers do.” Johnny gave his brother’s shoulder a squeeze. “I’ll see you at dinner.”

Johnny woke up to the sound of a buggy approaching the house. He stretched luxuriously, then sat up and pulled on his boots before heading down the stairs.

“Hey Sam,” he greeted the doctor who had just walked in the door.

“Johnny! This IS a pleasure!” Sam said as he walked up, his hand extended. “You’re looking well. No new injuries, I take it?”

“No, well one, but I’m fine now.”

“What happened?” Murdoch asked worriedly.

“Nothin’. I’m fine, really. Doc, you need to help Scott.”

Sam nodded his head. “Cipriano said he’d lost his memory.”

“Yeah. He can’t remember anything.”

“I’ll examine him, but if the injury happened some time ago, I’m afraid there’s not much we can do but wait.”

“Wait for what?” Scott asked as he walked into the room.

Sam shrugged. “For your memory to come back.”

“I assume you’re Doctor Jenkins?”

Sam nodded and stuck out his hand.

“But it WILL come back?” Scott pressed as they shook hands.

Sam sighed. “I don’t know,” he admitted.

Murdoch motioned for the men to sit down, and distributed drinks as they talked.

“There must be something we can do,” Johnny snapped in frustration.

Sam nodded. “There is.” He looked over at Scott. “You need to live as normally as possible. You need to do the things you used to do, visit with people you used to know, eat the things you used to eat. SOMETHING in there may trigger your memory. Has anything at all seemed familiar since it happened?”

“The only thing is when we came across some soldiers. I felt…something. Like I could remember if I just thought about it long enough.”

“Well, next time it happens, try to block everything else out. Shut your eyes and just let your mind go where it wants to. Hopefully, you’ll start remembering other images of things from your past. “

Scott nodded. “I will IF that ever happens again.”

Sam nodded. “It will. Just…”

“Give it time,” Scott finished, disappointedly.

“I’m sorry there’s not more I can do.”

“In the meantime,” Murdoch suggested, “Let’s eat. Teresa and Maria have outdone themselves tonight, to celebrate the boys coming home to stay.”

Johnny started to open his mouth to correct him, but decided it could wait. He’d explain to the old man in private just why his return was only temporary, just until he got Scott settled. As soon as he felt his brother was comfortable, Johnny was leaving.

Chapter 35

Johnny ran the brush over Barranca for the hundredth time. Both he and Scott had worked cattle all week, eaten until he thought he’d burst, and visited various places around the ranch, but Scott’s memory still hadn’t returned. They’d even taken several trips into Morro Coyo and visited some mutual friends. Nothing had seemed remotely familiar to his brother, and Johnny was running out of time. On top of that, every day Scott was withdrawing more. He seldom spoke unless spoken to, and usually retired to his room early. He wandered around, desperately trying to find something, anything, that would spark some recognition in him, and every day he was met with failure. Johnny was afraid he was giving up. Coming to Lancer had been Scott’s last chance at getting his memory back, and it wasn’t working.

With a sigh, he tossed the brush into a box and gave Barranca a pat. No use putting it off. He knew Murdoch would blow up, but it couldn’t be helped, and now was as good a time as any to get it done. He just hoped Scott wouldn’t be too upset about staying here without him.

Johnny walked into the Great Room and hesitated. Murdoch was sitting at his desk, staring out at nothing, and Scott was sitting watching the fire, a drink in hand. Neither one of them looked particularly happy. He went over and poured himself a drink, then sat in an armchair facing Scott. Murdoch finally turned around, and seemed to be trying to make up his mind about something.

“Boys, I’ve been thinking.” He stopped as if not sure he should continue.

“About what?” Johnny asked.

Again Murdoch hesitated. “Johnny, would you please bring me a drink?”

Johnny looked at him questioningly, then did as his father asked. Murdoch drained the glass in one long gulp.

“That bad?” Johnny quipped, but felt a sinking feeling in his stomach when his father didn’t answer. “Just spit it out,” he ordered.

His father looked past him to his brother. “Scott, you know you weren’t raised here,” looking to his son for confirmation.

Scott nodded. “Johnny told me, but he didn’t tell me why. I’d like to know the reason, Sir.”

Murdoch nodded, almost in relief. “It’s time you knew. That both of you knew. Scott, your mother, Catherine, was born in Boston. Her father was very wealthy and didn’t want her to have anything to do with me, but we were in love. She agreed to marry me and leave Boston and come west with me. Her father was beyond furious. He swore he’d get even with me someday, for taking his daughter from him. We didn’t care. We loved each other.” Murdoch motioned Johnny to get him another drink. “In fact, bring me the bottle,” he ordered. Johnny raised his eyebrows, but brought him the rest of the bottle of scotch.

Murdoch poured another glass, and took several swallows before proceeding . “We found this ranch and fell in love with it. It was run down and needed a lot of work, but we didn’t mind. We could see the potential. It took us two years to get the inside the way we wanted it, and then I started on the outside. My father had left me with enough money for a good start, and I started buying more land and some cattle. In the meantime, Catherine became pregnant with you, Scott.”

Murdoch took another swallow, then continued. “About that time, a bunch of land pirates decided that Lancer would be a good target. We fought them for months as they waged a war a few steps at a time. Finally, it became so bad I feared for your mother’s life.” Murdoch stared into his glass and then drained it. “I…I suggested she go back to Boston for her safety, just until things cooled down. She didn’t want to go, but I insisted. I wanted her, and our baby, safe. She finally left, and I never saw her again…” his voice trailed off.

After several moments, Murdoch continued. “Her father, Harlan Garrett, met her in a little town up north of here to take her home. She…” Murdoch sighed. “The trip and the worry were too much. She went into labor early and had you. She died a day later. The whole time I thought she was safely back in Boston, but a month later, Harlan got around to writing me and telling me of Catherine’s death. Almost as an afterthought, he told me that she had given birth to a boy, but I would never get the chance to see him. I guess he was getting his revenge.” He reached down and grabbed the bottle and took a healthy slug.

“But you did see me,” Scott guessed.

Murdoch nodded. “I didn’t get any responses to my letters, so a year or so later, when the trouble with the land pirates was finally over, I went to Boston. He wouldn’t let me in. I stayed for a month, lurking outside the house, waiting, but Harlan was very cautious. I finally went home.” He glanced over at Johnny. “That’s when I met your mother. I loved her very much, and I brought her here to share my dream. She had been here several years and you were a toddler when I went back to Boston again. Harlan wasn’t expecting me this time.”

Murdoch’s gaze focused once more on Scott. “As luck would have it, you were having a birthday party, your fifth. The maid thought I was one of the other children’s father and let me in. I saw you for just a moment before Harlan came in and saw me. He yelled at me to get away from the children, and not to hurt them. I saw the look of fear on your face.” Murdoch dropped his head. “I left, but he had me arrested. I spent over three months in jail, with no way to even send a telegram. When I was finally released and went home…” He sighed and looked at Johnny. “Your mother had gotten tired of waiting. Both you and she were gone.

“I hired the Pinkerton to find you and to keep tabs on Scott. Obviously, they were unsuccessful in finding you for a long time.” He turned to Scott. “They kept me posted on what was going on in your life, but warned me that Harlan was a very powerful man, and if I tried to get you back, or even see you, I would probably wind up in jail. I knew that at least you were safe, so I bided my time. Later, I knew you went to Harvard, and I knew you joined the army.

“When the war ended and you returned to Boston, I had the Pinkertons deliver a message to you. I’m ashamed to say that what finally pushed me to contact you was the trouble I was having with Day Pardee.”

Scott started at the name and looked at Johnny, who nodded as Murdoch went on with his story.

“I don’t know exactly what you told your grandfather, but you accepted my invitation and came here. I was so happy I thought I would burst.”

Murdoch dropped his eyes, then suddenly buried his face in his hands. “Johnny, I know you’ll never forgive me. I waited to bring you home. They had finally found you and I waited.” He looked at his son, the anguish in his eyes was obvious. “I was afraid. Afraid of what was in those reports. Then, when the Pinkerton brought the wrong man here, he made me even more afraid. Heaven help me, I thought he was you, and then when I found out it wasn’t, and you were still alive, I…I just didn’t …couldn’t…”

Johnny jumped up and went to his father. He realized just how much his father had gone through. Kneeling down, he put his arm around Murdoch. “It’s okay. I understand, really. It all worked out.”

“Has it?” Murdoch asked hopefully.

Johnny nodded, a lump in his throat making talking impossible. Had it worked out? Finally, he cleared his throat. “Is that what you were so upset about ?”

Murdoch’s eyes dropped. “No.” He took a deep breath. “Scott, I’ve waited my whole life to have you home where you belong, and out of Harlan’s clutches. I wasn’t going to tell you, but you have a right to know.” He hesitated for a moment, then continued. “I told you that you had finally come home. What I didn’t tell you was that you also left. After Johnny left, you received a letter from Harlan saying he needed you, and you went back to Boston. You had been there for several months when I received this.” Murdoch stood up and walked over to Scott, then handed him a crumpled letter before returning to his desk and taking another drink.

Scott read the letter, then looked up at his father questioningly.

Murdoch took a deep breath. “I don’t know why you decided to stay back there, but…” he bit his lip, then took a breath and continued. “You grew up in Boston. Everything there is familiar. I think you should go back there and visit your grandfather. Maybe you’ll get your memory back.”

Scott looked down and studied his hands. “Would you rather I go there to live?” he asked quietly.

Murdoch looked shocked. “No! GOD NO! I want you, both of you, here for the rest of your lives.” He shook his head. “Please believe me. I never want either one of you to leave. I …love …both of you. I just thought that maybe things would be more familiar there, and there would be a better chance of regaining your memory. I know how much it’s bothering you.”

“You’re willing for me to do that? Scott asked.

Murdoch closed his eyes and nodded mutely.

Scott’s eyebrows rose. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll stay there?”

“More than you can ever imagine,” Murdoch replied quietly. “But your happiness is my main concern, and I don’t think you’ll be happy unless your memory returns. Just know, that this will ALWAYS be your home just as it is your brother’s, and I pray to God you’ll find it in your heart to come home.”

Scott slowly nodded. “Thank you, Sir. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should go back to Boston.”

Murdoch slumped slightly, then nodded. “I’ll send a telegram to Harlan.”

Chapter 36

Scott turned to Johnny. “Will you come with me?”

Johnny glanced at Murdoch before replying. “You know I had other plans,” he said quietly.

Scott nodded, but Murdoch quickly responded. “What do you mean, other plans?” he asked desperately.

Johnny shrugged unhappily. “You know there’s been trouble up north of here,” he started.

Murdoch nodded impatiently. “Yes, Val’s been keeping us informed.”

Johnny’s head snapped up. “Val’s still here?” he asked happily.

“Of course. He’s a good sheriff.”

“Yeah, he is,” Johnny agreed. “Anyway, on the way here we didn’t see anything, but we heard plenty. It seems that several range wars have broken out, numerous raids, and even murders. A lot of ranchers have been run off, and now they’re starting to hit towns. Hired guns are even being recruited.”

Murdoch nodded in agreement. “Val said it was getting worse by the week.”

Johnny got up and started to pace. “It’s not only getting worse, it’s spreading. Anyway, I have to get involved.”

Murdoch froze and stared at his son. “You don’t HAVE to do anything. It doesn’t concern you.”

“I’m afraid it does.”

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair in frustration. “Johnny, you don’t have to hire out. You have a home and a job here, at the ranch.”

“That’s not it,” Johnny argued.

Murdoch shook his head in exasperation. “If it’s the money, we can figure something out. Maybe I can give you a bonus or something, but please don’t go back to fighting.”

Johnny smiled. “A bonus, huh? If I don’t hire out?”

“Yes. I want you here!”

Johnny shook his head. “Well, that’s the problem. I can’t stay here. I’ve already committed to another deal.”

“WHAT DEAL? What’s more important than your family and this ranch?” Murdoch shouted.

“NOTHING!” Johnny shouted back. “Nothing’s more important. That’s why they have to be stopped before they get here, and believe me, they WILL get here if something isn’t done to stop them now!”

Murdoch calmed down. “Maybe you’re right, but it’s not your job. Val said they’re sending a Federal Marshal here to take care of things. Let him handle it.”

“That’s what I’m tryin’ to do,” Johnny explained. He glanced at Scott, who chuckled and started toward Murdoch’s desk to join his brother.

“What’s so funny?” Murdoch snapped as Scott walked up.

Scott held up his hands. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing!”

Murdoch started fuming. “Would SOMEONE PLEASE tell me what’s going on!”

Johnny glanced at Scott, then shrugged. “Well, it’s like this. You know that Marshal you’ve been waiting on?”

Murdoch nodded. “Yes, what about him?” he asked impatiently.

Johnny reached into his pocket and threw down his badge.

Murdoch looked at the badge in confusion. “Where did you get that?”

Johnny couldn’t resist. “Well, what was I supposed to do? He called me out.”

Murdoch turned white. “You killed a Federal Marshal?”

Scott slapped Johnny on the shoulder. “Stop it, before he kills both of us.”

“You’re no fun,” Johnny whispered. He turned to Murdoch and shook his head. “No, I didn’t kill him. I AM him.”

“Who?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny rolled his eyes. “I’M the Federal Marshal.”

Murdoch reared back his chair, his eyes narrowed and darting between his sons. “What’s the joke?”

Johnny looked at Scott helplessly. “Told you he wouldn’t believe me.”

“Show him the paper,” Scott urged.

Obediently, Johnny dug in his pocket and brought out a crumpled piece of paper and handed it to Murdoch.

Murdoch stared at Johnny for a moment, then he began to read.

He stared at the paper for a long time, until Johnny started to get nervous.

“Well,” Johnny asked. “Now do you believe me?”

Murdoch looked at his son in disbelief. “How?” he whispered.

Johnny poked Scott. “That’s confidence for you.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Johnny, believe me, I have every confidence that you can do anything you set your mind to. I just don’t understand how it happened so quickly.”

“Yeah, well, that makes two of us. Look Murdoch, it’s nothin’ I asked for. It just sort of happened.”

“Nothing you asked for,” Murdoch repeated. “Johnny, there are men who would give ANYTHING to just be considered for an appointment.”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably. He hadn’t really realized that before. “Well I sure as hell didn’t want it. It was sort of pushed on me.”

“You said before that you didn’t want to be a lawman.”

“I don’t.”

“Then why did you accept?”

Johnny glanced at Scott, who spoke up. “I believe it was because of me.”

Johnny spun around and stared at his brother. “No! It wasn’t because of you. That was part of it, but I started thinking, and, well, I thought it might be the way out for me.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Why do you think I left?” Johnny asked softly.

Murdoch grimaced. “Because I was an ass.”

Johnny smiled and shook his head. “You were just protecting your family.”

“You and Scott ARE my family, along with Teresa.”

“But you were afraid to have me stay here.”

Murdoch started to speak, and Johnny held up his hand. “Let me finish. I know you would have accepted me, or at least tried to. But all of us would have spent the whole time I was here lookin’ over our shoulders, waitin for me to get called out, or worse, one of you bein’ used to get to me. I couldn’t let that happen.

“Murdoch, having a home and family is something I never thought I’d get. I wanted to be here, at Lancer, more than anything, but I just couldn’t figure out how to leave my past behind. And I knew I had to leave it behind to have any chance of this working. I just didn’t know how. It would take years for other guns to forget about me, if they ever did, but I decided to try. I went up to Montana where no one knew the name Madrid. I thought that maybe, someday I could come home.

“Then, this happened,” he said, pointing to the badge. “I was going to refuse it, but then someone told me something that made me start thinking. Another Marshal told me that it was a federal crime to shoot a marshal, a hanging crime. It took me  a while, but on the way back here, I realized maybe that was my way out. If the other guns knew I was out of the game, and not only out, but untouchable, they’d probably leave me alone. No sense killing me for my reputation if it would just get them hanged.”

Murdoch looked at him in wonder. “It might just work,” he said quietly.

Johnny nodded. “I think it will. The only trouble is, I have to play Marshal for  a while. I can’t stay here, punching steers. I’m going to have to go where I’m needed, when I’m needed. I can come home once in  a while, but if there’s a problem, I’m going to have to leave again. It won’t matter if it’s during branding season or if you’re short handed, or if we’re in the middle of Christmas dinner. And I don’t know if you’re willing to put up with that.”

Murdoch leaned back and shook his head, and Johnny felt his gut clench.

Finally, Murdoch spoke. “Johnny, if you had asked me that question last year, I would have said no, I wouldn’t put up with it. I would have said that running this ranch was a full time job, and there was no room for anything else. That you would have to make up your mind who you were and what you wanted.” He picked up the glass and played with it before continuing. “It wasn’t until the two of you left that I realized that this ranch isn’t the most important thing in my life.” He looked up at his sons. “You two are. Johnny, if ‘playing Marshal’ is the only way to get you home for good, I won’t say a word.”

“Thanks, Murdoch,” Johnny said gratefully. Then he smiled impishly . “Do I still get that bonus?”

“What bonus?” Murdoch asked blandly.

“Welcher.”

Murdoch nodded. “I can’t be paying out good money to a slacker that takes off all the time,” he said with a smile. After a moment his smile faded. “When are you leaving?”

“Probably the day after tomorrow. I’m goin’ into town and talk to Val before I leave. See if I can convince him to come with me.”

Murdoch chuckled. “I can’t wait to hear what Val has to say about you being a marshal.”

“I don’t think I want to know,” Johnny admitted. “But I’m still hoping I can get him to come along.”

“What about me?” Scott interrupted.

Johnny shook his head. “You have to go back to Boston. I don’t like that idea very much, it sounds like Harlan Garrett doesn’t exactly play fair, but I agree with Murdoch. It just might bring your memory back. Just promise me you’ll come back.”

“I still think you should come with me.”

“I told you, I can’t. I’ve got to go north and try to stop whoever’s causing the ruckus up there.”

Scott nodded. “I know. But I figure I can go with you up there, and then when we have it under control, you can accompany me to Boston.”

Johnny thought for a minute, then shook his head. “I don’t know nothin’ about Boston.”

Scott grinned. “Do you think I do? I don’t remember a thing about it. We can get lost together.” He frowned. “And I’m really not sure I want to meet this Harlan Garrett on my own.”

Johnny looked at Murdoch. “Okay with you?”

After a slight hesitation, he nodded. He wasn’t happy with both of his sons riding into a range war, but If Johnny went with Scott to Boston, there was a good chance Scott would come back home to Lancer. If everything went well, he would have his family back eventually. And if it didn’t…well he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

Chapter 37

Scott and Johnny rode into Green River the next day. They planned on spending the night in Green River, then leaving for up north the next morning. They had decided to travel light, knowing there were plenty of towns along the way. Hopefully they’d only have to spend a few nights out on the trail, and this time of year that prospect wasn’t too bad. They figured they could do without a tent and feed for the horses. There was plenty of graze for the animals to eat along the way, and even if it rained, it wasn’t too cold.

Teresa had fussed and fretted, and dang near got them all to crying before Murdoch dragged her off of them. Murdoch, true to his word, hadn’t tried to stop them from leaving, but looked like he just might cry any second, too. Johnny was lucky to get out of there with his dignity intact, but any doubts Johnny had of whether his father wanted him or not had finally disappeared. Murdoch’s reaction to them leaving, along with the revelations of the night before, hadn’t left any doubt about the Old Man’s feelings. Johnny just hoped both he and Scott would be able to come back to him when this was all over.

Truth be told, he was dreading the trip to Boston more than fighting those raiders up north. At least those kinds of fights he understood. The kind of fight Harlan Garrett was bound to put up was more up Pardee’s alley. Underhanded and sneaky, with no rules and no honor. Johnny knew that whether Scott got his memory back or not, his grandfather wasn’t going to let him go back to Lancer, at least willingly. If Johnny could just shoot him, it might be a whole lot easier, but he figured that just might put a kink in his and Scott’s relationship. He’d have to figure something else out. Maybe he could get the old goat to take a swing at him and then he could arrest him for assaulting a Federal Officer. Johnny chuckled. The knowledge that he could really do that made him smile. That just might come in handy. Maybe he could use it the next time Murdoch got mad at him. His smile got wider. He could just see the top of Murdoch’s head coming off if Johnny tried to arrest him. His smile faded and he glanced over at his brother. If there was a next time.

Scott already had a deputy’s badge, and Johnny was hoping he could convince Val to be a deputy, too. He could use the extra back up if he was going to try to stop that fracas up north. He knew he could deputize more people, but he preferred to work with men he knew. He had never worked with Val, but the short time he’d known him, he knew the sheriff was someone he could trust. He figured that between the three of them, they could handle just about anything. He wasn’t sure the irascible sheriff would take orders too well, but Johnny figured maybe he didn’t need to. Val was a crafty old dog and probably would do just fine on his own.

“How about a beer first?” Scott asked as they passed the saloon. The day was unseasonably hot and the road in had been dry and dusty.

Johnny nodded. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to have a little fortification before facing the sheriff. He was a little leery about asking the sheriff to be HIS deputy. He turned Barranca toward the hitching rail, then stepped down and gave the palomino a pat on the neck before turning and entering the saloon.

Johnny tossed his hat on the table and sat facing the door, while Scott went to the bar to get the drinks. He came back a few moments later with a pitcher of beer and two glasses.

“Better make it three,” Johnny observed.

Scott looked perplexed, but turned back to the bar and grabbed another glass. He had just sat down when the bat wing doors opened and Val walked in.

“Thought I told you I don’t want no gunfighters in my town!” he growled.

Scott glanced nervously at Johnny, who casually took another sip of his beer. “I ain’t breakin’ no laws, sheriff.”

Scott looked back and forth between the two men. THIS was the man Johnny wanted to join them?

Val scowled at both of them for a minute. “Well, you’d better not, or I’ll throw you in that jail of mine so fast it’ll make your head spin.”

Johnny kicked out a chair. “Have a seat, sheriff. I have a proposition for you.”

Val glowered at Johnny for a moment, then sat down and grabbed a glass. He looked over at Scott. “Well, what’re you waitin’ for? You savin’ it all for yourself?”

Scott obediently filled the man’s glass. “Anything else?” Scott asked sarcastically.

“Nope, that should do it for now.” He looked at Scott. “Thought you was back east.”

Scott shook his head as Johnny leaned forward. “Val, Scott had a little accident. He can’t remember anything about his time here or even before.”

Val looked at Johnny warily. “You’re not shittin’ me?

“Nope.”

Val looked over at Scott. “You really don’t remember nothin’?”

“I’m afraid not, Sheriff.”

Val leaned back in his chair, then looked over at Johnny suspiciously. “You wouldn’t happen to be that “accident,” would you?”

Johnny shook his head. “It happened before he met back up with me in Montana.”

“That’s where you went?”

“Yep. Figured it might be easier to get out of the game up there.”

“So why in tarnation are you back here? Just to annoy me?”

Johnny leaned forward. “What do you know about the trouble up north?”

“Why? You plannin’ on joinin’ it?”

“Come on, Val. I think you know better than that. What they’re doing ain’t my style. They have to be stopped, and you know it.”

Val nodded. “Yeah, but it’ll take more than you to stop it.”

“That’s why I was hoping you’d join me,” Johnny said with a grin.

“You’re crazy. Just the two of us?”

“THREE of us,” Scott emphasized.

“Scott, you don’t remember anything about Johnny’s plans, do you?” Val asked.

Scott shook his head dubiously.

“Just as well,” Val smirked.

“So tell me what you know, and not just the stuff you’ve told Murdoch,” Johnny ordered.

Val nodded. “It seems that most of the problems are coming from a fairly small band of men. They’re a group of raiders that left Missouri and Kansas where they had been under the command of a man by the name of William Quantrill. He was a captain in the Confederate army, but lost their support because of his violence. After the war, his bunch continued to carry on raids, but Quantrill lost control of the group and was killed about five years ago. Most of the men they had left spread out and raised havoc on their own.”

He looked over at Johnny. “Ever hear of Frank and Jesse James?”

Johnny nodded. “Bad hombres.”

“Well, they used to ride with Quantrill.”

“How many in the bunch up north?”

Val shook his head. “No one knows. They’re spread out pretty thin, and once they hit a place, they move on, but by then, they’ve usually got ranchers at each other’s throats. After the ranchers do a good job of killin’ each other, the Raiders come back and finish them all off.”

“Slick,” Scott observed.

Val nodded. “It wouldn’t take many men to do that. I’m guessing maybe as many as that dirty sidewinder, Pardee had.”

“Careful, Val, you’re gonna insult his cousin here,” he said as he grinned at Scott.

“Not funny,” Scott snapped, as Val looked at him, trying to figure out what Johnny meant.

Johnny took another sip of beer. “So are you in?” he asked a confused sheriff.

Val sat back and stared at Johnny. “Maybe. The problem is, we don’t have any authority up there. I here tell a Federal Marshal’s on his way here. Maybe we should wait for him. Even if he don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground, his badge would come in handy.”

Johnny reached in his pocket and flipped a deputy’s badge over to Val. “Like this one?

Val whistled. “Where did you get this?”

Johnny shrugged. “A marshal gave me a couple of them, in case I needed them.”

Val’s eyes got big. “Just gave them to you? Deputy Marshal badges?” he shook his head. “I don’t know. Seems like we could get in a heap of trouble, impersonating deputy marshals.”

Scott looked at his brother. “You enjoy this, don’t you?”

“Yep,” Johnny answered.

“Enjoy what?” Val asked suspiciously.

Scott reached down and came up with his own badge. “See, I have one too.”

“You boys steal those?” Val growled.

Johnny decided to put Val out of his misery. “Val, read this,” he said as put his appointment paper on the table. “You can read, can’t you?” Johnny sniped.

“Damn right, boy,” Val growled.

Several moments later he looked it at Johnny. “How the hell did you manage that?”

Johnny shrugged. “Just naturally charming, I guess.”

Val snorted. “Yeah, then I should be president.” He reached down pinned the badge on before grabbing his drink. “So what’s the plan?”

Chapter 38

The three men rode into Merced several days later. The town looked peaceful enough, but they headed for the sheriff’s office, anyway. So far they hadn’t seen any problems, but everyone along the way had been talking about the violence that had taken over the state. Johnny dismounted and then pinned on his badge, and Scott and Val immediately pinned their own badges on.

“Expecting trouble?” Scott asked.

Johnny shook his head. “Nope, I just don’t want any misunderstandings about who’s in charge.”

Johnny walked into the sheriff’s office, with Scott and Val close behind.

The sheriff looked up quickly at the three men, then jumped to his feet, hand extended. “I sure am glad to see you boys.”

The men shook hands and Johnny introduced himself and his two deputies.

“I’m Sheriff Lawson, and like I said, I’m real glad to see you.”

“Has there been much trouble around here?”

Lawson shook his head. “No, actually it’s been pretty quiet, but I’m expecting it to start any time. I knew the sheriff in Modesto.” His eyes dropped. “He was a friend. I sure hope you have an idea how we can stop that bunch.”

“We’re going to try,” Johnny assured him.

“When did the sheriff get killed?” Scott asked. “We went through there not very long ago, and everything was quiet.”

Lawson nodded. “He was killed a few days ago, along with two of his deputies. One of the men from town was up there on business. He skedaddled home real quick, but he told me what he’d seen. He said the raiders came riding in like a cavalry charge, yelling and screaming and shooting. Nobody was expecting them, and the town didn’t stand a chance. I guess things have gotten completely out of hand real quick. It’s like a war zone up there now. I don’t know if any of you were around when Day Pardee was on the loose, but this bunch is even worse. At least Pardee just went after certain ranches, and as warped as he was, there was still a reason; greed. This bunch doesn’t seem to be after anything. Oh, they’ll loot and take money, but it seems like their main goal is just to destroy.”

Johnny and Scott looked at each other worriedly. “Anybody else killed besides the lawmen?” Scott asked.

Lawson shrugged. “A few, but no specifics.”

“No reason why they’re doing this?” Johnny asked, shoving the thought of Jelly away. The old man was all right, he had to be.

“Doesn’t appear to be, but no one knows.“ Lawson shrugged. “Who knows what’s going on in the minds of men like that.”

“So…they’re just destroying the ranches after they get them?” Val asked.

Lawson shook his head. “Ranches, stores, town buildings. They blew up the Post Office. Hell, they’re even downing telegraph lines and sabotaging the rail lines.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “They blew up the Post Office and the telegraph lines? That sounds more like they’ve got some beef with the government.” He looked over at Val. “You said they were part of Quantrill’s bunch.”

“That’s what I heard, but no proof. Just hearsay. It would fit, though. Quantrill was a rabid confederate. He worked out of Missouri and Kansas mostly, and his aim was to destroy anything or anyone with ties to the union.”

“But the war ended a long time ago,” Johnny argued.

“Not for him. Quantrill thought that maybe if he got enough men on his side, he could start the war all over again. He never stopped recruiting sympathizers, but he’d settle for anyone who was willing to carry out his orders. At first those orders were just to sabotage or destroy anything that was obviously union. He’d blow up statues, raid government offices, destroy American flags. Gradually, though, he began to lose control of his men. The true believers in Quantrill’s army were outnumbered by just plain outlaws and killers who did what they wanted. They didn’t care about any causes.”

“Sounds like you know what you’re talking about,” Johnny said quietly.

Val looked at his friend for a second, then nodded curtly. “I do.”

Johnny nodded. “Well, it would help to know why, but it doesn’t really matter. They have to be stopped, one way or the other. What we really need is to know what their plans are and how many men they have.”

“I can go,” Val said quietly. “I think…no. I KNOW they’ll accept me.”

“Maybe,” Johnny agreed, studying his friend. “But first I want to make a plan.” He looked over at the sheriff. “How many deputies do you have?”

“Three.”

“Are they all trustworthy and men that won’t run from a fight?”

Lawson shook his head regretfully. “Make that one.”

Johnny nodded. “I figure that’s about right. Anybody else we can count on?”

“You think they’re coming here?”

“No,” Johnny answered. “I KNOW they’re coming here. And if they don’t, we’re going to have to bring them.”

“Why do you have to bring them to MY town?” the sheriff asked angrily.

“Because we’ve got to make a stand somewhere, and it’s too late for Modesto. You’re the next big town down the line. Now if everything works out, we can stop them before they do too much damage here.”

“And if it doesn’t work out?”

Johnny shrugged. “Then they’ll come in and kill all of us and still destroy the town. Your only chance is to stop them, here.”

Lawson nodded reluctantly.

“Now, like I asked before, is there anybody else we can count on?”

Lawson thought for a minute, then nodded. “There are a few men. Some of the bigger ranchers, the blacksmith, maybe one or two others.”

“Okay, we need to get them all together and talk to them. In fact, we need to talk to the whole town, if possible. We’re gonna need everybody’s help.”

Lawson nodded. “Guess the church will do for a meeting place.”

“All right, get it set up. Any strangers in town?”

“A few.”

“Okay.. Point them out to one of us when you see them. I don’t want word of this to get back to the raiders.”

“Will do,” Lawson agreed. “When do you want this meeting?”

Johnny thought a minute. “Make it for tomorrow afternoon, but make sure you don’t give them any specifics about us. Also, be REAL certain to let everybody know that it’s just for the Town citizens, and we’re going to be discussing the raiders up north. Make SURE you say that every time.”

“Okay.”

“Is your telegraph line still up?”

“So far.”

“What about Modesto?”

“No, it’s down.”

Johnny nodded. “And the railroad? Is that still running?”

“Only south,” Lawson answered. They blew up the track a few miles north of here. The last stop up there is in Cressy, it’s about ten miles from here.”

“Good. If anybody wants to get word to that bunch, they’ll have to leave by horseback. I guess I need to talk to the owner of the livery, too.”

Johnny thought for a minute. “Never heard of Cressy. How big is it?”

“It isn’t. More or less just a place for the train to get water. A few buildings, but not much else.”

Johnny nodded, then after a long pause, he looked over at Val. “Do you think you can get in there and figure out what’s going on?”

Val nodded. “I think so.”

“All right. If you can, try and get them here as soon as you can. Today’s Monday. If you can bring them in on Saturday or Sunday, it would be great. I figure even if they’re pushing, they’ll spend two days on the road. They won’t want to come into town on tired horses.”

“I’ll do my best,” Val vowed.

“If you can leave without drawing suspicion, get back here beforehand and let us know what’s going on. But if you can’t don’t worry. We’ll try to be ready for anything . You won’t help by getting yourself killed. Just do what you can, but the main thing is for you to keep yourself alive, understand?”

Val nodded. “Don’t worry, I ain’t lookin’ to get killed.”

“Good. Too much trouble to replace you,” Johnny snapped.

“Well, I sure wouldn’t want to put you out, none,” Val snapped back.

The sheriff looked at the two men in shock, until Scott shook his head. “It’s their idea of humor,” he explained.

Johnny smiled at Val, who was still glowering, then turned toward Scott. “You and I are going to set up a trap, but first we’re going to make sure that everyone here knows how to shoot.” He turned to Lawson. “Is there a gunsmith in town, or anybody that sells guns?”

“There’s a gunsmith, and the mercantile sells a few rifles.”

“Okay, I’ll need to talk to them. They might have to contribute some guns and ammunition to the cause.”

Lawson snorted. “Good luck with Mr Avery , the gunsmith. He’s about as cheap as they come.”

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to change his mind, won’t we?”

“That I’d like to see.”

Johnny smiled. Don’t worry, we’ll get what we need, one way or the other.”

Chapter 40

Scott and Johnny sat in front of the saloon, nursing beers and watching the town scramble to get ready for the battle.

“What do you think?” Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged. “I think we’ve done all we can. Whether it’s enough or not, I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out.”

“You’ve done this before,” Scott prodded.

“More than once,” Johnny agreed.

“What happened those times?”

Johnny swirled the beer around in his bottle before taking a sip. “Most of the time we won.”

“And when you didn’t?”

“A lot of good people died.”

“You have no opinion on what’s going to happen this time?”

“It ain’t that easy, Scott. If everything goes perfect, we’ll win for sure. Problem is, it never goes perfect. The townspeople could cut and run, the sheriff or someone else could be on the other side, you or I could get killed at the beginning, and then no one would be there to tell the others what to do, the list goes on and on. The only reason we have a chance is that things go wrong for the other side, too. I guess mostly it’s just plain luck.”

“Do you think we’ve done all we can to get ready?”

Johnny nodded, thinking about the previous day. Sheriff Lawson had been at the door to the meeting house, checking that everyone who came in was really a local citizen. Two men tried to bluff their way past him, but Lawson stopped them cold and had one of his deputies escort them to the jail. They fussed and complained about not being guilty of anything except curiosity, but Lawson charged them with trespassing. Johnny had questioned them later, and they were either good liars or they really didn’t know what was going on. If they weren’t spies, the charges would be dropped and they would be released as soon as the battle was over.

Johnny explained to the crowd what they were up against and made the suggestion that the women and children leave. Some did and some didn’t. He supposed the ones who stayed had nowhere else to go. He made sure to give Mr. Avery a lot of thanks for graciously offering guns and ammunition to anyone who needed it. Johnny had smirked as the gunsmith preened and strutted just like it had all been his idea.

This morning, Johnny and Scott had taken all the men and a few women aside and given them pointers on shooting. Some of the men were decent shots, and a few were hopeless. Of course, there were a few idiots who thought they knew everything, Mr. Avery being one of them. He had been openly disdainful of any instruction, and had baited Johnny continually. Johnny had done his best to ignore him, until the gunsmith started bragging that he had been a gunfighter once. Johnny went real still and stared at the man.

“A gunfighter, huh?”

“That’s right, sonny. A real shootist. Someone who knows all about the art of gunfighting.”

“So you must be pretty fast,” Johnny observed.

“Damn right. I can draw so fast you can’t even see it. Course, I don’t do it anymore. No sense scarin’ folks.”

Johnny’s eyes got hard and his voice changed to a soft drawl. “You a betting man, Mr Avery?”

Avery paused and his head lifted, like he felt danger for the first time. Scott’s eyes narrowed. His brother had disappeared. He didn’t know who this stranger was, but he knew he was dangerous.

“Well, Mr. Avery? You up for a bet?”

“I don’t believe in wagering,” Avery said quietly.

“I didn’t say nothin’ about a gentleman’s wager. I’m talking about a good, old fashioned bet.”

Scott noticed Johnny’s eyes never left the gunsmith. He also noticed Avery had a thin line of perspiration starting to form on his brow. This was getting interesting.

“I’ll bet you that I can beat you at a fast draw.”

“I don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Avery protested quickly.

“Oh,” Johnny drawled, “I don’t think that’ll happen. “Now how about it. If you beat me, you don’t have to loan those guns out. You can get in your wagon and ride away. How does that sound?”

Avery swallowed hard. “And if I lose?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Then you’re going to keep your big, fat mouth shut, and quit pretending to be an expert on stuff you know nothin’ about.”

“Why you…” Avery went for his gun. Before he had even touched it, Johnny’s Colt was aimed at his nose.

“I guess that was a ‘yes’,” Johnny snickered. “Now go on, get outta here.”

Scott noticed the rest of the men were a lot more respectful after that, and it had nothing to do with Johnny’s badge.

Now, some of the men were practicing with rifles and some with revolvers. The rest of the men were building blinds and bunkers to hide behind when the attack came, and making sure there was plenty of ammunition stored at each place. Johnny had stationed the best riflemen up high, in the upper windows lining main street. The men who were best with their handguns had been assigned the places closest to the street. He had warned all of them to stay hidden and not be heroes, and to take time to aim before each shot.

The hotel was full and even the jail and the church had people sleeping in them, because he wanted everyone in town when the time came. He had asked some of the men who weren’t comfortable using a gun to be lookouts. There were several places on the outskirts of town where they could stay comfortably but see for miles around. He had assigned some of the older boys to be messengers, to spread the word when the raiders were approaching.

He thought he had it all covered, but as he had told Scott, he couldn’t foresee everything, and it still depended a lot on luck. All they could do now was wait. He just hoped Val would get them here soon. The longer the wait, the more impatient people would get, and the more things that would go wrong.

“Hey, Val,” haven’t seem you around for  a while,” the man said.

Val nodded as he strode into the hotel that he had been told was headquarters for the bunch of raiders. “It’s been  a while, Slim. I heard you boys was getting rowdy up here.”

Slim nodded. “Travis is raisin’ Cain up here, that’s for sure.”

“Any particular reason?”

Slim shrugged. “He promised Quantrill he’d carry on fighting the Yanks anywhere he needed to.”

“Why California? Last I heard, Travis was workin’ out of Missouri.”

“Ah, he got tired of workin’ in Jesse and Frank’s shadow. He decided to branch out on his own.”

“So he picked California?”

Slim grinned. “Good climate, lots of money, and the ranches are easy pickings, just like Travis promised.”

“How’ve you boys been doin’?”

“Just fine. We’ve hit several banks and have plenty of money. Travis turned some of the boys loose just to raise some havoc. He said it’ll scare people into just running away when they know we’re coming instead of fighting. Seems to be working, no one’s tried to stop us for quite  a while. No way they can bring in the army, either, not with the railroad tracks blown. Travis said we’re going to blow them up again down by Merced.”

“You heading on down that way?”

Slim nodded. “We’re just about done up here. Gonna be moving on in a few days.”

“Guess I found you boys just in time, didn’t I?”

“Looks like.” Slim hesitated. “You know Travis ain’t gonna be real pleased to see you. He figures he’s in charge now, and he’s not gonna want to be giving that up.”

Val held up a hand. “I have no intention of trying to take over. Just thought I’d come on up and join the fun.”

Slim nodded, then frowned. “We heard tell you was a sheriff down south of here somewhere.”

“Was. Didn’t suit me much.” He clapped Slim on the shoulder. “Not near as much money or fringe benefits, if you get my drift.”

Slim snorted. “Don’t know why you decided to leave and try it in the first place.”

“Just stupid, I guess. Anyway, guess I’d better go look up old Travis so he can tell me where to sit and where to stand. He always did like to be in charge.”

Slim laughed. “Ain’t that the truth. We all were ready to hit Merced next, but old Travis decided to throw his weight around and decided we’re going to stop at Livingston for a few days first.”

Val felt his heart drop. “Did he say why?” he asked casually.

Slim shrugged. “He said another bunch of Quantrill’s men are going to meet up with us there, before we hit Merced. There may be even more coming in from the south, using the train for transportation. Once they join us, we’ll be pretty much invincible.”

Chapter 41

Johnny and Scott spent the morning checking out all of the fortifications and making sure the men knew exactly what they were supposed to do. He put Scott in charge of all the gunmen, letting him figure out where the final placement would be for each person. Johnny stood quietly while Scott told each man where to fire from and when, and so far he hadn’t disagreed with anything. A few times his brother did things a little differently than he would have, but Johnny admitted to himself that different didn’t make it wrong.

They rounded up the teenage boys and made sure they knew their responsibilities. They were in charge of delivering messages and of alerting the town when the lookouts spotted the raiders. Johnny made sure they knew that their main job was to stay alive. He gave them the fastest horses and impressed on them not to fight, but to RUN. They needed to get word back to the town when the raiders were on their way.

Johnny and Scott also made sure the women who had stayed in town knew to stay inside the hotel. Johnny figured that would probably be the safest building and the last one to fall if things went bad. He had made sure there were several men stationed inside. Men who were no relation to any of the women remaining, and who would do what was needed if worse came to worse. The women had been told, and they were in agreement, that a bullet was quicker and more desirable than the alternative.

In the meantime, the women had fashioned a pretty decent hospital inside the Hotel with the help of a few older boys and the local doctor. Clean bandages were stacked and ready for use, and plenty of clean water was available.

Everything was ready, and everyone was waiting.

Johnny sat in the saloon, nursing a drink while Scott finished up his meal.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat? This beef stew is pretty good,” Scott coaxed.

Johnny shook his head and continued staring at his glass.

“When do you think they’ll be coming?” Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged.

Scott leaned over towards Johnny. “What’s wrong?”

Johnny sighed. “I don’t know,” he said without looking up.

Scott looked at him quizzically for a moment, then shrugged and took another bite.

Finally Johnny looked at his brother. “I just have a bad feeling, that’s all.”

“About Val?”

Johnny sighed. “Maybe. I don’t know, I’m used to working alone. I’m worried about Val, I’m worried about you, I’m worried about Jelly. Hell, I’m even worried about Murdoch.”

Scott’s eyebrows went up. “I take it worrying isn’t what you normally do.”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope.” Then he shrugged. “Well about people anyway. I always figured anyone involved either knew what they were getting into or deserved whatever happened.”

“Even the innocent bystanders?”

“Scott, in my kind of work there were very few innocent bystanders. Most were involved, one way or the other. The few that weren’t could have made the choice to leave.”

Scott nodded thoughtfully. “So what makes it so different this time? Don’t you think Val and I knew what we were getting into? And what about Murdoch? He’s not even here. Why are you worried about him?”

Johnny shrugged. “I guess ‘cause if things go wrong he’s gonna lose both of us, plus his ranch.”

Scott nodded. “And Val and I?”

“You knew what you’re getting into, at least I think you did. It’s just that…” He sighed again, then looked at his brother with tortured eyes. “Before I only had to worry about me dyin’. This time, well, I’ve never had as much to lose before.”

“Val,” Travis said coldly as he walked into the room. Val was playing poker with Slim and few others while they waited for orders. “What are you really doing here?” Travis continued.

Val shrugged as he tossed a few more coins on the table. “Just checking things out. Thought I told you the other day that I just wanted to join in on the fun,” Val answered calmly. “Call.”

Slim fanned out his cards on the table, showing two kings.

Val grinned and tossed his cards down, face up.

“Damn,” Slim complained as looked at the ten high straight. “I don’t think you’ve lost more than a couple of hands all afternoon.” He looked at Val appraisingly. “You learn how to cheat?”

Val went still and stared at the man. “I don’t cheat,” he said quietly. “And if you think I do, you and me are going to have a big problem.”

Slim hesitated a second, then shrugged. “Nah, I know you’re not cheating, least you never have before.”

“Maybe Mr. Crawford is doing a lot of things he’s never done before,” Travis suggested quietly.

Val reared back in his chair and eyeballed the other man. “Like what, Travis?” he challenged as Slim dealt the cards once more.

Travis came up and kicked another man out of a chair before sitting town and picking up the man’s cards.

“Well,” Travis said casually, “I just think it’s real strange, you showin’ up here right now.”

“Oh, and why is that?” Val asked.

“Well, last I heard, you were doing real well for yourself. Got all respectable and took up sherrifin’ down south of here. I was real surprised when I heard. Never figured you for a lawman. Then I got to thinking about how you acted the last year or so we ran together. I thought you’d turned yellow, but maybe you just got yourself a conscience,” he said as he studied his cards.

Val shrugged. “So?”

Travis looked at the dealer. “Two.” He turned back to Val. “If you got a conscience, what’re you doing up here? I have the feeling that you don’t want to join us at all, now do you? I think you have something else in mind.”

“Now what would that be?” Val sneered.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you decided to play hero and try to stop us.”

“Not likely, is it? Can’t stop you all by myself, be a fool to try.”

The dealer tossed two cards at Travis, then looked expectantly at Val. “One.” Val picked up his card, then looked over at Travis. “I ain’t no fool,” he growled. “And if you want to see my cards it’ll cost you twenty dollars,” he said as he tossed some coins on the table.

Travis looked at him, then grinned. “Why don’t we quit all this pussyfooting around.” He shoved his pile of chips to the middle of the table. “I’m all in.”

After a moment, Val did the same. Travis continued to smile, then flipped his cards over to show a jack high straight flush.

“I think your luck just ran out, Val.”

Murdoch had come into Green River to see if there was any news about what was happening up north. So far, no one had heard anything, and Murdoch was getting more and more anxious. He never should have agreed to let both Scott and Johnny head out into the middle of a war. He should have had his head examined for going along with it.

Before his sons had come home he had worried, but it was different somehow. When he had found out Johnny was a gunfighter, he worried about the boy, but the worry was more generalized and more vague. After all, his son was a stranger to him. He’d felt the same when he had found out that Scott had enlisted and was fighting in the war. He had worried, but it was almost like he was worried about a stranger. A very important stranger, but a stranger, nonetheless.

But now…now he knew his boys. They weren’t strangers any longer, they were his sons. No matter what he thought of them though, they weren’t boys anymore, but tough competent men. Men he was proud to have sired, although he could take no credit for how they turned out. And both had turned out better than he could ever have dreamed.

Scott was no surprise. He had been raised with all of the advantages available. He’d received the best education and was surrounded by art and literature and beauty. His manners were impeccable and his grace and wit had been polished to a high shine. Thankfully, the war hadn’t hardened him, but it had made him wiser and more empathetic. He was a son to be proud of.

When Johnny first came to Lancer, Murdoch was ashamed to admit he was disappointed. Not in Johnny, but in the fact that the boy had been forced to struggle for everything he had ever had. Every meal, every dollar, every day alive had been fought for. There was no time in his hard life to learn or appreciate the arts. No time to immerse himself in a good book. No opportunity to visit expensive restaurants or even go to school.

Somehow, though, the boy had managed to be better than he should have been. He could read and write and do sums, and his manners were, though not polished, acceptable. And somehow in that unspeakable existence that had been his childhood, he had managed to find a conscience. Not only a conscience, but a well – honed knowledge of right and wrong, and a willingness to fight for what was right. Maybe Murdoch could take some of the credit for that. After all, Johnny certainly hadn’t learned those things in his rough life. It had to have been inbred in him.

He still couldn’t believe that he had let Johnny ride away after the fight with Pardee. Johnny had wanted to stay, Murdoch knew he had. But his son had sensed the hesitation, the worry, and the uncertainty in Murdoch’s mind, and he had chosen to leave. And of course, Scott had soon followed suit. He’d had them both at home, where they belonged, and he had fumbled. He had let them both get away.

He couldn’t believe it when they had both come riding back in together. He couldn’t believe he was getting another chance, and he was determined not to fail as a father again. He was thankful that Johnny had chosen to bring Scott back to Lancer to try to bring his memory back, and he wondered if they would have returned if there hadn’t been a problem. He had tried hard not to let his desperation show. He had bitten his tongue and let them leave again, but even as he was doing it, Murdoch knew it was a mistake. His boys belonged here, at Lancer. He NEEDED them to be at Lancer. He needed his sons.

Chapter 42

“Mr. Lancer!”

Murdoch saw Val’s deputy approaching. “What is it Burt?”

“You said you wanted to know if we got any news.”

“Well?” Murdoch asked impatiently.

“I got some information. The telegraph lines are out up there, but the train’s still running, at least as far as Merced. One of the passengers who came in today was a friend of mine. He said Modesto is on fire. The raiders have destroyed just about everything up there, and there’s been a lot of casualties.”

Murdoch felt his heart drop. Modesto was where Johnny and Scott had been planning on going. “Any word on my boys and Val?”

The deputy hesitated. “Nothing specific,” he hedged.

“ANYTHING?”

The deputy swallowed hard. “He didn’t know any names or details, but he’d heard…”

“Heard WHAT?” Murdoch roared, tired of the man’s hesitation.

“He’d heard that a lawman was killed up there. A lawman and his two deputies.”

“A MARSHAL? Did he say a Marshal?” Murdoch demanded, on the verge of panic.

“He didn’t know. That was all he heard.” The deputy sighed. “Mr. Lancer, it doesn’t mean it was Val and your boys. There are other lawmen up there.”

“It doesn’t mean it wasn’t, either,” Murdoch snapped. “And a lawman and two deputies sounds mighty familiar, doesn’t it?”

“Mr. Lancer, we’re not sure…”

“DON’T. DON’T say anymore.” Murdoch took a deep breath. “I would appreciate it if you’d keep an eye on Lancer while I’m gone.”

“You’re going somewhere?”

“Yes. I’m going after my boys,” Murdoch said as he turned and strode toward his horse.

As he rode toward Lancer, Murdoch’s mind was going every which way. He felt guilty as hell for letting them go. He was also scared. More scared than he thought he’d ever been. His mind told him that, in all probability, the men who had been killed were his sons and Val, but his heart refused to believe it. He couldn’t lose them now, after everything they had all been through, not when they’d just come home again.

Murdoch had been amazed at Johnny’s idea on how to keep the other gunfighters away. Murdoch never would have thought of it. Of course, Murdoch never would have thought that his gunfighter son would ever stand a chance of becoming a Federal Marshal. He still wanted to hear THAT story. Apparently, someone had had a great deal of confidence in his son- more than his own father had shown him.

Well, any doubts about Johnny were long gone. He knew his son was an admirable and honest man, and he’d never allow anyone to say anything different. He just hoped he wasn’t too late. If he was, he would make sure those who were responsible were sent to hell where they belonged. And if by the grace of God and by some miracle it wasn’t too late, he would do what he should have done in the first place, and fight at their side. It was where he belonged.

Murdoch drew his lathered horse to a sliding stop in front of the barn. Frank came running out to meet him, sure some great emergency had caused his boss to break the Cardinal rule of not running horses inside the arch. Instead, Murdoch flipped the reins to him.

“Have all the men you can, meet here, in front of the barn in fifteen minutes.”

Frank barely had time to nod before Murdoch disappeared into the house.

“TERESA!” Murdoch shouted. “MARIA!”

Both women scurried out of the kitchen, their hands coated white with flour. “What’s wrong?” Teresa asked anxiously.

Murdoch gently took hold of her arm. “Johnny and Scott may be in trouble. I’m going up to Modesto to see if I can help. I shouldn’t be gone long.” He turned to Maria. “Do you think you could stay here, in the house while I’m gone?”

“Si, Senor, that won’t be a problem.”

Murdoch nodded. “Thank you.” He turned back to his ward. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. The telegraph lines are down, so don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for  a while. Now, if you would, please pack some food for travelling while I get my gear.”

As the girl hurried off, Murdoch strode over to the desk and pulled out a Derringer that he slipped into his sleeve, then opened the safe. He drew out a large stack of bills, then slammed the safe shut and walked over to the gun case and lifted down a rifle. He worked the action several times, then grabbed a box of ammunition and stuffed it into his pocket before walking out the door.

The men had gathered in front of the barn. Luckily, most had been working close to the house today, and there were more than fifty men standing and waiting.

Murdoch acknowledged the men with a nod. “As you all know, Johnny and Scott went up to Modesto with Val Crawford to stop the violence they’re having up there. The telegraph lines are down, and the railroad doesn’t go all the way into Modesto, but stops just this side of Merced. There’s no way of getting messages in or out.” He stopped and took a deep breath. “I was told in town today that a lawman and two of his deputies were killed up there recently. I hope to God it’s not Johnny and Scott, but either way, I’m going up there, either to get revenge or to help my boys with that bunch. I know you didn’t sign up for this, and there will be absolutely no repercussions if you decide to stay here. In fact, I’ll need at least a few of you to stay and watch the ranch, but if anyone is willing to join me, the pay will be double.”

Immediately, most of the men stepped forward.

“Are you all sure?” Murdoch asked. “We will be riding into a war zone.”

Frank nodded. “Mr. Lancer, all of us like Scott and Johnny. Besides, we’re loyal to the brand. We’ll go.”

Murdoch nodded. “Get your gear together, and plenty of ammunition. You’re going to need it. We leave in half of an hour.” He turned to the crippled old man that worked around the barn. “Pete, start saddling horses, the best we have.”

Pete nodded and walked back into the barn. He met Cipriano, who was already packed and was leading his big bay out of the stall.

“The boss sure seems upset. Never seen him like this before,” Pete observed.

Cipriano stopped and stared at the man. “Have you ever seen an enraged Grizzly Bear fight something that has hurt one of its cubs?”

Pete slowly shook his head.

“What that bear will do to their victim is horrible.” Cipriano motioned toward the house. “Senor Lancer is Papa Bear.”

Murdoch led his men north until they were forced to stop and make camp. If he’d had his way, they would have ridden all night, but the horses were tired and the night was dark. Still, he was restless. Something inside him told him he needed to hurry.

He still wasn’t willing to admit that his boys were dead. He knew that somehow, things would be all right. They had to be. If the boys were gone, he’d lost everything, and nothing would mean anything anymore, not even Lancer. He finally realized that his sons and future grandsons were who he had built the ranch for; who he had slaved and scrimped for. Without them it was just a piece of property. Without them, there was no reason to go on.

If what he thought was true, there was no reason to hurry. The raiders would still be there, close enough to find. Murdoch and his men could take their time and rest their horses and not worry about hurrying. But for some reason, the urge to hurry just wouldn’t leave him. Something was driving him, something was telling him that it wasn’t too late, that his boys were still alive. But that same voice was also warning him to hurry. Hurry before it really was too late.

Murdoch strode around the campsite, exhausted but too wound up to sleep or even rest. It would take at least two days to get there, more if there was any unforeseen trouble or the weather didn’t cooperate. It was too long; his boys needed help NOW, he could feel it. They had to move faster. With a sigh, he finally returned to his bedroll, exhausted but still wide awake. He wouldn’t be able to sleep, but he guessed he could still rest. They needed to start at first light, and heaven help the horses.

Murdoch bolted awake and looked around, not quite sure of where he was. A second later it all came back, and then he cursed. The rain had woken him. Blinding, sheeting rain. He could barely see across the camp. He pulled out his pocket watch, then with an oath, he jumped to his feet. Cipriano immediately came over to him.

“Why in the hell did you let me sleep?” Murdoch snarled at his Segundo.

“Forgive me Patron, but there was no reason to wake you. This rain has made travel impossible.”

Murdoch glared up at the sky, then back to Cipriano. “We can still ride. Tell the men to mount up.”

Cipriano put his hand on his old friend’s arm. “Senor Lancer, I know how important it is to hurry. But killing good horses and maybe these loyal men won’t help to get you to your sons. We can’t ride in this weather.”

Murdoch’s shoulders slumped. The feeling that he had to hurry was stronger, but Cipriano was right. The horses and men wouldn’t even be able to see the trail. He shut his eyes and said a quick prayer for the lives of his sons. God was the only one who could help them now, because their father had failed them.

Chapter 43

Val smirked at Travis. “Don’t think my luck’s run out quite yet.” He laid down his cards, then turned them over, one at a time. Val finally picked up the last card and flipped it to the center of the table. “Queen high straight flush.”

Travis stared at the cards in disbelief, then scowled at Val. “Just ‘cause you won that pot don’t mean you’re gonna be around to spend it. I don’t like you, Crawford, and I sure as hell don’t trust you. I don’t care what you think, your luck’s about over. If I see you make one move I don’t like, I’m gonna shoot you down like a dog.”

Travis stood up and kicked his chair away from the table before stalking out, followed by a couple of his men.

Slim watched his boss leave, then shook his head. “You’d better be careful, Val. Travis ain’t nobody to mess with.”

“Neither am I,” Val growled. “Now deal those cards.”

Later that evening, Val stepped into his room and looked around. It was a tiny building, barely big enough for two beds, and it had probably been used for grain storage at some point. It still smelled of oats and corn, but he sort of liked that smell. Sure better than manure. He was lucky Slim let him room with him instead of bedding down out in the barn with most of the men. He carefully locked the door behind him, then took off his hat and threw it on the end of the bed before plopping down beside it with a sigh.

He’d really lucked out earlier. When Travis had told him his luck had run out, Val figured it probably really would have if he hadn’t managed to draw that queen. He knew Travis had planned to kill him; the two men who came in with Travis had stared at Val the whole time and stood there tapping the butts of their guns with their fingers. It was so obvious he would have laughed if it hadn’t been him who was the target. But apparently Travis had been so shocked that his ten high flush had lost, he’d pretty much forgotten about his plan. Travis had recovered quickly, but then for some reason he hadn’t carried out his threat.

Val had really been sweating there for a few minutes, though. He’d managed to loosen the safety on his gun and work the Derringer down his sleeve without anyone noticing, but he’d figured he’d still be dead in a minute or so. But if he was going down, he sure as heck was going to take at least Travis with him. Then, just as Val had decided to start the party himself, Travis had just walked out. Val couldn’t figure it out, but knew he was still in danger and would have to watch his back. Travis wasn’t above back shooting or getting someone else to do his dirty work for him.

He sighed as he lay his head back on his pillow. What he needed to do was to hightail it out right now and head back to Merced. He figured he’d learned all he needed to know, and the news wasn’t good. If he didn’t let them know what was going on though, it would be even worse. Johnny and Scott would be waiting for days while Travis and his bunch were meeting more men over in Livingston. It was even possible the men coming up from the south would hit Merced before Travis’ bunch. No one in town would be expecting an attack originating from the train. It could be over in seconds.

Even if that assault never happened, the extra few days the raiders would take while waiting for their reinforcements would be bad enough. Val had been in on his share of raids in his time, and he knew what would happen. The townspeople would figure the whole thing had been a false alarm and start to grumble, then start deserting their posts. He knew Johnny and Scott would try to hold things together, but it would be like holding back a river with a pebble. By the time the raiders did attack, the town would be wide open. Travis and his bunch would cut through the town like a hot knife through butter. Both Johnny and Scott would be killed, because he knew neither of them would run, and they’d both keep fighting till the end.

Val turned things over in his mind. He figured Travis would be watching him like a hawk, and be ready for Val to try to leave. He had to get word to Johnny that they needed more men, but he just couldn’t figure out how. The telegraph lines were down and the train stopped cold down by Merced. The only way to get a message to his friends was by horseback. If he remembered correctly it was about forty miles down to where Johnny was waiting. Not too far by horseback, but almost impossible if he was being chased. His horse would give out long before he got to Merced if he had to keep it moving fast enough to stay ahead of Travis’ men, who were sure to be following.

Finally, he resigned himself to the fact that he’d have to take the risk of leaving and he tried to figure out the best plan he could. It wasn’t perfect, but at least there was a chance he could stay alive long enough to get the message to Johnny. The good part of his plan was that the horses were scattered all over the place, and his horse was a nondescript sorrel, just like dozens of others. No one would know if his horse was missing or not.

Finally, he swung his legs to the floor, then stood up and grabbed his hat, and dropped a slip of paper at his feet. He strode to the door, then stopped with his hand on the knob, wondering if there was another way. After a moment he shook his head, then opened the door and stepped quickly into the night.

Slim fumbled with the knob on the door, but it was locked. He patted the pockets in his shirt and pants, but couldn’t feel anything. He tried to think, but the alcohol had made that almost impossible. After a minute or so, he remembered that he was sharing a room with Val.

He knocked on the door. “Hey Val, let me in.”

He pounded harder. “Come on Val!! Open the door!”

“COME ON CRAWFORD, LET ME IN!”

Travis and a few of his men had just had a meeting at the saloon and were returning to their rooms at the hotel when they heard the yelling.

Travis walked over and grabbed Slim, swinging him around until he faced him and the others. “What the hell is going on?” Travis demanded. “It’s after midnight, and you’re going to wake up the whole camp!”

Slim looked owlishly at his boss, trying to focus. “Just trying to get in my room, but it seems Val doesn’t want to let me in.”

“You’re sure he’s in there?” Travis asked quietly.

Slim tried desperately to make his brain work. “Yes sir. He quit the poker game about an hour ago. Had a streak of bad luck and lost most of the money he’d won. He cashed in what he had left, then said he was turning in.”

Travis scowled at the drunk man, then pushed him aside. He put his shoulder down and rammed the flimsy door, causing it to fly open and hit the wall with a bang. Both beds were obviously empty, and a small lamp left burning was the only sign someone had been in the room.

Travis angrily stalked over to the bed, then his eye caught a glimpse of something on the floor. He reached down and picked up a scrap of paper half hidden under the bed, then held it up to the light, trying to make out the rough handwriting. As he read the note, his face reddened.

“That no good, conniving son of a bitch! When I get my hands on him, he’ll wish he’d never been born!” he snarled. He turned to his Lieutenant. “Tell the men to mount up. We’re going to hit Merced, and then we’re going to find Val Crawford and make him wish he were dead!”

One of Travis’ lieutenants bravely asked what the note had said, and Travis stuffed the note in the man’s hand. The man read it slowly:

‘Tell troops Raiders hitting Livingston next   stop
Pull all defenses from Merced    stop
Going to Modesto to verify then reporting to Merced   stop’

It was signed Val Crawford and dated the previous week.

“But all the telegraph lines are down,” the Lieutenant said in confusion.

Travis shook his head at the man’s stupidity. “He sent it before he even came here, and he could have sent it from anywhere. Somehow he found out our plans, sent the telegram, then came here to verify it,” Travis raged. “But we’re going to fool him. All the troops will be busy guarding Livingston, and we’re going to hit Merced. I want to leave now, and I want to catch Val Crawford on the way. I want the men to pack light and be ready to ride hard.”

The other man hesitated, then decided to ask. “What about the bunch we were planning on meeting? They’ll be riding into a trap.”

“That’s their problem,” Travis snapped, then he reconsidered. “Send a couple of men to find them and tell them to hurry and meet us in Merced. “

Twenty minutes later, Travis and his men tore out of Modesto toward Merced. Travis had offered a five hundred dollar reward to the man who captured Crawford, alive, and the men were determined to run him down.

Thirty minutes after that, Val slowly loped his chestnut out of town, following the obvious tracks of the raiders.

Chapter 44

Val followed the riders at a safe distance, thankful for the open rolling hills that allowed him to spot anyone sent back to guard the raiders’ trail. He wasn’t expecting anyone; Travis was too confident and too furious to even think about it. No, he would keep pushing the men and the horses until they were ready to drop. Only then would he stop to rest, and maybe start thinking again.

So far Val’s plan was working. The raiders were on their way to Merced, wearing their horses out in a desperate attempt to catch him. He figured the horses would be pretty well blown by the time Travis decided that running them for half the night might not be the brightest thing he ever did. If Val could just get them to charge into Merced before they had a chance to stop and regroup, Johnny and his men just might stand a chance.

As they walked along, Val reached down and patted Clyde’s neck. The horse was breathing easily and hadn’t yet broken a sweat. Val had kept the horse at a slow lope most of the time, occasionally letting him trot or slow down to a walk. He figured he was about an hour behind Travis’ bunch by now. He should catch up in a couple of hours, when the raiders would be forced to stop. By then they would only be a short distance from Merced, and with any luck Val could slip by them and reach the town before the raiders.

He hoped that he could goad Travis into attacking before the other bunch of raiders joined them. As far as Val had been able to tell, Travis had around forty men. Not a huge number, but still enough to put the outcome of the battle in doubt. He knew Johnny’s forces numbered around the same, and they had the advantage of surprise and plenty of cover, but those men weren’t trained. Except for Johnny and Scott, and possibly one or two others, he doubted any of them had ever been in any kind of a battle. Men without experience made mistakes; mistakes that could get them and everyone else killed.

The only thing that gave the town a snowball’s chance in hell of winning was that Johnny Madrid was in charge. Scott was good, and Val himself had seen his share of fighting, but Madrid was in a class by himself. If anyone could pull out a victory over impossible odds, it was Johnny. Not Johnny Lancer or even Marshal Madrid, but the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid. Val had heard stories for years about the legendary pistolero. A lot of the stories probably weren’t true, but Val had seen enough to know that the ones praising his ability were accurate enough.

Val knew that Travis was completely ignorant about Johnny, but he figured that it wouldn’t matter. Travis was the most arrogant, cocky person he’d ever met. A small smile formed on his face. Except, of course for Johnny. But his friend’s attitude was well earned . Travis was just plain full of himself, and maybe that would work against him.

Val nudged his horse back into a lope. He was still worried about the raiders who had not yet joined Travis’ bunch. If they managed to hook up, the chance even Johnny could pull off a victory was slim. And if the raiders from down south joined in, too…

With a shake of his head, he kneed the horse into a faster lope. He HAD to get to the town first and let Johnny know about the other raiders.

Val was riding up a small hill when his horse’s ears went up in interest, and the man saw a cloud of dust rising into the sky ahead of him. Val swung down out of the saddle and walked cautiously up the rise, using a large tangle of bushes as cover. What he saw made his heart drop. Travis’ bunch was just ahead, all dismounted and letting their horses drink from a small stream. Some had even removed their saddles. Off to Val’s right, at least two dozen more riders were coming in to join them.

Val watched as the men greeted each other, and the second bunch began to dismount. Val realized this was as good a chance as he was going to get. All of the horses and men seemed tired, and they wouldn’t be expecting anyone to make a run for it this late in the game. Val figured he was about five miles out. Still too far for an all out run. Even though his horse was in a lot better shape than the raider’s horses, his horse had still covered a lot of ground today. If he was forced, his horse would be dead after three miles.

He thought about it for a minute, then realized he might be able to swing wide, then come back toward the trail from the right. With any luck, they would think he was one of the raiders who was just catching up. Then, when he got to the point closest to Merced, he could take off from there. If he went at a slower pace, he might be able to gain quite a bit of ground before the raiders realized what he was doing. It might, just might, give him the edge he needed.

Part of him thought about just melting back into the bushes and disappearing. With the additional men that had joined Travis, Val knew that Merced was facing impossible odds. Johnny might be good, but he wasn’t invincible, and the extra men who Travis picked up were too many for even Johnny to overcome. After the raiders hit, the town would be destroyed, and survivors would be few and far between. He knew in his heart that Johnny and Scott would be among the casualties. His common sense told him to leave; there was nothing he could do to help. The only thing that would happen was that he would get killed alongside his friends.

Val shook his head with a grin. No one ever accused him of being overly bright. Besides, he’d almost been killed a lot of times, and for far poorer reasons than standing with friends. He snugged his hat down on his head, undid the safety on his gun, then turned Clyde around and guided him off of the hill.

Fifteen minutes later, he was trotting his horse toward where the raiders were resting. He was in plain sight now, but had managed to pick up at least a mile. He let Clyde drift off to the right, then slowed him to a walk, giving him a chance to rest as they slowly gained more ground.

He knew by now he had been spotted but they hadn’t quite figured out who he was or what he was doing. He kept sliding to the right, toward the trail into town, and he watched as more and more of the raiders showed interest in him. Suddenly, men started running toward their horses. Val turned Clyde sharply to the right and spurred him into a gallop. He heard the boom of several rifles, but he knew he was still too far away for them to be effective. Clyde shot forward, and Val could hear the shouts of the men fading in the distance. He chanced a look back, and saw that about half of the men were already following him, and he nodded his head in satisfaction when he saw the rest hurriedly saddling their horses.

His plan was working so far, but now the trick was to stay just out of reach of their rifles, but not far enough ahead that they would give up the chase. As he galloped off, though, he felt his horse falter slightly. It seemed that keeping ahead of their guns might be the hard part.

After two miles, Val knew he was in trouble. So far he was keeping his pursuers about a mile behind him, but his horse was starting to labor. He scanned the landscape ahead of him, searching for some shelter. He knew getting to the town was hopeless, but if he could get to somewhere that would be able to shield him from most of the gunfire, he could at least take a few of them with him. The sound of a firefight would alert the sentries Johnny was bound to have posted, and give Johnny the warning he needed.

He saw a lone outcropping ahead, and turned his struggling horse toward the rocks. He glanced back, and saw that Travis and his men were still behind him, but slowly gaining. It briefly crossed Val’s mind to try for town and safety, but as much as he wanted to, he knew he’d never make it. Town was closer now, close enough that he could make out buildings, but his horse was done.

He desperately urged the horse toward the rocks, but the horse suddenly tripped, sending Val over his head to land in a heap. The horse came down next to him, then staggered to his feet and moved off before Val had a chance to grab the reins. Val glanced at the rocks and knew he’d never make it. He drew gun, and stood there, waiting.

Chapter 45

Johnny and Scott stepped out onto the boardwalk as soon as they heard the sound of a horse coming into town at a dead run.

“They’re coming!” the young boy yelled as he jumped off his lathered horse.

“How many?” Johnny snapped.

The boy hesitated. “A lot!”

Johnny’s eyebrows went up “How fast were they coming?”

“Fast! They were running their horses, and it looked like they were chasing somebody.”

Johnny froze. “How far out are they, and where?”

The boy shrugged. “They’re coming from the north, maybe a mile out, but the man they were chasing was a lot closer than that before he fell.”

“They shot him?” Johnny asked, feeling sick inside.

The boy shook his head. “No, his horse tripped.”

Johnny turned and let out a shrill whistle. Somehow he knew the rider was Val, and he had to get to him. The horse the boy was riding was done in, besides it was a kid’s horse; fast but small. It would never carry two riders.

“Scott, get them ready to fight, I’m going after Val.”

“I can go,” Scott started.

He whistled again. “No, I can guide Barranca without a bridle. I don’t trust another horse.” He had turned Barranca loose so he wouldn’t be trapped in a corral or barn if the fight went bad. He knew his horse could survive on his own. All the other horses were either at the livery or hidden.

The palomino came charging down the street, mane flying and whinnying as he came. As it approached, Johnny grabbed the horse’s mane and jumped on the horse bareback, then took off down the street and out of town, guiding the horse with his weight and legs.

Johnny leaned low over the horse’s neck and asked for more speed. Barranca surged forward toward the man standing in the middle of nothing, holding a gun.

Johnny saw the raiders bearing down on his friend. Another few seconds and they would be in rifle range. As Barranca approached Val at a dead run, Johnny leaned over and held out his hand. He wondered briefly if Barranca would buck when he was asked to carry two riders. It was one thing Johnny hadn’t trained him for, and he guessed he would find out. He knew they only had one chance, and prayed Val knew what to do.

Johnny slowed his horse slightly as Val grabbed his hand and swung aboard, then Johnny turned Barranca toward town. He heard the rifles explode behind him, and felt Val jerk.

“You ok?” Johnny yelled over his shoulder.

“I’m fine, if you can get this crowbait to move,” Val snapped back.

Johnny dug in his spurs, and Barranca, already picking up on the urgency of his rider, bolted toward town. With no bridle, Johnny couldn’t have stopped him if he’d wanted to, but Johnny urged him on even more.

They came flying down the street, and Johnny leaned back and slowed the horse down enough to jump. He gave Val a little shove and as Val threw himself off, Johnny jumped, then tucked and rolled. He bounced to his feet and ran behind the nearest cover as Barranca took off out of town. Val followed Johnny a few seconds later, limping a little. Johnny made sure Val made it to cover before looked quickly around for his brother. He saw Scott across the street, standing inside a second story window of the hotel. They locked eyes for a moment, then the raiders charged into town.

The hair went up on the back of Johnny’s neck as he heard the eerie, high pitched, wild call the men were screaming as they came. It sounded like a hundred coyotes going in for the kill, and Johnny shivered. He glanced over at his brother, who had gone rigid and was standing in plain sight in the window.

“Get DOWN Scott!”

Scott looked dazedly around as if he wasn’t quite sure where he was as the rebels stormed down the street, shooting and screaming.

“SCOTT, GET DOWN!”

Finally Scott seemed to shake off whatever had been bothering him, and he looked at his brother and nodded. A second later, Scott shot one of the raiders, the signal for them all to open fire.

The fight was fast and furious, with Johnny, Val and Scott causing the most damage to the raiders. Travis’ men, caught out in the open with nowhere to go, suffered a lot of casualties, but there were so many of them it hardly made a difference. After twenty minutes of fierce gunplay, Travis yelled for his men to retreat.

Johnny and Val shot several of them as they rode out of town, following them down the street and firing at the retreating backs.

Finally silence reigned.

Johnny stood up stiffly and walked over to where Val was leaning against a post. “What do you think, Val? They coming back?”

Val nodded. “Travis is going to try to come up with a plan, but he’ll be back. We have to get ready.”

“How long, do you think?”

“Don’t know. I wouldn’t count on more than thirty minutes.”

Johnny put his head down to think, and saw some dime sized drops of blood on the ground next to Val.

“So when were you going to get around to telling me you were shot?” Johnny demanded.

“It’s just a scratch,” Val protested.

“Get in the hotel and at least get it bound up. We’re gonna need you and you won’t do anybody any good if you bleed to death.”

“Glad you’re so concerned, but I don’t need…” Val started.

“That’s an order, DEPUTY!” Johnny snapped.

Val opened his mouth, then turned and stalked off, just as Scott walked up. Johnny turned to him,

“What the HELL did you think you were doing just standing by the window? You TRYING to get yourself killed?”

Scott smiled at him. “It sure is good to hear your voice, little brother. Are you always this cheerful after a battle? No, I guess not. At least I don’t remember you being particularly vociferous after we took down Day Pardee.”

“Yeah, well, I was just worried about you. It’s not like you to just stand…” He stopped and stared at his brother. “Scott?”

Scott nodded, then shivered. “It was that yell. In the war, they called it the rebel yell. It was the last thing I remembered before waking up in a confederate prison,” he said somberly. “I never wanted to hear it again, but now I’m sort of glad I heard it one last time.”

Johnny reached out and grabbed Scott by the neck. “Well, maybe our luck has turned. Let’s go see what good news Val has to tell us.”

Val was sitting on a chair as the doctor taped his side.

“Is he okay, Doc?” Johnny asked.

The doctor shrugged. “Well, since he threatened to shoot me if I told you any differently, he’s just fine.”

Johnny shook his head as Val leered at him.

“How many casualties?” Johnny asked.

“Only our side?” The doctor asked.

Johnny nodded.

“Three dead, probably ten wounded, including the sheriff and one of his deputies.”

“Hell,” Johnny cursed. “That’s a fourth of our men and half of our decent guns.”

He looked over at Scott. “How many do you figure they lost?”

Scott shook his head. “Not enough.”

Johnny looked back at Val. “What do you think?”

“I think we’re in big trouble.”

Johnny sighed. “You’re such an optimist. Did you find out anything at their camp?”

Val nodded. “Yeah, but I don’t think you’re gonna like it. There’s another bunch of raiders, maybe two dozen, that are going to be joining up with the ones that are with Travis now. They’re gonna be coming from the south, and will probably be riding the train in.”

“Do you know when?”

Val shook his head. “No, but soon.”

The sound of running feet drew their attention to a teenage boy who burst into the hotel. “The raiders have regrouped and are on their way. They’ll be here in about ten minutes. And Clift told me to tell you that there are a lot of heavily armed men with horses getting off the train and heading this way, too.”

Johnny looked at Val and then Scott. “I’m sorry I got you into this,” he said quietly. “If you two want to ride out…”

“DON’T EVEN SUGGEST IT!” Scott snapped as Val shook his head.

“It ain’t your fault, Johnny,” Val said. “I’d be proud to be your deputy anytime.”

Johnny smiled wanly at his friend. “Well, if we somehow get out of this, I might just take you up on it.”

Val nodded curtly. “if we get out of this, I figure you owe Scott and me a beer. Now let’s go earn our money.”

“Money?” Johnny asked, looking shocked. “You mean I’m paying you?”

Both Val and Scott swatted Johnny as the three of them went out to wait for the inevitable.

Chapter 46

Johnny crouched behind a barricade, waiting for the wave of raiders who would end his life. He was angrier than he’d ever been before. He had never been one to feel sorry for himself, but this was just too much. He’d thought he’d finally have a life besides being a gunfighter, and now he’d never get that chance. He guessed it served him right for expecting anything to change, for expecting anything to go right for him. He’d done too many bad things. For some reason his life had been cursed from the start. His whole life he’d had his legs kicked out from underneath him, but somehow had always found the strength to go on. Maybe not always in the right direction, but at least he was able to keep going. This time, though, there could be no more chances.

Before he had gone to Lancer, he’d never given his future a thought, because he knew he didn’t have one. He’d die alone on a dusty street, without even leaving a ripple. It was just the way it was, and he’d never wasted any time worrying about it or wondering why. But when he had first shown up at Lancer, he saw how things could have been. SHOULD have been, if things had happened like they were supposed to. Even so, he hadn’t stayed. Murdoch’s half -hearted invitation and his own insecurity about changing was part of it, and part of it was being scared to death of bringing down his bad luck on the only real family he had. He’d thought that was probably the one thing that could destroy him; watching Murdoch or Scott, or even Teresa, die because of him. He snorted softly to himself. He should have taken the chance. Scott was going to die and so was he, and it was all his fault. Looks like his luck had rubbed off, no matter how much he’d tried to avoid it. The only thing that would have been worse was if Murdoch were here, too. He just hoped his father could forgive him.

Why did it have to be that way? Why was he cursed? For the first time in his life he’d actually started looking forward to the future. He had thought there was a chance of having a normal life, living at Lancer with his father and brother, and eventually having a wife and family. He’d figured being a Marshal just might be the chance he needed. Everything had been going well, and Scott had even gotten his memory back. Damn it, it wasn’t fair. He guessed he’d still be dying in the street with a bullet in him, and what was worse, he’d be taking his brother and a good friend with him. He should never have tried to change. If he’d stayed a gunfighter, at least his father would have one son left.

With a sigh, he forced his mind back to the work at hand. He’d have to concentrate on the battle, even though the outcome was a foregone conclusion. At least he was going to take as many of them down as he could before he died. He’d even screwed up being a Marshal. He couldn’t help anybody. All he could do is get them killed. Maybe somebody better could stop them. All he knew was that he’d failed miserably, just like he’d always failed. The only thing he was good at was killing. Well, he thought with a sigh, he guessed he’d better show the raiders his talent.

Johnny looked toward the railroad depot. He couldn’t see it; the street turned before then, but he could hear the train in the distance, and even the thundering sound of horses being unloaded from the cars. He and Scott had moved all the townspeople who were still able to fight to the end of town where the original raiders were coming from. He, Scott and Val were covering the end closest to the train tracks on the right. He snorted. Three men against maybe thirty. From the sounds of it, there were more, but thirty or a hundred, the outcome was still the same. Of course, the people at the other end would fare no better. There were more of them, but most were lousy shots.

Johnny heard the eerie, inhuman cry of the raiders coming into the town from the other side, and his eyes sought his brother’s. Scott seemed to be all right, and as though he could read Johnny’s mind, he looked over at his brother and nodded grimly before sinking behind a barricade.

Johnny straightened as the sound of pounding hooves approached from toward the train station. Johnny gripped his gun and waited as gunfire erupted on the other end of town. Ignoring it, Johnny kept his attention on the street to his right. He was standing behind one of the panels they had made. It was still open on the sides, but offered some protection from the front.

The riders exploded around the corner and came charging down the street. Johnny wondered what was taking Scott so long to shoot. Scott had a rifle and the raiders were well within his range. He glanced over at his brother, who had raised his rifle, but was standing frozen. Frowning, Johnny wondered if his brother had panicked, but he couldn’t do anything about it now. He raised his own gun and aimed it at the first rider as he neared, but something familiar about the horse made him hesitate. His eyes flew to its rider, and his mouth dropped open.

He watched in a daze as the man swept by, followed by at least forty riders. Murdoch hadn’t seen him or Scott and continued on, his mouth set in a grim line. Johnny finally recovered and then realized the danger their rescuers were in; the townspeople didn’t know they were on their side, and might fire on them, unknowing.

Johnny broke cover and raced to the other end of the street followed by Val, and a few seconds later, by Scott. The three men worked their way down the street, rapidly firing at the raiders as they went. After a few seconds, Johnny realized it was fairly easy to tell the raiders from his father’s men. All of the raiders had some portion of a confederate uniform on, while most of Lancer’s men were dressed as vaqueros or cowboys. Apparently, it was apparent to the townspeople, too, because they were ignoring Murdoch and his men, and focusing on the raiders.

Johnny chose a spot near his father, and concentrated on watching Murdoch’s back. No one was going to gun down his Old Man, not if he could help it. Scott was across from Johnny, also picking off anyone who got near Murdoch. They stopped long enough to grin at each other before continuing their rapid firing. Johnny couldn’t believe that Murdoch had actually come to their rescue. It looked as if every hand on the ranch was here, and Johnny wondered briefly just who was taking care of the ranch.

A bullet hitting close to his head brought his mind back to the business at hand. He noticed that the raiders were being decimated. With no cover, they were completely vulnerable, and everywhere they turned they were met with gunfire.

The smell of gunpowder and blood pervaded Johnny’s senses, bringing back the nightmare he had suffered through while recovering from the bullet wound in Silver Bow. He wondered briefly if his dream was going to turn into reality. With a shake of his head, Johnny once more continued to bring down the raiders. It wouldn’t happen; he wouldn’t let it. Besides, the battle was finally winding down as the raiders continued to fall. It looked like the good guys would get out of this mess, after all.

He glanced over at his brother, who was still firing rapidly. Scott stepped out from behind his barricade to get a better angle. Johnny’s eyes caught a movement to his left, and swung around in time to see a man taking aim at Scott. Johnny’s bullet caught the man in the chest as another round hit him in the head. Johnny turned and nodded thanks to Val, then turned back just in time to see his brother fall.

Panicked, he took down the man responsible and whirled toward his father. He caught Murdoch’s eye, but then he saw those eyes open wide in surprise, and the huge patch of blood on his father’s shirt. A piercing pain engulfed his head, and his last thought was that his nightmare had come true. He had killed his whole family. He gratefully let himself sink into the welcoming oblivion.

Chapter 47

“Johnny.”

“Johnny wake up!”

“Come on, boy. Open them eyes.”

Johnny started to open his eyes, then remembered what had happened. He hurriedly closed them again. “Go away,” he mumbled. He didn’t want to wake up. He never wanted to wake up. Everybody was dead because of him. He’d messed up, again.

“You open your eyes or I’m gonna put you over my knee,” Val threatened.

Finally Johnny’s eyes opened when he recognized the voice. “Leave me alone.”

“I ain’t gonna leave you alone. You need to get your carcass into the hotel so the Doc can check you out better.”

“No. Just leave me be.”

“What the hell’s the matter with you? You got your Pa and Scott worried.”

Johnny tried to bolt up, but everything started spinning, and he sank back down. “They’re alive?” he asked hopefully.

“Of course they are.”

“I saw Scott fall,” Johnny argued.

Val nodded. “Yeah, he caught a bullet in his arm. It went all the way through, and Doc said he just needed it cleaned out. A stitch or two and he’ll be fine. Murdoch took him over to the hotel so Doc could work on him.”

“Murdoch’s all right, too?”

“Yep. Not a scratch.”

“But I saw blood on his shirt,” Johnny argued.

Val shrugged. “Don’t know, but he looked fine.”

Johnny closed his eyes in relief. “I gotta go see.” Johnny started to get up, then sank back down. “My head feels like it’s gonna come off. ”

“Doc said you’d have a hell of a headache. A bullet put a furrow in your scalp. Isn’t even deep enough to stitch, but another inch down and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Johnny struggled once more to sit up, and he looked around. He was still on the boardwalk where he’d fallen. “How long have I been out?” he asked with a frown.

“Oh, about ten minutes, give or take.”

“That’s it?”

Val shrugged. “Long enough for your Old Man to pretty much come unglued all over the place until Doc managed to convince him it was basically just a scalp wound and that you’d be fine. I told him to get Scott inside and I’d bring you along, but now that you’re awake, I’m damn well not carrying you.”

“I don’t feel fine,” Johnny growled.

“Better than Travis,” Val offered.

“He’s dead?”

“As a doornail. I made sure he knew it was me that took him down, too.”

Johnny nodded, wincing at the movement. “Any prisoners?”

“A few. Most of ‘em were killed outright.”

“What about our side? Murdoch’s men and the townspeople?”

Val thought for a minute. “Not sure, I’ve been sittin’ here with you, but I don’t think it was too bad.”

“You okay?”

“I’m sittin’ here, ain’t I?”

Johnny reached out a hand to Val. “Help me up.”

Val stood, and helped a shaky Johnny to his feet. He stood there for a few moments, with Val’s arm around him, till Johnny finally swatted his friend’s hand away. “I can make it.”

“Well, you’d better, cause like I said, I ain’t carryin’ your sorry ass.”

Johnny stood by himself for several seconds until his head cleared, then headed for the hotel.

Scott was sitting on a table, with Murdoch hovering next to him. The Doc was just putting the finishing touches on a sling.

“Johnny!” Scott yelled as he jumped off the table. He stepped toward his brother, but was beat out by Murdoch, who grabbed Johnny and gave him a bear hug.

“Thank God,” Murdoch whispered to Johnny. “I thought I’d lost you.”

Johnny pulled away slightly, enough to look up into Murdoch’s face. “Well, you would have and you would have lost Scott, too, if you hadn’t come to our rescue. What made you come, anyway?

“My sons,” Murdoch said emphatically. “I realized this is where I needed to be. Here, with you and Scott, instead of sitting at Lancer doing nothing but worrying.”

Johnny looked at his father quizzically. “You worried about us?”

“Damn right.” Murdoch dropped his head. “Johnny, I always worried about the two of you. I just never acted on it before. Well, that’s changed. If you continue to be a Marshal, you just might find yourself with another deputy.”

Johnny looked at him doubtfully, then glanced over at Scott, who shrugged, then grinned.

“Well, I’ll keep that in mind,” Johnny said cautiously.

“So, are you ready to go home, at least for  a while?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny shook his head. “Can’t. There’s still a bunch of those raiders out there. Val here heard they were coming in on the train. We thought you were them.”

“I don’t think you have to worry about that bunch. My men and I were sitting in the boxcar in Los Banos, waiting for the train to leave the station, when a group of men wearing confederate uniforms tried to force open the door. They wanted to load their horses and didn’t know we were already in there. Apparently no one enlightened them. They were quite surprised, and badly outnumbered. It was over pretty quickly.”

“None of you were hurt?”

Murdoch nodded. “Four of our men had minor injuries. One, Jose, caught a bullet in his leg. I had to take it out, but he’ll be fine.”

“That’s where you got the blood on your shirt!” Johnny exclaimed. “You scared me, Old Man.”

Murdoch chuckled. “Well you and Scott more than returned the favor.” He became serious. “So can we go home, or do you have more quests lined up?”

Johnny grinned. “None at the moment. Let’s go home.”

Murdoch sent his men home on the train, but decided to wait a day or two until Scott and Johnny felt better, and then ride home. Actually, he was eager to spend some time with his boys. Val was going to stay in Merced for a week or so , until the judge got into town, and agreed to take a ride to Modesto to check on Jelly while he waited. Johnny and Scott had told him that unless Jelly really had something better going on, to bring Jelly back to Lancer even if he had to hogtie him.

Murdoch was delighted that Scott had regained his memory, but at the same time was scared to death that his son would leave Lancer and return to Boston. He still wasn’t sure what had caused Scott to write that letter that said he’d decided to stay back East, and heaven help him, he was too much of a coward to bring it up.

He noticed how close Scott and Johnny had become, and rejoiced. Maybe that bond would keep them both home. He knew they’d gone through a lot together on the way back from Montana; probably far more than he’d ever know. He heard the two of them whispering when they thought he was sleeping, and he unashamedly listened in.

“Johnny, I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” Johnny asked, genuinely puzzled.

“You know for what. Besides, I should have known you.”

“Well, that would have been a trick, wouldn’t it?”

“I can’t believe I just shot you down like that.”

Murdoch felt his heart stop. Scott had shot Johnny? Why? And how? Johnny wasn’t someone you could just shoot and be left unscathed.

“Come on, Scott, it was an accident. Besides, it looks to me you have a hole in you because of me.”

“You didn’t shoot me. Besides, this is just a scratch.”

“So, you want me to put another hole in you so we’re square? Scott, I told you before, forget it. Nothing’s ever even, and besides, that’s not something I want to be even. You went through more than I did because of that son of a bitch. Let’s just forget about it, okay?”

“I still think I’d feel better if you shot me.”

“You’re crazy, you know that?”

“Well, I’ve certainly been acting like it lately.”

“The only thing that I think is crazy is that letter you wrote Murdoch. You didn’t mean it, did you?” Johnny asked worriedly.

Murdoch froze, afraid to breathe as he waited for Scott’s response.

“Yes, I meant it,” Scott admitted.

Chapter 48

“Why, Scott?” Johnny asked quietly.

“I think I should wait until Murdoch can be in on this conversation, I don’t want to have to explain twice.”

“I’m up,” Murdoch stated as he stood up and moved closer to his boys.

“You spyin’ on us, Old Man?” Johnny asked, smiling.

Murdoch tried to smile, then settled for just a nod.

Scott sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“Well if you think anybody is going to sleep after what you said, you really are crazy,” Johnny quipped.

Scott nodded, then reached over and grabbed the coffee pot. He poured them each a cup, then sat back.

“Wait a minute,” Johnny said as he reached into his saddlebags. He drew out a small bottle of tequila, poured some into his cup, then passed the bottle to his father.

“Okay, Scott,” Johnny said expectantly. “Let’s have it.”

Scott sat for a moment before beginning. “Well, I had never intended to stay at Lancer. When I accepted your invitation, Murdoch, I was planning on coming out here for a few months and seeing what the ‘wild west’ was like, then retreating back to Boston, where I was comfortable. Coming out here was just a lark.

“I found, however that I did enjoy it. It was totally different from anything I had ever done. I felt freer than I ever had before. When I found out I had a brother, I was intrigued. I wanted to meet him, to get to know him.” He shook his head. “Corrales was nothing like I expected, he wasn’t someone who I wanted to get to know. I kept trying, hoping I would feel….something… besides disgust. But I couldn’t. When he was killed, I had made up my mind then to return to Boston.”

Scott looked over at his brother. “Then Val told us about you, Johnny. I found out that you were my brother, not that snake, Corrales. I was immensely relieved, but I was also somewhat cautious, no matter what I told Murdoch. Still, I stayed longer. I had to meet you and see for myself what kind of man you were. At that point I was still planning on meeting you and then leaving after the problem with Pardee was resolved.”

He looked up at Johnny. “But you, little brother, were nothing like Corrales. I felt..” He shook his head. “It was like…”

“I know, Scott,” Johnny said softly. I felt it, too.”

“Then why did you leave?” Scott asked angrily.

Johnny glanced at his father. “I didn’t have a choice, and I already told you why.”

Scott took a deep breath, then nodded. “Murdoch, I know you wanted me to stay, but you didn’t act much like it. There were a few times when it seemed that you might let me in, that you really cared, but then you would do or say something that seemed to push me away. You treated me more like a special employee than a son, and I had that much back in Boston. When I received the letter from Grandfather, I had already decided to leave. I didn’t really see a future for myself here, and nothing was holding me here, so although it was sooner than I had planned, I left.”

“Scott, I know I was wrong…”

“Please, Sir. Let me finish.”

Murdoch nodded reluctantly.

“When I got back to Boston, I found out that my Grandfather wasn’t as ill as he had indicated in his letter. In fact, I was quite certain he wasn’t sick at all. I couldn’t really figure out why he was so desperate to have me back. If anything, he had always been more impersonal than you were.”

Murdoch winced, but Scott didn’t seem to notice. He continued on with his story.

“Anyway, Grandfather immediately informed me that if I returned to Lancer, he would make very sure you were ruined. I had seen what Grandfather was capable of my whole life, and I had no doubt that he would keep that promise. Besides, I didn’t see any need to return. That is when I wrote that letter to you.”

“Scott, we can fight him together,” Murdoch pleaded.

Scott nodded. “That may not be necessary, Sir. Please let me finish.”

Murdoch nodded, and Scott continued. “I still couldn’t understand why he was so adamant about me staying there. He said he would support me completely, and I knew that would cost him quite a bit. If anything, his fortune would go down, and I knew how much his money meant to him. That’s what started me thinking.

“I made an appointment with our long time attorneys, Messrs. Barnes and Todd. I had met Mr. Todd years before, and he had impressed me as being honest. I thought that he might tell me if my grandfather was being less than truthful.

“I was completely shocked at what he had to say. Evidently, Grandfather’s wealth came from his wife. She had inherited a fortune after she and Grandfather were married.”

Murdoch looked at him in surprise. “I remember her. She was a very elegant and gracious lady.”

“Evidently, she passed away after my mother. I have a very vague recollection of her, at least I think I do. Anyway, she made arrangements through those lawyers to leave her entire estate to me. Grandfather tried to fight it, but was unsuccessful. He was, however, able to convince the judge that he should be awarded guardianship of my money until I reached my majority. I knew nothing about her will or his fight to take control of the money. Of course, once he had that control, he was then able to make investments and pay himself out of that account. Needless to say, he invested heavily in Garrett Enterprises.

“After speaking with Mr. Todd, we realized that Grandfather had been forging my signature ever since that ruling. He assured me that neither he or Mr. Barnes had any idea that was happening, and thought that the money they had dispersed since that time was going to me. They had no reason to believe the signatures weren’t mine, simply because they had always been forged. Of course they matched. Since they had seen me around town and apparently close to my Grandfather they had no reason to be suspicious. However, when they found out that I had moved to California, they had refused to release any more money to be deposited in Boston until I contacted them. Grandfather probably thought that if I came back to Boston, they would accept a signature, as they had done in the past. The only reason he wanted me back was so he could once more gain control of my money.

“Even though I was both deeply disappointed and angry, I wasn’t really surprised. I gave the lawyers permission to seek restitution in my name, and I decided to leave Grandfather’s house immediately. I really had no desire to ever see him again. I knew that he was out if town on a business trip and wouldn’t be back for several days.

“I really wasn’t sure where to go. Part of me wanted to stay in Boston, and part of me wanted to travel. I was still trying to make up my mind when I saw a small newspaper clipping in Boston’s AMERICAN TRAVELLER Newspaper that we subscribed to.” He looked at Johnny. “That was the clipping I had in my pocket. I remember deciding to find you. I also remember boarding the train to Salt Lake City, but after that it’s a blank. I was evidently robbed, and you know the rest.”

He looked over at Murdoch. “Sir, I know how hard you’ve been trying, and I no longer feel the way I did. You’ve certainly proven to both of us that you do care. If the offer still stands, I would very much like to be a part of your life, and a part of Lancer.” He turned his attention to Johnny. “And I’m not going to give you any choice, Johnny. Brother, you are stuck with me.”

.

The Lancers stopped up on the hill overlooking Lancer a week later. They had taken their time getting home, and stopped to do a little hunting and fishing on the way.

Murdoch looked out over his vast holdings and felt a thrill of pride. He had built this ranch up from nothing, and turned it into an empire. He now knew his sons loved it as much as he did, and there was no longer any doubt in their minds that Lancer was where they belonged. He wished that Johnny didn’t have to be a Marshal in order to stay, but he accepted it. He knew Johnny, and he supposed Scott, would be gone good portions of the time, but he could wait. Marshal appointments were valid for four years. After that, he knew both boys would be home for good. The thought that Marshalling was dangerous flitted through his mind, but he pushed it aside. So was ranching. Nothing in this world was promised, but he had done the best he could and his sons were home. They and their sons would continue the Lancer legacy. He had finally found Justice for both of his sons.

~ end ~

Justice Series
Final Justice
Finding Justice

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or Email Terri directly.

5 thoughts on “Finding Justice by Terri

  1. This was an incredible series. I’ve been reading Lancer fiction for a short while now and I finally read this one. When it was over I was actually hoping for another section about their lives after coming home and about Johnny’s life as a Marshal and rancher and hoping that both he and Scott found love and had families.

    Like

  2. This is a great series with unexpected twists and turns. I’m so thankful your stories-always great-are available to us Lancer lovers.

    Like

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