Word Count 36,989
Payback by Wendy P
Johnny Lancer, making his way back to the hacienda from the barn, shivered in the early morning air. Not in the best of moods he cursed his bad luck at being the only healthy member of his family. A fact that had ensured that he was the one to make this early morning pilgrimage to the barn to attend to the stabled horses’ requirements.
Morning had dawned with a frosty chill in the air. It was mid November and thus far the weather in this part of the San Joaquin Valley had been relatively mild. But the young man could keenly feel the wolf of winter stalking, and knew that the mild days were about to be devoured by the ravenous wolf.
The warmth that greeted him as he opened the front door did little to assuage his mood. The almost dead fire in the grand fireplace had been revived whilst he had been outside and was now merrily blazing, radiating out much needed heat to the night chilled house.
“All well out there, son?” came the deep voice of his father from the leather armchair by the fire.
“Yeah, all’s well. That tendon’s lookin’ better on Scott’s horse. The swellin’s gone down a lot although there’s still some heat in it. That concoction of Jelly’s sure is doin’ the trick though. Maybe we should use it on Scott? His horse’s recoverin’ quicker’n he is an’ I’m sick and tired of doin’ all the work round here.”
“I heard that brother. For your information my ankle is still very painful and much as I like the scent of camphor I really don’t want to smell as if I’d bathed in the stuff. I prefer to use Sam’s salve on my sprained ankle rather than Jelly’s, if you don’t mind.”
Johnny had failed to notice Scott reclining on the couch in front of the fire. His elder brother had a cushion tucked behind his blond head and the aforementioned bandaged ankle was resting upon a pillow.
“Sure you’re comfortable enough there, Boston?” The sarcasm positively oozed out of Johnny as he regarded his brother.
Eager to dispel the obvious tension between his two boys Murdoch spoke to Johnny. “Why don’t you take the wagon to town today …”
Johnny, with a ring of exasperation in his voice, interrupted him. “But I’ve gotta go in tomorra’ to get the supplies.” The thought of making two tedious trips to town with the wagon was almost too much for Johnny, he felt his temper rising.
“If you’d let me finish, son, I was about to say that if you went today not only could you get the supplies but you could spend the rest of the day there relaxing.”
Murdoch was well aware that for the last week or so his youngest son had been doing the work of three men and was understandably reaching the end of his tether. Scott had injured his ankle when Warrior had put his hoof in a crabhole whilst rounding up strays. Both horse and rider had fallen heavily. Johnny had witnessed the fall, saying that it was a miracle that neither was more severely injured, Scott’s head had missed a patch of rocks by inches and how Warrior’s leg hadn’t snapped was beyond Johnny’s comprehension. Thankfully Scott had escaped with only a badly sprained ankle and Warrior a strained tendon on his near foreleg. To make matters worse Murdoch himself had had an attack of gout and was confined to the house. As a result of the increased workload Johnny was as taut as a coiled spring and needed some time off to relax and unwind.
“I’m sure that you could persuade young Bridget Prestcott’s mother to allow her to leave the shop early.” Murdoch said with a gleam in his eye.
This unexpected offer of time off took Johnny by surprise. Murdoch was not known for his generosity in allowing recreation time during the week.
“Besides it would give you the opportunity to post that letter to Mac and Maudie, the mail goes today and you’d have to wait another week if you went in tomorrow.” Murdoch added.
At this turn of events Johnny’s mood somewhat improved. (I sure could use an afternoon off) he thought. (And I could get that letter posted.) He and the Thompsons had been corresponding regularly since that memorable visit to Brownlow last summer, and his subsequent stay with them. Murdoch had sent him with a couple of hands to pick up the two Hereford bulls and fourteen heifers they had purchased from Fred Barraclough and had insisted that he take a week off and stay with Mac and Maudie. Johnny was not much of a letter writer but he was determined to keep in touch with the couple that had altered his life those six years ago, now that contact had been re-established. Maudie’s letters were newsy and her flowing style made reading them easy. At first Johnny had been frustrated that he found difficulty in putting his thoughts down on paper. So he sought the advice of brother Scott who regularly corresponded with his grandfather in Boston. “Just write as if you were speaking to them.” was his brother’s sage advice. And upon following this advice he found that it was becoming easier and he was enjoying writing.
As if Murdoch had read his mind he heard his father say, “There might be a letter from Brownlow in the mail too.”
With these thoughts in mind Johnny hurriedly went upstairs to clean up for breakfast. The clattering of dishes from the kitchen had proclaimed that breakfast was not far off and the tantalising aromas pervading the great room reminded him of his hunger.
Johnny returned whistling less than five minutes later, his cheerful disposition restored with the day’s anticipated events fresh in his mind.
All was nearly lost however when Scott greeted his brother. “That didn’t take long, Johnny. You don’t look all that much cleaner to me, what did you do just wave the washcloth at your face? And couldn’t you have changed your clothes, do we have to have the smell of stables in the house?”
Scott, about to continue, clamped his mouth shut when he noticed the look on his father’s face. There was no mistaking its message. ‘Lay off your brother or else!’ was clearly written on Murdoch’s stern features.
Murdoch sighed; Johnny’s visage had instantly changed, a tenseness appearing around the mouth and his eyes losing their sparkle. (Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone, Scott?) Murdoch thought with irritation. (It’s just as well Johnny’s going into town, I don’t think I could stand being in the same house with you two at the moment.) His normally self-controlled and affable eldest son was venting his frustration at being couch-bound; having worked on the account books and grown tired of reading all that was left was to bait his younger brother. Johnny’s attitude and frequent comments about being left with all the work hadn’t helped either and now both boys were sniping at each other continually.
Breakfast was a tense affair. The two brothers virtually ignoring each other and Murdoch fervently wishing that Teresa would return from her week’s sojourn with friends in Spanish Wells.
After breakfast Johnny hitched up the draught horses and drove the empty wagon to the house. Having given Johnny a detailed list of supplies to pick up and reminding him to get more camphorated spirits and vinegar for the embrocation for Warrior’s tendon, Murdoch watched his son head the team towards Green River.
After a slow tedious drive Johnny finally halted the team in front of the general store.
He leapt nimbly down from the seat and entered the store, giving the list of supplies to Bert Winfield, the storeowner. Leaving him to gather the required items Johnny drove the box wagon to the wheelwright. On the way in to town he had noticed the iron rim of the driver’s side front wheel had shifted slightly. A wheel collapsing was the last thing he needed on the way home with a fully laden wagon. Tom Herron, the wheelwright, assured Johnny that he would have the repairs done by early afternoon, allowing Johnny time to load up and arrive home before dark.
Johnny decided that in the meantime he would collect and post the mail and then see if he could spend the rest of the day with the pretty blond daughter of the town milliner. Bridget was twenty years old and great fun to be with. She possessed a wonderful sense of humour and although neither of them had any deep feelings for the other they did enjoy the other’s company immensely. Bridget was adamant that she was not nearly ready for marriage, much to her mother’s horror, and this suited Johnny fine as there were no strings attached to their relationship. Although he liked female company he fell a long way short of desiring a wife.
Posting his letter and collecting the mail took longer than he had expected, the Post Master’s daughter unfortunately being behind the counter. There was a girl who definitely had marriage on her mind. While not unattractive she certainly was not the prettiest girl in town, but the hapless girl had the misfortune to have a voice that reminded Johnny of fingernails scraping down a blackboard.
That she had designs on the youngest Lancer was no secret, practically the whole town knew, and amongst the young men it was a source of amusement. Johnny was ribbed unmercifully whenever he found himself in the company of these ‘friends’, but luckily the butt of all the jokes remained oblivious. Although he did not particularly like Emmaline he preferred that she remain unaware that she was a source of ridicule.
Johnny tried to avoid her whenever he could but it was unexpected occasions like this one that were unavoidable.
“Hello, Johnny,” she cooed in that rasping voice that made Johnny inwardly cringe. “I haven’t seen you for such a long time.” (Not long enough for me.) thought Johnny ungraciously, but to her face replied “Well, I’m kept pretty busy at the ranch, you know, Emmaline. Don’t get to town that much.” (And when I do get away I’d rather be in Spanish Wells or Morro Coyo where you’re not.)
She smiled coyly at him, “You know there’s a dance in town tomorrow night, don’t you Johnny?”
When there was no reply she continued, “Well, Mama’s made me this beautiful dress and I’d love you to see it.”
She ploughed onwards blissfully unaware of Johnny’s inner thoughts. (Oh no, she can’t be thinking I’d want to take her, surely!) “I told Mama and Papa that I was sure you’d love to take me, oh I know you haven’t asked me but then you haven’t had any opportunity have you?” She smiled sweetly at Johnny waiting for the answer she hoped for and expected.
Johnny stared at her in amazement. How could the girl possibly think he’d want to take her? He’d only ever been civil to her, never contributing to a conversation, only replying politely when he had to. And she’d told her parents he’d take her! Her father was a decent hardworking sort but that mother of hers. Now there was a social climbing woman if ever there was one. She was worse than her daughter, having a Lancer as a son-in-law would make her life complete! Her poor long-suffering husband – Johnny was sure that if he were married to a woman like that he would end up shooting her, and to hell with the consequences!
Why had he ever come to town? Even doing the work of three would be preferable to this nightmare. All he could think of was that he hoped he would be able to spend the rest of the day with Bridget or the day would be a total disaster.
“Well, Johnny? Will I expect you at seven?” Emmaline was clearly waiting for an answer.
Suddenly an inspired thought hit him. “Look Emmaline, I ain’t able ta get to the dance. You know Scott had that fall and Murdoch’s been poorly lately too, so with all the hands comin’ in ta the dance and Teresa away I just gotta stay and look afta Murdoch and Scott. I know ya’ll understand. Now I gotta go and get the supplies I came into town for. Bye.”
Her face looked as if she’d been poleaxed. Tears welled but before she could do or say anything Johnny had grabbed up the mail and was out the door. He didn’t want to be anywhere near the Post Office when Mama found out about his refusal to take her daughter to the dance.
He contained his desire to run and purposefully strode towards the saloon – he needed a drink before he saw Bridget. Was it just that morning that he had been cursing Murdoch and Scott for being incapacitated? Now he was blessing them! They just saved him from a fate worse than death. It was most unfortunate that he wouldn’t be able to go to the dance though. He had planned on going and spending a bit of time with Bridget. They weren’t actually going to go together but would have enjoyed a few dances. Oh well, maybe next time, Bridget would understand, she had been with him when he had been teased about Emmaline so knew all about Emmaline’s cap-setting.
He drowned his sorrows in a saloon that was thankfully only lightly populated. A gambler was giving a lesson on calling bluffs to two not very good poker players. They were unknown to Johnny so must just have been passing through town. He hoped they had a job to go to or had a stash in their boot like he did, because they had just lost everything to the cardsharp on two very bad hands. The only other occupant, other than the bartender, was a travelling salesman who was washing his meal down with a series of whiskies.
There was no sign of any of the young men Johnny knew from the town or its surrounds. Johnny had heaved a sigh of relief when he had cautiously entered through the batwing doors. Years of wariness when entering such establishments had resulted in a habit that was hard to break. His heart had been still pounding when he walked into the saloon and he was sure that he would had to have drawn on anyone who taunted him about Emmaline.
After satisfying his thirst or settling his nerves – he wasn’t quite sure which – he then made his way to the milliner’s where his day went from bad to worse.
“Why hello Johnny.” said Abigail Prestcott as she finished arranging an elaborately feathered hat on the head of the banker’s wife. The tingling of the bell attached to the door had announced Johnny’s arrival in the milliner’s shop.
Johnny doffed his hat and murmured pleasantries to the two women.
“Now how does that look Mrs. Thurlough? The colour brings out the highlights of your hair, don’t you think?” asked Bridget’s mother. Johnny waited patiently as Emma Thurlough turned her head to right and left viewing the creation adorning her head, in the hand mirror the milliner had handed her.
“Oh, yes, that will do nicely Mrs. Prestcott. The feathers just finish it off beautifully.”
Having paid for the hat Emma Thurlough approached the door that Johnny held open for her. “Thank you young man. It’s so refreshing to see that the young still have manners.”
Johnny was grinning as he turned to Abigail Prestcott but his grin faded at her words. “I’m sorry Johnny, but Bridget isn’t here. She’s in Spanish Wells staying with Sarah Bentleigh. Didn’t Bridget tell you that she was helping Teresa and a couple of other friends with Sarah’s wedding arrangements? The others are staying there all week until the wedding on Sunday, but Bridget will be home tomorrow.”
Disappointed he replied, “Yeah, now that you mention it I do remember Bridget sayin’ somethin’ about a weddin’” With all the tension he was feeling at home this fact had completely slipped his mind.
“I’ll let her know you called, Johnny. She’ll be at the dance tomorrow night, you’ll be able to see her then.” said Bridget’s mother cheerfully.
“Um, I can’t get to the dance, Mrs. Prestcott. With Murdoch and Scott ailin’ I got to baby-sit them.” said Johnny with a grin on his face. Having already used this excuse with Emmaline he was now committed to it.
Laughing, Abigail Prestcott asked, “Oh, you poor boy! And how is Murdoch? Give him my best won’t you, Johnny?”
The bell tinkled again as Johnny opened the door to leave. “He’s doin’ okay, Mrs. Prestcott. He’ll appreciate you askin’ after him. Tell Bridget I’ll talk to her soon. Bye, Mrs. Prestcott.”
The closing of the door cut off the milliner’s farewell.
Feeling somewhat despondent Johnny paid a quick visit to the Sheriff’s Office but in line with the events of the day his friend Val Crawford was also out of town. Since all his friends had deserted him in his hour of need Johnny decided that the only thing to do was to spend the afternoon in the saloon, and so he made his way back there.
The travelling salesman had long since departed as had the unfortunate victims of the cardsharp. He now had a couple of new players sitting at his table and Johnny, having paid for his beer sauntered over to watch the action taking place at the table. Noting the young man watching the gambler offered him a place in the game.
Johnny took his place to the right of one of the men, placing his beer on the table. He removed his hat and reached over and put it on a nearby table. Whilst the current hand was played Johnny watched quietly. Inwardly smiling at the gambler’s handling of the cards Johnny took an amount of money from his pocket. He was going to enjoy this game, having noted the moves the others had made he knew he had played against better men and won.
Two hours later having won many more hands than he lost Johnny felt satisfied with the sizeable increase in the amount he returned to his pocket. The two players picked up their hats and left, admitting graciously that they had been outplayed, but not so the cardsharp. He was staring intently at Johnny.
Johnny had survived to the ripe old age of twenty-one by reading people’s faces, and many a man’s face had unwittingly given away his intentions and for that they paid the ultimate price. Johnny foresaw what the gambler was planning to do before his hand even moved towards the derringer Johnny knew was under the table.
Johnny’s soft drawl was accompanied by the swift appearance of his Colt. “Y’a don’t really want’a do that mister, do y’a? Y’a know I wasn’t cheatin’. I just outplayed y’a. You ought’a stop that habit o’ yours of tweakin’ y’a nose when y’a got a good hand.”
The surprised look on the man’s face was met by a devilish grin on Johnny’s. The man relaxed and laughed saying “I’ll have to work on that! You play a darn good game, boy. Can I buy you another drink?”
“Thanks but no. I gotta go.” Johnny picked up his hat and giving the bartender, Jake, a smile as he passed, left the saloon.
Jake knowing of Johnny’s past and his speed with a gun had visibly tensed when the cardsharp had challenged the youngest Lancer. He was thankful that the young man had diffused the situation before gunplay was involved. As he put another whisky in front of the gambler he was asked, “That young man from round here?”
“Yep, why do you want to know?”
“Easy friend, just interested that’s all. He sure had me pegged from the beginning! Thought I was pretty slick but guess I need to attend to a few things if I don’t want to lose like that again! Pretty handy with a gun too, isn’t he? Wears it kind’a low, maybe it wasn’t a wise move to pull a gun on him after all.”
Smiling at the bartender he picked up the drink and mused on what might have been.
Johnny walked to the wheelwright’s where found the wagon ready and waiting for him. The bill for the repairs was booked up to the Lancer account and Johnny, having led the two horses from the adjoining yard, hitched up the team and then drove the wagon to the general store. Half an hour later, with the wagon heavily laden Johnny left Green River for the drive back to Lancer. As the wagon slowly rumbled past the saloon Johnny was aware that the gambler was observing his progress.
Twilight was extinguishing the last fires of daylight by the time Johnny and a couple of hands had unloaded the wagon. He made his way to the house and stood before the fire before going to wash up before supper.
‘Well, did you have a good day?” queried his father.
“It wasn’t quite what I planned, but yeah, I did have a good day. Thanks Murdoch, it was what I needed.” Murdoch noted the gratitude both in his son’s voice and in his eyes.
Johnny gave a brief rundown on his day but omitted the incident with the gambler’s gun though. He did expound on his near miss with Emmaline however. Murdoch roared with laughter upon hearing how Johnny had said he used the excuse that he had to baby-sit Scott and Murdoch to avoid going to the dance with Emmaline.
Johnny gave the mail, minus the letter addressed to him, to Murdoch and put the newspaper he had brought from Green River on the occasional table beside the leather armchair before heading upstairs.
Dinner that night was a more relaxed affair than breakfast had been. Scott was his more affable self again and he and Johnny were back to their normal bantering. Scott was teasing Johnny about Emmaline but his younger brother was taking it in his stride, giving back as much as Scott was dishing out.
Later that night the light from the flames of the crackling fire flickered on the faces of the three Lancer men as they relaxed in the warmth being radiated. Murdoch, seated on the sofa, was settling into an evening reading Mark Twain’s ‘The Innocents Abroad’, a travel book written in 1869 by the young journalist who had embarked on the steamship ‘Quaker City’ for the ‘first organised pleasure party ever assembled for a transatlantic voyage’. Having sailed from Inverness to America as a young man Murdoch was enjoying reading the tales of the chartered excursion to Europe and the Holy Land that Twain had sent back in letters to his newspaper sponsors.
Johnny was illuminated by the glow of the fire as he lay on the floor reading, the light from the flames dancing on his dark locks. Glancing at his youngest Murdoch drew pleasure from the smile on Johnny’s face as he read the letter he had received from Maudie. He was glad that he had sent Johnny into town today instead of waiting until tomorrow, the time away from the ranch had done his son the world of good. Johnny had returned in a relaxed and cheerful mood despite Bridget’s absence from Green River. During Johnny’s absence Murdoch had also had a heart to heart talk with Scott, explaining that his brother had every right to be overtired and overwrought with the workload he had been undertaking in the past ten days.
So engrossed was he in reading the missive Johnny failed to notice Scott’s face grow pale as he read a report in the newspaper that had been brought back from town with the mail. Murdoch however heard the slight gasp and looked over to his son sitting in the leather armchair. His eldest was staring transfixed at the newspaper, and with a look of horror he answered Murdoch’s quiet words “What is it, son? Whatever’s the matter?” by silently handing the folded newspaper to his father.
Murdoch quickly scanned the article and with bleak eyes looked back to Scott and then down to Johnny who was quietly chuckling to himself over an anecdote Maudie had told in the letter. He knew for certain that what he was about to show his youngest son would be devastating for the young man. He hated to inflict this pain on his obviously happy son but the report in the paper could not be ignored. Johnny had to know and without delay.
Just as he was deliberating on how to tell Johnny his son rolled onto his side and turning to Murdoch with a broad smile on his face said, “Hey Murdoch, y’a gotta hear what Mrs. T. said . . .”
His smile died instantly though when he saw the distraught looks on the faces of his father and brother. “What’s wrong? Why are y’a both lookin’ like y’a best friend died?”
Murdoch eased his large frame down beside his son saying, “I think you’d better read this, son.” as he handed Johnny the paper. He put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and felt the tremor go through his son’s body as Johnny read the report. Scott by now was also sitting beside his brother, knowing that his younger brother would soon need all the support that his family could give.
Johnny looked up at Murdoch with a face full of anguish, oblivious to the tears brimming over from blue eyes filled with despair.
Squeezing his son’s shoulder to give some solace Murdoch simply said, “Go, son. They need you.”
Looking across to his father and seeing his imperceptible nod Scott quietly added, “I’ll go with you, brother.”
With a voice choked with misery Johnny murmured “But what about . . .”
“Don’t worry about anything on Lancer, son. Go and pack now and try to get some rest. I’ll have Maria get some supplies ready for you to get away at daybreak.”
Johnny slowly stood up, and watching his brother getting awkwardly to his feet and hobble to the sofa softly said, “Brother, I really appreciate you offerin’ to come with me but y’a can’t ride with that ankle yet.”
“I’ll be . . .”
“Don’t argue with me, Scott. You’d only slow me down.” Johnny snapped, then softened his voice, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I really want y’a to come but don’t you see that I’ve got to get there quickly?”
Nodding Scott simply said, “You’re right, Johnny. But I’m here if you need me.”
Casting a grateful look to his father, Johnny touched his brother’s arm in thanks as he passed him on his way from the Great Room.
Scott sat back in the armchair and stared morosely into the depths of the fire. Murdoch slowly lowered himself onto the sofa and closed his eyes. But even with them closed he still saw vividly the headline and report from the two-day-old paper that had shattered his family:
MADMAN DESTROYS TOWN
A fire yesterday devastated the small town of Brownlow. The fire, believed to have been deliberately lit, began in the livery stable around midnight and quickly spread, fuelled by straw and hay. The timber buildings adjoining quickly ignited and the entire south side of the town was gutted, leaving the townsfolk reeling in shock.
The destruction of more than 18 buildings has decimated the town. Amongst those premises destroyed was the boarding house where four guests, being unable to flee the burning building, tragically lost their lives.
Several townspeople were injured in the inferno, being burned by the flames or hit by falling timbers. The most gravely injured was the town’s Sheriff, Mac Thompson. Thompson was seriously burned whilst rescuing the young daughter of the proprietor of the dry goods store from a second floor bedroom,
The fire is attributed to an act of revenge by a recently released patient from a San Francisco mental hospital. This unnamed person was seen in town the day before the fire and several townspeople reported overhearing him say that he was in Brownlow to seek retribution for a wronged friend he had known in hospital. It is believed that the perpetrator of this disaster escaped unscathed.
Buildings lost in the inferno were the livery stable along with 5 horses, bank, boarding house, church, blacksmith, school, a saloon, 2 general stores, haberdashery, wheelwright, saddler, hardware store, café, dry goods store and 6 private residences.
Scott and Murdoch farewelled Johnny as dawn’s first pink flush appeared on the horizon. They watched as the palomino and his rider cantered away until they became just a speck in the distance. They then turned and both men limped painfully back to the house with hearts heavy with the knowledge of what would greet Johnny when he arrived in Brownlow.
Shortly after Johnny departed Murdoch saddled his big chestnut and hastened to Green River. He had given directions to Scott before he left and knew that his eldest son would follow them efficiently and without delay and be ready when he returned from town.
Murdoch, having seen the aftermath of fires in towns before, was extremely worried about the situation that his youngest son would find in Brownlow. The lowest of the low, men with no scruples or conscience seemed to smell smoke from miles away and make their way to towns suffering from the ravages of fire. Looters, with no thoughts for those suffering from the devastation, scavenged through the debris for anything of worth that may have been left by the flames. Or they raided undamaged buildings, stealing from those who were fortunate enough to survive the fires. Men, devoid of morals, who would not hesitate to harm anyone who stood in their way.
Brownlow, Murdoch knew, would be a town ripe for the pickings. Mac Thompson being incapacitated rendered the town lawless. The townsfolk, intent on day-to-day survival and facing the massive job of clearing the razed areas and rebuilding, would be unaware of the marauders stalking their town.
Intent on discussing the situation with the Sheriff of Green River, Murdoch entered the lawman’s office but was dismayed to find it empty. He limped to the middle of the office and lowered himself wearily into the bentwood chair behind the Sheriff’s untidy desk. Murdoch smiled in spite of himself as he surveyed the papers littering Val Crawford’s desk. How the man found anything was beyond comprehension, wanted posters and other papers were strewn around the wooden desk. Beside the rifle rack on the wall stood a wooden 3-drawer cabinet for filing such papers but Murdoch suspected with amusement that if opened it would be found to be empty. The office was a carbon copy of the Sheriff himself, untidy and unkempt. But appearances could be deceiving however, as the lawman was extremely good at his job. Many a man had been lulled into thinking that Val Crawford was a buffoon, only to find himself at the business end of his gun. The Sheriff of Green River was no fool despite his slovenly appearance.
Murdoch idly leafed through the wanted posters lying on the desk while he waited for the sheriff’s return. A variety of faces stared up at him, most with unknown names but some he knew. Names that Johnny had mentioned in his all too few sharings of his past. Without meaning to Murdoch pondered what Val would do if Johnny’s name appeared on one of the posters. His youngest son and the lawman had a unique friendship, Val seemed to understand his confusing son better than most, and accepted Johnny’s past for just what it was – the past.
The squeaking of the unoiled hinges of the door heralded the arrival of the dishevelled lawman himself. Armed with a plate of bacon and eggs and a biscuit in his mouth he walked to the desk and put the plate down, oblivious of the papers underneath.
Removing the biscuit from his mouth he greeted Murdoch. “Howdy, Murdoch. What y’a in town this early for? How y’a feelin’? Johnny with y’a?”
“No, Val, he’s not – that’s what I want to talk to you about.”
Val Crawford listened intently, occasionally scratching his stubbly chin, whilst Murdoch outlined the events that had taken place in Brownlow according to the newspaper report.
He had frowned when Murdoch had expressed his opinion of what Johnny might find when he arrived in Brownlow. The sheriff was in total agreement with Murdoch’s assumption that looters would take advantage of the confusion in the town coupled with the absence of a lawman.
He once again scratched his chin before moving to the pot-bellied stove where he poured coffee into two stained mugs. He appeared deep in thought as he walked back to the desk and handed Murdoch one of the mugs. The sheriff hitched himself onto a corner of the desk unmindful of the papers on which he was sitting.
Murdoch lifted the mug to his lips and sipped the brew. He gasped involuntarily at the taste of the substance that must have stewing on the stove since the night before. Val Crawford appeared to be completely oblivious to the awful taste, but then again maybe he was used to it.
Murdoch was suddenly aware of the sheriff’s eyes boring into him. He looked at him and was surprised to see a mischievous glint in the lawman’s eyes and a broad grin on his face.
“I got the problem licked, Murdoch.” he said chuckling.
‘In what way?” queried Murdoch; mystified by the laughter he could see in Johnny’s friend’s eyes.
“Y’a know I can’t leave Green River to go t’a Brownlow m’self,” he paused as he noted Murdoch’s nod. Another chuckle escaped as he revealed his plan. “Well, I’m gonna send a wire to Mac Thompson and suggest he deputises Johnny.”
Murdoch smiled as the irony of Val’s solution to the problem sank in. The thought of a notorious ex-gunfighter donning a lawman’s badge would probably send some of the townspeople into apoplectic shock.
As if reading Murdoch’s mind the grinning lawman said, “It ain’t the first time a gunhawk’s taken up a badge, y’a know. Many’s a lawman that’s switched sides. ‘Sides Johnny’s a good man, y’ know that Murdoch.”
“Oh, I know it alright,” Murdoch agreed, “In fact I think he’d do a marvellous job. I’m just imagining his reaction when Mac tells him that he’s the new lawman in Brownlow!”
As this thought settled on both men they burst out laughing. “Yeah, I sure would like to see the look on ‘ol Johnny’s face.” Val choked out. “Sheriff Johnny Madrid!”
He sobered a little and amended his statement to “Sheriff Johnny Lancer.” when he noticed a flash of pain cross Murdoch’s face at the mention of the name ‘Madrid.’ Although Murdoch had come to terms with Johnny’s past he was still pained by the name ‘Madrid’.
Having settled the details between them Murdoch left, leaving Val to contact Mac Thompson. He would look in on Val before he left for Lancer to see if the sheriff had received any word back from Brownlow.
Murdoch spent the next three hours speaking to merchants and making arrangements for the wagons and drivers needed to put his plan into action. As soon as he had told Johnny the previous night to go to Brownlow Murdoch had started formulating a plan in his mind. After Johnny had gone to bed he had detailed his plan to Scott, and the two men had discussed the project until the wee small hours of the morning.
He had no sooner made these arrangements than he saw Val leaving the Telegraph Office with paper in hand so Murdoch assumed that he held the response from the wire to Brownlow. Murdoch followed Val back to his office. He had barely walked in the door when Val handed him a mug of coffee that Murdoch eyed suspiciously. Val grinned and assured an embarrassed Murdoch that it was ‘fresh made’.
Murdoch felt even more red-faced when Val commented that Johnny seemed to be the only man he knew who could stomach his coffee.
“What is the news from Brownlow, Val?” Murdoch rather impatiently broke into the sheriff’s reminiscences of coffee and its drinkers.
“Well, it sure ain’t good news, Murdoch. I sent the wire but it weren’t collected by Mac Thompson. He was badly burned and the doc won’t let him get outta bed. He can talk though and his wife, Maudie, sent the reply. The town’s in really bad shape, lots’a people ain’t got no homes, there ain’t much food left and you were right, there’s a lot o’ low lifes arrivin’.”
“Thompson thinks it’s a great idea for Johnny to be the law in the town ‘til things settle down. He seems to think a lot of that boy o’ yours! He’ll deputise Johnny when he arrives.”
Val flashed a devilish grin at Murdoch, “If Johnny’s reputation and gun don’t scare them vermin away he’ll talk ‘em out o’ town with that silver tongue o’ his!”
Murdoch remained serious however, “I hope he doesn’t have any trouble, Val. He’d take a job like that very seriously and would do anything to protect the Thompsons, and that includes protecting their town. As you know he can be a little hot-headed and stubborn at times and I can’t see him backing down from trouble in Brownlow. I just hope we haven’t pushed him out of the pan and into the fire, so to speak.”
“Don’t you worry none, that boy can look after hisself and anyone or anything else in the town that needs protectin’.”
With Val’s words ringing in his ears Murdoch took his leave and made his way back to Lancer, where Scott had completed his part of Murdoch’s plan.
Whilst Murdoch was in Green River Scott had overseen the Lancer hands loading every available wagon with lumber and other building materials. Word had been sent to neighbouring ranches of the need for tools and Scott was pleased with the response. Not only had their neighbours sent materials and tools but also some hands with building experience.
This caring attitude Scott had discovered amongst the people in the west was refreshing. Here people pulled together in times of adversity, often going without themselves so that they could assist those in need. And this was a case in point. None of their neighbours knew the Thompsons, had never even heard of Brownlow in fact, but here they were willingly providing not only goods but manpower as well to assist people they didn’t even know.
Scott had worked tirelessly all morning despite his injured ankle, but now that everything was loaded and he could take time to rest the pain, which he hadn’t noticed whilst he was busy, had come back with a vengeance. Knowing that he had done too much and had ignored Sam’s advice to keep off it Scott realised that now he would be paying the price.
Murdoch, on his return, found Scott on the sofa, leg up and obviously in some discomfort. Beside him however was a carpetbag, packed and ready to go. Murdoch had noted as he approached the outbuildings that the wagons were laden and ready for departure, only needing the teams to be hitched.
“You’ve been very busy, son. Everything seems ready to go.”
“Yes, everything’s ready. It doesn’t seem much though when you think a town has to be rebuilt. How did you fare in Green River?”
“All is organised, they’ll leave for Brownlow tomorrow morning. As they’ll arrive a day or so after you it will give you a bit of time to get things sorted out with your brother and to organise what has to be done. The provisions are badly needed according to Maudie. I’ve arranged for some to be sent from Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells as well, so hopefully it will be enough to tide them over.”
“How are things in Brownlow?” asked Scott.
Scott was dismayed upon hearing the news that Murdoch had received from Val’s wire. He also shared Murdoch’s concerns about Johnny.
“There’s something else, Scott.”
Scott waited for his father to continue. “Well, Murdoch?”
“There’ll be, ah, an acting Sheriff in Brownlow when you get there.”
Seeing a slight smile playing around the corners of his father’s lips Scott guessed what Murdoch was saying.
“Murdoch, you don’t mean … Johnny? Johnny is going to be the sheriff in Brownlow? Why … I mean, how? And who’s bright idea was that?” Scott finished.
“Well, it was Val’s actually. What’s wrong Scott? Don’t you think your brother can do the job?”
Scott laughed, “Oh I think he’ll do a great job, but I’m just not sure that the world is ready for a Sheriff Johnny Lancer!”
The two men laughed but their laughter was tinged with tenseness, as they both knew what Johnny could be facing.
“Well, I’d better get started, Murdoch. It’s going to be a slow trip and I want to get there as soon as I can.”
As Scott climbed awkwardly onto the lead wagon Maria and the wives of some of the hands appeared laden with food for the men to take with them. “Gracias, Maria.’ said Scott smiling appreciatively at her.
“Cuide de usted, Senor Scott. Tener cuidado de su hermano, Juanito.”
Only understanding the words ‘su hermano Juanito’ Scott knew that Maria was referring to his brother and looked at Murdoch for help in translating the words.
Murdoch smiled at Scott saying, “She said to look after yourself and to take care of your brother.”
“Si, Maria.” Scott said softly to Maria’s back as she made her way back to the house.
“Be careful, son. And like Maria said take care of that brother of yours.”
“I will, Murdoch. That’s what big brothers are for.” Smiling rather self-consciously Scott picked up the reins and the procession started its slow trip to the devastated town of Brownlow.
And for the second time that day Murdoch watched one of his sons disappearing into the distance.
Johnny had ridden Barranca hard all day, worrying constantly that he was pushing the horse beyond his limits.
He had only stopped when visibility became difficult, and although wanting to keep going common sense prevailed and he made camp for the night. Despite the need for getting to Brownlow as soon as possible there would be no point in injuring himself or worse still Barranca by proceeding in the dark. Unfortunately clouds obscured what little moonlight there was.
His first thoughts were of his honest horse. Barranca, he felt, had sensed the urgency in his master, and had responded without complaint. Although Johnny had given him some spells of walking and trotting the horse had cantered for miles without slowing.
Johnny had luckily been able to make camp near a small stream, for watercourses were few and far between in this area. He gave his hot horse a short drink and although Barranca wanted more Johnny led him away.
“Y’a can have more when you’ve cooled down some, Barranca. Y’a don’t want’a get colic do y’a? Y’a wouldn’t like a belly ache like that!”
After tying Barranca to a tree with the halter he had packed in his saddlebags Johnny thoroughly checked him over, methodically moving from the horse’s head to his tail. He used the water from the stream to wash the sweaty areas of Barranca’s head, ensuring that the bridle and bit area were free from sweat. Barranca rubbed his head enthusiastically on his master nearly knocking him over as Johnny washed his head, making the task rather difficult. Johnny laughed at his horse’s antics, chiding Barranca gently and telling him that he would feel better more quickly if he held still. He rubbed him down well, ensuring that the sweat in the saddle and girth areas was also thoroughly washed. Girth galls or a sore back were the last thing his horse needed.
He finished by running his hands down his horse’s cannon bones looking for any swelling or heat. He smiled with satisfaction when the legs were all cool to his touch. Lifting each foot he checked that the shoes were secure and there were no stones caught between the shoe and the sole and that there were no stone bruises.
Satisfied that his horse was all right and had suffered no ill effects from the hard ride Johnny stood up and putting his hands to his waist stretched his back.
“Don’t know about you Barranca but I’m feelin’ a mite tired from all that ridin’.” He rubbed the horse’s muzzle before he moved over to where his saddle lay on the ground.
Knowing that he wanted to be away early in the morning Johnny had decided to make a cold camp. He still had the food that Maria had given him that morning in his saddlebags so there was no need for a fire to cook a meal. He would have dearly loved to have had some coffee but could see no point in lighting a fire purely for the purpose of making coffee. The night was mild and he would be warm enough without a fire’s heat.
He went to the stream where he drank deeply and then toted some water back to his camp, where he cleaned Barranca’s bit and wiped the bridle and girth free of dried sweat as he ate his meal. He also brushed the saddle blanket, not only for Barranca’s benefit but also for his own. Resting your head on a smelly sweaty blanket was not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
He silently thanked Maria for her thoughtfulness, as his meal was quite delicious. Not the average trail meal at all. The bread freshly baked that morning was still crusty, a couple of large potatoes that had been baked in their jackets accompanied the numerous slices of roast beef, and even a small jar of mustard had been carefully packed. Maria had even included dessert! A whole apple pie, albeit misshapen after a day in the saddlebags had kept company with several pieces of chocolate cake. It wasn’t until he started hoeing into the meal that he realised how hungry he was and that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He had not felt the need during the day to stop and eat as he had been running on his reserves of energy that were now sadly depleted.
Before retiring for the night he fed and watered Barranca and wished his horse a good night’s sleep.
“Sleep well, boy. We’ve got another hard ride again tomorra’.”
Giving his horse a final affectionate pat on the neck he walked to where his saddle roll lay waiting and lay down, absent-mindedly pushing aside the small stones that lay beneath him.
Within seconds of resting his weary head on the saddle blanket that still smelt faintly of sweat, sleep had claimed him. His body tired from a long day in the saddle had craved the sleep that had eluded him the night before, as he lay worrying about Mac and Maudie. Johnny Lancer slept soundly until the calls of some early rising birds awoke him.
Finally after nearly a day and a half’s hard riding Johnny reined Barranca to a halt on the slight incline that lay at the western edge of Brownlow. Leaning slightly forward he held the reins lightly in his left hand and resting his arms on the horn of the saddle surveyed the scene before him.
The town bore little resemblance to the place he had visited just over two months ago, when Murdoch had sent him to collect the cattle Lancer had purchased. The devastation that confronted him was unbelievable. Not a building was standing on the southern side of Brownlow. The few burnt timbers still standing were pitiful reminders of the buildings that had once stood there. Bits of twisted metal lying forlornly amongst the piles of charred wood were all that remained of brass bed heads, doorknobs and other metal items, including the blacksmith’s anvil, that had melted in the heat generated by the flames.
Johnny removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair before resettling his hat on his head. He rubbed his sleeve across tired eyes and sighing deeply squeezed his legs against Barranca’s sides and urged his horse down the hill and into the nightmare that lay before him.
From his vantage point atop one of the hills overlooking Brownlow Samuel Meekins watched the town with malevolent satisfaction. The pleasure he had gained from setting the fire was only tempered by the regret that it had not totally destroyed the town. But that could easily be remedied.
The fire had spread with great speed, greater speed than he had expected. In fact he had had to make his escape from the town sooner than he had wished. His desire to observe the mayhem he had caused had almost cost him his life. The dry timbers of the livery stable coupled with the ample fuel in the form of straw and hay bales caused the fire to burn with such ferocity that he had almost been caught in the fire himself. He had some nasty burns on his arms but the havoc he had caused was worth the pain he was suffering.
As he lowered the spyglass he absent-mindedly fingered the skin drawn tight across his cheeks. The scars were a reminder of the last fire he had lit eight years before. He had barely escaped that fire too, but it did leave lasting reminders on his body.
The doctors in the asylum had done their best to treat the burns but the flames had damaged too many layers of skin. The burns on his face were the worst; however the stares the scars invoked did not cause him embarrassment, just the opposite in fact. He got a perverse satisfaction from seeing the shocked looks on the people he met.
His temper rose as he thought back to that night in San Francisco. The treatment he had received as Second Mate on the brigantine ‘The Arabella’ had been inexcusable. The Captain had deliberately humiliated him in front of the crew, and not for the first time either. He had suffered the abuse and unreasonable demands from the captain for two long years but on that joyous night he put an end to it.
Oh the papers had called it ‘a tragedy’, ‘a calamitous mishap’, ‘a callous act of aggression’, ‘pernicious murder’ and the like, but to Meekins it was retribution for the trials he had suffered at the hands of an overbearing captain.
He still remembered the pleasure of seeing the ship burning to the water line, the cries of the sailors that were not able to escape the flames easily distinguishable above the crackling of the flames and the snapping of the timber masts and spars as they came crashing to the decks. He felt no remorse for the thirty-five sailors who died in the inferno. Some of them had been decent sorts but they were all expendable. Meekins laughed at the thought of the detested captain going down with his ship, but his laughter had a maniacal ring.
It had been most unfortunate that the First Mate had seen him light the fire in the cotton bales in the forward cargo hold of ‘The Arabella’. Tomkins had tried to climb the ladder out of the hold to sound the alarm but Meekins had pulled him back and a struggle had ensued. The combustible cotton had ignited and both had been burned as they grappled amongst the burning bales. Meekins had finally knocked the First Mate out and left him on the floor of the hold as he made his escape to the deck up the ladder that was already afire. Even as he reached the deck flames were snaking upwards through the timber boards and the ship was doomed. He had leaped over the bulwark into the Bay of San Francisco and swam the few hundred yards to a pier stanchion where he hid and watched the flames devouring the ship illuminate the city of San Francisco.
It wasn’t until the next morning when three police officers arrested him as he was sheltering in a dockside tavern that he realised the First Mate Tomkins had not died in the fire. He had obviously told of finding him setting the fire in the hold. Unfortunately the severe burns that he had received in the struggle in the hold confirmed his guilt. His defence had been the need to rid the maritime world of the scourge known as Captain Josiah Bickham, and if not for the ineptitude of his lawyer and the testimony of Tomkins he felt he would have been exonerated of all blame. Instead he had been declared insane and committed to an asylum.
It had taken eight years of plotting and planning but he had finally achieved his goal. He had convinced the doctors of his remorse and that he had regained his sanity, and as a result he had been released. Since his release he had successfully dealt with the inept lawyer and the traitorous First Mate Tomkins. Tomkins would no longer be sailing the high seas and aiding in the committal of innocent men to lunatic asylums, and the lawyer had tried his last case in court. No more innocent men would be found guilty due to his incompetency.
Whilst incarcerated Meekins had quickly formed a bond with a fellow inmate who had arrived in Meekin’s third year at the asylum. The bond, friendship would be too strong a word as neither man was capable of caring for another human being, had been formed when his fellow inmate had told of the deceit and prejudice he had suffered when trying to run his business. The injustices done to him had eaten away at him until he too had been incarcerated for no good reason. Only held for a short time though he had been released but had shortly thereafter been killed.
Upon hearing of the death of his companion Meekins vowed to avenge the wrongs done to the man. And so he had set about finding those that had caused those iniquities. A chance reading of a small town newspaper article had set in motion the events that led to the destruction of Brownlow.
The conflagration in Brownlow was only the first step in his plan. He hadn’t finished with the town yet, one man had yet to pay the ultimate price for his part in past events. And after having successfully completed the first stage of his scheme he planned on tracking down the others responsible and meting out his own brand of justice. They would not get away with interfering with a man’s right to run his business how he saw fit.
As he plotted his future moves a slight movement in his peripheral vision caused him to raise the spyglass to his eye again. There on the rise at the edge of town was a rider astride a palomino horse. As he watched the rider urged his horse down the hill and towards the town.
He regarded the lone rider with curiosity. Over the past few days he had seen other riders approaching the town. But this one was different. Even from a distance the others, who had mainly come in pairs or groups, had had a roughness about them. Looters he had thought with glee. An added bonus for him. He hadn’t thought of this consequence of the fire, but the pain they would cause the already troubled town would be most satisfying.
He felt a vague sense of disquiet as he regarded the rider entering the town. It was a pity that he could not have seen the rider’s face, he would have to find out who this man was. A slight shiver ran down his spine, he sensed that this stranger would not be advantageous to his plans.
He had camped amongst the brush and woodlands in the hills since the fire without having been disturbed. The townsfolk had been too busy to venture from the town. They were like headless chickens running around without any lawman to take charge.
Meekins scars made him easily identifiable so he was now unable to risk being seen in town. But it had been no mistake that he had allowed himself to be seen prior to the fires. What better place to make your intentions known than a saloon? Deliberately targeting some obviously none-too-bright inebriated souls there he had let it be known that he had just recently been released from the asylum and was seeking revenge. He had stopped short of elaborating on what form the revenge would take though. Too much information could have led to the discovery of his plans. However he wanted his target to know why the fire was started, the guilt the man would feel would gnaw at him until Meekins ended his life shortly.
Red, the lad he had found roaming the streets in San Francisco, and who had remained with him since, had been keeping him informed of the happenings in the town.
Their first meeting had been less than auspicious. Shortly after his release six months previously Meekins had been drinking in a tavern, and having indulged to excess had staggered into a lane to relieve himself. Just as he finished a knife was thrust to his throat with a demand for money. Without thinking Meekins had grabbed the assailant’s arm and had felt the sting as the point of the blade pierced his throat. A struggle had followed but being stronger than the slight lad Meekins had subdued him. Fingering his throat and staring at the blood dripping from the superficial wound onto the angry boy as he knelt on his chest, Meekins realised that this ruthless youth could be of assistance to him.
The boy, known only as Red, had an ordinary looking face with mousy coloured hair that was always in need of a comb. The sort of boy that could roam around towns without causing suspicion and was so unremarkable in looks as to be unmemorable. He was around fifteen years old and had a giant chip on his shoulder, figuring that the world owed him a living. Having no roots and caring for no one he suited Meekins’s purposes perfectly. He had assisted in dispatching Tomkins and the lawyer without a qualm and Meekins had been pleased to note the sadistic nature of the boy. A bond had grown and Meekins knew that here was a boy that he could trust as long as he satisfied his basic wants – money, companionship and the opportunity to inflict pain on others.
A touch on his arm alerted him to the fact that Red was now awake. He had left the boy sleeping, as Red had spent the night and early morning in town surreptitiously gathering information.
“That rider troubles me, boy.” Meekins said as he pointed out the figure entering the town.
“Y’a want me t’a kill ‘im?” The eagerness in the boy’s voice was unmistakable.
“No, not yet. I want to know who he is and why he’s here first. Think you can find that out? Later on you can have some fun with him, how’s that sound?””
The gap-toothed grin that met this proposal was pure evil. The boy’s eyes lit up with the thoughts of the delights that the future held.
Meekins cast a last look at the town and turned back to his companion. My but the boy was good! He melted in and out of places so easily, Meekins had not even been aware that the boy had gone.
Meekins made his way back to the camp and settled down to wait for the information about the stranger. He was troubled and had an unreasoning fear about the stranger thwarting his plans.
Four newly dug graves were stark reminders of the human tragedy that had occurred in Brownlow that fateful night nearly five days earlier. Checking Barranca slightly as he passed Johnny gained some comfort in the fact that there were only four graves. The newspaper article had reported four souls dying in the boarding house so it would be safe to assume that no one else had died from their injuries in the interim. That meant Mac was still alive thought Johnny with relief. That the burials had been undertaken on the edge of town and not in the town cemetery lying a quarter of a mile west of the town bothered Johnny slightly as he pressed Barranca on again.
Where the smithy’s business had once stood all that was left was the twisted remains of the bellows and the surprisingly well-preserved anvil that maintained a lonely vigil, the echoes of the ringing of hammer on metal long since silenced. The burnt remains of the other structures on the southern side gave no indication however of what their original purposes were and Johnny had difficulty in remembering the location of the various businesses.
In the street the townsfolk were conspicuous by their absence. The bewildered faces of the few that Johnny could see showed no interest at all in his arrival. But angry raised voices emanating from the hotel drew Johnny to the building and he halted Barranca at the hitching rail in front of the edifice. Casting a curious glance at the two deep grooves that ran across the street from the remains of the boardwalk opposite to the step in front of the hotel Johnny stepped off his horse and drew his rifle from its scabbard. A moment later he had crossed the boardwalk and entered the hotel. Used to summing up a situation at a single glance Johnny took in the scene instantly.
That the bank safe had survived the fire was evident, for there it stood in the lobby of the hotel, thereby explaining the drag marks across the street. The safe was obviously the object of the raised voices and Johnny paused just inside the door unobserved by the occupants of the lobby, resting the rifle against the doorjamb within easy reach.
A group of men, women and children were crowded together at the back of the lobby, near the stairs, watching with fear on their faces. The women were clutching the children fiercely. A slight and unhealthy looking youth was beside the safe, his left arm shaking the safe door handle as he nervously covered the group with the gun held in his right hand. Johnny smirked inwardly as he watched the youth, why the obviously scared-stiff boy thought shaking the handle would help was beyond Johnny’s comprehension.
“Now why don’t you be a good little desk clerk and open the safe.”
The desk clerk was nervously looking at the gun waving in his direction. “Even if I wanted to I couldn’t, the bank manager’s the only one who knows the combination, and he’s badly burned and unconscious. Please mister, just leave, there’s nobody here who can open that safe for you.”
“The man’s askin’ you real nice to leave. I suggest you do just that.” Johnny interjected in a deliberately lazy drawl.
The barrel of the Colt that had been pointing at the desk clerk described an arc until it settled on Johnny.
“Oh you do, do you?” sneered the man. “An’ who might you be?”
Johnny considered the man in front of him. Roughly dressed the man appeared to be as broad as he was tall, a scruffy ill-kempt beard adorning the lower reaches of his face. Johnny’s ability to assess a man rapidly had never let him down, and he had no reason to doubt his intuitive feelings about the man holding a gun on him. Rather lacking in the brains department he decided, not a quick thinker and probably not very successful at his chosen profession which appeared to be bank robbery.
Johnny calmly stepped closer to the man, making sure that his moves were slow. The few teeth that the man had left were stained yellow from the chewing tobacco that he so obviously enjoyed, if his breath was anything to go by. Johnny’s nose was not only assailed by the smell of tobacco but the general odour of the man. Silently thinking that the man must be allergic to water and soap Johnny finally replied with a touch of ice in the quiet voice.
“Just a friend, mister. And like I said the man’s askin you real nice to leave. I’d consider that a wise move if I was you.”
The youth, who was with the would-be robber but had taken no part in the conversation with the clerk, had glanced at Johnny when he first spoke and had moved quickly over to the big man. He was now was frantically tugging on his companion’s sleeve, round eyes glued on Johnny. With his gnarled right hand still holding the gun on Johnny the man tried to pull his left arm away from the pesky youth, but the tugging increased its intensity.
The boy, eyes still boggling at Johnny, couldn’t get his mouth to work, so desperately tugged harder on the sleeve.
Finally giving in to the sleeve tugging the gunman looked briefly at his associate, and then back to Johnny, at whom the boy’s shocked eyes were still staring.
Exasperated he snapped, “What is it, Billy, can’t you see I’m busy!”
Finally finding his voice Billy whispered hoarsely, “J..J…Jake, that’s Johnny Madrid!”
An audible gasp from the group at the back of the lobby accompanied the look of realisation on Jake’s face. Slowly he lowered his gun, reholstered it and with a sickening smile stammered ‘W.. We…We was only joshin’ Madrid. Only joshin.’
With his tone now glacial Johnny spat “Get out of town, both of you. If I see either of you again …”
Looking at the two men Johnny knew that he could leave that sentence unfinished, the implied threat enough to ensure that the two inept bank robbers would be riding their horses into the ground to get enough distance between themselves and Brownlow.
As the two men hurriedly departed the hotel through the front door a figure quietly slipped out the back. Red had been listening behind a door that led from the back hall of the hotel to the lobby. On his arrival in town he too had been drawn by the raised voices, and had found his way in the back door of the hotel. The inner door was slightly ajar and he had listened intently to the exchange taking place in the lobby.
Upon hearing the name Johnny Madrid he smiled malevolently. Meekins would be pleased with the news. How opportune that Madrid would come to Brownlow, he had just saved them the job of tracking him down after their business in Brownlow was completed.
Feeling that this news was of great importance he decided that further gathering of information could wait until later in the day. Meekins would want to know about Madrid as soon as possible he reasoned. Taking the opportunity to slip out of the hotel before he was noticed he made his way back to their camp.
Johnny left the hotel on the heels of Jake and Billy, and watched them hightail it out of town as he replaced his rifle in its scabbard. Thoughts of the other low-lifes that would be taking advantage of the town’s troubles drifted into his mind as he led Barranca down the street to where, thankfully, Mac and Maudie’s home still stood. That they would not all be as inept as Jake and Billy he had no doubt.
His sombre mood seemed to be mirrored by Barranca. Once again Johnny marvelled at his horse’s intuition. When his own mood was carefree and happy Barranca was playful and mischievous, playfully nipping and occasionally throwing in a half-hearted buck or pigroot to show the world that he was content with his life. On the occasions when an angry or disillusioned Johnny sought solace in grooming Barranca, the horse was calm, well mannered and nuzzled him to offer support. And today, the horse walked slowly at his owner’s side, head low and nodding with each step, seemingly attuned to the solemn thoughts in his master’s mind.
Leaving Barranca tied to the gatepost he once again stepped through the Thompsons’ gate. Not with uncertainty as on his first visit or with the relaxed expectation of his second but with sadness and trepidation did he tread the path to the front door.
In answer to his hesitant knock the door was opened, but the face that looked at him with surprise and delight tinged with sorrow was barely recognisable to him.
“Hello Johnny.” she said without hesitation. Johnny didn’t know how to react, there had been few times in his life that he had been speechless but this was one of them. He was still contemplating a reply when she took his arm and took him inside the house.
“Who is it? Who was at the door?” Maudie Thompson’s harried voice pre-empted her arrival wiping her hands on the ever-present apron. A tired smile broke the strained lines of her face at the sight of him. A couple of strides took Johnny to her where she hugged him tightly, burying her head into his shoulder. A tremble in her body announced the arrival of the tears, tears that she had successfully kept at bay for nearly a week now.
The strain of being strong and stoic had taken its toll. After the fire there had been no time for tears, caring for Mac and the other injured and arranging temporary accommodation for the homeless did not allow for self-pity or emotional outbursts. That the town had relied on her organisational skills over the last few days she was unaware. The mantle of being the backbone of the town would not have sat well on the shoulders of such an unpretentious woman. In her eyes she had done what was necessary, without fear or favour, much as she had done all her life. Not even at the unexpected arrival of Jess did she let the tears master her.
But there is only so much emotional pain that a body can sustain, in all there comes a time, a breaking point, when for the body’s survival one has to let go. And Maudie had reached that point. The catalyst was the young man that now stood before her in her hall.
With shirt becoming steadily dampened with Maudie’s tears Johnny held the woman that meant so much to him. Her sobs gradually eased and after several deep breaths she pushed herself away from his chest.
“Oh dear, I am sorry, Johnny,” she sniffed, “And look what I’ve done to your shirt.” Soggy gluey patches were left where her tears had fallen and mixed with the flour that her hands had left when she hugged him.
Her attempts to wipe the patches only worsened them and he took her hands in his.
“Mrs.T, it’s all right. And besides I know you’ll wash and iron it for me!” he teased gently.
Maudie blew her nose loudly on the large handkerchief she withdrew from the apron pocket. Still sniffing to gain control of her emotions she declared, “My goodness me, I haven’t even said hello, just hugged you and burst into tears like some silly old woman. What a welcome, whatever will you think of me!”
“I know exactly what I think of you and it’s not that you’re a silly old woman! An interfering old biddy maybe, but never a silly old woman!” The wicked gleam in Johnny’s eye resulted in a hiccupy laugh from Maudie.
The slightly shocked look on Jess’s face at Johnny’s comments called for an explanation. “You didn’t!” was all she said when Maudie told her what Johnny had called her when he was injured those six years ago.
Suddenly serious Johnny asked, “Mrs. T, what about Mac? How is he?”
Her face fell, “He’s had a hard few days, Johnny.”
“He’s got some very serious burns. The doctor said that although he’ll recover fully there would probably be some scarring. The burns are very painful and he’s most uncomfortable. He’s frustrated that he can’t do anything to help anybody. The town has been open to all sorts, we’ve had some looting and robberies and there’s been no one able to maintain order.”
Johnny missed the look Jess had given Maudie as she spoke about the problems the town had been having. Jess was well aware of Mac’s plan for Johnny to take up the reins and thoroughly approved: the Thompsons having enlightened her the previous evening.
“On that horrible night there were burning buildings and panicking people everywhere. There was so little anyone could do to stop the flames. You know Mac, it was his town and people and he did his best to be everywhere at once. His hands and face had already been burned helping people escape when Isabel Perkins grabbed him. She was hysterical; having been asleep in a front room above her store she had been unable to reach her daughter who was in a back room. Mac went into that building and brought that little girl out. She is a lucky girl, only a few minor burns.”
Equal measures of both pain and pride in her husband’s actions were clearly evident in Maudie’s voice. “He was burned even more badly rescuing Sarah. His face, his hands, back …” She trailed off.
“Can I …” began Johnny but was interrupted by Maudie.
“He’s asleep right now Johnny and I don’t want to wake him, he has enough trouble getting to sleep as it is. Later, when he wakes?” she appealed to Johnny. “He’ll want to see you as soon as he knows you’re here.”
Nodding his agreement Johnny asked “And what about you, how are you?”
Patting his arm she replied, “I’m fine, just a bit tired. You’re a dear for asking. But I’ll be a lot better now that I’ve got my two favourite young people with me.”
Maudie suddenly recalled the meal she had been preparing, but before bustling back to the kitchen she took them each by the arm and propelled them into the parlour towards the settee.
“Now while we wait for Mac to wake up and I finish my chores, you both sit here. I’ll bring you in something presently. You two have a lot of catching up to do.”
Left alone the two young people looked at each other.
Johnny, on his part, was amazed at the transformation that had taken place in Jess. Gone was the girl of six years ago and in her place stood a mature, self-assured young woman. Her hair was long and cascaded softly, framing her face, a face that had evolved from pretty to beautiful over the years.
The blue eyes that were regarding her had changed little in the last six years she thought. The handsome face that she had fallen in love with showed maturity but there was something else as well. Something she could not quite put her finger on.
With a heartfelt look in Jess’s direction Johnny began, “Jess, I’m s…”Two fingers gently placed on his lips stopped what he was about to say.
“Don’t Johnny, there’s no need. Maudie wrote and explained everything after you and your family visited them last summer. I understand your motives for leaving. It’s nice to know that you cared that much about keeping us safe.”
He tenderly pressed his lips against the fingers before she lowered her hand, looking at him with expectation in her eyes.
“Are you happy Johnny?” There was no need for him to reply for she saw the contentment in his eyes. And then she realised that was what she has seen in his face, the indeterminate change that had puzzled her. He had mellowed and appeared to have a more relaxed quality about him. Family life must agree with him, she thought with pleasure.
“I’m pleased,” she said simply. “That makes two of us.”
Surprised he noticed the smile in her eyes.
They had a heart to heart talk, and both came away satisfied that their friendship had been restored; but as to their relationship, they had both moved on with their lives and had changed considerably from the two sixteen year olds that had fallen in love.
In answer to his question as to when she got to Brownlow Jess explained that she had arrived the previous afternoon, having also read about the fire in a newspaper. The time since had been spent assisting Maudie in her ministrations to both Mac and the other injured in the town.
Darkness was closing in when Maudie came in carrying a tray, a cloth covering the items on it. “Mac’s awake, I’ll just change his dressings and then you can see him Johnny.”
Johnny had no idea of what to expect when he walked into the sickroom, but it certainly wasn’t what confronted him when he did. Unable to lie on his back due to the burns Mac Thompson had been made as comfortable as possible. He was sitting up with pillows supporting him. Swathed in bandages he reminded Johnny of the pictures of the Egyptian mummies he had seen in one of the books in Lancer’s bookcase.
Both hands were heavily wrapped along with most of his face; only his mouth, nose and left eye left exposed. Johnny managed to stifle the involuntary gasp that escaped when he first saw Mac. Forcing a smile on his face he greeted his friend.
The voice that returned the greeting was hoarse and raspy, a consequence of inhaling smoke Maudie had said when she warned him of what he could expect with Mac. A fit of coughing followed. Noting the jug of water on the bedside table Johnny poured some into a glass and offered it to Mac. Extreme embarrassment at his thoughtlessness washed over him when Mac just lifted his bandaged hands accompanied by a shadow of a smile on his ravaged face.
Uttering his apologies Johnny put the edge of the glass to Mac’s burnt lips and gently tipped the glass to enable the man to sip the water.
Maudie pulled a chair over to the bed and indicated to Johnny that he should sit. Jess, had not accompanied Johnny into the room, making the excuse that she would start serving dinner. The conversation about to take place needed to be a private one between the Thompsons and Johnny she thought, although she would have loved to be present to see the look on Johnny’s face when he received the news.
Having seated Johnny Maudie sat on the edge of the bed, next to both men. Pleasantries aside Mac got straight to the point. Talking was difficult and painful but he wanted to be the one to tell Johnny.
He motioned to Maudie and she opened the drawer in the polished wood bedside table and withdrew a silver badge. At a nod from her husband she handed it to Johnny. Mac rasped out, “It’s for you Johnny.”
At the confused look on the young man’s face he continued, “There’s no law here now, I need someone I can trust to keep the town in order.” Another coughing fit was stilled with sips of water.
Aware of the refusal that was about to meet his proposal Mac looked beseechingly at his wife, who was well aware that he had just about reached the limit of his endurance. She took Johnny’s left hand into hers and quietly expounded. “We need you Johnny. The town needs someone who can uphold the law…”
“No, don’t say anything. I know it sounds strange to you, but you’re the best man for the job. You’re honest and forthright. You alone will be able to contend with the riffraff that are descending on us. And to get the townspeople organised. There is so much to do and they are so confused and bewildered. Mac has been so depressed about not being able to do anything; it was a blessing when Val Crawford wired us with the suggestion. We didn’t know why we hadn’t thought of it ourselves.”
A disbelieving look crossed Johnny’s face. “Val wired you? He suggested this?”
“Yes, Johnny dear, he and your father had been talking …” She was interrupted by a splutter.
“Murdoch knew about it too? And Scott as well, I s’pose. Guess I’ll have some words to say to them…”
“Now, now Johnny. You should be flattered, both Val and your father thought that you would be able to be a big help here to Mac, while he’s out of commission. Please say yes, Johnny. We need you.” she reiterated.
The imploring look on Maudie’s face was making him uncomfortable, and when he turned to Mac the expectant look on his face sealed his fate. He would not be able to refuse them. They had done so much for him, this was such a small thing really and in helping them out he could at least partially repay them.
With an exaggerated sigh followed by a disarming grin he stated, “Swear me in Sheriff!”
Leaving an obviously exhausted but relieved Mac to try to rest Maudie and Johnny returned to the kitchen where Jess had dinner ready to serve. Nothing was said about what had taken place but as she placed the steaming plate of beef stew in front of Johnny Jess teased, “I hope you like it, Sheriff!”
“Not you too!” Johnny grinned. “Seems like everyone but me was in on this! I’ll deal with ya’all later!” he threatened jokingly.
It was an early night for them all. Maudie and Jess were occupying the two beds in the guest room. Maudie was up several times each night checking on Mac and tending to his needs and did not want to disturb him more than necessary, so was not sharing their bedroom.
Johnny assured a worried Maudie that he would be quite comfortable sleeping on the settee. On waking up stiff in the morning he realised that his assurance was ill- founded but reassured Maudie that he had slept like a log when she had asked.
At dawn, just as they were finishing breakfast, there was a knock on the front door. Johnny drained the last of his glass of milk and got up to answer the door.
“Do you have enough milk left for a weary traveller?” commented Scott as he noted the milk moustache on the surprised countenance of his brother.
Scott could hear raised voices before he even opened the Thompsons’ door to go to find his brother.
Johnny had left whilst Scott was having a late breakfast, courtesy of Maudie who had howled down his protests and had cooked him a very satisfying meal. Realising how hungry he had really been Scott ate heartily.
Before Johnny left Scott had explained to the very surprised group of people the events leading up to his arrival. How Murdoch had arranged for the supplies that now waited for distribution and the men that had been organised to rebuild the town and were now resting in a makeshift camp behind the hotel.
In return Maudie had regaled the story of Johnny’s expulsion of the inept thieves.
Just before Maudie had retired the previous night the town doctor had popped in for a quick chat and to check in on Mac’s progress. Jess had already settled down for the night and Johnny was out doing a final check on Barranca, ensuring that he had been watered and fed.
The doctor had done his rounds that afternoon without Maudie’s assistance. That she was nearing exhaustion was obvious and he had ordered her to stay at home and try to get some rest.
As they talked over the day’s last cup of coffee he mentioned that a young man had that day run off some would-be thieves who had endeavoured to rob the bank’s safe. He had not been present but by all accounts the man, who was a notorious and vicious killer, had threatened to shoot the thieves in cold blood if they didn’t leave the town immediately.
Her suspicions raised Maudie had asked if he knew the name of the man. To the doctor’s amazement she had burst out laughing when he had said those present at the hotel had mentioned the name ‘Johnny Madrid’. Fearing that sheer exhaustion had finally taken its toll on this stalwart woman he had been about to suggest she visit his surgery in the morning for a check-up when the back door opened and a dark-haired young man walked into the kitchen.
Eyes glistening with tears from laughter Maudie had introduced the visitor to the confused doctor. With arm around the young man’s waist she said, “William, I’d like you to meet Johnny Lancer. Johnny’s an old friend who has come from near Morro Coyo to help us. Mac has just sworn him in as our temporary sheriff. Johnny, this is William Sargood, our town doctor.”
“Pleased to meet you, Johnny!” said the still bemused medical man.
Having returned the greeting Johnny added, “I hear you’ve been pretty busy these last few days, Doc.”
“Yes, unfortunately there were many burns victims, but I’m glad to say they are all recovering slowly.”
Maudie wiped the tears from her eyes and added mischievously, “William, there’s something else I think you should know about Johnny.”
“What is that, Maudie?” said the doctor picking up his coat from the back of the hardwood chair over which he had draped it.
The coat fell to the ground when the doctor dropped it in complete surprise at Maudie’s next words, “Johnny used to be known as Johnny Madrid.”
“What did you say?”
“I said Johnny used to be known as Johnny Madrid.” Maudie repeated calmly.
“I thought that was what you said.” said the doctor faintly.
Whilst this exchange was taking place Maudie had been still standing with arm around Johnny, who was a little mystified at Maudie’s behaviour. “Might I ask who told you about Johnny?” inquired Maudie.
Shamefaced the doctor replied, “Agnes …”
“…Hepplethwaite,” finished Maudie, “I might have known! Really William Sargood, I thought you had better sense than to listen to the ramblings of such a woman! Do you think Mac and I would have a ‘notorious and vicious killer’ in the house, and that Mac would put the town in the care of such a man? I can tell you that Johnny is like a son to us and is a fine young man.” Here Maudie had given Johnny a squeeze and a loving smile, a smile that was returned with gratitude.
The doctor had then departed, suitably abashed, pondering the words he would have in the morning with Agnes Hepplethwaite. And Maudie and Johnny had then retired for the night.
Having told Scott the story of the attempted robbery, as told to her, Maudie then started tidying the kitchen. Scott was left in peace to finish breakfast. His brother, looking incongruous with a silver badge pinned to his shirt, had then sheepishly departed for ‘his’ office.
Scott’s amusement at the thought of Johnny’s expression as Maudie proudly pinned on the symbol of office before he left quickly dispelled as the words of the argument became clear.
“We demand to see Sheriff Thompson!” The emphasis on the words ‘Sheriff Thompson’ was patently clear.
Not wanting Maudie to hear the heated argument Scott hurriedly closed the door as he exited the house. Once outside he saw his brother barring the way through the gate. Facing him was an obviously unhappy crowd. However there were only two raised voices, the loudest coming from a deceptively small woman. Small in stature she may have been but she had a loud brash voice that could not be ignored.
The other voice was his brother’s. Johnny was less vociferous but no less forceful in his declaration that no one would be passing through the gate.
“I repeat, we demand to see the Sheriff. Get out of the way, young man.”
“You are seeing the Sheriff, ma’am. Well the temporary one anyways. Sheriff Thompson ain’t well and I ain’t about to let you disturb him.”
Stepping up to his brother’s side to offer support if not assistance in the matter Scott inquired as to what the matter might be.
Ignoring the displeased look directed at him, Scott further inquired, “Sheriff Thompson is unable to receive visitors, may we be of assistance?”
“And who might you be?” Scott could not fail to hear the disdain in the woman’s voice.
“My name’s Scott Lancer, I arrived here this morning with supplies and some men to
assist in rebuilding your town.” Scott’s next words “My brother and I…”were drowned out by the woman’s voice.
“Why that’s most considerate of you, young man, but we still want to see Sheriff Thompson.” the woman insisted.
“Well, you ain’t and that’s all there is to say!” an exasperated Johnny interrupted.
Scott, trying to keep the conversation civil, asked innocently, “It appears that there is a problem, perhaps the temporary sheriff here could help?” unaware of the tirade that was about to be unleashed.
“Temporary sheriff! Him?” the woman snorted contemptuously. “He is the problem! We will not have a man like that as sheriff!”
Scott raised his eyebrows and was well aware of the temper rising in his volatile brother standing beside him. Feeling his own composure slipping at the direction he felt this confrontation was heading he asked, “Like what, Madam?”
“He’s a gunfighter! A killer, a cold-blooded murderer, …”
Curbing his fury Scott interrupted icily “Was a gunfighter madam, was, now he’s a rancher.”
His words slipped off the woman like water off a duck’s back; so intent was she on her outburst she totally ignored the words.
Making a conscious effort to curtail his anger Scott continued, “You said ‘we’ will not have a man like that as sheriff. By ‘we’ Madam, do you mean ‘you’?”
“Of course not, I speak for everyone, we do not want that man in our town.” A finger snaked towards Johnny emphasising the point.
However the looks on some of the faces of the crowd showed growing embarrassment, and Scott thought that maybe the woman did not have the support of the people that she thought she had.
He decided to try a different tack, and addressed the crowd in general. “But most of you must know Johnny from when he was here a couple of months ago.” stated Scott reasonably.
Various nods were discernible in the crowd.
“Yes, well, … we didn’t know who he was then.” asserted the woman.
“I beg your pardon?” Scott couldn’t credit what he was hearing.
“I mean we didn’t know he was Johnny Madrid then.”
“He ‘wasn’t’ Johnny Madrid then, he was Johnny Lancer, just the same as he is Johnny Lancer now.” uttered Scott contemptuously. He couldn’t believe the logic with which the woman was trying to justify her argument. “He’s the same man he was then, nothing has changed. You are unbelievable, Madam.” Scott was no longer trying to hide the disgust he felt.
At times the difference between he and his brother reared its ugly head and this was one of those times. In Boston the mere mention of his own name, Scott Lancer, attracted pleasantries and coupled with the words ‘grandson of Harlan Garrett’ opened doors to opportunities otherwise unavailable to many young men of his age. But conversely in California at times the mention of his brother’s former name invoked the appalling attitude displayed by these townspeople. They didn’t know Johnny, had no idea of the man he really was – they just reacted to the reputation that insidiously followed him. He could understand their fear as Johnny’s reputation was formidable, but he could not condone their behaviour. Behaviour that failed to take into account both the fact that Johnny had already saved their hard earned money from disappearing with the two bank robbers and that he had the support of Mac Thompson.
“Tell me, Madam, what do you think of your sheriff?” Scott continued, stressing the word ‘madam’.
“Mac Thompson? Why he’s a wonderful man, honest, an excellent sheriff, and his wife Maudie is a delightful person. They’re both an asset to this town.” the woman gushed.
“So you like him?”
“Yes, of course we do.” answered the woman with a puzzled expression.
“And you trust him?” persisted Scott.
“Implicitly. He’s a good friend. My husband Cyril here plays chess every Thursday night with him and Maudie and I belong to the Women’s Guild.” snapped the woman who was becoming annoyed at the young man’s ridiculous questions. How could he doubt their friendship with the Thompsons?
“But your friendship doesn’t extend to trusting his judgement, Madam?”
The woman drew herself up and haughtily responded, “What ‘do’ you mean, young man?”
“What I mean, Madam,” said Scott, taking a deep breath to control his anger. He proceeded with a masterful effort at explaining patiently, as one would do to a child. And that’s how he felt these people were behaving – childlike.
“You say you like and trust Mac, a man who has known Johnny for over six years and has previously saved his life. A man who would entrust his town, and the lives of everyone in it, to Johnny. A man who thinks highly enough of my brother to pin a badge on him. Yet you doubt him, don’t accept his judgement. Does that sound reasonable Madam?”
“Well, I… er, …” The woman was totally flummoxed.
The others around her were by now red-faced with embarrassment, muttering amongst themselves, various heads nodding in agreement. The young man’s logic was sound, that was exactly what they were doing – doubting Mac’s judgement. They mightn’t trust the young man Mac was telling them to but they trusted Mac. Ergo …
“Yes, well, I …” the woman tried again.
“Oh, do be quiet Agnes,” said her husband finally. “I’ve listened to you and your waspish comments for far too long. I’ve had enough.”
Agnes looked at her husband in amazement. Never before had he spoken to her in that tone.
“Well I never! Cyril what has come over you? What gives you the right to speak to me in that way?”
Incredulous that his wife could be so hypocritical Cyril spluttered, “I should have spoken to you like that a long time ago, Agnes. You are a spiteful, vindictive and intolerant harridan, and I am ashamed that I have let you behave in this manner for so long. But enough is enough, Agnes; I am no longer the doormat for you to walk all over.
Audible titters and mutterings gave evidence to the agreement the crowd felt in this matter. Cyril’s obsequiousness to his wife had long been a topic of conversation amongst the menfolk.
Turning to Scott and Johnny, the man continued. “You’re right, we have dwelt on the reputation your brother has, and not the man he is. We have forgotten that he has already run off those loathsome men who tried to rob us and that I might add,” turning to the crowd, “was before he even knew he was to be the law in our town. That should have told us something about the man, about his integrity. We all pride ourselves on being good church going folk and having tolerance, but we have let ourselves down. We judged this young man by the name he had, we let hearsay get in the way of the truth. And I personally am ashamed, for me and for all of us. I apologise to you, Mr. Ma …Lancer, for myself and our town.”
Looking earnestly at Johnny he then turned and looked hard at his wife and taking her by the elbow said harshly, “Come Agnes, we need to have a talk.”
Staring open mouth-mouthed at her husband Agnes couldn’t believe the change in her previously down-trodden husband, and had to almost run to keep up with his long strides as he practically dragged her away by the elbow.
The crowd, many with stunned expressions on their faces or smirking unashamedly, watched the couple leaving.
Johnny was used to such confrontations and arguments about himself, it certainly wasn’t the first time and it probably wouldn’t be the last time he had borne the brunt of antagonism such as this. But this time it was different in many ways. Whilst still wishing he had been somewhere else, he had felt as though he had been vindicated and had had a weight lifted from his shoulders.
A range of emotions had swept over him as he had listened to Scott and the apparently self-appointed spokeswoman for the town, Agnes, arguing: embarrassment that Scott should be privy to the embitterment that the name Johnny Madrid invoked in people, elation that he had a brother who cared enough about him to defend and support him, self-esteem and pride brought about by Scott’s words that Mac thought so highly of him. Scott’s words ‘entrust his town and everyone in it to Johnny’ swelled his heart.
Here was a chance to repay Mac for all that he had done for him. He could never repay him in full; the debt for changing the direction of his life was too great. Yes, he had remained on the gunfighting road but the turns he had made had steered him away from the callous cold-hearted type he could have become. He would not betray the trust Mac and his brother had in him, this was one of the biggest challenges he had faced, second only to the challenge of shedding the skin of Johnny Madrid and emerging as Johnny Lancer, much as a caterpillar spins its chrysalis and emerges a moth or butterfly. Hard to imagine himself as a butterfly, more like a moth. Better stay away from bright lights, he thought wryly, he wanted a long and happy life in his new form.
Satisfied with the outcome Scott watched the rest of the crowd disperse. Noting the indecipherable look on brother’s face he asked, “What’s wrong, brother?”
“Nothin’, nothin’ at all, Scott. Just imaginin’ what my life would be like now without a big brother helpin’ me along the way.”
“Well, what would it be like?”
“Hard to say, mightn’t even be here. An’ if I was it wouldn’t be much fun.” He gave his brother a quick smile before lowering his gaze. Scott had to strain to hear the words “I don’t want to let you down, Scott. You and Murdoch are the best things that have happened to me.”
“Likewise, brother. And nothing you could do would belie my belief in you, Johnny. You’re a good man who cares deeply about what he believes in, you need to believe that, and not belittle yourself. And …” Johnny lifted his gaze to his brother at this hesitation, “… and I think I’ll ask Murdoch if we can keep you! I quite like having a little brother to boss around!” A grinning Scott scuttled out of the way as his brother tried to grab him round the neck.
Nearly a week had passed since Meekins’ acts of revenge had been set in motion and he had watched the activity in the town with interest, while planning his next move.
The news that Red had brought back the previous afternoon had both delighted and angered him. A wild, uncontrollable fury had overtaken him when Red had told of the thwarted robbery. Incensed that Johnny Madrid could assuage the pain being inflicted upon the town he had even scared Red with his ranting. How dare Madrid interfere, the misery caused by the theft of the town’s money would have been icing on the cake. His instincts had been right on the mark – that lone rider would be detrimental to his plans. However a sudden calm washed over him as the significance of the name Madrid took hold.
His abrupt changes in mood took Red by surprise. The change in his companion from rational thought to raving irrationality and back to calm rational scheming again in the blink of an eye was unsettling. Throughout his relatively short acquaintance with Meekins, the man had always remained in control and plotted his actions with cunning. Red had no doubt that Meekins was mad and that he himself was expendable. But their arrangement so far was a good one; he did Meekins’ bidding and in return was allowed to sate his thirst for sadism. However this outburst worried him, and he decided that if ever the situation arose where it was his life or Meekins, there would be no hesitation. He would snuff the life out of Meekins as one snuffed the life out of a candle.
The name Madrid meant nothing to Red but it clearly held some deep meaning for Meekins. As Meekins hadn’t elaborated though Red wasn’t going to ask. He had no desire to antagonise the man more, and eventually Meekins would tell him.
“Madrid, Johnny Madrid, well, well, ain’t that a pleasant surprise.” The now calm Meekins was repeating. Having reiterated that same statement several times he turned to the boy.
“I think it’s time we added to their problems, don’t you?”
The leer on Red’s face spoke volumes. The inactivity since the fire had been hard to handle, even his frequent spying trips had done nothing to ease the nagging itch he had been feeling.
Unseen by Meekins and his companion the wagons had arrived in Brownlow at dawn. Assuming, incorrectly, that there was no need to observe the town at such an early hour, Meekins and Red were still asleep when Scott’s lead wagon had rumbled down the main street, followed by the others carrying the provisions and building supplies. The wagons were brought to a standstill behind the hotel, where the men made camp awaiting instructions, and so the two men camped in the hills were not aware of their arrival.
Mid morning Red had made another excursion into town where he had been surprised to discover the arrival of the wagons and men. Knowing that this would displease Meekins he endeavoured to glean as much information as he could without raising undue interest in himself.
On his return just after lunch he reported that Madrid and a man called Scott Lancer, who appeared to be in charge of the men and wagons that had arrived, had been busy with those men unloading lumber and they had begun clearing the debris.
Red had missed the confrontation between Johnny and the irate mob so was unaware of Scott’s relationship to Johnny. But it had been obvious to him that the two men were working together.
“I think we might pay another visit tonight and add to the mayhem.” Meekins stated.
He had decided to risk accompanying Red to town that night. Under cover of darkness Meekins felt that he would be able to sneak in without being seen or challenged whilst undertaking the nefarious deed he had planned. Now that he knew Madrid was in town he wanted to take a more personal role in future events. “
“If we go well after dark there’s no chance I’ll be seen. Over the next few days I want to make Madrid’s life a misery, and then you can have him Red.”
The look of sheer cruelty on the faces of both men bode ill for Johnny Lancer.
Two very tired brothers enjoyed Maudie’s hospitality that evening. The day’s work had been strenuous and stressful and they were grateful for Maudie’s suggestion of soaking away the aches. But first they spent time with Mac, filling him in on the events of the day. Frustrated that he was bed-ridden Mac once again expressed his appreciation to the young men for all that they were doing for the town. Leaving Johnny to talk further with Mac Scott took advantage of the first bath.
The tub had been placed in the guest room. After undressing Scott cautiously slid his aching body into the tub, steam rising from the hot water. He lay there soaking up the warmth before lathering his body to wash away the day’s grime. Only when the water started cooling did he reluctantly stand, letting the excess water drip from his body before towelling himself dry and dressing in clean brown pants and a deep blue shirt. He cleared the steam from the mirror on the washstand with the damp towel and combed his hair.
He quickly bucketed the water from the tub out onto the garden beds before Maudie could. Knowing that the lady of the house would not hesitate in emptying the tub if he left it Scott did not want to cause her any more unnecessary work. After dinner he planned to sleep at the hotel, the Thompson house was full and Scott felt that an extra body in the house was the last thing Maudie needed. He had not reckoned on Maudie’s forthright and determined nature however, as he was to discover later that evening.
After the last bucketful of lukewarm water was disposed of Jess and he replenished the tub with fresh hot water. He then poked his head in the doorway of Mac’s room to tell Johnny that the tub was free.
“Your turn brother. Maudie said to tell you that dinner will be in an hour so not to hurry, just relax and enjoy the bath.”
Johnny upon entering the guest room found a fresh towel waiting for him. He deposited his clean clothes on one of the beds and having taken off his boots removed very grubby pants and an equally filthy shirt. He gingerly felt the bruise on his now stiffening right arm; a piece of timber had landed on his forearm when it slipped from the wagon he was unloading earlier that afternoon. He had not stopped to inspect the damage but now there was a large purple bruise surrounding the skin that had been broken.
He winced slightly as he submerged himself slowly in the steaming water, his arm protesting the water temperature. He made himself comfortable, and closing his eyes lay his head back against the rim of the tub and relaxed enjoying the warmth seeping deep into his tired body. He started awake, self-conscious that he had nodded off in the warmth of the water. Such self-indulgence had been a rarity in the past, and in those long-gone days the simple act of falling asleep in the bath could have proved fatal.
He too reluctantly stood in the tub. As the rivulets of water coursed down the firm contours of his body he reached for the towel and vigorously dried himself. Dressed in a clean white embroidered shirt and black pants Johnny swiped the comb through his hair and left the room.
Five minutes later he and Scott had joined Maudie and Jess in the familiar dining room. In spite of all that had transpired in the past week the silver still sparkled and the furniture still shone. This had been in no small part due to Jess, who had taken it upon herself to help Maudie with the household chores.
Some time later Scott rose, thanking Maudie for the meal and stating that he would see them in the morning.
In answer to Maudie’s puzzled look he explained his plan to stay at the hotel. Naturally Maudie would not entertain such an idea.
To Scott’s dismay she replied, “I won’t hear of such a ridiculous idea, of course you’ll stay here. Besides the hotel is crammed full with those that lost their homes in the fire so there’s no room there.”
“But I’ll be in the way here and you’re short of room with Jess and Johnny here.”
“Ain’t a problem brother, you have the settee and I’ll bunk down on the floor.” With a gleam in his eye Johnny continued, “You know it’s useless to argue with Mrs. T., so just give in Scott.”
Scott graciously accepted and after Johnny and he had emptied and removed the tub from the guest room the household started settling down for the night. Maudie attended to her injured husband and then gave all three young people a peck on the cheek and told them how pleased she was to have them with her.
As the last lamp in the house was extinguished two furtive shadows moved amongst the wagons, unseen by the men asleep in the hotel’s outbuildings.
Scott found that sleep would not come in spite of the weariness he felt after the busy day. Having tossed and turned for what seemed like hours on the too short settee he finally gave up. He tried to ease his cramped limbs then swung his long legs onto the floor and stepped forwards with arms full of quilt, intending to bed down on the floor. Even the hard floor would have to be more comfortable than the settee he reasoned.
But as he stepped forwards he trod on the trailing edge of the quilt and went down on his knees, landing on his brother’s chest.
The youngest Lancer shot upright immediately, “Ow,” was the indignant response to the assault on his body. “Watch’a think ya doin’?”
“Shhhh, you’ll wake everybody else. Sorry, I tripped. I was moving to the floor, I couldn’t sleep on that settee, it appears to have been made for short people.”
By this time Scott’s eyes had grown accustomed to the dark and he could just make out the features of his younger brother’s face. Johnny was vigorously rubbing his chest but the smug look on his face alerted Scott to his brother’s craftiness.
“You knew I’d be uncomfortable!”
“Yeah, well, I weren’t too comfortable m’self there last night.” admitted his sly brother with a grin spreading across his face. “Figured I’d be a good brother and share!”
Grinning despite himself and with the knowledge that he had successfully interrupted his sneaky brother’s repose Scott quickly settled in his hastily laid out bedding. Within minutes the regular breathing of both men laid testament to their slumber.
Both Scott and Johnny were up at daybreak but found that even then Maudie had risen before them, the sounds of clattering dishes coming from the kitchen. Seating themselves at the table both men picked up the cup of coffee that had been placed before each of them.
At Johnny’s first sip he spluttered, but Scott was more circumspect with his first taste, swilling it around before swallowing with a grimace. He ventured a second mouthful but the taste prevented him from swallowing this time.
An astounded Maudie watched the antics of the two brothers before asking, “Whatever’s wrong?”
“Did you use anything different for this coffee, Mrs. T.?” Johnny queried, the awful taste still strong in his mouth.
“No, same coffee but I did get some fresh water.”
“Where did the water come from Mrs. T.?”
“From the town well, where all the water comes from. Why do you ask Johnny?”
In answer Johnny offered Maudie his cup. One sip was all she needed to realise what was wrong.
“It’s salty!” she exclaimed.
“When did you fetch it from the well?” Scott asked.
“This morning, we used the last of the barrel last night for your baths so I went and got just enough for cooking as soon as I arose.”
“Did you see anyone else there?” persisted Scott.
“Only Elizabeth Benson and Will Edwards, they were also drawing some water. Oh and little Tommy Pearson and his brother getting some for their mother. But no doubt more will have been there since then.” Maudie was puzzled by the question.
“Where is the well?” asked Scott. Upon hearing that it was situated in the area behind the dressmaker’s and telegraph office Scott and Johnny left without further ado.
On their return they informed a dismayed Mac of the sabotage to the town’s water supply. Upon inspecting the well they had discovered that salt had been poured into it, salt that had been removed from the supplies Scott and the others had brought to Brownlow. The saboteur was taking no chances for every bag of salt had been used to foul the water. The well was deep and an excellent reliable supply of water for the town but now with the amount of salt deposited in it was useless.
Before further discussion could take place a clamour could be heard outside. For the second time in twenty-four hours a crowd at the Thompsons’ gate confronted Johnny, but this time he had his brother by his side and he knew what was coming.
Johnny forestalled their complaints about the water. “If you’re gonna tell me that the water’s fouled I already know.”
“Well, what are you going to do about it?”
“Ain’t much I can do about it.”
Johnny listened to the myriad of comments and complaints with growing irritation.
“Well think of something! You’re supposed to be in charge.”
“We can’t survive without water and that well was the town’s only supply, other than the run-off from roofs.”
“How could you let this happen? Where were you when it happened? Why weren’t you protecting the well?”
Curbing his desire to tell the people exactly what he thought Johnny stated instead, albeit with a slightly stony voice. “Asleep probably, and how was I s’posed to protect somethin’ I didn’t even know existed? And we’ll get more water from Simpson, we’ll send some wagons to bring it back.”
Realising that the people had cause to be worried he felt that they also had to be reasonable. The damage was done and couldn’t be undone.
“We’ve just gotta make the best of the situation.”
“But my little Jimmy’s already nagging me for a drink. The children will all be thirsty soon and we can’t give them salty water.”
“No we can’t. So we’ll distil the water,” announced Scott.
“Distil?” queried his brother with puzzlement. The sea of faces before them all bore the same non-plussed expression as the younger Lancer’s face did.
“Yes, Johnny, distil. It’s a centuries old process for turning seawater into fresh water.”
“But we ain’t got sea w…, oh I gotcha, the salty water’s just like sea water.”
“That it is.”
“But will it work? How can we do it?” asked a voice from the crowd.
“It will work. Sailing ships use distillation to obtain drinking water, as they can’t carry enough fresh water on such long voyages. It’s a pity it’s fall and we haven’t much heat from the sun, people have copied nature and used the sun’s heat to distil seawater for centuries. In fact nearly two thousand years ago, Julius Caesar used solar distillation in Egypt to obtain drinking water for his soldiers. But there is another method we can use successfully.”
From the dim recesses of his mind Scott could once again hear the monotonic voice of the tutor his grandfather had employed to educate him. As a twelve year old Scott had felt stifled and bored by the lessons. “Who wants to learn about people who died thousands of years ago?” he had complained bitterly to his grandfather. But Harlan Garrett had brooked no rebellion from his grandson and the tedious lessons on ancient history, Latin and other equally dry curricula had continued.
Scott had felt the sting of the cane wielded by his exasperated tutor more than once. Chastising his errant student for not paying attention Mr. Trumper had informed Scott that his grandfather was paying good money for him to be educated, and that he, Mr. Percival Trumper, would not allow a brain of such intelligence to remain idle. Mr. Trumper’s favourite saying had been ‘An idle brain is the Devil’s workshop.’ Over the years of Mr. Trumper’s tutelage Scott had lost count of the times that proverb had been quoted.
He hated to admit it but those dreary history lessons were of some use now. One of Trumper’s lessons had been about how the Edinburgh born naval surgeon James Lind had in 1758 discovered that steam from salt water was fresh and had proposed a simple method of supplying ships with fresh water distillation. While it had been already known that distilling sea water removed the salt, the process had always left a disagreeable taste, which had been combated with a variety of ingredients, including ground bones, soap or powdered chalk. Lind had demonstrated that the burnt taste quickly disappeared on exposure to air, dispensing the need for any additives to the distillation process. Who would have thought that such an unexciting lesson would have a real life application Scott thought wryly.
After instructing the now eager listeners to round up every receptacle that could hold water along with all the piping of any size that they could find, Scott outlined what they would do to gather the precious liquid.
The womenfolk then returned home to boil the tainted water in kettles and teapots and then pipe the steam into cool bottles and jugs. Scott had explained that the steam would rise leaving the salt behind. As the steam cooled in the bottles and jars it would condense into sweet water again.
That this would produce only limited amounts of fresh water was patently obvious. So the men set about constructing large fires over which tubs of water could be boiled. From these stills the steam would pass through pipes into more tubs, where the liquid would vaporise and be aerated. Larger quantities of fresh water could thereby be distilled.
The fires would have to be kept going day and night and Johnny appointed a number of men to be in charge of maintaining the fires and ensuring there was a constant supply of wood. To avoid trouble they were well armed.
This was a laborious but necessary task to get the vital fresh water the town required before the two wagons returned with their precious cargo. Johnny had sent the wagons loaded with water barrels to the closest town to bring back water. He had taken the precaution of sending armed escorts with the wagons; he reasoned that whoever had fouled the water with the salt might try to intercept the wagons on their return.
The two brothers worked tirelessly lugging large timber and metal tubs and organising the fires over which to heat the water. The many men that had accompanied Scott and the supplies were redirected from their original jobs of clearing the debris readying the areas for rebuilding, to firewood collection and guard duty.
Throughout the day Johnny had found himself with constant shadows. Wherever he went a string of children followed, mainly boys but with a few starry-eyed young girls as well. A barrage of questions had nearly driven him crazy. Now that they knew who he was, or rather had been, they had been constantly asking for tales of his past. Short on subtlety the boys asked the most direct questions: how many men had he killed, had he ever been shot, was there anyone faster than him, was he scared of anyone, had he met Wild Bill Hickock, Jesse James and many others. The questions were endless.
The girls on the other hand were less forthright with their questions. Barely into their teens some of them, the others younger, they were totally enamoured by the handsome young man, smiling coyly at him and giggling at his questions or comments, making him feel a little self-conscious at their less than covert admiration of him.
Johnny answered some questions, ignored others and laughingly told the boys not to believe everything they had heard or read. When they had asked if he had met various gunfighters he had had to tell them that America was a large country and of those men mentioned most lived in faraway states. The boys’ enthusiasm could not be quenched however so his only respite from their incessant chatter came when their parents retrieved their inquisitive children for lunch.
Both Scott and Johnny had joined Maudie and Jess for a late lunch before getting back to work, and when Johnny had complained about wanting to be left alone, Jess had laughed at him stating that most young males wouldn’t grumble about pretty girls following them.
Johnny had retorted that some of them weren’t all that pretty and he wouldn’t mind if they were a mite older. With a mischievous grin he suggested to Scott that the first building to be rebuilt should be the school. The good-natured bantering continued, helping to ease the stress of the day and the brothers returned to work in good humour.
Unbeknownst to the workers a certain redheaded youth had been busy for most of the day giving the appearance of working. With all the activity going on no one had taken notice of the boy, who had been silently and steadily gathering information.
He had secretly revelled in the subsequent flurry of activity caused by Meekins and his nocturnal visit to the town the previous night. Let them do all this work to get fresh water he thought, they would be less likely to notice him if the townsfolk were busy.
To say that he had been surprised to discover that the tall slim blond was Madrid’s brother would be an understatement. Not sure that this would be pleasing news for Meekins he made his way back to camp during the afternoon.
His fears about Meekins’ response to the news about Scott Lancer were unfounded. Meekins smiled maliciously and informed Red that it was indeed good news. They would be able to use Lancer to inflict suffering on Madrid. In fact they would pay another visit to town that night.
Late that afternoon dark clouds built up over the hills to the north of the town. A storm was brewing but all were too busy to have noticed. The work continued, the water boiling merrily in the tubs sitting over the fires.
Towards evening the massive grey clouds rolled in and the first heavy drops of rain splattered down, hissing as they landed on the burning wood and metal tubs.
During the evening the rain became heavier and lightning flashes could be seen in the distance followed by the rumble of thunder. With each hour the storm came closer until it peaked around ten o’clock. The guards were still on duty at the fires but the number of workers was at its minimum. Scott and Johnny were doing separate tours of the town. The irony of the thunderstorm and the water bucketing down upon the town did not escape them as they cursed the rain. It was a battle for the firewatchers to keep the fires burning in the torrential downpour.
Johnny was making his round at the eastern end of the main street as Scott made his way behind the buildings in the vicinity of the well.
A sickening crack of timber on bone echoed through the night, but remained unheard by those on fire watch, being unable to hear the noise over the crackling of flames and the noise of the rain battering down. Taken by surprise Scott caught the movement in his peripheral vision and twisted sideways but only succeeded in avoiding the full force of the blow. Unaware of what hit him on the right temple he was senseless before his body met the ground.
The wooden walls and the depth of the well muffled the faint splash of a large object entering the water.
Consciousness returned to Scott Lancer as his body hit the cold water. Plunging to the depths of the well he became disorientated and instead of surfacing clawed at the wooden walls of the well. Unable to see in the darkness of the water he wondered at the ill fortune that had befallen him. ‘Grandfather was right.’ was his fleeting thought as he searched in vain for the opening in the ice.
But all he could find as his hands searched for the opening was solid ice. Where was the opening? It had to be there somewhere; he had fallen through the thin ice so there had to be a hole. Panic set in as he frantically tried to find the crack in the ice that would be his salvation. His lungs were near to bursting; he couldn’t last much longer and still he couldn’t find the opening in the ice. Scott fought to break through the surface of the ice, in water that was too deep for him to stand. A fleeting thought crossed his mind – parts of Jamaica Pond he knew were up to ninety feet deep. If he couldn’t find the crack in the ice his body may never be found.
Where was his grandfather? He was always there for him when he needed him, and his need had never been as great as it was now. //I’m sorry Grandfather// And what of Bill and James? Were they also fighting for their lives under the ice? Or were they desperately trying to save him?
Finally just as his oxygen-starved lungs were about to give in to the ever-threatening water his hands found what they so desperately sought. His head cleared the icy water but to his dismay he was in complete darkness. Confused by this turn of events Scott felt deserted; his friends had gone back to their homes without further thought of him lost under the ice. And so had all those that had been skating that afternoon. He had to have been in the water for hours for it was night. Thick clouds must be obscuring the moon for he was in pitch darkness. Feeling utterly despondent Scott felt for the edge of the ice to haul himself out of the water.
The hole seemed to be quite large but there was no edge. With bewilderment all he could feel was sheer vertical walls. There was no possibility of climbing out. With one last despairing reach he managed to grab hold of a small wooden beam attached to the wall at the surface of the water. Wood? Why was there wood in the pond? And why was the water salty? Thinking only seemed to exacerbate the throbbing in his head so decided that the confusing questions weren’t worth the pain they were causing. Holding onto the wood like grim death he rested his aching head on the ledge and closed his eyes.
“Grandfather,” he called weakly. “Where are you, I need you. I’m sorry I disobeyed you.”
Why had he sneaked out of the house against his grandfather’s wishes? Wanting to go skating with his friends at Jamaica Pond he had argued with his grandfather. He had been forbidden to go, Grandfather had said that the thaw had made the ice dangerous. Unconvinced he didn’t want to disappoint his friends Bill Woodhouse and James Normandy so he had quietly exited the house via the servants’ quarters without his grandfather’s knowledge. The three of them had enjoyed the afternoon’s entertainment at the popular ice-covered pond; for twelve-year olds the freedom of an unsupervised outing was a real adventure.
But then the ice, already weakened by a thaw of several days, cracked just as he was skating over it. And here he was: alone, freezing and in pain. He realised that he must have hit his head on the ice as he fell in for the headache he had was almost unbearable.
“Grandfather?” Although the voice calling his name didn’t sound like his grandfather it had to be. It was an adult’s voice, not a child’s – but he still did not recognise it.
The voice persisted, gaining in intensity.
“Scott, Scott, are you down there? Can ya’ hear me? Scott, answer me!”
Painfully lifting his head towards the source of the voice Scott managed to open his eyes. But it didn’t help much. He could vaguely see a patch of light above him and the dim outline of a head silhouetted against the light – but everything was blurry. But it had to be his grandfather who was searching for him.
“Grandfather, I’m down here.” To his ears his voice was strong and reverberated round the ice prison he had found himself in. But in reality his feeble voice barely reached the ears of the dark-haired man leaning over the edge of the well.
Barely twenty minutes had elapsed since the two brothers had parted to do the rounds of the town. Johnny, having fewer premises to check than Scott, had returned to the front of the telegraph office to wait for his brother. When Scott had not appeared after a few minutes Johnny had gone in search of him. Becoming worried when he couldn’t find his brother and when none of the guards he had asked had seen him Johnny had instigated a search.
There was little light to see by, clouds obscured what little moonlight there was and the still heavy rain made visibility difficult. Making his way behind the dressmaker’s Johnny had felt something soft giving way under his foot. Bending down he had picked up a sodden, muddy brown hat – his brother’s hat. That hat had been firmly placed on his brother’s blond head the last time he had seen him, and in such foul weather Scott would not have taken it off. Johnny’s sixth sense immediately kicked in. His innate ability to sense danger told him that harm had befallen his brother.
Johnny’s voice calling out his brother’s name as he peered around with difficulty in the near darkness attracted the attention of the other searchers. In the light of the hurricane lamps some of the men were carrying a search of the immediate area was undertaken.
The urgency in Cyril Hepplethwaite’s voice drew Johnny quickly to his side. The man was kneeling in the mud.
“Look at this.” he said as he pointed towards the mud.
“Drag marks.” stated Johnny. There in front of him were the remains of two marks that appeared to have been made by the heels of somebody being dragged, the rain having not entirely washed them away.
“The well!” Both men spoke as one. Johnny ran to the well, slipping in the mud as he stopped at its edge. Leaning over he called into the darkness below.
Johnny, briefly puzzled by the indistinct voice coming from deep in the well calling him ‘Grandfather’, quickly called for ropes to be brought. His call to his brother was met with the same vague indistinct muttering of “Grandfather, help me!”
Realising that Scott was in no condition to help himself Johnny sought the two longest ropes of those that had been quickly brought by a couple of the townsfolk. There was nothing nearby to secure them to so he had to trust that the weight of two men could be borne by those helping him. Two of the burliest men took hold of one end of the rope as Johnny tied off the other end around his waist. Slowly they lowered him down into the darkness. Two other men dropped the trailing end of the rope they held into the well.
An involuntary gasp escaped Johnny as he entered the chilly waters of the well. Darkness had closed around him as he became submerged in the water and he was unable to see, but he found his freezing brother, drawn by the sound of chattering teeth. Scott showed no recognition when Johnny reached him and spoke to him. As he fumbled trying to tie the loose rope around Scott’s waist Johnny brushed Scott’s face and was shocked at how cold he was.
Even after being the water for such a short time Johnny found that his hands were not functioning properly. That, coupled with the stiffness that he still felt in his injured right arm, made tying the rope securely troublesome. But finally he succeeded and called the men above to start hauling. Slowly the two brothers were pulled towards the light from the lanterns that had been placed around the rim of the well to illuminate the proceedings. As the ropes became taught both men twisted in the air and Johnny did his best to protect his brother from banging into the walls as they rose up the well.
Johnny ignored the pain as he buffeted into the wooden timbers of the well wall, the protection of Scott’s body being his priority. That he would be adding to the bruises he already had was insignificant. His brother remained semi-conscious throughout which was probably for the best Johnny thought, as he would not fight the pull of the rope as he was hauled to the surface.
After what felt like an eternity, but was actually only minutes, they were finally hauled over the edge of the well. After hurriedly untying the rope around his waist Johnny dropped to his knees beside his brother. A brother who was shivering uncontrollably.
“Blankets, get me some blankets” Johnny rubbed Scott’s hands in his own, trying to warm the chilled extremities of his brother. Never had he felt anyone that cold, in fact he didn’t know a body could get that cold. “Scott, Scott, you’re safe now brother. Scott, do ya’ hear me?”
Johnny felt himself being gently pushed aside and heard the calm confident voice of William Sargood asking him to make room so Scott’s injuries could be ascertained. The doctor had been summoned by one of the searchers as soon as it was known that the elder Lancer brother was in the well. Unwilling to leave his brother’s side Johnny reluctantly moved when the good doctor became more insistent.
“Johnny, I can’t look after your brother with you in the way. You aren’t doing Scott any good, move back and let me deal with him.”
Blankets were draped around his shoulders as he knelt within sight of Scott. He too was shivering violently but was oblivious to the fact in his concern for his brother. Although Scott was conscious he had not said a word and his vacant looking eyes remained unfocused.
Having surmised that there were no apparent broken bones the doctor ordered that Scott be carried Maudie’s. His surgery was already filled to capacity with burns victims and besides Maudie’s house was warmer than the surgery – and warmth was Scott Lancer needed. In addition, having known the lady in question for a number of years, he was certain that he would never hear the end of it if Scott had been taken anywhere else. The love she felt for the young Lancer brothers was obvious. So Maudie’s home was the natural choice.
There in front of a roaring fire they made Scott comfortable. Having stripped the wet clothes from his shivering body the doctor and his brother vigorously rubbed his body with towels, trying to restore the much-needed warmth. Noting the empty gunbelt as he removed it from his brother’s hips Johnny thought that the missing firearm must have fallen into the well during Scott’s fall.
Finally satisfied that his patient was warming up William helped Johnny dress Scott in one of Mac’s nightshirts and covered him with blankets. The nasty livid bruise and lump on Scott’s right temple was apparently his only injury, and although painful would cause no lasting effects.
The doctor left after trying to allay Johnny’s fears about the mental state of his brother. Prior to falling asleep Scott’s only utterances had been about his grandfather, thanking him for finding him and apologising for disobeying him. Concerned that his brother did not recognise him and seemed to be reliving an event of his past Johnny gained little comfort from the doctor’s words. He fervently hoped that the doctor was right, and that by morning, after a good night’s rest, Scott would have regained his senses.
Maudie had not wanted to disturb Mac with the latest news, he had drifted into an uneasy sleep earlier and she felt that it would serve no purpose to tell him before morning. Jess had forced Johnny to have some soup but he had refused point blank to eat anything else. He too was now warm in fresh clothes and sitting by his brother in front of the stoked up fire.
Before retiring for the night Maudie had stood silently at the door regarding the scene before her – the blond elder brother warmly bundled up on the settee that had been drawn up to the fire, his features relaxed in sleep. And the younger brother uncomfortably leaning against the settee, right hand clasping his brother’s hand and dark head resting against the blanket covered chest of the sleeping man.
As she gently placed a blanket over the sleeping Johnny she commented silently to herself, “You’re going to be one stiff young man in the morning.”
Earlier two silent witnesses had observed the saga of the rescue. The younger of the two had remained unmoved by the urgency of the rescue. The older had silently fumed at the unexpected and unwanted rescue, cursing himself that he hadn’t noticed the fallen hat. His plan had been foiled by a piece of felt. Madrid’s brother was to have disappeared without trace, the aim being to cause the young man heartbreak, but instead the brother was still alive. Some serious thought would have to be given to future plans of action.
Scott awoke the next morning feeling exhausted and drained. The sight of a strange ceiling greeted his bleary blue eyes when he opened them, and then from the ceiling his eyes travelled to the furniture within his sight. He slowly took in the unfamiliar surroundings. This wasn’t his room; in fact this room reminded him of nothing in Boston.
Aware of the feeling of pressure on his chest he looked down and noted a dark head leaning against him. Moving slightly to gain a better look at the face belonging to the dark hair he disturbed the sleeping man.
“Scott?” A voice still heavy with sleep uttered his name. Suddenly the mists cleared and Scott realised where he was – lying on that confoundedly uncomfortable settee in Maudie’s living room. And by his side was his brother; who it appeared had slept the night there, for he was twisting his head from side to side trying to ease the obvious stiffness in his neck. Johnny threw off the blanket that had mysteriously appeared during the night and awkwardly got to his feet.
“You must be getting soft, brother, or getting old.” Scott gently chided. “I doubt that a year ago sleeping on the floor would have caused you so much discomfort.”
Ignoring the teasing a grin appeared on Johnny’s face preceding his delighted outburst, “Boston, you know who I am!”
Johnny’s grin was infectious, Scott’s tired countenance was lit up by a smile, “And pray tell why wouldn’t I, brother?” Scott deliberately emphasised the word ‘brother’.
Vague flashes of the previous night tugged at his memory, snippets that knocked on the door of his tired, fog-bound brain, begging to be let in.
“I, ah, didn’t happen to call you ‘Grandfather’ did I?” he asked cautiously.
Johnny’s chuckle answered his question even without the words. “Yep, several times actually. I should be insulted brother!”
Before more could be said they were interrupted by the appearance of Maudie bearing a tray with two steaming cups of coffee liberally laced with brandy. Laughing at the surprised looks on the two faces as they took their first sip of the boiling brew she elaborated, “After what you both went through last night I thought a little ‘pick-me-up’ for my boys might be in order.”
“Why thank you, Maudie.” was Scott’s grateful response.
“How are you this morning, Scott. You had us all a little worried last night. You didn’t seem to know where you were or who we were.”
“It’s still very hazy, Maudie, but I do remember my little brother here, although I’ll admit that may not a good thing!”
Smiling at his brother’s jibe Johnny picked up the blanket and looked questioningly at Maudie. “Well, I thought you might get cold, Johnny.”
During the night, Maudie, on her way back from attending to Mac, had checked on the two brothers. The firelight’s glow was reflecting on the faces of the two sleeping men as she gazed lovingly at them. The blanket she had placed over Johnny earlier had been kicked away and lay in a twisted heap around his stockinged feet. Johnny, deep in sleep, changed position slightly as she quietly pulled the blanket up over him again. She had then smiled contentedly and had gone back to bed.
Johnny gave her a quick hug, “You’re a wonder, Mrs. T..”
Before her emotions got the better of her Maudie hurried out of the room stating that the day was frittering away and she had “more than enough to do without wasting time hugging handsome young men.”
But just after she had left the room there was knock on the door and having answered it she ushered the doctor in.
He addressed his latest patient, “Well, young man, how are you this morning?”
The doctor was pleasantly surprised at the appearance of his patient, for although Scott looked tired his face had not the colourless pallor of the night before.
“I’m a bit tired and I have a slight headache but other than that I feel fine, Doctor,” replied Scott.
“Good, good, I’m pleased to hear that.” Noting Scott’s intention of getting up from the settee he cautioned, “Now before you leap up and start saving the town again with your brother just let me look at you.”
Looking faintly embarrassed Scott settled back on the settee and the examination took place. The doctor questioned Scott about his family, if he knew where he was, what day of the week it was and the like, and was satisfied with the young man’s responses. “That’s excellent, Scott, I’m pleased to say that you have no serious after effects from your ordeal. That was quite a blow you took to the head though, so I’d expect that the headache will stay with you for a while. But there has been no permanent damage done. I think that you should consider yourself very fortunate indeed though that your brother found you when he did, or the outcome may have been quite different.”
Shooting a glance at his brother Scott was not surprised to see only the top of the young man’s head. Throughout his life Johnny had received more criticism and condemnation than acclaim, and although he craved praise, especially from their father, he found it difficult to accept.
The doctor then left with Maudie to examine Mac, Maudie calling Jess from the guest room to assist her.
Scott then rose and stretched before starting to dress. As he removed the nightshirt he was wearing Scott raised his eyebrows questioningly and looked to his brother.
“It’s Mac’s, we put it on ya’ last night. Must say though, ya’ got a bit of fillin’ out to do, Scott, if ya’ intend wearin’ his clothes regular like!”
Embarrassment suddenly swept across Scott, and he faced his brother with a horrified look on his face. “Johnny, by ‘we’ you surely don’t mean Maudie do you?”
Although sorely tempted to torture his brother with his response to this anguished plea Johnny decided to allay Scott’s fears.
“Nope, just the Doc an’ me?” With a sly look though he added, “What would ya’ have done if it had been Maudie? She’s seen naked men before, why she’s seen me buck naked too ya’ know.”
Still feeling embarrassed Scott replied without thinking, “Johnny, you were sixteen, hardly a man.” then immediately regretted his words as he saw the hurt flit across Johnny’s face. “I’m sorry brother, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I just meant that when you were hurt and Maudie looked after you the situation was a little different. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Johnny too regretted his reaction to Scott’s words, when he thought about it he realised what Scott meant. “Guess ya’ right Scott. I ain’t at all sure I’d want her looking after me like that now either!”
With the brotherly rapport restored the elder Lancer began to dress himself in clean clothes as Johnny stretched. As Johnny raised his arms his billowing shirt lifted exposing his skin. Scott, glancing at Johnny, noticed the new bruises adorning his body. “When did you get those bruises?”
Tenderly feeling one of the larger bruises on his hip Johnny replied uncomfortably, “Last night, gettin’ you outta that well.”
At the mention of the well a frown creased Scott’s brow and he sat down on the settee. “I don’t remember much about last night, not about what really happened anyway.”
‘What do ya’ remember? Seems like it was something from way back, from the past by the way you were talkin’.”
“Hmmmn, it was. Must have been the bump on the head but when I found myself in that water I thought I was back in Boston. It was a while ago now; I was about twelve at the time. I had two really good friends and we used to go ice-skating with our families on Jamaica Pond. Well, Bill and James went with their families anyway, Grandfather reluctantly came with me once, but after that showed no interest in sitting in the cold watching me skating. He didn’t skate himself so he must have been freezing just sitting at the edge of the pond. So after that the coachman or some other servant acted as my chaperon.”
“One day the three of us wanted to go skating but we were told that the recent weather would have affected the ice and it wasn’t safe.” A wry smile found its way to Scott’s face. “Well, we weren’t convinced and decided we were going skating no matter what. I argued with Grandfather and disobeyed him – sneaking out by the servant’s quarters.”
“What happened? Don’t tell me ol’ Harlan was right!”
Scott ignored the disrespectful use of his grandfather’s name and continued. “Yes, I’m afraid he certainly was! We had been having a wonderful time; there were very few people there so we practically had the whole pond to ourselves. Bill and James had just cannoned into each other and had fallen; I was laughing so much at the sight of them that I wasn’t looking where I was going. I skated into an area that had started to thaw and all of a sudden I felt the ice give way. I went straight through into the water. I can still recall the shock of that icy water although I wasn’t in it for long. It was my good fortune that a couple of men had seen what happened and they pulled me out, wrapped me in some driving blankets and drove me home.”
“What did your grandfather do? Did ya’ get a whompin’ for disobeyin’ him?”
Scott laughed. “No, that wasn’t Grandfather’s style. He had more subtle methods of punishment. My school hours with Mr. Trumper were increased, I had further studies on Saturdays and Sundays for the next month.”
Noting the sceptical look on his younger brother’s face at this unusual form of punishment, Scott elaborated, “That, my dear young brother, was indeed more painful than any physical punishment would have been.”
Thinking about his own dislike of school over the various short periods of time he had attended Johnny could understand Scott’s view on his punishment.
“So you thought you were back in that pond?”
“I suppose I did. As I said it’s still very hazy.” Scott gazed thoughtfully at the glowing embers in the fireplace. “Anyway, when I heard a voice calling my name I thought it was Grandfather.” He paused and looked at Johnny who had a bemused expression on his face.
Scott laughed at his own stupidity, “It was rather a foolish thought, wasn’t it? Can you imagine Grandfather jumping into icy water or climbing down into a well?”
“Well, it ain’t somethin’ I could really picture Harlan Garrett doin’. But he wouldn’t let ya’ drown!”
“No, he wouldn’t, so it’s a quandary to which I’ll never know the answer, dear brother!”
Standing once more Scott tucked his shirt into the waistband of his trousers and tightened his belt. Johnny pulled on his boots and the two brothers headed to the kitchen to await news on Mac’s condition.
The news when the doctor returned with Maudie and Jess was promising. Although still serious and very painful Mac’s burns were showing no signs of the infection that William Sargood had feared.
The change in his friend when he went to report on the latest news pleased Johnny. Mac was able to speak with less difficulty and was resting more comfortably in his bed. He was interested to know what had been happening in his town and although Johnny was of two minds whether to tell him of the attack on Scott he reasoned that Mac would not thank him if he kept any details from him.
Johnny had thought long and hard on the events of the last evening, there was no doubt in his mind that Scott had been attacked. Apart from the fact that his brother’s hat was found well away from the well there was no way that Scott would be so careless as to slip or fall into the well. With the attack on Scott the man responsible for the destruction in the town had made it personal. And Johnny would take grim satisfaction in making the man pay for injuring and nearly drowning his brother.
“Is Scott all right?” Mac asked, the concern obvious in a voice now stronger and less hoarse now that the effects of the smoke inhalation were wearing off.
“Yeah, he’s got a lump the size of a small egg on the side of his head and a headache to match it but other than that he’s fine. But when I think of what could have happened, Mac. I could’a lost him.”
“But you didn’t, Johnny. Be thankful for that.”
Mac’s words seemed not to penetrate as Johnny continued. “It’s personal now, Mac, I know you were hurt bad in the fire but you weren’t hurt deliberate like Scott was. Hurting my brother was a big mistake and someone’s gonna pay dearly for that.” The set of his face showed grim determination. “Scott shouldn’t be here, he came to help not get hurt. Murdoch shouldn’t have sent him.”
“Johnny, do you really think Scott would have stayed behind even if your father hadn’t sent him? I know I don’t know your brother very well but Maudie and I can tell how much he cares for you, and I can’t see him standing back without trying to help you.”
A slight smile touched the corners of Johnny’s lips. “I think you know Scott better’n y’a think y’a do, Mac. You’re right, he would’a come anyway.”
“Just appreciate the fact you’ve got someone watching your back now, Johnny. Family’s a wonderful thing.”
Leaning back in the chair beside Mac’s bed Johnny agreed, a smile lighting his face. “It sure is, Mac.”
Johnny left Mac to the breakfast Maudie had brought in. Having sought and received Mac’s advice on ways to tackle the ongoing problems in the town Johnny was planning his course of action as he ate a quick breakfast before heading to ‘his’ office. Jess and Mac were going to assist the doctor in his rounds and Scott had promised to rest.
The morning had dawned fine and clear but the evidence of the heavy rain from the night before lay everywhere. The streets were muddy and puddles abounded resulting in wet and muddied hems that flapped annoyingly around the feet of the women who braved the early morning. The squelch of boots in the mud could be heard along with muttered curses from the men as trouser legs were dirtied when horses’ hooves and wheels splattered mud up from the street.
Only the laughing voices of the irrepressible youth of the town enjoying a day off from school lightened the sombre mood of the townspeople. The children were enjoying their Saturday morning with a mud fight.
Johnny walked the length and breadth of the town to satisfy himself that all was well. Other than the effects of the previous night’s downpour everything seemed normal. He was especially interested in the site around the well, but the rain had washed away any signs that may have helped him understand what had happened to Scott. As he peered down into the depths of the well he shivered involuntarily, it was a miracle that Scott had survived.
An hour later as he once again checked the streets he was not surprised to see Scott approaching the Sheriff’s Office. Scott was seated on a chair by the stove with his feet resting on another chair when Johnny entered.
“What are y’a doin’ here? I thought y’a promised to rest, Boston.”
“I did and I have, Johnny. I’ve spent the last hour and a half lying on that couch; I just didn’t say how long I would rest. Besides there is no law saying I have to rest at Maudie’s, I can be quite comfortable doing nothing here you know.”
“All right, have it your way.”
“All quiet out there?” Knowing full well that Johnny would have checked out the area around the well he further inquired, “Find anything interesting at the well?”
Johnny’s smile was humourless as he replied, “Knew I’d go there, huh? No, the rain’s washed everything away. Seein’ it in daylight though Scott, I don’t know how you managed to find somethin’ to hang on to.”
“Survival instinct I suppose. Forget it, Johnny. We have other things to think about.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking. It’s obvious we need to have someone on watch at night, so I suggest that we share that duty.”
Aware of the argument Johnny was about to give him Scott continued. “Before you argue, think about it sensibly. This madman, whoever he may be, uses the hours of darkness for his own purposes. There is less likelihood of anything happening if one of us is on watch.’
Johnny’s immediate agreement surprised Scott; he had expected an argument from his brother.
“Okay, but you take the first watch and I’ll take the second from what, midnight on?”
Not wanting to risk Johnny arguing the point Scott agreed although he had planned on taking the second watch himself.
“All right, but if you’re on from midnight you’ve got to have some rest beforehand Johnny. You can’t keep going twenty four hours a day.”
Once again his brother concurred without argument. “I’ll go back late this afternoon and get some sleep and then take over from you at midnight. Happy now, big brother?”
“Yes, little brother, I’m happy now …”
Johnny leapt out of the chair he was sitting in as the sound of a shotgun blast pierced the air. The office door was opened with such force it crashed back onto the wall and bounced back again as Johnny left the building at a run. Scott was not far behind his brother when they arrived at the hotel where a small crowd was gathering.
The hotel desk clerk, having discharged one barrel of the shotgun, was pointing the gun in a determined way at two men who were sitting on the boardwalk outside the hotel. That they had been hit by the shotgun pellets was quite apparent – bloody patches on their shredded clothes left no doubt that the manager’s aim had been true. Luck was on their side however, the distance between the irate clerk and themselves being far enough to ensure the blast was not fatal, just painful.
Having gained some gumption since the last robbery attempt on the bank safe in the hotel the clerk had not given the men any chance to achieve their goal of robbery. They had come into the hotel with pistols drawn and stood just inside the doorway demanding that the safe be opened. The hotel maid, a seventeen-year-old girl with limited intelligence, was the only person in the lobby at the time. She had squealed and dropped the tray she was carrying sending the crockery to the floor where it shattered, the noise overloud in the quiet lobby. The clerk, attending to bookwork in the office adjoining the lobby, heard the commotion and grabbed the loaded shotgun from its rack.
As he stepped into the lobby he fired and the two robbers were propelled backwards onto the boardwalk as the blast hit them.
And that is where Johnny and Scott found them, groaning and clutching various parts of their bodies, under the glare of the armed desk clerk. The tale of the thwarted robbery was regaled to Johnny rapidly and he and Scott hauled the men to their feet just as William Sargood arrived.
“Take them to the surgery boys, they don’t look too bad but I’ll check them out before you deal with them.”
As Scott and he shoved the men towards the doctor’s surgery Johnny turned to the clerk. “You’d better uncock that shotgun before you shoot someone else, and put the thing back where it came from. I’ll talk to y’a when I’ve dealt with these too.”
The doctor treated the superficial wounds on the two men. They had been peppered by dozens of pellets but none of the wounds were serious. “You’re two lucky men.” he told the hapless pair. “Much closer to that clerk and we’d be burying you.”
“Instead you’ll be getting’ three square meals a day and a nice cot to sleep in, courtesy of the State of California.” added Johnny.
Once he had the two men locked in the cells in the Sheriff’s Office Johnny made his way back to the hotel. Scott, although not wanting to admit it, was feeling the effects of his injuries. His headache had intensified, partly due to the recent excitement he surmised, so he reluctantly headed back to Maudie’s where he intended to rest for a few hours.
The desk clerk, now that the adrenalin rush that he had felt during the robbery was over, had paled and was visibly shaking. Johnny, whilst admiring the actions of the man, also thought they had been foolhardy.
“You got away with it this time, but what if you’d been mistaken? What if they weren’t robbers, just innocent men? I admire y’a for defendin’ the town’s property but y’a can’t go around shootin’ people and askin’ questions later. If y’a kill someone it’s somethin’ you’ll have to live with that for the rest of y’a life.” he told the clerk forcefully.
True to his word Johnny returned to the Thompsons’ house around four-thirty. After an early supper he lay on Jess’s bed in the darkened room, the curtains having been drawn to block out the rays of the setting sun. Before long he had succumbed to sleep.
Jess awoke him just before midnight and after splashing cold water on his face to chase away the last remaining vestiges of sleep Johnny left to relieve his brother.
Scott had made many tours of the town, hand near his gun just in case and ears attuned to any strange noise. None had been forthcoming and he was able to report to Johnny that all was well before retiring for some much-needed rest. Although his headache was easing he still felt a little weak and trudging around the town had taken its toll.
Johnny too had an uneventful night. He too was cautious as he made his way around the town. There was no sign of anything amiss in the darkened alleys or near the buildings that took on a sinister appearance in the dark. At this hour businesses were closed and in the dwellings all lamps had been extinguished and the occupants were warmly ensconced in their beds, blissfully sleeping the night away. The clouds had rolled across the night sky once again hiding the moon and enveloping the town and its surrounds in darkness.
Around five o’clock the barking of a dog broke the silence. Johnny made his way cautiously to where the sound appeared to come from, but the dog had once again settled and Johnny could find no evidence of any disturbances or marauders.
Dawn found Johnny in the Sheriff’s Office, having completed a final inspection of the town. He had just settled himself tiredly in the chair by the stove and was reaching for the coffee pot when he heard the cry.
“Johnny! Johnny! Come quickly! It’s Barranca!”
The hysterical cry of twelve-year-old Jimmy Pearson had Johnny out in the street within seconds.
With all that was happening in the town Johnny did not have the time to attend to his beloved horse that was stabled in the small barn behind the hotel. The hotel had limited accommodation for a few horses, the barn normally housing the riding and carriage horses of the hotel’s proprietors. That Barranca was stabled in that barn was due to the fact that the livery stable had been destroyed in the fire. The teams that had hauled the wagons to Brownlow were corralled in the hastily repaired corrals adjoining the burnt out livery stable.
The Pearson boys, Jimmy and his nine-year-old brother Tommy, had willingly volunteered to feed, water and groom Barranca and clean out his stall. They had been given the task after Maudie had assured Johnny that the boys were reliable and were responsible for the care of their own ponies.
They were to also give Johnny’s horse some exercise, half an hour’s walk in the morning and afternoon. Two proud boys were to be seen undertaking their task with great seriousness and diligence, Jimmy on his bay pony leading Barranca while his brother accompanied him on his roan.
Jimmy skidded to a halt outside the Sheriff’s Office just as Johnny stepped off the boardwalk. Jimmy’s normally ruddy complexion was even redder; whether from exertion or anxiety it was hard to say.
“What about Barranca? What’s wrong with him?” Giving the boy no time to answer Johnny sprinted to the hotel and down the alley beside it to the barn.
There was Tommy Pearson standing in front of Barranca holding the rope attached to the horse’s headcollar. Barranca was lying flat out in the straw of the stall and as Johnny began to kneel beside him the horse groaned and his legs stiffened as a spasm took hold, Johnny leaping back out of the way. The spasm lasted only seconds then the horse started to thrash around and it was obvious why Tommy was holding the lead – Barranca was in danger of breaking his neck if he twisted it under him as he thrashed about wildly.
“It’s colic Johnny!” Tommy plaintively told Johnny. “My pa’s got the cure, I’ll run and get it but we didn’t want’a leave Barranca ‘til you got here. He’s gonna be alright, Johnny, you’ll see.” Casting an agonised look at Johnny as he handed over the lead the boy charged out of the stable to find his father who was still asleep in a room over his hardware store.
Suddenly the sweat-covered horse staggered to his feet and pawed the ground, swinging his head around to look at his flanks and then kicked at his belly. Jimmy patted Barranca and crooned to him, trying to calm the distressed horse.
Barranca appeared to respond, standing quietly at ease for a moment or two but then lay down again and groaned before trying to roll. Fearing that he would get cast in the small area of the stall and not be able to get up Johnny, with Jimmy’s help, managed to persuade the horse to stand. Johnny then led his palomino up and down the central aisle of the barn to keep him on his feet.
That the horse wanted to lie down was clear, he reluctantly followed Johnny who was continually coaxing his horse to move forward. A more miserable looking horse could not be imagined – Barranca’s head was near the ground, and his whole attitude suggested that he just wanted to lie down and give up on life.
Minutes later a rather dishevelled man in a state of semi-dress arrived at the run with Tommy pulling him by the arm urgently. “In here, Pa. He’s in here. You sure ya’ got everythin’ ya’ need? Come on Pa, Barranca needs ya’”
Glancing at Johnny Herbert Pearson noted the slight nod from the young man giving his approval for the colic draught to be given to his horse. Jimmy took the rope from Johnny enabling Johnny to lift Barranca’s head up so that Herbert could pour the mixture into the horse’s mouth. Johnny held Barranca’s head in that position after the bottle was empty so the horse would swallow, the aim being achieved as only a very little liquid ran down Johnny’s arms.
“There should be some improvement before too long.” Pearson smiled at Johnny, but the smile was humourless. “As there ain’t no vet in Brownlow either William Sargood or me gets called to do some animal doctorin’ at one time or another. I keep a supply of the things we might need for colic and the like in the store.”
“What’s in the mixture?” Johnny queried, keeping his eyes fixed on Barranca, willing him to respond quickly.
“Raw linseed oil, sugar, boiling water, sweet spirits of nitre and laudanum. The draught seems to sooth and kills the pain. Must say I ain’t lost a horse yet, though some came mighty close.”
Turning to his two sons he then asked the question they were dreading. “How’d the horse get colic, boys?”
Tommy couldn’t quell the tears that built up momentum as they poured down his grimy cheeks. His older brother, built of sterner stuff, sniffed loudly and wiped a grubby hand across his nose as he replied, “I dunno, Pa. He was fine last night when we fed ’im, but when we saw ’im this mornin’ Barranca was real sick like.” He could not however help the note of pride as he added, “We knew it was colic right off, Pa.”
“You did good, son. But that doesn’t tell us how the horse got sick.”
Louder sobs could be heard from Tommy. “Honest, Pa, Johnny,” Jimmy turned beseechingly to Johnny, “We didn’t do nothin’ wrong. We looked after him real good.”
Johnny’s quiet voice broke in trying to calm the rising hysteria in Jimmy Pearson. “I know you did, Jimmy. You and Tommy are doin’ a fine job lookin’ after Barranca. I seen you leadin’ him around town, coat gleamin’. No, it was somethin’ else that made Barranca sick.”
“Somethin’ he ate?” Pearson moved to the palomino’s stall and peered into the manger. “Wheat!” he said with satisfaction noting the remaining telltale grains. “There’s wheat in here, that’d be what gave him the belly-ache.”
“Pa! We know better’n to feed horses wheat. We didn’t do it. We didn’t!”
“I know son, I know, and Johnny knows you didn’t feed Barranca wheat.”
“That’s right Jimmy, Tommy. You ain’t done nothin’ wrong.” Johnny added.
Pearson, arms around both of his distraught boys shot Johnny a grateful look.
The grateful look then turned thoughtful as he regarded Johnny. “But who? That there wheat didn’t appear by itself.”
“I don’t know. But I tell ‘ya I ain’t restin’ ’til I find the man who’s causin’ all the trouble in this town.” Johnny finished grimly. The man was going to pay, and pay dearly. As if burning the town wasn’t bad enough, let alone nearly killing Mac, but trying to kill his brother and now deliberately harming Barranca – that was another matter entirely.
Tommy, still sniffing audibly, cleaned out the offending wheat from the manger and a visibly more relaxed Barranca was led back into his stall. The group sat quietly without much being said for a while until it was obvious that Barranca was recovering from the colic attack.
Johnny reluctantly got up to leave. Whilst wishing that he could stay, although it was obvious that Barranca was over the worst of the colic, he knew that he could not justify sitting with his horse to the people of the town, or to Mac. The Pearson boys were left in charge of Barranca, their father saying that he would stay a while longer and then pop in every so often to check on Barranca’s recovery. Giving his horse a final rub between the eyes Johnny left the barn.
The two unseen watchers in the loft above the stall below exchanged disheartened looks. Once again things had not gone according to plan.
As they had gone to leave the barn early that morning a barking dog had challenged them. Fearing discovery they had taken refuge in the loft above Barranca’s stall and had remained there, unwilling to leave the town in daylight. Their hiding place however afforded them a fine chance to observe the result of their latest deed.
From their vantage point in the hills over the past few days Meekins and Red had observed the two young boys taking the palomino for his twice-daily exercise. They had also seen Johnny talking to the boys as they walked the horse. The obvious affection Madrid had for the horse, evidenced by the many pats the horse had received whilst Johnny talked to the boys, gave rise to an idea in Meekins’ brain. He had failed in killing Madrid’s brother but perhaps killing his horse would achieve the next best result.
So early the next morning they had once again made their way into town to the barn where Barranca was stabled.
In previous trips to the town they had noticed a number of fowl runs and where fowls were kept there was usually wheat. Luck was on their side for the first run they came upon had a barrel of wheat by the gate. Piling some quickly into a sack they had crept into the hotel’s barn, cringing at the slight squeak made by the door as they opened it. Standing stock still they had waited for any reaction to the noise. There being none they continued into the barn where they tipped the wheat into the horse’s stall. Smirking with satisfaction as Madrid’s palomino began nosing the grain they moved to the door, only to be met by the barking canine.
They had retreated back into the barn and up into the loft, remaining out of sight but in easy hearing of the events that unfolded below as dawn broke.
They had held their breath as Madrid had walked into the barn shortly after the dog had ceased barking. Peering around in the almost total darkness Madrid had felt his way across to the horse. They heard rather than saw the now familiar pat given to the horse and were unable to distinguish the words that had been quietly uttered to the horse that continued eating.
All had remained quiet after Madrid left until the two boys had entered the barn around dawn.
Anger and frustration at the turn of events had to be overcome to avoid discovery. Red remained ambivalent to the fact that the horse did not die. He had listened with fascination to the sounds of the horse’s increasing distress, the obvious pain the animal was suffering only feeding his masochistic hunger. He dozed until dawn, leaving Meekins to his silent seething.
To Meekins, who was the one who really wanted Madrid to suffer, the failure of the plan was bordering on unbearable. But hidden in the loft, unable to retreat from the town, he had to curb his anger and remain quiet. But it did enable him to make further plans.
Feeling somewhat relieved that Barranca was improving Johnny made another tour of the town before joining his brother and Jess at the Thompson house around nine for breakfast.
The town was awakening to another day. It was fine and sunny but somehow to Johnny it just seemed cold. As he looked around the town the bare trees stretched out their skeletal fingers beckoning …adding to the melancholy he felt. Unable to shake off the feeling of melancholy Johnny entered the house to tell of the latest act perpetrated by the elusive marauders.
All were horrified at the attack on Barranca, none more so than Scott who above all understood what Barranca meant to Johnny. Johnny was intensely thankful that he had been the one on watch when the attack had obviously been made, and not Scott. He knew that his brother would never have forgiven himself if he had been the one to have ‘allowed’ it to happen. As it was, Johnny was painfully aware that it had probably happened around the time the dog barked. But it would do no good to second guess what would have happened if he had investigated further.
Maudie announced that after William Sargood’s visit to Mac that morning Jess and she would be absent for the rest of the day. Assisting with the doctor’s rounds would take most of the day, the only respite being the 11.30 church service, the first to be held since the fire. It was to be held in the hotel dining room, an unusual venue but the most suitable one until the burnt out church was rebuilt.
The report from the doctor concerning Mac’s continued improvement did little to brighten Johnny’s mood. The doctor also checked over Scott, expressing his displeasure at the nocturnal wanderings of his patient. Scott was suffering from the hours spent roaming the town streets the night before. He looked wan and although he had slept from midnight on he had awakened still feeling tired.
As soon as the doctor had departed, admonishing his patient and warning him to get more rest, especially if he was fool enough to repeat his wanderings that night, Johnny turned to Scott.
“You’re gonna rest today Boston, y’a hear? If I see y’a out on the street today, I’m gonn’a lock y’a up in one o’ the cells.”
Scott looked at Johnny in sheer amazement. “For what?” he managed to say.
“Oh, I dunno. Say, disturbing the peace? How’s that?”
“Disturbing the peace?” repeated Scott, “By being awake?”
There on his younger brother’s face was that infuriating grin. “Yeah, why not? I’m the Sheriff y’a know – I can do anythin’ I want! And that includes lockin’ up stubborn older brothers who won’t do what they’re told!” he finished triumphantly.
His amused brother, having promised that he would indeed rest, settled down on the settee with a red leather-bound copy of ‘Moore’s Poetical Works’ that he had found in the mahogany bookcase in the Thompson’s living room.
Jimmy and Tommy were still watching over Barranca, enticing him to eat by offering him a variety of feeds, but to no avail. Although the horse was over the colic attack he had not yet recovered his appetite. Smiling at the care Barranca was receiving Johnny left the barn, telling the boys what a good job they were doing. The boys beamed at the praise. Having satisfied himself that Barranca was recovering, Johnny again checked the town.
At times during the morning he chatted with Maudie and Jess along with William Sargood as they made their way from patient to patient.
At 11.30 the church bell was heard, summoning the worshippers to the makeshift place of worship. The bell having survived the fire had been attached to the verandah outside the hotel. The hotel dining room was to be rather crowded with the number of people attending church that day. Rather than wallowing in the self-pity that had enveloped the town in the first few days after the fire, the townspeople were now about to give thanks for all that remained, and to pray for the future of the town.
Around one in the afternoon Johnny found that the Pearson boys were still tending Barranca. As his horse was now beginning to pick at the offerings the boys were making Johnny told them that they had better get home for lunch. Although they were unwilling to go he almost pushed them out the door, telling them that they had done a wonderful job with Barranca, who it now appeared had fully recovered.
As Johnny left with the boys two very cramped and stiff figures climbed down the ladder from the loft and cautiously left the barn.
Johnny, as he once again checked the town, just couldn’t shake the feeling that all was not as quiet as it seemed. The feeling had remained with him all morning. But he had seen nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing else had happened to cause this dispirited feeling.
The majority of the townspeople, reluctant children included, had attended the hotel church service and very few people were to be seen on the streets.
As he had passed the hotel not long after the service began the strains of ‘Rock of Ages’ could be heard. The booming voices of the men blended with the higher voices of women and children, but the slightly flat notes of the congregation brought a slight smile to Johnny’s face, despite his dark mood. As the church organ had been destroyed in the fire the worshippers were unaccompanied and many voices were out of tune.
The Reverend Thomas Longman had given serious thought to both his sermon and selection of hymns for this first post-fire service. It would do no good to dwell on the tragedies that had befallen the town, they all needed to look to the future and give praise for what they still had.
So his sermon reflected this; he gave praise for the fortitude of several people in the town, namely William Sargood and Maudie Thompson, prayed for those injured, and gave thanks to those who were assisting the town in its recovery. In fact Johnny would have been surprised and embarrassed if he had heard the sermon, the minister making special mention of the young man entrusted with the security of the town. The hymns Longman had selected also reflected the sentiments of the sermon. Praise, faith and overcoming adversity.
Long after the church service had ended the words to the final hymn, ‘My Faith Looks Up to Thee’ were echoing in Johnny’s mind. The minister had chosen well he thought as the words that had wafted from the hotel ran through his mind repeatedly:
‘While life’s dark maze I tread
And griefs around me spread,
Be Thou my guide;
Bid darkness turn to day,
Wipe sorrow’s tears away,
Nor let me ever stray
From Thee aside.’
With the feeling of unease persisting and no sign of anything untoward in the town Johnny found himself at the Thompson’s gate. He had not intended to go there but as he opened the gate he suddenly found that he had an overwhelming and inexplicable compulsion to check on Scott and Mac.
He hurried up the path and feeling rather foolish opened the door. Scott would never let him forget this if he knew that his down to earth brother was acting on a whim. But then again he had survived on his own from the age of twelve by trusting his instincts. And they had rarely let him down.
All seemed quiet as he entered. In the silence the ticking of the hall clock seemed to boom through the house.
/If you’re out and about, big brother, when y’a promised to stay here and rest …/ Johnny’s thoughts were drifting to what he would say to his stubborn brother when he caught up with him when he noticed the newly stoked fire. It was blazing fiercely, Scott would surely not have stoked up the fire and then left it. As if it was reading Johnny’s thoughts one of the logs sent a shower of sparks onto the rug adjoining the hearth. Johnny hurried to the fire to ensure nothing would catch alight but in his peripheral vision saw a sight to make his stomach turn.
Scott was half lying half sitting on the settee but it was obvious that he wasn’t asleep. His head was at an awkward angle and the book that he had been reading had fallen to the floor, lying prophetically open at Moore’s poem ‘Song of the Evil Spirit of the Woods’.
The younger brother however only noticed the unconscious man. Frantically feeling for a pulse his fear lessened somewhat when he felt the lifeblood coursing through his brother. Gently he turned Scott’s head to a more comfortable position, dismayed yet not entirely surprised when he felt the warm stickiness behind Scott’s ear. Upon closer inspection he was relieved to see that although the wound was still bleeding it appeared only minor.
A faint noise from elsewhere in the house drew his attention. Acutely aware that Scott had not been alone in the house and that Mac could be in danger if Scott’s assailant was still in the house Johnny reluctantly left his brother’s side and cautiously made his way to the source of the sound.
The two men were unaware of Johnny’s entry to the house.
They had slipped in unobserved only minutes before through the back door and warily made their way to the living room. The younger of the two had crept up on the unsuspecting man seated on the couch and took great satisfaction in the thud as the rifle butt connected with Scott’s skull.
They had then moved to the bedroom where the injured Mac Thompson lay sleeping. After entering the room Meekins carefully closed the door, shutting out the light. Meekins cursed silently as his foot bumped a chair standing near the door, his eyes not yet attuned to the semidarkness of the room.
Meekins, now holding the rifle, stood beside the door having promised Red the pleasure of disposing of Thompson. Red, knife drawn, a venomous smile of anticipation on his face approached the sleeping man. The knife was lifted ready for its deadly descent when the door suddenly opened.
Johnny, pistol drawn and with the light from the hall illuminating the scene reacted in an instant. As his finger tightened on the trigger he felt a numbing blow on his hand. The shot went wild and smashed the water jug sitting on the dresser as the gun fell from his hand.
Mac, awoken by the gunshot, was vainly trying to get his senses in order and blurrily watched the knife’s downward arc but was unable to move. Red’s arm shuddered as the knife met the layers of bandages enveloping Mac’s chest, its point unable to penetrate the layers.
All of a sudden he was flung back against the wall, knife still clutched in his hand. It happened so fast; Red did not know what had hit him.
Having lost his gun Johnny had launched himself at Red, the desperation to save Mac over-riding the knowledge that there was a second man in the room. Red, most of the air having been driven out of his lungs when he hit the wall, grappled frantically with the dark-haired wildcat that was Johnny Madrid.
Johnny managed to grab hold of the wrist holding the knife before Red had fully recovered but the boy was stronger than he looked and it took all Johnny’s strength to grip the writhing wrist. Red gave up wrestling Johnny and a sudden blow to Johnny’s stomach lessened his grip enough for Red to regain control of the knife.
As the two wrestled each other to the ground Johnny felt the familiar fire as the blade plunged into his right side. Red had twisted the knife upwards as it entered. The pain was excruciating but the will to survive was overpowering. So ignoring the pain Johnny made another grab at the knife-wielding wrist banging the arm repeatedly against the floor whilst at the same time kicking and kneeing Red, connecting wherever he could. Now was not the time for playing fair, they were both fighting for their lives.
For the first time in his life Red knew fear, Madrid was strong and enraged and Red felt instinctively that this time he was going to lose. He was painfully aware that Meekins was not going to help him, he was on his own. He was going to die on his own.
With his strength waning Red made one final effort; twisting his body around he surprised Johnny and the two rolled over and over across the floor, much like an alligator’s death roll. The leg of the bed stopped their progress with Johnny having the upper hand and control of the knife. Knowing it was kill or be killed he drove the blade to its hilt into the chest of Red.
Red, surprise forever etched into his face, briefly felt the pain that he had inflicted so willingly on others.
Johnny exhausted and bleeding sat back from the body and looked around the room. There was no sign of the other man; he had no doubt fled when the fight began.
Thoughts suddenly turned to Mac. Climbing wearily to his feet he was relieved to see Mac looking at him worriedly. Mac asked the inevitable question as to whether he was all right and knowing better than to say he was, he sat on the edge of the bed and glanced idly at the blood that was dripping onto the bedclothes.
Looking up at Mac with a faint smile he said softly, “I don’t really think so, Mac.”
An hour later, five people sat in a bedroom that resembled a hospital ward. Mac was sitting up in bed, Johnny and Scott in chairs beside the bed. An alarmed but relieved Maudie and an overworked doctor seated in chairs drawn up to the bed, were discussing the events that had just taken place. William had had the body removed and had organised its immediate burial. No tears were wasted over the youth’s death.
Having answered Mac’s question Johnny, standing very unsteadily, had been about to go and check on Scott and then get the doctor when Maudie’s concerned voice was heard. She had hurried into the room, stopping abruptly as she saw the body on the floor. A swift glance at the blood steadily changing the colour of the quilt on her husband’s bed had her calling for the doctor.
Entering the house to change Mac’s dressings William and Maudie had heard a groan and found Scott beginning to regain consciousness. William had stayed to check Scott over while Maudie rushed to her husband’s room where she found Mac and Johnny alive much to her relief.
The doctor had stitched the gash in Scott’s head, saying, as he bandaged it, that luckily it was not serious. Scott, nursing an even larger headache than before, cast a sour look in his brother’s direction when Johnny had stated that it was lucky that Scott had such a hard head.
Johnny’s wound also required a number of stitches, it was deep but fortunately no serious damage had been done internally. In a tired voice, devoid of hope, William Sargood said, “I suppose it is too much to expect you both to rest?”
“Afraid so, Doc.” Johnny said sadly. “That boy I killed wasn’t the only one in this room. Someone knocked the gun out of my hand but didn’t wait to see who won. Real good friend of the boy, huh?”
An answer was neither expected nor wanted so Johnny continued.
“He ain’t havin’ much luck at killin’ any of us, so he’ll try again I’m sure. Don’t take this the wrong way Boston, but I dunno why they didn’t kill you after they hit you – though maybe they were in a hurry to get Mac.”
“Well, thank goodness you came home when you did, Johnny dear, or they would have succeeded.” The quick hug Maudie gave Johnny spoke volumes.
“Now I suggest that you boys try to rest for a while. I know you’ll both be ignoring William’s advice later tonight but surely whoever is causing all this trouble won’t try again today.” Maudie cast a beseeching look at all the men in the room, resting her gaze on her husband. Mac was worried but agreed.
“I think we can rest easy for this afternoon at least.” he said warily.
“Well, that’s settled,” she said. “Jess will be back later and then we’ll get supper organised. Now boys, get some rest while I clean up the mess in this room.”
Knowing they were beaten both Scott and Johnny agreed meekly and duly rested in front of the fire until supper.
A furious Meekins pondered the unfairness of life as he sat in his camp in the woods. Once again Madrid had ruined his plans. He felt no pain at Red’s death, but his loss would be inconvenient to say the least, he would miss the extra pair of eyes and hands, but he would succeed nevertheless on his own. It would just take a little more thought and ingenuity on his part.
Darkness stealthily devoured the remaining daylight as a tired Scott Lancer left the Thompson house for his turn at checking the town. Like before Johnny would be relieving him at midnight. As William Sargood had predicted both the brothers had been adamant that they would not forsake the safety of the town. It was obvious to all in the Thompson house that they were once again putting the town’s welfare before their own health.
All in the house bade Scott take care, and he heeded their warnings. The town closed down early and the streets soon darkened, lights being extinguished as the occupants settled down for the night. An occasional lamp remained lit outside buildings, the hotel, the Sheriff’s Office and some residences, the meagre light from them barely penetrating the total darkness that engulfed the town.
Scott cautiously made his way round the town at intervals but noted nothing untoward.
The fight to the death with the redheaded boy, now buried in an unmarked grave as his identity was still unknown, had taken its toll on Johnny. Although he has rested during the afternoon with Scott they had not slept. With the events that had transpired that afternoon fresh in their minds they had spent the time trying to rationalise what had been happening in the town.
Although it was known that the arson had been an act of retribution for a wrongdoing the mystery of who had been wronged remained. At first it had seemed that the mayhem following the fire had been random and not aimed at any particular person – the fouling of the water, the attack on Scott, Barranca and then Mac – but now the brothers were not so sure. There was no clear evidence to support their theory but the more they discussed it the more positive they became. It was a case of who was the quarry not what. Torching the town had been a means to an end, but as no one person had been targeted it was still not clear as to who was in the most danger.
When Scott had left after supper Johnny had continued to mull over the situation until sleep overcame him. He slept fitfully until he was roused by Jess; he left to relieve Scott with her words of caution ringing in his ears.
In keeping with his mood the night was black. No subtle shades of grey with light cast from the moon, the moon had entirely abandoned them, leaving the world in pitch black.
Scott was obviously feeling the effects of his injuries. As he gave the all clear to Johnny his brother noted with dismay the drawn and pale face. Even the light from the lamp in the Sheriff’s Office seemed too bright as Scott squinted and averted his eyes.
“You need ta get back to the house and get some rest, Boston. You don’t look too good.”
“I will, but I’m really alright Johnny. A bit tired, that’s all. That and I just wish the fellow banging the anvil in my head would stop.” Scott looked at his brother with a faint smile. “It’s been quiet but you watch yourself nonetheless, brother.”
Johnny watched Scott make his way down the darkened street towards the Thompson’s house, watching until his silhouette was swallowed by the darkness. Scott had been drawn into the situation in Brownlow because of him, because of his friendship with Mac and Maudie. And he had been hurt because of him. Logically he knew that thinking like that was pointless, Scott was his brother and as such would help him no matter what the situation and the dangers, as he would for Scott. But the uncertainty of it all played on his mind. Not knowing whom the culprit was and whom he had targeted made the problem unlike any that he had encountered before.
The night was uncomfortable but uneventful for Johnny. The fiery pain in his side had subsided somewhat in the hours since he had been knifed, in no small part due to the rest that Maudie had insisted upon. But with even the slightest movement he had found that the stitches in his side pulled, causing not so much pain as discomfort. He had earlier refused the pain medication offered by a frustrated William Sargood, knowing that he needed his faculties sharp if something untoward should happen that night. Even the slightest slowing of his reflexes could spell disaster for not only himself but for all in the town as well. William had reluctantly agreed with him when he had explained his refusal.
Finally the pink tinged clouds heralded the arrival of the sun and Johnny, thankful that the night had passed without disturbance, made his way back to the Sheriff’s Office and poured himself a cup of coffee. He grimaced at the strong taste, the coffee having been brewing on the hob of the blackened potbelly stove since his last cup at around five in the morning. As he carried the overfilled cup some of the hot liquid sloshed over the rim and onto his hand. Cautiously sitting down in the bentwood chair to avoid pulling the stitches again he placed his coffee cup on the desk, adding yet another stain to the well-worn surface. Pulling out his bandana he cursed his carelessness as he wiped the coffee residue from his stinging hand.
The squeak of the door announced the arrival of Jess. Relieved upon hearing that all had been quiet she informed Johnny that she was on her way to meet William Sargood to accompany him on his rounds. They had decided that Maudie needed to rest and that Jess would take her place that day. There being so many patients in the town the doctor started his visits early to allow adequate time for emergencies should the need arise.
With an airy “See you later, Johnny.” she left by the side door as she was meeting William at a house on the northern edge of town.
Shortly after Jess departed Johnny was contemplating whether to help the Pearson boys feed Barranca. He had not had time to spend with his horse with recent events he thought sadly. During the night as he passed the hotel barn Johnny had guardedly entered to check on Barranca. As he quietly spoke to his horse he was answered with a low nicker from the dark barn. It had pleased him to know that his horse was also missing him.
His thoughts were interrupted when he heard a commotion seemingly coming from the narrow alley behind the Sheriff’s Office. There was a muffled sound and then it sounded as if a wall was being kicked.
Leaping out of the chair he rushed to the side door, aware that his sudden movement had aggravated the pain in his side. Remembering what had happened the last time he went through a door with gun in hand he exited the door more circumspectly but as he saw no one he slowly moved along the side of the building and into the back alley.
All had become quiet, too quiet Johnny suspected. Warily he moved to the next building on the right and peered quickly around the corner. As he took in the sight his heart stopped still.
It was Jess who had made the noise as she had struggled vainly to escape the clutches of the man who held her. She had been grabbed from behind as she walked along the alley behind the building she had just left. Her assailant had had one arm clasped around her waist, trying to control her bucking and writhing, his other hand was clamped over her mouth to stop her calling out. As she had struggled she had kicked at the wall, hoping to make as much noise as she could, before she was dragged out of reach. Trying frantically to escape his clutches she was no match for Meekins.
“Stop your struggles, girl, or I’ll use this here gun on you. Do you hear?” Meekins had hissed into her ear tapping the gun he held in the arm around her waist against her.
Nodding her agreement she had stopped her struggling. “That’s better. You want to see what happens to your friend Johnny Madrid, don’t you? It’d be a real shame if I had to kill you and you missed all the fun.”
With eyes wide with fear, not so much for herself as for Johnny, Jess began to struggle again. But a painful jab and the sound of the hammer of the gun being drawn back stopped her. “Uh uh, girl, don’t even think about it. We’ll just wait quietly until your boyfriend comes along.”
Ever vigilant Meekins had seen Johnny as he had quickly peered around the corner of the dilapidated building.
“Ah, here he is now. Don’t you want to say something to him, girl? Ask him to come and be sociable.” He removed his hand just long enough for Jess to utter the word “Johnny!”
The warning she was going to shout out to Johnny was never given. Meekins clamped his hand over her mouth again before she could say anything else.
“Madrid! I’ve got something I think you want. You’d better come and get it.”
Momentarily unnerved by the fact that Jess’s captor knew his name whilst he was still totally in the dark about the identity of the man, Johnny realised that the situation called not for the quick gun of Johnny Madrid but the rational thoughts of Johnny Lancer. Johnny took a deep breath.
“Let the girl go, mister, she ain’t involved in this, whatever it is.” he called.
“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, Madrid. She’s got everything to do with this. Just like you. Now throw your gun out into the open and come out with your hands where I can see them.”
Barely giving Johnny time to think Meekins continued.
“Now boy! I’m runnin’ out of patience. You don’t want this pretty young thing here messed up by a bullet do you? Maybe you think I don’t mean it, well I’m deadly serious Madrid.”
As the gunshot rang out Johnny started. Fearing the worst he called out desperately, “Jess!”
“That was a warning Madrid. You know what happens next time.” Again hissing into Jess’s ear he said, “Call him girl.”
“Jess! Are you all right?”
“Yes. Johnny, don’t …”
“I warned you girl, why doesn’t anyone believe me?” Bright stars punctuated the daylight as Meekins backhanded Jess across the face. Her head ringing she staggered against the wall before Meekins pulled her to him again.
“You listenin’ Madrid? I want to see you NOW! No more warnings, I’ll kill her, boy.”
Knowing that time had run out for Jess Johnny took the only course of action that he could. Giving up his gun went against every fibre of his being but reluctantly he called out as he tossed his gun into the alley, “All right, all right, here’s the gun.”
“That’s better, now step out into the open Madrid.”
With another deep breath and Johnny stepped into the alley. There, about twelve feet from him was Jess. The man was standing directly behind her: left arm tightly around her neck, the pistol in his right hand resting against her side and pointing at Johnny.
“Stop right there Madrid.”
“Take it easy mister.” Johnny could not make out the features of the man in the shadowy light cast by the building in the narrow alley but the voice was not familiar. Johnny had confronted enough men in his life to recognise the fear, anger or desperation in their voices, and in this man he detected a touch of desperation. “Let the girl go, you got me now, you don’t need her.”
Johnny sensed that they were now not alone. In the quiet still of the early morning the gunshot would have been heard. Scott was around the corner of the building he suspected, and maybe others too. The whispered “That you Scott?” was barely audible, certainly Meekins and Jess were unaware that he had spoken.
The reply was just as quiet. Scott had heard Johnny’s plea for Jess and had no desire to make the volatile situation any worse. “Yes, Johnny. What do …”
“Stay there, Scott. Just stay there, don’t do anything.” The urgency in the whisper was palpable, Scott remained where he was and waited.
Johnny raised his voice and tried again. “Just let the girl go and we can talk about this …”
“Talk? Time’s long gone for that. Go? Now why would I do that? She’s a part of all this just like you.”
“What’s this all about?” queried Johnny. “I don’t know you do I? Why …”
“Why? WHY?” Meekins’s voice rose as the final thread of sanity snapped. “Because of Turner, that’s why! You killed him for no reason. He had every right to that land and water. You and that lawman and this girl here and her father, the ranchers and the whole damn town plotted against him and cheated him out of it. He told me all about it. You had no right …”
The ranting continued. Johnny finally understood the reason why. Limestone, six years ago. Winston Turner and his bid to control the water rights for all the ranchers. The attack on Mac when Turner returned to Limestone. Turner’s death by his gun. It all made sense now – well there was no sense to it but the why was now clear. This lunatic was avenging Turner’s death. The maniacal voice was still rising “… he hired you and you turned on him, you killed him. And now I’m going to kill you, and the girl, and Thompson and his wife. Your brother too, and then Catto and all the other ranchers too. You’ll all be dead; none of you have any right to live …” The pistol bucked as Meekins fired three shots.
Meekins’s was now totally and irretrievably insane. His erratic behaviour was mirrored by his erratic shots, of the three bullets fired only one found its mark. The gunfire had come so suddenly it took everyone by surprise. There was a flurry of movement – as Johnny crumpled to the ground Jess wrenched herself free and ran to him, without regard to the fact that she herself could be shot. She was brought to the ground as a bullet entered her thigh, she lost consciousness calling Johnny’s name.
Scott pitched himself to the ground into the alley and as he rolled he emptied his gun at Meekins. Meekins, died as the first bullet pierced his heart and was propelled backwards by the force of the volley.
Scott regained his feet at the run and skidded onto his knees beside Johnny. There was a crimson bloom on his brother’s shirt, the stain growing even as he looked at it. He pressed his hand against the wound to stem the flow and willed William Sargood to arrive. His prayers were answered, within seconds the doctor had arrived.
Through the fog Johnny could hear an insistent voice calling him. He forced his way through the mists and opened his eyes.
“Right here brother.”
Johnny’s hand found his brother’s and his grip tightened as a spasm of pain hit him.
The town quickly settled into a routine now that Meekins and his sinister plot had been eradicated. However the havoc he had wreaked on the town avenging those that had dared to challenge Winston Turner would endure; perhaps not physically once the buildings lost to his arson attack were rebuilt, but all those who had had even a passing handshake with the events in Brownlow would be scarred mentally and emotionally for life. Loved ones and neighbours had been killed, injured and unnerved in the fire; and the terrors that Meekins had unleashed after that would be hard to forget.
Naturally there were some who felt anger that they had been innocently drawn into the retribution for events that had occurred more than six years previously in an entirely different town. But in spite of that the help that had been forthcoming from complete strangers did much to dispel their ire. New friendships had been forged through adversity and in an odd way they would all be better for it.
Once again Maudie found herself nursing an injured Johnny. But this time she did not have to contend with his churlishness. Both Jess and she had vacated the guest room leaving the beds for Johnny and Scott.
Jess took up residence on the settee in the living room, where she begrudgingly rested. William Sargood had removed the bullet that had penetrated her thigh and although extremely painful it had fortunately only torn into the muscle and had not damaged the bone. At her insistence she briefly visited Johnny each day, before being forcibly removed by Maudie to rest once more. Jess complained bitterly but her complaints fell on deaf ears. Maudie’s only concession being the daily visit she allowed Jess.
Johnny, under the ministrations of William Sargood, was recovering from his wound too. Although still a serious wound the bullet had missed his heart by a hair’s breadth and had lodged in an awkward but accessible position.
After surgery to remove the bullet Johnny had slept for more than a day before tiredly opening his eyes and finding his brother dozing in a chair next to his bed. Two sets of blue eyes met as Scott stirred, roused by some inexplicable inner sense telling him that his brother had finally awoken.
Before either could say a word the door opened and Maudie entered carrying a tray, which she placed on the bedside table.
“Ah, you’re awake, Johnny dear. It’s high time you joined us again. Now I’ve just got to change those dressings and then I’ll leave you two alone.”
Johnny stoically bore the discomfort and pain of Maudie’s ministrations. With Scott sitting beside him he had no desire to let forth the expletives he felt like uttering, not to mention the grunts of pain that crept creeping up his throat only to be forcibly pushed back down again. It was ironic he thought that it was because of Scott and not Maudie that he suffered in silence. Poor Maudie, he mused, she’d heard it all and worse from him before. Perhaps that was why Scott was uppermost in his mind.
He unwillingly accepted the medication that Maudie offered and that William this time had insisted Johnny take. About to decline the offer Johnny caught sight of Scott’s’ face, and there saw the determination that his younger brother would acquiesce. Accepting defeat graciously he took the proffered powder and glass and drank, however the dramatic contortions of his face left no doubt as to the taste of the painkillers.
After Maudie left Scott shifted uncomfortably on the chair and cleared his throat. “Johnny …” he began tentatively.
Still grimacing at the aftertaste of the detested medications Johnny reached carefully for another glass of water. Scott passed it too him and Johnny was surprised at the agonised look on his brother’s face.
“What is it Scott? You okay?”
“What? Me… oh yes I’m all right. But there’s… ah… something … I mean …”
“Come on Boston. I ain’t got time to lie here all day while you decide what it is you want to say.” The smile on his face died instantly though at the distressed look on Scott’s face.
“What is it Scott?” he asked gently.
Staring directly into the pain filled eyes of his younger brother Scott almost choked on the vile words. “That gun that he had, that he shot you with …that he almost killed you with… it… it was my gun. My gun, Johnny. I almost got you killed…”
Looking directly back at his brother Johnny replied forcefully, “Listen to me brother. You ain’t got nothin’ to do with it. Y’a hear? Yeah I know it was your gun, but you weren’t holdin’ it were y’a? It was that maniac that did the shootin’, ain’t got anythin’ to do with whatever gun he used. It was him not the gun ya’ understand Scott?”
A slight nod from his brother gave him hope that Scott really understood. Having lived with guns for more years than he cared to remember and having used his gun to send too many men to meet their maker Johnny truly believed that the power to kill was in the hands of the man holding the gun, not in the gun itself. He needed his brother to believe this also.
Scott stood and slowly walked to the door. “I’ll let you get some rest Johnny.” As his hand reached for the brightly polished brass doorknob, he turned and gave his brother a brief sad smile. “Thanks, brother.”
During the next week progress was made in many quarters. The rebuilding of the town was able to commence without further disruption, with the townsfolk who were able joining in with the construction.
The wagons laden with barrels bearing the fresh water rumbled slowly back into town and the fires that had been kept going to distill the tainted water were finally let go out. The water from the well had been siphoned out ready for it to be refilled with clear fresh water. No sooner had it been emptied than the water started seeping in from its underground source. For some time to come there would be a slight saline taste as the boards lining the well gave up the salt that had permeated their timbers, but soon the water would be clear again.
Johnny and Jess were recovering. True to form Johnny, on the improve, became obstinate about taking medication and this time won the battle, much to the chagrin of all concerned.
Once William had confirmed his prognosis for a complete recovery Scott had wired Murdoch, notifying him of what had transpired and assuring him that Johnny would be all right. By return wire Murdoch expressed his relief and also notified Scott that Val had arranged for a more permanent replacement for Mac. They could expect his arrival within the week.
Once again there was mirth in the Thompson household. On the first day Johnny was allowed out of bed, which coincided with the first day Mac was also allowed up for a short time, they were all seated in front of the fire about to partake of the refreshments Maudie had brought in. Eying the chocolate custard cake suspiciously Johnny glanced at Maudie who was trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile.
“You didn’t did you, Mrs. T.?” he queried.
“I should have, but no I didn’t Johnny. It’s quite safe to eat, the icing is just plain old icing, not a painkiller in sight!” she replied now openly laughing.
Finally it was time for the Lancers to depart. The others would stay to complete the rebuilding that was expected to be complete within a fortnight. The new Sheriff, an imposing man by the name of Matthew Gregson, had arrived. He received a totally different welcome than the one Johnny had been greeted with, Scott noted with annoyance. Although to give the townspeople credit they were now on the best of terms with Johnny.
Even the old harridan Agnes Hepplethwaite had seemed to have turned over a new leaf and was to be seen providing refreshments on a regular basis for the workers. She had even visited his brother and brought him an apple pie, which had turned out to be surprisingly tasty. Scott suspected that her husband had coerced her to this show of good faith, but Johnny had turned on the charm and she left apologising profusely for her previous unforgivable behaviour.
The farewell to Jess affected Johnny more than he cared to admit. Seeing her again had brought back memories of the enjoyment they had found in each other’s company as sixteen year olds. Johnny had been unaware of it at the time but Jess had been in love with him. Experienced with women he may have been at such a tender age but inexperience in understanding the new and unaccustomed emotions he was feeling had had him confused. It was not until Maudie had questioned him last summer about his feelings towards Jess that he had realised that one of those emotions had been love. But that was in the past, their renewed friendship was just that – friendship.
The drama and tension of the past two weeks or so had not given them much time together but they had talked at length whilst Johnny was recovering from the bullet wound. Johnny couldn’t help but smile at her enthusiasm as Jess talked about her stud and he decided that he would persuade Murdoch to consider her animals when next they needed breeding stock.
He had realised, as he in turn told her about Lancer, that he too spoke of his home with great passion. He would enjoy showing Jess the beauty and majesty of the ranch, its rolling hills and clear lakes, the hacienda and of course the horses and cattle, if she took him up on his invitation to come to visit. He found himself hoping that she would come.
Saying goodbye to Mac and Maudie was not as difficult for they would see each other again within weeks. Once William Sargood had given Mac the okay to travel the Thompsons were to come to Lancer. There Mac would be able to recuperate fully – Murdoch had wired Scott in Brownlow to make the offer. He had stressed that Mac and Maudie were /not/ to decline the invitation. William Sargood could send his notes and directions for Mac’s after care to Sam Jenkins who would keep monitoring Mac’s progress. They could stay for as long as they wished – Murdoch’s underlying opinion was that a long visit would not only benefit the Thompsons but also Johnny. It would only be another small payment for the debt he felt he owed the couple for caring for his younger son when he needed love and somebody to guide him. But it was still a debt that could never be fully repaid.
But even with the thought of their not too distant meeting in mind Maudie had tears in her eyes as she tenderly tucked the blanket around Johnny’s legs. Scott, William, Jess and she had lost the battle to get Johnny to lie in the bed of the wagon; he had been adamant that he would sit on the seat. He had grudgingly promised that should he feel too tired or be in too much pain he would lie down on the soft blanket covered straw bed that had been made ready for him in case it should be of need. Still pale and with some nagging pain still evident he had allowed Scott to help him carefully onto the seat amidst mutterings from the doctor about stubborn young men that didn’t have the sense they were born with.
With last minute instructions and warnings to Johnny about caring for himself the doctor stood with Jess and Maudie. Mac, much to his frustration was unable to leave the house so had already farewelled Johnny and Scott.
Scott had tactfully withdrawn after saying his goodbyes leaving Mac and Johnny alone. Johnny sat uncomfortably in the chair beside Mac’s bed. With misgivings Johnny wondered whether he had been sensible in insisting on riding on instead of in the wagon. If he were uncomfortable in a chair, with four legs firmly on an unmoving floor what would he feel like in a jolting wagon? Not that he would voice this seed of doubt however – he had battled to convince his fierce protectors that he would be fine.
As Johnny had been confined to bed for most of the week Mac and he had not had much time to reflect on the events that had unfolded. Neither had foreseen the outcome of the troubles in the town. It came as a complete shock to find that Meekins had caused all that havoc as retribution for events six years before in Limestone. Both felt, needlessly, that it was their fault – Johnny because he had first been hired by Turner and then had been the one to kill him, Mac because he had failed to stop the problems in Limestone between Turner and the other ranchers before they escalated and feeling that he was the reason that Johnny had killed the man.
Both Maudie and Jess, as participants in the Limestone incidents, tried to make them see reason. Turner had been insane and so had been committed to an asylum where he had unfortunately met Meekins. A series of unavoidable coincidences led to the assault on Brownlow and its inhabitants by Meekins.
Scott had made inquiries about Meekins and the return wires had astounded them all. Meekins had callously and viciously disposed of any person that had, in his mind, been a problem to him. With his intentions focused on Mac for his part in his new found friend Turner’s problems it had been a disastrous coincidence that both Johnny and Jess and been in Brownlow as well.
Mac had thanked Johnny profusely for coming to his aid but expressed his regret that both Scott and he had been injured.
A grim Johnny replied, “Ain’t your fault Mac. By the sound of it I would’a been in trouble wherever I was. Meekins would’a killed you then come after me. I’m just sorry that I didn’t stop him in the beginning before he fouled the water and hurt Scott and Jess.” (And Barranca too.) he thought before adding, with downcast eyes, “I wanted to pay back some of the debt I owed you but I only made things worse. Guess I’m not much good at this lawman business.”
Johnny looked up in surprise at the vehemence in Mac’s retort.
“Stop that, boy! Don’t you dare put this on yourself. I couldn’t have chosen a better man to protect this town. Meekins was clever and had help with that redheaded kid – no one man could have stopped him by himself. You and your brother showed this town what dedication and teamwork was all about. God knows what would have happened if you weren’t here. And you don’t owe Maudie and me anything, Johnny, do you hear me?”
“Yeah, yeah, you made your point.” A hint of a smile, albeit it humourless, played around Johnny’s lips.
Satisfied that he had got through to the young man Mac then expressed his appreciation of Murdoch’s offer, stating that Maudie and he were looking forward to their visit when he was able to travel He followed Johnny’s exit from the room with troubled eyes. The boy still has doubts about his self-worth he thought sadly.
Maudie waved a handkerchief drawn from the pocket of her ever-present apron to the disappearing wagon before slipping her arm around the slim girl beside her. Murmuring an unheard “You look after each other, boys.” she turned to the house.
As Scott guided the wagon out of Brownlow for the slow trip home he glanced at Johnny who was gripping the seat tightly with both hands – knuckles showing white against the pale weathered timber of the wagon’s seat. Biting his tongue to stop himself from admonishing his brother for his foolishness he realised that this was the way Johnny should be leaving – not laying in the back of a wagon. Well, astride his beloved palomino would have been better but that was definitely out of the question. Even Johnny had acknowledged that he would be unable to ride, so instead Barranca, tethered to the back of the tray of the wagon, was meekly following his master home.
Home – a place where it seemed at times during the last few weeks, that Johnny, Barranca nor he mightn’t see again.
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6 thoughts on “Payback by Wendy P ”
Wonderful story. Stayed up until the middle of the night reading this. Would love to read the one where the Mac and Maudie visit Lancer.
Terrific story! I love mysteries and Lancers and this was a hit.
This is a wonderful sequel to your story “Hope”. I really thought that Jess and Johnny might get back together. Wonder if you’ll ever write a third story in this series?
Thank you for this great story.
I’m so happy to read more about Mac and Maudie. Their care for Johnny made Hope a truly great story and this story is the perfect sequel. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Another Mac and Johnny story. Now how about Mac and Maddie at Lancer?