Word Count 43,405
“How long will it take to get the rest of the cattle branded?” Murdoch asked as he looked past his son’s shoulder to the corral beyond.
Johnny shrugged, his hands on his hips as his own eyes looked past his father to the front door then back up to the tall man’s face. “No more than four or five days. Scott’s got the last of the strays rounded up now.”
Murdoch nodded, relieved. “Good. Things are going smoothly, then.” With a quirk of his lips, he added, “almost too smoothly.”
Johnny laughed at that. “You know what they say? Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, old man.”
Murdoch smiled, watching his older son leading his horse toward the barn as the sun began to set. “Well, as long as that horse …..”
That was as far as he got as Johnny suddenly lurched forward, slamming into him. Murdoch’s arms automatically wrapped around his son, holding him tightly as his eyes went toward a hill past the corrals.
Scott jerked his head around, taking in his brother’s limp form, his father holding on for dear life. Then, he turned toward the hill, mounted up and dug his heels into the chestnut. His mouth was in a tight line, his heart hammering and his mind whirling, wondering if his brother was alive. Scott’s focus was on getting to whoever had just bushwhacked his brother. He heard then, saw the men catching up with him, eager to help find the assailant.
Murdoch loosened his grip and gently eased Johnny into one arm as the other arm swept under his legs. He carried his son inside and to his room, laying him on the bed on his right side. He pulled the shirttail up and examined the wound closely, prodding a little. A groan and he stopped, leaning over to watch as Johnny came to.
“Easy, son. I’ve got you. You’re in your room and safe now.” He spoke gently as if soothing a startled horse. He knew Johnny would come out of this ready to fight if he didn’t assuage his son while he was still only half-conscious. It was working as Johnny relaxed a little and groaned again.
“I need to look at the wound, son. Try to take it easy as you can,” Murdoch went on.
Scott and the men topped the hill and spied their prey. A lone man was riding away fast. Scott spurred Remmie on while pulling his pistol. He fired in the air and saw the man turn to look quickly, but he didn’t slow down. Scott’s jaw tightened even more as he took aim for the man’s shoulder. Just as he squeezed the trigger, the man turned to the right.
He came flying out of the saddle, the horse continuing on its mad dash. Scott and Cipriano pulled to a stop as the others went after the errant horse.
“Careful, Senor. He could be playing,” Cip warned.
Scott glanced at him and nodded then walked slowly toward the man. He knelt down and reached to the man’s neck, feeling for a pulse. Scott noted his gun was still in the holster and thought that odd but he dismissed it from thought as he assessed the situation. He sighed and stood back up.
Cipriano leaned over and pushed the body so it was face up. “I do not recognize him.”
“Neither do I,” Scott mumbled. “Why didn’t he shoot back?”
Cip shrugged. “It was a rifle shot, Senor. Perhaps, he was not so good with the pistol. Perhaps, he did not want to slow down to shoot. Does it matter?”
“No, it doesn’t matter, I guess.”
“You gave him fair warning, Senor,” Cip pointed out.
Scott looked over at him, his eyes still hard with anger. “I know. I want to get back to Johnny. Can you take care of this?”
“Si, I will get a wagon and take him to the sheriff. I will tell Senor Crawford what has happened. A man has already gone for el doctoro.”
Scott nodded and walked back to his horse. He mounted up, looked once more at the dead man then rode home.
Murdoch sighed once again as he settled on the edge of the mattress. He had the wound wrapped tightly and the bleeding had stopped. He didn’t think it was a bad wound but he would let Sam make that assessment. He heard the boot falls heavy and fast coming down the hall.
“He’s resting,” he said before he saw his son come through the door.
“How’s it look?” Scott asked as he knelt beside his brother.
“The bleeding’s stopped. I don’t think it’s too bad but, Sam’s on the way.”
Scott looked up at his father’s face and saw the residual worry and fear still there. He placed a hand on his father’s knee and smiled when Murdoch looked at him. “He’s tough.”
“I know,” Murdoch tried to smile. “What happened out there?”
Scott lowered his head then looked at his brother. “I fired a warning shot but he wouldn’t stop. I only meant to wing him but he turned suddenly. Anyway, he’s dead. I didn’t recognize him and neither did Cipriano. They’ll take him to town and let Val know.”
“Well, Val will try and find out who he is, I’m sure. Right now, I can’t worry about that.”
“I know, Sir. Has he come to?”
“He started to but I got him to settle and he … either passed out or went to sleep. I’m not sure which.”
“Sleep,” came the muffled voice from the bed. “Did you get ‘im?”
“I did but I can’t tell you who he was. Val will take care of it, brother. Just lie still until Sam gets here.”
Johnny cracked his eyes open and found his brother’s face. “Do I look like I’m tryin to move?”
Scott smiled and shook his head. “No, but you were thinking about it, I’m sure.”
Johnny managed a grin. “Yeah, probably.”
“How’s it feel, son?” Murdoch asked, laying a hand between his son’s shoulders.
Johnny moved his head, trying to get a better view of the man. “Not too bad. I don’t think he did much damage.” His eyes went back to his brother as his brows drew together. “Was? Is he dead?”
“Yes. He didn’t give me much choice. He turned direction as I fired.”
Johnny nodded, understanding what his brother was saying without having to hear the words. Scott would try to wing him, slow him down or stop him and have a few choice words for the man, too, Johnny was sure.
Three hours later, Sam buttoned his cuffs and put his stethoscope away. He pulled a chair to the bedside and sat down, watching Johnny closely. He tested him for fever and found none. Nodding with satisfaction, he stretched his back then stood to go find the family. He didn’t get far as they were in the hallway outside the bedroom. Sam smiled to himself.
“He should be fine. No permanent damage done. As long as he doesn’t start an infection, he should heal quickly.”
“Well, he’s either very lucky or that man was a lousy shot,” Scott said.
“Maybe a little of both. At any rate, he should sleep through the night but someone should stay with him to watch for fever. I’ll be back in the morning to check on him.”
“Thanks, Sam. I’ll walk you out,” Murdoch said and followed the doctor to the stairs.
Scott leaned against the wall and let out a tired breath. He hadn’t realized how tense he’d been all this time. From the moment he heard the shot and realized what had happened, he hadn’t relaxed. He felt wrung out. Pushing off, he went to his brother, taking up the seat Sam had left at the bedside.
Murdoch returned after a few minutes. “Go to bed, son. I’ll sit with him.”
Scott opened his mouth then closed it for a second. “We’ll take shifts. I’ll spell you in a few hours.”
Murdoch merely nodded as he took the seat Scott had just vacated.
Scott leaned forward and stretched his back then stood and walked to the window, pulling the curtains open and letting in the early morning light. Johnny hadn’t stirred all night and Scott thought that a minor miracle in itself. There was no fever and, ridiculous as it was, he thought luck was on their side.
He looked back just in time to hear a soft sigh and see eyelashes fluttering. He moved quickly to the bedside and waited for his brother to awaken.
Johnny moaned softly and opened his eyes a little, disoriented and confused for a few seconds. Slowly, he remembered what had happened and his eyes came fully open.
He mumbled something incoherent and tried to move a little. Wincing from the pain, he stopped quickly enough.
“Not a good idea, brother,” Scott warned unnecessarily.
“No kiddin. Help me move a little. My whole side is asleep,” he grumped.
Scott stood and thought it over quickly then grabbed a pillow from the chest at the foot of the bed. He folded it in half then pulled the covers down, placing it in the middle of Johnny’s back. He gently pushed back on his brother’s shoulder while pushing the pillow in, effectively wedging it in place.
Johnny bit his lip and endured the pain. He sighed with the small relief of being in a slightly different position. “Thanks,” he breathed out.
“I know it’s not much but you can’t lay on your back or your stomach. Sam’s orders,” Scott replied with sympathy.
“Better than nothin, I guess. Val been here?”
“Not yet. I’m sure he’s trying to find out who the man was.”
Johnny didn’t say anything to that. He closed his eyes and let out a tired breath.
“Sleep, brother. Makes the healing faster,” Scott smiled.
Johnny’s lips turned up for a second but, very soon, he relaxed and his breathing evened out.
Murdoch walked outside just as the sheriff of Green River dismounted.
“Good morning, Val,” he greeted as he walked up to the man.
Crawford flashed him a hard look then bit his lip. “Mornin. How’s Johnny?”
“Sam says he should be fine. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Did you have any luck identifying the man?”
Val turned and looked out over the corrals and beyond. “Could ya show me where you were standin and where Johnny was when it happened?”
Murdoch gave him a curious look but walked over to the spot he’d been yesterday. “I was here; Johnny was standing in front of me.” He took Val’s arm and pulled him into the same place Johnny had been.
Val nodded then dug his boots in the dirt, marking his prints. He then turned and made sure he was standing in the footprints. “He was shot in the left side?”
“That’s right. What are you doing, Sheriff?”
Val didn’t answer, he scanned the hills before him then calculated where the sniper had been. “Doc says the bullet went in at a downward angle which makes sense cause he was higher up. So, if they’d both been level, the bullet would’ve gone straight in. Put your finger on my back where the bullet entered Johnny.”
Murdoch did so then Val pictured the entry wound on his right since he was now facing opposite. He followed the line up the hill then pointed and nodded his head.
“I’m right here, Val,” Scott answered for himself as he walked out. “I saw you ride in from Johnny’s room.”
“How is he, son?”
“He’s doing as well as he can. He woke up for a minute but he’s asleep now.”
“Scott, where’d you first spot the man ya shot yesterday?” Val asked, seeming to not even hear their conversation.
Scott stepped up next to him and pointed to the left. “There. We topped the hill and he was heading south.”
“That don’t make any sense. He should’ve been over to the left,” Val explained.
Scott shrugged. “I assume when he rode off, he turned south.” He stopped and frowned. “When I fired at him, he turned again. That’s why my shot killed him. If he’d kept going the same direction, it would have hit him in the shoulder or arm.”
Val sighed and kept staring at the scene, picturing it and trying to work it out in his mind. “Seems ta me, he’d ride north. He had ta be over there when he shot Johnny. Turnin the opposite direction woulda took time he didn’t have.”
“Well, I’m not in the habit of trying to figure out what back-shooting murderers would or would not do, Sheriff.”
Val turned his head and looked at the angry young man. He cocked a brow at the attitude he was getting. “Attempted murderer,” he corrected.
Murdoch walked out past them then turned to face Val. “What’s this all about, Sheriff? What difference does it make where he was or where he headed?”
“Just like ta get my facts straight, Mr. Lancer.” He turned his attention back to Scott. “You didn’t see anybody else up there?”
“Of course not.”
“I’d like ta talk to the men who were with ya.”
Scott’s face hardened as he stared at Val.
“I’ll get them,” Murdoch spoke up. He didn’t know why Val was doing this but he couldn’t blame the man for being thorough. Scott wasn’t happy about it, that was clear.
“Is there something I should know, Val? Some reason you have for asking all these questions?” Scott asked once Murdoch had left them.
“It’s my job, Scott. Like it or not.” Val held his gaze until Scott, in frustration, turned away and paced off.
An hour went by then, there was a knock at the door. Scott had paced most of that time and Murdoch wished he’d simmer down. It wasn’t as if Val was accusing his son but Scott seemed to take offense for some reason.
The sheriff walked in, followed by Murdoch.
“I rode up there. No way to tell anything now. The grounds turned up good from all the horses yesterday. The men all tell it the same as Scott.”
“Surprise,” Scott sniped.
“Val, why don’t you fill us in on what you’re thinking? Something seems to be bothering you about all this,” Murdoch spoke. Â
Crawford hesitated then made his decision. “Johnny up for a visit?”
“I think he’s still sleeping. Sam said that’s what he should be doing,” Scott stated, still perturbed.
“You can go on up and check. Just don’t push him,” Murdoch advised.
Val nodded and headed up the stairs, his shoulders slumped as if from a heavy weight.
“What’s with him anyway?” Scott asked.
“I have no idea, son.” Murdoch stared at the staircase, as confused as his son.
Val didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to wake Johnny but, he had to. He couldn’t put it off. Johnny would have his head if he kept this from him a minute longer. He grunted as he sat in the chair then reached over and gently shook his friend’s shoulder.
Johnny sighed softly then opened his eyes. “Hey, Val,” he greeted sleepily as he rubbed his face.
“How ya feelin, amigo?”
“Not too bad. Coulda been worse. What’s goin on?”
Val lowered his eyes and stared at his boots, his hands dangling between his knees. “First, ya gotta promise not ta try and come up out of that bed,” he said, raising his eyes to meet Johnny’s.
“Okay,” he dragged out.
“Second, there’s some things about the shootin that don’t add up. Where the shooter was and where they first sighted ‘im so there’s still questions out there.”
Johnny frowned, confused and apprehensive. His gut tightened. He knew that look and he knew he wasn’t going to like what he heard but he only nodded for now.
“Johnny, I don’t know how else to tell you this. The man they brought to town yesterday was Seth Williams.”
The blue eyes widened, his mouth fell open but no sound made it out yet. Johnny stared at Val then slowly shook his head. “No,” he whispered.
“It was Seth. I’m sure of it.”
“Seth wouldn’t shoot me, Val,” he stated.
“I know. That’s why I talked ta Murdoch and Scott. Got ’em ta show me exactly where everybody was when it happened. Somethin ain’t right about it, Johnny.” He went into detail about his conversations with the Lancers and the hands. He told Johnny about the lost tracks that may have been there and the angle of the shot.
Johnny listened closely, blocking out everything else and focusing on Val’s description. He saw it in his head clearly. When the sheriff finished, he shook his head. “Don’t make sense. IF it was Seth, that don’t make sense, Val.”
“I know. None of this makes any sense, Johnny. Nobody saw a second man, though.”
“They wouldn’t look for one either. Once they saw Seth, that’s all they needed,” Johnny ruminated.
“That’s what I thought, too. I ain’t said nothin to Scott or your father, yet. I wanted ta tell you first.”
Johnny nodded then swallowed hard. “Have you … sent a wire?”
“Yeah, I sent it and I sent the body back this morning with a note. Said I’d come as soon as I knew more.”
“I’ll be goin with ya,” Johnny said flatly.
Even if he could have turned to see who was there, he certainly didn’t need to. Scott’s voice was easy to discern but Johnny also heard the anger and frustration in his brother’s tone.
“You can’t go anywhere, Johnny,” Murdoch chimed in as both men walked around the bed.
“I know that. Not yet, anyway. Help me sit up a little.”
The Lancer men gave each other a wary look and Val decided to stay out of this one.
“As long as you don’t pull the stitches, it’ll be okay. Just help me sit up,” Johnny said.
Scott took one side and Murdoch the other as they repositioned him still lying mostly on his right side but with his head up on pillows against the headboard.
Johnny sighed and thanked them. He couldn’t have a conversation lying flat. “There’s something you need to know and it’s not gonna be easy to hear.”
Murdoch stood at the foot of the bed as Scott settled on the mattress near it.
Johnny looked at them then at Val and took a deep breath. “The man you shot was a friend of mine, Scott.”
Scott snorted at this. “Nice friend.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed and hardened. He felt Val’s hand on his arm and glanced over at the warning look.
“He was a good man, Scott.”
“Johnny, I know there’s some kind of code gunfighters live by but …”
“He wasn’t a gunfighter, Murdoch! You think that’s the only people I can be friends with is gunfighters?” Anger ruled the moment as Johnny glared at his father, indignantly seething.
Murdoch opened his mouth but said nothing.
“Seth was a farmer. He had a wife and two boys. He’s always been a farmer,” Johnny continued. His tone was lower but still reverberated with anger and, some hurt. “There’s no way he would’ve shot me and especially not in the back like that.”
Scott took to his feet quickly, his fists clenched at his sides. “What are you saying, Johnny?”
“I’m sayin you might have made a mistake.”
“A mistake? You’re telling me I killed an innocent man! That’s not a mistake, that’s murder!” Scott shouted.
“Now, hold on a minute. It was an accident, Scott. It wasn’t murder, you just made a mistake like Johnny said,” Val piped in.
“Alright, everyone just settle down and let’s talk this through calmly,” Murdoch intervened. He put a hand in Scott’s shoulder. “Son, please sit down.”
He sat though he didn’t calm down.
“Johnny, tell us about this man,” Murdoch continued as he pulled another chair near.
“Like I said he was a farmer. A good man. An honest man. He never hurt anyone and I don’t think he was capable of it. I can’t see him shooting anyone, least of all me.” Johnny hung his head as the picture of his friend grew ever clearer in his mind.
“Johnny saved his oldest son’s life. That’s how we met Seth,” Val went on.
“We? You knew him, too, Val?” Murdoch asked.
“Me and Johnny was riding together when it happened, what? four years ago?”
Nodding, Johnny answered, “yeah, that’s about right. Jason fell in the river, it was swollen and the current was strong from the spring rains. Val and me saw ‘im.”
“Johnny dove right in. Didn’t even think about it. I followed and threw him a rope once he had the kid,” Val said.
“For a minute, I thought we were too late but then he started sputterin and coughin and finally settled down. We wrapped him up and took him home. Seth and Mary were real grateful. We stayed there over a week, helped out fixin things around the place and we got ta know the family.” Johnny looked at his brother mournfully. “I’m sorry, Scott. I don’t blame you one bit but, if Seth did this, I can’t imagine why.”
Scott swallowed hard at the lump in his throat. “Neither can I,” he said softly.
“Well, Mary will know why Seth was here,” Val said.
“I should be able to ride in a few days.”
“No, you will not, young man! I’m sorry about your friend and I know you need answers but, you’re not going to be well enough to travel for at least a week – minimum,” Murdoch stated authoritatively.
Johnny didn’t argue but he didn’t accept his father’s decree either. He would go as soon as he felt up to it. No one was going to tell him otherwise.
Scott stared out into the blackness of the night, a glass of brandy in one hand, the other pressed against the adobe column of the veranda. He went through that day over and over in his mind. He knew he hadn’t seen anyone else out there but he also knew he hadn’t looked. They’d been searching for a man and found one. A man who was riding hellbound for leather.
He sighed as he realized that wasn’t much evidence of a man’s guilt. He would take off, too, if a half dozen men were chasing him. Seth had to have heard the shot. Then, seeing all of them chasing him, most likely he became frightened and ran. Why couldn’t he have waited to tell them he wasn’t the man?
Scott sighed. Would he have believed it? No, was the answer but at least, the man would still be alive. And two young boys wouldn’t be fatherless right now. That part clawed at his soul. Johnny said he didn’t blame him but, was that true? Would he blame Scott later? Once the shock of the news wore off, Johnny might think otherwise. How could he live with this?
He shook his head. He didn’t even know if it was true. Maybe this Seth had a grudge Johnny knew nothing about. Maybe he believed something that wasn’t true about Johnny and decided to exact revenge of some kind. Scott didn’t think that sounded very plausible but men had killed for less.
He didn’t know this man. All he knew was what Johnny and Val had told him and that was four years old. Something could have happened to change the man. Some thing that he blamed Johnny for, maybe. He took a long drink of the liquor and let himself feel its warmth flow through him. He didn’t think he’d sleep tonight, even though he’d been up half of last night with Johnny.
Scott began to pace the veranda, his head down as his mind went in too many directions. No, he wouldn’t sleep tonight if he couldn’t make himself stop thinking. But, how could he not think about this? If he’d killed an innocent man, he wasn’t sure how he’d be able to handle that. Killing was hard enough when the man wasn’t innocent. He’d found that out when he’d come here.
He already knew how difficult it was to pull that trigger. Right now, he couldn’t remember how he dealt with killing in the war. He supposed he’d told himself he was fighting for everything he held dear, that he was following orders, but that sounded a little hollow at the moment.
He wasn’t sure he’d be able to live with Johnny, look at his brother every day, if he’d killed a good friend for no reason. He tried telling himself he had no way of knowing Seth wasn’t the man he sought.
With sudden clarity, Scott stopped pacing and his head came up with a jerk. He walked inside to find his father.
Murdoch was staring at the wall as he sat in his desk chair, a pensive expression on his face. Scott didn’t stand on ceremony, he plunged right in.
“Murdoch, if this Seth isn’t the man who shot Johnny then who did?”
The rancher blinked as he slowly turned to look at his son. “My God! I didn’t even think about that!”
“Neither did I until just now. I’ve been so caught up worrying ….” he stopped, unwilling to tell his father how much this had affected him and wondering why that was. “Johnny’s been so upset, I’m sure he didn’t think of it either.”
Murdoch stared at him for a moment, knowing the hell his son must be going through but not knowing how to help him right now. Maybe, focusing on this new information would help Scott in the short term.
“We should talk to Val. I don’t know what we can do about it now, though. We have no idea who it could be.”
“No, but we can check and see if any strangers have been hanging around lately,” Scott offered.
Johnny wiped his face and sighed heavily. He hated that he was unable to go to Mary. Hated making her wait to talk to him. She must have known Seth was coming to see him and why and she must know Johnny would be there, if he could. He wondered if Val had let her know he’d been hurt. He hoped so, anyway. At least, she wouldn’t think he simply didn’t want to bother.
That family had gotten to him then. Four years. Had it been that long? He remembered it all so clearly. He remembered, too, Val prodding at him to talk about his own family, or lack of it. He had, a little, but it was never something he could talk about easily, even with Val. He was more than surprised his friend had even brought the subject up.
Val hadn’t been too forthcoming himself when Johnny turned the tables. He’d learned some and figured out the rest from what Val did say. It had been hard but, at the same time, it felt good to know there was someone who understood. Someone capable of understanding what he didn’t say as well as what he did.
He smiled a little. Val had almost always been able to do that. Know what he was thinking before he spoke it. The reverse had been true as well. He marveled at that. How it had come to be and when. But, that wasn’t helping him come to terms with what had happened. He was convinced Seth was innocent which meant his brother had killed the wrong man.
And given that as being true, he had to wonder who was trying to kill him. Oddly, Johnny didn’t care so much about that right now. He knew he should but this other was weighing too heavily on him. Guilt was weighing heavily and he knew that was crazy, too. Scott must be going through hell right now. He wished his brother would come and see him but, so far, that hadn’t happened.
He was sure Scott didn’t want to face him. Even though he’d said he didn’t blame his brother, and he didn’t, he wasn’t so sure Scott believed that. He could easily see how it had happened and, as upset as he was, Scott was no more guilty than Seth.
He heard footfalls outside his room and thought, finally, his brother was coming to him. A quick rap on the door and it opened as both Murdoch and Scott walked in.
“Good, you’re awake. Son, we’ve realized there’s more of a problem here than we’d considered at first.”
“You mean, if Seth wasn’t tryin to kill me, who was?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch stared at him for a second. “Exactly. At least, it occurred to you. I’m afraid we didn’t think of it right away.”
“Neither did I,” Johnny admitted as he watched his brother look everywhere but at him.
“Well, we’re going to talk to Val in the morning. See if he knows anything.”
Johnny only nodded at his father. If Val knew anything, he would have said so and Johnny was sure the sheriff had thought of the danger even if none of them had.
“You should be sleeping, son. We’ll leave you to it,” Murdoch was saying.
Before Johnny could open his mouth, Scott mumbled a ‘goodnight’ and left the room. He sighed and shook his head then regarded Murdoch.
“Have you talked to him?”
“No, I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what he’s feeling right now,” the older man said grimly.
Johnny ground his teeth together for a moment. “I do,” he admitted softly. “I just wish he’d talk to me.”
“Give him some time to work through it in his head first, Johnny. In the meantime, get some sleep,” Murdoch fairly ordered and left the room.
For the next two days, Johnny stayed in bed and did as he was told. He didn’t complain or object to anything. Nor did he see much of his brother. Scott would pop his head in to say hello and inquire as to his health then make some excuse to leave just as rapidly. Johnny didn’t know how to help his brother and wasn’t sure the help was even wanted. Scott may very well be angry with him though he couldn’t imagine why. But, he knew that, sometimes when a person was hurting, they lashed out for no particular reason; blamed others when it wasn’t reasonable. He could take that. He could take anything Scott threw at him but, he couldn’t take being ignored.
Val had come by the day before to tell them he had no news. No strangers had been seen though, he pointed out, that really meant nothing. The shooter could have kept a low profile, stayed on the trail and never even seen the outskirts of a town. Johnny had a heated discussion with his friend after this news was delivered. One Val lost. The sheriff was returning in the morning and Johnny knew he had a monumental battle on his hands. Well, he thought, that’s just too bad. This time, he was going to win.
It seemed even more imperative he talk to Scott tonight. If he had to threaten to get out of bed to get his brother’s attention, he would do just that. He’d already planned out his strategy and smiled wanly. If Scott were in a better frame of mind, he’d appreciate Johnny planning out his moves so intricately. The smile faded as he heard the light foot steps approaching his door. It was game time.
Teresa opened the door, balancing a tray in the other hand and walked into the room silently. She went about setting Johnny’s supper tray on his lap and opening his napkin then placing it on his chest. Johnny watched her go through the mundane chore as if it were a daily thing. He reckoned sometimes she felt that way. As she started to leave, he made his first move.
“Could you ask Scott to come up after supper?”
Teresa paused with her back to him then turned slowly with a frown. “I’ll tell him, Johnny, but I’m not sure it will do any good.” Her eyes showed her sympathy.
“Tell him if he doesn’t come to me then, I’m comin to find him,” He made his eyes hard and determined, his voice matching the expression perfectly.
“You’ll do no such thing!” she argued.
“Teresa,” he started then tempered his tone a little. Still hard, still determined but without the anger or frustration he was feeling inside. “I will do it. Now, look at my face and tell me I won’t.”
She did then, her lips tightened with a measure of her own frustration. “I’ll tell him,” she said through gritted teeth then turned and stalked out of the room.
Johnny sighed. He hated putting her in the middle but it was necessary. He decided he’d better eat quickly. If he knew his brother, he wouldn’t wait until the meal was over downstairs.
Johnny had just finished the last of his coffee when he heard the heavy footfalls and he almost smiled. He set the cup on the tray, leaned back against the pillows and waited. The door flung open and Scott stood in the opening, fists on hips, glaring at him.
“I knew it was too good to be true. Hell hasn’t frozen over after all. What’s this I hear about you threatening to get out of bed?”
“No threat. Just a simple fact,” Johnny replied lazily.
“What’s so important?” Scott retorted, unwilling to give up his irritation just yet.
“Well, I need to talk to you and you’ve kept yourself pretty scarce lately. I figured my strategy would work and it did.”
Scott eyed him suspiciously and his face relaxed a little. “I see,” he said simply and walked nearer the bed. “What could possibly be so important?” he asked again, crossing his arms over his chest.
Johnny took a deep breath. “I know you’ve been having a hard time with everything. I want to know what you’re thinkin.”
Scott’s arms fell to his sides as he stared slack-jawed at his brother. After several seconds, he regained his composure. “That’s it? You wanted to ask how I am?”
“That ain’t what I said. Sit down and talk to me.” This time, Johnny’s tone was not easy and friendly.
Scott plopped onto the edge of the bed and sighed. “What can I say? I don’t know what to think. I still don’t know what’s true.” His voice was soft, pain filled and Johnny winced hearing it.
“Well, you won’t have to wait much longer.”
“Sam is supposed to come out this evening to check on you.”
“Don’t much matter. I’m leavin in the mornin and I don’t want to hear one word about it. It’s a done deal. Val will be here first thing and ready to go,” Johnny informed him.
Scott stared at him for long ticks of the clock. “Murdoch won’t be so easy to get by.”
Johnny’s lips tugged but he maintained his seriousness. “Easy or hard, it’s gonna happen.”
“What’s going to happen?” Sam asked from the door.
Scott stood up and moved away from the bed. “I’ll leave this to you, brother.” He said nothing else and left the room.
“Well?” Sam asked.
“Well, what? I guess you wanna poke on me some,” Johnny said, pulling his nightshirt up before being ‘ordered’ to.
Sam shook his head a little then set about his examination. When he was done, he sat back with a smile. “You’re healing well, Johnny. You should be up and about in a few more days.”
Johnny found his eyes and held them. “Tomorrow, Sam.”
The doctor looked sidelong at him. “You aren’t ready.”
“That’s not a factor. I need to go and I’m going. I can’t put it off any longer.”
Sighing, the older man regarded him. “The roof is still on. I take that to mean you haven’t informed Murdoch of your plans yet.”
“Not yet but it doesn’t make any difference.”
“You think not?”
Johnny tightened his jaw. “Ya know, the way everyone around here acts, you all think I’m two years old. I’m a grown man and I’ll do what I think is best.”
“Even if it gets you killed?” Murdoch asked as he walked in. “Johnny, those stitches could easily tear. What will you do if infection sets in? Have you thought of any of that?”
“Sure, I have. I reckon if that happens, I’ll find a doc to fix me up or Val can do it. Wouldn’t be the first time. It’s not like I’m goin to a gunfight, Murdoch. I need to see Mary and the boys. I can’t wait any longer. I think the woman deserves some answers face to face. And, I know Scott needs some, too.”
Murdoch stared hard at him. “All that can wait a few more days, Johnny.”
“No, it can’t! I need to go. Don’t you understand? He was my friend! They’re ALL my friends!” He hadn’t wanted to shout but Murdoch just brought it out in him. The way that man could argue pointlessly set him afire.
His father said nothing at first and that just made Johnny angrier. He waited, though, until Murdoch thought up some more arguments.
Finally, he said, “I suppose I can take some solace that Val is going with you.”
“That’s it? You have nothing more to say? Murdoch, he isn’t ready. Your points are valid,” Sam argued.
“As Johnny said, he’s a grown man. I can’t make him do anything.”
Johnny cocked a brow and thought to remember that statement the next time there was a ditch to be dug.
Sam stood and threw his hands in the air. “I could argue that point but I won’t because it would do me no good.” He turned to Johnny and said pointedly, “whatever happens, find another doctor to fix it! There’s no point in me patching you up just so you can tear down my work. You have no business in a saddle, Johnny. None!” He didn’t wait for a reply; he simply grabbed his bag and walked out.
“Whoooeee! I’ve never seen Sam so worked up before.”
Murdoch glanced at him then paced about the room. “Neither have I but if you think he doesn’t mean what he says, think again.”
Johnny lowered his eyes and stared at his lap. “Reckon you’re gonna tell me not to come back, too.”
“Of course not!” Murdoch bellowed. “This is your home and it always will be. I know I can’t talk you out of this. I’m only surprised you waited this long.” He walked over and sat on the bed. “Son, I understand how much this is tearing you apart. All of it, Scott and Seth and his family. Please, just take care of yourself and come home quickly.”
Johnny’s eyes came up slowly and he smiled softly. “Thanks, I will. Don’t worry, Val will be with me. He’s worse than Teresa about bein a mother hen.”
“Somehow, I doubt that,” Murdoch groused.
Johnny grimaced as he settled the saddle on Barranca’s back. He took a few minutes before completing the chore to breathe. This wasn’t going to be easy but he’d known that. It didn’t matter. He could take some discomfort if it meant finally finding the truth behind Seth’s visit. Nothing could convince him the man had come to Lancer intending to kill him. But if not Seth, then who had shot him? He shook the thought away for now. He’d think about that later. Right now, he had more important things to attend.
He tied off his bedroll then walked Barranca out of the barn and to the hitching post near the house. Dawn was just breaking. Val would be here soon. He walked into the kitchen to find his family sitting there, waiting for him. He said nothing and sat down, grabbing the steaming cup of coffee before him and breathing in the aroma before taking a sip.
“All ready?” Murdoch asked, keeping his voice as flat as possible.
“Yeah, soon as Val gets here.”
“I suppose it wouldn’t do any good to ask if I can come along,” Scott spoke.
Johnny looked at him, knew what he was really asking but shook his head. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Scott.”
“I suppose not,” the older sibling mumbled.
Maria set a plate in front of him with purpose. His head came up and he met her eyes. Eyes that told him to eat and not balk about it. He smiled weakly and picked up his fork, giving it a valiant effort.
Val walked in ten minutes later and found himself being led to a chair by the housekeeper and promptly sat down. She made him a plate and coffee and gave him the same look Johnny had received. Val scowled but knew better than to give her any lip. Still, he ate quickly.
After several more silent minutes, Johnny pushed his plate back and Val swiped his mouth with a napkin. Their eyes met and a slight nod was exchanged.
“Reckon we’ll get goin,” Johnny announced as he stood.
“Where is this farm and how long will it take to get there?” Murdoch asked.
“South, near Chula Vista. Three days, I reckon,” Val answered.
“Take your time and you take it easy, Johnny. Val may be a good nursemaid but he’s not a doctor,” Murdoch advised.
“Nursemaid!” Val growled.
“Nevermind, I’ll explain later. Let’s just get goin,” Johnny said grumpily and walked toward the front of the house.
Scott and Murdoch followed the two men outside as both checked their cinches again. Johnny finally turned to face them.
“No matter what happens, Iâ€™ll make sure Mary understands,” he said to his brother.
“I’d like to meet her when this is all over. When … she feels she can,” Scott said softly.
Johnny nodded then felt the large hand on his shoulder. He turned to his father hoping the man continued being understanding.
“Let us know something as soon as you can. And, please remember, there may be someone out there still gunning for you.”
“I haven’t forgotten, old man. I’ll watch my back,” Johnny promised. “You watch everyone else’s, too. Just because he hit me, that don’t mean I was the only target. Could be someone after Lancer.”
“I’ve thought about that, son. We’ll take the necessary precautions,” Murdoch answered.
Two hours passed quietly before Val spoke. “Nursemaid?”
Johnny grinned. “I told him you’d look after me if this wound gave me any problems. Had to tell him something so he’d stop fussin.”
Val rolled his eyes. “Just make sure it don’t give you any problems and that’ll take care of everything.” After a brief delay, he went on. “Reckon it’s botherin ya some already.”
“Some,” Johnny acknowledged.
Val nodded but said no more. It wouldn’t make a bit of difference what he said anyway. While he’d rather have Johnny a hundred percent, he wasn’t about to make this trip alone. He dreaded it as things stood. And as much as he knew Johnny should not be on a horse yet, he couldn’t have stopped the man, either. He puffed up his cheeks and let out a harsh breath.
Johnny heard Val sigh and knew pretty much what he was thinking. None of it could be helped. Mary deserved the truth and Scott needed some answers. Whatever else was going on would have to wait. He only hoped it was someone after him and that his family wasn’t in danger. It had been quiet since the shooting. Johnny knew his logical brother would conclude that meant Seth had been the shooter but, he knew better.
Sometimes, they laid back, waited to see what would happen before striking again. Like Pardee. Like so many others. Like he, himself had done in the past. It was a maneuver and it worked sometimes.
“You were right. Could’ve had somethin ta do with Lancer,” Val said, seemingly out of the blue.
Johnny’s mouth quirked. “Yeah. Murdoch and Scott will take care of the ranch. We can pick up the pace some.”
“You sure?” Val asked as he looked closely at his friend.
“I’m sure,” Johnny assured him and spurred Barranca a little.
She stood over the grave of her husband, grief and anger warring within her for supremacy. She’d been looking down the road every few minutes for days now. There was no sign of anyone coming to tell her how and why her husband had died. Val had said Johnny was hurt so she understood he couldn’t come. But, Val hadn’t shown either. She tried to tell herself he couldn’t get away. He was a sheriff now and that was a big job but, part of her was still angry.
They were friends. Good friends and one of them should have shown by now, or sent some further word. She wiped the tears away and pulled her hands down her skirt. Turning from the headstone, she looked back at their small home. It used to be a warm, welcoming place. Now, it felt cold; dead.
Jason sulked around, a perpetual frown on his face. Fourteen now, she recognized the look that stayed on his face. He wanted revenge. She couldn’t bring herself to scold him or even talk to him about it yet. She had hoped Johnny would come. Would talk to the boy and make him understand vengeance was never the answer. She couldn’t do it because she couldn’t say the words with conviction. The truth was, she wanted vengeance, too. Or, at least, justice. She didn’t even know the name of the man who had killed her husband.
She saw her youngest coming out of the barn with a pail of milk. Carl was the spitting image of his father. He had the same quiet strength, the same kindness, the same smile. Her eyes welled again and she lowered her head then began the short walk back.
Mary walked into the house to find Jason still sitting at the table. “You need to get to your chores, son.”
“When’s Johnny comin?”
How many times had he asked her that? She sighed wearily and shook her head. “You know there’s been no word and you know he was shot. It may be weeks before he can come. Val said he’d be alright but we don’t know how serious the wound was.”
“Well, when he gets here, I’ll be ready,” the boy said, his smoky blue eyes afire.
“Ready for what, exactly?” she asked, dreading the answer.
“To go after the scum that did this! Johnny will do that, ma. You know he will. Soon as he checks on us, him and Val’ll head out and I’m going with ’em.”
“You’re not going anywhere, young man! For all we know, the man is behind bars now – or dead.” She sat down at the table and placed a hand over his fisted one. “Please, son. Please, don’t talk that way. I can’t stand the thought of losing you, too.”
Carl kept his blond head down, listening to the same conversation his mother and brother had had over and over. He’d said nothing to either of them, took neither side. He had long decided to wait for the truth before making up his mind.
At twelve years old, he may not know much but, his father had taught him to always look at both sides of a problem before trying to work it out. This was no different, just much more painful.
“The best thing you can do is work, Jason. It always helped your pa work out his anger. It’ll help you, too,” Mary said.
Jason stood and stalked out of the house, slamming the door behind him. Mary’s shoulders collapsed and she hung her head. He was like his pa, too, only his temper was much more fierce. He’d always been a hothead but Seth had always been able to manage him. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do that and the thought terrified her.
Her head came up as she felt the small hand on her trembling shoulder. She looked into the clear hazel eyes of her baby boy.
“Johnny and Val will talk to him, ma. Once we know what happened, it might help some.”
She couldn’t hold back the tears and she grabbed him into a hug.
Johnny grimaced a little as he settled in his bedroll. His back was screaming and he couldn’t find a comfortable position. He closed his eyes and listened to Val clanging the skillet around. He sure was noisy. His thoughts went to the Williams family.
Mary. She was petite, her long curly brown hair always held back with ribbon and clips yet always finding an escape from its bonds when she was working hard. Which was most of the time. He smiled a little, thinking of how she was always pushing it out of her way, her brown eyes smiling even as she toiled. She was a strong woman and she kept tight rein on her boys. And she was beautiful.
Carl was the quiet one. The thinker, Johnny had gone to calling him, if only to himself. He reminded Johnny a little of Scott. Always trying to puzzle out things before jumping to conclusions. He was a stout boy, just a little baby fat still on him. Even then, anyone could see he’d be a muscular man when his time came. He was always asking questions, those eyes ever wondering, that mind ever spinning.
Then there was Jason. He was going to be tall, like his pa. He was a bit reckless, though. Those dark blue eyes and good looks were going to be trouble for many a girl. Johnny remembered teasing him about that. At the time, the kid balked at the very idea of girls. Well, he was only ten then. He shook his head at the passage of time. How old had he been then himself? Eighteen, he reckoned. Just a kid, really. But he remembered.
Jason had followed him around like a lost pup the whole time they’d stayed with the family. He reckoned that was normal since he’d saved the boy from drowning. He was sure Jason barely remembered him now.
Johnny’s eyes flew open and he jerked his head up, scowling at Val.
“Ya gonna eat this or should I give it to Barranca?” Val asked, holding a plate out.
Johnny scooted up, gave him a chagrined look and took the plate. Val poured coffee and balanced the two cups and his own plate as he sat down beside Johnny.
Taking one cup cautiously, Johnny thanked his friend.
“Thinkin about the family?” Val asked.
“Yeah, reckon the boys have sprouted up a lot.”
Val nodded as he swallowed a mouthful of beans. “Guess so. Should make it there by noon tomorra.”
Johnny didn’t have anything to say to that so he didn’t.
“I’ll be takin a look at that wound again, too. Bein as I’m such a great nursemaid,” Val shot sarcastically.
Johnny nearly choked on his food as he tried not to laugh. “Reckon you should be useful in some way or other.”
“Aw, shut up! Ya can fix your own supper, ya know. Anyways, your old man’ll have my head if I don’t bring ya back in one piece.”
Johnny sighed as he lowered his plate to his lap and stared at it. “Who was it, Val?”
“You know I don’t know.”
“I know. I just …. I don’t know. Wish I could make some sense out of it, that’s all.”
Val looked at his lowered head with a frown. “Ain’t your fault, Johnny. Whatever Seth was doin there, it wasn’t your fault.”
“Maybe,” came the soft reply. “I just don’t know how I’m gonna face Mary.”
“You will cause that’s what you do. Face up to the hard things.”
Johnny’s head came up and he looked curiously at Val. “What’s that mean?”
“Just what I said. You don’t run from the hard things. Ya face it, no matter how rough it is. You been doin it all the time I’ve known ya. Why d’ya think I stuck with ya so long? Cause you’re so good lookin?” Val snorted.
“Yeah, I did think that was the reason, Val,” Johnny said then a grin spread across his face.
The sheriff grabbed his half-eaten plate from him then stood and walked away, grumbling under his breath. He returned a short time later with a bag and plopped back down.
“Sit up and let me take a look see,” he ordered.
Johnny bit his tongue, thinking now was not the time to tease Val. He’d only end up paying for it – hard. So, he endured the poking around. It wasn’t that bad, truthfully, and he knew Val was being gentle. That Val Crawford *could* be gentle was a fact he reckoned he was the only person who knew. No one would believe it and that’s how Val liked it.
The sheriff secured the new bandage and sat back, simply tapping Johnny’s shoulder to let him know he was done.
“Looks good. Stitches are still tight, no bleedin, not red or warm. I reckon you’ll live another day or two.”
“Thanks, Val,” Johnny said sincerely.
As predicted, the gratitude was scoffed at as the sheriff grabbed his medical bag and saw to the horses.
Johnny slowed down, his eyes scanning the river as memory washed over him. Val looked, too, remembering the day they’d found Jason floundering in the current. The river was calm today and it was hard to imagine the water so deadly.
“Wanna stop for a minute?” Val asked.
Johnny took a deep breath and shook his head. “We’re almost there.”
Johnny looked over at him and smiled a little. “No sense puttin it off. She’s waited long enough as it is.”
Val nodded and they went on their way, both men with a sinking feeling in their stomachs.
The yard was empty and quiet. Johnny came to a stop before entering it, though. He slid out of the saddle and ground-tied Barranca then, walked over to the small fenced-in cemetery that held two graves.
Val dismounted and followed him, both men removing their hats as they approached, hanging their heads in remembrance and respect. Johnny remembered the first time he’d seen the first headstone. It was that of a child and Seth had told them quietly about the first born – a daughter – who’d died two days after she’d come into the world.
Johnny raised his head and looked out over the land, sighing heavily. He glanced at Val then nodded and they walked away. Grabbing their reins, they walked the horses the rest of the way. They were near the hitching post when the front door opened.
Mary stepped out onto the porch, her eyes wide and anticipatory. Suddenly, she bolted, running toward them and flinging herself into Johnny’s arms. He braced for it and held back a grunt when her arm encircled the wound. Gently, he reached back and lifted the arm higher up his back. She didn’t seem to notice as she sobbed into his shirt.
He held her tight, laying his head on top of hers and making soft sounds. Â She pulled back and looked into his eyes then found Val. She released Johnny and hugged the older man as tightly. Val, ever uncomfortable with such displays, held it together as he tried to comfort the woman.
She fought for decorum and won enough to let go. “Come on inside. We’ve been waiting for you,” she said and sniffled. Grabbing a handkerchief from her pocket, she wiped her eyes as she showed them in.
“Where’re the boys?” Val asked.
“I sent them fishing. I hoped it would ….. I don’t know. That they might enjoy themselves for a little while.” She busied herself making coffee as the men sat at the table.
Neither spoke until she’d served and took a seat herself.
“We’re real sorry, Mary. Real sorry,” Val said.
“I was hoping you could tell me what happened. But, first thing is first. Johnny, how are you?”
He looked up in surprise then understanding took over. “I’m alright. A little sore, maybe.”
“He’s still got some stitches in his back but he’s healin,” Val expounded.
Mary gasped as her hand went to her mouth. “Your back? Did I hurt you? Johnny, I’m sorry, I ….”
“No, no. It’s fine, Mary. Really,” he reassured her with a gentle smile.
“How’re you and the boys holdin up?” Val asked, diverting her attention.
“Not very well. Carl’s been very quiet. Well, he always is. It’s Jason I worry about. He’s so angry. He wants revenge and I just don’t know what to say to him. I was hoping you could both talk sense to him.”
Just then, the front door flew open. Johnny and Val were both on their feet, hands on guns as they faced that door. Jason stopped short, Carl running into him then backing up and ducking under his brother’s arm. Jason ran to Johnny and grabbed hold.
“Jason, no! Johnny’s back is hurt,” Mary called out and the boy immediately released his friend.
Johnny smiled down at him, though not too far down as the boy was almost as tall as he now. He put his hands on Jason’s shoulders and squeezed. “Don’t worry about that.”
“I knew you’d come, Johnny. You too, Val. I knew you’d be here and now we can go after the bastard that killed my pa!” he proclaimed.
“Watch your mouth, boy. That ain’t no kind of talk, especially in front of your ma,” Johnny berated. “You ain’t goin nowhere for now except to wash up. You smell like fish.” Johnny’s frown weakened into a small smile.
Jason bowed his head then ran into his bedroom. Johnny’s eyes fell on Carl.
“Hey, kiddo,” he called softly.
For the first time, Carl’s eyes welled as he ran into Johnny’s arms, careful of his back.
“I know, son. I know. Go get cleaned up and see if you can’t calm your brother down a little for me. I can’t talk to him if he’s gonna be all mad.”
Carl stepped back and looked up into Johnny’s eyes. “Reckon you won’t be talkin to him at all, then. He stays mad,” the boy stated then went to his room.
The room became crushingly silent once the boys had gone. Johnny and Val retook their seats.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen Carl come close to crying. Jason hasn’t at all,” Mary told quietly.
“Takes time, Mary. For you, too,” Val said.
She sniffed and smiled a little at him.
“Mary, if you don’t feel up to talkin ….”
“No, Johnny. It’s alright.”
He sighed and nodded. “Why was Seth comin to see me?”
“So, he never even got to talk to you. I didn’t know,” she said, casting a look at Val.
“I didn’t wanna get into it in a letter. Just seemed kinda impersonal,” Val explained.
“I understand. It’s just been so hard not knowing.” She inhaled deeply then let it out. “He came to ask for your help. We’ve been having some trouble with a local rancher. He wants to buy the farm and, when Seth said no, he started causing problems.”
“What kind of problems?” Val asked.
“He’s burned two fields, already. Dammed up the creek. Seth didn’t want to involve you but …..” she stopped and clutched her napkin, “I asked him to. I knew you’d know how to handle it, Johnny. I hated it. I know you don’t hire out anymore, but I thought maybe ….”
Johnny laid a hand over hers and squeezed. “It’s alright, Mary.” He looked at Val and knew what he was thinking because he was thinking the same thing.
“What’s his name?” Val asked.
“Eric Parker. He has a spread next to us. He wants the water.”
“How long has it been going on?”
“He only bought the property three months ago but he started almost right away.”
“Is there any law here?” Val continued.
“No. The closest lawman is San Diego and we’re out of his territory,” she said.
“And I ain’t got no jurisdiction here,” he sighed.
Johnny’s mind was already working. But, there were other things to consider now. So many things.
“Mary, do you want to stay here now?” he asked softly.
She looked at him, her eyes flashing. “Seth put his blood and sweat into this land. He loved it. I’ll never leave here as long as there’s a breath in my body.”
Johnny only nodded then a thought occurred to him. “Did anyone know Seth was coming to see me?”
“We didn’t tell anyone.”
All three turned to see Jason standing in the doorway. He walked slowly into the room, his head down.
“Who did you tell, son?”
He scuffed his boot on the floor then looked at her, misery pouring from his eyes.
“Parker’s son, Gabe. He was runnin his mouth bout how his pa was gonna take our farm. I …. I told him they wouldn’t stand a chance as soon as ….” he stopped and swallowed hard.
“As soon as what?” Val asked, knowing the answer already.
“As soon as Johnny Madrid got here,” he whispered.
“Oh, Jason,” Mary cried softly and pulled her son to her.
“Reckon that answers some things,” Val muttered.
Johnny’s head was down, his eyes closed as he took it all in. So, that’s who had him shot. It made perfect sense. Had to be Parker. Now, he had to tell them the truth of that day and it stuck in his throat.
“Jason, get your brother. There’s some things you need to know,” he said huskily.
Once they were all seated around the table, Johnny started.
“First, it’s not your fault, Jason. The only man to blame for any of this is Parker. He started this war and I reckon he thinks he’s won it. When a man decides to take the law in his own hands, anything that comes from that decision is on his head. No matter who else is pulled into it, he has to take responsibility. Do you understand?” He looked directly into Jason’s eyes and the boy nodded. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
“Now, I have to tell you how your pa died and it’s not going to be easy for you to hear. I want you to remember what I’ve just said while you’re listening to this.”
Johnny looked at Val and found support and strength to tell this tale. He sipped at his coffee and wished it was something stronger.
“I was standing in the yard at home talking to my father. The next thing I knew, I had a bullet in my back. My brother, Scott, and some men took off after the shooter. When they topped the hill, they saw a man riding away fast and chased him. Scott took a shot, trying to wing him but the man turned direction suddenly. The bullet …. he was dead before Scott even got to him. They all thought they had the shooter. None of the men saw anyone else around. When they took him to town, Val saw who it was.”
“I knew something was wrong so I rode out to Lancer and told Johnny and his family,” Val supplied.
“It was Seth. Val and I both knew it was wrong. We knew Seth couldn’t have been the man that shot me. But, Scott couldn’t know that. Like I said, no one saw anything else at the time,” Johnny went on.
“By the time I got up the hill to look around, the tracks were all trampled. But, from where Johnny was standin when he was shot, I figured the shooter had ta be somewhere’s to the north. Seth had to be comin from the south.”
“I guess we have a good idea who that shooter was. Or, at least, who he worked for. If Parker knew Seth was coming to me for help, he’d want to stop that from happening,” Johnny finished.
“Why didn’t he just shoot pa instead?” Carl asked.
“I don’t know, boy. I reckon we’ll find out, though,” Val answered roughly.
“Guess he thought it was easier to kill a gunhawk. No one would make much of a fuss about that,” Johnny offered.
“So, your brother killed our pa,” Jason said, anger seeping through every word. “Just shot a man without knowin anything about him!”
“Johnny said he was only tryin ta wing pa, Jason,” Carl said.
“Must be a pretty bad shot then!” the older boy spat.
Johnny grabbed his arm and locked eyes. “You listen to me, boy. Scott had no way of knowing Seth wasn’t the man who’d just shot me in the back. If your pa hadn’t turned …. it was an accident, Jason.”
The boy pulled away from the grasp and stood up.
“Is that the way you solve your problems, Jason? By runnin away when you don’t hear what you want to hear?” Johnny challenged.
“I ain’t runnin from nothin. I’m gonna kill the man that killed my pa!”
Johnny stood so suddenly, the chair clattered and skittered away as he grabbed hold of Jason’s arms. “No, you’re not! The law’s already said it was an accident.”
“He’s the law,” he jerked his head toward Val, “and your friend! You’re just protectin a killer!” He jerked free and ran from the house.
Johnny leaned heavily against the table, clutching the edge. Val sprang from his seat and grabbed him, pulling his own chair near and easing Johnny down. Johnny buried his face in his hands and worked to control the pain in his back and his heart as Val looked at Mary’s white face. There was nothing there but shock and pain.
Carl walked over and picked up the chair from across the room, bringing it back and placing it at the table wordlessly. He walked over to the hutch and opened a bottom drawer, pulling out a bottle of whiskey. He grabbed a cup and brought both to the table, filling the cup and pushing it in front of Johnny then lightly touching his hand.
Johnny looked up slowly into the young eyes then down at the cup. He smiled weakly and took a long drink. “Thanks, son.”
“You alright, Johnny?” Val asked from his place kneeling beside his friend.
“Yeah. Go find him, Val. See if you can get through to him.”
Val cocked a brow but nodded and left. He didn’t know how he was suppose to get through to Jason. He wasn’t all that good with kids and especially not angry, mourning ones.
Johnny closed his eyes briefly then looked at Mary. Carl had his arm around her shoulders and she was staring blankly at the table.
“You okay?” he asked softly.
She blinked several times then looked at him questioningly, as if not understanding what he’d said. Shaking her head, she found her voice.
“It’s my fault. I sent him to see you.”
“No, it’s not. I told you who was to blame for this. And he’ll pay for it, Mary. That’s a promise,” Johnny said, his voice cold and steady. “I’m gonna find a campsite for the night. If Val comes back first, tell him where I went.”
She didn’t answer but Carl nodded his head. Johnny thought he was taking this best of all but that worried him, too. Carl didn’t seem to be accepting everything that had happened. It was as if he wasn’t a part of it all.
Val swatted the limb out of his face and fairly growled. He’d tracked the kid this way but, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do when he found him. His heart went out to Jason and he understood the boy’s pain. He just needed to think it out, Val decided. He wasn’t so sure the kid needed anyone botherin him right now but, Johnny had asked so here he was.
He came to a clearing and spotted Jason sitting on a boulder beside the creek where they’d all fished together one glorious Sunday. He recalled Jason pushing Johnny into the water and almost burst out laughing. But, seeing the boy now, the thought of laughter died quickly.
Brown-haired head hung, legs dangling off the boulder, Val had never seen anyone look so lost. He walked past the boy and looked out over the small creek for several minutes. A soft breeze floated off the water, easing the heat of the sun. Bees buzzed around a small bed of flowers and the birds sang merrily. It was a beautiful day; would be a beautiful day if not for all the pain that surrounded them, too.
“Ain’t nothin gonna make it right. Even if your pa had been killed on purpose by some mangy dog, seein that man dead won’t make it any better. Reckon hearin that don’t help neither but nothin will right now.” Val turned to look at him but Jason hadn’t moved or showed any sign he’d heard. But, Val knew he was listening. He stepped a little closer to the boy.
“I do know Scott feels real bad about this. He didn’t know your pa but when Johnny told ‘im there was no way Seth was the man; well, Scott just turned green. Thought he was gonna be sick right there.”
“What sort is he?” Jason asked so softly, the question took a few seconds to reach Val’s ears.
Val took his hat off and scratched his head. “Well, I don’t know ‘im as well as Johnny but he’s a good man, Jason. He’s honest and fair and he’s always willin ta help folks. Him and Johnny are a lot alike that way.” A small laugh escaped. “Course, they don’t look nothin alike.”
The smile faded as he studied the bowed head. “Scott’s real smart and he thinks things out most times. But, he’s been known ta get hotheaded from time to time. When he saw his brother shot down right in front of ‘im, I reckon he was sore as a boil about it. I reckon you could understand that seein as how you got a brother, too.”
Jason’s head came up slowly, streaks of semi-clean skin showing the tracks of the tears down his cheeks. “He was my pa,” he creaked out.
“He was a fine man, too. Reckon I don’t know all that much about pa’s. Mine wasn’t much ta speak of.” Val stopped and bit his lip. Why had he said that? Why’d he even go down that tired, old road? He took a breath and got back on track.
The boy dipped his head again, his cheeks staining red now. “It’s my fault Johnny was hurt. My fault …”
“Don’t do that, boy. It’s real easy to look back and say what ya should’ve done. You couldn’t know what would happen. Reckon that Parker kid riled you up good. Sometimes, we say things when we’re mad that we don’t really mean. There ain’t no easy answer ta this. It really was an accident and I guess that’s the hardest thing ta take. When there ain’t nobody ta blame….”
“There’s somebody ta blame!” Jason interrupted vehemently. “And I’m gonna make sure they pay for it!”
“Who, boy? What are you fixin ta do?”
Jason stood up, fists clenched. “I’m gonna kill the man responsible for killin my pa. I reckon that’d be Parker when it comes down to it.”
Val sighed heavily and flopped his hat against his thigh. He took the few steps to sidle up next to the boy. “Me and Johnny’ll take care of Parker. You need ta take care of your ma and brother. You’re the man of the house now, Jason. Ya got responsibilities.”
The boy turned dark, angry eyes on Val then, suddenly, he deflated as he took in the man’s words. He said nothing but simply nodded his head.
Johnny didn’t even look up when he heard the approaching horse. He’d come to know Milagro’s steps. Val’s mumbling and complaining was also a very nice clue. He smiled a little as he poured a cup of coffee for his friend.
Val rode in and dismounted, tying his steed next to Barranca then walking to the campfire. He sat down with a grunt and Johnny laughed softly.
“Anybody ever tell you how noisy ya are?”
Val glared at him as he took a sip. “Anybody ever tell you not ta send someone like me ta talk to a kid?”
The smile disappeared. “How’d it go?”
“I don’t know,” Val sighed and shook his head. “I think he heard me. Seemed to. He wants ta kill Parker now but I told him we’d take care of him.”
With one brow cocked, Johnny waited. When he got no more from his friend, he figured he’d better ask. “We? And how are *we* gonna do that, SHERIFF?”
Val only glanced up at him then took the badge off his shirt and stuck it in the pocket. “I got no jurisdiction here so I reckon this’ll be useless.”
Johnny moved to his upturned saddle and leaned back against it. “Well, if he is the one who sent the shooter, I guess we have no choice.”
“Since when do you care about choice? We already know he’s the reason Seth came ta see ya. If nothin else, we need to make ‘im leave Mary and the boys alone.”
“You know it’s different for me now, Val. I ain’t just got myself to think about anymore,” Johnny mumbled.
“Yeah, I also know you got no intentions of just ridin out of here so quit your bellyachin and come up with a plan.”
Johnny smiled a little as he stared into his coffee cup. “We need to get a look at his operation and find out why he wants that farm so bad. It doesn’t feel right that he just wants the water. This area is pretty fertile. Must be a lot of water around.”
“Maybe but may be none of it’s on his ranch,” Val shrugged.
“Then he’s a fool to’ve bought it,” Johnny groused. “Anyway, we should eat and sack in. I want to get a look first thing.”
“Course ya do,” Val snorted and went about fixing supper.
Johnny shifted and grimaced slightly. Truth be told, his back was killing him. He only hoped Val forgot about it. He didn’t need a mother hen riding herd over him the whole time. He knew the stitches were fine because he’d already checked with his shaving mirror. Still, if – no – when Val thought about it, he’d have to listen to more griping, he was sure.
Val did gripe last night and again this morning – about his back and a variety of other things. Johnny usually found his friend’s perpetual bad mood amusing but not this morning. Mostly, because he wasn’t feeling all that chipper himself. But, he was even less inclined to argue with the man, knowing it never helped matters. So, he bore it and went about readying himself for the day.
“Probably not a good idea ta ask around in town,” Val mentioned off-handedly.
Johnny looked over at him as they sat their saddles, ready to go. “No, not a good idea since we don’t know anything about the man or how much weight he’s got.”
Val nodded and started to move until Johnny’s hand on his arm caused him to rein in. “You got some doubts about me, Val?”
The sheriff looked into his friend’s eyes, saw a hint of disappointment and maybe something else. “No, it’s just you don’t seem too eager about this. I’d understand if you ….”
“If I what? Rode off and left you to it? Do you think I’ve lost it, Val?” The questions shot out of him almost as fast as a bullet.
“No! Don’t go puttin words in my mouth, Johnny! I know you can handle yourself. I just don’t want ya feelin like I’m makin ya do anything. That’s all.”
He took a deep breath and calmed himself. “Okay, we’re both in a bad mood so let’s just forget it.”
“As long as you understand one thing. I don’t trust nobody else to ride with me but you,” Val concluded, driving his point home effectively.
Johnny smiled and nodded then pressed his spurs against Barranca. But, as they rode, he had to admit to himself things were different. He was different. His thoughts had been with his family last night, especially Scott. He couldn’t risk sending a telegram to let his brother know the truth. He didn’t want to anyway. He wanted to be there, facing Scott, when he explained things. For he knew his brother would take it badly. Scott was already having a hard time and Johnny knew why. Scott believed him. Even though part of the man was trying to hold out some hope he hadn’t shot an innocent man, Scott knew the truth and Johnny could see he knew it.
He didn’t know how he was going to help his brother deal with this. It was one thing to kill a man to protect you and yours. What had happened to Scott was a whole different animal. Johnny knew about accidents. He knew all too well. He also knew nothing would help get Scott through this but time and coming to understand it within himself. Still, he could be there when his brother needed to talk – or hit someone. A luxury Johnny hadn’t had.
His thoughts stopped abruptly as Val halted Milagro. Johnny’s eyes scanned the area and he nodded. Before them lay green, grassy flatlands and just beyond, a moderate-sized home. Trees swayed in the breeze around the house and one could barely detect a flower garden on the far side of a porch that ran the length of the front of the building. Made of logs, the place looked newly built. There was also a healthy stream running full just past the corrals where a few horses milled about.
“So much for needin water,” Val muttered.
“Notice anything missin?”
Val looked back over the land and shrugged.
Johnny blew out a soft breath through pursed lips. “No cows. Come on, let’s find higher ground before we’re spotted.”
“Spotted by who?” Val asked. Cattle weren’t the only thing missing around the ranch, he noted now. There weren’t any cowboys, either. In fact, the place looked deserted. If not for the health of the garden, the few horses and the newness of the home, Val would think no one lived here.
“Maybe they keep the herd away from the house,” Val suggested.
“Could be but there’s usually some nearby. They like to wander,” Johnny smiled a little.
“So, I’ve heard,” Val snipped.
They rode up a steep hill and moved into the tree line before dismounting. Johnny looped the reins loosely around a low hanging branch then looked all around. One could see for several miles from this vantage point but, he still saw not one heifer.
“There’s something wrong here,” he said.
“Yeah, sure is. Hey, someone’s there,” Val pointed toward the house.
They squatted down and watched as two men walked out of the house. From this distance, they couldn’t get a good look at their faces but both men noted the way they moved. It was an animated conversation as the taller of the two flailed his hands around. He was dressed in black with a white shirt. Nothing peculiar about that. The other was slightly shorter and wearing tan pants and shirt. Both wore black hats.
“He don’t seem too happy,” Johnny noted.
“Nope. Let’s follow ’em.”
“We could get a look in the house,” Johnny suggested.
“Don’t know if it’s empty. ‘Sides, I doubt either of them planted them flowers. Might be a lady of the house and we know he’s got at least one kid.”
Johnny kept the quip to himself as they watched the two men mount up and head east. “You’re right. Come on.”
Not knowing the landscape well, they had to move slowly so as not to show themselves as they followed the two men for over an hour. Finally, they headed off to the south and the followers stopped.
“We’ll have to cross open land to catch up,” Johnny said, his brow furrowed in thought. He looked around for a moment, chewing his lip. “Let’s backtrack a little then cross.”
Val only nodded his approval, inwardly very happy to have Johnny at his side. He would have done this alone if Johnny hadn’t been up to coming but he was glad he didn’t have to. They worked so well together. Sometimes, Val wondered the why of it. Seemed it had always been that way from the moment they met. He pushed the thoughts aside as fanciful and guaranteed to get them in trouble if he didn’t pay attention.
They were almost ready to give up, figuring they’d lost their quarry until they smelled smoke. Stopping in sync, they dismounted silently and left the horses behind. They moved through the woods stealthily, hands at their sides, ready for anything. Or so they thought.
Johnny and Val came to a small clearing that led to a ledge. They could see the smoke wisping upward from the canyon below. Dropping to their bellies, they scooted to the edge and looked over. Below them, they saw a campsite, tents and several men milling about. Giving each other a sidelong and curious glance, they watched for awhile. Neither could figure out what was going on in that canyon.
They spotted one of the men they’d been following, recognizing him from the way he walked and his clothing. He was the second man, the one in tan that they’d decided was not the leader. Not Parker, but that could be a wrong assumption. They still didn’t have faces to go with these men and that was frustrating.
The tan man was milling about, seeming to give orders to other men who would move off at his words. None of it seemed terribly organized. No one seemed to actually be *doing* anything. Â
Johnny tapped Val’s shoulder and jerked his head back then they moved away and sat properly.
“What do you make of that?”
Val scratched his chin and shrugged. “Looks like a tent city but it don’t make any sense. If they’re squatters, Parker would surely run ’em off.”
“Yeah, and we’re pretty close to the Williams farm, too,” Johnny remarked.
“Well, what’ya want to do?”
“Reckon there’s no point in callin in a Marshal.”
Val shook his head. “Can’t prove nothin and they won’t come in just on my say so or Mary’s. We don’t have any witnesses yet.”
“Let’s head back to Mary’s. Maybe she knows more than she’s had a chance to tell us.”
“I’ve only ever see him twice and both times were here,” Mary explained as she set the coffee pot on the table and took a seat. “I just assumed since he bought a ranch, he’s a rancher.”
“Well, it sure doesn’t make much sense,” Val ruminated.
“What about people in town? Is there anyone in his pocket?” Johnny asked.
Mary thought about it then shrugged. “I’m afraid I really don’t know. Art Mathison is a good man and a friend. You can trust him. He owns the general store.”
“Would Seth have talked to him about Parker?” Val asked.
“I know he did,” she confirmed.
“Guess we should talk to him, then.”
Johnny looked over at his friend and nodded. “I need to send a telegram, too.” Pain flickered in his eyes briefly and Val didn’t miss it. Johnny felt a hand on his arm and looked at the woman to his right.
“Tell your brother I understand it was an accident.”
Johnny looked at the table. “He wants to meet you sometime.”
She hesitated and swallowed dryly. “Well, maybe some day. I’m not sure that would be a good idea right now, though.”
He nodded his understanding then looked back quickly with a small smile.
Art Mathison warily eyed the two strangers as he finished an order. Once the customer was gone, the two men approached him and his stomach fell. Something told him these two were not bearers of good news. Lord knew, he could have used some lately. Clearing this thought and any others that may want to follow from his mind, he focused his attention, trying to give the men a friendly smile.
Still, as they came nearer he couldn’t help but take their measure. They were a mismatched pair yet, seemed comfortable with each other. He prided himself on his ability to size people up, having plenty of opportunities in his twenty years as a store owner. The younger looking one was more dangerous, he surmised. Still, he didn’t dismiss the other one. His face told of an unhappy man with serious business on his mind. All he could do was put a smile on his face and wait for whatever may come. So, he did just that.
“Good morning, gents. What can I help you with?”
While Johnny focused his attention on the counter display in front of him, Val eyed the store owner, sizing the man up. He was pretty unremarkable. No distinctive features. Just an ordinary man in an ordinary town. Medium height, medium build, medium everything including coloring. His bespeckled brown eyes seemed intelligent enough but there was fear in them as well. Val figured that fear was in part due to the two of them. Knowing they stood out as strangers in a small town where everyone knows everyone.
“Need some information.”
Mathison startled a bit as his eyes went to the younger man. He’d been watching Val watch him and expected the man to answer his question. He saw the dark head slowly raise and deep blue eyes settle on him. Eyes with no emotion in them whatsoever. He was rattled, he couldn’t hide that, nor could he deny he was getting more nervous by the minute.
“Uh, information?” He stuttered the words and felt like a fool.
A slow smile turned Johnny’s lips up, pleased at the impact he was having on the man. He couldn’t help it. Sometimes, he still got a kick out of intimidating people. It wasn’t one of his finer points, he realized, but it had its uses.
“That’s right. Information about this fella named Parker and Seth Williams.”
Instantly upon hearing his friend’s name, the fear was gone, replaced by anger and grief. Mathison pulled his shoulders back and stiffened his entire body. Jaw tight, he only stared at Johnny.
The reaction both pleased and amused Johnny as he stood straighter himself yet still leaned forward on the counter. “I understand you were friends with Seth Williams.”
“Yes, I was, Mister. If you work for Parker, you can turn right around and leave. I don’t have anything you want,” Mathison stated authoritatively.
Val snorted as he leaned one elbow on the counter and relaxed. Â “Well, that’s just what we want to know. What does Parker want?”
Mathison looked between the two men, clearly confused now.
“Seth was our friend and Mary and the boys still are. We want to know what Parker is up to and we want to make him pay for what he did to Seth.” The smile was gone now and Johnny’s demeanor took on an even more dangerous aura.
“Who are you?” Mathison asked with suspicion.
Johnny and Val shared a look and Johnny shrugged. It didn’t matter since the man was a friend of Seth’s. He trusted Mary and knew she would have told them if there was any need to worry about this man’s loyalty.
“Johnny Madrid and this is Val Crawford,” he answered.
They were both surprised at the relief that flooded the storekeeper’s face. His whole body went slack and he breathed out audibly. Quickly enough, the tension was back as Mathison looked around the store as if someone may have overheard. He licked his lips and moved from around the counter.
“Let me lock up for lunch. We can talk in the back. It will be safer,” he explained as he turned the sign in the window over and slid the lock into place. He said nothing else as he made for the storeroom fully expecting the others to follow.
Once in the back of the building, Mathison checked the outside door and locked it, too.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t want to take any chances. This whole thing has put most of the town on edge.”
“Why don’t you start at the beginning and tell us everything you know,” Val suggested as he propped himself on a crate.
Johnny stood leaning against the door to the front of the store, arms crossed over his chest.
“Well, that would be best,” Mathison agreed as he took a seat on another crate. “It all started about three or four months ago when Parker showed up. He bought the Hanson ranch and started making himself visible around town. Went to church and attended all the social functions. He was very friendly with everyone. Reminded me of a politician.”
Val snorted and Johnny nodded but neither spoke.
“About two months ago, Seth came to see me. He said Parker made an offer to buy his farm. When he turned Parker down, the man suddenly got very unfriendly. He told Seth he’d be back once he’d had some time to think things over. Seth told him he didn’t need time but Parker didn’t seem to pay that much mind. Seth told me the second visit was more to the point. Parker told him he would have Seth’s farm before it was over.” Mathison stopped, remembering that conversation with his friend. One that had lasted through half the night as they’d tried to come up with a way to stop Parker.
“Did he threaten the family?” Johnny asked softly.
Mathison nodded. “And the farm. He said it had been dry lately and he’d hate for a fire to start in Seth’s barn. He never made direct threats, just saying things like that. Nothing anyone could point to and say he’d actually threatened the man. Things like, how it would be a shame if one of the boys fell into the canyon.”
Val’s eyes narrowed as he listened. “What else?” he clipped harshly.
Mathison glanced at him then looked at the floor. “Well, there were two field fires. Then, there was a fire in Seth’s barn but Jason saw it before it got out of hand. That’s when Seth came back to see me and told me about you, Mr. Madrid. I was pretty surprised he knew a gunfighter but he said he trusted you and you’d know how to handle Parker.”
“It’s Johnny. Do you know why Parker is so set on getting the Williams farm?”
“Seth and I couldn’t figure it out at first. I mean, it just didn’t make any sense. He doesn’t raise cattle or anything else anyone can see. He told Seth he wanted his water but that didn’t make sense, either. I was pretty stumped until about a week ago. That’s when I started hearing the rumors.”
Val stood up straight, ready for about anything. “What rumors?”
“That the railroad is coming through San Diego County. Right through Chula Vista. That has to be the reason he wants the land. So he can sell it to the railroad. You see, I went to San Diego and did some checking at the land office. Parker not only bought the ranch for next to nothing, he also bought the property all around Seth’s farm. The only thing standing in his way is the Williams farm.”
Johnny and Val stood on the boardwalk outside the general store and looked over the town. Why the hell the railroad would come through here was beyond Val and he voiced his thoughts.
Johnny didn’t answer for a long moment. “Maybe because it’s so close to the border. Murdoch was telling me a couple of weeks ago that the government is trying to improve relations with Mexico again. One way to do that is get the railroad to build near the border.”
“Reckon how Parker found out about it?”
Johnny shrugged. “Probably has friends in the right places. We need to find out as much as we can about him. I’ll send a wire to Murdoch and see what he can find out.”
“Might not want to do that here. We don’t know who all works for him,” Val advised.
He nodded and looked to the north. “San Diego’s close enough.”
“Yeah, and Scott’s probably going half crazy waitin to hear from you.”
Johnny closed his eyes briefly then headed to his horse. He didn’t know what to say to his brother. Mary’s message would help, he was sure. Still, it wasn’t forgiveness and he didn’t reckon Scott expected that. At least, not right now. His brother hadn’t been far from his thoughts since he’d left Lancer. He wished he’d been able to tell Scott why he knew how the man felt but, it just wouldn’t come and Scott hadn’t asked, to his credit. A small smile flitted across his face. Scott knew better now. Used to be, his brother would harass him to talk about his past. Now, Scott didn’t asked, waited to see if he’d offer and didn’t push when he didn’t.
As they rode toward San Diego, Val kept an eye on the landscape. He didn’t think Parker knew they were here, who they were or anything else. Which was a good thing. Still, he wasn’t taking any chances and Johnny wasn’t in the mood to talk anyway.
He didn’t have to imagine how Scott was feeling. He knew well how it felt to make a mistake like that. He also knew Johnny knew. A helluva thing to have in common with Scott Lancer, he thought. Of course, it was the only thing he did have in common with the man other than Johnny. The eastern-bred man still amazed Val. He figured Scott had just been waiting all these years to end up where he’d always belonged and maybe he knew it, too. Must be why he settled in so easy out here. Why he took to the people and the land so well.
For his part, Val admitted to himself he liked Johnny’s brother. That was pretty remarkable to him as he had little use for most people. He fought down a smile and wished he’d been around when Johnny and Scott met for the first time. He could just imagine what his friend had thought on first sight. Shaking the thoughts away, he glanced over. What he saw unsettled him. Johnny’s face was rock hard, his eyes scanning. Val’s ears perked up, his own eyes once more scanned the surrounding area. Satisfied nothing was wrong at the moment, he concentrated on what they knew and what they were going to do about it.
Neither man spoke a word the entire trip.
Johnny stood in front of the stage depot staring at the small window. He worked his lower lip between his teeth as he thought of how to word the telegram. Taking a deep breath and still unsure, he walked up to the clerk.
The man waited, pencil in hand and poised as Johnny continued searching for the words. How hard could this be?
“Need information on a man named Eric Parker. Local ranch owner. As soon as possible. Tell Scott she understands. Wire me in San Diego.” He looked up at the man and shrugged. “That’s it, I guess.”
“Very well, Sir. Shall I hold any wires for you here?”
“Yeah, I’ll check back in a day or two.” Johnny paid the man then walked over to where Val was waiting.
“There’s a newspaper office across the street. We could ask about the railroad.”
“Couldn’t hurt. He’ll find out we’re here soon enough anyway.”
“Yep, and I can’t wait,” Val growled and stepped into the street.
Johnny sighed and followed him. He wanted the bastard to pay, too, but getting mad wasn’t going to help any. He wasn’t sure they could prove Parker sent the shooter after him, anyway. But, they could stop him from hurting Mary and the boys any more than he had.
Murdoch sat in the living room staring into space as he waited for Scott to come home. He reflected on his son’s state of mind lately and found himself even more worried if that were possible. Scott had been short with everyone, unreasonable at times and basically, difficult to be around. He understood the why, he only wished he knew some way to help his son deal with all of this better. The wire he held in his hand would help a little, he thought. Rather, he hoped. But, he was puzzled and worried about what Johnny may have walked into, as well.
Upon receiving the telegram that afternoon, he’d immediately sent one of his own to the Pinkerton Agency’s office in Los Angeles. He had little information and wasn’t sure they’d be able to help. Johnny’s request had left more questions and no answers. He’d spent considerable time contemplating going after his son. While he knew Johnny could handle himself and had Val as back up, he didn’t like not knowing what was happening. Johnny’s state of mind wore on him, as well.
His thoughts were interrupted by the loud closing of the front door and he sighed. Scott’s home, he thought with chagrin. He looked up at the doorway, waiting for his son to make an appearance and already able to picture the scowl on his face that always seemed to be there these days.
And when Scott walked in, Murdoch wasn’t surprised. Still, he was disappointed. Even though he’d expected the misery he saw, it Â bothered him beyond measure.
“Sir,” Scott said shortly and headed for the sideboard.
“I got a telegram from Johnny,” Murdoch started and watched his son pull up short and turn to face him expectantly. “He asked me to check out a man named Eric Parker. He’s a rancher down there. He also said to tell you she understands.”
Scott’s face contorted into several unidentifiable expressions before settling into simple sadness. He walked over and sat heavily on the sofa, leaning forward to rest his forearms on his thighs. “Is that all?”
Murdoch barely heard the softly spoken question. “I’m afraid so, son. It’s good news, though.”
“Yes, it’s wonderful news. She understands. Perfect!”
He sighed and waited to see if the outburst was over. It seemed to be. “What did you expect, Scott?”
Deflating, Scott bowed his head and rubbed a hand over his forehead. “I don’t know. I suppose it’s better than she hates you. I guess I was hoping for forgiveness.”
“You have to give it time, son. If she understands now, forgiveness will come later.”
“Perhaps. Why does Johnny want information on someone?” he asked, desperate to change the subject a little.
“He didn’t say. He didn’t say much of anything but, I have to say I’m worried. It’s obvious something was happening down there. Whatever it was must still be going on and your brother is right in the middle of it.”
Scott smiled sardonically. “As usual.”
In his bedroom, Scott washed up for supper. Drying his face and hands, he plopped in a chair, relaxing into the cushions. So, Johnny was in the middle of something. Nothing new there. But, he had a bad feeling about this. Nothing new there, either, he supposed. A frown marred his features as he allowed scenarios to play out in his head.
Chula Vista was uncomfortably close to the border. Did Seth Williams come here to warn Johnny about some danger? Had someone followed him, bent on making sure he didn’t get to deliver his message? Why, then, not shoot Seth? Or, maybe, Seth was just being used to lead someone to Johnny. It could be Williams was the one in trouble and seeking help from Johnny.
The more Scott thought about it, the more his head hurt. He knew he could sit there for days playing with different ideas of what had happened but that would get him no closer to the truth. Which is what he needed. Why had this happened? Why had he killed an innocent man? If, he even had. Johnny’s wire said nothing about why Seth had come to Lancer. Nothing other than his widow understood.
Now, his brother seemed embroiled in some problem that could only lead to more trouble. Scott closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead lightly. Johnny’s words came back to him. Mrs. Williams wouldn’t want to see him right away – if ever. He let out a hard breath and allowed his hand to fall into his lap. Well, he was sorry about that. But, if his brother was heading for trouble, he wasn’t going to sit around here.
Scott stood up and straightened his clothing. His decision was made. He was going to Chula Vista no matter what. Now, he only had to convince his father of it. No, he shook his head. Not convince him, just tell him. He wasn’t a man to just take off without a word but he wasn’t going to let anyone talk him out of this either. Murdoch would understand, anyway. Maybe, his father would want to go as well.
Yes, he would want to go. Scott was sure of that. Still, sometimes Murdoch had an annoying habit of letting them take care of their own business. Scott actually laughed aloud at the thought.
“Johnny won’t like that.”
Scott could have written this conversation down beforehand. He knew the tone and he knew Murdoch was trying to convince himself as much as Scott. “No, he won’t but he may need more help.”
“We don’t know that. Besides, the Pinkertons haven’t had any time to check into this man.”
“We can have them wire us in San Diego. If Johnny sent the wire from there, it means he doesn’t want this Parker knowing he’s around. Unless, of course, there’s no telegraph office in Chula Vista.”
Murdoch frowned in thought as he paced a small area before the sofa. “There is.”
“Then, it makes sense, Sir. All I’m suggesting is we ride down there, find out what’s happening and lay low until or if Johnny needs back up.”
“Scott,” Murdoch sighed out, “your brother will not appreciate this. If he’d wanted help, he would have asked for it.”
“Would he?” Scott asked angrily as he stood up. “We both know he won’t ask, Murdoch. Val’s with him and that makes him think he’s got it all covered. But, whatever this man is up to can’t be legal. At the very least, it can’t be moral. Johnny won’t stand for that and neither would you.”
A small smile creased Murdoch’s face. “Nor would you, son. But, have you thought about Mrs. Williams?”
Scott bowed his head momentarily. “Of course I have. I’m sure I won’t have any reason to be in contact with her. Unless she wants to.” The last sentence was barely audible.
Murdoch watched him agonize then walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll leave in the morning then.”
“I’d say this is definitely about the railroad,” Val said in disgust. He looked over at the younger man riding beside him deep in thought. “Well?” he asked heatedly after a few minutes of silence.
Johnny looked up slowly and blew out a breath. “Let’s just get back to camp. Talk it over there.”
“What’s there to talk over?”
Turning now to face his friend, Johnny quirked his lips. “The best way to go about taking care of this, Val. We can’t go in there guns blazin and you know it. Look, I know you’re mad, so am I, but we have to think this out. Now, come on.” He increased his gait and Val begrudgingly followed.
Once in the camp, Johnny went about getting a fire going and coffee on as Val took care of the stock. Neither man spoke while taking care of these chores.
As they settled by the small fire, Johnny sipped his coffee as he stared into the flames. “Reckon we could try the simple way. Ride out there and talk to the man.”
“He’ll just deny it.”
“Probably, but he’ll know this is more than a woman and a couple of kids he’s got to worry over.”
“For how long? We can’t stay here forever. Mary and the boys’ll be left alone at some point. That newspaper fella said the railroad ain’t expectin to start buyin land for another few months.”
Johnny nodded his understanding then leaned back against his overturned saddle. “I don’t think he’ll run easy. He’s got too much to lose.”
Val laid back on his left side and crossed his ankles. “Yeah, so what’s the answer?”
Tapping his fingers against the side of his cup, Johnny shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“You’re a big help. All the sudden you don’t know how ta handle a snake like that?” Val growled.
Johnny sat up quickly, tossing the rest of his coffee into the fire before dropping the tin cup against a rock with a soft ‘plink’. He rose to his feet, dusting his pants negligently as he paced away to a nearby tree.
Startled, Val got up slowly, not sure he was ready for whatever was going through his friend’s head. He stood where he was and waited.
Johnny leaned into the tree, palms flat against the rough bark and rocked back and forth a few times before pushing off and turning to face the lawman. His arms dangled loosely at his sides as his eyes searched his friend’s.
“What exactly is it you want me to do, Val? Ride in there and kill him?”
Val’s shoulders went slack, his jaw dropping open a fraction as he stared in some wonder. “Did I say that?”
He shrugged and cocked his head slightly to the right. “That’s how I take care of problems, right?”
Seething, Val walked around the fire ring, right up to stand a foot from him and put his hands on his hips. “Don’t you start that bull with me, Johnny. I done heard it all, too. Heard all the stories and all the garbage but we both know the truth of it. Don’t stand there and act like I’m sayin somethin I’m not cause you feel sorry for yourself!”
His jaw muscle twitched, his teeth ground together then suddenly, his head went down. Sighing tiredly, Johnny starting picking at his hands then shook his head slightly. “You’re right. I am feelin sorry for myself and I don’t even know why.”
“Reckon you’re blamin yourself for somethin you had no control over. Seth decided to come to you for help. Ya had no way of knowin anything. Still, here ya are takin it all on your own shoulders. What we need ta do is help his family, keep ’em safe. That’s how we can help Seth now.” Val’s voice was hard, he had no use for subtlety most of the time. He needed to make a point, not soothe Johnny’s feathers.
It was working for Johnny’s head came up, he pushed away from the tree and walked back to the fire. “I think we go see Parker. Tell him we know what he’s up to and let him know it ain’t gonna be stood for. We need to get a feel for him, what kind of man he really is then we can figure things out better.” He stopped and turned to Val. “Worse comes to worse, someone is gonna die.”
Val’s moustache twitched then he put the scowl back on his face and nodded.
They were ready by dawn but waited an extra half hour. Since Parker wasn’t really a rancher, they figured he wouldn’t be much of an early riser. Johnny’s mind went over the landscape from the day before, remembering where the outbuildings and corral were and any conceivable hiding place. They couldn’t be sure Parker didn’t know of their presence but Johnny was confident they weren’t being watched, at least.
No words were necessary between the two men as they approached the ranch house. This wasn’t the first time either had played this game and they were as ready as they could be. They dismounted and tied off the horses then stepped up to the porch. The door opened and Johnny stood still, Val turning to look out over the yard.
Parker emerged with a cup of coffee in hand. His six foot frame was lanky. Sandy brown hair with graying temples framed his round face, his skin wrinkled slightly. He was smiling a little, causing his crow’s feet to stand out more. But it was his eyes Johnny noticed most. Though the mouth was smiling, the eyes were empty of anything. They were like doll’s eyes. No emotion on the surface or deeper. To his chagrin, Johnny felt a slight knotting in his stomach. He relaxed and erased it from his thoughts.
“Good morning, gentlemen. How may I help you?” His voice was languid with a distinct Texas drawl easily recognized.
“You Parker?” Johnny asked shortly, allowing no emotion to his own soft tone.
“I am. And you are?” The smile stayed there, right there on the lips and nowhere else.
“Name’s Madrid. Johnny Madrid.” Satisfaction. He had to admit that’s what it was. Seeing the smile disappear from those lips, watching the mouth now match the rest of the face at the mention of his name. It didn’t make him proud but it was satisfying. And now those eyes darted away for a fraction of a second and Johnny almost smiled.
“Well, to what do I owe this honor?”
Val was listening though he’d never taken his eyes off the landscape. He heard the sarcasm but more than that, the fear and he smirked just a little.
“I think you know why we’re here, Parker. It’s real simple. You leave the Williams family alone.”
Parker stepped off the porch, distancing himself from the two men then turning back to face them.
Johnny walked to the steps and leaned against the support beam there, next to Val.
“Gentleman, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I made an offer to buy some property but, unfortunately was turned down. That was the end of it.”
“Yeah? That’s not the way we heard it. Heard you were makin all kinds of noise to Seth Williams about having his place no matter what. Heard about a couple of fires, too.” The smile came back and Johnny almost lunged at the man. He pressed his shoulder harder into the column to keep himself stayed.
“Then you heard wrong. I don’t know anything about any fires or making any noise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m busy.”
“Doin what?” Johnny asked, half a smile curving his lips. “You don’t have any cattle around here. Don’t have much of anything I can see.”
“Exactly what is your business, Parker? Besides threatenin women and children, I mean,” Val asked. He was more than ready to wipe that smirk off the man’s face.
Parker looked at him closely for the first time. “My business is my own, Mister ….?”
Val didn’t answer, didn’t have any intentions of telling the man his name. It wouldn’t matter and he just glared.
Johnny glanced at his friend and smiled wider then stepped into the yard to face the taller man. “Look, it’s real simple. You stay away from the Williams farm. Stay away from the Williams family and you’ll live a nice long life. You own all the land around here except theirs. I’m sure you’ll make a real good profit off the railroad.”
He tensed but, otherwise made no move as he stared into the dark blue eyes. They held that way for several seconds before Parker turned and walked away. “As I said, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’ve had enough of this, Johnny. Just kill ‘im and get it over with,” Val growled.
Parker turned back quickly and looked to Johnny who seemed to be considering the request.
“Not yet. But, we’ll be around so if you have any notions about doing anything stupid, think again.” He walked over, close to Parker again and leaned in, speaking softly. “I’m makin this my personal business and you already know why. If you couldn’t kill me with an ambush, think how hard it’ll be now that I know who you are. And when I do find out which of your men you sent after me … well, I reckon you’ll be down a man.”
Johnny had heard the door creak but made no move to look behind him knowing Val was there. But, he didn’t want the boy involved in this. He stared at Parker as the man’s eyes flitted to his son then back again.
“It’s alright, son. Go back in the house.”
Gabe Parker did no such thing. He walked over to stand beside his father, giving Johnny his first look at the youth. He reckoned the kid to be about seventeen or eighteen. He wasn’t as tall as his father but they resembled a great deal. Including the eyes but it was the gunbelt that convinced him more than anything. Johnny knew this was no innocent boy caught up in his father’s deals.
“Who are these men, pa?”
Parker glared at his son’s profile but Gabe was looking at Johnny with curiosity. “I told you to go back inside,” he ground out. “Mr. Madrid and his friend were just leaving.”
“For now,” Johnny answered sharply. “Just remember what I said, Parker.” He turned then and walked to his horse, Val already heading that way. Both men walked with confidence born of skill and fearlessness. Mounting up in one quick move, Johnny looked back at the two of them one last time before he and Val rode away at a leisurely pace.
“Madrid?” Gabe asked. “Johnny Madrid?”
“Yes, Johnny Madrid. And the next time I tell you to do something, do it!” Parker berated.
The boy rounded on his father, his face contorted with anger. “I’m in this as much as you are. You said so yourself! Let me take care of Madrid.”
Parker laughed aloud then grabbed his son’s shirt front. “You stay away from him, boy. I have no intentions of burying my only son! The boys can take care of those two.”
“I can take him, pa! You’ve seen me with a gun. You know I’m good.”
He sighed and relaxed his shoulders, releasing his grip as he looked upon the young man’s face with some sadness. “Yes, Gabe, you are good. But not *that* good. I forbid you from going anywhere near Madrid, let alone challenge him to a gunfight. I said I’d handle it and I will. Now, go saddle our horses.”
Gabe’s face reddened but he said nothing more and stalked to the barn. He allowed himself to relax as he entered the building. This was his chance to finally show his father he could handle his end of this business. The old man had always been too protective; never letting him get his hands dirty and always sending him to safety if there were any real problems.
He’d been the one to let his father know Williams’ plan to go for Madrid. If it hadn’t been for him, who knows what would have happened? At least now, they weren’t caught completely by surprise and Williams was out of the way. So what if Madrid had shown up? He knew he could handle a used up half-breed gunhawk. He grinned maliciously as he saddled the horses, planning his face-off with Johnny Madrid.
“You know he won’t stop.” Val’s voice was softer than usual as he contemplated the situation.
The sheriff looked over at the stern expression of his friend and just waited for Johnny. Seemed not much he said these days didn’t spark the younger man off like a stick of dynamite. While he had no fear of Johnny, he didn’t like being at odds with him. It didn’t settle well in his gut.
“We can’t force him off his own land, either. All we can really do is wait until he makes another move.”
Val sighed at this, knowing it made sense. “Gotta catch him in the act.”
“Hard to do if we’re camping out and not watchin the farm.”
Johnny turned and looked at him, nodding his head. “Reckon we can bunk in the barn.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Val said, suppressing a small grin.
Johnny’s smile was quick as a frown creased his forehead. “Not sure how Mary and the boys will feel about that.”
“They don’t blame you.”
“Nope, but they blame Scott. Right or wrong. I imagine it’s hard to be around the brother of the man who killed your father or husband, for that matter.”
“Hard or not, we gotta stay close. Can’t protect ’em if we ain’t there. Besides, it’ll give you a chance to work on Jason. I ain’t so sure he’s gonna let this go easy.”
Johnny’s frown deepened at the thought. He wasn’t so sure he could help Jason. The boy had worshipped him at one time but, he was just a kid then. Hell, he was still a kid but not by much. He’d grown a lot in the last four years. But, at least he was letting it out. Carl was the one who worried Johnny most. He was too quiet, too understanding and, maybe, too accepting. He was being strong for his mother and that showed a lot of maturity. But, he had to break down at some point, didn’t he?
It seemed to Johnny as if a given but, when was the question. And how, as well. Everyone reacted differently to grief and a quote he’d heard from his brother entered his mind. Still waters run deep.
They packed up the camp and rode to the farm, both men quiet, sadness once more invading their hearts as they rode passed the grave site.
Mary walked outside when she heard their approach, plastering a small smile on her face. She waited for them to dismount and walk inside before speaking. Even then, she only offered coffee.
Once she’d served and took a seat herself, Johnny told her what they’d learned and of their visit with Parker.
“He won’t just quit,” she observed.
“That’s why we’re here. He knows we’ve got ‘im pegged now. We thought it best of we stayed close by the farm. We can bunk down in the barn,” Val explained.
“Of course but, how long do you think it will take?”
“Can’t be sure. The railroad isn’t planning on buying land for a few months from what we heard. Still, I think he’s gonna want to have ownership established well before that. He knows what he’s up against now. He’ll do some plannin.” Johnny stopped and faced her fully. “He might even hire guns, Mary. If that happens, I’ll want you and the boys to leave until things are settled. Matter of fact, I’d feel a lot better if you’d do that now.”
“No, Johnny. We’re not leaving our home. Seth died for this land. Leaving now would be like slapping him in the face.” Her voice turned hard at the end, her anger swelling.
“Any of you getting hurt is what would slap him in the face, Mary. That’s why he came for my help. He knew he couldn’t protect you alone. No shame in admitting that and it was a smart move. Truth is, it would be a lot easier to do this if we didn’t have to worry about all of you.” He knew it was a low blow but it was the sensible thing to do. One look in her eyes told him, sensible wasn’t on the table.
“I’m not leaving. I’ll send the boys to town but, I’m staying.”
“We’re not going anywhere. This is our land and we’re gonna protect it.”
All three of them turned to find Jason and Carl in the doorway. Mary walked quickly to her boys and caressed each one’s cheek, giving them a smile full of pride.
“Things could get ugly around here, boys. I don’t want you caught in the middle,” Johnny said.
Jason walked over and stood beside him. “Like I said, this is our land. I’m not gonna run off and let someone else protect it. That’s not what my pa would do.”
Johnny looked into the eyes of the almost man before him and felt a measure of pride for the boy, too. A small smile lifted his lips. “It’s up to your ma, I reckon.”
Mary looked long and hard at her oldest son. She knew the danger but she wasn’t quite ready to send them away from her. There may come a time when it was no longer an option but, right now, she needed them and they needed her even more.
“We’ll see how things go.”
Murdoch and Scott rode into San Diego scanning the street and buildings. They spotted the telegraph office then a hotel. Murdoch nodded toward the latter and they reined in. Dismounting, both men stretched out their backs. It had been a long three days in the saddle and they’d pushed pretty hard. Now, as dusk was settling, they were ready for a soft bed and a hot meal.
“I’ll get us a room. Why don’t you get the horses bedded down then we’ll have some supper,” Murdoch suggested.
But, Scott was antsy. He considered his father for a long beat.
“Son, I know you want to get to Johnny but we’re not going anywhere tonight. Besides, we need to discuss the best way to go about this. I’ll check to see if the Pinkerton’s have sent anything while I’m at it.”
He only gave a terse nod of his head as he took his father’s reins and walked to the livery at the end of the street. Murdoch sighed, shook his head and hefted the saddlebags over his shoulder as he made his way into the hotel. Once he’d acquired rooms for them, he headed for the telegraph. He wouldn’t admit it to Scott, but he was as anxious to find out something.
The ride down was somber, neither man having much to say. Murdoch’s thoughts rested with his younger son and he knew Scott’s were on other things; other people as well as his brother. Now, they were here and he wasn’t sure what they could do, if anything. He hadn’t a clue what was going on in Chula Vista.
Scott was just walking up to the hotel when Murdoch waved from down the block. He waited for his father who was holding something in his right hand. Hopefully, it was from the Pinkerton Agency.
“Let’s get a table at the restaurant,” Murdoch said in a terse voice.
Scott stared after him for a beat, a feeling of dread engulfing him as he followed his father. They were seated near the back, secluded per Murdoch’s request. They ordered quickly and it was quiet until their drinks were served.
“Read this,” was all Murdoch said as he passed over the wire.
Scott’s frown deepened as he read the lengthy missive. Finally, he sighed and looked thoughtfully at the older man. “It sounds like we got here just in time.”
“I hope so. We don’t know what’s happening with Johnny and Val. Tomorrow, we’ll ride into Chula Vista. But, I think, if there’s a need to visit the Williams farm, I should go alone.”
Scott opened his mouth to protest then closed it. He didn’t like having to wait around but he knew he needed to be sensitive to the family. At least, until he knew if his brother was in trouble. Then, all bets were off.
Johnny rode into Chula Vista the next morning at a leisurely pace. His eyes moved over the people, checked the alleyways and storefronts then settled on the general store. He dismounted and turned quickly on his heel, catching the stare of a man he didn’t recognize. There was something familiar about him, though, and Johnny nodded once in acknowledgment. The man looked away quickly then walked into the small cafe.
Standing where he was a few more seconds, Johnny tried to remember the man. Then, it came to him. Not the face but the clothes, that hat. It was tan man as he’d come to call him. Parker’s right hand man, he assumed. He smiled a little then walked across the street. Suddenly, he was in the mood for a cup of coffee.
He entered the cafe, the bell over the door announcing him. Unperturbed, he walked slowly to the table where tan man was sitting, nervously twirling his coffee cup between his hands. He’d turned at the sound of the bell then, just as quickly, turned back as his shoulders went up.
Johnny grabbed a chair and turned it so he was sitting alongside the table, his profile to the man. He smiled at the young woman who took his order and poured the coffee, placing the cup before him.
Tan man didn’t answer, didn’t acknowledge his presence at all. Johnny turned his head toward the man and repeated, “I said, nice day,” a little louder.
He cleared his throat, glanced over and nodded. “Yeah.”
“Parker send you or are you just hanging around town?”
It wasn’t as much the casual tone of the voice as it was the softness, almost a gentleness that unsettled the man. That and the fact that he knew exactly who was talking to him.
“Don’t know what you mean,” he replied.
Johnny sipped his coffee. “Uh huh.”
“I don’t want no trouble, mister.”
“Really?” Johnny asked as he turned to fully face the man. “Might want to consider leaving the area then. Cause if Parker is plannin what I think he’s plannin, there’s gonna be trouble. More than you ever bargained for.”
Tan man turned his head slowly, his anxiety level rising as that voice turned to frost. “Look, I’m just a man doin a job.”
“Ambushin a man ain’t much of a job.”
He straightened his back, a look of astonishment on his face. “That wasn’t me!”
“Then who?” Johnny asked with deadly calm.
Tan man flushed and lowered his eyes, turning away as he shrugged his shoulders.
Johnny turned back and sipped the coffee for a few more seconds. With a sigh, he reached in his pocket and tossed a coin on the table then stood up. “Tell your boss I’ll be seein him.”
He walked across the street to the general store which was his original destination. He stopped and looked back just as tan man walked out of the cafe, mounted up and headed out of town at a fast pace. Johnny smiled a little then walked into the store.
Art Mathison greeted Johnny warmly as he handed over a list of supplies for him and Val. “Did you see that man that just left the restaurant?”
“That’s Parker’s man. Name’s Laughton. Amos Laughton. He’s mean,” Mathison replied.
Johnny laughed softly at that. “Didn’t seem too mean to me when I was talkin to him just now. Looked like he might wet his pants any minute.”
Art gave him a wry smile. “Well, I guess it depends on who he’s talking to, then. He’s supposed to be pretty tough.”
Johnny lowered his head, staring at the glass display in front of him. “I guess it’s easy to be tough with women and children.” His disgust wasn’t easily missed.
“Have you made any progress?”
Johnny looked up at the man’s back as he filled the order. “Talked to Parker yesterday. Let him know we were here and knew what he was up to.”
Art stopped and turned around. “Was that wise?”
Shrugging, the younger man was undaunted. “Guess I don’t favor sneakin up on a man like some.”
Setting the coffee and sugar on the counter, Mathison leaned in. “What do you think he’ll do?”
“Come after the farm again. Come after me and Val, too. I tried to get Mary to leave but she’s havin none of it.”
“Sounds like Mary. If it comes to it, she and the boys can stay with me. My house is on the east side, at the end of this street.”
“It might just come to that. Thanks, Mr. Mathison.”
“It’s Art and I’m happy to do anything I can to help. Seth was a good friend and a fine man.”
“That he was,” Johnny murmured. “Is there anyone in town willing to talk against Parker? Someone who might know somethin about his operation?”
He thought about that for a moment. “Well, there might be one man, if he’s willing. He worked for Parker for quite a while but got fired. I’m not sure why. These days, he hires out for odd jobs around town but spends most of his time in the saloon. His name is Tank Murphy.”
Johnny nodded. “What’s he look like?”
Art grimaced. “About my height, nearly bald but only about thirty. You can usually smell him before you see him. He seems to be allergic to soap.”
Johnny laughed at that and thanked the man, paid him and grabbed up his supplies.
The saloon was nearly empty save for the bartender and one man who seemed to be passed out. Johnny sighed and figured this was Tank. Sure, why not? His luck had been so good lately. Having to rely on information from a drunk just about topped it all off nicely.
He walked up to the bartender and nodded then ordered coffee. It was too early in the day to drink.
“Is he drunk or still sleepin off last night?” he asked the barkeep.
The man looked sidelong at him. “Sleepin off the night. Why?”
Johnny gave him a glare and walked over to the table. He slowed his gait as he neared, remembering Art’s description and figuring he’d nailed it. The man reeked even from ten feet away. He sucked it up and settled at the table, sitting beside the man and wrinkling his nose almost without thought. He stared at the top of his balding pate for a minute then shoved at an arm the man was using for a pillow.
There was no reaction and Johnny tried again, harder this time and calling out to the man. A snort was his reward followed by some unintelligible words. At least, he thought they were words. Impatience made him grab the man’s arm and roughly shake him. Finally, Tank snapped his head up and groaned then blinked several times.
“Coffee,” Johnny called to the bartender.
“Whiskey,” Tank countered.
The man looked blearily at his visitor then sat back slowly in the chair. “Who are ya and what’ya want?”
Johnny waited until the coffee was in front of him and the bartender had retreated before answering the man. “I want information and I’m willing to pay for it – if it’s good.”
Tank seemed to revive himself at the mention of money. He leaned forward and took the coffee cup in both shaking hands. He took two long and noisy slurps then wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve. Johnny couldn’t help but wince as he looked at that shirt. There was manure on it though he couldn’t guess from what animal – or maybe it was Tank’s. That thought made his stomach turn.
“What’ya wanna know about?”
Johnny blinked as he tore his thoughts from the shirt, not a difficult task. “Eric Parker.”
Tank’s hands shook even more if that were possible and he clutched the coffee cup. “I sure could use a drink, mister.”
“And you’ll get one as soon as you tell me everything you know about Parker and his plans.” Johnny saw the doubt in the man’s eyes and sighed. He walked over to the bar and bought a bottle of whiskey. Bringing it back to the table, he moved his hand quickly away as Tank reached for it.
“You’re no good to me drunk. You’ll get this and more when I get what I want.”
The man sighed almost mournfully then nodded his head. “I don’t know all that much. He bought the ranch then started buyin up all the smaller ranches and farms all around him. Whenever somebody wouldn’t sell, me and the boys would go and persuade them it was in their best interest.”
He shrugged as if it were of little importance. “Burned barns, ran off cattle, shot up some homesteads. That sorta thing. Everyone of ’em sold out pretty quick and for pennies on the dollar. All but one,” he frowned.
“Seth Williams,” Johnny stated as fact.
“Yeah, that’s his name. He told Parker ta go to hell. Parker didn’t like that. We burned a couple of his fields, threatened him. Then, Parker wanted us to threaten the missus. I didn’t hold with that. Never had ta go after a woman before. Laughton did that and he sure enjoyed it, too.
“I was there. He didn’t hurt her but he scared her and her boy real bad. I told Parker I didn’t wanna have nothin ta do with that and he fired me.” His bitterness was easy to hear.
Johnny nodded. “And he was doin all that so he could sell the land to the railroad?”
“Said they’d pay a pretty penny cause he’d be the only landowner and they’d have to deal with him. Said the railroad would just go around him if they had the chance. The Williams farm is smack on the main line. They could build right through there and just make sure they didn’t get on Parker’s land atall.”
Johnny frowned as his mind’s eye saw a map of the land. Tank was right. He hadn’t thought of it before but Seth’s farm ran a strip right through that area. But even if Parker owned it, the railroad still had the choice of buying from the other land owners. The only way to ensure his success was to have it all.
“How does Parker know so much about where the railroad wants to build?”
“Well, I heard him tellin Laughton that he had a man on the inside. I reckoned that meant someone workin for the railroad. Could even be a partner.”
“Why is he pushin so hard, though? The railroad doesn’t plan on even starting to buy land for a few more months.”
Tank gave him a sidelong look. “That’s what they want everyone to think but it ain’t true. They’ll be here next month. That’s what Parker’s man told him.”
“Do you know Seth Williams is dead?”
“Yeah, I heard about that but I was gone before then.”
Johnny leaned in. “Do you know who he sent after Seth?”
Tank swallowed hard. His eyes darted around the room then settled on the bottle in Johnny’s hand. He licked his lips and leaned in, his rancid breath hot in Johnny’s face.
“He’s got a gunhawk on the payroll now from what I hear. I still talk to some of the boys when they come to town.”
Johnny made himself still though he wanted desperately to pull away from the stinking man. “Who?”
Tank hesitated, as if saying the name would spell his doom. Blowing out a hard breath, he whispered it. “Frank Trask.”
Johnny sat back in his chair and sighed out then nodded his head. He and Trask were old acquaintances. He set the bottle on the table but kept a firm grip on it. “Is there anything else? Anything at all?”
“Well, I did hear Williams was goin to see Johnny Madrid. Was gonna hire him or somethin though I don’t know how he thought he could afford it. That’s why Parker sent Trask after him. I don’t know the details but I heard Trask shot Madrid and Williams got the blame for it. Look, Parker is pure evil if’n I ever saw it. He ain’t gonna stop til he gets what he wants and he don’t much care who gets in his way.” Tank sat back a little, his eyes on the bottle.
“Are all his men camped out in that canyon or are there more?”
Tank’s eyes widened as he gawked. “How’d you know about that?”
“Nevermind, just answer the question.”
“That’s where they are, even the gunhawk. Must be payin him a pretty penny to camp out like that when Parker’s sittin pretty up in that fine house. He’s got about twenty men now.”
“Don’t seem like he’s gonna make much profit if he’s gotta pay all those men and Trask,” Johnny mused aloud.
“He ain’t plannin on sellin, he’s plannin on leasin it out somehow.”
Johnny’s eyes came up as he looked at the drunkard. Of course, he thought. That would be a much bigger payday. And, Parker could probably still keep that big house of his. He sighed and nodded then pushed the bottle across the table, releasing his hold. He then reached in his pocket and pulled out five dollars, tossing it on the table, too. He made to stand then leaned over Tank.
“You and me never had this conversation. If it stays that way, there’ll be a lot more money than that when everything is said and done.”
Tank looked up into his eyes and saw honesty. A rare commodity it was, so he recognized it easily. He nodded his head and smiled.
Johnny rode out of town at a quick pace. Five minutes later, Murdoch and Scott rode in from the opposite direction.
Chula Vista seemed like a nice, small town on first glance. People went about their business, stopping to chat with neighbors or window shop. Everyone seemed to be happy as larks. Scott snorted at the thought. Must be nice to shrug off a man’s death, a neighbor’s death, like that. His frown deepened as his mood declined further. He’d been angry for so long now, it seemed. With himself and, maybe a little with Johnny though he had no right. His guilt bore down on his shoulders like an albatross and he wasn’t sure it would ever go away. Why couldn’t Seth Williams have been a bad man?
They stopped in front of the small hotel and he watched his father dismount. Scott stayed the saddle a few more seconds, trying to settle his stomach. Anger, guilt, whichever was ruling at the moment was causing tidal waves inside him. He grit his teeth and swung his leg over the saddle.
Wordlessly, they entered the lobby. Murdoch went to the desk to procure rooms while he took a look around. Nice and clean. Just like the rest of the town. Or so it seemed. He wasn’t ready to give in even an inch. It was unreasonable, his logical mind told him. Still, his gut and his heart wouldn’t release their hold on his skepticism. He wanted these people to be immoral, uncaring. For if they were, then Seth was and he could erase his guilt.
Stop it, Scott! he chastised himself. He knew without a doubt his brother wasn’t wrong. Johnny had a way of sizing men up and he’d been friends with Williams. Scott knew what he saw was real enough. There were bad apples everywhere but, for the most part, he supposed this was a small town like any other. No devils hiding in shadows ruling with an iron grip. Whatever was going on in Chula Vista, the whole town wasn’t in on it, most likely.
He’d never been one to judge quickly. Had always believed in giving people the benefit of the doubt and he knew this was pure selfishness on his part. Another emotion he wasn’t very familiar with. He decided it would be best if he tried his hardest to retrieve his beliefs and allow them to stand front and center. Be a man as his grandfather was so fond of saying. His mouth quirked just a little at that.
Scott looked up into his father’s concerned eyes and forced a small smile. “Yes, Sir.”
Johnny wanted to get back to the farm as fast as he could to let Val in on all he’d found out. As he rounded a bend in the road just half a mile from the Williams farm, he reined to a stop quickly. Three men blocked the way, rifles laid across their laps. Johnny’s eyes went to the middle one and he smiled.
“Afternoon, Johnny,” Trask hailed as he alone moved forward. “Son, I heard you got yourself killed down Mexico way. Sure is good to see you.”
Johnny couldn’t help but raise a skeptical brow at that proclamation. His smile became more subdued as his eyes twinkled with amusement. “Frank,” he nodded as he leaned on the saddle horn a bit. “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
“Oh, I don’t. I surely don’t. You sure had a whole lot of folks cryin over your demise, though. Mostly ladies,” Trask grinned wickedly.
Laughing softly, he shook his head. “Well, what can I say? I’m popular.”
Trask laughed heartily then reined to a stop as he came alongside. “What in the world are you doin around these parts?”
“You know what I’m doin, Frank. Your boss send you out here to take care of me – again?” he asked, still quite amused by the situation.
“He did. Told him it was foolish. But, now, well, I gotta have your gun,” he sighed regretfully.
Johnny wasn’t buying the regret or the friendly exchange. His smile disappeared and he looked flatly at Trask. “You know I’m not gonna do that.”
“Yeah, I know. I hate ta do this, Johnny. I truly do but, well, I gotta kill ya now.”
“You already tried that once.”
Trask shrugged. “Site must’ve been off. I was half expectin it was a wild goose chase but, there you stood.”
“So, you followed Williams.”
Trask grinned a little. “How else was I gonna find ya?”
Their eyes locked on for long seconds as each man measured the other. Then, without a blink, Johnny dug his spur into Barranca’s right side and the horse moved violently to the left, knocking into Trask’s mount. Johnny pulled back hard on the reins and Barranca responded, rearing up, front hooves dancing in the air as he whinnied loudly.
The hooves hit the ground and Johnny bore hard to the left, pushing at Trask’s chestnut as Barranca shouldered him out of the way. Within two seconds, man and beast were headed across country. Johnny laid low across Barranca’s neck as he heard the whine of projectiles all around him. He didn’t dare take the time to fire back. He asked for more power and received it as the palomino seemed to fly through the air, hitting the earth with long, hard strides.
Curses and rifle shots followed their course as they made for the woods just fifty feet ahead. Johnny’s heart raced as fast as the horse. Just a few more seconds, just a few more seconds, he kept thinking to himself.
As they entered the tree line, Barranca whinnied and faltered then picked his speed back up. Johnny held the reins tight, maneuvering through the forestry as he slowed their pace. He didn’t stop until he was in front of the farmhouse.
Breathing heavily, Johnny slid out of the saddle as Val came tearing out of the barn, gun drawn.
“What the hell?!”
“Get ready. Don’t know if they’ll come after me here or not,” Johnny huffed out as he reached back and pulled his rifle from the scabbard.
Mary opened the door and Val shouted at her to get back inside, in the back room and stay down.
“Where are the boys?” Johnny asked.
“They’re inside,” Val replied as he hunkered down behind a water trough, gun aimed and ready.
Johnny joined him there, just off the porch and cocked his rifle. He heard the door open again and turned, anger reddening his face when he saw. “Jason, get inside!”
The boy ran out, shotgun in hand, ignoring the orders. He knelt behind the porch railing and watched the yard. “No! I said I was gonna protect this land and that’s what I’m gonna do.”
“Leave it. We ain’t got time ta argue,” Val growled.
Johnny left it for now but he intended to have a long talk with Jason and very soon. They all stilled and kept watch. Ten minutes passed, the twenty, then thirty. Johnny released a breath and stood up.
“They’d be here by now if they were comin.”
Val got up as well. “Reckon so. Now, you wanna tell me what happened?”
Johnny turned to look him in the eye. “Frank Trask. He’s Parker’s gun and he’s the one that shot me at Lancer.”
Val narrowed his eyes as he studied his friend then he drew in a breath and looked past Johnny. He held that breath, unwilling to speak what he knew would upset his friend. Bracing himself, he put a gentle hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Turn around, amigo.”
Johnny cocked his head to one side curiously then turned. His eyes widened and he dropped the rifle as he ran to his beloved horse. Barranca’s sides still heaved, his coat slick with sweat but that wasn’t Johnny’s concern. It was the blood. Long rivulets of blood that ran off the palomino’s left flank.
He examined the wound closely and took his time. Gingerly, he probed then his shoulders simply fell in relief. “No bullet. It’s a graze but it’s deep. I’m sorry, boy. I didn’t know.” He whispered the last.
“Let’s get him into the barn, Johnny. Get him taken care of,” Val said gently.
Jason watched from the porch, a bit stunned at the change that had come over Johnny in those few seconds. Where there had been a hard man with steely eyes set for a fight, now stood a gentle, caring man more concerned for his horse than anything that may still happen.
Johnny worked on Barranca’s wound the entire time he told Val about Tank and all the information he’d been given. The horse was in pain and, gentle as he tried to be, he couldn’t spare the animal that suffering. He knew it could have been so much worse and he thanked God it wasn’t. He couldn’t lose this animal. Not now. Not ever. And definitely not like this.
Once Barranca was completely cared for and bedded down, Johnny walked over and sat on a stack of hay next to Val. Exhaustion told in his posture and he leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs then wiped a hand over his sweat-soaked face.
Val patted his back briefly, knowing prolonged contact would not be appreciated at this moment. Johnny’s nerves were raw and Val recognized this as a time when he had to work harder to rein himself in. He looked at Johnny’s shirt, relieved there was no blood seeping through. It was almost healed anyway and Johnny had shown no sign of discomfort for a while now. He needed to check that wound.
“He’ll be alright.”
“Yeah, coulda been a lot worse. I’ll have to get another horse for a while, let him rest up.” He shook his head and sat up straighter. “You should’ve seen him out there, Val. He knew exactly what I wanted him to do.”
Val chuckled a little. “I reckon he knows ya pretty well by now. Reckon he figured you were about ta do somethin crazy.”
The remark garnered him a small laugh from Johnny then he fell serious. “We need more help.”
“I know. I guess it’s time to call your old man in.”
Johnny glanced over at him. He didn’t want to do that but he had little choice. Murdoch would come, of course, and bring as many men as they needed. But, Scott would come, too and that was a whole other mess. Still, they could do nothing else. They didn’t know the townspeople and Johnny didn’t want to drag them into this anyway. Hell, he didn’t want to drag his father into it but that’s were they were.
“We should send one of the boys in. I don’t want to leave the farm unprotected,” he finally said.
“Best make it Carl. If Jason gets even a sniff of Parker, I don’t wanna think what that boy would do.”
“No, they’re all going,” Johnny reconsidered. “They can’t stay here now. Art Mathison said they could stay with him.”
Val cocked a brow. “Good luck with that one, buddy.”
Jason was still on the porch, shotgun at the ready when they walked out of the barn. Johnny shook his head and walked up. “If they were comin today, they’d be here by now. Come inside. We need to talk.”
Mary was visibly shaken, Carl standing beside her chair, rubbing her shoulders. Johnny thought once more the boy was acting way too grown up. He sat next to her, taking her hand in his.
“You need to listen to me now. Parker’s got a hired gun and he’s good. He tried to kill me today. You and the boys need to leave right now. You can stay with Mr. Mathison, he’s already offered.”
She looked at him with tear-stained eyes and only nodded.
“I’m not leavin,” Jason said vehemently.
Johnny came out of his chair and moved swiftly to the boy still standing by the door. He grabbed the shotgun out of his hands and set it down then took hold of Jason’s shoulders, shaking them.
“Listen to me. You don’t know what you’re doin. You’ll only be in the way. I can’t watch you and fight, too. And I ain’t gonna die because you’re too hardheaded and mad to know what’s good for you. Your father came to me for help. There’s no shame in that. Well, I’m here and I’m gonna take care of this. Your mother needs you with her, Jason. She needs your strength. What would it do to her if you get yourself killed, too? Have you even thought about her once?”
The boy’s head went down, the air rushing from his lungs. Johnny squeezed his shoulders and put one hand at the nape of his neck, softening his voice. “You’re almost a man, Jason, but you ain’t there yet. Don’t be so eager to kill. Believe me, it won’t make you feel any better. It won’t make the pain and anger go away. I know what I’m talking about.”
Mary stood up and walked slowly toward them. Hands clasped in front of her, she begged her son. “Please, Jason. Please stay with me. Johnny’s right. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you. I’d die if I lost you, too.”
The small sniffle sounded like a cannon in the silence of the room. Jason wiped his nose on his sleeve before raising his head. Eyes filled with pain found Johnny’s but he could only nod.
Johnny sighed and smiled at him. “You and your brother go pack.”
“I’ll hitch up the wagon,” Val offered.
Johnny helped Mary onto the wagon seat and pressed a piece of paper in her hand. “Ask Mathison to send this wire for me if he trusts the operator. If not, ask him to ride to San Diego tomorrow and send it.”
She nodded but didn’t release his hand. “I don’t know how to thank you, Johnny. Both of you. You’re putting your lives on the line for us. Maybe we should sell out.”
“If that’s what you want, then do it. But, don’t sell because you’re afraid for us, Mary. If things go bad, take what you can get from Parker then get out of here but don’t come back to the farm. Not for anything. Stay where there are people around. A lot of people.”
She took a deep breath and smiled sadly at him. “I never want to leave here. Please, be careful. I’d hate for anything to happen to the two of you.”
He smiled at her. “We’ll be careful.” Looking over at Jason who had retrieved the shotgun and sat next to his mother, Johnny added, “Val’s gonna ride with you a piece just to make sure you get through. Don’t use that thing unless you have to. Remember what I said.”
Jason nodded at him, his hand tightening around the stock of the gun.
Val mounted up, giving Johnny an uneasy look. “I’ll be back in less than an hour. Try not to get yourself killed by then.”
Johnny grinned widely at him. “Can’t promise nothin but I’ll try.”
Val growled and they set off. Johnny watched until they were out of sight then headed to the barn. He checked on Barranca then went back to the house and started moving furniture.
“This is wrong,” Mary spoke out suddenly. “I can’t let you do this, Val. It’s not worth your lives.”
“Nobody’s forcin us to do anything, Mary. Me and Johnny know what we’re up against. We’re sendin for help. That’s what that wire’s about. Until then, we’ll lay low and wait it out.”
“What if Parker comes after you again?” Jason asked.
“Reckon we’ll handle it, son. Your job is to take care of your ma and brother. Look, we both got some experience with this sort of thing. I ain’t sayin we’re invincible but we got a few tricks of our own. It’s worked this long, reckon it’ll keep right on workin.” Val’s words were calm and sure but he was worried. Not about himself or even Johnny as much as these folks. This family who’d already lost their man and had one whelp just itchin to fill those boots way too fast.
He pulled to a stop just outside of town. “I’ll leave ya here and head on back. Make sure that wire gets sent, now.”
“I will, Val. Thank you again.”
He tipped his hat at her and gave a lopsided smile then turned and headed back to the farm cross country. Val saw no reason to take a chance on that road being blocked again. If Parker had men watching, they’d figure out pretty quick what was happening and know he’d be heading back that way soon. Or, they’d head to the farm and try to get to Johnny while he was alone. That thought made Val press his steed a little faster.
They’d talked to the hotel clerk and been to the saloon. They’d stopped to have a meal and now, Scott and Murdoch headed to the general store. No one seemed inclined to talk about Eric Parker. All they got were sealed lips or fearful looks. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Murdoch had made up his mind. If they could find out nothing from the storekeeper, he was going out to the Williams farm tonight.
Waiting was the hardest part. There were two customers ahead of them and neither man wanted to talk in front of them. They figured if Parker had ears in town, they’d already pressed their luck far enough. Finally, the customers left leaving them alone with the clerk.
The man smiled at them. “May I help you, gentlemen?”
“I hope so. My name is Murdoch Lancer and this is my son, Scott. We’re looking for information on a man named Eric Parker.”
Art studied the two men but he couldn’t tell what they might be up to. “What kind of information?”
“Where his ranch is and how many people he’s strong armed into selling out to him so far, for starters,” Scott said harshly.
Murdoch pulled a face, more than over Scott’s attitude. While he knew his son was suffering, they would get nowhere starting out hostile.
Scott’s eyes narrowed at the terse question. He opened his mouth but was cut off.
“My other son, Johnny, is here. He and a friend came to help the Williams family. We don’t want to cause any trouble but we need to know what we’re up against,” Murdoch explained.
Mathison looked him over, then Scott and decided they couldn’t mean Madrid. The explanation didn’t make much sense to him, either. “Then why don’t you go to the Williams farm?”
Scott turned away, walking over to the window display, his fists clenched.
“Did you know Seth Williams?”
Art’s eyes left Scott’s back and refocused on Murdoch. “I did. He was a damned fine man.”
The rancher felt some relief, believing the man’s statement made with such conviction. “Things are complicated. We don’t want to ride in and ruin any plans Johnny may have. He doesn’t know we’re here yet.”
Scott watched the wagon pull up outside. A young boy jumped down and moved around to the other side, helping a woman from the seat. An even younger boy climbed out of the bed and joined them on the boardwalk as the woman straightened herself. She seemed hesitant, as if she wasn’t thrilled with being there. She looked up and down the street before smiling down at the younger boy. Â Â
“Mr. Lancer, I’m not so sure who you really are. If Johnny is your son, you should head on out to the farm and talk to him. If he isn’t, I suppose you won’t get too far before he puts a bullet in you.”
Murdoch’s shoulders tensed as he looked hard at the man. “Has there been trouble?”
“I don’t know of any yet but it’s brewing. You can feel it in the air,” Mathison said.
Scott pulled his attention from the woman and children and walked back to the counter. “Johnny won’t shoot at us. Look, if you know anything about what’s happening with my brother, you need to tell us.”
Art’s eyes went past them and widened when he saw her. He moved quickly around the counter and walked up to her. “Mary, what’s wrong?”
“Parker sent his gunfighter after Johnny. He sent us to town.”
Murdoch shouldered past the storekeeper. “Is Johnny alright?”
The older boy stepped around his mother, blocking her with his body, the shotgun still in his right hand. “Who are you?”
If he hadn’t been so worried, Murdoch would have taken a moment to admire the boy’s protectiveness. His instincts told him who these people were but his focus was tight. “I’m Murdoch Lancer. Johnny’s father.”
Mary pressed a hand on her son’s shoulder and he stepped aside. She took two steps and looked up into the man’s face. “I’m Mary Williams. These are my sons, Jason and Carl.”
He looked into the proud, sad eyes and nodded. “I’m sorry about your husband, Mrs. Williams but, I need to know about Johnny.”
“He’s alright. Val rode us to the edge of town and he’s headed back to the farm but, they could use your help. Johnny asked me to send this wire to you,” she said as she handed over the note.
Murdoch read it quickly and frowned, knowing Johnny wouldn’t send for help unless things were getting bad. “I’ll send for our men but it will take them at least three days to get here. Now, how do we get to your farm?”
For the first time, she noticed him standing near the counter. His eyes were on her, staring intently. Mary’s heart fluttered in her chest as her stomach dropped. She took a breath and gave Murdoch the directions, making herself look away. She knew who he was. The man who’d killed her husband. She could only pray Jason wouldn’t make the connection. Not yet. Johnny and Val needed all the help they could get. Now was not the time for her son’s anger.
Once she’d finished, Art Mathison took her by the arm and began guiding her out of the store. “Let’s get you all settled at the house. Come on, boys.”
She grabbed Jason’s arm, unable to look at her son for fear of giving herself away. She could only hope he hadn’t seen the other man in the store. His bicep was relaxed under her loose grip and she realized he didn’t know. There would be time for all that later, she thought, and prayed it was true.
Murdoch followed them out. “Just a minute. Are there any men in town willing to help us?”
Mathison looked sadly at him and shook his head. “They’re all too scared. Soon as I get these folks settled, I’ll ride out. That’s the best I can do. Seth tried to rally the townsfolk before he …. left, but nobody would help.” He turned back to Mary and helped her into the wagon before climbing aboard himself.
Murdoch watched them for a minute before returning to Scott. The younger man’s face was pale and he looked … stricken. He quickly went to his son and put a gentle hand on his arm. “Are you alright?”
Scott exhaled and slumped against the counter. “I don’t know. She’s younger than I imagined for some reason. I … she looked right at me. She knew but she didn’t say a word.” His voice shook badly and Murdoch tightened his grip.
“I think she’s more worried about Johnny and Val just now. Let’s send a wire to the ranch then get out there. If Parker’s already tried something, I doubt he’ll back off for long.”
Scott nodded but didn’t move right away. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, searching for some inner strength to push through. Finding something, he took a deep breath and stood straight. He looked into his father’s eyes and nodded then walked outside.
Murdoch shook his head slowly. Scott would get through this crisis but, what then? What would happen after it was all said and done? Suddenly, he realized he was assuming they would all come out of this intact. Setting his jaw, he determined to insure that outcome then followed his son into the street.
Murdoch sent the urgent wire and a second to the US Marshal as Scott decided to go back into the store and grab some extra ammunition. He took his saddle bags with him and stuffed them full then threw several bills on the counter.
Murdoch joined his son already saddled up and they headed south out of town as another man, dressed in tan clothing, mounted up and followed.
Val entered the property from the back, dismounting and walking slowly up the kitchen door. His right hand hovered over the butt of his gun as he eased onto the small porch. As he reached for the knob, the door swung open and he found himself staring down the barrel of a pistol. Slowly, the gun was raised upward as Johnny appeared behind it.
Val breathed out then glared. “Dammit!”
Ignoring the curse, Johnny walked back through to the living room. “Are they safe?”
“Yeah, left them right at the edge of town before headin back,” he answered as he took in the barricaded front door and windows. “What didn’t ya put somethin at the back door?”
“I figured you’d come in that way. Help me with the table. It’s been quiet here,” Johnny reported, probably needlessly, as they gave the table one last good shove.
Val nodded and walked over to look out a window. “That’s good, I guess.”
Johnny didn’t answer for a long moment. He perched on the edge of the table and watched his friend. “We’re in a mess, Val. Even with sendin for Murdoch, it’ll take him days to get here.”
“Yeah, I know. Ain’t like we got much choice. Anybody willin ta fight’s already been run off, more than likely.”
Johnny’s mouth twisted as he thought. “Might be worth the effort to ask around town.”
The sheriff considered this but he had to wonder. “Then how come they didn’t help Seth?”
Johnny lowered his eyes and only nodded. He sucked in a breath. “Well, got the rifles loaded and ready. Coffee’s on. All we can do is wait for it. Unless …” he stopped and looked hard at his friend.
“Unless what?” Val asked though he didn’t really have to.
“Unless we go after them.”
A grin spread across the older man’s face. “They’d never expect that.”
“Yeah, but will Parker believe it?”
Johnny shrugged. “Only one way to find out.”
“How about we wait til dark. If they don’t show by then, we’ll go after ’em.”
“Alright, I just hope they don’t come after we leave and burn the place to the ground.”
Val quirked his mouth at that idea. He studied Johnny for a long moment. “Let me check your back one last time.”
Johnny rolled his eyes but he allowed it. Val was pleased with what he saw.
“Stitches are ready to come out if ya want.” His head snapped around as he heard the riders. Pulling his gun, he positioned himself beside the window, ready for anything.
Johnny jumped up and moved swiftly to the other window, his eyes searching the yard and beyond. What he saw made his mouth drop open.
“I don’t believe it!” Val hissed.
Johnny shook his head, a grin appearing on his face. “I do. Stubborn mules!” But he was laughing softly at his family as he pulled the sofa from in front of the door and opened it.
Murdoch and Scott pulled to a stop when the door opened and watched as Johnny emerged. Murdoch dismounted first.
“Thank God. We heard there’d been trouble. Are you alright?”
Johnny wore the surprise openly. “Yeah, we’re fine. How’d you know?”
“We were at the store when Mrs. Williams arrived,” Scott explained as he landed lightly on the earth.
“Not that we ain’t glad ta see ya but I don’t suppose you brought a couple dozen men with ya,” Val spoke out.
“I’m afraid not, Val. I sent a telegram to the ranch but I don’t know how much good it will do now.”
“Not much. We’re expectin Parker anytime now,” Johnny answered.
“I also sent a wire to the U.S. Marshal,” Murdoch added.
“Don’t know what he can do without proof. Let’s get inside. No sense in bein sittin ducks,” Val groused as he strode into the house.
Johnny pushed the sofa back into place once everyone was indoors.
“How is that going to help?” Scott wanted to know.
“Might catch a few bullets,” Johnny shrugged.
“I brought extra ammunition.”
The younger brother turned and smiled widely at the older. “I knew that Harvard education was good for something.”
“Tell us what’s been happening, son.”
They settled at the table as Val stood watch. Johnny told them everything he knew and everything they’d seen since arriving. He didn’t mention Mary or the boys much and Scott couldn’t read his face.
“I got some information from the Pinkerton’s. Apparently, this isn’t the first time Parker’s done this. He pulled the same stunt in Colorado and again in northern California. It seems no one has been able to catch up with him, though.”
“Until now. We were thinking of goin on the attack if they don’t show soon.”
Murdoch raised a brow at that. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, son. We’ve got cover here and plenty of ammo.”
“It can also turn into a trap, Murdoch. Especially, if Parker decides to strike a match. We wouldn’t stand a chance in here.”
“How sure are you of your information? You said the man who told you was a drunk,” Scott interjected.
“Well, he was sober when I talked to him. He was telling me the truth. We know where they’re camped.”
“I still don’t like it. Stumbling around in the dark. We could get ourselves killed without ever getting to Parker’s men,” Murdoch said.
“We?” Johnny asked, raising a brow. “Not we, old man. Me and Val. You’re stayin here with Scott to keep watch on the house. We might miss them and I don’t want this place unprotected. If anybody starts shootin, we should be able to hear it.”
“Oh no, that is *not* going to happen!” Murdoch commanded.
His mouth twitched and his eyes lit up as he considered the order. “It’s the best plan,” he said quietly.
“Art Mathison is on his way to help. He can watch the farm while we all go,” Scott tried.
“Mathison? He’s a nice man and all but he’s a storekeeper, Scott. Has he ever even fired a gun?” Val asked.
“I don’t know but it’s better than nothing.”
“He said no one in town would help. He told me Seth tried to rally the people but got nowhere,” Murdoch divulged. “Johnny, going out there is suicide. I can’t let you do this.”
“Not your call,” he answered icily.
As father and son glared at each other, Val took it all in. They didn’t have time for this nonsense. It was growing dark and they’d have to go soon if they were going. He turned back to the window and watched as Mathison rode up. He announced the man’s arrival and moved the barricade to let him in.
“I brought more rifles and all the ammunition I could carry. And this,” Mathison said breathlessly as he gently laid the saddlebags on the table.
“What is it?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny grinned and looked over at Val who was smiling widely and winking at his friend.
“Well, that should even things out. Thanks, Mr. Mathison. Are Mary and the boys alright?”
“They’re settled, Johnny. As to being alright, well,” he shrugged.
“I’ll need to borrow your horse if he’s sound,” Johnny said.
“Where’s Barranca?” Scott asked.
Johnny turned away, opening the saddlebags and pulling out the dynamite. “He got shot, it’s just a graze but he needs to rest and heal.”
“I’m sorry, son.”
He looked up and smiled. “He’ll be alright. Now, with this we can make a real dent. Look, Murdoch, Val and I can move real quiet. We work well off each other and we’re fast. We’ll be in and out in no time.”
“What if they aren’t in the canyon? What if they’re at Parker’s ranch house? You only get one shot at this, brother. I should go with you. Murdoch and Mr. Mathison can stay here. We’ll leave them some dynamite just in case there’s trouble.”
Johnny considered this. He looked over at Val who had nothing to say but Johnny knew what he was thinking. He smiled a little and caught his brother’s gaze.
“Yeah, that’d work.”
Murdoch wasn’t pleased with the plan at all but, he knew he couldn’t talk Johnny out of this. At least Scott would be with him though, he wasn’t sure that was a good thing. What if something happened to them? He tightened his jaw and said nothing. He couldn’t tell them what to do though he still tried at times.
“How’s your back, son?”
“Healed. Stitches are ready to come out. I might get to it one of these days,” Johnny sighed tiredly.
“Whatever we’re gonna do we need to get to it. It’s full on dark now,” Val said.
Parker paced the floor as he thought through this latest development. It still only made four men. They could handle that easily. He wasn’t sure why Trask wasn’t already all over this and he turned to his hired gun.
“Why didn’t you follow Madrid when you had the chance?”
“Wasn’t sportin. He made a good move. Be a shame if it was for nothin,” Trask answered lazily.
“I’m not paying you to play with the man. I want him dead! I want all of them dead!”
“He’d be dead if you’d let me handle this,” Gabe broke in. He stood back against a wall as he watched his father fume. Parker glared at him for a second then ignored him. Gabe flared.
“They’re hold up at that farm now. All we gotta do is go in there and take ’em out,” Trask was saying.
“Then, what are you doing here?”
Trask crossed his arms over his chest and considered the man. “I’m not a fool, Parker. Johnny’s good. Real good. I won’t underestimate him or his friend. Crawford’s a lawman now.”
“He has no jurisdiction here,” Parker argued.
“Don’t mean to say he does. But, he *is* good with a gun. He’s dangerous, too.”
Exasperated, the man walked over to stand toe to toe with Trask. “Do you have a plan or not?”
“I do. Get the woman and her brats. Use them to draw Madrid and Crawford out. They’ll give up to save the Williams’. After that, it’s like shootin apples in a barrel,” he grinned wickedly.
Gabe snorted at this but, once again, his father ignored him.
“Then do it.”
Trask walked outside with Laughton to meet up with the five men waiting, then stopped in the yard, seemingly deep in thought.
“You ride out to the canyon and get the rest of the boys ready. Head to the farm in two hours. We should have the woman and kids by then. Meet us at the property line.”
“Why don’t we all go?”
Trask looked at the bland man. “Cause if we all go ridin into town folks might get nervous. Even cowards are dangerous when they’re nervous. Just do like I tell you.”
Laughton balked until Trask gave him a deadly stare. He lowered his eyes and headed to his horse.
The gunfighter smirked at him. He was as useless as they came he reckoned and wondered why Parker kept him on. Brother-in-law or not, the man was a waste of air.
Once he was out of earshot, Trask spoke to the remaining men. “Let’s get this over with but remember one thing. Madrid is mine. Anyone lays a hand on him before I get to him is dead.”
Mary smiled down at her youngest son as she tucked him in. It was a rare treat for her now that they were both nearly grown. But, Carl had been allowing it since his father had died and she felt blessed to have such a soft-hearted son to put up with her.
“Ma, are we gonna get to keep the farm?”
“I hope so, son. Did you say a prayer for Johnny and his family?”
Carl looked away, shame coloring his cheeks. “I … I prayed for Johnny and Val.”
Mary sighed lightly, understanding mixed with displeasure on her face.
“I’m sorry. I’ll pray for all of them.”
“Thank you, son. Your father would be so proud of you. I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
She smiled then kissed his cheek before leaving him. She didn’t see the scorn on her older son’s face as he laid with his back to her. It took him until they’d gotten here to the house to realize there’d been a second man in the store. When he did, he knew instantly who that man had to be and he vowed to himself, Scott Lancer would pay for what he’d done.
Mary closed the door and walked into the living room, tears very close to the surface. Her fear was a tangible thing in the air and she didn’t think she’d ever feel anything else besides the pain that was her constant companion these days.
She sipped at the tepid tea, too tired to warm it back up. Her head came up as she heard a noise. Getting to her feet, she craned her neck as she went to the door.
“Art, is that you?”
She felt the hand close around her mouth and tried to suck in air, her heart racing as he pulled her back tightly against him.
“Didn’t take you long to get over your broken heart did it, ma’am? Already shacked up with another man and your husband barely cold in the ground.”
She could hear the taunting, feel his breath on her neck and she shivered as she struggled. His grip increased painfully around her midsection.
“None of that now, ma’am. Think of your boys. You wouldn’t want them gettin shot, would you?”
She tried to gasp as the horror filled her then she suddenly went lax in his grip. He turned quickly, taking her along then forcing her into the living room as the bedroom door flung open and two struggling boys were jerked out.
“Well, there they are. You boys behave yourselves unless you wanna be orphans.”
Jason’s face was red with rage while Carl was white as a sheet. His wide eyes fixed on his mother.
“If you hurt her, I’ll kill you!” Jason spat.
Trask laughed. “Is that right? Well, you must be the man of the house, boy. I’ll tell ya what I’m gonna do for you. I’m gonna take you to the man that killed your father. Would ya like that, boy?”
Jason stilled, his eyes fell cold as he held the stare of the killer.
Johnny rode lead as they made their way to the canyon. Scott was behind him with Val bringing up the rear. No one spoke as they left the road and headed cross country. Johnny stopped suddenly and dismounted, tying his horse to a tree branch. He pulled the dynamite out and waited for the others.
“We walk from here. It’s about fifty yards,” he whispered then headed out again.
Scott’s mind raced with the possibilities. What could go wrong and what they would do if it did. He planned out several strategies as they made their way through the woods, moving stealthily.
They came to a clearing and the three men stood side by side. Johnny handed off dynamite to Scott then crouched down and moved forward. He stopped and went to his belly, creeping forward as the others followed his lead.
Scott thought he’d never really seen this side of Johnny. Madrid on the job. Not standing in the middle of a street, shooting it out or riding like the devil was chasing him. But, this part of being a gunfighter, making plans and carrying them out. Trying to outwit and outmaneuver the other side. This was what Johnny had really done to earn a living. Scott was impressed but not surprised. As they reached the edge of the abyss, he shook the thought from his head and focused.
“They ain’t all there,” Val whispered.
“I know. Looks like maybe half a dozen or so missin. Well, beats the hell out of twenty,” Johnny grinned then fished a match from his pocket.
Scott did the same and they looked at each other for a moment. The half moon shone down on their bare heads, the light catching the blue of their eyes as they read each other. With a simple nod from Scott, Johnny struck his match.
Simultaneously, they lit the fuses and, with a little grin for each other, tossed them into the canyon below.
The explosion was deafening in the near quiet of the night. Men who’d been sitting by campfires talking suddenly took flight as the concussion hit. Those asleep were jolted abruptly awake. Rocks and debris rained down on them as confusion and panic set in quickly.
Val leveled his rifle and starting clipping their wings. One after another he aimed to wing each man, incapacitating them. As they’d hoped, it didn’t last long as the war torn crew began yelling their surrender.
Johnny shouted down for them to release the horses. Once the animals were running for freedom, he ordered them to throw their weapons into the fire. Loud gasps and curses were heard but he just laughed and waited as Val sprayed another barrage of gunfire. Soon, they were all tossing their guns and running for cover.
The Lancers and Val watched as they hid behind the large boulders, waiting for the bullets to start exploding. They didn’t hang around long though and headed back to the farm.
Murdoch had extinguished the lights inside the house. He sat by a window staring into the darkness, rifle at the ready. His shoulders were tense as he focused all his attention outside.
Art watched him, his nerves on edge as he chewed his lips. He held a rifle in his hands but kept having to wipe those hands on his pants legs as sweat built over and over. He knew how to fire a rifle only because he sold enough of them to learn a few things. But, he’d never killed anything, not even an animal for food, and he wasn’t sure he could do this. His heart was beating so hard in his chest, he was sure Murdoch could hear it. His grip tightened when he saw the other man perk up.
“Someone’s coming,” Murdoch whispered and Art almost groaned aloud.
They’d heard an explosion almost half an hour ago and he’d watched Lancer nearly come out of his skin. Then, the man had calmed and taken up his position unwaveringly.
“Can you see who it is?” he asked and knew his voice was shaking as badly as the rest of him.
Art barely heard his answer over the blood rushing in his ears and he knew right then he’d be useless in a battle. Please God, he prayed. Please let it be Val and Johnny.
Murdoch squinted as he peered through the window. He counted seven horses coming into the yard and his heart dropped. Suddenly, the back door burst open, the table scraping across the floor, and he heard a woman scream. Murdoch turned quickly as Art threw himself behind a chair, kneeling as he faced the kitchen.
“Drop the guns, gentlemen. Unless you want the lady to die.”
Murdoch stood up fully and looked at Mary then at the man holding a gun to her head. His mind raced but, he knew he had no options. Anger took hold as he tossed his weapon down.
Art stood more slowly as he laid the rifle on the floor.
“And the side iron.”
Murdoch unbuckled his gunbelt and tossed it as well.
Trask smiled then but he didn’t move. “Now, clear the front door and let my men in.”
When he opened the door, Murdoch was pushed back as five men entered. Two of them were holding onto the boys. Trask ordered one of his men to hide the horses then turned his attention back to the room.
“Well, now. This is nice. Move that sofa back against the wall and take a seat. You,” Trask nodded toward Art, “take those chairs over, too. Everybody sit down so we can get acquainted.”
Murdoch and Art took a chair as Mary and the boys sat on the sofa. She held Carl close to her but Jason leaned away from them, anger and disappointment on his face.
Trask settled in an overstuffed chair he’d moved so he could face them all. He crossed one leg over the other knee, his gun dangling loosely from his hand as his men stood behind him. The fifth one came back in and nodded, indicating the horses were out of sight.
“Alright, gentlemen. Where’s my old friend Johnny?”
Murdoch simply glared at him.
Trask cocked his gun and aimed it at Carl. “I asked you a question, Mister.”
“He went to Parker’s ranch,” Murdoch said.
“Did he?” Trask asked with amusement. “Well, I hope he isn’t planning on killing the man. At least, not til I get paid. How long has he been gone?” This time, he directed his question to Art.
“I … I’m not sure. Maybe an hour or so.”
Smirking, the gunfighter dismissed the man. “So, you’re Murdoch Lancer.”
“Where’s your son?”
Murdoch’s eyes flickered then calmed. He glanced over at Mary then saw Jason’s eyes afire. “He’s not here.”
Trask leaned forward suddenly, his gun aimed at Murdoch’s heart. “Don’t lie to me, Lancer. I know he’s with you. Try again.”
“He’s with Johnny.”
“Yeah? Is he a gunfighter, too?” Trask asked with amusement. “No, of course not. Just a do-gooder. Well, maybe not. After all, he murdered an innocent man.”
“That was an accident!” Murdoch blurted out. “He made a mistake in the heat of the moment!”
Trask looked at Jason. “What about it, kid? You think it was all an innocent mistake?”
Mary reached out and touched her son’s arm but he didn’t seem to notice as he stared at Trask.
“This is the man who was after your father. This is Parker’s hired gun,” Murdoch said.
“Hold on a minute, now. I hit my target. Don’t blame me if your son’s a lousy shot,” Trask grinned.
Murdoch’s blood boiled as the man nonchalantly admitted to almost killing his son. “It was you Scott was after.”
“Guess it’s a good thing he’s not a gunfighter. He wouldn’t have lasted very long. Guess Johnny didn’t teach him anything,” he laughed. “Now, what about Crawford? What’s his stake in this?”
“He’s our friend,” Mary said suddenly.
“Awww, ain’t that sweet. Crawford always was too soft-hearted. Just like Madrid. Them two made a good pair,” he laughed.
“Rider’s comin,” one of the gunmen announced.
Trask smiled and stood up. “Nice and quiet now. Anybody makes a sound and the boy dies,” he said, nodding toward Carl.
Murdoch’s heart pounded in his chest. There was nothing he could do.
Johnny’s hand was on the knob when he stopped cold. “Somethin’s wrong.”
Before his words could register with the other two men, the door swung open and they were greeted with a rifle.
“Come on in and join the party, boys,” Trask called out then stepped into sight. “Mrs. Williams and her boys have been waiting for you.”
All three men stepped slowly into the room, the rifle turning into four more pistols pointed at them as they came inside. They took in the situation as each man was disarmed quickly.
“Good ta see you again, Johnny,” Trask smiled brightly. “Crawford,” his voice fell as he looked at Val who only sneered at him. “And here’s the man of the hour.” He grabbed Scott’s shoulder and pushed him forward. He walked over to Jason and stood over him.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Jason,” he barely managed to speak.
“Well, Jason. There he is. The man that killed your father. Whatcha gonna do?”
Scott met the boy’s glare with an apologetic expression.
“You must be gettin old, Frank. Never knew you to use women and children to get the job done,” Johnny drawled softly, hoping to turn attention from his brother.
“Well, Johnny, a man’s got to use all his cards when dealing with the likes of you. You’re sneaky,” Trask grinned.
Johnny’s lips turned upward as he regarded the man. He could feel the hatred pouring off Jason even from across the room and he knew the boy was staring his brother down.
“Maybe, but I never sunk this low.”
Undaunted, Trask only kept smiling at him. “I’m just trying to help this boy deal with his loss. A man needs to seek his vengeance; do what’s right. What’ya think, Crawford? Shouldn’t a man have the chance for revenge?”
“I’m sure lookin forward to mine, Trask,” Val spat.
He got a smirk for his efforts as Trask turned back to Scott. “Well? Aint ya got nothin to say to the kid?”
Scott tore his eyes off Jason and glared at the man. “I have plenty to say but I won’t let you use that boy’s pain for your entertainment.”
Trask’s eyes fired as he slammed the butt of his gun against Scott’s temple. He went to the floor and stilled. Johnny was on his knees beside him in an instant as Murdoch came off the sofa.
“Sit down, old man!” Trask growled. He watched in fascination as Johnny tended to Scott, a frown of confusion on his face.
Murdoch sat back slowly, his eyes on Scott. Val ground his jaw, his fists clenched as his mind worked.
“Scott?” Johnny called softly as he pulled his brother’s kerchief out of his pocket and pressed it on the wound. Blood poured from the side of Scott’s head and he gingerly inspected it. Relief flooded him as he saw it wasn’t deep yet, it bled freely. “I need bandages,” he snapped.
Trask was still mulling over this turn of events. “Get him somethin,” he ordered one of his men.
As Johnny bound the wound, Trask ordered Val to sit with the others. He settled on the arm of his previous seat and watched the doctoring.
Johnny rolled Scott onto his back and pulled his own jacket off, using it as a pillow and easing his brother’s head down gently.
“What gives, Madrid? What’s he to you?”
Johnny looked up at him, scowling. He understood then and his eyes went to Murdoch. He quickly wondered if it was worth the effort to lie or simply tell the truth. The decision was made in a split second. “He’s my friend.”
Trask grinned and looked over at Val. “Looks like you’ve been replaced, Crawford.”
“Figures you’d think a man can only have one friend. Then again, don’t reckon you got that many,” Val snorted.
Trask only smirked at him. “Leave him and go sit with the others.”
Trask stood and walked over, pressing his gun against Johnny’s head and cocking the hammer back. “I don’t think you heard me, Madrid. Move!”
Murdoch’s voice was too low for anyone to hear when he said his son’s name, or so he thought. But Johnny looked at him and saw the fear. He sighed and moved to a chair, his eyes resting on Scott.
“You sure you two are just friends? Maybe there’s somethin Lancer here needs to know about his son,” Trask jeered.
“Still a pig, I see,” Johnny retorted.
“Will you shut up before you get us all killed?!” Murdoch shouted.
“Uh oh, Johnny, I think you might’ve just got yourself fired,” Trask laughed loudly.
He settled back in his seat and regarded Johnny. “So, what’ve you been up to tonight?”
Johnny smiled at him. “Just takin care of business, Trask. Doin a little excavatin.”
“Thought I heard an explosion. Was that you, Johnny? I thought you liked it quiet,” he jibed.
“Sometimes. Where’s your boss, Frank? I figured he’d want in on this. Or is he too squeamish?”
He snickered at the idea. “Guess he is at that. But, the man has a way of gettin what he wants.”
“Not this time.”
Trask’s smile faded as he regarded the serious expression. It always irked him that Johnny could get to him. He wondered if the man knew it. From the slight smile on his face, he did. Trask hated it but he never had been able to control it. Even now, when he held all the cards, Madrid’s stare unnerved him. He made himself relax and return that smile.
“I’ve been tryin to decide what to do with you, Johnny. I figured I’d just kill you outright but somehow, that just don’t seem fair. I mean, after all, we’re compadres. Still, I really want to see Jason here get his just due. I figured I’d give him one shot at it. What’ya think?”
“I think you’re a snake. Leave the boy alone, Trask. None of this is his doing. He don’t know what he’s doin right now.”
“Sure he does. Can’t ya see the blood lust in his eyes. He wants Lancer dead and he wants to be the one to do it. I think we oughta let him. Kill the man that killed his father. Is that what you want, Jason?”
The young man’s eyes came up to meet the gunhawk’s and he nodded slightly.
“See? He can’t wait.”
“Is that what you really want, Jason? Could you really stand over an unconscious man and shoot him in cold blood? Could you do that in front of your mother and brother?” Val stared hard at the boy as he spoke.
Jason looked down then met his stare. “I want him dead.”
“Jason, no!” Mary gasped out. “You can’t. You’ll hang, son. It’s murder.”
“He *murdered* my pa! It’s good enough for him!”
“You don’t know what happened. You weren’t there. You don’t know Scott, either. He’s not a killer,” Murdoch spoke as gently as he could manage.
“Yeah, not like Johnny here, right, Lancer? Sorry I took him out of commission. Then again, he was who I was shootin at so, guess I’m not that sorry,” Trask grinned.
“Pa wouldn’t want you to do it, Jason.”
All eyes fell on the younger boy who hadn’t spoken since they’d been kidnapped. Jason’s face softened when he looked into his brother’s eyes.
“You know he’d hate that. It wouldn’t make him proud and you always wanted him to be proud of you,” Carl continued.
Jason’s eyes started to fill and he looked away from them, staring at the wall.
“Hell’s bells. It speaks! Well, reckon you spoiled all the fun, little ‘un,” Trask said. “Hey, here’s an idea. How about you do it, Johnny? The old man sure ain’t gonna keep you on now. Might as well get a little payback.”
Johnny looked unimpressed as his eyes fell on Trask. “Why don’t you just ride on out of here, Frank? You’ve had your fun.”
“Not nearly enough but, don’t forget, I got a job to do. I guess since the kid ain’t gonna help me out, I’ll have to get on with it. Ma’am, Mr. Parker’s in a generous mood. Well, he was when I left him,” he smirked at Johnny. “I got these papers for you to sign the farm over to him. You do that and you and your boys can walk away from this right now.”
She stared at him, swallowing hard. “What about them?”
“Oh, no, ma’am. I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do for them. Either way, they’re dead,” he said as if he were discussing the weather.
Her eyes met Johnny’s and he nodded at her. “Do it, Mary.”
She shook her head hard at him, unable to even comprehend such a thing.
“Save your sons, Mrs. Williams,” Murdoch said.
“I … I can’t just walk away,” she stammered.
“Someone’s coming, Trask,” one of the gunmen announced.
“Reckon this will have to wait a few minutes. Who is it, Nelson?” Trask asked, frustrated with the interruptions.
The man looked flatly at him. “Parker’s kid.”
Gabe Parker rode into the yard at the dawning with a mission. As he dismounted the front door flew open and Trask stepped out.
“What are you doin here, boy?”
Gabe squared his shoulders and faced the gunhawk. “I’m here for Madrid and nobody’s gettin in my way.”
Trask almost laughed then rethought. His smile grew as he regarded the young man. “Well, it just so happens I’ve got him. Yeah, why not?” He said the last sentence mostly to himself as he waved the kid inside.
Scott groaned as he moved his head slightly. Confusion engulfed him as he slowly came out of the black depths, trying to make sense of what had happened. Â
Murdoch ignored the orders from the gunmen to stay seated and went to his son’s side. Johnny watched them closely, deciding they weren’t going to shoot unless Trask told them to.
“Easy, son. You’ll be alright. Just go slow.”
Scott heard the soft voice of his father, puzzled by the lack of gruffness then warmed by it as he recognized the worry. He made to sit up and felt a strong hand on the back of his neck, another one holding his right arm.
“How’s the head, Boston?”
Scott squinted as he searched for the soft voice. His eyes focused after a few seconds and he smiled. “Feels like a sledgehammer at work, bro…”
“Don’t take on too much, son,” Murdoch quickly interrupted. “Madrid, get him some water.”
Scott’s brow creased even more at his father’s odd words. He looked at Murdoch who could only stare intently at him. He’s trying to tell me something, Scott surmised. His head was pounding and he wasn’t sure he could decipher anything at the moment. But, his gut told him it was important so he tried hard.
Johnny’s heart raced as he looked at one of the gunmen and received a nod. He stood and walked to the sideboard, pouring the water and walking slowly to his family. He knelt beside Scott and held the glass, leaning in more closely than he needed.
“I work for you and that’s all,” he whispered.
Scott raised his eyes, using them to communicate his understanding. He wasn’t sure why it was important but then, he’d been out like a light. Whatever was happening, they were all still alive so he figured things were as good as they could be at the moment.
“Well, well. The murderer is awake. Perfect timing, Lancer.” Trask sneered as he walked in. “Look who I got here, Johnny.”
Johnny turned slowly to him. When he saw Gabe Parker, he just shrugged.
“Gabe here is callin you out, Johnny. Think you can take him?” he jeered.
Johnny slowly came to his feet and regarded the young man. “Why?”
Trask laughed but Gabe glared at him.
“Cause I’m better than you and I’m gonna prove it to everyone.”
Johnny raised a brow as a small smile came to his lips. “At the moment, I’d agree with you, kid. But, then, I’m unarmed.”
“Oh, don’t worry, we’ll fix that. See, I have a plan,” Trask grinned.
“Sure you do, Frank.”
“Get Lancer over on the sofa then everybody sit back down. Everybody but you, Johnny.”
Once Scott was comfortable as possible, Johnny turned to Trask. He was more curious than anything at the moment but he figured he wouldn’t have to wait long. Frank was enjoying the hell out of himself.
Trask had picked Johnny’s gun up and emptied the bullets, leaving one. He hefted the firearm and considered Johnny. “You, me and Gabe are goin outside. You get one bullet. I figure that’s plenty. Either you kill him or he kills you but, I’ll be standin right beside you, Madrid, so don’t get any fancy ideas.”
Scott was trying to stand up but Murdoch pushed him back with a warning shot. “You can’t do this.”
“Sure I can, blondie. See, I’ve got the guns and the men. Johnny tries anything and someone in here dies. It’s that simple.”
Johnny didn’t turn to his family, he was trying to ignore them.
“I want witnesses. More than you, Trask,” Gabe piped up.
His mouth twitched as he considered this idea then Trask nodded. “Alright. Old Man Lancer and Crawford can watch.” He stopped then, grinned again. “And Jason. How bout it, boy? You might pick up some pointers. Just in case you find your guts and take care of the man who murdered your father.”
Jason glanced at his mother and brother then stood slowly and nodded. His eyes went to Johnny next but the man wasn’t looking at him.
“Nelson, you, Henry and Steve come out and cover them while I watch Johnny.”
“He must be pretty good if you’re willin to stand that close, Frank,” Johnny remarked.
“I hate to say it but, he is pretty good, Johnny. Good enough to shoot straight anyways.”
Johnny nodded, his mind working overtime at the opportunity Trask had handed him. He turned back to Scott and smiled. “Take care of that hard head, Scott. You always were a mule. Like that time in the Humbolt County jail.” His eyes bore into his brother’s and he prayed Scott had the physical ability to do what he was asking.
“You know something, Madrid? This is all your fault. If you weren’t at the ranch, none of this would have happened. You get what you deserve.” Scott spat the words, his heart aching with each one.
Johnny closed his eyes briefly in relief then nodded. “Sure, Scott. See ya,” he winked then turned back to Trask who was laughing merrily.
“Guess that’s another friend down, Johnny. Well, ya still got Crawford here. For a minute or so.”
“Let’s get this done!” Gabe said, itching for his first kill.
Johnny walked past his father, glancing up at him as he passed. His confidence in Murdoch was always high. He knew his father would be ready for anything. Val was a given, as well. He only hoped he could pull this off. It was a long shot if there ever was one.
Standing on the porch with three guns trained on them, Murdoch and Val tried to block Jason from having a direct view. With the boy standing between and just behind them, they could protect him better. The gunmen stood one on either side and one in the back.
Val started calculating their best bet. He was sure Johnny would try something, he just didn’t know what and that bothered him. He tried to stand as close to Murdoch as he could so he could give some sort of signal if need be.
Johnny walked into the yard and waited for Gabe to pick a spot. The sun would not be a factor as they faced each other, north to south.
Parker stood near one corner of the house and Johnny took a place just past where his father stood. Trask handed him his empty gunbelt and he wrapped it around his hips efficiently. Then, Trask gave him his gun.
“You mind?” Johnny asked as he looked from Trask to the gun.
“Go right ahead,” he answered and cocked his gun, training it on Johnny as he stood to his right side.
Johnny checked that the bullet was in the right chamber then slid the gun in its holster. His eyes slid over to Val for one brief second.
Gabe Parker watched his every move, emblazoning them into his mind for future reference as Johnny raised his shoulders then let them fall lax.
Val Crawford’s heart was in his stomach for he knew now what Johnny’s intentions were. With just that one look, he saw everything and he wanted nothing more than to smack his friend upside the head. Still, he knew it was the only thing the man could do. He planted his feet firmly and readied his body to react.
“You ever done this before, kid?”
“No, and I’m not a kid!”
“He’s full of piss and vinegar, Johnny. Might be an advantage but I doubt it,” Frank said only for his ears.
“Yeah, I doubt it, too. Sounds like you want me to win, Frank.”
“Enough talk!” Parker shouted.
“You sure are loud, kid,” Johnny said then shrugged. “Well, you did the invitin. This is your party.”
Gabe stared into his eyes, noting they were alive and smiling. He ached to wipe that smile away forever.
Inside the house, Scott started as soon as the door had closed. “Whatever Parker is paying you, I’ll triple it.”
The two remaining henchmen laughed at him.
“You’ve heard of Lancer. You know I can afford it. Besides that, my grandfather is very wealthy and I stand to inherit his fortune when he dies. Shouldn’t be too much longer, he’s pretty old. So, you see I can afford to pay you without any hardship for my father and myself.”
Mary listened, knowing what he was trying to do but his mere presence set her on edge. This man had taken away the other half of her heart and she was trying not to hate him for Johnny’s sake.
“Shut up, Mister.”
Scott shrugged one shoulder, fighting off a wince of pain. “Alright, but I offered.” His eyes went to Art Mathison who had been quiet as a mouse for all these hours. Scott decided he probably wasn’t going to be much help. He couldn’t count on the woman or the boy, either. Â
“Is it so easy for you, Mr. Lancer? Just throw money at any problem? Is that what you intended to do with me? Just offer me a sum for taking my husband’s life?” Mary’s voice raised the temperature in the room.
Scott looked at her, stunned. Then, he saw a flicker of something and hoped he was right. “I was planning on offering you any assistance I can, Mrs. Williams. You’ll need help once this is over. Parker is going to get this farm no matter what. Madrid made a mistake trying him. I am sorry for killing your husband. I hope you believe that. But, all I can do is offer monetary help.”
“Typical. You’re no better than Parker. You think money absolves you of everything. I can’t believe Johnny ever thought of you as a friend. You’ve betrayed him and I’m sure you don’t have an ounce of regret for it.”
The two gunmen moved closer, amused at the conversation and completely immersed in the bickering.
“Come on, kid. I’ve got things to do,” Johnny ribbed.
Gabe snorted at this and squared his shoulders. Johnny almost sighed at the tell but he didn’t have the luxury of explaining anything to this snot-nosed brat. In his periphery, he was watching Trask as he unconsciously moved closer to Johnny.
Gabe twitched, it was all Johnny needed. He moved like quicksilver, stepping into Trask as he wrapped his right arm around the other man’s and grabbed his finger, squeezing the trigger and aiming with, hopefully, some accuracy.
Val moved when Johnny did, shoving at the man beside him as Murdoch, one split second later, did the same. Val used his momentum to fling them both backwards into the third guard, knocking him against the wall.
Jason came out of his shock and grabbed the third man’s gun, wrenching it from his hand and clobbering him over the head with it. Val slammed a fist into his man’s nose, blood spurting all over his shirt as he cussed. Murdoch was hammering his man unmercifully as Jason moved around them all, gathering the fallen guns.
Johnny felt a sting in his left side but he ignored it after the initial realization. He saw Gabe fall to the ground. He didn’t know how badly he’d hit the kid and didn’t have time to worry about it. He turned his attention to Trask who was fighting and yelling for his men. Johnny still held his right hand and they struggled for several seconds as they swung their hands between their fighting bodies. Suddenly, the gun exploded between them and both men stopped fighting as they stared at each other.
Murdoch stood and rounded quickly, watching in horror at the events unfolding in the yard.
“Like I said. You’re sneaky as hell, Johnny,” Trask grunted out.
Johnny was breathing hard from the scuffle and the adrenaline. “Yeah, you did say that.” He shoved Trask away as the man fell to the ground.
Scott moved when he heard the first shot. He lunged at the two men just two feet away from him now. Arm’s extended, he flew through the air, hitting both and knocking them all to the ground, breathless. One gun skittered across the floor, knocked free from the guard’s grasp.
Mary moved fast as she sprung to her feet and grabbed the gun, cocking it and holding it on all three of them.
The two gunmen fought their way from underneath Scott but he didn’t move. The one who still had his gun aimed it at Scott’s head.
“Don’t move!” Mary shouted.
He looked up at her then at the gun and smiled. They stayed that way for too long in Mary’s estimation.
“Shoot her, Mel!” the second man ordered.
Mel kept smiling as he started to move his gun to aim at her. Suddenly, his smile faded and his eyes widened as he looked down at his chest. Â The smoke rose slowly into the air as Mel’s gun fell from his nerveless hand. He followed it to the ground and stilled.
The second man began backing slowly toward the kitchen. Mary, shaking badly, turned to face him. “Don’t,” she said in a voice she didn’t recognize as her own.
Scott moaned and raised up slowly, making it to his knees as he spied the dead man lying next to him. He took in the scene then grabbed the man’s gun. Staggering to his feet, he walked over to Mary and put his left hand on her right, lowering the gun.
“I’ve got him now, Mrs. Williams,” he said gently as he pulled the gun from her grasp.
Murdoch burst into the room then, dreading what he may find and relieved at what he saw. He moved to the guard and pushed him into a chair then rifled through some drawers until he found some clothesline. Scott didn’t relax until the man was securely tied. Then, he wavered and stumbled to the nearest seat, holding his head in one hand. Murdoch went quickly to him.
“Son, are you alright?”
“I will be. How’s Johnny? What happened out there?”
“Everything’s alright now.” The words were no sooner out of his mouth when he heard Val shouting and gunshots resonate.
Val walked into the yard. He glowered at Johnny and shook his head. “That was your big idea? Of all the stupid, crazy chances …”
“Val!” Johnny interrupted abruptly. “It worked, didn’t it?”
“I reckon it did,” he sighed and walked over to ensure Trask was dead. “Still, ya could’ve come up with somethin,” he stopped as he looked up and saw movement, then, “Johnny!”
Johnny turned and fired even as he heard a second and third report. He whirled around to the porch and stopped when he saw Jason standing there, a gun aimed at Gabe. The boy’s eyes were wide as silver dollars and Johnny went quickly to him. He eased the still hot gun from the boy’s hand.
Gabe Parker fell back once more, the gun still in his hand as his fingers uncurled from around it.
Val ran over to make sure he’d cause no more problems. He’d seen what Jason had done, too, and he searched Gabe’s body. He saw three bullet wounds. Johnny’s first and second one and his own. Relieved, he joined the two of them on the porch. Jason was shaking head to toe, he seemed unable to move as Johnny rubbed his back.
“You didn’t hit him, Jason. Johnny and me got ‘im,” Val reported.
Jason looked up at him, tears in his eyes. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure, son. I saw the whole thing and you missed by a mile,” Val teased a little.
Johnny smiled a little and turned to see his family standing in the open doorway. “Come on, Jason. Let’s see about your ma.”
Mary took her sons into the bedroom to look after them and ensure neither was physically harmed. She also wanted to get them away from all the dead bodies.
Val hitched up the wagon and he and Johnny loaded the dead as well as the surviving gunmen. Val climbed aboard and took them all to town, intent on dumping this problem in someone else’s lap.
Murdoch tended Scott’s head wound, placing cool cloths on the back of his son’s neck and feeding him headache powders. It wasn’t much but he thought any help would be better than nothing.
Johnny walked back in after checking on Barranca and tending his palomino’s wound. Grinning at his father’s gruff doting, he walked over and began trying to get the room back in some order for Mary when he heard a quiet voice.
Johnny looked over at Art Mathison still sitting where he’d been put so many hours earlier. His fingers still dug into the arm rest cushions and it seemed he hadn’t moved a muscle. Johnny walked over and knelt beside him.
Mathison snorted. “Why wouldn’t I be? I sure didn’t break a sweat!”
Bowing his head, Johnny sighed softly. “No one expected you to. This isn’t exactly the kind of life you’re used to.”
“It’s not the kind Mary is used to, either, but she shot that man before he could put a bullet in your brother’s head. She held off the other one until Scott came to and took over. And I sat here shaking with fear.”
Johnny was surprised, not having heard any of this yet. He didn’t know how to make the man feel any better and he didn’t want to try, really. He was tired and he hurt.
“And you’re still bleeding,” Art said.
Johnny looked at his left side and nodded, pulling gingerly at the torn fabric. “Yeah, reckon I should do somethin about that.”
Art shook his head in awe. “Does anything get to you?”
“Plenty,” Johnny clipped and stood up with a grimace. He walked into the kitchen and over to the sink and grabbed a towel, pumping water onto it and wringing it out. He pulled up his shirt and gently dabbed at the graze. It burned like fire and he hissed a little.
Val came through the back door and walked over, grabbing at the shirt and growling. He didn’t say anything intelligible, instead rummaging around until he found some supplies. He cleaned the wound as Johnny leaned against the counter and watched him. Val slathered some kind of ointment on then wrapped the bandage around his waist, tying it off. He went ahead and removed the old stitches then stepped back.
“Don’t. I’m not in the mood, Val,” Johnny warned.
“Go sit down and I’ll start some coffee and vittles.” Val knew it was a lost cause so he didn’t bother. He didn’t bother telling Murdoch either. The man had enough worries.
Johnny went to the bedroom to check on the Williams’. Â Mary sat in the bed, holding her older son as he wept.
“He told me what happened,” she said.
Johnny nodded, smiled at Carl and swiped a hand over the boy’s head then sat next to Jason. “It’s not so easy, is it?”
Jason looked up then fell into his arms. Johnny held the boy tightly and rested his head on Jason’s. “I know, son. I know. It’s never easy to pull that trigger. Be grateful you missed. I hope you never have to take another man’s life, Jason. It’s something that will haunt you forever.”
Mary’s eyes welled with tears. Johnny had always seemed haunted to her and now she truly understood why. She’d never thought of him as a gunfighter though she knew exactly who he was. He just never had been the sort she associated with that type of man. He cared too much. Now, they shared a horrible experience. Her hand moved and, before she knew it, she was stroking Johnny’s head.
He looked up at her with a quizzical expression then understood quickly what he was seeing. Embarrassed and a little angry, he pulled Jason away, holding his shoulders, her hand sliding away from him. “You okay?”
He sniffed and nodded. “Thanks, Johnny.”
“It’s been a long night. Val’s tryin to cook so I don’t know how good it’ll be but, you all need to get somethin in your bellies then sleep for a week or so.” He smiled and patted the boy’s cheek.
“I’ll go help him,” Mary said.
“We’d all appreciate that,” he grinned widely.
Murdoch stood at the bedroom door with his arms crossed over his chest when Johnny walked out. “Mr. Mathison told me you were bleeding.”
Johnny sighed. “Val took care of it. All clean and bandaged. It’s just a scratch, Murdoch.”
“That better be all it is, young man.”
It was a struggle, but he managed not to laugh. “Ain’t you done doctoring people? Doesn’t Scott need to be tucked in or somethin?”
Murdoch’s lips quirked. “He’s tired of me and plain tired. We smelled … something from the kitchen.”
Johnny did laugh then. “Yeah, that’s Val but Mary’s gone to lend a hand.”
“Come on, son. Time for you to at least sit down.” He wrapped an arm around his son’s shoulders and guided him into the living room.
“Where’s Mathison?” Johnny asked as he scanned the room, finding his brother half-lying on the sofa.
“He went home. Said he’d *not* done enough,” Scott reported.
Johnny shook his head. “Don’t know why he came out here in the first place.”
“He wanted to help.”
A soft snort met that statement. Johnny fell into the overstuffed chair Trask had used as his throne. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.
“By the way, brother. The next time you get a hair-brained idea like that, I’ll shoot you myself.”
Johnny opened his eyes and smiled at his brother.
“Did we really have to pretend you aren’t a Lancer?”
“Anyone willing to use a woman and kids ain’t above using you against me. There at the end, it might have made a big difference.”
Scott nodded thoughtfully and slowly. His head was better but it still ached fiercely. He closed his eyes, not needing any further explanations right then. There was time now. Suddenly, his eyes opened and he sat up a little. “What about Parker?”
Johnny thought about that then shrugged. “Figured Val and me would ride out there in a while. He’s alone now.”
“And do what?” Murdoch asked.
“Take him in. They’re usin the ice house for the other varmints. Figure they can keep Parker there, too. At least until the US Marshal gets here. I sent another telegram while I was in town.” Val sat down with a grunt.
“Thought you were cookin,” Johnny said, his eyes closed again as he rested his head against the chair cushion.
“Mary threw me out.”
Scott and Murdoch just looked at each other, grinning at the two of them.
They all devoured the huge breakfast Mary had prepared. She imagined she’d used every egg available and the hens would have to work overtime but it was nice to have a large crowd around her table again. Even if one of them … she shook it off. Scott had helped save their lives. She found she couldn’t hate him.
She watched Jason closely but he kept his eyes on his plate, ignoring the conversation around him.
“Guess we should head out now,” Johnny announced as he drained his coffee cup.
“Scott and I will head back to town.”
“There’s no need for that, Mr. Lancer. Scott shouldn’t be on a horse right now. You’re both more than welcome to stay here. You need to rest. You can use the boys’ room. They can stretch out in here.”
“We couldn’t do that, ma’am,” Scott said, still uncomfortable being there at all.
“You will do it. I insist,” she shot back.
Johnny cleared his throat. “Well, we’ll head back here when we’re done.”
Val stood up and grabbed his hat as Murdoch blocked Johnny’s path for a moment.
“Be careful, son. The last thing I need is you getting hurt again.”
“I’ll be fine, Murdoch. Val’s got my back.”
“Still, Parker’s lost everything including his son. There’s no telling what a man will do when he’s lost a son.”
Johnny looked into his eyes and nearly lost his decorum. Since this whole debacle had started, Murdoch seemed different. Less … grouchy, he guessed. Now, he was going a little too far. He smirked a little to hide his feelings and walked around his father.
Val was grinning at him and he shot the lawman a death glare then grabbed his hat and walked outside.
Scott stared at the ceiling, his hands clasped behind his head as he lay on the bed. He couldn’t settle, his mind whirling with thoughts. He could hear the soft snores of his father across the room and envied the man. His head throbbed but it was manageable now. With a sigh, he gave up the ghost and sat up. Pulling on his boots, he eased out of the room.
He walked softly so as not to disturb anyone. He went through to the kitchen and out the door, headed to the barn. He smiled when he saw Barranca and stepped into the stall. He ran his hand gently over the wound. It was clean with no sign of infection and he was grateful for that.
His brother had been through too much. He didn’t need to lose his beloved horse, too. He almost laughed aloud as he recalled the day when he’d taken the reins and mounted a freshly broken Barranca. He’d felt the need to show his younger brother that he could handle a horse just fine. Johnny’s teasing had struck deep at him, angered him and he’d decided to show the little … well.
Johnny had been openly impressed and Scott had felt elated. At the time, he could not fathom why this stranger’s opinion meant anything to him. Now, he understood it was a need to connect on some level with his blood kin. They had a love of horses in common but, at the time, that’s all they’d had. It was a start, a good start and everything had stemmed from that first ‘test’.
He heard a noise and turned, scanning the barn as he stepped out of the stall. “Is someone there?”
He got no response but he knew he’d heard something. Scott cursed himself for walking outside unarmed. Something his brother would have raised the roof over. But, he felt no threat and he proceeded to walk into the largest part of the building. He heard it again, a sniffle, he thought and his stomach fell. Scott walked over to the hay stacks and found the bowed head.
Unsure, he stood there for a beat. “Are you alright?” Well, that was a stupid question.
Jason wiped a sleeve over his eyes. “Johnny back yet.”
“I’m afraid not. Will I do?” he asked as he took a chance and sat next to the boy.
Jason shook his head hard and kept it down.
“Don’t you think you and I should talk, Jason? I know you hate me and I understand why. I don’t blame you a bit but I am grateful you didn’t shoot me when you were offered the chance.”
The boy took a stifling breath. “I wanted to. When I shot at Gabe, though, I couldn’t believe how scared I was. I thought I’d killed him. It made me sick to my stomach.”
Scott nodded. “I know that feeling very well. I’ve felt it myself every time I’ve had to take another man’s life.”
“Do that a lot?”
The vehemence of the question shocked Scott a little but he recovered quickly. “I was in the war. Yes, I’ve had to do that. Once is more than enough. I hate what I did, Jason. You have to understand I didn’t know your father. All I knew was someone had shot my brother. At the time, I didn’t even know if Johnny was alive. I saw a man riding away fast. I was trying to wing him, stop him but he turned just at the moment I fired.”
Jason looked up at him for the first time. “I watched Johnny shoot Gabe. He didn’t use his gun. He grabbed Trask’s arm and fired it. Trask was still holdin onto it. I ain’t never seen nothin like that. It was incredible. Then, Val and your father started fightin the others. I was so scared. All I could think of was ma and Carl in the house. We had to stop them before they killed someone. I hit that man over the head without thinkin about it.”
“You did what you had to do to protect your family,” Scott said.
“Yeah, and so did you.”
Scott felt his heart actually flutter a little. “I did but that doesn’t mean I don’t hate the fact that I killed an innocent man. I’ll never forgive myself for that.”
“Johnny said killin a man haunts you forever.”
Scott closed his eyes and lowered his head. Could his chest feel any tighter? “He’s right,” he managed to breathe out.
“I ain’t sure I can forgive you, Mr. Lancer. But, I don’t wanna hate you, either. I don’t wanna hate no one anymore.”
“That’s more than I could have hoped for, Jason. I’m very glad my brother has such good friends.”
“We’re the ones beholdin to him. He saved my life back then and he saved us all now. He was good friends with my pa. Him and Val, both. Carl was right. Pa wouldn’t want me hurtin anyone Johnny cares about so much.”
“Johnny was angry with me, too. I think part of him still is. He understands it was an accident but I can understand why he has trouble with it.”
Jason looked curiously at him. “You talk fancy. But, Johnny thinks the world of ya so I reckon you must be okay.”
Scott laughed a little. “He’s a good man. I’m very lucky he’s my brother.” After a short silence, Scott laid a hand lightly on Jason’s shoulder. “You really should try to get some sleep now.”
“Never could sleep in the daytime.”
They both looked up as they heard the horses in the yard. Jason came quickly to his feet and headed out. Scott hesitated, a slight smile on his face. Johnny and kids, he thought and followed the boy out.
Jason pulled up short near the house. He’d been so eager to see Johnny, he’d paid no attention. His eyes narrowed as his face turned to stone. Scott was a few steps behind him and slowed his gait until he reached the boy, taking a stand just in front and to the right of Jason.
Several thoughts went through his mind. The first was Johnny, the second was he had no gun and the third was Murdoch. He watched the man dismount, three other men staying their mounts.
Parker stared openly at them, confusion the most prevalent expression on his face. He turned when he heard the gun cock, looking up at his brother-in-law and smiling a little. A short nod of approval was given and, when he turned back to Scott and Jason, confidence had replaced the confusion.
“I see things didn’t quite go as planned.”
Scott took one step forward then glanced at the man pointing a gun at him. He relaxed his face and smiled. “Why would you say that? Mr. Parker, I presume? Everything went as you planned.”
Parker frowned as he studied the man. “Who are you?”
“Scott Lancer. I arrived just in time for the show. Mr. Trask is well worth whatever you’re paying him.”
“And where is Trask?”
Scott glanced down. “He and his men rode out half an hour ago. I’m surprised you didn’t meet them on the road. He was bringing you the deed to your new farm.”
Jason listened to the exchange, befuddled. Then, a light went on in his head. Still, he wasn’t sure what he should do or say, if anything so he stayed quiet, hoping Scott would cue him.
“We cut across the valley,” Parker was saying. “So, why is he still breathing?” he asked, nodding toward Jason. “In fact, why are you, Mr. Lancer?”
A wry smile came to Scott’s face. “I cut a side deal with Trask. The Williams’ lives for a fair price. They’ll be going home with me and you’ll have this land. Everyone wins.”
Parker listened and watched. The man seemed cold and calculating and he had to appreciate that. Evidently, Lancer had walked in on some ugly business yet, managed to worm his way out. Parker understood that kind of quick thinking.
“Where’s Madrid and his friend?”
Jason tensed but kept quiet. He was in awe of Scott at the moment and too curious to make any distracting moves.
“Oh, I’m afraid Mr. Madrid and Mr. Crawford have left this world. Trask dumped them out in the woods.” Scott stopped and frowned. “He said something about the buzzards getting indigestion. It was a loss for me but then, I can always hire another gun.” He kept the cold stare though how, he hadn’t a clue. Scott’s heart was pounding in his ears, his throat dry as he shrugged off even the facade of his brother’s death as inconsequential.
“I’m curious, Lancer. What stake do you have in the woman and her brats? Why would you want them?”
“That’s my business, Mr. Parker. Just as why you would want this dirt farm is your business.” Scott leaned forward and whispered. “Let’s just say she’s easy on the eyes.” He winked at the man and grinned.
Parker burst out laughing as he shook his head.
“What about your old man? I saw you and him in town together.”
Parker turned and Scott looked up at the man still holding a gun and asking the question. His mind raced with that one.
“Yes, what about that? That man *was* your father, wasn’t he?” Parker asked as he faced Scott once more.
“Yes, that is my father. He’s already gone back to the ranch. Left early this morning after Trask killed Madrid. My old man is getting older and he pretty much leaves this sort of business to me now.”
“Wish I’d seen that. Trask outdrawing Madrid,” Parker grinned wickedly.
Scott frowned, anger shooting through his veins. He couldn’t stop the harsh tone of voice or the initial words. “He didn’t outdraw anyone.” Taking a deep breath, he relaxed again. “Madrid was unarmed. I suppose you can’t blame him. He knew he couldn’t win against Johnny in a fair fight.”
Parker studied him hard and Scott thought he’d made a mistake somehow. He waited to see what the man would do and prayed he’d just leave.
“Well, let’s just go on in and see how Mrs. Williams is doing after all this difficulty.”
“She’s resting. She’s quite upset as you can imagine,” Scott said sharply.
“Yes, and I bet you’re more than willing to comfort her. Something doesn’t ring true here, Lancer. I’m not sure what it is but, we *are* going inside. Right now.” Parker turned halfway and nodded to his men who dismounted. All three of them now bore weapons in hand.
Scott stared at him long and hard. There was no way around this without bullets flying. With Jason so close to him, Scott couldn’t risk that. His only hope was that Murdoch was watching this somehow but, he knew that was a long shot, too. He wondered how long it would take Johnny and Val to get back once discovering Parker wasn’t home. Another thought hit him as he slowly turned to Jason. Does Parker even realize his son is missing?
Jason’s eyes held two things. Fear and confusion. Scott smiled weakly and gave him a wink then put a hand on his shoulder and guided him to the front door, keeping the boy in front of him and out of the line of fire. It wouldn’t surprise him to feel a bullet in his back any second now.
Jason opened the front door and stepped inside, relieved to find the room empty. Carl was in his mother’s room with her and he hoped they were still asleep.
“Where are they?” Parker asked.
“I told you, she’s resting. The other boy is, too. There’s no need to disturb them, is there?”
Parker grabbed Scott’s arm and turned him around. He stared hard at the man then smiled a little. “Somethin about the little lady you don’t want me to see, Lancer? Maybe you’ve already started ‘comforting’ her?”
Scott ground his teeth as the other men snickered.
“Don’t you talk that way about my ma!” Jason hissed.
Parker laughed at him. “Looks like you got a new daddy, boy. Best to mind your manners.”
“Mr. Lancer saved us. That man of yours was gonna kill everyone. Johnny and Val couldn’t do nothin but Mr. Lancer did.”
Scott almost smiled at the boy, grateful he was playing along with this farce.
Murdoch stretched out and oriented himself to the room. He looked over at the other bed, seeing it was empty and sighed. So much for resting, he thought. He stood and walked to the door, his hand on the knob when he heard Jason’s impassioned statement. Perplexed, he almost stepped out until he heard an unfamiliar and unfriendly voice answer then Jason’s rebuttal.
Tension rose in his shoulders as he looked around the room. Grabbing his gun, Murdoch noticed Scott’s gun belt on the dresser. Damn! he thought. How many times has Johnny told him … the thought trailed off as a new one burst through. Where is Johnny?
Murdoch’s stomach fell as he realized the magnitude of the situation. That had to be Parker out there and he was sure the man didn’t come here alone. He stepped lightly to the window and eased the sash up then stepped through awkwardly.
Looking around, Murdoch made his way to the corner of the house and saw four horses. Not too bad, he thought and smirked. Retracing his steps he headed for the back door. When he got to Mary’s bedroom window, he peered in, seeing she and Carl were still asleep. He opened the window and called softly to her.
Mary opened her eyes and almost screamed when she saw a man standing at her window. Realizing quickly who it was, she moved over to him.
“Parker is on the house. Keep Carl in here no matter what you hear,” Murdoch explained.
She gasped and he shushed her. “Where’s Jason?”
“He and Scott are with Parker. Please, Mrs. Williams, his best chance is if you and Carl stay out of harm’s way. I don’t want to have to worry about the two of you, too,” he said quickly.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath then nodded her understanding.
Murdoch wondered how much more this family would have to endure as he made it to the back door. Then, he stopped. He couldn’t go busting in with Scott and Jason in there. One or both of them were sure to get hurt or worse. He was running through his options when he heard a low whistle from the woods behind him.
“Well, I’m not a man to intrude on a woman’s rest. After all, she’s been through a lot. We’ll just sit here and wait a while for her to finish her nap.” Parker waved his hand to indicate Scott and Jason take a seat.
Scott gently pushed Jason to the sofa. He couldn’t help thinking ‘here we go again’.
“Amos, see if there’s any coffee in the kitchen.”
Laughton gave a disgusted look but did as he was told. He banged around, looking for cups and condiments, angry with Parker for treating him like a lackey. He was the one who’d seen the Lancers in town. He was the one who talked to Madrid.
Sighing in disgust, he thought he was also the one who’d let them get the upper hand in that canyon. Parker wasn’t gonna forget that any time soon. Especially since most of their men had lit out after the debacle, scared half out of their wits. Still, Trask had gotten the job done so there wasn’t really any need for all those extra men to have to pay. He smiled a little. Leastways, there was more of a cut for him.
Once Trask was sent on his way, things would go back to normal. God, but he hated that man!
As he ruminated about all this, he never heard the back door open. Never heard the light steps come up behind him and never knew what hit him.
Murdoch caught him before he hit the floor and dragged him out the door as Val closed it behind him. Johnny tied Laughton up and stuffed a kerchief in his slack mouth.
Standing back up, he met his father’s eyes with a gleam in his own. “Nice goin,” he whispered.
“Thanks. Now what?”
“Now, we try and get one or two more of ’em out of the way,” Johnny shrugged.
“And how do you propose we do that, son?”
“By cuttin the horses loose. They’ll come runnin out the front. I figure Scott’ll take the hint and cover Jason.” Val’s words were flat, almost nonchalant as if this were an everyday occurrence.
Murdoch looked at him, still wondering about this man he thought he knew a little. He nodded his agreement and they all moved to the front of the house.
Val crouched low and moved to the horses soundlessly. With a quick flick of the wrist, he released them one at a time. Then, he slapped the rear of the horse nearest him and ran back to the side of the house where Murdoch and Johnny awaited him.
Parker stood when he heard the commotion. His face flashed with anger. “Go see what’s wrong with those animals,” he ordered.
As soon as both men walked outside, Scott moved. He lunged at Parker who was still looking at the door and grabbed the man’s right hand. They both fell to the floor as the report exploded.
Hearing the gunfire, Johnny and Val stepped into sight. Parker’s men turned to fire and it was the last thing they ever did.
Murdoch took off for the house. He waded into the fray between Parker and Scott, knocking Parker senseless with the butt of his gun.
Scott, breathless from the struggle, came to his knees and pulled the gun from Parker’s hand. “Thanks.”
“Anytime, son. Are you alright?”
Nodding, he stood up. “I’m fine.” He stopped then and turned quickly.
Jason was standing in the corner watching it all, his eyes wide. Scott went immediately to him, hands going to the boy’s shoulders and squeezing gently.
“Are you hurt?”
Jason shook his head vigorously and Scott let out a breath. He turned then and saw his brother and Val standing in the doorway grinning.
Murdoch went to get Jason’s mother and brother and they both ran out to see what had happened. Mary went immediately to her son and wrapped him in an embrace. The boy looked over her shoulder at Val and Johnny dragging Parker out of the house.
Carl’s eyes took in the scene with no understanding of what had transpired. He stared at Parker until he was taken outside then went to his family, wrapping his arms around them both.
“Well, reckon we’ll finally get him to town,” Val sighed as he pushed Parker onto one of the horses he’d retrieved. He tied the man’s hands to the saddle horn and glared at him. Â
“I was hoping you would figure out what was happening,” Murdoch commented.
“Didn’t take much once we got there and he wasn’t home. We didn’t want to go another round like the last one,” Johnny smiled. “Good moves, old man.”
Murdoch raised a brow at him then gave up. “Thank you, young man. Hurry up with this and come back. You both need to sleep for a few days.”
“I heard that,” Val muttered.
“How did Parker get the drop on you?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch looked past him at nothing. “He got hold of Scott and Jason out here, I think. Scott … he wasn’t wearing his gun.”
The young man sighed out loudly through his nose but only nodded. “Listen, I was wonderin if maybe you could talk to Mary. See how she’s dealin with all this, ya know? I mean, they’ve been through so much garbage and, well, you always seem to be able to talk to people.”
Murdoch was surprised and flattered by the words. Once again, Johnny had shown his confidence in his father’s abilities. And this time, there wasn’t even any sarcasm attached. He smiled and patted his son’s shoulder. “I’ll try my best.”
Mary walked into the living room and her eyes widened, her face stricken. “Where’s Jason?”
“He’s outside with Scott. He’s fine, Mrs. Williams,” Murdoch assured her. “Please, come sit down. Is Carl alright?”
She walked over, still worried over her eldest son but taking a seat. “He’s lying down. This whole thing has taken so much out of both of them. Jason can’t sleep when he’s brooding over something and Carl takes to his bed. They’re so different.”
Murdoch smiled, knowing his own sons were so very different in how they dealt with problems as well. “They’re different people even though they’ve grown up together.”
“I’m afraid they’ve both had to grow up very fast lately,” she sighed tiredly.
He nodded thoughtfully. “Johnny’s worried about you.”
She smiled and shook her head. “He worries about everyone but himself. It’s funny. He and Val were here such a short time before yet, I feel like I know them both so well.”
He wondered how she’d managed to accomplish that. He still didn’t know his son as well as he’d like. “I’d like to know how you’re feeling about everything. Taking a life is probably the hardest thing there is.”
She grew quiet, pensive as she stared at her lap. Finally, she took a deep breath. “I’ve given life and taken it, Mr. Lancer. I’ve also lost my husband. I can live with what I had to do here.”
“Can you live with what Scott did?”
She looked at him, anger clouding her features. Her face relaxed after a few seconds and she sighed. “I don’t want to hate your son. I don’t want to hate anyone. What happened was a tragedy and maybe it could have been avoided. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I’m trying. That’s all I can do right now.” Â
Scott and Jason walked out of the barn together, having checked on Barranca again. It was an excuse really. Jason was feeling a little smothered by his mother’s constant attention and Scott had taken pity. It seemed she didn’t want her son out of her sight – ever again. They stopped and watched the two men riding in.
Johnny dismounted slowly, his usual grace missing in action. Scott walked over and took his arm, asking without saying a word.
“Just a little stiff. Parker’s put away. He didn’t know about his boy so we waited til we had him in town to tell him.”
“He took a swing at Johnny. I had the Doc take a look. He’s alright,” Val reported.
“Come on, brother. It’s bedtime.”
Johnny grinned at him them his eyes raked over Jason. “Where’s Murdoch?”
“Inside. You should be sleeping already.”
Scott lowered his eyes for a second before meeting those cobalt searchers. “No, but I feel better.”
Johnny nodded. “You sure about that? Seems to me you ain’t thinkin too clearly, brother.”
Scott pulled a face, knowing exactly what he meant. Apparently, his father had ratted him out about not wearing his gun which was firmly in place now. “Inside,” he said with his best military tone.
Johnny scoffed and looked at Jason. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m better now, too,” he answered, looking briefly at Scott.
Val smiled a little and put his arm around Jason’s shoulders as he walked the boy to the house. “Why don’t you and me find a hole I can climb into for a few hours?”
“We really should have gone to town. They don’t have room here,” Scott mused as he watched Val and Jason go inside.
“Maybe, Scott, but I’m not about to argue with Mary. It never works out well for me,” Johnny grinned. “Did you two talk?”
“We did. I think he really is doing better. He said he wasn’t sure he could forgive me but, he understands what happened and well, he doesn’t want to kill me for your sake.”
A raised brow and dancing eyes met Scott’s gaze. “No need to take my feelins into account.”
Jason spent the next several minutes retelling the confrontation between Parker and Scott nearly ver batim. Johnny sat at the kitchen table and listened with his head down as he held a cup of coffee. Occasionally, he smiled.
When the boy finished, Johnny looked up at him and saw the admiration for his brother and something else, too.
“I didn’t mean none of what I said, Johnny. I was just playin along.”
“I know, Jason. I’m sure Scott didn’t mean some of what he said either.” Johnny grinned widely at his brother.
Scott rolled his eyes then lowered his head. “I apologize, Jason. You too, Mrs. Williams, for being so suggestive. It just seemed the best way to keep Parker at bay; keep him from pulling you and Carl from the bedroom.”
“I understand, Mr. Lancer. You think quickly on your feet, it seems.” Mary said, thankful her younger son was not in the room to hear some of the things said.
Scott looked up at her, hearing a hint of sarcasm in her voice. Or was that his imagination? More precisely, the guilt he still felt? He knew what she was saying, or not saying. Why hadn’t he thought that quickly before shooting her husband? But, it wasn’t a case of not thinking then. He had to make her understand somehow.
Mary sat in the rocker on the front porch as evening fell, her eyes blank. She heard the front door open but didn’t look. All she could see at the moment was red. Blood red. The creak of the other rocker snapped her back and she looked over at him with scorn.
Scott was surprised by the expression and it must have shown on his face. She lowered her eyes for a moment, unsure. Then, with a steadying breath, she spoke.
“That was Seth’s chair.”
Scott stood immediately and walked over to the steps, lowering himself and resting his back against the post there. “I’m sorry.”
She didn’t reply, just went back to staring.
“It seems that’s all I can say to you, Mrs. Williams. I wish there were better words. Right now, I’m more concerned with how you’re doing.”
“I’m alright.” Her voice was dull, automatic and unconvincing.
“You killed a man today. I find it hard to believe you’re alright,” Scott said gently.
“I was thinking this morning, when Johnny came in to talk to Jason. I was thinking that now, I have something in common with him. Knowing how it feels to kill someone.” She shook her head. “I don’t know how I pulled that trigger.”
Scott looked down at the planks he sat on. “You saved my life and your own not to mention Carl and Art. You did what you had to do.”
“I suppose,” she breathed out tiredly. “Right now, I just feel … empty. Even more empty than before. I’m beginning to think I’ll never feel anything else.”
He knew how she felt, well, some of it. He’d never lost a spouse but having to kill someone, he knew all about that. He thought of his talk with Jason earlier. He’d been open with the boy though it wasn’t easy. But Jason had deserved that much and so did she.
“I’ve had to kill men before and it’s never easy. Even if they’re the most despicable men, it doesn’t matter. I wish there was something I could do to help you.”
She looked at him briefly, a small smile flittering across her lips. “I appreciate the sentiment, Mr. Lancer. If you really want to do something for me, take care of Johnny. Make sure he feels his home deep inside him. It’s what he’s always needed, I think. I owe him and Val so much.”
“I’ll do my best but Johnny is much more settled now.”
“I could see that when he came back here. I think the best thing I, or anyone can do for Johnny is forget he was ever Johnny Madrid.”
Scott nodded firmly. “I think that’s what he wants but I also know he would do anything for a friend. Anything.”
“A true friend wouldn’t ask him to go back to that life for any reason.”
Scott frowned. “I don’t think it’s so much going back to that life. I truly believe Johnny would be the way he is no matter what path he’d chosen for his life. It isn’t being a gunfighter. It’s his heart that makes him care so much and makes him capable of helping.”
She stopped rocking and looked directly at him, locking eyes. “From what Iâ€™ve seen, thatâ€™s something you have in common. I want to forgive you, Scott Lancer. I think I can do that. You saved my sons lives and mine and shown me your true character.”
Murdoch tightened his cinch and worked on his saddlebags as Johnny talked quietly with Barranca.
“Is he going to make it home?” Murdoch quipped.
Johnny looked over the horse’s neck and smirked. “He says as long as *you* ain’t a grouch, he’ll make it.”
Murdoch chuckled and shook his head but he never looked up.
“I made you some sandwiches for the trip,” Mary said, carrying a bulging pillow case out.
Val took it and whistled. “It ain’t gonna take that long ta get back.”
She smiled and hugged him much to Val’s chagrin. “Thank you, Val. We appreciate all you did.”
“Glad to help. You send for us if you ever need anything. Anything at all.”
Johnny smiled at the two of them then looked toward the house. Sighing, he headed after his tardy brother.
Scott closed his saddlebag and looked around, ensuring he hadn’t forgotten anything. His mind went back to last night and the long talk he’d had with Mary. He felt they’d come to an understanding of sorts. While he held no hopes the woman would ever count him a friend, at least she didn’t look at him the same way she had. With hatred and anger. He knew what his being here had cost her. It was too soon for her to have to face him. But, she’d forgiven him which was more than he could have hoped for.
He realized he’d been a little selfish about that. Insisting on coming here hadn’t been as much about Johnny as having the opportunity to apologize. He had no idea what kind of trouble was brewing and he had to admit to himself, he hadn’t thought too much about it until they’d arrived. Then, his main focus had been helping his brother. Still, they were there in his mind the whole time.
Meeting them the way he had was the worst possible scenario. Still, it had all worked out and he was grateful. He would never feel completely vindicated for killing Seth Williams but, he felt he could live with it now. Mary had a lot to do with that. Jason, as well.
He heard the door open behind him and smiled. “I’m coming, brother.”
“No, you ain’t.”
Scott turned slowly and faced the boy – and the gun he held in both hands.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m gettin justice for my pa. You might’ve convinced ma it wasn’t your fault but I know better.”
“Look, I …”
“Shut up! You just shut up! I ain’t listenin to your lies no more. Talkin all fancy and smooth. You killed my father and you deserve to die!”
Johnny pulled up short when he got to the doorway. His heart quickened at the sight before him, breaking at the same time. He moved silently up behind the boy.
“”Listen to me,” Scott tried.
“No! I heard it all. I heard how you talked about how rich you are and how you could pay us off. It didn’t bother you at all!”
“That was just a distraction. I thought you understood that,” Scott said.
“All I understand is I wasn’t gonna let my brother ruin his life over the likes of you. Me. I don’t matter so much.”
“That’s not true, son. You matter a great deal. Your mother…”
“Don’t! Don’t you say another word about her or nothin else. I ain’t gonna forgive you. I ain’t gonna let it go. No, sir!” He squeezed the trigger.
Johnny grabbed his right arm, pulling away as the gun went off. He grabbed the boy and turned him around, wrenching the gun from his hands. Anger radiated off him as he looked at his brother to assure himself Scott was unharmed.
Scott breathed again, the heated air still tangible on the skin of his neck. It had been incredibly close. He leaned against the table.
Everyone ran in from the yard, stunned and confused as to what had happened.
Mary walked slowly up to Johnny, looking closely at her son. “Carl?” she choked out.
“How can you let him go? How can you just let him ride outta here? He’s a killer!” the boy sobbed.
She grabbed him, enfolding him in her arms and rocking side to side.
Johnny backed away then went to his brother. “You okay?”
Scott nodded. “Thanks to you.”
“Boys, I think we need to leave here now,” Murdoch said as he walked up to them.
“What about Carl? He needs to get this out,” Scott argued.
“Mary and Jason will take care of him. There’s nothing more we can do, Scott.”
Val came over, his face sad. “It’s always the quiet ones.”
Scott’s face hardened. “I need to talk to him. Maybe I can get through to him.”
Johnny grasped his arm. “You couldn’t just now. No, Scott. Let his family take care of him. That’s what they’re here for.”
“Johnny’s right, son. Carl won’t listen to you. He’s kept his anger pent up more than any of them. He can’t hear you.”
“Carl always was the thinker. Always weighin everything out. I thought he was a lot like you, Scott. Best to just make yourself scarce. Jason will get through to his brother,” Val said.
“You didn’t hear him. He said he didn’t matter as much as Jason. He thinks his life isn’t worth anything. How can we leave?” Scott argued.
“Because this is not our problem to fix, brother. Look, you wouldn’t want someone else stickin their nose in our business. It’s the same thing. Now, let’s go. Your bein here ain’t helpin that boy.” Johnny’s tone was angry and firm as he shook his brother’s arm.
Scott stared at him then nodded, hanging his head in defeat. They walked out as Mary sat with her sons on the sofa. Johnny stopped at the door and she looked up at him, tears streaming down her face. She forced a small smile and nodded at him. Johnny nodded back and stepped outside, closing the door.
He was confident Mary could handle this. With Jason’s help, they’d get Carl past his grief and rage. Maybe if he’d had family when his mother was murdered, things would have worked out a lot better for him. No, no maybe about it, he realized.
Scott stared into the campfire, his thoughts back at the farm. He wondered at the events that had unfolded over the past weeks. He tossed a small piece of wood into the fire and watched as it ignited then dropped down into the depths of the fire. It snapped loudly as the spark shifted a larger log, rolling it aside.
Johnny squatted next to him, reaching over and grabbing the coffee pot. He offered Scott a refill but the man just shook his head. Johnny poured his coffee then sat down, stretching his legs out.
“Collateral damage,” Scott spoke out.
“What’s that?” came the soft question.
“I was just thinking. One incident can spark so many other events. One decision made in the heat of the moment can cause so much damage to so many people.”
Johnny stared at the fire as he thought this through. “I reckon.”
Scott smiled wanly and looked over at his brother. “Ever think about the consequences of your actions beyond what’s obvious, Johnny?”
Shrugging, Scott said, “like Parker. The railroad will investigate how he knew so much about their operations. They’ll probably find his partner and fire him. Press charges, even. That man may have a family that will be devastated. And the Williams’. What will happen to Carl in a few years? Will he ever come to understand what he almost did? How will that affect his life? His future?”
Johnny frowned deeply as he listened. He sat up and studied his brother’s face. “Ever think you should just be grateful to be alive? That we stopped a dangerous man from ruining even more lives than he already has? Yeah, Scott, I have thought about those things before. You know what it did for me? Gave me a headache. I can’t control what other people do. All I can do is what I think is right. After that, it’s up to God. Let Him sort it out.”
Scott considered that line of thought and smiled a little. “Maybe you’re right.”
“I know what you’re goin through,” he said whisper soft.
The older brother swallowed hard and just waited. It seemed Johnny wasn’t going to offer any more though. “How did you deal with it?”
“Time,” he shrugged then smiled a little. “Trouble with you is you want to solve all the problems in the world. Can’t be done. Best you can do is try.”
“That’s what you always do, Johnny.”
“Not always. But, that’s a whole different conversation. I’m gonna sack in. Get some sleep, Scott.”
“Goodnight,” Scott said as Johnny went to his bedroll. He thought about his brother’s words and found them wise. He may never get completely past killing Seth Williams but, he knew his brother had and that was important to him. He would also never forget Carl Williams. He decided to speak with Val and ask him to keep him informed about the boy and how he was getting along. Maybe, in time, he could do something to mend the boy’s heart. He didn’t know. Right now, all he could do was what Johnny had said. His best.
Scott laid in his bedroll and stared at the heavens. He sent a prayer up for Carl and his family then closed his eyes and added one for his family and himself.
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