Word Count 8,930
Johnny felt like a sardine. His right side was mashed against Murdoch and his left side was pressed against the side of the stagecoach. On Murdoch’s right was a rather large man, a good two hundred fifty pounds he estimated, who had no problem making room for himself. Opposite them sat a middle-aged married couple and a woman in her early twenties who obvious thought the sun rose and set on her.
He tried to ignore the uncomfortable situation he found himself in by looking at the passing scenery. Unfortunately, it was nothing but desert. Since they’d left Kansas City, the landscape had grown more and more sparse. Johnny knew where they were and he didn’t like it anymore than he had on the trip to Kansas City.
Still, it had been an uneventful journey so far. He hoped it would stay that way. He snuck a peek at his father and smiled at the terse look on the man’s face. It was plain he wasn’t enjoying this trip either. Successful as it had been, and necessary, Murdoch had grumped about it the entire time. He didn’t like Kansas City and made no qualms about the fact. Johnny wasn’t crazy about it either, but his reasons were much different.
But no one had recognized him, or if they did, they hadn’t made it known. The business meeting had gone well and they had not been forced to stay any longer than necessary. Murdoch had told Johnny he couldn’t sleep in such a noisy place. A fact that seemed to have been overstated as Johnny had been the one to lay awake, listening to the noise and his father’s snoring.
The stagecoach bucked violently and everyone was squished together even more. Johnny stuck his head out the window but couldn’t see what had caused such a sudden jerking. He figured they’d hit a particularly deep rut and decided it was nothing. He settled back as much as he could and shrugged his shoulders at his father’s questioning look.
A few minutes later, the jerking happened again, only this time, it didn’t stop. The stage careened from one side to the other and they could hear the driver shouting something to his shotgun rider. Johnny looked out once more, this time he glanced down. Before he could warn the other passengers, the coach began to turn over.
It was quiet, too quiet as the dust settled around him. Murdoch Lancer touched his forehead and felt the lump there. He sat up slowly, taking in his surroundings and reorienting himself. He remembered the stage losing control, the driver shouting, then all hell breaking loose.
He looked around and the thought exploded inside his head. Johnny! He stood up and stumbled to the overturned coach. He saw the married couple dusting themselves off. They didn’t appear to be seriously injured. The young woman was near them, crying, but he saw no blood. The driver and his guard were nowhere in sight and the horses were gone. But he didn’t see Johnny.
Murdoch walked around the coach and stopped. He stared down at his son, lying unconscious. Johnny’s legs were trapped under the coach. He stooped down and checked for a pulse, sighing with relief when he found it easily. He tried to lift the coach but found it was too heavy.
“Someone help me!” he yelled.
The married man came to his aid, though he was of a rather small frame, he tried to help but he wasn’t strong enough.
“Wait, I’ll see if that other man is alright. He’s probably strong enough,” he said and hurried off.
Murdoch looked around for something to use as leverage to lift the coach but couldn’t find anything. A minute later, the two men returned and the large man lifted the coach as Murdoch pulled Johnny free.
“Thank you,” Murdoch said over his shoulder as he checked Johnny for injuries.
“Here, I found a canteen,” the man’s wife offered.
Murdoch nodded to her and wet his bandana, wiping Johnny’s face gently. “Johnny?” he called softly.
Johnny heard his name and tried to open his eyes but it was a chore. He heard himself moan and became aware of pain in his legs. After some effort, his eyes opened in the shadow of his father leaning over him.
“Easy son, take some water,” Murdoch said and offered up the canteen.
Johnny took a drink and grimaced. “My legs,” he whispered.
“I know, the coach trapped you. I need to look, son.”
“I know, go ahead,” Johnny nodded and braced himself.
Murdoch unbuttoned the sides of his pants and removed his boots, trying to ignore the groan coming from his son.
“No broken bones, but some bad bruising is starting. You might have a fracture I can’t feel. At the very least, you’re going to be very sore,” he announced his findings.
“Help me up. I want to see if I can stand,” Johnny said.
Murdoch lifted him carefully, the large man assisting, and Johnny tentatively bore weight on first the right, then the left leg.
“Well, hurts like crazy but I can walk,” he said.
“That’s wonderful, young man, but where are we walking to?” the large man asked.
Johnny looked around the area, thinking hard. He nodded to the west. “There’s a cave bout a mile or so from here.”
“How do you know that?” the man asked.
Murdoch looked at him with the same question in his eyes.
“I know the area, mister. I think we should get to shelter as soon as possible, Murdoch. Don’t want to be out in the open very long around here,” Johnny said and limped back to the stage.
He collected their saddlebags and another canteen, then went to check on the driver. Johnny walked a quarter mile before he found both men dead, the horses long gone.
He walked back to the group and reported his findings then led the way to the cave.
It took two hours to walk the mile as the women had to stop every few minutes and Johnny’s legs didn’t allow for his usual stride. By the time they made it, the sun was hanging low in the sky.
“Wait here, let me check it out first. Wouldn’t want any surprises,” Johnny grinned at his father and disappeared before Murdoch could object.
He returned quickly and gave the all clear and they all proceeded inside the cool shelter.
All four of the other passengers fell to the ground in exhaustion. Johnny went back outside and collected some scrub brush and limbs as Murdoch found some stones to build a fireplace. Soon, there was a fire blazing near the back of the cave.
“I hardly think we need a fire, gentlemen. It must be a hundred degrees outside,” the married woman said.
“Desert gets cold at night, ma’am,” Johnny replied.
“Perhaps we should all introduce ourselves since we’re going to be together awhile. My name is William Cardell,” the large man said.
“I’m Henry Stone and this is my wife, Mildred,” the other man spoke up.
“Alicia Winters,” the young woman said quietly.
“I’m Murdoch Lancer and this is my son, Johnny.”
“Well, Mr. Lancer, I don’t know about everyone else, but I am not from the west. I live in Chicago. It seems to me that you and your son are best suited to be in charge here. Does everyone agree?” Caudell said.
All the passengers nodded in agreement.
“Well, Johnny is the expert on the desert,” Murdoch said.
“Fine, then what do we do?” Mrs. Stone asked.
Johnny looked at the four of them and his stomach turned. No way could they walk out of here. None of them would make it a day.
“There’s a cabin about ten miles southeast of here. I can walk there, get a horse and go for help,” Johnny said.
“Why don’t we all go?” Mr. Stone asked.
“Because you wouldn’t make it. That little walk we just took is nothing compared to being out in this heat all day. These ladies can’t handle it and neither can you,” Johnny said bluntly.
“Just a minute, young man….”
“What kind of cabin, Johnny?” Murdoch interrupted.
Johnny cast his eyes down and fidgeted for a second. “An outlaw hideout or it used to be. Hopefully, it still is.”
“Why in the world would you hope that?” Alicia spoke up.
“Because if it isn’t, there won’t be any horses there for me to steal,” Johnny grinned.
“Steal? Isn’t that a hanging offense?” Mr. Stone asked.
“I doubt any of them would turn me into the law,” Johnny retorted.
“Wait a minute, everyone. I don’t like this, son. It’s a big risk. If they catch you…”
“Murdoch, we don’t have much choice. The nearest town is the one we left this morning and that’s more than twenty miles from here. The only way we’re gonna get out of here is if I go alone,” Johnny explained.
Murdoch cursed silently, knowing Johnny was making perfect sense. “What about your legs?”
“They’re fine, just a little sore. The walk will do them good.”
“I’ll go with you,” Murdoch said.
“No, someone has to stay here, Murdoch. They can’t fend for themselves,” Johnny said.
“I’m getting tired of your assumptions, young man. What makes you think we can’t take care of ourselves?” Mr. Stone asked grumpily.
Johnny looked him in the eye. “Do you know how to find food out here? Do you know which cactus you can get water from and which ones will kill you? Can you use a gun?”
Mr. Stone turned away from that stare and said nothing.
“I’ll leave in the morning. Shouldn’t take more than two days to get there on foot, if I walk at night, too,” Johnny said, turning back to his father.
“I hate this,” Murdoch said softly.
“I know, but we don’t have any choice. Now, we better find some food,” Johnny smiled.
Johnny and Murdoch set out to hunt for food. Johnny showed his father which cactus could be used and how to cut them. He then showed him where they might find some jackrabbits and birds.
Being taught by his son would not ordinarily sit well with Murdoch Lancer but he was fascinated by Johnny’s knowledge of desert life. He wanted to ask, desperately wanted to know, but now was not the time.
“Maybe you could find the stage horses. They probably didn’t get very far,” Murdoch suggested as they hunted.
“Never know. Sure would be better than stealin one,” Johnny replied off-handedly.
“You’re not taking this very seriously, John,” he admonished.
“I am, Murdoch. Just don’t see any point in bein all sullen about it,” Johnny said, then lifted his hand to stop his father’s movement.
Johnny pulled his knife and flung it at the rabbit, hitting it in the side. It fell to the ground without a sound.
“Don’t want to use a gun unless you have to. Makes too much noise out here. Might bring some unwanted company,” he explained as he retrieved his knife and their dinner.
“You’re gonna have to keep those people on a tight rein. None of them has a clue how bad off they are. They might get some crazy idea about walkin out of here. If they do and you can’t talk them out of it, let ’em go. No sense in putting yourself in danger for a bunch of idiots,” Johnny continued as they made their way back to the cave.
“You don’t think much of them, do you?” Murdoch asked, smiling.
“Haven’t seen anything to think much of,” Johnny shrugged.
Johnny skinned the rabbit outside as Murdoch made a skewer for it. He watched Johnny make quick work of the animal and smiled at how they worked together without a word needing to be said.
“What’s so funny?” Johnny asked.
“I hate the way you do that. Watching me when I don’t even know it. I was thinking how well we work together,” Murdoch half-grumbled.
Johnny smiled at this. “Yeah, we do, don’t we? How’d that happen?”
“Keep it up young man. I suppose after all this time, we’ve gotten used to each other,” Murdoch said in a mock threat.
Johnny grew quiet for a moment. “What’s it been, now? Four years?”
“Yes, just over.”
“Seems like yesterday sometimes,” Johnny smiled.
“Some things don’t change, I guess. Then again, some things do. Nobody recognized you in Kansas City, for example,” Murdoch said.
“Think Johnny Madrid is dead?”
“How would you feel about that?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny considered the question for a second, then smiled. “Sounds like a dream come true.”
After considerable griping about their rather rancid tasting dinner, the rest of the passengers began to settle down for the night. Johnny and Murdoch sat together, heads close, as they discussed their plans.
“Once I make it to the cabin, I can head due south to Los Alamos,” Johnny said.
“I still don’t like the idea of you stealing a horse from outlaws, Johnny,” Murdoch said, shaking his head.
“Well, if you’ve got a better idea, I’m listening,” Johnny replied calmly.
“Mr. Lancer? May I ask, exactly where are we?” Alicia asked from the fire where she sat with the others.
Johnny and Murdoch exchanged looks, Murdoch’s saying ‘no use in upsetting them’ and Johnny’s saying ‘tell them the truth’.
Johnny grinned and won out as he told them. “We’re in New Mexico. This area is called the Badlands.”
“That sounds rather ominous,” Mr. Cardell said.
“It should. This desert is a hideout for comancheros, banditos and pistoleros,” Johnny said.
“You certainly seem to know a lot about this, Mr. Lancer,” Mrs. Stone said.
“It’s Johnny and yes ma’am, I’ve spent some time around these parts,” Johnny answered.
The unasked questions fell heavy in the air as each passenger considered why it was this young man knew so much about this place and yet his father didn’t.
Sensing their discomfort and curiosity, Murdoch spoke up. “I think we should all get some sleep. Mr. Cardell, Mr. Stone, we’ll stand watch in shifts. I’ll wake you in a few hours.”
“What about me?” Johnny asked.
“You need all the sleep you can get, son. You have a lot of miles to walk tomorrow. Rest your legs,” Murdoch explained.
Johnny awoke the next morning certain he couldn’t move. His entire body was sore and stiff and his legs were in pure agony. He laid there for a few minutes, slowly flexing his ankles and feeling it all the way through his thighs. He grimaced and held his tongue hoping his father was nowhere nearby.
Slowly, he lifted one leg then the other and attempted to sit up. It was a struggle but he managed it. Now what? he thought as he sat there rubbing his legs. He looked around the cave and didn’t see his father. Must be on guard duty. Slowly, painfully, he stood and grabbed hold of the side of the cave for support.
“Do you really think you’re in any shape to walk ten miles?” It was the girl speaking to him from her bedroll.
“Just need to work out the kinks,” Johnny smiled at her.
She got up and walked over to him, smoothing out her dress as she went. “You’re in pain, Mr. Lancer. You can’t even stand up without holding onto something,” she pointed out.
Johnny looked into her eyes and saw a measure of sympathy but it only served to anger him. “I can make it,” he said softly.
“And if you can’t? What then?” she pursued.
“Miss Winters, I will make it, I have to. You don’t know me so I’ll tell you a little secret. I’m stubborn,” he smiled.
She laughed aloud at this statement. “Well, I certainly hope so, Mr. Lancer. All of our lives depend on you,” she said, turning serious.
“I know what’s at stake, miss. I just hope no one gets any crazy ideas like tryin to walk out of here. They wouldn’t make it half a day in this heat. Then there’s the snakes and scorpions and outlaws to worry about,” Johnny said, only half-teasing.
“Are you sure about this cabin? I mean, how do you know about it?” she asked.
Johnny dropped his eyes for a second then looked back at her with a grin. “I just do. You’re going to have to trust me. I know what I’m doing.”
“You and your father certainly seem confident. This is my first trip out west. I must say, I don’t like it one bit,” she explained.
“Well, this isn’t exactly normal, bustin a wagon wheel. Where are you from?” he asked.
“New York, Manhattan actually,” she replied.
“Never been that far east but my brother grew up in Boston,” Johnny said.
“I was curious about that. You seem to have been on your own before. I gather from what little you’ve said that you didn’t live with your father,” she said.
“Not always, no,” Johnny said curtly.
“I’m sorry, it’s none of my business,” she apologized.
“How do you feel, son?” Murdoch asked as he entered the cave with two birds.
“Not bad, looks like you had some luck,” Johnny smiled.
“Well, you aren’t the only one who can hunt, you know,” Murdoch grinned. “How are your legs?”
“Stiff but I’ll work them out. Guess I should get ready to leave,” Johnny lied.
“Not before you eat something,” Murdoch ordered.
Johnny smiled at him and limped out of the cave while Murdoch’s back was turned. He walked around and around to loosen the aching muscles. He sat on a rock and lifted his pant legs, frowning at the black and purple bruises covering his shins. “Dios,” he whispered.
“Oh Lord!” Alicia exclaimed.
Johnny pulled his pant legs back down and sat up, looking at her. “Is that any way for a proper young lady to behave?” he grinned.
“Mr. Lancer, your legs! You can’t walk like that!”
“First of all, it’s Johnny. Second, yes I can. I’ve done a lot more with a lot worse injuries than this. Remember, I’m stubborn.”
She looked at him and he felt like a schoolboy being reprimanded.
“I’m telling your father,” she proclaimed.
Johnny burst out laughing. “You gonna tattletell on me?”
She laughed herself as she realized how it sounded. Telling a grown man she would rat him out. “Well, nevertheless, you can’t go off on your own like this. You’ll need help,” she said, growing serious.
“Listen to me, Miss Winters, Murdoch has to stay here to help all of you. Neither of those men would make it one day out here and I doubt you or Mrs. Stone could either. That leaves me and I know what I’m doing,” he said.
“First of all, it’s Alicia. Second, I sure hope so,” she smiled.
Johnny ate his share of breakfast and checked his gun. He pulled out his knife and offered it to Murdoch.
“No, you’ll need that,” he said, shaking his head.
“You sure?” Johnny asked.
“Positive, I have my own. It’s not as lethal, but it will do the job,” Murdoch answered.
Johnny smiled and nodded. “Well, guess I better get goin.”
“Good luck, young man,” Mr. Cardell said.
“Thanks,” Johnny smiled and walked out with his father.
Murdoch put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and he turned around.
“Please be careful. Make sure you come back to me,” he said gently.
Johnny bowed his head and nodded. “I will. I promise.”
“Johnny, I …. well, you know I love you,” Murdoch said.
“Yeah, I know. I love you, too,” Johnny smiled and gave Murdoch a quick hug before he set off.
Murdoch watched him limp off and his concern grew even more. He said a silent prayer to watch over his boy then went back inside.
“I certainly hope your son knows what he’s doing, Mr. Lancer,” Mrs. Stone said haughtily.
“He does,” Murdoch clipped.
“It’s just that we’re all depending on his abilities and, after all, he is a complete stranger to us,” Mr. Stone explained.
“I understand your frustration, sir, but Johnny has the most finely honed survival skills I have ever witnessed. He will be back,” Murdoch said confidently.
“I hope so, he’s badly hurt,” Alicia said.
“What do you mean?” Murdoch asked.
“I … I saw his legs this morning, Mr. Lancer. They’re very badly bruised. He could barely stand up,” Alicia said, blushing at the stern look she got from Mrs. Stone.
“And you only now are telling me this?” Murdoch asked.
“He said he had been through much worse. I believed him,” she defended.
Murdoch dropped his glare. “Yes, that’s true enough.”
“Well, since we haven’t much else to do but wait, why don’t we all get better acquainted,” Mr. Cardell suggested.
No one answered him so he forged ahead, trying to get their minds off the dire circumstances. “As I said before, I live in Chicago. I work for the stockyards there, contracts and such. I’m a lawyer by profession,” he said.
“I’m a tailor of fine men’s clothing. My wife and I were on an excursion to San Francisco, thinking we might relocate there. We are from Ohio,” Mr. Stone joined in.
“I just graduated from finishing school and was on my way to San Francisco as well to attend a music school there. I’m from New York but I wanted a change of scenery,” Alicia offered.
“And you, Mr. Lancer?” Mr. Caudell asked.
“My sons and I have a ranch in California, near a small town named Morro Coyo,” Murdoch replied.
“Oh, you have more sons?” Mrs. Stone asked.
“One more, Scott. He’s at home,” Murdoch answered.
“Johnny said he grew up in Boston,” Alicia interjected.
“Sounds like you two had a nice talk,” Murdoch said, smiling a bit.
She blushed and refused to look at Mrs. Stone who she was sure was staring daggers at her. “We had some time this morning,” she said softly.
Johnny made his way across the desert floor more slowly than he would have liked. His legs still hurt like crazy but he thought they were a little better than that morning, or maybe it was wishful thinking. The bruises surprised and worried him and he figured they went all the way to the bone. Had to or it wouldn’t hurt so bad.
The pain was definitely putting him at a disadvantage. He could usually ignore such things but out here, all alone in the quiet, it was hard to get his mind off it. Johnny stopped and cut a cactus, sucking on the juice as he determined his direction.
He knew he was headed the right way, he only hoped it would do him some good. The town they had left that morning was in the opposite direction so if this didn’t pan out, it was an extra twenty miles he’d have to walk. Ten was enough, thank you very much.
The sun started to go down in front of him and he pulled his hat lower over his eyes. He concentrated on listening rather than seeing, in case something or someone got wind of him.
As the moon began to rise, he smiled. Nice and full, plenty of light to walk by. At least he could make up for lost time from being slowed down so much. But with the moon came the coolness of the desert night. Johnny knew he’d have to keep walking for most of it just to stay warm. He had his jacket but sometimes, that wasn’t enough.
He walked all night and when the sun began to make it’s presence known behind him, he decided to stop and rest. He found an outcropping of rocks that would provide him with some shade as the sun rose. Better to sleep in the day anyway, he thought.
Murdoch stood guard, watching and listening. It was past midnight now and the temperature had dropped dramatically. He thought about Johnny out there and was glad he at least had a jacket.
He looked up at the full moon and smiled. Good light to walk by. His anger surged again as he thought about his son out there all alone, about to steal a horse from a bunch of cutthroats.
Why did it have to be Johnny who went? But he knew the answer. It was the same as always, his past. Even though it had come in handy more times than he could count over the last four years, it still saddened him that his son had taught himself such harsh lessons.
He wondered about Johnny’s time spent in the Badlands. They didn’t get that name for no good reason. He knew it was a safe place for all kinds of outlaws because nobody in their right mind would come out here willingly.
Murdoch whirled around, gun aimed and ready. He saw Stone and lowered his weapon immediately.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Mr. Stone said, wide-eyed.
“It’s alright, just make a little noise next time. Time for your shift already?” Murdoch asked.
“Past time. You didn’t wake me,” Stone replied.
“Guess I was lost in my thoughts,” Murdoch mumbled and handed over the firearm.
When Johnny awoke it was nearly noon. He sighed and sat up, immediately grabbing his legs and rubbing them gently. He lifted his pants legs and shook his head. The purples were more purple and the blacks were more black and now there was a nice shade of blue to go with them.
He sighed again and adjusted his clothes, then got up and stretched. He cut a nearby cactus and began to suck on it as he took in his surroundings. He was sure he’d kept on a narrow heading through the night so he wasn’t too worried about getting off trail.
The desert looked no different but it never did. There were few landmarks out here to go by and if you didn’t know the place, you’d never make it.
He took off his jacket and began walking again. His mind went back to another time, another him as he remembered the times he’d spent out here. Though he’d never been wanted by the law, Johnny had a lot of enemies. Most of them didn’t have the guts to look for him in the Badlands, though, so he had made it his business to learn as much of the desert as he could.
He knew this place like the back of his hand, like Lancer. He smiled when he thought of home. It was the most beautiful place on earth, he was sure. He rolled up his sleeves as he walked and thought, not worried about the sun at this point. His skin was dark enough to handle it, not like those pasty people he’d left his father in charge of. Johnny laughed as he thought he got the better end of this deal. He didn’t have to put up with those pickle-faced snobs, the Stones. Alicia was nice, though. Not what he’d expected and Cardell seemed like a decent man, and smart.
Scott paced the telegraph office as he waited for a reply from the stage line. Johnny and Murdoch were two days overdue and when he’d checked, the ticket master told him the stage was late.
Finally, he heard the ticking of the wire as a message came through. He waited impatiently for the man to transcribe it.
“Scott, the stage line says the coach is missing. It never arrived at it’s next stop in Los Alamos, New Mexico. They’ve sent out a search party but ….”
“But what?” Scott asked.
“The stage was passing through the Badlands and they thinks that’s where it disappeared. Nothin but desert out there,” he finished.
Scott nodded his understanding and thought quietly for a moment. “Where are these Badlands?”
“Oh, you can’t go out there, Scott! That place is a hideout for every thievin, robbin piece of trash from here to Mexico,” the telegraph operator exclaimed.
“Just answer the question, please,” Scott said, fury adorning his face.
The operator told him what he wanted to know and Scott headed for the livery.
“You’re going to make yourself sick with worry,” Alicia smiled as she sat next to the rancher.
“I’m used to worrying about my boys. They always seem to find trouble, or it finds them,” he smiled.
“You love them very much,” she said, not a question but an observation.
“Yes, I do.”
“Johnny …. he’s different,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Murdoch asked.
“Well, I’m not sure. He smiles a lot but there’s something else there. It’s like a sadness that he tries to hide. And he’s …. well, he’s not white,” she said, a bit embarrased.
“He’s half Mexican,” Murdoch clarified with some anger. “Johnny had a hard life before he came home,” he added more gently.
“Why was he away?” she asked.
“That’s a long story, my dear, and one I’m not willing to tell,” Murdoch said.
“I’m sorry. I’m always sticking my nose in other people’s business. My father says I’m a busybody,” she laughed. “I think I’m just curious. You never know if you’ll get an answer until you ask the question.”
“That’s very true. I think you are curious and that’s a good thing. You’re a sweet girl,” Murdoch smiled paternally.
Johnny saw the cabin in the fading light and hid out behind a boulder. He grinned when he saw the corral full of horses. Eight in all. Eight men, not the greatest odds but hopefully he wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Since it was just dusk, he decided to wait until later when they would most likely be asleep. In his experience, most of these gangs didn’t bother to put a man on watch out here.
He leaned back against the boulder, exhausted from his walk. His legs were screaming at him and he knew the bone was bruised. It would take weeks to heal completely. But he could sit a saddle and that was all that mattered at the moment.
He calculated how long it would take him to reach Los Alamos. He figured he could get there by midmorning if he rode hard and he planned on riding hard. That is, if he didn’t get himself caught. For the first time, Johnny doubted his abilities. Four years and two hurt legs didn’t improve his odds.
Oh, he could still handle a gun, had never stopped his practicing, but the rest of it; his instincts, his keen vision and hearing, he hoped they would not fail him now. Now, when he needed them to help his father.
It was well past midnight when he began to move closer to the corral. He had planned it out carefully and was hopeful it would work, if the horses cooperated. That he still had, his ability to calm a distressed animal.
Johnny moved stealthily toward his goal, using the boulders and shrubs for cover. He stopped several times to ensure there was no guard. Satisfied there wasn’t, he continued on until he reached the first horse.
The animals balked a little but he soothed them quickly and slipped through the fence. The first one would do, it looked strong and fast and well rested. He figured the gang had been holed up for at least one day. They were sloppy though, leaving their tack outside to the elements. Idiots, he thought.
Johnny slowly and carefully placed the halter then the saddle on the horse, shushing him with soft tones. Once done, he opened the corral gate which squeaked a little. He held his breath and waited, then led the horse out. He left the gate open and quietly walked the horse away.
Once he was a good fifty feet from the cabin, Johnny mounted up. He stood in the stirrups, grimacing as the pain shot up his legs, and threw a good sized rock at the nearest horse to the gate.
He kneed his steed into a ground eating pace as the rest of the horses scattered to the four winds.
There was a great deal of commotion from the cabin as the outlaws awoke to the sound of horses in distress. They all ran out in their long johns in time to see their horses running off. Much cursing could be heard across the desert but it would be days before they realized one of the horses had been taken.
Johnny went for broke and kept up his pace for the better part of the night. The full moon was still with him and he could see well enough to guide the animal. Okay, there’s another thing I still have, my eyesight, he thought with some relief.
He made it to Los Alamos at noon and headed for the sheriff’s office. Bursting in the door, he called out.
“Whoa there young fella! What’s all the commotion?”
“Sheriff, there are some people out in the desert that need help,” Johnny said, trying to catch his breath.
“The stage?” the sheriff asked.
Johnny looked up. “Yeah, how’d you know?”
“Got a wire about it yesterday. Somebody got worried when their family didn’t show up on time and wired the stage line. They sent out a search party but it could take days to hunt ’em down. You with ’em?”
“Yeah, I walked to a cabin and …. well, I borrowed a horse, then rode here. I can show you exactly where they are, sheriff,” Johnny explained.
“Are you tellin me you walked out there in that desert?” the sheriff asked, stunned.
“Yes, that’s what I’m telling you. Look, we can discuss this on the way. Right now, there are five people who need our help and my father is one of them,” Johnny said, frustrated.
The sheriff rounded up a search party, including a wagon for any possible injuries and they set out on fresh mounts. Johnny figured it would take two days to reach them and his anxiety was growing with each passing minute. He knew his father could take care of himself and the others but anything could happen in the desert, anything.
Scott arrived in Los Alamos and headed to the sheriff. He explained his circumstances quickly to the deputy and got a nod of understanding.
“Yeah, someone rode in from the stage yesterday mornin. The sheriff’s going out after them now.”
“Did he say who that someone was?” Scott asked.
“No, said it was a man, that’s all,” the deputy replied.
“How far is it to where they’re heading?” Scott asked.
“Mr. Lancer, the best thing you can do is rest yourself first. There’s no way you can get there in time to catch up with the search party. Time you get there, they’ll be headin back anyway. You have time,” the deputy explained.
Scott was getting tired of people telling him what was best but he sucked in a breath and spoke calmly, albeit firmly. “Deputy, I appreciate your concern for my wellbeing. Now, could you please tell me how far it is.”
The deputy sighed and shrugged. “About twenty miles.”
The wagon was slowing them down and Johnny was getting frustrated. He slowed down to let the sheriff catch up to him.
“That wagon can follow our tracks. This is taking too long,” he said grimly.
“Just what do you think you can do without a wagon to haul all those folks back?” the sheriff asked.
“Be there!” Johnny clipped and slapped the reins. He took off and the sheriff gave the wagon driver instructions, then he and the rest of the search party caught up with Johnny.
“Look, I’m sorry but my father’s out there,” Johnny said once the sheriff rode up next to him.
“It’s okay, I know your worried. We’ll get there. You know you never told me your name,” the sheriff said.
Johnny smiled a little. “Johnny Lancer.”
Johnny reached across and shook hands with the man.
“Do you think he’s made it there yet?” Mr. Cardell asked.
“He should be in Los Alamos by now if all went well,” Murdoch said, staring into the flames.
“Then another day or two,” Cardell nodded.
“He’ll be fine, Mr. Lancer. Seems to me that young man is quite savvy,” Cardell smiled.
“He’s very self sufficient but that doesn’t mean something can’t happen,” Murdoch replied.
“Doesn’t mean something will, either,” Alicia spoke up.
“Well, I certainly hope not. I don’t think I can stand much more of this!” Mrs. Stone fumed.
Murdoch looked at her and sighed heavily. She had done nothing but complain the entire time and he’d had enough. “Madam, none of us wants to be here but we are stuck here until my son returns. I suggest we make the best of a bad situation and try not to make everyone else feel quite so miserable.”
“Have you considered the possibility that he won’t return?” she asked.
“Why would I?” Murdoch asked.
“Well, Mr. Lancer, I’m not blind nor deaf. I’ve heard the inferences that the two of you have not known each other very long. It is possible he decided to forget about us all,” she stated snidely.
“Mildred, for heaven’s sake!” her husband exclaimed.
“I’m not so sure you aren’t blind, deaf and stupid, Mrs. Stone. You don’t know me or my son. How dare you even think you know what’s between us!” Murdoch glowered.
He stood up and began to pace the small interior of the cave. His anger grew by leaps and bounds as he thought of that woman and her prejudices.
“I still think he’s probably in a saloon somewhere drinking and womanizing,” she huffed.
“Mrs. Stone, really, you don’t know anything about him,” Mr. Cardell said.
“I know what I see,” she replied and jutted her chin out.
“You haven’t seen anything,” Alicia said, confused by the remark.
“My dear, a man who dresses like that and wears a gun like that and is ….. of questionable ethnicity; well, let’s just say I’ve seen all I need to,” she said with a firm nod.
“That is enough, Mildred! That boy is risking his life to save us. Now apologize to Mr. Lancer at once!” Mr. Stone bellowed.
Everyone was taken aback by the timid man’s outburst and if he weren’t so angry, Murdoch would have burst out laughing.
She stared in disbelief at him and stormed out of the cave.
“You’d better go after her. It’s not safe to be out there alone,” Mr. Cardell said.
They heard her scream and ran outside to find her lying on the ground holding her leg.
“It bit me!” she cried.
“What bit you?” her husband asked.
“It was a snake! Oh, Henry,” she moaned.
Murdoch grabbed her and carried her inside, lying her close to the fire. He lifted her dress to expose the wound and grimaced. Rattler, he thought.
Murdoch took out his knife and cut her leg then began squeezing hard to remove as much poison as possible.
“Stop it! That hurts! What are you doing?” she wailed.
“I’m trying to save your life although I don’t know why,” he growled.
She moaned dramatically and put the back of her hand to her forehead.
“Alicia, get the canteen. She’ll need water. Not too much,” Murdoch instructed.
“Is there anything we can do?” Cardell asked.
“Pray,” Murdoch clipped.
“It’s not much further now,” Johnny said.
“This cabin where you ‘borrowed’ that horse? How’d you know where to find it?” the sheriff asked.
“Didn’t say I did know where to find it. I said I borrowed a horse,” Johnny shrugged, his face expressionless.
“Only cabins out here are outlaw hideouts. You took a big chance ‘borrowing’ from them.”
Johnny turned and grinned at the lawman but said nothing.
‘I know I know this man from somewhere,’ the sheriff thought. “How many did you say are there?”
“Five. My father, a young woman, another man and a married couple. The driver and his guard were killed in the accident,” Johnny replied.
“And you say a wagon wheel come off?”
“Must’ve been quite a wreck,” the sheriff surmised.
“It wasn’t real fun, but nobody else got hurt, luckily,” Johnny said.
“Nobody else? Who did get hurt?”
“Just me, caught my legs under the coach but I’m okay,” Johnny said matter-of-factly. “It’s just over there,” he said and spurred his horse on.
Johnny dismounted outside the cave and entered cautiously, hoping he would find them all still there. He saw them all hovered over Mrs. Stone and walked up behind them.
“Johnny! Thank God you’re back, son. She was bitten by a rattlesnake,” Murdoch said.
“When?” he asked.
“About two hours ago,” Cardell replied.
“Wagon’s on the way, we can get her back but it’ll take a couple of days,” Johnny said, frowning.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Sheriff Atkins said. “Oh, what happened?” he asked as he noticed the woman on the ground.
“Snake bite, sheriff. This is Sheriff Atkins,” Johnny introduced.
“Please, can we get my wife some help?” Mr. Stone begged.
“Yes sir. There’s a wagon not an hour behind us. We’ll get her out of here as soon as we can,” the sheriff replied then shot Johnny a forlorn look.
“I’ll get a canteen,” Johnny said and disappeared.
“Sheriff, how has my son been?’ Murdoch asked.
“Been? Other than worried half to death about you, he’s been fine,” the sheriff answered.
Johnny returned with the canteen and knelt beside Mrs. Stone, holding her head up so she could drink. He wet the bandana near her and cooled her face. He could feel the heat rising from her already.
He bent down and examined the wound, knowing it had been Murdoch’s quick thinking when he saw the cut. Still, it was inflammed and ugly and he was pretty sure she wasn’t going to make it. He glanced up at her husband and smiled.
“How is she?” Mr. Stone asked hopefully.
Johnny felt bad for the man and tried not to be grim but he wouldn’t lie either. “It’s bad, the poison has gotten into her system. I can’t really tell you, sir. She might make it and she might not,” Johnny explained sympathetically.
“Johnny, let Alicia take care of her. We need to talk,” Murdoch interrupted.
Johnny handed the canteen to the girl and gave her a smile which she returned immediately.
The men walked outside to discuss their options.
“It’s best if we get her back to Farmington. It’s much closer than Los Alamos,” the sheriff said.
“I agree. She’ll never make it that far,” Murdoch said.
“Think I’ll ride out and meet up with that wagon, just to make sure they didn’t run into any trouble,” Sheriff Atkins said. He turned to Johnny then. “You did a good job.”
Johnny smiled and thanked him then watched as he rode off.
“How are you, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
“Tired but okay,” Johnny shrugged.
“Your legs?” Murdoch raised an eyebrow.
Johnny dropped his eyes and shuffled. “They’re okay,” he mumbled.
Mr. Cardell laughed aloud and they both looked at him, puzzled.
“I’m sorry, but you are a terrible liar, Johnny, and I don’t even know you,” he explained.
Johnny laughed softly at this, knowing it was true.
“I want to see,” Murdoch said and took his arm, leading him to some privacy.
“My God, son! How did you make it?” Murdoch exclaimed when he saw the bruises.
“Just ornery, I guess,” Johnny grinned.
“That has to hurt, Johnny.”
“It does, but it won’t kill me. We need to get that woman to a doctor, Murdoch. She ain’t gonna make it,” he said, worry lining his face.
Murdoch thought about telling him not to waste his time then chastised himself for his pettiness. Besides, he knew it wouldn’t matter to Johnny. He’d just smile and shrug and help her anyway.
“What?” Johnny asked.
“Nothing, nothing at all. I … forget it,” Murdoch said.
“Am I intruding?” Alicia asked.
“Not at all,” Murdoch replied.
“Mr. Stone insisted on caring for his wife so I thought I’d see how you are, Johnny,” she said.
“I’m fine, a little tired,” he smiled.
“Yes, well, think I’ll get out of the sun,” Murdoch said and excused himself.
“What sun? We’re in the shade,” Alicia remarked.
“He’s not too subtle,” Johnny laughed.
“How are your legs?” she asked.
He pulled up his pant legs to show her, since she’d already seen them, he figured she wouldn’t be shy.
“Oh, my! How in the world did you ever walk ten miles and ride all that way?” she asked.
“I told you, I’m..”
“Stubborn,” she finished with a laugh. “I remember.” She turned serious then. “Mrs. Stone doesn’t look too good.”
“No, I don’t think she’s gonna survive this,” Johnny said sadly.
“Don’t feel sorry for her!” Alicia decried.
He looked up at her, puzzled by the outburst and the anger.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that …. she said some horrible things about you. I thought for a minute your father was going to slug her.”
“Murdoch? I doubt it, he’d never hit a woman,” Johnny laughed.
“It’s probably the only thing that saved her. She’s so vicious and hateful and …. ,” Alicia spat.
Johnny dropped his head. “Don’t let it bother you,” he said softly.
“I can’t help it. You risked your life to help us and she’s so ungrateful.”
The sound of the wagon approaching ended their conversation as Johnny stood and wavered.
“Whoa, guess I shouldn’t have sat down so long,” he said.
“I’ve got you,” Alicia replied, putting her arm around his waist.
He smiled at her and allowed her to help him for a few feet before straightening and pulling away.
Murdoch and Cardell loaded Mrs. Stone into the back of the wagon, followed by her husband and Alicia then Cardell. Murdoch was about to board as well when Johnny stopped him.
“You mind riding that horse? I could use a break.”
“Of course not, son,” Murdoch smiled and helped Johnny in the back of the wagon.
It was tight quarters but nothing like the stage had been. Johnny positioned himself next to Mrs. Stone and he was able to straighten his legs as well.
He took over her care as Mr. Stone seemed to have grown into a daze of sorts, simply staring at his wife.
Johnny kept cooling her down with the canteen but in the heat of the day it was a losing battle. He sighed and looked at her husband.
“Mr. Stone, I need to loosen her clothes,” he said gently.
“Her clothes, I need to loosen them. Do you want to do it?” Johnny reiterated.
Mr. Stone stared at him, seemingly not comprehending. Johnny smiled at him and went about the process himself.
She was delirous, mumbling nonsensically. He couldn’t understand a word she was saying but he spoke softly to her, trying to comfort her. Johnny stroked her hair and kept cooling her down as they jolted along.
He checked the wound and frowned. He knew she wouldn’t survive, she wasn’t strong enough and he felt sorry for her, for him, too. He already seemed so completely lost.
Mr. Cardell watched in fascination as Johnny administered to the woman. He leaned over and whispered to Alicia.
“I wonder how much he’d care if he knew what she thought of him.”
“He does know. I told him before we left,” she whispered back.
Cardell looked at her in surprise then shook his head.
Murdoch rode close to the wagon so he could keep an eye on Johnny. He was amazed as he watched his son care for this woman. Four years and Johnny could still astound him with how much he cared about people he didn’t even know.
Johnny looked up at him and smiled. “I’m okay,” he said.
Murdoch smiled back and rode up to the sheriff.
“She doesn’t look good,” he commented.
“I know, I’m afraid she won’t make it. Poor fella,” he replied.
Mrs. Stone opened her eyes and found herself staring into the bluest eyes she had ever seen. She smiled at them then drew her focus out to see the face. Her expression changed to one of fear as she tried to pull away.
“Easy now, I won’t hurt you, I promise,” Johnny said softly.
“I’m here, my dear. Let Johnny take care of you. He knows what to do,” her husband cooed.
“But nothing, Mildred. Do as I say, now,” he said sternly.
She looked back at Johnny with trepidation.
“Mrs. Stone, you’re very sick. I need you to drink some water now,” Johnny said and put the canteen to her lips.
She drank hungrily until he pulled it away.
“I don’t want you helping me,” she managed to spit out.
“Don’t you know not to bite the hand that feeds you?” Johnny smiled. “I know you don’t like me and that’s your problem but it’s nothing compared to this other problem. You can lay here and suffer or you can let me help you. Your husband is in so shape to do it and besides, he doesn’t know how. Now, what’s it gonna be?”
She simply nodded and closed her eyes.
They arrived in Farmington as the sun was setting and headed straight to the doctor’s office. Johnny waited until everyone had gotten out of the wagon and his father climbed in to help him. He was holding Mrs. Stone in his arms.
“Come on, Johnny, we need to get her inside,” Murdoch said.
“No hurry, she died about half an hour ago,” Johnny said, the pain in his voice making his father cringe.
Murdoch looked over his shoulder at Mr. Stone.
“He doesn’t know yet. Didn’t see any point in making him ride with a dead wife,” Johnny said quietly.
“Let’s take her inside and let the doctor handle it, son. Besides, I want him to look at your legs,” Murdoch said, placing a gentle hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
Mr. Stone accepted the news quietly. Mr. Cardell took charge of him and took him to the hotel.
The doctor examined Johnny’s legs and diagnosed his bruised shin bones, just as he had figured. He was amazed when Murdoch told him about Johnny’s travels on those injuries.
He took his son to the hotel and made him go to bed after a quick but filling meal. Johnny didn’t argue, he was bone tired and ready to relax.
Scott arrived in Farmington the next day and Murdoch was not happy that he had traveled through the Badlands alone but his anger was quickly squelched by his sensible son’s arguments.
He filled Scott in on all that had happened and Scott immediately wanted to check on his brother.
Walking into the bedroom, he sat gently on the side of the bed and watched Johnny sleep.
His eyes fluttered, then opened and he smiled immediately. “Hey, brother. How’d you get here?” he asked sleepily.
“Well, I certainly didn’t walk!” Scott teased.
“Lucky for you,” Johnny shot back with a grin. “I’m hungry.”
“What else is new?” Scott said. “Come on, up and at ’em. If you promise to make yourself presentable, I’ll buy you lunch.”
Johnny made himself presentable and they sat in the dining room together talking about the adventures.
Sheriff Adkins walked over and stood beside Scott, who Johnny introduced.
“Nice to meet you, Scott. Mind if I sit?”
“Not at all, sheriff. I want to thank you for all your help,” Scott said.
“Just doin my job. It’s been drivin me crazy but I finally figured it out,” he said.
“What’s that?” Johnny asked as he took a drink of coffee.
“Why you look familiar to me,” the sheriff answered.
Scott tensed immediately, an old habit he would just as soon kick, but Johnny showed no signs of discomfort.
“That right?” Johnny said, still working on his coffee.
“Yep, it’s been a good five years but I remember,” Adkins said.
“Is it a problem?” Johnny asked.
“Not for me. Heard you hung up your gun. Guess it’s true.”
“It is, four years ago,” Johnny stated.
“Well, I’m headin back tomorrow. Good luck to you all,” the sheriff said and departed.
“And what are our plans?” Scott asked.
“Don’t know, where is Murdoch?”
“I haven’t seen him since this morning,” Scott said with a frown.
“I’m right here, boys. Just had some things to take care of and I visited Mr. Stone,” Murdoch said as he joined them.
“How is he?” Johnny asked.
“Pretty devastated, Johnny. He talked about her for a long time. It helps sometimes. He wanted me to know that she wasn’t as bad as I thought she was, that she had a good heart,” Murdoch answered.
Johnny simply smiled at this statement.
“Why would you think she was bad?” Scott asked.
“She didn’t like me,” Johnny replied with a shrug.
Scott opened his mouth then closed it as he realized what Johnny was saying.
“She was a pain in the … neck,” Murdoch stated.
“It’s not nice to talk ill of the dead, Murdoch,” Johnny grinned.
“No, it’s not. Well, how about we go home tomorrow,” he said.
“Sounds good to me, but no stagecoach,” Johnny said.
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