Word Count 38,205
** When I finished The Long Road Home, I jumped the gun and added an Epilogue that probably should have been left off. This story is what happened in between the time the family arrived home from Mexico in The Long Road Home and the Epilogue of the same story.
*The usual disclaimers. I don’t own them. Wish I did.
** A/R – My Johnny is 19 and Scott is 23
** Special thanks to Alice Marie, Susan, and Diana Littner for both inspiration and help with the Beta. All other mistakes are mine. Thanks to Darla Marie Poulos for allowing me to use the Sonora Lancer Mines reference, from her Genesis Series, in this story.
5th in the Riding The River series
February in the San Joaquin Valley normally had at least a hint of cold winter winds sweeping off the Sierra Nevada Mountains. However, for the first time in a dozen years, the weather was unusually warm. The pastures had started greening up, and wildflowers covered the lower mountainsides. Hopes for an early spring gave everyone a feeling of new beginnings.
After several difficult months, life at Lancer was finally falling into a quiet rhythm.
It had been a little more than two months since Jack Slade and ten gunfighters rode under the Lancer arch completing an eight-week journey of escorting Murdoch and his family home from Nogales. The men had stayed with the Lancers through Christmas and then toasted in the New Year.
Everyone could tell Johnny enjoyed having the men around. During his days as a gunfighter, Johnny could count on one hand the number of friends he’d had. Of those, there was only one he knew he could truly trust. Now, he had a few more friends and knew for a fact that at least one of them, Slade, could be trusted to watch his back.
As Murdoch feared, it had been hard for his youngest son to once again settle into life at the ranch. And as Scott predicted, it took a major battle between Murdoch and Johnny to remind the young man who was calling the tune at Lancer.
The showdown between Johnny Madrid and Murdoch Lancer was about to turn ugly when, finally, Val stepped in and with a knowing hand settled the boy down.
The ranch had held its collective breath when the day came for Slade to leave. Everyone feared Johnny would ride away as well.
Johnny had known his family was concerned. For those few months at the end of last year, he’d again gotten a taste of his former life, and admitted to himself that he’d liked it. He liked the feeling of power that being a gunfighter gave him. The problem was, he loved his family, and he loved Lancer.
So, Johnny Lancer made a decision and tucked Johnny Madrid safely away. For better or worse, he was now just another one of Murdoch Lancer’s ranch hands, digging post holes for a living.
“Hey, Walt,” Johnny called out as he looked up from the post hole he was digging. Leaning on the shovel in his hand, he looked to his right.
It had taken some time for the weak, late February sun to burn off the morning fog and take the chill out of the air. Now, the heat of that same sun caused sweat to drip down the side of Johnny’s face and roll down his bare chest and back. He’d shed his shirt hours earlier.
Johnny stretched his sore neck and back. It had been far too long since he’d done a full day’s work and his muscles were feeling the burn of it.
“Yeah?” Walt answered, looking at the dark-haired man. Glancing to his left, he saw that Jose and Joe had stopped digging and were also looking toward Johnny.
Wiping the sweat from his eyes, Johnny looked down the line of posts that the crew had set that morning. “What time did you say Frank’s crew was supposed to be here?”
“Should be here around lunchtime,” Walt answered leaning on his shovel and looking up at the sun, trying to judge what time it was.
“How many posts you figure we’ve set this morning?” Johnny asked as he drove his shovel into the ground and walked over to Barranca to get his canteen.
“Between the four of us, I’d say at least a couple dozen,” Walt replied watching Johnny take a drink from the canteen.
“What do you say we switch off after the others get here and let them dig holes while we string the wire?” Johnny said as he poured water over his head and let it ran down his face.
‘Damn that felt good,’ he thought as the cool water dripped down his back and chest.
“You’re the boss,” Walt laughed as the young man shook his head and water sprayed away from the dark head. Johnny turned his back to him.
Walt cringed looking at the scars on the lean back. He still had bad dreams about those days in Mexico and seeing his friend’s bloody back for the first time after it had been torn apart by the whip.
Johnny could feel Walt’s eyes on him. It didn’t bother him. He felt comfortable taking his shirt off with the men in this crew. They’d already seen him at his worst.
“Walt,” Johnny laughed as he returned the canteen to his saddle, “you know full well you’re the crew boss, not me.”
Johnny closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Yeah, Walt’s in charge of the crew today, just like every day. I’m just the hired help.”
Murdoch was reminding him who called the tune at Lancer; trying to teach him his place. Johnny had no idea when that was going to change. He supposed when his father felt he’d learned his lesson, whatever the lesson was.
The great and all-powerful Murdoch Lancer had decreed it to be so and so it had been since they’d returned from Mexico in December. It didn’t matter if he owned a third of the ranch or not. Just because he lived in the big house and not the bunkhouse, didn’t make him any better than one of the hired hands in his father’s eyes.
Walt knew what Johnny said was the truth. He’d wondered many times why Mr. Lancer and Cipriano continued to put other hands in charge of the work crews, instead of Scott or Johnny. He figured after their return from Mexico that the two brothers, especially Johnny, would have been given more authority over the crews.
He found it awkward at times giving orders to Johnny after being one of those that had taken orders from him in Mexico and after seeing Johnny Madrid in command of what was deemed a small army in Nogales.
It was even more difficult to give orders to the brothers knowing they were part owners of the ranch and were his bosses, as much as Murdoch Lancer. Although, neither of the sons seemed to mind that they weren’t in charge of the crews.
Walt thought back to those early days when Scott and Johnny had first come home. Had it only been a year?
After Pardee’s defeat and after Johnny was back on his feet from Pardee’s bullet, Murdoch Lancer’s two sons had started learning the business.
Due to his eastern upbringing, Scott had taken longer to learn almost everything. The blond- haired son worked hard at learning how to do the daily chores of the ranch. After Johnny was back on his feet, it seemed that no matter where Scott had been working, his brother was always close by to lend a hand and help to teach him. Scott already knew how to ride and shoot. It was roping, riding a cow pony, branding, and doing fence work that had taken time. Scott never gave up though. The men had grown to admire and respect him for that.
Johnny was the other side of the coin. The dark-haired man had been born on Lancer, even if he hadn’t grown up here. His tan complexion and easy manners helped him to fit in right away with the vaqueros on the ranch. But Johnny was a man that you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
It had been no secret who Johnny was or had been. However, the men never talked about Johnny Madrid in the bunkhouse. There had been times when they had seen Johnny’s temper rise. The look Johnny could give a man, made anyone and everyone walk small around him. Although, Walt knew that none of the hands, outside of a select few, had ever seen the true Johnny Madrid.
Johnny rested his arm on his side of the saddle. His eyes fell to his rig hooked over the saddle horn. He thought for a second about putting it on. Somehow, it didn’t feel right not having the comforting weight of the gun on his hip. The gun belt, however, made it hard for him to work. He shrugged as he started to go back to the hole he was digging.
The sound of approaching horses caught Johnny’s attention. Seeing three riders coming toward the work crew, he reached for his shirt and slipped it on.
“Walt,” Johnny called out and nodded toward the approaching riders.
Walt dropped his shovel and looked toward the three men as they came to a halt in front of the work crew.
“Howdy,” one of the riders said as he pushed his hat back from his head.
“Howdy,” Walt responded. “Something I can do for you fellows?”
Walt took out his bandana and wiped the sweat from his face.
“Looking for a ranch called Lancer. Are we anywhere near it?” the man asked with a smile.
“You’re on it, mister,” Walt answered. “You fellows looking for work?” Walt asked the question knowing that none of the three men looked like ranch hands.
“You four work for Murdoch Lancer?” the man asked again with the smile.
Walt glanced at Johnny who now had his hand resting on his gun belt. Johnny hadn’t made any attempt to answer the man.
“We do. If you’re looking for work; you can see the Segundo at the ranch house. Don’t know if we’re hiring right now or not,” Walt answered feeling uncomfortable. Jose and Joe had both stopped what they were doing and walked over to stand beside Walt.
“That’s alright,” the man said raising his hand and quickly drawing his gun. The other two men with him, also drawing. “We already have a job.”
Johnny had just touched the butt of his Colt when he felt the cold barrel of a gun pressed against his neck. He’d been so busy watching Walt and the man on horseback he’d missed seeing or hearing the two men that had come up behind him.
“Wouldn’t do that, boy,” the man with the gun at his neck said, loud enough for the others to hear.
Walt, Joe, and Jose turned quickly to see Johnny lower his right hand to his side.
“Go on over there with the others and don’t cause no trouble,” the man pushed the barrel of the gun more firmly into Johnny’s neck.
Johnny looked over his shoulder, glaring at the man holding the gun. He let the flames of anger show in his eyes. The man didn’t miss the look Johnny had given him. “I said, go on over there,” he pointed to where Walt, Joe, and Jose were standing.
“Billings,” a sixth man rode up to the man who had been doing the talking, “there’s a wagon coming this way with four more ranch hands.”
Johnny’s heart seemed to skip a beat knowing Scott was riding into a trap. He thought about yelling a warning and then thought better of it as the man called Billings looked at the four of them and said, “You, any of you, call out to the men coming in, and I’ll kill every one of you. You understand?”
Walt nodded his understanding and gave Johnny a look that made him realize he couldn’t do anything to cause these men harm. Johnny, Jose, and Joe, all nodded at the same time.
“Good. Now I’m gonna’ put my gun away, and my friends here are gonna’ be watching you real close. You mess up and … well, let’s just say it won’t be pretty,” Billings smiled.
It was well before noon when Frank and his work crew topped the rise leading to the fence line on the east pasture. The crew of four consisted of himself, Juan, Ramon, and Scott. The four men had gone to town for supplies to complete the fencing job and were now almost at the work site.
Scott had happily agreed to drive the wagon while the others rode alongside. Not for the first time, Frank wondered why the Boss and Cipriano hadn’t put the eldest Lancer son in charge of the crew instead of him. He shook his head; it wasn’t his place to question the wisdom of the bosses.
Scott had been thinking about Johnny all morning. His brother had joined Walt’s crew before he’d come downstairs for breakfast. Truth be known, Scott missed his little brother.
‘Little brother.’ Even the sound of the words still made Scott smile. He’d spent his entire life wishing for a brother and then as if out of nowhere, he had one. The day he’d discovered he had a brother was still the best day of his life. Since then, he’d marveled in the feeling of discovery as they’d learned first to become brothers and then best friends. Now, he couldn’t imagine a life without Johnny in it.
Scott smiled as he saw how much Walt’s crew had gotten done that morning. He craned his neck to see if he could see the dark-haired boy further along the line of posts. The sight of not only the work crew but men on horseback gave him an uneasy feeling. He reached down to touch the rifle by his leg.
Frank stopped and was giving the sight ahead of him some consideration also. It looked like the men on horseback were talking to the four Lancer men. Frank slowly made his way forward with his right hand on the butt of his gun.
The sound of horses coming up fast from behind caused Frank to stop and turn in the saddle. Ramon and Juan were reaching for their rifles when a disembodied voice from in front of them called out, “You fellows drop your guns, or we’ll shoot these four.”
Frank glanced at Scott, seeing worry on the man’s face. He knew Scott’s concern wasn’t for himself; it was for the four men standing ahead of them; especially for his brother.
Scott moved his hand away from his rifle and raised his hands in the air. Frank nodded and shifted his hand away from his gun, as did Juan and Ramon.
“Now, that’s better. Get off the wagon,” a tall man with a Texas drawl said, waving Scott to the ground. “You four go over there with the others.”
Scott jumped off the wagon and slowly walked forward. He saw Johnny’s head shake slightly. Scott wasn’t sure what his brother was trying to tell him.
“Put your hands behind your back,” Billings ground out. Then calling out to his men Billings said, “Tie them up.”
Billings’ men tied each of the eight captive’s hands behind their backs and forced them onto their knees.
“What do you want, mister?” Walt asked as he was pushed down.
“We have some business with your boss. You fellows don’t give us any problems, and you’ll make it out of this alive,” Billings answered looking over the eight men in front of him.
Once the last man was forced to his knees Billings got off his horse and walked along the line of men, stopping in front of Johnny.
“What’s your name, boy?” the Billings’ gruff voice carried across the quiet plain.
Johnny didn’t answer. Keeping his head slightly down, and his eyes lowered, the only thing he was concentrating on was the boots of the man standing in front of him.
Johnny felt half dressed. He looked down at his chest wishing he’d had time to button his shirt. The open shirt and sweat dripping down his bare chest gave him a feeling of vulnerability. It wasn’t a feeling he was used to or liked.
As Billings stood in front of him, Johnny was doing all he could to control his temper.
“I asked you your name, boy. Don’t make me ask again,” Billings said taking a step forward.
Johnny lifted his head slightly. He still kept his eyes lowered as he glanced both left and right.
“Ruiz, Juan Ruiz,” he answered. He turned his head to look at the men that were on their knees on either side of him, daring any one of them to say differently.
“Alright, Ruiz, I’m going to send you back to the ranch house with a message for your boss,” Billings’ smile sent a chill through the men that were on their knees in front of him.
Stepping forward, Billings pulled Johnny to his feet.
Johnny still kept his eyes lowered. He realized the man had no idea who he was. As far as this man was concerned, he was one of the vaqueros, and he wanted to keep it that way.
Johnny waited for the man to speak again. Glancing at Barranca standing quietly to his left; he saw that his rig was still over the saddle horn.
“Jake,” Billings called to the tall man with the Texas drawl, “get that gun off the horse over there.”
Billings tightened his grip on Johnny’s arm, “Saw you eyeing it, boy. Can’t have you trying anything stupid right now. Got too much riding on things going as planned.”
The man named Jake started toward Barranca. The horse shied away from him. Jake reached for the reins and Barranca moved away again. Johnny could see the man’s anger rising. As Jake reached once more time for the horse’s reins, Johnny saw the man also reach for his gun.
“He won’t let no one, but me come near him,” Johnny said quickly with concern for the palomino.
“That right,” Jake took his gun from his holster and was starting to point it at Barranca’s head. “Well, in a minute you won’t have to worry about that anymore.”
Johnny let out a shrill whistle. Barranca reared and struck out with his front legs. Johnny saw the man they called Jake, take a step backward and his gun barrel drop.
Billings’ turned away from Johnny for a second to look at Jake.
Johnny yelled out, “Barranca, go home.”
The horse reared up one more time before turning and galloping off. Jake raised his gun and fired a shot at the horse that was quickly moving away.
Johnny looked back at Billings.
“Shouldn’t have done that, boy,” Billings hissed as he raised his hand in the air.
Johnny knew it was coming and tried to brace for it. Billings’ hand came down on the side of his head. The last thing he remembered was a flash of light as the sun gleamed off of the gun in Billings’ hand.
Johnny blinked and opened his eyes. He found himself lying on his side. As he struggled to sit up, two pairs of hands reached down and pulled him on his feet.
“Well, that was pure stupid, boy,” Billings snarled.
Billings took Johnny’s chin and cupped it in his hand. He turned the young man’s head to look at the side of his face. Johnny could feel a trickle of blood coming from a gash on his forehead.
“Don’t look like you need stitches,” Billings snorted, “but it’s gonna’ hurt like hell.”
Billings dropped his hand and took a bandana out of his back pocket, using it to wipe the blood off the side of Johnny’s face. “Looks like I’m gonna’ have to get someone else to take my message to your boss. Don’t think you’re gonna’ be sitting a horse for a while.”
Billings motioned to one of his men, “Get him back over there and down on his knees.”
Rough hands shoved Johnny back toward the line of Lancer men before pushing him to his knees.
Johnny glanced sideways at Scott. He could see the worry in his brother’s face.
“Alright, let’s get to know each other,” Billings walked to the first man in the line. “What’s your name?”
“Walt,” Walt answered without hesitation.
Billings looked at him, “You in charge here?”
“Yeah,” Walt answered, again without hesitation. “I’m in charge of the work crew.”
Billings nodded. He went down the line. One after the other the men gave their names. “Joe, Ramon, Juan Martinez, Frank, Jose.”
Scott realized his brother had given them his first and middle name. These men didn’t know who he was and was sure that Johnny didn’t want them to know that they had taken Murdoch Lancer’s sons as prisoners.
“Scott Garrett,” Scott said without hesitation. It felt natural; it hadn’t been that many months ago that he’d used the name in Mexico.
Billings went back up the line.
“So, we got two Juan’s here. That could get kinda’ confusing. Tell you what, I’m gonna’ send the other Juan there back to the ranch house to give my message to your boss,” Billings said. Turning away he motioned one of his men toward Juan, “Get him up.”
Two men reached down and lifted Juan Martinez to his feet. Billings walked up to Juan with a smile on his face, “You tell your boss to ride out here. I want to talk to him in person. You tell him if he brings the law with him, I’ll kill his men. You understand?”
“Si, senor,” Juan answered, “I understand.”
“Untie him,” Billings ordered. “So that Lancer knows I mean business I need to send another message to him,” Billings pulled his gun and fired a shot, hitting Juan in the left arm.
Shocked, Juan grabbed his bloody arm and fell to the ground.
Johnny watched in dismay as his friend was shot. Without thinking, he propelled himself to his feet and rammed his shoulder into Billings’ stomach, knocking him back several feet. Billings quickly recovered his balance and brought his gun down on the back of Johnny’s head and shoulder, knocking him to the ground.
“I’ve had about all the trouble out of you I’m gonna’ take,” he spat the words out. He’d started to level his gun at Johnny’s back when Walt spoke up.
“Mister, stop!” Walt yelled.
Scott and Frank yelled, “NO!” at the same time Walt was calling out.
Billings looked at Walt.
“Mister, the boy’s young and got a temper. Leave him be. I’ll make sure he don’t cause any more trouble,” Walt was almost begging.
Billings thought for a second. He needed these men alive. Killing any one of them before he had what he and his men had come for would defeat his purpose. He looked at the boy bent over at his feet.
“Alright, you keep him in line or I will!” Billings said as he kicked out with his foot, catching Johnny in the stomach.
Johnny rolled over onto his side, thankful that the kick hadn’t been placed in the same spot that had only recently healed.
Suddenly, the memory of Sanchez’ boot coming toward him made his stomach roll. He knew he would never get away from Sanchez. No matter how hard he tried. The bastard still plagued his memories and his nightmares.
Billings walked over to Juan Martinez.
Juan was holding his bloody arm, looking up at the man who’d shot him.
Billings took a bandana and wrapped the bleeding arm. “You get on that horse over there and go tell your boss what I said. I’ll give you three hours to get there and your boss to get back here. If you aren’t back by then, I’m gonna’ shoot a man every half hour starting with that hot-headed kid over there. Remember three hours and not a minute longer before I start killing.”
Two of Billings’ men helped Juan into the saddle. Juan turned the horse and started riding as fast as he could toward the hacienda.
Billings turned around and looked at Johnny who was struggling to get back onto his knees. He motioned for two of his men to pick him up. The look Billings received from Johnny made gunman want to finish the kid off right then.
Holding his temper, Billings said, “Get back over there and don’t try anything else. You do, and I might start killing these men before my deadline. Walt, you better tell him.”
“Ruiz,” Walt hissed, “get back over there and don’t do nothing else to piss these fellows off. Do you understand?”
As Johnny staggered back to his place in line, he looked at his brother. Scott’s eyes looked like they were shooting daggers at him.
Murdoch had spent the morning working on the books. It wasn’t something he enjoyed, but it was unavoidable when running a ranch as big as Lancer.
He smiled thinking of his two sons. Scott actually liked working on the books, while his younger brother would do almost anything to get out of doing them. While Scott seemed to warm to the business side of the ranch more than the physical, Johnny had made it clear he was happier with the manual labor. Murdoch, however, was determined that both sons would learn both the business and the manual side of the ranch whether they liked it or not.
He stood and stretched. His back had been bothering him more than usual the last couple of days. It always did when there was a change in weather coming. Walking to the French doors, he looked at the clouds building over the mountains to the west. With luck, they would get some much-needed rain.
Murdoch was about to sit back down when he heard a commotion in the yard. He walked back to the doors to see Johnny’s horse running toward the house.
Cipriano and several hands were running into the yard. They waited as Cipriano took hold of Barranca’s bridle. Speaking softly, he tried to calm the agitated horse.
Murdoch ran out of the house. He looked toward the arch for any sign of his youngest son.
Cipriano looked the horse over before turning to Murdoch, “Patron, Juanito’s gun belt and hat are on the saddle horn. I don’t see any blood on the saddle, and the horse looks unhurt.”
“Saddle our horses,” Murdoch said as he turned to the house. “I’ll be right out. John was with Walt’s crew, wasn’t he?”
“Si, Patron,” Cipriano answered. “Senor Scott was to take fence supplies to Walt’s crew today in the east pasture.”
Murdoch went back into the house to get his hat and gun.
“Teresa!” he called out.
Teresa came out of the kitchen with Maria behind her.
“Was that Johnny’s horse that just came in?” Teresa asked running toward the French doors.
“Yes, honey, it was,” Murdoch answered as he put his gun belt on. “I’m going out with Cip and a few of the men. Stay close to the house until we know what’s going on.”
“Be careful,” she said as she gave him a nod.
Murdoch walked back to the yard as Cipriano and two other hands brought horses out of the barn. He was about to mount up when he heard a horse galloping under the arch.
Juan was doing everything he could to stay in the saddle as he made his way into the yard. He’d ridden as fast as he could to deliver the message Billings had given him.
“Patron,” Juan swayed in the saddle.
Cipriano reached up and pulled the young vaquero down, settling him on the ground.
“What’s happened, Juan?” Murdoch was kneeling next to the young man. “Where’s Johnny?”
“Patron, men have taken Walt’s and Frank’s work crews hostage. The jefe of the men sent me to give you a message,” Juan took a breath and held his arm, trying not to pass out.
Teresa and Maria ran out of the house, waiting to help.
“The jefe’s name is Billings. He sent a message. Billings you to ride out to meet with him in person. He gave me three hours to get to you and for you to get back. Billings said if you do not come in time, he will start shooting the men one at a time. One every thirty minutes until you come. He said not to tell the Sheriff,” Juan hesitated. He wondered if he should tell his Patron that Billings was going to start with his youngest son.
“Teresa. Maria, get Juan inside and tend that arm. Cipriano, I want you and the men to come with me,” Murdoch said as he started to get up.
“Patron,” Juan reached up and grabbed Murdoch’s arm. “Billings does not know who he has taken prisoner.”
“What do you mean?” Murdoch asked, kneeling back down.
“He does not know he has your hijos, Patron. Juanito told him his name was Juan Ruiz. Senor Scott said his name was Scott Garrett. Patron, Billings said that if you were not there on time, he would start killing the men, starting with Juanito.”
“Why him, Juan?” Murdoch questioned.
“Juanito sent Barranca home and then tried to help me,” Juan answered as Cipriano helped him to his feet. “Billings is unhappy with Juanito.”
“Of course, he is,” Murdoch shook his head and looked around. Jacobs had been standing nearby listening to what was said. “Jacobs, you heard what Juan said. Make sure the men know that Scott and Johnny aren’t using their real names. I’m not sure what’s happening right now. I want all the work crews brought in now. Send riders out to bring them back and keep everyone here.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Lancer,” Jacobs said as he ran toward the bunkhouse.
“Mount up, Cipriano,” Murdoch said as he moved to his horse.
Billings was pacing back and forth. It had been almost three hours since he’d sent his message to Murdoch Lancer. He looked at the men who were still on their knees in front of him. He took pleasure in seeing that Ruiz seemed to be leaning forward with his head almost to the ground.
“Billings, we need to get moving, or we’re gonna’ get caught in this storm,” Jake looked at the storm clouds that were quickly building. “It’s gonna’ take us at least an hour to get to that line shack south of here.”
“We’ll make it,” Billings patiently answered as he looked at the sky. “Storms coming from the northwest. Once we get our business done with Lancer, we’ll move out. Get that wagon unloaded. We’re gonna’ use it to carry these men.”
Billings watched his men unload the wagon Scott had been driving.
Walking over to stand in front of Johnny, Billings laughed. “Got one hell of a headache, don’t you, Ruiz?”
Johnny raised himself back to sit on his heels. “Yeah,” he answered without looking up at the man. Johnny had a feeling of deja vu as he knelt on the ground on his knees. He had the same feeling now as he had a year ago waiting his turn in front of the firing squad.
“You just keep behaving yourself, and you might live to get over that headache,” Billings snarled.
“Billings,” Jack called out, “riders coming.” He pointed toward the rise behind them.
Billings looked around at his men.
“Everyone, pick a man and stand behind him. Keep your guns on them. Lancer doesn’t do what I tell him to do we’re gonna’ have to start shooting ranch hands,” Billings drawled.
As Murdoch and his men topped the rise, they could see a dozen men or more ahead of them. He raised his hand, and the men following him halted.
“Cipriano, I want you to come with me. The rest of you stay here,” Murdoch said as he rode slowly toward the man standing several feet in front of the others.
As he got closer to the men on their knees, Murdoch’s eyes anxiously searched for his sons. He saw Scott immediately. When he saw his youngest son with his head down, his heart skipped a beat.
“Billings,” Murdoch said out as he came to a halt. “I’m Murdoch Lancer. I got your message.”
“Mr. Lancer, I’m glad you’re on time,” Billings took a step forward. “Now, we can talk business. You have something I want, or you will have in a few days, and as you can see, I have something you want,” he waved his hand toward the men kneeling behind him.
“Alright,” Murdoch was still looking at his men, “I demand to know what this is all about and I want to make sure my men are alright. Walt?”
“Doing alright, Mr. Lancer,” Walt nodded.
“Joe? Ramon? Ruiz? Frank? Jose? Garrett?” Murdoch went down the line.
Joe answered, “Fine boss.”
Ramon answered “Bueno, Patron.”
Johnny didn’t answer.
Frank answered, “I’m alright, boss.”
Scott answered, “I’m fine, Sir.” He gave his father a warm smile and a slight nod.
“Ruiz, are you alright?” Murdoch asked firmly. When Johnny didn’t answer, his voice went up an octave, “Look at me, boy.”
Johnny raised his head slowly so that his father could see the bruise that had already started to form on his forehead and dried blood on the side of his face.
“What happened to the boy?” Murdoch snapped, looking back at Billings.
“Boy’s got a problem with manners. He don’t know his place. Already got Walt’s word over there that the kid will behave himself. If he don’t, he’s gonna’ get your men killed,” Billings said as he walked over to Johnny and lifting his chin.
Billings turned Johnny’s head so Murdoch could see his entire face.
Murdoch cringed the moment the man touched his son. “Ruiz, you do what Walt tells you to do. I don’t want you causing any more trouble. Do you understand?”
Johnny pulled his chin away from Billings’ hand but didn’t answer.
“Ruiz?” Murdoch’s sharp voice cut through the air.
“Damn hard-headed boy,” Murdoch thought. “You better keep that Madrid temper under control.”
“Juan!” Cipriano snapped. “Answer your Patron.”
Johnny’s head snapped up at hearing the tone of his uncle’s voice. Lowering his head slightly, he said, “Si, Patron.”
“You will do as you are told. If you do not, you will answer to both your Papa and your Tio. Entiendes?” Cipriano’s firm voice and threats were clear.
“Si, Patron. Si, Tio,” Johnny replied without raising his head again.
“Hell, boy, you got yourself a parcel of trouble if you got both your Pa and your uncle gonna’ tan your hide,” Billings laughed. “Take it you’re the boy’s uncle,” he looked at Cipriano. “His Pa back at the ranch house?”
“Si, senor,” Cipriano answered not taking his eyes off of Johnny.
Johnny didn’t say anything. He kept his head down and slowly let his blood boil.
“Now, what is it you want, Billings?” Murdoch said as calmly as he could.
“You have a gold shipment coming in from your Sonora Lancer Mines. If my information is correct, it will be here in four days. Tuesday to be exact. I’m going to trade your men for the gold,” Billings answered. “Simple transaction. You do what we tell you, and I’ll hand your men over to you.”
“I don’t want anyone else hurt, Billings. You’ll get the gold if all of my men are given back to me, alive and well. Is that understood?”
Billings laughed. “Alive, yes….as for them being well…, now that depends on them,” he looked at Johnny.
“The boy won’t give you any more problems,” Murdoch stared at Johnny who wasn’t looking up. “Isn’t that right, Ruiz?”
“Si, Patron,” Johnny ground out, still not looking up.
“Can my Segundo look at him?” Murdoch asked nodding toward Cipriano.
Billings thought on it a moment, “Go ahead. Don’t try anything. My man behind him won’t hesitate to put a bullet in him.”
Murdoch nodded to Cipriano.
Cipriano dismounted and took his canteen from his saddle horn. He reached into his saddlebags and took out a clean cloth and a can of salve. He turned back toward Billings and raised his hands to show he didn’t have a gun in his hand.
Cipriano made his way over to Johnny and knelt beside him.
“Juanito, look at me,” Cipriano softly said as he cupped Johnny’s chin.
Johnny raised his head and looked at his uncle.
“Lo siento, Tio,” Johnny said.
Cipriano shook his head. He could see the pain behind the young man’s eyes.
“Sobrino,” the older man whispered. Cipriano poured water on the cloth and wiped the dried blood from his nephew’s face. Touching the cut on Johnny’s forehead brought a hiss from the young man. Cipriano opened the tin of salve and put some on the wound.
Cipriano looked him over again before starting to get up. “Do as you are told, Juan,” he said loud enough for Billings to hear. “You know your Papa will be worried.”
“Si, Tio, I know. Tell him not to worry,” Johnny answered before saying very softly, “south line shack.”
Cipriano nodded his understanding.
Cipriano walked back to his horse and put the salve and cloth in his saddlebag. “He will be alright, Patron,” he said as he remounted.
“Now, Mr. Lancer, we’re going to make sure you do everything you’re supposed to do and not involve the law. My business associate, Mr. Lawson, will be your guest until the gold shipment comes in. Mr. Lawson is waiting for me to return with your men. Once they are taken care of, Mr. Lawson will ride to your ranch house. He’ll be expecting a warm welcome when he gets there,” Billings started to turn around. “Oh, there is one more thing. My employer has a request that I’m afraid is not negotiable.”
“What would that be, Mr. Billings,” Murdoch cocked his head.
“You have a gunfighter on your payroll by the name of Johnny Madrid,” Billings stated. “Madrid needs to be the one that brings the gold to us.”
Johnny’s head shot up, looking at his father. The movement causing a wave of dizziness.
Scott closed his eyes and lowered his head. ‘Can things get any worse?’ he thought.
Walt and the other Lancer men glanced over at Johnny.
“Madrid?” Murdoch questioned trying not to look at his youngest son. “I don’t know where Madrid is.”
“Well, you’d better find him. If Madrid doesn’t bring the gold, then we might have us a problem,” Billings stated.
“I’ll do what I can, but Madrid is unpredictable at best. Finding him may not be as easy as it sounds,” Murdoch said looking at Billings. “Do you know Madrid?”
“I don’t, but my employer does,” Billings answered. “Why he wants Madrid to deliver the gold is between my employer and Madrid.”
Murdoch didn’t say anything.
“As I said, Mr. Lawson will see you later this evening, Mr. Lancer,” Billings said as he waved his men to start loading his prisoners into the wagon.
Murdoch watched as Scott was pulled to his feet and pushed into the bed of the wagon. Scott gave his father a wavering smile. He waited until Johnny was pulled up to see if he was able to stand. His stomach lurched when the boy stumbled and almost fell back onto his knees. Two of Billings’ men grabbed him under his arms and tossed him into the back of the wagon just as the heavens opened and the rain started.
Murdoch and Cipriano rode back to meet the Lancer hands that had been waiting for them. Murdoch motioned for them to follow him as they started for home.
“Cipriano?” Murdoch turned in his saddle to look at his Segundo.
“He will be alright, Patron,” Cipriano answered without being asked. “He has a cut on his forehead. There was some blood, not much. I could tell his head hurt.”
“Did he say anything?” Murdoch turned back forward in the saddle.
“Juanito said he was sorry, Patron, and he told you not to worry. He also said “south line shack.” That is where they are going,” Cipriano answered.
Murdoch nodded. He wasn’t sure what he could do and not endanger his men and his sons.
“What am I supposed to do about getting Johnny Madrid to deliver the gold?” he said almost to himself as they continued to ride.
“That, Patron, will be a problem,” Cipriano answered shaking his head.
The rest of the ride home was quiet.
As they approached the house, Murdoch could see Teresa standing in front waiting for him.
“Murdoch, how are they?” she asked even before he could dismount.
“In a minute, honey. Let me talk to Cipriano,” Murdoch turned from her. “Cipriano, tell the men what’s happening. I don’t want anyone going into town until this is over. We can’t take a chance that someone outside the ranch finds out about this. Make sure everyone is armed, and no one rides alone on the range. I don’t want these men to have any more hostages. Tell the men that if anyone asks about my sons, they’re to say that the boys are in Stockton on a buying trip.”
“Si, Patron,” Cipriano said as he took Murdoch’s horse from him and started toward the barn.
Murdoch turned to Teresa. “I need to talk to you and Maria,” he said as he took her arm and led her into the house.
Maria came out of the kitchen, and both she and Teresa sat on the sofa as Murdoch explained what had happened and what was about to happen.
“Now, how is Juan Martinez?” Murdoch’s concern was evident.
“The wound was not bad, Patron,” Maria answered. “He is resting in the bunkhouse. Jacobs is taking care of him.”
Murdoch nodded. “I want both of you to go through the house and take every photograph of Scott and Johnny you can find and hide them outside the house. I don’t want Lawson to see a photograph of the boys and realize who he is holding hostage. As far as Lawson is concerned both my sons are on a buying trip to Stockton and won’t be back until Wednesday. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Teresa nodded. Looking at Maria, she said, “Maria, you take the upstairs. I’ll clear the downstairs. I know we don’t have many photographs of them, but there are a few.”
Maria made her way upstairs as Teresa started moving through the downstairs.
Teresa knew there were photographs of both Scott and Johnny on Murdoch’s desk and also on the mantel over the fireplace. She gathered those up and looked around. Remembering she had one of each of them in her room, she started to get them when her eyes fell on the photo album on the book-shelf. She picked it up before moving on.
Maria came down the back stairs into the kitchen. She’d gathered photographs from Murdoch’s, Scott’s, and Johnny’s rooms. Meeting Teresa in the kitchen, they tried to determine where to hide the pictures. Finally, Teresa decided that Maria would take them to her house.
Teresa sat at the kitchen table and put her head in her hands. The rain was now coming down in sheets and seemed to increase as tears ran down her face. Murdoch’s sons had not been home long, less than eleven months now. In that time, she’d grown to love both of them as brothers. Wrapping her arms around herself, she began to rock back and forth.
The wagon carrying the hostages traveled slowly south toward the line shack. The trip was long and rough for the men riding in the back of the wagon. It had been raining steadily since the journey began and it didn’t take long before they were all soaked.
Scott kept watching his brother. Johnny had started the trip sitting next to Frank. As the movement of the wagon became more jarring, he slid down so that he was lying on his side. Every time the wagon hit a rut, Johnny’s head bounced on the hard wagon floor.
Scott maneuvered himself closer to Johnny’s head, “Johnny, put your head on my leg,” he whispered.
Johnny pushed himself closer to his bother until his head rested on Scott’s thigh. “Thanks,” he looked up at Scott.
“Hurt?” Scott whispered leaning forward closer to Johnny’s ear.
“Yeah,” he answered closing his eyes. “I let Cip know they’re taking us to the south line shack,” he whispered.
“Murdoch will think of something,” he said looking up to make sure no one was listening to them.
“Scott?” he opened his eyes.
“Yes,” Scott looked down at his brother. He could see a glassy brightness to his eyes.
“Don’t feel so good,” Johnny’s face had taken an ashen gray color.
Walt had been watching Johnny. He yelled to the man driving the wagon. “Hey, mister, you need to hold up a minute. The kid’s gonna’ be sick.”
The driver of the wagon pulled back on the reins and stopped.
Billings rode back and glared at him, “Kellogg, what are you doing?”
“Kid’s gonna’ puke,” Kellogg answered pointing to Johnny.
“Well, get him out of there and let him puke,” Billings said as he looked into the bed of the wagon.
“Cut me loose, mister,” Walt said. “I’ll help him. I promise I ain’t gonna’ try nothing.”
Billings thought about it a few seconds and nodded to Kellogg. “Cut him loose, but you watch him. Either one of them tries anything, you put a bullet in them.”
Kellogg swung his legs over the wagon seat and into the back of the wagon. He cut Walt loose first and then Johnny before motioning Walt to help the younger man.
Walt helped Johnny out of the wagon bed and onto the ground. The moment Johnny got out of the wagon, he was on his knees and throwing up.
“Thanks, Walt,” Johnny said as he pulled himself back to his feet. A wave of dizziness swept over him, and his head exploded in pain as he fell against Walt.
“Come on, boy,” Walt said as he helped his friend back into the wagon.
“Tie them up,” Jake said as he watched Johnny sit back down in the bed of the wagon.
Kellogg re-tied of both Walt’s and Johnny’s hands behind their backs. He climbed back into the driver’s seat and flicked the reins. The wagon jerked forward.
It wasn’t long before Johnny had fallen over onto his side again with his head resting on his brother’s leg.
The south line shack was more like a cabin than a typical line shack. It was large enough to have two rooms, and there was a separate building that the hands used for storing fencing supplies. The hostages were pulled out of the wagon and marched single file to the separate building behind the shack.
Billings watched as the shivering men were pushed into the small building. “Get them some blankets and hot food. We can’t have them getting sick.”
Billings walked into the small building and looked around. “I’m going to have my men untie your hands. Remember what I told your boss. You don’t do anything to cause a problem, and you’ll all be back at the ranch house by Tuesday night. You cause a problem, and I’ll start killing you off one at a time.”
He walked over to Johnny who had gone to his knees in the middle of the room.
“You hear that, Ruiz?” Billings squatted down next to Johnny. “I’d love a reason to teach you some manners, boy. Just give me an excuse.”
One of Billings’ men walked in and looked around.
“Everyone, turn around,” he said as he pulled a knife from his boot. Everyone turned their backs to him. As he cut the ropes holding the men, he said, “My name’s Walters. You behave yourselves, and we’ll get along just fine.”
Jake came in carrying blankets and tossed them on the floor.
“Get your wet clothes off and warm up. I’ll get you some food,” Walters said. Bending down, he cut the ropes holding Johnny’s hands, “You don’t look like you’re doing so good.”
Walters and Jake backed out of the room.
As the door closed Scott bolted to his brother’s side. “Johnny,” he whispered. “Walt give me a hand.”
“I can get up,” Johnny said as he staggered to his feet. He swayed a few times and came crashing back down. “Damn,” he said as he grabbed hold of Scott.
Frank and Joe looked around the small building. They found some empty feed sacks in the corner and laid them out against one wall.
“Why don’t you lay down,” Frank said as he made a bed.
Johnny nodded and made his way to the makeshift bed with Scott’s help.
“Ramon, would you throw me one of those blankets?” Scott asked turning to look at the young vaquero.
“Will he be alright, Senor Scott?” Ramon asked as he handed the blanket to Scott. At 15, Ramon was the youngest among them.
“I’m sure he will be, Ramon,” Scott answered trying to make himself believe his own words. “Why don’t you go get those wet clothes off and wrap-up? We don’t want you getting sick.”
“Si,” Ramon smiled and then sneezed.
Walt looked at the young man and decided he’d better make sure Ramon got warm as soon as possible. All they needed was a sick Ramon and a hurt Johnny.
Scott put a blanket over his brother and looked at him with concern. He knew he had to get his clothes off of him and get him warm.
Frank walked over and squatted down. “Scott, want me to help? I can hold the blanket if you want and you can get those clothes off him.”
Scott looked at his friend and nodded.
“I can get my own clothes off,” Johnny said as he started pulling his shirt off his shoulders.
“Johnny, I’ll hold the blanket while you get out of those wet pants and long johns,” Scott said as he held a blanket over his brother.
Once the last of his clothes were off Scott dried him off with a blanket and wrapped him tightly to try to warm him up. It wasn’t long before Johnny had closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Soon everyone had shed their clothes. Being wrapped in blankets didn’t stop their shivering.
Walters returned with a kettle of hot stew and a pot of coffee. While another man held a gun on the men, Walters made everyone back against the back wall and sat the food and coffee in the middle of the room. He looked around and saw Johnny lying on the floor.
He walked over and moved Johnny’s head to look at the head wound. He could swear he’d seen the boy somewhere before but couldn’t place him. He shook off the thought as he stood and looked around.
“I’ll take your clothes and put them by the stove. We’ll bring them back when they’re dry,” Walters said as he gathered everyone’s clothes. “You fellows eat that while it’s hot. Don’t look like this rain is going to let up anytime soon. I’ll see that you get some more blankets.”
Walt and Frank moved to the center of the room and started dishing out their dinner.
Johnny opened his eyes and looked around.
Scott moved next to his brother and sat down, “How are feeling?”
“Head still hurts,” he said looking around the small building. Lifting the edge of the blanket and looking under it he frowned, “Noticed I don’t have no clothes on.”
“Well, yes,” Scott answered concerned. “Your clothes were wet. Remember we got them off of you earlier.”
“We?” Johnny flashed a Madrid glare at his brother.
“Yes, you and I,” Scott stifled a laugh. “You took care of getting them off, while I held the blanket so you could retain your dignity. You don’t remember, do you?”
Johnny shook his head. “Kinda’ remember. My head’s not feeling so good,” Johnny winced. “We at the south line shack like I figured?”
“Yes,” Scott answered reaching for a plate of stew that Walt was offering him. “Here, you need to eat something hot. It’ll warm you up.”
Johnny sat up and leaned against the wall. The cold wall sent a shiver through him. Scott took another blanket and wrapped it around his brother’s shoulders. Johnny looked at the plate of food and waved it off. He thought if he took one bite, he would throw it back up.
“Think you can handle some coffee?” Scott asked as he sat the plate down.
“Yeah,” Johnny nodded. The warmth of the cup felt good in his hands. He took a few sips of the warm brew before he felt his eyes trying to close on him. “Scott,” he said and held the cup out to his brother. “Gonna’ lay back down for a few minutes.”
Scott took the cup and helped his brother lay down. He noticed the flush to Johnny’s cheeks and the glassy brightness to his eyes. Scott had seen it enough, both in Mexico and on the way home, to know Johnny had a fever. He pulled the blankets up around his brother’s shoulders and settled down next to him.
Scott looked around the small building and watched the other men settle in. They all sat quietly, still wrapped in blankets and listening to the rain falling on the metal roof. The silence was broken only by a sneeze coming from Ramon.
Dan Billings walked out of the storage building and into the line shack. His partner, Bill Lawson was waiting for him.
“Any trouble?” Lawson asked.
Billings smiled, “Nope. Everything went as planned.”
“You tell Lancer we wanted Madrid to make the exchange?” Lawson picked up his coat and started to the door.
Billings nodded. “I did. Lancer said he didn’t know where Madrid was. I told him he’d better find him.”
“What are we going to do if he can’t find Madrid?”
Billings thought for a few seconds. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now, you need to get to Murdoch Lancer and keep him under control. I’ll take care of things here. I’ll meet you tomorrow to see how things are going.”
Lawson opened the door. The rain was still coming down, and there was no indication when it would let up. He put a rain slicker over his head, pulled his hat down over his eyes, and moved out the door.
Billings watched the door close. As he moved closer to the fire to warm up, he wondered what they would do if Lancer couldn’t find Madrid.
Murdoch sat at his desk and watched the rain beating against the window behind his desk. He wondered how his sons were fairing and if he should be blaming himself for them being with the work crews. He’d wanted them to handle all the responsibilities of the ranch including the manual labor. When they’d discussed what he had expected of them, neither Scott nor Johnny had balked. He expected them to do as much or more than any hand on the ranch.
After returning from Mexico, Murdoch had worried how his youngest son was going to settle into ranch life. He and Val had discussed how they were going to keep Johnny grounded after he’d once again experienced being Johnny Madrid.
Murdoch had seen the way the people of Mexico and those along the border had responded to his son. Madrid was a legend to those people. He wondered how he was going to come close to keeping that legend at Lancer.
The first few weeks after returning from Mexico were hard for Johnny. He was still recovering from his injuries and tired quickly. Because of this, Murdoch made allowances when during that time, Johnny started to rebel.
The fact that Jack Slade and his men had stayed for an additional four weeks hadn’t help Johnny to settle in. Murdoch had gone easy on Johnny during those weeks. He knew his son’s reputation with the other gunfighters was at stake.
It was when Slade and his men left Lancer that Murdoch decided his son needed a reality check. At Lancer, it was not Johnny that was calling the tune; it was Murdoch. It was for that reason that Johnny had been assigned to work crews, with more experienced men in charge, and Johnny as just one of the hands.
Scott instantly realized what his father was doing and had told him, in no uncertain terms, that unless Johnny was in charge of a work crew, he wouldn’t be either.
Murdoch had smiled at his oldest son’s loyalty to his brother. He’d watched a strong bond grow between the brothers as they had made their way home from Mexico. He’d agreed to Scott’s terms. Until the day Johnny was put in charge of one of the crews, Scott would be by his side as one of the hands.
Now both of his sons were in danger. He prayed the men holding them didn’t find out who they really were. He especially prayed no one found out that they were holding Johnny Madrid as a hostage.
It was late afternoon when Murdoch saw a man riding up to the front of the house. He stood up and watched as one of the hands took the man’s horse without a greeting or a smile.
Murdoch opened the front door as Lawson started to knock.
“Mr. Lancer,” Lawson said as he walked passed Murdoch and into the Great Room, taking off his hat, he shook the water from it. He then took his rain slicker off, letting it drip on the tile floor at the door.
“My name’s Lawson. I’m sure my associate, Mr. Billings, told you to expect me,” Lawson looked around and smiled. “Real nice place you have. I think I’ll be comfortable here for the next few days.”
Lawson turned to look at the disapproving face of his host. “I’m hungry. I assume you haven’t had dinner yet.”
Murdoch closed the front door and moved into the room.
“Come now, Mr. Lancer, there are repercussions for all actions. I would hate to tell my men to forget to feed your men just because you’re not feeding me,” Lawson smiled.
Murdoch snorted, “Dinner will be ready in an hour. Would you care for a drink, Mr. Lawson?” Murdoch asked as he moved to the drink cart.
“Thank you, that would be real nice,” Lawson answered with a smirk. “Do you have tequila?”
Murdoch tensed. He reached for the bottle of tequila reserved for his youngest son and poured a glass.
“I want to make sure my men are being treated well, Mr. Lawson,” Murdoch said as he handed the drink to Lawson. “My Segundo, Cipriano will be checking on them every day until we make the exchange. I assume you’ll tell me where you’re holding them?”
“Hadn’t planned on it,” Lawson answered as he took the glass and inhaled half of it.
“I need assurances, Lawson. You figure out a way for Cipriano to see my men,” Murdoch replied as a command, not a request.
It was Saturday night in Green River. Val Crawford had let his deputy take over at 5 pm and headed back to his place to clean up. He was to meet Johnny and Scott at the saloon. Val walked into the saloon at 6:00 and looked around. He saw men from every ranch in the area, except Lancer.
Val walked up to the bar.
“Jasper, you seen Johnny or Scott yet?” Val asked the bartender as he again scanned the room.
“Nope,” Jasper answered looking around. “Come to think of it, ain’t seen none of Lancer’s hands in here either. It’s still early; they’ll be along.”
Val nodded and asked for a beer. Jasper sat the beer in front of him and took Val’s money. Taking the beer to the back corner table, Val sat down to wait. He figured the boy would be in soon.
Val smiled thinking that as busy as the saloon was, that no one had sat at this table. The men from the other ranches and the locals knew that this was Johnny’s table when he was in town.
Johnny always took a table in the back corner so that he could have his back to the wall. It had been like that in all the years Val had ridden with the young man as a gunfighter. Johnny had a specific way of walking into a saloon and a particular seat once he was inside. Those habits had kept him alive for a lot of years.
Val watched as more men came in. He was disappointed when Johnny wasn’t one of them. Val was looking forward to seeing Johnny. Truth be told, he missed him during the week and looked forward to the time they shared on the weekends.
Murdoch had started including Val in the family life of the Lancers while they were still in Nogales. It was after they left Phoenix that Val saw the biggest change in his relationship with Murdoch.
Val and Murdoch had an unspoken agreement when it came to Johnny. Val was first and foremost, the boy’s friend. As much as he felt like Johnny’s father at times, he knew he wasn’t. He also knew Johnny only needed one father, and that was Murdoch Lancer.
The only thing Val Crawford and Murdoch Lancer had in common was their love for the dark-haired boy. Neither Val nor Murdoch had ever told Johnny how they both intended to be part of the young man’s life. Together, the two men would be there for him when he needed them.
By 8:00, Val was getting concerned. It wasn’t like Johnny not to come to town when he said he would. It was also not like Lancer’s hands not make an appearance. Val decided to take a ride over to Morro Coyo and check out the saloon and cantina there.
By 9:00, Val had looked in every saloon and cantina in both Green River and Morro Coyo. Now he was really worried. He rode back to Green River and went home. The next day was Sunday. Since their return from Mexico, Val had enjoyed Sunday dinners with the Lancers. He’d find out then why no one had come to town.
Sunday morning brought the sun with it. The rains from the day before had passed sometime during the night.
The little building behind the line shack was cold and damp. The only light came from a single lantern. All of the men, except Scott, had huddled together to try to keep warm. Scott had laid down next to his brother.
In the early hours of the morning, Ramon’s sneezes had gotten more frequent, and he’d started to cough. The young boy had a cold that they were all afraid was going to turn into something serious.
Johnny woke up only once during the night and asked for water. Once he’d drunk his fill, he laid back down and snuggled into his brother. Scott had smiled remembering the nights in the Mexican desert when he’d kept his brother warm.
It was shortly after daybreak when the door to the building opened, and Walters walked in carrying everyone’s clothes. He laid them down in the middle of the room.
“Get dressed, then you can go outside one at a time and get your business done,” Walters said looking around the building. He frowned when he saw Johnny still laying against the wall.
Walters walked over and knelt, putting a hand on the side of Johnny’s face. “Billings must have hit him harder than he thought. The boy’s got a fever.” He looked around at the other men and started to go out the door.
Ramon started coughing.
Walters looked at Ramon. “Come here, kid,” Walters waved his gun at Ramon.
Ramon still wrapped in a blanket walked over to the gunman. Walters put a hand on the boy’s forehead. “Damn, if you don’t have a fever, too.”
“All of you get dressed,” Walters ground out as he walked out of the building. “I don’t want anyone else sick.”
The men quickly dressed. Just having dry clothes seemed to warm them up.
The door opened again. Jake walked in and waved each one out one at a time to take care of their business. Scott was the last to go. Jake looked over at Johnny. “Someone want to see if they can get Juan awake so he can go out?”
Scott walked over to his brother. “Juan,” he shook the sleeping man. Johnny opened his eyes.
“We need to get you dressed so you can go to the outhouse. Think you can get up?”
“Give me a few minutes to get him dressed,” Scott turned to Jake.
“I’ll give you 10 minutes. If the boy ain’t ready by then he’ll have to hold it,” Jake spat out.
Scott gathered Johnny’s clothes and helped his brother dress. Johnny stood up and swayed just as Jake opened the door.
“Alright, out,” Jake said waving his gun toward Johnny.
Johnny put his hand out to Scott to get his balance. The room was moving on him. Walt walked up and took Johnny’s arm and started walking him toward the door.
“Just him,” Jake said as he waved Walt back.
“He’s not doing too good. He ain’t gonna’ make it by himself. Let me help him,” Walt said as he looked expectantly at Jake.
“Go ahead,” Jake said as he waved the two men out the door, “but don’t try anything.”
Several minutes later Walt helped Johnny back in and sat him down on the makeshift bed he’d used the night before.
Scott moved over to his brother’s side.
“How are you feeling?” he asked as he looked at his brother. He could still see the bright, glassy look in the eyes.
“Not too good,” he said as he looked over at Walt. Scott looked at Walt.
“He threw up out there. Said everything was spinning,” Walt answered the question he knew Scott was about to ask.
“Kinda’ cold in here, Scott,” Johnny said as he reached for the blanket that lay on the makeshift bed.
Scott took the blanket and wrapped it around his brother’s shoulders.
It was only about 30 minutes later that the door opened again and Walters came in with their breakfast consisting of a pot of coffee and a kettle of stew. It appeared stew was the only thing these men knew how to cook.
The Lancer men didn’t complain. The stew was hot and so was the coffee. After they ate, they all wrapped up in blankets and sat down waiting for the day to pass.
Scott sat next to his brother and looked sideways at him. Johnny had his head leaning back against the wall.
“Well?” Scott asked.
“Well, what?” Johnny responded, not looking at him.
“What are we going to do?” Scott asked quietly. “Do you have a plan?”
“Nope,” Johnny answered rubbing his forehead.
“No?” Scott asked, looking at his brother and then at the other men.
Johnny turned his head slowly, eyes narrowing, and looked at his brother.
“Scott…did I miss something yesterday?” Johnny asked. “You were there. You saw what happened. I got my ass handed to me by Billings and him telling me not to cause trouble. I got the crew boss over there telling me not piss them off. I saw you giving me a look that could have killed, telling me not to do anything.”
Johnny took a breath, and closed his eyes, “And if that wasn’t bad enough, I got my uncle and my old man telling me not to do anything. So, no I don’t have a plan.”
“We’re just going to ride it out and see what happens?” Scott questioned, conceding to himself that his brother had a point.
“Yep,” Johnny moved to lie down again. “Right now, the way my head feels there isn’t anything I can do anyway.”
“What are you going to do about Madrid making the exchange,” Scott said as he moved over to let Johnny lay back down.
“Guess they’ll have to find someone else to do it,” Johnny said as he laid his arm across his eyes.
Scott laid another blanket over his brother.
“You have a fever,” Scott felt his brother’s forehead. He was hotter than he’d been earlier.
“Yeah,” Johnny answered as he pulled the blanket up around his neck and rolled over onto his side. “Just let me sleep for a while.”
Joe and Walt had made a bed for Ramon and laid him down. With two men with fevers, the canteen was soon empty.
Walt hammered on the door to the building and called out for someone to answer him. A man they’d never seen before pulled the door open and waved everyone back.
“What do you want?” the man said looking around the room.
“We need water,” Walt answered, holding up the empty canteen and turning it over to show the man it was empty. “We have two men that are sick with fever.”
“Sick, huh,” he said and looked at Ramon and Johnny lying on the floor.
“Where’s Walters?” Scott asked.
“He and Billings rode out to meet up with Lawson,” the man answered. “I’m Elliott. Let me take a look at those two. Let me get some of the other men to watch the rest of you.”
Elliott backed out and closed the door. A few minutes later three men came back with Elliott. They waved Scott, Walt, Frank, Joe, and Jose out of the building. Elliott went in and closed the door.
Minutes passed, and still, Elliott hadn’t come back out. It wasn’t long before Scott started to worry and voice his concerns. He wanted to know what Elliott was doing. His voice was getting louder when Walters and Jake rode into the clearing in front of the line shack.
“What are they doing out here?” Walters demanded.
“Elliott told us to bring them out here while he checked on the two sick boys,” Kellogg responded.
Walters turned and stomped to the storage building. He opened the door and went inside. Within seconds you could hear Walters yelling at Elliott. No one could make out what he was saying.
Only seconds later, Elliott stormed out of the building, walking past the prisoners, he went into the line shack. As Elliot entered the line shack, Walters came to the door of the storage building and called out to Jake, waving him into the building.
Walters turned to Jake as he entered the building. “Check on that one over there,” he pointed to Ramon. “Elliott gave them something. Not sure what it was, but both of them are out cold.”
Jake looked at Ramon and pulled back the blanket over him. “Walters, this boy’s not waking up. Not sure what Elliott was trying to do, but it looks like he was trying to get the boy’s clothes off of him,” Jake said as he looked across the room toward Johnny.
Walters cussed as he checked Johnny over. His shirttail was out, his pants unbuttoned and pulled down around his hips.
“Jake, get that boy dressed and cover him up,” Walters said as he straightened Johnny’s clothes and tucked in his shirt tail. “I’m going to go deal with Elliott. God, can you believe the man?”
As Walters pulled the blanket back over Johnny, he took another look at the young man’s face. He knew he’d seen the boy before, but he still couldn’t place him. He knew it would come to him sooner or later.
Walters stood up and opened the door to the building. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that Jake was almost finished with Ramon.
As Walter’s stalked pasted the Lancer men, Scott reached out and caught his arm, “What’s going on? Are our men alright?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Walters snapped shaking Scott’s hand away. He looked over his shoulder to see Jake coming out of the building. “Get them back in there,” he ordered, “and make sure they have some extra canteens.”
Walters stormed into the line shack to confront Elliott.
“What the hell do you think you were doing in there?” Walters screamed. “What did you give them?”
“Just gave them something to help them relax,” Elliot said with a grin. “Wasn’t gonna’ do nothing they wouldn’t have liked.”
“You stupid, sick bastard,” Walters looked at the man who was grinning at him. “You get the hell out of here and don’t come back.”
Elliott’s grin vanished. “Can’t fire me. Only Billings can fire me. I ain’t going nowhere.”
“We’ll see about that,” Walters said as he walked out of the shack and slammed the door behind him.
Outside Walters paced back and forth. He had to get Elliott away from the two boys. He’d just met with Billings and Lawson. Lawson had said the Segundo was going to check on the men today. He would send both boys back to the ranch house with him. He only hoped that whatever Elliott had given them would wear off before then.
Johnny had been sleeping when he heard a voice. He could tell it was Ramon calling out to him. He turned over and saw a man straddling Ramon and pulling at his clothes. Johnny struggled to get up.
“Get away from him, you bastard,” Johnny hissed as he grabbed hold of the back of the man’s shirt. The man turned on him and pushed him back toward the makeshift bed. He struggled up again and was only halfway out of the bed when he’d passed out.
Johnny felt someone beside him, then felt a tug on his shirttail as it was pulled from his pants. At first, he was confused. It wasn’t long before he realized hands were working the buttons on his pants. His eyes flew open to see the bearded face of a man, grinning down at him.
“Now, you just stay still, boy,” the man leered at him. “I promise you; you’ll like this. The other boy put up a fuss, too. I’ll make sure you both like it.”
Johnny’s hands reached up to grab the man’s arms and pushed him back. The next thing he knew the man was lying on top of him with a bottle pressed to his lips.
“Drink this,” the man was pouring the liquid into Johnny’s mouth. “It’s gonna’ help you relax.”
Johnny tried to spit the foul-tasting liquid out, but the man was pinching his nose closed and placed a hand over his mouth.
Once he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, Johnny’s mouth opened, gasping for air. The moment it did, he swallowed the liquid. The man had wasted no time in pouring more down his throat.
Johnny shoved the man off of him. Before he could move the man was back, straddling him, and pouring more of the liquid down his throat.
He felt the man’s hand reaching for his shirttail again.
“You’ll calm down in a minute, and then you’ll really start to enjoy this,” the man said as he grabbed Johnny’s pants and started to pull them down.
The last thing Johnny remembered was the door opening and the room filling with bright light. The sound of raised voices seemed far away as he drifted off.
Scott and the others went back into the storage building. Scott went to check on Johnny while Walt went to Ramon. They had no idea what Elliott was doing in the building for so long, but it appeared that neither Johnny nor Ramon was awake.
Noon came, and Walters brought them food. They were all allowed to go outside again to take care of their business. Walters checked on both Johnny and Ramon. Scott could hear the man curse when neither boy responded to him.
By mid-afternoon, neither of the boys was showing signs of waking up.
As the men waited for the door to open again, they could hear Walters’ men talking outside the building.
“Walters said to hitch up the wagon,” one man was saying.
“He’s gonna’ send those two boys back to the ranch house?” another questioned.
“Yeah, they’re both sick. Don’t want them getting any sicker, besides Walters wants to get them away from Elliott,” the first man said.
“I heard Elliott likes them young,” the second man said. “Didn’t figure the sick bastard would try anything like that here though. Did Walters get in there before…” The man’s voice trailed off as they walked away from the building.
Scott’s eyes got big as he looked at Walt and the others. They all looked at Ramon and Johnny. Is that what Elliott had been doing while they stood outside?
Scott quickly moved over and lifted the blanket from his brother and checked him over. Except for a residue of a liquid on his mouth and chin, Scott didn’t see anything to indicate his brother was touched.
Walt and Joe moved to check on Ramon. They lifted the blanket to find his shirt partially unbuttoned, as were his pants. They both sat down feeling sick. They prayed Elliott hadn’t had time to do anything to the young boy.
It was late afternoon when they heard a horse ride in. The men recognized Cipriano’s voice. The door to the storage building opened, and the Segundo entered. He looked at each of the men and cocked his head questioningly.
He saw Ramon and Johnny lying on the floor, “Que?”
“They’re both sick, Cip,” Walt said. “Ramon has a cold and fever. Juan’s having trouble with the hit he took to the head.” Walt hesitated. “Cip one of the men here gave them something this morning. Not sure what it was he gave them, but they haven’t woken up since.”
Cipriano walked over and knelt by Johnny. He put a hand on his nephew’s face and shook his head. “He is very hot.” Cipriano then went to Ramon. The young man looked pale and was radiating heat also.
Cipriano stood up and walked out of the building. He stalked up to Walters, “The two chicos are sick. What did your man give them?”
“I know they’re sick,” Walters answered. “I don’t know what he gave them. I’ve got the wagon hitched. We’re gonna’ load the two boys up, and you’re gonna’ take them back to the ranch house.”
“Si, I will be taking them,” Cipriano replied and turned to go. “I still want to know what they were given.”
Cipriano went back into the storage building and told the others what was happening. As they waited for Walters’ men to put Johnny and Ramon in the wagon, Walt pulled Cipriano aside and told him what Elliott had done.
Cipriano looked at the two young men. “Madre de Dios,” he said shaking his head.
As he started to storm out of the building, Scott caught his arm.
“Cip, don’t,” Scott said. “We don’t know that Elliott had time to do anything to either of them. Just get them out of here.”
“Si,” Cipriano said as he turned toward the door. He watched as two of Walters’ men lifted Ramon and took him out to the wagon. Cipriano was angry. Angrier than he could ever remember being.
As Johnny was carried out, Cipriano turned to Walters and said in a voice that the others recognized as almost Madrid like, “Senor, you do not know it yet, but your man Elliott has opened the gates of hell, and El Diablo himself is going to walk out to meet you.”
All of the men knew precisely who Cipriano was talking about. The image of Johnny Madrid instantly came to mind.
“Are you the devil, old man?” Walters laughed.
“No mister, he ain’t the devil,” Walt spoke up. “You’ll know him when you see him.”
“Have you ever seen him?” Walters laughed again.
“Hell, yes, we’ve seen him,” Joe answered.
“We’ve all seen him,” Frank joined in. “Once you’ve seen him, you’ll never forget him.”
“I can guarantee you, Mr. Walters, that you and Mr. Elliott will meet him and very soon,” Scott spat out the words.
Walters looked at all of them, thinking he should have shot Elliott when he had the chance.
“I will be back tomorrow to check on the rest of our men. I suggest you keep your man Elliott far away from them,” Cipriano said as he walked out to the wagon.
Val waited around his office all morning wondering where Johnny had gotten off to the night before. Shortly after noon, he decided to ride out to Lancer and visit awhile before dinner.
Since returning from Mexico in December, Murdoch had made Val feel welcome at Lancer, at any time day or night, and made sure he felt like part of the family. For Johnny’s sake, Lancer was now Val’s home as well.
As Val rode into the ranch yard, he looked around and saw Lancer hands sitting around. They looked at him and then looked away. Val knew something was wrong. It was Sunday. He figured most of the hands would be away from the ranch on personal business. However, it looked like almost every man that worked at Lancer was there.
Val dismounted and stood in front of the house for a few moments. Usually, one of the hands would come up and take his horse from him. Today, no one was coming forward. The men continued to look at him and then look away.
Val walked up to the French doors as he always did and started to go in. Murdoch had told him many times that there was no need for him to knock. As he reached for the door handle, he came face to face with Murdoch.
“Sheriff Crawford, what brings you out here on a Sunday afternoon?” Murdoch quickly asked. Murdoch hadn’t called him Sheriff Crawford in many months and sure as hell knew why he was there on a Sunday afternoon.
“Well …,” Val started to say.
“I hope you’re not here looking for Madrid, Sheriff,” Murdoch quickly interrupted. “He’s not here. If you do find him, will you tell him to come by, I have another job for him. I need him by Tuesday morning.”
“I’ll do that, Mr. Lancer,” Val knew now something was wrong. He looked past Murdoch to see a man standing behind him. “Actually, Mr. Lancer, I was looking for those other two fellows.”
“You mean Ruiz and Garrett?” Murdoch threw out two names Val knew well. “I know they did a lot of damage last Saturday at the saloon, Sheriff, but both men are tied up on ranch business right now. There are a few of the other men with them so they’ll stay out of trouble.”
“You know when they’ll be back?” Val asked watching the man standing behind Murdoch. “I’m going to have to take them in.”
‘Tied up,’ he thought.
“They should be back late Tuesday night or early Wednesday. Now, Sheriff, if you wouldn’t mind, I have some things to do before dinner,” Murdoch started to turn. “When you find Madrid tell him that once he’s finished with this job, he can go right back in the direction he came from. I don’t want to see him on my land again.”
“I’ll do that, Mr. Lancer,” Val said and tipped his hat. “Oh, how are your boys doing?”
“My sons are in Stockton this week on a buying trip,” Murdoch answered quickly.
“Well, I’ll be going. I’ll be back in a few days to check on Ruiz and Garrett,” Val said. He turned and walked back to his horse and rode away.
“Very good, Mr. Lancer,” Lawson said as he turned and poured himself another drink.
Val rode out past the arch and up the hill overlooking the hacienda. So, something was wrong. Scott and Johnny were tied up somewhere on the ranch with some of the other hands.
Val sat and wondered where on the ranch. Then he remembered what Murdoch had said, “tell him that once he’s done with this job, he can go right back in the direction he came from.” The direction he came from? South. Val knew it was south. So, Scott and Johnny were tied up somewhere on the ranch south of the hacienda.
Val sat a few more minutes thinking before seeing a wagon coming down the road. He recognized Cipriano driving. He couldn’t tell what was in the back of the wagon. Val looked to see if there was anyone else nearby or following. There wasn’t. He started to go down the hill when he saw a rider he didn’t recognize, coming up behind the wagon.
Val watched as Cipriano stopped the wagon and talked to the man. Cipriano slapped the reins on the horses and started toward the house again with the rider following.
Cipriano pulled into the yard in front of the house and yelled to a few of the men to help him. Murdoch, Teresa, and Maria rushed out of the house to see what was happening.
“Patron, it is Juan and Ramon,” Cipriano said. “Both chicos are sick. Muy sick. Walters here let me bring them home.”
Murdoch moved to the back of the wagon and looked at the motionless forms of the two boys. He looked over at Lawson but said nothing to him.
“Cipriano get them inside. I want to keep them in the house, instead of the bunkhouse. That way Maria and Teresa can look after them.” He looked at Teresa, “Honey, why don’t you take care of Juan. Maria can take care of Ramon.”
Teresa nodded her understanding. She looked at the hands standing near the wagon. “Take them inside; I’ll show you which rooms.”
“Patron, there is something else,” Cipriano hesitated. “Patron, one of Lawson’s men, gave the chicos something to make them sleep this morning. Neither of them has woken since.”
Murdoch could feel his face growing red. “Lawson, what did your man give these two?”
“Mr. Lancer, as you know I’ve been with you. I have no idea what any of my men gave these two,” Lawson looked around at Walters.
Walters walked to Lawson and pulled him away. They talked for a few seconds, and then Murdoch could hear Lawson’s voice rising, “He did what? My God man, what kind of men have you hired?”
“Well?” Murdoch had started to go toward Lawson when Cipriano took his Patron’s arm.
“Patron, there is more,” Cipriano told Murdoch what Elliott had done.
“Johnny?” Murdoch looked at his son.
“Walt was not sure, Patron. Senor Scott did not believe Elliott had enough time to harm either of them,” Cipriano said looking at the ground.
“The other men are alright?” Murdoch asked reeling with emotions.
“Si, Patron,” Cipriano answered knowing Murdoch was thinking of Scott. They watched as ranch hands lifted Johnny and Ramon from the wagon and took them into the house.
“Cip,” Murdoch pinched the bridge of his nose. “Send someone to town to get Sam. Both boys are going to need a doctor. Make sure whoever goes doesn’t tell anyone in town what’s happening out here.”
“Si, Patron,” Cipriano turned and walked to the bunkhouse.
“Lawson,” Murdoch turned to the man who was still standing with Walters. “My Segundo told me about your man Elliott. I’ve sent for the doctor. You had better pray that those two boys wake up.”
“Don’t threaten me, Lancer,” Lawson said walking away from Walters. “I don’t give a damn about those two boys or your men. The only thing I care about is that gold. You keep your end of the deal, or I’ll personally put a bullet in good old Juan up there and then finish off Ramon. You can have your doctor come, but you better keep your mouth shut.”
Lawson turned to Walters. “We only have two more days. Keep those men out there healthy and keep Elliott away from them.”
Walters nodded. He tied his horse behind the wagon and climbed into the seat. He flicked the reins and started back to the line shack.
Val sat on the hill overlooking the hacienda and watched the movements in the yard. He saw the two men being lifted from the back of the wagon and taken into the house. To say he was worried was an understatement.
He waited a while longer and watched as the man who had ridden in earlier with Cipriano drove the wagon out again. He was just about to ride back to town when he saw one of Lancer’s men ride out toward town.
Val recognized Jacobs and rode down to cut him off.
“Jacobs, what in ‘tarnation is going on at Lancer?” Val asked as Jacobs came to a stop.
Jacobs looked behind him and then around. “Val, you can’t be here. We got real problems. Can’t have no law involved.”
“What kind of problems?” Val asked. “Where’s Johnny and Scott?”
“Val, I can’t tell you. My Lord, Mr. Lancer, is gonna’ skin me alive. Val, some men kidnaped two of our work crews yesterday. Johnny and Scott were with the crews. The men who kidnaped them don’t know who they got. The boys gave them phony names. Johnny and Ramon got sick. The kidnappers brought them back to the house. I’m on my way to get Doc Jenkins.” Jacobs tried to tell Val what he needed to know with the least amount of words.
“Johnny bad?” the concern was evident in Val’s voice.
“Don’t know,” Jacobs answered. “Val, I have to go and get back. You want to help; you find the rest of our men. Cipriano said they’re in the south line shack. Don’t know how many men they got guarding them.”
“Who have they got,” Val asked.
“They have Scott, Walt, Frank, Joe, and Jose. They had Juan and sent him back to us with a bullet in his arm to let Mr. Lancer know to go and meet the head man. Man’s name is Billings. They have a man down there at the house watching Mr. Lancer to make sure he doesn’t tell anyone what’s going on. He ain’t the man in charge though.”
“What do they want?” Val asked.
“Gold,” Jacobs answered. “There’s a gold shipment coming in from the Sonora Lancer Mine. It’s due in on Tuesday. Mr. Lancer is supposed to trade the gold for the men. Oh, and, Val, these men want Johnny Madrid to make the exchange.”
“Madrid? Just how bad you figure Johnny is?” Val shifted in his saddle looking behind them.
“Don’t know, but sure hope he’s better by Tuesday,” Jacobs said as he spurred his horse on.
Teresa guided the ranch hands upstairs. She had them put Johnny in his own room and Ramon in Scott’s. While Maria went to Ramon, Teresa stayed with Johnny.
Before the two hands left, she had them undress Johnny and put him into a nightshirt. Once he was covered, she moved to his side and looked him over. The only injury she could see was a cut on his forehead, but he was running a fever.
Johnny didn’t stir at all as she repeatedly took cool clothes and wiped his face and neck. Finally, she folded the cloth and placed it on his forehead. Standing, she stretched and looked across the hall at Scott’s room.
Teresa walked across the hall and stood in the doorway.
Ramon lay unmoving as Maria wiped his face with a cool cloth. The older woman looked up shaking her head. “He has a very high fever,” she said in a soft voice. “He does not wake.”
“I know,” Teresa said looking back across the hall to Johnny. “Joh… Juan isn’t waking either.” She caught herself before saying Johnny’s name. She looked down the hall to see Lawson standing at the top of the stairs. She went back to Johnny and pulled the covers up closer to his face.
Murdoch waited in the Great Room for Sam. He wanted more than anything to go upstairs and sit with his son, but he knew he couldn’t do that with Lawson in the house. He stood and poured himself a drink.
Staring at the drink without tasting it, he thought about Scott and the four men with him. Murdoch took comfort in the knowledge that Scott wasn’t alone and that the men with him were some of the most trusted men at Lancer.
Scott sat on the makeshift bed his brother had occupied only hours earlier. He drew his knees to his chest and crossed his arms over them, as he took a deep breath and sighed. He was worried about his little brother.
Walt was watching Scott and knew what was bothering him. “He’ll be alright, Scott,” Walt said as he moved closer to his friend.
“I hope so, Walt,” Scott sighed again. “You know, when we got home from Mexico, I thought he’d be safe. We’d beat the odds down there, and he was home where he belonged. I didn’t think anyone would come onto the ranch to harm him. Was I ever wrong.”
It was Walt’s turn to sigh. “You know, I have never met anyone that trouble can follow around closer than it can that boy,” Walt shook his head. “Never seen anything like it.”
“I know I should be worrying about Ramon too, but just can’t help myself,” Scott looked around at the other men. “Damn, Elliott.”
“Don’t you worry about Elliott, Scott,” Frank moved over closer to them. “Cipriano was right. Elliott opened the gates to hell, and we all know who’s gonna’ step out. He picked the wrong man to try that kind of crap with. Elliott will get what’s coming to him.”
“That’s the God’s honest truth,” Joe said as he and Jose had moved over to them.
“I sure hope we can watch when Elliott meets up with him,” Walt said with a smile. “I can almost see Elliot facing down those dark eyes.”
Scott was still worrying about his brother, but he felt somewhat better knowing that the men with him at that moment were his friends and were as worried about Johnny as he was.
“Scott?” Walt asked.
“Yes,” Scott looked sideways at Walt.
“Why don’t Mr. Lancer let you or Jo… Juan head up any of the work crews?” Walt asked ducking his head.
Scott laughed. He knew it was a question that all the men must be asking.
Scott looked at the door and lowered his voice. “Walt, I think Murdoch is trying to… how do I say it… he’s trying to rein in Johnny,” Scott said. “You were with us in Mexico and Nogales. You saw how it was for him and how the people treated him. Even Val said that …” Scott lowered his voice to a whisper. “Even Val said that Madrid was larger than life down there.
I think Murdoch was afraid Johnny wouldn’t settle down to ranch life again. He was worried that the added fame and attention would somehow go to his head.
You weren’t with us after Nogales. But by the time we got to Yuma, you could see how comfortable he was sliding back into that life and living up to the legend. Val told us that Johnny had learned to deal with it a long time ago. I don’t think Murdoch was convinced.
Johnny has always called his own tune until he got to Lancer. He controlled his destiny for the most part. He has always been the one who was in charge. With Murdoch calling the tune and Johnny taking orders from someone else, I think Murdoch felt he could keep him grounded.”
“We weren’t with you after Nogales, but Madrid is all anyone was talking about all the way home,” Frank said. “Word had spread even as far as Morro Coyo by the time we got back.”
“So, what about you?” Walt asked.
“I explained,” Scott whispered again, “that as long as my brother wasn’t in charge of any work crews, I wouldn’t be either.” Scott shifted on the makeshift bed and looked at the men sitting around him. “We’ve been back on the ranch almost three months now. I think John is almost off Murdoch’s probation,” he laughed.
“Johnny know that’s the reason?” Walt asked.
“We’ve talked about it. He knows the reason why neither of us is heading any work crews,” Scott smiled.
The door to the building opened, and Walters came in. “Any of you need to tend to your business?” he asked.
Everyone stood up.
“How are our men?” Walt asked.
“Don’t know,” Walters answered. “Your boss sent for the Doc. You’ll find out tomorrow; I expect when that Segundo comes to check on you again.” He stepped aside. “Alright, one at a time and don’t try anything,” he said as he waved for them to leave the building.
After everyone had been outside and returned, Walters looked at them and started to say something before stopping. “I’ll bring your dinner in a few minutes.”
It wasn’t long before Walters returned with Jake and brought stew and coffee. The Lancer men looked at the stew and almost groaned. Walt and Frank started dishing the meal out and handed a plate to everyone.
As they sat down to eat, Scott’s thoughts once again went to his brother.
Jacobs didn’t waste time getting into town. He told Sam that he was needed at Lancer. Jacobs didn’t tell Sam much, except that he needed to come as soon as possible.
Sam hitched up his buggy and Jacobs rode back to Lancer with him. Once they got under the arch, Jacobs veered off going straight to the barn.
Sam looked around the yard. He saw the same thing Val had seen hours earlier. The Lancer cowhands and vaqueros were either sitting or standing around the yard and the bunkhouse. Sam noticed that those that had been sitting were now standing watching him almost expectantly.
Sam’s buggy stopped in front of the house and Murdoch stepped out to met him. Sam could tell that his friend was worried.
“Sam, thank you for coming so quickly,” Murdoch said as he took Sam’s hand and shook it.
“Of course, Murdoch,” Sam said as he felt the extra grip on his hand. “Jacobs didn’t tell me much. Whose hurt?”
Murdoch looked behind him as Lawson came out of the house.
“Sam, this is Mr. Lawson,” Murdoch introduced the man. Then as an afterthought, “He’s staying with me for a few days.”
Sam noted the cold tone in Murdoch’s voice. “Mr. Lawson,” Sam shook the man’s hand. “So, Murdoch where is my patient.”
“Sam, it’s patients, and they’re both upstairs. It’s Ramon and Juan Ruiz,” Murdoch said as he took Sam’s arm and ushered him into the house. “Juan Martinez is also hurt. I want you to see him while you’re here.”
Sam felt Murdoch’s hand firmly on his arm. Sam knew Ramon and Juan Martinez, but for the life of him couldn’t remember meeting Juan Ruiz. Sam didn’t say anything as he was ushered into the house and up the stairs.
Once upstairs Sam was surprised to be shown into Johnny’s room. He looked at Murdoch.
“Sam once you’ve looked at Ruiz you can look at Ramon across the hall. I’ll send one of the hands to bring Martinez up to the house,” Murdoch said as he moved to stand next to the bed.
Sam watched Murdoch and then glanced behind them, as Lawson followed them into the room.
“So, Murdoch what’s wrong with… Ruiz?” Sam asked as he looked at Johnny Lancer lying in bed in front of him.
“I think it started as a head wound, Sam. Cipriano said he was running a fever,” Murdoch answered looking at Lawson.
“Murdoch, I’m going to ask you and Mr. Lawson to step out. Is Teresa or Maria here? I’ll need one of them to help me,” Sam said as he turned to look across the hall to see both Maria and Teresa coming out of Scott’s room.
“Teresa, would you give Sam a hand,” Murdoch asked as he watched Lawson walk out of the room. Murdoch quickly and gently brushed the hair from his son’s forehead before leaving the room.
Once the door was closed, Sam moved closer to the bed and turned to Teresa, “Teresa, what in blazes is going on here?”
“Oh, Sam,” Teresa ran into the doctor’s arms with tears running down her face. “It’s terrible.”
“Tell me,” Sam said as he patted Teresa’s back.
Teresa told Sam everything from the time the work crews had been taken until Johnny and Ramon had been brought back a few hours ago. She made sure he knew that Johnny and Scott hadn’t given their real names.
Sam looked at the closed door before asking, “What names are they using?”
“Johnny told them his name was Juan Ruiz and Scott is using the name Scott Garrett,” she answered.
“Well then, let me take a look at Juan,” Sam smiled at her, “and see what’s wrong with him.”
After thirty minutes Sam sank into the chair next to the bed and shook his head. “Let me take a look at Ramon.”
Sam opened the door and walked across the hall to Scott’s room. Maria looked at the doctor and shook her head. “Senor Sam, he is not well. His fever is high, and he does not wake. Those men gave him and Juanito something to make them sleep.”
Sam examined Ramon, and with a sigh, he sat down next to Ramon’s bed, “It’s bad, Teresa. I need to talk to Murdoch.”
Sam left Ramon’s room and walked with Teresa back to the Great Room. He found Murdoch sitting behind his desk with a worried look on his face.
“Sam?” Murdoch stood and walked over to his friend.
“Murdoch, you have two very sick boys up there,” he said. He looked at Lawson. “There’s something you’re not telling me, and it could cost one or both of them their lives. I don’t care what’s going on here. The only thing I care about are those two boys. Mr. Lawson, I’m going to go back upstairs, and I’m taking Murdoch with me. I will talk to him alone.”
Lawson looked at the doctor and then at Murdoch.
“You go right ahead, Doc. Mr. Lancer, you remember what’s at stake, and you remember what I told you about those two upstairs.” Lawson walked over and poured himself a drink and sat down.
Sam turned and went back upstairs with Murdoch following him.
Once in Johnny’s room, Sam closed the door and watched his friend almost run to his son’s bedside. The look of dread on his face was evident. He brushed his hand across the pale face and felt the heat radiating from it.
“Sam?” Murdoch looked up at his friend.
“Murdoch, Teresa told me what’s going on. What I want to know is what happened to … Juan here?” Sam reached down and picked up Johnny’s wrist. His pulse was weak, too weak.
“I know he was knocked out with the butt of a gun yesterday morning, but the last time I saw him yesterday, he was conscious and talking. Cipriano went to check on the men a few hours ago and came back with Ramon and … Juan. Cipriano told me one of Lawson’s men had given both boys something that put them to sleep. I don’t know what it was,” Murdoch was holding his son’s hand.
“What about Ramon?” Sam asked.
“Cipriano said he had a cold and a fever. Walt told Cipriano he’d been sneezing and coughing,” Murdoch answered.
“Ramon has pneumonia,” Sam said. “I need to find out what was used to sedate them. It’s obvious they were both drugged. With a head injury, it could be fatal for … Juan. For Ramon with pneumonia, it could have the same effect. Why were they sedated?”
Murdoch looked at his friend and took a deep breath. He then told about what Elliott had done or attempted to do.
Sam shook his head in disbelief. “Murdoch, I need you to step out. I need to examine Juan again.”
“Sam…,” Murdoch started and stopped. He got up and left the room.
A few minutes later Sam came out of Johnny’s room and walked straight across the hall. He asked Maria to step out while he examined Ramon. When he’d finished, he walked back into Johnny’s room and motioned Murdoch to follow.
In a hushed tone, he looked at his friend, “Murdoch, to relieve your mind it doesn’t appear that this Elliott person harmed either of them. I’m sure that if he’d been left alone with them long enough, he could have harmed them both, but he didn’t.”
Sam watched a flood of relief wash over his friend’s face.
“Now, we need to determine how much of the sedative he gave them and what it was. It may be something that will wear off fairly quickly. In that case, I would expect both boys to wake up by tomorrow morning. I’m going to have Maria and Teresa fix poultices for both of them to help with breathing and the fever,” Sam said as he took his stethoscope out of his bag.
He leaned over and listened to Johnny’s heart and lungs. “His lungs are clear, but his respiration is slow. I think the fever is from the cut on his forehead. I’ll be with Ramon. Teresa can sit in here and keep the door open so that I can watch both of them. See if you can find out what they were given.”
Sam picked up his bag and moved across the hall to Ramon. “I’m staying the night, Murdoch. Ramon will need me for sure.”
Murdoch gave his son’s hand another squeeze and walked out of the room to find Teresa standing in the hall. “Teresa, will you stay with Juan?”
“Will he be alright?” she asked with a hopeful look.
“Sam thinks so. We need to get the fever down. Can you get poultices for Ramon and Juan? Sam feels it will help with the fever for both of them,” Murdoch said as he moved toward the stairs.
Murdoch stepped into the Great Room and across to the French doors. He walked outside and motioned to one of the hands. “Clay, can you have Cipriano bring Juan Martinez to the house for the doctor to look at his arm?”
“Sure thing, Mr. Lancer,” Clay replied and walked toward the bunkhouse.
Murdoch turned back to the Great Room. He looked at Lawson. “Doctor Jenkins is staying the night. Ramon has pneumonia. Ruiz has a fever. He wants to know what Elliott used to sedate them.”
“I have no idea, and I don’t have any plans on finding out,” Lawson answered while taking another sip of the tequila he was drinking. “As I said, Mr. Lancer, I don’t care about those two upstairs or the other men I’m holding. From what Mr. Billings told me Ruiz should have been shot yesterday. My employer, however, wants your cooperation.”
“You have my cooperation!” Murdoch fairly shouted the words.
“Fine, now your Doctor Jenkins is going to have to deal with what he knows and nothing more,” Lawson stood and walked to the French doors as Cipriano lead Juan Martinez in.
“Cipriano, Sam is upstairs with Ramon. Take Martinez up,” Murdoch said as he turned to pour himself a drink.
“Si, Patron,” Cipriano said leading Juan up the stairs.
Cipriano stood outside Scott’s room and looked at Ramon laying on the bed. The boy was pale and his breathing ragged. He turned and looked into Johnny’s room. The boy he saw laying on that bed was also pale, but he just looked like he was sleeping.
Sam looked up to see Cipriano and Juan. He waved them to the empty room next to Scott’s.
Sam closed the door and moved closer to Cipriano and Juan.
“Cipriano do you know what that man Elliott gave Ramon and Johnny?” Sam asked a hushed voice as he began to look at Juan’s arm.
“No, Senor, I wish I did. I am to go back tomorrow to check on our men. If the chico’s have not woken by then I will find out,” Cipriano answered.
Sam examined Juan’s arm. “Maria did a fine job of dressing the wound,” Sam told Juan as he redressed it. “Keep the bandages dry and try not to use the arm for a few days.”
“Gracias,” Juan said as he put his shirt back on and stood to leave. “How are Ramon and Juanito?”
Sam told both Cipriano and Juan what he’d told Murdoch.
Just as Juan was about to leave, he turned to Sam, “I do not know if it matters, but Juanito was hit twice yesterday. The first time on the side of the head when he told Barranca to go home. The second time, he was hit on the back of the head and the shoulder, after Billings shot me.”
“Thank you, Juan,” Sam said, “I’ll go check the back of his head now.”
Sam and Cipriano went into Johnny’s room. “Help me roll him over, Cipriano,” Sam said.
Cipriano rolled his nephew onto his side while Sam examined the back of Johnny’s head, neck, and upper shoulder. He found a large lump on the back of his head and bruising on his left shoulder.
“Roll him back,” Sam said. “We’ll need to put a compress on that lump. All we can do now is wait and see.”
Val rode back to town trying to figure out what to do next. He had more than one option. The first was to get a few men together and go to the line shack to free the hostages. The problem with that option was that Scott and the other men could be killed in the attempted rescue. He also had no idea how many men were guarding the line shack.
His second option was to wait until Tuesday when the exchanged was to take place. If he waited for the exchange, all the players would be out in the open.
There was one major problem with waiting. They wanted Johnny Madrid to make the trade. As it stood at that moment, Val wasn’t sure his friend was going to be in any condition to do it.
Teresa was in the kitchen when Sam came down the back stairs. Both of them had been up most of the night, along with Maria, looking after Ramon and Johnny.
“Sam, I’ll have breakfast ready in a minute,” Teresa said as she yawned. She’d gotten some sleep sitting in the chair next to Johnny’s bed, but not nearly enough.
Maria came into the kitchen and shook her head. Ramon’s fever had not broken during the night.
“How is Juanito this morning, Doctor Sam?” Maria asked as she poured herself a cup of coffee.
“His fever is down this morning. It’s not gone completely. He didn’t wake up at all during the night,” Sam answered as he accepted a cup of coffee from Teresa. “Is Murdoch up yet?”
“The Patron is still in his room,” Maria answered as she saw Lawson enter the kitchen. “I’ll go to check on him.” Maria went back up the back stairs, giving Lawson a look that could have killed.
Maria made her way to Murdoch’s room and knocked. There wasn’t an answer. She slowly opened the door and looked in. The room was empty. She closed the door and looked down the hall toward Johnny’s room.
Maria noticed Johnny’s door closed. She knew it was open when she’d gone downstairs. She quietly opened the door and peaked in. Murdoch was sitting in the chair next to the bed and was holding his son’s hand. She didn’t want to intrude, but Murdoch saw her as she started to close the door.
“Maria,” Murdoch waved her in, “how is he?”
“His fever is down, Patron,” Maria smiled. “He did not wake during the night.”
Murdoch looked back at his son. He looked so young when he was sleeping.
“How’s Ramon?” Murdoch asked turning to look at Maria.
“His fever is still high. His breathing is not good. Doctor Sam says he needs to cough and he cannot,” Maria shook her head. “I fear for him, Patron.”
Murdoch started to put his son’s hand down and felt Johnny’s fingers move in his hand. At first, he thought he’d imagined it. Shaking his head, Murdoch laid the hand back down on Johnny’s chest. He gave it a tight squeeze when he felt the smaller hand squeeze his hand again.
Murdoch looked to make sure the door was closed. “Johnny,” he said in a low voice.
The young man in the bed took a deep breath and yawned. He turned his head and opened his eyes. Murdoch smiled as dark lashes fluttered and dark blue eyes looked at him.
“Hi,” Johnny said almost in a whisper.
“Hi, yourself,” Murdoch answered with a grin on his face. “How do you feel?”
“Got a headache,” Johnny frowned. He closed his eyes and thought for a second. “Scott?”
“You remember what happened?” Murdoch asked reaching for a glass of water.
Johnny drank almost half the glass and laid back onto his pillow. “Yeah, Billings… he …,” the words weren’t coming to him.
“That’s right, Billings and some men took both Walt’s and Frank’s work crews hostage. You and Ramon got sick. They brought you back to the house yesterday. They still have Scott and the other men,” Murdoch filled in the blanks for him. “You remember you told them your name was Juan Ruiz?”
“I remember,” Johnny nodded. “Tired,” he said as he tried to keep his eyes open.
“Go to sleep, son,” Murdoch said as he pulled the covers up over Johnny’s shoulders.
Johnny’s opens flew open. He’d just remembered, “The gold shipment. They want Madrid to deliver it. What day is this?”
“Today’s Monday. The shipment isn’t expected to be here until tomorrow,” he answered.
“Alright,” Johnny sighed and closed his eyes. “I got time. Gonna’ go back to sleep now. You make sure you wake me in time.” His voice trailed off as he snuggled back into his pillow.
“I will, son,” Murdoch said as he stood with a smile on his face. Turning to Maria, “I’m going down to the Great Room. I’ll let you tell Sam that… Ruiz is awake. Do you know where Lawson is?”
“That man was in the kitchen when I came back up,” she answered. “I’ll tell Doctor Sam and then go see to Ramon. If Juanito is awake, then Ramon may wake soon.”
Maria and Murdoch left the room. Murdoch took the main stairs to the Great Room and Maria the back stairs to the kitchen. She walked into the kitchen with a smile on her face, “Ruiz woke up, Doctor Sam.”
“He did?” Sam said as he started up the stairs. “Is he still awake?”
“No, he has gone back to sleep. I gave him some water before he went back to sleep. He said his head hurt,” Maria answered as she went to stand next to Teresa.
“Is Murdoch up?” Sam asked.
“The Patron is in the Great Room,” Maria answered. “I have told him already. I am going back upstairs to sit with Ramon. He may also wake soon.”
“I’ll talk to Murdoch and then go up to check on Ruiz. Thank you, Maria,” Sam said as he changed directions and moved toward the Great Room.
Lawson looked at Teresa and Maria. “Do you think I can get something to eat now or do we have to wait for the other boy to wake up first?” he said with a sarcastic tone.
“Sit down, Mr. Lawson,” Teresa replied with a glare. “I’ll get you something to eat.”
Maria poured a cup of coffee and sat it on the table in front of Lawson.
Lawson reached for the cup. Holding the warm cup in his hands, he smiled. He was going to miss the soft bed and good food when he left here. But then with all the money he and Billings were going to get, he could buy a lot of soft beds and good food, among other things.
Scott and the hostages had spent yet another cold and miserable night in the storage building. Last night they had decided the only way they were going to keep warm was for all of them to huddle together and use every blanket they had to either put under or over them.
Scott woke with a kink in his neck and shooting pain in his hip from sleeping on the floor. He did miss his soft bed. As he stretched, he wondered how his brother was doing this morning.
Soon the door opened, and Walters and Jake came in to escort them out, one at a time, to take care of their morning business. After that, the usual stew and coffee arrived.
“You know, I think the first thing I’m gonna’ get when we get out of this mess is a thick steak,” Walt said as he took his first bite of stew.
“Me, too,” Frank agreed.
“Me, I want tamales and frijoles,” Jose laughed.
“I could go for a steak with all the trimmings,” Joe joined in. “What about you, Scott?”
“I don’t care what it is, as long as it isn’t beef stew. I wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t Lancer beef that we’re eating,” Scott laughed.
“You’re probably right,” Walt laughed.
“We just get through today and tomorrow, if everything works out, we should be home,” Joe said taking another bite of the stew.
Scott wondered what was going to happen on the next day. The five of them didn’t have any control over what was going to happen. All they could do was stand back and let Murdoch and Billings sort it out.
His body was too hot, and the nightshirt made it worse. Everything seemed to make it worse. He struggled out of the shirt and the long john cut-offs he was wearing and tossed both onto the floor. Next, he threw most of the covers to the floor as he turned onto his side. All that was left was a thin sheet that was wrapped around his waist, covering only his trim hips and his manhood, barely.
Teresa stood in the doorway and cocked her head, watching every move, memorizing every detail. Her eyes first fell on the scars on his back. She hadn’t seen Johnny without his shirt since he’d returned from Mexico. The raised ridges and deep furrows of the new and fresh scars stood out against the muscles of his strong, broad shoulders and back.
Cipriano and the others had returned from Mexico last year, at the end of October without her family. She’d been so disappointed that she spent the next day in her room crying. She’d crept out that night in the hall leading to the kitchen and overheard Cipriano telling Maria about the trip to Mexico.
She’d slid to the floor outside the kitchen and listened in awe as Cipriano told of the prison break and how Murdoch had found his sons outside of Nogales. Tears had run down her face as Cipriano told Maria how badly Johnny was hurt.
She held her breath as he told of the magnificent standoff at the border. In her mind’s eye, she could see Johnny sitting his horse with Scott on one side of him and Jack Slade, the legendary gunfighter, on the other side. There he was, with Val and dozens of other gunfighters and vaqueros, facing a hundred Rurales. She was lost in the story when Cipriano finished and started to leave the kitchen. She’d barely made it back to her room before Maria came in to check on her.
Over the next few weeks, she’d caught pieces of conversations between Walt, Frank, Juan, or Jose with the other ranch hands and vaqueros. They said a lot of things that she wasn’t supposed to know about. Mostly, they talked about Johnny Madrid. She realized one day that no one had spoken once of Johnny Lancer in any of the stories. All of the stories, even the one Cipriano had told Maria, were about Madrid.
Now standing in the doorway of Johnny’s room, she was looking at the man the stories were about and wondered who she was seeing. Was it Johnny Lancer lying there or was it Johnny Madrid?
Her heart leaped as Maria moved next to her.
Together the two women watched as Johnny started to stretch, his tan, lean torso contrasting against Maria’s white sheets. His movement was cat-like. He looked like a wild creature, sleek, graceful and dangerous, muscles rippling like a cougar. A soft sigh and moan escaped his lips.
Their eyes followed the rippling muscles of his arms and back as he reached above his head and yawned. His hands opened and closed, hands that were capable of taking life yet gentle enough to soothe the wildest creature.
Slowly he turned onto his back and clutched the sheet around his waist. As he began to pull it up, over the dark curling hairs of his chest, the sheet slipped further from the area it had previously covered.
Teresa could see more fresh scars on his chest. Her eyes weren’t looking at his bare shoulders or chest though. Her eyes were drawn to the area the sheet was starting to uncover.
Maria seemed to be in a trance as she watched the slow, graceful movements of the man in the bed. She’d known the nino since the day he was born. It was she who had helped deliver him. He’d been stolen from this house and this land by a mother who neither loved or wanted him. He’d returned to them only a few months ago.
He was no longer the small nino she had held and cuddled. He was a man, almost full grown. No, he was full grown. He’d grown up way before his time in a land that had taken his childhood from him. She had heard the stories of Madrid for years before knowing he was her nino; her Juanito.
Maria remembered the day the Patron told her and Cipriano that Johnny Madrid was his son, Johnny Lancer. That was many months before he’d come home. Their first thought had been one of shock. Their nino was a hired killer, a pistolero. It had been Cipriano who had reminded her what Madrid was to the people of Mexico.
The first time she’d seen the young man after he came home, her emotions had been high. He looked so much like his mother that, at first, she hesitated. Then she saw the blue eyes of the nino she’d held and rocked when he was a baby.
She’d run to him and hugged him tightly. As she stepped back, she realized her nino was gone and in his place stood the man he’d become. She, like anyone else looking at Madrid, felt a slight moment of awe. As she watched his face that day, she saw Madrid slip away, and her Juanito smiled at her.
Now Maria felt a blush as she watched the young man stretch and arch his back. She had tended to him many times. She had seen him without his clothes before, but, at this moment, she was blushing.
“Madre de Dios,” she thought. She knew she should tell the chica to turn away.
As one tan leg shot out to the side, the sheet was slipping even further. From where Maria stood there wasn’t much left to the imagination. Her eyes fell to the sheet being pulled towards his chest and away from….
“That will be enough of that!” Sam’s voice broke the moment, and the trance both women were in.
He pushed himself into the room and turned to look at both women. He could see them blushing and wondered just how long they had been standing there and how long they intended to stay.
“Teresa, why don’t you go check on Ramon,” Sam cleared his throat. “Maria, if you can pull yourself together, would you help me straighten the covers on Juan’s bed?”
Maria ducked her head. “Of course, Doctor Sam.” She turned to Teresa and pushed her out of the room with a smile on her face.
Sam looked at Maria and smiled as he closed the door.
Sam turned to the bed. It was apparent that the effects of the sedative were wearing off from his young patient. Johnny still had a fever, but it was considerably less than the night before.
Sam looked toward the door before speaking, “John?” He gently shook the young man’s shoulder.
He smiled when the dark lashes moved upward, and he was rewarded with blue eyes.
“Doc?” Johnny almost whispered fighting to wake up. “Is it time to get up?”
“No, John, it isn’t. You can sleep a while longer. We need to get this bed straightened out and a nightshirt back on you,” Sam said as he started to pull the sheet wrapped around Johnny’s waist.
Maria moved to the other side of the bed and let herself smile as Sam pulled on the sheet. She caught herself as she noticed Sam was giving her a stern look.
“Don’t want a nightshirt. It’s too hot,” Johnny moaned and fought Sam’s hand trying to pull the sheet.
“You know, John, there are women here. You have to have a nightshirt or at least have underwear on,” Sam stated, waiting for Johnny to stop fighting him.
“Underwear, but no nightshirt,” he stated firmly. “Shirt’s too hot. I’m hot, Sam. Is the window open?”
Sam turned to look at the closed window. “It will be too cool in here with it open,” Sam answered.
Johnny shook his head. “Open it, Sam. Just a little, at least,” Johnny said as he yawned again.
Sam nodded to Maria who opened the window about two inches. A cool breeze filled the room. While Sam and Maria shuddered, Johnny sighed with contentment.
“Alright, let’s get you straightened up,” Sam said as he and Maria began to fix the bedclothes. Sam finally relaxed once he had gotten Johnny’s cut-offs on him.
Through it all Johnny never completely woke up. By the time Sam and Maria finished he was sound asleep again.
Sam nodded his approval as Maria gently pulled the sheet up around Johnny’s chest and smoothed it down. Leaning over him, she placed a kiss on his forehead.
Maria turned to the door and stepped into the hall. She looked back at the sleeping nino. Smiling her eyes fell on the sheet that was already being pushed aside. She knew she would never again feel the same way about that sheet.
Cipriano rode slowly into the clearing in front of the south line shack. He’d come most of the way with six other vaqueros. The Patron had not wanted him riding into the enemy camp alone this time. The Lancer men now waited for him, with guns drawn, at the edge of the clearing.
Billings and Walters walked out to meet him. Cipriano knew that even if they were not in the situation they were in, he still would not have liked these men. His eyes swept the camp before falling on Elliott, barely holding his temper in check.
“Senor, Senor Lancer, has sent me to see our men,” Cipriano said as he halted in front of Billings.
Billings waved him toward the storage building.
Cipriano dismounted and raised his hands to show Billings didn’t have any weapons. He walked to the building with Walters holding a gun on him. Jake opened the door and stood back.
When the door opened, and Cipriano stepped in, he was greeted by five men who were very happy to see him.
“Is all well here?” Cipriano asked looking around the room. He noted that Billings had followed him into the building.
“We’re alright, Cip,” Walt said. “How about Juan and Ramon? Are they alright? We’ve been worried about them.”
Cipriano looked at Scott. He could see the worry on the face of the Patron’s eldest son. “Juan is better. He woke this morning. He still has a fever, but not as bad as yesterday.” Cipriano smiled when he saw the instant relief in Scott’s face.
“Ramon does not do well. Doctor Sam says he has pneumonia. The fever’s still high, and he has still hasn’t woken up,” Cipriano spoke the words with a sadness in his voice. He took a breath. “You are treated well?”
“Yeah,” Walt answered, “they’re feeding us real good.” He looked at Billings. “We sure will be glad to get home though.”
“Manana, mi amigos. Manana,” Cipriano said as he turned to Billings and nodded.
Cipriano followed Billings out of the building and went to his horse.
“Just like I told your boss,” Billings smiled. “We make the exchange tomorrow. You get your men, we get the gold, and we go on our way.”
“Si,” Cipriano said. “The doctor must know what your man Elliott gave the chicos.”
Billings had confronted Elliott the day before. Elliott had told him he’d used a drug on the two boys to help them relax. He admitted to maybe using too much. Billings had almost shot the man for jeopardizing the operation.
“Chloral Hydrate,” Billings answered. “He said it was Chloral Hydrate.”
Cipriano nodded and mounted his horse. He quickly rode back to the vaqueros waiting for him. The men swung in behind Cipriano as they rode for home.
Once the door to the storage building closed, Scott almost collapsed onto the floor. Rubbing his hand over his face, he could feel moisture around his eyes. He’d worried himself sick thinking about his brother.
“Told you he’d be alright,” Walt said as he sat next to Scott. “Sure, hope Ramon pulls through.”
The elation Scott had felt only moments before disappeared at the thought of the young vaquero still hanging onto life.
“You think the Boss is gonna’ find Madrid?” Frank asked looking toward the door. They had all been careful when talking not to mention Johnny’s name.
Scott looked at them. He knew his brother and knew that if Johnny was awake, Madrid would be there tomorrow. “I’m sure we’ll see Madrid tomorrow,” Scott smiled.
Murdoch sat at his desk and wondered what was happening upstairs. So far it had been a busy morning.
Sam had reported that Johnny had been awake and was expected to make a full recovery. Ramon on the other hand still had a fever and hadn’t woken up.
Cipriano had come back from the line shack to let him know that Scott and the other men were well. That alone had given him some sense of relief.
A telegram had been delivered to the ranch telling him that the gold shipment from the Sonora Lancer Mine was to arrive sometime around noon on Tuesday. Once the men guarding the shipment were sent on their way, Murdoch would take control of the gold. He didn’t know how the exchange would take place; he only knew that he would not risk the lives of his son or his men for the gold.
What bothered him was the fact that Billings and Lawson were demanding that Madrid make the exchange. It seemed that his youngest son would never escape Madrid’s shadow.
Looking up, he saw Lawson standing near the front door. He wondered how the events of the next day were going to play out. Murdoch stood and made his way toward the kitchen without speaking to Lawson.
Teresa was in the kitchen fixing lunch when he came in. She looked up and gave him a weak smile.
“Murdoch, I’ve fixed some broth and willow bark tea for Juan. Would you mind taking it up for me while I finish getting lunch ready?” she asked with a knowing smile.
“Of course,” he answered taking the tray from her. As he took the serving tray, he noticed that Lawson had followed him into the kitchen. He balanced the tray as he started to take the back stairs to the second floor.
“Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Lawson?” Murdoch asked looking at the man leaning against the wall.
“I’m going to ride out to meet with Billings. I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Things are going very well, Mr. Lancer. Remember, we need to keep it like that. If you continue to cooperate, you’ll have your men back by this time tomorrow,” Lawson drawled. He started to turn and then looked at Murdoch, “By the way, have you heard from Madrid? Remember my employer insists that Madrid deliver the gold.”
“You know I haven’t heard from Madrid,” Murdoch spat the word out. “If the Sheriff found him, he’ll be here tomorrow.” He didn’t look back as he continued up the stairs to the second floor.
Murdoch went to his son’s room and pushed the door open. He could see Sam leaning over the bed with his stethoscope in his hand.
“So, how’s our patient,” Murdoch asked as he sat the tray down.
Sam moved out of the way. A smiling face greeted a worried father.
“He’s feeling much better,” Sam said as he put the stethoscope away. “Aren’t you, Juan?”
Johnny looked up at Sam and grinned, “Much better.” He suddenly realized his father looked like he’d aged in the last few days.
“Scott?” Johnny pushed himself up in the bed.
“Cipriano saw him this morning. He and the other men are alright. Cipriano said they appear to be well fed and are being taken care of. I wish this business was over,” Murdoch sat in the chair next to the bed. “Sam, was it any help that Cipriano found out the name of the sedative that Elliott used on Ramon and Johnny?”
Sam looked toward the door, “Lawson?”
“He rode out to meet Billings,” Murdoch said as he took his son’s hand. He watched as a smile spread across Johnny’ face.
“Yes, it helped some. At least I know what I’m dealing with now. Chloral Hydrate can cause a deep sleep, as well as slow respiration,” Sam said as he sat in the chair near the window. “I think Elliott may have given both Ramon and ….” he looked at the closed door again and whispered, “Johnny” before raising his voice again, “too much.”
“Ramon gonna’ be alright, Sam?” Johnny asked.
“I’m not sure,” Sam answered truthfully. “If we can get his fever down, I’m sure he will wake up. Then we’ll have to contend with just pneumonia. There is a lot of fluid on his lungs. He can’t bring it up if he can’t cough.”
Murdoch and Sam were watching Johnny’s face. They could see the dark anger there at the mention of Elliott. “I’m gonna’ make sure Elliott never uses that stuff on anyone else.”
“John,” Murdoch was almost afraid to ask, “did Elliott do anything… I mean did he hurt you?”
Johnny knew what his father was asking. A flash of memory of Elliott, straddling him and pulling at his clothes, flew through his mind. He knew Elliott hadn’t had time to do anything.
“No, he didn’t hurt me,” Johnny quickly answered.
Johnny thought back to that night years ago when the last ounce of love for his mother had left him. He remembered her laughing as she’d pushed the small boy into the waiting arms of one of her men.
“Maybe he will be good for something,” she’d said as she backed out of the small, filthy room and left him alone with the man. The memories of what the man had tried to do came flooding back.
Murdoch and Sam could see the emotions sweep across the young man’s face. Johnny pressed his eyes tight. Murdoch could see a tear slide down his son’s check.
“Sam, can you give us a few minutes,” Murdoch said as he moved to sit on the side of the bed.
Sam left the room and closed the door behind him.
“Johnny,” Murdoch touched his son’s hand only to have it pulled back quickly. He reached for it again and with the other arm reached forward and lifted his son’s shoulders and pulled him to his chest.
Any thought Johnny had of resisting his father’s embrace was quickly overcome by the need to be held by him. He knew he had one parent that loved him.
“John,” Murdoch’s voice was soft and low as he cradled his son’s head against his chest. “What did she do to you?”
“He knew,” Johnny thought in a moment of almost panic.
Murdoch could feel his son tense in his arms and try to pull away. He pulled the boy closer to him. Stroking his son’s dark hair, he placed his cheek on top of Johnny’s head.
“It’s alright, son. You can tell me. You and Val have told me everything else. There is only one thing that you haven’t told me. What was the last thing she did to kill the love you had for her?” Murdoch asked as he gently rocked back and forth.
“I swore I would never tell anyone. Val knows. He heard me talking once when I had a fever. We talked about it after. He said it wasn’t my fault,” Johnny took a deep breath holding back his emotions.
“Johnny nothing that happened to you as a child was your fault. God knows it wasn’t your fault,” he continued to rock with his son against his chest. They sat like that for several minutes. Murdoch knew not to push. Johnny would tell him in his own time and in his own way.
The words at first came hesitantly and then they flooded out like a dam that had been held back for too long.
“I don’t know where we were living. All the little villages ran together. Mama seemed to have a different man every night. One night she came home with a man who went straight to the bedroom. Mama came over to me and put her arm around me and held me close. She said she had a surprise for me.
For a few minutes, I was happy she had something for me. Then she opened the bedroom door and pushed me inside. I could see the look in the man’s eyes. I wanted to run, but she blocked the door.
The man grabbed my arm and pulled me across the room.”
Johnny’s voice was breaking.
“She …. she… just gave me to him,” Johnny buried his head into his father’s shoulder. “She… laughed about it. She said that at least I was good for something. She just gave me to him and walked away.”
Johnny hesitated, shaking his head, “I tried to run, and he grabbed me and threw me on the bed.” He didn’t want to remember that night. He didn’t want to tell his father, of all people, about that night.
“I swear I fought him,” he continued, his shoulders shaking. “I fought him as hard as I could, but he hit me and kept hitting me until I couldn’t fight anymore. He laughed and said he’d paid good money for me and he was going to get his money’s worth.
Before he could do anything, Mama opened the door and the man looked away from me. I pushed him away. I ran past Mama and out the front door. I ran until I couldn’t run anymore,” Johnny shook his head and looked at Murdoch, “Papa, why’d she do that to me? She sold me to that man like I was… I was so ashamed … and all she did was laugh.”
Tears streamed down the young face as Murdoch held him close. “Why couldn’t she love me even just a little?”
Murdoch tried desperately to control his anger at Maria. His son was hurting and needed him. He didn’t need the fury that was building inside him.
“I don’t know, son. I just don’t know,” he said as he continued to lay his cheek on top of his son’s dark head. “How old were you?”
Johnny pulled back and looked up at his father’s face. There were tears in the older man’s eyes.
“I think I was seven, maybe. It was the year before Mama died. Murdoch, I didn’t feel anything for her the night that gambler killed her. I should have thanked the bastard instead of hunting him down and killing him. I think he would still be alive if he hadn’t tried to kill me too and put that knife in my gut.”
His hand went to the small scar on his abdomen.
“Did she ever…. again?” Murdoch didn’t even know how to put into words what his wife had done to their son.
“Try to sell me?” Johnny spat the foul words out. “No.”
Johnny was having a hard time looking at his father.
“I stayed away from her after that, as far away as I could. I kept running away, and someone would always bring me back to her. I couldn’t tell them why I couldn’t be around her. I was so ashamed that someone would find out what happened.
The night she died I just happened to be in the house when she came home. It’s hard to remember what happened that night. I remember her being furious at me. She was drunk, and so was the gambler. They got into an argument over something. He was yelling at her about something. I think Mama was packing. There were things all over the bed. Maybe, that’s why he started hitting her and then he broke her neck.
All I could do was sit in the corner and watch. I tried to go to Mama, but he came at me with a knife. I didn’t even feel the knife when he stabbed me. I looked down and saw the blood running down my leg, and he was coming at me again. I grabbed his gun, and I shot him. I thought I’d killed him. I ran as far as I could before I passed out.
They found me the next morning and took me to the mission. Val told you what happened after that.”
“Son, you’re sure Elliott didn’t…?” Murdoch looked into the blue eyes of his son.
“Yeah, I’m sure. I would know if he did,” Johnny answered and put his head back against his father’s chest. “Hell, of a life I’ve had, isn’t it, old man? Not fit to be around decent folks. My mother made sure of that.”
“Son, don’t ever say that again. You’re the most decent man I’ve ever met. The choices you made in your life were made to keep you alive. I’m proud of my son no matter what name he uses.”
“How can you be?” Johnny asked softly. “The things I’ve done. The men I’ve killed.”
“John, it’s taken me a while to come to terms with your past, all of your past. Remember, I’ve met Johnny Madrid. I told you months ago I can’t hate him without hating Johnny Lancer. They’re both you. I can’t love one and hate the other. I love you more than you can ever know,” Murdoch held him closer and hugged him so tight Johnny thought he was going to suffocate.
“Pa,” Johnny gasped, “… can’t breathe.”
Murdoch loosened his hold on his son and laughed. “Sorry, son, just making up for a lot of hugs I missed giving you over the years. I promised you and your brother a hug that day outside of Nogales. I don’t think I ever gave it to you.”
“That’s alright,” Johnny smiled back at him. “Kinda’ liked the hug part. It was the not being able to breathe part I was having trouble with.
“Murdoch, how is Ramon? Did Elliott…?” Johnny looked over his father’s shoulder at the closed door. He knew Ramon was in Scott’s room across the hall.
“No, John, Sam doesn’t think Elliott was able to do anything to Ramon either.”
“Like I said, Elliott’s gonna’ pay,” Johnny’s voice had gone low and soft. Murdoch could hear Madrid rising in his son.
“John, about tomorrow,” Murdoch released his son and let him lay back on the bed. “They’re expecting Johnny Madrid to make the exchange. Is that going to happen?”
“It’ll happen,” Johnny grinned. “You leave it to me. What time is the gold expected to be here?”
“Around noon,” Murdoch answered and walked over to the table and poured a glass of water. He took the water back to his son and handed it to him.
Johnny took the glass and drank almost half of it before coming up for air.
“I need to talk to Maria and Cipriano. Any idea when Lawson is due back?” Johnny asked as he handed the glass back to Murdoch.
Murdoch walked to the window, pushing the curtain aside, he looked out, thankful that Johnny’s room overlooked the front of the house. There was no sign of Lawson.
“Has Lawson ever gotten a good look at me?” Johnny asked as he pushed himself up in the bed to rest against the headboard.
“I don’t think so,” Murdoch answered. “He wasn’t at the fence line when I met with Billings. You were already in your room when Lawson upstairs. I think the closest he’s come to you has been the doorway. Why?”
“I just wanted to know,” Johnny answered as they heard a noise in the hallway.
Frowning, Murdoch walked to the door and opened it to find Sam standing in the doorway of Scott’s room. He was holding Teresa in his arms. Maria was standing next to them. Both women were crying.
There was a pained look in Sam’s eyes. “Ramon just died,” he said shaking his head. “I did everything I could, but he never woke up.”
Murdoch stood in the doorway, momentarily stunned. He felt someone brush against his shoulder. Looking down he saw Johnny standing next to him with a blanket wrapped around his waist.
Pushing past his father and Sam; Johnny went to stand next to Ramon’s bed.
Maria had folded Ramon’s hands across his chest. The face of the young vaquero looked peaceful as if he was sleeping.
The others watched as Johnny went to his knees next to the bed.
“Lo siento, amigo. Lo siento,” Johnny said softly. “They’ll pay for this, amigo. I’ll make sure they pay. As sure as my name is Johnny Madrid, they’ll pay.”
“John,” Murdoch moved to his son’s side. “Come back to bed. Yes, they will pay. We’ll both see that they do. Come back to bed now.” He pulled Johnny to his feet and guided him back to his room.
Once Johnny was back in bed, Murdoch went back into the hall. “Maria, can you tell Cipriano what’s happened. He’ll know what to do.”
“Maria,” Johnny called out, “tell Juan to come up as soon as he can. Tell him to come through the back way. I don’t want to take a chance of Lawson seeing him.”
“Si, Patron. Si, Juanito,” Maria said as she made her way down the back stairway to the kitchen.
“Sam,” Johnny called the doctor into his room. “Sam, I’m going to move out to the bunkhouse and leave Juan here in my place. Can you stay at Lancer one more night?”
“I can stay, but you still aren’t well enough to be out of bed,” Sam said as he felt Johnny’s forehead. “You still have a fever.”
“Sam, I need to be on my feet in the morning. Lawson is expecting to see Johnny Madrid. He can’t see me coming from upstairs,” Johnny explained. “I’ll just be in the bunkhouse. You can check on me out there if you want to.”
Sam closed his eyes. He knew there would be no arguing with the young man.
“Alright, but you go straight to the bunkhouse. When you get there, you go straight to bed. I’ll be down later tonight to check on you,” Sam responded, watching a smile come over the young man’s face.
Maria returned shortly with Cipriano and Juan. Murdoch pulled Cipriano aside and asked him to take care of Ramon.
Juan walked into Johnny’s room.
“Juan,” Johnny said as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. “I want you to pretend to be me for a couple of days.”
Juan looked at Johnny, and a smile spread across his face, “Do I get to sleep in this bed?”
Johnny looked at the bed and then back at Juan, realizing what Juan was asking.
“Si, amigo. You get to sleep in the soft, feather bed, and I get your bunk,” Johnny answered with a smile and then a frown as he realized how hard the bunk was going to be.
Johnny carefully made his way down the back stairs to the kitchen and then out and around the house. Juan had given Johnny his clothes and hat. Juan, in turn, was now comfortably resting in Johnny’s bed with Teresa sitting beside him just as she’d done for Johnny.
Most of the ranch hands and vaqueros were watching one of the men breaking a horse in the corral. Those that did look Johnny’s way didn’t pay much attention to him thinking he was Juan.
Johnny entered the bunkhouse and went straight to Juan’s bed. The trip across the yard had almost worn him out. Tipping his head forward, he let Juan’s sombrero fall into his hands.
Sitting on the side of the bed, Johnny thought briefly about the next day as he pulled his boots. Pulling the blanket on the bunk back, he crawled in under it and sighed as his head hit the pillow. The bunk was as hard as he expected. He was already missing his feather bed.
Cipriano came out of the hacienda and quietly gathered four men, taking them back into the house. There, with two men on either side of Ramon’s bed, they gently lifted the boy’s body and carried him outside.
All activity on the ranch seemed to stop as everyone watched the four men carry the sheet covered boy to the ice house. It was as if they were all holding their breath waiting to hear who had died.
Lawson had just ridden back under the arch and into the yard as Ramon’s body was carried from the house. He looked around the yard and saw nothing but angry men.
Cipriano stopped by the corral. Clearing his throat, he finally said, “Three men will be needed to dig a grave for … Ramon.”
Every man raised their hand. Cipriano pointed to three vaqueros.
“How’s Ruiz doing?” Jacobs asked looking toward Lawson and the house.
“He still has a fever, but at least he is awake. Doctor Sam is with him, as is Senorita Teresa,” he answered, nodding his approval that the men were showing concern for the Patron’s son.
Lawson left his horse when one of the hands took the reins from him. He quickly walked into the house and up the main stairs to the second floor.
Teresa had been standing at the window and watched as Lawson rode in. When she saw him walk toward the house, Teresa told Juan to get down in the bed, and partially covered his face. While Lawson had never gotten a good look at Johnny, he had seen Juan.
Teresa resumed her seat next to the bed with a book in her hand. She looked up from her book when she saw Lawson in the doorway.
“Mr. Lawson, do you need something?” Teresa asked coolly.
“Just checking on Ruiz. How is he?” Lawson asked as he moved into the room and took a step toward the bed.
“He’s finally sleeping naturally and don’t you dare wake him,” she said moving closer to the bed blocking Lawson’s path.
Lawson looked at the sleeping man and nodded before turning and leaving the room.
Teresa took a deep breath and collapsed into the chair. She looked at the bed to see a smiling Juan peeking out from under the covers.
Evening was approaching as the men made their way back to the bunkhouse. The noise in the bunkhouse had started to rise when Jacobs looked toward Juan’s bunk.
“Hey, keep it down,” Jacobs said and pointed to Johnny who was lying with his back to them. “Juan must really be hurting to already be in bed.”
The voices lowered as the men went about their business.
Johnny had slept most of the afternoon. As the temperature in the bunkhouse started to rise, he’d removed his shirt. Now, with the men returning to the bunkhouse the heat in the building was stifling to him. With a moan, he kicked at the blanket covering him.
The noise in the bunkhouse stopped altogether as Jacobs moved over to Juan’s bunk to pull the blanket back over his friend. He’d started to comment on the scars on Juan’s back when the bunkhouse door opened and Sam walked in.
“Doc, you come to check on Juan?” Clay asked as he turned to look towards Juan’s bunk.
Sam smiled and closed the door behind him. Sam walked to the bunk and looked down at the sleeping man. He set his bag down, before bending over to hold down Johnny’s right hand in place. Gently he shook the bare shoulder.
Johnny woke with a jerk and tried to free his gun hand.
“It’s just me, John,” Sam said as he watched the boy wake up.
The first thing the men in the bunkhouse saw was the Colt suddenly appearing in the right hand of the man they thought was Juan. Johnny rolled over and looked around.
“Doc,” Johnny said as he lowered the gun to his side, “everything alright?”
Sam pulled a chair up and sat down next to the bunk. He looked around at the men in the room and then back to his young friend.
“Everything is fine,” Sam said putting a hand on Johnny’s forehead.
Jacobs and Clay walked over to the bunk and waited for answers.
Sam looked at them, “We’ve just made a little switch. Juan is in … Ruiz’s room and as you can see Ruiz is in Juan’s bunk. We needed Ruiz out of the house before tomorrow.”
“You feeling alright… Ruiz?” Jacobs asked with a smile.
“Been better,” Johnny answered. “I just need to shake this fever.”
Sam looked around. “Who does the cooking for you men?”
Cookie stepped forward. “I do, Doc. You need something for Ruiz there?” the old wrangler asked with a grin on his face.
“Cookie, can you make some willow bark tea for him?” Sam handed the tea to Cookie.
“Dios, Sam, I thought I got away from that stuff,” Johnny groaned.
“No,” Sam laughed, “I’m afraid not. Teresa made sure I had plenty with me before coming out here. She’s worried about you.”
Johnny nodded, “Lawson suspect anything?”
“No. It appears Juan is convincing him that he’s you,” Sam answered picking up Johnny’s wrist and checking his pulse.
A few minutes later, Cookie walked back with a cup in his hand, “Got it ready, Doc.”
Johnny pushed himself up onto the side of the bed, taking the cup of tea when Cookie handed it to him.
“What you got planned for tomorrow,” Jacobs asked as he sat on the bunk opposite Johnny.
“Not sure yet,” Johnny answered looking around the room. “Sam, I need my clothes before morning. You think you can get Maria to get them for me?”
“Just any clothes?” Sam asked.
“Just tell Maria. She’ll know which clothes. Tell her I need the silver spurs in the top drawer of the chest and the concho belt,” Johnny answered finishing the tea and making a face. “Oh, and tell her I need the gun belt and gun in the back of the bottom drawer.”
“Is there anything else you’ll need,” Sam laughed.
“No, I think that’ll do it,” Johnny answered staring at the empty cup in his hand. “I still don’t know how something that tastes so bad can get you feeling better.”
Sam chuckled. “You need to get some rest,” he said as he helped Johnny lay back down.
Sam looked at Jacobs and the other men. “I’ll be in the house if you need me. I know it may be difficult, still, if you can keep him in bed, Murdoch and I would be grateful.”
“I ain’t going nowhere until morning, Sam,” Johnny said as he snuggled back into the bed. “Don’t know how you fellows can sleep on these bunks. It’s the most uncomfortable thing I’ve been on in a long time.”
Jacobs grinned, “Well, ‘Ruiz’ not everyone gets to sleep in one them nice soft feather beds.”
Johnny laughed, “Guess I’m getting soft. Used to be, I could sleep on a rock and think it was comfortable.”
Sam pulled the blanket back over his patient and picked up his bag. “See you in the morning unless I’m needed sooner.”
“Yeah, thanks, Sam,” Johnny said as his eyes slid closed.
Sam moved to the door.
“Doc, thanks for everything you did for Ramon,” Jacobs said. “He was a good kid. “
Nodding, Sam left the bunkhouse. Standing outside, he took a deep breath, feeling the coolness of the night air. Looking at the stars, Sam shook his head. He’d lost many patients throughout his career; it was never easy. What tore him up inside was that Ramon had been so young and it had been a senseless death. Sam was convinced that he could have helped the young man fight a bout of pneumonia if it hadn’t been for the overdose of Chloral Hydrate.
Sam walked back to the house and up the stairs to check on his other ‘patient.’ Tomorrow was going to be a very long and difficult day for all of them.
Val had spent Sunday afternoon searching south of the hacienda. Finally finding the line shack, he decided he’d come back the next morning and make a day of watching the place.
Monday morning, Val rode back to his vantage point overlooking the line shack and made himself comfortable. He spent the day watching the men come and go.
He’d seen Cipriano ride in and waited to see what was happening. Not ten minutes later Cipriano had ridden out and met up with six Lancer vaqueros and rode away.
Shortly after noon, Val was rewarded when he watched Walt walk out of the small storage building behind the line shack. Once he’d been returned to the building the rest of the hostages came out, one at a time. Val gave a deep sigh of relief when he saw Scott.
None of the men looked like they’d been harmed. It was mid-afternoon when a rider came into the clearing near the line shack. Val recognized the man as the one that was at the hacienda the day he’d spoken to Murdoch.
The man stayed about an hour and then rode back toward the hacienda.
Val counted at least ten men guarding the place. Just as he was getting ready to leave, he saw three more men ride up. Val looked closely. There was something familiar about the men, but he just wasn’t close enough to tell who they were.
Finally, he gave up and went back to town. Val didn’t know what Johnny had planned. He only knew he was going to be at Lancer the next morning.
Tuesday morning came with a brilliant warm sun. Val left town early in the morning and made his way to Lancer. He rode under the arch and looked around the yard, finding much the same scene as he had on Sunday. However, today there seemed to be a somber mood hanging over the ranch.
Val walked to the front door and knocked. As he waited for the door to open, he looked behind him to see almost every man looking his way.
Finally, the door opened.
Murdoch hesitated a moment, glancing over his shoulder. “Sheriff Crawford,” Murdoch exclaimed, surprised to see his friend. Val could tell there was a sadness to his voice.
Murdoch glanced over his shoulder again at the man that had walked up behind him. “Sheriff, what brings you back?”
“Mr. Lancer, I need to take Ruiz and Garrett in. Are they back yet?” Val stepped past Murdoch, not waiting for an invitation in. He saw Sam standing in front of the fireplace. “Doc? You got someone sick here?”
“Sheriff,” Sam gave Val a nod. “Yes, I have.” He didn’t say anything else.
“Sheriff, the men aren’t back yet,” Murdoch stated bluntly. “I’ll have them come into town once they are back. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Murdoch turned to open the door.
Val hesitated. “Have you seen Madrid? I’ve left word around town for him, but no one seems to have seen him.”
“Seen who?” a soft voice came from the direction of the kitchen.
Val, Murdoch, Sam, and Lawson all jumped at the sound of the voice. They turned as one looking toward the kitchen.
“Seen you, Madrid,” Val said regaining his composure.
“Damn if the boy couldn’t scare the hell out of a body,” Val thought.
Johnny stood in the doorway with his hat pulled down over his eyes and his hand on the butt of his gun. Maria had managed to get his clothes to him that morning complete with concho belt and silver spurs.
As he put his gun belt around his hips and tightened it down twice, he looked up to see the hands watching him. He wasn’t used to getting dressed in front of an audience.
Johnny took a deep breath and frowned. The only thing he was missing was his hat. He remembered his hat had been on Barranca’s saddle horn when Billings had taken him. The sound of the bunkhouse door opening brought his head up.
Johnny smiled as he saw Cipriano holding his hat out to him.
“Gracias, Tio,” Johnny put his hat on his head and squared it.
Johnny took a deep breath and relaxed. He felt whole again. They say that the clothes make the man. In this case, the clothes made Johnny Madrid. Johnny Madrid had spent a lot of time planning how he was going to look. Every piece of clothing including the concho belt and silver spurs made up the persona of the man; of the legend.
From the looks on the faces of the cowhands and vaqueros looking at him now, Johnny felt pretty sure he had once again achieved that persona.
Johnny looked at Cipriano again, “Tio, can you have one of the men saddle a horse for me. Not Barranca. That black gelding I’ve been working with will do and not my good saddle. I want my old saddle that doesn’t have the Lancer ‘L’ on it. Bring the horse around to the front of the house.”
“Si, Juanito,” Cipriano turned to leave. Stopping, he turned back. “Sobrino, you will be careful today, Si?”
Johnny smiled and nodded, “Si, Tio, I’ll be careful.”
Johnny had just started out of the bunkhouse when he saw Val ride in. Moving around to the back of the house, he came through the kitchen door just as Val entered the front of the house.
Maria was in the kitchen when he came in. She jumped when she realized he was standing behind her.
“Oh, you, nino,” she said with a smile and swatted him with the towel she had in her hand.
Johnny gave Maria a quick kiss on her cheek before going toward the Great Room. Standing in the doorway, Johnny closed his eyes, lowered his head and relaxed. He released everything but what he needed. When he raised his head, Johnny Lancer was gone, and Johnny Madrid had taken his place.
Maria had been watching him. As Johnny raised his head, she saw the young man she loved change before her eyes. Maria crossed herself. She had witnessed what few people had ever seen and lived to tell about.
Johnny stepped into the room just in time to hear Val say, “…I’ve left word around town for him, but no one seems to have seen him.”
“I got word Lancer was looking for me,” Johnny said in a soft low voice as he took several steps into the room. He saw Murdoch and Lawson standing in front of Murdoch’s desk.
“Well, yes,” Murdoch said as he turned to face his son. “I have a job for you.”
“I heard. What kinda’ job?” Johnny looked at Lawson sizing him up. He hadn’t had the opportunity of seeing the man before now.
“Who’s this?” Johnny nodded toward Lawson.
Murdoch turned back to Val. “As I’ve said, Sheriff, I’ll have Ruiz and Garrett come to town when they’re back. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have business to discuss. I also have a funeral to prepare for.”
“Funeral!?” Val cocked his head, looking at Murdoch and then at Johnny. “Who died?”
“Ramon. He was one of my vaqueros,” Murdoch answered, hesitating slightly, then glared at Lawson. “The boy passed away yesterday. He… he’d been sick.”
Val nodded and turned to leave.
“Madrid,” Val took a few steps closer to Johnny, “Mr. Lancer says he wants you gone after this job. I may ride south with you to make sure you get where you’re going.”
Johnny nodded, “You do that, Sheriff.”
Johnny knew all he needed to know at that moment. Val knew where Scott and the other men were being held. More importantly, Val, as always, would have his back.
Val walked out the front door and mounted his horse. He rode out of the yard and under the arch. Once clear of the house, he went up on the hill overlooking the hacienda and waited a few minutes before turning toward town.
Johnny waited until he knew Val was gone before speaking.
“Alright Lancer, I’m here,” Johnny walked closer to Murdoch and sat on the arm of one of the chairs. “What’s the job?”
“Lawson,” Murdoch looked at Lawson, “you want to tell him since it’s your idea that he’s here.”
Lawson looked at Madrid, and a smile crossed his face. He was finally looking at the man he was hired to find.
“My men and I are detaining some of Mr. Lancer’s men,” Lawson walked over to stand in front of Johnny. “He’s expecting a gold shipment today from the Sonora Lancer Mines. Your job is to make the exchange.”
“My job is to make the exchange?” Johnny repeated what Lawson had said and then huffed. “Why me? From what I know of Lancer, he’s capable of making the exchange himself,” Johnny stated. He still wasn’t sure what Lawson’s game was.
“My employer insists that it’s you that makes the exchange,” Lawson answered.
“Alright, so what do you have in mind?” Johnny asked figuring he would finally find out what this man really wanted.
“Simple. You ride out with the gold and meet my men halfway between here and Lancer’s south line shack. You hand over the gold and we hand over the men we’re holding,” Lawson smiled.
“So that’s your plan, is it?” Johnny was on his feet now. “Lancer, that the way you see it, too?”
Murdoch looked at the expression on his son’s face. “That’s how Lawson wants it done.”
“Ain’t happening,” Johnny shook his head, as he took a stance with his feet separated and his hands in his belt. “Do I look like I’m an idiot? You two think I got stupid plastered on my forehead? There ain’t no way in hell I’m riding out there by myself.”
“But…,” Lawson started to say and was cut off by Johnny.
“I’m out of here,” Johnny turned to leave.
“How would you do it?” Murdoch quickly spoke up.
Johnny stopped and slowly turned to look over his shoulder, a faint smile on his face. “I’ll go out there with the gold, but there are gonna’ be about a dozen Lancer hands with me, including you, Mr. Lancer.”
“That’s not the way it’s going to work,” Lawson took a couple of steps toward Johnny.
“Either my way or I walk,” Johnny was now facing Lawson.
“I want my men back,” Murdoch protested.
“I don’t’ care about your men, Lancer,” Johnny drawled convincingly. “I don’t care about the gold you want, Lawson. This is a job for me. I pick and choose my jobs. Don’t have to take this one. Either we do it my way or….”
“Alright,” Lawson conceded. This wasn’t the way he’d planned it; he could still make it work.
“Fine,” Johnny said. “I want to settle up with Lancer. I finish this job, and I’m leaving and not coming back. I want my money up front. After you and I settle up, I’m gonna’ get something to eat. What time is that gold gonna’ be here?”
“The gold should be here within the next two hours,” Murdoch said as he turned toward his desk.
Sam had taken a seat near the desk, listening intently to the conversation. He held back a smile thinking how good an actor Johnny was. The more Sam thought about it, wasn’t that what a gunfighter was to some extent, an actor. He’d marveled at how Johnny could outwardly look so calm while he knew inside, the boy was anything but. Yes, John Madrid…Lancer was very good at his trade, all aspects of it.
“If you’ll come here, Mr. Madrid, we’ll conclude our business,” Murdoch said and then looked at Sam.
“Sam, would you like some coffee? I think Maria has a fresh pot in the kitchen.”
Sam looked at Murdoch and took the hint. Murdoch wanted the good doctor in the kitchen. “Yes, thank you,” he said and moved to the kitchen door.
“Lawson, do you want coffee or a drink?” Murdoch asked, hoping Lawson would leave the Great Room.
“I’ll take the drink,” Lawson said as he moved to the drink cart.
Johnny casually walked to stand beside Murdoch’s desk, as Murdoch opened the safe and took out some money. He stood up and turned to Johnny. He could see a slight flush still in the boy’s face and a glassy look to his eyes.
Murdoch took a step closer to his son and in a soft, low voice that Lawson couldn’t hear, “You still have a fever?”
“Yeah,” Johnny answered in the same whisper. “It’s not bad though. Teresa sent some willow bark tea out to the bunkhouse last night.”
Murdoch fought the temptation to smile. “Please, be careful today, son.”
“I’ll do my best,” Johnny answered taking the money Murdoch was counting out to him. “I suppose I gotta’ give this back to you tonight?”
“You do indeed,” Murdoch answered putting the last bill in his son’s hand, his fingers softly stroking Johnny’s palm.
“There, that’s all of it. Madrid, once you finish this job, I want you off my land,” Murdoch said hating every word he’d just said.
“No problem,” Johnny answered without emotion and turned toward the kitchen.
Once in the kitchen, Johnny made his way to a chair near the table.
“Mamacita, I’m hungry,” Johnny looked at Maria. He could see she was trying not to smile at him. “What have you got?”
Maria looked at Johnny. At that moment, her nino was nowhere to be found. Only Madrid was there, and she knew she had to play along with the charade. Sam had come into the kitchen just minutes earlier and told her what Johnny was going to do.
“Sit, Senor Madrid, I will have something for you in a moment,” she said as he began fixing him some eggs. Turning from the stove, she handed him a coffee cup.
Johnny took a sip of the warm liquid and made a face. She’d handed him a cup of willow bark tea.
Sam sat down next to Johnny and studied his face. Lowering his arm beside him, Sam indicated he wanted Johnny to drop his arm as well.
Sam took Johnny’s wrist under the table and felt his pulse. With a cup of coffee in one hand and Johnny’s wrist in the other, he shook his head. The boy’s pulse was fast but, considering what he was trying to pull off, not unexpected.
Johnny’s face paled when Maria put a plate of scrambled eggs and toast in front of him. One look at the food and the thought he was going to lose the tea he’d just drunk. He’d started to push the plate away when Lawson walked into the kitchen.
Johnny picked up a fork and took a bite of the eggs. As he slowly shook his head, he glanced sideways at Sam.
Sam knew Johnny wasn’t going to be able to eat. Standing up, Sam got Lawson’s attention as Maria whisked the full plate away and replaced it with an almost empty one.
Johnny looked at Maria and gave her a brief smile.
“I’ll be in the barn taking care of my horse,” Johnny said as he handed the mostly empty cup back to Maria.
Maria looked at the cup with the remaining tea and frowned.
Johnny didn’t say anything as he left the kitchen. Making his way to the front of the house, Johnny stood at the hitching rail and looked around. The ranch hands and vaqueros were watching his every move.
Johnny nodded his head slightly and then took the reins of the horse Cipriano had saddled for him and headed for the barn.
Once inside the barn, and out of sight of Lawson, Cipriano and Jacobs took the reins from Johnny.
“Rest, Sobrino,” Cipriano said and pointed to some bales of hay in one of the stalls. “We will let you know when the gold arrives,” Cipriano handed him two blankets.
Johnny nodded, “Gracias, Tio.”
Johnny took one of the blankets and laid it down on the bales. The other he rolled up and used as a pillow. He spent the next two hours sleeping while waiting for the gold shipment to arrive.
In Green River, Val gathered a posse. He explained to the men what was happening and where they were going. Once everyone was ready, he and his men made their way toward the south line shack.
Val didn’t know what was supposed to happen or when, but he wanted everyone in place before it happened.
At 12:30, a wagon escorted by six men rode into Lancer. The gold was in a strongbox in the wagon bed. The man in charge of the group stopped in the yard and dismounted. Murdoch walked out to meet him.
“Mr. Lancer,” the man extended his hand, “my name’s Roger Perry. I have the shipment for you. Where do you want us to put it?”
“Mr. Perry,” Murdoch shook the man’s hand. “Leave it in the wagon for now. My men will take care of storing it.”
“Are you sure, Mr. Lancer?” Perry frowned.
“Yes,” Murdoch answered watching Cipriano walk up to him. “This is my Segundo, Cipriano. He’ll see to it now. I want to thank you and your men for getting it here safely.”
“If you’re sure, Mr. Lancer, we’ll be going,” Perry said as he waved his men to their horses. “It sure will be nice not to have to worry about it any longer.”
Murdoch and Cipriano watched the six men ride away. As soon as they were under the arch, Lawson walked out to the wagon. “So far, so good, Mr. Lancer. Now let’s make the exchange,” Lawson said looking at the strongbox in the back of the wagon.
The men turned hearing the sound of spurs. Johnny walked out of the barn and across the yard. Stopping next to the wagon, he studied the box with the gold in it.
Finally, Johnny turned to Murdoch. “Lancer, get your men ready,” Johnny ordered. “I want one of your men driving the wagon.”
Turning to Lawson, Johnny asked, “Are you riding with us, Lawson, or going on ahead?”
“I’m riding with you, Madrid. My men are already at the rendezvous point,” Lawson said as he moved to get his horse.
Johnny didn’t say anything. He looked at his father and his uncle and hoped that the rest of the day went as well as it had already.
Scott and the Lancer men had been awake since dawn waiting for what the day was going to bring. They knew that the exchange was going to be today, they didn’t know what time. It was close to noon when the doors to the building opened, and Walters stepped in.
“All of you turn around and put your hands behind your backs,” Walters said as Jake began tying their hands.
“Alright, move,” Jake said as he waved his gun and motioned them out of the building.
Once outside the Lancer men saw the wagon waiting for them.
“Time to go home, boys,” Billings said in a rough voice. Looking round at his men he ordered, “Get them in the wagon.”
Scott and the others were helped into the back of the wagon and sat down. Scott looked around at Billings’ men. He felt his blood boil when his eyes fell on Elliot.
As the wagon began to move, Scott looked at the men who were following it. His face registered surprise when he saw three men he recognized. The three men, however, showed no sign that they recognized Scott.
The wagon ride lasted almost two hours. Scott could tell that they had been moving north toward the hacienda. Walt, Frank, Joe, and Jose had been looking toward the front for most of the journey. It wasn’t until they were almost at their destination that they looked at the men that were trailing behind, seeing the same three men Scott had seen. They looked at Scott not asking the question that was obvious on their faces. Scott just shrugged.
The wagon reached the rendezvous point and stopped.
It was nearly an hour before the gold wagon topped the rise, coming toward them.
Billings cursed and rode out to meet the new arrivals. He rode up to Lawson still cursing.
“He was supposed to come alone with the gold,” Billings spat the words out.
“He wouldn’t come alone,” Lawson hissed. “It was either with Lancer and his men or not at all. What did you expect me to do?”
“We’ll just have to change the game a bit,” Billings said as he spun around and rode back to his men and the hostages.
Johnny, Murdoch and Lancer’s hands arrived with the gold wagon and waited just outside of handgun range of Billings and his men.
Johnny rode forward with Lawson by his side. He had his hat pulled down over his eyes, his Madrid mask firmly in place.
Scott could honestly say he’d never been so happy to see that pink shirt in his whole life. His brother looked almost as he had that day in Nogales when he’d faced the Rurales.
He could hear his brother saying, “It ain’t pink, Boston. It’s a faded red.” At that moment he didn’t care what color the shirt was. All he cared about was seeing his brother riding toward him.
Johnny stopped a good 20 feet from Billings. “The gold’s here, mister. You send one of your men over to drive the wagon. Once he gets right here, you send the Lancer men over to me.”
Johnny looked at Billings and Lawson. His eyes finally fell on the man he wanted.
“There’s one more thing,” Johnny said as he dismounted. “I want Elliott.”
“Elliott?” Billings asked.
“I have a score to settle with Elliott. He ain’t riding out of here,” Johnny controlled the anger he felt toward the man.
Walt sat quietly with the other hostages in the wagon. Looking at Walters, he smiled and then said, “We told you that Elliott had opened the gates of hell. Cipriano told you that you’d know El Diablo when you saw him.”
Walt looked back at Johnny and then at Walters again, “Well, mister, that’s the devil.”
Walters now knew what the Segundo had meant. Elliott had opened the gates of hell, and Johnny Madrid had stepped out.
“What you want me for, Madrid?” Elliott walked forward.
“You remember those two boys you drugged?” Johnny’s voice had gone soft and low.
Murdoch and the men that escorting the gold wagon moved closer. They all wanted to see Johnny settle the score with Elliott.
“How are good old Juan and Ramon?” Elliott grinned. “I didn’t hear no complaints out of them.”
“Won’t ever be hearing anything out of Ramon again. Lancer buried the kid this morning,” Johnny’s words sent a shock wave through the hostages. “Bastard, you killed him,” Johnny hissed. “You and that damn drug of yours.”
“Too bad about Ramon,” Elliott was starting to sweat. “How is Juan doing?
“Oh, Juan will live. Can’t say the same for you,” Johnny’s eyes had gone cold and hard. “You and me are gonna’ dance. You either draw, or I’ll shoot you where you stand.”
“Not gonna’ draw on you, Madrid,” Elliott said.
“I don’t usually make a habit of killing someone in cold blood, Elliott, but in your case, I’m gonna’ make an exception. You’re sick, and I’m gonna’ put you down like a rabid dog. So, you either draw or die the cobarde you are,” Johnny spat the words out. (cobarde -coward)
Elliott looked at Billings and Lawson. “You gonna’ let him kill me?”
“Should have shot you myself,” Billings said. “Madrid, you want him, he’s yours.”
Billings moved away from Elliott.
“Draw,” Johnny almost whispered the words as his eyes bore into Elliott.
Elliott reached for his gun. Johnny even let him get it out of his holster before he drew and fired. The bullet hit Elliott in the chest.
Johnny didn’t say anything as he holstered his gun and turned to look at Murdoch. He didn’t see any indication that his father had disapproved of his actions.
Johnny looked up to see that Billings had a gun pointed at him.
“There’s been a change of plan, Madrid. The deal is now you and the gold for Lancer’s men,” Billings said. He turned to Walters, “Get them out of the wagon.”
Walters looked at Jake and then motioned for Scott and the others to get out of the wagon.
“That wasn’t the deal,” Johnny said touching the butt of his gun.
“I wouldn’t, Madrid,” Walters said as he nervously pointed his gun a Johnny.
“What do you want with me?” Johnny asked taking his hand away from his gun.
“We have a side deal going. Ever hear of Alejandro Sanchez? He’s paying Billings and me to take you back to Mexico,” Lawson answered with a laugh.
Johnny tensed, his mind racing. “Yeah, I’ve heard of Sanchez. I would have thought he got the message already that I’m not going back to Mexico.”
“He did mention some other men he’d sent to bring you back,” Billings said. “Guess they weren’t as good as us though.”
Murdoch watched as Lawson pulled a gun on Johnny. He didn’t know what to do.
“Lawson, what’s going on?” Murdoch asked watching Johnny.
“Change of plans, Lancer,” Lawson said. “Billings and I are taking Madrid and the gold. You can have your men.”
“Why?” Murdoch asked moving forward.
“There’s a fellow in Mexico willing to pay us well to bring Madrid back across the border,” Billing answered. “Don’t give us any problems, Lancer, and you’ll get your men back in one piece.”
One of Billings’ men ran to the gold wagon and climbed into the seat. He flicked the reins, and the horses moved past Johnny and the hostages. Billings turned to Walters. “Take the gold wagon and the men and go. Billings and I’ll be along shortly with Madrid.”
Walters shook his head and looked at Jake. “Jake, you know anything about Madrid being part of this deal?”
“No,” Jake answered, “and I ain’t going along with it either.”
Both Walters and Jake had recognized the three men that joined them the night before. They hadn’t said anything about them to Billings and didn’t plan to.
“Billings,” Walters spoke up, “Jake and me don’t want any part of a deal that involves Madrid.”
Walters looked at Johnny. Suddenly, it hit him who the boy was that he’d sent back to the hacienda three days earlier. He thought he’d looked familiar.
“What?” Billings asked spinning around to look at Walters. “Why?”
“Walters and me were in Nogales with Madrid. We helped him get across the border,” Jake said pointing his gun at Billings.
“Yeah, and we’re not gonna’ be part of taking him back across the border,” Walters said, still looking at Johnny.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “If you were in Nogales then you know I’m not going back alive,” Johnny drawled. “I owe you for helping me. You want out of this; you better leave now. I’d head anywhere but south if I were you.”
Walters nodded, “We were proud to be there with you; proud of being part of Madrid’s Army.”
Walters looked at Billings and Lawson. Billings had drawn his gun and was pointing it at Walters and Jake.
Johnny saw what was about to happen, “Like I said, I owe you. You two get out of here. I can handle this.”
Walters looked at Jake and motioned him to mount up.
“Let them go,” Lawson said. “It just means there is more gold for the rest of us.”
Walters and Jake turned their horses east and started to ride away. They looked at the three newcomers. One of the men shook his head and motioned for him to ride away. Neither Walters nor Jake needed telling twice.
After Walters and Jake had gone, Billings looked at Murdoch. “Do you want your men or not, Lancer?”
Johnny had seen the three men sitting their horses off to the right. He looked at his father, “Lancer, take your men and get them out of here.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Murdoch answered not taking his eyes off his son.
“I said go, old man. You get them out of here and don’t look back,” Johnny’s face showed nothing. “It’s a long way to Mexico. Anything can happen between here and the border.”
Murdoch finally nodded, and Billings shoved Scott and the other hostages forward.
“Kellogg,” Billings yelled out, “bring that wagon over here for Mr. Lancer.”
Kellogg drove the wagon that had been used to bring the hostages to the rendezvous point to Murdoch and jumped down. Running back to the gold wagon, he climbed in and waited for orders.
Scott looked first at his father and then back at his brother. A nod from Johnny was enough to send Scott scrambling into the wagon seat. He picked up the reins as the other men took their places in the rear of the wagon. Scott flicked the reins, and the wagon jerked forward.
They hadn’t gone far before Murdoch raised a hand and yelled out, “Hold up!”
“We’ve got to help him,” Scott said as he hopped down from the wagon.
“I know,” Murdoch answered. “Was that who I think it was sitting off to the side back there?
“Yes,” Scott said as he looked back the way they’d come.
Billings turned to his men, “Take the gold wagon. We’ll catch up.”
The seven gunmen headed south taking the gold wagon with them.
Once the gold wagon was gone Billings told Johnny to turn around. He tied Johnny’s hands behind his back and grinned.
“That turned out to be easier than I thought,” Billings said looking at Lawson.
“So now what’s your plan?” Johnny said as turned around and looked at the two men.
“Billings and I are going to take you to Mexico. We’ve hired men to help us do that, men who won’t hesitate to put a bullet in you if you don’t do as we say,” Lawson smiled.
“What about the gold?” Johnny asked.
“We knew we’d never get away with the gold,” Billings laughed. “We’ll let that fool of a sheriff and Lancer go after the gold while we head for the border. Now, mount up, Madrid.”
“Kinda’ hard to mount up with my hands tied behind my back, Billings,” Johnny answered the man.
Billings pushed Johnny toward his horse. As he did, Johnny’s hat was knocked off and fell onto his back, held on by the stampede strings.
Billings got his first good look at Johnny’s face. Jerking the gunfighter around to face him, Billings grabbed Johnny’s chin and lifted his head. The cut on Johnny’s forehead was still visible.
“Damn,” Billings curse.
“What?” Lawson moved closer to Billings.
“This is the kid we sent back to the ranch house the other day. The kid Elliott drugged,” Billings shook.
“Do you mean to tell me we had Madrid four days ago and let him go?” Lawson looked at his partner in disbelief.
Johnny looked at the two men and grinned. “Yeah, kinda’ dumb of you to do that. Wasn’t it?”
Billings drew back his hand and hit Johnny across the face. Johnny’s head snapped back. The taste of blood in his mouth. “Seems all you know how to do is hit someone whose hands are tied behind their back.”
Johnny could see the look of rage in Billings’ eyes. Billings balled his fist and slammed Johnny in the stomach sending him to the ground.
“Stop it!” Lawson yelled. “Get him mounted and let’s get out of here.” He motioned for the three men on horseback to come forward.
“See he’s giving you some trouble,” one of the men said as he dismounted. “Heard Madrid had a mouth on him.”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” Billings said and started to kick at Johnny.
“I wouldn’t do that,” the man raised his voice and stepped forward hand on the butt of his gun. “The last man who kicked Madrid like that ended up dead.”
Johnny lifted his head slowly and looked at the man who was now standing directly in front of him. He smiled as the man reached down and put a hand under his arm, lifting him to his feet.
“John,” Jack Slade said as he looked his friend over. “Can’t seem to stay out of trouble, can you?”
“Jack,” Johnny said trying to get his balance. He looked at the other two riders, “Tate. Bonner.”
“Hey, Johnny,” Tate and Bonner both said at the same time.
“You know Madrid?” Lawson asked as he pointed his gun at Slade.
“Know him? Yeah, I know him. You better be pointing that thing at someone else, Lawson. These two men won’t take kindly to you trying to shoot me,” Slade turned to look at Tate and Bonner both with guns drawn.
Slade pulled his gun and pointed it at Billings, “Drop the gun.”
“You double-crosser,” Billings grabbed Johnny and pulled him toward him. Billings held the barrel of the gun against Johnny’s side.
“You get paid up front?” Johnny casually asked Slade.
“Yeah, figured we’d better, under the circumstances,” Slade answered with a smile.
“Go ahead and shoot him then,” Johnny said as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Johnny, I saw the look on Murdoch’s face. I don’t want your Pa yelling at me again,” Slade answered seriously.
“Your Pa? Murdoch Lancer is your father?” Lawson asked turning to watch Billings and Madrid.
“Didn’t know that, did you?” Slade answered. “Oh, yeah, and that blond fellow you’ve had locked up for the last four days, what name did he give you? Bet it was Scott Garrett. That’s Madrid’s brother and Murdoch Lancer’s other son,” Slade was enjoying watching the expressions on both Billings’ and Lawson’s faces.
Billings was not seeing the humor in the matter. “Lawson, didn’t you do any research on Lancer before you took this job from Sanchez?”
“Don’t look like it, does it?” Johnny laughed. “You two aren’t very good at this, are you?”.
Billings pressed the gun barrel deeper into Johnny’s ribs causing him to wince.
Slade was ready to end this standoff. He didn’t want to get Johnny hurt and he sure as hell didn’t want Murdoch Lancer yelling at him. Slade aimed his gun at Billings.
“What about those other fellows and the gold,” Slade asked Johnny.
“Val should already have them,” Johnny answered. “So, go ahead and shoot him already. I want to get home.”
“Maria still cooking for you?” Slade asked as he watched Billings.
“Yeah, she’ll be real happy seeing you fellows again,” Johnny said as Billings pushed the barrel of the gun even deeper into Johnny’s side. The pain briefly shot across his face.
“Drop the gun, Billings,” Slade said, as all hints of amusement left his face.
“Don’t think so, Slade. Lawson and I are riding out with Madrid,” Billing said as he inched toward his horse.
Slade was thinking, and Johnny knew it.
“Damn it, Slade,” Johnny thought, “just shoot the man.”
Slade was watching Johnny’s eyes. He could tell that Johnny had been serious earlier when he’d told him to shoot Billings.
Billings was getting closer to the horses.
“I said drop your guns,” Billings said again.
Lawson was now on the other side of Johnny. Both men had guns pointed at the young gunfighter.
Johnny knew he had to do something. He suddenly stopped and pushed his shoulder into Lawson’s side as he spun out of Billings grip.
Four shots rang out.
Billings fired at the same time Slade did. Tate and Bonner both fired at Lawson.
Three men crumpled to the ground at the same time.
“Damn it, Johnny,” Slade said as he knelt next to his friend. He cursed even louder when he saw Murdoch riding toward him.
Sam waited at the house for the return of Murdoch and the hostages. Teresa and Maria sat and watched as Sam paced endless miles.
It had been nearly four hours since Johnny, Murdoch, and the Lancer men had ridden out with the gold wagon. Sam walked out onto the Veranda and looked over the yard toward the bunkhouse. It seemed that every man that had stayed behind was watching the road and the arch.
Sam had just turned to go back into the house when he heard the sound of a wagon and riders. He looked toward the arch to see Murdoch riding on one side of the wagon and Scott on the other. He breathed a sigh of relief on seeing Scott.
Sam looked closer at the riders coming in. He didn’t see Johnny. Scott was riding the black horse Johnny had been on.
The wagon pulled in front of the house and Sam walked out to look over the side. Johnny lay in the back with a blanket over him. Sam looked up at Murdoch.
“He’s been shot, Sam,” Murdoch said as he dismounted and moved to the rear of the wagon.
“Get him inside,” Sam said as he stood back and let the men carry his favorite patient into the house.
Murdoch watched as Johnny was carried in and turned to look at Slade still sitting on his horse.
“Come in, Jack. Tate. Bonner, you, too. Teresa can show you to your rooms. It looks like I owe you again, Jack. If you hadn’t been there today… well, we really need to do something about Sanchez.”
“I’ve been thinking the same thing, Mr. Lancer,” Slade said as he dismounted and handed the reins to his horse to one of the vaqueros who’d come to take the horse.
Slade, Tate, and Bonner followed Murdoch into the house. They found Johnny lying on the sofa with Sam leaning over him. The four men waited patiently for the doctor to look at them.
“Bullet caught him in the side. It’s still in there. I’ve told Maria to get the kitchen table cleared for me,” Sam said as he reached for his medical bag.
“How bad, Sam?” Murdoch’s worried look made it to his voice.
“I don’t know yet,” Sam said as he headed for the kitchen. “Murdoch, I need him moved to the table.”
Scott had entered the room and was listening to Sam. He moved to his brother’s side as Slade, Tate, and Bonner moved forward. The four men lifted Johnny and carried him to the kitchen table.
Sam rolled up his sleeves and sighed. He’d used this table many times over the years as an operating table. Sadly, Johnny had been his patient more times than he cared to remember.
Two hours later, Johnny was resting comfortably in his own bed. Sam made his way down to the Great Room to see Murdoch, Scott, Val, Cipriano, Slade, Bonner, Tate, Teresa, and Maria waiting for him.
“You know I think we can get some more people in here if you want,” Sam smiled as he eyed the coffee pot sitting on the end table.
“Sam?” Murdoch wasn’t amused.
“He’ll be fine,” Sam said as he poured a cup of coffee and sat down. “I got the bullet out. It didn’t hit any vital organs. He’ll sleep until morning at least. Now, I want the whole story. What happened after you left here?”
Murdoch and Scott told the story from their point of view and then sat back to wait for Val, Slade, Tate, and Bonner to tell their stories.
Val started by telling how he and the posse had caught up with Lawson’s men and the gold wagon, not ten minutes after they’d left the rendezvous point. The gunmen had tried to put up a fight, but the posse killed them all before it was over. Val returned the gold wagon to Lancer.
Slade, Tate, and Bonner were next to tell their story. Slade leaned back and began, “The three of us have been down in Nogales since we left here after the New Year. Figured we’d keep our eyes and ears open on anything Sanchez might be up to.”
Slade laughed. “You know, Billings and Lawson weren’t the smartest fellows I’ve ever met.”
He looked at Murdoch and knew the rancher was waiting for the rest of the story.
“As I said, we’ve been in Nogales, staying with Joe and Molly Worthington mostly. Went into town most afternoons and nights to see what we could find out. We were sitting in the saloon one night when Billings and Lawson walked in and came straight to me.” Slade laughed and shook his head.
“They wanted me to help them get Madrid back across the border. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought about it a few seconds and then told them I wouldn’t do it unless I could bring Tate and Bonner with me. I said Madrid was too dangerous to try to bring back by myself.
You know those fools never once asked any of us if we knew Madrid or if we had been with him in Nogales. Hell, everyone in Nogales knew I was riding beside him that day we crossed the border.”
“Did you get paid up front?” Val asked laughing.
“Same thing Johnny asked. Yeah, we got paid up front. Told them that we either got paid up front or they could find someone else,” Tate laughed.
“How did they know to come to Lancer?” Murdoch asked.
“Sanchez told them that Madrid had escorted Mr. Lancer back to California. Even Sanchez doesn’t know he’s your son, Mr. Lancer. Well, we were coming along the border near the Sonora Lancer Mine. Billings got word that there was a gold shipment coming your way.
Someone down there mentioned that Madrid was still at Lancer. That’s when those two came up with their plan to get Johnny,” Slade looked down at his glass. “Have to admit it was a good plan. If they had hired anyone else to help them, they might have got him back down there.”
“We were lucky,” Murdoch said, “this time.”
“Yes,” Scott joined in.
“Doc, how long you figure it will be before Johnny can ride?” Slade asked looking at Sam.
“Just how long a ride?” Sam answered leaning forward.
“Oh,” Slade hesitated, “Nogales.”
“Jack?” Val was now leaning forward in his seat.
“Just thinking something needs to be done about Sanchez. After what the man’s put Madrid through, I thought he might want to take care of it himself,” Slade answered looking around at Johnny’s friends and family.
“He might at that,” Scott agreed. In fact, I’m quite sure he would want to handle the matter personally.”
Murdoch looked at Sam.
“At least three weeks,” Sam answered thinking about it, “probably four to be on the safe side.”
Murdoch stood up, “I’m going to go sit with him for a while.”
Murdoch opened the door to his son’s room and walked in. He turned the lamp up before sitting down in the chair next to the bed. Brushing the hair from his son’s forehead, he was rewarded with dark lashes fluttering open and blue eyes looking at him.
“Everyone alright?” Johnny asked trying to keep his blue eyes open.
“Looks like it was my fault again,” Johnny sighed weakly. “They came looking for me, and now Ramon’s dead.”
“It isn’t your fault, son. You didn’t kill Ramon,” Murdoch took his son’s hand.
“If you say so,” Johnny’s words were nothing more than a whisper.
“I say so,” Murdoch rubbed his thumb on the back of Johnny’s hand.
“We’ll talk…,” Johnny said as he dropped off to sleep.
“Yes. Yes, we will,” Murdoch said as he watched his son lose the battle to stay awake.
It had been three weeks since Johnny had taken Billings’ bullet. He’d been out of bed for almost a week, and nothing or no one could hold him back any longer. Johnny knew that Slade was right. Alejandro Sanchez had to be stopped, and there was only one person who was going to do it.
Murdoch decreed that Scott wasn’t going with his brother this time. He felt that Slade, Tate, and Bonner would be enough to keep his youngest son out of trouble; at least he hoped so. The one condition he’d placed on both Johnny and Slade was that Johnny had to be back in time for the roundup.
The March morning they were to leave Lancer to go back to Nogales it felt like everyone on the ranch was there to send him off.
Slade looked at the people standing around him and felt a kinship to them. He remembered the time he’d spent with the Lancers only a few months earlier.
It had been the first week of December when a tired group of men had stopped on the ridge overlooking the hacienda.
The December homecoming had been nothing short of a celebration that had lasted an entire month. Murdoch insisted that Slade and the ten gunfighters, that had escorted him and his family home, stay through the holidays.
Slade had to admit he’d enjoyed those weeks in December and he knew his men did, too.
First, they had celebrated Scott’s birthday on the 19th of December. It was Scott’s first birthday at Lancer. The last time Murdoch had seen his oldest son at a birthday party was when Scott was five years old.
Johnny’s gift to his brother on his 23rd birthday was a night on the town, complete with a visit to one of the saloon girls. Johnny and Jack had taken Scott into town after his party at the ranch and rode home alone. Scott had enjoyed his present the entire night and most of the next day.
Four days later, on the 23rd of December, Teresa had arranged a surprise party for Johnny’s 19th birthday. She made sure Slade and a few of the gunfighters kept Johnny busy during the day so as not to ruin the surprise. The rest of the gunfighters were corraled into helping decorate the house for the party.
Much to the discomfort of 11 gunhawks and one birthday boy, the young girl had invited half the valley. Jack Slade and his men, like Johnny, felt uncomfortable around crowds. As it turned out, the guests were also experiencing some discomfort. Teresa finally convinced everyone except Jack to remove his gun belt.
Slade looked at Johnny with more than a little concern when Johnny agreed to leave his gun upstairs, “I can’t do it, don’t know how you can.”
Johnny had smiled and looked around to make sure no one was nearby, then patted the bulge in the back of his waistband where he kept a derringer. “Don’t go nowhere unarmed, Jack.”
The party had turned out to be a huge success. It was the first time Johnny could remember celebrating the day he was born. It was also the first time he’d ever gotten a birthday present. The party and the gifts left the young man overwhelmed.
Just as they had for Scott’s birthday, Jack and the gunfighters wanted to take Johnny to town. It was Murdoch who put a stop to the trip saying his son was too young to be visiting the girls that worked over the saloon.
Johnny had gone along with that decision, at least Murdoch thought he had. It was the next morning that Murdoch and Scott learned that Johnny had made the trip to town with Jack Slade and ten gunfighters to protect him while he was being entertained for the night.
Next, had come Christmas. Slade remembered smiling as he watched the legendary gunfighter, sitting crossed legged in the middle of the Great Room, opening the first Christmas present he could ever remember getting.
Teresa and the ladies at the ranch had made sure there was something for everyone. Maria told them that there had never been so many gifts under the tree as there were that Christmas morning.
Murdoch’s birthday on December 28, came as a surprise to everyone except Teresa and Maria who baked a cake and made sure there were presents.
It seemed like they had spent the entire month celebrating the births of everyone at Lancer, except Teresa’s. Teresa’s birthday had been on the 1st of December before they’d made it back to Lancer.
New Year’s Eve found them all sitting in the Great Room with drinks in their hands, ushering in the New Year.
While everyone sat either on the sofa, chairs or on the floor, Murdoch told them about Scotland and the traditions he grew up with. While Johnny hung on every word, Murdoch told them how his family in Scotland celebrated Hogmanay.
As he sat in a comfortable chair, sipping a fine whiskey, Jack looked around the room. For whatever reason, he felt safe here, with these people. He looked at the dark-haired boy with the dark blue eyes and once again marveled at the man that was Johnny Madrid. The hardened gunfighter one minute; a playful teenager the next. He’d seen Madrid at his best and his worst.
Slade had started this journey with nothing more than the expectation of money for a job. He had finished it with something money couldn’t buy. For the first time in his life, Jack Slade had friends. Not just any friends, but men he would proudly ride the river with, especially the man called Madrid.
Jack Slade didn’t have a family and since becoming a gunfighter had never wanted one. Now, he could honestly say that he felt like he had a place to come back to and people that cared about him.
Now, as they prepared to go after Sanchez, Slade smiled as Johnny was surrounded by his family, each saying their goodbyes. His smile faded away when he found out they all wanted to talk to him…alone.
It seemed that Slade was to get lectures and instructions from everyone.
First, Murdoch pulled Slade aside and asked that he look after his son and try to keep him out of gunfights. Slade laughed and said he’d do his best but wasn’t going to make any promises.
Scott was next to pull Slade aside and asked him to make sure his brother stayed warm. Slade simply said “sure.” He remembered how Scott had kept Madrid warm in Mexico and on the way home. He wasn’t planning on sleeping that close to the boy.
Maria and Teresa asked Slade to make sure Johnny got enough to eat. Maria kept saying that her nino was too thin. The women went so far as to pack enough food for the four of them to dine like kings for at least a week.
Sam Jenkins pulled Slade aside to give him instructions on any health issues Johnny might have. This information Slade took seriously. If there was one thing he wanted, it was to keep Madrid healthy.
Val, now that was another story. Val didn’t mince words. He came right out and said that if Slade didn’t bring the boy back in one piece… well, Slade got the idea.
By the time everyone was finished with him, Slade was shaking his head and wondered how the legendary gunfighter had made it all those years by himself.
Finally, it was time to leave, everyone was ready to go, well almost everyone. Larry Tate and Teresa were still saying their goodbyes.
After returning from Mexico in December Tate and Teresa had spent a lot of time together. Tate’s return three weeks earlier had renewed the budding courtship.
Things got to the point that Slade pulled Tate aside one day and reminded him who the girl was and who her brother was. “Tate, if you’re serious about that girl you may want to consider that you’ll have Johnny Madrid for a brother-in-law.”
Murdoch had noticed that Tate and Teresa were spending more and more time alone. He didn’t like the idea of another gunfighter in the family, but he did like the young man. Murdoch remembered listening to Johnny’s conversation with Tate at Tyson’s Well. He really did think that Johnny had gotten through to him.
Watching the emotional goodbye between Tate and Teresa reminded Johnny he needed to have a long talk with Tate.
When Murdoch came to say goodbye to Johnny, everyone else drifted away to give father and son time alone.
“You’ll be careful,” Murdoch stated, more as a command than a question.
Johnny looked up at his father and smiled, “I’ll be careful. Got Jack Slade watching my back, how much trouble can I get into?”
Murdoch rolled his eyes. “Son, you could find trouble…,” Murdoch stopped talking as tears filled his eyes and he tried to swallow.
Johnny reached out and took his father’s wrist and held it tight, “I’ll be careful.”
Murdoch nodded, reaching out he pulled his son to him. “I love you, John. Come home soon. Don’t make me have to come back down there and bring you home.”
Johnny nodded and pulled away from Murdoch. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and dipped his head. “I love you too, …Papa.”
Murdoch smiled and put his hand on the side of Johnny’s face and wiped away a stray tear.
“Alright,” Murdoch took a deep breath, “let’s get you out of here so you can get back to us.”
The first few days of the trip to Nogales were difficult for Johnny. Although, he wasn’t going to admit it to anyone. Since his return from Mexico in December, it was taking him longer and longer to recover from any injury or sickness. He wondered if his body would ever regain its original strength. Sam kept telling him to be patient. However, patience had never been something he was good at, at least when it came to his own health.
The first night on the trail Johnny told Slade that he didn’t like all the fussing everyone did over him. A year earlier he didn’t even know what it was like to have a family. He’d been on his own since he was eight.
Of course, Slade knew deep down Johnny really did like all the attention his family gave him. Even after only one day he could see that Johnny was missing his family, especially his brother.
Slade had to admit that riding with Johnny Madrid was nothing short of exciting.
Jack Slade had spent his life the same way Madrid had, living by the gun, but somehow, he’d never gotten as much attention as Johnny Madrid. At first, he figured it was that damn pink shirt the boy wore, yet no matter what color the shirt, there was always someone ready to call Madrid out.
By the time they reached Tucson, Johnny had been in three gunfights. Slade couldn’t help but feel he’d let Murdoch down on that count. Of course, Slade himself had been in two. The two legendary gunfighters laughed one night about how between the two of them they were going to keep the border towns clear of any up and coming gunhawks.
Tate and Bonner seemed to enjoy living in the shadow of the two legends. Neither wanted the reputation of Madrid or Slade.
Larry Tate remembered the long talk he and Johnny had had at Tyson’s Well. He’d long since given up wanting to be the next Johnny Madrid.
Ten days after leaving Lancer the four men rode into the Worthington Ranch, much to the delight of Joe and Molly Worthington.
“Johnny,” Molly swooped down from the front porch throwing her arms around Johnny, pulling him into a fierce hug. “We’ve been expecting you. Are you alright now?”
Johnny ducked his head and blushed. “Yeah, I’m fine now, Molly. You said you’ve been expecting us. How did you know we were coming?”
“We got a telegram from Murdoch last week,” Molly pulled the telegram from the pocket of her apron and handed it to Johnny.
Johnny opened the telegram, read it, and grinned. Turning, he handed the piece of paper to Jack.
Slade read it aloud.
Both J and J headed your way. STOP. Let me know when they arrive. STOP. Tell J to stay out of trouble. STOP. Tell J to watch J’s back. STOP.
“Wonder which ‘J’ he wants to stay out of trouble?” Johnny asked with a broad smile on his face.
“I would think that would be obvious, Johnny,” Molly laughed. “We’ll telegram him in the morning to let him know you arrived safely.”
“Gracias, Molly,” Johnny answered and looked around. The vaqueros on the ranch had found out he was there and started moving his way. He spent the next fifteen minutes shaking hands and accepting thanks from them for what he’d done for Joe.
Finally, the four men were able to get into the house and settle down.
They spent the next two days learning all they could about Alejandro Sanchez. Pedro and Carlos, the two Worthington vaqueros that had helped Johnny only a few months earlier, were sent into Nogales daily to gather information for them.
Once their plans were made all that was left was for Johnny to confront his tormentor.
Johnny still had nightmares about Hector Sanchez and his whip. Nightmares he knew would take years for him to overcome. There were times during the night he could feel Sanchez’s hands on him or smell his breath or feel the whip ripping into his back.
Johnny had woken more than once over the last few months and found himself unable to control his roiling stomach. The sound of him throwing up always brought Scott to his side. Scott would hold his head and wipe it with a cool cloth. Then his older brother would guide him back to bed and stay with him until he slept.
When morning came, neither Johnny nor Scott would talk about the night before; although Scott knew how much Johnny appreciated his love and attention.
As bad as Hector Sanchez’s torment had been, Alejandro’s continued dogging of the young gunfighter had cost him dearly in the loss of his young friend, Ramon. For that alone, Johnny would not and could not forgive the man.
No, as far as Johnny was concerned, Alejandro Sanchez would soon join his brothers in hell.
Johnny stood by the corral watching one of Joe Worthington’s vaqueros work a green-broke stallion. Johnny had to admit the man was good at what he did.
A movement to his right, caused him to spin on the balls of his feet and reach for his Colt.
“Whoa,” Slade said with a smile, hands held in front of him, “just me.”
Johnny straightened up and blew out a breath he was holding.
“You’re awful jumpy, aren’t you?” Slade asked as he came to stand next to Johnny.
Johnny dipped his head but didn’t say anything.
Slade had been watching Johnny closely for the last few days. It had been gradual at first, but the closer they had gotten to Nogales and the border, the more he’d seen Madrid come to the surface.
Now that they were near Nogales, the transformation was complete. All signs of Johnny Lancer had disappeared and only Madrid remained.
“You having second thoughts about going back into Mexico?” Slade asked as he watched the vaquero in the corral.
“Second thoughts?” Johnny took a deep breath and shook his head. “I’m not gonna’ lie to you, Jack. The thought of willingly walking back across the border makes me want…” He turned, dipping his head.
“What? High tail it right back to California and forget about Sanchez?” Slade asked. “Johnny, I can take care of Sanchez if you want me to.”
“I can’t forget about Sanchez,” Johnny stood straight and turned to look at Slade. “He’s caused enough pain and suffering. No, Sanchez is gonna’ die, and by my hand.”
“Look,” Slade reached out and took Johnny’s arm, “Tate, Bonner, and me are going to watch your back. We’ll be right there with you.”
“Jack, you made a promise …,” Johnny started to say and was cut off by Slade.
“I made you a promise, and I’ll keep that promise. I’m not letting the Rurales take you, boy,” Slade swore. “We’ll ride in tomorrow morning. You come in at sundown. Tate and Bonner are going to stand guard at each end of the street. I’ll be there to cover you.”
Slade walked away and turned back to look at Johnny.
“Johnny, I made a lot of promises to the people at Lancer before we left. I either take you back there in one piece, or I might as well not go back at all.” Slade laughed, “Johnny, you got two Pa’s. Hell, if I let something happen to you down here, I’d have both Murdoch Lancer and Val Crawford gunning for me.”
Johnny smiled, “They’d find you, too. I sure wouldn’t want you to rile either one of them.”
Johnny walked back toward the house. He stopped and looked at the man beside him, “Gracias, Amigo.”
Slade slapped Johnny on the back and looked at the ground, “Eso es lo que los amigos son para.” (That’s what friends are for)
Slade, Tate, and Bonner rode out of Rancho Worthington the next morning and made their way into Nogales. Johnny stayed at the ranch until an hour before sundown.
As he was getting ready to go, Joe brought his horse to the front of the house where Molly was saying her goodbyes. She stood on the front porch with her arms around the young gunfighter.
“Be careful, Johnny,” Molly said with tears in her eyes. “We’ll telegram Murdoch when we know you’re safely on your way home. I’m sure word of Sanchez’s death will spread quickly.”
“Thank you, Molly. Thank you for everything,” Johnny said as he kissed her on the cheek.
“Take care of yourself, Johnny,” Joe said extending a hand. “You run into any trouble, get word back to us. We’ll come get you. I think I know where I can round up an army if need be.”
Johnny nodded and mounted up. Turning his horse toward Nogales, he waved goodbye to Joe and Molly.
Slade was waiting for Johnny on the outskirts of Nogales.
“Everything ready?” Johnny asked, looking around, making sure no one was watching.
“We’re ready,” Slade answered. “Tate and Bonner are already in position. Sanchez usually leaves the cantina around 10:00. I’ve already got a spot picked out for you to wait for him.”
Johnny nodded. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and motioned for Slade to move out.
Once in town, Johnny dismounted and handed his reins to Slade. He turned to look around before starting down the quiet, deserted side street. He saw Tate step out of a doorway to his right and nod to him. Looking at the other end of the street, Bonner stepped into view then back.
Johnny took up his position and waited. He felt the adrenaline surge through his body as Johnny Madrid filled every inch of his being. Johnny knew that there was no turning back now. Alejandro Sanchez wanted Johnny Madrid, and by God, he was going to get him.
Now we pick up at the Epilogue of The Long Road Home:
Alejandro Sanchez had taken command of the Rurales in Nogales six months ago. It was the day after Johnny Madrid had crossed the border.
Alejandro was pleased to say his first order was to execute Colonel Vasquez. Vasquez had only one duty and that was to prevent Madrid from crossing the border. He had failed in that duty.
When Alejandro found out, he became enraged. Madrid had killed both of his brothers and his cousins. He’d taken great pleasure in watching Vasquez die. Although, in his mind, the firing squad had been too easy a death.
His fury grew when the government officials changed their minds and decided not to place a reward for the return of Madrid to Mexico.
It hadn’t taken Sanchez long to take it upon himself to hire his own men to go after Madrid. He’d been disappointed when he received word that Butler, Hanson and the men with them were dead by the mestizo’s hand. Still, there were two more men that he hadn’t heard from as yet. If they failed, he would keep hiring men until someone brought Madrid to him.
Alejandro Sanchez walked out of the cantina and started toward his home. Not seeing the man standing in the shadows, he’d gone several feet before realizing someone was following him. Stopping, Sanchez turned around. The man was hidden in the shadows.
“Who are you?” Sanchez asked letting his hand rest on his pistol. “What do you want?”
“Hear you’ve been looking for someone,” the man in the shadows said in a soft, low voice.
“Who would that be?” Sanchez asked straining to see the man’s face.
“Johnny Madrid,” came the reply in a soft, low voice.
“Si, I have been looking for Madrid. I will pay you to bring him to me,” Sanchez’s eyes gleamed.
“You’ll pay me… to bring Madrid… to you?” the man took a step closer. “You sent men to bring Madrid back already. You sent Butler for Madrid. You know Butler’s dead. You sent Hanson. You know he’s dead, too. Matter of fact, Alejandro… all, and I mean all the men, you’ve sent for Madrid are dead, and that includes Billings and Lawson. It’s a pretty risky job trying to bring Madrid back alive. What do you plan to do with Madrid once you have him?”
“I plan to kill him,” Sanchez hissed. “I plan to kill him very slowly. He will beg for death many times before I finally end his miserable life.” Sanchez hesitated then asked, “You said Billings and Lawson are also dead?”
The man moved even closer. The light from the street now made his face partially visible.
“Who are you, senor?” Sanchez didn’t recognize the man in front of him.
“I’m the man who’s gonna’ kill you, Alejandro,” Madrid took a step forward.
“I’m gonna’ kill you just like I killed your two brothers and Ramirez and his uncle,” Madrid took another step.
“I’m gonna’ kill you just like every man you’ve sent after me,” Madrid stepped fully into the light.
“You… Madrid,” Sanchez hissed. “I will make you beg for death.”
It was Johnny Madrid that Sanchez heard laugh. Sanchez took a step backward, shrinking away from the man he had tormented.
“No, Alejandro,” the smile on Madrid’s face made Sanchez blood run cold. “I told your brother and I’m telling you,” the voice was icy, cold. “Madrid… don’t… beg.”
Sanchez reached for his gun but froze as a bullet hit him in the chest. He felt his heart explode.
Johnny Madrid holstered his gun and stepped back into the shadows. He turned and quickly walked to the next street. Seeing Barranca’s golden coat shining under the lamplight, he stepped forward. Jack Slade handed him the reins.
“You get it done?” Slade asked looking at the young gunfighter’s face. He could see that Madrid was starting to fade.
“I got it done,” Johnny took Barranca’s reins and swung up into the saddle. Dipping his head, he looked at Slade, “Didn’t feel as good as I thought it would.”
“Never does, does it,” Slade replied as Bonner and Tate joined them.
“All clear,” Tate said as he looked around.
Slade nodded, “What do you say we head back to Lancer? I told your Pa I’d get you back in time for the roundup.” Slade smiled, “I sure don’t want him mad at me again.”
“You’re not afraid of my old man are you, Jack?” Johnny asked with a slight grin on his face.
“Hell, yes, I’m afraid of him. Man’s big as a house. He could snap me like a twig. You afraid of him?” Slade answered seriously.
“Me? I’m … well, yeah,” Johnny answered with a smile. “He does kinda’ scare me… sometimes.”
“Thought so,” Slade laughed.
Three hours after entering Nogales, Johnny Madrid had done what he came for and was headed home.
As he sat on the hill overlooking the valley and white hacienda, Johnny couldn’t help but remember that day a year earlier when he’d looked out over the valley with Teresa and a brother; he hadn’t known he had.
Three riders joined him on the ridge.
“Glad to be home?” Slade asked, also taking in the vista.
“Yeah,” Johnny nodded, swallowing back his emotions. He never thought he’d feel this way about a place or the people in it.
“Well, Madrid, let’s go,” Slade laughed. “You’ve been burning up the trail to get back here. Don’t stop now.”
“Look down there,” Bonner straightened in the saddle and looked down on the hacienda. He pointed to the people who were starting to gather in front of the house. All of them looking toward the ridge and pointing at the four of them.
Johnny could make out Murdoch and Scott. He smiled when he saw Val walk out of the house and stand next to Murdoch; the two Pa’s, as Slade called them, standing shoulder to shoulder.
It felt good to have two Pa’s. He knew that both men loved him.
Murdoch Lancer was his father, the man that had sired him, his blood. Val was more than a father to him. Val had been a brother, mentor, confessor, and so much more. Val had been there for him when no one else cared if he lived or died. Good or bad, Val had been there.
Scott stepped away from the others, raising his arm in the air, and waved to his brother. Grinning, Johnny stood in his stirrups and waved back.
“Looks like everyone on the whole ranch is down there waiting for us,” Tate grinned when he saw Teresa come out of the house and stand next to Scott. Now, she was waving as well.
“We’d better get down there before they come after us,” Slade said and waited for Johnny to lead the way.
Johnny nodded and once more looked out over the valley. There was no denying it. He was home.
He’d come to Lancer for money and revenge and stayed because… well, because of family. Then, of course, there was the land. God, how he loved this land. It had burrowed under his skin and into his blood. Now, he couldn’t think of any place he would rather be.
He remembered Teresa’s words, “There it is, as far as the eye can see, the most beautiful place in the whole wide world… Lancer.”
He couldn’t agree more.
To Signed, Sealed And Finally Delivered
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4 thoughts on “The Charade by SandySha”
This is a great sequel to the others in this series; well written, with an intriguing plot. I enjoyed reading it for the second time and thank SandySha for writing and posting.
I love this story! Thank you for sharing your writing. Its really great.
Thank you for filling in the gap between The Long Ride Home and its Epilogue. Great story and I love your Jack Slade character. Pleased that it looks like Tate might be giving up the gun thanks to Johnny, with a little help from Teresa. On to the next chapter. I can’t stop reading these.
Fantastic story. I hated we lost Ramon but it was necessary. I just love this series. One of my favorite parts was when Johnny was captured by Billings and his Tio was telling him to behave. I lol for real. Good guys, bad guys, your characters are on spot.