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Together At Day’s End by Sharon

Word Count 43,605

CHAPTER ONE

The large map of the ranch hung on the wall of the Great Room, above the table holding a crystal decanter of scotch. Murdoch Lancer stood proudly in front of the panel, gesturing with his half filled glass as he continued to describe the outlying areas of Lancer, pleased that his son was showing such an interest.  Johnny, his own glass in hand, stood beside him, listening carefully, not asking any questions, until Murdoch mentioned the northeastern corner. 

“So what’s out there?” the younger man asked casually. 

“We have a line shack here,” his father replied, pointing to a small red “X”.  “We’d just finished building it when the trouble started.  It’s not even fully outfitted yet.”

“What’s that over there?”

Murdoch tapped at the small black dot some distance to the right of the symbol representing the new line shack. “There’s an old, abandoned cabin over here to the east,” he explained. “The roof’s falling in, not too much worth saving. I was planning to have the place burned down, prevent squatters from moving in.” Murdoch Lancer sipped at his drink and regarded his younger son appraisingly.  Johnny had been doing some light work for a week now, after having received a clean bill of health from Murdoch’s old friend, Dr. Sam Jenkins. “Might be something you could take care of, Son.”

Just then the glass-paneled French doors opened and Scott Lancer entered.

“I sure wouldn’t mind a few days riding—“ Johnny was starting to say, as his half-brother pulled the door shut behind him with a soft click and then shot an inquisitive glance in the direction of the other two men.  Murdoch set down his glass and poured a drink for his elder son. Meanwhile, Scott removed his hat and tucked it under his arm, working at peeling off his gloves as he stepped towards the main entrance and the hat rack standing in the foyer.  As soon as Scott had disappeared from view, Johnny addressed Murdoch once more. 

“I can head out early tomorrow. . .”

Murdoch absently nodded in agreement, his thoughts having shifted elsewhere.  “Scott?”

That young man quickly reappeared, having shed his gun belt along with his hat and work gloves.  Attired in plain dark trousers and a nondescript beige checked shirt, Scott Lancer was still easily distinguished from the “typical ranch hand” by his confident demeanor as well as by the burgundy colored scarf tucked deep into the collar of his tattersall work shirt. “Yes, Sir?” Scott inquired as he approached the other two men, smoothing his damp blond hair with one hand as he did so.

“Tomorrow I want you boys to head out towards the north east corner of the ranch,” Murdoch announced, as he handed Scott a glass of imported scotch.  Scott nodded his thanks for the beverage and regarded his father attentively as the older man continued with his instructions. “You’ll need supplies for four days—-five to be safe.”

“Won’t take that long to ride out there and back,” Johnny objected.  “Don’t need both of us, Murdoch, I can handle it just fine.”

Concerned that he had walked into the middle of yet another uncomfortable conversation between his father and younger brother, Scott Lancer drew up his bottom lip and focused his attention on the drink in his hand.

“You’ll need to take a wagon,” Murdoch explained patiently.  “A small one, but it’ll still be rough going.  It’ll help if one of you rides on ahead, scouts out a trail.”

Looking somewhat perplexed now, as well as annoyed, Johnny didn’t respond. Gesturing towards the map with his glass, Scott asked a question.  “And ah . . . where exactly are we going?”

“There’s an old run down cabin —here,” Murdoch explained, tapping the spot on the map with one long index finger. “I want you to burn it down.  But first pull out anything that won’t burn, and anything worth saving.”

Scott cocked an eyebrow at that, but waited for Johnny to ask the next obvious question.  He didn’t need to as Murdoch responded to their doubtful looks.  “Keep anything we might be able to use in the line shack.”

“And a line shack would be?”

Johnny ducked his head towards his glass in order to hide a grin, a movement that, judging from Scott’s own expression, did not go unnoticed by his older brother. 

“A line shack is an outlying cabin for the hands to use when working in a remote area of the ranch, or moving the herd from one pasture to another . . .” Scott nodded again, and recognizing that he was in for one of his father’s rather lengthy explanations, made himself comfortable on a nearby sofa, stretching out his long legs. 

“Each one of these red “X”s is a line shack. We try to keep them stocked year round with basic supplies, canned goods, firewood,” the veteran rancher explained.  “You might get some pots and pans out of that old cabin.  And last I knew, there was a working woodstove inside—it’ll take both of you to lift it—and you’ll need the wagon to move it over to the new line shack– here.”  Murdoch tapped the “X” this time. 

Johnny shook his head.  It’s a wonder he ain’t erased them marks yet, he thought with some degree of irritation. His movement passed unnoticed as Murdoch looked to Scott for a sign of comprehension. 

“Yes, Sir,” Scott said with a nod of his blond head, indicating his acceptance of the next day’s assignment as well as his now thorough understanding of the purpose of a line shack.

On Murdoch’s other side, the darker haired son continued his disgruntled internal monologue, this time targeting his half-brother.  He’ll probably stand up an’ salute next.  

In the following moment, Scott Lancer did stand, drawing up to his full height as he drained his glass and then set it on the console table positioned behind the sofa.

“If you’ll excuse me,  . . . I think I’ll go get cleaned up for supper.”

Johnny knew by now that in Scott’s case, “cleaned up” usually meant that in addition to a good scrubbing, the Eastern “dandy” would be changing into another shirt and maybe even a different pair of pants as well. Johnny shook his head again. Even though he found some of Scott’s habits to be rather strange, Johnny wasn’t really against spending time with the man. But the young gunfighter had his reasons for wanting to head up to that cabin on his own, and he wasn’t ready to give up on the idea just yet. 

Moving over to the sofa, Johnny carefully eased himself into the seat that his brother had just vacated.  He was still feeling an occasional twinge from the bullet wound he had taken in the back, though he tried very hard not to let it show.  Feeling Murdoch’s searching gaze upon him now, Johnny quickly deflected the conversation to a safer topic.

“He don’t know too much about ranchin’,” Johnny offered with a grin, moving his head in the direction of Scott’s recent exit.

“As long as he’s willing to keep asking questions, Scott’ll be fine,” was Murdoch’s firm response.

“Yeah, he’s doing okay,” Johnny conceded.  “Better’n I expected, anyway.”

“I take it you’ve done some ranch work?”

“I’ve worked for a few ranchers —- now and again,” was Johnny’s ambiguous reply.  The grin had disappeared, replaced by an expression that was unreadable.

Murdoch Lancer hid a sigh as he faced the large map once more, then reached down for the crystal decanter on the table in front of him. He’d been the one to decree that the past stay in the past, and, surprisingly, so far both of his sons had seemed willing to restrict their conversations to present events.

So why did he feel such dissatisfaction? After all, Murdoch wasn’t eager to talk about his own past, and especially not to discuss at length either of his two wives, to dredge up the painful memories along with the pleasant ones.  But he did have a tremendous desire to learn more about each of these young strangers.  Whenever Murdoch had ventured to question either one of them, however, he’d gotten a careful, oblique reply much like the one he had just received from Johnny. In each instance, the stern Scotsman had decided to simply leave it alone, concerned that he might not want to hear the real answer—or that the young man being questioned might flatly refuse to respond to a second query at all.

In the days since Johnny’s recovery, Murdoch had had his two sons working together. His own interactions with each of his boys felt stiff and awkward; he would see those two pairs of blue eyes—different shapes, differing shades of blue, but so similar in the way that they seemed to be studying him sometimes— and wonder what they must think of him, wonder exactly what they’d been told.   It was easier to avoid those eyes by sending the young men off together, telling himself that he was doing them a favor by arranging for the brothers to get to know each other better.

What Murdoch did not fully realize was that his two very different sons were not easily finding common ground.  Talk tended to center upon the task at hand, whatever it might be, since each one was reluctant to provide details of his recent past.  Scott had ventured a bit about his college studies and intimated numerous romantic liaisons, but he was not particularly proud of the more dissolute aspects of his recent life in Boston and even more reluctant to elaborate upon his experiences during the War.  On his side, Johnny had dropped a few hints here and there of his life as a drifting gun for hire, hoping to shock the reserved Easterner, but he wasn’t especially eager to go into much detail about a life that he had already been trying to leave behind. 

As to the more distant past, the brothers had yet to swap stories of their respective childhoods and were unlikely to do so anytime soon, certainly not over a beer at the saloon on a Saturday night with the Lancer vaqueros listening in.  Murdoch Lancer had yet to volunteer to relate any family history; and neither of his sons desired a repetition of the rebuffs that they had received during the initial meeting with their estranged father.

Thanks to Teresa, however, Johnny did have good reason to wonder about the things that his mother had told him about Murdoch Lancer. Scott, having overheard the exchange between Miss O’Brien and his half-brother, had immediately recognized that he too had only been privy to one side of the story, the version provided by his maternal grandfather.  But despite a myriad of questions, each of them had, for now at least, reluctantly decided to bide his time.

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Once the family had assembled at the supper table, Johnny sat at his place beside Teresa and waited patiently until the discussion of the day’s events had been completed and the Lancers’ attention turned to the tasks scheduled for the next several days.  His brother’s chair was opposite Teresa’s and sure enough, Scott had changed into a lighter colored shirt and had even put on a string tie.  Well, he was a bit of a dandy, no question, and he had some fancy manners all right, though Johnny had been more than happy to follow Scott’s lead when it came to things like sorting out the different utensils on the table.  Johnny had heard Teresa scold Scott more than once for getting up every time that she walked in or out of the room. He’d stopped doing that, though it was kind of funny to watch him sometimes, how the city boy seemed to have to make an effort to stay seated. But Teresa sure did seem to like it that Scott held her chair for her when they all sat down, she’d let him walk all the way around the table to do it. So after a couple of nights, Johnny had taken over, told Boston to sit himself down and relax. Scott hadn’t seemed to mind.

Johnny had always thought that people that put on manners that way, well, that it was just that, put on.  He’d even been guilty of wondering whether or not the Easterner was maybe taking it up a step, just to make him look bad. Now, upon closer observation, he’d seen that holding a lady’s chair, using the right fork, shaking hands and making conversation were things that came pretty natural to Scott. He didn’t mean anything by it, it was just something he did, like Johnny scanning a room when he entered, like always sitting with his back to a wall. 

When Murdoch turned to his young ward and mentioned that he would have her company all to himself for the next several evenings, Johnny seized the opportunity to once more attempt to make his case.

“I don’t see that there’s any sense taking a wagon all the way up there ‘til we’re sure that stove’s worth movin’.  I can ride up there on my own, pull things out and burn the place.”

At the head of the table, Murdoch Lancer set his fork down and studied his younger son.

“And if you come back and tell us it’s worthwhile, we’ll have to send two men right back up there.” Murdoch shook his large grey head. “No, Johnny. And besides, I don’t want you even trying to move that wood stove alone. It’s too soon . . .”

Johnny knew he was pushing too hard, he could see Scott looking at him curiously. Murdoch’s gaze was still fastened intently upon him as well, but Johnny just couldn’t let it go.

“I can handle it,” he said insistently.

“You haven’t seen the place. I have.”  Murdoch’s flat statement indicated that he would not welcome any further argument. 

Johnny let an exasperated sigh escape. As he reached for his glass of milk, he could feel Scott studying him.  He thought he could guess what the other man must be thinking, but told himself that he really didn’t care.  Nonetheless, Johnny tensed a bit, waiting for Scott to make some dry comment about “feeling left out.” 

Instead, Scott took a sip of wine, carefully replaced the stemmed glass on the table and then turned to Murdoch with a grin.

“I’m beginning to wonder if Johnny might not have some sort of rendez-vous planned,” he announced to his father in a conspiratorial tone.

Murdoch smiled back, but Teresa was puzzled.  “What’s that?” she asked. Johnny was glad, because he didn’t know either.

“It’s a French phrase,” Scott explained. “It means ‘a secret meeting.’”

“And just who is it that you think I’m gonna be meetin’ up there?” Johnny demanded coldly.

Scott relaxed back in his chair, his eyebrows raised.  “I’m sure I don’t know, Brother,” he said disarmingly.  “I just hope she’s pretty.” 

Murdoch and Teresa both laughed, and even Johnny had to smile and shake his head at that. Damn, but Boston sure seemed to know the right thing to say most of the time. The momentary tension disappeared and they concluded the meal with more conversation about what the next few weeks on the ranch might bring. 

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CHAPTER TWO

Once they’d all finished eating, Teresa O’Brien shooed the men away from the table and set about stacking the plates and utensils in order to cut down on the number of trips she would have to make to the kitchen clearing things away. Each evening, after the meal had been served, Maria and Juanita would quickly clean up the kitchen and then depart for their own homes, only remaining longer if there was company.  Teresa could easily recall a time when both of the women would routinely stay later, but back when the troubles had started Murdoch had insisted on sending them on their way before nightfall. Teresa had then taken on the task of clearing the table and putting away the left over food, but she had usually simply stacked the dirty dishes in the kitchen, leaving them to be washed by the women in the morning, so that she could sit for a while in the Great Room with her father and Murdoch.

After her father had been murdered and Murdoch had recovered sufficiently from his own wounds to take his meals downstairs, Teresa had sometimes announced that there was really no need to leave so few dishes cluttering up the kitchen, that it would only take a moment to wash them.  It had been the evenings when she had found herself missing Daddy the most—the empty place at the supper table, the conspicuously vacant chair in the sitting area. Rather than stay and attempt to make conversation with Murdoch, who was also still grieving for his dead friend as well as grimly worrying about the future of his ranch, it been a welcome escape for the young girl to find a moment’s quiet refuge in the kitchen.  Teresa would heat the water on the stove and then immerse her hands—and her thoughts— in the warm suds.  There had been were many evenings when the orphan’s overwhelming sadness had mingled lonely tears with the soapy water in the large dishpan.

Teresa had been born on Lancer. She knew that her father had become the ranch foreman around the same time that her mother had died; now her parents rested side by side in the small cemetery just a short distance from the hacienda.  She and Daddy had had their own quarters when Teresa was younger, but somewhere along the way they had started to dine with Mr. Lancer and then spend the evening with him.  Then Mr. Lancer had suggested they use some of his rooms. 

When Daddy was killed, Mr. Lancer had become her guardian and on the day that she and a few ranch hands had buried her father, Murdoch had solemnly promised Teresa that she would always have a home with him here at the ranch.  Weak and still bed-ridden, he’d asked her to call him “Murdoch”, but it had been difficult at first.  It was easier now that Scott and Johnny were here and they addressed him by his first name too.

Before they’d arrived, Teresa had wondered if Murdoch Lancer’s grown sons might be envious that she’d always lived at Lancer when they had not, worried that they might be resentful that she knew their father so well, when he was a stranger to them. But so far, both young men had seemed willing to accept her as a sister, and had been unfailingly polite and considerate.  In fact, when he’d realized that Teresa was left on her own to clear the table, Scott had offered to assist her, though of course she hadn’t let him do that! And on his second night of eating downstairs, Johnny had tried to do the same thing, making no effort to hide his disapproval when his father and brother had gotten up and simply walked away, leaving the chore to her. She’d smiled and thanked him and sent him on his way, just as she had with Scott.  She laughed softly now, remembering how each of them had hesitated, then departed quite willingly enough.  Men! But at least Scott and Johnny had offered, she reminded herself. Daddy and Murdoch never had.

As Teresa stood now at Scott’s place and stacked Murdoch’s plate on top of Scott’s, she thought about that new word. “Ron-day-voo”. .  she liked the sound of it. She wondered if one reason why Scott seemed to know so much about so many different things was because he was such a good listener. At least he had been so attentive every time she’d gone on and on about the ranch and growing up here, describing the way things had been before.  Before Pardee.

Of course, Scott had seemed much less willing to talk about himself. Oh, he had a nice, polite way about him, so he’d answered all of her questions, but the responses had been characteristically brief.  Scott Lancer wasn’t the most talkative man she’d ever met, but he did seem to have a knack for knowing the right thing to say, when to make a suggestion, when to offer a light remark. Scott had done that at supper this evening and he’d stepped in at the party as well . . . Teresa carried the last of the dishes into the kitchen and decided to wash them, something she hadn’t done lately. There were twice as many now, compared to when she and Murdoch had dined alone, and besides, during the past few weeks, she’d been eager to join the Lancers in the Great Room.  But last night they’d finished reading aloud from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and she expected that this evening the three men would discuss the trek that Scott and Johnny would be setting off on the next morning, riding out to the farthest corner of the ranch.  Rather than listening to them, Teresa decided to do up the dishes instead, and reminisce about the party. 

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The rather impromptu gathering a few days before had been organized both to commemorate the defeat of the land pirates and to introduce Murdoch Lancer’s two sons to some of their neighbors. Scott seemed to be settling in, Johnny was back on his feet, and the ranch was slowly recovering. After the long months of fear and uncertainty, it had been a much-needed respite for the community. Despite the short notice, the hastily arranged celebration had been very well attended and families from the neighboring ranches had been joined by those of the Morro Coyo merchants.  Teresa, Maria and Juanita had produced dozens of biscuits and pastries in the Lancer kitchen and the makeshift tables had groaned with additional desserts provided by the local women.  Cipriano and several of the vaqueros had taken charge of the barbecue.

The group of young women who were Teresa’s lifelong friends had donned their Sunday best in eager anticipation of the promised music and dancing. Since each one had been intensely curious about Mr. Lancer’s mysterious and unknown grown sons, Teresa had found herself the center of attention, plied with impatient questions. Several of the girls had immediately spied Johnny, standing and talking with a few of the Lancer hands.  Of course, as a newcomer to the community, he had quickly attracted the notice of the young ladies, but they would surely have paid him less attention had he not been so darkly handsome, with his black bolero jacket and brightly colored shirt complementing his coloring. 

That Alondra Zamora and Nellie Hilldenbrand found Johnny to be especially fascinating came as no surprise to Teresa; the two couldn’t stop staring at him and whispering to each other.  Meanwhile Corinna Cushman and Leah Anderson peppered Teresa with inquiries about the “the Boston gentleman, the one from back East”.   It was clear that, based on what little they’d heard or the brief glimpses they’d caught, the young ladies had already developed an intense interest in one Lancer brother or the other. When dark haired Alondra had openly expressed her envy of Teresa’s new proximity to two very handsome young men—a sentiment echoed by the rest of the girls, even those who had yet to lay eyes on Scott—Teresa had said something about being happy that Murdoch’s two sons seemed willing to accept her as a sister.

“But you’re not their sister, Teresa!” hazel eyed Corinna was quick to point out.  “And that’s a very good thing!” Corinna, whose own family was from “back East” was most curious about Scott, but that didn’t stop her from avidly studying Johnny right along with the other girls.

Murdoch and Scott had exited the hacienda just about then, carrying several bottles to place on a table near the side door. Although there were large bowls of lemonade and punch available, Murdoch Lancer was also setting out some of his best scotch, sherry and wine for the occasion. To the somewhat flustered delight of her friends, Teresa beckoned Scott over to the group and began to make introductions. She was pleased to note that even Nellie was impressed enough with the blond-haired Lancer brother to tear her eyes away from Johnny, who had left the circle of ranch hands and had taken up a solitary lounging position against a far wall. The two Baldemerro sisters had just hurried over to join the group of females gathered around Teresa and Scott when Murdoch Lancer, positioned near the refreshment tables with a drink in one hand, called for the attention of everyone assembled.

“I want to thank all of you for coming together on such short notice—particularly you ladies who have contributed to this magnificent spread,” he started with a smile, gesturing at the heavily laden tables.  “We’ve all been through some tough times—some very tough times—and many of us have suffered losses . . .  very painful losses.”

The sudden stab of sorrow as she thought of her own loss caused Teresa to bow her dark head, grasping at the folds of her rose colored skirt with each hand. Tears filled her eyes at Murdoch’s words, quickened by the certainty that he too was remembering her father, his best friend. As she fiercely bit her lip, trying hard not to cry, Teresa felt Scott’s hand ease onto her shoulder, just as her friend Leah, on her left, slipped a comforting arm around her waist.

“Good men,  . ..  we’ll never forget them,” Murdoch continued with obvious emotion.  Some of the ranchers in the crowd responded with “Hear! Hear!” and Murdoch joined them in solemnly raising his glass.

After a brief pause, Murdoch began to speak again. “But we do have something to celebrate,” he stated forcefully. “Our land has been defended, Pardee and his men have been defeated. They won’t threaten us or anyone else again!”  Cheers and applause greeted this last.  Out of the corner of her eye, Teresa slid a glance at Scott, standing to her right and slightly behind, his hand still resting lightly on her left shoulder. Pardee, the man who had murdered her father, was dead, and it had been Scott who had killed him. She was fiercely glad of that.

“And, as you probably all know by now, I have something very special to cel . .  . to give thanks for. .. . my sons are  . . . home.”  Murdoch looked out over the crowd, spied Scott and gestured for him to approach. “Scott, . .  Scott— come on up here.”

Scott gave Teresa’s shoulder a small squeeze and smiled reassuringly down at her, then politely murmured his excuses to the young ladies before striding up to stand beside Murdoch.  

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“Everyone, this is my elder son, Scott . . .from . . . Boston.”

From his position next to his father, Scott Lancer glanced around pleasantly at the assemblage and seemed about to say something when Murdoch put his hand on his son’s shoulder and continued speaking.

From their different vantage points, both Teresa and Johnny watched Scott quite carefully. Teresa was pleased to see that the Bostonian had followed her advice; Scott had asked what would be appropriate to wear for the occasion and she had been only too happy to steer him away from his more formal Eastern attire. Scott looked very handsome in his caramel colored jacket, white shirt and black string tie; glancing at her friends, Teresa could tell that they most likely shared her opinion. Teresa did note, with some surprise, that the young man seemed slightly uncomfortable standing up there next to his father; she would have expected he’d be quite at ease in almost any social situation.

Still leaning against a wall at the rear of the gathering, Johnny smiled sardonically as he watched Scott’s guarded reaction to Murdoch’s large hand clasping his shoulder. He saw Scott start to say something, then bow his head a little bit when the Old Man kept right on talking.

“Scott studied at Harvard College  . . . . And like some of you, he served in the War that almost tore our country apart . . .”

Johnny watched with interest as Scott’s head came up at that, although Boston’s expression didn’t change much, except for maybe a little something around his eyes. Then his half-brother swiftly scanned the crowd—–looking for those other soldiers, Johnny guessed. Johnny let his own eyes ease around too, but he didn’t pick out any veterans right off. He didn’t notice any fellow gunslingers either. In fact, half the men there weren’t even wearing guns—Murdoch and Scott included.

“Scott was an officer in the United States cavalry . . . .”

Now Scott turned his head to look the Old Man in the eye. “I think,” he began, then faced away from Murdoch to address the company, “that the point of this . . . lengthy introduction is most likely to let you all know that I am not a rancher.” Scott smiled when he emphasized the “not” and there were lots of folks smiling right back at him. Then some men over near the table holding the collection of liquor bottles, rancher types who looked to be about Murdoch’s age, started laughing and shouting a few things up at Murdoch and Scott.

“What’re you sayin’ Scott?? Ol’ Murdoch hasn’t taught you everything he knows yet?”

Still smiling, Scott started to reply, “Well, I have learned a little . .  . .”

“A little!”

“Well, Hell, that’s all Murdoch knows!!!”

“What’s he taught ya?”

“Well. . . . I think I might be able to recognize a steer,” Scott offered with mock hesitation, playing along with Murdoch’s friends.

“Now, Scott, you just come on over here!”

“Right, come lift a glass with some ‘real’ cattlemen!”

“We’ll tell ya all ya need to know!!”

Rubbing his hands together and responding that a drink did sound like a very good idea, Scott left Murdoch to head over to the cluster of ranch owners and was soon exchanging handshakes and being introduced to the laughing older men. Since they had all heard about Scott’s successful decoy plan, and also knew that it had been Scott’s bullet that had actually killed Pardee, they were more than ready to welcome Murdoch Lancer’s boy, and it didn’t really matter where he was from.  Murdoch shook his head in amusement at the gibes that had been directed at him, and smiled to see his elder son surrounded by these men who were his own long time friends and neighbors.

The tall rancher looked around until he finally spied Johnny standing back in the shadows, still leaning against the hacienda wall.  Hearing his name, Johnny pushed himself upright, then strolled over to stand on Murdoch’s right, the spot opposite from the one that Scott had so recently occupied.  During Scott’s introduction, Johnny couldn’t help but wonder what the Old Man would say about him. . now it looked like he was about to find out.

Other people must have been wondering the same thing, since they quieted down some, just watching Johnny walk over to Murdoch. Even the raucous group of ranchers standing around Scott stopped talking and turned to look.

“Everyone, this is my younger son, John . . .Johnny.”

Johnny felt the Old Man’s hand on his shoulder now. He made sure to keep his head up—if there was going to be a reaction to anything his father had to say, Johnny didn’t want to miss any of it.  For a long moment, Murdoch paused, as if maybe that was going to be it.

“Johnny’s been living down around the border, near Mexico. . .,” Murdoch started again, then faltered.

“That’s right,” Johnny said agreeably, a bemused smile playing about his lips as he realized that ol’ Murdoch wasn’t really sure what to say next.

Suddenly, Scott was there on the other side of Murdoch, holding a glass of scotch in each hand. A look passed between Scott and the Old Man and then Murdoch continued on in a noticeably stronger voice, his grip on Johnny’s shoulder tightening as he did so.  “He used to go by the name ‘Madrid’, but it’s going to be ‘Lancer’ from now on . . .”

Johnny had to admit to himself he was a bit surprised—and impressed.  The Old Man had actually said it. That might have been a good place to stop, but, of course, Murdoch didn’t.

“Johnny’s got a good gunhand—“

“— And he’s also . . . ‘ not a rancher’,” Scott interjected smoothly, netting grins and some chuckles from the crowd.  Smiling and catching Johnny’s eye, Scott handed his brother a glass.

Johnny accepted the drink, looked down at it briefly.  “Well, Boston,” he said slowly, his voice soft and drawling, “Least I know what a cow looks like.” Loud and appreciative laughter greeted this remark, Scott joining in amicably and raising his whiskey. The two brothers touched rims and drank, then Scott lifted his half-empty glass towards the assembly. “To cattle,” he said dryly, and many in the group echoed his toast. Then as Murdoch stood proudly, holding his own drink in one large hand, the other still firmly grasping Johnny’s shoulder, Cleve Anderson proposed yet another pledge, which was enthusiastically repeated by those present: “To Lancer!” 

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As she continued drying the dishes, Teresa thought about the music and dancing which had lasted well into the night. She had felt so thoroughly pleased when Scott had claimed her for the very first dance, setting her companions all atwitter by asking  “Teh-RAY-sa” if she would “do him the honor”. When the handsome blond had escorted her back to her friends, the envy in their eyes had been evident.  To their great disappointment, rather than choosing a new partner from the group of eager young girls in their brightly colored dresses, Scott had instead crossed the yard to begin methodically working his way through the ranks of older women, the ranchers’ wives. Later, when she’d asked him about it, he’d explained with a tired smile that it was his duty as host, since Murdoch’s lingering ailments prevented him from dancing and Johnny had seemed reluctant to do so. Duty or not, the local ladies had pronounced the “Boston gentleman” to be completely charming— both Senora Zamora and Mrs. Cleve Anderson had made it a point to tell Teresa so. As did their daughters when it was finally their turn to take the floor in the arms of the well-mannered Easterner. 

Johnny had seemed content to linger on the edges of the celebration; Teresa had caught glimpses of him from time to time, engaging in brief conversations with various guests, but more often on the sidelines joking with a few of the Lancer hands who had become his friends.  At one point Teresa had brought Johnny a plate with a slice of one of the pies she had made, asking if he was enjoying the music and resisting the urge to demand to know why he wasn’t dancing. Alondra and Nellie had instantly appeared, one on either side of Teresa, and they had been much less reticent. Teresa had introduced her two friends to Johnny, and Alondra, trading on what she believed to be an ‘edge’ had made a point of batting her long dark lashes and greeting Johnny in her native Spanish, effusively welcoming him to the community. Not to be outdone, Nellie had gotten right to the heart of matter with a direct question.

“So, Mr. Ma—Lancer, you do dance, don’t you?”

“It’s Johnny,” he’d said evenly, giving her an unfathomable look.  “And yeah . . . . I dance.”  He’d turned to Alondra and asked her—in Spanish—if she would please hold his dessert, and then he’d taken Teresa out onto the dance floor. Teresa had to admit to herself now that seeing Alondra’s unconcealed dismay had added to her own delight. The tune had been a lively one and despite her initial concern that Johnny might be overdoing, she’d been laughing and out of breath by the time the music had stopped.  Knowing that her friends would be horribly disappointed if they were not afforded the same opportunity, Teresa had asked Johnny if he would please dance with them as well, and he’d agreed, though he’d made it clear it was only because she’d asked, and not because she’d promised to make him a pie.

Putting away the last of the plates, Teresa smiled at the memory of how infatuated Nellie and Alondra had been—still were, in fact. Johnny had apparently said very little to either of them, but both of the girls had repeated his words over and over to their friends.

Everyone had enjoyed the festivities and there had been no question that the community had welcomed Murdoch’s two sons. She knew that meant a great deal to Murdoch; her guardian had seemed almost content as they sat alone together in the Great Room after the party had ended and the guests had all departed. Perhaps it was true, what the minister had told her when Daddy died, that God never gives you more trouble than you can handle, that He always gives you what you need to get through the most difficult times; when something is taken from you, something more is given. Teresa missed her father terribly and thought about him almost daily, but she did still have Murdoch and now Scott and Johnny too. So maybe it was also true that something good could come from even the worst event. Teresa knew that Murdoch had had agents trying to track Johnny down for a long time. But Murdoch had never attempted to contact Scott. Although Daddy had often urged him to, Murdoch had never sent a message to Scott in Boston, not until after her father had been killed and Murdoch himself had almost died. Without the threat to the ranch, perhaps he might never have done so. 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

When Teresa entered the Great Room, the Lancer men, as she had expected, were still discussing the next day’s expedition. At least, Murdoch was; Johnny half reclined on one of the sofas, looking bored and Scott was only half listening as he jotted down a list of the things they would need to bring.

“I’ll ask Maria to help me pack a chuck box first thing in the morning,” Teresa volunteered.

“Thank you, darling.” Murdoch rose stiffly from his big leather armchair. “Here, boys, let me show you the best route.” 

As Scott stood to follow their father over to the large map of the ranch on the far wall, Johnny also got to his feet and seized his opportunity to escape.

“I looked at the map already, I know where I’m going.” Feeling Scott and Murdoch watching him as he headed for the front door, Johnny turned when he reached the hat rack in the entryway. “I’m going out to see the boys in the bunkhouse for a while.” 

Despite his announcement, Johnny still paused to don his gun belt, then looked up at the other two men. “I guess I’ll see you at sunup—- that is, if you’re still coming with me, Boston,” he added, before grabbing his hat and heading out.

Murdoch turned his attention to the wall map, then noticed that Scott was staring at the now closed door.

“Something wrong, Scott?”

Despite his troubled expression, Scott responded in the negative.  “No, Sir . . . nothing,” he said slowly, then joined Murdoch in studying the outlines of Lancer.

 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

CHAPTER THREE

The next morning, Scott was out very early overseeing the packing of supplies in the cart that the brothers would be taking on their excursion to the northeast corner of the ranch. One of the hands had harnessed a single draft horse to what looked like a much smaller version of the buckboard typically used to pick up supplies in town.  There were already quite a few items in the bed of the wagon, including a two-man saw fastened along the inside wall and a large wooden box that Scott recognized as a wannigan. He deposited two filled canteens on the driver’s seat and two bedrolls in the back, then lifted the lid of the wannigan to survey the contents. Chuck box, he reminded himself, that’s what Teresa called it, a chuck box.  Once again, the Easterner wondered just how long it would take before he got used to the idea that even things that seemed familiar were still somehow ‘different’ out here. Scott did note with satisfaction that in addition to a coffee pot and skillet, there was also what he would identify as a cast-iron “dutch oven”.  He was still examining some of the foodstuff packed inside the box when, hearing footsteps behind him, he dropped the lid back into place and turned to greet his father.

Scott was pleasantly surprised when he saw the items that Murdoch Lancer was carrying, –a fishing pole and a well-worn wicker creel. The previous evening, as they had once more examined the large wall map of the ranch, the two of them had discussed the route that the brothers would be taking.  When Murdoch had pointed out that for the majority of the trip water would be in good supply since the proposed route followed the beds of various streams, Scott had wondered aloud about the likelihood of camping near a choice fishing spot. Murdoch had been surprised by the inquiry, but had quickly volunteered to provide the necessary equipment for such an undertaking. Although Scott had accepted the offer, he hadn’t been at all certain that the older man would remember.

Just as Murdoch was showing Scott the small box of hooks, lures and flies which had been stored inside the old creel, Cipriano and Miguel approached with a few more things to add to the collection in the wagon bed. Cipriano Sanchez had been the Lancer foreman since shortly after Paul O’Brien’s murder.  Ever since their foray into the mountains to decoy Pardee and his men, Scott had been working closely with Senor Cipriano and had greatly benefited from the older man’s tutelage.  Miguel was the Segundo’s nephew. Although the young vaquero often dined with his aunt and uncle in their small home, he bunked with the rest of the Lancer hands and was part of a small group that had quickly become quite friendly with Johnny.  Once the additional supplies– including several lengths of rope, a couple of buckets and an ax– had been safely stowed, Cipriano addressed Murdoch.

“Senor Lancer, I have sent out the crews for today. Did you still wish me to go to town tomorrow?”

“Yes, Cipriano, I’ll need you to go to the bank or I’m afraid we won’t have enough money to meet payroll on Saturday.”  Murdoch considered this briefly, then added, “It’s probably best if you don’t go alone—take Miguel with you.”

Scott flashed his father a furrowed glance, and then raised a detaining hand towards the Segundo, who had nodded soberly and was about to depart toward the stables.

“Just a minute.”  Turning to face Murdoch, Scott expressed his concern. “Murdoch, we’re already short handed; Johnny and I will be away and Jose still isn’t fully recovered yet. Now. . . I still have the money you gave me  . . .  And I say we use that to meet the payroll rather than having Cipriano and Miguel spend most of a day riding to Morro Coyo and back.” 

At the mention of “the money that you gave me”, the elder Sanchez exchanged a look with his nephew; Cipriano’s wife Juanita had told them about the unbelievable sum of money–$1000 !!—that Murdoch Lancer had promised to each of his sons.  .

Murdoch was clearly not pleased with the proposal. “That’s yours, Scott—and I have more than enough money in the bank to meet the payroll.”

“And that’s good to hear,” Scott assured him. “It’ll still be there when Johnny and I get back—we can settle up then.” 

Once Senor Scott had finished speaking, Cipriano ventured to lend his support to the young man’s suggestion before “el jefe” could voice another objection. “There is still very much work to be done, Senor Lancer.”

Absorbed in studying the rough exterior of the weathered creel, Scott felt rather than saw his father bite back his first reply. While the Sanchezes eyed Murdoch expectantly, the older man considered his son thoughtfully. Deciding that this might not be the time to insist upon “calling the tune”, the veteran rancher slowly nodded, grimly accepting the logic of keeping the foreman on site while Lancer was still undermanned and his sons would be absent.  Abruptly changing the subject, Murdoch asked a question about how the two newest hands were working out.

During Johnny’s recuperation, Murdoch had spent much of his time at his injured son’s bedside and it had been left to Cipriano and Scott to organize the surviving Lancer hands to repair the damage done by the Land Pirates and resume the operation of the ranch. During that time, two new men had been signed on, Micajah, a taciturn Indian, and a loquacious Anglo drifter named Wes. Murdoch and Johnny had yet to meet the new hires; currently both men were assigned to a small crew working in a distant pasture during the day.

“The Indian, he is a hard worker,” Cipriano assured his patron; Miguel, standing beside his uncle, nodded his agreement. Scott was left to fill the brief pause that followed this assessment.

“From what I understand,” he said carefully, “Wes manages to pull his weight—with a bit of prodding.”

The expression on the Segundo’s face made it more than clear that the stolid Mexican held a rather negative opinion of this Wes. Murdoch heaved a sigh; he would need to meet the young man, but he knew that since Lancer had too few workers and far too much work, he wouldn’t be able to turn away any able-bodied hands, however unambitious. Elevating an eyebrow at his father’s audible expulsion of breath, Scott refrained from further comment, instead carefully placing the fishing pole and creel in the wagon bed and then excusing himself to go back inside the hacienda.  Cipriano and his nephew touched the brims of their hats in Murdoch’s direction and departed for the stables.

The tall grey-haired cattleman leaned on the side of the wagon and surveyed the yard and the clusters of adobe buildings, taking a moment to appreciate how fortunate he was that they were still standing and still bore his name.  Murdoch had not had much time to himself before Johnny appeared, exiting another of the barns leading the sorrel that Scott had dubbed “Rambler”.  The horse was saddled for the trip, with two bulging saddlebags and a carbine stowed in the attached boot.  Murdoch nodded, but neither man spoke as Johnny approached, and then leaned against the wagon in a stance mirroring that of his father. Glancing down, Johnny noticed the fishing pole.

“Hey, what’s this?”

Murdoch allowed himself a small smile. “It may be your supper,” he replied. “It seems Scott plans to do some fishing.”

“He do a lot of fishin’ in Boston?” Johnny asked, his skepticism evident.

Giving Johnny a look of mild surprise, Murdoch considered the question. Like Johnny, he too thought of Scott as being largely unaccustomed to life outside of the city, and had been suitably impressed with how well his elder son had thus far seemed to adapt to his new surroundings.

“Well,” he said slowly, “Boston is located on a harbor.  And there are several rivers running through or near the city. The Charles is one; I can’t seem to recall the names of the others . . .”

Scott, of course, could have easily identified the waterways of his home city, but he exited the hacienda too late to catch the reference to the River Charles.  He was holding the envelope of cash that he had reluctantly accepted from Murdoch at their first meeting, but instead of immediately handing it to Murdoch, he was momentarily distracted by the fact that Johnny had saddled Rambler rather than Barranca. He had expected that Johnny would much prefer being on horseback to driving the small buckboard.

Rambler was the dependable horse that Scott was accustomed to riding; Cipriano had chosen the animal for him when they had taken the Lancer vaqueros up into the mountains. The very sedate-looking saddle horse that had originally been selected for the Easterner that first morning at the ranch had disappeared immediately after Scott had demonstrated his equestrian prowess on Barranca.

Although he certainly would not have minded another opportunity to mount the golden palomino, the former cavalry officer assumed that Johnny, like many horsemen, would prefer that no one else rode his steed.  Having recently selected a lively stockinged chestnut as his primary mount, Scott knew he would likely have the same proprietary feelings towards the horse once Brunswick had been properly broken in. Although his trained eye noted that Johnny had already adjusted the stirrups to his own length, the fact that his brother had elected to saddle the sorrel for the journey signaled to Scott that the younger man did not intend to completely preempt the role of advance scout.

Approaching the two men leaning on the wagon, Scott handed the envelope without comment to Murdoch and then immediately turned his attention to Johnny.

“Are you ready, Brother?”

“Whenever you are, Boston.”

After a last careful inventory of the contents of the wagon, the two set out. Scott drove the wagonload of tools and provisions, with Johnny riding alongside. The sun had made its ascent from its resting place behind the distant mountains, slowly mounting into a sky of the clearest blue as the half-brothers headed for a distant corner of the large ranch of which they had so recently become part-owners. They understood that their father had painstakingly built up his holdings, essentially alone, over the past several decades. Having helped Murdoch avert the threat from Pardee and the “land pirates”, his sons had been rewarded with partnerships, though they had yet to see the farthest reaches of the land that they had acquired.

The two young men rode in silence for a time; neither one could have said with certainty if it was “companionable” or merely a silence. As with so very many other things here at Lancer, having a sibling was a new experience for each of them and they were nowhere near adept at reading each other. Whether the two novice ranchers were wondering what their joint future might hold, or if both men were contemplating the past—either distant or recent—each one kept his own counsel. Although perhaps focused upon inner thoughts with a blind disregard for the view, they both appeared for a time to be absorbed in considering their surroundings.  Whether the scenery attracted an eye for an aesthetic appreciation of its magnificence, or drew a purely proprietary gaze, neither brother could have ventured to answer for the other with any degree of confidence.

In truth, each was giving some consideration to the novelty of spending the next several days completely alone except for the company of this man — his recently discovered half-brother —- who was still more stranger than acquaintance.

To be honest, Scott had to admit that he had somewhat of an advantage, since while Johnny had been recovering, Murdoch had allowed his elder son to read through a collection of Pinkerton reports, all but one thin folder having to do with the career of one “Johnny Madrid”. As the subject of that slender file, Scott was fairly certain that even if Johnny had read the small amount of information which the agent had collected, the younger man would not readily be able to conjure up anything like an accurate image of Boston, or of Scott Lancer’s life there. However, having visited the towns nearest the ranch, the Easterner could at least begin to imagine the places where his younger brother might have grown up. Additionally, in his own youth, Scott had read books about “Life in the West,” albeit surreptitiously, to avoid having to account to his grandfather for his interest in the topic. He now realized that a good deal of what he had read about cowboys —and gunfighters—was inaccurate. As far as Scott knew, Johnny had not read that one scanty report that the Pinkerton man had filed from Boston, and it seemed unlikely that his brother, who by his own admission had not had much schooling, had ever eagerly devoured tales of “Massachusetts Life.”

There also was little indication that Johnny knew much about the War.  For many reasons, it wasn’t a topic that Scott was eager to discuss, but he’d found that once they became aware of his military service, most people would pose a few questions about the conflict still referred to in the North as the War of the Rebellion. This had certainly not been the case with his family here at Lancer. It was perhaps less of a surprise that Murdoch had not inquired about Scott’s participation in the United States’ civil war, given that the older man had emphatically expressed his desire to concentrate upon the present and leave the past behind. It stood to reason that Murdoch would recognize that if he were to ask questions about his sons’ pasts, then he would have to expect them to respond in kind.

But Johnny also hadn’t asked him much, and Scott couldn’t help but wonder if it might be for the same reasons as Murdoch.  It had, however, been all too apparent that his newly met brother had underestimated him in the beginning.  Johnny had evidently allowed his judgment to be influenced by Scott’s attire, which back East would have been termed ‘fashionable’ but out here earned a man the derogatory labels of ‘city slicker’, ‘dandy’, and ‘fancy dan’. Still, Scott wasn’t certain if he would have made a point of mentioning his stint in the Army if Johnny hadn’t strolled uninvited into his room that morning, hadn’t picked up that photograph of the General. Not that the gunfighter had seemed particularly impressed; even after Scott’s demonstration of his horsemanship and his announcement that he had served in a cavalry unit during the War, Johnny had still deemed him nothing more than a “tin soldier”.

Unlike the appellation “Boston”, the initially deprecating moniker that had become a friendly nickname, that other insult—“tin soldier”– had never been repeated, and Scott had even joked about it with his brother. Forgiven perhaps, but not yet completely forgotten.  Scott was justifiably proud of his service to his country, despite the fact that he fervently wished that he could have avoided much of what he had experienced during the War.

Having attained the rank of Lieutenant in the Army, performed well as a student at Harvard and enjoyed the entrée into Boston society that came from being linked to his grandfather, a prominent businessman, Scott Lancer was not accustomed to feeling that he needed to “prove” himself to anyone. He resented that a bit, yet he couldn’t deny that he still desired to somehow measure up to his new sibling’s as yet undefined standard.

Despite a lifetime of training in the art of conversing with strangers, Scott still felt singularly unprepared to forge a relationship with this brother of his. In many ways, Johnny was different from anyone that Scott had ever met, and so far the facts on paper hadn’t provided much insight into the man—he knew little of his brother’s opinions, likes and dislikes. Johnny Madrid Lancer was nothing like the younger sibling that Scott had imagined for himself when he was growing up alone in his grandfather’s house. He’d been amused to note that there had already been times when he’d assumed—or attempted to assume—the “big brother” role with this dark haired stranger, with very mixed results. Johnny could shift so quickly from a warm, relaxed smile to a cold and stiff rebuff.   

Don’t try too hard, Scott had frequently advised himself, or expect too much. It’s going to take time.  

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Hearing a heavy sigh from the seat of the small buckboard wagon, Johnny, riding ahead a bit on Rambler, flicked a glance over his shoulder and back at Scott, but didn’t say anything. Seemed like he mostly didn’t know quite what to say to Boston. Johnny considered himself to be a pretty good judge of people—there’d been plenty of times his life had depended upon it. He still felt guilty —embarrassed really– that he’d underestimated the Easterner so badly at first.

Johnny also felt a bit uncomfortable about the fact that when he’d been shot, it’d been his gringo half-brother who had come out after him. Made him feel as if he owed the man something.  Not that he wouldn’t be more than glad to repay the debt and then some, it was just that Johnny Madrid hadn’t ever really been accustomed to being beholding to anyone.  Scott hadn’t acted as if he’d expected anything in particular, not even thanks.  In fact, the way Scott had explained it, he’d just acted on instinct, hadn’t really had time to think about it– though the older man had admitted that the fact that they were brothers had “meant something” to him.

Well, Scott might be willing to accept him as a brother, but Johnny wasn’t sure he was quite ready to reciprocate.  The man was different, that was for sure. As much as Johnny would have preferred to have been riding out to the northeast corner of the ranch on his own, maybe these next few days would give him a chance to try to figure Scott out.  At least it would be interesting to see how the city boy did out here, sleeping on the ground, eating on the trail. Johnny shook his head a little bit as he remembered that fishing pole and Murdoch’s comment about Scott catching their supper. Even though he realized that it might be another mistake to assume that the Easterner wasn’t capable of doing just that, Johnny has still been more than pleased to see that the chuck box was well provisioned. If Boston thought that drowning a few worms would be an entertaining way to pass the time, well, that was fine with Johnny, just as long as his next meal didn’t depend upon it.

Johnny slowed Rambler a bit, so that he wasn’t so far out in front of the wagon. He figured that after they stopped for lunch, he’d offer to switch places, drive the cart while Scott rode on ahead. One thing for sure, Scott knew how to ride. And he’d shot well enough to finish off Pardee and a few others, but as to the extent of the man’s marksmanship, Johnny wanted to see a bit more evidence before he passed judgment.

One thing there was no question of was that Scott knew how to talk to people, young or old, male or female; Johnny had seen that over and over again at the big gathering they’d had at the ranch a few days before.  If he had to guess, he would say that Scott had probably managed to engage everyone present in at least a brief conversation at some point during the evening.

Come to think of it, Scott had usually made the effort to initiate some discussion when the two of them had been working together, asked some mild question or made some joking remark, but today it looked like maybe Boston wasn’t in much of a talkative mood.

Just as Johnny was casting about for something to say, the horse plodding along beneath him tossed his head and snorted a bit, giving Johnny his topic. He half turned back towards Scott and fired off a comment.

“Rambler here ain’t a bad ride.”

“He’s a good horse,” Scott readily agreed. “Very steady.”

“That new one you picked out’s livelier I bet.”

“Yes, he is.”

The conversation stalled, but the two brothers continued on, Johnny moving at a leisurely pace on Rambler, while the wagon, behind the single draft horse, jounced around over the rough ground. The road leading from the main compound of the ranch had gradually deteriorated until it was now little more than two wheel ruts.

“So how’d you come up with the name Rambler?”

Scott took his time answering, so Johnny slowed the sorrel, bringing himself even with the wagon. Scott looked over at him, his bottom lip pulled up as he considered his reply.

“Well. . . ,” he said finally, “Even though they don’t look anything alike, I suppose I was thinking of General Lee’s war horse, a Tennessee walker named Traveller.”

“Lee? He another one of them generals you fought under?”

“No. . . . Robert E. Lee had charge of the . . .  Confederate forces.”

“Yeah?”

Johnny reined in Rambler and reached for the canteen hanging off of the saddle. Although he’d tried not to let it show, Scott was concerned that his brother had heard the note of disbelief in his voice. He was amazed to think that there might be anyone living in this country who didn’t know General Lee by name, but then again, Johnny had grown up down around the border and in Mexico, and that’s where he would have been when the American war was taking place. It stood to reason that the remote events occurring on blood-soaked battlefields thousands of miles away would not have attracted the interest of an aspiring young gunslinger drifting through the southern border towns.

“Before the War, Robert E. Lee was an officer in the United States Army,” Scott explained quietly, reining the nameless draft horse to a halt. “When his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union, he was faced with a difficult choice.”

Johnny took a few swallows from the canteen, then regarded Scott’s profile attentively as he replaced the cap. Rambler had shifted a few steps sideways, bringing Johnny around to face his brother.

“Apparently it was with great reluctance that he finally resigned his commission, saying that he would not fight against his home and his family—- not even to preserve the Union.”

Scott reached for his own canteen as he recalled some of the events that were to him a very familiar and fascinating part of recent military history. “Lee’s forces stopped Hooker at Chancellorsville, but he was defeated at Gettysburg. Then the Confederates held onto Richmond for almost ten months before they retreated to Appomattox.” 

Scott paused.  As he took a drink, he considered that if his brother hadn’t recognized the name of the most famous of the Confederate generals, then he would certainly not have heard of Chancellorsville or of the Union’s General Joe Hooker. It was difficult for the Easterner to imagine, but even Gettysburg and Appomattox might be unfamiliar place names as well.

“So what happened at  . . A-po-matticks?”

While seeming to contemplate the canteen that he now held in two gloved hands, Scott recalled the events of that fateful day which had finally brought a truce in the seemingly endless battles of brother against brother, the prolonged and bloody conflict between North and South. 

“Well. . .  there was another fierce battle. General Phil Sheridan’s cavalry was there  . .  and Chamberlain’s Fifth Army Corps . .  and others. And, in the end, the Rebels offered a flag of truce.  Lee himself met with General Grant to arrange the final terms of surrender. . . . He had on a new uniform for the meeting, but Grant received him mud-stained from the battlefield.”

“General Grant was the leader of the Union forces,” Scott added as an afterthought, glancing up at his brother. Seeing that the younger man appeared to be listening with some interest, Scott went on with his account. “The formal surrender took place a few days later. There were Union troops lined up at Appomattox Courthouse, waiting for the Confederate Army to march past and lay down their arms and their battle flags.”

With another quick look over at Johnny, Scott set his canteen down on the floorboards between his feet and then rested his forearms on his thighs, his gaze now on his lightly clasped hands as he continued speaking. “It was General Chamberlain who was in charge of the parade. He had regiments from Massachusetts and Maine,  . . and Pennsylvania, as well, I believe, all lined up in battle formation.”

“And then, when the Rebels passed by, Chamberlain ordered his men to salute. He wanted to recognize the bravery of the defeated soldiers.”

“It wasn’t a ‘present arms’,” Scott clarified, “but a ‘carry arms’, with the weapon held in the right hand, perpendicular to the shoulder.”

Johnny wondered why the type of salute seemed to be so important, but watched in fascination as the former Union officer sat back a bit and unconsciously moved his hands in the air in imitation of the positions from the Army manual. “It became a mutual salute, when the word was sent back down the line of the Confederate troops, telling them to take the same position.”

“It took almost the entire day for the Rebel army to march past, to stack their weapons and lay down their colors.” 

Rambler edged a step sideways again, and Johnny reined the animal in, then waited a few beats before he spoke, just in case there was more.

“So I guess you were there at the end, huh?”

While he had been describing the parade and the salute, Scott had appeared to be staring at a point somewhere along the cart horse’s broad back. He now looked up at Johnny with a startled expression, the face of a man who had momentarily lost all awareness of his present surroundings.  His glance quickly slid away before he answered.

“No. . . I wasn’t.” 

“I heard about it, . . . read about it,” Scott explained softly, pausing a moment before he gathered up the reins in a businesslike manner. Holding the lines in his left hand, he gestured with the right. “Looks as if we keep going this way,” Scott observed matter-of-factly, adding a forward motion with his chin and then slapping the reins on the draft horse’s rump, setting the wagon in motion once more.

Johnny held Rambler back and watched for a moment, before urging the sorrel into a trot and moving to a position well ahead of his half-brother and the wagonload of supplies. This had been, by far, the longest string of words that he’d heard Boston put together. Listening to Scott’s voice, the Eastern accent and the unusual cadence of his speech, had almost been as interesting as the story itself. And although the man said he hadn’t been there, he’d still made it all sound quite real.

Well, it was pretty clear that Scott didn’t much want to talk about what he’d done during the War, and especially not at the end of it.  Although at the social Johnny had chanced to overhear the tail end of a conversation between his half-brother and a man who was evidently another former soldier. From what Murdoch had said, there had likely been other War veterans among the guests as well.

So maybe, Johnny amended, he just don’t wanta talk about it with me.

Which was strange, since Boston sure hadn’t hesitated to let them all know he’d served in the cavalry— but maybe that was just because he was feeling like everyone thought he was some kind of a greenhorn. Which he was, no doubt about it, being a city boy and all. Still, Scott had seemed plenty proud to say he’d served under that other general— Sheridan— and when he’d mentioned the name again just now, it had been clear that his brother thought the man was something special.

Though, come to think of it, Johnny hadn’t noticed that photograph of Scott and the General out anywhere in his brother’s room lately and, as far as he knew, Scott hadn’t shown it to anyone else.

The brothers rode along for a time in silence, each wrapped up in his own thoughts once more.  They made good time until they reached the start of the forested area, stopping before entering the woods to share a cold meal, one that Teresa and Maria had packed for them, separate from the rest of their food supplies.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

With the afternoon, came rougher going, as they came up against numerous downed trees that impeded their progress. Some, mere saplings, were but a nuisance, easily moved out of the way. Another, larger trunk, they had been able to lift out of the way together. But dealing with two other massive trees had taken a sizeable portion of the afternoon. There hadn’t seemed to be any easy way around them, so they’d taken the two-man saw and had at it.

Once past those obstacles, Johnny, still astride Rambler, had begun to scout out a suitable place to camp for the night. Having identified a sheltered area alongside a widening of the stream whose rushing waters they had been listening to throughout the latter part of the afternoon, Johnny dismounted and waited for Scott and the small supply wagon to pull up beside him.

“I figure this is as good a spot as any to bed down for the night.”

From his perch on the wagon seat, Scott glanced around appraisingly before nodding his assent. Climbing down from the wagon, he shifted his hat back onto the crown of his close-cropped blond head and then paused for a moment to stretch the back muscles that were feeling the strain of the long ride over difficult terrain as well as the after effects of the unaccustomed effort of sawing through trees.

“I’ll tend to th’horses if you want to start settin’ up the camp, get a fire goin’.”

Scott pursed his lips together, nodded once more.  Johnny wondered if the Easterner had any idea of how to set up a campsite, but told himself that if his brother had any questions, he could just ask, he wasn’t going to waste time standing around looking over the man’s shoulder.  Despite having assured Murdoch that he was fine, even capable of making this journey alone, Johnny was definitely feeling discomfort in the area of his most recent bullet wound, as well as the general fatigue from the long day in the saddle.

The exertion involved in moving trees and branches in order to enable the supply cart to pass had taken its toll as well. Not to mention the unspoken competition that had suddenly developed when the brothers had found themselves at opposing ends of that long toothed saw.  Of course, Scott hadn’t completely forgotten that his younger brother was only recently back on his feet; Johnny had been well aware of the concerned looks that Boston had been giving him, until the older man had finally suggested that Johnny might want to “take it easy”.  Of course, that had simply spurred Johnny to push himself even harder.  That was something that he regretted just a bit now, as he contemplated how hard the ground was going to feel when they bedded down for the night, but he’d been determined to cover up any signs that he was having difficulty.

The other thing that Johnny was having difficulty with was the forced togetherness. He wasn’t quite sure why; even though the gunfighter was used to traveling alone, he’d certainly had a compañero or two from time to time.  It had only been one day and already he was finding Scott’s calm, quiet presence to be just a bit . . . wearing.  Johnny shook his head and focused on the task at hand: unsaddling Rambler and depositing the tack on a cluster of boulders.  Methodically brushing the horse down and then leading the animal to the edge of the stream for some water and grazing, were familiar tasks.  Returning to unharness the draft horse, Johnny glanced around idly for his brother, but seeing no sign of Scott, he concentrated once more on his work. 

After both animals were staked out within view of the campsite, Johnny came around the cart and was surprised to see that Scott had assembled a fire pit, lined with a circle of stones.  Boston had also laid in a good supply of wood, he noticed, tinder and kindling as well as larger pieces of fuel, most of it good burning maple, if he wasn’t mistaken. Truth was, Johnny hadn’t expected a city fella to know how to build a decent fire; he’d figured officers hadn’t had to do such things in the Army. But the small amount of criss-crossed kindling and tinder inside the stone circle showed that Scott wasn’t going to make the greenhorn mistake of piling up some big chunks of wood and expecting them to burst into flame.  Anyone could start a fire in a stove or fireplace, but a campfire could be a bit different.  Obviously Scott knew that, he’d even dug down into the fire pit, so that the flames were more protected from the wind by the circle of stones. When Johnny walked up, Scott was working on a couple of Y shaped sticks to use to hold a cross piece which would enable them to hang a cooking pot over the fire.  Despite himself, Johnny was impressed, but he didn’t think there was any reason for Scott to know that, especially since Boston hadn’t actually accomplished anything that Johnny himself wouldn’t have done as a matter of course.

“You know what we’re s’posed to be eatin’ tonight?’

“Yes, I do.”

Scott removed the ingredients for a stew from the wooden chuck box in the back of the wagon, while Johnny lit the fire. By unspoken mutual agreement, Johnny took charge of the cooking while Scott continued to assemble the items needed for the meal, including tin plates and utensils.  While waiting for the meal to be ready, Scott kept busy with a few additional tasks, such as filling the canteens.  The supper was accompanied by desultory conversation about the next day’s project, and speculation about how far they might be from the cabin.  Since they planned to get an early start, the brothers bedded down for the night on opposite sides of the campfire almost as soon as the supper things had been cleaned and put away. 

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“Don’t shoot!”

Although not a shout, the forceful directive was more than enough to bring Johnny Madrid to full wakefulness. Instantly alert, his hand was reflexively reaching for the gun lying holstered beside him, grasping it almost before his eyelids had snapped completely open. The rest of his body remained perfectly still, lest his own rustling movement mask the sound of approaching danger.  Identifying the voice as Scott’s, Johnny peered through the darkness to make out his half-brother’s prone form, still lying in his bedroll, and he quickly realized that Scott must have spoken in his sleep. 

Relieved that there was no actual threat, Johnny opened his mouth to fire a question across the small campsite when he heard Scott softly utter an obscenity, not a word he would have expected to pass from the lips of the “Boston gentleman”.

A smile of mingled relief and amusement touched Johnny’s own lips, but there was something about Scott’s tone of voice, the . .   regret . . . with which the epithet had been uttered, which made him refrain from comment. It seemed that maybe Scott glanced in his direction; it was hard to tell in the dark. In any event, an audible sigh was heard.  Although the man must have realized that Johnny was awake, Scott didn’t say anything either, he just rolled over like he was going to go back to sleep.

Crossing his hands behind his head, Johnny stared up at the night sky, crowded with bright stars. He was usually a very light sleeper, so if ol’Boston had any more bad dreams, he figured he’d be sure to know about them. Which was why Johnny was so surprised when he woke up the next morning to find that Scott was gone. 

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CHAPTER FOUR A

Johnny threw his blanket off and sat up, reaching for his gun with one hand and trying to smooth his tousled dark hair with the other, all the while scanning the campsite. Scott’s bedroll was still spread out on the ground, but there was no sign of his brother.

Rubbing at one eye while slowly getting to his feet, Johnny realized that he felt very stiff after only one night of sleeping on the ground.   That’s what comes of sleepin’ in a regular bed  . . . gettin’ soft already, Madrid, he chided himself.  Judging from the position of the early morning sun, he’d slept a bit later than he would have expected; but what bothered Johnny most of all was the fact that Scott had somehow been able to get up and move around the campsite without waking him.

Johnny tucked in his salmon-colored shirt and then slowly strapped on his gun belt.  He was about to reach down to gather up his blankets when he heard a rustling noise behind him and then the sound of approaching footsteps. Quickly turning, his right hand hovering reflexively over the handle of his holstered six-gun, the gunfighter forced himself to relax when his missing brother stepped into view. Still attired in his long sleeved knit undershirt, the lean blond Easterner was carrying the fishing pole in one hand and wore Murdoch’s fishing creel on his own hip in place of a gun.

“Good morning,” Scott said, greeting him with a friendly grin. “Looks like it’s going to be a fine day.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he silently studied the older man. Boston sure didn’t have the appearance of a man who’d had a bad night’s sleep. Not that Johnny was about to embarrass him by bringing it up.

Apparently unfazed by the lack of response, Scott set the creel and pole down on the ground near the fire pit and strode purposefully towards the wagon. Removing several items, including the heavy iron skillet that had been stowed in the wannigan, he returned with them to a spot near the campfire.  “I hope you’re hungry,” he said in a determinedly pleasant tone, and then flipped the top of the wicker creel to reveal the fish inside.

Impressed, but equally determined not to show it, Johnny managed a nod. “Gonna need some coffee first.”

“Sounds good.”

While Scott set about cleaning his catch, Johnny started a fire and then went to work to heat up some water and brew a pot of coffee. Once he’d also set out two cups, plates and assorted utensils on a rock near the campfire, he sauntered back over to his rumpled blankets and proceeded to roll them up. Out of the corner of his eye, he’d been watching as Scott deftly wielded a knife, removing the heads and tails and then deboning three pretty good sized fish. Next the fillets were rolled in corn meal and placed in the big skillet to wait on the ground alongside rocks encircling the campfire until the coffee pot had been removed from the flames. In the meantime, Scott returned a few items to the chuck box and then busied himself doing something else over there by the wagon; Johnny wasn’t sure what, but his desire for coffee was much stronger than his curiosity about what this gringo brother of his might be up to next.

Johnny shook his head. Of course it was pretty clear by now that Scott wasn’t quite like a “typical” gringo.  Still, it was going to be very hard to forget— . . .Dios, as if he could ever forget anything about that first day, when he’d finally come face to face with Murdoch Lancer.  And met Scott. Even now, glancing over at the man beside the wagon, Johnny couldn’t completely forget how it had felt to be standing next to the stage in Morro Coy, finding out that the too serious, too stiff, over dressed Easterner was his . . . brother.   As to what Scott had thought about him, well, his . . . half . .  brother, hadn’t made much effort to hide his dismay.

He’d just finished pouring some of the steaming brown liquid into the two tin cups when Scott’s boots entered his line of vision. Glancing up, Johnny saw that Boston was holding the handle of a round covered pot.  After setting it down, Scott came around the ring of stones and took up the skillet; once that was in place he remained crouched before the fire to oversee the fish. Johnny handed him a cup of coffee, which the older man accepted with a grateful expression. “Thanks,” he said, gesturing with the cup in his hand.

“Maybe you’d better taste it ‘fore ya thank me,” Johnny admonished him.

Johnny had seen the Easterner add large amounts of both cream and sugar to his coffee back at the hacienda; of course they didn’t have any milk or cream along, and, since he always drank his own coffee black, Johnny hadn’t noticed if they’d brought any sugar. Scott didn’t seem to be bothered by the absence of his preferred additions though, just kept his attention on the frying pan while taking occasional sips from the coffee cup cradled in his left hand.

“Have you got a plate?” Scott inquired a moment later, and then, when Johnny extended one towards him, he ladled a generous portion of fish onto it. Removing the skillet from the fire and putting it aside, Scott refilled his coffee cup, then set some water to warm over the flames before picking up a plate and serving himself.  Once seated with his back against a convenient tree, he turned expectantly towards Johnny, unable to disguise his eagerness to gauge the younger man’s appraisal of the meal.

“Not bad, Boston.”

Scott couldn’t hold back a smile at the sight of his brother’s empty plate. “There’s more,” he pointed out, motioning with his head towards the campfire.

Depositing his coffee cup on the grass, Johnny got up and strolled over to the skillet. He lifted the third fillet onto his plate and split it in two with his fork before he sat down cross-legged beside Scott. Johnny slid one half of the fish onto his brother’s dish and then went to work on his own piece.

After the two had polished off most of the breakfast, Johnny gestured with his fork towards the covered “dutch oven” which Scott had left on the ground near the fire ring. “What’s in the pot?”

“Oh, some cornmeal, . . .a little salt, a little water. . . .I’ll let it bake while I’m shaving.”

“We got time for that?”

Scott shot Johnny a bemused look and then rose to his feet. “It won’t take long,” Scott said, pausing to extract his pocket watch from its resting place just below the waistband of his dark trousers.  He flipped open the front cover to check the time. “It’s still very early.” 

“Not,” he added, looking up at Johnny again, “that I expected to be on anyone’s timetable out here, Brother.”

As he too stood up and then returned to his previous seat to pick up the coffee cup he’d left there, Johnny grinned and shook his head a little at that. He’d pegged Scott as being one who’d prefer to stick to a timetable; he’d be pretty surprised to find he was wrong about that, since so far the man seemed to have had no difficulty whatsoever following the schedules that Murdoch Lancer was so fond of setting.

Meanwhile, Scott had removed the wash water he’d been heating and was busy using his tin plate to pull some coals out of the campfire; he then set the dutch oven on top of what he had accumulated. While his brother shoveled more coals onto the lid of the cast iron pot, Johnny poured out the rest of the coffee, dividing it between his cup and Scott’s. 

When Scott produced a haversack from the wagon bed and began to remove a few articles, including a small bristled brush, a circular bar of soap and a wood-framed folding mirror, Johnny decided that Boston was indeed serious about shaving. Unconcerned about his own stubbled chin, Johnny gathered up the canteens and headed down to the stream to fill them.

As he crouched at the water’s edge, Johnny allowed his thoughts to flow back again, to that day when he’d first met them, Murdoch and Scott.  He had to admit that he’d been disappointed, finding out that he was there because the Old Man was worried about his ranch. There’d been good reason to be worried, Johnny’d understood that right away, knowing what he did about Pardee. But Murdoch had been all too willing to listen to Scott, all dressed up and standing there talking in that too confident voice about how they needed to “engage the enemy.” Like it was some kind of a game, like it wasn’t real. Pretty words from a man who hadn’t even been wearing a gun.

Well, Scott’s plan had worked, he reminded himself as he fastened the cover on the first dripping container, then tossed it on the grass as he reached for the second canteen. And, so far, it seemed like the man was trying to fit in. But the eastern accent and those fine manners of his still served as a constant reminder that Scott wasn’t from around here.

Johnny had known a few city slickers who’d acted real nice and polite, without meaning any of it. Many of the Easterners he’d encountered hadn’t been able to hide their disdain for everything west of the Mississippi, let alone anything or anyone Mexican. Of course, the other night the boys in the bunkhouse had been laughing about some of the choice words they’d been teaching “Senor Scott.” And then the next morning, he’d overheard that language lesson going on. Apparently Scott had been trying to learn Spanish, though so far he hadn’t bothered to ask Johnny for any help

Thank you for your help, Brother.

Holding the canteen under the rushing current, Johnny remembered that he’d actually thought for a moment that he was going to end up in the water, that day at the riverside. He’d been caught off guard, all right; Boston wasn’t easy to read.  As he capped the second canteen, Johnny decided that Scott was pretty good at keeping things bottled up inside—up to a point. That the man had exploded with that punch was actually less surprising than how quickly he’d offered his hand in apology, saying something about how they should be able to get along. Because they were brothers. The same reason Scott had expected some help in town, the reason he’d come out after Johnny in the courtyard.

Because we share the Old Man’s blood.

Well, it would be nice if that mattered, but he’d seen kin turn on each other often enough to know that carrying the same name didn’t necessarily mean anything, that sharing blood was no guarantee that one man could rely upon another.

Johnny slowly stood, grasping the cords of the two canteens, ready to go see what his “hermano grande” was up to now. There had already even been a time or two when Scott had tried to talk to him the way Johnny imagined an older brother would, even offering advice. It wasn’t as if he needed anyone looking out for him that way.  He’d managed to get along fine so far.

Then again, Johnny thought, as he headed back towards the campsite, a man could always use a good compañero. A compadre. He wondered if Scott knew what those words meant.

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Once everything was packed into the wagon once more, Johnny harnessed the draft horse, leaving Rambler to Scott. After tightening the cinch, the former cavalry officer adjusted the stirrups to his own length.  He was about to mount up, when Johnny quietly remarked that he was “maybe forgettin’ somethin’”.  As Johnny handed him his gun belt, Scott accepted it with a rueful expression and was surprised when the young gunslinger refrained from any additional comment. 

Before Johnny clambered up into the seat of the small buckboard, the brothers compared notes on their memories of the large wall map hanging in the Lancer Great Room; they both believed that they would easily reach the cabin by lunchtime.

Four and a half hours and too many downed trees later, Johnny finally reminded his older brother that they weren’t on anyone’s timetable. By then, Scott was more than ready to agree.

A portion of the dutch oven cornbread had proven to be a tasty mid-morning snack; the two hot, tired and hungry men finished it off as a part of their mid-day meal.  His stomach satisfied, Johnny lay down with his head hanging over the bank of the rushing stream, reaching down to scoop water up into his face with both hands.  It felt so good that he scooted his body forward in order to lower his head enough to give his hair –and the collar of his rose-colored shirt–a thorough dowsing. 

As he shook the excess water out of his hair, Johnny glanced over one shoulder at Scott, who was lying on his back in the shade just a few feet away.  With his hat over his eyes, his fancy leather trimmed jacket folded up under his blonde head and his arms in rolled-up shirtsleeves resting on his own full stomach, Scott was the perfect picture of contentment.  Unable to resist such a tempting target, Johnny playfully scooped up more of the cold water in his cupped hands and directed it towards the beige checks on Scott’s chest.  

With a sharp intake of breath, Scott sat bolt upright, his hat landing on its crown in the grass. Staring hard at his younger brother’s laughing face, Scott pressed his lips together, then dropped his gaze. “I can see,” he said tightly, still looking at the ground, “that I’m going to have to . . .

Lifting his face to reveal an answering grin, Scott launched himself in Johnny’s direction as he completed his sentence at a somewhat higher volume. “ . . .teach you some manners!”  He landed hard alongside his brother as the younger man barely rolled out of the way in time. Reaching into the stream with his left hand, Scott thought better of it when he realized that Johnny’s hair was already dripping and his shirt was already more than a little damp. Shaking his head in amusement, he proceeded to wet down his own hair.

“I just didn’t want you falling asleep on me, Boston,” Johnny explained as he flipped back over onto his stomach. 

Scott’s face assumed an expression of mock surprise. “But I understood that a ‘see-es-TAH’ was the custom out here.”

“I don’t guess Murdoch’s ever heard of it.”

“Should I ask Senora Maria to explain it to him?”

“Well,” Johnny replied as he pushed himself up off the ground, “you’d better not let her hear you sayin’ it like that.” 

Scott rolled over onto his back to look up at Johnny who was now standing above him.

“Heard her quizzin’ you the other mornin’,” Johnny explained in response to his brother’s lifted brow. “She was kinda tough on ya.”

Maria Constancia Aguilera de Alvarez, the woman who ruled the kitchen at the Lancer hacienda, had been all too ready to mother the injured “Juanito”.  But she had also taken an immediate liking to her employer’s elder son, charmed by both his good manners and the fact that Senor Scott had enlisted her assistance in his fledgling efforts to learn her native tongue.

“I’ve known college professors who were easier taskmasters,” was Scott’s rueful response, though his expression made it clear that he respected the elderly Mexican woman. His previous studies in Latin and French enabled Scott to comprehend a good deal of spoken Spanish, or at least it did if the speakers could be convinced to converse less rapidly than usual. But, those other languages so far seemed to be getting in the way of his attempts to master the Spanish accent.

Accepting Johnny’s proffered hand up, Scott stood facing his brother. “So . . ?”

“It’s see-ES-ta.”

“See-ES-ta,” Scott murmured under his breath, as Johnny moved away a few steps and bent down to retrieve his brother’s upended hat.

“Don’t even think about it,” Scott warned him sternly, catching the mischievous look on the younger man’s face and quickly moving forward to claim his headgear. Reluctantly ceding possession, Johnny shrugged.

“Hey,” he said in a nonchalantly drawling voice. “I know you like that hat. I watched ya fight three men t’get it.” 

Scott’s look of surprise was genuine this time, as he watched Johnny saunter towards the patiently waiting Rambler and his draft horse companion. With the distinctive line of silver buttons down his pants leg flashing in the sun, and the gun belt slung very low across his hips, Johnny looked quite out of place in this idyllic forest setting; he seemed to belong in the center of one of the dusty main streets described in those western novels.

What the Easterner found most disconcerting was that it had only taken the blink of an eye for his practical joke playing younger sibling to transform himself back into the cynical, self-assured gunfighter; unfortunately, the “brotherly good will” engendered by the good natured teasing seemed to have disappeared in the blink of an eye as well. In the midst of such a light-hearted moment, Scott would not have expected Johnny to bring up the incident that had occurred in town the first morning after the brothers had arrived at the ranch.

Scott wasn’t certain, but he suspected that the aforementioned three men who had accosted him inside Senor Baldemerro’s clothing store had been members of Day Pardee’s band of ‘land pirates’.  He had noticed Johnny, watching from a distance, making no move to assist him. Later, once his brother had caught up with them, Scott had thrown his own punch at Johnny’s face with enough force to lift the younger man off of his feet and send him rolling down the embankment, with Teresa as a horrified witness. Then Johnny had come charging back up.

He’s nothing to me!

Scott shook his head. What had just occurred here alongside this stream was so different from what had taken place in town and then later at the riverbank that day. Scott was entirely at a loss as to how to interpret the sudden, very deliberate, reference.

Realizing that Scott wasn’t following him, Johnny half-turned. “Vayamos, Boston,” he said. Then added, very slowly, “Ningún tiempo para una siesta.”

Puzzling out the words as he reached up to settle his hat squarely on his head, then leaned down to gather up his jacket, Scott considered that even when this gunslinger brother of his was speaking English, it sometimes seemed as if Johnny was using a foreign tongue. The Bostonian couldn’t help but wonder if the other man felt the same way about him.

Of one thing Scott was certain—there were a lot of things he would have like to discuss with this stranger, his half-brother. They had had so few real conversations of any sort; instead, it seemed as if each of them took turns throwing out tantalizing hints or allusions to past events, offering remarks about their present circumstances, making comments about Murdoch, Teresa, the ranch . . . each silently collecting the other’s words, carefully weighing them and then not really knowing quite what to do with them.

Scott’s thoughts flashed on some of the other important individuals in his life.  There were his closest childhood friends, and then, later, other Army officers, boys and men whom he had considered to be “like brothers”. Now he wasn’t entirely sure if he understood what that phrase really meant. 

Seeing that Johnny was already in the midst of making the adjustments that indicated his intention to assume the role of advance scout on Rambler, Scott tossed his jacket onto the wagon seat. Hands on hips, he stared at the forward wheel a moment, before sliding a glance over at Johnny.

“No time . . . for a nap?” he ventured.

“You got that right, Boston,” Johnny replied softly as he lifted his leg into the stirrup.  Swinging up into the saddle, he looked down at Scott and repeated his response, “You got that right.” 

Tilting his hat back onto the crown of his head, Scott Lancer let out a soft sigh and then slowly resumed his place on the bench seat of the small supply wagon. Although his enigmatic younger brother had laid no particular emphasis upon any of the words of that short sentence, Scott couldn’t help wondering, as he watched Johnny ride away, about all the many things that he still hadn’t  gotten right.  

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CHAPTER FOUR B

Neither of the Lancer brothers had been right about the distance they’d had left to travel to reach the collapsing cabin. Their memory of the map of the ranch had led them to believe that they would easily reach the abandoned structure well before it was time to halt for lunch; when their fatigue and growing appetites had demanded that they stop for a meal, they had agreed that it was likely they still had a ways to go given the detours and delays of clearing a path for the wagonload of tools and provisions. As it had turned out, they’d traveled only ten minutes more before finally arriving at the small clearing that contained the cabin.

The condition of the dilapidated building was as bad as Murdoch had described, if not worse. All that remained of the few windows were empty panes with an occasional pointed fragment of glass.  There was a large, gaping hole in one section of the roof. When Scott drove up, Johnny, who had already dismounted, was trying to push the weathered door open. It initially refused to budge until an extra shove sent it slamming against an interior wall.  By the time that Scott had climbed down from the wagon seat, Johnny was already inside.  Removing his gloves as he entered the cabin, Scott came up to stand beside his brother and join him in silently contemplating the “Holy Grail” of their journey, the fabled woodstove.

It was not quite what either of them had expected. Rather than an example of the familiar, compact pot-bellied stove, or even one of the simpler box variety, the small cabin had been furnished with a cook stove that would have done justice to most farmhouse kitchens. Despite the tarnish now disfiguring its strip of nickel trim, the heavy black cast iron woodstove had clearly been the pride and joy of whoever had built the place.

After tucking his gloves up under his belt, Scott tipped his hat back on the crown of his head, placed his hands on his hips and then finally broke the silence. “Well . .  it’s a stove, all right.”

Johnny, his arms folded across his chest, slowly nodded, without taking his eyes off of the stove. “Yup.”

Both brothers continued to stare at the grimy black form.

“Looks heavy,” Scott offered.

“Pfft.  I coulda moved it by myself, easy,” Johnny announced in a grim voice. “With one hand.”

“Fine.”  Playing along, Scott picked up the lid lifter from the cook stove top and carefully removed just one of the circular plates.  “Let me make it a little bit easier for you,” he added dryly.

“Thanks, Boston.”   There was a slight pause before Johnny continued. “You know we’re gonna hafta take it apart to move it, even with two of us.”

“I do think you’re right, Brother.” Scott made no effort to hide his dismay. Then he looked over his shoulder.

“Johnny  . . . we’re going to have to take it apart just to get it through the door.”

As the brothers exited the cabin, Johnny volunteered once again to take charge of Rambler, while Scott selected a few tools and headed back inside to confront the stove. He started by removing the rest of the plates from the cook top surface and then set about disconnecting the stovepipe.  He’d just finished detaching the heavy cast iron doors to both the oven and the firebox when Johnny returned and together they experimented with lifting the stove. Discovering that the body was simply resting upon a four-legged metal frame, they felt confident that they would be able to carry the main section to the wagon. Fortunately, Johnny had already thought of maneuvering the small buckboard closer to the building; the draft horse still stood patiently in the traces. The younger man’s suggestion of removing the cabin door provided the extra inch of width required in order to ease their weighty prize through the entryway.

Once the stove had been heaved up into the wagon bed, Johnny set about lashing it in place, while Scott made a few trips back and forth, bringing out the rest of the stove parts, some iron skillets and a few other salvageable items from the cabin. After fastening his final knot, Johnny joined his brother inside for a quick perusal. 

“Anything left?”

“Nothing more worth saving.”

While Scott drove the small wagon a safer distance from the structure, Johnny strolled to the rear of the cabin. The ground around the building was mostly packed earth and sparse grass.  When he reappeared, carrying a short rough-hewn ladder and wooden bucket with rope handles that seemed useable, Scott was waiting for him with two buckets from the wagon.

“So, we ready to fire this place?” Johnny asked.

“I thought we might soak the perimeter first,” Scott replied, with a slight lift of the buckets he was holding in each hand. He started to head in the direction of the nearby stream, though after a few paces, he paused to look back over his shoulder. Nodding his head towards the two horses, he asked if they should be moved further off. “They aren’t going to like seeing flames.”

Won’t like the smell much either, Johnny thought to himself, setting down the ladder and the bucket and returning inside to grab an old moth-eaten blanket. Ripping it into two strips, he picked up the wooden bucket once more and followed his brother down to the stream. Whoever had built the cabin had chosen wisely, as the stream actually emptied right here into a fairly sizeable pond. Johnny tossed the two halves of the blanket into the water to soak while he tested the old bucket; it didn’t appear to have any holes.  Scott silently trudged back towards the cabin with his own two pails of water, but Johnny paused to wring out the two pieces of fabric before following him.  Seeing that Scott was already at work soaking the ground around the cabin, Johnny set his own bucket down near his brother’s feet as he passed by on his way to the horses.  Unhitching the draft horse from the cart, he led the animal over to the quietly grazing Rambler. Johnny then tied one of the damp cloths over each animal’s face and led them to the edge of the small clearing, as far away from the cabin as possible, while insuring that they would still be in view.

By the time that Johnny had finished with the horses, Scott had already made another trip to the pond and was still working at dampening the perimeter of the cabin. Johnny wordlessly scooped up two empty buckets and made another trek of his own. On his return trip, he was surprised not to encounter Scott with the third container, but when he reached the cabin, he found that his brother had set the ladder up against the north face of the building. The ladder was a simple affair, two poles and three log rungs, and Scott was testing it to see that it would in fact bear his weight.  Taking one of the filled buckets from Johnny, the Easterner ascended the three steps and proceeded to wet down the cabin roof.  Once the first pail was empty, Johnny accepted it from him, handed Scott the next one and then dutifully returned to the pond with the two empty buckets.

“So why’re you doing this?” he asked upon his return, as he handed another bucket up to Scott—who during Johnny’s brief absence had moved the ladder to another side of the small building.

“We don’t want the roof to catch, at least not until it falls in. The sparks could reach those trees,” Scott replied, gesturing at the branches overhead, which, while not especially low, did extend well into the area just above the roof.  He splashed the water over the mossy, weathered surface as he spoke, then handed the bucket back down. Scott waited while Johnny set the empty pail aside and then lifted up the heavy filled one. Their eyes met and Johnny asked his question. “So I figure you’ve done this before?”

“Ye-es.”

Scott’s attention was all on his task and even though he drew out the one word a bit, there was no mistaking the finality in his tone. Johnny waited for him to descend the ladder with the empty bucket and hand it over; then watched as his brother turned to move the ladder to another side of the building. As Johnny headed to the pond for one final trip, he couldn’t help wondering about the fact that Boston seemed to know quite a bit about both how to build up a fire and how to burn down a building. 

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Once several small fires had been set inside the cabin, the brothers stood by while the building burned, the three water filled buckets at the ready. Although the old wooden furniture and the remains of the faded cotton curtains at the windows were quickly engulfed by the flames, since there wasn’t even a hint of breeze, the fire was never in danger of getting out of control.  The roof, already weakened by the gaping hole on one side, collapsed just as Scott had hoped.

After a late supper, the brothers were sitting in the deepening darkness, staring into their flickering campfire, when Scott announced his intention to go for a swim to try to remove some of the soot and smoke which was the inevitable result of prolonged proximity to the burning building. When Johnny questioned the fact that he had waited until it was dark, the older man pointed out that the moon was rising, a three-quarters moon, which would provide more than enough light to swim by.

“That water’s goin’ to be some cold. Make more sense to wait til tomorrow, when you’ll have the sun t’warm ya.”

“I’ll sleep better clean,” Scott said lightly, and Johnny bit back a retort.

“Besides,” Scott pointed out, “There’s some of that leftover chili to warm up, we can have another bite to eat before we turn in.” 

Johnny watched silently as Scott rose and then disappeared in the direction of the wagon; after rummaging around for a bit, he finally came back into view carrying his leather haversack and his bedroll. Tossing the bedroll to the ground, he gestured with the bag in his hand. “I’ve got some soap, and a scrub brush, if you change your mind.”

By the time Johnny reluctantly decided to saunter down to the edge of the pond, Scott had already stripped off his clothing and was floating on his back in the chill waters.

“How cold is it?”

“Not bad,” Scott replied. He grinned up at the stars, seeing no reason to explain that the temperature of the mountain stream fed pond felt quite similar to that of the waters of the northern Atlantic Ocean.  He lowered his feet to the muddy bottom to stand in the waist deep water. “Now, you can toss that soap out here,” he suggested, then waited while Johnny cast about the shore until he spotted the soap tin lying near the pile of Scott’s clothing. After a careful toss, Johnny began to slowly unfasten the white barrel-shaped buttons of his salmon-colored shirt.

Occupied in scrubbing at his short blond hair, Scott was taken by surprise when he heard a yelp from Johnny. The younger man had evidently taken a few steps into the cold water and then thrown himself in. Coming up for air, Johnny flung the dark hair and water out of his eyes with a forceful “Who-ee!”  “Thought you said it wasn’t cold!”

Scott laughed. “Oh, I didn’t say that.” 

After a final generous application of soap, Scott turned the bar over to his brother and then dove under water, surfacing to swim towards the center of the pond with a series of sure strokes, before abruptly halting to flip over onto his back once more. “Clouds are rolling in.”

“Yup. Might get some rain tonight.”

“That’ll cool off those embers.”

Johnny’s response, if he made any, was lost as he ducked underwater to rinse the soap from his own hair.

Once they were both back on shore, Scott took a small towel out of the rucksack and tossed it at Johnny, then removed a second one for himself.  After wiping down his arms and torso, he wrapped the towel around his waist, and quickly pulled on the knit “long-john” shirt that he had been using to sleep in. Then he gathered up his socks and beige tattersall shirt, carried them to the water’s edge and dropped them into the water before returning to finish dressing.

Watching as Scott rinsed his shirt and socks in the pond, then wrung them out; Johnny considered that he might just have to go swimming with his clothes on the next day. The odor of his smoke infused pink shirt easily overwhelmed the clean smell of the lye soap. Leaving Scott pulling his boots on over a fresh pair of socks, Johnny headed up to the campsite to heat up the chili and the coffee left over from supper. Before joining his brother in their second course, Scott ran a line between two trees and draped his wet clothing as well as the two damp towels over the cord.

“I could do with some more of that fish if you were feeling lucky in the mornin’.”

“So you liked that, did you?” Scott asked in a pleased tone.

Johnny laughed. “Better’n this chili.”

“Well, this pond looks promising. I’ll see what I can do.”

“I’m gonna drop these dishes in the water, take care of ‘em in the mornin’.”

As he unrolled his blankets, Johnny cast another look up at the night sky and then suggested they might be wise to bed down beneath the wagon. Since the cart was just a little too narrow for the two of them to comfortably fit between the wheels lengthwise, the best the brothers could do was to keep their upper bodies undercover.  Scott seemed a bit reluctant, and although Johnny guessed that it might be because of the dream he’d had the previous night, neither of them mentioned it. Once he finally fell asleep, Scott slept fairly soundly, and the clouds passed overhead without the predicted rain.

The next morning it was Johnny who awakened first, nudging Scott from sleep before easing himself out from under the wagon. They rolled up their blankets and tossed them into the wagon bed before setting about performing the same tasks as they had the previous morning—Johnny starting a fire and preparing coffee and Scott heading off, fishing pole in hand, in the direction of the pond.

When Johnny appeared at the water’s edge to fill a bucket, he was surprised to note that Boston wasn’t trying to catch their breakfast by “drowning worms” as Johnny had assumed, but was instead intently engaged in flicking the fishing line back and forth over the surface of the placid pond. The younger Lancer headed back to the campsite, savored a cup of coffee and then made up some cornmeal tortillas. Once Scott had returned and set the skillet of fish over the fire, Johnny asked his brother about his fishing technique. As he munched on a tortilla, Scott explained that it was something he’d learned to do when he was a boy.

“In Boston?”

“No . . .  in Maine, actually. I used to visit relatives up there, in the summers. It was my uncle who taught me.”

“So . . . you got a lot of relatives?”

“No, not really, not close ones anyway. It was pretty much just my grandfather and I, most of the time. But his younger sister lived in Maine, my Aunt Cecilia and her husband, Elwood Holmes.”

Johnny nodded and sipped at his coffee, figuring he’d asked enough questions for now. Meanwhile, Scott was remembering that he owed his aunt a letter and resolved to take some time for that once he was back at the ranch.  He had many fond memories of his time spent with Aunt “Cee” and her late husband, Uncle “El”.  Scott concentrated for a moment on turning the fish over in the iron skillet; when that had been accomplished, he turned to his brother and volunteered some additional information.

“We did quite a bit of fishing. And, when I was older, we went up north to do some hunting, and trapping.”

Guess that explains it, Johnny thought, Why a city boy acts like he knows what he’s doin’ out here.   Out loud, he asked about what they’d been after on those hunting trips.

“Bear, sometimes. Venison, mostly.”

As he served up their breakfast, the New Englander considered asking some questions of his own. He wondered if Johnny had spent much time with his maternal relatives in Mexico; for that matter he would have very much liked to have asked some questions about Maria Lancer herself, but having read those reports on his brother’s gun fighting career, including some of the background information which the Pinkerton agents had uncovered, Scott hesitated to make such inquiries. He was wary of introducing a painful or uncomfortable topic; unlike Scott, Johnny had known his mother, but then lost her at a young age. . . too young.  Instead, Scott posed a safer question—one about hunting, and over breakfast the two young men thoroughly debated the best techniques for killing, skinning and cooking rabbits.

Once the breakfast things had been cleaned and packed away, Scott removed his clothing and the still slightly damp towels from the line and draped them over the rope lashing the stove to the wagon bed, hoping the articles would dry in the morning sun. Noticing that Johnny was watching him as he pulled a rumpled, but otherwise identical beige checked shirt from his haversack, Scott announced his intention to fetch a few buckets of water to dowse the still smoldering remains of the cabin. Once Johnny had departed in the direction of the horses, Scott swiftly exchanged the knit undershirt he was still wearing for the tattersall one. After carefully rolling and adjusting each beige sleeve, he arranged a clean neckerchief inside the collar of the shirt and then headed off to the pond, a bucket in each hand.  Johnny, feeling twinges in his back from moving the stove and lugging water, decided he would volunteer to drive the wagon, and readied Rambler for Scott.  

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

The brothers made good progress through the long morning. After lunch, Scott, who was beginning to appreciate the notion of a “see-ES-ta”, settled himself against a tree with his hat pulled low to shield his face.  He almost immediately lifted the brim when he realized that his brother was not doing likewise. Since Scott had readied the meal, it had been Johnny’s turn to pack up the things.  Now, instead of taking his own brief nap, Johnny was methodically removing from the wagon the empty tin cans and glass canning jars which had accumulated over the past two days.  As Scott watched with growing interest, Johnny strolled over to some boulders a good distance away from their resting spot and then set up five of the cans from the collection he had gathered. Well aware that he had his brother’s attention, Johnny avoided looking at the older man until he had retraced his steps, then paused beside Rambler to remove the carbine from the sheath and a cartridge box from one of the saddle bags. He carefully examined the weapon, checking to see that it was ready for use, before he finally spoke.

“Let’s see what you can do, Boston.”

Scott had made no attempt to disguise his interest in the proceedings, had, in fact, been waiting expectantly in anticipation of a demonstration of marksmanship from his brother the renowned gunslinger. Now his blond eyebrows lifted at the challenging note in the younger man’s voice, but he rose to his feet willingly enough. Johnny grinned at the serious expression on the Easterner’s face, but didn’t speak again until Scott was close enough to accept the short-barreled rifle.

“You did some good shootin’ against Pardee.  So. . .you use this kinda gun in the War?”

“A Spencer? Yes,” Scott replied with a nod.  The expression on his face was unreadable, as he stood holding the gun in one hand, casually, at his side. The seven-shot repeater had been popular with the cavalry and was used by many of the Lancer hands. 

Scott glanced towards the waiting targets. “That was a long time ago,” he said finally, looking back at his brother. And, he couldn’t help thinking, the targets weren’t tin cans.

Even though he had just watched Johnny do the same thing, Scott reflexively checked the breechloader, verifying once more that the weapon was primed for use—or, rather, that at least one cartridge was visible— and stared at the glittering cans lined up on the rocks with a determination born of his competitive nature. He knew that he must sound as if he was making excuses; he also knew that he had always been a pretty decent shot.  But a deer, a bear,  . . a man. ..  there was a much larger margin for error. Those tin cans were looking very small.

In one smooth motion, Scott raised the weapon and sighted.  Then working the lever to load each cartridge in turn, he fired of f three shots.

All three were misses, bullets pinging loudly against the rocks.

Johnny noted with some approval that Scott had aimed at each of the first three targets in turn, and the gunfighter’s keen eye had also recognized that, although Scott had not hit the marks, he hadn’t been all that far off target, either. Not on two out of the three, anyway. So maybe Ol’Boston wouldn’t be pulling any fancy moves, like shooting a gun out of a man’s hand, but he’d most likely have no problem defending himself. And, with some practice, who knew. . . .

Scott lowered the weapon, gazed wordlessly at those defiant tin cans for a moment, then raised the stock and pressed it to his shoulder once more. This time, his aim was true and two of the cans in turn went bouncing tinnily off of the rocks before landing on the ground. The ejected shell casings joined the others on the ground at Scott’s feet.

“I tend to miss right,” he said with a shrug, attempting to return the gun to Johnny.  Johnny, his pink-sleeved arms folded tightly across his chest, simply shook his dark head and then gestured with his chin towards the remaining two targets.

With a small sigh, Scott resumed firing, using his remaining two shots to dispatch one more can.

“Not bad. You don’t miss by that much.”

Johnny handed Scott the box of cartridges and waited while the carbine was readied. Then the two walked side by side towards the rocks, Scott cradling the seven-shot Spencer in one arm.  “It’s been  . .  six years since I handled a weapon,” he volunteered. There was a long pause as Johnny absorbed this information.

“No huntin’ trips lately, I guess.”

“No,” Scott replied with a note of regret, shaking his head.

“Guess it all came back to ya, against Pardee.”

“I guess it did.”

Johnny began arranging five more targets—the two untouched cans were joined by one of the punctured tins, and a couple of glass jars. “So now let’s see what you can do with that gun you’re wearin’,” Johnny suggested, indicating the Colt strapped to Scott’s side.

Shaking his head, Scott demurred. “That’s going to take some practice. The only time I’ve ever used a side arm was when I was in the cavalry.” 

Johnny turned and studied his brother. He knew that even out West, especially in the larger cities, you could find plenty of men who didn’t carry guns, but he still found it difficult to conceive. Of course, when he had first met the man, Scott hadn’t been wearing a rig; Johnny had assumed that the ‘dandy’ had a hidden weapon, to avoid spoiling his outfit. The Colt resting in Scott’s holster— in fact, the holster itself as well as the gun belt— had all been provided by Murdoch on their first day at the ranch.

“So. . . back East, you don’t wear a gun?”

“In Boston? No. . never.”

Johnny’s only response was to take the carbine out of Scott’s hands, turn his back on the targets and walk away.  Scott followed. Halfway back to their starting point, Johnny stopped abruptly and gestured once more at his older brother’s holster. “Go ahead.”

The Easterner slowly removed the gun from its resting place and raised it to eye level, his right arm fully extended. Sighting carefully, he methodically fired five well-spaced shots. One of the cans clattered off of the rocks, one glass jar shattered. Johnny spoke before the sound of the final report had faded away.  “You got one more shot.”

“And three targets,” Scott retorted ruefully.

“So pick one.”

The final shot was maybe close enough to the unpunctured tin can to move it a little, but the silver surface remained unblemished. Scott didn’t look too happy, but Johnny now knew what the man could do with the weapons, a very good thing to know when you were riding with someone.  Boston could handle the long gun, no question.  As to the “sidearm”, well, that was another story. If there was trouble, his brother just wasn’t likely to have the time and space he needed to be of much use, but Johnny figured he might be able to teach the college boy a thing or two. . The gunfighter sauntered towards the targets, pausing only to toss one word over his shoulder. “Reload.”

Johnny arranged six targets this time, and turned back just as Scott was slipping the last bullet into the chamber. Their eyes met, and the older man very deliberately slid his loaded weapon back into the holster.

“Your turn.”

Grinning widely at the prospect, Johnny stepped towards Scott, then just as he drew even with his brother, he suddenly reached for his gun, drawing and whirling around to face the array of cans and jars. One-two-three-four-five-six shots in rapid succession. Six shots, six targets. Not one clear miss, though to Johnny’s practiced eye, few of the shots had been dead on; two of the items had been merely grazed. However, since grazing a glass jar tended to make the container shatter, the gunslinger doubted that Scott had noticed that the aim had been just a hair off.

“Impressive,” he heard his brother murmur in that dry tone of voice which was quickly becoming familiar.

Johnny lowered his weapon and slowly turned, only to see Scott looking at him with a genuine smile that lit up even those perpetually serious light blue eyes. Dropping his gaze, Johnny started to reload. “Set ‘em up?” he asked. Keeping his attention on his gun, he heard rather than saw Scott move off to comply.

Once the four still serviceable targets had been set up, Johnny pulled a black leather glove from some well-concealed pocket and wedged his left hand into it.  The he asked Scott to “Gimme a count.”  The Easterner obligingly counted to three, whereupon Johnny, starting out facing the rocks this time, swiftly drew and fired, even faster than before, dispatching each container in turn. He used his remaining shots to send two downed cans bouncing amongst the rocks.

“Even better,” Scott observed with a grin, and Johnny had to agree.  

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Target practice over, the brothers resumed their slow trek to the line shack.  They would spend the night there, of course, a good thing as the skies were once again threatening a possible storm. The stove could be reassembled and installed early the next morning. At issue was whether or not to head back to the ranch immediately to, as Scott put it, report on their successfully completed “mission.” Though it would be an exceptionally long day, they could probably arrive home not long after nightfall, since the route from the shack to the hacienda was supposedly a direct one, over open terrain.

It was Scott who was the first to suggest waiting an additional day. “We have enough food, and the ranch work will still be there. . . .”

Johnny readily agreed. “We could do some more shooting,” he offered, and Scott seemed to very much favor that idea.

It was still only mid afternoon when Johnny, who was once more riding ahead on Rambler, called out that he thought he could see a clearing up ahead. From the map, the brothers knew that the new line shack was open to fields on two sides, but the route from the abandoned cabin had taken them through forest. The last bit was very steep, slow going for Scott and the stove-laden wagon, and Johnny quickly disappeared from view.

It was only after he had spent some time walking alongside the hardworking draft horse and offering the animal considerable encouragement that Scott and the wagon finally broke clear of the trees.  As he clambered back up into the seat, he studied the side of the line shack, a much larger wooden structure than the late cabin.

Johnny was nowhere in sight.

What Scott did see, as he came around the front of the building, was two armed men wearing dark hats, their guns pointed directly at him. 

“Madrid said you’d be comin’ right along behind him.” 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

CHAPTER FIVE

Madrid said you’d be comin’ along right behind him.

Scott swiftly scanned the area one more time, but still saw no sign of his brother, or of Rambler either, for that matter. While contemplating the reins clasped in his gloved hands, he watched the armed men out of the corner of his eye.  Realizing that it would be foolish to try to reach for a weapon, he simply waited.

One of the men stepped forward impatiently.  He was wearing a rumpled dark suit and a string tie, with a fancy vest almost hidden by the sling in which his left arm was resting. Scott stared down at this incongruously well-dressed stranger who was grimly pointing a gun at him. Something about this man with the grey beard seemed familiar.  

“Put your hands up!”

As he slowly draped the reins over the front edge of the wagon and then carefully complied with the man’s “request,” Scott gazed past him to the second member of the welcoming committee. He was dismayed to recognize Micajah, the newly hired Lancer ranch hand. The Indian’s face, beneath his feather-decorated hat, remained impassive; the shotgun he held was also pointed directly at Scott.

The man wearing the sling harshly reclaimed Scott’s attention. “Set the brake.”

Keeping his hands in the air, Scott obediently used his right foot to do so.

“Now, slow and easy, you unbuckle that gun belt of yours—with your left hand.”

Keeping his right hand upraised and his eyes on the man with the six gun, Scott fumbled at his belt buckle, the task more difficult than it would have been if he hadn’t still been wearing a glove. Finally, the leather strap slipped free and the Colt thudded onto the wooden wagon seat.

“Throw it down here.”

Still using his left hand, Scott reached across his body to gather up the holstered weapon and lightly toss it to the ground.  It was the Indian who stepped forward to retrieve it, all the while keeping the shotgun trained on Scott.

“I’ll take that.”

Looking up, Scott saw a third man who had evidently come around the far corner of the line shack. A larger man than the other two, this one was also bearded, but bare-headed. He was wearing a filthy white vest over a very dirty blue shirt, as well as a rather wolfish grin.

Micajah, his face still expressionless, extended Scott’s gun belt towards the newcomer, who snatched the weapon from the dangling holster, checked to see that it was loaded and then pointed it at Scott. 

“And I’ll take the hat too.”

The Indian’s expression, framed by his straight, chin-length hair, didn’t change. But the man with the sling smirked; whether it was at the demand for the headgear or in anticipation of the dawning recognition on Scott’s face, was hard to say.

For Scott now identified the man in the dark suit as one of those who had accosted him during his ill-fated shopping trip to Senor Baldemerro’s store. There had just been two of them at first, a big stocky bearded fellow and this man wearing the dark hat and string tie—but he’d been clean shaven then.  They had eventually been joined by a third assailant, quite likely this late arrival, the one who now laying claim to Scott’s hard-won hat.

Scott wondered again whether the three who had attacked him had been members of Pardee’s band of land pirates.  The beards sported by the two men from the store suggested that they had been here for a while. As he reluctantly removed it, Scott considered throwing the hat in the third man’s face, but realized that it wouldn’t do him any good. He was out numbered three to one; clearly those were the type of odds that these men preferred.

“Where’s your fat friend?” the Easterner asked coolly instead, since the heavy-set fellow whose ample stomach he remembered elbowing was nowhere in evidence.

“Coley ain’t here,” the dark-suited man replied. “You just be sure to ask your brother about that—next time you see him.”

“No time like the present,” Scott responded in his most pleasant tone. “Where is he?’

‘Well, I guess he’s around back, tending to his horse. “Ain’t that right, Gil?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Gil announced, stepping forward to claim the hat. As he deliberately settled his new prize on his head, he grinned cruelly up at the captive. “He didn’t help ya before, and he ain’t gonna help ya now.”

Scott pressed his lips together and stared hard at Gil, but there really wasn’t anything he could say.

“Climb on down from there,” the man in the suit commanded. He seemed to be the one in charge . .  . or maybe not. Gil turned to the Indian, gesturing with Scott’s gun and ordering Micajah to “Tie ‘im up.”

But to Gil’s displeasure, and Scott’s great interest, Micajah looked to the other man for approval, and, receiving a nod, lowered his weapon and circled to the rear of the wagon. As Scott, with his hands still in the air, slowly climbed down from the seat, he noted that the Indian’s gun was resting upright against the rear wheel. Temptingly within reach, but since Scott knew it wasn’t possible to move fast enough to avoid a bullet, he could only watch as the dark skinned man used a rather large knife to slice through one of the ropes lashing the stove in place.

A sudden gust of the wind that was coming up blew in Scott’s face, and he lowered his head against it. He also slowly lowered his right hand, and, when no one objected, started removing his gloves. That task completed, he tucked them beneath his belt and then looked up to address his captors. 

“I’d like to speak with my brother.”

“Why, so he can tell you to your face he’s led you into a trap? Seems like a fancy dan like yourself should’ve figured that out by now.”

Before Scott had had time to absorb his dark suited “friend’s” assessment, Micajah was approaching with the rope and Scott turned to face him, his hands extended, wrists loosely crossed. The still silent Indian regarded Scott impassively for a moment, then set about fastening the cords in place. The acceptance of his offered hands gave Scott a moment of hope, that perhaps he might have something of an ally—a hope swiftly dispelled when the rope was yanked tight enough to bite into his flesh.

Just as Micajah finished tying off the last painful knot, the man with the sling gestured towards the bandanna at Scott’s neck. “Blindfold him, too,” he commanded the Indian. “Use that.”

As Micajah unfastened the loosely tied neckerchief, Scott forced himself to look away from those cold dark eyes. Instead, he scanned the area again, this time trying to take it all in: the darkening sky, the open expanse around the cabin, the woods from which he’d emerged a few minutes earlier, the wagon and draft horse, and the line shack itself, as well as each of his three captors. Even though he tried to steel himself, Scott still reflexively flinched away as the folded cloth approached his face. The inevitable was delayed only momentarily, and then he was left standing in darkness. 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Struggling to emerge from his own darkness, Johnny Lancer lifted his eyelids just enough to make out the dim figures of two men.

“Think we’ll really get three thousand?”

“We know he’s got at least two.”

Two what? Johnny wondered. Who . . ?

Then he remembered.  Those shadowy figures were Gil Roberson and Vic Howard, two of Pardee’s guns, men he’d met for the first time in Morro Coyo. Johnny guessed that they were now all inside the Lancer line shack; the men appeared to be standing and looking at something on a table in the center of the room. He quickly closed his eyes as Gil turned towards him and then heard footsteps coming in his direction.

“Why don’t you go get Lancer and bring him in here? It’s starting to rain.”

That was Howard. He’s gotta be talkin’ about Scott.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll go get ‘im in a minute.”

“And Gil— “

“Yeah?”

“Don’t rough him up any more.”

“And why the Hell not?’

Howard sighed. “I told you. We bring Lancer’s boy back in one piece and no one’s going to come after us.”

“Right.” Gil sounded skeptical, it also sounded to Johnny as if the man was standing right over him. “Old Man Lancer’ll just let us take off with all that money.”

“Well, why not? Part of it’s Madrid’s anyway —and he’s gonna be with us.”

Gil laughed and then Johnny felt a push at his shoulder. He willed himself to stay relaxed and not to react.

“Yeah, I guess he’s gonna be, won’t he?” Gil gave Johnny another shove.

“Madrid isn’t coming around yet?”

“Guess not.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t hit him so hard next time.”

“You going soft on him too?” Gil asked, giving Johnny a good hard poke in the ribs.

“He’s worth more in Mexico alive than dead. You know that.”

“Yeah. But listen, Howard, if we get $1000 each, maybe I’m not goin’ to bother ridin’ all the way to Mexico.”

“Well, let’s just wait and see how much we get out of Murdoch Lancer first.”

Gil was moving away now, slow, heavy, footsteps across the wooden floor, but Johnny still didn’t dare open his eyes.

“Vic, we still splittin’ even with the Indian?”

“He is taking all the chances.”

“Yeah,” Gil laughed mirthlessly. “I guess he is.”

“I need to tell ‘im to bring back another horse. We’ve got our two and Madrid’s, but there’ll be four of us riding south.”

“Maybe,” was Gil Roberson’s ambiguous response, followed by the sound of a door creaking open. There were more footsteps, two sets of them, and then the door banged shut. Then silence.

Johnny eased his eyes open and carefully scanned the gloomy interior of the shack. He was alone. The single room was sparsely furnished, with a table, a couple of chairs, two more bunks on the opposite wall. He was lying on a lower bunk and he couldn’t move.

One thing for sure, they’d trussed him up pretty good. His legs were slightly bent, his ankles bound together. Since he could neither straighten his knees nor pull them up higher, his ankles had to be tied to a post or something. He was lying heavily on his left shoulder, hands behind his back, with ropes biting into his wrists and slowing circulation to his stiffening fingers. The little bit of squirming motion he could manage, trying to find a better position, merely pointed out how very uncomfortable he was, how much everything ached. But the worst of all was the throbbing pain in his head. Well, that and the foul tasting gag in his mouth.

He tried pushing the gag out, but it wouldn’t budge. Next he experimented with making a noise, but all he got for his trouble was a faint guttural sound, barely audible even to his own ears. Of course, the pounding in his head was loud enough to drown out most anything. Feeling a bit defeated, Johnny closed his eyes.

He’d left Scott and the wagon behind in order to ride on ahead to the line shack. Looking things over as he’d ridden slowly past the front of the cabin, he’d caught a glimpse of a smaller building off to the side, and had decided to investigate while waiting for Scott to drive up with the woodstove. Johnny had hopped down off of Rambler and tied the horse to a porch post, thinking to stretch his legs a bit.

When he’d walked around the corner of the line shack—-without a weapon drawn, a real greenhorn mistake— he’d come face to face with two of Pardee’s men. Roberson was holding a long gun and Howard stood next to him, with one arm in a sling but a six gun held steady in his good hand. Then for good measure, Pardee’s Indian had stepped up from behind. Johnny hadn’t ever heard a name, but he recognized the dark skinned man who had stood silent guard while he and Day had shared that bottle of tequila.

Outnumbered and outgunned, Johnny had tried being friendly. Gil had informed him in a menacing voice that he was going to “fetch” this time. When Johnny had smiled and asked sympathetically if Howard had caught a bullet somewhere, the man in the dark suit had made a remark about how at least he “hadn’t been gut shot.”  The way he’d said it, Johnny figured that Coley hadn’t made it and that they all knew who had killed Pardee’s second in command.

Just when he’d decided that he might as well let out a shout and try to give Scott some kind of warning, Johnny’d felt a crack on the back of his head and then everything went kind of dark. Well, he hadn’t lost all awareness; probably his head was just too hard for that. He’d realized he was being tied up, half carried-half dragged inside somewhere, known that Gil was heaving him up onto the bunk. He just hadn’t been able to do anything about it.

Now Johnny realized regretfully that he should have figured that some of Day’s boys might still be around somewhere, looking to salvage something from all the time and effort they’d put in. It really stood to reason that some of them would be holed up nearby, nursing wounds or grudges, or both.

At least now Johnny knew why these men hadn’t put a bullet in him right away, as payment for Coley and Day and who knew how many others: Money. Gil and Vic knew Madrid was worth money, down in Mexico.

And it sounded as if they had Scott too. Johnny tried to listen for something beyond his own ragged breathing and the hammering inside his head, strained to hear what was going on outside the cabin. Odds were Scott was okay, since there hadn’t been any gunfire—Johnny wasn’t sure how long he’d been lying here, but he was pretty certain that the sound of shots being fired would have penetrated his awareness, would have roused him even from the depths of the murky trough in which he had been lingering.   

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Suddenly, the door slammed open.

Startled, Johnny forced himself to stay still, then carefully raised his left eyelid just enough to see who was coming in. He could just barely make out a tall, lean silhouette of a man, no hat, kind of light colored hair—Scott!

His brother took a big step into the room, then Gil was right behind him, reaching out and giving Scott a push hard enough to make him stumble against the table. It took a moment, but Johnny finally realized that Scott was blindfolded, and from the way he moved his hands, it was apparent that they were tied. Tied in front of him at least, which was an advantage over the way that Johnny’s own arms were pinned painfully behind. Roberson shoved his prisoner one more time, all the way to the rear wall of the cabin and growled at him to sit down.

“Whoa, now.” Gil stepped over to Scott. “Wait a minute. I almost missed this.”

It wasn’t until Roberson held the object up to examine it that Johnny realized that he’d just removed the knife that Scott had been wearing in a sheath on his belt. Then he brought it down in a slashing motion. Despite the blindfold, Scott still snapped his head around, but otherwise didn’t move. It took a moment, but then Johnny understood that Gil had just cut his brother’s belt; there had been a soft plop as Scott’s gloves fell to the floor and then Roberson was wrenching the sheath away from the severed leather strap.

“Now that’s a good knife. Nice n’ sharp. I like that. Now, siddown.”

Scott slowly complied.

Vic Howard had come in not too far behind Gil, carrying a few things in his good arm, some items that he’d dumped on the table. Now he extended a length of rope towards his partner.  “Tie his feet.”

“You do it, Howard.” Gil was busy stripping off his own belt so he could attach his new sheath.

Johnny couldn’t make out Vic’s expression, but it was a pretty safe bet the man wasn’t too happy from the way he slipped off his sling and then stomped over to Scott.

“’Bout time you stopped wearin’ that excuse anyway,” Gil informed him.

Vic, crouched down in front of Scott, didn’t bother to reply.

It was Scott who broke the silence. “Where’s Johnny?” he asked in a level voice.

“He’s—“ Howard started to say, but Gil talked over him. “I told ya. He didn’t help ya before and he ain’t gonna help ya now.”

“I guess I’d rather hear it from him.”

“Well, it looks like you’re gonna have to wait til morning then,” Vic informed him, tying the last knot and getting to his feet. “Because Madrid’s gone to bring a message to your father. Let him know he can have you back for one thousand dollars.”

“He doesn’t have that kind of money,” Scott said firmly.

Howard laughed. “Maybe not. But you do. That $1000 he gave you for coming out here. Madrid has his money and now we’re gonna get yours too.”

Scott was silent. Johnny assumed that his brother was also thinking about that $1000 for one hour of their time and wondering exactly the same thing —how did these men know about the money that Murdoch had offered them?

Johnny didn’t doubt there were plenty of people on the ranch who might have gotten wind of it; it was hard to keep secrets about something like that. Word traveled quickly when one person heard something and then mentioned it to someone else. But how the Hell had Roberson and Howard found out? Until he had identified himself to Day and Coley up on the rise overlooking the hacienda, Johnny was certain that none of Pardee’s men had even known that he was a Lancer. One thing for sure, he didn’t have his $1000 along with him; he wasn’t carrying any cash at all.

Scott, of course, had to be figuring that these two men had gotten their information from Johnny himself, was maybe even starting to believe they all were working together.  Johnny retreated into the darkness behind his eyelids—it was easier to think and he couldn’t see that much anyway.

He also had a feeling that Gil in particular wouldn’t take it too well if it was discovered that he was awake and listening in. Johnny considered moving around anyway, trying to make some kind of noise to let Scott know this wasn’t right, but the damn gag was so firmly in place, and the ropes on his wrists and ankles were so tight that he doubted he could do much more than get himself another whack on the head, and maybe one for Scott too. No, better to be patient, conserve what energy he had, and listen hard to what those two had to say. At least the throbbing in his head had subsided to a dull ache

He cracked one eye open a sliver when he heard Howard suggest going out after the food box. Gil was agreeable to that and the two of them walked out the door, letting it slam it behind them without even a backwards glance. During that brief moment when the door was open, Johnny could make out the damp sound of lightly falling rain. Irrationally, he worried about that cook stove getting wet.

Scott had no such concerns. The moment the door slammed shut behind his captors, his bound hands came up to his face to adjust the bandanna blindfold he was wearing. He didn’t rip it off, just edged it up a bit so he could look down and study the bound wrists he was now holding at chest level. Smart—when Roberson and Howard returned, they most likely wouldn’t notice anything different.

When Scott brought his hands up to his face, evidently trying to loosen one of the knots with his teeth, Johnny didn’t move, barely dared breathe. His brother didn’t have much time and Johnny didn’t want to chance making any sort of noise that might distract him.

Gil and Vic were gone longer than Johnny would have expected, but it still didn’t seem as if Scott had made any real progress in loosening his bonds. There were footsteps on the planking of the front porch and Scott’s hands dropped into his lap just as the front door was shoved open.  Howard and Roberson came in with the Lancer chuck box, lifted it up onto the table and started taking some things out. Gil made some comment about how it was a good thing they’d cooked a meal outside before the rain started. Unaccountably, Johnny thought about Murdoch’s stove again, sitting out there in the rain, and missed Vic’s answer, if there was one. 

Johnny was starting to regret that he hadn’t tried to do something, anything, to let Boston know that he was here, that he was a prisoner too. Gil was busy lighting a lamp, and through one half opened eye, Johnny saw Vic remove his hat and toss it on one of the bunks against the far wall. The man’s dark eyebrows were a stark contrast to his prematurely grey hair, even in the dim interior of the line shack. Howard pulled up a chair and sat himself down in front of Scott. Johnny’s feeling of regret intensified, when the man in the dark suit started talking to his brother in a studiedly casual voice.

“So . .  I guess you all thought ol’Johnny Madrid was switchin’ sides that day, turning against Pardee, when he came riding on in so hard.”

There was no response from Scott.  Gil reached up to hang the kerosene lantern back up on a nail sunk into one of the cross beams and then stepped over closer to where Scott was sitting against the back wall. He bent right down to put his face on a level with the blindfold.

“That was all Day’s idea, sending Madrid in like that. To find out if you were back yet, with those vaqueros of yours.”

Since Scott was sitting on the floor, just beyond the circle of the light from the kerosene lantern, Johnny couldn’t see enough of his brother’s face to even take a guess what the man was thinking, and Scott still didn’t say anything. The pressure from the gag combined with his own angry tension was making Johnny’s jaw ache fiercely now. He closed both eyes and willed himself to relax and just listen. Whatever game they were playing with Scott, Day’s boys weren’t done just yet.

Sure enough, it was Vic’s turn again.

“See, if you hadn’t been back yet, Johnny Boy was going to talk your Old Man into surrendering.”

Then Gil:

“And if you were there, it was gonna be Madrid’s job to take care of ya.”

Reflexively, Johnny’s jaw clenched, his eyes squeezed shut and he was just about to start thrashing wildly, then froze when he heard his brother’s calm voice.

“But he never got the chance, though did he?  . . .  And I suppose that bullet in the back was just a part of the plan, something to make it all the more  . . .  convincing?”

The disbelief in Scott’s voice was unmistakable. During the ensuing silence Johnny felt overwhelming relief that Boston wasn’t buying what Day’s boys were selling. Scott had raised a good point and they didn’t seem to have an answer.

But Vic Howard was not to be underestimated.

“Well, . . Mr.Lancer, you were a military man, so I guess you know how it is. Sometimes the orders don’t make it through. Seems one of the boys just didn’t get the word.”

It took a moment, but then Gil chimed right in. “That’s right, and ol’Johnny was so mad he almost didn’t want to hook up with us again. But you can see he changed his mind on that. We just thought he was comin’ up here alone.” 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Scott Lancer sat alone with his thoughts, assessing his situation. He was a prisoner and he had names for his captors: “Howard” the man in the dark suit, and “Gil” the one who had taken his hat, two of his “old friends” from the store in Morro Coyo. Then there was Micajah, the man that he and Cipriano had hired on at the ranch. Scott was able to distinguish Howard and Gil by their voices, but Micajah hadn’t spoken a single word.

There had been nothing from Johnny either, so most likely he had, as Gil and Howard had claimed, ridden back to the ranch. Whether he had done so willingly or under duress was the painful, unanswered, question. As much as he wanted to believe that his brother hadn’t really led him into a trap, Scott couldn’t help recalling how much Johnny had wanted to come up here on his own. But he tried to persuade himself that there was really no point in wasting time wondering about that now. Gil’s repeated admonition that “he ain’t gonna help ya now” was more than likely true: his half-brother either wouldn’t help him or couldn’t do so. Rather than relying upon Johnny for assistance, Scott knew he was simply going to have to find his own means of escape.

So he was sitting here in the dark, methodically rubbing the thick ropes that bound his wrists against the edge of the belt buckle clasped between his knees. The metal wasn’t very sharp; Scott was trying to wear through the fibers rather than cut them. Since he was working the underside of the cords, any strands that he did manage to severe would be hidden from his captors’ view.  He had been at it for hours now, he was very tired, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to stay awake and focused on the monotonous task. Keeping a mental count seemed to help: Sixty three, sixty-four, sixty-five. . . .

He was still seated on the floor, but instead of resting against the back wall, ropes encircled his torso and upper arms, holding him in place. Before he and Gil had gone to bed, Howard had tied Scott to a support post, presumably in the center of the room. At least one of the men was off to his left, snoring loudly. From time to time, someone would shift in a bunk and Scott would stop, frozen in place. Sitting motionless, listening, he worried that Howard or, worse, Gil, would wake up and notice what he was doing.

The sound of falling rain had stopped some time ago, and when he looked beneath the bottom folds of the blindfold, Scott could barely glimpse the edge of a path of moonlight on the wooden floor. He could see the dark shape of his hands, the glimmer of the belt buckle, and not much else. The cords holding his upper arms in place prevented him from reaching up to further adjust the blindfold, otherwise he might even have chanced removing it—- if only to dispel the nagging sensation that he was being watched.

Based on the comings and goings of his captors, Scott was pretty certain that he was sitting directly in front of the cabin door. He really had no clear idea of the layout of the line shack, didn’t know if there might not even be a weapon within reach. That would have to wait until his hands were free. Which wasn’t likely to happen any time soon. 

But Scott knew how to be patient. There had been a period in his life when he’d had no choice but to learn that lesson. So he kept moving the ropes against the edge of the belt buckle, in sets of one hundred. Keeping the count, taking a break, then starting over again. Counting, stopping, listening. He told himself that they were asleep, that no one was watching. Then he started counting again. One, two, three, four, five, six. . . . 

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CHAPTER SIX A

“Wake up, Madrid. Let’s go.”

Groggy, his head pounding again, Johnny struggled, and failed, to place the voice. He could almost see brilliant sunlight through his closed eyelids, but he was reluctant to open them and inflict even one more measure of pain upon himself, no matter how small.  Suddenly there was a hand snatching at his knees, pulling them forward and causing his feet to hit the floor. Johnny’s eyes flew open then and he looked up into Vic Howard’s less than friendly visage. Howard roughly grabbed Johnny’s upper arm and hauled him upright.

Once the dizziness brought on by the sudden change in position had subsided, Johnny realized that the ropes on his ankles had been cut. Howard, still attired in his black suit and tie, and wearing that fancy vest, backed away a few paces and stared silently at his prisoner.

As he squinted up at him, Johnny noted that Vic hadn’t put the sling back on. But even if the man did have a bad arm, Howard still had that gun in his good hand, while Johnny’s own hands remained firmly tied behind his back. Even though he didn’t know the man by reputation, let alone personal experience, Johnny knew it would be wise to assume that if Howard had been working for Day, then the man had to be pretty good.

From the amount of light streaming in through the windows of the line shack, Johnny figured it had to be at least mid-morning, and he wondered if he’d missed anything. It had been very early when Howard had untied Scott from the post and led him outside. Johnny had tried to move around then, determined to make some noise to attract his brother’s attention. It had been a sorry attempt, he’d been too well trussed up for his efforts to do any good, but Gil Roberson had clouted him over the head again anyway.

“Listen, Madrid, you’re gonna go out there and convince that brother of yours that you’re working with us.”

Johnny looked at the man with defiance blazing in his blue eyes, but the gag in his mouth prevented him from expressing his opinion of that idea. With a cruel smirk, Howard stepped back over to the bunk, and being careful to stay off to one side, he roughly grabbed the bandanna holding the gag in place, yanking until it dropped down around Johnny’s neck. With his head still swimming and the muzzle of Howard’s gun aimed at his midsection, the captive gunfighter pushed out the gag and then schooled himself to sit quietly and bide his time.

Howard backed away again, gesturing with his gun. “Get up.”

Johnny stood, slowly, testing his cramped leg muscles. Then he turned his back on the gunman.

“Oh no. No way, Madrid. The hands stay tied.” 

Slowly, Johnny pivoted around again, on his shaky legs.

“Now, you’re just going to go out there and make Lancer think we’re all working together,” Howard informed him.

“And if I don’t?” Johnny coolly.

Howard laughed mirthlessly. “You really askin’ that?”

“You ain’t gonna kill him. You wanta send him back alive.”

Howard quickly masked his surprise with a cold smile. “Well, that’s right, Madrid. Your father gets him back, we figure he’ll be glad to let you take off —-and good riddance.”

“Well, Vic, I’d say that all depends on how convincin’ I am.”

Howard stared at Johnny for a long moment. “So . . . I guess you’ve been playin’ possum.”

Johnny merely shrugged and Howard continued. “Then you know you’re worth more to us alive too. But that don’t mean one or both of you might not get  . . .  damaged.”

Although through the window of the line shack he could clearly see Scott sitting against a tree, still blindfolded, and Roberson, holding a carbine, standing close by, Johnny feigned indifference.

Equally professional, Howard kept his tone even. “I guess you can decide for yourself if it’s worth it to be convincing.  Just know that Gil wouldn’t at all mind blowing off a couple of kneecaps— he’s waitin’ for you to give him a reason.” 

Howard also looked out the window, in the opposite direction, and then nodded approvingly at something that Johnny couldn’t see. “Here comes the Indian riding in. Now you’re gonna go out there and pretend like you’re just getting back from bringing a message to your old man’s ranch.  Let’s go.”

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

“Mornin’ Boston. Any coffee left?’

Scott slowly lowered the tin cup that he was holding in his bound hands. He’d been listening intently ever since he’d heard what sounded like two horses approaching, wondering—truthfully, hoping—that his brother might be one of the riders. And if so, what, if anything, Johnny would have to say.

He’d been sitting here for a couple hours now, his back against a tree, waiting for something to happen.

Howard had led Scott out of the line shack very early that morning. His captor had permitted him to visit the bushes, a difficult task with one’s hands tied. But Scott had been allowed ample time to examine the ropes on his wrists, to see where the fibers had worn through. And he’d managed to keep the severed end of his belt, the part with the buckle still attached, wedged through one of the loops so that he’d still have it to use again.

Scott had had plenty of time to think about what had happened and everything that Gil and Howard had told him. In the dim world of the blindfold, and especially during the long hours of the night, he’d started to believe them, to actually consider that everything they’d suggested might be true.  That Johnny had chosen to side with Pardee, that his brother had deliberately led him into a trap and that Johnny had left to deliver a ransom note to Murdoch. Now, in the bright light of day—or at least as much as could be discerned through a burgundy bandanna—Scott had remembered Johnny signing his name as “Lancer”, recalled how well the two of them had been working together, and their plan to spend an extra day here at the line shack.  And he’d seen his mistake, the lesson he’d forgotten.

The Guards always lie.

Of course, the difficulty was that the most convincing lies were the more easily swallowed when they were served up on a platter with half-truths, or even seasoned with a few facts. How to tell the difference?

If everything was a lie, and Johnny hadn’t ridden back to the ranch, then where was he? 

Because the “welcoming committee” had mentioned Johnny by name, and the brothers’ arrivals here at the line shack had not been heralded by the sound of gunfire, Scott hadn’t immediately feared for his brother’s life.  But since then, many more hours had passed and Johnny had still not been heard from, so Scott’s initial reaction to his too friendly greeting was a combination of wariness and  . . . . relief.

Now, below the edges of the bandanna blindfold, Scott could see the coffee cup, his own hands, the ground around him. Johnny’s voice seemed to come from the right, from where Scott thought the line shack should be.

“Not real talkative this mornin’,” Johnny observed in a pleasant tone.

His footsteps continued to approach, spurs jingling, finally so close that Scott could actually see his brother’s booted feet stirring up dust. Scott pressed his lips together and fought the impulse to send the remains of his coffee in the direction of what he imagined to be his brother’s grinning face.

“What’dya think yer doin’!?”

That was Gil, on Scott’s left, and he didn’t sound happy. It took a moment to register that it was Johnny that Gil was speaking to.

“Just getting’ close enough so he can see my feet, know it’s me. He can see under that blindfold, ya know.”

Scott angrily snapped his head away from where his brother was standing and waited.  He was surprised when Gil didn’t immediately say or do anything.

Johnny just kept on talking, with what sounded like a patronizing smile in his voice.

“See, you don’t wanta be tryin’ anything fancy now, Boston. Murdoch’s gonna show up with that money and then you’ll go back in one piece—-so long as you stay out of trouble.”

Scott rubbed the rim of his coffee cup with the thumb of his right hand. He looked at Johnny again, at his feet anyway. He considered kicking out with his right foot and trying to bring his brother down, then smash his bound hands into that smiling face. He wondered briefly if he could get enough satisfaction before they pulled him off.

Instead he asked a question, carefully keeping his voice level. “And where will you be going?”

“Me? Oh. . .. . . .back to Mexico. Looks like these boys are goin’ with me.. . . . but hey, it was  real nice meetin’ ya, Brother.” 

Scott said nothing. Then Johnny yawned, loudly.

“You know, Boston, I’m pretty tired from ridin’ all night, guess I’ll go take a little . . . siesta.” 

Scott didn’t miss the mocking mispronunciation of the Spanish word –‘see-es-TAH’—any more than he’d failed to notice the deliberate emphasis upon “real nice”. As he listened to Johnny’s departing footsteps, Scott could only regret that he hadn’t lashed out at him when he’d had the chance.

Suddenly the footsteps paused. In a studiedly casual voice, Johnny spoke again.

“Oh, and Gil—when you fix that blindfold, you better check those ropes. You might wanta take that belt buckle away from ‘im too.”

Instantly, Gil was on him, roughly shoving the blindfold down, the movement causing warm coffee to splash over Scott’s trouser leg. The prisoner lost his grip on the cup completely when Gil grabbed his bound hands and lifted them up to examine the cords. Angrily releasing them, Gil ripped the belt buckle away from Scott’s waist and then snarled at someone to “Get some more rope.”

While waiting for whoever it was to comply with the “request”, Scott was able to catch the sound of Johnny’s departing footsteps and then listened as his brother— joined by another man–—stepped onto the line shack porch. As the door of the cabin slammed shut, Gil rapidly wound another piece of rope around the existing layers on Scott’s wrists and then yanked it tight. A second line wrapped around his torso bound the prisoner to the tree.

Then Gil stomped away; his heavy wooden footfalls could be heard as he too crossed the planking of the porch. Scott heard the door bang open and slam shut a second time. It seemed that Johnny was going to have plenty of company for his ‘see-es-TAH’.

Gritting his teeth in angry frustration, Scott leaned his head back against the rough bark of the tree.  It was then that he realized that someone was moving about very quietly somewhere in front of him, near where he guessed the campfire was located. Deliberately opening his tight fists and forcing out a breath to relax his clenched jaw, Scott took a chance. 

“So .. Micajah, it seems your “friends” sent you riding all the way to the ranch and back—- while they stayed here and got a good night’s sleep.”

To Scott’s surprise, a soft grunt of a response came from an area just off to the left. He wasn’t certain whether that was a confirmation that the Indian had made the ride or not, but the fact that the man wasn’t where Scott had guessed reminded the Easterner of how silent Micajah could be.  Scott couldn’t be absolutely sure of the length of the Indian’s absence, but didn’t remember hearing anything more from him after being shoved inside the line shack the evening before. And since this had been the first word from Johnny, perhaps his brother and Micajah had actually gone to the ranch together.  After all, Scott had thought that he’d heard two horses returning.

“As you can tell . . . I didn’t have a chance to use that knife.”

Silence greeted this announcement. After he’d been blindfolded, Scott had realized that he’d still had his knife in a sheath attached to his belt, and had tried to shield it from view with his arm. But surely Micajah, who had tied Scott’s hands, would have noticed it.

Either Scott’s hope had been a false one, or Micajah had changed his mind about offering any help. The prisoner considered saying more, but something inside rebelled at the idea of even sounding as if he might be pleading with one of his captors.

Besides, if Micajah had been inclined to do anything more to assist the man who had hired him, the Indian ranch hand probably would have done so by now. 

Scott also had to admit to himself that there was no real hope of Johnny’s assistance, if their recent conversation was any indication. Apparently the plan was to go to Mexico with “the boys”—after first collecting some additional spending money.

Difficult as it was to comprehend why the gunfighter would so readily give up his barely started new life at Lancer, it was only reasonable to assume that Johnny had wanted to come up to the line shack alone because he’d known, or at least suspected, that Howard and Gil were here.

Even though Scott had never seen Johnny and Micajah together, the Indian ranch hand still could easily have been a messenger between them. Scott exhaled audibly in frustration at the thought that he had played right into their hands by persuading Cipriano to hire the man.

There was no way of knowing exactly how well Johnny had known Day Pardee or any of his men. Despite what Howard and Gil had said about Pardee sending Johnny off on his headlong rush towards the hacienda, Scott, like Teresa, had been certain that Johnny was “coming back” to them that day.  Now Gil and Howard were claiming other wise and implying that Johnny had always been working with them.  

But guards always lie to their prisoners.  The guards always lie.

And the most persuasive lies always included some truth. So what was the truth here? Scott had never closely questioned his brother about his dramatic return, or even as to exactly what his plan had been. Part of the reason for avoiding the topic was Scott’s supposition that Johnny had been trying to keep his options open for as long as possible. That his brother had eventually decided to side with Lancer was not something that Scott had questioned, though exactly when Johnny had made that decision was more difficult to determine. Scott simply wasn’t sure.

On that first day, Scott, who had had no intention of being “dismissed” after Murdoch’s proposed one-hour audience was ended, had readily indicated his willingness to aid in the defense of the ranch against the lawless “Land Pirates”. But Johnny’s response to Murdoch’s direct question had been more enigmatic, expressing displeasure at seeing damage done to “my property”.  Scott had corrected the pronoun, amending it to “our property”— but if Johnny had agreed, he hadn’t said so. Later, there had been other ambiguous statements, such as that puzzling reference to a “one man operation.”

The next day, at the riverbank, at first Scott had simply been overwhelmed by anger at his brother’s failure to assist him in town—and the patronizing reminder of having been told to “stay out of it.” Then later he’d felt so. .  well,  . . disappointed. . . by Johnny’s assertion that he had only come to Lancer for the money. 

But it had been the younger man’s angry description of how he and his mother had been cruelly disowned— handed “the keys to the road,”— which had made the strongest impression.  Given what Johnny’s own mother had told him, Scott had understood that his brother had every right to hate Murdoch Lancer, to take pleasure in seeing their father lose his precious ranch to Pardee and his men, and even to be willing to assist in Murdoch’s defeat. 

Everything had happened so quickly after that. There hadn’t been time to gauge Johnny’s reaction to Teresa’s version of events, her story casting Murdoch in a far more sympathetic light while supporting the rancher’s terse account of his second wife’s disappearance.  But even a partial acceptance of Teresa’s version of the events meant that Johnny’s mother had lied to him. Before Johnny could respond, the sound of the alarm had sent the three of them hurrying back to the ranch.

The young gunfighter had seemed to be as affected as everyone else who witnessed the results of the Land Pirates’ attack on the neighboring farmhouse. But of course, even disapproval of Pardee’s tactics didn’t necessarily translate into support for his ultimate target, Murdoch Lancer.

The fact was, that neither of them had really had much reason to wish to help the embattled rancher who was their father, and Johnny had good cause to wish to see him harmed. If Johnny and Murdoch had since had a conversation about Maria Lancer’s departure from the ranch, Scott hadn’t been privy to it. He didn’t feel it was his place to push the subject; however during Johnny’s convalescence, Scott, based upon the reports which he had read, had ventured to make one gentle suggestion that his brother perhaps ought to listen to Teresa, to what she’d about his mother and Murdoch.

In the aftermath of the final battle, Scott had told himself that it didn’t matter exactly when Johnny had made his choice, it was only important that he had made it. In Scott’s experience, it was the men who made promises easily who were not to be trusted. That a man was reluctant to give his word too readily was an indication that it truly meant something, and that once given, he could be trusted. 

You are far too trusting, Scotty.

Scott sighed and bowed his head as his grandfather’s voice interrupted his thoughts.  How often had Grandfather said that to him?  And, how often had the older man been right?

There was no question that at this moment, Scott would much rather be resting comfortably in a Boston drawing room, even if it meant listening to advice from his grandfather, than sitting here tied to a California tree, a helpless prisoner. Possibly betrayed by his newly discovered brother, needing to be ransomed by his recently met father.

Indications were that Grandfather hadn’t been wrong in warning Scott about how “dangerous” life was out West. Of course Boston too, like any other place, had its share of dangerous men—and women—though they didn’t tend to have guns strapped to their hips, guns they were all too eager to use.  Although the elderly man could not have foreseen Scott’s particular danger, Harlan Garrett had strongly urged his grandson to firmly reject what he had termed Murdoch Lancer’s “offensive” offer to purchase an hour of his son’s time.

Which reminded Scott of the money. How did these men, Pardee’s men, know so much about Murdoch’s money? The simplest answer was that Johnny had told them.

Still trying to think of reasons to believe that his brother was not a willing participant, Scott reminded himself that Johnny could have been forced to tell about the thousand dollars. Or perhaps his brother have chosen to do so in an effort to try to get the two of them out of this. . . . Scott shook his head. He was grasping at straws. He didn’t want to believe that the young man he had been starting to get to know was actually involved, despite the fact that Johnny had just said that he’d been gone all night, taking the ransom note to the ranch.  But then how did he know about the blindfold and the belt buckle?

And if his brother wasn’t allied with these men, then why had he told them?

It was all very confusing, and Scott’s long, sleepless night working the belt buckle wasn’t helping his thinking at all. What was painfully evident was that he had no longer had any real hope of escape, since he was once again outnumbered by three . . . or four. . . . to one.  

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

CHAPTER 6B

“Wake up, Lancer. Let’s go.”

Groggy, his head pounding again, Scott struggled, and failed, to place the voice. He could see brilliant sunlight filtered through the folded burgundy neckerchief covering his eyes, but nothing else. Then he felt hands on either side of him grabbing his arms and hauling him to his feet.

Once both the pain of the rough handling and the dizziness from the sudden change in position had subsided somewhat, Scott remembered that these were his “old friends” Howard and Gil. He walked between them on shaky legs, cramped from too many hours of sitting upright, tied first to a post, then to a tree.

He wondered how much time had passed, and if he’d missed anything. Scott had tried very hard to stay alert, listening for anything his captors might do or say which could prove useful. But fatigue from prolonged lack of sleep had made that impossible.

After a few harsh reminders that there were several loaded weapons pointed in his direction, Scott waited while his hands were untied, and then retied with some sort of extra cord attached. He felt slightly unbalanced again as he mounted the horse he’d been directed to, managing to recover himself while his hands were lashed to the pommel of the saddle and the lead rope handed off to someone on horseback beside him. At first he had attributed his light-headedness to the disorienting effects of being deprived of sight, but now, as the horses moved away from the line shack, Scott realized that it had also been quite some time since he’d had anything much to eat or drink.

Then again, it hadn’t really been so very long at all. Not compared to the limited rations to which he had once been accustomed. 

But he was definitely hungry, as well as quite thirsty. Very sore. And, above all, tired.

How long had it been since he’d really slept? Of course, he’d stayed awake the previous night, in his futile effort to wear through the ropes binding his wrists. Before that, while en route to the cabin with Johnny, Scott had found that he was well out of the habit of being able to easily fall asleep lying on the ground and he’d spent too many hours staring up at the stars—or, one night, at the underside of the supply wagon. And the first night on the trail, his sleep, and Johnny’s, had been embarrassingly interrupted by that nightmare. However long his nap had been, it hadn’t been enough, and it had left Scott feeling more fatigued rather than refreshed.

Now, his captors had indicated that they were taking him to his father. Another “family reunion”, a rendez-vous, he thought wryly.

Well, not “they”, but rather “he”, for apparently Micajah, the ever-silent Indian, was to act as the prisoner’s sole escort. Scott hoped that having only one guard might somehow afford him an opportunity for escape.

Unfortunately, the horse beneath him did not feel familiar. It wasn’t Rambler, so it was impossible to know how quick or responsive the animal might be. Scott did note that the stirrups were not correctly positioned, the shortened length exacerbating the cramping in his legs. As the horse started forward, Scott grimly told himself that he had to stay alert and focused, and try to pay attention to his surroundings. 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Oblivious to his surroundings, channeling his concerns by impatiently urging his big bay horse forward, Murdoch Lancer once more patted the thick envelope of cash that he had stuffed into the pocket of his leather vest. Inside was almost three thousand dollars, along with the ransom note demanding the money.

In the wee hours of the morning, Murdoch had been roused from sleep by the sound of pounding on the front door of the hacienda. Since his first floor bedroom was close to the entrance, he had been able to get there fairly quickly.  Flinging open the heavy wooden door, he’d been in time to glimpse a shadowy rider departing in the distance, leading a second horse, saddled but riderless, behind him.

He’d bent down stiffly to pick up the objects lying at his feet, a small square of paper and a yellow leather work glove.  Unfolding the single page, he struggled to make out the cramped handwriting in the moonlight . . . .  .  

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Murdock–

We want $3000. Bring my money + Scot’s + $1000 more to the line shack by sundown tomorow. Come alone + you wil get Scot back + be rid of me.

Murdoch’s heart dropped to the level of his bare feet as he read the signature: “Johnny Madrid.” Not Lancer, but “Madrid.”  In angry disbelief, he crumpled the note in one large hand.

Two of the hands came running up, shouting “Mr. Lancer! Mr. Lancer!,” calling out that a horse had been stolen. They asked if he’d seen which way the rider had gone and if they should take off after him. 

Murdoch woodenly shook his head “no.”  “It’s okay, boys,” he lied. “Don’t worry about it, just go on back to bed now.”

Without waiting for the men to head back towards the bunkhouse, Murdoch slowly withdrew, dejectedly closing the front door. Once inside the foyer, he examined the glove. It was just an ordinary work glove, probably accidentally left behind by whoever had delivered the note. He flung it to the floor and then read the message again.

Murdoch had no idea who “we” were, but he certainly recalled Johnny’s insistent desire to go to the line shack alone.  Had he been planning to meet someone there after all? Now it sounded as if Scott was in danger and Murdoch himself had been the one who had decreed that the two young men go off together.

Hurrying to his room to get dressed, Murdoch wondered how he could possibly come up with an additional one thousand dollars. He suspected that the reason he had been awakened from his sound sleep was to give him additional time to solve that very problem.

After hastily throwing on a shirt and pair of trousers, Murdoch limped into the Great Room, leaning heavily upon his cane. Sitting wearily behind his desk, he opened the large lower drawer and removed the cash box. He knew that there was very little inside other than the envelope that Scott had given him three days before; he also knew that in addition to the promised one thousand dollars payment, that envelope also contained the money that had been given to Scott as reimbursement for his traveling expenses.

Even with the addition of what little cash there was on hand, the amount inside the envelope would not total two thousand dollars. But since Scott had shown such reluctance to accept Murdoch’s money, it seemed likely that the Bostonian had funds of his own. Murdoch grimly considered that in order to avoid a time-consuming trip to the bank in town, it would be wise to conduct a search of Scott’s room in hopes of finding enough money to make up the difference. But first, he needed to find Johnny’s one thousand dollars.

“You’d better count it.” “I intend to.”

Stung by the memory, Murdoch pushed himself forcefully away from the desk. Was that all Johnny really cared about, after all . . . money?  Not the land, and not his family?   They’d all been so happy when the boy had decided to sign the name “Lancer” to the deed to the ranch. . . . Murdoch shook his head in angry denial. No! It simply couldn’t be.

He carefully unfolded the crumpled note, smoothing it out on the surface of the desk, studying the signature, then rereading the short message. It occurred to him that he didn’t have a sample of his younger son’s handwriting. He couldn’t even try to compare the signature to the one on the deed to the ranch, since the papers were still in Randolph’s office, awaiting some legal action.

The truth was that Murdoch had been prepared for rejection from each of his sons, and now, if Johnny had changed his mind, decided to leave, well . . .  well, then so be it. The boy should have said so; Murdoch wouldn’t have begged him to stay.  But it should have stayed between the two of them, Scott should have been left well out of it. For Johnny to even threaten harm to his brother . . . That made no sense at all—–the two young men had seemed to be getting along so well. Murdoch simply couldn’t understand what kind of man would . . . . damn it, he just didn’t know what to think. Best to simply focus upon his present task.

As he labored up the steep staircase and made his way to Johnny’s room, Murdoch tried to dam the flow of his angry stream of thought.  But his pent up emotion broke through as he tugged open the first dresser drawer and completely pulled it from the cabinet, spilling two shirts to the floor. Since he was unprepared to be holding its full weight, the heavy wooden drawer followed its meager contents, and landed with a loud crash on the floor. Inhaling slowly, Murdoch tried to calm himself, realizing that a methodical search was more likely to bring results than a hasty or haphazard one.

He had searched the dresser and moved on to the standing wardrobe by the time that Teresa, in her pink robe, appeared in the doorway, sleepy-eyed and concerned. Murdoch tersely explained that he had received a ransom note, the boys were in danger and that he needed to find an envelope of money which he believed that Johnny had somewhere in his room. His darling girl ran to embrace him, then wiped away her tears and set to work, checking first the bedside table and then searching beneath the bed.

Of course, Teresa couldn’t help but punctuate her efforts with questions; Murdoch provided a few more details of the ransom demand, but stopped short of telling her who had signed the note.  Murdoch stood staring blankly at the few items on the shelves in front of him, until Teresa found the envelope, containing the full one thousand dollars, lodged beneath the mattress of Johnny’s bed  . . . .

Now Murdoch was riding towards the line shack, accompanied by his Segundo, Cipriano Sanchez. Teresa had insisted that he not go alone, and the rancher had been reluctant to do so anyway. On the other hand, he had no intention of jeopardizing his son by disobeying the instructions and bringing along a large number of men. Murdoch would ride up to the line shack itself alone, and, if Johnny was actually involved in this, try to reason with him. If anything went wrong, at least Cipriano would be close at hand.  

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Scott was riding along slowly beside Micajah. He was still completely sightless, as he’d been ever since Johnny had betrayed his limited ability to see, prompting Gil to “readjust” the blindfold. At first Scott had concentrated only on trying to keep track of the direction in which they were moving. But it seemed as if they had been traveling in a straight line now for quite some time.

“Seems they’re still letting you take all the risks.”

There was no answer from his silent escort. Scott still had no idea what his brother’s intentions had been in coming up to the line shack, but since Johnny had so clearly not wanted him along, Scott had to believe that exchanging a captive for money had not been a part of the original plan . . . and perhaps he might be able to use that to his advantage.  One thing was certain—once the money had been delivered, there would no longer be any reason to keep a prisoner alive. Or the man paying the ransom.

Scott had to assume that they were en route to meet whoever was bringing the money, most likely Murdoch himself. His humiliation at his current state of helplessness had been replaced by concern for his father, fearing what the older man might be riding into. As much as he hated to bargain with his captor, Scott had come to the conclusion that he had no alternative, and, in truth, that he might have nothing left to lose.

“My father may have had a hard time locating the money. In fact  . . . ” Scott paused. “We haven’t known each other very long. He may not  . . . come at all.”

More silence. Scott tested the ropes yet again, and tried to avoid thinking too hard about what he’d just said.

“He will come. And if he does as he was told, I will not shoot him.”

Scott almost failed to register the meaning of the words, in his surprise that the Indian had answered him at all.  After a momentary consideration, the captive chose not to argue either point, instead opting to try a different tack.

“Well, if it’s money you want, money you won’t have to share with your  . . ‘friends’, then take me back to the ranch. You can still have what you’re asking for, the one thousand dollars—“

“Three.”

Scott sighed. “Three then. Your friends told me that they’d asked for one.”

“They think I cannot read. They asked for three.”

Scott pondered this new piece of information. If Johnny had his own money with him, then there was a certain logic to demanding an additional three thousand dollars, in order to obtain an equivalent amount for each of the other men. But three thousand dollars was a very large sum of cash to expect Murdoch Lancer to be able to come up with, especially as no one else knew how much of Scott’s own money Murdoch already had in hand, not even Johnny. But why would Gil and Howard have lied about the ransom amount?

Because they always lie.

But apparently Scott was not the only person who had been lied to. Definitely something which he should be able to turn to his advantage.  But how? He rapidly considered and rejected several possibilities, then was startled when the horses came to an abrupt halt.

“He is not alone.”

Murdoch.

Everything went still, as Scott strained to listen for the sound of approaching riders. Instead he heard a gun being removed from a sheath, cocked and readied for use. Despite the energy that surged through him at the sound, Scott forced himself to remain still.

“Who does he have with him?”

“Cipriano.”

Although the Lancer foreman had come to have a high opinion of the Indian as a hard worker, Cipriano had initially been rather reluctant to hire the man on. From Micajah’s tone, it seemed that he had not forgotten.

Scott tested the ropes yet again—no give. He eased his cramping right leg from the too short stirrup, stretched the tight calf muscle. He licked his too dry lips, exhaled slowly . . .  and waited.

Finally, the men on horseback were within earshot. Scott could picture his father, astride his big white-faced bay, moving steadily towards them, his stolid Mexican Segundo riding alongside.

Somehow, despite the blindfold, Scott was aware of the exact moment when Micajah pointed the muzzle of his weapon directly towards his own head.  He heard the Indian shift in the saddle.  He heard the riders hastily rein in their mounts.

“We have your money!”  That was Murdoch, his voice still authoritative even now.

“Your guns—throw them on the ground.”  That was Micajah, speaking very slowly and clearly, each word clearly enunciated. Perhaps his careful speech was due to being unaccustomed to speaking English, or perhaps it was simply that he wasn’t used to speaking very much at all.

Two soft thuds indicated that both Murdoch and Cipriano had complied with the command.

“Now the rifles.”

Two different sounds this time.

“Keep your hands up.”

“I have the money—here in my vest pocket.”

“Give it to him.”

Scott guessed that Murdoch was being asked to hand the money to Cipriano, but had little time to wonder why before the Indian issued his next directive.

“Get down from your horse. Bring it to me.”

Cipriano was a large man and the creak of leather signaled the segundo’s careful dismount. Then his slow, measured footsteps could be heard. The dour expression on the foreman’s face easily could be imagined.  Scott tensed, thinking that perhaps when Micajah reached to accept the money, it might offer an opportunity. . .

“Do not move,” the guard said quietly. “Remember that I have three targets.”

Frozen in place, the blood pounding in his ears, Scott tried to discern the moment when the transaction took place. He listened with mounting concern as the Lancer foreman cursed the Indian vehemently, in Spanish, harsh sounding words that Scott had yet to learn. Then with palpable relief, he heard Cipriano’s slow, retreating steps. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven—–

Then there it was, the movement of the gun, the sound of the weapon being shouldered.

Murdoch shouted, “No!”

Scott kicked out hard with his right leg, making contact with something an instant before the gun fired, his bound hands holding him in the saddle.  With the booming blast of gunfire, the horse beneath him startled, the one beside him erupted into motion, wheeled and galloped away.

Scott hastily dismounted, dropping to the ground on the left side of the horse. He stood, still tethered to the animal by the ropes on his wrists, shouting his father’s name. “Murdoch!?”

The only answer was a gunshot. Then another.

“Cipriano?! Murdoch?! Are you all right!?”

“Yes, Scott! But Cipriano . .  Cipriano is down!”

Pulling at the ropes once more, he could hear his father hurrying to the foreman’s side. Having no success in freeing his hands, Scott pushed hard at the blindfold, rubbing the folded cloth against his forearm, trying to move the material up and away from his eyes. Finally, the fabric yielded to his efforts, shifting enough to allow him to partially open his eyes. Squinting in the sunlight, he looked first to the right, over Barranca’s back, to see Micajah lying on the ground a considerable distance away. The Indian’s calico print shirt was a bright pattern on the grass, his be-feathered hat a darker spot. The horse the Indian had been riding could be seen moving restlessly several yards off; the man on the ground did not move.

Quickly looking towards the left, Scott tried to locate Murdoch and Cipriano, but his view was blocked by the palomino’s neck and flowing white mane.

“Murdoch, how is he?” Scott asked, as he tried to shift the animal.

“It’s his shoulder. I think the bullet went right through.”

“Cut me loose. I can help.”

It took a moment, but then Murdoch was standing there on the other side of the horse, reaching across with one hand to pull the blindfold off of his son’s head before setting to work on the ropes with a sizeable knife. 

Scott nodded towards the fallen Indian. “He hasn’t moved.”

“Good,” Murdoch said grimly, his attention on his task. “He was going to shoot Cipriano in the back—a point blank shot—it’s a good thing you kicked out at him when you did.”

“It was a reflex, Sir. The bullet could have gone anywhere.”  Scott looked meaningfully up at his father.

“I’m fine, Scott. It’s Cipriano we have to worry about.”

His hands free, Scott immediately set to rummaging through Johnny’s saddlebags, searching until he found the bandaging materials he was looking for.  Then he hurried to join Murdoch at Cipriano’s side.  The Lancer foreman lay very still, his eyes closed, grimacing in pain, but roused enough to offer a greeting to his patron’s eldest son.

“Senor Scott—you are well?”

“Yes, very well, Cipriano. And you will be too. Now . . .  how would I say that en español?”

While the wounded man was prompted to murmur a succession of Spanish translations, which Scott dutifully repeated, father and son worked to cut away Cipriano’s shirt and apply pressure to the holes in his shoulder.  It took some time before the bleeding began to slow. Once they had managed to pack the wound, Murdoch moved Cipriano into an upright position in order to enable Scott to wind the bandaging in place. The injury tended to, Murdoch was ready with questions.

“How many men?”

“There are two more up at the line shack   . . .Pardee’s men.”

Two epithets greeted this news, one in English and one in Spanish.

Murdoch shook his large white head. “I should have considered that some of them might still be around.. . .”  Cipriano nodded his agreement.

“At least one of them was injured, his arm was in a sling. That may be why they didn’t go very far.”

“Here, Scott, we need to immobilize his arm.” Murdoch held the foreman in an upright position, while Scott crouched beside him and bound his arm in place.

“There, that should take care of it.”  Scott cast a worried eye at the segundo’s pained expression. “Murdoch, he needs a doctor . . . I don’t like the angle of that bullet.”

“Scott, the ransom note . . . your brother’s name was on it.”

Scott was dismayed, but not surprised. “What did it say?”

“That I was to bring your money—and his—plus an additional one thousand dollars to the line shack by sunset. The note is in the envelope along with the money.”

Scott glanced over his shoulder at Micajah’s body, then slowly stood. “I’ll be right back,” he said. Gesturing towards Cipriano, he added,  “And then we need to get him on a horse.” 

Smoothly boarding Barranca, Scott cantered away. Cipriano, weak from pain and loss of blood, closed his eyes. Murdoch kept watch, supporting his injured friend, unable to take his eyes off of his son.

Dismounting near the Indian’s body, Scott bent to retrieve the envelope, then moved off to collect the horse that Micajah had been riding. Murdoch watched him struggle to lift the corpse up onto the animal’s back, then lash the man’s hands and feet together. By the time that Scott had returned on Barranca, the horse bearing the dead man trailing behind, Murdoch had eased Cipriano into a prone position, with a bedroll under his head. The tall rancher stiffly rose to his feet and waited, ready with more questions.

Scott was quicker. Striding towards his father, he handed the older man the envelope of money, accompanied by a question of his own. “Sir, do you know how Barranca got here?”

“The horse was taken last night . . . by whoever brought the ransom note.”

“One man or two?”

“I only saw one, Scott.” Murdoch withdrew the note from the envelope and handed it to Scott. “Is this your brother’s handwriting?”

Scott swiftly scanned the brief message, then looked up at his father with an open expression. “I   . .I don’t know, Sir.”

“I couldn’t tell either,” Murdoch said sadly.

“There are a lot of things that we still don’t know about each other.”

Murdoch sighed, nodding absently in agreement. Then his expression hardened and he fastened a piercing gaze upon Scott.  “So tell me, do you know if this is why Johnny wanted to come up here alone, to meet these men?”

“No, I don’t. But even if he knew they were there, I’m sure that he wasn’t planning to go anywhere with them.” Scott gestured with the note in his hand. “If Johnny had intended to leave, he would have brought his money with him . . .   as well as Barranca.”

“So. . .  he changed his mind?”

“Or had it changed for him,” Scott countered.

“Well. . .did he say where he was going?”

Now it was Scott’s turn to sigh, as he recalled his last encounter with his brother. Reluctantly, he answered the question. “Mexico . . . Johnny said they were going to Mexico.”

Murdoch reached out and grasped Scott’s arm. “Johnny said that?” he asked insistently, staring down at his elder son.

Scott looked up at his father, clearly puzzled as to why Johnny’s proposed return to his mother’s native country would be so surprising.  “Yes Sir, that’s what he said.”

“Scott, you read those reports—your brother was about to be executed in Mexico.”

Scott’s lips parted in surprised recollection, then he turned away, head bowed as he considered this. Murdoch pushed on. “The Pinkerton agent wrote that several of the rurales were killed in the escape. No, Scott, Mexico is the one place that your brother can’t go. . . . at least not any time soon—and not willingly.” 

Scott’s head came around swiftly at that. “You mean there might be a reward?”

Murdoch contemplated the question for a moment.  “Certainly there could be . . . yes.”

Scott looked away again, staring in the direction of Micajah’s lifeless form without really seeing the Indian’s corpse. Johnny knew very well that Scott had read those reports, since Scott himself had told him so. If his brother had made a point of mentioning Mexico, then perhaps it had been an attempt to convey a message. He swore softly at the thought that he had missed it. 

Now he tried hard to remember what else Johnny had said, not the tone but the words themselves. 

“Don’t try anything.”

“Stay out of trouble. . . . ..”

Damn, what else? Something about it being “nice meeting you, Brother,” and needing a “siesta” .

But first Johnny had walked over, close enough that Scott could see his feet. He’d been so angry when his brother had revealed his ability to see beneath the blindfold, that he hadn’t paid attention to what could be seen. Scott closed his eyes. Beneath the folds of the bandanna, he’d seen  . . . Johnny’s boots.  And the bottom edge of his pants, the ones with the silver buttons, the lower edges accordioned with creases as if . . .now a much stronger epithet echoed repeatedly in his thoughts.

Murdoch’s voice broke in, asking another question.  “Scott, how did Johnny act when he .  . . when he told you about Mexico?”

Scott looked up reluctantly into his father’s face. “I couldn’t see him, Sir.”  His glance slipped away. “The blindfold . . .”

The blindfold. Since he had already had a good look at all three of his captors–in fact he could easily identify all three of them– Micajah from his employment at the ranch and the other two men from his encounter with them in town—Scott had immediately assumed that the men were using the blindfold as a device to make their prisoner more biddable, more tractable. He was, after all, more than a little familiar with such tactics. But perhaps that hadn’t stopped them from working. Gil certainly hadn’t hesitated to take advantage of the situation to retaliate for each and every punch that Scott had landed back in Senor Baldemerro’s store.

He’d expected the abuse. And he’d known to be wary of believing what he was told, had tried so hard to sort out the half-truths from the lies. Now Scott understood that he had given Howard and Gil too much credit. They might be professional thieves or gunmen, but they were not professional guards. It had all been quite simple. Every thing that they had said had been a lie. And they had blindfolded him only because there was something—someone—that they didn’t want him to see.  Johnny. 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Murdoch studied Scott’s profile carefully. He was dirty and disheveled, had a cut on his lip and the several days’ growth of blond beard did not mask the bruises clearly visible on the young man’s face. Despite Murdoch’s great relief that Scott was alive and unhurt, his son’s haggard appearance had not gone unnoticed. Nor did the slump to his shoulders, the bowed head and now the swift play of rapidly changing emotions flickering over the plains of Scott’s face.

It struck Murdoch that, despite the many new experiences that had been thrown his way over the course of the past few weeks, this was the first time in their too brief acquaintance that he had ever seen his elder son looking less than confident.  Instead of exuding quiet self-assurance, Scott now appeared doubtful and looked almost  . . . lost.

When those hauntingly familiar eyes finally looked up at him once more, the sorrowful expression there made it impossible for Murdoch to hide his concern.

“They never let me see—“ Scott started to say, but Murdoch’s large hand fell on his son’s shoulder, interrupting him with a question. “Scott, are you all right?”

Instantly, those eyes became a stranger’s eyes, unreadable. Murdoch could feel Scott’s shoulders straighten, see the jaw tighten. The shutters closed and that brief glimpse of an uncertain young man was gone, replaced by the self-possessed Easterner, the coolly competent military officer.

“I’m fine, Sir. But Johnny isn’t. I need to go back.  Now.”

As he spoke, Scott picked up one of the Spencer carbines from the ground.  “I’ll need extra cartridges for this,” he said as he started towards his father’s saddlebags. “And you need to get Cipriano to a doctor. The bleeding hasn’t completely stopped and the angle of that bullet wound—“

“I need to . . . ? No, Scott, you can’t go back up there alone.”

The two men locked eyes, Scott’s flashing light blue steel. “I know the situation. I can handle it, Sir.  Now let’s get Cipriano up onto that horse.”

Together they helped the injured man to his feet and began moving slowly towards his waiting mount. 

“I’ll send some men back. Try to wait for them, if you can.”

Scott didn’t answer right away. They all knew it would be hours before Murdoch and Cipriano would reach the ranch. “There’s no need to send an army, Murdoch. Three or four good men will do, with provisions and extra horses—just in case we need to go after them.”

Murdoch climbed aboard white-faced Toby, and drew up alongside Cipriano’s horse. With the senior Lancer helping from above, and Scott’s assistance from below, Cipriano was finally settled in his own saddle.

“Gracias, Senor Scott.” The big foreman used his right hand to fumble with the buckle of his gun belt. “Here, my gun— por favor, you take it.”

Scott willingly accepted the Segundo’s gun belt, noting that it included an ample supply of bullets as well as a large knife in a sheath attached on the side opposite the holster. After he fastened the buckle, Scott hung the large leather loop over his shoulder. Stowing the Spencer in the boot attached to Barranca’s saddle, he received a box of cartridges from Murdoch, and then mounted the palomino.

“Scott, here, take this, use it if you have to.”  Scott edged Barranca closer to the other horses. He took the envelope without comment, unfastening one of the buttons of his beige tattersall shirt in order to slip the money inside.

Scott studied his father’s face for a moment, then addressed a question to the Mexican foreman seated between them. “Cipriano. . . the money that my father promised to Johnny and I for coming here. . . .” Scott shot Murdoch a glance, before he continued.  “The one thousand dollars for one hour—who knows about that?”

Seeing the Segundo’s discomfort, Scott quickly amended the question. “Does everyone know about that?”

“Si, Senor Scott.”

Having received the answer he expected, Scott turned Barranca’s head in the direction of the line shack.

“Scott, wait.” With a quick pat to Cipriano’s uninjured shoulder, Murdoch moved Toby alongside the palomino.

“Bring him back.”

“I intend to,” Scott assured him, his determination evident.

“But Scott . . . if—IF he really wants to leave with them . . . let him. Give him the money, give him the horse. Just tell him. . . ..tell him that he can always come back.”

Scott nodded. “I’ll do that, Sir,” he said, setting Barranca in motion once more.

“Scott!  Scott  . . . take care of yourself.”

Wheeling the horse around, Scott Lancer flashed his father a tired smile. “I’ll try to do that too.” 

He set off at a canter across the open field. Scott realized that he would need to take to the woods, in order to approach the line shack without being seen. Once there, he would assess the situation and come up with a plan.  At least now he believed that he could count upon his brother’s assistance—if Johnny was still capable of giving any. If not, then at least Scott knew his odds were improving.  He was now only outnumbered by two to one.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

CHAPTER SEVEN

Inside the line shack, Johnny Lancer had spent the afternoon lying on the too familiar lower bunk staring up at the rough underside of the bed above him, every knothole counted, the grain of every board memorized. His ankles were lashed together again, then tied to one of the support posts, his arms bound once more behind his back. He’d been pretty happy when Vic and Gil hadn’t bothered to replace the foul tasting gag, after he’d gone outside and said his piece to Scott. But right now, he’d take it back in a heartbeat, if he could just loosen the ropes on his wrists even a little bit.

He could barely feel his hands.

He’d been doing okay, when they’d taken him outside.  Even though his hands had still been tied, he’d been upright, felt some blood moving down into his arms, been able to shake some feeling into his fingers. Sometime later, they’d even untied him for a while, all three of them standing watch, Howard and Roberson and the man he still thought of as “Day’s Indian,” for lack of any other name.  He’d been given some water, though he’d almost dropped the canteen, then had a bite to eat and finally they’d escorted him outside, Gil cracking jokes, asking if he needed any “help”.  Roberson had had a few other comments, like “Guess you won’t be doing any ‘fetching’ now, Madrid.” It had been an effort for Johnny to get his hands to move, but fortunately one had worked well enough. 

That short trip outside had been the last glimpse he’d had of Scott, still blindfolded and tied to a tree, apparently asleep. Not that he figured Scott would’ve had much interest in passing the time of day anyway, not after their last conversation. It sure had been a pleasure to see Barranca again though, and hear his horse’s familiar nicker of greeting.  Of course, Barranca had probably been taken just to add to the “evidence” against him. Since Pardee’s boys seemed so set on making Scott believe that Johnny was working with them, it stood to reason that they’d be trying to convince Murdoch of the same thing.  It was with a heavy heart that Johnny wondered how difficult a task that would be. If Murdoch hadn’t known what to think of him before, would he know any better now?

Anyway, when it had been time to put the ropes back on, Howard had said something about not making them so tight, but of course Gil had yanked for all he was worth. Johnny knew that if he didn’t find a way to loosen the cords real soon, he was going to be in serious trouble.

Well, the fact was, he was going to be in some pretty serious trouble anyway, that is if you considered an unfriendly three man escort to execution to be serious trouble. It sounded as if they were going to be heading out tonight, under cover of darkness. The Indian had ridden off with Scott, and once he came back with Murdoch’s money, then most likely they’d be off to Mexico. Though Johnny couldn’t help remembering Gil’s comment about maybe not wanting to ride that far if he already had a thousand dollars to spend.

If Vic felt the same way, they’d use one bullet and it would be all over.

And if anyone got the notion of paying him back for Coley, then it might not be quite so quick.

But if they headed south to Mexico, then there would be some hope. It was a long way to the border and he’d just have to watch for his chance. It wouldn’t be easy, being outnumbered three to one. 

Well, that just got him thinking again about how no one would be coming after him. He’d been going around and around on that all afternoon, worrying over it, gnawing on it, second guessing himself instead of just accepting that it was over and done.

”We’ve all done things we regret.”

Now wasn’t that the truth; and sometimes Johnny felt as if he had more than his fair share. The life he’d led before coming to Lancer pretty much guaranteed having a few regrets. 

And ever since Teresa had told him that story about his mother, that she had been the one who had decided to leave the ranch, Johnny’d wondered what kind of regrets the Old Man might have, not just about his own mother, but about having lost two wives and two sons. But they’d never talked about it, not in any detail, not yet. While he was recovering, Johnny had let Murdoch know that he’d heard another version of his parents’ story, and Murdoch had looked pretty relieved. It hadn’t seemed like the time to mention that he still wasn’t sure what to believe.

But it hadn’t been Murdoch who had said that, about having regrets, it had been Scott. If he’d had to guess, when they’d first met, Johnny would have said that the most ol’Boston had to regret was not being dressed in the latest style or missing out on a prime opportunity to spend time with a pretty young lady. At the celebration they’d had at the ranch, the Easterner had kept himself busy, dancing with just about every female in sight and talking with just about everyone else. Whenever Scott had stepped off of the dance floor for a drink or to catch his breath, he’d been pulled into conversation with some of the older men, Murdoch’s rancher friends.

One of the things that had interested Johnny about the gathering had been the way that Scott’s eyes had darted around when Murdoch had made that remark about some of the guests having fought in the same war.  It had been something Johnny had wanted to maybe ask Scott about, to find out if the man could pick out any other former soldiers in the crowd, but hadn’t been able to catch up with him.

There had been that one time that his brother had been alone by the punch bowl and Johnny had started to saunter over to join him. Then another man had slipped in beside Scott and introduced himself.  Scott was standing with his back to Johnny and hadn’t seen him approach; Johnny had been about to walk off in the opposite direction, when he’d caught part of the conversation. The stranger had a southern accent and was saying something about being one of those soldiers “your Daddy” had mentioned. “Though as you mahgt guess, Ah wore grey.”

The tone of Scott’s response had been friendly enough. “The War’s over, Mr. Butler, it ended five years ago.”

Then the Southerner, Butler, had said something about that not being true for everyone, that for some men it wasn’t over, might not ever be over. That’s when Scott had surprised Johnny by saying that, about having regrets.  

“We’ve all done things we regret.”

“That’s a fact.”

“But, it’s over.”

Then Scott had walked away, just like that, without taking the man’s leave or anything.  In fact, Boston had been downright rude. Butler had looked up and met Johnny’s eyes, and known that he’d overheard the conversation. And that they’d both heard the same thing in Scott’s voice. The Southerner had smiled sadly, shrugged his shoulders. “Sayin’ it don’t always make it true.” 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

After carefully reconnoitering the area, Scott had established a vantage point and now had the enemy in sight.  But there was still one man unaccounted for, and until he could ascertain that last key piece of information, it would be difficult to formulate a plan. So Scott waited, watching and listening. . ..

“He should be back with the money any time.”

That one was “Gil”; Scott recognized the voice immediately. The man in the dirty white vest was standing near the campfire in front of the line shack.  Gil was talking about Micajah. Crouching in the brush, clutching the Spencer carbine, Scott strained to hear “Howard’s” response.

“We can wait a while. Lancer might’ve been late. Or there could’ve been some trouble—that is why we sent Micajah out in the first place.”

Gil laughed. He flung aside what liquid was left in his coffee cup, and reached up with the other hand to adjust the hat on his head—Scott’s hat. “Hey, I offered to go along with ‘im.”

Howard was busy with a pot, getting ready to put something over the fire. “Guess I trust the Indian more than I trust you,” he said harshly.

“That’s a lotta trust, thinkin’ he won’t just take off with our money.”

Howard rose slowly and turned to face the other man. “He knows the plan is to go to Mexico,” Howard explained with exaggerated patience. “I figure if he comes back here with that palomino and whatever Old Man Lancer’s riding, leaves the two of them on foot, then we really don’t have to worry about anyone coming after us,” he added smugly.

“He does what I told ‘im, we don’t have to worry any either.”

“Yeah? And what did you tell him?”

Gil folded his arms across his chest, and his tone mirrored his challenging stance. “Opposite of you. Put a bullet in both of ‘em.”

There was a long pause. Then Howard put his hands on his hips and laughed. “You know Roberson, that’ll work just fine too.”

Gil laughed in reply, a bit uneasily, Scott thought.  The former soldier continued to scan the area for any sign of his brother.  Barranca had been left back in the woods and Scott had approached the line shack on foot. The other horses, he knew, were around off to the far side of the cabin: Rambler and the nameless Lancer draft horse, as well as a third, unfamiliar animal. The forgotten stove still sat with the rest of the gear in the small buckboard wagon, except for the wannigan that had been positioned near the campfire. Johnny wasn’t beside the fire, nor could he be seen sitting anywhere off to the side, not even hidden in the lengthening shadows. The line shack porch was empty and the two windows in the front of the building were dark, even though the sun was low enough in the sky to make it nearly time to be lighting a lantern, if there was anyone inside.

Scott adjusted the gun belt that stretched across his chest. Cipriano’s belt was too wide for him to wear on his hips.  Rather than taking the time to notch a new hole in the leather, Scott had fastened the buckle at the widest circumference, slipping it over his head and one arm. He had Murdoch’s carbine in hand, ready for use.  Although it would be hours before any help could arrive from the ranch, a prudent man would wait for them. Scott needed to decide what, if anything to do next.

Then Howard helped him out. 

“C’mon Gil, let’s go get those horses ready.”

“We leavin’ even if he ain’t back yet?”

“The plan was to leave short after sunset. He could have had trouble. We’ll just take Madrid and go.”

Gil started moving off in the direction of the waiting animals.  “Sure, I s’pose he can ride that cart horse bareback all the way to Mexico. Less the Indian follows us with those saddle horses.”

“You think he knows how to track?”

“He’s an Indian, ain’t he?”

Laughing, the two walked away, disappearing from view around the far corner of the building. Staying low and in the shadows, Scott Lancer made his move.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Johnny’s eyes popped open and he realized that he’d dozed off again. Well, it was pretty tiring, lying here unable to move and thinking about all the things that he wished he’d done differently.

We’ve all done things we regret.

Johnny closed his eyes again and tried not to think about when he’d announced that Scott could see under that blindfold. He really didn’t want to picture the expression on his brother’s face; if Boston had set his jaw any tighter it would have broken. Johnny had walked right over to Scott, close enough for his brother to maybe notice the condition of his pants, all creased from the ropes that had bound his ankles. But Gil had challenged him and then silently lowered the barrel of the carbine he was holding until it was positioned only inches above Scott’s knee.

And then, for good measure, Johnny had told Gil to check the ropes, to take away that belt buckle. He could imagine how much Scott had hated him them, having stayed up all night and worked so hard. Every time that Johnny had roused from his fitful sleep, Scott had still been at it, rubbing those ropes against the edge of his belt buckle and freezing in position every time he’d heard the slightest sound of anyone shifting in a bunk.  Scott’s lack of progress after hours of effort hadn’t noticeably decreased his dogged determination.

Now Johnny could think about it all more clearly, since the throbbing in his head had finally stopped. But before, there just hadn’t been much time at all to consider what he was going to say.  What had been uppermost in his mind was to give Scott a warning, tell him not to try to escape or anything. The plan was to send Scott back safely, once he thought that Johnny was working with Pardee’s boys, and then no one at Lancer would have any reason to come after them. Boston didn’t have a chance against three guns, anyone with sense would have to realize that, but Johnny couldn’t be certain that the man might not be stubborn enough to try it anyway. 

Of course now Johnny was questioning the fact that he’d believed them, even though Gil and Vic hadn’t known at the time that he was listening. No matter what the two men said, they were more than capable of killing both Scott and Murdoch without giving it a second thought.  And still achieve the same end result—no one following them.

He should have just told his brother to “stay out of trouble” and kept quiet about the blindfold and the ropes. That would have left Scott with some kind of chance to do something for himself if need be.

No question, his brother had to be feeling pretty angry and betrayed. Johnny had only heard some of what Scott had been told but he’d been glad to know that Scott hadn’t believed it all. But that had been before their ‘talk.’  Vic and Gil had claimed that Johnny had ridden back to the ranch with a ransom note—and since Johnny himself had confirmed the ‘fact’, he really couldn’t hold out much hope that his brother would suddenly decide that Johnny had really been lying there in the bunk the whole time. Even if Scott had noticed that his pants were wrinkled, that was still asking an awful lot.

No, Johnny figured his best hope lay in something that Scott had asked him—“Where are you going?” Johnny had given him the honest answer: Mexico. And maybe, just maybe, Scott would realize that something about that wasn’t quite right.

Back when Scott had told him about having read Murdoch’s Pinkerton reports on “Johnny Madrid”, the gunfighter had had mixed feelings. It hadn’t felt right, knowing that his father and this new brother of his both thought they knew so much about him, and since Johnny hadn’t gotten around to looking at those reports himself, he had no idea just what they knew or how accurate it might be. But, the reports belonged to Murdoch, so the Old Man could do with them whatever he wanted, really, and it was done. Scott had read them and there was no point in wishing otherwise.

Now he was hoping that the college boy had actually made it all the way to the last page. That agent, Thomas, must have written something about arriving barely in time to prevent Johnny from being executed, must have mentioned the rurales who had been killed when they made their escape. Even if Scott had missed the wrinkled pants and Johnny’s “friendly warnings,” maybe if his brother could figure out that Mexico was one place that Johnny wouldn’t really want to be visiting any time soon, then Scott would realize that Johnny was not working with Roberson and Howard. Of course, that was asking Scott to overlook a lot of other things.  If he was even still alive.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> 

The door to the line shack eased open.  Johnny couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Scott slip inside. He was holding a carbine, had some kind of belt strapped across his chest. It only took Scott a moment to reach the bunk, with a knife in his hand.

“Oh Brother, am I ever glad to see you.”

“That’s the second time you’ve called me that,” Scott said as he worked at the ropes tying Johnny’s ankles together. “I missed it the first time,” he added as he helped the younger man to his feet. Then he looked Johnny squarely in the eyes. “I missed a lot of things.”

Johnny shrugged, offered a lopsided grin. “Guess maybe you had something else on your mind.”

“Turn around.” Scott started to slice at the cords wrapped around Johnny’s wrists, then paused. “Looks like you’ve been tied up a long time.”

“Ever since I got here.”

Scott exhaled audibly as he finished cutting through the cords; when Johnny turned around, his brother was wearing a grim expression. Swinging his lifeless hands about, Johnny inclined his head towards the gun looped around Scott’s shoulder. “That for me?”

“It depends. Can you feel your hands?”

“Just gimme a few minutes.”

“Right.”  Scott’s dry, drawn out response made his skepticism evident.

Crossing to the window, Scott stood beside it and peered out into the gathering dusk.

“We may not have a few minutes. They were talking about leaving soon, the horses are already saddled.”  Scott looked at his brother. “They’re waiting for Micajah to get back with the money. But I don’t think they’ll wait too much longer.”

“Micajah—that the Indian?”

Scott nodded in the affirmative.

“If you’re here, then I guess he ain’t comin’ back.”

“No.” Scott crouched down below the level of the window, still watching the two men, one standing, one sitting near the campfire.  He glanced back, studying Johnny’s limp hands.

Johnny saw the look. He had to admit there was no way he was going to be able to handle a gun. “Well, Boston, looks like you’re in charge of this escape.”

Scott’s only response was a long hard stare; the expression on his face was unfathomable. Then he returned his attention to the view from the window. Johnny decided it was time to get down to business.

He fired a question at the back of Scott’s head.  “So . .  how many shots do you have?”

Scott kept looking out the window at Gil and Howard. “It’s a Spencer—seven shots.”

“Scott,” Johnny stepped closer, his voice more insistent this time, “where’d you get the gun?”

“From Murdoch.”

“So— how many shots do you have?”

Finally, Scott understood, raising his eyebrows and half turning to give Johnny a sideways glance over his shoulder. “Seven,” he said evenly. “I took the cartridges out and reloaded.”

“Okay.” Johnny nodded in satisfaction. It wasn’t possible to tell by looking inside the gun. You could see that there was one cartridge, maybe glimpse a second one, but it was impossible to know how many more rimshots there were inside without doing exactly what Scott had done, empty out the weapon and reload.

Ducking below the level of the window, Johnny moved to a position opposite Scott. His numb hands were starting to tingle; resting them on his thighs, he slid down the wall into a sitting position. “Look, they come in here after me, it’ll be the two of them together.”

Scott considered this. “That’ll be close quarters, it might be best to take them by surprise, outside.” Scott started to rise from his crouch, but Johnny gestured for him to stay.

Johnny couldn’t help recalling that back when Murdoch had told them about Pardee and his men, Scott’s first question had been “What about the Law?” He figured that his brother might even now have some notion of taking Gil and Vic prisoner. 

“Now, Boston, they ain’t going to surrender just cause you go out there and point a loaded gun at ‘em.”

Scott gave Johnny another long look, without comment, then returned his attention to the men outside. Johnny kept talking.

“It won’t work to try to take the two of them with a carbine– you can’t cover both of ‘em and you can’t cock and shoot faster than the second man can draw on ya.”

It took a moment before Scott responded. “And I can’t beat them with a six gun,” he said finally.

“They’re professionals.”

“And I’m not.”

Johnny was relieved that his brother didn’t seem the least inclined to argue with his assessment.  Instead, Scott asked a question. “So, Brother, what do you suggest?”

Johnny hesitated, not at all sure how his suggestion was going to sit. It was going to be hard to gauge Scott’s reaction, since his brother was still turned away, staring out the window.  Johnny studied Scott’s profile for a moment, then decided to just get it said.

“Well, I usually like ta give a man a fair chance. I know it might not feel right to pick off a hombre who’s just sittin’ around a campfire—“

“I’ve done it before.”

Scott’s tone was completely flat. Johnny knew he didn’t need to ask when Boston would have done something like that; it had to have been during that War of his.  The one that was supposed to be over.

It took a bit of effort, since his hands were still largely useless, but Johnny pushed himself up off the floor and then headed to the door.

“Where are you going?” Scott hissed at him, without taking his eyes off of the two men outside. 

“Get ready.”

Hearing the sound of the carbine being shouldered, Johnny lifted the latch with his elbow and swung the door open.  

He stepped out onto the plank porch and said, “Hi Boys.”

Maybe the first shot was fired before he spoke, he couldn’t be sure.

Roberson didn’t even make a move for his gun before he dropped dead.

Howard scrambled to his feet and started to draw, was hit and actually got off a shot towards the line shack before Scott finished him off.

Sounds of gunfire and breaking glass, and then it was all over.

That fast.

Relieved, Johnny leaned against the doorframe, jiggling his limp hands. Scott was beside him in an instant, weapon ready as he stared through the doorway at the two bodies on the ground.

“What the hell was that?” he demanded angrily.

“Oh,” Johnny grinned up at him, “I think it’s what they call a . . .diversion. . .”

Scott just glared back, then headed over to make sure that the two men were dead.

Johnny followed. “That was some good shooting, Boston.”

Scott stood silently looking down at the bodies for a long moment, clutching that carbine in one hand at his side. Without acknowledging Johnny’s comment, he carefully set the gun down.

“I need to go get a horse.”

Scott disappeared into the woods, while Johnny waited by the campfire, encouraged by the fact that more sensation was starting to come back into his hands. When Scott finally returned, leading Barranca, Johnny followed his brother around to the side of the building, and watched as he unsaddled first the palomino, then Rambler and finally the horse belonging to the late land pirates. Scott didn’t say a word the whole time, other than to ask how Johnny’s hands were feeling.

“They hurt like hell.”

“That’s good. . . that’s a good sign.”

Once the horses had been tended to, Scott grabbed his leather haversack from the back of the wagon and announced that he was going inside. Even though Gil and Vic didn’t make for great company, Johnny wasn’t overly eager to go back inside the line shack. He walked around, trying to distract himself from the pain in his hands. He noticed the hat that Gil had been wearing lying on the ground—for the first time it hit him that it actually belonged to Scott. He wondered if Boston would want it back after this.

On further inspection, Gil’s still holstered weapon was Johnny’s own gun, but neither man was sporting the rest of Johnny’s rig. Johnny kept moving around, looking inside the wagon bed, checking to see what was left in the chuck box. The campfire had just about burned itself out, and a pot off to the side held what looked like some still uncooked beans. Needing more distraction, Johnny stretched his legs by jogging over towards Barranca, and worked his hands by running them over the palomino’s hide.

A little while later, Johnny finally decided to see what Scott was up to. He pushed the door open with his shoulder, still moving his hands, clasping and unclasping them together. His brother was seated at the small table in the center of the room, slumped forward, his elbows resting on the table surface. A kerosene lamp hung from the rafters above. The top of Scott’s blond head shown in the lamplight, while his face was in shadows.  He glanced up, barely, when the door swung open, then went back to idly scratching at the pattern of the wood grain with one finger.  Scott didn’t react when the door slammed shut.

Rubbing at his stubbled chin with one hand, Johnny stepped further into the room. He folded his arms across his chest and studied his brother for a moment. It struck him that this was the first time he’d ever seen Scott looking so downcast or uncertain. The man looked almost . . .  lost.

When those blue-grey eyes finally looked up at him once more, the haunted expression there made it impossible for Johnny to hide his concern.

“Hey—- you okay?”

Scott’s eyes widened at that, then instantly his expression closed off. He nodded, a barely perceptible nod, but Johnny was so certain that his brother was going to say he was “fine,” that he dropped his arms to his sides and started to turn away. After all, it wasn’t as if he’d expected the man to admit otherwise.

“No, I’m not, exactly.”

The words were so softly spoken that they took a moment to register. Taken by surprise, Johnny turned back and considered Scott’s profile. Instead of the tabletop, Boston seemed to be staring at the far corner of the cabin now, the look on his face one of a man who was regretting what he’d just said.

“Might help if you took a little siesta.”

Johnny could tell right away that Scott hadn’t taken that suggestion very well at all. Scott’s response was to drop his glance back to the tabletop; the bowed head not enough to hide the set of his jaw.

“I know you didn’t get any sleep last night,” Johnny explained quietly.

It took a moment, but then, although his head barely moved, Scott’s gaze shifted, he looked up and over at the empty bunk on the wall opposite him. Johnny could tell the exact moment when he figured it out, that someone had been watching him the whole time. Those sad, tired-looking eyes closed briefly, then Scott managed a little smile, shaking his head and looking up at Johnny with a rueful expression.

“So . .  why don’t you take a nap and I’ll see if I can rustle up something to eat?”

“I could eat,” Scott said slowly.

The appreciation showed in the eyes, if not in the words. Johnny grinned. “I ain’t making any promises,” he assured the older man, “but I’ll see what I can do.”  He moved towards the door, had just reached out for it when he heard his name.

“Johnny?”

“Yeah?”   Johnny paused at the door without turning, his own dark head bowed.

“Thanks.”

Acknowledging that with a brief nod, Johnny exited the cabin. Once the door had closed, Scott pushed back the chair and rose slowly to his feet, an action typically taken for granted that was suddenly a challenge to perform. The surge of energy that had carried him through had expired once Howard and Gil had been eliminated. He’d woodenly forced himself to tend to the horses, knowing that if he stopped, he might never be able to set himself in motion again.

Even the bunk seemed very far away. As he loosened his shirt by pulling it out of the waistband of his trousers, the envelope of money dropped to the plank floor, with some of the bills spilling out. Wearily, he scooped them up, stuffed them back inside and tossed the package onto the table, then dropped gratefully into the nearest bunk.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

Scott hadn’t been sleeping very long when Johnny’s voice nudged him awake.

“Hey—ya oughta eat somethin’.”

“Okay,” Scott mumbled, unwilling to open his eyes. Once he sat up and finally did pry them open, he saw that Johnny was extending a plate of beans towards him.

“Thanks,” he managed, while accepting the food.

Holding the plate in one hand, Scott used the other to rub first at his eyes, then at his bruised and bristled chin. Johnny sauntered over to the table, where his own plate was waiting. Lips parted, Scott looked rather vaguely around the interior of the cabin, provoking a friendly laugh from his brother.

“Don’t worry, Boston. Good night’s sleep, a shave in the mornin’, you’ll be feelin’ like yourself again.”

The blond eyebrows rose at that. “You think so?”  Then he tried a forkful of beans. “These aren’t bad.”

Johnny laughed again. “Yeah, I’m hungry enough to eat anything too.”

With a genuine smile, Scott eased up off of the bunk and took his place at the table opposite his brother. The two ate in silence, until Johnny tapped at the envelope with his fork.

“So what’s this?”

“There’s three thousand dollars in that envelope.  The ransom money.”

Johnny’s eyes hardened. “In case you needed to pay me off,” he guessed flatly.

Scott didn’t flinch; those blue-grey eyes didn’t blink. “Or to buy you back. From them,” he added, nodding his head towards the front of the cabin.

Johnny accepted that answer with a nod of his own. Scott resumed eating, but Johnny put his fork down and looked inside the envelope. He could see that there was a folded piece of paper inside, and he fished it out.  It was pretty crumpled, much the worse for wear. As he flattened it out on the tabletop to read, Scott paused, empty fork in mid air, and waited.

It took a moment. “So the Old Man thinks I’m in on this.” Again, it was a statement, not a question.

Scott set his fork down. “He wasn’t sure.”

“That ain’t my writin’.”

Scott sighed. “Murdoch didn’t know that. He couldn’t tell . . . . and neither could I.”

There was a long moment, during which neither man spoke.

“But you came back. So what was it tipped you off?”

Scott rested his elbows on the table, clasping his hands together in the air over his plate. “Mexico.”

Johnny nodded again, smiling this time. “I thought maybe you’d figure that out.”

Scott shook his head. “Oh, but I didn’t. It was Murdoch who saw it, that you wouldn’t be going back there, not willingly. It was a good clue, Johnny. But I missed it.”

“Well, Boston, don’t go beatin’ yourself up about that, ‘bout missin’ it, cause it wasn’t a clue.”

Scott looked puzzled.

“You asked me where I was goin’,” Johnny explained, “and I told ya.”  “It weren’t til later that I started hoping you might think something was wrong.”

“I’m not sure I was thinking very clearly,” Scott offered in an apologetic tone.

Johnny snorted. “Yeah, well I imagine you were probably mad enough to want ta hit me or somethin’.”

“Or something,” Scott agreed.

Johnny folded the note and started to put it back into the envelope, then stopped and opened it again.  “Is this the way you spell ‘Murdoch’?” he asked, turning the note towards his brother in response to Scott’s questioning look.

“No, it’s with an ‘h’—but I always thought it was a ‘k’.”  Scott reached over and took the note, examined it and shook his head. Something about the expression on his brother’s face raised Johnny’s suspicions, but he decided to bite anyway.

“What?”

“Oh. . . just that the next time I’m held for ransom, I’ll have to make sure that they actually know how to spell ‘Scott’.” 

Johnny laughed out loud at his brother’s mock disapproval. “I wouldn’t worry ‘bout that Boston, but if I were you I’d make sure they come down a little on the askin’ price.”

Then he ducked as the crumpled ransom note flew past his head.

Once the meager meal over, Johnny picked up the dishes and Scott walked over to pick up the leather work glove that he spied lying on the floor near the back wall. Absently slapping the glove against his thigh, Scott was scanning the floor unsuccessfully for its missing mate when his brother spoke again.

“Listen, Scott, the reason I wanted to come up here alone–”

Scott stood listening, his head bowed, staring at that one glove.

“It wasn’t because I knew they were up here—I didn’t.”

Scott finally looked up at that, his expression serious, still waiting.

“I guess I just wanted some time on my own, maybe practice some shooting.”

“Well, Brother,” Scott intoned slowly, standing with his hands on his hips. “While it seems I’ve been wrong about a number of things, . . .  that   just may be the one that I most regret. That you didn’t have an entirely different kind of rendez-vous planned.”

”A. . .?”

“Rendez-vous—“

“You mean with a woman? Who?!”

“I take it you weren’t impressed with Teresa’s friends? Some of them were certainly enamored of you.”

Johnny grinned. “Some of ‘em weren’t bad. But I prefer my women a little older.”

Scott returned his grin with a devilish one of his own. “So do I, Brother, so do I.”

The two spent some time discussing the relative merits of each of Miss O’Brien’s friends. Scott considered Alondra Zamora to be the most intriguing while Johnny was very interested in Corinna Cushman. Since the Cushman family hailed from “Back East”, Scott considered it his brotherly duty to impart some rather risqué words of advice to his younger sibling. Johnny reciprocated by teaching Boston some ‘necessary’ Spanish phrases he was not likely to acquire from Senora Maria.

When Scott finally admitted that he could no longer keep his eyes open, he crawled back into the lower bunk. Johnny, understandably reluctant to follow suit, announced his intention to sleep under the stars and then set up his bedroll outside. 

Where he was the first to be awakened by the approaching riders.  

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

CHAPTER EIGHT

Awakened by the sound of stealthily approaching riders, Johnny crouched in the shadows, his gun ready, waiting until finally two men crept out of the brush. From the noises he’d detected, it seemed likely there might be a few more, so he kept an eye out for any other movements.

The dark figures first approached the bodies lying on the ground beside the dead campfire. Gil’s lifeless eyes were still staring up at the night sky, but Howard was face down and together the two strangers turned him over. Then one of the men looked back in the direction from which they’d come.

“Ees not them,” he whispered.

Johnny relaxed. He easily identified the form, once he recognized the voice.

“¿Hola Miguel, cómo usted es?”

“Senor Johnny! ¿Usted está bien?”

“Si.”  Johnny kept walking towards them, nodding at the second man, a young Anglo whom he did not recognize. Miguel’s companion was staring at the gun in Johnny’s hand; the gunfighter figured he could make the man feel a lot better by holstering it, but since he wasn’t wearing a rig that was going to be hard to do.

Several other men entered the clearing and Johnny recognized a couple of them as Lancer ranch hands: there was José, a big Mexican, and another, older Anglo, a stocky man  named Walt. There were two others whose faces Johnny still couldn’t see. All of them had their guns drawn, six shooters, except for José who was clutching a shotgun of some type. They were ready for trouble. Making certain to keep his own weapon lowered, Johnny tried to reassure them.

“Everything’s okay Boys.” 

“Hey there Johnny!”  

The last two men stepped out of the shadows, a Negro ranch hand who went by “Frank” and a tall skinny man that Johnny recognized as . . .Wes?   He’d never known a last name, but he’d come across the drifter some where .  .  .

“Hi, Wes.”

Walt stepped forward, he seemed to be the one in charge. “Mr. Lancer sent us up here to—“

The younger cowboy, the one standing beside Miguel, interrupted him. “Where’s your brother?” he demanded.

“I’m right here, Walt.” All heads turned as Scott stepped out onto the line shack porch, wearing the knit shirt he usually slept in and holding a Spencer.

Once certain that both of their employer’s sons were safe and that the only danger had been posed by the two men now lying dead on the ground, the men from Lancer put up their weapons. Frank and José went after the horses and led them into the clearing. Scott greeted the other men by name and explained to a puzzled Johnny that there were two Walts, father and son. Wes clapped Johnny on the shoulder and happily announced that the two of them “went way back.” 

After some discussion, it was decided that Wes’ reunion with Johnny would be short-lived, as he and Frank would ride directly back to the ranch to let Murdoch Lancer know that all was well. Since his chronic back and leg injuries had been aggravated by the long ride back to the hacienda with Cipriano, the Lancer patriarch had reluctantly decided to remain behind, unwilling to slow the other men down.

Scott inquired after the wounded Segundo. The Lancer brothers were given the sobering news that the ranch foreman had been much weakened by the time spent in the saddle, but were reassured that the local doctor had immediately been summoned.

Once Frank and Wes had departed, the other men decided to try to catch a few hours of sleep. Knowing that the typical line shack only held four bunks, Miguel volunteered to bed down outside with Johnny; José and the two Walts therefore gathered up their gear and headed towards the cabin.

Noting that his brother seemed a bit reluctant to follow the other men, Johnny offered a suggestion.

“Hey, Miguel’s been ridin’ all night, why don’t ya give him the bunk and sleep out here with me, Boston?” 

Seeing Scott move to retrieve a bedroll from the wagon, Miguel shrugged and willingly followed the others inside.  

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>  

The next morning, Walt senior detailed his son and the two vaqueros to dispose of the bodies while he himself set about making coffee and preparing a breakfast from the provisions that the ranch hands had brought along with them.  Scott went inside the line shack for a moment, then returned with his leather haversack, attired once more in one of his familiar beige tattersall checked shirts, still untucked and only partially buttoned. He relieved Walt of some of the water he was heating and proceeded to set up his shaving things at the rear of the wagon, with the small circular mirror resting on the stove. Although Scott was not convinced of the truth of Johnny’s assertion that he would “feel more like himself” after a shave, the Easterner was willing to give it a try.

His younger brother was already feeling much more like himself, since he was once more wearing his low-slung gun belt. Apparently the Indian had been wearing it, and Johnny was very happy that Miguel had brought it along. After some scouting around, Johnny had also finally located his hat inside the cabin, where he had also noticed that the envelope of money was still lying on the table.

Standing in the doorway of the line shack, holding the envelope in one hand and tapping it against the other, Johnny took in the sight of the senior Walt, busy at the cook fire, while Scott was hard at work carefully scraping lather off of his face. Johnny started to saunter over, then made a detour to pick Scott’s abandoned hat up off of the ground, before continuing on towards his brother.

Scott watched Johnny’s approach in the small wood-framed mirror. He didn’t fail to notice the rolling gait, the familiar hat firmly in place, the gun belt riding low on his hips once more, and allowed himself a small smile.

“Found your hat.”

Scott turned, eyebrows raised. “Thanks,” he said dryly.

Johnny grinned. “Figured it might still be worth keepin’.”

Scott returned his attention to his shaving. “Should I leave the shaving things out?”

“Yeah, I might like a shave.”

Johnny looked down at the envelope in his hands.

“Here’s Murdoch’s money.”

Scott barely glanced up at that, just kept working his razor. “You can give it to him.”

Johnny shrugged and headed off towards the horses. He hadn’t gone very far before he stopped and turned back. There was something he needed to get said.

“Look, Scott, they wanted ta send you back thinkin’ I was workin’ with ‘em.”

Scott wiped off the razor on the towel over his shoulder without turning around. “I know.”

“I should’ve kept quiet about the blindfold . . .”

Scott examined his face in the small mirror. Although he didn’t agree with what his brother had done, Scott understood that Johnny hadn’t wanted him to take any foolish chances by trying to escape. “You don’t wanta be tryin’ anything fancy now, Boston.”   And, even though the younger man wasn’t the type to offer excuses, Scott also realized that it was likely that Johnny had been given some pretty strong “encouragement” to play his assigned role.

“ . . .  and about the ropes.”

Scott exhaled slowly. It was difficult knowing that Johnny had been watching that night, while he’d tried to wear through the cords binding his wrists by rubbing them for hours against the edge of a belt buckle. Johnny must have seen what looked like . . . desperation.

He delicately scraped at a few imaginary hairs along his bruised jaw line before finally answering. “I was captured during the War. And held prisoner for a while.” 

That was it, as much explanation as he was willing to give for now.  Without looking around, Scott could feel Johnny standing behind him, waiting to see if there was more. He carefully set the razor down, snatched the towel off of his shoulder and started patting his face dry, before finally facing his brother.

“That’s it. I’m finished.” 

Very deliberately, Johnny waited a beat before responding.

“Okay,” he said slowly.  “Guess I’ll take care of this first,” he announced, holding up the envelope, before moving off towards the horses.

While Johnny put the ransom money safely in his saddlebags, and then spent a few minutes checking Barranca, Scott prepared the shaving things, including the second towel and a pan of clean water. He was thus occupied when Walt carried over a cup of coffee, which Scott gratefully accepted.

“Look, Mr. Lancer,” the older man said, “the boys and I can tend to things here, set that stove up and all, bring the wagon back. You and your brother can head on back to the ranch right after breakfast.”

“We’d appreciate that, Walt.”  Scott thoughtfully sipped at the strong black brew.   “And perhaps you can board up that window too,” he added, gesturing towards the missing panes that had been shot out the evening before.

“Sure thing, Mr. Lancer, we’ll take care of it.”  Walt headed back over towards the campfire. “Food should be ready soon as the others get back.”

“Walt?”  

“Yeah?”

“If you men should get back to the ranch before us, please tell my father not to worry.”

Walt looked puzzled, but he indicated his agreement with a nod and then set about locating plates and other utensils.

Scott had just finished buttoning up his shirt and tucking it into the waistband of his trousers when Johnny returned and positioned himself to make use of Scott’s shaving kit.  As the younger man started to take up the circular bar of soap, Scott informed him of Walt’s offer to take care of things while the brothers returned to the ranch.

“Right after breakfast, huh? You see what he’s fixin’? Beans.”

“I noticed.”

As he soaped up his face, Johnny looked in the mirror and noticed that Scott was holding his hat in two hands, contemplating it.

“Sure be nice to get back. I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout Maria’s cookin’.”

“So have I. You know what else I was thinking about, Brother?”

“No what?” Johnny asked, turning around in time to watch as Scott very deliberately settled his hat squarely upon his head. Then his older brother crossed his arms and uttered just one word.

“Rabbit.”

Johnny laughed, though from the way his blue eyes lit up, he wasn’t against the idea. He took up the razor, ready to attack his stubbled face.

“The Old Man will be waitin’ for us,” he reminded Scott.

“I’ve already told Walt that we might be delayed.”

“Well, Boston, then I guess it’s as good a time as any for you to learn about Western rabbits.”

While Johnny finished shaving, Scott selected a few cooking items which he thought might come in handy. After eating just enough to fortify themselves for the hunt, the brothers took their leave of the other men and set off in the general direction of the distant hacienda.

 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

The sun was well on its descent when the brothers finally approached the rise overlooking the estancia. They had had a successful day, measured by the fact that they had dined on rabbit stew at noon. While savoring the meal, the two young men had further compared their respective tastes in women, and Scott’s tales of romantic conquest had eventually led to some discussion of his recent life in Boston. As his brother answered his questions, Johnny began to better understand just how very different life here on the ranch must be for someone from “Back East” and ventured a comment to that effect.

“It is different,” Scott had conceded. “But I do think I’ll like it out here. . .  even if I don’t know much about cattle.”

“Well, I’ve been around ‘em some. They ain’t that hard ta get t’know.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that Johnny, because I just may be needing a little help.”

With the spark in his blue eyes belying his earnest expression, Johnny had started to explain the anatomical differences between a cow and a steer. The next time the conversation ventured into serious territory, with Johnny’s observation that so far, life out West must be “seeming kinda dangerous”, it was Scott who shifted the discourse back onto a light hearted track, with a harrowing story of a very narrow escape from the angry father of a Boston belle.

Now the distant white hacienda beckoned a welcome. Scott was very much looking forward to a hot bath, a good meal, a generous glass of Murdoch’s imported scotch and a soft bed. He was leading the way on Rambler, thinking  Four out of five isn’t bad, when Johnny reined up. Scott followed suit, and then turned, ready with a joking remark until he noted the serious expression on the younger man’s face.

“I heard what they were sayin’ to you, about how it was Day that sent me in,” Johnny said finally.

Scott shifted a bit in the saddle, but said nothing, waiting to see where his brother was going with this.

“They said that if you weren’t back yet, I was going to talk Murdoch into surrendering.”

In what Johnny had come to recognize as a characteristic motion, Scott glanced downwards, seeming to briefly study his ungloved hands, holding Rambler’s reins. Then he looked up, looked Johnny right in the eyes.

“If we hadn’t been back,” Scott said slowly, “that would have been a good idea.”

Johnny was stunned, though he tried hard not to show it, just stared back at Scott, at those serious light blue eyes, with the slant to the lids that gave him that concerned look so much of the time

“So . .  you think I still hadn’t made up my mind yet, hadn’t ‘chosen Lancer’?”

Scott pursed his lips, looked uncomfortable with the question, and bought himself some time by moving his hat back a bit further onto the crown of his head.

“Johnny . . . I know what you thought, about your mother and Murdoch. I don’t know exactly when you made your decision. But it’s the fact that you did that matters, more than when.”

Johnny’s first thought was an angry one—that he didn’t owe Scott Lancer any explanations anyway. Not that he saw any condemnation or judgment in Scott’s eyes; it actually seemed that somehow this brother of his maybe wouldn’t even hold it against him if he had been working with Pardee right to the bitter end. But he hadn’t been.

“It matters. C’mon, I’m gonna show you something.”

Scott looked longingly towards the hacienda, the inviting soft glow from the windows indicating that the lamps had already been lit against the approaching twilight. The sun was just beginning to start its slide behind the distant mountains.

“Can’t it wait?”

“No. It can’t.”

Johnny wheeled Barranca and rode straight up the hill. With one last glance back at the house, Scott followed him. They had just reached some fallen trees near the top of the rise, when Scott abruptly reined Rambler to a halt. He’d caught a hint of something, very faint but sickeningly familiar.

“Johnny . . . there’s something dead up here. Dead for quite some time.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Johnny said softly. “That would be Coley.”

Scott stared at him, uncomprehending.

“Big guy, beard. One of your friends from the store.”

There was a silence. Then, “Well, I can’t say I’m sorry.”

“He’s right over there if you wanta take a look. I shot him. Shot Day too.”

“That’s good to know,” Scott replied, with a look that said much more than the words.

Johnny looked away first. He hadn’t expected it to matter that much. Then Scott said his name, reclaiming his attention.

There was a tired smile in those blue-grey eyes.

“Let’s go Home, Brother.”

Johnny turned Barranca and headed back down the slope, Scott and Rambler right behind. All that remained of the setting sun were the patches of color reflected in the clouds of the night sky.

Suddenly, Johnny looked back over his shoulder, shouted “Let’s go, Boston!” and urged his horse to quicken its pace—- on a straight line back to the hacienda. 

“Johnny!”

The palomino wheeled.

“I’m not taking him over that fence!” Scott shouted, indicating Rambler.

Johnny had to agree with that. The sorrel was strong and steady, but probably not much of a jumper. Instead, Scott kneed Rambler into motion, taking off towards the road.  Johnny wasn’t far behind, Barranca easily making up the distance.

And they rode under the Lancer arch together.  

To WHN: The Escape

~end~
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PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT

Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. You can do so using the ‘reply’ box below, or, if you prefer, you can email Sharon directly.

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Stories in Sequence Series
Boston 1870
Why Scott Stayed
First Toast
Together at Day’s End
WHN: The Escape
Questions of Brotherhood
Melissa and the Maine Woods
WHN for “The Kid” & “Blue Skies”
Echoes of the Heart

2 thoughts on “Together At Day’s End by Sharon

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