Word Count – 21,917
Johnny rode out early to clear his head. The sound of shovels slicing hard ground broke the silence of the new day. So he pulled back on the reins and clicked Barranca to the hillside graveyard, where a breeze kicked up, letting the morning chill creep over his body. Steve and Walt dug; neither spoke, and he didn’t offer to help. Shame for not helping out floated through his head, but he had other worries, like wondering if others would be planted here because of him.
No one resting in this place had answers, so he nudged his horse back toward the hotel where his brother and all the rest of them would be gathering around a hearse and the body. One minute, you’re talking, full of life, and in an instant, they’re calling for the undertaker.
A lot of people died around Johnny Madrid, some for no reason at all. Was he cursed for dealing in death? And he should have seen this one coming. Too late now, for they all stood staring at a pine box in an open grave. His brother squeezed his shoulder, and like a kid, he wanted to take hold of his hand for comfort; instead, Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat. Who would have thought caring about this old man would slip up on him like that? Never in his life had anyone given a damn when someone he cared about died, and as hard as this day was, knowing Scott understood comforted him.
Most of the town turned out; even the old shopkeeper choked back tears. Sobs and sniffles mingled with the sounds of crows flying against a gray sky. Their mocking calls when they passed near stirred Johnny’s anger, a temper that began its simmer when he and Scott had started protecting the old man from the threats. But in the end, death won.
The parson droned on, blabbering words of praise. Johnny doubted the traveling preacher ever met the old man. Still, it made him smile when the man mentioned how Charlie’s lasting contribution to the community stood as a memorial to him. He would have liked that. Leaving something that said he had passed through this world; that’s what kept him working when Kirby’s men carried on with their attack.
“We therefore commit this body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.” Reverend Dillard spoke final words for a man who died from a broken heart and the cursed luck of being friends with Johnny Madrid—Lancer now, but did the past keep death on his heels?
Johnny and Scott each sprinkled a handful of dirt on the wood coffin before heading to the Gold Nugget. The old saloon shined like its name, bought and fixed up by Henry Barksdale, the former bartender.
“You reckon Charlie would mind us drinking to him in the place Kirby used to own?” Johnny figured Kirby’s betrayal caused the old man to lose hope.
“Charlie bore no ill will toward Kirby. Indubitably, he grieved over his death as much as he mourned the man’s betrayal.” Scott lifted his beer. “It’s one of those things a man can’t fix. Here’s to Charlie and all the things he fixed and built, to what he meant to the community. Rest in peace.”
“To Charlie.” Johnny raised his glass and stared through the golden liquid; his brother took a sip of beer to seal the toast. What kind of Harvard word had Scott thrown out, in-duty-bull-tea? Bullshit, if you asked him. Too tired to ask, he brought the cold glass to his lips, almost resenting having to, but he drained the last drop from the heavy mug. Setting the container down hard, his ‘mad’ decided an empty chair deserved a kick to clear it out of his way. Like everything else, the sound of scraping over the floor grated on every raw nerve.
Too many changes and way too much death. The Fix-It Man––it’s what everyone called Charlie. But nothing fixed the old fellow’s hurt when he found out Kirby, a man he raised, gave the order to shoot him. Another drink was what he needed, Tequila and not just a shot or two, a bottle. “You want another?”
“I’m fine for now, Brother.” Scott didn’t stir, but his eyes followed him as he made his way to the bar, and his brother sure eyeballed his return. Should have figured on that raised eyebrow of disapproval when he plopped the bottle down on the table. Was it what he wanted, so he would have an excuse to get his mad out? “You got a problem with this?”
“No. No, Brother, not me. But Murdoch’s arriving on the three o’clock stage, and I don’t imagine our father will be pleased to be greeted by a drunk son.” So calm and easy, never losing his cool. How did he always keep that mild temper?
“The sober son can greet him.” Johnny uncorked the bottle, slipped a knife from his boot, and sliced the lime he palmed. “I’m gonna settle in right here until my face is numb.” What was wrong with wanting an hour or two, some relief from thinking, just for a bit? Hell, he needed a minute.
“Now, you know, and I know, when Murdoch Lancer sends a telegram for his sons to meet the stage, he means for more than one of us to show up when he arrives.” Scott sipped his beer, still in charge of the table, hell, probably the room.
“You’re a straight-up Cavalryman; always giving and following orders.” Johnny snapped, then regretted this need to take his anger out on his brother. “Dammit, Scott, I ain’t handling this right.” He couldn’t help kicking at the empty chair again. “I feel mean enough to fight a rattler and give him the first bite.” Pulling out his timepiece, he threw his brother his best grin. “I got two hours, one for drinking and one for sobering.” Pouring another shot, he ignored his salt and lime and threw it back.
Scott leaned in and placed his hand over the glass before Johnny poured more from the bottle. “Hold off until tomorrow, and I’ll drink with you. By then, you and I will be on our way to Elk Creek and a solid week to hunt, fish, or work on fixing whatever has you sideways.”
“No way Murdoch Lancer lets both of us be gone for a week.”
“Let me handle Murdoch.” Scott threw it out like a winning ace, leaving no doubt they’d both be heading to Elk Creek tomorrow.
Corking the bottle, Johnny nodded. A slight buzz from the two shots and the beer brightened everything enough that he wagged his head a bit to irritate Scott. “So, you think your little trip can fix all that’s wrong?”
His brother’s eyes narrowed like Murdoch’s trying to figure him out. “It depends.”
“On what?” Scott needed to get it said; he didn’t want an eye-to-eye discussion about himself.
“It depends on you. I can’t fix anything if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”
This conversation had corralled him dead center in his brother’s sights. No doubt about it, Boston used his tongue better than Wes Hardin ever thought to draw down with his six-shooter. Could he figure a way out of this talk? Or maybe ignore his brother? Johnny concentrated on a half-healed cut on his hand.
Scott put his hand over the hurt place he had been rubbing. “Look at me.”
Being stubborn, he glanced at the bottle and then the shot glass. It was tempting to grab both, run out, and ride to who knew where.
“Johnny.” His brother still had a hand on his, and steel blue eyes held him when he looked up.
“I’m looking at you.” He sounded like a niño mad at the world. Did it all boil down to that? Had he been acting out like a kid over all that had happened?
“What’s eating you?”
“This ain’t the time or place.”
“Alright, if not now, on the trip.” When Scott started big brothering, he turned plumb bossy.
“You calling the tune on this trip?” He couldn’t help grinning because no way would Scott tell him when to spit and when to polish, not for a whole week.
“I might, brother, I just might.” Scott shook his shoulder a bit.
The concern in Scott’s eyes, all the mess in his head, the buzz went away, and the room closed in on him. “I’m goin’ for a walk.” When he grabbed for the bottle of Tequila, Scott stopped him.
“I’ll put it in the wagon. We’ll want it along with some of Murdoch’s sipping whisky on our trip. Don’t you agree?”
It was mighty tempting to take the bottle. Johnny hesitated. “Whatever you say. See you at the depot.”
“Johnny. Get something to eat.” Shaking his head, he slapped his hat on his leg and as good as ran out of the saloon. Damn, he needed to be outside.
As for Scott’s suggestion to eat, since he found Charlie dead, face-down on his breakfast plate, food had lost its appeal. Even the tamales Inez made for supper last night stuck in his throat. Oh boy, had Teresa fussed about him leaving food on his plate. She started right in on him, “You always have second helpings of tamales.” He’d all but lied, saying he was full, and avoided a bald-faced lie by leaving the table before anyone asked when or what he’d eaten. Hell, this trip might help his appetite.
Two hours to kill and nothing to drink, thanks to his brother; he took a deep breath; at least the walls didn’t close in on him now.
Doc might be making rounds; Sam came to the funeral––and would give him something to help the pain gnawing in his belly. Then again, Doc would likely insist on him staying close instead of going on the trip with Scott.
A path at the edge of town led to a decent-sized stream. Someone, most likely Charlie, had built some chairs. They faced the water, and Johnny slumped down in one of them. Sure enough, he found the familiar CW carved on the handrest. The lump he fought at the grave site returned to his throat.
A light breeze and the water splashing over the rocks cooled the air. The stream pooled just below the rocks where some cattails grew. With a hand up to block the sun, he tried to make out the birds swimming near them, but the scene blurred when his eyes filled. Dammit.
Too much had happened, all in a few months. Wes and Isham were dead, his fault, and now Charlie; he should have found a way to have helped him, and Warburton, if he had stayed on top of things or been in camp and spotted the shooter in time, Tally would still have her father. Death always followed him; only now, the people he cared for were dying. Who would be next? Was this a curse or punishment for past sins?
He shouldn’t have gotten close to Charlie after he built the jail. But Kirby had betrayed the old fellow, and hell, if anyone understood betrayal and death, he did. Talking and, yeah, sharing a few drinks and tales to help the old fellow through his pain, that had been the plan. Then Charlie became like an abuelo, the grandfather he’d never had.
Reckon it all failed, but he tried to help Charlie keep his drinking in check. As it turned out, their talks must not have helped either. Murdoch sure didn’t like him coming home late, getting up early, working all day, and doing it again. At least Scott understood. He always asked how he was doing and if Johnny was okay too.
Should have known Big Brother would follow him. “Yeah.”
“Do you mind if I join you?”
“Pull up a chair; Charlie made ‘em.” Johnny rubbed the initials with his thumb.
“I’m not surprised.” Scott sat and tilted another chair to check the quality. “Charlie was a fine carpenter.”
It made him uncomfortable when Scott shifted his eyes toward him, checking him over outright as he had the chair. “He was a loyal friend to you, to all of us.”
“It ain’t too healthy being friends with me.”
“Is that what’s bothering you?” Scott got up. “Why would you think Charlie died because of his friendship with you?”
Johnny shook his head and gazed off toward the mountains, not wanting to discuss any of it now.
His brother picked up a couple of stones and skipped them across the water. Then he dusted his hands off and crouched next to his chair. “Johnny, Charlie was older, and he had a hard life. Doctor Jenkins said his heart gave out.”
“I heard what Doc said.”
“Then why are you beating yourself up? You need to sleep. Did you rest any last night? What about eating, when did you last eat anything? Johnny when are you going….”
“Dammit Scott!” He cut him off.
Scott moved to the chair beside him, likely to give him some space. He hated talking about this. At least his brother stopped the questioning. It must have dawned on him that today wasn’t the time to start in on his habits or his health. Scott finally quit eyeballing him and started watching some ducks swimming under a willow tree.
Like his Old Man, his brother got frustrated when he had no solutions. They needed to figure out that all the book smarts in the world wouldn’t make some things go away. But he couldn’t help grinning when Scott came up with his peace offering, “You think peppermint candy might lift your mood? My treat.”
Two four-leaf clovers fluttered in the grass where he’d been staring; picking them both, he handed one to Scott. “These might come in handy. And yeah, I’ll take you up on that offer.” He wished a simple good-luck charm would ease his nagging worries.
Taking the clover, Scott twirled it, pulled out a leather billfold, and pressed the four leaves between two bills in the wallet.
He took Scott’s offered hand to stand, and they followed the path back toward town.
“Johnny do you still want to go to Elk Creek?”
“And have some time away? I like the sound of that.” Johnny gazed toward the mountain range. “But what makes you think Murdoch Lancer will let us take a week off when he’s just been gone for over a week?”
Scott checked him over, up and down. “After looking at you, boy, our father will help us pack.”
“Hey, what’s wrong with how I look?”
“If you don’t start eating, you’ll soon be like that skeleton Doctor Jenkins has in the back of his office.”
“Why’s he got that thing anyhow? It’s bound to scare off business. I bet folks think it’s a patient that didn’t make it.”
“Johnny! It helps him with anatomy, finding the position of the bones, where the organs… Are you listening?”
Johnny stopped walking. “Yeah, bones and organs.”
“Brother.” Scott stood beside him. “Are you sick? Talk to me.”
“Nothing some rest and decent food won’t cure.” At least, he hoped so. Johnny closed his eyes for a minute; he should have eaten breakfast. A deep breath cleared his head, and he headed toward Rich Goodman’s storefront.
Of course, his brother matched his every step. Rich had all kinds of goods in his window to attract folks to his store. Davis Pain Killer, shaving lather, Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment, a sack of sweet potatoes, a bushel basket of green beans, and a glass jar of stick candy. Johnny couldn’t help but wonder if the painkiller might help take the edge off whatever was going on in his belly. Then again, Perry Davis, in all likelihood, filled his fancy bottles with rot gut whiskey and labeled it as medicine.
“Ready to buy that candy?” His brother studied him instead of looking at the goods in the window. It made him uncomfortable when Scott sized him up like that.
“Absolutely––anything else you like, Brother?” Scott was up to something.
“You’re in a generous mood.” Johnny backed up a step, wondering why he’d make such an offer.
Scott grinned and grabbed him by the neck. “I didn’t say I’d buy it, just wondered what you liked.”
Johnny gave his brother a light tap on the belly and laughed. Stepping inside, Johnny paused, let his eyes adjust to the store’s dimmer light, and checked for strangers. An old habit, but staying on edge kept him alive. Glancing at Scott’s relaxed way of moving around the store made him want to let his guard down.
Sometimes, he wrestled with himself. He reckoned he would always be Johnny Madrid, proud of being at the top of his trade. But did Johnny Lancer pay the price for that pride? Or worse, did the people he cared for pay? That, he couldn’t accept.
“Yeah.” He took a breath. The pain; was it his imagination, or did it show up with his worries?
“Here you go, brother.” Scott tossed him a bag filled with peppermint sticks and kept one himself.
“What you got?” Johnny pointed at Scott’s bag.
“Licorice whips and a couple of peppermint sticks. I thought Murdoch might like some. You do understand we need him happy when we ask for that time off.”
“So you think that will buy us a week off?”
“It won’t hurt to appeal to our father’s sweet tooth. Eat your candy.” Boston pulled out a licorice whip and held it between his teeth while closing the bag with the pull strings. “And Johnny, let me do the talking. I can convince our father to give us that time at Elk Creek.” Scott elbowed him as they walked out of the store.
Johnny checked the street, and no one was around but Ike and Sarah Morrison getting out of their wagon. “Okay, Scott. I’ll keep my mouth shut; you handle Murdoch.” Ole Boston grabbed him by the neck and pulled him closer as they walked toward the depot.
“It’s almost three.” Scott checked his timepiece for the third time since they’d been waiting.
“Stage ought to be here soon if it’s on time.” Johnny leaned his chair back on two legs and rested his head against the outer wall of the depot. After glancing at his brother, who sat beside him, he closed his eyes. It sure would feel sweet to drift off to sleep.
“When do you ever remember the stage arriving on time?” Boston scuffed his boots against the planks of the boardwalk; like a kid anxious for his daddy to come home.
Johnny tilted his right ear against the building. “Bet you ten that it will be today.”
Scott lowered one brow. “It’s your money to lose. I’ll take you up on that bet. One day, Brother, I’ll teach you the logic of… .” The sounds of horses’ hooves and Jack Miller’s calls to the team cut short his advice. “How did you know?”
“Weeell, Boston, I got my own logic.” Bumping the chair down on all fours, Johnny stood up to collect the winnings, not even trying to stop his grin.
“Boy,” Scott grumbled as he dug a ten-dollar gold piece from his pocket; his eyes danced when he slapped the coin in Johnny’s hand, not seeming to mind that he’d lost the wager.
Overcome with feelings he couldn’t speak to, Johnny grabbed his brother and pulled him close. They both roughhoused a bit, laughed, and pulled apart when the stage stopped.
An older couple stepped out of the stage door first; their slow exit made Johnny come forward to help. But they pulled away, almost afraid. Johnny put both hands up and took a step back.
“What’s the world coming to?” The woman complained to her husband under her breath.
“Now, Gladys, I think he meant to help. But you’re right; people like that need to mind their own business around decent folk.” He finished helping her and collected a bag that Jack all but threw at him.
With his ‘I’ll fix this’ face on, Scott stepped forward, but Johnny turned his back to the couple and the stage figuring it best to let them move on before he faced the Old Man.
With a shake of his head, he motioned Scott off. But his brother came to him anyway, squeezed his arm, and then nodded toward the stage. “There he is.”
“Boys! Thank you for coming.” Murdoch rubbed his lower back as he made his way to them. “How are things at the ranch?”
Johnny turned, and Scott walked forward with his hand out to shake the Old Man’s––always so polite. Murdoch ignored it and hugged ole Boston. After he pushed Scott back a bit, he turned to him. “Johnny?” Oh boy, his father had found a target, checking him over, up, then down. “Are you all right, Son?”
“Fine, Murdoch. And you? Tell us all about your trip. Did you talk to the Lieutenant Governor?”
“I did. And George was most helpful.” But Murdoch still had eyes on him. “You’re sure everything is okay, John?”
“I said I’m fine.” It sounded harsher than he meant. His Old Man had his worried face on, and he’d spoken out of concern. “Been a lot going on, Charlie dying. I’ll be okay.”
Johnny reached for one of Murdoch’s bags when another man backed out of the stage, pulling at some baggage.
“Nathaniel. These are my boys.” Murdoch tapped Johnny’s back and reached for Scott to come closer.
“As I said, the Lieutenant Governor was most helpful. He said he’d send a marshal if we built a jail.” Their Father’s grin spread across his face as the man straightened and turned to meet them. “Scott, my oldest, and this is Johnny. Boys, I’d like you to meet our new Marshal, Nathaniel Barstow.”
“Madrid.” The man didn’t so much as glance at Scott, and Murdoch paled at the name. Johnny’s belly tightened a bit too.
“Nate.” Both men took a step back from each other, staring just a beat.
“They said you died in Mexico.”
“Yeah, came close.” Johnny bit his bottom lip but didn’t take his eyes off Nate.
The marshal backed up, putting space between them. From the corner of his eye, Johnny glimpsed Murdoch starting to step in front of him. His Old Man didn’t understand that Nate Barstow and Johnny Madrid had a history. He threw his left arm out, preventing any interference.
“Boy, you look like the buzzards might start circling.” Nate eyeballed him up and down. “Dammit.” The man gave Johnny his back and grabbed onto the edge of the stagecoach like he needed support, all the while shaking his head. No one said a word. But Murdoch’s face sure had clouded up, all them sunny grins gone south.
“You always was the expert at tossing out the compliments, Marshal.” Johnny took a hesitant step toward the man.
The marshal faced him with both fists doubled. “Johnny, you ought to tell a man you’re still among the living. I spent a whole damn week dead drunk. Boy… ,” he choked on his words for a minute, made a swipe across his eyes. “I thought I’d lost… .”
“Nate, I’m sorry; a lot happened, and fast. I should have sent word––didn’t cross my mind you’d found out anything about it, much less thought I was dead.” Johnny walked to him, and the marshal grabbed him in a tight hug.
“I take it you two are acquainted with one another?” Murdoch had let out a breath.
“Johnny?” Scott had walked over to stand beside his Old Man.
Murdoch cleared his throat, and Johnny remembered they had an audience and pulled back from the marshal’s bear hug.
“Nate’s an old friend.” Backing up a step, he studied the dusty ground. It made him uncomfortable having his family here. Glancing up, Johnny caught his Old Man staring at his arms, disapproval? Unfolding them from around his body left him somehow exposed.
“Your boy; I can’t believe you’re his Pa. Johnny saved my life. We guarded gold shipments going from Sacramento to Arizona territory.” Nate nodded at Johnny. “For what, nigh on to a year?” He rubbed a place high on his shoulder blade. “I took a bullet; ambushers almost took the gold until Johnny here circled ’round and made this play. I mean, you wouldn’t believe it but watching him… .”
“Aww, Nate. Weren’t that much to it. Just surprised ’em is all.” Glancing at Murdoch, Johnny kicked at the dirt, expecting a frown of disapproval at the mention of him hiring out his gun. He wished Nate wouldn’t tell about that. But his Old Man was hanging onto every word.
“Weren’t much to it!” Nate repeated his words loud enough for a passerby to stop. “You stood up with them firing right at you, didn’t even flinch.” The marshal nodded at Murdoch. “He took four outlaws down, got the bullet outta this shoulder, stitched me up, and we still got the gold shipment delivered on time.”
“What were you thinking, Son?” Murdoch grabbed his shoulder and pulled him to his side. “They could have killed you!”
“I was thinking, if I didn’t take them hombres down, Nate and I would be breakfast for buzzards.”
“So, Mr. Barstow, you and Johnny worked together? I’d like to hear more stories about my brother.” Scott put out his hand. “Welcome to Spanish Wells; I’m Scott Lancer.”
“Call me Nate.” Shaking Scott’s hand, he checked up and down the street. “Cozy little town. Did you say you are Johnny’s brother?” He turned to Johnny as if to confirm what Scott had said.
Johnny grinned and nodded. “He’s my brother, all right, but Nate,” and he tapped his arm with a fist, “You clear those stories with me. I’d hate to mess up your other shoulder.”
“Gentlemen, we can hold off on the storytelling until dinner. I’ve invited Nathaniel, uh, Nate, to the ranch. He’ll be staying tonight as well.” Murdoch picked up two bags handing one to Scott and the other to Johnny. “For now, he’s headed to Bakersfield to help with another job. We’ll be lending him a Lancer horse. If all goes well, he’ll return to start his tenure here within the month.”
“Bakersfield?” Johnny shifted the bag.
“The Lieutenant Governor agreed; Nathaniel works and resides in Spanish Wells. But from time to time, he’ll handle problems that might arise in other areas.” Murdoch patted Johnny’s back. “It’s an important step forward for this valley.”
“It is that, Sir.” Boston had a happy grin on his face. “I’ll bring the buckboard if you want to gather the baggage.” Scott tapped Johnny on the arm and headed toward the livery.
Stacking a box and Murdoch’s bags on the boardwalk next to the depot, Johnny returned to the stage several times while his father pointed out the different parts of town to Nate.
“This is it, Son.” Nate and Murdoch helped carry an oversized trunk between them, balancing a worn carpet bag on top of it. Johnny took Murdoch’s end of the heavy piece, and they added it to the growing mountain of luggage waiting for the wagon.
“Looks like you are gonna stay a while.” Johnny grinned at Nate and nodded toward the bags and trunks.
“It’s all I got in the world. Where I go, I reckon it goes with me.” He elbowed Johnny in the ribs. “I can’t travel light like you do, boy.” Nate laughed and took the carpet bag from Murdoch. “Never knowed him to have anything but what fits in his saddlebags.”
“He doesn’t accumulate very much. Scott’s the opposite; we’re still unpacking boxes from Boston.” Murdoch nodded toward him as he drove up in the wagon.
“These all go to the ranch?” Scott hopped off the wagon and nodded toward the bags and trunks.
“We’ll keep it at Lancer until the town finishes the repairs on the house behind the Stallings’ place.” Murdoch’s eyes danced when he turned to Nate. “Let’s check the progress while the boys load the buckboard.” The Old Man had hired a crew from Visalia; Charlie had helped some, and the place looked fine and dandy. Murdoch hesitated and eyeballed Johnny. “We’ll only be a few minutes. Son, why don’t you and Scott grab a bite when you finish? We’ll join you after I show Nate his future home and the layout of the town.”
“Ain’t hungry; but, if you and Nate want something to eat, Sarah makes a tasty stew. T’resa won’t be happy if you fill up before supper.” Johnny mumbled the part about Teresa under his breath, but the Old Man heard him. Dammit, he wished everyone would quit bugging him about eating.
Murdoch nodded and resettled his hat. “We’ll wait for Teresa’s supper. And we won’t be but a few minutes.” But his eyes gave Johnny another head-to-toe exam before Nate followed him to see where he would live when he returned to work as Marshal of Spanish Wells.
“So, our new marshal and you, close friends.” Scott stared, waiting for an answer. Not a subject he wanted to discuss, but Boston never had trouble finding words to fill the quiet air. So when Johnny didn’t say anything, he kept talking. “I like him, the right kind of man for the job, smart, capable, and he must have gotten along well with you.”
Scott picked up the heaviest trunk and pushed it to the back of the wagon. His yellow-gloved hands were on the another bulky piece of luggage before Johnny reached it. “You unloaded from the stage. Let me do the heavy lifting here. Grab some of the lighter bags, Brother.”
“Is that an order?”
“Straight from your brother’s mouth, Boy.”
“This how you gonna be next week, on our trip?”
“That’s right. Remember, I’ll be calling the tune.” Scott’s mouth turned up in a half smile as he adjusted the trunks and placed smaller supplies between them. “Would you pass that bag over, the one on the end?”
Oh boy, did Scott fix everything just so, and those clean yellow gloves. Where in the hell did he find them? He must wash them every night; Johnny had never seen any dirt on them.
Laughing to himself, he studied Boston stacking the back of the wagon and adjusting every trunk, box, and bag to line up straight as an arrow. “You got one out of line. Need to move it to the left, oh ’bout a sixteenth of an inch.” Johnny tilted his head and sighted down the edge of one of the boxes, moving his hand toward the left to help Scott with the adjustment.
Bent over one of the larger pieces, with his head upside-down, Scott stared at him from under his arm. Straightening to his full height, his brother dusted those yellow-gloved hands. “It wouldn’t hurt you to be a bit more precise in stacking the supplies or for that matter how you keep that mess you call your room.” Boston’s eyebrow inched up a bit, but so did the corners of his lips.
“I ain’t got enough stuff to be messy, couple changes of pants and shirts” But he thought some more. “And a few dirty clothes, my saddle bags, that’s about it.”
“Right.” Scott drew the word out. “Plus a half dozen plates with cake and cookie crumbs, dirty coffee cups, bullets on the dresser and the floor. I almost fell on my …”
“Well, boys, are you ready? Everything loaded?” Murdoch and Nate, fortunately, interrupted Boston before he lectured him anymore about his neatness or lack of it.
“Yes Sir. Our horses are at the livery. We’ll catch up with you shortly.” Scott leapt down to the street from the buckboard.
Murdoch squeezed Johnny’s shoulder and pulled himself up, boarding the wagon. “Take your time catching up. We have plenty to discuss.”
Johnny’s belly did flip-flops as he worried that his past might be a topic of conversation. “Hurry, Scott, we need to catch up with them.” With his saddle already on Barranca, he needed to ride; no telling what Nate might say to the Old Man. Kicking at the hay bales, Arlo had just stacked in the corner of the barn. Waiting on Scott had him wound up as tight as a hangman’s noose.
“Murdoch said to take our time.” Scott grinned like he had figured out why he wanted to catch up with their father. Hell, he sure was taking his time saddling his horse.
How long did it take a man to slide his gloves on his hands? Scott sure took his time, making sure each finger wiggled till he had it comfortable. It didn’t take him anywhere near this long to put on his shooting glove, and it had to be adjusted right; his life depended on it.
His brother finally mounted up after, but only after Johnny’s patience gave out, and he jumped on Barranca to leave the barn without him. Scott caught up quickly. “Why the hurry when our father said to take our time?”
“Yeah, and the Old Man also said he had plenty to discuss. Johnny Madrid don’t need to be no topic of conversation.”
“Nate has fond memories of you.”
“I don’t think the Old Man likes hearing about me using my gun for hire. Doesn’t matter if I worked with the law, he don’t need to find out about my years as Madrid.”
“I think you’re wrong, Johnny.” They had slowed the horses to a slow walk.
“No, it makes him sad; he’ll have his eyes on me, but I swear, it ain’t me the Old Man is looking at, not now. I think he’s remembering when I was a kid, wishing he somehow kept me home so I never turned into Madrid.”
“Perhaps.” Scott hesitated like he might be trying to find the right words. “Johnny, you were, and still are young. We both wish those years were easier, more carefree. It doesn’t mean we disapprove of you.”
Scott’s words eased his worry, but he wanted to catch up with Murdoch and Nate. If Madrid came up in their conversation, he needed to be present to see his father’s reaction.
Kicking Barranca to a gallop, Johnny glanced back through his trail of dust; his brother laughing as he rode fast, Scott yelled, “Come on. Let’s do catch up; I want to find out what Nate has to say about you too.” Ole Boston kept the grin on his face as they raced toward the wagon.
Nate and Murdoch were laughing when Scott and Johnny rounded the curve. Both turned at the sound of their horses. Murdoch’s motion for them to come ahead eased Johnny’s mind.
“Boys, why don’t you ride ahead and tell Teresa we’ll have an overnight guest? I’m sure she would appreciate a few extra minutes to prepare.”
The Old Man had it all figured out. Johnny glanced at Scott and acknowledged defeat by rolling his eyes. “Sure, Murdoch, we’ll be happy to do that very thing.” He nodded toward his old friend. “Nate, I’ll talk with you back at the ranch.” With a stare that the marshal had to figure was a warning from pure pissed-off Madrid, they left. Dammit, it must not have worked because Nate’s loud laugh carried over the sound of hoof beats as they rode off.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Johnny couldn’t hold back. “Can you believe him?”
“The Old Man. He’s determined to find out stuff about me, about Madrid. The thing it boils down to is gossiping about your own son.”
“It’s not funny! I’m telling you, they’re gossiping about Johnny Madrid. Might as well read one of them dime novels.”
“That’s not what’s happening. Murdoch missed seeing us grow up. He’s hungry for stories about our lives before we came here, good or bad.”
Johnny stopped riding. He stared out across the valley, all Lancer land. “What happend to bad or good, right or wrong, it’s happened and gone?” Looking down at Barranca’s mane, he was sorry he’d recalled Murdoch’s words from that first day. “I reckon we’re beyond some of that, It’s just…” Should he tell Scott about the fear that hung over him like a dark cloud? “I figure a time will come when he’ll find that one thing that’ll make him too disgusted to have me for a son.” As he stared at his gun hand, pictures flashed in his head, things he shouldn’t have done; he lowered his voice and continued. “I’m scared that someday you’ll find out about something that… .” He couldn’t say the words but rubbed his hand over his pants, wishing it would wipe away the past.
“Johnny, no. I’m finding my way in this family; it’s all new to me too. But I’m certain about this; nothing from your past could break the bonds we’ve forged.”
When Johnny couldn’t meet his brother’s eyes and instead stared at the hills in the distance, not saying anything, Scott kept talking, “Think for a minute. What could I tell you about my past that would change our relationship?”
Johnny stared at him then and slowly shook his head. “Brother, you’re not like me.”
“The war; I was a prisoner, Johnny, I did things I still try to block from my mind. Not too long ago I stayed half drunk for days on end, trying to forget. You’re not alone in regretting your past.”
The valley spread out below, peaceful; it was the most beautiful place Johnny had ever seen and the place he wanted to call home. “Remember that first day, Scott, when we first saw all this?”
“I think we both expected something different.” Scott stared at him instead of looking at the ranch below.
“Mama didn’t talk much about it. All I thought about was how this should have been mine if my Old Man hadn’t kicked me and Mama out.”
“But you realize that didn’t happen.”
“Yeah, Scott, I know it. But believing her lies for all those years, it messed up my life, and I ain’t sure my head’s on straight.” Not something he wanted to talk more about, so turning Barranca toward the hacienda, he changed the subject. “We’d best head on down and tell T’resa about the company she’s got comin’. Otherwise, she’ll be showing us at our future meals.”
“You’re right about that. But Johnny,” Scott moved his horse so that he could look him in the eye. “I’d bet my life on it; your heart’s in the right place, and I’m sure your head’s on straight.”
“Don’t. Say That.”
“What? I mean it.”
“No, Scott, don’t EVER bet your life on me.” The very thought; it hit him that this could be a dark omen. Johnny’s hands began to tingle; his ears buzzed, and daytime or not, his world darkened.
Scott moved closer until the horses were almost touching. “Johnny?”
The landscape tilted as Johnny thought of his brother losing his life because of him. He should have eaten in town. Scott grabbed hold of his arm. “I’m okay.” But he was far from right.
“You’re alright to ride?”
“Yeah, and I guess we best hurry. We can’t be too far ahead of Murdoch and Nate.” Johnny closed his eyes and let things settle a minute, then slowly headed toward the Lancer Arch. And Scott eyeballed every bit of it. He would tell him to back off, but he didn’t dare move his head too fast.
Of course, Scott beat him to the barn. “Let Emilio take care of the horses. We need to tell Teresa, and you need to rest.” Pointing at him with one hand and using the other to hand the vaquero his horse’s reins. Scott reached for Barranca as Johnny dismounted. His brother was calling the tune again, and for now, he was glad for it.
“Si, Señor Johnny. Señor Scott. Los cuidaré muy bien.” The boy led both horses to the back of the barn.
Teresa ran to meet them before they got to the door. “Where’s Murdoch?” Disappointment showed on her face.
“You’re not happy to see us?” Johnny teased and flicked some flour off her cheek. She brushed his hand away and put both of hers on her hips. Boy, she sure wanted to find out when the Old Man would be home.
“Well, yes, but you were supposed to bring Murdoch home.”
“So, you’re gonna be mad if we decided to leave him in Spanish Wells?”
Scott took his hat off and slapped Johnny on the back with it. “Enough with your teasing. He’s right behind us, has a guest with him. He sent us ahead to warn you.”
“A guest?” Grabbing her head with both hands, Teresa ran toward the kitchen and then turned back to them. “Oh my. I need more peas and potatoes, and I don’t have enough roast beef.”
“It will be fine. T’resa. Fix me an egg. Nate can have my portions. I’ve had a belly ache. I don’t want a heavy meal, not right now.”
Her brows came together. “You are pale.” Seeming to have forgotten all about having enough supper, she returned to check on Johnny, touching his forehead.
Pushing the hand away, Johnny laughed. “Aw, T’resa, I probably ate some bad trail food or something. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry none.”
Standing on her tip-toes, she kissed his cheek. “I do worry. You don’t take care of yourself.”
Johnny studied the dust on his boots, all this worrying over him; it made him want to hide, but they meant well.
“Brother, you might have an hour to rest while Emilio and I unload the wagon. I’ll wake you for drinks before supper.”
“Thanks, Scott.” The time to himself and a little siesta; by supper time, he might feel like his old self; share a few light tales with Nate and his family. Johnny took the stairs two at a time.
Worn out, he took his boots off and threw his head back on the pillow. It must have been all the talk of the past that had him dreaming of someone shooting at him. He jerked so hard that it woke him up, trying to dodge bullets from those ambushers Nate went on about. Snorting and rolling to his side, he drifted off again.
“They shot your brother because of you.” Murdoch’s eyes filled with hate as he pushed him out of the hacienda door.
“No!” Johnny begged his father to let him go to Scott and tell him he was sorry. He shouldn’t have stayed. Not his brother. “No. No.”
Then Scott banged on the door and called his name.
“Sorry, Brother.” Johnny tried to open the door but floated away and couldn’t reach it.
His brother stood over him. “Boy, what’s going on with you?”
“Must have been dreaming.” Damn. It still seemed real. Johnny scrubbed his face and sat on the side of his bed; he tried to pull his thoughts together.
“Here. Drink this.” Scott handed him a glass of water. It helped wet his dry tongue and throat going down.
“Must have been a nightmare. You sure were tossing and turning.”
“Yeah, something like that.” He latched on to the sturdy bedpost. He needed to ground himself to the room and shake off that damn dream.
“Anything you want to talk about?”
Johnny shook his head and slid a hand through his sweaty hair; he had better wash up before going downstairs. “I’ll be down right down.”
Teresa had fresh water in the pitcher, everything neat and clean; how different from his past. He swiveled the oval mirror attached to the washstand and wished he had left it when troubled blue eyes stared back at him. For a beat, he leaned in, wondered whether he might be more Lancer or Madrid. Did it matter? Hell, he might be more Lancer, wanted to be, but a choice had already been made that couldn’t be changed. He would always be Madrid.
He glanced at the reflection behind him, Scott’s eyes studied him, too, but he stepped back when Johnny leaned over the porcelain bowl and poured water over his head.
“Let me help you.” Boston opened and closed three drawers before he found a clean shirt. “Where’s all your clothes? And do you think you have enough ammo stashed away up here?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Johnny took the blue-flowered shirt Scott handed him. “I don’t have but four shirts so quit frowning; and I don’t suppose you got any bullets up here?”
“No, can’t say I keep any in my room.”
“There you go. I keep enough for you, Murdoch, and me.”
“Yes, you do, Brother. Yes, you do.” Scott slipped the last button closed on the shirt and stepped back to inspect him. “Are you ready to go down? Murdoch’s expecting us, and I’m sure our new marshal is anxious to catch up on old times.”
Johnny took a deep breath and headed to the door. “Let’s go.”
Laughter coming from the great room took the edge off the nightmare. A drink would settle him more. That, and something to eat, he might feel more like himself.
“Johnny?” Scott held up a bottle of Tequila, the best; Murdoch made sure of that.
“You still drink that rot-gut when your Daddy keeps smooth Tennessee Whiskey like this on hand?” Nate held his glass to the light, admiring the amber liquid.
“Ain’t any smoother than this.” Johnny swirled the expensive Tequila Murdoch had bought for him, and he took a drink.
“Nate, we have Taliskers in the cabinet. Now, if you like ‘smooth,’ that’s your drink.” Murdoch nodded toward the glassed-in shelves behind them.
The smile on Murdoch’s face, and the way he gazed toward the ceiling, made Johnny laugh. “A sip of that whisky must lift a man closer to heaven, the way Murdoch goes on about it.”
“Have to keep it locked up, do you?” Nate laughed, pointing at the keyhole in the cabinet door.
Scott blushed a bit and saluted Murdoch with his drink. “Sir, you do keep a tempting and well stocked selection.”
When Nate raised a brow at him, Johnny went to Murdoch. “I reckon you ought to find the key and lock it. Remember when me and Scott came close to draining a bottle one night?” Johnny grinned at the memory and stared at the pale liquid in his glass. “Didn’t think about it coming from so far away. Tequila, would have been easier to replace.” It didn’t put him off none when his Old Man’s strong hand cupped his shoulder and pulled him close.
“True enough, John. But you and your brother drink Taliskers anytime you want.” Murdoch continued to hold on to Johnny.
“Thank you, Sir.” Scott said it to the Old Man but grinned at Johnny, and taking up the offer, his brother poured a nip of Taliskers for his second drink. “Anyone?” Nate walked over for a splash, but Johnny and Murdoch shook their heads no.
“Nate, tell us more about Bakersfield.” Johnny slipped from Murdoch’s hold to sit in one of the blue chairs across from Nate; Murdoch took the other one, and Scott joined them on the sofa.
“Like I told Murdoch, the stage line running in and out of Bakersfield has been robbed three times in the last six months.” Nate pointed at Johnny with his drink glass, “You remember the Harrelson gang?”
“I remember Jim. Don’t reckon he’d be as happy as you to find Madrid still alive after my farewell in Arizona.” Johnny couldn’t help snorting a little, thinking of Jim’s reaction.
“You said that right,” Nate set his drink down and rubbed the back of his neck, “Not after that little fracus in Prescott.” His eyes met Johnny’s with the memory. Johnny hoped he wouldn’t go into that, wished he hadn’t brought it up, and he quit holding his breath when Nate continued. “He, his brother, Jake, and two other ne’r do wells robbed those stages; they’ve killed four men in the process. Harmed some ladies, too.” Nate finished the rest of his whisky. “Last stage they hit, a Pinkerton happened to be on board and recognized Jim.”
“So you’re headed to Bakersfield to round up the Harrelson gang?” Johnny stood up. “You’ll need some help. When are you leaving?”
“In the morning, soon as I can find some daylight, but Johnny, we’ve got plenty of help. Another marshal, the local sheriff, and a posse, they’re ready to ride soon as I make it to Bakersfield.”
“Say the word, Nate, and I’ll come with you.” Johnny glanced toward Murdoch; his brows had crawled together like fuzzy worms on a willow tree. And the look the Old Man shot his way made it clear his father didn’t like the idea of him going with his old friend.
“John, I’m sure Nate has plenty of help without taking you away from your duties here.”
“And you promised to go with me to Elk Creek next week.” Scott arched one brow and turned toward the Old Man to explain.
“Elk Creek?” Murdoch asked.
“Yes, Sir. Some things came up while you were away, I’ll fill you in; But I’d rather not bore Nate with the details.” Scott saluted Nate with his drink.
“Yeah, I forgot about us going up to the cabin.” Johnny cupped the glass and rolled it back and forth in his hands. “Still, if you need an extra man, Nate…”
Scott stood up and gave him a stern nod. “Johnny.” His brother drew his name out under his breath, and the worry in his eyes did bother him.
Never before had he been torn about when to go or stay. Looking at Scott standing next to him with his hands on his hips, he couldn’t help wondering if he wanted to fight over this.
“What?” Johnny didn’t mean to sound harsh, but this big-brother-bossiness while his friend, Nate, took it all in, grinning and enjoying the hell out of it; well, all the family stuff crawled under his skin a bit.
“Scott, Johnny, follow through with your plans for Elk Creek.” The Old Man sure knew how to settle a fuss and go right into calling the tune. “Nate will be riding in that direction to Bakersfield.”
Murdoch walked to the framed Lancer Map hanging near Nate’s chair. “Right here’s the trail, Nate.” He ran his finger down the line drawn through Lancer Land that led to the cabin. “Bakersfield is in this direction. You’ll need to camp on the way, and the cabin might be your best layover.” He pointed at Johnny. “John, Nate will know where you are if the posse needs you. They can always send a rider.”
“We’ll have Marshal Jock Atkins; you may have heard of him, cleaned up some rowdies in Modesto? They’ve hired a tracker, and Jock has four reliable riders. They may have already caught the gang.” Nate put a hand on Johnny’s back. “They also want my help to escort them through Tioga pass. They’re to stand trial for murder in Nevada; so I figure they’ll try and hang ’em before they ever face up to what happened down in Bakersfield.”
“That’s rough country up there.” Murdoch acted surprised. “Be easier to take them through Arizona.”
“Yeah, but this bunch of killers don’t need to be around decent people. That’s why they decided to move ’em through the mountain trails. It’s summer, shouldn’t be too bad.” Nate nodded at Johnny. “The thing about this route, it’s single file riding, not much chance of escape.”
“We didn’t have any problems taking Aaron Wilson and Red Madden through the mountains to Carson City.” Johnny shook his head at the memory.
“I thought you stayed mainly around the border towns, Johnny. How long did you work that far north?” Scott tilted his head and stared at him. He must have been trying to figure out where Madrid lived before he came to Lancer. Should he enlighten him?
From the corner of his eye, Johnny glimpsed Murdoch still standing at the map, but his ears were cocked, wanting to learn as much as possible about those Madrid years. Reckon he ought to let him and Scott in on some truth and find out if what his brother said was true. Would the bonds of family hold, or would their eyes show disgust when they learned how he killed seven men in as many days?
Johnny walked to the huge window and stared at the red-streaked sky. Tapping the table with his fist, he began, “Things were hot on the border. The reputation I wanted so bad followed me like a mad coyote. Five men dead in six days; gun hawks calling me out, wanting the rep, and I hadn’t slept much more than two or three hours a night, couldn’t eat either.”
He felt Scott walk up behind him and squeeze his arm. “Give me your glass, Johnny.” A whispered request. The room had gone quiet. The sounds his brother made pouring his drink, glass striking against glass, clanged like a church bell.
“John?” Murdoch breathed his name. Did he want him to stop or continue?
The longcase clock ticked off seconds that seemed more like an hour of uncomfortable silence as they waited for him to continue. But Scott must have only taken a minute to refresh his drink. When his brother handed him the glass, Johnny felt a hand press against his shoulder in support, like a reminder of what Scott had told him earlier. Johnny hated this and wondered if offering up this truth might be him testing those words. He had started this tale, and he would finish it.
“Like I said, things were hot; five men had called me out in less than a week. All of them were dead. That same week, it was a Saturday afternoon; I was minding my own business, trying to eat in a little cantina, and these two boys came in.” Johnny took a deep breath as the memory settled like a weight on his chest.
“They shoved their way through, being cocky, pushing folks around. But no one got hurt, so I kept my head down.” Johnny took a sip of the Tequila and waited for the burn before he continued.
“One of the kids, and I mean they were just boys, barely sixteen or so.” Johnny rubbed his forehead, wishing to find the place of memories, make it turn out different, but no. “One of them walked over to my table and started messing with me, calling me names. When they dumped my frijoles, everyone started clearing out. I told ’em to back off, have a beer and leave me be. Their answer was to knock my hat off.” Johnny turned and leaned back on the long table for support. Facing the room, he reckoned he ought to be man enough to watch their reactions.
“When I stood up they saw the rig. The loudest one wanted to dance. I said no, and walked out. They followed me and one threatened to kill a dog I petted if I didn’t meet them in the street; called me a half-breed coward and said I ought not to wear the gun if I couldn’t stand up like a man. Last thing I said to them boys, ‘It ain’t about being a coward, it’s me not wantin’ to kill you. Not today.’ I told ’em, ‘Find me in a year or two.’ I was talking to the wind. They laughed; sad thing, too, it was their last time for laughing.”
When he finished, Johnny stared into his drink glass. “I guess you all can count; those two boys made seven. I’d killed seven men in a week. Only facing them, two at a time, a bullet grazed my right arm, pretty bad too. Couldn’t let anyone find out, so I headed straight for the livery, got my horse and kept riding north while I healed. I figured the reputation might not follow me that far away from the border.” Johnny killed his drink and surveyed the room. For the life of him, he couldn’t read their faces.
“It’s a miracle you’re still alive, Son.” Murdoch came to stand next to him. “I shudder thinking how many close calls you’ve had.”
Johnny found his father’s eyes and saw no condemnation but sadness, yes. Had he been holding his breath? The air sure was sweet going in. “Ain’t been that bad, Old Man.” Johnny tapped Murdoch’s belly. He needed to lighten the mood. “I’m like that old barn cat of T’resa’s that lost his mama and got stepped on by a horse. You remember he had a bad scrape with a coyote after that? Well, he’s still the fastest mouser in the San Joaquin.”
“Did someone say my name?” Teresa wore her blue dress, the one she usually saved for Sunday or dancing.
“You sure are dressed up.” Johnny hoped she hadn’t heard him talking. But the shine of her eyes, and the way the light caught them, he thought he saw tears. Lord, he hoped not.
“Johnny?” She acted a little shy but came straight to him and placed a hand on his chest. Their eyes locked.
“You always grace us with your beauty.” Scott interrupted the moment, and it was best he did.
“Yes indeed. You surely do.” Additional compliments came from Murdoch, and Nate chimed in too.
“Why, thank you, gentlemen.” Teresa’s eyes began to dance again. But she glanced toward Johnny once more before twirling her way to Murdoch’s side. “Your supper is ready if you want to join me at the table.”
Murdoch took her arm. “Thank you, honey. It smells delicious. Nate you’re in for a treat.”
“I hope you enjoy it.” She left Murdoch’s side and whispered in Maria’s ear. When she returned, Scott held her chair while she told Nate about their supper. “Mr. Barstow, we have Lancer beef; it’s the best! And the vegetables are fresh from my garden.”
When they all sat down, Maria brought a covered dish and placed it in front of Johnny; he winked at Teresa. “Gracias, Mamacita.”
“What’s this? Johnny gets special treatment?” As the rest of the diners passed dish after dish of vegetables and piled their plates with thick slices of roasted beef, Johnny uncovered a plate of huevos rancheros.
“He gets special treatment, alright. He’s Maria’s pet.” Scott elbowed Johnny. “She will fix him anything he wants, right, Teresa?”
“Maria likes cooking Mexican dishes, and that’s what Johnny loves.” Teresa unfolded her napkin and placed it in her lap. “And he likes it hot too, lots of peppers.” She waved her hand in front of her mouth.
“Well, he should show his appreciation and clean his plate.” Murdoch pointed at the dish with his fork.
“Y’all talk about me like I’m not here; I might as well eat in my room.” Johnny took the first bite of food he had eaten since yesterday. Chewing, he almost dreaded having to swallow it down, but he did.
“That’s not true, Son.” Then Murdoch nodded toward Nate and, sure enough, started right back talking about him. “Johnny imagines things.” His Old Man was messing with him now; he winked at him. “And we certainly do not talk about that boy like he isn’t here.”
“Whatever we do or don’t do, Sir, Johnny needs to eat his supper.” Scott pointed his knife toward Johnny’s plate just like Murdoch had done.
“You’re doing it again.” Johnny kept chewing, but his belly still didn’t feel good.
“What is it that Johnny thinks we’re doing?” Teresa’s eyes were twinkling.
“You too?” They liked joking around, and Johnny enjoyed this side of family life. Teresa squeezed his arm and laughed.
The eggs appeared to be perfect like Maria always made them. But they grew in his mouth as he chewed. Swallowing became a chore; it had been this way with everything he’d tried to eat the past few days.
Oh hell, Scott kept eyeballing him. How many more bites until he could push his plate back? Johnny had done a lot harder things. Strange, having to force himself to eat the food he loved. Dios, a wave of sickness rushed over him. Swallowing, Johnny took his napkin and wiped his mouth, waiting for the nausea to ease.
The food on his plate was half gone; he took a small sip of water, rubbed his forehead, and hoped no one noticed the sweat forming there. Swallowing a few more times, he prayed the food would stay down if he stopped eating and talked a bit. What had Murdoch asked Nate? Now his friend was asking him something.
“… through some rough country together. Didn’t we, Johnny?” Nate acted puzzled; everyone at the table studied him and waited for his response.
“More than one time.” Johnny wished he’d been keeping up with the conversation. What the hell? A year ago, he’d be sure of every word, which hand each man ate with, what every eye watched, not that he needed to do that here, but still, get it together, Madrid.
“You say it was rough going when you and Johnny moved those prisoners to Carson City?” Scott asked Nate but he kept his eyes on him. Johnny knew he meant to help him pick up the conversation. It got scary sometimes how well his brother could read him.
Almost forcing a laugh, Johnny joined in. “Madden and Wilson thought they’d make a run for it till they saw how narrow the trail ran on the side of that mountain.” He rubbed his damp forehead again. Glancing at Scott before continuing, his brother openly stared at him. “Long way down too, we walked the horses for over three miles, didn’t want to chance a misstep.”
“Speaking of horses. I need to check on Barranca. He favored his right leg this afternoon. Probably nothing, but I want to check him before we lose daylight.” Johnny folded his napkin and stood. “I’ll finish eating later and join you in a bit.”
Johnny thought he might not make it out the door. Half stumbling to the back of the hacienda, he lost what little food he had eaten. Johnny kicked dirt over the mess and sat back against the cooling adobe wall. “Dios.” His eyes watered from the exertion, not worth the effort to wipe them; he slumped down, boneless as the rag doll Teresa still kept.
“Johnny.” Scott crouched down, took his handkerchief, and wiped the sweat and water from his eyes. “You’re sick.”
His brother, telling him something so obvious, struck him as funny. Laughing, he patted the space beside him. “How did you figure that out?”
Before answering, Scott wet the kerchief in the rain barrel and then took the space beside Johnny. “Logic, dear Brother.”
“Logic?” Johnny didn’t move a muscle; he just let his big brother wipe his face with the cool, damp cloth.
“Three things. First,” Boston stopped wiping and held up a finger on his left hand, “You turned green as that cactus over there trying to choke down those eggs.”
Swallowing hard at the thought of eating eggs, Johnny closed his eyes.
“Second,” Scott settled the cool cloth around his neck, “Better?”
Then Scott punched his shoulder with two fingers, “You, Brother, are off your game, and if I hadn’t helped, you wouldn’t have a clue about Murdoch’s and Nate’s conversation.”
“And third?” Johnny half opened his eyes to find out what else his bother had to say.
“Barranca did not favor his right leg when we rode home today. If he had you wouldn’t have let Emilio take him to the barn.”
“Alright, alright. You figured it all out. My belly’s been upset for a few days.”
“Have you seen Sam?”
“Don’t you think you should?”
“You know how he is, Scott. He’ll have the Old Man upset.”
“Murdoch’s already upset.”
“Why, wha’d he say?” That’s all he needed, Murdoch wanting him to do bookwork or, worse yet, helping Teresa clean windows or some other house chore. “What about Nate, he didn’t say nothing did he?”
“No, but, Johnny, anyone with two eyes can see that you aren’t well.”
Johnny bumped his head back against the wall. “Dammit.”
“When did you start feeling bad?”
“Sometime back, right after Wes died. But then, I got okay. But Scott… never mind.” Johnny picked up a stick and started peeling off the bark. He wanted to talk to his brother, but tonight, with Nate visiting, they needed to go back inside. Otherwise, Murdoch would be outside looking for them.
“What is it, Johnny?”
“Nothing. Just stuff. We need to go back inside. You and me, we’ll ride up to the cabin, talk some, relax a bit, and I’ll be fine.”
Scott stood up and reached down to help him up. His belly had settled some, not sick as when he had left the table. But his body needed some food. Using his brother’s hand to stand, he pretended to dust off his pants while leaning against the wall to let the ringing in his ears slow and the darkness that threatened to close in to clear. Recognizing the signs of too many missed meals, Johnny promised himself he would keep something in his stomach tonight. If not, five hours in the saddle just might be his undoing.
The great room smelled of fresh-baked apple pie and coffee. As soon as Johnny and Scott entered the French doors, Maria practically ran to him with a plate. “Por favor, you must eat.”
“Si, gracias.” Johnny took the piece of pie from her, embarrassed to find he had the only serving from the tray.
A grin split Murdoch’s face. “Maria, this dessert appears to be delicious. Did you bake it?”
Her hand went to her forehead at his Father’s words, spouting a string of Spanish even Johnny had trouble following. Then she rushed to serve the dessert and coffee to everyone else.
“See what you do, Brother?” Scott nudged him, nearly knocking his fork off the plate.
“Me? I didn’t do anything but walk in here with you.”
“I know. But we all worry about you. Sit down before you fall down. Eat your dessert if you can.” Scott kept his voice low.
He balanced the apple pie and sat down. It wasn’t like he meant to worry anyone.
“Here, Son. Is everything okay?” Murdoch placed a cup of coffee on the table beside him.
“Yeah. Fine.” Johnny started to place his plate on the table and stand; it sure was hard to talk and meet his father’s eyes from where he sat. But his Old Man gently pushed him back and lowered himself to the ottoman.
Murdoch laid a hand on his thigh. “John, Sam would come by early tomorrow if we sent a rider out this evening.”
“I said I’m fine.”
“You’ve lost weight, didn’t eat. Teresa said you haven’t eaten in three days.”
“T’resa’s exaggerating.” Johnny took a bite of the pie. “See, I’m eating.”
Murdoch eyeballed him as he chewed. “John, we’re all worried about you.”
Johnny set the plate down. “It’s just not what I’m used to, Murdoch, all the attention.”
“You’ll tell someone if you start feeling worse.”
“I will, Murdoch. It’s just an upset stomach.”
It relieved him when Murdoch patted him on the thigh, and he got up to join Scott and Nate. It wasn’t long until the three of them enjoyed some tale if his Brother’s laughter meant anything. Johnny took another few bites of the sweet apple pie, hoping it might stay with him. Dios, he hoped so.
When he joined the conversation, Nate checked him over. “You okay, Johnny?” The question in his friend’s eyes told him how far his excuses at supper had gotten.
“Fine. Had an upset stomach, but it’s better now. The pie must have fixed me. Maria is a great cook, T’resa too.” Scott and Murdoch checked his plate to see if he’d finished his pie. He must still be a niño in their eyes.
“I’m surprised you aren’t as big as Hog Hanson, cooks like Teresa and Maria, eating food like this.” Nate rubbed his belly. “Remember how much food that man could put away?”
“I remember. But no chance of me gettin’ any meat on my bones, not the way Murdoch and Scott make me work.” Johnny crossed his arms and winked. “I’ve fenced half of these hundred thousand acres, pulled heifers out of every mile of the streams on Lancer land, and that was after I’d cleared every one of ’em of brush and undergrowth.”
“Son, you forgot about breaking horses. He handles that for us as well. Turns out he’s our best horse wrangler.” Murdoch grinned at Johnny. “Scott and I are fortunate that he does all this for us.”
“Yes indeed. The way my brother tells it, he’s the only one on this ranch that does any work.” Scott punched Johnny’s shoulder.
“He is a hard worker, they both are.” Murdoch poured himself another cup of coffee.
“It shows. And I suppose these boys got that notion for hard work from their Pa.” Nate studied the three of them as they teased each other. “Boy, Johnny, I never would have pictured you like this, with family, settled and owning a third of a place like this.”
“Me neither, Nate, me neither.” Johnny thought about his time with Nate and how different his life had been.
“Well, gentlemen, morning comes early at Lancer.” Murdoch drained his cup and set it on the edge of his desk. “I think I’ll turn in.” Before leaving, he snagged Johnny and Scott around the neck. “Boys, it’s wonderful to be home.” Before leaving the room, he tapped Nate on the back. “Sleep well, and Nate, if you need anything, knock on my door.”
“Thank you, Murdoch. I should be fine, and I’m right behind you. That stage ride wore me out. Good-night boys.” Nate studied Johnny and shook his head like he still couldn’t believe he was flesh and bone. “Johnny Madrid.” He said, and then he left.
“Nate thinks a lot of you. The two of you must have been close.”
“Yeah.” Johnny rubbed the back of his neck. “After working with a man for a while, watching each other’s backs, you develop a trust of sorts. We were close.”
“Like you and Val?”
Johnny took a breath. “Me and Val have history. We rode together, but…, dammit, Scott. Val’s family. Not something I want to get into now.” Scott didn’t seem to mind.
“How did you develop such close ties with two lawmen?”
Tapping Scott on the belly, Johnny laughed. “That’s easy, Brother. I stayed on the right side of the law… most of the time.” Too tired to talk anymore about his past, he yawned. “I’m ready to go up; how about you?”
“Me too. It’s at least five hours to Elk Creek, and I’m sure you need your rest.” Scott picked up a tray and started loading it to take to the kitchen.
“Here, Scott, I’ll help you clean up. No sense in Maria having to do it in the morning.” Johnny carried two coffee cups and followed his brother to the kitchen.
“I’ll wash, you dry. Tell me. The pie stayed with you?”
“Yep.” Johnny grinned. His belly hadn’t hurt since he ate the pie. The two of them, working together, quickly finished cleaning the stack of dishes.
“Johnny, you’re sure you’re up to the trip?” Scott handed him the last piece to dry.
“I’m sure. The pie stayed down. I must have eaten some bad grub. I’m going to bed now. Once I’ve had some sleep,” throwing the drying cloth on the counter, Johnny gave Scott his best smile. “I’ll be raring to go.”
Folding the crumpled cloth that Johnny had so carelessly left, Scott raised his eyebrow and gave him the nod that said to try and be neater. Maria would put the cloth in to wash first thing in the morning. What difference did it make if it was folded or not? But Johnny needed sleep too much right now to try and explain all that to Boston. So he trudged up the steps with his neat-ass brother right behind him.
“Good night, Johnny. Sleep well.”
And he had slept––probably from exhaustion or an improvement in whatever his ailment was. But he looked forward to the day, thanks to Boston’s plan for a week off.
“Johnny, you up?”
“Come on in, Brother.”
Scott leaned against the door frame and watched him wash the remains of lather from his face. “How do you feel?”
Johnny made a few swipes with his hand to make sure the razor had done its work. “Better. Slept like a whore on Sunday night.”
“You better not say that around Murdoch. How are you? Tell me the truth.”
“Quit worrying. I told you, it’s nothing a night’s sleep, and a meal or two won’t heal.” He added the razor to his saddlebag, “I reckon this is it.” Throwing the bags over his shoulder, he tapped Scott on his belly, and they headed to breakfast.
“Got any of that pie left, T’resa?” He didn’t want to push his luck, and the pie had stayed down.
“You don’t want eggs and ham?” She eyed him like he had gone mad.
“Not today. How about a biscuit? And more pie would be perfect if you have some.”
She stared at Murdoch like he ought to make him eat something, but his father grinned. “Pie for breakfast. I think that sounds wonderful, Johnny. Eat whatever you can, Son. Are you better?”
“I’m fine, honest.”
The Old Man raised both brows but didn’t say anything; he just took another sip of his coffee.
Nate came into the kitchen, still buttoning his shirtsleeves and yawning. “Ya’ll do wake up before the chickens ’round here. Thank you, whoever knocked on my door.”
“That would be Murdoch.” Scott lifted his cup of coffee in the Old Man’s direction. “He makes sure we’re all up and moving every morning.”
“I’d still be dreaming about a… ah someone I met in Modesto if you hadn’t.” Nate glanced toward Teresa as if noticing her might have changed his conversation slightly. “Morning.” He took the cup of coffee she offered.
“Please, Mr. Barstow, we’re informal in the mornings. Take a plate and help yourself. We have plenty.” Teresa swept her hand toward the dishes piled high with eggs, ham, biscuits, jams, and cooked fruit.
“What a feast!” Nate’s grin got wider as he filled his plate.
Johnny finished the last bite of his pie. “I’ll go saddle the horses.”
Murdoch pushed his chair back and moved to stop him. “Emilio can do that, Son. And he’s saddling the bay for Nate.”
“The one we got at the auction?” Scott poured more coffee for himself. “Johnny, don’t you want another cup? More pie?”
“That’s a fine pony. Someone did a good job training that horse.” Johnny picked up his coffee cup. “Just half.”
“Now, Murdoch, we’ll pay well for the horse loan. Make the bill out to U.S. Marshal Service.” Nate scraped up the last bite on his plate and drained his cup. “Mind if I take one of these with me?” The Marshal held up a biscuit to Teresa as he started for the door.
“I’ll wrap up a couple for you, Mr. Barstow.” She placed her hand on Johnny’s shoulder and set the coffee pot down. “Johnny, Scott, I have some biscuits and extra food for you in a pack. It should be enough for a meal.”
“Thanks, T’resa.” Johnny took her hand and stood to go. “Bring the pack out front. We’ll say our goodbyes then.” Noticing the worry in her eyes, Johnny gave her a quick peck on the forehead. “Scott can’t wait to go.” He nodded toward his brother, who had already fastened his gun belt, and stood at the door, carefully working his fingers into those clean yellow gloves.
“Take your time, Brother.” Scott adjusted his hat. “Teresa, thank you for the food pack. And don’t worry; I’ll take care of him.” He brought Johnny’s hat over and settled it on his head. Johnny rolled his eyes and adjusted the hat.
“We’ll see who takes care of who.” With an elbow to Scott’s ribs, he headed to the hallway. “I’d best grab my gear; catch you outside.”
As he stood at the coat rack, strapping on his gun belt, Johnny wondered how a weapon became so much a part of a man that once he’d tightened it around his middle, breathing came easier; the very bones in his body relaxed. Would the day ever come when he didn’t need this part of himself?
Making a final check of his saddle bags, he strolled to the gun cabinet and grabbed two extra boxes of bullets. Throwing the bags over his shoulder, Johnny headed outside.
Still dark and chilly for a summer morning, the sounds of grumbling chickens, bawling calves, and hungry horses combined with the early morning complaints of people starting to stir. Johnny took it all in; he loved this time of day when the ranch woke up, animals first, wanting to be fed, then the sleepy hands and workers.
Scott stood at the corral gate, staring toward the east range and the rising sun as the ridge top turned golden red. When Johnny joined his brother, streaks of light stroked upward from behind the black mountains, forcing themselves through the gray of the morning sky. “It’s like the fingers of God pushing up the dark.” Johnny must have said it out loud.
Boston grabbed his shoulders from behind. “Well said Little Brother, well said.” And they watched darkness turn to day.
“My, my. Worth gettin’ up for; you get to see this every morning?” Nate must have been watching it too.
“They’ve seen it more than a few times, but I’ve observed it over and over these years. I never get tired of seeing the sun kiss that mountaintop.” Murdoch’s face glowed with more than the light of the new sun. Johnny figured his father might be kind of proud to call all this ‘home.’ Who was he kidding? He was too. They all loved this land.
“Boys, take care of each other. Plan to see you back in a week?”
“Sir, we’ll be back on time. And, yes, I’ll take care of my Brother.”
“Don’t worry, Murdoch. Ain’t much to hunt this time of year. We’ll might fish some, or Scott will.” It didn’t seem right to go off and not level with his Old Man. Toeing the gate post, then shaking it as if it might move, not in this century. Johnny gazed up, wanting to meet his father’s eyes. “I reckon some time off might be best. Sometimes… a lot’s happened, some stuff I need to sort out.”
“Son, I’ve taken time off to work through issues. There were times when I should have and didn’t. Go with your brother and my blessing.” Then his brow wrinkled up, and worry covered his face. “Just remember your home is here, John. No matter what’s been, or what might come, this is your sanctuary.”
A kind of peace settled over Johnny as Murdoch pulled him close to his side. That shadow of worry that his presence might bring death to his brother or his father still weighed on him, but that word, ‘sanctuary,’ pulled at him.
Teresa brought out three packs of food, handing the smallest one to Johnny. “I put an extra piece of pie and a biscuit in this one.” Standing on her tip-toes, she pecked him on the cheek. “Take care of yourself.” Then she took her other packages to Scott, who hugged her and found places for them on the packhorse.
“You ready?” Scott had already mounted and led a small packhorse loaded with supplies. Nate rode up behind him on the bay.
“Guess that’s my ‘all aboard’ call. Thanks for everything.” Johnny was slow to pull away but gave his Father his best grin, hoping to settle his worrying. “I’m coming.” He shouted back, and he threw himself into the saddle. Dios, he hoped this trip might help him figure out how to handle the fear that threatened this new life he had found.
The trail followed the river for over two hours until they started up the mountainside. They’d not gone too far up the steep trail when four mule deer jumped the bank to cross in front of Scott, who’d taken the lead. When his brother’s horse sidestepped, rearing up, Johnny rushed forward. “What?” Scott had settled the animal and glared at him like he’d lost his mind.
“Nothing. Making sure you were okay.”
“Everything okay?” Nate caught up.
“Yeah, I thought the deer spooked Scott’s horse is all.”
“Didn’t you serve in the Cavalry? I guess Johnny took Murdoch at his word to take care of you, didn’t he?” Nate was having some fun with him.
“My brother tends to overdo being the protector sometimes.” Scott raised his eyebrow, questioning his actions.
“You’re talking about me like I’m not here again. Sometimes, I reckon I disappear into thin air; I’m right here.”
“Johnny! When did you catch up?” Nate acted as if he hadn’t seen him in a while.
“Is this what I gotta put up with all the way to Elk… ?” Johnny stopped mid-sentence. Something moved; fire? He hoped not. Once he took his hat off and used it against the sun’s glare, he pointed toward the east. “Ain’t that smoke coming out of ole Dan Phillip’s place?”
Scott stood in his stirrups, pulled his spyglass out, and stared toward ole Dan’s. “You’ve got sharp eyes, Brother.” He passed the glass over.
“Why does it concern you two for smoke to be coming from this man’s cabin?”
Passing the piece back to Scott, Johnny turned to Nate. “Ole Dan died right after we got here. Murdoch let him use the cabin. We cleaned it out not more’n a month ago.”
“Could be some of your men using it.”
“Not this time of year. We’re letting this high ground pasture rest until late summer; no reason for any of our people to be here.” Scott put the glass back to his eye.
“Guess we’d better check it out.” Johnny clicked his horse down the trail toward the turn-off that led to the cabin.
Keeping a sharp eye out, they walked the horses about half a mile down a shady path that followed a shallow stream. When the slight incline leveled, Johnny put his hand up for Scott and Nate to stop. “Let’s water the horses and tie them up here.” Plenty of grass and water, plus the cover from the tree line, went all the way to the cabin. That might help in finding out who had a fire going in old Dan’s place.
“We’ll go along the trees, sneak in and find out what’s going on.” Johnny kept his voice just above a whisper.
“So you’re in charge?” Scott had his Lt. Scott Garrett Lancer face on; he wanted to call the tune.
“You’ve got a better plan? What, find the enemy, engage the enemy, destroy the enemy? Well, hell, Scott, that’s what we’re doing––step number one, we’re trying to find the enemy, that is if we have one.”
“Just asking, Brother,” Scott held a hand up. “And what’s your plan for engagement, if indeed we do find the enemy?”
Nate didn’t help the situation by snorting and laughing under his breath. Johnny gave his friend the Madrid eye. Well, he’d give them a perfect plan. “I figured if Nate took the back, then Scott, you set yourself and that long gun in the side yard, I can bust in the front door and surprise whoever it is.”
“That’s a terrible plan! You want to end up dead? Is this another one of those ‘I had my plan, and you had yours?'” Scott shook his head and paced off from Nate and Johnny. He mumbled something before stalking back to stand in front of Johnny. “How have you managed to stay alive this long?”
“I ain’t planning to go in unarmed, Scott.” Johnny backed up a step, drew his gun, twirled it, and had it back in its holster so fast that he figured neither Nate nor Scott were sure they’d seen it. Not often did he show off, but his brother needed to understand he could do this. “I’ve done this plenty of times.”
“Johnny.” Scott blew his name out of his mouth. “Nate, will you talk some sense into him?”
“Your brother knows what he’s doing, Scott.”
“I can’t believe you two!” Scott gave them both his back, and when he faced them, he had Lancer fire in his eyes. “Just so you’re both clear, I’m not sitting in a side yard with a rifle while my brother gets his head blown off.”
“So what are you planning to do, Boston?” Johnny’s grin didn’t settle Scott at all. If anything, it fueled the flame in his eyes.
“If anyone goes in that front door, it will be both of us.”
“Only one of us can go through at a time. Hell, what if it’s kids in that cabin, or a family?”
“And suppose it’s rustlers or worse, this gang Nate’s after? What then?”
Nate stepped between them. “Scott, we’ll close in fast if Johnny has trouble. We’ve cleared buildings before, me and Madrid, I mean…”
“It’s okay, Nate. We can’t stand here arguing all day. Let’s do this. Scott, you with us?”
“Yes, but I’m on your heels, Brother, not in a yard.”
With a crooked grin, he adjusted his hat. “Make sure you stay far back enough that you don’t get kicked; my spurs are sharp.” And though he joked, Johnny tried to think how to keep Scott safe if this thing turned into trouble.
“You see ’em?” Nate whispered and pointed toward four horses tied to a rope in the woods at the back side of the cabin. “Back door is open.”
Johnny nodded at Scott to follow him along the edge of the trees to the front of the cabin. Side steps led up to a high porch where the door also stood wide open, making it hard to slip up on whoever was inside. Pointing to Scott and then at a stump near the cabin steps, He motioned for Boston to stay down and not follow him up to the porch.
Johnny crept up the steps, not making a sound; he slid his back against the rough planks of the building and peered through the dirty window. Aw, hell; bad luck and trouble dogged his trail no matter how hard he tried to avoid it. Scott started to come to him. His brother must have sensed something. Waving him back did not stop him.
“Trouble?” Scott mouthed the words.
Johnny nodded. “Stay back.” He moved his lips to his brother while using a hand to make a pushback motion and giving him the stare that would leave others shaking in their boots.
Before Scott questioned him or had a chance to move into the line of fire, Johnny jumped before the open door. “Drop ’em boys, and let me see your hands high in the air.”
“Johnny Madrid.” Jim Harrelson always carried two pistols. The fool didn’t drop either one but had his hands out, away from his weapons. A couple of his fingers curled toward his guns like he might be itching to make a move.
While Johnny’s ears picked up weapons dropping, he felt Scott come up behind him and noticed Nate enter the back door. But his focus stayed on Jim, the wild card. “Better drop the guns, Jim.”
“You can’t out-draw Madrid. Might as well give it up.” Nate’s voice had an edge, but Johnny heard his worry in a higher pitch.
“Drop ‘em, Jim.” As Johnny motioned for the man to hurry, Jim looked around the cabin, figuring out his options. Something about the narrowing of his eyelids, how the man’s mouth turned up slightly after he glanced at Scott, then him, Johnny knew Jim Harrelson was going for his guns. “Don’t do it.” Had he said it or thought it?
Either way, too late to stop him, and Jim lived up to his reputation. The man was fast. Both his guns fired, but a bullet from Johnny’s six-shooter threw him back against the wall before he fully aimed either of his weapons. The only reason the man still breathed was that Johnny sidestepped in front of his brother when he fired. It may have thrown the line of his bullet off just enough that the man had time to say a few words. “Damn you, Madrid.”
Johnny crouched next to him and watched his muddy brown eyes glaze over; they seemed to stare straight into his soul and accuse him. Worse, Scott stood over him, watching his face for a reaction to the whole damn mess.
Why in the hell didn’t he drop the damn guns? Johnny downed his head. It tore at something inside him, knowing he’d taken a life.
“You okay, Johnny?” Nate held his arm for a beat and searched his face.
All he did was nod.
“You’re a dead man, Madrid.” Jake Harrelson landed on Johnny’s back like a wildcat jumping on its prey. They’d only grappled an instant until the man went limp.
“Not today!” Nate had popped him on the side of the head with the butt of his rifle.
“Johnny?” Scott rushed to his side.
“I’m fine!” Johnny pushed Scott back. Harrelson had knocked him to the floor, and his side burned some, but nothing else hurt. Johnny did take the hand Boston offered and rose to his feet. “Thanks.” Scott shook his head and appeared to be disgusted.
“Nothing. Nothing at all, Johnny.” Scott started gathering their saddles and gear, carrying it all to the porch.
Not aware of more than securing the ropes around the outlaw’s hands, Johnny helped Nate tie up the three remaining men.
“You okay?” Nate placed a hand on his back.
Johnny nodded and took a deep breath; time to get his head on straight. Where had his brother gone? Scott had given him a sharp eyeball but hadn’t said a word, and Johnny wanted to find out what had the burr under Boston’s saddle. But first, he needed to do the right thing and help his friend clean up this mess. “You should take ’em to Spanish Wells; use the jail Charlie built.”
“Charlie? He the friend who died? You sure you’re okay, Johnny?”
Scott stepped back inside, leaned against the door facing, and didn’t say a word.
“Reckon it would be closer than pushin’ on to Bakersfield. I’ll send a telegraph to Jock. He and his men can meet me there.” Nate nodded at Johnny’s Colt. “You by gosh ain’t lost any speed being a Lancer.”
Johnny only nodded. “I’ll bring our horses if you and Scott got this handled.”
“Take Scott with you. These men are all tied up, won’t be going anywhere.”
Scott had gathered all the weapons into a sack. He followed Johnny out to the porch. “Why did you step in front of me like that?”
Words wouldn’t come. Besides, his brother should understand, or he ought to know. It all came on him so fast that he barely made it to the side of the cabin before he threw up.
“Shhh.” He waved him back, but it didn’t stop him. Still, he didn’t want anyone in that cabin, including Nate, to find out he’d been sick.
Scott handed off his handkerchief, but he stared at Johnny with his arms crossed and brows all screwed up like Murdoch’s. Johnny stretched his hand up for help to stand but swayed some when he gained his legs.
“Take your time.” Scott’s arm came around his middle to steady him. “Dammit, Johnny.”
What was Boston mad about now? “What?” Johnny didn’t feel like arguing with his Brother.
“You’re bleeding. Why didn’t you tell me you’d been shot?”
“No, I… .”
“Let me see.” Scott pulled his jacket open. Sure enough, blood was all over his shirt. Johnny almost went to his knees when Scott jerked his shirt open and pressed his hand to his side. “Sorry. Here. Sit on the porch. How bad is it?”
“Must not be much to it. I didn’t have any idea.” Johnny rubbed the deep graze on his side.
“You didn’t have any idea.” Scott repeated.
“Not till you told me, didn’t have a pain; now it’s stinging like the devil.”
Scott shook his head and growled at him. “Johnny.”
“What? It ain’t that bad. Here. Give me your handkerchief.”
Scott wouldn’t hand it over but folded the cloth and placed it on the wound. “Hold that until we can find some bandages back with the packhorse.”
“I need to button my shirt.” Scott helped him with his shirt while he managed the makeshift bandage.
“Can you walk to the stream?”
“Sure. I can make it.”
Putting out an arm to help him up, Scott slipped it around Johnny to take some of his weight as they stumbled together toward the creek and the horses.
“Don’t pass out on me.”
“I’m fine, Scott. Keep walking.” Only Johnny wasn’t sure he was okay. The strength drained from his body with every step. So he figured they best hurry while his legs still held him upright.
“Rest a minute. You’re wet with sweat. I’ll check the bleeding.”
“No. It’s just ahead. Check it at the stream.” His ears rang, and he walked on legs that no longer wanted to obey his commands. “Keep moving.”
Johnny checked the surrounding area and placed a hand on the damp loamy dirt he sat on when Scott leaned him against a large rock. Had he passed out or lost track of getting to the stream? “Scott?”
“I need to stop the bleeding, and wrap a clean bandage around you.” Scott had a wet bandana in his hand. A pile of bandages lay beside him on a piece of cloth.
“You’ve been busy.” Johnny started to move up against the rock.
“Don’t move. I just got this blood slowed down. It’s only a graze but trenchant enough to need stitches.”
“TRENCHANT.” Don’t think I’ve ever had a TRENCHANT wound before.” Johnny grinned at him.
Scott tapped him on the cheek. “You understand what I mean.” Placing a square of cloth over the wound, he started wrapping strips of fabric around Johnny’s middle. “Hold this.” He put Johnny’s hand on the pressure bandage and continued his work.
Johnny studied his brother while he worked. Scott moved his hand away and tied a knot to hold things in place. Then he met Johnny’s eyes.
“You got this stepping in front of me.” Scott sounded like an accuser.
“Told you, I wasn’t aware he shot me.”
“Johnny.” Boston stared for a beat. “You didn’t need to take care of me. I saw the two guns, his intentions, had already gotten free and clear of his bullets.”
“I couldn’t have known that.” Johnny stared at his hands. “All I had any idea about was where you stood when we went in there. Jim eyeballed you, then me. He had no plans to surrender; it showed in his eyes. Plain to see who his targets would be too. Ain’t no one gunning my brother.”
“So you thought he’d kill me before you killed him?”
“I knew I could take him, just didn’t know but what he’d squeeze the triggers going down, and he did. No man can predict where flying bullets might land.”
“And you got shot unnecessarily.”
“I’ll be okay, Scott.”
“We need to head back to Nate.”
“Scott? Not a word about this. I’ll bring up the rear. Tell ’em Barranca is favoring his right leg again.” Boston was angry. “I can keep an eye out from the back. I Don’t expect any trouble the way Nate has them trussed up.”
“Put this on; it will hide some of the blood.” Scott helped him put first one arm, then the other in his jacket.
While Boston didn’t say a word, he helped him mount Barranca. Johnny put his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine.”
“Drink this.” Scott handed him a canteen of cold creek water. Not realizing how thirsty the blood loss had made him, he downed a large portion and handed it back. “I’ll refill this one and the two on the packhorse. Keep two with you.”
Scott never showed his feelings much, but now, he spoke to Johnny like a stranger.
“What’s going on with you?”
“What’s going on with me? Well, I’ll tell you, Brother. The task at hand is to take three outlaws and a dead body back to Lancer, along with a bleeding, sick brother.” The muscles in the side of Scott’s face worked as he spoke. No doubt about it, the man was angry. “Furthermore, none of this would be necessary if YOU,” Boston put the canteen he’d been holding under his arm and stuck his finger in Johnny’s face, “If YOU would just take care of yourself…. I’m not getting into this right now.” He pulled the water bottle out and stalked off to the stream.
At least some fire showed in his brother’s eyes. “Cool off while you’re filling that canteen.” Johnny thought he might break the tension some. Dios!
“Did you say cool off?” Scott was stomping back like he might pull him off Barranca and punch him. “You can wipe that grin off your face. None of this is funny.” Scott hung the two full canteens on his saddle and glanced up at the sky; he shook his head. “It will be dark by the time we return to the ranch. I dare say you won’t be laughing then. Johnny, it’s your life that weighs in the balance here. You scare me.”
Johnny downed his head. He hated for his brother to be mad at him. Dammit, in trying to protect all of them from himself, he made things worse. “Scott, I ….”
“I’m sorry, Johnny. I’m angry because I worry. I’m not mad at you.” Scott mounted and pulled up beside him. “Are we okay?”
With a short nod, Johnny clicked Barranca forward. One thing Scott had right; the task at hand was to make sure they made it back to Lancer.
Nate leaned against the porch support; he had saddled the horses and had his rifle ready for action. The three men sat with their legs dangling off the high porch, their hands tied and resting on their laps. Moving the prisoners outside must have been hard since the tall, scrawny feller had a black eye and a small pump knot on his cheek.
“Broomstick, give you some trouble?” Making a slow dismount from Barranca, Johnny nodded toward the skinny man. Being so thin and topped off with straw-colored hair that fanned out every which way, he reminded Johnny of Teresa’s broom.
“Nothing I couldn’t handle. If you’ll keep an eye on them, Scott and me can tie the body on a horse.” Nate hesitated when he got next to Johnny and whispered, “You okay, buddy?”
“Nothing to worry about.” Johnny dropped the reins he’d been holding, grabbed the coil of rope from his saddle, and walked to where he could keep an eye on the prisoners, better yet, where they could eyeball him.
“Madrid, you’re a dead man. You think you can kill my brothers and walk away? If it’s the last thing I ever do, I’ll watch you suffer and die.” Jake snarled at him.
“Reckon death comes to us all.” Johnny leaned against the trunk of a large oak tree that shaded the porch. Tapping the rope against his leg, he stared down the three men. Idiots like Jake Harrelson never worried him, not when he had eyes on them. “But I don’t reckon I’m too scared about running into the old death angel because of you.”
Harrelson’s face went from red to purple. The man strained against his ropes, mad enough to fight a wild cat. “You’ll die by my hand. I swear it.”
“If you don’t quit your twitching and turning, you’ll fall off that porch and break something.” Johnny grinned at Jake, not showing a sign of worry on his face. Instead, he pulled a length of rope from the coil, made a loop, wrapped it, checked the size, and held it up in his hand. “Nice, tight noose.” Johnny twirled it around. “Let’s put it around your neck; you can practice a little. I’ll let you jump off the porch, find out how it’s gonna feel.” That ought to shut him up, at least for a while, the thoughts of hanging and the cold eye Johnny gave him.
“Having fun?” Big Brother stood off to the side of the yard. With his arms crossed, giving him that Murdoch-disapproving-face. He must have been watching the whole thing. Scott could slip up on a man; he must have learned that quiet walk in the war.
“Maybe. You got the horses ready?” No way would he react to any judgments his brother might have about how he kept this bunch of outlaws in line. They had robbed and killed innocent people.
“Need any more nooses?” Scott’s lips twitched a little.
“I reckon one for practicing is enough.”
“Come on, boys, let’s move this trash, mount ‘em up.” Nate grinned at Johnny and then laughed. “You can practice on the trail if we have any more trouble, plenty of trees between here and Lancer.”
Johnny coiled the rope back up, but he kept the noose. “Nate, you ever had to hang a man before you could took him to jail?”
The marshal pulled the three prisoners to their feet. “No, Johnny. You know hanging without a trial is against the law. Anyway, it’s a hell of a lot easier to shoot a problem; BANG, it’s done.” Nate sighted down his finger at Jake and flicked his thumb as though he’d shot him. “It’s fast and clean. Now the downside to bringing in dead bodies is filling out the paperwork explaining how they were trying to run away, all the details for the higher-ups to sign off on; but I’ve filled out plenty of papers in my time.” Walking his prisoner to one of the horses, he ordered, “Mount up.”
“You’re next, Jake.” Johnny used his gun to wave the outlaw over toward the horses. The man stared at Johnny as Nate tried to help him on a horse. Even with all the tough talk they used to keep these outlaws in line, this man would be trouble.
Scott stepped between Jake’s line of vision and Johnny’s. “Johnny, you ready?”
“Sure.” Johnny didn’t much like his brother trying to play protector. Jake was dangerous. Even tied up, the man could be tricky, and Johnny planned to keep an eye on him. Scott needed to stay out of the way.
Johnny and I can bring up the rear; keep a sharp eye on the prisoners.” Scott pushed the last prisoner toward Nate. The man kept his mouth shut. Sweating and with scared eyes, he stumbled to the horse Nate held for him.
“Scott, keep your eyes open. Jake’s the wild card; tied up or not, he’s trouble.”
“And he wants revenge, Johnny. If he tries anything, he’ll come after you.”
“Don’t put yourself between us if he does.” Keeping his words low, he sure didn’t want the others to hear, but Johnny hoped to hell his brother understood their importance; never breaking eye contact, he squeezed Scott’s arm. “You could get one of us killed stepping in at the wrong time. Let me handle this.”
Scott motioned him to step inside the cabin door. “You’re sick and wounded. That man’s dangerous, and I’m watching your back.” While Boston kept his voice low enough not to carry, he sure did show some anger in a whisper.
“Dammit, don’t you understand?”
“I understand that you’re in danger. Now Nate’s waiting for us.” Scott stormed out the door, leaving Johnny no choice but to follow him.
“You boys ready to ride?” Nate eyeballed them as he mounted his horse. “Anything I need to be told?”
Johnny figured his old friend had to be curious. A blind man could see the anger shooting out of Scott’s eyes.
“I explained a bit of strategy to Johnny. That’s all.” Scott stared at Jake when he said it. Oh man, Boston missed his calling. The man would have been a top gun hawk, no doubt about it.
“Let’s ride then.” Nate headed out. The four outlaw’s horses, connected with a string line, followed him, with the first one hauling Jim’s body, then came Jake. Broomstick rode behind Harrelson, and the feller, still shaking in his boots, made up the last of the gang.
Johnny figured that Jake riding behind his brother’s body would either remind him that he might be next or stir up his thirst for vengeance. That wouldn’t bother him if his belly didn’t ache, his side didn’t burn, and he had experienced enough blood loss before to understand the dizziness, sickness, and how it could throw a man off his game. On top of all that, Scott wanted in the mix if Jake got rowdy. Hell, could this day head any more sideways? What happened to a week off at Elk Creek?
They made a long caravan, six riders, one horse draped with a dead man, and a packhorse. Johnny tried to lag back, not wanting Jake or the others to learn about his injury. That didn’t work too well since Boston kept waiting for him to catch up, making Jake turn more than once to find out what they might be doing.
Nate kept checking and led the group to a shady spot beside a stream. “Everything okay back there?” He called back and tightened the prisoners’ ropes before coming to find out why Johnny kept hanging back.
Giving Scott an eye that clearly said, ‘see what you did, now,’ Johnny figured he should level with Nate. But first, he needed to make Jake and his cronies think otherwise. “Barranca’s still favoring that leg. Just trying to find out what’s wrong; that’s all.” But he dismounted as did his Brother, walked over to the Marshal, and, in low tones, told him, “Don’t want them noticing, bullet creased me back at the cabin. Nothing to it, but Jake will be looking for any weakness to try something. I’m trying to hang back if Scott here will let me.”
Nate checked Johnny out, eyeballing him up and down. “You lose some blood? How can I help?”
“I’ll be fine. Nothing either of you can do. They’ll take advantage if they figure I’m hurt.”
“Bring up the rear if you need to, but let your brother ride beside you, and make sure you don’t fall off that palomino.”
“And who will help you with them?” Giving the nod toward the four horses in the string line, Johnny grabbed onto the saddle horn for support. Scott took a step toward him but looked, seeing the staring outlaws, and stopped. Reckon the Madrid stare didn’t do any good; it didn’t seem to work much on Boston.
“Do I look like I need help?” Nate snapped his answer. Shit, why did everyone have to settle their hash on him?
“Yeah, you do, three of them, one of you. Suppose one gets loose or kicks a horse free of that line?”
“He’s right, Nate. I don’t have the solution other than I need to help you, but I also need to keep an eye on Johnny.”
“No, you don’t. I’ve always taken care of myself. We’re wasting time and energy that I don’t have. I’ll bring up the rear, and give a yell if I need you.” Riding to Lancer might be difficult, and he might not be in the best shape when he made it home, but he’d make it one way or another.
“I’ll stick a piece of jerky in their mouths and give them water before we move on. Johnny, find a shady spot, drink some, and eat if you can.” Nate bent down and rubbed Barranca’s right foreleg. “Wrap a cold rag on your horse’s leg. Make ’em buy the lie.” When he stood up, he nodded at Boston. “Scott, why don’t you help him do that while I round up the food? Then come help me move them badasses in the shade.”
“You going to take them off their horses?” Johnny didn’t like the thought of Jake coming off that string line.
“One at a time. I have to give them a take-it-and-shake-it break, Johnny.”
“Scott, Jake will make his move, soon as you untie his hands.” Johnny intended to have Harrelson in his sights if his brother got anywhere close to him.
“It will be fine, Johnny. I’ll hold my rifle to his head while Nate unties him.” Scott understood the importance of being careful. “You wrap Barranca’s leg for show.” He smiled that half smile of his. “Rest all you can. If I put my hand on your head, I’m betting I’d find it heating up with fever.”
“Be careful, Scott. You too, Nate, Jake’s the one to keep your eye on, but Broomstick might surprise you too.”
“Broomstick? You mean Bart Sloan. The other one, the scaredy-cat? He’s Art James. He used a knife and carved his initials on his victims to torture them. I read some papers on him, and I say he’s the rapist wanted in Bakersfield. The little pervert attacked several prostitutes.” Rubbing his forehead, Nate pointed toward the short outlaw, and disgust washed over his face. “When he joined this group, robbing stages, Art changed it up, and he raped three female travelers. One, she was only thirteen.”
It made Johnny sick to his already queasy stomach to find out the details, but he had to ask. “Did he kill the women?” Swallowing back the rising in his throat, he waited for the answer.
“No, left them in bad shape, though. One lady still isn’t right in the head; she’d been coming back from helping her sister in St. Louis. Had a family in Bakersfield. The sheriff said her husband left her, took her children, and moved. And the last I heard, the young girl was still recovering from her injuries.”
“Damn.” The story stirred up memories from Johnny’s childhood. His mother suffered because of evil men who abused her and sometimes him when he was a boy.
“My god, how men can stand by and let others commit such heinous crimes. They had become like animals.” Scott’s face turned white as he whispered the last bit; he had a faraway look in his eyes.
He wasn’t the only one made sick by this piece of shit. Johnny studied his brother and watched Scott breathe deeply. He understood what he was doing because he had done it plenty of times when things in his head were too awful to quit seeing.
“You alright, Boston?”
It took another deep breath before Johnny got his answer. Scott closed his eyes, opened them, and checked out every inch of Johnny. “I’m in better shape than you, Brother.”
“That ain’t what I mean. Talking about up here.” Johnny tapped his head.
With a short laugh, his eyes still haunted by something, Scott tried to lighten things up. “Up here too.” He grabbed Johnny’s neck and scrubbed his hair a bit. “I’m in much better shape in the head than you.”
“I’d say you’re right about that, Boston.”
“Johnny.” Scott had his concerned face on again.
But Nate grinned at the two of them. “Let’s start feeding and watering these scoundrels. The sooner it’s done, the quicker we can be on our way.”
“Both of you stay alert. I’ll walk Barranca over to the shade nearby and wrap his leg—be watching should you have any trouble.”
The three of them and Barranca walked alongside the string line until Nate came to his horse in the front.
“It’s like this, you sons-of-bitches. We’re gonna water these horses with you tied on them. Then, we’ll fill canteens and water you, one at a time. We got some jerky to fill your belly. Take your piss break, and it’s back on your horse. A rifle and a six-gun will be on you every step you take.”
“Aw, Marshal, we can’t… “
“Shut your damn mouth.” Nate yelled. “If you start complaining, you can piss on your saddle.”
Laughing at Nate’s toughness with the prisoners, Johnny sat beside the creek where Barranca drank, and he kept watch while he pretended to work on the horse’s leg.
Harrelson’s eyes darted from the water to the path, and it was easy to tell he was searching for ways to escape. Johnny figured the man was likely to give them trouble. Art might have committed the worst crimes, but they were against helpless victims. The man was a coward. Sloan didn’t strike Johnny as a man who thought on his own––most likely followed Jake’s lead. As long as they kept Jake powerless, the other two shouldn’t be a problem.
Johnny tried to keep an eye on Scott, too, as they took Sloan and then James for water and over to the bushes without any problems. When they were ready to take Jake down from his horse, Johnny ignored his pains and stood. Petting Barranca’s neck, his senses went on the alert, prepared for anything. Now would be the only time Harrelson would have a chance to escape. Something in his gut told him that he’d do anything to try.
“I’m a little stiff here, Marshal. It’s hard to hop right off with my hands tied.” Jake made a show of trying to swing his leg over the saddle to dismount. Johnny stepped forward, knowing Harrelson’s trick to talk one of them to come near so he could jump them.
“Then fall off. None of us is inclined to help your sorry ass.” Nate motioned him down with his pistol.
Grinning to himself, Johnny had confidence that his friend wouldn’t fall for Harrelson’s nonsense. Still, a desperate man might do anything.
Making a big show of dismounting, Jake also took his time filling his canteen and drinking, still with eyes darting around. When they landed on Johnny, he laughed. “What are you looking at, Gunfighter?” Hate spewed from his eyes.
As much as he expected a move, Johnny didn’t imagine it happening that way. With his hands tied, Harrelson managed to throw the full canteen into Johnny’s face, and then he plowed into a stunned Nate, got his tied hands over his head, and pulled back hard with a section of rope, choking the Marshal’s throat. “I’ll kill him. Throw ’em down, boys, or the Marshal here is a dead man.”
No one moved. “Don’t -do it. He’ll -kill us -all anyway. Shoot him.” Nate barely ground out the words. Then grunted when Jake tightened his hold.
Scott sighted down his rifle. “Johnny. Nate’s right.”
“Drop ’em, now.”
“You kill him; then you’re right back where you started, only I’ll shoot you in the gut and you’ll die, slow.” Johnny grinned and said it in a quiet voice.
“You two back off. Get my horse, and I’ll ride out of here, no harm done to the Marshal.”
Jake loosened his hold around Nate’s neck as a show of good faith.
Johnny kept his eye on Harrelson, but he moved next to Scott. “You got him in your sights?”
“Got him, Brother.”
“Brother?” Jake’s eyes glowed like he’d struck paydirt.
“No, no, no. Scott.” Johnny saw Harrelson’s tied hands go for Nate’s gun. In his side vision, Scott turned toward him, not realizing he’d just become Jake’s target.
Jumping in front of Scott, Johnny fired his gun, a damn tricky shot while moving, keeping Nate safe, saving his brother, and taking out Jake. Sure enough, Jake went down, but he fired off a couple of rounds first.
Johnny had knocked Scott down. Or had a bullet done that? “Scott?”
Blood. No! Blood covered his Brother’s shirt. “I’m so sorry. I knew I would cause you harm sooner or later. Lord, Scott. Where did it hit you?”
“Boys?” Nate sounded like he had a cold. He rolled Johnny off of Scott, who moaned some, but then started unbuttoning the toggles on Johnny’s shirt.
“Stop. It’s Scott that’s shot. Scott, he got you, not me.”
“He might have been aiming for me, but you took the bullet, Brother. Hold still.” Scott had his hand on his side, then rubbed around to his back. “Bullet’s still in him.”
“I’ll find something to use for bandages.” Nate went to the pack horse.
“You- sure- you ain’t- shot?” Johnny fingered the blood on Scott’s shirt.
“No bullet holes in me; thanks to you, I’m fine. Johnny, I- I’m sorry; this is all my fault.”
“How do you – figure that? Damn. Scott, don’t press so hard.”
“When I called you Brother, it just slipped out.”
“It’s okay, Scott, as long as you are safe.” Johnny’s side and back burned like hell, but the pain in his brother’s white face took his breath. “Hey; Harrelson- he had his sights- on me. I’d be dead- but you- distracted him, shocked him.” The darkness closing in kept him from being able to tell if his words helped soothe his brother’s guilt. But his last thoughts told him where to lay blame for this mess, right at the feet of Johnny Madrid. “All my fault.”
“Johnny! Johnny! Stay with me.” Desperate, his brother called his name, and he tried, Lord, how he tried to answer. But his body didn’t obey.
“Hand him up to me.”
“No. No. Hurts.” Johnny tried to make them stop moving him for a few minutes until the pain eased a bit. “Give. Me. A minute.”
“Johnny, we need to take you home. Grab onto that saddle horn.” Nate Barstow; now he remembered; Jake Harrelson tried to shoot Scott.
“We’re headed to Lancer. Relax. You’re riding with me, Johnny.” Scott pulled him tight against his chest. “Let’s move out, Nate.” The voices faded, and so did everything else for a while.
The throbbing in his side beat and grew with the plodding of the horses, and it drowned him in pain. Johnny tried to grab the reins to stop the horse from moving, but while he struggled to do that, he must have caused some upset and commotion. Shouting and yelling, and then they finally stopped.
“Johnny. It’s me, Scott. You need to listen. Are you with me?” A cold cloth cooled his face.
“Johnny, drink this.” Instead of giving him time to hold the canteen, someone poured water down the front of his shirt.
“He’s not swallowing.” No. No, he couldn’t. Not yet.
“Here, give it to me.”
“Johnny, you have to drink this. Wake up. Swallow the water. Do you understand me?” His brother put a canteen to his lips. “Thank the Lord; he’s drinking. That’s good, Johnny.”
It was cold and fresh, quenching his unusual thirst. “Where?” Johnny pushed the water back and tried to find a landmark; realizing that Scott was riding behind him, he relaxed against him.
“We’re still an hour from the hacienda. How are you making it?”
“Real fine, Boston.”
Nate laughed and tapped Johnny on the leg. “If you feel well enough, we might have enough daylight that your Daddy will put you to work when we get back.”
“Then, again, I been- noticing a pain- or two in my- backside.” Johnny nodded back at his brother.
“I’m glad you still have your sense of humor, Johnny.” Scott tapped him on his arm. “More water?”
Johnny shook his head. He needed to close his eyes and find a place where the pain might ease.
“Let’s move on out. We’re losing daylight.” Nate nodded toward the Western sky. The sun rested low on the mountain tops.
“Don’t stop- no more- for me.” Johnny told him.
Nate nodded at Scott. “You tell me if he needs another break. Otherwise, no more stops until you boys are home.”
The pain bored and racked his body as they moved. Johnny bit his lips to keep from crying out. He must have passed out and lost control. He hated this. “‘S okay.”
“Take a sip, Johnny.” His lips were numb. Someone held a glass bottle against them.
“Yeah. It’s Nate and me. We found something that will help with the pain. Take another sip.”
Johnny reached for the bottle. He welcomed any relief from the aching fire that gutted him.
Scott pulled it back. “You’ll spill it. Let me help. Not too much.”
“Thanks.” Johnny almost couldn’t find the breath to say it. Lord, he hoped the laudanum knocked him out.
“Give a yell if you think the pain gets too bad again. We’ll set up camp. I’ll take the prisoners on to Lancer and send a doctor back.” Nate sounded worried.
“No.” Johnny tried to make his voice firm. “Take. Me. Home.” After that, he couldn’t remember much but pain, and Scott, who wiped his face with a damp cloth, checked him with a hand on his head for fever and begged him to hang on. Johnny nodded and tried to grin, hoping to wipe the worry from his brother’s face.
He had no idea how much time had passed when familiar sounds roused him and his brother’s warmth left his back.
“Johnny. We made it.” Scott’s voice sounded tired.
“Home?” Johnny tried to find Murdoch. The sun must have set; he couldn’t see much but Boston’s face and his arms pulling at him. Some cattle were lowing, and he could hear horses from the corral.
“Can you dismount? Help me here. That’s right, just slide right off, easy. I’ve got you.”
“Let me help.” Nate’s voice.
“Boys! You’re back? Johnny? You’re hurt. What’s happened?”
“Murdoch?” Johnny reached for him; it was the natural thing to do. His Old Man took him into his arms like he was a kid.
“Tell me.” Johnny felt the rumble of his chest as Murdoch questioned his brother.
“He caught a bullet.” Nate’s voice and he sounded trail tired. “You best send for a doctor; it’s still in his side. I need a place to lock these two up. I’ve got two bodies here as well.”
“Did one of these men shoot him?” Murdoch’s arms tightened around him.
Raising his head, Johnny searched for his brother. “Scott?” His brother’s head rested against his saddle. “You- okay?”
“Come on, Son. We need to take Johnny inside. I’ll show Nate the guardhouse and send Walt for Sam.” Murdoch took Johnny to the couch in the great room. “I’ll be right back, Son.” His Old Man’s hand stayed on his cheek for a bit. Strange thing, he barely felt it, and when he left, he tried to reach for him, but his arm wouldn’t obey.
“Scott? What is it? You -finally had -enough -of me?” Johnny studied his brother staring out the window into the dark.
“What? No! Johnny… It’s not that at all.” Scott ran his fingers through his hair and made room to sit on the sofa beside him. “It’s just the opposite. I’m afraid. Scared that one of these days, you will take a bullet and I’ll lose you.”
Johnny stared at him for a beat. “Then you know.”
“Then you… you -know -how I feel.” Johnny tried to sit up but nothing worked. His brother needed to understand all of it. “It’s the -the shadow, death’s shadow -following me -that’s been bothering me.” Taking a ragged breath, he continued, “Don’t you see?” He took hold of Scott’s arm. “They’ve all -died, Wes, Isham, Warburton, Charlie, and -today -I-I-almost l-lost you. And -it ain’t -been more’n -six months -since I -come home.”
“Johnny, rest.” Scott rubbed his hair back off his forehead. “It’s all going to be okay. You and I will figure this out, together. We’ll fix it.”
“It’s what -Charlie used to say. But he never -did. He just died.”
“Johnny!” His brother’s hand was shaking him. “Johnny?” He pulled back from everything and floated above the two of them. How strange to gaze down on the great room. Scott tried to rouse him. Then floating higher, he saw Murdoch send Jeremy Waddell to bring Sam. For a fleeting moment, Johnny wondered why Walt hadn’t gone. Then swirls of darkness sucked every thought away, and awareness left.
Singing birds woke him. He grabbed the wrist of whoever wiped his forehead until their face came into view.
“Johnny. You’re awake!” Teresa ran from the room, calling, “Murdoch, Scott, it’s Johnny.”
He rubbed his eyes with the wet cloth. They were gritty, and he felt strange as if returning from a long journey. Too fuzzy to remember for sure where he had been, but brightness and peace came to mind, and now, some part of it followed him; Johnny felt settled and content in a way he’d never been before.
His brother and father fought their way to his side.
“You’re awake.” Scott, with his face unshaved, must have slept in his shirt.
“What happened to you, Brother?” His voice sounded weak, so Johnny cleared his throat.
“Me? You’re the one who scared us all half to death.”
Johnny cocked his head. “How’s that?”
Scott rubbed his forearm across his eyes. “Johnny, you quit breathing that first night. Then once we got you back, your fever soared. Sam’s tried everything.”
“Is Walt okay?”
“Why would you ask about Walt, Son?”
“You had to send Jeremy to find Sam.”
Murdoch’s brows came together. “How do you know that?”
“I saw you tell Jeremy to go.” Something was off; it was in their faces. “What is it? Is Walt dead?”
“No. No, Son. He hadn’t come in from the work crew that night.
“Johnny?” Scott questioned him.
“What? what did I say?”
Looking at Scott before he said more, Murdoch pulled the covers up around Johnny’s arms and smoothed them. “John, you were in the house, very sick. How did you have any idea who I sent for Sam?”
Why did Scott and his father act so weird about this? “I don’t know. Maybe one of you told me.”
“No. You’ve been unconscious until now, Brother.”
“Does it matter?” No wonder they asked how he knew. They would send him to a crazy house if he told them how he saw Murdoch send Jeremy to find Sam.
“No, not at all, Son. What matters is you’re awake and your fever is gone.”
“Well, how’s my patient?” Sam walked in, followed by Teresa.
“They say I’m better.” Johnny pointed at his father and brother.
“I say you are too, young man.” Sam picked up his arm and then placed a hand on his forehead. “You are awake; that means you are better.” Then Doc used a contraption connected to his ears with a bell on his chest, and he put his hand up for everyone to be quiet while he listened. “Teresa, he’ll need broth and fluids to build up his blood.” He nodded at Scott and Murdoch. “Johnny should stay in bed for at least three days until his strength returns. Drink plenty, young man, water, teas, anything liquid. As for eating, start with the broth today and then try light meals.” Sam stepped away and scratched his chin before continuing his bossy doctoring. “Now as for these problems you have had eating, stomach pains your brother told me about, I’ve a notion you started on a stomach ulcer.” He tapped on the leg. “Less worry, and eat the meals I’ll have Maria and Teresa prepare starting tomorrow. Give that menu a week or two. And then ease into your regular fare. It will give you a chance to heal.”
“Is that serious?” Murdoch asked
“Only if he continues to let it progress.”
“In other words, he should let his big brother worry for him.” Scott grabbed onto the large post at the foot of his bed.
“Exactly.” Sam checked the bandage and changed Johnny’s dressing before finishing and stuffing the instruments in his bag. “Much better.” He patted Johnny’s leg and headed toward the door. “I’ll make my rounds and check on you tomorrow. Murdoch, you and Scott make sure you rest and take turns sitting with our patient.”
“Thanks, Sam.” Murdoch walked him out, and Teresa followed.
“Where’s Nate? Is he okay?” The trip back seemed like a dream.
Scott sat down on the bed next to Johnny. “He’s resting down the hall. Once your fever broke, I think he passed out on his feet. How are you, truth?”
“Fine. I’m good.” Johnny stared at his brother for a minute.
Scott laughed out loud.
“Scott, what do you think happened? How did I know about Walt and Jeremy?”
“I’m not sure, Johnny. It’s hard to understand.”
“I think I visited another place. Scott, you’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“Let’s say it was a place where, it was peaceful. And I’m not so worried anymore.” Johnny fiddled with the corner of the sheet. “I ain’t thinking I dreamed this. Someone told me to come back here, that my family needed me and we would be safe together.” Johnny tried to read his brother’s eyes. “Scott, what are you thinking? That I’m crazy? I ain’t saying it couldn’t have been a dream, but it’s real to me.”
“One thing is real.” Scott patted his knee. “Murdoch sent Jeremy, not Walt, to bring Sam here. You didn’t dream that, and there’s no way you could have known that information. So, Johnny, let’s take that as a sign that we are safe. You should relax; quit worrying so we can enjoy our time together.”
“I knew you’d know how to fix this.”
Scott scrubbed Johnny’s head. “So you’re saying I’m your fix-it man?”
“Yeah, I am, Brother. That’s exactly what you are. And don’t you know, Charlie would be proud.” Somehow peace lingered, and shadows that weighed him down before didn’t exist now. Johnny first glanced upward, then looked down and tugged at Scott’s sleeve where he had rested his hand on his. It came mighty easy to meet his brother’s eyes and throw out his biggest, best grin.
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13 thoughts on “Fix This by Sherry”
That was a lovely story, thank you
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This is a good story- I especially liked when Johnny was telling his family of the two young rowdies coming into the saloon and pushing everyone around- then dumped his food. They saw the Colt tied low and asked if he was a coward. Great response- It ain’t about bein a coward- it’s about me not wantin to kill you… Oh, that is so like Johnny!
Thanks for sharing, Sherry!
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Jill, thank you for reading Fix This. I’m pleased that you enjoyed it, and it means a lot that you took the time to let me know.
Diana, thank you for commenting. Yes, I thought it would be just like Johnny to try and mind his own business and avoid a fight as long as no one was being harmed, the goal being not to add another death to his conscience. I’m glad you liked that part and enjoyed the story.
Ele é um PISTOLEIRO, sua opção é manter a VIDA e continuar vivo, não tem anseio de fama só da VIDA, não teme a morte, ele não procura por ela e tenta evitar ter que tirar a VIDA de alguém ele não quer isso, por trás da máscara de durão está um jovem meigo e carinhoso com receio de magoar aqueles que ama.
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Luciera, I like what you are saying; Johnny has a kind heart and doesn’t search for fame. Though he is a gunfighter, it is not his desire to kill unnecessarily but to set things right for those who can’t protect themselves. Perhaps people who were like him and his mother when he was younger. Thanks for reading and your comments; they are very spot-on.
Thank you for another great story. Great emotional depth.
Thank you for this beautiful story where we can see how strong is the bond between the brothers.
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Caterina, I’m glad you liked this story, and yes, it did focus on the relationship between Scott and Johnny. I’ve always loved reading and writing about their bond, so glad you enjoyed this piece.
Great story of a family’s love. It was wonder to “see” it. Finally, Johnny is secure in his home.
Johnny mentioned Charlie at the end. I can help but wonder if that’s who told him to go back.
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MaryAnn, Johnny did finally find peace at home, and although his experience was kind of fuzzy, it would be nice if Charlie might have been the one to give him the message. I like that thought, and thank you for that insight. I do appreciate you taking time to read and comment.
Wonderful read. Fantastic how u described Johnny’s worry.
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Tanya, thank you for taking time to comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed this story.