Word Count 8,505
Part of the Lancer Writers 2022 ‘Fish out of Water’ Challenge
Special thanks to Chris Petrone for her beta work on this story.
“You want my boys to do what?” Johnny’s father had his arms crossed as he leaned on a Lancer corral post, and with eyes narrowed to slits, he sized up Sheriff Val Crawford. Then he straightened his back, standing like a Gun-hawk, ready to take down a challenger. Murdoch tilted his head forward and pushed his hat up ever so slightly, a sure sign his Old Man had gotten steamed enough that smoke could start puffing out of his ears anytime. And if Val knew what was best for him, he would stand down.
“Now, Mr. Lancer, it’s for the good of the town.” Val never did have a decent sense of danger.
“Then find someone in the town.” Murdoch turned toward Scott and Johnny. “Boys, you have your assignments. I suggest you get to them.” The Old Man flipped his fingers in the air as if he meant for the two of them to scatter to their jobs and be quick about it.
“Now wait a minute, Murdoch. Ain’t you always saying Lancer should set an example, be involved in helping the towns. What is it you and Scott call it? Yeah, we’re to be civic-minded.” As the words came out of his mouth, Johnny wondered about his sense of danger because as soon as he said ‘civic-minded,’ Murdoch raised that one eyebrow and stared at him like a hawk marking prey, and damned if it didn’t make his knees tremble. Professional gunfighters staring him down in the street didn’t make his legs weak like his father’s glare.
“Murdoch, Sir, Johnny’s right. If Lancer turns its back when Green River needs help, we’ll make no friends, perhaps even lose some. We should at least go with Val to find out if there’s some help we can offer.” Scott always had a calm and logical head. Johnny glanced at his father to see if that changed his mind.
“Preciate it.” Val nodded to him and Scott. “And Mr. Lancer, neither of your boys ought to be in no danger, not the way we’ll set this thing up.”
Val must have been nervous around Murdoch because he took off his hat and rubbed the sweat from his head with his sleeve. The cool morning breeze had Johnny wanting a warmer coat. So, it had to be asking the Old Man about deputizing his sons that had him sweating.
Murdoch pressed his lips together––another sign of danger. “Let’s all go inside, John.” Nodding right at him to lead the way. Why call him out? No doubt he’d take the blame if Val’s idea went sideways.
Might as well get this done; after all, he did brush elbows with Wes Hardin that time without a face-off. Could be they’d all come out in one piece after this parlay with his father. Johnny glanced back making sure Scott followed. There was no way he would do this without backup.
“What brought me out here, Mr. Lancer, Amos Ventner, deputy friend of mine from Mariposa, sent me a telegram. Like I told you, we got trouble headed this way.” Val stopped to take the steaming cup of coffee from the tray that Maria walked around the room. “Gracias, Señora.”
“Now, explain to me why you think this trouble might be too much for you to handle on your own?” Murdoch controlled the room from the chair at his desk. Pulling a foot-long measuring stick from T’resa’s cracked flower vase that now sat on his desk, filled with pencils, he leaned back and started slapping it in the palm of his hand—tap, tap, tap. “It’s been my observation that you and Andy handled rustlers,” tap, tap, “rough cowpokes, and even those stage robbers last month without Lancer’s help.” He turned his chair and waited for Val to answer–tap, tap, tap.
“You ever hear of the Arby Adams Gang?” As soon as Val asked the question, the room went quiet, and Murdoch stopped tapping that ruler. He sat straight up in his oversized chair.
“I told you, Val, find your deputies from Green River.” Oh boy. Murdoch Lancer didn’t want him or Scott having anything to do with those mean Adams brothers, not to mention Blake McCoy, who’d been riding with the gang since before Johnny came home to Lancer.
Even Val didn’t know about the bad blood between McCoy and Johnny. When it came down to it, no one in the Adams gang thought too highly of Madrid, not seeing as how Johnny had nicked Blake’s shooting arm right before they robbed that stage outside of Yuma. He reckoned them being a man down might have been the main reason they lost the gold shipment and ended up hiding out in a cave licking their wounds.
Hell, it wasn’t him that called McCoy out. Johnny had been minding his own business when the man decided he wanted to try and take Madrid down. Blake should have been happy Johnny let him live instead of being out for revenge. Word got around, and he wouldn’t want Murdoch to find out, but Blake McCoy had payback in mind for Johnny Madrid.
“I think Johnny will agree. If a gang with such a vile reputation threatens the citizens of Green River, it is our duty to help the Sheriff.” Scott sure seemed anxious to help Val.
Johnny wondered if he shouldn’t side with Murdoch this one time. The back of his neck tingled, and chills ran down his spine. It made him rub the back of his collar just thinking about going against these men again.
“Johnny?” Scott expected his backing.
“They are mean as a nest of stepped-on sidewinders.” Johnny figured saying that might buy him some time to think.
“Son, do you know these men?” Murdoch got up from his desk and came to stand next to him.
Man, he sometimes forgot how tall his father was, and looking up to answer made him feel like a kid. No way could he lie. “Yeah, I know ’em.” Murdoch seemed to have a question in his eyes. “And you can think what you like, but I wouldn’t spend no time in the saddle with vermin like that.” Johnny’s voice went lower and quieter. The thing with his anger, it didn’t blow up like with most people. It seeped down deep and made him dangerous, not with his family. But he had finished his conversation with them.
“John. Son. I understand you’re not like them.” Murdoch placed his big hand on Johnny’s shoulder and turned him just enough to gain eye contact. “I don’t want you to face old enemies, that’s all.”
Johnny felt his anger melt when Murdoch touched him. They had built trust in each other, but it took airing out old hurts that neither cared to let see any light. Sometimes the tiniest shadow made one or the other pull back. Perhaps they had gotten better at talking things out, or it could be Murdoch had gotten the hang of being a daddy. It sure seemed like it right now.
“Ahem,” Val cleared his throat kind of loud. “Ah, Murdoch; Johnny, Scott, and me can make plans that’ll keep ever’body safe––shouldn’t nobody get hurt. And we ought to catch this gang so they don’t rob and terrorize folks in the territory no more.”
Murdoch sucked in a deep breath. With all that air he took in, it seemed like the man absorbed a gut full of worry. His Old Man looked from Johnny to Scott, and then he gave that stare to Val. “I’ll depend on you to keep them safe. I want them back on Lancer ready to work when this is over. I have your word?”
“Mr. Lancer, you have my word.” Val stuck out his hand, and then he added, “I’ll do ever’thing possible to keep both your boys safe.” Val didn’t exactly give his word he’d have them back safe, but he gave Murdoch his hand on something pretty binding for Val.
Johnny watched his father jerk his hand back when Val added that bit about doing everything possible. Well too late to back out because Scott had headed out the door already. Johnny wondered again why Scott had been so interested in helping Val.
“Johnny, I’ll head on out.” Val gave his hat a couple of turns as he backed toward the door.
“K Val, I’ll be right out. Uh, Tell one of the boys to saddle my horse.”
“Will do, Johnny.” Val slapped his thigh with his hat and slipped out the door, quietly for Val, but he did bang the door shut, making Murdoch tense his shoulders.
“You gonna be fine with all this, Murdoch?”
“I’ll be fine when you and your brother return to this ranch in one piece.”
Johnny stared at the floor. “We’ll do our best to make sure that happens.”
“I know you will, Son.” Murdoch spread his fingers and studied them. Whatever his Old Man wanted to say had him tongue-tied.
“Get it said. Won’t come any easier the longer you hold on to it.”
That nervous laugh came first, and then Murdoch squeezed his shoulder. “It’s your brother. Keep an eye out for him.”
“Murdoch, you know I’ll look out for him. But what brought this on? What’s going on with Scott?”
“Could be nothing or. . .”
“Johnny, I. . .”
“What is it, Murdoch?”
“When your mother left, and I couldn’t find you two, the frame of mind it left me in, heartbroken, I took that deputy’s job. I wanted to do something dangerous. And I wasn’t careful, not at all.”
“What are you saying? Do you think Scott’s on a suicide mission? On account of that girl, Glory?”
“No, not suicidal, just not careful. Perhaps a man who’s distracted. Scott’s not been himself since she left.” Murdoch tucked his thumbs into his pants. “I’m saying to keep an eye out. Make sure he’s not consoling himself with danger and high adventure. And Son, take a care for yourself as well.”
“I’m always careful, Murdoch, and I’ll keep an eye on Scott; I reckon he’s the only brother I’ve got. Ain’t that right?”
“You know he is.” The Old Man grabbed him around the neck and gently shook him; the mood had lightened. Still, his father had given him a lot to think about, and what he said made some sense. Scott had been off his game since that girl and her grandfather had left. He’d seemed pretty gone on her, even though she tried to cheat him out of some money, well, not really. But they all thought she had. It could be his brother wished Glory would have stayed. One thing for sure, he would keep Scott safe, whatever might be going on in his head.
“I guess I better go.” Adjusting his hat, Johnny made ready to leave, but that niggling feeling that he ought to stay made him turn for a last look around the room. No way could he back out of going, but he wished he could figure a way to avoid a confrontation with the Adams Gang, and he, sure enough, didn’t want to lay eyes on Blake McCoy.
“You seemed mighty anxious to help Val protect Green River from the Adam’s Gang.” Johnny figured the ride into town gave him a chance to dig into the real reason Scott wanted to be a deputy to Val Crawford.
“You said it, Johnny. It’s our civic duty.”
“Nah, Scott. There’s more to it than that. You ain’t trying to distract yourself from something or SOMEONE, are you?”
Scott stopped riding. “What are you getting at? Get it said, Boy.”
WhooWhee, Boston had his back up. “Just thinking, that’s all.”
“Well, think again, Brother.” Scott didn’t get hot under the collar too often, but his face had gone red.
Johnny figured he best pull in his spurs. He already said too much to back down, perhaps if he got more to the point. “I just figured you liked that girl a lot.”
“Jonnnny.” The way Scott drew his name out wasn’t a good sign.
“Wouldn’t be nothing wrong with trying to find something exciting to distract you from thinking about Glory.”
“Shut up, Johnny.”
“What are you boys jawing about?” Val hawked and spit as he rode up to them. “By the time we make it to Green River, them Adams boys will have the town wiped clean. Hell, slow as you two are, Rafe Adam’s will be drinkin’ tequila in Mexico’ fore we ever get there.” Val leaned on his saddle horn and watched the two of them. When neither of them offered to say anything, he continued. “What’s more, they’ll be spending greenbacks and gold took right from Marlin Thompson’s Bank, the one we’re supposed to be protecting. Now, let’s get a move-on.”
Scott didn’t say a word, but he gave Johnny a look of warning. As much as he wanted to find out Scott’s reasons for helping Val, he would back off––not a thing he usually did. But having his brother’s anger directed toward him turned him inside out. And if they went up against the Adams Gang and Blake McCoy caught sight of him, he and Scott needed to stand together, not be at each other’s throats.
Riding ahead to catch up with Val, Johnny decided to find out what the Sheriff knew. “Val, what exactly did the telegram say, the one Amos sent?”
“The telegram, it was just a warning. Said he’d send a rider with details. Then last night, a feller, name of Jack Graybill, comes ridin’ in, wore out, been hittin’ the trail hard.”
“Yeah, what did he have to say?” Johnny didn’t want details about the rider.
“Poor guy was starving, hadn’t eaten nothin’ since he left Mariposa. So, I took him over to Camila’s. You know, she has the best tamales this side of the border.”
“Val. The gang. What did he have to say about them?”
“I’m trying to tell you. You didn’t use to be so darn impatient.”
“Just get it said.”
Val cocked his head at him. Now he had his best friend and brother frustrated with him right when he needed them most.
“I’m sorry. Got a lot on my mind.” Johnny noticed some of the ruts in the road. They had dried over the summer, but the rainy season would soon have the way muddy and almost impassable at times.
“Well, as I told you, Johnny, the boy being tired and hungry, we went to Camila’s Cantina for some of her tamales.” As Val continued, Johnny tried but couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “What? Don’t you want to know what happened?”
“I do. I do. Go on.”
By this time, Scott had ridden closer to them. He had one of those half-smiles on his face. Johnny reckoned it had been worth hearing Val go on and on to have his brother meet his eyes and shake his head like he did.
“Did he ever say anything about the Adams Gang?” Johnny thought mentioning them might put Val back on track.
“I’m tryin’ to tell you what he said!” Val stopped his horse and turned. “Hell, Johnny, this ranching has turned you into, into, I don’t know, it’s turned you into Murdoch Lancer!”
Scott laughed, and it sounded nice to Johnny’s ears.
“What? Ain’t you noticed it, Scott?” Val stared at his brother––probably hadn’t ever heard him laugh like that.
“You’re right, Val. Give him a few years, he’ll be exactly like Murdoch.” Scott slapped Johnny on the back.
“If you two have had your fun, let’s go back to finding out what we can and make a plan. Val, you were saying?”
“Now, where was I? Oh Yeah, the Graybill boy, Jack. He’d come into town…”
Johnny interrupted, “I know; he’d ridden hard, was tired and hungry, and you took him to Camilla’s for tamales. Now, what did he have to say about the Adams Gang?”
“Do you want me to tell this? Or are you gonna interrupt me and tell half of it yourself, Mr. Murdoch Lancer, Jr.?”
Let them have their fun. Johnny rubbed Barranca’s neck. The faithful horse turned his head and nodded as if to say he understood how Johnny felt.
“Dammit, Val.” Johnny closed his eyes. “I’m telling you; the Adams brothers are bad hombres.”
Val and Scott sobered like two drunks doused with a pail of water.
“You had some kind of run-in with them boys?” Val changed from good ol’ boy sheriff to dangerous lawman, quick as he could draw.
“Maybe.” Johnny didn’t want to go into details.
“Then you turn around, head back to Lancer right now.” Val swirled his arm around.
“You ain’t the boss of me, Crawford. I’ll be backing my brother’s play and yours in whatever is done to take this gang down. Now you came out to the ranch for help. You’ve got it.” Johnny stared right into Val’s eyes like he would if he decided to call him out.
“Don’t get cocky with me, boy. You ain’t so big I can’t still handle your smart mouth.”
“I’m going to Green River, Val.”
“Tell me, Johnny, why would you put yourself in harm’s way? If you have a history with these men, let Val and me take care of this.” Scott placed his hand on Johnny’s arm; he had a fearful, worried look reminding him of when he tried to keep him from leaving with Wes.
“What, and let my brother and, and…” Johnny stared at Val, trying to figure out what to call him––finally settled in his mind what the man meant to him. “… and the best amigo a man could have, let them face the meanest cutthroats in the territory while I sit at home?” Thank goodness for the cool breeze because putting his and Val’s relationship into words while his brother listened made his face hot. How could he describe a man who taught him half of what he knew, rode with him as a partner, and saved his hide more than a few times?
Johnny gazed off into the distance; the wind stirred Mose Haskell’s fresh-cut hayfield, the last cutting of the season. A simple thing, but it made him want to be home gathering in Lancer hay for the winter. “Both of you know I won’t be going back to Lancer. So don’t ask me to do something that goes against who I am.” Feeling certain both men understood, he clicked Barranca to a trot and headed toward Green River.
“Wait. Johnny. Dammit. Slow down.” Val galloped up beside him, then slowed to meet his and Barranca’s pace. “You hadn’t even heard the rest of what Graybill had to say.”
“Hell, Val, we just got four miles till we’ll be in town. At the rate you’ve been telling this thing, you’ll need at least fifty miles to get the howdy doos out of the way.”
“Aw, Johnny, it ain’t been that bad. Has it, Scott?”
Scott rode up on the other side of Johnny. “Well, no. I wouldn’t think Val would need more than twenty miles at the most to get; what was your term, Johnny, the howdy dos? No, twenty miles should get the howdy dos out of the way.”
“You Lancer boys. I shoulda went on out to Jim Rockwell’s place. Junior and Jake would fall right in, whatever I said, no questions and for sure neither of them ever riled up one of them gang members.”
“Yeah, and they’d be out the back door at the first sign of trouble. They’re good boys, but deputies, no, I don’t think so.” Johnny cringed at the thought of those Rockwell boys trying to back Val’s play in the middle of a bank robbery.
“Back to the subject, Val. The rider, Jim Graybill––we do need to find out what he told you at the cantina.” Scott actually might get Val down to brass tacks.
“Right. My buddy Amos, you know, he’s the deputy in Mariposa; he sent the kid to tell me how they found out the gang’s headed this way.”
“And why does your friend think this gang is headed to Green River?” The way Scott got to the point, you’d think he was a lawyer and had Val testifying in court.
“A feller in Mariposa, tired cowboy, drunk a beer, put his head down on the table and went to sleep. Next table over, the Adams boys happened to be making plans for their next job, Green River.”
“So the man with his head down hears them plan their next robbery?”
“Yeah, it turns out he wasn’t drunk, just tired and sleepy. When he woke up, the feller didn’t dare let on. Hey, the guy would probably be pushing up daisies if he hadn’t played ‘possum.” Val shook his head. “Ain’t that right, Johnny?”
“Most likely, he wouldn’t be walking among the living, Val.”
Scott looked at Johnny, winked, and continued with his questioning. “Val, did they say exactly when they planned to rob the Green River Bank?”
“They said Thursday, thinking the ranchers withdraw money on Fridays to pay their cowboys. They wanted to hit the bank when the most money is there.”
“Today’s Tuesday. That gives us a night and one day to get a plan in place.” Johnny wished they had one or two more days. Suddenly, he felt like he’d fallen back in time. Johnny Madrid had protected money in banks and on stages––for good pay––more than a few times. This time Johnny Lancer offered his gun and protection for assets more precious than money.
Val Crawford had lost his mind. “You want me to do what?” Johnny set his beer down hard; it splashed the front of his shirt. Using his sleeve to wipe the wetter spots, he sat back in his chair. “Nope. I ain’t gonna do it.
“Hear me out, Johnny. Ain’t no way you can work inside the bank, not with them Adams boys and Blake McCoy knowing you like they do.” Val stood from their table at Camila’s. Johnny figured he might be trying to find someone to take their order. Either that, or he wanted to give them a minute to think over what he’d said. “Hell, where’s Camila? Be right back, boys.”
“Johnny, he makes a good point.” Scott leaned toward him with that big brother attitude. “If they see your face, they’ll figure out they’ve been set up, call the robbery off, or start shooting. You don’t want innocent bystanders hurt in the heat of a gun battle.”
“No, I don’t want anyone hurt, including me. If I’m sweeping streets and hiding my six-shooter with some clumsy apron, how can I be fast enough to help you and Val?”
“What about helping me?” Val returned to the table. “Camila’s fixing us a grand feast.”
“Nothing too hot for me, I hope. I think I’ll check if Camilla will fix a steak for me.” Scott stood up.
“Done took care of it.” Val motioned him down. “Camila, she’s kinda sweet on you. You shoulda seen her eyes light up when I told her to add a steak for Señor Scott.”
Johnny laughed and pushed Scott on the shoulder. “Relax, Camilla makes the best steaks in Green River.” Then he turned serious. “Val, are you sure about this plan? You and Scott working as tellers in the bank, just the two of you with the money and me working outside?”
“Won’t be just the two of us. I got another gun; a fellow who used to be a deputy showed up at the office last night.” Val leaned in. He had a sneaky look about his eyes. “Since he volunteered to help, I invited him to our lunch to work on a plan.” Val took out his pocket watch. “Ought to be along anytime.” Johnny didn’t like the way his buddy sighted down his nose at him and grinned. Something wasn’t right about this volunteer.
“Used to be a deputy?” Johnny had this feeling, and he rubbed the back of his neck to try and still the tingling back there. “Wouldn’t be someone we know real well, would it?”
Scott tilted his head. “No. He wouldn’t leave the ranch.”
“Oh. Yes. He would.” Johnny said when the cantina’s door opened, and his eyes followed Murdoch Lancer as he made his way to their table.
Johnny had never met a man more purpose-minded and powerful. When his father entered a place, everyone turned their head. Not only that, to a person, they showed him respect. Even carrying all that authority, he kept a kind way with people, like a fine Patron. Hell, too humble to claim it, but what Murdoch Lancer had become was the ruler of this valley and a damn good one.
When Scott’s fist came down on the table like a hammer, Johnny knew Big Brother didn’t want their father helping them with this project. Not that it made him happy having his Old Man here either; him in the mix made one more person to keep safe. But somewhere deep down, he felt a niggle of comfort knowing ‘Pa’ had his back.
“Boys. Val.” Murdoch nodded at them and wiggled a chair in between Johnny and Scott. “Fill me in.” And he kind of rubbed it in, being there, when he sat down and grabbed him and Scott by their necks. His Old Man had a big grin on his face. Once more, he planned to call the tune on them, and nothing made him happier.
“I figure it like this; Mr. Lancer, you, me and Scott ought to work inside the bank. Being them Adams boys know Johnny; it seems he’d better stay out of sight, sweep the boardwalk.” Val nodded at Johnny, who rolled his eyes for about the fifth time that morning.
“Wait a minute. How well do you know this gang, John. I want details.”
“Aw, Murdoch. McCoy called me out, and we had a little dust-up; I only winged him in his shootin’ arm. The fool’s lucky I didn’t center the bullet right between his eyes.” Johnny tried to make it sound simple. Instead of looking at his father, rubbing the carved initials on the wood table seemed more interesting. Thank the Lord, Camilla and Diego came with the food before he had to answer more questions.
“Señor Scott, I have especial dish for you.” Camilla placed a large plate holding a steaming steak with potato and roasted vegetables in front of Scott. She gently touched his cheek and whispered something in his ear. Scott turned three shades of pink and red. When Johnny laughed, Murdoch popped him on the knee.
“Ow! What did you do that for?”
“Eat your food, John.” Murdoch nodded at the plate of tamales Diego had set down in front of him and his father. It did smell mighty delicious.
“Let me know If I can do anything else for you.” Camilla only seemed to be talking to Scott.
“Thank you. WE seem to be fine for now.” Scott’s face still had some color, but he had to give it to his brother; his words always came out smooth.
Johnny laughed out loud and leaned over to tease Scott about the attention from Camilla, but he felt Murdoch’s big old hand grip him right above his knee. “What? I ain’t doing nothing.” The less painful way to enjoy his meal might be to keep his mouth shut as far as teasing his brother about women. Maybe another subject might be acceptable.
“Val, how am I supposed to protect the bank’s money if I’m outside sweeping. I told you, I can’t even lay hands on my gun if you’ve got me hiding it with some big apron.”
“An’ I tell you, you ain’t gonna have to do some quick-draw to take down this gang. Now, back to the plan. All you gotta do is keep yer head down, where none of them boys don’t recognize you. Let ’em come inside the bank. Then you can slip in the back.” Val had his finger stuck right in Johnny’s chest.
“I can keep my head down INSIDE the bank.”
Val kept pointing that forefinger as he talked, so Johnny took a deep breath, and when his ‘friend’ finished his instructions, he grabbed that irritating digit in his fist and removed it, all the while giving Val his best Madrid stare. Scott’s face bore one of those smirky grins, but at least he tried to hide it behind his hand. Murdoch grinned at him and clapped his big paw on the side of his arm so that he felt like a pouting kid.
Val gave him a dismissive grunt and continued to share his plan. “Murdoch, you and Scott will be inside the bank. Scott, you wait on the public. Murdoch, can use Marlin’s desk right behind Scott. I’ll dress in my Sunday best suit, walk around, and watch out for their arrival.”
“That’s all well and good, Val. But how are you gonna protect any citizens that happen to be in the bank?” Johnny stopped eating, took a swallow of beer, and waited to hear what the Sheriff had in mind.
“There is only so much we can do. We can’t close the bank for business and still take down this gang of robbers. Keep an eye out for the gang, make excuses and move folks out the back door as we can, serve the ones that can’t wait till later.”
Val studied Scott. “I reckon you might end up looking down the barrel of someone’s peacemaker. Give ’em the money. Cooperate ’till they start out the door. Then let loose.”
“Dammit, Val. Scott don’t need to be in that position. Let me be the teller. I can keep my head down so they don’t see my face, then draw quick enough to stay safe.” No way could he handle Scott having his head blown off trying to arrest this bunch of pond scum.
“Now, wait a minute. I can handle my assignment just fine. I’m much more convincing as a teller than you are, Johnny.
“Hold on, boys. He has a point.” Val scratched his head. “A fast draw could save a life if these Adams boys turn violent and start shooting. But Johnny, you’d have to keep your head down, like counting money ’till they’re all inside.” Val tapped the table, emphasizing his point.
“And what about Scott?” Murdoch had his forehead wrinkled up, a sure sign he had started worrying.
“Scott, you work across from Murdoch. The gang will likely think you’re asking for a loan. Lean your rifle on the backside of that desk. We’ll have a backup if we miss anyone with these six-shooters.” Val made an impressive draw and held his colt up for an instant before returning it to his holster.
Scott and Murdoch looked at each other; both men seemed surprised, had raised brows but nodded. And then his Old Man and Scott started looking his way. He reckoned they had one of those lectures about being careful brewing. So Johnny decided to quench his thirst for another beer. “Anyone wants something else to drink? I’m buying.”
“In that case, Little Brother, I’ll take a beer.”
“Make that a round for the table, and this is on me, Son.” Murdoch tossed him a twenty-dollar gold piece.
“Thanks!” Johnny snatched it from the air with his left hand and headed to the small bar facing the tables in the cantina. The golden coin reminded him of the guest money he had found in his room the first night he spent at Lancer. Had it only been ten months ago that Murdoch called him and Scott home? The time had passed more like years for all the changes in his life.
“You okay, Johnny?” Harvey Norris sidestepped as Johnny almost ran into him while looking at the gold piece and thinking about how his life had changed.
“Fine, Harvey. How’s that yearling?”
“Good. Thanks again for your help. You’d hardly recognize that pony; he’s gained some weight.” Harvey tapped Johnny’s shoulder and looked beyond him. “That Murdoch back there?”
“It is. You won’t find him in town often on a weekday––better go say howdy.”
“Believe I will. You come out and visit Maisy and me. She always has a batch of sweetbread. That and a cup of coffee goes down mighty fine.” Harvey squeezed his shoulder before he headed back to be neighborly with Murdoch.
Johnny gripped the coin and slipped it into his pocket. He’d use his money for the round of drinks and keep the gold piece for luck. It seemed Lady Luck had already smiled on him once. Who would have thought Johnny Madrid, infamous gunfighter, could be part of a place like this, own a third of Lancer, and partner with men like his father and brother. If he died tomorrow, protecting them and all this, how much better than dying in the street trying to keep the name of Madrid on top. But Johnny Lancer, what if he had a reputation for better reasons than being a fast gun?
“I’m telling you right now, Val Crawford, if even one…” Marlin Thompson held up a single finger and then used the same digit to push on the silver star pinned to Val’s chest before he continued. “… gold piece is missing from this bank, I’ll make it my personal mission to make sure you never wear a star again, not only in Green River but in any town or city in California.”
“Now, Mr. Thompson.” Johnny couldn’t help himself. The old Madrid ways took over sometimes and surfaced like dirt stirred up in a clear stream. And this small-minded fool attacking his friend who planned to put his life on the line for him, well, he stirred up the mean of Madrid. Johnny leaned against the wall, casually placing himself between Thompson and Val.
The Sheriff stared down his nose at the smart-mouthed banker’s finger, and Johnny figured his buddy was about one finger push away from rearranging the man’s face. So Johnny used his quiet voice, the one that caught the attention of most men. “The way I see this, you’ve got two choices. You can let Val do his job, or you can stay here and handle this on your own. And, knowing the Adams boys and Blake McCoy like I do, well, Mr. Thompson, you been going to church regular? Got all your affairs in order. I always feel better at a funeral when I know a man’s took time to set everything right.” Then Johnny straightened and dusted his hands off; he looked at Val and said, “Come on, Crawford, I’ll buy you breakfast. Good luck, Mr. Thompson.” Johnny glanced out the window. “There’s Murdoch and Scott; we’ll have them join us.” He stuck his hand out. “Nice to have known you.”
“Bye, Thompson.” Val brushed his fingers over the tin star to remove any sign of where the man had touched the shiny metal. Then he politely tipped his hat and headed toward the door.
“WAIT!” Thompson almost screamed the word. “You won’t leave me alone to defend the bank?”
Both men turned, and Johnny gave Thompson a puzzled look. “Did I misunderstand? Could have sworn you threatened my friend, the Sheriff here, and him planning to help you.”
“I’m sorry, Crawford. All this robbery talk, it has me nervous. No, I didn’t mean a word Mr. Madrid; I mean Lancer. I trust you all implicitly. Here, you take the keys. Is there anything else you need?” Thompson handed a large key-ring to Val, grabbed a gray bowler hat, shakily put it on his head, and looking around once more; he almost ran out the door.
“Johnny, you scared the life out of that man. All those threats about me wearing this didn’t mean anything.” Val took his star off and put it in his pocket. “Best put it out of sight anyway.”
“I know, Val, but it doesn’t make it right for him to bad-mouth you, not when you’re putting your life on the line. I thought he ought to think about how it might feel without anyone to defend his bank.”
“Well, you made him think he’d die without help.”
The door opened before Val could say more. When his family entered, Johnny’s belly did a flip flop. This time his gun would protect people he loved and money that served HIS community.
Murdoch’s arm had snaked around Scott’s shoulder. “Son, are you ready?”
His brother smiled, his face untroubled, free of the regret that had clouded it since Glory left. Had Scott and Murdoch talked over breakfast or even last night on the hotel’s porch? Perhaps his mood had to do with Camilla’s whispers or the excitement of the job. Johnny had known men who craved danger; hell, he knew the feeling himself. The fired-up energy from surviving dangerous jobs became addictive. Could it be that he and his brother shared a desire for danger? And Murdoch too? Surely they hadn’t inherited some fatal flaw, an addiction to danger. He’d never retire Madrid if that were the case.
“Sorry, Murdoch, what did you say?”
“Let’s fix your tie. The bank’s due to open in twenty minutes.”
“What’s wrong with my tie?”
His father tilted his head sideways. “Not how a professional banker might have tied his knot.”
“Here, let me, Little Brother.” Johnny closed his eyes while his father and brother messed with the new suit and tie. He’d like nothing better than to rip off the jacket, pull that strip of cloth out from under his collar, roll up his white shirt sleeves, find a quiet corner, and wait for the Adams Gang. But he planned to go along with Val’s plan. At least it had worked out without him sweeping sidewalks.
“Now, that’s perfect.” His father patted his lapels and stood back to admire his work.
“Whatever you say.” Johnny tried to look down but couldn’t see his collar or a thing different about his clothes. “Let’s do this.”
“If you Lancers have finished primping, we should go to our places. The bank opens now.” Val took Marlin’s keys and unlocked the front door. Luckily, no customers waited to enter, and the streets remained quiet.
If the Arby Adams Gang came in with guns blazing, it would almost be a relief. At least he’d have something to do besides counting the same coins over and over. Johnny Madrid Lancer couldn’t remember a job this boring. What’s more, every damn time he moved his head the tiniest bit upward, Val, Scott, or Murdoch reminded him to keep counting those flipping coins. Maybe it wasn’t too late to change jobs; sweeping the streets might be a relief. At least out there, three mother hens wouldn’t be watching him, afraid he’d get his head blown off if he looked up.
Murdoch and Scott passed the time looking at maps his father brought from the assayer’s office. They went on and on about this stream and those headwaters, that tract of land, how we should buy this, and all the fencing still needed on Lancer land. That sounded depressing. All the while, his eyes began to cross, pushing and counting the same eighteen coins back and forth across the countertop. He’d even started counting scratches and imagining faces in the streaks of the wood grain. One looked exactly like Marilee Harper, crooked nose and all.
Val turned back a few customers and got some cash for Morgan Clark and his boys. Heading out of town, they needed it for a cattle buying trip. Murdoch recorded it all in a ledger for Thompson.
Val took them out the back door, explaining the Adams Gang might be in the area. Johnny didn’t dare look up but yelled out before they left, “You should take the south road out of town and head up to Cross Creek by the falls. They won’t know that trail.”
“Great idea, Johnny. Now you boys be careful carrying that much cash.” Val sent them on their way and started on him again. “Head down, Johnny!”
“I know, I know.”
“No. For real. They’re here.” Val lay his hand on Johnny’s neck, squeezed him fondly, and then moved quickly to the shadowed corner.
Johnny propped his elbow on the counter and leaned into his hand. Fingers over his eyes, he spread them enough to keep an eye on every move those bad hombres might make.
The door opened; Rafe led the way, followed by Roland. They were so dirty; Johnny could smell them. Blake McCoy and old Arby came ambling in last, acting all cocky and mean. McCoy had his thumb in his gun belt with his palm near the grip of his six-shooter. Arby must have thought the cigar hanging in his teeth made him appear meaner, but when no one noticed them, he slammed the door, making sure to get attention. Scott and Murdoch looked up, but Johnny kept counting coins. When he saw Roland head his way, he eased his right hand below the counter but kept his face shielded from view with open fingers of his left, still pretending to concentrate on the money before him.
“You there. Open the safe and hand over the money.” Roland had his gun out, and sure enough, as Val predicted, he planned to stick it right in Johnny’s nose.
Before the man finished his sentence, Johnny had his colt at Roland’s mouth. “I don’t think so.” As he said it, he heard Murdoch and Scott cock their weapons.
Val came from the shadows with his pistol in his hand. “Drop your weapons.” Pulling the tin star from his pocket, he used his left hand and pinned it on his vest.
Arby shifted behind McCoy, maybe for cover, and lifted his sidearm.
“Don’t do it.” Scott stepped sideways and had his rifle sighted in on Arby.
Glancing over, Johnny saw Arby freeze at Scott’s command. To a man, the others looked at their leader as if he might know a way out of this mess.
Arby shrugged his shoulders. “So this was a set-up. You’ll all be sorry. I’ll make every one of you pay.” He gave the evil eye to Scott first and then made sure to share it with all of them. When the outlaw’s eyes landed on him, Johnny saw surprise in them. He talked big but still let go of his gun, which hit the floor, a signal for the rest of the gang.
One word broke the sound of the other weapons dropping to the polished tile floor. “Madrid?” Blake McCoy still held his Colt Forty-Five. The fool couldn’t have thought through the craziness of his next move. His hate must have overpowered any sense the man had, for instead of dropping his gun, McCoy pointed it straight at Johnny. Five guns fired at once, and Blake McCoy crumpled to the floor.
All eyes turned to Johnny, who had fired and had his gun again pointed back at Roland. He didn’t dare move, not until Val had the sidearms gathered and he had this gang headed to Green River’s jail. What’s more, Johnny had no intention of giving the Adams Gang the pleasure of knowing Blake McCoy’s bullet had hit home.
Val used one of the bank’s money sacks to gather all the weapons while the Lancers kept them covered. He searched the gang and added a few hide-a-ways and knives to his pile. “Thank you all. I’ll send the undertaker and Thompson over, and he can open or close the place, whatever he wants. And I’m buying lunch over at Camilla’s––half an hour.”
“Val, do you need help with the prisoners?” Scott offered.
“Naw. Andy’s headed this way. See him there? Musta heard the gunfire.” Val nodded at the window, and Andy rushing toward the bank.
“Sounds good. We’ll see you at Camilla’s.” Murdoch waved Val and the gang out the door. He and Scott congratulated each other and came to Johnny’s counter.
“John, Scott, I’m proud of you. You boys were right. We did our civic duty, helped the town and the Adams Gang will no longer harm the people of this valley.”
“We did, didn’t we, Johnny?” Scott patted him on the back.
“Murdoch.” Maybe he needed to say it louder. Or it could be Scott would hear him.
Johnny gripped the edge of the counter to stay upright. Now the gang had left; he could let go. Only the tile; Johnny didn’t want to bang his head on that hard floor. “Murdoch, Scott, please.” He wasn’t sure who caught him, but he never hit the floor.
“Where’s he hit?”
Hands pulled at his coat and shirt. “Don’t-think-it’s-too bad.” Johnny breathed the words trying to move the worry off his Old Man’s face.
“Why didn’t you tell us, Boy?” Scott took off his coat and pressed it into his side.
“Didn’t-want-them-to-know.” Johnny hoped they understood.
“Let’s take him to Doc’s.” Murdoch picked him up and headed to the door.
“Your back. Let me.”
“I-can-walk.” Johnny’s world tilted and spun as his father carried him down the street. He hoped no one saw Murdoch lugging him around like a kid.
“No, Son. It’s only a couple doors down.”
Scott beat on the door and then opened it. Sam came from the back and rushed them to a room with a small bed. Johnny remembered drinking a glass of water that tasted bitter and the heat of something called carbolic just before closing his eyes. Then Sam started poking and digging. Pressing his lips together, he determined he would not cry out, but he did, and then nothing else, blackness, everything just went black.
Johnny’s mouth felt like it had the time he and Val got pinned down in a gunfight near Yuma. They shared a canteen of water between them for almost two days. Johnny finally took out the sharpshooter, and Val worked his way behind two other hombres. They’d both been bleeding from flesh wounds and were mighty thirsty when they reached the water hole that night.
Thirsty and hurting, lying in the dark, Johnny could almost imagine crawling to that stream for a sip of water. A moan must have slipped out. Someone moved to the side of his bed.
“Johnny.” Scott’s hand touched his cheek, then his forehead.
“What?” Damn, his voice came out rough. Johnny tried to lick his lips but had no moisture in his mouth. “Water.”
Someone’s hand lifted his head, and a glass touched his lips. Almost as much ran down the side of his face and neck as he managed to swallow. But he didn’t much care.
Scott wiped it up. “Sorry. How do you feel?” His brother kept dabbing at the water, but his eyes were on him.
“I’m fine. Just dry. Everyone else okay?”
Scott moved so Johnny could see Murdoch and Val sitting in a couple of Sam’s upholstered chairs. His Old Man’s chest moved up and down as he snored quietly, and Val’s sagging mouth quivered with each breath he took. Both men were sound asleep.
“So you’re stuck with keeping watch?” Johnny stretched his neck toward the corner where Sam kept a case clock. It was too dark to make out the time.
“It’s a little past one.” Scott checked his pocket watch, tilting it toward the lantern burning low on the side table.
“How bad?” Johnny rubbed his bandaged side.
“Sam got the bullet out before the drugs had you completely unconscious. You lost a lot of blood, hence the thirst.” Scott brought the water glass back to his mouth.
Johnny took another few sips. “Thanks.”
“Tender?” Scott pushed his hand away from touching the bandage.
One of the chairs creaked from behind Scott, and Murdoch’s face came into view. “John. You’re awake.” His father moved to the other side of the cot and sat down on it.
When Murdoch started brushing his hair back from his forehead, Johnny knew it was his way of checking for fever. “I’m fine. No fever.” A nervous laugh and a kind of sweet smile, an unusual combination from his Father, made Johnny squeeze his Old Man’s hand for just an instant. When he looked at his brother, Scott had a silly kind of half-smile on his face.
“No fever,” Scott confirmed. “I just checked him.”
“He’s awake!” Val leaned in next to Scott. “How you feeling, kid?”
“Not too bad for the middle of the night. Being you three are keeping me up, and I’m missing my beauty sleep.”
“Aw, you been sleeping all day and half the night. Scared ten years off me and your family too. Why didn’t you say something?”
“I didn’t want them to know McCoy’s bullet got me. Did they find out?”
“I figured it was something like that. I ain’t even been back to the jail since I came, saw the blood, and ran over here.” Val patted Johnny’s leg through the multi-colored quilt. “I’m headed back over to relieve Andy in a bit. They won’t find out from me. No one won’t see the Adams but me and him; not ’till Monday when they transport ’em to Sacramento for trial.”
Johnny let out a sigh of relief. What a day, and as he studied the faces of these men he cared about, he figured Lady Luck had smiled on him again. They had all survived, and his community had too. “Bet the Arby Adams Gang wishes they’d never come to Green River.”
“I’m sure glad YOU did, Johnny,” Val said. “You too, Scott, Murdoch. Don’t think I could have handled this without you, Lancers.”
“Thank you for your help.” Val stuck his hand out and shook each of the Lancers, taking Johnny’s last, holding it in both hands. “Amigo.” Val hesitated as if searching for more words. But when Johnny nodded, Val snuffed his nose, wiped his eyes on his Sunday-best coat sleeve, and left the small doctor’s office, probably needing to relieve Andy.
Johnny couldn’t help the lump in his throat. Maybe catching that bullet hadn’t been the luckiest thing, but Lady Luck smiled on him in more than one way. A year ago, when rotting in a Mexican prison, he thought his life might be over.
As he closed his eyes, his brother squeezed his fingers, and once again, a father’s hand rested on his forehead. Not only had he been saved from a firing squad, but Johnny finally found family, friends, and home.
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