Word count 7,921
Johnny held his breath in the dark.
There was no doubt about it; someone was in his bedroom.
His heart started doing a double thumping in his chest, so loud he figured the herd grazing in the north pasture could hear it.
A hint of stale pipe tobacco tickled his nose but he managed to lie still on his back and make it look like he was asleep, even though his blankets and quilt felt like an anvil on his chest.
Who was he kidding? It wasn’t his bedclothes crushing him. It was the damned guilt that had been eating away at him ever since they got back from Cedar Canyon.
Sure, Scott and him both mumbled how they were sorry that night, standing there in the prison bunkhouse, holding lanterns, as Murdoch wrapped the body of Billy Kells in canvas to take him back to town. It was hard not to wince with Ox rocking back and forth on the floor and wailing like the air was being sucked clear out of his lungs.
But hell, he’d learned back in border towns that ‘sorry’ could be as helpful as a lace handkerchief in a dust storm. More often than not, there was no going back. Like Murdoch said, what’s done is done.
Only Murdoch wasn’t getting much sleep—and neither was Johnny.
This was the second night Murdoch had come into his room. Last night, Johnny had almost reached for the gun under his pillow when he came in. Then he half woke, sat straight up and probably blinked like a barnyard owl, thinking maybe he’d slept in.
“Murdoch?” Only he soon saw it was dark and quiet as a graveyard and Murdoch was standing near his door with a spluttering candle about to go out.
“Go back to sleep, Johnny. I was just…checking.”
“Sure, Murdoch.” After a day digging fencepost holes and stringing wire yesterday, he was too damned tired to do anything more than plop back onto his pillows.
But come morning, the incident came back to him like one of those hazy, half-forgotten dreams as he slid into his seat at the breakfast table.
He’d forked a couple of pancakes onto his plate before shooting Murdoch a quick sideways peep. What in blazes was his old man checking last night?
And now, here was Murdoch, prowling around the hacienda again the second night, doing more of his checking.
Even with his eyes closed, he could feel Murdoch’s mountain looming over him, then the floor creaked over near the door, hinges squeaked—and he was gone.
Johnny sat up. Dios. He scrubbed his face with his hand. What was he supposed to do? Murdoch’s insides were twisting like a sheet in the wind. He saw it in the long silences at breakfast and the half eaten plates at supper these last few days. Scott said they had to leave him be. Let him work it out. “Hadn’t they done enough already?” he said.
But Scott didn’t have Murdoch in his room two nights in a row, like he was checking Johnny hadn’t lit out and headed for the border.
And Scott sure didn’t know a lot of the blame for everything that had happened lay at Johnny’s door.
The ancient rooster by the henhouse had been croaking his dawn call before Johnny’s eyes finally closed, so the first thing he did was head straight for the coffee pot on the sideboard, the next morning.
Scott looked around. “No idea. He must’ve got up early.”
Johnny eyed Scott. “He seem a little…?” He picked up the coffee pot and looked for the word he wanted.
“Yeah, that’s it. He seem that way to you?” He poured his coffee—and managed to spill three big drops on the new doy-lee thing Teresa bought last week in Green River. The lacy white cloth was meant to cover up the years of scorch marks the coffee pot left on the polished wood.
“He’s got a lot on his mind. Murdoch found out yesterday the prison board intends to have an inquest.”
Johnny replaced the coffee pot so that it hid the stain; best he could do for now until he could get to Green River. She was gonna be mad. “An inquest?” He grimaced. “Leech and that stiff-necked Stafford woman never saw eye to eye with Murdoch.”
Scott looked across at him then went back to work, cutting up his bacon into neat squares.
Johnny eyed Scott’s plate as he sat down. “You planning on stitching a patchwork quilt with those?”
“Don’t know why you’re wasting that energy when you could just put the whole piece in your mouth.” He grinned, skewered a piece of bacon with his fork and did just that. Only his chewing slowed as his mouth went dry and the bacon started to stick in his throat. “You think they’ll want us to testify?”
“I don’t know. I don’t see why.” Scott pointed with his fork to the plate of eggs and bacon that sat between them on the table. “Eat up. We’ve got more fencepost holes to dig today.”
Only now, the thought of bacon and eggs made his gut churn. Dios, testifying at an inquest? He didn’t know why he hadn’t told Murdoch everything he said to Billy at the well. No, that wasn’t true; he just didn’t want Murdoch to know that he knew why Murdoch was doing all this fancy model prison stuff.
He hadn’t even told Scott what he said. But he remembered that whole conversation with Billy; he’d been hearing it in his head for days.
He picked up his coffee and blew on it…he remembered they’d both wanted coffee while they waited up on the ridge at Cedar Canyon but didn’t dare light a fire to draw attention to themselves.
It was quiet down below, that night in the prison camp. Scott kept saying they should go down. And he’d told Scott they might bust up Murdoch’s plan.
“Circle around,” Scott said.
Heck, even now, Johnny didn’t know if what they did was wrong or right?
But he gave in. Circle around they did.
It was cooler down there on the canyon floor after the heat of the day up top. Johnny made his way through the Juniper bushes and what do you know, he managed to circle right into Billy Kells, drawing water at the well. There was no going back, now. Kells had seen him.
Johnny wandered in and put his rifle down, figuring that’s what Murdoch would want, seeing as he’d sent all the guards away.
“I’m Murdoch’s kid. The name’s Johnny.”
Everything looked quiet enough. And Billy was good at playing it cool, Johnny had to give him that. He just said he was getting water for the evening meal. There was nothing in what he said or how he talked that had Johnny guessing Billy was planning to vamoose with Murdoch in tow.
So they got talking and Johnny told Billy how he used to play around border towns. “All I had was a gun and I was hell bent for nowhere.”
At first he didn’t think Billy was gonna believe him. After all, Murdoch was a fine upstanding rancher, what would a man like him be doing with a wayward son?
So he told Billy some more—and Billy sounded real curious when Johnny told him how he used to live. “Funny, he didn’t tell us about that.”
And then he spilled it; told Billy the very thing that had been eating at him all day while they watched Murdoch from up on the ridge. “I feel kinda responsible. I feel if he didn’t have a kid to pull back on that straight road he wouldn’t have got mixed up in all this.”
And what was wrong in wanting Billy to know what kind of man Murdoch was? Billy needed to know why Murdoch did what he did. Hell, it had taken Johnny far too long to find out that Murdoch was a good man.
Once they got back to Lancer the next morning after the shooting, Murdoch listened to him and Scott in silence as they shuffled their feet—well, Johnny did the shuffling—and told him why they’d kept watch at Cedar Canyon. But when it got to his turn to tell Murdoch what he’d said to Billy at the well, the words just kind of stuck in his throat. Johnny never liked lying. It wasn’t his style. But for some reason, under that stare of Murdoch’s, he just couldn’t tell him everything he’d said.
It had been a heck of a lot easier to talk to Billy.
And now it had come down to this, that maybe he’d have to tell a room full of strangers the very thing he hadn’t been able to tell his own father.
Johnny put his cup down.
“Are you going to eat? Johnny?”
When he looked up, Scott was staring at him across the table.
He strained his smile through a sieve. “Looks like the coffee filled me up.”
He almost had Barranca saddled when Scott came out. He had a calico wrapped parcel in his hand.
“Teresa said to give you this.”
Johnny took it and slipped it into his saddlebag. He might not be hungry now but after an hour or two of work his belly would be hankering for food. Only lately, everything tasted like sawdust.
Scott went to the stall next door. Johnny could hear him saddling up. “You know, I’m not happy about how things turned out either, Johnny.”
Johnny paused as he tightened the girth strap. “I just wish…” He made a fist and beat it softly against his saddle a few times.
“Yeah, me too.” Scott sighed, and it was the sort of sigh that echoed everything Johnny was feeling.
“We should’ve trusted Murdoch, Scott.”
“Oh, I had plenty of faith in Murdoch.”
Johnny wheeled Barranca around and led him out of the stall, meeting Scott at the opening.
“Johnny, for all we know, it might have been Murdoch we were burying instead of Billy Kells—and I know which one I’d rather. Maybe with this inquest, we’ll finally hear the real truth.”
Johnny tugged his ear. “Yep.” He dropped his hat on his head then led Barranca out into the sunlight.
They both mounted up. They’d left their tools and posts and wire where they’d finished working yesterday. As much as he hated the work it was exactly what he needed to do right now. Working his body until it was so sore he could barely stand was about the only thing that gave him peace the last few days.
Scott took up his reins. “You know what Murdoch says about regret.”
Johnny squinted across at him. “Nope, but I got a feeling you’re about to tell me.”
“He says there’s no room for regret if you did your best. Johnny, we did our best. And so did Murdoch.”
But that didn’t make it any easier for a man to get up and butter his bread each day.
“You sure you don’t want me to dig?”
Johnny had his shirt off. He could feel the sweat trickling down his back. They’d been at it for most of the morning. He paused, resting his arm on the handle of his spade. “Nope.”
“I can’t let you have all the fun, brother.”
Scott looked hot, too. He’d soaked a bandana in water and tied it around his neck but he still wore his shirt.
Johnny looked around. It was satisfying to see the row of poles stretched out in a straight line, waiting to be strung with wire.
He pushed the spade into the dirt one more time and flicked a pile of dirt out.
Scott ducked but still had to brush some dirt from his shirt. “That’s what I get for being thoughtful.”
Johnny slapped him in the stomach with the back of his gloved hand. “Nope, that’s what you get for asking to help when I’ve almost finished digging. Come on, you can help put the post in.” He stuck a crowbar into the hole he’d just finished digging to loosen the dirt, pulling it out as Scott dropped the post in.
“Hold it still, Johnny.” Scott had the mallet in his hand. He swung hard, driving the post further into the hole. Johnny could sense it gripping the dirt on either side.
“A couple more swings oughtta do it.”
Now that he was standing still, Johnny could feel the waves of tiredness he’d been keeping at bay all morning start to take hold. Scott hammered again and Johnny closed his eyes. Somewhere a bird chirped and the wind rustled the leaves of the big oak tree. Scott swung again and the pole stuck solid. Now they’d only have to fill in the dirt either side to fill the hole and make it really secure.
“That’ll do.” He opened his eyes—just as the mallet came down on his thumb. “Damn it all, Scott.” He tore off his heavy work glove and stuck his thumb in his mouth and glared. “What was that for? I said we’d finished.”
“I was already swinging when you said it,” snapped Scott. “What was your hand doing on the post?”
Johnny took his thumb out of his mouth. “Because we’d finished, that’s why.”
“If I’m the one doing the swinging, then we don’t finish until I say we’re finished.”
“Who made you the boss?”
“Why can’t you ever follow orders!”
Johnny put his thumb back in his mouth and stomped across to where the horses were grazing in the shade of the oak.
By the time Scott came across he was leaning against the trunk with his sandwiches and canteen in his lap.
“How’s your hand?”
Johnny looked at it. “It’s okay. You just grazed my thumb a little. I’ll still be able to knock you down with it.” He sighed and the anger drained out of him with the breath. He grinned up at Scott, then bit off a chunk of his sandwich. “Anyway, I did a damn fool thing.” He chewed some more. “My hand shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
“I’m sorry, Johnny. It’s my fault, too.”
Johnny laughed. “Well, look at us. Aren’t we a pair. Who would’ve thought we could be so mannerly.” He chuckled again.
“Not Murdoch, probably.” Scott grinned, getting his own lunch out before sitting down next to Johnny.
Johnny flexed his hand a few times. His thumb was throbbing and already feeling a little stiff but nothing a couple of days wouldn’t fix.
Scott took a swig from his canteen. “I pulled back. Saw your hand was there at the last second and I pulled back.” He took a bite of his own beef sandwich but he’d barely chewed before he exploded. “Damn-it-all, I wish Murdoch had just yelled at us—or showed some sort of anger.”
Johnny raised his brows. So he wasn’t the only one feeling like this.
Scott was shaking his head. “His being so understanding is much harder to take. I expected Murdoch to have our heads on a plate.”
“I know.” Even to his own ears, Johnny sounded glum.
“I don’t get it. We interfered and possibly made things worse. So why hasn’t he given us one of his lectures?”
“Relief that he’s still alive? Or maybe that we’re still alive? It could have gone either way.”
Johnny shrugged. “Take your pick.” Only he really didn’t think it was either of those things.
They chewed in silence for a while. Scott leaned his head back against the tree trunk and Johnny did the same and closed his eyes.
“What did he say to us?” he heard Scott say. “‘Can’t you just pretend to be obedient sons?’”
Johnny winced. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to be obedient but it was hard to explain to Murdoch that the thought of something happening to him—. Hell, not when they were finally all together again. “I guess we knew he’d be sore.” Johnny hadn’t been looking forward to explaining all that.
“We just didn’t know everything was going to blow up in front of our faces.”
“Scott, I should’ve warned him when he left for Cedar Canyon. I saw that bunch.” He’d seen the slip-away looks on the faces of every convict in the wagon that first morning; the look that told his gut not to trust them. Not with Murdoch’s life.
“Do you think he would have listened?”
Johnny picked up a stray acorn and threw it. “I figured I’d just be barking at a knot.”
“You and me both, brother. How often have we heard Murdoch talk about trust?”
“Yeah, he waves the word around like it’s the answer to everything. But it’s one thing for Murdoch to offer Billy and the others a new start. The thing is, they had to be wanting it for themselves.”
They’d have to shut out the voice that told them they were no damned good and forget all the years that taught them you had to do it to them before they did it to you.
“What makes you think Murdoch didn’t know that?”
Johnny squinted across at Scott. “You think we’ll ever understand him?”
Scott’s mouth twisted into a smile. “Not even close.”
The inquest was the following day. Murdoch was being extra nice to them and it made him and Scott edgy. “The lull before the storm,” Scott mouthed to him that morning at breakfast when Murdoch had looked away.
Johnny had tried to find some time to talk to Murdoch. He had to tell him what he’d said to Billy at the well! He’d planned to say something last night but Nate Benedict had come out to Lancer and stayed the night. The candles were burning low and they were still jawing away about old times when Johnny stifled his tenth yawn and stood up and said goodnight.
And Mr Benedict was there at breakfast and Jelly was there at the barn and Teresa was there in the kitchen…
Murdoch and Nate, as he told Johnny to call him, were taking the buggy into town. Scott was already mounted and Nate was sitting in the buggy when Murdoch realised he’d left his jacket inside. Johnny stared after him. Was this his moment? It was the only chance Johnny had had all morning so he dropped his reins and followed Murdoch inside. Murdoch had a long stride and he was already at the table by the time Johnny caught up with him.
Murdoch was feeling through his pockets. “I’m sure I had my wallet in here.”
“Um…Murdoch I had something…”
“There it is, on the table.” Murdoch swung around and picked it up, then quickly checked inside to see what money he had. “Good, that should do it.” He started to walk back out.
Johnny didn’t know whether to be relieved or—.
“I’m sorry, Johnny.” Murdoch had stopped and turned on a dime. “Did you want to say something?”
Murdoch didn’t speak like he was rushing to get out to the buggy. He put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and looked straight into his eyes with a kind look, like he had all the time in the world. “Is something troubling you, John?”
Johnny met his look and swallowed. “Murdoch, I never told you…” He couldn’t hold Murdoch’s gaze so he dropped his eyes. “I just wanted to say that I never told you…” And now that he was here, he wasn’t quite sure where to begin.
He clenched his fist. “I never told you that…well, that Scott and I are real proud of what you did up at Cedar Canyon. Whichever way this goes, we support what you did.”
Murdoch’s face softened even more. “That means a great deal to me, Johnny.”
“Well, we just thought you oughtta know that.”
“Murdoch, are you coming? We’ll be late,” Scott yelled from outside.
Murdoch clapped a hand about his shoulder. “Come on, we’ve got Scott calling the tune out there.”
The prison board had chosen a private dining room at the Green River Hotel for the inquest. At least that was better than the saloon. Every busybody in town wouldn’t be able to stick their nose in.
Even still, when they walked inside, there were plenty of people crowding in. They’d taken out the tables and set the chairs in three rows. The top of the room was set up like a court with a table for a judge and a chair next to him, where anyone giving evidence would sit. Johnny had been in enough courtrooms that his hands felt sticky just walking in there.
Murdoch, Scott and Mr Benedict all wore ties and jackets. Murdoch had frowned at Johnny’s usual blue shirt, open at the neck, as they’d headed out the door after breakfast, but Johnny had shrugged. “You know me, Murdoch, I only wear ties at weddings and funerals.”
“His own,” jibed Scott as he walked past.
There was no laughing now, though, as he and Scott undid their gun belts and left them on the table by the door. Murdoch wasn’t wearing one. They then took seats in the front row, removing their hats as they sat down. Johnny found himself between Murdoch and Scott.
Leech and the Stafford woman were sitting to their left. They were civil enough when Murdoch came in and shook hands with them and the other prison board members but when Jordan and Bowman brought in Ox and Richie he could almost see their noses turn up as if they’d just passed an overflowing outhouse.
Everyone stood when the coroner came in. They’d brought him from Sacramento to hear the case. His hair was greying but still covered his head. Mind you, he was so thin he looked like he’d be more comfortable with the dead instead of the living. There was no jury. They’d save that for the murder trial.
Johnny had heard Nate telling Murdoch there was a lot of interest in the case and that some big bugs from as far away as San Francisco had been wanting to come, but Nate convinced the prison board it wasn’t in their best interests to advertise their trial prison farm until they heard the coroner’s verdict, so he managed to stop it from being a public affair.
The coroner, Dr Edwin Blakely, cleared his throat. “Let us begin, gentleman.” He peered over his glasses. “We’re here to investigate the death of William Henry Kells at the Experimental Prison Farm that was erected at Cedar Canyon on land belonging to Mr Murdoch Lancer. Does anyone dispute these facts?”
No-one said a thing so the judge droned on some more. Johnny only half listened. He was too busy wondering if Murdoch and Scott had the same mules kicking them in the stomach like he did? Was this inquest gonna decide whose fault it was that Billy Kells was dead?
“Joseph Howard, come and take the stand.”
Ox walked up to the table like a bear ambling about the woods on an afternoon walk, only when you looked at his face he already had beads of sweat on his forehead, and his mouth was opening and closing like a fish about to take its last gasp.
“I believe you’re the prisoner referred to in my notes as ‘Ox.’”
Ox looked at the coroner like the man was trying to trick him.
“Do they call you, Ox?”
Finally Ox nodded. His face kind of shrank in, making it look like he was about to blubber.
“Please tell me, in your own words, what happened the night William Henry Kells was shot and killed.”
Ox opened his mouth—but nothing came out.
“Mr Howard, we simply want to hear, in your own words, as much as you can remember,” the coroner prompted. He sounded business-like but not unkind.
“You want me to make him talk, Dr Blakely?” It was Jordan, the same prison guard who’d been at the farm. Johnny knew the type. Oh yeah, he’d enjoy making a prisoner talk. He probably had a whole arsenal of tricks up his sleeve for that very purpose. “I know how, sir.”
The coroner stared at Jordan but before he could speak Richie, the one who Murdoch had made the cook, stood up. “Ox don’t mean nothin’ Doc. He ain’t too smart in the head. He hasn’t been the same since that night.”
The coroner peered over his spectacles. “And you would be?”
Richie squished his cap in his hands. “Richie, I mean Richard Sawyer, sir.”
The coroner looked at his notes again. Johnny’s gut started to churn. He looked across at Murdoch. His old man’s face was set like granite.
“Come up here, boy.” He flicked a hand in Ox’s direction. “You’re dismissed.”
Ox just stared at the coroner without moving. Jordan headed in his direction but Richie was quicker and grabbed Ox by the arm and made him stand then pushed him back in the direction of his seat.
The coroner aimed a beady eye at Richie. “This isn’t a trial but you’re still under oath to speak the truth. Do you understand that, Mr Sawyer?”
Johnny’s hands were sweating now. He caught Murdoch giving him a sideways frown and realised his boot heal was beating a tattoo on the wooden floor. He took a deep breath and sat still.
Richie looked across at the judge then he started talking in a low voice, staring at the floor. He told how Billy said they should get out while they had the chance, once Mr Lancer had Bowman and Jordan and the other guard leave the prison farm.
He looked across at Murdoch. “I didn’t wanna go at first. You were real good to us, Mr Lancer. I told Billy that. I was even kind of happy there.” He scrunched his cap some more. It was just as well where he was going, he wouldn’t be needing a cap for some time.
The coroner nodded. “Go on, son.” He was looking mighty interested now.
Richie put his head down again. “A little while later, Ox came up to Billy. He said Mr Lancer had lied. That there were two guards up on the ridge.”
Johnny didn’t move. He kept his eyes on Richie but his mouth was dryer than a desert that hadn’t seen rain for a year.
“I told them both that Mr Lancer had two sons. That I’d heard Bowman and Jordan say so, but Billy, well he just didn’t want to hear it. He said it just proved that Mr Lancer had been lying all along.”
Johnny wanted to look at Scott so bad, but he didn’t. Was Scott wanting to cut and run, like Johnny did right now?
Richie gave Ox a quick glance then he destroyed his cap some more. “Billy told us we’d have to shoot’em if they tried to stop us. I said I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. So he told Ox he’d have to.” Richie stopped scrunching his hat and looked at the coroner. “Ox didn’t want to either. Honest he didn’t. But Billy could talk a man into shooting his own mother. He told Ox he’d never told him to do anything that wasn’t right for him and…so Ox took the gun.” He finished in a voice they could hardly hear.
“Speak up, boy,” the coroner said sharply.
Richie was shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have listened. I shoulda just told Billy to go to hell but he was always so mad about everyone and everything.”
“What happened next?”
“Billy made Ox put Mr Lancer in a stranglehold and knocked him out. Then Billy tied him up and told me and Ox to go get some food from the storehouse.”
“What was Mr Kells doing while you went to the storehouse.”
Richie scrunched his face. “He said he was going outside to check on things. I guess he wanted to see if he could see the gunmen.”
“While we were in the storeroom, I saw someone go into the office where we’d tied up Mr Lancer. It didn’t look like Bowman or Jordan. Whoever it was, he was untying Mr Lancer, so I figured it must be one of his sons. I showed Ox what was happening. The thing is, we could see real clear because of the light in the office, just couldn’t see the man’s face. Ox, well, he took the gun and—.”
Johnny nearly jumped in his chair. Ox was moaning like he was about to die.
“Quiet, Mr Howard. Quiet.” Blakely could have been talking to the man on the moon for all the good it did, so Jordan went across and slapped Ox across the face with his open hand and sure enough, Ox shut up. There were a few gasps from some of the women in the seats behind him. Johnny could see the red mark the slap left on Ox’s cheek. Jordan was a piece of work, all right.
“He took the gun and what?” the coroner was asking.
Probably no-one moved but Johnny felt like the whole room had leaned forward to hear better.
“He took out the gun and fired. Once, then twice. When we ran across we saw Billy in Mr Lancer’s arms and there was blood everywhere. I couldn’t believe it. Neither could Ox. Mr Lancer laid Billy on the floor. Mr Lancer looked pretty shocked as well.”
“Was Mr Kells dead?”
Richie swallowed. “He said, ‘misfits’ then said, ‘dumb Ox,’ and that was it. I told Mr Lancer I thought it was one of his sons who was untying him and Mr Lancer said, ‘For a minute, so did I.’”
Johnny closed his eyes. It sure wasn’t Scott who Murdoch had been thinking about when he agreed to man the prison farm.
Murdoch was the next to give evidence. The coroner didn’t seem too impressed with him telling the prison guards to leave. He asked Murdoch if he’d considered that maybe Kells would never have had the idea to escape if he’d been properly imprisoned. He told Murdoch the guards were as much about the prisoners’ protection as they were about preventing them escaping. Murdoch was still wearing his poker face but Johnny could see the words hit him hard. He wanted to tell Murdoch he hadn’t met a prison guard yet who was interested in protecting prisoners.
“These were not hardened criminals,” Murdoch said, speaking real quiet. “They were first-time offenders. We—Mr Benedict and I—wanted to treat them with respect. To give them a chance to think about their choices in life and encourage them to think better of themselves.”
“It would appear William Kells didn’t share your rosy view of his future.”
Murdoch clasped his hands together. “I tried to encourage him. I told him that if a man wants to, and tries hard enough,” and his eyes somehow found Johnny’s, “he can find his way back.”
“And yet, he did come back and untie you. He had apparently changed his mind. Why was that, Mr Lancer?”
“I think he realised I was telling the truth. That I had, in fact, sent the guards away. I discovered later that he’d spoken to one of my sons and that led Kells to believe I hadn’t lied. He’d come back to untie me,” Murdoch finished, with a heavy voice. And it was clear, in spite of Murdoch having done his very best, regret had a hold of him as well.
“What happened next, Mr Lancer?”
Murdoch’s expression became even grimmer, if that was possible. “He’d just untied me. There were two shots. Both bullets took Kells in the back.”
The rest of his account was the same as Richie’s and the coroner thanked Murdoch and asked him to step down. Johnny gave him a nod and Nate patted him on the back as he sat back in his chair. “Good work, Murdoch,” he whispered.
The coroner started looking at his notes again.
Was he going to call anyone else to give evidence? Johnny could hardly breathe.
The coroner started writing. The only noise anyone could hear was his nib scratching the paper. Then a few people began to murmur, then a few more. Soon the room was humming. Johnny let out his breath. It looked like everything was finally finished and his stomach rumbled. He hadn’t been able to eat very much breakfast. No-one had.
The coroner put his pen down then gathered his notes together. A few people began to stand up. There’d be a rush for the dining room.
“I need a beer,” Scott mouthed to Johnny, from Murdoch’s other side.
The coroner cleared his throat. “Mr Lancer’s evidence virtually concludes this inquest.”
Johnny slumped in his seat. Whew, he was safe.
“But I would like to hear the evidence of Mr John Lancer who was the last person to talk to Mr Kells, other than Mr Lancer, before he was killed.”
Johnny felt like every eye in the room was pinned on him. He felt frozen, stuck to his chair.
Scott dug him in the ribs. “You’re up.”
Johnny stood up and passed Scott his hat. He didn’t look at Murdoch. He just kept his eyes straight and walked across to the chair.
“You are Mr John Lancer, son of Murdoch Lancer. Correct?”
Johnny folded his hands together but his thumbs kept twirling. “I am.”
“Speak up please, Mr Lancer.”
“My name is Johnny Lancer. John,” he added, thinking he should keep this all legal.
“Did you speak to William Kells the night he was murdered?”
Johnny nodded and ran his tongue over his lips. “Yes.”
“In your own words, please tell us what was said.”
Dios. His mouth went dry and he could feel the blood throbbing in the tip of his fingers. When he looked out, all he saw was a sea of faces staring back at him.
Johnny shrugged. “I didn’t say much. I told him I was Murdoch’s kid. We shook hands. I told him it all looked quiet and Kells said he was drawing water for the evening meal.”
“Was he surprised when you said you were Murdoch’s son?”
“Yeah. A little.”
“Was there anything in his attitude that suggested he was about to escape?”
“Did you say anything else to Mr Kells?”
Johnny frowned, like he was thinking real hard.
“Mr Lancer, I’m trying to establish a reason as to why Mr Kells changed his mind and went back and untied your father. It would appear something you said triggered a change of heart in Mr Kells.”
Johnny looked at Murdoch. Murdoch gave him a nod of encouragement. Approval even. It just about choked him up.
Well, there was something he told Kells that he was proud of saying. “I told him I thought it was a good thing Murdoch was doing.”
“That was all you said?” The coroner sounded disappointed. “Nothing more?”
Johnny looked down at his hands. How could he tell everyone that he knew why Murdoch was doing all this? How could he admit to all these fine folk that it was his fault Murdoch was at the prison farm in the first place?
Johnny took a deep breath. “I told Billy…” He remembered the look on Billy’s face at the well. He was surprised all right.
Johnny swallowed. And he must’ve been so lost in trying to put his words together that he didn’t even know there was an uproar in the court. The ruckus came at him like waves of sound until he looked up and saw Jordan and Bowman trying to get hold of Ox and Ox was crying that he’d killed Billy. “It’s my fault. Dumb, stupid, Ox.” And by this time there were three guards trying to hold him down and punches started flying and women were screaming and running and Ox was so strong it took five of them, the three guards plus two other men, to hold him down. And then Ox just went limp on the floor as if he didn’t care what happened to him. Jordan pulled his foot back like he was about to give Ox his payment for the cut to Jordan’s lip but the coroner yelled out, “Mr Jordan!”
Jordan looked up but he was slow in smoothing the vicious look from his face.
By now chairs were upended and half the room was empty. The coroner looked at Johnny. “Thank you for your testimony, John. And it’s a credit to your father that you and your brother showed your concern by keeping watch at Cedar Canyon. I’d like to think my sons would do the same for me, even if I hadn’t asked them to.” He added that last part with a look in Murdoch’s direction.
“This inquest is now closed. I absolve Murdoch Lancer of any responsibility concerning the death of Billy Kells. Mr Kells was solely responsible for his own death at the hands of Joseph Howard.”
Everyone stood as Johnny stepped down. Hopefully no-one noticed his wobbly legs as he walked back to his seat. Nate and Scott were shaking Murdoch’s hand. Ox was being dragged past them by three of the guards while Jordan shoved Richie in the back but he managed to stop in front of Murdoch in spite of the shove.
“Mr Lancer, I’m real sorry the experiment you tried didn’t work out. I sure hope you’ll give it another chance…you know…for all those others you talked about.”
Murdoch gave him one of those looks, like he could see right deep into Richie’s soul. “I hope so too, Richie.” Then he held out his hand. “I hope so too.”
The courtroom emptied out and Murdoch and Nate walked across the foyer to the hotel dining room. Scott and Johnny let them be. They’d have a lot to talk about. By the way Nate put a hand on Murdoch’s shoulder, it didn’t look like he blamed Murdoch any for what happened.
Johnny stood by the table and buckled his gun belt.
“Time for that beer,” Scott said, holding out Johnny’s hat.
“And then I have to buy Teresa a…a doy-lee…thing?”
Scott laughed. “Ooh, she’s going to be mad at you.”
Johnny thumped his pillow for the fourth time. Or maybe it was the fifth? Whatever. He could thump the damn thing a hundred times and it wouldn’t make any difference seeing as someone had emptied out the feather and down and stuffed the pillow with hard-packed sand.
He sat up, pushed his blankets back and swung his legs off the bed.
An old timer told him one time that a man with a clear conscience could sleep like a baby on a bed of rocks. And that was how Murdoch should be sleeping. He didn’t deserve to be wandering the hallways every night. He’d done nothing wrong. The coroner had confirmed that.
Johnny went across to the window and pulled the curtains back. The moon was up. Bright. But there was no sign of Murdoch down there. He could see the wind stirring the leaves on the sycamore tree across from his window. Somewhere out in the night, a calf was bawling for its ma.
Scott was snoring in his room down the hallway, unless it was Jelly all the way over in the bunkhouse he could hear.
He pulled on a pair of jeans, grabbed his shirt, then headed across and peered into Murdoch’s room. Just in case.
The big mahogany bed was still made and the room was empty, just like he thought.
For a second he stood there in the dark hallway. “Aw, Murdoch. What are we gonna do with you?”
“The coffee’s still hot.” He held one of the cups out to Murdoch. The breeze he’d seen in the trees wasn’t as friendly when you stood outside on the flagged stones this time of night. It tugged at his shirt and had him thinking about his jacket hanging inside on the stand by the front door.
Murdoch was leaning against one of the pillars. He half smiled and his hand came up slowly to take the cup, like he had to pull himself back from somewhere. His eyes went to Johnny’s stockinged feet, then his untucked shirt.
Johnny shifted his stance. He felt small standing next to Murdoch, without his boots. The lantern still burned on Murdoch’s desk inside, throwing some light onto the patio.
“Sit down, Johnny. And here, wrap this around you.”
Johnny put his mug down on the table between the chairs before taking one of Val’s Indian blankets from Murdoch and settling it about his shoulders.
Murdoch was still fully dressed. He took a seat the other side of the table. “I woke you,’ Murdoch said. “I’m sorry.”
Johnny started to shake his head, then he grinned. “Well, yeah, you did. Kinda.”
“I used to like doing that when you were little. Watching you sleep.” Murdoch smiled to himself. “Nothing but pure innocence.”
It sounded like a good memory. A different time. Maybe a different boy?
Johnny wrapped his fingers around his cup and stared into his coffee. He could barely get his words out. “What do you see now, Murdoch, when I’m asleep?”
Murdoch was taking an awful long time to reply. Too long.
Johnny gripped his cup that little bit tighter.
When Murdoch did speak, his voice was low and deep, almost like the rumble of thunder a long way over the hills. “I don’t see Billy Kells, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
Johnny breathed again. How was it Kells couldn’t trust a voice like that?
“Murdoch, you and I both know that coulda been me in that prison wagon. At one time—it was.” Johnny gave Murdoch a quick glance. “When I talked to Billy at the well, I told him I was hell bent for nowhere. Said how you pulled me out of all that.”
Murdoch started smiling. “I guessed as much,” he said softly. “And I told Billy, if a man wants to and tries hard enough, he can make his way back. You showed me that, Johnny.”
Johnny nodded. “Well, I try, you know.”
“I know you do, Johnny.” Murdoch took a gulp of coffee. “But it seems to me I’m not the only one having a hard time sleeping lately. You haven’t looked so bright in the morning, either?”
“Yeah, well, Scott and me feel real bad about what happened. And…”
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up. “And?”
“I…” He swallowed. “I wanted to tell you this before. I tried…”
“Go on, son.”
He swallowed again. “I also told Billy that you getting mixed up in this stuff was kinda my fault. I mean, if you didn’t have a son who…”
“No, Johnny. Nooo.” He felt Murdoch’s hand on his shoulder. “My decision to be involved in the prison farm had nothing to do with you.”
And he wanted to believe that was true. “You sure about that, Murdoch?”
Murdoch shook his shoulder some more. “No, Johnny. I told you about the dream Nate and I had when we were deputies. That was the truth.” He shook his head. “But I can’t deny it ate at me. Not knowing where you were. The type of life you might be living. I knew the stench of border towns well enough.” He sighed and shook his head again. “Who would care to help you if you were in trouble?” He smiled down at Johnny. “It took us ten years to get the board to agree to our plan. And maybe,” and his eyes looked sad, “Maybe I even dreamed that one day ‘you’ would be one of the ones in the prison wagon and I could rescue you?”
Johnny winced. Dios, all those years he’d been angry at Murdoch for throwing him and his mother into the streets, Murdoch had been worrying about him. His throat ached of a sudden and his mouth felt thick with molasses but he managed to get out, “You’re a good man, Murdoch.” Then in a stronger voice. “It’s a damned pity the ones at the prison camp couldn’t see that.”
“I wanted their trust, Johnny. But I was in over my head. Perhaps I wanted too much. Trust isn’t an easy thing to give when honour and kindness are as foreign to a man as eating off gold plates.”
And wasn’t that the truth.
He looked across to Murdoch. “You think that’s all it takes? Just showing some kindness to a man? I don’t know, Murdoch. I’ve met lots of men who just didn’t want to change. You could throw a million dollars at them and by daybreak it’d all be gone on gambling and whoring. Next thing they’d be shooting up the town, nothing but just plain cussedness eating at them from inside.”
“I know. I’ve seen that, too, Johnny. But I also know every child comes into the world the same way. And if you’ve ever felt a tiny finger wrap around your pinky or see that first smile on a baby’s face, you learn pretty quick that all a child really wants is to be loved. Sadly, not every baby gets that chance.”
“You remember that with me, Murdoch? Even when I came back with a gun in my hand and a smart mouth?”
“Especially then, Johnny. I’m just sorry I was a little slow at showing it.”
“I guess I was like Billy back then.”
“But you learned to trust,” Murdoch added softly. He patted Johnny’s leg then stood up. “Come on. We’d better go in.” He gathered up their cups, while Johnny stood and dropped the blanket on the chair.
“What is it, Johnny?”
He half turned, stuck a hand in his jeans pocket and shrugged. “I guess I’m wondering the same thing I asked when they first showed up at Lancer.”
“Do I still believe in the dream Nate and I had?”
Johnny winced. Maybe it wasn’t his right to ask.
Murdoch looked out, all the way to the mountains. Maybe even further than that. “What do you, think, Johnny?”
“I think Mr Benedict was right; you’re a stubborn ‘Scotchman’.”
Murdoch threw his head back and laughed. “That’s Scotsman.’”
Murdoch put a hand to Johnny’s shoulder. “Now off to bed, Johnny-my-boy. We’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow.”
Back in his room, Johnny pulled his shirt off over his head. He’d talked to Nate Benedict before Scott and him road up to the camp. What was it he’d said? Something like, ‘There’s no holding out against an idea when its time is up…or a dream whose time is passed due.’
Just then his door opened again and Murdoch stuck his head inside the room. “And one other thing while we’re talking—don’t think for a moment you can buy me off by calling me ‘Pa.’”
Johnny ducked his head to hide his grin. “So you noticed that, huh?”
“I noticed it, young man, and it didn’t work.”
Johnny let his grin show. “I figured it was worth a try.”
“But I have to admit, after all these years…” and his eyes met Johnny’s, “it was kind of nice to hear the word.”
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