Word Count 15,994
Heartfelt thanks go to my betas, Las Triadas, without whom I wouldn’t have had the courage to write this. You two are my best friends and family. And special thanks to Fliss for the extra eyes and for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I have done a lot of tinkering on this since my betas saw it, so any and all mistakes are my own.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him……Rev. 6:8
Cattle were the dumbest creatures the good Lord ever created and everyone who worked with them knew it. But knowing it and facing it were two different things. A man rode herd on the beasts, made sure they had water and forage, and what reward did he have for all of his hard work? It seemed that the only thing on the cattle’s minds was to escape from the very people who took care of them. But to be wallowing in the mud, trying to save a cow from drowning, only to have the dumb beast kicking and struggling against you, was just too much.
This particular cow was one of the Lancers’ prized breeding stock, and she always bore the best quality calves. They were sought by cattlemen as far away as Texas and that was the only fact keeping her alive right now. Murdoch even gave this one a name. Bella, he called her.
Johnny had been wrestling with the animal for almost an hour, his muscles straining painfully as he attempted to free her of the mud she was bogged down in. The cow bawled and struggled against his helping hand, and basically made a greater mess of an already unmanageable situation.
“If it were up to me, I’d put a bullet in you,” Johnny growled angrily at the beast. Instead of pulling his gun, as he was sorely tempted to do, he whistled to Barranca. “Back, Barranca,” he instructed loudly. The golden stallion immediately obeyed his command, set back on his haunches, and drew taut the rope tied between the saddle and the cow.
Johnny felt the cow’s back legs shift, and he tightened his grip around her neck even more. “Back,” he commanded again. The stallion retreated another step and with a mighty tug the cow was free. The rope suddenly slackened and sent Johnny back on his butt in a most undignified manner. With a curse he struck the ground with his fist, only to send a splash of mud over his face and chest. “Damn cow!”
He regained his feet and surveyed the mud clinging to his body in disgust. There was still a somewhat clean spot on one of his sleeves so he used his arm to wipe some of the mud off his face. Johnny still had to get the rope off the cow’s horns, so he snagged the rope off his saddle horn and followed it, hand over hand, to where the cow stood panting from her exertion. He hated the animal more than he had hated anything in a very long time, even though he knew it was in her nature to struggle blindly against his helping hand.
Half expecting another round of tug-of-war with the beast, Johnny was surprised that she stood calmly and allowed him to remove the rope from around her horns. “Now why didn’t you let me help you in the first place instead of runnin’ into this mudhole and causing me no end of trouble?” She bawled plaintively in response as if he had said something incredibly stupid, then trotted off to rejoin the herd that grazed nearby.
Johnny arrived back at the hacienda with enough time for a bath before dinner. After a long soak and a shave he felt much better, though he knew he was going to be sore in the morning. Damn cattle, he thought again.
He stood on the threshold of the great room and saw his father and brother were already one drink ahead of him. Murdoch was at his desk, putting papers away and Scott was standing in front of the liquor cabinet, freshening up his drink.
As Johnny stepped in and greeted them, Scott nodded and without asking handed him a tumbler with a few fingers of an amber liquid in it. “Good evening, brother.” Scott said pleasantly. He had a slightly tense look on his face but then he smiled as if everything was fine. “How was your day?”
Shaking off a vague suspicion that something was wrong, Johnny accepted the proffered drink and settled onto the comfortable couch. “Well, my day was not all bad, not all good.”
“What’s that mean, son?” Murdoch crossed the room and settled on his favorite chair beside the couch.
“Old Bella got caught in the boggy creek, down on the south side. Had to haul her out.” Johnny took a sip of his drink, grimacing slightly at the taste of the brandy. “I’ll never get used to this, Boston. You know I prefer tequila.”
“Yes, well, I think you should try to expand your horizons, if not your tastes,” Scott teased but somehow the grin failed to meet his eyes.
“What about Bella?” Murdoch was not going to be sidetracked, not yet. He wanted time to gauge Johnny’s frame of mind before giving him the news he dreaded to reveal.
“She’s fine. I swear you talk about the breeding stock, like Bella, like they’re a woman friend or something and not dumb cows.”
Murdoch smiled briefly and glanced at Scott, but didn’t respond. Uneasy, sensing the undercurrent in the room, Johnny almost demanded to know what was going on. Instead, he reined in his impatience and waited to see if either Scott or Murdoch was going to spill the beans.
“Cattle,” Scott corrected.
“Whatever.” Johnny put aside the glass of brandy then sought out the bottle of tequila hidden at the back of the cabinet. After filling his glass and taking a swallow, he turned back to his brother and waited for him to open up. But no, Scott still had that tense look about him. Murdoch, too, and it was obvious that neither of them were going to talk unless prompted. Out of patience, Johnny asked, “So, what’s on your mind? And don’t give me any shit about cattle. Something is going on and you should tell me what it is. Now.”
Murdoch and Scott exchanged another one of those aside looks that spoke of something dire going on. “Johnny,” Murdoch said in a low, serious voice. “It’s about the Wilkinsons.”
On the alert, Johnny shifted his gaze from his father to his brother and back again. “What about them? Something’s wrong?”
“Yes, and it won’t be easy to hear.” Murdoch paused, unsure of how to proceed. Now that the moment of truth was upon him, he felt his courage failing him. He was well aware of his younger son’s potential for violence, his penchant for gunplay, and he certainly didn’t want the bad news to set him on a path that would end in tragedy.
Johnny fought his rising impatience. “Just say it. What’s happened?”
Scott tossed their father a tentative glance then moved to stand beside his brother. “Josie was killed yesterday. She was murdered and…she was violated.” He placed a supportive hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “We know how you feel…well, felt about her.”
The heavy stillness of a gunfighter cloaked Johnny in a deadly calm and he instinctively accepted its protective numbness. He looked down and swallowed. There would be plenty of time to be emotional later on. Now was not the time. He looked up, scanning the faces of the two men who watched him. It was obvious they expected him to explode at any second. Despite being shaken to the core, Johnny managed to say, as if stating a plain fact, “She was a good friend.”
Johnny tossed back the rest of his tequila. The burning liquid seared his palate as effectively as the thought of the beautiful young woman being murdered seared his heart. Oh God, Josie, what happened? Jerking his mind and emotions away from the anguish, he retreated back into the frozen wilderness that kept all pain at bay. He asked, “What about her fiancé? Was Thomas killed?”
“No,” Murdoch said. “He wasn’t there when it happened.”
Despite his skill at controlling his emotions, Johnny erupted in sudden anger. “What the hell happened? Who did it? Has the posse already set out after the bastard?”
Scott stepped forward. He knew enough not to touch Johnny, though he badly wanted to take hold of his arm, to calm him down somehow. “Take it easy,” he said. The moment the words were out of his mouth, Johnny glared at him as if he hated him. But Scott knew it wasn’t him that Johnny hated, but the horrible crime against the young, vibrant girl, who had been so cruelly violated and murdered.
Murdoch stood and said calmly, “The posse had already gone out by the time we heard about it, Johnny. It happened yesterday morning, they say. One of the Wilkinsons’ hands, Old Bill, came over and told us just an hour ago. He said there were no witnesses. Hardly any trail to follow.”
Scott added, “And they’ll let everyone know as soon as they catch whoever it was.” His voice was soft and steady, a light in the storm.
Johnny asked, “They have no idea?”
Shaking his head, Murdoch said, “The information Old Bill gave us was sketchy, at best. We’ll have to wait for Gabe to let us know.”
If the posse had gone out as soon as they discovered the murder, they could be just about anywhere, Johnny thought. He wanted, very badly, to be out there with them, riding down some bastard, running him down. But he knew there was no chance of finding the posse, so he took a deep breath and let the ice flow through his veins once more. He sat down on the couch, but couldn’t relax. “Where was everyone? You said Tom wasn’t there?”
“Apparently he was in Fullerton, at the doctor’s, because he’d dislocated his shoulder.
And most of the Wilkinsons’ hands had gone to deliver some cattle up in the Garzas. Josie’s parents were visiting some neighbors. They said their daughter didn’t go with them because she was baking pies for the fair.” Murdoch ran a hand over his face and looked deep into his empty glass. “She was all alone and someone just walked in and. . .”
Scott added, “Bill says that Tom is so torn up about the whole thing that he’s talking about going back East. Josie’s parents have invited him to stay on, to move in from his place just outside of town. The Wilkinsons told Tom he still had a home with them on the ranch but he says he can’t live there.” Scott didn’t blame the man. There would be memories of Josie everywhere, and there would always be the shadow of death hanging over the rambling old ranch house.
Scott studied Johnny’s face intently. Something dark and wild had flickered in his brother’s eyes, then had been snuffed out, like a candle’s flame is extinguished. But he knew he’d seen something unfamiliar and frightening in Johnny’s eyes. Shaking off the premonition of something bad to come, Scott continued, “Thomas said that without Josie there is nothing left for him here. He’s talking about leaving to go back to New Mexico, where he grew up.”
The great room suddenly felt overwhelmingly hot and smothering. Johnny strode to the French doors. The evening breeze was gently moving the thick curtains, allowing in just a hint of the evening’s coolness. He drew in a deep breath to steady himself before turning back to face his family. Teresa entered the room and stood close to Murdoch, her eyes red from crying.
“When’s the funeral?” Johnny asked, betraying none of the grief and pain he barely managed to keep shuttered away.
“It’s on Saturday, son.” Murdoch approached his younger son and even though he was sure he would be rejected, he drew him into his arms. After only a brief hesitation Johnny returned the embrace, surrendering to the comfort his father’s arms afforded him.
It was Val Crawford who came out to the Lancer ranch a few days later with news of the investigation. Sheriff Gabe had returned, finally, and he and Val had put their heads together to solve the heinous crime.
Scott invited Val to sit, but the lawman was antsy and kept to his feet. “Murdoch’s out. So is Johnny,” Scott explained, not sure if he was glad that his brother wasn’t there to hear what Val had to impart.
“First of all, it appears there were four of them, we think,” Val said without any preamble.
“But the posse didn’t catch them, did they?”
Val pulled a sour face and shook his head. “They did some trackin’ but when the trail got cold Gabe said they broke into two groups and rode a big circuit. They hit every town for miles around and talked to every lawman and rancher they could. By the time they were about to return, Gabe’s party finally hit paydirt.” Val cleared his throat and motioned towards the liquor cabinet. “Mind if I…?”
“Not at all.” Scott poured the sheriff a drink and got one for himself as well. Val took a sip, then another, and finally sat on one of the upholstered chairs by the cold hearth. Scott took the companion chair that faced it.
The sheriff leaned forward and rolled the tumbler of whiskey between his palms, deep in thought. Just as Scott was about to prompt him, Val sat back and said, “The deputy over in Paytonsville said a group of four men had come ridin’ through only a day earlier. He described them as all bein’ hardcases. Guns tied down. Trouble, for certain.”
“He talked to them?”
“Well, my guess is this deputy was scared of them, and they only stayed one night and didn’t do nothin’ he could arrest them for. In fact he was plain relieved they took off the next mornin’ without causin’ too much of a ruckus. But they roughed up a whore.”
Scott impatiently waited for the rest of the news.
“Turns out,” Val said, “They left behind two things. One was a set of hoof prints the deputy noticed because one of the horses had a bar across the shoe.”
“And the other?”
“The gal they hurt said one of them dropped this.” Val held up a necklace. It was a fine chain with a silver heart dangling from it. He handed it to Scott.
Scott looked at the charm resting in his palm and was about to ask what the significance of it was when Val told him to open it up. “It’s a locket,” Val pointed out.
When opened, the silver heart revealed two very small photographs, one on each side. On the left was an image of a dark, smiling man, who appeared to be Thomas Langley, Josie’s fiancé. On the other side was a picture of Johnny. Scott sat there staring at the two faces, and just when he opened his mouth to ask Val another question, from somewhere behind him a male voice asked, “What are you doing here, Val?”
Scott swiveled in his chair and at the same time closed his fist around the locket. “Johnny!”
After Val had left, Murdoch came in, tired. He paused briefly to exchange a glance with Johnny before Scott asked the two men to have a seat and filled them in, but for some reason he left out the details. Scott had a feeling that the less Johnny knew the better. “Val and Gabe think it was a group of men, but keep in mind there is no evidence and no witnesses.”
“So Gabe and the posse came up short,” Murdoch said wearily. “Except for a deputy who was able to describe these men, and a hoof print that may or may not belong to one of their horses.”
“Well, sir,” Scott pointed out, “Johnny and I had a look around the Wilkinsons’ ranch while we waited for the posse to return. It was impossible to figure out whose tracks belonged to whom, with the ground so dry and their ranch hands riding all over the place.”
“But,” Johnny interjected, “there was one set of prints left by a horse wearing a shoe with a bar not far from the Wilkinsons’ place. Not that it’ll do us any good if we don’t know who these men are. It’s a needle in a haystack.”
Scott said, “The girl who gave the locket to Val was able to offer Gabe descriptions of at least two of the men who attacked her so Gabe is sending over some wanted posters and descriptions of the suspects to the deputy in Paytonsville. Val is going over there to deliver them tomorrow and talk to some folks, see if he can get any more leads so we can identify these men, track them down and bring them to justice.”
Johnny shook his head and gave a snort of frustrated laughter. Murdoch raised an eyebrow and Johnny said, “Some cowardly deputy does nothin’ to stop these roughriders and lets them get away, just lets them get away…” He stood as his voice rose. “What hope is there of ever finding them now?”
Scott stood and faced his brother. “And what would you do if you found them, Johnny? String them up in your version of Western justice?”
“Damn right, I’d–“
“They need to be brought to trial,” Scott pressed firmly. “Josie’s parents need to see these men face their crimes in a public–“
“Scott, what good does it do for them to be dragged in front of some courtroom full of decent people when a bullet between the eyes is all the justice God should mete out to them?”
Scott stepped up to Johnny and the two met nose to nose. He asked, “God should be the one to hand out this punishment? Or are you saying you should be the one to shoot these men? Or would it be fitting for Thomas to do it? Or maybe Josie’s father? Give him a gun then…”
“I don’t care who takes them down, and I wish good luck to the first man who gets there!”
Murdoch stood and bellowed, “Enough!” He physically parted his bristling sons and said in a barely-controlled, low voice, “Enough, boys. The last thing we need is fighting among ourselves. The first thing, the only thing that matters, is to find these men.” Murdoch waited for Johnny to take a breath and step back, and he eyed Scott until he also retreated. “There, that’s better. Now I am going to take a hot bath because I am getting older by the minute, and my back hurts from wrestling a steer that one of you should have been handling in my stead.” He looked from Johnny to Scott. “There will be plenty of time to deal with these men, once they have been caught. You will both leave it up to Val and Gabe. Those men are the ones wearing the badges, in case you’ve forgotten. Now,” he said in a much calmer tone, “there is a funeral tomorrow, and we need to think of the people who loved Josie and how they would feel if they saw us fighting amongst ourselves.”
Scott dipped his head and Johnny stuck his hands in his pockets. He said, “Sorry, I get…it all wells up in me is all.”
Murdoch stalked out of the room, headed for the hot bath awaiting him.
Once they were alone, Scott held out his hand and showed Johnny the locket that Val had left with him. “Maybe you’d better see to this and give it to Thomas.”
When Johnny saw the silver heart necklace he froze. But then he opened the locket and stood so still for so long, with his head down, that Scott thought he might be crying.
Johnny closed his fist about the silver heart that had belonged to Josie, which she had worn close to her heart. He’d had no idea she had carried his image around with her. And it wouldn’t do for Thomas to know about it, he thought.
“Johnny?” Scott asked in a soft voice, “You’ll see Thomas and do the right thing with this?”
Johnny hung his head and simply nodded.
No words were spoken for some time. Eventually Johnny turned to his brother and asked, “Scott, how many were there?”
“What difference does it make?”
“How many?” Johnny’s question was stronger this time, more forceful than he had intended it to be spoken.
Scott met Johnny’s eyes and once more saw the darkness arise from their blue depths. There was no going back. If he didn’t tell Johnny, someone else would, and by now it was known that there had not been just one man, or even two, at the Wilkinsons’ ranch on that fateful day. Scott said in a low voice, “Four. There were four of the murdering bastards.”
Saturday dawned bright and warm, a cloudless sky that presented no hindrance to the brilliance of the sun. A breeze flowed off the mountains and gently stroked man and beast with a sympathetic touch.
Johnny stood on the patio taking in nature’s majesty and drinking a cup of hot coffee. As if in remembrance of a young woman with long flowing honey-colored locks and emerald eyes, the colors of nature were set ablaze with intense hues of gold and green. The irony of it was not lost on the brooding, dark-haired man who stood silently, and almost reverently, as he took in the beautiful day.
“Josie would be pleased.” Scott’s voice came at him from over his shoulder.
And though Johnny had not heard Scott’s approach, his brother’s presence was natural, expected. Johnny had long ago accepted that his brother was determined to watch his back just as Johnny watched his in return. “Yes, she would. She loved life and the beauty of nature.”
Scott placed a gentle hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Johnny accepted the gesture of comfort, his lips twitching in an expression of gratitude. The dark head bowed then after a long moment was lifted. Startling blue eyes, dark with passion, met Scott’s gaze. “Scott, what’s the deal with high noon?”
Despite his brother’s apparent calm, Scott saw a flicker of the same wild expression of the night before lurking in Johnny’s intense gaze. The younger man looked like he was about to erupt at any moment. Puzzled, Scott replied, “High noon? I’m not sure what you mean.” Scott felt a hint of a premonition once more and wondered at its source and meaning. Even though he wasn’t a superstitious type, he feared they were on the precipice of something tragic.
“You know, high noon,” Johnny prompted. “Gunfighters face off at noon because there are fewer shadows, but why do we bury the dead at noon? You’re the scholar. So tell me what the meaning is.”
“I don’t know, Johnny. Maybe it’s just a convenient time of day.” The hint was becoming more of an omen. Scott didn’t usually heed such things but despite the brilliance of the day he sensed a dark cloud hovering over them. “Why? Do you think there’s a better time?”
“No. There’s no good time to bury people you love.” Johnny squared his shoulders and said, “I guess we best get this over with.”
The funeral service was beautiful, if one could call it that. But when was death ever beautiful? It was described as such for the comfort of the family, like the Wilkinsons, who had to cope with the loss of their beloved child, and Thomas, for the young woman who had been his fiancée. It was against the unspoken laws of humanity that a mother should weep over her daughter’s grave, or a father should mourn his little angel. No parent should ever outlive their child, should ever bury their young, yet the Wilkinsons were doing that very thing.
And no man should live his life alone, but Thomas would never experience life with Josie, would never have the opportunity to build a home or have children with her. Their life together had been stolen away before they had a chance to live it.
Funerals were not beautiful, no matter how eloquently the sermon was delivered, or how melodic the songs. No, there was no beauty in death. And well did Johnny Madrid Lancer know this. Life had taught him this lesson early on. The faces of dead men haunted his dreams and he carried the burden of their blood in his daily life, even if he strove not to let it interfere.
As they stood around the gravesite up on the hill overlooking the Wilkinson ranch, Johnny found himself studying Josie’s mother, marveling at her composure and poise. In the midst of abject anguish, she remained dignified and controlled, presenting a gracious façade to the people who had come to offer their support. He studied Thomas, too, and the contrast was without description. Thomas had lost his parents at an early age. His whole family was spread across the Western states, and although he had grown up in New Mexico, he had left there as a young man.
Johnny knew about Thomas’ past, or what he had told him when they’d had a few drinks and the young man had let his guard down. It wasn’t so different from the life Johnny Madrid had led. Though Thomas’ life had not been quite as violent, with slightly less gunplay, Thomas had seen enough of the wrong side of the law to comprehend how life’s blows were indiscriminate and unfair. And he knew full well that sometimes you had to strike right back, harder than the other guy, just to come out alive. But Thomas had risen above his past, left the violence of youth behind and had managed to study law and excel at his work. He took pride in it, and it showed. And he had done it all on his own… until he’d met Josie that is. Whenever he’d faltered, Josie had been there, and he had come to rely upon her. In fact, he had fallen deeply in love with her and vowed never to return to the brutality he had lived before her appearance in his life.
As for Johnny, a cold hand gripped his chest where his heart was supposed to be. He and Josie had become friends soon after he had arrived at Lancer two years earlier. They had been very close and had spent a great deal of time together. For a while the Wilkinsons and Murdoch had speculated that there might be a wedding in the near future. The two ranches, joined by the marriage of the two young people, would have become the largest such ranch in the San Joaquin valley. But it was not to be. It was Josie who had cold feet, who realized that although she loved Johnny Lancer dearly, she couldn’t commit to a life with him. Needless to say, Johnny was devastated.
A few weeks after Johnny and Josie told their families that they would never be more than the best of friends, young Thomas Langley had come to Green River. With dreams of opening a law firm, he took up residence in town and set about making a name for himself. He started simply, writing wills, handling minor property transfers, but with his reputation for honesty and integrity his law practice grew at an astonishing rate. And one fateful day, as chance would have it, he met the passionate and beautiful Josie. It was a whirlwind courtship and within a short time they were engaged.
Thomas had planned to live in the Wilkinsons’ big house once he was wed to their daughter. The Wilkinsons reiterated their offer of a home but Thomas would not consider it. In the face of his refusal to accept the Wilkinson’s offer of a home, various ranchers and townsfolk extended their assistance to the grieving young man. But life without Josie was an empty, barren wasteland, and he couldn’t live in the community without his bride. Little did they realize the love that so recently filled his heart had been replaced by a small knot of fury that was feeding on itself …
Thomas wiped his face roughly with his hand. When Mrs. Wilkinson approached him his face crumpled and he fell into her sympathetic embrace. The young man, barely twenty-eight, was devastated and made no effort to conceal it. One arm was in a sling, strapped up due to the injury to his shoulder. His face was pale and drawn in comparison to the dark hair that fell over his forehead, and he welcomed every kind word, every gesture of comfort that was offered to him.
Johnny stood in the crowded foyer of the Wilkinsons’ home, observing the aftermath of a cruel and horrific deed. Although he managed to put on a calm and collected face, his overwhelming feeling was not sorrow, but a deep, black anger. He knew it was Madrid’s way to push the pain into the dark recesses of the heart and lock the door on it, but this time it wouldn’t stay hidden. While his anger raged, he fed on it; it carried him through the everyday motions of living.
Josie’s mother, Abigail, approached Johnny from across the room, her eyes full of tears. Instead of bringing forth empathy, it triggered Johnny’s anger. It grew in leaps and bounds, feeding on itself and became a consuming fire. He dropped his gaze, afraid she would see the darkness in his soul. This was not the time to show it. He was relieved when a woman intercepted Abigail and, while the women were engaged in the customary small talk, Johnny made his escape.
Johnny wasn’t surprised when he found himself at the corral, unaware even of how he’d made his way there. It was as natural as breath itself to seek out his tall golden stallion, and equally as natural for the animal to approach him. Barranca lowered his head so Johnny could easily scratch behind his ears. Johnny stood close, his face pressed against the stallion’s muscled neck, breathing in the scent of the thick silver mane.
He stood for long moments, before he heard the telltale scuff of a boot in dirt. He turned to face the man approaching him, expecting Scott, but instead he looked into the anguished face of Thomas Langley. Unable to offer any words of hope to the man, Johnny lowered his gaze and studied the toe of his boot.
At Thomas’ approach the man’s grey gelding stalked over to stand beside Barranca and nuzzle his master.
“I needed some air,” Thomas admitted, absent-mindedly scratching his beloved mount’s neck. “Actually, I couldn’t take any more kind words and well wishes.” He looked at the golden stallion standing in the corral and said sadly, “He’s beautiful. Lancer is too. You seem surrounded by beauty. The only beautiful thing I ever had in my life was Josie. And now she’s gone.”
Johnny asked Thomas if he was going to live near his brothers or sisters, of whom he had several, but the bereaved man shook his head.
Thomas swallowed hard, composing himself. “I could practice law back there, but it’s too remote for me. I don’t really want to go back. It’s all in my past.”
“You could go east, open a practice.”
Thomas’ head hung for a moment, then he took a deep breath and collected himself. “I’m not sure what to do.”
“Maybe you should just stay put for a while,” Johnny suggested. “This is a good place to make a life. You’re familiar with it.” He reached out and touched Thomas’ sleeve. “You can get back to work. Keep busy. And if you need any of us for…for a shoulder to lean on or someone to get drunk with, you know where to come.”
Thomas smiled and nodded, but it was obvious he was very close to breaking down. “I don’t know what I’d be like if I took up drinking again,” he said ruefully. “That’s one of the bad habits that got me in trouble when I was a youngster. I don’t want to. . .” His words were reduced to a whisper. “I did some things in my youth I’m not proud of. But when I came out here and met Josie…” He looked at Johnny, pleading for understanding. “I can’t go back to the bottle. I can’t do it. I have to stay sober, for her.”
“You’ll be fine, Thomas. So long as you remember that Josie would be the first person to smack you if she found out you weren’t trying to stay sober.” Johnny wrapped an arm around the man’s shoulders, careful not to aggravate his shoulder. “You have to live as if Josie’s watchin’ you. That’s not gonna be easy, I know, and it’ll take time, but you’ll survive.”
“I’m not sure how to do that. She made me feel strong, like I could handle anything.” Thomas’ voice cracked and he choked back a sob. “How do I do that now?”
It wasn’t a question, rather it was a statement but Johnny had nothing more to give. He knew all too well the pain of loss and he also knew words would never bring Thomas any real comfort. Nothing could ease his grief, nothing but time. Perhaps.
Johnny had heard the saying ‘time heals all wounds’, but he himself had never fully experienced such healing. His recovery had always come in the form of the deadly Colt resting on his hip. Of course with that comfort came the ghosts. Feeling helpless, Johnny raised his eyes to find that Thomas was watching him expectantly.
“Johnny? I know about your picture in the locket.” Thomas looked up, his gaze fixed and intense. “I know Josie cared for you. I’m not angry about it. You were her first.”
“She loved you. You know that.” Johnny swallowed hard, his love for Josie and his appreciation for Thomas’ confession evident. “I didn’t know she had my photo. I’ll get the locket to you right away.”
“I know. It’s ok. I always knew you were special to her. That she carried a certain love for you.” Thomas’ voice was full of grief with no hint of betrayal.
“Thomas,” Johnny hesitated only slightly. “I was Josie’s past, you were her future. You have to know that.”
“I do. And I hold no malice. But I have to know something…”
Thomas’ next question struck Johnny like a fist to his belly. The young man, his shoulder heavily bandaged, looked at Johnny with a hungry light in his eyes and said, “Tell me the truth, Johnny. If you were in my position, what would Madrid do?”
Johnny was stunned into immobility by Thomas’ question. Not that the question itself was so shocking, but that he and Thomas, who had both loved Josie Wilkinson, were so much alike, in appearance and apparently thought. But was Thomas questioning what Madrid would do, or why he hadn’t already done it? Was it an inquiry of intent or an accusation of Johnny’s inactivity? Why hadn’t he gone in search of the murderers? Why had he sat idly by while the posse had pursued the four men responsible for the horrific deed when he himself was better equipped to handle it? But was he? Bombarded by the questions circling his mind like great birds of prey, Johnny stood still until he felt Scott’s firm grip on his arm. He mumbled weak condolences and allowed his brother to guide him away from the despairing young man.
Johnny went through the motions of saddling Barranca, still in a fog. What would Madrid do? What would Madrid do? The words circled Johnny’s mind, warped his stable perspective of the world and made difficult even the most mundane activity. If he was so skilled with his gun, if he was such a cold-hearted bastard when he was Madrid, why hadn’t he done something already? How could he just sit there and not do something?
Leaving the Wilkinson ranch was a blur. Johnny mounted and once Murdoch and Teresa were in the buggy and heading home, he followed, falling into stride alongside Scott. Unexpectedly, only a short time after they had set out, Scott reined his horse in front of Barranca, forcing the stallion to stop. “Johnny, Thomas is hurting. He didn’t mean it. You know he didn’t.”
Johnny gazed at Scott. “You heard what he said?” The haze was slipping away, receding before the security of his brother’s concern.
“Yes. He had no right to even suggest you should take the law into your own hands.”
“Is that what he was doing?” Johnny knew that Thomas’ words were meant to goad him into doing what the man couldn’t do himself. Thomas wasn’t a coward, but it appeared he didn’t have the heart to do more than grieve at this point. But it was obvious that Josie’s fiancé wanted revenge and didn’t care who exacted it. He had looked to Johnny to do the deed for him. It wasn’t as if it hadn’t crossed Johnny’s mind, either. Ever since he’d heard the dreadful news he’d been thinking of ways to kill the men who had so cruelly hurt Josie. “He was reading my mind, brother.”
“He is just expressing his grief and he’s entitled to that. Nothing more.” But Scott wasn’t sure of that. He knew his brother had an overly developed sense of fairness and had often championed the underdog. Thomas, in his present condition, was not capable of forcing anyone to do anything but he was shrew enough to attempt to goad Johnny Madrid to do the job in his stead. Scott pointed out, “He wouldn’t try to force you into doing something you wouldn’t do. Let it go, Johnny.” Scott reached out and touched his brother’s shoulder.
Johnny looked away and pondered the situation. When Barranca shifted his weight impatiently beneath him, Johnny turned back to stare silently at his sibling.
Scott looked deep into his brother’s eyes but what he saw there was unsettling. He pushed his hat back on his head, then met Johnny’s steely gaze with one of his own. “Don’t let Thomas guilt you into becoming a vigilante. Or worse yet, a murderer.”
Johnny pulled his hat lower, shielding his eyes from his brother’s piercing gaze. “It’s not like I’m Johnny Madrid any more.”
Vengeance is Mine, and retribution; In due time their foot will slip….Deut. 32:35
It’s a saloon, just like any other, smoky, hot, smelling of piss and dirty men. But this one has one distinct difference; he’ll be here. My sources, some very willing to cooperate, and others real reluctant, have assured me he’ll be here.
I have waited a long time for this day. I’ve tracked his movements from one down-at-the-heels town to the next, making brief forays whenever I can get away from work. But I never caught up with him until now. Now the day has come and I know he will be here at high noon. High noon… almost sounds like fate has a hand in this day. I guess in a way it does. Fate has put him within my grasp and I will have my revenge. I’m anxious to look him in the eyes and see the sign of recognition that crosses his weasel-like features.
When I confront him, he’ll recognize me and he’ll be shocked. He won’t believe his eyes at first. . . he probably heard I had left town or died. I’m sure going to enjoy showing him how wrong he is. And then I will tell him why I’m here. Of course, he’ll deny hurting her. He’ll deny he brutally had his way with her and left her dead in the dirt…he and the other scum that rode with him, each one to blame as much as the next one.
It won’t matter though. Josie was special and I’ll make them pay. She would expect me to avenge her. And I will. What she won’t know is how much I am going to enjoy killing this son of a bitch. I’ll make sure the men who hurt Josie, and others like that whore, pay for their sins. One by one I’ll take them down.
Maybe I’ve become a vigilante. Or maybe I’m just a murderer, as some have called me. Sometimes I think I’m an angel of death, Satan’s spawn. I thought I had left all this behind, but one vicious act was all it took to turn back time and all my new-found veneer of civility just slipped away. But in a way, I’m comfortable. I’m the man I have always been deep down and this time I’m on the path of righteousness.
The men around me in the saloon are becoming nervous. I can see the sweat dripping down their faces, and they’re squirming in their chairs. They’re unsure who my intended target is and they worry it could be them. I’ve seen the looks before. I’m smiling to myself but I can’t let them see any emotion, so I sit with my hat pulled low to hide my face.
There’s a footstep on the boardwalk outside then the creaking of the rusty-hinged batwing doors. A newcomer is crossing to the bar and I recognize the sound of his footsteps. He walks heavier on his left leg than his right and I’d know that step anywhere. Don’t live as long in this business as I have without developing a strong sense of perception. The other occupants have grown quiet and still. The atmosphere in the saloon has changed.
Slowly, I push my hat back and raise my head. I’m rewarded by the scraping of chairs as the men in them quickly push them to the sides of the room. Jack ‘the rapist’ Connor, as I call him, can see me in the bar mirror. Our eyes meet and for a long moment I can tell he’s trying to figure out who I am. Then the dawning comes. His head jerks up and he slowly turns around to face me.
Finally I can let the smile creep across my face. I get casually to my feet, adjust the rig around my hips, and make sure it is securely tied down. I’m ready.
He asks, “You looking for me?” He’s trying to sound confident but it’s not working.
I can hear the tremor in his voice and my smile grows wider. I simply nod. Sweat has begun to bead on his forehead.
“It’s not possible. I heard you was dead.” He’s looking at me like he thinks I’m a ghost.
He sounds like he is having trouble breathing.
I growl low at him, “You shouldn’t have messed with Josie.”
“What’s that got to do with you?” He sneers at me and that pisses me off. But I’m satisfied because I know he’s scared. His voice cracks.
My anger is growing. “Not a thing. Or maybe everything. But I’ve come to even the score and Hell’s come with me.” Then I see it, the glint in his eye and a fraction of a second later he pulls for leather. But I’m faster and my bullet plows between his eyes. The sound of the back of his head exploding on the bar behind him is satisfying. I twirl my Colt then replace it in my holster. I cross the saloon and survey my accuracy up close. Damn, I’m good. Dead center.
I throw a couple of coins to the barkeep. “This is for the mess,” I tell him, then I leave the saloon and mount the horse that is waiting at the hitching rail. “That’s one scumbag down, and three to go,” I whisper to myself. I spur my horse out of town.
It had been three months since Josie Wilkinson’s funeral and time trudged on, pushing and pulling the sometimes willing and sometimes reluctant Lancers along their appointed path. The shadow of loss bound the family together, reinforcing their appreciation of the fragile thread between life and death. Minor disagreements that would have sent Murdoch and Johnny into full warfare in the past were now easily averted. Scott was no longer called upon daily to intervene in the wars between his hot-headed brother and their equally forceful father. Instead he found himself securely entrenched in Johnny’s confidence without the barriers that had previously existed. The younger man had opened up and seemed more willing to talk about his past. The family had grown comfortable with each other. That was the word. Comfortable.
Scott and Johnny worked on the roof of the barn, making long neglected repairs. They stripped down to the waist, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the refreshing breeze of the late September day. Scott, once fair and tender, was now as bronzed as his younger brother. The evidence of his time outdoors had effectively put a stop to Johnny’s ceaseless teasing about his brother – the eastern dandy. It was as if the outward appearance of a tanned skin had finally garnered him the respect of a seasoned rancher.
Scott paused from his labor and shielded his eyes against the brilliance of the afternoon sun. A puff of dust to the east was growing ever closer. “Rider coming.”
Johnny’s hand paused in midair, his hammer hovering above the nail. “Can you make out who?”
Scott shook his head. “Not yet. We aren’t expecting anyone, are we?”
Johnny stood, placing his feet carefully to avoid slipping off the roof. Shoulder to shoulder, one fair head, one dark, the two men watched the approaching rider.
As the man rode under the gleaming white arch, recognition lit the brothers’ eyes. “It’s Val.” Scott shrugged into his shirt, all the while sidestepping over the various tools with which they had been laboring. He carefully maneuvered down the ladder, followed closely by Johnny. By the time they reached the ground, Val had dismounted and was leading his horse to the water trough.
“Hey Val. Whatcha doing out here? You get lost?” Johnny felt uneasy when he noticed the look of consternation on the lawman’s face. This family, indeed this community, was in sore need of some peace.
“Nope. Got some news Murdoch and you two might want to hear.” Val tugged his horse’s reins firmly, encouraging the animal towards the hitching rail. After securely tying the reins to the rail, he loosened the gelding’s saddle girth in silence then followed the two Lancers into the great room.
Murdoch rose from his desk, which at any given moment in time was usually perfectly organized but was now covered by papers scattered all across its broad surface. “Val, what brings you to Lancer? What’s Johnny done this time?”
“Very funny, Murdoch,” Johnny laughed as he accepted the glass Scott handed him. “You would make a good waiter, Scott.”
“Keep it up, little brother, and you might be wearing the next one.” Scott grinned, a charming expression of mischief lighting his blue eyes.
“Actually, I’m here on business.” Val waited until the three sets of eyes were fully on him then continued. “We got a lead on the men who killed Josie Wilkinson.”
Before he could continue, Johnny sobered, all semblance of gaiety gone. He interrupted the sheriff. “I’m gonna ride with the posse.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. But this matter is in Gabe’s jurisdiction and I’ll have to see if he’s gonna lead one.”
“Why wait for Gabe? You lead the posse.” Johnny looked at Val, as if he expected the sheriff to follow, then stepped toward the doorway leading into the foyer. “Let’s go.”
But Johnny’s movement toward the front door was quickly halted by Murdoch’s booming voice. “Hold it, Johnny. You’re not going anywhere yet.”
“Why waste any more time? The trail’s growing colder by the day,” Johnny argued.
“That might not be true. There’s a complication.” Val had their attention once more. “One of the men was gunned down in a little no-account town west of here.”
“Gunned down?” Murdoch crossed the room and came face to face with the lawman. “Murdered?”
“I didn’t say that Murdoch.” Val stood up straight and met Murdoch’s eyes. “What I’m saying is we may have some kind of vigilante. The witnesses in the saloon say this man, all dark and quiet-like, waited for Jack Connor. He’s one of the suspects in Josie’s murder. Anyway, then this man stood up, and egged him into a gunfight. It was fair and legal-like, but Connor didn’t have a chance. The gunman said he was making him pay for killing the Wilkinson girl.”
“Is this what brought you out to Lancer?” Murdoch narrowed his eyes.
“Yeah. I was wondering if Thomas was still in the area.” Val paused to rub his chin thoughtfully. “I was also curious if Johnny had heard of any gunhawks being in the area. I figured he would be the first to know since he has an ear for this kind of thing.”
All eyes were suddenly on Johnny. He met their gaze and shrugged his shoulders. “No, Val, I don’t know where Thomas is and I haven’t heard of anyone being in the area. But I’ll keep my eyes open.”
“Could be this gunhawk is a vigilante. Looks like he may be taking out the men he thinks had something to do with Josie’s death. Or he may just be taking out gunmen who could give him a reputation.” Val’s stare was icy, but Johnny understood the implication. If a wannabe gunhawk was making a name for himself, sooner or later he would seek out the best. And Madrid was one of the best. Val exchanged a knowing gaze with Johnny. “It’s not uncommon to start small and build up to bigger guns.”
“Johnny,” Scott said with concern, “You watch your back.”
For the day of their calamity is near, And the impending things are hastening upon them….Deut. 32:35
The first kill got my heart racing. I’d forgotten how good it feels to have the blood pulsing through my veins, all my senses at fever pitch. It’s like I can see in the dark, hear for miles, smell smoke in the next county. Damn, I’d forgotten how powerful the rush makes me feel. And bold. I’m sitting here on my horse, in the middle of this road in the middle of nowhere, and I know he’s coming.
He never saw me watching him. He rode in and out of that shit-hole of a town, never even watched out for me. I guess he thought Connor just picked a fight with the wrong man. I bet he doesn’t know this is all about Josie. Well, he’s fixin’ to find out different.
I just picked up a sound. Hoof beats. Finally. My blood is like fire in my bones now, heating me up inside, but my nerves are icy. I can take him. I know I can and it’s going to be too damn easy. That’s almost a shame because I’d like to be tested, make sure I haven’t lost my edge. But even if I’m off a bit, and I’m not, I could take this piece of shit.
I can see him now. He’s in no hurry. He has no idea how persistent and patient I can be. I would hunt him for the rest of my life if need be. This one’s for you, Josie.
So beautiful and pure. He soiled her. Covered her innocence with his filth. But he’ll never do it again. Never.
He’s pulled up now. Looking at me. He doesn’t know what to think. I guess I must look out of place. Oh well. Looks can be deceiving. He’s coming closer. Gaining confidence now. A little closer. Just a little closer so you can look in my eyes and see your own death there.
“Hey, mister. You’re in my way,” he says.
Damn, he really thinks he’s something.
“Now move that piece of crow-bait out of the way and you won’t get hurt.”
My horse isn’t crow-bait. That in itself is a good reason for killing him. I guess now is as good a time as any. I push my hat back on my head so he can see my face. Aw, he knows me. That’s good. Then he knows what’s comin’. I look him over slowly and wait until my silence makes him all nervous. He’s swallowing hard and he has the biggest Adam’s apple I ever saw. But then again his neck is so damn skinny. Maybe that’s why he’s always been called ‘Bones’. Maybe.
He demands impatiently, “You got a reason for blocking the road?”
He’s trying to get the upper hand. Sounds more curious than scared but that’ll change soon enough.
“We got business.” I say it soft, slow. With a big go-to-hell grin.
His eyes are wide open now. Makes him look real funny with his mouth gaping at me like that. He’s getting it.
He blurts, “You killed Connor!”
“Now it’s your turn.” I say it quiet and steady so he can see how confident I am. I hope he knows how short the next few seconds are gonna be.
“Why? Why the hell would you kill him? Why?”
The panic is setting in. I can hear it in his voice. “You shouldn’t have messed with the girl.” I’m pleased that I sound like I don’t care.
“She was a piece of ass, no different from any other. Why the hell should you care?”
“Now that’s where you and the boys got it wrong. And I am not going to explain to garbage like you. You ain’t decent enough to keep living. So draw and I’ll put you out of your misery real fast.” I touch my thigh and let him see my hand right above the gun on my hip.
He looks like he’s gonna piss in his pants. Fine by me. There it is, the glint in the eye and he makes his move, but I hit him dead center. Not that I expect less from myself. His bullet hits the ground in front of my feet. Two down, Josie, two to go.
Scott lifted his head from the ledger in front of him on Murdoch’s big desk. He’d been looking at the numbers so long they were becoming a blur. He rubbed his eyes and threw a bleary glance toward his brother. “Hey, Johnny, you want to go to town tonight? I think we need a little rest and relaxation.”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m in the mood.” Johnny poked the fire, stirring up the blaze. The cool night air had permeated the house and the fire fought back against the chill, spreading heated fingers throughout the great room. “You go on, though.”
“No, little brother. I’m not going without you.” Scott wasn’t manipulative or given to bending others to his will. In fact he abhorred the very practice. Perhaps it was watching his grandfather twist and turn the lives of others that made him more resistant to the carnal schemes of man.
But Johnny had been brooding and withdrawn, a sure sign he had something on his mind. Something he wasn’t willing to confide in spite of the closeness the brothers had achieved in the past several weeks. So, tenaciously, Scott pressed further. “Besides that pretty little blonde….what’s her name?”
“Devon.” Johnny’s voice remained neutral though his eyes had a momentary flicker of light.
“That’s it. Devon. You haven’t seen her for a while.” Scott could be persuasive when he felt it necessary and right now they both needed some recreation, anything to get their minds off the grief that had overwhelmed the community of late. “I bet she would enjoy a night of your company.”
“Aw Scott, I’m not sure I can be good company. She don’t want to see me like this.” But Johnny was caving, thoughts of the voluptuous blonde kindling an unbidden fire deep within his loins.
“I think she would love to see you no matter what mood you’re in. And I bet she could cheer you up, too.” Scott stood and placed his hands on the desk, leaning forward.
“I don’t know….” Johnny approached the desk and stood twisting the beads around his wrist.
Sensing victory, Scott pressed a little harder, stoking his brother’s faint spark of lust into a fire. “Johnny, we are still very much alive with very real needs. Now what do you say?”
A brief pause then, “Since you put it like that.” Johnny tossed Scott a wicked grin. Perhaps a little release would be a good thing. As if the idea of wine, women and song had exploded within him, Johnny seemed suddenly more animated.
“The things I do for you…” The twinkle in Scott’s eyes fully expressed his understanding and, more importantly, his agreement.
The ride home, hours later, passed in companionable silence. The brothers were sated, warmed by the fire of both alcohol and loving. While Johnny had cozied up to the curvy Devon, Scott had engaged in a game of poker, winning easily, before enjoying a tryst with a little brunette he favored, Selena. The young woman had managed very successfully to ease his feelings of pain, as well as the worry he still had for his brother. He had bid her farewell, planting a feverish good night kiss upon her full lips, before finding Johnny and seeing him settled on Barranca.
Now under the full moon, relaxed and feeling no pain, they allowed the horses to choose their way home unaided. Scott drew in a deep breath and marveled at the crisp clean autumn air. “Yes sir, a little rest and relaxation does a body good.” His thoughts returned to a similar night in Boston with the beguiling Barbara. Whereas this night had passed pleasantly, that evening had ended in disaster. Her father had burst into her bedroom uninvited and at a most inopportune moment. But maybe that had been for the best. Being a man of honor, Scott would have felt obligated to make an honest woman of Barbara. But the interruption of her father and a chance encounter with a Pinkerton agent had set a new and invigorating course for the rest of his life.
“Yes?” Johnny’s voice brought Scott out of his reminiscence. He sighed, and returned to the present.
“Do you think it is a vigilante?” Though the question itself was not entirely surprising, the indifference in Johnny’s tone was.
Scott threw a sharp glance at his brother but was relieved at Johnny’s posture and attitude. His brother rode slouched in the saddle, his eyes half closed and chin on his chest. Scott drew in another quick breath of relief. “I’m not sure, brother. To tell the truth I’ve had other things on my mind tonight.” And other people he silently admitted. Aw, Ah, the lovely Selena. She was certainly a woman to satisfy a man’s appetites. “Why do you ask?”
“I dunno,” Johnny drawled. “Old man Jenkins, you know the drunk in the saloon?”
Scott merely nodded.
“He says ole Bones was found dead on the road out of a town south of here.”
Scott drew rein, his eyes glowing with interest. “Bones?”
“Yeah, Jenkins says Val and Gabe have an idea it was him and Connor and two others who killed Josie.” Johnny rode ahead a couple more paces before he realized Scott had reined in his mount and was sitting in the middle of the road. Against the full moon Scott’s features were thrown into sharp relief. “Scott, wassamatter?”
Clearly Johnny had indulged in more than a couple of shots of tequila.
“Val and Gabe have clues? And they’ve told no one?”
“Nope, they can’t prove anything yet so they are being real quiet-like and investigating. But now Bones is dead, too.” Johnny seemed suddenly tired. He sighed and settled deeper into the saddle.
“Well, if Val and Gabe have no proof that Connor, this Bones fellow, and two others murdered Josie, then the person who killed them is no better. Nothing more than a murderer,” Scott countered. “Wouldn’t you think so, Johnny?”
Johnny sobered suddenly as the thought settled deeper in his mind. “I don’t know about that, Boston. Seems to me, he’s keeping our women-folk safe and dealing with Josie’s killers.”
“You agree with that course of action? You don’t see the moral wrong of it?” Scott was appalled, his sense of right and wrong fairly insulted.
“Actually, Scott, I think the man is doing us all a favor. He should be rewarded.” The hard glint in Johnny’s eyes sparkled like crystals of ice in the full glow of the night moon.
Do not take revenge, dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath….Rom. 12:19
Lucas Barton. Now that’s a scumbag if there ever was one. He ain’t good enough for the snakes. In fact, they’re a might taller, to my way of thinking. Compared to Connor and Bones he is not a man, but an insect that deserves to be squashed and I plan to do just that. I’ve been tracking him for hours, now I found out about his little hidey hole. In the middle of nowhere, he’s been hunting game like he’s got no worries at all. I know he’s heard about the other two and how I killed them so either he is that dumb or he thinks he can’t be traced back to them. But this whole mess is covered by his stench and I’m not fooled.
Nothing in this camp except a little jerky. Of course I can’t judge him for that. I’ve been caught with less. He does have good whiskey though. Once I deal with him, I think I’ll help myself to a drink…or two. Maybe more. Horse will get me home. I can count on that. Damn good horse.
His coffee smells kinda burned. Can’t be sure what he would have used as coffee makings. No signs of any supplies in this camp. Kinda cold. Maybe he does know he’s being tracked. No matter. I can certainly handle the likes of him. I’ve met worse. I’d laugh but I don’t want to let on I’m here. At least not until he finishes taking his piss. No man should be interrupted while he does that. But he isn’t a man. I have to keep telling myself that. And he deserves what’s coming.
But maybe I shouldn’t keep on with this. Maybe I’m crossing some line. Hell, I don’t know any more. Well, no matter, I can hear him coming back. Damn, he makes enough noise to wake the dead.
“Whatcha doin’ at my fire?” The man sounds fairly indignant. And that’s funny coming out of a filthy trap like his. “Put your hands in the air or I’ll plug ya!”
Plug me? I’d laugh but I’ll let the pisser think he has the upper hand for now.
“Who the hell are ya?”
His yappin is giving me a headache. He’s a confident bastard. I’ll give him that much. “You know me,” I say, keeping my voice soft and easy. He’s looking at me in a real strange way now, trying to put a name to my face, no doubt.
“You’re no one to me. Tell me what you’re doing here. Now!”
He’s pushy, too. I can’t abide the loud, bossy types. Always thinking they’re the ones in charge. “You and me gonna have us a dance.” That’s all I’m gonna say. He can figure out for his own self why I’m here. He’s lookin’ real antsy. I swallow hard to keep from laughing.
He looks real puzzled and says, “Look a here, mister, I been camped all calm and peaceful like until you came in here yapping at me. If’n you aim to keep up your yapping, I’ll not be so peaceful. Now climb down off’n your high horse and state your business.”
“I’m here about a girl. Gold hair, green eyes. Ring a bell?”
He’s looking at me hard, his eyes get all beady when he squints like that. But I know he knows now who I am and he knows what I want. He’s standing still, his knuckles are white on the handle of his gun. He’s holding it real tight. I can see his finger pulling the trigger and I go for my gun. Its close but I’ve had closer. The lead flying from his gun just misses my left ear seconds after my bullet finds its mark. Dead center.
He stares at his chest and looks shocked. His mouth is moving like he wants to talk but all I hear is a gurgling sound as he chokes on his own blood. I wait for him to fall then I head for my horse.
As I mount up I’m suddenly very tired. Revenge really takes it out of a man and I’m feeling it now. I thought I would feel so satisfied throughout this whole thing but it’s beginning to get to me. Adrenaline really pumps me up in the beginning but it fades away faster with each kill. Kill. That’s what I’m doing. Killing. God, what’s happening to me? But there is only one more. One more and I can go home. I can sleep. And so can she.
Johnny groaned as his eyes fluttered open. His head throbbed and his body felt leaden. It was indeed the day after the night before. But it had been well worth it. Devon had brought relief to his pain, at least temporarily. The pleasure of the night had worn off, and now reality settled in… in the form of a serious hangover. Damn, and Murdoch wouldn’t sympathize at all. Johnny stretched his arms and felt the stiffness in each limb. Rolling over carefully, he sat up and placed his feet on the cool wooden planks of the floor. His stomach rolled ominously and he wrapped his arms across his belly, scarcely daring to breath. Eventually the nausea passed and the room ceased its wild spinning. He’d had worse.
The door to Johnny’s room was suddenly flung wide open and Scott strode into the room. He paused long enough to read Johnny’s body language; all signs indicated his younger brother was suffering the effects of their night on the town. With an impish grin, Scott sat down on the bed beside Johnny and gripped him by the shoulder. Oblivious to his brother’s expression of consternation, Scott gave him a gentle shake. “Rise and shine, sleepy head.”
“Leave me alone, Scott.” Johnny groaned and hung his head. The aroma of frying bacon wafted up the stairs and Johnny’s stomach knotted in protest. Either he was very hungry or he was going to be sick. Right now he couldn’t tell.
“What’s the matter?” Scott’s lips curled into a knowing grin. He was enjoying his brother’s discomfort and he knew he’d been right in assuming a night out would ease the younger man’s sour mood. Now he felt justified in making the most of Johnny’s illness. Perhaps Johnny would be so intent on his physical plight today that his emotional pain would be set aside, at least for a while. Scott’s gaze took in Johnny’s disheveled hair, his bloodshot eyes and flushed cheeks. “Humm, tequila and Devon. What a combination. So which one did you in? Perhaps both?”
“I said, leave me alone, Scott. I mean it.” Johnny hung his head, waiting for the throbbing to stop. He knew what Scott was doing and in some ways he was grateful for it. It had been a relief to allow the alcohol to remove his pain. And Devon had done her job very well also. He’d have to thank her again the next time he was in town. But right now, he needed to pull himself together. If only Scott would stop shaking the bed.
Scott stood and put his hands on his hips. A wave of sympathy flowed through him as he observed his brother’s misery. More gentle than before, he urged, “Come on, little brother, get dressed. Breakfast is waiting.”
In answer Johnny merely groaned again.
Breakfast passed quietly. Scott spent the entire meal alternating his attention between the abundance of food Maria insisted on heaping on his plate and Johnny. While Johnny cautiously drank a cup of coffee, he scarcely touched his food. Scott exchanged a glance with his father, and was surprised when, instead of judgment, he found understanding in his eyes.
As if aware of the two pairs of eyes on him, Johnny lifted his head. “What’d you want me to do today, Murdoch?”
“Well, I think busting some of the new horses would be out of the question.” Murdoch struggled to disguise his mirth but his shoulders shook briefly with humor.
“Very funny,” Johnny groused before he cautiously took a small bite of a biscuit. He managed to eat half of it before he pushed his plate away. He offered Maria an apologetic smile as she quietly removed his plate. She gathered the remaining dishes but left the coffee cups and brought in a fresh pot of the dark brew.
The sound of the front door opening heralded the arrival of the Lancer foreman. Cipriano entered the room and removed his hat. “Patrón.” He handed Murdoch a carefully folded piece of paper before he left through one of the French doors, saying he had to get back to work.
Murdoch studied the paper in his hand then sighed heavily and closed his eyes. After long moments of silence broken only by the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway, Murdoch revealed the words in the missive. “Gabe says that two more of the men suspected in Josie Wilkinson’s murder have been murdered themselves. He says a man named Bones and one named Lucas Barton were both found dead. Bones’ body was discovered on a road out of a town to the south, close to where Connors was killed, and Lucas was in his own camp.”
Johnny sobered instantly. “The vigilante is still out there? Does Gabe have any idea who this man may be?”
“No, none. Gabe says he has to be a gunman with considerable skill. As wretched as these men are, they are no slouches with a Colt.” Murdoch leaned back in his chair, the wood creaking beneath his bulk. “This sounds like revenge to me. And whoever this is will find out that revenge is not as sweet as it seems. In fact, it will tear a hole in his gut. You still haven’t heard any rumors about anyone trying to build a reputation, have you?”
“No, Murdoch. I told you I’d let you know if I did.” Johnny took a sip of his coffee. “I’ve been out of the business for months. I may not be as well-informed as I was once. And Johnny Lancer isn’t a gunhawk.”
Scott nodded his head in agreement. “If it isn’t about a name, then it has to be revenge pure and simple.” Scott analyzed a number of theories carefully, quickly discarding one after another. “The Wilkinsons are law-abiding people and would certainly not resort to guns. And I doubt they have the money to afford a hired gun good enough to take on four men. Thomas was supposed to leave the area a week or so ago and if he did then who else would take the law into their own hands? He was really distraught and angry but do we know if Thomas really left town?”
“Answer that question, Scott, and you may have the killer.” Johnny spoke deliberately, and though his words were directed at his brother, his eyes bored holes into his father’s.
His aim was true and he had shaved fractions of a second off his draw. He was even faster than he’d ever been. Johnny shook his head in disbelief. But how was that possible, he wondered? After months of working a ranch, he had maintained and even improved his speed. More than satisfied with his fast-draw, he walked quickly to the paper target he had set up on the trunk of a fallen tree. All five shots had drilled through the center of the target. Amazed, he resumed his position and reloaded his Colt. The barrel was still warm but he welcomed the heat. With a grin he settled the deadly weapon in its place on his hip and drew yet again.
Scott heard the shots from a position over the ridge up ahead. His instincts had been correct after all. He’d known about Johnny’s secret practice range for months but had never intruded on his brother’s space, until now. He knew Johnny would not welcome his appearance there. He never allowed his family to see Madrid in action. But today was going to be an exception. Scott wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
Topping the ridge, he pulled up and watched as his brother emptied another round into a small paper target forty yards from where he stood. Though he would never admit it, he was impressed. He’d read a dime novel or two before coming out West but had believed the stories were just that. Stories. Now here before him was his own brother, a man he hadn’t known long, and one of the heroes, or villains, in a paperback novel Scott kept tucked in his bottom drawer.
Scott encouraged his horse down the gentle slope, knowing Johnny would hear him coming. A smile curved his lips as Johnny turned and awaited his approach, his annoyance clearly visible in his stance.
Johnny remained silent as Scott dismounted and ground-tied his bay horse. With tightly pursed lips he reloaded his Colt once more.
Scott strode undaunted to his brother’s side. “So that’s the gun you used to do your business?” He stuck out his hand expectantly.
“No one touches a gunfighter’s weapon, you know that.” Johnny drawled ominously.
“Yes, well, you aren’t a gunfighter anymore, right?” Scott’s cheeky grin had no effect on his brother, but Scott’s hand remained outstretched, waiting nonetheless. Hesitantly Johnny handed the gun to him. Scott turned the weapon over, inspecting it from every angle. “Looks interesting. Did you make these modifications yourself?”
“Yes.” Johnny nodded. “It has to be weighted and balanced for the individual. But that’s not why you came out here, Boston. So just get it said.” Johnny took his Colt back from his brother and slid it securely into its holster.
“I wanted to ask you a question.” Scott hesitated but Johnny seemed intent on the target still on the tree, his attention seemingly on the single hole in the center of the bull’s eye. “Johnny, about the vigilante.”
“You want to know if I’m him, don’t you?” Johnny turned the full force of his stare on his brother. But Scott didn’t shrink back; he met the blue eyes and pushed back. And it was Johnny who lowered his head. Softly, as if unsure of Scott’s reaction, Johnny said, “Killing those bastards is nothing a man should be proud of. What do you think?”
Murdoch Lancer paced the floor of the great room, oblivious to the charms of the grand home he had built. His thoughts were on his sons and the trauma of the past few months. It had been a difficult transition from strangers to family and it filled him with an odd sense of irony that it was the violence of life in the West that had created the peaceful harmony the Lancers now enjoyed. His sons had come home under the most dire of circumstances and fought side by side with him, a man they didn’t know. Now the death of a loved one in a family on a nearby ranch was the catalyst that had finally bound them together.
“Would you like some tea, Señor?” Maria stood in the doorway, anxiously watching her patrón. She was worried. The three men she most admired and cared for were in need of comfort yet all she could offer was the stability of a well-run household. Strangely enough, she knew it was exactly what the Lancers needed.
“What, Maria? Tea?” Murdoch turned from the window he had been staring intently out of and nodded. “Sure and why don’t you join me? I could use some company.”
Intuitively, she offered her patrón some encouragement, “Scott and Juanito will be fine, just fine.” With that the small housekeeper disappeared into the kitchen where the sounds of clanking kettles and pots were clearly heard.
Scott was the first one home. He headed straight for the barn and cared for the needs of his mount before going to the water trough. With cupped hands he scooped up water and splashed it into his face. He shook his head, spraying a fine mist of droplets down his neck. Somewhat refreshed, he approached the hacienda, pausing on the patio to slap the dust from his trousers. His conversation with his brother should have reassured him but instead he felt the weight of foreboding even more intensely than he had on the day Murdoch had told Johnny about Josie’s murder. Johnny had never lied to him, he knew he never would, but his brother’s answer had been vague. Had Johnny deliberately avoided the question? Or was his response the best he could offer?
Ashamed of himself for doubting Johnny, Scott chastised himself for his disloyalty. Johnny would be hurt if he knew his own brother could suspect him. And Johnny, indeed the whole community, had been hurt enough. Scott lifted his hand to turn the doorknob of the massive oak door but the knob moved seemingly of its own accord before he could grip it.
Murdoch opened the door as Scott’s hand hovered over the doorknob. The Lancer patriarch ushered his firstborn into the great room, then ran anxious eyes over the lean body of his son. “Are you all right?”
“Of course I am, sir. Why?” Scott leveled his gaze on his father, his expression closed and guarded.
“Cipriano said something about an incident out in the east pasture where the men are breaking the new string of horses. I thought you were out there with Johnny and when you appeared looking like this it occurred to me that perhaps something more serious had happened.” Murdoch raked his gaze over his oldest son.
Scott took in his disheveled appearance and the grime that coated his clothing and saw it from Murdoch’s perspective. “I’m fine Murdoch. And I saw Johnny this morning. He…” Scott choked back his first response. He knew that Johnny would not appreciate it if his brother revealed the truth of his target practice. “He was getting ready for the first mount. I joined the crew working the northern fence line. Do you have any details about what happened? Is anyone hurt?”
“Something about snakes and coming off a horse.” Murdoch took a deep cleansing breath. “I suppose if it had been bad, the hands would have come straight in and sent for Sam,” he reasoned aloud. “If they’re not back in due course I’ll send a rider out to check.”
“Precisely, sir.” Scott moved toward the kitchen. “I’ll get cleaned up. Johnny will be home for dinner if I know him at all.”
For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me. I will pay them back, declares the Lord.” Rom. 12:19
Eddie Gantt. Damned son-of-a-bitch. But it will be over soon. This is the last one, Josie. The last one and my job will be done. Then you can rest and so can I. I’m growing tired of the game now. I thought my hate would carry me through, make me happy doing this dirty work. And it has been dirty. I don’t even want the stench of these men in my nose. But I’m not enjoying this like I thought I would. My soul is sick; it feels like a piece of me dies with each man I kill. And it is murder. They don’t stand a chance against me. They don’t have my experience or my expertise.
I tie my horse securely out of harm’s way. Can’t have a stray bullet hitting him. Best damn horse I ever had.
I adjust my rig, it feels secure and I’m ready. He’s coming now, sounds like his horse is plodding along. The beast should be tired; it’s led me in circles around these damned mines all afternoon. He knew I was stalking him and I guess he’s decided to face his destiny.
I can see him now and he sees me. He drops the reins and his horse is staying put. I hope the nag isn’t gun shy or they’ll have to round it up to take him back to town. I only hope the coyotes find him first.
He says in a low voice, “You lookin’ for me?”
Shit, he’s stupid. Like I haven’t been chasing him half the damned long day. I just nod and pat my thigh. He knows who I am and what I want. I was sure he would have figured it out when he heard about Lucas Barton. Like I said, he’s stupid. Takes three dead men for him to get it.
He’s acting like he has the nerve to actually challenge me and says, “Now lookee here. I think I’ll just save some time and send your ass to Hell. How’d ya like that, huh?”
“I don’t think so. I prefer to keep my fate in my own hands,” I tell him. If he’s trying to rile me, it isn’t working. He may be the worst of the lot of them but he isn’t good enough to take me.
“We’ll see about that.”
He laughs and the sound of it grates on me. I wonder if Josie heard his laugh while he took her, filling her with his poison. The thought of her in pain fills me with rage and the adrenaline starts pumping, my blood is on fire. I push my hat back so he can see my eyes, but he isn’t scaring as easy as the others. It doesn’t matter though. This dance will end like they all do. “Anytime you’re ready,” I tell him, daring him to draw.
He moves to his left, trying to get the sun behind his back but I’m no fool and I move with him. I keep the sun at our side. Makes the odds better. I can see him weighing his chances. He must think he’s good. His eyes are narrowed, and he has the look of both hunter and prey.
He goes for his gun and so do I. Even before the gun smoke clears I know I’ve beat him and he knows it too. My bullet plows through his flesh, drilling him in the stomach and he coughs up blood. But something burns across my side under my ribs. Damn. He wasn’t fast enough and he wasn’t very accurate but he was a lucky son-of-a-bitch. That’s gonna hurt like hell. I ignore it and suck in the pain. Hide it away for now.
I walk over to him and watch him squirming on the ground like the snake he is. “You know,” I lean over so he is sure to hear, “It’s only fitting to gut-shoot you. Now maybe you’ll have just a little hint of what she felt.” I stand up and start for my horse but his scream stops me.
“You bastard, you can’t leave me here like this!”
I turn around and face him, anger and hate coursing through me, so overwhelming, so strong, that I don’t even feel the burn in my side. “I’m leaving you the same way you left her, to a painful death.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
I can hear the fear of death in his voice but I don’t move. He deserved it. I remember the scripture I was taught as a child and now it seems so right. “Behold a pale horse and he who sat on him was death, and Hell followed after.” I realize only after I recite it that I’ve said it out loud.
“Shit, you’re nuts man.”
He’s gasping. It’s almost over. “Maybe,” I say, “But Hell follows after me. You hear me? When you get to Hell, you tell them I sent you.”
It’s over Josie, my beloved. It’s finally over. I go to my horse and ignore his cries. I want to cover my ears but I don’t. I won’t give him that. I know he’ll scream at night in my sleep but I won’t let him know I care.
“Hey Val, what’s up?” Scott met the sheriff at the corral, and gripped his horse’s bridle. “Murdoch, Val’s here,” Scott yelled over his shoulder into the barn.
“Val.” Murdoch nodded. “Climb on down and rest a spell. Didn’t recognize you on this animal.” Murdoch swept an appraising eye over the white gelding.
“Yeah, my horse pulled up lame. Stone bruise I think. This one’s a loaner.”
“You got time for a drink?” Scott took a step toward the hacienda.
“Thanks but I got no time. I’m heading for the Wilkinson ranch when I finish here.” Val paused and wiped the sweat out of his eyes with the back of his hand. “Just wanted to let you know the last of Josie’s killers was found gut-shot a little while ago. Some crazy miner heard the shots and found the body and brought him in.”
“So it’s over then?” Scott sighed in relief. There was no reason any more to worry that someone was gunning for his brother. Although it was always a very real threat, at least this time it had been a false alarm. He was sure Johnny would never stop practicing though. And that would be his secret. His and Johnny’s. A quick look at his father’s face and Scott realized their secret might be shared by one more.
“Yup, it seems to be over.”
Scott pushed his hat to the back of his head. “Thank you, Val, for coming out personally to tell us. I’m sure Johnny will be relieved when he hears the news.”
“Johnny isn’t here?” Val looked around the corrals and barn area expectantly.
“No, he’s out with a crew breaking horses. We’ll tell him you came by.” Murdoch turned away and headed back into the house. There was a bottle of scotch with his name on it.
Val made no move to leave, obviously torn by some knowledge he was considering whether to share. Finally he squared his shoulders and met Scott’s gaze. “This was on the ground not far from where Gantt’s body was found.” Val stuck out his fist and opened his palm to reveal a small silver locket. He let the heart fall until it dangled from his hand by a dainty silver chain.
Val and Scott exchanged knowing looks. Each understood what the other was thinking. Val had given Scott the locket earlier and in turn Scott had given it to Johnny. Johnny had supposedly given it to Thomas. So how had it come to be in Gantt’s possession?
“You might want to open it,” urged the sheriff.
Scott turned his attention to unlatching the delicate piece. His brow knotted in consternation as he tried to fathom the meaning of the empty locket. The photos that had been there were gone.
Val looked Scott square in the eye. “I don’t want to make a habit of handin’ this over. I don’t like thinkin’ about what it might mean.”
Scott nodded in agreement, squeezing the locket in his clenched fist, trying to make sense of the implications of this fresh news, as Val mounted his horse and rode off.
It had been a long afternoon and the strain of waiting was almost more than Scott could bear. After Val’s departure, Scott had managed to get Murdoch back out to the barn to continue loading the bales of hay into the loft. It was hot and dusty work and each man worked silently, concentrating on breathing through their bandanas, which they wore tied tightly around their faces. They made no attempt at conversation: there was no need. Their thoughts were on the sheriff’s visit and Johnny’s absence.
Hours later, after a quick bath, Scott stood peering anxiously out the open French door. The late afternoon sun cast long shadows on the ground, shadows that seemed to mock him, and move of their own accord. The air was still and lifeless, not even the hint of a breeze to cool his heated skin. The oppressive silence of the great room was closing in on him and Scott felt as if he were being smothered. Seeking escape from the stifling quiet of the great house, Scott stepped onto the patio and lifted his face to the setting sun. He closed his eyes and wished again that Johnny would hurry home.
The emotions of the last few months had left him drained and weary yet his mind ceaselessly pondered the events of the day. It was over. The Wilkinsons, and Thomas, had been granted closure and would have to learn to live with the loss of a beloved daughter and fiancée. Josie’s killers were dead and she could now rest in peace. But somewhere out there, either hard on the trail or perhaps closer than he cared to think, was the man responsible for their deaths. Scott’s nerves were worn thin by the sudden urgent need to discover the identity of that man.
“Scott?” Murdoch called from the great room.
“I’m out here.”
Scott turned as Murdoch, a drink in each hand, came through the open French door. “I thought you could use a drink while you wait.”
“Thank you.” Scott accepted the drink and took a deep swallow then held the cool glass to his cheek relishing the temporary relief from the heat. “It’s hot tonight.”
“Yes, it is.” Murdoch lowered his eyes and concentrated on the amber liquid in his glass. “All the men back in?”
“Not yet, but they still have a little time until it’s dark.” Scott leaned back against the pillar and watched his father.
As if aware of his son’s study Murdoch raised his eyes and met Scott’s gaze. “I’m going to get some paperwork done before dinner.” He hesitated briefly then nodded and entered the great room, closing the door behind him.
Scott crossed to the nearest chair and sat heavily, sighing as he shook off the last vestiges of the day. He leaned his head back and allowed his eyes to close. He slept lightly, lost in vivid dreams of a beautiful young girl, her sightless eyes staring, and her mouth moving as she demanded justice. Then a man was there, his features obscured by darkness, his gun flaming as he pulled the trigger four times, his head tilted back as he laughed maniacally. Four men fell writhing in pain, their life’s blood spilling on the dry ground beneath them. “Who are you?” Scott yelled. The man turned, and lifted a hand to the brim of his hat…
The sound of a horse approaching jerked Scott back to the present and he realized he must have drifted off. A pale horse, its rider slouching deep in the saddle, was crossing to the barn. Scott watched as a hand met the horseman and was waved off. Johnny, his form unmistakable, led his golden stallion into the barn. Long moments later, Johnny reappeared.
It was almost dark when a weary Johnny Lancer rode under the white arches. He allowed Barranca to move at his own pace and just concentrated on taking slow shallow breaths. It had been a long and exhausting day and his body ached with the stress. As he approached the rear entrance to the hacienda a ranch hand materialized out of the darkness and offered to tend to the stallion.
Although he was anxious to retreat to his room, he was reluctant to allow anyone else to care for his horse. He thanked the man and waved him off, then led the stallion to the barn. He curried Barranca the best he could, then filled his water bucket and gave the stallion a measure of oats. Barranca sank his nose deep into the water bucket and drank while Johnny patted his muscled neck.
“Yeah, you’re a good fella,” Johnny whispered affectionately. In response Barranca nudged his shoulder. Johnny left the stall and secured the latch. With a grimace he left the barn and crossed the yard to the back of the hacienda. He moved slowly, each step deliberate and measured.
Johnny paused on the patio and leaned over, his arm on his side, and breathed slowly. A shadow separated itself from the darkness and moved toward him. Light from the great room shone through the windows and threw the man’s lean form into stark relief.
Scott crossed the patio to his brother and stopped in front of him. “Cipriano says he heard there’d been an accident.” Scott raked his gaze over Johnny, searching for signs of an injury. “You okay?”
“Hey, Scott.” Johnny straightened his shoulders and drew himself to his full height, hissing softly as the pain in his side intensified then ebbed. Slowly, he released his breath. “I’m fine.”
Scott had quickly learned that Johnny was always fine, or so he claimed, but Scott usually turned a deaf ear to Johnny’s declarations. Now was no different. Still worried that Johnny had been injured, Scott searched his brother’s face for any indication of trauma but Johnny pulled the brim of his hat lower, shielding his features from Scott’s scrutiny.
Nonchalantly, Johnny said, “One of the men thinks he saw Thomas waiting for the stage. I guess he’s leaving, if it was him.”
”I thought he was already gone.” Scott felt a momentary sense of relief followed by a sharp twinge of guilt. He was doing it again. Suspecting his brother of murder. He knew Johnny would be deeply hurt if he ever learned of Scott’s persistent suspicion. He would have to make certain Johnny never knew. Shaking off the troubling thoughts Scott asked once more, “Are you okay?”
“I was working one of the green-broke horses and…” Johnny paused briefly. “I came off…” His voice sounded strong enough but with Johnny one never knew. “There was a snake.”
It was then Scott noticed his brother’s left arm was pressed against his side and his movements seemed guarded. “A snake?” Scott placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and studied his posture. “Are you hurt? You’re favoring your side.”
“I’m fine, Scott, okay? A bath, some food and a stiff drink will do the trick.” Johnny knocked Scott’s hand off his shoulder then headed for the door. But Scott’s voice stopped him in his tracks.
“Johnny?” Scott cocked his head to the side and took a deep steadying breath. Almost afraid of the truth, silently praying for the right answer, he asked the question that was foremost in his mind. “Did you kill the snake?”
Johnny turned slowly to face his brother, but his features were still hidden by his hat. “Yeah, Scott, yeah, I got him.”
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