Many thanks, once again, to Karen F. for her appraising eye and for providing us Lancer fans a glorious website where we can post our tales (and to Anna for the mirror site).
Thanks, too, to Jen and AJ for the early read and encouragement.
May all your muses feed you a steady diet of words.
Word count: 20, 615
It’s another tequila sunrise
Starin’ slowly ‘cross the sky, said goodbye
He was just a hired hand
Workin’ on the dreams he planned to try
The days go by
Ev’ry night when the sun goes down
Just another lonely boy in town
And she’s out runnin’ ‘round
She wasn’t just another woman
And I couldn’t keep from comin’ on
It’s been so long
Whoa and it’s a hollow feelin’
When it comes down to dealin’ friends
It never ends
Take another shot of courage
Wonder why the right words never come
You just get numb
It’s another tequila sunrise
This old world still looks the same
Another frame .
~ ~ Tequila Sunrise, by The Eagles
“There’s a whole lotta peace and comfort to be found at the bottom of a tequila bottle.”
“Johnny, are you all right?”
Nearly hidden within a lush patch of trees that lined the side of the road, Barranca danced nervously as Johnny twisted around in the saddle. He looked at his surroundings confused, as if he hadn’t realized he’d left the road and stopped.
Johnny lifted his hat and reseated it with a swift tug on the brim, and then spurred his horse forward. “Yeah. Sure,” he snarled as he galloped past the wagon.
“It’s not like him to be distracted,” Scott said quietly as he snapped the reins.
“Bad time for him to start daydreaming,” Jelly ventured as the wagon lurched forward. “That, or he’s second guessin’ goin’ into town just now. Can’t say as I much blame ‘im.”
“You really don’t think it’s over yet?”
“No, I surely don’t. Somehow, words got out that Madrid’s in Morro Coyo. Johnny ain’t claimed to be nothin’ more th’n a rancher for over two years! You’d a thought his reputation would ‘a died by now. Can’t imagine why there’s so many all of a sudden set on tryin’ to take it from him.”
“I hoped it was merely a coincidence that the first two gunmen found him. But Cale Parker knew Johnny would be at the ranch without making a single inquiry. I think that scared Murdoch more than Johnny.”
Jelly snorted. “Made Johnny downright mad. At first, that is. Now he’s gone quiet. Too quiet – and don’t say you ain’t noticed.”
“I’ve noticed. Even asked him about it.” Jelly perked up at the prospects, eager for revelation. “He isn’t talking, though,” Scott said, matching the old handyman’s disappointment. “‘Gone to ground,’ as Murdoch’s described it. I wish I knew what he was thinking. I wish he’d stayed home.”
“Parker proved that ain’t a choice no more. And Johnny ain’t one to run from a problem. He’ll wrangle through this. You’ll see. ‘Course, he’s got you to watch his back, so that’ll help. I’m sure glad you convinced him there weren’t no reason for him to go it alone today.”
Scott shook his head and flicked the reins to speed the team. “Trouble is, once he gets boxed into a gunfight, Johnny does stand alone. It’s just him and the other man.”
That dire reality silenced the pair for the remainder of what should have been a routine trip into town to run errands. But there was nothing simple and nothing normal for Lancer right now. An immeasurable threat hovered like a pall over everyone and everything Johnny touched. A life the ex-gunfighter thought he’d escaped had found him again. Johnny Madrid Lancer was being hunted, and no one knew why – three gunmen having taken the answer to their graves.
The wagon caught up to Johnny at Baldemerro’s general store. Johnny already stood on the porch, his back to the wall beside the open front door. His sharp eyes scanned the town. He noted a few business owners and local ranchers known to him, and an unusual number of children for a school day. He spotted no strangers.
Scott set the brake on the wagon and hopped down. Jelly joined him up on the boardwalk.
“Well, the sooner we get started the quicker we could maybe get us some lunch an’ a beer,” Jelly said with a forced enthusiasm.
“You lookin’ to get me killed?” Johnny asked with a ruthless edge. But he quickly regretted the cruel callousness of his words, even before he caught Scott’s vexed reaction.
“Sorry . . . wasn’t thinkin’,” Jelly said, his gaze averted to the boardwalk.
“No, I’m sorry,” Johnny said. “Just no use temptin’ fate. I got Barranca. I can head back soon as we’re done. No reason you two can’t take it slow and easy. Scott’ll even buy lunch.” He tried for a smile, but it didn’t quite reach his ever-roving eyes.
“Wouldn’t be right without you there, Johnny,” Jelly said.
“Get used to it.” The bite was back, spiked with a dank cynicism and without apology.
“Let’s just get started.” Scott’s tone was honed just as sharp. “Do you want to stick together, brother, or split up the chores for speed?”
’He’s learnin’,’ Johnny thought. “Split ‘em up. I’ll fill the supply order. Jelly, you head over to the livery and pick up that tack from Spencer. Scott I know you got interest in the mail and need to send those worthless telegrams for Murdoch. We can meet back here.”
“Done,” Scott said. He turned and headed off with long, determined strides down the boardwalk.
“You give a yell if—”
Johnny’s eyes stopped scanning the town to bore into Jelly. The old man stammered out another “sorry” before he too fled.
’Not near as sorry as me.’ Johnny glanced around town one last time then took a steadying breath and turned his back to the street.
Johnny crossed the threshold and took up a position just inside the door, his back again to the wall. He waited while his vision adjusted from the bright sunlight to the diffused interior. Seeing only the Millers, their two sons and the shop owner eased Johnny’s taut nerves a bit. Shutting the door behind him helped a touch more.
“Johnny!” Señor Baldemerro called from behind his wooden counter. “Welcome. Welcome!”
“Buenos Dias,” Johnny said as he crossed the room. He only made it halfway before the Miller kids wiggled away from their ma and bolted in his direction.
“Mr. Johnny!” Eli squealed as he slammed into Johnny and wrapped his arms around the man’s left leg. The four-year-olds peculiar way of greeting his favorite friends could jolt an unprepared man. Johnny rocked onto his heels and fought for balance, but his footing held.
“Howdy, Mr. Johnny,” Marcus said, his boyish excitement equally apparent, but the three years he had on his brother tempered his enthusiasm.
Eli got a pat on the head but Marcus received a man’s handshake. “Hello, boys. Ain’t you supposed to be in school?”
“No, sir. I-I-mean . . . yes, sir,” Marcus stammered. “’septin’ Miss Pettigrew got sick so’s we ain’t had to stay.”
“Didn’t have to stay,” Laura Miller corrected as she pried Eli from Johnny’s leg. “Good morning, Mr. Lancer.” She offered him a cheerful smile.
Johnny flipped his hat back and let it slide down his back, the stampede string catching around his neck. “Mrs. Miller.” He added a nod and continued walking, dogged by a young shadow.
“Our pony’s doin’ good,” Marcus reported. “She’s runnin’ now and everything. Got a good appetite, too!”
“Mornin’,” Mr. Miller said as he reached the counter.
“Tom.” Johnny offered another polite nod.
“Sorry ‘bout the boys. Wish they had that much energy for chores.”
Johnny smiled. “How’s the mare?”
“Real good, real good. I still can’t thank you enough for helpin’ out when she foaled. I’d ‘a lost ‘em both if you hadn’t been there.”
“Right place, right time, that’s all it was. Glad it worked out.”
“I am surprised to see you in town so soon,” Señor Baldemerro said. “But I think not too much scares Johnny Madrid!” The old shopkeeper laughed with a hearty joy, unaware of the pain inflicted by his words.
“We was sorry to hear about all the trouble,” Tom said.
Johnny bristled, set back on edge. He faced Miller, his reply harsh. “I didn’t ask for it.”
“Can’t imagine that you would, Johnny,” Laura said as she stepped up alongside of him. The woman bore a quiet peace that could settle a soul with a simple look, touch, or few words. Johnny envied Tom’s luck at winning her for his bride. Her hand reached out and touched his arm for a fleeting second, making him feel surprisingly vulnerable yet oddly safe. “We know how hard you’ve worked to put that life behind you. Most folks around here do.” Laura joined her husband. He wrapped an arm around her waist. “Like Tom said, we were sorry to hear about your trouble.”
Eli grabbed his leg again, and Johnny found further comfort from the boy’s innocent affection. It took a moment to manage a response. “I appreciate your concern. I’m hopin’ it’s over now.”
Laura smiled. “We do, too.”
“You have an order for me today?” Baldemerro said, his dotage again clouding his perception of the sensitive nature of the moment.
Johnny welcomed the change of subject. “Yeah. But it can wait ‘til you’re done with the Millers.”
Laura laughed as Tom frowned. “That could be awhile. We finally got enough saved for some new curtains Laura’s been dreamin’ on. Now she can’t decide on what kind ‘a cloth, let alone a color.”
Laura threw her head back and laughed louder, a bright, feminine laugh full of honest delight. Tom broke into a lopsided grin. “You go ahead. Like as not we’re gonna be here a bit.”
Johnny couldn’t help but smile too. A sincere smile that felt good. He reached into his bolero chaqueta and pulled out a list – but he had to drag the still clinging Eli forward a step before he could hand it to Baldemerro. “I’ll wait,” he said.
“Sí.” Baldemerro bobbed his head as he reviewed the list.
“Hold on a minute.” Marcus stood nearby, and Johnny motioned him over. Eli gazed up at him from his newfound perch, riding balanced atop Johnny’s boot. “Boys. What kind a’ candy do we need while we wait?”
Four eyes went wide. A stampede over to the candy jars took only seconds. Johnny addressed Tom as the adults laughed. “Treatin’ ‘em okay?” The ask was a formality, no way he could crawfish on the offer now.
“Sure, but don’t let ‘em talk you into more than a few pieces . . . and I’ll have a peppermint stick,” Tom added with a wide good-humored smile.
Johnny felt . . . normal – for the first time in a long time. “Señor Baldemerro, seems I’ll be needin’ a little service with the sweet treats first.”
By the time Johnny had most of Lancer’s order loaded into the wagon, Laura Miller had her choices narrowed down to two favorites. Sometimes three. She moved the preferred bolts of cloth beside the window and one at a time held them up for consideration – over and over again. Tom Miller found a barrel to sit on, and dozed against a wall. The boys happily chewed licorice as they sat on the floor in front of Baldemerro’s counter. Playing a game of makeshift marbles, they thumbed dried beans at each other from a small pile gathered between them.
Johnny set the last crate of supplies in the wagon bed. He turned to head back in to settle Lancer’s account and spotted Jelly on his way over from the livery. ‘About time,’ he thought, his nerves once again stretched bowstring tight.
Baldemerro spun his customer ledger in Johnny’s direction and handed him a pencil as he stepped up to the counter. Johnny signed and spun it back around. “Gracias.”
“You be careful out there.” Baldemerro shook an arthritic finger Johnny’s way. “No more excitement.”
Johnny ignored the needless reminder, and simply turned to leave. “Adiós.”
Something pulled at his pant leg. Johnny looked down to find Eli waving at him furiously. “Bye, Mr. Johnny!” he called upward, his teeth blackened by a thick coating of the sticky treat.
“Thanks again for the candy,” Marcus said.
“You’re welcome, boys. Mind your ma,” Johnny said. The flippant farewell begat a fleeting thought of his mother. ’Never was one to much mind my own.’ He dismissed the melancholy remembrance with a shake of his head and glanced Tom’s way, but he snored loudly, deep in sleep.
“Bye, Mrs. Miller,” Johnny called on his way out.
Laura answered with a distracted, “Mmhmm,” her attention on the stretch of blue flowered cotton pulled between her hands across the window.
Johnny left Baldemerro’s door open as originally found. He took two strides onto the porch and sensed the threat. From the alleyway to his right, a man appeared who moved quickly to set himself in line with the middle of the boardwalk. “Madrid!” he called – but Johnny had already determined the stranger’s intent. He took a half step back to stand centered on the boardwalk and slowly turned to face his challenger.
It was a kid – seventeen at the most. Certainly nothing more than a young wannabe gun hand that had never shot a man, let alone faced down a shootist the caliber of Johnny Madrid. The fact that he’d fought his first real gunfight at fifteen didn’t sway his opinion one bit – by then his life had been cursed by so much violence that Johnny figured he had more than earned his right to survive by the gun. There was no such sense of necessity or willpower in the kid before him. The wannabe’s barely scuffed gun belt rode high. His gun appeared new, the model not known to be quick shooting. Johnny would have laughed in the kid’s face if three other men hadn’t just tested him in as many months. ’Dios, when is this gonna stop?’ he wondered, knowing this wasn’t the time for self-pity or thinking beyond the next bullet.
“This ain’t the place for this kid, and if you weren’t green you’d know that. I got no desire to kill you today, boy. Go home.” Johnny lifted a foot to keep walking.
“Don’t you move, Madrid, or I’ll drop you where you stand,” the kid growled. He dug his feet deeper into the sand and waggled his fingers loosely, as if somehow all that show was going to help him match Madrid’s edge on experience. “I’m good enough. You’ll see.”
“No, I won’t, kid, ‘cause I’m not gonna fight you. You’re nothin’ but a schoolyard imitation of a gun hand. Grow up a piece before you think about facin’ down a man’s gun.” Johnny hoped the deliberate reminders of his opponent’s age might shake loose any misgivings the kid might be harboring. But the wannabe didn’t seem to mind much at all.
“Heard you was thinkin’ ‘bout settlin’ down. Well old man, you’ve made enemies that ain’t interested in lettin’ you roost. I got a lot ridin’ on being the one who brings you down. Now draw!”
’Old man . . . never gonna be me.’ During another period of self-doubt, Scott told Johnny he would never reach thirty. ’Looks likely I won’t even make twenty-four. But let’s see if I can buy me one more day.’ “You’re makin’ a mistake, kid, but it’s your life. Go ahead . . . you want me, you call the tune.”
Taking up the challenge finally exposed the kid’s indecision. The hollow grin he sported wilted. His eyes lost their surety and his lips needed a couple of tongue swipes while he considered his options. Johnny stood stock still, vigilant for the inevitable tell that would announce the moment of the kid’s choice to either shoot or back down and run.
Johnny heard the stomp of small feet, headed his way – fast – from inside the store. Never one to panic he felt compelled to break his attention on the kid to will away the unthinkable.
Eli ran out the doorway, a small bag of candy sticks clutched in his upraised fist. “Mr. Johnny! You forgot your—”
Silence. Johnny couldn’t hear a thing, an abject terror welling up within him so fast it blocked out all sound. He watched with dread as the wannabe flinched and his hand moved upward toward the butt of his handgun. Johnny’s vision narrowed until he saw only Eli. He turned his back on the gunfighter and grabbed the child’s arm, whirling him around. The candy sticks flew from the bag in a wide arc and shattered upon the boardwalk. Johnny pulled the boy into his body and held on tight, a shield to the bullet he knew the inexperienced kid was bound to fire.
Johnny felt the lead enter his left side through his back, but he fought to keep Eli in his protective embrace. He was grateful when his flesh accepted the bullet – but then the shot didn’t stop! It tore through Johnny to exit out the front. The bullet flew right over Eli’s head, missing him by mere inches.
All the blood seemed to rush to Johnny’s head at once. Adrenaline pumped in torrents through his veins. His vision clouded. Finally, his legs weakened and he fell to his knees, Eli still in his grasp.
’If that had been Marcus, he’d be dead. Eli could ‘a been killed. Because of me he could ‘a been killed. Everything I love ends up dead . . . Everything I love dies . . . because of me.’
The incident had a host of witnesses, and within seconds, a flurry of activity surrounded Baldemerro’s store.
Leif and Seth Jackson, father and son ranchers and sometime volunteer deputies, ran forward, their familiar weapons of choice – well-worn shotguns – aimed on the wannabe gunfighter. “I wasn’t shootin’ at that boy!” he yelled as he tossed his gun away. “I thought Madrid was drawin’ on me! I wouldn’t shoot no kid!”
Pete from the stage company operated out of a neighboring hotel rushed over. Shards of candy crushed under his boots as he stepped onto the boardwalk. He leaned over and eyed Johnny. Blood splattered onto the wooden planking told him what he feared. “I’ll go warn Doc Jenkins!”
Jelly, Tom, and Laura Miller reached the porch at the same time, and stood on either side of Johnny. The crowd gathered in the street quieted as Scott pushed his way through to kneel beside his brother. Except for his lungs pumping short, shallow breaths, Johnny wasn’t moving. He still had Eli clutched tightly, his head leaned forward onto the back of the boy’s neck.
Eli sobbed gently, until he spotted his parents. “Momma, Johnny broke all his candy!” he cried loudly, blessedly oblivious to the actual intent of the violence that had just transpired.
Laura crouched beside the pair, and laid her hand lightly on Johnny’s shoulder. His head slowly rose until their eyes met. “Mister Johnny, Eli. It’s okay. We’ll get Mr. Johnny some new candy,” she said. Despite her outer calm, her fingers shook as she touched Johnny’s hands. He let them fall away to release Eli. She gripped her son across the shoulders and steered him away from the sight of the blood dripping onto the boardwalk. “Let’s go pick something out for him right now. Marcus, you come along too.”
Marcus could not draw his gaze away from Johnny, wounded and bleeding, kneeling motionless between his father and Scott. Tears welled in his young eyes. His mother laid an arm across his shoulders and pulled him around. Laura brushed past old Baldemerro standing just outside the doorway as she led both boys back into the store.
Scott pushed open Johnny’s jacket to reveal a blood-soaked shirt with twin holes running through his side. Tom pulled a bandana out of a pocket and pressed it onto Johnny’s back, while Scott took another kerchief from Jelly and pushed it against Johnny’s stomach.
“Take it easy, Johnny,” Scott said. “Everything’s all right now. It’s over.”
Johnny faced Tom. “Sorry ‘bout Eli,” he whispered, then grimaced and doubled over in pain.
“We need to get him to docs,” Scott said. “Jelly can help me, Tom. See to your family.”
“Laura’ll care for the boys. Let’s get him on his feet.”
The already saturated bandanas dropped onto the boardwalk as they stood and pulled Johnny up with them. Johnny held his balance for a moment as he caught his breath, but his knees betrayed him and buckled. The men held his weight and got Johnny back on his feet for the short walk to Doctor Sam Jenkins’ office. ’Let him be there,’ Scott thought.
Jelly tossed the new bridles he carried into the Lancer wagon and followed along behind, a picture of concern.
Sheriff Jayson arrived and took custody of the kid gunfighter. He shoved him repeatedly and none too gently toward the jailhouse. The Jacksons tagged along, bearing witness, telling the tale of the one-sided gunfight as they went.
The crowd dispersed into smaller groups. Although concerned about Johnny’s wellbeing, everyone was at once upset, worried, frustrated, and not a little angered over the danger brought to the town, all because of Johnny Madrid Lancer’s past.
Finally only Señor Baldemerro remained. He stared down at the discarded bandanas and Johnny’s blood, already staining the boardwalk in front of his store. “Ay yi,” he said, his head shaking in disbelief. “How could Johnny Madrid not be scared now? Ay yi . . . too much excitement.”
Jenkins wasted no time when they arrived. He met them on the porch and issued efficient commands as they crossed his threshold and passed into the treatment room. “Get his coat and shirt off . . . Lay him on the table . . . Turn him on his side.”
Johnny managed to remain conscious but made nary a sound during the quick examination. Doc finally grabbed a bottle of Laudanum and poured a hefty dose into a glass. “Johnny, the wound’s a bad one and you’re losing a fair amount of blood. But the bullet didn’t hit anything vital. I’ve got a bit of cleaning and a lot of stitching to do, so I want you to drink this down so I can get started. Scott, lift his head.”
Scott did as told, and Johnny drank the bitter liquid without a word. “We’ll let that settle a little before I get started. Johnny, how are you doing?” Jenkins asked.
To everyone’s bewilderment, Johnny laughed. It was more a strange little sarcastic snigger, as if he were thinking of something that wasn’t really all that amusing. Confused stares met Doctor Jenkins. He could only shrug and shake his head. “Johnny, what’s so funny?”
“Me,” Johnny said. His eyelids blinked rapidly as he descended into sleep. “Not even good enough to stop a bullet anymore.” He gave another short, scornful laugh, then inhaled deeply and fell unconscious.
“Scott, Johnny’s in shock,” Jenkins said, trying for reassurance. “I don’t think he meant anything by that. He’s going to be fine.”
“I hope you’re right,” Scott said. He grabbed a wet towel off a counter and wiped dried blood off his hands. “I really hope you’re right.”
Tom stood discreetly out of the way by the doorway. Scott crossed to him, hand extended. “Thanks for your help. I’m glad Eli wasn’t hurt.”
“Got Johnny to thank for that,” Tom said.
“I’m pleased you see it that way. I know Johnny is sorry it happened.”
“That kid could ‘a killed my son, Scott!” His voice shook as the scope of the shooting became all too clear.
Scott put a steadying hand on his shoulder. “You better go tell the boys that Johnny’s going to be all right. They looked pretty upset. Thanks again for your understanding.”
Tom nodded, and composed himself. “Tell Johnny we wish him well.” He closed the treatment room door behind him.
“Ride Barranca home and tell Murdoch what happened.” He turned to Doctor Jenkins, busy stitching at Johnny’s wounds. “Doc, will I be able to take Johnny home today, in the wagon?”
Jenkins stopped sewing and thought for a moment. “I’d prefer not, but I can understand why you’d want him at the ranch. As long as you take it slow.”
Scott faced Jelly. “Tell Murdoch we’ll be along by early evening.”
“Want an escort?”
Scott sighed heavily. “Yes. And Jelly, before you go, do me a favor and get the wagon bed ready. I don’t want to leave Johnny alone.”
“Sure thing. You just leave everything to me.” He turned and opened the door. “I’ll send some men back quick as I can.”
Scott watched in brooding silence as Jenkins continued stitching.
’This is going to kill Murdoch. Damnit . . . it’s killing me.’
Five well-armed Lancer vaqueros showed up three hours later. Murdoch wasn’t with them, but then, Scott hadn’t really expected him to come. ‘He’ll do his worrying in private.’
They took the trip back slow and easy, as Jenkins instructed. Johnny slept, cushioned on straw and blankets and heavily re-dosed with Laudanum. A very concerned Murdoch met them in front of the hacienda. He watched his unconscious son for a moment, and then turned to Scott. “I’ve heard about it from Jelly – I want to hear it from you, too. Let’s get him to bed.”
Teresa and Maria were allowed to help get Johnny settled, and then asked to leave the bedroom. Murdoch stood at the head of the bed and stared down at Johnny. “Tell me.”
Scott reported what he knew, which wasn’t much more than Jelly. They had both been on different sides of the street on their way back to Baldemerro’s store, and had seen the shooting unfold from different angles. However, neither knew the reason for the gunfight.
“Did you send my telegrams?” Murdoch said tersely, his aggravation fed by the lack of enlightenment.
“Yes. Johnny doesn’t think they’ll do any good.” As soon as he finished speaking Scott knew the disclosure was a mistake.
“I am not just going to wait here and do nothing while every gun hand in California comes after my son!” He kept his voice low, but the intensity of Murdoch’s rage came through loud and clear. “Someone, somewhere, has to know who wants Johnny dead.”
“Sheriff Jayson will let us know what that kid has to say. I also gave him permission to read any replies to your inquiries. He said he would meet with Val and Gabe too. Between the three of them he figures they might be able to come up with some suggestions.”
“That was a good idea, Scott,” Murdoch said, the anger ebbing from his voice. “That was a very good idea.”
Scott nodded and looked down at the bed. “I’m just as frustrated as you.”
“I know you are, son. You look tired. Go get cleaned up. I’ll watch Johnny. Tell Maria I’ll eat here tonight.”
Scott closed the door, and Murdoch pulled a chair nearer to the bedside. The father had sat this solemn watch before, because of another gunman’s bullet. Johnny remained unconscious, his pallid appearance and vulnerable condition disturbing reminders of how close death once again loomed over his young son.
Murdoch scraped his hands across his face then leaned forward, his mind racing. ’I promise you, son, we will stop this. I have no idea how, but we’ll see an end to this . . . we will. We have to.’
If Johnny could be described as having “gone to ground” before the latest incident, he now descended into a place so private that no one had any luck breaching his confidence. The first two days of his recovery, the family attributed his detachment to weakness and a slight nagging fever. Doctor Jenkins came and went, but despite his assurances that all was well, everyone feared that Johnny had suffered some hidden injury. He allowed others to care for him, but he didn’t seem much concerned if he got well or not.
His only attempt at conversation occurred with Scott. He sat by Johnny’s bedside, intent on reading a personal letter he’d picked up the day of the shooting but had forgotten until that morning.
“That from Claire?” Johnny asked.
Scott flinched, startled. “I thought you were asleep.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to make ya jump,” Johnny said.
“No, it’s fine.” Scott smiled. “It’s good to see you awake.” He raised the note up. “Yes, it’s from Claire. She’s looking forward to her visit next month.”
Johnny looked away. “Might not be too safe. You need to warn her about my trouble.”
Scott set the letter aside on the bedside table. “Johnny, I’ve already informed her and her father . . . after Parker showed up at the ranch. Claire and I have talked about your past. I haven’t hidden anything from her. She knows who you were. She’s not afraid of you or your ‘trouble’, and she’s not canceling her trip.”
“Then she’s a fool.”
Scott checked his temper. “I’ll thank you not to disparage my fiancée. She’s not naïve. She was raised in California, not Boston, and knows what she’s getting by marrying into the Lancer family. I have my own demons. Claire’s a strong woman, and she loves you, Johnny, you know that. Her parents respect you. You dishonor them with your doubts.”
Johnny considered a moment in silence, and then faced Scott. “You’d hate me if she got killed on account ‘a me. You know you would. Try tellin’ me otherwise.”
Scott stared at Johnny, no dare in his brother’s eyes, just a somber realism. And to Scott’s shame, he couldn’t find it within himself to refute Johnny’s statement. He and Claire had spoken several times about Johnny Madrid, but that was when he had been considered forgotten – an intriguing footnote in the Lancer legacy. However, recent events proved that Madrid might never be completely vanquished from Lancer. Johnny would live dogged and haunted by his past forever.
He opened his mouth to speak but Scott found no words of comfort, no immediate defense that might contradict his brother, no understanding to reassure himself.
Johnny rolled over and left Scott to contemplate an agonizing dilemma – Johnny’s life at Lancer versus the welfare of everyone around him.
Scott entered the kitchen through the back door, his sleeves rolled up and hair damp at the edges from a hasty basin wash outside. Teresa stood beside the dining table, a stack of plates in her hands.
“Where’s Murdoch?” Scott asked.
“At his desk . . . I think. What’s wrong?” She set the dishes down onto the table.
“I just spotted Cipriano riding in. Fast. How’s Johnny?”
“The same.” She sighed and shook her head. “It’s hard to tell since he won’t say more than a couple of words at a time.” She shook her head again. “He’s the same.”
Scott crossed the room and enfolded her in a brotherly hug meant to reassure. “He’ll be fine, Teresa. As frustrating as this is for us, it has to be ten times that for him. Hopefully Cip’s bringing good news.” He held her out at arm’s length. “I need to find Murdoch.”
“I know,” she said. “I just want this to end. I’m fine.” She offered a weary smile.
Murdoch stood near his desk in the great room, watchful at one of the open French doors. “Cip’s riding in,” he announced with some concern.
“I know,” Scott said.
Father and son waited together in the doorway for the ranch’s Segundo. He finally dismounted in front of the hacienda. In his haste, he wasted no time hitching his horse, leaving it to roam the courtyard.
“Señor Lancer,” he said, breathless. “The sheriff come.” He pointed generally in the direction of Green River.
“Crawford?” Murdoch asked.
“Sí – an’ Bryant an’ Jayson. All the sheriffs, they come!”
Murdoch shared a look with Scott, both wondering whether a visit from all the area’s lawmen should be considered good news or bad.
“Cip, whatever they have to say I want you to hear it too. If it’s trouble I’ll want you to get the men ready for it.”
“Sí. The men are eager to help.”
Scott had a round of whiskeys poured and waiting for the lawmen as they entered the great room. Val Crawford downed his in one swallow and held out the glass for another. Bryant and Jayson nursed theirs a bit longer.
“We got news,” Val said between gulps on his second drink. “You ain’t gonna like it. Johnny up for hearin’ it, too?”
“No,” Murdoch and Scott said in unison. “I’ll fill him in later,” Murdoch said. “Tell us.”
“That kid in my jail,” Sheriff Jayson started, “said a man named Bodie Kane is offering three thousand dollars in gold to any man who can take Johnny Madrid down in a fair fight. Has to be fair – can’t collect on no backshootin’ or if Madrid isn’t armed. And there has to be witnesses.”
The Lancers looked thunderstruck.
“I know,” Gabe Bryant said. He finished his first drink and helped himself to another. “Same reaction we had. None of us can remember a price like that ever being dealt out before. Didn’t make sense ‘til Val put history to it.”
“That’s right,” Val said. “I know Bodie Kane. He always was nothin’ but a nasty back shooter, so I ain’t surprised he’d pull somethin’ like this. His feud started with Johnny because of Kane’s little brother. Jack Kane followed Bodie hiring out for range wars, ‘cept he weren’t no good with a gun. Johnny an’ him found each other on opposite sides down around El Paso. That stupid kid challenged Johnny in a fair fight and lost.” He took another swig of his drink. “There were plenty of witnesses, but when Bodie heard about it he went lookin’ for Johnny. Once he found ‘im he claimed his brother weren’t a professional gun hand so’s it was nothin’ but murder. He challenged Johnny himself, and ended up crippled for his foolishness – bullet missed his stomach but nicked somethin’ comin’ out the back. Bodie’s been festerin’ with hate for goin’ on six years now, and it looks like he’s found Johnny again.”
“How?” Murdoch said, visibly stunned.
“That kid in Jayson’s jail mentioned another name,” Gabe said. “Glen Carter was one of those gun hawks Warburton hired. After we ran that bunch outta town, Carter ended up down south of here in Granville. Kane was just sitting there rotting away, and was real interested to hear how Johnny Madrid was livin’ a nice life up here in Morro Coyo as Johnny Lancer. Carter told ‘im where to find the ranch . . . even described all of you,” Gabe swiped a hand toward Murdoch and Scott, “and that flashy horse of Johnny’s.”
“Just like Kane to set out a bounty for someone else to do his killin’ for him,” Val said. “An’ he’s offerin’ it to any gunfighter who’ll listen. Three thousand dollars in gold and Johnny’s reputation. If word spreads beyond California, I wouldn’t be surprised to see half the gunmen in the south headed this way for that kind ‘a temptation.”
Murdoch paced the room, his anger building as he mulled over the information. “There has to be something we can do to stop this. If I have to go down there and kill Bodie Kane myself, I will!”
“Mr. Lancer,” Val said, “I already had an idea ‘bout that. I sent out some telegrams of my own. It come to me that with Bodie crippled like he is, it ain’t likely he’d really have that gold he’s promisin’. If we can prove he ain’t got it, as temptin’ as Madrid’s reputation is, no man is gonna come all this way just for that. There’d even be a few men who’d gladly kill ol’ Bodie for you, just for bein’ a cheat. I’ve got every lawman around Granville trying to find out if he has that kind ’a money or not.
“’course, even if we prove him a dirty liar, that won’t stop any man already headed this way. I hope we can end this some day, Mr. Lancer, but I’m sorry to say this ain’t gonna be over soon.”
“Gentlemen, I appreciate your actions on Johnny’s behalf. Val, I want to know the minute we get any answers to your telegrams. I also want to know about any strangers that drift into the area.”
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Lancer,” Jayson said. “I know throwing ‘em out of town won’t do anything more than push ‘em here to the ranch, but any man I don’t know is not leaving my sight.”
“If there’s a good side to this,” Gabe said, “it’s knowing that no one collects on that bounty if there are no witnesses and it’s not a fair fight. At least we don’t have to worry about Johnny getting bushwhacked.”
“Small favors,” Scott muttered.
“Cip, you tell the men.”
“Sí,” Cipriano said, nodding.
“Now that we know what’s headin’ our way and why, we got an edge,” Val said, on his way to the door. “You tell Johnny we got his back.”
“Thank you again,” Murdoch said, leading Bryant and Jayson out the doorway. “Keep your eyes open.”
“Will do,” Jayson said and Gabe nodded.
The lawmen mounted up and rode out, and Cip wrangled his horse and headed toward the bunkhouses. Murdoch sank into the deep leather chair behind his desk as Scott poured them both a much-needed drink.
“My God, what a nightmare,” Murdoch said as Scott handed him a whiskey.
“What do you think Johnny will do?” Scott asked.
An uncomfortable silence stretched between them as they considered the fact that Johnny really was being hunted, and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it except wait for another gunman to show up and offer the next challenge.
If Murdoch and Scott thought that Crawford, Bryant and Jayson could all show up at the ranch at one time without Johnny taking notice, they were sorely mistaken. He had been alone when Cip pounded in, and was strong enough to get out of bed and reach his window in time to witness the lawmen’s arrival. He only managed half the stairs down from his bedroom, but it was far enough to hear the news about Bodie Kane.
Johnny made his way back to his room and sat on the edge of his bed. On the bedside table he spotted a fresh bag of hard candy sticks and licorice, sent to the ranch compliments of the Miller family – with special greetings from Eli and Marcus to get well quick.
It was a precious gesture that only fed Johnny’s deepening despair. Whether Kane had the three thousand in gold or not didn’t change the fact that Madrid’s reputation was still a popular commodity. That men would risk death to claim it gave Johnny no pride – just a heavy heart burdened with an unshakable fear for his family.
Johnny’s conflict lay in the fact that, when he was out on his own, fighting didn’t matter – the outcome didn’t matter because he never had anyone close enough to him to care if he died. But now he had a family – loved ones to safeguard. Once upon a time, his storied fame had acted as a kind of protection for Johnny – knowing he had nothing to lose, challengers would think twice before confronting him. But that same notoriety was a liability for his family, putting them in harm’s way through their association with him. How could he claim to love someone when his mere presence would keep them in perpetual danger?
The prospects in his personal future seemed no brighter. What Tom Miller had with Laura . . . what Scott would have with Claire – Johnny knew within the depths of his soul that he would never be able to share his life with a loving woman. When he dared to dream, he believed there was one girl he loved dearly that had a heart big enough to overlook who he had been, but in the harsh light of day he could not ignore the fact that his past would forever come between them. He could fool himself all he wanted into imagining that someday people would forget Madrid. But he would never bet on that with a family at stake.
The more he thought about it the more single-minded his decision became. He couldn’t go back to a life alone. He just couldn’t. He had seen and felt what a normal existence was like. No matter where he traveled, living alone would mean nothing more to him now than a slow death. But he would have to give up his family, to protect them . . . .
His thoughts kept coming around to only one solution he could imagine that would allow him peace.
Scott and Murdoch found Johnny still seated on the edge of his bed. Not known to betray any weakness, his usually close guard was down. Johnny appeared spent, beaten and ground deeper than either had ever witnessed – weary in body, mind and spirit. The only other time his behavior compared was when he had first recovered after being bushwhacked, shot and temporarily blinded. He had regained his sight, only to find the woman that he had come to love within the darkness gone from his life.
His son’s desolate countenance flooded Murdoch with guilt. Johnny might never have needed to live by a gun if he and second wife, Maria, had managed a stronger marriage. She had sinned by running off with a gambler and taking two-year old Johnny with her. However, Murdoch knew that he wasn’t a wholly innocent party in her decision to leave. He had never been able to put his finger on what exactly he had done to lose her love and drive her away, so his responsibility was blind. But that didn’t make it any less shameful.
“I take it you were listening,” Murdoch said.
“So we know where the threat is coming from. We can end this now.” Murdoch meant to sound encouraging.
“This time,” Johnny said.
“Johnny?” Murdoch and Scott shared a look. “This is good news.”
“Good news . . . . It’s Bodie Kane this time. What about next time? There’s a whole lot ‘a men out there who hate me. There’ll be a next time.”
“Then we’ll stop them again.”
“How? Someone comes gunnin’ for me, what are you gonna do? Step in front of me? That’d be just great. I could live with that.” His words dripped with cynicism. “Face it – you had your chance. Now it’s too late.”
Murdoch was honestly confused. “What chance, son?”
“Why didn’t you find me, Murdoch?” A smoldering rage flared with every word. “You had ten years before it was too late. Ten years! You should ‘a found me!”
Scott appeared as taken aback as Murdoch did. Johnny had spoken to his father in anger before, but never with such condemnation – and never about his upbringing. How Johnny felt about his time alone with Maria had always been a well-concealed secret.
“I’m sorry, son,” Murdoch managed.
“Sorry.” Johnny laughed with merciless scorn. “Bet you’re sorry I was ever born. Ain’t been nothin’ but trouble to you since, ain’t that right?” He held an arm tight to his side, stood up and headed to the window.
Murdoch followed and stood behind him. “Johnny, I have never been sorry to have you for a son. Maybe I could have done more to find you. You’re right about that and it’s not a question I haven’t considered a thousand times myself. I knew where Scott was and didn’t bring him home either. But we’re a family now, and no man is going to take that away from us. For better or worse, we stand together.”
Johnny’s head shook, the fire within him reduced to embers. “Too late for that.” He turned. “I should be the one apologizing. I knew what I was doin’ pickin’ up a gun. I’m sorry for bringin’ harm to Lancer. Ya’ll don’t deserve this.”
“And you don’t deserve this either,” Scott stepped beside Murdoch. “You’re a good man, Johnny. What other men see in you doesn’t change that fact.”
“And if Claire was to get between me and a bullet? You never answered that question, Scott.”
“But I have thought about it. The question is flawed. It assumes that I need to choose between the two of you. You’re my brother – Claire is going to be my wife. I’ll not give one up for the other. I don’t have to.”
There was strength of conviction in Scott that bolstered Murdoch’s resolve as well. “He’s right. Would I take a bullet for you? Yes. Willingly, and with no regrets. Anyone coming after you will have to go through us. And there’s nothing you can say or do to stop that.”
Johnny’s gaze shifted between his father and brother. One last challenge flickered in his eyes. He seemed to be searching for something. Murdoch stood resolute, and hoped Scott was doing the same.
Whatever Johnny saw or felt could not keep his rage fueled. As painful as it had been for Murdoch to hear the accusations, Johnny’s anger had at least lifted him above his wretched desolation. But the drive proved fleeting. He left any further arguments unsaid. Johnny again looked exhausted, the fight in him drained dry.
“Go back to bed,” Murdoch said, with uncommon sympathy rather than command in his voice. “When you’re healed you’ll be able to think more clearly about this.”
“He’s right,” Scott said.
Johnny crossed to his bed and lay down without another word. They lingered a couple of minutes, until Murdoch motioned Scott out of the room. They kept silent until reaching the great room.
Scott wandered toward the fireplace, preoccupied with his own sad reflections. “I never thought I’d see Johnny feeling that low.”
“Me either,” Murdoch said. “We have to remember that he was just forced to kill three men. Johnny’s never callously taken another man’s life! I can’t imagine how hard this has been for him to live with.”
Murdoch walked to his desk. “Johnny was right about one thing.” He turned to face Scott. “I should have done more to bring both of you home sooner. I— “
“Not now, Murdoch,” Scott said, cutting him short with an upraised hand. “That’s a distraction. Keeping Johnny alive is all I care about right now.”
A need to apologize still burned on his tongue, but Murdoch nodded. “Agreed.” He took the seat behind his desk and turned to stare out the large picture window. The vast Lancer ranch stretched out well into the distance before him. A red sky signaled the impending night. “We need to keep Johnny alive,” he echoed, sending them back into troubled thoughts.
Johnny had taken to his bed, but he did not sleep. Although steeped in bitter truth, his attack on Murdoch left him appalled. Even worse, the admission had done nothing to distance him from his family. He had only managed to strengthen their resolve to help him. His guilt sent him spiraling back into a bleak desperation. He had an unshakable need to end the threat to his loved ones.
Johnny had the night to do some reflecting of his own. Time felt like an enemy. Whatever he was going to do, he needed to do it quickly. He felt trapped in a vicious revolving circle of thoughts. ‘I need to make this stop. It has to stop. Make it stop . . . make it stop . . . make . . . it . . . stop . . . .’
Val Crawford returned late the next afternoon. Scott was still out with a work crew, so Murdoch met him alone in the great room. “You’ve received an answer to your wire,” he guessed as soon as the sheriff entered.
The lawman eyed the whiskey bottle, liberally poured the day before, but Murdoch was neither offering nor a man to be ignored. “Yes, sir,” Val said. “Did you tell Johnny about Kane?”
“He knows,” Murdoch said.
“Can I see ‘im then? It ain’t the best of news, but I’d be good for him to hear it direct.”
Murdoch wasn’t blind. Val and Johnny were friends long before he returned to Lancer, and the lawman’s personal concern bled through his gruff exterior. “Follow me,” Murdoch said.
They found the bedroom door cracked open, but Murdoch still knocked gently before entering. “Johnny,” he called, “Val is here to see you.”
“Come on in,” Johnny called back.
Murdoch pushed open the door and let the sheriff lead into the room. Johnny sat upright against the bed’s headboard. He appeared pale and drawn, but alert enough to hold a conversation. Murdoch hung back, leaned against the door jam.
Val stood off at Johnny’s side. “It’s good to see you.” He crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. “But I won’t say you look good.”
Johnny chuffed, the edges of his lips testing a smile. “The only honest man in the room,” he said.
Although directed at him, Murdoch chose not to take the comment personally. Seeing Johnny attempt his first smile in days made the accusation easy to ignore.
“Yeah, well . . . I call ‘em as I see ‘em,” Val said.
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Johnny said.
Val nodded. With the pleasantries concluded, he started to fidget. His weight shifted from foot to foot as his hands tried to decide whether to take up residence in his pants pockets or on his hips.
Johnny forced a quick end to his misery. “You got news, say it.”
“Yeah . . . yeah I do,” Val hedged. “Well . . . I ain’t had no word yet on if Kane’s got that gold or not, but at least seven known gunmen have been through Granville recently, an’ sure ‘nough, one of ‘em was Cale Parker.” Val’s mouth opened, ready to add something else, but he faltered, his brow wrinkling, the words stuck in his throat.
“Spit it out,” Johnny pushed.
Still Val hesitated. “Luke Grant’s been there, too.”
The friends stared at each other as the pronouncement settled between them. Finally, Johnny looked away, focused on the blue, empty sky outside his window.
“Who is he, Johnny?” Murdoch stepped forward, discerning an ominous significance.
Val stared at his feet, and Johnny took his time considering an answer. “Used to be a friend,” he said quietly, his thoughts still a long way off.
Gloom permeated the room. “A gunfighter,” Murdoch said.
“Yeah,” Val sighed, his eyes still on his feet.
“You know what he looks like?” Murdoch asked.
Val looked up. “Yeah. I’ll let Gabe and Jayson know.”
“You find him, let him be,” Johnny said sternly, his eyes locked on Val. “I don’t want him comin’ to the ranch. He’ll favor town anyway. Leave him alone and he’ll wait.”
Val nodded. “I know.”
“Joh—” Murdoch started.
“Don’t question it,” Johnny declared, his vehemence startling. His gaze tore into Murdoch. “I mean it. He shows up you don’t try to talk to him, you don’t go near him. And if you want Claire to have a husband, you be sure Scott does the same.”
Murdoch had never before witnessed Johnny as uncompromising about an adversary. He didn’t perceive fear, simply a more than healthy respect for this man, Luke Grant. “I’ll talk to Scott,” he merely answered.
Johnny nodded. He scraped a hand over his face and wiped away his strength in the process. Within minutes, he had turned from tired to exhausted. “Thanks for lettin’ me know, Val.”
“I figured you’d wanna hear. Wish it was better news.”
“Yeah. Watch your back. Don’t do anything stupid.”
It sounded like a dismissal, and that’s how Val took it. “I’ll come ‘round again if I hear anything more. Rest up.” He shuffled backward a couple of steps, reluctant to leave, but everything said. He gave Johnny a weak wave, then turned and left.
Murdoch turned to follow.
“Close the door,” Johnny said.
Murdoch looked back over his shoulder, but Johnny was gazing out the window again. He fought all his instincts to stay and closed the door on his way out.
Val led the way down the staircase. The second they distanced themselves from the stairs Murdoch asked, “Who is he?” His question teemed with a rank bitterness.
Val turned and faced him, his expression a mix of his own anger and a fear Murdoch never thought he’d see the tough lawman display. “I’m sorry to say it, but Grant’s one of the few men who’d come after Johnny for no reward. Whether Kane’s got that gold or not won’t matter to Luke.”
Val heaved in a great breath and started talking as he crossed the room to pour himself an unoffered drink. “Mr. Lancer, I don’t know how much you really know about Johnny Madrid. I know you don’t like to hear about Johnny’s past, but Madrid was a professional, and I mean that in the best way. He never played at bein’ a gun hand. Some of them men, they just wanna be fast, but they have to work at it. Down around the border towns, they get to callin’ each other out, just to see if they’re as quick as they think they are. But Johnny, he has a natural skill. Some men respect that, but others just get plain jealous . . . like Bodie Kane’s brother.” Val downed his drink, and poured another. Murdoch did nothing to stop him.
“Luke Grant, he’s a natural, too. He and Johnny were real good friends ‘cause they didn’t have nothin’ to prove. They’d walk into a room and people’d just know why they were there and how good they were. Most times when they hired out they never had to fire their guns once. They were fast, but smart too. Both of ‘em.” Val took a healthy swig of his whiskey.
Murdoch stood in rapt silence, soaking in the shocking revelations – good and bad – about his son and the men he knew along the way.
“But as good as Grant was, Johnny was always just a little better, and that started to grate on Luke. Ranchers started hiring Johnny first, and then bringin’ Luke on as a back up. Johnny considered ‘em partners, but Grant was resentful. The way I heard it, he started goading Johnny, tryin’ to get him to at least meet him in a quick draw contest, but Johnny wouldn’t have none of it – said he wasn’t workin’ fer show. Luke kept at it ‘til one night Johnny finally told him to call ‘im out proper, or shut up. And that’s when they weren’t friends no more. Luke had to face the fact that he weren’t as good as Johnny. They was close matched, but he wasn’t quite brave enough to risk his life on it. Might ‘a been fine if there hadn’t been witnesses, and that was Grant’s mistake. He backed down, and lost his pride and reputation in one night.” Val finished his drink.
“Why doesn’t Johnny want anyone confronting Grant on his behalf?” Murdoch asked.
Val took a few paces toward Murdoch and pointed a finger at him for emphasis. “You gotta listen to Johnny on that and take him true. Luke still hired out, but he was never measured one of the best after that night. But he still got him a reputation though, for bein’ mean. He went rabid and started drawin’ his gun every chance he got, just to prove how fast he was. And anyone stupid enough to fight ‘im or bring up Madrid’s reputation was a dead man.”
Val jabbed a finger at Murdoch again. “Mr. Lancer, Luke’s real good at turning a harmless word or two into a challenge. All you or Scott would have to do is claim you’re kin of Johnny’s and you’d be dead. Grant would find a way to make it look like a fair fight, too. But what he really wants is to best Johnny. Kane threw down a challenge that Johnny can’t run from, and Luke is bound to pick it up, just as fast as he can.”
Murdoch stood dismayed. “How do we stop him?”
“Meet ‘im on the road and murder him,” Val said with shocking sincerity. “If he shows up the best we can hope for is he does somethin’ stupid so we can arrest him before he kills someone or draws Johnny out. I’m no match for him, but I won’t run if it comes down to it. Stay out of town, Murdoch. Johnny was right about that.”
“Have another drink,” Murdoch offered. After that story, he figured the lawman deserved the whole bottle if he wanted it.
“Best not,” Val said, setting his empty glass onto a nearby table. “I still need to track down Jayson and Gabe and let ‘em know to watch for Grant.”
Murdoch nodded. “You need to describe him for me, too. And Val, you’re a good friend to Johnny. His warning went for you as well. I don’t expect you to be a hero on Johnny’s behalf.”
Val shook his head. “I’ll try. But with Grant, best intentions don’t always turn out like you’d expect. You remember that.”
Johnny felt like he’d been tossed into a bottomless canyon. As dire as things had seemed he could have never guessed that it could actually get worse. ‘Of all the men from my past . . . it had to be Kane and Grant.’ He stared out the window, trying to think of only the blue sky, the endless blue sky. But at the end of each day comes the unavoidable darkness of night. Johnny saw the shadows descending as a harbinger of doom.
Teresa finished dusting the mantelpiece over the great room’s fireplace. She stooped down and pushed a half-burned piece of kindling further into the hearth. She straightened and looked at the grandfather clock. It was just after four-o’clock in the afternoon. ‘Time to finish getting dinner ready . . . not that anyone considers eating anymore.’ That wasn’t true, and she knew it. Murdoch and Scott still had their appetites. For the most part. It was only Johnny keeping her frustrated.
Yesterday’s visit from Sheriff Crawford had done nothing but make Johnny even more closed lipped than before, and that went both ways – little food in, few words out. Teresa found his attitude exasperating. Oh, she knew he had his reasons – a lot of them, and good ones, not the least of which was having a bullet pass right through him! But she missed him . . . she missed her Johnny – good natured, loving, fun, sweet, tender Johnny, not the person other men thought they had a reason to kill.
The dusting cloth twisted around her fingers as she considered how, if she were maybe just a little bit older, she might be more experienced and could perhaps find the right words to encourage him, in some way offer a bit of solace. She so wanted to soothe him, to hold him tight and say everything would be all right, to—
‘He’s practically your brother, you stupid girl!’ Ashamed of where her thoughts had drifted, her eyes pooled with tears, but she refused to let them fall. ‘How much of a comfort could you be, weeping like a child?’ She lifted her skirt and wiped at her eyes.
She heard a distinctive creak issue from the staircase leading up to the bedrooms. Murdoch and Scott were still out on the ranch with Cipriano. The guards Murdoch had posted were only supposed to patrol outside the house. Their housekeeper Maria had gone home after lunch to prepare her own family’s dinner. That only left—
Teresa crossed the great room and entered the foyer at the front door. She turned and looked up to find Johnny only four steps from the bottom. He was fully dressed – boots, jacket, gun belt and all. “Johnny! What are you doing?” Her hands went to her hips. “You know darn well you’re not supposed to be walking around yet.”
Johnny took another step down and grimaced. “Here, let me help you,” Teresa said, sprinting up the remaining stairs to his side.
“I’m fine,” Johnny said through gritted teeth. He placed a steadying hand against the wall and took another step.
Teresa reached for his elbow, but she barely got her hand on him before he shirked her off. “I said I’m fine. I can do this.”
“Well, go ahead and fall then!” she shouted, pounding back down the staircase. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared up at him. “If you split your stitches, Murdoch will tie you into bed.”
Johnny gripped his left side and slowly took the last couple of stairs. Her attitude softened as she watched him catch his breath, the descent an obvious trial. “Honestly, Johnny, you’re not ready yet.” She backed up a step and indicated the great room. “Come, sit down.”
Johnny’s head lowered and he took a deep breath. “Don’t worry about me, Teresa.”
“But I do worry about you . . . we all do. Just where were you going anyway?”
He stepped forward and pulled his hat down off a peg by the door. “Into town,” he said as he put his hat on.
“Oh, Johnny!” she said and rushed to his side. “You can’t do that! That man . . . he could be here by now! Murdoch said we all have to stay out of town.”
“That’s why I have to go,” Johnny said. He faced her with a weak smile. “Don’t worry about me.” He reached out and with gentle fingers pushed a strand of loose hair off her forehead. The back of his hand lingered a moment against her cheek, and she thought she would be perfectly happy if he left it there forever. Too quickly, he pulled away and reached for the front door handle. “It’s gonna be okay.”
“No!” she grabbed at his arm again. “It’s too dangerous!”
“Teresa!” He pulled her hand off his arm and held onto it while taking up her other. “Stop this now. I’ve got to go.”
“I won’t let you!” She grasped his hands tighter and tried to drag him into the house.
Johnny wrenched from her grip and held her by the shoulders. “You’re not my wife, Teresa!” he shouted as he shook her once forcefully. “Stop actin’ like you need to watch over me.”
Their gazes fixed upon each other, both suffering the anguish of tumultuous emotions, until he embraced her roughly. But she did not fear his ferocity. Wrapped within his ever-tightening arms, she felt enveloped by a heady mix of gentle strength and unmistakable passion that made her believe that something had passed between them, something that could chain him to Lancer and keep him safe forever.
The moment proved all too brief. “It’s for the best,” he whispered, his soft breath a warm caress on her neck before he abruptly pushed her away. He slammed the heavy front door shut behind him.
She tried to hold them back, but Teresa’s tears burst forth. ‘I would be, Johnny. I would marry you . . . If only you would ask . . . .’
Scott and Murdoch handed their horses off to Dan Spencer and walked out of the livery stable. Murdoch peered into the distance, trying to make out one end of the town, then the other. Besides the light spilling from some of the buildings, there was a full moon and lanterns were lit along each side of the street, but there was more dark than light. Some of the side streets appeared even darker.
“If Luke Grant’s here the night’s an advantage,” Murdoch said, “but it’ll make finding Johnny harder.”
Distracted by his own attempt to pierce the darkness, Scott said, “Day or night, if Johnny doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be.” He immediately regretted how flippant the comment sounded.
“Let’s split up.” Murdoch stepped in front of Scott. “I can’t stress enough how serious Johnny was when he warned us away from Grant. When we find him your brother’s going to be very angry that we’re here.”
“Not as angry as I am right now.”
“His behavior has me more than a little upset, too. He’s being reckless, I know, but to what purpose I have no idea. I don’t believe he’s been thinking clearly for weeks now.”
Scott watched his father’s head lower, the burden of Johnny’s tribulations literally weighing on the man’s thoughts and shoulders. His own concerns as a brother somehow paled. “I understand the danger. I’ll stay out of the public, and you do the same. Let’s just find him.”
Murdoch nodded. “I think I’ll start at the sheriff’s office, see if Jayson knows anything and ask him to keep a look out. I’ll search north of there.”
“I’ll keep south then. He likes the cook at the cantina. The old woman reminds him of our Maria.” That brought a small smile to Murdoch’s lips. “We’ll find him.”
Murdoch nodded again and stood a little straighter. “We’ll meet back here in an hour.”
The cook at the cantina had seen Johnny. Using a jumbled mix of rapid-fire Spanish and broken English she managed to relay her shock over Johnny’s recent weight loss. The grandmotherly señora described how she had tried to ply him with his favorite dishes. Instead, he had paid her five times too much for a bottle of tequila and refused to stay, leaving without eating a thing. “Your hermano,” she told Scott, “él es muy triste . . . sad.” She made the Catholic sign of the cross, invoking the protection of Christ. “You find him, sí?”
Her concern was endearing. ‘Johnny, you’ve got everyone in town worrying about you.’ “Sí señora,” Scott said. “I’ll find him.”
Scott did find him. It was almost time to meet up with Murdoch. He was headed back to the livery, hunting along the way. Across from Baldemerro’s store stood a large carpentry building. Scott entered the alleyway behind it and walked through at a slow pace. He wasn’t quite sure what caught his attention, but something about a couple of chest-high stacks of new barrels drew his focus.
“Johnny?” he whispered into the shadows between the stacks.
“You don’t listen very well, do you Boston?” Johnny drawled. He leaned forward just enough for the moonlight to swathe his face in a luminous blue veil. He looked like the illustration of a ghost from a Dickens novel. A shiver slithered up Scott’s back. “I suppose Murdoch’s here, too.”
“Yes,” Scott said, taking a step forward. “But we were worried about you. How could you not expect us to follow you?”
Johnny laughed, another one of those sarcastic sniggers like he had rendered back in Doctor Jenkins’ office, not so many days before. “I’d expect you to wanna stay alive! But I guess with me in the way that’s kind a’ hard for you to manage.”
“Johnny, why do you keep saying things like that?” Scott’s temper flared.
Johnny seized hold of the anger and threw it back at his brother. “Things like what? The truth?” He took a step forward and lifted the bottle of tequila to his lips, taking a generous swallow. Already half empty, the liquid sloshed in wild circles against the inside of the glass. Johnny wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and put the bottle down on top of one of the barrels. “What should I do? Ignore the fact that just standin’ next to me could get a body killed? Why didn’t you bring Teresa with you? We could ‘a had a picnic or somethin’ . . . invited Luke Grant to sit a spell and have a piece of pie before he tries to shoot my head off.”
Scott ignored the sarcasm. “Is he here? Have you seen him?”
“Nope. But I know him and I know his ways. He’ll come. You’re real lucky he ain’t already here to catch you an’ Murdoch marchin’ around, big as day.”
“But you’re not afraid of him finding you.” It wasn’t a question.
“No! I’m lookin’ forward to seein’ my old friend . . . gettin’ it over with.”
“Is that why you’re drinking? You want to meet him drunk?”
Johnny drew his revolver so fast Scott never saw it leave leather. He had watched Johnny draw before – in practice and against another man. He didn’t know if it was a trick of the night or not, but to his eyes Johnny had seemed quicker than ever.
Johnny stood motionless, his voice steady, confident. “How I meet Luke is my concern. Won’t matter to him.”
Scott had been shot at before, but he’d never stared down the barrel of Johnny’s gun. Even with the knowledge that it was his own brother and that he would never fire, it was unnerving to witness how composed Johnny could be with a weapon aimed at another man . . . how calm Madrid could be.
When Johnny didn’t immediately lower the weapon Scott assumed he was making a point, and so pressed his own argument. “And what about Murdoch?” Scott said. “It matters to him . . . and me.” He meant the sentiment sincerely.
Johnny thought on that a moment. He flipped the revolver easily in his hand a couple of times and then spun it back into his holster, a rare display of showmanship. “Can’t be helped.” He picked up the bottle and took another swallow of tequila. His other hand went to his left side.
“You’re not well enough yet to face any man, let alone Luke Grant,” Scott said, taking another step forward. “It’s one thing to draw on me in an alley. It’s another to face a gunman matched to your skill.”
Johnny grinned and shook his head. “You still haven’t figured it out, have you? Scott, all I ever wanted was to be good at my trade. I’m Johnny Madrid . . . and I’m the best.”
There wasn’t a touch of conceit in the statement, just the recognition of a fact. Johnny was right. Even wounded and drunk, Johnny Madrid was faster than most men were in prime condition. Although he didn’t understand it, Scott could finally appreciate the allure of facing him, the desire to have only what Johnny could give – a reputation as one of the best. Acknowledging that you had to kill or be killed in order to achieve the honor probably never entered a challenger’s mind. To these men, Johnny’s life didn’t matter – taking it was merely a means to an end. Scott felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
“Come home with us, Johnny. Please. Come home.”
They stared at each other, Scott not sure what other argument to make, Johnny unreadable. Finally, Johnny waggled the tequila bottle at Scott. Moonlight glinted off the glass. “Not tonight, brother. I got a bit more celebratin’ to do.” He took a drink.
“And what are you celebrating?”
“A life lived. A life lived.” There was finality in the statement. Johnny punctuated it with a grandiose wave of the tequila bottle. “Take Murdoch home, Scott. Ya’ll don’t belong here. Me . . . I’m gonna be just fine.”
“Scott, just go!” For the first time Johnny flashed impatience. “You had your say. I’ve had mine. Enough!” He tried to push past, but Scott grabbed at his arm. Johnny sidestepped and swatted the hand away, the effort making him grimace. “Leave me be . . . you can’t help me!” He held a hand tight to his side and hurried down the alleyway. “Its better this way, you’ll see,” Johnny called back over his shoulder as he disappeared around the corner.
Scott wanted to follow, to grab Johnny and wrestle him to the ground if he had to. But his feet felt leaden. His heart pounded as if he’d experienced a great physical struggle. He ran the exchange with his brother through his mind and only grew more confused. Despite his attitude of indifference, Johnny had seemed compelled to prove how ready he was to face Luke Grant. Somehow, Scott was neither convinced nor reassured. He was out-and-out scared.
Scott found Murdoch waiting outside the livery stable. All the way back Scott considered what to tell his father – Johnny’s father – about the conversation with his brother.
“Any luck?” Murdoch was quick to ask, his voice burdened with an anxious edge.
“Yes, I saw him,” Scott said.
“Where is he?” Murdoch peered into the darkness behind Scott and walked past him a couple of steps. “Johnny?” he called.
“Murdoch!” Scott said, reaching out to grab his father’s arm. “He wouldn’t come back with me.”
Murdoch turned. “What do you mean he wouldn’t come back?” he snapped. “Show me where he is.”
“He’s not there anymore and I don’t know where he went.”
“How could you let him go?” Murdoch was furious.
“It’s not like I didn’t try to stop him!” Scott shouted, his own despair bursting forth. He stepped away a couple of long strides. “He’s been drinking and has gotten it into his head that he’ll meet Luke Grant on his own terms, no one else’s. There was no talking to him!”
“All the more reason to stop him! He can’t make decisions like this clearly right now, and drinking can only make it worse. My God! What is he thinking?”
“I don’t know!” Scott paced in aimless circles, his mind whirling with chaotic thoughts and riotous feelings, anger, regret and fear. “When you talk to him he seems to make perfect sense. But it doesn’t. None of this makes any sense! I don’t understand how a man’s worth can be judged by how fast he can draw a gun. How can anyone look at Johnny and see nothing more than a target for death?
“And Johnny!” Scott threw his arms wide, his incomprehension begging enlightenment from the heavens. “Johnny takes the challenge in stride, as if these men have every right to kill him. What about us? Don’t I have a right to grow old with my brother? I don’t understand this, Murdoch, I never will!”
If Scott hadn’t been so caught up in his own thunderous rage, he might have noticed the effect on Murdoch. Within the son’s tirade, the father had found his own answers. “Scott,” he said, his voice composed. “I know why Johnny is doing this. It’s not that he doesn’t value his own life – it’s that he values ours more. He thinks he’s protecting us.”
Scott stared at him, his fury unabated. “I don’t want him to protect me! Doesn’t he see that his life is worth just as much as mine? As yours?”
“No, he doesn’t,” Murdoch said. He marched forward and blocked Scott’s path, cutting off his restless pacing. “And that’s why we have to find him again. If I have to lock him up until this storm passes, I will. I will not lose him again to a life he doesn’t deserve. We are not leaving here until we find him.”
Scott shook his head, his guilt crushing. “My God, Murdoch, I had the chance to bring him home, and I didn’t.”
Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder, the father’s strength passed to the son. “Then we’ll have to find that chance again. Come on,” he said, his broad hand striking Scott’s back once in much needed encouragement. “I told him that anyone coming after him would have to go through us, and I meant it. It’s long past time we make this our fight. Let’s go.”
Scott nodded, the challenge one he could understand, a battle he was more than willing to wage. ‘Lancer takes care of its own,’ echoed from his memories, and whether Johnny Lancer wanted it or not, his family would make this stand at his side.
Johnny leaned against the back wall of the jail, appreciating the irony of lurking so near one of the men who was more than eager to find him. He took another sip of the tequila, but he’d wrung all the comfort he could from the liquor. He felt pleasantly numb. He couldn’t feel the pain in his side anymore, and the voices in his head had stopped shouting at him – they were by no means vanquished, only sufficiently muffled by the alcohol.
Now there was just the waiting. His mind was set. He stared at the moon, marked its place in the sky, judged the time left until morning. He hoped Luke Grant was true to form and would arrive at sunrise. He smiled, remembering his friend and old familiar habits. ‘He’ll come.’
Johnny started walking. The bottle of tequila, held loosely in his hand, tipped, leaving a wet trail behind him – but only Johnny knew where it would lead.
Scott rubbed at his eyes. He hoped Johnny was just as tired and lying down somewhere, sleeping off his ill-considered drunk. It was by chance that he located Johnny the first time, and he found no such luck hunting him down again. Murdoch had branched out on his own hours before, and they had run into each other twice so far. But neither had seen Johnny.
He shivered from the dew-damp, breeze-chilled air, the morning sun still too low in the sky to offer much warmth. Daybreak brought both the good and the bad – hope that Johnny could no longer hide within the darkness, dread that Grant would arrive and now find them all an easy target.
The next corner opened into the alleyway behind the carpentry building where he had first found Johnny. Scott entered cautiously. Johnny was primed for a fight, his reflexes quick and accuracy proven. The last thing Scott wanted was to catch a bullet by startling his brother out of a drunken sleep.
A slash of sunlight cut its way across the roof of the building. It stabbed into one of the barrels Johnny had hid between during the night. Something glinted in the reflected light. Scott recognized Johnny’s bottle of tequila. He hurried forward, expecting to find his brother.
Johnny was nowhere in sight. Scott stared at the bottle on top of the barrels in shocked disbelief. It appeared empty, until he looked closer. Silver covered the bottom. Scott lifted the bottle and the glass chimed as the silver rolled from one side to the other. Bullets. Six revolver bullets.
Scott thought back on the encounter with his brother during the night. Johnny hadn’t been trying to prove how ready he was to face Luke Grant, he’d been showing Scott how prepared he was to die. He really had given up! ‘I’m Johnny Madrid . . . and I’m the best.’ Meeting Grant with an empty handgun was going to guarantee that being the best would not prevent his death.
Scott dropped the bottle and started to run.
Johnny stood at the edge of the crossroads just outside of Morro Coyo. The sun had been up for an hour, but the only people who passed were Leif and Seth Jackson, their wagon setting a quick pace into town. He hid in the trees until they went by.
His eyelids felt dangerously heavy. Although not an unexpected result of his night, his weariness proved an aggravation nevertheless. He needed Luke Grant to arrive sooner rather than later, before his purposeful fatigue could change from intentional to obvious and begin to work against instead of for him.
He heard the distinctive clomp of horse hooves coming on at a trot. Whether by wishful thinking or instinct, Johnny knew it was Grant. He walked out to the center of the road and waited.
The horseman slowed his mount as he neared, but he didn’t stop until he was within ten feet of Johnny. The horse pranced nervously as the men took each other’s measure. The tall, lean, broad-shouldered man smiled. “Johnny.”
“Luke,” Johnny said. He did not smile.
Grant chuckled and shook his head. “Heard you was retired, but you haven’t lost your edge a bit. I have to say, I didn’t expect you to be waitin’ for me.”
“Yeah, well . . . when it comes down to dealin’ friends, it’s best to get things settled fast. I was wrong for not takin’ up your challenge when first offered. We’ll set that right today.”
Grant pushed his hat back a notch with a finger to the brim. “We still friends, Johnny?”
“Could ‘a been. Would ‘a been, if you hadn’t thought takin’ my name was more important. Now’s your chance. You still want it, you claim it now. I’ll meet you now.”
“Deal says there has to be witnesses.”
“Not for you. You made that mistake before, Luke, and it cost us our friendship. Four other men have bet their luck on that gold Kane’s offerin’, but here I stand. I’m givin’ you your chance, but your reward is simply findin’out if you’re the best.” Now Johnny smiled. “If you win.”
The men stared at each other as Grant considered the terms. “Only thing I really ever wanted anyway,” Grant finally said. His eyes never left Johnny’s as he dismounted slowly and slapped his horse on the rump. The big bay trotted off and started to graze on the lush grasses along the side of the road.
Johnny had faced many men in his short life, and each time he had done so with the knowledge that it may have been his final showdown. The thought that this man before him would be the last left him feeling strangely mournful for the passing of a life that had once filled him with so much pride. But he remembered his family, and how safe they would be without him, and that conferred on him a new sense of satisfaction. Scott would marry Claire and give Murdoch ten or so grandkids to dote on. Teresa would finally look beyond him for some man who could actually bring her happiness. No, facing Luke Grant was perfect. Everyone would get what they wanted today, including Johnny who, when all was said and done, only wanted peace.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Johnny said. He stood relaxed, his practiced hands set to draw.
Grant tucked his jacket behind his holster, and mirrored Johnny’s stance. He exhibited no indecision, required no affected display to prove his worth.
These were gunmen matched in craft, but Johnny figured he had the advantage – that is, until he heard his brother shout his name from behind him.
Grant brayed out a self-satisfied laugh. “Looks like I’m gonna get them witnesses anyway, Johnny boy.”
Johnny had wanted, needed this to happen on his own terms. He felt like he was falling back into that bottomless canyon again, his whole life out of control. His brother called to him a second time, and the peace he so longed for slipped away.
Scott skidded around the corner of the building, his boots slick on the earthen-packed road. Leif and Seth Jackson stood in the bed of their wagon. Big Mike Riley stood next to a stack of board cut lumber. Scott ran toward them.
Leif saw him coming. He dropped the board in his hands into the wagon, reached down behind the seat and pulled up a shotgun. “There trouble, Scott?” he called.
“Could be,” Scott said. “Have you seen Johnny?”
“Not today,” Leif said, holding the shotgun loose and easy. “But we just got here.”
“I ain’t seen ‘im,” Mike said. He hefted the board in his hands and tossed it into the wagon bed, then wiped his hands across his shirt.
“Did you come in by the southern road?” Scott asked. He turned in a slow circle, his eyes raking over the town.
“Yeah, we did.”
“Did you see any strangers?”
“Damnit, Pa!” Seth said. “We was gonna stop at the jail.”
Scott stopped searching, turned sharply and stepped closer. “Who did you see?”
Leif leapt down from the wagon. “I’m sorry, Scott. When we turned onto the main road, we saw a single rider comin’ this way. We couldn’t tell who it was, but sure did mean to mention it to Sheriff Jayson.”
“There’s another gunman heading here who’ll be looking for Johnny. Can you help me find him?” Scott didn’t much care that he sounded desperate.
“What the hell’s your brother doin’ back in town, anyway?” Leif asked. “Why ain’t he layin’ low?”
“He—” Scott couldn’t say it. He couldn’t tell anyone that Johnny wanted to kill himself. Luke Grant might fire the bullet, but it was Johnny’s will. But Scott couldn’t say it. “He thinks meeting this man, this gunfighter, will stop any others. But he’s not well enough yet. We have to find him.”
“Sure! We’ll help,” Leif said. He looked up to his son, still standing in the wagon bed. “You see that horse we spotted this mornin’? I think it might ‘a been a bay.”
Seth scanned the streets on the south side of town. “No. Don’t think he’s got here yet . . . unless he turned off somewhere.”
“Mike,” Scott said, “we’re going to start searching south. Can you let Sheriff Jayson know?”
“Sure thing,” Mike said.
“And my father’s here, somewhere. If you see him, tell him to find me.”
“Will do!” Mike jogged off toward the middle of town.
Seth jumped off the wagon, and grabbed his own shotgun from under the seat. He followed Scott and his father down the street.
They found Pete chalking the time of the next stage onto a small blackboard posted in front of the hotel. He hadn’t seen Johnny either, but joined the search without hesitation. The room clerk from the hotel offered his help as well.
Building by building the search party grew, Scott only telling everyone that they needed to find Johnny.
Johnny deliberately turned his back on Grant and faced Morro Coyo. He could never have dreamed the spectacle that greeted him. Not only was Scott jogging down the road, but so many others were following. Closest were Leif Jackson flanked by his son, Seth, both carrying their shotguns. He recognized Pete from the stage line, a clerk from the hotel, Dan Spencer from the livery, the cantina owner’s daughter Rosa, the Otis’s, Don Mort, and a few more local ranchers, most armed with rifles. Widow Evans and her son were tagging along in her buggy. Even Señor Baldemerro and the veterinarian, Old “Doc” Hilderbrand, were trying to keep up at the rear of the crowd.
“Go back!” Johnny shouted. His thoughts churned. He had the determination to do this on his own, but his strength of will faltered as he imagined his family and friends actually watching him die. That was the one thing he had not planned for.
Grant laughed again behind him. “Let ‘em come, Johnny! I do love company.”
Usually calm when challenged, Johnny seethed in anger. But he did not direct his fury at Grant. He stomped forward and slammed his palms into Scott’s chest as they met. The violent hit was unexpected and rocked Scott backward several steps. While still off balance, Johnny shoved his brother again. His arms pin wheeling, Scott staggered back even further. “What the hell are you thinking?” Johnny hollered as he tried to push him again, but Scott dodged to the side and avoided the blow.
“I’m not going to let you do this, Johnny! None of us are,” Scott shouted back.
“This ain’t your business!” Johnny roared at Scott, and then turned on the crowd. “Go home!”
Spooked by Johnny’s fiery temper, Widow Evans’ horse reared up in its traces. But no one else backed off any further than a step or two.
Scott wrapped a fist around Johnny’s shirt collar and yanked him forward, setting them face to face. “I found the tequila bottle,” he whispered. “I’m not letting you go through with this.”
Johnny felt his control over the situation slip even more. “Let it end now, Scott,” he hissed.
“No.” Scott’s voice was firm, his gaze unwavering.
Grant broke the brothers’ tense standoff. “Who’s this comer who can wrestle Johnny Madrid and get away with it? Introduce us, Johnny.”
Johnny ripped Scott’s hand from his shirt and turned. “This is between you and me, Luke. Leave him outta this!”
“Johnny—” Scott started, but Johnny reeled on him.
“Shut up!” he shouted.
“No! Let ‘im talk,” Grant goaded.
“Your fight’s with me!” Johnny turned again, too quickly, and stumbled, fatigue, liquor and an escalating panic conspiring against him. He twisted awkwardly as he struggled to keep his footing. His injured side flared with a sharp pain that stole his breath away and left him winded and doubled over.
Johnny closed his eyes and willed the nightmare to end. He felt defeated. He should have been dead by now, but all his planning had amounted to nothing. He wanted to disappear.
A hand rested lightly upon his back and another gripped his shoulder. His brother, he knew, concerned. “You’re bleeding, Johnny,” Scott whispered into his ear. “You’ve got to stop this.”
Johnny gripped his side and straightened. He studied Luke Grant, an insolent smirk plastered on the gun hawk’s face, his focus sharp, his posture the picture of arrogant determination. He appeared completely unthreatened by the presence of the well-armed crowd. Grant did love company, but he preferred an audience more. Johnny inhaled deeply. “It’s too late.”
Luke laughed broadly. “You been holdin’ out on me, Johnny. Looks like someone almost bested you before me! Just maybe you got lazy and ain’t as fast as you used to be.”
“Johnny was hurt protecting a child who got between him and someone like you,” Scott said.
“Well, that don’t surprise me. He always was a sentimental cuss. What about you, cowboy? You got a name and any kind a’ reputation to go with it?”
“The name’s Lancer,” a deep, gruff voice called out from the crowd. “Johnny and Scott are my sons, and you are not welcome here.”
More than anything Johnny had not wanted his father to witness his death. Everything he had tried to do to protect his family had failed, and here they were again, putting themselves in danger because of him. “No, no, no!” Johnny’s wail rose steadily. “It ain’t supposed to be like this!” He took a stride forward but Scott wrapped his arms around his chest from behind, dragged him backward and held on tight.
Murdoch stepped in front of his sons, flanked by Sheriff Jayson and Big Mike. “You’re not challenging my son today, nor any day. He’s not a gunfighter anymore. You have no business here.”
Luke chuckled, and tapped a finger against the butt of his revolver. “Oh, I think I do. I do. Three thousand in gold is a might profitable deal if you ask me.” He lowered his gun hand beside his holster and sneered at Murdoch, his stare intense. “But if papa wants to stop me, well, he can come right on ahead and try.”
“Murdoch, no!” Johnny shouted. “Scott, can’t you see what Luke’s tryin’ to do?” He thrashed against his brother, bucking as rough as he could, regretting that he hadn’t worn his spurs. Scott grunted from the effort, but his firm hold refused to yield. Johnny’s side burned and he gasped as something ripped apart within his wound. An excruciating pain knifed through his middle that halted both his protests and attempt to break free.
“There are no gunmen here, Grant,” Sheriff Jayson said. “You kill anyone, it’ll be murder and you’ll hang.”
“Oh no sir, it won’t be. See, I can be real patient and hold my fire, but some of ya’ll look mighty anxious to get something started. Don’t be shy now.”
Leif Jackson’s voice shook as he announced from the crowd, “Mister . . . the way we heard it was no fair gunfight, no gold! Well . . . you’ll have to go through all of us to get to Johnny. No other way.”
A murmured chorus of agreement from the other townspeople echoed the assertion.
Grant took a step forward and flicked a finger at Leif. “You know, a shotgun can be a messy weapon, but I never met a man yet who could fire one off quicker than I could draw my gun. You wanna try your luck?”
“Pa?” Seth Jackson glanced nervously from his father to the gunfighter.
“Luke, that’s enough! Leave ‘em alone,” Johnny called. The bandage around his waist felt wet against his side and it was getting harder to ignore the ever-increasing pain. Still, he tried again to break Scott’s grasp, but his brother dug his heels deep into the dirt and held him back. “This is our fight.”
“You’re wrong, Johnny,” Murdoch said, but he kept his eyes on Grant. “We’re making this our fight. Look around you, Mr. Grant. Johnny is no longer the man you knew. He’s made a fresh start here. He has a family. You and Bodie Kane got your pride hurt by Johnny Madrid. Well, I suggest you be a man and get over it, because Madrid’s gone. Do you seriously think that killing Johnny Lancer would mean anything to anyone beyond this town? My son is not the man you’re looking for. And I will protect him from you or anyone else like you.”
Another barrage of agreement rose from the good citizens of Morro Coyo, this one louder and more ardent.
Johnny was stunned. To have his family stand up for him was one thing, to have a whole town defend him was most definitely another – especially while being threatened by the likes of a professional gunman with Luke Grant’s pitiless reputation. He had worked so hard to earn respect as Johnny Madrid, he could have never guessed that such high regard would be so readily bestowed upon Johnny Lancer.
His fate was no longer in his own hands. Johnny didn’t have the energy to continue to fight, and he had lost the heart. He stopped struggling against Scott and lowered his head, unwilling to witness what might come next.
A silent battle waged while Johnny weakened. His side now bled freely and he was getting lightheaded. Just as he thought his legs might collapse beneath him, Luke spoke.
“Well, ain’t this a sight. You’ve given me one more reason to hate you, Johnny.”
Johnny slowly lifted his head and faced Grant. “What’s that?”
“You gave up bein’ a gun hand and found maybe the only thing better than a reputation . . . a place to call home.”
Johnny shook his head. “Kane took that away. Don’t envy me, Luke.”
Luke crossed toward Johnny, but Murdoch stepped forward and set himself between them. Luke conceded Murdoch his protective gesture with a simple nod. “Well, I could maybe go tell Kane that Johnny Madrid ain’t here anymore.”
Johnny was stunned.
Murdoch spoke for the family. “You would do that?” His voice carried his own astonishment and a hefty dose of skepticism.
“Might,” Luke said.
“Do you think he’d believe you?” Murdoch asked.
Luke chuckled. “Oh, I can be pretty convincing . . . especially for an oldfriend.” He shot Johnny a broad grin before addressing the crowd. “And I reckon if anyone else comes lookin’ for Madrid that the good citizens around here will back me up on my word.”
An enthusiastic response of “yes’s” and “sure will’s” flowed from the amazed crowd.
Luke took another couple of steps toward Johnny. Murdoch gave ground and turned aside. “I’m sorry, Johnny,” Luke said. “You’re right. It was me who dealt you a wrong.” He held out a hand.
Scott released Johnny as he reached out to shake Luke’s hand. “Good to see you again,” Johnny said.
“Good to see you, too. Been way too long.”
Built-up tension suddenly released, months of worry and unrest, illness, and fatigue fell on Johnny all at once. He gripped Luke’s hand tighter as a wave of dizziness hit him. It took both Scott and his friend’s strong arms to keep him on his feet.
“Whoa, there, boy!” Luke said, his face close to Johnny’s. “I got a notion that we need to be done here.”
A commotion arose with the slap of some reins. Buggy wheels pounded over the rutted roadway. “Murdoch!” the Widow Evans shouted as the buggy rumbled to a stop. “You take my rig and get your boy over to Doc Jenkins’.”
The men practically carried Johnny toward the buggy. Murdoch took the widow’s place as her son helped her down from the other side. Scott and Luke supported Johnny while Murdoch pulled him up onto the seat.
Ready to slap the reins to urge the buggy horse forward, Johnny put a blood-smeared hand over Murdoch’s to stop him. He faced Luke, not yet quite able to believe the incredible turn of events. “Thank you,” he said.
“You take care, Johnny.”
The men shared a short moment of renewed friendship, before Luke took a couple of steps back to clear the wheels.
Murdoch whipped the reins and the buggy lurched forward, speeding Johnny back into town.
Grant stood his ground and watched the buggy leave, then continued to wait and watch while the crowd ambled away.
Scott stepped off to the side of the road and waited too, studying Grant.
The gunfighter appeared indifferent about Scott’s presence until the final straggler trudged out of earshot. “We still have a problem, Mr. Lancer?” Grant asked. His jacket had fallen forward as they’d carried Johnny. With deliberate movements, he shifted his right hand upward and back and again tucked the coattail behind his holster.
Scott recognized the challenge and raised his hands up for a moment as a signal of truce. “Not with you, Mr. Grant. I hope. Actually, I’d like to thank you personally for seeing our side of things . . . for leaving Johnny alone. I also want to hire you to protect him.”
His head askance, Grant stared at Scott. “Well, seems to me like he was pretty eager to defend himself. And he’s got a whole town lookin’ after him now. What would you need me for?”
Praying that his answer would not prove an irreparable mistake, Scott took a deep breath. “Johnny’s gun wasn’t loaded, Mr. Grant. He wanted you to kill him.”
Grant sniggered in obvious complete disbelief. “That’s just about the stupidest thing I ever heard. How would you know a thing like that anyway? He tell you that?”
“Not exactly. I only found out by chance. That’s why he was so insistent on meeting you alone, outside of town, and why I had everyone looking for him. But you’re the only one who knows why I really needed to find him.”
Grant took a moment to consider. “His father know?”
“No. Just me. Now you.”
Grant still appeared doubtful, but the candor of Scott’s answer had him second-guessing. “The Johnny I knew wouldn’t do something like that.”
Scott approached Grant slowly with a decisive seriousness. “You’re the fifth man he’s been forced to face in three months. He killed the first three, was shot shielding a young boy who got in the way of the fourth, then found out a former friend was headed this way to resurrect an old grudge.” Scott stopped within feet of the gunman. “Johnny’s been here two years and really has given up gunfighting, Mr. Grant. The trouble is convincing people like you that it’s true. Every time he draws his gun and remains alive, a reputation he no longer wants becomes more impressive. So now, all he can see is that he’s a threat to his family, and his friends. He just wants to be left alone. I will pay you to make that happen.”
“I meant it when I said I’d talk to Kane.” Grant’s demeanor had sobered considerably, and Scott did not doubt his sincerity.
“I want more than that. I’m concerned about anyone else who’s already heard about Kane’s offer. I’ll not have my brother challenged again.”
“Brother.” Grant smirked. His head shook as his eyes glinted mischievously. “He really your brother?”
Scott caught a glimpse of why Johnny once liked this man. He returned the smile. “Yes. Surprised us, too. Different mothers. But we are brothers, and I don’t want him hurt ever again.”
“My, oh my. Johnny sure hit the mother lode when he found his family. You are a mama hen, ain’t you? And that papa of yours . . . bet he’s a bear of a man. I ain’t gonna have to answer to him, am I?”
“No. This arrangement is between you and me. I’ll tell my father, but I’ll expect your complete discretion. I don’t want anyone getting the idea that Johnny’s any more of a target right now than he already is. It may take some time, but when he picks up a gun again, I want it loaded and him ready to use it, not just aim it. I’ll expect Johnny Lancer to defend himself.”
“I get your meaning. You know, though. As much as I might try, there’s no guarantee someone, sometime ain’t gonna recognize him.”
“I can only ask you to do the best you—” Scott bit down on the next word. His eyes closed as he recalled how attempting to be one’s “best” had gotten Johnny into this whole mess.
“Something wrong, Mr. Lancer?”
Scott opened his eyes. “No, not at all. And it’s Scott. Do we have a deal, Mr. Grant?”
Grant grinned. “Make it Luke. And yes, I’ll hide Johnny’s trail for him and watch his back. Kinda miss doin’ that anyway, and I truly do owe him.”
Scott held out a hand, and the men shook. “Name your fee and where to wire the money every month. You’re on the Lancer payroll until what Kane started is finished.”
Grant sniggered. “Johnny ain’t gonna like you doin’ this for him.”
“You have a point.” Scott offered a sly smile. “However, I just happen to be independently wealthy, Luke. Expect your payments from Scott Garrett. No reason for Johnny to know how I spend my money.”
“Garrett, huhn? You sure you don’t have some kind a’ reputation of your own?”
Scott laughed. “Only for being an occasional annoyance to my brother.” He rubbed his chest where Johnny had shoved him and knew he would have a sizable bruise there by nightfall.
Grant snorted his own laugh. “Been on the receiving end of some of that myself. He do pack a wallop, don’t he?” His amusement died off as he grew serious, his brow furrowed. “I’m happy for Johnny, I really am. Him findin’ a family an’ a place to ‘light is a good thing. I’m sorry for my part in makin’ things worse for him,” he said with true regret. “You know, I never really thought Johnny was cut out for this kind of work. I think that’s why he got so fast with a gun, just so he wouldn’t have any need for it.”
“Well, with your help, let’s pray that he never has any need for it ever again.”
Scott entered town and headed for Doctor Jenkins’ office. He kept a brisk pace, but still thanked everyone he met along the way for standing up for Johnny. He found a new sense of pride in the citizens of Morro Coyo, a deeper understanding of what it truly meant to be a friend to someone. Scott had no doubt that if anyone else came looking for Madrid that no one would ever point toward Johnny Lancer.
There was no sight of the Widow Evans’ buggy near the doctor’s office. Scott entered and found the waiting room empty. He quietly opened the door to the treatment room and found Murdoch holding Johnny upright as Doc Jenkins wrapped bandaging around Johnny’s waist.
Whether through weakness, opiates or exhaustion, Johnny’s eyes were closed in sleep. His head rested on Murdoch’s chest. Their father’s drawn visage illustrated a mixture of concern and relief, the immediate risk to the son averted, but the ending of the threat unknown.
“How is he?” Scott whispered as he stepped beside the men.
“Managed to bust most of his stitches and opened both wounds,” Jenkins said quietly, “but he’ll live.”
Scott could have chosen to laugh or cry at the irony of that sentiment.
“I think he could use about a week’s worth of sleep, too,” Jenkins added, his familiar brusque disposition barely concealing his caring demeanor. “We’ve got this in hand. You go wait outside. There’s coffee brewed.”
Scott turned to leave and spotted Johnny’s rig hanging over the back of a chair. He took it with him into the waiting room. He sat down and held the holster in his hands, wondering how Johnny’s handgun could be considered so much different, how much more important than any other.
It was the man who wielded the weapon, Scott knew that, except that this man just happened to be his brother. He tried to envision what Johnny’s life had been like over his short years, the gun now in his hands defining his brother’s existence. Scott had grown up in a mansion, with money and access to anything he had ever wanted. Johnny had been dragged into a drifter’s life and survived with a gun, a reputation he worked hard to earn and a legendary name to go with it – and he no longer wanted any of that.
‘So what does leave him now? A lot.’ Scott was able to answer the question easily. The task would be to convince Johnny Lancer of that.
Doctor Jenkins came out of the treatment room and closed the door behind him. Scott stood. “Everything all right?”
“Fine, just fine,” Jenkins said, waving him back down. “He’s still asleep and Murdoch insists on sitting vigil. But he’s fine.”
“Doc . . . .” Scott hesitated, but somehow he knew it was the right thing to do. “Can you sit down a minute?”
Jenkins was an astute man, and usually could tell when something serious needed discussion. Today was no exception. “Sure,” he said, assessing the request quickly. He pulled a chair over and set himself in front of Scott.
“Did Murdoch tell you about the standoff with Luke Grant?”
“A bit,” Jenkins said. “He roundly thanked God that you and half the town showed up in time to stop the gunfight.”
“I need to show you something that I’m not sure I want to show Murdoch. But someone besides me needs to know.” Scott hesitated, once again ready to betray an implied trust with his brother that he wasn’t sure Johnny had the right to expect him to honor. To his credit, Jenkins sat with him in silence, allowing time for a decision. Scott finally pulled the handgun from the holster, drew the hammer back to half cock, thumbed open the loading gate, and slowly rotated the cylinder. One by one, he exposed the empty cartridge chambers.
As if it were sinful to speak of such a thing, Jenkins quietly asked, “Is that Johnny’s?” He was visibly shocked.
“Yes, it is.”
It was Scott’s turn to sit in silence, allowing Jenkins time to form his own conclusions about the empty handgun. Jenkins took his time. “Lord Almighty.” He glanced toward the treatment room door, then turned back to stare at the gun. He scraped a hand over his face, and took yet another minute to compose his thoughts. “I’m really sorry, Scott. I should have considered this sooner. Johnny’s been waging a kind of war all on his own. There was bound to be repercussions . . . like soldiers who couldn’t take the fighting anymore. Of all men though . . . I just never thought Johnny could break!”
“I don’t think any of us did. I saw men haunted like that during the war, but I missed fitting the pieces together, too. Doc, I know I should, but I don’t want to tell Murdoch. He already carries enough guilt over Johnny’s rough upbringing. He’d never forgive himself for this.”
“What do you want to do, Scott? I’ll help any way I can.”
Scott nodded. “Thanks Doc.” He began to pull cartridges from Johnny’s gun belt and loaded the handgun. “I’m going to start with some private conversations with my brother . . . quite a few of them, I suspect. But I want him to have someone else he can talk to as well. If you want to assure him that nothing he tells you will be shared with anyone else, that’s fine with me. I just want him to know that he can count on us to be there whenever and however he needs us.” He finished loading five bullets, but reconsidered a sixth. Johnny was one of the few men Scott had ever met who would dare to carry a fully loaded handgun – and then, only when he felt the most threatened. Scott thumbed the loading gate shut, and rotated the empty chamber to sit safely under the hammer. He placed the weapon back in the holster.
“Of course, of course,” Jenkins said, nodding briskly. “And I’ll look into cases like this with my colleagues . . . see if there’s anything else we can do for him other than just talk it out.”
“I’d appreciate that. Whatever it costs, you just let me know. I’ll take care of it personally.”
Jenkins was staring at the handgun again. “Lord Almighty.”
Scott hadn’t realized he’d fallen asleep until he felt Sam Jenkins’ hand on his shoulder. He woke with a start, and grabbed at Johnny’s holster, headed off his lap onto the floor. He ran a hand across his hair and glanced out the window. It was still morning. “How long was I asleep?”
“Not long enough,” Jenkins said. “Maybe an hour. But Murdoch won’t leave Johnny alone, and he needs to rest as well. I thought maybe you could go spell him for a bit so he can grab a proper nap.”
“Certainly,” Scott said. Jenkins followed him into the treatment room. Johnny was lying on his side, still soundly asleep. Murdoch sat in a chair beside him, his head making a slow decent toward his chest.
Jenkins shook Murdoch’s shoulder. He woke, briefly eyed Jenkins, and then set his gaze on Johnny. “Is anything wrong?”
“No, no,” Jenkins said. “Scott’s going to watch him for a bit. I want you to come with me and get some rest.”
Murdoch scraped a hand over his face. “I’m all right.” He looked anything but with his clothes and hair disheveled, his eyes bloodshot, and too much fear and concern still layered upon his face.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Jenkins said. He indicated the door. “Let’s go.”
A yawn trumped any further protest Murdoch might have made.
“Let’s go,” Jenkins repeated. “I’ll bring you some coffee and something to eat,” he told Scott on the way out the door.
“Let me know if he wakes up,” Murdoch said. He left the door open on his way out.
Scott closed the door and took Murdoch’s seat. He still held Johnny’s rig in his hands. He stroked a thumb across the well-worn leather, and stared at his brother. “Wake up, Johnny. You and I need to talk.”
He had to wait another hour for that. Johnny’s jaw tightened first, his teeth clenched against what Scott figured had to be a fair amount of pain. Johnny’s eyelids finally flickered open. He locked eyes with Scott for only a moment and then looked away.
Scott got up and poured a glass of water. He brought it back to Johnny. “Drink,” he said. He lifted Johnny’s head and held the glass while he drank his fill. Scott set the glass aside and raised Johnny’s holster from where he’d hung it over the back of his chair. He held it out for Johnny to see. “Why?”
Johnny looked away again. Scott sat back down. “I need to know, Johnny,” he said, “and if you want it that way, whatever you say will remain between you and me. But I need to know. Take your time. I’ll wait.” He did wait, with utmost patience, wanting to prove to Johnny that he wasn’t going away.
It took several minutes for Johnny to struggle with his answer. Scott watched with heartrending grief as Johnny’s expression twisted with a profound desolation that was tragic to behold. “I’m tired,” he finally said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I was . . . twelve when I killed my first man. I’m just . . . tired.”
Scott didn’t know what he had expected, but Johnny’s admission was formidable. He also knew that the answer had nothing to do with his brother’s physical condition, and that made the confession even more sorrowful to hear. It was hard to contend with the thought that Johnny had lived in the shadow of death for well over half his short life. But that didn’t mean that Scott wasn’t willing to try. “I know, brother. I know. But things are different now.” Scott held up Johnny’s rig again. “It’s reloaded, and if you ever need to use it again you remember, you don’t stand alone anymore. Ever.”
“I don’t want anyone hurt because of me. I can’t live with that, Scott. Don’t ask me.”
The plea roiled with dread and anguish, but Scott couldn’t let it stand unchallenged. “And we’re supposed to be able to live with your death? Johnny,” Scott leaned forward so their foreheads almost touched, but still his brother would not look him in the eye. “You sacrificing yourself for our safety doesn’t solve anything. It just transfers the responsibility from you to us. Look, if we had grown up together and you made a mistake, we would have dealt with it and forgiven you. That’s what families do. You did the best you could, and made a life for yourself, on your own. But you don’t have to face your future alone. What’s past is not forgotten but it is in the past. If you want to leave that life behind you we will make that happen, together, your family and, if today was any indication, everyone within fifty miles of here. Johnny, look – at – me!”
Johnny’s eyes glistened with deepening pools of mournful tears that he had every right to shed. Finally, his gaze latched onto Scott’s with the unmistakable desire to believe. Scott held the gaze, knowing he now controlled the course of his brother’s future. He seized the responsibility of champion with earnest fervor and, with all the hope he could muster, commanded, “Don’t give up Johnny, ever again. We’ll be here for you. That’s our choice. All we ask is that you never give up. Promise me, Johnny. Promise me that you will never give up . . . .”
Epilogue – June 27, 1885
Johnny sat on a low-legged bench up against the barn, with his elbows resting upon his knees. The area caught the late morning sun, and he appreciated the warmth of it. He had donned his spurs today, having briefly considered helping to bust broncs. But Eli and Marcus Miller were making short work of the small string of wild horses, bound for sale to the United States Calvary. They were in the corral next to the barn, showing off for Scott’s boys. Johnny had to smile at Garrett’s whooping and Matt’s hollering, as they yahooed the Miller’s on from their perch, balanced atop the corral fence.
‘Nope. Another thing you’re too old for,’ Johnny thought. He shook his head in wonder over actually being “too old” for anything. He sat back, content to keep an eye on the action and make sure no one busted a head open.
Johnny kept his restless hands busy working on a piece of rawhide, braiding and unbraiding it, never satisfied with how it was turning out and not really sure what he had in mind to make anyway. It was a distraction, and some days that’s all Johnny needed.
A mostly white mangy longhaired mutt sat on the bench next to him. Scott’s daughter Catherine had taken to calling it “Paco.” The name had stuck. He gave it a quick scritch on the head and then went back to braiding the rawhide. ‘Maybe this’d make a nice hair tie for Cate . . . she’d like that.’ Mind set on the new task, he pulled the braiding apart again and started over.
He was being watched. He always knew when they were watching him, which, if truth be told, was most of the time, especially when they had an inkling that he might be brooding over times past. Usually he didn’t much mind. He understood the family was just holding up their end of an old promise. Occasionally he felt guilty about their dogged vigilance over his health and safety, but after all these years it still mainly brought him comfort.
As if reading his thoughts, Scott walked out of the hacienda and strolled in his direction. Johnny patted Paco on his hind end. The mutt hopped down and took up sentinel half under the bench, a furry pile next to Johnny’s boot.
“Who told on me this time?” Johnny said, keeping at his braiding.
“Claire,” Scott said. He sat next to Johnny and stretched his long legs out, crossing his ankles in languid comfort. He watched Eli mount a fresh pony and start bucking. After a pause he added, “And Murdoch . . . and Cate.”
Johnny chuffed. “Guess Teresa don’t love me no more.”
Scott chuckled. “Not exactly. She’s the one who told Claire to keep an eye on you before she went to put Juan down for a nap.”
Johnny smiled. “Oh,” he said, accepting the gentle chastisement for doubting his wife.
They sat a minute in relaxed company. “Why ain’t Paul up on that fence with your boys?” Johnny asked.
“Well . . . Murdoch has him practicing his sums with the accounts.”
Johnny started to rise but Scott pulled at his arm and forced him to sit back down. “Don’t rescue him just yet,” Scott said. “He actually found a mistake Murdoch made and did you proud with the hurrah he shouted. It isn’t likely, but he’s busy trying to find another error to pin on his grandpa.”
Johnny knew he was grinning like a cat stuffed full of canary. “What did Murdoch do?”
Scott laughed. “Fumed for a minute or two. But I think he was actually glad that at least one of your sons can count better than you.”
“That’s your doin’,” Johnny said.
“You’re welcome,” Scott returned.
They settled back, Johnny working at the rawhide, Scott watching the bronc busting. “That Eli sure can ride,” Scott said.
“He always did like ridin’ things,” Johnny said, looking up from the rawhide. “Come a long way since climin’ on boot tops. And I’m doin’ just fine, by the way.”
Scott smiled sheepishly. “I figured as much, but had to check.”
It had taken some time, but the brothers had grown comfortable with their agreement, made so long ago in Doctor Jenkins’ treatment room. Countless words had passed between them in the first few years after Kane had nearly destroyed Johnny’s will to live. But he had continued to believe and had never given up hope again. There had been several more attempted showdowns, but true to their pact, the citizens of Morro Coyo had stopped one of the gunfights, his family two others, and Johnny’s speed and skill the rest.
What Johnny regretted most was the need to tell the older children about his past. The arguments for and against were tense and proved a devastating consideration that had nearly set back Johnny’s recovery. In the end, he was forced to accept the fact that parents whisper and kids will talk, and Madrid’s legend was bound to remain schoolyard chatter for years to come. The family had also decided that it would be safer if they knew. To their credit, the children all loved Johnny unconditionally and were the staunchest defenders of his secret. However, if Johnny had anything to say about it, Juan would never know who his father had been.
Fortunately, besides snakes and rustlers, Johnny hadn’t needed to draw his handgun for close to six years, and for almost three he hadn’t been recognized as anybody but John Lancer. It happened slower than he’d hoped, but it did seem to be getting easier to put Madrid behind him. Even so, he still practiced, at least once a week, and nobody did anything to stop him.
“I see you wore your spurs today,” Scott said. “Are you going to try your luck?”
“Nope. Thought about it. But the boys are doin’ fine. When you gonna let Garrett give it a try?”
“When every knife and gun on this ranch is buried and Claire is tied to a chair.”
The brother’s shared a good laugh at that. “He’s ready,” Johnny said, still chuckling. “You know he’s ready. Rides better than his pa.”
Scott beamed a smile full of pride. “I know. But Claire worries.”
“Boy’s gotta grow up sometime.”
Scott finally faced Johnny, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “That what you tell Teresa about Paul?”
“You leave him outta this,” Johnny said, sounding too defensive to his own ears. He shook his head and smiled. “Ain’t a fair comparison. Garrett’s got three years on my boy.”
“And he rides just as good as you . . . maybe even better. It’s in his blood.” Scott waved a hand toward the corral. “You taught the Miller boys young. I’ll tell you what . . . you get Teresa to let Paul bust a bronc, and I’ll tell Claire that Garrett’s ready.”
The brothers stared at each other, the dare tempting them both beyond reason. Johnny finally came to his senses. “No deal.”
“Chicken,” Scott goaded.
“Darn right,” Johnny agreed.
Scott went back to watching the bronc riding, Marcus mounting up to take his turn. “What are you making?”
“Hair tie for Cate.”
“She’ll like that,” Scott said.
“Time’ll tell,” Johnny said.
“She’s loved every gift you’ve given her, Tío John. And by the way, stop spoiling my children.”
“They deserve it.”
Scott smiled and patted Johnny’s knee. “So do yours, John. So do yours.”
MP – August 2010
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