Appaloosa Series: Looking After His Own by Olley

Word Count: 8,326

#5 in the Appaloosa Series

This follows on from The Appaloosa Series and What a $1000 of his time buys.

One

Val Crawford squinted across to the figure rocking in the old chair outside the stagecoach office. The stage was of course overdue, so who was Johnny Lancer waiting for?  Rocking, hat pulled low, acting for all the world like he was having a siesta.

He pulled his own hat low, hitched up his pants and crossed from his office to the opposite boardwalk.  Johnny didn’t look up. “Howdy Val, what you doing?”

Val sniffed. “I’m doing what I’m paid to by sheriffing.” He bent down to speak in Johnny’s ear. “Deciding if I need to arrest or move on a trouble attracting yahoo.”

Johnny stopped rocking, pushed his hat to the back of his head and grinned up at Val. “Who, me?  I’m as innocent as an angel in heaven.”

Val huffed. “So who or what are you waiting, or watching for?” 

“Not expecting anyone. Scott is meeting Mr Gilbert Everett. For some reason I make our local banker nervous. So I’m sat out here waiting, just watching the comings and goings.”

Val pulled up a chair and sat next to Johnny. “Heard talk that the idea of the cattlemen setting up their own bank met some opposition.”

Johnny grunted. “Yeah, Donald Porter, the President of the Cattlemen’s Association, was against it. A couple of the smaller outfits said they had loans that tied them to the Green River Bank and Loan business.  So for the time being Mr Gilbert Everett still has some Lancer business.”

The two men were quiet for a while watching Green River go about its business. Johnny pushed the rocker forward. “Understand that lady just leaving the hotel is a relative of the bank manager.”

A woman wearing black widow weeds was making her way down the boardwalk towards Mrs Hargis’s store. Val wasn’t surprised that his friend knew about a new arrival. “Yeah, registered as Mrs Hester Everett.”

Johnny’s spurs sang as he stood. “Reckon I’ll buy some liquorice before I meet up with Scott in the saloon. Why don’t you join us?”

Val rubbed a hand across his mouth to hide a smile. “So Scott will be there first and buying will he?”

Johnny grinned and turned on his heels to swagger down to the mercantile store. Val sniffed; the boy was up to something, but what?

The widow Everett was discussing dress material with Mrs Hargis, saying she was coming out of deep mourning and needed at least two new outfits. Johnny stood in the shadows and watched. The widow had a heavy veil covering her face and her voice was muted. He did detect a Texas accent. Johnny made his way to the cabinet that displayed the candy and smiled at Mrs Hargis.

“You wanting some liquorice Johnny?”

He put on his most innocent expression and voice. “Yes, Ma’am, can’t visit Green River and not buy me some of your liquorice sticks.”

The widow turned to look at him and he raised his hat. “Howdy Ma’am,  I hope you’re finding Green River and the company of Mr Everett  a source  of some comfort during your mourning?”

Mrs Hargis raised an eyebrow at his wide-eyed innocent cowboy act.

Widow Everett put a gloved hand to her heart. “Why bless you, young man how kind to enquire. Indeed since my dear Norman passed over, I found life in my former home lonely. Mr Gilbert Everett is my only living relative, being my late husband’s brother, hence here I am.”

Johnny looked down at his boots. “Well Ma’am I reckon you did right to be with family.”  Mrs Hargis busied herself putting liquorice in a paper bag. “So, Mrs Everett, was your late husband also in the banking business?”

“Oh no, my Norman, wasn’t one for sitting in an office all day.” She waved a gloved hand. “He was a land agent and surveyor. Out and about all over on behalf of folks wanting to move west and expand their business.” She shook her head. “Alas, sometimes in dangerous places.”

Johnny and Mrs Hargis looked at each other, Mrs Hargis made a tutting sound and handed Johnny the small bag of liquorice sticks. He fished out some coins from his pocket. “Thanks, Mrs Hargis. Nice to have made your acquaintance, Mrs Everett.”

As he left the store he took out a stick to chew as he walked to the saloon.

Johnny glanced over the bat-wings to see Val sat at a table at the back and Scott at the bar. There were no strangers. He nodded a hello at the old guys playing cards and took the seat backing onto the wall with a clear sight to the doorway.

Val raised an eyebrow as Scott placed three glasses of beer on the table and one shot of whiskey. One Lancer chewing liquorice like a little kid, the other with a face like thunder. Scott downed the whiskey in one gulp and slammed the glass down. Johnny frowned. “Whoa, Scott, that aint like you. Mr Gilbert Everett put you in a pucker?”

Scott looked up from the table and blinked. “You could say he has indeed ruffled my usual pleasant demeanour.”

Johnny looked at Val and shrugged. “Will some liquorice restore your pleasant demeanour?” Johnny offered the paper bag to Scott and grinned.

Scott shook his head and a small smile slipped onto his lips. “No, thank you. I take it you have been flirting with Mrs Hargis.”

“Who, me—flirt?  Does no good with that wily old lady. I paid for them. Got more though.” He had their attention, so drank some of his beer and leaned in keeping his voice low. “Met the widow Everett.”

Val leaned forward as well. “Well, come on boy, what did you find out?”

“Couldn’t see her face ‘cos of the heavy black weeds she’s covered in, made out a Texas accent. Her late husband was a land agent name of Norman. Didn’t say how or where he died; might get that when she starts to socialise with the women folk hereabouts.”

Johnny looked at them both. “Norman.”

They both looked blank.

“Norman. Like the agent who set the bounty hunter on my family in San del Rio?”

Scott shook his head again. “It’s a common enough name and his given Christian name, not a family name. It’s just a coincidence.”

Johnny drank some more beer. “Don’t believe in coincidences, and I ain’t the only person who traded with a different name.”

The three sat quietly and sipped their beer. There was a low hum of conversation from the old guys playing cards and outside the sound of the stage arriving in town. Johnny sighed. His instincts were whispering to him like a wind that comes before a storm. “What did our banker say or do to ruffle you, Scott?”

Before Scott could reply two men had pushed the bat-wings open and their boots stamped to the bar. Johnny immediately sank low in his chair and pulled his hat down to shadow his face. Val had sat bolt upright. Scott knew enough to sit still and keep quiet. His back was to the bar and all he had was Val slightly shaking his head at him.

Val barely whispered. “Stay put, Johnny.” He stood and stepped towards the two men. An older one wearing a black suit and flashy waistcoat, no sign of a gun belt. The other younger, not much past being a boy, had a low slung gun. Everything about him said gunfighter.

It was the young one who thumped the bar demanding a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. The saloon occupants all held their breath; trouble was in the air.

Val made sure he stood in front of the table shielding Johnny and Scott as much as he could. “Kincaid, what brings you to my town?”

The older of the two looked across. “Crawford, that you wearing a badge?”

The younger of the two turned and made to draw his gun. “Stay, boy.” Kincaid held the boys’ arm. “You’ll have to excuse my young friend, We have had a long dusty ride and our tempers are short.” Kincaid attempted a smile.

Val sniffed at the obvious insincerity and let his hand rest on his gun. “You and your young hothead had best be planning on moving on.”

Kincaid frowned and leaned slightly sideways to get a look at the table behind Val. “That you, Madrid?”

Johnny sighed, staying low in his chair. “Kincaid.”

“Damn me Madrid, I heard the rurales executed you.”

Johnny kept his eyes on the young one. “You heard wrong.” He kept his left hand on the table but his right hand was out of sight on his gun. The youngster shook off Kincaid’s hand.

“Madrid, I’m calling you out. This wasted journey ain’t wasted no more.” He took a gunfighter stance. The barman ducked down and the old guys abandoned their card game to scuttle out of the way of any bullets.

Johnny stayed still. “Heck, kid, I don’t want to get called out by you. I want to sit here and drink my beer. Now if your keeper here were man enough to wear a gun and face me, instead of setting his dog on me, I’d have a mind to agree.”

Scott tensed. This man at his side was no longer his brother. This was Madrid.

“I ain’t no one’s dog.” The boy’s fingers twitched over his gun. “You so broken down Madrid, you’re afraid to take me on.”

Johnny pursed his lips. “Kincaid told you you’re good enough to have a reputation that’ll earn you respect. Has he fixed any of your bullet wounds yet by feeding you booze and laudanum? He got you gun jobs but takes the money on offer saying he is looking after you watching your back? Hell boy, I don’t even know your name.”

Scott frowned, realising Johnny had related a small piece of his gunfighting life.

The young man’s eyes became slits, betraying his anger. He growled, “Name’s Roscoe, Deek Roscoe.”

Johnny laughed. “You practice that in front of a mirror, kid?”

Roscoe reached for his gun, and Johnny and Val both drew theirs.

Val’s voice was loud in the silence. “Not in here. Don’t want the barkeep to clear up blood and broken furniture.”

Johnny stayed in his seat and waved towards the door. “Proceed, Deek.”  He leaned down to Scott. “Whatever happens, remember what he said about a wasted journey. It ain’t me they came here for.”

Scott looked up at Val. “Can’t you stop this?”

Val shook his head. “Not broken any laws. All you and me are going to do is watch Johnny’s back. I’ll watch Kincaid you keep a lookout for any bushwacker on the roofline.”

Roscoe stood in the middle of the street his back to the sun. Kincaid stood to the right, behind him, arms folded across his chest.

Johnny smiled and flexed his fingers as he slowly moved to face his young opponent.  He looked around; most of Green River were sheltering inside doorways or watching through windows. There were no other strangers. His whole body relaxed as he waited for that moment, the flicker in the eye, the twitch of fingers.

Two gunshots rang out and Johnny rolled to the left, coming to his knees gun still smoking. Another shot rang out. He wasn’t hit. “Scott, are you hit?” He scrambled upright.

“No, I’m fine.”

Johnny held Scott searching him for blood and looked in his face. “Damn, Scott, that was meant for me.”

Scott put a hand around his brother’s neck. “I was watching. Your bullet took down the kid. His hit the ground. That third shot came from across the street, but not in your direction.”

Johnny spun around; he hadn’t missed Roscoe, whose blood was pooling in the dust. But Val was bent over. “Val, are you hit?”

“No, but Kincaid took a bullet in the back.”

Johnny scanned the street and roofs behind where Kincaid had stood. “The shooter must have been in the alley between the hotel and café.”

Val was yelling at the people who were starting to appear wanting to see the aftermath of the gunfight. “Get back inside now, there’s still a gunman out here.” Staying low, he raced across the street. Johnny pushed Scott behind a buggy, his gun covering Val. There were no more gunshots.

Val waved them over and the three scouted out the alley and rear of the buildings. Val swore under his breath and swatted his hat against his leg. “Damn it, too many tracks to make sense of. I need to write this up and maybe see if Kincaid and that kid are on a poster.”

Scott rubbed his chin. “You think it could have been a bounty hunter who caught up with them?”

Val shrugged and pulled up his pants. “Maybe.”

Johnny stopped chewing the storm strings of his hat and shivered, his voice was low.  “Need to clean my gun, Val.”

Val lay his arm across Johnny’s shoulder and gently urged him along the boardwalk. “Come on, Johnny, back to my office. You had no choice and you’re still standing.”

Scott realised this was the first time he had seen Johnny called out. The initial relief of his brother surviving was now replaced by concern at his obvious unease. There was no sign of jubilation or celebration at winning the gunfight.

In his office Val pulled out a bottle of tequila and three glasses and watched Johnny hugging himself, rocking slightly.  “Sit. Drink.”

Johnny blinked as if coming awake and sat and drank his tequila straight down. The door opened and he was on his feet gun in hand.

“Sorry, sorry to take you by surprise.” The grey-haired man held up his hands. “Thought you’d want to know, Val, them two laying dead in the street were on my stage.”

Val waved Eli Jones in. “It’s alright Eli, come on in and tell us about them.”

Eli looked nervous but Johnny holstered his gun and managed a smile. “Sorry Eli, still a mite jumpy.”

“Don’t blame you Johnny, them two, ‘specially the young one. Gave me a real hard time about a passenger they said should have been on board.”

Val pointed at a chair. “From the beginning, Eli. Where did they get on, and who was the passenger they were looking for?”

“Got on at Walnut Grove, second stop after leaving ‘Frisco. Only other passengers were the elderly Winston sisters; they were sure scared of that young fella.  Didn’t get the name of who they said should have been aboard. The one with the fancy waistcoat said it was a business associate who should have got on in the city and was travelling to Green River.”

Johnny didn’t look up from cleaning his colt. “Maybe it wasn’t a wasted journey. Maybe they were set up to travel here to face me down?”

Scott ran his hand through his hair. “But they seemed genuinely surprised to find you, and why would Kincaid have been killed?”

Val scratched his head. “Reckon I’ll go to the undertakers and see if Kincaid had anything on him that explains any of this.”  He patted Johnny’s shoulder as he stood to leave. “You and Scott go on home.”

Johnny put his clean gun in his holster and tested it sat just right. He tipped his hat over his eyes and left the office.  Val held Scott back. “He’s always jittery after a gunfight, seems okay now but don’t go pushing for him to talk about it. The boy takes killing like that different to gun battles in range wars.” Scott nodded and followed Johnny out.

The ride back to Lancer was in silence until Johnny spoke. “You ever seen a man being called out to a gunfight before Scott?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “Not like your war or even that fracas with Pardee?”

Scott looked across, Johnny was looking straight ahead seemingly at ease, hands resting on the pommel, his face in the shadow of his low worn hat. “No, Johnny, I have never seen a gunfight like that before.  I’ll admit after the first battle I was in I found a private spot and threw up. As an officer, I thought I shouldn’t show any weakness.”

Johnny nodded and turned to look. “No shame in that, Scott. You were a green kid fresh from a sheltered life.”

They rode on in silence until the Lancer arch came into view. Johnny reined Barranca to a halt. “The old man ain’t going to be happy hearing of my reputation causing trouble. You might want to stay out of the way while he lays into me.”

Scott too reined to a halt. “I had your back when bullets were flying. If necessary I’ll stand with you and tell Murdoch how you didn’t instigate it.”

Johnny pushed his hat back to give Scott a hard stare. “I can fight my own battles but yeah, I reckon he’ll listen to you. Won’t stop him blaming me for Madrid dragging the Lancer name into the mud.” He turned and urged Barranca forward.

The ranch was alive with men preparing to mount and ride out. Murdoch was urging them to hurry. When he saw Johnny and Scott riding in he raised his voice. “Hold up men, they are back.”

He rushed to Johnny, his hand grasping at his leg, his voice now tinged with panic. “Are you alright, son?”

Johnny blinked. This was not the welcome he had expected. “I’m fine.” He waved towards Scott. “We both are. Now, tell me what is going on?”

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair. “We have a visitor who came to warn us of trouble.” Murdoch turned. “Cipriano set guards. Boys, come in, we need to talk.”

It wasn’t until Johnny could see around Murdoch the visitor came into view. “Amos!”

He leapt off Barranca and rushed to the Pinkerton agent. “You coming to my rescue again?”

Amos Burkman smiled at Johnny. “Well, not quite the same as last time. I have unearthed some information of an attempt to take over the San Joaquin ranches.”

Two

Scott shepherded Johnny and Amos to seats at the desk while Murdoch broke out his best Scotch. “I think before Amos starts we should tell you of what happened in Green River.” Murdoch gripped his glass and switched his gaze from Scott to Johnny.

“Got recognised as Madrid, got called out.” Johnny looked down into his drink.

Before Murdoch could ask for details Scott coughed. “There is more, most importantly Murdoch, Johnny, didn’t instigate any gunplay and Val was witness to it all.”  Scott briefly told the relevant facts. “It seemed Kincaid and the kid didn’t expect to find Johnny in Green River. Val is investigating to try to find out why they were in Green River and who shot Kincaid.”  

Murdoch let out a breath and slowly took a drink. He looked closely at Johnny and spoke quietly. “Johnny, are you sure you’re okay, son?”

Johnny looked up. “You ain’t angry? No yelling about Madrid bringing trouble and shame to the Lancer name?”

“No, Johnny, I’m relieved you were faster and I’m not digging a bullet out of you, or grieving over your body.” He pointed his drink at Johnny and frowned. “But don’t go thinking I’ll be this understanding if you are unnecessarily reckless with your life.”

Scott nudged Johnny who was as still and silent as a cat watching larger prey. “Uhh, yes sir, okay.”

Murdoch nodded. “Amos, bring my sons up to date with your information.”

Amos Burkman cleared his throat. “Johnny had asked if I could trace the shareholders of your local bank.”

Scott raised an eyebrow, Johnny shrugged. “Just curious.”

Amos shuffled papers he had taken from his briefcase. “There is no record of Gilbert Everett having any formal partners. He inherited the bank from his uncle Hershall Everett. According to Hershall’s will, he didn’t name his other nephew Norman as joint owner but did leave a sizeable bequest to him.”

Johnny muttered. “Norman.”  Scott shook his head. “Sorry, Amos, carry on.”

Amos nodded. “Hershall and his brother Nathaniel have an interesting history. Like so many others they made their money during the gold and silver boom years. Not by mining but selling essential supplies and taking an interest in claims as payment. Hershall was also an assayer with a reputation of being at least fairer than most in his dealings with the miners.

They became wealthy and Hershall used his funds to set up a bank in the San Joaquin. At that time not over-populated and ripe for development, he was an astute businessman and by all accounts honest and trustworthy.”

Johnny ran a finger over the desk. “Unlike the brother?”

Amos smiled. “His brother’s reputation was one of being more physical. He provided protection, mining communities were dangerous places with wild and sometimes desperate men. They made a successful partnership.”

Murdoch put his drink down. “I remember Hershall saying his brother had settled in Texas and married.”

Amos pointed at a piece of paper. “Nathaniel Everett ran a private security business, after his death his son Norman took over and expanded into land agency work. There was, and still is, a lot of money and promissory notes circulating in the cattle business and un-regulated banks there.”

Johnny sniffed. “Them brothers sound like you and me Scott.”

“John!” Murdoch shook his head.

Amos listened to the exchange and waited until he could continue. “The tax records of the Green River Bank and Loans show a history of money being deposited from Texas. Recently substantial deposits have been made by Acme Investment and Development. The company is heavily involved in logging and mining in Nevada and Colorado. My investigations revealed their intention to expand into California and the San Joaquin. They have had land agents report on ranches that are asset rich but cash poor, and ripe for purchase.”

Scott sat up even straighter. “Asset rich, cash poor!  That’s what Everett said Lancer was and the reason he is not willing to extend our credit.  He said considering the poor cattle market prices and drought causing every ranch increased costs, Lancer cannot be given any preferential treatment.”

Johnny looked across. “That explains why you were in such a pucker.”

“That’s not all, Everett suggested in order to meet the upcoming tax demand we dispose of some Lancer assets, he suggested a section of timberland to a logging company.”

Johnny looked from Scott to Murdoch and couldn’t decide who was the angriest. “We’re being squeezed, again.”

Murdoch took a deep breath. “Yes, we are. First Pardee, then Everett buying up Lancer debts from the Green River businesses, now this. If we fail to pay our taxes, the mining and logging company will move in. I have seen the damage that mining can do to land and water sources, and logging if not undertaken with regard to the land causes the soil to be washed away in rainy seasons. We cannot allow that destruction to happen here.”

Scott narrowed his eyes and looked down at the papers on the desk. “How did you obtain the information on this company, Amos?”

“Legally, Scott, by asking questions in the right places. By reading between the lines in financial reports and newspaper pages.”

Johnny pushed the papers about. “By putting two and two together.”

“Yes, Johnny, and trusting my instincts. My office was broken into last week and the safe blown open. I remembered when we first met how you spoke of listening to your instincts when deciding if you were going to give me any credit.  I do not know for certain it is Lancer that the Acme Company has in their sights, but that break-in rang alarm bells.”

Johnny pushed his chair back and was on his feet. “You were the wasted journey. Kincaid may not have worn a gun but I know he knew how to crack a safe. It all fits. Someone didn’t want you to get to us with this information.”

Scott held his hand up. “Amos, were you due to travel by stage?”

“Yes, I booked a ticket but wary of being followed I never got on. I travelled by train to Cross Creek and hired a buggy to get here.”

Murdoch topped up the glasses. “You need to stay here. Amos. until we identify who hired the would-be assassins.”

Johnny frowned. “Norman Everett is dead so that leaves our local bank manager.  I don’t like or trust Mr Gilbert Everett but he doesn’t smell like a top dog who wants to take over the San Joaquin. Maybe he’s the banker for someone else though?”

Scott bit his lip. “I agree, our local bank manager reminds me of men in the Boston business world whose ambition was greater than their talent.”

Murdoch nodded his agreement and turned to Amos. “Amos, who owns the Acme Company?”

“The only name registered is Mr Grant Atherarl. I have not had time to discover any information about him.”

Murdoch shook his head. “The name means nothing to me. How about you boys?”

Two heads shook.

Three

Green River was still asleep when Johnny rode in and dismounted at the jail. He looked around before stepping in. “Hey, Val, you sleeping back there?”

Val Crawford appeared wearing nothing but grubby long johns and an unbuttoned shirt. “I was till you arrived before a body has time to get his-self ready for the day.”

Johnny put his head on one side and grinned. Even by Val’s usual untidy appearance he was scruffy. “Go get ready for the day, I’ll make some coffee.”

By the time Val re-appeared coffee was brewing in a pot and Johnny was perched on the desk fingering through a pile of wanted posters. Val scratched his head and helped himself to a cup of coffee. “You survived your Daddy tearing a strip off you for that gunfight?”

“Hell Val, my old man sure can take me by surprise. He was real pleased I had no holes in me that needed fixing.”

“So why you here if you’re not hiding out from your old man?”

Johnny brought Val up to date. “Seems like some mining and logging company is aiming to take over the valley, Most likely they were the ones who hired Kincaid and the kid, not to come after me but to take out a Pink called Amos Burkman.”

Val sat himself down behind his desk. “That the one who saved your hide in Mexico?”

“Yeah, he’s the one. Amos was on his way to Lancer with information about the Everett family.  But he has found out an Acme Company and its owner Grant Atherarl are planning to move into the San Joaquin with their mining and logging operations.”  Johnny paused.  “Did Kincaid have anything on him, or have you heard of any land agents sniffing around?”

Val shook his head. “Kincaid had enough cash on him to cover his and the kid’s burials, some doctored cards and a hideaway gun. Kid had nothing of value except his gun and boots. I’ve sent a wire to where they caught the stage, they probably had left horses there and maybe had a room, still waiting for a reply.”

Val looked closely at Johnny.  “I know that look on your face. What else is eating at you?”

Johnny shrugged. “Scott and Murdoch had words about how we’re going to pay our tax bill. If anything upsets Murdoch more than my Madrid reputation, it’s being obligated to Harlan Garrett. Scott had suggested using some of his Garrett inheritance and Murdoch said no. Anyways Scott said he had his own funds, his Army back pay, that listening money, some wages which he had prudley invested.”

Val sniffed. “Prudently.”

Johnny. “Yeah, prudent.”  He went to the window and moved the blind to watch the early morning residents of Green River go about their business.

Val saw the tension in Johnny’s shoulders and waited.

Johnny let out a breath and stretched. “I said better borrowing from Scott than some bank we didn’t trust or selling out to a logging operation. Anyways Scott is on his way to Sacramento to pay our taxes, with Frank along to watch his back.”

Johnny turned back to Val with a sly smile. “The tune caller was out-voted.” He opened the door and stood sipping his coffee.

Val stood at his shoulder and watch Gilbert Everett pull his buggy up to the livery, cast a look at the Sheriff’s office and scurry to the bank. “I know you’re giving our local bank manager the Madrid stare. You’ll be making him nervous.”

Johnny hitched a shoulder. “Just drinking my coffee, Val. Now why should that make Mr Gilbert Everett nervous?”

Val whispered in his ear. “To provoke the man into making a mistake.”

“Well, Lancer needs an edge.” He drank the rest of his coffee. “Is the Widow Everett still staying at the hotel?”

“Yeah, the way Mrs Hargis tells it, the widow likes to see some life going on.”

Johnny handed his empty cup to Val. “Better be making tracks.”

Val scowled as Johnny mounted, an uneasy feeling making him look up and down the road. “Stay out of trouble.”

Johnny raised his hat at Val and trotted Barranca out of town.

Four

Gilbert Everett’s house was set off the road outside of town. A painted sign warned visitors it was private property. It would have been impressive some years ago but now looked neglected and in need of a coat of paint. Johnny rode past, then detoured off the road, threading through a wooded area. Barranca was now loosely tied to a fallen log and grazing at the sparse grass, Johnny patted him. “You be a good fella and keep a look-out for me.”

Johnny skirted through the tree cover and hunkered down to watch the house. It looked quiet; only a few chickens scrabbled in a pen. The windows, grey from lack of cleaning, had no one on the inside looking out. Keeping to the shelter of a barn, he made his way to the back of the house and peered through the kitchen window. No sign of any occupants. The door was locked but his boot knife made quick work of opening it.

There was the smell of coffee having been brewed; the pot on the stove was still warm, but it had not been that long since Everett had arrived in town, so it caused him no alarm. He peeked around the door into a hallway, guessing the best room would be at the front of the house. He decided to start searching there. He wasn’t sure what he was searching for, but instinct told him something would be here that would answer his many questions.

Sure enough, the room at the front of the house had good furniture and a desat the window. Johnny stepped forward, intent on looking through any papers there. The blow to the back of his head sent him to his knees. The second blow saved him fully feeling the pain of further blows to his back and ribs. A groan escaped his lips and he slipped into unconsciousness.

He realised he was lying face down on something softer than hard ground, not a bed or the sofa in the hacienda. His brain caught up with his senses and told him it’s a rug. With the slow realisation of where he was came the pain. He called on lessons learned and tried to shut his mind to it as he stayed still and tried to think where the pain was worse. His hands were tied behind his back and his head and ribs hurt like hell. Someone had beaten him.

Voices; he strained to listen. One sounded familiar, the other unknown to him.

“If you can’t do it, go and get Hester and Gil.”

“Damn it, Norman, we can’t kill Murdoch Lancer’s boy. Lancer is on first name terms with the Governor. We’ll have federal marshalls investigating. That scruffy sheriff in town is smarter than he looks and there is a friendship between him and the boy;  he won’t take his killing lightly.”

There was a loud bang on the floor close to his ear. “This boy is Johnny Madrid, a half-breed gunfighter. I have a contract on his life that is past time for me to collect on.”

Johnny let out a gasp as a blow landed on his back. His eyes shot open and he caught sight of the metal head of the walking stick that had caused the pain. He slightly turned his head in an effort to see who his tormentor was. Pain must have blurred his sight; the man with the walking stick was badly disfigured, half of his face a mass of scarring, both his hands claw-like.

A face from nightmares leaned down to him. “You awake, Madrid? Good, I want you to suffer before a bullet ends your life.”

A vaguely familiar voice came from the other side. “I told you, Norman, there is a difference between me besting Murdoch Lancer in business and committing murder.”

“You’re either with us or against us, Porter. Go fetch my wife and brother.”

Johnny blinked to clear his eyesight and mind.  Norman must be Norman Everett, not a dead man after all; so Widow Everett wasn’t a widow either.  Porter must be Donald Porter, the President of the Cattlemen’s Association.

Johnny coughed to clear his throat. “Porter, that you? Would have thought a true cattleman wouldn’t have anything to do with mining and logging that is going to ruin the land. Still an’ all, your train spur can just as easily move lumber and mining equipment as beeves.”

Porter growled. “My land will be safe.”

Johnny strained to turn his head. “You fool. The watercourses will be poisoned by mining. When the rains do come, they will wash away the ground from the stripped bare mountains and that will block what watercourses do survive.”

Norman raised his stick and waved it at Porter.  “It’s too late to back out. Porter get going.”

Johnny watched from his prone position as Donald Porter left, then turned to look at Norman Everett who was limping to a high backed leather chair by the fireplace. He realised Everett must have been out of his sight in that chair when he entered the room. There was nothing to be lost by getting Norman Everett to answer his questions.

“You the Norman who set a bounty hunter onto my family in San del Rio, hoping to kill me and my Mama?”

Everett leaned forward on his metal-topped walking stick and glared at Johnny, his face further distorted by anger. “Was due a good payday for that job, especially if Murdoch Lancer took the bait Porter fed him.” He pointed the stick at Johnny. “That’s when it all went wrong. You are responsible for the life I now must lead.”

Johnny took the opportunity to roll onto his knees, his back to Everett, and strained on the rope around his wrists. “Don’t know you, didn’t know of you until a few weeks back, so how am I responsible?”

The stick thumped on the hard floor and Johnny cringed. “When he heard of my failure in San del Rio the contractor was so angry he arranged for my death.”

“Heard you were dead; know how that allows a man to disappear from sight.”

The noise Everett made was almost a laugh. “Story was Madrid was dead, but you have re-appeared and been welcomed into a family with a chance to exchange your gun-fighting trade for a reputable one. I’m forever going to be in the shadows, but I can continue my trade with an excellent partner.”

Johnny had to take shallow breaths to protect his badly bruised ribs but he didn’t feel as helpless as lying flat on the floor.  It was obvious Norman Everett’s hands were so crippled he would have trouble handling a gun. It must have been Porter who had arrived at some point and tied him up. Porter was in this up to his neck. Like so many other top dogs he had done business with, the man was happy to hire guns but didn’t want blood on his own hands. He didn’t think that Gilbert Everett had the nerve to put a bullet in anyone; that wasn’t his style at all…leaving Mrs Hester Everett as the most likely gunhand.

“Why did Mrs Everett kill Kincaid and not me when she had the chance?”

“They are right about you being smarter than the usual gunfighters.  Yes, it was my Hester who killed Kincaid, it was personal.  He was the one who took on the job of killing me, he used dynamite to burn down my home with me in it.  Hester took on the contract to take out the Pinkerton and passed it on to Kincaid. After all, in this trade one day you are on the same side, then next the opposite.  He was told to collect his wages in Green River. Your gunfight with that young boy of his was not in our plan.”

Johnny kept his head down and moaned, no harm in letting Everett think he was hurting.  He was, but not so much he wasn’t straining at his wrists against the ropes or calculating his chances of staying alive.  He heard hooves and the wheels of a buggy. Donald Porter was returning with Hester and Gilbert Everett.

Murdoch stood on the porch and chewed at his bottom lip. He had slept badly, being outvoted by his sons’ on accepting Scott’s loan to pay the taxes due had dented his pride and determination to be the order giver. Now there was no Johnny at the breakfast table. Murdoch tried to ignore his fatherly instincts but they could not be unheeded, he saddled up his horse and rode out determined to find Johnny.

Green River and Val Crawford were his first port of call.  The young lad minding the sheriff’s office was very apologetic but explained all he knew was Sheriff Crawford was out making enquiries.

Murdoch frowned in frustration. “What enquiries?”

“Dunno Mr Lancer, just was told to sit in here and take messages.”

Murdoch realised the boy couldn’t help, so set out to visit the Green River businesses, his first being the bank. Hoping against hope that Johnny hadn’t decided to make his own type of enquiries with Gilbert Everett.

The bank manager was behind the counter and a look of alarm flashed across his face when Murdoch approached.  “Can I be of help, Mr Lancer? Is this concerning my conversation with Mr Scott Lancer?”

“No, although we do need to discuss that.  What I want to know is have you seen my son Johnny today?”

Everett let out a breath of relief and nodded. “When I arrived this morning he was with Sheriff Crawford. I have not seen him since.”

Mrs Hargis was the one to tell him she had seen him ride out. “It was early on, I was just opening up, thought he might have spent the night with Val.”  She gave him a questioning look.

“No, he spent the night at home Mrs Hargis, but he has not been seen since before breakfast.”  He learned down so no one else could hear. “And I do worry, especially after that gunfight.”

“He’s a good boy Murdoch, but with a single-minded stubborn streak in him, bit like his father I’d say.” She patted his arm. “If he comes wanting liquorice sticks I’ll send him home.”

Murdoch had to smile. “Thank you, Mrs Hargis.” He was undecided on his next move when Val Crawford rode into view. He was alone, which was a disappointment.

His long legs made quick work of striding across the road. “Val.”

Val Crawford paused before dismounting at the rail in front of his office. “Mr Lancer, don’t tell me Johnny and trouble.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised, he left the ranch before daybreak and was here in town early in the day.  But has not returned home or been seen. You know as well as I, if there is trouble he will be in it.”

Val took his hat off and swatted at the dust on his shirt. “Come in the office; we’ll compare what we know.”

The boy sat behind the desk leapt up when Val appeared. “Got some wires for you Sheriff and well Mr Lancer there he came a looking for you, but I can see he found you.”

Val took the wires he was handed. “Good job, Elroy, you scoot along now. Your Pa will be needing you at the livery.”

The door shook as Elroy left with a grin as wide as his hat brim at Val’s words.

Val read the wires and shook his head at the lack of any useful information. “Yeah, Johnny was here before town woke up, told me about the Pinkerton and the attempt on Lancer and the valley by a company run by a fella name of Atherarl. Told me Scott’s gone to Sacramento. I gotta tell you though, Mr Lancer, the boy has an itch where Everett is concerned.”

Murdoch nodded. “I’ve seen Everett and Johnny hasn’t been near him all day.”

 Val went to hang his hat upon a peg by the door. “I’ve been to Spanish Wells’s land agent office and managed to get out of Daniel Drew he has been contacted by the Acme company about land suitable for their business. Visited as many ranches and farms as I had time for. Some of the smaller ones told me they had been visited, no threats as such but they are uneasy, especially with cattle prices being low and this drought costing them money they don’t have.”

Murdoch sighed. “But no sight of Johnny?”

“No, but if he wants to stay out of sight you know he can.”

“Yes, perhaps he’s just off by himself thinking things through.  In the meantime I shall ask Donald Porter to call a meeting of the Cattlemen; we need the valley’s ranchers to be united against this threat to our future.”

Val peered through the window. “Looks like you can do that, Mr Lancer, as Porter is riding into town.” Murdoch moved towards the door but Val’s hand on his arm stopped him.  “Wait up, he has the look of a man in a hurry.”

Murdoch didn’t argue with Val’s suspicious nature as they watched through the window to see Porter rush into the hotel then across to the bank.

Murdoch saw a woman in black leave the hotel and make her way to the livery and climb in the Everett buggy. “Is that the Widow Everett that Johnny told me about?”

Val glanced at the figure then back to the bank, where Porter and Gilbert Everett were now outside having a conversation.  “Yep, that’s her.”

Murdoch sniffed. “I wonder why she is living in the hotel and not at the Everett house?”

Val looked up at Murdoch. “That’s what Johnny wondered as well. Seems you think alike. And I’m now wondering the same and where the Everetts and Porter are going in such a hurry.”

Donald Porter rode out with Gilbert Everett and his sister in law in the buggy following.

Murdoch made to open the door. “I don’t like this.”

“Neither do I. Wait up, Mr Lancer; let them get a little ahead then we will follow them.”

Even from a safe distance, it was obvious they were heading to the Everett house. Val held up his hand to stop Murdoch from following them down the private lane. “Hang fire, Murdoch, there are Lancer tracks further along here.  If I know Johnny he would have been sneaky, keeping a lookout from a safe distance.”

Murdoch followed Val along a trail that only Val could see into the wooded area.

Six

Johnny stayed hunched on down on his knees. The ropes around his wrists were loosening but not enough to free himself. He squinted upwards to see three people enter the room. Considering one was Gilbert the cowardly banker, and one the reluctant to get his hands bloody Donald Porter, he told himself his odds weren’t too bad.

Hester went to her husband. “Well, this is convenient, isn’t it, dear?” She took a gun from her pocket and turned to point it at Johnny. 

“Not here,” Gilbert Everett yelled. “Not in my house.”

Norman held out a claw hand. “He’s right, Hester. It would be better if his body is found on Lancer land with the same kind of wound that did for Kincaid.”

Porter cleared his throat.  “Where is that flashy horse of his? That’ll have to be with him.”

Hester Everett stepped up close to Johnny and lifted his head up by his hair with her left hand while the gun in her right was aimed true and steady in his face.  “Such a pity, but you know how this dance will play out. Where is your horse, Johnny?”

He blinked a couple of times and whispered in her ear. “Got a terrible headache, not sure I can remember.”

The slap across his face didn’t take him by surprise, but she had stepped back some. “Oww, Mrs Everett, that hurt.” He shook his head and sighed. “You know Barranca is the best horse I’ve ever had?”

“Where is the horse, Johnny?” She raised her hand to deliver another slap.

He ducked his head. “Outback beyond the tree line.  He’s a good horse.”

Porter backed towards the door.  “I’ll find it.”

Johnny took a deep a breath as he dared and rocked slightly to get feeling into his feet and legs.  He knew Porter would have a hard time getting Barranca to cooperate, that would give him some time with just the three he was now in the room with. 

Gilbert had moved to the window and all was quiet. Johnny had learned a long time ago to keep his face blank, to hide any pain, movement or indication he was about to take any action. He heard Barranca’s hooves before Gilbert saw anything.  That was quicker than he had estimated but never mind, he told himself, now or never.

He pushed off his feet, his body bent forward, and used his head as a battering ram to slam into Hester Everett. The force sent her backwards the gun fired so close to his ear the heat and bullet took away his hearing. With Johnny on top of her, they landed on the chair where Norman Everett sat. Johnny used his knees, shoulders, and his head, all the dirty tricks he used as a child fighting in those filthy alleys and cantinas to cause as much damage as he could to Mr and Mrs Everett.

The ringing in his ear muffed the screams and shouts coming from beneath him.  He struggled against the arms that were lifting him off the couple he was on top of.

“Johnny, John, son, it’s over.”

It was as if the words were coming to him through water, he carried on struggling until he was turned around to see it was Murdoch holding him.

“Hi, Pa.”  He passed out.

Seven

He regained consciousness, not lying face down on a rug but on a sofa with something wet and cold across his eyes.  Didn’t smell like Lancer with those homely cooking aromas and lavender furniture polish but that was Murdoch’s voice. He made to take the wet cloth from his face and gasped, “Barranca?”

Murdoch was above him, looking worried. “Your horse is fine, son. I’m more concerned about the lumps on the back of your head and your breathing sounds bad.”

Johnny opened his eyes wide. “Porter?  He went for Barranca.”

Val’s voice came from somewhere close by. “Always was more worried about your horse than your-self.  You listening, Johnny? We found Barranca. Seems like he didn’t take kindly to a stranger trying to lead him anywhere and Porter has bruises to prove it. Seems like you didn’t need too much rescuing either, as Mr and Mrs Everett were well and truly subdued when me and Murdoch got in here.”

Johnny felt a cold cloth wiping across his forehead and then around the back of his head.

Murdoch’s voice was quiet.  “Where are you hurting, Johnny? And don’t tell me you’re fine.  Your breathing is worrying me.”

“’Sides my head, he used that damn stick on my back and ribs.” Johnny tried to roll over to ease the pain.

Before he could object Murdoch was undoing his shirt and gently touching his bruised back. “Val, I want these four charged with anything and everything, And get Sam Jenkins out here with a wagon to take Johnny home.”

“I can ride Barranca, Murdoch.”

“No, Johnny, you can’t, not with possibly broken ribs. You have been heroic enough for one day.”

Epilogue

The trial had been quick and now the Green River Bank and Loan was the San Joaquin Cattlemen’s Bank.  Murdoch Lancer was the duly elected President of the Cattle Growers Association. The Acme Company had closed down its operations and now it was raining.

Johnny sniffed at the damp air as he stood outside the courthouse, watching the rain turn the roadway into a muddy mess.  All those loose ends nicely tied up—except for Mr Grant Atherarl. Scott had told him not to worry and to enjoy his life as Johnny Lancer.

Johnny had smiled and shrugged, knowing it was not in his nature not to worry. He would add yet another name to the list of those from his past that may come back to nudge him.

End

Maureen Olley

Forever – November 2021.

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