It was no use. No matter how much he wanted to believe that he belonged at Lancer, the truth was he wasn’t even sure he had the right to claim the Lancer name. If what Teresa had said was right, then he didn’t belong at all, his mother had seen to that. That everyone, but him, knew that she had left Murdoch to run off with another man was bad enough, but that the news took another piece of him with it, was worse still. There was far too little of that boy left inside him, and with his Johnny Madrid’s dignity threatening to take the rest, soon there would be nothing left of Johnny Lancer.
Johnny understood that Murdoch or Scott were unsure of the man who stood before them. Like everyone else in more than one territory, they had heard the stories that had been born of fact and fiction that had given rise to Johnny Madrid’s reputation and wondered about the true man inside. Johnny had seen the silent questions on both men’s faces as they questioned his loyalty to the Lancer name and he couldn’t blame them. He had made no secret for his reasons for coming home. Johnny had voiced loudly not only his monetary reasons for setting foot once more on Lancer land, but clearly, his preferred distance from his father and his newly discovered brother.
Brother. How strange to his ears that word was. Oh, he had had over the years, men who had called what they had as a gang, a ‘brotherhood’ of sorts, but Johnny had never really had someone who cared enough to watch his back. And now, the thought of having to giving up the real thing, even after such a short time, was more painful than Johnny had imagined. But, who was he trying to fool? He didn’t belong here. Scott, with his fancy tweed pants and funny city hats belonged to Lancer more than he did. He was the son that Murdoch needed. Smart, responsible and without a past that could drop you dead in the dust. Yeah, Scott was the true Lancer son, but Johnny was going miss him, more than he would let on, even to himself.
No matter how many times he went over it in his head, it came out the same in his heart, it hurt, but he didn’t belong here. His past was not only a danger to him, but it was a danger for those who were close to him and he couldn’t, wouldn’t put his family in danger because of the mistakes he’d made.
Stepping to the dresser, Johnny looked into the mirror. There he was, Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, son, brother—killer. Quickly looking away from the cold and harsh truth, Johnny quickly opened the draws and pulled out his basic needs for traveling. There was no turning back; he couldn’t turn back. Not this time.
In town the day before
“I must done something right for such a windfall,” A happy voice called from behind him as Johnny leaned against the bar, enjoying a well-earned beer. “I don’t belief my luck, Johnny Madrid in the flesh.”
Johnny heard the scratching of chairs being discarded and the rapid shuffling of feet as the saloon patrons tried to make themselves invisible, but still see the show. He tried willing the voice to disappear, but he knew it was a lost cause. Taking large swig of his beer, he put the glass down and glanced around. “Do I know you kid?”
“Hell no, but I know you,” the younger stranger replied eagerly as he pushed himself from his chair and sauntered slowly to the bar, keeping a short distance between he and the object of his attentions. “Seen you work. Faster than Satan hiself so I heard, but I’ve seen faster.”
Turning side on against the bar so he could see the stranger a bit better, Johnny took in the long black duster and matching outfit, the ominous look contrasting with the well shine sterling silver buckles that decorated his holsters and hat. The former gunfighter reasoned that the well-dressed stranger was only about eighteen if he was a day and looking to make a name for himself. “I’m sure you have, there’s always someone faster, and the name’s Johnny Lancer.” He corrected.
“A man’s got a right to be buried under any name he wants, but I’ll make sure the world knows I killed Johnny Madrid.”
There it was. The words came as no surprise to Johnny, he had heard many times before. “Well, you’ll be killing Johnny Lancer, Madrid’s long gone and as for the world, I don’t think it will care one way or the other.” Johnny sighed as he began to resign himself to having to defend himself again. “A man has a right to be buried under the name he chooses, so he also has the right to know who it is that is taking that life away from him?”
“They call me La Muerte in some parts,” he said quite proudly.
“Death,” Johnny translated slightly amused at the name so obviously thought up by the kid himself. “And just how many men have you killed to earn this fearsome reputation of ‘La Muerte’?”
“Ten men,” the boy answered.
‘More like one’ Johnny thought to himself as he shook his head. This kid was destined for an unmarked grave in some town where they wouldn’t even remember him ever being there. “Well, La Muerte,” Pausing to empty his glass, Johnny stepped away from the bar and held his hands away from his guns. “You’re going to have ten and one in the back, because I’m not about draw on you.”
The young man pushed back his coat so that he would have quick access to his guns as he eyed the former gunfighter. “You getting old Madrid. The man I saw on that street that day, wouldn’t have backed down from a fight.”
“I told you, Madrid is gone.” Johnny reiterated as he turned and started to walk from the room. “The name is Johnny Lancer.”
“Then die Johnny Lancer!” The stranger called as he went for his gun.
Practice, reaction, or the instant realization of everything he had to lose, Johnny would never know, all he knew was his response was faster than the young man’s words.
Back to the present
Shoving his clothes into his saddlebags, Johnny tried to dismiss the young man’s death as unavoidable, but how could it be when what you are sets the path you walk. He could still see the stunned look of surprise on the young man’s face as he fell to his knees, his unfired weapon slipping from his lifeless hand. Tired of thinking and needing to be gone before the others woke up, Johnny put the letter he had written and the deed to his part of the ranch on the bed and didn’t look back.
Baranca snorted into the air, shifting uneasily as he became unnerved by the confused signals he was getting from his rider. Unsure of what was expected, the palomino slowed its gait and waited.
“Sorry, it’s not fair taking this out on you, is it, boy?” Johnny apologized as he leaned over to rub a calming hand down Baranca’s neck. Taking a deep breath, the gunfighter straightened in his saddle. “Don’t look back,” he whispered to himself as he closed his eyes. “It’s looking back that got you thinking in the first place.” With his mind made up, Johnny looked toward the end of the road and spurring Baranca on, headed toward his past.
“Rise and shine, Brother,” Scott pounded on the door of his brother’s room. It was unlike Johnny to over sleep, but after the day he had in town, they all decided to let the young man lay in a little longer. “You’re going to sleep the best part of the day away,” Scott called as he opened the door and found himself facing an empty room.
More confused, than surprised, Scott imagined that his brother, unable to sleep, had risen early and was probably halfway through checking the south pastures by now. Never quite sure if he would ever fully understand this new brother of his, Scott shrugged and was about to leave the room when he caught sight of two neatly place papers on the middle of Johnny’s bed.
Murdoch Lancer hadn’t known his sons for very long, but he had heard that tone in Scott’s voice before. It had occurred during their first weeks together, Scott had used same fear-tinged voice, as they stood helpless, watching as the raiders who were threatening Lancer, shot Johnny from his saddle. The memory of his instant reaction to protect his remaining son and hold him back from rescuing Johnny’s body still shamed him. But Scott had been right, Johnny wasn’t dead and as movement return to his body, his eldest had without a second thought for his own personal safety, had run to his brother’s side and pulled him from danger. These were the two men he was now proud to call his sons.
“Scott, what is it?” Murdoch asked as he stood to meet his son.
“It’s Johnny, he’s gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?”
“I mean gone, as in packed,” Scott snapped as he pushed his free hand through his hair. Remembering the papers, he found the blonde man passed them to his father. “He left these for you.”
Opening the first piece of paper he was surprised to find Johnny’s deed to his part of the ranch. With his frown deepening, Murdoch tossed the deed on the table and turned his attention to the next piece of paper.
I’m not one to write letters, never really had anyone to write to, but I couldn’t leave without telling you why. My mother already put us both through that Hell once. I won’t repeat her mistake. I didn’t expect a lot in hearing from you again old man, and I didn’t think I’d cared whether you lived or died, but I surprised myself. I care.
You once said to us boys, what happened before is in the past and forgotten. Nothing’s that easy, Murdoch, nothing’s ever that easy.
My past won’t die an easy death. Don’t think I ever really expected it to, I guess. But it’s my past and it’s a past that shadows me as the boy in saloon proved yesterday. He is just the beginning.
I don’t belong at Lancer. I never have. If you were honest with yourself, old man, you know you’d agree with me. A gunfighter may be useful at times, but as a son…
I’m not going to say don’t look for me, cause if there is one thing I know, it’s that you won’t. Not because you don’t care about Johnny Lancer, but that you still mistrust Johnny Madrid. Don’t worry, I don’t hold that against you, old man.
I left you the deed to my share of Lancer. I don’t see how it belongs to me, though I am taking Barranca. He and I are one of a kind.
Tell Teresa and Jelly that I’ll miss them and Boston, tell him to stay out of trouble, because I won’t be there to bail him out anymore.
“Damn!” Murdoch cursed as he handed the letter back to Scott to read. “Does he think so little of us?”
“No, Murdoch,” Scott said sadly as he glanced up from the letter. “He thinks so little of himself.”
“What’s going on?” Teresa asked, feeling the tension as she entered the room. “Where’s Johnny?” She was more than a little worried about the youngest Lancer, since she learned about the incident in town. Since the death of her father, Teresa had come to see Murdoch as a second father and Scott and Johnny as the brothers she never had. It hurt her to see her ‘family’ in turmoil.
“Johnny’s gone,” Scott said sadly as he passed the letter to Teresa.
“Gone?” She whispered as she dropped into a chair and silently began to read.
“Everything was going so well. What really happened in town yesterday?” Murdoch asked his eldest son, hoping that somewhere in the facts, there was the real reason to why Johnny left home.
“I told you.” Scott sighed in exasperation. “I came along when it was all over. But the Sheriff said that all the witnesses agreed, Johnny did everything he could to get the boy to walk away, but he wouldn’t. He’s not reverting to his old ways Murdoch, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I wasn’t,” Murdoch answered firmly, tackling his son’s anger head on. “But there is more to this than what Johnny is saying in that letter.”
“Well, what do we do about it? If you think I’m just going to sit here and let him go, you—,”
“We’re not going to do any such thing. Saddle the horses.” He ordered before turning to Teresa, he could she see was eager to be of help. “Teresa, can you get provisions for at least four days ready please?”
“Four?” Realizing she was wasting time, Teresa left the room to get the supplies.
Scott?” Murdoch called after his eldest as his son opened the front door on his way to saddle the horses. “He’s not only your brother, he’s ‘my’ son. I let you both go once, I don’t aim to do that again.”
There was an unspoken urgency to the two riders as they entered Morro Coyo. Both men knew the longer it took them to find out the real reason behind Johnny’s sudden departure from Lancer, the harder it would be to find him. The only person they could think of whom would be most likely to hold any answers for them would be Sheriff Birch. Wasting no time, they tethered their horses in front of the jail and hoped he was in his office that day.
Just about finished hanging the last of the new batch of wanted posters on his wall; Sheriff Birch turned at the sound of his office door opening. “Murdoch, How are ya? Scott,” Sheriff Birch greeted the rancher and his eldest son.
“Fine, Horace, and you?” Murdoch shook the officer’s offered hand and tried to get the everyday pleasantries over and done with quickly.
“Fine, fine. What can I do for ya, Murdoch?” Birch asked before realizing that the rancher could only be there to check up on the shooting which had involved his youngest. “If yer worried about the incident with Johnny, I already told Johnny and Scott here, it was a righteous shoot. Johnny ain’t in any trouble with the law. Well, not ‘this’ lawman anyways.”
Scott and Murdoch both recognized the sound of trouble.
“But you’re saying he ‘is’ trouble with the law in some way?” Scott asked before his father had time to voice the identical question.
Birch shrugged his shoulders as he walked to his desk and pulled open one of its draws. “Well, I can’t say that for sure,” the Sheriff said as he withdrew a folded piece of paper, “I wasn’t sure what to do with this. When another Sheriff sends ya a poster of a fella, ya usually post it, but this one—well, it seemed kinda personal to me and it just didn’t seem right.”
“A reward poster—on Johnny?” Murdoch asked, trying not to voice the fear he held for his son’s life.
“Of sorts,” Birch replied as he passed the folded poster to the rancher. “It’s from a Sheriff Bede Cale, from down Los Almos way. I found the same poster in the dead boy’s money pouch.”
“And Johnny saw it?” Scott asked as he scanned the unfolded warrant.
“Is this legal?” Murdoch asked, waiting for either man of the law to answer as he continued look over the reward poster for Johnny Madrid.
“Johnny took the other copy,” Birch answered Scott’s question, before turning his attentions back to Murdoch, “and as far as I know it is legal. That is if Johnny as Johnny Madrid broke a law as far as this Sheriff Cale is concerned,” Horace shrugged. At forty-two-years, he had been a lawman for only ten of them, and then the job only came by as a way to put food on the table for his family. He knew the basics of law and that was about it. “But it don’t mean I have to post it.”
“Legal or not, Sir,” Scott said as rubbed at the nape of his neck, concern for his brother seemingly etched now permanently on his face. “Any gunfighter looking for a name and five hundred dollars is going to be trying to collect on this. What are we going to do?”
“Can I have this?” Murdoch asked, gesturing to the wanted posted.
“Sure,” Birch nodded. “Take it. It was hard enough these days when you’re a Sheriff to stay alive, let alone having Johnny mad at me.”
Scott watched as his father ignoring the sheriff’s remark, pocketed the poster with determination as if he’d already made up his mind on a course of action. He nodded his thanks to the Sheriff before heading to the door.
“Sir?” Scott called after his father, “Murdoch? Where are we going?”
“Los Almos,” Murdoch answered as they reached the horses. “We going to find out why this Sheriff Cale finds the life of your brother to be worth five hundred dollars.”
‘La Muerte’, the boyish gunfighter, who had for a few brief minutes, believed he had found a way to make his reputation in Morro Coyo, instead found himself living up to the name in a way he hadn’t bargained on, was now dead. The sad thing was that with ‘La Muerte’s’ death, Johnny Madrid’s reputation had just added another notch to it, whether Johnny liked it, or not. The very reputation that the young dead gunfighter had so hungered for.
Feeling the guilt for the loss of the young man weighing heavily on his soul, Johnny reached back into his saddlebag looking for the poster that the Sheriff had found on the kid’s body. Finding it, Johnny spread the paper out over the back of Barranca’s neck, studying the sketched likeness that stared back at him with lifeless eyes. Of course, he had seen wanted posters before, but never one with his face on it, and never one signed by Sheriff Bede Cale.
‘Sheriff Bede Cale’. Now, there was a name and a profession Johnny never thought he would hear mentioned in the same breath. When he’d seen that name on the bottom of the poster, his blood had run cold. It was as if the devil himself had come back to life. In a way, he had, for only with the devil’s providence could an animal like Cale have stayed alive for so long.
‘Why now?’ Johnny silently grieved for everything he had left behind at the ranch. Why, when he had finally received everything that had been kept from him, including a glimpse of the Johnny Lancer he was always meant to be, why did this particular ghost have to come back to haunt him?
“A damned wanted poster!” Scott snarled with contempt for the paper that his father carried in his pocket. “That’s why Johnny left us, because of that damned stupid piece of paper!”
“That, or the man behind it,” Murdoch reasoned.
“Johnny has got to start believing there’s nothing that he could have do which would change how we feel about him; nothing.”
“Johnny was right about one thing,” the elder of the Lancer’s responded sadly as the two men continued riding toward Los Almos. “When I sent the Pinkertons to track down my sons, I never imagined that one of them would be the infamous Johnny Madrid.”
“But you still sent for him,” Scott’s voice held no recriminations toward his father. “That meant something to Johnny, or he wouldn’t have signed for his share of Lancer.”
“Maybe,” The older man sighed. “Or maybe, he just thought I saw it as payment for his ‘gun’. I don’t know what Johnny was thinking, but what I do know, is that I haven’t understood all of the decisions that Johnny has made since he came home. Maybe Johnny sees that as a lack of trust?”
“And do you? Trust Johnny I mean?”
Murdoch pulled hard on the leather in his hands, reigning his horse to stop as he made contact with his son’s eyes. “You’re my sons. I trust you both with my life.”
Two days later in Los Almos
A set of eyes peered over the saloon doors, scouring the near empty streets of Los Almos as they kept an eye out for any unexpected activity. Not that the new ‘peacekeepers’ of this small town were expecting any trouble. The townspeople had long lost the will to fight them after the tragic death of their ‘beloved’ Sheriff.
‘Stupid ol’ man,’ Chavez chuckled as he kept watch on the street. The memory of the overweight, fifty-something Sheriff, trying to face Cale down in the street that day was still a puzzlement to him. The town did nothing, but watch from behind their drawn curtains as their Sheriff was left to die in a hail of bullets fired by not only by Cale, but also by the other members of the gang. The lengths the old man had gone to save the town surprised the Mexican, while the Sheriff’s so-called friends and neighbors did nothing, but hide under their beds. If Cale had been the old man, he would have left them to their fate. None of them were worth dying for.
Needing to wet his parched throat, Chavez was about to head back to the bar, when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. “Rider comin’ in,” he warned the others.
“Can you see who is it?” A voice inquired from behind him.
Yellow stained teeth were revealed as a grin spread across the cowboy’s face, “Looks liked yer Christmas has gone and done come early for ya, Bede?”
Sitting alone at the far end of the saloon, Sheriff Bede Cale showed no sign of emotion as he continued to deal himself cards.
Johnny Madrid saw no sign of life as he entered oddly quiet town. The only suggestion that the town was populated at all was the faint movement of curtains and the sure-fire inner knowledge he was being watched.
Tethering Barranca in front of the saloon, Johnny glanced around the street once more before heading to the swing doors and pushing them open. Pealing his hat from his head as he covertly eyed the room, Johnny noticed that all sets of eyes bar one had watched his entrance with great interest.
“Well, I’m here,” Johnny announced as he begun to unconsciously turn his hat around in his hands.
“And that means what to me, Madrid?” Cale called from the back of the room, without looking up from his solitary card game.
“Well, that was the whole point of sending out those posters wasn’t it? To get me here?”
“Ah, the posters,” Cale tossed down the cards and leaned back in his chair until it rested on its back legs. “I do hope I didn’t cause you too many problems there, Johnny boy. I was just having a little fun with — an ‘old friend’,” he smiled as took a long hard look at his visitor.
“Fun?” Johnny said as he walked slowly over to Cale, eyeing the rest of the men in the room as he did so.
“I only sent out enough to get your attention.” Cale shrugged as he rocked on the chairs back legs.
“Just enough to get me looking over my shoulder, or enough to get me killed?” Johnny asked as he stopped directly in front of Cale’s table.
“Someone outdrawing Johnny Madrid?” Cale laughed as he let his chair drop back down to the floor with a thud. “Hell would freeze over first.”
“Well, you’d be the one to know about Hell, wouldn’t you, Cale?” Johnny sneered.
Cale sniffed as looked down his nose at Johnny, “Don’t play the high and mighty with me, Madrid. We both know you’ve made your own visits to Hades.”
Not wanting to give Cale the satisfaction of seeing his discomfort at the turn the conversation had taken; Johnny slammed his hat down on the table and stared Cale down. “What do you want, Cale?”
“Well, ” Cale smiled. “Now, that’s the five hundred dollar question, ain’t it?”
“Have a seat.” Cale’s voice was colored with a trace of an order about it as he gestured to an empty chair at his table. “Get my friend a drink over here.” He called to the obviously nervous bartender before turning back to Johnny. “What will you have? Whiskey, or whiskey? I’m afraid the beer ran out two weeks ago.”
Johnny wasn’t about to leave Los Almos, at least not until he had some answers. “Then I guess I’ll have whiskey,” He smirked while taking a seat on the offered chair.
“Good choice,” Cale grinned at the younger man before giving the young gunfighter a closer look. “You’ve changed, Johnny. Can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something different about you.”
“And you haven’t, Cale,” Johnny responded tersely. “You still can’t get to the point without a gun in your hand. Why sheriff? Why Los Almos? And why the wanted posters?”
Cale laughed as he banged his hand on the table. “I take it back, Johnny. You haven’t changed a lick. The first things you ask about are me, the town and then yourself. That damn conscience is going to be the death of you, yet.”
“Any minute now I’m guessing,” Johnny said bluntly as he nodded to the bartender as his whiskey was placed on the table.
“All in good time, Johnny.” Cale answered cryptically.
A sudden commotion from outside the saloon had Johnny swiveling in his seat. His heart sank as he saw his father and brother pushed into the saloon at gunpoint.
“Bede, I found these two lurking around outside town.”
Johnny managed to control his anger at being followed, but was barely to keep his concern for his family’s lives from registering on his face as he turned his back on the newcomers.
Johnny’s reaction to the strangers didn’t go unnoticed by Cale, but as it had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, the sheriff wasn’t so sure what he’d seen. “Do you know these two, Madrid?”
Johnny took a second to debate the consequences of any action he would take before nodding, “Yeah, I know them.”
Cale frowned as he waited impatiently for Johnny to explain how he came to know the two men, “Well?”
“The old man’s Murdoch Lancer, and the other is his son.” Johnny explained with casual indifference. “They’ve been chasing me since Morro Coyo, after that bounty you so kindly put on my head.”
Cale scrutinized the two men more closely, and quickly came to the conclusion that the two strangers were no bounty hunters. Ignoring Johnny, he looked at the older man. “You don’t look like any bounty hunters I’ve ever seen, more like ranchers to me.”
“My father wasn’t after the bounty, I was,” Scott retorted angrily. “Madrid was trying to make time with my girl in Morro Coyo, so when I saw the wanted poster, I thought why not? I could get rid of Madrid and get some real money out of the deal.”
“So, you, a four-legged meat herder, thought you could take Johnny Madrid?” Cale scoffed. “And even brought your Pa along to watch you do it?”
“I followed my son.” Murdoch interrupted as he shot a look of disgust toward Johnny for affect. “I’d heard a lot of things about this Johnny Madrid and the kind of man he was. I couldn’t be assured of a fair fight with a gunfighter of his reputation. I wasn’t about to let my son face ‘him’ alone.” It hurt Murdoch to talk about his son like he was some dirt to be cleaned off his boot, but he could see both he and his sons were now fighting for their lives.
“Did ya hear that, Johnny? The man talks about you’re like you some back-shooting prairie dog.”
“Can’t help what the man believes,” Johnny knew deep down his father was lying to protect them all, but hearing his father put voice to all the insecurities which he had about himself still hurt.
Not sure what to make of his two visitors, Cale picked up his whiskey and downed the contents of the glass. “Take them to the jail. I’ll decide what to do with them later.”
Johnny wanted to turn around and reassure Murdoch and Scott that he would get them out of this, but he knew couldn’t afford to show Cade that he cared one way or the other. As his father and brother were led away, Johnny stared at the far wall of the saloon and tried to think of way out of the mess he had rode his family into all the while under Cale’s steady gaze.
Cale had watched Johnny closely as the two men were lead away and though the gunfighter hadn’t seem to show any emotion one way or the other toward the strangers, the would-be Sheriff was still wary of his old acquaintance.
Trying to settle the knot that had tightened his stomach, Johnny had to force himself to appear indifferent to the two ‘bounty hunters’ plight. “Well, now that you’ve got them out of my way, are you ever gonna to tell me what this is all about, Cale?”
“Patience, Madrid. I’ve learned over the years that if you wait long enough, you get everything you want.” Delivering a bitter snort in Johnny’s direction, Cale stood up and made his way toward the bar.
Trying to keep busy and stay out of the gunmen’s way, the skittish barman was unprepared for the sudden and snake-like attack as Cale stepped up to the bar and grabbed him by the front of the shirt, pulling him down hard over the counter.
“I want you to do me a favor. I want you to get that young daughter of yours to whip up something nice for our prisoners,” Cale ordered softly into the frightened man’s ear. “Then I want you to deliver it ‘in person’ to our ‘guests’ and get to know them—become their friend.”
“B—But, Mr—Sheriff Cale, Sir—I—,”
“Just do it, Trumble! By the time you get back, I want you to know who they are and what they want. Do it, and that ‘pretty’ little girl gets to live untouched for a little while longer.” Cale threatened.
At only fifteen, Verity was one of prettiest girls in town. Isaiah knew that some of Cale’s men had already been looking at her. If one of them were allowed to get his hands on her, his darling daughter’s life would be ruined forever and he couldn’t let that happen. After the death of Sheriff Horton, the townspeople had decided that if they did what was asked of them, the men would eventually ride away and leave them alone. Isaiah wiped his mouth with his shaking hand, before doing what he had done since the nightmare had begun. He agreed.
“Good man,” Cale grinned as he pushed the man away.
Watching as the flustered barman meekly scurried from the room, Johnny couldn’t help himself. “Still like making grown men feel like dirt, don’t you Cale.”
“Him? A man?” Bede Cale laughed before his lips curled back in disgust. “No one in this town is worth an ounce of the air they’re lucky to be still breathing. Not one of them.”
“Then why stay here?” Johnny asked as he brought the conversation back to why he was there in the first place.
“Because you’d be amazed at the things you find in a small town like this and you find yourself not wanting to leave.”
“Money I’ve got. Took a stagecoach couple of weeks ago. Carried pay for some miners down south. It’ll keep us going for some time to come. No, Madrid, it’s not money.” An amused Cale watched as Johnny trying to think of what Los Almos had that was worthy of keeping the gunman in the town.
“We both know it was something that you wanted me here for,” Johnny remarked as he drained the last of the whiskey from his glass.
“Or is it, someone?” Cale asked with a malicious grin.
After Murdoch and Scott were roughly pushed into the jailhouse and left alone, the younger Lancer wasn’t about to give up so easily and raged at the cell doors as if hoping to break the iron strength of its lock. Once he was assured that he and his father weren’t going anywhere soon, a bruised hand from punching the cell bars proof of that conclusion, Scott began to pace the small space of their prison. “Well, this was a good plan.” He mused as he rubbed his sore knuckles.
“We’re here and Johnny’s still alive, that’s good enough for now,” Murdoch responded with a shake of the head at his son’s painful and hopeless gesture, “And sit down, son, you’re making me dizzy.”
“Did you see Johnny?” Scott asked as he ignored his father’s suggestion and continued to pace. “He still had his gun. Do you think he’s here because he wants to be? Did we follow him for nothing?”
“No,” Murdoch said emphatically, “If that was the case, Johnny wouldn’t have lied about us. No, he was protecting us for some reason. He just didn’t want this ‘Sheriff Cale’ to know that he’s my son.”
“And my brother,” Scott sighed as he let himself drop on to the cot beside his father.
“And your brother,” Murdoch repeated softly.
“Err, excuse me, gentlemen,” Trumble called from the doorway where he had been standing. And listening. “I was told to bring you something to eat.”
‘Or is it, someone?’
Johnny puzzled over Bede Cale’s cryptic hints to the possible reasons behind all this. He was certain, having passed through the town only once or twice in his entire lifetime, that he didn’t know anyone is Los Almos. At least, no one well enough for this to be the result. Damn it! Think Madrid. Think. Scott and Murdoch’s lives could depend on it.
Directing one of his men to take over from barman Trumble, Cale made sure the others in the saloon kept their guns and eyes trained on the silent gunfighter as he took another drink. Bede Cale was familiar enough with Johnny to know that his casual appearance covered an agile mind and body, one that wasn’t going to sit still for unanswered questions for too long.
So far, this had gone better than Bede had ever thought it would. Sure, he had run a risk by printing the wanted posters, but still unable to locate Madrid, it was the only way he could see to draw the gunfighter out into the open. With a bounty of five hundred dollars dead or alive, it was a sure way to bring out the good shooters, but he also knew how good Johnny Madrid was and he put his money on the Mexican to outdraw any and all comers. Cale had bet everything on Johnny. First, that he would be the winner in any shootout. Secondly, that the Johnny Madrid he had known would come looking the person who had posted the reward. ‘Sheriff Cale’ had won all those private bets in spades.
Congratulating himself on his plan, Cale noticed the reappearance of his errand running barman. Nodding in acknowledgment of the old man’s signal from the doorway, Cale followed Trumble to the storeroom.
“Either there’s more to like about you than I thought, and our friends spilled their guts, which I doubt,” Cale sneered. “Or you lucked out. Which is it?” He asked as he struck a match on wall and lit a cigarette.
Trumble shifted uneasily on his feet as his hands nervously played with his hands. “Y-You promised. Verity? No one will touch her?”
With an apathetic sigh, Cale exhaled a cloud of smoke. “I ain’t promisin’ nothin’—but your daughter is safe—for now. Have you got anything, or are you just blowing hot air, old man?”
Trumble needed more assurances than Cale was giving him, but he at least knew that he had at brought his daughter a little more time from the horror of Cale’s men’s cruel touch. Trumble wiped at his dry lips and began to explain. “I-I overheard— somethin’. Don’t know if it’s— important, or not. Th—Those two men, you have in the—the jail. Well, I—I overheard them say that they were— his brother and father.”
“Whose?” Cale asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Th- That fella you’ve got in there,” Trumble stuttered nervously.
“Johnny Madrid’s father and brother?”
“T-That’s what they said,” Trumble stuttered nervously.
“Lancer, Johnny Lancer?” Cale grinned as he dropped the cigarette onto the floor and stubbed it out with his boot. “Well, well. Never know what the day will bring. You did good, Trumble. Good enough to keep your precious daughter outta bounds at least—for a couple of days.”
“Please! She’s all I have.” Trumble pleaded as he made a grab for the gunman.
Reacting to the old man’s hysterics with a solid backhand, Cale watched with disgust as the old man collapsed to the floor. “She’s a whore. They’re all whores, the lot of them” he snarled. “About time she learnt what she’s good for. Now, get up and get behind the bar before I change my mind and send Chavez to break her in right now.”
“Please,” Trumble sobbed as he got to his knees. “Don’t do this, she’s just a little girl.”
“A girl with a weak, sniveling, coward of a father. She’s better off without you.” Drawing his weapon from its holster, Cale looked down at the old man with contempt and blinked as he pulled the trigger.
Chavez heard the shot and came running into the room to protect his leader, but wasn’t all that surprised to find instead, the old man dead with a hole between his eyes. “He look at ya wrong, Bede?” The Spaniard chuckled, knowing his boss’s temper as well as he did.
“You could say that,” Cale replied as he dismissed Trumble with a wrinkle of his nose before turning his attention to his henchman. “Chavez, get one of the men to go and bring the young ‘bounty hunter’ into the middle of the street and wait for me.”
Curious, but knowing better than to ask why, Chavez nodded. “And me?”
“Remember our little find? Go and get her from my room. Hold her here in the storeroom until I call for you.”
“I don’t understand,” Chavez shrugged before holding his free hand up in surrender. “Yeah, I know, I don’t need to. I’m going.”
It was of no surprise to Cale as he re-entered the Saloon to find Johnny now unarmed and on his feet, surrounded by rifles and pistols, all aimed at the disturbed gunfighter’s chest.
“Coming to the rescue as always, Johnny boy,” Cale said curtly as he checked his clothes for spots of blood that might off splattered off the dead man’s body. “Well, just like ‘last’ time, you’re little too late.”
It all became suddenly so clear to Johnny, what had been the motivation behind Cale’s plan. “I should’ve shot you when I had the chance.” The hotheaded gunfighter snarled.
“Yes, you should have. But you were a little too busy bein’ a hero. And that’s the difference between you and me, Johnny, I ain’t no hero. You never could shoot a man for what you ‘believed’ he had done. I could.” Cale stated venomously as he cast a cold eye over the gunfighter.
“You Son of—!” Johnny growled as the truth clutched at his heart with an icy grip. “It was you! You killed her!” With his face haunted by the memories of the beautiful young woman he had fallen in love with, the enraged gunfighter made a move toward Cale, only to be stopped by an abrupt jab of a rifle barrel into his ribs.
“I gave her what she deserved,” Cale replied with no self-recrimination in his voice. “She was a whore. At least, she was until you got in the way. And she’d still be alive, if you hadn’t meddled in matters that didn’t concern you.”
“Milisenda was no one’s whore, especially not yours, you murderin’ bastard!” Johnny spat as he made another attempt to lunge at the Sheriff, this time to be felled by the butt of a rifle to the back of his head.
“Is that right, Johnny?” Cale smiled as he gestured for his men to pick up the dazed man and follow him outside.
The jailer’s scuffle with his father as he was pulled from the cell, was still fresh in Scott’s mind, as were the threats that had been made to Murdoch’s life. He knew what he had to do. Allowing himself to be prodded along by the point of a rifle, Scott was pushed into the street.
“What’s this all about?” Scott asked the man behind him.
A nudge from the weapon, was Scott’s only answer.
Squinting into the sunlight, Scott’s attention was taken by a commotion coming from the other side of the street. Once his eyes became accustomed to the light, he saw two of Cale’s men dragging Johnny into the street. Wanting nothing more than to run and help, he could only watch helplessly as his semi-conscious brother was dropped unceremoniously to the dirt.
“Welcome, Mr. Lancer.” Cale called from the Saloon porch.
“What’s this all about?” Scott asked as he kept one eye on his brother, who was slowly dragging himself to his knees.
“What?” Cale asked, feigning surprise at the question. “You are a bounty hunter, are you not? Go ahead, collect your money!”
Appalled at what Cale was unwittingly suggesting, Scott watched Johnny, willing him to stand. Suddenly he noticed his brother’s empty holster. “He’s unarmed. Besides, your poster said, ‘dead or alive’.”
Cale looked at one of his men and snapped his fingers, receiving Johnny’s gun in return. “Madrid now has his gun,” he said, throwing the weapon into the dirt at Johnny’s feet. “And I’ve changed my mind. I want him dead. Do you want the five hundred dollars, or not? Now, Mr. Lancer, surely you have no qualms about killing a known gunfighter? A man, who has killed so many times, he’s lost count? You certainly can’t be indifferent to the man who would play loose and free with your woman if given half a chance?”
Scott shook his head, slightly relieved to see Johnny rising on his own two feet, then quickly alarmed at seeing how weak his brother still was as he stumbled forward on faltering legs. “Look at him?” the blonde Lancer pointed toward his struggling brother. “He can hardly stand. It would be murder, pure and simple.”
“Well, then. Maybe Johnny ‘Madrid’ won’t have such high-faluting morals. Chavez!” Cale called out.
Struggling to stand upright, Johnny tried to focus on his surroundings and was confused when he saw his brother standing down the street, not far away. “Scott?” he rasped in a whisper. Slowly getting his equilibrium back, Johnny heard Cale shout and turned in time to see one of Cale’s men pushing a bruised and battered woman down the steps and into the street.
Her beauty was undeniable. Even the myriad of blemishes and broken skin that marked her appearance, couldn’t hide her true features. Coal colored hair that once must have been combed back neatly into a bun now fell uneven and matted. Hidden under the stray locks of hair were a set of brown, almond shaped eyes, still shining brightly with defiance and pride. With her petite form displayed more prominently than any decent woman would expect in a public street, she clung pitifully to the torn pieces of material that she once called a blouse in a desperate bid to cover her partially exposed bust.
“Milisenda?” Johnny whispered the name; as if giving it full voice would break the spell and cause the vision to disappear.
“I am sorry, Johnny. It is me, Solana, Milisenda’s sister. Do you not remember me?” The young woman appealed, her voice still carrying a trace of Spanish upbringing.
“Solana?” Johnny shook his head, trying to clear his illusion. Now, he clearly saw the difference between the two women. “Oh, Solana. I thought I’d got you far enough—”
“Away from me?” Cale smirked as he leaned against the porch rail. “Well, fate had other ideas about that. You could have struck me down dead when we stopped in this little town, and who should I see married to the prim and proper banker of Los Almos, but Milisenda’s whore sister, Solana. Now correct me if I’m wrong here, Johnny, but isn’t this the same girl you helped get away from me after Milisenda died?” Receiving nothing, but an enraged scowl in return, Cale shrugged and continued. “You don’t have to answer, I know I’m right. She tastes like a whore; just like Milisenda did.”
Scott stood powerless to do anything, but watch as Cale provoked Johnny to the point of no return.
“Now, Johnny Madrid, you have a choice. Either you pick up your gun and throw down against that ‘bounty hunter’ at the end of the street there, or I will shoot Solana where she stands. What’s one less whore in the world. Well, Johnny, which will it be?”
Murdoch could do nothing but pace the cell, his fear being played out in every step. The gravity of the warnings, delivered by the barrel of the guard’s gun into Scott’s ribs, had not been an idle threat. While every parental instinct told him to fight, he ceded to the more powerful persuader and watched as Scott was led away. Now, both his sons were in a situation over which he had no control. And he didn’t like it. If he only knew what was happening to his boys.
The guard sat on the sheriff’s desk. Half on, half off with his right leg on the floor to keep him balanced. Knowing he was in no real danger from his prisoner, he closed his eyes and began to pick at his discolored teeth with a broken match, giving the task his undivided attention. While in-mid cleaning, he found himself distracted by a noise coming from the back of the jail. Reaching for his rifle which laid beside him on the desk, he headed toward the sound to investigate, pausing briefly at the cell door. “Now, don’t you go anywhere, old man,” he chuckled as he continued on his way.
Feeling helpless, Murdoch rubbed his fingers through his grey hair and was about to continue to do the only thing he could do, which was pacing, when he heard the sound of scuffling and a muffled noise from the back of the room.
Moving to the bars, Murdoch leaned into the cold iron, his eyes following the direction he had last seen the guard heading.
“Guard!” Murdoch tentatively called, as he wondered what else could go wrong. “Who’s there?”
The only reply to Murdoch’s questions was an occasional grunt, followed by a scrapping sound. The rancher continued to watch as the noisy grunts came closer and was astounded to see the rear end of a man as he dragged the now tied and gagged guard into the next cell and locked the door.
“Who are you?” Murdoch asked, gratefully, but was curious as to the identity of the disheveled man who stood before him.
Stuffing the guard’s pistol into the top of his trousers and laying the ‘borrowed’ rifle against the bars, the stranger used the unconscious guard’s keys, to unlock the cell door. “Mr. Murdoch?”
“Lancer, Murdoch Lancer. To whom am I indebted to?” Murdoch asked as he waited for the stranger to gather his thoughts. The rancher could see by the dark circles under his eyes and the ripped sleeve ringed by a dried bloodstain, that the unshaven face man hadn’t slept for days. Or cared for his wounds for that matter.
“My name is Sam Beaudine, Mr. Lancer. I am—was the Banker here in Los Almos. Though, I can’t rightly call myself much of a man anymore, either,” Sam said somberly as he opened the door.
Confused as to what the banker was talking about, Murdoch moved quickly to the window in search of his sons. “What happened here, Mr. Beaudine?”
“Hell happened, Mr. Lancer,” Sam answered bleakly as he joined Murdoch’s search with spiritless eyes. “Cale and his men rode in a week ago. I guess they would’ve taken the money and kept riding, but—”
“But what?” Murdoch asked, unable to hold back a relieved sigh when he caught sight of both his sons standing out in the street.
“My wife, Solana,” Sam whispered as he nodded to the obviously distressed woman in the street. “She and Cale have a history. Not one my wife should be ashamed of, mind you, but a history none the less. I’m the one who should be ashamed,” the younger banker whispered as he closed his eyes in attempt to block out the memory. “I let Cale take her.”
“You look like you put up a fight,” Murdoch said as he gestured to the bloodied sleeve.
“This is nothing compared to what Solana has suffered because I wasn’t man enough to keep her safe,” Sam said as he dismissed his wound.
“What about the rest of the town?”
Sam’s laughter was hollow as he turned to Murdoch. “What about them? They had even less courage than I did. Not one of them tried to help us, not one. I was hoping when I heard about you and your son that you’d be able to help me.”
With only half of his attention focused on the banker, Murdoch frowned as he tried to figure out why everyone was out in the street. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” the banker shrugged, his own attention centered solely on Solana. “Though, by the look of it, it’s got something to do with that dark-haired stranger and my wife.”
“That dark-haired stranger—is my son,”
“They’re both my sons,” Murdoch exhaled as he rubbed his chin apprehensively.
“I’m sorry,” the banker said softly as he stared sadly into the street.
“I’m not,” Murdoch answered without thinking. “Johnny’s a good boy. A good son.”
“Johnny?” The banker body jerked as he gazed at the dark-haired stranger more intensely than he had before. “I thought I heard he was— Not Johnny Madrid?”
Murdoch sighed deeply, wondering if that name would ever stop shadowing his son. “He was. He’s Johnny Lancer now.”
“Then, sir,” Sam turned and offered his hand to Murdoch. “I am in your son’s debt. He once saved my Solana from a life no woman should be forced to endure and I will be forever grateful to him for that.”
Murdoch took the offered hand, and was oddly surprised to be proud of the man Johnny Madrid had been. “It’s not me you should be thanking, Mr. Beaudine, but in Johnny’s stead, I’ll accept. Now we need weapons ” the elder man frowned as he made a frantic search of the room. Spying the rifle Sam had left against the cell door, Murdoch moved instantly to pick it up. Checking the weapon’s chambers, he was disappointed to find it nearly empty. “Only two rounds left. What do you have?”
Sam pulled out the guard’s pistol and checked it out. “Five. What do you have in mind, Mr. Lancer?”
Quickly moving back to his position at the jail window, Murdoch pointed to the other side of the street. “We didn’t get a proper introduction, but I take it the man in the white shirt, black vest, and coat is Cale, right?”
“That’s right, yes.” Sam agreed, even though his deepening frown gave away his sudden uneasiness. “You’re not thinking— Mr. Lancer? Not counting your sons, there are six men out there. We can’t— Not with just the two of us. And not with just these.” He gestured to the weapon in his hand as he shook his head.
“We’re not going to,” Murdoch replied as he calculated the risks of his plans against his son’s lives. “Tell me, which man is Cale’s right-hand man?”
Unsure whether to put his trust in this unspoken plan, Sam tore his eyes away from the rancher at his side to point to the Mexican standing with his rifle aimed at Solana’s back. “That’s him—The Mexican. His name’s Chavez. Please—” the banker begged as he tore his eyes from Solana in an unfinished plea for his wife’s survival.
“Mr. Beaudine, we haven’t got time for me to be gentle about this.” Murdoch stared gravely into the banker’s eyes. “Look out there. You wife has a gun aimed at her back. My sons are seemingly being forced to face each other with guns. If the people we love are going to have half a chance, we have to act now. I have a clear shot of Chavez. You should be able to take out Cale from where you are. The rest should scatter.”
“And if they don’t scatter? Or if we miss? I can’t risk— I just can’t,” Sam’s voice shook, his body trembling under the strain as he turned away.
“Well, I can, Mr. Beaudine, and I will.” Murdoch’s voice was firm and determined. “I was given no say to live when my boys were taken from me once before. This time, I will die keeping them.”
“I can’t,” the banker repeated, shaking his head as he backed away from the window. “I just can’t. Sorry Mr. Lancer,” Without warning the banker found his retreat stopped as a powerful hand gripped his arm and pulled him back toward the window.
“You ‘wanted’ my help, Mr. Beaudine and I just happen to ‘need’ yours.” Murdoch said coldly. Then, he took a deep breath, willingly himself to stay calm before he lost control of the situation. “Mr. Beaudine, you called yourself a coward before. Said that you let them take your wife. Tell me, how will you live knowing that you had a chance to save her, but you didn’t?”
Sam’s lip twitched as he bowed his head to look at the weapon he still held in his shaking hands. “I’m not a very good shot,” he nervously smiled as he looked up to face the rancher again. “I’m only a banker after all.”
“Banker or not, Mr. Beaudine,” Murdoch replied, letting out the breath he’d been unconsciously holding since he saw the banker’s courage wavering. “You and I seem to be all our families have. Now, get in position and on the count of three just squeeze the trigger. Don’t jerk it. Remember, just aim and squeeze.”
“And if I miss?”
“We still have the element of surprise,” Murdoch said optimistically, “Let’s just pray that’s enough.”
“Well, I’m waiting Madrid, what’s your answer? Are you going to trade bullets with the bounty hunter, or are you going to watch Solana die?” Cale called out, pleasure at seeing his plan succeed apparent with the self-satisfied smirk plastered on his face.
If he could just stop the world from spinning, Johnny thought, maybe he could think of a way to get them all out of the mess he’d got them in to in the first place. Swaying slightly, Johnny turned away from Solana to face his brother. Scott seemed just as powerless as he was to find a way out of this situation.
Scott knew he had to act quickly, but even he was surprised when he heard himself call out, “Madrid! I want my five hundred dollars and if I have to kill you to get it, I will.”
If this is a plan, Boston, it stinks. Johnny hoped his eyes said the frustrated words to his brother across the distance of the dusty street.
Scott was relieved to see that his brother’s dazed expression had faded to a mild confused look of puzzlement. What he wasn’t so happy to see was that Johnny didn’t seem too impressed with his plan. Not that Scott knew what that plan was anyway.
Ignoring his brother, Johnny turned his glare on the true focus of his anger. “I’m not going to fight him, Cale.”
Cale shook his head as he gestured to the gun that still lay at Johnny’s feet. “Pick up the blasted gun!” The gunman ordered as he pulled out his own weapon and aimed it at Scott.
With no choice, Johnny took a deep breath, stooping to pick up the pistol from the street. Checking it for bullets, Johnny wondered if he could take Chavez and Cale down before they could fire on the their respective targets.
“Don’t even think it, Madrid.” Cale warned the gunfighter. “Not even ‘you’ are that fast.”
Suddenly, a shot shattered the air and Chavez was knocked off his feet. Followed in quick succession by another, but Cale warned by Chavez’s untimely demise flinched in time and the bullet only grazed his arm.
As Cale and his men began firing across the street at the unknown shooters, Johnny, Scott and Solana took their chance and made a run for it.
Cale stopped shooting as two more of his men went down and turned to see Johnny and the others fleeing. Taking aim as he evaded another bullet, his shot went wild, but he still managed to bring down the ‘so-called’ bounty hunter.
Pushing Solana ahead of him, Johnny heard Scott’s painful grunt and turned in time to see his brother fall. Unsure whether he could focus enough to kill anyone, Johnny gave fire cover as he grabbed his brother’s arm and began to drag him toward an unhitched wagon.
“Leave me,” Scott groaned as he used his free hand to try and stem the flow of blood from his thigh.
“And miss getting to tell how stupid your plan was? Never, Boston,” Johnny huffed as he struggled to shoot and pull his brother along at the same time.
“Better than the one, you never had, brother,” Scott joked, grimacing in pain as he tried to help his Johnny haul his weight.
“Not this time, Madrid,” Cale hissed as he a bullet whistled passed his ear, and renewed his aim at his two targets.
Just as Johnny was nearing the safety of the wagon, his gun clicked empty. As time seemed to stand still, he watched Cale take aim and at the same split second a bullet spun him to the ground, Johnny could have sworn he saw Cale fall.
Once, the town had confirmed that Bede Cale was indeed dead and what was left of his gang had high-tailed it out of town, it was like watching a ghost town come back to life as people spilled out of their houses. A disgusted Murdoch watched the commotion from the doctor’s office as he waited for news on the condition of his sons. He still couldn’t believe the amount of people that now flooded the once deserted street. Where were these people when his sons were in the streets about to be gunned down by Cale and his men?
Murdoch had dismissed the congratulations and gratitude that were heaped on him as he hovered over his sons’ bleeding bodies. Shouting for help, he had been ignored as the gawking crowd, who seemed to find it far more interesting to stand around staring at the dead bodies that littered the streets. Unable to hold his patience back any longer, Murdoch was forced to physically haul a couple of the townspeople out of the mindless crowd, to help him carry his sons to the doctor’s clinic.
Murdoch instantly turned at the sound of the doctor’s voice and quickly made his way over to him. “My sons?”
Having just washed the blood of the blonde Lancer off his hands, Doctor Kessler, a short, balding man of about sixty-five, finished his cleaning and tossed the used towel on to a table. “I’ll tell you Mr. Lancer, I’ve never seen two men so eager to fight over who gets treated first in my life. But, even with their stubborn streaks, they’ll both live.” He sounded amused.
More than relieved that his sons would survive, Murdoch’s attention was momentarily distracted by a noisy celebration passing by the doctor’s window, “Look at them all! You’d swear it was the fourth of July.” The rancher could barely hide his distain.
Following Murdoch’s gaze, the Doctor couldn’t help feel the same elation as the crowd. “You can’t blame them, Mr. Lancer. They have been living in fear for weeks. The death of Cale has freed this town.”
“But why did it come to this? Why did my sons have to risk their lives to save your town? Why didn’t you save yourselves?” Murdoch angrily demanded of the doctor.
“This wasn’t our fight!” The doctor argued. “It was personal between Cale and the banker and his Spanish who— ‘wife’. It was their fault all this happened.”
“And you doctor? Where were you during all this?” Murdoch asked, trying to remember he was talking to the man who had probably saved his sons’ lives.
“I, sir, am a healer, not a killer,” the doctor retorted.
“And neither are my boys, but they did what they had to do to try and save lives out there today.” Seeing the arguing wasn’t going to accomplish anything, Murdoch changed the subject. “Can I see my sons?”
“Of course,” he answered curtly.
Turning to follow the doctor, Murdoch heard the door open behind him and turned to see the banker.
“Mr. Beaudine,” Murdoch smiled as he walked up to the younger man and took his hand. “How’s your wife?”
“A courageous woman, Mr. Lancer. Solana makes me very right proud. She says she’s fine. I don’t know if I believe her, but I will be with her every day for the rest of her life to make sure she is.” Sam replied before asking after the two men who had risked their lives for his wife. “And your sons?”
“The ‘doctor’ says they’ll live,” Murdoch tried to mask his antagonism for the doctor’s opinions, but as Kessler’s title dripped from his lips, he knew he hadn’t succeeded. He smiled wearily; knowing the banker had caught his slip. “Which just doesn’t surprise me. I’m sure they intend to be around to aggravate me for a long time yet.”
“I do hope so, Mr. Lancer.” Sam smiled, “I owe all of you so much.”
“As I do you. I don’t know if you realize it, but you saved my sons’ lives out there today.”
Sam looked down at the ground, feeling unworthy of the older man’s praise. “But Mr. Lancer, I missed— twice.”
Placing a firm hand to the banker’s shoulder, Murdoch refused to let the young man shoulder any more guilt. “You got Bede Cale when it counted. I’m in your debt, Mr. Beaudine.”
Sam met the rancher steely gaze and accepted the gratitude he saw there. “Let’s call it even.” Beaudine grinned as he offered his hand.
“What are you going to do now,” Murdoch asked as he accepted the hand. “Reopen the bank?
Sam shook his head as he bitterly cast an eye toward the street. “No, Los Almos holds nothing for me now. We’re packing to leave in the morning. The sooner we put distance between this town and us, the better.”
“Couldn’t agree with you more. You both take care now.”
“You too. Can you tell Scott and Johnny that Solana and I will come and see them before we leave?” Sam asked as he headed for the front door.
“I’ll do that now,” Murdoch replied as he waved the young man off and went to check on Scott and Johnny.
Standing at the doorway, Murdoch watched his sons as they rested. Each rise of their chests was a soothing ointment to a bruised father’s heart.
“Well, my boys the invalids.” Murdoch joked. His light-hearted demeanor was worn as a mask that barely covered the sheer terror he had felt only hours before.
“He’s the invalid,” Scott grinned as quickly jumped in to tease his brother. “Shot in the side, hit on the head. He never made any sense before anyway, now he’s going to make none at all.”
The usually quick repartee between brothers was absent as Johnny refused to join in with Scott’s game.
Picking up on his Johnny’s sullen mood, Murdoch attempted to ignore it as he went on to explain his plans to leave the town as soon as possible.
“Not going home. Nothing’s changed.”
Johnny’s words had both men stunned.
Scott bolted upright in his bed; the movement pulling at his wound and causing him let out a hiss as he grabbed his leg in pain. “What do you mean you’re not coming home?” Scott demanded through clenched teeth.
Johnny refused to meet either man’s gaze, as he went on to explain himself. “I’m still Johnny Madrid and even though Cale is dead, his wanted posters are still out there somewhere.” Johnny stared straight ahead, releasing a scornful laugh as he thought of Cale and the damage he’d caused to his life. “The sonofa— he still won.”
Murdoch stepped slowly to Johnny’s side, as if he was frightened he’d scare his son away. “He’s won nothing. You’re coming home where you belong.”
Spinning his head around to face his father and instantly regretting the movement as the room spun, Johnny spoke softly as he looked at the occupant of the other bed. “And if Boston had got killed out on that street today because of me? How would you feel about Johnny Madrid then?”
Murdoch lowered himself to Johnny’s bed, bringing himself to his son’s level. “The same way I do now. I learnt something today, Johnny. Whether you are Johnny Madrid or Johnny Lancer, you are still a man I am proud to call son.”
Johnny could see the true depth of his father’s feelings. Heck, a blind man could see the love there, but he couldn’t risk believing that this could all work out so easily. That he could actually live happily ever after. “I can’t do it. What if next time, it’s, Teresa, or Jelly? I can’t risk my family.”
Scott could no longer stay quiet, as he watched his brother seemingly bowed and determined to sacrifice himself for his family. “We’re not letting you go, brother. No matter how much you kick and scream. You have to believe that together we Lancer’s can survive anything.”
Johnny didn’t want to talk about this. It would mean opening himself up for all that pain again. Why wouldn’t they just let him go?
“Believe?” Johnny said sadly, still able to hear his mother’s voice. “I believed every word my mother told me about you Murdoch. All these years of believing that you left me, that you didn’t love me. I believed that I was who I was, because you abandoned us and I didn’t even know you existed, Boston. It’s so hard,” Johnny paused as he lowered his head, “to put any belief in anyone at all.
Murdoch had never seen so much pure suffering reflected in someone’s eyes before, and it hurt that he hadn’t been there for son in those early painful years. He would have like to curse Johnny’s mother for causing their son so much pain, but he couldn’t. She had given him something wonderful, a complex, infuriating and amazing son.
Reaching into his pocket, Murdoch retrieved the papers he had been carrying all through their ordeal, in the hope he could do what he was about to do. “Well, this time, you can believe.”
As Murdoch held the deed out in front in front of his son, Scott held his breath waiting to see what Johnny would do.
Looking first at his brother and then at his father, Johnny made his decision.
“I ‘believe’ that’s mine,” Johnny smiled as he accepted his life at Lancer for the final time.
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