Word Count 14,700
After many years of friendship we finally decided to put our amity to the test by writing a story together. We are pleased to report that the friendship has survived the challenge and what you see posted now is the result. Of course, it’s only 6 chapters long, so read into that what you will. 😉
All the usual disclaimers, no profit being made, and feedback most welcome. Thanks for reading.
Fliss and Lacy
April – May 2009
= = = = = = = = = = = =
As they rode down the main street, side by side, Scott chanced a glance in his brother’s direction, though he knew what he would see. Hat pulled low, his lazy insouciance might fool others but he knew Johnny was taking in every detail. The Madrid persona was ever-present even when buried beneath his Lancer alter-ego and right now Scott knew Madrid was wary, taking in every detail, memorizing the layout of the town and position of every object that could either offer cover or hinder a getaway.
In the eight months since their chance meeting on the Morro Coyo stage, Scott had grown very fond of this young man. The bond had occurred very quickly and had grown stronger with each passing day. They had settled into an easy friendship, one that afforded them boisterous moments of horseplay and moments of comfortable silence. But Scott had not yet deciphered the intricate core details of the puzzle that was his brother.
In his life in Boston Scott had never met as complex an individual. Scott’s grandfather had been manipulative and deceptive, master of all he surveyed, including his grandson, and yet somehow so very honest in his treachery. Johnny Madrid Lancer was not as transparent as Harlan Garrett. Johnny was unpredictable, enigmatic, a force that was both fascinating and, at times, frustrating.
At times Johnny was open, relaxed, possessed of a quick wit and ready smile. Then, as quickly as the wind changed directions, he grew cold, all expression hidden behind eyes of ice and nerves of steel. The transformation was another mystery. Without warning the smile could be disguised, the doors to the man’s soul closed and shuttered tightly with no hope of breaking through walls so thick as to be impenetrable.
Scott yearned to understand this man and for the understanding to be reciprocated. As close as they had become he knew there was so much more he had yet to learn about his brother. Shrugging off his meditations, he cocked his head toward Johnny.
“So, brother,” he murmured, “do you think we’ll get out of here alive? I know the odds are stacked against us. I mean, why did we choose this, of all towns, in preference to a night camping out?”
Johnny raised his head and met Scott’s smile with one just as broad. “Have your fun, Scott, but you’ll thank me one day.”
The smile was easy and genuine yet something flitted through Johnny’s eyes, a warning perhaps. Scott wasn’t sure and the uncertainty left him feeling oddly disturbed.
“Let’s make sure it’s not today.” Scott hastened the pace of his mount as he spotted a livery off to their left, just a little way ahead, and Johnny fell in behind. They dismounted as a balding, round man of indeterminate age bustled jovially through the doorway to greet them.
“Howdy gents. Kessler’s my name. Can I help you?”
“Yes, you can,” Scott answered, as Johnny brushed past the man and entered the stables behind him. Not a word spoken but Scott knew Johnny had weighed Kessler and found him to be inconsequential, offering no threat. This fact served to relieve some of Scott’s own tension. When Johnny, the gunfighter, was relaxed the atmosphere around him seemed relaxed as well. Scott breathed a sigh and faced the livery man. “We were looking for a place to leave our horses.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place. Best in all of Sequoia Springs.” Having taken in the way Johnny was wearing his gunbelt, the livery owner now glanced nervously over his shoulder while still trying to join Scott in amiable conversation. “There are others in town, sure, but they’re just out to take your gold. Can’t be too careful nowadays. Lots of folk come looking for gold ‘round here. Don’t hold with that sort of thing m’self. Seen it destroy too many good men.” He began nervously rubbing his hands up and down his leather apron.
Scott felt sympathy for the man’s anxiety. He had seen Johnny have that effect on many men in the past and didn’t think this particular man warranted it. “Well, we’re not here for the gold. We’ll just be staying the night.”
Johnny wandered back outside and nodded at his brother. He shifted his weight to his left foot and stood waiting, obviously nonplussed by the sleepy town and the few occupants they had seen on their ride in.
“Mr Kessler, we’ll be pleased to leave our horses here tonight. And we’ll be on our way in the morning,” smiled Scott.
“You look after your horses real nice, mister,” drawled his younger brother, his eyes barely concealing his mirth at Kessler’s discomfort. Johnny moved to stand quite close to the clearly distressed shorter man, and laid a hand on his shoulder. “That’s good to see. And it seems like a man who knows how to look after animals would be able to point us in the direction of a hotel that would look after their riders just as well.”
The man’s smile was a rather nervous one. “Well, sir, I can’t say I’d point you across the road. Sure, The Golden Horseshoe looks good from the outside but, well, let’s just say it’s not always as lucky for its guests as it sounds. I think you gentlemen might prefer something quieter.”
Johnny bestowed an encouraging nod in the liveryman’s direction and dropped his hand. He patted Kessler on the back, swallowing his smile as Kessler’s tanned face became decidedly pale.
“Well, at the south end of town, there’s a smaller establishment called McMillan’s. They got a bar there too, and meals and rooms. Can even get a bath there. It’s down that way on your right.” He pointed in the direction the brothers had just come from.
“We saw it on the way in to town. Thank you Mr Kessler.” Scott thrust some coins in the man’s hand and followed his brother out into the street. “Did you have to do that?” he whispered harshly under his breath. “The man almost wet himself.”
“Aw Scott, I was only funning. Besides, if he’s a little nervous, he’ll take extra good care of the horses.”
“I didn’t think you enjoyed terrorizing innocent folks.” Scott’s tone was disapproving.
Johnny flashed his widest grin and Scott found his ill temper fading like darkness before the sun. “Little brother, you are incorrigible!”
Johnny threw his head back and laughed as his left arm snaked out to backhand his brother in the stomach. The momentary rift between them passed as they proceeded in the direction Kessler had pointed them.
They passed few people on their way – just two matrons who graciously nodded their acknowledgment of tipped hats as they swished past and an old drunk, his suspenders hanging off his shoulders, reeling across the street in front of them.
= = = = = = =
Scott stopped at the batwing doors to the hotel, prepared to follow his brother’s lead. Expecting him to enter cautiously, it came as something of a surprise to see Johnny stride through the doorway and head straight for the desk, situated directly ahead of them. Silence descended in the small bar area off to their right.
Momentarily taken aback by his brother’s uncustomary entrance, Scott stood back a pace, leaving it to Johnny to secure their night’s accommodations. Scott sighed softly, shaking his head in wonder. Just when he thought he was beginning to understand his enigmatic brother, Johnny would behave in a manner that was totally unlike anything Scott had come to expect. And maybe that was the point.
Nervously, the young barkeep left the glasses he had been wiping and came to the desk in front of the brothers. His gaze shifted from the two men standing patiently before him to the gun tied low on Johnny’s thigh. He cleared his throat and wiped a trembling hand across his mouth. “I guess you men are looking for someplace to stay.”
“That’s right. Got a room for two?” Johnny pushed his hat toward the back of his head, his blue eyes sparkling with humor at the barkeep’s obvious discomfort.
“Sure thing. Top of those stairs, second door on your left.” The barkeep waved a hand in the direction of the stairs. He coughed softly and said, “That’ll be two bits.”
“That overlook the main street?” Johnny ignored the man’s request for payment and leaned forward, elbows on the counter.
“Yes sir.” The barkeep took a step backwards.
Scott watched his brother place a handful of coins on the desk. Significantly more coins than Scott had left for the liveryman.
Grinning broadly now, Johnny asked, “Will that get us a meal as well?”
Johnny’s grin was infectious and the barkeep relaxed, grateful the deadly young man before him had found no reason to be displeased with him. He returned the grin and was rewarded when Johnny reached over the counter and patted his shoulder. His grin became broader as he accepted Johnny’s overture. “Yes sir, I reckon it might.” Feeling more confident now he added hastily, “But drinks’ll be extra.”
“Sounds fair. He’ll be payin’ for those anyway.” Johnny’s thumb jerked in his direction brought Scott the realization that he hadn’t necessarily scored the better part of the deal by organizing their horses’ accommodation.
“Cook’s always ready, sir. You take your time. And my name’s Hank. If you need anything, just holler.” Hank pushed a ledger forward for Johnny to sign then handed over a key, which Scott intercepted.
The Lancers sauntered over to the bar, giving Scott the opportunity to softly ask his brother what name he should be prepared to answer to this time but was infuriatingly greeted with nothing more than a grin. He was almost relieved when they reached the bar and Johnny faced the room, his back to the counter, while Scott took in the scene through the mirror on the wall behind the bar. When Hank returned to tending the bar Scott ordered drinks and some food for them both. He was not surprised to learn there was no choice in what they’d be eating but at this point in time Scott’s rumbling stomach made the prospect of any food most welcome.
Scott led the way to a table in the corner. The lull that had descended over the room when they had first walked in was lost now as the murmur of people minding their own business took over again. “What’s gotten into you? Since when do you go around intimidating the locals?”
Scott knew it came out sounding perturbed and Johnny studied him curiously. “I’m just in a good mood. What’s eatin’ you?” Johnny said softly, the laughter in his eyes unmistakable.
“Never mind,” Scott shrugged. “I’m just ready to get home, I guess.”
“Well brother, relax and try to enjoy yourself. We got a night on the town on Murdoch’s dime and we might even get lucky.” Johnny nodded at two of the girls leaning casually on the bar and looking their way.
“Well, don’t tell Murdoch where you spent his money. I doubt he’d approve.” Scott was still uneasy and it was making him short with his brother. He liked to feel he maintained tight control of his destiny but he could not ignore the feeling of dread that was slowly building within his mind. Even Johnny’s cheeky behaviour was adding to the sensation that disaster was hovering nearby. Maybe Johnny’s behaviour was actually at the root of the problem. He shook his head and met Johnny’s studious gaze. “I just need a good night’s sleep.”
Seemingly deep in thought, Johnny nodded in agreement before letting his gaze settle once more on the buxom blonde at the bar whose piercing gaze had not left her night’s intended fling.
Johnny had ordered their second round of drinks by the time the kitchen hand brought out their food. They had scarcely finished mopping up the gravy on their plates before the girls approached them, one curvy and fair, the other petite and auburn-haired.
“You gentlemen look like you been on the road a while.” The blonde dropped her hand seductively on Johnny’s shoulder and was rewarded with a brilliant smile. “I’m Kitty and this is my friend Lena.”
“We’re pleased to meet you, ladies,” Johnny drawled softly.
Scott watched as his brother reached around to pull up a vacant chair from a nearby empty table. With a chivalrous flourish, Johnny assisted the blonde in seating herself. She moved her chair closer to the dark-haired Lancer, her eyes full of the promise of what the night could bring. Scott stood and retrieved a chair as well, then invited the redhead to join them. She flashed him a timid smile before accepting his offer.
“Yes, Scott, we’re gonna have a good night.” A gesture from his brother brought another round of drinks to the table and broader smiles from the girls.
= = = = = =
As Scott and Johnny enjoyed the company of their new friends at McMillan’s, three men in The Golden Horseshoe were arguing over their plans. Their beers sat before them ignored and growing warm in the humid atmosphere of the saloon. Droplets of condensation dripped down the glass and puddled on the table.
“I’m tellin’ you” said Eiberger, as he pushed a long, greasy lock of hair away from his forehead, “this plan can’t fail.” He slapped that same hand on the table, coming into contact with the wetness on the aged wood. Without thinking, he swiped it on the front of his shirt.
“Yeah. Seems we’ve heard that before,” said the older Jeb, hunching his round shoulders even further. Though not the official leader, he was the more stoic and intelligent of the three and so he was often indirectly responsible for the final decision about the heists the men would undertake. Nonplussed and not easily overcome by the wild tendencies of his younger associates, he spoke with a slow deliberate demeanour which more often than not curbed the enthusiasm of the other two less-disciplined men.
“Slitwood Crossing weren’t that long ago,” added Nat, nowadays anxious to curry favour with the older man. That bank heist had been attempted against Jeb’s better judgement and was one example of the error of disregarding the older man’s sage wisdom. Nat and Eiberger had insisted it was the perfect job and the bank an easy target. They had been so head-strong in their determination to attempt the robbery that Jeb had gone along with it for the sole purpose of executing damage control. And it had been disastrous. The town had been more prepared for the likelihood of a robbery than the small group of thieves had anticipated and the townsfolk had effectively staved off the attack. In the failed heist, Jeb’s band had lost two good men and an innocent child had been gravely wounded in their getaway.
Now Nat was diligent in his attempts to worm his way back into Jeb’s good graces. He was anxious for excitement, needing a distraction as well as money, but was reluctant to risk angering Jeb. The older man did not often indulge in fits of temper, but on the rare occasions when he did give in to his rage, those around were sure to suffer, none more so than his younger brother Nat.
“Okay then, if you’ve got a better idea, let’s hear it. What could be better ’n hittin’ the shipment on the road?” With that taunt Eiberger again pushed back the wayward lock of hair behind his ear. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, his loins burning with lust as he eyed the saloon girl leaning on the bar. He leered openly at her and was rewarded when she leaned over to adjust the tie on her shoe, affording him an eyeful of her ample bosom. “I’m sick o’ bein’ broke,” he groused, “and I need me a woman.”
Nat followed Eiberger’s gaze and smiled knowingly. Agreeing with Eiberger’s assessment of their current situation, Nat offered his older brother an alternative. “I reckon we hit the bank tonight. Wait ‘til everyone’s asleep then break in and grab the safe and take it with us.” The youngster sounded very pleased with his idea. “Then when you finish with her you reckon I could have a turn?” Nat could be considered slow but he’d had no trouble ascertaining Eiberger’s intentions.
“You truly weren’t blessed with the brains in the family, was you Nat?” Eiberger spat out with a venom born of frustration. “In fact I’d go so far as to say you are truly an idiot. You ever tried to pick up a safe, boy? You any idea how heavy they are?”
Much as he agreed with Eiberger’s assessment, Jeb’s momma had borne twelve babies between him and Nat and she’d made him swear on her deathbed that he’d always watch over his baby brother so, as he’d done a thousand times before, Jeb stepped in to deflect unwelcome attention away from Nat. “And have you any idea, Eiberger, how many guards they’re gonna have ridin’ shotgun on that shipment? We still got two days afore they leave. I say we jist wait ‘til it opens tomorrow and grab the money and run. We get Loco to be waitin’ outside with our horses. We just head off in all directions to make it hard to follow us, then meet up again at Koburg’s Rocks where we split whatever we get – three and a half ways.”
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
The Ties That Bind
Up in their room the Lancer brothers threw down their saddlebags then Scott turned to check the lock on their door and wedge a ladder-back chair under the knob while his younger brother headed for the window to perform his own checks.
Eventually Johnny turned back and shrugged at him. “We’ve had worse.” He stretched restlessly, then studied the two small beds.
Scott watched indulgently as his brother then proceeded to bounce on the bed Scott had already left his own gear on. His younger brother’s penchant for youthful activities never ceased to amuse him. If anyone had ever seen this side of the young gunhawk, Scott was sure they, like he, would be hard pressed to take him seriously. Not that it would have gained them an advantage. Johnny could transform from the boy jumping on the bed into the seasoned gunhawk so rapidly one had trouble believing he had ever been anyone but a hardened fighter. Sighing, Scott fetched his bags from the corner where Johnny had casually tossed them. Sometimes he doubted he would ever understand his younger brother.
“We have indeed,” agreed Scott as he started laying out a clean shirt from his bags while his brother threw himself backwards onto the bed and lay on his back, his fingers laced behind his head and his knees drawn up. One ankle was raised to cross over the other knee. “I think this establishment might prefer it if you removed your spurs before doing that,” Scott corrected.
“You think after this afternoon they’d want to cross me?” Johnny laughed but he sprang off the bed and proceeded to remove his boots and trousers and fling them aside before jumping under the covers. By the time Scott was ready to climb into his own bed he could have sworn his brother was already fast asleep.
Scott doused the lamp and fell into his own bed, sighing softly. He reflected on his decision earlier in the evening. “You do realize our soiled doves would have leapt at the chance to spend longer in our company.”
“Sure, Boston, sure. But would you want to be the one to tell Murdoch why we spent money on two rooms instead of one?”
Scott simply smiled at the prospect. “It might have been worth it. ‘Night Johnny.”
He was answered by nothing more than very loud, very deep, very measured breathing.
= = = = = = = = = =
Scott awoke as the thin shaft of brilliant sunlight peeking through the curtains made its way across his cheek. Before he opened his eyes he protested, “I don’t know why you do that Johnny. You’re always awake before dawn anyway so why not, just once, let me have the bed away from the window?”
A chuckle from the chair near the door confirmed his suspicions. “Now you wouldn’t want to spoil all my fun, would you?”
Scott flung back the bedclothes and rubbed his face. “Maybe not all your fun, but certainly the fun that comes at my expense.” He reached for his shirt and trousers and slid them on, then ferreted for his boots which were definitely not where he had left them.
Apparently his complaint had been registered and Johnny knew when he had gone far enough because he kicked the boots towards Scott even as he continued laughing.
Scott moved to the dresser to wash his face then turned back to see his grinning brother perched on his bed with both lots of saddlebags ready to go. Scott eased the kink out of his back and wondered aloud, “How do you do that? How do you manage to sleep so well in foreign beds?”
“A lifetime of practice, big brother.” Johnny passed Scott his saddlebags before opening the door and leading the way downstairs. Scott ambled after him.
Few patrons were about so their breakfast arrived quickly. During their second cup of coffee a young boy flew into the hotel and scrambled up to the desk where a young woman was already at work on the books.
“You got a Mr Lancer stayin’ here?”
“That’s me.” / “Yeah?”
Scott shared a secret smile with his brother as the delivery boy looked over at them, obviously confused by their simultaneous replies. They left their table as the lad looked back at the slip of paper in his hand. “Mr. Scott Lancer? Son of Murdoch Lancer from the Lancer Ranch near Morro Coyo?”
Scott’s smile grew wider as he reached for the telegram. “That would be me.”
“Now why does the Old Man always do that?” complained Johnny. “Don’t he think I can read?”
As Scott reached into his pocket to find a coin for the boy Johnny’s look of irritation dissolved. He’d obviously been keeping count too.
“Thanks Mister.” The young boy scampered out of the hotel, anxious to make his way to the general store and the sweets he’d been hankering for for days.
Scott read the telegram then passed it to his brother.
“I don’t get it,” protested Johnny. “He’s carping on about saving money and he goes and spends money on a telegram he doesn’t need to send. Does that make sense to you, Scott?”
“No Johnny, it doesn’t. But then I have often found that to be the way with Murdoch. Come on, let’s get moving.” He left Johnny at the door and returned their key to the young woman at the desk. “Thank you, Miss. You’ve made us feel very welcome during our stay. Maybe we’ll be back this way one day. Soon.” Scott’s smile was greeted with a stammer and a blush and he turned merrily to join his brother.
Back out on the boardwalk he turned left and found his brother gently rejecting an Indian’s offer to carry his saddlebags for him. When the Indian turned to him as well, Scott shook his head and strode off, leaving Johnny to deal with the man as he saw fit.
Johnny hastened to catch up to him and Scott saw him fingering the beads he wore around his neck. Sullen, his good humor of moments ago apparently forgotten, Johnny fell into step beside Scott. His expression was unreadable. “I hate to see ‘em like that,” he murmured.
Scott clapped his brother on the shoulder. “Come on, brother. There are more important things for us to ponder on today. If we get a move on we can be one day closer to home by sundown.” This ridiculous statement had the desired effect. Johnny straightened his shoulders and allowed a small grin to split his mask-like features. “First stop, telegraph office – I want to see Murdoch’s face when he finds out we spent money on a telegram that needlessly replies to his – and then the stables where Mr Kessler awaits with our horses.”
= = = = = = = = = =
The brothers had been heading north from Sequoia Springs for about an hour and at the sound of a nearby sloshing spring they both agreed it would be a good chance to water their horses and refill their canteens. It had been hot and dry and dusty and both men relished the cool water as it bubbled up from deep underground. Not far away it tumbled noisily over rocks on its descent into a small pool.
Johnny knelt down and cupped a mouthful of the cool liquid. He grinned as Barranca sank his nose deep into the water and snorted, tiny bubbles rising from the water. “Tastes good, doesn’t it fella?”
“You really do spoil that animal,” Scott commented, studying his younger sibling. Still on his knees, he lowered his canteen into the spring to refill it before wiping his hands dry on his pants leg.
“Well, you see, Boston. A man is only as good as his gun and his horse. In country like this, a horse can make the difference between life and death. So when you got a good one, you take extra good care of him.”
“I understand caring for your animal,” Scott protested harshly. “I was in the cavalry, remember?” He shot Johnny a withering glare. For reasons unknown even to him, Scott was irritated by his brother’s lecture.
Sometimes this young man was infuriating but even as the thought ran through his mind, Scott realized he was being allowed a small glimpse into a life he hadn’t shared and he determined to pursue the conversation at the next opportunity.
Appeased somewhat by this knowledge he softened his tone before continuing, “But spoiling them is another thing completely.”
Scott was rewarded by a startling smile and knew his brother had taken no offense. With a silent ease born of friendship, they rose from the water’s edge to continue their journey home.
The first sign of trouble was the unmistakable sharp click of several pistols being cocked at once. Scott threw a hasty glance at Johnny, his surprise that Johnny had been caught unaware clearly mirrored in his brother’s chiselled features. “I thought no one could sneak up on you,” he hissed under his breath.
Johnny’s shrug was almost imperceptible as his expression hardened and Madrid came to the fore. He relaxed into the familiar stance. Scott recognized the transformation but they were vastly outnumbered and he knew they had no chance of turning the situation around. At least not yet.
As if sensing the change in the attitude of the dark-haired captive, a weasel-like man crept cautiously forward. “Don’t move,” he warned. Tentatively he retrieved the guns from both brothers, then nodded to a man standing just beyond Scott’s field of vision.
Johnny turned to face their attackers, a smug comment dying unspoken on his lips as a gun butt rendered him unconscious. “Johnny!” Scott called before that same gun butt was brought down on his head and he slid into darkness.
= = = = = = = = = =
Scott registered a blinding pain behind his eyes. Shaking his head to dislodge the pain only made it much, much worse and he regretted the folly of moving. Something sharp pressed painfully into his back and his stomach roiled ominously. With bated breath he chanced another movement and slowly opened his eyes.
“Welcome back, brother. I was beginnin’ to worry ‘bout you.”
The familiar drawl was reassuring, almost. But the tight ropes binding his arms and legs quickly quashed any feeling of comfort. Scott tried to reply but his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He tried to form some spit to moisten it.
“What happened?” he eventually managed to croak.
“You mean after we were knocked out?” Scott heard the smile in his brother’s tone even though he had as yet been unable to turn to face him. But he was in no mood for his brother’s attempted wit. He merely waited.
“Can’t say for sure. It seems to be midday now, no shadows, see? Can’t tell which direction Sequoia Springs is either but that hill behind you should be pretty distinctive, though I’ve never seen it before. We’re nowhere near that waterhole we were stopped at and we’ve been tied up for quite a while – my hands are well and truly numb. And there are at least four horses tethered nearby, maybe more.”
It was only at his brother’s mention of being tied up that Scott finally started registering the scope of their predicament. Squinting, he looked around. Both Johnny and he were securely tied to a large, sturdy tree, the only such specimen in the vicinity. Over his left shoulder he could just make out a hillside covered in man-sized boulders. Their horses and saddlebags were nowhere in sight. Ahead of them lie miles of seeming nothingness.
“That’s enough talk.”
The voice came from behind them. Then, the noise of someone scrambling to their feet. Well out of reach, a thin young man came into view. His tongue protruded slightly from his partially-opened mouth and his scrawny arms looked barely capable of holding the rifle he now had aimed at their stomachs.
“What do you want with us?” demanded Scott.
“You’ll find out. When we’re good and ready.” With that he let go a shrill whistle and within minutes they were joined by two other men – one gaunt and unshaven and badly in need of a haircut, the other round-shouldered and stooped, with the same pallid skin as their original guard.
“Well, good to see you awake. I was a little bothered we mebbe hit you too hard, son. And our plan wouldn’t work if we’d gone and killed yer.”
This man with long lank hair was obviously the leader so Scott addressed his questions to him. “Are you going to let us in on this plan of yours? You have obviously already stolen anything of value we had on us. Yet we’re still alive. And being held prisoner. So what is it exactly that you’re after?”
“You reckon that Mex is really his brother, Eiberger?”
Although taking offense at the older man’s comment, and much as he longed to leap to his brother’s defence, Scott wasn’t prepared to give anything away. He looked at Johnny who so far showed no signs of joining the conversation and wondered what he was planning. A slight grin curved Johnny’s lips but his eyes were cold and deadly. Ice glittered in their depths and Scott knew if their captors had any idea who they were facing they would find many reasons to feel uncomfortable.
Scott ignored the older man and directed himself back to the leader. “I asked you what you’re after.”
Before responding the man pushed his greasy hair out of his eyes and smiled. “It’s like this,” he began. “We know you have a rich daddy – the name Lancer is well-known around these parts. Well, we plan on helpin’ you share some of that wealth. One of yers is gonna take a ride with us to the bank at Sequoia Springs and make a little withdrawal. It seems a Lancer boy oughtta be able to get hold of two thousand dollars in gold no trouble. And that bank has easy that much in its safe. And meanwhile we keep the other boy here – a little insurance policy yer might say. See, if’n we don’t return by sundown the other son dies. Now I’m sure neither of you boys would want to go home to Daddy and tell him how you lost your brother.”
“And once you have the money – and get back here before sunset?” Scott already knew the answer but wanted to hear what the man had to say.
The drooling youngster gave a truncated snicker. “We let yers go. Pure and simple.”
Scott’s opinion of this statement was confirmed by Johnny’s almost inaudible snort. He looked at his still unspeaking brother then stated, “It seems we have little choice in the matter. Let’s get it over with.”
Johnny looked up then with a stare that chilled Scott every time he witnessed it.
“There were four guns being cocked before we were knocked out,” stated Johnny quietly, “but there are only three of you here. Now, none of you wears two guns. So where’s your friend?”
Shocked by the intuitiveness of Johnny’s observation, the leader’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Come on out, Loco.” Noiselessly, the Indian who had been outside McMillan’s that morning now stood before them. “This is Loco. He’s an Injun. But I guess you can see that. Loco’s gonna be the one to wait here and look after one of yers. He owns a gun but he don’t like to use it. He likes his bow and arrow. Trouble is, he ain’t too good with it. If we’re not back by sundown it’s prob’ly gonna be a long, slow death for the one of you left behind.” He sniggered. “I don’t reckon either of you will give us any trouble in town ‘less yer want to take yer brother home stuck full of arrows.”
At this chilling pronouncement Scott shared a solemn look with his brother tied beside him. Their understanding needed no words. He turned back to the men before him. “Which of us are you taking to town?”
The older man produced a knife and with stunning speed slashed out between the two brothers’ chests. Scott suddenly found himself stumbling forward.
“Wouldn’t make much sense to trust the gunslinger now, would it?” Once again the man who had been leading the conversation pushed his hair out of his eyes. “Git him on a horse. If he gives you trouble, just throw him over the saddle and tie him down.”
This last comment was directed at the other two men. Between them they hoisted Scott up onto the saddle of a horse the Indian had brought around. Scott’s hands were tied to the saddle horn and they jammed a sack over his head. Though the coarse fabric caused his face to itch and made him want to sneeze violently, Scott knew the alternative would have been much worse. He also knew any false move would have dire consequences for himself and his brother. Now virtually blind, he heard the squeak of leather as others apparently settled themselves into their saddles then he felt his horse’s reins tugged as his mount was turned in several clockwise circles, disorienting him before being led away at a slow trot.
The leader’s final words echoed against the rocks behind. “Remember, sundown he dies.”
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
The Ties that Bind
After fruitless attempts to dislodge or even loosen the ropes that bound him, Johnny had to face the fact that escape would not come in this manner. The ropes were not clumsily tied. He suspected the Indian had played a part in trussing him. He gathered his wits and decided on another tactic. He sensed the Indian was nearby even though he hadn’t been in sight for some time and there was no noise to give away his whereabouts.
“Hey!” he called out. “Loco! A man’d die of thirst before sundown.”
The Indian appeared before him, unsmiling, an arrow notched in his bow.
“Come on,” persuaded Johnny. “You know these ropes are secure. Just a little water. Please?”
The Indian carefully placed his weapon on the ground several feet from Johnny and moved temporarily from sight. When he returned he had a canteen in his hand. He stepped closer to Johnny and tugged on his ropes. Only when certain his prisoner wasn’t going anywhere did he hold the canteen up to Johnny’s mouth. As he slurped thirstily at the fountain of water much was lost down Johnny’s chest and he relished the cooling effect that had. As he swallowed he considered his next move.
“Thanks. I don’t want to go on calling you Loco. What’s your real name?” He leant over awkwardly to wipe his mouth on his shoulder. “I took you for a Cahuilla. Is that right?”
He thought for a moment the Indian was simply going to ignore him but his patience was eventually rewarded as he saw the Indian stand just a little straighter.
“The white men are too lazy to say my name. It is ‘Noconah’.
“Noconah.” Johnny tried to copy the inflexion the Indian had used. “Noconah. Doesn’t sound like any Cahuilla name I’ve heard before. I guess I was wrong then. You’re pretty far north for Cahuilla anyway.”
“You are not wrong. I am Cahuilla. But Noconah is Comanche name.” The Indian’s pride was evident in the straight back and stiff shoulders. He held his head high and stared down his nose at the gunhawk.
“Noconah, you sure get around. A Cahuilla man with a Comanche name here in Sequoia Springs? How’d you manage that?”
It was as though a mask descended over the Indian’s face and Johnny knew he’d gone too far too soon. The Indian turned, picked up his bow and arrow, and stalked out of Johnny’s sight, leaving him to contemplate his next attempt at freedom. He leant his head back against the tree and feigned disinterest, well aware that the Indian’s eyes still remained fixed on him.
= = = = = = =
Scott had been relieved to see that it was his own horse, Shiloh, that had been brought around for him. Being familiar with the animal made it somewhat easier to ignore the discomfort of the ride towards town. And ignore it he did so as to focus all his attention on what was required. His every sense was working overtime. Despite the sack over his head he tried desperately to take in every sound and smell he could. He kept track of how long they were riding and at what pace. He noticed the change in ground underfoot and noted the hills they rode over. He tried to gauge the passage of the sun as it shifted ever so slightly from directly overhead to a position over his right shoulder, and to judge the difference between wooded land and open ground. He knew he’d have little hope of escaping his captors before they reached town but he wanted to be ready to make his way back to his brother as soon as he found any means of escape.
Finally the ride was over. They scrambled to a halt and Scott felt the rough cloth dragged from his head. He blinked as his eyes grew accustomed to the sudden glare. When he could focus he found himself staring at three pistols. The older man threw his gun to the young one then reached over and untied Scott’s hands. Scott flexed his fingers and shook his hands, trying to rub some feeling back into them. As he was doing so, he surreptitiously looked around at the direction from which they had come and the position of the sun in the sky.
“I take it we’re near town. So tell me, just how do you think you’re going to get away with walking into a bank with guns drawn?”
“Pure and simple, boy. We don’t need that. We got your brother and if we’re not back in time he’s a dead man. You don’t even know where he’s bein’ held so you’d better just behave. After all, what’s a couple of thousand dollars against your brother’s life?”
As much as Scott longed to believe the man, he knew both he and Johnny were dead as soon as these men got their gold. In fact, for all he knew Johnny was already dead. The best he could hope for was to elude his captors before they had the chance to kill him and then make his way back to his brother before they could sound any alarm so he only had to deal with the Indian. It all sounded so easy when he put it that way. He smiled up at them and took the initiative. “Let’s do this.” He led the way over the rise before them, the only logical direction to head in.
= = = = = = = =
“Noconah!” Johnny called. “Any chance of more water?”
Again the Indian appeared silently before him and placed his weapon on the ground before checking the ropes. He held the canteen at an angle so Johnny could drink easily. Once Johnny had had enough he raised his head and allowed more of the water to spill down his chest again. He licked his lips.
“Thank you. It seems I’ve wet my shirt.” He saw the Indian’s gaze drift down to his chest and a slight squinting of his eyes assured Johnny that the man had indeed caught a glimpse of the beads he wore around his neck, under his shirt.
“I know the Cahuilla, Noconah. They are a proud people, a good people. I can think of very few reasons why a man would leave such a tribe. And even fewer reasons he would take a Comanche name. You truly are “One who Wanders”.
This pronouncement evidently surprised the Indian, as it was meant to do. He narrowed his eyes and stared down on his prisoner. Gruffly he demanded, “Who are you? You are no rich rancher’s son. How do you know these things?”
“I’d be happy to share my story with you, Noconah. But it comes at a cost.” Johnny met the Indian’s gaze and held it, the intensity of his honesty shining within their depths. “Let me loose. I’m an honourable man, Noconah. Trust me.”
= = = = = = =
The bank was cool and dark after the fierce heat outside. Scott strode confidently to the counter, ignoring the lengthy queue lined up before the only teller serving customers. Two other men were working, heads bowed, at desks behind the counter and beyond them Scott could see an office where the manager obviously sat surveying his business.
Scott cleared his throat then announced in a loud and resolute voice, “My name is Scott Lancer and I wish to withdraw two thousand dollars in gold.”
A woman in the queue to his left started to fan herself furiously and the man behind her gasped audibly. The clerks looked up with alacrity from their work, paying little attention to the greasy-haired man standing close to Scott’s left side. One of the clerks was obviously a little faster on his feet and he scurried obsequiously towards Scott.
“Mr Lancer, we’d be honoured to have your business but, um, er, there are ways to do this and I’m not sure I can…”
“Sir,” replied Scott staunchly, “I suggest you take me through to your manager so we can discuss this in private.”
Scott knew this was not at all what Eiberger had planned and he could see the man’s displeasure at losing his assumed control of the situation.
“I don’t see how that’s necessary. Just leave us here, go get the gold and we’ll be on our way.” Eiberger was almost stammering at this point.
However, as foreseen, the clerk had been offered a way to absolve himself of the responsibility of dealing with this unforeseen and highly irregular event and he clutched at it. “Right this way, sir.” He ushered Scott through to the back room and Eiberger was obliged to force his way in with them.
As soon as Eiberger passed through the doorway Scott slammed his elbow into the man’s stomach, sending him crashing backwards and making the partition shudder. Scott rained down blow after blow as he fought to disarm his captor but Eiberger was not readily giving up. With no thought but to subdue the man Scott kneed him in the groin and was rewarded when Eiberger dropped heavily to the ground, writhing in pain. Scott scooped up the fallen man’s gun and brought it down upon his captor’s head. Satisfied that his opponent was out cold, Scott hurriedly checked the rounds. Only then did he remember the manager and clerk. “He was going to rob the bank,” Scott tossed sharply over his shoulder to the two men.
Scott became aware of the screams coming from one of the women in the bank and knew the noise would have already alarmed the two brothers left waiting outside with the horses. He quickly rushed back through the bank, grabbing another gun from one dumbfounded bystander, but as he launched himself through the doorway and rolled to his left he saw only dust. With despair he realized the other two outlaws were probably on their way back to Johnny. And now they had Shiloh and Eiberger’s horse as spare mounts as well.
= = = = = = =
No sooner had Noconah loosened his ropes than Johnny launched himself at the still wary Indian. Johnny drove him into the ground but this man was no stranger to tussles. Before Johnny could land a decent blow the Indian had slithered out from under Johnny and regained his feet, kicking out at Johnny’s ribs. The first kick connected and Johnny felt the air forced from his lungs. Half scrambling to his feet, Johnny eluded the second kick and used the man’s momentarily unbalanced stance to knock him down again. Rolling over and over, each man managed to pummel the other with a desperation that only comes when fighting to the death.
A knife appeared in the Indian’s hand and Johnny felt an iciness slash across his already painful ribs. Using his opponent’s momentum against him, Johnny pivoted and grabbed the knife hand, continuing with the arc of the knife until it met the Indian’s own left arm. Wrestling with the knife between them, both men fought for possession of the lethal weapon.
Panting heavily the men circled, looking for an advantage. Johnny watched Noconah, seeking a sign of the inevitable attack. He saw the thought as it flashed through the Indian’s eyes. As Noconah charged Johnny stepped to the left and stuck out a booted foot, sending the Indian sprawling. Noconah sought to regain his footing but Johnny launched himself at the man, driving the air from his lungs. Johnny’s hands sought and found the knife.
Both men struggled for dominance, the deadly blade flashing between them in the mid-afternoon sun. Suddenly the blade found a target, sinking deep into flesh, tearing muscle from bone. A shrill scream rent the air and one man grabbed his abdomen.
= = = = = = = =
Scott burst through the door of the livery. “Kessler!” he called.
The man appeared from within the stall he’d been raking, a look of surprise making his already round features appear even wider. He searched the area behind Scott, obviously looking for the man’s deadly companion, but the gunhawk was not to be seen and Kessler turned his attention curiously on Scott.
“I don’t have time to explain,” gasped Scott. “My brother’s held captive and I have to get to him now. I need a horse and I need you to confirm which direction from here there’s a big hill covered in large boulders. It’s a bit over an hour’s ride from here and you pass through a wooded area and need to crest three hills…”
Kessler was already saddling a bay gelding as he listened to the clues Scott was providing. “That’ll be Koburg’s Rocks – northwest of here. The road takes you north a-ways out of town, then you strike out due west at a big old stand of trees in a hollow. Hardly looks like a road though. You have to keep your eyes peeled.”
That made sense of what Scott had already deduced.
The flurry of activity as they prepared the big bay was really quite orderly for all the haste. Scott checked the girth one last time then threw himself into the saddle. Kessler had fetched a shotgun and managed to pass it to him along with a canteen as Scott whirled the horse in the direction of the door.
“Can you let your sheriff know what’s happening? I’ve left a man wounded at the bank. And I’ve taken another man’s gun. I don’t want to appear to be a fugitive, I just need to get back to my brother right now. I can’t wait. But I will come back,” assured Scott.
“And I know you’ll have my horse with you when you do,” agreed Kessler. “Don’t you worry none. I’ll go set the sheriff straight. Right now.”
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
The Ties That Bind
Johnny paused to draw a lungful of air into his aching chest before addressing the unconscious man at his feet. “I’m sorry Noconah,” he explained aloud, “but an honorable man has a duty to escape his captors and return to his tribe. I thought you’d know that.” He then stumbled over to the tree and retrieved the ropes that lay loosely coiled at its base.
Despite hands slippery with blood, Johnny managed to drag the Indian up to the tree and tie him there, his next task being to make good his escape. Relieved to see Scott given his own horse for the ride to town, Johnny figured they had been brought here on their own horses and that Barranca had to be tied up somewhere nearby. He hadn’t heard a horse since the others had left and so knew he would need to look beyond the makeshift camp situated between the tree and the rocks behind it. Johnny calculated there had to be a more permanent camp established somewhere up in the rocks, in a canyon perhaps, and there he hoped to find Barranca and, if he was lucky, a weapon. When he got closer he’d let loose a whistle and listen for a response. He had every confidence the golden stallion would heed his call.
Understanding the need to get far away as soon as possible, he lit out towards the rock-strewn hills just a short distance away.
= = = = = = = = =
The sturdy gelding carried Scott with mile-eating speed but still the two men he was in pursuit of were nowhere in sight. He had not dared risk leaving the road any earlier than the turn-off for fear of missing the track and he prayed that the others, if they were also on this path, had similar concerns. He couldn’t let himself consider the possibility that they were so familiar with the area they would be able to follow a shorter route. If they knew of such a short cut they could have used it by now and, worse yet, they may have already reached Johnny. But surely they would have used any short cut they knew of when they’d escorted him to town. He shrugged off the thought and comforted himself with the knowledge that, either way, there should be some evidence of their passing.
When he finally crested the last hill before the valley he had to cross, he had a clear view for many miles. There was not even a trace of dust billowing from the hooves of fleeing horses. It was this sign that finally convinced Scott that his luck had changed. He had been hoping all along that the men were cowardly enough to worry more about their own hides than taking out their revenge on his brother. Now it seemed that they truly were on their way in the opposite direction and that he’d only have the Indian between himself and Johnny. He spurred the bay on but, even with that one less worry, Scott’s thoughts were still in turmoil so he forced himself to clear his mind and concentrate on the problem at hand in a more measured and objective way.
Panicking was not going to help his brother and storming into a situation without preparation could simply lead to disaster. First, he had to take care of the horse. Blindly pushing the animal to carry him faster and faster would achieve nothing. As much as his heart urged him on, his mind forced him to slacken his pace for a while to conserve the horse’s strength. As his momentum slowed he took the opportunity to slow his mind as well and calmly consider his options. He took stock of his weapons. He had the shotgun Kessler had armed him with and two hand guns, but no extra ammunition. Not bad, but could be better. And, to his advantage, he had a pretty good idea of the lay of the land between where he was now and where Johnny was being held, though he despaired at the lack of cover.
After formulating, and casting aside, many plans he came to the conclusion he would have to ride miles out of his way in order to come at the place from within the shelter of the rocks. Using his heels, he urged the horse forward into a gallop again and veered off to reach the hills from the south.
= = = = = = = = =
Sheriff Jolley stood back to make room for the doctor to examine the unconscious man. Once again he addressed the bank manager who was nervously hovering nearby. “Mr Hollis, I need you to tell me exactly what went on here. From the beginning.”
“I told you, Sheriff, I have no idea. It was my clerk who dealt with these… gentlemen.” He stumbled over the word, obviously still having difficulty coming to terms with what had occurred just minutes before.
“Harvey,” yelled the sheriff to the clerk who had been instructed to wait outside. “Get back in here now, will ya?”
Returning to the room, Harvey responded, “Yes Sheriff?”
“First, tell me whether I need to hold this man in custody.”
“I really don’t think that’s my place to say,” Harvey replied, still not keen to take responsibility for any decisions being made.
Rapidly losing his temper, the sheriff exploded, “Can anybody tell me what happened here? The peace has been disturbed and I need to know who’s to blame and why.”
“Well,” Harvey nervously began, “I can tell you that a Mr. Scott Lancer, the man who took off, wanted to withdraw a lot of money. Being as it was so much money, I brought him through here and this fellow,” he motioned towards the prone figure before them, “came with him, but no sooner were we through the door than they started fighting. Then that Lancer bloke knocked him out and took off out of here.”
“That’s it Sheriff,” agreed Hollis. “That’s just the way it happened.”
The sheriff removed his hat and scratched behind his ear as he pondered his next move. “Describe this Lancer.”
Hollis and Harvey looked at each other.
“I didn’t really get a very good look,” demurred Hollis.
A heavy sigh from the sheriff encouraged Harvey to offer his assessment. “He’s tall, taller then you, Sheriff, and he has straight blond hair. Very thin, but strong. He sure took this fellow out.” Harvey pointed at the unconscious man on the floor and, by doing so, drew their attention to the doctor tending him.
“As I was saying, Sheriff,” repeated the doctor. “Do you intend to hold this man? I need to determine where I’m to treat him.”
The sheriff was annoyed at himself for being so distracted as to miss the doctor’s initial query. “Get him to the cell, Doc. Deal with him there until I get back. You know where to leave the key.” As the sheriff strode purposefully from the room, he ordered his young deputy hovering nearby, “Go get Will and Tomas. I reckon we’ll need a posse.”
Once they were safely out of earshot, Harvey commented sourly, “Sheriff sure seemed a mite displeased. I don’t think he’s very happy with us.”
“Sheriff Jolley rarely seems to live up to his name,” remarked Hollis. “But this is no time to worry about whether our lawman is happy about performing his duties or not. We have our own duties to perform now. Quick Harvey, we must get back to the customers and reassure them, let them know their money is quite safe with us.” With that, they left the doctor to his own duties.
As Harvey and Hollis left the bank manager’s office the town’s livery man pushed through the bank’s front door, against the exiting flow of customers.
“Where’s the sheriff?” panted Kessler to everyone within hearing, “I need to let him know what’s happened here.”
“You’ve just missed him,” replied Hollis. He’s getting a posse together.”
“Oh no! Lancer’s not at fault here. His brother’s being held prisoner and he’s gone after him. He needs the sheriff’s help. I said I’d let him know.”
They heard him mutter under his breath as he fled from the bank, “God grant me speed.”
= = = = = = = =
Jeb and Nat had ridden hard to get back to their camp, swapping to the fresh mounts they had been leading behind them in order to make good time. Jeb had figured their only hope in retrieving something from this dismal plan was to keep the captive brother as a hostage, or maybe a ransom, and get away as soon as possible. Once they made it into the hills the rocky ground would make it almost impossible to track them, giving them a chance to lay an ambush.
From a distance they could see the man tied to the tree but as they drew closer realization hit Jeb like a blow to the stomach. “Damn! Lancer’s gone. That there’s Loco tied up.”
“You reckon we should just take off, Jeb?” asked his younger brother. Nervously he eyed their surroundings. He was unsure if the former prisoner was still in the area, possibly now armed, and the uncertainty filled him with dread.
“Got no choice now, Nat. We made good time gettin’ here. Now we come this far, better find out if Loco’s still alive. Get him to tell us what happened.”
They spurred their horses on, covering the distance in quick time before stopping in a swirl of dust at the tree. No sooner were they off their horses than Nat pulled his knife from his belt and cut away the bloodied ropes binding the Indian to the tree. Blood still oozed thickly from a wound in the Indian’s lower abdomen.
“Guess we won’t be usin’ those ropes again,” grumbled Jeb as he took the canteen from his saddle horn and joined his brother who had eased the injured man down to the ground. “Here, take this.”
Nat splashed water onto the prone man’s face and was rewarded with a sharp gasp from their stricken comrade. Noconah shook hi s head as if to clear the fog engulfing him then struggled to regain his feet. Nat gripped the Indian’s shoulder in an effort to help the man but found his aid proudly rejected.
“What happened, Loco? That Lancer get the drop on you somehow? You losin’ your touch?” Nat appeared to take rather more delight in this knowledge than might have been expected, under the circumstances, but Noconah’s steely glare convinced Nat to abandon this attitude.
Noconah’s expression changed from bewilderment to burning anger. Wiping the water from his eyes he struggled to his feet, wheezing from the pain the effort caused him. He placed a hand firmly over his wound and sucked in a deep breath as he thrust the pain away. He reached for the reins of the nearest horse and raised himself with less grace than usual into the saddle. “Come. To the hills. He cannot have made it far. And he has no gun. He will pay for this.”
Reassured that their former captive was unarmed and therefore less of a threat, Jeb and Nat re-mounted and followed Noconah the short distance to the rocks ahead.
= = = = = = = =
The small posse of four men was closing in on Koburg’s Rocks. “Remember,” the sheriff’s voice, raised to carry over the noise of their approach, sounded hoarse and ragged. “Kessler says there’s two Lancer men, and we don’t know how many others who we assume are the outlaws, so we go in looking for answers.”
The other three, hearts thumping, palms sweating, merely nodded their assent, anxious to reach their goal.
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
The Ties That Bind
Nat was peering over Noconah’s shoulder. “How come yer can’t find him, Loco? Thought you Injuns was good at trackin’. Seems to me it oughtn’t be this hard. Yer said he was hurt.”
Jeb’s hand came down heavily on his brother’s shoulder. “Shut up, boy. Let him look.”
Nat’s scowl betrayed his displeasure at being rebuked and he petulantly scuffed at the dirt at his feet.
“This way,” declared Noconah suddenly, and he scooted over the rocks and away to his right, the excitement of the chase helping overcome his discomfort.
= = = = = = =
Having made it as quickly as he could to the shelter of the rocks, Johnny was faced with a decision as to which way to head. It was now late afternoon and the sun was dipping in the sky. He turned towards the northwest and clambered diagonally up the hillside, taking advantage of whatever cover he could find. He believed there had to be a camp hidden somewhere in these hills and he was determined to find it so he climbed ever higher. When he reached a high point of the rocks he found a crevice to conceal himself in while he took stock of his surroundings. Ahead of him lie more hills, more rocks, but no sign of a canyon or a camp. Looking back the way he had come, he caught sight of four horses tied near the base of the hill, one of them Shiloh, and, not far from them, the trio tracking him. His heart sank. After gaining the upper hand in their struggle, he’d looked for the gun he assumed the Indian carried but had found no trace of it. He had left Noconah’s bow and arrows back at the tree and cursed himself now for his stupidity as he had nothing with which to defend himself other than the knife he had wrestled from the Indian. As there were three of them it eliminated the possibility of using the blade at a distance. As tired and hurt as he was, he could only see flight or fight in his future.
Remaining concealed he scanned the landscape around him. Riding in at a fast clip from the tree which had been his prison were four horsemen. He had apparently escaped just in time as these were probably reinforcements come to watch his execution. He would soon have seven men after him and he didn’t like the odds. Bowed but not beaten, he continued to search the hillside for some hope and he found it. His heart soared and he smiled at the sight of a lone man clambering stealthily over rocks far to the south of him and hidden from his pursuers. He knew his brother would never abandon him – he just hadn’t expected him to be quite this soon in returning. Knowing he couldn’t attract his attention from this distance, and considering how to avoid giving away his brother’s position, Johnny looked for a route that would lead him towards Scott yet keep clear of the men behind him. Seven to two seemed like much better odds to him.
Suddenly a shot rang out, echoing among the rocks, and Johnny watched with horror as his brother fell to the ground. He willed Scott to raise his head, move to better cover, show some sign he was alive, but it didn’t happen. Heedless now of his own safety, Johnny hurtled south along the ridgeline towards his brother.
= = = = = = =
“Were you listening? What did I say to you?” After they took shelter at the base of the hillside before them, the sheriff’s fury was unleashed on his young deputy. “Of all the stupid… Just who did you think you were shooting at? And why? Were we being shot at? I swear, Silas, if your pa were here he’d tan your hide for that fool act.”
The sheriff removed his hat and chanced a look in the direction his deputy had fired. He saw no movement there but scanning across the hills before him he saw a small number of men, no more than three, running as fast as the loose ground underfoot would let them. Throwing himself back behind cover, he tried to work out what he’d gotten himself into.
The sheriff cursed under his breath. There was no sight of the young blond man. Apparently the deputy had hit his target, not that he was a very good marksman. There was only one way to be sure, yet that would have to wait until the situation was under control.
He raised his head again. A sudden movement to his right caught his eye. A dark-haired man was making his way in the direction of the fallen man and in pursuit of him were the three other men he had already spotted. It was becoming more and more difficult to determine the innocents from the perpetrators and the sheriff felt his temper rising. He hated confusion and disorder. He was a fastidious sort and firmly believed everything had a place and everything should be in its place. These men, who had descended upon his quiet town and caused such a commotion, were grating on his nerves. With a heavy sigh, he swallowed his anger and turned to the men in his posse.
“Stay behind me,” he ordered, growing ever more furious with his deputy’s precipitous action. “And keep that gun pointed in the other direction.”
With that, a second shot rang out.
= = = = = = = =
Moving hastily to put distance between himself and his trigger-happy pursuers, once again Scott stumbled and fell to his hands and knees, the loose dirt mocking his attempts at stealth. Ignoring the blood and the gravel embedded in his palms, he scrambled up the last remaining feet and hunkered within the shelter of a boulder to gain his breath. He removed his hat and cautiously raised his head. He believed he had a fix on the group of four men who had taken a shot at him from the base of the hill. He desperately wanted to believe they were a posse, despite the fact they had shot at him. As long as they were a posse he might have a chance to explain what had happened and try to garner their support. He wanted to believe Kessler had made it to the sheriff and told him of their predicament because the alternative, that these men were not law enforcement officers but rather reinforcements, sent to oversee his brother’s execution, left him with little hope.
Whatever they may be, knowing himself to be well concealed from them at the moment, he looked away from the group of men below and continued to search for signs of his brother. Directly above their position he saw movement as two, perhaps three, men passed from shadow to shadow. And then there, high ahead of him, not two hundred yards away, was his brother scrambling incautiously in his direction. His relief at seeing Johnny alive gave way to shock as the second shot rang out and his brother whirled on the spot then disappeared behind the ridge.
The puff of smoke left him with no doubt the culprits were the men he had seen flitting between the shadows and they were now closing in on Johnny faster then he could hope to reach his fallen brother. Fighting the panic he felt threatening to rise within him, he looked back to the men below to gauge their reaction to their shot. As the man in the lead turned in his direction he ducked back behind the boulder. Even as he made the move he cursed himself, knowing that in such a situation it is often better to freeze. Obviously his worry at Johnny’s predicament was causing him to act rashly. Not for the first time today, he reminded himself he had to stay calm and think clearly if he was to be able to get them both out of trouble. Leaning back against the rock that was his shelter, the ragged gasps that caught in his throat subsided and he contemplated his next move, not knowing if his brother was dead or alive. Whatever he decided, he knew that speed was clearly of the essence.
Risking attracting another shot, Scott craned his neck so he could trace the path of the men on his brother’s tail. Seeing them headed directly for the ridgeline, he quickly scanned the area and managed to trace a roughly parallel, yet concealed, path for himself that would see him reaching the summit first, if a little south of their position. His brother needed him. And he needed his brother.
Scott continued his stealthy approach. Dread was rising in his heart, despair that he would find his brother dead whispered in his mind. A scuffling sound to his right sent him quickly to his belly. He waited with bated breath and heard them. The Indian and his accomplices were close, the breeze carrying the unmistakable sound of victory in Nat’s voice. His heart sank as the realization that Johnny was dead filled his mind. He was too late, but he pushed on regardless.
His breath was coming in sharp gasps from the exertion and fear was a tight knot in his belly. He slid to a stop where he thought Johnny should have been and struggled to pull in air. The area was deserted but he could see where a man had lain. A small trace of blood was dripping from the stone to the ground. Scott gulped in another breath, and wiped his hand across his face. Johnny had been here and was bleeding, but not heavily. Had he been strong enough to pull himself to a more secure position? Where would he have gone?
Scott scanned the hillside beyond, one hand shielding his eyes from the glare of the setting sun. Using his tactical training from his days in the war, he plotted the most likely course and began to climb a gentle slope of the track. Assured now that he was heading in the right direction, Scott began to move faster.
= = = = = = = =
Johnny scrambled down the steep embankment, seeking cover. That second shot had been way too close. He hadn’t been mindful of his own predicament as he’d been concentrating on making it to where he had last seen Scott. He wasn’t about to let him down. However, he knew that if they were to have any hope of escape he needed something more than the knife he carried. He counted on his resourceful brother to have acquired a weapon of some kind.
Johnny was intently making his way to where he believed his brother had been when he was shot, but he had lost sight of precisely where Scott had fallen. Worse yet, he had seen no movement from the location where he had calculated his brother should be. With each passing moment he knew Scott could be bleeding to death, if indeed the shot had not been immediately fatal. Johnny fought down the rising panic and struggled to concentrate on the precarious footing of the trail.
Madrid was losing his grip and that realization further fuelled Johnny’s urge for haste. Fear was overwhelming his senses and becoming a very real liability. Johnny had found Madrid’s strength, and now his weakness; his brother. Damn, he thought again. I just found him, I can’t lose him.
Too late he realized he had dislodged some loose shale, sending rock sliding down the hillside and disturbing the unnatural quiet. Damn, he had given away his position and Noconah would be bearing down on him. Stealth was no longer his best course of action so he ran for the nearest boulder, determined to put as much distance as possible between himself and the Indian before continuing his search for his brother. Once he had the security of shelter from his pursuers he could resume his covert behaviour.
He was only mere feet from cover when a third shot rang out. Numbed by the knowledge he had failed his brother Johnny dropped as darkness claimed him.
= = = = = = =
When the third shot rang out, Scott ducked behind the nearest boulder, fully believing he was the intended target again. But no bullet hit near him. Suspiciously at first, then ever fearfully, he risked lifting his head above the huge stone. He calculated Johnny’s position and was horrified to see him lying in an unnatural angle against a boulder.
Mixing caution with haste, Scott began to climb, peering every so often to verify his own position and seek out his brother’s. As he gained higher ground his hopes seemed to rise commensurately. Surely he was getting closer and closer to his brother and any moment now he would be by his side, ready to present a united front. He refused to believe that Johnny wouldn’t be fine once he reached him. But again fate dealt him a cruel blow. Coming from the other side of the boulder he had taken shelter behind, Scott heard a very faint scrabbling sound. So light was the sound he wondered if it could possibly be a man. Surely a lizard would have made more noise. No, there it was again. This time he was sure it was a man, and a man adept at stealthy manoeuvres. It had to be the Indian. Scott held his breath and tensed, waiting for the man to show himself. Move right or left? He had to take a gamble, a gamble that would bring him face-to-face with his pursuer if he chose poorly.
= = = = = = =
The throbbing of his shoulder awakened Johnny as the numbness wore off and the pain intensified. Reluctantly he fought off the darkness and began to climb out of the pit of unconsciousness, wrestling with the desire to submit to its comforting emptiness. Instinctively, he knew he had to take cover, there was danger lurking nearby. Gritting his teeth against the increasing pain in his left shoulder, he rose on unsteady feet and set off to reach his brother.
A footfall told him the man was near, stalking him, hunting him. The Indian. I should have finished him off when I had the chance, Johnny thought. Now Noconah was tracking him and the advantage would be all his. Johnny’s hand instinctively went to his hip and touched only cloth where his rig should have been. Fighting to remain calm and conserve what strength he might have left, Johnny pulled the Indian’s knife from his belt where he had secreted it earlier. It was all he had and it would have to do. Dios help me, he whispered, his thoughts once more returning to Scott. His brother was still out there, injured or worse.
The footsteps grew closer. The man was making no effort to conceal his approach. Anger coursed through Johnny’s heart, the resulting adrenaline feeding his body with the energy needed to stave off the impending attack.
= = = = = = =
Keeping his back to the rock, Scott stealthily edged his way to his right, leaving his gun hand free to cover the left as well, should his opponent make his way around the boulder in that direction. He cursed himself silently for not having cocked his weapon already, but he had confidence in his ability to stop this man in his tracks regardless. Just two more steps would surely bring him face-to-face with his adversary. He realised he still hadn’t drawn breath and he opened his mouth wide to ensure no noise carried. One more step remained. He held the gun high and ready. He was now certain he had chosen the right direction. As he took the last step he cocked his gun and thrust it roughly in the man’s neck. “Freeze!” he ordered. And his order was greeted with a laugh.
He slowly released the hammer. “I hardly think it’s a laughing matter. I could have killed you.”
His brother’s blue eyes sparkled back at him. “Not likely, Boston. I got you covered.”
A slight pressure, felt in his abdomen, forced Scott to lower his gaze. A lethal-looking knife was clearly aimed to cause him damage.
“Perhaps we could call it a draw, little brother,” his own laughter now joining his brother’s as they lowered weapons and shared a bear hug fierce enough to say what words would never attempt. Scott broke the embrace and held Johnny at arm’s distance. He took the knife from the lax hand and studied Johnny, assessing his injuries. Johnny’s face glistened with sweat and blood dripped down his left arm.
Johnny stared blankly at his sibling, a slow smile creasing his face. “We made it Boston.” Then his eyes closed and he gave in to the darkness. The last thing he knew was Scott’s arms wrapping around him.
= = = = = = = = =
The sheriff adjusted his track yet again and came upon the three men just ahead. There was no sign of the dark-haired young man and the sheriff was disappointed in his performance. While in the keeping of law and order casualties were often to be expected, he had felt confident he would be able to capture the outlaws and save these two drifters. Oh well, he thought. It was still all in a day’s work. He would at least have the satisfaction of knowing he would be bringing in the wannabe thieves. With a nod to his deputies, he raised his gun and stepped into the open.
“You men, just hold it right there,” the sheriff ordered gruffly. “Hands where I can see them.”
Jeb, Nat and their Indian companion froze in place, then slowly turned to face the lawman and his posse.
“Now sheriff,” Jeb drawled slowly, “We wasn’t doin’ nothin’. Ya wouldna begrudge a man doin’ some huntin’ now wouldya?”
“Depends on what their prey is.” The sheriff nodded to his deputy. “Take their guns, Silas. Go easy there.”
Cautiously the deputy approached the three men, his eyes never leaving Jeb’s face. He reached out tentatively and took their weapons, then backed up toward the waiting posse whose guns were keeping the bandits covered.
Silas was a good man, eager to help out and do what was right but he had never been known for his grace. As was expected, or perhaps dreaded, Silas’ lack of coordination made itself known once again. His foot slipped on a small stone and he went sprawling. In the ensuing chaos the outlaws made a grab for their guns and all hell broke loose.
= = = = = = = = =
The unmistakable sounds of a gunfight shortened their reunion and spurred Scott into action. He took up a position where he could lend his own weapon to the fray. He saw the clumsy deputy fall, gripping his thigh, as men scrambled in all directions for cover. A shriek of pain and Nat went down, felled by the sheriff’s third round. Jeb was dragging his younger brother to safety behind a boulder that would keep them from the posse’s line of sight. Scott levelled his shotgun and squeezed the trigger. He was rewarded by a grunt of pain and Jeb went down next. As quickly as it had begun, the gun battle was over. Only one deputy had suffered a hit, but two outlaws lay wounded and Noconah stood proudly defiant, glaring at the remaining members of the posse who now surrounded him.
With a fierce stare, Noconah submitted as the sheriff tied his hands behind his back.
“You, Lancer, can you hear me?” The sheriff’s voice floated up towards Scott. “My name’s Jolley and I’m the sheriff of Sequoia Springs. I got these fellows in custody. Now I want you to come out with your hands where we can see them. I don’t want any surprises. I’ve had enough of them today. Just be slow and easy and we can all go home. I’m sorry about that shot before. I know you been helping us and for that I’m truly grateful.”
Still cradling his brother against his left hip, Scott raised his rifle high in the air and waved it, replying, “Can you help me, Sheriff? My brother’s hurt.”
= = = = = = = = = = = = =
The Ties that Bind
Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love;
the fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above.
Text: John Fawcett, 1740-1817
“I have to admit, you two sure know how to bring a little excitement to a place.” The sheriff tossed back his tequila in one gulp, grinning crookedly as the liquid seared his throat.
“You wouldn’t be the first one to accuse us of that, Sheriff.” Scott laughed. “I’m sure our father would readily see eye-to-eye with you on that score.”
“Yessiree, guess I been kinda bored with the job lately. You really only become a lawman if you’re looking for some excitement and it’s been a little quiet around here.” He stroked his stubble thoughtfully. “I reckon a little excitement must be good for the soul.”
“That may be,” agreed Scott, “but what we’ve just been through goes beyond ‘a little excitement’ in my opinion. That was less likely to be good for the soul and more likely to part body from soul.”
“Come on Scott. You’ve been asking about life in the West since you got here. Now you got a taste of it and you’re trying to tell us you didn’t enjoy it?” Johnny’s eyes twinkled wickedly. He pushed his hat back and shifted his left shoulder carefully. The sling shone white against his colourful red shirt, a stark reminder of their close brush with death.
“That’s not the kind of taste I was anticipating, and no, I don’t think it was particularly enjoyable. You could have been killed out there.” Scott looked sternly at his brother, and was pleased when Johnny lowered his eyes sheepishly.
“Hey, I was only picking at you, Scott. Don’t be so touchy.” Johnny’s voice was softer, and full of something Scott could not quite identify.
The sheriff rose. “All that aside, I would appreciate it if you gents would give my town a wide berth. At least for a while. I’ve had all the fun I can handle, until the marshal gets here.” He tipped his hat at the two Lancers and left the saloon, grinning broadly.
“So brother, are you ready to go home?” Scott pushed his chair back and stood staring down at the dark head.
Johnny remained seated, head down, thoughtfully chewing on the stampede strings of his hat. With a brief nod he finally rose, yet hesitated. Eyes, dark and brooding, met Scott’s concerned gaze. Johnny opened his mouth as if to speak then tightly clamped his jaw closed again.
“Something wrong? If your shoulder is bothering you too much we can wait another day before we head out. Or is it your ribs?” Scott searched Johnny for any sign of distress and was only slightly relieved when Johnny shrugged his good shoulder and started moving toward the door.
“I’m fine to ride. I got back to town on Barranca so getting home on him is hardly likely to be a problem.” He nodded in the direction of the bar. “Don’t forget it’s your turn to pay the man.”
Smiling at this sign that his brother was feeling more like himself, Scott flipped the bartender some coins then followed close behind his brother, ever watchful. He knew Johnny would not admit it if he were in too much pain or couldn’t handle the long ride that lie ahead of them. Stubborn to a fault, with unyielding pride, Madrid would never give in to a physical hindrance. Yet Scott was beginning to understand the gentler side of his brother. The alter-ego who was learning to relax in the presence of his family and, albeit reluctantly, accept their aid and support. This side of the persona was slowly becoming more and more apparent.
Johnny paused on the boardwalk outside the saloon, scanning the street with his customary sharp eye. Scott found himself relieved that his brother was exhibiting more of the mannerisms which Scott had come to expect.
With a casual stride Johnny went to Barranca’s side and, remarkably adeptly for a one-handed man, tightened the cinch. When he spoke his voice was soft and Scott strained to hear the words. “Scott, back there…”
“You don’t have to say it, Johnny.” Scott knew that an admission of helplessness would cost his brother dearly and he quickly interrupted to ease the burden of humility under which Johnny now struggled. But Johnny was not to be deterred.
“Yes Scott, I do. I’m just not so used to having someone to watch my back.” Johnny raised his gaze to Scott, the unidentified something once more swimming in their blue depths. “Or trusting them to do it.”
“Well get used to it, brother.” Scott grinned at his younger sibling and held his gaze.
Johnny’s eyes darkened, a curious expression flickered across his features. Once more Scott had the impression he was close to the answers he sought. The answer to the riddle that was the man before him.
“I’ll try Boston. I’ll…” Johnny’s voice broke and he lowered his head as if embarrassed by the admission he had almost allowed to slip through his tightly controlled demeanour. But the spoken words were not needed. As Johnny raised his head to meet his brother’s gaze once more, his dark eyes revealed the truth.
And there it was, the revelation Scott had longed for since he had met his brother. Like a flash of lightning in a dark sky, the realization of what had been smouldering deep in Johnny’s eyes hit Scott. He had discovered the key to the riddle, the answer to the puzzle that was Johnny Madrid Lancer. It was simply this; Johnny cared. This enigmatic young man cared about him. Scott knew he need search for an answer no longer.
There had been a glimpse of it months ago when Johnny had returned, at break-neck speed, from his reunion with Day Pardee. But at that time it had been too easy to be convinced that the surly young man was driven more by the lure of money and his professional obligation to meet his commitments. Now, the truth of the matter was clear. Scott smiled as he recalled the words to one of his favourite hymns.
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
our comforts and our cares.
We share each other’s woes,
our mutual burdens bear;
and often for each other flows
the sympathizing tear.
They were of kindred minds. The ties that now bound them were without contestation.
Aware that townsfolk were watching them curiously, Scott resisted the urge to clap his sibling on the shoulder. Settling for a knowing glance, Scott allowed Johnny his façade of strength. “Johnny, let’s go home.”
Scott waited until Johnny had settled in the saddle before he mounted his own horse. Reining his horse around, and biting back a grin at the puzzled expression that now covered his brother’s face, Scott asked, “Ready?”
Johnny nodded, spurring Barranca out of town. Scott urged Shiloh forward to match Johnny’s horse, stride for stride, as they raced out of town, headed for home and family.
Fliss and Lacy
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