Thanks to Cat, Rob, and Chris for the beta
Word count: 25,700
It happened again. He hadn’t meant to lose his temper, but as his younger son bucked the authority carelessly thrown in his face, Murdoch’s self-control deserted him and ran like wildfire in high wind. Violent words exploded; savage waves of whitewater rapids thundered, churned, chipped away, and ripped at the unstable foundation of their relationship, widening the chasm between father and son. Things were said that should have never been put to voice. And he now blamed himself for nearly pushing Johnny out the door. One of these days, Murdoch knew Johnny would not come back, that he would resume his old gunfighter, tumbleweed ways. Then, it would be a matter of time before he would hear that Madrid had met his match, was killed in a dusty street of some backwater town and died alone when he could have had a life with family at Lancer.
But, in his defense, Murdoch had to say something to make Johnny understand that he couldn’t cast aside his responsibilities at Lancer every time someone needed help. His first and foremost obligation was to the ranch. He was glad that Johnny took these situations seriously and volunteered to do his civic duty; still, he wasn’t the only citizen of Spanish Wells, Morro Coyo, or Green River capable of helping Sheriffs Crawford and Gabe when an issue arose. And every time it happened, Lancer was caught short-handed. Someone had to take over Johnny’s responsibilities while he went off and played hero!
Murdoch suddenly flinched at his thoughts! Would you listen to yourself?! He wanted to take back those hurtful things he heaped at Johnny’s feet, but now it was too late. Johnny was gone, and Murdoch wondered if he would come back. His gut clenched as the bitterness of his actions hit home. Would Johnny come back this time?
“Murdoch? Are you alright? You look like you need to sit down!”
Scott’s concern seemed out of place in the aftermath of the volatile and thunderous argument between Murdoch and his younger son; he knew he did not deserve the sympathy offered by Scott. And he felt sick and ashamed. He knew that he hurt Johnny with his accusal of ‘gallivanting off whenever the mood struck’, that he ‘neglected his obligations at Lancer’, but in truth, the only thing Johnny neglected was to come home and rest.
The morning before, Murdoch sent Johnny into town to deliver papers to Lancer’s attorney, Richard Randall, legalizing the recent land purchase; Johnny was then to send the documents to Sacramento to be filed. With the errand done, he stopped to visit Val Crawford, sheriff of Green River, and while there, a neighboring rancher, Mitch Bradley, hurried into the office with a report that several of his horses were stolen during the night and whoever was responsible for the theft, shot his foreman dead.
Johnny rode out with Val, picked up the tracks, and trailed the thieves as far as possible before losing them when it became too dark to see their hands in front of their faces. After returning to Green River, where a posse would start fresh the following day, Johnny stayed in town and returned to Lancer in the morning. With a late start to the work day, Johnny tangled with an irate Murdoch over his delinquency, the patriarch adamant that his recalcitrant son’s place was here, at the ranch.
The ensuing argument grew to volcanic proportions, leaving both father and son furious, as neither gave an inch of ground. Murdoch’s insistence that Johnny make the ranch his priority contradicted an earlier request that Johnny be more involved with the citizens and civic duties of the surrounding towns. The father wanting the best and most from his son, sent a confusing message that ensured the son would be in the wrong in whatever he did.
Johnny’s innate obligation to be there for whatever Val needed would overrule Murdoch Lancer’s chosen ignorance of Johnny’s and Val’s long association, a history of friendship and loyalty. Friendship was something that Johnny would put first and foremost. Loyalty as well. He couldn’t turn a blind eye when his amigo needed help; Johnny wouldn’t, couldn’t deny that help. And though he was struggling with his place in family life, Johnny knew, without any doubt, where he stood in his friendships. The fact that Val was his family before coming to Lancer and claiming his birthright would take precedence over Murdoch’s demanding and relentless commands. And there would be the arguments that were sure to divide the two men— the two men were so much alike, and neither would give an inch.
Once again, Scott knew he was caught in the middle; he felt instant support for his brother and knew he would have done the same had he been in Johnny’s boots and rode out with the lawman. Murdoch was dead wrong, and it was high time he knew it.
“Murdoch! Listen to yourself! Johnny was out chasing horse thieves and murderers! It wasn’t as if he was on a two-day drunk! If it’s his work you’re worried about, I’ll do his chores until he returns. You need to ease up on him, Murdoch, because the way you’re riding him, you’re going to run him off this ranch! And I wouldn’t blame him one bit!”
The words stung. The ‘Tune-Caller’ was wrong… again. Why were things so complicated when it came to Johnny? Why were they always at each other’s throats, at odds with everything Johnny did? It was not difficult dealing with Scott; why couldn’t Johnny be more like his brother?
The irritable and testy perspective followed him through the day, and the scowl on his face gave pause to any that approached. Everyone avoided him, hoping not to be Murdoch’s next ‘victim’. So toxic was he that the Stellar’s Jay in the tree above demonstrated its contempt and let loose with a large, sloppy dropping that seemed accurately aimed, landing on his shoulder to slide down his leather vest and splattered onto his hand. Dismissed as a sign to rein in his disagreeable mood, Murdoch exploded in a tirade of foul language that would make a drunk blush; he stormed across the yard and into the hacienda, leaving Jelly clutching his sides in debilitating laughter… exacerbating the boss’ nasty mood.
And so the day went on…
Johnny picked up the posse’s trail about five miles southwest of Green River; they hadn’t gotten far, losing the tracks in the rocks, leaving Val short-tempered and regretting his selection of posse members. Noting the absence of tracker Russell Westin, Johnny immediately understood the sheriff’s frustrations.
The smart-alec smile he wore did nothing to ease Val’s vexation but prompted the sheriff to divide up the men and send them down the trail and ultimately back to town. With no objections, the mama’s boy, a scared and timid youngster, the drifter, and partly sober town drunk, turned around to search for tracks in an area in the opposite direction. They knew they were dismissed, and mutterings of ‘better him than us’, ‘not paid ‘nough’, and a few other choice, unflattering remarks floated to Val’s ears. Relief coursed through him as he and Johnny were left alone to track the bandits.
“Glad ta see ya, Johnny…” Val said with a deep sigh.
“Where’s Russell?” Johnny asked through a smirk that set Val’s teeth on edge.
“Aw, he busted his leg. Gonna be laid up for a while, an’ them yahoo’s were the best I could find on short notice. Didn’t expect ta see ya, amigo, but glad ya got here. Thought I’d go crazy with that lot! Not a one of ‘em could do what needs bein’ done! Just how did their mamas birth such a sorry-assed bunch a…”
“Take it easy, Val, forget it. Let’s go; how hard can it be ta catch us some horse thieves?” Johnny soothed, having his fill of tantrums for the day. For a lifetime…
Val snorted. “Horse thieves is bad e’nuff, but they killed Bradley’s foreman an’ I got a wire from Dan Thornton over in Merced sayin’ four outlaws robbed the bank. I’m figurin’ they’s the same four that stole Bradley’s horses.”
Johnny looked out over the mountains that lay before them. A million places ta hide… Well, ain’t gonna find ‘em sittin’ here.
They moved out, taking the chance the trail would soon appear once they crossed the rocks. If not, they would have to turn around and start over, wasting time and daylight, allowing the outlaws to escape.
Just at dusk, Johnny picked up the trail, but too late to pursue it in the growing dark. Val called a halt to the day but knew Johnny wanted to press on and was ready for the argument he knew would come.
“What d’ya mean, ‘stop for the night’? Val, it ain’t gonna take…” Johnny protested, but the statement was cut off.
“What’sa matter with you? Ya anxious ta get home or somethin’?” Val found that hard to believe as he got a fire going, then tended his horse, Amigo, a gift from Johnny. “We’re gonna catch ‘em, Johnny; just settle down.” Val caught the signs and knew what was wrong. “Yer actin’ like ya swallowed a cactus, thorns an’ all. Ya tangle with yer ol’ man again?”
Johnny sighed, then loosened the cinch and took the saddle from Barranca’s back.
“…Yeah, somethin’ like that…” The words came soft, troubled. Then he snorted, flipped his saddle on end, and angled it on the ground in front of the fledgling fire.
Val gave it a minute before he asked, “What happened?”
The soft tone struck Johnny as unusual. Val always took the bull by the proverbial horns, not sugar-coating the situation, and possessed the ‘it is what it is’ attitude and dealt with it. He didn’t want Val’s pity, but he knew it wasn’t pity Val was offering.
“Aahhh, he was spoutin’ off about me not takin’ the ranch serious enough, that it came first, not gallivantin’ off when there’s others, besides me, that could help ya…”
Val chuckled when he thought of those ‘others’ he sent down the trail that led them back to Green River and out of his hair. Then Val stood to face his amigo before he spoke.
“He’s scared, Johnny, plain scared.”
The statement caught him off guard, and Johnny snapped his attention toward Val. Why would Murdoch Lancer be scared? “Scared? Of what?”
“Losin’ you. Again.”
The conviction, a known certainty as Val spoke, kicked Johnny in his gut, daring him to believe it. He thought a moment, then shook his head in disagreement.
“Then why’s he tryin’ so hard ta push me away? If he’s so damned worried about losin’ me, why’s he holdin’ that door open? Tellin’ me ta do somethin’ one day, then next, he’ll bitch about me doin’ what he told me ta do, an’ have me doin’ somethin’ else all the while rippin’ my head off about doin’ it wrong? I’m tellin’ ya, Val, even if it’s somethin’ he told me ta do, I’m wrong for doin’ it…”
Johnny grabbed the coffee pot from Val’s hand. “I’ll make the coffee!” There was no way he’d let Val make his swill, amigo or not. He wanted, needed the brew, but he stood and waited for Val’s answer to the question that tied his gut in a knot.
“Dunno why he does that. Yer gonna hafta ask him. But we’ve all seen it, amigo. Talk with ‘im, an’ make ‘im give ya an answer!” Val had seen it many times; so had everyone else, and it was about time Murdoch was confronted for his actions.
Johnny shrugged. “Kinda hard talkin’ to a stone wall…” he muttered quietly.
Val snorted again, only this time louder, then he smiled. “You two’re a lot alike that way, ya know that, don’t cha?”
A tug at the corner of Johnny’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Been told that a time or two.”
The coffee was hot and helped chase away the night chill and some frustrations that plagued Johnny’s mind. The fire produced sufficient heat, and the accumulated bank of coals would be enough to get them through most of the night without too much trouble. Johnny smirked. Hell, with all the coffee Val drank, he’ll be up half the night visitin’ the bushes, he can throw more wood on the fire if we need it!
As Val snored, Johnny lay awake contemplating his options. Just what were his options? Either sit back an’ take what the ol’ man dished out or leave Lancer, but neither was going to happen. And, as he asked Val, how do you talk to a stone wall? It wasn’t as if Johnny could wrestle Murdoch to the ground and force him to hear what he had to say or get him to explain his uncompromising position when it came to Johnny. How could he make Murdoch understand? The old man would have to listen to Johnny, and that wasn’t happening.
Feeling like he’d just wrestled a bear, Johnny sighed, thinking he’d better get some sleep. He would rather deal with horse thieves and killers than tear himself up thinking about his old man. He pulled the blanket around him, yanked his hat down over his face, and forced himself to rest. The last thing he heard was Val throwing more wood on the fire.
Murdoch Lancer stared at the flames burning in the fireplace as he thought about his younger son. Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t he stay and talk? He always rides off as if that will fix the problem… But deep inside him, Murdoch knew. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but he knew the answer to the question.
Footfalls down the stairs alerted him he wasn’t alone, and he looked to see Scott standing in the great room, eyeing him with a knowing stare.
“It’s late, Murdoch. Are you alright?” The sarcasm was kept to a minimum… for the most part.
The glare he cast Scott was cold and defensive, but he knew Scott had reason to ask in that tone, and he shrugged. Why didn’t Murdoch Lancer, the tune caller, have the ability to admit he was wrong? Admitting one’s faults was not a sign of weakness. So why did he have this problem when it involved Johnny?
“I just don’t understand him!” His refusal raised its ugly, persistent head again.
Scott sighed. “Don’t you?” he asked in the quiet of the room. “Have you really ever tried?” Scott settled into the chair across from Murdoch’s desk; he took in his father’s slouch, elbows on the arms of the leather chair, with his fingers tented over his stomach. The grim frown and creased forehead supported the owly frame of mind.
“Of course, I’ve tried! But how can we talk things out when he always leaves and runs away?” His mad faded as his guilt began to push to the forefront in a battle with his refusal to understand, knowing he’d just lied to himself and Scott.
Scott closed his eyes and shook his head. “Runs away? No, Murdoch, you haven’t tried! You won’t let yourself talk with Johnny. You shut him out; you shut him down! You might as well open that door and shove him out! In the ten months that Johnny and I have been here, you haven’t listened to him at all! Why do you do that? How can you, in all honesty, say that you’ve tried to talk with him?”
And now that mad was stampeding back, reinforced, and waiting to unleash itself on his other undeserving son… Murdoch grappled with these conflicting feelings. He had always ‘called the tune’, and where it was fine for ranch issues, he was finding it wasn’t how he should handle his sons, especially Johnny. But he didn’t know how to stop, when to cut off hurtful words before they were said, and then it was too late to call them back. The damage was done, and the door slammed shut, with Murdoch on one side and Johnny on the other, mounted on Barranca and galloping down under the mighty Lancer arch.
“We’re not children, Murdoch; it’s time you stop treating us as if we were, and don’t you dare insinuate that Johnny is acting like one!If anyone is acting like a spoiled child, you’d better look in the mirror; see yourself and what you’re doing. It’s always ‘your way’, how you want it done without talking about it! How do you know that there couldn’t be another way, a better way? You’ve brushed off my ideas and opinions a few times, but you never listen to Johnny! Ever!” Scott stopped, getting control over his raging temper. He said what he could; the rest was up to Murdoch, but he couldn’t resist one last parting shot.
“Johnny is right in leaving. Why should he stay and put up with your unwillingness to listen and refusal to give him due consideration? To try and find the sense of you brushing him off like he doesn’t mean anything, even though he is a third owner of this ranch?” Scott lowered his voice to a whisper, then, “But, for you to ignore him is unforgivable. Perhaps the next time he leaves, I will ride with him.” Then Scott stood and quietly left the room, leaving his father to contemplate the criticism, that was, if he would let himself.
“What cha figure, amigo? These yahoos gonna keep goin’ inta the mountains, or they gonna try an’ kinda blend in, an’ jus’ hope ever’one fergets they stole them horses an’ kilt ol’ Kenny?”
“Dunno, Val. If it was me, I’d keep ta the mountains till things cool down, but if they’re not from around these parts, maybe they don’t know where they’re goin’. Kinda hard ta say. Hey, Val, hold up.” Johnny reined Barranca to a halt, then dismounted and took a few steps to his right. He crouched to his haunches and examined the ground. Disrupted stones and partial tracks… finally, a trail to follow. Plucking a piece of grass, Johnny put it in his mouth and stood.
“What d’ya know, Sheriff, we got us a trail!” Johnny vaulted on Barranca and led the way.
Val smiled. If Russell Weston ain’t available, ol’ Johnny’s the next best tracker around! And Val was going to let Murdoch Lancer know, in no uncertain terms, who it was that found the nearly invisible trail.
“Not familiar with what’s up ahead, Val; ha, probably outta your jurisdiction, too, ain’t it?”
“Don’t matter. We’ll get the pendejos no matter whose jurisdiction we’re in. Us lawmen are s’posta work tagether,” Val said with a laugh.
“Yeah, sure, Val, work tagether, just like ol’ Sheriff Walker down in Hesperia! He’d as soon locked us up with those bank robbers!” Johnny laughed. “Lawmen workin’ tagether, huh?”
Val laughed as he remembered the uncompromising sheriff. He had talked until he was blue in the face trying to convince Walker that he was, in fact, a peace officer. Val grinned as he glanced at Johnny. “Damn fool acted like I was tryin’ ta commit a crime or something! Nearly took a letter from the governor ta make ‘im see the truth!”
Now, Johnny laughed as he thought back on the day. “Yeah, Val, ya really charmed him, didn’t ya? Why, ya had him eatin’ outta your hand by the end of the day!”
In truth, they were almost run out of town at the end of that day, with Sheriff Walker tearing his hair and anxious to be rid of the loudly complaining ’sheriff’ Crawford. He sighed in a mighty huff as he watched the two men ride out of his town, listening as Crawford mouthed his objection at the treatment he’d received.
“No need ta get so rowdy over there! That ol’ buzzard wasn’t ‘xactly fond a you, neither, ya good-fer-nothin’ gunfighter! Jus’ watch the trail an’ don’t get so uppidy!”
Johnny’s laugh burst from his throat. “Ex-gunfighter!Sure, Val, I’ll get right on it!” he said with another laugh, then he nudged Barranca down the trail.
It was late afternoon when Johnny and Val found the rancher. The man was sprawled in the front yard of the rundown farmhouse, bleeding from a gash on his head.
With guns drawn, the two men quickly checked the man, roused him from unconsciousness, and handed him a canteen. They made a quick circuit of the barn, outbuildings, and house, then returned to the farmer’s side.
“What happened here?” Val asked as the man struggled to make sense of what had happened. “What’s yer name?”
The man suddenly stopped his fidgeting and sat stock-still. The fear in his eyes flashed, and he frantically looked around. “Libby! Micky!” he called out, then turned to Val and Johnny. “Where… where are they? Oh, God, no! They took them!”
“Jus’ take it easy, there. Libby an’ Micky, who are they?” Val asked, his voice firm but also reassuring. Reading the panic on the farmer’s face, Val tried again. “What’s yer name?”
“Yothers, Ed… Yothers. My wife an’ daughter, them bastards took my wife an’ daughter!” Yothers tried to get his feet under him as Val and Johnny helped him stand, keeping close should he start to fall. The man began to tremble from head to toe, his eyes wild, searching around him as if hoping his Libby and Micky would materialize out of the dust.
“Let’s get you inta the house, Mr. Yothers…” Val began.
“No! I need ta find my wife an’ daughter!” And he started to fight against the arms that held him vertically.
“Easy, Mr. Yothers. Listen now, I’m Sheriff Crawford from Green River an’ this here’s Johnny Lancer. We’re on the trail of four men; the trail led us here. Was there four men that did this?”
Yothers stopped his struggles. “Yeah… four, please find them! They’re all I have!”
“C’mon, Mr. Yothers, we’ll get cha in the house and take a look at that cut; you’re bleedin’ pretty bad, then we’re goin’ after ‘em. We’ll bring your family home,” Johnny said as the trio walked toward the house. Yothers stumbled between them, murmuring, begging Johnny and Val to forget about him and go after his family.
He was dreading the night. Would he sleep, or would the needed rest be as elusive as it had been the night before? With blurry vision and bloodshot eyes, Murdoch’s attention went to the stairs as Scott descended and walked into the great room.
No words were necessary as the elder Lancer son passed the chair, headed toward the sideboard and the whiskey that might dull the pain in the aching heart of a father who had just realized his mistake and desperately hoped for a solution to the problem he had caused.
Placing the double shot within his father’s reach, Scott, again, took the chair opposite Murdoch’s desk.
Taking a drink from his glass, Scott sighed. “You’re scared he won’t come back.” A statement, not a question.
Murdoch took his glass and held it in his hand. “Scared? No, I’m not scared, Scott… I’m terrified! And I’m guilty. But I don’t know how to fix the mess I’ve made of this situation.” Murdoch looked at Scott with pleading eyes. “I don’t know what to do, son. Why can’t I keep my temper when I talk with him?”
Scott, for the moment, could sympathize with his father. Truth be told, it wasn’t always easy dealing with Johnny, but life hadn’t been easy for his brother; he’d built a protective wall to shield him from things that held the potential for harm; it was self-preservation.
The misery draped across his shoulders made Murdoch look like an old, old man. But Scott had a theory and didn’t hold back; he needed Murdoch to pull himself out of this self-imposed hell. He needed his father to take responsibility, to work toward fixing the problem between him and his younger son, and said son would have to meet him halfway. But in brother’s defense, Scott knew that he had been doing just that; now the question was, would he, Johnny, continue, or… had he had enough?
“Is it Maria? You said Johnny looks so much like his mother.” It seemed to take Murdoch forever to answer, and Scott wasn’t sure there would be an answer.
The question walked up and punched Murdoch in the face; he physically jolted in his chair and started to feel his blood boil. Fire sparked in his eyes, but suddenly, deep in his soul, he had the ‘why’ of how and what happened, and the fire went out.
Murdoch hung his head. Whispered words confessed his sin. “The resemblance is uncanny, Scott.”
“Then talk to him, Murdoch! Don’t lead him on thinking that it’s him that has made you angry! Don’t let him think everything is his fault!”
The truth hit Murdoch like the kick from a bull, leaving him stunned; bile gurgled and seared his throat. “What if he won’t listen, won’t let me explain?” Had he spoken those words? He hadn’t meant to let Scott know the uncertainty, the helplessness that held him constricted in a spider’s web.
Scott smiled as he thought about his brother. “Murdoch, Johnny is about the most compassionate and understanding man I know! He’ll listen if you’re honest with him and know if you’re not! But I’ll tell you right now, he won’t make it easy on you. After all that’s happened, he’s going to make you fight for the chance to convince him that you really do care, so be prepared to do battle. Whether you know it or not, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet, and you’d better be ready to fight him for it.” Scott downed the rest of his drink and stood. “I’m going to turn in Murdoch, I think you should as well.” He cleared his throat, then continued, “And I think we’d better get an early start if we want to catch up with him and the posse in the morning. This is something that cannot wait. We have to go after him.”
Murdoch snapped his head in Scott’s direction, and the beginnings of a smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. “Before you turn in, Scott, would you tell Cipriano to be ready, too? He’s a good tracker and will find the trail.”
Time was running out, but Val and Johnny had no other choice. They had taken Ed Yothers into the house and did what they could for his injury. The wound didn’t look too serious after it was cleaned and bandaged, but head injuries were tricky; one never knew if complications would arise. However, the situation was taken out of their hands; Yothers was adamant that Val and Johnny leave him, go after the bandits, and find his family. To turn back and get Yothers’ help was not an option, and with no one there to stay with the man should he suffer, leaving him alone was not an option either, but they had no choice. The longer they stayed at the farm, the more distance the outlaws put between themselves and the law.
And now, the outlaws had two hostages. With a solemn promise from Yothers to stay put, Val and Johnny left the farm, pursuing the tracks to the west and into the mountains. They had to make up for the time spent at the farm.
Yothers described the four men and heard them talking about stolen money. The need for hostages would ensure their escape, so the wife and fifteen-year-old daughter served the purpose. Though a plain woman, the farmer’s wife was comely enough, but Yothers fretted for the daughter; she was young and pretty— not that it would matter much to these men, but she would not come out of this unscathed.
They rode hard, making up the miles between them, knowing that the women’s safety hung in the balance. It was an effort to call a halt to the day; both Val and Johnny wanted to keep going but knew they couldn’t trail in the dark and would not risk endangering their mounts or themselves. Sleep was a thing of wind and wings, almost there, then suddenly whisked away. It floated and settled, then drifted again. Grab it when you can and make do with what you’ve got. And it wasn’t much.
He tossed and turned, it seemed, for hours. The conversations with Scott repeatedly turned in his head, leaving him exhausted and wrung out. But mostly, they left him filled with regrets. Finally, sleep welcomed him in bone-weary, dog-tired slumber, and dreams curled like wisps of smoke, twining around in his subconscious, wrapping him in suffocating tentacles. His breathing became labored, and he fought to draw in the air needed to avoid unconsciousness.
Murdoch’s dreams were anything but peaceful. In them, he’d seen Scott and Johnny taken down by bullets from ambush. As they fell, they both met his stare, accusing him of not being there for them, for giving up on them, and Murdoch watched them fall and saw the life dim and flicker out of their eyes. And then, they were gone. Dead and lying in the dirt.
They’d lain in the dusty street as people walked around their bodies. No one stopped to help, and all Murdoch could do was stand there and stare at the blood that soaked the ground around them. He was rooted to the spot and couldn’t move, forced to watch as flies crawled across the lax faces; couldn’t help either son as they lay and bled their lives away.
Soon the blood from one body ran into the trickle of blood from the other, and in that instant, a spark ignited, and a stream of fire burned up the crimson rivers to reach the deceased bodies of the Lancer boys. It burst into blazing infernos that consumed the bodies of both sons. Then, like the mysterious Phoenix, Scott, and Johnny rose to stand in their burning ashes, still bleeding; they put their arms around each other’s shoulders, scowled at their father, then smirked as if they dismissed the old man like a nuisance. They turned and walked away from him, out of sight, not looking back.
Murdoch jolted awake, sweat ran into his eyes, and his heart thundered in his chest. He sat up and quickly looked around the room, then realized he was home, in his bed. Sweet Jesus! It was only a dream! Then he remembered what had happened earlier with Johnny, and those thoughts did nothing to ease the panic he felt now. Would he be in time to make amends, or was this nightmare an omen of what was to come? Murdoch could only hope that he wasn’t too late.
Sweat ran into his eyes as he tried to regulate his breathing and pounding heart. There was no getting back to sleep this night, and he lay clutching the damp bedclothes in white-knuckled fists.
Tray Bodine knew they’d made a mistake. There were advantages to taking hostages, but they could also be nothing but trouble. Robbing that bank and stealing the horses were bad enough, and killing the hand at that ranch couldn’t be helped, but when they stopped at that farm, things began to take a turn for the worse. They rode into the little yard and asked the farmer if they could water their horses; the farmer was suspicious and made no effort to disguise the distrust. He told them to water their mounts, then be off.
But when the door of the little house opened and a woman stepped onto the porch, the situation began to deteriorate. Tray saw both Ross and Cal step forward as the leers stretched across their faces, but when the young girl came from the chicken coop carrying a basket filled with eggs, things immediately turned south. Tray would have his hands full getting the men away— they couldn’t afford to be held up; couldn’t afford any delays if the men decided to dally with the womenfolk.
Colson walked to the girl with sure, long strides that made her shy away; he grabbed her arm with one hand and, with the other, pushed the long auburn hair away from her face. “Say, you sure are a pretty l’il thing!”
“You get your hands off her!” The farmer bellowed, and the woman came off the porch looking like a mother bear protecting her cub.
“Leave her alone!” The mother screamed.
Both the farmer and the woman charged the outlaw who held their daughter in a panic to protect her; the move prompted Cal Briscoe to draw his pistol and slam it down on the farmer’s head with a sickening thud. The older man fell into the dirt; blood streamed from the wide gash on his scalp. The woman and girl screamed as they watched their husband and father fall to the ground. Libby knew her daughter needed her but was torn between the two family members, and she fought against their attackers.
Gage Evans recognized there would be trouble if they didn’t get going and tried to pull Briscoe away. “C’mon! Let’s get outta here! We don’t need this kinda trouble!”
“Trouble? Hey, we got us some hostages, boys! An’ maybe some fun, too!”
But all Tray wanted was a fast getaway, and that wasn’t going to happen if they took these women.
And now, it was a rush to put distance between them and that farm, knowing that soon a posse would be trailing them. There was no time to argue; the women were shoved on the horses, and the six left the farm on the trail straight into the mountains and away from everything the women knew and loved.
Johnny’s trail was not that difficult to follow. With complete trust in Cipriano’s ability to pick up Barranca’s hoofprints, Murdoch and Scott now waited for Cip to decipher the split of four horses going back to town and two sets of hoofprints that led in a meander toward the mountains.
“I wonder why they split up? But I know who went this way and who went back to town,” Scott said as Cip stood and mounted his horse.
“Sí, Juanito went this way.” The Segundo reined his horse along the trail that led further into the mountains, into nowhere.
Murdoch’s gut began to twist in knots as he wondered how, and more than how, why he let things deteriorate; why had he let the situation with his younger son get so out of control?
No one knew yet what they were up against, the danger the outlaws posed, but Murdoch could only pray that Johnny would come out of this in one piece; there were many mistakes that he needed to correct. And many apologies that needed to be made. Murdoch Lancer had a son that deserved an explanation; that son deserved more than he was given.
“Señor, I think Juanito and Sheriff Crawford found the trail of the banditos. It is tenue… faint, but it is there.” Cipriano concentrated on the tracks, and sure now that Johnny and Val had picked up the outlaw’s trail, the three men worked their way into the small valley that held the farm of Ed Yothers.
It looked deserted as they rode into the yard. A milk cow was in the corral, and chickens scratched in the dirt, hoping to find feed, but there was no other sign of life. Until they heard the sound of the hammers of a shotgun pulled back. The sound was unmistakable, and it froze the Lancer search party in their tracks.
“Stay where you are! Don’t move! I got a shotgun aimed at cha!” Yothers bluffed. Yes, he had a shotgun, but could he pull the trigger? The least he could do was hear what they had to say. Was this part of the posse?
“We mean you no harm! I’m trying to find Sheriff Crawford and my son, Johnny Lancer! We trailed them here! We’d like to water our horses if you don’t mind…”
The statement gave Ed Yothers pause. Sheriff Crawford… Sheriff Crawford helped me, going after my family! He opened the door and stepped onto the porch to study the three men on horseback near the water trough.
“My name is Murdoch Lancer, my son Scott and my Segundo, Cipriano. Have you seen the sheriff and my other son? Their tracks lead here…”
Yothers released the hammers, then lowered the shotgun. He blinked to focus his eyes, finally making out three figures instead of six. Stepping forward, Yothers leaned against the roof support post to steady himself as he studied the men before him.
“You… with the posse?” Ed asked, hoping more men would help rescue his wife and daughter instead of only the two he had met earlier.
“Yes, we are. How long ago were they here?” Murdoch needed answers— needed to know how far behind Johnny they were.
“They was here yesterday! Help them! Them outlaws took my wife an’ daughter! Help the sheriff find my family!” Yothers begged, his voice cracked with emotion.
Noting the bandage around the man’s head, Murdoch concluded he’d suffered an attack from the outlaws, and it prompted him to ask, “Do you need any help?”
“Find my wife an’ daughter… please!” The farmer sank to his knees; Murdoch, Scott, and Cip were off their horses and rushed to the man’s side.
“Let’s get him in the house.”
An hour later, the Lancer men rode away from the little farm and the man whose heart was breaking.
Pursuing outlaws was serious business; it was dangerous and unpredictable. One never knew if said bandits doubled back and were now behind, ready to ambush from cover with intentions of shooting to kill. Following the trail was, without a doubt, dangerous, and posses had no choice but to shadow the tracks in the dirt and hope they didn’t disappear into thin air or lead to a trap. But adding hostages to the equation put a completely different spin on the problem, and if those hostages happened to be women, the issue was compounded even further.
Johnny couldn’t help but wonder if the Yothers women were alright. There was notrusting a hungry fox in the chicken coop…The only thing he and Val could do would be to catch up to them and, soon, to keep the pressure on, forcing them to keep moving. If they couldn’t stop, the women would remain untouched.
“What’d ya think, amigo? Them tracks are lookin’ mighty fresh, maybe what, two hours old?” Val asked. Hoofprints covered the creek bank. The outlaws stopped to water the horses, then continued southwest.
Johnny shrugged. “Yeah, that’s about right. Figure we can catch up with ‘em tamorrow sometime. They won’t be travelin’ fast in these rocks, but they gotta know there’ll be a posse after ‘em. With them women as hostages, we better be sure before we do anything. I ain’t too anxious ta go charging in there and put ‘em at risk.” Johnny stooped and filled his canteen, letting Barranca walk in the water downstream.
“Me neither, but we’ll think a somethin’. We always do…usually,” Val muttered.
Ten minutes later, Johnny and Val were back on the trail and closing in fast. It would be dusk in another hour; they would have to stop for the night and settle on a plan that would get Ed Yothers’ family away from the pendejos that stole them— and hopefully, without risk to the women or themselves. But if they couldn’t travel at night, neither could the outlaws, putting the Yothers women in danger.
Johnny don’t need any more bullets punchin’ holes through his hide. Val mused as he contemplated the close calls Johnny experienced over their years together. How many nights had he sat by the young gunfighter’s side as he fought against the pain, fevers, the nightmares from the many wounds he’d suffered? Too many to count, and yet, that same young man was putting his life on the line once again to help the innocent. One of these days, Val thought, Johnny’s gonna push his luck one too many times.
“What’s up ahead, amigo? Any idea? Don’t think I ever been around here before.” Val puzzled, his bearded face scrunched, looking up at the rocky bluffs as he shaded his eyes from the afternoon sun’s glare.
Johnny felt flickers of… what was that word Scott used? Déja vu… Already seen if he remembered Scott’s explanation of the word.And that term described it perfectly.He pulled Barranca to a stop and studied the terrain.
“Val, remember when we chased them pendejos after the raid on Hector Valenzuela’s rancho a coupla years ago? We chased ‘em north for miles…”
“Yeah, what about it?” Val began to follow his amigo’s stare over the ridgelines and across the mountain face. And he felt it, too.
“This’s startin’ ta look familiar, ain’t it? Look at those rocks up there… We been here before.”
“Yer right, Johnny. Helluva memory ya got— that’s been almost five years now. Didn’t r’member it bein’ this far north, though. But, yeah, them’s the rocks we climbed, alright.” Yeah, come near ta bustin’ my leg climbin’ them damn rocks! Not likely ta forgit ‘em!
Val studied the terrain around them. It would take everything he and Johnny had to find and rescue the Yothers women. If the tracks faded out, they would have to act on instinct, rely on their gut, and possibly take chances that would not bode well for the captives. They couldn’t afford to make a mistake, and Johnny had no desire to face Mr. Yothers and explain his and Val’s failure to save his family. They had to be sure, and they had to be right.
“Mama? When’s Papa coming to get us? I want to go home, Mama, now! I want to go home!” Micky buried her face against Libby’s shoulder and cried. Libby couldn’t stop the tears that leaked from beneath her lids as she rocked her daughter wrapped in her arms. How was she going to keep Micky safe?
The stares from the captors were bold, roaming over their bodies, lingering on the curves that even the plain work clothes could not hide, undressing them with lust in their eyes. Was it only a matter of time before one or more of them made their move? Libby didn’t know but could guess. The leader had kept a tight rein on his men, and even those eyes became more brazen with each passing hour. But she had resolved to fight them. It was useless, she knew, but she had to protect Micky; she had to! The girl was innocent in every sense of the word. At fifteen, she was nearly a woman but ignorant of the ways of men, and Libby would fight to her death to keep her only child safe. But there were four of them— it wouldn’t be much of a fight.
Battling her tears, Libby Yothers held Micky close, petted her hair, and tried to soothe the girl’s fright. Help would not be coming soon, if at all. In her mind, she saw her husband fall to lie unmoving and bleeding from a wound on his head. Ed, please find us!
What he wouldn’t give to be back at Lancer sitting in the great room after a long day at work with his sons. His smile suddenly left his face as he wondered if he would ever have that chance again. He’d behaved abhorrently to Johnny, and it would be up to Johnny to forgive and start over or turn his back on Lancer and family and ride away forever. Murdoch knew in his heart he did not have the right to make any decision to make Johnny stay— the only thing he could do was try and convince Johnny not to leave and to give his father another chance.
He sat staring into the flames, mesmerized as the gyrating blaze took him deep inside himself to a place he had never shared, a place where only he knew the truths in his soul. A place where, until recently, he’d lied to himself, told himself he was right, and Johnny was in the wrong. The boy needed to settle down and take ranching seriously or… or what? Would Murdoch tell Johnny to leave? To ride away from his birthright and not come back? Could he do that? Was it so wrong for Johnny to willingly ride if Val or any neighbor needed help? What if it was Scott that had ridden off so suddenly? I’d be proud… And Murdoch shrugged. He would be proud of Scott… and not Johnny. Why am I doing that?
Scott watched his father through lowered lashes. It seemed Murdoch had a lot on his mind, and Scott could only hope that a few decisions had been made and a few opinions had changed. Murdoch had not been fair with Johnny, and Scott huffed under his breath, but it occurred to him that if their father had not been fair with Johnny, Murdoch was cheating himself out of a son— a son who was worth knowing. Would Murdoch Lancer let himself know his son?
Getting through the night proved harder than they thought. There were two women out there somewhere that wouldn’t return home in the same condition as when they were taken, providing they were returned home at all. Images of the women, a mother, and a teenage daughter, haunted his thoughts and prevented the sleep he needed to keep a clear head. Faceless and fearful, they challenged him as if to say, “Come help us! Take us home! Save us!” How many times had he struggled through this nightmare? They tortured his thoughts by day and dreams by night. In Mexico and now California, they were always the same. And his answer was the same… ‘I’ll do what I can.’
OK, Madrid, what’dya gonna do now? And that answer was the same, as well. He didn’t know but would think of something. But he better make it quick because those women wouldn’t be safe for long. Little did Johnny know how right he was. Their time was running out, and Johnny had to act. Would there be time to wait for morning to get moving? Johnny didn’t think so and did the only thing he could— keep the pressure on and not let the outlaws stop long enough to put the women in any more danger than they were already. But attacking a woman didn’t take much time… Johnny had to move and had to move now.
Tray Bodine laughed to himself. Ross Colson was damn near drooling as he ogled the girl. Why, it was just plain sinful the things Bodine saw crawl through Colson’s empty head, and that woman was like a mother bear ready to pounce when a threat entered her den. But Tray would wait and see what happened. He could use a laugh, no matter at whose expense it was. So, he waited, amused but patient. It would be worth it, no matter how it turned out.
Gage Evers pulled a deck of cards out of his saddle bags. “What’dya say we play for the women? Winner of the first hand gets the girl, winner of the second hand gets the woman?”
The rest agreed, and the game was on.
Huddled in the corner and pulling in on herself, Micky curled into a ball, making herself appear smaller; maybe soon they wouldn’t see her; she cried in her mother’s arms and begged God for help…
Val was snoring like a locomotive. He never used to do that… Johnny thought as he saddled Barranca, moving quietly but with no real need. Nothin’ short of a rifle shot’d wake him right now. Well, he’ll find out I’m gone when he wakes up. Won’t do for him ta give me any trouble about this.
He could only hope Val would understand. If Johnny could successfully pull this off, the Yothers women would be free to return home, but would Johnny ever see Lancer again? It was a risk he was willing to take. He pushed the thought from his mind, swung into the saddle, then turned Barranca up the trail and let the horse pick his path in the night.
Madrid took over; he listened for those sounds that should and shouldn’t be; he watched, straining to see in the black of night, and focused on the abilities honed to a razor’s edge over a lifetime of counting on no one but himself to watch his back. Expecting danger and being ready for it was second nature, but this mission involved more than just himself. Two innocent women, one still a girl, too young to endure what was surely waiting for her, a girl that might not ever be the same.
Johnny’s gut churned; bile gathered, boiling like poison in a bruja’s cauldron. He would do his best to rescue them, but could he get there before it was too late? It was time to push the what ifs and hows aside and get down to business, and Johnny Madrid had a plan… kind of.
Earlier that night, lying by the fire, listening to Val’s snores disrupt the quiet, Johnny’s thoughts concentrated on the surrounding area. Something sparked in his memory, but couldn’t quite bring it to light. Something important, but it fought against his prying thoughts as if resisting identification. He and Val had been there before; it was several years ago, but he needed to rememberwhat was ahead of them. They’d chased those raiders into the mountains… what had they found?
Johnny Madrid smiled. Val would never go along with his plan as it was, he knew, so that left only one thing to do— go it alone.
The argument didn’t last long, making Bodine begin to regret the decision to take hostages. There was nothing that would cause men to fight like the thought of losing the prize of bedding a woman. Of course, the over-indulgence in whiskey did not help, making Ross Colson accuse Briscoe and Evers of cheating. But the real fight started when Cal Briscoe approached Micky and tried to kiss her. Then all hell broke loose.
Libby Yothers pushed Micky behind her and screamed for the drunk to keep his hands off her daughter. And that did not set well with Briscoe. His long-starved manly needs, emboldened by alcohol consumption, made him lash out, catching Libby high on her face; her skin turned bright red at the blow, and soon a dark blue blossomed in the early stages of a bruise.
Micky screamed again and lunged for her mother as the woman slammed into the rock surrounding them and slid to a limp pile on the ground.
Gage Evers and Ross Colson jumped Briscoe, and the three rolled in the dirt, missing more punches than they landed, shouting obscenities and cursing the days the others were born.
Tray Bodine watched the free-for-all and rolled his eyes. He needed to end this and do it quick before one of them got it in his head to shoot the others. Gage Evers landed on his back with a grunt at Bodine’s feet and rolled on his side as he struggled to regain his place in the fight. Tray kicked his hands out from under him, and Gage fell again into the dirt.
“Stay down!” Bodine ordered, then grabbed the back of Colson’s shirt with one hand and belt with his other, lifted Ross off Cal’s prone form, and threw him face down onto the hard-packed earth.
“Enough, you two!”
“But… they were cheatin’, Tray!”
“Shuddup, alla ya!” The fire in Bodine’s eyes sobered the rowdies, and he shook his head in disgust. “One a you check that woman! Make sure she ain’t dead!”
Shoulda left them women back at that farm…
Micky clung to her mother’s body for warmth. The young heart pounded in her chest with a fear she’d never known as she watched her captors throw sly looks her way. She pulled away, turning her attention to the growing bruise on her mother’s temple and across the cheekbone. “Mama? Don’t leave me! Please don’t leave me!” she whispered. “I’m scared!”
Johnny had no problem justifying trailing or trying to trail the outlaws in the dark. The lives of two innocent women were in jeopardy, and Madrid couldn’t let that go. They were worth a thousand of him… they were… innocent, blameless, and he wasn’t. The thought of hanging back, waiting for dawn before he and Val would move out and follow their trail, was not an option. He knew that Val wouldn’t agree to go traipsing off in the middle of the night, but seconds were ticking by that could not be called back, and they were seconds those women did not have to waste. For Johnny Madrid, there was no other choice and no question in his mind.
Barranca kept a careful pace as if knowing there was a need, that something was happening, and he sensed in Johnny the pull to head out and keep moving. The waxing crescent moon did not shed enough light to make for faster travel, but they were going forward.
How would he handle it? There were four of them, not favorable circumstances for him. Yeah, ya had worse but never with hostages at risk. Would the outlaws be up for a deal? He didn’t know, but he would find out, and there was a strong possibility he would lose, but he had to try.
“You should try and get some sleep.” Scott’s smooth voice carried concern and worry, too.
Murdoch shrugged, his head bowed, looking at the cold coffee in his hand. He flicked his wrist and sent the bitter brew to splatter on the ground. “Yes, I know, but I keep thinking about those last words your brother and I had.”
Scott dragged himself to a sitting position and ignored his sore muscles as they protested the move. He sighed, knowing the problem with his stubborn father and equally stubborn brother was tearing them apart. And Scott was tired of being caught in the middle of his role as arbitrator between the two of them. What were the words he had used in the past regarding the volatile waters that divided Murdoch and Johnny? You’re both cut from the same cloth without an ounce of give. And that summed it up in a nutshell.
“Murdoch, the two of you are going to have to work this out— you’re going to have to talk to each other, and if I might make a suggestion here…?”
Murdoch grabbed onto that statement like a thirsty man in the desert that had been offered a drink. “Yes, what is it?”
Was this the chance to make him understand? Scott didn’t know, but he was going to try like hell to make his point. “Murdoch… you need to listen to Johnny. He’s not a kid that doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s a man, and you don’t treat him like one. That little two-year-old is in your memory, but that two-year-old is now a grown man with more life experiences than you, and I combined.” Scott shrugged again. “Just listen to him and don’t shut him down, or worse yet, shut him out.”
Murdoch stared into Scott’s eyes, momentarily shocked, realizing and accepting that he hadn’t really ever listened to his younger son, the younger son who was no longer a toddler… or a gunfighter, by trade anyway.
“I’m going to sleep now and suggest you do the same.” Scott settled back under the blanket and left Murdoch to his private thoughts. At least there wasn’t any denial.
Murdoch knew he would have to try harder, have more patience and trust. Johnny deserved that much from him.
Ed Yothers was out of his mind with worry. He sat on the steps of the front porch and looked down the trail that led into the mountains. Would he ever see his beautiful Libby and Micky ever again? His eyes misted over, not realizing how much he loved his wife and daughter until he didn’t have them at his side. They had always been there, never separated, and now they were gone. He felt torn apart; would he ever be whole again?
Val woke with a snort. He yawned loudly and scratched his chest. Blurry eyes focused, and the sheriff realized he was alone in camp. Obscenities filled the air as he scrambled to his feet and kicked the bed roll aside. Sonufvabitch! When I get my hands on ‘im, ‘m gonna throw his ass in jail and toss that key in the river! An’ Murdoch’s gonna thank me!
But it wasn’t his mad that boiled over in his brain; it was the fear in his heart that sent molten, red-hot worry through him. Val knew Johnny would do something reckless, something stupid. No, not stupid. It would be something noble. Madrid always did… he was going to get those women back alive.
He wasted no time and broke camp, followed Barranca’s hoof prints further into the mountains, and cursed Johnny every step of the way.
Libby Yothers prayed they would stop. Each step the horse took sent barbs of pain in her head, but she was thankful that Micky was untouched… for now. The fight between the men last night lit a terrifying fire in her heart, and she was certain her daughter would be attacked. But when she regained consciousness, Micky relayed the event, prompting Libby to sag against her in relief, and overjoyed that her daughter had been spared. For now, all she could do was hope that help was on the way and she and Micky would remain unscathed and go home to Ed where they’d be safe and away from these outlaws. Was he alright? Ed, where are you?
There wasn’t anything Johnny could do until he saw what he was up against. Logic did not always work, and nothing was certain; with no information, he would have to rely on his guts, grit, and guns to rescue the women and get them to safety. Would he be successful?
Keep your mind on the trail, Johnny-Boy. This’ll do nothin’ but get ya killed.
The sky lightened on the horizon. Johnny knew Val would be spitting fire by the time he caught up; by then, Johnny hoped to have some of this figured out. Val would be mad, that much was certain, but if Johnny could catch up to the outlaws and the women, Val would have no choice but to go along without an argument. He smiled, knowing his temper would likely ensure their success if Val was prickly. No outlaw worth his salt went up against Crawford in a mad and came out on the winning side.
“Patrón, they camped here last night but are many hours ahead of us. The ashes, they are cold.” Cipriano stood and met Murdoch’s stare, then looked around. He walked, searching for the tracks of Amigo and Barranca. “They went this way!”
Scott didn’t waste any time; he nudged Remmie, hoping to catch his recalcitrant brother before he did something they would all regret.
Murdoch followed, knowing he might not get another chance with his son— a chance to mend the deepening chasm that threatened to tear them apart. The father in him wanted to charge down the trail and drag Johnny home, but Scott’s words from last night came back to haunt him: “You treat him like a child…” and Murdoch knew his oldest son was right. Murdoch had never given Johnny his due credit. And that was going to change. He could only hope he had the opportunity to make that change.
Libby Yothers swayed; the pounding in her head became unbearable, and she reached out and grabbed at the nearest stable point around her. Gathering her wits, she realized she held Cal Briscoe tightly in her arms. With growing revulsion, she withdrew her grasp; ashamed and embarrassed, she wept at her actions.
“Oh, don’t you worry none, ma’am, we’re all gonna get ta know each other, real personal like, real soon!” Briscoe let loose with a lusty guffaw. The others joined in. leaving the women, smothered with dread, to contemplate their fate. Would help come before it was too late? Would help come at all?
Tray Bodine stopped their travel. “Rest the horses.” He turned his attention to Libby and Micky. “You ladies, too. Yer gonna need it. Gonna be a big night…”
He watched the camp below. The women huddled together, waiting for the worst to happen. The four men, noisy with rowdy language, nothing fit for the women to hear, howled in laughter and sent them leers that Johnny could see through the telescope lens. The girl was crying as her mother tried her best to keep the men from getting too close but would only postpone the inevitable. Time was running out, and he had to make his move; he had to do something to save those women… and he knew what he had to do.
You can get here any time, amigo. Could use your help with this…
Leaving Barranca tied a safe distance away, Johnny advanced through the rocks, keeping low and as close as he dared, then hunkered down to wait. Scanning the area around him, he searched for an escape route. The only choice would be to go back up the trail; maybe Val would get there by then. Johnny could only hope. The fifty-foot drop-off to his right prevented escape there— to the left offered no cover.
The women were still huddled together, waiting for rescue… or the inevitable; Johnny knew he was their only chance; something would happen soon if it hadn’t already. He could see them, their heads together as if talking, probably praying, he thought. The men were sitting on the ground and looked to be playing cards as they watched their captives. Madrid knew the winner of the game would take the girl; the next best hand would claim the woman.
Damn, Val! Where’re ya? Johnny knew he couldn’t waste much more time waiting. Val was out there, following, of that, he was sure, but Val should have caught up with him by now.
Movement caught his attention as one of the men grabbed the woman by her arm and began to drag her high into the rocks and brush away from camp. It was the moment Johnny was waiting for— and Madrid made his move.
Libby Yothers fought like a wildcat, kicking out at her adversary, scratching at his face and ears. The man turned, slapped her cheek, nearly tearing her head off her shoulders as her head snapped back, leaving her dazed, then continued into the rocks. The woman stumbled, going down to her knees, then was jerked to her feet and pushed further into the rocky mountainside.
The girl curled into a ball, then screamed. “Mama! Mama, don’t leave me!” She sobbed as her world shrank around her, and she was lost in white-hot fear that burned her soul. For the first time in her life, she was alone, terrified, and knew her life would never be the same. Her fears exploded around her and shut out any other sound.
Once away from the others and in the cover of boulders, the man shoved Libby onto the ground. A rough hand grabbed the collar of her dress and tore the garment from her body. His eyes feasted on the naked flesh laid bare in front of him. She struggled with all her might to keep those filthy hands off her as the rough fingers scoured over her skin, filling her with revulsion and disgust.
Panic set in, and the woman screamed- a wounded animal scream pierced the mountain air and tore Johnny’s heart in two. He’d heard that scream many times in his life and fought mightily to banish it from his mind, and the memories that it ignited in his brain— hellacious images, one after another, clicked off as fast as the tick of a roulette wheel in a gambling hall. Once again, Johnny Madrid struggled to push them aside, to focus on what he had to do.
Ross Colson leered; his eyes touched the soft white skin, and his breath came in pants. Grasping the woman’s wrists in his left hand, he held her while ridding himself of the dirty jeans he wore, knowing it would be too late if he didn’t hurry.
Johnny knew it was time. He edged closer, stepped behind Colson, pulled him off the woman, then landed a stunning blow to the man’s jaw. Blindly, Colson tried to get his feet under him and launch himself off the ground, ready to tear into whoever dragged him from his prize and interrupted his pleasure.
If one a them bastards thinks they kin…
Johnny silenced further thoughts as he aimed a second blow sending the man careening through the dry brush that tripped him up, causing a series of clumsy steps; the man fell after crashing headfirst into boulders and lay still, his eyes glazed over when he breathed his last. He was dead; that thought made him huff, and Johnny considered it a fitting end as he looked at Libby Yothers’ battered face as she frantically tried to shield herself from the attack. Without a moment’s hesitation, Madrid rolled the man to the edge, then over the cliff, where a sickening thump signaled the end of his journey.
The woman found her voice and screamed. Johnny quickly tried to calm the terror and frantic ravings and caught her in his arms. He had to make her understand he was not there to hurt her.
No! No more! Libby struggled— she had to get back to Micky! She pushed him away, scrambled to her feet, and tried to run, not getting far before Johnny grabbed her.
“Easy, Ma’am! I’m not here ta hurt ya! Settle down! Shhh, it’s alright…”
“No! My daughter…” she fought against the circle of Johnny’s arms.
“We ain’t gonna leave her!” Seeing her predicament, Johnny shrugged out of his coat, draping it over the narrow shoulders as she tried to hold the two sides of her torn dress together.
“Ma’am, my name’s Johnny Lancer; I’m with Sheriff Val Crawford; we’re trailin’ these men. We talked ta your husband…”
Libby gasped. “Ed? Is he…”
“He’s alright, ma’am. OK, we got no more time for talk…”
“My daughter! My daughter’s still down there!”
“Yes, ma’am, an’ I’m gonna get her out of there. But I need ya ta do what I say. Scream again,” he ordered, his eyes conveying the urgency.
Libby, confused at first until Johnny quickly outlined his plan, did what he asked. She filled her lungs with air, then let loose with a shrill and anguished scream. Laughter roared from the slope where the others rested.
Tray Bodine, Gage Evens, and Cal Briscoe laughed when they heard the woman’s terrified and shrill voice. Briscoe lunged for the girl as she tried to run and wrestled her to the ground, his hand boldly cupping a breast. Micky screamed; she kicked out, narrowly missing a perfectly aimed strike to Briscoe’s genitals. He grunted and tightened his grip on her wrists, bruising the tender skin.
“Let me go! Let me… go!” she screamed, fighting with every ounce of strength left in her— she had to find her mother! They had to hide, get away and hide! Her heart thumped wildly in her chest, knowing what was to happen. The man held her, pinning down her arms as he tried to kiss her, his breath making her gag.
“Take it easy, little lady! Ya might just like it! You wait’ll yer mama comes back, she’ll tell ya! She’ll be smilin’, I bet, havin’ a man ta please her!” Briscoe laughed again, then licked the side of Micky’s face making her retch.
No, no, noooo!
“I have to get back to my daughter!” Libby wrenched her arm from Johnny’s hand and turned to run.
“Mrs. Yothers, wait!” Johnny knew the woman wouldn’t wait; she would protect her daughter, whatever the cost. He caught up with her and covered her scream with his hand. “Wait!” He turned her in his arms so she could see his eyes— they did not lie, and she understood, through her fear, she understood.
“I’ll get her! I want you ta go up this trail,” Johnny pointed the way, “Sheriff Crawford should be comin’, shouldn’t be too far behind. Get on my horse, an’ find the sheriff, but stay on the trail; he’ll be followin’. He’ll help get you ta safety. Tell me your daughter’s name. She’ll need to know I’m a friend.”
Libby was torn; a mother’s instinct was strong, she needed to keep her baby safe, and she couldn’t, not against three other men. Libby Yothers made her choice. “M-Micky, her name is Micky! Please keep her safe!”
Johnny smiled. “I’ll do my best, Ma’am! I’ll do my best! Now go! My horse is about a hundred yards up the trail; go!”
Mrs. Yothers ran— away from her daughter and left her fate in the hands of the stranger with honest eyes. Had she made the right decision? She could only hope!
Murdoch Lancer rode in silence, speaking only when Cipriano drew his attention to the trail. Would he get another chance to make things right with Johnny? If he didn’t make things right this time, he knew he wouldn’t get another chance. The conflict had gone too long, and time was running out before Johnny would have enough and leave in a cloud of dust that would choke Murdoch with regret— regret that could have been avoided had he chosen to face the problem head-on and talk things out.
Would he ever understand Johnny? Scott’s words came back to haunt him— Have you ever really tried? Yes, of course… Really? And Murdoch had his answer. Now, he was riding through the mountains, trailing the son who left the ranch in frustration; the son who was the most independent person Murdoch knew… and the one who needed him the most. I have to fix this…
Murdoch knew that self-preservation had taken over; Johnny bolted before he would see more disappointment in his father’s eyes. Would he ever learn to be a father? Johnny deserved that much… and more.
Murdoch Lancer rode in silence and hoped he wasn’t too late to make things right.
He needed a plan, one that wouldn’t get him or the girl killed. Could he persuade the men to give up the girl? What did he have to bargain with— what would be enough to change the minds of the three outlaws low enough to resort to kidnapping innocent women? And it hit him; he knew what he had to trade.
Making his way down to camp, he stood just beyond the shelter of rocks before announcing his presence.
“Hello, the camp!” then he waited.
Tray Bodine grabbed his rifle when the voice of the new and uninvited man reached his ears. “C’mon outta them rocks! Hands up!” He stood and braced for a fight. “You two, leave that girl alone an’ take cover!”
Johnny, hands to the sides of his body, sauntered into the meager camp as if he hadn’t a care in the world. A quick scan of the area told him everything he needed to know. The girl curled in a tight ball on the ground, sobbing and visibly shaking. He watched a man come out from behind his cover, gun in one hand, rifle in the other, as he then stopped and let his blistering glare wash over Johnny. He knew the other two were in the rocks that circled their camp and had him in their sights.
“What’dya want?” Bodine bellowed.
Johnny smiled, still with hands to the side. “Lost my horse yesterday. Could use some help. Thought you could use another hand since you’re short a man.” Then he let the smirk cross his lips.
Tray frowned. “What’dya mean, ‘short a man’?”
“One a your men up there,” Johnny pointed up the hillside where Colson had dragged Libby Yothers, “with a woman?”
Bodine just stared at the stranger before him.
“Well, she musta been a handful; hell, she even smacked him in the head with a rock!” Johnny laughed, then, “They struggled an’, well, they fell in a gully about fifty feet below. Gotta be dead.”
The girl seemed not to hear. Her cries went unheeded by the men as they focused their attention on the new man standing in camp.
Bodine shook his head and snorted. “Evers, Briscoe! Giddown here!”
Johnny sized them up as they came from their hiding places, guns drawn, and took a place next to Tray Bodine.
“Who’s he?” Briscoe demanded with a sneer.
“Dunno yet. What’s yer name, cowboy?” Bodine asked as an uneasy feeling swept over him. There was something familiar about the man who stood cool and easy before them.
Icy eyes narrowed in the shadow of the hat pulled low to shade his face. “Ain’t a cowboy, first off. But the name’s Madrid, Johnny Madrid.”
Bodine’s belly flipped over… twice. Damn! Don’t need ta tangle with him! Both Briscoe and Evers cringed when they heard the name Madrid.
“What’d you doin’ in these parts?”
“Just told ya, lost my horse yesterday. Been walkin’ an’ I’m tired. But you’ve got an extra one, seems like, so why don’t I take it an’ ride with ya?”
Bodine mulled it over in his mind, then, “Evers, get up there an’ find Ross!” He pointed up the rocky hillside.
Gage frowned, then resisted the order. “Find ‘im? Why? I ain’t goin’ up there ta see that ol’ hairy, bare ass hangin’ out!”
“Shuddup! Just go find ‘im!” Bodine’s command firm, Gage Evers hustled in the direction where they had last seen Ross Colson headed as he dragged the woman behind him.
How long he’d been walking, Val Crawford didn’t know, but when his horse pulled up lame, there was no choice but to leave him in a sheltered spot near the stream and continue after Johnny on foot. Sonuvabitch! When I catch up ta him… Shuddup Crawford an’ keep goin’! Ya gotta find ‘im first; then ya kin figure out what ta do with ‘im! Putting one foot in front of the other, Sheriff Crawford kept trailing his deputy, the deputy who was more than his deputy. He was the best man Val had ever known, and he wouldn’t let him down. Damn, his feet hurt…
“¡Patrón, mirar!” (Look!). Cipriano pointed toward the copse of trees by the stream. There stood Amigo, Sheriff Crawford’s horse, calmly swishing the flies with his tail while grazing on the grass that covered the bank at the water’s edge. The saddle lay on the ground, but the rifle and canteen were gone.
Scott checked the horse while Murdoch scanned the area for signs of Johnny and Val. There was nothing.
The left foreleg was swollen and warm but not too bad. With rest and a poultice, Amigo would be fine. “Val’s horse is lame…” A shout from Cip interrupted further comment; it cut through the afternoon air as the Segundo rode in wide circles and picked up Val’s trail.
“He goes this way!” and pointed into the mountains.
Murdoch squinted his eyes and looked into the bright, sunlit sky. Where are you, Johnny?
Libby Yothers slowed her approach; the palomino was skittish as she ran toward him. She couldn’t risk scaring the animal and him running off, not with Micky’s life at stake. She had to find that sheriff!
“No, don’t run away, please, horse; I need help for my little girl!” Libby’s voice broke, and she swiped at hot tears that streamed down her face. “Please get me to the sheriff!” She watched as the horse turned his head toward her, and she wondered if this was the moment when he would bolt and run away. But he didn’t. The golden horse stood quietly, sensing her distress, and let her mount. She turned him onto the trail and, using every bit of strength she had left, rode away, leaving her daughter with three evil men and perhaps one good man in the middle of nowhere. She had to get help…
Gage Evers’ call echoed down the rocky slope. “Tray! He’s dead! Ross’ dead!” A mad frantic run through the boulders toward his boss, Evers skidded to a stop, returning a few shades paler than when he had left. “He’s dead, alright! Cain’t see the woman, though!”
Bodine shrugged. “She coulda crawled off; leave ‘em. Ain’t gonna worry ‘bout ‘em now. Briscoe! Get that girl on a horse; we’re movin’ out!”
Micky Yothers was not going anywhere if she could help it.
Johnny stood and calmly assessed the situation. “Looks like ya got an extra horse; what about it— mind if I tag along?” he repeated as the stare held Bodine’s, not letting go. He had to give them more, a reason to let him go with them.
“I know my way around these mountains an’ judgin’ by the looks of you, I’m guessin’ you’re wantin’ ta get outta these parts in a hurry, huh?” Was it enough for them to bite the proverbial hook? It was a chance he’d be willing to take.
Tray Bodine had made many mistakes in his life, but he knew having Johnny Madrid ride with him would not be one of them, and Madrid’s gun would help ensure their escape. After a brief hesitation, he made his decision. “Sure, you kin ride Colson’s horse. He ain’t gonna be needin’ it no more.”
Johnny nodded. “’ Preciate it.” He went to the horse and mounted, kept a close eye on the young girl, and discreetly watched the three men, noting their moves and the sidelong glances cast in the girl’s direction. There would be trouble tonight.
The afternoon was long and hot; the sun’s rays beat down mercilessly and roasted the sweat off the riders before it had a chance to form. Four horses walked in a single file along the trail, slow-paced and ready to stop for the day. But they kept on going further into the mountains, away from home.
“Hey, Tray! How long we gonna go taday? ‘ M tired!” Briscoe called out.
“We stop when I say, Briscoe! Keep yer mind on the trail an’ stop thinkin’ ‘bout beddin’ that girl!”
The laugh was loud, a crazy kind of sick laugh. Briscoe contented himself running his hands over the young body as Micky tried to fight the roaming— the sickening mauling. The girl fought for miles, trying desperately to shrug off the unwanted attention, but had lapsed into silence, and now she sat still as if in shock at the separation from her mother. Johnny could do nothing for her without giving himself away. But soon, he would take control and hope to God that Val was getting close. He looked up and remembered that bluff covered with aspens and the odd-shaped rock that sat on top looking like a horse’s head with his muzzle pointing straight to the sky— he had been here before, and beyond lay…
“Bodine!” Johnny called as he reined his horse to a stop.
Tray Bodine turned in his saddle, then reined his horse to where Johnny brought up the rear of their procession. “What’dya want, Madrid?”
Johnny sat scanning the rock around them. The trees had grown since he was here last and shielded much of the granite walls, but he was sure this was the place. It would be a good spot to camp.
“There’s a good place ta spend the night up ahead. There’s water close with cover outta the wind.”
Bodine looked around, then checked the sun; there was still an hour or more of daylight, but maybe Madrid was right. They could all do with rest, and Briscoe would be up for an early camp; after all, he had waited all day for his chance at the girl.
“Alright, Madrid, you been here before; lead the way.” Tray let Johnny pass and ride point.
Val slung himself down out of sight before he was seen. The horse came over the rise, making good time… Wait jus’ a dawgone minute! Barranca! But it wasn’t Johnny in the saddle… It was a woman, and if Val had to guess, he would bet it was Libby Yothers. Quickly, Crawford stood and hurried as best he could on sore feet onto the trail.
Pulling the vest aside to show the sheriff’s star, Val stood waiting as the woman pulled on the reins, startled by the man before her.
“Ma’am, I’m Sheriff Crawford; that’s Johnny’s horse yer ridin’— he OK?”
Momentarily stunned, Libby sat silent until the words made sense in her brain. That name! Sheriff Crawford! “Yes, last I saw! Please help! They have my daughter!”
“How far ahead are they? Any idea?”
“I… I don’t know how long I’ve been riding! But, please, you have to help!”
“Yes, ma’am, I intend ta do jus’ that. I lost my horse a while back, we’re gonna hafta ride double. Lemme get up behind ya!”
Val secured his rifle behind the saddle, then swung onto Barranca’s back, behind the woman. He nudged the horse with his heels, and the steed moved off, sensing trouble.
“You’ve been quiet, Murdoch. Are you alright?” Scott asked in a ploy to draw his father into conversation. He knew full well the reason for the silence, the worry in the troubled eyes. If Murdoch would only talk, perhaps he would feel better. Scott knew he usually did.
Although Murdoch had been wrong in his treatment of Johnny, he had come to realize his mistake, and everyone has made a mistake or two along the way; Johnny certainly wasn’t innocent in that respect. The difference was that Johnny admitted when he was wrong. It seemed their father had a problem with it, but Murdoch would have to find a way to work that out… if he wanted to keep Johnny at Lancer. Scott wasn’t kidding when he told their father that if Johnny left because of Murdoch’s unbending ways, he, Scott, would be in full support of his brother and ride out with him.
Murdoch sighed. “I want to say the right words, Scott. I want to have another chance with Johnny. I haven’t been… fair with him or to him. And I want him to know how sorry I am.”
“I can tell you right now that it’s not your sympathy he wants, Murdoch. He wants your love, your approval. He tries so hard to do things the right way, and he does them as well as anyone and better than most, but you don’t see it. Tell me, Murdoch, when was the last time you paid him a compliment or told him you were proud of him?”
Murdoch couldn’t remember— he rode in silence, then turned his sight away from Scott. “I can’t recall.” And he was ashamed.
“Don’t get me wrong, Murdoch, it’s not that Johnny has to be complimented on everything he does, but if you’re honest with yourself, just think about your reactions when he finishes the job he’s assigned for the day. You might ask him how the job went, but you look to one of the other hands for confirmation. If you’re out where he’s working, you look at the work; then you check that fenceline he’s been stringing all day to see if the posts are planted securely, or the wire is strung to your approval.” Scott paused. “You don’t do that with anyone else. It’s as if you don’t trust him; you don’t take his word about anything. Then, after fulfilling his civic duty and riding out with Val on a posse, you criticize him for the very thing you chastised him about before. How often have you insisted he try to become more involved with the people here? So, he went with Val, and what did you do?”
“I made a mistake.”
“OK, now you admitted you were wrong; what are you going to do about it?”
Tray Bodine wasn’t a trusting man. But he followed Madrid, having heard the stories— the men he’d killed, shot down and having no remorse for doing it. Who hadn’t heard those stories? Madrid was one of them! Bodine was certain that he was probably on the run just as they were.
Johnny did not answer, nor did he turn around.
Bodine didn’t like being ignored. He kicked his horse and pulled alongside Johnny. “What’dya doin’ out here away? How’d ya lose yer horse?”
“Was on my way ta Arizona— horse stepped in a hole an’ had ta shoot ‘im.” Johnny prolonged the pause, knowing Bodine had to wait for further explanations— explanations that Madrid had no intention of divulging. Then he asked, “Anything else ya wanna know?” Johnny turned an icy stare on Bodine and couldn’t resist impaling the man with his glare.
Tray looked away, embarrassed that he didn’t win this minor confrontation. And it made him mad. He turned his attention ahead; all he saw were trees and rocks. “So where ya takin’ us?” he growled. His patience was stretched thin, and he wanted nothing more at that moment than to show Madrid who was leading this outfit.
Johnny sensed Bodine’s blood was near to boiling over. The urge to let it happen was strong, but if it hadn’t been for Micky and the danger the situation presented to her, he would have welcomed the confrontation; he had accepted the responsibility to bring her back, then he needed to accept the responsibility to keep the situation under control. If the lead started to fly, there wouldn’t be any control, so he’d better make the right call the first time because he wouldn’t get a second chance.
He cast a furtive glance toward Briscoe and the girl— the higher in the mountains they went, the steeper the trail. Briscoe held her tight, and she struggled in his arm as it closed firmly around her. His grin spelled out in no uncertain terms where his mind was; the girl looked like she would be sick any second.
“There’s a good place ta make camp up ahead.” He knew Bodine wanted more information to save face, but he wasn’t going to get it. Johnny was walking on a razor’s edge, and he knew it; he’d have all he could handle keeping the girl out of the outlaw’s grubby hands. Briscoe constantly groped her as they rode, and Johnny didn’t think she would make it through the night without the pendejo’s attack on her person. Better have a plan, Madrid… Where the hell is Val?
His thoughts were confirmed— this was the place Johnny remembered; it would suit his purpose well, and for the second time, he contemplated the change since he was here last. He hoped that Val would remember as well.
Cipriano tensed in his saddle. Did he see it? He reined his horse to a stop and reached for the telescope in his saddle bags.
“Cip, what is it?” Murdoch asked, suddenly more alert than he’d been all day.
“A horse up ahead…” he hesitated as he brought the scope to his eye. “Barranca! It is Barr… Wait! It isn’t Johnny that rides him!”
Murdoch’s belly flipped over; fear wrapped him in cold dread. Johnny would never have let anyone ride Barranca unless… Scott reached out and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Patrón! It is the sheriff! He rides Barranca… with a woman! He’s riding with a woman!” Collapsing the glass, Cip returned it to the bags, and the three men kicked their horses into a gallop, chasing Johnny’s golden horse— but, where was Johnny?
Val heard the shout; he acted as instinct, and experience took over his every move. The Colt was in his hand without having to think about drawing it. Three riders advanced— three against one, or two if the woman could use a gun. He spurred Barranca onward; he had to find a place to hide…
“Val!” Scott and Murdoch bellowed together, relieved the volume reached the sheriff’s ears and made him stop the chase; they were rewarded when Barranca skidded to a halt as the yellow haunches nearly touched the ground.
Val could only grin in relief as he struggled to keep Libby in the saddle in front of him. “We got us some backup, Miz Yothers! Johnny’s father an’ brother are here ta help!”
Help… help for Micky! It was all that mattered— Micky and getting her out of the hands of the men who took her. The pain in Libby’s head was again pushed aside as relief flooded over her, and she couldn’t hold back her tears. Never in her life had she felt so helpless as when she left her daughter’s fate in the hands of the man with the kind blue eyes, and never had she cried so much.
Val slid off the back of the horse, then, as he got to the side, reached up to help Libby down and saw her tear-streaked face. The crusty sheriff was at a loss for what to say, but the few words he put to voice seemed to lift her spirits. “Don’t you worry, Miz Yothers, we’re gonna do our best ta bring that girl back ta ya…” The gravelly tone had the effect he hoped it would, and he smiled.
Libby nodded, then whispered, “Thank you, Sheriff.”
Their horses skidded to a stop beside Barranca; no greetings were exchanged, only brief questions, starting with Murdoch’s desperate, “Where’s Johnny?” He recognized that it was Johnny’s jacket the woman was wearing, and he was filled with dread.
“Johnny’s with the men we’re after. He…” Val stopped when he realized he never heard the whole story of how Johnny and Mrs. Yothers came to be together but knew there was no time for it now. “He’s tryin’ ta protect the girl. This’s Miz Yothers.”
Murdoch grimaced as he turned to the woman, seeing her battered face with patches of bright red and dark blue growing under her skin. “Mrs. Yothers, I’m Murdoch Lancer, Johnny’s father. This is my other son Scott, and my Segundo, Cipriano. Are you alright? Can I help…”
“Thank you, Mr. Lancer, but if you want to help me, please get my daughter back!”
“Are you alright to ride? We could…”
“Please, let’s go after them!” And without waiting for help, Libby Yothers mounted Barranca. All Val had time to do was reach to support her, but he was met with empty air as she’d already settled in the saddle.
Val climbed up behind her. “Let’s go!” And they were off, following the tracks Barranca left in Libby’s search for the sheriff, now in search of her daughter and Johnny.
Johnny was certain now this was the right way. Up ahead was the canyon; it would be perfect… if Val remembered. But there was a good chance he would have to take care of these three himself if he and the girl were to get away. Could he keep Briscoe from raping her before the chance would come for escape? Well, there was a bullet with Briscoe’s name on it, just waiting to be introduced to him. No one was going to touch that girl. Flashes of Libby Yothers’ bruised face exploded in his brain, and he vowed to protect Micky and keep her safe from further physical and mental abuse, or he’d die trying.
They reached the cold camp where Libby had left Micky. She shuddered as she looked around and remembered. The man that dragged her into the rocks was lying there, rotting in the sun. She wanted to vomit.
“Please, can we go?”
“Ma’am, we gotta rest these horses, or none of us’ll be goin’ anywhere,” Val gently explained.
Libby nodded. “Guess you should know that one of the men is up there,” she pointed to a place on the hillside.
Val squinted as he looked toward the sky. “’ ll take a look,” not asking why the man was up there. He already knew what had happened.
Scott, Murdoch, and Cipriano suspected it as Libby quickly turned away.
Val read the tracks in the dirt and, without having to be told, walked to the edge of the dropoff. Below lay the remains of a man, but he wasn’t alone. The vultures squabbled and bluffed each other as they positioned themselves to claim their stake. Val wondered if the scavengers would get a belly ache eating the rot.
With nothing to be done for the dead man below, Val came down to join the rest standing in the abandoned camp. Libby Yothers paced, not wanting to spend any more time than necessary in the place where she’s last seen her daughter. They needed to move out! While they stood here, Micky was taken further away!
“Did you find anything, Val?” Murdoch asked, anxious for something that could have information about what they were facing.
“Miz Yothers’ was right. There’s a body up there. But he’s in good comp’ny. Them vultures ain’t too p’ticular ‘bout what they eat.”
The grim reality settled in, and they forced the ghastly image from their minds. “Cip, ya find anything?” Val called out. The Lancer Segundo faced away, looking off toward the southwest.
“They went this way. The tracks are fresh, only a few hours old.”
The brief rest did them all good. The horses were ready; they mounted up and followed the trail left by the outlaws, Micky Yothers and Johnny Madrid. Gonna be a helluva night, Val thought.
He studied the terrain; yup, he’d been here before; it was looking more familiar with each passing minute. He and Johnny had chased those raiders up here and… The memory flashed brightly in his mind, and he knew what Johnny was doing!
Val pulled Barranca to a halt as the others stopped, but questions were swirling in the heads of the Lancers and Cip.
“Me an’ Johnny been up here b’fore… there’s a box canyon up the trail an’ I think that’s where Johnny’s takin’ ‘em. These trees are gonna give us enough cover so’s we kin get around ‘em an’ they won’t know a thing.”
Scott had every confidence in the scruffy sheriff, and he knew Johnny did as well. If Johnny trusted Val Crawford, that was good enough for Scott, but he was curious. If Johnny was in full Madrid form, how would they let him know it was help before he blew their heads off? “How do we let Johnny know we’re there? Personally, I don’t want to be looking down the business end of Madrid’s gun.”
“That won’t be a problem, trust me!” Val said with a smile.
Then, they moved out and continued to follow the hoofprints in the rocky soil.
The entrance to the canyon was just ahead, but with the dense trees and deepening dusk, Johnny knew that Bodine and his men wouldn’t know they were boxed in until it was too late to escape.
Water from a mountain stream burbled in pleasant musical tones confirmed it to be a suitable place to spend the night. He reined his horse to a stop, then looked to Tray Bodine.
“We camp here. It’s safe an’ there’s water.” Not waiting for an answer, Johnny dismounted, all the while ready for trouble if the itch in Briscoe’s pants got to be more than the pendejo could control.
Cal Briscoe grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her from the horse. She gasped with the manhandling, then began to cry, causing Johnny’s belly to tighten, and his hand drifted to settle on the butt of his Colt. But that’s as far as the outlaw went… for the time being. He shoved the girl to the ground near a fallen, rotted-out log and barked the order to stay put. Micky wrapped her arms around her and hung her head, heedless of the tears that stained her dress, then began to rock back and forth.
He could see Micky was trembling, scared, knowing that soon, chances were, she would be attacked, and Johnny’s heart broke for her, but he would do everything in his power to keep her safe. If she only knew he was there to help…
Where are ya, Val?
If the girl weren’t with them, Johnny would have a fair chance to hold the bastards until Val joined him, but now Cal Briscoe appeared anxious to collect his winnings from the card game. The fire that burned in his eyes spoke the plain, simple truth. Tonight he would have the girl unless Johnny could stop him.
Tray Bodine would be his best bet for taking it in a different direction— a direction that would spare Micky from rape, and now was the time to change their course… if he could.
“Hey, Bodine,” Johnny canted his head to the side, a motion for the leader to follow. They stopped out of earshot of the others but kept them in sight.
“Ya got somethin’ ta say, Madrid?” Tray asked as he slung the heavy, money-filled saddlebags over his shoulder.
“Yeah. Ya need ta let that girl go before Briscoe does his worst.”
Tray huffed out a breath. “An’ jus’ why would I do that?” he challenged.
“I’ll tell ya why; ya gotta know there’s a posse on your trail…”
“How’d ya know that?”
Johnny sighed in disbelief. “Ya just robbed a bank; I heard them two talkin’,” Johnny looked across the camp where Briscoe and Evers set up a string line.
“Ya murdered a man, an’ kidnapped two women, an’ one of ‘ems dead! Now ya want a rape charge hangin’ on your head? Let her go! We can travel faster without her.”
“She ain’t nothin’! Just a worthless farmer’s brat! What’d ya worryin’ about?”
Rein it in, Madrid… Johnny knew he had to keep from exploding. He wanted nothing more at that moment than to kill Tray Bodine where he stood. Just pull the gun an’ blow his head off… Worthless farmer’s brat… He took a deep breath and, again, wondered where Val was. He wanted to bring these pendejos in alive, but the more Bodine spouted off his vile accusations, the more he wanted to be the one to bring Madrid justice down around their ears.
“Look, I can get you through these mountains, even get ya all the way ta Mexico, but it can’t be done draggin’ that girl with us. Leave her here an’ that posse’ll find her an’ if she’s safe, it’s one less charge against ya.”
“What’s the matter, Madrid? You afraid of one little charge?”
“If you wanna be able ta spend that money in them saddlebags that ya stole, let that girl go… now, or I’m gonna take her outta here, tonight, drop her off at the nearest place I come to, an’ head ta Mexico. You three will have ta see ta yourselves. How far ya gonna get without me ta help?”
Gage Evers knew something was happening and didn’t like being left out. It didn’t take him long to see the fire that sparked in their eyes.
“What’s goin’ on?”
Neither Johnny nor Bodine said anything; they waged their war for the moment with their eyes.
And Evers felt he’d just been hit with lightning. The air was filled with hostility that left Bodine weakened and boiling mad; the agitation rose quickly, like the foam on a glass of beer, only to deflate, leaving a harmless gas in the air.
“Tray? Y’alright?” He stepped to his boss’s side, declaring his allegiance, but knowing he sure as hell didn’t want to go up against Madrid. The glare between the two lasted until Bodine turned to Evers.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m alright. Madrid here thinks we need ta turn that girl loose, though…”
Evers snorted, then smirked. “Whose the one gonna tell Briscoe he ain’t gonna collect his winnin’s? Ain’t gonna be me, I kin tell ya that right now!”
“Nobody is gonna tell anyone anything! Madrid, you ain’t callin’ the shots an’ ya just wore out yer welcome. Get outta here, now!”
The girl pulled herself in a tighter ball as the raised voices reached her ears. Cal didn’t take his eyes off Micky and, disregarding the others, reached for her. He’d waited long enough; the prize was his, and he intended to have her. As his fingers clamped on her wrist, Micky screamed, shrill and piercing.
In the split second it took to register the scream, the Colt was in Johnny’s hand faster than one could blink. It was the same wounded animal cry he’d heard from Libby up in the rocks when assaulted by Ross Colson. He knew the time had come, regardless of no backup from Val; if he was going to save the girl, this was it.
Briscoe hauled the girl to her feet, and she struggled frantically with the beast that held her captive.
“Hold it!” Johnny’s warning echoed in the darkening dusk. He stepped back, then motioned Bodine and Evers back to the campfire. “Get over there, an’ don’t do nothin’ stupid…”
Briscoe pulled the girl to him, and she screamed again, but she twisted in his arms, then lashed out with a sharp kick to his shin. He yelped, grabbed her by the hair, wrapped it cruelly around his fist before she could get away, and drew back with his hand to strike her face. It was then that Johnny pulled the trigger.
The shot echoed loudly in the still of the evening. Murdoch flinched and leaned forward in his saddle as if pierced by the lead. “Johnny’s in trouble!” Then kicked his horse and lunged ahead.
Val raced to stop him before he did something that would put Madrid in more danger than he was already. “Mr. Lancer! Stop!” He nudged Barranca and caught up with the senior Lancer before blundering his way into the unknown situation that had the potential to get Johnny and the girl very dead.
Murdoch turned on Val; the fire in his eyes burned straight into the sheriff’s soul, but Val knew it wasn’t him that Murdoch opposed. The man was scared of losing his son, knowing it was his fault that Johnny rode away from the ranch and joined up with the posse. Murdoch was enshrouded in regrets and crippling fear. There hadn’t been enough time together as a family for the patriarch to know Madrid’s capabilities in handling volatile situations, and what one didn’t know, one feared. Yes, Val was worried, but he knew Madrid better than Madrid’s own family knew him. They would have to gamble that Johnny was alright… so far.
“We can’t go chargin’ in there! It’ll get Johnny killed an’ the girl, too!” Val explained with the little time they had. Libby Yothers’ sharp gasp brought Murdoch to a clearer frame of mind. His wasn’t the only offspring involved; he would do this Val’s way.
“Then what do we do?” His sharp words demanded an answer.
“That son ‘a yers is pretty smart, Mr. Lancer. He’s led them yahoos right into a box canyon, hopin’ I’d r’member. There ain’t no way for them ta escape, but we still gotta bequiet. We ride in there all sudden like, an’ that’s gonna get Johnny an’ the girl kil… might get ‘em hurt.” Val blurted, then, out of respect for Libby Yothers, changed the comment, but it was too late. In the deepening dusk, he watched as she paled. “Miz Yothers, we’re gonna do our best ta get yer girl an’ Johnny outta there. Ya gotta trust us.”
Whether she believed the words, Val couldn’t tell, but time was wasting, and they had to move out.
Val nudged Barranca and led them further along the trail.
The girl panicked and ran into the brush, despite Briscoe’s agonized call to come back; her assailant went to his knees, clutching the bloody, bullet-riddled hand. He groaned and bent at the waist, cradling the injury. Bodine and Evers quickly moved in and launched a dual attack on Madrid; Tray jumped Johnny from behind as Evers attempted a frontal assault that did nothing but leave him stunned as Madrid’s fist that held the Colt connected with his jaw. Gage went down; his shattered bone exploded in pain as he spat teeth and blood; his eyes watered as his addled brain tried to process what had happened. Then as if to say ‘the hell with it’, Evers melted into a pile of defeat in the dirt.
Tray yanked Johnny’s arm, spun him around, then struck out with his foot and successfully dislodged the Colt from Johnny’s hand. It landed in the dirt, skidding to a stop next to Briscoe’s leg.
At that moment, Evers groaned, then struggled to his knees, and the fog began to clear; his mad flared white-hot, and he searched the ground for a weapon.
Johnny whirled, tackled Bodine, and the two men fell to the ground as Johnny landed punch after punch to the outlaw’s face.
“This’ for that ‘worthless farmer’s brat!’” Johnny slammed his fist into Bodine’s nose; an audible pop signaled broken cartilage, loud in the chilly air as blood sprayed, covering Bodine’s shirt and Johnny’s fists. “She’s a better person’n you’ll ever be, pendejo!” Another punch landed across the left cheekbone, leaving Bodine stunned and reeling.
Coming to his senses, Briscoe spotted the Colt near his leg; with both temper and pain flaring, he grabbed it in his good hand, trying for a shot at Madrid’s back, but held off when Gage Evers, armed with a stout branch, staggered between them, aimed for Johnny’s head and swung, but caught Madrid across the shoulders and back instead when the target moved.
Johnny fell to the ground in a shower of pain but shoved the agony aside, rolled, pulled his feet under him, and advanced on his adversary.
Now, he had a clear view; Cal Briscoe fired Johnny’s Colt, missed his left-handed shot, then tried for a second chance. But Madrid maneuvered Evers around to stand in the line of Briscoe’s sight and presented Gage’s back, not Madrid’s.
Evers retreated several steps as Johnny stood to face him; the demonic glare in the gunfighter’s eyes held Evers frozen for one second too long, and he felt himself thrown to the ground with the power of a charging bull; then, before Gage could blink, Madrid was on him, raining the vicious blows on his body. Evers and Madrid exchanged punches, the gunfighter landing more than the outlaw; Johnny’s rage took over, and Gage felt the brunt of Madrid’s fury.
It was plain to Briscoe that his partner was losing the battle, and soon, all Gage could do was try and cover himself and ward off the hits that could potentially prove fatal. Cal Briscoe raised the pistol for a second shot at Madrid, and his finger tightened on the trigger.
The second gunshot brought them to a skidding halt. Were Johnny and the girl alright?
“We’re close e‘nuff! Leave the horses here! Miz Yothers, ya need ta stay here. Can’t let cha go no further!”
Libby was crushed; she needed to find her daughter but understood. “Sheriff, please bring her back!”
“’ ll do my best, ma’am!” Then Val, Murdoch, Scott, and Cipriano went on foot, hoping to find the Yothers girl and Johnny alive and unhurt.
Fifty feet down the trail, Val stopped and motioned the others for quiet.
“We’re ‘bout twenty yards from the mouth of the canyon, kin see the flicker of the campfire. I figure we spread out, move quiet through the trees an’ we’ll have ‘em cornered. Once I give ‘im the signal Johnny’ll know we’re here, so’s he kin be ready. Let’s go!”
The noise from the camp echoed into the mountain air, a fistfight from the sounds of it. They all fervently hoped it wasn’t Johnny on the receiving end. Regardless of who it was giving and receiving the beating, they had to stop it and be quick about it.
Murdoch’s belly was tied in knots. What would they find when they got to the camp? Dear God, please let that girl and my boy be alright. I have much to make up for, and Johnny will know the truth of how I feel about him… He tried to pick out Scott in the growing darkness; his older son’s presence stabilized rampaging thoughts and kept him centered.
Scott wondered how Murdoch was holding up. Knowing that his actions sent Johnny galloping away from Lancer, Scott knew their father was walking a tight line, wanting another chance to set things right with his son.
Cip went to the far right, then up the tree and rock-covered slope. Taking a position that allowed him a clear view into the camp below, his breath caught in his throat; he quickly raised the rifle to his shoulder but couldn’t shoot— if he missed, he would hit Johnny. There was nothing he could do as the man with the pistol leveled it at Johnny’s head.
Val was chilled to the bone when he saw the gun pointed at his amigo, and he bellowed the order with no time to waste. “Throw down that gun! Yer surrounded!”
The outlaw jumped and gave no heed to the order. He swung the gun toward the direction where the disembodied voice had materialized, but the sudden blast from Scott’s rifle paralyzed his hand and left him crippled with pain. The yelp issued from his mouth was testament to the discomfort that thundered through him.
Val charged into the camp, followed by Scott, Murdoch, and Cip, all with one thought: Johnny was going to beat that man to death, and they had to stop him.
But the roar of Val’s order did not stop Johnny. He landed punch after punch on Evers’ body; his mad boiled over and raged within him to block out everything else; the powerful surge did not let go and sent Madrid into a human explosion of fury. But it wasn’t meant to be. Hands were pulling at him, dragging him off the bastard that thought nothing of killing, stealing what others had worked for, and kidnapping innocent women for his depraved pleasure. Madrid wanted to take care of it… his way.
He fought against the force and threw a punch, flinching when he connected with a mountain. Fight! He screamed at himself, and he did until he again met with that mountain, only this time, he took the hit; his head snapped back with the blow and ignited a bright shower of stars, then there was nothing but black.
“Johnny!” Murdoch called, then bent down to see to his son. “Scott, get me a canteen!” he ordered, ignoring the ache that traveled up his arm to his shoulder. Murdoch hadn’t intended to hit his son that hard, but there was no reasoning as Johnny did his level best to throttle the outlaw. The Patriarch searched his son for injuries; Johnny’s hands were bloody, but much of the blood was from the men Johnny had fought; bruises and a split lip were the only things Murdoch could see until he could get Johnny over to the light of the fire. He would have to wait for Scott to return with the water before he could make any determinations.
Scott found a canteen by one of the saddles around the fire and opened it to check the contents. It was water, then he handed it off to his father.
Val looked around the camp and didn’t like what he saw, rather, didn’t see. Three outlaws and no girl. Shit! Where had she gone? He strode to the man with the wounded hands and hauled him to his feet. “Where’s the girl?”
Briscoe grimaced with pain. “Huh? Girl? How the hell should I know? She’s here a minute ago…”
Val shoved him to the ground, then approached Scott as he helped Murdoch revive Johnny. “Scott, go back an’ get Miz Yothers. Her girl run off…”
Not wasting any time, Scott’s lengthy strides carried him back down the path they used to get to the canyon. He ran toward Libby Yothers and would volunteer to help find the missing daughter.
Val secured the bandits with no trouble; neither Evers nor Bodine could fight against the not-so-gentle ‘relocation’ as they were unceremoniously shoved to a position on the far side of the fire and securely tied, making Val’s watch fairly easy. Briscoe was another problem.
He shrugged away Val’s hand on his shoulder as the sheriff steered him to a place where he couldn’t cause any trouble.
“Get yer hands offa me!” The outlaw twisted, trying to dislodge the lawman’s grip.
But Val being Val, did not accommodate and used both hands to manhandle the outlaw to the designated spot. He shoved Briscoe to the ground, making him groan in pain, clutching his bloodied and aching hands close to his body as the ropes coiled around him and prevented escape.
“Cip, help me with Johnny. He’s starting to come around and will probably throw a few punches until we can calm him down.”
The Segundo covered the space between them after his role as backup for the sheriff; Val had things under control with the three pendejos, mostly thanks to Johnny’s efforts, and he hurried across the camp at Murdoch’s order.
Cipriano hunkered down, positioning Johnny between the Patrón and himself. He held his sobrino’s wrists in steady hands, spoke in low, soothing tones, and prepared himself against the flailing punches to follow. The quick reflexes prevented Johnny’s attempted attack as consciousness seeped into his sobrino’s brain and kept him still.
Murdoch detected the recognition in his son’s eyes, then raised Johnny’s head and brought the canteen to his lips, tipping it slightly until the water trickled into his mouth. A cough, then a groan issued between split lips; his eyes slit nearly closed, and a frown creased his brow.
“Murdoch?” Maybe he had taken one too many punches to the head, but Johnny’s confusion questioned what was in front of him.
“Yes, it’s me. Scott and Cip are here, and Val. Let me help you up.” Murdoch moved his arms around Johnny’s shoulders, then began to lift when Johnny gasped and pulled away. Suddenly alarmed, the panicked father began to remove Johnny’s shirt; he put his hand on Murdoch’s arm to stop the search.
“’ M fine, jus’ got smacked across my back with… somethin’, prob’bly jus’ bruised is all,” Johnny ground out. With a mighty effort, he pulled his feet under him as Cip wrapped a strong arm around his waist. Finally, he stood on his own, then shrugged off Cip’s support, although, with a severe sway, he noted his tio stayed close by his side. He attempted a smile but stopped when bruising and lip protested. “Thanks, Tio.”
Murdoch got to his feet and rubbed his aching jaw. Johnny packed a wicked punch, and Murdoch gently felt the ache with calloused fingers, then ran his tongue over his teeth, hoping that none had been knocked loose. Satisfied he would be alright, he stretched to relieve the ache in his back.
“Let’s get you over to the fire, son, so I can check you out…” but his words were cut off when Johnny rebelled.
“Told ya, ‘m fine.”
“Yes, I know, but you have an annoying habit of ‘being fine’ when you are not fine. Humor your father, will you?”
The smile started, but Johnny quickly decided it was not a good idea. His jaw was battered, and it hurt; there was no sense in making it worse, and he allowed the help and settled by the warm, bright fire.
Murdoch gently removed his son’s shirt but was interrupted in his ministrations when Briscoe voiced his displeasure.
“Hey, I got a hole through my hand, an’ I’m bleedin! What’d ya doing givin’ him special treatment?”
Murdoch turned an icy stare on the prisoner. “Because he’s my son…”Then turned back to care for Johnny as Briscoe sat wide-eyed in stunned surprise.
Johnny couldn’t help the smile that slid into place; it hurt like hell, but oh, it was worth it!
Scott made it back to Mrs. Yothers and the horses, calling out a warning that it was he who approached.
“Mrs. Yothers, it’s Scott Lancer; we need to get to the camp…”
“My daughter! Is Micky alright?” Libby was frantic; she wanted answers… and she wanted them now!
“She is, I think, but in her fright, she ran when we came into camp. Come with me, and we’ll find her. Val said Johnny led them into a box canyon, so there’s nowhere for her to go, but it could be dangerous in the dark. Follow me!”
Libby needed no further coaxing. She helped to gather the reins of the horses, then she and Scott made their way into the camp where the bastards held her daughter, praying with all her might that Micky was alright.
Arriving in camp and satisfied to see his brother conscious and talking, Scott headed off with Libby Yothers to find Micky, hoping she hadn’t gotten too far away in the deepening dusk.
Val joined them in the search, then turned to Cipriano. “Can you watch these yahoos? Gonna give Scott a hand lookin’ fer that girl.”
“Sí, Señor Val, I watch.” An evil grin stretched across Cip’s face as he settled on a boulder, positioned his rifle in his hands, ready to use, then stared at the pendejos like a hungry coyote after fat mice.
Confident that the prisoners were sufficiently guarded, Val left the camp and followed Scott and Libby Yothers into the rocky canyon beyond.
Micky stumbled and went to her knees, skinning the palms of her hands on the boulders, dried branches, and pine bark that littered the ground. Her heart pounded in her chest as she ran scared, her fright taking over logic, plunging her into the unknown. Mama, I need you! Help me! A fallen branch caught her foot, and she fell, curled into a tight ball, and lay, panting and gasping for breath.
“Micky! Micky, where are you, baby? I’m here now; let’s go home!” Libby called out as she and Scott stood still and listened for clues to the girl’s location. There was silence. Libby fought back the hitch in her throat. Where are you, baby?
Scott heard Libby when she sniffed and knew he needed to say something to keep her focused, stay positive, and not break down. Micky needed her, and they would find her soon.
“We’ll find her, Mrs. Yothers; please don’t worry, we’ll find her.”
They ventured further, always stopping to listen and get their bearings, then continuing their search. Val’s support proved invaluable, saying they would find the girl soon, that there weren’t many places she could go. The words comforted Libby, knowing in a short time, she would be reunited with her daughter.
Micky shook from head to toe. The night chill seeped into her body, and she felt like she would be sick. The ache from riding without rest and running through the rocks and boulders set her muscles into spasms as the tears flowed down her dirty, smudged cheeks.
Someone was coming! Quiet! Don’t let them hear you! Stay hidden, or they will find you, and… No, she couldn’t think about that— it would paralyze her with fear, and she needed to be able to run and hide, to stay away! But the memories of rough hands, groping and pinching… abusing, held her frozen. No, she would stay hidden; she would …
“Micky! It’s Mama! Where are you, sweetheart?”
The sob ripped from her throat as she scrambled to her feet and answered the call.
“M-Mama? Here, I’m here!”
Letting Mrs. Yothers go ahead, Scott and Val stayed close behind. The manhandling Micky no doubt received by the outlaws would be enough to make her hide from two strange men. She needed her mother.
Libby charged through trees and brush, around rocks and boulders with one thought in mind: Micky; finding her daughter was paramount, and she was near. Her heart thundered in her breast, and then, Micky was there, standing before her, a shape in the dark; her daughter…
“Johnny, here, take more water.” The Tune Caller issued an order, and Johnny accepted the canteen.
“Thanks,” Johnny suddenly stopped and looked around. “Where’s my gun?” The cold demand was unsettling as Madrid once more appeared, and Murdoch’s heart sank hearing the desperate need for his gun; it was urgent, first and foremost on his son’s mind.
With a quick search, Murdoch located the Colt, then put it in Johnny’s outstretched hand. Murdoch didn’t miss the grimace when Johnny reached out to take the weapon, and it was only then that his son began to relax.
“Thanks, Murdoch,” he grimaced again when his father examined the bruises forming across his back and shoulders.
“Sorry, son. What did he hit you with?” Murdoch’s forehead creased with a frown, wondering at the hellacious blackening on Johnny’s back.
“Hell if I know…” He looked around the edge of camp where the attack occurred and noted a stout, solid branch lying on the ground. “A guess’d be that, over there,” and nodded his head toward the weapon.
Now it was Murdoch to grimace. Six inches higher, the weapon would have caught the back of his head and probably killed him… but it didn’t, and he banished those thoughts from his mind.
“How are you feeling, son?” he asked as he reached for Johnny’s shirt and helped him into it. He pulled the cotton material over the exposed shoulders, then covered him with a bedroll.
“Thanks. ‘ M fine.”
Murdoch couldn’t hold back the smile. “Yes, of course, you are… I want you to rest, son. Let’s get you settled over here; then, I’ll start something to eat.” Murdoch leaned down to help Johnny to his feet.
“I can make it…” Johnny shrugged the hand away or tried to, but a strong arm wrapped around him and disregarded his statement. In truth, the support was comforting and made him smile… kind of. The touch was good, but the split lip didn’t like the smile.
The reunion was tearful. Relief at finding a loved one held under the most vile of circumstances and the liberation from capture cloaked the two women in profound joy. They clung to each other desperately, sharing their fears— their grief.
“Oh, baby! Are you alright? Did those men hurt you, sweetheart?” Libby held her daughter at arm’s length checking her over with a critical mother’s eye.
“No, mama, I was scared, but no one… no one…” The declaration faded into a sob that choked off any words she might have spoken. Then she collected herself and remembered the last time she saw her mother was when she was dragged away by that bad man.
“Mama,” the hiccup broke the question. “Mama, are you alright? Did that man hurt you?”
Libby pulled Micky to her once again and hugged her tightly. “No, baby, I’m alright. A man in a pink shirt came to help me…”
“Red,” a soft duet from Val and Scott echoed in the darkness.
“I think— I think he came to the camp where I was!” Micky sat staring at her mother.
“Yes, baby, he did! That was Johnny, this is Sheriff Crawford, and this is Scott, Johnny’s brother.” She nodded to the men standing several feet away, barely discernable in the dark.
Val stepped forward, and Micky gasped, still wary. In a soft voice, he spoke. “Miz Yothers, I think we better get back ta camp now. It’s gettin’ too dark ta see.”
Libby startled but agreed. “Yes, yes, you’re right, Sheriff. Thank you. Let’s go back to camp, Micky.”
A shiver from Micky prompted Scott to stop and remove his jacket, then hand it to Libby to wrap around her daughter, knowing that when they arrived back in camp, the young woman would feel more secure covered with a wrap instead of her simple dress.
Johnny tensed at the sound coming from beyond the fire. He thought it would be Scott, Val, and the women coming back, but in the world of Johnny Madrid, assuming something could get you very, very dead. The Colt was in his hand and ready to defend them.
A four-toned whistle reached all their ears, then the women, arms wrapped protectively around the other and followed by Scott and Val, came to stand by the fire. Scott and the sheriff broke the view of the three outlaws confined on the other side of camp.
Sensing the unease of the Yothers’ women, Murdoch stepped up with the bedroll blankets to wrap around themselves and shield them from the glares and leers from the prisoners intended to intimidate them.
“Thank you, Mr. Lancer! Micky, this is Mr. Lancer. He’s Scott and Johnny’s father,” Libby said, trying to coax her daughter out of retreating into herself. “It’s alright, baby, these are all good men, and they won’t hurt us. I promise.” She had to appear strong for her daughter, but inside, Libby Yothers wanted to run — back to her husband and the farm, but would she ever feel safe there again? Be strong; Micky needs all the security I can give her…
Micky quickly glanced around, then, just as quickly, lowered her eyes.
Murdoch drew the attention away from them, stating they would have a quick meal of jerky and beans, apologizing for the lack of amenities. “Then, I suggest we all try to get some rest and get an early start in the morning. We have a long way to go.”
Johnny caught the timid glance as Micky Yothers did her best to hide and ‘not be seen’. She melted into her mother’s arms as they circled her body. He smiled but couldn’t encourage the girl to return the gesture. Scared— she needs time ta settle.
Micky saw the man in the pink, ahh, red shirt. He was not one of them; he wasn’t an outlaw, but he had witnessed her embarrassment; her face flushed, and she turned away. She just wanted to go home!
“Mrs. Yothers, Micky? Would you like to come over here? You’ll be close to the fire and safe from their view.” Murdoch’s soft-toned words were welcoming as he gestured to a corner of the camp where the women would be out of sight, away from Bodine and his men.
Johnny leaned back to relieve the strain across the top of his shoulders; the ache began to build, making Johnny think of a boiling thundercloud before the storm broke in violent explosions of lightning bolts. He needed to move, shift his place and find comfort. He drew up a knee and scooted closer to the boulder as a groan escaped his lips. Quickly, he stopped; he didn’t want to promote any fussing by his father, brother, or amigo, and, fortunately for him, none of them noticed. But Libby Yothers did. She turned her eyes toward him and saw his discomfort. She also saw him shiver.
Micky had fallen asleep cuddled into her mother for safety and warmth, her head rested on Libby’s shoulder, and the mother could not move. But she felt guilty— she still wore Johnny’s jacket buttoned tightly around her.
Clearing her throat, she captured Johnny’s attention. “Are you alright, Mr. Lancer?”
Johnny smiled. “Yeah, thanks, ‘m fine,” the words honey smooth.
“Let me give your coat back to you…” and she tried to pull the bedroll tighter around her and not reveal her torn dress.
“Ma’am, I think it best you keep that jacket till we get ya home. I’ll be fine, honest.”
“But, I can see you’re hurt…”
“I’m fine, trust me. You stay right there an’ take care a that girl. She needs you by her; she needs ya ta keep her warm.”
Libby Yothers read the compassion on Johnny’s face; the need to protect. These were eyes she could trust. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer,” she whispered.
“You’re welcome; an’ call me Johnny.”
Dawn saw ten people in their saddles traveling toward Green River; beyond the town was the Lancer Ranch. Home. The word was sweet on Johnny’s tongue, but how would things settle between him and his father? Murdoch had been concerned enough out here on the trail, but the ol’ man’s not gonna change just cuz somethin’ happened an’ once we get back home, it’s gonna be just like it’s always been… The wait wasn’t easy.
Though the desperadoes were subdued, the sheriff was not assured there wouldn’t be further trouble. Val had long ago learned to trust that little niggle in his brain, and it wasn’t settling. Things had a way of ‘turning south’ and not going according to plan or schedule. No chances were taken, and nothing was overlooked.
Briscoe was hot, tired of being trussed up like a hog going to slaughter; he hurt like hell. And he was livid. Give him a cactus, and he’d eat it, spines and all. His hand was tended as best as it could be, then wrapped, and a sling was put on his arm. But to his disappointment, the rope that looped around his body eliminated any movement of that arm, securing it to his chest. The laudanum, given to him by old man Lancer had worn off, and now he seethed. So Madrid was Lancer’s brat, huh? Don’t matter. Yer time’s comin’, gunhawk. But what would he do? What could he do?
Cal Briscoe didn’t have a plan. He was wounded and outnumbered, and that big Mexican with the Winchester watched him as if he was a bug waiting to be squashed. A bandage around Evers’ head held his jaw in place, and dosed liberally with painkiller made him useless in planning an escape. Bodine wasn’t much better off with a face that looked like he’d slammed it in a door and swollen twice the size. Tray had a concussion that rendered him incapable for the time being.
Libby and Micky Yothers rode together on Ross Colson’s horse; the deceased outlaw hosted a grand dinner for the vultures and would never need a horse again. For now, Sheriff Crawford rode double with Scott; the men would take their turns riding together, and hopefully, Val’s horse could be located and would be recovered enough from the bruise to get him back to Green River.
The travel during the day was long and slow, and once out of the higher elevations, the sun beat mercilessly down, cooking them as if they were trapped in a giant oven. The afternoon dragged on, and the injured men suffered, and the more uncomfortable Briscoe became, the madder he got.
Keeping the outlaws in front, then Scott, with Val riding behind him, and Cipriano followed, all with weapons at the ready; the Yothers’ women rode at a safe distance behind them, and Johnny and Murdoch brought up the rear.
Murdoch watched Johnny in discreet sideways glances; his son was riding as if nothing was wrong— as if he had no pain, but Murdoch knew better. The force of the blow from the stout branch had left a hideous contusion, a raw and oozing sore nearly the full width of his shoulders that took on an angry black hue. But Murdoch also knew that his headstrong younger son would not tolerate the hovering, the care that Murdoch wanted to give. So he rode in silence, trying to appear as if nothing was wrong.
Amigo was right where Val had left him. There was plenty of graze, water, and a huge tree for comfortable shade. He looked like the picture of contentment, but at closer observation, he bordered on resentment that his lounging by the stream was about to be interrupted. Though not healed enough for serious travel, the bruise would be alright at a slower pace. The women weren’t up for any hard riding, and Bodine, Briscoe, and Evers looked to be done in as well.
The water was the deciding factor, and Sheriff Crawford made the call to set up camp for the night. Scott immediately took it upon himself to hunt for rabbits, grouse, or whatever he could find. They could all use something more substantial than beans and jerky.
Cipriano took up guard duty, knowing it was making their three ‘guests’ nervous with his undivided attention. Murdoch and Johnny went about starting a fire, setting up a string line, and caring for the horses. Libby and Micky Yothers took the opportunity to travel downstream to clean up. Both Scott and Johnny had given up their spare shirt carried in the saddlebags, offering all the modesty they could provide the ladies. The dresses they wore were beyond repair and too embarrassing for them to wear around the men.
The chill of the night wasn’t as cold as in the mountains; the air was crisp but tolerable. Those sitting around the fire were exhausted from the day’s travel and wanted nothing more than to go home— except for Bodine and his men. They knew their days were numbered if they got back to Green River.
Johnny sat again with the bedroll around his shoulders as he openly watched the men that were headed to jail and probably the gallows. They fidgeted under his stare and cursed the day he was born. But that was alright; he didn’t care and couldn’t hold back the smirk. He thought about earlier in the morning when the shock of their injuries wore off as they realized that the woman they thought dead, had fallen over a cliff with Ross Colson, was there in camp and very much alive. How could that be?!
And to make matters even more irritating for the prisoners, Cipriano still watched them with the eyes of a hawk and kept that hungry Winchester close.
Val took over his watch early; his gut churned as he thought how close an innocent family came to ruin. Well, he’d seen it and worse before, but the potential for tragedy was over; time to get on with the job and forget about the what-ifs. He sent Johnny to catch some shut-eye, frustrated with Madrid for his stubbornness and insisting he took his turn on guard duty.
Johnny sighed. He was done in and settled into his place around the fire, spaced at intervals with Murdoch, Scott, and Cipriano. Dios, he was tired… but not too tired to keep his Colt clutched in his hand.
The coffee was hot, and Val poured himself a cup. It sure tastes good on a night like tanight. In tune with the night sounds, Val sat, rifle in hand, and watched Bodine and his men. Briscoe had been restless and couldn’t settle, but after Bodine and Evers were fed, then dosed again with laudanum, their eyes closed, and there wasn’t another peep out of them. Except for their snores.
On nights like this, one could think— relax with his coffee, sit back and watch the stars; the moon created shades of light and dark, mix in the pop and crackle of the fire, and bet on the sparks that raced into the sky. But Val couldn’t do that. He was responsible for the prisoners, but right now, they couldn’t put up much of a fight.
Briscoe groaned; his breath came in short pants as the shoulders hunched, then it passed, and he was quiet again.
Somewhere in the night, an owl hooted; a coyote howled its lonely song but was answered seconds later. Hope ya got good comp’ny tonight, fella, Val mused. He stretched; it would soon be time to wake up Scott for his watch…
Briscoe groaned and leaned forward, his breath shallow, rasping gasps. “G-gonna be… sick!”
“Awww, shit!” Val grumbled and rose from his place at the fire. “Quiet— don’t be wakin’ the women!”
Briscoe gagged and groaned softly. He grimaced and gagged again. “Hurry…”
Val got Cal to his feet; the man doubled over, his left arm wrapped around his middle.
“C’mon, don’t want cha pukin’ in camp.” Val untied the ropes and let the outlaw get to his feet.
The man staggered and shuffled, leaning on the boulders for support, making as little noise as he could as the sheriff followed with pistol in hand. They passed the horses when Briscoe went to his knees, and the gagging began in earnest.
“Get up,” Val commanded, but the outlaw did not.
He rocked on his knees and groaned, forcing Val to step closer. With a hand on Briscoe’s arm, Val pulled him toward the stream. “Here, get some water…”
As Cal Briscoe came off the ground, his arm swung at Val’s head, and the rock in Briscoe’s hand made contact on the spot above Val’s ear. The Sheriff went down in a heap; his Colt fell from the lax fingers to lie next to his body. Cal scooped it up in his left hand, then started his run.
Briscoe froze as the target on his back grew as if he was suddenly set aflame. Could he do it? Could he manage his escape? No sense standing there thinking about it, and he whirled and fired.
It was nearly over. Get through the night, maybe one more on the trail at the most, and then he’d be sleeping in his own bed. Maybe. It depended on the old man. Johnny was done taking the blame, the implications he was always in the wrong, always having to explain himself. Murdoch expected him to make mistakes and never trusted him. Was it worth the hurt? Johnny didn’t want to leave Lancer, but he wouldn’t let his father trample his spirit, making him feel like less than nothing. It was time they came to an understanding.
Sleep wasn’t coming. The same questions stampeded around in his brain, the same questions, night after night, day after day. What was he going to do? He lay in the moonlight, thinking about his situation and considering his options.
At times such as these, Johnny wanted to kick himself in the ass for letting it bother him. He was Johnny Madrid, for shit’s sake! But he was also Johnny Lancer, and that was the thing that bothered him. Truth be told, he liked being Johnny Lancer. He liked being part of something, and mostly, part of a family. Mierda, this shouldn’t be so hard! Should he try to explain, yet again, try to talk to Murdoch about it? It had never done any good in the past… Sonuvabitch!
Johnny Madrid had handled some of the most fierce and bloody range wars and won. Why couldn’t his father trust him? Madrid was a master when it came to covering his thoughts and shielding his heart, but as Lancer, there was an ache so incredibly painful that he felt his soul shatter into millions of pieces.
Oh, hell! Stop thinkin’ about it! Johnny willed his mind blank… until he heard Val with one of the prisoners and thought to see what was happening.
His first glance told a big story, and he left his bedroll, walking with the grace of a big cat, and followed just for, you know, safety.
The bullet missed, only nicking Johnny’s arm, but Johnny’s return fire knocked the pistol out of Briscoe’s grip, tearing a hole through the left hand. Ha, Johnny thought, now he’s got a matched pair…
The shot echoed like canon fire through the night. Murdoch, Scott, and Cip were immediately awake and scanned around the camp. Then Murdoch’s belly went cold— Johnny! Where was he? No! No, please don’t let anything happen to him! I can’t lose him!
Murdoch called out; his panic over Johnny’s absence took precedence, and the word was out before he could call it back. Scott waited to hear a response before he rushed into the unknown. Would he find his brother alive? What had happened?
Johnny wondered if his father’s call was made in anger for not being where he should be, or would it be the concerned father worried about his son? Well, he would know in a few minutes.
“Over here, past the horses,” he returned.
Scott turned to Cip, nodded to the two remaining prisoners, and the Segundo again took guard duty.
In seconds, Murdoch and Scott charged into view, guns drawn, ready to face danger, but what they found was Johnny covering the wounded outlaw while doing his best to rouse Val.
“Johnny!” Murdoch exploded, “What happened?”
Scott heard his brother sigh, knowing he prepared for another dressing down from their father and hoped that long overdue father-son talk would happen… and soon.
Val began to stir; the groan was pitiful as the sheriff fought toward the voice that had seen him through much worse injuries in the past. He clawed his way to the surface toward that voice he knew, then struggled to sit up as Johnny held the bandana to the bleeding gash on his head.
“Easy there, Sheriff,” Johnny said, his quiet words soothed, although Val would never admit it. “Ya got quite a gash there on your head. Best take it slow for a while, amigo.”
“Johnny! Are you…” Murdoch couldn’t wait; he had to know if his son was alright.
“Fine. Quiet down, ol’ man, can’t ya see the sheriff ain’t feelin’ so good?” Then Johnny looked at his brother. “Boston, can you see to it this pendejo gets back ta camp an’ tied up?”
“It would be a pleasure, brother!” Scott turned to the huddled prisoner. “Come on, pendejo, back to camp!”
“Gemme on… my feet, Johnny.” Val ground out as he squinted his eyes and fought the explosions inside his head and the rolling of his belly.
Johnny hooked his arm under Val’s and helped him to stand, then released the hold but stood close in case Val had any problem moving under his own power. Head wounds could be unpredictable, and he would be there should Val need help.
“Son,” Murdoch began as his heart pounded in his chest. “Johnny! You’re hurt!” But Johnny didn’t stop; he looked into his father’s face, then motioned to the camp with a jerk of his head.
He shrugged off the help until Val was settled and tended. He couldn’t put Murdoch off any longer, finally accepting the offer from Libby to look at his arm. Murdoch hunkered down, offering the needle and what was left of the thread after closing the wound on the sheriff’s head; her stitches were neat and uniform, and the crease was sewn shut in record time.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Johnny said with a tired smile and a deep sigh.
“It’s the least I can do, Mr. Lan…”
“Johnny.” The corner of his mouth twitched and relieved the tenseness of the situation.
“Johnny, then. Micky and I want to thank you for what you’ve done for us.” The bruised face stared, bearing her heart and soul.
He nodded once. “You’re welcome, ma’am,” then he turned to Micky, who huddled at her mother’s side. His grin was infectious, but he saw her struggle to keep a smile from her face… he was still a stranger and one associated with the recent trouble. But Johnny saw it and coaxed it to light, although briefly.
“I think it would be best if you rested now Mr. … Johnny.”
“Yes, ma’am, an’ thanks again.” Johnny accepted the hot coffee she placed in his hand and settled in to wait for the reprimand he knew was coming.
What’s he waitin’ for? Just say it an’ get it over with… But when he met Murdoch’s eyes, they weren’t filled with the anger Johnny expected.
“Johnny, could I speak with you for a minute, son?” He didn’t wait for a response and moved off outside the camp.
Hell, he’s sure happy about tellin’ me not ta come home… Johnny sighed, then got to his feet and followed the mighty Murdoch Lancer, knowing this was the end of the short-lived family life he’d only recently found.
Murdoch stood looking out over the rolling hills of California and remembered his first glimpse of the countryside. He was stunned as he and then wife, Catherine, discovered what would be their home. But it wasn’t meant to be. He’d lost the precious dream when she died, and Scott was taken back East. Then he lost again with Maria, but this time it was different. He’d had Johnny, his beautiful little boy, for two years; he had fallen completely in love with the little whirlwind with jewel-like eyes and silky bouncing curls. The heartbreak was debilitating, and Murdoch Lancer never completely recovered. Then, years later, the dreaded report confirmed that his little boy was the cold-hearted killer, Johnny Madrid— How did that happen to his precious little whirlwind?
The sigh behind him told him that he was no longer alone. How did his son move without making a sound? His steps were those of a cat, silent and sure.
Johnny’s stubbornness kicked in, and he waited. He wasn’t going to make this easy for the old man.
Murdoch didn’t turn; he kept his watch toward the comfort of the scene before him, hoping to draw strength from the land— strength to get him through these next few minutes and say the things he should have said long, long before this moment.
“I had such dreams when I came here. There was a new world here in California, and I wanted to have it. But it didn’t happen how I thought it would. Somehow my plans failed…” He was making a mess of this. Why was it so hard to talk to Johnny?
Johnny’s blood pounded in his head. Why the hell don’t cha just say, ol’ man? Say how I was a mistake — get it said… Johnny took a breath; he held his temper, but his anger was screaming to let itself be known.
“Funny you can spout them hard words all ya want givin’ me orders, then criticize the job I do, but lemme tell ya somethin’, ol man, there ain’t no callin’ ‘em back. Once said, they’re out there, forever.” Johnny waited for a response. Maybe there wasn’t one coming, but Johnny wanted Murdoch to admit what he’d done
Murdoch had chased many things in his life— his dreams, he’d chased cows and caught them, and he chased his wives and caught them, too, but he couldn’t chase, then call back those ugly, vile words he’d thrown into his son’s face every time he had questioned Johnny about the jobs he worked, the fences lines he put in, and not taken his son at his word. Why had he done that?
Was he afraid Johnny would leave Lancer and Murdoch would have to bear the agony of loss once again? Was it guilt for not finding Johnny all those years after Maria died? He had to explain, but how could he justify the doubts and mistrust he knowingly threw in his younger son’s face when there was no justification for them? But he had to try.
Slowly he turned to face the anger that he knew was there; Johnny’s eyes were like fire, daring him to make an excuse.
So, he didn’t. “I’m going to tell you something that should have been said after you and Scott came to live at Lancer.”
Johnny waited for the statement that would forever sever the ties to the only home he’d ever known— to the only family he’d ever known. Get yourself ready, Madrid…
“I’ve been wrong, Johnny; I admit it, and I regret every second that has gone by that I haven’t told you. I’m not a man that shows … what’s in his heart, and I’m so sorry. I let myself be influenced by my worries— the things I thought would happen instead of realizing what I had. I was expecting that you would not settle down and that you would leave. I couldn’t bear it if that happened, son. I intentionally built walls around myself… self-preservation without considering the effects my actions had on you. And as pathetic as it sounds now, I am truly sorry…” He held Johnny’s stare and waited. “Can you forgive me, Johnny?”
What would he say to that? Did he believe Murdoch? Yes, the old man had never lied to him before- that was one thing he knew was true. Damn! This ain’t what I figured it would be! Didn’t count on him apologizin’! I was ready for a fight! Johnny shrugged and kicked a stone at his feet. Madrid was better at dealing with rejection than with Murdoch’s vulnerabilities.
He put his hands on his hips, then grimaced. Oww, don’t do that again, he thought when the stitches in his arm pulled. Damn, the ol’ man ain’t makin’ it very easy. But these few words didn’t make up for the bitter mistrust thrown at him by one of the two people that held the power to crush his heart in their hands. Did Murdoch honestly feel Johnny could so easily forget the pain he wrapped so tightly around his son? That one little ‘I’m sorry, son’ could heal the damage caused to his heart and soul?
He ran the fingers through the thick, shaggy hair, then turned his attention to his father with the question on his lips until Murdoch spoke again.
“Johnny, it scares me like nothing I’ve ever had to face before when you so willingly sacrifice yourself; you put yourself at such risk and throw yourself into danger without a thought for your safety! Why do you do that, son? One day you won’t…” Murdoch couldn’t finish. “I want you to come home, live out your life and grow to be an old man at Lancer!”
Mierda, he looks like he’s tellin’ the truth, but he’s got more explanin’ ta do… “Why you tellin’ me all this now? What makes ya think that things are gonna change?”
“Because, Johnny, I’m going to change. I’ll make you that promise right here, right now, and you know that I keep my word. I was afraid and didn’t know how to handle my fears, but it helps to admit it, and, well, I hope you will give me a chance to prove it. I never meant to hurt you, son, and I want us to be a family. Johnny, I’ve always wanted you to stay at Lancer but was afraid you wouldn’t, and I couldn’t have stood losing you again.”
Aww, hell! Johnny smirked. Val had been right— Murdoch was afraid of losing him a second time.
“So, you didn’t want to chance gettin’ close to me… to love me?”
Johnny hit the truth with the statement square in the center and made Murdoch acknowledge the fact. He stared at his father, not giving him a chance to look away. Say it, Murdoch, please say it!
Murdoch smiled. “Yes, Johnny, I was afraid to admit it, but I’ve always loved you, son. You and Scott are the two most important people in my life!”
Madrid had just struck gold… Johnny chuckled. “Don’t forget T’resa!”
“Teresa, too! And I promise that I’ll never lose sight of that fact again!” He chanced to cross the distance to stand face to face with the son, almost lost to him forever.
Johnny’s smile told him volumes, but it was the look in his son’s eyes that said those million words that couldn’t be put to voice. Words of family and love.
“Let’s get back to camp, son.” He wrapped his big arm over Johnny’s shoulders and inadvertently bumped the wound.
“Oww!” Johnny grumped.
“I’m sorry, Johnny. Let’s get a sling on that arm!”
“Nah, I’m fine…”
Ed Yothers held his family and cried. They were safe! And now they were home again! Although insisting she was fine, Murdoch assured Libby that Doctor Jenkins would come… just to make sure. It would be an overnight trip for the doctor, so Libby needed time to prepare for the arrival.
Their goodbyes, heartfelt and with a promise of a visit from the Lancer family, Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny rode after Val and Cip as they headed straight for Green River’s jail. Nothing would please Johnny more than to see those pendejos behind bars.
And now, it was time to head home for Lancer. Home. It was a pretty word.
He could hear the boys bantering with Teresa in the great room. They teased her about William Hanson, the young boy that would escort her to the upcoming dance.
“Ya know, T’resa, it won’t be no trouble ta go with you two, you know, protection from bandits and such…” Johnny said convincingly.
Scott joined in offering his services, too. “He’s right, Teresa, you never know when trouble will start, and you can’t have too much protection!”
“You wouldn’t dare!… Would you? You know how much I’ve wanted Billy to ask me to the dance! Why do you want to spoil it for me?” she protested, convinced her brothers were not kidding her.
“Spoil it?!” The duet from Scott and Johnny drifted to Murdoch’s ears, and he chuckled, knowing that both his sons would do anything to protect their sister from harm, even if it meant ruining her much anticipated date. And he laughed. He hadn’t felt this good in a long time.
Murdoch looked west over Lancer’s mountains. It always gave him solace; it was peace. And so was knowing his boys were home… to stay.
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18 thoughts on “Sacrifice by Buckskin”
Oooo I loved this. Thankyou so much for giving this to us.
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Hi, Jane Louise
Glad you liked this story. Right or wrong, JML will handle things his way, and get the job done. You are welcome, and thank you for reading and commenting! It is much appreciated.
Fantastic story. Loved the adventure, loved Scott pushing Murdoch into opening up and most especially loved Johnny. This was a wonderful line too “Sleep was a thing of wind and wings, almost there, then suddenly whisked away.”
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Hi, Char! Thanks for reading and very happy you liked this tale. It’s so easy to vilify Murdoch where Johnny is concerned, so Scott had his work cut out for him in making Murdoch understand exactly what he was doing. And Johnny was Johnny, doing things his way. To quote the High Riders, you had your plan, I had mine. Thank you for pointing out that line you liked! I appreciate it!
Another great story, beautifully written. Thank you.
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Hi, Helen, Thank you! I’m happy you enjoyed the story and appreciate you telling me! It means a lot to me!
Another great story! Thank you for sharing your talents by writing Lancer stories.
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Hi, Barbara! You are very welcome and thank you for reading my Lancer World! I appreciate it!
Sacrifice-like all your stories, is unputdownable-thank you for sharing this special story with us.
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Hi, Debra! I LOVE it! ‘Unputdownable’! You are very welcome and I happy you enjoyed this tale and thank you for letting me know!
I love the raw emotions you made tangible for each of the Lancer men in this story. And it’s always fantastic to have Val along for the ride. Thanks for sharing this gem.
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Hey there, Chris!
Thank you, Chris. Your words mean a lot to me! Murdoch on one side, Johnny on the other and Scott in the middle… all three had their work cut out for them. Thank you for reading and commenting!
Again a fantastic story. Thanks for sharing it
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Thank you so much! I very happy you liked this story! And, you are welcome!
I always love your stories, especially when you include Val. Glad to see that Murdoch came to his senses. Thanks for sharing.
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Lesley I do apologize for overlooking your feedback! I am so sorry!
Thank you for commenting on this story and for your continued support of my Lancer World. I”m so happy that you liked this one. Val is always fun to write, and he adds a lot to the plot. Murdoch did not know how to show his feelings and was definitely not very good at it, was he? But he was learning!
Thank you again, and again, I’m sorry this response is so late!
This was a really great read. I’m glad everything worked out for the ladies and Johnny. Thanks for sharing your talent and keeping Lancer land alive. JML always ♥️
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Hi, Ruby, I’m happy you liked this story. Yes, although scared and a little roughed up, Johnny, Val, Scott, and Murdoch were able to keep the ladies relatively safe and get them home. Fortunately, Johnny and Murdoch were able to finally find common ground and iron out a few things. Thanks you for reading and commenting on my Lancer World!