Thanks to Cat and Rob for the beta
Liberties taken with dates and places
No intention of slighting the Crow Nation.
All mistakes are mine
Word count: 27,885
Flint and obsidian tipped arrows sliced through the chilled afternoon air and chased the bullets fired with deadly precision. Chiseled, razor edges pierced deep into muscle of the bodies crumpled on the cold, hard ground. Lances thrust forward in life-ending jabs created large, ragged holes that penetrated organs and ripped them to pieces. Seven people lay dead in the quiet of the low afternoon sun. The only sound heard in the cold air was the hoofbeats of horses thundering away and the whoops and yells of their riders.
“What’d ya think, Boston? Another mile or two before we get there?” Johnny Madrid Lancer was tired. Cold and tired. He wondered if he would ever get used to the lower temperatures and thought, at this moment, that hell was probably cold, too. If it was this frigid this soon, he shuddered to think of the temperatures when winter finally arrived.
The train car didn’t provide much protection from the chill. Johnny swore he could feel air leaking between the window and the frame, and every time the conductor wandered through the cars, the open door let the outside air in, freezing him all over again.
“It shouldn’t be too far now. We’ll get a nice dinner, check into a hotel with a hot bath, warm blankets, and a comfortable bed, and tomorrow, brother, you’ll feel like a new man!” Scott smiled, amused at his younger sibling. Quickly wiping the grin from his face, he decided to cut his brother some slack. It wasn’t Johnny’s fault he grew up in a place where the temperatures were hot and hotter.
In all honesty, Scott had to admit the damp and cold were a wicked combination. However, his Boston roots provided a cushion of sorts, a tolerance built up, leaving him a modicum of acclimation in this climate.
Johnny had experienced rain, of course. Mexico had rain… sometimes. And he’d been in the cold. Nighttime in the desert could be brutal, but never the wet and numbing cold that shrouded him in misery in this northern mountain range. Well, he’d been through rough spots before, and he would manage this situation, too. He only wished they’d get this chore done and get back home before his blood froze in his veins.
Murdoch was a good man, and sometimes he stretched his benevolence a bit far. But this went beyond benevolence, Johnny knew. This was the kind of thing you did for a good friend.
Murdoch Lancer had known Bill Whitaker for over twenty-five years. Murdoch and then-wife, Catherine, and Bill and his wife, Suzanna, had settled in the San Joaquin Valley around the same time. They had weathered storms of every type together; floods, drought, fire, and unseasonal snow, but not all storms were caused by nature. Stampedes took their toll on humans and animals alike, but there had also been outlaws, sickness, and pestilence. Life and death situations that left one leaning on his friends. And friends they were. The Lancers, Whitakers, and Conways pulled together for survival. And they persevered, leaning on each other and always there for support.
Pulling his coat tighter around his shoulders and hugging his arms around his body, Johnny thought back on the conversation with Murdoch that began this errand four days ago.
He walked into the estancia from a long and trying day, working with ornery cattle to find Murdoch sitting at his desk with a crumpled paper in his hand. The old man had a sadness about him, and Johnny caught a flash of grief that shaded his father’s eyes.
“Hey, Murdoch, what’s wrong?”
At first, the Lancer Patriarch did not move, did not answer, prompting Johnny to repeat his question.
Murdoch looked up as if surprised. “Johnny, I didn’t hear you come in. Did you say something, son?”
“Yeah, I asked if you were alright. Ya look kinda sad. Anything wrong?” What happened to make his father this distracted, Johnny didn’t know, but he found himself anxious to help put Murdoch at ease and to chase away the thoughts that plagued him.
“I need to talk to you and your brother. Where’s Scott?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny tapped his fingers against his thigh as he looked to the door. “He was right behind me, should be here any second.”
Murdoch nodded his head but said nothing.
Johnny sat waiting for Scott, wondering why Murdoch wore this mantle of worry. His imagination running circles in his head was interrupted when the back door opened, then closed, and Scott Lancer entered the room.
“Johnny, you know, you ought to know better…” but stopped his teasing as he took in the frown on Murdoch’s face. Concern, identical to that of his brother, clouded Scott’s features.
“Murdoch, what’s wrong?” Scott asked, looking between his father and brother. Did Johnny know what was bothering Murdoch? Had they been fighting already?
“Sit down, Scott. I need to discuss something with the two of you.” Murdoch sighed, then looked from one son to the other. “I just received word that a dear friend and his wife were killed… in an Indian attack.”
Scott and Johnny exchanged a glance.
“Where?” Johnny asked. There hadn’t been any conflict with the Indians for a few years now.
“Wyoming, north of Riverton. His name was Bill Whitaker. This is from his lawyer.” Murdoch held up the wrinkled paper clutched in his hand. “It seems that Bill named me executor to his will. They had no children; it will be up to me to take care of the estate. There’s not much to do other than the standard things, which is why, tomorrow, we will head into town and meet with our attorney to have this legalized.” Murdoch looked into his son’s confused faces.
“Legalize what, Murdoch?” Scott asked, hesitating.
Johnny took a deep breath. He had a feeling he already knew what was going to happen. He waited for his father’s explanation that confirmed his suspicions.
“You two will be going to act in my stead. Mr. Randall will notify Bill’s attorney, and you will take care of the legalities. Then, you two will leave immediately. There is no way that I can go with my back acting up like it is. As the particulars are already documented in the will, it should be cut and dried. When the two of you get there, you are to see a Mr. Raymond Evers, Bill’s attorney; he will help you navigate the disposition of the ranch and belongings.” Murdoch sat back in his chair and sighed.
“Murdoch, I’m sorry about your friend. Do they know exactly who killed him or when it happened?” Johnny asked.
“I don’t know anything more than what this wire told me,” Murdoch said as he held out the wrinkled missive.
Scott moved to take the paper from his father’s hand. He read it carefully then reread it. He took a seat next to Johnny and sighed. Indians were suspected of killing the Whitakers and their hands five days ago.
“How long had you known him?” Scott inquired.
“Before you were born, Scott. Bill and Suzanna came here just after Catherine and I settled at Lancer…”
For the rest of the evening, Murdoch told of the friendship and struggles, the coming together in their early lives that sealed their bond of friendship. Bill and Suzanna Whitaker had seen Murdoch through dark times. First, after Catherine’s death and the subsequent loss of Scott, then the loss of Maria and Johnny. They had been there for Aggie Conway after her husband, Henry, suddenly passed away. They were family, not of blood, but a family with strong bonds, attachments forged together in times of joy and tragedy. And now, they were gone.
The Riverton Hotel stood at the corner of the main intersection of town. Scott and Johnny secured a room, ordered a bath, then left for the dining room after cleaning up. The meal served in a timely manner was excellent, easing the hunger and leaving the Lancer brothers to set about the next step of their duties.
Locating the law office of Raymond Evers, they entered the building to find the attorney behind his desk with neat stacks of papers covering the top. He looked up as the two men entered his neat and orderly office.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. How can I help you?” he asked in a pleasant tone while he adjusted the wire-rimmed spectacles as they perched on the end of his sizeable beak-like nose.
Scott took the lead and spoke. “Yes, Mr. Evers, I think you can help us. We’re here on our father’s behalf. Murdoch Lancer. He was not able to make this trip. My name is Scott Lancer, and this,” Scott motioned to his left, “is my brother Johnny.” Scott reached into his jacket pocket to remove an envelope sent by Lancer’s attorney, Richard Randall.
“Here are the documents from our lawyer, Mr. Randall, verifying we are who we say we are.” Scott handed the envelope to Evers.
“Yes, he wired me to tell me you would be coming and not your father. Please, gentlemen, have a seat. This will only take a moment,” Evers declared as he scanned the letter signed with Randall’s signature. When he finished, he extended them a warm smile.
“Thank you for coming. It has been a difficult time for us here in Riverton. The loss of Bill and Suzanna was a terrible blow to all that knew them. There isn’t a person here that hasn’t been touched by the Whitaker’s kindness.”
Johnny sat quietly, mulling over the attorney’s words, while Scott began asking questions regarding the murders.
“Is there a suspect in custody? We were told Indians were responsible.”
Mr. Evers sat back in his chair. “No, no suspect. There is a band of Crow, the Wind River Crow, that lives in the valley north of Whitaker’s ranch, and there was a trail of unshod horses going in that direction. But no one has been charged, and I have to say things are getting a bit… tense around here. Folks here want justice, and our sheriff has his hands full keeping the peace and discouraging any more lynchings.”
That spurred Johnny’s attention. “What’d ya mean ‘any more lynchings? Someone got strung up?” No real proof, but depending on the folks that lived in the area and how they felt about the Indians, the Crow would be the likely culprit, simply because they were Indians.
“Unfortunately, yes. A young Indian from the tribe was found hanging from a tree in the Whitaker’s yard. He befriended Bill and Suzanna. They spent time teaching the young man English and how to read. But, it didn’t work out very well…” Evers lowered his eyes to his desk.
“A man was hung without proof he was the murderer? Is there an on-going investigation?” Scott questioned, not liking where this was leading.
Evers didn’t want to debate the issue; these men were, after all, outsiders. “The sheriff is doing all he can to solve this crime. What I can tell you is, the people here want justice…”
“Justice without a trial, huh? That’s murder,” Johnny interrupted. “The sheriff have any leads?” he asked as he sat forward in his chair.
“Nothing solid. Only that the Indian that was hanged had Bill’s pocket watch on him. Like I stated before, the sheriff has his hands full.”
Johnny met his brother’s eyes, both thinking there was more to this than what Attorney Evers told them.
“Havin’ a pocket watch ain’t proof. Maybe Whitaker gave it to him,” Johnny persisted, feeling the old injustices rising again. Injustices he knew all too well.
Raymond Evers hoped these two didn’t have it in mind to ruffle any feathers. They seemed like nice young men, and they didn’t deserve to get tangled up in whatever was happening around here. Evers had not expected them this soon but would be relieved when the two men would tie up the loose ends and be on their way. He got the impression the Lancers would want to investigate the situation themselves from the looks in their eyes and the questions they were beginning to ask. He needed to turn the conversation down another path but didn’t miss the wary glances they continued to exchange.
“First thing in the morning, why don’t we drive out to the ranch. I can show you around, and that will give us a chance to talk more on the way there.” With the preliminaries over and legal documents signed, Evers stood to shake hands and bid the Lancers a good evening.
Once on the boardwalk, Johnny searched for the saloon. “I need a drink, Boston.” And not waiting for Scott, he crossed the street, looking up and down along the dusty road that ran the length of the town.
The dimly lit saloon boasted only a few patrons, locals enjoying a bit of social time. Giving the interior a once over, Johnny pushed through the batwings to scout out a table in the back of the smoky room. A tall, thin man with a garter around his upper arm pounded out a lively song on an out-of-tune piano; the tinny music resonated off the yellowed walls, a dying voice to accent the already dead interior.
“I’ll get us a beer, brother,” Scott volunteered, and Johnny sat, scanning again the faces that occupied other tables. What did they know about the hanging? He wondered. Friendly poker games were in progress, coins thrown into the pots as the players consumed their beers, and amiable conversations and laughter filled the air. It seemed like a nice quiet town, so far, but then things weren’t always what they appeared to be.
Scott returned and handed Johnny his drink. “Now, just remember, brother, you buy the next round,” Scott teased, reminding his brother about the future beers he would be paying for. Johnny did tend to forget things like that.
“Sure, Boston, my turn…” Johnny murmured distractedly as troubling thoughts swirled in his head. Would he be able to do anything about it? Could he?
“Is something the matter, Johnny?” Scott asked after observing his brother for several troubling minutes.
Johnny sighed, then took a drink from his glass. He sat the mug on the scarred tabletop and stared as if deep in contemplation. He sighed again and skirted the main issue careening inside his head. “I dunno, Scott. I don’t like goin’ through someone’s personal belongings. I mean, their things, the house… that’s their life an’ who are we ta be diggin’ through all of it?”
Now it was Scott’s turn to sigh. “I know what you’re saying, brother, but this is what Mr. Whitaker wanted of Murdoch. With him unable to come, he designated us to carry out Whitaker’s wishes. Look at it this way, Johnny, it’s an honor if you think about it. A man trusting you to see to his affairs is an incredibly important duty.”
“Yeah, I get it, but I don’t like it… makes me feel I’m stickin’ my nose in where it don’t belong.” Johnny shrugged; he would need to settle a few things in his mind before discussing the other issue that was nagging him.
Scott finished his beer. “Come on, brother, we need to get some sleep so we can meet Mr. Evers tomorrow.”
Shoving away from the table, the Lancer brothers crossed the saloon catching the phrases ‘murderin’ redskins’ and ‘kill ‘em all’ coming from various tables, confirming the consensus of those in the saloon. Scott and Johnny made their way to the hotel and up to their room, only to lie awake for much of the night.
The day dawned bright and cold. Scott and Johnny rode on rented mounts beside Mr. Evers buggy northwest out of town as the attorney chatted about the area and the folks that lived there.
“If you decide to sell the place, I can help you with that. I know a few that might be interested. But that’s entirely up to you. It’s not a large ranch. Whitaker only had five people working for them; they were murdered along with Bill and Suzanna.”
“And you’re sure the Indians did it? No question about it?” Scott asked, knowing that Johnny was thinking the same thing.
“As I told you yesterday, there was a trail of unshod horses leading away from the house toward the Crow village, but they lost the trail and haven’t been able to pick it up. Funny, though, we never had any trouble with the Crow until this. The sheriff’s had a hard time keeping a few of the locals from raiding the village. There’s a young man that was very close to the Whitakers, was like a son to Bill and Suzanna. It hit him quite hard, and he became almost wild when he heard the news. He and his father have the next ranch over. The Gage ranch borders the Whitakers on the east side.
“You two feel free to stay at the ranch. No sense running back and forth every day, but that’s up to you. Here, the road is here. Follow me, please.” Evers turned down a narrow lane that eventually led into a small yard.
The clapboard house nestled in a grove of tall lodgepole pines. The two-story white home, once neat, now sat abandoned, alone. A large barn stood behind the house to the left, the doors bolted shut, but the loft door gaped open as if in defiance, begging to tell its secret. The place felt haunted.
“Where’s his stock?” Johnny asked as he gazed over the empty corrals.
“Dan Gage and his son, Reed, took them over to their ranch to care for them. They said it was the least they could do for the Whitakers. They’d been close for a long time.” Evers cleared his throat. “Some of the cattle are still in a pasture behind the house. Well, why don’t I show you around?”
Johnny dismounted but suddenly stopped to stare at a cottonwood tree that grew in the yard off to one side, its sturdy branches waving gently in the breeze. Bet that’s where it happened.
After a quick tour of the immediate area, Evers, followed by Scott and Johnny, stepped up on the front porch. Dirt and dust coated the boards of the decking. It didn’t seem right that there was no one living there. It was as if entering a man’s home with him there to let them in, but the attorney produced a key, and they walked into the house.
Once inside, Evers stood and sighed. The last time he was in this house, his friends were alive, smiling, and happy.
“The kitchen is through here, and behind that door will take you upstairs. I’m sure you’ll find everything you need.”
Then the attorney produced a packet of documents and took them to the desk in the corner of the living room. He set them down along with the key to the front door.
“Here is the deed for the property and papers for the stock. And I have your signatures on all the legal documents you signed yesterday, so unless you have any further questions, I’ll be on my way and leave you two to your work.” Mr. Evers looked between the Lancer brothers and waited.
“I think we have everything we need, Mr. Evers, and thank you for your time. I’m sure we will be speaking again before we leave.” Scott extended his hand, and Evers clasped it and shook.
“If there is anything more I can do, please don’t hesitate to ask. Well, I should be going.” Raymond Evers started for the front door.
“Mr. Evers, just one more thing,” Johnny spoke up, not ready to let the man go until he asked. He had to know for himself.
“Yes, Johnny? What can I help you with?” Brows raised over wide eyes.
“What direction is the Crow village?” The stare pierced Raymond Evers, not letting go until the attorney answered the question.
Johnny took stock, looking around the room that had recently been home to Murdoch’s friends. A large bookcase took up one wall, with books in disarray and spaces where tomes had been removed and others not put back into place. He was positive that Scott would be going through it carefully. It was possible that certain volumes would be of interest to Murdoch, as well. A sad smile touched his lips, knowing their father would appreciate a memento or two from Bill Whitaker.
As he surveyed the room, his eyes fell on a gun rack tucked in the corner. He strode closer to the oak cabinet and could only admire the fine rifles displayed there, coated with a fine layer of dust. In Johnny’s mind, it was sinful to see this caliber of weaponry in such a state. But he knew it wasn’t out of carelessness. And he was sure this was something from Bill that Murdoch would treasure and hold in the highest regard. Well, there’s one thing decided.
“Let’s start at the desk. I’m inclined to agree with you, Johnny. I’m not looking forward to going through personal belongings, but we need to make sure all bills were paid, and we might want to look over the ranch ledgers and tie up any loose ends. Pull up a chair, brother, and we can get this started.”
The softly spoken words seemed loud in the room. After lighting a fire to ward off the chill, Johnny sighed and, knowing Scott was right, settled on the couch with a drawer from the desk at his side. It was mind-numbing work, and although things were neat and orderly, it would take hours to read all the documents that stuffed the wooden drawers. Separating and organizing the papers, Johnny soon had several neat stacks covering the cushion next to him.
The words began to blur. Apparently, Mr. Whitaker kept every receipt he incurred from feed to stock and supplies to their clothing. And Johnny could look no more. That was it. He had to stop before his head exploded off his shoulders. He stood, pulled on his coat and hat, and headed out the door.
“You alright, Johnny?” Scott asked before the door closed.
“Yeah, I guess. Just need some air, is all.”
Scott sighed and sat back in the chair. The mountain of papers was growing, as was his headache. Johnny was definitely on to something. He pulled his feet under him and followed his brother out the door.
Again, Johnny stood in the yard, staring at the giant cottonwood tree with a sturdy, low-hanging branch. Was this the tree they used to hang a man? If only the breeze that sang in the branches could whisper the truth, could tell them what had happened.
“What do you think, brother? Should we stay here tonight or head back into town?” Scott asked. He knew Johnny was apprehensive regarding the whole affair and would bet much money that his brother would not want to spend any more time here than he had to. And Scott was of the same opinion.
Johnny gazed at the tree a moment longer. “We didn’t bring any supplies. Doubt if there’s any food here. Let’s go ta town an’ spend the night an’ get a fresh start tamorrow. You’re right. The sooner we get this taken care of, the sooner we get home.”
“You want to get the horses saddled, brother? I’ll see to the fire and lock the house.”
It was dark before Scott and Johnny made their way back to town. The saloon was coming alive. Bright lights flooded through the windows out into the street as the tinny music filtered through the chill of the night air. A woman’s laugh, shrill and piercing, made the horses side-step and prance.
“Scott, why don’t you get us a room, an’ I’ll put in an order for some supplies ta get us through the next coupla days? I’ll meet ya in the hotel dinin’ room. Order me a steak, would ya?”
Scott nodded. “I’ll see you there, brother. And, you are buying, aren’t you?” he asked with a smile.
“Only if you’re dreamin’!” Johnny smirked. The Lancer brothers parted, going about their designated errands.
“C’mon, Boston, I’ll buy ya that drink,” Johnny sighed as he drained the coffee in the blue and white cup. The satisfying meal now taken, and it was time for relaxation.
“I’ll take you up on that. It sounds like an excellent idea, Johnny, that I may have more than one!” Shrugging into their jackets and retrieving their hats, the Lancers left the dining room and headed for the noisy saloon down the street.
The Rocky Mountain Saloon was an old establishment in need of repair. Johnny could have sworn the yellowed paper on the far side wall was dirtier now than when they were here last night. A smoky blue-gray haze clouded the room as working girls and the men they serviced drank and danced in the crowded confines. Tables covered with cards and money held the attention of cowboys that bluffed over the losing hands gripped in dirty fingers.
Scott and Johnny settled at a table along the wall in the back. The glasses of beer, cold and refreshing, already half gone, had the two thinking about a refill.
“How long ya figure it’ll take us ta go through all them papers, Boston?”
Scott sighed as he swallowed and licked a bit of foam from his lip. “Oh, I don’t know, we went through a lot of it this afternoon. If we keep at it, we could be done in a day or two, but that includes going over the ranch ledgers and depending on whatever else we find.”
“I never asked Murdoch if he wanted anything from the house. He say anything ta you, Scott?”
“Not much, only that he suggested we talk to Mr. Evers to see about donating what could be used to an orphanage or maybe there would be a family in need. Unless there’s something that would have any meaning for him, I say we give it to those in need.”
Johnny smiled. Murdoch Lancer was a generous man. His benevolence had touched many in the San Joaquin Valley and would do so here, as well.
“I think Murdoch would like Whitaker’s guns. Did ya look at them? He’s got some beauties in the gun rack,” Johnny informed his brother.
Before Scott could comment, a young man made his way to their table from the opposite corner of the saloon and extended his hand.
“Thought I’d introduce myself. I’m Reed Gage. You’re the folk’s takin’ care of the Whitaker’s place, ain’tcha?”
Scott smiled and spoke. “Yes, I’m Scott Lancer, and this is my brother, Johnny.”
Reed Gage studied the two men at the table.
“Have a seat, Mr. Gage,” Scott said as he pulled out the chair next to him.
“Thanks, pleased ta meet ya,” Gage said as he took the seat; a broad grin slid across his face. He met Johnny’s stare. “Mr. Lancer,” he acknowledged.
Johnny gave a brief nod but said nothing.
Reed Gage was taken aback. He’d never before felt as vulnerable as he did under the intense scrutinizing stare, and he struggled to crawl out from under it.
“If ya need a hand, just let me or my Pa know. It’d be the least we could do. The Whitakers were good friends. Kinda like grandparents ta me.” His voice cracked, and Reed lowered his eyes, pained over the loss of dear friends. Then, he lifted his gaze to meet the Lancer brother’s regard.
“Yes, it’s a shame. The Whitakers and our father were good friends in California. He was shocked and deeply upset to hear of their passing. Now all he can do for them is to settle the estate. Thank you for your offer to help. If we run into any problems, we’ll remember that,” Scott said but hoped it would go smoothly without having to bring anyone in that could possibly delay them and prolong their time in Riverton.
While Scott and Gage conversed, Johnny watched the other patrons in the smoky room. The sheriff walked through the doors, glanced around, and then slowly made his way to the bartender, where they exchanged a few words. Glancing at their table, the sheriff made eye contact, and Johnny nodded in return. Then, without speaking a word, the lawman turned and left the saloon.
“Well, what’s done is done. Can’t bring ‘em back,” Gage shook his head, getting control of his emotions. “George!” he called to the bartender. ”Bring us some beers, huh?” He settled himself in the chair as the refreshments were placed on the table.
“Here’s ta good friends!” and Reed raised the glass in a toast. Scott joined in the salute and looked to Johnny, who hesitated. But after a brief pause, he, too, took his beer to raise it in honor of the deceased couple.
“I’m gonna miss goin’ over there an’ talkin’ with Bill. He got ta where he was tellin’ me his thoughts an’, well, just personal things, ya know?” Reed finished his beer. “Never knew my grandparents an’ they… they kinda filled the spot for me. Well, guess I’ll be goin’ now. Mornin’s start early around here runnin’ a spread like my Pa’s. Maybe I’ll see ya around!” And Reed Gage left the table.
“Goodnight, Mr. Gage!” Scott said with a smile. Then, he waited. “Alright, brother, what’s on your mind? You obviously have something running through that devious head of yours!”
Johnny smiled. “Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Boston,” and he raised his beer in mock salute and drained the glass. “C’mon, let’s hit the sack. We’ll pick up the supplies in the mornin’ before we leave. Then maybe we can get this done tamorrow or the next day.”
The ride back to the Whitaker ranch brought a sense of dread, enough to rival the most disagreeable task Johnny could conjure up in his mind. Think I’d rather dig a pit for a new outhouse! Even brandin’ an’ castratin’… wait a minute, what the hell’m I thinkin’? Castratin’s worse! Johnny thought, his toes curling inside his boots at the notion. But, damn! Going through that house, seeing photographs, touching a pocket knife, or looking through Mrs. Whitaker’s jewelry was a place where Johnny felt he was trespassing. Could they trust Raymond Evers to do what was right? Johnny sighed and shifted in his saddle.
Scott observed his brother, had, in fact, been watching him since they had arrived and sympathized with him. But as depressing and invasive as this chore was, they would see it through. For Murdoch.
They took care of their rented horses, grabbed the supplies purchased in town, then headed to the house. Scott took the key from his pocket and unlocked the door.
“Hey, Scott, look at this…” Johnny’s tone, though soft, caught Scott’s attention. On the deck under the window were footprints that told of a visitor while they were gone.
“So, would you care to venture a guess as to who came calling while we were gone?” Scott asked.
“Don’t know. This place sat locked up for how long an’ now that we’re here, the first night someone comes snoopin’ around. I don’t believe in coincidences, Boston, an’ don’t think you do either.”
They stored the supplies in the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. Taking the mugs into the living room to continue the tedious issue of sorting the documents and receipts and discarding what wasn’t needed.
“Gonna take a look around outside.” With that, Johnny stood and tossed the papers from his hand into the drawer beside him. He grabbed his hat and coat off the hook by the door and stepped out onto the porch.
The air’s crisp chill was refreshing after several hours in the house poring over papers and more papers with each desk drawer they opened. It was enough. Johnny had to clear his head before the blur of ink became unreadable, and his eyes exploded out of his head. He stepped over to the window and, once more, studied the footprints on the porch— prints that did not belong to either Scott or him. Whoever had been there stood at this window in an attempt to see inside. Why? Why hadn’t they come to the door and knocked, been sociable? Unless they didn’t want to be seen…
Stepping off the porch, Johnny’s attention again focused on the cottonwood; then, he looked away. Walking around the side of the house, he scouted for tracks and checked the rear of the house for signs of anything that shouldn’t be there but found nothing. No other prints at the windows on the sides or back of the house. He stepped back and looked at the second story. Nothing seemed out of order. Satisfied, Johnny started for the barn, then stopped. He looked to the north, toward the Crow village, and began to walk.
Not intending to go very far, Johnny took his time but watched everything around him. He wasn’t looking for trouble and wasn’t expecting any, but the fact someone had been sneaking around gave him pause. Suspicious, Madrid? Of what? Ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ ta make this drag out any longer’n necessary, but gotta be sure. Mierda, get back ta the house an’ help Scott so we can get done an’ go home. He shivered inside his jacket, then turned around and made it to the house and into the warm interior.
Scott was still sitting at Whitaker’s desk, but he wasn’t going through the mind-numbing papers. He was reading what appeared to be the man’s journal.
“What’d ya readin’, Boston?”
“Look at this, Johnny. It was wedged in the back, behind the drawer. It’s Mr. Whitaker’s journal,” Scott said as he flipped through a few pages, then closed the book, feeling as if he were trespassing reading the man’s personal writings.
“Think Murdoch would want it?” Johnny asked, “How far back does it go? I mean, if there’s something in there from the time the Whitaker’s lived in California, maybe Murdoch’d like ta see it an’ he can decide ta keep it or not.”
Scott opened the journal to the beginning, finding the first entry of January 11, 1844. The Whitakers had just moved to the San Joaquin Valley. A new record for a new life.
“Maybe you’re right, brother. This chronicles their friendship.” Scott closed the book again and sighed, then began a new stack of documents. This one would go to their father.
It was a long, mind-numbing morning. Johnny couldn’t remember how many pots of coffee he’d made, and he thought seriously about breaking out the bottle of tequila he’d brought from town. He smirked to himself, knowing that he wouldn’t be drinking alone. Scott appeared as if he would be sharing the libation to fortify himself to completing this chore.
“Well, brother, would you rather keep going through these papers, or do you want to get us some food?” Scott asked, knowing he didn’t have to. He knew what the answer would be before he posed the question.
Johnny yawned and rose from the couch. He wandered into the kitchen, and within a short time, Scott caught the first aromas drifting through the room. He smiled to himself, thinking that his younger brother was, indeed, an enigma. Never would Scott have thought his rowdy brother could cook, but he did it well.
A movement from the window drew Scott’s attention, and he set aside the receipts in his hand.
“Johnny? We have company,” he called out softly as footsteps could now be heard coming across the front porch. Johnny came from the kitchen and retrieved his Colt from the rack by the door.
The knock came hard, loud in the silence of the day. Going to the door, Scott took the time to strap on his gunbelt and check his pistol. Johnny was pleased with his brother but pushed it to the back of his mind to be ready if this was trouble.
Scott opened the door to a tall, barrel-chested, ruddy-faced man. The tight smile was forced as the man extended his hand in greeting.
“I’m Dan Gage. My ranch borders Whitakers to the east,” Gage declared, introducing himself.
Scott took the proffered hand and opened the door wider, inviting the man inside.
“Mr. Gage, it’s nice to make your acquaintance. I’m Scott Lancer, and this,” he waved his hand in Johnny’s direction, “is my brother, Johnny.”
“Please, call me Scott.”
“Alright, Scott, my name’s Dan,” then he turned to Johnny. “Johnny,” he nodded, but his eyes drifted to the Colt in Johnny’s hand. “I hope you’re not expecting any trouble?”
“Mr. Gage,” Johnny acknowledged with no further explanation and kept a distance using the man’s formal name.
“No, not expecting any trouble, but it doesn’t mean we’re not ready for it.” Scott’s smile was vague. “Please, come in. We were just going to have a bit of repast. Would you care to join us?”
“No, I thank you, though. I just wanted to introduce myself and ask if you needed anything. Bill and I were close friends.”
“As were he and our father, Murdoch Lancer. He would have been here but for a back injury and couldn’t make the trip, so he sent us.
“We had a few questions, though, regarding the Whitaker’s demise. Could you tell us about it?” Scott asked.
“It was awful. You begin to think those savages wouldn’t cause any trouble, and then they do something like this! There was no provocation; they just murdered Bill, Suzanna, and their hands. Shot them full of arrows, pierced them with their lances, and shot them! All seven of them, right out there!” Gage clenched his hat in his hand and pointed out to the front yard, then with eyes downcast as if doing his best to corral his emotions. Physically shaking himself free of the bloody images he’d witnessed, Gage pulled himself together, then cleared his throat.
“I… I’m sorry. It’s still so vivid. I was the one who found them. I came over about mid-morning; Bill and I were to go into town together.”
“I’m sorry to bring up the bad memories, Dan. We had no idea,” Scott apologized.
“You didn’t know. I’ll have to learn to live with it. It will take time. Well, if I can’t help you with anything, I’ll leave now. It was nice to make your acquaintance, Scott, Johnny. Remember, if you need something, all you have to do is ask.” Dan Gage turned to the door.
“Mr. Gage,” Johnny said as he stepped forward, stopping the man before he left.
Gage turned to Johnny, noticing that the young man still held the gun. “Yes?”
“Who was the man that was hung?”
“You mean the savage? The young buck that killed Bill and Suzanna?”
“No, I mean the man that was hung in this front yard,” Johnny’s words were soft, but Gage caught their meaning, and he suddenly felt uncomfortable under the cool stare.
Gage’s eyes hardened then. “He wasn’t any man! He was from the Crow village, a buck, called himself Blackhawk. They found Bill’s watch on him, proof that he took it! And they hung him!”
Johnny stared at Gage. “No trial, huh? Just took him out and hung him, just ‘cuz he had a watch?”
Gage glared at Johnny. Everyone knows that buck murdered the Whitakers! Don’t need this upstart causin’ trouble. “I need to go!” Flinging the door wide, Dan Gage stomped across the porch, mounted his horse, and rode out of the yard.
Johnny watched him disappear. “Funny he got so touchy about a few questions,” he said, then turned back to dish up their meal.
“So, what’s on your mind, Johnny?” Scott had to ask; Johnny was too quiet, and he knew there was something on his brother’s mind.
Johnny met his brother’s questioning stare and shrugged. “Just got a feelin’, is all. Nothin’ but a gut feelin’.”
“Do you think they hung an innocent man, Johnny?” Scott asked but knew what his brother was going to say.
“Don’t you? They take a man out an’ hang him ta the first tree they come to just cuz he has a watch on him? Whitaker coulda gave him that watch.”
“And what can we do about it, Johnny? We’re here only to settle Whitaker’s estate. Once it’s done, we go home. I thought you were in a hurry to get this done and get out of here?” Scott read the turmoil in his brother’s eyes.
“Yeah, I wanna get out of here, but that doesn’t change what I feel, that there’s something wrong here.” Johnny was torn. He felt strongly that a man had been murdered but knew in his heart they couldn’t do anything to change what was. Running a hand through his hair, trying to ease the frustration, he caught his brother’s eyes.
“I know there ain’t nothin’ we can do, an’ that’s the hard part. It just makes me crazy when some folks think they can do whatever they want, that others aren’t important enough to count for anything. Seen it happen more’n once an’ it never gets any easier ta take.” And Johnny struggled to push it into the recesses of his brain the fact that he’d been on the receiving end of the ugly truth.
Scott knew all too well what Johnny felt. He had those same thoughts, the same sickening feelings during his time fighting for the Union Army. And though in a completely different arena, both he and Johnny fought for the freedom of others. Noble causes.
“Let’s get this done, Boston.” Johnny shoved away from the table to, once more, take his place on the couch while Scott cleaned up the kitchen.
It was getting late, and both Scott and Johnny saw doubles of the pages they scanned. The words and numbers blurred, inducing the beginnings of a hammer pounding an anvil in their heads. The desk was almost cleaned out, and they were ready to put an end to the night.
“What’d ya say, Boston? Ya want the couch or the bearskin rug in fronta fireplace?” Johnny asked, not caring where Scott chose. He just wanted to sleep.
“Almost finished here, brother. I found a pocket knife with Mr. Whitaker’s initials carved in it. Think I’ll take that for Murdoch.” Scott added the knife to the small pile and accidentally knocked the journal to the floor. It tumbled to land spine down as it opened, the pages fanned to settle, exposing entries Bill Whitaker had written. Scott picked up the book and flipped a few pages, but the leaves opened back again where they had before as if a heavy weight bent the spine of the book to open to that particular place. Apparently, Bill spent much time on these two pages and considerable effort putting to paper what was on his mind.
Scott’s eye caught a name. Blackhawk. Then he took a moment to read the entry.
Sept. 10, 1871 Blackhawk is learning fast. His grasp of the English language is astounding! Suzanna will have him writing in no time. His mind is like a sponge, soaking up every bit of knowledge that he can. I think he will be a great asset in easing the simmering issues between the Crows and the Whites. Lord knows it will take time and patience on both sides. And, perhaps, a miracle.
He seems to like it here and stops by often. He has brought us fresh game on more than one occasion. Time will tell how things will work out, and I can only hope it continues.
Scott turned another page.
Sept. 20, 1871 I am genuinely impressed with this young man. He is mannerly and respectful. It is bothersome to me why the townsfolk speak so poorly of these Indians. They have been pushed away from their way of life and cursed and blamed for things that was not of their doing. At one time, their children were forced to dress as white children and forbidden to speak their native language. I can’t in good conscience support stripping away their culture, their way of life.
Scott stopped reading, sickened at the thoughts left swirling in his head. He closed his eyes as if to push aside the implications imprinted on his brain. He glanced at Johnny, knowing, he too, felt the smothering weight of Bill Whitaker’s words.
It was the same all over. It didn’t matter where you were; if ‘the other side’ was stronger, if they were of the mind to control the weak, making them bend to their wishes, it would happen. And Johnny wondered if it would ever change. Not in my lifetime…
Johnny heaved himself to his feet and crossed the room to the door, any thoughts of sleep now forgotten.
“I need some air, Scott.” He slipped his coat across his shoulders and took his hat from the peg. With a quick glance at his brother, Johnny Madrid Lancer pulled open the door and stepped out into the chill of the evening.
Scott nodded as he watched Johnny walk to the barn and lean on the corral fence. The two rented horses made their way to his side and nudged his arm. He didn’t blame Johnny and knew what it cost his brother to try and come to terms with the situation. Both Scott and Johnny had fought to right wrongs, to return the dignity, and restore faith that was robbed from other ethnicities, and Scott understood the turbulence in his brother’s heart. But, Johnny had also been on the receiving end of this battle. He’d been subjected to harsh indignities forced on him by not only the Rurales but from both Mexicans and Whites. Johnny was a mestizo, therefore, hated on both sides. And he needed this time to deal with his thoughts.
The soft, velvety nuzzle on his hand was a comfort, and he couldn’t help but smile. He stared into the warm, understanding brown eyes of the bay and sorrel, and some of the agitations lifted.
“What’s the matter, boys? Ya need some company, too?” Johnny reached up to scratch their ears, and both animals leaned into the attention. Finally, giving them each a pat, Johnny turned toward the house to, hopefully, get some much-needed sleep.
The feeling was getting worse. It was strong and wouldn’t be ignored. Johnny had come to respect the twinge; it had saved his life in the past. Heeding it now, Johnny brought the gear from the barn and saddled his horse, then led him out of the corral. Mounting up, he turned and followed the path behind the house, the path that led to the Crow village.
Scott looked at the journal in his hand. What else would the words of Bill Whitaker reveal? The only way he would find out was to read, but he wasn’t here to solve a murder. He and Johnny were here to act in Murdoch’s stead. All they were to do was take care of the Whitaker estate. He ran his fingers over the leather cover and set it aside.
The trees and brush were thick on either side of the path. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the trail, and it was the only one that led in the direction of the Crow village. Johnny had to wonder how many had attacked the Whitaker’s and their hands. If they retreated to their village this way, there couldn’t have been many; the brush would have trampled more than what there was. Bent and broken branches would be plainly seen, but there wasn’t anything to indicate a raiding party had gone through here. And he kept going as if he were pulled, dragged, and couldn’t have turned back if he wanted… and he didn’t.
What the hell am I doin’? What am I lookin’ for? Go back, just askin’ for trouble, Madrid! But as these thoughts drifted into his subconscious, the familiar fight began to take root. It was a suspicion that things were not as they seemed, and it was growing.
October 22, 1871 The ranch is demanding much of my time. I must be getting old, although I don’t remember getting to this age! Ha, guess it was bound to happen.
Had a visit from Dan Gage today. Things are beginning to change between us. He is becoming more distant with Suzanna and me. I know he doesn’t understand the relationship we have with Blackhawk and some of the other Crow from the village. But I can only say it is his loss. His refusal to accept the Indians will do nothing other than fuel the hate that has already run rampant for much too long. And because of this hatred, some of the Crow have become leary of us and discourage Blackhawk’s visits. Will have to wait and see what’s going to happen.
Scott took a moment to re-read the entry as a chill washed over him.
October 25, 1871 Young Blackhawk came today with a gift. An elk was draped across his packhorse horse, and he helped me butcher it. The meat is smoking and will carry Suzanna and me through until he and I can hunt together. He is a caring and considerate young man, and I count ourselves very lucky to have him watching out for us.
Johnny pulled up on the reins. He looked around, taking a deep breath; he knew he needed to go back to the house. Leaning forward and resting his arms on the saddle horn, he hesitated. Damn, and he straightened… he found himself looking at broken branches that led off to the left of the trail. Dismounting, Johnny inspected the breaks, noting that it was fairly new. And he walked into the brush.
What he expected to find, he didn’t know, but there was something here; he could feel it. Horses had run through here and trampled the vegetation. Not recently, but in the last week and a half or so. And it was then that Johnny looked down and saw, wedged in the brush and rocks, something that should not have been there. A large piece of leather, slightly larger than a foot square with holes on the four corners, lay crumpled and almost hidden from sight. He picked it up, flipping it over in his hands, a cold stillness settled over him, and he mounted his horse.
October 30, 1871 It is a shame that we never had a child. As I sit and watch Suzanna teach Blackhawk how to tell time, I can’t help that think she would have made an excellent mother. And Blackhawk seems to fill an emptiness in our lives. I often wonder what it would be like if he came to live with us but realize that it would be unfair to him. Just the same as we could not live with the Crow. There are too many here that would not accept it, and I push those thoughts aside and have to be content with things as they are.
I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that Reed Gage wants something when he comes to visit. It’s nothing particular that he’s said, but he is trying too hard. Does he think if he can get close that we would… no, I don’t want to think about that.
Scott contemplated what he had just read. The Whitakers had loved Blackhawk enough to think of him as a son. It was not a passing relationship and one that not many Whites in the area would agree with, understand or even try.
The sound of hoofbeats outside drew his attention to the window, and Scott watched as Johnny tied the horse at the hitchrail and bounded onto the porch. The door opened, and in an instant, Scott knew something had happened. He stood as his brother strode across the room, the temperature around them dropped, and it wasn’t because of the outside air. It rolled off Johnny’s shoulders, tangible and forceful.
He held out his hand, and Scott took the leather piece, not quite knowing what it was that he held.
“What is it, Johnny?” he asked as a frown wrinkled his brow.
“Turn it over, Scott. What’d ya see?” Johnny’s words were soft, but Scott knew the softness was deceiving. He knew that tone in his brother’s voice. And he turned the leather over to study the other side. At first, he saw nothing to make him question the piece, then suddenly, as if it spoke to him, Scott’s eyes widened, and he met Johnny’s cold glare.
On the other side of the leather was a perfect horseshoe mark where the iron left a dark deposit as it rubbed against the leather. Indians had no reason to wrap the hooves of their mounts, nor did they shoe their horses.
“Why would anyone want to do this?” And Scott knew there was more to the story than they were told.
“Why?” Johnny exploded. He stopped and took a clearing breath. “Sorry, Scott. Didn’t mean ta yell at ya. This was meant to throw everyone off. Ta make it look like it was unshod Indian ponies that was here. It wasn’t the Crow that murdered these people; it was someone that wanted the law an’ everyone else ta think it was. They hung an innocent man, Scott, right out here in this yard!”
Scott’s belly flipped over, and he picked up Whitaker’s journal, eager now to read more entries.
Johnny was tightly strung. The horrific crimes committed on this property ignited painful memories of unjust vigilantly actions and set his mind to a place he thought was secreted securely in the past. Would Madrid ever be able to leave the fighting behind him? And now, he could only wait patiently for Scott to read, and maybe he could find something written in Whitaker’s own hand that would shed the much-needed light over what he was beginning to think was a coverup. A week and a half ago, people were living on this ranch, working and laughing and loving. And there was a young Indian who was a friend to the people here, and now, they were all gone. Murdered. What had he and Scott stumbled into?
April 7, 1872 With the fine teacher that Suzanna is and the adept pupil that Blackhawk turned out to be, he can now tell time. Tomorrow when he comes to visit, I am going to give him my watch and am proud to do it. He has worked so hard to learn, and I want to reward him!
Scott knew he was getting close. Were the answers he hoped to find spelled out, leaving no question as to what happened? He turned the page.
April 8, 1872 Blackhawk’s eyes widened and were filled with shock as I handed him the watch. He even took a step backward; he was so puzzled! But I put the watch in his hand and assured him it was his to keep. I told him how proud we were of him, and Suzanna cried as she watched the emotion on his face. It was something to see, a man of two different worlds.
Then, I showed him how to wind the watch and explain how the watch kept running, but I don’t know if he understood what I was saying.
“I found it, Johnny! Let’s get into town and show the sheriff, let him read these entries, and take him that piece of leather you found.”
Not taking any time to answer, Johnny was out the door, and, in moments, they were down the road, headed into Riverton.
The man watching from the cover of the rocks and trees stepped into the yard and listened as the hoofbeats thundered on the hard-packed earth. What did they find? Them two are on their way inta town, prob’bly ta see the sheriff.
The man’s eyes drifted to the tree and wondered if he would be using it again. Then he turned and mounted his horse to follow the men into Riverton.
“I just hope the sheriff isn’t influenced by the blind prejudice of the citizens we’ve talked to so far,” Scott’s skepticism was building. They had no actual proof, no eye witness, only the writings in Bill Whitaker’s own hand that told a different story, a story that conflicted with the impressions of the few people that Scott and Johnny had talked with so far. They could only hope the sheriff would do what was right and investigate further.
Dusk was beginning to settle in as Scott and Johnny rode into town. They found the sheriff’s office and left their mounts at the hitch rail. With his ever-vigilant caution, Johnny checked the street, and again before they passed through the door into the brightly lit office. He closed the portal behind him and missed the dark figure that stepped from the alleyway onto the boardwalk.
Keeping in the shadows, the man stepped silently to the window and watched as the two Lancer men shook hands with Sheriff Brooks.
“Sheriff, I’m Scott Lancer, and this is my brother, Johnny. We are here to settle the Whitaker estate.” The time for a social visit had passed. With the potential evidence of foul play now in hand, this took a serious turn. He shook the sheriff’s hand.
Johnny nodded at the lawman, “Sheriff,” and he, too, extended his hand.
“Yes, I’ve meant to ride out there and introduce myself, but things have been busy around here, to say the least. It seems as though once the Whitakers and their hands were found, tempers have been flaring, and I’ve had my hands full keeping a few hot-heads in line.”
Johnny shifted on his feet. “Ya mean the hot-heads that hung a man without a trial, huh?” He leveled his stare at the sheriff, reading what he could in the lawman’s eyes.
The sheriff sighed, taking a deep breath as if to find the right words. He didn’t know the two Lancer brothers and could not divulge anything regarding the case, but neither could he dismiss them; he owed it to the Whitakers and the five men who died with them to listen to what the Lancers had to say.
“Please, gentlemen, have a seat, and we can talk,” the sheriff indicated the chairs in front of his desk.
Outside, the man stood quietly, desperately trying to hear the conversation between Brooks and men that could blow this whole thing wide open. What the hell do they want?
“What can I do for you, boys?” Cole Brooks asked as he gestured to the coffee pot resting on the pot-bellied stove.
“No, thank you, sheriff,” Scott answered, waving off the brew. “We are curious about what happened. The Whitakers were friends of our father, and we know next to nothing regarding the events leading up to and the deaths. Can you enlighten us?”
Brooks met their eyes, going from one to the other, getting a read on them as they were on him. “Well, at this point, there isn’t much I can tell you except that seven people were murdered…”
“Ya mean eight, don’tcha?” Johnny interrupted. “You forgettin’ the man that was hung in Whitaker’s front yard?”
The sheriff looked down at his desk and nodded. “Yes, eight. I have almost nothing to go on. There were no witnesses, and there wasn’t much evidence other than the arrows, lances, and bullets in the bodies. That and the tracks of three unshod horses that went off to the north. With everything pointing to the Crow, folks here are on edge, and I’ve had all I can do to keep things contained.”
Brooks went to the stove and poured himself another cup of coffee. “I’m assuming there’s something on your mind other than finding out what happened. Do you have anything you want to discuss with me?”
Gettin’ right ta the point, Johnny thought. “Was the time of death determined?”
That got the sheriff’s attention. They know something. “Our doctor here estimated the Whitakers had been dead for twenty-four hours when they were found. Why?”
“Only that Dan Gage came ta see us an’ he told us he found them mid-morning. Doesn’t it seem a mite strange that Mr. an’ Mrs. Whitaker and all their hands were in the yard in the middle of the mornin’? This was a workin’ ranch. The hands’ wouldn’ta been at the house or standin’ in the yard, not all of them.”
Brooks sat in silence as he mulled over in his mind what Johnny had said.
“Sheriff Brooks, in going through Mr. Whitaker’s desk, we found this,” Scott pulled the journal out from his coat. He handed the leather-bound book to the sheriff. “We wouldn’t have thought anything about it until, after falling to the floor, it opened to pages concerning a young Indian by the name of Blackhawk. We know he’s the man that the vigilantes hung. There are many more entries here that might help to shed light on things. I know it’s not proof of anything, but both my brother and I feel you should read what Mr. Whitaker wrote.”
Looks like some kinda book… Damn! It looks like Bill kept a journal! I gotta find out what’s happenin’! Risking drawing attention to himself, the man kept his post at the window.
Sheriff Brooks stared at the book for a moment then took it in his hands. “It doesn’t feel right reading this… but if it helps to clear this up, I guess I need to find out all I can.”
“Maybe this’ll help.” Johnny handed over the piece of leather he found on the trail.
Brooks frowned as he took it. “What is it, other than a dirty scrap of leather?”
“Turn it over an’ tell me what ya see,” Johnny’s voice, though soft, was non-committal, but it held a suggestive element that the sheriff could not dismiss.
Brooks turned the piece over, nearly gasping when he saw the clear outline of a horse’s shoe, complete with holes punched through the leather where the rawhide thongs would have laced to tie around the horse’s leg.
“Those weren’t Indian ponies, sheriff. They belonged to the men that want ya ta think they were.” Johnny’s stare hammered the point home.
The man at the window turned and ran, his heart stuck in his throat.
Sheriff Cole Brooks took a deep breath, his mind spinning in crazy circles, and he began to wonder if he’d just stumbled onto allies. He didn’t know these men; could he take a chance to trust them? At this point, he wasn’t sure of anything, but he couldn’t disregard the evidence they had brought him. If they held a different opinion than the residents of Riverton, perhaps they would be beneficial in getting the murder solved.
“I want to thank you two for coming to see me about this. I can assure you that, however disturbing this is, that I will read Bill’s journal. I take it you will be around for a while? Because I’d like to come out and look things over again, and perhaps you could show me where you found this?” Brooks held up the leather.
Johnny nodded his head.
“To be honest, Sheriff, we were hoping to get this taken care of and get home, but Mr. Whitaker and our father were good friends, and I’m sure he would want us to cooperate. We’ll see you tomorrow, then?” Scott asked as he stood and extended his hand. Brooks reached out and shook, then turned to Johnny and did the same.
Johnny stopped, then turned to face the sheriff. “One more question before we leave… The doctor said the Whitakers were dead about twenty-four hours when they were found?”
“What about the hands? Was it that long for them, too?” His stare was cold, penetrating, and Johnny did not look away.
“I don’t know, the doctor specified Bill and Suzanna, but I’m definitely going to ask him about it! I’ll have an answer for you tomorrow when I come out to the ranch.”
Out on the boardwalk, Scott and Johnny looked down the street.
“Don’t know about you, Boston, but I could use a drink,” Johnny said with a sigh.
Scott was silent for a minute, then turned to Johnny. “That sounds good, brother. A bit of libation would hit the spot about now!”
Johnny turned to Scott with raised brows. “It took all them words ta say ‘yeah, let’s go’?”
With a snort and a pat to Johnny’s ribs, Scott stepped into the street with his brother at his side and walked to the Rocky Mountain Saloon.
With the routine stop at the door complete, the Lancer brothers sauntered into the dingy interior. There were not many having a drink, playing poker, or socializing with the working girls. However, when Scott and Johnny walked through, conversations seemed to stop as all eyes followed them to a table.
“If I didn’t know any better, brother, I would think that we interrupted something!” Scott said with a smirk.
Johnny met every stare with one of his own. One by one, they looked away, and only then did he sit at the back table. He couldn’t help the snort that declared his growing disgust, and Johnny wondered how many of these good citizens knew what was going on in their town, and just maybe, had a part in whatever it was.
It took several minutes, but soon conversations resumed; however, the glances cast toward the Lancer’s table continued, but they quickly turned away as the determined, unrelenting stares of Scott and Johnny refused to be cowed.
April 6, 1872 Young Reed came to visit today, and I cannot help but think he is angry with us. I suspect it is over our friendship with Blackhawk. It pains me to say that I think he is jealous. In the last several years, Reed has been a steady guest here at the ranch. He seems to have gotten quite comfortable with his visits. In fact, sometimes, dare I say, he was wearing out his welcome. I know things are tense between him and his father, and it makes me wonder what will happen with them.
Dan has expressed disappointment with the boy and has his hands making Reed toe the line. The boy has a wild streak in him, and Dan is frustrated most of the time. I hope they can work things out.
Cole Brooks turned the pages, not reading in order of dates. He knew he would have to start at the beginning sooner or later. Brooks was amazed at the number of entries listing the folks who had wandered by, and most stopped to pay their respects to Bill and Suzanna.
August 13, 1872 Today, I met Hardy Cliffton in the hills north of the ranch. I think I surprised him as much as he surprised me. After all, what would the blacksmith of Riverton be doing up here? He looked as if he’d fallen, clothes covered in dirt, but he appeared to be alright. Most folks are leary to come here, it’s so close to the Crow, but he was there. He looked shocked to see me, but I suppose he was turned around and relieved to see a face he knew.
Brooks smiled. Yes, he could envision ol’ Hardy getting turned around in the trees and mountains.
“Well, brother, have you satisfied your thirst, and are you ready to go? I think we have intruded long enough on the fair people of Riverton,” Scott grinned at his brother.
Johnny slouched in his chair, not yet ready to leave. He had a sneaking suspicion it would be a matter of time before one of the fine upstanding folks here in the saloon would make a move. At what, he wasn’t sure, but liquor tended to make a man do stupid things and a tendency toward a loose tongue.
“Johnny, let’s go. The sheriff will be out to see us tomorrow, and we’ve had a long and stressful day.”
Johnny sighed, then heaved himself out of the chair. “Yeah, Boston, I know ya need your beauty sleep. Ain’t that what Cindy calls it? Beauty sleep?” Johnny teased. “Alright, let’s go.” He stopped at the door, looked up and down the street, then stepped out onto the boardwalk.
The man in the shadows slipped back into the alley as Scott and Johnny Lancer mounted the horses and rode out of town.
The flame danced over the wick as Sheriff Cole Brooks turned up the lamp, casting a brighter glow. His strained eyes watered as he squeezed them shut, then opened them again. Bill Whitaker’s journal lay open on his desk. He’d read many pages, and where there wasn’t anything definite written by Bill, the journal raised some questions. Cole rubbed his eyes, then picked up the book and continued to read.
“What’s on your mind, brother? You’ve been mulling something over in your head since we got here.” Scott’s study of Johnny began to intensify. He knew his brother’s sixth sense was steadily increasing; he could see it growing; hell, he felt it increasing. And he began to trust this intrinsic ability Johnny had honed to a fine, sharp edge. There was something horribly wrong.
Johnny sighed. “Mierda, Scott, things ain’t addin’ up. The Whitakers and all five of their hands are found dead in fronta the house. The doc has the time of death at mid-morning. If they were attacked, don’t you think that they woulda been found behind cover instead of layin’ in the yard?” Johnny stopped then faced Scott. “Unless they were moved. Killed somewhere else an’ moved ta the house. Sheriff Brooks said there were three horses that rode off ta the north in the direction of the Crow village, but that leather scrap I found was on a trail that went north but cut west, away from the Indians.
“An’ I can’t help but think the longer this goes on, the more them Indians are gonna be targets. The other night when we were in the saloon, I heard some talk. Folks are getting’ riled up. It’ll only be a matter of time before they go vigilante an’ blame all Indians for somethin’ they never did.” Johnny shook his head in disgust and dread.
Scott sighed. “I think when Sheriff Brooks comes out tomorrow, we need to talk about it. In the meantime, let’s turn in. I’m so tired, I think I could sleep standing up!”
At the same moment Scott and Johnny turned out the lamp and settled in for the night, the man from the window stopped his pacing as a thought struck him. Alright, just settle down, he told himself. No one had seen him, and no one had a clue as to what he’d been about. Calm down. Pulling his scattered thoughts together, he headed for the saloon and a much-needed drink.
“Just ain’t right that ol Bill an’ his missus is dead! Damn! We all know it was them murderin’ Crow, an’ what’re we doin’ about it? Nothin’! I think the sheriff’s gone soft, an’ if we’re gonna get justice for the Whitakers, it’s gonna be us that’ll do it! What’d ya say, boys!” The roar in the saloon was deafening. “OK, then, we need a plan…”
The aroma of coffee filled the house, usually comforting and soothing, but this was not a usual morning. In fact, it had not been a usual night. Johnny spent most of it awake as questions swirled in his head. All he had was questions and no answers. What ifs and maybes; there was nothing solid, no definites. Trying to make sense of what happened and why it happened was impossible. Maybe the sheriff would have something to tell them today when he came out to look around. Johnny wondered how much reading he’d done in Whitaker’s journal.
Walking in his socked feet and keeping noise to a minimum, Johnny looked at Scott, still asleep on the couch. At least one of them got some rest. Refilling his cup, Johnny carried it to the rug in front of the fireplace and sat down. He began to make a mental list of things he would talk over with Cole Brooks, with questions regarding the Crow first and foremost.
The sun finally made its way over the mountains as Johnny hauled himself off the floor. Going to the kitchen, he threw some wood in the stove and made a trip to the outhouse. Entering through the back kitchen door, he began the breakfast that hopefully would give him a nourishing start on the day. Once the biscuits were in the oven, he rousted Scott off the couch.
“Time ta get up, Boston,” Johnny called to his brother.
“I’m awake. I don’t know how you could think I would sleep through all that noise you made,” Scott grumbled.
“Yeah? Well, be glad I didn’t wake ya when I got up.”
Scott opened his eyes to look at his brother and hesitated. “Did you get any sleep, Johnny?” he asked, now concerned.
“Some. Roll on outta there, Boston. Breakfast is cookin’ an’ we got a lot ta do taday.”
Scott watched Johnny’s back disappear into the kitchen and hoped this would be over soon. He was getting worried about his brother. Whatever problem raised its ugly head, Johnny threw himself into it, not resting until it was resolved, and often put himself at risk doing it.
It was after nine when Sheriff Cole Brooks rode into the yard and tied his dun gelding at the hitch rail. The horse shook his head, sending his black mane in a flurry around his muscular neck. Brooks stepped to the door and knocked.
Scott looked out the window, then opened the door and allowed the sheriff in. “Good morning, Sheriff,” he announced as he held a cup of coffee in one hand and Colt in the other.
Brooks entered, surprised at the Colts in the hands of the two that faced him. “Are you expecting trouble?” he asked as he looked between the Lancer brothers.
“Not expecting it, but like we told Dan Gage, ready for it should the need arise. Come in, Sheriff. Would you like some coffee?” Scott asked as he and Johnny holstered their revolvers.
“Yes, that would be great, thank you.” Brooks looked around the house that he’d visited many times before. The house where his friends lived now felt empty. Cole had many fine dinners here with Bill and Suzanna Whitaker, and a sharp pang of grief washed over him. It didn’t feel the same without them.
Cluttered around the room were stacks of papers and a few boxes lined along one wall filled with items Cole assumed the Lancers would be taking with them back to California. His gaze settled on the vacant spot over the mantel where Bill kept his father’s old musket. Cole smiled.
“Guess you’ll be taking that rifle home with you,” he asked as he nodded to the space above the fireplace.
Johnny and Scott exchanged glances. “What rifle?” Johnny asked.
“Bill had his father’s old musket hanging above the mantel. He put great store in that old gun.”
“Nothin’ there when we got here,” Johnny said as questions began running through his mind. Someone on the front porch looked in windows when they were in town, now a missing gun…
“Well, he could have moved it,” Cole said as he sipped the coffee.
“Sheriff, did you find anything interesting in Mr. Whitaker’s journal?” Scott began as he poured himself more coffee.
Johnny watched and waited as the man emptied his cup.
“Yes, of some interest, but nothing that would hold any proof in a court of law regarding what happened here. But I haven’t finished it yet. I read until I couldn’t see the writing anymore. Bill and Suzanna were quite close with Blackhawk, that was obvious, and I know for a fact that many in Riverton did not approve. Folks were always telling him to not get friendly with the Crow, that the Indians would turn on them. And now they’re talking as if they were right.
“I’ve had to break them up a few times before they talked themselves into raiding the village. Things have changed for the Crow in the last ten years or so. They used to be nomadic, but they were persuaded to either stay in the valley or the government would put them on a reservation. Since they’ve been in the valley north of the Whitakers, there haven’t been any issues. Until now.” Brooks shrugged.
“Until now… an’ everyone just assumes the Crow started it. They attacked the Whitakers an’ left all the horses an’ cattle? They’d have burned the house an’ barn, too. That doesn’t make sense an’ you know it, don’t ya?” Johnny asked the sheriff, his eyes intense, cold, and wanting Brooks to confirm what he knew was the truth.
“Yes, I know it,” Brooks admitted. “All my life, both my grandfather and father told me about the Indians. They traded with the Crow. I was raised in Wyoming and know a great deal about the tribes and their way of life. This behavior is not consistent with how I know it to be. The fact that no horses were taken is something that I’ve thought about long and hard. The Crow would never have left those animals. Never.”
“Sheriff, have you been there, to the village?” Scott was now curious after hearing about Cole Brooks’ knowledge of the tribe.
“Yes, I have, many times. I was there after the Whitakers were found. They were saddened when they heard the news and want answers regarding Blackhawk. They trust me, to some extent, to find out what happened, but at the moment, I have nothing solid to tell them. I do have plans to go again soon. I want to get this settled before the snow starts to fly. There’s only one way into the village without having to travel fifty miles around to get there. In winter, that travel is impossible, and I want to take them some medical supplies to last through till spring.”
Johnny’s mind began to whirl, but he held off putting to voice what he was thinking. He would talk to Scott when they were alone.
The sheriff straightened and took a deep breath. Turning to Johnny, he asked, “Can you show me where you found that patch of leather? I’d be interested in the location.”
“Yeah, sure. Gimme a minute ta saddle up.” Johnny took his coat from the hook by the door. “C’mon, Boston. We need ta get some fresh air.”
The three men walked the horses down the trail. To the sheriff’s credit, he listened to Johnny’s theory and considered the options. And he had to agree with the things Johnny said. The trail they were taking was the way to the Crow camp, but suddenly Johnny turned, taking a newly trampled path to the left… west. The village was north of the Whitaker place. Johnny stopped his horse fifty feet down the newly blazed trail. The broken branches plainly visible, giving credence of horses trampling everything in their path.
Johnny pulled up and stepped down out of the saddle. Walking to a cluster of rocks and scrub bushes, he toed the area with his boot.
“It was wedged in right here, and the trail leads due west. Let’s see where it goes.” Mounting up, the men rode on for several miles, further and further from the Crow village and right out into the vast mountain range.
Brooks pulled his horse to a stop. There, on the ground, was another patch of leather.
Johnny watched with interest as Brooks scoured the ground, taking the time to see what was and look for facts. It seemed most of the townspeople were content to settle for jumping to conclusions and assumptions instead of finding the truth of what happened. The Crow were already accused and convicted in the eyes of Riverton’s good citizens. Johnny knew it would be up to them to stop any attempt to carry out an unjustified sentence against the Indians.
Sheriff Dan Brooks took his time and digested the clues before him. He had much to do when he arrived back in town.
“Hey, Mitch! Where’s Hardy?” Sheriff Brooks asked. Ol’ Hardy was nowhere to be seen, and Mitchell Malone was handling the livery.
“Dunno, Sheriff. He asked me ta take care of things for him, again, though.”
“He’s not sick, is he? I’ll have to have Millie at the diner bring him some of her special ‘get-well’ soup!” Brooks chuckled.
“No, he ain’t sick. What can I do for ya, Sheriff?” Malone asked with a smile.
“I need a packhorse. Do you have one I can use?”
“Sure! I’ll get it for ya right away. What ya doin’ with a packhorse?” Mitch asked, mildly curious.
“Oh, the Lancer boys are donating some of the Whitaker’s things to the orphanage. I volunteered to take it over for them.” Brooks hoped the deception was enough to curb more questions.
“Wouldn’t it be better ta take a wagon, Sheriff?”
“No, this will be a light load. A packhorse will do for now.”
The supplies Cole Brooks had discreetly collected, with the Indian agent’s help, was to be delivered to the Crow. Confined to the mountains, the winter weather limited collecting certain plants needed for their remedies. Not all they required grew this high in elevation. The government agent was a good man, knowing that keeping the Crow healthy would be a step in the right direction and a benefit to all. But he also knew they would not depend on the Whiteman’s medicines. The medicinal plants and herbs they’d used for hundreds of years were and forever would be necessary.
The Indians would remain secluded in their valley, and the government wouldn’t be delegating all Indian’s financial aid to control illnesses. Even though the government financed the supplies, Brooks kept his contributions quiet, especially after the Whitaker’s demise. He would see to it the Crow had as much support as he could offer.
Loading the packhorse, Sheriff Cole Brooks led it out of town in the direction of the mountains north of the Whitaker ranch.
“Hey, Scott?” Johnny murmured, his soft voice told Scott of something on his brother’s mind.
“What is it, brother?” he asked quietly.
“Been thinkin’. We don’t need the stock Whitaker had. What’d ya say we give it ta the Indians? Stuck up in that valley, they ain’t gonna be able ta go huntin’. Snow’s gonna be too deep. Don’t even know how many Indians are there.”
Although he knew he would have to think this over carefully, Scott was once again overwhelmed at his brother’s benevolent nature that so often made an appearance. Where had it come from? Johnny’s rough beginnings surely did not promote this level of kindness. But, no matter where it came from, Scott was proud of the man Johnny was. More than proud.
“Brother, I think that is a great idea! Mr. Evers offered to help. Maybe he can help in finding others that are in need.” Scott grinned. He liked where this conversation was going. As tragic as the Whitakers’ deaths were, it would ultimately have at least one positive effect, hopefully making other lives a little easier.
“Let’s ask the sheriff instead. He seems ta be a straight shooter. I’d feel better goin’ through him.” Johnny returned his brother’s grin.
The sound of hooves in the yard broke the silence. Both Scott and Johnny, hands on their Colts, went to the window.
“Musta heard us talkin’ about him!” Johnny laughed as he threw the door open to greet Brooks.
Brooks removed his hat as he entered the house. “Morning, Scott, Johnny! Coffee on?” he asked with a smile. He didn’t know the Lancers well, but he liked what he saw in the two brothers. And not only did he like them, but he also was beginning to respect them as well.
“Morning, Sheriff!” Scott responded, returning the smile.
“Call me Cole. That ‘sheriff’ title is a bit too stiff for me. Hey, Johnny!”
“Mornin’! What brings ya out here so early?” Johnny asked as his judgment regarding the sheriff just went up a few notches.
“Well, I was wondering if you two would like to accompany me to the Crow village?” Brooks fervently hoped they would say yes. He wanted the Indians to have contact with Whites that were on the side of right. And that excluded most of the folks from town. Scott and Johnny were the perfect candidates. And after spotting the beads Johnny wore on his wrist, he knew the chances were the Crow would hold him in higher regard, even though the bracelet was not Crow. They would recognize the significance of a man worthy of another tribe even if it had been an enemy.
“What’d ya say, Boston? Wanna go callin’ on the neighbors?” Johnny laughed.
“I think that’s a good idea!”
“Cole, lemme ask ya this… How about we take the Crow some cattle an’ horses. It wouldn’t pay to ship them home, an’ I can’t help but feel they’re deserving of somethin’ outta this whole thing. There’s not much we’ll be takin’ of the Whitaker’s anyway.”
He saw it in Johnny’s eyes. It was deeply ingrained but plainly seen if you looked. And Brooks knew at that moment that Johnny had been through much, had seen much, and probably experienced the prejudices and hatred first hand. Scott, too, wore the same look, and Cole thought Mr. Lancer a very lucky man to have sired these honorable men.
“I think that’s a fine gesture! We will ask them when we get there. Where is the stock now?” Brooks asked.
“Mr. Gage said he took them over to his place until we decided what we were going to do with them. Maybe he will be courteous enough to help drive them back here,” Scott said, looking at Brooks as if to ask, ‘Do you think that’s possible?’
“I’m sure something can be arranged. If the stock can help the Crow, I’ll stop at Gage’s place and make arrangements for his hands to help drive them back to the Whitakers, then between the Crow and us, we can take them to the village without anyone knowing. It won’t be a welcome issue with the townspeople, though. Well, let’s get going so we can be back by tonight.”
Leaving the empty cups on the table, Scott, Johnny, and Cole Brooks left the house, locking the door on the way out.
They had long passed the trail where the three horses went to the west. The main route to the Crow village, where not a well-traveled path, was defined well enough. Johnny would have no trouble following it when he made his reconnaissance trip, Madrid style.
He paid attention to the smallest details, minute as they were, and came up with a few interesting facts that he kept to himself until he could verify exactly what he saw and why he came to the decisions he did. Johnny knew Brooks was a good man and would be taken into Johnny’s confidence soon enough, but for now, he chose to remain quiet.
As Cole stopped his horse and the packhorse, Scott and Johnny came alongside. “We’re about one mile away from the border of the Whitaker’s property line and the village. Don’t be surprised if you see the Crow watching from here on out. They know there’s trouble in town, and I fully expect them to protect themselves.”
At the statement, both Johnny and Scott knew that Cole Brooks did not think the Crow murdered the Whitakers and their hands.
The trail narrowed, and the rocky walls on either side closed around them and seemed to question the reason for them to be there. Scott didn’t know if he should be honored… or apprehensive.
They moved out again, going at a slow pace, each with his own thoughts. And Johnny had plenty scrambling around in his head, screaming for his attention. Beside the trail, Johnny spotted a break in the brush. This was the second place that looked as if someone had gone off the path into the brush and trees. The first he saw seemed to wander in a northerly direction. This one, though closer to the border, went a tad to the northeast. If there was another, he bet it would be more easterly. Just hafta wait an’ see. This was still Whitaker’s property…
Another mile further north, Brooks held up a hand and waved. The guard in the rocks saluted back. They would soon be crossing onto Indian land. The Crow were familiar with Brooks, but they did not know the two white men with him, and Johnny knew how crucial it was to make a good impression.
“Hey Boston, keep your hands away from your gun. Keep ‘em visible. The Crow don’t know us, an’ we can’t look like a threat,” Johnny warned his brother.
Without a reply, Scott took the words to heart.
Johnny felt the eyes on him and turned slightly, looking behind him. A Crow brave followed, not making any attempt to keep his presence a secret.
Cole Brooks pulled his horse to a halt. The packhorse stopped alongside, and Scott and Johnny brought up the rear. They waited quietly as a tall Crow stepped from behind the cover of rocks. He stared at the three men, then waited for Brooks to announce his intentions.
“Walking Bear, it is good to see you again. I bring medicine to keep you well when the snow falls. And I have brought friends. Do not be afraid.” Cole nudged his horse forward, walking past the Crow brave in the direction of the village.
Scott fought to keep the surprise from his face. Walking Bear stood watching them with cold, untrusting eyes. The hide draped around the broad shoulders looked to be coyote, but it was the intricate beading on the fringed tunic that caught his attention. The bright colors painstakingly set in patterns that were important to the individual or the tribe decorated the leather. Long fringe alternated with horsehair hung on the underside of the sleeves.
He had always thought of himself as educated, but Scott saw there was much of the world he had yet to learn. He cast a glance at Johnny, who sat looking straight ahead, not making eye contact as they passed the guards.
The Crow village sat in a wide valley between the mountain peaks. It was a world apart from anything beyond those granite crests. Widely spaced tepees dotted the valley; the living quarters were built to one side, and a large central communal tepee stood dominant, decorated with hunting scenes painted on the buffalo hide walls.
Cole Brooks pulled his horse to a stop when the flap of a tepee was opened, and an ancient man with leathery, wrinkled skin stepped into the sunlight.
Again, Scott sat in stunned surprise as he watched the old man stand and wait for Brooks to come to him. The man’s hair hung to the ground and dragged behind him, greased with animal fat, shining bright in the sun, and sitting on his head was a dried body of a bird, wings out as if in flight and beak open.
“Chief Storm Cloud! It is an honor to see you again. I bring you medicine for the winter. And I bring friends!” Cole indicated the two men behind him.
Without waiting for an introduction, Johnny dismounted and made his way to stand before the chief. He met the chief’s stare with one of his own, then reached into his pocket and withdrew an object protected in his closed fist. Turning his hand, palm up, Johnny opened his fingers. Resting there was a string of beads.
His stare did not waver from Storm Cloud; the chief broke the visual connection, inspecting the gift held out before him, nodded briefly, and took the beads from Johnny’s hand. A gift. In most Indian cultures, gifts were valued and held in high regard. Johnny knew it would be taken as a sign of good faith between them.
Johnny took a respectful step back, knowing the chief put great store in the peace offering. Storm Cloud raised his eyes to Johnny and nodded again.
Brooks, pleased at the greeting, spoke up. “I have something to ask, Chief. My friends, and I hope you will consider them your friends, have cattle and horses they want to give the Crow.” He waited, watching as the Chief looked from Johnny to Scott as the questions turned over in his mind.
“Why give the Crow People animals?” Storm Cloud asked Brooks.
Cole turned to Johnny. “Maybe it would be better if he heard it from you.”
Johnny stepped forward, once again locking the chief with his stare. Speaking words to convey his innermost thoughts, he delivered the explanation, man to man, equal to equal.
“There are cattle and horses we can’t use. We,” and here Johnny motioned to Scott, “would consider it an honor if you would take these animals and ease our trouble.” Would it be enough? He wondered. The indignities suffered by the Indian Nations were horrific. Taken from their lands, forced to live a life not of their own, and forbidden to speak in their native tongue was criminal, not to mention unconscionable. This simple act of kindness would not come close to amending that wrong. But it was the best Lancer could do.
Chief Storm Cloud looked into the blue of the eyes before him, and sensing no harm or hostile intent, he nodded.
“Sheriff, I been thinkin’,” Johnny said as they rode back to the Whitaker ranch. “They got enough grazing in that valley for all the cattle that Whitaker had?”
“Probably not, but there might be another way to go about this. Have you given any thought to what you’re going to do with the ranch?”
Scott shrugged. “Mr. Evers said he could help with that. Why do you ask?”
“If you have no offers, there is something you might want to consider. Let’s talk over a cup of coffee at the ranch.” Cole Brooks couldn’t help the smile that slid across his face as he rode. Nothing could make up for the loss of Bill and Suzanna; however, perhaps some good could come out of the tragedy.
The injustices heaped upon the indigenous people began to boil over in his heart. And Johnny knew what they felt; he knew the heartbreak and cruelty. Was that the force driving him now? It didn’t feel so important now to wrap up the business and get back to Lancer. There was something that needed their help, and Johnny started to think in terms of righting another wrong. Lancer would be there when he and Scott finished this task.
Again, Johnny noted the trails where someone had made their way into the brush. He was more determined than ever to see where they would lead.
The Whitaker house looked lonely. And, indeed, it was. The sweet scent of flowers and fresh-baked bread were absent, as were the livestock and chickens. There was no chimney smoke to be whisked away with the breeze, and the weathervane on top of the barn sat as if frozen in time. This place begged for the chance to make it come alive, and in turn, it would support life given the opportunity. The big cottonwood tree in the front yard should be boasting a swing and not the solemn reminder of the man who lost his life hanging with a noose around his neck from that branch.
Once inside the house, Johnny directed a question at Cole. “Sheriff, ya get a chance ta talk ta the Doc about the time of death for Whitaker’s help?”
“Yes, but he wasn’t sure. He said it could be possible they died before the Whitaker’s did. They all suffered wounds from bullets and weapons with stone blades. But after talking with him, I wondered where the Crow got guns. That was a stipulation for letting them live in that valley. No guns.”
The coffee was hot and tasted like heaven, or would have had Johnny’s mind had the chance to think about it. Instead, his thoughts were on the trails he’d seen.
Cole and Scott talked, but Johnny wasn’t listening, his wandering mind held captive. What was between the Whitaker ranch and the Crow village?
“Johnny?… Johnny! Are you coming with us? We’re going to see Dan Gage about help bringing the Whitaker stock back here,” Scott asked, wondering what was going through his brother’s unpredictable mind.
“Huh? No. Gonna see about the north pasture, make sure the fence is still good. No sense heardin’ them cows here an’ have ‘em get away. You two go.” Johnny stood and stretched, hoping his deception was convincing.
Apparently, it was enough as Scott and Brooks swallowed the last of their coffee and agreed.
“Alright, brother, I’ll be out to help you as soon as we get back. Ah, Johnny?”
“Stay out of trouble, will you?” Scott asked in his big-brother condescending way.
Johnny raised his brows in mock surprise. “Scott,” he said, dragging out Boston’s name. “Me? In trouble?”
Witnessing the banter, Cole sighed. “I’m glad I was an only child…” Then he followed Scott out the door on their way to the Gage Ranch.
Johnny wasted no time. He turned the horse down the trail as fast as he dared. Minutes and hours were critical now, but there was a chance this would be for naught. He wasn’t sure those trails were anything, but his gut told him differently. He needed to check it out. It could turn out to be nothing, but he had to know for sure.
He reined his horse to a stop by the first of the broken branches. The breaks were not new. Johnny dismounted and looked around him. His eyes picked through the scrub, getting a general direction of where the path would lead. A trail of shod hoofprints was visible where the vegetation was sparse. Bill Whitaker couldn’t have made them; these prints were fresh, made earlier this morning. Why would someone be up here on this part of Bill’s property? Johnny considered going on foot but decided against the idea.
He moved quietly along the path, often stopping to listen, watch, and use acute senses to warn him of things that should and shouldn’t be there. Birds were singing, and other sounds greeted him, indicating all was well. But he didn’t relent in his search, not until he found where the trails led.
Brush and tall grass were trampled down, and the hoofprints became numerous. As far as Johnny could tell, they led back into the mountains. Why?
The man watched as Johnny Lancer moved closer. He needed to get away, now, before he was spotted and took the chance this place would not be discovered, but deep down, he knew he was running out of time. He needed to get back into town; he would have to get help. Taking a different path, he skirted around Johnny on his way into Riverton. Then he changed his mind. It was only one man. I can take care a him, just like I took care a the Whitakers. He turned around and headed back.
“Things ain’t gonna get better just cuz we want ‘em to! We gotta do somethin’ ‘bout it! Them damn Crow ain’t gonna get away with murderin’ the Whitakers! What’re we gonna do ‘bout it? The sheriff ain’t doin’ nothin’, so let’s get it done, boys! The plans we made the other night— it’s time ta do what we said we was gonna do!” The roar in the saloon flooded the dingy interior and flowed out into the street. Men staggered to their horses, they checked their weapons, and in whiskey-soaked bravado, they rode out of town, taking the road through Bill Whitaker’s ranch to the Crow village.
“Sheriff Brooks, what brings you out here?” Dan Gage asked as he extended his hand to greet the law. “Scott, I hope everything is going alright over at the Whitaker’s place.”
“Hello, Dan, we came over to see if we could get some help driving the stock back to the ranch. My brother and I have a few decisions to make regarding things and want everything there. Would it be possible to use some of your hands to help?” Scott asked.
“I think I can arrange that. When would you like them to start?” Gage asked, agreeing to help.
“As soon as you can spare them.”
“What about first thing in the morning? Shouldn’t take more than a day. It’s not that far,” Dan Gage replied.
“Thank you, Dan. That will be fine. We’ll be here in the morning!” Scott touched the brim of his hat, gave Gage a nod, then he and Cole Brooks left.
The path took a turn around the mountainside, gaining in elevation. The timber grew thick, and the rocky terrain would be excellent cover for an ambush. He was getting that prickly feeling, the feeling that he’d learned to trust.
The path came to an end, and through a veil of trees, Johnny found himself staring at a cave. It was more than a cave; it was a mine. Piles of excavated rocks lay cast off to the side. A minor’s pick and shovel leaned against the entrance wall. The pieces began to fall together. He had the ‘why’ now. The only thing he didn’t know was who. But Johnny would find out. He dismounted and tied the horse safely behind the cover of rocks. Then he watched and waited. But how much time could he waste?
Taking a chance, Johnny moved out. He made his way silently through the trees looking for danger; the irritation confirmed to him there was trouble, and it was near.
Hardy Cliffton snugged his rifle to his shoulder, and where he didn’t want to kill the young man, he knew there was no other choice if he wanted to come out of this alive. Alive and in possession of the gold, he so painstakingly excavated from Bill Whitaker’s property and stole.
Planting the seed the Crow murdered the Whitakers, and their hands had been so easy. People were like sheep, put the idea out there, add a little rotgut, and lead the sanctimonious townspeople by the nose. It had been simple. Until the two men from California showed up to ruin his plans. Hardy worked too hard all his life to have nothing to show for it, and when he stumbled on the gold, he knew this was his break. Dispose of Whitaker and his wife, take care of their hands, and he would be free and clear.
He wasn’t greedy. He would only take enough gold to keep him happy for the rest of his life and was glad he didn’t thirst for more; the vein of gold was playing out. But it was enough to allow him to live comfortably and not be working his fingers to the bone. He would take what he could before the new owners took possession of the ranch. It wasn’t so much to ask, was it? But there was one thing wrong. He hadn’t counted on the new owners to be that stubborn, that interested in investigating. Why would anyone care about some no-account Crow Indians?
His idea of stealing the gold was bolstered after running into the Strickland brothers. Men he’d worked with over twenty years prior, all of them now too old and lazy to continue the hard life as hiders. The buffalo herds weren’t as plentiful as in years past. And with a penchant for easy money, and not particular how they came by that money, the three Strickland brothers agreed to take care of the Whitakers and help solve Hardy’s dilemma. Hardy paid them in gold and sent them on their way. No one would be the wiser.
But with the arrival of the Lancers, the questions they raised fueled the doubts of the sheriff. On closer examination, Brooks was picking up on things that would be detrimental for Hardy’s future life on Easy Street. And it had to be stopped, beginning with the disappearance of the young Lancer. And the Crow would again receive the blame.
Johnny circled. The irritating niggle was still there, and Johnny knew he wasn’t alone. He wondered how he could lure the bastard out of hiding. Short of setting himself up as bait, he was coming up empty. But he might not have any choice.
“Scott, do hear that?” Cole suddenly stopped his horse as they looked down from the ridge. Below, a stampede of men on horses charged toward the Whitaker ranch.
“Unless I’m mistaken, that’s trouble! Scott, get to the ranch and find your brother. Then come back and meet me. My guess is they’re on their way to the village! Hurry! Johnny’s in the north pasture; we rode through it going to see the Crow! Get going! I don’t know how long I can hold them off!”
Without an answer, Scott kicked his horse into a gallop, outdistancing the liquor-driven wild tide.
It seemed like hours. Scott’s heart hammered against his ribs as his mind swirled with the approaching trouble. He scoured the pasture. There was no sign of his brother. Where are you, Johnny? Scott spotted the path, and with no sign of Johnny in the pasture, he reined his horse up the trail, noting the fresh tracks.Then a rifle shot pierced the quiet, and his belly turned to ice.
Johnny left his cover and slowly walked to the entrance of the mine. Standing off to the side and partially in the shadows, he let his eyes adjust to the gloom. Sure that he was not in sight of anyone outside, he began to look around. Supplies lined one wall. Boxes filled with food and other necessities were stacked and covered with a tarp.
Johnny stopped when an object wrapped in oilskin caught his attention. He lifted the cylindrical shape, the feel familiar in his hands. A rifle. Sliding the oilskin off, Johnny realized he held the musket that once hung over Bill Whitaker’s mantel, and though he’d never seen the gun that belonged to Bill’s father before, he knew this was the prized weapon. It had been tenderly cared for, the well-oiled walnut stock, sturdy, solid, and the wood grain was beautiful, even in the low light in the mine. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Johnny picked out other things that should have been in a house, not a cave. More of Whitaker’s belongings?
“Put that down an’ step away! Throw that pistol over here on the ground an’ don’t do nothin’ stupid!” The voice growled harsh orders.
“Kinda late for that now,” Johnny mumbled.
“What’s that ya say?”
“I said it’s too late for doin’ anything stupid.”
“So ya admit your blunder, huh?” a cackle followed.
“Nope,” Johnny answered emphatically, and he watched the man’s puzzled frown crease his face. “You, ya pendejo!” Johnny saw the frown deepen. “Where’d ya get that rifle?” Johnny remembered this man from the livery.
“None a yer business! It’s mine! Now you jus’ come outside, start walkin’!”
Johnny took a tentative step, then stumbled to the side. The old Henry rifle Hardy clutched in his hands went off, deafening the two in the cave. Johnny kicked out with his feet, knocking the legs out from under the old man, and he fell heavily in the dirt. Johnny was on him, hands around the wrinkled neck before Hardy could gather his feet under him.
“You tell me what I wanna know, or ‘m gonna rip your head offa your shoulders!”
Easy, Lancer, can’t lose your temper so fast.
Hardy choked, not able to draw in any air. His face turned red, and then purple tinges shaded the whisker-covered face. He thrashed his arms and legs, prompting Johnny to squeeze tighter. Cliffton managed a nod of his head.
Letting up on the pressure but not releasing the man, Johnny kept his seat on the man’s belly. “Now talk, you bastard! What’d ya doin’ on Whitaker property, other’n stealin’ whatever’s in that mine? Where’d you get that rifle?”
“Bill give me the rifle!” he coughed before Johnny applied the pressure again.
“You’re lyin’! You stole that gun right outta Whitaker’s house! They probably weren’t even cold yet! Ya killed them an’ went through the house stealin’ from friends! There’s other stuff here that come outta that house! C’mon, maldita bastardo (damn bastard), get up!” Johnny grabbed his dirty collar and dragged Hardy to his feet.
The legs wobbled, threatening to buckle as Johnny shoved the man outside. He stopped to pick his Colt out of the dirt, quickly checked it over, and held it on his prisoner. “What’d ya takin’ outta the mine? An’ don’t tell me Whitaker told ya it was alright! You lie ta me an’ I’ll know it, and I swear, I’ll slit your throat an’ letcha bleed out right here and laugh while you’re dyin’! How’d you find this place?”
“I was huntin’ and shot a deer but didn’t kill it. I chased it, followed it up here. Didn’t think Bill’d mind. An’ I found this cave an’ started ta look around, found a gold vein…” The words began to fade away.
Hardy Cliffton eased over to a rock needing the support it would provide. His hands massaged the bruised throat, and coughing hoarsely, he released one hand to wipe his watery eyes.
“Didn’t…” Dry hacking coughs interrupted the words. “Didn’t kill ‘em!” He choked out.
“Then who did?” Johnny growled, his rage and disgust boiling over inside.
“The Stric…” Hardy coughed. “The Strickland brothers! They made it look like the Crow done it!” Cliffton’s eyes wide now and filled with fear. He wasn’t prepared to deal with an enraged Johnny Lancer.
“An’ ya let ’em hang an innocent man!” Johnny railed.
“He was just a Injun!” Hardy defended.
That was it. Johnny held his temper together as long as he could. The detailed description of the seven murdered people and the innocent Indian hanged in the cottonwood flooded Johnny’s brain. In three long strides, he had his hands, once again, around Cliffton’s throat. His momentum carried him, slamming Hardy against the rock to snap the gray-haired head on the boulder.
Scott traveled quickly down the path. He should be getting closer and hoped that he would find his brother in one piece. Didn’t I tell him to be careful?… Why did I tell him that? I know better…
The trees closed around him. Suddenly, there were voices. Angry voices. Was that Johnny? Scott charged up the path in time to see his brother slam a man into the boulder.
“Johnny!” Scott dismounted and ran to the men fighting on the rock. Johnny was wild; the look on his face was feral, lips drawn back in a grimace and hands around the man’s throat, squeezing the life out his body.
“Johnny!” Scott yelled again as he pulled Johnny off his prey. The man rolled off the rock to land in a pile on the ground. Scott retrieved his canteen then handed it to Hardy. The liveryman… The old man took a drink and continued to cough.
Scott watched as Johnny pulled himself together. “What’s going on here, brother?”
Johnny shook his head. “I found Bill’s musket in the mine. Ol’ Hardy, here, is stealin’ gold outta there. It’s on Bill’s property. I figure he needed Whitaker out of the way. Said he didn’t kill them, but he sure as hell knows who did.” Johnny went to stand over Hardy. His glare froze Cliffton to the spot, and the man trembled as he lay in the dirt.
“My guess is he’s the one that first blamed the Crow for the murders, an’ when Blackhawk showed up at the Whitakers, they hung him. Findin’ the watch on him was enough for them ta pass judgment, an’ they hung him!”
Scott was sickened, but he had to push it aside. “We’ll take him with us, but we have to move and quick. Cole and I spotted the men from town coming out here. It looks like they’ve gone vigilante, and the sheriff is trying to stop them. But he needs our help. Let’s go. Johnny!”
Johnny wasn’t going. He had to protect the village. “Scott, you take him. I’ll be there in a few minutes!” He turned into the mine.
“Johnny, no! We need to go! They aren’t that far behind us! Come on!” Scott grabbed Johnny’s arm, but he shrugged away.
“Scott, listen ta me! I hafta get ta the trail where it narrows. If I can blow it shut, the Crow will be safe cuz if those men get past us, they’re gonna kill every Indian in that village an’ they’re innocent! Go!”
Scott couldn’t believe what he was hearing. There was no way in hell he was going to leave without Johnny. “Johnny, we can find another way!”
“No! Scott, please go! Get him ta the law! We’re runnin’ outta time! Go!”
“Johnny, I’m not going to let you do this! Come on!”
“Scott, get the hell outta here!” Johnny took Scott’s arm and held tight. “Scott, the Indians haven’t done anything wrong, an’ if we don’t get our asses movin’, they could pay the price… again! It’s all I can do for them! I hafta see they’re safe!”
“I can’t let you, Johnny! You’ll be killed!”
“Scott, please! Then make my life count for somethin’…” Johnny stopped arguing. “Scott,” he whispered, “I’m sorry.” Johnny’s eyes held a plea for him to understand.
“Sorry for what?”
“This…” Johnny lashed out with his fist in a deliberate blow to Scott’s jaw, and he crumpled to the ground. Johnny quickly tied Cliffton’s hands behind his back and shoved Hardy onto his horse, tied his hands to the saddlehorn, then secured the man’s feet together under the mount’s belly. He lifted Scott onto his horse, taking time he didn’t have to tie Scott to the saddle, ensuring his brother would be out of danger and away from the blast. Then Johnny tied the two animals together and gave them a swat to send them back down the trail.
It was like watching the last chance slip away as both horses galloped down the path and out of sight. He hated giving up his mount, but time was running out. And if the trouble Scott witnessed was on the way, there was precious little time left.
Returning to the mine, Johnny took precious time locating the things he needed and found the ‘necessities’ to do the job. Dynamite. Taking several sticks, he searched for the fuse to bundle them together. Hurry, Madrid! Runnin’ outta time! Where’s the fuckin’ fuse? In the dark of the cave, his fingers closed around the thick cord, and he took off at a mad pace. He ran down the trail that led into the narrow passageway and the Crow village. His life would count for something, the lives of the innocent Crow.
His lungs burned as he ran. Where the hell did that asshole leave his horse? But Johnny didn’t stop. Not until he reached the narrows. He only hoped there was enough explosive to do the job. Taking as much time as he dared, Johnny found the best spot to plant the charge. But his heart plummeted to his feet when he realized there was enough charge but not enough fuse. It was only a three-foot length. Too late to go back. He lit the fuse, knowing this was his last day in this life and tried to run. But he didn’t get far.
Scott fought against the movement under him. What was happening? What… why was he just coming to consciousness, and why did his head hurt? Then he heard it. The explosion shook the ground, and the horse under him pranced, threatening to unseat him. He turned, and a tremble ran through his body as he saw a cloud of dirt and rock shoot into the sky. His heart shattered. Johnny! Brother, what have you done? And Scott couldn’t breathe.
Struggling out of the bonds that tied him to the horse, he got the animal under control and pulled him to a stop, and only then did he see Hardy trussed up and tied to the horse next to him. The old man looked like he’d seen a ghost and was about to be sick. But Scott brushed any concern for him aside. Because of this man, Johnny was back on that mountain, and a good chance he had not made it out alive. Yes, this man had caused a lot of grief, and if Scott had to put the noose around this criminal’s neck personally, he would do it and be glad for it.
He had to go back. Scott had to find Johnny. There were no options. He had to go back, now, and he wasn’t about to leave this man trussed up along the trail. If Brooks couldn’t stop the vigilantes on their way to destroy the Crow, they would find Cliffton and release him, not knowing what he’d done. And that wasn’t going to happen. Scott would make sure. So, he did the only thing he could. He reined the horses around and went back to find his brother.
Hardy couldn’t believe he was on his way down the path that led toward the Crow. That was the last place he wanted to be!
“Wait! Where’re ya headed? Them Injuns’re gonna be waitin’!” Terror laced Hardy’s words.
Scott wanted to laugh in the man’s face. Cowards unwilling to face their crimes had much to fear, but he didn’t have time or energy to waste on the bastard. His brother was all that mattered now.
Sheriff Cole Brooks reined his horse into the middle of the road, his rifle in hand and ready. The thundering horde rounded the bend, and horses skidded to a stop. The sheriff levered a shell into the chamber so all could see.
“I want you all to turn around and get back to town! NOW! The law will handle this! Not a lynch mob!”
“But, Sheriff, them Crow, they…”
The protest was silenced as Brooks adjusted the rifle in his hands, then continued. “The law will handle this, and no one else! Is that clear?”
A rumble of disappointment rose from the angry mob. But they did not move.
“The first man that makes a move to get past me will be the first man killed! Is that what you want? Now, I am ordering you to get back to town!” Brooks stood his ground.
A grumble from someone, too afraid to say it to Brooks’ face, shouted, “He’s only one man! Let’s go over him!” Horses at the back of the pack were nudged forward.
The sheriff took the rifle and aimed it at the man in front. “What’s it going to be, Thompson? You turn this mob around, or you’re going to be the first man killed.” Cole hated to do it, but Clint Thompson was the man that most of these men looked up to; if he could get them to see reason, there would be no blood-shed.
But Clint made no move to turn around. Mumbles grew into shouting, and the horses stomped, reacting to the angry voices.
“Clint?” There was nothing. No move to disband and Cole’s finger tightened around the trigger of the rifle he hoped he wouldn’t be forced to use. And for the moment, there wasn’t any move to try and get past the sheriff. Cole stared into Thompson’s face. “Clint, get these men out of here before I arrest you all!”
“We have a right to see justice done!” one man shouted, “We know who killed the Whitakers an’ we’re gonna see to it that them savages pay!” Again the horses crowded forward.
Brooks swung the barrel of the rifle skyward and pulled the trigger. The men fought to control their frightened horses as they sidestepped; some bucked, kicking other mounts, then began nipping at those too close. “And I’m ordering you all to leave! Anyone coming closer will be shot! The rest of you will be arrested! There will be no exceptions! And then I will charge you with obstruction of justice! So, what’ll it be?” Cole Brooks stood his ground. He could see it in the eyes of some, the second thoughts he so desperately wanted there to be. But not in others, and he, again, leveled the rifle at the mob. Minutes ticked away as Brooks sweated, hoping beyond hope they would see to reason. Please don’t them try anything stupid!
And there was always one that stirred the pot. “You ain’t gonna shoot us! An’ we got a right…” Stanley Lester kicked his horse forward through the mob, and Cole pulled the trigger.
Lester fell from the saddle, clutching the bleeding arm. The others pulled their horses back, and only one man dismounted to come to Lester’s aid.
“That didn’t have to happen! Now you men get him back to town! You go back and stay there! There is nothing for you to do out here! That’s my job, not yours! Now get out of here!”
The men sat for a minute, giving in to second thoughts. They all knew Cole Brooks and knew he was a good man. They hesitated, then began to turn away toward town.
Cole sighed in relief as they moved off; he didn’t want to have to shoot. These were his friends… he thought. Brooks felt sick, and his stomach rolled. They had forced him to shoot, and he sat for a moment to calm the guilt forced on him. He resented the men had put him in this position of having to shoot his neighbors.
But the threat was over, and Cole Brooks had to find the Lancer brothers. He nudged his horse around as the explosion rocked the ground in violent tremors.
Galloping toward the trouble, Brooks heard a different rumble behind him. Clint Thompson and Jack Kincaid caught up.
“Sheriff, ya need help?” The sudden turn of allegiance was baffling; then, reason took over. “ I might need some help, boys,” and the three men followed the path into the mountains.
“You make one move to step away from there, and I will hunt you down and kill you myself!” Scott sneered as he pulled Hardy off the horse. His threat filled Hardy with apprehension.
Scott called out Johnny’s name. Over and over, each time waiting for the answer indicating his brother was alive. But there was no sound, and he began to fear the worst. It was late in the afternoon, and soon darkness would make it impossible to search. He had to start looking!
He scoured the rock and dirt without a sign of Johnny. He’s got to be here! Where are you, brother? Panic began to build. He needed help and needed it now and wondered if Brooks would make it back here in time. The only thing he could do was continue to search.
The sweat ran into his eyes, and he angrily brushed it away. How long had he been looking? He didn’t know, but it was too long; he was wasting too much time. Brother, where are you?
Frantically, Scott looked down the path, hoping to see Cole come to help. But he wasn’t there. Then, his eyes fell on Hardy. Reaching into his pocket, Scott found his knife, and he stalked in Hardy’s direction. The old man had fear in his eyes as he watched the shadow cover Scott Lancer’s face. A shadow of disgust for Hardy clouded alongside the fear for Johnny.
“What… what’d ya gonna do?” and Hardy cowered away.
Slicing the ropes that secured Hardy, Scott pulled him to his feet, then growled, “You’re going to help me look. You get any ideas about running, and I will shoot you down. Make no mistake; I will kill you.”
Grabbing the man’s arm, Scott gave him a shove toward the massive pile of rocks, and the two began the search together.
The footing was treacherous. Unstable rocks rolled under their boots, causing many falls. Debris from above rained down constantly, hampering their sight and created more earth and rock piles that filled in areas they just cleared. The urgent need to find his brother overshadowed Scott’s ability to watch his prisoner, and as Scott dug furiously with bruised and bleeding hands, Hardy Cliffton was easing his way across the blown mountainside to freedom.
Can’t let him take me in! Gonna take my chances an’ make my move ta get the hell outta here! Hardy kept up the act. He moved rocks and tugged downed tree limbs while Scott worked below toward the other side of the blast, focused on finding his brother.
With his hand wrapped around the small pine, Hardy tossed it to the side in a show of participating in the search and nearly gasped as the body of Johnny Lancer was revealed but trapped beneath a log that held him secure. He was unconscious lying in the rocks, his right leg at an odd angle under the massive, broken tree trunk.
Hate began to rush through Hardy’s body as he stared at Johnny amid the tangle of tree roots and rocks. Johnny nearly choked him to death, and Hardy wasn’t in a forgiving mood. After all, these Lancers had ruined his chance, his only chance to get ahead. His breath was coming fast. There was no way in hell he was going to announce to Scott that he’d found the lost brother. So, he did the only thing he could.
Hardy pulled on an exposed root, hoping the tree would slide down and cover the young Lancer’s body. But the tree didn’t move. Wedged in the rocks, held fast between boulders, Hardy struggled to move it. He had to do this before Scott found him attempting to bury his brother alive. Hurry up! Pull harder!
His frantic movements caused the soil and small stones to roll in an endless stream that built up around Johnny’s shoulders and covered his shirt. A final yank and Hardy dared to think he would get the body buried, then leave Scott digging in the wrong spot. Hardy would make his way to freedom, collect the gold he’d stolen out of the mine, and live comfortably for the rest of his life. He knew it would work! Just a little more…
The earth beneath his feet gave away, and Hardy’s balance shifted. The root in his hand, solid and unmoving, slipped through the calloused fingers, ripping skin, leaving deep, bleeding gouges, and he fell, tumbling over rocks and gaining speed as he crashed into the solid obstacles. A scream tore from his mouth as he careened down through the rocks, his descent halted as his body slammed into boulders and came to rest… just as a large granite piece followed him down and rolled into his head.
Not aware of anything except finding Johnny, Scott looked up when he heard to yell and realized Hardy was not in sight. He raced up the debris field, calling out for Hardy just as Cole Brooks, Clint Thompson, and Jack Kincaid rode into view.
Sheriff Brooks was stunned. Scott Lancer scrambled up the rocks looking very pale even through the dirt that covered his face.
“Scott! What happened? Scott!”
“Johnny, he’s… here somewhere! The liveryman, Hardy, I think he fell…”
Brooks, Thompson, and Kincaid began to aid in the search. Scott looked down from the new vantage point to see Hardy’s broken body halfway to the bottom and nearly covered with dirt. He knew the man was dead.
“Scott, what happened here?” Brooks questioned, not yet seeing the body.
Scott panted and fought to catch his breath, then, with a catch in his throat, explained, “I have to find Johnny… He’s here, somewhere,” and his voice trailed off into nothing.
He didn’t want to think, didn’t want to have to believe he would be recovering his brother’s body instead of rescuing him. But he kept on. He put one unsteady foot in front of the other and eased his way down, down to the bastard that caused his brother’s death. Hardy’s fall was brutal. Justice, Scott thought.
Brooks, Thompson, and Kincaid took their coils of rope to begin the recovery of Hardy Cliffton, blacksmith, and Riverton’s liveryman. Scott’s stomach churned, thinking every step closer he got, he would… Scott froze, and his heart skipped a beat. “COLE! Get down here! I found Johnny!”
Scott almost stepped on his brother. Johnny was half-buried, the lower part of his body concealed with rocks and dirt, and a log rested across his leg. Crouching beside his brother, Scott brushed away all the loose dirt he could from Johnny as he lay nearly buried and checked for a pulse. It was there! Faint, but there!
“Hurry, Cole, he’s alive! We have to get him out of here! Bring some water with you! Be careful coming down! This whole hillside is unstable!” Scott’s heart hammered in his chest, his eyes suddenly misty, but he blinked away the moisture.
“Johnny, can you hear me, brother? I need you to open your eyes… Johnny?”
“Boys, forget about Hardy! There’s a man injured, and we’ll get him out first!” Cole commanded.
Scott sat with his brother, protecting him from the steady stream of rolling debris and keeping him as safe as was possible. With their ropes, Cole Brooks and the other two men worked their way to Scott’s side and began to dig.
“Careful!” Scott called as he deflected falling chunks of granite away from Johnny. “We need to get this tree trunk off his leg!”
The three men sized up the risky situation and quickly decided the best option for moving the log. It would take time, more time than Scott wanted to spend, but they couldn’t risk the chance of having the rest of the mountain come down and cover them all. They had to take the extra time. And the sun would be going down soon.
The three men moved the large boulders away, clearing an area for two to stand and lift the log, while the third used a stout branch to lever under and together, hopefully, maneuver the trunk to allow Scott to drag his brother to freedom.
Scott’s heart hammered in his chest as he watched the men strain to lift and wrestle with their burden. He glanced above, keeping an eye on the rocks higher up. One wrong move could promote a landslide and bury them all.
“Easy,” he called out as Brooks worked the lever, then with a final heave, they lifted the log, and Scott quickly pulled Johnny out from under. Brooks, Thompson, and Kincaid let the branch and log drop, landing with a thud.
Scott breathed a deep sigh, but only for a moment. The shift of rocks above them rumbled, giving Scott enough time to pull Johnny out of the way and scream out a warning for the others. Throwing himself over his brother, Scott felt a blow glance across his shoulder, then it quickly went numb as the rock bounced downward and piled on Hardy’s body.
Hands were on him, and he heard his name. The ringing in his ears began to fade, and he tried to shake away the fog. Johnny! Scott brushed away the help, turning to his brother, and saw the blue eyes squint open.
“Easy, brother, I’ve got you. Take it easy.” Scott turned to Brooks and nodded. “Let’s get out of here.”
It was a slow, careful process for Cole Brooks, Thompson, and Kincade to move Johnny up to solid ground. They stabilized his broken leg, and, ignoring the groans of pain, they hauled him up to the trail.
The collision with the boulder dislocated Scott’s shoulder. Orders to ‘stand-down’ and let the others get Johnny to safety went largely ignored until Brooks threatened Scott with arrest if he interfered any further. Once they reached the top, he was at his brother’s side and refused to leave him.
“Scott, I need to see that shoulder. I think I can put it back into place before too much swelling starts. Just let me take a look…” And before Scott knew what happened, Cole Brooks popped the bone back in place before he finished the sentence he was speaking.
Scott gasped, and his face paled, he fought against the searing pain and the darkness that threatened to pull him under, but he would be alright. He had to focus on his brother and get him to safety, so he did what he could to push aside his discomfort and concentrate on staying conscious. Wiping the sweat out of his eyes, he turned his concern to Johnny.
“What… what kinda trouble ya get inta now, Boston?” Johnny whispered and tried to smile as he lay and grimaced at the throb pulsing in his leg.
“Johnny, be still, and we’ll get that leg set before you know it, brother.”
“Scott,” Johnny, satisfied the others were out of ear-shot, needed to know. “What about the liveryman?”
Scott said nothing, only shook his head.
“Thompson, you stay with me, and we’ll get these two back to the Whitaker’s place. Kincaid, you hightail it into town and tell Doc Briggs to come out here! Wait a minute, before you leave, Jack, I need to have a word with you and Clint.” Cole said. “I don’t want either of you to say anything, and I mean anything to anyone in town. This is official business, and until I get it straightened out, neither of you will be at liberty to talk. Do you understand?” Clint and Jack stared for a moment, then nodded. “Good! Now go!” Brooks ordered.
Both were puzzled, and both had questions, many questions but did as the sheriff asked. Jack Kincaid was on his horse and down the path almost before Cole finished issuing the order.
The trip back to the house was slow. They braced Johnny’s leg as best they could with what they had. Two sturdy branches were used as splints and secured with rope. They lifted Johnny into the saddle, and with Clint on one side and Brooks on the other holding Johnny in place, they set off toward the ranch.
Sheriff Brooks kept watching between the Lancer brothers. Johnny hadn’t made a sound except for gritting his teeth. Cole knew he was fighting the explosions of pain and couldn’t help the groan from giving him away as the horse he was riding miss-stepped, causing a forward lunge. Turning, Brooks checked Scott, barely managing his horse, but riding close to his brother. With two bandanas tied together, holding his shoulder steady, he brought up the rear. His coloring still ashen, but Cole chalked it up to the anguish over his brother as part of the reason, not just his injury.
When the Whitaker’s house came into view, Cole breathed a sigh of relief. Although Doc Briggs had not arrived yet, part of the battle was over getting the Lancers back for medical treatment. He would wait with Scott while Doc set Johnny’s leg and find out exactly what had happened on the northern edge of Bill’s ranch. But for now, he would wait.
Scott handed Cole the keys to unlock the front door. He entered the house and opened the door to the back bedroom adjacent to the kitchen. Cole pulled the blankets off the bed and then helped Clint get Scott and Johnny off their horses.
“Sorry, Johnny, this’ll only take a minute, just hang on. We’ll have you settled in no time,” Cole said as he watched Johnny go pale and did his best not to yell out as they struggled to support the broken leg. Scott wanted to be the one to carry Johnny into the house but was not foolish enough to try. All he could do was to be there if Johnny needed anything.
“S-so-kay,” he groaned as the sweat rolled from his body. He closed his eyes against the shards of pain that tore through him as the bones grated against each other.
There was noise in the yard as Doc Briggs pulled his buggy to a halt. Grateful for the timely arrival, Scott let the man in and showed him to the back bedroom.
“Thank you, Doctor, for coming out so quickly. My brother is back here,” Scott said, leading the way.
“Clint, I think we have it from here. Why don’t you go back to town, and I’ll see you there, alright?” Brooks suggested.
“But, Sheriff, what about Hardy? We gonna let him there all night?” Clint puzzled. Hardy was one of their own. The thought of leaving him did not sit well.
“We wouldn’t be able to work in the dark, Clint. We’d get ourselves killed up there. We have to do it tomorrow.”
Clint Thompson nodded. “Kay, you’re right. Tomorrow.” With that said, Thompson left and rode back to town.
The doctor checked out Johnny’s leg and scrapes, cuts, and all the other injuries he could find. “Alright, son, I’m going to give you something…”
“No! Scott, don’t let him…” Johnny tried to sit up when Scott went to him.
“Johnny, he has to set your leg. You don’t want to be awake for that. I’ll be here to watch your back, brother,” Scott said as he nodded to the doctor to begin. Within minutes, Johnny Lancer lay sedated and wasn’t aware of anything.
“Scott, I need you to tell me what happened up there with Hardy,” Cole said as he and Scott waited for the doctor to finished setting Johnny’s leg.
Scott took a deep breath. How were Cole and the townspeople going to react when they heard that Hardy, a well-known and liked citizen, was a thief and responsible for the deaths of eight others?
“After we left to talk to Dan Gage about Mr. Whitaker’s stock, you stopped the men from town, and I found Johnny on a trail that led toward the Crow village. He was fighting with Hardy Cliffton. I broke them up, and Johnny said he found Bill Whitaker’s musket in a cave. Sheriff, it was a mine that Hardy had been stealing gold from off of Whitaker’s property. Johnny got him to talk.
“Cliffton paid three men, men he knew years ago, to murder the Whitaker’s and the men that worked for them so he could mine the gold. Maybe Mr. Whitaker got suspicious finding Hardy there on his land. I don’t know. Johnny must have found dynamite in the mine so he could blow the pass shut. He didn’t want to take the chance of those men raiding the Crow. They were innocent of everything, and Johnny made sure no one got to them. After knocking me out and throwing me on a horse to get us out of there, he took dynamite from the mine and closed the pass and, in doing so, saved the Crow village.
“When I came to, Hardy and I were halfway back here. It was then I heard the explosion and turned around, taking Hardy with me. I ordered, no, I threatened Hardy that I would hunt him down if he tried to escape, and I insisted he help me find Johnny.
“And, I’ll be honest with you, I did threaten his life if he tried to run. It’s only speculation on my part, but I think Hardy found Johnny unconscious and tried to bury him. He made no effort to tell me Johnny was there. From where I saw him last, Hardy had to have seen my brother. He lost his footing, and rocks hit him when he fell.”
Scott was exhausted. The stress and turmoil of the day, plus his injury, sapped his strength, and he slumped in the chair. Closing his eyes, Scott wanted nothing more than for the doctor to come out, stating that Johnny would be fine, then he wanted to sleep until no more sleep would come.
Sheriff Cole Brooks sat in stunned disbelief. Hardy Cliffton had settled in Riverton years ago; the man had settled Riverton. How would the town react when they found out he arranged for the deaths of the Whitaker’s and their hands?
Tomorrow Cole would go to the mine and retrieve the musket and anything else the man allegedly stole. He dreaded the thought, but it was his job. He needed to know the truth.
An hour later, the doctor stepped into the room. Sheriff Brooks and Scott Lancer sat talking softly, but when Scott saw him come from the back bedroom, he was on his feet, anxiously awaiting the doctor’s report.
Briggs smiled. “He’s fine, he’s fine. The only issue will be his lungs. Depending on the amount of dirt he inhaled will dictate that. He’s breathing fine now, so that in itself is good news, but should he develop a problem, let me know as soon as possible. After a few days in bed, then he can use crutches. I’ll bring them out tomorrow. I think it’s time I take a look at you.”
“I’m fine…” The words echoed in Scott’s head. I’m beginning to sound like Johnny!
“Well, how about I check you over to make sure? I’ll need for you to take your shirt off so I can see what’s what with that shoulder.”
Complying, Scott resigned himself to the doctor’s care.
“Thank you, Doctor, for coming out here. I appreciate it more than you know,” Scott smiled as he adjusted the sling around his arm.
“You’re welcome, Scott. I left laudanum and sleeping powders should either of you need them.” Briggs motioned to the table where the medication lay.
Scott shrugged. “I’ll have to sit on Johnny to get him to take them,” he said with a shake of his head.
Dr. Briggs laughed. “Stubborn, is he?”
“Stubborn doesn’t even come close to describing it!”
Again, Briggs laughed. “I’ll see you in the morning, Scott. Goodbye.” And Doc turned to leave.
“I’ll ride back with you, Dr. Briggs,” Cole said. He turned to Scott. “I’ll be out as well, Scott. I have to get Hardy out of there and want to check out that mine and see if Hardy has any other things that belonged to Bill and Suzanna.”
“Well, I’ll have the coffee on. Goodnight, Cole.” Scott shut the door, locked it, and went to sit with his brother.
Entering the small bedroom, Scott stood at the side of the bed and watched Johnny sleep. The drug had done its job, putting Johnny in a state of unconsciousness. Scott knew there would be hell to pay tomorrow, but it couldn’t be helped. He turned the wick low in the lamp to cast a warm buttery flood in the room. Scott sat on the edge of the bed. A spare blanket lay across the foot. He picked it up, spreading the heavy cover over him, and gently lay beside his brother. He was asleep in less than a minute.
Sheriff Cole Brooks sat in his office behind the desk. He was tired but couldn’t sleep. When he closed his eyes, his mind started turning—first one direction, then another. Thoughts darted in his brain, chasing away any ideas of rest. Was Hardy Cliffton responsible for the deaths of seven people and ultimately an eighth person with the murder of Blackhawk?
Cole pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk and picked up Bill’s journal. There were still pages he had not read, but he intended to rectify that now.
After midnight, when Cole finally shut the book containing the words of Bill Whitaker, the words written in Bill’s hand. He had just enough time to make it to the back door before his belly turned itself inside out, and he knelt in the dirt and wanted to cry.
The journal left opened to the last entry, the entry that sent Cole Brooks racing for the back door.
August 20th, 1872, I found Hardy Cliffton on my property again today. He was filthy as he was every time I’ve seen him up here. Although I have never objected to anyone crossing the ranch, I have to wonder why he has made it a habit to be here. I followed him and discovered he was stealing gold from a small vein in a cave on the extreme northern border and very close to the Crow village. I knew there was gold but also knew it wasn’t worth letting anyone know about it. There would, undoubtedly, be conflict with the Indians, and they would be on the losing end once again.
I told Hardy to leave. We had words and ended in an argument. I didn’t want that to happen, but Hardy became irate, and I was afraid he would resort to violence. A wildness came over him, and he shook from rage. I saw it in his eyes. The man was beyond control. The cursing was terrible, but what caused me to worry were the threats. I tried to convince him I had the law on my side, but he wouldn’t listen, and when he finally left, I heard him say he would kill me.
I don’t want trouble, but if it continues, I will have to notify Sheriff Brooks. Whatever happens, the Crow are innocent and need protection, and I intend to see they have it if it’s the last thing I do. If it gets around that gold, no matter how little is found, it will be the Crow to suffer.
“Good morning, Sunshine!” Scott’s attempt at levity fell flat, and he sensed his brother’s irascible temper begin to make an unwanted appearance.
Johnny shifted half-opened eyes filled with angry disbelief in his brother’s direction. “You let him do it, didn’t ya?”
“Let who do what, brother?” Scott played along. Maybe Johnny would go back to sleep, and he wouldn’t have to listen to the grumpy complaining.
“Give me whatever he used ta knock me out, that’s what!” Johnny put his hand on his head as if to keep it in place.
Scott sighed. “Johnny, the doctor had to set your leg!”
“Coulda just let me pass out! Ya know how that crap makes me sick!” Johnny pulled the blankets over his eyes.
Scott knew Johnny needed to get something on his stomach. The drugs, though necessary, always had this unpleasant side effect. He closed the curtains, making it dark in the room.
“You sleep, brother, and I’ll make you some breakfast. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Hey, Scott?” Johnny called softly.
“Yes?” Scott came to the side of the bed and looked down at his brother.
“Sorry, I didn’t ask if you were alright,” Johnny said as he eyed Boston’s sling.
Scott felt a tug at the corner of his mouth. “Yes, brother, I’m fine.”
“What… what about Hardy?”
“The sheriff is coming out today. He’ll get the body back to town.”
Johnny nodded, and Scott left the room.
Sheriff Brooks and Clint Thompson rolled the boulders away from Hardy’s body. The words of Bill Whitaker, written in his hand, spun in vicious circles in Cole’s head. He would know more after investigating the mine and talking to the Lancers. It was hard to believe that one of their own could be guilty of the heinous crime.
“What’d ya figure happened up here, Sheriff?” Thompson asked as he covered Cliffton’s body with a blanket.
Cole let the rock roll to the side as he stopped working and wiped the sweat from his face. “I’m not sure, Clint, and I can’t speculate. But once I can put it all together, everyone will know. Right now, let’s concentrate on getting the body back to town.”
Clint wasn’t about to give up just yet. “You think those two Lancers have anything ta do with Hardy dyin’?”
Brooks sighed. He knew that his answer had to turn suspicions away from the newcomers. Folks wouldn’t take the word of strangers when they’d all known Hardy for most of their lives. But then, none of them read Bill Whitaker’s journal.
“No, I don’t think so, Clint, but again, I have to ask for your word to stay silent.”
Clint nodded, and the two men struggled to get Hardy out of the rocks that crushed him to death.
“Clint, take the body into town. Go around the back way. I don’t want anyone to see you. Tell Percy at the undertakers to stay quiet until he talks to me. Anyone found spreading gossip will face arrest, you understand?”
Clint mounted up and grabbed the reins of the horse carrying Hardy Cliffton. “Sure, Sheriff, I’ll tell him. What’d’re you gonna do?”
Cole sighed again. “I’m going to conduct an investigation. I’ll see you back in town. Thanks, Clint.” He stood watching as Thompson rode away, then turned and made his way back to the mine.
The match flared, giving light to the dark. Cole set the flame to the wick and settled the glass chimney in place. The yellow flood washed over the cave’s interior as Cole stood, looking around a large cavern.
Away from the entrance, a canvas tarp covered a considerable pile of what seemed to be supplies. Pulling a corner, the canvas slid to the dirt floor to reveal crates of supplies and mining equipment. Cole held the lantern high, casting light over the pile. He found the musket lying on the ground and picked the old weapon out of the dirt. Tenderly wiping away dust, he admired the artistry, the exquisite craftsmanship of the piece. Laying the musket on the canvas, he began to push aside the crates, taking time to examine the contents of each one.
With only one more crate to go, Cole hadn’t found much to go on. He would be thorough in his search, then get back to the house and hopefully find out what happened between the Lancers and Hardy. He bent and tugged the tarp, uncovering the last box. This shouldn’t take long, he thought and opened the container.
At first, Brooks thought nothing of the book that lay on top. He picked it up and flipped through the pages. Perhaps Hardy wanted something to read while spending his time up here. But this wasn’t his claim! This is Whitaker’s property… Cole opened the book’s cover, and written in neat script were the words: To Bill, Happy Birthday My Son 1844. With its colorful leather binding and brightly painted pictures, this volume was the property of the Bill Whitaker. Cole read the title. The Count of Monte Cristo. Yes, that was something that Bill would have liked, and apparently, Hardy Cliffton did, too.
Digging further into the wooden box were items that could have belonged to anyone. Nothing to identify it as Bill or Suzanna’s property, all very non-descript. Until Cole’s fingers closed around a small coffer, delicate and decorated with tiny straw flowers with a seed pearl in their centers. The kind of box that one would find in a lady’s boudoir containing gems or treasures. Cole closed his eyes, then lifted the lid and saw Suzanna’s jewelry. The last thing he found was a leather pouch filled with gold nuggets. Again, the urge to be ill was overwhelming.
“You were lucky, son. The break was clean. Give it another day or two, then use these crutches. And don’t over-do it! Give it time to heal, and you won’t have any trouble. Over-do it, and you’ll have a limp for the rest of your life, or worse.
“Well, I have to be on my way. I have to…”
“Doc?” Johnny interrupted.
“Yes?” The doctor stopped as he struggled into his coat.
“The men that worked for Whitaker… Could you tell how long they were dead before they were found?” Johnny asked, holding the doctor’s gaze.
“Not exactly. But you should be asking the sheriff, not me. I can’t discuss this with anyone.”
The knock on the front door broke the tension in the room. Scott eased away and crossed to the portal. Relieved to find the sheriff standing there, Scott let him in and motioned him to the back bedroom.
“Johnny, it’s good to see you awake. How are you feeling?” Cole asked, then acknowledged Doc.
“I’m fine. Just askin’ Doc here, about Whitaker’s hands an’ how long they were dead before anyone findin’ ‘em.”
Brooks looked at the doctor. “It’s alright, Doc, you can answer the question. See, these two are instrumental in solving this case. Without them, it may have gone unresolved, and the Crow would have taken the blame where they had nothing to do with it.”
Doc Briggs was confused, but he drew a deep breath and began to speak. “Unfortunately, the exact time of death could not be determined, but yes, they were deceased many hours before Bill and Suzanna. They died from fatal bullet wounds. Only a few of the injuries suffered from arrows in their bodies would have caused death. The wounds caused by the lances were made after death. I found that most peculiar.” The doctor did, indeed, look uncomfortable discussing the particulars.
“Thanks, Doc. I’ll see you back in town,” Cole said, not wanting to explain to him Hardy’s death.
“Alright, gentlemen, good day.” He stopped and turned to Johnny. “Remember, young man, don’t be in too much of a hurry!” And after leveling a stern eye at his patient, Doctor Briggs left, and soon the sound of the carriage could be heard leaving the yard.
“Scott, why don’t you have a seat. We have a lot to talk over.”
All three men in the small room sat quietly, each with his thoughts and perhaps a few more questions, but all sickened by the greed of one man that caused such grief. The willingness to blame innocent people, resulting in the murders of eight others, and all because of greed, was revolting. There were no words to describe how they felt or what they were thinking.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you two came here because without that journal or those pieces of leather to suggest things were not as they appeared to be, we, I don’t think we would have ever found out the truth. I’m just sorry both of you were injured.
“I do need to ask that you stay for a few days, just to get this whole thing settled. I know you want to be on your way, but it can’t be helped. I’m sorry.” Cole sat spinning his hat in his hands, not in nervousness but anxiety as it enveloped him. The reality of what happened just now began to settle in with sickening clarity.
The sun began its descent behind the mountains as Scott, Johnny, and Cole Brooks sat on the front porch. It was over. With the testimony of Johnny and Scott Lancer, the town was shocked to find out the details of the happenings regarding the Whitakers and Hardy Cliffton. After discussing it over in depth with Sheriff Brooks, they opted to leave out the fact Hardy had found gold.
The mine was nearly played out, but the mere mention of the word ‘gold’ made men do stupid things, which they wouldn’t normally do, so they decided to omit it from public record. It would take a while, but the town would recover.
They reported Hardy was killed after Johnny found him at the cave, having used the mine to stash the things he’d stolen from the Whitaker ranch. Hardy admitted hiring the men to commit the killings, then took what he wanted, hiding it in the mine until he left town. He told Johnny he would pin the crime on the Crow; after all, they was just Injuns!
“So, I guess you two will be leaving soon?” Cole asked as he watched Johnny try to scratch an itch securely ensconced inside the heavy cast on his lower leg.
“Yes, our father is ready to come up here and escort us home,” Scott laughed.
“Hope ya remembered ta tell him it wasn’t my fault that we’re delayed!” Johnny said with a grimace, the itch just out of his reach.
Scott still laughed as he watched Johnny wage his battle with the annoyance. “Yes, he knows you were not to blame, brother. I guess the next thing would be to contact Mr. Evers and ask for help selling the ranch,” Scott said, anxious to be on the way home.
Cole Brooks sat forward in his chair. “I might have an answer that would solve many problems regarding this whole thing if you want to hear.”
”If it gets us home faster, we’re all ears, sheriff,” Johnny said as exasperation took over at the failed attempt to relieve the discomfort on his leg. “Son-of-a-bitch!”
“I know an Indian agent who is a good man. He’s worked successfully caring for Indians for many years now and holds great respect and sympathy for them. He has a son familiar with the plight of the Indian, and he and his young wife are looking for somewhere to settle and help. Nothing will replace what the White men have taken from them, but Tom and Marty Phillips, her name is Martha, would like to help.
“Is this beginning to sound like something acceptable? Because if so, Tom and Marty could buy this ranch, but they really can’t afford to pay what the place is worth, but if they could stay here and manage the cattle, see to it that the Crow get what they need and are not overrun with the beef in that valley, they could keep raising the stock. They could run the ranch for both them and the Crow. Well, once that pass is cleared out!” Cole cast a glance in Johnny’s direction and smiled.
Scott and Johnny stared at Cole, then turned to each other. Johnny’s grin tugged at the corners of his mouth, and Scott’s soon followed.
“Don’t know about you, Boston, but that’s the best thing I’ve heard since we got here!” Johnny said, forgetting about the damn itch.
“I don’t know what to say, Cole! This is working out better than we had hoped!” Scott said, happy with how things seemed to be falling into place. “I hope you will be able to help Tom and Marty get to know the Crow and ease any tensions. How will you get that pass cleared? Since my brother insisted on blowing it shut, it will have to be opened.” Scott declared, giving Johnny’s shoulder a nudge.
“Couldn’t run the risk of that mob getting’ ta the village. I’d do it again, in a heartbeat,” he said, confirming his stance. “They woulda had ta go over me before I was gonna let anyone of them inta that pass.”
“When will you know for sure if the Phillips will take the ranch?” Scott asked.
“I’ll send a wire when I get back to town. I should know in a day or two. Until then, you boys take it easy, and I’ll have someone come out to help you pack up what you’re taking with you. Well, I guess I’d better get back to town. See you, boys, soon!” Cole left the porch and mounted his horse. He touched his finger to the brim of his hat, then set his heels to the dun’s sides and was gone down the road.
“Johnny, take a look at this,” Scott said in a soft voice as he lifted a piece of paper from the pages of the book.
Johnny took the page and read the brief missive. It was from Murdoch.
Dear Bill and Suzanna,
The words escape me to tell you what it has meant to have your support. Though my life is frozen and shattered, your strength and will has kept me from drowning as I struggle to navigate this life without Maria, and more, my son, Johnny. Had it not been for the two of you, I don’t think I would have survived.
You were there when I lost Catherine and Scott, and now the black shroud of grief has struck a second time. And again, I am a man without his family. But you were there and kept me afloat. With your insistence, I made one day, then the next. I couldn’t have done it had your friendship not encouraged me to get through another day. And I don’t know the words to thank you. I will forever be in your debt.
Hopefully, I will find Johnny and bring Scott home to grow as a family and make Lancer successful and thrive. I would be very grateful for your continued friendship with my sons and me.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything you have done for me.
“Murdoch needs to see that, an’ know Bill an’ Suzanna kept it all these years,” Johnny whispered as he returned the letter to the book for safekeeping on the way back home.
With the paperwork signed and legalized, Tom and Marty Phillips left the attorney’s office to begin the journey to their new home. They purchased the ranch and would begin to forge a new life. Their dream come true!
They wanted to meet the Lancers but knew that it would not be possible as the winter neared. The transaction handled through Attorney Evers and the help of Cole Brooks, the Phillips’ were now on their way home!
The day was sunny and still with a bit of warmth, but it couldhave been the excitement that held them giddy, knowing that tonight was the first night in their new house. Not believing the luck that swept into their lives, both Tom and Marty giggled together and wondered if they would suddenly wake and find this all a dream… But it was a dream, and it was real.
Tom pulled the wagon to a stop in front of the house. Neither could take their eyes from the friendly setting, and both thought of the children they would raise here. The first thing Tom would do would be to suspend a swing from the branch on the old cottonwood tree in the front yard.
Mounting the steps, Marty took Tom’s hand, and they entered their new home. Once inside, Marty began to cry.
“Oh, Tom, this is so much more than I ever dreamed!” Happy tears slid over her cheeks as she looked around the comfortable dwelling. Most of the furniture was left in place, making the interior feel immediately welcome.
“What’s that?” Tom asked as he noticed a leather drawstring bag on the kitchen table. A note was tucked under the pouch. With curiosity getting the better of him, He began to read.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Phillips,
The Lancers want to wish you a happy new beginning. Here is a housewarming gift that we are sure you will put to good use.
Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny
Tom picked up the bag and pulled at the drawstrings. Three gold nuggets rolled into his hands. This would be enough to take care of their debt at the bank. A fresh start, a new life, and new hope for the Indians.
The evening was chilly. As the flames began to chase away the cold and damp, Murdoch Lancer sat behind his desk, watching his sons. Scott had recovered and was back to working full days. The shoulder was still sore but, following Sam’s advice, was now functioning flawlessly. Now, if they could only get Johnny to follow Sam’s orders.
He couldn’t help but chuckle as Johnny stretched out on the comfortable couch and chased another itch inside the bulky cast. I shouldn’t laugh. He’s miserable, and I know what that’s like. Broke a bone or two in my day…
When the boys returned home, Murdoch listened to Scott’s story, then Johnny’s. Not that he thought they would differ, but hearing one at a time, he was allowed glimpses into what each son saw and experienced, knowing that they felt things the other did not. Scott talked about the search with Sheriff Brooks and the rescue effort.
When he spoke privately to Johnny, more was revealed as Johnny confronted Hardy Cliffton. Murdoch could read the pain in his younger son’s eyes as Johnny fought to keep emotions under control. The brutal and savage greed, lust for another’s property enough to kill made Johnny’s skin crawl.
Johnny held back, Murdoch knew, but it was there in the stormy, dark eyes. The incident of the young Indian hung from the cottonwood merely because he carried a watch nearly did Johnny in. Maybe the reaction exacerbated from the strain of not sleeping on the train coming home or the pain of his leg, who knew, but Johnny was struggling.
After Sam allowed him out of bed to move around the hacienda, Johnny seemed better. A change of scenery from four walls was a good start, and Murdoch was sure the situation would continue to improve.
But now, it was Murdoch’s turn to feel the grief as he read Bill Whitaker’s journal and personal letters. He picked up Bill’s knife and held it in his hands. It was solid and strong, and Murdoch could feel the strength it possessed through the weight in his fingers. He would carry it with him forever. The old musket presented to Bill from his father, now hung in a place of honor above the sideboard. Freshly oiled and polished, it seemed to glow on the wall. Sometimes Murdoch would look at it and think it was calling to him, a whisper not to forget where it came from, its history, its unique story handed down from father to son. And now, to a friend.
Was he ready? Could he read the words Bill wrote in that journal, touch those pages and feel the private thoughts committed to paper? He didn’t know, didn’t have an answer. But it was a connection to the great man, now passed, a cherished friendship, and it had been an honor to know him.
Murdoch’s wandering thoughts were interrupted at the sounds coming from his sons.
“Scott, help me with this itch!”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“Well, I dunno! Get my gun; I’m gonna shoot this cast off!”
Murdoch smiled. Things were getting back to normal.
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here. You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Buckskin directly.