Word count: 9,915
#4 in the The First Annual Green River… series
None of these were all that hard to come by at Lancer, except a body was usually too busy clearing streambeds, stringing wire, herding cattle and just plain being a rancher to enjoy them. But this morning, as Johnny rode alone, the uninterrupted serenity was too much to resist. His errand wasn’t particularly urgent, so he slowed his pace and relaxed. Later in the day the sun would be grueling, but right now it was only pleasantly warm.
The gunfire put an end to his tranquil mood. He reined up, listening. Just one shooter, so it wasn’t a gun battle. If somebody was hunting or laying an ambush, they needed to work on their aim. By his count, there had been at least a dozen shots fired. They didn’t follow the pattern Lancer relied on as a signal for trouble either. Instead they were steady and evenly spaced. All hallmarks to indicate that someone was having a bit of target practice.
Getting a bead on which direction the shots came from just confirmed this guess in Johnny’s mind. Several miles off to the east was a small box canyon that he rode past occasionally. Just last week, though, he’d noticed spent shells thick on the ground there. A massive oak tree was riddled with bullet holes and a few scraps of paper showed where targets had been nailed to its trunk.
Whoever was using the place had chosen well. It was just far enough away from the hacienda to mask the sound of gunfire and the steep walls would keep stray shots from claiming some unwary victim.
Besides being pretty sure of the ‘what’ and the ‘where’, Johnny thought he also had a pretty good handle on the ‘why’.
The announcement about Green River ‘s first shooting competition had roused a lot of interest. And people really sat up and took notice when they got a load of the display in the gunsmith’s window. In a velvet-lined case sat a shiny gold belt buckle engraved with the words: GREEN RIVER SHARPSHOOTING CHAMPION—1872.
Johnny wasn’t all that partial to fancy gee-gaws, but his belt had been showing some real signs of wear. And if he had to replace it anyway, might as well take advantage of the offer of a new buckle to go with it. At least that’s what he’d told himself when he’d plunked down two dollars for the entrance fee and scrawled his name on the roster of entrants. The fact that his brother’s name was also on the list hadn’t escaped his notice either.
Scott may never have earned his living with a gun, but he was still going to be hard to beat. For that matter, a good share of the men in this valley could take out a white-tailed deer with a shot through the eye at fifty yards. Speed took a back seat to accuracy in a contest like this. His years as Madrid did give him one edge. Some of the locals might get a case of nerves shooting in front of a crowd like that, but it didn’t compare to the roiling in your gut when you had to face down a man knowing the next split second could mean the difference between your life and his. Even so, this wasn’t going to be a matter of just walking off with the prize.
And now it appeared that someone was putting in extra time—coming up with his own edge. It could be Scott…could be any one of the dozen or more Lancer hands who’d also thrown their hats in the ring.
Johnny urged his horse from a walk to a canter. The need to finish off that errand had just become a bit more pressing. It might be the only way he could fit in a bit of practice time for himself.
Thanks to the additional activity he’d found room for in his day, Johnny arrived home with barely enough time to wash up before supper. Deciding the quickest way to accomplish his ablutions was to stick his head under the pump beside the kitchen door, he hurried around to the back of the hacienda.
He stopped short, however, taken aback by the sight of Teresa sitting on a bench beneath the old tree in the courtyard. First of all, this close to meal time, he’d expect her to be busy stirring pots, checking kettles and stoking the oven. Secondly, she was so deep in thought that she hadn’t even reacted to the jingle of spurs announcing his presence.
It was impossible to miss the sober, despondent expression on her face. That ugly mess with Angel Day and her bastard of a husband had taken place in the spring. It was long enough ago that he, Murdoch, Scott and Jelly had finally stopped grinning like fools every time they caught sight of Teresa doing some ordinary task around the place, but the girl herself seemed to need more time to heal.
When it came down to it, he and Teresa had some important things in common. His mother had lied to him, while Teresa had been lied to about her mother. Still, the fact was that neither woman could wait to shake the dust of Lancer from her skirts. For two people who loved this place as much as he and Teresa did, that was hard to explain or understand. Talking about it some seemed to make it easier.
One thing Johnny had been able to tell her. Maybe he couldn’t say anything about Angel’s first decision to leave, but he’d watched it all go down this time around. Despite the brazen unconcern of that—“See you around, honey!”—he’d be willing to take an oath that Angel’s choice to leave her daughter behind after the shoot-out was made out of love and wanting the best for her child.
If his mother had made that same choice, how much different could his life have been? He hadn’t voiced those words during their little *heart-to-heart* chats, but he wondered if Teresa may have had the same thoughts. In any case, she’d cried on his shoulder a few times and he’d believed the worst of the hurt was past. But if she was sitting alone in the dark like this, maybe he was wrong.
It would probably embarrass her if she looked up and caught him staring, so he backed up a few steps and managed to kick a metal bucket over before rounding the corner again.
“Why, Johnny Lancer, I thought for sure you were going to be late to dinner. You better hurry and wash up before everything gets cold.”
The spark and sass were back in her eyes as though the bleak emotions of a few moments ago had never existed. She retied her apron strings and bustled through the kitchen door.
Stripping off his shirt, he plunged head and torso beneath the cold flow of the well water, and then grabbed a cake of soap and lathered up. Whatever Teresa’s secrets might be, they mattered more than some simple mystery about who was getting in extra practice for a sharpshooting contest. But he had no idea how to pry those secrets out of the girl or whether he should even try. With luck, though, he might just stubble across some clues about that target range during supper tonight.
The aroma of savory roast chicken and—even better—a chocolate cake cooling on the window ledge wafted through the night air. It took a matter of minutes to dry off with the remnant of rough toweling hanging on a hook by the door. Seconds later, he was slipping into his place at the dinner table.
“So you completed that survey over in the east range, Johnny?”
Murdoch watched tolerantly as his younger son scoured his plate for the last crumbs of chocolate cake before answering.
“Sure did, Murdoch. Wrote up all the figures and left’em on your desk.”
Johnny downed several gulps of milk, then added casually, “Things went smoothly enough that I ended up with a couple of hours free. So I rounded up some innocent bottles and cans and blasted’em all to kingdom come.”
A lifetime of training was too deeply ingrained for Scott to plow through his meal with his brother’s enthusiastic abandon. He was only now starting on his dessert and paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. “Ah, yes, the Fourth of July competition is this Saturday, isn’t it. I guess some extra target practice would be in order for all the participants.”
“Sure couldn’t hurt.” If Scott was using that box canyon, he was playing his cards close to his chest. But Johnny could be sneaky too. No one would ever find the spot where he’d been doing his shooting. And there was plenty of time to run through a few more boxes of ammo before Saturday.
“Speaking of the Independence Day festivities,” Murdoch cleared his throat and looked a bit sheepish. “I thought my afternoon in town would be taken up doing some business for the Cattlemen’s Association, but they’ve cancelled the meeting. So I was thinking of polishing up my rusty marksmanship skills and entering too. It might improve the odds of making sure that prize ends up in Lancer hands.”
“That sounds like an excellent idea, sir.” Scott nodded at his father. “We’ll make this contest into a real family affair. But has anyone noticed if there is a deadline for making your entries? I’d hate for your plans to be spoiled because it was too late to sign up.”
“Oh, no…!” Teresa had been in and out of the dining room, clearing away the supper dishes. Now she stopped, balancing a large platter and several plates, and blurted out, “I read the rules very carefully. There’s no deadline. People can even sign up on the day of the competition.”
“Well, that settles it then,” Johnny pushed back his chair and smiled. “I guess I’ll be seeing both of you on the shooting line this Saturday. And may the best Lancer man win!”
“The folks in Green River are getting better and better when it comes to throwing these wing-dings!”
Twisting around every direction in his saddle, Johnny gazed at the hundreds of yards of red, white and blue bunting that covered almost every flat surface. Businesses, storefronts and private homes all sported American flags.
“I must admit,”—Scott had to shout to make himself heard as the small but enthusiastic band churned out a medley of patriotic tunes—“their little celebrations make anything I’ve seen in Boston appear tame by comparison.”
The town was indeed bursting at the seams as what seemed like everyone in the valley gathered to feast, fete and kick up their heels. Local merchants had set up stands along the street to sell baked goods and other refreshments. The band was playing from atop a podium that had been erected in the square. Later in the day it would be used by local dignitaries who would make speeches and add to the general hoopla.
Once the sharpshooting contest had run its course and the prizes had been awarded, all and sundry were invited to partake of ‘supper-on-the-ground’. The real highlight would come with darkness and the promised fireworks display.
Murdoch rode on horseback alongside his two sons with Jelly following behind, driving Teresa in the buggy. Beneath the seat of the wagon were several picnic baskets with enough fried chicken, bread-and-butter pickles, green bean preserves, fresh biscuits and apple pie to feed a whole regiment.
Since they’d be staying in town all day and well into the night, the Lancers chose to put their animals up at the livery rather than leave them standing at the hitching rails. Jelly made it his business to stick around and oversee the stable lads, prodding and nagging them into doing a proper job of watering, feeding and rubbing down the horses. Murdoch agreed to escort Teresa to her friend Emily’s home where a group of young people planned to meet and enjoy the festivities together.
Scott and Johnny had no trouble keeping themselves amused. Friends to greet, cold beer to drink and pretty girls to flirt with were pursuits that easily filled a couple of entertaining hours.
Later Johnny suggested wandering over to the field where the shooting competition was to take place. Whoever had laid out the range had kept their head on straight. The targets were set up so the sun would be at the shooters’ backs when the contest started. To keep everyone on an equal footing, it had been decreed that personal firearms wouldn’t be allowed. The gunsmith was lending out a couple of identical Winchesters. Each challenger would be allotted six bullets. Half could be used to ‘sight in’ the unfamiliar weapon during the opening stage of the contest. That left just one shot apiece for each of the following three rounds of competition.
Not content to trust the makeshift markers that had been placed at fixed intervals on the ground, Scott carefully paced out the distances before nodding, “Looks like they got the details right.”
“Yep,” Johnny crossed his arms and leaned against the rail fence. “The target for the final round looks to be at least seven hundred yards out. Hope you spent some of that extra practice time sharpening your long distance shooting.”
Scott slanted a quizzical look at his brother. “You know, I meant to thank you for that reminder at supper earlier this week. I’d been quite slack about preparing for this little event, but following your advice I’ve put in several hours of target practice every day since then.”
“Huh…! Your old man must be getting soft if he’s letting you two fritter away time and ammunition for no better purpose than trying to win some tin-plated, over-sized belt buckle that nobody but a slicked-up dude would be caught dead with.”
“Kind of strange to hear you say that, Val,” Johnny acted as though he were genuinely puzzled. “I was in town for supplies a few days ago and I could swear that was you I saw behind the livery…plunking old beer bottles off that fence like there was no tomorrow.”
Val’s face took on a slightly darker hue. “Now, any shooting I may have been doing was strictly in the line of duty. A man in my position needs to keep his skills honed…for the protection of this town and its citizens.”
“Of course, Val, we can understand that,” Scott patted the sheriff on the back with a sympathetic smile. “I’m sure your *over-and-above* efforts had nothing to do with the fact that your name appears on the list of entrants for this little contest.”
It didn’t take Val but a moment to come up with a snappy comeback. “Well, sure I’m signed up. How would it look if an important town official like me didn’t support such a worthwhile community project?”
Johnny’s laughter rang out as he threw one arm across his friend’s shoulder. “So would an important town official like you be willing to accept a drink from a couple of unimportant non-officials like us…just to thank you for doing all that honing and protecting?”
After spluttering a few times, Val relented. On a hot day like this, it was clear he had no intention of turning down the offer of a free drink. With a scowl just to prove he was no pushover, he joined the Lancers as they ambled back towards the saloon.
The three men were just outside the bat-wing doors, when they heard the gunfire.
It would be a lot easier to track down where the shots had come from if that infernal band wasn’t making such a racket. And as for the crowds on the street…you’d think so-called civilized folk could do their celebrating without enough clamor and caterwauling to wake the dead. With such a hubbub going on, most people hadn’t paid much mind to a little gunfire, but Val wasn’t most people. While he could admit to being slipshod about lots of things, his job wasn’t one of them. He took it real serious, and that meant finding out the reason behind those stray shots.
Most likely the little fracas would turn out to be some cowhand blowing off steam or an over-anxious yahoo warming up for the sharpshooting competition. If that was the case, he’d have no problem throwing somebody’s sorry butt in lock-up for the day.
Still, there was always a chance that it was something more…enough of a chance to have Scott and Johnny following on his heels as he searched for any sign of trouble. Hadn’t asked for their help. Might even have growled at them a bit for poking their noses where they didn’t belong. Because he sure as hell wasn’t gonna let on how good it felt, knowing they had his back.
“Hey, Val, you hear something from over there?” Johnny pointed at a tumble-down shack behind the feed store.
The disreputable hovel belonged to a derelict named Murphy. It was common knowledge that he eked out a living selling mason jars filled with home-brew. Occasionally Val checked to make sure that the man’s still was in working order and not liable to set the lean-to on fire. An ornery coot with only one eye and a gimpy leg, Murphy didn’t have many other choices when it came to keeping body and soul together. And besides, he made the best *shine* west of Texas.
“Huh,” Val grumbled. “Don’t know how ya can hear anything with them fools making such a hoo-ha back there.”
But he moved closer towards the rickety shed and…sure enough…the low tones of a moan came from just inside the door. So he was right at hand to catch Murphy when the man staggered out, blood dripping from a cut over his good eye.
“Whoa, now,” Val helped the injured man sit on a discarded barrel in the junk-littered yard. “What happened, Murph?”
Suppressing a groan, Murphy croaked, “It was that dumb bastard Witham. I tried to stop him from leaving and he cold-cocked me with his pistol.”
“Witham,” Johnny crouched down on one knee, “you mean Tom Witham?’
“Yeah,” Murphy nodded, wincing at the pain, “but I was lucky. I think he may of kilt poor Yorkie. He’s lying in there, bleeding all over my place.”
“OK, keep an eye on him for a minute.” Val squeezed Johnny’s shoulder and hurried off to investigate, vaguely aware that Scott was following behind. It was dim inside the ramshackle cabin, and it took a moment to spot the body sprawled in the corner. Nathan York lay face down in a pool of blood. Kneeling over the victim, Val listened carefully. “He’s still breathing.”
The words were barely out of Val’s mouth, when Scott started for the door. “We’re going to need the doctor. I’ll take care of it.” One thing you had to say about Scott—he kept his head when the shit hit the fan.
It probably wouldn’t be smart to try moving Yorkie before Doc got there. Sitting back on his heels, Val noticed the condition of the room. The few pieces of shabby furniture had been tumbled aside, a shelf had fallen down from the wall and there was broken glass everywhere.
“They was both drunk as skunks. There wasn’t anything I could do to stop’em.”
Murphy looked a little sturdier on his feet, but Johnny grabbed one of the overturned chairs, swung it upright and forced him to sit.
Val pushed his hat back on his head. “All right, take it slow and go back to the beginning, Murphy.”
“Tom and Yorkie stopped in to buy a couple of pints, but they was already three sheets to the wind.” Murphy’s voice was gaining strength as he became involved in his tale. “We got ta talking about the sharpshooting contest today and the two of’em starting in arguing about it…both of’em claiming they could beat out the other one. You know how they could be…”
Oh yes, Val knew exactly how Tom Witham and Nathan York could be. His experience with the two men dated back to his first days as sheriff. Tom and Yorkie were partners on a small ranch. The place didn’t run to more than a hundred or so head of cattle, but with hunting, trapping and growing a few crops, they got by.
The wonder was that anything at all got done on the spread because if Tom and Yorkie had one thing in common, it was how much each man enjoyed fighting with the other. Val lost count of the number of times he’d had to break up a tussle in the saloon between the two partners. It got so he’d just throw’em in separate cells and let’em dry out. Come morning they’d walk out together like the best of friends. And judging by the number of cuts and bruises they sported whenever they came in to town, they must have gone at it hammer and tongs when they were alone on their place too. But for all that, Val would never have guessed at things ending in gunplay. He listened as Murphy continued his account.
“Well, dang if Witham didn’t take it into his head to show off. He swore he was gonna put three bullets all through the same hole…in Yorkie’s hat. I kept telling him it was a bad idea. Even if he hadn’t been all liquored up, it’s too dark in here to make any kind of a decent shot. But Yorkie was egging him on, saying he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”
Murphy shook his head. “Everything happened real fast then. Tom fired; Yorkie crashed into the wall and went down. At first, me and Tom just stood there like we couldn’t believe poor Yorkie’d been hit. Then Tom just started raving. He was sobbing and crying about how he’d just killed his best friend and he didn’t deserve to live either.”
Fingering the cut on his forehead, Murphy muttered, “That’s how I got this. I told Tom I was gonna go find you and he went nuts. Said he couldn’t stand to be locked up and have to bide his time waiting to hang. Claimed he knew he deserved to die for what he’d done, but that it would be by his own hand and in a place where he knew he and Yorkie would both be together again. Then he whacked me in the head and took off.”
“Blast!” Val exhaled. The last thing he needed was a mess like this on top of having to ride herd on this town’s blessed Fourth of July shindig. Maybe he could…
There was no chance to finish that thought because Sam Jensen strode into the room with his doctor’s bag in one hand and a grim expression on his face. He took in the situation with a quick, practiced eye while Scott waited just inside the door.
“Murphy, it appears you can hold for a short space of time at least.” Sam nodded at Johnny and Val. “Go on and take him outside while I see what can be done for Mr. York. Scott, if you could stay until I see whether I’ll need your help.”
With so little room in the tiny one-room shack, the doctor’s plan seemed sensible. Johnny and Val were just getting Murphy settled on that same old barrel when Murdoch hurried into the yard.
“I just heard the rumors floating around town that Tom Witham had killed Yorkie. Please tell me that this is just some over-blown exaggeration of one of their usual fights.”
“It looks like things got out of hand this time, Murdoch.” Johnny gave a quick account of the events that had turned so deadly. “From what Murphy told us, Tom didn’t mean to do it, but it sure doesn’t sound like he was thinking too clearly when he lit out.”
“In his state of mind, there’s no telling what he might do.” Murdoch’s tone of voice brooked no denial. “Sheriff, we need to find him before he has a chance to harm himself.”
With great self-restraint, Val kept from rolling his eyes. He got on with Johnny’s old man pretty well, all things considered, but owning the biggest ranch in these parts just naturally set a man to thinking that everyone needed to dance to his tune. Finding Witham was important, but he wasn’t haring off without getting all the facts.
“Sure, Murdoch,” Johnny jumped in to smooth the waters a bit. “Nobody wants to see Tom do anything crazy, but we should wait and find out how much trouble he’s gonna be in. A lot depends on whether it looks like Yorkie is going to make it.”
“I don’t think you need to entertain any doubts on that score, gentlemen. Especially since the patient hasn’t even been shot.” Doc Jensen stood in the doorway rummaging in his medical bag.
“Not been shot…?” Val was glad to see that everyone else looked as confused as he felt. “What are you talking about, Doc? We all saw how much blood that man must of lost. How can you say he ain’t been shot?”
“Not blood,” Sam knelt next to Murphy and began cleaning his cut. “What you saw in there was tomato sauce. I overheard the story of what went on here, and I believe I have a theory that can explain the lack of bullet wounds.”
“Well, you got the floor, Doc.” Val crossed his arms over his chest and waited.
“First of all, it appears that Tom hit exactly what he was aiming for.” At Sam’s signal, Scott—who was holding a battered hat in his hand—stuck his fingers through the three neat holes in its crown. “I couldn’t even find a crease or a graze on his head, so I guess the good Lord does protect fools and drunks.” Sam snorted in disgust.
“But the blood…uh…tomato sauce?”
“Evidently when Yorkie stumbled back and plowed into the wall, that shelf and several jars of tomato sauce came crashing down. Somewhere along the way he may have hit his head—there is a small bump in evidence—but my final diagnosis is intoxication, plain and simple.”
Having affixed a sticking plaster to Murphy’s head, Sam closed his bag and dusted off his knees. Jerking his head towards the cabin, he growled, “I’ve done all I can for now. Get him cleaned up and let him sleep it off. I’ll check back on both of then later in the day. Now if you’ll excuse me, there may be a few patients waiting at my office that actually have complaints other than stupidity and drunkenness.”
No one said a word as Sam stalked off, and then the silence was broken as Johnny began to snicker. Val’s fierce glare could have peeled paint off a wall, and that shut him up pretty fast.
But damn if Scott didn’t start in next. “Death by tomato sauce,” he chuckled.
Well, that set Johnny off again. “Strikes me as a pretty bland way to die,” he smirked. “Seems like a body would want something a bit spicier—maybe a nice hot chili pepper sauce—for their final exit.”
“And a second course of fine cheese and crackers for an added funeral touch.”
Pretty soon both of them jackasses were whooping and cackling like a pair of fools. Val was just fixing to deliver a tongue-lashing harsh enough to shrivel their ears, but their old man beat him to it.
“I’m glad you find this so amusing, boys,”—what was there about that calm, reasonable voice that could have two grown men snapping so quickly to attention?—,”but there is a very serious side to this matter. Tom Witham and Nathan York have been partners for over twenty years. It’s not far-fetched to believe that Tom could take his own life in the mistaken belief that he’d killed his oldest friend. We need to do whatever we can to prevent that.”
The little speech sobered up his sons in no time, and it put Val in mind of his professional duties.
“Let me give my deputies notice of what’s going on and then I’ll start tracking.”
“Wait, Val,” Murdoch held up one hand. “Tom is going to be suspicious if you try to tell him Yorkie is still alive. He’s liable to make a fight of it. But we’ve been through a lot together. He trusts me, and I think I’ll be able to talk him down without any violence.”
Val considered the wisdom of this idea. Tom Witham was a wild card. Bringing Murdoch along might well be his best chance, but even so, things would still be dangerous—a piece of truth that wasn’t wasted on Murdoch’s sons.
Both men wore worried expressions and Scott appeared to be contemplating those three very well-placed bullet holes in Yorkie’s hat. Drunk or sober, Witham was a crack shot.
As he watched Johnny reached down and rested one hand on his pistol. It was a gesture Val had seen many times before, and he knew what unease it betokened.
If either Scott or Johnny made noises about going along, their father was likely to guess at their reasons and put up a squawk. So Val was just gonna have to take whatever action he felt was best for all concerned.
Clearing his throat loudly, he announced, “I appreciate your offer of help, Murdoch, and I’m gonna take you up on it. But I still think this is more than a two-man job. My deputies are gonna have their hands full keeping this mob in line, so I’m electing the two of you,”—he nodded at Scott and Johnny—“to be part of the posse.”
Murdoch frowned slightly. “Sheriff, do you really think…?”
But Scott and Johnny were already headed towards the livery. “We’ll get the horses saddled.”
There was nothing for Murdoch to do but shrug and agree as he started walking. “I’ll meet you there as soon as I can explain to Jelly and Teresa what’s going on.”
Before leaving the scene of the *crime* himself, Val stopped and pointed a finger at Murphy. “Once I clear out of here, you’ll probably be swamped with buyers for your…wares. You get some of them to help get Yorkie squared away in there. Tell ‘em there’s no sale unless they lend a hand.”
“OK, Sheriff,” Murphy smiled agreeably. He waited until the lawman had disappeared and then slipped down off the barrel. Lifting the lid he withdrew a mason jar filled with clear liquid. Comfortable seated once again, he unscrewed the lid, slurped down a couple of swallows and settled down to wait for his next unwary customer.
Johnny couldn’t help thinking what a pure and simple waste this was. He, Scott, Val and Murdoch brought together some of the best tracking skills in the valley, but a not-too-bright five year old could have followed this trail with his eyes closed. So far it seemed like Witham was leading them straight to his ranch.
Of course, since the old boy probably knew the place like the back of his hand, things could get a little trickier once they were in his territory. And that meant Johnny needed to stop being cocky and get some of his focus back. He knew he’d been distracted—spending more time studying the old man than watching for sign.
That was because of the way he could tell this whole thing was eating at Murdoch. Sure his father was a decent man, and it didn’t surprise Johnny that he’d go out of his way for a friend and neighbor like this. Still, gut instinct said there was more to it. Considering how close-mouthed his father could be, the odds were they’d never hear the whole story, but…
“There’s a lot more to know about Tom Witham and the kind of man he is than you’d guess from looking at him today.” Murdoch’s voice and expression were both solemn. “You are all putting something on the line to make this attempt, so maybe it’s only right that you understand a bit about the man’s past and what makes him tick.”
Huh! Well, fate sure had a way of turning the odds upside down when you least expected it. Johnny realized he’d be hearing that story after all.
“It sounds like the two of you go way back,” was Scott’s only comment.
“Tom settled here with his wife and daughter not long after your mother and I arrived,” Murdoch replied. “You already know what dangerous country this was back then, and how I sent Katherine off to keep her out of harm’s way.”
The memories might not have been as raw as they once were, but Johnny thought those steady eyes would probably always hold a tiny shadow of the pain his father had endured back then.
“Tom faced the same decision concerning his family, but his wife, Lydia , convinced him to let her and the child stay. During one of the raids, they were both killed.”
Murdoch sighed, “So if I have an extra measure of sympathy for the man, it’s because we’ve both had a lot of years to live with the personal demons of *what-if*. What if I’d kept Katherine by my side? What if Tom had sent his family away? Perhaps nothing would have changed, but that insight isn’t always enough to silence the ghosts.”
Scott cleared his throat. “Given the circumstances, I can understand why you are so worried that Tom might do himself harm. Losing yet another person he cared about would be hard enough. Thinking that he’d done so by his own hand…”
“How long have the two of them been partners?” To Johnny’s mind, cold hard facts were easier to deal with than gauging another man’s suffering.
“That’s yet another reason why I fear Tom will find this burden too much to bear,” Murdoch admitted. “Yorkie was there from the beginning. You see, he’s not just Tom’s friend and partner. Lydia was his sister; he’s Tom’s brother-in-law.”
“So…family,” Johnny mused. Yeah, he figured that upped the stakes.
“Well, I’ll tell ya what I want ta know,” Val blurted out. “Have the two of ‘em always bit and scratched like a couple of…”
“Kilkenny cats…” Scott supplied. “They did put me in mind of the old limerick our Irish housekeeper used to quote.”
“So they fought and they fit…and they scratched and they bit…til instead of two cats there weren’t any.” The brief glimmer of a smile softened the grim set of Murdoch’s mouth. “I guess that’s a pretty apt description. In the early days, I think the constant conflict and strife were quite genuine. Yorkie had supported Lydia ‘s decision to stay and it was how both of them dealt with their feelings of guilt. But I believe they worked that out of their system years ago, and now the bickering and brawling are simply force of habit.”
Val signaled for all of them to stop while he surveyed the fresh hoof-prints in the dirt. “Murdoch, you’ve been out here before. Does it look like he’s headed back to the ranch house?”
After a moment, Murdoch shook his head. “No, that lies more to the east. But there’s another place that has special meaning for Tom. If I’m right, we can angle around and come at it from a direction that will give us more cover.”
In unspoken agreement, the three other men held back and let Murdoch take the lead. Bringing up the rear, Johnny cast one glance over his shoulder and mentally set himself the task of making sure their prey didn’t slip around and surprise them.
The weather-worn cabin stood in large clearing. Circling around, Murdoch led them to a small bluff concealed by a dense thicket.
“This was their home when Lydia was still alive. Tom and Yorkie abandoned it soon after her death. They still use some of the outbuildings for storage though.”
Dismounting, the men took up positions behind the thick vegetation. At first the area below seemed deserted. But then a slight ‘clink’ brought their attention to a pile of crates and boxes stacked some distance from the house. Overhead, four corners of a canvas tarp had been tied to nearby trees providing some meager protection for the supplies.
Suddenly a bottle went sailing into the air and was shattered by a single gunshot. Judging by the broken glass, it wasn’t the first to be disposed of in that manner.
Val took a deep breath and shouted, “Tom…! Tom Witham…! It’s Val Crawford. I’ve come to talk to ya about what happened in town.”
“Ah, Sheriff,” Tom’s voice sounded slurred and sloppy. “You’ve made much better time than I’d counted on. I figured on ending this before you got here. Don’t mean ta waste your time. Just wait for me to finish this bottle and I’ll be ready to do the deed.”
“Now, lay off that kind of fool talk, Witham. We done come out here to tell ya that Yorkie’s alive. You never killed him.”
“You’re a devious man, Sheriff, a devious man to come up with a story like that just to lure me out of hiding. I don’t begrudge you none though. I reckon it’s your job to take me in for a trial and then the hanging. But setting in a jail cell would be more than I could stand. No…justice will be served all right and served with the same gun that killed poor Yorkie.”
If the whole situation hadn’t been so serious, Johnny might have enjoyed watching his friend twist in the wind a bit. All during Tom’s speech, Val was turning a deeper shade of purple and he finally exploded.
“If you don’t believe me, fine…! I’ve got someone else here who can maybe get through that thick head of yours.”
“Tom…! Tom, can you hear me? It’s Murdoch Lancer. Sheriff Crawford is telling you the truth. Yorkie isn’t dead.”
“Thank goodness, Murdoch. I needed someone here that I could trust.”
“That’s right, Tom. You know you can trust me. Just come on out and we’ll take you back to town so you can see Yorkie for yourself.”
“What I mean is, I need someone I can trust to carry out my last wishes. I want Yorkie and me both ta be buried out back beside Lydia and our baby girl. I let my family slip between my fingers during life, but we’ll all be together in death.”
“Nobody’s gonna be buried anywhere, you idiot!” Val yelled out in disgust. “Didn’t the man just tell you that?”
“That can’t be. I saw Yorkie with my own eyes…lying on the floor of Murphy’s shack covered in blood.”
Murdoch made one more stab at laying out the facts, hoping to get through to the stricken man. “It was nothing more than a freak accident, Tom. There was no blood, just broken jars of tomato sauce. Yorkie mostly just passed out from being in a drunken stupor.”
“A trick….it’s a trick! I know he’s dead…I killed him!” Tom rambled on a bit more, obviously fighting off tears.
Well, it didn’t seem like things could get much worse, so Johnny decided to stick his oar in. “Hey, Tom, it’s Johnny. Listen that was some good shooting you did back there. You plugged old Yorkie’s hat three times right at the top of the crown. Lifted it right off his head without so much as mussing his hair. It’s not your fault he stumbled into the wall.”
“Johnny, is that you?” For an instant Tom poked his head up from the barricade of crates, which gave them a clue as to his location. “I’m glad you’re here. Listen, I still owe you three dollars from that last poker game and I’m not leaving this world beholden to no man. You’ll find money to cover the debt stuffed in the toe of one of my dirty socks. Sorry it couldn’t be in one of my clean ones, but that’s a first place a thief would look, you know?”
Chortling over his own wit, Tom chugged down a few more swallows of his whiskey. After a few moments, he began to sing. In a surprisingly tuneful, strong baritone, he belted out a sentimental old ballad about blighted love and heartbreak, with an occasional pause to take another hit on his bottle.
Even if there had been any arguments left to put forth, Tom was making too much noise to shout over. It was obvious to Johnny that they’d have to come up with another plan, and by the look of them, the others realized that too.
“Well,” Val scratched the stubble on his chin, “we could always just wait him out. At the rate he’s putting away that rotgut, he may just pass out before trying anything stupid.”
“But that’s a risk we can’t take,” Murdoch objected. “It’s just as likely that he’ll put that pistol to his head and blow his brains out instead.”
“I suppose we could rush him.”
Johnny could tell that his brother made the suggestion only because someone had to, and was expecting to have it shot down.
Val was quick to do the honors. “Nobody is rushing a man who could take a fly off a horse’s ear at two hundred yards,” he snarled. “Any more lunk-headed suggestions?”
“I got an idea,” Johnny said quietly.
Val rolled his eyes, but waved a hand for Johnny to continue.
“See how that tarp down there is tied to the trees? A well-placed shot to each corner and we could cut the ropes. The tarp would fall right square on top of Tom. While he’s tangled in all that canvas, we should be able to get the drop on him.”
The other men surveyed the scene below…considering.
“From this distance, that would be quite a shot,” Scott pointed out.
“Four shots…!” Val snorted, “Every one of us would have to shoot as straight and true as we ever have, and the timing would need to be perfect.”
“Yes,” Murdoch nodded, “but it could be our best chance of getting everyone out of this in one piece.” He smiled at his son. “Good thinking, Johnny.”
It still surprised him—the warm pleasure he felt at receiving his father’s praise—and Johnny covered his confusion by heading back to the horses to grab several of the carbines.
Soon each man was prone with a rifle in his hand, sighting in his assigned corner of the tarp.
“All right, gents, “Val cautioned, “get ready. We’re going to fire on the count of three.”
Full dark wouldn’t settle over Green River for several more hours, but the marksmanship contest must have ended some time ago. That suited Johnny just fine. He didn’t need a fancy prize or a panel of judges to tell him what he already knew.
While some of the sharpshooters in this valley could probably have made those shots, the number willing to try would probably be a lot less when you remembered that the target was armed. Add in the fact that the timing needed to be right on the money and Johnny was proud—real proud—of himself and the men who rode beside him.
It had all gone like clock-work. On Val’s count of ‘three’ there had been a single, ear-splitting report. At each corner of the tarp, the ropes had been cleanly severed, and all four men had rushed down the slope.
Cussing and yelling at the top of his lungs—although the sound had been muffled by the yards of canvas—it had been Tom’s bad luck that Val had been the first to reach the scene. All the aggravation hadn’t done anything to improve the sheriff’s normally sour disposition. He’d taken a moment to survey the flopping, thrashing body wrapped in canvas, determined which end was which and then delivered one mighty whack to Tom’s head.
Together they’d trussed their victim up like a Christmas goose, and by the time Tom regained consciousness, he was tied to his horse and being led back to town.
Johnny glanced over at him now. Squawking and carrying on, he’d gone full circle from raging anger, to pleading for release, to sobbing grief over Yorkie’s *death* and back to fury again. It was clear he wasn’t going to take anyone’s word about his friend being alive, but would have to see the proof with his own eyes.
Thankfully, Murphy’s place was just up the road.
Scott and Val set the *prisoner* on his feet. Tom had probably expected to be taken straight to jail rather than visiting the scene of his *crime* and he was more subdued than he’d been during the trip into town. His eyes widened when Val shoved him towards the shack, but he held his tongue.
Johnny stood with his father and brother in the open doorway, watching the little reunion unfold.
Murphy was bent over a badly smoking cook-stove, but what caused Tom’s jaw to drop was the sight of his partner seated at the rickety table. Yorkie was staring dejectedly at a plate of greasy eggs.
“Lord…!” Tom barely breathed the word, but it was enough to get his partner’s attention.
For several moments worry, relief and joy were visible on Yorkie’s homely face, and then he summoned up a very credible sneer. “Ha, so you finally showed up, have ya?” Deliberately turning his attention to the food before him, he began mopping up the runny eggs with hunks of bread and shoving them in his mouth.
Tom made no reply…the wide, foolish grin said it all.
“Ain’t it just like you ta fly the coop and leave me here to pay our tab with Murphy?” Yorkie whined. Poking three fingers through the holes in his battered hat, he added, “And you owe me two dollars for a new hat.”
“Two dollars for that beat up old wreck,” Tom scoffed, “I wouldn’t give ya two cents.”
“Then maybe I ought ta just take it out of your hide!”
“Maybe you wanna try!”
“That face of yours is gonna be pretty ugly when I get done wiping the floor with it!”
“No uglier than that hat of yours!”
“KNOCK IT OFF!!!”
Val stalked into the middle of the room. A muscle twitched in his cheek as he glowered at the two combatants. “That’s it! I’ve had enough of the both of ya. Now here’s what’s gonna happen…you see this mess?”
He swung an arm, pointing out the broken shelf, shattered glass, over-turned furniture and gloppy puddles of brown, congealed tomato sauce. “By the time you’re done sweeping, scrubbing, mopping and mending, you won’t have any strength left for throwing punches or busting heads or yapping at each other.”
“You get to it…now…savvy?” His expression dared them to object. “Murph here is gonna supervise. I’ll be back to check on you once I’ve made sure nothing else has gone to hell in this town while I was off chasing my tail today.”
Suitably chastened, the two men began gathering brooms, mops and buckets, but Tom paused. “Sheriff, I know that you and Murdoch and his boys went to a lot of trouble for us, so I just want to say…”
“Now if you’re gonna get all sloppy,” Val interrupted in his best *kick-your-ass* voice, “I may have to throw ya in jail for the night as part of the bargain.”
He stopped at the doorway. “Eat some of Murphy’s eggs too. No good having ya pass out from hunger!” Just in case anyone thought he might be getting soft, he slammed the door extra hard on his way out.
Murphy regarded this unexpected gift of free slave labor as so much manna from heaven. “When you finish up with the chores the sheriff lined out, boys, there are dishes to wash, wood to chop, the cook stove needs cleaning and you might could do a tub of laundry.” Taking a little swig of his latest batch of *shine*, he decided this might be one of the best Independence Days he could remember.
By the sound of it, the band had finally taken a break. As the four men walked towards the main street, Murdoch glanced back at the shanty. “I have to say I’m impressed with the way you handled that, Sheriff. That was a fine job of making the punishment fit the crime.”
Johnny recognized the wary look in Val’s eyes. The man was used to being ribbed by two culprits who went by the name of Lancer and he was a little suspicious. It took a beat for him to realize that Murdoch’s compliment was sincere, but then he puffed up a mite.
“Didn’t take no genius to come up with that idea,” Val smirked. “Just a good way to keep ‘em out of trouble and make sure they don’t make that mistake again.”
“Say, Val, if you really wanted to teach them a lesson, you could make ‘em clean up your place.” Johnny assumed his most innocent expression. “But I guess that would be…what did Scott call it?…cruel and unusual punishment.”
Val ground his teeth, but before he could let fly, Scott interceded. “We never made good on our promise to buy you a drink, did we, Val? If you’d care to join us for supper-on-the-ground, I know Teresa brought a veritable feast. And I’m certain it’s more appetizing than Murphy’s eggs.”
Another time Johnny might have continued to poke at his friend—just for the fun of it—but Scott’s mention of food reminded him how long it had been since he’d eaten, so he relented.
“You won’t get a better offer, Val. Millie’s Café is going to be swamped and you’ll be lucky if you’re served a meal before midnight.”
Huffing a bit, Val finally allowed as how accepting their offer would save some valuable time and get him back to patrolling the streets of Green River sooner.
Dozens of blankets were spread on the grassy field with folks sprawled everywhere, enjoying their picnics. It took a bit of searching, but finally Jelly spotted them and waved a chicken drumstick to get their attention.
“Hey, Murdoch…Val…boys! This must mean you were able to round up that bonehead before he was able to do something stupid. I stopped by Murphy’s place this afternoon…purely to check on old Yorkie…you know I don’t have no truck with Murphy’s homemade brew,” he reminded them with self-righteous pride.
“That poor cluck was beside himself when he heard what Tom was up to. He couldn’t walk across the room without feeling dizzy, but if me and Murphy hadn’t half tied him to the bed, he still would have tried to light out after you all. Flapped his gums the whole time about what he’d do if something happened to Tom. It just discomforts my ears when a grown man doesn’t know when to keep his silence. We done told him you’d do the job, but…”
Knowing it might be a while before they got a word in edgewise, all the men began filling their plates.
“Well, both Tom and Yorkie are safe. They’re each doing excellent imitations of men who don’t care if the other lives or dies…and succeeding in fooling no one,” Murdoch assured him. “But where is Teresa?”
“Oh, she went to the wagon to fetch the desserts. Say, boss, you gotta hear…”
“Come on, Jelly,” Johnny’s patience with all this chatter was wearing thin, “you need to fill us in on the really important news…who won the sharpshooting contest?”
“It you could hold on to your horses and let a man talk, I was just getting to that. The thing is…um”
Hearing Jelly run out of words was a rare enough occurrence that Johnny sat up and took notice. He followed the old handyman’s line-of-sight, but all he saw was Teresa walking towards them. She looked no different than she had earlier in the day, but Jelly was staring at her like she’d grown two heads, so maybe he should study her a bit more closely.
She’d twisted her hair into a few more curls than she usually did for everyday and had gussied it up with a fancy ribbon. He’d seen her wear that pink dress before. The one with those frilly little puffed sleeves that she was partial to. As he recalled, Scott said it was made of something called sprigged muslin—trust his brother to know such a finicky detail about ladies clothes.
The basket she was holding must have been fairly heavy because she was using both hands to carry it. Of course, Scott jumped up—polishing those fine eastern manners—and offered to help.
The belt buckle was very large to begin with and wouldn’t have been dwarfed, even by a man of Murdoch’s size. Spanning Teresa’s tiny waist, it seemed like an endless expanse of gold. She’d threaded a pink sash through and tied it in a bow at her back. The rosy tinge of her cheeks went to show how self-conscious she was as the men simply gaped with their mouths at half-mast.
“See, that’s what I was trying to tell ya, boss. You should of seen it. Our little Teresa knocked them all to flinders. It finally came down to just her and Bill Carter, and she beat his shot with an inch to spare.”
Murdoch was the first to find his tongue. “Teresa, sweetheart…I’m so proud of you.” He gave her a quick peck on the forehead, and then Scott and Johnny took turns sweeping her off her feet with a big bear hug. Val worked the brim of his hat in his hands, grinned foolishly and mumbled, “Congratulations, Miss Teresa.”
“It was you, wasn’t it?” Johnny demanded. “You’ve been practicing out at the box canyon for weeks now, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “Every time I could sneak away from the house… I must have spent hours out there. And I used my egg money to buy ammunition so nobody would question why so much was disappearing.”
“But, Teresa,” Murdoch couldn’t hide his puzzlement, “why would you keep this such a big secret? You can’t have thought we’d disapprove or be angry about your plans to enter the contest.”
“I wasn’t sure if I’d have the courage to go through with it and,”—she aimed a pointed look at Johnny—“I didn’t want anyone to tease me about it.”
“Well, I don’t think anybody will be teasing you much now,” Scott chuckled. “Or at least they’ll only do so at their own risk.”
“Next time I’m looking for a deputy to watch my back, I’ll sure keep you in mind, Miss Teresa.” Val’s uncharacteristically gentle smiled lasted only as long as it took to meet Johnny’s mocking eyes. “But I’d better go make my rounds. There’s certain to be one or two twit’s out there waiting to spend the night in my jail.”
This caused a small flurry of activity because Teresa insisted on cutting a huge slab of apple pie for Val to carry away, and while she wrapped it up, Murdoch gave her an abbreviated version of Tom’s rescue.
When things quieted down again, Teresa took a deep breath. “I’d like to explain something to all of you…it’s about why I entered the contest.” The change in her expression—from light-hearted to serious—guaranteed that she had the complete attention of each of the Lancer men.
“I really wasn’t trying to show off. This is something that’s been worrying my mind since that whole business with Angel. You see, I felt so helpless when I was in Carl Bolton’s power. And when it was over and you’d rescued me, I felt ashamed because I’d done nothing to help.”
Murdoch tried to protest, but she cut him off, instead turning to Scott. “The whole time those men were attacking you in the saloon, I simply cried and wrung my hands. A lot of good that did you…!”
Now she lifted her chin and plunged on with determination. “When Carl Bolton had us pinned down in the desert, I just cowered next to Angel. I’ve thought about it a lot since then, and I needed to do something to prove to myself that if such a thing happened again, I’d be ready to defend myself and those I love. Silly as it may seem to you all, winning this gold buckle was that something.”
Watching her, Johnny remembered a time when learning to defend himself had been a necessity, when eating and drinking were less important than learning to shoot fast and straight. Certainly Teresa would never be called upon to make a living with a gun, and God grant she never have to kill a man. But who was he to deny her the comfort that came from feeling prepared to face unknown dangers?
Tugging on one curl with a gentle finger, he nodded, “I agree. I think it’s a good idea to have another pair of hands that can handle a rifle with that kind of skill…as long as practicing doesn’t take time away from baking more of these apple pies.”
Sometimes—not all that often, but sometimes—he managed to say just the right thing. Everyone laughed, including Teresa, and the tense worry seemed to fade away.
As if on cue, the first of the fireworks began to explode across the night sky, and everyone settled back to enjoy the magic. Appreciative ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ followed each brilliant burst of color. The grand finale had the whole crowd on their feet, applauding.
It was near midnight when the Lancer party was finally ready to return to the ranch. The team had been hitched to the wagon, and the three Lancer men stood ready to mount their horses.
Val stopped by to see them off. “Well, the town seems all quiet for the night. I sure hope the same can be said for you on the road home.”
“I can tell you that we won’t be running into any trouble.” Jelly spoke in the tones of someone delivering an important pronouncement. “Who would take a chance on riling up the original, one-and-only winner of the First Annual Green River Sharpshooting Competition?”
“That’s right, Jelly,” Murdoch agreed with a smile. “I guess we can all rest easy during this trip.”
Scott let his animal fall in step with his brother’s as they rode away from town. “You know, Johnny, I have to admit that I suspected you of being the shooter who was using the box canyon for practice.”
“Yes, I thought you were trying to keep it a secret to give yourself a bit of an advantage for the contest.”
“You believed something like that about me? That I’d sneak around…just to give myself an edge?”
“Scott, it hurts that you’d have so little trust in your own brother…that you’d jump to a conclusion like that.”
“Now, look, it’s not…”
“It’s OK. I can live with the idea that my brother thinks I’m underhanded or something. Might take some time, but I’ll get over the heartbreak.”
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