Word Count 12,191
For Johnny, the first step was crucial. It might end well or it might end badly. But Scott’s proclamation had made it necessary. Johnny changed into clean clothes and strapped on his gunbelt, after checking it and his gun for bullets. He spent a minute examining himself in the mirror, adjusting his hat and his posture until he appeared the most menacing. Did he look like a gunfighter? He had never been sure of that, but today he would find out.
And since Johnny didn’t know what that second step would be yet, he had to make the most of this one.
He went to the barn and saddled Barranca, taking the time to brashly clip his silver bracelet across the bridle for show and then brushing his horse’s mane and tail until they looked like spun gold. Before mounting, he took a moment to run a cloth over his boots and spurs so they would shine as well.
As he rode away from Lancer, he looked longingly back at the house, hoping for a glimpse of his family, but no one was watching him. Pushing annoying tender thoughts to the back of his mind, he focused on the chore at hand. He kept Barranca on an easy canter to the closest ranch only a few miles away, the home of his father Murdoch’s best friend. As he neared the Bar-W, he reined Barranca to a slow walk.
As Johnny expected, several of the Bar-W hands stopped what they were doing to watch his ostentatious entrance. He knew they had seen him only as Johnny Lancer, in those times when he had come to visit his father’s friend Ernie Wright. He was the same man, wearing the same clothes, riding the same horse, but he was Johnny Madrid now. And he could tell they knew it.
Didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Thorn Wright knew it.
Johnny continued slowly on to the ranch house and reined to a stop by the front window. Remaining mounted, he waited patiently for someone to come out. No one did and he was not surprised. He continued staring unflinchingly in the window, certain that he had detected movement inside. In a few minutes, he heard someone approach him from the side. He heard “Senor?” and turned his head slowly to look at one of the Bar-W ranch hands. Johnny Madrid did not speak.
“Senor? If you are waiting to see Mr. Wright, he is not at home; he is at medico.” Johnny did not know this man’s name but he remembered seeing him here before when he and Murdoch had visited Ernie. On those occasions, the man had not looked nearly as nervous and worried as he did now. Johnny smiled inwardly, imagining on what basis this man would have been chosen by his colleagues to approach a gunfighter. Youngest? Oldest? Shortest? He was nondescript and Johnny concluded he had lost a bet. And still Johnny said nothing.
“Senor? No one is at home but Thorn, Mr. Wright’s son.”
Everything Johnny Madrid did was, as always, measured and intentional. While scanning the yard to ascertain his safety, Johnny slowly dismounted. Finally he allowed his gaze to return to the man. He smiled menacingly and waited a moment before softly saying, “That’s all I need to know.” He stared at the man for a moment, mesmerizing him with his gaze. Then he touched his hand slightly to his hat, a sign of safe dismissal, and the man turned and ran back to the barn. Johnny spent a moment watching him, enjoying the thrill of power that he seldom felt unless he was in this role.
And then he heard the front door open.
Thorn Wright stepped outside, leaving the door open behind him.
“Johnny!” he exclaimed. There was surprise in his voice, but Johnny was absolutely certain it had been Thorn who had been watching him from inside the house. “What brings you here today? You’re alone?”
Johnny almost laughed. As Thorn emerged, Johnny considered a few things. Although his features remained even and his stance seemed friendly, Thorn might have been scared. But his voice tone was level. For all the world he looked like a rancher who had been disturbed from doing paperwork. The pencil in his hand was a nice prop, thought Johnny. Not very convincing, though. Johnny figured he knew better. He believed he had his enemy running scared.
“Close the door,” Johnny said, “I don’t want to be ambushed.”
“Ambushed! What are you talking about, Johnny?”
“Close the door.”
Eyeing Johnny up, Thorn put the pencil behind his ear and reached behind him to close the door. “Johnny, what’s this all about?”
“Where’s your gunbelt?” Johnny’s voice remained low and steady and threatening.
“Gunbelt?” Thorn looked convincingly puzzled. “I don’t know. On the hall tree, I guess. Why? – will I need it?” He laughed. “I can’t imagine what for. Never even took it with me to Boston.”
And then it happened. It was then – right then – that Johnny finally saw what was happening! All at once the truth rolled out before him and hit him as hard as if Thorn himself had somehow reached across those few feet and knocked him down. Johnny was stunned and struggled to retain his equanimity. All those fears, and doubts, and insecurities(!) – all of those uncertainties paled in the painfully bright light of the new knowledge he found he suddenly possessed. Somehow he now knew for certain that some things he had believed were true but others weren’t. And he knew now that Johnny Madrid the gunfighter would not have an impact on this enemy.
Thorn Wright wasn’t interested in stealing Scott away as a friend, as Johnny had thought. Thorn Wright wasn’t interested in impressing Murdoch even more than Johnny himself ever had. In fact, Thorn Wright wasn’t interested in impressing anyone. Thorn Wright didn’t give Johnny much credence as an enemy or, for that matter, think of him at all.
Thorn Wright was interested in only one thing – power! And Johnny knew as well as he knew he was standing there now that Thorn was plotting some way to take over his father Ernie’s ranch and then to steal Lancer away from Murdoch and Scott and him. Power was the force driving Thorn to get a stronghold in Lancer through Scott.
And it would take a lot more than Johnny Madrid, a dozen Johnny Madrids, to stop him. Somehow Johnny knew this. Thorn’s education, his business degree from one of the most accredited schools in the country, coupled with his innately cunning personality and what Johnny now sensed was a complete lack of integrity, might just enable him to accomplish his goal!
Johnny gasped, he hoped not audibly, and took another few seconds to plan the best course of action. He was not prepared for this enemy, this war. Not yet. Johnny was not certain he ever would be. But he would do his best to defeat this enemy or die trying. Right now this is all he knew for sure. He was pleased that he was able to figure it out so quickly, after just this one private encounter with Thorn; he had not expected it to be clear this quickly. But Johnny also knew now how formidable this enemy was. Defeating him would not be easy. And it would take planning.
And Johnny knew he’d probably have to do it alone, which saddened him.
But for now, he knew he had to salvage the current situation. Johnny smiled at Thorn, which he now found surprisingly easy to do, and said in a congenial tone, “Well, Thorn, what do you think?”
Thorn still appeared puzzled. “Think?”
Johnny waved his hand to indicate himself and his horse. “This! This – what does Scott call it? – this persona. This gunfighter persona! I overheard you talking with Scott about Johnny Madrid and you wondered what makes up a gunfighter. Thought I’d show you. Up close.”
“Oh!” Thorn laughed. There was a little nervousness in that laugh. Johnny wished he could feel good about that.
“You said you’d never seen a gunfighter. I’m retired, you know, but . . .“ Johnny re-mounted Barranca. “But thought you’d like to see what one looks like. You know . . . for a laugh.” Johnny smiled a little.
“Oh! I see! Very impressive, Johnny. Very impressive.” Thorn smiled widely and walked over to pat Barranca’s nose. Then he backed off and said, “Can you stay for a brandy?” The smile remained but there was no can-you-stay? in his voice.
“No thanks, I’ve got work to do, just like you.” Johnny turned Barranca’s head and kicked him into a gentle canter. But first he glanced quickly back at the big window and saw Thorn’s reflected face as he walked back inside. His smile was gone and so was Johnny’s.
The short ride back to Lancer was a lonely one. Johnny’s mind was racing, darting to and fro in an effort to come up with a cohesive plan to save his beloved family’s home. But he discovered he would not be able to think clearly if he could not succeed in pushing emotion to the back of his mind.
Scott’s words at breakfast that morning still hurt. “Just leave it alone, Johnny. This isn’t like you. You’re being petty.”
Johnny had shaken his head in denial, but he knew what Scott was saying was absolutely valid. In fact, the very same thought had occurred to him almost constantly lately. He wanted with all his heart to deny it, but hearing Scott say it somehow made it true. And the way he said it.
“This isn’t like you.” Johnny thought so, too. But there he was, doing exactly what his brother was accusing him of. Being petty, exactly like Scott said. So it must have been like him, because he was doing it. But because he was Johnny, he gave it one more try. “Thorn’s playing you for a sucker, Scott! He doesn’t give a damn about you! Why can’t you see that!?” Knowing he deserved no reply, he merely shook his head again.
And watched his brother huff in disgust and walk away angrily, slamming the door. His beloved brother.
Who had never accused him of being petty before. And had never had a reason to. But now he thought he did.
Well, Scott would have to think what he would, for now. Johnny was hoping that someday his brother would change his mind, but he wasn’t counting on it. It was time to take action. And put those damn feelings to the back of his mind. Easier said than done.
Now, obviously, the showy proof that the Lancer Ranch was protected by a gunfighter was meaningless to Thorn. Johnny knew that the underhanded thinking that drove Thorn Wright was his alone, and not shared by his father Ernie. Both ranches were in danger from this enemy, maybe others, too.
Johnny liked Ernie Wright, owner of the Bar-W. He was a powerful rancher, just like Murdoch, and also like his own father, he was honest and fair-dealing. The sort of man Johnny was glad his father had for a good friend. In fact, when Johnny initially came to live at Lancer, Ernie was one of the first people Murdoch introduced him to. Johnny would always remember the pride in his father’s voice when he said, “This is my son John.” That memory extended to Ernie shaking his hand vigorously. So happy to meet Murdoch’s son, son.
But then came that day . . . that one day when everything changed. That day when Johnny rode home after work and saw Ernie just leaving. Yelling “Howdy!” to each other in passing. Johnny was tired, but still piqued at missing the visit; Ernie was always good for a fun story. Johnny noted that Ernie seemed quite cheerful. At supper, he found out why.
It wasn’t much more than a casual comment. “Ernie dropped in today with some great news!” Murdoch smiled as he told his sons, “You remember he mentioned he had a son away at college?”
Johnny did not, at first. But Scott perked up. “Yes,” he said. “Harvard, as I recall.”
“That’s right, son. Harvard.”
Four little words. That’s right, son, Harvard. The very faint beginning of a sense of disquiet began to eat at Johnny. He feigned disinterest but paid strict attention.
“His son has just graduated and he’s coming back to help Ernie run the Bar-W, just like the two of you did for me!”
The two of you. But Johnnie noticed Murdoch was looking only at Scott as he talked.
“Scott, I imagine you’ll have a lot to talk about with young Thorn Wright.”
Thorn? Johnnie stifled a smile, which was easy to do because he wasn’t feeling particularly happy.
Scott seemed excited. ‘This is wonderful, Murdoch! I can catch up on all the activity at the university since I’ve graduated. You’re right – we’ll have a lot to talk about.”
Rather than helping that uneasy feeling leave Johnny, Scott’s enthusiasm only exacerbated it. Johnny sniffed in disgust. “Thorn! Where’d he ever get a name like that?”
Murdoch chuckled. “If I recall correctly, I believe his real name is Conway. He was adopted when he was six or seven. A couple traveling through the area died when their wagon caught on fire. Ernie and his wife – she’s been dead a few years now – had always wanted a child so they took him on. The day he was adopted, Thorn went outside to pick some roses for Lydia and she pricked her finger on one of them. Somehow the name stuck.” Murdoch chuckled again. “I remember Thorn always was a rambunctious boy – smart, but . . . well, there came a time when either Army or school seemed like the best option and Thorn chose school. By all accounts, he’s done quite well.”
Thorn. Conway. These weren’t real names. Not like Johnny or Scott. And there were a lot of other things Johnny read into his father’s statement. Johnny hid his disdain and said nothing. When his father called him on it, he said he wasn’t hungry and went outside to be alone with his thoughts. He needed to figure out what he was feeling.
But he couldn’t. There were too many thoughts, too many feelings. Nothing concrete, or anything he could pinpoint. All he knew for sure was that something felt wrong. And he had never been wrong about that feeling.
And the friendship Thorn had struck up with Scott! The two of them got together at every chance, and seldom asked Johnny along. And, on the few occasions they asked to include him, Johnny declined in favor of almost anything else. It pained him to see how Scott seemed to prefer Thorn’s company to his own these days. Johnny felt he was losing his beloved brother! Impossible maybe, but he still felt that way. And try as he might, this nagging thought would not abate. Although he knew there was nothing to be gained, he belittled Thorn to his brother on a few occasions – and was met with a brutal response to everything he said, and in no uncertain terms. It seemed that Thorn Wright, in Scott’s mind, was damn near perfect. The more Johnny disparaged Thorn, the more Scott stood up for him.
When Thorn was not the subject at hand, the rapport between Johnny and Scott was still smooth enough to be enjoyed by both. Johnny fondly remembered the other day when he and Scott had been discussing Johnny’s former life. Johnny asked, “How do you feel about having an ex-gunfighter as a brother?”
Scott had been startled. “What would you have me say? That I forgive you? Your previous life is none of my concern, and frankly, I’m not bothered by it. You’re my brother, and that’s what matters to me. It’s nice to have a brother and I’m very glad it’s you. The question is irrelevant, Johnny. I mean . . . what would you say if I asked you how you felt about having a Boston gentleman for a brother?”
“I’d say I forgive you, Scott!”
They both laughed. The banter was light-hearted enough that it made the whole day pass quickly, and Johnny was able to forget the influence Thorn had placed over his brother, at least temporarily. But by the next morning, Scott was once again full of accolades for his new friend. And Johnny’s heart fell.
Johnny recognized he was jealous. And he found that unacceptable.
Johnny sighed deeply and rubbed his face with his hand. If it was just the relationship with his brother that was at stake here, he knew he could probably tolerate the situation. He was sometimes surprised at the depth of love he felt for Scott, and for his father Murdoch, something that at one time in his life he could not have imagined. But he had spent most of his life without love and he knew he could live without it again. If he had to. Scott had said some things to him he considered hurtful. The crux of the matter was not about what he wanted; Scott was wrong about that. And there was so much more at stake here.
Johnny could accept the idea that his brother and father would come to hate him for what he had to do. He had the comforting memories of the love he felt for his family, and those memories would warm his heart to the end of his days. What he could not tolerate was that they might lose everything they had, everything they believed in, Scott’s birthright, and what Murdoch spent his life building.
Johnny’s emotions precluded his forming a concrete plan, but some things began to fall into place. An irrational idea occurred to him that he at first rejected. But as he neared Lancer, he decided to act on it. He suddenly turned Barranca’s head and started back for the Bar-W at a gallop.
The following afternoon, Murdoch asked Teresa if she could make extra food for supper because he wanted to take some to his friend Ernie and his son Thorn. Scott volunteered to deliver it but Murdoch said they would both go because Ernie was ailing and he wanted to see how his old friend was.
“Why? What’s going on?” Johnny removed his hat and gunbelt as he walked in. Ernie ailing? Then Johnny remembered the Bar-W hand yesterday had told him Mr. Wright was in town at “medico.”
“Ernie didn’t attend the Cattlemen’s Association meeting today. Thorn said he hasn’t been feeling well lately.” Murdoch shook his head. “Ernie’s never missed a meeting as long as I’ve known him.”
Murdoch and Scott always attended those meetings although Johnny never went, feeling his time could be better spent in ranch activities. Scott said, “I talked with Thorn a little after the meeting broke up. He said Ernie went to see the doctor yesterday and took to his bed when he got home. Doctor’s orders. My feeling is that Ernie trusts Thorn enough to represent the Bar-W on his behalf at the meetings.”
“Which he did admirably,” Murdoch interjected. “I’m impressed with how much this young man has learned so quickly. He has the makings of a top rancher. But I’m still concerned about my old friend, so I’ll take a ride over there after dinner. Johnny, would you like to come with us?”
“What? Oh . . . maybe . . .” Johnny’s head was spinning with all the new information he was receiving and all the wild accusations that this information was spawning in his mind. After leaving the Bar-W yesterday, he had doubled back and watched the house to see if Thorn left to go on some nefarious errand or other. Johnny was not disappointed when, after he’d only been in hiding a short while, Thorn emerged and rode away from the ranch. Johnny had secretly followed, hoping to catch Thorn in some illegal or at least questionable act. But he was very disappointed to see Thorn dismount after only a mile or so, and head for a small flower garden he or someone had planted in a lovely meadow. He picked a handful of flowers and returned to the ranch. That silly act made a modicum of sense to Johnny since Ernie was obviously ill. But what kind of man picks flowers for his father? Besides, Johnny knew that Thorn was a self-serving underhanded man who didn’t care about anyone but himself. It just didn’t make sense! Johnny recognized he had better try to get a grip on himself and tame his thoughts, at least for the moment.
“Johnny,” Scott said accusingly, “Thorn told me you paid him a ‘social’ visit yesterday in full gunfighter regalia. What was that all about?” Scott did not look happy with his brother.
Murdoch, who had started walking away, turned back again. “What’s that? You saw Thorn yesterday?”
Johnny had not expected Thorn to relate the incident to anyone, foolishly believing Thorn would be embarrassed by having been intimidated. But now he suddenly realized how wrong he was. Of course Thorn would tell Scott, Ernie, and anyone who would listen. What better way to degrade Johnny! Johnny was smart but he wondered if he would be smart enough to find a way to stay one step ahead of this snake. “I overheard him ask you what a gunfighter was like, so I thought I’d show him. Harmless enough.”
“I don’t think he was too impressed, Johnny,” Scott said rancorously. “At least not the way you intended!” And he turned on his heel and headed for his room.
Murdoch remained and stared at Johnny for a moment, his expression indeterminate. He didn’t seem angry, and yet he didn’t say anything. Johnny desperately needed an ally and he wanted to ascertain if his father was on his side or Scott’s side. But he knew he would appear in a bad light if he pursued this. It wasn’t right to put his father in the middle of his disagreements with Scott. So all Johnny said was, “Anything interesting happen at the meeting?”
“Yes, Johnny,” Murdoch said, not unkindly. “We’ll discuss it at the dinner table.” And he also left to clean up. Johnny was alone with his thoughts again. He wouldn’t have minded this so much, if those damn emotions didn’t keep intruding.
Dinner was delicious, according to Murdoch and Scott, but Johnny didn’t eat much. Afterwards he was glad he hadn’t. The punch he took to the stomach later from his brother would have hurt a lot more if he’d had a full belly.
“I liked his ideas,” Scott said to Murdoch over dinner. “What did you think?”
“They have merit. But I’m not as convinced as you. I’ve been in this business a long time, Scott, but it’s new to you. New to Thorn, also. He’s speaking from inexperience.”
“But that also means his ideas are fresh . . .”
“What are you two talking about?” Johnny interrupted.
Scott hadn’t spoken to him at all during the meal, but now he turned to Johnny and said, “At the meeting today, there was a rather spirited discussion over the concern all the ranchers have about the cattle prices being so low. Thorn suggested that the smartest thing to do would be for the ranches to refuse to sell any of their cattle until prices come up a little.”
“It’s good in theory, son, but I’m not so sure it’s practical,” said Murdoch gently. “Remember the market rises and falls regularly.”
“Scott, it’s insane!” Johnny bellowed. “What the hell is he thinking? Some of these guys have small herds. They can’t afford to wait it out until the market comes up again! They have to sell now, tomorrow, whenever they need the cash! They might lose a few bucks by selling, but in the long run it’s best for them. If they don’t have that freedom, they might lose . . . “
Scott’s temper finally broke. “And what exactly do you know about it? You’re a member but you never even bother to show up for the meetings!”
“I got common sense, Scott! I don’t go to the meetings because you and Murdoch know all that paper stuff better than I do and you come back and tell me what happened. I’m no good at it! But I’m smart enough to figure out that this stupid idea of Thorn’s could only lead to problems! Are you thinking at all?”
“If you’d gone to the meeting, Johnny, you would have known that Thorn’s idea merited enough consideration to actually be voted in!”
Johnny was taken aback by this. But then his own anger intensified. “I’m one-third owner of Lancer, and I would never have voted for this! It’s stupid!”
“You don’t show up, Johnny – you get no vote!”
“Hold it!” Murdoch intervened. “Stop right there. Let’s clear the air. I don’t like seeing my sons at each other’s throats. Johnny, so you know, there was a great deal of discussion, pros and cons, and it was put to a vote. Since Scott and I were in agreement and we are two thirds of Lancer, we voted in favor. Even if you had been there and disagreed, each ranch only gets one vote. And Scott, Johnny’s points are valid and should not be dismissed in anger.” He hesitated a moment as he waited for his sons to calm down. “In addition, Johnny, you should be aware that the sale moratorium has been called for merely two weeks. At the end of that time, the Association will re-convene and reconsider the market. Now, is that acceptable to the two of you?”
Both of Murdoch’s sons were still seething, but after a moment, Johnny said, “All right. I’ll give it a try. Sorry I got mad, Scott.”
Scott looked at him and seemed like he was going to say something, but the anger was still apparent in his face and he simply looked down again.
Murdoch stood up from the table. “Think about it, Scott,” he said sternly. “Your brother is trying to take the first step. Now, gentlemen, before I visit Ernie, I am going to take this bottle of fine wine and enjoy the night air on the terrace. And I’d like the two of you to join me.” He looked at Scott, who was still pouting, and added, “If it’s not too much to ask.”
Murdoch went out to the terrace and left the door open for his sons. Johnny had just witnessed Scott being chastised by their father, and it hurt him as much as it hurt Scott. He knew how Scott hated to be wrong and how important it was to him, more so than it was to Johnny, that his father accept him. Johnny’s anger with his brother dissipated completely and he felt a strong wave of compassion. “Scott,” he said softly, reaching out to his brother.
Scott stood suddenly in anger, knocking Johnny’s hand away. He grabbed his wineglass and stormed outside, leaving Johnny bewildered and feeling a new wave of resentment. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Was Thorn Wright really tearing apart the Lancer family? Something Johnny had been imagining all along – was it really coming true?
In a couple minutes Johnny took his glass and went outside to join his father and brother, who were quietly conversing. He did not at first listen to their conversation. He knew he was not part of it, and he shivered. And the night air really wasn’t that cold.
When he tuned in, he realized his father and brother were discussing Murdoch’s friend Ernie.
“What do you think’s wrong with him?” Scott asked.
“That’s what I hope to find out tonight,” Murdoch answered.
“At the meeting, Thorn said the doctor wasn’t much help. Just told Ernie to lie down and relax. Keep his feet up. Thorn thinks it’s heart disease.”
“Or apoplexy. Either one is a killer. I thought Ernie was stronger than that.”
Scott shook his head sadly. “I like Ernie. But it’s a good thing his son is around to take over the ranching while he’s incapacitated.”
Johnny could no longer keep quiet. “You think it’s a good thing, huh? Ever think that it’s more than coincidence?”
Scott glared at him. Murdoch said, “Hold your tongue, Johnny. You’ve told us repeatedly what you think of Thorn, completely forgetting that Thorn is a friend of your brother’s! This is not the time.”
By now Johnny was shouting. “Hell, no, I’m not forgetting! I’m trying to save my brother from suffering the same fate as . . . “
“That’s enough!” Murdoch bellowed.
“Thorn Wright is nothing more than a rattlesnake that sneaks up on you and doesn’t rattle because he’s too damn . . .” But Murdoch was spared the remainder of his rant because Scott suddenly punched Johnny as hard as he could in the stomach. Not expecting this, Johnny was unprepared and knocked backward off the porch, landing on the ground and rolling to a kneeling position. He remained doubled over for a moment, vaguely aware that Scott had jumped off the porch and was waiting with both hands folded into fists. It took forever for Johnny to catch his breath, and during that time many, many things crossed his mind. He thought about some of the many injustices he had suffered in his life, this being only the most recent. He knew he would not fight back against his beloved brother, no matter what punishment Scott had in mind. He doubted he would win this war with his family not backing him. But, most of all, and strangest of all, he couldn’t help wondering why on earth a young man, a man who didn’t seem to care particularly for anyone but himself, why on earth this man would pick flowers for his ailing father.
Johnny shook his head to clear his irrational thoughts but the pain then came through. He was aware his brother was yelling things like, “I’ve had it with you, Johnny,” and he was also aware Murdoch had jumped off the porch to restrain him. Johnny shook his head again, hoping it would help hurry along his ability to stand.
“Go saddle our horses, Scott,” Murdoch yelled. “Just yours and mine. Go! Get out of here!”
Murdoch helped pull Johnny to his feet. Johnny did not thank him. “I’m going with you,” he managed to wheeze.
“You’re staying here tonight! I don’t want you anywhere near Thorn any more. You’re staying in and behaving yourself!”
Johnny tasted something bitter in his throat. “The hell I am!” he managed to yell out.
And then Murdoch Lancer roared so loud and so hard that Johnny squeezed his eyes shut and Scott stopped on his way to the barn and turned around. “Both of you! Listen to me good! As long as you continue to live under this roof, you will be civilized to each other! You are brothers and you will treat each other with respect! There will be no more fights! And the subject of Thorn Wright will no longer be tolerated in this household! Do I make myself clear?”
Scott said, “Yes sir” and shook his head slightly.
When Johnny did not answer, Murdoch, who still had hold of his arm, shook him and caused Johnny to feel dizzy. “Do I make myself clear?” he repeated. Johnny muttered something vaguely resembling ‘yes’ and Murdoch let go of his arm, not gently at all.
“Now,” Murdoch addressed Johnny, “I am going in the house to collect the food Teresa has prepared for my dear friend and our good neighbor, and I will hear no more out of you tonight!”
Johnny painfully made his way to the porch and sat on the edge, cradling his head in his hands. In a moment he heard his father slam the door as he headed to the barn with the food. Normally Johnny would have wished his father and brother a safe trip through the dark night, but he could not bring himself to do so this time.
The next morning Johnny arrived at breakfast as everyone else was finishing up because his midsection still hurt and slowed him down. Scott was just leaving and was asking Murdoch, “Do you want me to check on that right away?”
“Yes,” Murdoch replied. “You take the southeast pastures and Johnny can do the northern ones. I’ll send Cipriano west. Good morning, Johnny, glad you could join us.”
Johnny knew sarcasm when he heard it but figured he probably deserved it. “Morning,” he mumbled as he sat down.
Scott was on his way out but turned around and spoke directly to Johnny. “By the way, Johnny, I owe you an apology. I lost my temper and shouldn’t have.”
Johnny looked hard at his brother. The words were heartfelt and there was no anger in Scott’s face. Johnny’s spirits lifted considerably and even his midsection ceased bothering him. “It’s all right, Scott. I shouldn’t have needled you. I’m sorry, too.”
“I guess we can’t always agree on everything. But we’re brothers, and that’s all that matters.” Scott returned to the table and held out his hand to Johnny.
Johnny willingly shook his brother’s hand. The words wouldn’t come but he managed to smile and say, “Brothers.”
Scott smiled at him and left.
“Feel better?” Murdoch asked Johnny.
Johnny shook his head. “Yeah. You didn’t put him up to that, did you?”
“No, I sure didn’t. I’d like to think that my little lecture last night made an impact with Scott. Did it have an impact on you?”
Johnny chuckled and rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, I guess so. But I didn’t plan on fighting back anyhow.” Johnny didn’t catch it, but Murdoch looked startled at this admission.
The breakfast in front of him suddenly looked good to Johnny. As he started to eat, he asked his father, “What were you talking about? What do you want me to look for up north today?”
“There’s been trouble, Johnny. Last night Ernie told us that a couple of his waterholes had been intentionally poisoned.”
“What makes him think it was intentional? There’s always a level of arsenic in the water, but it’s so low it doesn’t matter.”
“Just that. It should be very low this time of year, but it’s high. I’m sending you, Cipriano and Scott out today to check all our water supplies. And I sent a couple of the hands out to ride to all the other ranches in the area to have them check their ponds as well. We’ll know more tonight.”
Another problem! “And how is Ernie?”
“Ailing. He doesn’t feel well at all. He’s worried about his health and so am I. He says he feels his heart skipping a beat now and then.”
The problems didn’t stop there. In the next few days, Ernie’s condition worsened. Murdoch, Scott, Teresa, or all three of them visited the Bar-W each evening, but Johnny stayed away, to avoid trouble in his family’s presence. Johnny liked Ernie and sent his best wishes along, and Ernie did in fact wonder about his absence, but Thorn never said anything.
It appeared that Johnny had been appeased by his family’s forgiveness of his “earlier behavior,” according to Murdoch, but nothing could be further from the truth. Johnny knew, absolutely knew, that Thorn Wright was up to no good. And he knew that he alone seemed to be the only one who realized it, and therefore had to be the one to somehow stop him. Johnny did not as yet have a clue how to be successful at this tremendous undertaking, but he continued thinking about it.
These thoughts of his were often interrupted by the painful conscience stabbings that suggested he was losing his mind. In light of the grave illness that the father of his enemy was now suffering, his petty grievances seemed unimportant. Dozens of times each day, Johnny asked himself if what he felt really mattered, or if he should just ignore his feelings and drop thinking about the matter. But he knew he could not. He had to go after Thorn.
It turned out that many of the waterholes in the area had been poisoned. Not all, but most. Every ranch suffered the loss of at least one water source for their cattle. As a result, there was much movement in the next few days of cattle from one grazing land to another. Lancer Ranch was also a victim.
The next day, when the Bar-W hands went to move one of its herds from an infected meadow to one with clear water, it was discovered the herd had disappeared! Two hundred head of cattle had vanished into thin air! The Sheriff discovered that in fact they had been stolen. Hoofprints and human boot prints pointed to the herd having been moved in the middle of the night, herded quickly and efficiently and with good planning apparently. The deputies and some of the Bar-W hands followed the prints north through the valley until they branched off in all directions and became impossible to follow. The herd was never found and it was speculated that either there were rail cars waiting to take the animals, or they mingled with the herds of the dozens of ranches in that area. It was a loss that distressed Ernie and made his condition even more precarious.
The doctor could not determine exactly what it was that Ernie suffered from. Ernie exhibited a number of symptoms, most of which pointed to a bad heart. Ernie’s healthy new diet, a sizable amount of bedrest, and everything else the doctor prescribed for him did not seem to improve his condition. As the days went by, he grew weaker and weaker and even began having pains.
A day or so later, a tremendous rainstorm covered the valley. The lightning that preceded it struck the main house of one of the smaller ranches and started it on fire. Fortunately, the rain that followed doused the fire, but it was enough to shake up the owner and his family. The next day they put their ranch up for sale.
That afternoon the Lancer family discussed the possibility of buying that ranch and expanding their property.
“I spoke with Cal this morning,” Murdoch told his sons. “He’s asking a fair price. We’d have to borrow the money from the bank but an expansion of this nature could pay for itself in just a few years.”
“Why is he selling?” Johnny asked. “He’s been here a long time, right?”
“I’m not exactly sure why, but I think the fire spooked him. He’s probably tired of the things that have been happening, like the waterholes being poisoned, and cattle being stolen.”
“He lost cattle too?” Scott asked in surprise.
“No, as far as I know, Ernie was the only one who lost part of his herd, but maybe Cal thinks he’s next. Cal has always believed in bad omens.”
“Surely he doesn’t think there are evil forces at work here?” Scott asked disdainfully.
“I don’t know Cal well enough to tell you what he thinks, but he just might believe it’s the work of the devil. Lots of coincidences lately.” Murdoch looked at his youngest son as he said that. Surprisingly, Murdoch then changed the subject. “Well, think about it, boys. We’ll talk about it over supper and hopefully make a decision so I can set it up with the bank tomorrow. All right, let’s get back to work. We have a ranch to run.”
Scott grabbed his hat and left. Johnny was about to do the same but Murdoch detained him.
“Stay here, Johnny. I want to talk to you for a moment. Without Scott present.”
“I’m going to break one of my own rules here,” said Murdoch, “and ask your opinion about Thorn Wright.”
If Johnny was surprised, he covered it well. “You know my opinion,” he said flatly. “It hasn’t changed.”
“I saw your face when I mentioned coincidences. I know you don’t believe in the devil, or do you think there’s a different kind of devil at work here?”
“I thought you didn’t want me to mention Thorn. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Speaking of the devil . . .” Johnny laughed scornfully at his own joke.
“I want honesty from you, Johnny. I promise there’ll be no repercussions.”
“I suppose you’re saying you won’t yell at me,” Johnny responded sarcastically. “But why not have Scott here? He can give you the whole story and cancel mine out!”
“I already know how Scott feels. I want your opinion.”
“I told you – you already know how I feel about that rattlesnake. Now – I have work to do.” And with that, Johnny donned his hat and turned to leave.
“You may be right, Johnny,” Murdoch said softly. Johnny stopped in his tracks. “You may not be alone in your thinking,” Murdoch clarified.
Murdoch was still talking, but Johnny heard nothing after ‘you may not be alone.’ An ally was exactly what he had been craving all along, ever since the first mention of Thorn’s name and the uneasy feeling it had produced. And his father! Did he dare hope to believe his father might be more open-minded than he’d believed? Johnny suddenly felt as if the weight of the world wasn’t pressing quite so hard on his shoulders. He sat back down.
Murdoch continued severely, “I’m looking for facts.” Then he softened his voice. “But – most of all – I want to know your intuition.”
“Why?” Johnny fairly breathed. “Why the change of heart?”
“No change of heart. I realize I hadn’t been listening to you. That was a mistake, son. You have perhaps the best sense of anyone I’ve come across. There must be something to your accusations. Even if you have nothing concrete to base them on, it behooves me to hear you out.”
Johnny thought quickly but his father’s attitude change took him by surprise. “Thorn – hell, even his name – there’s something there, been there from the beginning . . . I don’t know exactly what it . . . I just know it feels to me like he’s a . . . a snake! Like I keep saying.”
“You’ve felt this way from the very beginning?”
“And have you sensed any change in him lately? Since his father’s been ill?”
“Of course not! A leopard can’t change his spots, Murdoch!”
“You did,” Murdoch said calmly, and took Johnny’s breath away.
The supper discussion produced a unanimous vote – the Lancer family was indeed interested in purchasing Cal’s moderately-priced ranch to add to their land holdings. First thing next morning Murdoch Lancer went to the bank to make the arrangements and have an offer of purchase drawn up. He then rode over to Cal’s ranch and handed him the offer and the cash down payment.
Cal scratched his head. “You’re too late, Murdoch! I already sold the place. Ernie Wright’s son Thorn was by here and gave me cash for the whole thing!”
That night when Murdoch and his sons discussed this transaction at dinner, Murdoch asked Scott if he had known Thorn was interested in Cal’s ranch.
“No! As a matter of fact, I’m surprised he had the money to buy it. He often speaks of how badly the record-keeping was and how hard he’ll have to work to turn a profit.”
Murdoch said nothing else. Johnny said nothing at all.
No one from the Lancer Ranch visited the Wrights that evening, although Scott considered it.
The next morning Ernie Wright made a surprise visit to the Lancer Ranch. He was weak and unable to ride a horse, so one of the Bar-W hands drove him in a buggy. Murdoch and Johnny were in the yard when he arrived and helped him to sit on the front porch bench. It was generally acknowledged that Ernie should be home in bed, doctor’s orders you know, but Ernie waved off that notion. “I couldn’t stay in that bed any longer. Needed some fresh air.” His lack of energy caused him to pant as he spoke. And then he said something that caused the Lancers to gasp.
“Thorn doesn’t know I’m here. He rode over to Stockton for a day or two to conduct business, and he ordered me to stay home in bed.”
Murdoch frowned. “He ordered you?”
“I’m afraid so, Murdoch. He insisted I stay home while he’s gone. He’s given strict orders to Magdalena about what food to serve me, and to her husband Jose to see that I stay in bed and make me take my medicine. But I sent Jose on an errand and snuck out.”
“That seems . . . harsh,” Johnny said. “I mean . . . it’s your ranch! Isn’t it?”
“That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about,” Ernie said, turning to Murdoch. “Thorn lied to me about his business dealings today. He told me he is going to Stockton to buy a few head of cattle to replace what we lost. But I know for a fact this is not true. There are no cattle for sale in Stockton right now, and he knows it. So why is Thorn lying to me?”
Johnny and Murdoch exchanged glances but said nothing.
“The boy is disappointing me, Murdoch. Yesterday he told me he bought up Cal Walker’s ranch. Without discussing it with me first! And he paid cash! I know we don’t have that kind of money, but he wouldn’t tell me where he got it from. And that’s not all! He seems to want me to keep my hands off the management of the Bar-W completely. He says just until I’m better, but I don’t really feel like I’m getting better . . .”
“Ernie!” Murdoch said. “Don’t talk like that.”
“I’m telling it like it is, Murdoch. We’ve been friends a long time now. I can be honest with you.”
Johnny said, “Maybe I’d better leave.”
“No!” Ernie practically yelled. “Don’t go anywhere. I want you to hear this. Johnny, you didn’t know Thorn when he was a boy, but Murdoch remembers. He was . . . rambunctious, I suppose. And sometimes difficult to handle. Very bright, but had a mind of his own. He became more than a handful for me, particularly after Lydia died, and I finally gave him a choice of Army or college. I paid for his tuition at Harvard and got glowing reports from his professors. I thought that was exactly what he needed! I didn’t see him for those four years, and when he returned home recently, he seemed like a changed person!”
“Yes, he did,” Murdoch said softly.
Ernie paused a moment to catch his breath. Johnny’s heart went out to him. A man who was ailing like this should not also have to worry about a dishonest son like Thorn.
“I know you put your ranch in your sons’ names as well as your own, Murdoch. But I didn’t feel confident in doing that with Thorn. After all he had put me through earlier, I wanted him to prove to me that he deserved it.”
“Ernie,” Murdoch said softly, “I expected no less from my boys. They didn’t let me down.” He smiled at Johnny.
“I know you trust your sons. But it seems like my own son isn’t so trustworthy! I thought he was doing well! He learned a lot about the business. Real fast, in fact. That schooling he had in general business no doubt helped. His grades had been high. But almost from the beginning I’ve had the feeling that something is not . . . quite right. And now I’ve caught him in these lies.”
Ernie turned to Johnny and seemed to be reading his mind. “Johnny, I know you felt the same way. At first I didn’t understand, but now I do. Thorn just gives you a feeling that he’s up to no good. And that feeling is getting stronger. While I get weaker.”
Johnny tactfully said nothing and just shook his head.
“Murdoch, I’m going to change my will and remove him from it!”
Murdoch could not hide his surprise. “What? He’s your only child!”
“And I’m dying. And he doesn’t deserve the Bar-W. And . . . there’s more.” Ernie looked like he was about to say something extraordinary, but he stopped himself. In a moment he said, “Murdoch, I’d like to stay here for a few days.”
“Of course, my friend. Stay as long as you like. We’ll make you comfortable in one of the bedrooms near ours. If you need anything, you can call out and we will be able to hear you.”
Ernie looked tremendously relieved at this but when Murdoch asked him if he had brought his medicine with him, he said, “No medicine! I just want to eat and drink what everyone else does and not take any medicine at all!” He expected Murdoch and Johnny to register surprise at this demand but they did not.
Although presumably Thorn knew where his father was, he nonetheless made no attempt, after returning home, to visit or contact Lancer in any way. Johnny and the Lancers’ Mexican cook Maria put their heads together and came up with a number of old-fashioned remedies to treat symptoms like Ernie was suffering. Maria was a wealth of information regarding herbs and recipes for simple foods that had been handed down for generations. When she was growing up, there had been no modern medicines to treat illnesses and survival depended on natural remedies. Johnny recalled many of those simple therapies as well. The next few days Maria’s herb garden was visited quite often. And she and Teresa managed to prepare meals that were designed to build Ernie’s strength and which the Lancer men found delicious.
The doctor visited a couple times and was surprised to see Ernie beginning to gain some energy. He proclaimed that Ernie was getting some color back as well. And, most important of all, his heart and pulse sounded stronger!
Although Ernie was probably well enough to travel, Murdoch insisted the attorney visit Ernie at Lancer, rather than Ernie riding into town. All Ernie had to do to change his will was to attach one signature to a piece of paper. When this had been accomplished and the attorney was on his way to file the updated will, Ernie breathed a large sigh of relief. Johnny did, too. And Johnny was secretly glad Scott was not aware of this change, but he was unsure why.
It was never verbalized, but everyone at Lancer knew that Ernie was there rather than at home to keep him away from his son Thorn. Although Johnny was most likely the only one who realized the true extent of the danger to his father’s friend, nevertheless there was still undefined tension in the air. Thorn’s name was never spoken unless Ernie brought it up first.
Murdoch was secretly happy that Ernie had not mentioned returning home. He planned on trying to talk Ernie into staying longer if necessary, but Ernie seemed more cheerful than he had since Thorn had returned from school, and in addition, he was getting healthier. Lancer was a good place for him. And both Murdoch and Ernie enjoyed contented evenings with the chess or backgammon boards.
Scott was more subdued than usual, and Johnny sensed Scott’s anger with him again. It was, after all, understandable. The father of Scott’s friend was being treated like royalty by the Lancers, but his son’s name was rarely mentioned. It had to be difficult for Scott to understand, Johnny reasoned, particularly when the few attempts Scott had made to bring up Thorn’s name were politely repressed. Scott had ridden over to the Bar-W one day to talk with Thorn himself, but, fortunately or unfortunately, Thorn had been out at the time. When Scott returned home he was colder than ever to his family.
But Johnny forced himself to ignore the unfriendly behavior from his brother. Scott’s unbrotherly hostile attitude toward him was a necessary penance, Johnny figured. It was a small price to pay to save Ernie’s, and maybe even Murdoch’s and Scott’s lives. For Johnny finally had a concrete plan. And it would most likely cost him his brother’s love, and perhaps even come at the cost of everything that mattered to him.
Over the next days, Johnny made a few trips to town to visit certain people and to send and receive telegrams. One night under cover of darkness he made a clandestine visit to the Bar-W, but stayed clear of the ranch house. He told no one of his plan, certainly not Scott, and not even Murdoch, who he believed would try to discourage him from carrying it out.
Everything was falling into place for Johnny’s plan to work, but then after supper on the sixth night after Ernie’s arrival, Scott grabbed Johnny’s arm as he was about to leave for the evening.
“Where are you going, Brother?” Scott asked accusingly.
Johnny was surprised, and not happily. He had missed his brother’s attentions and mourned Scott’s recent lack of pleasure in life, and he wanted more than anything to have a private heart-to-heart with him, like they’d always done. But this was absolutely not the time! Johnny was about to undertake an odious chore that would put an end to most of the problems the Valley had seen lately, but would also probably jeopardize his brother’s affection permanently. Those feelings Johnny had been trying so hard to suppress came right back – powerfully – and it was all he could do to keep himself from grabbing Scott’s hand and telling him how much he missed his company and everything would be all right and things will go back to normal for us soon. But Johnny knew he couldn’t do that. He could not allow his mission to be jeopardized – not now, of all times! And Scott’s hand restraining his arm was nothing short of a declaration of war!
As a gunfighter, Johnny had always been good at compartmentalizing his emotions, which allowed him to quickly and efficiently subdue his enemies. He tried doing that now, but was painfully aware that Scott was not his enemy. Scott was his brother, someone he genuinely loved. Johnny had come to terms with the anticipated loss of his brother in his life, and finally was moving forward with his plan . . . and now this!
Johnny called on his instincts to put up a bravado front and said, “I’m heading into town to see someone.”
“Anyone I know?” The stock answer to this private joke between brothers was is she pretty?, but Scott clearly wasn’t joking. The hand didn’t budge, either.
“What do you care? You haven’t been too interested in me lately.” Johnny’s tone was just as menacing, which he found startlingly easy to do.
“I want an answer,” Scott persisted.
In a swift graceful move only a seasoned gunfighter could manage, Johnny suddenly released his pinned arm and bent Scott’s arm back painfully at the same time.
“Go to hell!” he told Scott in an even voice. And then Johnny Lancer strode purposefully to the barn to saddle his horse, hoping against everything he held dear that this would not be the last conversation he and his brother would ever have, and dreading the very real possibility that it could be.
There were three men who were not surprised to see Johnny Lancer that evening. Although after hours, Johnny stopped at Doc Jenkins’s place first, showing him something he had promised he’d bring. The two of them spent a moment discussing the package, but Doc was already primed for this conversation so it was short. Doc then took the package and went to see the Val the Sheriff, while Johnny rode down the street to the house that Russ, the bank president, lived in.
Johnny and Russ spent a few minutes conversing and then they too headed for the Sheriff’s office, after making a quick stop at the bank for Russ to pick up something.
A lively 15-minute discussion ensued, after which both Doc and Russ returned to their homes.
Only Johnny and Val remained behind. Val strapped on his gunbelt and reached for his hat.
“You’ll need a deputy,” Johnny told him.
“I can handle this.”
“Can’t. You’ve got a personal stake here.”
“I can turn my head to that. He’s tricky, and he’s daring.” When the Sheriff just shook his head no and started to leave, Johnny said, “All right, I’m going with you.”
“Johnny, stay out of this.”
“Free country, right? I can go where I want, right? And I can do what I want too, and you know how dangerous I can be, Val. Might as well pin that deputy badge on me – at least that way you got some control over me.” Johnny grinned impishly.
Val sighed and shook his head. He’d been down this road before. Reluctantly he reached inside his top desk drawer and pulled out a badge, which he threw at Johnny. As they were walking out, Val waved his finger at his new deputy and said, “I don’t want no trouble out of you!”
Johnny just smiled and said softly, “Glad you’re on my side, Val.”
The ride out to the Bar-W Ranch didn’t take all that long but it seemed like a lifetime to Johnny Lancer, who was anxious to get it over with. On the way there, he and Val discussed what they were going to do when they got there, and Val kept reiterating, “You let me do the talkin’ here. Since you got a stake I don’t want you buttin’ in!”
Johnny smiled each time and replied, “I’m just along to keep the peace. You know that.”
After about the third time he heard that, Val exploded with, “Like hell you are! Johnny Madrid ain’t no peacegiver! We been friends a long time – I know you too well!”
Johnny looked straight ahead. “I’m Johnny Lancer,” he said matter-of-factly.
Val shook his head. “I don’t care who the hell you are – you just remember I’m in charge here!” After a little more thought, he added, “Remember you came to me – we both want this done legal!”
The ride continued uneventfully. The plan was ready and coordinated, and both Val and Johnny felt secure with each other’s competence. Johnny even felt his heart lifting a little on the way.
But when they reached the Bar-W hacienda, Johnny’s heart fell heavily again.
Scott’s horse was tied up outside.
Val recognized it, too, but gallantly said nothing to Johnny.
Val dismounted and went up to the door, but Johnny took his time scanning the yard for possible dangers. He saw no one in the yard, and he heard most of the hands in the bunkhouse noisily playing some card game. They seemed to be having a good time. Johnny envied them tremendously; most of them probably didn’t have families. They didn’t have heartache.
He joined Val at the door just as Thorn was opening it. Thorn was clearly startled to see a Sheriff outside his door, but when he saw Johnny, the surprise disappeared. He ushered them in with a fake smile and a simple “Come in.”
Scott had been sitting in the parlor and when he saw Johnny, he stood up. “What are you doing here?” he asked accusingly. Johnny just tipped his hat and said, “Scott” instead of what he wanted to say. Brother.
Val ignored Scott. Keeping things legal, he asked Thorn, “You Thorn Wright?”
“Of course I’m Thorn Wright. What’s this all about, Sheriff?”
“Takin’ you in. For questioning.”
Scott walked over to them. Thorn was incredulous. “What questioning?” he asked scornfully. “I can answer any of your questions right here!”
“What’s this all about, Val?” Scott asked.
“None of your concern, Scott. You’re comin’ with me, Wright. Me and my deputy.”
“Deputy?!” Scott finally noticed the star pinned to Johnny’s shirt. “What are you doing?”
Val maintained his focus. “You got some answerin’ to do. Let’s go.” He grabbed Thorn by the arm and started ushering him out. But Thorn pulled away from him and said, “I’m not going anywhere with you!”
Val was very capable of handling the situation by himself and he was grateful that Johnny stayed out of it. But Johnny had no intention of interfering. He had never taken his eyes off Scott. Searching for any sign of retaliation, yes, but mostly memorizing everything his brother did. Every gesture, every move, every word, every voice tone – Johnny committed them all to memory, a memory he could call upon in the future since he did not expect to be close to his beloved brother again.
“Yeah, you are,” Val said, and produced a set of handcuffs.
A modicum of fear crossed Thorn’s face. “Are those really necessary?”
“Yup!” said Val as he snapped them around Thorn’s wrists. “Man tells the Sheriff he’s not plannin’ on doin’ what the Sheriff says, well . . . they’re necessary. OK, let’s go!” He slapped Thorn’s hat on his head and pushed him out the door.
When Scott made a move to follow, Johnny blocked the doorway. “No, Scott,” he said quietly. “Go home now. Just go home.”
Scott stared at his brother. “What . . . have . . . you . . . done?” he asked venomously.
“Nothing more than what needed to be done. Just go home now. Don’t worry – I won’t be there.”
Johnny watched as Scott furiously grabbed his own hat, slammed the door behind him and mounted his horse. “I won’t forget this, Johnny!”
Johnny watched to make sure Scott was headed for Lancer rather than town and then mounted Barranca. He sat there for a few moments, watching Scott until he couldn’t see him anymore. Then he whispered, “I won’t either, brother.”
Knowing he wouldn’t be returning to Lancer anyhow, Johnny spent the night in the Sheriff’s office, sleeping in Val’s desk chair. Val wasn’t used to having a prisoner and wasn’t relishing having to spend the night in his office, so welcomed Johnny’s volunteering to stay on as deputy for the night. Once Thorn was behind bars he refused to talk, so obviously the questioning would have to wait until morning, when Johnny or Val could fetch the town’s attorney to help him loosen his tongue.
But, desk chair or no desk chair, Johnny couldn’t sleep and his night was long and sleepless and full of thoughts he didn’t want to have.
By 9 am, he was hungry and Val still had not made an appearance. Johnny was pretty sure he couldn’t just leave, not with a prisoner in a locked cell. And he was tired of hearing the insults Thorn was hurling his way.
And then Murdoch showed up with a breakfast he had brought over from the restaurant.
Murdoch’s appearance obviously meant he wasn’t so annoyed with Johnny that he refused to acknowledge him. A great weight was lifted from Johnny’s shoulders. At least he could converse with his father.
“Murdoch, listen. After Val gets here, let’s you and me head over to the bank.”
“What for?” Murdoch looked genuinely puzzled.
“Russ has a notary public there and he can draw up some papers real quick for me to sign Lancer back over to you and Scott.”
Murdoch’s surprise was hard to hide but he tried. “Uh, no, Johnny. That won’t be necessary. Now, where can I set this plate down?”
“Hey, what about me?” Thorn yelled from his cell. “I’m hungry too!”
Johnny watched as his father gazed at Thorn with great distaste, and then, in what had to be a tremendous effort to control the enmity in his voice, simply replied, “You’re not my son.” Johnny tried to smile but couldn’t.
Murdoch turned to that son and said, “Why don’t you eat and join us outside when you’re done?”
Johnny had already hungrily started devouring the breakfast, but he looked up and asked, “Us?”
“Ernie, Scott and I rode in this morning to speak with Val.” Murdoch gave his son a little smile and reassuring nod. “We’ll be waiting for you outside when you’re ready.” And then he left.
“Hey! Send Scott in here!” yelled Thorn.
A hundred different emotions were pulling at Johnny, but Thorn’s annoying behavior cut through. “If I see him, I’ll tell him he can find you in jail,” Johnny yelled back, and smiled at his own joke. But it wasn’t funny because it was a reminder that his brother was outraged over his behavior. ‘If I see him.’ Scott hadn’t had much to say to Johnny lately that wasn’t an expression of anger, and the reason for the wedge between the two of them was sitting in the jail cell right now. Johnny really hadn’t expected to see Scott again, and now his father said that his brother was just outside. Johnny resisted the temptation to look. An encounter with his brother scared him more than most anything ever had. He put it off by eating slowly, but after a moment decided he had better face the music. He took another minute to work up the courage to walk outside. Before he did so, he gave the second half of his breakfast to Thorn. Thorn grabbed it and didn’t say thanks.
And then Johnny Lancer stepped outside.
Meals at Lancer were unwaveringly delicious, and the amount of food was always plentiful. Another thing that Johnny liked was that they were served on a regular schedule. It had taken him a while to get used to living by the clock if he wanted to eat. But he did want to eat, and that was a small price to pay for healthy food and what it meant to him.
When growing up in Mexico as a fatherless boy, and with a mother who didn’t pay much attention to him, Johnny was hungry more often than not. To save himself from starving, sometimes he had to do things he didn’t want to do. Sometimes he even had to fight . . .
. . . Johnny took a deep breath in an effort to shake his drowsiness. His fishing pole had slipped from his hand as he had drifted in his daydreams. The fish weren’t biting again today, so he made no attempt to pick it up.
He smiled as he watched the clouds. They took on shapes for him, becoming friends, or enemies. He took aim with his finger at a cloud that reminded him of Thorn Wright. He pulled the imaginary trigger and said “Bang” softly.
Thorn Wright. Only a bad dream now. On his way to some California prison, where he belonged. But what a ruckus he had raised, almost causing disaster for ranchers in the Valley. People who were Johnny’s friends, honest hard-working people who lived the best lives they knew how and earned the meals they ate.
He looked back down at his fishing pole. He had promised Teresa he would bring home fish for supper. It was a joke at Lancer. Johnny couldn’t actually remember catching a single fish since childhood; but back then his life sometimes depended on it. Teresa had just shaken her head. Uh huh, sure, Johnny.
Johnny went into full alert as he saw a mounted rider in the distance approaching him. When he recognized the rider, he relaxed again, and waited contentedly for him to arrive.
It was Scott. He dismounted and sat down next to Johnny. “I figured I’d find you here,” he said.
“Hello, brother. I told Teresa I’d . . . “
“ . . . catch some fish for supper. You never give up, do you, Johnny?” Scott laughed.
“Nope, I never give up. Somewhere out there there’s a fish that’s just begging to jump in my frying pan, and he’s looking for me just like I’m looking for him.”
Scott smiled, but Johnny saw some sadness in that smile. “That’s a fantasy, you know,” Scott said softly. His voice tone had changed.
Johnny looked back at the clouds, seeing only friends this time. “No, brother, it’s not. In life, if you want something, you make it happen. Bad things get in the way. But if it really means something to you . . . well, you just make it happen somehow.”
“Johnny, I want to tell you some things.”
Johnny continued staring at the clouds. “You don’t need to explain anything to me.”
“I’m just so sorry . . .”
“I know, Scott, I know you are. I am too.”
“I can’t even think of the right words . . . the right words to tell you how much I . . .”
“Doesn’t matter. I can read your mind.”
Scott smiled sadly. “You know, I believe you can.”
There was a companionable silence as they sat side by side for a while, Johnny watching the clouds and Scott watching the sparkling water, and neither of them really seeing anything.
“What made him do it?” Scott asked thoughtfully.
Not really surprised, Johnny floated back to earth. “People are what they are,” he shrugged.
“You figured it out, Johnny. You took the plants to Doc. Foxglove, arsenic. . . growing a plant for the express purpose of killing people! Even his father!” Scott shook his head sadly.
“Remember I felt that way once. About Murdoch.”
“I know, I thought of that. But it’s not the same. You thought he had wronged you. But Ernie was offering Thorn the world. And besides, you planned on giving Murdoch a fair fight. No, Johnny, not the same. Thorn’s just cold-hearted. And then telling Val he had started the fire that killed his parents all those years ago . . .!” Scott shuddered.
Johnny kept staring at the clouds. It was just nice to hear his brother’s voice. There was agony in that voice but Johnny knew that time heals all wounds, and he silently promised Scott he would be nearby any time his brother wanted to talk. Murdoch would always be available for both of them too, he knew. It was the ultimate comfort to have a loving family.
“And he even betrayed the Association. How could he do that?!”
Johnny knew Scott needed to talk right then, more than he needed anything else in the world, and he was happy to just listen. He nodded.
“Poisoning some of the water sources, even his own to throw off suspicion! And having someone steal his father’s cattle to sell and then using the money to pay cash for Cal’s ranch! After convincing everyone else to honor the sale moratorium. He would’ve eventually taken over all of the ranches around here. I’ve no doubt he wanted Lancer, too! A thieving opportunist!” Scott shook his head sadly again. “How did you know, Johnny?”
“Just a hunch I had from the beginning. Even before I met him. I don’t know . . . I just trust my hunches. The way he played it, he proved me right.”
“You saw right through him. How could I not see in him what you did? Why was I so blind? Even Ernie figured it out after a while.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Scott. You stuck up for someone you thought was a college friend. I don’t blame you. Nobody does.”
There it was. The all-important exoneration from his beloved brother. Scott felt tears in his eyes for the first time since this whole ugly thing with Thorn had started. He looked back at the sparkling water. After a moment he said, “You may as well slug me.”
Johnny turned to his brother, bemused. “You want me to hit you?”
“I owe you at least that.”
Just then the fishing pole apparently hooked a fish, and since no one was holding onto it, it fell in the water. They both jumped up and watched it being carried to the middle of the pond. It was a lost cause and they both knew it and they laughed.
“Johnny, maybe I should show you the proper way to catch fish.”
Johnny smiled, but not at Scott’s little joke. He was thinking of the close call that almost caused a permanent rift between the two of them.
Johnny wrapped his arm fondly around Scott’s shoulders. “No thanks, brother. There are just some things in life that we’re better off not knowing.”
Although surprised at the show of affection, Scott happily hugged him back. Johnny was, after all, his treasured brother.
And he was probably right.
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