A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing by Karen F.

Word count 13,920

Scott Lancer rode through the bustling town, a pleased smile on his face. After a week of hard riding, he was looking forward to a bath and a soft bed to sleep in. He glanced eagerly from side to side, searching the clapboard buildings for a sign that would announce the presence of the hotel. He nodded pleasantly to several brightly clad young ladies who strolled down the sidewalk, and his smile widened when the faint sound of a giggle drifted toward him in the still air. Scott’s eyes brightened when at long last he spotted Placerville’s largest hotel. Riding forward quickly, he came to a stop in front of the two story building and hastily hitched his horse to the rail.

Scott grabbed the saddlebags from the back of the horse and threw them over his shoulder. He ascended the steps to the wooden sidewalk and entered the lobby of the hotel. A quick tap on the bell brought the desk clerk scurrying. He flipped open a guest register and instructed Scott to sign, talking a blue streak as he did so. Scott let the words wash over him as he accepted the key to his room. A smile and a nod seemed to be all the chatty clerk needed, and then the tired man was on his way to his room, visions of a soft feather mattress dancing in his head.

Two hours later, Scott was roaming the town of Placerville. A brief nap on a hotel bed, and a long soak in a tub of tepid water at the bath house had done wonders for his spirits. He had seen to the stabling of his horse at the nearest livery stable, wired Johnny with the news of his arrival, and now he had time on his hands. Johnny wouldn’t arrive in town to meet him for another day at least, and Scott was looking for a way to pass the time. The tall blond strolled casually down the sidewalk his eyes intent on the swinging doors of a saloon. The thought of a meal and a beer to wash away the sting of travel sounded like just the thing to take away the last of his travel fatigue.

Scott hesitated just inside the entrance to the saloon, his eyes scanning the crowded room as he sought a free table. Finally, spotting a seat in the back corner, he quickly made his way to the tiny table. Sinking into the chair, Scott beckoned the barmaid, and ordered dinner and a beer. He smiled appreciatively as he watched the petite woman’s swaying hips move away from him. Scott’s smile faded, and a sigh escaped his lips. He wished that Johnny was here now. A trip like this was always more enjoyable with his irrepressible younger brother along. The two were traveling on business for their father, and had split up to complete some of the last negotiations. Scott knew that he would see his brother by the next afternoon, but it didn’t stop him from missing Johnny’s quick smile and ready wit.

When the barmaid returned with Scott’s drink, she favored him with a smile and a quick brush against his shoulder. Scott smiled up into her eyes, but he remained in his seat, not making the grab for her that she clearly expected. When she returned with his plate, she again brushed against him, making her play just a little bit more obvious. Scott gravely thanked her for the meal and began to eat. The woman favored him with a bemused frown and strolled away, her thoughts centered on how to make this attractive man notice her.

Scott kept his attention on his food until his hunger was satisfied. Finally, small whispers of conversation began to penetrate his consciousness. He heard the cowboys at another table discussing the breeding of several horses, and another group was debating the merits of two women in town. Scott allowed his gaze to sweep the room, lighting with interest at the group seated at the next table. Their faces were serious. Their conversation pitched low. Scott was about to turn his attention elsewhere when he caught the words “bank” and “dynamite” muttered softly. Trying not to appear obvious, Scott strained to hear the men speaking. His eyes widened as he caught enough of the conversation to realize that the men were discussing a planned attempt on the bank, timing their robbery to coincide with an impending gold shipment.

Casually Scott shifted his chair and leaned back so that he could see most of the men at the table. He fixed each man’s features in his mind, making sure that he could recognize them again if he needed to. Throwing a few coins on the table to cover the cost of his meal, he stood and walked quietly out of the saloon, never noticing the disgruntled frown on the face of the disappointed saloon girl.

Scott’s pace picked up as soon as he left the saloon, and he headed straight for the sheriff’s office. He found the sheriff, a long, lean man, with a tin star pinned to his shirtfront, sitting at a desk, sorting through a stack of wanted posters.

The older man looked up as Scott towered over his desk. “What can I do for you, son?” he asked brusquely, his eyes narrowing into a squint as he surveyed the young man standing before him. Taking in the cut of Scott’s clothing, and the obvious cost of his gunbelt, he could see that this was no saddle tramp or drifter.

“Sheriff, I just overheard some men in the saloon plotting a bank robbery.” Scott replied calmly. “I thought you might be interested.” He leaned forward and planted his hands on the sheriff’s desk as he spoke, a frown cutting a line between his fine eyebrows.

The sheriff’s eyes widened in surprise and dismay, and he hastily pushed his chair back and stood up. “Would you recognize these men again, Mr…?” the sheriff’s voice trailed off in open invitation.

Scott hastily filled in the gap. “Lancer. Scott Lancer, and yes, I made sure that I could recognize most of the men at the table,” he replied smoothly, stepping back as the sheriff paced past him to the window in the small office.

“Mr. Lancer, did you get dates, times, anything that would give us some idea when these men were planning to hit the bank?” The sheriff’s face was harsh, and he swung to face Scott in a sudden temper.

Scott held his hands up quickly. “Easy, Sheriff, I’m not the man planning on robbing the bank, “he interjected. “I overheard something about a shipment of gold. Does that help at all?”

The sheriff made a visible effort to calm himself down. “I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer, but I don’t like hearing that my town is about to erupt in violence. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.” He continued pacing the small room, but made no move to leave the office.

“Don’t you at least want to go over to the saloon and see if you can talk to these men?” Scott asked, a perplexed frown on his face. He was surprised by the sheriff’s apparent indecision. For some reason he had expected the man to bolt from the office to confront the gang of criminals.

“I can’t accuse people on the basis of one man’s word,” the sheriff replied absently, and then seeing Scott bristle, his gaze sharpened and he added, “Not that I don’t believe you, Mr. Lancer. But you have to understand how the law works. A man is innocent until proven guilty. And all we have to go on here is speculation and an overheard conversation.”

At the truth of the man’s statement, Scott nodded ruefully. “I guess you’re right, but what do you intend to do about the attempt on the bank?”

The sheriff regarded the man from under shaggy eyebrows which were drawn into a scowl. “You let me worry about that Mr. Lancer. You’re a stranger in town. Where are you staying? Just in case I need you to identify anyone, you understand.”

Scott filled the sheriff in on his hotel room number and expected length of stay. At the sheriff’s curt dismissal he returned to the street and headed back to the hotel, some of the pleasure going out of his stay in Placerville. He gratefully sought the sanctuary of his hotel room, and decided that an early night would do him some good. It would be nice to see Johnny tomorrow, he thought as sleep claimed him.

~*~*~*~*~

The sun rose above the horizon and filled the small hotel room with a bright glow. When an errant shaft of golden light hit Scott square in the eyes, he opened them slowly, squinting at the glare. All thoughts of sleep left him as he realized that Johnny should be on his way to town, and Scott moved from the bed, ready to start the day.

After a hearty breakfast in the hotel dining room, Scott again found himself restless and wandering the town. He ambled casually past the saloon where he had overheard the conversation about the bank robbery and glanced at its darkened interior. It looked quiet enough now. He wondered what the sheriff was doing about the upcoming robbery, but then shrugged his shoulders. The lawman had made it clear that it wasn’t his concern.

Scott strolled past the entrance to an alley, and his thoughts about the impending bank robbery ceased abruptly when rough hands reached for him and yanked him bodily from the street into the dark confines of the alleyway. He struggled against the hands that held him, but his futile attempts to free himself from his attackers ceased abruptly when a white-hot pain erupted in his head. He slumped to the ground as everything around him pitched and whirled and then his vision dimmed until everything went black.

~*~*~*~*~

Johnny Lancer rode through the streets of Placerville just as the sun sank below the horizon. His horse had thrown a shoe about three miles out of town and he had been forced to walk the animal in. As he headed for the livery stable, Johnny surveyed the town, a habit bred into him by his long years as a gunfighter. His eyes took in every detail, unconsciously scouting out locations for an ambush, and pegging every potential adversary before they could start trouble. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, Johnny couldn’t understand why he still felt that tingle of apprehension at the base of his neck. Something didn’t feel right, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Too many years of seeing trouble in every face, he decided ruefully as he gave instructions to the stable boy for the care of his horse. Adding a huge tip to the boy’s standard fare insured that the lad would take the animal to the blacksmith to get a new shoe.

Johnny carefully hefted his saddlebags to his shoulder and began the trek through town to the hotel. He was several hours past the time he had told Scott to expect him, and he didn’t want his brother to worry about him. Johnny chuckled as he thought of Scott’s protectiveness. The acquisition of an older brother had enriched his life in many ways. Although sometimes Johnny felt a bit smothered by Scott’s hovering, it was still a good feeling to know that someone was watching his back Johnny knew that he watched out for Scott as fiercely as his brother watched for him, the bond between them was strong.

As Johnny entered the hotel and tapped on the bell, he again felt that prickle of apprehension, and he shrugged his shoulders in agitation. Drumming his fingers on the desktop until the clerk arrived, he idly glanced at the hotel register. As he flicked through the pages, he read the names and wondered why they seemed odd to him. The arrival of the desk clerk put an end to his speculation and he signed the book where the man asked him to. The desk clerk handed over a key and turned to leave the desk again, when Johnny stopped him.

“I’m looking for my brother. He was supposed to be here waiting for me, can you tell me which room he’s in?” Johnny’s tone was casual and he waited for the man’s answer, his stance easy, the saddlebags again hanging from his shoulder.

The desk clerk peered at Johnny’s name in the register and he blanched, the color leaving his face so rapidly that Johnny started toward him, concerned that the man was going to faint. “M..M.mr. Lancer,” the clerk read from the book. “We ain’t got no one else here by that name,” he finished hastily, closing the book with a snap and starting to back away.

Johnny stared at the man in disbelief. “What d’ya mean there ain’t no one else here by that name?” he asked quickly. “My brother was supposed to arrive yesterday, and he told me he’d meet me here at this hotel.”

The clerk took another step backward, shaking his head as he moved. “I’m tellin’ ya, mister. He ain’t here. I’d remember a name like Lancer.” He gasped as Johnny walked forward quickly, the ex-gunfighter’s fingers rapidly flipping the guest register open. As he again scanned the list of names, Johnny suddenly realized why the names had seemed odd to him earlier. Scott’s name wasn’t on the list where it should have been.

Johnny looked at the book closely. If Scott had arrived yesterday, his name should have been on the page preceding the one Johnny had signed. Nothing. As Johnny pulled the book closer to him, he could tell that a page had been ripped from the book. Only a close inspection revealed the ragged edge of the torn page, it had been done so carefully.

Johnny glanced up sharply. “There’s a page missing,” he said quietly, his voice taking on a deadly tone. “Why?”

The desk clerk jumped as though the one-word question had been shot at him. “I..I.. Don’t know…I … I … didn’t know it was missing…” his voice trailed off miserably. “I don’t know what to say,” he whispered fearfully.

“How about just tellin’ me the truth,” Johnny drawled, his eyes cold as he looked at the quivering clerk. He advanced on the man slowly. “There’s something you’re not telling me, and I want to know what it is. Why is this page ripped out of the book?”

The desk clerk’s gaze moved beyond Johnny and he stared with relief over the gunfighter’s shoulder.

“Mind telling me what’s going on in here, mister?” A hard voice jerked Johnny’s head around, and he saw a tall man with a sheriff’s tin badge pinned to his shirt approaching him warily.

Johnny turned slowly, his hands raised slightly in the air. “I’m looking for my brother,” he answered quietly. “He was supposed to be here, but this guy says he hasn’t checked in. There’s a page missing from the hotel register, and I want to know why.”

The sheriff listened to the brief outpouring of information, his look speculative. “If Dave says that your brother ain’t here, then he ain’t here. I’d like you to put that book back down on the desk, and keep those hands where I can see them.” The sheriff’s tone was mild, but Johnny heard the ring of command in the man’s voice.

He slowly complied with the sheriff’s orders, but his eyes were fierce with anger. “I want some answers, Sheriff.” Johnny took a step away from the desk, and the clerk dashed forward to snatch the register, hastily tucking it under his arm and scurrying from the room. “My brother’s name is Lancer. Scott Lancer.”

“Your brother’s been delayed, I’d guess, Mister Lancer.” The sheriff kept his tone even, but his eyes dared Johnny to protest the answer. “If I were you, I’d ride out in the morning and see if I could meet him on the trail.”

Johnny looked the sheriff over with a measuring glance. “Well, I guess that’d be the difference between you and me, Sheriff. I’ll be staying to look around town. I think my brother’s here somewhere. He wired me that he’d arrived in town and was staying at this hotel. He’d have wired again if he’d changed his plans. Scott’s not the type to let anyone worry.”

The sheriff shook his head in exasperation. “Don’t make me tell you to leave town, boy,” he said, using the voice of a man used to giving orders and having them obeyed. “Your brother isn’t here, and that’s the end of the story.”

Johnny felt the sharp flare of anger, but he held it in check. “I’ll go when I’ve found my brother and not before, Sheriff.” The last word sounded like an insult, and a muscle twitched in the Sheriff’s cheek.

“I’ll be watching you, boy.” The sheriff’s eyes were challenging, but Johnny didn’t back down. He tipped his hat silently, and moved past the sheriff, heading for the stairs. The challenge had been issued, and taken. Only time would determine the winner in the battle of wills.

~*~*~*~*~

Johnny began a search through every saloon and eating establishment in Placerville. He searched the livery stable and the bath house. No one could recall seeing a tall, lean, blond man with a Boston accent. Scott was easily described, and it worried Johnny that no one claimed to have seen his brother. Scott had wired his brother from his last stop before Placerville, and then again when he reached the town. Johnny knew his brother was in the town somewhere, and it was tearing at his gut that he couldn’t find him. Scott should have been waiting for him at the hotel, and the fact that he wasn’t was suspicious in the extreme. Every nerve in the ex-gunfighter’s body was screaming in alarm. At last, Johnny came to rest in the largest saloon in Placerville. He settled himself at a small table in a dark corner just as dusk was descending on the town and ordered tequila from the smiling barmaid.

The petite girl brought the drink and carefully set it on the table, smiling engagingly at the dark-haired man. “Where ya’ from, stranger?” she asked, her rouged lips set in a wide, practiced smile.

Johnny gazed at her, a twinkle starting in his blue eyes, in spite of his worry over his brother. “Oh, here and there,” he answered vaguely. “I get around a bit.”

Heartened by his response, the girl moved in a bit closer, leaning to wipe the table with a soiled rag. The movement allowed Johnny a clear view of her gaping bodice, and he didn’t avert his eyes from the sight she was offering. “What brings ya’ to Placerville?” she asked, hoping to extend the conversation. “And how long are ya’ staying?”

A frown crossed Johnny’s face and his eyes lost their sparkle. “Just until I find my brother,” he replied quietly, taking a deep pull from his glass. “You wouldn’t happen to have seen him would you?” Johnny knew he was grasping at straws. He’d talked to so many people that day, he had lost hope that he’d find one who had seen Scott.

The girl’s dark eyes were eager. “Maybe!” she exclaimed and she settled into a chair at the table. “Buy me a drink and tell me about your brother. I might be able to help you.”

Johnny smiled a little at her obvious ploy, but he signaled for a round, and waited until the bartender had deposited the drinks on the little table before he launched into a description of his brother.

As the girl listened to Johnny’s detailed description of Scott, her cheeks paled, and her eyes began to dart nervously around the room. As the dark head bent toward her inquiringly, she scooted back the chair and jumped to her feet. She would have dashed away, but a strong hand reached out to grasp her arm in an iron grip. The girl gasped, her eyes wide with apprehension.

Johnny narrowed his eyes at the sight of her flustered countenance, and he tilted his head a little to gaze up at the girl. The barmaid’s breath was coming a little faster, and she struggled futilely to loosen the hand from her arm. “I haven’t seen him, mister,” she said softly. “There hasn’t been anyone here who looks like that.”

“You’re not quite as friendly all of a sudden,” Johnny mused, his eyes going dark and hard. “I mention my brother and all of a sudden this whole town goes a little crazy.” He tightened his grip on the girl’s arm and headed for the door. “Come on, let’s take a little walk.”

The girl dug her heels in, her eyes wide with panic. “I can’t!” she gasped out. “The boss’ll fire me, if I just walk outta here now.” Her gaze moved to a man standing behind the bar. He was an imposing figure who stood glaring at the couple with his arms folded across his broad chest.

Johnny followed the girl’s frightened gaze, and he took a moment to size the man up with a glance. He reached into his pocket and retrieved a wad of bills. “Does that pay for your time?” he asked softly.

The girl looked at the money in her hand, and her eyes widened with a sudden surge of greed. “Let me handle this, cowboy,” she said decisively. Johnny’s standing had suddenly risen dramatically with the girl, and he watched her walk across the room, her panic forgotten.

After a brief conversation with the saloon’s owner, the girl sashayed back across the room toward Johnny, her hands perched seductively on her jutting hips, her gait taking on a measured sway. Johnny knew that to the other patrons in the bar it would appear that he had just purchased the girl’s favors for the night, but he didn’t care. His gut twisted with fear when he thought about Scott. The town’s determined silence and downright avoidance of his questions had built a rising tide of apprehension behind the brilliant blue eyes. The little saloon girl was the best lead Johnny had come across all day.

He took the girl by the arm and led her from the saloon, the doors swinging behind them as they walked onto the plank sidewalk. Once outside, Johnny hustled the girl toward a shadowed depression between two storefronts. He pulled her into the pool of darkness and looked down at her with eyes that flashed blue fire. “Out with it!” he demanded roughly. “What do you know about Scott?”

“Oh, is that his name?” she asked playfully, then she sobered abruptly when Johnny stepped forward, a murderous look crossing his face. “I don’t know much of anything, Mister. Really, I don’t.”

Johnny sighed and pushed his hat off head. “Look, lady,” he drawled softly. “I’m not stupid. The minute I described Scott to you, I could tell that you’d seen him. You’re not a very good liar, you know. Now I want the truth. What do you know about my brother?”

The girl echoed Johnny’s sigh. She looked up at him with wide, pleading eyes. “They’ll kill me, if they know you got this from me,” she said insistently. “They told me to keep my mouth shut, or they’d shut it for me.”

Johnny straightened abruptly. What had Scott gotten himself mixed up in? “Just tell me!” he growled.

With another long sigh, the girl began talking. “Your brother came in yesterday, and ordered a beer and a meal. He didn’t say much, but I could tell he was listening to some guys talkin’ at the next table. All of a sudden, he got up, left some money on the table and left. Just like that. Next thing I know, the sheriff is in the saloon tellin’ me that if I mention your brother to anybody that he’ll fix me for good.” The girl’s face was frightened. Her eyes were brimming with unshed tears. “I need this job, mister. A girl’s gotta make a living, you know?”

Johnny gently patted her arm. “I won’t let anyone know that you talked to me, I promise.” He gazed out into the gathering gloom of the town’s streets. Scott was out there somewhere, but where? And what had he heard in the saloon that would have gotten him into so much trouble?

He was about to send the girl on her way, when a sudden thought struck him. “Did you recognize the men who were sitting close to Scott? The ones he could overhear?”

The girl shivered suddenly, reaching to pull her shawl closer around her shoulders. “A couple of them. I don’t know their names, but they’re a pretty bad bunch,” she whispered. “You don’t want to get mixed up with them.”

“Do they come to the saloon often? Could you point them out to me?” Johnny was firing the questions at her rapidly, his fear for Scott overriding his natural courtesy toward women.

When the girl nodded, Johnny smiled grimly. “Then it looks like your saloon just got a new regular.” With that he took the quaking girl by the arm and escorted her back to the saloon. As they walked, he looked at her questioningly. “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Nora,” she answered softly. “Nora Dunne.”

Johnny smiled down at the girl, but the smile didn’t reach the flinty blue eyes. “Thanks for all your help, Nora,” he said gently. And then they reentered the saloon.

~*~*~*~*~

Johnny haunted the saloon for hours that night with no success. He returned to the hotel and tossed in fitful sleep, while worried thoughts about Scott’s whereabouts filled his mind. He returned to the saloon as soon as it opened the next day, and occupied a small table in a dark corner. Nora stayed away from him, leaving the other girls to wait on him. The rest of the saloon girls eyed him speculatively, but his fierce eyes warned them against coming to close. They filled his orders quickly and scampered away from the brooding silence that blanketed the dark-haired man.

Johnny’s patience was rewarded when late that night a trio of men swaggered through the swinging double doors of the saloon. They laughed uproariously as they made their way to a table, and stood eyeing the hapless men who already sat there. One look at the men, bristling with guns and cloaked in an aura of menace, convinced the cowboys to vacate the table. Johnny watched them with interest, the hackles rising at the back of his neck. His instincts were rewarded when Nora caught his eye and jerked her head in the men’s direction. Johnny nodded imperceptibly and his blue eyes fastened themselves on the trio of men.

Several hours later, the men stood, stretched and headed for the doors, flinging a few coins on the table to pay for their last round of beer. As they passed through the swinging doors of the saloon, they acquired a shadow. Johnny Lancer, moving silently, followed behind them and into the night.

Johnny kept to the shadows as much as possible, slipping in and out of darkened doorways, and dodging into alleys. He kept his booted feet as quiet as possible; he had already removed his spurs to keep them from jingling. The men strolled through the sleeping town, muffled laughter and loud conversation drifting in their wake. They seemed to have no idea that they were being followed, or they were too cocksure to care.

They finally stopped in front of a ramshackle building that gave evidence of having been a livery stable at sometime in its distant past. It was now nothing more than a collection of termite-eaten boards leaning together precariously. Its windows were filled with shards of glass and shreds of cloth, while the door hung crazily on one hinge. Johnny watched from a pool of dark shadow at the edge of the property, his keen eyes narrowing as the men pushed open the door and disappeared inside.

The dark-haired man waited a few minutes to be sure the men weren’t coming out, and then he paced quietly across the yard. He crouched next to a splintered window, carefully avoiding the broken glass as he leaned closer for a better look. His eyes widened in anger at the scene that met his eyes.

Scott lay tied hand and foot, a rough gag tied tightly around his mouth. He was lying on the floor, his face a twisted mask of pain. Johnny immediately saw the source of the pain as the largest of the men drew back his foot for another kick. He watched as Scott tried to roll to avoid the blow, knowing that his brother was only partially successful when he heard the grunt that escaped the blond man. The watching men guffawed as Scott writhed against the pain in his ribs, twisting futilely at the ropes that held him.

Johnny strained to hear what the men were saying, but their conversation consisted of shouted encouragement to their leader. A tortuous surge of anger coiled itself in Johnny’s stomach as he watched the men at their play. His first instinct was to go in with guns blazing, but the knowledge that it was three against one, with Scott as the pawn in the middle stayed his hand. Johnny’s eyebrows drew together as he considered his options.

Ghosting through the shadows he found a large stone, and hefted it consideringly in his palm. A few more moments of searching rewarded him with another. He drifted back across the yard and took up a position with the door dead in his sights. With all his strength he threw the first stone against the far corner of the building and listened with satisfaction to the loud thud that it made.

Sounds of alarm could be heard inside the crumbling stable, and a man erupted from the doorway, his gun in his hand, his eyes wild with a mix of anger and apprehension. Johnny allowed a brief smile of satisfaction to cross his face as he swiftly moved in behind the man and clubbed him over the head with the back of his pearl-handled pistol. The man dropped to the ground like a sack of flour, and Johnny took a moment to check that he was unconscious. Satisfied that the odds were now down to two to one, he moved to another pool of shadows.

Hefting the second stone, he hurled it at the opposite side of the barn, and waited as a second man emerged from the gaping doorway. This one moving much more circumspectly than the first. Johnny watched as the man crept through the darkened yard, his gun held at the ready. Years of watching out for himself under grim conditions had made Johnny as stealthy as a cat, and he moved through the yard like a shadow drifting across the moon. The man never knew what hit him as he joined his compatriot in an unnatural sleep.

Having reduced the odds to his liking, Johnny moved for the barn door. He knew the third man would be frantic with worry over the disappearance of his henchmen and a cornered animal was always a more dangerous one. Johnny stopped to peer in the broken window, but the lantern light was gone. The third man had doused the flame and the barn was shadowed in darkness. Johnny sighed, this man was going to be more difficult to subdue than his partners.

Slipping in the gaping barn door, Johnny hugged the inside wall of the barn. Little fingers from the rough plank boards snagged at his shirt as he eased into the room. The layout of the interior was imprinted on his mind’s eye as he quietly crossed the floor, all his senses straining at alert. His boot caught against something soft and firm, and a muffled grunt told him that he had located his brother.

Crouching quickly by Scott’s side, Johnny peered through the darkness in an effort to see the other man’s face. A gleam of eyes in the moonlight showed him that Scott was aware of his presence and he allowed his white teeth to show briefly. Johnny saw Scott’s eyes widen in relief, as the other man recognized his rescuer. He slipped the gag from Scott’s mouth and quickly drew a knife from his boot sheath to slice through Scott’s bonds.

The distinctive click of a gun being cocked sounded loud in the stillness of the darkened barn, and Johnny froze as he felt the cold steel of a gun barrel pressed against his temple. “Hold it right there, mister.” The voice was deep and gravelly, and Johnny knew he had located the third man from the saloon.

Raising his hands slightly, Johnny allowed the knife to slip from his fingers to the floor. A muffled thud testified to its arrival on the dirt floor of the barn, while Johnny attempted to twist around to look at his captor.

“Uh-uh,” the man drawled softly. “You stay right where you are. Bates! Jonesy!” The man’s shouts went unanswered, and a curse left his lips. “All right, where are they?” he demanded, jerking Johnny roughly to his feet with a swift tug on the younger man’s forearm.

Johnny smiled easily, but the expression didn’t reach his eyes. The blue orbs glittered coldly in the moonlit barn as he answered mildly, “Your friends decided to take a little nap. You oughta teach ’em better manners.”

The other man stiffened at the lack of fear on his prisoner’s face, and his face took on an ugly leer. “Well, maybe you’ll be joining ’em, wherever they are, mister. I don’t take kindly to people interferin’ in my business.”

“This is my business,” was Johnny’s soft reply. “You made it my business when you kidnaped my brother, held him prisoner and beat him while he was tied up.” While the soft voice sounded deceptively mild, the look on Johnny’s face would have struck fear into a stronger man’s heart. “I don’t take kindly to people messin’ with my family.”

The bigger man chuckled softly, no mirth in the sound. “Your brother, eh? I guess that explains a lot. Well, mister, it looks like your brother just got hisself a little company.” He gestured with his gun. “Move away from him, now. Keep your hands where I can see them.”

Johnny slowly moved back a pace, his eyes moved swiftly to glance down at Scott, who was watching the proceedings through narrowed eyes. The large man gestured again, and Johnny moved back another pace. As the outlaw moved toward Johnny, Scott snaked his legs out, catching the gunman in the shins. It was enough to trip him momentarily, and it gave Johnny the opening he needed. He leapt toward the other man, grabbing for the gun in his flailing hand. The two struggled momentarily, until Johnny lashed out with a vicious left hook. The outlaw stumbled to his knees, and Johnny took advantage of his moment of weakness to barrel in with flying fists. The man went down for good as a strong fist took him in the chin.

Breath coming in ragged gasps, Johnny bent back down to check the man’s pulse. It was there, strong and steady, but the outlaw was deep in the arms of unconsciousness. Turning toward his brother, Johnny knelt beside Scott, feeling in the darkness for the discarded knife. “You okay, brother?” he asked gently, relief spreading through him as he located the bone handle of the knife.

As Johnny released the older man from his bonds, Scott sighed in relief. “I’ve been better,” he replied mockingly. A warm grin took over, and Scott reached to clasp Johnny’s forearm. “It’s good to see you, brother. Your timing was impeccable.”

Johnny laughed. “Impeccable, huh? I’ve been called a lot of things, Boston, but never impeccable. Whatever that means!” He pulled Scott to a sitting position, the smile fading as Scott groaned and clutched at his ribs. “Whoa, Scott. Hold still while I check these ribs for you.”

Johnny winced at Scott’s hiss of pain, as his gentle fingers probed at the other man’s rib cage. “Sorry, Boston,” he murmured. “I think a couple are cracked, but I can’t find any real breaks. I’ll get you back to the hotel and find a doctor for you.”

“No! Not the hotel,” Scott said urgently. “We’ve got to get out of this town, Johnny. Before..”

“Before what, Mr. Lancer.” The voice echoed through the stillness, and Johnny swung quickly around, his arm still around Scott’s shoulder. As Scott stiffened under his arm, he saw Sheriff Logan, gun aimed unwaveringly at the brothers, standing in the doorway of the barn, moonlight filtering in behind him. The shifting light made it impossible to see the man’s eyes, but his words made his intent obvious. “Drop your weapon, Lancer.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

“Logan,” Johnny nodded in confirmation. “I thought you’d be involved in this somehow. Funny, I thought kidnaping was against the law.”

“What you think isn’t all that important, Lancer,” the sheriff commented drily. “Now if you don’t drop that weapon I’ll put holes right through you and your brother.” The sheriff’s gun aimed unwaveringly at the center of Scott’s chest.

Johnny reluctantly unbuckled his gunbelt and let it drop to the ground. He deliberately let it fall within easy reach of Scott’s hand, but the sheriff was aware of the ploy. “I want that belt thrown over here, Lancer, nice and easy!” he commanded.

Johnny shot the man a black look, but he stooped and grabbed the gun belt, carefully throwing it at the sheriff’s feet. The sheriff nodded his satisfaction. “Now, move away from your brother,” he ordered.

Johnny tensed and looked down at Scott, indecision evident on his features. Scott nodded reassuringly at his brother. “I’ll be fine, Johnny,” he whispered. “Don’t get the man any more upset than he already is.”

Johnny nodded once, clasped Scott briefly on the shoulder and then moved away from his injured brother. His stance was wary and he stood poised on the balls of his feet, ready to make a move should the sheriff threaten Scott any further. “What do you want with us Sheriff?” he asked grimly. “My brother needs a doctor.”

“Well, he ain’t gettin’ one,” Logan replied easily. He held his gun unwaveringly on the injured Lancer, sensing that a threat to Scott would more easily hold Johnny in check. “Now, you just turn around boy and put your hands behind your back.”

Johnny reluctantly complied with the sheriff’s orders and soon found himself with his hands securely bound. He tested the stiff ropes but couldn’t feel any movement. The sheriff obviously knew how to restrain a man securely. Logan made quick work of once again binding Scott’s arms behind his back, ignoring the quick gasp of pain caused by the positioning of Scott’s arms. Johnny was pushed to the floor next to Scott, while the sheriff began to check on his cohorts. The older man cursed vehemently when he discovered all three men were unconscious.

After slapping the men vigorously and liberally dousing them with water, Sheriff Logan soon had three somewhat groggy, but awake men. He directed them to keep a close eye on the prisoners and stormed out of the abandoned stable. Johnny and Scott were resting against the rough plank wall of the stable, while the man known as Bates straddled a chair in front of them. His weapon was kept at the ready, and the Lancer brothers knew it would be almost impossible to get the drop on him. It appeared that it was going to be a long night.

~*~*~*~*~

Scott moaned and stirred restlessly, his eyes flickering open. It was still hours before dawn and the pain in his ribs was intense. He felt like his mouth was stuffed with desert sand, it was so hot and dry. He licked his dry lips and tried to peer through the gloom. Johnny dozed beside him, his head slumped to one side. Bates no longer straddled the chair, but from the shuffling sounds on the other side of the stable Scott surmised that the man was still awake and on guard. He figured that the three men were going to be very careful not to lose the prisoners. Sheriff Logan hadn’t been pleased to find three unconscious men and the prisoners about to flee. He had impressed on his men how great his displeasure would be if there was an escape.

Another moan escaped Scott’s dry lips, and Johnny came quickly awake. “Scott? You okay, brother?” The voice was soft, no trace of sleepiness present. Johnny had the gunslinger’s habit of coming completely awake in a matter of seconds.

“I’m okay,” Scott replied in a whisper. “My ribs hurt some.” He shifted again, trying to find a more comfortable position, and couldn’t help the gasp of pain that was the result of the movement.

“Move closer, lean on me, brother.”

Johnny’s voice penetrated through Scott’s haze of pain, and he gratefully leaned against the proffered shoulder. “Thanks, Johnny.” Scott whispered.

“You mind telling me what’s going on, Scott?” Johnny asked quietly, as he tried to ascertain the whereabouts of their guards. “It’d be nice to know why we’re being held here like this.” He could hear Scott’s harsh breathing, and felt the other man’s weight pressing against him. Johnny moved slightly to shift Scott to a more comfortable position.

“I overheard some men planning on robbing the bank. I made the mistake of going to the sheriff.” Scott replied. His voice was full of self-recrimination. “I walked right into a trap. I didn’t know he was involved.”

“You couldn’t know that, Scott.” Johnny’s voice was determined. “It would be a natural instinct to go to the sheriff. You can’t be blaming yourself for that. But why is he holding us prisoner? It seems to me it’d be easier just to dispose of any witnesses.”

“I guess he’s got some notion that I would be a perfect person to help pull off the robbery. You know, respected citizen and a customer of the bank. No one would suspect a thing if I walked in. He wanted me to get the bank manager to open the safe and then they were going to burst in and take the gold shipment.” Scott shrugged ruefully. “I don’t know what the plan was before I stumbled onto the scene. But Logan thinks quickly. He was ready to take advantage of my stupidity.”

“Stop it, Scott!” Johnny’s voice cracked like a whip. “It’s not like you to wallow in pity. Don’t waste energy thinking on what you coulda done. Let’s try and think about how we’re gonna get out of this mess.”

“Easier said than done, Johnny.” Scott’s tone was ironic. “Now he’s got two of us, and he can keep one of us as a hostage for the other’s good behavior. He doesn’t even have to hold a gun on me anymore. All he has to do is threaten you.”

Johnny sighed. What Scott said was true, and they both knew it. All Logan had to do was keep one of them back at the stables with a gun to his head. The other would do whatever was asked of them. The picture did look bleak. But then, Johnny allowed his natural optimism to rise. There had to be some way to outwit the sheriff. There must be some flaw in the man’s plans. All the Lancers had to do was find it. He listened to Scott’s even breathing and realized that his brother had drifted off to sleep. Johnny eased his cramped shoulders slightly, and shifted his weight in an effort to settle his brother more comfortably. He then turned his mind to the problem of getting away from the sheriff and his gunmen. Only one Lancer would sleep that night.

~*~*~*~*~

A loud bang echoed through the abandoned stable. Johnny jerked awake. He saw the morning sun streaming in through the cracks of the weathered boards and blinked his bleary eyes. Sleep had eluded him for most of the long night, and he only found himself dozing in the early hours of the morning. He hadn’t been able to formulate a plan of action and it bothered him. Used to living on his wits, he could usually think his way out of most situations. But with Scott injured and the potential use of him as a hostage, Johnny felt his hands were tied with more than rope. A soft moan made him instantly turn to his brother, who was also rousing from sleep.

“You okay, Scott?” Johnny asked softly, his eyes showing his concern. He could tell from the way Scott was holding himself that the pain from his ribs was intense. The blond-haired man’s face was pale and his breath came in shallow gasps.

Scott didn’t even bother looking back at Johnny. He was already searching the interior of the barn for some sight of their captors. “I’m fine, brother,” he whispered back absently. “Where do you suppose our friends have gone?”

Johnny too surveyed the gloomy interior of the barn. “They’re in here somewhere. You can count on that, Boston. I can smell ’em.” Johnny’s voice was bitter, his disgust with the situation and with his helplessness evident in every word.

The bitter tones of his brother’s voice finally brought Scott’s full attention back to his brother. “Hey, Johnny, you’re not giving up on us, are you?” he asked quietly. “Nothing is ever that hopeless. We’ll think of something.”

Johnny smiled grimly. “You got a plan?” he asked. “Cause if you do, I wish you’d share it.”

Scott tried to stretch his cramped muscles and blanched at the storm of pain the movement created. Biting back another moan, he looked back at Johnny, determination written into every line of his body. “We’re going to play along with these guys for now, that’s all we can do. We look for the first opportunity to get away from them and stop the robbery.” He shrugged. “I guess that’s not a very good plan, but it keeps us alive for a while longer.”

Johnny watched Scott’s struggle to control the pain that obviously coursed through his body with every breath, and his eyes hardened. “We stay alive for now, but he’s gonna pay, Scott. I promise you that.”

Scott smiled at his fierce younger brother. “I’ll hold you to it, brother. I’m not too happy at being turned into a punching bag, and I think a little retribution wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all.”

The gunslinger transformed into Johnny Lancer at his brother’s words, and the sparkle of humor replaced the bitter look in his eyes. “All right, Boston,” he replied softly. “We’ll deal with Logan, together, at the first opportunity.”

The look the brothers exchanged carried with it the love they had for each other, and their equal determination to see the other safe from harm. The sound of boot heels scuffing across the dirt floor of the ramshackle barn stopped the brothers from saying anything more, but they both felt that more words weren’t needed. The Lancer brothers together were a formidable team, and no one was going to threaten them and get away with it. As one they turned and prepared to face their visitor.

~*~*~*~*~

Sheriff Logan strolled casually into the old barn, his every step proclaiming his belief that the held the winning hand in this battle of wills. He stopped before the brothers and stood before them, hands on hips, hat pushed back on his head. “Well, boys, today’s the day,” he commented.

Scott and Johnny stared up at him impassively. Neither bothered speaking and an irritated expression flashed across the lawman’s face. “What’s the matter, cat got your tongues?” he asked angrily. “Don’t want to know what I’ve got in store for you? I would have thought you’d have been curious.”

He started to turn away but his pride got the better of him and he whirled back to face his prisoners. Crouching in front of them, he pressed closer until his face was inches away from Johnny’s. “I’m going to have one of you boys become a bank robber today. You won’t be so almighty proud when you’re wanted men, now will you?”

Johnny’s eyes were as hard as ice, and he restrained his urge to spit in the man’s face. “What makes you think we’re gonna help you rob a bank?” he drawled slowly. “My brother and I aren’t feeling very cooperative at the moment.”

The lawman grunted and stood, his face gloating. “I don’t care much how you feel, boy. It was pure luck that you two wandered in here and got involved. I intend to take advantage of having someone else pull off my robbery for me.”

Scott stared quizzically at the sheriff. “What would you have done if we hadn’t stumbled on your little plot?” he asked quietly. “It seems to me you’re taking a big risk asking us to help you out.”

The sheriff’s laugh held no warmth. “I ain’t askin’ you to get involved. I’m tellin’ you. I had other plans for gettin’ that gold, but you two have made it all so much easier for me. The bank manager won’t hesitate to open the vault for a man named Lancer. Once that door is opened, we can haul that gold out of there quicker than you can spit. No one hurt, and then we get away before anyone’s even raised an alarm.”

“Leaving us behind to take the fall.” Johnny’s voice was taut with anger. “Mister, I’ve done a lot of things in my time, but I ain’t never robbed a bank, and I don’t intend to start now.”

The sheriff grinned widely. “Who said you were gonna be left behind? Maybe you’re just gonna mysteriously disappear, and I think I already told you, you don’t have a choice. So get used to it boy, you’re gonna have your face on wanted posters all across the territory.” The sheriff stood looking down at the two men, a wondering look on his face. “I’ve heard of you,” he said bemusedly. “I sorta thought that Johnny Madrid would have been a tougher man. You don’t seem like much to me.” He shook his head and grinned. Still chuckling, the lawman strolled back out of the barn, his parting words to his henchman lost in the sound of the creaky door swinging shut.

Scott looked at Johnny grimly. “We’ve got to do something, brother. I don’t fancy the idea of being a wanted man.” He struggled against the ropes that held his arms behind his back, and again he was unable to suppress the gasp of pain the motion caused.

Johnny nudged his brother urgently. “Wait, Scott. We’ve got to figure this out, before we go off half-cocked. I don’t like the idea of robbing a bank any better than you do, but we’ve got to have a plan in mind. There’re still at least three gunmen somewhere in this building.”

Scott stopped his useless struggles and faced Johnny again. A sigh escaped his lips and he nodded slowly. “You’re right, Johnny. Sorry, I’m just getting a little impatient to get out of here.”

Johnny nodded reassuringly. “We will. I promise you that.” The deep blue eyes looked deep into the blue-gray eyes. “Trust me, Boston?”

Scott allowed his eyes to speak for him, they reflected such love and trust that Johnny swallowed hard and ducked his head. He almost missed Scott’s gentle nod, but he heard the softly spoken words. “Always, brother.”

Again the two men put their heads together, determined that they were going to have a plan of action to get themselves out of their predicament. Dark head met blond, and the two began to analyze various plans of actions. Sheriff Logan had downplayed Johnny Madrid. He should have known not to turn his back on the man or his brother. He would learn.

~*~*~*~*~

Reaching out with his booted foot, Scott nudged Johnny. “They’re coming,” he whispered.

Johnny looked up to see three gunmen advancing on the pair. Judging by the scowls and glares that decorated the three faces, the men weren’t too happy with the Lancer brothers. Johnny couldn’t restrain the smirk from crossing his face. “You’re right, Boston,” he replied, raising his voice a notch. “Looks like our three friends from last night have finally woken up.”

Bates let out a snarl of rage, and leaned over to snag Johnny’s shirt front. Before he could go any farther, a commanding voice rang through the building. “Let him go!” Bates quickly dropped Johnny back to the ground and whirled to face his employer.

Sheriff Logan joined his hirelings, an unpleasant frown on his face. “You fools. I don’t want him marked, not yet. He can’t go into the bank looking like he’s been in a fight, it’ll make the bank manager suspicious.”

The lawman looked down on the two men, a sneer on his face. “I guess you know which one of you is going to the bank, don’t you?” He nodded at Scott’s bruised face. “My men got a little stupid with you, so you’re elected to be the hostage.”

“You’re right about one thing,” Johnny drawled easily. His voice was smooth, but his eyes were narrow with anger. “Your men certainly were stupid. Any time someone lays a hand on my brother, I consider it stupid. But don’t worry, I’ll see that they get educated.”

The gunmen rustled uneasily. They had all heard of Johnny Madrid and were now seeing a glimpse of what made the ex-gunfighter a man to be reckoned with. Logan saw that he was losing control of the situation, as his men nervously shuffled their feet and exchanged glances with each other. “Get him on his feet!” he snapped. He eyed Johnny calmly. “There are ways to hurt a man that don’t show on his face, mister. You might want to remember that and keep your mouth shut.”

Johnny stood quietly, his hands still bound behind his back. He appeared fearless as he looked dispassionately at the renegade sheriff. “And just what do you plan to do with my brother while I’m out robbing your bank for you?” he asked quietly.

“Your brother is going to be my personal responsibility,” the sheriff replied smugly. “Rest assured that I’ll take good care of him, as long as you cooperate with me. But if anything goes wrong in that bank, he’s a dead man.”

Again the Lancer brothers glanced at each other. A hint of a nod from Scott signaled to Johnny that he was to go along with the Sheriff for the time being. A subtle shrug of the shoulder was Johnny’s only answer, but Scott knew that he had his brother’s word that he would cooperate. The grudging nature of the shrug also let Scott know that Johnny’s cooperation would only stretch so far, and then he’d go after the Sheriff and his gang with no holds barred. Scott allowed the barest trace of a smile to show on his face.

Logan was looking from one brother to the other, and he didn’t like what he saw. They didn’t seem to have a hint of fear, and it bothered him. He felt a niggling doubt work its way into his own supreme sense of self-confidence. Johnny Madrid had a formidable reputation, but Johnny Lancer had been easily overcome. Logan had convinced himself that Madrid’s reputation was over-rated and that the ex-gunslinger would be easily manipulated. A worried frown creased his brow. He was in this too deep for his plans to go awry now. Both Lancers would cooperate or die.

He signaled for Bates to take charge of Johnny, and the other man promptly stepped forward, drawing his gun in a smooth motion. Bates wore a grim smile and his eyes dared Johnny to try something.

Scott watched carefully as Johnny allowed himself to be moved forward, both men fully aware of the gun trained at Johnny’s mid section. Both of the Lancer brothers also kept a wary eye on Jonesy, who had been positioned next to Scott, his gun at the fair-haired man’s temple. As he was moved out of the barn, Johnny took one last look at his brother, who again tried to signal him to cooperate with their captors. From the barely restrained anger that was radiating from the younger Lancer, Scott was afraid that an explosion was inevitable. When he could no longer see his brother, Scott closed his eyes and sighed. His body felt like it had been run over by a herd of cattle and he quickly stifled the moan that tried to escape his lips. Shutting down his imagination, Scott attempted to rest.

~*~*~*~*~

Johnny discreetly flexed his fingers in an attempt to get the blood flowing into them again. His muscles were stiff after a night with his arms bound behind him. His stride was relaxed and casual, but his eyes scanned the surroundings constantly, as he analyzed everything for a possible avenue of escape. Logan had remained behind, as promised. And Johnny had no doubt that the man would carry through on his threat to kill Scott if Johnny failed to return with the gold.

Neither Lancer would willingly risk the life of his brother, but Johnny was determined that he wasn’t going to bring any gold out of the bank. He figured Logan’s three henchmen were overconfident in their estimation of their own abilities, and they were counting on the fact that Scott Lancer was still a hostage to keep Johnny under control.

Johnny glanced ahead and saw the bank looming ever nearer. A frown marred his face as he considered his meager options. Deciding that he couldn’t risk any kind of a play on a public street, he allowed himself to be herded into the bank.

The bank was quiet at this hour of the day. A lone clerk stood behind a barred teller’s window counting out a stack of coins. A pair of ladies was standing chatting as they filled out deposit slips at a long table set in the center of the room. Johnny glanced to his left and saw the manager’s office, with its door ajar.

As the four men entered the bank, the manager bustled from his office his eyes wary. With that shipment of gold safely tucked into his vault he was suspicious of anyone who came in. Johnny had been carefully coached on his role as he had been escorted through the town. Playing along for now, he stepped forward, extending his hand to the distinguished gentlemen, who fairly exuded the aura of money.

“Are you the manager of this bank?” Johnny asked as he shook the hand that gripped his. “My name’s Lancer. My father keeps an account with your bank. I’ve come to make some inquiries about that account.”

The suspicious look left the other man’s eyes, and he cloaked himself in an obsequious manner. “Mr. Lancer, yes of course, I’m Robert Townes, the manager of this bank. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting your father a time or two, when he has graced our fair city with his presence. Placing a proprietary hand on Johnny’s back, he steered the younger man toward the office. “Please come in and tell me what I can do for you today, Mr. Lancer.”

Entering the office, Johnny took the proffered chair and sank smoothly onto the edge of its wide seat. Glancing behind him, he saw the three outlaws take up positions around the bank, propping themselves against walls and tables casually. “My father would like to know exactly how much we have in our account here, Mr. Townes. And then I’d like to make a fairly substantial withdrawal from that account.”

The bank manager beamed at the ex-gunslinger. “Why certainly, Mr. Lancer. Let me just look up your father’s account with our bank, and I’ll give you those figures.” He bustled around the room, pulling ledgers and jotting figures onto a piece of paper. Finally with a flourish he handed Johnny a slip of paper with an impressive figure written on the bottom line.

Johnny’s eyes widened for a moment. Sometimes he forgot just how much money Murdoch Lancer had. They tended to keep plowing any extra income back into the running of the ranch, so he and Scott didn’t handle much cash. Shaking his head, Johnny returned to the situation at hand. A sudden thought flitted through his mind, and he looked up quickly. “Mr. Townes, may I borrow your pen?” he asked quietly.

“Why, certainly.” The man handed over his pen and Johnny scrawled a few words onto the piece of paper that Townes had given him only moments before.

Townes read the words on the paper and his eyes widened, his face draining of color. He raised a shaky hand to his forehead and wiped a few beads of sweat away, before turning to look at the younger man. “Are you quite certain of this, Mr. Lancer?” he asked in a quavering voice. He glanced back down at the paper where Johnny had written, ‘men here to rob the bank, play along with me

Johnny’s eyes narrowed, and he nodded his head fractionally. “Don’t call for the sheriff,” he whispered. Johnny made an effort to look calm and casual. He didn’t want the men stationed around the bank to get suspicious. “He’s in on it.” He raked a hand through his thick, dark hair. “Well, Mr. Townes, shouldn’t we be getting into the vault now?” he asked loudly.

Townes looked at him aghast. Opening the vault was the last thing he was going to do if there were thieves in the bank. He saw Johnny wink one eye at him, and he tried to settle down. The ex-gunfighter rose from his chair, momentarily shielding the bank manager from the outlaw’s view. “Pretend to open the vault, and then claim that it’s jammed. Stall for time,” Johnny ordered in a whisper. “I’ll take out the gunmen.”

Townes nodded quickly and walked slowly toward the vault. The three watchers exchanged glances. Something wasn’t quite right. The little bank manager looked like he was going to pass out. He had been fine moments earlier. Edging closer to the pair, the three men let their hands move toward their gun belts. They hesitated as Townes tackled the vault, his nervous fingers caressing the dial that contained the combination to open the massive door.

Townes spun the dial uselessly several times, and then jerked the metal handle of the vault. His voice rose in a squeak, as he turned toward Johnny. Sweat was dripping prominently from his forehead now as he said, “I don’t know what’s wrong, sir. It won’t open.”

Johnny spoke calmly. “Try again.” He glanced over his shoulder and saw the three outlaws focusing their eyes on the quaking bank manager as he again hunched over the vault.

Seeing that the men had turned their attention away from him, Johnny pivoted smoothly, his movements as graceful as cat. He barreled into Bates who stood closest to him, knocking the man to the floor in one giant heave. Snatching the man’s gun from its holster as the outlaw fell, Johnny rolled and fired in one motion. Jonesy fell, a bullet taking him high in the chest. Again Johnny rolled, coming to his feet, but now on the other side of the bank. He fired quickly, and the third outlaw, the man whose name he had never heard, also went down, his gun only half out of its holster.

Bates staggered to his feet, and foolishly charged toward the gunslinger. Johnny saw the man coming, and stepped aside. He clubbed the outlaw on the back of his head as he went by, and the man dropped to the ground. Silence descended on the bank, the two lady customers clutching one another in fear and the teller cowering behind his cage with his mouth hanging open.

Townes moved away from the vault, an awed look on his face. Three outlaws down in a matter of seconds, and they had been taken by a man without a gun. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer,” he stammered. “I don’t know what to say. You’ve saved the bank from a horrible fate. We have a shipment of gold in our vault, and it would have been irreplaceable if it had been taken.”

Johnny held the gun he had taken from Bates, and gestured to the three men. Two were clutching at bullet wounds, while the third was out cold. “Get someone to tie them up. Don’t take them to the Sheriff’s office. Keep them here. Send someone to wire for a Federal Marshal. You’re going to need a new lawman in town.”

With that Johnny headed out of the bank. Sheriff Logan was back at the livery stable with a gun held to Scott’s head. He was going to pay for hurting a Lancer. It was time to settle a score.

~*~*~*~*~

Scott stirred and opened his eyes. His attempt to rest and gather his strength had been futile. His worry about Johnny was overwhelming. Surreptitiously he glanced from under slitted eyelids, searching the interior of the barn for Logan. He opened his eyes wider when he realized that the man was out of his line of sight. Turning his head, Scott surveyed the shadows that hung in the corners. He knew the man had to be there somewhere. What was Logan playing at?

Scott began to work frantically at the ropes that bound his arms behind him. He knew his hands were swollen, and his wrists felt raw underneath the stiff coils. He shifted his battered body to one side, and nodded when he felt the protruding nail graze his arm. He had spotted the sharp edge earlier, but under the watchful eyes of their guards had been unable to do anything about it. Now he drew his arms up and down, scraping the rope against the rough metal. Each movement sent waves of pain radiating through his ribs and chest, but Scott continued on. Johnny was robbing a bank under the watchful eyes of three armed men and he was going to need the help of his older brother.

Scott felt the strands of the rope begin to part. His arms moved a little further apart. He scraped harder and was rewarded by the sound of another strand snapping.

“What do you think you’re doing?” The voice was rough and angry, and Scott felt himself being yanked forward by a strong hand. He looked up to see the sheriff towering over him, the man’s rage burning in his eyes. Without warning, the sheriff backhanded Scott across the face.

Scott’s head snapped back and slammed into the rough planking of the barn wall. Stars glittered at the edges of his vision and his eyes watered from the blow. He continued to strain against the ropes that held his arms, and he felt another strand give way as the enraged Sheriff roughly pulled him up again. He stared defiantly into the older man’s eyes, but refused to dignify the man’s actions with a word or a sound.

“You’re lucky I need you alive for a little while longer, Lancer,” Logan snarled. “I need you as insurance for your brother’s good behavior. Otherwise, I’d kill you on the spot. Two hostages are too hard to deal with anyway. Now, lean forward and let me take a look at what you’ve done with those ropes.”

Scott’s blue-gray eyes were ice cold as he glared at the lawman. He contemptuously leaned against the wall, his face a mask of insolence. “Make me,” he spat through clenched lips.

Logan smiled, a gleam of sadistic glee appearing in his eyes. “Why, I’d be happy to, friend,” he said smugly, reaching for the bound man at his feet.

Scott tensed as the man moved to grab his shoulders again. Judging that he’d never have another chance, he tensed and drew his legs up a little. Pushing back against the wall for leverage, and bringing his booted feet down hard, Scott threw his shoulders into the lawman’s knees. Logan grunted at the impact and staggered backwards, allowing Scott the time he needed to leverage himself to his feet and charge again.

As Scott careened into the Sheriff’s body again, he could feel his ribs scream in protest. His charge left the lawman sprawled in the dirt, the air driven from his lungs by Scott’s shoulder. Hampered by his bound arms, the blonde quickly spun on his heel and sprinted for the door. He hoped that he had bought enough time to escape out onto the busy streets of the town.

His breath coming in ragged gasps, Scott reached the decaying door of the dilapidated structure. He struggled to move past the door that hung crazily on its remaining hinge. Just as freedom seemed to be in his grasp, he heard an explosion of sound from behind him. He was thrown forward as a projectile buried itself into his exposed back. As he fell forward, Scott could see the busy street of the town. Then all went dark as unconsciousness pulled him into an ever increasing spiral of darkness.

~*~*~*~*~

Johnny moved swiftly through the crowded streets. He dodged passing buggies and stepped out of the way of men mounted on horses. His eyes were fixed with single-minded determination on his goal, the dilapidated livery stable on the edge of town. As he drew nearer, Johnny’s feet slowed their pace and his eyes began to search the streets and the surrounding area for any sign of the renegade lawman. Johnny desperately needed the element of surprise if he was going to free Scott from the sheriff’s clutches.

Johnny reached the building adjacent to the abandoned barn and quickly crouched in the shadows that darkened the area. Moving silently, his gunfighter’s instincts screaming alarm, he darted across the open ground and hugged the rough boards that made up the livery’s walls. Making his way to the gaping windows, Johnny attempted to peer into the silent building. His eyes narrowed as he tried in vain to spot Scott’s tall form.

The small hairs rose on the back of his neck, every nerve in his body tingled with apprehension. Scott wasn’t in the same place Johnny had left him and there was no sign of the renegade lawman. Quickly, Johnny moved to the rear of the building. As he had suspected, there was another entrance to the old building. This one was in even worse shape than the front entrance. There was not even a splinter left in the doorframe.

The dark-haired Lancer moved quietly into the building, slipping from shadow to shadow with the grace of a cat. Johnny allowed his eyes to adjust to the dim light before approaching the area where he had last seen his brother. The silence in the building was unnerving. Throwing caution to the winds, Johnny darted forward and examined the scuffed ground for signs of his brother’s presence. He quickly detected the marks that indicated a struggle and followed the trail to the door.

Johnny’s heart beat a rapid tattoo when he spotted a dark stain on the dirt floor just inside the door. Crouching on one knee, he dipped a finger into the still-wet spot and lifted it closer to his eyes. It was blood. “Scott!” The word escaped his lips before he could stop it.

The distinctive sound of a bullet levering into the chamber of a rifle shattered the silence behind him. Johnny whirled and pulled his own weapon up to aim in one smooth motion. Logan loomed before him, a leering smile on his lips. Uncertain of Scott’s whereabouts, Johnny checked his gun at the last instant, the bullet that could have ended the sheriff’s life staying in the chamber.

“Where’s Scott?” The words were soft, spoken almost in a whisper, but the menace they carried was palpable.

“Where are my men? Where’s the gold?” Logan countered immediately, his smile disintegrating and leaving an ugly scow in its place.

Johnny smiled slowly, his eyes taking on an eerie glow. Many men had seen that look on his face before, if they could still talk they might have warned the lawman he was on dangerous ground. “I asked first, Logan,” was his only reply, the gun in his hand never wavering.

Logan’s puffed up air of confidence was dissipating rapidly, in another setting it might have been comical. He pulled the rifle up a little higher, waving it menacingly at the dark-haired man. Whatever response he was planning to make was interrupted by a soft moan issuing from the dark recesses of a dirt-piled stall to the lawman’s right. Both sets of eyes tracked the sound instinctively, and both reacted. Johnny’s finger jerked on the trigger of his gun a split-second before the lawman got to his. Both weapons fired, Johnny’s bullet entering Logan’s heart and causing the lawman’s arm to jerk reflexively, the rifle’s bullet smashing harmlessly into the ceiling.

~*~*~*~*~

Logan’s sightless eyes stared at the rough planks of the barn roof. Johnny quickly checked for a pulse and allowed a grim smile to cross his face when he didn’t find one. Another moan pulled his attention to the shadowed corner of the stall. Moving quickly, he reached for his brother’s limp body. Scott was huddled in a corner, his breathing ragged, his body trembling with pain and fatigue. He flinched away from Johnny’s light touch on his arm. “No,” he murmured. “Stay away from me.”

“It’s me, Boston,” Johnny murmured, pushing back the sweat soaked hair that fell across Scott’s forehead. “It’s over.”

He positioned his brother so that the older man was cradled in his arms. A frown flickered across the gunslinger’s face as he pulled wet fingers away from Scott’s back. A closer inspection revealed the telltale red stains. Johnny tried to bite off his sharp exclamation of dismay. “You’ve had quite a bad day, haven’t you, brother?” he asked ruefully. “I’m going to have to take a look at your back.”

Scott’s eyes flickered open and he smiled gently at his brother. “Do what you have to, Johnny,” he replied. “Logan?”

Hoping to distract his brother from the pain of movement, Johnny enlightened the other man about the events in the bank and the demise of the sheriff. While he was talking, the ex-gunfighter’s hands were busy ripping Scott’s shirt and examining the ragged hole high on Scott’s back that was leaking blood at a faster rate than Johnny liked to see.

In spite of Johnny’s efforts to be gentle, Scott cried out in pain several times, his breathing becoming harsh and ragged. It was obvious from the heat radiating out from his body that a fever had developed and grown to fruition. “I’ve got to leave you, Brother.” Johnny’s voice was soft and edged with concern. “You need a doctor.”

Scott grabbed for Johnny’s hand. “Don’t go!” he gasped. “Logan, he’ll kill you.” The blond-haired man’s eyes were wild and they darted rapidly as he scanned the area for a sight of his foe.

A sharp frisson of fear rippled through Johnny’s body, leaving his stomach in a knot. “He’s dead, Scott. He can’t hurt us anymore. It’ll be all right. I won’t be gone long, I promise.”

“Dead?” Scott struggled to make sense of the words that were echoing through his chaotic thoughts. “Are you sure?”

A gentle hand pulled Scott’s chin up, and a pair of intense blue eyes locked with the softer blue-grey of the older man. “I’m sure. I’ve got to get you some help, brother. You stay here, okay?”

Again Scott tried to focus, his confused mind latching on to the only words that made sense to him. “Don’t leave me, Johnny. Let me come with you.” He held onto his brother’s hand so tightly that Johnny winced.

“I’ll be back. This damned town has to have a doctor somewhere. I swear to you, Scott. I’m not going to leave you for long.” The dark-haired man tried to chuckle and failed dismally. “I’ve gotten kind of used to having an older brother, you know. I’ve got to keep him around a while longer.” He wasn’t sure if his words were making sense to the other man, but Scott’s fingers relaxed their grip a little and a tremulous smile flickered on the dry lips.

The blond head dipped in a brief nod, and Johnny gently set his brother down. With a quick squeeze of the other man’s shoulder, he darted out into the sunlight, intent on flagging down the first person who passed by. The vision of his brother’s blood-soaked shirt and the memory of the fever that was consuming him spurred the dark-haired man’s footsteps. Today wasn’t the day for Scott Lancer to die. Johnny would fight the devil himself to keep that from happening.

~*~*~*~*~

Doctor Tom Nelson closed his bag with a crisp snap. “I’ve done all I can for him,” he said quietly. “He needs some time to heal. He’s going to have to put up a fight, but I think he can pull through.”

Johnny turned agonized blue eyes onto the other man. “He’ll fight!” he snapped quickly. “And if he won’t I’ll fight for him.” He moved to the bedside and pulled up a chair. His intention to stay by his brother’s side was obvious to the doctor.

“I’ll see to that telegram on my way back to my office, Mr. Lancer,” he said kindly. “It’s the least the citizens of Placerville can do for you.” He shook his head when he realized that his words hadn’t even registered with the dark-haired man. Johnny Lancer’s attention was focused only on the man in the bed and nothing else. With a sigh, the doctor let himself quietly out of the room.

Johnny dipped a cloth into a basin of cool water and bathed Scott’s heated forehead. He felt completely helpless, but he was determined to get Scott through his ordeal. The doctor had removed the bullet that had lodged itself in Scott’s back, and now it was up to Scott to fight the fever and the infection that had set in. And fight he would. Johnny had only known his brother for a short time, but they had formed a close bond. He wasn’t going to lose the man who had become the most important person in his world.

He fought the battle for hours. Sometimes he felt that he was winning, and his spirits soared. At other times, he sensed the tide turning against him, and he was plunged into a sea of despair. But through it all Johnny never left his brother’s side. Whether spooning broth, wiping down a fevered body, or just holding the limp hand, he sat with Scott. Whispering words of encouragement or simply willing strength into the injured man.

As Johnny sat, he watched the shifting shadows on the wall announce the passage of time. He couldn’t tell you the exact day or hour, but he knew that at least a full day had passed before he was rewarded by the sight of a pair of blue-grey eyes staring at him intently. Johnny leaned forward exultantly. “Scott!” A world of hope infused the simple word and the weakened man smiled softly in response.

“Hello, brother,” Scott said weakly. It seemed to take all of his remaining strength to utter the words, and his head pressed further back into the soft pillow. “What’s going on?”

Johnny’s laugh was full of pure joy. “You’ve been away for a while, but you’re back now, Boston,” he crowed, grabbing up the limp hand that lay against the quilt. Johnny’s eyes were fierce. “And now that you’re awake, I’m going to make sure you eat something. You haven’t been taking in enough fluids, the doc says.”

The ex-gunslinger reached for a tray on the table behind him and snagged up the cup of broth that he’d been keeping warm over a little spirit lamp. Slipping one arm behind Scott’s shoulders, he eased the older man up on the pillows a bit, suppressing the pang that stabbed him when he saw what the effort cost his brother. As he spooned in the broth he brought Scott up-to-date on the events at the bank and told him of the shoot-out in the old livery stable.

The arrival of the doctor cut short Johnny’s flow of words. Before the doctor began his examination of his patient, he handed Johnny a folded slip of paper. “I’ve got a telegram for you, Mr. Lancer,” he said by way of explanation. “And now, if you could just step back a bit so that I can get at my patient.” He shooed the dark-haired man away and began a gentle examination of Scott’s wounds.

Johnny buried his head in the telegram, trying to shut out the sight of Scott’s wince of pain as the doctor rolled him over on the bed. He nodded with satisfaction at the contents of the wire, and then moved to stand by the window, staring into the bustling streets of the little town.

At last the doctor finished his work and pronounced himself satisfied with Scott’s progress. “I think he’s going to be just fine, Mr. Lancer,” he said in answer to Johnny’s quick question. “He’s going to need a lot of rest before you attempt to move him back home to Morro Coyo, but I’m anticipating a full recovery.” He clapped Johnny on the back and left the room, promising to return the next day to check on his patient.

Scott felt exhausted after the exam and could barely keep his eyes open, but he struggled gamely to focus on his brother’s face. “You look terrible, Johnny. Why don’t you get some sleep?” he asked tiredly.

“I’ll be fine, brother,” Johnny replied quickly. “You’re the one who needs to go back to sleep. I’ll just sit here by the bed, for a while.” He lowered himself into the chair and propped his booted feet on Scott’s bed. Then remembering the slip of paper still held in his hand, he smiled. “Oh, and by the way, Murdoch’s on his way. He should be here sometime tomorrow. He’s going to stay until you’re ready to travel home.”

Scott didn’t answer. He’d fallen asleep, a contented smile on his face. Johnny carefully drew up the quilt and then settled back into his chair. He shut his eyes and prepared to doze by Scott’s side. The events of the past several days kept replaying themselves in his mind, and he tried to push them away. Sheriff Logan had underestimated the Lancer brothers when he thought he could use them in his schemes so easily. Johnny fell asleep, the smile still on his face. This smile, though, had a wolfish quality to it. Logan would have recognized it. It was the smile he’d seen just before his death.
 
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~end~
May 2001

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