My thanks to LaJuan for the wonderful wallpaper.

 

 

Cat Love

by

 

LaJuan

 

 

 

 

Lancer is owned by others.  I just take the boys out to play and then give them back.

LaJuan

   

The knocking woke Scott up with a start.  He could hear doors shutting and the jingle of Johnny's spurs strolling down the hallway at a fast pace.  The odor of strong coffee was crooking an enticing finger beneath his nose, urging him to hurry to the breakfast feast below.  Throwing his legs over the side of the bed, he groaned at his dizziness and the taste of his boot's sole in his mouth.  Stumbling over to the basin on his dresser, he poured tepid water in and splashed it over his face and head.  Taking a drink of water from his overnight glass, he swished and spitted into the chamber pot.  He finger combed his hair back and, as quickly as his aching head would allow, pulled on his pants, shirt, socks and boots.

Opening his door, he heard his father's loud and rumbling voice asking for him.  Johnny's voice in answer carried, yet, was softer than Murdoch's.  Johnny assured his father that Scott was on his way.  Scott knew he owed his little brother for his kindness of deflecting Murdoch.  Hurrying down the stairs he was tempted to try Johnny's way, sliding down the banister, but decided his father would think he had lost his mind.  The way his head hurt, he was willing to lose it.

Sliding into his chair, he thanked their cook for the strong coffee she set before him.  The heady aroma drew his nose down as his long fingers wrapped around the hot cup.  Taking a sip of the nectar, he savored the moment, but the spell was broken when his brother quizzed him.  “Enjoyed the entertainment too much last night, Boston?”

Glaring at his smirking sibling, Scott growled, “Johnny, can you be quieter?”

Nodding his head, Johnny excused himself and strolled into the kitchen.  Soft Spanish words could be heard, but not understood as he talked to the cook.  Two minutes later he came back in with a tall glass of juice laced with other ingredients.  He sat it down in front of Scott and said, “Drink your coffee and then this.  It ain't gonna taste good but it'll settle your stomach and clear your head.”

Murdoch looked on at the interaction and smiled.  “Are you going to be up to working half a day today, Scott?”

His brother answered for him. “He'll be okay, Murdoch.  He just needs to remove the hair from the dog and that drink will fix him up fine.”

Scott grumpily butted into the conversation.  “I can answer for myself, brother.”  Turning to his father he replied, “Yes sir, I will be.  As soon as I can get this coffee down, I'll be fine.”

Chuckling, Murdoch returned to his scrambled eggs and ham.  “See that you are.”

Scott nursed the coffee, refused the eggs and munched on bacon and biscuits.  His appetite wasn't there, but he knew he needed to eat something before he went to work.  Finishing the coffee, he eyed Johnny's concoction with suspicion.  

“Drink up, brother.  The longer you stare at it, the longer it'll be there.”  Johnny's volume of voice had been cut down to a soft whisper and Scott was grateful for the consideration.  Looking over at his brother, he reached out and smoothly downed the drink, then shuddered.  He'd rather chew on his boot sole.  Happily, another cup of coffee was shoved into his hand and he was able to cut the taste of the drink.  Within minutes his head cleared and his stomach flutters went away.  Now if he could only lose his headache.  He figured it was a just punishment for all the fun he had over the saloon with Sylvia.  Now that lady was a looker!  His musings were interrupted by his father issuing orders.

“I want both of you to ride the east pasture fence line.  Take note on what needs to be repaired and be back here by two.  The circus starts at four and I promised Teresa we'll take her this year.”  He beamed a smile to his ward across the table.  

“Johnny, will you take me to the midway?  I've heard they have some good games and food there.”  She swept him with her pleading eyes.  When it came to their foster sister, Johnny never refused her pleas and agreed to escort her. 

Scott could feel his brother's knowing look scan him and he waited impatiently for the verdict.  “Well, you're looking better, brother.  You up to a ride?”

“Yeah, Johnny.  Just let me finish my coffee and I'll be right out.”

His restless brother swiftly stood up, allowed a smile and his fingers to caress Teresa's cheek, and hurried to the door.  Grabbing his hat and his rig, he strapped it to his slim hips and tossed over his shoulder as he walked out the door.  “I'll saddle the horses.  Take your time, Boston, but not too much.  It's not everyday we get a circus in Green Rivers.”

The brothers spent the next several hours taking care of their chore and decided to take a break to snack on the biscuits and bacon that Scott had grabbed from the table on his way out.  His headache had finally eased up, after downing the herbal tea Teresa had insisted he drink before he left the estancia.

The pasture had a big pond with large leafy trees overlooking the bank.  Heading to the trees, they took their horses to the edge and let them drink.  Both horses were ground tied trained, so leaving them in the tall grass, the brothers took their meal up the bank and under a tree.  It was quiet, marred only by the buzzing fly that kept pestering Johnny.

“Looks like you have an admirer there, brother.”

“Not the kind I'd prefer.  Now your little Sylvia is a better looker and not as persistent!”

“No, no, brother.  She's well worth my time and effort.  She doesn't need your attention.  Now that little filly that came into town last week is more your type.”

“Which one would that be?”

“Maxie.”

“Maxie!  Are you daft?  That gal has hips wider than that mountain top up there and her breath ain't so sweet either!”

“Been kissing all the girls again, Johnny boy?”

“Some, but not Maxie.  She tried to kiss me.”

“And you ran, brother?”  Scott leaned over and smirked at his younger sibling.

After dropping his head, Johnny came back up with his death defying smile, “You dang tooting, I got out of there and I'm not going back until that she cat leaves.”

“Well little brother, you let me take you under my wings and I'll get you into those saloon rooms without Maxie ever knowing you were in town.”

“You can't do it.”

“Can too.”

“Can't.”

“Can.”

Johnny reached over, grabbed his older brother by the head and tousled his blond hair.  It was an opening shot for a sibling tussle and Scott obliged him.  They went rolling in the tall grass and weeds.  The crushed leaves tossed out an aromatic pleasant mint smell and their lithe bodies scared the flying insects from the grass.  When they stopped, Scott was on top holding Johnny down on the ground.  He started tickling Johnny in the rib cage and the rolling started again.  They continued until both were tired and laying side by side.

“Hey little brother, think we better finish checking the fence?”

Squinting at the sun, Johnny replied, “I reckon we'd better.  Don't want the old man mad at us.  He wouldn't take us to the circus if he was.  Uh...Boston, what's a circus like?” 

Scott scowled, knowing that Johnny had been deprived of the fun things in life during his childhood.  Dredging up childish memories, he launched into a tale of a small blond head boy getting away from his grandfather and exploring the circus.  Pulling himself off the ground, he held his hand out to help Johnny up and continued his tale.  By the time they had cleaned up their meal and caught their horses, Johnny knew what to expect from a circus and Scott was left with a parched throat.

Johnny gracefully threw himself into the saddle and danced Barranca around impatiently waiting for Scott.  “Come on brother!  That circus won't wait for us and remember, I gotta take Teresa to the Midway!”

Scott marveled over the deadly gunfighter that was allowing his childhood to catch up with him.  With the energy that Johnny was throwing off, Scott knew Teresa would be hard press to keep up with him later that afternoon.  As he swung into the saddle, his mount caught Barranca's excitement and took off at a gallop chasing Johnny.

 

Cat Love, Part 2

 

The circus had traveled by train down to Stockton from San Francisco and journeyed by wagons into Green Rivers the night before.  Normally they would have led a big parade of the horses, camels and elephants through town to the campgrounds during daylight, but the elephants were upset and the ringmaster was cautious.  It had been a long tour with many shows. This was the last stop and all the performers and support workers were tired and on edge.  The only performer that acted cool and calm was the gunslinger they'd hired to replace the trick shootist who had shot himself in the foot. Some of the animals were more sensitive than others to the atmosphere and displayed agitation and nervousness.  They were off their feed. It worried Catrise Dominguez that her big cats were among those animals. 

Catrise came from a long line of tiger trainers that originated in Spain.  As a child, she'd been raised with the parents of her present brood of tigers.  They were her compadres, playmates and children.  Looking over in the corner of the tent she watched her eldest female with her two cubs in their cage.  The cubs were hungry, but Shasha was pacing and wouldn't settle down to allow them to eat.

Catrise was proud of her tigers.  Ferdinand was Shasha's mate and he was a mighty tiger, virile, with strength and intelligence.   He was housed in a cage by himself, but near his elder twins, Breta and Barb.  Those two females would be the highlight of her show tonight.  She had been working with them for two years, after Shasha had gotten pregnant with her present cubs and allowed the twins to leave her side.  Catrise had a healthy respect for her tigers, and it was always on her mind to stay cautious with them.  They were still animals with the instincts of their wild ancestors.

It was chilly and Catrise put on her dressing robe for extra warmth.  She would be glad when this day was over and they could leave for their winter quarters.  She was tired and wanted to go home to her elderly parents.  This had been her first tour without them.  Her mother had chosen to stay and take care of her ill father.

“Hey Cat!  Are your kitties caged?”  Her friend, Mary, the Snake Lady, was poking her head through the tent opening.

With a laugh at Mary's obvious dislike for the tigers, she replied with humor in her tone.  “Yeah.  Come on in here.  The family is resting.”  Turning to look critically at her cats, “Well, as well as they can.  What is it with them?  They're off their feed and the girls are pacing.  Ferdy is at least down.”

“Most of the animals are restless, except him. That lazy guy would be down if we had an earthquake.  The only time he gets busy is when Shasha is in heat.”

“Well, that won't be until we get back to winter quarters.  It won't be too soon for me!  I'm tired of this coolness.  I need some warmth to heat my bones up again.”

“You think you need the warmth.  You forget who I am?  These scales don't hold much heat!”

“Oh, I'm sorry, Mary.  Let me wrap a blanket around you.  I know I've got some extra in my trunk.  Momma made sure I brought some wool ones.  The cook brought some coffee over just minutes ago.  Would you like to have some?”

“Sure.  Anything to warm me up. I've got scales on my scales.”

“You mean goosebumps on your goosebumps?”

“For me, it's scales.”

As Catrise turned to rummage through her trunk, Mary set down in the chair by the bed and started rubbing her shoulders and back across the chair edge.  She let out a large sigh, causing Catrise to look up and gaze wonderingly at her friend.

“What are you doing?”

“I've got this itch that just won't stop.”

“Mary, don't do that!  You've got to last one more show and then I promise, I'll rub that sheep lanolin all over you.”

“Oh...You would earn my dying gratitude.  It just itches so much.”  She started rubbing again.

“Mary, stop that or you'll start moulting.  You know you can't do that until we go home.  Here, I'll rub a small amount on your back and you wrap yourself in this blanket and warm up.”  Soon Catrise had the woman physically comfortable, but not mentally.  The tigers were chuffing and pacing.  Mary would twitch at every noise.

“Mary, calm down.  They're all caged.  They're catching our nervousness.  If you settle down, so will the animals.  Here, let me get you some more coffee.”  Catrise stood up to go to the table and her long blonde hair swirled around her shoulder.

Mary thought back over the gossip she had overheard that afternoon.  She was dying to tell Cat and this might be a good time before their shows started.  

“Cat, I've got some juicy news this afternoon.”

“Mary, are you ease dropping on the Siamese twins or the dwarfs again?”

“Gosh, no.  This was more fun then those sorry sisters or half pints.  The ringmaster hired some of the local boys to help set up the tents.  I overheard them talking when they worked on the tents around me.”

“And you just slithered on over?”

“Do you blame me?  Have I ever turned down the opportunity to cast my green eyes over handsome muscular men?  Don't answer that.  You know me too well! "

"Anyway, Cat, they were talking about a family in the area by the name of Lancer.  It seems that this rich rancher was about to have his land taken over by land grabbers, so he sent for his two sons.  The two fought off the invaders and have settled down with the rancher.  They described them as handsome devils, one dark-headed and the other blond-headed and excellent shots.  I bet they can run that gunslinger for his money!”

“Curb your enthusiasm.  I'm afraid no one is going to run him off, even though I would give anything to get rid of him.”

“Cat, has he been bothering you again?”

“When has he stopped?  He wants me and he's threaten to kill my tigers if I don't give in.  I don't know how much longer I can put him off.”

“Why don't you go to the owner, get him fired?”

“Mary, that man won't stand up to a mouse, let along a gunslinger.  He has a yellow stripe down his back a mile long.  I just don't know what I'm going to do.”

“Maybe one of these Lancer boys will help out, what with them being sharpshooters.”

With a laugh of despair, Catrise answered, “Sure they will, me being a tiger tamer and my best friend being a snake lady.  Yeah, right.  Who in their right mind would come to the rescue of circus freaks.  Most outsiders don't like to get involved with us, other than coming to watch our shows.”

Just as she spoke, the gunslinger strolled in, owning the world and expecting others to bow to his omnipotence,  “You're right, my kitten.  No outsider will be involved with circus folks, but I'm no outsider.  I'm part of this circus family and I'll take care of you.  No other man will come around to bother you, I'll make sure of it!”

Both Catrise and Mary jumped up from the bed and chair when they heard his voice. Catrise's voice shook with fury,  “Lot Jenkins, the only one bothering me, is you.  What right do you have to come barging into my tent without invitation?”  

“I don't need no invitation, kitten.  Those brown eyes of yours are mine and that's invitation enough.” He stepped closer to her, holding out his hands to grab her around the waist.  Catrise tried to rush away from him, but bumped up against Ferdinand's cage.  The tiger's annoying growl caused her to turn around to sooth him with her words and tone of voice, momentarily forgetting Lot Jenkins.  She felt the man's hands sweep around her waist and pulled her away from the big cat.  Lot was a large man, six foot tall with muscular arms, handsome in his own way.  It was easy to manhandle a little woman of Catrise's size.  “You're going to be mine tomorrow, kitten.  Once we get this show over with, we can find a minister in the next town and have us a quicky wedding. I'm sure you're looking forward to that.”  

Mary couldn't see her friend abused in this way.  The man had his hands all over Catrise and was struggling with the woman in his desire to kiss her.  “Leave her alone,” she yelled at the gunslinger.  “She doesn't want you.”  

Looking up from his efforts of kissing Catrise, he hissed at Mary.  “Stay out of this Snake or I'll kill you.”

Without a thought of safety, Mary continued to taunt the enraged man, “Yeah, you and who else?”  

Swifter than she believed possible, he pulled his right hand from Catrise and jerked his gun from the holster.  Holding it steadily, he pointed it at Mary and said, “Time to defang you, Snake.”

 

Part 3  (Earlier in the day)

 

The boys finished riding the fence line and headed back to the estancia.  Johnny's enthusiasm was contagious and Scott was looking forward to the afternoon in town.  He knew it would not be as large as the one in Boston, but it was a circus and would provide a welcome change from his everyday routine.

They were walking their horses.  Scott's roan had picked up a rock and was limping from a stone bruise.  Johnny didn't mind a chance to stretch his legs and warm up some.  He had worn his jacket all morning, but there was still enough of a cold breeze to chill his Mexican blood.  Scott was talking about Sylvia when Johnny's sixth sense caused his neck hair to stand on end.  He felt his spine stiffen and his sapphire eyes narrowed as he looked around.  Barranca's ears flickered back and he whinnied nervously.  Unconsciously, Johnny stroked his beloved horse until the animal was quiet.  His eyes strayed behind them as he stood still.

Scott noticed that he had lost his audience and he grew quiet as he turned and watched Johnny's cautious ways.  Softly he said, “Johnny?”  

“There's something following us, Boston.  I can't see anything, but I can feel it.”

“What do you want to do?”

“You keep moving.  I'm going to fall back and see what's behind us.”

“Be careful, brother.”

Johnny handed Barranca's reins to Scott and motioned for him to continue walking.  Moving to the side, Johnny hid within some trees and watched.  His senses were heightened.  The air flowing across him was actually painful to his nerves.  He didn't know if it was man or animal that was stalking them and if it was animal, their scent was upwind of it.  Ruefully, he shook his head.  At this point nothing could be done, except to listen and watch.  Minutes passed.

A sound, a soft sound was all it took to uncoil him as he drew his gun, twisted and fired up into the tree.  The bobcat had already launched itself when the bullet collided with its body.  The cat's cry reminded him of a woman in anguish.  The cat fell onto Johnny, shoving him to the ground, and it limply rolled away.  

Scott heard the cat's squall and came running back searching for his brother.  “Johnny!  Are you okay?”

As he stood up he answered, “Yeah Scott, but I'm puzzled.  Bobcats are night hunters.  Why was this one stalking during the day?”  

“We probably disturbed it's sleep.”  Scott went over to the animal and turned it over with his boot toe.  

“Nope.  Look over here.”   Johnny had been widely circling the tree and was down on one knee studying the ground.

Scott came over and watched as Johnny pointed out the cat tracks parallel to the horse tracks and the cat marks climbing the tree.  Even Scott could tell the signs were fresh.  “I don't know Johnny.  I see what you've found. He must have climbed it after you went under this tree. I haven't heard of one stalking a man. Maybe that cat was sick?”  He glanced over his shoulder to look at the carcass.

Getting up and walking over to the body, Johnny knelt down and took in the condition of the bobcat.  “I don't think so.  Most of the time when they are, they foam at the mouth.  This one's dry.”  

“Well brother, if you're not injured and judging from the sun, we need to get moving.  We could talk it over with Murdoch.  He's been in these parts long enough to know how the cat population act.”

“Sounds like a plan, brother.  That circus ain't gonna wait for us.”  

When the two walked under the Lancer archway, they could see Murdoch driving the horse drawn wagon out of the barn.  He got off the bench seat, got down and started for the estancia door when  he caught sight of his sons.  He stood and watched as they came to the barn.  One of the hands came out to take the reins of both horses.  Scott conferred with the man, pointing to his horse's hoof with the bruise.  The man nodded and led both mounts into the barn.  

“You two were cutting time a little close.  We were about to come find you.”  

“As you can see Murdoch, my horse got a stone bruise and we had to walk it.”  

“I can see.  What did you find out about the fence line?”

“Let me answer that, Murdoch.  Scott needs to go inside and clean up.”  Looking at his brother, Johnny continued, “Don't think the ladies are going to appreciate whisker burn, Boston!”  

Feeling his scruffy face, Scott remembered how his morning started and that he hadn't shaved.  “Okay, brother.  Be sure to talk to Murdoch about the bobcat.  I'll hurry and you can tell me what he thinks later.”  Turning toward his father, he excused himself and left to get ready.  

Looking at his son's retreating back, Murdoch turned back to his younger son.  “Bobcat?”  

While the men had been talking, the black barn cat had led her new family of kittens out of the structure on an excursion of her own.  Strolling over to Johnny, she proceeded to circle his leg, rubbing her body and tail against him in an effort to get his attention.  She was not used to being ignored by this human, so she reared up on his concho clad leg and stuck her claws into the material.  

Johnny leaned over, picked her up, and cradled the cat in his arms as he told his tale to his father.  Absently, he stroked her shiny ebony fur.  She purred and kneaded his jacket-clad arm with her fore legs, carefully keeping her claws sheathed.   As he talked, she licked his arm, turned, climbed his shoulder with her front paws and licked his cheek with her pink rasping tongue.  It was a distraction, not only for Johnny, but also for Murdoch.  His eyes kept straying away from his son's face to watch the antics of the mother cat.  Noticing the wandering eyes of his sire, Johnny gently gather the cat into his arms again and put her down in the midst of her kittens at his feet.  “Murdoch, I can't figure it out.  The bobcat wasn't acting right.  Scott thought that you'd be more aware of how the wild cat population act.”

“From what you've told me, Johnny, I agree with Scott.  I think that cat must have been sick.  He didn't hurt you, did he?”  

“Nah, Murdoch.  My jacket protected me from its claws.”  

“I think I'll put the hands on alert to any unusual behavior from the wild life in the area.”  

“I'll go with you, while Johnny freshens up.”  Both men turned to see Scott strolling down from the estancia.  He had changed into gray slacks, dark blue shirt, and his new tan hat.  He had put his jacket back on.  “Johnny, be sure to collect Teresa when you come back.  She's primping in her room.”  

“Yeah, I'm her escort, aren't I?  Might as well start early.” Johnny turned and headed up the walk.  

“I'm glad you're here, Scott.  Johnny got me up to date on the bobcat, but didn't tell me what you found in the east pasture.”  Father and son walked off talking and over to the corral where some of the ranch hands were working with the horses.  

Johnny knew that Scott would report on the pasture fences, so he had no problem going to his room to clean up.  As he came into the estancia, he could hear Teresa humming loudly from her room off of the downstair hallway.  “Hey, Querida.  Will you be ready to leave by the time I come to get you?”  He yelled as he took two steps at a time going up to the upstairs bedrooms. 

Her positive answer was full of enthusiasm, causing him to chuckle.  Going to his bedroom, he quickly stripped off his hat, rig, jacket and shirt. The jacket got tossed on the bed and the shirt dropped on the floor as he stood.  Putting toe to heel, he pushed off one boot and bent down to remove the other.  Removing his socks, he went over to the dresser and pulled out his green shirt, fresh socks, underwear and his black leather pants.  Pouring water into the basin, he lathered up a wash cloth and cleaned his upper body and face.  Rinsing off, he ran the wet cloth over his hair and finger comb his heavy locks.  Grabbing a towel, he dried off his body, changed out his lower clothes and pulled his shirt over his head.  Tucking it into his pants, he threaded his double buckled belt through the pant loops. Sitting on the bed he pulled on his socks and boots, stood up and strapped his gun rig around his slim hips.  Buckling the belt, he slipped his gun from the holster and automatically checked the chamber before smoothly placing it back into its holder.  Checking around, he grabbed his hat, put on his jacket, and strolled across the hall and into Scott's bedroom. He found what he wanted on the dresser, attended to his needs and went downstairs to collect Teresa.  

Coming up to Johnny, Teresa sniffed the air.  “Smells good. It reminds me of Scott and mint.”  Smiling down at his foster sister, Johnny replied, “Gotta smell good for all those pretty girls I'm going to meet at the circus.”  

“What makes you think there's lots of girls at the circus?”  

“Scott told me and he knows all about circus, with his Harvard education.”  

She laughed, grabbed his arm and pulled him to the door.  “Come on, let's go.  Murdoch's taking us in the wagon and you and Scott are to leave your horses home.”

“Don't much like that, but this time I will.  Barranca's tired.  I bet I'll beat you to the wagon!”  He took off running, but slowed up enough to allow her to pull ahead of him.  Her laughing face was his reward.  

Part 4

 

With their conversation finished, Scott leaned back against the corral fence and waited for his father to finish briefing the ranch hands that were near the estancia.  Most of the men were either out in the pasture or leaving to go to the circus with their own families.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the movement on the top of the fence.  Turning his head to get a clearer view, he found himself watching intently their gray feral, sometimes domesticated, male cat.  He was quietly stalking Scott.  Charlie was top cat on the ranch.  His place was to service the females and he did a good job.  With his head held high and his chest puffed out, he was good at imitating their handyman, Jelly.  Scott watched with distaste as the cat came closer.  He knew there was a fine line to how close he would allow the cat to advance.  He understood that cats were necessary to keep the rat and mouse population down, but nowhere was it said that he had to socialize with them. 

The two kept staring at each other until the line was crossed.  The need to flee overcame Scott and he moved away from the fence line just as Charlie arrived at his destination.  His paw swept empty air.  This was a scene that had been played over and over between man and feline.  A frustrated yeow followed Scott as he walked over to Johnny and Teresa.  

“Hey, Scott.  What is it with you and Charlie, or for that matter, any cats around here?”  

“I'm just not fond of them, Johnny.”  He held up his hand when he saw his sibling start to speak.  “Let it drop, brother.”  The tightening of his lips and the narrowing of his eyes told Scott that Johnny would bide his time and return to the subject later.  That would be fine with Scott, because he wasn't in the mood to expose his history with cats to his inquisitive brother, yet.

Murdoch finished up with the men and strolled over to the wagon.  He climbed stiffly up into the bench seat and called for his family to climb aboard.   

“Let me handle the reins, sir.”  

Murdoch watched Scott as he smoothly climbed up and he handed the reins over to his older son.  This would give him time to enjoy his family while they were happy and in high spirits.  He turned to look back as Johnny wrapped his hands around Teresa's waist to steady her as she climbed up.  Johnny waited for her to sit before he jumped up into the wagon and found his seat. With a flick of Scott's tanned wrists, the horses lurched the wagon forward and they were off to enjoy the circus.  

Johnny was in a good mood and continued teasing Teresa about the girls at the circus.  

“Johnny, the only pretty girls there are going to be the ones from the local towns.”  

“So, circus girls are old hags?”  

“No, just strange looking...well, except maybe the trapeze artists, cat tamers, and horse riders.”  

He had a thoughtful look on his face that gave way to his enormous grin, “So there's possibilities!  How strange are the rest?”  

“Oh, women with full beards, full grown ones that are as tall as your knee, twins that are joined together as one, horns on their heads, things like that.”  

“Yeah, and you're joshing me.  What have you been doing?  Reading those cheap dime novels?”  

“What if I have?  Johnny, some of that's true.  Ask Scott.”  

Leaning forward to quiz his older brother, Johnny asked, “Well, Boston.  Is she right?”  

Scott's eyes flicked over to see his sibling and returned to watch the horses.  “For the most part, she's right.  Although, I haven't seen the lady with horns.”  

Johnny sat back with a satisfied nod, “I'll tell you what, brother.  You take the strange ones and I'll take the pretty ones.” He thought for a minute and continued on, “I think I'll let you have that funny looking animal, also.”  

“Which one is that, Johnny?”  

“I think you called it an all-i-fant.  Never seen one of those.  Now, a camel I've seen.

Stubborn cusses!”

“Where was that, brother?”  

Johnny launched into his story.  “It was when Wes and me were raising a ruckus down in the border towns.  We barely got out of there with our heads attached and hightailed it into the desert.  We gave the rurales the slip and came across this deformed cow.  Funniest creature I ever seen.  Had a split lip, a hump in the middle of its back, long knobby legs, and feet bigger than a bear.  Sure was a fowl smelling animal. It spit too.  

Wes wanted to rope and ride it.  He always wanted to ride anything with four legs.  It wasn't hard to rope, but difficult to climb.  We didn't have a saddle for it and didn't do much good to try to climb it.  Anyway, Wes finally managed to get on top of it, and it just sat down on all four legs.  It refused to move until Wes got off.  Then it stood up and took off, dragging Wes behind it.  Those things sure can move when they want to.   

I got another rope around it and Wes got back on his horse and we decided to take it to the nearest town across the border.  When we got there the livery man told us it was a camel and not worth salt.  Too bad, we could've use the money.”  

“Well, brother, that sure would have been a flashy mount for you!”  

Murdoch grinned as he watched the bantering begin among his children.  The boys were fast in their comments and even Teresa threw in some good punches.  He was seeing a part of them that he had never seen and hoped that they would become more at ease at showing this part of their personality to him.  Within no time, Scott was driving the wagon down the main street of Green Rivers to reach the circus grounds on the other side.

 

As they came closer, they could hear the calliope music growing louder.  The agreeable odor of berry, sweet potato, apple, and mince meat pies cooking caused Johnny's stomach rumblings to be more audible than the music.  Rolling under the archway of a metal cutout of elephants on large balls, they were met with a small rotund man who had a permanent smile plastered on his face.  He came waddling up to Murdoch's side as he dismounted from his seat.  “Mr. Lancer, Murdoch Lancer?”  

“Yes, that's me.”

“I'm Harry Carr, the owner of this circus.  Your men said that you and your family were right behind them.  I want to personally invite your family and you to sit down front at the big top tonight.”

“That's very nice of you, Mr. Carr.  But what did I do to rate this privilege?”  

“Well to be blunt, it's not what you did, but what I hope you will do.  Ah...could we talk privately, sir?”  

“Sure. Give me a moment with my family.”  

He walked over to where the group was waiting for him.  Johnny was playing with the beads on his wrist  and rocking back and forth. Scott was watching as other San Joaquin Valley residents arrived, and Teresa was adjusting her bonnet.   “Boys, Teresa, I'm going to go talk with Mr. Carr, the circus owner.  Why don't you go on and have some fun.  He's reserved seats for us at the front of the big top tent tonight, so I'll meet you there.”  

As Johnny grabbed Teresa's hand and turned to leave, Murdoch cocked his eyes at Scott.  

“Yes, sir.  I know.  Watch Johnny and Teresa,” Scott grinned as he spoke Murdoch's thoughts.  

“I would appreciate it, son.”  

Scott's dimples appeared as he smiled at his father and turned to catch up with his siblings.  It wasn't hard.  Johnny had followed his nose to the nearest tent on the right side on the lane leading to the big top tent at the end.  Scott found him with his face buried in a hand-sized fried fruit pie with Teresa laughing and wiping the juice off his face with her handkerchief.  Johnny's sweet tooth was famous with the family and he was acting true to form.  They proceeded down the midway and visited every food tent for Johnny and the games tents for Teresa.  The boys were put to the test to prove their accuracy with throwing balls at bottles, shooting at targets, bobbing into tubs for apples, and tossing coins into bowls. Teresa was their cheerleader as well as the recipient of the prizes they won.   

It was at one of the food tents that Johnny got anxious.  He caught sight of the she cat, Maxie, steaming down on  him with the other ladies from the saloon.  Grabbing onto Teresa's hand, he said, “Let's go!” and he took her off at a run down the midway, leaving a puzzled Scott behind.  Looking around, Scott saw Maxie and knew why Johnny had hightailed it out.  Turning swiftly, he followed his siblings as they weaved in and out of the crowd. 

Johnny veered to the left and saw a larger tent off the beaten path.  Leading a laughing Teresa wasn't easy, as she had seen the look on Maxie's face and thought it would be fun if Maxie caught up to Johnny.  She was teasing him on how he seemed to attract a lot of females.  Johnny glared at her and grinned at Scott as he caught up with them.  For the moment they had lost Maxie, but Johnny wasn't taking any chances.  He turned and opened the cover for the tent door and led his family inside to hear a familiar gruff voice saying in a menacing way, “Time to defang you, Snake.”

 

Part 5

 

Johnny took it all in with a single, sharp look.  Lot was on the far side of the tent near cages of tigers. He held a pretty, slim blonde woman by the waist as he brandished a gun toward another female.  At least Johnny thought it was a girl.  She had silvery white hair that framed her face like a cloud.  She was tiny, around 5' 2” and the exposed parts of her were covered with silver scales.  All in all, she was pretty, but strange looking.

As the Madrid mantle draped over him, he eased Teresa toward Scott and with a relaxing drawl answered Lot, “Into shooting women now, Lot?  I thought, by now, you'd have found a better sport to take up.”

“She's not a woman, Madrid.  She's a snake and a pest.”

Glancing quickly at Mary, Johnny replied, “Seems to have all the right equipment in the right places to be a woman.  Let the other one go and take your gun off this one.”

“Can't do that, Johnny boy.  This one I'm marrying tomorrow, that one just butts in.”  

“Lot, you're just following the same pattern over and over.  How many blond headed woman have you taken off and married?  Your problem is, you don't divorce them before you marry the next.”  

“Don't need a divorce after I'm through with them!”  

Scott pulled Teresa closer to him and edged away from Johnny.  He watched as Johnny's eyes narrowed and his lips tightened.  The stance he took was insolent and relaxed.  It was apparent that Johnny Madrid was back and he was mad.  Knowing how he felt about women, Scott figured Lot's last answer was the wrong one.  

Lot was holding tightly to Catrise, but she had enough of him and gave her temper free rein.  Throwing her legs forward, she came back with her heels firmly planted in his left thigh.  Pushing her bent legs and straightening them, she back handed him across the face.  He loosened his arm a tad and she took advantage of the break.  Throwing herself forward, she rolled out of his arm and right against Breta and Barb's cage rendering herself unconscious.  

Lot was distracted when Mary turned and caught sight of Scott.  Yelling, “Scott Garrett,” she leaped toward him.  Scott pushed Teresa down and headed toward Mary. Lot swung his gun to focus on her back when Johnny went into action.  His speed of draw was blurry, but he had complete control.  What he couldn't control was Lot.  Lot's entire attention was on his hatred of Mary and he leaned forward and fired his gun.  It put him in line for Johnny's bullet and he went down and out with the burn of the bullet burying itself into his right shoulder.  His gun fell from lax fingers and Johnny Madrid strolled over to kick it away.  He checked out Catrise and found her breathing well, just knocked out.  

Turning to his siblings, Johnny Lancer saw Teresa pushing herself up to a sitting position and Scott flat on his back with his arms wrapped around a cursing Mary.  “Boston?”  

“I'm alright, brother.  I'm not sure about Mary, though.”  

“Huh... you know her?”  Johnny walked over and helped the lady to her feet.  Checking her over he found she had been grazed on her left arm.  Looking around he found a blouse on the bed.  Using it as a binding he wrapped it around her arm to stop the bleeding.  

“Yes, I know her. She was one of the children in the neighborhood in Boston.  She ran off when she was a teenager,” Scott replied, as he raised himself from the floor. “Mary, will you stop that infernal cussing?  It's unbecoming for a lady to curse.”  

“Yeah, maybe for a human lady, but if you've taken time to look, I don't look human, I look like a snake, Mr. Know-it-all Scott Garrett.”  

“Lancer.”  

“What?”  

“I live with my father now and the last name is Lancer.  This is my brother, Johnny Lancer and my  foster sister, Teresa O'Brien.”  

“Glad to get to meet you.”  

Looking closer at Mary, Scott continued, “Your skin condition got worse.  The dermatologist wasn't able to help?”  

“No.  He said I was a mutation.  I overheard Mum and Daddy talking.  My scales and premature graying hair runs in the family, but I got a double dose from them.  I just couldn't take their pity, so I ran off to where I was accepted, here at the circus.  I have a life and now a family who cares for me.”  

In between the roars of the upset tigers, they heard twin moaning.  Mary rushed over calling, “Cat!” and aided her in sitting up, while Johnny and Scott checked on Lot.  

“What's with him, Johnny?”  

Johnny looked down on Lot with both loathing and pity as Scott reached to assist the man to sit up.  “I don't like him and the feeling is mutual. Yeah, we have a history.  He ain't right in the head, hasn't been since he hooked up with a blonde headed hussy.  She couldn't take his possessiveness and bolted just before they were to be married.  He's been searching for her ever since, capturing and marrying every blonde lady that looks similar to her.  I didn't know he was killing them before he went after the next.  I had meant to put him out of his misery, but he moved at the last moment and my shot was spoiled.”  

A shiver went down Scott's back as he heard the deeper, non-emotional tones slip back into Johnny's voice.  Madrid was back for a visit.  “Well, you might achieve that goal if he doesn't stop bleeding. Find me something to bind this wound.”  Johnny kept watching Lot as the man became more aware of his surroundings.  “Now, Johnny!”  

Before Johnny could move, several men burst through the tent door.  His hand flashed down to his gun as he whirled.  It came up cocked, ready for action, and pointed toward the chest of Val Crawford, sheriff of Green Rivers.  He was to the forefront of the other men, Jim Stodd, circus doctor, Harry Carr, circus owner, and Murdoch Lancer.  

“Put it down, Johnny.  We're just here to help.”  

With a neat triple twirl of his trigger finger, Johnny's gun landed with a smooth slide into his holster.  Looking at Val, he gave a toothy grin and replied, “I know.”  Val graced him with a scowl and Johnny caught sight of his father's frown behind the sheriff.  He was puzzled at the look of glee that crossed the circus owner's face as he and the doctor hurried to the injured gunfighter and Cat.  Val stepped close to Johnny and whispered in his ear, “Cheeky show-off!”  Johnny's grin returned.  

Walking up to Johnny, Murdoch's eyes flickered over at Scott standing protectively near Mary.  Scanning his older son's body, he assured himself that there were no injuries in sight.  Glancing back to his younger son, he performed the same scan again.  His heart lifted to find no apparent damages, but lowered down to realize Johnny, once again, had been in a gunfight and had put himself at risk.  If only, he thought, but Johnny's past life was a reality that couldn't be changed.  Only time would allow lesser exposure to danger.  

Between the coughing and the nervous roars of the tigers, Johnny could hear Val questioning Scott, Mary and Teresa.  With their statements, he was cleared of any legal entanglements.  

Val made his rounds, intending to leave Johnny until last.  This gave Murdoch time to question his son. “Johnny, what happened?”  

Embarrassed and not wanting to tell the full story, especially about Maxie's involvement, Johnny dropped his head to his chest.  He wrapped his arms around himself in his customarily protective hurt stance.  Murdoch had butted heads with this son too many times and knew this line of questioning would have to be tabled until they were in more private surroundings.  

“At least tell me you're not hurt.”  

Johnny looked up to his sire and gave him the answer desired, “I'm fine and so is Scott.  It just happened, Murdoch.  We didn't get involved on purpose.”  His look of remorse was familiar to Murdoch.  

“You need to give your statement to Val and then, let's get out of here.”  Murdoch pushed him over toward where Catrise was talking to the sheriff near the tiger cages.  

Catrise watched the dark headed man stroll over and clap his hand onto the sheriff's shoulder.  Turning, Val waved at Johnny, indicating for him to wait.  Johnny leaned over to Val's ear and whispered, “Murdoch's having kittens.  He's ready for us to leave.”  

“Wait your turn, Johnny.  Miss Catrise is first.”  

While he waited, Johnny observed Scott getting better acquainted with Mary, Teresa talking quietly with Murdoch and the circus owner and doctor working on the gunslinger he had shot.  Wandering around, he came close to Ferdinand, Breta and Barb's cages.  He had never seen a large striped cat before and leaned close to Breta and Barb's cage to get a better look.  

Catrise noticed his interest and interrupted her statement to Val, ready to warn Johnny to stay away from the cats.  She started to go to Johnny, but stopped when her ears heard silence.  She looked around and knew all her adult cats were just as interested in him as he was with them.  Shasha finished pacing and laid down.  Her kittens immediately dived into nursing.  The sound of their sucking brought Johnny over to observe on bended knee.  

Suddenly, Johnny felt his neck hairs standing up.  Looking around, he was the focus of all the people in the tent.  “What?  Why are you staring at me?”  He looked down at his shirt front and squirmed around to check the concho's on his pant sides.  Nothing was out of place and he was puzzled.  Looking up and gazing at Scott, he listened as his sibling asked the question that was on everyone's mind.  

“Johnny, how did you quieten the tigers?”

 

Part 6

 

Coming smoothly to his feet, Johnny spoke with a perplexed look, “I didn't do anything. I just looked at them.”  

“Then brother, what is it about you that causes cats to like you?”  

“Maybe Boston, because I like cats.  I like all animals...except those dumb cows we have to shove around.”  

Murdoch snorted.  This complaint he had heard before, and it brought a smile to his face.  He had seen his younger son gentling horses, playing fetch with the ranch dogs, stroking the barn cats and even bring home, from a trip, an injured rabbit in a cage.  When Johnny released the healed buck, it became the desired mate to the wild does near the estancia.  It took time to wean down the rabbit population explosion that caused Teresa's fury over her garden.  It had taken time for Teresa to forgive Johnny, and he was denied his sweets until he got on her good side again.  Of course, Murdoch did enjoyed the many nights of rabbit stew.

“Regardless of how he did it, I'm glad my tigers are quiet and relaxed.  I want them to stay that way until show time, so Sheriff, can everyone leave?”

“All, but Johnny, Miss Catrise.  I still need his side of what happened.”  Turning to the doctor and circus owner, he continued, “Mr. Carr, can you get some men to bring in a stretcher for Jenkins over here?  I need him guarded until I can fetch him to the jail.”

The doctor, Jim Stodd, stood up from Lot and went over to look at Mary's arm.  “He can't go to jail just yet, Sheriff.  I'll need to take him to my tent and watch him for fever.  He's lucky the bullet went through his shoulder, but I'm still not sure he's going to have much use of that arm. 

A stricken look and then anger could be seen on Lot's face.  He was quiet, but his stare was piercing Johnny's back.  Scott decided he needed to keep watch for more trouble and be there to cover Johnny.  

The owner had left earlier and bustled back in, followed by three support workers with a stretcher.  One of them hung back and cradled his rifle in his arms as the other two worked to move Lot.  As they started to the door, Lot held out his good arm to stop them.  Looking up at Johnny, he hissed, “We're not finished, Madrid, not by a long shot!”  

It took a long time before Johnny answered, as he contemplated the gunslinger's threat.  Finally, he drawled out in a contempt tone of voice, “Oh yeah, I'm finished with you, Lot.  In fact, I'd hazard to say, you'll never hold a gun again.”  In a show of his confidence, he turned his back and strolled over to Val.  

Turning his head to watch Lot leaving, Scott shook his head at the level of cursing coming from the wounded gunslinger.  The man was good, but Mary was better.  He knew from youthful experience. Going over to his sibling, he told Johnny he was going to escort Mary to her tent and then he would wait outside for him.  Overhearing this, Murdoch added that he was going to take Teresa with him and he would meet the boys down front at the big tent when the show started.  

After they left, Val quizzed Johnny as Catrise impatiently waited.  She watched the Lancer son and enjoyed his style of dress, very flamboyant with his embroidered green shirt under his bolero jacket and tucked into his vaquero styled leather pants with his hat riding on his back.  His voice and smile were pleasant to experience. As he paced back and forth, his spurs on his boots musically jangled and he had the attention of all her adult cats.  It was like watching a ball rolling back and forth, with their eyes following his movements.  In short time, the interview was through and she was thanked by Val, as they left, for her patience.  She would have enjoyed Johnny's company longer, but she had a show to do and she needed to get ready.

Scott was true to his word and was waiting for Johnny as he came out.  “Brother, let's go have some fun.  I found something that I think will interest you.”

“As long as there's some food nearby, I'm hungry.”

Scott took a long jaded look at the shorter man.  “Johnny, lift your right leg and shake it.”

“Why?”  

“Just do as I say, brother.”  

With a puzzled look, Johnny did as he was told.  

“Now, lift the other leg and shake it.”  

“This is not funny, Boston.” Johnny scowled at Scott.  

“Humor me.”  

Once again, Johnny shook a leg.  

“Well, I guess you don't have hollow legs,” Scott muttered to himself.  

“Why would you think that?”

“With all the food you eat, I thought you had to have hollow legs to pack it in.”

“Argguuh!”  Johnny lunged at Scott and Scott took off running toward the midway, weaving in and out of the crowd.   The Green River widows, with children of their own, smiled at the familiar young men as they ran and laughed. 

Scott pulled up short, letting Johnny catch up with him.  “Here, brother.  This is what I wanted to show you.”  He pointed with his arm to an odd looking, long and tall wagon.

Johnny let out with a loud “Whoop!” and ran to the rope ladder that led from the ground to the side opening of the wagon.  Walking fast on the ropes, he mimicked a monkey in a tree going up the ladder. Then he disappeared within the opening to the Fun House.

Scott followed his brother, but at a more leisurely pace and with more dignity.  It warmed his heart to watch Johnny enjoy looking at himself in the mirrors.  One made him fat, one skinny, and one with elongated face and pot bellied.  They went through the rest of the wagon and walked through a large barrel that turned as they stepped into it.  Johnny was very adapted to walking sideways and made it through.  When Scott misstepped and fell, Johnny had to pull his brother up.  Both of them came to the exit and Johnny, with a gleam in his eyes, went first down the tarp slide, with his boots and spurs in the air.

Scott scooted down at a slower rate and was helped to his feet by his sibling.   

“Okay, that was fun, but now I'm hungry!”

“You're always hungry, Johnny.  There's a food tent just up the way.  Let's go.”

Scott wasn't sure where he put it, but Johnny sure was enjoying his food.  He went through, in no time, an enormous roast beef sandwich, two servings of roasted corn in the husk, two berry fried pies, and a large glass of lemonade.  As he studied his brother, Scott wondered if it was his metabolism or maybe a tapeworm that required so much food.

When Johnny finished and came up for air with a satisfied sigh, he noticed that a lot of people were moving toward the big tent.  “Guess it's time for the big show.  You ready, Boston?”

“Lead the way, brother.”

They made their way through the crowd toward the front of the stands, looking for their father and sister.  It was surprising to find the circus owner sitting beside Murdoch and they were deep in conversation.  Both men stood up as Murdoch's sons approached.  Murdoch had a frown on his face as Johnny came up and instantly he was wary of what was going on.  “Johnny, Mr. Carr has a favor to ask of you.”

Turning to face the owner head on, Johnny waited.  “Mr. Lancer, your father and I have been talking of what happened and I have need of your expertise.  You see, your unfortunate run in with my trick shooter has left a gap in our show tonight and I need someone with your accuracy to fill in.”  

Johnny's amazed face turned back to his father.  “You mean be a part of this circus show?”  Both men nodded.  He stared long and hard at his sire.  When it came, his response was quick, decisive and flatly delivered.  “Nope.”  He turned around to leave and his arm was grabbed by Teresa.  

“Johnny, please.”  

“Teresa...”  

“Johnny, you don't have to speed draw.  Just show your accuracy.  You and Scott are both known in the valley for your sharp shooting skills.  I bet you're a better shot than that Lot fellow was anyway.  Please, Johnny.  Do it for me.”  

“Do it for me.”  Catrise had walked into the area to check on her cats in their cages in one of the rings and had overheard the conversation.  Johnny whirled to dive into the depths of her brown eyes and they captured him like a handcuff around his heart. Pulling himself out of the pool, he slowly turned around to find himself again the recipient of many pleading eyes.  At last he locked eyes with Scott and saw a slight nod from his brother.  

Heaving a deep sigh, Johnny gave into their pleas.  Flashing a large grin, he gave his answer, “Only if Boston is out there showing his rifle skills too.”  

“Ahhh...”  

All eyes shifted from Johnny and settled on Scott.  

“He'll do it, I know he will.”  Mary came up dressed in a flowing silver robe covering her white long sleeved dress.  As she spoke, she had slipped her good arm around the crook of Scott's elbow.  

“What are you doing here? You should be in bed.”  

“Mr. Carr, Doc Stodd cleared me and since I can't do my act tonight, I thought I would look up Scott and watch the big show instead.  Looks like I got here just in time for some action.”  Looking up into Scott's face, she continued, “So what will it be Mister-show-off Scott Garrett Lancer?  Are you going to show me what you can do or are you going to wimp out on me?”  

Scott looked down upon this miniature thorn in his side.  As he was about to speak, he was stopped by his brother's laughter.  “Wimp???  He may be a misplaced Boston dandy, but my brother is no wimp.  He'll be out there to cover my back.”  

A look passed between the two brothers and Scott slowly nodded yes.  

“Good.” Harry Carr rubbed his hands in delight, made his excuses to Murdoch and while leaving, tossed out, “I'll send one of my men to get you boys when it's your turn to perform.  Catrise, get back to your cats, you're up in ten minutes.”  

The family set down and the show started.  As he watched, Johnny kept thinking to himself, “I'm so stupid. How do I get myself into these situations?”  His hand reached out to his stomach as he felt a twinge of pain.

 

Part 7

 

He dimly remembered his mother's hair was this color when she was alive.  He could see the sunlight shining through Ellen's thick, flowing blonde hair as he allowed it to drop off of his fingers.  Over and over he reached out and combed her hair with his hands.  It was precious gold, shining and sparkling.   His soul sung with joy.  For the first time in his adult life, he felt the empty spot in his heart fill with contentedness. 

They were lying on a blanket on the side of the riverbank under the sand crusted trees.  The sun played peek-a-boo with the leaves and with her hair.  It picked up the highlights of the remains of the picnic lunch scattered around them.    

She was lying across his thighs as he sat propped against the tree.  She was dozing and he gazed long at her relaxed face and body.  He wanted her, more over, he wanted her body and soul.  He had told her that he would take care of her and she needed to stay away from any other man.  She had no female friends, he had made sure of that.   He was her world and he was finally at peace with his dominance of her life.  

The sunlight dimmed and he looked up to see storm clouds moving in.  He tried to wake her up so they could move and get away from the upcoming rain.  She wouldn't wake and his legs wouldn't move.  Panic was setting in.  It was growing darker and darker.  The wind had picked up and lightening was flashing.  He could hear the thunder coming closer.  He reached for her with his right arm and the pain in his shoulder was so massive, it brought tears to his eyes.  The arm was numb and wouldn't obey his brain's instructions.  

He heard the horse's thundering hoofbeats before he saw it.  Swiftly it came.  With suddenness, the black stallion skidded to a halt.  Lightening outlined the rider as he jumped down from the saddle and ran over to him.  The man grabbed his Ellen and threw her over his shoulder as she continued to slumber.  Going back to the stallion, he put her on the horse and threw himself into the saddle behind her.  Before riding off, the lightening exposed the rider's face – the face of an evil laughing Johnny Madrid.  

His thoughts drifted and settled on a long black tunnel that he was traveling.  Spaced out in intervals were rooms with light shining through the open doorways.  He went to the first opening and found Johnny Madrid sitting in a rocking chair holding a blonde headed woman with limp arms and head.  Hand print bruises could be seen around her neck. Johnny looked up and gave a vicious grin as his right hand produced a gun aimed at his chest.  Johnny hissed, “She's mine now.  Get out!”

He traveled to the next opening and saw a dark headed man leaning over a blonde headed woman lying on a poster bed.  Her arm hung off the side and her head was awkwardly turned, with glassy brown eyes staring at him.  Madrid looked up and with blurry speed produced a gun in his hand.  “This one's mine, too.  Move on. Now!”

Once more he moved on to the next opening.  He recognized his enemy immediately, kneeling by the river bank, holding the wet, limp body of a blond headed woman.  Dropping the body, Madrid whirled and swiftly pulled his gun up pointing it at his chest.  “I found her, you can't have her.  Leave and don't come back!”  

Faster and faster he ran from opening to opening.  Each time he found Johnny Madrid claiming a blonde woman's dead body and warning him off.  

He came to the last opening and saw Catrise in Johnny Madrid's arms bent back as he kissed her. Her long, flowing blonde hair swayed almost to the floor.  Straightening her back up and casually holding her at her waist, Madrid gazed at him with saturated eyes.  “I got to her before you did.  I'm taking her with me.”  They turned and walked off into the darkness until he couldn't see them anymore.  

Hearing moaning and muttering, the guard went closer to look at Lot.  The gunslinger had been given laudanum and the bullet had been removed from his shoulder. He was restless and had the beginnings of a fever.  Leaning over to check him, the guard heard him pleading, “Don't take her, Madrid.  She's mine!  Come back. Come back.  She's not yours to take.”  

Putting his rifle down to lean against the dresser, the guard reached for a cloth, dipped it into the basin water and laid the wet compress on Lot's forehead.  The moment the cloth touched, Lot exploded into action.  Rearing up from the bed, he grabbed the smaller man by the neck and squeezed.  The guard fought for breath, but with the strength of the insane, Lot kept squeezing.  Sensing the moment of unconsciousness, Lot threw the guard against the dresser and watched as the man slid down into a heap.

He sat up and swayed with the dizziness.  He waited it out.  Looking down at the guard, he spotted what he needed and grabbed the gun out of the man's holster. Awkwardly, one handed, he checked the chamber.  It was full.  Grinning, he knew he had the means to take care of Johnny Madrid, permanently.

Slowly he raised from the cot and stuck the gun into his waistband.  Stumbling, he left the tent looking for both Catrise and Madrid.  Weaving his way back and forth, he made his way to Catrise's tent.  Cautiously, he opened her tent flap and walked in.  She wasn't in, but two of her  adult cats were and they expressed displeasure at their disturbed peace.  He moved around in the tent, picking up some of her clothes and holding them to his nose.  Her special scent of lavender and rose clung to the material and he drank in the essence of her smell.  Moving to her dresser, he picked up her hair brush.  It had long strains of blond hair captured and he pulled several of them out.  Rolling them up, he put them in his shirt pocket and patted it.  He would find her, but for now, he had a part of her stored near his heart.  

The image of Johnny Madrid laughing at him invaded his thoughts.  It was time to find the man.  Ducking out of the tent, he went in search of the other gunslinger.  Hearing the noise from the big top tent and noticing the lack of people around, he made his way toward the big top.  He knew he would find his nemesis there.

 

Johnny grinned and applauded as Catrise finished. She was a class act.  He marveled at the control she had over the tigers as she put them through their paces.  He especially loved the fire ring she had them jumping through.  He knew the fear cougars had of fire, he could only believe it was a common fear of all big cats.  The cats walking the tightrope and rolling the large ball toward them was also interesting. He watched intently as she eased her two female cats into their cage at the far left side of the tent.  Then she took her final bow and ducked out of the tent.

Looking around for the next act, he saw a strange looking figure approaching.  Dressed in black and red, with large white dots throughout the material, the man came closer.  He had a wild colorful wig on, his face had large black eyebrows, a bulbous red nose, and a painted smile plastered on his face.  He wore shoes made for a giant.  Attached to his waist was a gun rig dragging on the ground.  Within the holster was the largest gun Johnny had ever seen.

He planted himself in front of the boys.  Pulling his gun from his holster, he raised it to point toward Scott.  Instincts took over and Johnny reached for his gun to find his brother was blocking his arm from moving down.  “Easy, Johnny. He's a clown.  Remember, I told you about them. It's only in fun.”  No sooner than the words left his mouth, it was filled with a stream of water from the clown's gun.  The water stream moved from Scott and onto Johnny. Laughter could be heard throughout the tent at the antic against the Lancer sons.  Johnny could hear the giggles of Teresa and his father's deep chuckle. Looking over at his older sibling and watching the water dripping down his face, Johnny gave a wide grin.  It was matched by the one on Scott's face.  

Shoving his water gun into his holster, the clown pulled two small towels from his oversize pocket and threw it to the boys.  Once they were dry, he gestured with his hand for the boys to follow him.  He backed up and kept inviting the two to come.

“I'm thinking this is our cue, brother.”

“Cue?”

“We're being invited to go out into the ring.  I think this is the man the owner said he would send when it was our turn to show our shooting skills.”  

“Oh.  Why didn't you say that in the first place, Scott?”  

Shooting an exasperated look at his younger brother, Scott stepped down from the stands and followed after the clown.  Stepping down, Johnny was struck again by a fleeting attack of pain in his stomach.  Stumbling, he caught himself and followed after his older brother.

The clown led them to the far right side ring and with gestures, indicated they were to stay.  He left and the ringmaster came over. Turning to face the audience, he begin the introductions that, for the town of Green Rivers, was not necessary.  “Ladies and Gentlemen, through unfortunate circumstances, our sharpshooter was injured today.  These two men have graciously offered to fill in for him and demonstrate their excellent skills in accuracy with guns and rifles.  I give you San Joaquin Valley's own experts, the Lancer boys, Scott and Johnny.”

Their names were greeted with thunderous applause while the support workers ran in carrying various rifles and hand guns.  Scott picked up rifle after rifle, sighting down each barrel and weighing them for balance.  He finally settled on the one that felt right to him.  Johnny looked over his selections and waved them all away.  Pulling his own peacemaker from his holster, he checked the chamber, pulled bullets from his belt and finished loading his gun.  Looking up at his brother, he nodded his head and was answered with a nod from Scott.  Turning, the brothers faced the targets that the support workers had set up while they were selecting their weapons.  They were ready to start their demonstration.  

Johnny waved his hand at the ringmaster, little knowing that being in the ring would seal the fate for Scott and himself.

 

Part 8

 

Catrise wanted to see Johnny in action, so she had left her gold robe with a trusted worker outside the tent.  She quickly retrieved it, donned it to cover her costume, and hurried around the back.  She thought she'd caught a flicker of movement between the fire poles near the  midway and the darkness where she stood.  She stayed and watched, but the movement wasn't repeated, so she slipped into the right side entrance to watch the show.  Teresa and Mary waved her over to the bench abandoned by the boys.   Murdoch was sitting above them and gave a slight grin at the three with their instant camaraderie.  He was leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees.  That position gave his back the stretch it needed to pull the knotted muscles.  It also put him into ear range of their conversation.

“I can't believe it's actually happening!”

“What are you talking about, Mary?”  

“About our childhood, Cat.  When Scott and I were kids.”  Catrise viewed her with an inquisitive look and Murdoch's attention was caught. He looked down to see Teresa gaze up at him with a wide smile. “Well, when we were kids our families took us to the circus.  It was hard to see that old goat, he claimed as his grandfather, would stoop so low as to take Scott to the circus.  Scott said it was part of his education, you know, experiencing different things.  Anyway,  Scott was upset with his grandfather, didn't say why, but he was feeling boxed in and he wanted to find some freedom by escaping.  He caught his grandfather and my daddy conversing about business and stocks.  Mum was running to ground my wayward brother.  Nobody was watching us.

Scott grabbed my hand and slow walked me away behind one of the tents.  He had a wicked grin on his face and he said, “Let's explore.”  Boy, did we!  We managed to poke our nose into every tent we found.  It was like finding a whole new world.  I never knew people could live like that, and they were people.  They might have looked strange, but they had toddlers and babies behind those tarps.  They had beds, stoves, pets, everything I had seen at home.  It gave me a different outlook on life and possibilities.  It was those memories that gave me my path to take when I left home.  Scott said that this was the life, on the move, seeing new sites.  He told me that when he grew up and could leave Boston, he was going to join the circus.  Then we came across the lion cages and he wasn't too thrill with the circus then.  He didn't like cats, but he wouldn't tell me why.

“Did you get caught?”

“Yeah.  We went off and saw an interesting silhouette through a tent. The fire eater almost burnt his nose off when he caught sight of us peeking under his tarp at him.  He was practicing and I guess we distracted him.  He did singe his eyebrows.  He tossed that fire brand into a bucket of water, bellowed out, and came after us.  He caught us too, just before we were going to duck into the big top tent.  Worse luck, because there were so many people there, we would have gotten away free and easy.  The cops took and held us.  They had the ringmaster make an announcement and Mum heard it.  Scott's grandfather and my daddy were scouring the midway searching for us.  Mum wasn't pleased and my brothers and sis were angry because they had been dragged out of the tent before the show was finished.” 

She grinned at her memories.  “Scott was grounded for a month and Daddy tanned my hide that night.  I had to sit with a pillow for a week, but he didn't beat the dream out of me, and it's finally happened.  We're both in the same circus at the same time.”  Her gaze turned back to the two men in the ring.  Scott was checking out the rifles and Johnny was loading his gun with bullets. “He's so handsome and so confident out there.”

Catrise was also looking, but her eyes were on Johnny, “Yes, he is.”

Teresa was sitting between the ladies and her head turned from side to side.  Catching the directions of their gazes, she giggled and looked up at Murdoch.  He had observed the same scene and frowned.  He wasn't sure if he wanted his boys to take up with circus performers.  

“Cat??”

“Hush, Mary.  Johnny's given the signal that they are ready.  I want to see this.”  

Just as the ringmaster was about to outline the perimeters of the demonstration, the clown came back into the ring dragging his gun and holster in the sawdust.  All eyes followed him as he stumbled over to Johnny.  He pantomimed that he would be the sharpshooter, not Johnny.  Johnny gave his widest grin, stepped back and indicated that the clown should take his place.  Moving in front of the two brothers, the clown pulled his oversized gun out and carefully aimed it toward the hapless support worker standing a distance away.  The man was holding two melons up in the air.  The clown squeezed his trigger and shot first one and then the other melon with a stream of water, managing to give the man a cold shower.  

Johnny and Scott looked at each other and together, with their respective weapons, swiftly shot the melons out of the man's upraised hands.  For the next several minutes, the clown shot first and then the two boys shot at targets progressively further away.  When the clown ran out of ammunition, he dragged his rig over to the support worker and gestured that he would take over the target chores.  He reached into the prop bucket and pulled out two apples.  Catching the eyes of the Lancers, he tossed them up high.  Pieces of fruit rained down on him. The apples were followed by oranges, peaches, apricots, plums, dates, and pickled eggs.  By this time, the clown looked like a standing fruit salad.  He pulled out the hem of his oversize top, shook and caught the fruit pieces as they toppled off of his body.  Bowing toward the brothers with his head, he ambled off toward the exit.  

The previous support worker came back and tossed coins and face cards into the air.  There were no misses and the cards sported holes dead center. Finally, all the targets had been struck and Johnny and Scott were out of ammunition.  Scott waved at the ringmaster, as Johnny reloaded and holstered his gun.  Turning to the audience, they bowed and waved their arms to the applause they were receiving.  The boys started walking back toward their family, but had to wait as the three performing elephants were led into the tent and crossed their paths on the way to the center ring.  Johnny was hot and his stomach was feeling heavy with spastic pain.  Deciding to remove his jacket, he had it down off his shoulders, but still wrapped around his arms when chaos erupted.  

 

Lot kept to the shadows as he made his way to the big top tent.  He knew the noises of the acts well and could tell that the tiger act was at an end.  His act would have been next.  He was brought to a stand still when he heard the ringmaster announce his replacements as the Lancer boys, Scott and Johnny.  His jealousy took over and he had to get a glimpse of this act, but it was a danger to get too close to the left side of the tent.  Support workers were blocking the way to the entrance, keeping any bystanders from straying too close to the flying bullets the Lancer boys would be firing.  He had to cross over a lighted area to get to the tent, but he was careful and moved as swiftly as his injury would allow.  He bypassed the guards and found a secluded spot that he could enter under the tent side.  He was weak and had to rest as the boys performed. When the shooting stopped, he made his move.  Squirming through, he hid behind some barrels that lined the back of the tent.  Cautiously, he raised his head and his nightmare returned.  There before him was his enemy, Johnny Madrid, taking a bow with another man amidst the applause of the audience.  His anger was red hot and he shook as he brought his gun up with his left hand.  It was awkward.  He had pulled his stitches as he had entered the tent and the pain was almost unbearable. He wasn't sure if he could shot with his former accuracy, but he had to try.  Madrid was his nemesis and he must die.  

His view of Madrid was blocked by the elephants on the way to the center ring.  Lot moved over closer to the exit until he saw his chance.  Madrid was walking away with his gun holstered and he was in the process of taking off his jacket.  Lot shouted out, “Madrid! You're dead!” and fired his gun.  His hand was still shaky and the shot went wild.  It grazed the leg of the first elephant and lodged in the chest of the second elephant.  A loud trumpeting was followed by the elephants going berserk.  One of them ran toward the tiger cages, one went toward the right exit, causing Scott and Johnny to throw themselves down behind some drums in the center of their ring, and the third headed directly at Lot.  Seeing the mammoth coming at him, Lot threw up his arm in a fugal attempt to ward off the animal, but all was in vain.  His scream was cut short as the elephant stepped on him in its mad dash to the left exit. 

The tiger cage was kicked as the elephant tore through the tent, ripping it open.  The tigers were loose, but rather than going for the exits, Breta and Barb headed for the Lancer boys.  The cats were frightened and swift.  They reached the boys just as they were struggling to rise.  Each pounced and shoved their prey back down to the ground, face down.  There was a collective gasp from the audience punctuated by a long drawn out scream from Maxie up in the stands.  “Johnnnnny!  Noooo!”

 

Part 9

 

It had been a long day and new hire, Daniel Smith, was ready to go into the bunkhouse, clean up, eat whatever was fixed, and go to bed. He turned to look toward the mountains framed by the setting sun. Daniel wasn't interested in circuses, he had seen enough of them growing up in Missouri.  He wonder how the Lancers were enjoying the one in town, especially Johnny Lancer.  He had seen him once down around the border towns and was astonished to be hired on to the Lancer spread by the infamous gunslinger, Johnny Madrid.   He could just picture the stoic look Madrid would wear to greet everyone and every animal.

A stray thought slipped into his mind and he chewed on it for a while, as well as his bottom lip.

Should he wait up and seek out Murdoch Lancer when they come home?  The instructions were to watch the wildlife for strange behavior.  Did Charlie the cat fit into that category?  For that matter, did the mother cat?  But they weren't no wild cats.  They were friendly ranch cats.  He scratched his head as he leaned against the corral fence. 

Earlier in the day, when he came around the side of the barn after the Lancers left, he ran into a strange sight.  The mother cat, surrounding by her kittens, was on her back rubbing back and forth and pawing the air.  He had never seen no cat acting that way.  Continuing on around the corner, he found Charlie doing the same.  He had decided to keep an eye on the cats and managed to check on them for the next couple of hours. 

Daniel was working on repairing a nearby fence, when he heard a inquiring meow behind him.  Turning and cocking an eye downward, he found Charlie weaving through his legs and purring.  Kneeling down and putting his hand out, Charlie rubbed the side of his head against the hand and purred loudly.   A chuffing noise could be heard traveling from the barn to the estancia. Daniel glanced over to see the mother cat, in a stately manner, leading her kittens single file up to the back door, presumably, to receive a bowl of milk for the kittens.

Maybe it was a disease cats have.  Maybe... His musings on the past was interrupted by the ringing of the dinner bell.  In his mad dash into the bunkhouse and for his food, he lost all train of thought of cats.  When he finished eating, his bed beckoned, and he said to heck with cleaning up.  Moments later, he was snoring.

 

 

The stands were quiet as the audience watched the unfolding drama below them.  Some of the men were standing and pulling their guns out, ready to take out the cats the moment they moved away from the brothers.  No one wanted to shoot the boys in their efforts to kill the cats.  The sound of footfalls running down the steps caused Catrise to look up.  Maxie was coming down, with no regards for her or others' safety.  Her focus was on Johnny and she was sobbing his name.

Catrise went into action.  Spotting the sheriff nearby she yelled, “Stop her! She's going to get them killed.”  Trusting that Val would jump to halt the saloon girl, she turned to Mary.  “I've got to stop the tigers, but I need your help.”

“What do you need?”

“Get the metal box under my bed.  Don't open it, just get it back to me as soon as you can.  I've got to get out there and try to calm my cats.”  She watched as Mary's silver cape waved in the breeze she created as she left. 

Touching Teresa's arm and looking up into  Murdoch's anguished face, she murmured, “Trust me.  I can get them out of this. Don't do anything foolish.”  She shrugged out of her robe and stepped down into the ring.  

Approaching her cats quietly and slowly, she hoped the brothers would continue to stay still.  Looking around, she spotted her cat handlers and made an arm signal.  They hurried over to the back of the tent and came back with leases.  All of her cats wore collars with multiply rings on them.  The trick now would be to separate the cats from the Lancer brothers and lease them. She whispered to the boys, “Stay still, whatever you do, stay still!” Watching, waiting and murmuring in a calming tone to her tigers, she prayed that Mary would hurry.

 

It wasn't a stoic look plastered on Johnny's face, but one of anger at himself. Stupid, he had been so stupid to agree to the showing off of his and his brother's skills.  His brother...where was Scott?  He was trapped with a heavy weight on his lower back and his arms were still in a bind with his jacket, but he could still move his head.  Scott had been on his left, so he turned that direction.  He heard the warning growl just before he felt the hot, huge pads of the cat's paw press down on his cheek.  He heeded and grew still as a statue.  He heard Maxie's shout, but he couldn't pay attention to that she cat, he had a more attentive cat to contend with. His eyes could still move and they widen in fear as he saw that his brother was underneath Breta as she licked Scott's jacket collar.  The roughen tongue was grazing Scott's neck.  He could see the redness of a developing rash contrasting against the pallor of his skin.  Scott had his head turned toward Johnny, and, like Johnny, he was petrified with horror gracing his face.

Johnny could feel the twinges starting again. The weight of the cat on his back was pressing hard on his rapidly irritated stomach.  He had to get this tiger off his back and release the pressure. He could feel the butt of his gun resting beside his hand.  Calculating the possibility of turning and killing this monster, he realized that the odds were against him.  Either way, his gun hand would be trapped under him as he rolled or he would expose his back to the cat's lethal claws.  He would have to wait it out, but the pain was getting worse.  He heard Catrise's warning.

Scott watched.  His entire focus was on what he could see of Johnny's pale face.  His eyes and forehead were visible under Barb's paw.  Johnny's eyes were withdrawn, occupied.  He recognized the look, the calculating look.  He studied his brother's expression and when the sapphire eyes closed, he knew Johnny had accepted the situation.  Sweat had popped out across Johnny's face, but he held still.  The Madrid persona appeared and he visibly relaxed. 

Barb sensed the difference and looking down, moved her paw away from his face.  She shifted her weight and stood up, straddling the man.  Leaning down, she buried her teeth into his jacket and prepared to drag him away.  

Scott watched as a ripple of pain went through Johnny and was reflected on his face.  Throwing caution to the wind, he whispered to his brother, “Don't move Johnny, don't move.”  He heard Breta's growl and felt the release of her weight as she moved off him. His respite was fleeting.  Her paw hooked under his arm and pulled him over, face up.  He had an up front and personal view of her teeth and could smell her fetid breath.  She laid, pressing him down with her paw across his chest and resumed her licking.  His attention was forced onto his own situation.  He gave a quick prayer for Johnny's safety and vowed to stay still and not antagonized his own cat.

While waiting for Mary, Catrise became aware of the actions around her.  Some of the support workers had left the tent in search of the injured and frightened elephants.  Others were taking a stretcher over to the gunslinger, Lot and depositing him on it.  As they carried him off, his limp left arm slid off and hung down, swinging in time with their steps. She hated to see anyone die that way, but her focus needed to stay on the Lancers and her cats.  She wished that she could see Mary running into the tent.  It was only minutes when she sent her off, but it seemed like hours.  The situation was starting to go bad.

 

Part 10

 

Her main concern was Barb.  Breta was busy licking, but Barb was instinctively prepared to drag Johnny off.  Catrise had to prevent that.  She moved slowly and closer to Barb, murmuring in a singing tone of Spanish.  It was nonsense, but it had calmed Barb down in the past.  She watched for signs as she kept the litany up.  Then she saw what she waited for, a difference in the eyes.  Barb turned her head toward Catrise, dragging Johnny's upper body around with her.  She could see the uncertainty by the flickering from side to side in Barb's eyes.  She needed for Barb to turn loose of Johnny's jacket.  She was worried about Johnny.  He was covered in sweat and he was limp, with his head hanging down.  She wasn't sure if he was even conscious, his body was so relaxed.  Then the moment came.  Barb opened her mouth and turned loose of the jacket.  Johnny dropped. 

Catrise knew her cats and had to warn Johnny if he was awake.  “Johnny, don't move.  Please don't move.  She's calming down, but she's not there yet.”  Barb moved to the side and settled back on her haunches.  She put her paw across Johnny's back and lean down to lick.  Laying down, she started licking his jacket, mid chest, in earnest.  At the first lick, sapphire eyes opened and stared up at Catrise.  “I'll get you out of this, Johnny.  Just give me a few more minutes.”  

“What about me?” She heard the breezy whisper and looked over to Scott.  His jacket was totally soaked and, except for his agitated eyes, he was perfectly rigid.  “Yes, you too, Scott.  Mary would kill me if I don't.  Keep still just a little longer.”

Turning around slowly, she caught sight of a cat handler, and motioned for him to look at the tiger cage. No sense putting the cats back into a broken cage.  He went over, explored the cage, nodded and went off to find repair materials.

There was a flash of silver at the entrance and she saw Mary hurrying in, carrying the metal box.  Mary handed it over to one of her handlers and she backed out of the way.  He brought the box over to Catrise and stood patiently, waiting for her orders.

“Okay, Dave.  Here's what I want you to do.  Take the box over to the cage and sprinkle a couple of fistfuls over the back of the cage.  Be sure to wear your gloves when you do it.  Take your gloves off afterwards and toss them on top of the cage.  Then bring the closed box back here and have the leashes ready.  I want Pete, Simon, and Jim ready to help.  As soon as Thomas signals that the cage's repaired, we'll begin.”  Her helper left to get the other handlers.

As she waited, she checked on the two men.  They were still, but she couldn't let them go through too much more of this torture.  The cats were both licking, although Breta was slowing down on her speed.  Catrise knew time was running out.  Looking up into the stands, she remembered the promise she had made to the Lancer family.  She was determined to succeed.  Glancing over at the tiger cage, she saw the signal she was waiting for.  Her handlers had returned and were prepared to act.

“We've distracted the girls before.  We'll do the same again. Let's get started.”  

Johnny watched as Catrise moved over by Scott.  She started the singsong litany in Spanish and English again.  Breta was the first to respond.  She stopped licking and raised her head to look at Catrise.  Catrise backed up slowly and opened her box part way.  Breta raised up to her full height, left Scott and padded over to Catrise.  Raising the lid further, Catrise waited until the cat pushed her head down toward the box.  The cat handlers moved in and attached the leashes on both sides of the cat's collar.  Catrise allowed the tiger to thrust her nose into the box and then the handlers pulled on the leashes.  The now docile cat allowed them to lead her off toward the cage.  Johnny was glad that Scott was free of the cat.  He closed his eyes in relief.  

Catrise whispered, “Scott, stay where you are.  Don't move.  We've still got to get Barb off of Johnny.”

Barb watched wary as Catrise approached.   Her licking of Johnny's jacket slowed, but didn't stop.  Catrise knew she would have to come very close to the cat in order to lure her away.  She started her singsong tone again as she approached.  The opening of the box lid would have to be timed just right.  Too soon and she would be ignored and too late, she would be attacked swiftly.  Catrise edged closer.  She didn't fear her cats, she couldn't afford to.  They would know.  However, she knew to be cautious.  Watching Barb's eyes, she saw the moment she was waiting for and partially opened the box.  Johnny could smell an overpowering odor of mint.  The cat stopped licking and snifted the air.  Raising up, she walked over to Catrise.  Catrise slowly backed away from the Lancer brothers and came to a halt.  Once again, she opened the lid wide and allowed the tiger to explore the contents.  The handlers attached their leashes and led her away to join her sister in the cage.

Immediately, Johnny rolled to his side and curled up in a fetal position.  Catrise put the closed box down and went back to the men.  From the lower stands, Murdoch, Teresa, Mary, Mr. Carr, Dr. Stodd and Dr. Sam Jenkins hurried over to the brothers.  Sheriff Val Crawford could be heard bellowing up in the stands, “Okay folks, show's over.  I want to see you leave orderly and calmly through the exits.” He waited until the other saloon girls came down and he pushed Maxie into their arms.  “Take her back with you and keep her there.”  

“But Sheriff, I need to find out how Johnny's doing.”

“Johnny's going to be just fine and he don't need you Maxie right now, so go!”  He flick his eyes at the other girls and they took his hint.  Maxie was dragged out of the tent by her fellow saloon ladies.  

Val knew that Johnny and Scott were in good hands now, but he was concerned about the guard that had been guarding Lot.  Noting that most of the audience had left, he went to check on the man and found him conscious, but groggy.  He laid the man down on the cot and looked around the tent.  He noted the choke marks on the man's neck and his raspy breathing.  He waited until the man fell asleep and then went back to the big top to report another patient for  the circus doctor.  

He found the brothers sitting on the bottom steps of the stands.  Their jackets were in a sodden heap over to the side and they were being doctored.  Johnny's shirt was off and Dr. Stodd was bandaging twin scrapes down his back where Barb's teeth had dug in while grabbing his jacket.  Scott was receiving his own bandage around the back of his neck to cover the rash from Breta's tongue licking.  

Johnny bent over and grabbed his stomach. Dr. Stodd watched and inquired,  “Where is the pain located?”

“I'm fine, just a twinge.”

Doc Jenkins stepped in.  “Johnny.”

Looking up at this older man who knew him so well, Johnny relented. “Okay, I have a belly ache.  I think I ate too much.”  This confession brought a chuckle from his father.

“It could be appendicitis.” Dr. Stodd tossed out.

“Nah, can't have it if you don't have one.  Lost it down in the Sonora area.  It was a belly ache then too, but that quack doctor said it was my appendix and took out a perfectly healthy one.  Darn near lost my life through infection.  Good thing the brothel ladies nursed me.”  Murdoch winced over this tidbit from his son's life. So many times he could have lost his Johnny with the rough life he'd lived.

“Well, let's give you something for the pain and get you ready to go home.”

“Doc, can I have my shirt back?  It's chilly.” 

Doc helped Johnny to don his shirt.  Harry Carr, the circus owner, came over with two blankets from his tent.  These were draped over each of the brothers.  Johnny was alert, but Scott had taken a trip in his mind.  Murdoch was worried and drew the doctor away for a talk.  “Sam?”

“It's going to be okay, Murdoch.  They've been traumatized.  Take them both home, liquor up Scott and get him to talking.  Don't do that to Johnny.  His stomach can't take strong drink right now.  He'll need some herbal tea and something comfortable, like the Great Room and a good fire going in it.  Let the boys play it out.  When they're ready to go to bed, let them.  I'll be by tomorrow to check on them and to change bandages, but for now, I want them on light duty around the house.”

Looking over at Harry Carr, Murdoch thought of their earlier discussion.  He wanted to make some stipulations to the bargain.  Turning to the doctor, he inquired, “Do you think you and Val can get them and Teresa to the wagon?  I won't be long.  I just need to have a talk with Mr. Carr.”

“Sure, it'll give me a chance to tell Teresa which herbal tea to give Johnny and give her the salve for their wounds.”  Calling over Val, the doctor started his patients on their way to their transportation.  Just before they came to the exit, Val called back over his shoulder.  “Dr. Stodd, you've got another patient in your tent.  He has some pretty nasty bruises around his neck.  I left him sleeping.”

“Let me guess.  He was attacked by the gunslinger?” Getting an affirmation nod from Val, the circus doctor continued, “I gave Lot enough laudanum to stop an elephant.”  He halted and thought about what he had just said.  “Well, I guess he needed an elephant to stop him.  Thanks, Sheriff.”  

While Murdoch urged the circus owner to step over below the stands so they could talk in private,

Catrise followed the group out to make sure that they got on the wagon with no mishaps.  She was feeling guilty, since it was her cats that took down the brothers.  No one was left to see Mary sneak up onto the stands and lay down on the bench so she could overhear.  When Harry Carr agreed to Murdoch's stipulations, a large grin appeared on her face.  Before the two broke away to go their different ways, she got off the stands, went under the tent sides, and ran to her tent.  She had good news for Catrise, but wouldn't tell until they were on their journey to winter quarters.

The moon looked down on the Lancers as their wagon rolled home.  It was slow going, as both sons were very sore from staying rigid for so long and Murdoch was trying to spare them more pain.  Catrise, with her head drooping, trudged her way back to her tent to pack her belongings and to prepare her tigers for their trip home.  Mary looked up at the moon and returned its familiar grin.  She skipped around in a small dance and ran gleefully to stow her bags in the luggage wagon.  Within hours, they were on their way home.

 

Part 11

 

Murdoch was worried.  All the way home the boys were quiet and still.  He knew the experience they went through was horrible and, with Scott's total dislike for cats, his was understandable, yet still worrisome.  Johnny, however, didn't have a still bone in his body.  Even when asleep, some part was always twitching.   This was not typical behavior.

The doctor had given sound advice.  Murdoch would like to liquor up Johnny as well, to get them talking, but he'd just have to find another way with his younger boy.

It was late when they pulled up to the estancia.  One of the ranch hands that had gone to the circus took the reins of the horses.  Nothing was said, it wasn't needed.  He had witnessed it all.  Another hand helped him in getting the boys into the Great Room, where Johnny was deposited on the sofa and Scott into an overstuffed chair.  Murdoch filled two glasses with brandy and handed one to Scott.

Teresa went to the kitchen to prepare Johnny's drink.  Luckily, the cook had banked the coals and the fire started quickly.  Shortly, she returned with a mug of the herbal tea and a pot for refills.  She found Murdoch had lit the kindling in the fireplace and a small blaze was rising to the occasion.

Murdoch watched his sons sipping their drinks and staring at the fire.  He snorted.  At this rate, he would be two shades to the wind before Scott ever felt a buzz.  “Drink up boys.  I need to get you two warmed up.”  Automatically, Scott lifted up his drink and took a deeper swig, but kept staring at the fire.  Johnny showed his distaste for his, but obediently took a larger swallow.

Teresa left the room and headed up the stairs to collect fresh shirts for her siblings.  The smell of the tigers were still on their tops.  Bringing them down and in pretense of checking their bandages, she rapidly had them changed out.  She had deemed their jackets as lost causes and had left them in the circus big top.  It wasn't as if they didn't have the money to replace them.

She poured herself a mug of Johnny's tea and sat down to work on her sewing.  This would be interesting, as Murdoch deliberately set out to get his elder son drunk.  Over the next hour, he plied Scott with alcohol as Johnny got progressively sleepier.  He switched Scott from brandy to whiskey and convinced Teresa to stir some honey into Johnny's tea.  Johnny's grin to his sire was thanks enough, as the tea was on the bitter side.

Finally, Johnny started the conversation.  “I just can't think why those tigers came after us, let alone, why that bobcat jumped me.”

Teresa looked up in surprise.  “You didn't know?”

“Know what?”

“Why, you both have been reeking of catnip all day.  As strong as the smell was, you must have rolled in it.  It has such a minty odor to it and you had it all over your clothes when you came home this afternoon.  I thought it was very pleasant.”

At that, Scott's eyes turned from the fire and stared at Teresa.  He gazed hard at Johnny and a small lop sided grin started.  It evolved into an ear-to-ear toothy one.  This was followed by a deep belly laugh that got progressively louder.  This set Johnny off with a smirk, then a chuckle, and his developed into a ear splitting series of whoops.  

It was contagious.  Teresa and Murdoch joined in the merriment.  Scott finally was able to get his hysteria under control and smirked at his brother.  “I guess I was the one who started all this.”

“No, Boston.  I did, when I took a poke at your hair.”

“So we came back and changed clothes, but put our jackets back on.”

“That reeked of catnip.”

“That attracted the bobcat to you.”

“And probably to you also, Scott.  You just didn't get close enough.”

“Then mother cat came to you.”

“And Charlie stalked you.”

“I wonder why the kittens weren't affected?”

Teresa jumped right into their conversation.  “Not all cats are sensitive to it, especially the kittens.”  

“But those tigers sure must have been,”  Murdoch contributed.  

Johnny had a thoughtful look on his face.  “So Catrise had catnip in that box.  I smelled it when she opened it up.  I thought it was mint.”  Suddenly he looked down at the tea he was drinking.  “Teresa...?”

She had an innocent look on her face.  “Yes, Johnny?”

“This smells minty.  You wouldn't.”

“It's what Doctor Sam ordered.  It calms down indigestion and puts you to sleep.”

Johnny quickly banged down his half-finished drink on the end table as his female sibling rapidly stood up and ran to her room.  They heard the slamming of the door, the bolt sliding shut, and a syrupy voice calling out, “Goodnight.  Sleep tight, Johnny.”

“I think I'm going to try some of that myself.  Goodnight, boys.”  Murdoch set down his empty glass and made his way upstairs to his room.  The boys were talking and if left alone, would probably hash it out.

Together, Johnny and Scott fell back into a companionable silence.  Scott was slower on drinking his whiskey, but the level in his glass was steadily dropping.  Then it came.  The question he had been waiting for all day.

“Scott, why do you hate cats?”

He paused for a long time before answering and the slur, in his normally perfect speech, told Johnny his brother was smashed.

“When I was five, one of our maids took to feeding a stray cat.  She was beautiful, snow white, with long silky hair.  She had the fluffiest tail and a sweet disposition.  I called her Snowball.  When Grandfather left to go to the office, the cat was let into the house.  He would have fired the woman with no hope of references if he'd caught her.

This went on for months.  Snowball started to hide in the house and avoided Grandfather.  He still had no clue.  She would slink into my room and go under the bed until Grandfather retired for the night.  He thought I was asleep, but I wasn't.  I would coax her out and pet her until I got sleepy.

One night, I woke up during the middle of the night and felt something wet and sticky climbing on my face.  The moon was out and shining through my open window.  When I opened my eyes, very close to me was a kitten still covered partially in its birthing sack.  Snowball had bit into it and was chewing it off the kitten. I thought she was eating the kitten.  There were two others squirming around my arm.  They were so near and blood was over my pillow and had seeped into my hair. 

It was such a shock and I bolted up, waving my arms, and I screamed out in fear.  Snowball went wild and attacked me.  I put my arms over my face to protect it and she shredded them.  That's the scene that Grandfather walked into.” 

Scott paused in his narration for a moment, rubbing the undersides of his arms, and took a deep breath.  “I guess she was just protecting her babies, but I didn't know that at the time.  Grandfather killed them with his cane.  He kept calling them filthy beasts.  He screamed for the housekeeper to doctor me and I was moved to another room while servants cleaned my room of the carnage. The next morning the doctor came, cleaned the scratch marks and put stitches in.  I was kept in my bed for a week, while Grandfather ran a rampage, searching for the servant who would allow such a monster to invade my bedroom.  He found her and discharged her.”

He paused again. “I've been wary of cats ever since.”  

“Are you okay now, brother?”  

Scott looked over to Johnny.  “Yes, I think I am, but I don't want to ever get that close to a tiger again.”

“Me neither, Boston.  I'm so sleepy. What do you say we go to bed.”

“Sounds like a good plan, Johnny.  I'm not sure I can make it on my own, I'm so drunk.”

“Here, let me help you.”  The boys wrapped their arms around each other, Johnny's wrapped around Scott's waist as Scott put his arm over Johnny's shoulder.  They carefully avoided each other's wounds.

Slowly they made their way up the stairs and into Scott's room.  While helping Scott to get ready for bed, Johnny asked his final question for the night.  “Scott, how are you going to sneak me into the saloon without Maxie knowing?”

Wagging his finger at Johnny, Scott slurred, “That's for me to know and you to find out.  In due time, brother, in due time.”  Scott snuggled down into his blankets and drifted off to sleep to the tune of  Johnny's gentle chuckle.

Johnny made his way to his room across the hall, got undressed and in his bed.  Sleep overtook him before he fully covered himself with his blankets. The house was quiet and at peace.

 

Part 12

 

As Catrise got ready to go to bed, the train took a curve and she was tossed to the side of the bunk.  She was depressed.  Not only did a man, that she was interested in, get injured by her tigers, but she was going to have to make a major decision on the fate of Breta and Barb.  She wouldn't be able to use them in the circus anymore.  They had tasted human blood.  All it would take was a cut and they would be reminded of it.  She couldn't take the chance that they would attack again.  But what could she do with them, and how would this affect her act?  Thank goodness that she had the winter to find the answers.

She wondered how her father and mother were.  She missed them so much and knowing that her dad was so sick when she left, she hoped that he was still alive.  She watched as her friend, Mary, got ready to retire.  There was something about Mary.  She was happy, too happy. 

Catrise sighed.  In the mood she had found for herself, someone that enthusiastic about life was frowned on.  So, she frowned at Mary.  “Why are you in such a good mood?”  She couldn't believe it was because they were returning to winter quarters.  Mary lived alone and, for her, there wasn't much to look forward to there, where as, Catrise at least had family waiting.

Mary tossed herself onto her bed and gleefully looked over at her sullen friend.  She waited until Catrise crawled into her blankets before she replied.  “I overheard some interesting news today.”  

“Do tell.  I guess you've been listening to that gossip about the fire breather visiting the bearded lady's tent during tonight's show.  Trust me, I've heard about everything already.”

“Really? I've heard that he was sweet on her.  So he finally did it.  I thought he was too shy and...”

“Mary!”  

“What?”  

“Go to sleep.  You're rambling.”  

“But...I haven't told you the news yet.”  

“And you won't if you keep getting sidetracked. Besides, I'm not interested.”  

“Not even if it concerns someone named, Johnny Lancer?”  

“Mary!”  

“Okay, okay.  I'll go to sleep.”  

The silence deepen between them and Catrise thought on what Mary had said.  Her curiosity was too much.  Letting out a sigh, she prompted Mary.  “All right.  Spill it.”

Turning on her side to face Catrise, Mary's grin was wide and her voice was full of laughter as she started her tale. “You remember when you went out with the Lancer brothers to their wagon, I stayed behind?”

“Yeah.  I was surprised, since you seemed interested in Scott Lancer.”

“Well, it was difficult, but I wanted to hear what was going on between Mr. Lancer and Mr. Carr.”

“Mary, your easedropping is going to get you into trouble one day.”

“Yeah, but I'll die happy!  Anyway, I hid out and heard the whole conversation.”

“So?”

“Well it seems earlier, Mr. Carr had asked Mr. Lancer to sponsor the circus financially.  He also wanted a week engagement at the Lancer ranch.  It seems Lancer land is a focal point of the three towns of Moyo Corro, Spanish Wells and Green Rivers. I was surprised that Murdoch Lancer had agreed.  Evidently, his ward loves the circus and he did it for her.  So, we are going to go back in five months and get to see Johnny and Scott again. Isn't that great!”

The look of despair on Catrise's face was not lost on Mary.  “Cat, Murdoch Lancer doesn't blame you for your kitties jumping his boys. He blames Lot for most of it and his boy's lack of knowledge of local weeds.  Teresa will teach the boys local plants and their uses and, Mr. Carr has agreed to drop the sharpshooter part of the circus.  Carr has also agreed to reinforce all cages and to have the tigers moved to your tent cages before the elephants come into the ring.  Stop blaming yourself for something that was an accident.”

“I've decided to not use Breta and Barb next season.  I'll find another home for them.  Maybe I'll use Shasha and Ferdinand, instead.  She should have the babies weaned by then.”

“I heard that they're starting a zoo at San Diego.  Maybe they need a couple of tigers?”

“Mary, you may have just solved my problem.”  Catrise rolled over  onto her back, staring at the ceiling of the box car and thinking of how to contact the zoo.  She listened as the clickety clack of the tracks lured Mary to sleep. She soon followed her friend into slumber.  They drifted off into dreams, Mary, of her blond headed knight in shining armor on a roan horse and Catrise, of a dark headed gunslinger with laughing sapphire eyes, a wide grin and a soft, melodic voice.

In the luggage car tucked into a corner was one of Mary's bags.  It had in it two damaged jackets that the cats had mangled.  She had plans to clean and repair them to their former glory and had rescued them before the big top tent was dismantled.

Back at Lancer, the two brothers were also in slumber land.  Johnny was dreaming of a woman with shimmering golden hair sweeping the floor as he bent her over and gave her his most searching kiss.  He could hear the purring of the big cats in their re-enforced cages across the tent. 

In the room across the hall, Scott restlessly turned onto his side and settled back down into his dream.  His hand reached out and he stroked his blanket over and over.  If someone had been in his room, they would have heard him murmuring again and again, “Snowball.”  

Up the road in the town of Green Rivers, the moon was shining through the closed window of the back room at the undertaker.  The light slowly tracked across the room and onto the shroud covered body of a trampled gunslinger, by the name of Lot Jenkins.  No one was there to see the slow flexing of the fingers on the hanging left hand and to hear the low moan.  The night was still and peaceful slumber covered the valley.

 

The End ??

 

 

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