La Muerte de Johnny Madrid

 

by Jamie Simmons and LaJuan

 

 

 

 

 

            “Hey, Gage, will you quit woolgathering and pass the pepper like I asked?” Chet Kelly said impatiently.

            The A-shift was sitting at the large rectangular table in Station Fifty-one’s dayroom, wolfing down a late supper after returning from the involved rescue of a hiker in one of the wilderness areas that populated the City of Los Angeles. 

            John Gage looked up from his plate and stared blankly at his shift mate.

            “Oh, never mind,” Chet said, leaning forward and grabbing the pepper. “What’s with you anyway?” He sat down and shook pepper onto his food. The short, stocky brown-haired fireman eyed the paramedic as he returned the peppershaker to the tabletop. Used to razzing Johnny, normally he wouldn’t think twice about his friend’s odd behavior, but something didn’t seem right.

            The dark-haired wiry paramedic idly followed Chet’s movements, feeling as if he were becoming detached from his body and he could care less. A sharp pain jabbed the back of his neck and he raised his hand to massage the affected area, only to discover that it hurt to move. He stared at his hand then reached for his fork, the pain in his neck forgotten. Something’s wrong, his brain tried to convey as he speared a bite of fried chicken and placed it in his mouth, but the thought danced away without taking hold.

            “Junior, you okay?” Roy asked. “Chet asked you a question.” The light-haired medium built senior paramedic gazed worriedly at his partner. He’d never seen Johnny so ‘absent’ before. And for just a second, the look on his face when he’d moved his hand… had it been fear? Roy quickly dismissed the notion, even though Johnny had been acting increasingly different since treating the hiker, and concentrated on his best friend in hopes of learning what was going on.

Johnny grimaced slightly at the unusually bland taste of the chicken and decided he wouldn’t eat any more, especially since it even hurt to chew. At the sound of a cough, he glanced around the table, thinking someone else had discovered the bad-tasting meat. Everyone was staring at him with various expressions of puzzlement on their faces. He had no idea why they were looking at him like that. What did he do? Trying to cover his lack of understanding, he said the first thing that came to mind. “Lancer’s on tonight.”

             “That explains it,” Chet said, relieved. “You’re obsessing again. Wishing you were Johnny Madrid, gunfighter.”

            “Don’t be ridiculous…” Johnny began, about to do something he’d never contemplate doing had he been feeling better: explain the similarities he saw between Johnny Madrid and himself, when a spasm of pain wracked his body. Moaning, he closed his eyes.

            “Johnny?” Mike asked, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder. He felt the paramedic shudder. “What’s wrong?” The light-haired lean engineer glanced at Roy, silently conveying the need to get help.

            The pain subsided to a dull ache, enabling Johnny to push back his chair. “I’m okay, Mike. Just a headache is all.” Very true, he thought, realizing his head was throbbing. Rising to his feet, he said, “I’m going to go get some aspirin.” He turned away from the chair to head for the apparatus bay and staggered as his sense of equilibrium faltered.

            “Easy there, Johnny,” Marco said, more lightheartedly than he felt. The dark-haired average built fireman placed an arm around his friend’s shoulders to steady him.

            “I’m… okay… just a bit… dizzy,” Johnny said as Mike appeared on his other side. “Really…” Suddenly he felt as if he were in a long tunnel going backwards. He watched Roy enter the dayroom carrying the biophone and drug box, but it seemed as if he wasn’t coming closer. He swayed. “You know, I don’t feel… so good.” Pain seized him and he felt himself falling…

                                                +++++++++++++++++

            “What’s wrong with him, Doc?” Roy asked, rising from a chair in Emergency’s waiting area at Rampart General Hospital. He glanced around him as his shift mates also stood then switched his attention back to Dr. Kelly Brackett, the ruggedly handsome Chief of Emergency Medicine, as he stopped before them. Roy swallowed with trepidation at the composed look on the doctor’s face.

The paramedic had seen that look, indicating bad news, a hundred times or more for rescue victims and even though Johnny had often been in difficult situations, he’d never warranted Brackett’s ‘composed’ expression until now. Roy swallowed again. “Doc?” he choked out.

“Gentlemen,” Kel greeted the group of men. His face softened as his gaze fell on Johnny’s partner. “Roy.”

“You don’t know what’s wrong with John,” Hank Stanley stated matter-of-factly in a soft voice. Standing beside Roy, the tall dark-haired captain could feel the tension emanating from the paramedic.

Things had happened so suddenly that Hank still couldn’t quite believe they had occurred at all: one minute Gage had been only acting slightly off kilter; the next he had collapsed onto the dayroom floor semi-conscious in terrible pain with the beginnings of a fever. While waiting for news, Hank had watched Roy sitting quietly without moving, knowing that his ever-present composure was the only thing keeping him in control.

Kel shook his head. “His fever’s worse. I can’t get anything intelligible out of him except two words: ‘Lancer’ and ‘watch’.”

“It’s a western TV show. Johnny’s favorite,” Chet said softly. “I was… teasing him about it before…”

“I see.” Kel nodded briefly, aware of the two men’s volatile friendship and how much of it was show when push came to shove. “His mind is still on that topic then. It happens with delirium.” Kel grimaced. “I’d hoped though, that it would be a clue as to what’s going on.”

“Delirious? How high is his fever?” Roy asked in a strained voice.

“104—” Kel began, realizing at a look from Captain Stanley that Roy couldn’t take much more.

“That’s impossible!” Roy erupted; his control vanished. “It was only 100 when we brought him in! I’ve got to see…” He started forward, his only thought that his best friend could be dying and he had to do something.

“Roy, don’t.” Hank’s soft voice held command as he placed a hand on the paramedic’s shoulder. For a second he thought that Roy might disobey him. Then exhaling slowly, Roy faced him, calm once more. Hank breathed an inward sigh of relief and patted his friend’s shoulder.

Kel watched the scene, knowing Roy’s resolve hung by a tenuous thread and didn’t mince words. “Johnny’s only chance is for you to tell me about your day today.” His voice deepened with intensity. “Give me a clue as to what happened, Roy.”

Roy ran a hand through his hair and concentrated. “He was fine this morning.” He looked at his shift mates, who nodded. “Bantering with Chet as usual… We had some runs, nothing major, and he was on top of things. Lunch was at a hamburger stand, then we had a couple more calls and we just got back to the barn when the station was called out to find the hiker.” He looked at Kel.

Dr. Brackett nodded. “I remember. It took you awhile to find him.” An idea was beginning to form. “Roy, did anything happen to Johnny on that run?”

Roy shook his head. “We split up to search for the hiker, but he didn’t say anything when we hooked back up. He was fine while we were treating him, but I noticed he seemed different when we left Rampart and headed for the station.”

“He was that way during chow, Doc,” Marco said. “Acting like he was in a fog or something.”

“Then he moaned,” Mike continued. “And said he had a headache and…” Dr. Brackett was nodding his head. “What?”

Kel smiled. “That has to be it.”

“Something bit him?” Hank asked, reaching the same conclusion.

“Or stung,” Kel agreed.

“Toxic reaction,” Roy said, his face brightening that the cause of his partner’s malady was known at last and was treatable.

Kel nodded. “Thanks, men. Now I have some options.” He turned to go and stopped. “Why don’t you go into the lounge and watch this Lancer show? It’s on in a few minutes. It’ll be awhile yet before we’re sure…” He grinned, downplaying his doubtful words. “If I know Johnny, once he’s better he’ll be a lot easier to live with if he knows what happened on the show than if you tell him you didn’t catch it.”

Hank laughed. “I had the feeling you didn’t know what Lancer was.”

Kel shrugged. “I like westerns,” he said, winking, then left the A-shift to see to Johnny.

Roy looked at his watch. “It’ll be starting in about 5 minutes,” he said as the group of men headed for the staff lounge.

“Refresh my memory,” Hank said to his men. “What’s the show about?”

“Well, as I recall it’s about a father, his two sons, and his female ward,” Chet began as the group entered the staff lounge. The men gathered extra chairs and arranged them facing the TV set while Chet explained the background of the show.

“The father, Murdoch Lancer, marries a lady from Boston, Catherine…” Chet paused, trying to remember. “I think her last name’s Garrett. She gives Murdoch a son, Scott, but dies in childbirth while visiting her father, Harlan, who hates the marriage. Harlan refuses to return baby Scott to Murdoch. Meanwhile, Murdoch marries a Mexican lady, but Maria flees Murdoch’s ranch with their son, Johnny, when he was 2. As the boy grows up, she lies to him that they’d been kicked off the ranch. She dies and Johnny becomes an expert gunfighter known as Johnny Madrid, vowing to kill his father to avenge his mother.”

“Sounds like one of those soap operas,” Marco said, laughing.

“Doesn’t it?” Chet agreed with a chuckle. “Anyhow, while the boys are growing up Murdoch concentrates on building his ranch in California. Then he gets shot in the back and his foreman is killed by land grabbers, leaving his daughter…”

“Teresa O’Brien,” Mike supplied, smiling. “You seem to have some trouble with names.”

 “In Murdoch’s care,” Chet completed, glaring at Mike. “Murdoch hires Pinkerton agents to find his sons and convince them to return to the ranch by offering them 1,000 dollars each. Pinkerton’s men find Johnny as he’s about to be shot by a firing squad for participating in a peasant revolution.”

“Johnny agrees to come back and meets Scott on the stagecoach to Morro Coyo, but they don’t know they’re half brothers until Teresa calls out ‘Lancer’ when she meets the stage and they both answer,” Roy jumped in. “They see Murdoch and decide to help him save the ranch.”

“I remember now,” Hank said. “Johnny gets shot doing so, but in the end the land pirates are stopped and Johnny and Scott each become one-third owners of Murdoch’s ranch.” He glanced at his watch. “Show time,” he said, sitting beside Roy on the couch.

The men watched the TV screen as the episode of Lancer began…

 

          It was late in the day and the sun was close to the zenith, throwing off shades of pinks, oranges, and reds. The mountains in the far distance were shrouded in purples and mist. His horse topped the ridge and, as was his habit, he did a 360-degree look at the 100,000 acres of range he shared with his father, Murdoch Lancer and older brother, Scott. The two-story estancia down in the San Joaquin Valley was outlined in darkness with the warm beckoning glow of light peeking from the windows. He had been gone ten days delivering the contracts for his father, but it felt like a month and he was tired and hungry. He was almost home. Home. Just a year earlier there had been no place he could call home, living the drifting life of a gunfighter for seven years since fighting his first gunfight at the tender age of fifteen. 

          It was late June and Johnny was feeling the effects of the heat. While up in the mountains he had been comfortable, but when he came down into the valley he felt bathed in hot humidity. Sitting on Barranca, his golden Palomino, he gazed across the land and pushed his hat off to lie on his back. His hat's storm strings bit gently into the front of his neck. Reaching up with his arm, he wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He looked down expecting wetness. Frowning, he found a dry shirtsleeve. 

          With a wry grin, he realized that the cougar scratches were going to be a problem. He had made good time going to Hollister with no problems delivering and negotiating the contracts for the cattle Murdoch was selling to the Army for the reservations, but he had run into trouble on the way back.

          Topping the ridge of the narrow pass, Johnny had startled a cougar with her fresh kill. Snarling, the cat had bunched her haunches and launched herself at him from the rocks at the side. Barranca, in a panic, had reared and spoiled his shot. His second shot had been true and caught the cat square in the chest. The energy of her jump had carried the cat through the air and her extended claws had hit him on the left side on her way to the ground, knocking him off his horse and onto the rocks on the other side of the pass. 

          He had awakened thirty minutes later to his horse nuzzling his dangling hand. Murmuring in Spanish, Johnny had calmed his horse and got to his feet then pulled himself into the saddle. Barranca had picked his way down the pathway while Johnny had steered his mount toward the first line shack of many on Lancer land by the pressure of his legs. Then he’d cleaned and bandaged the long gashes with items in the shack’s medical kit.

          Now he was close enough to see the estancia and the tug of longing pulled him closer to home and his family. He slowed his horse to a walk when he passed under the Lancer arch entrance. In the distance by the glow of a lantern, he saw his brother and foster sister making their way from the barn to the house. Scott had his long arm draped over Teresa's shoulder as she leaned her head over to his chest. Hearing the sound of the golden palomino's hoof beats, they stopped and turned to greet Johnny.

          “Hey little brother, it's about time you got back.”

          “Had a delay, Boston, T'resa.”

          Johnny dismounted and hid a grimace of pain as his arm felt the jolt of his foot hitting the dirt. A vaquero came up and took Barranca from him. He led the animal to the barn, but not before Johnny stripped his saddlebags from the horse. Throwing them over his right shoulder and grabbing his rifle with his right hand, he stalked toward the house. 

         His brother and sister brought up the rear. Scott wore a puzzled frown as he followed his dark-haired lithe sibling. His instincts ragged at him. Something was wrong and he couldn't put his finger on it. 

          As they entered the front door Jelly, their cantankerous handyman, went into the barn. Barranca was being put into his stall. He thought he would help Johnny by brushing and feeding the golden steed. Johnny’s horse loved only one man, but Jelly was a familiar scent and he was allowed to touch the palomino. Reaching to take off the saddle and blanket, he was stopped by a ranch hand requesting help on a problem in the bunkhouse.

          Patting the horse, Jelly apologized for the interruption and promised Barranca that he would return. Turning away, he glimpsed a brown streak on the saddle and vowed he would come back for a closer examination.

          When the three siblings walked into the great room, they found Murdoch Lancer sitting behind his large desk. Quickly rising, he focused his full attention on his youngest son.

          “Where have you been?”

          Tensing at the tone of voice, Johnny went on the defensive. “Where I was sent, Old Man. Out to get your contracts signed.” He pulled the papers from the saddlebags and tossed them down on the desk. “I'm tired and I'm going to my room.” Johnny turned away and started striding toward the stairs. His spurs jangled as he moved over the terra cotta tiles.

          “Stop right there, young man. I expect a straight answer from you!” Murdoch yelled.

          Scott watched in anger and fascination as a transformation took place in his younger brother. Johnny was still and then a shudder went through his body. Starting at his head and traveling toward his feet, his body totally relaxed.

With feline grace, Johnny slowly turned to face his father. His startling sapphire blue eyes were cold. His lips twitched with a slight smile and when he spoke, words came out in a soft menacing drawl. There was sheen to his tanned complexion as he loosely drummed his fingers on his right thigh. “You got a straight answer. I went, did and came back with only one delay and I'm early returning. What's your problem, Murdoch?” 

          Murdoch ignored the question and struggled to contain his temper. “Where did you go on your delay? Answer me that, Johnny,” he loudly inquired.

          “I went nowhere but to where you sent me and then came here. Why all the questions?”

          “Because I've heard you've returned to your Johnny Madrid gun fighting ways. I won't have you lying to me,” Murdoch bellowed like a maddened bull.

          Scott saw the momentary look of pain cross his brother's face before the Madrid mask slammed down again.

Johnny tried to live down his gun fighting reputation because he knew that his father was ashamed of that part of his personality and his temper exploded. “Where did you get such a stupid idea, Old Man? I haven't gone back to my gun fighting life!”

          Murdoch's temper was equal to his son's as he yelled,  “You were seen in Modesto two days ago in a gunfight outside the cantina. The other man never cleared his gun from his holster. I won't have you taking up your old habits, Johnny Lancer!”

          “Since you have so little trust in me after a year,” Johnny gave his sire a long icy stare and hissed, “the name is Madrid. At least it will be when I reclaim it. I'm leaving!” He turned and took the stairs two at a time, ignoring his father's yells.

         

            Teresa stared in shock at how fast the argument spiraled down into Johnny's decision to leave.

Scott shot a look of disgust at his father as he bolted to follow his brother up the stairs. “That went well, didn't it, SIR?”

          Within minutes, the brothers came downstairs. “Johnny, this is stupid to run away. Murdoch didn't mean it the way it came out.”

          Looking over at his stone-faced father, Johnny shot back, “His actions speak as loud as his words, Scott.”

          Teresa came up and placed her hands on Johnny's chest, blocking his way to the door. “Stay, please. We all need you.”

          An anguished look crossed his face as he stared down at his foster sister. “Querida, I understand how you feel, but it's not working out with me here. You have to let me go.” Slipping by her, Johnny fled out the front door into the night.

Teresa ran after him, grabbing at his saddlebags draped over his right shoulder. All she managed to snatch was the corner of his salmon shirt that was peeking out from the side. He felt the movement and tugged the bags. The shirt slithered out and was crushed in her hands as he turned back to her. She reached up to his face, dropping the shirt behind her. As her fingers touched him he jerked back, but not before she felt the heat radiating from him.

          He hissed, “Stop it T'resa. It's not worth it. I'm not worth it.” With that, he turned back and marched to the barn, only to meet Ciaprino standing in the doorway.
          “What has happened, Juanito?”

          “No es nada, tio.” 

          “Juanito, there is dried blood on your saddle.”

          Johnny slipped by Ciaprino and went over to his horse, his spurs musically singing as his boots hit the packed dirt of the stall. “No es nada. I ran into a problem.” He gave a toothy grin. “And I won.” He fastened his saddlebags onto Barranca with difficulty as the horse caught his mood and began dancing out of the way.

          “Where are you going, Juanito? You just got back from your long trip.”

          “I'm leaving on another trip. I won't be returning. Take care of yourself, tio. Adios.” Johnny swung up into the saddle, pulled his hat onto his head and turned his horse out of the barn. His face darkened as he saw his brother and foster sister coming toward him. Murdoch was nowhere to be seen. In defiance of his father's rules, Johnny kicked his legs and his mount took off in a gallop toward the Lancer archway.

          Scott yelled, “Johnny, Johnny! Don't go! I need you! We need you!”

          Without looking back, his brother kept at a fast speed, feeling relief to be in motion and cooler from the breeze of his passing. Several miles outside Morro Coyo he pulled over to a stand of trees by a running creek.  Barranca was breathing deeply, and Johnny knew he needed to get his temper under control and give his horse a rest before they went into town.

          Dismounting, he led his horse to the water, but only allowed him a short drink before he ground-tied him to a field of grass by the trees. He took his canteen down to the creek and dipped it in upstream of where Barranca had waded into the water. Taking a long pull of cool water, he looked up into the night sky and stared at the twinkling stars. They soothed his agitated soul, but did nothing for the heat he was experiencing. He was running a low-grade fever and knew he should go see Doc Jenkins, but he only wanted to get to town for a hotel room, a hot bath, and a good meal. Then he would decide where to go.

          Normally one stop would also be the saloon for a beer, but he wasn't feeling good. He went to the livery stables then to the hotel where he requested a room. For fifty cents more, a bath and some beef stew still warm from the stove were acquired. The clerk promised to come up to his room and get him when the bath water was hot. In the meantime, the stew was brought up to his room. Johnny spent a quiet time sitting on his bed, using the night table as a dining table. He stared out the window that overlooked the road to Lancer.

          He felt remorse that his life would no longer be at Lancer. He had grown to love the lush green land and the people at the ranch. If only he could have controlled his temper with Murdoch, he thought, but they had butted heads like two mountain rams from the moment they had laid eyes on each other. He couldn't understand how he could control his emotions while he was Johnny Madrid, but not as Johnny Lancer. Well, it didn't matter now. He'd made the decision to leave because of his father's continual distrust, and he'd stick to it. Evidently, he reasoned, someone was using his Madrid name and reputation. As soon as it was daylight, he decided to visit the jail at Green River and have a chat with Sheriff Val Crawford to get a handle on the latest gossip that the sheriff read from the telegrams.

          A timid knocking on his door interrupted his musings and the availability of his hot bath was announced. Grabbing his saddlebags and gun rig, Johnny followed the clerk down the stairs. The bathhouse was right off to the side of the back entrance to the hotel. He looked around, verified he was alone and entered the building. 

          Slowly he shrugged out of his shirt and unbuttoned his concho-clad pants. When he was down to his cut-off long johns, he turned his attention to the bandages. The cloths were stuck to his shoulder and side where the blood had dried. With a wry grin, he knew he'd have to soak off the padding. Shucking his long johns, he sighed as he sank into the hot water and kept sinking until his head was under. Coming up for air, he attacked his hair with soap and went under again to wash it away. Turning his attention to his wounds, he ducked down to soak the bandages and worked to loosen the cloth. He managed to wash away the dried crud that had crusted over his wounds and the cloth came away in a sodden mess. He leaned his head back against the wooden edge of the tub. The soothing moist heat was working its magic on his tight muscles. Slowly, he sank lower in the water and drifted off to sleep.

 

          Scott stared as his brother's horse galloped off and his normal calmness snapped. He swiveled to make a straight line to the house and the great room, searching for his father. Teresa stooped to pick up Johnny's shirt. Wringing it between her fingers, she followed Scott, but hung back as she heard the shouting start. Looking down and seeing the shirt in the light flooding through the French doors of the great room, she gasped and shook the material out. Hearing footsteps behind her, she whirled. Jelly was hurrying up to the house from the corral.

          “Was that Johnny that went tearing out of here?”

          “Yes. He had words with Murdoch.”

          “One of these days that man is going to push his sons too far until they leave.”

          From within the house they heard Scott shout, “Wherever Johnny goes, I go. You've shown your bias and distrust for the last time!” The French doors were pushed open and quickly slammed by Murdoch's older son.

          Teresa looked at Jelly and with a soft voice replied, “That day is now Jelly, but I'm worried about Johnny. Look what I found.” She held the shirt out, revealing bloody gashes on the left side.

         “I came up to check on Johnny. I found dried blood on his saddle.”

          “I'm going to catch and warn Scott before he leaves.” Teresa ran down the path that led to the barn. She skidded to a stop as Scott rode his horse out. The horse sidestepped and attempted to rear up. Scott was hard pressed to get the gelding under control, but his skills and soft talking brought the horse to a halt.

          “Teresa, what are you doing?” he yelled.

“I had to stop you to show you this. It fell out of Johnny's saddlebag.” She lifted the shirt up to him. The light softly glowing from within the barn door opening was enough to illuminate the blood-tinted gashes.

Scott's face tightened and flushed dark. Leaning over, he handed the shirt back to her. Caressing her cheek with his fingers, he softly replied, “Honey, I'll find him.” Turning his horse, he put heels to his mount's sides and swiftly guided the horse away.

          As she trudged back to the house, Jelly walked rapidly to the wooden doors and stormed inside. She heard his shouting and yelling and she stopped. Turning, she went to the back of the house and went up the back stairs to her room. Throwing herself onto her quilted bed, she gave into the sorrow of losing her foster brothers and cried herself to sleep, holding Johnny's shirt tightly in her hands.

 

          The path was bathed in moonlight as Scott passed under the Lancer arch, pleased that the feathery light would help him trail his brother. He'd always wanted a brother and over the last year, the bond formed with his younger brother had strengthened. He wasn't about to chop that link.

          He could go to Green River, Morro Coyo or Spanish Wells; Scott's instincts told him to go to Morro Coyo. Johnny had been tired, dirty, hungry, and ... probably running a fever. He could find solutions to all his problems there and it was close. Pointing the horse in the right direction, Scott allowed his mount to find a comfortable traveling pace.

          Coming into town, Scott looked around and found that most of the town was dark. He went down to the livery stables and found Barranca sleeping in a stall. Putting his horse in a nearby stall, Scott tossed a couple of coins to the liveryman and requested a rubdown of the animal. He asked about his brother and was told to check out the hotel.

          Soft snoring greeted him as he walked into the hotel lobby. Scott couldn't see anyone, but with some quick detective work, he found the night clerk. The man was curled up in the pantry between the front desk and the kitchen. The door was ajar and the soft glow of the hallway light outlined the man as he slept. With a quirky grin, Scott considered his options and went into action. 

          Going back to the desk, he looked at the registry. Finding Johnny's name and room number, he fished out a key from the drawer and went to his brother's room. Knowing Johnny had fast reflexes, he carefully opened the door, remembering the last time he’d faced his brother’s gun after Johnny had been startled. The room was empty.

          Scott went downstairs, checked the registry again and found keys to another room. Walking quietly back upstairs, he transferred his saddlebags and his brother's rifle to the second room. Returning to the registry, he signed himself in, marked his brother out and returned the extra key to the original room. He would settle with the clerk when the guy was conscious again. He set off to find his brother.

          Seeing the empty stew bowl, he knew Johnny had eaten and would either be in the bathhouse or the saloon, but it was a toss up as to which. Since he was in the same area, Scott went in search of the bathhouse and found it at the back entrance of the hotel. Quietly opening the door, he saw his brother snoozing in the tub. Noticing his gun rig on the bench by the tub, Scott slipped the gun from the holster and placed it out of Johnny’s reach. In the lamplight, he could see the gashes on Johnny's left shoulder and chest. Most of them had crusted over, but two were still seeping blood. It was time to get his little brother back to the room for doctoring. Reaching out, Scott gently touched Johnny's good shoulder and jumped back. Johnny uncoiled and lurched for his gun, splashing cool water over Scott's boots.

          “Easy, brother. It's just me.”

          “Dadburnit. If you don't drop that bad habit, I'm goin' shoot holes in you!”

          “And what bad habit is that?”

          “Are you daft? Stop sneaking up on me!”

          “I took precautions. I moved your gun first.”

          Johnny glanced over to the bench with a bleary eye and then looked up at his brother's smiling face. “Smart aleck. I must be getting soft. Gotta change that if I'm going back to my trade.”

          “Well, that's what I came to talk to you about. Let's get you out of that cold water and dressed.”

          Johnny pulled himself out, grimacing when he bore too much weight on his left hand, while Scott found the towels and threw one at his sibling. Johnny dried himself then finger-combed his unruly dark hair. After getting dressed, he threw his saddlebags and gun rig over his right shoulder and headed to his room.

          Johnny's alert eyes didn't miss anything as he strolled by the front desk on his way to the stairs. His eyebrows lifted and so did his lips as he heard the snort and loud snoring from the pantry. Stopping at his room, he pulled out a key, only to have Scott replace it with another key then push him down the hallway to a room at the back of the building.

          “This is now our room, Johnny.”

          “Why do you want me to move to a different room? The one I was in took care of my needs.”

          “But it didn't take care of mine, brother.”

          “And what needs do you have?”

          “To cover your back; and to do that I have to be with you.”

          “Go home. Go home to your family. I've taken care of myself since I was ten. I can do it again,” Johnny grimly snapped out.

          “Can we take this discussion inside?” Scott waved at the door, urging Johnny to go in.

          Johnny turned the key and shoved the door open, throwing a scowl at his pushy brother. He stood in the doorway and, as was his habit, took a moment to allow his eyes to ferret out the secrets of the room. Finding nothing of interest, he strolled in, allowing Scott to enter and close the door behind them.

          Swiftly turning, Johnny hissed angrily, “Let's get this over with so you can leave. I don't need you here. I don't want you here. Once I take care of a few things, I won't be here! GO HOME!”

         “Not unless you come with me.”

          “I was there for a year. I tried! I'll never be what the old man wants. I can't get past his distrust of my past and me. All he does is give me orders. He never listens to what I say, my suggestions, let alone how I feel. He just jumps down my throat, bellows out his orders, turns and walks away. I'm tired of it and I'm tired of you. I'm going to sleep.”

          “Johnny. I'm not going home now. We want you back. We all do. We love you. Murdoch also.”

          “He sure has a funny way to show he cares. The only way I'll return is when Johnny Madrid is dead,” he stated. “I'm exhausted, Scott and I don't want to fight with you. Do what you want. I'm going to sleep.” He suited his actions to his words and turned the covers back on the bed furthest from the door and window.

          Scott studied his brother and knew from his flushed face that Johnny had a fever. “Before you crash for the night, let me check those gashes.”

          “Leave it, Scott. I just want to rest. I'm tired. They're okay.”

          “Johnny, you'll get no sleep until they're doctored and bandaged. You're still seeping from them. How did you get them?”

          Ignoring the last question, Johnny shot back, “You win. Just get it over with fast, so I can get you to shut up and leave me alone.”

          Scott pulled some salve and bandages out of his saddlebags and dunked a towel into the water in the basin on the dresser. After Johnny peeled off his shirt, Scott pushed him back onto the pillow and pulled his brother’s boots off. He ignored Johnny's orders to stop fussing and rapidly cleaned, medicated and bandaged the wounds. Johnny was having a difficult time staying awake. Scott lowered the lamp wick to dim the room, pulled the covers over his younger brother and went to bed himself. He was worried. Some of the gashes were deep and one was infected. Johnny’s fever was low-grade for now, but Scott knew it could soar. He made a promise to drag his brother to see Doc Jenkins in the morning.

          “Cat jumped me just past the pass. I killed it, but she still got me.”

          Scott grinned as Johnny finally answered his question, turned over on his side and sighed. Turning himself, Scott followed his brother's example and drifted off to sleep.

          Just at daybreak, he woke to sounds of distress coming from the next bed. Johnny was tossing and turning, wrapping himself tightly in the covers. Grabbing Johnny's hands, Scott endeavored to wake him.

          “Johnny. Johnny. Wake up. You're gonna be okay. Come on, brother. I need you to wake up.” Fingers tightened in his hands and a bleary peek from sapphire blue eyes greeted Scott.

          “You still here? I thought I told you to go away. I don't need or want you here.”

          “Boy, I'm staying. Little brother, I'm going to get Doc Jenkins. That fever has gotten higher.” Scott reached over to put his hand on Johnny's forehead. Johnny swatted him away with a decidedly unfriendly stare. Backing off, he quickly washed and dressed. Getting ready to leave, he heard a quiet menacing voice drawl his nickname.

          “Boston, when you go through that door keep going and stay away from the Doc.”

          Looking back over his shoulder, Scott saw the barrel of a Colt Peacemaker steadily pointed at his back. He whirled around. “Johnny, why?”

          In a flat tone, Johnny replied, “I'm on a fast ride to hell. You're not invited along.”

          “But you're no longer Johnny Madrid, gunfighter! You're Johnny Lancer, rancher.”     

          “Not according to the Old Man. I'll always be Madrid.” A flicker of determination crossed his face and a grim tone crept into his voice. “Or I will be once I take my name back from that false gunfighter.”

          “Okay, brother. I'm leaving for now, but I'll be back. It's time I talk some sense into our father.”

          “Give it up. It's a lost cause to talk to the Old Man if I’m the subject. Don't come back. I won't be here. I'm moving on today.”

          “Stay with me, Johnny. We have a partnership that works well. If you try to leave, I'll find you and bring you back.”                                                                                                      
          “Get out!” Johnny hissed.

Scott felt the breeze of a bullet as it passed by and buried itself in the doorframe. His ears rang from the sound of the gun firing. The smell of sulfur drifted through the room. His legendary calm exploding, he whirled, opened the door and slammed it on his way out. Cursing all the way down the hallway, he stomped through the lobby, tossed coins at the sleepy-eyed desk clerk and told him to hold Room 8.

          Behind the closed door, Johnny dropped his head down; sad at what happened, but his hardheaded brother could not go on the gunfighter trail with him. Slipping the gun under his pillow, he turned onto his side and drifted back to sleep.


          By the time Scott reached the Lancer archway, he had conceived a plan. His father would see reason; he would insist on it.

Scott rode his horse into the barn and called out to Jelly. The handyman was in the shed behind the barn and came running at Scott's yell.

          “You taking lessons on bellowing from your pa, young Scott? I could hear you into the next county!”

          “I need you to go into Spanish Wells and get Doc Jenkins.”

          “What for? That's a piece to travel.”

          “For Johnny. He’s got some cat scratches that are infected and he shot a hole in the doorframe to keep me from going to the Doc.”

          “Well what keeps him from putting holes in me when I bring the Doc?”

          “Your sunny disposition.”

          “Humph.”

          “Just do it, Jelly. You can get Johnny to see reason. I need you to work on him while I tackle Murdoch.”

          “Don't know which of us has the tougher nut to crack. Both of them have thick skulls and the disposition of rabid wolves. Besides, I don't know what rock you found Johnny under.”

          “He's in Room 8 at the hotel in Morro Coyo. He plans to move on, so get going before he leaves.”

          “Alright. Alright. I'm goin'. Stop givin' me that look. I'm saddling up now.” 

          “Good. I've got to go talk some sense into Murdoch before we lose Johnny for good.” With that statement, Scott stomped off to confront his father.

          Murdoch stood in the great room staring out the picture window at the land he loved. He kept thinking of his arguments with Scott and Jelly the night before. He knew the boys had forged a tight bond of friendship, but he had never thought that Scott would give up everything to follow Johnny on the gun-fighting trail. Scott had accused him of being biased and distrustful. Was he? No. Why couldn't Scott realize that there was danger for Johnny if he returned to his old life? He finally had his younger son home and healthy. He didn't want to risk losing Johnny again and yet, that was what had happened.

He heard the front door open and the steady steps he knew so well come toward him. Turning, Murdoch locked eyes with a determined Scott and braced himself for the blast he knew was coming. His temper started to boil and he quickly threw cold water on it – Scott was home and he intended to make him stay.

          “So, Sir. Exactly what do you want from Johnny? And for that matter, from me?”

          Murdoch heard the tension in Scott's voice and worked carefully to answer in a way to not set Scott off. “I want both of you happy, safe and at home.”

          “Then how, pray tell, do you intend to achieve that when your words and actions do nothing but push us away?” Scott held up his glove-clad hand. “Hear me out, Murdoch, before you answer. I tracked down Johnny at Morro Coyo. He's physically hurt, mentally crushed, and has allowed Madrid to take over. So much so, that he said, and I quote, 'The only way I'll return home is when Johnny Madrid is dead.' Just before he buried a bullet in the doorframe as I was passing through, he told me that he was on a fast ride to hell and I wasn't invited along. I can't bring him back. You're the only one who can take back the words you said to him.”

          “I meant what I told him.”

          “What!”

          “Johnny misunderstood my words.”

          “Well in that case, so did I. If you had said the same to me in the same tone and circumstances, I would have bolted too. You stood there and accused Johnny of lying. He wasn't.”

          “That's not what I heard.”

          “From who?”

          “I had gone into town for supplies and went into the saloon for a beer while waiting for the wagon to be loaded. There was talk going on about Johnny being in Modesto gun hawking. They described him exactly: black hair, blue eyes wearing dark pants, white shirt, and a dark jacket. They said his draw was a blur. They named him, Scott. I can't have him going back to that type of life. It's not safe.”

          “Who are ‘they’?”

          “I don't know. A couple of cowboys talking that I've never seen before.”

          “So you trusted two drifters that you've never seen before and came back to accuse your own son of dishonesty. How could you, Murdoch, after having Johnny in your house for a year? Johnny loves this land and he loves you. He's been trying to put his past behind him. Here's something else you need to know: a cougar attacking him caused his one delay. He's got the gashes and a fever to prove it. There is no way he could have been in Modesto. You've got to go to him. You're the only one who can bring him home.”

          Murdoch strolled closer to the picture window, mulling Scott’s words over in his mind. He had to admit there was room for doubt. He had many confused feelings when it came to his lost son, but one feeling was crystal clear – he loved Johnny and he wanted him home. “Go saddle my horse, Scott.” Turning toward the kitchen he yelled, “Teresa, pack some food. We're going to bring Johnny home.”

 

          Jelly muttered to himself as he rode to find Doc Jenkins. For the life of him, he couldn't understand why Murdoch had suddenly turned on his son. All his raging last night hadn't done anything to change Murdoch's tune. He just hoped Scott could get through to the old mule.

          Noticing a cloud of dust coming from Spanish Wells, Jelly slowed to allow a buggy to pass by. A look of pleasure pasted itself on his face when he recognized Doc Jenkins flipping the reins of the buggy’s horse.

          “Hey, Doc. I was just coming to get you.”

          “I'm going into Morro Coyo for my rounds. Is there a problem out at Lancer?”

          “No. It's Johnny. He's at the hotel in Morro Coyo. He got jumped by a cat and Scott sent me to get you to look at his wounds.”

          “Well, let's get going!”

          “Ahhh...Doc. There's something you need to know before we get there.”

          “What is it, man?”

          “Johnny's not himself what with the fever and all. He took a potshot at Scott when he said he was getting you.”

          “I guess we'll just have to be careful, since Johnny still has his gun.”

          “You can go first, Doc. I'll cover your back.” Jelly grinned at the incredulous look the Doc shot him then matched the buggy’s swift pace as the two men set off for Morro Coyo.

          It was close to noon when they pulled up to the hotel. Jelly led the way to Room 8, but stepped aside to allow the doctor to knock on the door.

          “Johnny? Johnny, let me in. It's Sam Jenkins.”

          “Go away. I don't need you.” 

          “Johnny, open the door.”

          “Doc, leave me alone, or I'll put a hole in you.”

          “Johnny, I'm not going away, period! Now open this door, pronto!”

          After a moment’s silence, they heard shuffling sounds followed by a dry cough. With a click, the door opened. A fully dressed Johnny stood in the doorway with his full saddlebags thrown over his right shoulder and a rifle cradled in his left arm. The fingers of his right hand drummed on the handle of a holstered gun at his hip.

          “Doc, you're wasting time. I'm goin' and you can't stop me.”

          “Yes, I can. Now get back into that room.” Sam brought his hand up and firmly pushed Johnny's chest on the right side, shoving the boy back. “Let me take care of those wounds and you're on your own after that.”

          “Doc?”

          “Not now, Jelly. Go downstairs and bring me up some towels and hot water.”

          “But Doc?”

          “Now, Jelly.” Ignoring the scowl on Johnny’s feverish face, Sam refused to budge. “Get back in there, Johnny Lancer, and take that shirt off.”

         “It's Madrid, Doc, Johnny Madrid, and I'm not staying.”

          “You'll stay long enough for doctoring. Now get that shirt off!”

          Finally admitting to himself that he didn’t feel well, Johnny decided to give into the doctor's demand. Slowly he stripped to his waist. He watched as Sam, with tightened lips, cut off the bandages then poked and probed the wounds, spending a considerable time on the deep gash running down his chest to his waistband.   

          Sam raised his head as Jelly came back in, balancing a pail of hot water with an armload of towels. Nodding toward the table, Sam went over to his medical bag and withdrew salve, bandages, and a small brown bottle.

          Johnny's cold drawl clipped, “You can put the pain medicine back. I ain't taking it.”

          “I need to drain the infection out of that one gash and put stitches in. It's gonna hurt.”

          “So. Get on with your puttering. I've got places to go.”

          “At least drink some willow bark tea for the fever. I'll get the cook downstairs to brew it up.”

          “You're wasting my time, Doc.”

          “Okay, you young fool.”

         “Careful, Doc. I'm beholden to you, but I won't stand name calling. You have ten minutes before I lose my patience.”

          Jelly had wandered over to the shut door and was gazing at a bullet hole in the doorframe. “Ah, Doc? Maybe you need to tend to your doctoring,” he pointed to the marred wood. “You do this, Johnny?”

          Looking bored, Johnny drawled softly, “Scott didn't move fast enough when I invited him to leave.”

          Jelly and Sam locked eyes. In unison, they moved to attend to Johnny's needs. Jelly gently lowered Johnny to the bed and went to gather towels. Sam turned to immerse his instruments in the hot water.

          Thirty minutes later, Sam finished debriding the wound of infected tissue and stitching it up.       “Johnny, I don't expect you're going anywhere soon, so I want you to stay in that bed and drink plenty of fluids today. Would you reconsider the laudanum?”

          Wiping beads of sweat off his forehead, Johnny took another deep breath. “I said no to pain medicine, Doc. I'll be fine. Just let me sleep for a while.”

          “Let's get some water down you before you do that.” Sam helped Johnny sit up long enough to swallow down half a glass of water. “Jelly, I need to go back on my rounds. Keep him in bed and make sure he drinks liquids often; water and broth will do fine. I'll be back tomorrow morning and we'll see if he'll be up to going home. You might want to rent a buckboard then.”

          “I'll take care of him, Doc. Thanks for your doctoring.”

         Sam grabbed his bag and left Jelly sitting in a chair watching the boy. Some color was starting to come back into Johnny's face and his breathing had evened out.

          Looking over at Jelly, Johnny quietly studied the handyman’s expression and planned his strategy.

          Needing to break the silence, Jelly said, “Now, Johnny boy, I know you don't plan on following the doctor's orders, but I plan to make sure you will.”

          “So what are you planning to do? Tie me to this bed?”  

          “If that's what it takes, I will.”

          “There's no sense in doing that. I'm too tired and sleepy. I'll eventually get to where I'm going, but not yet. You might as well go get a beer while I take a nap. Maybe arrange to take me home tomorrow, while you're at it. The key is on the dresser. Lock the door behind you.”

          “I told the Doc I’d watch you.”

          “Jelly, the last thing I need is a babysitter watching my every breath. It makes me nervous and angry and I'm libel to shoot a hole in the door again! Now get. Come back in a couple of hours and knock first before you let yourself in.”

          “You gonna be okay, Johnny?”

          “I'm fine now. I just need some peace and quiet without a bunch of gawking visitors. So go!” Johnny turned onto his side with his back facing the older man.

Jelly waited until he could hear Johnny's breathing settle to a regular rhythm and he relaxed. He tiptoed to the dresser, grabbed the key and left. He locked the door, thinking about getting a cold beer.

          Five minutes later, Johnny's eyes popped open. The room was so quiet he could hear a mouse skirting across the floor. He turned over onto his back and scanned the empty room. Pushing himself up to a sitting position using his right hand, he waited until the dizziness passed then swung his legs over the edge of the bed and shoved both feet into their respective boots. Grabbing a hold on the headboard, he rose and searched for his gun belt, finding it in a dresser drawer. He buckled the gun belt on and drew the gun to check if it was loaded while his eyes located his saddlebags, rifle and hat. Reaching for his knife tucked into the back of his boot, he picked the lock, gathered his belongings, and left the hotel room.

         Traveling the back alleys and side streets, he made his way to the livery. He heard a familiar nicker of welcome from Barranca. After awkwardly saddling the palomino one-handed, Johnny used a nearby hay bale to mount Barranca and held him still until the dizziness passed. Thinking he’d managed to leave unseen, he rode toward Green River, not noticing the liveryman returning to the stables after finishing his meal.

The liveryman unconcernedly watched Johnny and his palomino on the road to Green River then headed toward the hayloft for a nap, since Barranca’s care had been paid for in advance.

 

          Three hours later, Johnny rode into Green River in his Johnny Madrid persona, looking forward to a bottle of tequila to dull his pain. Stopping at the hitching post in front of the saloon, he dismounted and tied the rein. Stalking to the batwing doors of the saloon, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkened interior. Seeing nothing of interest, he strolled to the bar, got a bottle and found a table at the back of the saloon. The bartender brought over a bowl of salt and one of lime slices. Half a bottle later, Johnny's pain had lessened. Leaning his chair back against the wall so that it balanced on two legs, he surveyed the saloon, noticing the lack of people around him. 

            Johnny caught the sound of spurs ringing on the wooden sidewalk before they stopped at the entrance. He watched the newcomer adjust his eyesight to the dimness of the saloon before strolling to the bar. Catching a flicker of the man’s eyes, Johnny knew that he had been identified. He kicked a chair out as an invitation to sit then waited for the gunfighter to bring his whiskey over and join him.

          “Johnny.”

          “Jess.”

          “I heard you were dead from a firing squad.”

          “As you see, I'm not dead...yet.”

          “What did you do, go into retirement?”

          “I tried something else.”

          Both men grew quiet, enjoying their drinks and snapping glances at each other.

          Johnny decided to satisfy his curiosity. “Jess, what are you doing in California? You got a job?”

          “I'm passing through, just trying to get out of the business. It got messy down in Texas. What about you?”

          Johnny ducked his head and gave a half smile. “I've had it easy for the last year. I found a new life, but the Old Man has been riding me too hard. So I'm gonna leave and dance with the devil.” He felt Jess's eyes rake his body; knowing Jess’s astute powers of observation were equal to his own, he waited for the gunfighter’s conclusions.

          “Planning on meeting Satan soon? You got fever or do you always throw off your own personal heat wave?”

            Johnny chuckled, looking up as the batwing doors fluttered shut.

Sheriff Val Crawford stood within the saloon staring at Johnny's companion then stalked over to the table. Hooking a chair with his left leg, he pulled it out and sat down, splaying his fingers on the tabletop. “Bring another glass,” he yelled over his shoulder at the bartender. Looking back at Johnny he drawled, “Who's your friend?”

          “The name's Jess Harper, Sheriff. So who's asking?” Jess quietly queried in his deep Texan voice.

          “And how do you know Johnny Lancer?”

          “Lancer? I know him as Madrid.”

          “It's Lancer now, Madrid is in the past.”

          Val snagged the shot glass the bartender delivered, grabbed Johnny's bottle of tequila and poured.

          Johnny's temper started slowly boiling as his two friends rudely talked of him but not to him. Reaching out to grasp Val's arm, he squeezed hard, getting the sheriff's attention. “I'm bringing Madrid back to the present, Val. That is, if I can find the gunhawk who says the name is his.”    

          Noticing the heat radiating from Johnny’s touch, Val glanced at Jess Harper and received a slight nod. “Johnny, you're a sick man.”

          “Tend to your own business, Sheriff Crawford,” Johnny snapped.

         “That's what I'm doing. When I have two gunfighters in my town, it's my business to know what's goin' on. You two don't plan on shooting it out?”

          Cocking an eyebrow at Jess, Johnny smirked, “I always wondered which one of us was faster, Harper. Care to find out?” 

          “Not when you're sick and half drunk. It wouldn't be fair. Besides, we have enough scars from our first meeting.”

          Glancing first at Johnny and then at Jess, Val asked, “What happened between you two?”

          Looking over at Johnny, Jess shrugged and then sensing the friendship between the sheriff and the gunfighter, he launched into his story. “It was about five years back. There was a big range war brewing down in San Anton and it sounded like a honey of a deal for gunhawks. I got hired on by a local rancher, Dallas, and found we were up against another rancher by the name of McCraw. They were fighting over water rights and there was room for fault on both sides. To add fuel to the fire they both had headstrong kids, Sally Dallas and John McCraw, who were sweet on each other. That didn't set too well with the old men. Just before we rode against the McCraw ranch, Dallas discovered his girl was missing. He sent me to track her down and bring her back.

          “I had heard that McCraw had hired him a top gunfighter. I'd never met Madrid, but knew of his reputation. I found the McCraw kid embracing the girl. I was sneaking up to confront them when I felt a whoosh by my head. I turned to see this Mexican kid swinging a gun butt at me after missing the first time. We tussled and both of us knocked each other's guns away during the fight. We pulled our boot knives and went at it again. While we were busy cutting at each other, the couple snuck up with rocks and clubbed us.

          “I woke up in the local lockup bandaged with one mean headache. Madrid here was in the other cell, doctored and still unconscious. Seems that while we were out, the boy and girl ran off to a local preacher and got married while their fathers blew holes in each other. Then they told the sheriff about us. Sally and John inherited the ranches, dropped charges against us and the sheriff kicked us out of town.”

          “Yeah, and we didn't even get paid for our efforts,” drawled Johnny. “Jess and I rode together for awhile, got involved in another range war on the same side this time, and drifted away from each other.” He thought a minute and then returned the chair to its upright position. “Val, you keep your ear to the grapevine. Where's this polecat who's taken my name?”

          Val took his time answering. “Johnny, you need to be in a bed cooling off rather than chasing a shadow all over tarnation. You should be on your way to Doc Jenkins.”

          “I've already seen the Doc. I'm not staying in no bed. I've got places to go and things to do. Now – spill what you know!”

          Val watched as Johnny shoved his hat off his head, exposing his narrowed and darkened eyes. He knew the kind of temper that was about to erupt from a previous encounter and tried to think of a way to diffuse it without divulging any information. Suddenly he caught Harper staring intensely at Johnny and wondered at the connection between the two gunfighters.

          Quietly Jess uttered, “Just talk to him. I'll stay with him until this is over.”

          “I don't need no babysitter!” shot Johnny. 

          “Then you won't hear me talking!” snapped Val.

          Johnny glared at his friends with a grudging respect for them, but he was determined to have his own way. Thinking he could later ditch Jess on the trail, he said, “I guess we ride together again, Harper.” Turning back to Val, he barked out one word of command. “Talk!”

          Val took his sweet time before he related what he knew, taunting Johnny's fragile temper. “I've heard of Johnny Madrid showing up in two different places at the same time, down in Modesto and up in Liberty. He was spotted in a gunfight in Modesto three days ago; black hair, blue eyes, dark pants, white shirt, dark jacket...” His voice faded as he calculatingly eyed Jess Harper, realizing he had just described the gunfighter and Johnny.

          Jess allowed his slight grin to blossom into a heart-stopping smile. “Yeah. I was in Modesto, but I didn't go by Madrid. Didn't give my name to anyone; they just thought I was him, I reckon.”

         “Then it must be the gunfighter in Liberty I'll have to go after,” muttered Johnny to himself.

          “I don't think that's a wise plan, Johnny. Word has it that the man has companions with him. One of them is a back shooter. Best if you go back home,” Val pushed.

          “Ain't got no home or family anymore. I tried to fit in. It's not for me. I'm going back to the dance.”

          Jess decided it was time to get back into the conversation. “Johnny, you'll need someone to cover your back, that's why I'm comin' with you.”

          Johnny's expression softened as he gazed at Jess. “That's what brother Scott said he would do. Guess he can't do that if he's taking care of the Old Man.” He ducked his head, brought it back up and grinned. “Thanks, old friend.”

          “Johnny. I wonder if you're also suffering from gunfighter's fever,” queried a worried Jess.

          “Nah, just have a regular fever. Nothing I haven't gone through before.”

          “You're obsessed with tracking down this man after what, a year of living under your own name? Why do you want to go back to your past life?”

          Johnny stared down at his hands clasped in his lap and twirled the ring on his middle finger.

          “I said...”

          “I heard you. I can't be a rancher anymore. My old man, Murdoch, will see to that. Even if he doesn't, nothing compares to Lancer. What else do I have left but my trade? There can't be two Johnny Madrids.”

          “I don't agree with what you're thinking. But I will back you up, just as I have in the past. When do we leave?”

          “Now.” The sound of two chairs being pushed away from the table was extremely loud in the silent bar. 

          Johnny looked down at Val and told him,  “Tell Scott he needs to stay at Lancer and to take good care of Murdoch, T'resa, and Jelly. I don't want him following me.” Johnny exited the saloon after Jess. Jumping gracefully onto Barranca, he turned the horse to the north for the journey to Liberty.

Val stepped out into the street and watched until the two gunfighters disappeared from sight.

 

          Murdoch and Scott rode into Morro Coyo just as Jelly walked out of the livery pulling the reins of his horse.

          “I thought you were with Johnny.” Scott leaned down to look at the handyman.

          “Don't do no good to hang around here when Johnny's already skipped town.”

          “Where did he go?”

          “Don't know. After the doctor went away, I left him a few minutes while he slept. I even locked him in. When I came back, the door was open. He and his things were gone. I came over here and Barranca was gone.”

         “Let's ask around,” Murdoch's deep voice boomed. “Someone's sure to have seen him leave.”

          Fifteen minutes later, they met back at the livery stables with no luck. They heard a noise from the hayloft and found the liveryman waking up from his siesta. Upon questioning, he recalled seeing Johnny riding off toward Green River.

          “Jelly, go back to the estancia and watch over Teresa,” ordered Murdoch.

          “Boss?”

          “I know you want to go with us, but I need you at Lancer. We'll bring Johnny back.”

          “See that you do. That boy doesn't have any sense running around with fever. He's libel to hurt himself.”
          “Go, Jelly. The longer we jaw with you, the longer it'll take to find him.”

          “Humph!” Jelly got onto his horse and rode toward the ranch. “Teresa and I'll make sure everything's ready for Johnny's return,” he yelled over his shoulder as he galloped away.

          Father and son were silent as they rode toward Green River, lost in his own thoughts and feeling guilty over the situation.

How many times during the past year, did Johnny bolt after a confrontation with Murdoch? How many times was he forced to step in as peacemaker between the two? Too many, Scott thought. Both his father and brother were too much alike – self-confident, knowledgeable, stubborn, and both needing the last word. He smiled, secure in the knowledge that he would not lose his brother; he’d leave Lancer if it were necessary and become a burr stuck to Johnny’s side.

          Why was Johnny so set on returning to his former gun fighting life? For that matter, why was it so difficult to get along with the boy? Murdoch considered things. From day one, they were locking horns with each other. He glanced at Scott riding beside him. His elder son was so much easier to talk to. He was calm, agreeable, college educated, predictable, and skilled in the world. Well... maybe in the eastern world. Johnny was almost the exact opposite of his brother: caring, funny, temperamental, gentle and cold as ice. His younger son was skilled with horses, guns and reading people. So why couldn't he read me, Murdoch thought.

          A sudden thought crossed Murdoch’s mind and he spent the next several miles chewing on it. Maybe Johnny was reading him correctly. Did he ever take the time to get to know his son? Allowing his mind to wander back over their many disagreements, his answer was no. Another revealing thought hit him— suddenly Murdoch saw his relationship with his father in Scotland being repeated in his relationship with Johnny. He wondered if the sins of the past always repeated themselves, but in an instant, he knew that wasn’t true. Johnny was Johnny. His life had molded him into the man he was and he was worthy of being loved by his father.

          Coming into Green River, Murdoch slowed his horse down to a trot and headed for the sheriff's office. Scott silently followed. Dismounting, Murdoch stretched his stiff back and felt pain shoot down his leg. Grasping the saddle, he steadied his body while Scott climbed the steps to peer into the office. The door opened easily, but the room was empty. Looking down the darkening road, they saw light spilling from the saloon. Both were hungry and readily agreed to get a beer and something to eat before tracking down Val.

          They walked their horses to the saloon and tied them to the hitching rail then walked to the batwing doors. Scott stopped and scanned the room before he went inside. Murdoch smiled as he followed, realizing Scott had taken over one of Johnny’s habits. Noticing Val drinking at a table at the back, Scott headed in that direction. Murdoch continued on to the bar and paid for two beers. Without invitation, both Lancers joined Val at his table.

          Finishing his drink, Val sat back in his chair, wiped his hands on his shirt and picked his teeth. Scowling sourly at the two, he addressed Murdoch. “What do you want?”

          “I'm hunting for Johnny.”

          Val leaned back against the wall and stared in disbelief at him. “What is it with you? You dangle that boy around like a fishing line. First, you want him, then you don't, then you do, then you don’t; now you do. I just don't understand you. That boy's left for good to go back on the gunfighter trail. I thought at Lancer he had a chance to change his life, but that's gone now.”

          “Where is he going, Val?” Scott asked.

          “Where you shouldn't go. You know I don't know what happened between all of you, but I do know he's hurting and angry. He told me before he left to tell you something. He said for you to take care of Murdoch, Teresa and Jelly and that you needed to stay at Lancer. He also said he didn't want you following him.”

          “Val, I'm going to find Johnny and bring him back. He's sick and alone.”

          “Well don't you worry about that. He's not alone. He met up with another gunfighter right here and they're traveling together.”

          “Another gunfighter? Who is he?”

          “Goes by the name Jess Harper, out of Texas. Said he'd just come up from Modesto. Funny seeing them two together. It was like two peas from the same pod. Both of them were sitting there, black hair, blue eyes, dark pants, white shirts, and dark jackets.”

          Scott glared at his father. Murdoch looked ashamed then silently hung his head. Looking back to the sheriff, he said, “Val, we've got to find Johnny. This has been one colossal communication misunderstanding that wasn't Johnny's fault.”

          “Uh...colossal?”

          “Val, just tell me. Where was Johnny going? Please, before it's too late.”

          Val searched their faces: he saw anguish on Murdoch's and love on Scott’s. He knew that Johnny would skin him alive if he told the Lancers the exact location where Johnny was headed. But Johnny wasn't going into this with his head on straight and he had delivered the message to Scott. With a snap of his thoughts, Val started talking.

          “It was interesting to hear that there were sightings of Johnny Madrid out there at the same time and all the time, I knew I had the real Madrid nearby. Yeah, I knew you had sent him off to get those contracts signed. I also knew the route he was riding. Johnny Lancer wasn't anywhere near where the Madrids were. Now Jess Harper cleared up one when he said he had gotten into a gunfight down in Modesto. The one up north is a puzzle. That Madrid is running with one or two others. He's putting out notice that he's available for hire.” He scratched at his chin. “Yep. Not sure what Sheriff Guy Tuttle's going to do up northeast of Stockton when he finds that those desperadoes have ridden down from Galt to his fair town.”

          Two chairs scraped against the floor as they were pushed back from the table. Leaving their beers, the two Lancers headed out the saloon door.

          “Hey. Where are they going? I've got their dinners here,” stated the puzzled bartender.

          “Are they paid for?”

          “Yeah.”

          “Good. Bring them here. I'll take care of those steaks. They had a sick relative to take care of.” Val smiled, pleased to get a good meal out of the deal.

 

          Jess and Johnny rode side by side on their way to Liberty. Johnny’s fever was increasing, causing him to sway in the saddle. Jess suggested that they stop and camp for the night. Johnny was tired and, for once, readily agreed. With the inbred caution of a gunfighter, Jess led them off the road, across a stream and up into some rocks behind a stand of trees so he could build a fire that would be hidden from the road. Dizziness assaulted Johnny as he dismounted from Barranca. He stumbled and held tightly to the saddle, his knuckles turning white. Jess took off Johnny's bedroll, draped it out under a tree and led Johnny to it. Gratefully sinking down, Johnny fell asleep, trusting Jess to watch his back. Going down to the stream, Jess filled both of their canteens and gathered firewood. Soon coffee was boiling.

         Two hours later, Johnny woke up to the feel of a cool cloth against his forehead and a steady night breeze blowing across his body. His eyes wandered around until he spied Jess rubbing down his black stallion. Barranca was nearby munching on grass, gleaming golden in the light from the fire.

         “You hungry, Johnny?” Jess asked, sensing his friend was awake.

          Johnny gave a lopsided grin as Jess stored the curry brush in his saddlebags. “Nah, just thirsty. That coffee smells good.”

          “First you drink down this broth.”

          “Jess...”

          “Stow it, Johnny,” Jess snapped. “I'm not blind. You need to get your energy back, starting with this,” he shoved the tin cup of beef jerky broth into Johnny's hands. “There's no one here but us and I know all your tricks, so settle down and drink.”

          “I forgot how bossy you could get, somewhat like Scott.”

 

          “Drink!”

          After a bit, Jess replaced the empty cup with coffee.

          “Johnny, why are you running a fever?”

          “I tangled with a cougar and she gave me some gashes. Doc cleaned them up and put in some stitches. One must still be infected.”

          “Let me look at them.”

           “No need.”

          “Johnny!”

          “Alright, alright. Look, but there's nothing you can do.”
          Jess had Johnny remove his shirt and noticed him shivering. Grabbing a blanket from his bedroll, he draped it across Johnny's shoulder while he loosened and peered under the bandages. “Here's the problem. One of the other gashes has flared up. Some hot compresses should draw that infection out.” Reaching over to his saddlebags, he drew out a clean shirt and tore it into long strips. He walked over to the fire, picked up the coffee pot, poured two cups of coffee and set them aside. Taking the pot, he poured some hot coffee over a folded strip of cloth and held it to the wound.

          “Coffee?” queried Johnny.

          “Anything wet and hot would do.”

          “No, I want that cup of coffee.”

          “Hold this then.” Jess pressed Johnny's hand onto the compress as he fetched the cups.

Sitting down by Johnny, they drank as Jess kept renewing the hot compresses. Johnny grew sleepy and as he nodded off, his brother and father passed by them on the road below.

         

          “Sir, maybe we need to stop and set up camp for tonight. You’re in pain and we skipped a meal.”

          Scott's words startled Murdoch from his guilt-ridden thoughts and he took inventory of his aches. He probably should stop, but his emotions drove him to continue on to Liberty. “No, Scott. We could miss your brother. I'll be fine until we get to town. If we don't find him before then we'll get hotel rooms and start fresh tomorrow morning.”

          Their journey continued in silence, guided by a full moon. It was a little before midnight when they rode into Liberty and secured their hotel rooms. They agreed to meet downstairs the next morning for breakfast and father and son went their separate ways.

          Sleep was long in coming due to Murdoch's unsettled mind, but in keeping to his normal pattern, he woke at dawn and made his way downstairs. He didn't expect his boy up yet and went into the dining area. He was finishing his second cup of coffee when Scott called his name.

          They ordered a full breakfast and mapped out their activities for the day. Scott had already checked to see if Johnny was registered at the hotel and learned he wasn’t. Liberty was a larger town than most with two hotels, two livery stables, a stage depot, saloons and a nice assortment of businesses. It would take most of the morning to ask around. They agreed to meet back at the hotel after covering different sections of town: Murdoch chose the east side, leaving Scott to take the west side.

 

          Not more than ten minutes after Murdoch and Scott started canvassing the town Jess and Johnny rode in. Johnny was still feverish, but the hot compresses had taken the edge off it. Slowly they rode down the center of the street, their lowered hats shielding their eagle stares from onlookers. Jess was hungry for something more than trail jerky, hard biscuits and coffee. Johnny wasn’t hungry, but had agreed to dine at the saloon; his mind was more on a bottle of tequila to dull his physical and emotional pain.

          Jess ordered his breakfast plus eggs and bacon for Johnny, prepared to force the man to eat something before he flooded his stomach with tequila. When the bottle of tequila was put on the table, Jess grabbed it first. Johnny growled at Jess, but knowing that going against his friend would result in bruises, he grabbed the bacon and shoved it into his mouth. Jess relinquished the tequila bottle when Johnny started in on the eggs. 

          Word had spread fast on the street: two strange gunfighters were in town. Activities on the street slowed and business doors closed.

          Jess and Johnny were sucking on lime slices marking time as the batwing doors flew back and two gunslingers stalked in. 

One was a blue-eyed tall thin redhead with a scar from eye to lip wearing blue jeans, brown shirt, black vest and hat. He wore his rig low on the left side. The second was a half-breed Mexican with ice blue eyes wearing black. He wore his rig low below his right hip.

The Mexican looked over at Jess and Johnny and flashed a sinister grin. “Señors. There is no room in this village for more pistoleros. It's mine and you must move on.”

          Johnny glanced at Jess and gave a tilted grin. “I hear they have some fine looking señoritas here at night. I think they need to meet our acquaintance, compañero.”

          Studying the fingernails on his left hand, Jess went along with the conversation. “Well, we might want to clean up some first and get a shave. Never knew a little filly that didn't appreciate a fine smelling gentleman.”

          “Hey, bartender!” Johnny's voice stopped the man as he was swiftly heading for the back door. “Which is the best hotel in town? My friend and I want to get ready to meet your pretty ladies tonight.”

          The nervous man stuttered as he kept his eyes downcast. “The...the...the Palace, down the road.” Turning, he ran out of the saloon followed by the laughter of the Mexican, which died as quickly as it had started.

Johnny glanced up to see the Mexican’s hard stare directed at him.

          “Señors, it is time to go out of town.”

          “And if we don't?”

          “Then, as they say, you must dance!”

          Johnny chuckled. “Never have turned down an invitation to dance, but I would like to know who my partners are.”

          “Texas Red from San Anton,” Jess said in a quiet tone filled with disgust. “I saw enough of his actions during my last range war. He was quite cruel to the ladies.”

Glaring at Jess with hatred in his eyes, the redhead took off his hat and gave a small salute before re-seating it atop his head.

          “You surely have heard of me, senors. I'm Johnny Madrid.”

          Johnny calmly replied, “Si. Interesting. My name's also Johnny. My friend is Jess.”

          “Señors, we are late for our dance. If you will join us outside?”

          Dumping their lime slices into the bowl, Jess and Johnny kicked back their chairs and followed the other two gunfighters into the street. Jess lined up across from Texas Red while the two Johnnys faced off as the street cleared of bystanders.

          Jess was always fascinated by how relaxed Johnny would get before a gunfight. His own body was tense and ready. He turned his attention to Texas Red and waited for a flicker of movement in his eyes.

 

          Sheriff Guy Tuttle knew that trouble was brewing from the moment he heard about the presence of two more gunfighters in his town. It was bad enough with Johnny Madrid and his two henchmen in Liberty, but the addition of two more gunslingers was the final straw. He stared out the window of his office, trying to figure out the best plan of action when he spied the Mexican and one of his men leaving the hotel where they were staying. Watching them saunter toward the saloon at the far end of the street, the sheriff realized that the third member of the group was missing. Wondering where the man was hiding, he took his rifle and walked over to the hotel. After learning from the desk clerk that the third man had exited from the back door, Guy took off in pursuit.

          Murdoch and Scott learned of the impending gunfight at the same time. Due to his bad leg, it took Murdoch longer to return to the hotel, but Scott had ranged further, so both stepped out on the boardwalk at the same time. Scott was on the west side of the street and could not see his father on the other side because of the sun. Turning his head to the right, he saw his brother's back.

          Murdoch saw Scott's intense stare and looked in the same direction. “Johnny!”

          The sheriff skidded to a halt beside Murdoch. Seeing the glare of sunlight reflecting off the rifle on the roof above Scott, he fired.

          Six shots were fired at the same time.

Murdoch's ears rang from the sheriff shooting his rifle so close to him.

          Scott was taken back to see the body of a man come tumbling down off the roof and landing in front of him. Then he spotted his brother falling in the street. With a cry of anguish, he ran with Murdoch close behind.

 

          Johnny was relaxed as he watched the eyes of the Mexican. No thought, other than preparing for the fight ahead of him, occupied his mind. Then it happened: he saw a flicker in the other man's eyes. He felt the action of his hand reaching for his gun and the smoothness of his draw and knew before he pulled the trigger that he had the impostor beat.

The sound of all the guns firing was deafening. Johnny’s bullet plowed into the heart of the Mexican, whose bullet missed Johnny and buried itself in the dirt street. Before the impostor’s death could fully register, Johnny felt his own messenger of death burning into the right side of his back. The rifle bullet threw him face down into the dirt. Angrily he remembered Val’s statement about a back shooter, which he’d forgotten and had charged right into the trap.

         Jess! Jess! Was he okay? Lifting his head, Johnny searched until he saw Jess. He was crouching, returning his smoking gun to his holster. He looked okay. What about Texas Red? Johnny continued scanning the road and located Texas Red lying on the ground. Breathing a sigh of relief, he heard his name being called. The voice sounded like Scott, but that couldn't be. His loneliness for his brother was so strong that Johnny figured he was hallucinating: Scott was at Lancer taking care of Murdoch.

          He chuckled. He had achieved his goal. He had earned his Madrid name back, but at what cost? He was cold. He tried to stay awake as Jess started toward him, but he was so tired. He would close his eyes for just a few minutes, but then he heard Murdoch’s voice. That can’t be, he thought as he spiraled into unconsciousness.

 

          Two weeks later, Johnny's eyes snapped open. He was in bed and it was night. Soft moonlight filtered through the open window as a slight breeze moved the curtains. He heard soft snoring and his eyes searched until they rested on his father asleep in a chair by the bed. He was shocked to see the change etched across Murdoch’s forehead and jaw line. He looked haggard, like he hadn't slept in a long while.

          Though Johnny was concerned because he loved his father, he still felt that he had to leave. Starting with his feet, he stretched and flexed his muscles until he knew where he stood. He thought he’d be able to be on his way without too much trouble until he moved his right arm, which vividly reminded him of his bullet wound. He groaned, waking Murdoch.

          “Johnny, you're awake. Welcome back, son.”

          “What happened?”

          “You were shot.”

          “How long? How long ago?”

          “Two weeks.”

          “What?”

          “Son, what do you remember?”

          “I was challenged. No, we were challenged, Jess and I. Jess, where's Jess?”

          “Jess is gone.”

          “No!”

          “Johnny, hold on. He's not dead. He's alive. I had some long talks with him since you've been out of it. He's a nice young man, but he wanted to be on his way. He said to tell you if you ever wandered into Wyoming to look him up. He wanted to do as you had done, get out of the business. He was headed for Laramie.”

          “He said he'd watch my back.”

          “When he met Scott and me, we promised to do that. He seemed relieved that you had family here for you.”

          “Scott's here too?”

          “I sent him back to Lancer yesterday. We didn't know how much longer it would be before you woke up. One of us needed to go back to prepare for bringing you home. We almost lost you. Your fever went so high.”

          “I'm not going back. I have no home.”

          “You have a home, Johnny. It's called Lancer.”

          “Murdoch, I'm tired of bolting, but that's what I've done over and over this year. Each time I came back after our arguments. Not now. You value your mistrust of me too high. You left me no choice but to run, this one for the last time.”

          “I don't want you to run anymore. I never wanted you to bolt in the first place. I've had plenty of time to think and it's difficult to express my feelings. It's always been easier to keep them to myself.”

          “Get it said.”

          “Do you have to be so blunt, son?”

          “Speaking my mind saves time. So...?”

          “Johnny, I was wrong, wrong to keep pushing you away. I guess I was too afraid that you would run.”

          “That don't make sense.”

          “I didn't want to feel the hurt of losing you again, and I told myself you would probably go, so I kept you at arms length to keep from the hurt.”

          “What does it take to earn your trust?”

          “I think that love overshadows trust. I love you, son. I want you to come home. You're going to need someone around until you can heal and get full use of that arm.”

          “I've always taken care of myself. I don't need anyone else.”

          “But we need you, Johnny. At least come home for a while. Give us another chance. Then, if you decide to leave, I'll understand and I won't stand in your way.”

          “I don't know if I'll return. I've got to get some sleep. Then, I'll decide.”

 

          The next morning, the doctor released Johnny to ride in a wagon if the pace was slow. Murdoch was hard pressed not to push him into a decision, but he waited.

          “I'll go back for awhile, but then I'll be leaving.”

          “Thanks, Johnny, for giving us a chance. I'll live up to my bargain. Now, let's get you going. I have a wagon outside.”

          Murdoch had extra mattresses placed in the bed of the wagon so Johnny would be comfortable. He set a slow pace as they left town. About a mile down the road, he turned off and traveled toward the cemetery.

          “Why are we going to boot hill?”

          “There's something I need to show you, Johnny.” Murdoch pulled up to the gate and helped his son out of the wagon. Pulling up a blanket from the wagon bed, he draped it across Johnny's shoulders as he led his son to a grave. They stood a long time in front of the tombstone of Johnny Madrid.

          “Why? Why did you bury me?”

          “Well, it's actually the Mexican. It wasn't my idea. I wired Val about the gunfight and he must have done some talking around Green River. You've made an impression on the widows with your sweet talking ways. It was widow Thompson's plan to keep her Johnny from all those bad gunfighters coming after him. So they sent the money to bury Johnny Madrid to protect their Johnny Lancer.”

          “But other gunhawks will still come after me. I outdrew and killed him. The people in Liberty will talk.”

          “And what name did you give them?”

          “I said my name was Johnny, just Johnny.”

          “Let me show you something else, son.” Murdoch led him a short distance away to another tombstone. “This one is empty, but there was enough money for a second stone. This was my idea.”

          The carving read, “Johnny. 1870.  He beat Johnny Madrid. Rest in peace.”

          “We kept you at Sheriff Tuttle's house on the edge of town and the doctor was the only other person who knew you were alive.”

          Johnny walked over to a nearby tree and slowly lowered himself to the ground. Murdoch settled down next to him and only the singing birds broke the silence. Johnny looked at the two tombstones, leaned his head back and shut his eyes. Time stood still for a while until he spoke softly.

          “Murdoch?”

          “Yes, son?”

          “Let's go home to our family.”

          “Yes, Johnny. Let's go home.”

 

            The picture froze, signaling the end of the Lancer episode. The A-shift remained immobile as the credits began to appear on the TV screen.

Chet coughed, breaking the oppressive silence. “That was eerie don’t you think? I mean, the way…”

“Yeah. Pretty freaky,” Marco whispered.

“We should have had news about Johnny by now,” Roy said, his voice tense. He remembered how he’d watched, mesmerized, as the life of Johnny Lancer had hung in the balance only to be spared at the last moment. He’d wanted to go to his partner while the on-screen battle raged to make sure that Johnny was responding to treatment, but he’d been afraid to disturb the connection between Lancer and Gage. Roy shook his head to reestablish the lines between make-believe and reality that had become blurred, telling himself he was being a fool: Johnny’s problem ‘definitely’ wasn’t a gunshot wound.

“Roy’s right,” Hank said. He started to rise from the couch, but fell back with a soft grunt as the door to Rampart’s staff lounge opened. 

The A-shift watched with baited breath as the opening widened and Dixie appeared on the threshold. The men hastily stood while the blonde head nurse crossed the few feet that separated them from the doorway.

“How’s Johnny?” Mike asked as she stopped before the group.

“He’s resting comfortably.” Dixie glanced toward the TV set. “The show’s over? How was it?”

“It just ended. It was—” Hank began.

“Can we see him, Dix?” Roy interrupted, noticing her face seemed strained. He shot a quick look at his friends to see if they saw it too, but the men were smiling over Dixie’s news that Johnny was out of danger.

 “For a few minutes.” Dixie headed for the door. “He’ll probably be asleep,” she said, holding the door open as the men stepped into the hallway. “Room 214.” She followed them, feeling her momentary unsteadiness disappear as her control returned. She should have waited a moment or two longer before entering the lounge to get hold of herself, she thought, knowing Roy had seen something in her face. She wondered why he hadn’t said anything and decided that unless he broached the subject, she would remain silent.

Dixie entered Johnny’s hospital room and closed the door behind her. The A-shift stood quietly beside the bed, gazing down at the sleeping paramedic. She moved between Hank and the IV bottle, did a quick check of Johnny’s vitals and breathed an inward sigh of relief that everything was still normal.

“He’s going to be okay, Dixie?” Hank asked softly, his voice tinged with concern.

She looked up into the captain’s assessing brown eyes. “He’s going to be fine, Hank. He just needs some rest to regain his strength. Probably only a day or two.” She smiled. “You know Johnny.”

Hank stared at her a moment then returned her smile. “Yeah. Whew.” He ran a hand through his hair. “For a moment in the lounge, I thought…” His smile grew bigger. “Well. We’d better go. Come on, men.” He walked to the door and held it open as all of his crew left the room except Roy. He turned toward the hospital bed where Roy was still standing. “Thanks, Dixie. Pass that on to Kel too, okay?” She nodded. “We’ll be returning to duty status when we get back to the barn, DeSoto, so don’t dawdle too long. Gage’s replacement will be waiting for you.”

“Temporary replacement,” Roy said then shifted his gaze from Johnny to his captain. “I won’t be long, Cap. I just…”

Hank nodded his understanding and closed the door, leaving Roy and Dixie alone with a sleeping Johnny.

Roy lightly touched his partner’s forehead. It was cool. “You almost lost him,” he stated softly, staring at the regular rise and fall of Johnny’s chest.

Dixie sighed. “It was too close for comfort, Roy. Way too close. But he’s going to be okay.” His head jerked toward her and he nodded. “You know, as many times as Johnny’s been a patient here, I’ve never really thought that he wouldn’t make it.” She exhaled. “It was a sobering realization.”

“I know,” Roy said. “I’d better go—”

“Hey, Roy,” Johnny said softly. “Good to see you…”

Roy grasped his best friend’s hand and smiled. “Good to see you too, partner. Thought you were asleep. Sorry I woke you up.”

Johnny smiled, his crooked grin not quite as brilliant as it usually was, but just as ornery looking. “I was. Can’t sleep forever, you know. Did you watch Lancer?” He blinked, trying to keep his heavy eyelids from closing. He was so tired…

“Yep. All of us watched it.” Roy smiled. “It was some show.” Johnny’s eyes were slowly closing. “I’ll tell you about it—”

Johnny’s eyes flew open and he gripped Roy’s hand. “Madrid had a fever… shot…”

Stunned, Roy said, “That’s right. Good guess, Junior.”

Johnny shook his head and fought to stay awake. “Preview… how is Madrid…”

Roy almost laughed at how quickly he’d started to jump to conclusions. He hoped the rest of the shift would be quiet so he could have some time to calm down from the night’s events. “He’s okay.” Slowly he extricated his hand from Johnny’s grip. “Go to sleep, partner. We’ll talk more tomorrow.” Johnny’s eyes closed and his face relaxed in sleep. Giving a slight wave to Dixie, Roy headed for the door.

                                                ************

“Hey, Roy? You doing anything today?” Johnny buttoned the last button on his shirt and looked at his partner, trying to be casual, but his heart was racing. Well, he told himself, he should have called Roy the night before instead of springing something on him at the last minute. Joanne probably had plans for her husband to spend the day with her and their kids, Chris and Jen. And if that’s the case, he thought, I’ll go on alone. Even though I don’t know what I’ll find when I get there. Or what I want to find. His eyes locked with Roy’s and he quickly glanced at the floor as he tucked his shirt into his pants. Please say no, he willed. I don’t want to go alone. Please say no.

Roy studied his best friend a moment, trying to figure out what Johnny wanted. Even though Johnny acted like his answer wasn’t important, Roy knew otherwise. He thought over his partner’s odd behavior of the past week. Ever since the night he’d almost died… Roy’s mind jumped over that painful thought and proceeded to make a mental list of the tiny oddities Johnny had been displaying: quieter, more serious, reading historical books about the West and California, jotting things down in a small notebook he carried with him, but wouldn’t let anyone see. Something was going on. Perhaps Johnny’s question meant that he was ready to talk about it. “Nope,” he said.

Johnny raised his head. “You sure? I thought Joanne might…”

Roy tucked his shirt into his pants and said casually, “Joanne will understand, as long as I can stop by the house first.”

“Ah, it’s okay. Your family comes first. Forget I—”

Roy looked up and his gaze settled on Johnny. Neither man moved.

“Okay,” Johnny said, breaking eye contact first. “Sure thing.” He smiled. “I’ll follow you home and then we can go—”

“Can I come to?” Chet asked, peeking around Johnny’s locker, which was beside the aisle that ran the length of the locker room, separating the lockers into two groups.

Johnny closed his eyes and groaned. He’d been so keyed up about asking Roy his question that he’d completely forgotten about Chet changing clothes in the row behind them.

“Chet, I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Roy said. Johnny and Chet stared at him in surprise. “What I mean is—”

“I know what you mean, Roy.” Chet came around Johnny’s locker and stood between the two men. “Look, I’m curious about Gage’s activities this past week. I think this has to do with that.” He held up a hand to silence Johnny. “I promise I won’t do any razzing, Gage. But I can provide comic relief. And if this proves as serious as I think it might, some comic relief will be in order. So what do you say? Can I come?” He raised his eyebrows expectantly.

Johnny laughed and slapped Chet on the shoulder. “Sure.” He held up a finger and warned, “But not a word to anyone else. Understand? I don’t plan on taking the entire A-shift with me. There’s not enough room in my Rover.”

                                    ++++++++++++++++

The beige Ford LTD pulled into the space and parked. Six men got out of ‘The Boat’ as it was called and entered a small restaurant on the outskirts of Fresno. A waitress seated the group of men at the biggest table in the place and left with their drink orders.

“Gage, will you stop grumbling?” Chet asked as Johnny mumbled something while he flipped through his menu. “Look, when you told Roy and I where we were going, I had to tell the guys. I knew they’d want to come.”

Johnny glared at Chet. “Why? Oh, I see. Sure. Go on ahead. Laugh at Johnny Gage, the fireman who’s hooked on a stupid western.” He slouched back in his chair and angrily crossed his arms under his chest. “I never should have agreed to this.”

“Why did you?” Marco asked.

“I didn’t want to go alone.”

“Look, Johnny, we aren’t laughing. We watched that episode of Lancer that night and it got to us all. Sure, we don’t understand why you’re so preoccupied with that Johnny Madrid/Lancer character, but you’re our friend and … well…” Hank flung his hands out, suddenly at a loss for words.

Johnny looked at the men seated at the table with him, his gaze lingering on Chet. No one looked like they even wanted to crack a smile, especially Chet. Johnny was so used to being the brunt of the fireman’s jokes that it was hard for him to realize Chet might be concerned. “I’m sorry,” he said, uncrossing his arms and sitting up straight.

The waitress reappeared with the drinks and the men placed their lunch orders.

“So why are we going to Galt?” Mike asked, sipping his iced tea.

“Actually, it’s to a cemetery south of Galt. It’s for the town of Liberty.” Johnny paused. “Ever since Roy filled me in on that episode, I wanted to see the places where it occurred.”

“It’s a TV show. Real names are often used. It doesn’t mean anything,” Roy said.

“I know. I just want to go and look at the cemetery. Walk around a bit.” Johnny laughed. “I can’t explain it.”

“Well, it’s a long jaunt just to satisfy your curiosity, but I have to admit I’m curious to see what other names from that episode we might find,” Hank said as the waitress arrived with the food.

“Me too,” Chet said and plopped a French fry into his mouth.

                                                +++++++++++

“Johnny!” Marco cried. “Chet! Everybody! I found something!”

“What is it?” Everyone shouted as they hurried from various points in the Liberty Cemetery to the spot where Marco stood.

“Look at the name on this tombstone,” Marco said excitedly and pointed to a small stone off to his right, whose marking was badly worn.

“Guy Tuttle,” Mike said.

“The sheriff!” Chet cried.

“There aren’t any dates engraved on the stone,” Roy said, stooping for a closer look. “Just his name.”

“Don’t you think, if he really was a sheriff, that there would be some indication?” Mike asked.

“Maybe, maybe not. I wonder if sheriffs weren’t buried without fanfare to preserve their tombs,” Hank said softly. “Remember what Roy said at the restaurant, men. It could be a coincidence, nothing more. We have no way of knowing whether this man was a sheriff or not.”

“Did the books say anything, Johnny?” Marco asked.

Johnny shook his head. “Nothing definitive. Records were poorly kept if they were kept at all, and fires often destroyed them.”

“We could do some more research,” Chet said. “You couldn’t have gone through every book or every record in existence from that time period.”

“Now who’s becoming obsessed,” Johnny said, smiling. “Forget it, Chet. It’s enough to know that something from the show really did exist in the old west and that some things do get better over time.”

Roy moved to stand beside his friend. “It wasn’t ‘obsessing’ but ‘identifying’ with the character Johnny Madrid.” Johnny’s eyes widened.

“We’d have to be blind not to notice the obvious resemblances between Scott and Johnny and Roy and you,” Hank said, smiling.

“Yeah, Gage. The hair color, age, Madrid’s appeal to women are just the physical similarities,” Chet said.

“There’s feelings, too,” Mike added.

Johnny shook his head in awe. “I should have known you guys would figure it out.”

“We’re family,” Hank said. “That’s all that matters.” He scanned Johnny. “Shall we go home?”

Johnny nodded and turned to go. Slowly the A-shift headed toward Hank’s car, weaving amongst the tombstones as they continued to glance at the names on each stone. As they neared the last row, Johnny stopped so abruptly that Roy bumped into him.

“Hey! What are you doing?” Roy said.

“Look, Roy.” Johnny pointed to a stone. On it was the following words: Johnny Madrid, gunfighter 1870.

Roy gulped. “Hey, guys, look.”

“Coincidence, Cap?” Chet asked, looking around them with a wary eye.

Hank ran a hand through his hair and laughed. “Of course it is. You have to hand it to the imagination of those TV people. Come on, men, we’ve got a long drive ahead of us.” Hank continued toward his car.

“Johnny? What do you think?” Mike asked, feeling the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

“I think Cap’s got the right idea. Race you to the car,” Johnny said and took off, his friends following closely behind.

 

The End

 

Author's note:  By 1870 Liberty, California was a ghost town and Guy Tuttle is truly buried in the local cemetery. His dates are unknown. I took license to adjust the historical timeline to fit my story.  LaJuan

 

Spanish – English:

La Muerte de – The Death of

estancia – ranch, ranch house

vaquero – cowboy

cantina – saloon                                      

Querida – Darling

no es nada  – it's nothing                       

tio – uncle

Adios – Goodbye

siesta – nap

Señor   – Mister

señoritas – young ladies

compañero – comrade

 

 

 

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