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Ringers

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Ringers
by S
firstcorpsanv@webtv.net

 

Scott Lancer stood under one of the trees to the side of the white hacienda. It was quiet under the shady tree, but he could still hear the jeers and guffaws of the horseshoe players.

Murdoch Lancer was extremely fond of the game; consequently, he had erected several spots where he and the ranch hands could toss the semi-ovals to their hearts' content. In fact, it had become the Sunday custom--after church and noon dinner--for Murdoch and his younger son, Johnny to indulge in a contest of titans.

Although he had never played before, the dark-haired son had immediately excelled at the game. Murdoch had speculated it was due to Johnny's keen eye with a gun. Whatever it was, Murdoch now eagerly looked forward to the weekly challenge. What with the unending nature of ranch work and Johnny's social life, the couple of hours that the patriarch could spend with his son pleased him, just as the time spent playing chess with Scott was satisfying. In fact, there was a chessboard, set up with pieces from a partially played game on the small table in the great room right at that moment. Scott and Murdoch had started the game some weeks before, but Lancer was demanding of all her owners.

Holding a piece of straw in his strong, white teeth, the older Lancer son grinned as Johnny literally jumped up and down when he made a ringer. The sound did have a pleasant sound and he knew that his father must be gritting his teeth.

Both Murdoch and Johnny had invited the blond to participate in the game with them at first; however, when the gunfighter had jokingly mentioned that Scott was better with a rifle than a horseshoe, the easterner had acknowledged the fact. He wasn't as bad as some of the ranch hands, but he knew that he could never equal the skill of his father and brother so he had quietly opted out of any further games. Besides, it pleased him that horseshoes gave Johnny and Murdoch something to share.

From the first, Scott had felt the tension between the tall man and his younger son. If a past time like the game of horseshoes could help their bond, then Scott was definitely in favor. It certainly made the former cavalryman's life easier and the memory of Johnny's exodus to go off with his friend Wes was still painful.

Unfortunately, the other scene of horseshoe action did not seem to be as amicable. Ben Lester and Jim Stubbs were the best of friends, except when they competed in anything. They too, had decided to take up the metal pieces, throwing them with abandon--and almost braining poor Dewdrop at one point. When the game had turned from friendly to vituperative, Scott had no idea; but it was now obvious from the raised voices and profanity, that it had done so. Since Lester outweighed his friend by thirty pounds, a brawl would not be a very fair contest. However, Scott had frequently seen the smaller man best his friend because of his speed and agility.

Usually, the brawls would last only a short amount of time and ten minutes later the two would be best pals again. It was for that reason and the fact that the two were excellent ranch hands, that Murdoch kept them on. He paid top wages and he expected everyone to work hard.

Stubbs and Lester had never disappointed him.

So, that was the reason that Murdoch and Johnny, who were closer to the combatants, ignored the two men--until Ben Lester drew his gun. Stubbs quickly tackled him and the wrestling began in earnest. Johnny started towards the two, intending to break up the fight before someone was hurt. Unhappily, he had left it a moment too long because suddenly the gun went off, firing wildly.

Silence seemed to fill the dusty earth as Murdoch and Johnny ran over to the two men on the ground. Pulling them apart, the younger man expected to see blood everywhere, but was relieved to see none. Furious with the irresponsiblity of the two men, Murdoch dragged Lester to his fee yelling at him to get over to the bunkhouse before he fired him on the spot.

Turning to Jim Stubbs, the rancher took in the bloody nose and bruise that marred one cheek bone. Stubbs had certainly had the worst of the fight. "Jim, are you all right? Should I have a doctor take a look at you?"

Frightened at the near tragedy, Stubbs shook his head. He knew that he was as much to blame as his friend since he had goaded him into losing his temper. "Uh, no sir, I'm fine. I'll just go clean up. Me and Ben are sure sorry. We jest let it git out of hand."

"You certainly did and I'm warning you here and now--if you and Ben fight one more time, you can draw your pay and leave!"

The smaller ranch hand quaked. He didn't want to leave a good job with winter coming on. "Yessir, we ain't gonna fight no more."

"See that you don't. Now go clean up."

The two Lancers watched as Stubbs headed towards the bunkhouse then turned towards the hacienda, the horseshoe game forgotten. "Those two fools! Somebody could have been...."

The sentence was never completed because both men had just caught sight of Scott Lancer lying on the ground, blood covering his light-colored shirt.

Blood soaked into the dusty earth of Lancer to the accompanying wail of Johnny Lancer's inconsolable pain. Shudders wracked the gunfighter's lean body as he rose from his kneeling position by the body. Taking his gun from its holster, he strode over to the bunkhouse where he coldly put a bullet into the foreheads of both Lester and Stubbs.

Emerging into the sunight, the dark-haired son encountered his father who merely extended his hand, palm up. Johnny knew what the tall man wanted so he wordlessly passed him the killing weapon as he looked up into the tormented eyes.

Motioning for the younger man to follow him, Murdoch Lancer led his son in the the out-building where a single cell was located. After locking his only remaining kin into that barred prison, the patriarch said not a word as he returned to the great white hacienda.

Early in the morning of the second day, Murdoch again entered the cell area where he unlocked the metal door, handed Johnny a set of filled saddlebags, and uttered only the word, "Go."

It was enough. Johnny Madrid Lancer mounted his beautiful palamino to ride out under Lancer's great gate. Heading northeast, he came upon the small cemetery he sought. There, under the piles of rapidly wilting wildflowers was a simple grave. There had been no time for a marker to be made, but it needed none--at least for now.

Glancing at the nearby headstone of Sarah Nicholston, the haunted man smiled slightly. At least, Scott would not be alone. Then, the gunfighter fled Lancer forever.

____

Great gasps of pain emerged from the slender man as he tried to reach out, tried to persuade his brother to stay. Blue eyes flickered open in the darkness as his body fought for air to combat the panic of the nightmare.

Since waking from the accident, Scott Lancer had been cursed with the recurring dream. Each time it was the same--the blond, older Lancer had died from his injury while Johnny had been forced to flee after exacting his fearful revenge.

In the coolness of the pre-dawn air, the easterner found himself sweating, His injury had not been as severe as it had seemed so why was he still having these dreams?

Deciding to read, Scott lit the lamp at his bedside. Taking up Swinton's CAMPAIGNS OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, the former cavalryman had almost finished the tome when he heard the first noises from the household. He knew that Teresa would be up early making coffee so that Murdoch could have a cup before the two of them went into Morro Coyo for church services.

Johnny had gone into town the night before for his usual Saturday night spent drinking or playing cards or charming the senoritas. Frequently, Scott went with his brother, but lack of sleep and the lingering pain in his ribs had persuaded him to stay at Lancer this time. Since he had not heard Johnny's return, he decided that his dark-haired sibling was probably enjoying the company of one of the local girls.

Moving into the great room, Scott encountered Teresa and Murdoch who were just leaving for Morro Coyo. "There's hot coffee, Scott, and I made some biscuits so help yourself."

"Thanks, Teresa. I'll enjoy them while I'm finishing my book."

The tall man looked down on his blond son. "How are you feeling today, Scott?"

"Much better. I'll be out on the range in another day or two."

"Well, just take it easy. Johnny promised to be back by noon so that he could eat dinner with us and then I suppose we'll pitch some horseshoes. I don't suppose you feel like joining in?"

"Uh, no, Sir. My ribs are still somewhat tender."

"All right then. Teresa, we'd better go. You know how much I hate walking in while Reverend Baker's talking."

"Yes, Murdoch, I know." The brown-haired girl winked at Scott. The patriarch might not enjoy being late, but he did not seem to object to falling asleep in the middle of a sermon.

After watching the pair leave, the blond headed to the kitchen to partake of some of Teresa's excellent coffee and biscuits. He also snitched two of the iced cookies that she had hidden in the pantry.

Sitting down with his frugal fare, Scott soon found himself engrossed in the battles of the famed Army of the Potomac. Since he had served with its cavalry corps for a part of the war, he had found the book, written in 1866, to be of great interest. Many of the names in the book were as familiar to him as his own.

After some time, the young man decided to return to his room for a quick lie-down. He hated to admit it, but his strength had not returned as quickly as he had hoped. He did not relish seeing Johnny have to do twice as much as usual--even though Scott did enjoy teasing his dark-haired brother about the fact that it was good to see him doing something besides seducing innocent females. The gleam in the sapphire eyes promised retribution for Scott's comments--when the blond was in better health.

Two hours later, Scott awoke to the knock on the door. Those same sapphire eyes peered in to announce that dinner was ready. Surprised to hear that so much time had passed, Scott quickly rinsed off to join his family for their repast.

Johnny Lancer shoveled in the food that Teresa had prepared. He worked and played hard so he used up a great deal of injury; plus it was a real treat for him indulge in Teresa and Maria's fine cooking.

Glancing over at his brother, Johnny noticed that Scott had consumed very little. "Aren't you hungry, Boston?"

"I guess I ate too many biscuits. You know how good they are."

Johnny did indeed. He would frequently take some with him when he went out on the range. He didn't have to stop to eat then when he was swamped with work.

The three Lancers and Teresa chatted for awhile as the meal wound down. Johnny was particularly upset to learn that Penelope Wilson's engagement had been announced that morning in church. He and Penelope had spent many happy hours together, but he supposed that was done now--but who knew? She wasn't married yet.

After the meal, Johnny and Murdoch headed out to one of the horseshoe courts to start their game. Teresa went to her room to work on the dress that she planned to wear at the dance the Hendersons were giving in a week's time. On Sunday, Maria usually took care of the dinner dishes so that the young woman could have a free afternoon.

Not wanting to lie down again, Scott brought his book back into the great room. Even while reading the final two chapters, he could still hear the clang of the horseshoes as they hit the poles forty feet away. He could also hear the chortles of delight when a certain former gunfighter would make a ringer.

Reaching the end of his book, the blond moved over to the small chess table which sat not far from the French doors. He could just see the figures of his brother and father at this angle. It was good to see them laughing together. It troubled the older brother to see these two men at odds. They were so much alike in so many ways.

As he watched the two men, his hands rubbed over the fine leather of the case which held the chess pieces. Murdoch had told them about how he had ordered the board and pieces from a fine store in San Francisco. Opening the box, Scott caressed the carved pieces with caloused hands.

He remembered the equally beautiful chess set his grandfather owned. In fact, it had been Harlan Garrett who had taught Scott to play at a very young age. Garrett had found the young Scott playing with the carved marble pieces like they were soldiers. At first, he had been angry since the set was quite valuable, but the tears in the blue eyes had melted some of the anger. Consequently, he had promised to teach his grandson to play--if, in return, Scott would promise to be careful with the pieces, and not use them as playthings.

Picking up the black knight, Scott studied it carefully. It was not quite the same as its mate. For some reason, the expression on the horse reminded him of Barranca and his stubborn owner. Scott was sure that Johnny would be amused to hear that he reminded his brother of a chess piece; but since that April day when they had met for the first time, Scott had thought of the young man as a black knight. With guns or fists or sheer cussedness, the younger man had undertaken to protect his new family. It was that which, in its own way, frightened Scott Lancer. The terrible retribution of his nightmare could so easily come true.

Grasping the chess piece, Scott whispered to it, "Whatever happens, don't let it force you away from Lancer. You are needed here."

Returning the horse to its velvet-lined case, Scott Lancer stood up to walk out to where the shade trees watched over the horseshoe players. It felt so good to be outside again that even the constant wrangling of Ben Lester and Jim Stubbs couldn't prevent his need to be part of Lancer once again--no matter what.

 

THE END