Gunfighters (by Stardust)

Summary:  An Alias Smith and Jones/Lancer crossover story.
Category:  Crossover
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,300


It was quiet in the little town of Spanish Wells as the two men walked their horses down the side street trying to avoid lighted windows and doorways of a few homes. They turned down another street that was darker except for the entrance to what looked like a second-rate hotel. The first floor was built out of old, worn, adobe bricks. The upper floor was made out of lumber. A sign beside the door said:

BEER –  EATS –  ROOMS

 The two men looked at each other for a moment as they sat their horses at the hitch rail. “Think it’s safe to spend a night on a real bed, Kid?”

 “Should be, Hayes. We’re farther west than we ever been before. I always wanted to take a look at California. Wonder how much farther to where you can see that ocean I keep hearin’ ‘bout.”

 “Just as long as there ain’t no one ever heard of us in this place.”

 “And some place we can get a job so we can pick up a stake and get some grub money. My belly thinks my throat’s been cut. Let’s see if they got any stew that’s eatable in here.”

“And a beer.” Heyes stepped down off of his mount, and wrapped the reins around the rail, removed his rifle and saddlebags and headed into the saloon. The Kid followed his lead.

The two trail-weary riders walked through the batwing door to the combination hotel and saloon, and took a quick look around. Seeing nothing to get upset over, they walked to the bar, leaned their rifles against it, dropped their saddlebags on the floor at their feet and looked expectantly at the bartender. The short, stocky, balding man moved in their direction. “What’ll it be gents?”

 “Whiskey, a meal, and a room for the night,” answered one of the men. “In that order.”

“The same for me,” said his friend.

The bartender picked up two shot glasses from under the bar and a bottle off the back shelf. He poured the drinks and said. “Two bits a shot for the whiskey. There’s some left over stew in the back. Rooms are a dollar a night. You want one or two?”

“One will have to do.” The rider had piercing blue eyes. Curling blond hair stuck out from under the edges of this hat. He laid a silver dollar and change on the bar.

The other man had dark brown eyes and even darker hair. He looked askance at his friend, then paid the bartender. “Just one.” He pulled several coins out of his pocket and laid them on the counter with the rest. “You got someplace we can put our horses?”

“I got a small stable down the road. I’ll have my swamper bed them down. They out front?”

“The two bays at the hitch rail.”

The bartender reached under the bar and set a large book in front of the men. “Sign here, fellas.” He added a quill pen and ink jar.

Both men signed and the bartender turned the book around so he could read the names. “Well, Mister Smith and ….er…Mister….Jones….” He frowned and glanced at the men again, then took a tagged key from a hook on a board, hanging behind him. “You’re in room number three. Have a seat and I’ll bring your stew.” The money disappeared with the guest book.

Smith and Jones downed their drinks, and then took their glasses, the bottle and their gear to a nearby table. Both sat so their backs were to the wall and they could see everyone in the room and anyone that might come in the door. Even as tired as they were, caution and watchfulness were not forgotten. They had noticed how everyone in the room tried to look at them without appearing to make it obvious when they came in. It was the normal reaction when ever anyone walked into a saloon. Especially a hangout like this, where everyone might not be friendly.

His hat pulled low and tipped forward to almost cover his face, a cowboy across the room watched the newcomers as they spoke with the bartender and took seats at a table. The man noted how they chose a table near the door and moved their chairs around so that they sat with their backs in a corner where no one could get behind them. It was what he had done when he came into the saloon, too, even though he wasn’t a stranger to the town or the saloon. Still it never hurt to take precautions, which was what he was doing as he watched the two men. The cowboy didn’t think they were from around Spanish Wells. But he was sure he should recognize them. Right at the moment, their names didn’t come to him, but he was sure they would in time.

Taking note of everything happening, and finding nothing to be alarmed about they gradually relaxed. It was late and there were only a few other customers in the large room. A big mirror hung behind a scared oak bar. A row of liquor bottles sat on a shelf under the mirror. There were several tattered paper signs tacked at different places on the few pieces of wood that helped hold the adobe bricks together. Three cowboys played stud poker at a far table. Smith looked at them, and shook his head. In a low voice, he spoke to Curry. “No. Not tonight, Kid. I’m too tired. I’ll try my hand tomorrow so I can have my own room, and not have to listen to you snore.” Heyes poured himself another shot of whiskey from the bottle. “See that cowboy by himself watching us from under the edge of his hat?”

The Kid snorted in disgust and poured himself another drink. “I don’t snore as loud as you do, Heyes.” He took a sip of his drink. “Yeah, I done seen him. I don’t think he knows us or is going to make any trouble. He’s just curious.”

“Sure hope your right, Kid. He sure does seem nosy.”

Two saloon girls sat near the bar talking softly. “Well, I’m going to call it a night,” said one. “There’s sure not any action here.” She rose and headed for the stairs, hips wiggling causing her gaudy skirt to sway as she gave a final look at the two newcomers. She laid a hand on the shoulder of the cowboy sitting by himself at another table.

“ ‘Night, Johnny.”

“ ‘Night, Belle,” said the man. He took a sip from his beer, and Bell went up the stairs.

The bartender returned with two steaming bowls of stew, and set them before Smith and Jones.

“Thanks,” said Smith.

“Could we have a couple of beers, too?” asked Jones.

“Sure,” said the bartender and returned moments later with two mugs. On the way back to the bar, he, too, stopped and spoke to the cowboy. “Another one, Johnny?”

“Yeah, Max, one more then I better hit the road.” He didn’t know why but he thought he would keep an eye on the two newcomers for a little bit longer.

Max, took the empty beer mug, filled it and another for himself, and sat down with the cowboy.

“Them two say who they were?” asked Johnny in a low voice.”

“Oh, yeah. They said. Names are Smith and Jones.” Max growled a laugh. “Now I wonder if they really think anyone will believe that that’s their real names.”

Johnny took another look at Smith and Jones. “Well, seems like I’ve used other names now and them, too. But they do seem familiar. I just can’t figure out where I seen them before.”

“Well, when you figure it out, will you let me know?”

“Sure thing.”

The room was quiet, except for the slap of cards and murmur of a poker player. Several overhead lamps spread a dim light over the bar and tables. The smell of sweat, liqueur and sawdust settled around the men and one woman. Loud laugher out on the street broke the silence, as two men shoved their way inside.

“Hey, Barkeep, we need a bottle,” one big drunken man slapped the bar.

“Whiskey,” yelled the other one.

Max returned to the bar and poured their drinks.

“Hey, it’s to quiet in here.”

“Where’s th’ mu-zac an’ gals.”

“Whoa, fellas, it’s late. I’m fixin’ to close up soon,” Max tried to pacify the two.

“No you ain’t,” snarled the big man. “Not ’til I get good an’ ready, you ain’t.”

Max sighed. “Ah, come on Rhodes, Thompson, it’s been a long night.” He didn’t want to have to put up with these two tonight.

“Night’s jus’ startin’. Now where’s the wem’en.” Rhodes looked around the room. “Hey, you girl, come here.” He had spotted the other woman who had stayed behind when Bell had left. She had been half dozing when the drunken men had pushed in.

“Not tonight, cowboy, I’m tired and it’s late.” She stood up, short blue dress swinging at her calves, and headed for the stairs.

A big hand reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her to him, the man’s other arm going around her waist. Rhodes swung her off her feet and gave her a big smack on the lips. Ineffectually, she pushed at him, and he laughed and pulled her closer. She kicked out and caught him on the knee.

“Oh-ch,” he yelled laughing at the same time, as she tried to get loose.

Smith and Jones both half-rose, then settled back into their chairs as a quiet voice said, “Let her go.” The cowboy, Johnny, had a hold of Rhodes’ arm. “Now.” He had moved so quickly and quietly from his place across the room that no one had seen him do it.

Rhodes turned the girl loose, and shoved her at Thompson, who caught her. Johnny backed up two steps, a weary eye on Rhodes.

Rhodes turned to his drink. “You want some a’ that, Lancer? You wait your turn. Me an’ Thompson were first.”

“The lady said not tonight,” said Johnny.

“Lady? She ain’t no lady,” said the man holding the girl as he ran his free hand over her body.

Anger flitted over Johnny Lancer’s face. “Let her go,” he commanded.

“You gonna’ make me,” yelled Thompson. He pushed the girl from him and reached for his gun.

Rhodes tried to pull his, also, and both men found themselves with their guns still half in their holsters, staring at the Colt 45 in Johnny Lancer’s hand.

Max had dropped behind the bar, and now came back up with a shotgun held tightly in his hands while pointed directly at the two drunken men. “Finish pullin’ them guns, an’ lay ‘em on the bar.”

Rhodes and Thompson did as Max had said.

“Now get out a’ here. Go home. Sleep it off.” Max was used to handling drunks but this had gone farther than he expected. He was glad Johnny Lancer had helped.

No one had noticed the guns that Smith and Jones had drawn and pointed at the troublemakers under the edge of the table they sat at. Now that the trouble was over, they quickly put their guns away. Both men were glad they hadn’t had to help out.

The poker players had watched in silence. Now they picked up their winnings and headed for the door. One nodded at Max and spoke to Rhodes and Thompson. “Come on, fellas. Sun rises awful early.” He steered the two sobered up drunks out the door.

Johnny Lancer pointed his Colt at the floor and eased the hammer back down. It had taken everything he had to keep from shooting the two toughs. They were both drunk and looking for trouble. He had been sure he was much faster than they were, but they were drunk and he didn’t want a fight. Drunk or not, it was no excuse for roughing up the girl.

Max put the shotgun back under the bar. “You all right, Vi?”

“Yeah, sure,” said the girl, rubbing her bare arm. There were signs of bruises already showing. One strap and some lace dangled from her shoulder. “Guess I’ll be wearin’ long sleeves for awhile.” She looked at Johnny. “Thanks for you help, Mister.”

“Don’t guess you two are aquatinted yet,” said Max. “Johnny, this is Violet. She just started a couple of days ago. Vi, this is Johnny Lancer.”

 “Well, Johnny Lancer. Thanks again,” said Vi, taking a better look. She saw a slim, average height, cowboy with black hair, and bleak looking dark blue eyes. She thought it would be nice to see them twinkling with laughter, as she was sure they could.

“Violet,” Johnny acknowledged Max’s introduction as he studied the girl. Long honey blond hair, several strands, straggling from an elaborate hairdo. Cornflower blue eyes stared frankly at him. Violet was younger than Johnny had first guessed. Not the older, hardened, saloon woman, like Belle and others he knew. Give her a few years, he thought, and she would be.

“Yeah, thanks for the help, Johnny. That Rhodes is a nasty feller even when he ain’t been drinkin’ That there Thompson is always right behind him. It sure was good seein’ ‘em took down a peg or two, but you best watch out. They might try to take you on again,” said Max.

“They might,” said Johnny. He figured they would. They looked the type. He knew they were new in Spanish Wells. Drifters that had hired on at the Dixon spread. He picked up his jacket and put it on.

Violet watched the ripple of muscles under his shirt. She liked what she saw in the quiet cowboy. Cowboy, she thought. He wasn’t just a cowboy, she was sure of that. “Why don’t you stay here tonight, Johnny?”

Max spoke up. “Yeah, Johnny, it’s late and no since maybe runnin’ into Rhodes again. A room on the house?”

Johnny considered the offer. It was tempting, but he should have been back at Lancer already. Murdock and Scott would be wondering where he was. “No, but thanks, Max. I better be gettin’ on home.” Home, thought Johnny. It wasn’t often he thought of the Lancer Ranch as home, but he guessed it was, at least for now.

“Long ride out to Lancer,” said Max, wishing the young man would take the room.

Johnny grinned. “Guess I better get started, then, but I think I will leave by the back door.”

Jones pushed back the empty bowl and sipped at his beer. He didn’t say anything as he watched Johnny Lancer leave. Violet helped Max pick up a few empty glasses and bottles and then went upstairs. Max stepped into the back.

“That cowboy was fast, wasn’t he?” Smith was finishing his food, using the spoon left-handed, his right still resting under the table on his gun butt.

“Yeah, guess he was.” The Kid didn’t say so, but was wondering if Johnny Lancer looked a little familiar or was he just imaging things. He shook of the thought. He hated to have to be suspicious of everyone he saw.

They finished their drinks and went up to their rooms.

Max began stacking chairs on tables so he could sweep the floor.

*****

“Good morning, Johnny. When did you get back?”

As he stumbled into the kitchen and practically fell into a chair at the table, still half asleep, Johnny Lancer answered Teresa’s greeting with a grunt.

Teresa O’Brien smiled indulgently at the man who was like a brother to her, and pouring a cup of coffee, set it in front of him, then turned back to the stove. She spooned pancake batter into one skillet and broke two fresh eggs into another. A plate of fried ham sat at the back of the stove to stay warm.

The half-asleep cowboy stared at the steaming cup of brew. The odor of the coffee finally penetrated his senses. Sighing, he took the cup and blew lightly across the cup to cool the liquid, then took a sip. Johnny had drenched his pancakes in syrup and was putting the first dripping bite in his mouth when the backdoor opened. There was a noisy squawking and a white feather drifted through the cracked door.

“No, Arabella, you can’t go inside.” A white goose had tried to push in and a booted foot blocked the bird’s body.

“Jelly, don’t you let that goose in here,” commanded Teresa.

“Arabella, now, you just can’t go in the house.” Johnny and Teresa could hear Jelly Hoskins explaining to the goose that she couldn’t come in. “I know you’d like to go in, but it just ain’t allowed. Now go on. Shooo.”

The door opened farther to let Murdock and Scott Lancer enter. Jelly slipped in behind them. Arabella, the goose, voiced her displeasure at not being allowed in from the other side of the door.

The three men hung their hats by the door and washed at basins along the wall, then sat down to the food Teresa placed before them. “Thanks, honey,” said Murdock to his ward as she poured him coffee.

“Well, I’ll be darned, will you look at what the cat drug in last night?” said Scott as if he had just noticed Johnny sitting there. Johnny raised one eyebrow and glanced at his brother but didn’t answer the taunt.

“Hey, Scott,” Teresa turned to pet a calico cat sitting on the bench with the washbasins. The girl slipped the cat a piece of ham. “Don’t insult my cat. Spice has got more sense than to drag in something like that.”

Johnny ignored Teresa and Scott and continued to eat his breakfast.

“You have any trouble getting that bull delivered to the Castanata Ranch?” asked Murdock.

“Nope,” answered Johnny.

“I’d Like to start raising more of those good blooded bulls,” Murdock stirred cream into his coffee. “One bull can bring more than a herd of mixed steers.”

“You’re right, Murdock,” Johnny leaned back and looked at Scott. “Raising bulls sounds to be a good idea, but the next bull you sell, Scott gets to deliver. That bull wanted to fight everything he saw, the whole way. Other bulls, horses, dogs, people…you name it”

“Well, it was a good business deal, and you did it, John. Castanata wouldn’t have bought the bull if you hadn’t been able to talk to him in Spanish.”

Johnny laid down his fork and looked directly at his father. “Don’t sweet talk me, Murdock. You speak Spanish. You could have made the deal. So does Teresa. Didn’t you learn Spanish at that fancy school you went to back east, Scott?”

“Only a little,” said Scott. “I didn’t care for learning other languages. But I did learn some French.”

“And Teresa and I only know enough to get by with the Mexican hands. You knew just the right way to go about it with Castanata,” added Murdock.

Much as Johnny didn’t want to admit it, he was beginning to be proud of being part of the Lancer family now. “Gunslinger to businessman,” he mumbled his thoughts out loud.

“What?” asked Murdock, not sure he had heard right.

“Nothin’,” said Johnny as he stood up abruptly. “Come on, Scott.” He slapped his half brother on the shoulder. “Maybe we can find some work to do.”

The two younger men left, soon followed by Jelly. Teresa hummed softly as she cleaned up from breakfast and mixed up a big bowl of bread dough, and put it on to rise for supper.

Murdock sipped another cup of coffee as his thoughts went to his sons, and daughter. Officially Teresa was his ward, but to him, she was the daughter he never had. Two years ago he had never figured that peace would come to the Lancer household. When Teresa’s father, his foreman and best friend was killed, he had sent for his two sons to help him save the ranch. Murdock had been thrilled when both boys had showed up but they had hated each other on sight. Neither had known he had a brother. Scott had been raised in the east by his grandfather, who had seen to it the boy had everything he could want, especially a good education. Johnny had had nothing, growing up in a small Mexican village and the roughest parts of the southwestern territories. Murdock hadn’t had any idea where Johnny was or even if he was still alive when he had sent a trusted hand to find him.

“More coffee?” asked Teresa.

“No, thanks.” He smiled at the pretty girl. “I best get to work.” But he sat a moment longer, still lost in thought.

Much as he hated the thought, he knew that someday a handsome cowboy would win Teresa’s heart and carry her off, but he hoped it wouldn’t happen soon.

He wasn’t worried about Scott. Right now, Scott was content to stay at the ranch and learn. It was all so different and exciting compared to what he had known back east. Murdock figured eventually Scott would go back and take over his grandfathers business, maybe traveling back and forth, east to west, and west to east.

It was Johnny who he really worried about. Johnny had managed to control his combination of Spanish and Scottish temper considerably since he had found his family and found a place for himself here at Lancer, but he still had a bad habit of fighting at the drop of a hat. Murdock had noticed John had even had his gun on at the breakfast table.

As he rose and headed out the door, he chastised himself again for not bringing his sons home to Lancer sooner than he had, and then he was glad that they were finally with him, regardless of what happened from now on.

*****

It was early afternoon when Teresa decided she had to get out of the house and into the outdoors for a while. She quickly changed into riding clothes. Maybe if she hurried, she could catch up with Johnny and Scott. She was sure she had heard them say they were going to work the fence in the south pasture.

Teresa rushed out the front door and almost into the pathway of two horses. Both men pulled up sharply.

“Whoa,” called one rider. He tipped is hat at Teresa. “Excuse me, Miss. I almost didn’t see you.”

“Oh, no,” said Teresa. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have been running like that.” Teresa took her first good look at the stranger and decided right then and there that he was the most handsome man she had ever seen. He had curly blond hair, and the brightest blue eyes she had ever seen. Eyes that were smiling at her. She never even noticed the man with him.

Kid Curry just stared at the girl before him. She was beautiful. Brown hair, blue eyes, so absolutely charming, he forgot to say anything.

“Ma’am, we’re looking for Mr. Murdock Lancer. We were told he might be hiring.” If either Curry or the girl heard Hannibal Heyes, he couldn’t tell. He tried again. “Miss? Hey, Miss.”

“Oh, yes…can I help you?” Teresa mumbled, finally remembering her manners.

“We’re looking for work. Is Mr. Lancer here?” asked Heyes.

Jelly had seen Teresa and the two strangers from the barn. He couldn’t hear what was being said but he didn’t like the looks of things. He stepped into the tack room and pulled a pistol from a holster hanging on a peg. Holding it at his side, he walked out into the barnyard.

“There a problem here, Miss Teresa?” he asked.

Both men and the girl jumped and turned toward the older man. Teresa blushed, although she didn’t know why and hurriedly explained. “On, no, Jelly. These gentlemen were inquiring about work.”

“We were looking for Mr. Lancer to ask about a job,” said Heyes. He and Curry had both seen the gun Jelly held. Neither of them wanted any trouble to start.

Jelly motioned with his head toward the back. “Boss is out back tendin’ to a injured colt.”

“Thanks,” said Heyes, turning his horse to go.

“Ma’am,” Curry tipped his hat to Teresa and followed Heyes.

Jelly walked over beside Teresa. “They try to bother you?” he asked.

“Oh, Jelly, it wasn’t like that at all.” Teresa was slightly embarrassed by what had happened. “I ran out of the house and didn’t see them and ran right in front of their horses. They were apologizing when it was really my fault.”

“Well, I don’t like their looks.”

Teresa giggled. “Don’t like their looks. I thought he was very handsome.”

“Handsome,” grumbled Jelly. “That weren’t what I meant. Looked like trouble to me. Them two have got the look of gunslingers about ‘em.”

“Quit worrying, Jelly. They’re just cowboys looking for a job. Besides, it seems to me Johnny used to be a gunslinger, and he’s not trouble – or at least not to much.”

Jelly muttered something but Teresa took no heed. “Did you say there was an injured colt? How bad? Maybe Murdock needs my help.” She took off around the barn, the way the two strangers had gone. Maybe if she hurried, she thought, she might get to see the handsome cowboy again.

By the time Teresa found Murdock, he was instructing a Mr. Smith and a Mr. Jones to put their gear in the bunkhouse and how to find Scott and Johnny and help them with the fence. Jones tipped his hat to Teresa as he and Smith walked by her toward the bunkhouse.

“Teresa,” said Murdock as he turned back to the young horse. “Good, you can help me hold this colt and keep him calm while Jelly puts a couple of stitches in that cut on his shoulder.” Murdock realized the girl wasn’t paying him any attention. She was watching the two new hands he had just hired, and one was looking back at her. Oh, to be young again, he thought. “Teresa,” he said.

As Curry disappeared, Teresa turned to the nervous, yearling colt and took his halter, her attention finally returning to the job at hand. “Yes,” she said as she looked the nasty cut on the sorrel horse. “What happened?”

“Got kicked by one of the others probably,” said Murdock. Jelly came up and began laying out a needle, thread and salve.

*****

“Buildin’ fence!” Heyes spit out the words as he and the Kid rode along. “I hate buildin’ fence and punchin’ cows. What happened to the good ol’ days when you could ride for hundreds of miles, and never find a fence.” He glanced over at his partner. “Kid, you listenin’ to me? How come we can’t ever find a job ‘sides fixin’ fence and chasin’ cows? I should have stayed in town and found a poker game. Shufflin’ cards is a whole lot easier…and you wouldn’t be moonin’ over that girl. The boss’s daughter, no less.”

“Well, you have to admit, she sure is pretty,” said the Kid. “Maybe it won’t be so bad, and out here, there’s not so many people to see us and maybe recognize us.”

They rode over a hill and found Scott and Johnny.

“Howdy,” said Curry. “Mr. Lancer hired us on and said for us to help you with this fence.”

“Well, we can sure use your help,” said Scott, shaking hands with the two newcomers. “I’m Scott Lancer; this is my brother, Johnny.”

“Name’s Thaddeus Jones; this is my partner, Joshua Smith,” said Curry. As he shook hands with Johnny, he had a brief though that he and Heyes should have connected the name Lancer to the cowboy in the saloon the night before. Again he wondered where he had met Johnny before.

“I’ll show you what we’re doing,” said Scott.

Johnny watched the two men as Scott explained where the fence needed to be. He stared at Jones. He remembered that the two men had been in the saloon last night. Even then he had thought he should know who they were. He knew him; he was sure of it. He just couldn’t remember from when.

*****

Smith and Jones had come in after dark with the two Lancer brothers. They had cleaned up then eaten a late meal of leftovers at the large, well-stocked cookhouse. On leaving, the Kid spotted a light in the barn. Through an open doorway, there was the shadow of a woman in a skirt. “I’ll be along in a minute,” he said to Heyes.

“You go courtin’ that girl, you’ll get in trouble and I’m too tired to back you up. I’m goin’ to bed,” said a very tired Heyes. Stretching his arms and trying to work some of the kinks out of his back, he walked on toward the bunkhouse while Curry headed for the barn.

“Evening, Miss Teresa,” said Curry as he came to a stop beside the girl. She stood in front of a stall, feeding an apple to the yearling with the injured shoulder.

“Oh…Mister…,” Teresa muttered. She had been thinking about the cowboy but was a bit surprised by his sudden appearance.

“Jones, Ma’am, Thaddeus Jones. How’s he doin’?” The Kid nodded toward the colt.

Teresa petted the soft nose of the young horse. “He’s fine. He’ll be all well soon.”

“I’m sure he will. I think you’re a very good nurse for a horse.” The Kid smiled at her and Teresa giggled. The colt nickered and pushed at Teresa’s arm, wanting more attention.

“Well…I guess I better be getting back,” said Teresa, giving the yearling a final pat.

“Yeah, me, too. Tomorrow looks to be another long day building fence.” The Kid hesitated, not wanting the moment to end but knowing it should. “Goodnight, Teresa.”

Teresa smiled at Curry. “Goodnight, Thaddeus.” She turned and left the barn, the smile still on her lips.

Curry stayed where he was, continuing to stroke the colt, his thoughts on Teresa and how nice it would be to stay here on such a fine ranch, with such a pretty woman and never have to think about running from the law again. Never have to think about what he would do if someone recognized him or Heyes. Never have to practice with his gun so that he could protect himself if some trigger-happy man wanted to make a name for himself by having a gunfight with the famous Kid Curry. Not for the first time, he wished that he hadn’t become Kid Curry, gunslinger and train robber. But thinking about not being that person would never make it so. He was Kid Curry and he couldn’t change that, no matter what he did or how far he rode. A life on a big ranch with a woman like Teresa wasn’t in the cards for Kid Curry. After a few minutes, he turned to leave, and almost ran straight into Johnny Lancer. Johnny stood, hands on hips, staring at Curry. At length he said, “Jones, I don’t know what you want here, but you leave Teresa alone.”

“Look, Lancer, I don’t mean no harm to your sister. She’s a nice girl. I just wanted to talk to her.” Curry didn’t want trouble with the Lancers. Maybe Hayes was right, maybe they should be on their way.

“You’re right. She’s a nice girl and not for the likes of you. So stay away from her. Consider yourself warned.” Johnny turned and walked slowly away. He still wasn’t sure where he knew Jones from but he was convinced the man was trouble. Maybe he should talk to Murdock about letting him go.

Several weeks passed quietly at the Lancer ranch. Work was progressing at an even pace with no real problems. Murdock was pleased at the way Scott and Johnny were learning to handle things so that he could sit back and take a breather for what seemed like the first time in years.

Murdock hadn’t noticed Teresa’s interest in the new hand Thaddeus Jones until Jelly had mentioned it. At first, he had been concerned but as time had passed, he hadn’t seen Teresa paying much more than a passing interest in Jones. It certainly couldn’t hurt for the girl to have a slight crush, especially as Jones was staying away from Teresa. Murdock couldn’t object to Teresa showing an interest in the handsome cowboy but he hoped it came to an end as he realized Johnny didn’t like the hand at all. Once Johnny had voiced an objection to Teresa riding out with Smith and Jones, but Murdock couldn’t see any problem since Scott and several other reliable hands had been with them. Smith and Jones differently did their share of work. He could find no fault there. Murdock didn’t want to have to lose two good hands because Johnny couldn’t get along with them.

*****

Curry and Heyes rode toward the small town of Spanish Wells.

“Not sure we should be going to this dance at the town hall. It’s for the locals and we ain’t local,” said Heyes.

Curry answered quickly. “Sure we are. We been here longer than lots a places. I’m beginning to feel like a local.”

“Well, what’s a local feel like?”

Curry didn’t answer Heyes. “Anyway, Teresa asked if we were comin’.”

“Now, Kid. I told you to stay away from that girl. You gonna get us in trouble and then we won’t be local no longer. We’ll be runnin’ again.”

“Heyes, it can’t hurt to go and dance a couple of dances.”

Heyes sighed in exasperation. He knew the Kid would go to the dance regardless. “Do what you want. I’m gonna see if I can find a poker game and stay out of trouble.”

*****

Johnny Lancer was relieved not to see Smith or Jones at the dance. He, Murdock, Scott, Teresa, and Jelly had ridden into Spanish Wells earlier that afternoon. Teresa had spent several hours with a friend, shopping and getting ready for the evening. Now the two girls had joined some others in a corner, admiring each others dresses. Murdock was in another corner talking to a couple of ranchers. The musicians were tuning up, a fiddle player having hit a sour note several times, but no one seemed to notice.

Johnny ran his fingers around the tight collar he wore. Suits just didn’t fit him. He wished he would slip out and head over to the saloon where he would be more comfortable, but he had promised his family he would stay.

Scott gave him a light, playful jab on the arm. “What’s wrong, brother? Not fixing to run out, are you? The dance is just beginning.”

“This is you’re kind of thing, Scott, not mine. But, no, I’m not leavin’ yet. I told Murdock and Teresa I’d stay. Least for a while.”

“Well, now, several of Teresa’s friends are sure lookin’ this way. I think that little blond — what’s her name…Melissa — likes you.”

“Naw, I think she’s lookin’ at you, Scott. She looks more like your type. But then there’s that Harriet, too. I know you like the real, quiet, serious girls.” Johnny quickly moved toward a young woman he had met before, leaving Scott to the stares of the giggling, younger girls.

Johnny had danced several dances, each with a different partner, and was taking a breather with a couple of the Lancer hands, when he saw Thaddeus Jones dancing with Teresa. The half smile that had been on his face disappeared, replaced by a slight frown and a hard look crossed his face. Unconsciously, his hand went to his hip but his gun was hanging by the door, on a rack. He had taken only three steps when a hand gripped his elbow firmly.

“This ain’t the time or place fer what you’re thinkin’, boy,” said the grizzled, older man.

Johnny stopped hands on his hips. “I know, Jelly, but I still don’t like it.” Jelly Hoskins wasn’t really a member of the Lancer family but Johnny always thought that Jelly knew more about how he felt and what he had experienced in life than Scott or Murdock. The older man had seen a lot of life, and not always the nice parts.

“I’m not sure I like it either,” Murdock had walked up, unnoticed by Johnny, “but a few dances won’t hurt. Jones does his work and hasn’t caused any trouble.”

“Oh, he’s trouble all right. I can spot his kind a mile a way. He’s a gunslinger if there ever was one,” said Johnny.

“I guess you should know,” spoke up Jelly. “Me, I’m gonna see if there’s any of that pie and cake left that all the woman folks brought. You comin’ with me, boss?” Jelly looked at Murdock.

“Yeah, Jelly, I guess I will.” He placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Leave it alone for now, Johnny.”

“Sure, Murdock,” agreed Johnny.

Johnny watched while Jones danced another dance with Teresa. Another cowboy took the next dance with her, and then Jones claimed her again. Johnny eased through the crowd, and stepped between the laughing girl and Jones.

“Teresa, you promised me this dance.”

Teresa looked puzzled. “Oh, Johnny, I don’t remember. Did I?”

“Well, we haven’t danced yet, so I figured to get at least one with you before the night was over.”

Both men glared at each other, eyes flashing. For the first time, Teresa sensed the animosity between them. She took Johnny’s arm. “Sure, Johnny. Come on. I’ll save the next one for Thaddeus.”

“Certainly, Miss Teresa,” Thaddeus stepped back. He spoke more to Johnny than to Teresa. “The night’s young yet. Lots more dances to be danced.”

Teresa almost pulled Johnny to the dance floor. They danced without speaking for several long moments. Finally Teresa asked. “Why don’t you like Thaddeus? Why did you try to embarrass me in front of him?”

“He’s not your kind, Teresa. You’re still so young and innocent. He’s trouble.”

“Oh, why does everybody keep saying that? A lot you know, Johnny Lancer. You have no right to try and tell be who I can be friends with or who I can dance with. You’re forgetting my mother died when I was little and my father died in a range war, and you, Murdock and Scott aren’t perfect by any means. I’m not so innocent as you might think.” She pulled away from him, went to sit with Melissa.

Johnny watched the dance from the sidelines. Thaddeus danced with Teresa, and with her friend and again with Teresa. Then Johnny saw him pick up his hat, coat, and gun at the door and leave. Johnny followed Jones lead, pulling his jacket out of a pile on a table and put it on. He got his hat from a rack, then his gun. He slung the belt around his waist, buckled it and walked out the door while still tying a thin leather strap around his leg.

A slight breeze stirred the warm summer night. Considering the late hour, the street was crowded, but it was Saturday night. A group of cowboys were joking and passing a liquor bottle between them. Several young couples walked together, escaping the hot, stuffy town hall where the dance was being held. Johnny stayed mostly to the shadows as he followed Jones. He was still trying to remember where he had seen Jones and his partner Smith. Smith and Jones. He was sure they were made-up names, but he couldn’t hold that against them. He had been known to use a few aliases himself, from time to time. He would have been glad for an excuse to run them out of the territory if they would just do something wrong. He wished they would do something wrong, but they did their work just fine. Or if Murdock would just give the word. But his old man, as he still sometimes thought of his father, had made him promise he would leave them alone for now. However, that wasn’t going to stop him from keeping an eye on them.

Jones wasn’t making any secret out of where he was going. He walked straight up the street and into the saloon. He had realized that Lancer was watching his every movement. He had promised himself a little fun at the dance. A few dances with Teresa. He realized he was growing fonder of Teresa the more he was with her. And he knew he shouldn’t. He didn’t want to compromise his and Heyes stay at the Lancer ranch. He figured he and Hannibal were in enough trouble by just being in Spanish Wells. He knew he had been at the dance long enough. It was time to leave and meet Heyes at the saloon.

It hadn’t been hard to spot Johnny Lancer following him. He didn’t like Johnny but didn’t want any trouble with him. He remembered how fast Lancer had pulled his gun on the drunk cowhand the first night he and Heyes had come to Spanish Wells, and then it came to him. He remembered a few years back, in another place, another town, another saloon, and a young cowboy who pushed a fight with a gunhand named Johnny Madrid. Madrid had been faster than Curry had expected and the young cowboy had been lucky to have had only a broken arm instead of ending up in a grave. Now that he thought about it, Madrid and Johnny Lancer did look alike. He wondered if they could be one and the same.

On entering the saloon, the Kid ordered a beer from the bartender, and then joined Heyes at a table. Violet was seated there, also, watching Heyes play a game of solitaire.

“How was the dance?” asked Heyes.

The Kid sipped his beer. “Not bad. I expected you to have a poker game going.”

“No takers so far.” Heyes restacked the cards and shuffled them. “Most everyone’s at the dance.” There were only a few other customers scattered around the saloon, even though the town was crowded.

Violet leaned back in her chair and looked the Kid over with interest.

Heyes introduced them. “Thaddeus, this is Vi. Vi, meet my partner Thaddeus Jones.”

The Kid had barely glanced at Vi. “Pleased to meet you, Ma’am.” He was still keeping an eye on the door.

“Thaddeus,” Vi greeted the Kid in a soft sweet voice, a voice she had learned drew more men than the loud yells and laughter of the other saloon girls, but the Kid didn’t seem to notice. “Can I get you fellas another beer?”

“Sure thing,” said Curry.

“What’s the matter, Thaddeus?” asked Heyes, as soon as Vi was gone. He had seen the Kid watching the door suspiciously. Heyes understood why, when a moment later Johnny Lancer walked through the batwing doors, and up to the bar. “Oh. You and him having more problems, Kid? You best stay away from that one. I saw him practicing with his pistol the other day, and he just might be as fast as you are.”

“I know, Hannibal. And that’s what I’m worried about. You remember a few years back we seen a gunhand down in New Mexico that went by the name of Johnny Madrid. I think Johnny Lancer just might be Madrid.”

Heyes thought over what the Kid had said as he laid out another hand of Solitaire. “You know, Kid, you might be right.” He didn’t like the idea that Curry and Lancer might end up in a gunfight. It had been nice here in Spanish Wells and at the Lancer Ranch. He had hoped they could stay on longer instead of having to hit the trail again.

Violet had returned and set the full mugs of beer before the men. “Here ya go,” she said as she sat down with them.

“Thanks, Vi,” said Heyes. He watched as Lancer walked over to the bar and leaned against it waiting for the bartender to serve him.

“Johnny, glad to see you,” greeted Max, the bartender. “How ‘bout a beer?”

“Evenin’, Max. A beer sounds fine.” Johnny accepted the drink Max set in front of him, and took a swallow. He knew Jones and Smith were watching him. Looking in the mirror behind the bar, he could see Vi sitting with the two men.

When she realized Johnny was watching her, the girl got up and scampered over to stand beside Lancer at the bar. “Johnny, I haven’t seen you around for a while.”

“Haven’t been in to town much lately. To much work to do.”

“To much work isn’t good for you.” Vi put her hand on his arm. “Buy me a drink?” she asked.

“Not tonight.” Lancer wasn’t interested in the girl or in drinking. He was concentrating so much on Jones that at first he barely remembered that Vi was the girl he had rescued from the drunken cowhands before. He didn’t like the change in Vi. She had been thankful for his help and friendly previously. Now she was all business, trying to get him to spend more money.

Vi felt unwanted and her shoulders shrugged in dejection as she returned to her seat by Heyes. She realized she had made a mistake in the way she had approached Johnny. Acting like a saloon girl had been the wrong thing to do.

Lancer promptly forgot her as he watched Smith and Jones. He knew Jones was watching him as well. Smith continued to play with a deck of cards. Johnny watched the flutter of the cards as Smith shuffled them, fanned the cards out on the table, gathered them up, cut the deck and shuffled some more, then laid out another game of Solitaire.

Johnny’s mind flashed back a few years to another time when he had been watching a poker game. The game had been too rich for the few dollars he had in his pocket. One man seemed to be winning the most. Johnny had watched the man playing, shuffling the cards, and dealing. Somebody had whispered that the gambler was Hannibal Heyes and another player was Heyes’ partner Kid Curry. Hayes was a gambler, Curry a gunhand, and both were said to be train robbers. Later that day he had been forced into a gunfight in which he had injured the other man. The one that was supposed to be Curry had said something about it was better to injure than kill if it could be avoided. He had always tried to remember that. It had been a long time ago, but now that he remembered, he thought it highly likely that Curry and Heyes were Smith and Jones.

“How was the dance?” Max’s question brought Johnny back to the present.

“Uh…oh…all right, I guess.”

A cowboy stumbled up to the bar with an empty glass. “Hey, Max. How ‘bout a ‘nother beer?”

“Sure thing,” said Max, as he took the glass and refilled it from a keg.

Johnny turned, with his back to the bar. Not for the first time he noted the way Jones wore his gun. Low and tired to his leg, the same way Johnny wore his.

Memories of that other night haunted his mind again. A slight shiver shook Johnny. Not enough to be noticed by anyone else but it was there. Johnny Lancer wasn’t really afraid, but he was sure now that he had been trying to pick a fight with Kid Curry. He knew he was fast and a good shot, but not that fast or that good. Or not as fast as the stories about Kid Curry made him out to be.

“Johnny.” Scott Lancer stood half in and half out of the barroom doors. “We’re going back to the ranch. You coming with us?”

Johnny hesitated. “Yeah…I’m comin’.” He followed Scott out.

The Kid and Heyes watched him go. Curry breathed a sigh of relief. He had been sure Lancer had been all set to push a fight right then.

“It ain’t over yet,” said Heyes.

Vi perked up. “What ain’t over?”

Heyes laid out another game. “Don’t you go worrin’ your pretty head over it, Vi.”

*****

The noonday sun beat down, but Johnny sat in the shade of the grapevine that covered the patio. He worked on a strip of leather repairing the harness that lay at his feet. As he worked, he thought about what had happened since Smith and Jones had come to the Lancer Ranch. Over the past several days, he had kept the idea that Smith and Jones might be Heyes and Curry to himself. He had considered telling Scott and Murdock, but decided not to. First, they probably wouldn’t have believed him and if they did…well, he was sure they would try to turn the two wanted men into the law and he was also sure that would cause a gun battle and someone would get hurt. The last thing Johnny wanted was someone getting hurt. He really didn’t care about Curry or Heyes, but his family was another thing. He smiled at the thought. A few years ago he wouldn’t have worried about them, either. Of course, that was before he had met Murdock, Scott, Teresa and even Jelly. Before he knew them and learned that they cared about him, too.

Losing his concentration on his work, he nicked his thumb, grunting at the sudden pain. Closing his pocket knife he stood and headed for the barn. It was time to get things settled with Jones — or Curry or what ever his name was.

*****

Teresa trotted her bay mare across the large field, aiming for the shade of some oak trees, where she knew there was a stream. She had thought a nice soothing ride would help her sort things out in her mind, but the heat wasn’t helping.

She really did like Thaddeus Jones, even if he was a bit older than she was. And she was sure he liked her, too. But she also knew her family, especially Johnny, didn’t like Thaddeus, even though they hadn’t said much about it.

She was so deep in thought, she wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings; Teresa didn’t see the three men watching her until they pulled their mounts into her path. One grabbed the bridle of her mare.

“Where ya goin’, girlie?” He was tall and skinny, with long black hair stringing around his face. “Hey Rhodes, you think this girl wants to have some fun?”

“Sure she does, Burt.” The second man, Rhodes, was heavier but not as tall, as his friend. His partner, the short, almost fat Thompson was right beside him, giggling at a very frightened Teresa. He had a bottle of whiskey in his hand. He pulled the cork with his teeth, spit it into his hand, took a swallow and put the cork back in.

“Let go.” She yanked at the reins causing her horse to whinny and side step but Burt kept his hold. Teresa tried to sound brave. “Turn lose of my horse. You’re on the Lancer Ranch and you had better leave.”

“Lancer, eh.” Rhodes had perked up at the name. “You know that there Johnny Lancer, do ya?”

“Of course I do,” Teresa answered. She had hoped Johnny’s name would cause these men to leave her alone, but it didn’t work. It only seemed to delight them.

“Ha, ha,” laughed Rhodes. “Thompson, what you want a bet that there Johnny Lancer would want this girl back if‘n we were to take her with us?”

“Bet he would, at that,” agreed Thompson.

“Yeah, I bet he would. Come on, girlie, you can ride with me.” Rhodes suddenly reached out an arm and pulled Teresa onto his horse, holding her in front of him. Teresa screamed and Rhodes horse half reared in fright. Teresa began to fight Rhodes trying to get away. Her kicking and struggling only made him laugh at her. He managed to get his left arm around her so that he had her arms pinned to her side. The smell of his drunken breath was disgusting and stomach-turning when he tried to kiss her. She twisted her head from side to side to avoid him. Unable to do anything else Teresa screamed. When she was out of breath, she subsided but was ready to fight some more if he gave her the least chance.

*****

Johnny pulled his palomino to a halt. Had he heard something? It almost sounded as if a woman had screamed. But why would a woman be screaming out here? It would only be if she was in trouble. But then maybe it had only been a coyote yipping, or just his imagination.

Tightening his grip on the reins of the prancing horse, Johnny started to go on toward the pasture where Jones and Smith were supposed to be moving some cattle. The palomino had taken about ten steps when another scream pierced the air. Johnny pulled up again and then kicked the horse into a run. Jones would have to wait.

*****

“Kid, I don’t know if I can handle much more of this punchin’ cows.” Heyes cut off to the left to turn back a cow and her calf  that were trying to quit the small herd that he and Curry were moving to a different pasture. When he returned to where Curry was, he continued where he had left off. “Like I was sayin’, I don’t think I can handle much more of this eatin’ dust.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” agreed the Kid.

Heyes looked at the Kid in surprise. “You do?”

“Yeah, it’s about time…,” The Kid never finished what he was going to say as a women’s scream caused him to pull up sharply.

“Ain’t none of our business,” said Heyes, thinking out loud, but all the while knowing he and the Kid would have to find out what was causing someone to scream.

“Teresa said she might ride out this way. She might be in trouble. I’m going to check it out.” Curry started loping his horse in the direction the sound had come from.

Heyes waved a hand at the herd. “What about the cows?”

There was another scream. “Forget the cows.” Curry and Heyes urged their horses into a run.

At the top of a hill, Curry and Heyes pulled up in a stand of trees and brush. Heyes looked back at the sound of a running horse and saw Johnny Lancer’s palomino following them. Johnny slid of his horse, gun drawn and pointed at Heyes.

“Smith, what’s going on?”

“Over here,” hissed Curry, “and keep your voices down. They’ve got Teresa.”

Leaving their horses ground tied and out of sight, the three men crouched behind some brush as they watched the scene below them. Teresa was held in front of a man on his horse. She had managed to get one hand free and was hitting him on the face and chest, but not doing much damage, except to cause the man to curse and jerk on the reins, sending conflicting signals to his horse.

“Rhodes,” said Johnny, recognizing the man and Thompson, but not Burt.

“We have to stop them,” whispered the Kid. “We can’t let them take Teresa.”

Taking command, Lancer quickly ordered a plan of attack. “Smith, circle ‘round that way. Come up behind them. Jones, you try and get in front of ‘em. I’m goin’ straight down this hill.”

Not able to think of anything else, Smith and Jones did as instructed and Johnny began working his way down the hill.

*****

Rhodes flinched back in pain as Teresa’s small doubled up fist hit him in the eye. His grip loosened enough Teresa was able to slip out of his grasp and slide off the side of the horse. She ran toward where Johnny was hiding.

“Git her,” yelled Rhodes, and Burt jumped off his horse and ran after the girl. Johnny stepped from behind a tree. “Stop right there!”

Burt slide to a stop, staring at Lancer in wonder. “Where’d you come from?”

Without thinking, and in a desperate move, Burt went for his gun, but his hand was barely on the gun butt before Johnny had raised his own gun and put a bullet in his shoulder. Burt screamed and fell to the ground, writhing in pain.

At the same time, Thompson had spurred his horse around, making a run for it and ran directly at Heyes. Heyes stepped to the side as if to let him pass. At the last possible moment, he reached out and pulled Thompson from the saddle. The two men went down in a heap. They fought for a moment, then a short jab to Thompson’s chin caused his eyes to glaze and he fell to the ground, half unconscious. Heyes took his pistol, and when Thompson tried to get up, a booted foot on his back kept him face down in the dirt.

Rhodes had dismounted, turning his horse as a shield between himself and Lancer, but the scared animal had been unable to stand still and bounded off leaving Rhodes, exposing to a very mad Kid Curry.

“Rhodes, put your hands up. You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Rhodes smiled evilly. “Come on, cowboy, you ain’t got what it takes to stop me. You’re just a dumb cowhand.” His hand already held his gun, half pointed at the Kid. Curry’s gun was still in his holster.

“You’re makin’ a mistake, Rhodes,” said Johnny. “He ain’t just a cowhand.”

 “Is that so.” Rhodes gun started to come up higher. “Don’t matter who he is, he’s gonna be dead.” As he spoke, he started to fire.

Kid Curry’s hand moved too fast to see. His Colt was in his hand and spitting lead, and Rhodes was falling.

Teresa ran to Johnny’s side, throwing her arms around his neck. He hugged her to him. “Are you all right?”

Teresa began to calm down as Johnny held her. “I think so.”

*****

“Do you have to leave Thaddeus?” Teresa asked. “The sheriff said there weren’t any charges against you or Joshua. He said that you were justified in shooting those men. You saved my life.”

It was several days later, and Curry and Heyes agreed that it was time for them to move on, even though all the Lancers had asked them to stay, including Johnny.

Heyes was already mounted, while Curry tightened the cinch on his saddle. “It’s for the best,” he said. This was definitely one of those times when he hated to always have to be moving on. Much as he liked it here, he wanted to be gone before that Sheriff started putting two and two together and figured out who he and Heyes were. And he couldn’t take the chance of telling the Lancers why they had to go.

Murdock handed an envelope with their pay in it to each of the two men. “Teresa’s right. You don’t need to go. You’ll always have a job here, if you want it.”

“Thanks, Mr. Lancer,” said Heyes, “we have to go. But maybe someday we’ll take you up on that offer. Come on, Thaddeus.”

Curry reached out and took Teresa’s hand in his. “You take care, Teresa,” he said softly. Then he bent slightly, and kissed her on the check. Quickly, he mounted his horse, and he and Heyes trotted their horses down the road. Turning for a final look, the Kid waved. Teresa waved back, as a single tear tracked its way down her face.

Murdock put his arm around her shoulders and they walked over to where Johnny, Scott and Jelly stood by the corral fence. They watched until the two men were out of sight.

“You know who them two are, don’t you?” asked Jelly.

Murdock looked at the older man. “What are you talking about, Jelly?”

“Them two, Smith and Jones. That ain’t their real names, ya know.”

“Lots of men don’t use their real names for one reason or another,” said Johnny. “It don’t matter who they are. They helped me rescue Teresa.”

Scott turned to his brother. “You sure did change your tune, but I guess you’re right for once”

Teresa crossed your arms, and stared at Jelly. She had to ask. “Well, just who do you think they are?”

“Why, Jones is Kid Curry, and Smith is Hannibal Heyes.”

Johnny laughed, trying to cover his surprise at Jelly’s words. He didn’t want anyone to know that Jelly had guessed the truth. “Now, I know you’re crazy for sure, Jelly.” He walked away. “I got work to do.”

 “Me, too,” said Scott, as he followed Johnny. “You sure get some funny ideas sometimes, Jelly.”

“Jelly, that’s a silly thought. They can’t be Curry and Heyes. Those outlaws would never come around here.” Teresa turned and walked toward the house. She smiled to herself. She wondered if it could be true that Thaddeus was Kid Curry. She wondered if she would ever see him again. She certainly hoped so.

Murdock leaned up against the fence beside Jelly. “You really think those two are Curry and Heyes?”

“Sure do, Boss. I seen ‘em once before. I recognized them when they first showed up here. But I didn’t want to say nothin’. I was afraid if I did that Johnny and Curry would get in a fight. Which they almost did.” Leaving Murdock standing deep in thought, Jelly headed for the barn, mumbling as he went. “Now that all these tearful good-byes are over, I’m sure I can find something better to do.”

***The End***

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