A Simple Game by Desert Sun

Word Count 6,312

.Note:

This story was started on January 11, 2005 and posted sometime that year to the Lancer groups on Yahoo.  My writing skills have improved considerably since then so I did quite a bit of editing in January of 2014 before putting the story into the files of the Lancer FanFiction group on Facebook.  I’m still not 100% pleased with the outcome, but I don’t have the time to seek perfection on everything I’ve written in the past.  I’ll save that for my new stories.

Hope you enjoy the read.

****

For more than a mile, not one scuff of a hoof print marred the skim of dust on the sun-baked road that passed through Eagle Rock Canyon. The gentle slopes into and out of Eagle Creek itself were also devoid of tracks, as were both banks up and down the stream as far as horse or man could travel, which wasn’t far.  Even the softer edges of the road, where a path could be made through the dense tangle of wild rose bushes and blackberry vines, were clean of any marks left by two-legged or four-legged animals.

Squatting with one knee on the ground and his elbow resting on the other, Scott Lancer felt his exasperation rise.  He scowled at the hidden trail that he wasn’t altogether sure was there, and sighed heavily as he stood.  After thumbing the front of his hat up off his sweating brow, he scrubbed the toe of one boot back and forth across the crusted dirt at his feet.  “They had to come this way,” he said as he took a step forward while tugging on the strips of leather in his right hand.

The flashy, sorrel horse on the other end of the reins willingly followed, his nose brushing against Scott’s hip.

As Scott walked on down the road, he explained aloud that without sprouting wings, no horse could make it up or down that stream any farther than they had gone.  The boulders were too big to go over and too close together to get between.   No one could have climbed up the bank without being noticed, either.  Where it wasn’t too steep, the ground along the water’s edge was soft, and tracks would be impossible to hide.

“That leaves the way we’re going,” Scott said.  He glanced sideways at his horse, smiled his appreciation of the attentive forward angle of the gelding’s ears, and then focused once more on the task at hand.

A wall of rock now lined the left-hand side of the road, which was on the same course as Eagle Creek, while blackberry vines on the right formed a thorny barrier wicked enough to rip man or beast to shreds.  The centers of the patches of briars rose to heights well above Scott’s head, and the vines spilled down the slope that led to the stream bank.  In places, he could see that some of the arched stems touched the water.

Scott doubted that anyone would venture through the prickly hedge unless the stakes were considerably higher than the cost of a few rounds of beers, but he checked for tracks anyway.  His brother wasn’t just anyone, and Johnny really had no other option.  Beyond the next bend, anyone on the road would be exposed for a half a mile or more.  

Even where the vines were thinnest, the leaves and spiny stems appeared intact.  Scott mounted and urged his horse into a jog while continuing to glance at the ground.  He didn’t expect to find any tracks going over the edge on his right.  The road was rising out of the canyon, and the slope on that side had turned into a rock bluff that fell a hundred feet or more to the creek below.  No one could make it off of there.

Once he rounded the bend and the road leveled off, Scott felt the reins bite into his gloves as his horse stretched its neck forward, begging for more rein.  “Easy Chico.  I’ll let you run once we see Johnny,” he said, while resisting the pull on his arms.

Nothing obstructed Scott’s view of the road ahead.  He frowned.  It was empty.  Somehow, without his knowing it, Johnny had left the road.  The question now was whether to backtrack and look for the missing sign of his brother’s escape or to go on to town and admit defeat.

Giving up without a fight went against everything Scott had learned as an officer in the cavalry.  He held to his current course and debated what to do next.

Up ahead, a rock lay in the middle of the road.  It seemed out of place, but Scott wasn’t sure why.  Then he remembered there was a cut somewhere ahead on the left and that, from his present position, he couldn’t see if anyone was hiding there.

Scott urged his horse on.  Johnny just might be hoping to have fooled him into thinking he had missed something and, therefore, into going back for another look.  “Might as well look for tracks to the top of the ridge,” he said.

Upon reaching the break in the canyon wall on his left, Scott studied the terrain.  Nothing.

His hopes plummeted and he frowned.  Johnny couldn’t possibly be hiding anywhere up there.  The entire crevice was visible except for the last three or four feet.

Another possibility came to mind.  Scott rejected it.

A rattle of tumbling stones drew his attention to the top of the bluff, and something pale flashed in the late afternoon sun.

“He couldn’t, could he?” Scott said.  He adjusted his hat and contemplated the possibility of anyone getting a horse up the steep, narrow, rock-strewn gouge.  He supposed a strong animal like Barranca, his brother’s palomino, might be able to make the climb provided that the unseen stretch at the top wasn’t straight up and down.

Scott raked his teeth over his lower lip, drew in a deep breath, and patted his horse’s neck.  “So Chico . . . shall we take a look?”   

Chico Bonito, so named by Johnny Lancer for his pretty blazed face and dazzling white stockings, bobbed his head and danced in place.  Scott held him with a tight rein and glanced at the road in both directions.  One way meant certain defeat.  The other could cost an extra hour or more of riding that could ultimately end with the same outcome.  Even though the alternative was a long shot, it was the only option with any prospect of victory.

Being a gambler at heart, Scott chose to take the risk and urged Chico up the rocky embankment.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ducking a low branch here and there, Johnny Lancer guided his horse into the center of a cluster of scrub oak and reined to a halt.  Barranca’s lathered flanks quivered with each heaving breath, his proud head drooping.

“Good fella.”  Johnny rubbed the horse’s sweat drenched neck, swung out of the saddle, and peered through the maze of tree limbs.  He continued to caress Barranca’s neck while giving the horse a much needed rest.

The gentle slope above Johnny remained empty, and he felt a rising sense of excitement at the thought of winning the game with his brother.  “I think we fooled him,” he said.

Green River was less than a mile away, due south down the slope.  A man on the road would have to travel closer to three.

Johnny grinned.  He figured he’d have Barranca settled into the livery stable by the time his brother made it to town.  Of course if Scott did much backtracking, it could take him an hour or more to get to town.

Sunlight glinted off of metal near the spot Johnny had topped the ridge a short while before.  His smile quickly turned into a frown.  Now what?  If he headed straight for Green River, as he had planned, his brother was sure to see him.  And staying put was out of the question.  The spattering of trees wouldn’t give him enough cover to keep his brother from spotting him.  Scott had too good an eye.

The only other choice was to try angling toward a larger clump of trees to the southwest and hope he was able to keep his current hiding place between him and Scott.  Johnny eased into the saddle and gently nudged the rowels of his spurs into Barranca’s still heaving sides.  “Come on, boy.  Time to go.”

Once out in the open, Johnny kept looking back toward the ridge.  The farther he went without seeing the other rider, the higher his hopes rose.  Just maybe his plan would work.

With each of the palomino’s long strides, the grove of trees moved closer.  At less than thirty yards to go, Johnny twisted in the saddle to check behind him one last time.

A rider had broken into the open and stopped.

Johnny muttered a curse.  Somehow Scott had trailed him, after all.

Barranca stumbled on the rough ground that was terraced by cattle trails.  His body lurched forward, his knees buckled, and his nose dipped to touch the ground.

Johnny grabbed the saddle horn, saved himself from being thrown against the horse’s neck, and breathed a sigh.  As he righted himself, he heard the crack of a rifle, and a bullet whistled past his ear.

Reining Barranca around to face the other rider, Johnny shouted, “Hey, don’t ya think that was a little close!”

Instantly, Johnny saw his mistake.  Scott had not fired the agreed upon signal ending their game.  The man with the raised rifle was astride a paint horse that only resembled Chico in the front end.  Its hind quarters and rear legs were white, as were its long mane and tail.

With a cold shiver racing up his spine, Johnny dug his spurs into Barranca’s ribs.

Another bullet whizzed by as Barranca surged ahead. 

Johnny bailed out of the saddle.  He wasn’t about to wait for his attacker to take aim again.  Barranca was too good a horse to risk being wounded in a gun battle.

The rifle barked two more times as Johnny rolled down the lumpy slope.  Reaching the closest cover was no longer an option.  He was downhill from it now and he’d be too exposed if he got up and tried to run.  His only hope was to find cover farther down the hill.

Near the bottom of the hill, Johnny spotted a thick grove of trees that was four or five hundred yards away.  The ground was breaking off much steeper, and he thought he might have a chance of reaching it faster than a man on horseback.

Lead kicked up grit that stung his eyes.  The shooter, whoever he was, was good.  Too good.

Hot lead grazed Johnny’s left shoulder and fear, bordering on panic, replaced his sense of hope.  He didn’t dare stop his wild tumble to grab his pistol from the holster strapped around his hips.  Before he could unfasten the short strap that held the gun in place and clear leather, the man with the rifle would have a bead on him.  His only chance for survival was to keep moving.

More shots rang out.  A bullet nicked the back of Johnny’s right hand, and another bounced a pebble off his chin.

Johnny flung his legs in a wider arch in hopes of gaining speed.  Time was running out, and he knew it.  If he didn’t reach cover soon, it would be too late.

Suddenly his legs stopped their downward roll, and his upper body twisted and slid in an arc like the pendulum of the grandfather clock in the Lancer living room.

Johnny let out a yelp.  He kicked to free his feet from the bush that had snared them and wished for a way out of what had started out a simple game of hide and seek with his brother. Scott, I sure could use your help, he cried in his mind.

The rifle spoke again, and a bullet blazed a path through Johnny’s right thigh.  He gasped and grabbed for his leg.  Where was Scott?

A burst of pain exploded in Johnny’s head, and his world tilted and swayed.  He had the vague feeling that there was something he desperately needed to do, but his mind refused to work.  Then as everything around him blurred, he gave up trying to think and submitted to the closing darkness.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Scott Lancer coaxed his horse to make one last lunge up the steep crevice to finally stand on level ground. The going had been rough, and Chico Benito had protested more than once against the rugged terrain, his shod hooves ringing off the rocks that rolled beneath them.  Only the persistent and firm tugs on the reins and Scott’s soft pleading voice had kept the sorrel gelding from giving up the struggle and refusing to follow another step.

Hunching over with his knees tucked under him, Scott gasped for breath.  He couldn’t quite believe he and Chico had accomplished the treacherous climb they had just made.

A shot rang out, or was that what he heard?  Scott wasn’t sure.  His breath roared in throat, and the pounding of his heart sounded like someone was beating on a bass drum in his ears.  Even Chico, standing close by with long legs trembling and nostrils flaring, had barely perked his ears at the sound. 

Several more loud cracks drove any doubt from Scott’s mind.  His only questions now were who was doing the shooting and why.

Scott forgot all about his former purpose for catching sight of his brother before the other man reached the willows along the Rio Verde, which was the Spanish name for the river that gave the town of Green River its name.  Winning the game was no longer of prime importance.  Johnny’s safety was.  All of the shots had come from a rifle, and Johnny wasn’t carrying one.

Lunging to his feet, Scott ignored his still wheezing breath.  He reached under his horse’s neck, flipped the right rein up and over, and quickly mounted. “Come on, Chico,” he said with a dig of his heels into the horse’s sweat-streaked sides.

Chico grunted and moved forward at a trot.  Scott guided him toward the far side of the swale.  The gun shots had seemed to be coming from somewhere in that general direction.

Upon reaching the brow of the ridge, Scott slowed his horse to a walk and scanned the hillside below.  Nothing moved.

Most of the slope was clearly visible except for a fan-shaped section that was hidden by a cluster of trees.  Scott urged Chico back into a trot and guided the horse toward the lower side of the oak grove.  An unnerving quiet had replaced the sound of gunfire, and he feared he might already be too late to help his brother, if help was needed.

With eyes constantly moving in search of the slightest movement, Scott skirted around the trees and broke into the open beyond where he immediately noticed the sun gleaming off the rump of a paint horse, which stood facing downhill a few hundred yards down the slope.  The rider had a rifle aimed at something on the ground beyond him.

Scott pulled Chico to a halt and reached for his side arm.  At that moment, he spotted a palomino near the line of willows at the bottom of the hill, and his heart lurched.  The saddle was empty.  Where was Johnny?

In one deft motion, Scott jerked his revolver free of his holster and fired at the man with the rifle. There wasn’t time to aim.  Even if there had been, he knew it wouldn’t have mattered.  His pistol was no match for the distance. 

The bullet fell short of its mark.  Still, its objective was accomplished.  The man with the rifle whirled the paint around to face Scott and fired off a quick shoot.

As lead blazed a trail across his ribs, Scott abandoned his saddle on the uphill side.  He landed on his shoulders–arms flung out to the sides, knuckles of his right hand smashing into a rock, and his fingers losing their grip on his revolver.  Then he somersaulting once and lay still, belly down and head turned toward his assailant.

Another bullet ploughed dirt into Scott’s face.  He didn’t move.   Without a gun, his only hope of living was for the man with the rifle to think that was no longer any need for further waste of lead.

Out of the corner of his eye, Scott watched the approach of the gunman until all that was visible of horse and rider were two pairs of white legs.  When the soft thud of hooves ended and the tip of a rifle came into view, he held his breath.  Surely, at any moment, another bullet would be on its way into his body.

Silently the metal rod probed the wound in Scott’s side. 

Scott gritted his teeth against the searing pain and didn’t move.  Only when the prodding ended did he dare to take a quick breath.

There was a squeak of leather and a whisper of footsteps.  A pair of shiny, black boots moved into view and drove away Scott’s hopes that his assailant had given up.

One glossy, pointed toe streaked forward and lifted Scott off the ground.  Agony exploded just below his ribs and in his belly.  He landed on his back with an audible grunt–his lungs protesting the sudden expulsion of air and retaliating with a wheezing gasp.  

“Thought you’d play possum and fool me into thinking you’d joined your brother, didn’t you?  Well, don’t worry . . . you’ll be with him soon enough,” a mocking voice said.

Panting for breath, Scott stared up at the leering face that was decidedly familiar.  Even though the name to go with it was illusive, there was no forgetting the high arch of those black brows over equally dark eyes that were set close to the bridge of a hawk-like nose, or the sneering upper lip that was covered by a thick mustache that drooped to the man’s chin at each corner of his mouth.  His attacker was none other than the gambler that he and Johnny had played cards with two weeks ago in Spanish Wells.

“Why?” Scott said, his voice cracking.

“Nobody treads on my toes and gets away with it.  You and your brother cost me a pretty penny with that little show of yours.  I figure you owe me . . . and I always collect my debts.”

Now looking down the business end of the rifle, Scott had no doubts about the man meaning every word.  Apparently, the only reason the crooked gambler hadn’t resorted to violence before was because the odds of two to one hadn’t been favorable enough.  Time and patience apparently had changed the odds.

Scott lifted a brow, and the corners of his mouth curved slightly upward as a soft breath ‘huffed’ through his nose.  Time and patience.   If he could keep the man talking, there might be a chance of coming out of this alive.  Val, Green River’s less than orderly sheriff, was bound to have heard the shots and should show up before long to investigate.

“I take it you’ve been following us a while.  Why wait ’til now to make your move?” Scott asked.  If his memory served him right, the man had introduced himself as Blaine.  Whether it was a first or a last name had never been established.

Blaine scowled, chewing at his lower lip as though he were contemplating which he should do: answer the question or pull the trigger of the rifle in his hands.  He apparently decided that, since he held all the aces, he could be generous.  “I believe in making sure the odds are all in my favor,” he said, visibly relaxing.  “I did some asking around.  Heard you were a fair shot with a rifle and that that brother of yours was no slouch with a revolver.  You two played right into my hand when you split up back there.  Of course, I never counted on meeting up with either of you this quickly.  I figured I’d have to wait for you where the road makes a sharp bend before crossing the river.”

Scott took a deeper breath and willed his voice to remain steady.  “What makes you think you would have gotten both of us?  Johnny was far enough ahead that any shots would have given me plenty of warning.”

The gambler laughed.  “Doesn’t look like it would have mattered, does it?  You had warning enough this way.”

Scott bristled, but he had to agree.  Blaine was right.  Like a green Lieutenant, he had ridden right into the trap.  He should have taken cover in the trees and used my rifle.       

It was too late to think about what he should have done, although Scott doubted the added delay would have prevented his brother taking another bullet.  Not that any of that mattered now.  Scott had the feeling it was too late to think about anything if he was reading the other man’s eyes correctly.  Blaine had the look of cat that had lost interest in toying with a mouse and was ready to finish the game.

Scott made one last effort to stall the inevitable.  “How do you expect to get away with this?  Someone’s bound to have heard the shooting.”

“I took care of that, too.  Besides, by the time you boys are found, I’ll have climbed down the way you came up.  No one will suspect a man walking on the road, especially if his horse was stolen early this morning.”  Blaine’s teeth shined in the sun.

Scott swallowed, his throat constricted, and his heart pounded harder.  Blaine had thought of everything, or so it seemed.  What had started out a friendly match between brothers had turned into a much deadlier contest, of which neither would be the victor.

Goodbye, Brother.  It was good knowing you, Scott thought as he waited for the bullet that would snuff out his own life.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Awaking to the sensation of lying on his back on a spinning merry-go-round and the sound of drums beating in his head, Johnny opened his eyes.  Was that a revolver he heard?  He rolled his head toward the sound and willed the earth to stop moving so he could find out what he was up against.

A blur of white came into view and a rifle barked.  What had looked like foggy spindles turned into the legs of a moving horse packing an empty saddle.  Chico.  The horse was Chico.

In his mind Johnny saw a vision of his brother tumbling head over heels on the ground. He closed his eyes and silently groaned.  Not Scott, too.  

Johnny scolded himself for thinking the worst.   Things might not be as bad as they looked.  There might be something he could do to end the nightmare he and his brother were in.

With this last thought, Johnny grabbed for his pistol.  The back of his hand scrapped against the ground as he wrapped his stiff fingers around the butt of the gun, and a bolt of fire blazed a trail from his knuckles to his elbow.  He clinched his teeth and gave a hard jerk.

The pistol refused to budge.  Cursing his forgetfulness, Johnny fumbled to unbutton the strip of leather on the upper edge of his holster.  He felt it give and his hopes rose as he slid the barrel free.

Again the rifle spoke.

A glance up the hill told Johnny that the gunman was already out of range.  His hopes plummeted and he bit his lip.  He had taken too long getting his gun.  Now, he would have to get closer to be of any help to his brother, if Scott was still alive.  That meant crawling up the hill, and hoping he wasn’t caught before getting within firing range.

Johnny’s first attempt to move told him he had another problem.  He had to free his trapped foot.

Wiggling out of the clutches of the bush proved a failure.  Johnny couldn’t even move his foot.  He considered sitting up to use his hands, but tossed that idea.  That would make him too visible.  That left him with one choice: rolling to his side and dragging his upper body around to where he could reach his foot.

With his left hand, Johnny grasped a clump of grass near his knees and pulled.  Pain gnawed at the wound in his thigh and his left ankle objected to the added twist as his body slid over the rough ground.  His stomach lurched, and he thought for a moment that he was going to be sick.  Too much, however, was riding on his stopping the man with the rifle for him to give up.  He ignored his discomfort and reached for another clump of grass farther up the hill.

Progress seemed slow and took precious time that Johnny wasn’t sure he had.  He could see the pinto’s rider dismounting.  If Scott was pretending to be dead, the act might soon become reality.

Johnny made another desperate pull that ended with his body slanted uphill.  From there, he easily wiggled his trapped foot out of its snare.

A wave of relief washed over Johnny, and he let out a long breath while lying still a moment.  He would have liked to have rested longer, but knew he didn’t dare.  Too much distance separated him and his brother.

Half crawling and half dragging himself with the sheer power of his left arm, Johnny worked his way toward Scott.  Each upward thrust brought agony.  Pain shot through his right leg with each bend of his knee or bump against the wound.  His ankles complained against the strain of pushing with his toes, his temples throbbed against the invisible squeeze of a vice, and his throat battled to hold his stomach in place.  Quitting wasn’t a choice.  He had to save his brother, if it wasn’t too late already.

Beads of sweat dripped into Johnny’s eyes.  He swiped them away with the cuff of his shirtsleeve, and kept going.  A little closer, that’s all he needed.  Then maybe he could get off a decent shot.

Voices drifted down the hill: one deep and gruff and the other softer with Scott’s familiar Boston accent.  Even though Johnny couldn’t make out many of the words, he felt his hopes rise once more.  At least his brother was alive.

The talking stopped.  Even though the man with the rifle hadn’t moved, Johnny sensed that something had changed and that Scott’s time had run out.  He had to act now or he’d be too late.

Johnny lifted his revolver, took quick aim, and squeezed the trigger.  Although, the distance was farther than he liked, he had no choice.  Even if he missed, he had a slim chance of buying his brother some time.

Ears ringing from the loud bark of the gun and his heart racing, Johnny stared up the hill.  He must have missed.  The man was still standing, but his head had turned away from Scott.

Johnny willed his hand to stop shaking and took aim.  He had to make this shot count.

As the gun bucked in Johnny’s hand, the earth came alive at his target’s feet.  The man toppled forward—arms jerking upward.  While Johnny watched in awe, the man’s black hat sailed through the air, landed on edge, and wobbled a short ways to finally flop over onto its crown.

Realizing that his brother was grappling for the gunman’s rifle, Johnny staggered to his feet, hobbled a step, and fell.  Pain blurred his vision, making it difficult to see the two men rolling around together on the ground, but he kept going.  Scott might need help.

Hopping on one foot and dragging his injured leg behind him while holding his upper body off the ground with outreached arms, Johnny scrambled upward.  His breath came in loud huffs, and his heart thundered in his ears.  The back of his sore hand scrapped against a small bush.  Johnny winced but ignored the pain and kept his eyes fixed on the struggle farther up the hill.

At last Johnny drew near enough to clearly see the two fighting men.  They rolled, Scott ending up on top with both hands wrapped around the rifle.  As the body beneath him bucked, he twisted the gun one way and then the other.

“Hang onto him,” Johnny called.  Instantly he wished he had kept quiet when Scott looked in his direction and fell sideways, grunting as his shoulder thumped the ground and the tip of the rifle barrel barely missed his head.

Scott quickly recovered and pushed the barrel of the gun away from him while jerking the stock with his other hand.  The gunman yelped but hung on.

Johnny rose on shaky legs and watched for a chance to aim at his brother’s attacker.  There wasn’t one.  Scott, having rolled on top of the other man, was in the way.

Held by four unrelenting hands, the weapon wavered. First the barrel pointed at one man’s head and then the other.  Johnny held his breath.  There was nothing he could do.

Suddenly Scott fell forward onto the other man’s chest.  The rifle disappeared from sight, and the two men tumbled down the slope.  When they were less than thirty feet from Johnny, an explosion rocked their bodies and they lay still.

“Scott!”  Johnny lunged up the hill, gasped, and fell on his face – his leg feeling as though it were on fire.  He bit his lower lip against the searing pain and clinched his eyes shut as the earth beneath him spiraled out of control.  It seemed an eternity passed as he lay fighting the darkness that threatened to claim him. 

~~~~~

The smell of gun powder assaulted Scott’s nose at the same instant that he became aware of the heavy weight on his chest and the hot, sticky substance running down the side of his neck.  He opened his eyes and immediately wished he hadn’t.  Blaine’s grotesque face, or rather what had been a face, was inches from his own.

With a mighty shove, Scott sent the lifeless body rolling down the hillside.  He shuddered.  Sight of the ragged flesh, red with blood, brought to mind scenes of battle that he would just as soon forget.

Another face crowded into Scott’s thoughts.  Johnny!

Scott surged to his feet and looked down the slope.  His brother’s body was no longer where it had been.

Something moved just below Blaine’s resting place thirty yards or so down the hill.  Scott grabbed the rifle and took aim.

A head of dark hair slowly surfaced, then a face appeared, and finally a faded-red shirt collar.  Scott bolted down the slope.   “Johnny!  Are you all right?” he asked, stumbling and nearly diving head-first into his brother.

“Yeah.  How about you?”

Scott wobbled and caught his balance.  “I’m fine,” he said.  To get a better view of his brother, he leaned over Blaine’s body.  Johnny hadn’t sounded near as fine as he claimed to be.

Johnny waved a hand at Scott’s left side.  “That don’t look fine to me.”

“This?”  Scott touched the blood-soaked cloth and winced at the soreness of the ribs beneath.  “It’s nothing . . . just a scratch,” he said and hid his discomfort as he moved down to his brother’s side.  

“I can see that,” Johnny replied, his tone saying he wasn’t fooled.

“I have eyes, too, Brother.”  Scott pointed at the steady stream of blood, seeping through a hole in the thigh of Johnny’s pants and sliding down the dark leather.

“I’ve had worse.”

“I’m sure you have, but you better let me tend to that, all the same.”  Scott removed the blue scarf from around his own neck, dropped to his knees beside his brother, and proceeded to wrap the piece of fabric tightly around Johnny’s leg.

Johnny nodded toward the lifeless form less than a foot up the hill from him.  “Any idea who he is?” 

“He’s the gambler we played cards with in Spanish Wells a couple of weeks ago?”

“Blaine?  He say why . . .?”  Johnny grunted as Scott pulled the neck scarf tight.

Scott shrugged while knotting the ends of the scarf.  “Guess he didn’t like us spoiling his game.”

“Sore loser, huh?”

“You could say that.”  Scott leaned back and let out a soft sigh.  “Think you can make it down to your horse if I help you?”

“I can make it.”

“Sure you can.”  Scott arched his brows and let out a light chuckle.  He had heard those words before, right before Johnny had passed out a year ago from being shot in the battle against a gang of land pirates led by Day Pardee.

“What about him?”  Johnny tipped his head toward Blaine.

“Your friend Val can take care of him.  We have more important things to attend to . . . like getting you to a doctor.”  Scott, grasped Johnny by the wrist, pulled him to his feet, and wrapped an arm around his waist.

Progress down the steep hillside was slow.  Johnny leaned heavily against his brother, which made it difficult for Scott to keep his balance.

“Guess I owe you a few beers?” Johnny said when the brothers were half-way to the bottom.  

“Yes, I believe you do,” Scott replied with a grunt.

Johnny was silent for several steps.  “So . . . how’d you figure out where I went?” he asked.

Scott groaned again.  His sore side was beginning to ache with a vengeance, and his brother’s hand pressing against the wound wasn’t helping matters.

“Well?”

“Well.”  Scott hesitated and smiled.  “Guess you can thank Blaine for that.  I caught sight of his horse and thought it was Barranca.”

“Chico give ya much trouble getting him up that cut?”

“Not much.  How about Barranca?”

“Nope,” Johnny replied and sucked in a sharp breath.  

Scott scowled.  “You need to stop a minute?”

“Nope.”

“You’re sure?”

“Would ya stop talkin’ an’ get me to my horse.”

Scott laughed at Johnny’s commanding tone and immediately regretted it when needles of pain pierced his own side.  He decided it would be wise to do as he was told.

When the brothers neared the bottom of the slope, a group of riders broke through a gap in the willows along the river.  One waved a hand toward Barranca and Chico, who were grazing a ways up river, and another pointed up the hill at Johnny and Scott.

“Looks like we’re about to have company,” Scott said.

“Yeah.  What say we sit down an’ let ’em bring our horses to us?”

“Sounds good to me.”

Scott eased Johnny to the ground and settled down beside him to watch the men below.  For once, he had to admit that Val Crawford was a welcome sight.

The sheriff arrived a moment later.  He didn’t look any more like a lawman than he ever did, with his untidy hair peeking beneath the brim of his battered hat and his clothes wrinkled as though he had slept in them.  Still, he took charge of the situation, and soon the Lancer brothers were mounted and on their way to Green River.  Two men from a neighboring ranch, who had been in town to pick up supplies, were sent up the hill to collect Blaine’s body while another man was ordered to find Sam Jenkins.  Fortunately, this was the week that the only doctor in the area spent in Green River.

An hour later, Scott paused beside his brother’s bed in the Green River hotel.  Even though their father had been notified of their injuries and had sent word that he would be there as soon as he could with a wagon to take them home, Sam had insisted Johnny not be moved before morning.  It would be late by the time Murdoch arrived anyway, so Scott had booked rooms for them all.

“I think you’re gunna have to wait for them beers, Brother,” a groggy voice said.

Gazing down on his brother, Scott had to agree.  Johnny’s usually tanned face was pale, and his eyes, which earlier had been etched with pain, were nearly closed from the laudanum the doctor had given him.

“I’ll give you all the time you need . . . on one condition,” Scott said with a hint of mischief in his voice.

“Yeah . . . an’ what’s that?” Johnny asked with a yawn.

“We don’t play any more children’s games.”  Scott held out a hand and looked pleadingly at his brother.  “Deal?” 

Johnny lightly gripped Scott’s hand.  “Deal.”  His mouth quirked into a crooked grin as his fingers lost their grip.  “Your games do get a bit dangerous for my blood.”

“Mine, too, Brother.  Mine, too,” Scott whispered.  He watched Johnny’s eyes flutter and close.  Although his own injury was superficial in comparison to his brother’s, his nerves were on edge from how closely their simple game had come to turning into a tragedy.  He knew it would be a long time before his fond memories of playing hide and seek with childhood friends no longer brought to mind a much more horrifying scene.

Scott dimmed the lamp on the table by the door, removed his pants and shirt, and dropped them in a pile at the foot of the other bed.  He crawled between the sheets and fully expected to lie there awake, but the strain of the last few hours had taken its toll.  His last conscious thought was that Murdoch would have to let himself in and wait for morning to get any details of the ordeal his sons had been through.  They both needed to rest up after their simple game had turned into something much more difficult than either had imagined.

~~~The End~~~

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4 thoughts on “A Simple Game by Desert Sun

  1. This a very good read. I enjoy the way the two brothers are with each other in the story, Thanks a lot for writing and posting.

    Like

  2. I enjoyed reading your unique take on hide and seek. Thank goodness the brothers were there for each other. Your descriptions flow nicely. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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