Illusions

By Amber

 

Chapter 1

 

“You may kiss the bride,” intoned the minister.  Johnny Lancer tugged at his uncomfortably tight collar and winced as the throng around him erupted into cheers.  He felt uncomfortable and out of place in this elegant setting, especially in his tight black suit, specially made for the occasion, and the silk cravat that was choking him.  They had come east to Virginia to see the wedding of the daughter of Murdoch’s oldest friend.

The old man had somehow talked both sons into accompanying him. Scott had not been a hard sell but Johnny had been unenthused about “going so far for a circus!” 

They had teased him into it, however, and delayed by a damaged section of track in Kansas, they had arrived horribly late for the wedding, slipping into reserved aisle chairs placed on the plantation’s rolling green lawn just in time to hear the wedding pair say their “I Dos.” 

Watching the tall, blonde groom gently lift his bride’s veil, he felt something strange, very like a pang of regret as the bride’s beautiful face came into view.  Vivid turquoise eyes framed by long, dark lashes smiled into those of her groom and pink lips lifted in an enchanting smile as he put a finger under her chin and lifted her face up.  He gathered her small form close and placed a passionate kiss upon her lips, lingering until the minister whispered “that’s enough, son!”  The couple broke apart and laughed, the bride’s cheeks pinkening prettily, as, arm-in-arm, they turned to face their guests, laughing.  Framed by the flower-covered arch above them, they made a handsome couple, the groom, tall and lean with a short gold beard, dressed in a fine black broadcloth suit and the petite beauty in the full-skirted dress of ivory silk, her hair pulled back to reveal every detail of the small, exquisite face under the frothy veil. Heirloom pearls graced her tiny ears and the fine Alencon lace veil had been made for her by Worth of Paris himself.

Murdoch, seated next to him, glanced over and wondered at the strange expression on the young man’s face.  In the next instant, it was gone, and he thought, “I must have imagined it,” as his son joined in the applause.  Laughing at a remark from Scott on his left, his vivid blue eyes crinkled at the corners and his white teeth flashed against his tanned skin. Several of the bridesmaids, pretty as long-stemmed irises in their elegant lavender velvet gowns, fanned their cheeks with their free hands and put their heads together, whispering.  The bride’s mother dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a delicate lace handkerchief, and the fathers shook hands and slapped each other on the back as the nuptials concluded. 

The groom tucked the bride’s hand in the crook of his arm and paused as she adjusted her full skirts with the help of her bridesmaids and accepted her full bouquet of white and yellow roses, baby’s breath, and delicate greenery back from the maid of honor.  Descending the few steps of the gazebo, they passed back down the aisle in a rustle of silk, borne along by a wave of laughter and good wishes.

When the bride passed Johnny, their eyes met and he felt again that curious pang, as of an unknown door closing.  Then she was gone, trailing the scent of roses, and the bridesmaids, arm-in-arm with the groomsmen, were also passing by.  The crowd rose and prepared to return to the ballroom, where the wedding feast was being laid out.    The bride’s father disengaged himself from a crowd of well-wishers and made his way through the crowd to the Lancers.

“Murdoch,” he boomed, “So glad you made it--finally!”  Murdoch grinned and gripped his old friend by the hand, pumping it up and down. “I was getting worried.”

“Me, too, James, me, too,” Murdoch said, “Glad we made the ceremony!  She’s a beautiful bride, James!”

The girl’s father nodded, graciously accepting the compliment. “And these must be your boys!” he said, turning slightly to acknowledge the younger Lancers.

Murdoch nodded.  “Scott,” he said, introducing his oldest son, “and Johnny.”

James gripped the hand of each of his old friend’s sons.  “Nice to meet you both!  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I best go support my wife,” indicating the small, blonde woman in fine violet silk making her way through the throng, graciously acknowledging her guests as she slowly made her way toward them.

From the ballroom, the musicians could be heard tuning up their instruments.  Taking a good look around the magnificent plantation, Johnny whistled as he turned in a slow circle. “Some spread, Murdoch!” The other Lancers nodded in agreement.  Scott commented jokingly, “Did he get away with the Confederate gold?” referring to the popular theory that millions from the now-defunct Confederate Treasury had somehow made its way into private hands.

Murdoch shook his head.  “Old money.  James also had a lot of business interests, many of them safely offshore. He was very, very lucky.  Rosehill looks much like it always has, thank God.”

A war veteran, Scott thought privately that Murdoch didn’t know how lucky.  Having seen the devastation firsthand, Scott knew well the odds Rosehill had beaten to escape virtually unscathed.  Happy to let the topic drop, he flagged a passing waiter and they all took a crystal glass of champagne, sipping as they continued toward the manse.

James’ ancestors had been among the first to arrive on these shores and with hard work and determination, they had wrested thousands of acres from the wilderness generations before. With its acres of paddocks, large stables, and most of all, the huge brick mansion looming behind its manicured lawns, the graceful fountains and well-tended flower beds, Rosehill was indeed impressive. There was even a maze of boxwood hedges, a touch that his forbears had brought from England.  In addition to its outward beauty, the mansion possessed a warm and welcoming air.  The inside, richly decorated, full of lovely antiques, and with a gallery of fine paintings, matched the outside perfectly.  

Across the wide lawns, the James River glinted in the distance.  Hundreds of rosesbushes, planted by some long-ago ancestor, and from which Rosehill took its name, graced the grounds.   Thick with heirloom roses in shades of pink, yellow, and white, the lush old bushes twined up trellises, around fence posts, and graced beds. The effect was both unusual and charming, causing visitors to exclaim at their beauty, as the flowers nodded in the slight breeze from the river.

Towering oaks cast dense shade on the lawn where more chairs and tables were set up.  Children dodged among the revelers, old ladies fanned themselves and wondered how much the ceremony had cost,  married women gossiped about the unattached belles, and the belles eyed the available pool of men with the air of hawks eyeing tender chickens.  Men joked and passed silver flasks of smooth Kentucky bourbon and the bridesmaids fluttered to the house for repairs to coiffeurs and discreet applications of makeup.

Murdoch grinned at his sons.  Scott, dapper in a dark gray coat, and a gray and white striped cravat, appeared quite comfortable in the gracious setting.  Fine heirloom silver cufflinks, a childhood gift from his grandfather Harlan, gleamed at the cuffs of his impeccably-tailored white shirt and his long body was graceful and at ease.  Johnny, on the other hand, looked as if he’d rather be stuck full of arrows than endure the evening’s entertainment, and he was yanking again at his collar, as if he couldn’t breathe.  He kept running a hand through his hair as if looking for his hat.  Murdoch smothered a grin as he reached out and adjusted Johnny’s cravat, askew from being yanked on so much and straightened his lapels. His younger son, who had objected mightily to being “stuffed into a monkey suit,” had nonetheless “cleaned up well.”

Knowing Johnny had never been subjected to high starched collars, silk shirts, and tight coats, much less had his inseam measured by a tailor, he appreciated the effort his youngest had made to please him.  They had traveled by train from Sacramento to Richmond and Johnny had been antsy at the confinement long before they reached the Mississippi.

Reading Murdoch’s mind, Johnny grinned suddenly.  The nearby knot of giggling young women, eagle-eyed as Confederate sharpshooters, fluttered and sighed, causing their escorts to frown slightly.  “You don’t look half-bad, either,” he said, taking in his father’s own attire, “for an old man.”  Scott grinned as Murdoch rolled his eyes. 

A crowd surrounded them as old friends from Murdoch’s early days in America recognized the tall rancher.  Johnny’s head was soon rattling with names and long-ago recollections.  Taking a mock swing at his brother, who dodged, grinning, he said, “Well, I’m thirsty and the ladies are waiting, let’s go!”  Scott promptly made their excuses, and both headed with relieved sighs toward the grand ballroom.

“Nice-looking boys,” said Horace Walton, who had rented Murdoch a hotel room when he first arrived from Inverness. 

“Thank you,” he replied, following them with his eyes as they disappeared into the crowd. “And what have you been doing all these years, you old dog?” he asked Walton. “Not quite the size you were when I got here!” 

Walton laughed, patted his considerable formally-attired girth and quipped, “And you don’t have nearly as much hair!”

Arriving in the ballroom, the younger Lancers made a beeline for the refreshment table where rows of bottles gleamed and an English butler stood, ready to serve. “Sirs?” he inquired, “what can I get you?”

“A shot of tequila with lime!” blurted Johnny, ordering his favorite drink.  At the butler’s blank look, he hastily amended, “make it Scotch, a double!” Scott laughed.  Scotch was what Johnny typically ordered after a rough day.

“Make it two,” he told the butler.  “Here’s to us!” toasted Scott.

 “Yeah, here’s to us monkeys!” muttered his brother as both drinks swiftly disappeared.

Somewhat renewed, they turned back toward the room and were immediately surrounded by a small crowd of local belles, including the bride’s sister, Savannah. Their beaux, some from as far away as Georgia, were jostled aside as the women angled for a spot beside the handsome newcomers.  Scott slipped easily into the repartee of a young gallant and much feminine giggling was soon issuing from the group, causing married ladies to sniff and make disapproving remarks behind their fans. 

Bows twanged and horns tooted as the musicians tuned up. When they were done, the bride’s father took the floor and offered a toast to the couple, causing his wife to begin weeping again while her table companions patted her on the hand.

All present raised their glasses and wished them long life and happiness, glasses clinking, then the orchestra leader began the married couple’s first waltz.  The groom’s deep chuckle was heard as he as the bride tilted her head back to see into his eyes and whispered something.  Small white teeth flashed in a warm smile as the groom whirled her away on the strains of the gorgeous Viennese waltz. Johnny felt again that strange pang, almost a sense of loss, at the sight of her glowing eyes and shook his head quickly to clear it.  Frowning, he wondered what the hell was wrong with him. 

Scott was soon swept away to dance by a tall blonde, the reigning belle from Yorktown, but his brother hung back and ordered another double Scotch.  For a moment, he desperately wished he could disappear but relaxing as the liquor warmed him, he began responding to the excited questions of the ladies nearest him.  His head swam for a minute as he wondered what Johnny Madrid was doing in this overheated hothouse atmosphere but the fun-loving side of him asserted itself and he was soon responding to the blandishments of the ladies, his slow drawl and easy smile making devastating inroads upon the territory of the local swains, many of whom frowned inwardly as this newcomer encroached on their turf, although they hid their irritation as best they could.

Despite his discomfort, Johnny couldn’t help grinning at some of the remarks.  White teeth flashing in his dark face, sapphire eyes crinkling at the corners, he had another drink and loosened up still more.  Never, he thought bemusedly, had he dreamed that women could be so pretty or smell so good.  Such an opportunity might never come again and he decided to make the most of it.  The girls seemed determined to help as they crowded close, each seeking the handsome stranger’s notice.

Carrying a full champagne flute and elbowing the competition aside, Savannah used her position as the bride’s sister to claim a spot next to Johnny, ousting a black-haired Carolina belle as she did so, as well as the Simpson twins from Williamsburg, all of whom pouted, whirled on their high-heeled dancing shoes in a huff and set off for less-competitive pastures.

Like the other young women, she was attracted to the slightly dangerous air that clung to him. Grabbing Johnny’s arm, she hugged it to her ample bosom and leaned into his shoulder, offering him an unobstructed view of her cleavage.  From across the room, her mother frowned and, catching sight of her beginning to make her way toward them, Savannah tugged Johnny toward the dance floor.  He wasn’t feeling much pain at that point, although he wasn’t drunk. His quick gunfighter’s brain had stood him in good stead; always observant, he had been covertly watching the dancers and he followed her readily enough onto the gleaming floor.

Across the room, Scott paused in the act of taking a sip of the champagne that he’d just snagged from a passing butler and choked as he saw his brother stride onto the floor. While the girl he’d been dancing with pounded him on the back, he watched with stunned disbelief the sight of his brother taking his first-ever waltz steps.   Moving with the easy confidence and lithe grace that characterized him, Johnny swung into the waltz, whirling Savannah in graceful turns.  The girl’s full skirt belled out and she smiled up into his dark face, so handsomely framed by the high white collar, enjoying the envious glances of her friends. 

From the outdoor patio, Murdoch paused in his smoke-filled conversation with old friends, gripping a Cuba cigar between his teeth.  His eyes widened and one hand went out, seeking the support of a chairback.  His eyes met Scott’s and each knew what the other was thinking: “What the hell is going on here?”

Murdoch, completely flabbergasted, thought he knew.  Far from home, in a completely new environment, they were seeing the Johnny that could have been had not Maria stolen him all those years ago.  Murdoch’s heart twisted as he watched the landed young rancher who had temporarily replaced Johnny Madrid, leaving in his place someone that Murdoch had never seen before.  He realized that in spite of the experiences that had hardened him, Johnny was still very young.  The realization tore at his heart as he realized what Johnny had missed, what they had all missed during those lost years.

Watery-eyed and out of breath, Scott stood stock-still, mouth slightly agape as he watched, waiting for his brother to make a misstep but Johnny never faltered, expertly guiding Savannah, her full skirt billowing between his legs and out again in a swirl of lavender velvet and  frothy white  petticoats.

He glanced again at his father, but Murdoch, eyes squinted slightly against the cigar smoke, was still watching Johnny as the dance ended.  Scott knew that Johnny was good at whatever he attempted and when the musicians swung into “Dixie,” he didn’t hesitate then, either. 

The floor filled rapidly as the rest of the crowd, Southern and Northern alike, joined the exuberant dance.  Many of them were James’ West Point classmates, friends long before the war had called them; the rest were family or neighbors from up and down the river and the length of the eastern seaboard.   Many had suffered grievous losses in the States’ War, losing everything from property to fortunes, as well as loved ones who were buried in shallow graves beside unnamed creeks; still others had been lost to deprivation or in some cases, had fallen victim to the horrors of Reconstruction.  But with typical grace and courage, these gentlemen planters had already commenced rebuilding and the area was swiftly being transformed.

Today’s reunion had been bittersweet for many of them, as opposite sides had been taken during “the Tribulation.” However, friendship had won out over any lingering bitterness.  Life went on, and differences were put aside as they celebrated the marriage of two of their own.  Many of them had known the bride and groom since childhood and they welcomed the chance to celebrate life’s continuity.

The day was winding down when the formal dinner was finally announced. The sun was low in the sky and the shadows of the oaks were long when they all took their places at tables set up in the back half of the enormous ballroom, which occupied an entire wing of the house.  Candles burned brightly in wall sconces and on the tables; gleaming off bright eyes, glowing silks, and creamy shoulders bared in low-cut gowns, illuminating glassware and sparkling off the heavy silver.  Feminine voices mingled with the deeper ones of their escorts and laughter swirled as toasts were offered and the clinking of glassware filled the room.  Coy glances were tossed over outspread fans which were wafted swiftly as the room heated up.

The younger Lancers managed to disengage from their admirers and regrouped with their father and his friends at a back table, laughing, and slaking the thirst caused by all the dancing.  Johnny tried to keep his eyes from the head table where the bride and groom sat, the picture of newly-wed bliss. The groom kissed the slender fingers entwined with his and leaned close to whisper in his bride’s ear.  He puzzled briefly over his earlier reaction to the bride and then deliberately disregarded it.   Déjà vu, he decided.

Waiters began arriving from the cookhouse, bearing tray after heirloom silver tray,  whose contents were set up on the sideboards.  Sweet Virginia hams, thick steaks, roasted chickens, platters of venison and fresh trout were arranged, as were bowls of green beans, butterbeans, and fresh corn.  Delicate salads sparkled under their vinaigrette dressings, roasted new potatoes glistened under a light coating of butter, and desserts of every kind graced their own sideboard.  Tiny omelettes, stuffed with fresh shrimp sat in chafing dishes.  Fresh oysters on the half-shell, rushed in that morning from the Chesapeake Bay, waited on ice.  The dessert table groaned under the delights piled upon it. Succulent strawberries with clotted cream, delicately flavored sorbets, cream pies, juicy cobblers, and delicate cookies awaited diners at the meal’s end.  Dwarfing them all, a majestic wedding cake decorated with yellow rosebuds awaiting cutting.

The moon was beginning its downward arc in the sky when the dancing and toasting stopped.  The young couple had long since made their getaway in a shower of rice.  Those with children slipped away, bearing sleepy burdens and saying their muffled good-byes as carriages were brought around.

Neither Johnny nor Scott had danced again, which caused much consternation among the ladies.  Instead, they’d stayed at the table drinking and talking with their father’s friends.  Hearing about some of their youthful exploits gave both sons insight into the stranger who was their father. They enjoyed watching his embarrassment as his old pals ribbed him; it made him more human, somehow, and much more accessible than usual.

It was already the wee hours when someone brought out a poker deck.  When Johnny finally made it upstairs, he correctly identified one of the two spinning beds, and fell onto it, not bothering to undress.   He was awakened a short time later by a muffled shriek, the murmuring of a deep voice, and the sound of a hastily-shut door.  His face pressed into the pillow, he opened one bloodshot eye; when quiet resumed, he went back to sleep.

When he awoke the next day, he was inclined to think he had dreamed it all.

The house was still quiet when the clock chimed ten as everyone slept off the day before.  Murdoch rose before his sons and quietly making his way downstairs, discovered his old friend alone on the veranda, enjoying a leisurely breakfast.  A maid poured coffee and brought him a plate and they ate in companionable silence, broken only by “pass the jam,”  “more coffee?” and “are you done with that?” as they traded sections of the newspaper.

The screech of the male peacock stalking about the lawn penetrated Scott’s hangover.  Wincing, he levered himself carefully upright, clutching his aching head.  Still in the clothes he’d worn the night before, he grabbed for the bedside carafe and had a long drink of water, shuddering at the lukewarm taste.  Marginally re-hydrated, he wandered down the hall to his brother’s room.  He discovered Johnny in a brass bathtub full of bubbles, head on the rim, eyes closed.   He had a washcloth draped over his eyes as further insurance against the sun streaming in from the French doors behind him.

“Damn, brother, be careful will ya?” he said as Scott closed the door.  “Do you have to make so much noise?”  he grumbled, putting his head back and closing his eyes again

“Where’d you get that?” questioned Scott, eyeing the glass of red liquid in the hand resting on the rim of the tub.  It had a stalk of celery protruding from it.

Without opening his eyes, Johnny replied, “The butler brought it—don’t ring the bell!” he implored as his brother reached for the small brass bell on the dresser.  Scott grinned devilishly, despite his own discomfort, as the tinny sound summoned the English butler.  “Like a damn bull in a china shop!” Johnny grumbled.  Scott was amused by his brother’s uncharacteristic peevishness and took care to speak slowly and distinctly to the butler.

“Very good, sir” said the man, “Right away, sir,” backing out of the room.

His brother’s black brows drew together in a frown.  “Go away,” he muttered. “Quietly.”  Scott would have laughed if his own head hadn’t been pounding so; he settled for snickering at his brother’s discomfort.

The manservant, whose name turned out to be Morris, brought Scott his own glass of “hangover cure” and went off to prepare a bath for him.  “See you,” said Scott to Johnny, who still had not moved.  He received only a grunt in reply, which turned into a muffled curse as Scott shut the door harder than necessary.  Scott smothered a grin and went off down the hall, drinking deeply from his glass as he went.

Johnny lingered in the hot bath, sweat rolling down his forehead.  Relaxed and relieved that the pounding in his head had let up, he didn’t open his eyes when the door opened again, assuming it was Scott. “Go away,” he muttered, still irritable. A small hand placed in the soft black hair of his chest startled him and he jerked upright, snatching the cloth from his eyes, and making a grab for the gun resting on the nearby stool, quick as a striking rattlesnake.

“I’m s-sorry,” his visitor stammered, eyes wide and taking a hasty step back as she found herself staring into a pair of cold blue eyes above the muzzle of a cocked gun.

“Jesus!” he muttered.  “I could have killed you!”  He uncocked the gun and put it back down, turning again to face her.

He was not the least concerned with his state of undress, Savannah noticed, merely looking at her appraisingly.   Droplets of water were caught in the black hair on his chest and reflected off his muscled arms and back.  He was outlined clearly in the light from the French doors behind him and she caught her breath.  “Greek god,” was the thought that came to her, “Michelangelo’s David,” her mind yammered, trying to find a good description for the handsome stranger in front of her, naked as the day he was born.  She followed the thin line of black hair that traced down from his chest and over his hard flat belly with her eyes.  The tip of a small pink tongue came out and licked her lips. 

Recovering, she passed a hand down her body, covered only by a thin silk wrapper, and came forward, swinging her hips seductively. “Did I scare you?” she asked teasingly.  “I’m sorry.”

Johnny sank back into the tub.  She didn’t sound—or look—a bit sorry as she came closer, flicking her fingers in the bubbles covering him and splashing water in his face.  Her eyes gleamed as she took him in.  “I’ll wash your back,” she offered, taking up a nearby sponge and holding it up. 

He narrowed his eyes at her.  “Go away!” he snapped.    She dipped the sponge into the water and leaned forward, letting her pink wrapper gap open.  Pink crests winked at him as she squeezed the sponge slowly, causing water to run down his chest.  Letting go the sponge, she leaned closer, blonde hair tickling his face.  She followed the path of the droplets with her tongue, then traced a path around his nipples.  Ignoring his body’s reaction, he removed her hands from his chest and forced her back a step.  Undeterred, she slipped out his grasp by shedding her wrapper.  She knelt there, naked in the morning light.  His eyes flicked over her quickly.  He had the bluest eyes she’d ever seen; they felt like a burning brand against her skin.

Conscious that the door could open any minute, he fought off the urge that was taking hold of him--the last thing he wanted to do was be found naked with the squire’s daughter.  She smiled, taunting him, as one hand slipped beneath the bubbles and closed around him.  The sensation was exquisitely erotic in the warm water and he closed his eyes for a second, fighting for control.  Finding it, he stepped over the rim of the tub, still soapy and wet, dragging her to her feet as he did so.  Giving her a slight push, he tossed her wrapper to her.  “Go!” he ordered. She might have continued to resist him had not a discreet tap on the door sounded and the pale, smooth face of the English butler appeared in the opening.

Shrugging into her wrap and looking into the butler’s impassive face, she said coldly, “We won’t say a word about this, will we, Morris?”

Staring straight ahead, he replied, “No mum. Of course not, mum.” as she left.

On the other side, she leaned against the wall for a moment, closing her eyes and trying to still the trembling in her legs.  Hearing a slight sound, she hastily gathered her wet robe to her bosom and headed for her own room.  Down the hall, Scott watched from his partially open door as her indignant backside walked away, bottom making little circles of indignation.  He withdrew into his room, whistling softly between his teeth, and feeling suddenly grave.  His head began pounding again and he leaned against the wall, rubbing it with one hand.  His brother was used to taking what he wanted and answering to nobody but surely he wouldn’t bed one of their host’s daughters?    “Of course not,” he said aloud, straightening up with sudden decision.  “Johnny would never do that.”  His heart suddenly felt lighter and he put his hand on the knob again.  His brother was wild but he was a gentleman at heart.  Whistling, he headed downstairs, rapping on his brother’s door as he passed.  “Johnny!  Get a move on!”

When Johnny appeared downstairs a few minutes later, he was uncharacteristically pale  under his tan and moving slowly, as though his head might fall off if he wasn’t careful.  Selecting a chair that let him sit facing the house and not the bright sun, he declined food and reached instead for coffee.  Murdoch looked at both of his queasy sons and laughed, making them wince.

James looked over, pushing his spectacles down on his nose.  “What’s the matter, boys?  Too much of a good thing?” he laughed. Praise God, he’d never know how exactly how close one of his guests had come to having far too much of a good thing this morning,” thought Scott.  His brother summoned up the ghost of a smile and merely nodded.

After each had finished almost a pot of coffee and some toast, they began to feel as though they might live after all and consented to join their host on a tour of the grounds, flinching at the darts of sunlight pouring through the trees.  Scott was relieved to enter the dark stable, although the normal smells made his stomach lurch.  Johnny, he noticed resentfully, appeared to be recovering nicely.  They passed down the double rows of huge stalls, each paneled in cherry wood and listened as James explained his plans for a breeding stable.  Pausing before the stall of a dainty, white Arabian mare, he smoothed her silky nose as she regarded them with dark, expressive eyes.  “Morgane,” he introduced her, before continuing out the door.  Alone in a paddock was a magnificent stallion, black as sin, and kicking up his heels before breaking into a canter around the enclosure.  Lifting his head, he neighed a challenge to the men, rearing onto his hind legs.  A second later, they heard an answering whinny from the barn.  “Eclipse,” James said, as the stallion neared.  “Shelby’s horse,” referring to his just-married daughter.

The Lancers lifted their eyebrows in surprise.  Shelby? He’s surely not a horse for a lady, James,” said Murdoch.

“You’d be surprised,” the man replied.  “Shelby’s got a way with animals.”

Next they went down to the pier, as James called for his boatmen.  Appearing swiftly,  they uncoiled the lines and cast off.  Easing the barge into the current, James explained that the plantation owners and their families frequently traveled this way.  Settling back into his chair, Johnny closed his eyes and let the breeze ruffle the hair back from his forehead. The broad-leafed trees lining the bank made a cool canopy over their heads that made the trip pleasant.  This place was so….green, he thought.  Accustomed to desert and border towns, this riot of greenery everywhere was almost overwhelming in its unchecked profusion. 

They made their way down to the next plantation.  “Briarhall,” explained their host.  “Michael’s home,” indicating his new son-in-law.  From a distance, the plantation appeared in reasonably good repair but as they drew abreast, the Lancers could see that the woods were reclaiming the grounds and shutters hung askew, as if no one loved the property enough to take care of it.  Murdoch said as much and James replied, “Michael’s the only one left and he’s been away fighting the war.  He’ll get it back up to snuff soon.  And I’m pleased my daughter will be living so close by.” 

Murdoch nodded, thinking of Theresa and how glad he was that the girl had not gone far.  She had married the scion of a prominent Sacramento family and was home awaiting the birth of her first child.  After a leisurely tour, they changed direction and let the boatmen propel them back up the river.  Disembarking, they went into the house where dinner was waiting.  “Morris, they’re here,” Isabel called to the butler, receiving her husband’s light kiss of greeting on her forehead, and smiling at the Lancers.  “Are you hungry? We’re just having a potluck dinner.”

The younger Lancers wouldn’t have believed it possible but they developed an appetite when they smelled the food being served on the family’s fine “Virginia Rose” china.  Johnny couldn’t help but notice that Savannah, seated across from the Lancers, was doing her best to avoid meeting their eyes.  Contrasted with her bold behavior of the morning, he was surprised, but relieved.  Scott, observing quietly, noticed that she was particularly careful to avoid meeting Murdoch’s eyes and that his father appeared to be doing the same.  When she spoke, which wasn’t often, he gazed carefully at a spot some six inches over her head instead of her face.  No one else appeared to notice and the meal passed uneventfully.  Although wedding leftovers, it was still delicious.  After dinner, the men went into the library to play pool and the ladies withdrew for the evening.

A short time later, Murdoch put down his pool cue.  “I’m calling it a day,” he said.  “Long trip tomorrow.”

“I wish you could stay longer,” James replied.  “This was such a flying visit.”

“Got to get back to Lancer, “ Murdoch said.  “Been gone too long already.”

“Ah, Murdoch, you love that old ranch,” James grinned.  “More than any woman.”

That was true enough, thought his sons, who had paused, cues in hand, to listen.  Murdoch smiled in return.  “And it’s a demanding mistress,” he said. “Goodnight, boys.”  Shortly after Murdoch left, James himself pleaded tiredness, bade them goodnight and started up the stairs.

After another game which Scott won handily, they put their cues down. Scott said, “I’m kinda tired myself.”

His brother snorted.  “Kinda hungover is more like it.” 

They sat down in the fine leather chairs that faced the cold fireplace, now sporting only a fern and helped themselves to two of the fine Cuban cigars in the humidor on the table. Wreathed in fragrant smoke, the said little as they looked around the handsomely appointed room with its comfortable leather chairs and huge couch, perfect for a rainy day’s reading.  The floor-to-ceiling shelves were lined with rare and out-of –print volumes whose bindings glowed in the soft light.  The red velvet curtains were still pulled back and they smoked and looked out at the night sky without saying much.

“A man could get used to this, “ Scott observed. “Glad you came?” he asked.

Johnny nodded.  He had been surprised at his own reaction to Rosehill.  Accustomed to the stark beauty of the Southwest and Mexico, he was nonetheless drawn to the lush and beautiful plantation.  Although he loved Lancer, he realized he still had a lot of places left to see.

“I’m kinda hungry, “ Johnny said when they finished their cigars. “Where do you think the kitchen is?”

“No idea,” said Scott.  “But I’ll come with you.”  After several wrong turns in the silent household, they stumbled upon it.  After a lightning raid, they seated themselves at the table for their snack of cold fried chicken.   Knowing Johnny’s sweet tooth, Scott passed him a large slice of the wedding cake.  Johnny nodded, his mouth too full to speak.

“Meow,” a small, indignant voice broke the silence.  Looking down, Scott saw a long-haired tortoiseshell cat stropping herself around his brother’s ankles, plumed tail held high.

“That’s Valentine,” said the corpulent cook, materializing in a mob cap and plaid robe, “I forgot to give her her dinner.”  “She’s Miss Shelby’s cat.”  The cook went back to bed and they finished their cake, the cat nibbling daintily from her own bowl.  When they went back upstairs, she followed.  Tiptoeing past Savannah’s door, Johnny noticed that she laid her ears back and slunk quickly past.  Tail returning to full mast, she slipped inside as he opened the door to his room.

“Female cat,” quipped his brother, continuing past. “G’night, Johnny.”

Once inside, Johnny locked the door, unwilling to chance a repeat visit from Savannah.  Dropping his clothes on the floor, he climbed into the cool sheets, enjoying the breeze  from the open French doors.  The cat leaped into the crook of his arm and he cuddled her awhile, stroking the soft fur and enjoying her low purring.  Although he didn’t think he was tired, he was soon sound asleep.

               

Ch. 2

Johnny woke the next morning to a weight on his chest and cat breath in his face.  Opening his eyes, he looked directly into the pale green eyes of the longhaired beast lying on his chest, staring at him.  Valentine blinked, yawned once and sat up, licking a front paw and swiping it over her face.  He laughed and sat up, stroking the silky head.  She dangled from his arm, purring, as he crossed to the door and put her out into the hall.  Her ears pinned back briefly as she pranced past Savannah’s door and then shot down the stairs in a blur of white light.

Crossing to the handsome mahogany dresser, he poured water into the bowl.  He washed and shaved quickly, pulled on his boots, and ran a brush over his thick black hair.  Dressing once again in his accustomed gear, he felt suddenly relieved and light-hearted, anxious to be heading home.  Closing the door quietly behind him, he rapped gently on Scott’s door, then stuck his head in.  His brother was standing shirtless, dressed only in his pants and socks, towel over his shoulder.  His face obscured by white lather, he was shaving, peering into the dresser mirror as he did so.  He glanced up as Johnny looked in and motioned him to enter.

His brother walked in, tightening his concho belt around his lean hips.  He was wearing his favorite shirt, the color of a faded rose, with embroidery at the throat, black pants, and carrying a short black jacket.  Out of deference to his hosts, he’d refrained from buckling on his gunbelt but Scott was sure he missed the familiar weight of it.  

Scott grinned, relieved to see Johnny Madrid back again.  While they were guests, both had dressed in the approved “fancy” manner.  But even Scott, who had grown up in Boston, had longed for his own clothes and they had decided the night before to be comfortable on the long trip home to Lancer.

They could hear the household coming to life around them and Murdoch’s deep voice murmured from the floor below.  “C’mon, Scott, hurry up,” Johnny told his brother.  “I want to eat before we go.”   Scott swatted him in the midsection as he passed on his way to the wardrobe to take out a shirt, saying “There’s food on the train.”  “I know,” said his brother.  “But it ain’t nearly as good as the spread they put on here.”  Scott pulled on his shirt and they hurried down the stairs, Johnny’s spurs clanking with every step.

The eyes of their hostess widened as they came into the dining room. Isabel looked at them, speechless, as they crossed the rich Aubusson carpet patterned in soothing shades of green and cream with touches of deep burgundy.  White lace curtains billowed gently in the breeze wafting from the open French doors, carrying with it the scent of roses. Sunlight streamed in the windows and shone brightly beyond the wide veranda. Purebred horses frisked about in the white-fenced paddocks.  Everything looked exactly as it always did, but her young guests had undergone a major transformation.

During their visit, it had been easy to forget that Scott and Johnny came from California, which her friends had assured her was a lawless place. Blending in perfectly, they had seemed like typical Southern gentlemen, well-mannered, neatly dressed, appearing just like everyone else she knew in her orderly existence.  Now they looked like complete strangers, older, harder.  Isabel was especially shocked by Johnny’s changed appearance.  His roseate shirt and concho belt gave him an exotic air as though he could shoot a man as easily as buy him a drink. Isabel retired behind a chair back and a hand went to the neck of her dress as he came closer, suddenly at a loss for words. 

Her husband James covered her confusion by inviting the boys to sit down and calling for the maid to bring them a plate and coffee.  Murdoch, already seated, had done serious damage to his own well-filled plate and greeted them with a nod. 

Savannah was nowhere in sight, however.  Noticing both the boys’ glances at her empty chair, James elaborated.  “It’s too early for Savannah.  She has to get her beauty sleep.”  Although Savannah was a beautiful girl, neither of the young Lancers missed her.  Johnny had been uncomfortable around her, fearing a repeat of her earlier brazen behavior, and Scott had been equally wary after seeing her exit his brother’s room dressed only in a robe two days ago.  In his proper Boston heart, he disapproved of her attempt to seduce his brother under her parent’s roof.

The young Lancers slid into high-backed cane chairs behind the table with its snowy damask cloth and the conversation resumed, everyone laughing and talking over the low centerpiece of fresh roses.   Putting their starched white linen napkins in their lap, both boys eyed the delicious repast before them.  Bypassing the fresh fruit, hominy, bacon, and Sally Lunn bread, they chose instead fluffy scrambled eggs, sweet Virginia ham, and delicious buttermilk biscuits, all washed down with imported French coffee.

Their meal done, they stood up to go, thanking their hosts again for their hospitality.  The carriage had been loaded with their cases while they breakfasted and the coachman sat waiting,  holding the team of spirited bay horses in with a firm hand.

“Good-bye, Murdoch,” James said, pumping his old friend’s hand.  “Don’t go so long between visits the next time.”

Murdoch grinned.  “Next one’s yours,” he said.  “Come and visit us at Lancer any time.” 

“You must come back soon, boys,” said Isabel in her sweet voice. “We loved having you.”

The boys shook hands with James and leaned down to kiss Isabel’s cheek.  The three of them climbed into the stylish carriage, the driver cracked the whip, and they moved smartly off down the long oak-lined drive.  At its end, all of the Lancer men looked back and waved.

Isabel and James, standing on the porch, smiled and waved in return, watching until they were out of sight before turning to go back into the house.

From her upstairs window, Savannah looked out at the carriage retreating in a puff of dust,  snapping the white organdie curtains closed as it disappeared.  She’d been awake the whole time, just hadn’t wanted to deal with the man who’d rejected her this early in the morning.  Her eyes narrowed as she flounced back to her canopied bed with its pale pink eiderdown quilt and Battenburg lace bedskirt.  Punching up her pillows with unnecessary force, she threw herself face down into the lofty featherbed.  “Damn that Johnny Lancer, anyhow,” she thought, pounding her fists.  Her mouth twisted down at the corners as she thought of how he’d spurned her advances.  She rolled over on her back, clutching the pillow to her chest as she gazed at the snowy canopy above her.

She had been astounded at his refusal to be seduced, something that had never happened to her before. Men were only too happy to have her take notice of them, in her experience. She was doubly angry now that she’d seen him in his regular clothes.  “Like a damned saddle tramp,” she thought, ignoring the other thought that came hard on its heels.  “He’s the best-looking saddle tramp I’ve ever seen.”  That idea made her angrier still and she knew she’d never get back to sleep now.  Flouncing out of bed, she thrust her arms angrily through the sleeves of her fuchsia velvet robe, drawing the belt tightly about her slim waist.  Snatching up her silver-backed hairbrush, she hurled it at the wall when it caught in a sleep-tousled curl.  It clattered to the rose-patterned Aubusson carpet and she left it there.

Scowling at her reflection in the oval pier glass as she passed, she gave the bellpull a vicious yank to summon the maid.

Seated at the kitchen table while she helped the cook peel potatoes, the young maid, Lizzie, started at the jangling bell, spilling tea over herself.  “Oh, dear,” said the corpulent cook, wiping her hands on her apron.  “Quick, before it stains,” she said, thrusting a cloth at the girl. 

Dismayed, Lizzie looked from the bellboard to her stained uniform, unable to decide which was the lesser evil, being late to answer the summons or appearing in a stained uniform.  The imperious bell made up her mind. The Delftware teacup rattled in its saucer as she put it down. Touching her cap with both hands and patting stray strands of hair hurriedly into place, she fled up the stairs.

Watching her go, the cook frowned.  It wasn’t unheard of for Miss Savannah to box Lizzie’s ears when she was in a temper.  Although the girl never said anything, the cook, whose name was Alma, had seen her return to the kitchen with a red handprint on her cheek more than once after waiting on the young woman.

Heaving herself angrily to her feet, Alma waddled toward the ice box, intending to put the potatoes in it.  She almost fell as Valentine materialized between her ankles but far from being angry, she put the bowl down and picked up the cat.  “You poor little thing, you,” she cooed to the purring creature held to her cheek.  “You miss Miss Shelby, don’t you?”

The cat purred louder in agreement, butting her head against Alma’s nose.  Alma, who believed firmly that food cured all ills, put her down again and took up the bit of chicken breast she’d been saving.  “You’re a pretty thing,” she told the cat, “with your little pink nose and all that pretty hair.” 

Valentine wound herself around Alma’s ankles a few times in agreement, urging her to get a move on.  Laughing, the cook put the shredded chicken in a bowl and placed it on the floor.  “There you are, then,” she told the cat, who dove headfirst into her treat. The cook put the potatoes away and washed her hands in the scullery sink.  Returning, she seated herself again at the table and began breaking eggs into a bowl of flour for a piecrust.

Picking up her earlier train of thought, she mentally contrasted the spoiled, selfish Savannah with her younger sister.  “Now Miss Shelby is a fine one,” she told the cat approvingly. Both of her chins shook as she nodded at the animal.  “A real lady, nothing like that one at all.” The sad fact of it was, Alma thought, so few people realized the truth about Savannah. As in any large plantation, the walls had ears, and Savannah would have been livid had she realized how much the staff really knew about her.  She may have fooled the rest of the world, but they, at least, had no illusions.

“Missed her calling, that one,” frowned the cook.  “Shoulda trod the boards on Drury Lane.”

Boarding the train, Scott and Murdoch sank into their deep brown leather chairs as the steam engine began belching smoke.  They’d taken a private car for their return to Lancer because they wanted to discuss their trip without being overheard.  In addition to the overstuffed chairs and  matching sofa, the sleeper car also  boasted curtains of rust-colored velvet at the windows and a richly-hued carpet in soothing shades of rust and brown, with touches of ochre and yellow.  The fold-out beds were tucked safely out of the way, and the overhead chandelier swayed with the train’s vibration as it departed the station.

Johnny flopped into the one facing them, stretching out his legs. All were in high spirits, happy to be returning to Lancer.

Leaning his head back, Murdoch grinned at his sons.  “Well, boys, did you have a good time?”

“I did,” said Scott.  “And you saw this one!” he said, punching Johnny on the arm. “Who knew you were such a lady-killer?  Dancing with all those women?”

Johnny squirmed in his chair.  “Aw, Scott, don’t be bringing that up!”

“Even got an unannounced visit from a young lady,” Scott bantered. Catching Johnny’s glare, he belatedly recalled what he was saying and shut his mouth with a snap.  It wasn’t like him to be tactless but this time, he’d really put his foot in it, he thought ruefully.

Glancing at their father, both boys were surprised to see a dark blush suffusing his cheeks as he hastily tried to change the subject.  “How ‘bout that stallion, hey boys?” he asked.

“Wait a minute, Murdoch,” Johnny said, sitting up. “What’s goin’ on here?  Are you blushing?”

“Of course not!” Murdoch snapped as he turned to face the window. “Don’t be silly!”

Scott peered closely at his father, who was looking fixedly out the window as he did his best to ignore both his sons.

“You ARE!” he said gleefully, elbowing Johnny.  “Look at him!”

Johnny grinned at his father’s discomfort but the smile swiftly faded. “Wait a minute,” he said.  “A woman paid you a visit during the night?”

At his incredulous tone, Murdoch glared at him, stung. “I don’t know what you’re talking about but I don’t see why you’re so surprised! Let me remind you, young man, I don’t have one foot in the grave just yet!”  His deepening blush gave the lie to his words.

Scott realized instantly who Johnny was speaking of and the grin faded from his face as well.

Realizing his brother didn’t know he’d seen Savannah leaving his room, he brought him up to speed. “I saw her leaving your room the morning after the wedding,” he said.  Comprehension dawned instantly on his brother’s dark face and he settled back in his chair with a low whistle.  “Damn!”

Murdoch whipped round again, furious, and thundered: “Did you SEDUCE her?”

Scott tried to rectify his mistake.  “Calm down, Murdoch! Johnny put her out!”

Murdoch mopped his brow. “Put her out? When? After she spent the night with him?”

“He MEANS,” said Johnny, with heavy emphasis, “that I didn’t invite her to come and I didn’t let her stay, either!”  His black brows drew together in a furious scowl and he looked out the window, fighting for control.  The old man could always get to him and he was annoyed, and more than a little hurt, at the assumption he’d seduce one of their host’s daughters without a second thought.

Murdoch softened instantly.  Leaning forward, he put a hand on Johnny’s knee.  “I’m sorry, son.”  Johnny looked at him coldly, still annoyed.

Scott hurried to defuse the situation. “You were still loaded from the night before, weren’t you Johnny?  Not up for it.  No pun intended,” he added hastily as both of them turned to glare at him.

“Stop helping already, will you, Scott?” Johnny growled.

Murdoch continued, ignoring the interruption. “I know you would never do such a thing, Johnny.”

Johnny looked at him, hard.  “Do you?”

“Yes, son, I do.” Murdoch said gently.

Never one to hold a grudge, Johnny smiled.  “OK, then.”

“OK,” said Murdoch.  “We won’t talk about this any more.  Will we, Scott?”

“Never!” agreed his eldest, relieved to see the storm pass.  “My lips are sealed!”

Turning the topic into safer channels, they began to speculate as to how the ranch had fared under Jelly’s supervision.  The talk turned next to Theresa, struggling with the nausea of her fist pregnancy when they had left her in Sacramento.  “Poor girl was green,” Johnny commented. 

“How sympathetic, brother!” Scott said.

“Nothin’ but the truth,” replied his brother.  “As green as that ugly shirt you’re wearing!”

Scott threw a mock punch at him and Johnny dodged, grinning.  Murdoch flapped a hand at them.  “Why don’t you two go down to the dining car and bring me back a cup of coffee?”

“Sure thing, Murdoch.” Johnny replied, and they piled out the door, trailing laughter behind them.

With his sons safely out of the way, Murdoch’s thoughts turned back to the night of the wedding and the nocturnal visit Savannah had paid him.  He frowned blackly, deeply disturbed at the thought of his old friend’s daughter acting like a strumpet.  James and Isabel would, he knew, be crushed if they ever learned of their daughter’s conduct.  He had been shocked to be awakened from a sound sleep by someone crawling into bed with him; flabbergasted when he realized it was Savannah.  She had been equally horrified, blushing crimson at her mistake and stammering all sorts of lame excuses.  Brushing them aside, Murdoch had hastily put her out of his room. 

Much, he realized now, as his son had done.  He sincerely regretted his earlier remarks to the boy and resolved to guard his tongue better in the future.  He and Johnny had been getting along so well and then he’d had to go and ruin it. Johnny wasn’t just like Maria, he realized.  He was much like his father, too.  It was one reason they butted heads so much. Both tempers flared quickly and each could bring out the worst in the other without trying.

He realized now that the girl had most likely been looking for Johnny that night, not knowing  they had exchanged rooms because he’d wanted Johnny to have the best view of the glorious plantation.

The boys returned, bearing coffee and fresh doughnuts, still laughing about something.  He grinned up at them and took his coffee from Johnny while accepting a doughnut from the plate Scott was carrying.

Settling back into their chairs, the three Lancers talked and laughed as the verdant Virginia countryside rolled gently by.

Safely back at the ranch, life resumed its familiar patterns.  They tended the stock, repaired fences, cleared streams, planted graze, did the bookkeeping, and performed all the other tasks involved in running a large ranch.

The months rolled quickly by and their trip to Virginia became a memory, supplanted by the myriad details of their lives. Theresa, now beginning to show her pregnancy, was brought to the ranch by her new husband.  Since he had to go to San Francisco on business, it was a good time for her to visit, she explained, before she got too far along.

“Besides,” she smiled at them.  “I was homesick.”

In late September, Cipriano, the head vaquero, came to them, concerned about the old Hereford bull, patriarch of the herd.  He was off his feed, the vaquero explained.  Concerned, they all trooped down to the pasture to where the cows were grazing.

Worried, Murdoch had to admit that Samson didn’t look took well.  Turning to his sons, he asked if one of them would ride to town for the vet, Martin Grainger.

“I’ll go,” volunteered Johnny, turning to go saddle Barranca.  By the time he and Martin returned, however, Samson was dead.  One minute he had been standing there, wheezing slightly, in the next, he had crashed to the ground, dead in the space of a heartbeat.

“That’s probably exactly what it was, too,” said Grainger.  “A heart attack.  I can autopsy him if you want, though.”

“No,” Murdoch replied. “Poor old Samson was ancient. Let him rest in peace. Leaves us in a hell of a spot, though, with all these cows to cover.  Guess we better be on the lookout for another bull.”

After a series of telegrams to other ranchers, they finally located one with the bloodlines Murdoch sought in northern New Mexico. Unwilling to buy such an expensive animal sight unseen, even though they knew and trusted the seller, Murdoch asked if one of his sons would go see the animal before he wired the money.  Although smart and learning fast, neither of them had yet handled a major livestock purchase and he wanted them to have the experience.

“I’ll go.” Johnny volunteered instantly.

Murdoch looked at him and nodded.  “That’s settled then.  You can leave in the morning.”

Johnny began preparing for the trip after dinner.  “Want me to go with you?” Scott offered.

“Naah,” replied his brother.  “Why should both of us make such a long trip?”  “Besides,” he grinned, “aren’t you sparking that little gal from Morro Coyo?”

In truth, Scott had been paying serious attention to one young lady from town, and was actually most reluctant to leave her to the attentions of her other admirers, although he denied it stoutly.

Undeterred, his brother grinned at him.  “You leave it to me, Boston,” he said.  They bickered amiably for awhile, then Scott left Johnny to his packing and joined Murdoch in the great room.

Murdoch was somewhat quiet, prompting Scott to inquire if everything was OK. 

“You worried about Johnny making that trip alone?” he prompted Murdoch.

“No, Scott, that’s not it,” his father replied. “It’s just that he seems to need to get away from us periodically.”

“And that worries you?” Scott questioned.

“Sometimes,” his father admitted. 

“Don’t know why, Murdoch,” Scott told him.  “He’ll be back. He loves this place.”

Murdoch nodded, but in his heart, a nagging question remained. 

He was up early the next day to bid them both goodbye as Scott had decided to accompany Johnny as far as the train station in Sacramento.

“Good-bye, old man,” said his youngest by way of farewell.

“Have a good trip, boys.  Be careful.”

They turned their horses’ heads toward the road and touched them lightly with their spurs.  Barranca and Charlie obediently picked up speed, and soon, both his sons were out of sight.

 

Ch. 3

The first spits of sleet were skating down from a leaden sky when Johnny Lancer left the Dos Gatos cantina and went outside to untie Barranca.  The big Palomino exhaled and stamped his feet, his breath a white cloud in the frosty air.  Seasonably warm fall weather had been abruptly replaced by the first blast of winter while he had been drinking and settling the terms of the Hereford bull’s purchase from his friend, Ted Bradford.  Shivering, Johnny turned up his collar and pulled his coat tighter around him.

“We best be on our way, don’t you think?” he murmured as he rubbed Barranca’s warm muzzle.  The horse nudged him in return, tail switching.  “Looks like a helluva storm.”

Ted had accompanied him out.  “You sure you want to chance it?” he asked, casting a practiced eye at the mountains ringing the valley.  The golden aspens that had lined the hills earlier were now hidden behind the white haze obscuring the mountaintops and a cold wind was blowing.  “It’s already snowing in the high country.  You’re welcome to stay, you know.  You don’t want to get caught up in this, blew in outta nowhere but looks like trouble.”

“Thanks, Ted,” Johnny said, extending his hand.  “I’m anxious to get home. I think I can outrun it.” 

The other man shook his hand in farewell.  “Just in case, you remember that old line shack just outside of Santa Fe?  It’s all stocked up.  Use it if you have to.”

“I will, and thanks. When I get home, I’ll send you a letter with the details; we’ll pick the bull up in the spring.” 

The other man slapped him on the back as he swung lightly into the saddle.  “Take care.”

“You, too.”  Johnny touched his heels lightly to the Palomino’s sides and Barranca took off at an easy canter, happy to be moving.  His tossing mane was a pale fire in the gathering gloom as they headed south.

The sun became a faint coin behind layers of clouds and the day took on the peculiar silence that always presaged a snowstorm as they pressed on through the desert. The north wind began to pick up and on it rode the pungent smells of wet sage and juniper.

The storm overtook them as they traveled south and the spits of sleet increased in number and intensity.  Johnny hunched his shoulders and lowered his chin into his chest to avoid the ice crystals sandblasting his face.  Pulling Barranca to a halt, he took his blue neckerchief out of his shirt and tied it over his face, grateful for the small protection it afforded.   The sleet gave way to big snowflakes as they left the higher altitude.  They were coming down hard and fast by the time he reached the outskirts of Santa Fe. He decided to head for the shack rather than push Barranca any harder. Even though it was only about two o clock, he knew that the mountain dusk would close in swiftly and both he and the horse were tired.

Johnny’s hat and shoulders were covered with snow when he came around the last bend of the curving trail that led to the shack.  He reined Barranca in suddenly, pulling the horse back on his haunches just in time to keep him from treading on an object in the road.  Obscured by snow, it was hard to make out the outline of a man.

Looking right, he discovered an overturned stagecoach in the ditch.  Jumping down, he touched his hand to the man’s throat, seeking a pulse.  The neck was at a curious angle, and the head rolled loosely at his touch.  There was no pulse.  Shielding his eyes against the blowing snow, he spotted another outline and went over to it.  He knelt and touched his fingers to the throat pulse.

The corpse suddenly opened its eyes, startling him so much he almost fell over.  He brushed the snow out of the man’s face, revealing a bushy white mustache and pale cheeks.  A trickle of dried blood ran from one corner of his lips to his chin.  An ugly maroon stain marred the front of his coat and Johnny saw the broken collarbone protruding through the skin.  “Easy, mister,” he said, putting a supportive arm under him.  The snow-covered man moved his lips, trying to speak.  Johnny leaned closer. “What is it?”  The man coughed and a fresh rivulet coursed from his mouth, the bright blood the only color in the gloomy day.

Johnny had seen that before; the end was almost here.  The man’s unfocused eyes took on a sudden intensity and he turned his head on Johnny’s shoulder. His broken lips formed a word.  “Allie,” he breathed.  “Allie…my daughter.  She was on the stage, too.” 

Johnny nodded.  “I’ll find her.”

The man gave a slight nod. ”Save her.”

“I will,” Johnny promised.  Satisfied, the man let his head fall back.  His shallow breathing stilled.  It was over.

But Johnny had no time for sadness.  He had to find the girl and quickly, too, before she froze to death or died of her injuries.  He laid the man back down and stood up, shading his eyes as he scanned the area.  It was hard to see; the snow was falling ever-harder and the howling wind was driving the flakes sideways. Rocks, hillocks, and scrub juniper bushes were all disguised under a layer of white, making it hard to distinguish shapes.  It was Barranca’s pricked ears and turned head that alerted Johnny.  Leading the horse, he went further up the hill.  Again, it was the horse who gave the alarm by dropping his head and snuffling at a snow-covered mound.

Dropping the reins, Johnny knelt and ran his hands over the velvet skirts of the woman who was sprawled there, unconscious.  He ran his hands up to the bodice, letting his hand rest there while he waited for a movement.  Faint, but unmistakable, the bodice rose slowly and sank quickly.  Johnny slipped an arm under her shoulders and scooped her up quickly.  Her loose hair fell over his arm; he could see the blood in her hair.  Cradling her close, he turned to look for the shack.  The sun had reached its nadir now and there was only the faintest line of light on the horizon, about to disappear.  He turned in a circle, squinting, and finally, he saw it, a small line shack outlined in snow against the dark pine trees behind it.  Clutching the woman close to him and holding Barranca’s reins in one hand, he stumbled up the hill and kicked in the door to the shack.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness inside and then he made out the outline of the bed, covered by a patchwork quilt.  A trunk stood at its foot and a small table was in the corner.  A leather chair stood near the fireplace, the pine floor sported a woven rug of Zuni design in shades of ochre, gold, and brown.  A huge pair of elk antlers was mounted over the fireplace and there was even an old brass tub in the far corner, gleaming softly in the fading light.  A small potbellied stove occupied the opposite corner.

To his relief, the cabin had not been looted or broken into by hungry wolverines or bears. Crossing the room quickly, he laid the girl gently down on the bed and turned to make a light.  Fumbling in his coat pocket, he found matches and quickly touched one to the lantern standing nearby.  Crossing to the girl, his blue eyes traveled over her.  He shook his head at the sight of the ugly gash on one temple. Setting the lantern on the bedside table, he sat her up in his arms and began to undress her.  Her clothes were wet and even unconscious, she was shivering.  Her cloak came off easily enough but the tiny buttons down the back of her dress defeated him.  His own fingers were clumsy with cold and he blew on them to warm them.

He knew that he had to get her warmed up, and quickly. He worked all the buttons on her dainty, high-topped boots and slipped them off before turning his attention to the problem of her dress, frowning slightly at the tightly buttoned wrists and at the long row of tiny buttons down the back.  He debated for a moment and then took the knife out of his boot.

Shifting her slightly, he slashed all the tiny, mother-of-pearl buttons off her dress in one stroke and eased the green velvet down.  Her shivering increased as she felt the cold cabin air on her exposed shoulders and he quickly slid the garment off and then began undoing her voluminous petticoats.  Intent on his task, he was nonetheless taken back for a moment when her slender body, clad only in a sheer chemise was revealed to him.  The pink tips of her nipples, hard from the cold, and the dark triangle at the base of her legs were displayed under the sheer lawn of the garment.  Averting his eyes, he slid his hands up her slender thighs to the knees and removed her lacy, ribboned garters. 

Stripping off her wet stockings, he tossed them aside, taking her small, arched feet into his hands for a moment to warm them.  Then he undid the ribbon that held her chemise up. Removing it,  he rubbed her pale skin vigorously to increase her circulation before slipping her into one of his shirts, sliding her under the covers and drawing them up to her chin.

Then he turned to the fireplace.  As he had hoped, it had been left ready with a supply of well-seasoned wood and a basket of kindling lay nearby.  Moving with the catlike quickness that had made Johnny Madrid a legend, he took more matches from his coat pocket and touched one to the kindling, watching as it blazed into life.  Taking a burning pine knot and holding it aloft, he located a heavy steel pot that he filled with snow and set it on the fireplace hook to melt.  He piled more wood on the fire and soon it was blazing merrily, casting a dancing light in the dark cabin.  Placing candles at strategic intervals, he tore through the trunk at the foot of the bed and located an old cotton towel.  He began gently to dry her hair, squeezing moisture from its lustrous length and fluffing it gently.

Taking the warm water from the hook, he picked up a smaller cloth and examined her face more closely.  Her hair was matted with blood from the cut on her temple and an ugly bruise lay against one delicate cheekbone.  He began gently to clean the cut.  When the blood was gone, he was relieved to see that it was not as bad as he had feared.  He knew scalp lacerations usually bled profusely; still it was a relief to see that the wound was not life-threatening, although the large bump promised a bad headache.  He let out his breath, not realizing that he’d been holding it.

Mentally crossing his fingers, he gently pulled the covers down to examine her body.  His long, sunbrowned fingers moved gently and exploring over her slender arms and legs.  They lay at normal angles and no bones appeared broken.  “Madre de Dios,” he muttered.  “Gracias.”  Slipping her into one of his shirts, he pulled the covers back up.  Taking more blankets from the trunk at the foot of the bed, he piled them all but one upon her.

Building the fire higher, he went outside to look for Barranca.  He found the golden horse standing with his tail to the wind under the small lean-to next to the cabin.  Stripping off the saddle, he put the tack inside the cabin.  He went back out into the silent white world beyond the door and rubbed the horse down.  When he was done, he put the last blanket around Barranca, securing it around the horse’s neck with a saddle blanket pin.

Thanking his lucky stars, he discovered a covered barrel of corn and a pile of dry hay at the back of the lean-to. He put some of both in the hayrack and the horse began to munch contentedly.  Patting the animal’s sleek side in farewell, he returned to the cabin.

It was much warmer inside as he approached the bed.  The girl appeared to be resting easily, eyes still closed, so he finally gave some thought to his own situation.  Dropping his wet shirt on the floor, he peeled off his tight black pants.  Standing naked in the firelight, he stretched like a sleek cat, enjoying the warmth.  He shook his head vigorously, then raked his fingers through his thick black hair to get the water out.  Droplets of water cascaded from his hair and danced on his warm brown skin and sinewy muscles, gleaming like diamonds in the firelight.  Casually wrapping a towel around his lean hips, he crossed the room to his saddlebags.  Digging out a change of clothes and some of the dried beef jerky he used on the trail, he dressed and returned to the fire, shredding the jerky as he went.  The water was reaching a simmer and it hissed and bubbled softly as he added the jerky to it.

Looking in the cupboards, he was relieved to find them well-stocked.  The Flying W certainly treated its hands well, he decided.  He thought briefly about the two bodies down the trail but decided against trying to bury them.  He didn’t want to leave the girl and it would take hours and a pickaxe to break the frozen earth.  He was sorry but he knew the bodies would be gone by morning.

After checking the girl once more, he began looking for provisions. He had to keep his strength up if he was going to get them out of this situation and at this altitude, in this weather, survival could be tricky.

He found numerous jars of canned goods and preserves in the cupboards as well as some tinned beef and laid a plate and fork on the table.  It was now extremely warm in the cabin and he opened his shirt.  Returning to his saddle bag, he dug out a silver flask and took a gulp of the contents.  Warm fire spread through him, then coiled like a snake in his belly.

Returning to his work, he slung a rope over the rafters near the bed and fashioned a hammock.  Testing it, he found it sturdy, and decided it would make a good place enough for him to sleep.  He didn’t want to sleep too deeply lest the girl wake and he not hear her.

Checking the simmering jerky on the fire, he saw that it cooking down to a rich beef broth he intended to give the girl when she woke.  He melted a little more snow on the fire and put it aside.  Returning to the girl’s side, he laid a gentle hand on her forehead.  No sign of fever, although he was disturbed she hadn’t woken up yet.  He put uneasy thoughts of coma out of his mind and sat down at the table.  As soon as he did so, he realized how tired he was.  He ate a few of the canned peaches, head nodding slightly.  His eyes were growing heavy.  The long ride and too-warm room were taking a toll.  Settling into his makeshift hammock, he tried mightily to stay awake.  But the slight hiss of the fire was soothing and his eyes soon closed.

A chilling scream wakened him and he shot of the hammock and hurried to the bed.  The dim glow of the falling snow filled the cabin and he quickly realized that, although her eyes were open, she didn’t see him.  His heart sank as he laid his hand on her forehead and found it burning hot.  “Papa,” she cried again, “Papa!”   Climbing onto the bed, he braced his back against the headboard and wrapped his arms around her, stilling her struggles.  “Sshhh,” he soothed, “It’s all right.”  She turned her cheek into his neck, like a child seeking comfort.  “Sshhhh,” he whispered, beginning to rock her back and forth, “It’s all right.  Go to sleep.”

When she quieted, he got out of bed and fetched cool water and a cloth.  Gently, he sponged her face and arms and hands, over and over. Worried, he wished he could call a doctor.  Then the part of him that was Madrid took over, operating with calm efficiency, doing all of the things that could be done.

He slept no more that night.  Stoking the fire, he made himself a cup of coffee, then pulled the chair close to the bed and wrapped a blanket around himself, settling in to keep watch.

The girl began mumbling with delirium, scaring him by shrieking suddenly at something her fevered brain conjured up. Suddenly, a voice penetrated her delirium.  Low and soothing, it made the terror recede.  She opened her eyes and saw a pair of sapphire blue eyes fringed by long dark lashes looking down at her.  Then something cool was sliding across her face and neck, a strong arm was holding her, and the soothing voice lulled her back into restless sleep.

Breaking out in a cold sweat, she tried to kick the covers off.  Johnny was getting scared.  “She’s delirious,” he thought.  “I’m just a gunfighter, what do I know?  She needs a doc.  Bad.” He felt an absurd twinge as he looked at her.  He didn’t want her to die, and he wasn’t going to let her die, either. He looked down at her small, piquant face and smoothed the hair back from her forehead

The endless night wore on.  He got up at intervals to tend the fire and to look out the window.  Around midnight, he heard the distant, silvery howl of a coyote pack and opened the door.  The snow was falling so hard now that it was a whiteout.  Snow piled up against the windows and still the blizzard raged on. 

By daybreak, he was exhausted. His bloodshot eyes itched and his head ached.  Rubbing a hand over his unshaven face, he grimaced at the stubble.  He glanced back at the bed.  The girl was quiet for the moment and he let his mind wander. 

He thought of Murdoch and the family waiting at home for him.  The old man would be worried but trying to hide it.   Scott would hide his concern under pretend nonchalance.  “Johnny can take care of himself,” he‘d be telling the old man.  “Don’t you worry about him.”  Both of them would put on a good show for Theresa and she would pretend to accept their reassurances.   Then she would go into the kitchen and make his favorite seven-layer chocolate cake and a lemon meringue pie for good measure, to keep her own fears at bay.

Back at Lancer, Murdoch was pacing the floor of his study, drink in hand.  He took a sip of the fine old Scotch, then tossed it down like water.  He looked down at the glass, turning it slowly in the firelight.  Every time one of the boys was overdue, he worried, but in his innermost heart, he knew he worried the most about Johnny.  What troubled him was the gnawing suspicion that someday Johnny’s past as Madrid would somehow catch up with him.  Gunfighters rarely died in bed--anything could happen to the boy. It could be a bullet in the back, a knife in some dark alley, a blow to the head.  And the worst part is,” he thought to himself, “I’ll never know.”

Following that thought to still deeper depths, he admitted to himself that even now, he still doubted the strength of Johnny’s attachment to them all, still worried that his wild side would take over and he’d go off looking for excitement one fine day and never come back. 

With an oath, he turned and hurled the glass into the fireplace.  Slamming the study door, he stomped off up the stairs.

In the great room, Scott and Theresa looked up from their chess game.  They knew what was in Murdoch’s heart.  The unspoken words lay between them like a knife on the chessboard.   “What if,” Theresa whispered, “What if something’s happened to him?”

Scott reached across the table and laid his hand gently on hers.  “Stop it,” he said.  “He’ll be back.” In the fireplace, a pine knot snapped. They settled back in their chairs, looking at each other, the same fear in both their hearts. 

Back at the cabin, Johnny continued the numbing routine, stoking the fire, caring for the girl, and tending to Barranca. It was impossible to tell night from day in the howling blizzard.   He lost track of how long it raged as the hours ran together.  Sleeping only in snatches, hurrying to her side at the slightest sound, he did everything that he could think of but the girl was growing worse.  Her breathing had taken on an ominous, labored sound that he didn’t like.  He knew they were nearing a turning point; she would either live or she would die, and she would do it in the next few hours.

He wracked his brain, trying to recall the things that had been done for him when he’d been hurt or ill.  With sudden decision, he filled more pots with snow and put them on the stove.  Building the fire as high as possible, the room soon filled with steam as they boiled.  Hoping that the steam would loosen the congestion in her lungs, he put Allie into the leather chair and moved both closer to the stove, propping her up with pillows behind her back.  He re-filled the pots and tended the fire for hours, moving robot-like from task to task.  He was so tired that his flesh felt like it was dragging from his bones when he noticed a change.  The awful rasping had stopped and in its place were normal breath sounds.  He kept it up awhile longer, until assured that the improvement continued, and then slipped her back into bed, elevating her slightly with the pillows.

Shoving the chair back into place, he sank into it and was soon sound asleep.

Hearing her movements, Johnny woke and hurried to the bed, his steps only slowing when she looked up at him.  Her eyes were clear and she was rational again.  He grinned, then laughed out loud, his teeth flashing white against his beard.  He sat beside her and touched her cheek to confirm the evidence of his eyes.  It was cool.  “Dios mio” he muttered. 

She lay looking at him, puzzled.  She didn’t know him but his voice was somehow familiar.  “Where am I?” she asked.  “What am I doing here?”

“You’ve been sick,” he replied.  “But you’re all right now.”  He quickly brewed her some tea and propped her up while she drank it. “In a little while, I’ll get you some soup,” he promised.  The effort of drinking tired her and she drifted back off to sleep. 

Johnny checked again on Barranca, tightening the blanket and giving him more corn and some water from the stove.  The horse drank thirstily, then nuzzled his face. “I love you, too,” Johnny told him, smoothing the silky nose before going back inside.  He climbed into his hammock and was soon asleep, a deep restful sleep such as he hadn’t had in days.

Sometime during the night, she awoke. Exhausted, Johnny slept on and she studied his face in the faint glow from the fireplace.  Frowning slightly, her eyes traced each feature.  She knew she ought to be scared of this strange man but somehow she wasn’t.  She vaguely remembered being held against someone’s hard chest while he fed her liquids from a spoon, warm hands, and a gentle voice.  Her eyes roamed over the stranger’s face, taking in the dark shadows under his eyes, the heavy growth of beard, and the shaggy black hair, which looked as if he’d run his hands through it in distraction.

By the next morning, the blizzard that had howled out of the Colorado Rockies finally played out.  Johnny awoke to bright sunshine and the sound of water running rapidly from the roof into the rain gutters and dripping from the pine trees.  Going outside, Barranca gave him a whinny of greeting, tossing his head.  Johnny laughed and went to remove the blanket. “Getting itchy, are ya?” he asked the horse who whickered in reply and stamped his feet softly.  “We’ll go for a ride later,” Johnny promised him.  The horse turned his head, listening, and a moment later, Johnny heard the sound of a bell tinkling. With a last stroke of the sleek hide, Johnny stepped out of the lean-to, heading for the source of the sound.

A moment later, a herd of goats appeared, driven by a tiny old woman dressed all in black, with a black rebozo on her head.  She was wearing a stack of thin silver bracelets on one scrawny arm and they clinked as she waved her stick, herding the goats toward the creek.  Her face was so wrinkled, her eyes were all but invisible but when she smiled in response to his “Hola, abuela!” he saw that they were merry and kind, accompanied by a gap-toothed grin.  Raising his hand in greeting, he spoke to her in rapid Spanish.

“Pobrecita,” she clucked, surrendering her staff to him and gathering her heavy black skirts in both hands as she ascended the slight rise to the cabin.

Watching the goats as they drank, Johnny thanked heaven for this unexpected boon.  When the old woman returned a short time later, her eyes were suspiciously moist and she was honking noisily into her handkerchief.  She replaced it in the pocket of her voluminous broomstick skirt and accepted the staff back from him.

He stopped her with a gentle hand on her arm as she turned to go, slipping a coin into her palm.  She grinned brightly up at him, then bit down on the coin, testing its authenticity.  Finding it good, she smiled still more widely, her eyes disappearing into slits.  Promising to return, she waved her stick at the goats, prodding them back up the hill and humming to herself in Spanish as she went.

Mentally bracing himself, he went back into the cabin.  Allie was calm, although he could see that she had been crying.  Telling her Barranca needed exercise, he received her nod in return and the assurance that she would try and sleep a little.  Saddling the horse quickly, he swung up onto his back and gathered up the reins. The outlines of the road were visible in the rapidly-melting snow and as Barranca slipped and slid in the gluey mud, he urged the horse back down the hill.

As he had suspected, the bodies were gone but the cases were still there.  Making a hasty travois from a blanket from the cabin and some downed tree branches, he harnessed the contraption to Barranca and began hauling them back up.

He put them on the porch, identifying Allie’s by the initials on the handsome leather.  Moving quietly, he put them in the cabin and then took Barranca on a short ride.  Down by the river, the snow was already melted and the water was rushing faster and higher as snowmelt added to its volume.  A pair of golden eagles floated overhead and squirrels chattered at him from the cottonwoods lining the creek.  Catching a glimpse of his reflection, he grimaced at the heavy beard and ran a hand over his chin, not liking the prickle.

He rode Barranca downstream for a mile or so, then stopped, feeling that he ought to get back.  He’d have to give it a few days, let the girl recover some more and the road dry out again, before taking her down to the railroad station in Lamy and putting her on a train bound for the east coast.

They had talked a little during one of her waking periods and she had mentioned an aunt in White Plains, New York.  She hadn’t asked about her father, as though preferring not to know and he hadn’t pressed the issue.

Turning Barranca around, he returned to the cabin.  Entering, he found her still asleep and quietly set about making dinner, waking her when it was ready.  She was much better this time, the circles under her eyes not so dark or harshly-cut, her voice stronger.  She mentioned her longing for a bath.  “Soon,” he promised. 

To distract her, he began telling her the tale of “La Loba,” or Wolf Woman, a magical being who inhabited these regions.  Able to materialize in the most unexpected places, she usually took the form of a poor, ugly old woman with a wart on her nose.  A shapeshifter, La Loba could also appear as a wolf when it suited her.

La Loba’s job was to travel the deserts of the Southwest and Mexico, collecting bones.  Every night after dusk, she crept through canyons and arroyos, scouring the desert floor. It was important, Johnny told her, to always be kind to passing strangers in this region, for one might be entertaining La Loba unawares and no one knew what awful curse she might damn you with if treated with disrespect. 

Wolf Woman’s special pleasure, he told the girl, was to find and put aside wolf bones.  For those, she had a special purpose.

“What does she do with the wolf bones?” Allie asked.

“When she’s gathered all of them, she returns to her cave,” he told her.  “And lays them all out on the floor. When she’s done, she begins to sing over them.  And little by little, as she sings, the bones begin to knit themselves together.”  He noticed Allie’s head nodding and deliberately made his voice softer as he continued.  “As she sings, her voice grows more powerful until it rocks her cave.  The bones form the skeleton of the wolf.  Then they begin to cover over with skin and hair.  Bit by bit, the animal takes shape.  First the long snout, the yellow eyes, the ears and the sturdy legs.  Then the furry coat, last, the curly tail...”

By then, she was asleep.  Tucking her in tightly, he went back outside.  The night sky was clear, the air, cold.  Almost two miles above sea level, the stars were sharp and somehow cruel, like objects punched out with tinsnips and laid against black velvet.

As promised, the old woman showed up again several days later.  In anticipation of her visit, he had put water to boil on the stove and laid out clothes from Allie’s case.   They soon shooed him out and he rode Barranca into Santa Fe, grateful for the diversion.  He headed straight for the La Fonda Hotel, where he had a bath and a shave before going to the telegraph office.  Happy at the idea of being home soon, he dictated a brief message to Murdoch, paid, and went back to the hotel for breakfast.  Then he got into the soft, warm bed, pulled the covers up under his chin, and slept dreamlessly for four hours. When he woke up, he rented a buckboard from the livery stable and hitched Barranca to the back.

Arriving at the cabin, he knocked before entering, although they had surely heard the wagon approaching.  The abuela opened the door, smiling her gap-toothed grin, and he pecked her on the cheek, slipping an arm about her thin shoulders in a quick hug.  She laughed and flapped her hand at him, as if shooing chickens.  From behind the makeshift curtain, Allie emerged, suddenly shy and avoiding his eyes.  Striding forward, he gave a low whistle and caught her hand, whirling her around in a froth of green velvet and flying petticoats.

Letting her go, his eyes traveled over her, widening in surprise.  She was completely transformed.  The bedraggled waif he had been caring for was gone, and in her place was an elegant young lady.

Allie pressed a hand to her heart, to still its fluttering.  Johnny’s transformation had been equally dramatic.  The shaggy saddle tramp had disappeared and the man looking at her now was handsome, devastatingly so.  She blushed and stammered, suddenly nervous, and from her place at the door, the abuela smiled to herself. “Maria, Madre de Dios,” she thought.  “If I were only forty years younger!”

Assuring Allie he’d be back quickly, Johnny helped the vieja into the buckboard and gave her a ride back to her adobe hut further up the mountain.  The goats milled about in their pen as the wagon neared and her esposo appeared, nodding and smiling.  Every bit as wizened as his wife but with the same merry grin, he came forward to help her down.  Before she descended, Johnny slipped a small purse into her hand as her eyes filled with tears.  “Now, none of that,” he warned her.  They stood in the doorway of their hut as he turned the buckboard around, waving until he disappeared from sight.

Allie was waiting for him when he arrived, tapping her foot with nervous anticipation.  The vieja had cleaned the cabin and every surface gleamed.  The firewood had been replaced, ready for the next person, and everything had been neatly put away. 

When they reached the top step, he swung her up in his arms so she wouldn’t dirty her shoes and hem in the mud as her cheeks pinkened.  “We’ve got to hurry,” he said as he placed her on the front seat.  “Don’t want to miss the train.”  She was pensive on the way to Lamy, glancing at his profile from time to time.  He looked over at her and grinned, placing his hand on hers.  “It’ll be all right,” he told her, reading her mind.  “I’m sure sorry about your pa, though.”

Tears threatened and to change the subject, she mentioned the stagecoach for the first time.  “It was no accident,” she told him.  “It was a holdup.” 

He glanced sharply at her. “A holdup?  Do you remember any of them?”

“Three robbers,” she told him.

“Any details?” he asked. “I’d like to recognize those people if I ever see them.”

Haltingly, pressing her fingers to her forehead in the effort to remember, she described their leader.  “He was tall…very tall.  He had a deep voice.  But they wore kerchiefs over their faces.”

Distant memory rang a bell in his mind but now they were rattling up to the depot where the departing train was belching steam and he had to let the thought go.

“All aboard!” cried the conductor.  Johnny hurried to swing her down from the high seat while a porter took her cases.

He let her slip down his body until her feet met the ground.  Her arms still around his neck, she looked at him.  “Johnny,” she whispered.  He leaned down and touched her lips with his.  Her arms went about his neck in a strong grip as she kissed him back.

“All aboard!” cried the conductor.  “Last call!” and the sound of the steam engine increased in intensity with a sound like a dragon’s breath.

“I’ll write to you, Johnny!” she said as the conductor helped her up the steps.  “Good-bye!”  The train began to move as he stood on the platform, waving to her.  “Good-bye!”  Ignoring the stares of the other passengers, she ran down the aisle for the length of the car, trying to keep him in view while the train picked up speed.  Soon, he was gone.

Alone on the platform, Johnny shook his head.  Then he untied Barranca and tossed a coin to the waiting liveryman who would return the buckboard to Santa Fe for him.  Pulling out the pocket watch Murdoch had given him, he noticed the time.  “Four o’clock,” he told Barranca.  “We’ll just make it.”  Climbing into the saddle, he rode to the rail office and made plans to stable Barranca in one of the livestock cars.  Paying the bill, he got his own ticket and loaded the horse himself, making sure he was carefully tethered and had everything he needed, including a deep bed of straw to cushion him if he decided to sleep.  That done, he made his way to the dining car, where he had a shot of tequila as he waited for the train to start.

He made his way to his seat just as the train lurched forward.  Seating himself comfortably in the leather armchair, he leaned his head back and grinned as he pictured his homecoming, wondering at the transformation in himself.   Johnny Madrid had always been a rolling stone, gathering no moss as he moved from wild border town to wild border town, always ready for a fight, traveling light as a tumbleweed with no one to care about and no one to care about him.  Times sure had changed.

He pictured Lancer as it looked from his bedroom window in the early morning, with dawn pinkening the sky and the smell of sagebrush and eucalyptus in the air.  The horses in the corral would be stirring as the vaqueros rubbed sleep from their eyes and pots would begin clattering in the kitchen as Maria commenced breakfast. The smell of coffee would percolate up to his room and Theresa’s light step would go by in the hall.  He’d hear Murdoch’s deep voice offering her a morning greeting and listen to Scott whistling as he shaved.

Smiling to himself, he watched the barren landscape roll by, counting the hours until he could see it all again.

At the rap on the door, all of the Lancers had sprung up, glancing at each other in consternation.  Johnny was long overdue and all of them had begun to fear the worst.

Murdoch snatched the telegram from the delivery boy, scanning it hurriedly, then sank into a chair.  At their worried looks, he handed it to Scott, who read it aloud.  “Coming Home” was all it said.

Three days later, the train rolled into Sacramento in the late afternoon.  A stranger watching might have wondered about the anxious cowboy who offloaded his horse, saddled quickly, and was in the saddle in one leap, thinking he was being pursued by the law. 

When he was sure Barranca was up to it, Johnny dropped his hands, giving the signal for more speed.  The golden horse stretched out in a ground-eating run, hooves thundering.  After an hour’s hard ride, they rounded the last curve in the road. He pulled Barranca up and the horse skidded to a stop, sides heaving, as his rider surveyed the scene below.

The ranch lay spread out before them in serene beauty in the dusk.  And there was a light in every window of the hacienda as his family waited for Johnny Lancer to come home.

 

 

Ch. 4

The cloudburst ended as evening arrived, washing away some of the smells from the piles of garbage in back alleys and some of the dust from the grimy adobes that formed this shabby rabbit warren of a town. Puddles reflected lights from the windows undisturbed. Water dripped slowly from the eaves and the potholed, muddy streets were empty, the rain having chased everyone inside.  A stray dog, every rib showing, and tail tucked between its legs, foraged dispiritedly in the corners of buildings, hoping some stray bit of edible trash had escaped.  Stray papers blew in the wind and an occasional tumbleweed rolled by. Chimney smoke began rising into the purple twilight as women cooked the evening meal.

Eyes peered from windows and cracks in walls, following the progress of a lone man on a golden horse as he made his way slowly along the narrow camino. Men licked their lips as they eyed the expensive horse with the silver conchos on his saddle; he would surely bring a pretty penny, even without papers.  “Por todos los santos,” they thought, it would be so easy to knock that man on the head, steal the costly horse and make off with the expensive saddle. Maybe he even had whiskey money in the pocket of his black jacket with the silver trim on the collar.

Such larcenous thoughts left them, however, when they looked more closely.  Second glances  made them decide that perhaps this man would not be such an easy target, after all. Maybe it was his relaxed, yet confident seat on the horse.  Maybe it was the six-shooter, tied low on his right leg, the way a gunfighter would wear it. Maybe it was the hat pulled low over the eyes, hiding his expression.  Whatever the reason, potential robbers shrugged and turned away, calling for more tortillas, more beans, and agave to wash it all down with.

The man on the horse, negligent though his attitude appeared, was nonetheless fully alert, all of his senses attuned to his surroundings.  This was a dangerous place for a man alone, with no one watching his back but he’d come a long way and his quarry was almost in sight.

Inside the local cantina, a tall man shifted the strumpet in his lap, calling loudly for more cerveza with lime.  The woman in his lap giggled as he turned his bearded face into her neck and pressed his lips against the pulse beating there.  Her brightly colored cotton bodice, printed in vertical stripes of red and green, contrasted unflatteringly with her olive skin even as it pressed her breasts upward, perilously close to overflowing.  Her black tulle skirt clung tightly to her narrow waist and in her hair were narrow ribbons of red and green. The tall man put his glass on the table and wrapped both arms about her, shoving his face into her breasts.  His tongue traced its way down her cleavage as she giggled, tossing her head back.  He put one big hand on her breast, pressing it upward and exposing the dark nipple.  He lowered his head and began sucking on it.  His other hand grasped the hem of her skirt, pushing it out of the way as he moved his hand up her leg.

The other patrons, many dressed in the loose camisas and pants of the working class in Mexico, watched, agog, convinced that they’d be witnessing a sex act on the table any second.

“Hey, you two, get a room!” yelled the sourfaced bartender.  “This is a respectable house!”

The tall man ignored him for another minute or two before finally raising his face and grinning at the girl, who was named Lupe.

Panting, she shoved her wet breast back into her bodice and pushed her skirt down. Taking off his hat, the man swiped his shirtsleeve over his face and removed his hat.  His hair shone in the dim light and as always, she had to touch it, raising a finger and twining a blonde strand around it.  The man stood up abruptly, grabbing her by the wrist.  “Let’s go,” he said. “Back to your room.”  The bulge of his desire was very evident beneath his pants.

She nodded eagerly and he threw some coins onto the bar before they disappeared down the dark corridor.

It was dark when Johnny finally arrived at his destination, a flea-bitten cantina on the far side of town, a dive he remembered from his days as Johnny Madrid.  The bartender could be bribed, if the price was right and his information was good.  Tying Barranca securely to the hitching post outside, he went up the rickety steps and shoved both of the batwing doors out of his way.  Conversation in the room halted and the music of the tinny piano trailed off as the pianist became aware of the silence and turned to look.  Tables overturned and poker chips scattered as patrons dove for cover.  The piano player rose and hurried behind his instrument, crouching there with eyes the size of silver dollars.  The girl who had been singing atop the piano quickly joined him there, crawling on hands and knees and squeezing into the corner behind him.

The man in black stood just inside the door, hand hovering over his gun.  The bartender held a sawed-off shotgun aimed directly at his chest as they stared at each other.

“Go on,” said the gunfighter, his voice soft, yet menacing.  “If you think you’re man enough.”

The bartender looked down the gun barrel that was starting to waver.  A smile played around his lips and he began to chuckle, then laugh, lowering the gun to the floor behind the bar.

“Well, if it ain’t Johnny Madrid!” he cried.  “How the hell are you, boy?”

Johnny shoved the gun back into its holster, striding forward to grasp the man’s hand.  A smile broke out on his dark face, lighting it up.  “Bob Hoskins!

The patrons of the bar, peering from behind overturned tables and out of corners, began gathering up the poker chips and dusting themselves off.  The singer stood up and readjusted her dress and hair.

Johnny grabbed his hand and the two shook, pumping each other’s hands up and down.

“Is that the way you greet patrons these days?” Johnny asked.  “Must be hard on business!”

“Sorry about that, Johnny. There’s bad folks in town these days.  Gotta be prepared. Thought I was seeing a ghost when you walked in!  Heard you’d been shot in Oaxaca.”

Johnny grinned.  “Not my day to die, I guess.  Pretty close, though.”

Bob grinned.  “Reckon your guardian angel is going to collapse from overwork one of these days!”

The bartender elaborated on his problems as he set Johnny up with a shot of tequila and lime. A whole new breed of criminal had taken over the town these days, he said.  Former soldiers, refuse from the Civil War, were finding their way across the border.  Accustomed to fighting, they had no taste for farming or ranching, preferring to make easier money as soldiers of fortune.

“This place ain’t never been a Sunday picnic, Bob,” Johnny prodded him. “What’s the difference?”

According to Bob, it was a big one.  In the good old days, business had been gun-running, a little smuggling, the occasional bank robbery, men on the run from murder raps. Silent and shadowy figures, these men came and went, not sticking around long enough to draw the attention of the federales. Business in the cantina had been brisk.

Now this new breed was driving the old-timers out. Trained in warfare, better-armed, and more willing to take chances, they had turned from robbing stagecoaches to robbing trains, bringing their ill-gotten gains south of the border, away from the long arm  of the U.S. government.

According to Bob, after the Civil War, as the U.S. government continued opening up the west by building miles of new tracks, train robbery was fast becoming the crime of choice because the risks were low and the rewards lucrative.

“I see that,” Johnny agreed, leaning forward.  “But what’s that got to do with you?”

Bob dropped his voice, looking furtively over his shoulder. “One of  ‘em’s got something on me, Johnny.  Something bad.”

Johnny looked hard at him, raising the chair back on two legs as he considered his friend. “Somethin’ tells me there’s more to the story, Bob.”

“He’s taken over m’ business, Johnny.  Calls himself a ‘silent partner.’  Taking most of the money right off the top.  He’s mixed up in all kinds of things.  If the feds get him, I’m going down, too.”

Johnny nodded, letting the chair drop back to the floor. “That’s too bad, Bob. What you going to do about it?”

“Don’t know yet,” said Bob.  “This here place is all I got, you know that, Johnny.”

“I do,” he said quietly.

One of the other patrons yelled for a drink, causing Bob to snap, “Hold yer horses!  I’m coming!” as he got up.

“We’ll talk more later,” Johnny assured him. Raising his voice, he said loudly, “The next round’s on me!”

Cheers erupted at his words.  Grinning, the skinny pianist began pounding the keys again 

The couple in the back room was oblivious to the excitement taking place in the bar.  Embracing tightly, they rolled on the sweaty sheets, oblivious to everything but their approaching climaxes.  She cried out as he thrust deeply within her, followed a second later, by his deep groan of pleasure.  He lay atop her for a moment, his long blonde hair falling over her face, their bodies sticky with sweat.

Enjoying his weight, she wrapped her arms about him, pulling him closer still.  They lay that way for a minute until their breathing returned to normal.   He raised his head and pressed a kiss on her lips before he rolled off.  “Don’t move,” she breathed, “I’ll be right back.”  Fetching a wet cloth, she cleaned him up, then returned to the washbowl and washed her armpits and groin.  Her companion was already half-asleep when she returned, and she slipped quietly under the covers and tucked her body against his side, as closely as she could get. Raising one knee, she rested it across his thighs and pressed her cheek into his chest.

She picked up a lock of his shoulder-length hair, idly wrapping it around one index finger as she admired the golden blonde color, shot through with streaks from the sun.  It was so different from her own black curls and that of everyone she knew, that she was endlessly fascinated by it, touching it at every opportunity.  He was somewhat vain about it, she had noticed, brushing and tending it with more care than she was used to in a man, but like everything about him, even that  pleased her.  The moment she had seen the tall gringo, she had known she had to have him.

She had been so happy when he selected her from all the other girls, happier still when he had proven to be a passionate and considerate lover. He had asked her when they met if she used birth control and she assured him she did.

“Is it effective?” he had asked. 

“Oh, very good, very effective,” she answered and he nodded, satisfied.

Over the last weeks, however, a plan had formed in her mind, and she had stopped drinking the tea her abuela had always told her to use to prevent pregnancy.  She placed a hand on her stomach, hoping even now that his seed had struck fertile ground.  Smiling happily to herself, she fell asleep.

Finishing his drink, Johnny nodded to Bob.  Picking up his hat, he headed for the door.  The party was in full swing now but the singer came over to him, placing a hand on his arm to halt him.  “Leaving already?” she asked.

He looked at her squarely and she was jolted by the impact of his blue eyes.  His eyelashes were ridiculously long and thick, far too nice for any man to possess, she thought inanely.

He smiled, the slow, charming smile that lit up his dark face, making her feel that the sun had suddenly come out.  He spoke, and it was all over.  Her knees went weak as she heard his soft voice explaining that his horse was tired and so was he.  He had to find a place to rest for the night.

“You can come with me,” she suggested, surprising herself even as the words emerged from her mouth.

He smiled down at her.  “I can?  How’s that?”

“I’m about to get off, and I’m going home.  It’s late.  All the places in town are closed,” she replied breathlessly, cursing herself for sounding like a schoolgirl.

“You’re sure I won’t be puttin’ you out none?” he asked gently.  “How’s your man gonna feel about that?”

“Don’t have a man, not anymore.  My husband took off with another woman three months ago.  I’ll make you some dinner, too.”

He appeared to consider the matter.  “I can’t pass that up,” he said after what was only a few seconds but felt like a year to her.

She smiled happily, feeling better than she had in weeks.  “Let’s go, then!” 

Watching them leave, Bob shook his head.  That Johnny, always a favorite of the ladies. The girl had been awfully quiet lately.  Customers, usually drawn to her effervescent friendliness, had commenting on it. Something was clearly wrong and Bob was sure she could use some cheering up.  Having heard the girls’ complimentary banter about the gunfighter’s prowess in the past, Madrid sounded like just the man to do it.

They walked out into the cool, clean air, breathing deeply.  She waited on the rickety sidewalk while Johnny untied Barranca , who was half-asleep.  “Which way?” he asked the girl.

She indicated the end of the street.  “Mind if we walk a bit?” he asked.  “My horse is tired.”

“I don’t mind,” she replied.  “It’s a beautiful night.”

They strolled companionably along, although Johnny never dropped his guard.  Arriving at her small, neat house on the outskirts, he put Barranca into the shed that served as a stall, watching as the horse turned to regard him through the half-door. “I’ll be right in,” he told her.  “Soon  as I see to my horse.”

She nodded and he watched her disappear into the house.  Lights began to appear in the windows as she lit candles and fired up the gas lamp in the kitchen.  She heard the pump in the yard clank as he drew water for the horse.  Setting her shawl aside, she set quickly about starting dinner.

After about twenty minutes, during which she had dished up some posole, refried beans, and tortillas, she opened the back door and called him.  “Dinner’s ready.”

His voice floated back to her. “Be right in.”

When he entered her small, neat kitchen with its snowy curtains at the windows and the tiny cactus plant in a pot on the sill, he felt immediately at home.  She was a beautiful woman, he saw that now.  Divested of her saloon garb and makeup, wearing a long blue skirt, a white blouse tucked in tightly beneath a black velvet sash, and with her hair released from its bun and streaming over her shoulders, she seemed ten years younger.

He grinned at her.  “This sure smells good.”

She smiled in return.  “Let’s eat.”

They talked little as they ate.  Although Johnny was starved, he tried not to eat much, unsure of how much she could afford to give away.  Reading his mind, she smiled and refilled his plate. “I have plenty.  And I like to see a man eat.”

He glanced at her covertly as he ate.  She had an exceptionally pretty face, he noticed, with high cheekbones and light blue eyes fringed by long dark-brown lashes.  Winged brows set off the lovely eyes that went appealingly with her light hair and fair complexion. 

“Go ahead, say it,” she teased him.

“Say what?” he asked.

“Ask me what a girl like me is doing in a place like that.”

“Well,” he said.  “I don’t want to pry, but if you want to tell me, I’d be interested.”

Without a single trace of self-pity, she told him her tale.  She had come to Mexico with her husband, a mining company representative who was examining a claim registered with his company.  He had become enchanted with a dark-haired, dark-eyed senorita and one day, both he and the senorita had simply disappeared.  He had left a one-line note on the table.  “Good luck.”

She had sat awhile in the empty parlor, listening to the grandfather clock tick.  Then she had risen, put on her bonnet and shawl, and gone to the bank.  Their account was empty.  He had left not a dime. Desperate for work, she had gone down to the saloon, responding to an ad in the local paper.

This house, she told him, belonged to the company.  She would have to leave it before long to make room for the new representative who was arriving soon.

“Where will you go?” he questioned quietly, reaching across the table and covering her hand with his.  “Do you have any family?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “My family is in Minnesota.”  She made a face.  “I hate that climate! Too cold!”

He had to smile at her emphatic reply.  She was a spunky thing, he had to give her that.  Withdrawing her hand from beneath his, she jumped up and began to clear the table.

He got up and came around to her side, taking the dishes from her hands.  “Let me help you with that.”  She looked at him, suddenly wordless, as he removed the plates and set them on the sink.

“Thank you for dinner, ma’am,” he said.

“Call me Meredith,” she replied.

“Thank you, Meredith.”   He was so close, she could feel the body heat rising off him and smell the masculine scent of horses and leather.   She looked at him, mute, and then put her arms around his neck, lips parting slightly as she kissed him. He drew back a little.  “Meredith,” he whispered.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

By way of answer, she put her arms around him, drawing his dark head down, and covering his lips with hers.  His arms went around her and her knees went weak.  Tugging him by the hand, she led him down the hall to her bedroom.

He awoke the next morning to find a rose on the pillow next to him. Women leaving him flowers was a novel experience and smiling, he picked it up and held it to his nose, breathing in the sweet fragrance. 

She’d left washwater, too, and he scrubbed off the traildust and wet his hair, slicking it back with his hands.  She was in the kitchen when he came out, drawn by the smell of coffee.

“Morning!” she greeted him brightly.  “Hungry?”

“As a bear,” he replied, crossing the kitchen to slip his arms about her waist from behind.  She turned in his arms, kissing him deeply.  He let go of her suddenly.

“Bacon’s burnin,’” he told her. 

“Oh,” she cried, reaching for it with the spatula, “not quite.”

When he came back from feeding and watering Barranca, she had piled the rescued bacon on his plate and put biscuits and jam on the table.  Pouring him a cup of coffee and putting it on the table, she passed him a napkin and took her place on the opposite side, beaming at him.

“What are you doing today?” she asked.

“I’m looking for somebody,” he told her.  “Best you don’t know too much about that. How ‘bout you?” he asked.

“I’ve got to work at noon,” she replied. “Who are you looking for,” she inquired.  “Maybe I can help.”

“I’m not dragging you into it,” he replied and there was a note of finality in his voice that made her drop the subject.

Brushing a quick kiss on his cheek, she gathered up a parcel containing her work clothes.  Seeing his glance, she explained “I get changed there.  Don’t like to walk down the street dressed like that.”

He nodded.  “I’ll see you there later.”

After she was gone, he saddled Barranca and rode back to the saloon. A small boy darted up.  “Can I water your horse, senor?”

“No, muchacho,” Johnny replied.  As the boy’s face fell, he tossed him a coin. “But you can have this.”

The boy’s face lit up, wreathed in smiles.  “Thank you, senor! Gracias!"

Johnny nodded.  “See you around, kid,” and the boy took off down the street.

He went around to the back alley and rapped on the door.   Bob opened it a crack and peered out. “Oh, it’s you, Johnny.  Come on in.  We can talk in here” he said, indicating the storeroom, which he locked behind them.

In the room on the opposite side of the hall, the blonde man withdrew from the window and put down the gun he’d been pointing at the man outside.  He prodded the sleeping girl with it.  “Go find out what’s going on.” When she didn’t wake up fast enough, he gave her a push, sending her sprawling to the floor. She looked up at him, shocked. “Oh, stop sniveling!” he snarled at the sight of her quivering chin and the tears coursing down her cheeks. “Get a move on!”

Dressing hastily in a long red skirt and white, off-the shoulder blouse, she slipped into a pair of leather sandals and pressed the heels of both hands to her eyes.  The man watched from the bed, his face cold and inscrutable. Something in his expression made her stomach turn.  Leaving her hair tumbled on her shoulders, she hurried down the hall and pressed her ear to the storeroom door.

She recognized Bob’s voice and heard a new one speaking in reply.  Soft and unhurried, it was difficult to make out but it sounded like he was asking Bob to look at something.  Peering through the keyhole, she saw a man dressed in black and wearing a distinctive concho and turquoise belt.  He was handing Bob a piece of paper.  In her anxiety to hear, she pressed too close and the door rattled the tiniest bit in its frame.  The next second, she was sprawled on the floor of the storeroom, looking with frightened eyes at the stranger who had thrown open the door and was now pointing a cocked gun at her.  He had moved so quickly she hadn’t even heard him coming.

Bob was looking at her, annoyed.  “What’s going on, Lupe?”

Thinking quickly, she replied, “I was just going to take some cerveza to the bar to save you the trouble.”

Bob’s face softened.  Stealing a glance at the narrowed eyes of the stranger, who was slipping his gun back into the holster, she could see he was unconvinced.  He extended his hand and hauled her unceremoniously to her feet.  The paper had fluttered to the floor and she stole a glance at it as she crossed to where the beer was stacked.

“Never mind that, Lupe, I’ll do it.” Bob told her.

Nodding silently, she scurried off.  The blue eyes of the stranger followed her.  “I’d get rid of that one, Bob.  She was spying on you.”

“Lupe? Nonsense,” Bob retorted.  “She’s been with me forever.”

Back in her room, her lover’s eyes narrowed as she told him what had just happened. Lounging on the bed, his gray eyes narrowed speculatively and she looked at him, frightened.  Seeing her expression, he laughed and slipped an arm around her, pulling her down on top of him. Conscious of what had just passed between them, she stiffened and tried to pull away.  His grip on her arm became steely and he yanked her onto his chest, one hand behind her head, forcing her to face him.

“Kiss me,” he demanded.  She fought to turn her head away.  His voice roughened as he forced her head lower. “Kiss me, I said!” Shoving his mouth into hers, he forced her lips open roughly,  jamming his tongue down her throat.  Tears started to her eyes but he didn’t stop, tearing her clothes from her body, brutal fingers leaving bruises on her breasts and scratches on her arms and legs as she tried frantically to escape.  Laughing at her struggles, he flipped her over and positioned himself behind her.  Desperately pleading, she half-climbed the headboard to get away from him.  Her struggles only excited him more, and she heard his belt buckle clink as he undid his pants.  Naked and bleeding, she whispered, “Please!” but it was too late.  Taking his member into his hand, he battered his way into her, ripping and tearing delicate tissues and causing her to shriek in pain against the hand clamped over her mouth.

When he was done, he rolled over onto his back, breathing heavily. She had curled up into a ball, weeping softly.  A look of disgust crossed his face as he got up, adjusting his clothing as he went.  Grabbing her ripped blouse and skirt, he threw them into her face.  “Get out of here,” he snarled through clenched teeth.  “Get out of my sight.”

 

 Ch. 5

Meredith’s long blonde hair half-hid her face as she gazed down at Johnny.  They were still abed, although the ratty-looking rooster in the back yard had crowed hours ago.  Her voice shook slightly as she asked, “Do you have to go?”

He brushed the hair back so he could see her eyes.  “I wish I didn’t,” he replied gently.  “But the trail’s gone cold.  I have to see if I can pick it up again.”

She nodded, chin quivering.  Suddenly, she flung herself atop him, covering his face with kisses.  She felt his body shaking as he began to laugh and she flung the covers back, kissing her way down his throat and chest to the thin line of black hair that traced over his belly.  His strong hands moved in her hair and she looked up, tossing her hair back.

“Say you’ll come back, Johnny, say it!”

He smiled at her.  “I will come back,” he promised.

She slid back up his body to kiss his lips and with a suddenness that startled her, he rolled over and pinned her body with his, lowering his head to nuzzle her breasts.  Her breath came faster as he moved lower and her hands caught in his hair, body arching.

They passed the day making leisurely love, falling asleep in mid-afternoon.   When they awoke, the sun was descending in the sky and both of them were starved.  Pressing a last kiss upon his lips, she sat up and glanced at the bedside clock.  “My goodness, will you look at the time!  Bob’s going to kill me, I’m late for work!”

“Bob’ll understand,” he said dryly, watching her skin turn pink as she washed her face and scrubbed herself with the washcloth she’d dipped into the bowl.  “I’ll be by the saloon, get something to eat.  Then I really have to go.”

Her smile faded as she looked at him, still holding the washcloth, then her chin came up and she nodded bravely, summoning a weak smile. “I’ll watch for you, then.”

He nodded back, admiring her spirit.  When she had gone, he stayed in bed awhile longer, one arm over his eyes.  He was reluctant to leave this tiny house and this woman, wondering what would become of her when he was gone.  Sighing, he rolled out of bed.  Washing up quickly, he dressed and went out to saddle Barranca.  The horse whickered softly when he saw Johnny and snorted, tossing his head.  Johnny rubbed his ears and scratched his chest for a minute, then picked up the bridle, slipping the bit between Barranca’s teeth.  Putting the blanket on his back, he carefully smoothed out any wrinkles and laid the saddle gently down before cinching it up.

Leading Barranca, he stopped in the front yard, looking at the small house with its neat picket fence and carefully tended vegetable garden. Vines with large purple flowers twined up the gateposts and red geraniums in boxes on the porch railing bloomed valiantly.  The evening sun cast it all in a golden light.

With a last look, he turned away and swung up into the saddle.  Gathering up the reins, he touched Barranca lightly with his heels and they headed into town.

Taking a break, Meredith left the warm cantina and walked out onto the splintery sidewalk, opening the top buttons of her dress to allow the breeze to touch her skin. Spotting Johnny’s horse cantering toward her, she smiled and started to descend the steps.  As she did so, the setting sun flashed off an object in an upstairs window of the building across the street.

Glancing up briefly, she realized the shiny object was a gun barrel pointed straight at Johnny. “Johnny,” she cried, running forward. “No!”

He paused in the act of tying up the horse just as she flung herself forward.  A rifle crack split the air and she stumbled against his chest, then sagged to the ground.  Glancing up, he, too, caught the glint of sun off a gunsight and threw himself on the ground, rolling right and firing his gun. Shots rang out in rapid succession. With a crash of breaking glass, a heavyset man fell through the third-story window and to the street below.  The hard thud of his landing caused women passers-by to avert their heads, hands flying to their mouths.   A few leaned against walls, trying not to be sick.

Johnny scrambled to his feet, rushing forward and throwing himself to his knees in the street beside Meredith.

She glanced up as he took her into his arms.  A trickle of blood ran from her mouth and she coughed, trying to speak.  An ugly stain covered her chest and blood was pumping  from it in time with her heartbeat.

“Ssshhh,” he warned her, “Don’t try to talk.”

She smiled weakly, one hand reaching to touch his cheek and failing.  Her hand fell back and lay limply, palm-up in the dirt.

“I…” she stammered, trying to speak. “I…” her voice trailed off.

He looked wildly at the assembled crowd on the cantina steps. “Don’t just stand there!  Somebody get a doctor!”

As if a spell had broken, the crowd broke apart and scattered as someone rushed off to rouse the old drunk who served as the town sawbones.  Others walked over to the dead man lying facedown in the street.  One rolled him over with the toe of his boot.  His fat face, half-covered with a bushy brown mustache, stared sightlessly at the sky. Seeing it, they looked at each other solemnly, shaking their heads as they looked back at the man on his knees in the street, still cradling the woman’s limp body.

In his arms, Meredith summoned up all her strength.  Her voice was a fading whisper as she looked at him, smiling with bloody lips at the face she had grown to love so dearly.

“I love you, Johnny,” she whispered.  Her eyes rolled back, and her head drooped limply against his arm.  She was gone.

“Meredith!” he shook her.  “Meredith!”

Someone took him by the shoulder.  “Venida, senor.  Ella es muerta.”  He remained where he was, clutching her body to his chest.  The unshaven, bleary-eyed doctor came rushing up, clutching his bag.  The crowd parted to let his reach the woman but even from a distance, he knew he was too late.

The blood-red rays of the setting sun illuminated the silent tableau in the dusty street.  Then it slipped behind the mountains, leaving them in shadow.

 

Ch. 6

Crossing the mountain range east of town, Johnny camped that night in the foothills on the far side, too tired and dispirited to go further.  Building a small fire, he tied Barranca nearby.  Checking to be sure no rattlesnakes were in residence, he put his saddle near a large boulder and spread his bedroll on the ground.  Propping his back against the sun-warmed rock, he pulled the blanket around his shoulders and stared morosely into the fire.  In the distance, a lone wolf howled, answered a moment later by the silvery howls of his pack.  Their eerie, wavering song rose on the chilly air, increasing his loneliness tenfold.  He drew up his knees and wrapped his arms around them.  Nearby, Barranca shifted position nervously, agitated by the howling.

Over his shoulder, Johnny spoke to the horse.  “It’s all right, boy, settle down.”

Attuned to the gentle voice, the horse stopped fidgeting.  A wave of homesickness suddenly swept over Johnny, making him wish he’d never left Lancer.  He’d have given everything he had at that moment to be back in the great room with his family around him.  They didn’t even have to talk, he thought, just having them nearby would be enough.

Crossing his arms on his drawn-up knees, Johnny rested his head on them, feeling drained and depressed by the events of the last two days.  Following Meredith’s death, he had arranged for her funeral with the Catholic priest who maintained the small adobe church.

News of their brief relationship had already spread like wildfire. Women had stopped him on the street, telling him gently that they would prepare the body for burial and he had only nodded, mute. 

Returning to her small house on the outskirts of town, he spent the night alone in her bed, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling.  The bed seemed lonely and cold without the vibrant woman he had known in it, he thought, running his fingers lightly over the spindles that made up the headboard.

The next day dawned gray and overcast, with the scent of the rain.  A keening wind moaned off the desert floor as he rode to the tiny cemetery behind the small adobe church.  He had expected to be the only mourner present so he was surprised when most of the town turned out to say good-bye to the lovely singer.  Young and old, rich and poor, many of them had been on the receiving end of her kindness and bountiful generosity at one time or another and the churchyard was filled.  More mourners stood outside the low fence.

He saw the boy he’d given the coin to a day earlier.  A young woman, clutching her rebozo tightly under her chin, had one arm about his thin chest as she held him in front of her protectively.  They stood off a little way by themselves and no one in the crowd spoke to them.  The girl kept her head lowered and her gaze mostly on the ground throughout the service.  When it was over, the plain pine box resting atop two ropes had been slowly and carefully lowered into the grave by two burly men.   His hat in one hand, Johnny filled the other with a handful of the excavated earth, then tossed it onto the plain pine box. It landed with a hollow thump, making him close his eyes at the loneliness of it.

Bob Hoskins was next, honking into his handkerchief as he did so. One by one, other mourners filed past, each taking a handful of dirt and tossing it into the grave.  Crossing themselves, many muttered a brief prayer before turning to go. Finally, Johnny, the boy and the young woman were the only ones left.  The burly sexton stood at a discreet distance, waiting.

The boy came up and spoke.  “Hola, senor.”

“Hola, muchacho.  Como estas?”

The boy shrugged, clutching a bouquet of wildflowers in one small hand.  The hem of his ragged camisa fluttered in the breeze.   The woman glanced up, her eyes meeting Johnny’s briefly before she quickly looked away.  In that split second, he recognized Lupe, the girl he had told Bob to get rid of.

She had bruises on her face and a split lip.  The wrist of the hand clutching the rebozo had red rings around it as someone had restrained her roughly. She crossed herself with quick movements, lips moving in a short prayer.  At her gentle push, the boy did the same, bowing his head and laying the bouquet on the ground beside the grave when he had finished.  He gave Johnny a small wave of farewell, which he returned.  Hat in hand, Johnny stood awhile by the open grave, listening to the moaning wind.  He was so damn sick of death, he thought.  Death followed Johnny Madrid everywhere he went.  How long would it be, he wondered, before it came for him?

A discreet cough from the sexton interrupted his bleak thoughts.  Putting his hat back on, he put some coins in the man’s hands as he passed.  Anxious to be out of this godforsaken place, he mounted Barranca.  The golden horse danced, picking up his rider’s agitation.  Receiving the signal for speed, the big Palomino had galloped swiftly out of town.

Shaking his head to interrupt the dismal flow of his thoughts, Johnny dragged his mind back to his current situation.  He’d done his best but the trail of the man he sought was stone-cold. It was time to go home.  Just the thought of seeing Lancer again made him feel better.

Sliding downward, he rested his head against the saddle, pulling the blanket over his shoulders, and closed his eyes.

Waking before dawn the next day, he drank some water from his canteen.  Pouring more into his palm, he washed his face and used his wet hands to slick his hair back.

Putting his hat back on, he saddled the horse.  Dawn began pinkening the sky as he swung up into the saddle.  Knowing it was best to move during the early morning and at night, to conserve energy, he planned to stop riding before it got too hot.

By 10:00 a.m., the sun was already fat and powerful and he decided to quit riding.  Finding a rocky outcrop, he checked for rattlesnakes, knowing they often slept in the shade.  Finding none, he led the horse into the welcome coolness and pulled off his saddle and bridle, tethering him to a scrub juniper tree that was bent and twisted by the desert wind.  Laying down his bedroll, he fell into a troubled sleep.

Johnny began to dream, eyes moving rapidly behind closed lids as his mind replayed the events of three days ago. They played themselves out in slow motion as he watched again from his previous vantage point. He saw Meredith fling herself into his chest, straight into the bullet’s path.  He heard the crack of the rifle, the sound drawing out interminably.  Johnny moaned in his sleep as he saw her body flung backward by the shot, a red stain spreading on her chest.  He heard his own gun fire rapidly as he tumbled into the dirt of the street, aiming at the source of the enemy fire. Breaking glass rattled and the shards fell like rain as the unknown assailant plummeted through the window into the dusty street, landing a mere yard from where Johnny lay.

Heart pounding rapidly and his face wet with sweat, he sat up with a jerk, looking around wildly.  His sudden movement startled Barranca, who had been standing, head drooping as he dozed, his muzzle almost touching Johnny’s head. The horse half-reared, snorting, as Johnny got up and put one hand on his muzzle, murmuring gently.  The Palomino calmed immediately and they leaned against each other for a moment, each comforted by the other’s presence.

Two days later, he arrived in Perspectiva, or Prospect, depending on which side of the border you were on.  Once a thriving mining town, its popularity had waned when the ore played out and now it was now nothing more than a pissant little outpost squatting in the desert near the California border.   Dismounting in front of the cantina, he went in and had a warm beer, washing the trail dust from his throat. 

His conversation with the cadaverously thin bartender in a pin-striped shirt and several shifty-eyed patrons was interrupted by a commotion in the street outside. Angry shouts and a horse’s furious whinnying filled the air.  A bullwhip cracked.  Glasses slammed onto the bar as everyone ran to see what was happening.

Outside, four Mexicans were clinging for dear life to ropes attached to the halter and neck of the huge black stallion that was dragging them down the street, squealing with rage as it tried to get at the fifth who was beating him savagely with a whip.  It was clear that the Mexican intended to beat the animal to death. “Freza madecida del caballo! Del Diablo le matare’” he screamed. “Spawn of the devil! I’ll kill you!”

Bloody welts crisscrossed the animal’s sides as the furious Mexican struck him with all his might.  Eyes red, and nostrils flaring, the maddened animal struck out furiously with his forelegs, tossing his head as he tried to avoid the brutal whip opening ugly gashes on his sensitive nose.  Breathing heavily, sides heaving, and foam flying from his muzzle, the stallion strove mightily to stomp his enemy into the ground.

Gunshots fired into the air halted the ugly scene.  The horse shuddered to a stop, snorting and trembling.  Looking coldly at the man clutching the bloody whip, Johnny trained his Colt on him. His finger tightened on the trigger as he looked at the Mexican who had wielded the bullwhip.  It itched to fire the gun. “Cuanto usted desea?” His voice was soft but menacing.

“I’ll kill him!” screamed the furious Mexican.  “Worthless animal! Won’t pull a plow! Can’t be ridden! Mean as a rattler!”

The gun’s hammer drew back. “Pregunte cuanto?” 

Something in the blue eyes looking coldly into his made the Mexican stop and draw a deep breath.  “Cincuenta dolares en oro.”

The gun stayed cocked as Johnny agreed to pay fifty gold dollars for the animal. The other four Mexicans sucked in their breath as they looked at him.  “Enferma en la cabeza,” they decided. This man must be a fool!  Or not, looking at his cold face and the gun snugged low on his right leg.  They eased up on the ropes while they gaped at the stranger.

Eying the crowd that had gathered, Johnny put his back to the wall and reached into his pocket.  They watched him closely, licking their lip as their eyes shone with avarice.  He flipped the fifty-dollar gold piece to the man, cursing his luck.  He’d hoped to get in and out of town unobtrusively and now everybody in the place was staring at him. Gun at the ready, he backed up to the stallion and quickly slid all but one rope off him.  Holding the rope, he leaped into Barranca’s saddle, keeping an eye behind him for attackers and spurred the Palomino swiftly out of town.

The black stallion lagged further and further behind as they went. He was soon almost a dead weight, practically pulling Johnny’s arm out of its socket as they crossed the desert floor.  Spotting a large plant with long succulent leaves, he leaned from his saddle, and grabbed it up, its long taproot trailing.

He urged both horses high into the foothills before stopping in a small stand of sycamores and mesquite.  Head hung low, sides bloody and heaving, with foam covering his muzzle and chest, the black stallion looked half-dead.  Johnny’s heart twisted with pity as he looked at the wounded animal.

His reins loosened, Barranca made his way to where more sycamores lined the bed of a tiny creek. Lowering his head, he drank thirstily.  The sound of the water made the other stallion lift his head slightly but he immediately dropped it again.  He stood there, legs spraddled, breathing heavily, too weak to move. Tethering Barranca to a tree, Johnny took off his hat and filled it with water, offering it to the horse. The animal took only a few slips before dropping his head again tiredly.

Unsaddling Barranca quickly, Johnny turned his attention back to the exhausted beast.  Taking his blue neckerchief from his pocket, he began rubbing the animal down, trying to make him comfortable while avoiding the myriad cuts that marred the black hide. The muscles in his jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed with anger as he looked at the grievous wounds. His hand itched for his gun as he wished he’d shot the abusive owner first and asked questions later.

Unmoving, the animal allowed his ministrations although Johnny sensed he preferred not to.  Tethering him a few steps from the Palomino, Johnny went to a nearby mesquite tree and stripped off a small quantity of bark.  Returning to the horses, he built a small fire.  Taking a pot from his saddlebag, he added a little water and placed it on the fire, adding the bark.  A pungent antiseptic smell filled the air as it boiled.

Rinsing his neckerchief in the stream, he removed the bark and set the pot down on a rock near the black horse. Running a practiced hand down the animal’s legs, he detected unusual warmth, a sure sign of fever.

Moving slowly and speaking gently, he dipped the neckerchief in the decoction and began cleaning the cuts.  The horse snorted at the acrid smell and slight sting but was too sick to fight.

Finishing, Johnny picked up the aloe plant he’d grabbed earlier. Splitting a spear open, he put some of the gelatinous ooze on his fingers.  Returning to the horse, he dabbed it carefully on his many wounds, paying particular attention to the delicate nose.

Satisfied, he stepped back and appraised the animal, which appeared to be sleeping.    It was the best thing he could do, Johnny knew, continuing his careful appraisal.  The animal was huge, well over eighteen hands, and black as the inside of a mineshaft.  His long, finely boned legs bespoke a Thoroughbred, as did the deep chest and long back.  His eyes, Johnny remembered, were large and intelligent, fringed by long black lashes.  He had proven that he had plenty of heart.   The animal would make a fine addition to the breeding stock at Lancer, if he survived.

Johnny stayed put for a few days, letting the horse recover.  Sponging off the animal’s cuts daily and carefully applying the aloe vera gel afterward, he was pleased to see the wounds healing quickly.  The stallion’s spirit was another matter.  The animal appeared depressed, with little interest in his surroundings.  Almost, Johnny thought, as if he was pining for someone or something.  It sure as hell couldn’t be for the man who’d owned him, Johnny speculated.  Knowing he’d never have the answer, he decided to give the animal time.

Three days later, the stallion was physically much improved and Johnny began making his way back toward the coast.  Arriving in Vera Cruz, he stabled both horses, cabled Murdoch and went to the shipping offices of the Star Clipper Line, booking passage for the three of them on the Flying Cloud, departing for San Francisco the next day.  He would make his way home from there.

Arriving at the wharf early the next morning, he looked up at the heavily-sparred ship, built to catch every breath of prevailing wind.  Canvas snapped in the wind, and the sea breeze blew his hat off, leaving it hanging down his back by the cord, and ruffled the manes and tails of the two horses.  Gulls wheeled overhead as both pricked their ears, looking wide-eyed at their unfamiliar surroundings.  Their nostrils flared, sampling the sea breeze.  The bright sunlight glanced off their hides and male passengers entering the ship turned to regard the handsome animals. 

The women passengers had far more interest in the man loading them.  Black hair blowing in the wind, sapphire eyes squinted against the sun, Johnny was urging the horses forward with the help of several burly stevedores.  Reluctant to enter the dark hold, they required coaxing. Trusting Johnny, Barranca went first, followed quickly by the other stallion.

Their trip was uneventful and they arrived home in the twilight a week later.  Hearing hoofbeats, all the Lancers had left the dinner table and come out to greet him, Theresa waddling slightly behind the two men.

“Johnny!” boomed Murdoch.  “Good to see you!”

“Yeah,” Scott seconded, punching him lightly on the arm. “How was your trip?”

“Long,” Johnny replied.  “Good to see you, too.  And would you look at you!” he said, turning to Theresa and giving her a peck on the forehead.  “How many you got in there, anyway?”

Looking down, she placed a hand on her burgeoning belly. “I think I’m going to be the size of the hacienda before I’m through,” she said, smiling ruefully.

Murdoch, came up, slipping an arm around her from behind.  “Nonsense!” he said firmly.  “That’s my first grandchild!  He’s going to look just like me!”

Scott rolled his eyes.  “God help him!”

They all laughed, then turned to regard the new horse.  Murdoch whistled softly as he put a hand out as if to touch the scars on the horse’s withers.  “What happened here?”  Throwing up a hand, he stepped back, startled, as the animal pinned its ears back and lunged, trying to bite him.

Johnny stepped forward quickly, putting himself between Murdoch and the horse.  “Whoa now, none of that.”  Ears still pinned back, tail swishing, the horse turned away.

Scott came forward, concerned.  “Where’d you get him, Johnny?”

“Found him,” his brother replied.  “Being beaten to death in Mexico.”

They nodded understandingly.  “Of course, you couldn’t leave him,” Theresa said. “We know that.”

“He’s a fine animal,” said Scott, looking at him appraisingly. 

Murdoch agreed.  “Thoroughbreds are high-strung,” he said.  “Maybe he’ll settle down.”

“I’ll be right back,” Johnny said, “Soon as I stable the horses.”

“I’ll help you,” Scott offered, and they set off for the barn while Murdoch gave Theresa his arm to support her back into the house.

The brothers chatted about inconsequential things while they worked, Scott pitching straw into two stalls and laying out oats for both animals, while Johnny unsaddled Barranca.  They put the black horse into the stud stall, the one used to confine the occasionally intractable stallion or bull.  Specially reinforced, with extra-high railings, it would contain the animal until they figured out what to do with him.

The black horse went in readily, tail switching, and stood in the far corner of the stall.  He turned his tail on them, ignoring both the food and the men. Further down, Barranca regarded them over the half-door of his stall, mouth moving as he chewed steadily on a mouthful of oats. “There’s a good fella,” Johnny told him, giving him a pat as they passed by on their way out. “See you tomorrow.”

“Never seen a horse act like that,” Scott said, indicating the black stallion.  “Is he sick?”

“No,” Johnny replied.  “Unless you count sick at heart.  He got a terrible beating and that was just the one I saw.  Who knows what else happened to him?”

They returned to house and sat down at the table where Theresa had laid another setting. The lamp over the large, heavy dining room table cast a warm pool of light, gleaming off the heavy silverware and illuminating the glasses.  The mingled aromas of pot roast, hot biscuits and gravy, mashed potatoes, and a few vegetable dishes rose into the air, making Johnny’s mouth water.

He grinned at them.  “I’m starving!”  he said, grabbing for a biscuit and tossing it quickly from hand to hand as it burned his fingers, “Let’s eat!”

They began passing platters and filling plates and laughter and clinking silverware soon filled the room.

Theresa went to bed shortly after dinner, pleading tiredness.  Coming to where Johnny and Scott sat playing chess, she placed a kiss on his cheek, giving one to Scott and Murdoch also.  Murdoch rose, offering his arm.  “C’mon honey,” he said, “Let me see you to your room.”  They went off up the stairs, their laughter trailing back down to the brothers.

“Sure is good to be home,” Johnny said, putting his knight down and picking up his glass on the table. He regarded Scott over the rim.

“And how’s that little gal in Morro Coyo?” he asked.

“Eloped with Buck Miller last week,” Scott replied ruefully. “Guess his charms outweighed mine!”

“I’m sorry,” said his brother.  “I know you was sweet on her.”

His brother laughed. “Not that sweet.  Anyway, you win some, you lose some.”

“Sure do,” said his brother.  “Sure do.”

Murdoch had not come back downstairs and the hour was growing late, so they decided to call it a day.  Bidding each other goodnight, they went into their respective rooms.  Soon the hacienda was quiet.

They were jolted awake the next morning by angry whinnying, hooves crashing on wood, and shouts from the vaqueros as the new stallion tried to buck down its stall.  “Jesus!” Johnny said to Scott, who had just burst into his room.  “We forgot to warn the vaqueros not to go near him!”

Pulling on his pant and boots and not stopping for a shirt, he rushed down to the barn, Scott hard on his heels.  Bursting into the barn, they heard the other horses snorting and rearing as the agitated scene affected them.

Startled Mexicans surrounded the stall as the black horse went crazy.  One of them, Vasquez, was clutching a bleeding shoulder where the stallion had bitten him. Another was on the ground nursing a broken arm. Hooves crashed repeatedly against hardwood as the stallion tried to kick his way out of the stall.

Rushing past Barranca, Johnny elbowed vaqueros out of his way as he spoke to the horse.  “Whoa now, easy now,” dragging the syllables out as he made to enter the stall.

“Don’t go in there! Are you crazy?” Scott yelled, grabbing his arm.

“All of you get out of here!” Johnny yelled, trying to shake him off.  “Everybody!”

Murdoch’s deep voice rumbled behind them. “You heard him! Move before he kicks the place down!”

Gathering up their fallen comrades, the vaqueros helped them out the door into the corral, where they all leaned against fenceposts and waited to see what happened next.

“Take him with you,” Johnny hissed, indicating Scott.

“But,” Scott stammered, “He can’t go in there!”

Murdoch, ignoring his protests, dragged him out.  By now, all of the other horses, including even-tempered Barranca, were upset, and the sound of agitated snorting and stamping hooves filled the air.

Johnny put his hand on the latch.  Moving slowly, he opened the door and entered the stall. Making no move to touch the animal, he leaned his back against the door, his voice low and soothing.   Hearing the latch, the animal stopped bucking and lunged for the door, head down, eyes red.

Scott’s abortive movement was stilled as Murdoch put a hand on his arm. “Just watch,” he said, his eyes fixed on his youngest son.

Scott flinched as the animal reared, flinging his front hooves perilously close to Johnny’s face but his brother didn’t move a muscle.  His body, leaning against the door, remained relaxed as he spoke softly to the animal.

The black horse lunged at Johnny, mouth open as if to bite, ears pinned back.  The sight of that explosive fury contained in the same stall as his foolhardy brother made Scott flinch, expecting any second to see his brother trampled into a bloody pulp by the maddened horse.

Murdoch kept his eyes on Johnny, the same thoughts running through his own head.  But there was nothing either of them could do now.

Johnny remained as he was, continuing to speak softly as over a thousand pounds of horseflesh raged mere inches from him.  He knew about abuse, he thought, having been on his own, alone in Mexico, since he was ten.  Sometimes all anybody could do to help was be there.

He realized that it was the sight of the vaqueros that had upset the horse.  Many of them were Mexican, like the man who had beaten him.  Some were of other ethnicities and from other places, but all were dressed similarly.  The frightened animal had just been pushed over the edge.

He waited until the storm played itself out.  The black horse was soon standing, head down and shivering, as Johnny continued to speak to him comfortingly.  He advanced toward the horse, holding a hand out low.    Snuffling, the horse took one step forward to meet him.

By the door, Scott and Murdoch sagged with relief and the vaqueros in the corral looked at each other, relieved and astonished, having expected Senor Johnny to meet his Maker at any second. The other horses slowly quieted down and the tension went out of the morning. 

Johnny stayed with the black horse awhile longer, waving at Murdoch and Scott to go help the injured vaqueros.  Catching the buggy horse in the corral, they began harnessing him to the wagon.  Loading the injured men in carefully, Scott took up the reins and they headed into town to find the doctor.

Emerging quietly, Johnny shut the stall door softly behind him.  He came over to Murdoch, looking sheepish.  “It was all my fault, Murdoch.  I forgot to warn the men not to go near him.”

Murdoch patted him on the shoulder. “The men will be fine, Johnny.  They weren’t hurt that badly.”

“I’ll pay for the doctor, though,” Johnny volunteered, “and for their lost wages.”

“No need for that, son,” Murdoch replied.  “Come on, let’s go finish breakfast.”

They were met on the patio by an anxious Theresa, bubbling over with questions.

“It’s all right, honey,” Murdoch assured her.  “Everything’s fine, now.”

Looping his arms around her shoulders and Johnny’s, the three of them went inside to finish their interrupted meal.

 

 

Ch. 7

Scott returned from town a few hours later, stopping the buckboard near the bunkhouse to let the injured vaqueros out, reeling slightly as they did so.  Sandoval had his arm in a black sling, while Vasquez had a bandage protruding from his collar.  Both men were somewhat the worse for drink, Scott having taken them to the saloon in Morro Coyo to help ease their pain.  Each clutching a full bottle of tequila to their chests, they staggered unsteadily into the bunkhouse.

“What’d the doc have to say?” Johnny greeted him upon his entry into the hacienda.

Murdoch looked up from his desk in the great room where he’d been making entries into a ledger.  Theresa was nowhere in sight, having made her apologies and gone upstairs for a nap earlier, explaining that she tired easily these days.

“Vasquez will be good as new in a few days,” Scott told them.  “Sandoval will be in a sling for a month but that’s all.”

Johnny nodded, relieved.  “Sorry you had to miss breakfast.”

“I am kinda hungry, now that you mention it,” replied his brother.  “Think I’ll go out into the kitchen and see what Maria’s got left.”

Returning with a full plate, he set it on the massive dining room table and took a huge bite of the overstuffed burrito Maria had fixed for him. Filled to overflowing with potatoes, scrambled eggs, chorizo, cheese, and green chile sauce, the aroma made Johnny wish he’d asked for one, too.

Murdoch looked back up from his desk and spoke to his youngest son. “You never told us about your trip.  What did you find out?”

Stealing a bit of potato from his brother’s plate, his youngest replied. “Nothing.  Zip, zero, nada.”

As Scott’s mouth was too full for him to speak, Murdoch asked the question for him.  “Nothing at all?”

Chewing, Johnny replied, “Trail went cold in Mexico.  That’s when I decided to come home.”

Swallowing hard, Scott looked at him.  “So they got away clean, huh?”

“Looks like it.” replied his brother.

“Damn,” said Murdoch.  “That was a big haul.”

“Any word from the Pinkertons?” asked Johnny.

Murdoch shook his head.  “Not a word.  The thieves vanished off the face of the earth.  I’m sure it’s too late to recover any of the money.  We took a big hit there.”

The three Lancers looked at each other, concerned.  They had lost a lot of money following a stock sale in Abilene the summer before when the train their agent had been riding in had been held up outside of Stockton.  The robbers had forced everyone off the train, then rigged the safe with explosives.  Their leader, a tall man with a kerchief pulled over the lower half of his face, had done the job himself, long fingers moving expertly as he set the charge, while the rest of the gang kept the passengers at bay.

Using the agent’s description of the outlaws, Johnny had followed them as far as a little town in Mexico, where the trail had dried up.

“And we paid so much for that bull not long ago, too.” Scott commented, referring to the young Hereford they had picked up last spring in New Mexico.

“Worth it, though,” said his father.  “He’s every bit as fine an animal as Samson was,” referring to the herd’s previous patriarch who had died unexpectedly.  “It just left us cash poor and we have a lot of bills to pay.”

At their worried looks, he assured them.  “Don’t worry, we’ll make it.  Such is the life of the rancher, full of ups and downs.”

His words were interrupted by a piercing shriek from upstairs.  Johnny shot out of his chair and took the stairs three at a time, Scott hard on his heels with Murdoch right behind them.  They ran down the long hall and burst unceremoniously into Theresa’s room.  Maria was there before them, having rushed up the back stairs which were closer to Theresa’s room. Smoothing Theresa’s hair back while the girl clutched her hand, she looked at the breathless men.  “I think one of you should go back into town for the doctor,” she said.

The three men looked from Theresa’s belly to her contorted face.  “She can’t be having the baby,” Scott said, “It’s too early.”

The contraction passed and Theresa lay her head back on the pillow, a look of concern on her face.

“I’m only eight months along,” she said nervously.  “He can’t be coming yet.”

They had all fallen into the habit of referring to her unborn child as “he” since Murdoch was so convinced his first ‘grandchild’ would be a boy. 

Murdoch came into the room and sat on the bed next to her, taking her hand into both of his.  “Babies make their own schedule,” he told her soothingly.  “He’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

Another contraction gripped her and Scott and Johnny looked at each other helplessly.

Tears started to her eyes.  “Mark’s not here!” she said, referring to her husband, off doing business in San Francisco.  “And I wanted him to be!”

Maria got off the bed and started toward the two boys, making shooing motions toward the door.  Murdoch removed his hands from Theresa’s and stood up as she herded the boys out, smiling down at the girl.

“We’ll be right downstairs,” he said. “Waiting to see my grandson!”  Turning to Maria, he said, “I’ll send Rosita up.”

Bustling forward, she nodded, smiling.  Scott and Johnny stood in the hall, peering over Murdoch’s shoulders.  Johnny blew Theresa a kiss.

“We’ll see you both soon,” he said, smiling.  He received a wan smile in return before Maria shut the door firmly in their faces.

Standing in the hall, the three men looked at each other bemusedly.  Murdoch broke the silence as he led the way down the stairs. “Someone should go tell Sam the baby’s coming,” he said, referring to the town doctor.

Johnny looked at his brother.  “You’ve already been to town once today,” he said, “I’ll go.”

Scott nodded his thanks and Johnny grabbed his hat and jacket, calling for the ranch hands to saddle Barranca as he ran for the barn.

Seated in the great room, Scott and Murdoch strained their ears for any sound from upstairs but the hacienda’s adobe walls were thick.  Rosita bustled up the stairs, carrying towels.  Making a second trip for hot water, she smiled at the two men.

“How’s she doing?” Scott asked, “How much longer?”

The girl only shrugged and smiled again. “Quien sabe?”

“She’s right, you know,” Murdoch said.  “It’s the first, and they take their own sweet time.

His eyes became distant as he recalled the night that he had paced up and down the floor of his study, sweating, before making the decision to send Catherine back to Boston.  It had been for her own safety and that of her unborn child but he’d regretted it a million times over in the last twenty-five years. . How different things would have been, he thought, if Scott had been born upstairs in their own big bed instead of by the side of the road in a rickety wagon while his grandfather Harlan waited to abscond with him.

Scott looked at him, suddenly curious to know more about the night of his own birth.  Questions started to his lips but he refused to ask, deciding it was better not to bring it all up.

Conversation dwindled as both men drifted back into their own thoughts, Scott occasionally rising and going to the window to check for Johnny and the doctor.

“That’s the fifth time you’ve done that,” Murdoch admonished him. “It’s going to be awhile yet.”

“I know,” Scott replied.  “Just checking.”

Murdoch rose and went to the sideboard.  “Well, stop.  You’re making me nervous.”

Pouring Scotch into two glasses, he handed one to his son.  “Johnny will get Sam here no matter what he has to do.  Relax.”

At the sound of a door opening upstairs, they both turned and looked up.  But it was only Rosita, coming down again for some ice for Miss Theresa.

A short time later, they heard rapid hoofbeats approaching and looked out of the great room’s  huge main window to see Johnny riding Barranca at a dead run toward the house.  Skidding to a stop, he tossed the reins to a waiting vaquero and rushed into the house.

“Is he here yet?” he asked breathlessly, as he sailed his hat at the rack and yanked off his coat.

Murdoch had to laugh. “No, son, not yet.”

Grabbing himself a Scotch of his own, Johnny flung himself into one of the chairs facing the desk, stretching out his legs.

“Did you find Sam?” his father questioned.

“Yeah,” his son replied.  “I helped him harness his horse to the buckboard.  He’s right behind me.”

True to his word, a half-hour later, they heard the doctor’s ancient buckboard rattling up to the house.

Flinging open the door, they greeted the old country doctor, who rushed in, clutching his bag and out of breath.

Just then, they heard the first sound from Theresa’s room as a piercing shriek tore through the thick walls.  Elbowing the Lancers aside, Sam rushed up the stairs and they heard Theresa’s door opening, and Maria’s voice calling for the doctor, before it slammed shut again.

Downstairs, all of the Lancer men had risen to their feet, glancing at each other in consternation.  Grabbing up his drink, Johnny drained his glass while Scott and Murdoch looked worriedly at each other.

All three men trod circles in the rug as they paced, turning aside to make room as they passed each other.

Rapid footsteps sounded on the stairs and Rosita stood on the landing, smiling at them.  “Come,” she beckoned, “Come and see!”

All three men rushed for the stairs, causing her to shrink back against the wall, laughing. Johnny’s spurs clanked as he raced up the carpeted stairs, the other two hard on his heels. Arriving at the doorway, they all struggled to get through, arms and legs filling the opening and flailing as each strove to get in first.

“Boys!” thundered Murdoch, and his sons stopped fighting to enter the room and stepped back, glaring at each other, as he entered first.

His voice softened as he looked at Theresa, pale but smiling as she lay propped up with pillows, holding her newborn in one arm.  The baby’s face was obscured by the blanket. Sam stood to one side of the bed, snapping his doctor’s bag closed and Maria was off to the other side, smiling widely.

“May I?” Murdoch asked, approaching the bed.  Giving Scott a final elbow in the ribs, Johnny tiptoed in behind him.  Rubbing his ribs and glaring at the back of his brother’s head, Scott brought up the rear.

They crowded close as Murdoch took the baby.  Settling the blanket-wrapped bundle in the crook of one arm, he lifted the blanket.  The baby waved one tiny fist, making bird-like noises as they looked down at the new arrival.

Murdoch beamed.  “My first grandson!  He’s beautiful, Theresa, just beautiful!”

Johnny nodded.  “He sure is, Theresa! Looks just like you!” although privately he didn’t see anything beautiful about the red, crumpled face. “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say?” he whispered to Scott, who ignored him as he reached out a finger to touch the baby’s fist.  A tiny hand grasped his finger and held it tight.  Smiling with pleasure, he allowed the baby’s grasp and turned to the new mother.

“What’re you going to name him, Theresa?” he asked, “Have you decided yet?”

“His name’s Catherine,” she replied.

Scott looked at her, astonished.  Murdoch glanced at them, frowning slightly, while Johnny laughed outright.

“Catherine!” he said, “That’s no name for a boy…unless…unless it’s a girl,” he added, as comprehension broke over his dark face, followed quickly by the lightning grin that lit his face up like the sun after a storm.

“Hear that, Murdoch? Your first grandson’s a girl!” he laughed.

Scott, grinned, incredulous.  “Is it really?” he asked.

Sam spoke up.  “A fine baby girl,” he said firmly.

They all glanced at Murdoch, who was still looking at the baby, dumbfounded.  “A  girl?”

Theresa nodded.

“Catherine,” he said slowly.  He said the name again, as if he enjoyed the sound of it.  “Catherine.”  Scott thought he saw the sheen of tears in Murdoch’s eyes as he looked tenderly down at the infant in his arms.

Johnny looked from one to other, smiling, as he realized how touched the old man was.  His brow clouded briefly as he wondered about the circumstances of his own birth but it cleared as he put the thought aside.  The past was the past and he knew Murdoch much better now.  Seeing him with the baby, he believed that the old man had been just as pleased at the birth of his second son years ago as he was with little Catherine right now.

Theresa nodded.  “If that’s all right?” she questioned Murdoch.

“All right?” he said, “All right?  It’s more than all right, it’s wonderful!”

Theresa smiled lovingly at her surrogate father, who had been so good to her after her own father’s death.  “Mark and I talked about it, when we first learned I was pregnant.  He agrees.”

Murdoch passed the baby to the boys and they each took a turn holding their new niece, smiling widely as they did so. 

Noticing Theresa’s eyes closing, Maria took the baby from Johnny, turning to place her in the cradle by the bed as Sam shooed the men out.

Back in the great room, Murdoch indicated the crystal decanters on the mahogany sideboard.  “What’ll you have, Sam?  We have to toast my new grandbaby!”

Sam set his bag on a chair and came forward, craggy face creasing into a smile. “Don’t mind if I do, Murdoch,” he smiled, indicating the fine old Scotch.  “Don’t mind if I do!”

Murdoch slapped him on the back and began to pour, still beaming.  “Good job, Sam!”

“I didn’t do much, believe me,” said the doctor, accepting his drink.  “She was almost here when I arrived.”

Sloshing more scotch into three crystal glasses and passing two to each of his sons, Murdoch raised his glass.  Following his example, the other men held up theirs, waiting for him to speak.

Beaming, Murdoch looked at them. “I wish my new grand-daughter two things,” he said, invoking an ancient blessing.  “I wish her roots and I wish her wings.  A lifetime of health and happiness! To Catherine!”

“Hear, hear,” his sons and the doctor replied, clinking their glasses with his.  “To Catherine!”

The toast ended in backslapping and excited conversation about the newest addition to the family.  A few more toasts later, none of them were feeling much pain.

Maria came back downstairs, leaving Rosita to sit with Theresa and the baby and they shoved a glass into her hand, inviting her to toast with them.  Too shy to do so, she covered her mouth with her hand, and ran back into the kitchen, smiling.  A short time later, they heard pots and pans clinking as she began making dinner.

They invited Sam to dine with them and he accepted gladly, knowing what an excellent cook Maria was.  With typical flair, she pulled together a quick dinner for the men, and they were soon seated at the table, suddenly ravenous.

After a hearty meal, Sam sat back and patted his stomach. “I’ll be back tomorrow to check on the baby.”

“Come anytime,” Murdoch said as he walked the old doctor to the door.  “We’re always glad to see you.”

Tired from the events of the long day, the Lancer men turned in.  The hacienda was soon quiet as its inhabitants slept deeply.

Sometime during the night, Johnny was awakened by the baby’s cry. Pulling on his pants and a shirt, which he left unbuttoned, he tiptoed down the hall and rapped gently on the door.  At Theresa’s “come in,” he entered, finding her handing the baby back to Rosita.

He sat on the bed beside Theresa, one arm going around her as they watched the baby being rocked by the girl. She leaned against his chest as they sat in companionable silence for awhile, fascinated by the new being who had so swiftly taken over their lives.  At Theresa’s yawn, Johnny got up to go, tapping her gently on the nose as he did so.  “I’ll wire Mark in the morning,” he promised, and the girl nodded.

She looked up at him, suddenly wistful, and he knew what she was thinking. “You wish your father were here, don’t you?” he asked.

She nodded.  “And my mother.”

He took her hands in his.  “Well, I wish they were, too.  We’re poor substitutes, but she’ll never want for anything while we’re around.”

She nodded at him, smiling.  “I couldn’t ask for anything more. Good night, Johnny.”

He tiptoed back down the hall and got into his own bed, smiling to himself.  That baby sure was cute, he thought, already losing her red, crumpled look.  He thought of the telegram he’d write to Theresa’s husband in a few hours.  Punching up his pillow, he turned on his side.  In a few minutes, he was sound asleep.

 

 Ch. 8

At six weeks of age, Catherine had everyone in the hacienda wrapped around her tiny fingers.  Her father had arrived hurriedly a few days after her birth, summoned home from San Francisco by Johnny’s telegram, beaming as he flung himself out of the wagon and rushed up the stairs to find Theresa and his new daughter. 

Johnny had grinned at his departing figure.  “Nice to see you, too, Mark!”

Scott laughed.  “He’s just excited, wouldn’t you be?”

Johnny looked at his brother, as the implications of the question sank in.  Considering, he replied, “Yes, yes, I would. You?”

“Yes,” Scott replied with finality.  “I sure would.”

Murdoch grinned.  “Well, let’s finish planning the fiesta to celebrate the new arrival!”

They were blowing it out, this time, he thought.  And damn the expense, even if they were somewhat crunched for money.  His astounded sons, unused to seeing frugal Murdoch spending money like water, had agreed the occasion called for a party and invitations had gone out to all of their neighbors and the townspeople of Morro Coyo as well as to Mark’s family and friends in Sacramento.  It was going to be the biggest celebration the area had ever seen.   They were even hiring more house staff for the event.  Maria, of course, would be in charge and, on her mettle, had already begun preparations.

As the big day drew near, the hacienda became a whirlwind of activity. Staff cleaned the hacienda from top to bottom, putting new sheets on the beds, oiling the furniture, unwrapping additional china, cutlery, and glassware,  taking down the heavy curtains and beating them to get the dust out, and doing the same for all the rugs. Windows were washed with vinegar and dried with newspaper to ensure they wouldn’t streak. Bars of hand-milled soaps were placed in the guest rooms, along with carafes and drinking glasses and new towels.  Extra blankets were placed in guestroom armoires and every detail that could add to the comfort of Lancer’s guests was attended to. 

Maria and Rosita and their cousins, mothers, abuelas, aunts, and sisters had been cooking for days, everything from tiny Mexican wedding cookies and time-consuming mole sauce to tamales, gallons of fresh salsa, refried beans, hundreds of fresh tortillas, and more.

Already, whole sides of beef and pork were marinating in Maria’s secret sauce before being barbequed slowly in the long firepits that the hands had dug well away from the house.  Gaily colored paper lanterns were bought to decorate the outdoor patio where musicians would play and the dancing would take place and delivery wagons from Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells pulled up daily, disgorging bottles of wine and liquor and food items.

The vaqueros looked at the preparations and at each other wide-eyed, never having seen the notoriously thrifty Murdoch spend so liberally for a party.  They, too, had been invited and were looking forward to attending such a big event, along with their friends and family.

Preparations reached fever pitch as the fiesta neared. The out-of-town guests began to arrive, adding to the general hubbub.  The cows were moved to higher pastures and all the horses were groomed to within an inch of their lives, as Murdoch loved to show off his prize-winning livestock. Even Dewdrop, Jelly’s pet goose, had a fancy new pen from which to observe the proceedings and to keep him from being underfoot.

The big day finally dawned. Leaving Murdoch to stage-direct, and Theresa and Mark to show off the baby, both Scott and Johnny escaped into town around noon, happy to get away from the beehive the hacienda had become.  Arriving at the saloon, they tossed their hats onto the bar and settled onto stools with sighs of relief.  Johnny instructed the barkeep to set them both up with shots of tequila, salt, and a bowl of quartered lemons.

“About time you learned to drink like a native, Boston,” he told Scott, as he poured a little of the salt onto his own wrist and licked it.  “Like so,” he said, tossing back the shot and biting into a lemon slice.  He grinned at his brother.  “Now you try it.”

Scott laughed.  “Hardly seems civilized, but here goes,” he said, duplicating his brother’s actions, and pulling a face as he bit into the sour lemon.

His brother laughed. “Let’s try it again,” Johnny suggested.  “Work on your technique a little.”  Taking up another shot, he bolted the contents, wrist stiff, with the ease of long practice.

Always a fast learner, Scott imitated him perfectly.  They wiled away the afternoon, drinking and talking until Johnny remembered to look at the watch Murdoch had given him.  Whistling softly, he said, “Would you look at that! We better get out of here before Murdoch has our heads, don’t want to be late for the fiesta!"

Rising to their feet and grabbing their hats from the table, they made their way to the batwing doors, weaving slightly as they went.

The ride home cleared their heads and entering via the back way, they snuck in through the kitchen door on their way to the rear staircase.  Johnny paused to filch a couple of cookies from an artfully arranged platter, earning a swat on the hand from Maria, and causing all of the assembled women to follow him with their eyes as he  headed up the stairs. 

One of them, eighteen-year old Conchita, commented admiringly about his black pants with the conchos up the legs, earning her a box on the ear from her mother. “¡Ouch mama! ¡Ese daño! ¡Es la verdad!” she complained, rubbing her smarting ear.  “Well, it is the truth! He’s the best-looking cowboy in California!” she sulked.

“It may be true,” her mother replied, giving her arm a pinch for good measure, “but nice young ladies don’t comment on the fit of a man’s pants!” to the accompaniment of gales of laughter from the onlookers. Rubbing her arm, Conchita sulked and subsided, muttering, into the corner, while resolving privately to dance with the handsome youngest Lancer at least once that night.

Dusk fell while the younger men bathed and changed.  Shaving in their rooms, they heard wagons and carriages pulling up and their occupants tossing happy greetings to the receiving line of Murdoch, Theresa, and Mark, beaming proudly as he displayed his new daughter.  Footsteps passed in the corridor as houseguests made their way downstairs and the sounds of laughter and excited conversation swirled up the stairs and in the open windows. 

“C’mon, Scott!  Hurry up!” Johnny urged, banging open the adjoining door to his brother’s room. “I’m hungry!”

Scott turned, still wiping lather from his chin.  “When aren’t you hungry?” he asked.

“Well,” his brother replied, “You saw the spread Maria’s puttin’ on, all of my favorites!”

Scott grinned, buttoning his shirt.  “Almost  ready.”

Arriving downstairs, both thought that the ranch had never looked more festive.  The estancia had taken on a magical quality, brought to glowing life by the dozens of lights which had been set up everywhere. The gaily colored paper lanterns adorning the patio glowed warmly in the dark and added spots of color. Luminarias lined both sides of the driveway down to the adobe arch and more gleamed atop patio walls and illuminated pathways.  Candles glowed on the long trestle tables covered by checked cloths and flickered in wall sconces. Tall torches had also been set up around the patio and grounds, highlighting foliage and adding shifting patterns of light and shadow to the scene.

A mariachi band on the patio began to play, further enlivening the gathering, and causing guests to sway and clap their hands.  The large crowd was a colorful, moving mosaic by the time the brothers made their way to the patio.  Many guests had glasses in their hands or were filling plates with tapas from the loaded tables. Excited talk and laughter sounded as guests greeted friends and joked with one another.  Some began to dance, adding to the frolicsome feeling.

Conchita paused in the act of setting a platter full of tiny, sugar-dusted cookies down on the buffet.  She inhaled sharply as she saw Johnny join the crowd, laughing as he greeted guests.  He looked exceptionally handsome, she thought, in a new white shirt with embroidery on the collar and the black pants she had admired earlier.  His dark hair gleamed in the torchlight and his white teeth flashed in his tanned face as he laughed at a joke one of the guests had just made. 

She glanced furtively around, making sure her mama and abuela were not in sight, then gave her pink off-the-shoulder blouse with the tiny puffed sleeves a sharp yank downward, leaving her full young breasts perilously close to overflowing.  Smoothing her full skirts and passing a hand over her mane of lustrous dark hair, she pinched her rosy cheeks and bit her lips to give them even more color.

Taking up the platter of cookies again, she began making her way toward the younger Lancer, swaying her hips sinuously as she walked.  It was Conchita’s complete misfortune that her mother, hands on hips, and foot tapping ominously, had observed all of her preparations from the dining room, and now Mama Velez surged forward, just as Conchita reached her quarry. Grabbing her daughter by the elbow, she spun Conchita around and dragged her off, landing another stinging cuff on the unhappy girl’s ear as they reached the shadows of the veranda, chattering in Spanish all the while.

The party grew louder as it picked up.  More couples took to the dance floor, enjoying the lively music, while seated guests swayed and tapped their feet.   It was in full swing by the time the firepits were uncovered and the barbeque brought up.  Whole sides of beef and pork, which had cooked for days, basted often by the ranch hands, were placed on tables and sliced carefully as a wonderful aroma filled the air.  Platters and deep bowls of side dishes were placed on more tables laid end to end to form a buffet, making a mouth-watering display.  Huge kegs of beer were tapped and gleaming bottles arrayed on a table awaited those who preferred something stronger.

Maria banged a steel rod around the rusted sides of the triangle hanging near the kitchen, making the same sound that she used to call the vaqueros in for meals. Hearing it, the guests grabbed plates and lined up, eagerly presenting them for slices of the succulent meats, smothered in rich sauce. 

The mariachi band, by pre-arranged signal, was replaced by a young man carrying a fine guitar.  Seating himself in the center of the patio on a high stool, he began to play a  flamenco, whose beautiful strains were more conducive to dinner-table conversation. Conversation slowed as guests sat at the long tables, devouring the delicious food.

Carrying a heaping plate and a mug of beer, Johnny crowded onto one of the long benches.  Scott slid down to make room, moving his own well-filled plate, and Theresa and Mark looked up and smiled.  Murdoch was at another of the long tables, busily talking shop with his neighbors.  He glanced over at his family and smiled, noticing how much a part of the group Johnny was. 

His youngest, who had often said he “didn’t like his fun organized” was regaling his table with an anecdote as everyone roared.  He’d loosened up quite a bit, thought Murdoch, losing some of that watchful gunfighter edginess that was so much a part of him, and turning more and more into a member of the family and community around him with the passage of time.  He hoped that someday Madrid would be only a distant memory to all of them.

When everyone was seated, Murdoch stood and raised his glass, offering a toast to his ‘new grandbaby’ as Theresa and Mark smiled.  Glasses clinked wildly as everyone toasted the new arrival.

The dancing and partying continued after dinner.  Conchita, aggrieved, was kept too busy in the kitchen to put her plan to dance with Johnny into effect.

“Oops!” said neighbor Hal Weaver, as the crowd jostled him into Johnny, who’d just risen to get more food, “Sorry, Johnny!” as his plate tipped, smearing barbeque sauce on Johnny’s white shirt.

“It’s nothing, Hal,” Johnny replied, “Don’t worry about it.”

“Guess I’ll go change my shirt, though,” he told Scott, putting his plate down on the table.  “Be right back.” 

On his way to his room, he noticed Suzette Dupre, the Cajun dressmaker from Morro Coyo, helping a tiny, bent woman down the stairs.  Dressed all in black, clutching a lace shawl around her shoulders, and bedecked in onyx jewelry, she wasn’t much bigger than one of the style dolls in the window of Suzette’s shop,  he thought. 

“Bonne nuit, Johnny,” Suzette said, as he offered his arm to help the tiny old lady into a chair.  “Grandmere is feeling a leetle out of breath.  She has just come to live with me and she is still tired from the long trip here from New Orleans.”

He maneuvered the old lady careful into one of the blue velvet armchairs as Suzette hovered nearby.  Grandmere arrived in the chair with a reedy sigh of relief, stamping her cane on the floor as she sank into its well-cushioned depths.  When Johnny went to withdraw his hands from hers, she clung to them with surprising force for one so frail, looking into his face with two snapping black eyes.

“Grandmere,” stammered Suzette, “What are you doing? Let Johnny go now.”

The old lady hung on, staring hard into his eyes.  Johnny felt an unpleasant tingle run up his arms as she grasped his hands tightly.  The candles in the wall sconces overhead guttered and went out, leaving the corner in semi-darkness.

“Oh, dear,” said Suzette.  “Are you getting one of your feelings?  You must excuse Grandmama,” she said over her shoulder to Johnny. “She’s the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter and sometimes…she sees things.”

“What kind of things?” he asked, momentarily nonplussed.

“The future, what is about to happen, perhaps.  She is not always right!” she added hastily, seeing his forbidding expression.

His brow had clouded as he recalled Jelly’s experience with Anna Burrell, a seer who had once lived in town.   She’d had powers of a sort, he recalled uneasily, but that had been largely obscured by the fact she’d been involved in a hoax that had caused everyone at Lancer a great deal of trouble.  Aah, hell, he decided, what were the odds he’d meet another such seer in this lifetime?  This old lady was probably senile and nothing more.

“Be quiet!” the old lady hissed at Suzette.  “Do not interrupt!”  Suzette subsided, wide-eyed.

Johnny decided to humor the old lady.  Blocking out the sounds of the crowd outside, he knelt in front of her chair, allowing his hands to remain in hers.  “What’s my future, then?” he asked gently.

The old lady’s eyes became distant and he felt a shiver go up his spine.  In a faraway voice, she said, “You are traveling through this life with a divided soul.  There is you, and there is a man who lives by the gun.  You are halves of the same whole.  But both of you are wanderers upon the face of the earth.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he recalled Anna Burrell saying much the same thing once.  Sensing his withdrawal, the old woman clung harder to his hands.  Her own, tiny and blue-veined, were surprisingly warm for such a wizened old thing and they were becoming hotter by the second, he thought uneasily.  Her voice dropped to a whisper.  Involuntarily, he leaned closer to hear.

“This other part of you, this man, he will help you when the time comes.  Call on him.”

“And I see travel.  Much travel.  Alone, always alone.  Searching.”

Distinctly uneasy, Johnny tried again to withdraw but she clung to him, still speaking.  “You have a….nemesis.  This man is truly evil and he will destroy you if he can. He will stop at nothing. You must be careful.  The outcome is not fixed; it could go either way.”

As far as he knew, there were no bounties on his head, he thought ruefully. And he couldn’t think of one particular nemesis, although there were plenty who would like to make their reputations by gunning down Johnny Madrid.  Maybe that was what she meant.

The old lady still wasn’t done although her hands were burning hot by now, he thought uncomfortably, wishing she would stop.

“You will have one true love in this life, one woman you love above all others.  You will have to fight to keep her.  She will either mean your salvation…or your death.”

Murdoch’s voice boomed behind them. “Is everything OK?” It broke the spell.  The old lady relinquished Johnny’s hands and he almost fell over when he tried to stand, one leg having gone to sleep.

He glanced at his father, grateful for the interruption.  The old lady gave him one last piercing glance, and then turned, suddenly querulous, to her granddaughter. “I’m tired.  I must go to bed now.”

She suddenly appeared debilitated, a far cry from the intent seer scrying the future.  Now she was just a frail, old woman, fretful for her warm toddy and pillows propped behind her as she rested between clean sheets.

Murdoch spoke.  “We have a free guestroom.  You’re welcome to spend the night.”

Suzette accepted gladly and together, she and Murdoch carefully maneuvered the old woman up the stairs, like she was some fragile vase they had to be careful not to break.

Johnny sat back on his heels for a minute, thinking. Rising, he worked the kink out of his thigh.  Maria bustled in and re-lit the candles in the overhead sconce.  Looking at his shirt, she shook her head and spoke rapidly.

“I know it’s new,” he soothed her.  “I’ll bring it right down, let you work on the stain.”  Suddenly aware of the music and revelry again, he bounded up the stairs, unbuttoning his shirt as he went, anxious to return to the party.

The fiesta was a huge success, continuing until dawn pinkened the hills.  Although most guests had returned home, and the rest had long since retired to their rooms,  a small crowd of rowdy partiers remained when Maria got up to light the kitchen fires the next morning, accompanied by her posse of helpers.  One leftover guest was being sick into the bushes; several were passed out on the patio, and two more were discovered in compromising positions on the back stairway as they all fanned out to start the cleanup.

Staff hauled the passed-out revelers to their feet and helped them into the great room, where they were deposited into armchairs to sleep it off.  Others began the unenviable task of cleaning up, collecting glassware, plates and cutlery and bringing them back to the kitchen and stripping the stained cloths and napkins from the tables and bundling them up for laundry.

Enveloped in clouds of steam, some of the army of helpers began washing dishes while others helped Maria prepare breakfast.  Scott and Johnny were among the last men standing, although both had bloodshot eyes and were weaving slightly when they joined the crowd in the kitchen, waiting for breakfast.

Half-asleep and yawning, Conchita joined her mother and tias as they prepared breakfast burritos, heuvos rancheros, sopapillas, and huge pots of steaming coffee.  She hadn’t managed to steal a dance with the son of the patron last night but she had been able to slip off behind the barn with one of the hands from the Miller ranch, a young man recently come from Mexico.  With his snapping black eyes, white teeth, and thick black hair, he had proven quite a satisfactory substitute for an exciting half-hour.

Carlos was quickly forgotten, however, when she spotted Senor Johnny at the massive kitchen table. If anything, she thought, he looked even better now, with his hair rumpled, beard stubble, and his shirt hanging untucked and half-open to show the mat of black hair on his chest.  Realizing the direction of her thoughts, she caught herself up and glanced guiltily around for her mother, then quickly went back to peeling potatoes.

By the next day, all of the guests had departed, including Theresa, Mark, and Catherine, leaving the hacienda strangely quiet.  The Lancer men, still recuperating from the onslaught, spent the day quietly, talking or working on the books.

There had been one uneasy moment before all of the guests had gone and it had come from Suzette Dupre’s grandmother.  As she was being supported out the door to the waiting carriage, she had beckoned imperiously for Johnny to approach, slipping a heavy gold medallion on a chain into his hand and closing his fingers around it.

“Wear it,” she commanded, waiting until he had slipped it over his head, before turning to climb into the carriage, assisted by two burly vaqueros.

When she had gone, he slipped the medallion out of his shirt and turned it around so the others could see it. 

“A Saint Christopher’s medal,” Murdoch had commented.  “The patron saint of travelers.”

“Why’d she give you that?” Scott wondered.

“Dunno,” Johnny replied, watching the departing carriage.  “Just an idea of hers, I guess.”  He forbore to tell Scott about his strange encounter with the old woman and Murdoch never mentioned it.  He dropped the medallion, already warm from his skin, back inside his shirt and forgot about it.

Life resumed its familiar patterns. Finances improved somewhat as the new bull began bringing in stud fees, the first of his impressive progeny having arrived. The nights became cool and then cold.  Cows were brought down from the high pastures and straw was piled deep in the stalls to protect the horses from the rainy winter nights.

Through it all, Theresa kept them updated on the baby’s progress and the young men laughed as Murdoch read each of her letters aloud.  When Christmas came, they went to Sacramento to spend the holidays with the young family.  Arriving on Christmas Eve, the front door opened with a blast of cold air, and then all the Lancer men were piling in, arms full of gifts, clamoring to see the baby.  Theresa ran to greet them, holding Catherine, and followed closely by her husband.

Catherine looked, wide-eyed, at the strange men who had invaded her home, then held out her arms to her grandfather, giggling.  Delighted, Murdoch swung her up in his arms, cuddling the small face close to his.

“Looks just like you,” Scott commented.

“There is a certain resemblance around the eyes,” his brother agreed.

“I think so, too,” Mark said, “Favors the Lancer half of the family!”

They spent a wonderful holiday season together and the men journeyed back to the ranch after the New Year.  The Lancers were especially pleased to have been there when the baby took her first steps.  She’d been crawling for quite some time, Theresa had told them, pulling herself up on chair arms and coffee tables, and weaving as she tried to stand alone.  Usually, such attempts ended with the baby sitting down heavily as gravity overtook her, sometimes wailing as her bottom struck the hard floor.

One night, after an especially fine dinner, with Scott and Johnny sprawled on the floor in front of the fire, playing chess,  Mark working in a corner, Theresa sewing, and Murdoch reading a book, Catherine had pulled herself unsteadily to her feet.  Murdoch put the book aside, smiling as he watched.  Both the younger Lancers had looked up, expecting the baby to fall backwards on her bottom as she usually did, but this time, she toddled unsteadily forward, straight into her grandfather’s arms.

They had all begun talking and laughing at once, coaxing the baby to do it again as Murdoch put her back onto the floor.  She had toddled to each one of them in turn, giggling at the applause her efforts produced, before being swept off to bed by her proud mother.

Far to the south, in a mean adobe hut in small border town, the holidays were not nearly so merry.  Looking at her reflection in the wavy glass of the cheap mirror purchased for her by a former lover, a young woman turned sideways and pulled her skirts tight against her abdomen, outlining the noticeable bulge.  A sob caught in her throat as she thought of how she’d once wanted this baby, dreamed of it, planned for it, only to have it all turn to bitter ashes when her lover rejected her.

She hated the baby now, it was a constant, bitter reminder of her lover’s perfidy and her own shame.  On this Neuvo Ano, when everyone else in the tiny hamlet was out celebrating, she knew what she had to do.

The girl had wept bitterly when she realized she was pregnant and had tried by every means that she knew to get rid of the baby.  Gallons of pennyroyal tea had not helped, nor had hot baths, or dancing wildly.  Long horseback rides on rough terrain had not ended the pregnancy.  Like a monstrous parasite, the fetus had refused to be dislodged.  Weeping, knowing her soul would be damned for all eternity, the girl had finally made a decision.  Sending her younger brother away and positioning herself carefully on a sheet she had spread earlier on the cold dirt floor, she lay down on her back and pulled her skirts up to her waist.  Reaching out, she picked up a long thin piece of bailing wire.

Spreading her legs, she began to work it into her body, wincing as it scraped against  delicate inner tissues. Tears started to her eyes and she grimaced with the pain as she worked it up to the opening of her uterus and paused for a second.  Drawing a deep breath, she clutched the wire with both hands and rammed it upward.

A shriek tore from her throat and her open legs sagged as consciousness swam away.  But her efforts were rewarded by a gush of blood from between her bare thighs.  It saturated the sheet, puddled on the dirt floor, and still, the blood kept pumping out.

Her younger brother, arriving home unexpectedly, screamed at the sight before him and fled into the night, calling for help.

When the neighbor women arrived, they shook their heads at the sight of the foolish girl, lying gray-faced in a pool of her own blood just as the town’s old drunk of a sawbones rushed up, followed by the trembling boy.

Clutching the boy against her ample bosom to shield him from the sight, Rosa, the next-door neighbor, rushed him outside.  Taking him a little way down the street, she instructed him to wait, saying she would come back with any news.  The neighbor, a large matronly woman, gathered the sobbing boy against her ample bosom and rocked him, crooning soothingly.  Her own brood of five stood trembling and wide-eyed on the other side of the room while her husband, Pablo, spat a wad of tobacco into the fire, making it hiss.

Foolish girl, he thought disapprovingly.  Served her right.  No good could ever have come from such a liaison and a half-breed child would not have fared well in this poor border town.  Better if both of them died now and put an end to it.

Back in the hut, the doctor scrambled through his bag, yanking out rolls of bandages and barking for the women to find towels.  Moving quickly, he put gauze over her mouth and dribbled a few drops of a bitter-smelling liquid onto it. Already three-quarters unconscious, the girl was quickly in an ether-induced sleep.

Yanking her blood-soaked skirts aside, he positioned himself to her right. Taking a scalpel out of his bag, he made several quick incisions, lifting the fetus from her body.

The women turned their heads, trying not to be sick but not before one of them glimpsed what the doctor had just delivered. 

 

Ch. 9

That Christmas sure was a good memory, Johnny thought as he trudged wearily along, his saddle over his shoulder, and the desert sun beating down on him.  Thirsty and half-glareblind, he raised his eyes, noticing the lone buzzard circling overhead.  He grinned slightly at the sight of it, causing his blistered lips to crack and bleed.  Trouble was, it didn’t look like he’d be around for any more of them. 

Weak and dehydrated, he thought longingly of that Christmas season, the cool air, sharp with the spicy scent of pine garlands on the doors, and redolent of the boughs Theresa had used for centerpieces.  He wished he could feel it on his face now. His empty stomach rumbled as he recalled the wonderful dinner they’d had, so delicious in every way, on the night the baby had taken her first steps.

For dessert, Theresa had surprised them by bringing out a platter full of tiny, edible figures she’d made out of marzipan.  There’d been holly wreaths, Johnny remembered, Christmas balls, angels, even a tiny Papa Noel.  He’d picked his up, marveling at all the work that had gone into it as he turned it around, examining it from all sides before biting Pere Noel’s head off.  He had grinned, surprised, as the sweetness flooded his mouth, delighted at the delicate almond taste.  Marzipan had instantly become his new favorite thing and he badgered Theresa to make more before they left. She had pressed a tin of the confections into his hand just before they boarded the train, smiling.

The family had laughed at his reaction that night. Like a rare bird plunked into their midst, Johnny was a never-ending surprise to them.  Murdoch often thought his love of sweets was a reaction to the deprivation he’d endured as a child, as was his fondness for the excellent meals the rest of them took for granted.  Johnny, he had noticed, never did.  He had a childlike enjoyment of meals, savoring each one as though it could be his last.  He was always the first to compliment Maria and she pampered him shamelessly, making his favorite treats at every opportunity.

He’d a hell of a sight rather be back in that Christmas Eve, Johnny thought, than trudging through the Sonoran desert, afoot because his horse had stepped in a prairie dog hole and broken his leg.  Johnny had had no choice but to put him out of his misery.  It was no one’s fault, not even the horse’s, just the kind of plain bad luck that occasionally overtook a man.

He thanked God the horse he’d been riding wasn’t Barranca.  He wasn’t sure he could have shot his Palomino.  But Barranca was gone, he thought. Dead after a savage fight with the black stallion he’d rescued in Mexico.

It had happened while Johnny was away on a trip to Abilene.  He’d gone along to protect the Lancer’s livestock agent, the one who’d been robbed when the train he was riding on had been held up right after the sale of the herd last year.   Lancer had barely scraped by after losing that money and he wanted to lend Madrid’s gun just in case anyone got any ideas.

The original plan had been for Scott to go, but Scott had come down with a terrible cold after falling into a stream while clearing debris.  Red-nosed and hacking, he’d looked pretty pitiable when his brother had come in.  He clearly wasn’t up to it, and Johnny decided to take his place.

He’d returned a week later, taking the train back with the agent.  But the trip had been uneventful.  No robbers appeared and he’d arrived back in Morro Coyo in record time without having cabled his family in advance as to the exact hour of his arrival.

Going straight to the livery stable, he had expected to see Barranca there, dropped off to await his arrival, and was surprised to see another of the estancia’s horses, a sorrel with a white blaze, instead.  A handsome animal, and sturdy enough, he knew, the first worry niggling at his mind.  Something, he thought, must be wrong.    He put the thought aside.  It didn’t have to be something serious.  Could be something as small as a stone in Barranca’s shoe that had caused irritation, a little lameness easily cured with rest.

Flipping a coin to Fred, the heavyset blacksmith, he saddled the other horse.  Arriving home in the twilight, his family and Jelly came out to greet him.  They looked noticeably somber, he thought uneasily, and their welcome was more subdued than he was used to getting.

All of them, including Murdoch, began talking rapidly, as if to deflect the question they knew was coming and he finally broke into the inane chatter when they were all seated in the great room.

“What happened to my horse?  Where’s Barranca?” he asked.

Scott and Jelly looked away, not meeting his eyes.  Murdoch sighed, then looked him squarely in the face.  “He’s dead, Johnny.  Killed in a fight with Diablo,” which was the name he’d given the rescued black stallion.

“Dead?” he’d questioned, stunned.

Scott swung around to face him.  “They fought, Johnny.  Over a mare.  That black horse went crazy.”

Murdoch chimed in.  “It must have been the mare that set him off, Johnny.”

A new mare had come in, he explained, captured as part of a wild horse roundup on Lancer property. Light gray in color, dainty and beautiful, she had Arab blood and was clearly in season. They had decided to put her in with Barranca in the breeding corral.

Johnny interrupted.  “But wasn’t Diablo in his own corral?”  Immediately after the horse’s arrival, the vaqueros had built a new corral, with reinforced posts, adding additional rails to accommodate the horse’s height and uncertain temperament.  The new corral had been much higher than normal and they’d been confident the stallion couldn’t escape.

On this day, Scott continued, the black horse had spotted the mare and lifted his head up, looking closely.  Something about her had shaken the horse from his normal ennui and he had begun pacing as he watched Barranca courting the mare.

He’d become increasingly agitated but the watching men had remained unworried, secure in the knowledge Diablo was safely contained, right up until the minute he escaped.  Gathering his legs beneath him, he had made the mightiest leap that any of them had ever seen, soaring over the top rail like a beautiful and evil bird.

The vaqueros who witnessed the incredible leap had gaped, dumbfounded, as the huge stallion immediately made for the breeding corral, leaping in as if the six-foot fence were nothing. Possessive and bad tempered, Barranca had immediately challenged the newcomer and the squealing and thudding of hooves pounding hides filled the air.  The stallions had fought savagely, each determined to vanquish his rival while the mare backed away to the far side of the corral, wide-eyed and snorting.

The vaqueros had rushed, yelling, for ropes and pitchforks with which to separate the two, knowing in advance it was useless.  The whole scene played out with horrifying suddenness.

Drawn by the nightmarish squealing, Murdoch had run out, knowing it was impossible to separate two animals mad with blood lust in time to save one of them.

Much bigger and heavier than Barranca, the black horse fought with a savagery they would not have believed possible, inexorably beating the smaller stallion back. Refusing to give ground, the smaller horse had put up a valiant fight but Diablo, true to his name, had fought like one possessed.

On their hind legs, each struggling to tear out the other’s jugular vein, the horses had been locked in mortal combat when they crashed through the fence.  Released from paralysis, the vaqueros seized the chance to rush in, arms flailing and shouting, jabbing pitchforks at the black horse to drive him back.

With a crack of thunder, the skies had opened, releasing a deluge while they struggled to contain the savage animal. Dragging the mare into the barn, they quickly put her in the stud stall, where the stallion immediately followed.

When the vaqueros looked up, Barranca was gone.  It was the way of the world, the vaqueros knew, for injured animals to go off to die alone and Barranca had looked mortally wounded, covered in blood, and limping badly.  Sandoval and Vasquez had quickly saddled up and gone looking for him but the downpour made it impossible to see more than a foot in front of their faces and washed away tracks as well.  Grave and silent, the soaked vaqueros soon gave up, returning to the bunkhouse in defeat.

In the great room, Murdoch’s face was like stone. The click of a gun’s chamber being loaded made him look up to see Scott putting bullets into his gun.

“What’re you doing?” he asked Scott, restraining him with one hand on his arm as he prepared to leave the house.

“What somebody should have done a long time ago!” Scott snarled.  “Killing that horse!”

“That’s for Johnny to decide!” thundered Murdoch.  “It isn’t up to us, Scott!

Scott shook him off and went onto the patio.  Murdoch followed him, undeterred. Oblivious to the pounding rain, anger writhing on each face, they stood toe to toe, shouting, as water drenched them.

“It’s the way of the world, Scott!  It isn’t the horse’s fault!”  Murdoch yelled.

“Johnny loves…loved…Barranca, Murdoch!  He won’t be able to stand the sight of that black demon when he gets back…he’ll want him gone!  I’ll spare him the trouble!”

Looming over Scott, head and shoulders bent against the rain pounding his back, Murdoch made an effort to lower his voice and defuse the situation.

“He does love Barranca, Scott, but it has to be his choice.  He’s worked so hard with Diablo.”

“Yeah,” Scott snarled.  “For all the good it’s done!”

Murdoch’s shoulders slumped.  The black horse was still moody and impossible to handle. Most of the vaqueros refused to go near him.  Because of his temperament, he’d had secret doubts about breeding him, not wanting to pass on such an undesirable characteristic.  Johnny was the only one who could deal with Diablo, even slightly.

When no reply was forthcoming, the anger went out of Scott, too.  Hair plastered to his skull and rain dripping into his eyes, he dropped his angry gaze from Murdoch’s face, still clutching the gun.

“Johnny loves both of them, doesn’t he?” he asked his father.

“Yes, Scott,” the old man replied simply.  “He does.  That’s why it has to be up to him.”

They had returned to the house, dried off, and changed clothes. They’d sat at the dinner table, grim-faced and silent, getting up with most of the meal untouched and gone into the great room.  Jelly, claiming an incipient cold, had honked loudly into his handkerchief and left, saying he was going to bed early.

Maria had clucked sadly when she came to clear the table, eyes filling with tears as she looked at Johnny’s empty place.  His heart would be broken at the loss of his stallion, she knew, although he would hide it as best he could.

Rosita, in the kitchen, had been sniffling all afternoon.  “So sad, “ she thought, having a soft spot in her heart for animals in general, so sad never to see Senor Johnny galloping up on the golden horse again, and sad for poor Barranca, too.  She wondered if even now, he was engaged in dying alone in the pounding rain out on the lonely mesa.  For his sake, she hoped it was already over.

Arriving home the next day, Johnny had sat in stunned silence, listening to the tale.  At its end, he had sprung up and taken his Colt out of its holster.

“Johnny!” Murdoch had said, laying a hand on his arm.  “Don’t do this!”

Johnny had shaken him off and strode rapidly for the barn, Murdoch and Scott right behind him.  Reaching the barn, he’d gone directly to Diablo’s stall.  The horse looked at him quietly as he entered.  Extending his arm, Johnny had pointed the Colt directly between the animal’s eyes and drawn the hammer back.

Behind him, Murdoch and Scott had braced themselves, waiting for the shot.

Ears pricked, the animal had regarded Johnny intently, without fear, and suddenly Johnny’s shoulders had slumped.

Scott’s body was full of tension as he watched. Diablo was completely unpredictable.  He had no love for anyone, not even Johnny, and even the seasoned vaqueros feared and distrusted the animal, with good reason.  But the horse only regarded his brother quietly, his large, intelligent eyes fixed on Johnny’s face.

Lowering the gun to his side, Johnny’s dark head drooped, and sadness was evident in every line of his body. He spoke, so softly it was almost a whisper.  “It won’t bring Barranca back.”

Scott held his breath but Murdoch replied.  “No, son, it won’t.  I’m sorry.”

Johnny had left the stall and swiped his arm over his eyes, the gun still in his hand.

Murdoch wanted to put his arms around the boy but knew the gesture would be met with resistance.  Scott had no such reticence.

His own heart breaking, he went swiftly to Johnny and put his arms around him.  “I’m so sorry, brother.” he whispered.

Johnny leaned his head on Scott’s shoulder for an instant, the merest whisper of time.  Then he straightened up, shaking off the embrace.  “I’m all right.” he had said.

They had returned to the house in silence.  Johnny had excused himself and gone to his room, pleading tiredness. 

Although the vaqueros and Scott searched in secret, the horse’s body was never found.  But, as Scott thought to himself, that was no cause for hope.  A wolfpack could drag even a horse carcass off and bears and other predators could disperse the bones.

They had never mentioned Barranca again.

Johnny had taken to riding whatever horse he caught out of the remuda, partial to none, although he took the same care to attend to their needs and keep them well-cared for that he had shown his Palomino.

A month or so later, at a meeting of the Cattleman’s Association, they had gotten wind of another Pacific and Western train being robbed outside of Sacramento.  The gang had forced everyone off the train and their leader, kerchief pulled over his face, had rigged the charge that blew the safe open himself.  This gang had struck with increasing frequency, Vick Roberts had told them, and increasing boldness, although there was still very little to identify them.  Their leader, besides being tall, was unremarkable, his hair and features well-hidden under a hat and neckerchief.

Pacific and Western had put Pinkertons on it but the gang had eluded capture with an ease that caused some to whisper that they had accomplices in high places.

It might be time, the cattlemen had speculated, to put federal marshals on the trains.

While they lobbied in Sacramento, four more trains had been robbed.  The Lancer men had looked at each other, concerned, when news of the last robbery reached them.

“It’s becoming unsafe to do business,” said Murdoch.  “We can’t afford another hit like we took last year, we’ll lose the ranch for sure.” 

All of the ranchers in the area had become edgy.  Finally, they had come to Murdoch with a proposal.  The feds weren’t doing anything, they had pointed out. Even the Pinkertons, famous for getting their man, hadn’t had any luck.  The reason, they had figured, was because the robbers were hitting the trains and then fading back into Mexico.  The Mexicans, always suspicious of northern authority, were silent, refusing to offer any information that could lead to their capture.  Not only that, the cattlemen told Murdoch, they were probably afraid of reprisal.  They had reached a stalemate.  Then they had thought of Johnny.  Or more accurately, they had thought of Johnny Madrid.

Johnny, they had told Murdoch privately, was their last hope.  The Miller ranch had just gone into foreclosure and two more were being taken by the bank after train robberies siphoned off their operating funds.

Referring uneasily to Johnny’s parentage, they had pointed out that he’d grown up in Mexico, spoke the language, and could fade into the background, whereas the Pinkertons and the feds stood out like sore thumbs.  Johnny, they said, had a good chance of succeeding where the others had failed.

Murdoch had listened quietly, then refuted the idea in no uncertain terms.  “I won’t put my son in that kind of danger!” he had shouted at Vick Roberts, the president of the Rancher’s Association.  “And anybody that puts that idea to Johnny will have to answer to me!  The answer is no!”

Johnny had walked in at that moment, tossing his hat on the table and looking at them all.  “I could hear you all yelling way out in the yard.  Ask me what?”

The cattlemen had shuffled their feet and picked up their hats, not looking at him.  They exited hastily, none of them willing to cross Murdoch on the issue.

When they had gone, Johnny again asked Murdoch again what had been going on.  They had gotten into a fight when Murdoch had cut him off sharply and Johnny had gone into town to cool off.

In the intervening months, he had picked up a smattering of the Cattleman’s Association’s plan and had discussed the idea of going with Scott, who was also roundly against it.

“You don’t owe them a damn thing,” he’d told Johnny angrily.  “They wouldn’t do it for you.  Don’t go putting your butt on the line.”

Johnny had nodded, recalling the reluctance of many of the cattlemen to accept him when they’d found out he was Maria’s son, and half Mexican.  There had been a certain coolness shown him that they had not shown to Scott.  As the ranchers had gotten to know him, the issue of his parentage had faded for many of them as they learned to accept Johnny on his own merits.  But others had not been so forgiving.  Privately, they called him a half-breed, and a gunfighter, even though he’d given up the profession.  Now there, the cattlemen said, there was a combination for you.  Johnny Madrid Lancer was not to be trusted.

He knew what they said behind his back and he knew who said it.  In his heart, he agreed with Scott.  Those ranchers had no love for him and no one would shed a tear if Madrid got himself killed down in Mexico.  Just one more half-breed out of the way, they’d say, and most likely, they’d celebrate his passing with a drink.

Johnny trudged wearily on.  At some point, he dropped the saddle.  It was just too damn heavy, he thought.  He was running out of time, and he knew it.  A man could last a month without food, less than two days without water.  They didn’t call these the badlands for nothing, he thought.  Empty and arid, the trackless wastes barely supported stunted cacti.  He’d tried getting fluid out of one but it had made him sick, causing him to lose more precious bodily fluids.  There was no shade for miles in any direction.

He glanced up again.  One buzzard had become four.  His blistered lips curved into a ghost of his usual devil-may-care grin. His head ached and his leg muscles, starved of nutrients, began cramping up.

His foot struck an object, knocking it aside and causing him to glance down.  The tiny white object rolled a little way before coming to a stop. He barely registered it as a baby’s skull before he sprawled, face down and unmoving in the sand.

 

Ch. 10

One of the buzzards spiraled down, the shadow of its wings falling like a dark crucifix over the prostrate man.  It plopped into the sand, thrusting its ugly bald head forward, beady black eyes gleaming, as it hopped toward him.  Its hooked, yellow beak, made for rending flesh from bones, opened eagerly as it neared.

Drawing its head back, it was poised to drive the cruel beak into the man’s flesh, stripping off a hunk, when a shout rang out.

“Hey, get outta there!” a boy cried, running forward.

A rock whizzed forward, striking the bird in the breast, and driving it back.  Beak opening with a hiss of anger, it took three running steps forward and was airborne, the downdraft from its long wings disturbing a loose tumbleweed.  Winging strongly away from the unwelcome interruption, its nonplussed companions quickly followed in its wake.

The boy ran up and rolled the unconscious stranger over, eyes widening as they fell on the distinctive silver and turquoise belt.  Laying his fingers to the pulse in the throat, he determined the man was still alive, but barely. Rushing back to his faithful burro, Herman, he urged the creature forward. 

Using all his strength, he slipped his hands under the man’s armpits and pulled him to a sitting position.  Breath whistling between his teeth, he heaved again with a strength borne of determination.  By dint of much pushing and pulling, he managed to drape the unconscious man over Herman’s back.  He led the burro away, holding the reins with one hand, and steadying his burden with the other.

Crossing the desert floor at a trot, he arrived at a small adobe hut, calling for his uncle, who flung aside the blanket nailed over the opening and rushed out. 

“Quién es éste? ” he asked the boy, frowning at the unconscious man. 

“I found him in the desert! We have to help him!” the boy blurted, all in one rush.

“Why should we help a stranger…and a gunfighter at that?” Tio Julio replied, his thick black mustache bristling as he observed the tied-down gun.  He shook his iron gray head, still flecked with black, at his nephew.

“I know him,” the boy replied.  “He was kind to me once.”

Uncle Julio’s brow cleared.  Dragging the man off the burro, he carried him over his shoulder and propped him in the shade of the hut.  He felt for the man’s wrist, noting the pale, clammy skin and rapid pulse.

Recognizing the signs of heatstroke, he spoke quickly to the boy.  “Get me fresh water, quickly.  We have to cool him off.” 

The boy nodded and rushed off.  Almost immediately, he was back.  His uncle had opened the man’s shirt and was fanning him with a bit of broken board from the steps.

“Gracias.” he muttered to the boy.   Moving quickly, Julio dipped a rag into the bucket and began sponging the man’s face and wrists.  He remained unconscious, occasionally mumbling something unintelligible.

Tio Julio frowned, knowing he had to get the man’s temperature down before his brain fried in his head.  Picking up the bucket, he dashed its contents into the man’s face, motioning to the boy to get more from the tiny artisan well behind the hut. 

The shock made the man open his eyes.  Jolted by the vivid blueness, Julio backed quickly away.

“He’s a gringo!” he told the boy.

The youngster nodded, his English deserting him.  “Si, tio.  Pero él era un amigo a mí y al Lupe!”

The mention of the dead girl made his uncle pause.  Making up his mind, he hauled the stranger to his feet and dragged him onto the blanket-covered platform that served as a bed.   As the man showed signs of coming around.  Julio held a rusty tin cup to his lips, forcing him to take a sip.  Realizing what it was, the man gulped thirstily at the liquid.

Bewilderment showed in the blue eyes as the stranger rested his head back against the thin, grimy pillow.

“Va a dormir.” Uncle Julio told him. “Todo está bien.”  Obediently, the stranger closed his sapphire eyes.

When he awoke the next day, they fell immediately on the boy sitting beside the bed.  The stranger’s black brows knit together as he tried to recall where he’d seen the child before.

The boy smiled with pleasure.  “Senor Johnny.  Johnny Madrid.”

The stranger smiled back, putting a hand to his head.  “That’s me all right. But…”

The boy spoke quickly.  “Wait, let me get you some breakfast.”  Going to the small fireplace, he took the kettle off the hook and spooned some stew into a bowl, bringing it back to Johnny.

As Johnny sat up, the child propped the pillows behind him.  Resting his back against them, Johnny realized he was starved.  The food cleared his brain.

“Meredith’s funeral,” he said, gazing at the boy.  “You were there, with your sister, Lupe.  I remember now.”  He looked around.  He and the boy were the room’s only occupants.

A rectangle of light pierced the blackness of the room as Tio Julio pushed the blanket back from the opening.  Putting a hand up to shield his eyes, Johnny looked up at the man crossing the room.

Although his lips were puffy with sun blisters, the young man looked much better today, Julio thought.  And he’d sustained no brain damage, as his conversation with Manuel proved. 

“Here,” Julio said, filling the tin cup with water and thrusting it at Johnny. “You need to drink.”

Johnny sipped obediently as his mind whirled. 

Reading his thoughts, Julio spoke.  “I am the boy’s uncle.”

“He’s a long way from home, isn’t he?” Johnny questioned.

“This is his home now,” the man replied.  “Ever since his sister died.”

Johnny frowned, puzzled.

The boy spoke up.  “It was all that gringo’s fault!  I hate him! I’m going to kill him someday!”

Julio spoke quietly, jerking his head toward the door.  “Manuel, Herman needs tending.”

Casting a last glance at Johnny, the boy pulled back the blanket and left.

Picking up a pot of tallow from the table, Julio pulled the hut’s one chair close to the bed.  Handing it to Johnny, he indicated he should dab it on his cracked lips.  Sighing heavily, he began to explain.

“Lupe is dead.  And that town was no place for Manuel after the child was born. I took him away.”

“Dead?  How?”  Johnny asked, recalling the young woman he’d caught spying on him and Bob Hoskins in the storeroom of a cantina one day.

“Foolish girl.  She was pregnant…with a gringo’s baby.  And when she couldn’t get rid of it any other way, she…” he paused, swiping at his eyes, as he searched for the right words. “She got rid of the baby herself.”

At Johnny’s horrified look, he nodded.  “The man had been her lover and she hoped to marry him. She thought he loved her, but he did not.  He used her and then threw her aside.”

“How’d she work in a saloon?  If she was pregnant?” Johnny asked, not understanding. 

“She hid it for a long time. She still hoped the man would do right by her. Manuel said even he had no idea she was pregnant.”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably on the bed, knowing what was coming.

Julio explained. ”Everyone knew he was her lover.  It made her an outcast.  People did not approve.  No one wanted a half-breed child around except Lupe.”

His niece had finally given up hope when she had gone to the man and explained, hoping he would help her, Julio said.  “The gringo said Lupe was a slut, that girls like her were a dime a dozen, and that he already had a new woman.”

In despair, she had gone home and tried to get rid of the baby herself, alone on New Year’s Eve.  “She bled to death,” Julio said sadly.

Johnny rubbed his chin.  “And the baby?”

Julio looked away.  “Aahh, the baby,” he said sadly.  “The baby was…not normal.  The women screamed when they saw it.  One of them sent her husband to find me, before the townspeople turned on Manuel.”

Hurriedly harnessing his burro to his tiny cart, Julio had rushed to the adobe hut of his niece and nephew. A blanket-covered form rested on the hardpacked dirt floor, which was marred by a huge pool of drying blood.  The women stood in a circle, whispering, as the doctor took up the shawl-wrapped baby.  One of the women made the sign for protection against the evil eye.

Taking the bundle from the doctor, Julio had gasped at the sight of the newborn’s cleft palate and outsized head.  One eye was askew, bulging from the pressure inside the skull.  The baby was horribly deformed, he told Johnny sadly. There was no chance it could survive.  Julio had known immediately what he must do.

Townspeople were already gathering as he loaded Lupe’s blanket-shrouded body into the two-wheeled cart.  Returning to the hut, he had hidden the baby under his ragged serape and clutched Manuel against his side.  Boosting the boy into the cart, he had had already lifted his foot to step up, just as a stone bounced off his arm.

Julio had staggered as another one struck his head, opening a jagged cut and causing a trickle of blood to run from his temple.  Mutterings arose from the crowd.  “Mala suerte!” one of them had hissed.

“¡Monstruo! ¡consígalo ausente!”  The woman who had thrown the last rock looked at him, eyes narrowed in her pinched face. “¡Slut! ¡puta del gringo!”

The doctor had rushed out, shouting, he told Johnny.  In a commanding voice, he had cried that they were to be left alone, that Lupe’s sins were nothing to do with them.  He had been enough of an authority figure that the crowd had allowed them to pass.  Several of those with rocks in their hands had dropped them,  muttering.  Many crossed themselves. 

They had not gone back to his tiny house on the edge of town, lest the mob change its mind, Julio said.  Instead, they had struck out into the desert, making for this ancient shack, the former home of Marty, the old hermit, who had recently died.  Many had thought Marty loco.  Some had whispered that he was a brujo, a witch.  Either way, the townspeople had not come after them.

The night had been clear, the hut clearly visible against its backdrop of stars.  Stopping, Julio removed a bottle from his pocket and offered it to Manuel, instructing him to take a big drink.  The shaken boy had coughed as the liquid fire coursed down his throat.  His head had begun to nod as the events of the night caught up with him.

Pinning the blanket back against the crooked nail on the doorframe, he had led the boy inside by the stars’ glow and helped him into the bed.  Instructing him to take another drink, he had drawn the ragged covers up to the sleepy child’s chin.  When he heard the regular breathing of sleep, Julio had taken the baby, which still had made no sound, out of his serape and looked at it.

“Pobrecita,” he had thought, at the sight of the tiny, misshapen form.  Peering closely, he saw that the baby girl had blonde wisps covering her outsized head.

“A judgement of heaven,” he thought sadly.  “A judgement against my foolish niece and her reckless actions.”

He had taken the cart out into the desert, he told Johnny.  It had been a very long trip, with the dead body of his niece jolting in the back and the monstrous bundle on the floorboards at his feet.  Night blooming cacti had opened around him and bats had flicked overhead as he went.  The night was so clear, he could see his way easily.  When he was far enough away, Julio had laid Lupe’s body, still in its shroud, on the ground.  He placed the baby next to it.  Clasping his hands before him, he had whispered a brief, soundless prayer.  Then he had traced the sign of the cross and turned away.

When his nephew had awakened the next morning, Julio was already back, and had drawn water from the tiny artisan well.  A skinned jackrabbit lay on the table.

They had been here ever since, he had told Johnny sadly.  They didn’t dare go back to the village for supplies and had been barely scratching out a living from the harsh desert landscape.  Sometimes they ate rattlesnakes or managed to catch the occasional jackrabbit in a snare.  It was no life for the boy, he said, but they were trapped.

Johnny sighed.  He knew firsthand the misery a half-breed child would have endured growing up in Mexico, just as he himself had done.  Neither fish nor fowl, as the saying went, belonging nowhere and at everyone’s mercy.  Por Dios, he’d been able to blend in to an extent, at least until people saw his eyes.  A scrappy kid, he’d soon learned to demand respect, first with his fists, then with a gun.

But a girl child, especially one such as Julio had described, would have had no chance, even had she not been deformed.  Her blonde hair would have made her a perpetual target, her “otherness” as visible as a badge.

Maybe, just maybe, he’d been luckier than he knew, Johnny mused.

The talking had tired him and he fell asleep again after Julio and Manuel left to forage for food.

When he woke up, the first thing he saw was his saddle on the rickety table.  They had gone looking for it, they explained. His bedroll lay next to it.

“Yo tengo dinero,” he had said, slipping easily into Spanish.  “There has to be a way out of this mess, for all of us.”  Motioning for Manuel to bring his saddlebags, he rummaged inside for his wallet and lifted it out.  Its contents were intact.

“¡Somos todos los Oídos!” Julio had replied, “We’re all ears!”

The answer had come to Johnny while he slept and now he explained his plan.  They had to find the nearest town, Johnny said.  And they had to get a message to his father, Murdoch.  Once he wired money, Johnny would buy a new horse and continue his mission.  And he would buy both Julio and Manuel a ticket to Lancer.  There, he continued, they would be given jobs and a place to live.

Julio and Manuel looked at each other, astonished.

“It’s beautiful,” Johnny assured them.  “The most beautiful place in the world.”

They looked back at him, mute.  Julio found his voice.  “You would do this, for us?”

“Si,” Johnny assured him.  “Without you, I wouldn’t be here.  Now we just have to find a way to pull it off.”

Huge smiles illuminated their faces as hope replaced resignation.  Julio pulled the chair close to the bed.  “I have an idea.”

Leaving the boy with Johnny, Julio would take Herman and set out for Oaxaca.  It was a long trip, and dangerous, he explained to Johnny.  He had not wanted to put the boy through it and so they had remained in the hut.  Besides, what would they have done when they got there? There was no money for housing or food and Julio was too proud to beg.

Julio told Johnny that he expected to run into trouble when he arrived at the telegraph office.  Mexicans sending wires was unusual. It was entirely possible the clerks would wonder where he’d gotten the money and give him a hard time.

Johnny had thought of that and pulled a ten dollar gold piece from his saddle bag.  “Bribe them if you have to,” he told Julio.

They planned carefully and within the hour, it was settled.  Julio would leave that night, traveling while it was cool.

He packed the panniers the burro would carry with a few meager supplies.  When the moon rose, he hugged his nephew, then offered his hand to Johnny.  “Vaya con Dios,” Johnny told him.  “We’ll see you soon.”

Waking Herman, Julio took the burro’s lead rope and set off, turning often to wave.  In front of the hut, Johnny and Manuel returned his farewell.  Soon, he was out of sight.

 

Ch. 11

With his uncle gone, the boy turned to regard Johnny.  They looked at each other in the starlight as Johnny put an arm around his bony shoulders.  “C’mon, Manuel, let’s go back inside.”

Entering the rude hut, Johnny struck a match and lit a candle, seeing that the boy looked troubled.  “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked softly, having divined what was on the child’s mind.

“Yes.  No.  I don’t know!” the boy burst out. “Uncle says I must forget it.  But I can’t forget it,” he added, looking at Johnny.

“It must’ve been horrible for you.” Johnny said soberly.

Manuel’s English deserted him. “Si! Y para mi hermana!  My poor sister! You are a gunfighter, no?”

“I was,” Johnny acknowledged.  “Not anymore.”

“Tio said you were, by the way you wore the gun.  Will you teach me how to use it?”

“Why?” Johnny asked gently, although he knew the answer.

“So I can kill that gringo if I ever see him again!” the boy burst out.  “He is the cause of Lupe’s death and all our troubles! I would like him to die, a painful death like my sister’s!”

Johnny sighed inwardly.  The boy’s attitude was certainly understandable.  He remembered another one who had felt much the same way.

To change the subject, he said, “Tell me about this gringo.”

The boy frowned, remembering.  “He used to come into the saloon where Lupe worked.”

“What was a gringo doing in Lajitas?” Johnny asked.  “How long was he there?” The reply startled him.

“He was a train robber.  He came and went all the time, for many months,” the boy said.

Johnny straightened a little, looking closely at the boy.  “A train robber? How do you know that?”

“He told Lupe once, when he was drunk.  They didn’t know I was there.  He said they were robbing trains all over, and then taking farms and ranchos when their owners became too poor to keep them.  He laughed about it.”

“Do you know where?” Johnny questioned.

“California, Tejas, Kansas.  Anywhere they got the chance.  I hated him!” the boy added fiercely.  “Lupe was a good girl before he came along!”

“What did he look like?” he asked the boy.

The child frowned with remembrance.  “He was tall. Very tall! Taller than Tio Julio, taller than the men in the village.”

Johnny leaned forward.  “What else?”

“Thin.  And his hair, it was the color of sunshine.”

“Rubio? Blond?” Johnny questioned.

“Si,” the boy said.  “And long.  Longer than most white men.  He pulled it back into a…a horse’s tail, I think it is called.”

Johnny hid his excitement.  Here for the first time was information he could use.  No one had ever gotten a good look at the man’s face or his hair during a robbery. He’d always kept his hat pulled low and his face covered.

“Do you remember his voice?” he asked the child.

“Si,” Manuel said.  “Deep.  He was not from around here.”

The boy would have no way to place the region, Johnny knew, but it was a good start.

“Gracias, muchacho.” He told the child. “You’ve been a big help.”

“Will you teach me how to shoot?” Manuel demanded.

His face fell at Johnny’s gentle reply.  “No, Manuel.  Not without your uncle’s permission.  But I’ll do the next best thing.”

 

Already far to the east, Julio walked beside the burro as it plodded through the desert.  He took a deep breath, looking up at the cold fire of the stars.  The full moon lit his way and he realized he actually felt happy.  Despite the difficult task ahead of him, he had something to look forward to and Madre de Dios, so did the boy.  He would not have to grow up alone and ignorant, without education and no companionship besides that of his uncle.

His mind turned to their plan as he walked along.  Turning it over in his mind, he examined it from all angles, trying to find a flaw or something they had forgotten but he found none.  All that remained was for him to play his part. 

Who would have thought, he chuckled to himself, that picking up a half-dead gunfighter would lead to this?  He recalled that he had heard wolves howling in the distance the night before. The desert was full of magia, magic, he knew.  La Loba had surely been nearby, watching.

He was suddenly glad he hadn’t left the stranger to die, as had been his impulse when he realized the man was a gringo.  Half gringo, he told himself. Julio was glad he had acted properly, set an example for the boy.

He slapped Herman on the flank.  “C’mon, Herman, get a move on!”  The sleepy animal picked up his pace and Julio strode beside him, smiling.

 

At the hut, Johnny and the boy had talked until the child began to nod. Johnny got up, spreading his bedroll outside the door.  He’d be right here, he told Manuel, looking up at the stars.

The boy climbed into the ragged bed, yawning.  Tucking the covers under his chin, Johnny told him, “Buenos noches” and went outside.   Building a small fire, he sat for awhile on the rickety steps, watching it.  Getting cold, he climbed into his bedroll.  Soon, he too, was fast asleep.

 

Julio walked all night, prodding Herman to keep up.   Growing hungry, he gnawed on a piece of jerky the cowboy had given him.  When he sensed that dawn was near, he began looking for a place to shelter.  Finding none, he erected a small tent, using one of the blankets in Herman’s pannier.  Ground-tying the faithful burro, he took a big drink of water from his canteen and crawled inside, wrapping himself in another blanket.  Soon, he was sound asleep.

Arriving on the outskirts of Oaxaca, Julio donned his serape and sombrero.  Going to the town square, he spread his blanket under the portico with the other vendors.  Upon it, he placed the hand-carved bone figurines he’d made during the lonely months in the hermit’s hut.  He stayed all day, nodding to the passersby, selling a few of his wares, and talking to the other vendors.

At night, he retired to the edge of town, setting up his tent.  The next day, he returned to the portico, following the same routine.  That evening, he made his way to the telegraph office just before closing.  His reasoning had been that the rushed clerk would be too eager to leave to give him a hard time.

Thankfully, he was right.  Although he could not read, he had memorized the information Johnny had given him and he dictated to the clerk while the message was tapped out.  Nodding his thanks, he had bowed his head and tucked his arms under his enveloping serape.

Safely outside, he bought some fresh tamales from a smiling girl with a basket on her arm.  Leading Herman back to the edge of town, he built a small fire.  Pleasantly full, he slept well, wrapped up tightly in his blanket.

The next day, he went into town to where he had heard that a local patron, Don Luis Carillo, would be selling some horses.  Some vaqueros were already there, herding the animals into place.  Eying them carefully, Julio made a selection.  Approaching the vaquero who seemed to be in charge, he jerked his head at the horse he had chosen, asking the price.

The vaquero looked at him doubtfully, but named a figure. 

“Done!” said Julio, counting out coin.  “I will take him with me.” 

He need not have worried, he realized.  Oaxaca was a cosmopolitan city and no one was interested in the likes of him.  If anyone asked, he would say he was taking the horse back to the estancia where he worked, its purchase authorized by the patron.

Leading the animal back to where Herman was tethered, Julio put the panniers back on the burro and started out, leading the horse and prodding Herman in front of him. The journey home was much quicker than the outward bound one had been.   He spotted the rude hut.  His nephew must have been watching because he was soon running to meet him, bubbling over with questions.

“Slow down,” he laughed, hugging the boy.  “Let me catch my breath!”

When he got closer, Senor Johnny also came out, extending a hand in greeting.

Johnny ran a practiced eye over the chestnut, noting the arched neck and sturdy body. Seeing Julio’s anxious look, he nodded.

“Bueno!  He’s a good horse, Julio.”

Julio relaxed again, pleased that he had chosen well.

Looking again at the horse, Johnny thought that he was nondescript.  Although he was well-formed and healthy, there was nothing to make him stand out.  His chestnut color was indistinct when compared to Barranca’s gold, and he was not exceptionally big and temperamental, like Diablo. And that, thought Johnny, was exactly what a man who wanted to blend in needed.

They had watered both animals and gone into the hut, where rabbit stew was simmering.  As they ate, Julio regaled them with his adventures.  For the first time since Julio and Manuel had arrived, laughter filled the little hut.  The telegram had been sent, he told Johnny, producing the receipt. 

“Bueno,” Johnny said, “Muy bueno!”

Harnessing the horse to the tiny cart, and tying Herman behind it, they had packed some meager supplies, and set out for Oaxaca at dusk the next day.  The boy was agog with excitement at the prospect of seeing the big city, asking so many questions that the men finally told him laughingly that he was wearing them out.  With the horse pulling the cart, they had arrived in Oaxaca much more quickly than Julio had.

On the outskirts of town, Johnny had unhitched the horse and put his saddle on him.  Then Julio had harnessed Herman to the cart.  Leaving Julio and Manuel in the town square, Johnny had gone straight to the telegraph office and collected the money Murdoch had wired.  Then he rode to the train depot and bought two tickets.

The town was wide-awake by the time he returned to the square. Vaqueros clattered over the cobblestoned streets, leading strings of handsome horses, country girls with baskets of fresh cheese and eggs wandered along, hawking their wares, and vendors were setting up stalls full of clothes, produce, jewelry, and leather goods.  Cooks and house servants seeking the freshest produce and the best bargains haggled with them, their voices rising and falling as they argued.

The massive stone cathedral, built by Spaniards two centuries ago, soared above the square, dwarfing it.  Old ladies in mantillas and shawls, clutching prayer books, straggled in for services, followed by young girls with their duennas, matrons and others in need of communion.

Manuel had been overwhelmed at all of the sights and sounds, speechless with excitement.  He had turned in circles, mouth open, taking it all in.  With Julio towing him firmly by the hand, they had gone to a clothing vendor, where Johnny had bought both of them new clothes.  They had changed in the vendor’s stall, coming out in new camisas and pants.  They had tossed their old, ragged items into a trash bin, a symbolic end to their old life. 

Spotting a family just in from the country, huddled nervous and lost on the street, Julio had given them both the cart and the burro.  The astonished family’s eyes lit up as they blessed him, thanking all the saints, for now they could hope to make their way.  The children had swarmed over Herman, lavishing him with affection.  Manuel had felt much better at having to leave the burro behind, knowing he would be well loved.

Leading his horse, Johnny had guided them to the train station. He had settled them at the back of one of the cars, pressing a small purse into Julio’s hands as he did so.  Guessing that they would be too shy to eat in the dining car, he had gone down and ordered a lavish box lunch, filling it with more than enough food to last them back to Lancer.  Thinking of Manuel, he had paid special attention to the dessert cart, wishing he could be there to see the boy’s reaction to the Boston cream pie.

Speechless with gratitude, they had thanked him over and over, the boy’s face alight with excitement at seeing his first train, much less riding on it.  The train jerked as the engine was fired up. 

Johnny repeated the instructions again. “Wait at the station when you get in.   Someone will meet you and take you to Lancer.  Adios, muchacho.  Adios, Julio.” 

Tenga cuidado,” Julio had told him solemnly. “We will be thinking of you.”

Johnny laughed, his white teeth flashing against his tanned skin.  He’d recovered from his bout with heatstroke quickly, Julio thought, with no ill-effects.  He seemed different this morning, with an undercurrent of excitement running through him and his gunbelt back on, buckled low.  He realized that, for all his kindness, the gunfighter was a man to be reckoned with.

“Y tu,” he told the old man, “Y tu. 

He turned to Manuel.  “¡Tenga un buen viaje, muchacho!”

Manuel had looked up, eyes shining worshipfully.  “Vaya con Dios, Senor Johnny.”

The train jerked again, preparatory to departure, and Johnny had turned to go.  Manuel pressed his face to the glass as he went down the steps, watching him as the train began to move.

Soon, Johnny was out of sight and he and his uncle settled back into their seats, on their way to a new life.

 

Ch. 12

Leading the horse back toward the town square, Johnny paused for a moment, getting his bearings, then swung up into the saddle.  The motion caught the eye of one of the young women being hurried into the cathedral and she glanced up, turquoise eyes glowing behind her white lace mantilla.

Something about the lithe movement struck her but the man’s bearded face wasn’t familiar.  The rose-colored shirt and concho belt were also unfamiliar and she turned away, allowing her duenna to rush her up the steps to the cathedral.

Johnny rubbed his chin for a moment, wincing at the heavy beard.  Recalling where the hotel was, he picked up the reins, urging the horse forward.   He grinned, recalling that he’d almost been executed on the outskirts of Oaxaca once, as a political prisoner.  Now he was back, on a fine horse and with money in his pocket.  Talk about full circle, he thought soberly, knowing how many had perished during the revolution.

Locating the hotel, he stood aside to allow finely dressed ladies and gentlemen to come down the steps.  One of the ladies wrinkled her nose slightly as she passed. He lowered his head and sniffed, a grin tugging at his lips as he realized he did smell a bit ripe.

The desk clerk eyed him askance when he approached, asking for a room, but his mien changed markedly when he got a glimpse into the stranger’s wallet as he opened it to pay.

“Yes, sir,” he said, smiling brightly.  “Right away, sir! A bath and a barber will be right up!”

“Good,” the stranger said in his soft voice.  “And I want somebody to see to my horse, he’s tied outside.”

“Certainly, sir!  We’ll take good care of him!”  Snapping his fingers, he summoned a bellboy, who rushed up, almost skidding on the polished marble floor in his hurry.  Following the clerk’s pointing finger, his smile faded when he realized the baggage consisted of a horse he was supposed to deal with.

“Take him around back,” the desk clerk ordered.  “To the stable.”

The bearded man flipped the bellboy a coin.  “Take good care of him,” he told the young man, whose smile had miraculously reappeared at the sight of the gold piece.  Taking the reins gingerly, the bellboy led the horse toward the back.

Picking up his cup of tea, the clerk’s eyes followed Johnny as he strode, spurs clanking, across the gleaming marble floor.

After a long bath and a shave, Johnny climbed into the bed’s crisp white sheets.  He barely had time to punch up the pillow and roll onto his side before he was sound asleep. When he woke, it was dark and his inner sense told him the hour was late.  Pulling fresh pants out of his saddlebag and putting on the shirt he’d bought that morning, he ran a brush over his thick black hair, smoothing it into place.  Putting his wallet in a front pocket, he picked up his jacket and walked through the lobby, whistling.

He was in the mood for some fun, he realized.  Trying to decide what he wanted most, a drink or dinner, he made his way down the long flight of front steps. Turning left at the bottom, he made his way through the narrow, tree-lined streets back to the square.  Spotting the saloon he’d seen earlier, the desire for a drink won out.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked him, a burly man with his sleeves rolled up and a towel thrown over his shoulder. The nametag on his shirt read ‘Bill.”

“Tequila with lime,” he replied. 

“A popular drink around here,” the barkeep chuckled as he set him up.  “Anythin’ else?”

“Just keep ‘em  coming.” Johnny replied.

“Will do.  And you’re in luck, it’s almost time for the show.” Bill replied, flicking the towel toward the stage.  Its burgundy velvet curtains were currently pulled but the fringe at the bottom billowed occasionally as people milled around behind it.

“Show?” Johnny inquired, around the lime wedge in his mouth.

“It’s somethin’ new management is starting.  Live entertainment--dancing girls.  Be right there,” he replied to the man signaling from down the bar.

Taking his hat, drink, limes, and the salt with him, Johnny chose a table that let him sit with his back to the wall and still see the door.  Tossing his hat onto its polished surface, he sat down, tipping the chair back as he surveyed the room.

The place was a notch up over a typical saloon, by no means a dive, and he looked forward to a relaxing evening.  Tossing back another shot, which the smiling barmaid brought him, he surveyed the crowd.  Force of habit, he thought ruefully.  He saw no one he recognized and the men crowding in looked like a nice enough crowd.  The room began to fill up.  A small, weaselly-looking man with curly sheep’s hair and eyes too close together sat at the center table, where the view was best.  Nodding at Johnny, he beckoned the barmaid by snapping his fingers in the air in a pre-emptory manner.

The barmaid’s good humor began to slip as she was kept running from his table to the bar, neglecting the other patrons, while the weaselly man got more and more soused.

Promptly at ten, the curtain opened.  A line of young women in abbreviated outfits stood onstage, arms about each other’s shoulders.  As the musicians in the small pit struck up, they began an energetic can-can, to the cheers of the crowd.

The beady-eyed man at the next table hooted and catcalled loudly, annoying the other patrons, and Bill soon tapped him on the shoulder.

“Can you hold it down to a dull roar, Jeff?” he asked humorously.

Jeff grinned and ran a hair through his curly hair.  “Sure, Bill, sure,” he replied.

Within minutes, however, he was at it again.  The girls, clearly annoyed, shot him irritated glances from the stage.

Johnny leaned forward.  “Jeff,” he said quietly.  “The girls can’t hear the music.”

In the next instant, Jeff had stood up and overturned Johnny’s table, leaning threateningly over the young man.  Blowing Scotch fumes into Johnny’s face, he leaned an arm against the wall, lowering his head as he spoke.

Are you tellin’ me what to do?” he slurred.  His attitude irritated Johnny.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Bill looking at them and held up a restraining hand.

The second he took his eyes off Jeff’s face, the man punched him in jaw. The younger man retaliated instantly, driving his own hard fist into the man’s stomach, doubling him up and driving the air from his lungs.  Jeff slid to the floor with a whoof! of exhaled breath and the look of a man who was not going to be a problem any longer.

Bill rushed up.  “I’ll throw him out,” he told Johnny, grasping the drunk by one arm. 

“Not on my account,” Johnny said, “I was just leavin.’  Got a long ride tomorrow.”

Picking up his hat, he stood up, leaving a nice tip for the girl. Bill had tucked the small man under his arm and was making purposefully for the back door.

Enjoying the cool, clear evening, he decided to walk around a little before heading back to the hotel.  An odd feeling swept over him, stopping him in his tracks.  He felt suddenly edgy without knowing why.  He shook his head to clear it.

“Now what,” he thought bemusedly, “is that about?  Goose musta walked over my grave.”

He shook his head, laughing at himself, and continued on.  God knew he’d made enough fun of Jelly for believing in seers and looking for signs and portents where there were none.  Johnny Madrid believed in what he could see and what he could touch and nothing more.  Everything else was crazy talk.

Passing a high-walled estate on a dark, tree-lined street, he was startled by a sudden scraping sound from above.  He glanced up just in time to see a boy in jeans and a loose shirt, covered by an embroidered vest, slip from the wall high over his head. He landed directly on top of Johnny and drove him backward into the cobblestoned street, cursing as he struck his head. Johnny instinctively grabbed his assailant by one wrist, holding him as he struggled to free himself.

The boy fought wildly, but silently, as slippery as a rattlesnake and twice as desperate.

Still flat on his back in the street, Johnny realized that something was not quite right.  Giving the boy’s wrists a yank, he jerked him closer, trying to see into his face.

The sudden movement dislodged the cap and a waterfall of long, delicately scented hair swept into his face, just as the shouts of a crowd of drunks was heard up the street.

“Please,” his captive whispered.  “Oh, please, you must let me go!”  Johnny fought free of the luxuriant hair swirling around his face.  Surfacing, he sucked in air.

The warm voice was pleasing but the accent was not one he was used to hearing.

Suddenly, his captive stilled, turning her head toward the house she’d just escaped.  A new note entered her voice, the pleading becoming desperate.

“Please, please let me go!! They’ll hear!”

Johnny struggled to his feet, keeping hold of one slender wrist.

 “Who?  Never mind,” he corrected himself as the drunks from up the street came nearer.  A light went on in the upstairs window of the estate.

“Senor,” she cried, “Please!”

The urgency in her voice decided him. It was too dark to see her face but he felt the agitation in her body.   He grabbed the cap and handed it to her. 

“Here.  Put it on. And come with me.”  He waited as she wound her heavy hair atop her head and stuffed it into the cap.

More lights went on in the house and he moved quickly away, back toward the hotel, leading the girl by the hand. 

With pursuit imminent, she followed silently behind him, taking two steps to each of his one as she struggled to keep up.  He took her around to the back of the hotel, entering through the kitchen, and ignoring the fat cook and a waiter on break.  Looking at the cowboy striding purposefully by, tugging a boy behind him, they raised their eyebrows at each other, then turned away, shrugging.  They would not have guessed he swung that way, but to each his own.

Checking carefully to ensure that no one saw them and walking slightly ahead to hide her, he yanked the girl down the dimly lit hall, their footsteps muffled by the thick carpet.  Johnny opened the door to his room, giving her a slight push inside.  He immediately turned and locked the door, feeling his way in the pitch blackness.

“What kinda game are you playin’?” he asked angrily, rubbing his head.  “You damn near split my head open.”  His eyes, adjusting to the dim light from the window, made out the girl’s outline in the center of the room.

She surveyed him warily, body poised for flight.

“I wouldn’t,” he said as her head turned to the window.  “We’re three stories up.”

Turning to light the gas lamp, he caught movement from the corner of his eye as she tried to brain him with an ashtray.

“Now, none of that,” he said warningly, taking it away from her and setting it down.

The tensing of her body warned him and he grabbed her just as she bolted for the door.

“Cut it out!” he snarled.  “I ain’t gonna hurt you!”

Grabbing her around the waist with one arm, he lugged her over to the bed like a sack of potatoes and dropped her on it.

“Just sit there,” he snapped. “And don’t move until I get this lamp lit!”

“I mean it,” he said, without turning around. “Or do you want me to paddle you?”

She sniffed.  “You wouldn’t dare!”

Still fumbling with the lamp, he grinned at the show of spirit.  “Try me!”

She struggled up from the depths of the bed, flouncing to a seat on its edge while he lit the gas lamp.  It flickered into uncertain life as Johnny turned to regard her.

A jolt ran down his spine as he looked into eyes of deep turquoise blue, fringed by long black lashes. It couldn’t be, he thought, frowning.  He stepped nearer, peering into her face.  Gunfighters didn’t survive by being unobservant and he knew instantly where he’d seen her before.

The intensity of his gaze scared her and she shrank back a little on the bed.

Such a beautiful face, he thought, even more so now that he could see it closely. She had the loveliest eyes he’d ever seen on a woman. Something seared his soul as he looked into them and he knew his world had just changed forever.  His eyes wandered over her, memorizing each feature. She had a delicate nose, high cheekbones and a jaw which was firm but entirely feminine.  Her lips were pink and full and her tiny ears were free from jewelry.

Her hair, he thought, was magnificent.  Hanging to her waist, it was a deep, glossy brown, shot through with natural highlights. Thick and luxuriant, it framed her beautiful face with a glorious living halo and swung about her as she moved.  His hand ached to touch it.

Her petite figure, bottom fetchingly outlined by the tight jeans, was slender and graceful.  Something appeared to be missing, however, and he realized that she must have bound her breasts as part of her masquerade.  Fine leather boots finished the disguise.

Small white teeth tugged at her lower lip as he studied her and he realized he was making her nervous.  Deciding not to startle her further with any revelations, he stepped back and looked away, sailing his hat at the rack.

Yanking one of the room’s two ladder-back chairs forward, he turned it around and straddled it, resting his chin on the back.

Suddenly he smiled, the glorious smile that lit up his face and made women go weak in the knees without a word being said.  He suddenly looked boyish and young.  “Tell me,” was all he said.

Unable to help herself, the girl eying him warily from the bed smiled in return.  Realizing she had nothing to fear, she began to speak, slowly at first and then faster as her story tumbled out.

She was leaving her husband, she said, and that was why he must let her go at once. 

Breathlessly, she pleaded her case.  She had planned for a long time, watching carefully for the opportunity to escape, and she must not lose it.

He interrupted her quietly.  “It’s not safe for you to be out there alone.”

“I know that!” she said indignantly. “That’s why I’m disguised as a boy!”

He forbore to tell her that her costume was an abject failure, since it accentuated curves that were entirely feminine.

“Why not just get a divorce?” he wondered.

She shot him a withering glare.  “It’s not that easy!  He says he’ll never let me go, that I belong to him.  He said he’d find me wherever I went.”

Johnny’s face hardened.  He hated men like that, who treated their women like chattel.

The drunken voices that Johnny had noticed earlier were suddenly much closer, as if their owners had turned onto the street the hotel was on.  They got louder quickly, as if their owners were making straight for the place.

Seeing the genuine panic in her face, he decided.  Throwing some money on the bed, he turned to her.  “Come on.”

The resolution in his face was comforting.  Besides, she had no other options.

Unmistakably belligerent, the loud voices were now in the hotel.

They slipped from the room and ran for the stable, the girl hugging herself nervously while he saddled his horse.  Mounting quickly, he extended a hand down to pull her up behind him. She hugged his waist tightly as he put spurs to the horse.

They shot out of the open stable door just as shouts rang out behind them.  Johnny flinched as a bullet whined past his ear.  He spurred the horse up the narrow street, its hooves ringing on the cobblestones.

Thanking God it was late and the streets were empty, he prayed that they would outrun pursuit and make it out of the city limits.

Behind him, the girl was praying no less fervently, if silently. 

He felt her cringe as another shot droned past.  Johnny pulled his own gun, looking over his shoulder as he aimed.

Hiding her face against his back, the girl almost strangled him as she clutched him tighter still.

Fury rose in him as he squeezed off a shot. What kind of man would risk killing a woman just to get her back? he thought angrily.

Another shot from behind went wide as he turned forward to guide the horse careening wildly through the streets.  His passenger looked back to see what happening while Johnny negotiated a hairpin turn.

A small man with curly hair plummeted into the street, lying unmoving.  The fat man next to him, realizing what a good target he was making, dove for cover.

The girl pressed her face into Johnny’s back with a shudder of relief.  More shouts rang out from behind but the chestnut had a good head start.  They reached the outskirts of town with the horse winded and blowing but satisfied they’d shaken off any pursuit.

“You can let go now,” he reminded her gently, looking over his shoulder.  He didn’t say it aloud but she could have wrapped her arms around him, pressing her body against his back forever for all he cared.  He grinned.  “I can’t breathe.”

She let go instantly.  “Oh, I’m sorry!”

“Anytime,” he said, teasing her.  Without the stranglehold around his ribs, he was finally able to draw a deep breath.

Lifting one leg over the saddle horn, he slid down, reaching up to grasp her around the waist.  Putting her gently on the ground, he told her, “Let’s walk a bit, the horse is winded.”

The quarter moon barely illuminated the landscape but it was enough for them to see. Saguaros cast long shadows in the moonlight and kangaroo rats rustled in the brush.  Bats in search of insects flicked by overhead and the flowers of the night-blooming cacti opened around them.  A half-grown kit fox regarded them warily from behind a juniper tree as they walked.

They strolled companionably for a few minutes before Johnny realized the girl was shaking.  He stopped instantly, turning to put a hand on her arm.

She tried to smile, saying, “It’s nothing.  I’m cold.”

Dropping the horse’s reins, he pulled his jacket off and put it around her shoulders, refusing her attempt to give it back.  Warm from his body, it was far too big. She huddled beneath it, one small hand clutching it closed but her trembling got worse.

It wasn’t just the cool night air, he realized.  It was a reaction to everything that had just happened.

Pulling the horse to a halt, he gathered her into his arms.  She made one abortive attempt to pull back and then she melted into his body, snuggling close.  The stranger’s arms were curiously comforting, she realized, for all that she’d known him barely an hour.  She rested her head against his chest, closing her eyes as she listened to the strong, steady beating of his heart.

She was so tiny, she barely reached his breastbone, Johnny realized, wrapping his arms more tightly about her to still the trembling.  He rocked her gently back and forth as they stood there.  The trembling soon stopped but she was reluctant to leave his arms, she discovered. Every bit as reluctant to let her go, Johnny lowered his head, breathing in the sweet fragrance of her hair.

The snorting of the horse and his pricked ears brought Johnny back to the real world.  Realizing that they were a long way from safe, he stepped back, listening.  Struck by his posture, she listened, too, craning her neck to the east.

“Time to go,” he told her. 

Mounting the horse, he again extended his hand.  Lifting her as if she were no more than a piece of thistledown, he gathered up the reins and urged the horse forward.

 

Ch. 13

The situation, Johnny realized, could not have been worse.  They were riding double on a winded horse, heading into the desert with no supplies, unless you counted the water in his canteen, and with murderous strangers in hot pursuit.

Somehow, he didn’t feel as worried as he should have, with the girl’s soft body resting against his, her cheek pressed against his back and her slender arms encircling his waist.

But he was responsible for her safety and the thought sobered him.  The increasing slowness of the horse made up his mind.  If he’d been alone, Johnny Madrid might well have pressed on, trusting to luck to carry him to the next town.  Johnny Lancer decided to take a different course.

The horse changed direction as Johnny reined to the right, turning him back in a parallel direction to the town. .  The girl, who had been quiet, spoke up. “What are you doing?”

“Heading back to Oaxaca,” he replied.

“But—why?  It isn’t safe!”

“It’s safer than setting out across the desert with no supplies,” he told her.  “Oaxaca is a big place.  It’ll be hard to find us in the crowd if we play our cards right. Besides, I have an idea.”

She said nothing more, merely resting her cheek against his back again as they headed back into the town they’d so recently escaped.

The sliver of a moon worked in their favor, he told her.  The night was dark and the hour was late.  Even the bars would be closed by the time they arrived back in town.

Trusting to memory, Johnny guided the horse to a large but unremarkable house alone on a cul-de-sac. All of its windows were dark.

Lifting his leg over the saddle horn, he slid down, bending to pick up a few pebbles.  With the girl still astride, he led the horse around to the back.  Screened by the tall hedge, he began tossing pebbles at a second-floor window.

The sash flew up and a large, red-haired woman leaned out, filling the opening.

“Tarnation!  Who is that?” she said, peering down.

The cloud that had obscured the moon passed.  She looked more closely at the man below, noticing the flashing grin.

“Johnny!” she cried. “Is that you?”

Putting a finger to his lips, he nodded.  “Sure is, Becks,” he told her. “Can we come in?”

She lifted her gaze to the horse, noting the slight figure, sagging with weariness, on its back.  Her brows lifted with surprise but her voice was light as she replied.

“I’ll be right there,” she told him.  “Just one minute.”

Shrugging into a tasseled dressing gown, she hurried downstairs, making no sound on the carpeted steps.  A second later, the two outside heard the key turning in the lock.

Johnny entered first, leading the girl by the hand. He was immediately gathered to Beck’s massive, velvet-covered bosom in a rib-cracking hug.  “Johnny!  I’m so glad to see you!”

He emerged from her enthusiastic embrace, rumpled and slightly out of breath.  Drawing in air, he said, “It’s good to see you, too, Becks.  And there’s somebody I’d like you to meet.”

Turning to the boy, Becks extended a hand, saying warmly, “Any friend of Johnny’s is a friend of mine!

The boy’s hand was surprisingly soft, causing Becks to look at her visitor curiously.   Gathering up the candle she’d set down on the table, she examined his face in the wavering light as Johnny pulled the curtains.

“Well,” she cried, arching an eyebrow, “What’s this?  An elopement?”

“Nothin’ like that, Becks,” Johnny said hurriedly.  “But I need to talk to you.  Do you have a room?  She’s tired out.”

Becks face softened instantly.  “Of course, of course, why didn’t you say so? Come on, honey,” she said.  “You look exhausted.”

Johnny turned to the girl.  “Go with Becks.  She’ll take care of you.”

She looked at him questioningly.

“I’ll be right here,” he told her.

Smothering a yawn, she nodded and was swept up the stairs ahead of the older woman. Arriving upstairs, Becks led the girl to a room at the back of the house and ushered her inside.

Keeping her voice low, Becks said, “I’ll bring you something to eat in just a minute.”  Like a tall ship leaving harbor, she billowed back out, closing the door softly behind her.

Left alone, the girl looked longingly at the canopied bed with the white organdie drapes but decided not to lie down.  If she did, she might never get up again.

True to her word, Becks was soon back with a tray bearing a sandwich and a glass of milk.  “Didn’t think you’d want beer,” she explained.

Placing the tray on the bureau, she pulled the curtains closed and indicated the velvet armchair by the window.  When the girl had seated herself, Becks spread a snowy white napkin over her lap and handed her the plate.  “Anything else, you call me, honey,” she said.  “I’ll be right downstairs, talking to Johnny.”

The girl nodded, and Becks hurried back downstairs to the gunfighter seated at her kitchen table.  She’d made him a sandwich, too, and his mouth was full.  A half-empty bottle of beer stood beside the plate.

“You go on,” she told him. “I like to see a man eat.”

He nodded, swallowing. “I’m famished.”

Waiting for him to finish, she studied his face the candle’s weak glow, smiling. She’d always had a fondness for the handsome gunfighter and she was glad to find out he wasn’t dead after all.

She remembered the first time she’d seen him.  It must have been five or six years ago by now, she thought.  He’d been standing in the town square, facing the older gunfighter who’d held sway over the town for months.  Johnny’s hand had rested loosely at his side, a half-smile playing around his lips as he waited for the more experienced man to make his move.

Jammed into a wall by the crowd seeking shelter, she’d been unable to take her eyes from the scene.  In the blink of an eye, it was over.  Lightning fast, the other man had gone for his gun.  Johnny’s hands had been a blur, drawing and firing the gun before she could take a breath.  When the smoke cleared, the older man had hit the street, dead before he fell.

With silent disbelief, the crowd had watched as the young gunfighter coolly holstered his gun.  Turning away, he had mounted his horse.  Open-mouthed, the crowd had parted to let him through.

He had been in her establishment a time or two after that when he was passing through town and the young ladies had always bandied his name about with the most complimentary of phrases, although Becks had never mentioned it.

She enjoyed talking to the young man and they had struck up a friendship of sorts.  She’d been shocked and horrified when she’d heard Johnny had been executed by a firing squad outside of town.

Yet, here he was, swallowing the last of his sandwich and smiling at her.  “Thanks, Becks.”

She waved his thanks aside.  “Any time.  You know that.”  She leaned forward, putting her elbows on the table.  “I see the reports of your death were greatly exaggerated.”

He grinned. “You could say that.”

“So,” she said, raising one eyebrow.  “What’s going on here?”

“The lady was leaving her husband. I got in the way.”

The other eyebrow shot up as she looked at him and he laughed. “It’s nothing like that, Becks.  Don’t even know the girl.”

She frowned, confused, and he told her how they’d met earlier in the evening, leaving out any mention of having seen the girl before.

Becks laughed, slapping her knee.

“And I’ve got the goose egg to prove it,” he said ruefully, rubbing the back of his head.

“What can I do?” she questioned softly.

He leaned forward. “Can you put us up for a day or two? Until I can think of something?”

“So you’re taking her with you?” the older woman asked shrewdly. “Not your problem, you know.”

“I kinda feel responsible for her since I screwed up her escape.  And her husband sounds like bad news.”

Becks nodded, concerned.  “He does that.  Anybody who’d lock up a young girl that way.”  She twirled a finger beside her temple.  “Loco.”

“Can’t say I don’t agree,” he replied.  Catching himself, he said, “I’ll take her back to her family, if she has one.  I just want to know she’ll be safe.”

She smiled inwardly at the note in his voice.  Maybe there was more to the story than Johnny Madrid was telling himself.

“I best go check on her,” he said.  “Got a room for me?”

“Sorry, Johnny, but the answer’s no.  You know how this place gets on weekends.”

He nodded, smiling.  “I do.”

“But you can lay low here for a couple days, give you a chance to sort it all out.”

“Thanks Becks.  You always were a good friend.”  He stood up.  “I’ll go see how she’s doing.”

She nodded.  “Good night, Johnny. See you in the morning. I’ll take care of your horse.”

Nodding his thanks, he headed upstairs.  Arriving at the room Becks had mentioned, he tapped softly.  There was no answer and he pushed it open, leaning in to look for the girl.

As he had suspected, she was lying on top of the bed fully dressed, hair streaming over the pillow, sound asleep. 

He entered quietly, sighing at the prospect of a night alone on the floor or in the chair when more tempting places were available.  Locking the door behind him, he tiptoed to the bed, drawing the afghan at the foot of it up over the girl. 

Settling into the chair, he pulled his jacket over himself, and stretched out his legs.  Leaning his head back, he regarded the sleeping girl. 

He’d just killed a man, he had a maniac after him, he was a long way from home, and he’d never been happier in his life. Whatever happened tomorrow, tonight, Johnny Madrid was content. A small smile lifted the corners of his mouth and he drifted peacefully to sleep.

 

On the far side of town, the shattering of glass and the crash of overturning furniture was contained within the thick adobe walls of the estate.  Exhausted, the tall man finally stood, chest heaving, in the center of the destroyed room.

His eyes fell on the dead body of his brother, brought to him by a couple of burly vaqueros.  His other brother, his fat face shiny with sweat, looked at him from the corner where he’d taken shelter.  The scimitar-shaped scar on his cheek glowed purple with agitation.

The tall man raised his head.  The fat man was suddenly grateful for the blood tie between them.  Otherwise, he thought, the tall man would have killed him when he discovered he’d let his wife get away.

“Who did it?” he asked, fixing a penetrating stare upon the rotund man, who was almost panting in his haste to leave the room.

Pursing his fleshy lips, the fat man’s mouth opened and closed silently, like an oversized fish out of water.

“Speak…UP!” the tall man gritted through clenched teeth.

“I…I…” the fat man mumbled, choking on the words.

“C’mon, Kurt! Spit it out!”

“I don’t know who he was!” he blurted.

The tall man turned to regard him, one hand stroking his chin where a short gold beard grew.  His gray eyes became steely.

“Well,” he whispered. “You’re going to find out.”

His voice grew stronger.  “And when you do…somebody is going to pay.”

 

Ch. 14

Saying she had some shopping to do, Teresa had left Catherine with Maria and her grandfather, knowing she was in good hands, and climbed into the buckboard with Scott.  He thought she was unusually quiet today and had been for most of her latest visit.  Murdoch had thought so, too. 

“See what you can find out,” he advised Scott.

Scott flapped the reins and Zanzibar trotted off down the long drive

Looking at her averted profile, Scott tossed out a deceptively mild question. 

“So, what are you going to pick up in town?  I need to pick up a new halter for Charlie, some dry goods for Maria….then I’m going to pick up some tobacco for Murdoch.”

Receiving no reply, he continued.  “Mail a letter, get a drink while I wait for you, pick up a new party dress for myself….some pink ribbons would go nicely with my complexion, don’t you think?”

Her head remained turned as she gazed out over the landscape rolling by on her right.

“Teresa…Teresa!” he said sharply.

Her head jerked around.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Scott, did you say something?”

He looked at her.  “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said!”

“Yes, yes, I have!”

“Repeat it, then,” he challenged her.

She was silent.  He pulled the buckboard to a stop and put a hand under her chin, forcing it up so he could see her downcast eyes.

“What is it, honey?” he said gently.  The endearment, said as only the Lancer men could, touched her. Tears welled in her big brown eyes.

Scott brushed aside a tendril of dark hair, blowing across her face in the breeze, and put a hand on her shoulder.

“C’mon, Teresa, you can tell me.”

Her defenses crumbling, she threw herself across the seat into his arms, sobbing.

“Oh, Scott….everything! Everything is wrong!”

Holding her quivering form close, he waited for the sobs to stop.  It was if a dam had burst, soaking the front of his shirt.  Never, he thought bemusedly, would he have guessed that one little body could hold so much water.

Choking words emerged from the small face pressed against his shirtfront.  “It’s….it’s….I…” she wailed before a fresh paroxysm engulfed her.

A thought struck him and he grabbed her by the shoulders, sitting her up.  “Nothing’s wrong with the baby!” he demanded.

She sniffed, horrified.  “No! Catherine is fine!”

He looked into her eyes, tipping her chin up.  “Are you all right?”

The raw concern in his face made her start crying again. She buried her face in his shirt again, sobbing as if her heart would break.

He shook her.  “Teresa!”

She looked up, eyes wide and tragic.  They swam with tears that rolled down her face and dripped off her chin.

“Teresa, you’re scaring me!  Tell me what’s wrong!”

She sat up, gulping the tears back.  Sniffling, she passed her sleeve over her eyes.

Scott produced his handkerchief from his breast pocket and passed it to her.  “Blow.”

She honked mightily into it, wiping her eyes on an unused corner, and offered it back to him.

“You keep it,” he said dryly.

She nodded, still sniffling, and stuffed it into her pocket. Squaring her small shoulders, she nodded decisively, ready to talk.

Seeing it, Scott sat back.  “The whole story,” he warned her.

She nodded again and drew a big breath.  “It’s…it’s Mark.”

Scott nodded.  “And what about Mark?” he prodded.

“I think…I think he’s seeing another woman!” she wailed, tears starting to her eyes again.

Scott’s reaction startled her out of her tears.  He looked at her silently for a moment, then the corners of his mouth drew up slightly.  His mouth twitched as he looked at her tragic face.  Then he burst out laughing.

She looked at him, aggrieved. 

Unable to help himself, he laughed harder, clutching his sides with mirth.

Teresa looked at him, frowning.  “I don’t see what’s so funny, Scott Lancer!”

He sat up, wiping his streaming eyes.  His chuckles died down.  When he could speak, he looked at her.

“I’m sorry, Teresa.  I really am.  It’s just that the idea of Mark with another woman is just…” he searched for the word.  “It’s ludicrous!”

She looked at him, still indignant.  “And why is that?” she demanded.

Scott looked at her, suddenly serious. “Because in all my life, I’ve never seen a man more in love with a woman than Mark is with you,” he said simply.

She looked at him, struck.  Then she looked away, chin quivering.

He put a finger under it, turning her back to face him.

“Mark loves you,” he said with quiet emphasis.  “Why do you doubt it?”

She looked at him, taking his handkerchief out of her pocket and dabbing at her eyes again.  Pleating it nervously in her small fingers, she began to talk in a tiny, hesitant voice, not meeting his eyes.

“Because he’s gone so much.  He’s always going on trips to San Francisco.  He leaves me alone with the baby for days at a time…I love her, Scott…but I love my husband, too.  And I never see him any more.”

Carefully keeping all traces of his thoughts from his face, Scott replied, “And that’s why you think he’s seeing another woman?”

Her head drooped again.  “Yes.”

Scott rubbed his chin.  He’d cut his tongue out before he’d admit it to her, but both he and Murdoch had once wondered the same thing. 

“Why,” he’d asked Murdoch, after Mark’s fifth trip to San Francisco in six months, “Why would such a new husband leave his wife and baby alone so much?”

Murdoch had looked out the floor-to-ceiling window of the great room, sighing.

“I don’t know, Scott.  It doesn’t seem right.  But Mark does seem to love Teresa and he dotes on the baby.  That’s what I don’t understand.”

Scott spoke again.  “If he wants a mistress, why not keep one in Sacramento?  Be a lot closer to home!”

After much discussion, they had decided to give Mark the benefit of the doubt. “He’s one of the family now,” Murdoch had said.  “I’m going to trust him until he gives me a reason not to.”   “And besides,” he’d added.  “Every marriage has growing pains.”

Since then, they’d had more opportunities to observe Mark, which allayed their fears. Scott had become convinced that, whatever the reason for his frequent absences, lack of love for his wife wasn’t one of them.

But on her current visit, Teresa’s increasing quietness, coupled with her pale, drawn face and the shadows under her eyes, had worried them.

“I wonder if Johnny could get it out of her,” Scott told his father.  “If he were here.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “Somehow I doubt it.  Johnny could charm the birds out of the trees if he put his mind to it, but she doesn’t seem to want to talk.”

Respecting Teresa’s privacy, they had forborne to question her, resolving that one of them would always be available if she needed a shoulder to cry on.

Well, thought Scott ruefully, picking his wet shirtfront away from his body with thumb and forefinger, today had been the day.

“Teresa.”  He said it firmly.  “Look at me.”

She looked up, still pleating his handkerchief nervously.  Scott put his hand over hers, stilling the movement.

Looking her in the eye, he leaned forward, speaking with great seriousness. 

“I want you to put this out of your mind.  There’s no way Mark is seeing another woman, I’m sure of it.”

Her eyelashes stood out in wet spikes but she looked up at him, a spark of hope in her eyes.

“Do you really think so?” she questioned.

“Yes,” he said firmly. “Whatever it is, I’m positive it’s not another woman.  Mark’s young, just coming up in the law firm.  He wants to make partner, doesn’t he?”

She nodded slowly.  “That’s what he says.  He says he hates going but it’s company business.  He’s got no choice.”

“Then I’d believe him,” Scott said.  “Young attorneys have to work hard and the company’s had some high-profile cases lately, hasn’t it?”

“Ye-e-s.  It has.  There’s the Peterson case, for one,” she said, referring to a well-publicized Congressman being accused of malfeasance.

Scott picked up the reins.  “I’m sure that’s all it is,” he said with conviction. “Now,” he said.  “Go down to the stream and wash your face.  Then we’ll go have a nice day.”

They had done just that.  Teresa had recovered enough to give Mr. Valdemero a smile and to let him draw her away to see some new dress goods.  Scott had hovered awhile, making sure she was all right, before calling to her.

“I’m going to go get that drink now,” he said, “I’ll be back in a little while.”

She’d nodded, smiling, as Mr. Valdemero threw out his usual effusive line, extolling the beauty of the cloth, the fine dress it would make, the welcome addition to any lady’s wardrobe.  She and Mr. Valdemero were old friends.  Teresa had known him since she was a child and she always enjoyed her visits with the expansive storekeeper.

Scott picked up his hat, slapping it against his leg before putting it on.  Striding down the street to the saloon, he slid into onto a barstool.  He ordered a tequila shot with lemon, thinking of the last time he’d been here with his brother. 

With his back to the room, he failed to see the blonde woman coming down the stairs, dressed in the red and black costume that the saloon girls wore.  Her tight black bodice exposed creamy shoulders and rounded arms, the abbreviated skirt, striped in red and black, revealed shapely legs in black stockings. Her black shoes had high red heels.  She wore a black ostrich feather in her high-piled hair and cheap, dangling earrings completed her outfit.

The woman stopped on the stairs as she heard the deep voice of the saloon’s newest customer.  Something about it was vaguely familiar.  She looked hard at his back, trying to identify him.

Attired in a khaki-colored shirt, his long legs in blue jeans with dusty brown boots showing beneath them, he didn’t look familiar.  His tanned forearms rested on the bar.  Most of his hair was hidden by his hat but she could see blond strands touching his collar in the back.

“How’ve you been?”  the bartender inquired.  “Haven’t seen you in quite awhile.”

“I know, Frank. Been too busy, with Johnny gone.”

The name struck her like a dart.  Her foot hovered over the next step as she clutched the railing with one hand.  The other went to her mouth in surprise.

“How’s he doing, anyway, Scott?” enquired Frank.  “He’s been gone quite awhile.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed as she heard the customer named.

“No, not a word.” Scott replied. “I wish he’d come home.”

“You all must miss him,” said Frank. “He sure is a live wire.”

“Oh,” thought the woman on the steps.  “I’ll just bet he is.”

The blonde woman’s foot remained poised in midair as she recalled the man’s black-haired brother.  It had been a long time since they’d met and she’d almost forgotten him. Too many other things had happened since them.

Scott sprinkled some salt on his wrist, licking it off before bolting the tequila shot. Biting into a lemon quarter, he grimaced slightly.  “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to these,” he told the bartender.

“Sure ya will,” said Frank.  “Just takes awhile.”

A spiteful look appeared on the listening woman’s face.  Some things took a LOT of getting used to. Things like taking a huge downturn in your standard of living, for instance.

Scott stood up, tossing a few coins onto the bar. 

The girl turned her back, still clutching the rail.

“I’ve got to go get Teresa,” Scott said.  See you around, Frank.”

“Bye, Scott,” the man replied.

Putting on his hat, Scott strode out of the bar.

One of the cowboys playing poker in the corner glanced up.  About to call out to the new girl, the words died in his throat when he saw the look on her face.

A second later, it was gone.  Pasting on a bright smile, the girl let go of the railing.

The table of cowboys dropped their cards as she came downstairs and draped herself over one of them.

Painted red lips parting, she purred.  “Now, who wants to buy me a drink?” 

 

Ch. 15

Leaving the hotel after his shift ended, the desk clerk grabbed his coat and the remainder of his bag lunch. 

“Night, Hugh,” he said to his replacement.  “See you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Larry” Hugh replied.  “You have a good evening.”

“Will do,” Larry replied.

Boy, it was good to be off, he thought as he trotted down the hotel steps.  He’d spent the day smiling until he thought his face would crack and the top part of his head would topple off.  He’d given directions to guests, shown people to their rooms, run up and down the steps with fresh towels, plucked children off the counter all day long.  Now, he just wanted to go home, make a cup of tea, and read a book, alone with his cat.

The sun had set by the time he arrived at his tiny house on Sandoval Street.  The gas lamp on the sidewalk flickered on as he entered his black wrought-iron gate set into the encircling adobe wall.  Its glow caused the street look cozier and made the leaves of the bushes and trees cast shifting patterns on the walkway to his home.

Letting himself in the front door, Larry called for his cat, Lola Montez, named for the famous dancer, as he put his jacket in the closet.  The little black and white animal leaped from the windowsill where she’d been watching for him, and wound herself around his ankles, leaving cat hair on his black trousers.

“How’s my sweetie?” he murmured, picking her up and resting her, upside down, in the crook of his arm as he entered the kitchen.  Giving him a head-butt, Lola squirmed to get down, knowing dinner was coming.  “Whatever Lola wants,” he told her, “Lola gets.”  Knowing this was true, Lola winked suggestively at the chicken breast sandwich he was removing from his lunch bag.

“Ok, ok!” Larry laughed, as the cat began turning in circles and squeaking in her rusty voice for him to hurry.  “Give me a second!”

Shredding the chicken into her special bowl, he put it down on a placemat on the floor. Pumping  fresh water into another bowl, he put it down beside the first.  The cat taken care of, he washed his hands and filled the tea kettle. 

Touching a match to the small gas stove, Larry leaned against his kitchen table, happy to be home.  His house was small, but everything in it was perfect, he thought.  Each stick of furniture, every dish, every towel was the product of careful consideration.  The house was a pocket jewel, his refuge, and his heart lifted every time he turned the key in the lock.

Waiting for the water to boil, Larry took a loaf of crusty sourdough bread from the breadbox, slicing it on the diagonal, and put it on a plate.  Taking out a big slab of yellow cheese, he cut several slices and laid them on the plate next to the bread.  Reaching into the big ceramic bowl he used as a centerpiece, he took out some grapes, which he washed carefully.

The kettle began to hum as he prepared his dinner, setting the plate carefully on the gleaming table, and laying silverware and a starched calico napkin next to it.

It was shrieking as he opened the tea tin, carefully measuring the correct amount into the teapot. Removing the kettle, he poured the water in, relishing the slight scent of bergamot as he did so.

“Is it good?” he asked the cat, still headfirst in her bowl. A switch of the tail answered him and laughing, he set out his fine china teacup.  After the tea had brewed, he poured some into his cup, enjoying the amber gleam of the liquid.

When everything was perfect, Larry sat down, spreading his napkin across his lap.  He ate carefully, using a knife and fork with delicate precision.  Lola finished her meal and came to sit at his feet, licking her whiskers and blinking with sleepy satisfaction.

When he was done, he washed all of the dishes carefully, then dried and put them away.  Then he mopped the table and shook out Lola’s placemat for tomorrow.

Larry lit a fat candle from the kitchen gas jet before snuffing the flame.  Holding it aloft, he went into his bedroom and put on his pajamas and a burgundy satin dressing gown with a velvet collar.

Returning to the living room, he looked carefully in his tall mahogany bookcase.  All of the volumes were hardbound, and many of them were first editions.  Some were old and very rare.  He was in the mood for some Yeats, Larry decided, lifting the book down and lighting the gas lamp.

Lola leaped into his lap as soon as he sat down.  Putting on his spectacles, he rested one hand on the cat’s silky head as she purred contentedly.  Reading until his eyes grew heavy, Larry retired to his bedroom, placing the candle and his spectacles on the table beside the bed.

Lola Montez jumped to her accustomed place at the foot, turning around in circles several times before lying down and curling her tail around her front paws.  “Night-night,” Larry told her.  “Sweet dreams.”  She blinked incandescent green eyes as he blew out the candle flame.

Terrified, he struggled up from the depths of sleep, clawing at the sweaty hand clamped over his mouth. The candle had been lit and cast a weak glow. The owner of the fat hand, one pudgy arm clamped around Larry’s head, jerked it warningly.  All the tendons creaked until Larry thought his neck would break.  Rolling his eyes wildly, he clawed at the hand, desperate to draw a breath.  He heard the click of a gun’s hammer being drawn back just as something cold touched his temple.  Frightened, Lola Montez shot off the bed and disappeared down the hallway.

Sour breath blew into Larry’s face as the stranger spoke, digging the gun into his temple.

“Don’t look at me!”

He continued, his voice oily and insinuating.

“You promise not to make a sound and I’ll put this here gun down.  One noise out of you and I’ll blow your head off.  You got it?”

The fat man eased his grip slightly and Larry nodded.  Removing the gun, the fat man said, “That’s better.  Now you and me is gonna have a little talk.”

The stranger removed his arm and Larry gasped, putting his hands to his throat.  It felt like his Adam’s apple had been crushed.

“What….what?” he stuttered.  “What do you want?”

The stranger cuffed him in the head with the gun.

“I’ll ask the questions here, boy!”

Warm blood trickled into Larry’s eye as the strange man spoke again.  “You got that?”

Larry nodded.

“Good.  Now, who was that man in the hotel?”

“Man?” Larry stammered.  “What man?”

“The one in black.”

Larry thought wildly, but so many men wore black. None stood out.

“I don’t know what you mean!”

The stranger cuffed him with the gun again, harder.  Tears started to Larry’s eyes as more blood trickled into his face.  A drop rolled off his chin, leaving a crimson stain on the snowy sheets.  It was followed by another and another.  His nose began to run.

“You better think hard, boy!  I mean the one checked out sudden-like Saturday night.”

“This past Saturday? I have to think for a minute.”  He strained to recall, his mind shuffling back over the clientele, but so many people came to the hotel on weekends, it was hard to recall one in particular.

The stranger sighed.  “You stupid or somethin’?”

“No!” Larry said wildly, “Please, just let me think.”

The man’s rank breath blew into his face again.  “Maybe I better help you.” 

He stood up.  In the candle’s weak glow,  Larry saw that he was fat, dressed in a brown corduroy jacket that strained over his massive belly.  The hair beneath the hat was curly.  The man’s triple chins shook as he looked at Larry.

Crossing to the dresser, he swept an arm across it, driving the washbowl to the floor where it shattered like a bomb. His collection of tiny Limoge boxes flew wildly into the air, falling with distinct little crashes.

Driving an elbow into the mirror, he smirked at Larry as it erupted into dozens of pieces.

Larry watched, horrified.  Finding his voice, he begged, “Please, please stop! I’ll tell you!  Just give me more information!”

The fat man turned his head and the raised purple scar on his cheek glowed evilly in the half-light.

“Young man. Dark hair.”

Recognition tolled in Larry’s mind but the memory refused to surface.

Keeping the gun trained on him, the fat man reached into the bookcase where Larry kept his most special volumes, collected from booksellers from all over the world.  Each was a work of art in itself.  Putting the gun within easy reach, he picked up one fine leather-bound volume and tore out a handful of pages.

The tears in Larry’s eyes overflowed and rolled down his cheeks, mixing with the blood from his scalp.  The fat man smirked as he held the book in front of Larry’s face with both hands.  Then he tore it down the middle.  He began tossing precious books out onto the floor where they landed, pages crumpled.  The fat man stepped on them as he paced the floor.

“You ain’t rememberin’ too good, boy!”

“I’m trying, I’m trying!”

The fat man approached the bed.  Backhanding Larry across the face, he snarled, “Well, try harder!  I ain’t leavin here without a name!”

Whipping his hand forward, he struck again.  Larry felt his nose break and choked on the sudden rush of blood in his throat.

Clutching his streaming nose, he looked at the stranger mutely.

Something of his genuine confusion reached the fat man because he frowned.  “You really don’t get it, do you?”

Screwing up his face, the fat man squinted as he tried to the recall the man he’d been shooting at a few days ago.  His dead brother had described the man a little before the stranger had shot him.

“Had a chestnut horse.  Wore his gun tied low.”

Recognition crashed into Larry’s mind.  “Black pants?  With conchos down the legs?”

Pleased, the fat man came closer, covering Larry with rank breath.  He was so close, Larry could see the pus-filled pores on the side of his nose and the stray hairs between his bushy eyebrows.  The overhanging brow ridges gave him the look of something primitive, like an ape.

The man nodded.  “That’s right!”

He took a knife out of his pocket and held it to Larry’s throat.  “You sabe?”

Larry nodded.  “His name was Johnny.”

The fat man pressed the knife’s point into his skin, drawing a tiny bead of blood.  His beady pig eyes, set far too close together, shone.  “You got a last name?”

“Lancer!  Johnny Lancer! Please don’t kill me!”

Instead of withdrawing the blade, the fat man pressed harder.  A small moan escaped Larry’s lips.

The fat man laughed, standing up. The blade flashed downward, burying itself in the pillow.  Feathers flew wildly.  He continued stabbing the blade into the bed as Larry flinched, expected any moment to feel it entering his body.  More feathers flew out, covering the room.  Some of them stuck to the blood on Larry’s face.  He looked pleadingly at the monster who had invaded his home, his eyes round circles of pure terror.

Still laughing, the fat man plunged the knife into the upholstered chaise lounge.  He dragged it the length of the cushions, exposing the springs and stuffing.  He struck the back, doing the same thing.

Returning to the bed, he put on hand on the wall behind Larry, looming over him.  His rank breath, smelling of beer and aged cheese, made Larry want to vomit but he dared not.  Struggling to hold in his gorge, he raised his terrified eyes to the obese man’s face.  The fat man’s face, shiny with sweat, leaned closer, filling Larry’s vision.  His nose almost touching Larry’s, he spoke again.

“And that’s what I’ll do to you if you ever say a word about this to anybody.  I’ll gut you, split you open just like that fancy sofa there.  You got that?”

Mute, Larry nodded.

“Good.  We understand each other, then.”

Pausing in the doorway, he took one last look at the terrified man in the bed.  Larry’s hair stuck up in a wild halo around his head.  His nose had run as he cried and his face was covered with blood, sweat, and mucus. His smashed nose had swollen to the size of a tomato.   One eye was swelling shut and an ugly bruise covered his forehead where he’d been struck by the man’s gun. Crimson blood was puddled on the snowy sheets and on the coverlet.

The fat man went into the living room and Larry heard him overturning furniture, breaking mirrors, and smashing plates.  He heard his grandmother’s heirloom cuckoo clock chime crazily as it struck the wall.  The sound went on and on until the mechanism wound down.  He hoped Lola Montez was well hidden.

The noise finally stopped and Larry heard the fat man’s boot heels clocking faintly down the brick walkway. The gate snicked faintly as it swung shut behind him.  Leaning out of the bed, he vomited onto the floor, his dinner leaving him in a steaming rush.

Mutely, Larry looked around at the ruins of his bedroom.  Stabbing pains shot through his head as he turned it but Larry was beyond caring.  He sat there, stunned and unmoving, breathing heavily through his mouth.

He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting in the dark when a small voice broke the thick silence. “Krrrrrrr,” sounded the cat’s tiny, questioning trill.  Lola Montez jumped onto the foot of the bed, one forefoot in the air as she paused, looking at him. She put the foot down, padding  forward over the rumpled bed.   The little animal curled into his lap. 

At her touch, Larry’s tears came, hot and burning.  He tried to choke them back because of his smashed nose but he couldn’t help himself.  Together, he and Lola Montez looked at the shattered ruins of their home, a place where they would never, ever, feel safe again.

 

Ch. 16

It was still dark when the girl woke the next morning.  Even the birds in their nests in the oak outside the window slept on without a peep, as did the other occupants of the house.

Opening her eyes, she barely made out Johnny buckling on his gun.  Her slight movement caused him to look up.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Startled, she drew the afghan up under her chin, casting a glance down at the other side of bed.   It was undisturbed.

Seeing her head turn, Johnny explained.  “I slept in the chair. There were no other rooms.” 

She nodded, remembrance flooding back.  Shyness swept over her as she realized that he’d drawn the afghan over her as she slept. Color rose in her cheeks, making her grateful he couldn’t see her sudden blush.

Speaking quietly, he said, “I have to leave.”

Her eyes flew to his face.  Realizing how it sounded, he hastened to reassure her.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can. Lock the door behind me and don’t talk to anybody but Becks.”  He smiled.  “Go back to sleep.”

Closing the door quietly, he went down the steps.  A short time later, she heard the horse being led away.

A minute later, a faint tap sounded at the door and Becks’ voice whispered, “Honey, you up?”

She opened the door.   The large woman stood there, holding a tray.  Entering, she spoke softly.  “You’ve got time to eat and get cleaned up before the girls wake up, after that, you’ll have to be real quiet.  I’ll bring you up some water.”

After eating, the girl secured her hair loosely on top of her head and took off her clothes.  Leaning over the tub, she trickled expensive bath salts through her fingers, smiling happily as she did so. Free, she thought.  I’m really free!  She felt as though she were shedding all the oppression of the last two years as she stepped into the warm water.  Leaning back, she rested her head on the tub’s rim with a contented sigh.

Although it hadn’t gone exactly as planned, her escape had still been a success. Even the air in a bordello was better than it was inside the luxurious adobe mansion that had been her prison for so long. 

She could have done a lot worse than to run into Johnny, she realized.   With any luck, she’d be home soon.  And then she’d never leave again, she decided.

She lingered until the water cooled.  Rising, she wrapped herself in an outsized white bath towel and picked up a silver-backed brush from the tray on the dresser.  Sitting cross-legged on the bed, she began to brush out her damp hair. Her slight smile grew as she drew the brush through the gleaming strands. She wondered what her proper mother would say if she knew that her well brought-up daughter was currently residing in a brothel, albeit as a guest. At the very least, her beleaguered parent would undoubtedly call for her smelling salts and take to her bed with an attack of the vapors.

Before escaping the mansion, she’d sat, numb, each morning while her lady’s maid arranged her hair n the latest style.  Not in the least relaxing, it had meant only preparation for yet another long, unhappy day in a never-ending string of them.

Gathering the heavy mass of hair at the nape of her neck, she tied it with a white ribbon, allowing it to stream down her back.  Dressing again in her boy’s clothes, she looked around for something else to do.

Unfortunately, nothing presented itself but the latest issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which Becks had brought her.  Bored, she soon tossed it aside. It was dim in the room with all the curtains drawn.  With nothing to do, the day crawled by with excruciating slowness.  She wished Johnny or Becks would return to keep her company.

As the lonely hours crept by, tension began to gnaw at her with little rat’s teeth. Suddenly forlorn, she wished she was sitting on an eastbound train at this very minute, closer to home with every mile. Her eyes filled with tears as she thought of the loving greeting awaiting her as she hurried up the steps into her parent’s arms.  Her mother would draw her into a scented embrace, reluctant to let her go, and her father would envelope her in a bear hug, and swing her around, laughing.  Her excited sister would be asking questions a mile a minute and even the house staff would appear, faces wreathed in smiles, to welcome her home.

Thousands of miles and many potential pitfalls lay between her and them. There was still no guarantee she’d ever see home again.

To get there, she had to put her faith in a total stranger.  The idea frightened her.  She had no way of knowing how far she could trust Johnny. Her brows drew together as she thought of him, turning over in her mind everything she knew so far.

He was a complete contradiction, she knew that much.  Johnny had shot a man with deadly accuracy and then gone out of his way to help her escape.  The madam of a house of ill-repute knew him well yet he’d spent the whole night in a chair, without laying a hand on her.  He’d been angry when she’d knocked him down in the street but hadn’t complained when she attacked him with a heavy ashtray trying to escape.

Johnny knew how to handle any situation, she thought musingly.  His reflexes were quick as lightning and he handled a gun like it was an extension of his body. He was certainly resourceful, taking control of situations and bending them to his advantage.

Yet, for all of that, he’d been so gentle in soothing her sudden attack of nerves as they walked in the desert, she mused.  She blushed, remembering how she’d gone unhesitatingly into his arms.  They’d been so warm, so strong; it had felt so right to be there.  Well, she assured herself, that had been a momentary lapse. And it wouldn’t happen again. She didn’t even know the man’s last name, for heaven’s sake.

She continued to consider him carefully, thinking of his lean, hard body, the tied-down gun, the confident air.  The silver belt and rose-colored shirt gave him an exotic look, unlike the starched dandies of her acquaintance, all slaves to fashion.  Here was no indolent society gentleman, bred to money and a life of ease, his time absorbed by gambling, horse racing, or idle flirtations, bound to ancient codes of behavior.

Johnny, she suspected, lived by his own rules.  What exactly that translated to, she wasn’t sure yet.

Her husband’s rules didn’t exactly match society’s either, she thought grimly.  Although she felt that God must have abandoned her long ago, she now offered up a quick prayer.  “Please, Lord, never let him find me.  And never let him find Johnny, either.”

She dragged her thoughts resolutely back to the present.  Anything was better than where she’d been.  And if last night was any example, she’d have plenty of adventures to tell her family about if she ever saw them again.

The house came alive as dusk neared.  Shrill voices and laughter were heard in the distance and doors began opening and closing as the girls got ready for the evening.  Down in the parlor, some musicians struck up a lively tune.

The party was going full swing when Becks took advantage of the distraction to slip back upstairs with a covered plate and a glass of wine.  “Here,” she said, indicating the glass.  “You probably need it.” 

She smiled at the girl.  “Don’t you worry about Johnny.  He’ll be back, and with an idea, I’m sure.”

Smiling, she’d taken the tray from the friendly madam before locking the door behind her.  She’d nibbled at the mashed potatoes, leaving the pot roast and the apple pie.  As the night wore on, drunken shouting and deep voices mingled with the shrill laughter of the girls downstairs. Heavy boots began clumping up the stairs, accompanied by feminine giggles and doors slamming.

Emerging from the water closet at the far end of the hall, a tall, black-haired girl watched Becks as she emerged from the supposedly empty room.  Curious, the girl had flattened herself against the wall, waiting for the proprietor to disappear down the stairs.

Two bright spots of color appeared on her sallow cheeks and the faint mustache above her upper lip twitched as she pursed them.  She’d been nursing a secret grudge against the madam for weeks, feeling that she favored the prettier girls in her establishment.  Kneeling, she placed her eye to the keyhole.  In the candle’s flickering light, she made out the young woman sipping her wine.  Now why, thought, Sally, why on earth would Becks be hiding a new girl?  And such a lovely one at that?  She’d just have to watch and find out.

The cowboy she’d been talking to yelled from the parlor.  “Hey, Sally!  You fall in or what?”

Smirking, she rose and stood in front the locked door, relishing the idea of having something to use against the older woman.

In the far corner of the parlor, Becks was making conversation with a skinny cowboy with slicked down hair.  She noticed the self-satisfied look on Sally’s face as she re-entered the room and frowned inwardly, sure that it portended trouble.  She’d never liked Sally, and worse, didn’t trust her.  The girl was sly, always sneaking around, eavesdropping and making trouble among the other girls.  Shaking her head, Becks decided to get rid of her soon.

Unlike most madams, big-hearted Becks was good to the girls who worked for her, treating them more like daughters than employees.  Becks could always be counted on to lend a sympathetic ear, a few dollars, or a swift kick in the backside if that’s what a girl needed.   She had tried to send business Sally’s way but the girl was unpopular with customers. 

In addition to being only passable in the looks department, Becks suspected she wasn’t quite bright.  Rather, she thought, Sally was cunning, like an animal.  It was that quality which had enabled her to survive this long in the business but when her meager looks were gone, probably within a few years, she’d be on the street, selling herself for pennies.

More men arrived at the house as the hour grew later and the party got louder.  Alone upstairs, the girl paced the floor, listening to the ribald jests floating up the stairs.  She wished again that Johnny would return.

She strained her ears for him, listening until the house finally quieted.  Growing tired, she put on the nightdress and robe she’d found in the dresser. Well into the wee hours, he finally returned, quietly unlocking the door and slipping inside.

“Damn!” escaped him softly as he stumbled over the Lady’s Book she’d tossed onto the floor and then forgotten.

“It’s all right, I’m awake.  Light the candle.”

Taking matches from his pocket, he fumbled with one, rewarded with a flare of light as he touched it to the wick.  Wide awake this time, she was under the covers, smiling.  He tossed his hat onto the bureau, running a hand through his hair as he smiled back.

“What are you doing up?”

“Waiting for you.”

He smiled, liking the sound of that.  He’d been thinking of her all day when his mind should have been on business.  She’d been so adorable this morning, her hair rumpled from sleep, regarding him warily over the high-pulled afghan.  She was even more so now, with the ribbon in her hair, soft tendrils escaping around her face, looking at him from the depths of the bed.

“Are you hungry?” she whispered.

“Starved,” came the reply.

“Turn around a minute,” she told him.

Obediently, he turned his back.

“You can turn round again,” she told him, and he looked back to find her attired in a white cotton robe that was far too big.  The square neckline of her eyelet nightgown peeked between the wide lapels.

“Here,” she told him, crossing to the bureau and picking up the plate.  “I saved this for you.”

On small bare feet, hitching up her nightclothes with one hand so she wouldn’t trip, she brought him the plate.

He looked at her, surprised.  “Why didn’t you eat it?”

“I wasn’t very hungry,” she told him, “but you go ahead.”

Smiling his thanks, he sat down in the velvet armchair and dug in.

Watching him covertly, she thought how tired he looked.  He couldn’t have gotten much sleep last night.  Her eyes fell on the package he’d dropped on the floor.

“What’s that?” she questioned, pointing.

“It’s for you.  A way to change your looks a little, help you blend in.”

As if she ever could, he thought.  As beautiful as she was, she’d stand out in any crowd.

“Go ahead,” he said, “take a look. Tell me what you think.”

Curious, she picked up the bag.  Emptying the contents on the bed, she realized he’d brought her clothes, but not the kind she usually wore.

She picked up the white blouse.  Low-cut, with tiny puffed sleeves, it was what she’d seen peasant girls wearing.  A full skirt of dark blue was next, followed by a pair of black riding boots and a short jacket.  The clink when she upended the bag told her there was more.  A pair of silver hoop earrings lay on the spread, next to two thin silver bracelets.  She held the blouse up in front of herself, thinking that it would fit.  The skirt and boots, too. 

Still eating, he watched her quietly as she examined each item, glad that she seemed to like them.  She hopped off the bed and went to the dresser mirror, pushing her hair back and holding one up to her ear as she turned her head sideways.

Turning to face him, she smiled.  “I love them all!  Thank you!  Is that my disguise?  I’m to be a Mexican peasant girl?”

He grinned in return, thinking there was no way anyone in their right mind would ever mistake her for a peasant.  “Well,” he said.  “Not up close.”

She slipped the bracelets on, enjoying the clinking sound they made.

“We’ll have Becks help you with your hair,” he added.  “From a distance, you can pass.”

The idea, he told her, was to have her blend into the crowd.  Few people would give a young Mexican peasant girl more than a glance, whereas a wealthy young woman in the latest styles would attract notice.

He didn’t tell her about the rest of his plan.  Knowing that the train and stage depots, as well as their ticket offices were being watched, he’d decided against trying to go that way, or even trying to put her on a ship.

He’d thought it over carefully and made his decision.  He was going to take her home himself.  Home to Lancer.

 

Ch. 17

"This place is becoming a ghost town,” Murdoch told Scott, shaking his head.  He let the reins go slack, causing Zanzibar to slow down.  They were passing the Miller ranch, pausing to look at the “For Sale” sign on the front gate.  The neighboring ranch was the latest estancia to be repossessed by the bank.  The buckboard came to a halt.

“I’ve known Bruce Miller for thirty years, since I first came to the San Joaquin Valley.  This is a sad day.”

Scott agreed.  “It makes me nervous, having so many of our friends and neighbors gone.  At this rate, we’ll be the only ones left.”

Murdoch nodded sadly.  “And our luck could run out at any time, too. I don’t like it.”

Scott looked at him.  “It’s been awhile since we heard from Johnny.  Any word?”

Murdoch sighed, suddenly looking weary and much older. “No. Not since he wired me from Oaxaca.  But you know how he is, Scott.  He’s pretty self-sufficient.” 

Scott nodded, considering his younger brother.  “That’s true.  Anyway, I’m looking forward to hearing more when the train arrives and we meet Julio and Manuel.”

Murdoch brightened.  “Me, too.  Maybe they can shed some light.”  He flapped the reins on Zanzibar’s back and the horse obediently began to move again.

Looking at the older man’s profile, Scott had to ask.  “Has Vick Roberts said anything more to you about Johnny?  After he asked you to send him to Mexico on behalf of the Cattlemen’s Association?”

Murdoch snorted.  “No, and I don’t think he will.  He knows how I feel about that.”

Scott turned away, suddenly pensive.  Murdoch had made his feelings perfectly clear on that score, refusing Vick’s plea for Johnny’s help in no uncertain terms. “I won’t have my son sent off on a wild-goose chase,” he’d told Scott later, after the debacle of the last Cattlemen’s Association meeting.  “Those men are perfectly capable of pooling their money and finding another gunhawk if that’s what they want.”

Privately, though, he and Scott had had to admit they saw the wisdom of the Cattlemen’s Association’s plan.  They also had to admit that they, too, were disappointed with the performance of the Pinkerton agents and the federales assigned to the case.

Even the famed Texas Rangers had come up short in the quest to find the gang pulling off train robberies from California to Kansas, with apparent impunity.  At this point, they still had only the vaguest descriptions of the robbers.  No one had roused suspicion by suddenly spending undue amounts of money on this side of the border, at least, raising the suspicion that the gang was fading back into Mexico between robberies, out of U.S. jurisdiction.

The loss of so many of their neighbors and friends, left homeless when the banks foreclosed on their properties, had weighed heavily on the Lancers.   Thousands in vital operating funds had disappeared when the robbers had struck train after train.  Usually attacking after big stock sales, the gang had blown open each train’s safe and made off with the money.  At this point, Lancer was one of only a handful of ranches still in the hands of its original owner.

Scott and Murdoch had wondered privately when their turn was coming.  Something was bound to happen.  “This type of thing leaves us vulnerable to land pirates,” Murdoch had told Scott.  “Or some big corporation could sweep in here, buy up all the land, and beginning running huge herds of cattle.”

“If that were to happen,” he’d continued, “we’d be likely to start having issues over water rights and right-of-way in transporting the herds, to say nothing of stripping the graze.”  If the graze were ruined, Murdoch had said, they’d start having problems with water runoff and erosion.

Johnny had known all of this, of course, although he hadn’t mentioned it to either of them. Instead, Murdoch’s worst fears about his youngest had been confirmed when he arose one morning, tapping on Johnny’s door when the young man had been late to breakfast.  “Johnny!” he’d called through the closed door.  “Get a move on!”

When there was no answer, he’d tapped again, then opened the door.  On the pillow was a note.

Reading it, Murdoch had gritted out an oath and flung it angrily to the floor.  Scott and Jelly, running in to see what was wrong, had looked at each other with grave faces after Scott picked up the missive and read it aloud.

What Johnny wouldn’t do for the Cattlemen’s Association, he’d done for his family.  He was going to Mexico, he’d said, to track the train robbers.  And he was going alone. 

Scott had wanted to saddle up and ride after him immediately but Murdoch talked him out of it.

“He’s got a big head start on you, Scott. You can’t catch up with him, you don’t know which way he’s gone. And you don’t speak the language.  Johnny knew what he was doing when he left like this.”

 Jelly had agreed with his boss.  “Don’t do it, Scott.  Isn’t worth your time.”

After much argument, Scott had finally given in.  Since then, the three of them had been tense and silent, hurrying to the window at the sound of a horse’s hooves or when wagon wheels had betokened a visitor.  None of them of them had been Johnny.

Although his wire last week from Oaxaca had been brief, merely requesting funds and warning of his friends’ arrival, it had been a huge relief.  At least he had been alive…then.

Until it had arrived, with no way to know what had become of him, they had all been worried.  Murdoch said nothing to the others, but recalling that Johnny had almost been executed in Oaxaca during the revolution, had privately worried that he’d run afoul of some old nemesis.  If it wasn’t a political issue, he feared, there was always the worry that someone would try to win his fifteen minutes of fame by shooting Johnny Madrid.  And not, Murdoch brooded, necessarily in a fair fight.  Since that one telegram, there had been no other word from Johnny and their faces once more began to wear worried looks.

All of their nerves were drawn taut as piano wire when Scott had eventually suggested they take a trip to town.  A break, he’d said, would do them good.  Murdoch had agreed and much relieved, Scott had hurriedly harnessed Zanzibar.  Asking Jelly if he wanted to go, they had settled for leaving him in charge when he replied that he had too much work to do.  Stroking his graying beard with one hand, the old man, clutching his pet goose, Dewdrop, had waved goodbye as they set out early that morning.

They caught sight of Diablo and the mare they’d named Felina, crowded close together in the black stallion’s specially built corral.  Cows bawled in the distance and an occasional shout from a vaquero could be heard as they rolled off.

Arriving in Morro Coyo, Murdoch had halted the buckboard directly in front of the saloon, stopping to let Scott off before he headed to the bank.

In an upstairs bedroom, a blonde woman arose from her rumpled bed, casting a glance at the man still sound asleep in it. She wrinkled her nose at the room’s smell.  It stank of smoke, rank sweat, and sex.  Pulling on a cheap cotton robe, she strolled to the window and opened the sash, leaning out to breathe the fresh air.

Her eyes widened as she spotted the buckboard and its occupants.  She recognized the tall older man right away.  Her mouth twisted down at the corners as she saw the younger man full face.  There was no doubt it was the same one.  Scott Lancer, in the flesh.  Hat in hand, he was waiting for the stagecoach to pass before crossing the street to the general store.  The morning sun struck his blond hair, turning it to spun gold.

Her eyes narrowed as she watched him.  And where, she wondered idly, was his brother, the black-haired gunfighter? The famous…or, she corrected herself, infamous…Johnny Madrid?

She’d learned a lot about the Lancers in the months she’d been in Morro Coyo.  An idea suddenly occurred to her, causing her pretty face to fill with spite.  The same idea caused her full lips to lift at the corners and made her green eyes gleam.  In that moment, she resembled nothing so much as a stalking, hungry cat.

Tossing a last contemptuous glance out the window, she returned to the bed, shedding her cheap robe on the way.  Naked, she crawled back into the sheets, putting one hand on the cowboy’s crotch a she did so.  “Dan,” she told him.  “Wake up.”

Beginning to stir as her warm hand caressed him, the sleeping cowboy looked into amused green eyes.  They disappeared from view as her head lowered.  Covering his chest with kisses, she slid slowly down his body.

The cowboy woke up completely as one small hand grasped him tightly and her warm mouth touched him. She looked up, smiling. The cowboy grasped her head with both hands, trying to force it down again.

Her warm tongue made a circular motion before traveling up and down.  The cowboy moaned a little.  She stopped again, looking at him until he opened his eyes.

“Dan,” she whispered.  “If I do this for you—you have to do something for me.  Agreed?”

He agreed instantly, without even waiting to see what she wanted.

When she was done, she slid back up his body, smiling at the spent man lying beside her.

Placing her lips close to his ear, she began to speak.

“This,” she told him.  “Is what I want you to do.”

 

Ch. 18

After an excellent dinner, the Lancers and Jelly had retired to the great room as Rosita came in to clear the table. Lighting the lamps as evening approached, Murdoch flipped idly through the newspaper while Scott rousted Jelly at checkers.

“Again!” the old man cried, “Another game, but I want to be red this time.”

“And why is that?” Scott teased him.  “You feeling lucky?”

Knowing Jelly was a superstitious soul, Murdoch had joined in. “Change your colors, change your luck, hey Jelly?”

The old man’s gray whiskers had wagged as he replied.  “Well, yeah, somethin’ like that!”

He glared at Scott.  “You gonna change sides with me or what?”

“Sure, Jelly, sure.” Scott replied soothingly.  “It won’t make any difference, anyhow, it’s all a matter of skill.  Luck has nothing to do with it.”

“Why, you smart aleck!” the old man had bristled.  “Just you give me the red ones now.”

Pushing the red checkers across the board with both hands, Scott laughed.  The sound trailed off suddenly as he heard hoofbeats in the distance.  “Maybe it’s Johnny!” he said to the other two, rising to go look out the window into the early dusk.

A moment later, there was a brisk rap on the door.  He flung it open, hoping to see his brother.  Dave Bell, the sheriff, stood there, one of his deputies behind him.

“Evenin’ Scott,” he said, nodding at the other two men.  “Murdoch, Jelly.”

“Hello, Dave,” Murdoch greeted him, coming to stand behind Scott.  “Come right in.  You, too, Todd,” he said to the deputy, who returned his greeting somewhat nervously. “Care for a drink?”

Dave entered the great room, his hand in his hands.  “This ain’t exactly a social call, Murdoch.”

Murdoch paused in the act of pouring Scotch from the crystal decanter.  He looked sharply at the lawman.

“What’s this about, Dave?”

“I need to talk to Scott, Murdoch.” Dave replied.  “I need to know his whereabouts on the night of June 21st.”

Surprised, Scott looked up. “June 21st?  Why?”

“Just answer the question,” the sheriff replied.

Murdoch put the decanter down and came to stand beside his son.  He looked sharply at the sheriff.  “Sounds like you’ve got something on your mind, Dave.”

Dave looked at him.  “Another Pacific and Western train was robbed outside of Sacramento,” he said simply.  “And the description of the gang’s leader matches Scott’s.”

Scott laughed.  “C’mon, Dave, you don’t really think I held up a train, do you?”

Jelly spoke up, chin whiskers wagging with indignation.  “That’s just plumb crazy, Dave!”

Dave sighed wearily, accepting the drink Murdoch was holding out to him.  Settling into one of the blue velvet armchairs, he put his hat down on the table. Behind him, his deputy accepted another glass.

“I think you best sit down,” he said.  “All of you.”

After all of the men had seated themselves at the table, Murdoch leaned forward, frowning. “You better tell us the rest of it,” he said.

Dave shuffled his feet and looked away.  “I wish I didn’t have to do this,” he said.  “But there’s no way around it.  I’m here to arrest Scott.  For armed robbery.”

 

Ch. 19

Glasses slammed onto the table as the Lancers and Jelly shot up in their chairs.

“What?” Murdoch thundered. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Dave sighed, putting his drink down.  Reaching into his coat pocket, he pulled out a folded paper, which he handed to Murdoch.  “You better read this.”

Murdoch accepted it, glowering as he unfolded it.  Scott got up and peered over his shoulder.  Finishing, Murdoch handed it to Scott.

Scott scanned the document quickly, letting it drop to the table when he was through.  He and his father regarded Dave, their initial anger giving way to shock.

“This is a federal warrant!” Scott said.  “What’s going on here?”

Dave spoke up.  “You know that gang that’s been robbing trains all over?”

“Of course, we do!”  Murdoch snapped.  “What of it?  That has nothing to do with Scott!”

Dave sighed.  “I’m afraid it does, Murdoch.”

“Dave! You can’t tell me you think Scott had anything to do with that!  It’s ludicrous!”

Looking the older man in the eye, Dave picked up his drink, finishing it.  “I’m not saying I do, but folks have been talking for quite some time now.”

“Talking?  About what?” Scott snapped.

The deputy chimed in.  “About how all the other ranches in the area have gone under but Lancer. They think it’s strange you’re still afloat.”

Murdoch snorted.  “And that makes us complicit in robbery?”

“No, of course not,” Dave soothed him. “But we got a break in the case.  The gang’s leader has always been well-disguised.  Somebody finally got a look at him.”

“And?” Scott prodded him

Twirling his glass, Dave picked up the story. “It was outside of Tucson, last month.  They’ve been putting the passengers off before they blew up the safe.  This time, the explosive was defective.  The fuse didn’t work.”

Todd chimed in.  “Several of the passengers took the chance to rush the ringleader.  There was a fight.  His hat got knocked off.”

Murdoch nodded.  “What’s the rest of it?”

Dave continued.  “He got away, but it was the first description anyone’s gotten.”  His eyes turned toward Scott.  “He was tall,” the witnesses said.  “Tall and blonde.”

Murdoch snorted, crossing the room for the Scotch decanter. “That and five cents will buy you a cup of coffee!  Talk about flimsy evidence! That’s entirely anecdotal!”

Returning to the table, he refilled the glasses.  “Means nothing, Dave.”

Scott spoke up.  “From train robbery to me, that’s a pretty big jump.”

Dave sighed.  “Hold on a minute, you two.  There’s more.”

Taking a swallow, Scott set his glass down and leaned forward.

“Well, come on, Dave, tell us the rest.”

Dave bolted his glass of Scotch and set the glass down.  Leaning forward, elbows on the table, he looked both of the Lancers squarely in the face.

“On the surface, it’s nothin’, you’re right, Murdoch.  ‘Cept today, a witness came forward.  An eyewitness.”

Murdoch slammed the glass down. “Who?” he demanded.

“Doesn’t matter who.  All that matters is that he says he was on that westbound train when it was robbed.  He got a good look at the ringleader.  And he says it was Scott Lancer.  You’ll have to come with me.”

 

Ch. 20

Johnny smiled, running a hand through his thick black hair as he set the empty plate back on the bureau.  “That hit the spot. Thank you.”

She nodded, smiling.  “Didn’t you get a chance to eat today?”

He shook his head.  “No, I was a little busy.”  He looked her in the face.  “You and I have to talk.”

Her smile faded as she nodded.  “I know.”

Cursing himself for being the cause, he hastened to lift her spirits again.  “Don’t worry.  We’re going to work all of this out.  Just takes a little planning, is all.” He smothered a yawn.  “But not tonight.”

She looked at him, concerned.  “You look tired.”

He nodded.  “A little.”

Sympathetically, she nodded.  “That chair couldn’t have been very comfortable.”

“It wasn’t,” he said, eying her hopefully.

She slid off the bed, again hitching up her nightclothes with one hand as she padded to the armoire.

Johnny’s eyes followed her, noting the trim ankles and rounded derriere as she went.

Removing a pillow and blanket from the depths, she crossed back to him.  “Maybe these will help.”

Somewhat crestfallen, he took them.  “I’m sure they will.”  His smile reappeared. “It’s late.  You better get some sleep and so should I.  I have to leave early again tomorrow.”

Dashed, she looked at him.  “Why?”

“I have a few more things I have to do.  Can you stand it one more day?”

Her chin came up.  “Don’t you worry about me.”

He eyed her admiringly.  “Good.  Then we better say goodnight.”

He spread the blanket and the pillow in front of the door.  Noticing her look, he smiled.  “It’s best if I sleep here.” He didn’t add that although he’d watched to be sure he wasn’t followed, it was always wise to careful.  Waiting until she crossed back to the bed, he blew the candle out, listening as she took off the outsized robe and climbed into bed.

Sighing inwardly at being condemned to a night on the floor, he wrapped himself in the blanket and stretched out, his back to the door.

Her voice spoke softly in the dark.  “Good-night, Johnny.”

Smiling, he replied.  “Goodnight,” before he closed his eyes. Tired out, sleep overtook him quickly. 

Slumber took longer to find the girl.  Listening to Johnny’s soft, even breathing,  she lay there, her mind whirling with all the questions she hadn’t been able to ask.  But with his presence, she felt secure and soon, she, too, was fast asleep.

The next morning followed the same pattern.  Johnny had come awake silently in the dark, every sense alert.   One minute he’d been sound asleep and the next he was wide awake, his inner sense telling him it was time to move.  Moving quietly, he got up off the floor, placing the blanket and pillow on the chair. Taking extra care not to wake the girl, he put on his jacket and picked up his hat from the dresser.  Unmoving, she slept on, one hand cuddled under her cheek like a child’s.

Slipping soundlessly out the door, he locked it behind him and went downstairs.  A moment later, he was gone.

 

A few hours later, Becks, once again bearing a tray, tapped at her door.  Getting no response, she waited a moment, then tapped again.  Rousing, the girl went quickly to the door and unlocked it.  Standing aside, she allowed the madam to enter, smiling sleepily.  Wide awake, Becks put the tray down, noting how much happier the girl looked this morning and wondering if the handsome gunfighter had anything to do with that.  She smiled at her young charge, promising to bring her some bath water shortly.

Unknown to Becks, down the dark hall, Sally’s customer from the night before roused.  Beside him, the strumpet snored on, mouth open.  A trickle of drool ran from one corner, wetting the pillow. Still drunk, the man smacked his lips, grimacing at the cottonmouth.  His head pounded and he had to pee, badly. 

Getting up, he fumbled his way to the door, intent on making his way to the water closet in the hall.  Guests weren’t supposed to sleep over, the man knew, unless they wanted to pay the hefty fee.  Not many did, and the girls, preferring to sleep alone, usually kicked the customers out before curfew, anyhow. Last night, both he and Sally had passed out and his presence had somehow been overlooked.   Knowing he’d be charged, the man was anxious to leave before Becks discovered him.

He stood in the doorway a moment, fumbling with his belt, just in time to see Becks leaving the room at the end with two empty buckets.  Wondering what she was about at this hour, he weaved down the hall and put his eye to the keyhole.  It widened suddenly at what he saw.  Inside, a young girl, her back to him, dropped her robe as she prepared to step into the tub. 

Licking his lips, he watched as the robe slipped down, revealing creamy shoulders and a tiny waist.  His eyes started from his head and he pressed closer, forgetting to breath.  A sudden whack! broke the silence as Becks, sneaking up behind him, slapped him in the head with an empty bucket. Suspicious at an unaccustomed noise, she’d listened on the stairs, returning in time to see him slavering over her young charge.

 The drunk crumpled to the floor, unconscious, as the large woman stood over him, hands on hips and a heavy frown cleaving her forehead like the blade of an axe.  Putting the bucket down, she stepped between his legs. Grabbing him by each foot, she threw her weight forward, dragging him toward the stairs.  She lugged him downstairs, not caring that his head slapped each carpeted riser with a little thump.  It would only add to the headache he already had, she thought grimly.

Arriving in the kitchen, she dropped his feet, leaving him in the middle of the floor.  His head lolled, mouth open.  That settled it, she thought grimly.  Both he and Sally were about to be history.  Taking a bottle from the locked cabinet, she put it on the floor nearby, and propped the man up, holding him against her shoulder.  Picking up the bottle, she gripped his chin with one hand, causing his mouth to open. Putting the bottle to his lips, she sloshed the liquor in.  He coughed and sputtered.  Giving him a chance to swallow, she picked up the bottle and repeated her actions.

When she was satisfied he was too drunk to remember anything he’d seen, she put the bottle away, locking the cabinet.  Returning upstairs, she picked up the bucket, putting that away, also.  Arms akimbo, she glared down at the man.  He was damn lucky it was her that had caught him and not Johnny Madrid, she thought.  She guessed shrewdly that the gunfighter would have let daylight through him first and asked questions later if he’d seen the drunk licking his lips in front of the keyhole.

Becks opened the front door, propping it with the stop.  The lawn, thick with grass, was wet with early morning dew.  Dragging the drunk up by a handful of his shirt, she hauled him to the door, pausing on the threshold.  With a mighty heave, she threw him out.  The drunk described a perfect parabola as he flew off the porch, landing with a poof of dandelion fuzz on the front lawn. 

Leaving the door open, she went back up to Sally’s room.  Crossing quickly to the bed, she untucked the bottom sheet at all four corners.  Gathering them in her hands, with Sally rolled up inside, she dragged the bundle down the stairs, allowing it to thump down every step.  With another mighty heave, she tossed the whole sheet-wrapped bundle out.  It landed on the lawn with a satisfying thud.

Becks glared after it, then marched back up the stairs.  Like a whirlwind, she tore through the closet and dresser drawers.  Gathering Sally’s things, she marched back down the steps to the door.  Stepping onto the porch, Becks flung them all straight up into the air.

A muffled curse issued from the sheet as the cowboy’s boots landed on it.  A moment later, Sally’s head appeared, withdrawing suddenly as a half-empty bottle of tequila sailed toward it.  Landing a little way beyond, it rolled to a stop.  A skinny hand reached out and quickly drew it back under the sheet.  The last thing to strike the sheet was a small purse full of coins.  It, too drew a curse as it landed with a meaty thud.  That, Becks reckoned as she dusted off her hands, should shut them both up. Goodbye, she thought, and good riddance.

Trusting to the wet grass and cold morning air to sober them up, Becks went back inside, closing the door gently behind her.  When she looked out an hour later, both they and their belongings were gone.

Drawing her head back in, Becks sighed.  Leaning against the door, she began to laugh, her massive bosom and double chins shaking gently.  Well, she’d planned on getting rid of Sally and she’d never liked that particular cowboy anyway. If they were ever able to recall exactly what had happened that night, which she doubted, they were still lucky they had ended up in one piece.

She couldn’t have said the same for their welfare if Madrid had handled their exit.  The cowboy, especially, had been lucky.  His life wouldn’t have been worth a plugged nickel if the gunfighter had seen him ogling his woman.  Still smiling, she considered her choice of words, deciding she’d picked the right ones.  Whether he knew it or not, it looked like Johnny Madrid had found something special in the girl.  She only hoped he’d be able to keep her.

Johnny returned earlier that night.  The house was already quiet, it being a Sunday.  This time, he was leading a small bay filly with four white stockings. Her saddlebags bulged with some more things he’d bought the girl. Women, he had thought as he packed them, sure required a lot of gear.

Johnny had looked carefully for the right horse, wanting one that was strong but had a good gait and was easy to ride.  Leading the two horses into the stable, he put them into stalls and went upstairs.

As he’d hoped, she was still up, although the room was dark.  Slipping in quietly, he turned to see her smiling at him from the bed, pillows propped against the headboard.  Attired in her nightclothes, she slipped out of bed as he tossed his hat on the bureau, smiling at her.  The charming grin woke a response within her and her own smile was bright as she returned it.  Crossing to the bureau, she picked up a plate, on which she’d saved most of her own dinner.

“Thank you,” he murmured, taking it from her and admiring the view as she returned to the bed, slipping under the covers to keep warm.

He ate quickly, pausing when he got to the large piece of lemon pie.  “Don’t you want that?” he asked.

She shook her head, smiling.  “No, you go ahead.”

Taking a big forkful, he put it into his mouth, chewing with obvious enjoyment.  She had to smile, watching him.  He sure had a sweet tooth, she thought.

When he was finished, he put the plate on the bureau and seated himself in the velvet armchair.

“So, are you ready to go crazy yet?  Cooped up in here?”

“A little,” she replied truthfully.  “Can we leave soon?”

“Yes,” he told her.  “Soon.  I promise.  But we can’t talk here, so let’s get some sleep.”

A few hours later, he woke her, sitting beside her on the bed with a gentle hand over her mouth.  Seeing her eyes open, he removed his hand, explaining, “I didn’t want to scare you.  It’s time to go.”

She looked at him, eyes wide. 

“It’s all right,” he soothed her.  “This is the best time to travel.”

Turning away, he lit the candle.  “I’ll go get the horses ready.  I’ll be back for you in a few minutes.”

Slipping outside, he saddled both horses, leading them to a spot away from the house and tethering them.  Returning to the room, he tapped faintly and she opened the door, fully dressed.  She’d blown out the candle already and he nodded, pleased.

Indicating she should go first, they tiptoed down the stairs, closing the door softly behind them.  Outside, she took a deep breath of the cool air, enjoying the sight of the stars.  But there was no time to linger. Taking her by the hand, Johnny led her to the filly, boosting her into the saddle.  He’d never asked her if she could ride, she thought, but the idea left her as he handed her one of the horse’s reins.  He kept the other in his own hand as he mounted, leading the mare forward.

At his urging, both horses broke into a trot.  He watched her and the mare carefully for a few minutes. When he was satisfied that they were a good match and she could handle the horse, he passed her the other rein without breaking stride.

Touching the horses with their heels, they cantered away from town.

 

Ch. 21

As the train neared Sacramento, Manuel sat perched on the edge of his seat, submitting to his uncle’s ministrations.  Spitting into his palm, Julio tried again to flatten the boy’s unruly cowlick.  Giving up, he sat back again, smiling at his nephew.  The child had been agog with excitement throughout the whole trip, even more so now that they were about to be taken to their new home at Lancer.

Although neither had mentioned it, both had butterflies in their stomachs now that they were about to meet Senor Johnny’s father, and his hermano, Scott.  Shiny as a new penny, Manuel grinned back, one arm draped over the box holding the food Johnny had bought them at the beginning of their journey.  Amazingly, there were still a few things left at the bottom.

Well-fed and happy, Manuel was an entirely different boy from the one who had left Oaxaca not long ago, his uncle thought.  They’d eaten better on this trip then they had in their whole lives.  It had been better than Navidad, Manuel had told him, exclaiming as each new item was removed from the box and laid on the seat.  They had looked at each one carefully, gravely deciding which to share next.

Julio grinned, remembering the boy’s first bite of Boston cream pie.    As the delicate yellow cake had touched his tongue, Manuel’s eyes had widened, the chocolate icing providing the perfect counterpart.  The next bite had contained custard and the boy had been transported.   At the expression on his face, Julio had laughed so hard that tears had spurted from his eyes.

“Is it good?”  Julio had teased him.  The boy, a chocolate mustache adorning his upper lip, had only spread his hands and shrugged as he smiled, at a loss for words.

Both of them had been overwhelmed by recent events, plucked from their desert hovel and swept off to California virtually overnight, although Manuel had adapted quickly.   Never, thought Julio, had he dreamed that he would go so far from the tiny village where he had been born and expected to die. He sometimes thought his brain would burst as he tried to comprehend the vast distances he’d already come.

Until now, Julio had never been further than the hermit’s hut in the desert where they’d met Johnny.  His life had been even, uneventful for the most part.   Sometimes Julio had to take his handkerchief from his back pocket and mop his face when he thought of everything that had happened in the short time since they’d met Johnny Madrid.  He’d finally given up, deciding that the mind of the young was more elastic.  Manuel, by comparison, had not only adapted, he had thrived in his stimulating new environment.

Looking at his excited nephew, Julio felt only gratitude toward the gunfighter.  No matter what awaited them in California, the man had plucked them from misery and given them a second chance at life.

Julio leaned back, looking out the window.  There was nothing wrong with his vision, even at this age, and he could make out the train station in the distance.

On the platform, a small crowd was milling about.  Murdoch watched the train grow larger as it approached, black smoke billowing from its stack into the cloudless blue sky.  He frowned slightly, wishing Scott was with him.  He knew how much his older son had wanted to meet the two travelers and hear their news of Johnny.  But Scott was in jail and no bail had been set.

Murdoch sighed inwardly.  One more thing to worry about, he thought.  He wished, not for the first time, that his youngest would come home.  It would be good to get Johnny’s viewpoint on the problems facing them.

“One thing at a time,” he decided, “one thing at a time.”

As the train drew abreast of the platform, he spotted a child’s face pressed to the window.  Smiling, he guessed that must be Manuel.  The train shuddered to a stop, hissing, and passengers began disembarking.

Shortly, his guests were standing solemnly before him, the child clutching a large box as he tilted his head up to see into the tall patron’s face.  Murdoch offered his hand, smiling.

“Julio. I’m Murdoch Lancer.”  Shaking hands, they had searched the other’s face. Each man liked what they saw.

Julio thought inwardly that the patron looked like a man of authority, honest, and strong.  He wondered briefly where the brother was, as Johnny had told him to expect both men.  Something, he had decided, must have come up.

For his part, Murdoch liked the other’s man’s air of integrity and quiet dignity.  He bet the two had a story to tell, having spent time with Johnny.  He was anxious to hear it.

“And you,” Murdoch said, extending his hand to the boy.  “You must be Manuel.”

“Si,” the child replied.  “Soy Manuel.”

Murdoch ruffled his hair, drawing a smile from the child.  He noticed both were wearing new clothes and suspected his son had something to do with that.

Indicating the buggy, he looked around for their luggage.  Seeing that it consisted of the cardboard box, he swung the boy up, seating him in the back. “Welcome,” Murdoch told them.  “Welcome to California.”

He stopped Julio as he was climbing into the back.  “No,” he said.  “Sit up front with me.”

Surprised, Julio climbed into the front seat.  Murdoch picked up the reins, flapping them gently on Zanzibar’s back.  Obediently, the well-trained horse trotted off. The two men made small talk, while Manuel bounced from one side of the carriage to the other, craning his neck to see everything as they drove along. 

Murdoch maneuvered the carriage carefully through the crowd, leaving it behind.  Reaching the outskirts of town, he pulled the horse to the side of the road and stopped the carriage, turning to face Julio.

“Now,” he said, “Tell me about Johnny.”

Julio was silent for a moment, considering.  Then he began his tale.  He left nothing out,  including Lupe’s actions, his own shame, and how Manuel had first met the youngest Lancer. Julio described their mean living conditions and how the child had found Johnny unconscious in the desert, about to become a meal for buzzards.

Giving Julio his full attention, Murdoch’s brow furrowed as Julio described Johnny’s bout with heatstroke, clearing as he learned of his rapid recovery.  That, he thought, had been too close for comfort.  Thank God these two had been there to help.

Speaking slowly, at times searching for words, Julio described the plan he and Johnny had come up with and how they’d traveled to Oaxaca together. There, he told the patron, their paths had parted.  That was the last time he had seen Senor Madrid.

“Madrid,” Murdoch mused.  “So that’s the name he’s using?”

“Si, patron,” the man had replied gravely.

Murdoch sat for a few minutes, considering what Julio had just said.  He wished Johnny had thought to send another wire, if only to say that he was all right.  But since that one message from Oaxaca, there had been only silence.

“Well,” Murdoch said.  “I wish Johnny Madrid would come home.  I need to talk to him.”

He picked up the reins again.  “Thank you, Julio,” he said.  “I may have some more questions for you later, after I’ve had a chance to think it all over.”

He looked at Manuel in the back seat and smiled.  “And now, let’s get you home to Lancer!”

The boy, soft black eyes aglow, smiled in return, looking up eagerly at the word ‘home.’

Watching the innocent face, Murdoch wondered if Johnny had ever looked like that.  Somehow, he doubted it. Not growing up a half-breed child in Mexico with Maria for a mother.  Unlike Manuel, his youngest son had spent his early life far from the people who would have loved and protected him.

Johnny, Murdoch suspected, had worn a half-wary, distrustful expression from the time he left babyhood.

As an adult, his youngest still kept a certain emotional distance, even from family. Murdoch speculated that even his charming smile was a form of protection at times.  It allowed the real Johnny and his thoughts to remain safely behind the disarming facade while lulling enemies into a false sense of security.

Murdoch shook the reins, his mind still whirling, and Zanzibar moved off.  There was much about his youngest he’d probably never know.  He could only hope that one day, there would be no need for Madrid and Johnny would be secure enough to be plain Johnny Lancer.

He sighed inwardly.  That was just the problem, that day got farther away each time they had to call on Johnny Madrid.  And now, Lancer needed him more than ever.

They arrived back at the ranch in late afternoon. At the last curve in the road, Murdoch pulled the horse to a stop, indicating the view below.  A gentle mist was rolling into the lush valleys and the hills, muting the colors, and softening the light to a mellow gold. 

“This,” he told them, “is Lancer.  As far as the eye can see.”  His love of the estancia was evident in his voice and both Julio and Manuel were silent as they looked at the sprawling countryside, drinking it all in.

Murdoch picked up the reins.  “We best get going.  Maria will have my head if you’re late for her special dinner.”

Julio and Manuel looked at each other, surprised.  They had not expected to be welcomed into the patron’s home.  The Lancers, Julio thought, had done enough for them already.

When the carriage rolled under the adobe arch and up the drive a few minutes later, the first sound that greeted them was the honking of Jelly’s pet goose, Dewdrop.  Wings spread and waddling rapidly, the garrulous creature honked as he approached, followed quickly by Jelly.

“Darn goose is better than a watchdog,” the old man told Murdoch, taking Zanzibar’s reins.

He looked up, smiling, as Murdoch made the introductions.  He extended his hand to Julio.  “I hope you’ll be as happy here as we are, right Dewdrop?”

Recognizing his name, the goose honked as they all laughed. 

“I’ll put the horse up,” Jelly told Murdoch.  “And be right back for dinner.  Maria says we still have a few minutes before it’s ready.”

Thanking him, Murdoch climbed carefully down, bending his stiff knee with a sigh of relief.  Indicating they should follow, he said, “Come, I’ll show you to your room.”

Clutching his box, Manuel looked at his uncle, eyes wide.  His uncle returned the look, equally surprised.  They had expected two bunks in the barn, maybe, or a shack in the distance at most.  Never had they expected to be housed in the estancia.

Murdoch led them to a door on the east wing of the house.  “This,” he told them, “will be your room.  We thought it better for the boy than the bunkhouse and we didn’t want to separate you.  Jelly’s room is right over there.”

Throwing the door open, he told them, “Go have a look.”

Julio and Manuel entered the neat adobe room, taking it all in.  There were two sturdy wooden beds, already made up, and two dressers. Twin washbowls and pitchers awaited, as did several thick cotton towels.  An Indian rug covered the floor, lovely in shades of rust, black, and white.  Rust-colored curtains were at the windows, partway open to reveal the view.  There was even a half-barrel, meant to serve as a bathtub, in one corner.

Julio raised his eyes to Murdoch’s face.  “All this…is for us?”

Murdoch thought he saw the sheen of tears in the man’s eyes.  “Of course, yours to do with as you wish.”  He entered the room, putting both hands on Julio’s shoulders as he looked him earnestly in the face.  “This is nothing compared to the gift you’ve already given me…the life of my son.”

A squawk from behind broke the moment.  Unseen, Dewdrop had entered behind them and stood now on the rug, flapping his wings.

Laughing, Murdoch turned to him.  “Is that your two cents, Dewdrop?”

Jelly bustled in.  “Dad-ratted bird!  Always has to be underfoot,” he said, picking the bird up with an affection that belied his words.  “Lucky Maria hasn’t cooked YOU for dinner.”

They laughed as Murdoch urged them all toward the door.  “Welcome to Lancer.  Now, let’s eat!”

After enjoying Maria’s excellent dinner and spending some time talking in the great room, it had grown dark.  The travelers returned to their room, stuffed.  A man, thought Julio, rubbing his belly, could get used to this.  The patron had promised to show them around the estancia tomorrow and he was looking forward to seeing the sprawling rancho.

Drawing water from the pump, he and Manuel had washed up and gone to bed.  Climbing into the crisp, cool sheets, Julio had blown out the candle.

His nephew’s voice spoke.  “Buenos noches, Tio.”

Julio replied, “Buenos noches, muchacho. Sueños dulces.”

Smiling, they fell asleep.

 

 Ch. 22

At the same time that Julio and his nephew were arriving in Sacramento, Johnny and the girl were making camp for the day.  Having left the higher elevation of Oaxaca behind as they traveled south, it was already much hotter, even at that early hour.  The high desert vegetation had given way to arid wastes, dotted here and there with saguaros. Remembering his last experience in the Sonoran desert, Johnny hoped for better luck this time. Spotting a rocky outcrop, he dismounted and turned to lift the girl down. Perching on a boulder in the shade, she leaned her head back, saying nothing, relieved to be off the horse.

Johnny, too, was quiet as he unsaddled the horses and checked the ground for snakes before spreading their bedrolls side by side.  Realizing what he was doing, she shuddered, but remained quiet.  Wondering silently about scorpions and the like, she resolved to say nothing, even if one of them walked on her.  She’d seen a scorpion in a specimen bottle once and considered it the ugliest thing she’d ever laid eyes on.   Devoutly hoping not to see one up close, the girl climbed wearily into her bedroll, summoning a tired smile. Two years of being under house arrest hadn’t prepared her for this kind of exertion and every muscle ached.

“Good-night, Johnny,” she said, “or should I say, ‘good morning?” 

He smiled back, white teeth flashing against his tanned skin.  “Either one’ll do,” he told her.  “Have good dreams.”

She rolled onto her side and was almost immediately asleep.  He stayed up, leaning against his saddle which he propped against a boulder.  He wanted to watch for awhile, make sure there was no pursuit.  Satisfied, he slid down into his own bedroll and pulled his hat over his eyes.  He’d been on short sleep rations for quite awhile and soon, he, too, was sound asleep.

After what seemed about five minutes, but was actually early evening, he woke her, saying, “It’s time to go.”

She opened her eyes, stretched, and winced as every muscle in her body screamed in pain.  Trying to hide it, she sat up.  He’d built a small fire, she saw, and now he offered her a cup of strong coffee.  She took a small sip, then put it down.

Johnny gave her his arm to help her up.  “Walk around a little,” he advised her.  “See if it loosens up.”

She did so, but the stiffness was in her bones.  What she really needed was a hot bath, she thought.  Johnny offered the next best thing. Seating her on the boulder, he came to stand behind her.  “Sit down.  Let’s see if this helps.”  Putting his warm hands under her heavy hair, he began massaging her stiff neck, sliding his hands up to massage her scalp and moving down to her shoulders when he felt her neck loosen up.  She almost purred, eyes closing. She was vaguely sorry when he stopped.  Offering his hand, he helped her from her rock, boosting her into the saddle once more.

Swinging to his own saddle with his usual lithe grace, he took up his horse’s reins, keeping him to a walk until he saw how the girl was doing.  Realizing she felt better once they were moving, he picked up the pace.   She was getting a touch of sun, he noticed.  Her blue eyes were even more vivid against the faint golden sheen of her skin.

Stopping during the hottest part of the day, they reached the port city of Santa Cruz in late afternoon.  The girl had been a trouper, Johnny thought, but he could see her yearning for a bath and clean clothes.

Crossing the town square, where a dais and tables were being set up, they entered the hotel’s lobby and asked the young clerk for a room.

“You got lucky,” the young man replied. “It’s the last room in town. Wouldn’t have lasted much longer.”

“What’s goin’ on?” Johnny asked him. “All them tables bein’ set up?”

“Big fiesta tonight in the town square.  The local patron’s daughter just got married. Everyone’s invited.”

After paying for the room, Johnny carried the girl’s saddlebags upstairs.  Their room was plain but comfortable, with pale blue walls.  The main feature was the large brass bed covered with a white counterpane and a nicked dresser of golden pine with an oval mirror atop it.  The faded blue and white carpet had a pattern of large pink cabbage roses. White curtains fluttered in the breeze from the open windows. Turning to go care for the horses, he told her, “I have some things to do but you’ll be safe here.  I’ll have them send up a bath for you.”

She smiled, reviving visibly at the thought of being clean again.  She wasn’t the only one, he thought, rubbing his hand over the beard stubble on his chin.

Taking the horses to the livery stable, he made arrangements for them to be taken to the ship and loaded before their departure.  His next stop was the bathhouse. After cleaning up, he felt like a new man.  Dressing in clean clothes, he asked the barber for directions to the local steamship office. 

“Down the street on the right,” the man replied, wiping the lather from the razor before putting it away.  “Boat leaves every day at 11:00 p.m.”

After booking passage for the two of them, as well as the horses, on the steamship Santa Cruz Queen of the West, departing for San Francisco that evening, he made one more stop.  The girl needed this last gift, he told himself, to complete her disguise before they appeared publicly.

“Oh, hell,” he thought disgustedly.  “Who am I kidding?  If I never see her again after this, I want her to have it to remember me by.”

He decided to see if she was ready yet, looking forward to the chance to finally sit and talk. 

Tapping gently on the door and receiving a soft, “Come in,” he opened it to see her dressed in the spare clothes she’d discovered in her saddlebag.  She’d braided her hair in a long plait down her back, tying it with a ribbon, and the heavy braid swung as she moved.

She gave him a radiant smile as he entered.

“Feelin’ better?” he asked.

“One hundred percent better!” she laughed, twirling so he could see her outfit.  “I didn’t know you’d brought me more clothes, you’re spoiling me!”

He could spoil her forever, he thought, watching her pirouette in front of him, with the skirt twirling out and the light catching the small silver hoops in her ears.  This outfit was much the same as the first, except the long skirt was red and the blouse, with tiny puffed sleeves and a deep neckline, was white with tiny embroidered flowers and leaves in shades of red, blue, yellow and green.  They made the golden color of her skin even more attractive.

“Wait,” he told her, taking his hand from behind his back.  “There’s one more thing.”

She took it from him, wide-eyed, and held his gift up.  The silver conchos, on a belt of black leather, were exquisite works of art, finely detailed and delicately wrought.  It looked a good deal like his, which she had often admired covertly as they rode.  Slipping it quickly on, she tightened it about her waist.  It was a perfect fit, she thought, admiring the way it complemented her clothing.

“Like it?” he asked quietly.

“Oh, Johnny, I love it!  You shouldn’t have!” she said, flinging her arms around him in a spontaneous hug.

At her touch, his arms went quickly around her, his dark head lowering as his lips sought hers.  She melted in his embrace, dark eyelashes lying like fans against her cheeks as she raised her chin. 

Gunfire erupted in the street out front.  Shoving her to safety behind him, Johnny pulled his gun and dove for the floor.  Approaching the window from the side, he nudged the curtain aside with his gun so he could see out.

A plump girl in a white wedding dress stood on the dais, clinging possessively to her new husband’s hand.  Somewhat dazed in his black suit, the groom stood passively, tugging on his cravat.

An older man in fine clothes stood behind them, gun pointed at the sky. “¡Deje la fiesta comenzar! Let the fiesta begin!”  With a crash, the band swung into a lively mariachi tune and laughing crowds began filling the square.

From the window, Johnny mentally damned them all.  When he turned, the moment had passed.  Pressing both hands to her hot cheeks, the girl asked him, “Shall we go?”

Holstering his gun, he extended his arm and she took it, trailing beside him as they went down the wide stairs to the lobby.

Descending the portico steps to the street, they were immediately swept up in the music.  Taking her hand, he pulled her into his arms, bending his body easily over hers. He had a strong, sure lead, she thought, following him effortlessly as he whirled her around to the lively strains.  Their laughter swirled and rose over their heads, mingling with the sounds of the crowd.

After a few dances, they were both thirsty and he led her through the crowd to the refreshment tables.  Laughing as she looked up at him, they moved around the tables with their plates, with Johnny pointing out the items he thought she might like.  Their plates loaded, he led her to a dark corner, returning with beer for him and horchata, the traditional Mexican drink made with rice and cinnamon and flavored with lime for her to try.

“I forgot,” he said.  “You’ve probably already tried these things.”

Her brow clouded.  “My husband wouldn’t let me.  We ate traditional American foods, as much as we could get the ingredients.  He said we weren’t going to go native.”

“Well,” he said, dipping a tortilla into some guacamole and offering it to her, “now’s your chance.”

She opened her mouth and he fed her a bite.  “Ooh,” she said.  “That’s good.”

Laughing, he took a bite himself and agreed.  In the dark corner, they were alone in the crowd. He put one arm on the bench behind her, leaning close to hear her over the noise. Suddenly very conscious of the blueness of his eyes, the scent of his skin, and the warmth of his body, she picked an albondiga off her plate, offering it to him in return.  He leaned closer, opening his mouth and she fed him the tiny meatball.

“Good?” she asked him.

He grinned down at her “The best I’ve ever had.”

Finishing their food, they danced again to the lively music.  When the musicians changed suddenly to a ballad, Johnny pulled her close, resting his cheek momentarily on the top of her head. They might have been alone in the universe as they danced, smiling as they gazed into each other’s eyes.  Sentimental abuelas nudged each other and pointed, while others in the crowd smiled, enjoying their happiness.

They had a wonderful time for the next few hours.  Keeping an eye on the clocktower in the square, Johnny finally had to tell her it was time to go.  Wishing the evening could go on forever, he steered her through the crowd, resting a hand on the small of her back.  In their hotel room, they gathered up their belongings and prepared to walk down to the pier.

“Better put on your jacket,” he told her. 

Slipping into it, she lifted her braid out of the back and buttoned it partway.

Crossing to where he waited for her, she stopped.  Unable to resist, he did up the top two buttons of the jacket, brown fingers working with great dexterity.

“It’ll be cool on the water,” he told her.

Putting their saddlebags over his left shoulder, he took her hand in his left, leaving his gun hand free. Leaving through the back door to avoid the crowds, he guided her through the alley toward the wharf.

They were almost there when two men appeared in front of them.  “Give us your gun,” they said, allowing the moonlight to glance off the knives in their fists.

“Sure,” Johnny said. “Sure. No problem.”

Taking his gunbelt off, he tossed it toward them. 

“Your money,” the tall one told him.

Johnny tossed them his wallet.  “You got what you want.  Now leave.”

The short one smiled, showing the gap in his stained front teeth.

“Oh, no, senor.  Not everything.  Now give us the girl.”

 

Ch. 23

Inside the Morro Coyo jail, Scott ran a hand through his blond hair, rumpling it as he talked to Mark.  His brother-in-law was acting as his lawyer but so far, it wasn’t going well.

“Think, Scott!” Mark demanded.  “There must be someone who saw you traveling to San Francisco on the night of June 21st!”

“We’ve been over this a thousand times, Mark! I took the night train--most of the passengers were asleep.  I didn’t talk to anybody.”

Mark sighed, rubbing his forehead as if it ached.

The two of them were seated on Scott’s narrow cot inside the cell, papers spread out between them as they talked.  Murdoch stood by the bars, frowning as he listened.

His back resting against the cold adobe wall, Scott thought that as far as jails went, it probably could have been worse but it was bad enough.  He wished Mark could get him out on bail when the circuit court judge came through but he had to admit, it didn’t seem likely.

Word of his arrest for train robbery had spread like wildfire throughout the San Joaquin valley.   Crowds had gathered in front of the jail, causing Dave Bell to increase security.

Reporters from papers as far south as the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and as far east as the Boston Herald were camped outside, as were sketch artist and photographers, all anxious to get a look at the fiend who had orchestrated a crime wave throughout the Southwest.  Editors at distant newspaper offices waited anxiously for a telegraph describing the notorious mastermind.  Every hotel room in town was taken as people crammed in for the arraignment scheduled for tomorrow.

“I seen him,” one little boy boasted to his friends.  “He’s tall, and he has yellow eyes…like a cat’s”

“Ah, g’wan,” they said, eying him uneasily.  Specters of demons from Sunday School lessons haunted them as they dwelt on the image just presented to them.  Many of these same children would awaken that night, crying for their mothers, causing these beleaguered women to curse Scott Lancer along with everyone else.

Angry ranchers who had lost their homes and property after their operating funds were stolen when the trains were robbed were even now making their way back to the valley to sit in on the trial. 

Many of the townspeople, who had so recently been guests at Lancer when Murdoch threw a fiesta to celebrate the birth of his granddaughter, put their heads together, whispering.

It was odd, they said.  Odd that Lancer had escaped virtually unscathed when so many other estancias had gone under.  Odd that Murdoch was still running thousands of head of cattle and going about his business like nothing was wrong.  Odd that Theresa still came to town, bringing her baby and holding her head high. Many of the gossips conveniently forgot that Lancer itself had taken a big loss following the stock sale in Abilene last spring. 

“That Scott Lancer,” the townspeople whispered.  “He has the know-how to pull off such things.  Wasn’t he an intelligence officer during the war?”

The rumors grew apace and fact soon mixed with falsehood, making the mild-mannered eldest Lancer son seem like a pillaging Visigoth.

Murdoch spoke up.  “I took him to the train station in Sacramento, myself, Mark!  Check the manifest!”

His son-in-law shook his head. “Won’t do any good, Murdoch.  You could have put him on the train and he could’ve slipped off and headed for Tucson.  You need an eyewitness who can place him in San Francisco and you don’t have that.”

In the saloon, the president of the Cattleman’s Association was seated at a table with some of his cronies and one of the girls, talking as he knocked back a few beers. 

“Let me tell you something,” Vick Roberts said to the blonde.  “Where’s that no-good brother of his?  Nobody’s seen that damned Johnny Madrid for months now.”

One of the men seated nearby spoke up.  “Madrid’s good with a gun but that don’t make him no train robber, Vick.”

Roberts dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand.  “I’m telling you, Stan, I don’t put nothin’ past that gunhawk.  How come this robber gang ain’t been caught before this?”

Stan shrugged, spreading his hands to indicate ignorance.

Roberts forged ahead.  “Because that gang’s been fading back into Mexico, that’s why.  Madrid knows the lingo, he knows the terrain.  I’m tellin’ you, Stan, Johnny Madrid was in on this.”

The blonde draped over his shoulder smiled, a triangular, cat-eyed smile, green eyes gleaming with spite.  Things couldn’t have gone better if she’d tried.  All of the cattlemen and the townspeople were leaping nicely to the wrong conclusions and the net of intrigue and suspicion was tightening around the Lancers more with each passing day.

 Soon, she thought, Murdoch Lancer and his two sons would be history, their ranch confiscated, their stock stolen, and their lives as ruined, just as hers had been.

 

Ch. 24

Facing the two thugs who were trying to steal the girl, Johnny thought quickly, even as he kept his voice low and unworried.

Looking at the fat one with the stained shirt and the broken front teeth, he said calmly, “Now, why would I do that?”

“Because, cowboy,” the tall one said, tapping the length of broken pipe he was holding against his palm.  “We said so.”

“And,” the fat one added, “because we’ll kill you if you don’t.”

Keeping the girl behind him, Johnny spoke.  “Well,” he said softly.  “I guess you could try.”

Taking a step closer to the fat one, he said, “That is, if I don’t take you both with me.”

Behind him, there was a sudden clatter as the girl tipped over a trash can.  The din of the lid striking the cobblestones diverted their attention only for an instant but it was all Johnny needed.

Driving his hard first upward, he knocked the fat one out with an uppercut to the chin. Pivoting on one foot with the grace and speed that had made Johnny Madrid a legend, he drove a fist into the tall one’s stomach, doubling him up and dropping him to his knees.  A second fist smashing into his chin knocked him out and the robber sagged gently forward, landing facedown in the street.

Johnny looked down at them for a second, rolling the tall one over with the toe of his boot.

“Do you know either of them?” he asked.

The girl came forward.  “No,” she said.  “I’ve never seen either one of them.”

“Good,” he said, taking her hand.  “Come on, we have to hurry or we’ll miss the boat.”

The Santa Cruz Queen of the West was already fired up when and the crew was about to retract the gangway when they ran up.  Quickly handing the girl aboard, Johnny took the tickets from his jacket pocket and gave them to the ship’s officer.

“This way, sir,” the man said.  “Let me show you to your rooms.”

Johnny and the girl made their way along the deck in the officer’s wake as the Queen pulled away from the dock.  The night air was crisp and cool and the stars were covered by a milky haze.  The moon, hidden behind some clouds, was barely visible.  Water lapped gently against the boat’s hull as the engine hissed, building up steam.

Checking his list, the officer showed them to the first stateroom.  Opening the door, he ushered them inside.  The lamps were already lit, casting a weak pool of light.

“And yours, sir,” he told Johnny, “Is right through there, the rooms are connected by that door,” he said, indicating one set into the wall. “Enjoy your trip.”

“Thank you,” he told the man, slipping him a tip.  “Good night.”

The girl crossed to the side of the room, her back to Johnny.  He put her saddlebag on the bed and went to stand behind her.  Turning her gently around, he asked, “Are you all right?”

She nodded.  “Just tired, is all.  I guess everything’s caught up with me at once tonight.”

He nodded.  “Will you be all right by yourself?  Shall I stay with you?”

She shook her head decisively.  “No.  I’ll be fine.  I think I need to be alone for a little while.”

A faint frown creased his brow as he answered.  “All right.  Call me if you need me.”

Crossing to the door, he double-locked it, turning to look at her back.  “Good-night.”

Without turning around, she replied, “Good-night, Johnny.  See you in the morning.”

Stepping into the adjoining stateroom, he shut the door behind him, already missing her small presence.  He closed his eyes, leaning against the door as he fought the urge to go back in and talk to her.

Common sense won.  There were some things that couldn’t be forced.  With a muffled oath, he tossed his saddlebags onto the chair and began taking off his clothes.  In the next room, she heard his boots hit the floor, spurs clanking.  The sound made her want to cry, why, she didn’t know. 

Upset by the turn the evening had taken, she undressed, and climbed quickly into bed, leaving her hair in the braid. On the far side of the door, Johnny punched up his pillow and turned on his side, angry that the evening had been ruined. 

Alone on her side of the door, tears trickled from the corners of her eyes as she lay on her back, wetting the pillow.  She suddenly felt very alone.  What would he do, she wondered, if she climbed into bed with him and asked him to just hold her?

She had crossed the room and her hand was on the latch when common sense stopped her.  Wiping her eyes, she climbed back into bed, sighing.  Too much had happened recently for her to take on any more entanglements, no matter how inviting. 

Clutching the pillow, she turned her back to the door.

Sleep took a long time to find both of them that night.

 

Ch. 25

Safely at Lancer, Julio and Manuel settled into their new lives.  After a sound night’s sleep in their fine new room, they joined the patron and Jelly for breakfast the next day.  He usually ate with his sons, Murdoch told them, but since Scott and Johnny were both gone, he preferred not to eat alone. At the mention of his other son, whom Julio still had not met, he had noticed a strange expression on Jelly’s face.  Quickly changing the subject, the old man had asked Murdoch what he wanted to do about repairing some fence.

After breakfast, the patron had taken them around the estancia personally, introducing them to the vaqueros and to Maria and Rosita in the kitchen.  Wiping her hands on her apron, Maria had bustled forward, making much over the boy, while Rosita smiled shyly from her post at the stove where she was stirring a large pot.

Julio had thought privately that Maria was a fine figure of a woman, in addition to being a wonderful cook.   He immediately liked her immaculate kitchen and the air of coziness and warmth that it exuded.

After giving Jelly instructions, Murdoch had taken them down to the barn to show them the horses.

“But stay away from this one,” he warned the child about one in particular, the black stallion named Diablo.  “He’s dangerous and unpredictable.  Johnny is the only one who can do anything with him.  Comprende?” he’d asked the child.

“Si,” Manuel had promised.  “Si, Tio,” he repeated to his uncle.  I’ll stay away from him.”

Murdoch  ruffled his hair.  “We have to see about getting you some schooling, too, so enjoy your time off while you can!”

He turned to Julio.  “Come, let me introduce you to Cipriano.”

After introducing both Julio and the boy to his head wrangler, Murdoch had asked the man to saddle up his horse.

“I have to go into town,” he told Julio.  “Some personal business. But Cipriano will finish showing you around.”

As his horse was led forward, he climbed into the saddle.  “I’ll see you both later.”

With a wave, he was soon gone.  Arriving in town, Murdoch made his way to the jail, shouldering his way through the crowd which was beginning to gather outside.

“How are you holding out?” he asked Scott after Dave Bell had let him into the cell. “Nervous?”

“No,” Scott replied, “I’m not.  I didn’t do anything.  Surely the judge will see that.”

Murdoch’s son-in-law arrived and joined them in the cell.

“Mornin’, Murdoch,” he told the older man.  “Scott.”

“Morning, Mark,” they replied.

“Quite a crowd gathering out there,” Mark added.  “I don’t like it.”

He exchanged worried looks with Murdoch as Scott got ready to leave. 

“This thing sure is getting a lot of publicity,” he told his brother-in-law.  “How’s Teresa holding up?”

“She’s fine.  I asked her to stay home today.  Didn’t want her or Catherine here with all this going on.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Best place for them.”

“Besides,” Scott added, “it’s just the arraignment.  I should be out in no time.”

Dave Bell took his ring of keys off the wall and opened the door.  “Good luck today, Scott.  I think Todd and I best go with you over to the courthouse.”

Blinking in the harsh sunlight, Scott emerged onto the street.  The other men formed a circle around him, deflecting the growing crowd.  Reporters shouted questions and townspeople, many of whom had never paid the smallest attention to Scott Lancer, gathered.  Small boys ran up and peered at the young man.  He noticed that several photographers had set up cameras outside the jail.

“Mr. Lancer!” a young reporter yelled, waving a pencil and notepad.  “Please!” 

Startled, Scott looked his way just in time for one photographer, hidden beneath the  black curtain connected to his large camera, to snap a picture.

“Mr. Lancer!” another called, “Do you think you’ll be released on bail?”

“Yes,” Scott replied firmly.  “I do.”

Frowning, Murdoch walked faster.  “That’s enough questions now,” he said.  The other men tightened the circle around Scott as they entered the courthouse.

Seating themselves at the front table, Mark spread out his papers. “I don’t have much to go on,” he told Scott.  “But I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I can ask,” his brother-in-law replied.

The crowd shuffled in behind them, filling the available seats. More spectators stood along the back wall and trailed out the door.  Still more stood outside the open windows, watching and listening.

“All rise!” intoned the bailiff as the circuit court judge appeared through a door behind the podium.  “The Honorable Franklin Earle presiding!”

Horrified, Murdoch and Mark looked at each other.

Seeing their expressions, Scott was concerned.  “What?” he demanded.

Murdoch and Mark looked away.  Mark shuffled the papers on the table, not looking at Scott.

“Mark!” Scott demanded.

Taking a deep breath, his brother-in-law lifted his head and looked Scott in the eye.  “I thought you’d get the regular judge, Hiram Gates.  Franklin Earle must have taken over for some reason.  They call Earle the “Hanging Judge.”

 

Ch. 26

In the stateroom on the far side of Johnny’s, a middle-aged man took off his spectacles, putting them on the night table. Looking down at the black and white cat curled in his lap, he rubbed the bridge of his nose, which ached.  “Well,” he told the cat.  “Time for us to go to sleep.”

“Rrrrrrrr,” the tiny creature trilled in agreement. 

Putting her aside on the bed, he crossed the room and snuffed the gas lamp, almost tripping over the little animal as she darted between his ankles.

Picking her up, front paws draped across his shoulder, he rubbed his cheek against the silky head.  Passing the mirror, he caught a glimpse of their reflection and stopped.

He looked much the same as he always had, a middle-aged man with a slight paunch.  His nose, however, had never been the same since the night the monster, as Larry thought of him, had invaded their home.  The fat intruder had beaten Larry savagely in his quest for information about a former guest at the hotel.  Larry’s nose, the doctor had told him as he molded it painfully back into place, had been broken in two places.  It would never be the same again.

And it wasn’t, Larry thought with a sigh.  Now it had a hump in the bridge and lay askew, with a definite bend to the right.  His nose wasn’t the only thing that had changed.  Poor Lola Montez had, too. The little cat shadowed him wherever he moved these days.  Never a clinging vine in the past, Lola was now always within hands’ reach, as if her only safety resided in him. Well, he thought, all they really had now was each other.

 He remembered the sadness he’d felt when he left his little jewel of a house for the last time. Walking down the brick walkway, boot heels clocking faintly, he had paused at the end, one hand on the wrought-iron gate.  He looked back at the neat adobe house.  Beautifully landscaped, it boasted a small terracotta statue of St. Francis in the flower border and a tiny, tinkling fountain on the patio.  The sign in the yard read “Sold.”

Lola Montez, a trunk holding his clothes, and a few salvaged mementos were already in the hansom cab, waiting for him in the street. They were all that remained of his previously happy life in Oaxaca.

The home that he and Lola had loved and been so happy in was now just an empty house. Taking one last look, he allowed the gate to snick shut behind him.

Putting his bowler hat on and touching his breast pocket to be sure his glasses were safe, Larry climbed into the cab, taking Lola’s carrying case onto his lap.

With a snap of the whip, the cab clattered over the cobblestones, heading for the stage depot.  Unable to help himself, Larry hung out of the window, watching as his little house faded into the distance.

At the depot, the cab driver had transferred his belongings to the stagecoach.  Mentally bracing himself for the long, uncomfortable trip to Santa Cruz, Larry had climbed in with Lola’s case.  Fortunately, the coach only had two other occupants and he was able to sit by the window.  The fat woman and her skinny little husband merely nodded without speaking.  He was glad of that, he thought, as he didn’t want to make conversation, either.

“Meow!” complained Lola, indignant at being jostled so much.

Lowering his head to the mesh screen covering the opening, Larry had soothed her. “It’s all right, Lola.  We’re on our way.”

Confirming his words, the stagecoach took off with a jerk that snapped his head back.  Soon, they were on their way out of Oaxaca.  In his heart, Larry was glad. 

He didn’t remember how long he’d sat in his bloody bed the night the fat man had invaded his home, with the ruins of his house around him and Lola in his lap.  His hotel coworkers had finally come looking for him when he failed to arrive for his shift.  Exclaiming fearfully at the mess as they entered, looking warily over their shoulders, Hugh and Sophia had called for him, their voices echoing in the destroyed space.

Finding him in his ruined bedroom, they had gasped in shock.  Unrecognizable, both eyes swollen shut and his nose smashed, covered with dried blood, the sight of Larry had frightened both of his co-workers but not as much as his blank stare and immobility had.

Hugh had fled for the doctor while Sophia had gone to the kitchen for a glass of water.  Tears started to her eyes at the pile of ruined crockery on the floor.  She remembered the day she’d gone with Larry to the potter’s shop and the fun they’d had selecting them.  The whimsical little cows made of rusty iron had been another find, marching  in a row across the shelf over the sink.

There were no glasses left.  Grabbing a towel from the floor, she soaked it under the pump, hurrying back to hold it to his battered face.  The cold had roused him somewhat from his near-catatonia; the doctor rushing in with smelling salts had accomplished the rest.

Hugh and the doctor had taken Larry quickly to the small hospital in town while Sophia had taken Lola Montez home with her. While he was gone, Hugh and Sophia, and a few other co-workers, had tried to put the house back to rights.  An impossible task, they’d soon decided, and they settled for sweeping the debris into large tarps that they bundled and put into the trash.

During visiting hours, Sophia had told Larry that the house was waiting for him.  He looked at her sharply, shaking his head.

“I can’t go back there,” he’d said.  “I’m going to sell it and go to California.”

Sophia had tried to talk him out of it but Larry had been adamant.  The house had been violated, just as he and Lola had been.  It would never be their refuge again.  When he left the hospital, he had refused to return even once.  Instead, he and Lola had taken up residence at the hotel.  Hugh had packed Larry’s clothes and the few belongings he’d been able to salvage and brought them to him there, along with a specially-built carrying case for Lola Montez.

True to his word, Larry had immediately put the house on the market. It sold quickly and  when it went into escrow, Larry had given his notice. 

His co-workers had thrown him a little going-away party, not sure if it was the right thing to do.  Somehow, it felt ghoulish under the circumstances.  Larry had seemed to enjoy it, though, telling each of his co-workers and friends at the hotel how much he had appreciated it and would miss them.  Then he had sent a bellboy to call a hansom cab, said good-bye to his friends and gone to look at his house one last time before embarking on his journey.

Arriving in Santa Cruz, Larry had booked passage on the Santa Cruz Queen of the West then gone to dinner at a small cocina on the main street.  Choosing to dine on the outdoor patio, he had ordered carne asada and a margarita.  The tortilla arrived topped with salsa, chopped red onion and guacamole, just the way he liked it.  Squeezing lime juice over it, he picked up his glass, silently toasting his farewell to Mexico. After a delicious flan for dessert, he picked up Lola’s case and made his way back to the dock. Boarding early, he had unpacked and gotten into bed to read.

It did no good to look back, he thought now.  After tonight, he would never look back again. Putting Lola down on the bed, he slipped under the covers.

“Good-night,” he told her.  It was their ritual.  “Sweet dreams.”

Moving to the foot of the bed, the little animal wound her tail around her front paws, eyes gleaming as he snuffed out the light.

The rocking motion of the boat was soothing.  They were safe here. Soon, both Larry and Lola Montez were sound asleep.

Their neighbors on the left didn’t fare so well, the occupants of both rooms tossing and turning most of the night.  By the time the boat docked in San Francisco the next morning at 7:00 a.m., having made good time, Johnny had already washed, shaved, and gone down into the hold to check on the horses.

Offloading the chestnut and the mare himself, he had paid a ship’s steward to take them down to the train station.  For an extra fee, the steward had agreed to load them in the livestock car and see to their comfort.

With that accomplished, Johnny had walked around the deck several times, nodding to other early risers as he went.  Now he was leaning his elbows on the rail, the breeze ruffling his black hair as he waited for the girl to appear. The look on his face was serious.  He and the girl had a lot to talk about and it was a conversation he wasn’t really looking forward to.

The boat scraped against the dock just as her door opened, followed a second later by a bespectacled man in a bowler hat.  He was carrying a large case.  Head down as he turned to close his door, the middle-aged man just missed colliding with Johnny as he stepped forward, his attention on the girl.

“Mornin’,” Johnny told her.  “Sleep well?”

“Yes,” she lied stoutly. “And you?”

“Never better,” he prevaricated. “I’ll take your things.”

Gathering up the saddlebags containing her belongings they followed the bespectacled man’s back toward the gangway, pausing to let a group of passengers precede them.

Arriving on the street, the middle-aged man secured the last hack, picking up his carrying case from the ground as he entered. A bewhiskered black and white face peered out from behind the screen in the back of the case, green eyes narrowed with annoyance.  The hack’s driver finished lashing down the passenger’s trunk and climbed up to his seat, taking up the whip.  The cab rattled off over the cobblestones.

Waiting for the next one, Johnny looked at the girl.  She looked especially pretty this morning, he thought.  She’d removed her hair from the braid and now it was a cloud of ringlets, secured at the back of her neck with a white ribbon.  She was wearing the black cloak he’d bought her in Oaxaca against the dampness of San Francisco.  It contrasted nicely with her silver earrings and bracelets and with her blue eyes.

It was kinda chilly, Johnny thought, used to the warmth of Mexico.  He pulled his jacket a little tighter around himself.

Debarking at the train station, they headed for the ticket office, booking passage to Sacramento.

Steering the girl through the crowd with a hand on the small of her back, Johnny guided her to their seats.  It was going to be a long trip, he thought.  And he had some things to tell her that were long overdue.

 

Ch. 27

As the train got underway, Johnny and the girl went down to the dining car to find breakfast. The car was full at that early hour and they stood for a few moments under the gently swaying chandelier, waiting for a table to be cleared.

When a table for two opened, Johnny seated the girl, then pulled out his own chair and began scanning the menu. 

“Would you look at that?” he remarked. “Baked rabbit pie.”

She laughed, turning up her nose.  “I think I’ll stick with bacon and eggs.”

“Makes two of us,” he replied.

A white-coated waiter appeared, smiling as he took a pad from his pocket.  “Very good, sir,” he said as Johnny gave him the order.  “Your breakfast will be ready in just a minute.”

The yellow daisy in the glass vase nodded slightly with the train’s motion. Leaning his elbows on the crisp white tablecloth, Johnny reached forward and took one of her hands.  “We have to talk,” he said.

The girl allowed her hand to remain in his, a serious look on her face.  A tendril of hair escaped its ribbon and lay on her cheek.  Unable to help himself, he brushed his fingers across her cheekbone, tucking it behind her ear.

At his touch, she blushed and removed her hand, putting them both in her lap.

“I know we do, Johnny,” she said.  “But it’s hard.  I don’t even want to think about the last two years, much less talk about them.”

He nodded.  There were plenty of things he, too, preferred to keep inside.  Leaning back in his chair, he tried to think of how to start.

His companion returned her gaze from the window, regarding him.

“You haven’t even asked my name,” she said quietly.

He leaned forward again, resting his elbows on the table.

“That’s because I know it already,” he said.

She glanced at him, startled.  “I never told you my name!”

“It’s Shelby,” he said softly.

Her brows drew together in puzzlement.  “How do you know that?”

“I know,” he said, reaching again for her hand.  “Because I was at your wedding.”

She looked at him, thunderstruck.  “But that’s impossible!”

“No, not really,” he said.  “My father is an old friend of your father’s.  They go way back.”

“How? How do they know each other?”

“They met coming over on the boat from Inverness twenty-six years ago.”

“But I’ve never seen you before we met in Oaxaca!  You didn’t live along the James River, I’d have recognized you.”

“No,” Johnny replied.  “We don’t live in Virginia.”

“What’s your last name, then?” she asked.

He hesitated for a heartbeat, suddenly unsure what to say. Then he replied.  “My name is Lancer.  Johnny Lancer.” 

He reached for her other hand.  Holding both of them in his own, he looked at her, his blue eyes intent.  “Now I have a question for you.”

The girl nodded, allowing her hands to remain in his larger, much warmer ones.  Her own were cold with nervousness.

“Do you realize you’ve never asked me where I’m taking you?  Why is that?”

Suddenly flustered, she withdrew her hands, looking away as she blushed slightly.   “Well, I don’t know, now that you ask, I just…I just…” her voice trailed off.

“Trusted me?”

She was suddenly confused about her own reasons and had to think for a moment.

She raised her eyes to his face.  “Yes,” she said.  “I guess that’s it.  Somehow I just trusted you.”

She was unprepared for the look that came over his face.  His beautiful smile appearing, he looked lit from within, obviously happy with her reply.

A thousand thoughts crashed through Johnny’s head.  Considering what she’d been through, she clearly had no reason to trust a strange man.  It would make the rest of what he had to say so much easier.

The waiter appeared, bearing their order on a tray held aloft by one hand.  She withdrew her hands and sat back in her chair, as did Johnny.  With brisk efficiency, he put down a small tin pitcher of hot water, the tea infuser’s chain trailing from it, coffee for Johnny, and their plates. A pile of sourdough toast, rich with melting butter, glistened in the middle of the table.

“Will that be all, sir?” the waiter inquired.

“Yes, for now.  Thank you.” Johnny told him.  “We’ll let you know if we need anything else.”

Smiling, the man left.  He recognized lovers when he saw them, he thought.  Of course, the handsome couple wanted to be left alone.

Spreading her linen napkin in her lap, Shelby picked up her fork.  “Our talk will have to wait, Johnny,” she said.  “I’m hungry!”

His own appetite restored, he picked up a piece of crispy bacon. When they had eaten, they put their napkins on the table and smiled at each other, pleasantly full.    Returning to the car, they resumed their seats.  The big breakfast, on top of the sleepless night, made the girl drowsy, as did the rocking motion of the train.  Smothering a yawn, she looked out the window.  Soon, she was asleep, her cheek resting against his shoulder.

It seemed like something always prevented their talk, Johnny thought.    He rested his own cheek on the top of her head, watching the countryside roll by. Her admission that she trusted him had lifted a huge burden from his shoulders. There were many things he had to tell her, he thought, but they had all the time in the world. 

 

Ch. 28

Back in Sacramento after the arraignment, Mark had to tell Theresa that it hadn’t gone well.

Carrying the baby, his wife had greeted him at the door, her dark eyes full of hope.

“Well,” she asked brightly.  “How did it go?”

Stalling for time, Mark kissed her on the forehead.  Taking the baby, he swung her high in the air, making her laugh.  Settling her in the crook of his arm, he kissed his daughter, too.

Slipping an arm around Theresa, he pulled her against his side as they walked down the long hallway toward the parlor.  “Let me catch my breath, honey, will you?” he asked jokingly.

She poked him in the ribs.  “Mark, I’ve been waiting all day!  Now, did Scott get out on bail or not?”

Catherine toddled off to get her doll as he turned to look at his wife. 

“No, honey, he didn’t make bail.”

Shocked, she looked at him.  “But why?  Surely the judge didn’t believe all that nonsense!”

Loosening his cravat, he sank into a chair.  “That’s the problem, Theresa.  It doesn’t sound like nonsense.  It’s a serious charge by an eyewitness. And we didn’t get the judge we were hoping for.  We got his replacement, instead.”

“His replacement?” she questioned, pushing a strand of blond hair out of his eyes.

Sighing, he pulled her into his lap.  “We expected Hiram Gates. We got Franklin Earle, instead.  Otherwise known as the Hanging Judge.”

Theresa sat bolt upright, staring at him.  “Hanging Judge?  What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Mark said, pulling her down again, “that he gives out the stiffest sentences that the law allows.  All the time.  Never cuts anybody a break.”

His wife put a hand to her mouth.  “And he didn’t believe Scott.”

“No,” Mark replied.  “Or me.”

“What happened?” she questioned.

“He remanded Scott to jail until the trial.  It’s scheduled for Monday.”

Theresa’s face darkened.  “That’s ridiculous!  There’s no way Scott would ever be guilty of such a thing!”

Mark sighed.  “You and I know that, Theresa.  But the judge doesn’t.  And he’s the one we had to convince.  I’m hoping we can exonerate Scott at trial.”

Holding her ragged cloth dolly, Catherine toddled back in, making a beeline for her father.  Mark yanked his cravat off as Theresa climbed out of his lap, looking up at her wearily.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Dinner!  Oh, I forgot all about dinner!” she said, whirling.  “It’s going to be ruined!”

Fortunately, she caught it just before it burned.  Reviving after his meal, Mark sat on the floor awhile, playing with his daughter.  Theresa observed him looking at the child, a strange look on his face.

“Mark?” she questioned, “What’s wrong?”

He looked at her, his face clearing.  “Wrong?  What could be wrong?”

“You had the strangest look on your face just now.  You were looking at Catherine as though you might never see her again.”

He got up and came over to her.  Putting his lips close to her ear, he said, “If I was looking at her, I was trying to see if she’s getting tired.  Isn’t it almost her bedtime?”

“Oh,” Theresa said, looking at the clock.  “I guess it is!”

Mark nibbled on her ear, his warm breath stirring her hair.  “Well, in that case…why don’t you call the nanny?”

Theresa looked at him, “Oh, Mark, I like to put her to bed myself, you know that.”

“Just this once,” he replied, one warm hand covering a breast.  “I promise I’ll never ask again.”

She laughed, knowing the fallacy of that. Her breath came a little faster as he rubbed her nipple through her shirt.  Glancing at the toddler playing contentedly on the floor, she conceded.  “All right, then…just this once!”

His hands slipped around to cup her bottom, pulling her against him.  “Don’t be long, all right? “

“I’ll hurry,” she told him, a faint flush rising to her cheeks as he slipped his tongue into her mouth.

“Good,” he replied as she bent to gather up the baby and take her to Jane, her nanny.  “I’ll be waiting for you.”

With Catherine in her arms, Theresa leaned the baby toward Mark. “Tell Daddy goodnight.  Night-night, daddy.”

“Ni-ni,” the baby replied.  “Ni-ni.”

Mark stoked her silky dark curls.  “Night-night, baby.  Daddy loves you.”

Smiling over Theresa’s shoulder, Catherine was whisked away toward the back of the house as her mother took her to the nanny.

Returning to the parlor, Theresa slipped into Mark’s arms, putting her own around his neck.  Stroking the blond hair above his collar, she whispered, “Now, where were we?”

Slipping an arm behind her knees, her husband picked her up, his lips on hers.  Making his way to the bedroom, he put her gently down on the bed, lowering himself on top of her.  Still kissing, Mark lowered one hand to her shirt, undoing the buttons.  His head moved lower, exploring.  Reaching down, he grasped the hem of her skirt and tossed it up.

Theresa’s breath came faster, her fingers catching in his hair as he moved lower still.

An hour later, lying in the moonlight, she smiled to herself, her sleeping husband breathing evenly beside her.  Their first year of marriage had had its growing pains, especially when Mark kept going off unexpectedly on trips, leaving her alone.  But the trips had tapered off and recently, they had stopped.  She no longer worried that Mark had a mistress.  Secure in her husband’s love for her, she closed her eyes, still smiling.

 

Ch. 29

Scott sat on the narrow jail cot, his back against the cold adobe bricks.  One arm rested on his drawn-up knee as he looked off into space, his face pensive.  His trial started tomorrow and Johnny still wasn’t back.  He wished his brother would walk through the door with his devil-may-care grin and hardheaded common sense.  Although he’d hidden his feelings carefully from Murdoch, Theresa, and Jelly, even from Mark, pretending a confidence he didn’t feel, he would have been able to talk freely to Johnny.  And his pragmatic younger brother, with his skill for appraising situations, might have seen something the rest of them had overlooked.

He thought of his arraignment three days ago.  They had been dismayed to learn that the regular circuit court judge, Hiram Gates, would not be hearing Scott’s case.  Grimly, Mark had told him that his replacement, Franklin Earle, was known as the “Hanging Judge.”

Nonplussed, Scott had looked at him.  “That doesn’t sound good.”

Mark had sighed.  “It isn’t.  He has a reputation for handing out the toughest sentences possible at all times.”

Referring to the lone eyewitness in the case, Mark said, “I wish I’d been able to interview that Dan character.”

Murdoch chimed in. “Nobody’s seen him since he brought the accusation against Scott, have they?”

“No,” Mark replied.  “He was deposed in private.  I guess he went into seclusion after that, the whole thing caused such an uproar.”

Murdoch added.  “Maybe we better look for him ourselves.  Does anybody know what ranch he worked at?”

Scott shook his head.  “Not me.  I heard he was new in town, but that’s all I know.”

The bailiff had appeared through the door behind the podium.  In a stentorian voice, he bawled, “All rise!”

The Lancers and Mark rose, as did the assembled crowd.  The door opened.

Like a crow swooping to a perch, a heavyset, ascetic-looking man in black robes had swept into the room.  Two deep creases running from cheek to nose, a down-turned mouth and a square, jutting jaw made the man appear unfriendly and formidable. Behind his square-rimmed glasses, his eyes were a cold, flat brown.

“About as warm,” Murdoch thought to himself, “as a Gila monster.”

The bailiff bawled out, “The Honorable Franklin Earle presiding!”

Clearing his throat, Mark stood as he addressed the judge.  Speaking eloquently but briefly, he presented his case.  As he had told Scott, there just wasn’t that much to work with.

Summing up, he said, “I ask that bail be set and Scott Lancer be released on his own recognizance.”

In a rumbling voice, the judge gave his answer.  “Bail is denied.  The defendant is remanded to the Morro Coyo county jail until trial, three days from today.”

The Lancers and Mark had looked at each other, dismayed.

The Hon. Franklin Earle slammed his gavel down.  “Court is dismissed.”

None of them, least of all Mark, had expected the judge to set a trial date so soon.  His brother-in-law had argued strongly for a continuance but the judge had turned him down flat.

Seated behind his desk in the judge’s chambers, Franklin Earle had looked at Mark, his brown eyes flat and unfriendly behind his wire-rimmed spectacles.

“Counselor,” he’d said, his voice cold and repressive.  “We have an eyewitness that places your brother-in-law at the scene of the robbery.   The defendant’s description matches his.  You’ve had plenty of time to produce evidence corroborating your position and have failed to do so.  The trial date stands.”

He picked up the papers on his desk, shuffling them to indicate the interview was over. “Good day, counselor.”

Biting back a retort, Mark had come to the jail, informing Scott of the results of his interview with the judge.

Scott sighed, pulling the thin jailhouse blanket up around his shoulders.  If tomorrow didn’t go well, it wasn’t because his family hadn’t tried.  For the hundredth time, he wondered who Dan Calvert was and why he had come forward to accuse him.  Who, Scott wondered, could possibly have such a grudge against him?   Casting his mind back, he could think of no one.

Still, he had to admit, his chances of escaping these trumped-up charges didn’t look good.

Dave Bell came in.  “How you doin’, Scott?  Need anything?”

Scott looked at the lawman, summoning a smile for his benefit.   “No, Dave, not a thing.  Thank you, though.”

The lawman’s ring of keys clanked as he hung them on the nail in the wall.  “I’m going to turn in then.  Goodnight, Scott.”

“Goodnight,” Scott replied.  Sliding down into the uncomfortable bed, he pulled the covers up over himself.  A moment later, Dave blew out the light.

Rolling onto his side, Scott stared into the darkness.  His worries roiled inside his head until he thought it would explode. With an effort of will, he pushed them away.  If there was anything he had learned in that Confederate prison camp, it was how to discipline his mind.  The trial, he told himself firmly, could still go his way.  Perhaps Murdoch and Jelly had found something that could help.  Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes.

At the same time Scott was trying to sleep, Murdoch and Jelly were returning to Lancer.  They had spent the weekend riding from one ranch to another, making one last attempt to locate the eyewitness who had placed Scott at the scene of the attempted train robbery in Tucson.  They had questioned everyone they could find, searching diligently from Lancer to Green River. No one had seen the eyewitness and no one knew where he had worked before making the accusation against Scott.  Dan Calvert had simply disappeared.

Murdoch and Jelly entered the dark hacienda.  The house was quiet, Theresa and the baby having gone to bed hours ago.  Mark, too, having paced restlessly up and down on the patio for hours, had finally gone to bed, wanting to be fresh for the trial tomorrow.

Maria and Rosita had also retired for the night, leaving two covered plates in the still-warm oven.

Feeling tired and dispirited, Murdoch sighed, tossing his hat on his desk.  The hacienda was extraordinarily silent these days without his sons under its roof.  He missed their often-rambunctious interplay, their jokes, and Theresa’s laughter.  Back for the trial, she’d been quiet and brooding.  Her husband, with so much responsibility on his shoulders, had been uncommunicative as well.

Even the baby had been subdued, picking up on the adults’ disquiet. They had all been living under a pall for days, Murdoch thought.  It reminded him of the desperate time when the ranch had been under siege by Day Pardee and his gang of land pirates.  Shot in the back, in danger of losing Lancer, Murdoch had finally decided to summon his sons home.

This, Murdoch mused, was also a siege, albeit one of a different sort.  And this time he had even more to lose.  He didn’t ask himself what he would do if Scott’s trial went badly, preferring to push the thought out of his mind instead.  It was something he’d done repeatedly in the last few days.

Picking up a bottle of Scotch and two glasses from the sideboard, he headed for the dark kitchen.  Jelly, close behind, was also quiet, something that could rarely be said about the garrulous old man.

Although Scott was his immediate concern, Murdoch was also worried about Johnny.  No further word had come from his youngest and he had no way of knowing what was happening to him down in Mexico.

In the dim glow from the kitchen fireplace, Murdoch poured each of them a glass, leaving the Scotch bottle within easy reach.  Removing the plates from the oven, Jelly set them on the table after taking silverware from the drawer.

Even in the dim light, Murdoch could see how worn out the old man looked.  This had been hard on Jelly, too, he thought.  Seating himself on the bench behind the table, Murdoch raised his glass. 

“To my sons,” he said.  “And to good luck tomorrow.”

Jelly nodded solemnly, clinking his glass with Murdoch’s.  “Amen to that.”

They ate slowly, talking little.  As soon as he was done, Jelly picked up his plate, putting it in the sink.

“Goodnight, boss” the old man said, yawning.  “See ya in the morning.”

Still seated, Murdoch looked at him.  “Goodnight, Jelly.”

Carrying the Scotch bottle, Murdoch returned to the great room.  The room was chilly and he stirred the fire to life.  Seating himself in his armchair, he pulled the afghan over his legs and poured another drink.

Sipping it as he stared into the fire, he asked himself what he would do if anything happened to either of his sons.  What if Scott never walked through the front door again?  He thought of his hardworking eldest son, his dry sense of humor and his steady presence.  For that matter, what if he never saw Johnny again?  His youngest, with his ready smile and mercurial temperament, had a way of stirring things up, enlivening them all.

The idea of losing his ranch to Day Pardee had been bad enough; the idea of losing his sons was intolerable.  The loss of either would leave a gaping hole in his life that time would never heal.

He sighed, thinking of tomorrow. Standing up, he bolted the rest of his drink, letting the afghan fall to the floor. What if, what if, he thought.  A man could drive himself crazy with what-ifs.   With an oath, he hurled the glass into the fireplace.  Then he, too, left the room.

 

Ch. 30

Cuddled against his shoulder, the girl slept peacefully.  Enjoying her closeness, Johnny watched the countryside unrolling. For the first time in his turbulent life, he felt utterly at peace. It was a new feeling, as if he’d found something he didn’t know he needed or even wanted until now. 

He looked down at the small face nestled against him and smiled.  Her long dark lashes lay like fans against her cheeks, hiding her turquoise eyes, and her perfect skin reminded him of a peach.  The silver hoops he’d given her gleamed softly against her dark hair. 

Johnny yawned, fighting sleep.  Leaning his head back against the seat, he stretched his legs out, careful not to disturb her.  He wanted to stay awake, keep enjoying her warm weight against him and to smell the sweet fragrance that was so much a part of her.

The honest part of him admitted that down deep, he was afraid it was all a dream and  he’d wake up in tangled sheets, sweating and alone, aching for something he’d touched but never possessed.  That was the problem with the good things in life, Johnny knew.  They had a way of disappearing, taking a piece of your heart with them and leaving only a painful memory in their place.

It was one reason Johnny Madrid had guarded his heart so carefully all these years.  Looking down at Shelby, sleeping peacefully, he realized that his stubborn heart was no longer his own.  Something had altered irrevocably inside him.  He felt like he was on the brink of undiscovered territory and knew that nothing would ever be the same again.

As much as he wanted to stay awake, like the girl, Johnny been deprived of sleep lately and the rocking motion of the train was soothing.  Soon, his eyes closed.

Content in each other’s presence, they slept most of the rest of the way to Sacramento, looking, as the plump matron across the aisle whispered to her sister, like two tired kids. 

Like the other passengers, they had noticed the handsome couple when they first entered the train.  The man’s vivid blue eyes were impossible to miss, thought Madge, as was his heart-stopping smile. Even dressed like a Mexican peasant, the girl with him was a pocket Venus, every bit his match.  What lovely children they would have, she thought sentimentally.

Her sister, Ida, a thin bespectacled woman in a dove-gray suit sniffed as she held up her left hand. Her hair was pulled back so tightly it screamed and a gray snood covered the mousy bun. “No rings!” she mouthed, pointedly waggling the ring finger.  “They aren’t married!” 

The plump matron, Madge, smiled.  Inwardly, she approved. Maybe the two young people were eloping, she whispered to her sister, had she ever thought of that? 

“No,” hissed the spinster.  “It’s still highly improper! They’re in a public place!”

Madge rolled her eyes but held her peace.  Privately, she thought it all very romantic.  Maybe a little of the same would have done her sister a world of good, although it was far too late now.  Ida’s mouth was permanently pursed, as if she’d just bitten a crabapple, her brow had a perpetual frown, and she dressed in the style of ten years ago, as if she had one foot in the grave already.  In her sentimental heart, Madge wished the young couple well, knowing it was better to risk all for love than to live without it.

Johnny woke just before the train reached Sacramento in the early evening.  One minute he was asleep and the next he was wide awake and fully alert. Beside him, Shelby slept on.

He sat up a little, trying not disturb her.  Feeling him move, she roused, opening her eyes.

He smiled down at her. “Hello, sleepyhead.”

Across the aisle, Ida sniffed loudly.  Looking at the spinster, Shelby sat up, a little disoriented.

“We’re almost in Sacramento,” he told her.  “Let’s go get some coffee.” 

He stood up, flexing his shoulder, which had gone to sleep.  Taking her hand, he helped Shelby up, allowing her to precede him down the aisle.  Steadying her against the train’s  motion, they made their way to the dining car, which was empty but for two idle waiters on the far side of the room.

The headwaiter hurried forward, pulling Shelby’s chair out.  She slipped into it, thanking him with a smile.  Sliding into his own chair, Johnny looked at her across the snowy table linen.  The daisy in the glass vase nodded with the train’s motion and the overhead chandeliers swung gently.  Countryside scrolled by between the window’s white curtains and the train’s steam engine hissed as it rolled steadily down the tracks.

Still not quite awake, Shelby smiled.  “I think I need some tea.  With lemon please.”

“Coffee for me,” Johnny told the waiter.

The man smiled.  “Certainly, sir. I’ll be right back with your order.”

Placing silverware rolled up in pink linen napkins on the table, he was back almost immediately with two heavy white crockery cups and saucers, which he placed before them.   Returning with a small tin teapot, trailing the infuser’s chain, and the coffeepot, he poured and then stood back.

“Will that be all?” he inquired.

“For right now,” Johnny told him.  “We’ll let you know if we need anything else.”

The waiter stood back with a slight bow. “Enjoy your drinks,” he said, and departed.

Steam rose from Johnny’s cup as he picked it up, looking at Shelby over the rim. Removing the infuser, she added a teaspoon of sugar to her own.  Cradling it in both hands as if for warmth, she smiled.

They sipped in companionable silence for a few minutes as Johnny gave her time to wake up.

Putting his cup down, he leaned forward.  “Lancer is a couple hours’ ride from Sacramento.  By the time we unload the horses and get started, it’ll be pretty late. I thought we could spend the night in Sacramento and leave in the morning, if that’s all right with you.”

Realizing what he was getting at, her face took on a serious look.

“You want to have our talk, don’t you?”

“We have to,” he said gently.  “I know you don’t want to talk about your marriage but your husband sounds like trouble.”

Putting the cup down and looking out the window, she sighed.  “You’re right about that.  He is trouble.”

“You expect him to come after you, don’t you?” he asked quietly.

She looked at him squarely.  “Yes, Johnny, I do.”

“You’re afraid of him.” It was a statement, not a question.

She nodded almost imperceptibly, eyes downcast.  “Yes.”

He leaned across the table and took her hands.  “Shelby,” he said quietly.  “Look at me.”

She raised her eyes to his face.  He thought he saw the sheen of tears in them.

“I’m not.  No matter who he is, or what he does, I’ll protect you.”

She leaned across the table, clutching his hands.  “Johnny, you don’t know what he’s capable of!”

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” he said simply. 

“I’m not sure I should involve you in my troubles.  My husband is my problem, not yours.”

He put a finger under her chin, tilting her head up so he could see her eyes.

“Not anymore. Anyone who threatens you is my problem,” he said, jaw hardening.  “And I’ll deal with them.”  A coldness appeared in his sapphire eyes at the thought of anyone harming this woman.  “Do you believe me?”

Still clutching his hands, she nodded.  “Yes, I do.  But Johnny…”   The words trailed off.

“There are some things about me you need to know.  Maybe then you’ll be able to believe me.”

“Johnny,” she said softly,  “I do believe you.  I know you’d do your best.  But you don’t know my husband.”

“I know he’s a man, like any other man.  And he can be dealt with, like any other man,” he told her firmly.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Johnny,” she whispered.  “He isn’t like any other man.  My husband is crazy.”

 

Ch. 31

Inwardly startled, Johnny’s face remained unchanged as he watched her, making her wonder if challengers facing him down a gun barrel had seen that look.  Full of cold resolve, sapphire eyes steely, it was enough to cause the stoutest heart to quake, she thought.

His face softened as he looked at her, reaching across the table to brush a stray tendril of hair from her check.  The tenderness of the gesture made Shelby want to cry.  In two years of marriage, she thought, her husband had never once touched her that way.

“Crazy?” Johnny questioned softly.  “Tell me what you mean.”

She sighed.   “It’s a long story. I guess I should start at the beginning.”

She began to speak, slowly at first, then faster as the words tumbled out.  He realized this was the first chance she’d ever had to tell anyone about her ordeal and a muscle moved in his lean cheek as his jaw tightened again.

“Michael lived on the plantation next to ours in Virginia,” she told him.  “I grew up with him.  I thought I knew him.”

Johnny nodded, encouraging her.  “Go on.”

“I was so happy on my wedding day,” she continued.  “I was marrying my best friend.”

“I loved Michael so much,” Shelby said, looking him in the eyes. “I couldn’t wait to become his wife.”

He nodded again, remembering the radiant bride he’d seen on her wedding day.  She and her tall groom had looked the picture of newly-wedded bliss, destined for a lifetime of happiness.

“I remember,” he said quietly.

“We had our lives all planned.  We were going to move into Briarhall, fix it up, make it into a fine plantation again.  We were going to have our children there.  We were going to have a wonderful life, surrounded by our family and friends.”

Johnny said softly, “It’s a beautiful place.”

Shelby rushed on.  “I never wanted to leave it.”

She looked out the window, remembering.  Her beautiful eyes clouded.  “He promised.”

Returning her gaze to his face, she continued.  “He said it so many times, Johnny.  Before we were married, Michael said we’d never leave.”

“But you were a long way from home when I met you,” Johnny said.  “How did you end up in Oaxaca?”

The waiter interrupted them.  “I’m sorry to break in, folks, but we’re almost in Sacramento.”

They looked at him, startled.  Shelby withdrew her hands, sitting back in her seat as Johnny paid for their drinks, leaving a generous tip.

“Thank you, sir,” the man said, accepting both.  “You might be more comfortable in your seats when the train stops.”

Rising to leave, they headed back toward their car.  In the distance, they could make out Sacramento.

The wind blew their hair and whipped Shelby’s skirts as they exited the dining car, the sound of the engine loud in their ears.  Opening the door to their car for the girl, Johnny stood back, allowing her to enter, then shut the door behind him.  She preceded him up the aisle, smiling at Madge and slipping into her seat.

The matron returned her smile, noticing again the handsome young man with her.  Even Ida was not immune, she noticed, watching her sister’s eyes follow him into his seat. She poked her sister.  “See something you like?” she whispered.

Startled, Ida withdrew her gaze from contemplation of the young man’s black pants with the conchos down the legs. “Oh! You!” she said, blushing furiously at being caught out. “It’s an unusual design, that’s all!  Now hush!”

Madge smiled and looked out the window.  Wickedly, she resolved inwardly that it was going to be a long time before Ida heard the last of this one.

As the train neared the platform, passengers began standing, picking up wraps and gathering their baggage.  Taking the saddlebags from under the seat, Johnny put them over his shoulder.  Standing aside to let other passengers disembark, he had Shelby precede him into the aisle.

Among the last people off, they made their way down to the livestock car, waiting as the horses were unloaded.  Seeing Shelby, the mare butted her head against the girl, breathing gustily.  Smiling, the girl stroked the silky muzzle, murmuring to the horse.

Two stewards brought their saddles, helping Johnny put on the tack.  Unhelpfully holding his breath, the chestnut had to be kneed in the side several times before he expelled enough air to let the cinch be tightened enough to keep the saddle on.  Mentally noting the trait, Johnny boosted the girl up, then swung onto the horse.

Finding their way to the town square, they booked two adjoining rooms at the first hotel they came to.  Making their upstairs way to Shelby’s room first, they turned to survey it. The handsome brass bed was covered with a patchwork quilt and an oval braided rug lay on the polished wood floor.  Light blue curtains over white sheers covered the windows.  Overstuffed pillows in patchwork cases that matched the quilt were propped against the headboard.  Two more plump pillows in lace cases lay atop them. Golden pine furniture gleamed and a green velvet armchair stood in one corner.

Opening the connecting door, Johnny saw that his room was a duplicate, except that the curtains were green and the armchair a rich, deep brown leather.

Seating herself on the bed, the girl looked at Johnny.  “This will be the last night of our trip, won’t it?”

Putting her saddlebags on the dresser, he turned to look at her, blue eyes serious.  “Yes.  Tomorrow we’ll be at Lancer.”

“It will be hard to talk with other people around,” she mused.

“Yes,” he said.  “It will be.  But we have the rest of tonight and tomorrow. We don’t have to do it all right now.”

He crossed to the bed and took her hand.  Pulling her to her feet, he said, “C’mon.  I’ll take you to dinner at my favorite place.”

She smiled, looking up at him.  “Oh?  And where’s that?”

He grinned.  “I’ll show you.”

A few minutes later, they slid into a plush oaken booth at the Fulton’s.  On the table, a candle in a red glass holder flickered.   Johnny slid into the booth beside her.

Shelby looked at him, smiling.  “I’ve had so much fun on this trip, Johnny.  More fun than I’ve had in years.  Thank you.”

He grinned back, teasing.  “Thank me for what?  Draggin’ you across the desert and puttin’you up in a bordello?”

“You know what I mean,” she said, seriously.  “I was under lock and key for two years.  It’s good to enjoy life again.”

Suddenly intent, he asked, “What was that about anyway? The man’s jealous?”

“That,” she replied.  “And he likes to be in control.  He tries to control everything and everyone around him.”

The waiter arrived, producing a pencil and a pad of paper from the pocket of his red-checked apron. They both ordered steak and baked potatoes.

“Rare,” Johnny reminded him. 

Returning, the waiter set down a glass of red wine for her and a beer for him.

Sipping, she continued to search for words

“He sounds like he has two personalities,” Johnny said, quoting Suzette’s Grandmere. 

She looked at him, struck.  “Yes,” she said.  “That’s exactly right.  He does have two personalities…the one the world sees and the one that only I saw.”

“Shelby,” he said quietly.  “You’re safe now.  He can’t find you.”

She looked at him, turquoise eyes somber as she considered his words.

Changing the subject, he asked, “Who were those men chasing you?”

She replied softly.  “His brothers.  The one you killed was his brother Jeff.  The fat one was his brother Kurt.”

Johnny’s face clouded as he recalled the way the two men had shot at them, not caring if they endangered the girl.  “For a man who wanted you back, he sure wasn’t too careful about his methods.”

The waiter reappeared, setting down two sizzling plates.  “Careful, they’re hot,” he said.  “Anything else?”

“No thanks,” Johnny told him.  The man nodded and left.

“It’s not just him that’s crazy, Johnny.  The whole family’s insane.  Only I didn’t know it then.”

 

CH. 32

The day of his trial arrived too soon for Scott.  He awakened early, nerves on edge.  Hearing him stir, Dave Bell brought him in a cup of jailhouse coffee, too black and too thick, but Scott took it, burning his tongue on the hot brew.

A few minutes later, Dave brought him some water.  Grimacing as he washed and shaved in the cold water, Scott called out to the sheriff.

“Any sign of Johnny?” 

“Nope,” the sheriff replied.  “No sign.”

Scott sighed as he dressed, wishing his brother would appear before his court appearance.  He had an edgy feeling that talking to Johnny would have helped.

After combing his hair, Scott sat down on his cot to wait for his family. His patience was rewarded a few minutes later when Dave yelled through the open door from the front office.

“I see Murdoch and Mark ridin’ up.  Teresa’s in the wagon.  Looks like she’s brought you breakfast.”

Scott’s stomach suddenly rumbled at the thought of Teresa’s good breakfasts. 

His family bustled in the door of the jail a few minutes later, crowding into the cell.  Murdoch stood near the door while Teresa handed him his food and Mark opened his briefcase.

A crowd began to gather outside while they talked, the same reporters, sketch artists and photographers who’d dogged his arraignment.

Finishing his meal, Scott thanked Teresa and stood up, taking a deep breath.

“You ready?” Dave asked him.  His deputy Todd waited behind him.

Scott nodded, stepping out of the cell.  The men formed a phalanx around him and Teresa as they exited the jail, trying to shield them from the shouted questions and popping flashbulbs.

“Mr. Lancer,” a red-haired young man in a plaid waistcoat shouted, “How do you feel?”

Scott turned toward him.  “I feel good.  I feel confident this will all be resolved today.”

“Murdoch Lancer,” a stocky man shouted, “Do you think your son will get off?”

Murdoch fixed him with a glare that would have shriveled an oak.  “He won’t ‘get off’, he’ll be found innocent—because he is,” he snapped.  “My son has done nothing wrong.”

Jostling along with Scott, Teresa kept her head down, ignoring the questions being shouted at her by the persistent reporters.

Scott’s heart sank as he saw the knot of people in front of the courthouse, waiting for it to open.  He recognized many of their former neighbors, including Buck Miller, whose ranch had just been seized by the bank.  While several of them greeted the Lancers cordially, many of the others, including Buck, were wearing hostile expressions.

Undaunted, Murdoch spoke to them.  “Buck, Sam, everyone.”

Several replied but others turned away, muttering.  Scott glanced at Mark, noticing beads of perspiration along his forehead.  It didn’t make him feel confident.

Dave pounded on the door.  “Open up, Orson!”

The bailiff opened the door and they filed in, taking their seats at the front table.  As before, all the seats in the courtroom were quickly filled by townspeople and the media. Still other observers stood along back walls, in the hall, and under the open windows.

Murdoch glowered at them.  “This reminds me of the Roman Coliseum!”

Scott grinned at him.  “And I’m being thrown to the lions.”

Teresa swatted his arm.  “That’s not funny, Scott!”

“Sorry, Teresa,” he soothed her.  “I thought it was.”

He turned toward his brother-in-law.  “Mark, you’re awfully quiet.”

Smoothing the frown from his brow, Mark turned toward him.  Like Teresa, he hadn’t appreciated Scott’s remark.  It was too close to home.

“Just concentrating, Scott,” he replied.  “Going over my summation.”

The bailiff stood off to the left of the podium.  In a loud voice, he cried, “All rise!”

The crowd shuffled to its feet as the door behind him opened.  Out swept a heavyset man in black robes, his face immobile.  The light bouncing off his spectacles gave him a blank, soulless look.

The bailiff bawled out, “The Honorable Franklin Earle!”

Seating himself, the man banged his gavel down.  “Case number #210, the State of California versus Scott Lancer, is now in session.”

Craning his neck, Scott looked about for Dan Calvert but spotted no one who he thought was his accuser.  His eyes swept the crowd, landing briefly on a woman dressed in black and wearing a veil, unusual attire for the climate.  She was unfamiliar and his gaze passed over her.

Seeing it, the woman’s mouth twisted down behind her veil.  She’d waited a long time for this, her chance to see the high and mighty Lancers brought low. Behind the veil, her green eyes narrowed with spite.  Settling back in her seat, her painted red lips drew up in a small, tight smile.  The trap was about to snap closed and she was glad she was there to see it.

 

CH. 33

The crowd leaned forward as the gavel banged down, listening intently.  Dapper in his   three-piece brown suit, blonde hair gleaming in the light pouring in from the windows, Mark stood to begin his presentation.  Teresa felt a spark of pride, despite the gravity of the situation.  She felt sure that Mark would get Scott off, and they would all be going home together shortly.  She sat back in her chair, wide brown eyes fixed on her husband.

Speaking earnestly, the young attorney faced the judge.

“Your Honor, Scott Lancer is innocent of the charges against him. As the defense will show, he did not commit the robbery in question on the night of June 21st.   Moreover,  eyewitness testimony places him elsewhere on that night.

Let the record show that Scott Lancer was a passenger on the Pacific and Western train,  California Zephyr,  bound for San Francisco, on the night of June 21st.”

Turning back to the defense table, Mark took up a piece of paper.  “May I approach the bench?”

“You may approach, counsel,” agreed the judge.  Light bounced off his spectacles, making his expression unreadable.

Before handing it to the judge, Mark turned and addressed the packed room.  “This is defense Exhibit A, the California Zephyr’s manifest for the night of June 27.  Scott Lancer’s name is circled.”

Taking it, the judge eyed the paper closely, then put it down, nodding at Mark to continue.

Mark addressed the judge again.  “I ask that the passenger manifest be entered into evidence as Defense Exhibit A.”

Behind him, people in the crowd nodded and murmured to each other, causing the judge to slam the gavel down again.

“Silence!  Silence in the court!”

Whispers dwindling, the crowd stilled again.

In the back of the room, the young woman’s eyes narrowed behind her heavy veil.  She hadn’t thought about the train’s manifest as a tool to prove Scott’s whereabouts.  After a second, her brow relaxed.  It wasn’t going to matter, anyway.  Smoothing her black skirts, she settled back to listen.

Facing the judge and speaking in a loud, clear voice, Mark spoke.

“Defense would like to call its first witness, your Honor.”

The Hon. Franklin Earle nodded from behind the bench. 

“Proceed.”

Mark turned to face the crowd.

“The defense calls Murdoch Lancer.”

Rising, the tall rancher straightened his coat lapels as he made his way out from the long table behind Scott and his lawyer.

“Murdoch Lancer?”  From the crowd, a ranch hand in a plaid shirt muttered in a stage whisper, “That’s his father…how honest is he gonna be?”

“I said, silence!” Franklin Earle replied, again slamming his gavel and causing several people in the front rows to jump.  “The next person who speaks out of turn will be removed.”

Abashed, the hand subsided into his seat, his ears reddening.

Standing before the bailiff, Murdoch placed his right hand on the proffered Bible as he was sworn in.  Speaking loudly, Orson asked, “Your name?”

“Murdoch Lancer,” replied the patriarch.

“Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

The rancher nodded.  “I do.”

“You may be seated.”

Seating himself in the witness chair and looking out at the audience, Murdoch drew himself up, listening as his son-in-law spoke again.

“Murdoch Lancer, you are the defendant’s father, correct?”

“Yes,” Murdoch replied loudly.  “I’m Scott’s father.”

“Where were you on the night of June 21st?”

“Home,” Murdoch answered tersely.

“And where is home?”

“Lancer ranch in the San Joaquin Valley.”

Mark replied, “And where was your son on the night of June 21st?”

Speaking clearly, Murdoch answered.  “He was home.  With me.”

“All night?”  the attorney asked.

“No,” Murdoch had to admit.  “I took him to the train station in Sacramento.”

“And where was he going that night?”

“Scott was heading for San Francisco.”

“Why?”

“For a little rest and relaxation.  He’d  been working very hard and needed a break.”

“What train was he booked on?”

“The California Zephyr.”

“When did it leave?

“The train departed Sacramento at 11 p.m.”

“Did you see him board the train?”

“Yes.”

“How long did you wait after your son boarded the train?”

“I left the platform after I saw him board.  He waved good-bye to me.”

“What did you do then?”

“I left for home.”

“And how long did it take you to arrive home?”

“It’s a two-hour ride to Lancer.”

“What did you do when you got there?”

“I went up to bed.”

“Than you, Mr. Lancer, that will be all.”

Rising, Murdoch made his way back to his seat, looking stoically at the curious crowd.

Mark turned back to the judge.  “The defense calls Dr. Sam Jenkins.”

In a black suit shiny with age, the craggy-faced old doctor sat forward, preparing to make his way through the crowd.

Frowning, the judge looked at Mark.  “How does his testimony play a part?”

Stepping closer to the bench, the young attorney replied, “He’s a character witness, your Honor.”

Shaking his head, the judge growled, “Request denied.”

Shocked, Mark looked at him.

Behind him, Murdoch and Teresa exchanged worried glances as Scott sat forward in his seat, frowning.  The old doctor, his timeworn face creased with puzzlement, settled back in his chair, waiting to see what happened.

Speaking clearly, Mark asked, “May I approach the bench?”

“No need, counsel.  Request denied.”

“But…but…the witness speaks to the character of the defendant.”

“Character witnesses have no place here, counsel.  What matters here are the facts…the plain facts.  Do you have any more of them to present?

Stymied, Mark had to shake his head.

“Then please be seated.”

Mark sat down, shaking his head.

“Attorney for the prosecution, proceed.”

A small, thin man in a white linen suit got up from the table to the Lancer’s right. He had a black pencil mustache and his hair shiny was shiny with Macassar oil.  A gold watch chain crossed his vest. 

He appeared relaxed and confident, almost, Teresa thought, like a cat about to toy with a plump mouse.

Swaggering to the front of the room, the prosecutor nodded to the judge, then turned to survey the crowd, hooking his thumbs in his lapels.  Fixing his beady black eyes on Scott, he began.

“Your Honor, the state will prove beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt that Scott Lancer perpetrated not only the robbery of the Silver Cloud on the night of June 21st, but also masterminded multiple other train robberies in three states.”

The crowd murmured expectantly as the Lancers looked at each other, shocked. Teresa shot up in her chair.  Leaning forward, she prodded her husband in the back.  When Mark turned around, she hissed, “What is he talking about?  What other robberies?”

Forehead creased with worry, Mark replied.  “There have been robberies in other states for months.  But I have no idea how they plan to tie them to Scott.”  Turning back around, he listened to the state prosecutor.

Obviously pleased with the effect his words had produced, the prosecutor smiled, swaying slightly as he waited for the noise to die down.  His beady dark eyes still fixed on Scott, he produced a piece of paper from his coat pocket.

Unfolding it, he showed it to the crowd, then turned to the judge. 

“Your Honor, I have here Prosecution Exhibit A, the manifest for the Pacific and Western train, California Zephyr, dated June. 21st.”  The name of our first eyewitness, the one who will place Scott Lancer at the scene of the crime, is circled.”

Crossing to his table, the D.A. took up another piece of paper.  Holding it aloft with a flourish, he faced the crowd.  “And this,” he added is the Pacific and Western train schedule for Arizona on the night in question.  Let the record show that a Pacific and Western train departed Sacramento for Tucson at 11:30 p.m. on the night of June. 21st.”

 

Ch. 34

Johnny looked at the girl, black brows drawing together.

“You really mean that, don’t you?” he asked.  “That they’re crazy?”

Shelby nodded, her turquoise eyes troubled.  Her own brows drew together.  “I really mean it, Johnny.  The whole family is insane.”

“Why do you say that?” he questioned gently. 

“The things they do--they’re not normal. That whole family thinks they’re above the law. Lying, stealing, cheating-- they don’t care what methods they have to use to meet their ends.”

Johnny looked at her.  “Pack law, the big dog gets the meat,” he said, quoting Murdoch.

Shelby nodded.  “And they don’t care who they hurt in the process.” 

He looked back at her, his dark face intent.  She wanted to reach up and smooth the lines of concern away but kept her hands in her lap.  Dejected, she looked down at the table.

Johnny looked into the distance, frowning.  Returning his gaze to her, he said, “I think you’d best tell me the whole story when we can be uninterrupted.  I don’t want to miss anything.”

Picking up his fork, he smiled at her.  “So, let’s let this go until after dinner.  I hate to waste good food.”

She grinned back at him, eyes bright as the seriousness left her face.  “Deal!”

The decision to shelve such a serious topic brightened their mood. In the sudden silence,  each was very conscious of the other’s presence.  Unwilling to inhabit the safe distance across the table, Johnny had slid closely into the booth beside her and now his warm body was pressed almost the length of hers.  Flustered, but unwilling to move away, she picked up her silverware. Shoulders overlapping and thighs touching, they began to eat.

As it was a Sunday, Fulton’s was not too busy and the light was dim.  Candles gleamed softly in their red holders throughout the room. The one at their table cast a mellow, flickering light.  Across the room, the bartender stood behind his massive mahogany bar, polishing glasses with a cloth, occasionally pausing to fill drink orders.  The sleeves of his emerald green silk shirt were hitched up by black garters, keeping the expensive material out of harm’s way.

Cooked to perfection, their steaks were nicely charcoaled on the outside, rare on the inside, and almost melted in their mouths.  Johnny slit open his baked potato, piling on the butter.  The small yellow mound gleamed as it dispersed.  As he unwrapped the napkin-covered basket their biscuits had arrived in, the heavenly aroma of fresh-baked bread filled the air.

In the warm glow of the candle, Shelby cast a discreet glance at Johnny, studying him surreptitiously as they ate.  His eyelashes, she thought again, were really far too long and thick for any man to possess.  His tanned skin had a warm glow, making his blue eyes brighter still.  This close, she could see the beard stubble beginning.  She liked it, she decided.  It made him look still more masculine, if that was possible.

She was conscious of an urge to stroke his thick black hair, curling slightly where it touched his collar.  The manly scent of horses and leather clung to him, making her lightheaded. 

In such a setting, it was easy to pretend that they were just a happy couple out on a Sunday evening, with no worries. 

She grinned up at him, her turquoise eyes bright.  “I can see why you like this place, Johnny.  The food’s delicious.”

Lightly buttering a biscuit, her small white teeth gleamed as she bit into it. Returning her gaze to his face, she said, “Thank you for bringing me.”

Dios, she was lovely, Johnny thought.  Her beautiful eyes, framed in lush black lashes, and gazing into his, were making him lose his train of thought.

Stray tendrils of glossy hair, streaked by the sun, had escaped her hair ribbon and curled softly around her face.  He remembered the night in Oaxaca when she’d tumbled off the wall and knocked him into the street.  Her loose hair, thick and heavy, had swirled about them both as they struggled in the street.  He remembered what it had felt like as it caressed his face.  Not a day had gone by since that he hadn’t longed to feel it again, to plunge both his hands into it and tilt her small face up for a kiss.  Feeling an involuntary tightening in his groin, he hastily abandoned that train of thought and cast about mentally for something to say.

“I noticed a wonderful smell in the air when we rode in,” she remarked innocently, unaware of his condition.  “What was that?”

Relieved to have something else to focus on, Johnny told her a little about Sacramento’s history.  After the turbulent Gold Rush years, he said, Sacramento had decided its future lay in agriculture.  What she had noticed was the hundreds of acres of fruit trees, bearing scented burdens of peaches, plums, lemons and apples.  Not to be pigeonholed, area farmers were also raising other crops, including almonds, walnuts, raspberries, and strawberries.

Pausing, he sliced off another bit of steak and put it into his mouth.  

They were silent for awhile, finishing their food.  When they were done, they looked at each other, pleasantly full.  Smiling, their waiter re-appeared as if by magic, picking up their plates.  “Can I get you anything else?” he asked.  “Dessert?”

Shelby shook her head.  “Not for me, thank you.”

Johnny looked at the man.  “What do you have?”

The waiter smiled.  “I’ll bring the cart.”

Almost immediately, he was back, wheeling the loaded desert cart.  Stopping beside the table, he began pointing out the selections.  “We have the chocolate cake…it’s wonderful, I had some earlier…strawberry pie, éclairs, cheesecake, vanilla cake with raspberry sauce…”

She had to smile, watching Johnny give the waiter his rapt attention.  His fondness for sweets was endearing, she thought.  She’d noticed it before when they were staying at Becks’ bordello in Oaxaca.  It was a sweetly child-like quality in an otherwise complex and often formidable man.

The waiter was still talking.   “Chocolate mousse, crème brulee, tapioca pudding, apple pie with caramel sauce, delicious with vanilla ice cream, blueberry tart, cherry crumble,  peach pie...”

Johnny interrupted, having made up his mind.  “I’ll take the chocolate mousse.”  He looked at Shelby.  “Sure you don’t want anything?”

She smiled, shaking her head.  “I’m sure.”

“I’ll be right back.”  Smiling, the man wheeled the cart off, returning almost immediately with a white crockery bowl.

Placing the dessert before Johnny, he said, “Enjoy.”

Picking up his spoon, Johnny took a bite.

She had to laugh at his expression.

“Is it good?”

He nodded.  “Try some.”

Taking a spoonful of the dessert, he fed it to her.

“Mmmm,” she admitted, “that’s good!”

“Here,” he said, feeding her another bite, “Have some more.”

Alternating spoonfuls between them, they made short work of the dessert.

“See,” he said, smiling at her, “you had room after all.”

Unable to resist, she placed a finger on his bottom lip, where a tiny spot of chocolate lingered.  At her touch, Johnny grasped her hand, pressing it to his cheek.  Turning his head, he bestowed a kiss into the palm, caressing it with his lips.

A quiver shot through her at the contact, making her heart beat faster.

Kissing her palm gently once more, he brushed his lips gently along the inside of the delicate wrist.

Still holding her palm to his cheek, he raised his eyes, all laughter gone.  He had felt her pulse leap when his lips touched her wrist and now he gazed into the pools of turquoise blue regarding him through the fringe of thick black lashes.

Mesmerized by his sapphire eyes, her lashes lowered as he tilted his head, lips seeking hers.

“Ooops!  Sorry, folks!  The waiter said, whirling and presenting his back to them.  “Didn’t mean to interrupt!”

The mood was shattered as effectively as if a bomb had gone off.  Johnny closed his eyes for a second with frustration.  Blushing, Shelby snatched her hand back and looked away.

Unclenching his fists, Johnny reached for the bill, summoning a semblance of civility as he scanned it.  Reaching into his wallet, he drew out the required amount, including a nice tip.

The waiter, who had expected to be stiffed after interrupting the tender moment, was happily surprised.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, gathering up the money.  “Come back and see us again!”

Nodding somewhat tightly, Johnny stood up, extending a hand to help Shelby out of the booth.  Not looking at him, she slid out.  Placing a hand on the small of her back, he guided her gently toward the door, nodding at the bartender, who called, “Night, folks!” after them.

Arriving on the street, they looked at each other, trying to decide what to do next.  The soft evening air, laden with sweet smells, was inviting.  It was too nice to go back to the hotel, Johnny thought.

“C’mon,” he told her.  “Let’s go for a walk down by the river.”

Turning to their left, they made their way down to the Sacramento River, glistening in the evening sun. Flowing placidly within its banks, it looked nothing like the raging torrent that had virtually destroyed the town in 1850 and again in 1862.  A tenacious bunch, its citizens were in the midst of a reclamation project, literally raising the downtown area by fifteen feet by rebuilding it on top of the old one.  The old buildings and streets, Johnny told her, were fast becoming a series of tunnels under the town.

“How odd,” Shelby mused.  “And the river looks so peaceful now.  I guess it proves the old adage that things aren’t always what they seem.”

And, Johnny thought grimly, people weren’t always what they seemed, either, including him.  He’d been sorely worried at the prospect of telling her who and what he had been before he became Johnny Lancer.  What, he wondered uneasily, would she do when she knew the truth about him?

It was a grim irony, he thought, that the renowned Johnny Madrid was deathly afraid of this conversation.  Never in his life, not even as an abandoned child, alone in Mexico, not as a political prisoner minutes from a firing squad, or as a gunfighter staring down the barrel of his opponent’s weapon, had he ever been so scared.

Although Johnny couldn’t blame her, the thought that she would be revolted, might turn her back on him forever, leaving his heart in a million shattered pieces, shook him to the core.

Still, he thought grimly, it had to be done.  He couldn’t let her get more involved with him without knowing the truth.  It wasn’t fair to the girl.  If she turned her back on him, so be it, he thought.  Better now than later when the pain would be a thousand times worse.

Following the path running along the green riverbank, they strolled toward the setting sun, the evening rays painting the high clouds in hues of scarlet, pink, and gold.  The summer air was soft, the fragrant breeze ruffling their hair as they walked along.

Nodding to the occasional passer-by, Johnny took Shelby’s hand in his.  Shy, she almost pulled away, remembering what her mother had told her about public displays of affection.

“Should gentlemen observe you holding hands, kissing, or otherwise touching in public,” Isabelle had said in her sweet voice, “they would know you were not a lady, dear, and would try to take liberties.”

Feeling sure that her mother had meant other men, Shelby let her hand remain in his, glancing at his profile as he watched the river. His hands were so warm and strong, she thought, and her own felt as if it belonged right there.  Unbidden, a thought crossed her mind as she looked down at his brown hand, fingers entwined firmly with hers.   Thinking again of his lips on her wrist, she wondered suddenly what his hands and lips would feel like on her body, cheeks pinkening at her own audacity.

Lost in thought as they strolled, Johnny missed her sudden blush, his own mind on the conversation they still had to have, knowing it had to be done now, before another day passed.

Coming abruptly to a halt, he swung her around in front of him so that they were face to face.  He felt his resolve weakening as she smiled up at him.  Dreading the moment that the light would go out of her face, trust replaced by revulsion, his heart beat faster.

Sapphire eyes met turquoise as Johnny gazed down at her, gathering both of her hands into his.  Taking a deep breath, he began.

“Shelby, before we go any further, there’s something I have to tell you.”

 

Ch. 35

Disembarking from the stage early Monday morning, Larry found himself swept up in the crowd rushing for the courthouse.  Lola wailed as she was jostled unmercifully in her case and he fought his way free, clutching it to his chest.   Watching the roiling mass of humanity surging away in a cloud of dust, he straightened his hat and attempted to soothe the frightened beast. 

“There, there, Lola, it’s all right.  We’ll go find our hotel now.”

Another wail issued from the case as the distraught cat made her feelings known. Thoroughly annoyed, she settled back down, grumbling, as Larry picked his way through the dusty, rutted street toward the Morro Coyo Inn.  Catching his breath, he went up the steps and spoke to the rotund clerk in the blue-striped shirt bent over the desk.

“Hello, I’m Larry Sawyer.  I had a reservation.”

Checking his journal, the red-haired clerk smiled.  “Yes sir, room 213; if you’ll just sign your name here. May I help you with your bags?”

Exhausted, Larry nodded gratefully.  “Thank you.”

Picking up the suitcase, the clerk pointed at the carrying case, where a bewhiskered black and white face peered out, eyes narrowed.  “Who’s your friend?”

Larry smiled.  “That’s Lola, Lola Montez.  She’s had a rough trip.”

Preceding Larry to the stairs, the clerk smiled in return.  “Well, she’s here, now. She can rest all she wants.”

Starting up the carpeted stairs, one hand on the polished wood banister for balance, he spoke over his shoulder.

“It’s really lucky you cabled ahead for a reservation.  There isn’t a single room left in Morro Coyo or Green River.”

Larry spoke up.  “I saw the crowd earlier; what’s going on?”

Huffing slightly as he toiled up the steep stairs with the heavy case, the jovial clerk said, “Oh, it’s the biggest thing to hit these parts for ages.  One of the locals is being tried on charges of train robbery.  The newspaper says he masterminded the biggest crime wave since Jesse James.”

Reaching the top step, the clerk turned right down the long hall.  Stopping midway, the clerk produced a ring of keys and opened the door, standing back for Larry to precede him.

The room, thought Larry, was pleasant enough, with its green-patterned carpet and white curtains billowing in the slight breeze. Golden pine furniture, a leather armchair, and a reading lamp completed the room, while a full-length mirror adorned the back of the door.

Setting Lola’s case down on the carpeted floor with a hiss of relief, Larry glanced out the windows, noticing that the saloon was directly across the street.  Seeing his look, the clerk spoke up. “Don’t worry, it won’t be a bother.  Morro Coyo is a nice quiet town.”

When it wasn’t hosting trials for grand theft robbery, maybe, Larry thought.  Forbearing to say anything, he reached into his pocket, pulling out some change.  Placing it in the clerk’s hand, he thanked him for his help.

Beaming as he backed toward the door, the red-haired clerk gave him a friendly nod.  “Oh, glad to help, just let me know if you need anything else.  Enjoy your stay!”

When the door shut, Larry closed the windows before letting Lola out of her case.  Suspicious of what new atrocity he was about to perpetrate on a long-suffering cat, she blinked, giving him a sulky look.  Laughing, Larry picked her up.  Her mood improving, the cat hooked her paws over his shoulder, the faintest of purrs emerging as he crossed to the window.

Turning away, Larry put Lola down on the bed.  Wrapping her tail neatly around her  front paws, she regarded him intently as he put his suitcase down and opened it.

“You might as well get comfortable, Lola,” he told her.  “We’re going to be here for awhile.”

Sick of traveling, Larry had decided to stay in Morro Coyo for awhile, at least until he got the energy to tackle the trip to Maryland.  He wanted to see a little of California first, having heard so much about the “Golden State.”

He wasn’t quite sure what his plans would be for the next few days.  He might, he thought, take life easy, stay in, read a book.  Or, he might drop in on the train robber’s trial, just to see what all the excitement was about. 

Taking off his coat, he sat down on the bed with a sigh of relief, watching Lola as she prowled about, familiarizing herself with the room.  Touching her nose to each new object, she rubbed herself against the leather chair.  Larry touched the bridge of his nose  where it ached.  Feeling the bump in the bridge where it had been broken, his brows drew together. The long and frequently uncomfortable trip he’d been on had served to keep his mind off Oaxaca but now a wave of homesickness swept over him, making him feel suddenly downcast.

Without the distraction of travel, he missed his friends, his job, and the beautiful cosmopolitan city.  If he were there now, he thought, he’d stroll around the town square looking at the offerings of the vendors, perhaps haggling a little in a friendly way for some fresh fruit or a new shirt.  Perhaps he’d have found some little keepsake for his beloved house on Sandoval Street.

Catching sight of his reflection in the long pier glass, he rubbed his nose again.  He’d resolutely avoided looking into mirrors since his “accident,” but suddenly a white-hot poker of anger stabbed his chest.  Larry had never sought revenge or even justice from his tormentor, the fat man with the rancid breath who’d invaded his home and pistol-whipped him savagely.  Not knowing who the man was or what his connections may be, it had seemed safer to simply drop it.  Since then, he’d done his best not to think about any of it, stuffing his rage down into the deepest part of himself and walling it off.

A gust of anger shook him, startling in its intensity.  His breath came faster as he recalled his tiny house with all of its perfect furnishings wantonly destroyed by an obese madman.  Having a reminder of that horrifying night etched permanently on his face was almost too much to bear.  He thought he may have been able to forget that terrible night in due time if it didn’t confront him every day when he shaved, as it would for the rest of his life.

Wishing he had someone to talk to, he decided to go out for a walk instead and shake off his bleak mood.  Bidding the cat goodbye, he picked up his bowler hat and went downstairs, nodding to the clerk as he left.

Larry wandered down the splintery board sidewalk, noticing the town appeared oddly deserted.  Surmising that most of its denizens were at the trial, he drifted in and out of the various shops, conversing briefly with Mr. Valdemero in the general store and looking in at the jewelers.  Inexplicably attracted to one dark shop, he entered, making a single purchase before making his way back toward the hotel.

Passing the dressmaker’s shop, he was drawn by the style dolls in the window.  They were attired much more fashionably then he would have expected for this small, remote town.  Exquisitely garbed in tasteful outfits in varied colors, perfect down to the last detail, they reminded him of the ones he would have seen in the much more cosmopolitan city of Oaxaca. While he was looking in the shop window, the owner bustled out, pulling on her gloves.  Head down, she rushed straight into Larry.

He caught her in his arms as she crashed into him.  The woman looked up, breathless.  “Oh, I’m so sorry!” she cried, big black eyes widening with dismay.  Her voice was charming, with its slight French accent.  Larry smiled down into her pretty face, creamy complexion framed by clouds of curly dark hair, steadying her until she got her balance.

“Quite all right,” he said, “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

She smiled prettily.  “You, monsieur, are a terrible liar.  I was the one who ran into you.  So it is all my fault.”

Larry laughed, doffing his hat.  Somewhat startled at the sound, he realized it was the first time he’d laughed in months.  Making a quick decision, he asked her, “I’m new in town and looking for a place to dine.  Would you care to debate this over lunch?”

She lowered her chin, peeping up at him through her eyelashes.  His heart gave an unaccustomed little hitch at the flirtatious gesture.  Smiling, Suzette replied, “Why, yes, I’d…”

She was cut off by roar from the courthouse, causing both of them to look that way. The doors flew back, releasing a horde of journalists, photographers and sketch artists.  The crowd came thundering down the street toward them, causing Larry to instinctively shield Suzette with his body.

“Oh!” she cried, “The trial must have ended!”

Looking inquiringly at the mob rushing past on its way to the telegraph office, she recognized a journalist she knew.  Catching his eye, she called to him.

“Please, what has happened?”

Not breaking stride, the man hurried past, shouting over his shoulder, “The verdict’s in…guilty on all counts!”

“And the sentence?” she pleaded to his retreating back.

Looking over his shoulder, the journalist called back, “Death!  By hanging!”

 

CH. 36

Startled, Shelby looked up at him, her smile fading.  She could see that whatever it was came hard as he searched for words, emotions warring on his dark face. 

Reaching up, she laid a finger on his lips, stilling any words that might be trying to escape.  Looking into his eyes, she spoke softly.

“Not now, Johnny.  Whatever it is, it can wait.”

“That’s just it, Shelby,” he muttered.  “It’s waited too long already.”

She gazed up at him, turquoise eyes glowing behind their thick fringe of lashes.  The breeze ruffled tendrils of hair back from her face.  The silver hoops at her ears and the concho belt he’d given her gleamed in the fading light. The freshening breeze whipped her skirts around their legs.  She was so beautiful, it hurt him to look at her.

Taking a deep breath, she said, “I’ve been thinking while we walked.  I’ve put off telling you some things that could be important.  I want to tell you now.”

“Shelby,” he began, suddenly impatient.  “You don’t understand.”

“I understand this, Johnny,” she said quietly.  “I know that I don’t want anything to happen to you.  And I’ve been a coward, trying to pretend that everything is all right, that my husband isn’t looking for us even now.”

“Shelby,” he burst out. “This has nothing to do with your husband.  It has to do with me, who I am and everything I’ve done.  If you knew, you’d understand why I’m not afraid of him.”

Johnny looked away, searching for words.  The breeze ruffled his black hair and his eyes were dark with stormy emotion.  A muscle moved in his lean cheek as he clenched his jaw.  The unfamiliar scowl and darkening sky made him look like a stranger.

The river, sliding gently between its banks, suddenly sounded abnormally loud in the silence.  With the breeze disturbing its surface as the light went out of the evening, it no longer seemed inviting.  Grasses on the riverbank swayed as the wind picked up.

“Dammit!” He thought furiously.  “Why can’t I just say it?”

Now that the moment was here, Johnny was totally at a loss, just as he’d been every time he’d contemplated telling her before.

He had put off telling her for weeks.  Somehow, the time had never seemed right.  With her aristocratic heritage, he had wondered uneasily what she would do when she learned of his parentage.  Many people looked down on him when they learned about Maria; it was entirely possible that Shelby would do the same.

Johnny’s lip curled sardonically.  His parentage paled before the issue of his former life as a gunslinger for hire.

What would she think when she learned he’d been the notorious Johnny Madrid? A gunfighter feared in border towns across the Southwest? He remembered every man that he’d killed; they haunted his dreams, never more so than now when he’d found this woman he knew he couldn’t bear to lose.

In his heart, Johnny doubted that such a gently-reared girl could comprehend, much less forgive, the circumstances that had formed him.

He was suddenly, irrationally angry at Maria for taking him away.  If she hadn’t, he thought savagely, he’d be like Scott, whose slumber was never riven by nightmares.  He wouldn’t ever have to wonder if he was good enough, worthy enough.  He’d get out of bed every day sure of his place in the world, confident that he deserved the love of his family.

He wouldn’t feel daily the disorienting sense of constantly straddling two worlds and not belonging in either.  If he’d grown up at the hacienda, Johnny thought, he’d have been sure of who and what he was and of what he had to offer a woman.

Johnny Madrid had often envied his brother his serene good nature.  Untroubled by doubts, Scott slept soundly at night with the confident expectation that the next day was going to bring only pleasant things.  Looking into the mirror as he shaved, Scott Lancer never had to fear that this might finally be the day his past caught up with him.

With his blond hair and blue eyes, his education and his Beacon Hill breeding, Scott was everybody’s golden boy. Until the war, he’d spent every day with the love of his grandfather, had enough to eat, worn good clothes and at night he’d slept in clean sheets.

His little brother’s life had been far different. Johnny had fought daily to survive, to fit in, to learn the way of the gun.  Food was frequently scarce and his clothes had often been ragged and dirty.  At night he’d slept where he could, frequently on the floor when his mother had needed the bed to entertain her gentlemen callers.

Unafraid for himself, Johnny lived daily with the secret, gnawing fear of something happening to his family, something that he was somehow responsible for. Some days, the fear was constant, other days, it was so far in the back of his mind that he was unaware of it.

Occasionally, he wondered if his life with them had all been a dream, afraid he’d wake up in some flea-bitten dive with a strange woman beside him, sweating as the memories of his new-found home and family disappeared.

If Maria hadn’t taken him away, he thought, furious, he’d be coming to this girl with clean hands, hands that had no blood on them.

He wished savagely that he could undo all the lost years and be the man Shelby thought he was, the man this beautiful woman deserved.

The breeze freshened suddenly, blowing his black hair into his eyes.  The darkening sky hid the angles and hollows of his face, making him look like a stranger.  His sapphire eyes were dark with remembrance and his faraway expression was cold and forbidding.

A small shiver went down her spine. For the first time, Shelby felt a tingle of fear.  After all, how well did she really know this man? 

“God, why is this so damned hard?” he burst out, anguish in his voice.

Johnny turned back to look at her and she saw his eyes. At the look in them, Shelby’s sudden fear left her.

Her lips on his shut off the tortured words as her arms went about his neck, drawing his dark head down to hers.

 

Ch. 37

In the courtroom, the Lancers looked at each other in stunned silence as the crowd, murmuring loudly, was herded out by the bailiff and the lawmen.

“Go on!” Dave Bell directed them sternly. “Get out! Show’s over!”

Casting curious looks over their shoulders, the crowd muttered avidly, voices rising and falling excitedly.   Sam Jenkins, caught up in the crowd and being borne out the door against his will, cussed them.

“Tarnation, you damn fools!  Let me through!”

“What’s wrong, doc?” asked the cowboy who’d questioned Murdoch’s veracity earlier.

“Because, you dad-blamed idiot, there’s folks here who need me!”

Fighting his way free, he straightened his shiny black coat angrily.  Clutching his bag, the old doctor made his way back into the room, his face creased by worry.  Concerned by her pale, shocked face, he knelt beside Teresa, opening his bag.

“You OK, honey? You feelin’ faint?”

She turned to him, mute.  Suddenly, her eyes rolled back and her husband grabbed her, holding her upright as the Lancer men sprang up.

Grabbing the smelling salts, Sam waved them under the girl’s nose while Mark patted her cheeks.  Coming around, she looked at them, dazed, for a moment.  Comprehension flooding her face, she burst into sobs, hiding her face against Mark’s shoulder.

“Teresa,” he murmured, pressing her close to him.  “Teresa, honey…”  He looked helplessly at the doctor, who fumbled in his bag again.

Scott knelt beside them, reaching to smooth the girl’s hair back as Murdoch crowded close on the other side.

“Teresa,” he said, “Oh, Teresa, please…”

She looked up at him, her face drowned with tears that flooded down her cheeks.  Seeing the concern in her foster brother’s face, she wept harder. Scott took her hands in his.  Looking at her gravely, he said, “Teresa, you have to stop, you’ll make yourself sick.”

Mark spoke up, “He’s right, honey, you have to calm down.”

Sam removed a small brown bottle from his bag, yelling at the bailiff as he did so.  “You!  Go get me a glass!  And hurry up about it!”

“Sure, doc, sure,” stammered the bailiff.  “Right away!”  He opened the door to the judge’s chambers and entered, shutting it behind him.

The judge looked up at him, his face expressionless.  “Bailiff, please clear my courtroom.”

Orson looked at him.  He sure was a cold fish, he thought.  “It’s the girl, sir, she’s upset.”

“I can hear that, bailiff.  And how is that my problem?”

Stunned, Orson tried again, indicating the water carafe and glasses on a tray on the big desk.  “Uh, may I, sir?”

The judge raised his eyebrows as he divested himself of his robes, hanging them up as he regarded Orson over his shoulder.

“If you must.  But stop that infernal caterwauling.”

Orson nodded, edging for the door just as Sam yelled for him.  “Orson!  Get the hell out here!”

The bailiff nodded at the judge.  “Uh, yes, sir, right away, sir,” he replied as he fled, closing the door behind him.

Teresa’s sobs reached a crescendo as she gave in to hysterics.  Rushing to the doctor, Orson waved the glass at him.

“Give me that, you dang fool!” the old man snapped.  Taking the glass, he poured a generous amount of liquid into it.  Taking Teresa by the shoulder, he told her firmly, “Here, honey, drink this.”

She shook her head.  “I don’t want it.”

Murdoch spoke up, “Please, honey, take it, it’s for your own good.”

Fresh tears cascaded down.  “I can’t sleep now!  Not when Scott has so little time!” Sam intervened.  In a voice that brooked no refusal, he said, “Teresa, I want you to take this.  It’s just enough laudanum to calm you down, not put you to sleep.  Now, here, drink it.”

Looking at the concerned men surrounding her, Teresa took the glass, holding it in trembling fingers.

“Go on, honey,” Sam told her.  “Drink it right down.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Go on, Teresa, it will make you feel better.  And then we’ll talk.”

Finding the taste pleasant, she drank it.  A few minutes later, she was visibly calmer.

Orson looked at them, saddened.  In all his years as bailiff of the county seat, he’d never seen anything like what had happened today.  By the door, the sheriff and his deputies shuffled their feet and looked away, their faces pale.  Turning their backs to the family, they tried not to listen to the grief in the voices of the men. 

Murdoch, thought the sheriff, looked as if he’d aged twenty years since the verdict was read.  The rancher looked stunned, far-away. The lines in his face cut deeper than ever and his eyes were hollow. Dark shadows lay under them. Dave was sure the man could use a shot of laudanum himself.  But he’d known Murdoch Lancer for years and he knew the man would never show a sign of weakness, even if it killed him.

Behind him, Murdoch spoke, concern obvious in his voice.  “Are you better now, Teresa?  Do you think we can leave?”

She looked at him with heavy eyes.  Startled, he raised his eyes to the doctor’s face.  Sam shook his head, pursing his lips

Mark slid closer, propping Teresa upright in the chair.  “Let’s go out the back,” he suggested.  “I don’t want anyone to see her this way.”

“Good idea, Mark,” the sheriff told him.  “Todd!  You go get their horses and the wagon, bring ‘em around.  Go by the jail, pick up a couple of blankets and put ‘em in the back.”

The deputy nodded, happy to leave.  Murdoch stood, drawing himself to his full height.  “Not my horse,” he said firmly.

They looked at him, surprised.  “But Murdoch, the crowd…don’t you want to leave quietly?”

“No.  I’m not skulking off like a thief in the night.  My place is with my son.”

“You heard the man,” Dave told the deputy.  “Get going.”

Nodding, Todd slipped out the door.

His expression clearing, suddenly the old, authoritative Murdoch was back.

“Mark,” he told his son-in-law.  “We’ll help you get Teresa into the wagon.  You can take her out the back way, no one will see you then.  I don’t want anyone seeing her like this, either.”

Murdoch looked at Sam, then at his drowsy ward, raising an eyebrow. “I thought you said it was only enough to take the edge off.”

Looking him full in the face, the old doctor replied, “I lied.  I gave her enough to drop a horse.  The poor girl is going to need it.”

Putting the cap back on the amber-colored bottle, he gave it to Mark.  “Take this.  Give her some more when she comes to.”

Scott got to his feet, looking at his father.  “Murdoch, you don’t have to go with me.  It isn’t necessary.  I’ll be fine.”

Murdoch looked at his eldest son.  Inside his heart was breaking but no trace of his inner turmoil showed.  His eyes lovingly traced each feature, memorizing them.  The pale blue eyes, so like his mother’s.  The golden hair and fair skin, another legacy from Catherine, the firm jaw and long, lean body.

His son looked back steadily.  Looking into his eyes, Murdoch saw no fear, only concern for his family.  It made his heart ache even more.  That, he thought, was Scott.  Valiant, foursquare, dependable, not an ounce of subterfuge in his nature.

Todd opened the door.  “There’s quite a crowd out there, Dave,” he told the sheriff. 

“Well, get rid of  ‘em!” the lawman snapped.  “This ain’t no dog and pony show!  Get on out there, clear the street,” he told his deputies.

Murdoch stopped him once again.  “You don’t have to do that, Dave.  We have nothing to be ashamed off.  We’ll go out of here with our heads held high.”

Worried, the paunchy sheriff looked at him.  “You sure, Murdoch? This could get ugly.”

Receiving his nod, Dave turned to his son.  “Scott? Let’s not make this harder than it has to be.”

Scott smiled.  “The hard part’s over, Dave.  It was the not knowing.  Murdoch’s right.”

Mark knelt beside Teresa’s chair, slipping one arm beneath her knees.  Eyes half-shut, her head rolled back upon his shoulder.

Dave Bell opened the door and looked out.  There was only the deputy, patiently holding the team, blankets arranged neatly in the back.

Murdoch held the door as Mark carried his wife out.  Following him to the wagon, he helped the young man lay the girl down.  Pulling a blanket over her, he drew it to her chin.

Only her face, framed by lustrous dark hair showed as Scott came down the steps.

Standing beside the wagon, he looked down at the small face, slumbering peacefully.  He stood for a moment, imprinting his foster sister upon his heart.  Reaching out, he touched her cheek softly, with infinite love.

Murdoch watched, his own heart breaking silently.  On the steps, the old doctor honked into his handkerchief.

Removing his hand from girl’s soft cheek, Scott looked up at his brother-in-law, waiting with the reins in his hand. Confusion and sadness showed on the young man’s face.  His brows drawing together, he spoke haltingly.

“Scott…I’m so sorry.  So sorry I didn’t do better.”

Scott took him by the shoulder.  “Mark.  None of that.  You did your best, didn’t you?”

Mark nodded, his face marked by pain.

“Then that’s all I could ask.  Give the baby a kiss for me.  Tell her Uncle Scott loves her.”

Mark nodded, choking back tears.

He climbed up into the wagon and extended his hand down.

His brother-in-law took it in a strong grip.

Mark gathered the reins, a mist of tears blinding him.

“Good-bye, Scott.”

 

Ch. 38

Letting the curtain drop, the judge returned to his desk, calling loudly for Orson as he did so.

Breathless, the heavyset bailiff materialized in his chamber.  “Sir?”

Franklin Earle looked at him, rattling a pile of papers in irritation.  “Bailiff, why isn’t that convicted felon remanded to jail yet?  Why is he standing out there on the street saying his good-byes like nothing has happened?”

The bailiff looked at him, biting down hard on the words that wanted to explode from his lips.  For the first time in his long career, he was ashamed of his profession.  Reminding himself that he was close to retirement and had a pension to protect, he drew himself up.

“I’ll take care of it,” he said quietly.

Franklin Earle looked at him coldly, the light bouncing off his spectacles.  “See that you do.”

Shutting the door quietly behind him, the bailiff leaned against it, breathing hard.  His simple, honest face was as sad and confused as that of an old bloodhound.

From his place by the door, Dave Bell asked, “What’s wrong, Orson?”

The old man shook his head, putting a finger to his lips.  Straightening, he crossed the room to the sheriff.  Jerking his head toward the closed door, he said quietly, “It’s him.  Wants the boy taken into custody right away.”

Dave looked at him, aggrieved.  “Damn, Orson!  Don’t he even get to say his good-byes?”

The old man sighed, rubbing his forehead as if it ached. 

Dave looked at him, immediately abashed.  “I’m sorry, Orson, I got no call to take it out on you.”

Orson looked at him.  “It’s all right, Dave, but you better take him away now.”

Dave nodded curtly to his deputies.  “Get ready.”

Stepping out the back door, he saw Murdoch holding his son by the forearms, deep in conversation.

“Murdoch, Scott…hate to interrupt.”

Startled, they looked at him.  Scott spoke first.

“I guess it’s time to go.”  He smiled at his father.  “Good-bye, Murdoch.”

Murdoch closed his eyes, as if in pain.  Opening them, he said quickly, “Don’t say that, Scott.  This isn’t goodbye, not yet.”

Scott looked at him.  “Promise me.  I don’t want you risking your life or Mark’s or any of the hands by trying to get me out.”

Murdoch opened his mouth but Scott interrupted.  “No, Murdoch, it has to be this way.  Don’t you see?  Whatever would happen to Teresa and Catherine if you or Mark were killed?  What would happen to the ranch?” His expression softening, he said, “And what would become of Johnny?  I don’t know what he’d do without you.”

Shaking his head, Murdoch tried again to speak but Dave Bell and Todd were beside them, taking Scott by the arms.

Murdoch looked at his oldest son, a lifetime of words damned up behind his lips.  All the things he wished he’d told the boy, all the words of praise he’d withheld because of pride or stupidity…he wished he could say them now.  His anguish showed in his eyes.  “Scott,” he said, “I want you to know…”

Scott soothed him.  We’ll talk again tomorrow.  We’ll have time….before…”

Dave interrupted.  “I want to warn you, it’s a big crowd.  This could get ugly.”

He looked at the doctor.  “Step aside, will you Sam? We’ll meet you at the jail.”

Nodding, the old doctor nodded, his craggy face worried.  “I’ll be right behind you.”

Entering the courtroom again, the sheriff and his deputies formed a phalanx, with Scott and Murdoch in the middle.  Orson added his voice.  “I’m coming, too.”

Dave nodded to his deputies.  “Make room.”

Obediently, they crowded together to admit the large bailiff into their ranks, regrouping tightly around the two men in the middle.

Taking a deep breath, Dave threw open the door.

The men looked down at the hostile crowd waiting for them.  At the sight of Scott, jeers and catcalls filled the air.

“Hey, Lancer,” one of the watching cowhands yelled.  “How fast can you dance…on air?”

Laughter erupted from his cronies as Murdoch’s eyes narrowed dangerously.  Seeing it, Dave Bell gave him a shove to keep him moving.

The grimfaced deputies bunched tighter around the Lancer men, who kept their own heads high and their faces blank as they moved through the crowd. 

Bruce Miller’s face swam out of the horde at Murdoch.  Twisted with diabolical rage, he jeered at the tall rancher who had been his friend and neighbor for thirty years.

“Well, Murdoch, that’s some pair of winners you raised, a half-breed gunhawk and a lyin’, thieving train robber!  Is that how Lancer’s stayed afloat all this time, on our stolen money?”

Stung, Murdoch turned toward him just as a rock struck him in the temple.  Staggering, he halted, pressing one hand to the blood already trickling down.

“Murdoch!” Scott grabbed his arm.  “Are you all right?”

Rapid gunshots rang out as Dave fired his weapon into the air, turning to face the crowd.  Forming a tight ring around the Lancers, all of his tense deputies pulled their weapons, watching the crowd warily.

“I’m warnin’ you,” the sheriff gritted.  “I have a bullet for the next man who moves.”

Someone heckled from the back of the crowd, “Awww, you wouldn’t, Dave.”

Looking squarely at the crowd through narrowed eyes, the sheriff spoke slowly and distinctly.

“Try me. I’ll shoot the next man who tries anything else and that’s a promise.  Now back off!”

Muttering, the crowd began to disperse. 

Arriving at the jail, the men ushered Scott quickly into the cell, locking it, before turning to seat Murdoch in the chair behind the sheriff’s desk.  Sagging with relief, several deputies removed their hats, mopping sweaty brows with their sleeves.

A few moments later, Sam bustled in, out of breath.

“Here, Murdoch, let me see that, he said, pulling Murdoch’s hand away from his head.

Squinting, he eyed it critically.  “You could probably use a couple stitches,” he said.

Murdoch waved him away, putting his bloody handkerchief back in his pocket.  “Not now, Sam, I’m fine.”

From the cell, Scott spoke, his voice rough with concern.  “Let him take care of it, Murdoch!” and his father subsided, muttering.

Sam set about disinfecting the wound before placing a small bandage over the cut.  “There.  You’ll be good as new in no time.”

“Speaking of time,” Dave added.  “I’m a little concerned about things back at Lancer, even with Jelly in charge.  I didn’t like the looks of that crowd—I think we better get you home to keep an eye on things.”

“And,” he added warningly as Murdoch opened his mouth.  “I’m posting a couple deputies on the premises.  I’ve sent a call for more officers already.  They’ll be meeting you at Lancer.”

Leaning against the bars, Scott nodded approvingly from inside the cell.  “That’s a great idea.  Thanks, Dave.”

Looking out, the sheriff noted that the street was empty but for a few people going about their business.

“C’mon, Murdoch,” he said.  “Let’s go.”

Murdoch looked at him.  “What about Scott?  Can you guarantee his safety?”

The amiable sheriff looked at him, suddenly stern.  “I can and I will!  Nobody will mess with him while I’m in charge.  I’m placing my deputies around the perimeter of the building.  They have orders to shoot to kill.”

Murdoch got to his feet, going to the bars to face his son.  “Scott,” he began.  “Don’t give up.”

His eldest smiled.  “Don’t you worry about me, Murdoch.  I’ll be all right.”

All the things his father wanted to say crashed together in his brain; he wanted to scream his anger and defiance at the world.  He wanted to take his son in his arms and promise that he’d find a way out, protect him somehow from the nightmare they were caught up in.

He settled for placing a hand on Scott’s shoulder.  “I know you will, son, I know you will.”

Their eyes met, brown and light blue, communicating love and support without words.  Then Murdoch turned, picking up his hat.

“Let’s go, boys.  Goodnight, Sam, and thank you.”

The old country doctor nodded.  “You call me if you need me.”

Drawing himself to his full height, Murdoch went down the steps, head held high, flanked by two deputies whose eyes were darting everywhere in search of possible trouble.

But the street was mostly empty.  They could hear the roar of loud voices and music coming from the saloon as they mounted their horses.

Inside the jail, Scott remained standing, leaning his elbows upon the bars.  He listened as the horses’ hoofbeats faded away, suddenly feeling terribly lonely.

When they were gone, he raised his head to find Dave watching compassionately.  Taking a full bottle from his desk drawer, he handed it to Scott.

“Go on, Scott, take it.  It’s going to be a long night.”

Taking the bottle, Scott noticed that it was tequila.  The sight pierced his heart, reminding him of the day of the fiesta, when he and Johnny had done tequila shots at the saloon.  It made him miss his little brother desperately.

Where, he wondered, was Johnny?  And was he going to have to leave this earth without telling him good-bye?

Holding the bottle up, he drank deeply, noticing the worm floating in the bottom.  Eating it was supposed to give you wisdom, he recalled his brother telling him that day.

Scott thought of his black-haired little brother with his devil-may-care grin, his quick temper and his gunslinger’s walk.  His mind flashed over the experiences they had shared and all that they’d grown to mean to each other since their rocky first meeting.

Tilting the bottle to his lips, he drank deeply.  Forget wisdom, he thought.  I’d settle for seeing Johnny one last time.

 

Ch. 39

In stark contrast to the somber mood in the jail, the Morro Coyo saloon was rollicking that night.  With a packed house, the card stakes ran high, along with the mood, the music and the conversation.  Jubilant patrons tossed back shots, congratulating themselves that the scourge of the neighborhood, Scott Lancer, had been found out as the criminal mastermind that he was. The scum of the earth, they said, stealing from his friends and neighbors and hardworking ranchers throughout the Southwest.  Hanging was too good for him.

Drunken men bought shots for the saloon girls and their shrill squeals and laughter mingled with the deep voices of the male customers.  The piano player pounded out lively tunes, his tip jar overflowing.

One girl, blonde curls escaping from her chignon, leaned over Vick Roberts’ shoulder, giving him an ample view of her cleavage as she laughed at a remark one of his table companions had just made.  She was a fancy piece, the Cattlemen’s Association president thought, itching to shove everything off the table, drag her down, and have his way with her.

He’d lusted after her for months.  Fully aware of his desires, the girl had taunted and teased him, blowing hot and then cold, accepting small gifts but never giving herself to him.  She knew her behavior increased his lust. Dispassionately, she thought that it was fun to tease him.

She looked especially fetching tonight, Vick thought.  The bodice of the abbreviated  costume that she wore was pale green, trimmed with ribbons of darker green velvet. The short skirt was made from the darker material. Dark green stocking adorned her shapely legs and she wore her favorite black shoes with high red heels. Small pearl drop earrings dangled prettily from her ears.  Her costume enhanced her green eyes, sparkling behind a thicket of carefully darkened lashes and her painted red lips parted, showing small white teeth.

“You seem especially happy tonight, my dear,” he told the girl. “You’re positively glowing.”

She smiled down at him, small pink tongue moistening her lips.  Noticing how his eyes followed the movement, she did it again, admitting, “Oh, I am, Vick, I am.  I’m just so happy at the way all of you big strong ranchers have kept the rest of us safe by getting that monster off the street.”

Puffing his chest out with pride, he slipped an arm around her, pulling her down for a drunken kiss. Raising his empty glass, he yelled toward the bar, “Bartender! Set us up with a round!”

Drinks for everyone quickly arrived. Raising his glass, Vick said loudly, “One down and one to go, hey boys?”

“I want to propose a toast,” he continued.  “We’ll hang Scott Lancer, and God willing, his dirty half-breed brother as soon as he gets back!”

A roar greeted his words.  The girl raised her glass high, saying “I’ll drink to that!”  Tossing her shot down, she smiled seductively at Roberts.

Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he beamed at the girl.  He had the feeling tonight was his lucky night.

Across the street in the hotel, Larry was seated in the leather armchair reading a book when the roar from the saloon disturbed him.  Marking his place with an index finger, he leaned his head against the lace doily on the chair back.  His free hand rested on the back of the little animal asleep in his lap.

He let his mind roam over the day, smiling a little as he thought of his meeting with Suzette.  She had been so adorable, he thought, apologizing prettily for running into him.  He’d just invited her to lunch when the mob of journalists had broken the mood.  Shortly thereafter, an upstairs window had been flung open and an old lady’s querulous voice had called for her, the words punctuated by the stamping of a cane on the hardwood floor.

Suzette had looked up, calling, “Coming, Grandmere!  She looked at Larry.  “I must go,” she said regretfully. “My grandmother needs me.”

“What about lunch?” he’d asked.  “Can we do it tomorrow?  I’d really like to see you.”

Brightening, she had agreed, promising to meet him the next day at eleven.  “Come by the shop,” she had said, smiling.  “I’ll be waiting.”

Another querulous demand from above had interrupted her.  “I must go,” she told Larry, smiling.  “Don’t be late.” 

Larry smiled down at her.  “I won’t,” he assured her.

“I shall have someone sit with Grandmere,” she promised.  “We can take all the time we like.”

Picking up her skirts, she had rushed back into the shop, the door slamming behind her.  From outside, he heard her calling, “Coming, Grandmere, coming!”

Stunned and happy, he had made his way back to the hotel. After having a bite to eat and a cup of tea in the dining room, he went upstairs.  Feeling suddenly relaxed, he’d taken a nap, Lola curling on the bed next to him.  She was in a much better mood today, he noticed, running a hand down her silky head and listening to the low purring.

Ordering room service for dinner and splurging on a bottle of wine to go with it, Larry  enjoyed his meal.  Sipping the wine slowly, he realized that for the first time in months, he was looking forward to tomorrow.

At Lancer, the mood was considerably bleaker. Arriving back at the darkened hacienda a little ahead of the two deputies, Murdoch climbed painfully off his horse as a shadow arose from one of the patio chairs.

“Who’s there?” he asked sharply.

A man’s voice broke the silence.  “It is me, patron, Julio.  I have been waiting for you.”

“Oh, it’s you, Julio,” the tall rancher said.  “You had me worried there for a minute.”

Coming into the light of a torch, his new employee took the horse’s reins.  “I will see to your horse for you, patron.”

“Thank you, Julio,” Murdoch replied. “Where’s Jelly?”

Julio stopped.  “He was feeling very tired, so I told him to go to bed, that I would wait for you.  He said for you to call him when you came in.”

Murdoch shook his head.  “I won’t do that.  Let him get a good night’s sleep.”  The old man should sleep all he could tonight, he thought to himself. It was likely to be the last sound slumber he had for quite awhile, once he learned about Scott’s fate.

The additional deputies rode up, hitching their horses to the post.  Todd deployed them to stand guard at the perimeter of the house and grounds, some climbing to the watchtowers as well.

Julio looked at his employer.  He knew without having to ask how the trial had gone.  He had realized the tall rancher’s grief merely from the way he sat his horse.

“Is that all, patron?”

“Yes, Julio,” Murdoch replied.  “Goodnight.”

Nodding gravely, the man started to lead the horse away, then stopped.

Turning back, he asked, “Shall I come and sit with you, patron? Just for awhile?”

Touched, Murdoch shook his head.  “No, Julio, I need to be alone. But I thank you for the thought.”

The man moved off, the horse clopping behind him.  The deputies’ horses shifted position at the hitching post, snorting quietly.

Murdoch entered the great room, tossing his hat upon the desk.  Going to the sideboard, he poured himself a stiff drink.

Maria had left candles burning in the sconces, giving him enough light to see by as he took his drink to the table, dropping wearily into a chair.  The fire had burned low, casting only a dim light.

He thought about Teresa and the baby, worried about the way Teresa had broken down earlier.  Mark had been feeling pretty bad, too, when he left.  In a minute, when he had the strength, he would go up and look in on all of them.  He just had to rest a little.  Murdoch rubbed his left arm, grimacing slightly at the tightness in his chest.  He felt as though he couldn’t breathe quite right.

The Scotch made the tightness recede a little.  Resting his elbows on the table, he looked around the room.  Numbing pain descended on him as he sat there, crushing him under its weight.

Not for the first time, he wished Johnny was home.  Even if he couldn’t do anything, just his presence would be a comfort, Murdoch thought.  He rested the cool glass against his aching forehead, closing his eyes. 

Sure that Maria had left him a covered plate in the kitchen, he debated getting up, then decided against it.  He wasn’t sure he could keep food down.

He looked out the great room window at the dark hills, seeing nothing.  In his mind’s eye, he pictured his sons as they had looked the day he met them in this very room.  Scott, dapper in his Boston clothes, poised and articulate; Johnny, edgy and defiant, dressed in dusty black with a rose-colored shirt that had embroidery down the front.

“Johnny,” he whispered, clenching his hands with frustration.  “Where are you?  Why don’t you come home?”

The last word made him think of his older son, the one who would never be coming home again after tomorrow.  By this time tomorrow night, they would all be dressed in black and Scott would be in a box in the cold ground, gone forever.

Tomorrow, his father would have to be strong for the remainder of the family.  He would have to show a brave, impassive face to the world, hiding his pain from the stares of the curious.  Murdoch would have to carry on, going on about his life and work as though his heart weren’t broken and bleeding. He would have to guide Teresa through her grief and make sure Catherine remembered her Uncle Scott.  Mark, too, had been terribly upset and would need his support.  Murdoch worried the most about his youngest son.  Johnny, he knew, would need a great deal of help to deal with Scott’s death. And Jelly would be devastated since the old man loved Scott like he was his own. His oldest son’s death would leave a gaping hole in all their lives.

But all that was still ahead.  Tomorrow, he would take up the burden of learning to live without his firstborn son.

Tonight, in the darkened room, the tall rancher lowered his head into his hands.  With no one to see or hear, Murdoch Lancer gave in to his grief.

 

Ch. 40

The sound of the gallows being built awoke both Scott and Dave Bell early the next morning.  Eager to be about their work, the town carpenters had begun early, their loud voices and hammering carrying with ghoulish clarity in the still air, disturbing prisoner and lawman alike.

Both were slightly hung over as Dave Bell had opened his own bottle of liquor the night before. Swinging his legs over the side of his cot, Dave sat up, rubbing his unshaven chin while his head pounded.  Last night had been the worst night of his career, knowing he was about to officiate at the hanging of an innocent man.  Despite the prosecution’s effective case, Dave had no doubt that a tragic miscarriage of justice had somehow occurred yesterday.  Remaining convinced of his prisoner’s innocence, he had wracked his brain late into the night for some way to help Scott.  He had come to the reluctant conclusion that the trap had been effectively sprung; there was no way out for the oldest Lancer son. 

Off-duty deputies wandered in, also rubbing bleary eyes and unshaven chins as their reliefs arrived to guard the jail.  Despite the heavy security, no attempt had been made to storm the jail, either by townspeople or by Scott’s family, something for which Dave Bell was profoundly grateful.  He wouldn’t have been able to say that, he thought ruefully, if Scott’s little brother had been in town.  Dave had no doubt that Johnny Madrid would have tried to spring his brother by some inventive means that probably would have resulted in him getting shot and killed, leaving the surviving Lancers with a doubly heavy cross to bear.

He shuddered even now to think of what the morning had brought to Scott’s family back at Lancer and hastily wrenched his thoughts away.  In his secret heart, like Scott and the rest of them, no doubt, he still hoped for a last-minute reprieve, knowing it was unlikely.

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

Completely unaware of the drama taking place to the east of them, at that very minute, Johnny and Shelby were making their way down the hotel steps hand in hand, blinking in the bright morning light as they decided where to go for breakfast.

Both were gay and light-hearted, as if they had crossed some kind of a bridge and were safely on the other side of a dangerous chasm.

The night before, they had stood on the riverbank, wrapped in each other’s arms, kissing until the first drops of rain struck them.

Gasping at the coldness, Shelby had looked up, laughing, as the summer thunderstorm rolled overhead.  Johnny had been tempted to shake a fist at the darkening sky but had caught her by the hand instead. They had hurried back to the hotel as the downpour drenched them, arriving soaked and laughing.

By the time they had dried off and changed, the moment had passed.  With the rain drumming steadily on the roof, Johnny had pulled a deck of cards from his saddlebag and set about teaching Shelby how to play poker.  The rain was a pleasant sound, closing them in together and making the rest of the world seem far away.  She had made him chuckle with her questions and the evening passed quickly as they laughed and joked with each other.

Around midnight, they became aware that the rain had stopped, the only sign of the storm being the rain dripping from the eaves.  After making sure her outer door was locked,  Johnny had contented himself with dropping a brief kiss on her lips as they parted at the connecting door.  He had leaned against it for a brief moment, listening as she climbed into bed, before heading toward his own.

At the sound of his boots hitting the floor, Shelby had rolled onto her side, facing the door.  A contented smile on her face, she drifted quickly to sleep.

Slumber took a little longer to find Johnny as he gazed at the door but soon, he too, was peacefully asleep, smiling at the thought of tomorrow.

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

“I know,” Johnny told her, “let’s go to Mama Sanchez’s cocina on the plaza.”  It was a cozy little place and one he didn’t get to very often.  Suddenly eager to show her everything in his world, it was another place he wanted her to enjoy before they left.

Shelby agreed eagerly, smiling radiantly up at him as he carried her hand to his lips and kissed it.  She glowed brighter than the morning, he thought.  The bright sun gleamed off the concho belt he’d given her and danced off the hoops in her ears.  The white blouse, adorned with tiny embroidered flowers, set off the golden sheen of her skin, making her exquisite eyes shine that much brighter behind their thicket of long black lashes.

“We don’t have to hurry,” he told her.  “Lancer will be there no matter when we arrive.” In truth, he was reluctant to return to real life, wanting to prolong their interlude as long as possible and from her reaction, he knew she felt the same way.

The bright sun made his sapphire eyes vivid against his dark tan and his white teeth flashed as he smiled down at her.  In his black pants with the conchos down the legs and his favorite dusty-rose shirt, he seemed exotic and suddenly younger, divested of the seriousness he’d been carrying around for a few days.

Passersby couldn’t help but smile at the young couple, who couldn’t be any more in love than if they’d shouted it from the rooftops.  Oblivious to everything but each other, they reminded everyone who saw them what it was like to be young and in love.

Shelby agreed with him, saying, “I look forward to seeing Lancer but...”dropping her voice, she moved closer.  “I want to be alone with you even more.”

He gazed down at her, suddenly as vivid and young as she was.  “I feel the same, Shelby.  Let’s take our time, enjoy the day.”

Wrapped up in each other, they moved off toward the plaza, drawing indulgent and smiling glances behind them.

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

Lying on the jailhouse cot, Scott opened his eyes when the hammering began, although he didn’t move.  His head on the thin and grimy pillow, he listened to the carpenters building the gallows, as busy as little bees.  Closing them again, he tried to will away the moment when he would be truly awake, the moment when he would have to begin counting down the remaining span of his existence.  It was down to hours now, he thought grimly.  It seemed unthinkable that in the space of a very short time, Scott Lancer would have ceased to exist, the only sign of his sojourn upon on the earth the tombstone over his grave.

It was a grim irony, Scott thought to himself, that he had survived the State’s War only to be executed later on a trumped-up charge of grand theft.  Not for the first time, he wondered who hated him enough to engineer his hanging.  The thought concerned him lest the perpetrator go after the rest of his family when he was gone.

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

At Lancer, the brilliant morning belied the heavy hearts at the estancia.  Murdoch, who had not slept, arose exhausted, the ache in his arm and chest still there, although he tried to rub it away.

He had heard voices from Theresa and Mark’s room several times during the night as the girl roused from the heavy slumber caused by the big dose of laudanum Sam Jenkins had administered.  Her voice, shrill with agitation, had been heard briefly, mixing with her husband’s deeper tones, before silence returned.

Despairing but determined not to show it, Murdoch mechanically washed and shaved before tapping on their door.  It was opened by Mark, his eyes red and his hair rumpled, holding little Catherine in his arms.

Seeing her grandfather, she jabbered and held out her arms.  Taking her, Murdoch whispered, “How is she?” as he nodded toward the still form in the bed.

Sighing, Mark rubbed his hand over the bristles on his chin before replying.  “It was a rough night, Murdoch. I just gave her another dose.  I don’t know what she’s going to do when the laudanum wears off.”

Murdoch replied, “I’ll take the baby if you want to try and get some sleep.  It’s still early.”

Mark nodded.  “Thank you.  I didn’t get much last night.”

Closing the door on the bright-eyed toddler in her grandfather’s arms, Murdoch heard the young man cross the floor and climb wearily into bed.

Eyes brightening at the sight of the child, Murdoch resolutely focused his thoughts on her.  Cuddling her small face close to his, he carried Catherine downstairs to the kitchen where Maria already had coffee brewing.  Entering the kitchen, he saw Julio and Manuel  sitting at the long bench behind the table.  Seeing him, they started to rise but Murdoch waved them back down.  It would be good not to be alone this morning.

Seeing the baby, both Maria and Rosita cooed to the child, promising her favorites for breakfast as she giggled from her grandfather’s lap.  The small face with its dark eyes and cloud of curly black hair reminded the rancher of Johnny as a toddler, full of lively curiosity and good humor.

His brow darkened as he thought of Scott.  He hadn’t known his oldest son, raised in Boston, at that age.  Murdoch suddenly wished desperately for those lost years back, for memories he could draw upon when Scott was no more.  The weight of years suddenly fell upon him, crushing him.  Time went by so fast, he thought, so very fast, slipping through one’s fingers like grains of sand rushing for the bottom of the hourglass and at the end, there was nothing left to hold, save the memories imprinted on the heart.

No one knowing how to act, it was a hushed and somber group in the kitchen. Julio had told Maria and Rosita earlier and they were having a hard time carrying on.  Forcing himself to eat a few bites and to drink some coffee, Murdoch fed the child from his own plate, enjoying the homely act of ministering to her.

Behind him, Maria and Rosita furtively wiped away tears, faces sad as they watched the tall rancher. What, they wondered, would he do without his oldest son after today?  And what would Senor Johnny do?  Tears cascaded from Rosita’s eyes as she glanced at the empty places at the table.

With heavy hearts, the women made up a plate for the patron to take to Scott.  Laden with his favorites, it was their way of saying farewell and Godspeed to his oldest son, whom they, too, loved.

Julio and Manuel ate quickly, anxious to be gone.  They were almost finished when Jelly bustled in, “Dang, I darn near overslept, why didn’t somebody wake me? What happened with…”  Pausing in the act of pulling up his suspenders, his eyes fell on Murdoch.  Mouth opening, he began to speak when he intercepted Maria’s glance.  Seeing her small shake of the head, the old man sat down abruptly, the blood draining from his face.

Handing Catherine to Maria, Murdoch rose quickly and went to his old friend.  Kneeling, the tall rancher placed both of his hands on Jelly’s and spoke quietly.  “I’m sorry, Jelly. Julio gave me the message but I just couldn’t wake you last night.”

The old man raised stunned eyes to his face.  Feeling the icy coldness of his hands, Murdoch stood up, chafing them in his own.  Maria bustled over with a cold cloth, patting the old man’s face.  When they were sure the handyman wasn’t going to pass out, Murdoch spoke quietly, glancing from each stricken face to the next, including them in what he was about to say.

“Scott is due to be hanged today at noon.  He asked me to tell you how much he loves all of you and to…to thank you for everything.”  Murdoch’s voice broke on the words but he quickly recovered.

“Scott said to tell you how much you have meant to him, all of you.  He asks that you not come to town today.  He wants to remember all of you here, at Lancer, going about your chores as if you are just waiting for him to come home.”

Jelly’s mouth opened and Murdoch quickly forestalled the words he knew were coming. Speaking gently, he said, “Even you, Jelly.  He doesn’t want to see any of us weeping from the gallows.  Scott just wants to remember you as he knows and loves you the best, here at Lancer.  With Dewdrop.” He added, with a forced attempt at humor.

The old man’s eyes filled, tears running down his bristly cheeks.  From behind him, Murdoch heard a sob, quickly choked off, from Rosita, as Maria, clutching Catherine in one arm, patted her back murmuring soothingly.

Julio and Manuel sat looking at Murdoch, stricken. In the short time they had been at Lancer, they had grown to love it dearly.  With the unerring instinct of a child, Manuel had quickly discovered that the tall patron’s bark was far worse than his bite and could frequently be found following him worshipfully from place to place, absorbing every bit of information that he could cram into his young head.  They had been prepared to honor the patron as Senor Johnny’s father; they had quickly grown to respect and admire Murdoch Lancer the man as well.

Maria’s eyes met Julio’s behind the tall rancher’s back, concern evident in both pairs of dark eyes.

Relinquishing Jelly’s hands, Murdoch crossed to Maria, taking Catherine into his arms.  Cuddling the small form close, he closed his eyes briefly before handing her back.

The sound of horses’ hooves broke the quiet as fresh deputies arrived to spell the ones who had spent the night guarding the hacienda.  In a minute, the relieved deputies would be arriving for breakfast, as would the vaqueros waiting numbly outside.

Rubbing his left arm, Murdoch forced strength back into his voice.

“I had better get started.  I want to spend time with Scott.”  Taking up the covered plate and the jug of coffee, the tall rancher paused, looking at each devoted employee, rather, each devoted friend.   “Thank you.  Thank you all.”

Turning, he strode determinedly out the door, calling for his horse which Cipriano led forward immediately.  Flanked by his escort of deputies, Murdoch Lancer headed for the execution of his oldest son.

 

Ch. 41

From his upstairs bedroom, Murdoch’s son-in-law watched as the rancher and his escort departed, the horses’ hoofbeats fading down the bare earth of the drive.

Dropping the curtain, Mark made his way across the room and sat heavily in the leather armchair, clutching his aching head in his hands.  He felt sick to his stomach, knowing what was about to happen to Scott.  If he’d been a better lawyer, he’d have gotten the man off, he thought.  Mark’s thoughts trailed off at a moan from the bed. Theresa thrashed as nightmares invaded her slumber, rolling her head and murmuring unintelligibly.

There were many more nightmares ahead, Mark knew.  Knowing his wife well, he realized she would never get over the loss of her oldest foster brother.  Already tiny, she had grown haggard and thin as Scott’s incarceration wore on, unable to eat or sleep.

Mark had watched her dwindle even as he had seen Murdoch age right before his eyes.  The hale and sturdy rancher had grown old overnight as he waited with haunted eyes for the hour of his son’s execution to dawn.  Murdoch, he knew, had longed desperately for Johnny to come home, needing his younger son’s strength at such a time yet he had dreaded it, too, knowing that his youngest would be likely to cook up a hare-brained scheme to rescue his brother and probably get himself killed too in the process.

Outside, the vaqueros muttered and stole sidelong glances at each other, trying to decide what to do.  Murdoch had expressly forbidden them to take up arms on Scott’s behalf, had commanded them not to storm the jail in hopes of getting him out.  Murmuring and shuffling their feet, they looked at Cipriano, sensing that the foreman wanted to take action.  In the end, however, the burly foreman had shrugged and ordered them to get to work.

 “What good,” he told them, “What good would it do in the end?  Even if we rescued Senor Scott today, we cannot hold off the whole world. They would surely come here.  It would be a bloodbath and in the end, the same result.  White man’s justice.”

Sighing, the vaqueros had looked at each other, defeated. Cipriano was right.  Outnumbered, they could easily be slaughtered, leaving their own wives and children alone and penniless. Shoulders sagging, they saddled up and rode out to the north mesa to begin rounding up the herd.

In the kitchen, Julio gave Maria’s arm a gentle squeeze of consolation, patting Rosita’s cheek as he passed. 

He paused before Jelly, concerned.  The old man was pale, still looking as though he might pass out.

“Is there anything I can do for you, my friend?” he asked the handyman.

Jelly looked up.  “Naw, nothing you can do for me.  I just need to be alone for awhile.”

Julio took his arm, supporting him from the bench.  “Come.  I will see you to your room,” he said quietly. 

Behind them, Maria spoke.  “And I will be in soon with your breakfast.”

Jelly spoke.  “Don’t want no breakfast.”

“Nonetheless,” Maria added.  “You will eat it.  You cannot get sick now, not when Mr. Lancer needs you.”

The old man gave a grudging shake of the head.  Julio supported him to his room, seeing him settled back in his bed, before returning to the kitchen and taking up the box waiting on the table.

“Come, Manuel,” he said quietly.

The boy came and stood beside him, wide-eyed.  Julio put an arm about the thin shoulders.  Together, they left the kitchen.

Outside, Manuel paused and looked up at him.  “Tio,” he said haltingly.  “I wish Senor Johnny would come home.  Perhaps he would know what to do.”

Julio looked into the big black eyes of his nephew.  “Si, Manuel.  I wish that, too.”

Together, they turned and made their way to the corral, where they caught the buggy horse and harnessed him to the wagon.   The patron had told him privately to take Manuel on an outing to get him away from the depressed mood at the estancia.  Taking up the reins, Julio flapped them gently, turning the horse toward the high meadows.

Upstairs, Mark lifted his head.  There was no sound from the bed and in that instant, he made up his mind.

Using water left over from the night before, he washed, shaved carefully and brushed his hair.  Dressing in his best brown suit, the one he had worn at Scott’s trial, he went downstairs, seating himself at the desk in Murdoch’s study.

Rising, he picked up his hat.  Pausing with his hand on the doorknob, he looked around the great room.  With the sun streaming in and his daughter’s giggles issuing from the kitchen, Mark could almost tell himself that nothing had changed, that it had all been a collective nightmare, one from which the hacienda’s inhabitants would soon awake.

Opening the door, he stepped out onto the patio.  What a beautiful morning it was, Mark thought, inhaling deeply.  The air was so clear, the breeze so fresh with the smell of sage and eucalyptus upon it.

Putting his hat on, the young man strode purposefully toward the barn.  He knew what he had to do.

 

Ch. 42

Rising from the jailhouse cot with its thin and uncomfortable mattress, Scott ran a hand over his chin, anxious to shave.  Hearing him stir, Dave Bell brought him a cup of jailhouse coffee, black as sin and thick as tar.  Eager to combat the vestiges of hangover, Scott drank it quickly down.  He wanted to be alert when Murdoch arrived, not to have their final minutes together pass in a blur, stupefied by a hangover.

“Any word yet?” he called to the sheriff.

Knowing he meant word of Johnny Madrid, the sheriff had to unwillingly say, “No, Scott, no word, not yet, anyway.”

Inside the cell, Scott sighed.  Mentally catching himself up, he ran a hand through his hair, thinking. He had passed most of the endless night reviewing his time at Lancer, taking out each precious memory and examining it.  His life, he realized now, seemed to truly have begun when he discovered his Lancer family.  He’d started a new life, incredibly different from the one he’d lived with his grandfather Harlan.

He could look back at his life with his grandfather, who had loved him,  to give the old man his due, with gratitude and fondness but his real heart, he realized now, lay with the family he’d found at the sprawling hacienda.  Who’d have guessed, he thought, that $1,000 “listening money” would have meant salvation from a life of ennui as a Boston dandy, a life he’d been raised and trained for, followed by marriage to a proper Brahmin girl, children and a life circumscribed by convention?  He’d never envisioned nor expected anything else.  As fates went, it had seemed pleasant enough.

Life as he had known it had been abruptly stood on its ear at Lancer.  From the first morning when Johnny had burst unceremoniously into his bedroom, his life had never been the same.  His lips twitched upward as he recalled his first meeting with his little brother on the Morro Coyo stage; even now it had the power to make him laugh.

Learning to work hard and to play hard, forging relationships, however difficult with Murdoch and Johnny, had been the most satisfying experience of his life.  Every day, it seemed, had arrived with new challenges and new rewards.

Just as quickly, his brow clouded.  His time was almost up and where was Johnny?  It would be too cruel, he thought, the penultimate blow, if he had to die without saying goodbye to his little brother, whom he had grown to love so dearly.

More fool me, Scott thought ruefully.  He’d counted on a lifetime with all of them with plenty of time to tell them what they meant to him.  With the arrogance of youth, he’d expected to live to a ripe old age with his family and children about him.

Instead, he’d soon be leaving his friends and family forever.  He wished he could see them all one last time, Johnny, Theresa, Jelly, Maria and all the rest.  Nothing, he knew, would prevent his father from being present at the hanging but Scott had been determined to spare the rest a lifetime of bad dreams caused by watching his death.  “Have them remember me as I was,” he had urged Murdoch.

He’d insisted Murdoch make them stay away, knowing none of them would ever forget the sight of him mounting the gallows, hands shackled, followed by the sight of his legs kicking in space as he dropped through the trap door, accompanied by the cracking sound as his neck broke.

If he was lucky, that was.  Sometimes the neck didn’t break and the victim hung there, turning purple as he suffocated slowly.  He hoped his own death would be quick.

Maybe, he thought, it was selfish of him to want to see Johnny one last time.  Maybe it was better this way, to spare his little brother sights which would haunt his already tortured dreams.

Dave Bell entered the cell, bringing him washwater and clean clothes.  Thanking him, Scott set about getting ready before his father arrived to spend his son’s remaining hours together.

Across the street, in an upstairs bedroom of the saloon, a blonde woman woke up in a rumpled bed.  Head pounding, she looked with disgust at the pale, paunchy man passed out beside her.  Yanking the sheet off him and wrapping it around her naked body, she went to the mirror.  Examining herself closely, she noticed her puffy eyes and the faint lines beginning in her forehead.  As if looking at a stranger, she noticed dispassionately the bitter twist to the mirror-image’s lips and the cold gleam in her eyes.

Deep inside, under layers of frozen emotion, something stirred hurtingly.  But she quickly stuffed the feeling down, locking it away.  Putting on a thin silk wrapper, she went to the landing and called down for the bouncer and the maid.  When the human refuse was thrown out of her room, she intended to have a long, hot bath, full of perfumed salts, and then to spend plenty of time arranging her hair.   She was going to have a front-row seat for Scott Lancer’s hanging and she wanted to look her best as she planned on enjoying his execution to the fullest.

Her brows drew together fleetingly.  The only flaw was going to be the absence of Scott’s little brother, the notorious Johnny Madrid.  She had so hoped to be able to see his expression when the trap door was sprung on his brother.  She wanted to enjoy his anguish, to savor it, along with that of his father and friends.

Brow clearing, she turned away.  There’d be time later, she thought, to deal with Johnny Madrid.  Clapping her hands, she leaned over the railing, shouting for the maid to hurry.

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

Unaware of the drama unfolding at home, Johnny and Shelby enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, sitting side by side on the bright and airy outdoor patio with its riot of pink bougainvillea climbing the stone wall, potted palms in the corners and red geraniums in boxes on the railing.  A small stone fountain tinkled merrily in the corner and delicious smells wafted from the kitchen. The owner, Mama Sanchez, had recognized Johnny immediately, breaking into a storm of Spanish as she hugged him.  Smiling, she looked at the girl as Johnny made the introductions.  Aah, she thought to herself, the young man had fallen in love, hook, line and sinker.  Promising the best her poor kitchen could offer, she had backed away, nodding, leaving them holding hands in the sunlight with the fringe of the striped umbrella over their heads dancing jauntily in the breeze.

She soon returned, bringing a tray groaning with goodies; huevos rancheros, omelettes stuffed with chorizo, chiles, tomato, topped with rich cheese and avocado slices and smothered in green chile sauce.  On the side, there was mango and papaya salsa, refried beans, nopalitos, fresh corn tortillas, chilaquiles, Mexican hot chocolate for Shelby and coffee for Johnny.

We’ll make a Mexican out of you yet,” Johnny teased.

Smiling, she replied, “I’m making up for lost time!  I had no idea Mexican food was so good!”

They ate slowly, pausing often to gaze into each other’s eyes and to offer each other a bite of the delicacies on their plates.  Time drifted by, lazy as apple blossoms on a breeze and still they lingered, enjoying every moment together.

Eventually, the couple rose, thanking Mama Sanchez and accepting the boxed picnic lunch which she pressed into Johnny’s hands as a gift, along with one of her own red-checked tablecloths to spread on the ground.

“You come back and see me again,” she told Shelby, “Make sure this young man doesn’t stay away so long next time!”

Smiling, the girl promised.

Making their way back to the hotel, Johnny left Shelby to pack while he had the horses saddled and brought them around, telling her to take her time.

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

In the Morro Coyo jail, time was flying.  Seated in the cell with Scott, Murdoch tried to think of where to start, how to say all that was in his heart.  He was startled by a loud voice from outside.

“That’s right, Mac, let’er rip!” a gruff voice cried.  It was followed immediately by a creak, a sliding sound and a thump as something heavy struck the end of a rope.

“Dammit!” he burst out, standing up.

Dave Bell rushed in. “Sorry, Murdoch, sorry.  They were just testing….I’ll go tell them to stop,” he said hastily, his eyes sliding away s they touched on Scott.

Scott’s eyes were somber as he realized he had just heard the hangman testing the gallows, making sure it worked.  He stood up, resting a hand on Murdoch’s shoulder. “It’s all right.  Don’t let it bother you.”

A commotion outside drew their attention.  Carriages were beginning to arrive, bearing occupants with picnic lunches, all eager to have a front-row seat for the hanging of Scott Lancer.

 

Ch. 43

Boosting Shelby into the saddle, Johnny turned and swung up onto his own horse.  Touching the horses lightly with their heels, they started off into the bright morning.

The day was brilliantly clear, with a slight breeze carrying the sweet smell of the fruit trees. The Sacramento River glinted to their left as they made their way slowly through the streets, nodding and smiling to passersby and looking into shop windows from horseback. Carts and wagons rumbled past.  Shopkeepers propped their front doors open as they swept the sidewalk in front of their businesses, putting out signs and polishing storefront windows.

Johnny and Shelby meandered through the streets, stopping when Johnny pulled up in front of a harness shop.  He swung her lightly down and then tethered the horses. 

“I was working on a bridle at home,” he told her.  “I need some more leather to finish.”

Going into the shop with its rich smell of fine leather, he was soon absorbed in a conversation with the owner, a talented man who had hand-made all of the beautiful saddles and bridles on display.  Many were adorned with silver conchos which gleamed against the well-oiled leather; some of the bridles had semi-precious stones on the headstalls.

The shopowner departed for the back, promising to bring out what he had in the way of pre-cut strips of black leather.  While he waited, Johnny turned back into the shop, eying the wonderful artisanal work on display.  Noticing some silver finely-made silver conchos gleaming under a glass-topped counter, he examined them closely.  Completing her inspection of a lady’s saddle in rich ox-blood leather, Shelby came up beside Johnny, noticing his absorption.

“Are you going to get some of those?” she questioned, noticing the far-away look in his eyes.

The sapphire depths cleared quickly as he swung his gaze back to her.  “I’d been thinking of it,” he said, “when I first started the bridle but it was a long time ago.”

He smiled at the lovely face gazing up into his.  “I think I will get them,” he said decisively.  “Make the bridle the way I wanted it to be when I started.”

The shopowner bustled back out, long strips of leather in his hands and Johnny returned his attention to the man.  Quickly making a selection, he indicated the conchos, telling the man how many he wanted.

The purchase was soon concluded and they returned to the wooden sidewalk, pausing for a moment.  He saw her gazing at a ladies clothing store a little further down.

“C’mon, let’s look in there,” he teased her.  “I can see you dreamin’ of some new duds.”

She looked up quickly.  “I love the clothes you bought me, Johnny, and I’m very comfortable in them,” she insisted.  A smile drew the corners of her mouth upward.  “But I do love to shop.”

“And women need all kinds of gear, I know that,” he grinned.  “How ‘bout if you look in that store while I stop in that tobacco place we just passed?  I want to get some leaf for Murdoch.  As a matter of fact, I want to pick up gifts for everyone.”

“That’s a good idea,” Shelby said. “You’ve been gone for quite awhile.”

“Here,” he said, peeling bills off the roll in his pocket.  “You have, too.  Buy some things for your family and we’ll mail them from Morro Coyo.  And you can send them a telegram, too, unless you want to do it from here.  You must want to tell them you’ve escaped.”

She gazed up at him, suddenly serious. “I’ll pay you back, Johnny.”  At his wave of the hand, she insisted, “You’ve done so much for me already.”

“Shelby,” he said quietly.  “I won’t take your money.  Anything that’s mine is yours.”

Tears started to her eyes at the words.  “Here, now,” he said, “none of that.” He brushed the tears away with a gentle hand. “This is supposed to be a celebration.”

She sniffled, looking up at him as the ghost of a smile reappeared.  He was so different from her husband who kept her penniless lest she escape, holding her captive in his house.  She had simply been another possession, a live doll that he could dress prettily and show off as it suited him, nothing more.

Johnny was his polar opposite, she thought, so generous with everything, not just his money but his affection, his thoughts, his time.

He had taken such good care of her on this trip, attending to her every need without seeming to.  She had noticed the way he watched out for her, his attention unflagging but unobtrusive.   He was so very different from her husband, who had wanted constant validation.  She had quickly grown tired of his overweening ego and the constant gratification it demanded. With Johnny, she felt like a real woman, not a trophy.  Her heart quickened as it always did when he was near, all of her senses alive.

He put a gentle hand under her chin, lifting it so he could see her eyes.  She smiled, the joy suddenly returned to her morning.  Seeing it, he smiled in return.

“Thank you, Johnny.  I do want to tell them I’ve left Michael and that I’m safe.”

“Good,” he nodded.  “Then I’ll meet you back here in about an hour.  It’s 9:00 a.m. now.”

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

Back in Morro Coyo, Scott got up to speak to the sheriff.  Murdoch took the opportunity to glance at his watch.

Startling him, Scott asked, “What time is it?”

“9:00 a.m.,” his father replied.   Their eyes met.  Three hours. That was all the time allotted to Scott before he climbed the gallows.

Not mincing words, Scott said what was on both their minds.  “I’d hoped to see Johnny. But you still have no idea where he is, do you?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “No, I wish I did.”

“Don’t worry, Murdoch,” Scott soothed him.  “He managed all those years on his own; there isn’t much he can’t handle.  He’ll be back.”

The sound of the jail door slamming drew their attention.  Irritated by the rubberneckers gathering outside the jail, Dave Bell went outside to clear the street.  They could hear snatches of irritated conversation as he ordered the onlookers to disperse.  The door slammed again as he returned, muttering to himself.  “Damned varmints…no more sense than a yellow dog…”

Scott looked at Murdoch, whose composure was beginning to slip.  Clearly upset by the idea of gawkers attending his son’s hanging, he looked ready to dispatch a few of them himself.  Frowning blackly, he got up and went to the cell door, saying he’d be right back.

Seated on the grim jailhouse cot, Scott leaned his back against the cold adobe bricks, his thoughts wandering to his little brother once again.

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

At 10:00 a.m., Scott’s little brother was standing on the board sidewalk, waiting for Shelby to pay the clerk in the dress store.

Stepping out into the bright morning, arms full of packages, Shelby met Johnny back on the sidewalk.  Smiling, he set about stowing them in his saddlebags, the only ones with any room left at this point.

“Did you get everything you wanted?” he asked her.

She nodded, smiling.  “And you?”

“Yes,” he admitted. “So if you’re ready, let’s head on out.”

Receiving her assurance that she was, he boosted her lightly into the saddle before swinging up himself.  Turning the horses right, they made their way out of Sacramento.

“How far is it to Morro Coyo?” she asked him.

“About two hours,” Johnny replied.  “We should be there by noon.”

 

Ch. 44

By 11:30 a.m, back at the jail, Dave Bell was beginning to pace.  His deputies, both inside and outside the building, grew more and more nervous.  As the hour of Scott’s execution drew near, more crowds had arrived, taking up posts near the gallows.  Some put down chairs, as if at a picnic. Many were reporters, photographers and sketch artists from various newspapers. The rest were townspeople and spectators from other counties.    On the perimeter, wagons and buggies full of people sat stationary, their occupants as jovial as if they were attending a soiree in a fine drawing room.  Many sipped drinks or nibbled delicacies as they waited.  Buck Miller, Lancer’s former neighbor, grew red-faced and loud as the liquor took hold of him.

Already upset, Murdoch had grown more and more angry at the sight of his son’s execution being treated as a public spectacle, sorrow replaced by ire.  His chest and left arm ached as though a band of iron were being drawn around them.  The sight of his father rubbing his arm and chest, face pale, worried Scott and he had told Dave to send for Sam Jenkins.

Clutching his bag, the old doctor had followed the deputy down the splintery sidewalk, ruthlessly elbowing people out of his way as he did so.

Spotting the elderly sawbones hurrying past through the window of the small cocina on Main Street, Larry did his best to push the spectacle outside from his mind, as did the diminutive Cajun dressmaker with him.  He had resolutely avoided discussing the imminent hanging with anyone in town.  The thought of justice being meted out, while his attacker, the destroyer of his life, went scot-free, made him far too angry.  He didn’t even know the condemned man’s name.

He had been looking forward to his date with Suzette since yesterday.  He’d been very relieved that she had indeed found a sitter for Grandmere, leaving them free to talk at their leisure.  Suzette, too, had been happy and now she studied the man across the table, covertly, peeping over the top of her tall menu. His broken nose contrasted oddly with his erudite manner, making her curious to learn more about him. Cowhands did not appeal to her so finding a learned, well-spoken man in Morro Coyo was akin to finding a jewel in a mud puddle and Suzette was enjoying her date very much.

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

At Lancer, Jelly had fallen into a restless sleep, aided by the generous draft of laudanum Maria had laced his coffee with.   Remaining to keep an eye on the old man, she sat in the room’s leather armchair, tears oozing from her eyes as she murmured prayers, telling off her rosary beads one by one.

In the kitchen, Rosita had fed Catherine before going upstairs to check on Theresa, tucking the child under one arm.  Opening the door cautiously, she had peered in at the still form on the bed.  Satisfied that Theresa was still deeply asleep, she gathered up some of the child’s toys, taking them down to the great room.

The hacienda was preternaturally silent, as if, Rosita thought, the wings of the Angel of Death covered it.  Crossing herself, she murmured a hasty prayer for the soul of Senor Scott.

Spreading a blanket on the floor, she sat down on it to play with Catherine, her eyes straying often to the grandfather clock on the mantel.  Its ticking seemed unusually loud. The hands stood at 11: 40.  As she watched, they slid to 11: 41.  With horrified fascination, she watched the clock as the minutes inexorably ticked away.

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

At that very moment, Johnny and Shelby were just outside of Morro Coyo.  Still in no hurry, they were amiably arguing the merits of stopping for their picnic lunch or going on into town.

“I couldn’t possibly eat now, Johnny, not after that huge breakfast. Don’t tell me you’re hungry?” she teased him.

He had slid off his horse, coming to where she sat, still astride. He smiled up at her, the dazzling grin that made him look so boyish and that melted her heart.  Putting his hands on her waist, he made as if to lift her down when his attention was caught by movement in the woods beyond the road.

Following the direction of his eyes, she was startled to see two Indians regarding them.

Johnny dropped his hands, eyes narrowing.  “Stay on the horse,” he told her.  “Where there’s two Indians, there’s always more.”

“Are they dangerous?” she breathed.

“Doubt it,” he said shortly.  “Not this far from the reservation.  I haven’t seen a Chiricahua Apache outside of New Mexico or Arizona for years; must be something important.”

Keeping his hands where the Indians could see them, he admonished her again to stay on the horse and to make no sudden moves.  Seeing his eyes searching the woods, she was suddenly fearful.

Taking a deep breath, she gathered up the reins, prepared to get away quickly.

Moving forward, Johnny held his right hand up in the traditional sign of greeting.  Cautiously, the Indians returned it.

Greeting them in the smattering of Apache he’d picked up along the border, he was surprised when one answered him in guttural, halting English.

They were about tribal business, the Apache told him.  They meant no harm.  Johnny and the girl were in no danger from them.

Likewise, Johnny told them.  Everybody would go about their business and forget the encounter had taken place.

Nodding, the Apaches turned away.  Within seconds, they had melted into the woods without disturbing a single leaf.

With a low whistle of relief, Johnny returned to Shelby’s side.  She noticed for the first time that the back of his shirt was wet with sweat.  It told her they’d been in more danger than he’d allowed her to suspect.

“Johnny?” she questioned, having understood nothing of his exchange with the Indians.

Taking off his hat, he swiped his shirtsleeve over his face, then raked his fingers through his thick black hair.

“It’s OK,” he told her.  “Tribal business.”

She nodded.  “Are you still hungry?”

He had to admit it.  “No,” he said.  “Not anymore.”  He’d never tell her but the sight of the Apaches had shaken him badly.  The Chiricahua were among the fiercest Indian tribes, famous for their war-like tendencies and their cruelty.  He’d seen the others in the bushes when he’d gone down to talk to the leader, eight altogether.  Knowing there was no way he could take them all,  he’d been afraid they might kill him, taking the girl and using her for unspeakable purposes before enslaving her or worse.

He realized suddenly that Johnny Madrid was capable of losing his edge.   It was a sobering thought. 

“How far are we from Morro Coyo?” she asked.

“About five minutes,” he replied.

“What time is it now?” Shelby questioned.

He pulled out the pocket watch Murdoch had given him.  “It’s ten to noon.”

 

CH. 45

Sam Jenkins had rushed to the jail, convinced Murdoch Lancer was about to have a heart attack.  Arriving, he decided he wasn’t far wrong.  The tall rancher’s face was pale, with clammy sweat on his brow.  His pulse, as Sam took it, was galloping and the old doctor didn’t like the way he kept rubbing at his left arm, as if it ached.

It would be a grim irony, Sam thought, if Lancer lost both the father and the son on the same day.  Maybe then the hyenas gathered outside would be happy.  He pursed his lips at his own thoughts.  In forty years as a doctor, Sam had seen the best and the worst in human nature and by now, he thought good and evil were running neck and neck.

If God and the Devil were wrestling for souls in the town of Morro Coyo today, Sam thought that Old Scratch might be gaining the advantage.  He’d been disgusted by the crowd outside the jail, laughing and calling to one another.  As he rushed in, Sam had even spotted spinster Ida Wright in a front-row chair, excitedly chatting with the people beside her.  Ida, with her spectacles, her pulled-back hair, and her dove-gray clothing had been the last person Sam would have expected to see in the rowdy crowd.  He’d have guessed the prim spinster to be revolted by the thought, let alone the sight, of a hanging but here she was, every bit as blood-thirsty as the others.  Two bright spots of color showed in her pale cheeks as she waited excitedly for the condemned man to appear.

Just goes to show, the old man thought grimly, there was no telling about human nature. Her sister, Madge, was nowhere in sight.  Somehow, Sam suspected she was home with the curtains drawn and the door closed, devastated by this revelation about her sister’s true character. 

Dropping Murdoch’s arm, Sam’s eyes met Scott’s worried blue ones looking out from the cell.

Sam snapped open his bag and removed some smelling salts, which he waved under Murdoch’s nose.

Sputtering, the man pushed his hand away.

“What are you trying to do, Sam?” he asked.  “Kill me?

As jokes went, it wasn’t exactly funny but Sam was encouraged by the man’s reaction.

Clustered in the outer office, Dave Bell and some deputies peered out into the street.  It was almost time to take Scott outside and the crowd had gotten rowdier.  Many of them were drunk.

He could see Vick Roberts, red-faced and loud, in a chair in the front row.  The President of the Cattleman’s Association was getting sloppy as he got drunker, passing a silver flask to the blonde next to him.  The sheriff’s eyes came back to her with a jolt.

She looked so different than she usually did, he’d almost failed to recognize her as one of the girls from the saloon.

He blonde hair was arranged in an intricately woven chignon and pearl drop earrings dangled prettily from her ears. She had foregone her usual red lip paste and the absence of the heavy shade was far more becoming, making her look much younger.  All in all, she appeared a fine lady.

In a fashionable green gown of expensive silk, with frosty petticoat ruffles showing beneath, the dress had long sleeves buttoned tightly at the wrist, a full skirt that belled out below the nipped-in waist, emphasizing its tiny circumference and a square, low-cut neckline.  Pressed upward by a tightly boned corset, the girl’s bosom was precariously close to overflowing and Vick was finding it hard to keep his attention on her face, directing most of his conversation downward to the pale expanse of flawless skin.

Flushed and giggling shrilly, the girl was leaning against him, giving him every opportunity to take advantage of the low neckline which Dave suspected bared all from Vick’s angle.

Dave’s eyes roved over the crowd.  His gut twisted as he recognized various spectators. There was prudish Ida Wright next to heavyset Hal Weaver, a close neighbor of the Lancers. Dave remembered seeing him at the fiesta Murdoch had thrown to celebrate the birth of his granddaughter.  How jovial and friendly Hal had been that night, Dave thought, squeezed into one of the long benches, regaling his tablemates with an anecdote while vacuuming up Lancer food and liquor. 

Weaver was teetering on the brink of ruin, as Dave knew and Hal’s honest, heavy face was wreathed in smiles as he awaited the hanging of the man he held responsible for his misfortune.

Dave spotted his own neighbors, Irv and Maggie Wallace, a genteel middle-aged couple, in the crowd.  Irv was gesturing expansively with a chicken leg as he talked excitedly to the man on his left while his wife took out more items from the picnic basket on her lap, sharing them with her friends.

Continuing to assess the crowd, Dave shook his head as he spotted Buck Miller close to the gallows.  He knew that the presence of his former close friend and neighbor would wound Murdoch when he looked back on the day.

A roar went up from the crowd as someone announced the time: five minutes to noon. Dave reluctantly returned his attention to the cell.  Eyes closed, Murdoch was propped up in Scott’s arms as Sam ministered to him.

Dave went to the cell door and unlocked it.  The rasp of the key made all three men look up.

“Scott,” Dave said gently.  “It’s time.”

A muscle twitched in Scott’s lean cheek as he looked into his father’s eyes.  A long moment passed as they communicated silently. Then he withdrew his arms from around Murdoch, standing up to face the sheriff.

Murdoch, too, struggled to stand, brushing the old doctor aside.

“Murdoch,” the old man told him.  “You can’t.  Do you want to pass out in the middle of that crowd?”

Scott spoke up, his voice rough with concern.  “He’s right, Murdoch!  Please, you have to stay here.”

Murdoch stood, clutching his left arm.  Although his face was pale and clammy, he got weakly to his feet.

Sam grabbed him again, fearing he would fall.  “Murdoch! Don’t! Sit down here and let me take care of you!”

In a ghost of his usual booming voice, Murdoch spoke.  “I can’t, be damned, Sam!  There’s no way I’m letting my boy face this alone!  I’m going and that’s all there is to it.”

Conceding defeat, the doctor released him.  Murdoch’s eyes met Scott’s.  His son nodded slightly as if drawing strength from their depths.

Before all of them, the rancher underwent an astonishing transformation.  Taking a deep breath, he drew himself to his full height.  Picking up his hat, he placed it on his head.

His weak voice was replaced with the commanding one they all knew so well as he spoke, summoning up all his strength.

“I’m ready.”

Dave’s eyes went to Scott. 

“Are you?”

Murdoch’s son spoke, his voice firm.

“Let’s go.”

Well, Dave thought to himself, I know where he gets his guts from.  The two Lancers faced him, each strong and commanding in his own way.

For a condemned man, Scott looked as unruffled as though he were about to go on a ride before dinner.  Although a trifle pale, his blond hair was in place, his fresh clothes crisp. He held out his hands to Dave for the handcuffs.  There was no tremor in them.

Reluctantly, Dave slipped them over his wrists, ratcheting them closed.

He nodded to his deputies.  “Open the door.”

 

Ch. 46

Still seated in the empty cocina with Suzette, Larry looked up as two riders passed down the dusty, deserted street.  The woman was not familiar but something registered in his brain as he noticed the distinctive turquoise and concho belt on the man, along the with conchos down the legs of his black pants.

Momentarily distracted, he tried to recall where he’d seen them both before.

Seeing his attention wander, Suzette questioned, “What is it?”

At the look on his face, Suzette grew alarmed.  “Larry, what is it? Please tell me!”

Overwhelmed by sensations and memories, he remained mute for a moment. Then he faced her. 

A shadow fell upon their table as someone passed by the window, following the black-haired man and his companion.  Both Larry and Suzette glanced up.

Fury exploded in Larry’s brain as he recognized the passer-by.  Memories of rank breath and exploding Limoge boxes, the coppery smell of his own blood as it puddled in his lap, the pain as his nose smashed all came flooding back, overwhelming him suddenly.

He looked up, causing Suzette to shrink back in her seat.  He looked like a stranger.

“Larry!” she demanded.  “Tell me!  Do you know that man?”

“Oh yes,” Larry said.  “I know him.”

***********

Still blocks away, Johnny and Shelby noticed the large crowd.  Their eyes were drawn to the tall wooden platform. 

“What the…,” Johnny said, “Looks like someone is about to be hanged!”

He narrowed his eyes against the sun.  A fair-haired man was standing on the gallows, the rope already around his neck.  As they watched, the executioner stepped aside.

“Jesus!” burst from Johnny’s lips.  “That’s Scott!”

“Stay here!” he yelled, putting savage spurs to his horse.  The chestnut rocketed forward, throwing up clods of dirt.  Bloodying the chestnut’s sides in his demand for speed, the remaining yards seemed like miles to Johnny.  With true heart, the horse gave his utmost, stretching out in a mighty run that quickly narrowed the gap.

But not quickly enough.

“No!” Johnny yelled.  “Scott! Stop!”  No one heard him above the noise of the crowd.

Johnny saw the man on the platform nod, putting his hand on the trapdoor’s handle.

The chestnut’s hindquarters bunched under him, propelling the horse and rider powerfully forward.  At full stride, the horse was giving it his all but Johnny felt as if he were moving in slow motion. 

No!” he cried again.  “Please, God, no!”  His heartbeat pounded in his ears. The crowd roared, drowning out his words and the horse’s thundering hooves.

With the chestnut approaching the crowd at a dead run,  not even considering if he could pull the animal up in time, Johnny watched as the executioner pulled the trapdoor’s handle back.

Spurring the horse again, Johnny prayed for five more seconds.  Behind him, Shelby watched, hands at her mouth and her eyes wide with horror.

His prayer went unanswered. The executioner released the platform’s door. With a creak, it opened.

Horse and rider, at full run, were still fifty yards away when Scott Lancer, hands bound, fell through.

In one fluid motion, Johnny pulled his gun.

At the end of the street, Shelby cried out as she saw Johnny’s brother hurtling to his death in front of her eyes.

In the same heartbeat, a shot rang out.

Still screaming, Shelby watched as Scott reached the end of the rope, then kept on falling as a bullet severed the hemp, dropping him hard to the dusty street.

Unsure what was happening, the crowd turned to look behind them as a man in black on a chestnut horse,  its ears laid back and eyes red, thundered straight for their midst.  In an instant, Dave Bell’s deputies had pulled their own guns, preparing to blow the stranger’s head off.

“Hold up!” Dave cried.  “Hold your fire!”

The man on horseback was sawing at the horse’s mouth, pulling it back on its haunches as it plowed into the crowd.  Screaming, people overturned chairs, food and bottles as they scrambled out of the way.

Still on his knees in the dusty street, Scott gasped and choked as his father yanked the rope off his neck.  Pulling his own gun, Murdoch stood guard in front of his oldest son, determined that he not be taken again.  His heart swelled as he realized who the unknown rider was.

With the horse’s momentum behind him, Johnny launched himself off the chestnut’s back, driving his body headfirst into Vick Roberts as he trained a handgun on Scott.

With a whoof of exhaled breath, the Cattleman’s Association President sprawled in the street, managing to hang onto his gun.

They rolled in the dusty street, fighting savagely for the weapon.  Johnny’s head rocked back as the older man punched him hard in the mouth, causing him to see stars.  Pressing home the advantage, Roberts pounded him in the kidneys. An oath escaped the youngest Lancer as rage consumed him.  Teeth sprayed as he drove his hard fist into the man’s jaw in a savage uppercut, following it up with a left hook.

Rapidly becoming a bloody pulp, the man clung stubbornly to the gun, snarling at Johnny from his bloody mouth.

Alone at the end of the empty street, Shelby gathered up the reins.

Breathless, Larry and Suzette rushed past her.   Unable to keep pace with Larry’s long legs, Suzette fell behind, pressing a hand to her ribs.

Larry glanced back, preparing to stop, but she waved him on.  “Go! Go! Johnny needs you.”

Unnoticed in the general panic, someone had stepped out of a side street ahead of them.  Avoiding screaming townspeople rushing about, his bulk cast a considerable shadow as he advanced noiselessly toward Johnny, still scuffling in the dirt with Roberts.  His face was shiny with sweat and the scar on his cheek glowed purple in the bright sunlight as he removed a gun from his pocket. 

From behind, Larry put on a burst of speed, grimly racing time and distance as he raced toward the struggling men and their unseen assailant.  He began to close the gap as the assassin waited, gun drawn, for the right moment.

Johnny was too far away to hear if he yelled to him, Larry realized, still running with all his might.

The fat man licked his fleshy lips, savoring the anticipation of the kill.

Larry skidded to a halt, breathing hard.  He pressed his hand to his side, gasping.

“Hey, you!” he called up the street.  “Fat boy!”

Startled, the obese assassin looked back, comprehension dawning when he saw the man walking slowly toward him.  He grinned arrogantly.

“Well, well, who’d have thought I’d have run into you again?  Thought you’d still be cowering in your rabbit hole, boy!  But I can take care of you again…later.”

He turned back to the pandemonium in front of the gallows where Murdoch still stood guard over his eldest while Dave Bell and his deputies struggled to contain the crowd.  People were knocked down and trampled as the crowed scattered.  Cries and screams filled the air.  Startled harness horses snorted and reared, plunging right and left as they sought to escape,  the buggies behind them creaking and adding to the confusion,

Larry strode forward, unhesitatingly.  Shelby had stopped her horse beside Suzette, sliding down to help her.  Now they clutched each other, watching in horror at the drama unfolding ahead of them.

Johnny delivered a last blow that knocked Roberts out. Breathing heavily, he glanced down to make sure the man was unconscious before climbing to his feet.

Seeing it, his assailant raised the gun, pointing it at his back.

“I wouldn’t,” came Larry’s calm voice from across the street. He removed the item he’d purchased yesterday from his pocket, letting the fat man see it.

Distracted, the fat man glanced at him.  The younger Lancer still stood over Roberts. Wiping blood from his mouth, he was completely unaware of the danger facing him from behind. 

“I’ll shoot,” Larry told the fat man.  “So help me, God, I will.”

With a contemptuous glance at Larry, the fat man raised the gun, once more pointing it at Johnny. His finger tightened on the trigger.  Two shots rang out simultaneously.

Behind them, Shelby screamed as Johnny hit the ground.

Shifting their attention to this new threat, some of the deputies surged forward, training  their guns on Larry and the fat man.

“Drop it!” Dave Bell barked.  Larry did so, raising his empty hands to the sheriff.

Dropping the horse’s reins, Shelby raced forward, her heart in her mouth.  Gathering up her skirts, Suzette followed, calling to the sheriff.

“No,” she cried.  “You don’t understand!”

Even as Shelby ran toward him, Johnny rolled, coming to a stop in front of his father and brother. Blue eyes narrowed and face cold, he was on his feet in one lithe movement and facing the crowd, gun at the ready.

“Now you!” demanded the sheriff, rounding on the fat man.  “Drop it!”

Incredulity replaced the sneer on the fat man’s face as he removed his hand from his belly.  It was covered in blood.  He held it in front of his face, as if he couldn’t believe the sight, before looking down.  Not until he saw the bullet hole did he realize he’d been shot.  The sight released the paralysis of his voicebox and he began to scream.

“Gutshot! I’ve been gutshot! Somebody help me!”

The deputies and Dave looked at each other.  Two of them holstered their guns.  Taking the howling fat man by the arms, they began to help him up the street, a walking dead man.

Some of the remaining deputies formed a tense circle around the three Lancers, prepared to shoot the next man who moved while others tried to control the panicked mob.

Swept up into the crowd, hair disheveled and fine dress torn, the blonde who had been beside Roberts finally fought her way free.  Suddenly sober, she peered down the street, narrowing her eyes at the two women.  One of them looked familiar but she was too far away to tell.

Frowning, she began to make her way back to the saloon.  Looking over her shoulder at the smaller of the two women, she tried again to make her out.  Feeling someone’s eyes on her, she realized that Larry was looking at her, his brow creased.  Men staring at her was nothing new.  Inwardly preening herself at having drawn male attention even under the circumstances, the blonde smiled as she turned and hurried off.

Blood being drawn had dampened the crowd’s mood. Many began leaving for home. Others stopped to help those who had been trampled. Seeing Johnny Madrid’s gun trained on them was enough to dissuade Hal Weaver and Buck Miller from making any further move.  Todd waved his gun at them.  “Go on!  Show’s over! Get outta here!

Muttering, the stragglers dispersed, many still trying to comprehend what had just happened.

Still beside Suzette, Shelby saw Johnny, along with his father and brother, being herded rapidly into the jail by the worried deputies.  She saw his dark head turning as he looked for her, unable to see her behind so many people.

Suzette was still arguing with the deputy. “Lady,” the man said, exasperated.  “You can tell it to the sheriff in a little while.  My job is to take him in right now.”

Larry looked at the dressmaker, touched.  Assuring her he would be all right, he allowed himself to be led off, head high.

Back at the jail, Sam began performing emergency triage, attending to the screaming fat man first.  Opening his blood-stained shirt to view the injury, he smelled the peculiar odor he associated with gut wounds.  It told him right away there was no chance. The fat man’s ruptured stomach had released half-digested food.   Perforated intestines, spilling their contents into the abdominal cavity, would soon gangrene.  Feces would contaminate the man’s insides.  Searing pain would set in as his intestines rotted. Blood poisoning and infection would result, killing him within three days.

Every bit as bad as the wound itself was the psychological horror, Sam thought.  The fat man would know he was going to die, a slow, agonizing death and that nothing could be done about it.  He’d seen men go mad before they died from the sheer mental trauma resulting from a gut wound.

Anxious to stop the obese man’s screams, which were further agitating the crowd, Sam took a bottle of ether and some gauze from his bag.  Taking the top from the bottle, he prepared to place the gauze over the fleshy lips.

The fat man looked at him, piggy eyes barely visible in his fat cheeks.  Sweat gleamed on his forehead.  Licking his lips, he managed to ask, “Am I gonna die?”

Sam looked down at him.  There was no point in lying; better the man get himself right with his Maker.  “Yes, son. You are.”

The doctor saw recognition dawn in the fat man’s eyes as he dribbled the ether slowly onto the gauze.  They soon shut as it took hold, putting him into a sound sleep.  Moving quickly, Sam cleaned and treated the wound before turning his attention to the roiling crowd filling the jail.

Remembering his earlier debility, he hurried next to Murdoch Lancer, afraid the man might be having a heart attack.

He was sitting in Dave Bell’s chair, Scott seated on the desk behind him. Both were ashen and dazed-looking, causing to Sam to fear that they were going into shock. A worried Johnny knelt before them, looking up into each pale face.  Grasping Murdoch’s shoulder, he reached for his brother’s hand, needing the reassurance of their touch.

“Let me look at you,” the old doctor said, picking up Murdoch’s wrist and peering closely at him.

He glanced briefly at Scott, assuring himself the young man was not in shock, before turning his attention to his younger brother.  “Well, young man,” he said, “You sure know how to make an entrance.”

Johnny looked at his father and brother, who still looked stunned.  “I gotta go, doc, but you take care of ‘em, all right?”

Sam frowned. “Go?  Go where?”

Rushing for the door, Johnny called back.  “I brought a lady with me.”

“Dave!” he yelled to the lawman.  “I’ll be right back!”

“Go with him,” the sheriff ordered Todd. “Keep an eye on him.”

Rushing out the door, Johnny paused on the top step, searching for Shelby.  Unable to see her in the milling crowd, anxiety rose in him. 

Running headlong down the steps, he raced down the street, shoving stragglers out of his way.

“Who you looking for, Johnny?” Todd yelled, struggling to keep pace with him.

“A lady,” Johnny called back.  “My lady.”

 

Ch. 47

Seeing her horse standing in the street, Johnny’s heart lifted momentarily but Shelby was no longer in sight.

“Shelby!”  he called.  “Shelby!”  Fear roughened his voice as he wondered frantically where she could be.  A thousand thoughts clashed in his head.

Inside the dressmaker’s shop where she had supported Suzette, Shelby heard his voice.  Whirling, she ran outside.  “Johnny!  I’m here!”

Spotting him, she raced up the street as he shoved stragglers out of his way.   His arms closed about her as she hit his chest, driving him back a step with the impetuosity of her rush.

Wrapping them about her, Johnny drew her tight against his body, lowering his head as he tried to make out the words muffled against his chest.  Smiling to himself, he breathed in the fragrance of her hair, feeling it tickle his face as he held her.

He held her as though he would never let her go, causing Todd to smile and Suzette to nod as she watched from the porch. “ Someday,” she thought, “if I am very lucky, I will have that for myself."

Shelby raised her head, smiling even as tears sparkled in her eyes.  Both arms went about Johnny’s neck, drawing his dark head down to hers as she kissed him, uncaring who saw, aware only of her joy at being in his arms again.

The sound of Todd clearing his throat finally drew the couple’s attention.  Taking her hand, Johnny tucked it in the crook of his arm, smiling.

Suzette came outside.  “She is welcome to stay with me, Johnny,” she told him. “The jail is no place for her.”

Shelby looked at him, smiling.  “How are your father and brother?” she asked. 

“They’ll be all right,” he told her.  “Everything will be fine now.”

“Then go on, Johnny.  I’ll wait here until you come for me.”

Raising her hand to his lips, he kissed it before drawing her back into his arms.  Emerging pink-cheeked, she caressed his face gently, watching as he strode back up the street before re-entering the shop with Suzette.  The interior of the shop was dim and cool, a welcome relief from the glare, heat and confusion outside.

Once inside the shop, Suzette led her visitor back to the small, well-appointed kitchen. Offering Shelby a chair, she set about making a pot of tea, being careful not to wake her grandmother.

Putting the “Closed” sign in the window and drawing the shades, Suzette set the tea tray down, along with a plate of fat shortbread cookies.

“Here,” she said, handing her guest a delicate china cup and saucer. “Now, tell me all about it.”

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

The jail was packed with crying, screaming people when Johnny and Todd returned. Barely able to move in the crowd, Sam had commandeered the place as a temporary hospital and was firing orders rapidly at Dave and his deputies.  The sheriff, looking grim, was doing his best to help, as were his men.  Some were white under their tans, shaken by the carnage in front of them.

The fat man had been moved inside the cell that Scott had so recently inhabited and a curtain of blankets had been hastily erected to shield him from curious stares.  His panicked howls had stopped as his body’s own endorphins had kicked in, momentarily lessening the shock and pain. The process had been aided considerably by the drops of ether Sam had given him, trickling the liquid slowly onto a patch of gauze held over the man’s mouth.

Larry, his back to the room, was being interrogated by one of the deputies in a corner.

Bursting back into the jail, Johnny made his anxious way through the mob to his father and brother, still seated where he had left them earlier.  Both were pale and unmoving.

They raised their eyes numbly to his face as he stood in front of them.

“Murdoch!” Johnny burst out.  “Scott…what the hell happened?”

Grabbing his father by the shoulders, he shook him slightly.  “Murdoch, snap out of it.”

Turning to his brother, he did the same.  “Scott, it’s me, Johnny!”

Emotion overtook Johnny as he realized how close this moment had come to never occurring.  If he’d been even thirty seconds later, he’d have been standing in front of Scott’s rapidly-cooling corpse.  

His heart pounded.  It had been close, so close.

Uncaring who saw, he grabbed his brother in a rough hug. “Scott, my God, Scott…”

Todd handed Murdoch a bottle.  “Go on, Murdoch, take it,” he urged, closing the rancher’s hand around it.  “You need it.”

Murdoch’s eyes lost their faraway expression as the fiery liquid coursed down his throat.  Seeing it, Todd slapped him on the back and stepped away.

He looked up at his sons.  Seeing the two heads so close together, the dark and the light, remembrance flooded him.  It was a sight he’d never expected to see again in this lifetime.  “Scott…” he said weakly, “Johnny…”

At the sound, Johnny looked down, letting go of his brother.

“Yeah, Murdoch, it’s me,” said his youngest, taking the bottle from him.  He passed it to Scott, saying, “C’mon, Scott, have some.”

His brother took a sip, coughing as the tequila burned his raw throat.  He raised watery eyes to his little brother’s face. As though he couldn’t believe his eyes, he stared hard into Johnny’s face, searching the vivid blue eyes close to his own. 

Johnny took the bottle from him and set it down.  “You never did know how to drink proper, Boston,” he said.  A smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. “But I sure am glad you’ll be around for me to teach you.”

Murdoch stood up.  For once at a loss for words, he reached for his oldest son, needing touch to reassure him that Scott was still corporeal. Their arms went about each other.  Releasing Scott, his eyes went slowly over his youngest.

“Johnny.”  He said slowly, as if he still couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Yeah, old man, it’s me,” Johnny said again. “I…”

The words were cut off as his father’s arms enfolded him.  After a startled second, Johnny’s arms went around his father, hugging him in return. With unusual patience, the younger man realized for the first time how much his father needed him.  Both at a loss for words, the embrace spoke volumes for each man.

Behind them, Scott reached for the bottle and took another drink, wrenching his mind back from its faraway place.  He’d been so ready to die, it was hard to realize he wasn’t in the next life and that this was really happening.

With difficulty, he concentrated.  The sounds of the room entered his ears, the cries and the screams of the wounded, Sam’s sharp commands, the deep voices of the deputies as they went about their work. The sharp smells of blood, sweat and vomit reached his nose, causing his head to jerk back.

His eyes went back to the men before him.  Murdoch was just releasing Johnny.  They both turned to regard him, Murdoch with a frown of concern, Johnny with his familiar grin, the one Scott had so longed to see during his incarceration.

Scott took a deep breath, one hand going to his throat, encircled by an angry red mark. The rope burn stood out clearly against his skin.

His lips twitched upward in the faintest of smiles as comprehension began to seep in.

Seeing it, Johnny’s smile grew wider.  Seating himself on the desk beside his brother, he looked at them, waving Murdoch back down into the chair.

Taking the tequila from Scott, he tilted it to his lips.  The worm swirled in the bottom as he took a long pull.  He passed it to Murdoch, who did the same.

Fortified, the Lancer men looked at each other, a thousand thoughts and questions crashing in their brains although their mouths stayed closed.

Having finished his examination of Murdoch, the doctor had gone on to the next patient. Now, from across the room, Sam’s eyes strayed to the Lancer men.  Not pausing in his task, he nodded inwardly.  The sight of both his sons, safe and unharmed, was already doing Murdoch a world of good.  He had stopped rubbing his chest and his color was much improved.  With color returning to his cheeks, Scott already looked close to normal. Although Johnny was a little the worse for wear after his fight with Roberts, a dark bruise smudging his jawline, the familiar smile told Sam that any damage was superficial.

Johnny took the bottle back.  After another long drink, he set it on the desk beside him as he looked at his father and brother. 

“Damn,” he said, smiling.  “I go away for a few weeks and look what happens!  Can’t you two get along without me?”

The question was asked in jest but it got a serious reply.

Scott’s voice was a whisper, emerging from his bruised throat but the words matched Murdoch’s perfectly.

“No, Johnny, we sure can’t.”

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

Back at Lancer, before Rosita’s mesmerized eyes, the hands of the mantel clock had touched noon.  Scott was being hung. With difficulty, she wrenched her mind back to Catherine, happily building a block tower.

Cooing to the child, she placed several blocks on the top.  With horrified fascination, her eyes strayed back to the clock.  The hands stood at 12:05.

They must have cut Senor Scott’s lifeless body down by now and removed the rope that had choked the life from him.  Someone must have laid the body out and passed a hand over his blue eyes, closing them forever.

She shivered as a cloud passed over the sun, plunging the room into darkness. Shifting position, she again thought uneasily about the Angel of Death, who had hovered over the hacienda for days.  She wondered if it was his wings blotting out the sun.

A crash broke into her morbid thoughts.  Giggling happily, Catherine had dashed the block tower apart.  Rattling loudly, they scattered across the tile floor.

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

In Teresa’s room, Maria leaned over the bed, resting a hand on the girl’s hot forehead.  Her rosary beads trailed from a pocket of her apron.  She had opened the French doors of the balcony, letting air into the stale room.

The cloud’s passage drew her attention as it had Rosita’s.  A sudden chill struck her, causing her to shiver.

Straightening, she took her rosary beads out of her pocket, staring outside at the dark landscape.  Her thoughts echoed Rosita’s as she murmured a silent prayer.

From the angle of the sun, she knew it was just past noon.  The Angel of Death had already visited Lancer.

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

Alone in his room, Jelly tossed in his sleep as the cloud obscured the sun.   In his dream, he was in Morro Coyo.  Standing in front of the gallows, he had a clear view of Scott as the trapdoor opened.  A moan issued from his lips.

No, he thought, still unconscious, nooooooo!  He watched helplessly as the man he loved like his own son plummeted through.

Perched in the jacaranda tree outside, the harsh caw of a crow penetrated his nightmare.  In his dream, Jelly saw a vulture riding the thermals outside of  Morro Coyo.  Piqued by the commotion, with a buzzard’s unerring instinct, it swooped down, landing atop the gallows.

Hanging from it, Scott’s lifeless body swung gently, casting a shadow into the rutted street as his fair hair glinted in the sun.

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

On the north mesa, still herding the bawling cows to new graze, the eyes of the vaqueros raised heavenward as the dark cloud passed overhead.  Some of them shivered involuntarily, crossing themselves before turning back to the task at hand.  Cipriano, who had been at Lancer the longest, sighed, careful to let no one hear him.  Muttering a brief prayer, he whirled his horse about as he set off to look for stragglers.

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

In the high meadow dotted with wildflowers, tall grasses danced in the breeze, perfuming the air with the scent of summer.   Blue lobelia swayed, along with orange poppies.  Tall pink cosmos on long stalks moved gently. Tiny rock roses in vivid reds and yellows climbed the boulders by the river which gurgled merrily over the rocks, glinting as it tumbled by.

In the shade of some cottonwoods, Julio and Manuel spread out the blanket, preparing to unpack their picnic lunch.

Trying to keep the mood light, Julio ignored the cloud passing over the sun, although his superstitious soul was moved by the momentary darkness.

“Go wash your hands,” Julio urged the boy.  Obediently, the child trotted down to the riverbank, attending first to his hands, then washing his face.  Water still beading his face, movement and a splash of color caught his eye.  Swiping his sleeve over his face, he blinked, straining for a better look.

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

As her granddaughter and her new friend talked downstairs, in her bed above the dressmaker’s shop, Suzette Dupre’s grandmother slept but not soundly. In the too-warm room, the tiny woman’s face glistened above the crisp sheets pulled up to her chin.   Strands of gray hair, still streaked with black, stuck to it.  Her eyes moved rapidly behind closed lids as she dreamed and a faint moan escaped her lips.  Her hands came up as if to ward off some unknown evil.

Still asleep, her hands lowered to the bedclothes, clenched fingers uncurling.  It was too late.  Evil was already among them.

 

Ch. 48

Completing his circuit of the room, Sam Jenkins returned to where the Lancers were seated. “Let me look at you,” he commanded Scott.  Seeing that his eyes were clear and he was oriented, he disinfected the rope burn, winding a bandage loosely around it before turning to Murdoch.  “Now you,” he demanded, taking out his stethoscope.  “Open your shirt.”

Murdoch’s dismissive wave of the hand was over-ridden by both sons and he subsided, grumbling, as Sam listened to his chest and peered into his eyes.

“Got plenty more miles left on you,” he said.  “And if I were you, I’d put a few of ‘em between me and this place now, while no one’s looking.”

“Yeah,” Johnny said.  “Let’s go before someone changes their mind.”

“What happens now?” Scott asked the room in general. “Since the sentence wasn’t carried out?  Do I have to go through this all again?”

“Act of God,” said Sam.  “And Franklin Earle’s gone, left town yesterday.  With no judge to tell Dave what to do, my guess is Dave will be only too happy to let the matter drop.”

“It’s not just Dave we have to worry about,” Murdoch muttered.  “It’s the townspeople. How do we know another lynch mob won’t be showing up at Lancer?”

Unnoticed the sheriff had made his way through the crowd and now stood beside them.  He jerked his head toward the corner of the room.  “See that feller over there?” he said, indicating the seated man with his back to them.  “He’s got quite a tale to tell so far.  I suspect it might change things considerable.  So, for now…you just go on out the back way.  I’ll be out later to talk to you.”

Smiling, Scott stood up.  You don’t have to tell me twice! Murdoch?” he said, turning to his father.  The tall rancher also stood.  A smile creased his face as he picked up his hat.

“I hear you.  Johnny?”

“Makes three of us,” his son agreed. “But I have to go get someone before we leave.”

Murdoch raised his brows while Scott appeared equally puzzled.  Dave summoned Todd with a wave of his hand.  “Go get Murdoch’s horse.  Saddle mine for Scott.  Then lead them around the back.”

Todd nodded and left, winking at Johnny as he did so.  “I’ll bring the chestnut, too, Johnny.”

“What was that about?” Scott asked, having intercepted the look.  “Who do you have to get?”

Johnny grinned.  “One thing at a time, brother.  Let’s just concentrate on getting you out of here first.”

Dave cast his eyes around the room, mentally selecting deputies.  “My men will ride along with you.  I’m keeping a guard at Lancer until this is all cleared up, just to be sure.”

Murdoch nodded.  Brightening, he turned to Scott. “I can’t wait to get you home!”

Scott smiled in return, his voice still whispery.  “And I can’t wait to be home!”

Johnny grinned.  “You two go ahead.  I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes.”  He made his way out the door as they watched.

“What’s he being so mysterious about?” Scott asked his father, receiving only a shrug of the shoulders in reply.

Slipping unnoticed from the chaotic room, they waited in the back alley until Todd appeared, leading three horses.  Tying Johnny’s chestnut, he motioned to the five deputies behind him. Murdoch swung into the saddle with an ease that belied his earlier debilitated state.  Eager to be home, Scott mounted quickly.  The two Lancers, along with their escort, turned their horses for the estancia.

Arriving at the bend of the road that shielded them from town, they pulled the horses into a copse of trees as they waited for Johnny.

Scott raised his face to the sun, letting it warm his face as the breeze lifted his fair hair.  He closed his eyes, smiling.  Never had the air smelled so sweet.  The leaves of the tree seemed so vivid, the sky so blue.  It was the most beautiful day he’d ever seen, he decided.

Hearing horses’ hooves, they swung about to face the road, the deputies’ hands hovering  over their guns.  Everyone relaxed when they saw Johnny, riding slightly ahead of his companion on the narrow road. 

“Scott, Murdoch, there’s someone I’d like you to meet,” he said pulling his horse aside to reveal the rider behind him.

Scott frowned as he gazed at the woman, noting the turquoise eyes and the lovely smile, trying to recall where he’d seen her before.  Murdoch, still a beat behind, glanced irritably at Johnny as he sat there, grinning at them.

“This is Shelby.”  The caressing note in his voice caused Murdoch to look hard at his youngest.

The rider pulled her mount closer, offering her hand. “We haven’t been introduced yet,” she said, smiling warmly. “I’m Shelby.  Shelby Randolph.

Murdoch’s jaw dropped as he recognized the name, if not the face.  After a moment, it came to him and he nudged his horse closer, offering his hand in return.

“Yes, of course!” he said.  “James’daughter!  But what on earth are you doing here?”

Johnny interrupted.  “It’s a long story, Murdoch.  And we only want to tell it once. So let’s get home to Lancer.”

Smiling, they all touched their horses with their heels and cantered off, raising a cloud of dust as they headed into the bright afternoon.

A moment later, a lone rider rounded the same bend in the road.  Eyes down, he studied the tracks left behind.  After a moment, he raised his head, satisfied.  Putting spurs to his horse, he, too, headed for Lancer.

 

Ch. 49

At the last curve in the road, they pulled their horses up to let them breathe for a bit.  “This,” Murdoch told Shelby, “is Lancer.  As far as the eye can see.”

She nodded, impressed by the rancho spread out before her in the warm afternoon, the sprawling hacienda gleaming white in the sun.  Lifting her eyes, she saw Johnny watching her as if awaiting her reaction.  She smiled warmly at him.  “It’s beautiful, Johnny.”

He smiled in return.  “Thank you.  We think so, too.”

“My God,” said Scott, the white gauze around his neck glowing white against his tan.  “I feel like I’m seeing it for the first time.”

“In a way,” his father replied.  “You are.”

They sat for a moment, drinking in the sight of the ranch.  Then Scott gathered up the reins.  “Let’s go!” he said.  “I can’t wait to see everyone!”

Johnny smiled.  “This is going to be some reunion!”

His words hung on the breeze as Scott looked back at them.  “I’ll race you!”

Laughing, he gave his horse its head.  The group behind him followed suit, their horses stretching out in full stride as they galloped the last mile home.

The thunder of hooves startled Maria.  Springing up from the chair where she had been watching Teresa and telling her rosary beads, she rushed through the French doors onto the balcony.  The riders were still too far away to see their faces but she thought she detected the sun gleaming off fair hair.  Her heart leapt into her throat.  “Could it be?” she thought.

Casting a last glance at the girl to be sure she still slept, she hurried down the stairs.  Rosita’s wide eyes met hers.  At the look on Maria’s face, she scrambled to her feet, a finger to her lips as she glanced at the crib in the corner where Catherine took her nap.

“What is it?” she whispered.  “What has happened?”

Maria took her hand.  “Come!” she said.  “There has been a miracle!”

Rosita’s eyes widened.  “Senor Scott?”

They rushed for the patio as the horses galloped under the adobe arch.  Now they could make out clearly a blond man among the group of riders as the horses thundered nearer.

Rosita and Maria looked at each other, speechless.  The riders drew closer.  They could see the tall form of Murdoch Lancer, ringed by other riders.  Eyes glued to the blond horseman, they clutched each other’s hands and waited, trying to make out the face.

The lithe form of another rider, black hair blowing, was beside him.

Comprehension dawned.  A miracle had indeed occurred today.  Somehow, some way, Senor Scott had escaped the gallows.  And Senor Johnny had come home.

Joy flooded the two women as the riders swept into the courtyard.  In a flash, Scott had dismounted, holding his arms wide.  With cries of joy, the two women rushed toward him.  Their usual shyness was forgotten as they flung themselves into his arms, laughing and crying as they patted his face, assuring themselves that he was real.

Hugging the two women who were so much a part of his life close, an arm around each, Scott bent down to them, laughing as he assured them that he was indeed, alive.

Still astride, Johnny and Murdoch watched smiling.  After a few moments, Johnny dismounted, walking toward them with the flashing smile they loved.

“Hey,” he said.  “Don’t I count?”  Smiling, the three of them looked up.  Tears sparkled on the women’s cheeks but they were laughing, joy evident on each beaming face.

Striding forward, Johnny picked Maria up, whirling her around in a bear hug.   He set her down carefully, then grabbed Rosita, picking her up and twirling her around in circles as she laughed.

Watching from their horses, the others smiled, enjoying the reunion.  Dabbing at her eyes with a corner of her apron, Maria looked up, laughing through her tears as she noticed the smiling young woman regarding them.

Murdoch slid off his horse, laughing, then turned to help Shelby down.  Still astride, the deputies smiled, happy to be witnessing such joy on a day that had started so badly.  Their horses snorted and switched their tails, eyeing the excited group warily.

A fitful breeze stirred.  As the hubbub died down, Maria took Rosita by the hand.  Laughing and praising God and all His saints, they rushed off to prepare a feast for the returned men.

Still standing in the courtyard, the Lancers smiled at each other, happy to be home. 

“Jack and me will put the horses up,” Todd offered.  “You go on ahead.”

The Lancers nodded their thanks and the two deputies set off.  Murdoch’s voice boomed.  “All of you men come up to the house.  We’re going to have a drink.  We have a lot to celebrate and you were part of it all.”

Laughing, they trooped into the great room where Murdoch took two bottles from the sideboard.   On her way to the kitchen, Rosita had scooped up the sleepy baby, tucking her into the crib they kept back there.  Undisturbed, Catherine dropped immediately back to sleep amid the excited talk and clinking of pots and pans.

Sloshing liquor into glasses, he poured shots of Scotch for the men and one of blackberry cordial for Shelby.

Raising his glass high, he proposed a toast.  “To my sons!  And to my great good fortune in having my family around me again!”

“Hear, hear!” the group responded, tossing their drinks down.  Shelby, safe in the circle of Johnny’s arm, smiled, radiant.   She glanced curiously around the room, so different from Rosehill but inviting nonetheless.  The view from the floor-to-ceiling window was awe-inspiring, she thought, looking out at the rolling hills and lush pastureland.

Johnny tossed off his shot, then glanced around to be sure no one was looking.  Unable to help himself, he dropped a kiss on her smiling lips, tightening his arm around her. Cheeks pinkening, she smiled up at him, turquoise eyes glowing. 

At last, he thought.  We’re home, safe and sound.

In the middle of the crowd toasting him, Scott raised his glass, smiling as Murdoch re-filled it. Holding it high, he began to speak, then stopped, catching sight of Todd’s face as the deputy slipped into the room.

Seeing his expression, Murdoch frowned, puzzled.  “What’s wrong, Todd?” he demanded.

The deputy looked him in the eye.  “Sorry to interrupt your celebration, Mr. Lancer.  But you better come see this.”

 

Ch. 50

They all turned to regard him, their faces suddenly serious.  Todd’s expression brooked no argument. Hurriedly setting their glasses down, everyone rose to follow him out the door, stopping short as the deputy shook his head at Shelby.

“I wouldn’t, ma’am,” the deputy said.  “It’s no sight for a lady.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Todd, torn between the desire to shield her from whatever it was and the need to keep her close.   Seeing Shelby’s shake of the head, he held out a hand to the girl.  “I’m not leaving her alone,” he said.  “Whatever it is.”

She took it gladly, leaning against his side as he put a protective arm around her.

From the kitchen, the clattering of pots and pans continued unabated.

“All right,” Todd said.  “Come on, then.”

Indicating they were to follow him, the deputy strode out into the courtyard they all had entered so joyously just moments ago, waiting as the others piled out behind him.

The group fell in behind the grimfaced deputy, glancing at each other in consternation. The breeze freshened, fluttering the ribbon in Shelby’s hair.  As they neared the barn, they noticed an odd creaking sound.

Murdoch stopped in his tracks to listen, holding up a hand for silence.  The others followed suit. 

The sound came again, the creaking rhythmic as if something was swaying in the wind. Shelby’s hand still tightly clasped in his, Johnny looked at his brother, frowning.

Murdoch glanced back at the deputy, brow furrowed.  Clutching Johnny’s hand, Shelby’s heart constricted with fear.  The ominous sound came again, loud in the thick silence.

“Ma’am,” Todd said again.  “I wouldn’t do this if I were you.”

She looked up at Johnny, turquoise eyes anxious.  He glanced down at her, his own eyes questioning.  She shook her head slightly, indicating she wanted to go ahead.  Murdoch was still frowning.  Confused, Scott and the other deputies looked at Todd.  From the look on his face, they knew that what was about to be revealed was nothing good. Moving with one accord, the group pressed forward, following Todd.  The other deputies instinctively bunched around the Lancers and the girl, hands hovering over their weapons.

The creaking got louder as they neared the barn.  Two rectangles of light pierced the darkness from the open door at each end.  The deputy entered first, leading them past the empty stalls.

Normal barn smells assailed the group as it entered, the everyday odors of horses and leather and dried hay.  Their eyes adjusted quickly to the dim light. Everything appeared in order, bridles hanging neatly, saddles resting on sawhorses, clean straw piled in the stalls, awaiting the animals’ return. 

Murdoch began to speak but Todd waved him back into silence.  Continuing through the deserted structure, he led them toward the sunlight at the far end.  The rhythmic creaking continued, growing louder and louder.  When they stepped out again into the sunlight,  the sound was right above their heads.  With a harsh cawing sound, two startled crows took wing.

Todd looked skyward, pointing to the pulley normally used to haul hay bales up to the loft. 

Following his gesture, everyone looked up, gasping as the sound’s source was revealed.

Mark was hanging from the pulley, a rope around his neck. His face was purple and his eyes full of blood, which had cascaded down his cheeks.  His swollen black tongue protruded from his mouth and his golden hair shone in the sunlight, lifting slightly with each swing of the rope. From the angle of the neck, it was clear that Mark was dead.  His body was already swelling in the heat.

Shelby gasped, whirling away from the sight to hide her face against Johnny’s chest.  His arms went around her as he lowered his head, shielding her from the gruesome sight. Murdoch fell back, one hand going up as if to ward off the sight of his dead son-in-law swaying gently over their heads in the breeze, still attired in the three piece brown suit he’d worn to defend Scott in.

Scott stumbled backwards, his breath leaving him in a rush.   For a moment, he looked as if he were about to pass out.  Grabbing his arm, Todd guided him to a hay bale waiting below.  The young man sat down as if the strength had suddenly left his legs.  The sight was too damn close to home.

The deputies looked at each other, shocked and horrified.  The youngest one put his hand to his mouth, trying not to retch.

Johnny spoke over Shelby’s head.  “I’m taking her back to the house.”

Murdoch nodded. 

Cradling Shelby’s head to his chest, Johnny hurried her out of the barn, one arm about her waist her lest she fall.  He felt sick himself.

He swung her up in his arms just as he felt her go limp.  Rushing back to the house, he called hoarsely for Maria as he went.

Entering the great room, he laid her gently on the leather couch and covered her with an afghan.  Maria came rushing from the kitchen still clutching the wooden spoon she’d been using.  Rosita, eyes like saucers, was right beside her. 

Seeing the young senorita on the couch, their wide eyes flew to his face, then up the stairs.

Seeing the direction of their glance, fear shot through him, making his voice rough.

“Something’s happened to Mark,” he said tersely.  “Where’s Teresa?” he demanded.

Following Maria’s gesture, he stood up and ran for the stairs, taking them three at a time.

“Take care of her!” he yelled over his shoulder.

At the barn, the men had climbed into the hayloft.  Going to the opening where Mark dangled, they tried to catch his body.  With macabre elusiveness, it danced just out of their reach.  Taking up a pitchfork, they used it to catch his coat and pull him inside, grimacing at the gassy smell emanating from the body.  Mark’s corpse was stiff under their grasping hands.  A few flies darted inside, their buzzing abnormally loud in the solemn silence.

Beginning to turn the body, a kneeling deputy was abruptly sick into the hay.   Two of the others retched.  Rolling the body over, Todd realized what the crows had been doing.

 

Ch. 51

Bursting into Teresa’s room, Johnny went quickly to the bed and laid a hand on the girl’s throat, feeling for a pulse.  Sunlight streamed gaily in from the open French doors, mocking what had just happened to the girl’s husband.  Realizing Theresa was alive, he removed his hand, getting up quickly up to go and shut them.

The clanking of his spurs penetrated Teresa’s slumber, causing her eyelids to flutter open. She looked sleepily at the man’s back, silhouetted by the bright sun. The light hurt her eyes and she rolled her head away.  Then the doors closed softly, shutting off the brightness.  The man crossed back to the bed, seating himself on the edge.

Johnny had detected the slight movement and now he brushed strands of hair from her eyes as she struggled to wake up.  Taking her hand, he murmured her name.

The familiar voice, unheard for so long, was better than a dash of cold water.  Hearing it, Teresa’s eyes flew open.  “Johnny?”  He slipped an arm behind her, propping her against his shoulder.

“It’s me, honey,” he murmured.  “I’m home.”

A smile illuminated her small wan face and she turned her head into his neck, hugging him weakly.

“Johnny,” she murmured. She sat up, so suddenly that the top of her head struck his jaw.

“Scott!” she burst out.  “Johnny, it’s Scott!”  Agitated, she struggled to remove herself from his encircling arms.

“Sshh,” he soothed her.  “Scott’s alive.  He wasn’t hung this morning.”

Incredulous, she looked up at him, eyes shining. 

“Really! But what…”

“I got there in time.  Scott will be here any minute to see you himself.” He pressed her head back into his chest, arms tightening around her.  Smiling happily, she snuggled back against him.

He could feel the questions trying to take shape and he hoped Maria was on top of things.

A gentle tap on the door told him that she was.    At Johnny’s “Come in,” Maria stuck her head in, then entered, carrying a tray upon which were a tall glass of milk and some crackers. 

Seeing them, Teresa protested.  “Oh, not milk!  I don’t want to go back to sleep, I want to get up!  I want to go see Scott!”

Maria bustled in.  “And you will, but you haven’t eaten in days.  You don’t want to get out of bed and faint, do you?  Some food will do you good. Senor Scott will be here in just a little while.”

Johnny propped the pillows up behind the girl even as he agreed with Maria.  “She’s right, you know,” he said gently, looking down into the huge brown eyes that were beginning to sparkle. 

He eased her back against the headboard and drew the covers up. Dropping a kiss on her forehead, he stood up. “I’ll go get him, right now.”

Maria bustled forward, setting the tray on the nightstand as she spread a napkin over the girl’s lap.  Straightening, her eyes met Johnny’s.

With one hand on the knob, he looked at Theresa.  “We’ll be right back,” he promised.  Closing the door behind him, he strode rapidly downstairs.  In the great room, Shelby was sitting up, pale but composed.  He sat down next to her, concerned.

“I’m all right, Johnny,” she said.

“Would you like to go lie down?” he asked her.  He forbore to say the rest of it but she got his meaning immediately and nodded.

“Let me show you upstairs, then,” he said, extending a hand to help her up. 

Leading her up the stairs, he put her in the room next to his.  He seated her on the bed, away from the window.  “I’ll send Rosita up,” he promised.

“Thank you,” Shelby replied. “I’ll wait here until you come back.”

Standing up, he caressed her cheek before closing the door behind him.  Bounding downstairs, he went into the kitchen, where his eyes fell on Catherine, asleep in the crib in the nook by the window where the curtains had been drawn.  His gut twisted at the sight of the toddler who had just lost one parent.

Rosita came over, brown eyes big and uncertain.  He hugged her briefly, tipping her face up with a finger beneath her chin. “You OK?” he asked her.

At her nod, he said, “Good.  I’ve taken the lady to the room next to mine.  Her name is Shelby.”

“Rosita,” he told her gently.  “Senor Mark is dead.  Please take the baby and go and sit with her.  Don’t come out until I call you.  Please tell Maria when she comes out of Teresa’s room.”

He stopped her with a hand on her arm as she turned to go.

“Where’s Jelly?”

“In his room, asleep.  He was so upset this morning, we gave him laudanum.  But he should be waking up soon!” she blurted in a rush, concerned for the old man.

“I’ll check on him,” he promised.  “I don’t want him walking into this.”

He gave her a gentle push.  “Now, go.”  Watching until she gathered up the sleeping child, he went quickly to Jelly’s room, pushing the door open gently.

The old man was deeply asleep, his face almost as pale as the white linen he rested on.

Slipping quietly onto the patio, Johnny went back to the barn.  The men had recovered from the sight of the mutilated body and had laid it out on the floor of the loft.  Head and shoulders emerging from the opening in the floor as he climbed up the hayloft ladder, Johnny got his first good look at the corpse’s face, recoiling sharply from the eyeless sockets.

“Damn,” he muttered.  “We can’t let Teresa see this!”

Murdoch looked up.  “How’s she doing?”

“Just woke up,” Johnny said.  “But not for long, Maria put some laudanum in her milk. She knows we’re all home, though, and she’s waiting to see Scott.”

Scott stood up.  “I’ll go see her now.  Where’s Jelly?”

“Asleep.  According to Rosita, they drugged him, too.  But she says he’s about due to wake up.”

Murdoch looked up.  “Scott, you haven’t touched the body.  You go see her while I wash up. Hurry, before she starts asking for Mark.”

“Murdoch,” Johnny interjected, his face troubled.  “How are we going to handle this?  We can’t bury Mark without giving her a chance to say good-bye.”

Scott spoke up.  “He’s right.  Mark’s her husband.”

Murdoch sighed, passing a hand over his face as if to scrub away his worries.  “I know, boys, but how can we let her see him like this?  He looks pretty bad.  And then there’s the heat…we can’t delay the burial much longer.  How is she?”

“Seems pretty fragile,” Johnny said.  “I don’t know that she can take it.”

He turned to his brother.  “You better hurry.  She won’t be awake much longer and she’s anxious to see you.”  

Scott got up to leave.  His troubled eyes met Johnny’s. “Why would anyone do such a thing to Mark? It’s insane.”

Behind him, Todd spoke up suddenly. “Not somebody. Mark.”

The deputy looked Scott square in the eyes.  “We looked.  There were no fresh tracks anywhere.”

“But that’s insane!” Murdoch stated.  “Mark had no reason to kill himself!”

Todd met his look.  “How do you know that, Murdoch?

The Lancers looked at him, confused.

“How well did you know Mark before Teresa married him?  How much do you really know about him?”

Murdoch looked at him, brows drawing together.  “We knew him pretty well.  His father is a prominent politician in Sacramento; I’ve been acquainted with him for years.  We were both happy when Mark and Teresa hit it off.”

“How long did they know each other before they married?” Todd questioned.

Murdoch looked at his sons inquiringly.  “I’m not sure, about a year or so?”  At their nods, he continued.  “Long enough that we felt we knew him and were comfortable with Teresa marrying him.”

Another deputy spoke up.  “Was it a happy marriage?”

“Why, yes,” Murdoch replied.  “Yes, it was.  Like any young couple, they had their growing pains but they loved each other.”  His face fell.  “My God, this leaves the baby without a father.”

Johnny spoke up.  “You better go see Teresa, Scott.”

“I’m going,” his brother replied, preparing to descend the ladder.

“Stay with her,” Murdoch urged.  “We’ll build the coffin before she wakes up.”

Todd spoke up.  “While you’re in the house, maybe you could do one other thing.”

Scott half-turned.  “What’s that?”

“Look for a suicide note.”

 

Ch. 52

Back at the house, Maria sat with Theresa as she ate a cracker.  She thought the girl already looked much improved, the color returning to her cheeks and the sparkle to her eyes.  With deep foreboding, she wondered what had happened to Senor Mark.  From Johnny’s tone, it had not been good.  Fighting the urge to cross herself, she looked back at Teresa, forcing a smile to her lips.

“Where’s Catherine?” the girl inquired.

“She is with Rosita, down in the kitchen,” Maria replied.  “Taking her nap.  Have some milk.”  she urged the girl.  “You have gotten so thin.”

Maria waited until she had taken a few sips before continuing.  Hoping to forestall any questions about Mark, she said, “Would you like to see your daughter?  Shall I go get her for you?”

Teresa considered, still chewing a cracker.  Swallowing, she replied, “No, don’t wake her up if she’s napping.  Oh,” she said, “What is taking Scott so long?”

Maria stood up and peered out the window.  Spotting Scott emerging from the barn, she said, “I see him now, he’s on his way.  Finish your milk like a good girl and I will take away the plates before he gets here.”

The girl took a sip before setting the glass on the nightstand.  She was reviving rapidly, thought Maria, dreading the moment the girl asked about her husband.  From Senor Johnny’s manner, she knew that something serious had happened to the young man, perhaps even something fatal. In the girl’s frail state, she wondered how she could survive such a blow.

Fingering the rosary beads still in her pocket, she offered up a quick prayer that she was wrong.  Pobrecita, she thought, looking at Teresa, whom she loved like a daughter.  She has already been through so much…mala suerte, she thought darkly.  Bad luck had hovered over the estancia for days.  She thought of the passing cloud that had obscured the sun earlier. She’d been right in thinking that the Angel of Death had visited Lancer today.  But he had not come for Scott.  He had come for Mark.

The estancia’s door slammed as Scott entered and Maria moved to the bed, hurriedly taking the tray from Teresa’s lap.

Listening to Scott bounding up the stairs, Theresa’s face was alight with expectation.  At his gentle rap on the door, she called, “Come in!” in a voice breathless with excitement.  A huge smile wreathed her face as she sat up eagerly.

The door opened and her foster brother stood there, smiling.  In seconds, he had crossed the floor and seated himself on the bed, taking Teresa into his arms.  Her arms went around his neck as she hugged him tight, laughing and crying at the same time.

To give them privacy, Maria stepped out into the hall with the tray, just as Rosita appeared with the sleepy baby in her arms.   Pulling Maria a little way down the hall, she whispered  to her in hushed tones.  The housekeeper’s dark eyes filled with tears and she sagged briefly against the wall for support.

Rosita eyed her anxiously, her own eyes damp.  Neither of them had known Mark well but he had been a member of the Lancer family.  He had always been kind to them, complimenting their meals and slipping them gold pieces at Christmas.  They knew Teresa had loved her husband dearly and that Mark had doted on both his wife and his daughter.

Their eyes met and each knew what the other was thinking.  How would Teresa survive this? To receive her beloved elder brother back and find out her husband was dead—all in the same day?  To learn that the baby, the light of all their lives, was now fatherless and that she herself was a widow?  It was too terrible, each woman thought, too much for anyone to bear.

They heard the door downstairs close gently as someone entered.  Nodding toward Shelby’s room, Maria indicated Rosita should take the baby and sit with the newcomer. Still clutching the tray, she turned for the stairs.

Johnny had entered quietly, seating himself at the kitchen table and dropping his head into his hands.  He planned to sit with Jelly until the old man woke up but he just needed a few minutes to himself first.  His thoughts turned to Mark.

What on earth, he thought, could have made a young, successful man kill himself that way?  What had been going on with him that all of the Lancers had missed?

A few minutes later, footsteps broke into his reverie and he looked up to find Scott sliding into the place across the table, looking around the kitchen as he did so.

“Good to be back, Boston?” he inquired, smiling.

“It sure is,” his brother replied.  “I never expected to see it again.

Johnny grinned faintly.  “I just wish it had been a happier homecoming.”

Scott looked at him, brows drawing together. “Johnny, what do you think made Mark do it?”

“Dunno, Scott. Guess there was a lot about Mark we didn’t know.”

Scott nodded.  “Maybe that suicide note Todd was talking about will explain it.”

Johnny stood up.  “I was going to go sit with Jelly, don’t want him waking up alone.  Want to come with me?”

Scott nodded.  “Finding that note won’t bring Mark back.  And I’ve wanted to talk to you for so long…never thought I’d get the chance again.”

Johnny met his eyes.  “I’m sorry I was gone so long, brother.”

Scott’s eyes met his squarely.  “You’re here now.  That’s all that matters.”

Together, they prepared a tray for the old man, filling it with a glass of milk, to which they added a shot of brandy, and some of Maria’s famous chocolate cookies.  “If anything will get him to eat,” Johnny said, nodding at the plate.  “Those will.  He’s sure got a sweet tooth.”

“Look who’s talking,” replied his brother.  “You could eat the whole batch yourself and you know it.”

Johnny grinned as his brother opened the door to Jelly’s room for him.  “You got that right, Boston,” he said.  “It’s why I have some in my shirt pocket right now.”

The familiar banter penetrated the old man’s slumber.  His eyelids fluttering open, he saw first Scott, sitting on the right side of his bed.  Bewildered, he let his eyes travel to the left, where he spotted Johnny, his grin like a beacon drawing the old man back to wakefulness.

He shifted position, convinced he was dreaming.  Rubbing his eyes, he glanced right and left again but the apparitions remained.  Both were smiling widely at him.

Jelly sat up, still bemused.

Unseen, Dewdrop had wandered in and now stood on the rug.  Honking at the intruders invading his domain, he stretched his wings wide.

One of the apparitions spoke.  “Damn, Jelly, you gonna sleep all day?”

The soft, drawling voice dispelled the last vestiges of laundanum in Jelly’s brain.  He sat up, chin whiskers wagging.  “Why, you rascals!  Welcome home, boys!  Welcome home!”

 

Ch. 53

In the Morro Coyo jail, the sheriff sat back in his chair, regarding the man he’d been interrogating.  He was a tall man, unremarkable, his manner pleasant and unassuming.  Dave Bell wondered how he’d gotten the badly broken nose, so at odds with his genteel demeanor.  What really made the sheriff sit up and take notice of his account was the idea that someone had been stalking the Lancers.  Perhaps it tied into their current run of bad luck.

The jail was quieter now, the wounded having been made comfortable on makeshift beds.  Many had been given laudanum and were asleep.  Some had been taken home by relatives. 

Dave Bell eyed the man, rubbing his chin.  “You say that man was stalking Johnny Lancer?”

“Yes,” Larry said firmly.  “He was about to shoot him in the back.”

“Any idea why he’d want to do such a thing?” Dave asked.

“None.  I just knew I had to stop him.”

“And you say the man you shot is the same man who assaulted you in your home in Oaxaca three months ago?”

“Yes.”

But you said it was dark and he woke you up.” The sheriff’s voice stayed low and even.

“Doesn’t matter.” Larry said.  “I’d know that man anywhere.”

Pushing his chair back, Dave stood up. “Come with me.”

He led Larry back to the jail cell that had been curtained off.  Turning his key in the lock, he led Larry inside.  The fat man that Larry had shot earlier lay there, sweat glistening on his fat face.  The purple scar on one cheek was darker than usual with his rising temperature.  The drug he’d been given earlier had kept him asleep so far but pain was beginning to break into his ether-induced slumber.  Although his obesity made it hard to tell, Larry thought his enormous belly looked bigger still, already swelling from its ruptured contents that were slowly poisoning him.

Larry looked down.  “That’s him,” he said decisively.  Looking at the snoring mound of blubber, he felt nothing, not even the rage that had consumed him earlier. Dispassionately, he wondered what it would feel like to have your insides rot inside you until you died an excruciating death. The fat man was going to find out.

The sheriff dropped the curtain, seating himself once more behind his desk.  He indicated Larry should resume his earlier seat.

“How do I know you didn’t shoot him just for payback?”

“Miss Dupre will vouch for my motives.”

“We’ll be talking to her, too.” Dave told him.  By all rights, he should corroborate the man’s story before letting him leave but Larry Sawyer didn’t strike him as a loose cannon.  The sheriff’s instincts told him the man’s story would check out.

Larry looked at him.  “Sheriff, I’m talked out.  Can I leave now?”

Dave nodded.  “Just don’t leave town.”

“I’m staying at the Morro Coyo Inn.”  He stood up, his eyes suddenly on a level with several posters tacked to the wall over the sheriff’s head. “You know…” the words broke off as he bent forward, peering closely at one of them.  The caption read:  WANTED – DEAD OR ALIVE.  REWARD - $10,000.

Dave looked up as Larry fumbled in his coat pocket.  “What?” he asked, seeing recognition in the man’s face.

Larry put on his glasses, examining the picture.  He stepped back, surprised.

“You know that man?” Dave asked.

Larry looked at him, sinking back into his chair. 

“Yes.  He used to stay in the hotel all the time.  With a woman.”

Dave looked at him. “Mister, that man is wanted in a string of train robberies in five states.  If you know who he is, you better tell me.  And if you know who the woman was, you better tell me that, too.”

Removing his glasses, Larry blinked owlishly at the sheriff.  Rubbing his nose with one hand, he spoke slowly. 

“It’s the oddest thing.  I could have sworn I saw her earlier.  Here, in Morro Coyo.

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

Teresa had slipped back into a sound sleep when the hammering began.  Still sitting on Jelly’s bed, where the three of them had been talking a mile a minute, it reached the ears of all the men, causing them to look soberly at each other.

Seeing it, Jelly looked from one to the other.  “What?” he demanded.  “What’s goin’ on?”

Scott sighed. “Think we should tell him, Johnny?”

“Yeah, “ his brother replied.  “He has to know.”

“Know what?” the old man demanded, chin whiskers wagging indignantly.

Johnny leaned forward.  “There’s no easy way to say this, Jelly.  Mark’s dead.”

“Dead?” Jelly questioned, stunned by everything that had happened while he slept.  “How?”

Scott chimed in.  “Looks like suicide.”

The old man looked at them, shocked.  “Suicide?” But…but…why?”

Like them, he had always thought of Mark as a pleasant, well-adjusted young man.

“Never saw anything odd about the boy.  He never seemed unhappy, except…” his voice trailed off as he looked at Scott.

Johnny looked at him keenly.  “Except when Scott was indicted?”

Jelly nodded, slowly.  “But there’s nuthin’ unusual about that, Johnny!  We all felt pretty low, Teresa especially.”

The word struck him and he looked at them numbly.  “My God, Teresa!  What’s gonna become of her?  And that poor little baby?

They all looked at each other gravely.

Johnny stood up.  “I’m glad you’re ok, Jelly.”

Scott spoke up.  “Me, too, Jelly.  We’ll be back later.”

“Where you two goin’?” the old man demanded.

Johnny replied.  “We have to do something while Teresa’s asleep—search the house for a suicide note.”

Jelly pushed back the covers.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Johnny asked him.

“I’m comin’ with you.  I’m gonna help find that note.”

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

Murmuring apologetically, Rosa took Catherine from Shelby’s lap as the child began to fuss.  “It’s time for her dinner,” she explained to the young woman.  Shelby nodded, smiling. 

“I told Johnny I’d wait for him here,” she explained to the girl.  “I think he’ll be gone for awhile so I think I’ll get cleaned up.”

Rosita nodded.  “I’ll take her downstairs and then I’ll bring you up some water for a bath,” she promised.

“That would be so nice…thank you, “Shelby replied.  She already liked the shy young maid and the baby was adorable.  She looked forward to meeting her mother.

***********

Hurrying downstairs, Rosita put Catherine in the playpen in the great room, promising to be right back.  As soon as she was gone, the child shinnied over the rail, agile as a little monkey.  It was a trick she’d taught herself just that morning when she climbed out of her crib for the first time.  Her tired father had put her back twice that day already.

Reaching back through the bars, she gathered up Dora, her battered cloth doll.  Attired in a striped pinafore, Dora, with her mop of orange yarn hair, blue button-eyes, and permanently stitched-on smile was the child’s favorite toy.  Clutching Dora to her with one arm, Catherine watched as the breeze fluttered an envelope from the corner of her grandfather’s desk onto the floor, where it gleamed white against the tile.

Toddling forward curiously, she picked it up, noticing the scrawling black letters, and put it into her mouth.  Chewing experimentally on the edge, Catherine quickly decided it was inedible and set about wadding it up.   Hearing Rosita emerging from the kitchen, she stuffed the envelope inside her doll, using the two inch slit in the seam that had recently appeared between her top and bottom half beneath the pinafore.  Responding to the anxiety in the maid’s voice, the child toddled quickly forward, leaving the room looking just as it always did.

 

Ch. 54

Inside the barn, under Murdoch’s supervision, the coffin was soon completed.  Mark’s corpse, already entering rigor mortis, was maneuvered carefully down from the hayloft by the deputies as the older man swiped his shirtsleeve across his sweaty forehead, his face pale.  Murdoch had seated himself on a bale of hay and was now looking grimly into space, lost in thought.

Todd looked at the older man carefully.  “You all right, Murdoch?”

The tall rancher looked up, his faced creased and weary.  “Yes, I am, Todd.  Don’t worry.”

The deputy spoke up.  “Want one of us to go for the doc?  On account of Miss Teresa?”

Murdoch looked at him, struck.  Then he shook his head decisively.  “There’s nothing Sam can do and I don’t want to take him away from the jail.  There are other people who need him more right now.  We’ll just have to do the best we can.”

The other men stood in the cool dimness, the coffin resting on two sawhorses in the aisle between the stalls.  They looked at the tall rancher expectantly, waiting to hear what Murdoch wanted to do.  None of them envied him the decision he had to make—whether to let Teresa see her husband’s eyeless, bloated corpse—or to bury the young man now, before she awoke.

Making his decision, the tall rancher stood up decisively.  “We’ll bury him now, before she wakes up.  I can’t let her see him like this.”

The deputies nodded, shuffling their feet.  Todd spoke up, deploying his men.

“We’ll help you bury him, Murdoch.  But I’m leaving some of my men here to guard Lancer.  Just in case.”

The young deputy who had vomited earlier spoke up.  Anxious to redeem himself, he said, “I’ll dig the grave.”

Todd glanced at his young, earnest face, barely capable of sprouting beard stubble. 

“Thanks, Jack.  That’s settled then.  We’ll go with Murdoch now.  The rest of you guard  the house.  One of you tell Johnny and Scott what’s going on.”

One of the deputies spoke up.  Holding his hat in his hands, he said, “I sure am sorry, Murdoch.  This is a terrible thing to have happen.”

Another, Ray Barrington, nodded, adding gravely, “I didn’t know Mark well but I liked him.  Used to have a drink with him once in awhile when he was in town.  He was a fine man.”

The others nodded, indicating their agreement.

Murdoch inclined his head, acknowledging the men.  Speaking gravely, he said.  “Thank you, all of you.  That means a lot to us.”

Straightening, he put his hat on.  “We better hurry before Teresa wakes up.”

“I’ll harness the horse,” said Jack.  

“I’ll help you,” Todd volunteered.

Murdoch nodded and the two men hurried off.

The other deputies departed, leaving Murdoch alone in the cool dimness. 

The tall rancher looked at the plain pine box holding his son-in-law’s body. Putting his hands on the lid, he closed his eyes for a moment, thinking of the laughing young man who had been so briefly a part of their lives.   His thoughts turned to the past Christmas when Catherine had taken her first steps.  Only fifty-two feet above sea level, Sacramento rarely had snow but during an unaccustomed cold snap, they had awakened one morning to find a dusting on the ground.

Mark and his sons had immediately engaged in a spirited snowball fight while a smiling Teresa held Catherine up to watch.  Pointing at the antics of her uncles and father, the baby had clapped her hands, crowing with laughter.

The snowball fight finished, Mark had come inside, nose red from the cold and immediately nuzzled his face into Teresa’s neck, causing her to shriek as he demanded a kiss. Laughing, she had turned her face up, receiving a thorough buss under the mistletoe as the Lancer men watched, smiling.

Wrenching his thoughts abruptly back, his heart ached for his young ward, a widow at twenty with a toddler to raise.

Murdoch thought of his sons, both of whom had grown up without their father.  He sighed, thinking sadly of Catherine.  She was too young to remember her father for long and would most likely grow up with no memories of the handsome young attorney who had sired her.

The sound of the horses’ hooves and the rattling of the buckboard shook him from his reverie.

The deputies drove the wagon into the barn, halting the horse beside the unadorned pine box.

Murdoch hurried forward and the three of them lifted the coffin into the wagon, Jack climbing into the back beside it.

Murdoch took up the reins as Todd climbed into the passenger seat.  Flapping the reins  gently on the horse’s back, the wagon rumbled forward.

In the great room, Johnny, Scott and Jelly halted their search for the suicide note when Ray Barrington entered the room to give them Murdoch’s decision.  Their eyes met, then the younger Lancers nodded.  Putting his hat back on, Ray left the room.

“What do you think,” Scott asked his brother.  “Should we go up there now?”

Johnny shook his head.  “I don’t think so.  We can pay our respects later.  When Teresa wakes up, she’s going to want some answers.”

Jelly spoke up.  “Johnny’s right.  Let’s keep looking.”

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

Seated in the beautiful old copper bathtub, Shelby leaned her head against the rim and closed her eyes.

The hot water was relaxing, taking some of the day’s tensions from her.  Turning the events of the morning over in her mind, she thought of how Johnny had saved his brother’s life.  She remembered her own terror, freezing her to the spot as she watched him racing forward into danger.  He had been completely heedless of his own safety, intent only on doing what had to be done.  Johnny was a bold man and a brave one, she thought, a small shiver going down her spine as she recalled his exploits of the morning.

Unbidden, a comparison between him and her husband rose in her mind.  She knew without a doubt that Michael would never have put himself on the line like that—for anybody.  Not even her.  No, she decided, her husband would have stayed in the background and watched as his brother swung from the gibbet, declaring the odds far too high, the chance of success too remote.  Then he would have been chief mourner at the funeral, playing the part of the bereaved brother to the hilt.  He would probably even have shed a few crocodile tears, seeking every last drop of sympathy from bystanders.  The contrast sickened her as she wondered how she had ever loved him in the first place.

Her chin lifted as pride surged through her.  Johnny was courageous, honest and strong but also gentle and loving…everything that the man she had married was not. The corners of her lips lifted as she recalled dancing with him at the fiesta and the way he had fed her chocolate mousse on the night of their first kiss

Smiling, she leaned her head back against the rim of the tub, closing her eyes.  She thought again of the absolute sureness of all his movements, including his fluid grace as he hurled himself off the chestnut’s back into the man pointing a derringer at Scott.

Her cheeks pinkened as she wondered what he would be like stripped of his clothes, naked in the tub with her.   A quiver went through her as she imagined his lean, muscular body, his knowing hands and his warm lips on hers.  She was so lost in her thoughts that she failed to hear the tap on the door.

On the other side, in the dim hallway, Johnny tapped again, then waited for her reply.  Hearing none, he grew concerned. He’d gotten so used to having her beside him that he felt suddenly uneasy.  Concern rose in him.  She was probably asleep but he needed to make sure.

Pushing the door open slightly, he put his head in and glanced to his right at the bed, squinting in the light streaming in from the open French doors.  It was empty.  Worry shot through him and he stepped inside, closing the door gently behind him. Momentarily blinded, Johnny halted, blinking as his eyes adjusted.

The sight that met them was wondrous indeed.  Head back and arms resting on the rim of the tub, her eyes closed and a faint smile on her lips, Shelby appeared to be asleep. Her dark lashes rested on her cheeks and the delicate lines of her throat and neck were revealed.  Her upswept hair revealed her delicate cheekbones and the dainty shoulders,  creamy skin slightly flushed from the water’s heat.   Bubbles teased the pink crests of her exposed breasts, half-hiding them.  Johnny’s eyes swept over her in a longing caress, drinking in her naked beauty.  The sight of her awoke an immediate response in him. The urge to walk forward and join her in the tub was overwhelming but he remained rooted to the spot.

Reluctantly, he tore his eyes away, trying to force his feet to work.  Sensing his presence, Shelby’s eyes opened. 

Words escaped Johnny as he stood there, transfixed by the beckoning turquoise gaze.   Unbidden, his feet found their own way forward over the carpet, his eyes still locked on hers as he dropped to his knees beside the tub. Both arms went around her and he lowered his head to hers.

Although Shelby’s cheeks pinkened, her gaze remained steady, lashes lowering only as he touched her lips with his.  He kissed her gently at first, caressing her lips with his own.  Feeling them part slightly, his tongue entered to caress hers, teasing, exploring.

Plunging both arms into the water, Johnny slid his hands behind her naked body, pressing her upward against his chest.  Her wet breasts gleamed as they left the water, tingling as they came into contact with the slightly rough embroidery on his shirtfront.  Kissing her as he held her to him with one hand, his free hand slid up and down her naked back and shoulders, caressing them.

An answering fire awoke within her.  The part of her mind that whispered “hold back” was immediately extinguished by the passion ignited at his touch.

Her arms left the rim of the tub and went around Johnny’s neck, clutching him closer still. One strong hand cradled her head as he kissed her deeply.   The other slid up to cup a breast as he rubbed his thumb gently over the nipple

Suddenly he pulled back, looking gently down at her with a question in his eyes.  Seeing it, she nodded, drawing his dark head down to kiss him passionately in return.

Johnny’s lips left hers as his head lowered.  His lips trailed slowly down over her throat, leaving a trail of fire as they went.  The hand cradling her head slid down to cup her other breast, pressing them together as he kissed the deep valley between them.  His warm tongue circled each small pink crest, darting from one to the other and causing them to harden before he took each one into his mouth by turns, causing her breath to catch sharply in her throat.

Quivers began deep inside her and a small moan escapade her as her head fell back.  Johnny reached into the water, sliding his hands down her back to cup her buttocks.   Suddenly, he stood, lifting her out of the tub as water cascaded to the floor.  Her legs went about his waist and her arms entwined around his neck as she kissed him, thrusting her own tongue between his lips. Gripping her buttocks, his soaked clothes rasping along her delicate skin and making her naked body tingle, he carried her toward the bed.

Water trickled from her body, darkening his pants and soaking his shirt.  Droplets caught in the dark hair on his arms and glistened like dew in the black hair of his chest, visible above his shirt.  Naked and gleaming in his arms, she felt his kisses become more insistent as one hand went to her hair.  Johnny released the ribbon, allowing the shining mass to cascade down over both of them.  Reaching the bed, he laid her gently down. Brushing the hair from her breasts, Johnny’s eyes swept over her, drinking in all the lovely curves and hollows he’d longed to discover for weeks.  She was so beautiful, his heart ached at the sight of her.  Leaning over her, one knee on the bed, he looked down at her, his soul in his eyes.

Silently, Shelby raised her arms. Lowering his head, his thick dark hair spilled over her breasts as he nuzzled them, trailing one hand gently over her stomach to the secret place between her legs, feeling the wetness that greeted him.  Sliding onto the bed beside her, Johnny leaned one thigh over both of hers, kissing her as his hand returned to caress her breasts.  Never taking his eyes from her face, he began undoing his shirt buttons with one hand.

Shelby looked up, admiring with smoky eyes the first sight of his naked chest, the smooth brown skin and the mat of crisp black hair, admiring the muscles rippling underneath as more of his body was revealed.  The gold medallion he wore gleamed.  Smiling, she slipped her hands inside the shirt as it hung open, running both hands up over his lean ribs before slipping the shirt off his shoulders.

His beautiful smile appearing in return, he withdrew his leg and sat up, shrugging the shirt off.  He began to work the conchos on one side of his pants. She came up on her knees behind him, trailing her hands over his warm golden skin, kissing his neck and back.  Leaning against him from behind, she slipped her arms around his chest, hugging him against her.  Her naked breasts bored holes in his back and his fingers moved faster as he cursed all the damned buttons.

Slipping off the bed, she knelt at his other leg and began to help, smiling up at him as she began to work the conchos free of the buttonholes at his waist.

Working together, he was almost free of his pants, the thin black furring of hair that traced downward from his belly revealed, when the first screams rent the air.

 

Ch. 55

Dearest Teresa,

If you are reading this, it means that I am dead, having succeeded in killing myself by my own hand.   There is no one to look for and no one to be brought to justice but me…and it’s too late for that.

There’s no good way to say this so I’ll just come out with it: the robbery that Scott was hanged for…I committed it.  And others besides.  I masterminded still more.

Killing myself is the only way out of the horrible mess that I have caused.  Your brother Scott is dead, too, by now and his blood is on my hands. I could have saved him by telling the truth long ago. Instead, I let an innocent man die.   I’ve lied to all of you for many months.  My own death is the only way to expiate my sins.

I owe all of you an explanation, the one that I should have been man enough to come forward with long ago.  I know how you adored Scott and the guilt of having caused his death and your unhappiness, as well as the present misery of everyone else at Lancer and the destruction of your way of life, is more than I can bear.  My guilt is eating me alive. 

It’s worse than the fires of hell, as I will no doubt be finding out shortly.  I deserve to burn for eternity.

You, your brothers and Murdoch have never been anything but good to me and I have brought all of you nothing but misery in return.  I’m a coward and a liar, not worthy of your trust or your love…any of you.

I am the reason so many people lost their homes and their lands, why so many tears have been shed, and why your family has been torn apart.

I’m also the reason that the robber gang was never caught. I used my connections, both political and personal, as well as my contacts  in law enforcement not only to plan and execute the robberies but to help us  avoid capture. That was the reason for all my trips to San Francisco—to meet with them and to plot our next moves.  The gang’s leader and I look much alike…both tall, both blonde.  It was one reason the authorities couldn’t track us, how we could appear to be in two places at once.

I know you thought there was another woman—not true, Teresa.  Another of my crimes that I let you think so even for a second but there has never been any woman for me but you since the day we met.  That is the truth, my darling, please believe it.

I moved people around like pawns on a chessboard for my own amusement and my own greed.  Once I got started, it was like a game to me.  I never counted the human cost—until now when I see you so sad and broken.  You could never look me in the face again, if you knew, much less forgive me. I can’t look at our sweet, innocent daughter anymore without being overwhelmed by shame.  I’m not fit to be her father or your husband.

My reasons don’t really matter.  Suffice it to say, I was protecting someone, helping someone.  More than that, I can’t say.

So you know, most of the gang has been killed.  But one original member remains and he’s the head of the snake.  Even now, he is probably regrouping.  To resume robbing, perhaps not.  To seek revenge on Johnny, certainly.  Johnny killed two of his brothers in Mexico. This man is not just dangerous—he’s insane.

He will show up at Lancer.  Count on it.  You must warn the others.   And be careful, my darling, until this man is caught. There’s no telling where or how he will strike.  I’m sorry I won’t be there to protect you.  Kiss my daughter for me.  Some day, perhaps you can tell her that even though her father was a weak man, he loved both of you very much.

Please tell Murdoch and Johnny how sorry I am.  Being the men they are, I doubt they’ll ever understand, much less forgive me.  I wish I had been more like them.

Goodbye, my cherished wife.  We created a beautiful child together; may she bring you happiness and comfort in the days ahead.

I love you.

Mark

 

The words swam on the page before Teresa’s eyes as her overtaxed brain gave way.  The words “dead by my own hand” leapt out at her, horrifyingly distinct.

On the corner of the bed, Catherine wailed as her mother began to scream.  Clutching Dora to her with one arm, the child scrambled off the bed and into a corner of the room where she crouched, sobbing, next to a tall potted plant.  A white film covered its bottom leaves, a sign that Teresa had poured most of the glass of milk into it earlier in the day.

Throwing off the bedclothes, Teresa swung her feet out of bed.  Her voluminous white nightdress swung about her as she stood up, wobbling.    Recovering her footing, she raced for the door and flung it open, so hard that it rebounded from the wall with a crash.

In the next room, Johnny scrambled to dress while Shelby hurriedly threw on the outfit she had worn earlier.

Downstairs, Maria and Rosita stopped their work, eyes flying upward, while Scott slammed his glass down onto the table in the great room.  Springing to his feet, he bounded up the stairs, arriving just in time to collide with Johnny, hurriedly stuffing his wet shirt into his pants.

Scott took in his brother’s state without commenting even as their eyes met. A chill raced down their spines.  With one accord, the brothers sprinted for the back stairs, yelling Teresa’s name.  Arriving at the watchtower, breathless, they were just in time to see Teresa climb onto the wall and face outward, her white nightdress billowing about her small bare feet.

“Teresa!” Scott begged, his face white.  “Don’t do this!”

Johnny walked forward, his voice low and unhurried.  “He’s right, Teresa.  You don’t want to do this.  Come down and we can talk about it.”

She looked over her shoulder, her eyes wild.

Approaching from the right, Scott lowered his voice.  “Johnny’s right, Teresa.  You’ve got Catherine to think of.”

She turned slightly.  “How could he do it, Scott?  How could he lie to me like this?”

Her voice wavered.  “And now he’s dead.”

“Honey,” Johnny said, “It’s nothing to do with you…there was something wrong with Mark.”

“Don’t come any closer, Johnny!” Teresa warned.  A spark of sanity returned to her eyes as she recalled how quickly he could move.  She turned so that she was facing them, causing their hearts to leap into their throats at the careless movement.

He stopped walking.

“You either, Scott!” she told him. “Both of you watched me drink more laudanum this morning.  If I hadn’t been asleep, maybe I could have talked him out of it.”  Her voice broke as she choked back a sob.

The men halted in their tracks, looking at each other, then turned to face her.

“Teresa,” Scott begged.  “I’m sorry; we did it for your own good.”

“Yeah, honey,” Johnny chimed in, his voice low and cajoling.  “We never meant to hurt you.  We love you, Teresa, you know that.”

The girl looked at them, mute, shaking her head slightly.  Tears welled in her big brown eyes and spilled over her cheeks.  Then Teresa raised her arms out to the sides and simply let herself fall backwards off the wall.

White-faced, the men rushed forward as she disappeared from view, the hard thud of her landing audible even from where they stood.

***********

Morose and distracted, having just supervised the burial of his son-in-law, Murdoch sat silent on the buckboard’s seat, letting the horse find his own way back to Lancer.  His head drooped tiredly and the reins were limp in his hands as the horse ambled slowly forward.  Both Todd, beside him, and the young deputy, Jack, who was seated in the back, were quiet and grim-faced, their hands dirty and their faces sweat-streaked.

Suddenly, Jack sat up, staring hard at the hacienda.  “What the…,” his voice trailed off.   He pointed toward the hacienda.  “Look!”

Todd sat up straight, perching on the seat’s edge as he strained his eyes toward the sprawling white building in the distance.

At the young man’s words, Murdoch looked up, startled. 

All eyes went to the white figure perched on the low wall surrounding the watchtower’s parapet.  The three in the wagon stared, horrified, at the tragedy unfolding high above the ground.

Murdoch sat forward, watching as the figure raised its arms, describing a backward arc off the parapet onto the sun-backed earth of the courtyard.  Two other figures, one in a familiar rose-colored shirt, raced forward, stopping at the wall and leaning over to stare at the broken figure on the ground.

His face went white under his tan.  “My God, that’s Teresa!”

 

Ch. 56

They buried Teresa at sunrise the next day.  On a high bluff overlooking the river, the plain pine box, identical to her husband’s, rested in a hastily-dug grave beneath a towering oak tree.  Earlier, her brothers had lowered the coffin gently into the damp earth, their faces pale and strained, before covering it over again. The new graves, mounded with high-piled dirt, looked raw against the green grass covering the bluff.

The scent of freshly turned earth filled the nostrils of the Lancer men and the young girl who stood there, heads bowed.  The first rays of pink and gold illuminated the sky as the minister concluded the young couple’s brief private service. 

The Lancer men, stricken, stood silently before him, heads down.  Johnny held Shelby close to his side, his face uncharacteristically pale as the minister concluded.

"I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Amen.”

The words hung on the crisp morning air as the sun peeked over the distant mountaintop.  Birds began to twitter in the oak as Reverend Smythe closed his Bible and looked up, the breeze fluttering his vestments and rustling the oak’s leaves.

Before him, the Lancers raised their heads.  The three men and Shelby were the only ones in attendance.  They had decided to keep the graveside service private, the depth of their grief too deep to be witnessed by anyone but themselves.

Tears that Shelby refused to allow to fall glittered in her eyes as she looked at the graves. Yesterday, the two young people in them had been as alive and vital as she and Johnny were.  Now they were gone.  Resolutely, the girl blinked the moisture back before raising her eyes to the man beside her.  His expression was distant and sad, the breeze ruffling his black hair as he looked at the river glinting far below them.  Wearing the same black suit he’d worn to her wedding, the high white collar and tie framed his dark face, making him look like a handsome stranger.  She was suddenly anxious to see him dressed in his own clothes, her familiar Johnny once again.

She caressed his face gently, still leaning close against him.  The girl’s touch called him back from his faraway place and Johnny looked down at her, his arm tightening.  Beside him, Scott placed a gentle hand on Murdoch’s arm, guiding the older man toward the buggy where the horse waited patiently. The older man’s face looked carved from granite, deep lines running from nose to mouth and grooving his forehead. His eyes were grieving and distant.

Scott unbuttoned his collar, giving his bruised throat some space.  The breeze lifted his blond hair back and the gauze bandage was stark against his tanned neck.  His small gasp of relief caused his father to look sharply at him as he climbed into the buggy.  Behind them, faces somber, Johnny and Shelby made their way down the hill, hand in hand.

The young minister watched the family go, his face grave.  Errant strands of thinning brown hair blew into his eyes and he brushed them away from his wire-rimmed glasses.  The funeral of two such young people had jolted him, reminding him yet again of the impermanence of life.  Reverend Smythe made his way to his horse, suddenly anxious to go home, embrace his wife and hug his children, thanking God all the while.

Handing Shelby into the back seat, Johnny climbed in beside her.  Gathering up the reins, Scott flapped them gently on Zanzibar’s back and the carriage headed down the bluff.

Further up the hill, hidden by the woods, a watcher stepped out from behind a tree, releasing the breath he’d been holding with a sharp exhalation.

The sun’s rays picked out his blond hair, drawn back at the nape of his neck with a worked silver clasp and glinted on his gray eyes, as cold as glacial ice. The corners of his mouth drew down and his hands trembled as he let the rifle barrel come to rest on the ground, leaning the gun against the tree.

It had taken everything the intruder had not to explode in a frenzy of rage and kill them all, even the minister. It had been especially hard not to murder outright the black-haired man with his arm around his slut of a wife.   His finger had tightened slowly on the trigger as he trained the rifle between the black-haired man’s vivid blue eyes but he had somehow managed not to kill his enemy…yet. 

Leaning against the tree, the stranger breathed slowly and deeply, still struggling to control his rage.  For an instant, the urge to kill, to see his enemy’s brains splatter all over his faithless wife had been so strong, he’d almost given in.

But in the deep recesses of his mind, sanity had called out.  It had warned him that the odds were still too high, three guns to his one.  There would be a better time, a better place.  The blond man’s teeth ground together as he recalled the tender look on his wife’s face as she caressed the gunfighter.

“How could she?” he thought.  An ugly look distorted his face as words burst from his lips.

“She’s my wife—mine.”  His cold gray eyes narrowed.

He’d take great pleasure in reminding her of that, no showing her, when she was back in his power. Then he’d show the faithless slut what he did to those who defied him.  He’d remind her, over and over, just who she belonged to.  And when he was finished, he’d kill Johnny Madrid in front of her eyes.

 

Ch. 57

Arriving back at the hacienda, Johnny helped Shelby and Murdoch down as Scott tethered the horse.  Going into the great room, he poured them all a drink before sinking down onto the couch beside Shelby and putting his arm around her. As had Scott, Johnny  opened his collar, breathing deeply. He had gotten some of his color back and now the white shirt glowed against his warm skin, the ends of his black cravat trailing down his lapels as he bolted his hefty shot of Scotch.

Scott did the same as Murdoch twirled his glass, staring down unseeingly into the amber depths.  Rising, Johnny went again to the sideboard and poured another draught, sloshing liquor into the glass his brother silently proffered.  Shelby’s eyes followed him, thinking how very handsome he looked, before she took a sip of her cordial.  The sweet liqueur was bracing and the color began to return to her cheeks as she sipped.

Johnny was standing in front of her, holding the bottle.  His lips curved in a gentle smile. 

“Drink up,” he told her.  “It will do you good.”

He turned toward his father.  “You, too, Murdoch.”

At the words, his father looked up, following his son’s advice before silently holding his glass out for more.  Johnny poured him another healthy shot before replacing the bottle on the sideboard and resuming his seat beside Shelby, holding his own glass.

Across the room, Murdoch looked at the couple, noticing the possessive arm about the girl’s shoulders and the way she immediately nestled against his son’s body, as if it was the most natural place in the world for her to be.  The ghost of a smile lifted his lips a fraction as he eyed the young people.  “What was the saying?” he asked himself.  “One door closes and another one opens.”

The girl they had just buried was as dear to him as his own daughter.  From the looks of things, he was about to gain another.  He had no doubt that Johnny was deeply in love with the girl and inwardly, he approved.   Had the match not been presented to him as a fait accompli, he might have had some reservations about the pairing of a gently-bred girl with his gunfighter son.  Ex-gunfighter, he reminded himself.  From what he could see, Shelby brought out the best in Johnny.  Despite the many obstacles inherent in a relationship between them, it looked like they had already overcome many of them.

Briefly, Murdoch wondered how but almost immediately, the answer came to him.

Love, he told himself.  It was what Johnny needed, had always wanted but sometimes found hard to accept when offered.  It looked as though this small slip of a girl had captured Johnny Madrid’s elusive heart and now had it firmly in her keeping.

Looking at the glowing turquoise eyes as she gazed into his son’s face, Murdoch had no doubt that it was mutual.  A fine pairing, he thought, pleased at the thought of uniting his family with that of his oldest friend’s.

Scott, seated in the brown leather armchair near the window, looked up in time to see the faint smile on Murdoch’s lips as he gazed at his youngest.

Guessing what was in his father’s heart, he silently agreed, mentally wishing his brother well.

Maria bustled in, carrying Catherine.  Her eyes were red but no trace of her feelings showed as she put the child down.  She returned to the kitchen and the clatter of pots and pans was heard briefly as she began breakfast.  The smell of coffee began to percolate out to the group seated in the great room.

Spotting her uncles and grandfather, the child immediately toddled forward, smiling. Making a beeline for Murdoch, she climbed into his lap, clutching Dora.

From the safety of her grandfather’s arms, she peered out at the strange lady.  Although she had met Shelby yesterday, the child had been deeply affected by the somber atmosphere in the hacienda.  She had not yet begun asking for her mother or her father, being well-cared for by others in the hacienda, but hey knew it was just a matter of time.

At the sight of the child, Murdoch’s heart had lifted and now he cuddled her small face close to his own.  Her uncles, too, had brightened somewhat.

Across the room, Johnny smiled at the child. 

Over her head, the eyes of the adults met.  The Lancer men had mourned Teresa deeply in the hours since her death, knowing their grief would be worse when the shock wore off.  There would be many sleepless nights and lonely dawns as they recalled the girl they had loved so dearly, a lifetime to wonder what their lives might been like had she remained with them, to miss her quick, light step, gay voice and happy smile, all the breakfasts and dinners and evenings when she would not be there to fuss over them, scold them, and love them in her own special way.

Silently, each Lancer would mourn Teresa in his own way for many days to come.

Although they had not known Mark as well, he had also been a loved member of the Lancer family. Murdoch, Scott and Johnny would spend many hours pondering his death; they would miss him at family dinners and holidays, mourn  the smiling young man playing games with his child and making her shriek with laughter as he swung her high in the air. 

Tomorrow, the Lancers would take up the burden of living without their loved ones.  They would receive condolences and meet the stares of the curious as they set about rebuilding their lives.  They had lost much; looking at Scott, his father and brother were grateful for what remained.

Now, they looked at each other.  Life had to go on and the orphaned child needed as normal a life as possible.

Raising his glass with his free hand, Murdoch spoke.

“To Teresa and Mark.”

His sons and Shelby raised their glasses, their voices mingling with Murdoch’s.

“To Teresa and Mark.”

 

Ch. 58

Two days after the burials of Teresa and Mark, Dave Bell came to Lancer.  Settling into the leather armchair in the great room, the sheriff removed his hat with a weary sigh, gratefully accepting a shot of Scotch from Murdoch.  Looking up at the tall rancher, he saw the grief in his eyes, although his bearing was as erect as ever.  Scott came into the room a moment later, followed by Johnny, strain evident on both weary faces.

After a few pleasantries, Dave began to speak earnestly. His young deputy, Jack, had come to his office with news of Mark and Teresa’s suicides a few hours after their deaths.  Although he forbore to say so, the likeable sheriff had been stunned, wondering in his heart how much more the family could take.  Reluctant to intrude on their grief, Dave had waited a few days before deciding that a little good news was in order.

Taking a swallow of Scotch, he looked up into the eyes of the Lancer men. 

“Are we alone?” he asked Johnny, who nodded, eyes narrowing.

“Shelby’s in the kitchen helping Maria.  What’s up, Dave?”

The sheriff began.  “You didn’t get a look at the man who tried to back-shoot you on the day of…a few days ago.  But did the girl?  She watched the whole thing.”

Startled, Scott and Murdoch shot up in their chairs. “You didn’t tell us that!”

Johnny shrugged.  “Hasn’t been time.”

Murdoch frowned.  “I want the whole story, now.”

Johnny nodded, looking at the sheriff. “From Shelby’s description, it’s a man I almost shot in Mexico.  In fact, it’s her brother-in-law. 

Dave looked up, startled.  “She’s married?”

Scott and Murdoch listened intently as Johnny spoke.  “This stays between us, Dave.”

The sheriff nodded.  “Of course. Professional confidence.”

“I met Shelby the night she escaped from her husband. I helped her get away.  From what she’s said the man’s loco. And from what I saw, I agree.”

His eyes narrowed as he recalled how they’d escaped on horseback in a hail of bullets. 

“Bastard almost killed her trying to get her back.  I killed another one of his brothers that night.”

 Scott whistled softly as his father frowned angrily.  “Why didn’t you tell us this, John?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Thought I’d got away clean.”

Murdoch spoke up. “So not only did you kill his brothers, you took off with his bride!  My God, it’s almost inevitable that he’ll show up here.”

Dave looked musingly at the youngest Lancer.  “What’s the husband’s name?”

Johnny’s reply was short.  “Beaumont.  Michael Beaumont.”

Dave nodded.  “And the brother?”

“Kurt.”

“Any aliases?

Johnny shrugged, spreading his hands to indicate ignorance as the sheriff continued.

“I’ll check my wanted posters again. But the name’s not familiar.”

Murdoch and Scott listened gravely as he continued.

“Looks like you bought yourself some trouble, Johnny.  If Kurt Beaumont was stalking you, it’s likely his brother will show up any minute, if he hasn’t already.”

Scott and Murdoch looked at each other, concerned, as the sheriff went on. “I’m increasing security at Lancer until this man is caught.”

Murdoch spoke up as he replenished the contents of the sheriff’s glass.  “Thank you, Dave.”

The sheriff nodded, taking a sip of Scotch.  “What’s this man look like?”

The Lancers looked at each.  With his quick gunfighter’s memory, it was Johnny who gave the description.  “Tall, very tall.  About 6’4”.  And blond.  Eyes, gray or blue, I forget.”

Dave glanced sharply at him, his eyes lighting up.

Seeing it, Murdoch demanded,

“What is it, Dave?”

The sheriff leaned forward, resting his glass on his knee.  “I think we finally got a break, here, boys!”

The eyes of the Lancer men widened as he told them of his interview with Larry Sawyer. According to Dave, the man had recognized one of the men on a wanted poster in his office as being involved in the train robberies Scott had been convicted for.  Hearing it, Dave had sent a wire to the feds, the Pinkertons and the Texas Rangers releasing the new information.  From the information Johnny had just given him, Dave suspected that Michael Beaumont and the robber might be one and the same man.

Although he had to talk to Larry further, the sheriff was convinced it would all be cleared up and that Scott would be completely exonerated very shortly.

“Easy for you to say,”  Johnny growled.  “What about the rest of the town—the ones that were so eager to hang Scott just a few days ago?  How do we know they aren’t still out for Lancer blood?”

“He’s right, Dave,” Murdoch replied.  “We aren’t safe on Lancer or off it until this is resolved.”

Dave had thought of that.  “I called a town meeting last night.  Most people were pretty darn sorry about their behavior that day.  Anxious to set things right.  Although I’m leaving the deputies here until Beaumont is caught, if you come into town now, I think you’ll be safe enough.”

The sheriff looked out the window briefly, then back at Murdoch as he continued.  “I  really think you should come back now, all of you.  There’s a lot of public sympathy for you on account of…on account of Teresa and Mark.  Folk are anxious to pay their respects. You can begin putting it all behind you.”

Johnny snorted, getting up to go look out the floor-to-ceiling window.  His back to the room, he said, “I don’t buy it, Dave.”

Scott spoke up.  “I think he’s right, Johnny.  If we don’t show our faces now, we’ll never show them.  It’ll just get harder and harder.”

Dave looked at Johnny’s rigid back.  “A memorial service…honoring their memories…it would go a long way toward mending fences, Johnny.”

From his seat where he had been musing as the conversation flowed around him, Murdoch said, “I don’t like it any more than you do, son, but I agree with Scott and Dave.  This valley is our home—we can’t be outsiders here.  We have to try and get our lives back to normal. I’m going to hold a service at the church.”

Johnny whirled angrily to face his father.  “As far as I’m concerned, it was those people that killed them!  So anxious to see justice done—that whole trial was nothing but a kangaroo court and you know it!”

The heated discussion had continued until Dave stood up to take his leave a short time later.

“I’ll be in touch,” he promised as he swung himself up onto his bay.  He looked pointedly at Johnny.  “I want you to be careful until Beaumont is caught.  I’ll get the additional deputies here as soon as possible.”

Touching the bay with his heels, the sheriff was soon out of sight.  The Lancer men returned to the great room where they continued their discussion of a memorial service for Teresa and Mark.

Johnny had remained vehemently opposed but against his youngest son’s wishes, Murdoch arranged a memorial service for the young couple at the small church in Morro Coyo. News of their deaths had spread like wildfire throughout the area and most residents planned to attend.  Some were genuinely moved by the deaths and anxious to pay their last respects; others, such as Vick Roberts, saw it as a chance to reform alliances that might be needed later

*********

The day of the service started disastrously, with the raised voices of Murdoch and Johnny reaching Shelby’s room as she dressed.

“I ain’t goin’,” Johnny informed his father.

“You have to, Johnny!  What will people think?” Murdoch remonstrated.

Scott spoke up. “It won’t look right, Johnny.”

“Don’t care what it looks like, Scott!  Those damned people were only too anxious to watch you hang and now they want to offer us their condolences?  To act like nothing happened? If they hadn’t been in such a hurry to condemn you and force Mark to defend you at trial, none of this would have happened!” his brother snapped.

His father and brother looked at each other, perplexed.  There was no denying Johnny’s reasoning.  In truth, the actions of the townspeople still rankled Murdoch, causing him to toss and turn at night when he recalled the grinning faces calling for his son’s blood but he knew better than to let Johnny guess that.

In the upstairs hall, Shelby paused, her hand on the banister as she prepared to descend.  Listening to Johnny’s irate voice, she heard the pain that underlay it.  Hastening downstairs, she crossed the great room, putting a gentle hand on his arm.

Seeing her,  Murdoch’s mouth, already open with a retort, closed again.  Even on short acquaintance, the girl could do more with Johnny than he ever could. Catching Scott’s eye, he gave a small jerk of the head toward the kitchen. At the light touch on his arm, Johnny swung about, his scowl already fading.  He held out an arm invitingly.

Shelby came forward quickly and was enfolded in his embrace as the sounds of boot heels disappeared down the hall. As he lowered his lips to hers, she put both arms around his neck, standing on tiptoe to fit herself more intimately with his body.

They enjoyed a long leisurely kiss before he released her.  Stepping back, cheeks pink, she reached up to brush a strand of black hair from his eyes.  Catching her hand in his own, he pressed a kiss into the palm as he gazed down at her.

“You want me to go, too, don’t you?” he asked.

“I know you don’t want to, Johnny, and I don’t blame you.  But you and your family have to live in this valley.  You can’t be isolated and angry at all your neighbors forever.”

His black brows drew together slightly as he looked down at her, considering her words. She gazed back at him, her eyes filled with concern.

“You have to start putting this behind you,” she whispered. “For all our sakes.”

Hoping she meant what he thought she did, Johnny’s brow cleared. They had never talked of the future but he did hope that she would decide to stay at Lancer.

Pressing her palm to his cheek, he looked down into the glowing eyes, fringed by thick black lashes.   Johnny felt a familiar tightening in his groin as he looked into her lovely face.  As always, he was unable to refuse her.

“All right,” he admitted grudgingly.  “I”ll go.”

“I’ll be with you,” she reminded him.  The last traces of irritation left Johnny’s face as he lowered his head.  Before their lips could meet, Murdoch’s voice was heard from the hallway.  He stepped into the room, holding Catherine.

“It’s the right thing to do, Johnny.”

“All right, old man,” Johnny muttered. “Don’t rub it in.”

He looked at the toddler, regarding him wide-eyed and silent from the circle of her grandfather’s arms.  Since the deaths of her parents, she had clung very close to Murdoch. 

“Are you going to take Catherine?”

Murdoch nodded.  “Yes.  In later years, I want her to know we gave her a chance to say good-bye.”

**********

A few hours later, they were all ready to go.  It was a somber cavalcade that set off from Lancer.  Biting her lip, Maria sat in the front seat of the wagon with Julio holding the reins.  On the far side sat Jelly, his face pale.

Manuel, in the back, sat with some of the vaqueros’ children, most of whom had frequently received the treats that Teresa loved to bake. Other wagons, holding vaqueros and their wives, sat waiting.  More men remained quietly on horseback.

Not all the vaqueros were present, some having remained behind to tend the herds of cows and horses grazing in the high meadows.  They would be back later that morning to change places with those who had remained at the ranch.

Once again in his black suit, Johnny handed Shelby into the carriage, seating her in the back.  Scott and Murdoch, both in their “eastern clothes” climbed in and Murdoch took the reins. Catherine, wide-eyed, was seated in Scott’s lap, clutching Dora.

Shelby, feeling very uncomfortable, was attired in black clothing from Teresa’s closet, hastily altered by Maria in order to fit her slighter frame.  She had taken the clothing at Murdoch’s behest, in order to be suitably attired for the service

“She’d want you to have them,” Johnny murmured, sensing her discomfort. 

Hearing him, Scott looked back at the young woman.  “He’s right, you know. Teresa would gladly give you anything out of her closet.”

Murdoch smiled over his shoulder.  “That’s true, Shelby. Teresa was a generous girl and she’d think of you as her sister already.”

At the kind words, the young woman brightened as her chin lifted.  Johnny looked down at her, his heart full of pride, not only at her appearance but at her courage.  This would be their first outing as a “couple” and she would be facing the stares of the curious and hearing their murmurings right along with the Lancers.  He wished it were taking place under different circumstances.

No matter how she felt, she looked beautiful, he thought.  The black clothing dramatized her beautiful eyes and the golden color of her skin.  The high-collared black blouse set off the silver hoops he’d given her, swinging gracefully from her ears and the one bracelet she wore.  Her lustrous hair, shot through with golden streaks from the sun, was smoothed back into an elegant chignon, presenting every detail of the lovely face with its high cheekbones and expressive eyes.

He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, covering it with his as the carriage lurched forward.

Arriving at the church, they entered through the back, taking their seats in the front pew. Maria, Jelly, Julio and Manuel took their places behind them. The vaqueros and their families filed in, the men removing their hats before seating themselves. Behind them, well over a hundred townspeople and ranchers crowded in to listen as Reverend Smythe eulogized the young couple. Still more stood outside near the open windows, heads bowed as they listened.

Behind the Lancers, Maria sobbed openly, touching her eyes with her handkerchief as Julio, beside her, patted her hand. On her other side, Jelly occasionally honked loudly into his handkerchief.  Mr. Valdemero sat in another pew nearby, shaking his head sadly.  The genial storekeeper appeared stunned. He had known Teresa since childhood and she had always been a favorite of his.  It was hard for him to believe that the girl was really gone.

Seated in her grandfather’s lap, Catherine drew many sympathetic looks. The sight of the orphaned child, the image of her mother, moved many of the observers to tears.

The glances that Shelby received were not so much sympathetic as curious, as people put their heads together, wondering who the beautiful stranger was.

The service was brief.  After it, the Lancer men and Shelby formed a receiving line, standing at the church door as they shook hands and accepted condolences.  Many of the mourners looked avidly at the girl at the youngest Lancer’s side, their naked curiosity raising Johnny’s ire.  Several of the younger men, anxious to make the beauty’s acquaintance, found themselves pilloried by his cold blue stare and abandoned the idea, slinking quickly past instead.

The young woman handled the situation with dignity, her composure helping to calm the rigid young man beside her.  Seeing it, even Vick Roberts had dared to approach, offering his hand to Johnny.  After a second’s hesitation, the young man took it stiffly, noticing the man’s battered face and missing teeth with inward satisfaction.

Seeing the interaction, Scott and Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief.  Almost two hours later, the last of the mourners finally departed, leaving the Lancers and the girl free to climb back into their own carriage.  Scott flapped the reins gently on Zanzibar’s back and the carriage set off for Lancer.

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

Arriving at the hacienda, they seated themselves in the great room with sighs of relief. The men had Scotch and Maria brought Shelby a glass of lemonade, which she accepted with a smile.  Taking Catherine by the hand, Maria led her back to the kitchen for a nap.

After twenty minutes, Johnny excused himself to go change, followed by Scott.  Jelly had already left, declaring he had a headache.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Murdoch murmured to the girl, “I’d like to go get comfortable as well.”

Receiving her enchanting smile, he smiled in return, realizing yet again what his son saw in the girl. Murdoch had been impressed by her conduct at the service and her finesse in dealing with some of the loutish queries she had received.  He’d been equally impressed by her handling of Johnny, particularly as he’d been convinced the young man was going to explode at some point, lashing out at those he held responsible for their loss.  But Johnny had refrained, even handling Vick Roberts with civility. In that moment, Madrid was nowhere in evidence, at least on the surface and Murdoch had been proud of the boy.

In need of fresh air, Shelby strolled out onto the patio.  Spotting some wildflowers nodding beside the road, she headed toward them, intent on gathering some for the table.   Forgetting Johnny’s injunction about not going off alone, she wandered from patch to patch, gathering an armful.

*********

Upstairs, Johnny yanked off his cravat, throwing it on the bed, then shrugged out of his tight black coat.  He opened more buttons at his throat with a sigh of relief, wondering who the sadist was who’d invented such high collars.

The shirt was soon hanging open as he crossed to the armoire, shrugging out of the offending garment as he went.  He took out black pants and the white shirt he’d worn the night of the fiesta Murdoch had thrown to celebrate Catherine’s birth, tossing them carelessly on the bed. 

His eyes clouded with remembrance as he recalled how gay and happy Teresa and Mark had been that night, celebrating the birth of their daughter.  Reaching for the shirt, his hand stilled in mid-air as his mind traveled back to that joyful evening.

The sound of Scott’s door closing and his footsteps echoing down the hall brought Johnny back to reality.

Seating himself on the bed, he removed his boots and then his pants, standing up naked and walking to the washbowl on the dresser.  Splashing water on his face, he raked his fingers through his thick black hair, trying to shake off the effects of the morning.

Crossing the room again, he drew on his pants and boots and slipped into his shirt.  He was almost done with the buttons when a shrill neigh split the air.

Walking to the open French doors, Johnny saw Shelby standing in the meadow beyond the adobe arch, clutching an armful of flowers.  Thundering toward her at full speed, mane and tail streaming, was the black stallion, Diablo.

 

CH. 59

On the balcony, Johnny’s mind whirled as he grabbed for his gun. Knowing he was too far away to take the shot, he ran for the stairs.  Murdoch looked up in surprise as his son bolted into the room and fled outside, running as if the Furies were after him.  Leaping up, Scott dashed after his brother.  In an instant, he had seen what Johnny had earlier.  Both men raced for the arch, calling Shelby’s name.

Behind them, Murdoch hurried to the courtyard.  He spotted the girl, still rooted to the spot, clutching an armful of flowers as the stallion charged toward her.  He saw right away that his sons would never make it in time.

“Oh, my God,” he muttered. He closed his eyes as an inarticulate prayer escaped him.  “Please…”

Unbidden, the scene flashed into his mind as clearly as if it had already happened.  Murdoch saw the girl’s broken, bloody body clutched in Johnny’s arms, the crimson hooves of the stallion, heard his son’s grief.  He opened his eyes, brow creased.  In that moment, he wished with all his might that he’d let Scott shoot the savage horse when he had wanted to months before.

The stallion thundered toward Shelby as the two men raced to intercept him.  Still running with all his might, Johnny knew he would never be able to stop the animal before it reached the girl. Another ringing whinny split the air.

The stallion rocketed forward, mane and tail streaming.  At full speed, he was a black blur racing across the meadow.  The thunder of his hooves shook the earth as he approached, faster than any of the watching men had ever seen a horse move.

Far ahead, to their left, Shelby was still rooted to the spot, staring at the powerful animal inexorably charging toward her. 

From the patio, Murdoch watched, transfixed with horror.

Sweat streaming down their faces and darkening their shirts, his sons raced forward, desperate to avert the tragedy about to take place.

At full gallop, the horse’s stride was immense, covering the ground with blinding speed.

Knowing it was hopeless, Johnny called to the unmoving girl, still staring at the oncoming stallion. 

What he saw next astounded him.  Shelby dropped the flowers and took a step forward.

“Shelby!” Johnny yelled.  “Don’t!”

In a split second, a thousand thoughts crashed together in Johnny’s mind, even as he kept running.  What was she trying to do?   He knew she was good with animals, he hadn’t seen one yet that failed to respond to her but she had no way of knowing Diablo was a killer.

Before his horrified eyes, the girl took another step forward, then another and another, her eyes fixed on the stallion.

Trying desperately to make his voice carry, Johnny shouted at the girl again, “Shelby! No!”

Knowing he was too far away and the angle was bad, Johnny nonetheless stopped running, breathing hard.  Beside him, Scott also halted, pressing a hand to his side. Leveling the Colt at the stallion, Johnny took a deep breath.   Holding the gun at arm’s length, he looked down the barrel, closing one eye.

Gasping, Scott grabbed his arm.

Furious, Johnny struck at him.

“Let me alone, Scott!”

“Wait, Johnny!  Look! Look at the horse!”

Johnny looked at the huge animal charging the woman he loved.  For the first time, he noticed the horse’s carriage. He no longer looked like the fearsome Diablo they knew, ears flattened and teeth bared, ready to fight at a second’s notice.

Magnificent in full stride, Diablo’s beautiful head was up and his ears pricked, the long tail also up and streaming behind him like a flag. Johnny frowned, puzzled.  He tore his eyes off the horse to glance at Shelby.  She didn’t look frightened, Johnny saw, only stunned and disbelieving.  Almost, he thought, as if she were seeing a ghost.

Far behind the black stallion, a streak of gray was moving toward them.  Well behind the gray horse, the men were able to make out the herd approaching from the distance.

Still transfixed in the sunbaked courtyard, Murdoch saw his sons stop, staring toward the black stallion.

In his chest, Johnny’s heart continued its frantic rhythm but he lowered the hand holding the gun to his side.  Beside him, Scott watched, equally thunderstruck.

Still too far away for the men to hear, Shelby spoke to the black apparition.  Her voice was small and shocked, wavering slightly on the tentative word. “Eclipse?”

Before the men’s disbelieving eyes, the stallion slowed, the sound of his breathing loud in their ears.

Twenty feet from Shelby, Diablo stopped abruptly, stiff forelegs throwing up clods of dirt and grass.  The horse paced forward, breathing gustily.  Foam covered his sides but his head remained up, his large, intelligent eyes fixed on the girl’s face.

Released from paralysis, Shelby stepped forward. Tears started down her face, glistening like diamonds in the sunlight.  She advanced toward the horse, one hand out.

Slowly, measuredly, the huge animal approached, still breathing hard.  The men watched, immobile, as the girl approached the animal they all considered savage and untameable.  One small, trembling hand stroked the velvet muzzle, hesitating as it felt the scars that crisscrossed it.  The other reached to touch the heavily muscled neck.  The horse towered over the girl, dwarfing her.   Shelby spoke again, “Eclipse.”

As if her legs had ceased supporting her, she sank abruptly to the grass.  Taking another step forward, the enormous stallion dropped his head, nuzzling at her hair.

 

CH. 60

In the kitchen that evening, Maria fingered the letter in her apron pocket, hesitating. Listening to the animated voices coming from the dinner table, her simple soul was troubled. 

Events had moved so swiftly, there had been no time to give it to the patron.  After the deaths, Maria herself had been prostrate, overcome at the loss of the young woman she loved like a daughter.  Even her helper Rosita was not present, having requested time off in which to recover from Mark and Teresa’s deaths.

Maria had planned to give the letter to Murdoch that night but the changed voices in the dining room made her pause.

For the first time in days, the Lancers sounded normal, almost happy.  The discovery that the fearsome Diablo had actually belonged to Shelby in faraway Virginia and the animal’s stunning transformation had gladdened the family, lifting the pall that had hung over them since the dual suicides of Mark and Teresa.

It was a miracle, Maria thought.  In her simple heart, she believed that both were a sign from heaven.  The Lancers had been in so much pain, desperately in need of solace.   Tonight, they had it and Maria was grateful.

Taking up the large platter of roast beef surrounded by tiny new potatoes, she carried it into the dining room.  The smiles on everyone’s faces lifted the cook’s heart.  Scott, the bandage on his throat very obvious, was excitedly extolling the horse’s potential as a sire.  His voice, whispery since his hanging, was much stronger that evening.  Having privately feared that his voice box was permanently damaged, Maria was happy for the improvement. From the smile on his face, she knew that Murdoch was, too.  Jelly, too, was laughing and animated, chin whiskers wagging at a great rate as he chimed in with plans for the horse.

The cook’s dark eyes fell next on the young senorita, glowing at the family’s improved mood and at the miraculous return of her beloved horse. They traveled next to Catherine, mouth open like a baby bird as she awaited the next bite of food from her grandfather, patiently feeding the child.  Last, she looked at Johnny. One arm on the back of Shelby’s chair, he was leaning forward as he laughed at Scott, his beautiful smile lighting up his face.  It was his face that decided Maria. 

The youngest Lancer son had always had a special place in Maria’s heart, having been through so much in his short life.  She knew how he struggled at times, finding it difficult to fit in at Lancer.  So much had happened to him in recent months, the loss of Barranca, his long trip to Mexico, the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law. In her own grieving heart, Maria had worried about Johnny’s ability to handle it all.

But looking at him now, Maria thought she need not have worried. Before her, she saw a new Johnny Lancer. Relaxed and in love, the young man seemed content, happier than Maria had ever seen him. 

The cook set the platter down, asking if anyone needed anything else.  No, they chorused, dinner was fine, perfect.  Smiling, she returned to the kitchen

Once there, her smile faded as she once again fingered the letter in her pocket.  Her mind went back to the day Teresa had died. Responding to both the girl’s screams and the wails of the baby, Maria had rushed up the stairs behind Scott to Teresa’s room, hurrying to gather up the screaming toddler.

“Sssh, pobrecita, sssh,” she had whispered to the wailing child, rocking her in her arms. Maria had heard the voices of Senor Scott and Senor Johnny through the open French doors, their deeper voices mingling with the high, hysterical tones of their sister.

Walking the child back and forth, Maria was facing the balcony when Teresa fell off the roof.  The streak of white had plummeted past, the sickening thud of her impact with the sunbaked earth of the courtyard causing black spots to dance in front of Maria’s eyes. Consciousness threatened to swim away as the cook staggered to the bed, placing Catherine on it first.

Struggling not to pass out, Maria seated herself on the bed’s edge, her head on her knees, breathing deeply.

After a few moments, she had straightened up, her eye falling on the squares of paper, stark against the brown tile of the floor.  Unthinkingly, she had stuffed the letter and the envelope in her apron pocket before turning again to the child.

She had forgotten both in the ensuing turmoil but when she had slipped her apron on tonight, she had felt the letter inside.  Alone in the kitchen, she had taken it out, turning it over and over in her fingers before stuffing it back in her pocket.

It had burned a hole there all evening.  Suddenly desperate to be rid of it, Maria slowly withdrew it, staring at the heavy black ink strokes.  The memory of Johnny’s laughing face decided the cook.

With sudden decision, she tossed the letter onto the coals in the fireplace.

Whatever was in it could make no difference now.

Laughing and talking, the Lancers lingered over dinner until Catherine’s eyes began to close.  Seeing it, Shelby had slipped from her chair, offering to take the child upstairs.

Murdoch had kissed the child good night before handing her to the young woman.  He had watched with a smile as Shelby carried Catherine to her uncles, earning a kiss from each of them. 

“Night, honey,” Scott told the baby. 

The men talked for a few more minutes before Jelly rose, yawning.

“I’m gonna call it a day, boss.”

“Night, Jelly,” Johnny told him.  “We’ll see you in the morning.”

As the old man left, Johnny stood up.  “I’m gonna see if she needs any help,” he said and headed up the stairs.

Scott looked at his father, raising his eyebrows. “Help putting the baby to bed?”

Murdoch smiled.  “He’s in love, Scott.  And they haven’t had much time together in the last few days.”

Scott grinned.  “Can’t say that I blame him.  She’s a wonderful girl.”

His smile faded.  “She’s also married.”

Murdoch looked down into his glass, a faint frown drawing his brows together.

“It won’t be pleasant but divorce is possible.  And in her case, a necessity.  From the little Johnny has said, her husband was abusive.  There’s no way she could have remained with him.”

Scott looked up. “No. But he seemed so much in love at the wedding.”

Murdoch shrugged.  “Anyone can put on a façade, Scott.”

“Like Mark?” Scott said, immediately kicking himself mentally for raising his dead brother-in-law’s name.

Murdoch rose, putting his napkin down.  Walking into the great room, he poured himself a glass of Scotch before offering one to his oldest son.

Taking the glass, Scott seated himself on the sofa before once again raising his eyes to his father.

Seating himself in the brown leather armchair, Murdoch looked up gravely.

“You boys never found a suicide note, did you?”

Scott shook his head.  “No.”

Murdoch frowned.  “It’s odd that Mark didn’t at least say good bye to Teresa.”

“Why do you think he did it?”

“Guilt.” His father replied.  “That he failed to get you off.  He felt like he let us down.”

“You think that’s the only reason?”

Murdoch nodded decisively.  “I do.  He had no way of knowing Johnny had arrived and saved you.  He must have been reluctant to face Teresa.”

Scott looked down into his drink, swirling the amber liquid in the glass.

“Well,” he said.  “I guess we’ll never know.”

*********

With Catherine safely abed, Johnny turned to Shelby.  Together, they strolled through the open French doors onto the balcony, leaving the candles lit.

Arms about each other, they stood looking up at the full moon.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked him.

He turned to face her, tipping her chin up with a gentle hand. “Not as beautiful as you are.”

Lowering his dark head to hers, their lips met.

**********

Inside the barn, the black stallion raised his head, ears pricked.  Beside him, the gray mare slept.  They were the only horses in the barn, the rest of the herd having been taken back up to the high meadows.

Catching a familiar scent, the stallion’s ears went back.  His sudden unease communicated itself to the mare, who awoke, snorting.  Both horses shifted nervously.

***********

Careful to remain in the shadows, a tall form made its way around the barn, then toward the house, slipping from one patch of shadow to the next.

Pausing behind a jacaranda tree, it looked up at the young couple passionately kissing on the balcony.

The intruder’s brows drew together in a furious scowl as an errant moonbeam touched the silver clasp holding his blonde hair back.  Suddenly livid, he touched the matches in his pocket before disappearing back into the shadows.

 

CH. 61

The next morning, Johnny awoke early, hearing Shelby moving about as she cared for Catherine. A smile lifted his lips as he listened to her carrying the child down the hall.  Washing and dressing quickly, he walked into the kitchen, hearing her laughing voice mixed with those of Maria and Rosita, along with the cooing of the child.

“Mornin!” he greeted everyone, striding in and dropping a kiss on Shelby’s forehead before seating himself beside her.  Catherine looked up, banging her spoon on the high chair and babbling excitedly at her uncle.

Johnny smiled at the toddler, giving her nose a tweak and making her shriek with laugher.

“What’s for breakfast?” he asked Maria as she placed a mug of coffee in front of him.

“Anything you like,” the cook told him, smiling.

“How ‘bout one of your famous breakfast burritos?” Johnny asked.  “I bet Shelby’d like one!”

At the cook’s inquiring glance, the girl nodded.  “I’d love to try a burrito, Maria.”

Smiling, the cook set about making two overstuffed burritos loaded with chorizo, potatoes, eggs and cheese, topped with green childe sauce.  The aroma was wonderful.

Rosita came forward, refilling Johnny’s cup and pouring Shelby’s tea.

Maria slid the plates in front of the couple and stepped away, smiling, as the young couple pronounced their breakfasts “delicious!”

By the time they were finished eating, the sun was just peeking over the mountaintops to the east, outlining the dark ridgelines in glowing gold.

Johnny rose to his feet, stretching out a hand for Shelby, who rose and put her own hand in his.

“That was great, Maria,” he told her as the girl nodded agreement. “But before Murdoch shows up and puts me to work, I have an idea.”

Looking down at Shelby, he suggested, “Let’s go for a ride.”

The girl’s face lit up at the prospect.  “Oh! Let me go get my jacket and I’ll meet you on the patio in five minutes!”

The couple left, the indulgent glances of the cook and her helper following them. Each liked the young woman and thought her a fine addition to the family.  Without saying it aloud, both approved of her growing bond with Catherine and thought she would make a good mother for the child.

True to her word, Shelby met Johnny on the patio in less than five minutes. They set off into the crystalline dawn, breathing deeply of the fresh scent of eucalyptus and sage on the air.  Johnny took Shelby’s hand, swinging it with his, on the way to the barn.  Head over the half-door, Eclipse finished a mouthful of hay and greeted them with a low whicker, his fine intelligent eyes fixed on the girl.

When she was near enough, the stallion butted his head against her, then nuzzled her face.  Johnny watched, smiling, almost unable to credit the change in the horse.

Making short work of saddling the two horses, he led them both out into the barnyard. Boosting Shelby up onto the tall stallion’s back, Johnny swung up on the mare.  A fine animal in her own right, she arched her neck and pranced, anxious to be turned loose.

Still a little concerned, Johnny watched carefully as the girl gathered up the reins, smiling.

“That’s a lot of horse, Shelby,” he murmured.  “And he hasn’t been ridden in a long time.”

She laughed over her shoulder.  “Don’t worry, Johnny.  Eclipse and I go way back.”

From his upstairs window, standing in his socks with a towel slung over his shoulder and a face full of lather, Murdoch spotted the two riders in the barnyard below.  Under the enveloping foam, his lips curved into a smile as he watched, enjoying the happiness on both young faces.

The two horses, both eager to run, pranced under their riders’ restraining hands.

The coal-black stallion, noted Murdoch appreciatively, was magnificent.  Neck arched and tail streaming, lifting his feet high, he awaited the directions of his rider without fighting the bit.

“Race you!” Shelby called over her shoulder.  In an instant, she had given the horse his head followed closely by the mare.  Galloping through the meadow, flowers petals wet with dew flew in the horses’ wake as the sun rose over the mountaintop.  Soon, both riders were out of sight.

Still smiling, Murdoch returned to his task.  It was going to be a good day.

***********

Pulling the horses up, Johnny and Shelby dismounted near the river. While the animals drank, they discussed plans for the day.  They had come so far that they were now close to town.  Impulsively, Shelby told Johnny she’d like to go check on Suzette, the dressmaker. 

“But is it safe for you to go into town?” she wondered, looking up into his dark face.

He smiled down at her.  “Don’t you worry about that.  If you want to go to town, I’ll take you.”

Privately, he thought it would be nice for her to have a chance to talk with another woman, one not associated with Lancer.  So much had happened since she’d arrived, Johnny had been concerned lest it color her opinion of the ranch.

Accordingly, they rode to the dressmaker’s small shop, arriving just as she finished sweeping the walk.  Suzette was overjoyed to see them as Johnny tethered both horses to the hitching post.

“Come in, come in,” she urged the girl. “I’m not opening for another half-hour, we have plenty of time to chat.”

Suzette smiled at the handsome cowboy watching them.  “Go on, Johnny, let us have some girl talk.  It’s about time you learned to let her out of your sight.

Smiling, he agreed.  I’ll be back in a half-hour.  I have some errands to run at Mr. Valdemero’s.”

Drawing Shelby into the shop, Suzette shut the door behind them.  “Grandmere is still asleep,” she said, “so we can talk freely.”

Leading the way to the kitchen, she spoke over her shoulder as she set about preparing tea.

“So, how are things at Lancer?”

“Better,” Shelby said. “Things are getting better every day.”

Suzette set the tea things on the table, dropping into the place across from her visitor.  Pouring tea into a cup, she handed the saucer to Shelby.

Taking it with a smile, the girl leaned forward.  “And how is your friend, Larry?”

Suzette smiled.  “I have seen him several times and I like him very much.  In fact, I’m meeting him for lunch again today.”

Shelby sat back, stirring her tea.  “Tell me about him.”

The two girls laughed and chatted as the time flew.  Absorbed in their talk, they were startled when the bell over the shop’s door jangled, indicating a customer. 

Shelby stood up.  “That must be Johnny,” she said. 

Suzette rose also.  “I’ll see you out.”

Smiling, the two women proceeded down the short hallway, expecting to see the handsome cowboy waiting.  But it was not the youngest Lancer who stood there, foot tapping impatiently.

At the sight of the arrival, Shelby fell back, her face going white. “You!”

The green eyes of the visitor narrowed.  “I knew it.  I knew it as soon as I saw that nag out front!”

Suzette gasped, staring at the blonde fetchingly attired in green velvet.  She’d been a customer in the shop before, always pleasant enough.  It made her current behavior all the more shocking.

The two women stared at each other, Shelby looking pale with shock.  The blonde’s cold eyes were fixed on her face, reminding Suzette of a reptile about to strike.

Recovering herself, Suzette stepped forward.  “I’ll not have trouble in my shop. You’ll have to leave.”

The blonde glared at her.  “I’ll leave when I’m damned good and ready.  She and I have some talking to do.”

Shelby gasped, tears starting to her eyes.  “Aren’t you glad to see me?”

Suzette turned to look at her, her eyes questioning. “Do you two know each other?”

The blonde stepped forward, hands on hips.  A small green velvet reticule dangled from one wrist.  Her green velvet gown was new and stylish.  Her brows drew together.

“Oh yes,” she said.  “We know each other.  She’s my sister.  And I have a score to settle with this bitch.”

 

CH. 62

Shocked, Suzette frowned, one hand going to her throat as she eyed the arrival.  The saloon girl was a good customer, having a particular fondness for French lingerie and expensive gowns.

Recovering, Shelby drew herself up, looking closely at the dancehall girl’s face.

Suzette spoke up, putting herself between the two girls.  “You’ll have to leave, Star.”

Shelby spoke up. “Star?”

The blonde smiled snidely.  “Like it? I thought I’d take a new name, to go with my new profession.  You know, the one I was forced to adopt after Papa kicked me out.”

Shelby frowned, puzzled.  “Kicked you out?  I don’t understand.”

The blonde’s face twisted in an ugly smirk.  “That’s you all over.  Always the innocent.”

Her sister frowned.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t heard from our parents in months.  I thought you were safe at Rosehill.”

The blonde came closer, reflected in the large wall mirror behind her.  The reticule swung from her wrist as she pulled her gloves off with short, sharp movements.

Shelby approached, hands out.  “Savannah…what’s happened to you?  What are you doing in Morro Coyo?”

The blonde looked up, eyes narrowed.  “Don’t call me that!” she said, so violently that her sister took a step back.  “Savannah’s dead.  I’m Star now.”

Shelby spoke softly.  “Star, Savannah, whatever you want to be called…we can talk about this.  Come with us back to the ranch and we’ll discuss it.”

The blonde looked up sharply.  “The ranch?  What ranch?”

Her sister replied, “Why, Lancer.  I’m staying at the Lancer estancia just north of here.”

It was the wrong thing to have said. An ugly look twisted the blonde’s face.  Furious, she advanced, one hand raised to strike.

Behind her, the door jangled again.  Johnny entered, his smile fading as he took in the scene.  Instantly sizing up the situation, he grabbed the blonde’s hand.

“I wouldn’t.” he said, his voice dangerously soft.

The blonde wrenched her hand from his grip, whirling to face him. Her face twisted in an ugly scowl.

“Well,” she said.  “if it isn’t Johnny Lancer.  The famous Johnny Lancer.”  Her slight emphasis on the word Lancer warned him what was coming.

“Or should I use your real name?”  she purred, looking slyly up at him.

Johnny’s heart beat a little faster in his chest.  He’d meant to tell Shelby about his past but the time had never been right.  Now he had lost the chance.

His expression unchanged, he looked at the blonde, his blue eyes cold.

“You got something to say, lady,” he said, his voice soft and unhurried, “say it.”

“All right!” she snapped.  “I’ll tell little Miss Priss here who and what you really are.”

Bewildered, Shelby looked at him.  Johnny’s heart beat faster as all his old fears about losing her when she learned of his past crowded in on him.

Resolutely, Suzette stepped forward.  “Star, Savannah, I don’t care who you are.  This has gone far enough.  Get out of my shop.”

The blonde whirled on her, removing her hand from her reticule.  In it was a derringer.  She pointed it at Shelby’s head.

“Nobody move!” she warned, “I’ll shoot, I swear I will!”

Johnny’s breath caught in his throat.  “Just take it easy, lady.  Put the gun down.”

She looked at him, her eyes maniacal. “Not so high and mighty now, are you gunhawk?” Now I have the upper hand.  I’ve got the power to blow her away and I will.  So don’t you move.  Any of you.”

Unmoving, Shelby’s eyes sought Johnny’s.  At the fear in them, fierce anger swept over over him, every muscle in his body tensing.

Seeing it, the blonde whirled just as he leaped forward.

The gun’s report was deafeningly loud in the tiny shop, hurting their ears as the sound echoed off the walls.

The bullet, fired at point blank range, struck Johnny full in the chest, lifting him off his feet and hurling him backwards into the mirror.

The screams of Shelby and Suzette filled the shop, reverberating off the walls as Johnny hit the floor, shards of glass falling all around him.

 

CH. 63

The screams of the women, coupled with the gunshot, caused the passing sheriff to halt in his tracks, kicking the door open as he burst into the shop.

In one glance, he took in the situation, the two women, white-faced and clutching each other for support, Johnny Lancer on the floor in a sea of broken glass, and the blonde holding the pistol, staring down at him with a look of savage satisfaction on her face.

In an instant, his own gun was out and leveled at the woman.

“Drop it!” he warned her. “Now!”

Wild-eyed, she looked at him, crazy joy on her face.

The sheriff’s voice grew louder. “Lady, I’ll count to three.  And then I’ll shoot to kill.”

A measure of sanity returned to the blonde’s face.  Tossing the gun to the floor, she smirked contemptuously.

“Kick it over here,” the sheriff warned her. “Now!”

She did so, one small green-slippered foot emerging from beneath the velvet skirts.

Keeping his own gun trained on her, the sheriff knelt and grabbed the pistol, placing it in his belt.

He waved the gun at her.  “Turn around.”

Shelby rushed forward, flinging herself to her knees beside the prostrate man on the floor.  “Johnny,” she begged, her voice breaking. “Oh, Johnny, don’t leave me…”

Suzette came to crouch beside her, grasping her shoulders as the sheriff handcuffed the blonde.  The woman looked down at Johnny, still sprawled on the floor, eyes closed.  The look of insane joy remained on her face. 

“Looks like you just bought yourself a murder charge, lady,” growled Dave, ratcheting the cuffs tight about the slender wrists behind the velvet-covered back.

“I don’t care!” Star spat, looking over her shoulder.  “It was worth it to kill him. Scott got away but at least I got one of them!”

Her voice dropped to a self-satisfied purr as she looked at her sister, on her knees in the broken glass.

Star spoke again.  “It was worth it to ruin her life…like she ruined mine!”

At the words, Shelby looked up angrily.  “I never did anything to you! Never!  And neither did Johnny!”

A low moan interrupted her words.  Under Shelby’s small frantic hands, Johnny opened his eyes, startling both her and Suzette.

One of his hands went to his chest.  “What’d she hit me with?”

Astounded, Shelby looked down at him, her glorious smile breaking over her face.  “Johnny!  Oh, thank God, Johnny, you’re alive!”

A low, rising shriek of rage escaped the blonde, causing the sheriff to shove her, none too gently, toward the door.

“I’ll send the doc,” Dave told them.  “He’s at the jail now. Come over when you’re up to it.”

Suzette stood unmoving, transfixed. Becoming aware of the querulous voice of her grandmother, she gathered up her skirts and fled up the stairs, calling “Coming, Grandmere, coming!”

Slipping an arm behind Johnny, Shelby helped him sit up. Flinging her arms around him,  she buried her face in his neck, shaking with reaction.  Slowly, Johnny’s arms went round the girl.

Still bent over, he got painfully to his feet. Helping him to one of the small velvet-covered chairs by the window, Shelby opened his shirt, saying, “Let me have a look at you.”

A ghost of his familiar smile curved his lips.  “I like the sound of that.”

When his shirt was opened, he looked down at his chest.  Drops of blood and an angry red swelling showed where the bullet had stuck the medallion, driving it deep into his skin.  Its imprint showed clearly beneath the black hair on his chest.

Shelby slipped the chain over his head.  Together, they examined the gold St. Christopher’s medal that Suzette’s Grandmere had given Johnny months ago.

The medallion was much the worse for wear, having taken a direct hit from the bullet.  A deep indentation marred its surface, obliterating much of the image.  Badly damaged, it had nonetheless done its job well.  Although almost pierced, the medallion had held, preventing the bullet from reaching Johnny’s heart.

The bell over the door jangled again as Sam Jenkins rushed in, carrying his bag.  Seeing Johnny up and around, he broke into a smile, his steps slowing.

“I expected to find you in bad shape,” he told them as he put his bag on the bistro table between the two small chairs.  “You have more lives than a cat.”

Smiling, Johnny agreed. “Not my day to die, I guess.”

Shelby handed the medallion to the old man.  “It was close, though. Look at this.”

Examining the medallion, the old doctor had the answer.  “Gold stretches.  The medallion spread, absorbing the bullet’s impact.  If you hadn’t been wearing it, you’d be knocking on the Pearly Gates this very minute.”

Still kneeling beside Johnny, Shelby smiled radiantly as Sam gave the medallion back to her.

“Keep it.  It’s a good luck piece.”

“I agree,” she said. “I’ll keep it forever.”

Taking some cloths and alcohol from his bag, Sam treated Johnny’s chest.

Finished disinfecting the wound, he snapped his bag shut.  “You’ve got a hell of a bruise and you’ll be sore for awhile.  But you lived to tell the tale. Not many men can say they survived being shot in the chest at point-blank range.”

“Now,” said the craggy-faced old doctor.  “I’ve got to go.  Mrs. Phillips is having a baby any minute now.  It’s nice to have somebody besides a Lancer to work on for a change.”

Johnny laughed, slipping his arm around Shelby. “Thanks, Doc.  We owe you.”

Sam looked over his shoulder, smiling as he went out the door.  “Name your firstborn child after me.”  With that parting shot, he was gone.

Shelby blushed as the doctor’s words sank in.  Seeing it, Johnny laughed, pulling her close.

Quick footsteps on the stairs interrupted them.  Smiling, Suzette rushed into the room.  “I’m so happy you are all right, Johnny.

A memory chimed in Johnny’s mind.  Letting nothing show on his face, he recalled the rest of Grandmere’s prophecy. 

“We’ll help you clean up, Suzette,” Shelby offered.

The dressmaker waved them away.  “Non, non, I can do it.  The sheriff is waiting for you.”

Shelby let Johnny draw her toward the door as he looked back at the dressmaker, now busy with her broom and dustpan.

The first half of her grandmother’s prophecy had come true.  Uneasily, he wondered about the second.

 

Ch.  64

Back at the jail, deputy Ray Barrington looked up in surprise when the sheriff entered, pushing his prisoner before him.  In the short time it had taken them to get to the jail, Dave and his prisoner had drawn more than a few shocked glances from townspeople and storekeepers.  News of Star’s arrest was already spreading like wildfire.

Taking the blonde by the arm, Dave led her to an unoccupied cell.  The girl cast a curious glance at the other, blanketed off to shelter the fat man who had been gutshot on the day of Scott’s hanging.  Ushering her in, the sheriff removed the cuffs, then pulled out his watch.  It was almost time for the fat man’s shot of morphine to be administered by the doctor.

Dave returned to the outer office, tossing his hat on the desk and pulling the derringer from his belt.  Putting it on the desk, the sheriff met his deputy’s surprised eyes, saying, “I’m booking her on charges of attempted murder.”

Ray’s eyes widened.  “Murder? Who’d she try to kill?”

Dave removed the tequila bottle from his desk drawer before taking a pull.  Brusquely, he replied.  “Johnny Lancer.”

Ray’s eyes widened still more.  “Johnny?   Why in hell would she want to shoot him?”

Dave shrugged.  “Dunno.  But she came damn near to killing him today and she already admitted it.  Said something else funny, too.”

Ray spoke.  “What?  What’d she say?”

The sheriff took another pull from the bottle before wiping it with his sleeve and passing it to Ray.  “It was the damndest thing.  She said ‘Scott got away but at least I got one of them.’”

Ray goggled at him, at a loss for words.

Dave spoke. “Makes me glad I left the deputies around Lancer.” Spotting the youngest Lancer approaching with the girl, he said, “I’ll handle this one, Ray.  You go run your errands.”

Ray got to his feet, his eyes still round as saucers.  “I’ll go over to the hotel, then, if you need me.”

The deputy removed the “Wanted” poster from behind Dave’s desk.  It was the same one Larry Sawyer had identified a few days earlier.”

 “All right if I take this with me?  I want to show it to the desk clerk.”

Dave nodded.  “Take your time.”

The deputy had turned to go when the sheriff’s voice detained him.  “And bring Larry Sawyer back with you.”

The door opened, admitting Johnny and Shelby.  Ray nodded as he passed them on his way out.  “Sure am glad you’re all right, Johnny.” He touched his hat brim as he passed the girl. “Miss.”

Shelby smiled as Johnny nodded.  “Thanks, Ray.”

The door closed behind the deputy.  Once on the street, his pleasant expression faded as his eyes narrowed.  Casting a look over his shoulder, he crossed the street.  Once on the splintery sidewalk on the far side, instead of making for the hotel, he turned left.  Hurrying up the street, he disappeared into the telegraph office.

Inside the jail, Dave greeted the young couple.  “You OK, Johnny?”

Yeah, Dave, kinda bruised but I’ll live.”

The sheriff looked at the girl beside him.  “Are you all right, Miss?”

The girl smiled at him.  “Please, call me Shelby.”

Dave nodded.  “Shelby, it is then.”

Pulling out two chairs for them, the sheriff settled behind his desk, where he looked soberly at them.

“Tell me what happened.”

Briefly, Shelby recounted her story, which Johnny corroborated.  Dave leaned forward.

“You say this girl, Star, is also known as Savannah Randolph—your sister?”

Shelby’s brow clouded.    “Yes, she’s my sister.  I haven’t seen her since I got married two years ago and moved to Oaxaca.  My husband intercepted all my mail.  I thought Savannah was still at home in Virginia.”

Dave frowned, leaning forward in his chair. “Why would your husband intercept your mail?”

Johnny spoke.  “That’s personal, Dave.”

Shelby glanced at him, cheeks pinkening.  “That’s all right, Johnny.  I don’t mind telling the sheriff.”

Composed, she looked Dave in the eye.  “It was an unhappy marriage, sheriff.  My husband was a very controlling man.”

“What did your husband do for a living, Shelby?” Dave asked.

Johnny leaned forward. 

Shelby spoke.  “He was a businessman.  He had many interests throughout the country.”

“Did he travel much?”

“Yes, sheriff, he did.  Frequently.”

“Did he and your sister know each other?”

“Yes, Michael’s family owned the plantation next to ours.”

Dave leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers together as he looked at them.

“You probably want to go talk to her,” he said quietly, standing up and taking his keyring from the nail on the wall.  “I’ll let you in.”

Beside her, Johnny frowned, concerned. “She already attacked Shelby once today.”

Seeing it, the sheriff took the cuffs from his belt.  “I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again.”  Leaving the room, they could hear him unlocking the cell door.  After a moment, Dave returned, holding the door open for Shelby to pass through.   He had placed a chair inside for her. Ushering her into the cell, he locked the door behind her.

“We’ll be right outside. I’ll take Johnny’s statement while you two talk.”

Nodding, Shelby entered, seating herself in the chair and spreading her skirts about her.  Her sister, chained to the bunk, regarded her coldly.

The sheriff left, leaving the sisters together.

Alone, they regarded each other, Shelby’s eyes puzzled and hurt, Savannah’s icy and contemptuous.

Shelby looked up, spreading her hands in bewilderment before letting them fall back into her lap. 

“Why?” she said simply.  “You act like you loathe me.”

At the words, the blonde’s chilly detachment left her.  Still shackled, she leaned forward, her eyes spitting hate.  The flashing hatred in the green depths rattled the younger girl.

“You’re right, Shelby.  I do hate you.  I’ve hated you since the day you were born.”

Seeing the hurt look in the turquoise eyes regarding her, Savannah went quickly on, the words beginning to tumble over each other.  There was no doubt she’d been thinking of this for a long time.  A spiteful smile twisted her lips as she spoke.

“I was an only child before you were born.  I wanted for nothing, I was everyone’s darling.  Papa’s little princess.  Then you were born.  Right from the beginning you were perfect.  No one had time for me any more.”

Shelby sat forward, stung.  “That’s not true!  Our parents always loved us equally!”

Savannah’s lips twisted spitefully.  “Did they?  Think back, Shelby!  You were born a month early, sickly.  I heard Grandma tell our mother that she’d never raise you.”

She yanked on the cuff experimentally.  “Always so worried about you, every sniffle.  Then you got older and you were the perfect child.  Never in trouble, never stole anything, their little angel child.”

Shelby stared at her.  “Neither did you!”

Savannah laughed.  “Not true.  I stole little things when I could find them, money from a guest’s jacket, the sapphire and diamond ring Grandma left Mama, Papa’s favorite cufflinks.  They suspected me but they could never prove it.”

Her eyes narrowed.  “When I got older, it was another matter.  I discovered boys.  Once Papa caught me behind the hedge with a stableboy.  Oh, we weren’t doing much, just kissing.  But to hear him tell it, you’d think the sky had fallen.”

She smirked with remembrance, looking into the distance.  “I wept and told him I’d just been experimenting, that it would never happen again.  He was so angry.  But he never told mother.  And I restrained myself for a long time.  I didn’t even steal anything.”

Her eyes took on a fugitive gleam as she continued, lifting her head to stare straight at Shelby.

“That is, until I stole Michael from you.”

 

CH. 65

Seeing Shelby’s eyes widen, Savannah continued, smirking. “Oh yes, Shelby.   And he was only too happy to be stolen.  Did you really think Michael loved you?”

Savannah smiled more widely, enjoying the shock on her sister’s face.  “The whole time he was courting you, the perfect little virgin saving herself for marriage, he was sleeping with me.”

The cruel words were like a slap in the face.  Hearing them, Shelby could do little more than gasp, raising her eyes mutely to her sister’s face.

Relishing the pain she saw, Savannah continued, practically licking her lips with malicious satisfaction.

“We did it everywhere, Shelby.  In the barn, on the barge, in the woods.  At Briarhall, in the old wine cellar--everywhere we could think of.  Michael put on such a good act, didn’t he?  Pretended to be dying for love of you, dying for the chance to have you? 

The truth is,” she continued gleefully, “it was all an act!  Michael never wanted you!  But he did want Papa’s money. Briarhall was falling down about his ears.  And he knew you’d inherit quite a bit when you turned twenty-one next year.”

Shelby straightened.  “What about you?  You inherited the same amount when you reached twenty-one.  If money were so important, he could have married you for it.”

The corners of Savannah’s mouth drew down.  “No, he couldn’t.   Because of my ‘unstable temperament,’ Papa had consulted his solicitor.  They arranged for his guardianship to continue for another five years. I was so angry with him and Michael was, too. We couldn’t wait five more years so we came up with a plan.  Michael would court you, marry you.  As your husband, he’d have control over your inheritance.  He planned to use it to fix up Briarhall, restore it to its former glory. And when every dime was used up, you were going to meet with an unfortunate accident, leaving Michael free to marry me.”

At the cold words, Shelby flinched a little, as if a dart had struck her. As hard as it was to hear that she’d been an unwilling dupe for her husband, her sister’s story explained so much about her unhappy marriage.  Feeling stunned, she kept her eyes on Savannah.

“When Briarhall was the finest plantation on the James River, Michael and I planned to  take our places in society, foremost among the “first families” of Virginia.  In time,  Michael was going to enter politics.”

Savannah continued, her eyes dark with remembrance.  “The South was done, Shelby, it was done. No amount of Reconstruction could change that.  Life as we knew it was over and we didn’t plan to play a losing hand, under the thumb of the federal government.  The idea was to move to Washington, DC and join the carpetbagger government supervising the Reconstruction.  We could have lined our pockets quite easily.  Michael could have become president someday.”

Shelby shook her head, appalled at the grandiosity and the coldness of the scheme.

“That’s a lie.  Michael loved me. At least at first.”

Her sister looked at her, a small smile playing about her lips.  “Did he? Think Shelby!  How many nights did he leave you alone? How many trips did he take that required him to go out of town?  We were together every chance we got, right under your nose.  We used to laugh at you, you poor little gullible princess, patiently waiting for your man to come home.”

Savannah went on. “Why do you think Michael allowed you to go to church every morning?”

At Shelby’s shrug, her sister continued.  “To get you out of the way. While you were gone, we used to do it in your bed. We made all our plans there.”

Shelby looked at her, pain etched on her pale face.  Her love for her husband had long grown cold but surprisingly, a few embers remained for the boy she’d grown up with.  They stirred into brief, hurting life at her sister’s words, leaving Shelby unable to do more than stare silently at her sister.

Savannah continued with her tale.  At that moment, her expression twisted with malice,  she looked like someone Shelby had never seen before.

“We had it all planned to the last detail.  Michael had a substantial loan from Papa before you even married.  You two would marry and move into Briarhall. You would do all the hard work, fix the place up, squander your entire fortune while I waited in the wings. And when the time was right—we’d get rid of you.  Michael and I used to lie in bed and talk about the ways we could dispose of you.  We’d count them off, one by one. Your death could be caused by so many things.  A fall down the stairs, a boating accident, perhaps that nag you’re so fond of could have kicked you in the head.  I especially liked that one, implicating the horse along with you.  I never forgot the day I tried to ride that nag and he bucked me off.  Papa should have shot him then.”

Hearing the coldness in Savannah’s voice as she discussed the deaths of her sister and another living creature who had done her no harm was like a dagger in Shelby’s heart.  She had always loved her older sister and taken for granted that the feeling was mutual.

The unmasking of Savannah’s true character had shattered that lifelong idea into dust.  The revelations she was making were so shocking, Shelby could hardly take them in.

Feeling confused and disoriented, she thought again of how she’d longed to see her family during her time in Oaxaca.  She’d planned for the day, wished desperately for it to arrive. Now that dream of a happy family reunion had gone up in smoke.

Sudden fear shot through her.  “How are Mama and Papa?  You didn’t hurt them, did you?”

Savannah waved a negligent hand.  “Relax, little sister.  All of our plans involved you and you alone.  You were a much easier target. The last I heard, they were fine.”

Shelby sat back with a sigh of relief as her sister continued.

“After your death, we planned to wait the decent interval.  Michael would play the bereaved widower for a year and then we’d marry.  All very proper.  I’d take your place as mistress of Briarhall.  In time, I’d become the President’s wife.  It was all within our grasp.”

Shelby merely looked at her, speechless, stunned at the depths of her sister’s depravity.

“But then, Johnny Lancer came along.  Michael and I had had no chance to be together for weeks, in all the hubbub surrounding your wedding.  We were both too closely watched.  By then, I’d gotten used to being with a man, Shelby.  None of your pure, virginal airs for me.”

“I needed a man badly so I decided to pay Johnny Lancer a visit the night of your wedding.”

Shelby looked at her, her throat dry as dust.  Her voice, when it finally emerged, was small and emotionless.

“What happened?”

Savannah glanced at her.  In her face, Shelby could see the desire to wound her warring with the truth.

When her sister spoke, venom dripped from each cold word.  “I crawled into bed with Murdoch Lancer, not Johnny that night.”  Suddenly, shockingly, she laughed.

“Let me tell you, it woke that old man right up—if you could have seen his face! Couldn’t wait to get rid of me.  The bastard had changed rooms with his son without telling anyone.  Said he wanted Johnny to have the best view of the plantation.”

“What did you do?” Shelby asked.

“I played it off.  Said I was prone to sleepwalking.  On my way back to my room, I crept down the stairs a way and listened.  Johnny was still playing poker so I went to bed.  The next morning, I slipped into Johnny’s room while he was in the bathtub.” 

Her tongue darted out, moistening her lips. Her eyes became distant as she recalled the encounter.  “He looked like a Greek god, naked as the day he was born.”

Something twisted inside Shelby’s heart. The thought that Savannah had been with Johnny was like a knife in her chest.  Her heart on her face, she forced the words out, strangling on them.

“Did you…”

Her sister glanced at her, eyes gleaming with spite.  The malicious smile remained on her lips as she spoke.

“Oh, don’t worry, my dear.”

Savannah’s voice became incredulous. “He put me out, Shelby—me! No one has ever turned me down before.  That no-good saddle-tramp turned me down flat.  If I’d had just a few more minutes, I know I could have convinced him,” she added in an unconvincing show of bravado.

Shelby’s heart took flight.  Suddenly happy, she released the breath she’d been holding, her beautiful smile returning to her face.

Seeing it, Savannah snarled at her, flinging her unshackled arm wide to encompass the cell.

"This is all his fault!!!”

Finding her voice, Shelby spoke up.  “How could this possibly be Johnny’s fault, Savannah?”

Her sister hissed. “It is his fault! Because when the butler, Morris, entered the room, he saw both of us, naked.  Johnny had stepped out of the tub and was forcing me out the door.

Her voice became lower, insinuating.  “He should have just let me have my way!  A short romp under the covers…I could have been gone before Morris arrived. Nobody ever had to know.  Instead, he had to argue with me.”

Incredulity crept back into Savannah’s voice.  “How dare he?  As if he was better than me?”

Shelby prodded her sister.  “What happened then?”

“I left. I threatened Morris with firing if he ever said a word and he promised not to.  But the whole thing put me in a bad mood and the next day, I slapped Lizzie, that silly little maid. 

Morris saw the handprint on her face and demanded she tell Papa.  He went with her.  Morris said they couldn’t work in such an environment any longer, that no one could be expected to work for someone with my morals.  The whole story came out.”

Papa called me into the library after they left.  He was so angry, angrier than I’d ever seen him.  I thought he would hit me.  He told me to get out, that I’d shamed the family beyond redemption.  I cried and pleaded but nothing swayed him.

Then Mama came into the room.  She’d been standing outside, listening.  She stood beside Papa and I turned toward her, begging her to help me.  I thought she’d break down, Mama always did, but not this time.  She looked at me with such disgust, told me I wasn’t fit to bear the name Randolph.

Papa told me again to get out.  I pleaded with him but he wouldn’t listen.

“Where shall I go?” I asked him.

‘I don’t care,’ he told me.  ‘As long as it’s out of my sight.’  He led mother to the door.  With his hand on the knob, he told me, ‘You have fifteen minutes to pack and get out.  After that, I never want to see you again.  You are dead to us.’

I cried and screamed and begged.  But it was no use.  They left without looking back at me.

When I came back downstairs later with the one carpetbag I could carry, I saw an envelope on the table in the entry way.  It had my name on it.  Through the door glass, I could see the carriage waiting in the drive.  Once inside, I opened the envelope.  It had $15,000 cash in it.  I dried my eyes and told the driver to take me to the train station.

I’d heard there were plenty of opportunities in Mexico so I took a train to Oaxaca.  I put up in the best hotel I could find.  Then I sent a wire to Michael.  A short time later, he arrived.  Unfortunately, he brought you with him.  He said it would look funny if he hadn’t.

We had it pretty good for awhile.  You never suspected a thing.  When the money ran low, Michael and I came up with a get-rich-quick scheme.  Even his brothers were in on it.

Shelby looked up sharply.  “His brothers—how? What scheme?”

Savannah laughed.  “Oh Shelby, you really are priceless.  Weren’t you surprised to see them all waiting for you in Oaxaca?  Did you really think they had all been neatly discharged from the army?

Michael was lucky he’d done his service as an aide to General Maine. All he did for four years was shuffle papers, safely behind the lines.  Nonetheless, he met lots of important people, people that he stayed in touch with.

His brothers didn’t exactly waste time in service of the Confederacy, either. Michael pulled some strings and got them all stationed on the western front. From there, it was easy for Tom, Jeff, and Kurt to desert, make their way to Mexico. They took the identities of colleagues who had been killed in the war. It was the perfect cover.

We all loved Oaxaca. After the money ran out, it was the perfect setup for us to put our plan in motion.”

Shelby interrupted again.  “What plan, Savannah?”

Savannah grinned at her, resembling nothing so much as a stalking cat.  “Why, we became train robbers.  Or rather, the men did. Michael masterminded it, for the most part, but I helped.  We sat in Oaxaca pulling the strings, letting others take the risks.

As time went on, we recruited more people.  The risks were low and the rewards were high.

We had contacts everywhere. Our plan worked perfectly. Or it did until you escaped.  Michael was so enraged, he began making mistakes.”

Her lips turned down at the corners.  “Another thing we have Johnny Lancer to thank for.  He killed Tom in Mexico, in some pissant little town called Lajitas.” 

She smirked unpleasantly.  “Tom almost murdered Johnny there, except some woman threw herself in front of him.  She took the bullet intended for him.”

Savannah rolled her eyes.  “Can you believe it?”

Shelby stared at her, numb.

Savannah continued her tale.  “By chance, Michael was in Lajitas, talking to his fence there.  He’d heard that someone had been trying to track him down but didn’t know who at the time. So he sent Tom after the man matching his description.  Tom planned to shoot him from cover.  Johnny would never know what hit him.

Shelby held up a hand, sickened. Her stomach roiled at the scenario her sister had just outlined.  Nauseous, she leaned forward, clutching her stomach.

Savannah needled her.  “What’s the matter, little sister?  Does the truth hurt that much?”

Shelby looked her in the eyes.  “Not that.  It’s seeing what you’ve become.”

Savannah smiled, a triangular, cat-eyed smile.  “What I’ve become? What about what you’ve become? 

Shelby eyed her coldly.  “And what is that, Savannah?”

Her sister leaned forward, eyes flashing as she spat the words.  “A gunfighter’s whore!”

 

CH. 66

Savannah’s savage words were cut off as the sheriff stepped forward, keys jangling.  He unlocked the door, offering his hand to help Shelby up.  Rising on trembling legs, she took it gladly, her eyes searching behind him for Johnny.

He was there, blue eyes concerned, as Dave transferred her outstretched hand to his.  Turning, Johnny put his arm about the girl, hurrying her out the side door for some fresh air. The sheriff spoke sharply, forestalling more words from Savannah.

“We both heard that little confession, Miss.  I’d say you just bought yourself a one-way ticket to Alcatraz, if not a hanging.”

Savannah fell back, staring at the sheriff.  Her heightened color faded, leaving her face pale.  His normally amiable face cold, Dave looked back at her.  “I think you better get yourself a lawyer.  A damn good one.”

She looked at him, chin lifting in a show of bravado.  “I’ll say I was out of my head, temporarily insane at seeing my sister again.  The shock, after all this time.  That confession won’t mean a thing in court.”

Dave looked at her, his expression icy.  “I doubt that, ma’am.  But you go right ahead and try.”

The closing of the outer door and the shuffling of feet drew his attention.  Dave looked over his shoulder as Ray Barrington entered, followed closely by a tall man with a badly broken nose.

Beckoning the tall man forward, Dave spoke. 

“Mr. Sawyer.  Just the man I wanted to see.  Please come in here a minute.”

Puzzled, the tall man came forward, removing his bowler hat.  Stepping through the doorway, he stood behind the sheriff who had turned to face him, his bulk obscuring the woman in the cell behind him.

*********

Outside, Shelby breathed deeply, grateful for Johnny’s supportive arm.  They stood under the shade of a tree growing beside the jail for a moment until the color returned to her cheeks.  She smiled tremulously up at Johnny, seeing his frown of concern.

Drawing her forward, Johnny put his arms around her as she returned the gesture.  Leaning against him, she said nothing, listening to the strong, steady beating of his heart as she enjoyed the feel of his hard chest and strong arms about her.  A sense of security returned as her trembling stopped.  Breathing in the masculine scent of him, she closed her eyes, offering up a tiny prayer of gratitude. 

“Thank you, God, for my Johnny.”

They stood entwined for a few more moments before Johnny released her, tipping her head up with a gentle finger under her chin.

Seeing the question in his eyes, she reached up to smooth away the lines of concern in his face.

“Are you all right now?” he questioned softly.

She nodded. “Let’s go home, Johnny.”

Smiling at her use of the word, he said softly.  “You still look a little pale and it’s a long ride.  Let’s go to the hotel first.  I want to get you a drink and let you rest for a little before we start back.”

Her arm about his waist, they crossed the street and entered the hotel, disappearing through the front door.

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

In front of the cell, the sheriff moved aside, allowing the tall man to see the woman inside.  Their eyes met, Savannah’s shocked and horrified, Larry’s calm and unsurprised.

Without turning his head, he spoke to the lawman.

“That’s her, sheriff.  That’s the woman I saw in Oaxaca.”

Dave’s deep voice rumbled.  “You’re sure, Mr. Sawyer?  Beyond the shadow of a doubt?”

The tall man, unmoving as he looked into the cell, spoke again.

“I’m absolutely sure.  That is the woman I saw in the hotel, in the company of the man on the wanted poster, Michael Beaumont.  I saw them more than once. I even overheard their conversation in the bar late one night, talking about land-grabbing in the San Joaquin Valley.”

A smile lifted the lawman’s lips.  “Would you be willing to tell that to a judge?”

Larry nodded, decisively.  “Yes.”

Dave cast one last impassive glance into the girl’s cell. Savannah slumped back, small and defeated, on the bunk.  Her face was deathly pale.  Resignation filled her eyes as she recognized the desk clerk from the Oaxaca Regency.

The sheriff spoke.  “Thank you, Mr. Sawyer.”

Stepping back, the tall man turned to go.  Dispassionately, his eyes fell on the curtained-off area hiding the fat man.  He wrinkled his nose at the stench emanating from the cell as he passed.  Inside, the obese prisoner stirred, groaning.

Dave glanced at his watch before speaking to Larry.  “The doc’ll be here any minute to give him a shot of morphine. He sure is hanging on.  Personally, I wish he’d die and get it over with instead of lingering at taxpayer expense.”

Ray Barrington chimed in from the doorway, where he was watching.  “Fat bastard screams like a stuck pig as soon as the morphine begins to wear off.” 

Becoming aware of the foul odor emanating from the enormous man, Savannah looked up.

“What’s that awful smell?”

Ray answered.  “A prisoner—gutshot a few days ago.  What you smell is his innards putrefying inside him.”

“And I have to share a jail with him?”

The deputy looked exaggeratedly at the four cells that made up the detention area.  “Don’t see no other place to put him.”

The fat man’s mumbling grew louder as he began to surface to consciousness.  Hearing it, Larry put his hat back on, his face expressionless.  “If you’ll excuse me, sheriff.”

Dave nodded.  “Sure, Mr. Sawyer.  I’ll be in touch.”

An idea struck him as he looked back at Savannah, still huddled on the bunk.  Sweeping the curtain aside, he revealed the prisoner to the girl.

The fat man lay on the cot, naked.  His already enlarged belly, grotesquely swollen, was covered with blue and purple spots, signs of the blood poisoning that was slowly killing him.  Similar spots covered the rest of his body.  The raised purple scar on his cheek glowed against his face which was red with fever. 

Tossing his head restlessly, he cried out.

Glancing at Savannah, Dave explained.  “He can’t bear a sheet on him.  His belly’s full of ruptured organs, gangrening.  Pretty painful, I guess.  He don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving.”

The look on Savannah’s face told him everything he needed to know.  From the shocked and disbelieving look on it, the sheriff knew that she had just recognized her former partner in crime.

Revolted, the blonde looked at the other prisoner, her nose wrinkling at the unbelievable stench emanating from him.

Without opening his eyes, the fat man screamed, both hands going to his enormous belly.

Ray winced, looking at the sheriff as he let the blanket fall.

“I forgot to tell you, the doc said he’d be late.  He’s attending the birth of Mrs. Phillip’s baby.  No telling when he’ll get here.”

The fat man screamed again, causing Savannah to cover one ear with her free hand. Indignantly, she demanded, “Can’t you do anything for him?”

Dave Bell looked at her, hiding his mirth.  “No, lady, sure can’t.  Only thing that helps him is morphine.  And the only one who has a hypodermic needle is Sam Jenkins.”

Ray chimed in.  “Yeah, he keeps it in a velvet-lined case.”

Savannah raised her chin.  “Well, gag him or something!  He’s driving me crazy.”

The mountain of blubber on the bed yelled again, the scream reaching a chilling crescendo that bounced off the walls.

Dave cupped a hand to his ear, looking pointedly at Savannah as he called over the deafening howls.

“What’s that?  Can’t hear you!”

Forgetting her dignity, Savannah shrieked at him.  “Do something! Shut him up!”

Dave and Ray looked at each other, then back at Savannah.

Over the fat man’s screams, Dave called to the girl.

“Do something?  I think I will do something.  I’ll take my deputy here to breakfast.  And we may be gone quite awhile.”

Yanking on the cuff securing her to the bunk, Savannah screamed at their departing backs, her shrill tones lost in the fat man’s howls.

“Get back here!  You can’t leave me alone with him!”

The obese man’s cries and moans reached a fever pitch, the cacophony unlike anything she’d ever heard before.  It sounded as if all the devils of hell were tormenting him.

The door closed gently behind the two men, leaving Savannah alone with the doomed prisoner.

Savannah raised her one free hand to her ear again.  It didn’t help.  She looked at her former companion in crime disgustedly.

 “Damn you, Kurt!”

 

CH. 67

Exiting the jail, Larry stood for a moment on the dusty street, deciding what to do next.  It came to him suddenly that he wanted to see Suzette, even though they had already planned to meet for lunch in just a few hours.  Striding down the street, he realized how good he felt, just like his old self.

Reaching the dressmaker’s shop, he found her on her hands and knees, attempting to sweep broken glass into her dustpan.

A low whistle escaped Larry as he looked at the shop, noticing the remains of the broken mirror on the wall.

“What happened here?”

At the jangling of the bell, Suzette had looked around to see who had entered.  Her face clearing, she smiled when she saw who it was.

“Good morning,” she told him brightly, making no attempt to get up.  “A small accident but no one was hurt. Grandmere interrupted me after it happened and now I am running late.  Excuse me but I must get this cleaned up before Mrs. King arrives for her fitting.”

“I’ll help you, “Larry offered, dropping to his knees.

He reached to take the brush and dustpan from her.  “Here, let me.”

She smiled, pushing a stray tendril of black hair back.  The little flirting grin, the one he liked so much, made Larry smile in return. Both of them still on their knees on the floor, Larry made a sudden decision.

Putting the brush and dustpan aside, he smiled down at Suzette, reaching over to gather her hands into his. 

The dressmaker looked up at him quizzically as he spoke.

“Suzette, will you marry me?”

Shocked, the dressmaker looked at him, her mouth dropping open slightly with surprise before she flung her arms around his neck, her English deserting her.

Oui!  Oh, Larry, oui, je vous épouserai!”

Larry looked down at her as Suzette almost strangled him in her excitement.

“Is that a yes?” he questioned cautiously.

“Oui!  Yes, Larry, yes, I’ll marry you!”

Joy filled his honest face as he looked down at her, his devotion plain in his eyes.

At the sight of it, realization came to Suzette.

“This is what I wished for the day that Johnny came home,” she thought.  “Watching him with Shelby, I wished for a good man to love me the way he loves her.  And now I have it.”

A great peace fell upon Suzette as joy filled her heart.  She lifted her lips to his, smiling.

So absorbed were they that they failed to hear shop’s bell when it jangled a few moments later, the door opening to admit Mrs. King for her fitting.

Smiling, she looked down at the two on their knees, still kissing amid the broken glass.

 

Ch. 68

Johnny and Shelby were still seated in the hotel’s dining area when Suzette and Larry burst in, their arms about each other.  Spotting Shelby, Suzette rushed over, her face alight.  She was dragging a tall man behind her, looking somewhat sheepish but very proud.

“We’re engaged!” Suzette cried.  “This is my fiancé, Larry!”

Shelby and Johnny looked up, their somber mood swept away by the news. Shelby stood up, taking Suzette into her arms.

“I’m so happy for you!” she said, hugging the dressmaker.

Johnny, too, had stood up and now he offered his hand to the tall man.  Their eyes met and recognition filled each face.

Still shaking Johnny’s hand, Larry looked at him, his face becoming somber.  “I always hoped I’d meet you again one day. I wanted to apologize to you.  I’m afraid I caused you a lot of trouble in Oaxaca.”

Johnny nodded.  “I knew I’d seen you before—the hotel, right?”

Larry nodded but said nothing, awaiting Johnny’s reaction.

Shelby released Suzette, both girls staring at the tall man with the badly healed nose.

Still watching Johnny carefully, Larry elaborated. 

“I was the desk clerk there, the one who checked you in the day you arrived. I’m afraid I’m the one who told that fat man your name.”

Johnny and Shelby looked at him, uncomprehending. 

Larry continued, looking apologetic.  “The fat man who almost killed you the day of your brother’s hanging.”

Comprehension dawned on Johnny’s dark face, followed an instant later by the same look on Shelby’s.

Johnny spoke up.  “The same man who’s in the jail now?”

Larry nodded.

Johnny looked at him. His charming smile lit up his dark face, causing Larry to sag with relief.

“Shelby told me about that.  She says you saved my life.”

He slapped Larry on the back.  “So, no apology necessary.  In fact, I’m the one who should be thanking you.”

Shelby leaned forward, taking Larry’s hand in both of hers.  “I know that I do.  You’re a hero, Larry.”

The tall man pinkened, hanging his head slightly.  Suzette watched, her eyes full of pride as Shelby stepped around the table.  Standing on tiptoe, she kissed Larry gently on the cheek.

Johnny looked him in the eye. “She’s right, Larry.” 

Looking at the man’s badly broken nose, he said shrewdly.  “And my guess is, you didn’t give the information away willingly.”

At Larry’s slight negative shake of the head, Suzette frowned slightly, her eyes going from one man to the other.  Larry had never told her about that awful night in Oaxaca and the dressmaker had never dreamed he’d gotten the smashed nose trying to protect someone.  It made him an even bigger man in her eyes.

Johnny looked Larry straight in the eye, shaking his hand once again.  “Thank you, Larry.  You saved my life.”

Taking his glasses off, Larry began polishing them, blushing furiously.

Johnny slapped him on the back, releasing his hand and signaling to the waitress.

“A bottle of your best champagne,” he told her, smiling. 

Pressed against his side, Shelby smiled at Larry and Suzette before taking the seat beside Johnny.  Beaming, Larry and Suzette settled into the chairs across the table.

The red-haired waitress, Noreen, was soon back with four glasses and a chilled bottle.

Taking it, Johnny worked the cork up carefully.  With a loud pop, it flew across the room, releasing a gush of champagne down the bottle, soaking his hand and wrist.

Smiling widely, Johnny poured champagne into each glass held out to him, pausing to add some to his own.

That finished, he raised his glass, smiling at each of his companions in turn.

“To friends,” he said warmly.  “A long life and every happiness.”

“Hear, hear,” Shelby responded, clinking her glass with his.  Beaming, the four of them raised their glasses, drinking a toast to the future.

 

CH. 69

 
The screaming in the cell across from Savannah’s continued for the next hour, the fat man’s howls ringing off the adobe walls with monotonous regularity. They hurt the girl’s ears as she waited for the sheriff to return, cursing both him and the absent doctor with all her might.  Passersby in the street covered their ears and hurried past, cringing at both at the incessant screaming and at the stream of invective audible whenever the fat man paused for breath.
 
Across the street, seated in the hotel dining room with his deputy, Dave Bell tilted his chair back on two legs as he smiled gently upon the red-haired waitress refilling his coffee cup. From here, the howls were almost inaudible, muted by the hotel’s thick walls.
 
“What’s the matter, Ray?” he asked the deputy.  “For a hungry man, you sure didn’t eat much.”
 
The deputy smiled.  “Eyes were bigger than my stomach, I guess.  But thanks for buyin’.”
 
Dave Bell nodded graciously, watching as the deputy’s eyes flicked yet again across the room at Johnny Lancer and his party.  Ray Barrington had been unable to keep his eyes from the happy group, his countenance becoming pale and strained as breakfast wore on.
 
Undeterred, Dave Bell had eaten heartily, mopping the last vestiges of egg yolk from his plate with a chunk of bread and calling for more coffee.
 
“You gonna eat that?” the sheriff asked, motioning at the biscuit left on Ray’s plate.
 
“Naw. But you go ahead.”
 
Nodding the sheriff picked up the golden-topped biscuit, pausing to add butter and a small pool of honey to one of the halves before taking a bite.
 
Still chewing, he returned his chair to the floor.  Fixing his deputy with a deceptively mild look, the sheriff nodded his head at the lovely girl with Johnny.
 
 “You know her, Ray?”
 
The deputy’s head snapped back to the sheriff, hasty words of denial spilling out.
 
“What? Me? No, I don’t know her.”
 
“I almost thought you did, the way you been starin’ at her,” the sheriff queried gently, a faint smile on his face.
 
Recovering, Ray cocked an eyebrow at the sheriff..
 
“She’s a pretty girl, that’s all,” the deputy replied.  “Lancer’s a lucky man.”
 
“He is that,” the sheriff agreed.  “Ain’t it the oddest thing, her bein’ Star’s sister?  And turning up here so unexpected-like?”
 
Ray nodded, tugging at his collar.  “Sure is.”
 
Finishing the biscuit, Dave took up a toothpick from the dish on the table.  “I reckon Johnny must’ve met her in Mexico, since she was with him when he come back outta the blue the day of Scott’s hanging.”
 
Barrington nodded, his complexion taking on a faint greenish tinge as his eyes were again inexorably drawn back across the room.
 
The sheriff chewed briefly on the tiny stick before shifting it to the other side of his mouth.  Across the room, Johnny’s party was still celebrating.
 
“Wonder what a girl like that was doing way down in Mexico City?”

Ray shrugged.  “Oaxaca’s a big place.
 
The sheriff leaned forward, placing his arms on the snowy tablecloth. “Oaxaca?  Now why’d you say that, Ray? You know something I don’t?”
 
Snapping back from his contemplation of the girl, beads of sweat began on the deputy’s forehead.  He looked at the sheriff, pasting an ingratiating smile on his face.
 
“Did I say Oaxaca?  I meant Mexico City.”
 
“A slip of the tongue, then,” Dave remarked.
 
“Yeah, that’s it.  A slip of the tongue,” the nervous deputy replied.
 
The sheriff continued.  “I wonder if we shouldn’t ask her to take a look at that fat bastard in the cell next to her sister’s.  Think we should?”
 
Ray’s smile faded abruptly.  “Hell, no! I mean, why, Dave? Why would you wanna do that?”
 
“Well,” the sheriff drawled.  “She was behind the fat man when he tried to shoot Johnny in the back.  Never got a look at his face.  But it could be she knows the feller.  Some of his ravin’ was about Mexico.”
 
Ray shook his head, trying to look indifferent.  “I doubt it, Dave.”
 
The sheriff smiled, shifting his bulk in the chair.  “Just wonderin’ if their paths may’ve crossed.  Small world, you know?”
 
Without giving the deputy time to answer, the sh