This is an AR for The High Riders
His evening clothes were laid neatly across the bed. Scott picked up the freshly starched white shirt, shivering as a gust of cool air rattled the glass in the window. He slipped his arms into the sleeves, fastened the delicate mother-of-pearl buttons and then stepped into his trousers. The stiff collar lay on his bureau. Years of experience allowed him to attach it to the shirt without applying his mind to the task. Soon the bow tie had been expertly knotted. He ran a brush over his short blond hair and studied his reflection. Bored blue eyes stared back at him.
His watch confirmed that he was running late – not an uncommon occurrence these days. The carriage was waiting outside and his grandfather would not be impressed with his tardiness. A night at the theater with business associates wasn’t something he was looking forward to. He’d already made excuses to avoid joining them for an early supper, and that alone would earn him a reprimand for poor manners. He did have plans for afterwards, of course, so perhaps giving a few hours of his time in service to his inheritance wasn’t asking too much.
The faint sound of the front doorbell ringing spurred him to move, wondering who was calling at this hour on a Friday evening. His jacket settled comfortably in place and he took a last look around his room to ensure that he hadn’t forgotten anything.
It occurred to him that the caller might be delivering yet another pleading message from Barbara. He’d been avoiding her since his precipitous exit from her balcony three months ago. He’d encountered her father a few times since then, getting a very frosty greeting. All that would change, however, if he were to propose marriage. That thought sent a chill down his spine that had nothing to do with the weather. It had certainly been an instructive night in more ways than one.
His train of thought was derailed by a discreet knock at his door. “Come in,” he invited.
William, who had been the head of the household staff for as long as Scott could remember, opened the door and stepped inside. “I am sorry to disturb you, Master Scott. There is a young man downstairs asking to speak with you.”
“Did he give a name?”
“No.” William sniffed disapprovingly. “He said it was very important, and personal. I informed him that you had a social engagement this evening and suggested that he call at the office on Monday.”
“What was his response?” Scott asked.
William, who took most things in his stride, was looking decidedly upset. “He was,” William hesitated, “rather rude. Between us, Sir, I would say that he isn’t a gentleman and he certainly isn’t from Boston.”
This piqued Scott’s interest. He was bored and disenchanted with his dull, predictable life, so anything out of the ordinary was a welcome distraction. He wasn’t ready to admit, even to himself, the source of his dissatisfaction and had become adept at avoiding his grandfather’s carefully phrased questions about his future.
“Then, I’d better go and deal with our unexpected visitor.”
“I could call the constables,” William suggested hopefully.
Scott laughed. William believed passionately in everyone knowing his place. Order was necessary to ensure that everything ran smoothly. Despite this, he was a kind man underneath his stiff exterior and Scott was very fond of him.
“That won’t be necessary. You’d better send word to my grandfather, though. Tell him I’ll join him as soon as I can, and make sure you convey my apologies.”
“Of course, Sir.”
When Scott reached the top of the staircase he stopped and looked down. His unidentified visitor was standing in the hallway staring at a small portrait of Catherine Garrett Lancer. The thick carpet muffled Scott’s footsteps as he walked down. When he stepped onto the tiled floor of the entrance hall the man spun round, his right hand going to his hip in what looked to be an incongruously instinctive gesture.
Scott stopped, raising an eyebrow in surprise as he found himself pinned by an intense blue stare. The man was smartly dressed, although he didn’t look comfortable in his suit. His dark hair curled over the collar of his white shirt. A slightly mocking smile appeared on the darkly tanned face as the man studied him in turn. It was hard to guess his age, although he appeared to be no more than in his mid-twenties. There was something world weary and cynical about him that put Scott on his guard.
“I’m Scott Lancer. You asked to see me.” He waited for the man to return the courtesy and introduce himself.
“Yeah. She’s a real pretty lady.” The young man looked back over his shoulder at the portrait. “Guess you’re related, huh?”
The voice was surprisingly low and pleasant, with an accent Scott couldn’t place. “My mother. I don’t wish to be rude, but I am running late Mr….?”
“D’you think we could go someplace a little more private? I don’t think you’re gonna want to have this conversation standin’ out here.”
Scott stood his ground, feeling increasingly irritated. “I’d like your name, and some idea of why you’re here.”
The blue eyes sparkled with amusement. “Sure. It ain’t no secret. The name’s Lancer – Johnny Lancer.”
“Lancer? I assume we’re related. Cousins perhaps?” They were in the study with Scott sitting behind his grandfather’s desk.
Johnny sat at ease in an armchair by the fireplace, seemingly engrossed in watching the light shining through the expensive whiskey, in the equally expensive crystal glass.
“We’re related alright,” he replied after a moment’s thought. “We had the same father, Murdoch Lancer.”
Scott drank to buy himself time and to cover his surprise. “You’d better tell me what you know because I’m afraid that I wasn’t aware I had a half-brother. And, I hope you won’t take offence, but I’d like some proof.”
Johnny’s expression hardened. “I don’t have to prove a damn thing to you.”
Scott decided that he didn’t much like this abrasive stranger who was claiming to be his kin. “I’d remind you that you’re the one who came looking for me. Did my father,” he stopped, mentally adjusting his thoughts, “our father, send you?”
“That’d be kinda hard seein’ as he’s dead.”
Scott wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel about that. He’d never met Murdoch Lancer or received any direct communication from him. Put simply, his father had never been a feature in his life. Johnny’s existence probably explained that. Why bother with an unknown son when you had a second family to consider? “I’m sorry,” he replied automatically. “Were you close to him?”
“Never met him, at least not that I can remember.”
Now Scott was well and truly floundering out of his depth. In the space of five minutes he’d lost a father and acquired a brother who, apparently, hadn’t grown up at Lancer either. “I think you’d better start at the beginning.”
Johnny shrugged. “Not much to tell. Best I can figure is that Murdoch Lancer married my mother a couple of years after your mother died. I was born on Lancer and lived there for a year or so until my mother…left, taking me with her. A few months back, I was tracked down by a Pinkerton agent who said that Lancer wanted to see me.”
“He offered you money for an hour of your time.” Scott’s thoughts flew back to his own encounter.
“That’s right. I guess the old man made you the same offer.”
Scott neither confirmed, nor denied, the assertion. “Go on.”
“I was kinda curious and,” Johnny looked around, “unlike you, I needed the money. I took my time, but eventually, I arrived in Morro Coyo.” He must have seen Scott’s confusion. “It’s a little town in the San Joaquin close to the Lancer ranch.”
“How did he die?”
“He was shot. Turns out there’d been a range war. He was probably hoping we’d turn up and help him fight off the high riders.”
Scott continued to stare at his brother with blank incomprehension.
Johnny began to look irritated. “Don’t you know anything? High riders – land pirates – men who’ll drive you off your land, take it over, strip it of everything of value and then move on.”
Scott decided to ignore the provocation – for now. “What about the law?”
Johnny’s smile was cold. “Ain’t no law. These men are like a pack of hyenas and it’s the big dog that gets the meat.”
“Does this ‘big dog’ have a name?”
“Pardee, Day Pardee. He’s a gunfighter and he’s pretty good. He ambushed our father and his Segundo – his foreman – and shot them both in the back. O’Brien died straight away. According to the doctor, it looked like Lancer was going to survive. That was when he sent for us both. An infection set in and he was too weak to fight it. He died a week before I got there. Pardee and his men walked right in and took over.”
“Why wasn’t I told before this?”
“When I found out what had happened, I made some enquiries, making sure Pardee didn’t find out about my connection to Lancer. I spoke to the doc who treated our old man and he introduced me to the lawyer. Turns out, he left everything to the two of us, so I borrowed some money and said I’d come here to find you. Thought you might like to hear the news in person, rather than in a wire.”
“Considerate of you, but you could have saved yourself the bother. I’ve no interest in owning a ranch in California, especially if it’s been overrun by outlaws.”
“Might have known you didn’t have any guts.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Scott moved out from behind the desk as Johnny rose to his feet.
“You’re the one with all the education. You figure it out.”
“Despite what you might think of me, I’m not a coward.”
Johnny sneered. “I don’t know what to think of you. You may not be interested in the ranch, but I am. If you don’t want your fifty percent you can sign it over to me.”
“Now, wait a minute. I’ve no intention of giving you a damn thing.”
“So, you’re just gonna sit here in your fancy house and let me do all the fightin’? Like I said – no guts and no decency either.”
Scott looked down, breathing hard. When his head came up again it was to watch as his fist connected with his brother’s face. Johnny staggered backwards, regaining his balance far quicker than Scott had expected. Johnny lunged forward, catching Scott in the stomach and driving the wind from his lungs. They traded blows for several minutes, crashing into furniture and sending books and ornaments flying.
“What is going on in here?”
Hearing his grandfather’s voice caught Scott off guard. He backed up, holding out a hand toward Johnny to warn him off. Blood trickled down his chin to stain his shirt. Johnny, he noticed with some satisfaction, had the beginnings of a black eye.
“Grandfather,” he managed to say and then found it necessary to concentrate on his breathing for a while.
“Who is this ruffian?” Harlan Garrett asked. “William, I want this man arrested and charged with assault.”
Johnny had collapsed into a chair, looking no more capable of prolonged conversation than Scott was.
“It’s alright.” Scott sank gratefully down into the chair on the opposite side of the fireplace. “Grandfather, this is my brother, Johnny Lancer.”
“You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
Johnny looked up cautiously. His right eye hurt and his stomach wasn’t feeling any too good either. Well, he’d learned one thing about his brother – he sure had a mean punch. Scott stopped wiping up the blood on his face and Johnny smirked at his brother’s expression. That smirk quickly disappeared as the old man swung round to face him.
“Brothers fighting. Disgraceful.”
That was a surprise. Johnny hadn’t expected Garrett to accept his claim so easily. Scott clearly had a similar thought.
“You seem very quick to believe him.”
“It’s the truth,” Johnny muttered ungraciously, giving in to the urge to prod the tender skin around his eye. He winced, dropping his hand quickly.
“So you say. For all we know, you could be some drifter who stumbled across the situation and decided to take advantage of it.”
“And, you could be a useless city boy without the courage to take back what’s rightfully yours.”
“That’s enough!” Garrett frowned at both of them quite impartially. “Scotty, remember your manners. And, while you are a guest in my house, John, you will be civil.”
The two young men settled back, watching each other warily.
“That’s better.” Harlan Garrett made his way to his desk and sat down. “John, why don’t you tell us what you know about your parents.”
Old resentments flared, fueled by this first glimpse of how his brother had been raised. “Murdoch Lancer met my mother in Matamoros. He got her pregnant and I reckon he’d have run out on her if he could.” Johnny pulled himself together as his inherent honesty demanded fairness. “But, he married her and took her back to Lancer. A couple of years later he got bored and threw her out. Told her to make sure she took her half-breed bastard with her.” He clenched his jaw against the pain and anger of betrayal. He’d never get the chance now to face down his father with that accusation.
“That’s not true. He didn’t throw her out. She left with another man – a gambler, I think.”
Johnny’s eyes blazed with fury. “Did he tell you that?”
“Wait a minute,” Scott interrupted, a puzzled frown on his face as he looked at his grandfather. “You knew my father had remarried and that I had a brother?”
“Yes, Scotty, and if you give me a chance I’ll explain. John, you need to understand that your father wasn’t a bad man. He was hard and ambitious, but I refuse to believe that he would have turned out his wife and child.”
“What the hell would you know about it?” Johnny pressed. “Far as I can see, he wasn’t in any hurry to reclaim Scotty there and he knew where he was. Doesn’t say much about his feelings as a father.”
Scott leaned forward, his hands closed in hard fists. “That’s none of your damn business.”
Johnny couldn’t help smirking at his brother’s obvious irritation. “Just makin’ a point, is all.”
“Oh, I think you’ve made your position quite clear.” Scott shot a hard look at his grandfather. “You’ve got some explaining to do, but I’d prefer to have some privacy for that conversation.”
“You’ll make me feel all left out,” Johnny protested snidely, and was rewarded with a glacial stare from Scott.
“I think you two need to cool down before we continue this discussion.”
“Ain’t anything to continue. He’s made his views clear.” Johnny stood up, trying to hide his unexpected disappointment. So much for his dream of finding family and fighting side by side with his brother to take back their inheritance. //You’re a fool, Madrid. He’s got a good life here. He’s not gonna throw all that away and risk getting a bullet in the back like the old man//. “Sorry to have bothered you, Mr. Garrett.”
“Wait.” Scott stood as well. “You’ve come a long way. The least we can do is offer you a bed for the night.”
So, that was all there was. A night in a fancy house and then sent on his way. “I don’t need your damn charity.”
“That isn’t what I meant. I’d like to speak to you some more, but grandfather is right. I need time to think through what you’ve already told me. It was all rather…unexpected.”
Sensing sincerity, Johnny nodded grudgingly. “Alright. I’ll stay tonight.”
“Good.” Harlan Garrett rang a small bell on his desk. “Tell William where to find your luggage and he’ll arrange to have it collected. Scotty, please show John to the guest room.”
After providing the name and address of the small hotel he’d been staying at, Johnny followed his brother up the stairs. The room wasn’t large, but it was clean and elegantly furnished. The bed looked soft and inviting.
“If you need anything, pull that chord by the bed and someone will come up,” Scott informed him. “I hope you’ll be comfortable.” He paused and, when he looked at Johnny, there was a startling wistfulness on his face. “Brother.”
Years of training in social etiquette enabled Scott to conceal his true feelings as he walked slowly from the guest room to the study. The loss of an unknown father, and the acquisition of a brother, paled in significance when measured against the knowledge that his grandfather, the man he had always trusted, had lied to him – or had he? Was silence the same as a lie? His knock on the study door was more aggressive than intended and he entered without waiting for an invitation – something he wouldn’t have thought of doing a few hours earlier. His grandfather was still sitting behind his desk, looking suddenly older than Scott remembered. He crossed to the armchair he had recently vacated, and sat, fingers fumbling with his tie. Once it was hanging loose, he turned his attentions to his collar, breathing easier once it was unbuttoned.
“Johnny tells me that our father is dead,” he stated bluntly. He’d hoped that saying the words would make the concept more real. It didn’t.
“I wondered, given some of the things John said. How did it happen?”
“He was murdered by…” Scott groped for the phrase Johnny had used, “High Riders. They’ve taken over the ranch. Johnny seems to think we should try and reclaim it.”
“What do you think?”
That gave Scott pause. “I don’t know what to think.” An awkward silence took residence between them. Scott had never had trouble talking to his grandfather before, yet now he couldn’t find a way to start asking his myriad of questions. To buy himself time, he reached over for the glass of whiskey that he’d only partly consumed earlier. A couple of mouthfuls of liquid courage loosened his tongue. “How long have you known about Johnny?”
“That isn’t what you really want to know.”
“Then why don’t you tell me? You seem to be the one with all the answers,” he snapped tersely.
“Very well,” his grandfather sighed. “You have to understand that California was a dangerous place when your parents moved there. I’d have been happier if they had stayed in Boston, but your father had a dream and nothing would dissuade him. Shortly after your mother found out that she was pregnant, a man called Judd Haney moved into the valley. He and his men demanded money from the ranchers. Those who refused to pay, like your father, found their fences cut, fields burned and men driven off.”
“That’s what Johnny described. It seems that nothing much has changed in the last twenty-five years.”
“Murdoch decided that it would be better for Catherine to return to Boston – safer for her and their child. He sent her east with his foreman, Paul O’Brien.”
“O’Brien’s dead too. He was murdered at the same time my father was shot.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. He was a good man. I traveled from Boston and met him and Catherine on the road near a place called Carterville. Just after I arrived, your mother went into premature labor, dying shortly after you were born. The whole area was crawling with Haney’s men. They’d got wind of the fact that Murdoch had sent his wife away. If they could have captured her, or abducted you, they would have brought Murdoch to his knees. I arranged for her burial and left with you as soon as I could. I sent O’Brien back to Lancer with a message explaining what I was doing. I’d already lost my daughter. I wasn’t going to lose my grandson as well.”
Scott watched as his grandfather turned to stare out the window, lost in thought. Given the circumstances, he could sympathize with the decision made to press on toward Boston. However, that didn’t answer his next burning question. “Why didn’t Murdoch Lancer come after us?”
“He couldn’t – not without losing his ranch.”
“So, that’s all he cared about?” It still hurt, even after all these years.
“The ranch was important to him, but only as a legacy for his son.”
“Sons,” Scott corrected him. “He couldn’t be bothered coming to Boston to claim me, but he managed to get himself another son.” He received a sharp look in response to the vindictiveness in his tone.
“Yes, and I’ll admit that was a surprise. We’d agreed that you would remain here until it was safe for you to journey to Lancer. When he told me that he’d remarried, and that his wife was pregnant, I didn’t know what to expect. He sent word when Johnny was born and he was very excited by the idea of the two of you being brought up together. Unfortunately, Johnny’s mother took a long time to recover from the birth. Then, one day, she and your brother simply disappeared.”
“That isn’t what Johnny said.”
“It appears he was told a different story. Murdoch came to Boston, arriving on the day of your fifth birthday. It was the only time he ever saw you.”
“He was here?” Scott sat forward eagerly. “Why didn’t he take me back with him?”
“He’d been searching for his missing wife and son for months. He was almost out of money. He’d even done some work as a deputy in Abilene to earn enough to continue the search. We discussed your future and agreed that you should remain here where you would be safe, well cared for and would get a good education.”
“Did it ever occur to either of you that I might rather have lived with my father?” The question slipped out, coated in a venom that caught Scott by surprise. To his ears, he was sounding like a spoilt child and he didn’t like that notion.
“Of course it occurred to us. We were going to explain everything to you when you finished college, only circumstances changed.”
“I enlisted.” The one thing in his life that he had been unreservedly proud of, and now it appeared it may have been what prevented him from ever knowing his father.
“Yes, and then you were captured. When you were finally released you weren’t in any fit state to cope with being introduced to the man you believed had abandoned you.”
“He did abandon me.”
“I know that’s how it must seem…”
“No.” Scott leapt to his feet. His hands, held rigidly by his side were balled into tight fists. “There’s no excuse you could possibly make for a man who was prepared to ignore his son for twenty-five years. And, right now, there’s no excuse I’ll accept from you for agreeing to that.”
“I’m not making excuses, Scotty. We can’t change the past. What matters is what you decide to do now.”
“There’s nothing to decide. I thought I made that clear when I rejected the offer made by the Pinkerton agent. My life is here.”
“He has his own decisions to make.”
“I would say he already has. He came a long way to find you.”
“Then he had a wasted trip.”
“I thought you were more honest than that. Would you really have preferred to go through your life without knowing you had a brother?”
“Yes,” Scott lied, his emotions too raw to permit the truth to surface. “And, I think I’ve heard enough for one night. I’ll see you in the morning, Sir.”
Persistent knocking on the door drew Johnny out of a deep, dreamless sleep. Realizing where he was, he moderated his usual reaction to being woken, calling out a brief invitation to enter. By the time the door opened he was sitting up, the wonderfully soft bedclothes pooling around his waist.
Scott, to Johnny’s mind, was almost as fancily dressed as he had been the previous evening. He kept all trace of emotion from his face as Scott took a long hard look at the scars on his bare chest.
“Did you sleep well?” Scott asked, in a tone of voice that suggested he didn’t really care.
“I always sleep well.”
“Good. Breakfast is ready if you’d like to join us in the dining room. Your luggage is over there.” Scott pointed to a corner of the room.
‘Luggage’ was hardly a fair description. Johnny had one small traveling case and his saddlebags. “Thanks.” He looked pointedly at the door. “I’ll see you downstairs.”
Once he was alone, Johnny got out of bed, searching for his suit. He found it hanging in the wardrobe, looking as if it had been cleaned and pressed. The implication hit him hard. Someone had been in his room twice, and he hadn’t noticed. In the world that he inhabited, that could get him killed. He quickly pulled on the trousers, missing the comfort of his usual attire, and rummaged in his bag. His right hand closed over the smooth leather of his gunbelt and he drew it carefully out, laying it on the bed.
Although he hated wearing a suit, it was the lack of a gun on his hip that bothered him the most. For the past five years, there hadn’t been a day when he had ventured out in public without wearing it. His Colt slid smoothly out of the holster, the familiar weight reassuring him. With an amused grin, he imagined the reaction of his pompous brother if he were to strap on his gunbelt and wear it to breakfast. He wondered if the easterner had ever even held a gun. Scott sure as hell wouldn’t know what it was like to kill a man.
He must have been crazy to think that this trip was going to be worth the time and effort. Even if Scott had agreed to return to Lancer with him, he would just be a liability and likely would end up with a bullet in the back like their old man. Johnny sighed as he returned the gun to its holster and replaced his rig in the bag. He hated to give up on the idea of owning a piece of Lancer. Maybe he could do a deal with Pardee.
He finished dressing and headed downstairs. Enticing smells led him unerringly to the dining room. One end of the large table had been set for breakfast with some of the fanciest china and silverware Johnny had ever seen. Covered dishes were lined up on a massive sideboard, and his mouth began to water in anticipation.
“Coffee?” Scott held up the pot.
“Sure.” Johnny slid into the vacant seat opposite his brother and smiled at his host. “Mornin’ Mr. Garrett.”
“Good morning, John. Please help yourself to the food.”
Johnny didn’t have to be asked twice. He piled his plate full of bacon, sausage and eggs, ignoring Scott’s look of disbelief. “This is real fine,” he said in between mouthfuls. He smirked at his brother. “Don’t know how you stay so skinny with all this good food around.”
“Maybe because I don’t eat as if it was the last meal I’ll ever see.”
“Well, that’s the thing, you see. Where I come from, a man can never be sure he’ll make it to his next meal.”
There was a stunned silence. Unconcerned, Johnny continued to eat. He could detect a definite cold wind blowing between Scott and his grandfather. He suspected that his brother had asked some long overdue questions and hadn’t liked the answers. Well, that was just too damn bad. He had a few questions of his own, only they’d never be asked now that both his parents were dead. He’d have given almost anything, for example, to know why his mother had never told him he had an older brother.
Feeling contentedly full, he pushed his plate away. Unfortunately, the end of the meal pretty much signaled the end of his visit. There wasn’t a thing he could think of to say that would lure Scott away from his life in Boston. And, if he was being honest, he was no longer sure he wanted to. His blond sibling wasn’t the easiest man to get along with.
“Thanks for the hospitality, Mr. Garrett. I’ll get my things and be on my way.”
“You’re welcome to stay.”
The invitation came from Garrett, and Johnny’s jaw tightened when there was no comment from his brother.
“Ain’t no point.”
“Yes, there is.”
Johnny turned to his brother, surprised and cautiously hopeful. “You changin’ your mind, Boston?”
“I didn’t say that. As I’m part owner I would like to know more about the situation at Lancer.”
Harlan Garrett stood up, smiling at the two young men. “I will leave you to talk. I hope to see you at dinner, John.”
Scott accompanied his grandfather to the carriage, leaving Johnny alone. He wandered around the room, admiring pictures and ornaments, until his attention was caught by a framed photograph standing on a table by the window. He gave a low whistle as he looked at the two men in the picture. Both were dressed in the uniform of the Union army and the younger man was, unmistakably, his brother. He picked it up and studied it, not bothering to hide his scrutiny as he heard the door behind him open and close.
“Do you mind?” Scott sounded irritated as he took the photograph away, replacing it on the table.
“Who’s this other officer all smarted up?” Johnny asked.
“General Phil Sheridan. I was in his unit during the war.”
The information was provided with a hint of pride and no warmth at all. Johnny let the subject drop. He knew little about the war, other than it had ended a long time ago. Scott must have been very young when he enlisted, but if his brother had been working for a General, it was unlikely he’d have got within five miles of any fighting. During a very brief career in the Mexican army, Johnny hadn’t seen any of the senior officers leaving the comfort of whatever town they were occupying.
“What do you want to know?”
For the first time, Scott appeared unsure of himself. He took his time framing the question. “What is Lancer like? I used to wonder, when I was growing up.”
“You could have gone to find out.”
“Yes, I could.”
Johnny grinned. “You sure don’t give much away, do you, Boston?”
“Neither do you.”
Johnny’s smile turned pensive. “It’s beautiful. The lawyer told me the ranch covers one hundred thousand acres of prime land. There were twenty thousand head of cattle before Pardee took over and whole herds of wild horses. The hacienda is built in the Spanish style, all white walls and big windows. There are rivers and valleys and the greenest grass I’ve ever seen.”
“This man – Pardee – it sounds like you know him.”
“Yeah, I know him.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed as he regarded Johnny suspiciously. “Care to explain?”
“Then, I’d say this conversation is over. I’ll arrange for someone to drive you to the station.”
“Your grandfather invited me to stay.”
“Why did you turn down Lancer’s offer? Oh, I know the money wouldn’t have meant anything to you, but weren’t you curious?”
“I stopped being curious about our father a long time ago.”
“Then, to hell with you, Brother. You can sit here all nice and safe, surrounded by your grandfather’s money. I’m going back to California to find a way to get Day Pardee off my land.”
“Our land,” Scott shot back. “I don’t like the idea of having my property stolen any more than you do.”
Johnny waited expectantly. He had very little to lose by taking on Pardee. Scott, though, had far more at stake.
“How many men does Pardee have?”
“I didn’t exactly get close enough to count, but he usually rides with about twenty or twenty-five.”
Scott’s smile was humorless. “You’re suggesting that the two of us take on twenty or twenty-five killers?”
“I ain’t looking to commit suicide. Pardee ran off the vaqueros who worked at Lancer. Some of them will stand with us. There are other smaller ranchers who would likely help out as well. Having taken over the biggest spread in the San Joaquin, Pardee will move against anyone who stands against him. There’re a lot of people who’d like to see him defeated.”
“You have a plan?”
“Not exactly,” Johnny admitted. “I was kinda hoping we could come up with one together.”
“What happens if we win? I don’t know anything about ranching.”
“I’ve done some ranch work in my time, and I reckon we could find ourselves a good Segundo. You’d know how to handle the business side of things.”
“We could sell up, split the profit.”
Thinking back to his first view of Lancer brought a smile to Johnny’s face. “Oh, wait until you see it. You won’t want to let it go.”
“Sentiment has no place in business.”
“Is that something your grandfather taught you?”
“He taught me a lot of things. It also appears he kept a lot from me. So, Brother, if we’re going to do this, I want some honesty from you. Tell me how well you know Pardee.”
Having brought Scott to the verge of agreeing to help, Johnny couldn’t help wondering if his answer would have the opposite effect. “He and I were in the same line of work. I’ve never gone by the Lancer name. He knows me as Johnny Madrid.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “I’m a gunfighter.”
A shadow falling across his face caused Scott to look up briefly, before he returned to his contemplation of the water. A gentle breeze stirred the surface of the lake as a family of ducks weaved in and out of the trailing willow branches. The scene, tranquil and untroubled, contrasted sharply with his turbulent thoughts.
“William told me I might find you here.”
Irritation at being disturbed kept Scott silent. The last person he wanted to see, or talk to, right now was his brother.
“I never would’ve expected to find so much green in the middle of a city,” Johnny persisted, joining Scott on the bench.
“It’s a public park,” Scott replied, grudgingly accepting that Johnny wasn’t going to be easily discouraged. “It’s had many uses over the years - for cattle, training soldiers and they even used to have public hangings here.”
“It sure is pretty. Not like where I grew up. It was so hot and dry, that most everything just shriveled up and died.”
“It must have been a hard life.” However unwillingly, Scott still felt curious about this stranger who shared his blood.
“It could be.”
“Is that why you became a gunfighter?”
“No, not exactly. You wouldn’t understand, having been brought up here, all safe and respected because of who your grandfather is.”
“Try me.” Scott hadn’t waited for an explanation earlier in the day when Johnny had first revealed his occupation. Shocked, he’d walked out, seeking solitude in which to digest this startling piece of information.
Johnny leaned down, plucking a blade of grass and chewing on it as he appeared to consider whether or not to answer. “What difference does it make?” he finally asked. “You’ve already made up your mind to condemn me.”
“You’re not giving me much credit.” Scott’s faint smile didn’t touch his eyes.
“I don’t give anyone too much credit. Saves a lot of disappointment.”
“Tell me, Brother, were you born cynical, or is that something else you learned along the way?”
“Well, when you’re a blue-eyed mestizo, whose mama is the local whore, you learn pretty quickly not to trust anyone.”
Scott felt something unexpected as he listened to the hurt underlying the harsh words. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want your pity,” Johnny shot back. “She did what she had to do in order to survive. She made sure that we had food on the table and that I had clothes on my back. As for the rest – that was my choice.”
“Is your mother still alive?”
“She died when I was ten. And that, Brother, is all I feel like sharing.”
There was silence as both contemplated their tranquil surroundings. Scott didn’t feel any urge to defend his life and sensed that Johnny wouldn’t welcome any further questioning about his formative years. “Why should I trust you? You say you know the man who has taken over Lancer. Your coming here could just be a ruse to get me to California so that he can kill me, and leave you as the sole legitimate heir.”
“If that was the plan, I’d be the one doing the killing and, it would be in a fair fight.”
Scott laughed at that. “A fair fight? How could I hope to compete against a man who has been hiring out his gun for…how long?”
“Six?” Scott turned to stare at his brother. “You can’t have been any more than fifteen!”
“Yeah. Does that shock you?”
“Yes,” Scott answered, with uncompromising honesty. “It also saddens me to think of my brother living like that, when I had all this.” He swept a hand around to indicate the peaceful beauty of the Common and the grand houses in the distance.
Johnny shook his head. “I can see why you wouldn’t have been tempted by the old man’s offer. If I’d grown up with a beautiful home, servants and money, I wouldn’t have been interested either. But, when you have nothing, a thousand dollars is a hell of an incentive.”
“Except that you never had a chance to collect it.”
“No, I was too late for that. Pardee got there first.”
“Why did you really come here?” Scott probed. “You don’t need me to help take Lancer back.”
Johnny ducked his head. “Oh, I don’t know. Just thought it might be kinda nice to have a brother. I’d been on my own for so long and I didn’t have any other family left. I guess I upset your nice comfortable life.”
“You might say that.” Scott gave himself a mental kick. None of this was Johnny’s fault and, instead of being welcomed, he’d been met with hostility and the barest of courtesy. “Look, I owe you an apology for the way I’ve been acting.”
The small smile that tugged at the corners of Johnny’s mouth quickly disappeared. “Apology accepted, although I don’t reckon you’ll want anything more to do with me, now that you know what I am.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Scott met the disbelieving blue stare with equanimity. “With my military training, and your knowledge and expertise, I’d say we might just make a good team.”
“You’re willin’ to walk away from all of this, and risk getting a bullet in your back?” Johnny’s question was clearly skeptical.
“I’m rather hoping that you will ensure I don’t ~get a bullet in the back~. I’ll offer you a deal, Brother. You watch my back and I’ll watch yours.” Scott held out his hand. “What do you think?”
Johnny’s grip was firm, and his expression mischievous. “I think if you’re going to California, we need to go shopping.”
Johnny’s stare raked him from head to toe. “Shopping,” he stated firmly. “’Cause if Pardee sees you with all those ruffles, we won’t have to worry about fighting him. He’ll die laughing.”
Scott’s brow creased in annoyance. “There’s nothing wrong with my clothes.”
Johnny’s grin widened. “Trust me.”
Scott knocked on the door leading to his grandfather’s study. Harlan Garrett hadn’t asked any questions upon his return from the office, although he had appeared pleased to see that Johnny was still there. Dinner had been an informal affair, during which they had discussed nothing of any importance. As soon as the meal was over Johnny had excused himself, leaving the way clear for Scott to tell his grandfather of his decision.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Sir.” Scott could see as soon as he entered the room that his grandfather was surrounded by papers. He smiled fondly. “You work too hard,” he chided affectionately. Although still shaken by the revelations about his father and the conspiracy to keep him in Boston, he retained a deep affection for the man who had raised him.
There was a welcoming smile on Garrett’s face. Even as a small child Scott had never been censured for interrupting, or sent away without a smile and a few kind words. Now, the thought of what his decision to leave would cost, brought a pain to his chest.
“Come in, my boy. You know that I’m always pleased to see you.”
Scott settled in a chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him. He fixed his attention on his hands which were clasped loosely in his lap. “I spent a long time today talking with Johnny.”
“And, you’ve made your decision?”
“Yes. I’m going back to California with him.” Scott looked up apprehensively.
“I’m glad. Oh, I’ll miss you, Scotty, but I think that this is the challenge you need. I’ve been worried about you since your release from Libby. You’d always been so focused before and sure of your direction in life. When you came home I never really felt you settled again.”
Scott silently acknowledged the truth of his grandfather’s words. He’d been drifting aimlessly for so long that it was hard to remember what it had been like to have a purpose. “I wish now that I’d accepted the invitation from my father. I didn’t expect his death to touch me.”
“Perhaps Murdoch and I should have done things differently, but we did what we thought was right for you.”
“I can understand wanting to keep me safe. What I don’t understand is why he never contacted me.”
“That was his decision, and not one that I approved of. I couldn’t see the harm in him corresponding with you once you were old enough.” Garrett shook his head. “He seemed to feel that would unsettle you. I used to send him regular reports and he always responded. He cared about your welfare, even if you never knew it.”
“Why was I never told about Johnny?”
“There was no point. He’d disappeared and, for all we knew, he could have been dead.”
“Then you didn’t know that he’d been located?”
“Murdoch never told me that.”
“Do you know how he’s been making his living these last few years? He’s a gunfighter.” The look of shock that crossed his grandfather’s face at least had the benefit of convincing Scott that this was news. So much had been kept from him that he’d been starting to wonder if Johnny’s whereabouts and occupation had been known and ignored until his particular skills were needed.
“I had no idea. What kind of life must he have had if he turned to hiring out his gun?”
“I don’t know.” Scott didn’t feel it was his place to pass on any of the limited information Johnny had given to him. “I do know that he’s my brother and he deserves a better future. He’s been alone a long time. I’d like to try and make up for that.”
“I think the two of you will do very well together. I’m sorry if all that’s happened has caused a coolness between us.”
“We can’t change the past and I can assure you, Sir, that you will always have my deepest respect.”
Scott smiled. “And, as I’m sure you know, a great deal more.”
Scott looked at his brother in disbelief. Johnny had abandoned his dark suit in favor of a pink shirt, with fancy embroidery down the front, and tight leather pants with silver buttons up the side. “You had the nerve to criticize my clothes!”
Scott was feeling decidedly underdressed in a plain white shirt and well-tailored dark brown trousers. Up to this point he had stubbornly persisted in wearing the style of clothes he had worn for most of his adult life. Johnny had humored him by remaining soberly dressed, although he’d complained loudly, and persistently, about how uncomfortable he was.
Today, though, was different. They would shortly be arriving in the town of Reno, Nevada where they would be staying for a couple of days. Johnny had decided that this was the perfect place for Scott to buy a handgun and rifle, and had refused to step off the train unless they were dressed to blend in with the other townsfolk. Somehow, Scott couldn’t imagine Johnny blending in anywhere dressed like that.
The last few weeks had passed in a blur of activity. Johnny had mostly kept to himself, while Scott made the travel arrangements, packed and said his goodbyes. Parting from his grandfather had been hard, but he had left with Harlan Garrett’s blessing. They were traveling in comfort, thanks to the Garrett money and Scott’s own forceful personality. He had often been aware of his brother watching him, as he effortlessly steered them through every phase of their journey.
So far, they hadn’t touched any further on personal matters. Their relationship was friendly enough, without having any real depth to it. Scott couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever feel more than curiosity about this unknown brother. Could they ever become a true family? For the moment their relationship was expedient for both of them. If they did succeed in reclaiming their land, would there be anything strong enough to bind them together? He thought that would be unlikely, even though he would have liked to believe otherwise. They were too different to make this work in the longer term.
His remark about Johnny’s clothing just produced a smirk as his brother fastened a gun belt around his hips. The minute Johnny was satisfied that his gun was resting comfortably a subtle change came over him. For the first time, he looked to be at ease, exuding an air of confidence which was almost intimidating.
The train pulled into the station and the brothers prepared to disembark. Most of Scott’s luggage had been sent ahead, to be delivered to Doctor Samuel Jenkins in Green River. Scott was looking forward to meeting the man who had helped facilitate Johnny’s journey, and who had been a close friend of their father for many years. He picked up his traveling case, stepping out onto the platform.
He was immediately overwhelmed by the heat, dust and noise of the growing community. This town, like so many along their route, had been established to meet the needs of the railroad. If he remembered correctly, Reno had only been in existence for a couple of years and was still a long way from being civilized. Johnny stopped to look back at him curiously as he lingered to absorb his first impressions of a frontier town.
“Are you comin?” Johnny asked impatiently. “I could do with a proper drink and we need to get you a gun before headin’ to any of the saloons.”
Johnny rolled his eyes in disbelief. “In a town like this, a man ain’t properly dressed unless he has a gun strapped to his hip.” He tilted his head to one side, looking serious. “You ever fired a gun before?”
Scott was getting a little tired of the assumption that he was going to be completely out of his depth. “Yes.” He pushed past his brother, securing directions to the nearest reputable hotel.
“There’s no need to get all riled up.” Johnny matched his stride to his brother’s, seeming quite oblivious to the glances he was receiving from the people they were passing. “Can’t imagine you needin’ to use a gun in Boston, is all.”
With a long-suffering sigh, Johnny gave up. They checked into the hotel, before heading out to locate the gunsmith’s shop. The glass cases contained a wide assortment of weapons. Scott ignored the guns with fancy handles, instead studying the plain serviceable revolvers. Johnny stood to one side, leaning against a wall with his arms folded.
“I’d like to see that one.” Scott pointed to the gun that had taken his fancy.
The proprietor opened the case and handed him the weapon. With practiced ease Scott checked that it wasn’t loaded, spinning the cylinder before snapping it closed. The weight felt right and his fingers curled comfortably around the handle. Unfortunately, there was nowhere that he could fire it to test its balance as the street outside was too busy for that.
Johnny said nothing as Scott negotiated the price for the gun, a plain brown gun belt and bullets. The next order of business was purchasing a rifle. He’d always been more at ease wielding a rifle, rather than a handgun, and he took his time finding the right one. Once he was satisfied, he handed over the money and strapped on his gun belt. He drew out his Colt, loaded it and slid it back into the holster, slipping the safety loop over the hammer.
“Ready for that drink?” he asked.
Johnny was watching him speculatively. “When’d you wear a gun?”
“In the Army.”
“Thought you said you worked for a General.”
“I said I was in his Unit.”
“See much fighting?”
“How good are you with that rifle?”
“I usually hit what I’m aiming at.”
“You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you, Brother?”
Scott smiled to himself as he scanned the street. There were a number of saloons, all of which seemed to be doing good business. “I’d forgotten that it was Saturday.” All the days had merged together recently, making it hard to keep track.
“It could get kinda rough,” Johnny replied. “You sure you don’t want to go back to the hotel?”
“I’m quite capable of taking care of myself.” Scott led the way into the nearest establishment, stopping just inside the doors to give himself a moment to adjust to the dim lighting, smoke laden air – and the smell. The whole place reeked of whiskey, beer, sweat and the cheap perfume of the working girls. The floor was covered in sawdust, cobwebs hung from the candleholders and there was a man passed out on the floor.
“Boy, you sure know how to pick the classy joints,” Johnny snickered.
Scott grimaced as a young woman appeared on the small stage in the corner and began to murder some unidentifiable tune. However, he wasn’t going to give Johnny the satisfaction of seeing him walk out. “Find us a table. What do you want to drink?”
“I’ll have a beer. Maybe later, I’ll introduce you to tequila.”
Scott pushed his way through the crowd, reached the bar and placed his order. A few men eyed him suspiciously as they heard his cultured accent, but no one made any comment. He found Johnny sitting at the side of the room, facing the door, with his back to the wall.
“Thanks.” Johnny raised his glass in salute and took a long drink.
Scott quenched his own thirst before launching into a subject that had been intriguing him. “You never told me where you were when the Pinkerton agent found you.”
“I was standin’ in front of a firing squad.”
Scott choked on his mouthful of beer. “I beg your pardon?” he sputtered.
“Well, you see, I’d gotten myself mixed up in this little revolution,” Johnny explained placidly. There was this big landowner who wasn’t treating his workers right. They hired me to help, only it turned out they didn’t have any money. By the time I found that out, I was too committed to back out.”
“I gathered that. How did you get away?”
“They were all set to shoot me when this fat gringo…no offense…came chargin’ over the hill in a wagon telling them to ‘hold up’. He wasn’t very bright, though. When he paid them off they saw how much money he had. As they really wanted to execute me, they decided they’d kill both of us and take all the money. He’d just untied me when they went back on the deal. I grabbed his gun and managed to hold them off long enough for him to get away. I stole one of their horses and hightailed it outta Mexico as fast as I could.”
“What did you do then?”
“I holed up with a friend for a while, thinking about Lancer’s offer. If I hadn’t been so damn broke I might have turned around and headed in the other direction. You know the rest. By the time I arrived in Morro Coyo, it was too late.”
They drank in silence for a while, each lost in thought. The singer had blessedly disappeared, leaving only the raucous voices of men enjoying their Saturday night outing. When Johnny whistled appreciatively, Scott looked up.
“Would you look at those two?”
Scott turned to look at the saloon girls who had captured Johnny’s attention. They were attractive enough, although they were far removed from the women he had visited in the past, in the expensive Bordellos in Boston. Johnny’s delighted smile lit up his whole face as the girls walked over.
“Buy us a drink, cowboy?” The girl had dark brown hair, which was piled on top of her head to display a slender neck and plunging cleavage. She was eyeing Johnny hungrily.
“Sure.” Johnny leaned over and pulled out a chair.
The other girl, fairer than her companion, looked hopefully at Scott. With a grin he stood up and ushered her into the chair next to his. “What would you lovely ladies like to drink?” he asked.
Scott caught the eye of the bartender, calling for a bottle of whiskey and four glasses. “My name’s Scott Lancer,” he said, giving the blond an appreciative stare. “This is my brother, Johnny.”
“Smooth, Boston, very smooth,” Johnny said.
“I’m Janey.” The girl fluttered her eyelashes at Johnny. “And, her name’s Liza – she’s new.”
“Pleased to meet you, ladies.” Johnny pulled the cork from the bottle, filling the glasses and passing them around.
“Do you live here?” Liza asked, her eyes never leaving Scott’s face.
“Just passing through,” Scott replied, noting her disappointment. “But, this evening we have nothing planned and would be delighted to spend it with such charming young ladies.”
“Janey!” a harsh male voice bellowed over the prevailing noise.
As Janey flinched, two men pushed their way through the crowd to stand by the table. One of the men grabbed her arm, yanking her to her feet. She squirmed in his strong grip. “Leave me alone, Rufus. Can’t you see I’m working?”
“Get your hands off her.”
Scott hid his surprise. There was an edge to Johnny’s voice that he hadn’t heard before. Despite the fact that the command was delivered softly, it carried enough menace to give anyone pause.
All talk at the surrounding tables ceased as Johnny stood up. Rufus shoved Janey to one side, taking a couple of steps forward so that he was standing toe to toe with Johnny. He was several inches taller than the dark-haired gunfighter, and a good fifty pounds heavier. His friend stood watching, with a gap-toothed grin on his face.
“I don’t take orders from anyone,” Rufus growled. “What’s it to you, anyway? There’re plenty of other girls.”
“First off, I was talkin’ to her and it ain’t polite to interrupt. Mostly, though, I don’t like men who beat up on women.” Johnny took a step back to give himself more room before burying his fist in Rufus’s gut.
Scott leapt to his feet, moving quickly to intercept Rufus’s companion. “This isn’t your fight, friend.” He ducked as a fist flew toward his face, stepped sideways and followed his brother’s example.
He could hear the sounds of furniture being broken, and the shouts of the spectators who were urging on one fighter or the other. He had no attention to spare for Johnny as he fought his own battle, finally sending his opponent crashing into the wall. The man folded at the knees, sliding down until he was sitting on the blood-splattered floor.
Scott wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and ran his tongue over his teeth. He was pleased to find they were all still intact. He looked round to find his brother grinning at him, with Rufus laid out unconscious on the floor at his feet.
“What took you so long?”
Scott grinned back, absurdly happy at this unexpected show of brotherly solidarity. “He was too stupid to know when he was beaten.” He looked at the wreckage of their table and the shattered whiskey bottle lying on the floor. “I think we need someplace else to sit.”
Janey walked over with Liza by her side. “We’ve got a bottle upstairs if the two of you would like to join us.”
“What do you think, Scott?” Johnny asked.
Scott held out his hand to Liza. “I think it would be impolite to refuse.”
“So do I, Brother. So do I.”
Cross Creek consisted of little more than a railroad station, a small livery stable and a handful of houses. Scott settled his new saddlebags across his shoulder, tightening the grip on his rifle as he looked around. They were carrying only the bare essentials with them. The station master had agreed to send the rest of their luggage to Green River next time there was a wagon going in that direction.
“Now what?” Scott asked, his heart sinking at the sight of the small town. A man ambled across the street, staring at them curiously. A flea-bitten mongrel lay in the shade lazily scratching its ear. Apart from that there was no sign of life. He hoped that Green River had more to recommend it.
“We collect my horse and find one for you.” Johnny stopped, producing an impudent grin that Scott was starting to recognize. “You can ride, can’t you?”
Since their stop over in Reno, Scott had been finding it harder to resent questions like that. Johnny was no longer treating him like some useless Eastern greenhorn, and there was a teasing note in his voice now.
“I think I can manage,” he replied, equably.
Johnny set off again with noticeable enthusiasm. The reason for that enthusiasm became clear the minute they entered the livery. “He’s a beauty,” Scott said admiringly, as he cast experienced eyes over the palomino.
Johnny’s broad smile reminded Scott of a child on Christmas Day. The animal nuzzled Johnny as the younger man flung his arms around the golden neck. Scott stood back and watched. Johnny was so at home here – comfortable wearing a gun and devoted to his horse. Out here, a man’s life could depend on both. Scott understood that from his time in the cavalry, but could it really become a way of life? Doubts, which had a nasty habit of catching him unawares, rose to plague him again. They were mixed, though, with a sense of adventure – something that had been sadly lacking in his life for a long time. He’d resolved before leaving Boston to meet this challenge head on and he wasn’t going to change his mind now.
He turned away to study the other animals in the stable. There were only three and none came close to the quality of the horses he’d ridden in the past. The side door opened to admit a muscular man who was clearly the local blacksmith and owner of the livery.
“You’ve taken good care of him,” Johnny greeted the man.
“Mr. Madrid.” The blacksmith’s voice wasn’t entirely steady. “I was wondering when you’d get back. Your horse was getting mighty restless.”
“He doesn’t like being penned up.” Johnny slipped a halter over the horse’s head and led him out into the small corral. “My friend, here, needs a horse.”
Scott followed his brother. withstanding the blacksmith’s scrutiny without comment. He was sure that the two of them made unlikely companions, although part of him warmed at Johnny’s choice of words. He suspected that the blood relationship didn’t yet mean too much to either of them, but friendship was starting to grow.
“Yes, sir. This way.”
The blacksmith led Scott back inside and over to the most placid looking of the three available animals. With a half-smile, Scott continued to the end of the row. The bay in the stall looked back at him curiously. Scott unlatched the gate, stepping into the stall. He ran his hands over the glossy coat. “What can you tell me about this one?”
“He belonged to one of the local ranchers. He only had a small spread. When we started to have trouble, he packed up his wife and kids, sold everything he owned, and moved on. He’s a good animal.”
Having satisfied himself that the animal was sound, Scott nodded. “I’ll take him. I’ll need all the tack as well.”
Scott was aware of Johnny and the blacksmith both watching as he methodically saddled his new horse. Johnny then retrieved a well worn saddle from the tack room and readied his animal. They led the horses outside and Scott swung easily into the saddle.
The brothers’ eyes met. “I guess I forgot to tell you that it was a cavalry unit I was in during the war.”
Johnny shook his head and laughed. “I guess you did.”
Johnny pointed. “Time to see your inheritance.”
After riding steadily for a couple of hours, Scott was almost ready to forget his pride and suggest that they stop for a while. Not even being a competent horseman could compensate for the fact that he hadn’t done any prolonged riding for years. His leg muscles and back ached, and he was convinced that it would be days before he would be able to sit comfortably again. He had no idea where they were, or how much further it was to their destination. He began to think longingly of his privileged life in Boston.
“Where did you get your horse?” he asked, trying to take his mind off his discomfort.
Scott waited, but Johnny seemed more interested in his surroundings than in carrying on a conversation. “Where?”
“On Lancer, while I was snooping around.”
“I assume none of Pardee’s men saw you.”
Johnny grinned. “Nope. Otherwise, they’d be dead.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
Scott was starting to wonder if Johnny was being deliberately obtuse. “Killing people.”
“Yeah, Scott, it bothers me. Trouble is, it’s the only thing I was ever good at.”
As Scott considered whether or not to pursue this conversation, Johnny brought his horse to a halt.
“Take a look.” Johnny pointed toward a verdant valley.
“What am I looking at?”
Scott hadn’t known what to expect and the sheer grandeur of the view rendered him speechless.
“Everything you see down there, all the way to those mountains, belongs to us.”
Scott took his time, absorbing every detail of his inheritance. Even from their lofty vantage point, he could see that the grass was lush and fertile, and that there was plenty of water. Gradually, his eyes were drawn to a large white house. He thought about Pardee and his men living there, where he and Johnny should have grown up. He wondered what it would have been like to have been raised here, and began to feel the first stirrings of anger.
Lancer, and his father, had been abstract concepts for most of his life. Now, faced with the reality of the home he’d never known, he felt a strong sense of loss. Damn Murdoch Lancer for leaving him in Boston…and damn him for dying before they could meet.
“You alright?” Johnny’s words were laced with sympathy.
“It hurts, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does.” In that moment, Scott felt the first real connection to this man who was still little more than a stranger. Johnny understood how he was feeling because it was affecting him in exactly the same way. “It’s beautiful.” The word seemed somehow inadequate.
“Ready to take back our land, Brother?”
“I can’t think of anything I’d like better.”
Green River proved to be a welcome surprise for Scott. It was a bustling and prosperous looking little community. As they rode down the main street, he noticed that people were stopping and staring…at Johnny. He turned to his brother, who was now wearing a very smug expression. “Why are they looking at you like that?”
“Decent citizens get kinda nervous when one of my kind rides into town.”
“Don’t they know who you are?”
“Oh, they know who I am, alright. They just don’t know who I could’ve been if things had worked out differently.” Johnny led the way to a house with a doctor’s shingle hanging outside. He dismounted and stretched lazily. “Doc Jenkins and the lawyer are the only two who know I’m a Lancer. If Day found out….well, I reckon he’d tear the town apart to get to me.”
“What about me?”
Johnny turned to survey the street, his grin widening as everyone looked away and hurried about their business. “You, Brother? You’re Scott Lancer and you’re here to claim your inheritance.”
“So I’m the bait?”
“If he gets word that we’ve been seen together, he’s going to know you’ve taken Lancer’s side.”
“I’m counting on it. He won’t attack you directly while he thinks you’re under my protection. He’ll try to tempt me to change sides first.”
“What happens when he fails?”
Johnny looked up from unbuckling his saddlebags. “Who says he’s gonna fail?”
“Oh, no.” Scott moved quickly round the horses to grab Johnny’s arm. “If you join up with Pardee and then he finds out who you are…”
“I know the risks.” Johnny wrenched his arm free. “Don’t do that again.”
Scott stood his ground, refusing to be intimidated by the heated anger on his brother’s face. “This isn’t a one man deal, Johnny. I thought you came to find me so that we could work together.”
Johnny’s intense stared dropped. “Yeah, I did. I guess I’m not used to having someone caring what happens to me.”
Scott wondered at that. There was so much he didn’t know about Johnny’s life. “You’d better get used to it. We need a plan, and we’ll come up with one together.”
“Just don’t want to find you lyin’ in a ditch with ants crawling over your eyeballs.”
That remark conjured up a picture that Scott could happily have done without. “Likewise. Which is why we have to discuss our strategy.”
“Johnny. Welcome back.”
The brothers turned toward the front door of the doctor’s house. An elderly, heavily built man had come out onto the porch. His face was deeply lined and he looked tired. However, he was wearing a broad smile. This was clearly the doctor that Johnny had told him about. A young dark-haired girl stood beside the doctor. Scott thought she looked about sixteen or seventeen, and assumed she was the doctor’s granddaughter.
“Hey, Doc.” Johnny bounded up the stairs to shake the man’s hand. Then, he pulled off his hat as he turned to the girl. “How’ve you been, Teresa?”
“Better than I was. Sam has been very good to me and I’ve been keeping busy helping him with his patients.”
One blond eyebrow rose in surprise as Scott re-evaluated his first impression. He stepped forward, clearing his throat. “I’m Scott Lancer. You must be Dr. Jenkins.” He offered his hand, noting the doctor’s firm grip.
“Please call me Sam. I’m not much for formality. Welcome to Green River, Scott. We weren’t sure that Johnny would be able to persuade you to leave Boston.”
“He nearly didn’t.” Scott turned his attention to the girl, removing his own hat as a gesture of respect. He saw that she had big blue eyes, a solemn expression and a waist so small he would be able to put his hands around it.
“This is Teresa O’Brien.” Johnny performed the introduction. “Teresa, this is my brother, Scott.”
“O’Brien?” Scott sifted through all the information that Johnny had given him, trying to place the name. “Your father was killed by Pardee. My condolences, Miss O’Brien.”
“Thank you, Scott. Your father would have been happy to know you have come home.”
There was an undercurrent to her words that stung Scott. “I assume you knew our father well.”
“I was brought up on Lancer. Murdoch was like family to me.” There was clear censure in her voice aimed at the son who had ignored a father’s desperate plea.
Scott bristled silently at that, resisting the urge to say what was on his mind. It was a source of regret now that he’d rejected the approach made through the Pinkerton Agency, but he’d had his reasons and he didn’t appreciate being made to feel guilty by this young woman.
“I think we should go inside.” Dr. Jenkins started to usher his visitors toward the front door. “There’s a lot you don’t know, Scott. It’s time to clear the air, but it would be far better to do that in private.”
Scott was beginning to feel very much like an outsider and it wasn’t a feeling he enjoyed. He nodded briefly, before following the doctor into the house. He had a lot of questions, many of which his brother wasn’t in a position to answer. Once they had all the facts, they could decide how to proceed.
“What’re you doing here?” Pardee paused in the act of pouring himself another glass of tequila. That was the one thing old man Lancer hadn’t kept in his well-stocked liquor cabinet. It had been necessary to send some of his men back to Morro Coyo to ‘liberate’ some bottles from the cantina. Apart from that, they were living very comfortably. Of course, the ranch was becoming run down and neglected, and he’d probably have to find a buyer soon. Meantime, he and his men were happy where they were.
“Thought you’d want to hear this, Day.”
“I told you to stay in Green River and only to come out here if any of the smaller ranchers started to make trouble.”
Vince perched nervously on the edge of one of the chairs. “I reckon there’s gonna be trouble, all right.”
“A couple of men arrived in town this afternoon. Rumor is that one of them is Lancer’s kid.”
Pardee drained his glass, setting it down on the table. He didn’t betray any surprise at the news and saw Vince’s eager expression turn to one of disappointment. “And the other man?”
“You ain’t gonna believe this, Day. I’d swear it was Johnny Madrid.”
“Well, now, that is interesting. I thought he’d got himself shot down in Mexico.”
“D’you think he’s signed on with Lancer?”
“Could be. I want you to keep this to yourself.” Pardee looked at Vince with lowered brows. “You haven’t been shouting your mouth off, have you?”
“Course not.” Vince looked offended and then puzzled. “Why’re you keeping this quiet?”
“I have my reasons. Get back to town and watch them.”
Pardee waited until he was alone, before getting up and walking over to the desk in front of the large window. He loved the view from that window. It wasn’t hard to see why Lancer had fought so hard for this land. He pulled open the bottom drawer, taking out two folders that he’d never shown to anyone else.
The first related to Scott Lancer, a man Pardee had never expected to find venturing this far west. But, it was the other one that occupied his attention now. “Well, well, John, I bet you didn’t know that your daddy kept a whole lot of information about you just lying around waiting to be found.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about Teresa?”
There was enough of an edge to Scott’s voice for Johnny to be able to work out that his brother was annoyed. They were alone in Sam’s small parlor and the smell of fresh coffee, and a steak pie baking in the oven, wafting in from the kitchen was making Johnny’s mouth water. “It didn’t come up.”
“What else hasn’t ‘come up’?”
“Look, Scott, I didn’t expect her to react like that.” Johnny was telling the truth. The only other time he’d been here, Teresa had been immersed in grief.
“I can’t say that I blame her for being bitter. Her father was killed, ours was badly wounded, and I ignored the ‘invitation’ to come here.”
“Were you told any of that?” Johnny felt an unaccountable need to make Scott feel better. “The only message I got was that Lancer wanted to see me and was prepared to pay for my time. The Pinkerton agent didn’t say anything about Pardee, or anyone having been shot.”
“I was made the same offer. I wasn’t told why he suddenly wanted to see me – and, I didn’t ask.”
“Would it have made any difference if you’d been told the truth?”
There was a long pause. “I’ve asked myself that a hundred times over the last few weeks. The answer is that I don’t know. Murdoch Lancer meant nothing to me. I grew up hating him for abandoning me. I thought that he didn’t care about me.”
“Yeah, I know how that feels.”
“But, you came. I didn’t.”
“I came for the money. D’you really think I felt any loyalty, or love, for the man who threw me and my mother out?”
“Do you still believe that?”
If anyone else had asked that, Johnny would probably have told them to mind their own business. Scott was different. He was the one person who would understand. “I know what your grandfather told me, and he seemed to be telling the truth as he saw it. But, Scott, he wasn’t there. I was brought up believing what my mama told me. It ain’t easy to accept she might have lied. And, what did it get her? Why would she leave a comfortable home to be on the road with another man? If she did run off with someone else, how come she didn’t stay with him? I sure don’t remember anyone like that.” He did remember a steady procession of men, all eager to spend a night or two with his mama, preferably with her half-breed brat safely out of the way. That was one aspect of his life he had no intention of sharing with his brother. Hell, most of his life wasn’t fit to be spoken of to any decent person.
“I might be able to answer some of that.”
Johnny turned slowly in Sam’s direction, his face stonily expressionless. Those words had been for Scott’s ears alone. If he hadn’t been so wrapped up in the pain of his memories, he’d have held them back. Although he was coming to like the doctor, he wasn’t prepared to discuss this with him. “What’s the point in talking about the past?” he asked, slipping back behind the safety of a façade of bored indifference. “It’s dead and gone, just like our parents. I’m more interested in what’s happening now.”
“Is that how you feel too?” Sam asked Scott.
There was a brief hesitation before Scott inclined his head in agreement. Johnny knew they were both lying – hiding from truths that could set them adrift from the beliefs that had shaped their lives.
Sam sounded disappointed. Johnny suspected that the doctor had been hoping to mend some fences on his old friend’s behalf. Maybe, one day, he’d be ready to hear what the doctor had to say. Right now, it felt too much like poking a partly healed wound to see if it still hurt.
“I will say this, though,” Sam continued. “Your father was looking forward to seeing you both again. When he realized that he was dying, his last thoughts were of you and his regrets that he’d waited so long to contact you.”
That made sense so far as Scott was concerned. After all, Murdoch Lancer must always have known where his older son was living. Johnny considered the implications for himself, not liking his conclusions. “Are you tellin’ me he knew who I was and didn’t make any effort to contact me, until he needed help to defend his ranch?”
Sam looked uncomfortable. “He finally tracked you down about six months before he was shot. It was a shock for him to discover that the little boy he’d loved with all his heart had become a gunfighter.”
There was an abrupt silence as Johnny absorbed this unwelcome piece of information. He tried to tell himself that it was no big surprise that his father hadn’t wanted him back until his help was needed. Then he looked across at Scott who wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding his own feelings.
“If you don’t mind I think I’ll go and unpack”
Although Sam looked perplexed by the change of subject he recovered quickly. “Of course. You can use the room at the top of the stairs. I’m afraid you’ll have to share, but there are two good sized beds in there.”
Johnny watched his brother striding from the room. The hurt went deep for both of them and he couldn’t see any way now to draw the poison from the wounds they carried inside. Perhaps if there had been a chance to confront their father…But, even as he thought that, Johnny was wondering if it really had been his father who had condemned him to live such a miserable existence. Had he and Scott both grown up surrounded by lies?
The atmosphere at supper was strained. Scott had offered an apology for his unexpected behavior, without explaining his reasons. Johnny had neither followed his brother, nor pressed him on his reaction to Sam’s words. He was starting to understand that Scott was an intensely private person, no doubt due to his upbringing. He couldn’t argue with that. He, after all, had been no more forthcoming. Maybe, if they were given the time, they would feel comfortable enough to confide in each other. That thought stirred something unexpected. For the moment, however, the easterner had reverted to formal politeness, displaying none of the passion that Johnny had caught glimpses of during their journey.
Once the meal was over, the three men returned to the parlor. Sam poured brandy for himself and Scott, setting a bottle of tequila and a glass in front of Johnny.
“I never did get round to trying that.” Scott’s voice had lost a little of its brittle edge.
The brothers shared a smile as each thought back to the night spent in Reno. It was one of the few good things they had in common.
“Where do we start?” Scott asked. “We know where Pardee is and how many men he has. We also know that he has the advantage. As long as he stays holed up behind those walls he’s safe. It would be suicide to try and launch an attack.”
“The first thing we need to do is introduce you to Mr. Randall, your father’s attorney. He was the executor of your father’s will and he has some papers for you to sign. They will make you the legal owners of Lancer.”
“Much good that’ll do us,” Johnny said with a hint of bitterness. “Words on a piece of paper won’t get us our land back.”
“No, they won’t. They will, though, add legitimacy to whatever you decide to do.”
“Is there anyone we can count on to help us?” Scott sat forward, seeming more relaxed now with the glass held loosely in both hands.
“There are a few of the other ranchers who might be prepared to help. The most likely is Henry Conway. His spread borders Lancer to the east. He and his wife were close friends with your father. They took on a number of the Lancer hands when Pardee drove them away. Cipriano, who became Segundo after Paul was killed, is there. He knows all there is to know about Lancer. If you can persuade the Conways to help you, I’m sure they can convince some of the others.”
“They’re not gonna risk their lives to help us,” Johnny said flatly. “Oh, sure, they’ll fight Pardee if he tries to make a move on their land, but they’re not gonna take the fight to him.”
“I think you may be under-estimating them.”
“I’ve seen enough range wars to know how this works. If they’d been willin’ to help they’d have stepped up while our father was still alive.”
Scott turned his glass round, contemplating the liquid. “We don’t have anything to lose by talking to them. I’m not saying you’re wrong, Johnny. This is all new to me, and I’m not going to blame a man for putting his own interests first. But, maybe we can convince them that it is in their own best interests to become involved.”
Johnny considered this. His brother was eloquent and persuasive. As a businessman, Scott was used to dealing with powerful men and arguing his point of view. Johnny’s only experience of negotiations was when someone wanted to buy his gun. Such men were usually desperate enough to agree to whatever terms he proposed. And, if they didn’t, he’d just ride away and find someone willing to pay his price. For the last few years, his reputation had given him that option.
“I guess it couldn’t hurt,” he eventually conceded. “So long as they don’t know who I am.”
“The Conways can be trusted. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for all the ranchers around here. I recommend telling Henry and Aggie the truth.”
Johnny expected Scott to immediately support the doctor. When nothing was said, he understood that the decision was being left to him. “I don’t trust easily.”
“May I make a suggestion?” Scott laid his glass down. “We can meet them without telling them who Johnny is, and get a sense of whether or not they can be trusted. Then, if Johnny decides it’s worth the risk, we can tell them the truth.”
“Alright, Boston, but when it comes down to it, I call the tune.”
“Only where that decision is concerned. Remember that we’re equal partners.” There was a faint air of challenge surrounding Scott’s words.
“Sure,” Johnny agreed, a little too quickly.
“Can you send word to them requesting a meeting?” Scott asked the doctor, clearly choosing not to pursue the point.
“I’ll head out there tomorrow. One of their men was hurt a few weeks back, so no one will think it’s strange that I should go to check on him.”
“You be careful,” Johnny warned, a cold feeling in his gut at the thought of Pardee taking revenge on this kindly old man. “It won’t be long before Day finds out about Scott. Once he knows you’re helping us, you’ll become a target too.”
“Then, we had better move quickly.”
The doctor’s calm acceptance of the very real risk that he could be hurt or killed increased Johnny’s respect for him. Here was a decent man, who was prepared to stand up and fight for what he believed was right. If there were more people like him in this valley, Lancer might still have a chance.
The following morning the brothers visited the lawyer to sign the papers transferring ownership of Lancer to them in equal shares. Mr. Randall agreed to keep Johnny’s identity a secret, and provided Scott with a letter of introduction to the bank manager. Johnny was surprised to discover that he had no qualms about Scott having sole access to the Lancer accounts. Somewhere in the last few weeks, he’d broken his own fundamental rule and had started to trust someone else. It had nothing to do with their shared blood. Rather, it stemmed from a growing admiration and the first steps toward an unlikely friendship.
They stepped out into the sunshine and Scott settled his hat on the back of his head as he came forward to stand beside his brother. Johnny looked around carefully, searching out any potential threat.
“How about a drink?” Scott asked. “We should celebrate our partnership.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he saw a figure disappearing hurriedly into an alley. “Sure. You go ahead and order us a couple of beers. I’ll be along in a minute.”
“Could be. I won’t be long.”
Johnny nodded, throwing a brief smile in his brother’s direction. He stayed where he was until he was sure Scott was inside the saloon. He removed the safety loop from his Colt before strolling toward the alley. He’d only gotten a glimpse of the man’s face, and it had been tantalizingly familiar. The unfriendly stares of the townsfolk as he passed didn’t bother him at all. Pardee had caused death and destruction, so any gunfighter was going to be viewed with suspicion. The alleyway appeared to be deserted, but Johnny kept close to the left side, all his senses attuned to his surroundings.
He reached the end, looking both left and right. Although there were a few people around, none were the man he was looking for. He stayed where he was, considering his options. He was reluctant to go chasing all over town, leaving his brother unprotected - not that Scott couldn’t take care of himself in a fair fight. The worry was that Pardee wouldn’t fight fair, and Johnny had no wish to see Scott being bushwhacked like their old man.
He retraced his steps, crossing the busy main street and entering the saloon. Part of the room was being used as a barber’s. On his last visit Johnny had allowed Zeek to cut his hair, something which had been long overdue following his extended period as a ‘guest’ of the rurales. The barber, as was usual in these small towns, had been happy to regale his attentive customer with all the latest gossip. He’d proved to be a useful source of information and Johnny acknowledged him with a smile.
It amused him to find that everyone was watching Scott, while trying to pretend disinterest. By now, they would all know who Scott was. He sauntered over to the table, spurs jingling. As he was pulling out a chair he smirked at the other customers, noting their disapproving looks. He reached for his glass and drank deeply, but not before seeing the amusement in his brother’s eyes.
“Did you find him?”
Johnny kept his head bent as he smiled to himself. Not much escaped Scott’s notice.
“Nope. He’ll turn up again, though.”
“One of Pardee’s men?”
“Seems likely. Day’s stayin’ pretty close to Lancer these days. Stands to reason he’d have some of his men keepin’ watch on the mood of the local people.” Johnny looked up as three men entered the saloon. Beside him, Scott straightened up, staring intently at them.
“Looks like Day found out about you quicker than I expected,” Johnny murmured. “Watch your step, Scott. Those men are killers.”
“You know them?” Scott continued his calm appraisal of the newcomers.
“Can’t be certain about two of them. The big man is Coley McHugh. I’ve never met him, but I know who he is. You’ve got Pardee worried if he’s sent these three here to try to intimidate you.”
Johnny studied the other two men. One was perfectly groomed, wearing a neat black suit, white shirt and string tie. The other was scruffier, muscular and spoiling for a fight. He wasn’t surprised when they appeared to ignore him, walking instead to confront Scott. If they were expecting some useless, cowardly greenhorn, they were about to get a shock.
“What are you looking at, friend?” McHugh demanded belligerently.
“I was just wondering which of you gentlemen needed a bath,” Scott replied.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The younger man stepped forward.
“It means that an unpleasant smell accompanied you into the saloon.”
“How would you like me to rearrange your face?”
Scott laughed at him. “You can try.”
Scott’s lack of fear was obviously confusing them. Johnny took a sip of his beer, watching them with a mocking smile on his lips. He didn’t think they’d try any gun play in front of so many witnesses, but he’d just bet that they were itching to find an excuse to pound Scott into the ground.
“I’m kinda surprised Day let you three out on your own,” Johnny drawled. “You sure aren’t showin’ any smarts, comin’ in here and trying to start something.”
“Stay out of this, Madrid,” Coley warned. “We’re talking to your friend here, not the hired help.”
Johnny laid his hands flat on the table. “Oh, I plan on stayin’ out of it – unless one of you boys wants to take it outside.” His meaningful look at their guns made his proposal quite clear. He could see that they were tempted and, for a moment, he thought one of them might accept his challenge.
“I wouldn’t.” The new voice held quiet amusement.
Johnny turned unhurriedly toward the door. “Day,” he acknowledged.
Pardee hasn’t changed much in the years since Johnny had last seen him. He looked a little older, a little meaner and his smile was as insincere as ever. “Long time, Johnny Madrid.”
The other three men backed off as Pardee approached the table and sat down. A quick glance to his left reassured Johnny that Scott was in control of himself, at least for now.
“Yeah, long time. I didn’t expect to see you…yet.”
“When I heard you were in town I decided to come and look you up.” Pardee looked from Johnny to Scott and back again before continuing. “I thought you’d have learned your lesson after what happened in Mexico.”
“Backing the losing side.” That comment was accompanied by a smug glance in Scott’s direction. “If you want to change your mind I can use you, John.”
Scott shifted irritably in his chair. “Don’t get too comfortable at Lancer.”
Johnny had to admire his brother’s restraint. Although neither of them were grief stricken by the death of their father, it still wasn’t easy to face down the man who’d shot him in the back.
Ignoring Scott’s warning, Pardee pushed away from the table. “Don’t take too long, John. You might miss all the fun.”
“I don’t like being ignored.” Scott’s voice was tight with anger.
Johnny gripped his brother’s arm. “Leave it alone, Scott. Now ain’t the time.”
“You’d do well to listen to him, Lancer. In fact, take my advice and get on the next stage out of here.”
“I’ve no intention of leaving. You’re on my land and I want it back.” Scott tried to shake off the imprisoning hand.
“You stay around here, and all you’ll get is a six foot deep hole to be buried in.” With a final amused look at the two younger men, Pardee turned away and strolled toward the doors.
As the other men followed their leader out of the saloon Scott let out an explosive breath. “He’s an arrogant bastard.” He waited for Johnny to release him before reaching for his glass, taking a long swallow of beer.
“He’s got a lot to lose, and you were takin’ a hell of a chance crowding him like that.”
Scott didn’t acknowledge the rebuke. “You don’t still have that crazy notion of joining up with him?”
“I’m thinking about it,” Johnny hedged. “It might just give us an edge.”
“It’s more likely to get you killed.”
“Well, that comes to us all, doesn’t it brother?”
“You keep thinking like that and you’ll be dead before you’re thirty.” He finished his beer and looked up at the clock behind the bar. “Sam should be back by now. If we can’t get any of the other ranchers to help, your plan might be our only option.”
Johnny followed his brother outside. As the doors swung closed he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. His warning shout went unheeded as Scott was propelled backwards into the street, landing with a thud in an unmoving heap.
A cool, damp cloth across his forehead and eyes was the first thing Scott was aware of when he regained consciousness. “What hit me?” His efforts to rise were hampered by a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Take it easy.”
Johnny’s words were slurred and Scott wondered about that. Moving slowly, he reached up and removed the cloth.
“Welcome back.” The effect of Johnny’s smile was spoilt by his split and swollen lips.
“What happened?” This time Scott made it into a sitting position, running a hand cautiously over the back of his head.
“Well, Coley belted you across the head as soon as you left the saloon. Then his friends ‘encouraged’ me to stay out of it while Coley had a go at your ribs. I guess Day thought you might need some more incentive to pack up and go back east. A couple of the locals helped me get you back here when it was over.”
“No one tried to stop them?”
“I told you they wouldn’t stand up against Pardee.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t just shoot me and get it over with,” Scott said, bleakly.
“Not his style. There were too many witnesses. When O’Brien and our father were killed, it was early morning and they were ambushed. It would be impossible to prove that Pardee pulled the trigger. Killing you would be too risky.”
“That’s a comforting thought,” Scott replied wryly. “Is Sam back?”
“Yeah. The Conways have agreed to meet with you tomorrow.” Johnny stood and stretched.
“Where are you going?”
“To find the little weasel who told Pardee that we were here.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“Sorry, Scott. This is kind of a one man deal.”
“Damn it, Johnny. I’m not some child who needs to be protected. I can look after myself.”
“Yeah, I know, but there’re things I’m gonna say to him that’ll be more convincing if you’re not there to hear them.”
“What?” Scott was concerned that Johnny wouldn’t look at him. His brother had his head down, seemingly concentrating on adjusting his gunbelt. “You’re going to accept Pardee’s offer,” he accused. “I thought we discussed this?”
Johnny’s gaze, as he finally looked up, was hot and angry. “No, you told me I was bein’ stupid. Thing is, Scott, I’ve been dealin’ with men like Pardee my whole life. I know how they operate.”
“I thought we were partners?”
“We are, but that don’t give you the right to tell me what to do.”
“I’m asking you to use some common sense.” Johnny’s continued obduracy was beginning to irritate Scott.
His brother’s expression was no less angry when he continued. “I don’t have time to argue with you. You go and speak to the ranchers. They’ll listen to you with all your fancy education. I’ll keep an eye on Pardee and, if the lid threatens to blow off the situation, I’ll get word to you.”
“You’re out of your mind!”
“To hell with you, Brother,” Johnny turned toward the door, grabbing his hat from the table.
Scott sprang to his feet, his injuries forgotten. “Doesn’t that paper we signed today mean anything to you?”
“Yeah. It means I’m half owner of the biggest ranch in these parts.”
“Then, don’t you think it’s time you started acting like a rancher rather than a hired gun?” Scott saw Johnny pause, his shoulders rigid.
“Bein’ a rancher ain’t gonna get the job done. I’ll see you around.”
Johnny brushed past Sam, who was on his way into the room. Seconds later, Scott heard the front door slam.
“What was that about?” Sam asked. “I could hear you two shouting all over the house.”
Scott sat down. “I don’t know. It was like Johnny was pushing for a fight.”
“Where has he gone?”
“To join up with Pardee.”
Johnny was angry. He hadn’t intended to lose his temper, just as he hadn’t intended to let Scott get close to him. He’d spent the last ten years caring about no one except himself. He’d learned at a very young age how painful it was to lose someone he cared about. Watching Scott being attacked while being helpless to prevent it, had affected him on an unexpected level. His brother didn’t have an ounce of give in him and had already sent Pardee a clear message. Scott wasn’t going to back down any more than their old man had, and that left Pardee with only one option. Johnny was determined that he wasn’t going to lose his last family member to a bullet in the dark.
He finally tracked his quarry down to a small café. Vince looked up from his meal with a gratifyingly fearful expression. Johnny pulled out a chair and sat opposite the weasel faced man. “Hello, Vince,” he said pleasantly.
“J…Johnny.” Vince began to sweat.
Johnny kept his voice low. “Still runnin’ Day’s errands for him?” He reached over, smiling as Vince flinched. He snagged a slice of bread from the plate and took a bite. None of the pain that simple action caused was visible on his face.
“What do you want?”
“Your worthless hide’ll do for a start. I don’t like being spied on.”
“Day’d have killed me if I hadn’t told him about you and Lancer.”
Vince’s eyes darted toward the door. Johnny eased his Colt out of its holster, holding it low so that it was hidden by the table cloth. He pulled back the hammer, the sound being distinctive enough to reduce Vince to a gibbering wreck.
The other patrons of the café had fallen silent. The owner stood behind the counter, wringing his hands helplessly. Johnny wasn’t bothered. He was confident that no one would take him on, and there was no law in Green River to interfere.
“It wouldn’t be polite to leave until I’ve finished talking to you,” he said. “See, I reckon I’ve got you to thank for this.” He briefly touched his bruised lips. He’d been held at gunpoint while Coley had laid into Scott. As the attack ended, the youngest of the three outlaws had punched him hard in the face, laying him out long enough for them to make their escape.
“You can’t blame me for that, Johnny.” Vince’s voice had risen several notches as terror gripped him.
Johnny allowed the man to suffer for a little while longer before he released the hammer, and smiled. “You cross me again and you’re gonna be dead. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Vince stammered.
“Now, I need you to take a message to Day. Tell him I’ve thought about his offer and I want to meet. I’ll be over at the saloon and I ain’t feeling real patient.”
The relief on Vince’s face was pathetic. A man like this wasn’t worth even a small piece of his brother. The stuck-up, cold easterner he’d first encountered had proved himself to be the kind of man Johnny had always dreamed of having as an older brother.
“Get out of here before I change my mind and shoot you instead,” Johnny told him, his voice laced with menace. The desire to kill was very strong, to revenge his unknown father’s death and the pain caused to his brother. He remained where he was, outwardly cool and inwardly seething, as Vince made his hasty escape.
Only gradually did Johnny remember the other people in the café. His cold blue stare swept across them, daring them to make some comment or an unwise move. Some avoided his eyes; others looked at him with contempt. Would it make any difference if they knew he was a Lancer? Honest folk and gunfighters didn’t mix. Even if they defeated Pardee, he would have to fight an uphill battle to get the locals to accept him. A thought struck him, one that brought a surprising measure of comfort. It wasn’t a battle he would have to fight alone.
Pardee wasn’t surprised to see Vince riding in to the corral. It amused him to see the man’s obvious fear.
“What does he want?” Coley growled as they broke off their discussion about damaged fences and straying cattle.
Coley was sulking because of Pardee’s order to lean on Scott Lancer, without doing any permanent damage. The prohibition against taking on Johnny Madrid was also rankling with the big man. No gunfighter liked to be told that he wasn’t fast enough and Day didn’t want to lose his trusted lieutenant to an ill-timed fit of temper.
He hadn’t seen Madrid in action for a couple of years. The fact that the young man was still alive told its own story. Johnny had been fast, with the potential to be outstanding. Pardee, who feared no one, was in no rush to find out whether or not Madrid had reached his potential.
He gave a complacent smile, having a very good idea what was behind Vince’s visit. Coley lumbered along behind him as he walked over to the corral gate. Vince dismounted and walked over to them.
“Madrid wants a meeting.”
“Come inside.” As Day returned to the house, he found himself looking at it with a proprietary air. He’d coveted Lancer from the first moment he’d seen it. Now it was his and he had no intention of losing it. He made straight for the liquor cabinet, pouring drinks for all three of them. As he downed the tequila he hid his satisfaction at having correctly anticipated Johnny’s next move.
“I don’t trust him.” Coley rubbed his stubbled chin, frowning more than usual.
“No one said anything about trusting him,” Day replied. “What exactly did he say?”
“That he’d thought about your offer.” Vince gulped his drink, looking hopefully at the bottle. “He’s waiting at the saloon.”
“You think he wants in?” Coley asked, clearly not happy with the idea.
“There’s only one way to find out.” Pardee was enjoying himself. He’d arranged the attack on Scott Lancer in order to provoke Madrid and it was working beautifully. With Johnny out of the way, it wouldn’t take much to frighten off the inexperienced easterner.
“You’re going into town to meet him?”
“No, Coley, you’re going into town to invite him to come here.”
That brought a smile to the big man’s face so Day issued a warning. “You tell him if he wants to talk, it’ll be here and on my terms. You don’t call him out, or try anything rough. If he pushes you, you back off.”
“I’ve got my reasons.”
“What if he won’t come?”
The smile on Pardee’s face didn’t reach his eyes. “He’ll come.”
Johnny rode beside Coley, unspeaking and coldly furious. Being invited out to Lancer had never been part of his plan. Despite what he’d told Scott, he’d had a more straightforward solution in mind. Having lured Pardee to town, Johnny had intended to call him out and kill him. Once the head had been cut off the snake, the rest would quickly slither away. He’d obviously underestimated his opponent, who had backed him neatly into a corner.
His anger, though, was almost secondary to his turbulent feelings about returning to the home where he should have grown up. He had no memory at all of living at Lancer. His mother had always told him that he was only eighteen months old when an uncaring husband and father had given them both the keys to the road. He had long ago stopped cursing his fate. He was good at his trade and, along the way he’d met and helped some nice people. He’d made a difference. Maybe only a small one, but one of which he was proud.
As they rode between lush pastures and fast flowing streams it hit him that this was his land; his birthright. They turned from the road onto a lane leading to a white arch with a stylized ‘L’ set into it. A chill ran through him as they passed under it and he saw the hacienda close-up for the first time. He’d never dared to venture this close before, for fear of discovery.
Drawing nearer, he could see the subtle signs of neglect. That hurt in an unexpected way. He might have grown up hating his father, but he could respect the sheer determination and hard work necessary to build up a spread like this. As they entered the yard, Johnny coolly surveyed the other gunhawks who were hanging around. Two had set up a row of bottles on a fence and were amusing themselves by competing against one another. Twelve shots rang out in quick succession. The bottles shattered, falling in pieces into the corral. The few horses running loose snorted and quivered, causing Johnny to grind his teeth. He hated to see animals upset and there was the added concern about one of them stepping on the sharp shards.
He was off Barranca’s back almost before the horse had stopped moving. Loosening his gun in the holster he strode angrily toward the two men. They were talking and laughing as they reloaded, neither seeming to be aware of his approach. He grabbed the nearest man by the shoulder, spun him round and punched him in the gut. As his victim wheezed painfully, Johnny drew his gun.
“Are you both too stupid to understand what you’re doin’?” he snarled. “Get in there and clean up that glass.” He recognized both men from other range wars. Neither was in his class with a gun, but if they decided to push him he’d happily reduce the number of outlaws on Lancer by two.
Johnny’s jaw tightened at the arrogant tone of command in Day’s voice. “What?” he called back, his eyes never leaving the men in front of him.
“I don’t like you pulling a gun on my men.”
“You want to make something of it?” Johnny still had his back to Pardee and that was making him uncomfortable.
He heard footsteps crunching across the loose dirt and stones of the yard, followed by the cold touch of metal against the back of his neck. Slowly, and carefully, he un-cocked his gun, slipping it back into his holster. Only then did he turn round. He didn’t like Day’s smile.
“You made up your mind, John?”
“Yeah, I made up my mind.”
Pardee lowered his gun before putting an arm around Johnny’s shoulder. “Why don’t we discuss it inside?” He turned his attention to the men that Johnny had threatened. “Ellis, Penner, get this mess cleaned up.”
The men muttered sullenly as they moved to obey. No one was willing to cross Pardee and risk a bullet.
“I didn’t expect to see you again so quickly,” Pardee continued, steering Johnny toward the front door.
An Indian stepped silently out of the shadows of the porch, a rifle cradled in his arms. He followed them into the house, taking up a position just inside the archway leading to the great room.
Johnny looked around curiously. The room was filled with mismatched furniture and an imposing dining table. One wall was lined with books, lamps stood on every available surface and pictures dotted the stark white walls.
Three things caught his attention. The first was a large model of a sailing ship. The once beautiful object now lay askew on the table, its masts broken. Next, was a map of Lancer hanging on the wall. Finally, he looked at the Lancer crest over the fireplace.
Johnny couldn’t tear his eyes away from this symbol of his heritage. “Yeah, sure.” He heard glasses clinking and reluctantly turned away. A bottle of tequila joined the glasses on a low table which, Johnny saw, was thickly covered in dust.
After settling in one of the chairs, he raised his glass in salute and drank. “You plannin’ to stay here long?”
“Scott Lancer might have some views on that.”
“I can handle Lancer, just like I handled his old man.”
Johnny’s gut churned. “You put the bullet in his back?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Just curious, Day.” Johnny maintained eye contact until Pardee smiled and looked away.
“What’s Lancer’s plan?”
Johnny shrugged and reached for the bottle. “Far as I can see, he ain’t got one. He’s out of his depth here.”
“I don’t think you’re giving him enough credit. He struck me as being a dangerous man. How did you come to get mixed up with this fight?”
“Lancer sent for me. He offered me a thousand dollars to fight for him. Trouble was, I arrived too late.” Johnny reckoned that wasn’t far from the truth. He’d long since reached the uncharitable conclusion that his father only wanted him for his prowess with a gun. “I asked around town, found he had a son and reckoned I had nothing to lose by offering him my protection, in return for a large fee.”
While Johnny had been talking, Pardee had stood up and walked over to the desk by the window. Johnny frowned as he saw the outlaw pick up a piece of paper.
“I’ve got something you might be interested in reading.”
Johnny’s spine tingled in warning as he rose to his feet, making no move to accept the paper. The doors leading to the patio opened to admit Coley and the other two men he’d seen earlier in town. All had their guns drawn and pointed at him. “What’s going on?”
“Murdoch Lancer was a very organized man,” Pardee said conversationally. “He kept all his important papers locked away in his desk. They made for very interesting reading. This,” he waved the document in Johnny’s direction, “is the final report from the Pinkerton Agency telling him that they’d managed to track down his younger son. So I’m curious, John. When were you going to tell me that your real name is Lancer?”
Johnny’s heart missed a beat before resuming its normal rhythm. Years of staring death in the face enabled him to mask his shock and the sudden spurt of fear. He backed up until he felt the touch of the chair behind him, then sat down. “Now, Day, I can explain.” The words emerged without a tremor.
“Kill him and be done with it.” Coley’s voice was filled with aggression.
Pardee, on the other hand, looked amused. “I’d never have figured you for a Lancer. You kept that quiet all these years.”
“Wasn’t any reason to tell anyone. My old man threw me and my mother out when I was a baby. Guess he didn’t want his half-breed mistake hanging around to remind him that he shoulda kept his pants on.” It wasn’t hard to lace his words with the right amount of venom. After all, this was what he had grown up believing.
“Why shouldn’t I let Coley shoot you right now?”
Day was perched comfortably on the edge of the desk, relaxed and in control of the situation. Johnny’s survival rested on a knife edge, and he was under no illusions about that.
“There are two legal owners of Lancer,” Johnny said, choosing his words carefully. “You could hang onto the ranch by killing both of us, but I’d say that might just stir up the rest of the ranchers enough to take you on. If they band together, you’ll lose, and you know it.”
Pardee’s expression remained interested without giving away his thoughts. “What exactly are you offering, John? What can you give me that would be worth your life?”
“I came here because my old man offered me a thousand dollars. I don’t know what’s in that report, but I bet he thought it was worth it to get a fast gun. I don’t give a damn that he’s dead or how he died. Neither do I have any interest in running a ranch. I’m offerin’ to sign over my share to you, all nice and legal, in return for you payin’ me off.”
“How about I just put a gun to your head and threaten to blow your brains out if you don’t sign Lancer over to me?”
“Then we both lose. There’s nothing you can threaten me with that will make me sign, because we both know you’d kill me before the ink was dry.”
“If that’s true, where’s your guarantee?”
Although Pardee was good at hiding his feelings, Johnny could see that the gunfighter was on the verge of taking the bait. “That’s easy. The transfer happens in Green River, in front of witnesses, and then I ride out with the money. You can stay here or get the full value of the ranch by selling it legally. We both know that, as things stand, you’ll have to pull out eventually. I know you’ll probably find a buyer, someone who doesn’t give a damn how you took control. But, you’ll be lucky to get ten cents on the dollar for that kind of deal.”
“What about your brother?”
“Half-brother,” Johnny corrected as casually as he could. “He don’t need the money. His granddaddy in Boston is rich and Scott’s gonna inherit the lot, eventually. All you need is to lean on him and he’ll go running back to his fancy house and parties.” A few weeks ago Johnny would have believed this. He knew better now and just hoped that Pardee was still willing to accept it. It would, of course, have been easier if Pardee hadn’t seen Scott for himself.
“He didn’t look that soft to me,” Coley interjected.
Johnny cursed softly under his breath. “He’s got his pride so he wasn’t gonna back down in public. Give me time and I can persuade him.”
“I don’t know, Madrid,” Day replied. “Let me think about it. Besides, if he’s that rich I might have some use for him.”
Johnny frowned as he realized what Pardee was suggesting. “You try and hold him for ransom and you’ll be buying yourself more trouble than you can handle.”
“We’ll see. Maybe he’ll pay to get you back.”
“I doubt it.”
“So do I.” Pardee’s expression turned cold. “Don’t try and leave, John – it wouldn’t be healthy for you. There’s a room upstairs you can use tonight.”
“You’re letting him run loose?” Coley took an aggressive step forward. “Take his gun and lock him up someplace.”
“You want to try and take my gun?” Johnny asked with a provocative smirk.
“Back off, Coley,” Day ordered. “If he tries to leave, you can do what you want with him. Otherwise, you stay out of his way.”
Johnny stood up, relaxed and deadly. “One day, Coley, I’ll make you eat that gun.”
“Don’t push it, Madrid,” Day snapped, his patience abruptly ending.
“I’m gonna take care of my horse.” Johnny waited a beat before continuing. “If you’ve no objection.”
Day nodded to the silently watching Indian. “None at all.”
With an insolent smile, Johnny walked toward the door, deliberately brushing past Coley McHugh as he did so. His guard followed along behind, a deadly reminder of the mess he was in. Foremost in his mind, though, was the irresistible urge to read the report that his father has commissioned. The thought that Murdoch Lancer had believed him to be nothing more than a hired killer disturbed the part of him that had always wanted a father to be proud of him.
It was long after dark and Scott still couldn’t sleep. He sat in the dim circle of light provided by the lamp in his bedroom, his thoughts racing in a dozen different directions. In part, his inability to settle could be attributed to the lingering aches from the beating he’d received. The main impediment, though, was his compulsion to revisit the events of the last few hours.
His growing regard for his brother had prevented him from following Johnny and begging him to reconsider. Sam had been quietly resigned to the situation, Teresa had been stridently insistent that he couldn’t allow Johnny to follow through on his decision to join up with Pardee. For whatever reason, she had developed an empathy with Johnny, and none at all with him. His refusal to seek Johnny out hadn’t improved that situation.
A tentative tapping on his door drew Scott carefully to his feet. Any sudden movement, he’d discovered, could still turn the dull ache in his head to searing agony. He moved stiffly, thanks to the tight strapping around his bruised ribs.
Sam was standing in the hallway looking as tired as Scott felt. “I saw your light and thought I would check on you before going to bed.”
Scott stood to one side to allow the doctor to enter the room. He waved the older man to the chair he had recently vacated, before perching uncomfortably on the edge of the bed. “I’ll live,” he replied wryly.
“You should be resting. It won’t be a comfortable ride to the Conway ranch tomorrow with a headache and sore ribs.”
“I’m not tired,” Scott lied. In truth, he was bone tired, yet unable to settle.
Sam didn’t look convinced. “You’re worried about Johnny.”
“Yes,” he admitted. “I don’t know what he’s trying to do. I thought we had agreed on a plan.”
“You don’t think…? No, I’m just being ridiculous.” Sam looked away as if ashamed of what he’d been thinking.
“What? That Johnny actually has decided to side with Pardee? It crossed my mind too.”
“You don’t believe it?”
“No, not any more. When he first came to Boston, and told me about the situation at Lancer, I accused him of trying to lure me here so that Pardee could kill me. His answer convinced me that wasn’t his intention. And, since then, I think I’ve come to know him a little better. If he had intended to change sides he’d have told me.”
“Then, why would he take such a foolish risk? Pardee is a cold-blooded killer.”
Scott shook his head, at a loss. “I have no idea, but Johnny knows the risks and I don’t imagine he survived as a gunfighter for so long without knowing how to take care of himself.”
“He is a very self-sufficient young man, as are you. I don’t imagine it was an easy decision to come here.”
“It wasn’t, although, I wish now that I’d had the opportunity to meet my father. You know, I grew up with this picture in my head of what he looked like and yet, I have no idea if it comes close to the reality.”
Scott couldn’t help seeing the expression of sadness which crossed the doctor’s face. “He was a big man, and I don’t just mean his physical stature. His presence is sorely missed by many in the valley. He was fair-minded, worked hard and provided leadership. He once told me that he had a grey hair for every good blade of grass on Lancer. He loved this land, but not as much as he loved his two sons. I know that he regretted the fact that you and your brother didn’t grow up together out here.”
“Then, why didn’t he come to Boston?” Scott burst out, years of pent-up anger rising to the surface. “I know what my grandfather told me and it doesn’t explain why a man would ignore his own son. Neither does it explain why he tried so hard to find Johnny.”
“I know that he was afraid for Johnny, rightly so as it turns out.”
“Yet, having found Johnny, he made no effort to send for him until his ranch was threatened.” Scott sighed, reining in his curiosity. It didn’t feel right to discuss Johnny’s past like this. If, one day, his brother chose to confide in him, he’d accept that as an honor and a sign of trust. Until then, he was prepared to be patient. “He knew where I was, and that I was safe. It’s a shame he never realized, or bothered to find out, that I’d far rather have been here with him, whatever the danger and uncertainty.” Having delivered that comment with a healthy dose of asperity, Scott began to feel uncomfortable. Discussion of his feelings wasn’t something he was used to, especially, not with a man he had only just met. “I think I will take your advice, Doctor, and get some sleep.”
Sam responded to the less than subtle hint by heaving himself stiffly to his feet. “Good idea. We can discuss over breakfast what you’re going to say to Henry and Aggie. Good night, Scott.”
After Sam had gone, Scott leaned back against the door with a heavy sigh. Although his bed beckoned, enticingly, he could tell that sleep was going to remain elusive. He returned to his chair, positioning it so that he could look out at the dark, deserted streets of Green River. “Be safe, Brother,” he whispered to the darkness.
This was where he’d been born. That thought carried with it a sense of unreality. This had been his one true home, even if only fleetingly. He’d tried over and over to resurrect some memory of his brief time here, even knowing it was a wasted effort. He’d been far too young to remember anything. Had there been a time, he wondered, when his parents had been happy together? Had his father greeted his birth with joy or disdain? The questions, so long suppressed, tumbled through his mind as if a dam had finally been breached.
Since learning of his father’s death, and the existence of a brother, he’d tried to pretend that this was just business – another range war only with more at stake. The knot in his stomach, when he considered the consequences of failure, told a different story. He wasn’t afraid to die – he was afraid of losing his one chance to have a home and a family.
The house was finally quiet. He’d kept to himself since being escorted to this room by his silent guard. The door was unlocked giving an illusion of freedom. So long as he abided by Pardee’s rules he wouldn’t be harmed – at least for now. Any hostile act, or attempt to slip away, would be swiftly dealt with.
He had waited in darkness, allowing his eyes to adjust. It had been some time since he’d last heard the tread of feet down the hallway and the sound of doors being opened and closed. Restless by nature, he nevertheless had a store of patience to draw on when necessary. Besides, he had more than enough thoughts to keep himself occupied.
When he finally opened the door, he wasn’t surprised to see his guard sitting on a chair across the hall. The Indian’s face remained impassive as he rose silently to his feet. Johnny ignored him, making his way down the back stairs to the kitchen. His stomach growled, but any appetite he might have had, fled when he saw the mound of dirty pans and dishes. Changing direction, he headed for the great room, thinking longingly of the abundant food he had enjoyed in Boston.
He hesitated before sitting in the leather chair behind the desk. This had been his father’s domain and he felt like an intruder. After lighting the lamp, he turned his attention to the desk drawers, quickly finding the Pinkerton reports. Without any scruples at all he started with the file relating to Scott. Scott – his brother. That thought still carried with it a sense of unreality. He opened the folder and pulled out the first page. Pardee’s initial impressions of the easterner would have been formed based upon the contents of this document. If he was going to be able to convince Day that Scott wasn’t a real threat, he needed to make sure that there was nothing here to contradict that.
He skimmed over the details of Scott’s early life, pausing when he reached the entry detailing Scott’s military career. His brother had enlisted at seventeen and, contrary to Johnny’s first assessment, had seen a significant amount of action. What stopped Johnny dead was the news that his brother had been captured and held prisoner for a year. Such a confinement in deteriorating conditions would test the will of any man. To emerge alive. and able to return to a normal life, suggested a great deal of strength hiding behind a slender and cultured exterior.
There were hints that Scott’s behavior had become wayward over the last few years and he’d developed quite a reputation with the ladies. Johnny smiled, remembering their night in Reno when Scott had effortlessly charmed the young saloon girl. She’d certainly had no complaints the next morning, but then, neither had his bed partner.
The final entry recorded Scott’s incredulous refusal to travel to California on the strength of an approach from a stranger and a bribe. Johnny wondered how Murdoch Lancer had felt when that was relayed to him. His own response, in a joyful reaction to his escape from certain death, had been the exact opposite. Had his father waited patiently for his return, only to surrender to death while he second-guessed his decision?
He stood, stretching taut muscles and considering the consequences of what he’d just read. The information in the report, and Scott’s reaction in town, made it almost impossible to present him as a worthless opponent. This made Johnny’s position even more precarious. Pardee was playing with him. What did he hope to gain, apart from a sense of perverse pleasure? There had to be an angle he hadn’t yet considered. Maybe he was going to be used as bait to lure Scott into a trap. Perhaps Pardee’s implied kidnapping threat carried some weight after all.
Almost unwillingly, he returned to the desk to see for himself what twisted version of the truth about his life had been presented to his father. Some of the pages were yellowed with age, single sheets dated many years previously, all reporting that attempts to trace Maria Lancer and her son, John, had met with failure. The reports were sporadic, causing Johnny to wonder if his father had renewed the efforts to find him whenever money became available. Whatever the truth, it was the final report that damned him. After months of intensive investigations the Agency was satisfied that John Lancer and Johnny Madrid were the same person. Names littered the pages – names of people half-remembered from his childhood and youth.
And then came the details of the men he’d killed. Some of the information was true. All was displayed dispassionately, a life laid bare on pristine sheets of paper. Yet, even after all that, his father had still sent for him. Was it because he wanted his son or a hired killer? The six month delay in sending someone to contact him suggested the latter. There might be people who could answer that – Sam, Teresa, friends of his father who he didn’t yet know. Unfortunately, he didn’t think he’d ever get the chance to ask the question.
He returned the files to their proper place. After extinguishing the lamp, he made his way back to his room, his silent shadow following after him. No doubt his activities would be reported to Pardee. All he could do now was to watch, listen and wait for an opportunity to take as many of them with him as he could. He entered his room, closed and locked the door and crossed to the window. “Watch your back, Brother,” he said to the night air, before lying fully clothed on the bed and waiting for the dawn.
“Open this damn door, Madrid.” Coley’s furious order was accompanied by hammering blows on the outside of the door.
Johnny took his time, garnering some amusement from the sounds of irritation. One day he’d have to kill McHugh, who was fiercely protective of his leader. That day, Johnny thought vindictively, couldn’t come soon enough. He turned the key and opened the door. “What do you want?”
Coley’s bulk almost filled the doorway and it was obvious that he wasn’t feeling any better disposed toward Johnny than he had the day before. “Pardee wants to see you.”
“Tell him I’ll be along.”
“Now!” McHugh made a grab for Johnny’s arm.
Johnny stepped back quickly, drew his gun and buried the barrel in the folds of fat covering McHugh’s stomach. The large man froze as Johnny’s cold stare bored into him. “Why don’t you be a good dog and go give your master my message?” Johnny suggested softly. “Or, perhaps you’re feeling lucky today,” he added hopefully.
“Don’t crowd me, boy.” To give Coley credit, there was no fear in his voice or demeanor.
A wide grin lit up Johnny’s face. “Day’s still telling you to back off, isn’t he? Oh boy, I bet it just sticks in your craw.”
“It won’t be for long. You’re living on borrowed time, Madrid. When Day gives the word, I’ll tear you into little pieces.” With a furious scowl, Coley backed out of the room.
Johnny slammed the door, taking a minute to compose himself. He was walking along the edge of a deadly precipice and one slip would send him over the edge. He couldn’t afford to show any fear or weakness, but pushing this hard could all too easily backfire on him.
By the time he strolled into the great room fifteen minutes later, he was cool and in control. Pardee was sitting at the head of the enormous dining table, flanked by Coley and the younger man Johnny had encountered in town. He ran his tongue over his lower lip, which was still bruised and swollen from the punch delivered by the man in front of him.
“I don’t like being kept waiting, John.”
“Too bad.” The chair scraped discordantly across the floor as Johnny pulled it out and sat. “You thought about my offer?”
“All in good time.” Pardee leaned forward, his dark stare intense. “I thought you might like to know that your brother is out visiting.”
“So?” Johnny’s stomach clenched. He should have guessed that Pardee would still have someone watching Scott.
“Aren’t you interested in who he’s seeing?”
Johnny bought himself some time by picking an apple out of a bowl on the table. He pulled out his small knife and carved a piece. “My guess would be one of the local ranchers.”
“Very good, John. He’s visiting the Conways.”
Johnny chewed thoughtfully. “Never heard of them,” he lied.
“Their ranch borders Lancer. Henry Conway is a very sick man, but he still has a lot of influence. His wife’s younger than him. She’s got a lot of spirit and is a real good looking woman.” Pardee licked his lips, a lascivious smile settling on his face. “We could have some fun with her.”
Johnny worked hard to hide the disgust and anger those words awoke in him. He had nothing other than contempt for men who abused women. “What’s your point, Day?”
Pardee’s smile disappeared. “My point is that it would be very bad news if they joined forces with your brother.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?”
“You said you could handle him. Warn him off. It won’t just be his life at stake if he stirs up the other ranchers.”
“No problem.” Johnny wiped the blade of his knife down the side of his trousers, folded it closed and slipped it back in his belt.
“Take Coley and Johnson with you.” Pardee’s smile was malicious.
Johnny’s smile was equally insincere. “Sure, Day. But, they leave Scott to me.”
When Johnny left to saddle his horse, Pardee indicated that Coley should stay behind. “I think it’s time to get rid of a couple of problems. Madrid and his brother are making real nuisances of themselves.”
There was eager anticipation on Coley’s face as he watched Johnny enter the barn. “You want me to kill him?”
“I want you to kill them both.”
It had been a long day and Scott was looking forward to getting back to Green River. The meeting with Henry and Agatha Conway had gone reasonably well, although there had been a number of uncomfortable moments. His first surprise had been Henry Conway, who was clearly unwell. He appeared to be a shadow of the man he once must have been. The rancher’s skin had the grey tinge of illness and he looked to have lost weight, with his cheeks sunken and the skin on his neck hanging in loose folds. On several occasions Henry had been assailed by a fit of coughing which left him drained. Scott hadn’t missed the concern on Agatha’s face or Henry’s efforts to hide his frailty.
Scott slowed his horse to a walk. His muscles were stiff and painful, made worse by being jostled around in the saddle and by too little sleep the night before. He wondered if there was any place in town where he could get a bath. It didn’t take much for him to imagine the heat soaking into his tired body, washing away the sweat, grime and aches.
With a rush of sound, a flock of quail took to the air, startling him out of his reverie. He’d insisted upon making the journey alone, unwilling to expose anyone else to the possibility of an ambush, yet, here he was daydreaming. He’d been taught better than that in the cavalry. Johnny wouldn’t be so careless. Thoughts of his brother brought with them a renewed concern which seemed almost preposterous. From what little had been said, it was clear that Johnny had been surviving without the intervention of an older brother for most of his life.
He looked around. The roadway meandered between fields, giving him a good view in every direction. He would be able to see anyone approaching from a good way off. However, there was scant cover around should he need to take shelter from an attack. He resisted the urge to push his horse into a gallop. He had a lot to think about and, since his release from prison, had found it easier to think in the open air rather than penned between four walls.
In addition to Mr. and Mrs. Conway, he had met Cipriano, the Lancer Segundo. In hindsight, he wasn’t sure why he’d been surprised to hear that most of the ranch hands were Mexican. Somehow, though, it hadn’t fit with the picture of a man who had supposedly thrown his wife and half-Mexican son out simply because of their heritage. Cipriano had spoken about his former employer with respect and affection, and appeared to have no problem with the concept of his new employer being an untried easterner.
He had worked hard during his visit to convey an aura of confidence, despite feeling badly out of his depth. It occurred to him, for the first time, that he had almost reached the point with his brother where he no longer had to pretend. His initial impulse to prove that he had could cope with anything had been gradually whittled away.
On more than one occasion, he’d wished that Johnny had been with him. Henry’s comments about him having a ‘tame’ gunfighter had almost been enough to provoke him into revealing Johnny’s identity. Time after time, Henry had needled him about his inexperience, until he’d finally lost his temper. Only then had he realized that it had all been a test to see if he had the guts to fight for his inheritance.
The discussion had then turned to his father, a man that everyone in the room except for him, had known well. It had been a strain to maintain a polite smile when Agatha had told him how proud his father had been of his achievements. He couldn’t imagine Murdoch Lancer talking about him, far less expressing pride, when they were strangers to each other. While bragging about his Harvard educated son had Murdoch then expressed his views on having a gunfighter in the family? Clearly not, otherwise his hosts would have known already about Johnny.
Scott had intended to approach the discussion as if the situation were a simple military problem. Unfortunately, hearing Henry and his wife talking about friends and neighbors who had been terrorized, hurt and, in some cases, murdered, made it very hard to maintain his objectivity. Henry described in graphic detail the deaths of a married couple who had lived on Lancer. The man had been shot before being hung by his ankles from the barn hoist. His wife had been repeatedly raped and had then had her throat cut. Bile rose in Scott’s throat as he thought of this atrocity. He’d seen brutality like this on occasions during the war and had never understood what could drive a man to behave like that.
It hadn’t been hard to see that Agatha hadn’t been happy with her husband for relating this event. However, Henry had been unapologetic. His view was that he wanted Scott to understand what it would mean to go up against Pardee and his men. And, truth be told, it was exactly what Scott had needed to hear. This wasn’t just a case, as he’d first thought, of reclaiming his birthright. It was an opportunity to save an entire community from the fate that had befallen Lancer.
The meeting had continued over lunch, with Henry finally agreeing to host a gathering of the other ranchers in two days. Messengers were dispatched, although Henry had warned that not all his neighbors would respond positively to the invitation. Cipriano had offered to round up the remaining Lancer ranch hands. Now, all they needed was a plan to lure Pardee out from the safety of the hacienda.
He was still a couple of miles from town when he realized that he was no longer alone. Three riders, cutting across a field were on course to intercept him. He briefly considered spurring his horse into a gallop and trying to outrun them. Then, he recognized one of the horses and brought his own mount to a standstill.
The men stopped about fifty yards away. With a deep sense of anger Scott recognized McHugh, who was responsible for his aching ribs. The other man was also familiar from the previous day. He watched as Johnny leaned over to say something to McHugh with a provoking smirk on his face. The answer didn’t appear to be polite, but there was no move to prevent Johnny riding forward alone. Relief at seeing his brother alive and unharmed washed over him. Belatedly remembering that Johnny was supposed to be nothing more than a hired gun, he stifled his welcoming smile.
“I was worried.” Scott kept his voice low.
“Well, you had reason. You ain’t gonna like this, Scott, but Pardee knows I’m a Lancer.”
Scott felt as if a cold bucket of water had been thrown over him. “How the hell did that happen?”
“You can blame our father for that.” Johnny’s eyes kept straying to the two men watching them. “He had reports on both of us, which Day found when he moved in.”
The thought of someone watching him, and sending reports to his father angered Scott and he wondered if his grandfather had known. Of course, there was a more immediate cause for concern. “If he knows who you are, why aren’t you dead or at least being held hostage?”
“I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. I reckon he’s playin’ with us. Not that I’m complaining.” Johnny gave a rueful smile. “I offered to sell him my share of the ranch…”
“You did what?” Scott’s horse skittered sideways as he unconsciously tightened his grip on the reins. “What did he say?”
“He says he’s thinkin’ about it. I don’t believe him.”
“And, just what do the two of you have in mind for my share?”
“I told him I could get you to back off and go home to Boston.”
Scott didn’t know what to think. “You’re the one who came to find me, remember? I thought the plan was to get him off our land, not give him legal title to it.”
“It is, but I had to come up with something to stop him shooting me.”
Scott glanced at the two outlaws. “This doesn’t feel right.”
“Yeah, I know. Day was real worried about your meeting today. Men like him rely on terror to keep the locals in line. If someone takes the lead…well, things can change.” Johnny took another quick look at his escorts. “I need to know if you’ve ever killed anyone.”
Scott covered his surprise. “Yes.”
“I reckon Day sent those two along to kill us. When the shooting starts don’t hesitate or try anything fancy. You won’t get a second chance, so you shoot to kill. Understand?”
Scott’s mouth was dry as he gave a brief nod. He’d shot men in the heat of battle. This felt very different, even though he knew it was necessary to save his own life. As Johnny guided his palomino round to face the two outlaws, Scott slipped the safety loop off his gun.
“McHugh.” Johnny’s voice carried clearly on the still air. “You man enough to face me?”
Scott couldn’t hear what was being said as the two outlaws spoke to one another. He could see that the younger man wasn’t happy with whatever it was.
With a sneer Coley swung down from his horse. “You’re dead, sonny boy.”
Johnny also dismounted and looked briefly up to the deep blue of the sky. “Well, I picked a good day for it.”
It was only as Johnny walked several paces to his left that Scott realized his brother had been gauging the position of the sun. McHugh’s companion remained mounted, all his attention on the two men now standing facing one another. Scott edged his horse to a position from which he would have a clear shot.
Scott couldn’t breathe as he watched his brother calmly facing McHugh. Just how good was Johnny Madrid? Scott had seen no demonstration of his brother’s skill with a gun. Would he be fast enough? He knew enough to understand that he couldn’t interfere in this life and death battle. There was a code that he would have to honor, even if it meant losing his brother, and probably forfeiting his own life.
He tore his eyes away from Johnny, concentrating instead on the other spectator. Two shots sounded almost simultaneously. Scott reached for his own gun a split second before the other outlaw moved. His heart stopped as he saw his opponent’s weapon clear its holster. Then, his own gun was in his hand. There was no time to aim. He pointed and fired. A burning pain in his arm caught him by surprise as the other man toppled sideways, a look of shock frozen on his face. The seconds stretched into hours as Scott watched the man hit the ground. Then, he turned back to look at the spot where his brother had been standing.
After the flurry of gunshots, silence fell abruptly. Johnny looked around quickly, alert for further danger. Johnson was clearly dead, a red stain spreading across the front of his shirt. He swung round, relieved beyond words when he saw that Scott was still alive. Relief turned to concern as he saw that there was blood on Scott’s left sleeve. However, Scott was at least mobile, dismounting slowly from his horse, and that would have to do until he had checked their other assailant. Johnny, his face expressionless, walked over to where Coley lay clutching his belly and moaning pitifully. They had fired almost simultaneously and he had instinctively taken several quick steps to his right after pulling the trigger. The bullet had still passed uncomfortably close.
“You gut shot me, you bastard,” Coley finally ground out through lips tinged with blue.
Johnny looked at the outlaw dispassionately before picking up Coley’s gun and hurling it into the distance. He turned away from the sight of blood seeping between the injured man’s fingers. It wasn’t in his nature to revel in any man’s pain, but he wasn’t prepared either to provide comfort or the bullet that would guarantee a quick release from the agony. It had never been his intention to inflict this particular wound. A clean kill had been what he was looking for, only Coley had been quicker on the draw than expected and he’d had to fire before he was ready.
Ignoring Coley’s increasingly feeble curses Johnny walked back to where Scott was leaning heavily against his horse, struggling to tie a bandana around the wound in his upper arm.
“Let me take a look at that,” Johnny offered.
Scott nodded, his lips pressed firmly together as he was helped over to a tree. He slid down to sit on the ground.
“That was good shootin’.” Johnny looked briefly over at Johnson’s body.
“Thanks. What about McHugh?”
Johnny shrugged. “He’ll be dead soon enough.” Inwardly, he flinched when he saw Scott’s shocked reaction to his callous words. It had become too easy to forget that they came from very different lives. “Let’s get this cleaned up.”
He unbuttoned Scott’s shirt, helping his brother to ease his left arm out of the sleeve. After fetching his canteen, he poured water carefully over the wound, causing Scott to suck in a sharp breath.
“Looks like that bullet made quite a mess of your arm, Brother.” Johnny wiped away the remaining blood and dirt. “We’ll get Sam to stitch it up when we get back to town.” He wrapped the bandana around the arm, tying it securely in place. “You do know it was a damn stupid move to be riding out here on your own. Didn’t it occur to you that Pardee might set up an ambush?”
Scott grimaced as he struggled back into his shirt. “Yes, it occurred to me. And, it wasn’t half as stupid as riding to Lancer to join up with the man who killed our father and stole our land.”
“I don’t need a lecture,” Johnny began heatedly, stopping when he saw the hint of a smile lighting up Scott’s pale face.
“Neither do I.” Scott pushed himself to his feet, looking drained and unsteady.
“You’re tougher than you look, Boston,” Johnny offered with honest admiration.
“I’ve had worse.”
“Yeah, I know. I read the Pinkerton report.”
Lines of anger joined the pain on Scott’s face. “Who gave you the right to do that?”
Johnny immediately began to feel defensive. “I ain’t gonna apologize. I needed to know what Pardee had found out about you, seein’ as I’d been trying to persuade him that you weren’t a threat.”
“It looks like you failed.” Scott’s voice was cold and unfriendly.
“What did the report say about you?” Scott pressed.
His brother’s question was tinged with anger and he couldn’t help but wonder if Scott was still infuriated with the fact that everyone seemed to feel it was permissible to spy on him. Johnny couldn’t really blame him. Rather than argue, he offered his own compromise. “What does it matter? Look, Scott, if you want to read it after we throw Pardee off our land, go ahead. It’ll show you exactly what kind of man you’re in partnership with.”
Scott’s answer was swift and to the point. “I’m in partnership with my brother. Good or bad, the past is gone. I’m not going to judge the choices you made.”
Johnny nodded slowly, not quite managing to hide just how much those words meant to him. Suddenly embarrassed, he turned away to look back at the dying outlaw. While they had been talking Coley had fallen still, his eyes glazing over. There was a final rattling breath before his heart gave out and his body went limp.
“That should stir up a hornet’s nest at Lancer,” Johnny said, satisfied. “Come on. It’s time to go.”
“What about them?”
Johnny’s expression was hard. “Leave ‘em. Pardee’ll send men out to look for them when they don’t turn up.”
Scott looked as if he was going to argue, then shook his head and turned away. He grunted with the effort of climbing back into the saddle. “What happens when he finds out that two of his men are dead and that we’re still alive?”
“He ain’t gonna be happy.”
“Why do I get the feeling that’s an understatement?”
It had been hours since he’d dispatched Coley and Johnson to deal with Madrid and his brother. Over an hour ago he had sent another two of his men to find out what was going on. Since then, he had been drinking steadily and reading the Pinkerton reports. It was clear that something had gone wrong and that, although he didn’t want to admit it, he’d underestimated the Lancers. It wasn’t a mistake he’d made with their old man. Murdoch Lancer had been easily lured into the trap that had ultimately claimed his life. Maybe he should just have shot Johnny as well while he had the chance.
He was feeling the effects of the strong liquor by the time Harry and Joe reported back. “Well?” he demanded pouring another shot of tequila and scowling as half of it missed the glass, soaking the papers lying on the desk.
Harry cleared his throat. “They’re…ah, they’re dead, Boss.”
“Dead?” Pardee squinted at his men. “Who’s dead?”
“Coley and Johnson.” Harry looked apprehensively at his partner. “They were both shot.”
Pardee’s face was flushed as he swept an arm angrily across the table, scattering glass and paper all over the floor. He staggered to his feet, his fingers clenching into fists as he turned to face his men. “What about Madrid and his brother?”
“There were some tracks, but no sign of anyone else.” Harry shuffled his feet uneasily before continuing. “We…we brought their bodies back. Coley’d been gut shot.”
Pardee could feel himself flushing with rage. “Johnny Madrid’s a dead man. Tell the rest of the men that he’s mine.”
“Sure, Day.” Joe began to sidle back toward the door.
“I’ll burn that damn town down around their ears!” Pardee continued as his anger continued to rise and consume him. “No one stands up against me and lives to brag about it!”
“Wha…what d’you want us t…to do, Boss?” Harry stammered.
“Dig a couple of graves while I think.”
He brooded alone, allowing an icy calm to settle over him, until Harry returned to report that they were ready to bury their fallen comrades. The graves had been dug in the pasture just beyond the corral. The bodies had been wrapped in once-white sheets that were now stained with grass, dirt and blood. All the men had gathered silently round, their hats removed and their faces somber.
Johnson and Coley had been two of his most trusted and loyal followers. Once, many years ago, he had believed that Johnny would grow into the role of his lieutenant. The boy had been eager to learn and respectful toward the man he saw as his teacher. Gradually, however, it had become clear that Johnny didn’t have the stomach for some of the more extreme tactics that they were often called upon to use. Pardee hadn’t stood in Johnny’s way when the younger man decided to leave. He’d been astute enough to realize that, given time, Johnny could have become a formidable rival. Now, Johnny was responsible for the deaths of his men, and he would have to pay for that.
As the bodies were lowered into the graves, Pardee broke the uneasy silence. “It seems that taking Lancer wasn’t enough to convince people that I own this valley. I want men watching every route out of Green River and I want to know the minute either of the Lancers leave town. The rest of you, check your gear and get in some target practice. We have work to do.”
The room was bathed in the gentle glow from the dying fire as Scott finished relating the details of his visit to Henry and Aggie Conway. He was pale, tired and not entirely clearheaded. By the time he and Johnny had reached Sam’s earlier in the day, pain and exhaustion had almost conspired to send him crashing to the ground. Johnny’s steadying hand had been very welcome.
Sam had immediately taken charge, cleaning, stitching and bandaging the gunshot wound. Laudanum, he discovered, helped to take the edge off the pain despite tasting vile. Teresa had assisted Sam without any real enthusiasm. She seemed more concerned about Johnny and any hardships he might have endured during his brief incarceration at Lancer. Scott wondered, uncharitably, if victory over Pardee would inevitably lead to them inheriting her as a ‘step-sister’.
Johnny was lying comfortably across one of the sofas, not looking in the least bit concerned about the violence of the day or the fact that they had both come within a heartbeat of death. Scott wondered if he would ever get to the point where death didn’t make him feel sick to his stomach.
“How many ranchers did they reckon would come to this meeting they’re arranging?” Johnny asked.
Scott caught himself on the edge of drifting off to sleep. “It’s difficult to tell. Henry sent messages to half a dozen of them.” He looked enquiringly at Sam who had the advantage of knowing everyone in the area.
“I’d expect Jake Mendoza to turn up. His ranch borders Lancer and he isn’t very comfortable having Pardee as a neighbor. Driscoll and Santee will probably come as well. They like a good fight.”
“Cipriano was rounding up the men who worked for our father. He told me that ten or twelve were still in the area, working for some of the other ranchers.”
“They are all good men. At one time, Lancer had over a hundred and fifty vaqueros. By the time Pardee had finished, there were less than fifteen left. The others weren’t prepared to risk their lives, and the lives of their families.” Sam cast a critical eye over his patient. “You should rest.”
“I will,” Scott assured him.
“Sam’s right.” Johnny swung his legs round and sat up. “Come on, Brother.”
Scott acquiesced, too tired to argue. He was surprised when Johnny followed him up the stairs and stood hesitantly in the doorway. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s…nothing.” Johnny turned to leave.
“Why don’t you stay and talk a while? This arm’s too uncomfortable to let me sleep yet.” Scott sat down and waited.
Johnny entered the room, closed the door and leaned one shoulder against the wall before crossing his arms. “I just thought you might like to know what the hacienda is like.”
“I’ve tried to picture it,” Scott admitted. “It’s hard to imagine our father building it and living there alone all these years. It looks big enough for two or three families.”
“It is. I didn’t get a chance to see all of it. Day kept me on a pretty tight rein. There’s this big room downstairs with lots of windows and a huge fireplace. It’s the sort of room you could imagine sitting in on a cold winter’s evening.”
Scott wasn’t sure if Johnny was aware of the longing in his voice as he spoke of the home where he had been born. “What else did you see?”
“The barns, bunkhouses, kitchen and one of the bedrooms. Like I said, Day wasn’t letting me wander too far. I did see an odd building near the corral. It looked older than the house. I reckon it was built by the Spaniards.”
“Did you get a chance to see how many men were there?”
“Yeah. Pardee has about twenty men. They’re not all topnotch gunfighters though. Some are good enough, but I reckon we took care of two of the best earlier today.”
Scott grimaced as he thought back to McHugh’s painful and prolonged death. “I’m still not entirely happy about leaving their bodies out there.”
Johnny pushed himself away from the wall, crossing to the bed and sitting on the edge. “It was necessary. We’ve sent Pardee a message – one that he can’t ignore. The only chance we’ve got is to draw him out. If he does nothing, he risks his men thinking he’s gone soft. Besides, do you think anyone in this town would have paid for a decent burial for those two?”
“No, I don’t suppose they would.”
“Do you think we’d have been treated with any more respect if they’d done what they were sent to do?”
“That doesn’t mean we have to descend to their level,” Scott argued.
“Yes, it does.” Johnny leaned forward intently. “This is a dirty business and you do whatever you have to in order to win. Don’t ever lose sight of that, or the next bullet that hits you will do a lot more damage than the one today. There are no rules and no one’s gonna give you the chance to surrender if things go wrong. So, if you want to change your mind…”
“I don’t.” Scott gave his reply with asperity.
“I didn’t think so.” Johnny stood and stretched. “We should both get some sleep. I know we’ve got a couple of days until that meeting, but we can’t afford to let our guard down. Besides, Day’s still got at least one man in town and I want him to see that we’re not hiding.”
“There’s something else we have to do tomorrow.”
“Introduce the good citizens of Green River to Johnny Lancer.”
“You sure you want to claim me as your brother?”
“I could ask you the same question. I haven’t exactly covered myself in glory so far.”
“For a Boston greenhorn you’ve done pretty damn well.” Johnny’s smile removed any hint of sarcasm from his words.
“Thanks. And, to answer your question – not only am I happy to claim you as my brother, I can’t wait to see the shocked looks when they all realize they’ve been looking down on the man who is part owner of the biggest ranch in these parts.”
Johnny’s grin widened as his eyes sparkled with amusement. “Yeah, that’ll really be something. I’ll see you in the morning.”
After tossing and turning for an hour, Scott gave up his futile efforts to find a comfortable position. Finally, after struggling back into his trousers, he found he didn’t have the energy to button his shirt. He left it hanging open and padded softly on bare feet out into the hallway. The stairs creaked as he made his way carefully downstairs in the darkness. A light still shone under the kitchen door. He hesitated, not being in the mood for company. However, his mouth was feeling parched and he was reluctant to return to his room without fetching something to drink.
He opened the door quietly. Teresa was sitting at the kitchen table and the glance she sent his way wasn’t welcoming.
“I didn’t expect anyone to still be awake.” Scott chose to ignore her unspoken animosity as he reached for the pitcher of water.
“I haven’t found it easy to sleep since my father was killed.”
“I know this must have been hard for you…” he began, diplomatically.
“You have no idea what it’s been like for me.”
Keen to avoid a confrontation with the young woman, Scott kept his tone polite and formal. “You’re right. I’m sorry that I intruded. Good night, Teresa.”
Scott turned back reluctantly, discomfited by the sight of tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes.
“Why didn’t you come when Murdoch sent for you?”
Scott bowed his head as he considered how to answer. Although she deserved honesty, there was a limit to what he wished to tell her. “I had no reason to believe that he cared anything about me. Tell me, Teresa, how would you have felt if you had been approached by a stranger and told that your father wanted to see you for the first time? I was given no information – no reason to travel across the country, so I declined the offer.”
“Yes, he did.” Scott didn’t feel that it was his place to tell Teresa why Johnny had come. Neither did he want to inflame an already uncomfortable encounter. “I am sorry that you lost your father, but I won’t apologize for making the decision to stay in Boston.” He turned away, intending to leave her alone with her memories.
“Murdoch loved you.”
That stopped him in his tracks, awakening feelings he had thought long banished. “You’ll have to forgive me if I find that hard to accept. His silence as I was growing up would suggest otherwise.”
“He had his reasons.”
Regaining control of himself, he turned back. “I’m sure he did. It’s clear that you loved him and want to defend him. Now isn’t the time. Perhaps, if we are successful in running Pardee off our land, we can talk further.”
“How can you be so cold?”
Her words cut through him. Tired and in pain, he found he could no longer hold on to the politeness that had been ingrained into him by his grandfather. “What do you expect me to say? I was deprived of the chance to grow up with my father because he and my grandfather decided that I would be safer in Boston. I wasn’t told that I had a brother. If it hadn’t been for Johnny, I wouldn’t have known that my whole life had been built on a foundation of lies.” The passion drained out of him as he saw that mere words would never lessen her hostility. “There’s nothing I can do about the past. All I would ask is that you give me the chance to build a future here. Good night, Teresa.”
It was almost noon before Scott appeared the next day. Johnny, who knew exactly how his brother would be feeling, had insisted upon leaving him to sleep. By the time Scott made it as far as the kitchen Sam was out on a call and Teresa had gone to visit friends.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” Scott asked, accepting the cup of coffee that Johnny was holding out to him.
“I figured you could use your rest. There ain’t much we can do today anyway.”
“Maybe not, but I could do with getting out of here.”
Johnny nodded, his thoughts returning to the information in Scott’s file about his lengthy imprisonment. He’d never been locked up for more than a few weeks at a time and even that had been enough to drive him crazy. “You hungry?”
Scott smiled. “Are you volunteering to cook?”
“Not a chance, Brother. There’s a café a couple of blocks down.” As he stood, he automatically adjusted his gunbelt. “Don’t forget your gun.”
Scott’s movements were awkward and slow as the injury to his arm hampered him. Johnny waited patiently, impressed with the quiet stoicism. This brother of his was turning out to be full of surprises.
“Do you think that Pardee will have sent men into town?”
“It’s possible. I don’t think we have to worry about them trying anything, though. Day will want to be around when he springs whatever trap he has in mind.”
“I’ve been thinking about that and I’ve got some ideas for a trap of our own. I’d be interested in having your views.”
Johnny held the door open. “This won’t be like any of those military operations you were involved in during the war.”
“Don’t be so sure. Let me tell you what I have in mind.”
Scott rapidly outlined his plan as they strolled down to the café. Johnny listened, adding some comments and suggestions. As they stepped up onto the boardwalk outside the café he gave his brother a light slap on the back. “You know something, Scott? I’ve gotta hand it to you. You can be real sneaky.” He grinned broadly.
As they entered the café, silence fell among the customers. A man, who Johnny took to be the proprietor, hurried up to them. Pointedly ignoring Johnny, he addressed himself to Scott.
“Mr. Lancer. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Ike Paterson and I own this humble establishment.”
Johnny barely retrained a rude snort and, glancing sideways, noted his brother stifling a grimace.
“The pleasure is mine, Mr. Paterson.”
“I’m sure you’re used to much finer fare than we can offer you here,” Ike continued. “But, my wife is a wonderful cook.”
“I’m sure she is.” Scott tried to maneuver past the man to get to a table. “If you don’t mind, we’d like to sit down.”
“I…well, please don’t take this the wrong way, Mr. Lancer, but…” Ike stuttered, casting frightened glances toward Johnny.
Johnny grinned. “What he’s trying to say is that he don’t want my kind in his ‘humble establishment.’”
“Is that correct, Mr. Paterson?” Scott asked, his direct gaze pinning the man in place.
“He…he pulled a gun on one of my customers a couple of days ago. That sort of thing isn’t right in respectable premises.”
When Scott turned to look at his brother there was more than a hint of mischief in his expression. “Is that right, Johnny?”
Johnny shrugged, eagerly anticipating what would come next. “Yeah.”
“I see.” Scott looked around at the other customers who had given up any pretense of disinterest. When he next spoke, his voice had been pitched to carry to every table. “I’m sure my brother had his reasons.”
It took a minute for the significance to sink in. All eyes turned to Johnny, who gave a satisfied smirk.
“Brother?” Ike queried incredulously. “He’s your brother? He can’t be. He’s a gunfighter.”
Scott’s affable expression had disappeared and Johnny was immediately reminded of the unwelcoming stranger he had first encountered in Boston.
“Johnny is Murdoch Lancer’s son and my younger brother. His previous profession is none of your business, although it seems to me that you should be glad he’s here to help rid this valley of Day Pardee and his men.”
“But, he’s…he’s…” Ike’s voice faded away as he finally seemed to realize the damage it could do to his business to insult a member of the Lancer family. “I’m sorry for any misunderstanding, gentlemen. Please, sit down. The meal is on the house.”
As the brothers sat at the table and studied the menu, they could hear snatches of conversation. Amid all the speculation were comments that Johnny tried his best to ignore. The ones directed toward him he could handle. What hurt were the disparaging remarks directed toward his mother’s behavior. He kept his head down to hide his growing anger.
After placing their order, Scott leaned over. “Don’t let these narrow minded busybodies get to you.”
“It ain’t the first time I’ve had to listen to people bad-mouthing my mother.”
“I’m sorry, Johnny. It can’t have been easy for you. My experience is that gossip all dies down in time. Once they get to know you…”
“That’s just it, Scott. They ain’t gonna be interested in getting to know me.”
“Then, that will be their loss. But, I think you’re wrong. Oh, I know they’ll start off being nice to you because of your name, but eventually, they’ll work out that you’re a decent man who deserves a second chance.”
“Maybe. To hell with them anyway, Brother.” He picked up the coffee cup that Ike had just filled. “Here’s to throwing Pardee off our land.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
Secure in a friendship that neither had anticipated, they ignored all the discussion raging around them and enjoyed the simple pleasure of sharing a meal in each other’s company. Neither had forgotten the dangers lying in wait for them, but they set those aside for an hour of idle conversation, and the chance to pretend that they hadn’t grown up separated by the width of a continent.
By dawn the next day, they both had their horses saddled and were ready to depart. Sam and Teresa had both risen early to bid them farewell. When Teresa flung her arms around him, Johnny felt a little embarrassed. He’d seen how cool she was with Scott, blaming him for not responding to their father’s summons. No doubt she’d be equally unhappy if she knew that he’d only come for the money.
“Don’t worry, querida,” he murmured into her ear. “We’ll be fine.”
He heard her sniffle back a tear before she nodded and released her grip. He wasn’t sure who got the greater shock when she walked over to Scott and kissed him on the cheek.
“Both of you be careful.”
“We will.” Scott smiled down at her. “Thank you, Teresa.”
She stepped back and Johnny could see how hard she was working to keep her fear under control. She had already lost so much – more than they had. She had known and loved her father, only to lose him to a cowardly ambush and a bullet in the back. She had also loved Murdoch Lancer, her guardian for a brief time, until death had crept up and taken him too.
He was pleased to see that Scott was moving more easily than he had the previous day. It was as if his brother was making a concerted effort to ignore his injuries. He knew that Scott had refused to take any medication, arguing that it would blunt his senses and his ability to react to danger. Sam hadn’t pressed the issue, although he had been heard to mutter that Scott had inherited a full dose of his father’s stubbornness.
He watched his brother methodically pull on his gloves, almost as if it was a calming ritual. In his experience, it was the ordinary everyday routines that kept you sane when your whole world exploded into madness. He had spent hours cleaning and polishing his gun the previous evening. All the bullets, in the weapon itself and his gunbelt had been removed and replaced with fresh ones. Scott had taken equal care of his revolver and rifle. They had worked in companionable silence for hours, readying themselves for the fight ahead.
The fight would come soon, probably at dawn the next day. Johnny felt it in his bones. Pardee wouldn’t be able to resist the lure that they would dangle in front of him. Everything now hinged upon securing agreement to their plan from Henry and Agatha Conway and whichever of the ranchers responded to their request for a meeting. Without their help victory would be impossible. He and Scott had discussed that possibility. Neither of them wanted to back down, but what choice would they have? Neither had put into words the inevitable consequence of that, although Johnny could see that knowledge in his brother’s eyes. Scott would return to Boston and he would return to his life as a gunfighter. The only common ground they had was Lancer and, if that were lost to them, they would inevitably go their separate ways. Johnny offered up a silent prayer that fate wouldn’t be that cruel to them.
“Be careful, Scott.”
Johnny’s attention was drawn back to the present as he heard Sam’s voice, which was not quite steady.
“Don’t worry, Doc. I’ll watch his back.” Johnny saw one blond eyebrow rise in response to that.
“Don’t either of you do anything foolhardy,” Sam admonished.
“I’ll make sure Johnny behaves,” Scott replied, blandly. “Thank you for everything, Sam. Look after Teresa until we get back.”
Johnny shook the doctor’s hand before following his brother outside. They both owed Sam more than they could ever repay. If it hadn’t been for the doctor they might never have met. It had been Sam who had encouraged him to go to Boston to seek out this stranger who was his brother. Sam had loaned him the money and had then given them a place of refuge.
Scott was already mounted and waiting, staring in the direction of the rising sun. “It’ll be daylight soon.”
Johnny swung easily into the saddle. “Day’ll have men watching the main road out of town. Keep alert and don’t stop for anything. Ready?” There was a slight nod from Scott. “Then, let ‘em buck.”
“Boss! Boss!” Charlie Ellis brought his horse to a sliding stop outside the front door of the hacienda.
Pardee screwed up his eyes against the glare of the sun as he stepped outside. He’d kept his men hard at work, checking their gear and shooting at targets while he plotted the final downfall of the Lancer family. As he’d consoled himself with thoughts of a painful and prolonged death for Johnny Madrid, he’d consumed copious amounts of liquor. Now, his head was pounding and his stomach felt sour.
“They’ve left town?”
Charlie gulped a mouthful of water from his canteen before answering. “They’re headed for the Conway ranch.”
“Get the men mounted up.”
“All of them?” Charlie asked in surprise. “Ain’t we gonna leave anyone here to defend the ranch?”
“After today we won’t have to worry about anyone trying to take back the ranch.”
Johnny knew that they were being watched and it sent a prickle down his spine. They had ridden hard and fast, keeping well clear of any potential ambush sites. Rounding a bend in the road he finally saw the entrance to the Conway ranch. There was no one in sight, which was unusual for a working ranch. He caught a glint of sunlight hitting the barrel of a rifle and smiled to himself. Henry Conway was no fool. The ranch might look deserted, but he would bet that there were at least a dozen rifles pointed at them right now.
Fortunately, it appeared that Scott had been recognized as the front door opened and two men stepped out.
“The man on the left is Henry Conway,” Scott told him in a low voice as they came to a standstill. “I don’t know who the other man is.”
Johnny studied their host. “He doesn’t look well.”
“I’d say he was dying. It would be a mistake to underestimate him, though. His mind is still sharp.”
They dismounted and walked up the stairs side by side.
“I see you’ve brought your gunfighter with you this time.”
Johnny gritted his teeth at Conway’s less than cordial tone.
“No, Mr. Conway,” Scott replied, “I’ve brought my brother.”
A spark of interest replaced the contempt. “Maria’s boy?”
“Yes, I can see the resemblance now. Did Murdoch know?”
“He knew and he was stupid enough to leave the proof lyin’ around. Pardee found it and I was lucky he didn’t blow my brains out.”
“You know Pardee?” The question came from the other man.
“Day and I go back a long way. He didn’t take kindly to findin’ out that I’d lied to him.”
“I don’t like this, Henry,” the man continued. “I don’t care if he is Murdoch’s son. He’s still a gunfighter and they can’t be trusted.”
“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.” Scott moved between Johnny and the two older men. “I’m Scott Lancer and the man you’re insulting is Johnny Lancer. You might like to keep that in mind.”
“Don’t you take that tone with me, boy.”
“Cool down, Ray.” Henry pressed a hand to the other man’s chest. “Boys, this is Ray Driscoll. His ranch borders mine to the west.”
Johnny stepped forward. “I can see why you wouldn’t welcome me, Mr. Driscoll. We’ve all seen what can happen during a range war and it ain’t pretty. Right now, you’ve got a rabid dog living right next door and, like it or not, there’s a good chance he’ll turn on you. There’s only one way to stop him and I think you know that or you wouldn’t have come here today. Now me and Scott have an idea that just might rid this valley of Pardee for good. Are you willing to hear us out?”
“Guess I might as well as I’m already here,” Driscoll conceded grudgingly.
“How many men did you bring with you?”
“Eight of my best hands. It isn’t safe to ride alone these days.”
“How many other ranchers have said they’ll come today?” Scott asked.
“Santee, Mendoza and Rafferty all sent word to say they’d be here. They have spreads that most closely border Lancer.”
“They’ll all bring men with them.” Johnny did some quick calculations, deciding that he liked the odds.
The sound of hoof beats brought all four men sharply alert.
“It’s Cipriano,” Henry informed Johnny before the dust caught in his throat. He began to cough, holding a handkerchief against his mouth. As the coughing fit ended, Johnny saw that the cloth had become spotted with blood. Seeing the direction of his gaze Henry quickly returned the handkerchief to his pocket.
“Why don’t you go inside, Mr. Conway?” Johnny suggested. “We’ll be along in a minute.”
Henry and Driscoll went inside, leaving Johnny and Scott to greet the newcomers. Cipriano was accompanied by a dozen men, all Mexican.
“Senor Lancer,” the Segundo called, addressing Scott. “These men all worked for your father. They wish to demonstrate their loyalty to their new Patron.”
Scott walked to the edge of the porch. “Your loyalty is unquestioned. Dr. Jenkins has told me how you all stood by our father until the end.”
There was a murmur of sound as the significance of Scott’s choice of words sank in. Johnny silently joined his brother and they waited for the sound to die down.
“Most of you will know,” Scott continued, “that Murdoch Lancer had two sons. This is my brother, Johnny. He and I own equal shares in Lancer.”
Johnny withstood the speculative looks. He had no doubt that they all knew him as Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, and that it would take time for them to accept him as Johnny Lancer. That was time they didn’t have at present. “It’s likely that Pardee will attack today,” he told them bluntly. “Cipriano, you and your men know Lancer better than anyone. Is there a back way to the ranch from here? One that Pardee won’t know about.”
“Si, Senor. There is a narrow pass that cuts between the hills. It is much overgrown and little used.”
“Good. Then this is what we want you to do.”
The room was full of men arguing, each one voicing an opinion without listening to what anyone else had to say. It was giving Scott a headache to add to his other discomforts. Johnny, standing quietly to one side, was eating a slice of Aggie’s sponge cake, his face fixed in an expression of pure bliss. Scott fought an almost irresistible urge to laugh. Aggie, not in the least overawed, was sitting beside her husband, interjecting comments which Scott thought showed more sense than many of the men were displaying.
“I’m not asking any of my men to throw themselves up against Pardee and his cutthroats while they’re sitting safe behind Lancer’s walls.”
The belligerent statement came from Santee, a man that Scott had taken an instant dislike to.
“If you’d all stop yelling and listen for a minute, you’d find that ain’t what we’re suggesting,” Johnny interrupted.
Santee paused in his tirade to glare at Johnny. “We don’t need a gunfighter telling us what to do.”
“I think that’s exactly what we need,” Aggie said placidly. “Johnny, dear, come and sit down.”
Johnny sauntered over to the table with a deadly grace. It was easy to see that he was entirely in his element. Scott wondered if his volatile brother could ever settle to the mundane life of a rancher.
“A couple of days ago Scott and I killed two of Pardee’s men. He ain’t gonna stand still for that. My guess is that he and his men are on their way here right now to finish us off.”
That provoked another outburst from Driscoll, Santee and Rafferty. Scott, watching the ranchers carefully, saw that only Henry Conway and Jake Mendoza were taking the news quietly.
“You set us up,” Driscoll snarled, half rising to his feet. Mendoza’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“I would like to hear what the Lancers propose. Murdoch was good to me when I first bought my land. In fact, he helped all of us out at one time. We owe his sons a fair hearing.”
As Johnny pulled out a chair, Scott took over. “Pardee can’t take on the whole valley and win. He knows that. He relies on fear to keep control. That’s why he targeted the largest ranch. If a man as powerful as our father was can be defeated, what hope do the rest of you have?”
“I’ve seen my share of range wars.” Johnny took up the argument. “Each man becomes obsessed with hanging on to his own land. He starts to look on his neighbor as a potential threat, rather than as an ally. He ignores the fact that banding together would make it easier to defeat the threat. Time and again, I’ve seen ranches swallowed up because their owners were too mule-headed to help each other out.”
Santee’s face turned a mottled shade of red. “I’m not going to sit here and be insulted.”
“That’s exactly what you’re going to do.” Henry’s voice caught as he stifled a cough. “We sat back and let Lancer be overrun. I know Murdoch didn’t ask for our help, but we could have offered it. You all know I’m dying.” He looked at each man in turn. “Well, I’ll die a lot happier knowing that Pardee won’t march in here and take over, before my body has had a chance to go cold.”
Tears were forming in Aggie’s eyes as she reached over to grip her husband’s hand. There was an embarrassed silence before Santee growled at the brothers to get on with it.
“We have to play Pardee at his own game,” Scott explained. “Right now, his main aim is to kill Johnny and me before we can instigate a united front against him. He undoubtedly knows that we are here and he’ll be waiting for us to leave.
“We know he has no more than twenty men, so he isn’t going to risk an all out attack on this ranch unless he thinks he has us outnumbered. While you gentlemen are here, he is the one with too few men, and he’s smart enough to work that out.”
“What do you want us to do?” Brad Rafferty asked.
“We want you to leave and take your men with you. Pardee will leave you alone. It’s us he wants and he won’t risk his men out in the open. You go just far enough for him to think you are headed for home and then you turn back. When he realizes that we aren’t leaving, he’ll throw everything he’s got against us. Once you hear the gunfire, you take him in the rear.”
“What happens if he and some of his men get away?” Jake Mendoza asked reasonably. “All we will have done is to stir up more trouble for ourselves.”
With a self-satisfied smirk Johnny leaned back in his chair. “Anyone who high tails it back to Lancer will run right into Cipriano and a dozen heavily armed and loyal Lancer vaqueros.”
Driscoll slapped his hand down on the table, causing Aggie’s china to rattle. “Damn me, boys, you’ve come up with one hell of a plan. Your daddy would have been proud.”
“Thank you, Sir. Now, if we are agreed in principle, perhaps we can get down to the details.”
The discussions had been going on for some time. Johnny had demanded a detailed description of the land around the house, so maps had been produced and now lay spread out on the table. He had quickly assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the terrain, offering suggestions as to where each group of men should assemble. He’d then stood back and let them argue. Scott, he noticed, had taken his time studying the maps and asking questions before nodding his agreement.
Hearing the clatter of dishes he picked up a cup and plate, carrying it over to the tray that Aggie was loading.
She appeared quite composed now, although Johnny knew better. “Let me help you.”
He picked up the tray and followed her from the room. The kitchen was hot, with a side of beef roasting on a large spit and pans of vegetables bubbling on the range.
“I’m sorry we brought so much trouble to your door, Ma’am.”
“The trouble isn’t your doing, Johnny. I just wish that Murdoch was still alive to see you and Scott working together like this. He would be very proud of you both.”
Johnny ducked his head to hide his surprise. “Sam says you were good friends.”
“We were. He often spoke of you and Scott, and his regret that you didn’t grow up here together.”
“Life is full of regrets, Ma’am. In my experience, it’s what you do about them that makes the difference.”
“He tried to find you.”
“He did find me. I guess he didn’t like what he found, though, seein’ as he waited six months to send for me.”
The shock on her face couldn’t have been feigned. “He never said anything.”
“I reckon that tells you something.”
“Don’t judge him too harshly, Johnny.”
“I don’t judge him at all.” The lie was smoothly told. “I’d best be getting back. Day’ll be in position by now so we need to get started. I’m sure the men’ll appreciate something to eat before they go. It’s gonna be a long night.”
Pardee looked back at the small valley where his men were waiting. They were on edge and unhappy, which was a dangerous combination. Although no one had said it to his face, he knew they believed he was a fool for holding on to Lancer for so long. The inactivity had made them soft and lazy – and far too many of them were unnerved by Madrid’s reputation. Maybe it was time to strip the ranch of anything of value and move on, but this was now a matter of pride. If word got around that he’d run from this fight he’d be finished.
They’d been holed up here for hours and the activity in front of the ranch house showed a large assembly of men. It was what he’d been afraid of – the Lancers uniting the other ranchers against him. However, he didn’t think even the smooth talking Johnny Madrid could persuade them to throw their men directly against Lancer. Too many of them would die for the odds to be attractive. And, once the brothers were dead, all the fight would drain away.
He looked up at the sun. It was late afternoon and they’d been waiting out here in the heat for most of the day. When he looked back at the house, he saw that order was starting to emerge from the earlier chaos. Groups, large enough to give him pause, separated and rode out. He raised the telescope he had brought with him. It was just one of the many beautiful objects that he’d found at Lancer. Even from this distance, two figures stood out – Johnny in his brightly colored shirt and the blond-haired easterner who had proved far tougher than expected. As the last of the riders left, the two men turned and walked back inside the house.
Pardee called for one of his men to take over the surveillance. It appeared that his quarry had gone to ground. Well, he had no problem with that. They’d strike at dawn and by breakfast time, he’d have another ranch under his control. He decided to tell his men to spare the woman. She’d be an interesting distraction after a night spent on the hard ground.
“Are you sure they’re out there?”
They were sitting in the darkness in matching armchairs. Aggie and Henry had gone to bed and all the lamps had been extinguished to present a picture of normality. But, there was nothing normal about this night. Everyone was armed and awake, waiting for the inevitable attack.
“I’m sure,” Johnny answered Scott’s quiet question. His brother had been dozing, still suffering from the effects of his beating and the bullet wound. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but Johnny was willing to bet that Scott’s face would be pale and lined with pain. “I wish you’d stay out of this.” The words, which had been on the tip of his tongue for hours, slipped out in a rush. “I mean…”
“I know what you mean and you know that I can’t stand back and let other men fight my battles for me.”
There was something more there than the obvious. Something Johnny couldn’t immediately figure out. “You know, Scott, when I first met you in Boston I didn’t know what the hell to make of you. I wondered if I’d made a big mistake. “I mean, what use would a city boy be in a fight like this?”
Johnny stretched muscles that were in danger of cramping up from a long period of immobility. “Now? There’s no one I’d rather have at my back in this fight.”
“Do you think we can make it work?” There was nothing in Scott’s voice to tell Johnny how he’d reacted to the compliment. “The ranch, this partnership,” Scott clarified.
“You having second thoughts about staying?”
There was a soft sigh. “I’d be lying if I said I never had doubts.”
“You’d be a fool if you never had them.”
“I’m not sure I’m cut out for living out here. I don’t know what has to be done to build a herd, or keep it healthy, and I couldn’t catch a runaway cow if my life depended on it.”
“I’ve done some ranch work over the years. It’s hard, physical and the pay sure ain’t great. The job never stops either. Sun, wind, rain, there’s always something to be done. I never stuck with it for long.”
“Why? Because it was easier to make money with your gun?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he considered the question. There had been no malice behind the words, simply a need to understand. “It was easier, but that wasn’t the reason. The truth is, Scott, that I was never very good at taking orders.”
The chair creaked as Scott leaned forward. “I assume you had to take orders during range wars.”
“Yeah, at first. Then, I got real good at what I did and I was the one tellin’ people what to do.”
“You’ll be giving up a lot of freedom if you stay here.”
This time Johnny caught a hint of Scott’s concern. “Freedom? Let me tell you what I’ll be giving up. Sure, I’ll never be able to go where the wind takes me, but I’m guessin’ that you could live on Lancer your whole life and always be able to find something new. I’ll be able to stop wondering if today’s the day I run into someone who’s faster than me. I’ll be able to stop being Johnny Madrid and become Johnny Lancer. It’ll give me back the life that was stolen from me.”
He was glad then that the darkness hid Scott’s face. He’d never been this open with anyone before. It left him vulnerable to rejection, which he now realized, was exactly what he feared. “How about you? It looked to me like you had a good life back east. I’m still kinda surprised that you were willing to leave Boston at all.”
“I won’t lie to you. There are things, and people, that I miss. I’m not happy about my grandfather’s silence all these years, or his complicity in keeping me in Boston. But, he raised me well and gave me a safe haven to recover from my experiences during the war.”
“How does he feel about you living in California?”
“I don’t know. He encouraged me to come back here with you. I’m not sure he expects me to stay here once we take Lancer back.”
Johnny found it reassuring that there appeared to be no doubt in Scott’s mind that they would win this battle. “I guess you feel beholden to him.”
“I’m his only heir.”
“I am also half owner of Lancer and my grandfather can manage very well without me.”
Johnny couldn’t hold back his smile, although he was sure it would be swallowed up by the darkness. “So, you’re staying?”
“Only if you are. This isn’t just about business. It’s about family.”
“I’m willin’ to give it a try.”
“That’s good enough for me.”
Silence fell between them and Johnny thought that Scott had dozed off again. He tipped his head back and closed his eyes.
“I just want you to know that your trust means a lot to me.”
“You earned it. Get some rest. It’ll be dawn soon and that’s when Pardee will attack.”
Scott woke with a start to find that he was alone. For a moment, disorientated, he couldn’t recall where he was or why he’d been sleeping in a chair. Memory returned all too quickly along with the realization that the heavy darkness was lifting. His heart hammered once as the door opened, then the smell of coffee reassured him that this was a friend and not some enemy who had crept up unseen.
“How do you feel?” Johnny set the tray down on a low table.
Tired and sore would be the honest answer. “Fine,” was the one he elected to give.
A brief flash of Johnny’s smile was all the acknowledgment he received to that patent lie.
“It’ll be dawn in a few minutes,” Johnny continued, handing over a cup of steaming liquid. “Everyone’s awake and in position.”
Scott gulped a mouthful of coffee, hissing as it scalded his mouth. He was angry at himself for having been asleep when he should have been checking on the men and providing encouragement. After all, this fight belonged to him and Johnny. Dragging others into it was a heavy responsibility.
The harsh clang of the alarm bell drove away all thoughts of self-recrimination. He grabbed his rifle and ran outside, Johnny at his heels. A mass of horsemen were bearing down on the house, the number and figures still indistinct.
“Hold your fire,” he yelled. “Wait for them to get in range.”
Now they would see if all their planning paid off. He had a split second to worry about the other ranchers. Would they keep their word or had they slipped away in the darkness? Then, the first shot was fired. He raised his rifle, sighted on his target and squeezed the trigger. A man tumbled from his horse and the animal veered away to gallop aimlessly into the early morning haze.
There was no time to acknowledge the compliment as another target presented itself. His whole world narrowed down to his own personal battle. The outlaws were closer now and he ducked as a bullet struck the wall behind him. It was harder to find men to shoot at now as the attackers threw themselves from their horses and sought cover.
Cries of pain mingled with the gunfire. A quick look around showed that there were casualties on both sides. They had been at a disadvantage from the beginning and now the odds were strengthening in Pardee’s favor. It wouldn’t be long until they were overrun, unless…
Shots sounded from further away. At first, their significance was lost in the heat of battle. Then he heard the panicked shouts as Pardee’s attack degenerated into chaos.
Johnny’s shout spun him round. He and Johnny fired together and a man fell.
Men were scrambling to mount their horses. Scott fired, stepped forward and fired again. Too many of them were getting away. Another step forward and then a hand landed on his shoulder, halting him. Several deep breaths brought him back to himself. He met his brother’s intense blue stare. “Pardee?”
“He got away.”
The yard was filled with milling horses and shouting men, making it hard to concentrate. Scott suddenly felt very tired. “So it was all for nothing.”
“I’ve gotta go.”
“Lancer, to finish this.”
“I’ll come with you.” The last thing his weary body wanted was to get in the saddle and chase after the retreating outlaws.
“You need to stay here.”
Exhaustion was overcome by anger at Johnny’s continued efforts to keep him out of the fight. He would have protested until he saw what his brother was looking at. Agatha Conway was on her knees in the dirt, tears streaming down her face. In front of her lay her husband, his chest still and his face finally free of pain.
“You gotta take charge,” Johnny continued. “Some of Pardee’s men aren’t dead and I wouldn’t put it past one or two of these ranchers to lynch ‘em.”
Scott nodded slowly, wondering if Johnny had ever found himself a prisoner of an angry mob, bent only on vengeance. The haunted look suggested he had. What decent man had prevented Johnny’s death at the end of a rope? “Are you sure he’ll go back to Lancer?”
“Where else has he got to go?”
Within fifteen minutes Johnny was gone. The wounded outlaws were placed under guard after Scott had made it clear that he wouldn’t tolerate any executions. Henry Conway’s body was lifted carefully and taken into the house. Scott went over to offer his condolences to Aggie, noting as he did so that there was no evidence that Henry had been shot.
“He would have wanted it this way.” Jake Mendoza had spoken from behind him. “He was a proud man who did not want to die in his bed. The illness was taking his dignity. Soon, he would have been able to do nothing for himself.”
Scott accepted the implied comfort in the words, although he wondered how Aggie would feel, knowing that the decision to help Lancer had hastened her husband’s death.
“Thank you, Señor Mendoza.” He closed his eyes, rallying his flagging resources. “We should send for Sam and set up patrols in case any of Pardee’s men are still lurking around.”
“Your hermano…brother…rides to Lancer?”
“Yes.” By tonight Scott would be in his own home. He should have been happy, but right then he was too tired to feel anything.
Johnny pushed Barranca hard, heading for the pass described by Cipriano. If the way was clear, it would save him thirty minutes and should get him to the ranch just ahead of Pardee and his remaining men. He had to slow his headlong rush as the path narrowed, allowing the horse to pick his way carefully around rocky outcroppings and along crumbling ledges. When the way opened up again he spurred Barranca into a gallop. After crossing a stream, he could see the hacienda ahead of him and the first of the fences surrounding the fields nearest to the house. He thought he heard voices carried by the wind and then he felt the passage of a bullet catching the sleeve of his jacket. He drew his gun and twisted round, trusting his horse not to stumble or deviate from the path. At least half of Pardee’s men were behind him, strung out in a loose line. He fired and the first man fell into the stream he had just crossed.
A quick look ahead warned him that there was a fence only a few hundred yards away. He fired again and then turned all his concentration forward, picking his moment to urge Barranca into the air. They sailed over the obstacle, landing neatly on the other side. He risked another shot, all the time aware of the target he was presenting. By now, he was close enough to see men moving on the outside stairway and on the flat roof of the house. Pardee’s men weren’t yet in range of the defenders’ rifles so he would have to trust luck to get him the rest of the way.
He cleared the final fence, racing into the yard and dismounting. The outlaws, having learned their lesson from the ambush at the Conway ranch, pulled up out of range. He could see that a heated debate was taking place and concentrated all his attention on Pardee. When a few of the men mounted up and rode away Johnny knew how this was going to end.
Johnny stepped out into the open. “You’ve lost, Day. Tell your men to give up and I’ll see that you all get a fair trial.”
“I’m not going to die at the end of a rope,” Pardee shouted back. “Have you got enough guts to face me?”
“Señor? This is not wise,” Cipriano cautioned.
“Keep the men alert.” Johnny quickly emptied and reloaded his gun. “Once he’s dead this fight is over. Just make sure no one tries to interfere.”
“Your hermano would not want you to do this.”
“Yeah, well Scott ain’t here.” Johnny raised his voice. “Any time you’re ready.”
They met in the field in front of the house. Johnny studied the man who had once been his friend and who had become a deadly enemy. Pardee’s eyes were hooded, hiding his thoughts. The time for words was long past as each took up their position. Johnny tested the ground under foot, making sure that it was level. He fixed his gaze on his opponent, shutting out all distractions. His slight, mocking smile was enough to provoke Pardee. Johnny’s right hand moved smoothly, his gun was clear of the holster and he squeezed the trigger. Pardee was almost as fast, his aim only thrown off as Johnny’s bullet plowed into his chest.
Johnny caught his breath as he felt a searing pain in his right side. Pardee was on his knees, head down and arms hanging loosely at his side. As Johnny watched, the outlaw tipped over sideways to land heavily on the ground.
“He shot Pardee!”
The panicked words cut through the buzzing in his ears. His legs wobbled as he took a step forward. There was activity around him, yet, he couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from the body of the man who’d killed his father. He felt nothing – no sense of satisfaction, no regret at the death of his former friend.
“They are getting away, Señor.”
Johnny raised his head to look. The remaining outlaws were scattering in all directions, while sporadic shots helped them on their way. “Let them go,” he said tiredly. “They won’t be back.”
“You are injured.” Cipriano slid an arm around Johnny’s waist to support him.
“It’s nothing.” The noise in his ears intensified as his vision began to blur. “It’s nothing,” he repeated before everything went black.
“We’d just about given up on you, Brother.”
Johnny opened his eyes and turned his head. He was lying in the most wonderfully comfortable bed, in a bright clean room with sunlight streaming in through the window. Scott, who was sitting by the window, closed a large book and laid it down.
“How long have I been out?”
“Off and on since yesterday morning.”
Johnny had a vague recollection of coming round a few times and of the pain of his wound. He’d drifted on the edge of consciousness until ….until what? He couldn’t remember.
“Cipriano sent one of the men to fetch me,” Scott continued. “None of the injuries at the Conway ranch were serious, so Sam came with me. He gave you a shot of morphine to put you under while he dug the bullet out, and another to make sure you slept through the night. He said you were fortunate that it didn’t do more damage.”
There was no mistaking the anger lurking under Scott’s words. Johnny concentrated on a patch of cloud drifting across the blue sky outside his window. “It’s not like it was the first time I’ve stopped a bullet.” He knew the minute he said it that it had been the wrong thing.
“Just what the hell did you think you were doing?” Scott demanded. “Pardee could have killed you.”
“It don’t matter now,” Johnny muttered defensively. He didn’t like this feeling of having let his brother down.
“It matters to me. Damn it, Johnny. Don’t you understand yet that I don’t want to lose any more members of my family?”
A few months ago – a lifetime ago – Johnny would have ridiculed such an open admission. As a cocky young gunfighter, he’d convinced himself that he didn’t need anyone, particularly, if they happened to be related to him. When had that changed? Was there one defining moment when he’d accepted the truth?
“I’m sorry.” He offered the apology quietly, grateful when it was accepted without question. “I guess the house is in a real mess,” he said quickly, to change the subject.
“According to Cipriano the whole ranch is a mess. It will take months to repair the damage. The house is easier. A lot of the men have wives and daughters who are willing to come and help clean up. You can oversee that since you won’t be fit to do any manual work for a while.”
“Oh no, Brother, you ain’t putting me in charge of a group of women. I’ll be out of this bed tomorrow and back in the saddle the day after.”
“We’ll see about that. Cipriano is going to send out work crews tomorrow to assess the priorities and he’ll put out word that Lancer is hiring. If you feel up to it, you and I can take a look at the accounts and work out which of our father’s business associates to contact first. We have a few months until we need to drive a herd to market and it would be nice to know that we’ll have a buyer at the end of it.”
“Sounds like you’ve been busy.”
Scott looked away, but not before Johnny had seen his expression.
“Sometimes it helps to be busy.”
“Did you get any sleep last night?”
“It’ll get easier.”
“I know. It’s just hard to accept that there has been so much blood spilled over a piece of land.” Scott stood up, his demeanor signaling clearly that he had no wish to continue this conversation. “I’ll let Teresa know that you’re awake.”
“How are you two getting along?” Johnny snuggled back down, wincing only a little as the stitches in his side were pulled by the movement.
“Better. Now, get some rest and I’ll be back later.”
Johnny yawned as a warm lethargy crept over him. “Later,” he mumbled as his eyes closed.
It was several weeks before two soberly dressed young men made the journey they had both been avoiding. In that time, each had made a full physical recovery, although it would be a lot longer before they came to terms with their feelings for their father. Many friends and acquaintances of Murdoch Lancer had shared their memories of the man with his sons, leaving each to grapple with increasingly complex emotions.
It had taken time for them to settle into a routine and there had been occasions when the hacienda had been filled with the sounds of heated debate. It wasn’t unknown for one or other of them to ride off alone for a few hours, but they always came back and those occasions were becoming fewer in number.
The light rain dripping off the brim of his hat seemed to Johnny to be a fitting backdrop for their present venture. Their father’s grave lay just ahead. According to Sam, the burial had been a hasty one and Pardee had taken over shortly after. At least, it was on Lancer. Johnny wasn’t sure how he would have felt if his father hadn’t been buried on the land he had clearly loved so much.
They sat on their horses, unspeaking, looking at the overgrown mound of earth that covered the body of a man neither would now get to know. Johnny dismounted, removing his hat and walking forward. Many times over the years he had imagined his father’s death, usually at his hands in retribution for a sin he now knew Murdoch hadn’t committed. Time and again as the story had unfolded he’d wanted to scream at the injustice of it all. His mother had lied, repeatedly, depriving him of the chance to know his father and to find his brother.
The only consolation was that his brother now stood beside him, his own thoughts concealed behind a mask of studied indifference. Scott had his own regrets and had confided some of them when describing the conversations with his grandfather back in Boston. Despite everything that Harlan Garrett had told him, Scott would always have nagging doubts about a father who could make the effort only once to see his son.
“This needs some work.” Scott’s quiet words ended the silence between them. He dropped to his knees, seeming not to notice the damp grass clinging to his dark trousers. He began to wrench up handfuls of weeds.
Johnny hunkered down, resting a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “We’ll see to it.”
“Yes.” Scott sat back on his heels. “There are so many questions I wanted to ask him.”
Johnny silently echoed that sentiment. He would never know for sure what had finally prompted his father to send for him and that uncertainty was something he would have to carry with him for the rest of his life. “We may not have known it while we were growing up, but I believe now that he did love us.” Johnny’s throat tightened. “And, he’s left us a legacy we can build on.”
Scott brushed his damp hands down the sides of his trousers before standing up. “Thank you.”
There was no denying the grief plainly stamped on Scott’s face. “For coming to Boston. For giving me a chance to prove myself. Most of all, for staying.”
Johnny allowed his own feelings to show through, still confused by the fact that he could grieve for a man who he didn’t remember. The silence that settled between them was a companionable one. As the rain grew heavier they turned away.
“I never did introduce you to tequila. I’ve got a bottle stashed in my room. Why don’t we go back to the hacienda and share it?”
“I’m probably going to regret this, but I think that’s exactly what I need.”
With a final look at the grave they returned to their horses. A weak shaft of sunlight split the clouds as they rode away from their past and toward their future.
“I’m getting too old for journeys like this,” Harlan Garrett grumbled to himself as he eased himself gratefully out of the stagecoach. His questing gaze immediately settled on the object of his search. “Scotty! It’s good to see you, my boy.”
“Grandfather.” Scott strode across the road, pulling off one of his gloves and offering his hand.
Garrett regarded his grandson critically. The dark blue shirt, neatly laundered and pressed he noted, contrasted sharply with sun bleached blond hair. The pallor caused by too many hours spent indoors had been replaced with a light tan. A too slender body now looked to have been filled out with muscle. The young man standing before him appeared fit, healthy and happy.
“How was your journey?” Scott enquired as he collected the luggage.
“Long and often uncomfortable, but worth it to see you. Is Johnny not with you?”
“He’s waiting at the ranch. He said to tell you that he is looking forward to your visit.” Scott led the way over to a buggy and began efficiently tying the bags in place.
“It appears that the life of a rancher suits you. You look well.”
“I enjoy it, although it isn’t an easy life. I still have a lot to learn.”
Garrett climbed into the buggy, impressed with the competent way his grandson gathered up the reins and set the team in motion. “I’m sure you are managing admirably.”
Scott laughed. “That isn’t what you’ll hear if you talk to Johnny or our Segundo. Some days, I think they despair of me ever learning how to rope a cow.”
“How is Johnny?”
“Are the two of you getting along?” He was watching Scott’s profile as he asked the question. A slight upturning of the mouth answered him.
“We’ve become good friends.”
“Scotty, I’ve been thinking a lot about the decisions your father and I made and…”
“Grandfather, I don’t need any more apologies. I had a good life in Boston with people who loved me and who I loved in return. I don’t want you to spend your visit regretting things that can’t be changed. We have too much to show you and a lot of ideas for the future that we’d like to discuss with you.”
“Thank you, my boy. I’d be delighted to hear about your plans.”
Scott shot him a quick look. “You know I won’t be coming back to Boston to live.”
“I think that’s quite clear. I will miss you, but maybe you can come for a visit from time to time.”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
Garrett noticed that Scott had relaxed again as if he’d been apprehensive about this discussion. Well, if there was one thing he’d learned first from Catherine and then from her son, it was that sometimes you had to let go of the ones you love the most.
He turned the conversation to idle chatter about Boston and their mutual acquaintances, not really taking in the shifting scenery. He was surprised, therefore, when Scott brought the buggy to a halt on a rise overlooking a large valley. He looked enquiringly at his grandson.
“Lancer,” Scott stated simply.
He stood up, balancing himself with one hand on the back of the seat. “I’ve heard about it, of course. You’re mother sent many letters when she came out here. She was just a young girl following her dream.”
“She was following the man she loved.”
“Yes, she was. It’s magnificent.” He lowered himself back into his seat.
The buggy descended the winding road to the valley floor and soon they were passing under a white archway and he could see the house ahead of him. As they clattered into the yard the front door opened and Johnny stepped out accompanied by a young woman.
Johnny’s smile was wide and welcoming. “Nice to see you again, Mr. Garrett.”
“It is good to see you, John. How are you?”
“I’m real well, Sir.” He turned toward the young woman. “This is Teresa.”
“Miss O’Brien, Scott has told me a lot about you in his letters.”
“He talks a lot about you as well, Mr. Garrett. I have your room all ready for you and, if you will excuse me, I’ll just go and finish the preparations for dinner.”
Garrett looked around, taking in all the bustle of activity as men came in from their day’s work. Johnny and Scott were busily unloading his bags, laughing as they traded friendly insults. The brittle edge that he had noted during Johnny’s brief stay in Boston had disappeared as had Scott’s frigid politeness. His own smile broke through. This was a fitting beginning for two young men who had beaten all the odds to find their common ground.