Counting the Cost
by  Justine Storhaug

Johnny Madrid Lancer looped Barranca’s reins over the rail of the hitching post in front of the Morro Coyo Mercantile and stepped onto the boardwalk outside the shop.  He stomped his feet once or twice to shake off some of the dirt, but wasn’t as exacting as his blond older brother, Scott, who after braking the team, jumped down from the wagon and paused to actually scrape the side of his mud-encrusted boots on the edge of the planks.  They had spent much of the day wrestling with a group of heifers that had managed to go astray, a few of which had gotten bogged in the muddy riverbank.

Johnny grinned broadly.  “You’re gonna make some little woman real happy some day, Boston, with those fine manners of yours.”

          Certainement, monsieur,Scott smiled, and made an exaggerated gesture of obeisance, inviting Johnny to precede him into the shop.  “One of us ought to marry well at least,” he muttered with a grin.  Johnny stopped abruptly, causing Scott to collide with him and they both laughed as they went on into the shop to fill an order.  This was one of several stops at shops around town.  The ranch seemed to be going through supplies faster than usual and claiming the right to collect them promised a cold beer at the cantina as a reward.

          Johnny handed the list to the owner and began to poke through the penny candies, looking for something to satisfy his sweet tooth.  Growing up poor and rough, these things had been out-of-bounds unless he could steal them, and he still got a childish sense of delight at being able to have them whenever he wanted.       

A burst of laughter came from the corner of the shop and Johnny turned quickly in that direction.  He knew that laughter.  It came again and stepping around the edge of a shelf of supplies, Johnny could spot the man responsible.  A Mexican vaquero was chatting in Spanish with another man.

          “¿Julio?  Johnny’s tone was uncertain and he shifted further right to get a better view of the man whose laughter had seemed so familiar. The vaquero turned, his expression shifting from surprise, to puzzlement and then astonished recognition in the space of a few seconds.  

          “¡Juanito! the man exclaimed.  “¡Dios mío! ¿Eres tú?

          “¡Compadre!  The men embraced and spoke rapidly in Spanish, embracing again in their joy and astonishment at seeing each other.

          “¿Estás aqui?” Julio’s head shook slowly from side to side in stunned disbelief.  Te creía muertoYou just disappeared, amigo.  We had no idea where you had gone.  There were rumors you had been shot by a firing squad.  Other people said you were freed in time and disappeared.”

          Johnny spread his hands wide and smiled.  “Obviously I didn’t get shot by a firing squad.”  He chuckled.  “It’s a bit of a twisted tale, amigo.”

Scott’s voice speaking with the shopkeeper reminded Johnny of where he was and who he was with.  Excited, he turned to see Scott heading out the door with a sack of flour draped over his shoulder.  “Come on,” he said, pulling Julio toward the entrance, “I want you to meet my brother.”

          That stopped Julio in his tracks.  “¿Tú hermano?”

          Johnny’s grin was broad and his blue eyes sparkled.  .  I found out I have a brother and a father.”  He turned and waved at Scott when the blond tipped the bag into the wagon.  “Scott! ¡Ven acá! Come over here.”  He darted forward and grabbed Scott’s sleeve, pulling the astonished man back up onto the boardwalk.  “Scott, this is my old friend Julio Alvarado.”  Turning to Julio he grinned broadly.  “My brother, Scott Lancer.”

          Mucho gusto, señor.” Julio shook hands with Scott, but looked quizzically at Johnny.  “Lancer? Not Rancho Lancer?”

          Johnny smiled and nodded.  Sí.  Murdoch Lancer es mi padre. Our padre,” he corrected, gesturing at Scott.

          “¡Hombre!  Julio continued in English, still obviously dumbfounded by the news.  “Then you have become un jefe muy importante.” Johnny and Scott both chuckled.  Even Scott, so new to the West, knew that much Spanish. “Maybe I have to call you Señor Juanito now?” Julio suggested. All three men laughed and Johnny punched his friend playfully on the arm.

¡Ya no más!, Julio.”

Scott had the impression Johnny had just told Julio to knock it off, but despite the playfulness of his brother’s tone, Scott thought he looked genuinely embarrassed.  He’d known Johnny for only a few months, and it was evident he still hadn’t gotten used to the idea of being a man of property.

          “What are you doing this far north, Julio?” Johnny queried.  The last time he’d seen the man he was deep in Sonora.

          Mi prima…my…,” he fumbled for the word in English.

“Cousin,” Johnny offered.

, she is to be married. I” He made a gesture like handing something over.  “Voy a entregar la novia.”

“You’re giving her away.”

Sí.” He chuckled, embarrassed at his own difficulty with the language.  Mi inglés es tan malo.  So bad.  I need to cross the Rio more often!”

“Or maybe just attend a few more American weddings,” Scott suggested with a smile and Julio laughed appreciatively. 

Johnny clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Are you in a rush, compadre?  We’ve got to get caught up.”  Johnny forestalled any protest his old friend might have made.  “Come on, Julio.  Let’s all go get a beer at the cantina.”

          “¡Claro!  I need to…practice…for the fiesta after the wedding, I think.”

          Johnny and Julio helped Scott load the remainder of the order into the buckboard and the three men headed across the street to the cantina.

          “Hey, Manolito,” Johnny called to the owner as they settled themselves at a corner table.  Este es mi compadre, Julio.  Let us have some beer, okay amigo?”

          Old times came rushing back as the two men covered years’ worth of events in moments, Scott being drawn into the conversation with explanations and anecdotes. Scott learned that Julio and Johnny had known each other since they were 10 or 11, meeting in a Mexican orphanage—a socially acceptable term for a workhouse, Johnny explained—and had lit out together to find their freedom when they were about 12.

Their adventures and misadventures included childish raids on stores and orchards and later, many a drunken foray into saloons and dance halls along the Rio Grande.  Not to mention falling in with one of the more notorious bandidos in the region who saw to it that the boys could handle guns as easily as they could horses.  Where that had led!

The news that his younger brother had cut a wild path through the border towns came as no particular surprise to Scott, but he enjoyed the first hand accounts of someone who had been mixed up in it.  Johnny didn’t talk much about it himself.

          “We had some wild times, amigo,” Julio mused, “but now, you can’t act that way, can you, Señor Juanito, being a big patrón?”

          Scott nodded, his expression serious.  “I’m trying my best to teach him to be a respectable rancher.  He’s got the ranching part down pretty well, but I don’t know about the respectable part...”

          Johnny beamed and poured both men another beer from the jug Manolito had set on the table.

          “I still can’t believe you’re related to Murdoch Lancer,” Julio commented, leaning back in his chair.  “That must have come as a shock.” 

          Johnny looked down at the beer in his hands, suddenly more serious.  Both Scott and Julio looked at him, Julio, at least, a little disconcerted by the abrupt change in his manner.  Scott, on the other hand, suspected he knew the reason. “I always knew,” Johnny said finally.

Julio studied his friend quizzically. Growing up, Johnny had often referred with ire to the man who had fathered him, but he had never let on that he knew the man’s identity, just that he was a no good gringo who had abandoned his wife and baby son.

Johnny looked back up at Julio and shrugged.  “I always knew he was my old man.  I just never had any reason to want to get to know him.” He glanced at Scott.  They had discussed this.  “I thought he’d kicked my mama and me out.  Well, you know…” He shrugged.  “I was wrong.”

          “¡Dios mío!” Julio commiserated.  “Johnny Lancer is a big step up from Johnny Madrid.”  Julio blanched as soon as he said the name Madrid.  Glancing quickly at Scott, he switched abruptly to Spanish and whispered something to Johnny, unsure whether having brought up the name Madrid was a safe thing to do. 

Johnny chuckled and leaned back in his seat, glancing at Scott.  “He wants to know if my respectable family knows about my not so respectable past under an assumed name.”

          Scott grinned.  “Well, it took some discussion, but we decided to lay claim to him anyway.”  A thought struck Scott, though, and he looked at Johnny, his head tilted to the side.  “You never have said how you got the name Madrid, though, Little Brother. Was that your mother’s maiden name?” 

          Johnny shook his head and smiled ruefully. “Nah, she deserved better than what I was turning into.”  It had been said lightly enough but the quick aversion of his eyes signaled Scott that there was more to this than Johnny was letting on.  He’d seen the quick fire of pain in those sapphire eyes and knew that his younger brother still struggled with the things he had done prior to his arrival at Lancer.

          Johnny shrugged as though to rid himself of any painful memories.  His blue eyes sparkling once again, he nodded at Julio who had been there when Johnny Madrid was “born”. 

“Julio and me had gotten into some strife around Ciudad Juárez when we was…what?  Fourteen?  Fifteen, maybe?  They were plannin’ to lock us up for at least six months.   I’d been thrown in la cárcel,”—he mimicked grabbing a couple of cell bars—“plenty a times, but this was lookin’ like serious time.   Well, they wanted to know who I was when we went up before the judge and I didn’t want to give mama’s name, so…” He grinned at Julio.  “There was this poster on the wall on the next building that I could just see from our cell saying how some famous torero was gonna be visiting from Spain.”  He slid from his seat and assumed the stance of a bullfighter flourishing his sword and cape. “El torero Paulo Abellán, directo de Madrid. Bullfighter Paulo Abellán, direct from—”  

“Madrid!” Scott and Julio completed in the same breath, laughing.

Sí,” the younger Lancer chuckled as he bowed deeply, then dropped back into his seat.  “Well, it kinda stuck.”

          It stuck and it served him well, but he often now wondered how much time with his father the name change had cost him.  Now that he finally understood that Murdoch hadn’t rid himself of the burden of a wife and baby son, and that he had attempted to find young Johnny over the years, the retired gun hawk couldn’t help but wonder how different life would have been if he had been easier to locate.


*** *** ***

The afternoon got away from them quickly and the shadows had started to lengthen when the three men became aware of how long they had been sitting in the cantina.  Julio accepted an invitation to overnight at the Lancer ranch and as the three men traveled along the road out of Morro Coyo, he and Johnny gradually lapsed into Spanish.  Scott drove the team, listening to as much as he could understand.  Johnny suddenly realized he and Julio were inadvertently shutting Scott out.  “Sorry, Scott,” he said, turning toward the blond.  “Speakin’ Spanish.  It’s like…breathing.  It just sorta happens!”

          “It’s okay. I can pick out words now and then when you don’t speak too fast.  There’s some similarity to French, or English, for that matter. Go on,” he gestured to them and made a face as he searched for an appropriate Spanish word.  “…vaja! or something like that!  Go for your life!”  He flicked the reins, urging the team on ahead of the other men so they could ride along chatting freely.

          What he didn’t say was that he didn’t need to understand their words to realize for himself how good it was to see Johnny so relaxed and in the company of a friend he’d known for years.  Scott had the feeling that old friends were a scarce commodity in Johnny’s former line of work.  In fact, as Julio and Johnny had chatted earlier at the cantina, comparing notes on mutual acquaintances, Scott had been struck by how many of them turned out to be dead, in prison, or crippled up by injuries sustained in their rough living.  The other two seemed to accept it with a sad resignation, but to Scott it had been revealing and he had felt a sudden burst of gratitude for his different circumstances.  It was only in the last 4 months—and during the war, of course—that he’d been in the position of being far removed from those he’d gone to school with or socialized with over many years.  Even during the war he had had a trusted childhood friend in the same company.

          Julio was much impressed with the size of the Lancer homeplace as they paused briefly on the overlook where the boys themselves had gotten their first glimpse of the hacienda itself.  He had never been this far north before, but the Lancer Ranch was known throughout much of California.  Julio teased Johnny about it.  “I’ll have to be careful, or I’ll get put to work by my old amigo, the hacendado.

          Johnny looked embarrassed at that.  The size of the place still amazed him each time he came over the rise and saw the sprawling hacienda with its outbuildings and corrals and the arched gateway that both invited and announced boldly that this was all Lancer land.  His land.  He shook his head and spurred Barranca on toward the gateway, suddenly eager to be settled for the evening.  The abrupt change in his life seemed too immense to comprehend at times.


*** *** ***


          Teresa and Murdoch were welcoming of Johnny’s friend, and an extra place was quickly laid on for supper.  Scott recognized in Murdoch the immediate and profound sense of curiosity he himself had felt about this old friend and the things he could tell them about life for Johnny as a boy.  But with a lady present at the table, it was evident conversation wasn’t going to delve too deeply into anything that would give them a true picture of Johnny’s childhood, so they accepted the general conversation about the recent Los Gatos earthquake, stock prices, and the troublesome flooding along the lower Sacramento River.

Julio’s English was better than he gave himself credit for, but Johnny and Teresa were both quick to help out where necessary.  The fact that Teresa spoke Spanish was something Johnny had learned the hard way soon after his arrival. He’d launched into a Spanish tirade—liberally peppered with curses—following an argument with Murdoch.  Teresa, who he was well aware was doing some embroidery on the other side of the room, had calmly told him in excellent Spanish that despite Murdoch’s inclination toward “pig-headedness and arrogance”Johnny’s exact words—his father was not of questionable parentage.  That had brought Johnny up short and he had been far more careful after that in publicly voicing his opinions about the way Murdoch ran his ranch and tried to run his son’s lives.  Well, in front of Teresa anyway…

          Julio and Johnny retreated to the verandah ahead of the others after dinner. They were silent a moment, watching the final shadows deepen into black as the vestiges of twilight faded to dusk.  To the west, they could just make out the lightened horizon over the Coastal Ranges.  Closer in to the hacienda, they were conscious of a soft breeze wafting through, carrying with it the fragrance of jasmine from the plants lining the portico that they could no longer discern clearly. To the east they could see lantern light from the bunkhouse and hear the relaxed laughter of men who had earned their rest from toil on the Lancers’ behalf.

          Julio turned to face Johnny.  “You are a very fortunate hombre, I think, amigo.  To have all this.”  Johnny smiled and nodded and Julio studied him intently.  “You seem content for the first time in all the years I’ve known you.” 

That broadened Johnny’s smile.  “It hasn’t been easy, compadre, I’ll tell ya’.  This ranchin’ is a hard way to earn a living.  I’ve never worked so hard in my life!”

          “You never worked in your whole life, amigo.”

          “That’s about the truth,” Johnny admitted, dropping onto a bench and balancing his mug of beer on the seat back.  “I’ve never worked in any one place more than a few weeks, I don’t think.  If it got too tough, I just picked up and moved on.”

          “But not this time.”

          “No.” And his look betrayed the wonder of that fact.  “Sometimes I wake up at night still surprised by that.”

          “Tell me about your father, Juanito.”

          “My father…” Johnny’s eyebrows arched dramatically as he considered those words.  Having only been at the ranch a few months, he was still in a place where he was trying to separate his opinions of Murdoch as a man, from those of Murdoch as “father”, a concept that he still couldn’t get his mind around.  He had scattered, painful childhood memories of the man he long ago learned was not his real father, but Teresa’s revelation about his mother Maria running off with that same gambler had hit the younger Lancer like a low blow—suddenly it had all clicked into place and his mother’s relationship with the man he had at first assumed to be his father changed irrevocably. 

The young Juanito had called Raul ‘Papa’, but the slick talking cardsharp and confidence man had been alternately remote and brutal in his discipline of the toddler he had had to take on in order to have Maria at his side.  That had ended soon enough.  Raul had seen no need to stay around more than a few days when Maria had died not long after Johnny’s sixth birthday.  After that there had been no fathers, not really.  A succession of homes, orphanages—a young boy passed from hand to hand by well-intentioned or disinterested parties. So, what was a father?  He wasn’t sure if he could ever relate to Murdoch in that way because he didn’t know what the relationship was supposed to mean. 

“¿Difícil?” Julio prompted.

Sí, amigo.  Come back in a year when I’ve figured out what the heck a father is, besides someone tellin’ me what to do all the time.”

“So, the man, then.  What kind of man is Murdoch Lancer?”

Johnny chuckled. Julio always could cut to the chase and he didn’t give in real easy, either.  But Johnny had already decided for himself that tackling Murdoch the man was going to be the easier road through this conversation.  Still, he took a while answering, twirling what was left of the beer in his mug.

“He’s a strong man.  A hard man.  He pushes…himself about as hard as anybody, I guess.  He…” He broke off and looked apologetically at Julio.  “I don’t think this is gonna be a short answer, amigo.”

          Julio shrugged.  “If it made a contented rancher out of my old friend, it must be an interesting tale.”

          Johnny thought through what he wanted to say.  “When I first came, I guess I’d made up my mind I wasn’t gonna like him.  Here he was droppin’ in on my life after all these years because he needed me, not because…well, when he hadn’t been there for me when I was little.  It made me angry.”

          “Why did you agree to come?”

          “You mean besides the firing squad?” He chuckled. “I did have to get outta Mexico for a while until things settled down, and he was offerin’ an incentive I wasn’t gonna turn down real easy.”  Johnny rubbed his fingers against his thumb in remembrance of the money Murdoch had offered for an hour of his and Scott’s time.  “And…well, I guess I was a little curious.  I used to wonder who my father was when I was real little. Especially after Raul had knocked me around or when he ignored me.  Like I told you, I knew Lancer was my old man, but I didn’t know nothin’ about him.  What kind of man he was except that he’d thrown me and Mama out—I thought...” 

Julio nodded encouragingly and Johnny looked thoughtful.   It was getting harder and harder to grasp anything more of those childhood memories than the ones that gripped his gut and soul because of their pain. “A few times I can remember Mama talkin’ about him and it seemed like they musta loved each other once. So…yeah, I sorta wondered what he was like, I guess.”

“Why didn’t you ever try to find him before?”

“Why should I have!?”  It was said with a flash of anger—an anger he’d nurtured for so many years growing up that it was hard to stop it overtaking him even now that he knew the truth.  He shrugged an apology.  “I still thought he’d abandoned us.  When I was little I couldn’t a done anything about findin’ him even if I’d wanted to, and when I got old enough that maybe I coulda…well, I had just stopped…caring.  I was big enough to look after myself.  I didn’t need him.”

“Was he what you expected?”

“Worse!  He’s stubborn…and proud…and won’t let nobody tell him nothin’.” It was said with an air of annoyance, but he couldn’t maintain the façade because he knew what Julio’s response would be.  He grinned sheepishly at his old friend whose sly expression said ‘sounds familiar’ even more clearly than words could have.  “Ah, you don’t know nothin’,” Johnny teased, knowing exactly how right his friend was.

“I know you’re still here and I think that makes me believe in miracles.”

“Yeah, it’s a puzzle…He and I butted heads straight up, and I didn’t really expect to hang around very long, especially once I saw how hard Murdoch could push to get things done.  It wasn’t just that it was hard physically, but at first I couldn’t seem to work hard enough to please him, and I wasn’t used to havin’ to please anybody.  I’ve always looked after myself—gone where I wanted, when I wanted.   I couldn’t do that here.  There were timelines and deadlines and…” He shrugged. “I started to feel like all those fences I was stringin’ were to keep me in. And yet, when I finally told Murdoch I’d had it and tried to walk off…I ended up right back here.  I realized this place, these people, had come to mean somethin’ to me, and I couldn’t walk out on them. 

“I guess what I’m comin’ around to is…when I don’t…hate him,” he said with a smile, “…I like Murdoch.”  He looked back out over the expanse of land ringed by mountains he could now only faintly trace against the darkened horizon.  “He’s made this place what it is.  I never wanted nothin’ like this…never needed to own much…but…I admire what it took to make it all outta nothin’.”

          “And now it’s your turn to expand the empire?”

          “I don’t know, compadre.”  Johnny chuckled. “I’m still tryin’ to get used to stringin’ fence lines on demand, let alone this boss stuff.  Tryin’ to act like I own the place is just too hard most of the time.”  He looked perplexed as he shook his head.  “I don’t know, Julio. It’s hard. I don’t know nothin’ about leadin’ people.”

          “You led us,” Julio reminded Johnny. 

“Yeah, but you were just a bunch of rowdies.  All it took to keep you in line was a fast gun and a fast fist.”  It was true, or at least he thought it was.  They’d started off as a band of out-of-control urchins led by a hot-tempered blue-eyed Mexican kid.  Later, in their teens, they had been hard-edged, sometimes deadly young men in search of money, women, and action that could be found for the price of the rounds in their revolvers.  But the constant demands of decision-making, order giving, planning ahead and taking responsibility for whatever happened that was being asked of him every day at Lancer… 

“It’s just real different now, Julio.”  The younger Lancer’s expression turned mischievous and he tilted his head toward the portico to his right and grinned impishly.  “Scott here is better at it than I am.”

          Scott, who had thought he was hiding surreptitiously in the shelter of the vines growing along the portico, smiled self-consciously and moved fully into the light of the lanterns illuminating the two men.  He hadn’t come onto the patio intending to eavesdrop, but had been stopped by what Johnny was relating.  It was an odd experience to hear his newfound younger brother, the tough, competent ex-gunfighter, expressing insecurity in his new role.  Accepting with good humor that he had been sprung, Scott stepped across to take a seat on the bench.  “You saying I like giving orders, Little Brother?” 

          “Like you was born to it, Boston!” 


*** *** ***

Johnny and Scott were out early the next morning having made their farewells with Julio who was off to his cousin’s, farther up the Valley.  Johnny had tried to persuade his old friend to stop back with them after the wedding, but Julio had reluctantly declined, mischievously insisting he couldn’t cope a day longer than necessary away from his fiancée who was waiting back in Tucson.  Johnny had at least extracted a promise of a visit after the planned wedding.

Together, the two brothers made their way south toward a stretch of problem fence line that Murdoch had told them repeatedly required repairs.  Technically, they should probably have been leading separate crews, being the Lancer sons, but this was an indulgence Murdoch allowed them when he could.  He knew they had a lot of lost time to make up for in their relationship as brothers and there were no pretences when two men were stripped to the waist under a blistering sun or knee deep in a bog trying to rescue a heifer.  And, it gave them the opportunity they needed to discover what kind of relationship the future held.

          At day’s end, they could have ridden back to the ranch house but there seemed little point.  The work would be done faster in the morning if they didn’t and neither man minded a night out on the range now and then, at least not in each others’ company.  It was occasions like this when they had the best opportunity for making up the time that separation had cost them.  And with any luck, they might even catch some sign of the mountain lion that had been plaguing them for the last two months.  It had eluded all attempts to capture or kill it and the toll in calves and even a ranch dog was rising.

          Scott stretched out on his bedroll, looking at the stars overhead, mentally identifying the constellations and wondering at the clarity of the heavens so far away from city lights.  Johnny was half propped against his upended saddle, a mug of coffee in his hand as he prodded the fire with a stick.

          “Will you look at that sky?” Scott prompted.  “I guess it’s the same sky I used to see in Boston, but I swear it was never this big or this clear.”

          “It’s all them city lights and tall buildings I hear you talking about.  They drown out the stars.”

          “You’re right.  Do you know many of the constellations?”

          Johnny shrugged and searched out what he did know.  “Only what I need to find my way around.  The Big Dipper, North Star.  That sorta thing.  I think that one,” he pointed at 3 stars in a row, fairly close together, “is some kind of hunter.”

          “Orion,” Scott agreed.  He traced its shape.  “That’s his arm raised over his head and the other one is holding his bow.  And that bright one below him is Canis Majoris, the Dog Star, Sirius.”

          “I only know about dog soldiers myself.”

          Scott identified a number of the constellations and the legends behind them until he could tell that Johnny was listening more out of politeness than true interest.  Fair enough.  Johnny was necessarily a practical man and Scott had found he had little time or patience for things that didn’t put food or drink on his table, or a smooth-gaited mount underneath him.  They were so different, Scott thought, Johnny and he. Just three years apart in age, the brothers were separated by a gulf of experience and education and Scott often marveled at how close they had become in such a short time.

          They were silent awhile until Scott, without really being sure how he came on the topic, looked over at his younger brother.  “Do you remember much about your mother, Johnny?”  Although Scott had never been told exactly how old Johnny was when his mother died, he had the impression he had been quite young.

          The question startled the younger Lancer, but he considered his answer to it.  “Bits and snatches, I guess.  Little things.”

“What was she like?”

          “Oh,” Johnny considered, “Sometimes she’d be loving, other times she was hot-tempered or neglected me.  When I think back on it now I figure it musta been awful hard on her, haulin’ a little kid around with her to every town Raul dragged us to.  Puttin’ up with his moods—how much he’d been drinkin’, whether he was winning or losing.” He shrugged and sipped at his coffee.  The hotels and boarding houses and rooms behind cantinas that he could recall had varied in quality depending on the size of Raul’s bankroll.  There were some silvery memories of mattresses thick with straw, pillows with feathers that poked out and tickled his nose, and soft blankets that snuggled up to his chin.  Pretty pictures and the soft feel of drapes that were long enough for a boy to play hide and seek behind.  The tinkle of music drifting up from downstairs and the happy feeling of a belly filled with warm food.

But he could also recall with vivid horror the rooms they’d holed up in when Raul was losing.  Or was gone. 

          “Sometimes Raul’d pull out and leave Mama and me behind for a few days or a few weeks, usually when he was soaked and losing.”  He poked at the fire with a stick and even in the dim light Scott could see the reflective look in his brother’s eyes, as he dredged these memories from somewhere deep inside him.  “At least I remember us bein’ alone and sometimes there wasn’t enough money to buy meals and she’d have to leave me in a back room somewhere or in some dingy hotel while she…went out tryin’ to find somethin’ for us.”  His jaw tensed with the bitter memories of the childish sense of fear and helplessness that had overtaken his soul at those times.

          Maybe four years ago he’d drifted through Ascensión and been forced to overnight in a rundown hotel.  He hadn’t had a decent job in weeks and there was a fiesta on, so he was lucky even to get the room he did for the small change in his pocket.  He had had no memory of having been to Ascensión before, but when he turned into the hallway upstairs something had stopped him in his tracks and it was only with difficulty that he’d forced himself down the hallway to his room.  His hand had actually begun to shake as he turned the key in the lock to number 15 and even the way the door caught as he tried to push it open had sent a wave of terror through him that had no logical explanation.  Damn! He thought to himself.  What is wrong with you, Madrid?  He told himself it was just the effects of a stomach bug which had laid him low the last week and left him too weak to put the name of Johnny Madrid into play to get a better place to stay.  But as he had finally dislodged the warped door from the place it caught on the doorframe and entered the room he had seen the ragged “J” etched into the wall above a spot on the floor where there once had lain a straw palliasse.  It had brought him to his knees as the memories hit him in the gut like a physical blow.

He’d barely turned six and Raul had been drinking so heavily he couldn’t tell a straight from a flush.  Night after night he’d won and lost and won and lost until there was nothing to bring home to Maria and Juanito but the wrath of a drunk who believed luck had deserted him.  Night after night Maria had fed Johnny whatever scraps she could find and then had cradled him, helping him scratch at the fleas and lice that bit him, until he cried himself to sleep on the mattress on the floor beside his parents’ bed. Two nights in a row in that place Johnny had awakened to find a rat crawling on him, nibbling on him, and every night for weeks after that he had woken up screaming.  Sometimes Maria was there to hold him, to stroke and croon away the demon rats, but sometimes…he’d scream into the dark night and no one would come.  And when he would try to escape the room—the darkness—the door would keep him trapped with the scurrying creatures that had long since lost their fear of man and boy.  The grown-up Johnny had fled the room, the hotel, and the town on a horse that was as terrified of the frantic spurring of its rider as Johnny was of the ghosts that had chased him from it. 

“Oh!” Johnny uttered a strangled cry that was a cross between a sigh and a gasp.

“What?” Scott asked, concerned by the changes in Johnny’s expression in the last moments.

“Oh,” Johnny repeated more quietly, seeming to shake himself as if to dislodge the memories.  Nada,” he lied, not yet ready to speak out what he had just re-lived.  Nada. I…was just thinkin’ that, well, you know in rundown places there were rats a lot of the time and…Well, I hate those things!  They’re the first things I remember killin’ once I could point and shoot a pistol straight enough to hit anything but air.”  His lop-sided grin failed to cover the flash of pain in his eyes and Scott felt they glinted, as if from smoke that wasn’t actually wafting up from the campfire.

“Yeah, so anyhow,” Johnny pushed on as though nothing had happened. “It wasn’t real easy for her, and it ain’t surprising she couldn’t always, well…be there for me the way I wanted her to.  At least she didn’t knock me around.”

          There was something in his voice that made Scott stare into the fire rather than meet his brother’s gaze.  Had someone else done that to Johnny instead?  Scott had often wondered, but last night with Julio was the first time he had heard Johnny refer to the treatment he got from his stepfather.  How many others were there like that in his short life?

Once when they were coming back from Sacramento he and Johnny had passed through Green River and had witnessed a father belt his son for some infraction.  The boy, who was about five, had ducked even before the blow was delivered and it was clear it wasn’t the first time.  Scott had been disturbed by the incident, but totally astonished at Johnny’s reaction which was swift and severe.  His revolver had cleared its holster and he had closed the gap between himself and the man before the man’s hand could withdraw enough to deliver a second blow. The stranger, a large man, was driven back against the shop wall by the force of Johnny’s momentum and, eyes wide in terror, he had stared down the barrel of Johnny’s cocked revolver as the smaller man hammered home his threat of retaliation should the man lift his hand to his son ever again.

          Scott watched the erratic patterns of the flames and considered the differences in their upbringings.  Harlan Garrett had never once lifted his hand against his grandson, nor had he permitted anyone else to do so.   Given what he now suspected about Johnny, Scott’s initial response was to be grateful for his grandfather’s restraint.  But that gratitude couldn’t help but be intermingled with the knot of unease that had followed Scott as he matured.  Harlan Garrett hadn’t lifted his hand to his grandson because he hadn’t needed to.  His withdrawal of approval had been incisive punishment, and it was administered with a calculating efficiency that mirrored Harlan’s response to everything in his life.

          Proper.  If Scott Garrett Lancer had to sum up with one word his upbringing in his grandfather’s house, it would be “proper”. Everything in its time and place, and everything with restraint and propriety. That included affection which was measured in its delivery—a gentle pat on the head, a hug in private—and thus these things became sought after commodities, and the pain of their withdrawal was as stinging a blow as anything physical might have been. 

          Without even realizing he was doing it Scott sighed deeply.


          Scott looked up at Johnny abruptly and waved a dismissive hand.  “Oh…nothing.  Just…remembering things.  How old were you when your mother passed away?”


          Scott shook his head with commiseration. He had known Johnny wasn’t very old, but that was so young.  “Who looked after you?”

          “Me.”  At Scott’s expression of surprise, Johnny smiled and attempted to explain—selectively—what the next years had held.  Raul had lit out as soon as the funeral was over and no one had known what to do with the sad-eyed little boy he left behind.  Johnny had been questioned about relatives, but what did he know, being only six and having been on the move most of his life?  He could remember a Tia Eliana, but didn’t know where she lived.  He knew there were grandparents somewhere—he remembered the little farm with the chickens he had liked to chase—but he also remembered the terrible arguments between his mother and her parents.  It was how he had first learned that his father was not Raul, but a norteamericano named Murdoch Lancer, who had led their daughter astray and very nearly shamed her eternally in the eyes of the Church.  “We can count, you know,” he had heard them tell his mother but hadn’t understood what it meant and why it involved him in their anger.  At any rate, six-year-old Johnny could remember nothing about where they lived and so he was shuffled from carer to carer until some permanent arrangements could be made for him.

          It was when he heard the word orphanage used that terror had driven him to run.  Raul had threatened repeatedly to send him to an orphanage when he was bad, and had regaled him with tales of the cruel treatment he would get there.  So instead he ran as far as his weary legs would carry him until he could sneak a rest in some barn or shed, steal or beg a little food, and then move on if people got suspicious about who he was.  Sometimes kind people took him in, sometimes he earned a few pesos swamping out a saloon or mucking out a barn or running errands.  He wasn’t alone in this catch-as-catch-can lifestyle and often he’d team up with other niños on the run from whatever.  Together they’d cajole, steal, con or coerce out of others what they needed to survive.

          The authorities had caught up with him when he was about eight or nine and he’d been placed in an orphanage in San Lázaro where he’d had his first and only taste of schooling, hard work, and the rigid discipline of the padres and nuns who ruled with rod and religious ritual.

          And affection.  He had to admit that many of the nuns and brothers had treated their charges with love and concern.  But it had confused Johnny.  He had learned from an early age not to trust the durability of warmth and kindness, and always viewed it with the suspicion of one who has felt the sting of its swift end.  He had also chafed at the regimentation after several years of fending for himself, and eventually when he was about 12, he and Julio and another boy had run away in search of adventure and freedom.

It was in their initial forays around the border towns that he worked out he got treated better if he looked and acted like a norteamericano kid, and the Spanish accent to his English quickly faded until he could adopt whatever role he needed for the occasion. 

          “I can’t imagine not having had a home as a child,” Scott admitted, breaking into Johnny’s cautious exploration of his past.  For all the failings of Harlan Garrett’s provision for him—emotional, if not physical—Scott had always known stability and the comfort of familiar people and regular, healthy meals.  He had never really wanted for anything—except the love of the mother he never knew and what he imagined life with her would have been like. 

          “Ah, you play with the hand you’re dealt, I guess,” Johnny said and chuckled.  “I wouldn’t be able to whip you so good at poker if I hadn’t grown up swampin’ out saloons for a living.”  Having a gambler for a stepfather hadn’t hurt either.  Even at age five Johnny could make many an adult sit up and pay attention at a deal table.

          Scott laughed, impressed as ever at the resilience he saw in his younger brother.  The ability to roll with life’s punches and bounce back up ready for the next round.  Scott tended to brood on things, a failing his grandfather had spared no time in chastising.  Maybe Johnny would rub off on him over time, he thought, as he grinned back at the brunet beside him.

          “Well, I can’t tell you I’d trade places with you,” Scott admitted, “even if it meant I could give you a pasting with a deck of cards, but…”  He hesitated.  “Well, I confess, I think you’re lucky to at least have some memory of your mother.”  His tone was wistful.

          “Well, tú abuelo…your grandpa… he musta told you about yours?”

          “Constantly. He painted a very rich verbal portrait of her and kept her memory alive in a way, but I don’t think it can be the same as actually knowing her, and…I sometimes wonder…” He looked as though he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure how.

          “¿Qué?” Johnny prodded.

          “Well, Grandfather also painted a picture of Murdoch as an ignorant, foolish man who ruined his daughter’s life.  Well, Murdoch’s not like that at all, so I kind of wonder sometimes whether Grandfather’s image of my mother was really…accurate.  If she was as angelic as he portrayed her.” He looked at Johnny, hoping his younger brother would understand what he was getting at.

          “Well, I don’t guess anybody’s a saint, but it don’t mean she wasn’t a good woman.”

          Scott smiled gratefully at his brother’s acceptance of his speculations about his mother.  Johnny’s reply wasn’t enough to shake Scott from his musings, though.  The accuracy of Harlan’s representations about his daughter was only a small and ultimately insignificant part of the puzzle.

Harlan Garrett had spared no effort in convincing his grandson that he had been abandoned by his father.  That Murdoch was an aloof man who was too selfish to care for his infant son, leaving that responsibility to his bereaved father-in-law. Growing up, Scott had struggled with the conundrum.  How could his mother have loved such a man?  Married him, followed him across the country to a rough and wild land, and borne him a son.

          Here was the problem.  No matter what Murdoch or Catherine had been like back then, or what Murdoch was like now, there was always the issue of why Murdoch had never come for him.  Never tried to establish contact with his son.  So even though Scott now held a great deal of respect for Murdoch as a person, he still struggled with the fact of his role as father or as husband to Scott’s deceased mother.  That’s what had stopped Scott in his tracks on the verandah yesterday as he listened to Johnny talking about exactly this dilemma. 

          It was a conflict that was not to be as easily resolved for Scott as the question of Murdoch’s character, and the matter troubled him when he let it.  He had yet to question his father about Catherine, not yet knowing the man well enough to go there, nor wanting to risk—yet—the inevitable questions about why Murdoch had so readily surrendered his child—her child—his only connection with her after her death.  Scott wasn’t sure their relationship was strong enough yet for that.  He hoped one day it would be.

In the meantime, Scott carefully pushed those thoughts back in place using a discipline learned through many years of a very proper upbringing in Boston Back Bay Society.  There it was again, he laughed inwardly.  Proper.   Everything done according to rules laid down by society.   No, he thought with a sly smile, Society with a capital ‘S’.  Definitely a capital ‘S’.

From his earliest memories Scott had known that he was being reared for something; to be something.  That there was something he had to live up to.  Only now with maturity could he realize that this upbringing—making Scott into someone Harlan thought Murdoch could never be—had been his grandfather’s ultimate revenge against the man he believed had destroyed his daughter.

With that, he glanced across at Johnny who had tossed the last of his coffee into the fire and begun to settle himself properly for the night.  How different their lives had been!  It seemed miraculous at times that they were even related, much less becoming close friends.

          Both men spotted a falling star that flashed across the sky. “Wonder what causes that,” Johnny queried, knowing he’d likely get an answer.  Scott explained and Johnny looked at him wryly.  “They teach you things like that at those fancy Boston schools you went to, huh?”

          “I’m afraid so.  Oh, Johnny, you ought to come back there with me some day.  You’d be amazed.  They have things there you couldn’t even imagine.  Buildings that are eight or ten stories tall.”  Johnny looked skeptical.  “That’s nothing,” Scott told him.  “In New York City and Chicago there are some that are over 200 feet tall. They keep figuring out how to make them bigger.”

          “They figured out how to get you up them?” Johnny’s eyebrows arched.  “Climbin’ that many steps sounds like about as much fun as climbin’ up a cliff to me.”

          “They have something called a passenger elevator now in some of the bigger ones. There’s a shop my grandfather purchases from in New York called Haughwort’s. The first elevator especially for passengers was put in there in ‘57. I’ve ridden in that one a few times.” 

          He mentioned a few of the other attractions of the city of his childhood, but Johnny looked resolutely doubtful about the merits of the things Scott saw as drawcards. “Boston’s a city of firsts, Johnny.  I bet you didn’t know Boston had the first public park in the United States, the first free Public Library, and the first university—mine, I might add?”

          “Wowwww…I had no idea.” Johnny’s blue eyes sparkled with teasing laughter.

          “Cut it out.  You’re an ignoramus, if you don’t know to appreciate those sorts of firsts,” Scott parried.           

          “Careful, Boston, I’ve killed men for callin’ me less….I think!” Johnny added with a chuckle.

“Well, if Boston doesn’t impress you,” Scott countered, “you tell me what does. What’s the biggest city you’ve been to?  Say before coming here,” Scott suggested.  They had both been to San Francisco with Murdoch and Teresa shortly after they arrived and he knew it was Johnny’s first time to a city that large.

          “I did a job in San Antonio once.”

Scott furrowed his brows, not sure how big the Texan city was.  “What do you suppose their population is?  50,000?  60,000?”

“About that many too many if it is.”

“What else?  Or where else?”

“Oh, mostly Los Angeles, San Diego, I guess.”

          Scott made a minimal attempt to smother his smile at the mention of these very provincial towns, but his head shook from side to side and Johnny wagged a finger at him.

          “Laugh all you want, Boston. They’re big enough for me.  I mean what more d’ya need if you got a hotel or two with clean sheets and some good saloons?”

          “Oh, maybe a concert hall, theaters, public libraries, colleges…”

          “Ah, you’re a snob,” Johnny teased.

“Well, if I’m a snob, then you’re a bumpkin, and one who is seriously in need of having his horizons expanded!”

“Now, how you gonna do that, Scott, with all them huge buildings blockin’ the view?”

Scott threw his head back and laughed. “Touché!” 

He rolled onto his side and then shifted uncomfortably as he felt the outline of a rock pressing into his hip.  Digging under the saddle blanket, he scraped it out and glared at it briefly before tossing it to the edge of the campfire.

“You ever regret comin’ here?”  Johnny’s tone had lost its playfulness and Scott looked up at him quickly.

          He hesitated only a moment, though, before answering.  “No.  It was a wonderful life, but not necessarily better.  It’s just that…sometimes I miss the…civilization, the refinements.  The beds!” he said with a laugh as he tried to find a comfortable way to lie on the hard ground.  Sleeping out was not his favorite part of being a ranch owner, but he relished the time spent getting to know Johnny better.

          Johnny stretched out.  “Not me.  I think I’d feel awful funny if somebody tried to put me in one of them starch collared suits I’ve seen pictures of and stuck me down in some…opera, or somethin’.”

“Yes, I think you would. But you’ve still got to see some of the big Eastern cities sometime.  The history alone there is worth the trip.”

          “Nah, San Francisco’s big city enough for me.  All that noise and people and buildings.  It’d choke a sensible man.”

          Scott laughed and knew there was work left to be done on this younger half brother of his.

*** *** ***

The demon rats returned to haunt Johnny that night for the first time in many years and he wondered why on earth he’d let himself get so close to telling Scott about it all.  He didn’t wake up screaming this time, as he had when he was a child, but he burst into agitated wakefulness with perspiration dampening his brow and his arms flailing at the ghostly creatures.  For a long time he lay panting, trying to get his breathing under control; torn between a fear of waking Scott and wanting desperately to do exactly that.

          It had been years since he’d thought about Room 15 at the absurdly named Palace Hotel in Ascensión.  The letter “J”.  It was the first letter he learned to make, taught to him by Raul in a rare moment of camaraderie and paternal interest.  But then when Raul came into the room and saw that Johnny had proudly carved it into the wall with his new clasp knife…

Johnny had tried to escape under the bed as Raul had raged at him, yanking his belt from his trousers to use on the boy’s backside.  He had clutched Johnny’s bare foot and dragged him screaming out from under the bed.  Only Maria’s intervention after the first half dozen lashings had spared Johnny being flailed to the bone.  That had been just weeks before Maria had died and it was nearly the last thing Johnny remembered about both his stepfather and his mother.  That and the rats.

          Sleep eluded him for several hours and he lay watching the clouds scudding across the night sky occasionally obliterating the constellations Scott had been telling him about.

          The older he got, the fewer memories there were of the years before Maria died, but the impact of what he could remember remained. And at times it seemed harder to catch hold of the good memories.  They were more fleeting and got crowded out by the other darker ones.  Like the rats.  And the terror and confusion of waking up to voices in the room, hushed and urgent.  Maria and…not Raul.  Other men.  Strangers’ voices.  It didn’t happen often, and there was always money for food for a few days after that, but it didn’t ease the fear he felt; the horrible suspicion that something was wrong.

          He was much older before he understood what she had done and why, and it filled him with a mixture of disgust and anger. Sometimes the anger was directed at the norteamericano who had tossed his mother and him out and left them to this kind of life.  Most of it went to Raul who should have looked after them and didn't.  Very, very seldom, it was directed toward Maria.   The little boy in him clung for years to the need to love and find no fault in his mother, but it got harder as he got older and understood more.  And now that he knew the truth of the distortions his mother and Raul had drubbed into him, he just was not sure how to deal with what he was feeling about his mother. 

          Why had she left Murdoch?

Were things so bad with his gringo father that the uncertainties of life with Raul were better?  Admittedly, he had the impression that Raul's war with the bottle had not always been what Johnny could recall in those final years before Maria died and Raul lit out.  Maybe when he showed up in the Morro Coyo area he had been sober and simply swept her off her feet.

Even so, any thought that she would leave her husband for another man always brought Johnny back to the peculiar mix of hatred and indifference that had colored his perceptions of the man who had fathered him.  Had life with Murdoch been so cruel or harsh that she felt leaving was the only way?

He knew Murdoch could be infuriating, obstinate, opinionated.  And if what Murdoch said was true, that Johnny had his mother's temper, well…he could imagine the fireworks that would have lit up the skies over the Lancer Empire in its infancy.  Ranching, as he was discovering, was a hard way to make a living.  A hard way to make a marriage and family work.  He'd hired out too many times in defense of dirt farmers, been through too many scraggly border towns and cadged too many meals or nights in warm barns not to see how hard the land was on a woman.  They got old and used up real fast on the way to getting where a spread like Murdoch's was now.  Maybe she just couldn't take it. 

Johnny sighed and rubbed a hand across his stubbled face. He shifted on the hard ground, trying to find a way to get comfortable as he listened to the soft snoring of Scott beside him and the night sounds that were invading his attempts at sleep.  He'd be useless in the morning if he couldn't put these thoughts to rest.  He turned his eyes back up to the night sky and Orion had sunk to the western horizon before he finally drifted off.


*** *** ***


          They rose early the next morning.  No surprise, Scott had discovered in this country, and it had taken some getting used to at first.  Now, by and large, he relished the crisp mornings, the first hint of color over the hills surrounding Lancer, the smell of bacon frying and the warmth and comfort offered by a steaming mug of coffee pressed between two hands. 

Johnny seemed quieter than usual, but he wasn’t always much of a talker first up in the day, Scott knew.  And Scott was also conscious of the fact that his brother had opened up more about his background than ever before last night, and thought maybe he was feeling awkward about it.  Johnny had eventually admitted to the beatings he used to get from his stepfather, and wanting to acknowledge how rough it must have been for him, and hoping to draw him out, Scott had expressed his lack of understanding of what could make a man beat and then abandon a child.

“You mean besides the fact he was a bastard?” was Johnny’s wry answer.  There was no anger in his voice, so Scott was taken aback by the direction the conversation spun when he casually asked if Johnny had ever seen Raul again.  The look Johnny had given him had produced a deep unease in Scott.

          Johnny’s answer was slow in coming. “Not until a lot later,” he had responded finally. “I guess I was…maybe 14.  I heard he was in Tucson and I went…gunning for him.”  He had met his brother’s eyes hesitantly as he said it.

          Scott had maintained his composure with difficulty, trying not to pass judgment on Johnny no matter what he was about to admit to.  But he couldn’t imagine being 14 and hating anyone enough to want to kill them, much less having the ability to do so.  But, then, he also couldn’t imagine growing up the way Johnny had.  He had forced a nod that urged Johnny to go on if he wanted to.

          Johnny had cleared his throat and looked back down at the fire as he spoke.  “He’d…I guess, he’d lost the battle with the bottle.  He was a shriveled up wino, beggin’ his booze off any saloonkeeper who’d fork over drinks in exchange for some work with a broom or a mop.”  He had drawn in a deep breath and let it slowly out.

          “Did he remember you?” Scott had asked, calculating for himself that it would have been nearly eight years since the gambler had deserted his stepson.

          Johnny’s head shook from side to side. “He didn’t even know which way was up.  I…tried talkin’ with him, prompting him…I wanted him to know why—” His jaw clenched.  “Why he was gonna die…”  He finally voiced what they both had known was coming.

The two brothers had looked at each other and Johnny had obviously read the unspoken question in Scott’s anxious eyes.  In the end he had shaken his head and dropped his gaze.  “No.  He wasn’t worth the lead.  I was lookin’ for this fearsome tyrant who’d ruled my life and turned my mother into a part time—” He had stopped abruptly and Scott could only read between the lines. “He wasn’t worth the lead.”  They had spoken no more about it.

          The two of them spent most of the day working along the stretch of fence line that Murdoch was most concerned about.  The wire crossed the meandering Ribbon Creek at several points and the posts commonly came loose either from the occasional swelling of water levels in the stream or the weight of cattle pressing in against the line in their eagerness for water.  They canvassed far and wide on the Parker side of the line to round up the strays that had already gotten through, drove them back onto Lancer land and then set about replacing and tensioning the wire. They’d gotten up a rhythm in the work, each man knowing what task to do and when, to make the whole tiring process faster.  Conversation had died down as the sun had arced through the sky, and both men were sweaty and tired, but the silence was a companionable one. 

Scott paused to stretch his back and flex the hands that had grown fatigued from holding the sledgehammer and driving home the fence posts.   Removing his hat, he rubbed both gloved hands vigorously up and down his face and through his hair, as if rubbing away the fatigue and muscle soreness that was plaguing him.  In reality, he knew he was probably just smearing the dirt and sweat across his features.  He’d look a sight, but then there was no one but Johnny and a few steers to see him.

Correction.  And a man walking toward them.  Scott raised a hand to shield his eyes and watched as the man spotted the two men close on the fence line and changed his course slightly to join them.  He was leading a horse that appeared to be limping and it looked as if the man was more than a little footsore himself.  Scott dipped his kerchief in the stream and drew it across his face, wiping away some of the grime.  Holding the cool cloth to his neck, he waited, glad of the break that greeting the man would offer.  Belatedly, if only because he noticed Scott was no longer helping him, Johnny also looked up and caught sight of the approaching stranger.  Recognizing the opportunity for a rest, he reached for the canteen that hung from the fence post as he, too, awaited the arrival of the other man. Automatically, and by force of long habit, Johnny slipped the leather safety thong from his revolver’s hammer and ensured the gun belt, which hung from a fencepost near Scott’s weapon, was within easy reach.

          “Afternoon, fellas,” the man called out as he drew abreast them.  Immediately he stopped, his horse pulled in closer to the stream for a drink and the stranger released the reins, allowing the horse to satisfy his thirst. 

          “Good day,” Scott offered.  Johnny just nodded, taking another swig from the canteen and wiping a hand across his mouth.  His sapphire eyes never left the stranger.  “Bit of horse trouble?” Scott asked.

          “Yeah, stone bruise.  I don’t think it’s all that bad, but I’m trying to give it a rest.  I’m not sure what I’ll do if it is that bad, mind you.  Shanks’ mare and me don’t get on so good.  I suppose a horse doctor is too much to hope for, but is there at least a town nearby that might have a smithy?”

          “Well, Morro Coyo’s about, what…” Scott glanced at Johnny. “twelve miles from here.  That’s the closest place and they have a vet and a blacksmith.”

          “Twelve miles!” The man groaned.  “Any ranches closer?”

          “No, this is all Lancer land and our homeplace is a good eighteen miles from here.  Morro Coyo’s it.”

          “Dang.  Now that ain’t the answer I wanted to hear.”  They watched as the horse, his thirst slaked, stepped away from the stream and dropped his head to the grass nearby; the foot he had been favoring cocked weightless beneath him.

Scott suddenly remembered his manners and reached out a hand.  “I’m Scott Lancer.  This is my brother Johnny.”

          “Clay Hudson,” the man responded, taking the proffered hand.  Johnny again nodded at the newcomer but made no move to close the gap between them to extend the courtesy of a handshake.   He still had not taken his eyes from the stranger and Hudson couldn’t have missed the wariness in his gaze.  Whether he spotted Johnny’s surreptitious looks at the style and set of the gun on his hip, was another matter, because Hudson quickly returned his attention to the more open features of Scott Lancer.

          “Lancer,” he queried.  “You own this land, then?” 

          “Yes.  Our father and us.”

          “Yeah, I’ve heard about your spread.  Guess most everyone around here has.”

          Johnny eyed him.  “You from around here?” 

          “No,” Clay laughed, but not missing the reserve in Johnny’s voice.  “Just from around.  I move from place to place as it suits me.  I don’t have the responsibilities of you big landowners.”

          Scott smiled, but Johnny evidently saw no humor in the remark.  His eyes shifted between Hudson and some point halfway to the ground in middle space.  His mind was racing, trying to bring into line the misgivings that this man’s appearance had raised and some concrete reason for them.

          Scott lifted then resettled his damp hat on his head.  “Well, I’ll tell you on hot days like this, I’d gladly trade my responsibilities as a big landowner for a nice cool beer.  Even one of your Mexican ones, Johnny.”  As he spoke, he dropped onto the ground beside a fallen tree that stretched from the bank down into the gentle current of the stream.

          Johnny and Clay’s attention was drawn in Scott’s direction in the same instant by him sucking in his breath and the urgent tones of a snake’s rattles.  Twisting toward his brother, Johnny saw the snake coiled, head drawn back, just feet from where Scott had dropped to the ground shaking the log under which the serpent had evidently been hiding.

          Johnny spun back to his holster and drew, cocked, and fired in one motion, dropping to one knee to make the tricky shot—tricky because he had to fire toward Scott, the snake being between Johnny and his brother. Scott jumped and yelped as both the snake and the log splintered beside him as Johnny’s rounds passed through both.  He threw his hands up as blood and wood splattered across his shirt and face. 

Shaking, Scott lowered his hands slowly, and dropped his head onto his knees, groaning in relief as Johnny rose and breathed deeply several times before turning and slowly lifting the gun belt from the fence post.  He held it for a moment, fingering the tooled leather, before sliding the Colt back into its holster.  Sighing loudly, he turned back to face his brother who moaned, “Oh, I thought it was all over…” 

          “Was for him,” Johnny nodded at the remains of the rattler, trying to make light of the situation.  He was uncomfortably aware of Hudson’s eyes on him as the drifter steadied his startled mount.   A clean draw and quick aim was the last thing the ex-gunfighter had wanted to show Hudson, if what he suspected about the man was true.

          Scott shook his head slowly from side to side, then wrapped his arms around his knees and balled his hands into fists to suppress the shaking in his fingers.  Johnny tipped his hat back onto his head and stood looking at his brother.  “They shoulda taught you somethin’ at those fancy Boston schools you went to about rattlesnakes likin’ to hide under logs on hot days.  You might live longer.”

          “I never saw a Diamondback until four months ago!”  Scott snarled.  He stared at the bloodied remains of the creature beside him and then suddenly looked all about him as though realizing there could be more near him.

          “They didn’t teach you to shoot like that at any Boston school,” Clay commented to the dark-haired Lancer brother who stood in front of him, gun belt dangling from one hand.  Johnny was clearly as uncomfortable about the skill he had shown in killing the rattler as Hudson was now intrigued with exactly the same thing. Scott offered the explanation.  “Johnny’s upbringing was a little more down-to-earth than mine.”  He looked again at the snake. “Thank the good Lord. He grew up—”

          “I got lucky is all,” Johnny stepped in quickly. “I mean I was desperate.”  His smile was forced and both he and Clay knew it.  “It’s taken a lot of hard work to break Scott in as a brother.  If I’d a missed I’d a had to start all over with somebody else.” He shrugged. “Just luck.”

          “Luck!” Scott was incredulous.  “Who’re you kidding, Johnny?”  He turned to Clay.  “He’s—”

          Johnny cut him off quickly.  “He’s tired a hearin’ you go on about it.  You should know better than to flop down on a log without lookin’ first.  Just askin’ some snake to bite you.  You better get up before his mate comes along and does.  I might not be so lucky next time.”  As he spoke, he extended his arm to Scott and helped him up, his face cross.  Scott looked baffled by Johnny’s attitude, a fact Clay couldn’t help but notice.

          Johnny reached for the remains of the snake. “Anyway we’ve solved our problem of meat for dinner.”  He brushed past Clay, the snake dangling from his hand.  Clay moved closer to Scott who stood dusting off his trousers and wiping at the snake splatter on his clothing.

“He’s…rather modest about his ability with a .45.”

          “Yes, isn’t he…” Scott’s tone was both irritated and puzzled.  He moved over to his mount to get a clean kerchief, catching Johnny’s eye in the process.  Johnny looked away.

          Clay stretched and looked around him. “Well, I’ve walked about as far as I care to in one day.  You fellas mind if I throw my bedroll down with you for the night, that is, if you’re camping out here?”  He deliberately looked at Scott as he asked, sensing the suddenness with which Johnny looked up at the question.

          Scott responded affirmatively without hesitation.  “We’ll be finished within an hour and a half with what we’re doing.  Our camp’s about half a mile due west just along the river bank.”  He noticed his brother’s scowl, but determined to ignore it, if only to irritate Johnny.

          “Well, I’ll repay your hospitality,” Clay offered, “by cooking the snake for you if you like.  I’ve got some wild onions and some bread I can contribute, and a little bit of canned cow. I make a mean rattlesnake stew.”  Scott laughed, as Clay walked over to Johnny, holding out his hand for the reptile.   The younger Lancer handed it over slowly as he and the other man eyed each other.  Scott noticed and shook his head.  This automatic suspicion of Johnny’s toward strangers was something he’d never understand.

          He had no chance to question Johnny about it, though.  As Clay gathered his horse’s reins, Johnny vaulted onto his own mount and announced that he was heading south along the creek to gather up the steers they’d spotted earlier in the day and move them closer to their night camp.  He then ordered more than suggested that Scott finish with the last few posts and wire.  Turning Barranca, Johnny delayed riding off just long enough to ensure that Clay did, indeed, begin his walk toward the camp Scott had pointed out.  Johnny didn’t want Scott speaking to this Clay fellow any more than he wanted to himself.

          The Lancers finished their respective chores, converging on the camp at nearly the same time.  Scott didn’t realize how intentional that was on Johnny’s part.  The younger Lancer had holed up in a stand of trees above the camp, awaiting his brother’s return, and watching Clay move about the belongings they’d left at creekside. He studied the man’s features trying to reconcile them with the vague memory that had been plaguing him since they first encountered him a few hours before.

Clay only looked to be in his early thirties, but his long black hair was liberally peppered with grey and he wore his moustache long.  While not fat, he looked like he could run to that if he didn’t mind what he ate.  Yet he moved with ease and agility as Johnny watched him stoking the fire he’d made and tending to the stew pot into which he’d mixed whatever concoction they were going to be eating for dinner.  There was an assurance in his bearing that unsettled Johnny—a conservation of movement, although Johnny couldn’t have put it in those words.  No wasted steps, no indecision or clumsiness even in the menial tasks he was doing preparing for the brothers’ return.  And still Johnny couldn’t put a name to the source of his unease, although he was more and more certain that his suspicions were correct.

          With the brothers back in the camp, Clay proved cheerful and chatty and he did, indeed, make a tasty snake stew which even Johnny couldn’t help but dig into with relish.  He didn’t participate in the conversation to the same degree, however, and appeared alternately disinterested or on edge depending on the topics under discussion.  Clay had obviously moved around a lot, but had spent his childhood in the south, including a few places Scott had fought in the war.  They compared notes on a variety of events and places with which they were both familiar. 

Asked about his presence in the area, Clay said he was on the drift.

          “What kind of work are you after?” Scott asked, interested.

          “Oh, most anything.  Cow prod, waddy.”

          “Well, we’re short a couple of hands,” Scott offered.

Johnny looked up, alarmed.            “No, we ain’t.”  Scott looked at Johnny in surprise.  “Murdoch hired three men,” Johnny asserted.

          “When?”  Scott’s tone was testy. His annoyance with his brother had been growing as the evening lengthened, and only his very proper upbringing prevented him from an open confrontation with Johnny over the matter. 

          “Day before yesterday.”

          “He didn’t tell me.”

          “Well, he told me.”  Johnny could see Scott’s mistrust.  “He replaced Ruis and Miller and picked up another guy who rode in with the new men.”

          Clay acted anxious to smooth over the tension between the two brothers.  “It’s no trouble.  I’ve got provisions to last another few days, and once I get my mount healed up I’ll be off.” 

An awkward silence followed, broken only by night sounds, the restless movements of the picketed horses and the occasional lowing of the steers that grazed a few hundred yards from them.  They were sounds that would have been ordinary and comforting but for the increasing strain in the group.  Strain that Scott blamed squarely on Johnny.  The older Lancer brother had at first attributed his younger sibling’s vagaries in attention to the conversation to a sense of being left out, Johnny not having traveled as extensively as the other two. But the brunet’s interference whenever the conversation threatened to become remotely personal had become increasingly obvious. And increasingly annoying to the well-bred Easterner for whom good manners were as ingrained as breathing.  This was a side to his sibling that Scott found distasteful.  Clay had been nothing but polite yet Johnny was treating him with wariness and suspicion. 

The sudden yowl of a wildcat broke the restful pattern of the night sounds and all three men jumped then chuckled, embarrassed, at their own overreactions to a fairly common sound. 

“Somebody’s on the prowl for dinner,” Clay commented. 

“Think that’s her?” Scott asked his brother, hoping that a neutral topic of conversation might ease the tension in the camp.  Johnny just shrugged and stared into the fire without even lifting his head.  He only had one focus now and that was the danger in this camp, not what lay without.  Scott pursed his lips, annoyed at Johnny’s truculence, and explained to Hudson.  “We’ve been plagued by a mountain lion of late.  It’s proving positively embarrassing that none of us can catch her.”

“I saw a dead calf about four miles back, near that rocky area east of where I came on you.”

Scott nodded.  “Yes, we saw that one, too.  She’s been leaving corpses all over Lancer land, as though there were two or three of her instead of one.”

“Maybe it is—two or three.”

Scott shook his head.  “No, we keep finding the same sort of track—an odd marking on the left hind pad as though she had an old injury there.  We just can’t figure out why she’s ranging so far afield. It’s not like there’s a shortage of prey in any one section of the place.  There’s no need to move around so much.”

“Ah, well, that’s a woman for you, maybe,” Hudson offered.  “Never content.”

“In that case, it also means this particular woman is outsmarting the menfolk on this land!”

 “They’re good at that, ain’t they?” Clay chuckled.  “Keeping us where they want us?”

Scott laughed.  “Tonight I think it’s going to keep one of us on watch all night.  I don’t fancy the walk back to the hacienda if she spooks my horse or makes a meal out of him while I’m sleeping.” 

“I don’t mind taking the first watch,” Clay said, stretching and reaching to draw his rifle from its scabbard.  That brought Johnny’s head up and he watched as Clay dropped rounds into the weapon.  “Which of you lucky gents should I kick awake in a few hours?”  Scott raised a hand in a half-hearted attempt at volunteerism.  “Done,” Clay said and rearranged his bedroll and saddle so he was in easy reach of the coffee pot and the woodpile that would keep the fire stoked and him warm during the night watch.

Scott also began to ready himself for the night.  Only Johnny still sat staring at the flames, locked in a silence of his own making.  Sighing deeply at only he knew what, Johnny slid his revolver from its holster and refilled the two chambers he had emptied into the snake earlier.

          “Are you as good with a rifle as you are with that sidearm?”  Clay made the question sound casual, but his inspection of the weapon Johnny was holding was intense.

          “I usually hit what I’m aimin’ at,” Johnny mumbled without looking up from what he was doing.

          “I think you’re too modest.”

          “Maybe I just don’t think it’s nothin’ to brag on.  Unless you’re lookin’ for a fight—which I’m not.” 

He rose abruptly and emptied his coffee into the fire, the stream of liquid causing the flames to sputter and hiss.  Turning his back on the two men, Johnny moved to his saddle and began to untie his bedroll.  His movements were sharp and jerky as he yanked at the thongs holding it in place and he succeeded only in tightening the knots further. Gritting his teeth, he paused, and then had another go at the leather ties, conscious of the two men watching from behind.

          Scott glowered at his brother, and as the younger Lancer moved to check on the horses for a final time, Scott followed him to the picket line.  He grabbed his brother’s sleeve and pulled him to the side away from the camp.

          “What is wrong with you?” he demanded.  “Why are you being so rude?”

          “I ain’t—”

          “The hell you aren’t. You’ve been surly and standoffish with Clay since he came up.”  Johnny rolled his eyes in protest and tried to turn back to check Barranca.  Scott spun him back around and Johnny’s eyes narrowed dangerously.  Scott’s voice was tight as he glowered at his younger brother, ignoring the implied threat in the man’s expression. “And what about tonight?  All evening long you’ve been parrying his questions and cutting off my replies.”

          “If you call mindin’ my own business and expectin’ others to do the same, rude, then—”

          “There’s something called common courtesy.”

          “Oh, like they learned you at them fancy schools, huh?”

          “I don’t care how rough your upbringing was, Johnny, if you didn’t learn some basic manners before, it’s about time you did!”  Johnny dropped his gaze, jaw tense, as he fought to control his temper.  Scott persisted with his remonstrations.  “And what was that falderal about Murdoch hiring men?  He would have told me.”

          “Do you know everything?”

          “And that nonsense about the snake.  Luck!” Scott snorted the word.

          That produced a response.  “I don’t advertise my skill with a gun, Scott. I might as well wear a sign on my chest that says ‘target’.  You oughtta understand that.”  His voice was a tight, intense whisper.

          “But he’s just a drifter,” Scott protested.  “And an amiable one at that.”

          Johnny rolled his eyes.  “Face it, Scott.  You’re gullible. If I trusted people the way you do, I’d be dead now.”

          “That’s a mighty hard attitude to have about a man you don’t even know, Johnny.”

          “I know more about him than I want to. If we don’t shake him, somebody’s gonna end up hurt.  Now let’s just get rid of him in the morning and hope that’s the end of it.”  He tried to brush past Scott, but the blond stopped him with a hand against his chest.

          “Sometimes I just don’t know how to figure you, Johnny.”

          “Don’t figure me.  Just do like I tell you.”  He forced his way past and toward the campfire.  Adjusting his saddle so he could lie on his left side facing Hudson, Johnny dropped to the ground and pulled his blanket over him.  Scott settled on his own bedroll without a further word to Johnny, his silence as deafening as any angry conversation would have been.

          Johnny lay awake for a long time, still trying to put a correct name to the memories that Clay had triggered in him.  The name wasn’t Hudson, and it was just before he drifted off that he came on the real name that he knew the other man was hiding.


*** *** ***

Johnny was first up the next morning, having slept only fitfully before his watch and then not at all after it should have ended.  Instead of waking Hudson for another turn he had simply sat there, watching the man sleep and considering his options.  As the first light of dawn edged into the sky he had stoked the fire and had the coffee pot boiling before Scott and Clay even stirred.  Scott was sullen with his younger brother and Johnny made no attempt to cajole conversation out of the blond.  On the other hand, Scott made an effort to be especially nice to Clay, if only to goad Johnny. 

          Clay’s horse seemed less footsore, but still favored its off hind leg enough that Clay again bemoaned his fate in having to walk in riding boots.  “I suppose a smart fellow would spend some of his pay on a spare pair of sturdy boots meant for walking or some of them soft shoes the dandies wear in those Eastern cities we were talking about. But then if a man kept picking up gear like that, he’d need to be trailing a pack mule everywhere he went, too.”

          That seemed to give Scott an idea, however, and Clay ended up having to forestall an argument when the older Lancer brother offered him the loan of their pack horse whose role was nearly complete anyway.  Clay could try to rent a horse in Morro Coyo, he suggested, and return for his own mount later.  It wouldn’t wander far with water and grazing close by.  This idea met with an immediate and poorly excused ‘no’ from Johnny, and it was only Scott’s concern about creating a bigger scene that prevented him from calling his brother on his lack of consideration for Clay’s predicament.  Clay purported not to want to leave the gelding behind, saying he’d probably end up in the jaws of their rogue puma if he did.  “He ain’t much to look at, but he’s a clear-footed sort and we’ve covered a few miles together.  A few more on foot looking after him won’t kill me.”  He got the directions he needed, and thanked the men for their hospitality, tossing Johnny a brief, pointed look as he did so.  Leading the gelding, he set out for the village leaving the two brothers to their stony silence.

          “Sc—” Johnny turned finally to face his brother.

          “Save it!” Scott snapped and swung onto his mount.  “I’ll drive these beeves over to the group we found yesterday.  You can do whatever you want.”  He wheeled Charlemagne and headed off without a further word, leaving Johnny staring despondently at the dusty ground at his feet.


*** *** ***


Scott arrived back at the hacienda before Johnny.  Stopping by the main trough, he let Charlemagne drink and pumped a few mouthfuls for himself.  He was wiping his face when a ranch hand limped up to him. 

“How’s it going, Max?” Scott asked, nodding his head toward the hand’s leg which obviously still sported a thick bandage under his right trouser leg.  Max had been gored by an obstreperous steer two weeks ago and been relegated to menial duties usually left to Cipriano’s 13 year old son who helped about the place as stable boy.  Much to the delight of Cipriano’s 13 year old son, everyone knew.  He’d been pressing Murdoch and his father for months to be allowed in on some of the men’s work and now had finally gotten a chance to take some of it on.

          “Ah, gettin’ there,” the hand shrugged.  “Any luck?” he inquired.  “With the cat, that is?”

          “No.” Scott shook his head.  “We saw lots of tracks, but no sign of her.”

          “I wonder if it’s that big male that bothered us for a while last year and then just disappeared.”

          “Johnny seems to think it’s a female, from the size of the feet.  Whatever it is, it’s got some kind of old injury to one of its pads.”

          “That sounds like the track Hank found by the kill near Black Mesa.”

          “Is Murdoch around?”

          “He was down by the corral a while ago.” He gestured at Scott’s horse.  “You want me to take him?”

          “Yes, thanks, Max.”  He handed over the reins and headed back to the corral the hand had mentioned.  Murdoch was there, so was Teresa.

          “How’d you go? Any sign of the cat?”

          Scott chuckled. Everyone wanted to know about the cat! “Nothing except another carcass, although it might have been her we heard last night.  Work wise, all we found was about 20-30 heifers that had gotten through the fence at the place you told us about.  It’s repaired.”

          Teresa was studying the stains on Scott’s shirt.  “Did you get hooked on the wire?”

          Scott grimaced, rather embarrassed to be reminded of the snake incident.  “Ah, no, I…sort of got too friendly with a rattlesnake.  Johnny decapitated it before it got to have me for dinner.”

          “Where is Johnny?” Teresa asked.

          Scott’s face turned hard.  “We came back different ways.” He faced his father, eyes flinty. “Sir, did you hire three men just before we set out?”


          “So we’re still short-handed?” When Murdoch nodded, Scott’s lips pursed tightly.  “Did you tell Johnny any different?”

          “No.  Why?”

          “Nothing.  It’s between Johnny and me.”  He turned to go and Teresa stepped up beside Murdoch.

          “What do you suppose is bothering him?”

          “I don’t know.  I guess he and Johnny have had a falling out about something.”

He shrugged and turned to briefly watch the two men in the corral who were tending an injured palomino.  Fallings out seemed to follow his younger son around, but if Scott and Johnny had argued, it wouldn’t be too serious.  His two sons seemed to be forging a good relationship in spite of their differences.  He only wished he felt as confident about how things were developing between Johnny and himself.  Just the day before last, before the boys had set out to ride the fence line, he and Johnny had had words.  Murdoch couldn’t even remember now what it had been about, but there always seemed to be something getting in the way of his efforts to communicate with his youngest.

          And unfortunately, the awkwardness and flared tempers that marked his relationship with Johnny were only highlighted by the fact that it was proving so easy to relate to Scott.  He was sensible and responsible, and although he could hold strong opinions, occasionally in opposition to Murdoch’s, Scott could generally be counted on to listen patiently to reason and to be careful in decision-making. Johnny, on the other hand, tended to fly off the handle, reacting from the gut, and refusing to listen to anything Murdoch tried to tell him.  He could be belligerent and quick to judge and what was worse, if Johnny got too riled up he would just ride off in a cloud of dust, ending any chance to discuss what was bothering him.  How like his mother he was in so many ways!

          “You’ve gone all thoughtful.”  Murdoch looked down at Teresa who had interrupted his musings.  She was smiling up at him.  “Such a face!” she teased and Murdoch laughed.  It had been one of Paul O’Brien’s favorite loving taunts for his daughter when she had been sulking about something and her “Uncle” Murdoch had often joined in on the fun of teasing her with the phrase. 

          Smiling, Murdoch turned back to the job he was doing of trimming his horse’s hooves.  He tapped the sorrel’s leg until the horse allowed him to lift it and brace it against its owner’s own leg.  Teresa stood at the horse’s head, stroking him and tracing a finger around the one brown spot on the gelding’s face.  It nestled in against her and she gleefully rubbed noses with the horse.  Murdoch, knowing this ritual without having to watch it transpire, smiled.  This might be his horse, but Teresa and the gelding shared a special bond.  They had grown up together and it was Teresa who had given him the unlikely name of Patch because of the one tiny spot of brown on his otherwise white face.  The logic of the name had utterly escaped Murdoch at the time—she wasn’t even referring to the patches of white on his legs—but to five year old Teresa, it had made perfect sense and she had been adamant that the new colt should be called Patch.  And five year old Teresa often got what she wanted, so Patch it was.

Teresa slipped a hand into the pocket of her dress and removed a tidbit which she offered to the nuzzling animal.  Chuckling at the feel of his lips brushing her fingers, she gave him one final pat, then stepped back, her gaze rising to the sun which baked down on the dusty ground around the corral.  “It must be close to dinner time.  I’ll see how it’s coming.”

Murdoch looked fondly after her as she walked lightly toward the house.  The early loss of both Scott and Johnny had made him shut down in many ways that he was only now coming to recognize.  Their return had clarified for him how indebted he was to his young ward for keeping alive the spark of paternity which was now enabling him to forge a relationship with his two grown sons, rocky though that road might be.

          Teresa caught up with Scott who had stopped to retrieve the hat he had left by the well and was heading into the house.  “Dinner should be ready soon, Scott.  Are you hungry?’

          “Yes.  What I’d really like, though, is a bath.

          Teresa smiled.  “Well, there was some hot water going on the stove.  You could have a small one.”

          They had come close enough to the kitchen to smell the stew that was going to be served up.  Scott stopped and sniffed appreciatively.  “Maybe I will have that meal first,” he suggested with a grin.

Scott got neither his meal, nor his bath.  A boy of about 12, whom they recognized as Henry Ferris’ boy, Evan, rode up and knocked on the front door, reporting that 50 or 60 head had broken through the fence near the eastern boundary of the Lancer property. Their family’s fields were being trampled.

          “How much fence is down?”  Scott enquired, knowing dreams of both food and ablutions had disappeared for the moment.

          “A fair bit, Mr. Lancer.  Maybe 4, 5 sections?”

          “Okay, thanks.  Look would you wait and show us where?”  Scott turned to Teresa.  “Looks like that food will have to wait.”

          “I’ll tell Murdoch.”

          Scott rounded up a few hands and set out toward the Ferris place while another hand was directed to follow them up with a wagon and supplies for mending the wire.


*** *** ***


Murdoch slipped a hand behind the small table and felt for the safe key that was secreted there.  Grasping it, he lifted it free of its hook and returned to his desk.  Seating himself, he pulled the beef book and a ledger from one of the drawers and opened the accounting book.  He didn’t know what he would end up owing Ferris, but he had to be sure he kept enough cash on hand for the men’s payday which was due tomorrow.

          Opening the ledger, he glanced at the last entries, smiling as he noted Scott’s exacting penmanship which was so in contrast to his own.  Scott had politely described his father’s hand as “functional” when the senior Lancer had commented on it as they worked one day and Murdoch had just laughed. Scott had been equally diplomatic in assessing the accounting methods Murdoch had used all these years, but it hadn’t taken him long to completely rework the system to something that satisfied his accountant’s sensibilities.  It was one of a number of changes the young man was working in the way things were done at Lancer.

          Scott had had no prior knowledge of cattle or ranching before coming west, but he was troubling himself to learn. He poured over Murdoch’s journals, sought out contacts with cattle buyers, and even corresponded with men from the agricultural colleges around the country who he said were researching breeds and bloodlines.  The latter was something Murdoch could not have tackled with the assurance his college-educated son could and it was an unexpected bonus of his burgeoning relationship with his eldest.

          Scott was holding his own in the practical side of ranching, too.  Murdoch had been particularly interested to see how this would pan out. Scott had experience of leading men, that was clear from the start, and he was a fine horseman, but in a very different way to the seasoned westerners he was now supposed to be in charge of.  But Murdoch had watched him win the men over with his pleasant, firm manner and willingness to laugh at his own blunders, including chewing gravel a few times when breaking in mounts or roping steers.

          Dragging his thoughts back to the task at hand, Murdoch calculated how much he could spare of the safe’s contents and what might be owed his neighbor. Slapping the ledger closed, he moved to the safe and extracted a wad of bills which he slipped into his billfold.  The key he returned to its hiding place behind the table, fumbling momentarily as his fingers searched for the small hook.  The action brought his gaze onto the large Family Bible which lay atop the table on a doily, one that Maria had crocheted, he suddenly recalled.   Straightening, he paused, his fingers tracing the intricate pattern formed in the fine cotton threads, and then moving to the scrollwork on the leather binding of the Bible he had carried with him from Scotland so many years ago.

          He lifted the front cover of the Scriptures and scanned the inked lineage inside, some of it faded, some of it fresher.  But not fresher than 22 years ago, he thought sadly, with the exception of the notation he had made when he had learned of Maria’s death.  He stared at the record of Johnny’s birth. Never for a minute had he thought that that would be the last entry in the Lancer family line so many, many years later.

          Maria, querida, why did you do it? Why did you take our son?

          The sadness he suddenly felt at the lost years was deepened by the abrupt recollection of an incident that had occurred shortly after the boys had come to Lancer.  Teresa’s birthday had fallen just a week or so after the awful business with Pardee was over.  Murdoch had been dreading the occasion in some ways because it was to be the first celebration without her father, but the excitement of having Scott and Johnny there had gone a long way to ease the grief she must have felt in the aftermath of Paul’s death.  And the boys, although they hardly knew her, had entered into the spirit of the occasion, each purchasing a gift for her.  Murdoch could tell that Teresa had been as touched as he that these new-found brothers of hers were willing to share the special day with her. 

          From Scott she had received a brooch he had purchased in Green River.  It had an intricate scroll pattern in the silver edging and she had beamed as he pinned it to her dress. Next she had picked up a cloth wrapped parcel which Johnny had placed on the table before going to lie on the sofa to rest after their dinner.  He was still recovering from the bullet he’d taken in the back as he’d fled to Lancer in front of Pardee’s men and tired quickly.  He had watched with shy pleasure as she carefully opened the parcel to discover a beautiful burgundy lace mantilla.  “Oh, Johnny, it’s wonderful!” she had exclaimed as she unfolded it and draped it over her head.  It highlighted her auburn hair beautifully.  She had rushed over to him and given him a kiss.  “I’ll wear it to church on Sunday.

          “This has been a wonderful evening,” she had then proclaimed as she took her place again at the table, beaming widely.  “Our first family birthday,” she announced, her thoughts echoing Murdoch’s own.  The statement seemed to remind her of something, though, and she had turned to Scott. “When is your birthday, Scott? We’ll have to plan a party for it, too!”

          “It’s not for a good while yet, I’m afraid,” Scott told her.  “August 28th.” 

          “Oh, well, it’s something to look forward to for later in the year, then!  You’ll have to tell us how they celebrate birthdays in the East.  I suppose you have a lot more fineries than we manage out here.”

          “Oh, I don’t know,” Scott said.  “Aren’t birthdays about the people, not the parties?”  He looked across to where Murdoch sat at the head of the table. “What about you, sir?  When is your birthday?”

          “October 11th.”

          Scott smiled.  He knew that his mother’s birthday had also been in October.

Murdoch had observed a change in Johnny’s expression as Teresa had asked her question of Scott and then Scott of Murdoch—truly as if Johnny knew his turn had to be next and he was worried by it.  His eyes were guarded, and Murdoch, who could see him best from his position at the table, had seen the furtive look in Johnny’s eyes as Teresa called to him, “When’s your birthday, Johnny?”

          “December,” he’d answered in a voice that Murdoch felt contained a suspicion someone would tell him he was wrong.

          “What day?”

          Murdoch had seen the deepening concern in Johnny’s eyes and felt certain the young man was going to have to make up an answer, so he had intervened.  “December 19th.  You arrived kicking and screaming at 3 in the morning three weeks ahead of schedule.  Scared your mother and I silly having to deliver you with only a hand to help us out.”  He had seen the relief and gratitude in his son’s eyes at not having to admit to not knowing this most basic of information about himself.  Rising, Murdoch had moved to this same table on which the Family Bible rested. 

          Opening it he had placed the large book on Johnny’s lap and pointed to the section where Johnny’s birth had been recorded below his parents and grandparents.  Scott had risen from his seat at the table, obviously intending to join them in order to look at the Bible from over his brother’s shoulder.

          “’47,” Johnny had murmured softly before Scott made it to them. 

          “That’s right,” Murdoch had responded quietly, suddenly painfully aware that Johnny had evidently not even been sure of the year of his birth, much less the exact day.  It grieved him and it was some weeks later, when they were alone, that he had asked his son about it. 

          “I was never real sure,” Johnny had confessed with some reluctance.  “I remember celebratin’ my sixth birthday before Mama died, and I was pretty sure it was December because I sorta remembered Día de Nuestra Señora de Gaudalupe.” He had grinned that little boy grin that Murdoch was already finding so endearing, like the half remembered image of his son as a bubbly toddler that Murdoch Lancer still held in his mind.  “I thought they were havin’ all those fireworks and piñata and music and stuff for me.”  He shrugged and looked thoughtful.  “Mama kept sayin’ ‘no, not yet’ and then there were more celebrations that seemed to go on and on.  Well, you know how long Las Posadas lasts, all the way through Christmas, so it all got kind of mixed up where I fit into it.”    He shrugged.  “So anyhow, I never really could work out what day it was, so I just sorta guessed if anybody asked me.”

          “But you didn’t even know the year?” Murdoch had asked quietly.

          “Well, I thought I did.” Johnny had smiled up at him.  “But no. I mean I knew the point I turned six; but you know, little kids don’t think about what year it is, so I didn’t know which year that meant I’d been born in. And then…well, with Mama dead, there was no one to tell me.”

          “But the orphanage?  I…well, didn’t you mention that you were in an orphanage? Didn’t they know?”  Murdoch hoped he had covered his gaff well enough.  He still had not told his son about the Pinkerton report and the details it contained and wasn’t sure when they would know each other well enough for that to happen.

          “Well, yeah, I landed there eventually, but that first couple a years after Mama died were kind of blurry.  I just had to make do the best I could—didn’t know how much time had passed.  Holidays didn’t count for nothin’ except the extra food layin’ around that a kid could steal or sweet talk his way into.  I wasn’t sure how much time had gone when the oficiales caught up with me and dumped me in that orphanage.  They took a guess and I guess we all got it wrong.”  He had cocked an eyebrow and smiled.  “Turns out I’ve been a year out all this time.”

“Which way?”

          Johnny had just smiled.  “My secret.”


*** *** ***


          When Johnny rode in, the place was surprisingly quiet. The two horses in the corral nearest the barn barely lifted their heads at his approach, and their tails swished listlessly at the flies that were plaguing them. Johnny dismounted by the trough and let his mount and the packhorse drink while he removed first the packsaddle and then his own horse’s gear.  Removing his kerchief, Johnny wiped at a few sweaty patches on Barranca’s neck and chest, and then stood with his hand resting on the gelding’s neck as the animal drank.  The packhorse had had his fill and began to step off, away from the trough.  Johnny ducked under Barranca’s neck and caught up the horse’s lead rope, then led both animals to the corral where he released them. 

          Hefting Barranca’s saddle on his shoulder, he lugged it and the packsaddle into the barn. The abrupt dimness inside the barn played havoc with his vision momentarily, but the coolness was inviting. There was even a faint breeze being channeled through the central corridor.

Max, the hand with the gimpy leg sat soaping some leather.  “You might as well bring that here,” he motioned toward the gear Johnny was carrying.

          Johnny grinned.  “You’ll be glad when you can get back on a horse and outta this job, won’t ya’?’

          Max grinned back at the most easy-going of his bosses. “You don’t know the half of it, Johnny.”  He began to undo the buckles on the girth strap so he could dress the leather.  “Scott come in a while back,” he told Johnny.  “He said you didn’t find nothin’ about that puma but tracks.”

          “And carcasses. She’s a sly one all right.  Where is everybody?”

          “Over to the Ferris’.  Some of the herd busted through onto Ferris’ property and was trampling his crops.”

          “They all went?”

          Max shrugged.  “I guess there was a whole bunch that got through.”

          “Is Scott here?”

          “No, he went with ‘em.  The boss is the only one here and he was gettin’ ready to leave.”

          “Okay, gracias.”

Moving into the house, Johnny tossed his bedroll, rifle and saddlebags onto the sofa and wandered into the kitchen at the back of the hacienda.  Consuela, Cipriano’s wife, was cleaning a pot when he entered and he greeted her in Spanish, enquiring whether there was anything left to eat.  She got him a bowl of stew and some bread and he stood chatting as he ate.  He liked Consuela.  She and Maria, the one a ranch wife, the other a widow of a former hand, shared the household duties and the preparation of the hands’ meals.  They sure made Teresa’s workload easier, but of the two Johnny found Consuela easier to get on with.  Maria seemed to have it in for him, he often thought.  She’d scold him for leaving his dirty gear around the hacienda and putting his boots on tables she’d just polished and snatching food from the kitchen outside of meals.  He liked women with spirit, but Maria was just plain bossy, he thought, at least with him.

Consuela, on the other hand, was born with a smile on her face and he knew she had a soft spot for him.  Which made it easier to leave his dirty gear lying around, put his feet on the tables, and eat whatever he felt like from the kitchen!

 She and Cipriano had 7 kids, the youngest of whom was cooing and gurgling in a basket on the kitchen table, attempting to reach a cluster of gaily painted wooden baubles his mother had hung from the basket’s handle.  Her five-year-old son, Domingo, played on the floor with a wooden horse, but got up at his mother’s insistence and carefully carried a mug of coffee over to ‘Señor Juanito’.

          Johnny thanked him and then remembered something he’d found earlier in the day that he intended to give the boy.  Jamming the spoon into his mouth, he fished into his shirt pocket and removed a small piece of wood which he handed the child. Para ti.” The boy looked at it puzzled until Johnny flipped the twig over in his hand.  Now Domingo could see the crude shape of a lizard in its form and he laughed and showed it to his mother.

          Murdoch walked into the kitchen, drawing Johnny’s attention.  “Hi, Murdoch.”

          “You must have just gotten back.”


          “We’ve had some trouble on the fence line east of here.  Some cattle broke through onto Ferris’ property.”

          “Yeah, Max told me.  You going out there?”

          “Yeah,” he sighed.  “I’ll have to talk to Ferris. I’m sure we’ll owe him some damages if the cattle have really gotten onto his crops.”

          “You want me to go along?”

          “No.  Scott and the boys should have the cattle out by now and begun the repairs.  You can stay here and wait for the next crisis.”

          Johnny laughed.  “I’m good at them.”

          “Speaking of emergencies, Scott told us you tangled with a rattlesnake yesterday.”

          Johnny grinned and shoveled the last of the stew into his mouth.  “Yeah, he sat on it.  I sure hope he lives long enough for us to make a rancher out of him.”        

“Oh, I’m sure with all your vast experience as a rancher you can teach him.”

          Johnny grinned at the implication. “At least I know not to sit on rattlesnakes.”  He pushed away from the tabletop and set the now empty bowl on the bench top, wiping his hands against his trousers.  “I might have to end up hirin’ out as his bodyguard.”  A look of concern crossed his face so fleetingly that Murdoch took no notice of it.

          Señor Juanito,” Domingo called as Johnny turned to go. “Gracias por mi lagartija.

          De nada,” Johnny told the boy, tousling his hair. He nodded his thanks to Consuela. Murdoch looked questioningly at Johnny as they both left the kitchen.  “Oh, I found a piece of wood this morning that’s a bit different.  Looks kinda like a lizard if you hold it right...”  He shrugged.

          Both men stepped out to the front of the hacienda where Max had left Murdoch’s horse, saddled and ready to go.  As Murdoch mounted, Johnny stood with his hand on the gelding’s neck. 

          “Murdoch.  I really gotta go into Morro Coyo tonight for a while.”  His voice conveyed a suggestion that Murdoch might say no, which surprised the elder Lancer, who had no problem with it.  In fact, he was pleased Johnny mentioned it.  This was still an issue between them that Johnny would sometimes just take off without leaving word where he was going or for how long.

          “Fine.  Would you be sure Pete and Manolito know we’re still looking for hands?”

          Johnny nodded, but his quick glance away from Murdoch made the older man suspicious, reminding him of Scott’s questions earlier in the day.  “Johnny, when Scott came in before…he was upset about something.  Did something happen?”

          Johnny looked back up at the tall man astride the big gelding, a guarded smile on his face.  “Maybe he don’t like rattlesnakes?” he offered, but glanced away again, his fingers picking through the horse’s mane. 

          Murdoch pursed his lips, debating whether to probe any further, and decided against it.  “Okay, well…see you later.”

          Johnny nodded, stepping back to give his father room to turn his mount.  He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he looked around the empty place.  Shaking his head, he went back inside the house.


*** *** ***

Clay Hudson had reached Morro Coyo and had his horse seen to, then sought out a drink and some food at the hotel.  As he ate, he studied the faces around him getting a measure of the few patrons in the place at that time of day.  He asked one trail-dusty cowhand whether he knew of anyone hiring in the area, but the fellow put him off, saying he was just passing through. 

          Approaching the bar for a refill, Clay deliberately stood next to an older man who had been nursing a few whiskeys for longer than was seemly for the time of day.

          “Hi there,” Clay said, as casually as he could.  “Buy you a refill?”

          The old geezer looked surprised, but was clearly not going to refuse.  “I wouldn’t say no.”

          Clay chatted easily as the drinks were poured, then worked around to the conversation he really had in mind.  “Say, do you know anything about the Lancer spread?”

          “Well, yeah, some.  You lookin’ for work?”

          “Well, I am, in fact, but I was really wondering because I met up with Scott and Johnny Lancer yesterday.”  He related the story of the rattlesnake and commented about Johnny’s speed and accuracy in killing the serpent.  “It was pretty impressive.”

          The old fellow smiled.  “Yeah, that’s what I hear. I never seen him myself, but there’s lottsa talk.”

          “He’s got quite a reputation around here, then?”

          “Well, yeah.  Maybe other places, too.  He ain’t been around here very long.”

          Clay’s brows furrowed, genuinely puzzled, by the last remark.  The three men had chatted some last night, but when he thought back on it, he realized that there hadn’t been a lot of personal information shared.  “I don’t understand.  I thought that had been Lancer land for a long time.”

“Yeah, but ole’ Murdoch didn’t bring up them boys.  They only been here maybe 4-5 months. The lighter one, Scott, he was brung up back East somewheres.”

          “What about Johnny?”  Clay fought to keep his tone casual, his excitement growing.

          “Well, his mama was a Mex. He grew up there, I guess.”

          “What’d he do down there?  I mean, you have to wonder how a rancher got so handy with a sidearm.”  He poured the old man another drink.

          “Well, now I don’t know for sure, but folks say that ranchin’ weren’t exactly his line of work.”  He winked.

          “Come on,” Clay prompted with a congenial smile.

          “Now…I’m not sayin’ it’s so, but…you ever hear of Johnny Madrid?”

          Clay looked delighted.  “Yeah.”

          “Well there’s a lotta folks that think he and young Lancer are one and the same.  Now me, bein’ only fair to middlin’ with a .45, I don’t intend to ask him.  There’s some things a man’d rather keep to hisself.”

          Clay’s eyes were gleaming.  “That’s a fact.  Never know what might happen if that got out…”


*** *** ***


          Murdoch handed the folded banknotes over to Henry Ferris, and nodded another apology for the damage done to his crops.  Scott and the hands were well underway with the repairs, but Murdoch sought out Cipriano, the man who had acted so capably as his Segundo in those difficult months of the land piracy, particularly after Paul O’Brien had been killed and Murdoch had been incapacitated.

          “It won’t be long, Señor Lancer,” Cipriano advised.

          “Good, but this is it.  I’m not going to wait around hoping that a few good hands will show up in Morro Coyo looking for work.  Pick two reliable men and send them back to the ranch.  Have them take a couple of spare mounts each and head for Green River, Spanish Wells, and farther if they have to.  Tell them to try to get there tonight while the saloons are open.” He scratched his chin.  “I hate to say take whatever they can get, but within reason, do it.  Tell them to use their judgment.  Find us ten or twelve men at least, if you can.”

          “Perhaps I should go, señor?”

          “No, I need you here.”



*** *** ***


Johnny Lancer arched his back and worked his arms and shoulders, easing the strain he felt in his tired muscles.  He dropped into one of the soft blue armchairs in the study, enjoying the respite from all the activity of recent weeks.  His eyes roved the room which had now become so familiar to him; which had become so much his home. Shaking his head without realizing he was doing it, he considered all the changes the last few months had brought to his short life.

There was the large Lancer “L” emblazoned over the hearth, the map of Lancer which declared Murdoch’s holdings, land which was now being shared with his sons, and the grandfather clock whose chiming had driven Johnny to distraction in the first months here.  He had always been a light sleeper and had never liked the sound of ticking clocks anyway.  He and Murdoch repeatedly got into arguments when Murdoch would find that Johnny had stopped the thing during the night or when he was alone in the house and the silence had exaggerated the noise from the movement of the pendulum.

The large ship model that rested on a table behind the sofa always drew Johnny’s attention.  He had often studied the brig, a replica Murdoch had built of the sort of vessel he had come across from Scotland in, and wondered that anyone would take the time to put it all together.  Until now, Johnny had never stayed in one place long enough to have time to build even one of the masts, not that he’d have the patience or interest to do it.  Still, the ship intrigued him.  He knew from his mother’s tales and his faint memories of her parent’s village that it had been by the sea, but he was too little to remember any of the ships that would have been in the harbor. All he could remember was the chickens!  As for sailing on one… He’d never actually been on anything bigger than a rowboat or one of the punt ferries people used to get across rivers, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to, judging from Murdoch’s talk of the conditions on his voyage from the old country so many years ago. 

His eyes resumed their wandering and fell on the smaller ship model which was on the top of the bookshelf.  The materials for that one Teresa told him she had ordered for Murdoch so he could assemble it while he was recuperating from Pardee’s bullet and waiting for the Pinkertons to locate the boys.  She felt it had been good therapy, just as she gathered making the large one had been in those difficult years after Maria had run off with the gambler, taking her young son with her.

Next his eyes settled and lingered on the array of books that lined the wall behind the dining room table.  He was still amazed at the variety of rich leather bindings on the oversized books with drawings and daguerreotypes of faraway places and the matched volumes that were all by authors Murdoch and Scott had told him were ‘Classics’, including the ones Scott had said were valuable because they were what were called ‘first editions’. Johnny had never thought of any one book being more valuable than another.  Fact was, he had never thought much about books at all!

He had had only about four years of formal schooling back in Mexico; the rest—especially the English reading—he’d just picked up as he needed it, and he’d never needed much. While he might not have had any incentive to try to pick up a real book and read it—books like some of the fat ones sitting on Murdoch’s shelf—he knew what it took to get by. He could tell if somebody was trying to short change him on his pay and work out if he had enough in his pocket to buy what he needed.  He could figure out the interesting stuff in the newspaper—and tell if it was his name on a wanted poster!—and if he were really bored, or wanted to get a laugh out of how the city slickers viewed life out west, he could get through a dime novel without any problems.  It was enough. 

Or it had been until coming here…

Scott and Murdoch had quickly discovered they shared a love of books and often spent evenings discussing things they had read or events in history that interested them.  Scott could even read stuff written in French and Latin. The French wasn’t so surprising, not being any different than Johnny being able to read both English and the Spanish he still preferred, but the Latin had him bamboozled.  Scott had explained it was what was called a dead language; nobody spoke it any more.  Why on earth he’d had to learn it at school, Johnny had never been able to figure out, but Scott had said it was important.  Something about words they all used originating from Latin, but Johnny couldn’t work out why it really mattered.  You had words, you used them.  What more was there to it than that?  Why would you need to know where they started off?

Whether it made sense to Johnny or not, the fact that Scott and Murdoch believed it sometimes left him feeling on the fringe of things.  They seemed to have so much in common and it bothered Johnny more than he’d expected it to, especially given the anger and skepticism with which he’d been filled when he came to Lancer.  Not intending to stay, not intending to like or agree with Murdoch Lancer on anything, it had come as a shock to him to discover that he could be hurt by how easy it seemed to be for his new brother and father to relate to each other.  They never seemed to have as many disagreements as he and his old man did.

When it came to making him feel left out, even Teresa could best him. Although he gathered her education had been a bit on the thin side like his—a few years where a ranch wife who could read had tutored some of the kids on the place and some direction and assignments from Murdoch and her father—she seemed to have taken to it and would even take turns at reading aloud to the family as was sometimes the custom on slow nights when the work was done. That had both surprised and intimidated Johnny in a way he wasn’t comfortable admitting to.  He hated reading out loud in front of people! And he’d hardly known any women who had had any more education than he had, but it had never mattered.  What was in books had nothing to do with cuddling up to a pretty gal.  But to listen to Teresa reading and discussing ideas with the other two had left him feeling isolated and ashamed at times of his paltry education. 

          ¡Caramba!” Johnny murmured and laughed at his own introspection.  A man shouldn’t think too much about too much that had to do with how he felt about things and people.  It got a guy into trouble.

He sighed deep and long, realizing just how tired he felt.  His eyes roved to the sofa opposite him and he considered it.  Soft, long and inviting…maybe a catnap wouldn’t do any harm?  He levered himself up and, pushing his gear onto the floor, he dropped onto the settee, boots and all—after all, it was Consuela who was around the place if he got caught!  And he could sweet talk Teresa most of the time.  Satisfied with his horizontal view of the world, he crossed his legs, folded his arms and let himself drop off into a contented sleep. 


          Juanito watched as the man with the bushy moustache dealt out 25 of the tattered, greasy cards, all the while smiling at this scrawny kid who fancied he knew one side of a playing card from another.  When the cards lay on the faded felt of the deal table, Johnny dived in eagerly, turning them over and beginning to group them into poker hands.  The men at the table watched, amused.  Carlito and Julio just watched, hungry.  They hadn’t had a decent meal in days, any of them.  Their grand plan of running away from the orphanage in search of adventure was not looking like such a smart plan after all.  Begging had gotten them chased and threatened, stealing had cost them two days locked in the merchant’s shed until they had broken out through a rotted floorboard.  No one would give the dirty trio a few hours work, and so it had come down to this little con game again if they wanted to eat.    

It was a trick Raul had taught Johnny to help him learn his poker hands. Johnny would bet someone that they could deal out 25 cards and he would make five pat hands out of them.  It almost always worked; often enough, anyway, that it had fed Julio, Carlito and him many times. 

At first it was easy.  Johnny formed a straight, a full house and two pairs almost immediately, but then things began to clog up.  The men, especially the one with the huge mostacho, began to snigger and tease.  One offered a suggestion but was shut up by his companions who were enjoying watching Johnny sweat out what they believed to be an impossible task.

Johnny refused to look up from the table, not sure he could face either the men or his friends if he didn’t pull it off.  He’d bet this rough looking hombre 5 pesos against their combined slave labor for the afternoon if he couldn’t complete the trick.  And he didn’t think he had the strength to work off the debt if he didn’t get fed first.

          Finally and suddenly the solution jumped out at him.  Triumphant, Johnny moved the King and Ace from one straight, shuffled two fives and regrouped his full house.  “¡Por fin!” he cried as he grinned at the man with the moustache.  Johnny had just made a straight, full house, \flush, two pairs and four of a kind and they were going to eat!  His look of triumph wavered, though, when he saw amusement turn to annoyance on the face of the man he’d bet.  The trick might always work, but that didn’t always mean the loser paid up, not to a skinny kid whose only defense was the speed at which he could run and hide if chased by someone three times his size.  He struggled to keep his face impassive, confident. “Señor,” he said.  “You owe me 5 pesos.”

          “Do I?” the man challenged.  “Do I owe a little runt 5 pesos?” He had taken Johnny’s thin arm in his big hand.

          “Ah, pay him Luis. He beat you fair and square.”

          “Besides,” another of the men with him added, “they look skinny enough to faint dead away if they don’t get some food in them.”

          The man called Luis stared at Johnny who held his head as high as a frightened, hungry 12 year old could.  He met Luis’ gaze full on, refusing to blink under the weight of the older man’s glare.  At last the man burst into wholehearted laughter, and releasing Johnny’s arm he fished in his pocket and threw 10 pesos onto the table.  Johnny snatched at the coins which threatened to roll out of reach, but toppled in amongst the cards spread out on the table.

          “Show me that again, niño, for the extra.” Luis commanded.  “I bet you can’t do it again.”

          “Probably not, señor,” Johnny lied, keen to escape with his prize.  From the corners of his eyes he could see that his practiced accomplices Carlito and Julio stood ready to clear a path to the nearest door for him.  He was close to bolting when Luis’ arm snaked out and once again clutched Johnny’s own.  With his other, Luis grabbed at Johnny’s chin and twisted his face around so he could look close into it, studying the boy’s eyes.

          “Where did you get those blue, blue eyes, niño?” 


          “Are you a little gringo pretending to be a little Mexican, maybe?  I don’t like gringos, you know that?”  His grasp on Johnny’s chin tightened slightly, just enough to make Johnny dig a foot into the ground at the discomfort, but the boy continued to stare defiantly at the mustachioed man. “I especially don’t like being taken for a ride by a little gringo who plays card tricks.”  

          When Johnny continued to meet his gaze and refused to struggle against the hold the man had on him, Luis pressed his face close to the boy’s and repeated his earlier question.  “So, are you a little gringo or a little Mexican?”

Still Johnny refused to blink.  Speaking as clearly as he could with the man’s hand grasping his chin he thrust his face closer to Luis’.  “Which answer will get me out of here with your 10 pesos?”

Luis looked at him in surprise and then as suddenly as he had burst into laughter at the end of Johnny’s card trick, he released his hold and grabbed Johnny into an affectionate bear hug that nevertheless threatened to engulf the skinny kid.

“I like this boy!” he declared to his companions.  “I like you boy.” He roughly patted Johnny’s cheek with his big hand.  “Even if you do have gringo eyes.”


          Gringo eyes.  Johnny startled awake, the clarity of the recollection of his first meeting with Luis Escobar taking him by surprise, as clear as if it had been a daydream, not a dream.  Whew!  He blinked and shook his head, shaking off the disorientation the leap into his past had produced.  He was rubbing a hand across his eyes when a pounding on the door made him sit upright.

 He heard Teresa open the front door to someone.  “Hello,” she said, recognizing the man as one of the newer hands, but not sure of his name.

          “Oh, ah, Miss Teresa,” he said nodding at the young woman and touching his hat.  “Umm, is the boss around or any of the boys?” 

          “Murdoch’s gone to the Ferris’ with nearly everyone who was working in close.  Consuela said Johnny came in but I don’t—”

          “Here,” Johnny called out as he rolled off the sofa, his fatigue dropped in an instant.  He recognized the urgency in the man’s tone.

Teresa poked her head around the corner into the great room and saw Johnny rising from the couch.  “Good heavens, Johnny I had no idea you were there.  I’ve been in and out of here half a dozen times.”

“I sleep quiet,” he smiled and looked at Alonso who had removed his hat and stepped through the door at Teresa’s invitation.  “What is it, Alonso?”

          “Hey, Johnny,” the man acknowledged.  “Look, we spotted the cat!  Hank winged it, he’s sure.  She’s gone to ground in the rocks near the Saddleback.”

          Johnny’s brow furrowed.  “That’s miles from where we last saw her.”  He looked back at the hand.  “What are you doin’ here then?”

          “Gettin’ more help.  There’s maybe four-five ways out of the spot she’s in.  The four of us can’t cover all of ‘em for long.  A few more of us, though, and we’ve got her!”

          “Well, I’m all you get.  Go get Barranca; I’ll get my gear.”  He turned back to the sofa to do that as Teresa followed the hand out into the yard, pressing him for details about the mysterious animal’s most recent location and kill.

          A few minutes later, she watched as Johnny vaulted onto his palomino. “If the others get back soon, Johnny,” she called, “I’ll send them out to meet you.”


*** *** ***


          Scott decided to detour back from the Ferris’ place by way of Morro Coyo in order to stop there for dinner, choosing the cantina that he and Johnny and Julio had visited recently. He just wasn’t up for a family dinner tonight and waiting for his meal, Scott sat staring into his drink, contemplating all the changes that had been wrought in his life in the last 4 months.  He tried to think where he might have been sitting waiting for a meal on this day 6 months ago.  Boston, certainly, but where exactly?  He had graduated Harvard with degrees in Accounting and Business Law almost a year ago and was working in his grandfather’s accounting firm—exactly as his grandfather had planned, he thought with passing cynicism.  Some evenings he would go out for dinner or to the theatre, or join a few friends over drinks.  He could often be found in the company of a young lady from a suitably acceptable Boston family, most recently Miss Julie Dennison of the Clarendon Row Dennisons.  Everything was orderly and predictable—and Scott Garrett Lancer was bored witless…

          He had often wondered as he sat over a set of someone’s ledgers how he had ended up where he had.  Before the war he had had such plans, but returning weak and sick and tormented from his year’s imprisonment in Libby, every decision had seemed too difficult, every plan too hard to formulate.  With rest and good food he had progressed over the summer, however, and was more than ready to start at Harvard in the fall—several years later than intended.  Graduating magna cum laude four years later, but still without a sense of purpose or commitment to the fields he had studied, he had acceded to Harlan’s wishes and taken up a position in one of the family’s firms. 

          Exactly where the Pinkerton man had found him.  Well, not exactly, he thought, remembering his narrow escape from Miss Barbara Portman’s boudoir in advance of her outraged father.  But the point was the same.  Scott was a man with everything to offer for the future and nothing to look forward to.  He had felt as though his life was a book and it seemed somehow as though its chapters risked being as disappointing as he had discovered real books could be if you cheated and read the end before its time.

          A burst of laughter and the sound of Spanish voices reminded him just how far he had traveled from Boston in this latest chapter of his life.  He glanced up as the cheery mesera, Manuela, delivered his meal.  Gracias,” he thanked her and accepted her offer of a refill on his beer.  He studied the meal.  Pork enchiladas, definitely with the salsa suave, or gringo sauce as Johnny liked to call it.  They didn’t make a bad enchilada here, but Maria made better.  Picking up his cutlery, Scott nudged aside the twinge of homesickness for the East that mealtime here often brought with it.  The food at Lancer and in the villages and towns wasn’t bad, but he missed the variety that could be had in a real city.   He’d had one trip to San Francisco since arriving and that had been a treat for the tastebuds, but the busyness of ranch life didn’t promise that experience very often.  Maybe the cookbook he had ordered for Teresa would encourage some experimentation beyond the hardy steak and vegetables that were a staple out here.

          Scott spluttered momentarily as he bit into a piece of jalapeño that had found its way into the supposedly mild sauce on his meal.  He felt its immediate kick, and grabbing his beer mug, he gulped a swig in an attempt to ease the fire.  How did these Mexicans eat this stuff!?  You had to be born to it, he guessed.

          Which…led him back, once again, to thoughts of his brother and the mixed feelings he had been wrestling with since last night.  Sometimes having to view the world from an adult perspective could be painful, especially when it involved evaluating the actions and attitudes of those you loved.

Coming to see Harlan’s attitudes for what they were when he was a teenager had been difficult, but mitigated by his affection and gratitude for the care his grandfather had provided.  Scott could not deny that Harlan, for all his manipulations, had instilled many qualities in him that were admirable.  Scott had also recognized that some of the arguments and divisions and disputes were a natural part of adolescence—of his becoming a man in his own right.

          The War and Libby Prison…well, that had been a Hell of a special kind and its residue still impacted him in the form of nightmares that occasionally plagued his sleep.

          But this latest chapter in the book of his life was in some ways proving to be the hardest.  Learning to be a family was just plain hard work, in no small part because the outcome of those lessons was so very important to him.  Leaving aside pondering what it was like to finally have and know a father, Scott considered his budding relationship with his half-brother.  

Growing up, Scott had longed for a brother and even fantasized about having one.  The reality, he was finding, was not always what he had expected.  Truly he liked Johnny and they got on fabulously much of the time.  Scott even envied the joie de vivre his brother evinced—the spontaneity with which Johnny approached life and fun.  Mind you, some of it flew in the face of the reliability and efficiency Scott had been reared to value, but that’s what was so appealing about it.  And most of the time he dealt well—better than Murdoch, he knew—with Johnny’s occasional lapses in these areas.

But there were certain character traits in Johnny that were anathema to Scott and he often struggled with how he could feel both fond of his brother and so irate with him, nearly in the same instant. 

Scott valued politeness and openness—traits he now realized he had developed in spite of his grandfather, not because of him!—and this is where he was running into problems with Johnny.  The irritating wariness and rush to judgment of which Johnny was capable were something foreign to Scott.  Even the traumas of the war had not so deepened Scott’s cynicism about people that he could relate to, or tolerate, the degree of suspicion with which Johnny viewed most people he didn’t know.  He knew his half-brother had led a hard life and he was sure there was a lot to his background that none of them knew, but it didn’t make the behavior any easier to accept.  And while he knew they would get over the spat they had had last night about Hudson, it was a disappointment to him when it happened.    

Scott’s eyes canvassed the nooks and crannies of the busy cantina as he ate. The Mexican influenced architectural styles had been totally unfamiliar to Scott before his arrival in California, but they had grown on him.   The archways, the simple and natural adobe walls with the contrasting timber-beamed ceilings, and the gay colors of the brightly adorned tables and wall hangings were appealing.  They were as warm in atmosphere as the adobe structures apparently were cool in the summer heat.  This was Johnny’s world, he thought, and oh, so different from everything Scott had ever known growing up.

          Scott nodded a greeting to a family sitting several tables away and then raised his eyebrows as he recognized Clay Hudson about to take a seat further along the row of tables.  He lifted a hand in greeting and was pleased when the other fellow rose and came to join him at his booth.  What he couldn’t know was that Hudson, still debating his options for drawing out the man he had now come to think of as a target, had spotted the blond going into the cantina and followed after a respectably “accidental” interval.  Inside, he had placed himself so that Scott was bound to see him. He readily accepted the invitation to join Scott. 

          They made small talk for a while and then Clay, with apparent awkwardness, broached what was bothering him. “I…feel as though I caused some tension between you and your brother for some reason.  I’m not sure…” His tone was all innocent apology and he marveled at his own skill at manipulating conversations in the direction he wanted.

          Scott shook his head.  He felt as though Clay had been reading his earlier thoughts.  “I don’t know exactly what was going on,” he lied. “I feel like I should apologize for my brother.  He wasn’t very…friendly.”

          “Oh, I just figured he was sort of…reserved.  Some folks just don’t…meet other people real easy.”

          “Well, he’s not usually quite that bad.  I’ve found him to be…pretty easy-going most of the time—mixed with a bit of intensity and fire!” he added with a laugh.

          Hudson shook his head in mock consternation.  “It’s funny, when the two of you talk about each other, it’s ain’t like any other brothers I’ve ever known.”

          Scott smiled.  “Well, we weren’t reared together.  We’re half brothers really.  Murdoch was married twice.”

          “Murdoch. Your father?”


          “Boy howdy, my daddy woulda whooped me good if I’d a called him by his first name.”

          “Well, I’ve only known my father for about four months.  I was reared in Boston by my grandfather.”

          “Ah! Those Boston schools Johnny was talking about.”

          “Yes.” Scott chuckled.  “Where they don’t have any rattlesnakes.”

          Clay signaled the mesera to bring another round of beers.  “Tell me more about Boston.”

          Scott was only too happy to be drawn into a conversation about the city of his youth and they chatted while he and Clay ate.  Eventually the conversation got around to the way in which Murdoch had sent the Pinkertons after his sons.

“You mean both of you?” Clay asked.  “I thought Johnny grew up out here at Lancer.”

“No.  Neither of us did.”

          “Okay, so where’d they find Johnny?”

          “In Mexico.  I guess they bailed him out of a hot spot with the Mexican authorities and he was only too glad to come north.”

          “What was he doing there?”

          “Well, his mother was Mexican.  She left Murdoch and ran off to Mexico when Johnny was little.  He grew up around the border.”

          “Sounds like a real different life to…what’d you call it?  The Boston Back Bay?”

          Scott laughed and nodded. “I guess I had a pretty easy time of it compared to Johnny.” In carrying on to explain that Johnny had lived a hard life and gotten into some trouble Scott came very close to mentioning Johnny’s reputation with a gun, but he stopped himself abruptly, suddenly remembering the caution Johnny had given him that night at Ribbon Creek.  He still felt Johnny’s concerns were overblown, but he had to acknowledge some caution was in order.  There was an awful lot of Johnny’s past he still didn’t know about.

          “What?” Hudson asked when Scott faltered in his narration.

          “Oh, nothing, I…”

          Hudson deftly changed the subject so the blond rancher wouldn’t become suspicious.  He had found out what he needed to.  Scott had mentioned a trip to Europe earlier in the conversation and Clay probed him for more about that experience.  “What’s it like, bein’ on a ship in the middle of the ocean?” Hudson asked.  “I don’t think I’d like it one little bit.”

          “Oh, it was grand!  We were fortunate with the weather, except for about three days on the return voyage.  You wouldn’t believe the sea could be quite unbroken like the glass of a mirror, but I’ve seen it.”

          “It didn’t make you decide to run off to sea?”

          “No,” Scott laughed.  “I didn’t enjoy it enough to make a living out of it, but I’m glad to have had the chance to make the trip, and I’d do it again.”

“How long’d it take to get across?”

“About 15 days.  We had steam, of course, as well as sail, so there were no worries about the doldrums.  I imagine it would have been quite something to do it with nothing to move you along but the wind.”

“What do you do with yourself shut up on a boat with nowhere to go for 15 days? Walk around in circles? It’d be like sittin’ a horse for that long and never stretching your legs.”

“You can cover a fair amount of ground on a ship—lots of nooks and crannies to explore—it just happens to be tossing and rolling the whole time!”

“Sorta like a horse!”

“Yes,” Scott agreed with a laugh.

“But didn’t you get bored?”

“No, there were orchestras, libraries, recitations, a theatre…First Class,” he shrugged with a wry smile.  “Not exactly roughing it!”

          “Oh!” Hudson mocked.  “Up there with the fine folk!”

          “I’m afraid so.  All very civilized and refined.  Evening dress, fine china, personal stewards and…well, you can imagine.  Everything was ‘perfect’, apart from the fact there were hardly any other children my age.  It might have been different if we had sailed a bit later, but we left about two weeks before the end of the normal school year.  Even that wasn’t so bad.”  He shrugged. “Growing up an only child I guess I was used to the company of adults.  And I had my studies with Giselle to keep me ‘entertained’.” 

Hudson cocked an eyebrow and Scott explained.  “My governess, Giselle.”  It must have been the glint in his eye, Scott figured, because Hudson’s expression silently pressed him for more information.  He chuckled.  “My French governess, Giselle. Grandfather had hired her in Boston to…”—his voice took on a portentous tone recalling his grandfather’s manner—“to ’attend to my cultural education and oversight’ during the journey.” She’d attended to more than that, at least in the fantasies of a 14 year old boy subject to his first serious crush!  He had hardly been able to take his eyes off her and it was no wonder many of his studies had suffered.  His infatuation—unrewarded though it was—represented just one of several milestones experienced by Scott on that lengthy sabbatical.

          “Anyway,” he continued, attempting to hide a smile which was loaded with the embarrassment of fond memories, “there was plenty to do.”

“How did the other half pass the time?  The poor slobs like me who couldn’t have afforded the stewards and china?”

          “Ah, yes, them…”  Scott smiled, but it was a reflective one, and Hudson, seeing the change, sensed a story in his expression.  He arched an eyebrow, inviting Scott to continue.  “That, I guess, is one of the… Well, it was part of what made the whole trip so memorable.  So important to…I guess how I came to think about things.

“See, my grandfather…”  Scott considered how to say it.  “…is a man of great influence in New England; either the owner or on the Board of a number of companies.  So we were…”  This is where it got hard, and Scott was sure that his face must be betraying the niggling discomfort that always accompanied discussions of the opulence of his upbringing in his grandfather’s house—a discomfort heightened in this rough and hard-won land where so many people scrabbled for subsistence.  “Well…we were very…comfortable.”

          “You was rollin’ in gold pieces and greenbacks, is that it?” Hudson prompted with a grin and Scott rolled his eyes in tacit agreement.

          “Well…definitely not on the scale of people like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, but yes, we were…very much on the right side of the tracks, as they say. So, anyway, I’d look over the railings at the steerage passengers on the aft decks and got really curious about what it was like for them.  These were the people Grandfather kindly referred to as the ‘riff raff’, you understand.  Well, one day I shook off Giselle and snuck below decks to go for a bit of a wander.”  His head shook in amusement.  “I fancied I’d put on my oldest traveling clothes for the occasion, mind you, but you can imagine how I stood out!  I ended up finding a boy about my size and paying him two bits to swap clothes, and then spent the next couple of hours wandering the lower decks.”

          Hudson looked expectant and Scott’s head shook slowly as he went back in time to those days.  “Well, compared to First Class, it was awful.”  His eyes grew distant with the recollections.  “The air was foul, close and cloying with the smells of unwashed bodies, cooked food, stale food, and the sanitation!” His eyes rolled. “...or lack of it…”  Even a decade later he could vividly recall both the smells and the impressions of the many faces he had seen that day.  And as much as he had observed desperate fatigue and tension among the inhabitants of those overcrowded lower decks, he had also seen the laughter, and tenderness and camaraderie. “Well, that was the thing… Despite all that, I was fascinated by the laughter and friendliness.  I thought…my senses would…overload…from the plethora of languages, the exotic dress and the unfamiliar games and songs…I loved it!  And…well, I guess I realized they weren’t so different from me in any way that counted.

“Eventually I made my way forward to the boat deck.  Chased, I might add, by several stewards who thought I was an escapee from the confines of steerage!  I had to sneak back into my cabin and get changed into something from my wardrobe.”  My ample wardrobe, he thought, remembering how self-conscious he had been for the first time about his reflection in the mirror in his Boston Society clothes and the privilege they represented. It had taken a journey across the ocean to open his eyes.

“Well, it changed the way I thought about some things, I’ll tell you.  It took the rest of the passage and the first two days in London, but I finally managed to convince Giselle that a ‘young gentleman’ should know more of London and Paris than just the museums and antiquities.  We ended up exploring sections of both cities that Grandfather would never have approved of.  I…learned…an awful lot…”  Understatement.  Scott had always found it difficult to express how much he had learned about both society and himself on that trip.

          “I never thought of my life as sheltered before that.  I mean, it’s not like I hadn’t witnessed poverty.  Boston isn’t without its rough districts, and I had made the long trip to New York several times with Grandfather. It might have only been from the fringes, but I had seen the desperate poverty of the inner city streets and dockyards.  But…well, I had never before questioned the fact that the people who lived that life were separated from my own experience by something so…ethereal…as an accident of birth.”

          Hudson considered that notion.  “So, did it make you run away from home and come out west to slave away with us poor cowboys?”

          “No…nothing so dramatic…”  Scott tried to explain it to Hudson.  His arrival back in Boston and return to his private school and tutors and comfortable life in his grandfather’s home had done nothing to dispel what Giselle had called a ‘social consciousness’, and this had become a source of increasing friction between his grandfather and him. For the first time Scott began to question the beneficence he thought he had always observed in his grandfather, realizing that it was measured just like everything else in the Back Bay accountant’s life. 

Words became action as Scott began to involve himself in the abolitionist rallies and social issues of the times.  Accusing his grandfather of complacence, Scott had stood his ground against his guardian’s protestations that such causes might be supported by money, but not by civilized men making spectacles of themselves amidst a throng of the proletariat.  All of which had made Scott more determined to attend meetings and add his voice to the growing numbers of common citizens who were taking a stand against slavery and the secessionist rhetoric of southern sympathizers.

          As their arguments over this and other social concerns increased, Harlan had unexpectedly thrown criticism of Scott’s mother into the mix, adding to the then 16 year old’s consternation.  It was the only time Scott could remember his grandfather speaking ill of his beloved daughter Catherine—apparently she, too, had gotten ‘carried away’ with the social ills of her time—and Scott had felt a burst of pride when Harlan had accused him of being in danger of being ‘led astray’ as she had been.

          “So who won?” Hudson prompted as the tale unfolded.  “Did you sit on your hands once the cannon fire started?”

          “No.  I guess you could say I won.” Scott had never thought of it in those terms, especially given his experiences on the battlefield and then in the hellhole of Libby prison. “I ended up joining up, anyway.” That, he thought, was a very concise way to explain the culmination of months of wrangling and arguments between Scott and his grandfather over the contentious issue of service in the War Between the States.  In some ways, it was the institution of President Lincoln’s Conscription Act in March 1863 that brought things to a head.  Even though Scott, at just 17 ½ was too young to be called up forcibly, Harlan Garrett made it very clear that he would gladly pay the $300 to buy his grandson’s freedom; Scott, for his part, was offended that his moral sensibilities could count for so little to his grandfather. 

          Harlan had resolutely enrolled Scott in Harvard in the autumn of 1863, apparently failing to realize just how serious his grandson was about doing what he saw as his moral duty.  As the start of term approached, they had rowed terribly over the matter, and ultimately, it had led to Scott’s abrupt enlistment. Just old enough in early September to sign up without his guardian’s permission, he had slipped away as a non-commissioned officer with the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry before his grandfather could do anything to stop him.

          “I’d a stood in your grandpa’s camp on that one,” Hudson declared.  “No way I was gonna mix myself up in a war, especially just to free a bunch a—” He stopped himself, realizing Scott probably wouldn’t agree with his views anyway.  “’Sides,  I’ll take my enemies one at a time and at a place of my choosing, not in the middle of some bloodied field under orders from an officer who probably was a banker or a merchant in peace time and hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing.”

          Scott suddenly seemed to be searching Hudson’s face and Clay thought he might have been put off by the almost-remark about slavery as a reason to wage war, but Scott’s eyes dropped to the side.  “It was like that sometimes,” the blond replied, and Hudson worked out that he was referring to the officers. 

The gray-haired man chuckled.  “Oops, I suppose being a rich kid you were one of those officers I’d be worrying about!”

          “Yes, possibly.  I was a lieutenant in the end, anyway.” Scott was disconcerted by the accuracy of Hudson’s perceptions.  There had been many men out of their place, slotted or forced into positions of leadership because of pre-war standing in the community, not necessarily because they possessed skills that befitted the rigors of combat leadership.  More to the point, though, Hudson’s comment had unwittingly reminded Scott of just how green and ill-prepared he had been at the outset—still such a child in many respects.  He had been well aware of the fact that he had been able to enlist as a sergeant instead of a common soldier simply through the power of the Garrett family name.  But that he had moved quickly up from there in the months before his capture? Into a battlefield commission as a lieutenant in General Phil Sheridan’s Cavalry Unit?  How much of it was skill?  How much bravery?  And how much just plain luck in surviving when other men died?

          Hudson was looking puzzled by the sudden change in his table companion’s demeanor, but Scott put an end to it.   “Look,” he said, breaking his own stare and shaking his head.  “I really don’t feel like talking about it.”  Scott hadn’t known he was coming to that point, but he suddenly felt the overwhelming weight of the decisions he had had to make, the orders he had had to give, and the privations he had experienced.  “Who wants to talk about war?” he continued, with a faint smile.

          Hudson’s brows furrowed, still surprised by how quickly Scott’s attitude had changed.  “I guess it would have been pretty terrible,” he conceded.  “Well…” He looked for another topic and abruptly got a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “So tell me more about this ‘Giselle’ of yours.  Do I gather this was not your…old lady type governess?”

          Scott’s eyes sparkled.  “Oh no!  She was 23, with lovely auburn hair and large green eyes that made me weak at the knees.”  He smiled broadly. “At 14 I was already pretty tall and I fancied myself her grown-up protector as I ‘escorted’ her through some of the rougher neighborhoods.  I even thought people might take us for lovers.”  He laughed at the recollection of his own childish fancies.  “The truth was, I was lean and gangly and totally out of my depth!  I couldn’t even speak without my voice going…” His finger traced a rapid path up and down, up and down.  “For months, I had been going from sounding like my grandfather one minute, to the next like the boy I didn’t want her to see me as any longer.”  He chuckled. “It was horrible!  Fortunately, the voice at least finished what it had to do somewhere between London and Paris.”

          “So, your voice finally turned into a man’s…and you had this pretty governess…Did ya’…?”  Hudson’s eyebrows flitted suggestively.

          Scott shook his head with a resigned smile. “Sadly, she considered it one of her duties to ensure a certain 14 year old set clear…boundaries…on his relationship with his governess…”

          “Ah, unrequited love…”

          “Something like that.”  Scott could look on it with amusement now, but it had been abject torture at the time.  Both men chuckled.

Hudson finished his meal and leant back in his seat, patting his stomach in satisfaction.  “That’ll hold me for a while, I think,” he told Scott as he fished in his vest pocket, emptying it of coins.  His eyebrows arched and he smiled wryly at the other man as he showed him the few coins he had left.  “Well, it’ll have to hold me for a while.  I need to find some work soon or I’m gonna start seein’ holes in my shadow.”

          Scott hesitated a moment.  “We…do need hands, if you’re still interested.”

          “I thought Johnny said you was full up.”

          “My brother…was mistaken, I guess.  I talked to Murdoch.  We still need help.”

          “Well, that’d be fine, Scott.  I’ll take you up on that, leastways for a few weeks.”

          Scott smiled and reached for his drink.  A movement caught his eye and he turned to the right and spotted Julio entering and talking with one of the employees.  He signaled his brother’s friend and the vaquero joined them cheerily.  Scott made introductions and the three men chatted for a while, Julio filling them in on the wedding he had attended and then allowing himself to be pulled into conversation about his long, if somewhat on-again, off-again acquaintance with Johnny. 

          Scott having mentioned his war service earlier, the three men got talking about the post-war years and the movement of US troops down toward the border at war’s end.  It was a time of civil unrest in Mexico, and the U.S. had supported efforts to overthrow Maximilian, the French appointed Emperor of Mexico.  Despite the eventual victory that had been achieved, life under reinstated President Benito Juarez was still not easy, especially for the peones.  As ever, the few wealthy and powerful men in each region made life a misery for the impoverished masses who served them.  It was in this environment that Julio and Johnny had come to manhood and, Scott suspected, Johnny Madrid’s reputation as a hired gun had reached maturity as well. 

Thoughts of his brother’s former “career” made Scott watch Julio carefully as he chatted with Hudson.  The Mexican was seemingly without the suspicion that Johnny had shown toward the stranger, although Scott recognized that Julio wasn’t really saying anything too specific about Johnny’s background either. What he couldn’t tell was whether it was deliberate or not.

“I was in Kansas around the time all that Maximilian stuff was going on,” Hudson told them.  “I think I’m glad. It must have been a hard time to be hangin’ around the border.  Was Johnny with you then?”    

,” Julio laughed. “Fortunately for me, I think.  It was a time when it was good to be a friend of Johnny’s.  No one would…¿cómo se dice?   Mess with him.  He was feared by both sides.”

          “He musta had a powerful reputation.”

          Julio’s look turned cautious and he shrugged non-commitally.  The cerveza had loosened his tongue, but not enough he wasn’t aware of it.

          Hudson smiled disarmingly.  “Well, a man with a sure gun hand can make a name for himself.  I wonder if I might have heard of him.  What name did you say he went by?”

          Julio met Hudson’s gaze without hesitation, but his smile was strained when he replied, “Juanito.  Johnny.  Lancer, of course.”

          Hudson’s own smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, but he nodded. 

          It was getting late and Julio excused himself, saying he wanted to get another hour or two south if possible before making camp for the night.  He was clearly impatient to return to his fiancée. Hudson took the cue, as well.  To Scott he said, “I don’t know about you, but if I’m gonna do a day’s work tomorrow, I need to get me some rest. If you can give me a minute to get my things out of the hotel, I’ll follow you out to the ranch.”

          “Sure,” Scott replied distractedly.  His thoughts were still on how quickly Hudson had reverted to probing Johnny’s background and the matter of his skill with a sidearm. “Umm…I’ll meet you in front of the hotel.”  He was increasingly troubled about what he’d done in hiring Hudson.  Suddenly Johnny’s concerns didn’t seem so outlandish, but there was nothing to be done about it.  The offer had already been made and accepted.


*** *** ***

Scott wiped his boots and stepped into the ranch house after introducing Hudson to one of the hands, and seeing to it he was given a bunk.  Teresa met him inside the study, and offered him a meal which he declined, apologizing for not having let anyone know he wasn’t going to be in for dinner. 

Teresa just laughed.  “I hardly expected a telegram!  And the oven’s always hot.  It will only take a few minutes to have something warmed up.”

“No really, thanks, Teresa.  I had a good meal in Morro Coyo.  Umm, is Johnny around?” he inquired.

          “No. Hank and two of the men spotted the cat.  Hank thought he winged it so Johnny went out to help them bring it down.”

          “At Ribbon Creek?”

          “No, the Saddleback.  It killed a colt.”

          “All the way over there? Are we looking for more than one, do you think?  Johnny and I saw tracks by Ribbon Creek just yesterday.”

          “It’s possible.  There sure doesn’t seem to be any pattern to the killings.  They’re here and there.”

          “Well, Johnny will know if it’s the same one.”

          “I hope they get it soon.  It was that little dappled colt it killed.  You know—that one Murdoch had his eye on?”

          Scott just nodded, still distracted by the evening’s events.  Teresa simply took it as tiredness.  “Did I see you ride in with someone?”

          “Yes, a new hand.”

          “Good, that’ll ease things a little.”

          “Yes,” Scott murmured.  It looked like any reconciliation or clarifications between he and his brother were going to have to wait one more day.


*** *** ***


          Johnny and the four hands spent the afternoon tracking the cat which was, indeed, wounded.  Johnny was triumphant when he did finally find a clear track that proved it was the same cat he and Scott had found the previous day.  

          Just before dark they felt they had the cat cornered, but were reluctant to move against a wounded animal in the half-light that was left of the day.  Instead, they made two camps, blocking they felt, the only escape routes in the rocky terrain.  As darkness settled, they could hear her despairing yowls.  It was going to be a long night listening to that.

          Johnny shook his head. “No one better fall asleep on watch tonight.  No telling what she might do, hurt like that.”

          “Who’s going to sleep with that yammering going on?” Alonso protested.  “Don’t that just make your skin crawl?”

          “I wish I’d a hit her proper the first time,” Hank complained.  “I hate seein’ any animal suffer like that, even her.”

          “Don’t you go feelin’ sorry for her after all the grief she’s caused us,” Alonso remonstrated.

          “Still…listen to her.  How would you like to be lyin’ up there with a bullet in ya’?”

          “I wouldn’t,” Alonso admitted, “but I don’t have to worry about it.  I haven’t been killing calves and foals recently.” 

Hank chuckled, but Johnny shook his head as he poured the rest of his coffee into the edge of the fire.  “Nah, you just choke ‘em with ropes, and throw ‘em to the ground, and burn brands into their hides…not to mention what you do to all them poor little ole’ bull calves.”  Hank burst out laughing and Alonso looked a little sheepish.

          “Yeah, Alonso,” Hank told him, “you’re lucky steers can’t shoot!  Who knows what you’d be running from?”

          The beast howled again, a mournful, agonized cry of pain that made the three men trade glances uneasily. “Hey…” Hank said hesitantly.  “You don’t suppose she really could be rabid, do ya’?  The way she’s ranging all over the place? It ain’t normal.”  The three men looked at each other, considering the idea.  This was something a lot of the Lancer hands had been speculating on.

          “I knew me a guy who got bit by a rabid dog.  Down in Texas,” Alonso said.  “He got so crazy they had to lock him up in the jail to keep him from hurting anyone.  We could hear him screaming and howling and cursing and pleading.  Either he was threatening anyone who came near him or begging somebody to put him out of his misery.”

          “Did they?” Johnny asked, his lip curling at the thought of what Alonso was describing.

          Alonso nodded.  “The Sheriff finally…well, there wasn’t nothing anybody could do for him.”

          “Just as well, I say,” Hank agreed.  As if on cue, the cat screamed again.

          They slept poorly that night until the early hours when things finally went quiet.  Rising with the sun, they made their way carefully into the rocks.  None of them had heard the cat for the last two hours, but they weren’t taking any chances.  In the end, there was no dramatic finish to it.  They found her lying on her side, under a rocky outcrop, her flank and hind leg streaked with blood.  Johnny prodded her with his rifle barrel, just to be sure, and then squatted beside her.  Reaching over he lifted her feet and found the damaged pad.   “Well, Hank, looks like your drinks are on me next Saturday.  Good shot.”

          “Better if I’d a done it right the first time,” Hank muttered.  She didn’t look very dangerous now and bleeding slowly to death was a sorry way to go.

          “Don’t take any chances with her,” Johnny instructed as he rose again.  He couldn’t see any sign the animal was rabid, but it was better to play it safe.  “Burn the carcass just in case.”


          Johnny moved to where Barranca stood grazing. “Look,” he said, gathering up the reins and mounting. “I gotta go into Morro Coyo. Tell the Old Man, will ya’?  I’ll be back in a few hours.”

          He’d come to this decision during the night. If the man who called himself Clay Hudson hadn’t gotten his mount tended to and left town immediately—and Johnny seriously doubted it—then Johnny Madrid Lancer intended to find out what he was up to.


*** *** ***


          Johnny stormed into the house and shouted Scott’s name. Spotting the blond in the study, he stomped into it, slamming the front door behind him so hard that it bounced back open without him realizing it.   “You don’t listen worth a damn, do you?” Johnny snarled at his brother.

          Scott was surprised and instantly defensive.  “What’s your problem?”

          “You and Hudson had a meal at the cantina last night.”

          “So?”  Scott was indignant. 

          “I told you to stay away from him.”

          “Since when are you my chaperone?”

          “Since you’re too dumb to recognize a two-footed rattlesnake when you see one!”

          “Now look, Johnny…”

          “No, you look.  I told you I knew his kind—”

          Scott cut him off, stepping directly up to his brother and jabbing an accusing index finger into the younger man’s chest.  “There you go with that again.  His kind.  Who are you to judge what kind of man he is?”

          “Because he’s my kind.  He’s a gunfighter.  A pistolero!  And if he finds out who I am, one of us is gonna end up dead.”  Johnny had slipped his revolver from its holster and was pressing it close to his startled brother’s face.  Scott, stunned, drew back from the .45 his brother brandished.          

          “Are you sure, Johnny?” Murdoch’s voice was quiet and at first neither son responded to the voice that came from the doorway.  Johnny finally turned to look at his father who stood on the entry step, then dropped his head, sighing and nodding.  The revolver he slipped back into its holster.

          “Yeah,” he mumbled.  Turning away from Scott, he stood looking toward the French doors, his hand resting on the butt of his revolver.  “He calls himself Clay Hudson, but his name’s Lesser.  He’s a gun for hire. Anybody’s hire, as long as they got the money.”

          Murdoch fully entered the room, looking between Johnny and his elder son who now stood staring dejectedly at the floor.

          Johnny sighed and lowered his gaze. “I saw him gun down Matt Carver, maybe 5-6 years ago.”

          “Carver,” Murdoch said thoughtfully.  “I think I know the name.  He was supposed to be pretty good.”

          “He was pretty dead, by the time Lesser finished with him.”  Johnny looked up at his father, then shook his head and pulled off his hat, wiping his brow with his sleeve.  He lowered the hat, spinning it slowly in his hands, picking at the brim, and staring into space.

          “Five or six years is a long time, Johnny,” Murdoch said.  “How can you be sure it’s him?”

“Ah, I wasn’t, not straight up. He’s a little heavier and grayer—grown a moustache. I just had a bad feelin’ when he came up.  There’s a look about him.  And that Colt he’s packin’…”  Johnny’s face twisted in displeasure at a conversation that was sliding inexorably toward the dirty little secrets that clouded his past and stood between him and any chance of a normal relationship with his new family.  “Well…the grip’s been modified to fit his hand and…”

“So is yours, Johnny.” Murdoch’s brows furrowed.

“I know,” Johnny looked down, “but…well, there’s other stuff I wager he’s done to the Colt to sharpen his draw.” Like the one I’ve got hidden in the back of the wardrobe, he thought.  The one I’ve never let on to either of you that I own and that I’ve used to kill so many people…   With difficulty he met both men’s gaze. 

Scott had been looking more and more distressed and disgusted with himself as Johnny spoke, and had gone to lean against the fireplace mantel, his forehead propped against his arm.  Johnny dropped into the blue armchair and let his hat bounce abstractedly against his knee.  He was about to make an additional comment, when Scott turned suddenly.

          “Why didn’t you say something? That night.  I’d have listened!”

          “I tried, but you were so set on what a nice guy he was, you weren’t hearin’ me.  Besides, I couldn’t say for sure right then that he was a shootist.  I didn’t recognize him. It wasn’t until I came on the name later that I could place having seen him before.” His left hand toyed with the crystal pendants dangling from the oil lamp on the table beside him.  He made a face.  “And well, we were a little hot with each other the next morning.  I figured to explain it to you when we got back here, but you were gone, then I was, and it was just too late.”

          “John,” Murdoch asked, “You said you saw him six years ago. Does he know you?  Could he place you?”

          Johnny considered. “He knows who Johnny Madrid is, but as far as I know he’s never seen me.  That time in Nogales, I was ridin’ alone.  I drifted through when he took Carver.”  Something crossed his face that neither of the other men could interpret. Johnny cleared his throat and continued.  “He was…lookin’ for notches so I didn’t figure to advertise I was around.  But he’s no idiot, Murdoch.  He was eyein’ my hardware and he saw me blow that snake out from under Scott.  All he has to do is ask a few questions about Murdoch Lancer’s half Mexican son with the mysterious past.  There are enough people around here speculatin’ about me…maybe even a few who’d like to make sure he knows.” He shrugged.

          “He knows,” Scott said dejectedly.

          “What?”  Murdoch voiced it, but both he and Johnny looked sharply in Scott’s direction. 

          Scott faced his brother somberly.  “He knows.  You were right, Johnny.  I went into Morro Coyo last night to get dinner and he happened to be in the cantina.” He shrugged.  “He stopped by to chat.  We had a few beers and—”

          “—and you told him everything he wanted to know.”  There was a hard edge to Johnny’s voice.  The intense anger had passed, but it burned beneath the surface.

          “He wasn’t really asking about you, Johnny.” Scott’s tone was pleading as though he could justify what he’d done.  “He was interested in Boston, Europe.  Said he’d never been anywhere like that and wanted to hear all about it.  And he talked a lot about himself.”

          “But sooner or later I’ll wager he got around to askin’ about this place, me?”

          Scott nodded dejectedly.  “Yes.  I was telling him how I came to be here.  But he didn’t exactly bring up the subject of your gun. Just seemed interested in where you’d been raised, your life before coming here.  It wasn’t until…” He took a deep breath and looked at Johnny.  “I don’t know if you know, but Julio was passing through on his way south and joined us for a while.  He got talking about some of the scrapes you and he had been in when you were younger, and then Clay did ask about your full name.”

          Johnny looked startled.  Manolito had mentioned Scott and Hudson having dinner together, but he hadn’t said a thing about Johnny’s old friend being there. “Did Julio tell him?  Flat out?”

          “No.  He hedged, but well, it was obvious that he was evading.  At least I noticed it and suddenly I saw what you’d been trying to tell me, but it was too late, I’d already…” He braced himself for telling Johnny what was coming next.  “I’ve really messed things up for you.  I was mad at you because you’d lied about Murdoch hiring men. I knew he hadn’t…so I hired him.”

          John emitted an angry growl and threw his hat onto the floor as he rose.  “He’s here? On Lancer?”  Scott nodded miserably.  “Oh that’s great.  If he had any doubts, I can just imagine what he’s found out in the bunkhouse.”

          “I’m sorry, Johnny. I honestly didn’t know he was pumping me until Julio came up and it was too late.  I never thought it was something like this. I thought he was just impressed, and he seemed so likeable.”

          Johnny looked at his brother and sighed resignedly, his head shaking slowly from side to side.  “He suckered you, Scott, but I’m not surprised.” Scott looked startled and hurt by the insinuation, and Johnny jumped in to clarify.  “No, I don’t mean like that.  It’s him.  The short time I saw him, I remember him as a real smooth talker.  Real nice sort of guy. What was that word you used?”

          “Amiable?” Scott suggested, a disgusted look on his face.

          “Well,” Murdoch said, straightening his shoulders, “I think Sheriff MacKinnon needs to know.”

          “Know what?” Johnny asked his father.  “I can’t prove he’s Lesser and he hasn’t done nothin’.  No, all I can do is find out how set he is on goin’ up against Johnny Madrid.” He looked at his brother.  “You know where he is?”

          Scott shook his head.  “Around someplace.  Cipriano or Walt would know.”

          Johnny nodded, and turned for the door, unbuckling his gun belt as he did so.

          “What are you doing?”

          “He’s not gonna draw on me unarmed, Murdoch.  It wouldn’t prove nothin’.” He set the belt on a table near the door and smiled.  “I’ll just go have a friendly little talk with him.”  It was obvious immediately that both the older Lancers intended to go with him and he turned back to face them.  “Oh, now don’t follow me.  I’ve been wipin’ my own nose for a long time now.”


*** *** ***


          Johnny located Walt and found out where Hudson was working.  The man had his back to Johnny as he approached and the ex-gunfighter stood watching him for a minute before calling to him.


          Clay turned and failed to cover his surprise at seeing Johnny looking intently at him.  His eyes dropped immediately to take in the fact that Johnny was unarmed and returned to Johnny’s blue ones, a question in them.

          “Let’s go for a walk.”  He brushed past Hudson without looking back.

          Clay looked around him at the other two men working nearby, then laid down his tools and followed Johnny out beside the barn.

          Johnny sat braced against the middle rail of the corral, legs crossed at the ankles, arms folded across his chest.  He looked relaxed, but someone who knew him well might glimpse that there was something smoldering underneath the surface.    Perhaps not.  The deceptive ease with which he could contain the embers when he needed to was part of what made him as good as he was.

          “What’s your game, Hudson? You’re no cowhand.  What’re you playin’ at?”

          “Interesting question for you to ask, Mr. Lancer.”

          “Lancer’s the name I was born to.”

          “Not reared with.”


          “So there seems to be a lot of speculation as to who you are.  Why a rancher’s son ended up with a lightning draw.”

          Johnny unfolded his arms and rested one each on the rail on which he sat. “Well, inform me since you know all about it, having talked with Scott and Julio and a few others.”

          Clay’s look turned suddenly guarded as he realized how much Johnny had put together.  He shifted position slightly.  “Well, it seems kinda coincidental you turning up here about the time Johnny Madrid dropped outta sight.” There was no change in Johnny’s expression, but Hudson still smiled triumphantly.  “I’d heard you’d been executed. I guess somebody missed.”

          Johnny lifted his eyebrows and smiled.  “Strange things do happen, don’t they Lesser?”

          Clay looked momentarily unbalanced by Johnny’s use of his real name, but he recovered quickly.  “How’d you know?”

          “I saw you take Matt Carver in Nogales maybe six years ago.”  Johnny’s look was far away, an ironic smile on his face. “Actually you did me a favor that day, Lesser.  Carver’d come lookin’ for me—found you instead.”

          Lesser smiled.  “You owe me one, then.”

          Johnny’s own smile faded. “Don’t count on it.”  He rose and approached Lesser who immediately looked wary.  “You wanta know what I’m gonna do about this, Lesser?  Nothin’.  I ain’t gonna fight ya’.  I’ve put all that behind me.  I’ve—” He stopped himself from saying what he intended—I’ve got a good thing going here. A family, a place to belong—knowing instinctively that this wasn’t a time to show sentimentality.  He kept it as cold as he could make it.  “I’m not gonna lose what I’m workin’ on here out the barrel of a .45.”

          “You’re scared, Madrid.  Scared you can’t beat me.  That’s the only reason you want outta this.”

          “No, I don’t think you understand, Lesser. I don’t want no part of it.  I don’t need to prove myself with a sidearm any more.  There’s only one end to that kind of life.  Comin’ here made me see that.”

          “So you just decided to stop.”  It was a statement, and the derision was clear.  Johnny remained impassive and Lesser broke out in an equally derisive grin, his eyes reflecting the amusement with which he viewed the whole notion. “Is that what you think you did, Madrid?  Got out?  You’re a fool if you believe that.  If it’s not me, it’s gonna be someone else.”           

To that, Johnny was unable to remain impassive, and try as he might to prevent it, he knew Lesser could see the truth of his statement reflected in Johnny’s blue eyes.  “You don’t just retire,” Lesser goaded. “You get retired by somebody who’s just a little smarter or a little faster.”  His smile was confident and sly.  Johnny struggled to deny with his expression the truth of Lesser’s words.  “You know I’m right, Madrid.”

          “Well, it ain’t gonna be you, Lesser,” Johnny told the other man with a sigh in his voice, “because I ain’t gonna draw on you. You gun me down any other way and it’s murder.  Every man on the place will track you down until you really wish you’d never heard of Johnny Madrid.”  He pressed in closer to Lesser, threatening the taller man with his glare.  “You’re leavin’ now, Lesser.  You can see Walt for your wages.”

          Lesser smiled, searching Johnny’s face with his eyes.  “You tryin’ to buy me off Madrid?”

          “Not for a day’s wages.”  Johnny’s smile was mocking.  “But you’re playin’ at bein’ a cowhand, you might as well have your earnings, ‘cus you’re not gonna get what you came for.”  He brushed by Lesser heading for the barn door, not sparing a glance back.

          “You’ll do it, Madrid—you know you will.  I’ll be in town ‘til you work up the guts.”

          Johnny’s pace checked fractionally, despite his intentions not to take notice of Lesser, but he didn’t look back.  Moving into the barn, he located Walt.  “The new guy’s leavin’.  Pay him off and get rid of him.”  He kept walking as he said it and didn’t see the look of consternation the hand gave his back as the younger Lancer returned to the ranch house.

          Johnny entered the study where Scott and his father waited impatiently.  Only respect for his wishes had kept them there while Johnny confronted Lesser.  Teresa had joined them and from the anxious expression on her face, the men had filled her in on the situation.

          “Well?” Murdoch prompted.

          Johnny shrugged.  “He knows.  He knows I know.  I…told him I wasn’t in that business anymore.” He smiled weakly.  “I fired him and told him to get off the place.” He bent down to retrieve the hat he had earlier thrown to the floor.

          Scott looked perplexed and surprised.  “Do you really think it’s that easy?” His tone wasn’t harsh, but full of the doubt he felt himself.

          Any trace of a smile faded from Johnny’s face.  “Nah, but it’s up to him now.  I got no intention of drawin’ on him, or giving him an excuse to draw on me.”

          Murdoch started for the door.  “Well, the sheriff is going to know about it.”

          “Murdoch, I told you it’s pointless.  I know this guy.  He’s slippery.  Near as I know he ain’t wanted for nothin’.  Nothin’ anyone can prove.  The sheriff can’t help me.  I just have to hope it blows over.  Let it be, Murdoch.”

          Murdoch considered the resolute look in his younger son’s eyes.  He hardly knew the boy.  It was more than just years of time that separated them, but the gulf of all the things that as father and son they should know about each other, but didn’t. All that they had missed out on.  It made it so hard to find a balance between viewing this grown man as his son—and wanting to protect him because of it—and allowing him to be the often stubborn, independent young man who had survived so much without the help of a father.

A knock on the door interrupted them, and Teresa moved to answer it.  She escorted Walt into the room.

“Ah, Mr. Lancer, sir?  Can I see you for a minute?”  He waited until Murdoch moved some distance from his sons, and then began uncertainly.  “Mr. Lancer, I’ve got a situation.  Scott told me he’d hired this guy Hudson; now Johnny’s just told me he’s fired him.  What’s going on?”

          Murdoch cast a glance toward the two boys.  He was reluctant to say too much.  “Johnny knows him.  Knows he’s a troublemaker and doesn’t want him on the place.”

          “I still don’t understand.  Hudson said he met them on the trail.  Why’d Scott hire him in the first—”

          “It was a misunderstanding between them, Walt.  I can’t say…I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on, but…here, I’ll get his pay for you.” He moved to the petty cash tin he kept in the desk drawer. “Be sure he gets off the place straight away,” he instructed.

          “Yes sir.”

          When Walt had gone, the three men stood looking at each other.  Teresa clung close to Murdoch and he put his arm across her shoulders, drawing her in.  No one spoke. Within 10 minutes they saw Hudson, his gear bound up behind his saddle, ride from the ranch.  They had no idea whether he could actually see them through the French doors, but he smiled smugly and tipped his hat in their direction. 

          Teresa moved from Murdoch’s protective embrace and placed a hand on Johnny’s arm.  “Maybe this will be the end of it, Johnny.”

          “Yeah, nice thought.”                                              


*** *** ***

Johnny sat, beer in hand, with his feet propped on the low verandah wall.  Two squirrels were leaping and chasing each other in what remained of the day’s light.  Scott stepped into the courtyard and started to speak, but Johnny shushed him with a finger and pointed toward the twosome.  Together, they watched the two at play until they disappeared up a tree.  Scott sat on the wall near Johnny’s feet and cadged a sip of his beer.

          “I had me a pet squirrel once,” Johnny related with a grin. “I was maybe 10 years old.  Found this half-dead squirrel under a tree.  Somebody’d used it for target practice, I guess, with a tirador.”  He gestured, at a loss for the English word for just a moment.  “A slingshot,” he said finally.  “It was half-starved because it couldn’t get around good enough to eat.  I made a little splint for its leg.”  He grinned at his brother.  “It bit me three times while I did it.  I guess I musta been kind of a dumb kid.  Anyway, I fed it and took care of it and it got fat and strong again.  It walked with a limp, but it got around okay and it was real tame.  I could pet it and it’d ride on my shoulder.  I named it Chiflada.  It means crazy or ‘touched’; you know, like nutty.”

          “Did you have it long?”

          Johnny shrugged.  “Four-five months, maybe.  It ran off one day.  Fell in love, I guess.  I saw it around for quite a while.  He’d come to me for food and his mate would sit in a tree and scold him for doing it.  Then he just stopped coming.”

          They both sat watching the movement of the leaves in the slight breeze that was freshening the air.  Scott’s expression slowly became more serious and he fidgeted, trying to figure out how to say what he had to; what had been eating at him since the confrontation in the study earlier in the day.  “Johnny…I…I’m sorry for getting you into this fix.  I can’t believe I was so stupid.” 

          Johnny waved a dismissive hand at his brother.  “Ah, it wasn’t all your fault.  I coulda spoke up sooner about what I thought he was.  I didn’t mean what I said, by the way, about you being gullible.  I had a burr under my saddle is all.”

          “You were right, though.  He suckered me.  I walked right into it.  If I’d have kept my mouth shut, he’d be gone by now.”

          “Nah, I think it was fixed when he saw me draw on that rattler.”

          “Well, that was my fault, too!”

          “Oh, stop blamin’ yourself.  Down in San Lázaro once I sat right smack on a scorpion.  Thing stung me right on the leg.” He slapped his thigh.  “If I hadn’t a had chaps on, I’d a been buzzard bait by sundown.”

          “I bet that was one surprised scorpion.”

          “You ain’t kiddin’.  I hadn’t had those chaps off me in weeks.  I don’t guess they tasted too good.”  Both men chuckled and were silent briefly.

          “Say, Johnny, did you remember the McMartin’s are coming over Wednesday night for dinner?”       

“Oh, that’s right.” Johnny got an impish smile on his face. “I bet Stephanie’s looking forward to it.”

Scott’s smile was embarrassed.  “You really think she likes me, don’t you?”

“I know so.  She’s really taken with those fine, gentlemanly manners of yours, Boston.”          “She’s just a child.”

Johnny’s eyes went wide and he broke into a broad grin.  “You better open your eyes, Big Brother, that ain’t no child!”

“She’s only 16 or 17.”

“That’s a fine age. She’d make you a nice little wife.”

“Oh really!  You trying to marry me off? Get rid of the competition?”

Johnny tried very hard to look as serious as possible.  “What competition?”

Scott showed him by kicking his brother’s feet off the verandah wall.  “Come on, we better hit the sack.”  He stood.  “Gotta be up with the birdies, you know.”

Johnny laughed and levered himself off his chair.  “We shoulda found us an ole’ man in some other line of work.”

“Johnny? You think we’re going to get this business of being brothers worked out before we’re both old men?” 

Johnny slapped him on the back. “You think we’re gonna live to be old men?”  He moved inside without a backward glance, so he didn’t see the look his older brother gave him.



*** *** ***


Scott tossed restlessly in his sleep.  His nose wrinkled and he moved his head fitfully as he struggled out of the deep sleep in which he had fallen on going to bed that night.   His eyes fluttered open as his mind tried to clear enough to understand what had caused him to awaken in the first place.  Turning toward the window, he saw a faint dancing glow that both confused and alarmed him.  Suddenly the sight and the smell connected in his brain and he leapt from the bed, racing to the window to confirm what he feared.  The grass out the back was fully alight, the flames driven down the hillside toward the hacienda by a gusting breeze from the west.  Scott started yelling, even as he heard shouts from the hands in the bunkhouse whose quarters were situated even closer to the path of the blaze. 

Yanking on his pants and boots, Scott raced downstairs, Murdoch and Johnny close on his heels. Teresa, a wrap thrown hastily over her shoulders, headed to the kitchen storeroom in search of buckets and blankets.

The three Lancers shouted orders at the men, dividing them up, spreading them out along the fire front.  Spades, shovels and blankets were all brought into play and some of the men doused what they could of the flames with bucket loads of water from the various troughs.  Murdoch set a team of vaqueros to plowing a fire break between the line of burning vegetation and the boundaries of the bunkhouse and main house. It took several men each to steady the two horses hauling the plows as they tilled a widening swath across the fire front. 

A fit of coughing stopped the eldest Lancer in his tracks for a moment and as the spasm eased he stood back, surveying the scene and calculating whether there was more they could be doing to protect the property.  The land behind the main buildings sloped gently uphill, and while flames never burned as fast downhill as they did going up, these were being fed by the gusts of a westerly wind which was pushing them steadily toward his dwelling.  Murdoch had often been grateful for that prevailing breeze with its cooling draughts, but not tonight.  He watched as tree after tree caught and then ignited with the heat of the fire.  Their immediate hope lay in the firebreak which was now several rows wide and growing as the hands ran the horses back and forth along the track as fast as the packed earth would allow.  Clusters of men tramped on and threw dirt over embers that flew ahead of the burning grass and settled on unburnt ground, threatening to ignite it.

Embers flew overhead and Murdoch looked in alarm at the path they traveled toward the roof of both the bunkhouse and the main hacienda.  Even before he could do so, he heard Scott order several men up onto the buildings with blankets ready to beat out the burning leaves before they could ignite anything.  As he had been once before when a natural burn like this had happened in close to the house about 10 years previously, Murdoch was grateful for the adobe and tile construction of both buildings.  If his men could split the fire front around the buildings, it would hopefully burn itself out harmlessly in the grassland to either side.  The area had been well grazed, and wouldn’t offer much in the way of fuel, as long as the winds didn’t freshen enough to blow the flames across to the stand of trees east of the hacienda.  Even if it did, the house, outbuildings and stock would be spared, including the mares that had been brought into a closer paddock prior to being shipped to the railhead at Cross Creek.

When the last of the flames had been doused, trampled, or plowed under, the men stood around, dirty and tired, coughing up the smoke that had been swallowed.  Teresa, Maria and Consuela moved among them, tending to minor burns and helping men flush eyes which were raw from smoke.  Murdoch chatted quietly with the men, checking on them, thanking them.  They had done a tremendous job stopping the blaze before it reached the dwellings. 

When everyone had been tended to, men began to peel off toward the bunkhouse, aiming to catch what sleep they could before morning. Johnny’s face turned hard when he heard Murdoch assign several to watch for flare-ups.  “Better post a guard on the barn, too,” Johnny snapped.  “He’ll probably torch that next.”

“It could have been an accident, Johnny.”

“Like hell.” He turned and stalked angrily back to the house, followed eventually by the rest of his family, none of whom were going to sleep any better for the remainder of the night than Johnny.

 Because they knew he was right. 

Things had been quiet for a few days after Lesser was evicted from Lancer.  Johnny went about his business, pretending with the rest of the family that it was all over.  They took it as a good sign that Lesser didn’t show up on Lancer land, but knew the man was probably waiting in Morro Coyo hoping that the ex-gunslinger would take the direct approach and face him.  About two days after Lesser had gone, things began to happen.  Little things.  Nothing terribly serious, but just disruptive enough to unsettle the family who had been on edge, wondering what strategy he might use when Johnny refused to be called out.  Newly mended fences mysteriously needed mending again.  Windmill vanes were broken and the works fouled.  Carcasses appeared in watering holes. Equipment went missing from line shacks and the cow camps the men had set up around the property.

All these things got the men’s goat, time wasters that they were—especially coming so close on the heels of the same kind of trouble with Pardee—but it was when stock started being scattered by pot shots that things really began to hot up. Hands came unstuck from frightened, bolting mounts and those on the ground branding had to scramble to safety as penned or milling animals erupted in fear.

There were still a few calves and foals being birthed in places around the property and the panicked cattle and mares sometimes trampled their own offspring in the rush to escape. Hardened cowhands had to grit their teeth and put too many little ones out of their misery, sometimes just hours after birth. 

As the interference escalated, there was only one thing of which the Lancer family could be certain beyond the identity of their harasser. The only one who was not directly on the receiving end of any of these mishaps was Johnny Lancer himself.  Nothing ever happened to the crews he was working with, and the family could only hope that the men didn’t figure that one out before some solution could be found.  There was enough grumbling as it was.  Windmills and fences were one thing, but the men’s ire and consternation over this unseen assailant whose actions were resulting in the deaths of hapless stock was as fervent as it was understandable. 

And now the ante had definitely and irrevocably been upped.


*** *** ***


Johnny lay awake, wrestling with the decision that faced him.  Knowing there would be no rest for him for that night he hadn’t even bothered to undress again.  He’d kicked off his boots and stripped off his shirt, tossing it onto the floor beside the bed.  As he dropped onto the soft mattress, he vaguely thought that even Consuela would be ticked off with him for getting his sooty trousers all over the clean sheets and quilts, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

Twisting his head to the side he could see his gun belt slung over the back of a straight-backed chair next to the bed.  He realized that in his haste to exit the house, to find the source of the fire his brain had told him threatened them, he hadn’t even taken the weapon with him.  Not a smart move, Madrid, he thought and then squeezed his eyes shut with the pain of his own use of the name Madrid. 

Madrid.  Lancer.  Madrid.  Lancer.  Which was it?

Never before had be been ashamed of the name Madrid and what it stood for; at least not long enough that he lost much sleep over it.  And a few beers or tequilas could always kill the pain on those occasions when it did trouble him.  But in the last four months the world had been turned upside down.  Johnny Madrid had had a taste of what life could be like without a reputation dogging him, without looking over his shoulder constantly, and without the need for redemption found only in the bottom of a shot glass.

Was that all over?

His eyes drifted again to the .45 in the gun belt.  It was an expensive weapon, no longer new, but as well cared for as it had been well crafted. He’d had it specially made by a gunsmith in Tucson, but the only modification he’d requested was the grip which had been shaped to fit his hand.  Its weight and balance were as familiar to him as the skin of the palm it rested against—so familiar he didn’t even need to draw the weapon from its holster to feel it in his hand.  It was as reliable a weapon as any man could make and its aim in his hands was as true as any man could make it.

But was it enough?

Johnny looked at the wardrobe on the wall opposite his bed, knowing what lay inside, knowing what it meant if he opened up the doors on that side of his life just one more time.

Rising, he walked to the wooden cupboard and pulled the door open.  At the back, tucked in an old boot, was an oilskin wrapped object which held his gaze for a few seconds before his hand actually reached out to withdraw it from the boot.  Returning to the bed, he sat on the edge, staring at the oilskin, unsure whether he wanted to unwrap the parcel.  Finally, knowing he had no choice, he spread back the folds of oiled cloth, exposing the gunmetal grey of the foreshortened weapon with its molded grip and filed sights.  Hefting it, Johnny Madrid closed his eyes and sighed. 

Had it come back to this again?

He had had no plan when he first came to Lancer.  There was no need. Only expecting to stay long enough to collect his $1000, he had just assumed he would be back on the border within a month.  Back to the only life he had ever known.  Never for a minute had he considered that he would choose to stay on in this place with these people.

But he had, and now he was going to have to decide what kind of price he was willing to pay for that choice.  Johnny sighed deeply.  He’d once read a dime novel called ‘The Holstered Gun’.  That guy had thought he could hang up his sidearm, too, and when proven wrong it had all ended in a blaze of glory, the hero dying with honor in the arms of the woman he had stepped into the street to save.

Hell!  There was no glory in it.  In the end it was just the pool of blood, the pain, and oblivion, and Johnny Madrid had spent the last five years trying to forget that.  His arrival at Lancer had been his awakening and his choice to stay had been his salvation.  Or so he had thought until Lesser showed up and snatched that choice away.

He groaned loudly and dropped his head onto his hands, feeling the hard press of the revolver’s cylinder where it lay against the top of his head. What was he supposed to do?

¡Tomás, dígame qué haga!  Tell me what to do!

 Johnny lifted his head and stared at the ugly, modified revolver he held just inches from his nose. 

 “His option.”  That was how Tomás Callan had always referred to his modified .45—a choice a man sometimes had to make, but not the choice a man should make very often.  Tomás, the bastard son of a Mexican mother and an Irish mustanger, had been what Johnny had heard called a ‘purist’.  He owned one of these weapons modified for speed, not accuracy, but seldom used it, preferring to take his chances with a standard .45. It was the honorable way he had told his protégé, even as he showed young Johnny how to create one of the modified weapons for himself.  Give yourself choices, but accept that you wouldn’t always have one.  And so, even as they had together fashioned Johnny’s first modified pistol, Callan had drilled and drilled and tested and tested the boy’s skills with a standard sidearm. 

Eyes roaming between the modified weapon he held in his hand and the ordinary one slung from the chair, Johnny weighed his options.  That he would be facing Lesser sooner rather than later, was a certainty.  That he had a chance of winning the gunfight was a possibility. But at what cost to himself was the only question remaining to be answered.

Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, Johnny Lancer carefully folded the fabric ends back over the modified revolver and returned it to the wardrobe.



*** *** ***

Over breakfast in the morning Murdoch said that someone would have to go into town to replace the blankets and equipment that had been used or damaged the previous night. Johnny, looking ragged and unshaven, started to offer, but Scott cut him off abruptly, saying that he would be the one to go.  This drew his brother’s ire because the ploy to protect the ex-gunfighter was so blatant.  Johnny yielded finally to Scott’s protestations he had a personal errand to run, but it was with bad grace, and the dark-haired man stormed out of the kitchen without another word.

At the mercantile, Scott enquired of Don Baldemaro whether anyone had bought an unusual amount of lamp oil in the last few days.  He and Murdoch had ridden the perimeter of the burn at first light and not actually found any trace of oil containers, but it was clear one man couldn’t have started such a large blaze with a few matches. It was also clear it couldn’t have started naturally on such a wide front.  The shopkeeper couldn’t help, however.  A number of wagons had passed through, including an Army supply convoy, so there was no telling.

Whatever Lesser was, he was also careful, and Scott had not held out much hope they would actually find anything to prove he’d bought something to accelerate the fire.  Giving up on the idea, he purchased the extra ammunition Murdoch had told him to get—the quantity raising the merchant’s eyebrows—and he and Ezra, the hand who had driven the supply wagon, began the long journey back to Lancer.

          Ezra was a likeable fellow, one of a half dozen Negro or part Negro hands on the place now that crew numbers had picked up following the settling of the mess with Pardee and his land pirates.  Only one of the six, Frank, had been a free man before the war, a shopkeeper’s son from New York who had come west in search of the same adventure many a boy had.  The rest had been slaves and were as varied in temperament and character as any of the White and Mexican vaqueros.  Ezra was possibly the one Scott had most in common with as they had plenty of war stories they could share.  An escaped slave, Ezra had served as an infantryman in a Colored Regiment during the war and as a Buffalo Soldier in the southwest after it.  Tiring eventually of the regimentation of Army life, Ezra had made his way farther west in search of a different kind of life.  

          He certainly wasn’t the only person of his race to do so, either, and this was something that Scott had to admit had surprised him—the number of black faces he had seen as he had made the journey west at the start of the year.  Despite his strong views on the importance of abolition, the Bostonian and former Union officer was embarrassed to admit to himself that he hadn’t given much thought to what had become of the freed slaves after the war—what they had done with themselves, where they had gone.  A lot of them seemed to have headed west and as each had arrived on the property in the last few months, Scott had been curious to see how they would fit in with the mixed bag of men that comprised the Lancer crew. 

The majority of hands were of Mexican ancestry, the remainder White Americans, with a smattering of recently immigrated Europeans. Among the Americans, though, were a lot of White southerners with the potential for trouble that raised.  To be fair, though, the ex-Confederates’ squabbles weren’t only with the Colored hands.  The old North-South animosity was taking time to die out, and while Murdoch would make some accommodation for personalities and preferences, he had made it perfectly clear to anyone he hired that on his time during the day, he expected a hard day’s work and cooperation to get jobs finished, and he wasn’t going to be putting out fires in the bunkhouse after hours, either.  If a man couldn’t bunk civilly with his workmates, he’d be out on his ear soon enough.   For the most part it worked.  

Ezra, in fact, was a cohesive influence for those Colored hands who came after him. He had been at Lancer for about 14 months, and had been one of the 18 men who had had the mettle to see out the trouble with Pardee.  This had assured his standing with the core group of “old” hands, and he was respected by most of the others, as well, despite his slave background and race. 

Scott and Ezra had reached the start of the hilly section of the track out to Lancer, an area where the road climbed through scrub oak and mesquite.  It was rough land that would eventually give way to the final, more open rise to the overlook from which you could first see the Lancer homeplace.  As the men chatted the miles away, Scott was conscious that he was running out of ways to distract Ezra from the conversation he knew the man wanted to have—that all the hands wanted to have.

Why was this interference and intimidation taking place?

Scott was just debating whether to make an excuse to ride on ahead a ways in order to forestall the questions when his hat flew from his head a split second before the report of the rifle reached them.  He clung to his saddle as Charlemagne arched his back and erupted underneath him, but the spooked animal’s gyrations were too fierce, and Scott pitched out of the saddle, crashing onto the hard earth.  

Ezra managed to prevent the buckboard team from bolting and finally got the brake on and leapt down, taking cover behind the wooden wagon, rifle drawn against an invisible enemy.  The single shot had come from somewhere to his right, high up on the hillside and he scanned the horizon now, trying to find some sign of the assailant or assailants.  “You okay?” he called to Scott who had pulled himself unsteadily onto his knees and now scrambled for the limited cover of a scrub oak beside the road.

“It come from up there, Scott,” Ezra shouted, pointing toward the hill above them.  “I think I seen a glint from a rifle, but I ain’t sure.  There, to the right of that big oak.”  Scott hadn’t answered and Ezra looked his way again.  “Hey, you okay, Scott?”

“Yes,” the blond called.  “Yes, I’m all right.” 

The two men just waited, there being no further shots and no point in returning fire against an invisible target.  Shifting uncomfortably on the dry packed earth, Scott alternated watching the hillside with trying to spot his mount which would have either bucked itself out or run halfway to Lancer by now.  He finally spotted the bay pacing restlessly amongst the scrub about 300 feet off the west side of the track. 

“What d’ya think, Scott?  Is it clear?”

Taking a deep breath, and giving a final glance all around him, Scott grimaced.  “Well, you stay where you are and I’ll stand up.  That should tell us.”  He tried to grin across at Ezra as he said it.  He saw more than heard the other man chuckle, even as Ezra aimed his rifle over the top of the wagon, ready to take on anyone who might fire at his boss.

Scott pushed himself up, wavering a moment as he regained his footing, and then stood there tensely waiting for whatever might come next.  When nothing happened, Ezra shrugged and straightened up himself, stepping out from behind the cover the wagon had afforded, still alert.   Scott holstered his revolver, then limped slowly over to where Charlemagne stood, snorting and pawing at the ground.  “Easy, boy,” Scott crooned as the bay tossed his head and threatened to take flight again. Catching up Charlemagne’s reins which had caught in a bush, Scott started to lead him back to the wagon, but spotted blood on the horse’s neck.  No wonder the usually steady horse had come unglued.  Scott’s fingers traced a deep furrow that had been plowed in his gelding’s neck just under the line of the jaw.  The horse tossed his head at Scott’s touch and started to pull away.

“Steady, son…steady,” Scott crooned again, and stroked the horse until it had quieted. The wound was not deep and wasn’t bleeding heavily.  It would keep until they got back to the ranch, Scott thought. 

He led the horse over to where Ezra waited, Scott’s hat in his hands. Without a word, Ezra passed the Stetson to his boss, noting that Scott’s hand started to shake slightly as he examined the neat hole in the brim so very close to where his head had been sitting just minutes ago.

“Either he’s a crack shot who weren’t bent on killin’ ya’, or yer darn lucky,” Ezra observed.  Scott just stared at the hole.   “Scott, what’s goin’ on?  Who’s doin’ this, and why?  It ain’t Pardee come back from the dead, is it?”

Scott considered for a moment before answering.  He knew that the loyal few who had stayed on the place during the drawn out battle with Pardee were afraid that they were in for it again, and those who had arrived after the event were fully cognizant of what had taken place.  He shook his head.  “We think it’s the guy who was fired.”

“Hudson?  Why was he fired?  What’d he do wrong?”

“Nothing, exactly, but Johnny knew him and knew he was a troublemaker so he let him go.”

“And he’s aimin’ to settle up on account of it?”  Scott nodded and Ezra pointed to the hat Scott had replaced on his head.  “That’s some score, Scott.  He nearly killed you.”  Scott looked back over his shoulder to where the single shot had come from.  He couldn’t think of anything clever to say to deny it.

“There’s somethin’ I can’t figure, Scott.  If this guy’s riled up at Johnny, how come he’s shootin’ at everybody else?  All the trouble the last week or so.  He ain’t gone nowhere near Johnny.  Seems like all of us is takin’ the heat.”

Scott nodded, lips tightly pursed.  It seems the family’s hopes in this regard were in vain. “Ezra, I just can’t say exactly what’s going on, but listen.  I don’t want what happened here to get out, especially to Johnny.  You understand?  Not a word?”

“How come?”

“I can’t explain it to you yet.  It’s just important that Johnny doesn’t know what happened. We’ll take care of Hudson, okay?”

Ezra looked doubtful, but reluctantly nodded and climbed back up into the buckboard, and the men continued their journey toward the hacienda.


*** *** ***


Scott threw a final cautionary glance toward Ezra as the hand drew the buckboard up near the back entrance of the hacienda, then steered his mount in the direction of Jelly’s quarters, hoping he would find the old man there.  Hoskins could be trusted to tend quietly to Charlemagne’s wound and slip the gelding out to a remote pasture secure from prying eyes while the graze healed. 

That errand completed, Scott headed for the side door, removing his hat and carefully covering the hole with his fist as he entered.  Teresa met him in the hallway.  “Hi, how’d it go?” she called cheerily.

“Okay.” He forced a smile and tried not to limp as they walked the length of the hall.  The stiffness was already beginning to set in.  “We got the blankets. Not all the other, regular shipment was in, but that bolt of cloth you ordered was.  It’s still on the wagon.”

“Was Lesser in town?” 

Scott could see the worry in her dark eyes. “No.”  Again, he tried to smile reassuringly, knowing it wasn’t the full truth. Lesser might well have been there, but Murdoch’s instructions had been quite clear.  Scott should not seek him out.  His father had given several reasons, some of which Scott agreed with, but Scott also wondered whether it was simply to avoid the chance of a confrontation between the gunhand and his eldest son. 

“Is Murdoch around?”

“Yes, in the study, I think.” She scrutinized him, evidently seeing through the mask he was trying to wear.  “Are you all right?”

He smiled disarmingly.  “Yes, just tired from last night.”  He patted her arm and moved past her toward the study.

Murdoch was doing some bookwork, but looked up with interest when Scott entered the room.  “We got the supplies.  Only half the regular shipment was in.  I guess the bridge at Sentinel was washed out, so only half the shipment was in.”  He realized he was repeating himself and stopped. 

Murdoch scrutinized him much the way Teresa had done moments ago. “Something happened,” he pronounced, and Scott handed his father the hat he still clutched in his hands.

“My head was in it at the time.” 

Murdoch looked stunned up at Scott who dropped his eyes and gestured vaguely with his hand.  “I…want to think he hit what he was aiming at, that he didn’t miss his shot, but…” His jaw suddenly clenched and the anger rose in him as he jabbed a finger in the direction of the hat.  “Th..that’s my life he’s playing roulette with!  What if I had moved?!”

“Scott…”  Murdoch shook his head and fingered the hole in the fabric of the Stetson.

“He hit Charlemagne, too,” Scott said, this time with more weary concern in his voice than anger.  He lowered himself stiffly into a chair in front of Murdoch’s desk and sat slumped there, staring at the hat Murdoch still held in his hands. “Grazed him with the same shot,” he clarified. 

His eyes rose to meet his father’s. “I don’t understand this, Murdoch,” Scott said quietly.  “If he wants Johnny to face him I can see what he’s doing.  He’s using us to get at Johnny, but what if he’d missed!? He wants Johnny to challenge him so it’s a fair fight.  He can just walk away from it if he kills him.  But if he had killed me or anyone else with the shooting or the fire, it wouldn’t matter what he did to Johnny, he’d be wanted for murder.  Why is he taking these chances?  Why is it so important to kill Johnny Madrid?” 

Murdoch sighed and placed the hat on the corner of the desk.  “I don’t know, son.  I don’t know how anyone explains a man like that.  I just know we have to protect Johnny from him.  Who else knows about this?”

“Only Ezra. I told him not to say anything, especially to Johnny.”  He looked at his father.  “He wanted to know why all this was happening and…I didn’t know what to say exactly.  I told him we thought it was Hudson, angry because of being fired.”  His looked into the distance as he thought over the conversation with the hand.  “I did say he was fired because Johnny knew he was a troublemaker.”

“That’s basically what I told the men this morning before they went out.  Cipriano came to me after breakfast and said the men were starting to talk about quitting.  Two of the new ones did and Cipriano is afraid some of the others will follow.”

“Did that satisfy them?”

“We’ll see.  They went out to do their jobs anyway.  I told them not to go out except in pairs and to post a guard as they work.  And, I told them the sheriff would hear about it today—something I’ve got to make good on.”  He rose and reached for his sidearm.  “This has gone too far anyway.” 

“I’ll go with you.  He may still be on the road to town.”

“No.  I’ll go by way of the Sweetwater cut off.  I doubt he’d know an old goat track like that.  I want you to ride out to the herd east of Black Mesa and take over from Cipriano.  Get as much of the branding done as possible, but remember we still have to cut out that 100 head for the Army order.  Cipriano can select them and see they’re driven back here.  And be sure the men have got guards posted.”

“Yes sir.  Where’s Johnny?”

“With the bunch by the South Rim.” Murdoch shook his head at Scott’s obvious concern.  “I couldn’t lock him in the house, Scott.”

“I guess.” 

Murdoch nodded and started for the door. “Oh,” Scott added, “I saw the McMartin’s in town and they’re still planning to come out tonight.  I almost told them not to under the circumstances, but I wasn’t sure what I should and shouldn’t say, so I let it go.” He leant over and picked up his hat.  “That was before this happened.   I wish now I had cancelled.”

Murdoch considered this.  “I think Nate Johnson was with the crew you’re going to.  Ask him to “happen” to be on the road into the ranch about 5:30 tonight.  He can ride in with them.  I trust him to be discreet.  Oh, Cipriano guessed what was really going on between Lesser and Johnny and I didn’t deny it.  I may have to tell the rest of the men now that it’s gone this far.” He pointed to Scott’s hat. “I want to avoid it for Johnny’s sake—that kind of thing spreads too fast, but…”

“I know.  Murdoch? Be careful.”


*** *** ***


The long ride into Morro Coyo afforded Murdoch plenty of time to deliberate his family’s situation and the history that had led them all to it.  

Maybe too much time. 

His heart was leaden and he felt the weight of his years more than he had in a long, long time.  Certainly more than at any time since his sons had returned to the home he had cherished these many years.  Because he stood to lose Johnny if this went sour, and he wasn’t sure he could bear it.  Not again. Not when there was finally a chance to put things right for the boy he’d lost so many years ago.

It had come as a crushing blow to Murdoch to learn what had transpired in his younger son’s life since Maria had walked out on him more than 20 years before.  How could it have happened?  How could that tiny infant and bubbly, laughing toddler have gone through what he did? And—and this is where Murdoch’s heart caught—how could he have become what he had, and done the things he had done?

Some of what the most recent Pinkerton report contained only fleshed out what Murdoch had gleaned during his earlier attempts to locate his wife and son. No one seemed to have learned Raul’s surname during the short time he had been in the Valley—that short time in which he had entranced and wooed Maria, convincing her to leave her husband.  The name in the hotel register had led nowhere and was probably an assumed one. This had complicated efforts to locate the threesome, presumably now traveling under his name or aliases. 

Murdoch had made the long trip to Divisadero, Maria’s birthplace, in the hopes of finding his family. Her parents had been uncooperative, however, having effectively disowned her for her dual indiscretions of first marrying in haste the gringo rancher and then casting aside her marital vows to live in sin with another man.  He had maintained occasional contact with them for several years in the hopes they would notify him if Maria showed up. The family estrangement was pronounced, though, and meant that Maria and Raul had only made sporadic visits to her parent’s village in the years before her death, visits marked by emotional fireworks. The only comfort to come from it was the report of a mischievous blue-eyed boy named Juanito. At least he was alive!

Contact had ceased completely when news of Maria’s death had filtered through, first to her family, and then eventually to Murdoch. It was at this point, when Johnny would have been nearly seven, that Murdoch had renewed his efforts to find his son, this time hiring detectives from fellow Scotsman Alan Pinkerton’s burgeoning detective agency.  The news he received had broken Murdoch’s heart.

Raul had turned into an abusive drunk by all reports, taking out his losses on both his wife and stepson.  Perhaps it had been a blessing in disguise that he had abandoned Johnny after Maria’s death.  However, after she died, Johnny had virtually disappeared.  A seemingly nameless boy in a harsh, impoverished land.  The verdict of the Pinkerton detectives had been grim.  A small boy was unlikely to have survived for long on his own and eventually, with great sorrow, Murdoch had tried to lay his search to rest.

All that had changed when the land pirates had ridden into the Valley.  This time, with a mixture of hope and desperation, he had again sent the Pinkertons in search of his youngest.  In some ways, the news they brought him had crushed him even more than what he had learned nearly 15 years earlier.

Gunfighter.  Pistolero.  Gunhawk.  These were terms people used for a breed of man Murdoch had always held in contempt.  Someone who would sell his soul for a dollar, who traded in death. But this wasn’t just anyone under discussion.  This was his son and Murdoch had struggled for weeks with the decision to have the Pinkertons actually make contact with the gunman known as Johnny Madrid.

How had Johnny turned out like that?

In part, Murdoch had to admit, he could understand it.  Although Johnny seldom discussed his past and Murdoch had not told his son just how much he knew about it, if only half the things in the report were true about what life had been like for Johnny growing up, well…Murdoch had known men with less provocation for turning out bad.  But the thing was, Johnny wasn’t a bad man.  Murdoch had seen him defend those who were too weak to protect themselves and seen his genuine fondness for and gentleness with children.  He had seen the quick compassion his son could feel for others and the lengths he would go to to stand up for something he believed in. 

But this made Johnny’s choice of living by his reputation as a gunhawk so much harder to understand, and it was something Murdoch had not yet worked up the courage to discuss with his son.  In fact, none of them talked about it.  Until something like this with Lesser happened, they all followed the sweet convenience of saying nothing, because if nobody talked about it, they could all just pretend it wasn’t so. That Johnny hadn’t taken money to kill men.  That he hadn’t repeatedly fought someone else’s cause for a price, not for a principle. That he hadn’t called men out for the sake of pride and reputation, instead of defense of person and property.  But it was a lie, and this most recent encounter with Johnny’s past only highlighted it.  What kind of man did the things that Johnny had done over the years?

When he was too little to have a choice Murdoch could understand him getting into trouble—Johnny had had to fend for himself from such an early age, doing whatever it took to survive. But at some point…why had he carried on?  There were so many honest trades he could have applied himself to.  Even sheriffing, if living by the gun was the only skill he felt he had. Instead it appeared Johnny had just drifted from town to town, job to job, with no direction or focus or aim in life, something Murdoch with his sturdy Scots work ethic failed to comprehend, no matter how rough Johnny’s upbringing had been.  It was something he and Johnny still rowed about as his hot-headed son struggled with accepting the responsibilities that ownership of a large ranch entailed.

Everything Murdoch could understand from the Pinkerton report indicated that Johnny had really fallen in with bad company from the age of 12 or 13 when he had inexplicably run away from a Mexican orphanage, seemingly the only point of stability he had hitherto experienced in his young life. 

There was mention of a bandido named Luis Escobar and a long association with two other known gunfighters.  Were they the ones who had taught Johnny to use a gun?  The details of these years were vague as it seemed Johnny had moved from place to place, not always using the same name. 

          The first concrete record of the name Madrid was in Mexican Army records.  They indicated a Juanito Madrid had served four months in the Army in lieu of a prison term.  Johnny had been just 15 at this point.

          And there were the killings.  The record could only say with certainty the age at which Johnny, as Johnny Madrid, was reported to have killed his first man in a straight gunfight.  There was no way to know whether it had happened earlier, but there were strong indications it had.

Oh Johnny! Murdoch sighed deeply and drew his horse up.  Eyes closed, he slumped in the saddle under the weight of his reflections.  Eventually he opened them again and looked at the familiar, reassuring countryside.  The land that had taken the place of family all these years.  He was near enough the crest of the hill to allow his mount a blow before heading down the track toward town, so he stretched himself in the saddle, standing in his stirrups and groaning with the pain it caused in his back and down his legs.  It had been this way ever since Pardee had shot him late last year.  The doctor had explained that the slug he’d had to leave in Murdoch’s back was putting pressure on his spine, or the nerves in it, or something like that. Whatever the explanation, he had his good days and his bad, and this hilly route into town was one he avoided when possible because of the extra strain it seemed to place on his back.

Patch snorted twice and dipped his head toward the paltry blades of grass that edged out of the rocky soil beside the trail.  “Not today, boy,” Murdoch told him with a clap on the neck. He drew the sorrel’s head up and kneed him onward.

There was no sign of Lesser or anyone else on the trail and Murdoch reached Morro Coyo about 40 minutes later without incident. He went straight to the Sheriff’s Office. Liam MacKinnon was a man about Murdoch’s age and the two had been friends for 15 years.  As succinctly as he could, Murdoch filled Liam in on the situation, including their fear that Lesser was trying to goad Johnny into a gunfight by targeting the ranch and his family.

“What’s he want with Johnny?” the Sheriff enquired. Murdoch just looked at him, and Liam smiled. “Never mind.  I guess I know the answer to that one. I’ve seen your boy draw a gun.” He sat on the edge of his desk.  “You haven’t shared much about his past, Murdoch, except that he ran pretty wild down around the border.  But I need to know the truth now. He’s Johnny Madrid, isn’t he?”  Murdoch nodded and Liam nodded in return.  “I guess I always knew it.  It didn’t matter to me particularly, Murdoch. He’s kept his nose clean since he’s been here.  I figure any man is owed a chance to change the way he’s been living, and I’ve known you too long.  I know what you’ve made the Lancer name stand for and I expect you’ll see to it the boys live up to it.” His voice took on a harder edge.  “But if what Johnny was before is bringing this kind of trouble to this valley, then I should have known about it the first day Lesser turned up.”

“You’re right, Liam.  I shouldn’t have let Johnny talk me out of it.  He said it wouldn’t do any good because we had no proof.”

Liam rose again.  “Well there’s some truth to that, Murdo.  I can’t hold Lesser very long just because you think he’s doing this.  The circuit judge won’t be through for two or three weeks and he’d laugh it off if I didn’t have some sort of proof for him.  Of course, if I pick him up and the attacks stop, that says something, but right now Lesser isn’t wanted for anything.”  He was thumbing through wanted posters as he spoke.  “He’s killed a lot of men, but he always manages to make it look like self-defense and gets away clean.”

“That’s what he’s trying to do to Johnny, but he’s gone too far this time! He could have killed Scott today! No man’s got the right to toy with my son’s life like that.”

“You be careful Murdoch that he doesn’t push you into gunning him down without an excuse.” Liam smiled faintly.  “I don’t want to arrest one of my oldest friends.  And you keep Johnny in check.”

Murdoch snorted at the thought.  “We’re trying, but it’s not easy.  I think he’s been broke to a hackamore.  Doesn’t handle a tight rein very well.”

“Sounds like he’s got a lot of his old man in him,” Liam commented, slapping Murdoch on the arm.  “I’ll do my best to see he gets to grow up to reach his father’s years.  If Lesser is still in town, I’ll find him.  I’ll send word across to Green River and Spanish Wells, as well.  If we can nab him, I can hold him long enough to see if he can prove where he’s been the last few days.  But I can’t keep him long and I can’t guarantee he won’t head straight to your place when he’s let go.  Make sure Johnny’s not out alone and that your men are alert.”

Murdoch nodded and turned to go.  Pausing, he faced his old friend. “One thing, Liam. Johnny doesn’t know about Scott getting shot at and it has to stay that way.  That’d be all it would take.  We’ve got to find another way to handle Lesser.”

“Have you considered buying him off?”  It was clear the sheriff was only half joking.

“Liam, if I thought it would work… But I’m not sure a man who would take money to kill has the moral fiber to take money not to.”

“I’ll do my best, Murdoch.”


*** *** ***


The men in the crew Johnny had been working with all day returned to the homeplace before Scott’s crew.  They were lounging in the yard, watering horses and smoking, when Murdoch joined them and enquired where Johnny was.

“He rode up to where it burned.”

“Thanks.” Stiff after the long ride home, Murdoch tethered the sorrel and walked toward the back of the hacienda to look for his fiery younger son, wondering how long they could temper the boy’s growing impatience.  He was so like his mother! Maria could jump from cold to hot faster than a stock horse could cover a quarter mile at top speed.  It would leave Murdoch’s head reeling, wondering what he had done to cause it.  Then before he could work it out she’d have become loving and calm again with that sparkle of energy and playfulness that Murdoch could see so clearly reflected in Johnny when he was relaxed.

          Making his way around the side of the building, Murdoch reflected on the short, stormy relationship he had had with the mother of his younger son.  People used the term “whirlwind courtship” for what he and Maria had experienced, but Murdoch often thought the word tornado would be more applicable.  Maria Estela Jacinta Almeida had been vibrant and fiery and full of laughter and Murdoch had fallen passionately in love with her from the first moment he laid eyes on her. 

He had been stunned and ashamed of their carelessness when she had told him she was expecting, and the implications that a sudden marriage and family would mean had given him pause.  But there had never been a question that they would not marry and a ceremony was quickly arranged. Oh, he had been so sure they would make it work! They would build the ranch together and the birth of their first child would seal their relationship as a family.  How had it gone so wrong?

It had been many years since he’d asked himself that question, but the boys coming back home had made him face up to it again.  Despite telling them on their first meeting that this was a business arrangement and he would make no apologies for anything that had happened in the past, he knew that if they stayed, sooner or later he would have to answer for his failings as a husband and parent.

 His disbelief and rage when Maria had gone off with that gambler had been tempered by his own feelings of inadequacy that she would desert him.  Even as he tried to track her down, he had refused to see it from any perspective but his own. The years had mellowed his pride, though.

Life on Lancer in those days couldn’t have been easy for Maria.  The hacienda itself hadn’t been here then.  He glanced back at the small mud brick building by the corral.  That old Spanish guardhouse had been home then, and he’d thought it was comfortable enough.  But maybe he just hadn’t been able or willing to see how hard it had been on her.  Virtually the only woman on the place, and not even a near neighbor woman to talk with and confide in.  He knew women needed that kind of thing, but he’d been too busy to really understand or help her change her isolation.  And maybe he had been especially blind to it because he knew that Catherine had been in the same position and had coped.  So why couldn’t Maria?  They were different women he realized now, though, so there was no use comparing them.  Unfortunately he hadn’t been able to see that back then.  Catherine had shared his dream of building the ranch and despite her privileged upbringing, it had given her the strength to cope with the hardships.  Maria?  He understood now that her passions had been different; more transient, more individual.

The two women in his life had even handled the matter of their confinements differently.  While Catherine had blossomed, the closer Maria’s time had come, the more terrified she had become about having the baby alone.  The nearest midwife had been in Green River and there was never a guarantee that she’d make it to where she was needed in time.  Knowing Maria was afraid, Murdoch had even sent a courier to Divisadero asking Maria’s mother to come to be with her in the latter stages of her confinement, but Johnny had arrived nearly three weeks early with only a panicky Murdoch and a ranch hand around to help. 

“Can’t be too different from a mare birthin’ a foal,” the hand had insisted, but this was his wife!  And it was different.   Somehow they had managed, but Lord, Johnny had been tiny.  So small and frail-looking, and yet what a set of lungs!  Even then he’d howled his protests at the treatment the world handed him. 

Murdoch smiled.  He’d been so proud.  Delirious with pride, in fact.  This tiny, squalling infant was going to be his chance to make up for the shame he still felt at his weakness in allowing Harlan Garrett to take and raise baby Scott.  Scott—or Scotty, as Murdoch knew Harlan referred to the boy—was three now, and Murdoch had never even seen him.  But this little baby, John Michael Lancer, was going to be his redemption.

Murdoch paused now as he rounded the corner of the hacienda and looked toward the man that that young boy had become.  Johnny squatted near the edge of the burnt out area intent on something he held in his left hand.  Murdoch approached, unaware of how deeply lost in his own thoughts Johnny actually was.  When a twig cracked under Murdoch’s boot it ended his son’s reverie with frightening violence. Johnny drew his revolver, dropping to his left knee as he spun to face the noise that had startled him.  Murdoch halted and sucked in his breath.  Johnny, realizing what he had done, let his out slowly, and released the hammer on the revolver, re-holstering the gun.  He looked away. “I’m sorry.”

“I…should have said something.”

“I was off somewhere, I guess.” He gave a wan smile.  “Dangerous thing for a man in my position.” He raised his eyebrows and grimaced. “Not to mention everybody else…”  He looked out over the expanse of scorched earth.  “It sure did get charred good, didn’t it?”  He had been studying a half-singed blade of grass, struck by the contrast between the living and the dead in the same object.

“It could have been worse, John,” Murdoch said with a sigh. “We were lucky the wind wasn’t up even more and that we got it out as fast as we did.”

“It ain’t gonna stop, Murdoch.  You know that.” Johnny still had not looked his father in the eye. “Not by wishin’ it would.  Sooner or later he’s gonna get what he wants.” He tossed the blade of grass he’d been holding onto the ground. “It just depends on how long I let this go on.”

“He’s trying to provoke you, Johnny.  If you don’t let him—”

Still squatting, Johnny twisted to face his father, staring up at the grey-haired rancher. “Ah, come on, who are you kiddin’, Murdoch?  He’s gone from a few well-timed disruptions, a few shots, to this.  What’s next?”

“I talked with Sheriff MacKinnon today.” He ignored the sudden flare of annoyance in Johnny’s blue eyes. “He knows all about Lesser—and you.”  Johnny raised an eyebrow. “It was necessary, Johnny. Liam is looking for Lesser now,” Murdoch continued. “Even if there’s no proof, he can hold him long enough to find out if the harassment stops. If it does, it might be proof enough for the circuit judge to try him.”

Johnny rose and stepped nearer Barranca who had moved a few steps away and was grazing contentedly on grass that was uncharred.  The ex-gunfighter fiddled with the tie-downs on his saddle.  “He ain’t gonna be easy to find.  He’s a professional hunter and Lancer’s a big spread.  He can hit and run, just like he’s been doing.”

“It won’t be as easy now. We’ve got guards posted.”

“Every man we put on guard is one less we’ve got doin’ the work.  We’ll lose time.”

Murdoch laughed and walked over to stand beside his dark-haired son.  “Johnny in the 20 odd years I’ve run this spread we’ve lost time at every ranching season that exists.  If it weren’t Lesser it’d be rain or drought or something else.  We’ll get the work done, don’t worry.”

Johnny looked unconvinced, his eyes still roving the sloping land that Lesser had torched.  “Guards are fine, Murdoch, but…”


“Well, I wonder how determined he is, Murdoch.  If we make it hard for him, he may just push all the harder.”

“If he does, it means he’s getting desperate and desperate men make mistakes. Sooner or later he’ll slip up and we’ll catch him in something the law can deal with.”

Johnny’s left arm rested on Barranca’s mane as he looked at Murdoch.  “Like murder? He’s gonna kill somebody, at the rate he’s going.  Maybe he won’t mean to, but it’ll happen.”  Murdoch strained to keep his face impassive. Johnny’s perceptions were far too accurate.

Johnny smiled wanly.  “Thing is, Murdoch.  You can bet it won’t be me who gets planted, because he wants me alive.  But I’ll be responsible for whoever dies.  I’m not sure I can live with that.”  He draped his right hand over his left and lowered his head onto his arms momentarily before looking back up at his father. 

“You know what’s so hard about all this, Murdoch?  When I saw Lesser in Nogales five years ago, I thought…I’ll remember this guy.  Someday I’ll face him down. But when I saw him on the trail the other day?  I didn’t know for sure. He looked just like 15 other guys I’ve known.  He looked like me!”  The pain in his voice matched that on his face. “It was like seeing a ghost out of the past.  The way I looked five years ago.  Five months ago, even.  I keep tellin’ myself I never got as low as he did, but maybe I’m kiddin’ myself.  How many men have I buried?  I had to prove myself and the only way I knew how was with a .45.  I thought shootin’ fast and straight made me somebody special, so I went around lookin’ for a fight. I don’t know, maybe if things were a little different now I’d be tryin’ to do the same thing to him.”

“I don’t believe that, Johnny.  You say you saw him the day he gunned down Carver and yet you didn’t challenge him.  I don’t believe you and he are the same type of men at all.”  Johnny’s head shook slowly from side to side, no relief drawn from his father’s assurances.  The old man didn’t know half of what he’d done in his 22 years. 

Murdoch rested a hand on Barranca’s flank.  “Johnny…Teresa told Scott and me there was one thing we were all afraid to ask you.  If you had to draw on Lesser…would you win?”

Johnny’s silence was overwhelming.  “I don’t know,” he admitted finally.  “He’s one of a couple a men I’ve always wondered about and never wanted to find out.  Maybe that’s why I didn’t draw on him that day in Nogales. Didn’t let on I was there. You always know there’s somebody faster or better or smarter. You just kinda draw it out as long as possible before he finds you.  When he drew on Carver…” He got a faraway, thoughtful look in his blue eyes. “…well, maybe I got to wonderin’.  I know it’s the only time I walked away from a fight.”

There was no maybe to it and Johnny knew it. That had been a wretched time for him.  Both Luis Escobar and Tomás Callan—the two most important men in young Johnny’s life—had been killed within 6 weeks of each other.  Escobar had been hanged by the Mexican government, ending his 20 year crime spree. Johnny had been helpless to do anything but watch, horrified, as his childhood protector had bucked and kicked his way to a slow death at the end of the hangman’s noose.  Callan had been outdrawn by a kid no older than Johnny had been when he first got a name for himself.  Well, outdrawn wasn’t even right.  The reports that got back to Johnny were that the kid had seen his death coming as Callan easily—almost leisurely—cleared leather before him only to have his gun jam.  The kid had seized the split second to retake his life and calmly shot Callan through the heart, and Johnny could only weep at the grave of the man who had mentored and guided him.

It was that easy—that easy to die.  These deaths had shaken the invincibility that only the young and the stupid believe in, and Johnny had been binge drinking for weeks when Lesser road into Nogales.  As he’d watched Carver scream his way to a bloody, painful death in the muddy street of the border town, Johnny Madrid had seen his own future and had slunk away from it like a cur with its tail between its legs.

The drinking had gotten worse for a time after that.  The next few months were a haze of barrooms, fistfights, and small town jail cells and Johnny still wasn’t sure what had pulled him out of it.  He’d taken on some jobs in his sober moments and met up with a few of the saddle tramps that frequented the same cantinas and saloons.  People like Wes.  It gradually got easier to stay sober long enough to earn his keep and he’d ended up leading a small pack of drifters who hired on wherever ranges were in dispute or cattle needed pushing, and who spent the rest of their time chasing dreams at the deal table or in the bottom of a shot glass. The Madrid name had grown, and somewhere along the line Johnny had again managed to stop worrying about the end that waited for him.  He stopped caring, because he knew his death just didn’t count for much.

Johnny looked up at his father.  Maybe someday he’d share all this with him—with Scott—but how did you tell people who were starting to matter to you that you hadn’t done anything in your life that mattered?

Murdoch tipped his head to one side, studying his pensive youngest son, aching for him, but unable to express it.  “I don’t really know about Lesser,” Murdoch prompted, “not even by reputation, but…I’ve seen you draw, Johnny.” His eyebrows arched. “You’re fast

          Johnny shook his head and scoffed, disparaging of the attempted reassurance. Running a hand through his hair, he looked at his father, trying to figure out how to explain it to him.  People always thought it was all about fast.

“You been readin’ too many of them dime novels, Murdoch. Fast is good, but it don’t count for nothin’ if you don’t pull leather at the right time.  You gotta be smart, not just quick. It’s about care of your tools, gettin’ the sun in just the right place, when you got a choice about it, and knowin’ how to read the other guy, and just how to mess with his mind so he gets worried enough to throw off his aim.  Stuff like that.”

“You mean exactly what he’s been doing to you?  By ‘messing’ with us?”  Murdoch’s eyes were penetrating, filled with a mixture of anticipated grief and guilt—guilt because only he and Scott knew about the shot Lesser had taken at Scott.  It was imperative Johnny not find out.  Murdoch Lancer had seen his youngest son face men down before; seen the deceptive coolness with which he stood to the task; the disarming nonchalance that belied his readiness.  But he had also seen Johnny impassioned about things and knew that he could act rashly in the heat of temper.  Unlike Scott, who tended to mull things over, Johnny responded to life with an immediacy that could be his downfall if he let his concern for his family get the better of his calm resolve.  That was not a chance Murdoch was going to take with Johnny’s life if he could do anything to prevent it.

“We’ll figure something out, Johnny,” Murdoch assured him, but was not surprised to see the doubt in his son’s eyes.  “There’s nothing he’s…done that warrants your facing him.”

“So I just tuck my tail between my legs and hide for the rest of my life?”


“Yes, Murdoch.  That’s what it’s all about.  You know, I heard some of the men talking today. They know it’s something personal between me and Lesser.  I don’t suppose it takes much imagination to figure out what.  A couple of ‘em were wondering if I was afraid to face him.”  Again his head dropped. “Maybe I am.” 

“Nobody wants to die, Johnny.”

“It didn’t use to matter to me, Murdoch!”  Johnny’s blue eyes bore into his father’s and he finally spoke the truth. “It really didn’t. I didn’t have nothin’ to live for except my reputation. But it’s different now.  I’ve got a home; a good family…” He looked away, suddenly embarrassed at expressing this sentiment.  “I didn’t used to think I had a choice about how I was gonna die, Murdoch, and now I want one.”

Murdoch draped an arm across Johnny’s shoulders, giving them a squeeze.  “Hold on a bit longer, John. Let us find another way to deal with Lesser.”  Johnny looked up at his father, holding his gaze, seeing the concern and care in his features.  He nodded, unable to speak.  Murdoch clasped his hand gently to his son’s neck for just an instant, then smiled at him.  “Come on. Let’s go in and see if Maria or Consuela can tempt us with anything to eat.”


*** *** ***


Tom and Emily McMartin and their daughter Stephanie arrived late in the afternoon.  As requested, Nate Johnson had accompanied them.  Tipping his hat to the ladies, he nodded briefly to Murdoch to signal that all had gone well, and headed for the bunkhouse.

Over pre-dinner drinks, Murdoch kept glancing at the grandfather clock which served as a constant reminder that Scott was extremely late for a dinner he knew was on for 7:30.  It was getting too dark for the men to be doing any more work and it was unlike Scott to keep people waiting. 

Tom McMartin caught the repeated look of distraction on his friend’s face and cocked his head.  “Something wrong, Murdoch?”

“No,” Murdoch hastened to reassure him.  “I’m just surprised Scott is so late.  He knew when we were eating.”

“Well, ranch work is ranch work.”  Tom commented, although he knew as well as Murdoch that there was little more the men could do at this time of night.  He could see the lines of tension in Murdoch’s face and wasn’t totally buying his friend’s explanations about being short-handed.

Johnny, too, seemed less jovial than he often was, Tom thought. But, then, he was a mercurial sort, that younger Lancer boy.   He was vaguely grateful it was the more temperate and refined older Lancer boy his daughter, Stephanie, had set her sights on.  It could be a good match if things worked out.

At nearly 8 p.m., there was a commotion out in the yard as a group of men rode in.  Both Johnny and Murdoch jumped at their approach, Tom thought, but Murdoch was casual in his pronouncement that that was bound to be Scott.  The door opened a moment later and Scott walked in, stomping his boots at the threshold. His face was caked in dirt and tracks of dried sweat creased his cheeks.  His clothes were dusty and he was obviously weary, although he forced a smile when he saw the visitors.

“I’m sorry I’m so late.  I hope you haven’t waited dinner.”

“We were just going to start,” Murdoch told him, his face full of questions.

“You look like you’ve had a hard day of it,” McMartin commented.

Scott’s look was suddenly wary.  His eyes darted nervously toward Murdoch and Johnny.  “Well…the herd spooked and we had to round them up again before we could start.  Set us back a few hours.”

Johnny’s face was rigid with contained rage.  His back to the McMartin’s, he brushed past Scott to pour another drink from the decanter on the sideboard.  “I wonder what caused that!”  The sarcasm in his voice was matched only by the flintiness of his expression.  The shot of whisky disappeared down his gullet in one gulp.

Anxious to maintain the façade, Scott smiled wanly.  “Well, who knows what causes cattle to spook?  They’re not God’s brightest creatures, otherwise we wouldn’t be about to eat one for dinner, would we?”  He flicked a glance to Murdoch as the others in the room—Johnny excepted—laughed.  “Look, please go and start without me.  I’ll just freshen up and join you as soon as I can.”  He flashed a smile at Stephanie.  “Stephanie, I’d escort you to table, but Consuela and Teresa would show me out of the dining room in my condition.”  The girl’s head dipped in embarrassment as Murdoch stepped in to do the honors and Scott turned to head upstairs.   He didn’t have to look at Johnny to feel the stony wall the younger man had put up.

When Scott joined them fifteen minutes later, the atmosphere was more relaxed.  Conversation shifted easily between stock prices, the recent opening of the new hotel, and a theatre production the McMartin’s had seen in San Francisco recently.  After dinner the ladies moved onto the verandah and Scott rose and poured drinks from the decanter for the men. 

Murdoch joined him.  “What happened?”  His voice was hushed.

Scott shrugged.  “He fired on the herd and stampeded them.  Nobody was hurt, but we had to shoot a couple of heifers that broke their legs.  And it delayed us badly.  We hardly got any branding done.  There was one thing.  We saw his horse clearly this time.  It’s as I thought this morning.  It wasn’t the same one he had when he was here.”

“So there’s still no proof it was him…” Murdoch was thoughtful. “He could pick up a spare mount anywhere, but it might be something Liam can follow up on.” 

He hefted two of the glasses and turned back to the others in the room.  He was very aware that Johnny sat watching them, eyes narrowed. Tom McMartin, too, was watching, but his attention was also on a mounted vaquero who rode past for the fourth time since they had sat down to eat. The cowboy’s rifle was unsheathed and draped across his lap.  “Murdoch, do you always have a guard on at night?”

“No…” Murdoch’s voice was tentative.  He handed Tom one of the drinks. “But we’ve had some trouble the last few days.”

“It must be serious if you have to post a guard on your own place.”

“Well, a hand was fired and was upset by it and has been disrupting work.”

“Was that the cause of your stampede?” McMartin asked Scott who nodded, carefully avoiding Johnny’s glance. 

“That wasn’t the origin of the fire was it?”

“Yes,” Murdoch admitted.

“That’s not a little trouble, Murdoch,” Tom exclaimed.  “Your whole place could have burned down.  Your house, the barns, the stock.”

“I know, Tom, but we’re taking care of it.”

“Does Sheriff MacKinnon know?” 

Murdoch nodded. 

McMartin cocked his head to one side. “Then it wasn’t an accident that one of your hands rode in with us.  He tried to tell us all his looking around was because he’d gotten in the habit of looking for strays, but it seemed…He was guarding us, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” Murdoch admitted, “and I’m sorry about the secrecy.  We just didn’t want to alarm anyone unduly.  He hasn’t hurt anyone,” he commented, carefully avoiding Scott’s face, “but we’ll have someone ride out with you just to play it safe.”  Frankly, he would have preferred the family spend the night, but they had already declined, citing business to attend to first thing in the morning.

“Is it someone from around here?”

“No, just a drifter.  I’m sure it will blow over.”

When the evening ended, Johnny announced that he would get his things and follow the McMartin’s out.  Both Scott and Murdoch objected quietly, conscious of the presence of Emily and Stephanie.  Their objections only earned them a glare from Johnny who stepped into the house from the patio where they had all been conversing. Father and son followed, with Tom close on their heels.  Teresa, sensing that a confrontation was looming, tried to stall the women outside to give the men time to air what they had to.

“Do you really think it’s necessary, Murdoch?” Tom asked.

“I’d like to Tom, just to be safe, but not you, Johnny,” Murdoch declared.

“I have to go back out to the herd anyway,” his younger son announced coldly, and then tried to soften his statement by adding that his crew could finish their bunch by noon tomorrow if they got an early start.  He turned to go before either of his relatives could protest, but Murdoch tried again to dissuade him. 

“Johnny, it doesn’t have to be you.”

“Who else could they be safer with, Murdoch?” He turned toward the stairs.  “Besides, I have to go that direction anyway.”

“Not alone, not at night.”

Johnny exploded, his voice muted only by the presence of the women still out on the patio.  “Damnit, Murdoch, stop holdin’ my hand!  You and Scott have been hemming me in, not letting me alone, keeping me out of town and I’m tired of it.  You can’t stop what’s gonna happen any more than I can, so stop tryin’.”  He stomped up the stairs to his room and returned a few minutes later dressed in work clothes, his rifle, saddlebags, and bedroll draped over his shoulder.



*** *** ***


Murdoch was still at the homeplace the next morning, working with Teresa on repairs to the chicken coop, when they were surprised to have Liam MacKinnon ride up and inform them that the McMartin’s had been fired on after Johnny left them, very near the outskirts of town.  No one was injured, but they were badly shaken.

“This has gone too far, Murdo.  I want a posse formed up now.  I’ve no doubt he’s hiding out on Lancer land and your men know it better than anyone in town.  But I need to know.  Can you control your people?  By now they’ve got to be plenty spooky.  Although it sure looks like it has to be Lesser, I don’t want anyone gunning him down without proof.”

          “Lesser?” Max queried.  He had come up to say hi to the sheriff and heard the exchange.

“Hudson’s real name,” Murdoch explained.  “I’ll keep them in line, Liam.  I’ll go back out now and bring them in myself.  They’re in two groups, though, it may take some time to round them all up.”

“I’ve heard of a guy named Lesser—” Max started, but the other two men ignored him.

“I’ll go with you,” the Sheriff told his friend.  “Do you have any idea where we should start searching?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “There must be a thousand places a man could hole up.  Even somebody who doesn’t know the area could find a lot of them.  He was outside by Scott’s herd yesterday about 3:30 or 4, then back onto the road into town last night.  There’s just no pattern.” He considered a moment. “Scott’s group is working a little closer into here, so we’ll head out there first; get them on their way back here.” 

He turned to the hand. “Max, get my horse ready, will you?”  Then he looked concerned suddenly as he recalled Teresa, knowing that she and Consuela and Maria would be alone.  He said as much and Teresa just scoffed.

“You know I can handle a rifle as well as nearly any hand on the place, Murdoch.”

Murdoch looked at her fondly, reaching out to stroke her cheek. Raising this young lady to be a lady on a ranch full of men had been a world of challenge for two old bachelors assisted only by the occasional ranch wife or cook.  They hadn’t done too badly, but he also knew she was right.  Young lady or no, you couldn’t grow up on a place the size of Lancer without learning a few practical survival skills.

“All right, but you stay in the house.”

“I’ll look after her, boss,” Max assured him as he turned for the barn.  “It ain’t my gun hand that’s stove up.”


*** *** ***


Murdoch and Liam did set out toward Scott’s crew first.  They’d only gone 10 miles when they were met by Scott and his men heading toward the ranch house.  In the supply buckboard lay one of the hands from Scott’s crew.  The man’s leg was crudely splinted and he had obviously been liberally fortified with whisky to ease the pain.   It didn’t take much to guess what had happened.

          “I decided we’d all come back, Murdoch,” Scott explained.  “Half the boys were on the ground and it was all we could do to keep them getting trampled.  The horses spooked, the cattle took off in all directions.  I wanted to go after him, but we just weren’t prepared.”

“I think I burned him, Sheriff,” said. “I’m sure of it.”

“Did anyone identify him positively?”

“I seen him, Sheriff,” one of the hands spoke up.  “It was Hudson…or whatever his name is,” he added with a cagey look at the lawman.

“Well, that’s all I need,” the sheriff said, deliberately ignoring for the moment the suspicion in the man’s voice.  “I’m forming a posse, wi—”

“Not with me, you ain’t,” a man on a roan gelding protested.  “I don’t want no part of this.” Two or three others echoed this sentiment.

“I can’t force anyone to stay,” Murdoch said, not surprised at the protests. He’d been through this only a few months before when most of his vaqueros had been driven off by the land pirates, just prior to his summonsing the boys. “Anyone who wants to leave can collect his pay.”

Liam waved a hand to one side. “Separate yourselves out, any of you who are going.” Two or three moved to the side, and the man driving the wagon started to hand over his reins.

“No, Rollins,” Murdoch stopped him. “If you don’t want to stay on, you and the others take Harden back to the homeplace.  Teresa and Jelly will see you get your wages.  I’d be obliged if you’d take Harden into town to see the doc.”  To Harden, he nodded.  “I’m sorry this happened, Will.  You’ll be looked after until you’re on your feet, regardless of whether you want to stay on with us after it’s over.”

“Oh, I’m willing enough, boss,” Harden stated in a voice thick with alcohol, “but I ain’t much good to ya’” he added with a glance down at his leg. 

“Nevertheless.  Guthrie,” Murdoch called to one of the men who had joined the group who were quitting. “You arrange a room for Harden at the hotel and be sure the doc sees him.”

“Yes sir.”

“Okay, anyone else?” MacKinnon asked. “All right.  The rest of you are deputized.”

One of the hands who had been on the place about a year drew his horse up beside Murdoch.  “I’m sorry Mr. Lancer.  You’ve been a fair boss.  The work’s been hard, but the pay’s been good.  It’s just not good enough for this.  I’ve got a wife and a baby girl I’m trying to bring out here.  I’m no use to them dead.”

Murdoch nodded, but Cipriano, who had seen out the fight several months ago with this same man, chimed in, his aggravation showing.  “You stuck it out before when we were getting hit so hard.”

“Cipriano,” Murdoch cautioned.

“No, it’s okay Mr. Lancer,” the hand who was leaving said.  “You’re right, amigo.  That fighting was bad, but it was sort of about all of us, the whole ranch.  This is different.  What this guy’s got against Johnny he’s takin’ out on all of us.  It just ain’t fair.”

          Another new hand, less charitable, took his cue.  “You ask me, your boy oughta just stand up to him like a man and take what he’s got comin’.  He’s good.  This guy must be somethin’ special if Johnny’s so afraid to face him he’s gotta make us take his whippin’ instead.”

          Murdoch started to bristle, but the Sheriff intervened.  “Le—Hudson’s a hired gun and he’s trying to provoke Johnny into a fight because…Johnny’s fast.”  He was still making an effort to protect his friend’s son. “But he’s gone too far.  He’s outside the law now and we can prove it.  Any man I’ve deputized has the legal right to fire on him if he forces it.”

“It ain’t worth it,” the embittered hand protested. “It ain’t my fight.” He wheeled his horse away from the main group and fell in beside the wagon, whose driver flicked the reins to start the team.

“You get that sidewinder for me, boys!” Harden shouted out to the remaining men as he fortified himself against the wagon’s jostling with yet another swig of whisky.

The men chuckled, then turned their attention to Murdoch. “Where we supposed to start looking, Mr. Lancer?  He took off that way,” one of the hands pointed, “but that’s a lotta country.”

“Murdoch, we shouldn’t just go off half-cocked,” Scott suggested, the experienced Cavalry officer coming out once again.  “Some of us need fresh mounts, we may need some supplies and—”

“Ammunition,” one of the hands suggested.  “I ain’t got much on me.”

“He’s right,” Scott concurred.

Murdoch nodded. “We were planning to get Johnny’s crew and bring all of you back with us to the house to form a search party.”  He looked back in the direction his son had come, fighting the temptation to get looking straight away now that they had some idea where Lesser had struck most recently. 

Scott turned his mount away from the group.  Sensing its rider’s excitement, the still green horse he’d chosen to replace Charlemagne was stomping and tossing its head.  “Let me go bring Johnny’s group back to the hacienda, Murdoch.  I know exactly where he is.  You can head straight back there and start to get things organized. We know which direction Lesser headed out and he won’t go far if he’s still intent on goading Johnny into a fight.”

“Okay, but don’t go alone,” Murdoch told him.  Scott turned to the hand nearest him and silently queried his willingness to come along.  The youngster nodded and the two turned and rode out. Murdoch was distracted by a couple of the hands questioning the sheriff about Lesser’s identity and reputation, so he didn’t see his eldest ride off.  When he noticed that Scott had left, he surveyed the remaining group trying to determine who was missing.  “How many went with Scott?”

“Just Carmody.” 

Murdoch frowned.  He would have liked to see a bigger group set out but there was nothing to be done.  “Come on,” he called to those who were willing to see out the search, and turning their mounts toward home, they followed in the tracks of the buckboard and its escort.


*** *** ***


Johnny and his crew returned to the homeplace shortly after Murdoch left to collect Scott and his crew.  They’d begun to dismount when Teresa stepped out to meet them, her expression puzzled.  “Did Murdoch change his mind and go for you first?”


“Well, Sheriff MacKinnon rode out to form a posse and they were going to collect all of you to form it.”

“I ain’t seen Murdoch.  We just finished early is all.”  His expression changed to one of concern.  “What made MacKinnon decide to form a posse all of a sudden?”

Teresa hesitated.  “Well…Lesser took some shots at the McMartins last night after you left them. They weren’t hurt,” she added quickly when she saw Johnny’s reaction, “just scared.”

Her reassurances didn’t prevent the torrent of Spanish curses Johnny uttered without regard to the fact she knew exactly what he was saying.  He vaulted back onto Barranca and spun the horse to face Teresa. “Where are they?  Where were they working?”

“Johnny…I don’t think you sho—”

“Teresa, tell me where Scott was working.”  His words were slow and forceful and she backed down, describing where Murdoch had told her Scott was.  When Johnny reined Barranca back around and kicked the horse into a gallop, she could only entreat the other hands to follow him.


*** *** ***


Johnny reined in Barranca at the crest of the hill, the rest of his crew pausing with him to look at the cluster of men riding at a steady canter toward the hacienda Johnny and his men had just left behind.  Johnny thought he recognized Murdoch’s big sorrel at the front next to a rider he took to be Sheriff MacKinnon.  There was no sign of anyone he could identify as Scott whose erect posture usually made him easy to spot.  Glancing back along the trail he could just make out a small knot of men riding with a slower moving buckboard.  Maybe Scott was with them, although a niggling trace of worry was creeping up Johnny’ spine.  He kneed Barranca and urged him down the slope to meet the men led by his father.

Murdoch looked surprised when he saw the cluster of men bearing down on them, his son’s palomino in the lead.  “That was fast.  Where’s Scott?”  Even as he asked the question, though, he realized that Johnny and the other men had approached from entirely the wrong direction and he felt a clutch of fear.

It was Johnny’s turn to look puzzled.  “I don’t know about Scott.  We came from the hacienda.  Isn’t he with the buckboard we saw behind you?”

“No.”  Murdoch kept his answer simple, but one of the hands piped in.

“That’s Harden and some of the fellows who don’t wanta fight.  Harden’s leg is busted. Got trampled.”

Johnny’s look turned fierce and he twisted in the saddle to glare at his father.  “It gets better!” he snarled, blue eyes boring into his father’s.  “Teresa told me about the McMartins.  I’m gonna put a stop to th—”

“Johnny, cool down.”

          “No, Murdoch. Up until now nobody’s been hurt, but it had to happen sooner or later.  I’m not gonna be responsible for somebody gettin’ killed just ‘cus I wanta pretend I’m not who I am!”

          “Johnny, look,” Liam MacKinnon tried to intervene.  “The men saw him clearly this time. That means I can arrest him.”

          “It doesn’t have to be your fight any longer,” Murdoch tried.

“It was always my fight, Murdoch.  I was a fool to think different.”

          Murdoch was torn between wanting to prevent Johnny racing Hell bent after Lesser and his concern about Scott’s failure to have reached either Johnny and his crew or the hacienda.  It could be just chance and bad timing, but Murdoch wasn’t so sure.

“I need to find out about Scott.  You didn’t see him? I sent him over to get you.”

“Well he musta missed us. We finished up a couple hours ago and headed home.”  Murdoch’s concern was now reflected in Johnny’s eyes.  “Was he alone?” the young man asked.

“No, but I’d sure feel better if you’d seen him.”

“When he doesn’t find us by the branding pens he’ll head for the house.  He knew we were nearly finished. He could even be there by now.”

          Murdoch nodded, then looked at Sheriff MacKinnon.  “I don’t like stalling any longer, but I need to know Scott’s okay.  If we ride southeast, we’ll cross the path he’d have to use to get home.  Maybe we can pick him up.”

“Murdoch, which way’d Lesser go?” Johnny quizzed.  “I’m goin’ after him.”

“You are not.  We’re all staying together until we find Scott, then we’ll decide who does what.”  Johnny started to protest but his father cut him off summarily.  “I won’t argue with you, John.  Lesser has overstepped the law.  We can take him legally and hopefully without bloodshed, yours in particular.  This is the best way,” he added, then turned his mount toward the southeast ordering half a dozen men to head for the camp Johnny’d been using and the rest to an intercepting path home.  Reluctantly, Johnny followed.

They rode hopefully, but there was no sign of Scott or Carmody either at the branding camp or along the entire route back to the hacienda.


*** *** ***


“I can’t believe my great good fortune,” Lesser said to an angry Scott who, with Carmody, sat baled up at gunpoint.   “I wasn’t sure what my next move would be, but you’ve made it so easy.”  The two men had ridden right into a trap and Scott was as angry with himself as he was with Lesser.  He glanced at Lesser’s pants leg, noting that Walt had been right.  He had been winged.  Lesser followed his gaze toward the flesh wound.  “Your boys are getting luckier.”

          “Too bad they didn’t hit an artery,” Scott said sourly.

          “You’re a smart one, ain’t ya’, Lancer.”  He turned toward Carmody and motioned with his gun for the youngster to dismount.  “Come on, off your horse.”  The hand looked suspicious and frightened, and Lesser prompted him by cocking the revolver aimed at him.  The boy dismounted quickly and stood nervously by his horse.  “Tie up his hands,” he said, tossing a length of rope to Carmody.   Reluctantly the hand complied.  Soon Scott’s hands were firmly tied behind his back and the boy stood nervously by his horse, painfully aware that Lesser didn’t need him as any kind of a bargaining chip.  Scott saw that too.

“What are you going to do, Lesser?”

“Get back on your horse, kid.”  When he hesitated, Lesser looked exasperated.  “If you don’t, I will kill you.”  The boy mounted quickly.  “You got a good memory, boy?”  The boy shrugged an ‘I guess’.  “Well, you better ‘cus you’re gonna play messenger boy and if you don’t remember this, he’s dead,” he gestured at Scott.

Lesser thought for a minute.  “You find Johnny and give him this message. ‘I told you you’d draw on me, Madrid.  If you won’t defend your name, then I’m gambling your price is your brother’s life.  You got one more rattlesnake to take care of, Madrid.’”

Carmody was looking concerned that he wouldn’t remember it all.  Lesser made him repeat it back several times, correcting him until he got it right.  Scott glared at the gunhand, glad at least for the boy’s sake that it didn’t look like he planned to kill him.

“Okay, get going. And you make sure Johnny comes alone, you hear?”

Carmody looked uncertainly at Scott.  “Sir?”

Scott nodded at the hand, trying to reassure him. “Deliver the message, Carmody.”

“Get it right, boy!” 

Carmody glowered at Lesser and rode off toward the homeplace.

          Scott’s horse tried to follow Carmody’s and Lesser caught up its reins to stop it.  “You’re insane, Lesser,” Scott told him.  “Johnny won’t come after you.  Every man on the ranch will. The Sheriff has deputized everyone.  You went too far when you shot at the McMartins and our herd today.  And now this. You’ll hang if anything happens to me.”

“Johnny will come alone.  He’ll figure it out.  You’re dead the instant I see more than one horse approaching.” Scott started to reply, but Lesser cut him off and gathered up the reins.  “Ah, shut up and try not to fall off.”  He wheeled both horses and set off.


*** *** ***


The Lancer vaqueros lounged or squatted around the yard outside the main corral, smoking, talking.  They had changed over their mounts, grabbed some food and stocked up on ammunition. It was getting harder to stem their impatience to begin the hunt, but Murdoch was still concerned at Scott’s failure to return to the homeplace.  Looking at his younger son, though, he knew that Johnny would not be held back much longer, even if the men could be. 


Murdoch turned to see Teresa looking up at him.  She was wrapping a cloth around a pile of bandages, scissors and a bottle of Carbolic Acid.  Another bottle he recognized as the laudanum that had been left over from when he had been shot by Pardee.  Teresa’s face was somber as she handed the parcel to him and he placed it into his saddlebag without a word.  Bending to kiss her lightly on the top of her head, he turned back to where the sheriff was still briefing the men.

          “Remember,” MacKinnon told them, “don’t get too trigger happy.  Take him alive if you can.”

          “I’m not sure he deserves that kinda good treatment,” one of the hands quipped.

          Ezra chuckled.  “Scott’d probably agree with you after what Lesser done to his hat yesterday.”

          Johnny, who had been standing near the two men, whipped around to look at Ezra who immediately looked abashed at what he had said.  “What did you say?” Johnny’s blue eyes bored into the hand, suspicious of the implications of the remark.

          “Ah, nothin’, Johnny,” Ezra lied, his eyes darting between Johnny and Murdoch.

          “Ezra…”  Johnny stepped closer to the hand, his tone threatening.  “What about Scott?”

          Ezra looked uneasily at Murdoch.  “Sir?”  Murdoch just sighed and made a gesture of resignation.  The hand turned back to Johnny.  “I wasn’t supposed to say nothin’ but when Scott and me come back from Morro Coyo yesterday mornin’, Lesser shot at Scott.  Put a slug right through his hat.”  From his expression, Ezra expected the explosion Johnny loosed on them, or more particularly on his father.

          ¡Mierda! Murdoch!”  He advanced on his father.  “You knew that and you said nothin’!  How could you?  Scott!”

          “Johnny,” Murdoch placated.

          “No!” Johnny repelled the attempt to mollify him.  “What else have you kept from me?  Who’s been hurt or killed that you haven’t bothered to tell me about?”

          “No one, Johnny.  No one’s been hurt until today.”

          “He coulda killed Scott.  How could you keep silent about that?  Don’t you think I got enough dead men on my conscience without—” Johnny was too angry to express it and Murdoch tried to pull him away from the group to calm him down. Johnny wrested his arm out of his father’s grasp.  “No!” he snapped.

          “We thought it was best, Johnny.  Scott wasn’t hurt and he didn’t want you to know because he knew you’d rush off after Lesser—”

          “You’re damn right I would have!”

          “Johnny.”  Murdoch reached a placating hand toward his son but, again, Johnny brushed it away harshly.

          “Leave me be, Murdoch.  I gotta think.”  He strode to the corral fence and, gripping the middle rail tightly, lent into it as though he could squeeze the answer he needed out of the timber. 

          MacKinnon stepped up to Murdoch and Jelly and after a hushed conversation, the sheriff turned to the assembled men and told them to mount up.  It looked like they were going to be searching for Scott, too, now.

          All heads turned, though, as a lone rider raced through the Lancer entry gate and toward the corral where they were forming up.  Murdoch’s heart fell as he realized that it was Carmody.  Alone.  Not Scott, too! Please!

          Carmody hauled his horse to a stop and did a panic dismount, tossing the reins aside as several of the hands grabbed at the lathered horse and took charge of it.  It stood blowing hard, sides heaving, as Carmody sought out Johnny.

          “Johnny! He’s got Scott.  He bushwacked us.”

          “Is Scott all right?” Murdoch demanded.

          “Yeah, yeah.”  Carmody was panting nearly as hard as his mount. “He gave me a message for Johnny and said if he doesn’t come alone, he’ll kill Scott.”

          “What message?”  Johnny’s face was grim.

          Carmody suddenly became uncertain, unsure whether he should say it in front of everybody or if Lesser had meant for only Johnny to hear it.

          “Come on!” Johnny snapped.  “What message?”

          “Well…he said ‘I told you you’d draw on me, Madrid.  If you won’t defend your name, then I’m gambling your price is your brother’s life.  You got one more rattlesnake to take care of, Madrid.’”

          There was a stir at the use of the name Madrid and Murdoch heard several ‘I told you so’s’ from his men.  He turned to look at Johnny, half expecting an explosion.  But Johnny’s face had gone cold and hard and Murdoch could barely recognize it as the face of the son he was just getting to know.  He watched as Johnny turned and looked out across the flats to the west. 

          “Johnny?”  Murdoch drew no response from his son.  He turned back to Carmody. “Is that it?”

          “Yes sir.”

          “Ain’t much of a message,” Jelly muttered. “You sure you got it right?”

          “Yeah, he made me repeat it back to him.”

          “Well, what’s it supposed to mean, Murdoch?” Jelly turned to his boss. “Where’s he wanting Johnny to go if he’s got Scott?  Where’s he holding him?”

Murdoch shook his head in annoyance.  The last thing they needed now was riddles. “Where did Lesser get the jump on you, Carmody?” The hand described the spot they’d been ambushed. 

Several of the men grabbed their reins and started to mount up. “We can be there in 20 minutes hard riding, Mr. Lancer.”

          Murdoch stopped them with a wave of his hand.  “No, it’d be foolhardy for him to stay there. We could get the drop on him from a dozen places just like he did Scott and Carmody.  Are you sure there’s nothing more?” 

          Carmody was adamant. “Positive. He made me repeat it over and over and I said it all the way back.”

          “He’s desperate now, Murdoch—probably not thinking clearly,” the sheriff suggested.  “Was he wounded?” he asked Carmody.

          “Yes sir, in the leg, but it didn’t look too bad.”

          MacKinnon nodded, deciding for himself on a course of action. “We should try where Carmody described first, Murdo, and th—” He stopped mid-sentence as he saw Murdoch’s attention suddenly diverted away from the group.

          Johnny had turned and was walking toward Barranca.  His pace was steady. There was no impression of haste whatsoever, just purpose and resolve, and Murdoch felt his sorrow deepen.

          “Johnny!”  This time there was no hesitation in the elder Lancer’s voice. He had to stop his son from riding into this trap.  He caught up with him as Johnny calmly unwrapped the horse’s rein from the hitching post and put a foot into the stirrup.

          “Where is he?” Murdoch demanded.           “You know, don’t you?”

          Johnny settled himself in the saddle and nodded once but said nothing.

          “Well, where?”

          Johnny shook his head slowly.  “It’s me he wants, Murdoch.  No sense in anybody else takin’ him on.”

          “It’s a trap.  You can’t just walk into it.”

          “Sure it’s a trap. Has been all along and he’s got it baited real good.  But knowin’ that doesn’t change anything.  Just let me take care of it, okay?”  His voice was matter of fact.

          “I can’t let you go up against him.”

          “You can’t not let me.” At the protestation Johnny could see forming on his father’s face, he smiled, a wry and surprisingly gentle smile.  “Who else is gonna face him?  You?   Lesser’s a top gun and I’m afraid I’m the only wanna-be ex-gunfighter you got in the family tree, Murdoch.”    

“But you don’t have to do this alone.”

“Yeah, Murdoch, I do.”  Barranca shifted underneath him, sensing his readiness to move, although Johnny still held a check on the reins.  When Murdoch started to speak, Johnny shook his head.  “You’re not lookin’ at this with your head, Murdoch. You got your feelings all mixed up in it.  Lesser sees anybody but me ride in, he’ll kill Scott and take off.” He shrugged.  “Or maybe he’ll keep Scott hostage and kill him later, ‘cus then he knows I’ll be after him.  The only way is for me to go alone, give him what he wants.”

          “What if he ambushes you?”

          “Nah…he’s worked too hard for the chance to face off against Johnny Madrid. He’ll see it’s a fair fight.”

          “There’s nothing fair about it,” Murdoch said bitterly.  He felt as thought he was being forced to choose between his sons. No matter what happened he could lose one.  If Johnny were wrong, he could lose both.

          Johnny continued to smile down at his father as he slid his revolver from its holster.  “It’s as fair as it gets, Murdoch.”  Using just the one hand, he thumbed open the loading gate and spun the cylinder, inspecting the chambers.  Satisfied there were five rounds, he returned the revolver to its holster and looped the safety tie back over the hammer.  “The price of admission’s a little steeper this time, I’ll admit, but as shoot-outs go, I’ve been in worse fixes.  See, if I kill Lesser, there’s no problem.  We get Scott back in one piece.  If he kills me, I think he’ll let Scott go.”  He saw the doubt in his father’s eyes and sought to reassure him.  “No, he wanted me bad enough that he crossed the line.  Broke the law and got caught at it. Now there’s nothin’ in it except the glory.  Without Scott he’s got no proof he outgunned Madrid so he’ll just let him go and beat it outta here.  Wait for the story to get out so he can brag on it some.”

          “I’m not sure you’re right.”

          “Yes you are.  You just don’t like it much.”

          “But what if you are wrong?  About all of it—Scott, an ambush?”

          Johnny shrugged.  “It’s the difference between a sure thing and a maybe thing. The sure thing is, Scott’ll be dead if you all ride in after him.  Lesser’s good, but I ain’t sure he’s any better than me. I got an even chance.”

          “It’s too big a risk.”

          “For Scott’s life?  Nah.” His head swung slowly from side to side and he held his father’s gaze steadily.  “Murdoch, I told you I wanted a choice how I lived and died.  Well, I’ve made it.  I don’t have to do this to prove myself.  I’m goin’ because what I have here…” His eyes drifted from the barn and corrals to the hacienda, and then to where Teresa and Jelly stood.  He locked eyes momentarily with Teresa’s and then he shifted his gaze back to his father. “…well, it’s worth fightin’ for.  All this may a come late to me, Murdoch, but I got no regrets, however it turns out.”  His gaze intensified and he leaned toward Murdoch.  “You tell Scott that if you have to, you hear me?” 

          Straightening again, he settled his hat firmly on his head and tried to turn Barranca away.  Murdoch held the horse’s bridle firmly. Father and son watched each other until Murdoch slowly released his hold on the palomino’s headstall.  His hand dropped to his side as Johnny reined the gelding around.   “Don’t follow me, Murdoch, please!” he called as he trotted, then loped, the horse through the open corral gates and away from the men and his family.


*** *** ***

Scott had indeed hung on and tried not to fall off.  He was an excellent horseman, but not needing to hang onto a horse moving at a steady canter and not being remotely able to were quite different things.  By the time Lesser slowed both their mounts Scott was tense and weary from the strain of maintaining his balance on the rough ground.

          It hadn’t taken him long to work out where Lesser was headed and his mind had been racing with the implications.  The lay of the land, how Lesser was likely to set himself up, whether there would be anything Scott could do to spare Johnny what was coming.  Maybe his younger brother did have a good chance against Lesser.  He knew the Madrid reputation from others and, sadly, had seen his brother at work, but this was going to be different. 

          Scott had seen Johnny fight because in the instant he had to fight—skirmishing, responding quickly to impromptu challenges or emergency conditions.  But Scott knew Lesser was orchestrating a classic shootout.  Two men facing each other off with only one left standing at the end. How did that affect your mind?  And had Johnny moved too far away from that life in the last few months to cope with it?

          His musings were interrupted as Lesser drew their horses to a stop near the spot Scott and Johnny had been working when Lesser arrived.  The gunfighter sat surveying the area and then nodded appreciatively.  “You know this is good.  I hadn’t planned it all out, but this is…ironic?  Is that the word?  I’d a preferred a bigger audience, but since Johnny was too chicken to show his face in town, this’ll at least all end right where it started.”

          “Why are you doing this, Lesser?” Scott’s gray-blue eyes were fierce.  “Why are you so intent on killing my brother?”

          “I got nothing against your brother.  It’s Johnny Madrid I want.”

          “One more to add to your list?”

          “You might say that.  That’s how I make my living.”  He shrugged and smiled as he dismounted.  “A man’s gotta make a living.”  He smirked.  “They’ve all been fair fights.  Well…mostly.  Dead men don’t tell tales.”

          “You disgust me, Lesser.”  Scott glared down at the man who had come around to the side of Scott’s horse.  Briefly Scott wondered if a well-placed kick would avail anything, but he dismissed the idea.  With his hands tied behind his back he’d accomplish nothing. His mount would probably startle and bolt, and without the reins Scott would be worse off than he was now.

          Lesser was totally unmoved by Scott’s expression of contempt. “You think I’m such a lowlife? What about your brother, Lancer?”  He reached up and grasped Scott’s arm to help him dismount.  “You think he’s so honorable and saintly? He didn’t get his reputation plowin’ dirt or roping steers.   Couple a years ago he killed a 17 year old kid in Waco.  A pimply faced kid who thought he was a hot gun and looked like he was barely off his mama’s breast.”  He dragged Scott by the arm over toward the log under which the snake had been sheltering.  “That’s your upright, saintly brother, Lancer.  Don’t make him out to be nothin’ more than he is.”

          “Johnny would not fire on somebody—” 

          “Oh, you think?  He’ll only kill people who deserve it or ask for it?”  He turned Scott around, intending to sit him on the log, but grasped both his arms firmly instead, glaring at the blond.  “Don’t kid yourself, city boy.  What do you think a hired gun is, Lancer?  You sell your soul to the devil for the highest bid.  It don’t get no prettier than that and your brother Johnny ain’t no different from the rest of us, no matter how much whitewash you wanta use on it.”

          “He is not an assassin!”

          “Is that what you think this is gonna be?  He’s gonna have a fair shot at me.  Hey, he might even win. He’s the great Johnny Madrid, ain’t he?”

          “There’s nothing fair about it, Lesser. You’ve goaded him into it.”

          “So?  He can still pick his time and take his chances, just like me.”

          “How many men have you done this to?”

          “I’m not sure.  I used to keep count, but you lose track after a while.”  At Scott’s look of revulsion, Lesser rounded on him.  “You ask Johnny that question, Mr. High and Mighty.  I bet he don’t have an answer for ya’.”  He pushed Scott down onto the log and turned back to the horses.        

          “Most of the guys I’ve gunned were itchin’ for a fight, just like I figure Johnny was before he got all softened up living like some wealthy rancher’s son.”  He chuckled sarcastically.  “Boy howdy, you wanta talk about lucky?  I shoulda found me some old man to adopt me as his boy like Johnny done.  No wonder he wanted to just slip away.”

          Lesser caught up the reins to his and Scott’s horses and walked them both to the end of the tree on which Scott sat.  He looped the reins around a branch and unstrung the lariat from Scott’s saddle.  Loosening the loop in it, he walked around to Scott. “I will say…I figured him wrong on one thing.  He held out a lot longer than I thought he would.  Maybe you don’t mean as much to him as you think he does to you.”  Scott looked momentarily perplexed.  “Well, I was sure he’d come gunnin’ for me after I took that pot shot at you,” Lesser clarified.  Scott’s eyes flicked away and Lesser studied him.  “Or did you manage to keep that one a secret?” 

He chuckled.  “Well…your loss.  You and that rich ol’ man a yours coulda saved yourself some stock and jittery hands if Johnny’d just stood up and faced me when he first had the chance.”  He dropped the loop of the lariat over Scott’s shoulders and tossed the remainder behind Scott intending to tether him to the log.  He chuckled suddenly.  “You know, you gave me the fright of my life that day I took that shot at you.  When you came off that horse of yours I was sure I’d missed and killed you.”  He laughed. “Now that really would have messed up my plans!”

          “You hit my mount with that shot.”

          “Ah, was that it? I thought he put on too much of a show. That woulda been a shame. I hate to waste a good piece of horseflesh.” He was grinning and Scott could tell the remark was calculated to irritate him.   Knowing that didn’t make it any easier to control the ire he felt.

          “You’ll never get away with this, Lesser.  Even if you kill us both, you’ll never get off Lancer land alive.”

          “Oh, shut up.” 

          Scott opened his mouth to speak and Lesser looked angry. “I said, hold up!  I can still change my mind about you.”  He pulled a dirty kerchief from his pocket and, grabbing at Scott’s hair to hold his head still, forced the cloth into the blond’s mouth.  Scott struggled to spit the cloth out, but Lesser smacked him, open-handed, then pushed him back, toppling him off the log.

          Scott landed heavily on his hip on the hard ground, knocking the wind out of himself. Before he could collect himself or make another attempt to dislodge the kerchief, Lesser had straddled the log and tied another kerchief over the top, holding it in place.  He patted the furious man’s cheek and then dragged him upward until Scott was balancing on the log, struggling to breathe evenly through the rag and his own mute fury over what Johnny was walking into. 

          And his complete inability to do anything about it. 

          He was chastising himself now for not having kicked out at Lesser when he had the chance before.  He wouldn’t have gotten far on a frightened mount with no guidance through the reins, but it would have bought time.  Time for…what?  If Carmody found Johnny alone, his brother would still be facing Lesser before long.  If Johnny had other men with him—Murdoch, even—well, Scott knew Johnny would still heed Lesser’s words and come alone.  He’d still face off with Lesser. If only Scott could trust that Johnny would simply win the gunfight.  If only he could believe that it was that easy. 

          As Lesser tightened the lariat around his chest and half hitched it to a branch on the log, Scott’s mind turned to other scenarios, other options.  A group of Lancer men sneaking up on Lesser and gunning him down, maybe?  He shook his head and looked around.  For not having planned it out, Lesser had chosen well.  It was open country.  Maybe a real crack shot with a carbine could get Lesser from the hillside to the east, but it was unlikely.

          He dismissed these thoughts.  The fact was, no matter how Lesser had prodded Johnny into the fight, he knew Johnny well enough by now to know he’d face Lesser fairly and he’d do it even if there wasn’t any chance in the world.  He was so insufferably proud!  And honorable in a way that Scott was only beginning to fathom.  Scott could only pray that his younger brother wouldn’t be so emotionally caught up in it all that it would affect his draw or his aim.


*** *** ***


To look at Johnny as he rode in one would have thought Scott’s worries were totally in vain.  There was no trace of fun or sport, but neither was there any sign of tension or worry.  Johnny sat relaxed in his saddle, reins in his gloved left hand, his right resting on his thigh.  He could have been out for one of the leisurely morning rides he often took on Sundays when the others went off to church.

          In fact, there was a lot going on inside the young man, he just had had a lot of practice hiding it.  During the ride in the general direction of the spot he figured Lesser meant, Johnny had debated whether the gunman would actually stage the fight at the place they had camped or by the creek where Johnny had blasted the rattler.  He figured it would be the latter, but weighed his strategy for both places just in case.  The fence line at the creek wouldn’t be a bad place at all.  It was more open than the campsite and Lesser couldn’t box him in so he’d have to have the sun in his eyes.  That was the risk in a town shootout, especially if you didn’t have the time to get the lay of the place.

          The only gamble would be where Lesser would position himself in relation to Scott.  He might choose to deliberately stand so Scott was in Johnny’s line of fire, or even in his own.  Either way, it would give Johnny something more to sweat about since both gunfighters had seen bystanders catch a stray slug during a shootout and only one of them cared now if it happened.  He pushed that thought away, recognizing it for exactly the kind of mind game Lesser wanted him to get lost in.    

          Johnny had deliberately chosen to come up on Scott’s left from across the creek, surprising Lesser who had clearly expected him to approach from the direction of the ranch or at the very least from the west.  Two people could play mind games.

          Lesser smiled appreciatively as Johnny gave Barranca his head, allowing the horse to pick his own way sure-footedly across the creek and up the bank on the other side.  Johnny reined in momentarily near Scott, his eyes never leaving Lesser.

          “You okay,” he asked quietly.

          Scott nodded and grunted affirmatively, his eyes darting between his brother and Lesser.  Johnny nodded and kneed Barranca further forward keeping his right side toward Lesser in case a draw was forced before he could dismount.  Not that he figured there was much chance of that.  When he had positioned himself so that the sun would be as much as possible to their sides—no advantage either way—he reined in Barranca.

          “You’re even dumber than I thought, Lesser.  You’re at the narrow end of the canyon and you got no way out. You don’t even have a town full of people to watch you try to gun me down.  You realize that makes Scott your only witness that it was a fair fight? You kill me, you better take good care of him.”

          From the corner of his eye, Johnny was aware that Scott had stood up as much as he could under the tension of the rope that bound him to the tree.  “Stay out of it, Scott.  I’ll be cuttin’ you loose in a minute.”  Johnny’s eyes never left Lesser’s, but his tone was nonchalant.

          Johnny swung his leg over Barranca’s back and lowered himself to the ground, swatting the gelding’s rump sharply as he did so.  The palomino jumped forward, then trotted a short distance away before stopping to graze, his movement leaving the two armed men with a clear view of each other.   Each regarded the other with a faint, cold smile, their features otherwise locked in that peculiar mix of impassivity and intensity of gaze that made them what they were.

          Scott just couldn’t be sure who drew and cleared first.  He actually thought Lesser had the jump on Johnny and when Johnny shuddered as the men’s rounds exploded almost simultaneously, Scott felt his stomach lurch. But it was Lesser who fell, toppling forward onto his stomach without uttering a sound.   

          Scott let his breath out through his nose with an explosive sound, unaware he’d been holding it until it was released.  Straining at the ropes binding him, he stared intently at Johnny, trying to determine if he had been wounded and calling his name through the gag.  He watched as his brother dropped his gun hand and stood there with the revolver hanging limply at his side.  “Johnny?” Scott tried again to call to him and began to rub the kerchief holding the gag in place against his shoulder, attempting to get it off his face.  He still couldn’t tell if Johnny had been hit.

          Recognizing from long experience the finality of death in Lesser’s crumpled form, Johnny finally slipped the Colt into its holster and turned slowly toward Scott, beginning to close the gap between them.  There was a hesitation in his gait, Scott saw, but still nothing the blond could be sure of.  As Johnny neared, Scott twisted his body so his brother could reach the ropes binding his wrists.  He heard Johnny grunt and could feel him struggling to undo the knots.  “There’s a knife in my pocket,” Scott murmured through the gag.  “My pocket.” He dipped his head toward his left pocket and Johnny fished a clasp knife from Scott’s trousers.  Again, Johnny made a noise that Scott couldn’t interpret and he strained to look over his shoulder without putting the ropes out of Johnny’s reach.

          Finally the ropes loosened and Scott thrashed his arms to work his hands free, knowing they’d be burning with the return of circulation as soon as he’d done so.  Dragging the lariat loop up over his head and tossing it aside, he spun and faced his brother who was still staring at Lesser’s body.  With dismay, Scott could see the pinched expression on Johnny’s face and the sweat that already beaded his brow. The knife had slid from Johnny’s fingers and his left arm was drawn up close to his side, fingers clenched.  Scott ripped the gag from his mouth.   “You are hurt,” he said with painful certainty, just unclear how badly his brother was wounded.  His eyes searched his brother’s chest and arms for telltale blood, but Johnny was wearing the dark Bolero jacket and Scott couldn’t tell for sure.

          Scott’s fingers, numbed by restricted circulation, fumbled to move Johnny’s arm away from what he was afraid would turn about to be a wound to Johnny’s side or stomach.  He still could not see any blood and he prayed for a simple graze or flesh wound. 

          “I’m okay.” Johnny’s voice was strained.  He still stared at the crumpled form of the man he’d just killed.

          Scott was so relieved to see him on his feet and talking that he was willing to accept for the instant that the wound Johnny pressed his left hand to was not too serious.  Thank God!  “You did it.  You took him,” he exclaimed.

          “Near as not,” Johnny said quietly and grimaced as he began to feel the burning pain he knew from experience would rapidly get worse. 

          Shaking out his hands to restore circulation, Scott again attempted to pull Johnny’s arm and the Bolero jacket aside and investigate the bullet wound. Johnny’s face seemed to suddenly tighten and he took a stagger step backwards, nearly toppling over the log in the process.  Scott clutched at Johnny’s sleeve and then caught him up in both his arms as his younger brother sank abruptly to the ground.  As best he could, Scott broke the fall and laid Johnny flat near the log.  The jacket had fallen open and Scott could now see the stain of blood he’d been afraid he would find.   His own sleeve also had blood on it from where it had been wrapped behind Johnny as he lowered him and his fears increased that Johnny had been shot through, not just grazed.

          “How bad is it, Johnny?  Let me see.” Johnny made no protest as Scott pulled the shirt from under his belt and peeled it back from his belly.

          “I don’t feel so good...”

          “Hang on, Johnny.”  Scott pursed his lips as he saw the blood oozing from the small wound on Johnny’s left side, just below the ribs.  It bled more freely he could now see from a larger wound in Johnny’s back where the bullet had exited.

          “Hang on, Brother,” he repeated.  Scott ripped open the buttons on his own shirt and removed it, hoping to tear it into strips he could wad to staunch the bleeding from both wounds.  He cursed the clumsiness of his fingers which were afire with returning blood flow, but still uncooperative tools.  “Put your hand over it, Johnny.  Press.”

          Johnny tried to comply, but Scott could see his expression becoming more vacant.  “Johnny!” he snapped and abandoned his efforts to tear the fabric.  Instead, he wadded the shirt in each fist and placed his hands over the two wounds.  Johnny groaned and instinctively tried to push Scott’s hand away at the pain the pressure produced.  “Don’t,” Scott cautioned his brother.  “I need to stop the bleeding.

          “Hey, are you listening to me, Little Brother?” Scott called, leaning down toward Johnny’s face, attempting to get him to focus on him. Johnny lay with his eyes half closed, his head turned toward Lesser’s inert form.  The blood still ran out from under the folds of cloth and Scott groaned in desperation.  Knowing how much it would hurt his younger brother, Scott pressed on both wounds, forcing a cry from Johnny and bringing his head twisting around to face Scott.   Scott locked Johnny’s gaze in his own.  “You’re going to get through this, Johnny.  Do you hear me?  We’re going to stop the bleeding and get you back home and you’re going to be fine.”

          “Says you?” 

          Scott could see Johnny was trying to make light of it, but his breath was coming in painful gasps.  Scott forced a smile.  “That’s right. That’s why I’m the wiser older brother.”  Johnny winced and screwed up his face, eyes closing tightly.

          “Johnny,” Scott asked, “did Carmody find you on the trail or back at the hacienda?”  Johnny opened his eyes again.  He looked confused by the question, so Scott tried another way. “Does Murdoch—anybody—know where you are?”

          Johnny rolled his gaze back over toward Lesser. “Don’t think so…”  His breath caught sharply as a spasm of pain grabbed at his guts.  He dug his boot heel into the ground as he fought the pain.  “Didn’t wanta mix ‘em up in…”

          Scott dropped his head in mute frustration and debated what he was going to do now.  He couldn’t leave Johnny to get help and he didn’t think Johnny was going to make it up onto his horse.  Maybe, if he could get the bleeding stopped and let Johnny rest a little he’d be able to move him.  He tried again to get his brother’s attention. “Johnny.  Was anybody with you when Carmody gave you the message?  Did anyone else hear it?”

          Johnny’s look was blank initially, but then he seemed to understand what Scott was driving at.  “Home,” he said. “Found me there.  Murdoch and the boys.”

          “Okay. That’s good.”  Scott mentally recited the message to himself, wondering what the chances were Murdoch would figure it out.  The incident with the rattler was inconsequential compared to everything else that had gone on in the last week or so.  But, he realized, there was nothing he could do except hope his father or someone worked it out.  If he did, help wouldn’t be too far away, because just as surely as Scott had known Johnny would come alone to face Lesser, Scott also knew that Murdoch wouldn’t be far behind.

          Scott’s head lifted abruptly as his ears caught a familiar sound in the distance. Hoofbeats.  Please God, let it be them.  His eyes searched the horizon, trying to determine from which direction they were approaching.  He scanned to the west and northwest, the most likely directions, and finally he could localize the sound.  They were definitely getting closer. 

          His head whipped around and back down toward his brother.  “You hear that, Johnny?  They’re coming. That’ll be Murdoch and the boys.” 

          Johnny’s face was beaded in sweat, but he managed a faint smile.  “You wouldn’t lie to me, Boston?”

          Scott’s grin broadened in relief at still hearing at least a trace of humor in his brother’s words and expression.  “Not a chance, Brother.”  He examined the folds of fabric he was pressing to Johnny’s wounds.  Maybe it was doing the trick.  There didn’t seem to be as much blood seeping from underneath.  And at least he wouldn’t be faced with having to release the pressure in order to tie up the wounds if Murdoch hurried.

          The riders came into view over the crest of the hill to the west and Scott could just make out Murdoch on his big sorrel at the front of the pack of riders rapidly closing in on them.  He smiled at Johnny.  “We’re okay now, Johnny.  Just hang on a bit longer.”

          “Got a choice?” Johnny asked weakly.

          “Not on your life, Baby Brother!”

          “It’s pretty bad?”

          “I don’t think so.”  Now that the bleeding seemed to be stemmed and help was on the way, Scott was able to appraise the wound a little more objectively.  It looked like it might have passed through the fleshy area under the ribs.  He told Johnny so, and his brother smiled weakly at him. 

          “Some sawbones you are…it hurts like hell.”

          “I didn’t say it didn’t hurt,” Scott grinned.  “I said you’ll live.”

          The lead horses skidded to a stop and Scott saw Cipriano pull up short, sizing up the situation and wheeling his horse to the riders behind him.  “The buckboard!  Get it up here quickly.”  Murdoch had ordered two men to follow the group with a wagon in case someone was injured, but it would still be some distance away. “You!” he called to several others.  “Find the doctor.  Check Morro Coyo first.”  They started to turn their mounts, but he called out to them.  “Wait!”  He realized he didn’t know whether to have the doctor come here or to the hacienda.

          Murdoch had hauled his mount to a skidding stop near his sons and dismounted even as the big animal braked, nearly stumbling as the pain in his back shot through his legs.  Ignoring it, he loped to where Scott kneeled tending to his brother.

          He dropped to his knees by Johnny’s head, questioning Scott with his eyes.  Scott shrugged.  “It’s bleeding a little less, I think.  But we need—” He stopped short of stating the obvious. 

          “Johnny,” Murdoch called to his son quietly, touching the side of his face.  Johnny’s gazed twisted upwards trying to bring his father into focus and Murdoch slid around beside his younger son, searching his face for clues as to how serious this wound was.

          Johnny managed a feeble grin but was distracted from saying anything by Walt who dropped the bundle of bandages Teresa had given Murdoch beside Scott and then began to help him bind Johnny’s wounds in preparation for eventually moving him back to the hacienda, or into town, whichever Murdoch decided on.

          Señor Lancer,” Cipriano called.  “The doctor.  Should he come here or…”

          Murdoch considered. They were closer to town than to the homeplace.  “We’ll take him into Morro Coyo.”

          “No, Murdoch.  Take me home.  Please.”  Johnny’s voice was faint, but determined.

          Murdoch studied his son and reluctantly agreed.  “Okay.  The hacienda,” he told his segundo, “but bring the doc out along the route we’ll use to get back there.”

          Sí, señor,” Cipriano nodded and waved off the men who were going in search of the medic. 

Murdoch turned back to Johnny and gazed at him, one work-roughened hand gently wiping the sweat from Johnny’s eyes and resting on his brow.  Johnny reached for his father’s hand, his face screwing up in pain as his muscles began to cramp in protest against the damage done to them.

          “No regrets, Murdoch.”


*** *** ***




It had taken 4 hours to get Johnny back to the house in the buckboard.  He lay cradled in Scott’s lap as Scott and Murdoch monitored the bleeding from the wound, adding packing to the dressings as the jostling of the buckboard stirred up the bleeding Scott had managed to stem earlier.  Murdoch had finally persuaded Johnny to take some of the laudanum and he was dopey and still by the time the doctor met them at the head of the valley on the final leg into the homeplace.  The hands who had ridden into Morro Coyo in search of him had found the doctor’s day’s rounds chalked on a slate outside the surgery and tracked him down at a neighboring farm.

          The doctor’s first examination of the through-and-through wound had been promising, but, as always, he warned it would likely be infection that would claim Johnny even if the original injury didn’t.  He’d cleaned the wound with additional Carbolic and dressed it properly and  then, after a suitable wait to ensure Johnny showed no signs of internal bleeding, had given the family instructions for Johnny’s care before moving on to his next visitation.  From there, they could only wait and see, try to deal with the fever and the pain, and pray Johnny was strong enough to pull through.


*** *** ***


Johnny was progressing.  He’d go for short walks around the place, watching the men work the stock in the yard. He’d even hauled himself up on Barranca a few times to go for an easy walk along the valley road. It taxed him, but they could all tell he was chafing at the inactivity and fatigue, so nobody stopped him.  They did keep a surreptitious eye on him, however, something he pretended not to notice.

          They had recognized a brooding quietness about him, the sort of unease and withdrawal that they often observed when there were too many people around, or too much organized fun taking place that crowded out his need to be alone or find his own mischief to get up to.  Murdoch and Scott were coming to recognize these moods as his Madrid moods.  His need to crawl back into a familiar skin that didn’t have to suffer the constraints of land ownership and family obligations.

          It was early one Thursday morning and Scott had joined Johnny for a short walk around the grounds.  The sun had edged over the horizon and the air still had the pleasant crispness that would all too soon fade into a choking heat. The Almanac was predicting dry, still conditions and rising temperatures the whole week to come.  The two brothers rounded the northeast corner of the hacienda and stepped into Scott’s favorite section of courtyard, the one adjacent to the main entrance.  He fingered the jasmine that grew along the portico and drew in their fragrance, then chuckled as he saw Johnny’s amused expression.

          “Better watch that smellin’ the roses stuff, Scott. Somebody’ll think you’re goin’ soft.”  His face took on a considered expression.  “But then, you city boys always were hombres románticos more than us hombres machos.”

          Scott grinned. “Well, wasn’t it you who said I was ‘going to make some little woman real happy with my fine manners some day’,” he teased.  “Flowers and a fine perfume are the way to a woman’s heart.  I’m just staying ready for the moment when it comes.”

          “Stephanie’s ready now,” Johnny laughed, enjoying the roll of Scott’s eyes at the suggestion.  “So’s her old man, I think.  I think he likes you refined Eastern types.  Not to mention a third of this place.”

          “No settling down for me just yet, Johnny, especially not with a girl Teresa’s age.” Scott adopted the posture of refinement Johnny was accusing McMartin of admiring. “I intend to find a woman to share my life with.”

          “Oh, perdón,” Johnny laughed and lowered himself onto the circular bench that ringed the elm tree in the courtyard.  He stretched gingerly, the movement pulling painfully on the rib that had been cracked by Lesser’s bullet.


          “Gettin’ better.  Gotta keep forcin’ it.”

          “It hasn’t been that long.  Don’t push it.  You’re only human,” Scott teased.

          “Me?  Nah, I’m the great Johnny Madrid, the stuff of legends.”

          “Funny, to me you look just like my kid brother, Johnny Lancer.”

          They smiled at each other, but Scott watched the fire of playfulness die in Johnny’s blue eyes and saw his head drop toward his chest.  Scott’s lips pursed in concern.  “Talk about it?” he suggested, lowering himself to the seat beside his brother and waiting.

          After a few moments Johnny sighed and lifted his head, staring up at the jasmine Scott had been fingering moments before.  He lifted a finger and pointed at the blossoms.  “They come and go.  Die off and grow up again in the spring, but they’re still always jasmine.  The seasons don’t change what they are. It ain’t no different for me.  Lesser knew that when he made up his mind to call me out. Knew there was no way out of it for me.  For people like him and me.”

“He’s gone, Johnny.  He’s no threat to you any longer.” Scott spoke slowly, wanting to get through to his brother. “We got through it, you’re okay, and we’ll move on from here.”

          “Where to?”  Johnny turned toward Scott.  “Where do I gotta go to hide from Johnny Madrid?”  He interrupted his brother when he saw him open his mouth to speak.  “The truth is, the only season that’ll change anything for me is an old age I’m ain’t likely to see.  You know, when I’m so old and boggered up nobody’ll bother drawin’ on me ‘cus it won’t prove nothin’. 

          “I do wanta think it’s all over, Scott, I really do, but I think I’ve just turned a new page in one of them dime novels.”  He looked off into the distance. “Just gotta wait and see who’s gonna write the next chapter.” 

          He tipped his head and looked sidelong at Scott who was nodding reluctant comprehension. “What’s that saying,” Johnny continued, “‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’?  It’s kinda like that.  Word gets out that Lesser got gunned down around Morro Coyo, people’ll start comin’ to find out who pulled it off.  They hear Johnny Madrid did it, and any gun wantin’ to make a name for himself will come tryin’ to call out the famous border gunhawk.” He shook his head.  “Or even better, they find out some rancher’s son named John Lancer outdrew a pistolero like Lesser and well… ain’t that a fine chance to see if it was just luck?!”

          Scott smiled.  This was nothing the family and hands hadn’t discussed at length when Johnny had first been carried home.  “You up for a ride?”


*** *** ***


They’d made the trip into Morro Coyo slowly, opting in the end for the spring buggy in case Johnny was too tired to make the return ride on a horse.  Scott guided the carriage toward the far edge of town by the Catholic Church and its cemetery. They dismounted and Scott guided a curious Johnny toward the section off to one side that was on unconsecrated ground and used for indigents or those non-Catholics who had no other resting place.  They stopped in front of a freshly dug grave.

          “You think you’ll get away with it?”  Johnny stood looking down at the simple headstone marked with the words, “Clay Hudson, About 30 years, Died May 17, 1870.

          Scott smiled.  “Well, I clearly heard him introduce himself to us as Clay Hudson and there are a couple of dozen witnesses at our ranch and in town who’ll say he did the same.”

          “What about Lesser?”

          “Only one person saw him take on Johnny Madrid and lose and he’s not talking. Lesser is just going to have disappeared one day, seldom to be mentioned again.”

          “Sorta like Johnny Madrid?”  Johnny smiled and Scott returned it.  The younger Lancer glanced back down at the grave, the mound already beginning to settle slightly as the earth compacted into itself.  “It won’t hold up long, you know.  The boys know the truth and it’ll get spilled soon enough over a few drinks at the end of a trail.” 

          “Maybe it doesn’t have to last that long,” Scott suggested.  “Times are changing, Johnny.  The railroad is bringing people in all the time.  I don’t think we’ll recognize this valley or this state within a few years.  We’re definitely going to see more law coming to the valley; more families who aren’t willing to put up with the rough old ways.” Scott smiled abruptly as he remembered something that had been fresh news in all the papers in the weeks before he had traveled west.  “Do you remember hearing last December that the Wyoming Territory, of all places, had decided that women can vote?  And Utah followed suit in January, too. Imagine that, and just wait until it happens here! You can bet the ladies’ll be voting for law and order. And schools and churches.  It’s already started.  They’ve opened a proper schoolhouse in Morro Coyo since you and I got here, and I hear they’ve got about 25 or 30 kids at the one over in Green River. They’re going to have to hire another teacher. 

          Johnny looked at his brother speculatively, weighing his words.

          “If you can let him go,” Scott suggested, “maybe Johnny Madrid can just fade away with time.” 

          Johnny stared down at the headstone over Lesser’s grave.  “Got any more of them slabs of rock?” he asked his brother, eyes twinkling.  “Maybe we oughta have us one more funeral.”


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