Lancer: A New Era
by  JenniferB

Part One : Leap Of Faith

This AR story was written as an alternative to the High Riders pilot. I have tried to be as factual as possible regarding historical places, events, people and technology, but there may be some discretions. This is, after all, fiction.

Huge Thank Yous to Ros Hutchison and Linda Borchers for providing the final piece of the puzzle of where Lancer Ranch was probably located. I made only a few changes to their thorough research to fit my story.

I did extensive research regarding the railroads of the story's era and some regarding stagecoach travel. Pardon me if I'm a little pedantic.

I created a backstory of each character and a timeline of their life. I referred to this backstory several times without giving too much detail in the story so if you read of a gunfight or scene that's mentioned but not explained, you can pretty much guess it's from the backstory.

This story begins in the year 1873. Johnny is 23. Scott is 29. And married. Sorry, ladies.

There are a few chapters where violence is graphic with some sexual situations. I placed warnings on the most troubling of those chapters.

Lastly, this story is in four parts.

I do not own the characters, except for the ones I created. I make no money publishing this work.


Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder's rolling down the tracks
You don't know where you're goin'
But you know you won't be back
Darlin' if you're weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We'll take what we can carry
And we'll leave the rest

Big Wheels rolling through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams
Land of Hope and Dreams, Bruce Springsteen

Chapter One: An Unread Letter

Chapter Two: A Decision

Chapter Three: The Trip Begins

Chapter Four: Protection

Chapter Five: On to Reno

Chapter Six: The Hired Gun

Chapter Seven: Sacramento

Chapter Eight: Going South

Chapter Nine: Trouble

Chapter Ten: A Conversation

Chapter Eleven: Green River  

Chapter One: An Unread Letter

March 1873

Teresa strolled into the great room to find Murdoch at his desk—again. In the long weeks since his crippling injury, the rancher had finally began to get back to his life, at least business-wise. He was again fully running Lancer ranch and now the young girl thought it time he got back into his personal life as well .

In her hands was a basket full of correspondence from Murdoch's friends and colleagues, letters he had previously ignored in favor of ranch business. Today Teresa would not take no for an answer. She was determined to get Murdoch back into the social responsibilities that his position demanded.

“I have something for you,” she began, lifting the heavy basket a few inches to indicate her gift. “These are for you.” Teresa hefted the basket onto his desk, setting it on one of Murdoch's ledgers.

“What are you doing?” the man gruffly questioned. “I have work to do!”

“Yes, you do, but you also have a life to live. And these are evidence of that life.” Murdoch scowled but the girl bravely continued. “The people who wrote these are waiting for you to answer. They are your friends and they deserve better.”

“But the ranch—”

“The ranch can run itself today. Its time to get back into the world—the social world that you know you can't ignore anymore.”

Murdoch tried to stare down the girl but her determined manner stopped him. He'd learned long ago that when a woman had that look in her eye, he should capitulate, or at least appear to. And Teresa, while young, had grown up in the past few weeks. While still a girl, she knew how to display that certain look in her favor.

“All right, all right,” he conceded. “But bring me something to drink. I'm parched.”

“Already on its way,” Teresa smiled, bouncing toward the kitchen. A few minutes later she brought him a tray of cookies and some coffee. She assumed he'd pour whiskey in the cup but not in her presence. She was right; as soon as she exited the room, Murdoch reached for the bottle.

Murdoch reached for that bottle more than he used to, and earlier in the day as well. Not that he was a drunk, but losing his best friend and foreman in addition to that expensive stallion plus with his own injuries, he sought liquid comfort.

Sexual comfort would be welcomed, too, but with his position in the community it was not easy for him to find such a companion locally without raising eyebrows. He did not wish that scandal. A woman's sweet softness would have to wait until he was able to enjoy the relative anonymity offered in San Francisco, or perhaps Visalia.

Keeping a pristine reputation enabled the girl Teresa to live with him under the same roof after her father died. No one questioned his morals so no tongues wagged at the atypical arrangement.

It wasn't that he was without a woman his age. Aggie Conway, the widow of a neighboring rancher, had been his friend for nearly twenty years. She had stopped by on several occasions since his injury, bringing him companionship and friendship as well as her specialty, Dutch apple pie.

He wished he had some of that tart sweetness now as he looked at the brimming basket and sighed resignedly. Taking a sip of his drink, he peered inside. Teresa had sorted the correspondence alphabetical by sender then further by date. It was all very organized, he chuckled to himself. He took the closest bundle and began to wade through it.

Most were well-wishes from friends, business acquaintances, and political allies, both local and statewide. But he also found a big stack of drawings from the local orphanage where Murdoch was a patron. He smiled at the writings and began to dispatch responses, thanking everyone for their interests and inquiring about their families.

Before he knew it, Teresa was calling him to dinner. The two of them ate formally at the big table in the dining part of the great room. He hadn't realized how much time he'd spent on the letters and it wasn't until he walked over to the dinner table that he considered how enjoyable his afternoon had been spent.

“Thank you, Teresa,” he smiled. “Thank you for bringing me back. Now I feel truly recovered.” He ignored his bum leg.

“You are most welcome,” the girl answered. “If you go through the basket a little each day you'll get through it quickly.”

“I intend to,” the man promised.

After dinner and his customary Scotch, Murdoch grabbed a few of the letters and retreated to his room. He wanted to get to a couple of letters Teresa hadn't sorted by sender as the return address was blurred. He was curious.

In bed, leaning against pillows and by the light of his beside lamp, Murdoch reached for the small stack. His fingers missed slightly, scattering the notes and some of them fell to the floor. Grumbling his misfortune, he reached down, grunting, to retrieve them. His eyes fell onto a return address from one of them: Boston. He froze.

Suddenly wary, the big man hesitated then grasped the letter. Could it be? he wondered. Back in the bed, he readied himself to open it, but found he could not. The big rancher who had fought Indians, land pirates, drought, politicians and other disasters paused before opening a simple letter.


The city held many memories for him, some good, some not so good. It was his first glimpse of America, after crossing the Atlantic from Scotland back in '42. He'd worked the docks, earning money to buy his dream, this ranch in California, just a small place at that time. He'd also met his first wife, Catherine, the lovely daughter of a wealthy businessman. They'd married there in secret, over her father's objections. It was also where his same father-in-law had escaped with his newborn son, Scott, after Catherine's death. Scott had grown up there, without him.

He'd long ago realized that he would never know or even meet his Eastern son. Harlan had seen to that. It wasn't that he had given up, but he had learned the hard way of Harlan's influence and to the lengths the man would go to hold on to Scott. Being practical, Murdoch had admitted that he was beaten. Scott was lost to him. That was a fact he could never change.

Now, faced with a letter from Boston, he wondered if it could be Scott. Harlan wouldn't write, hadn't ever written directly, only through his lawyers, and only in response to Murdoch's early efforts to get Scott back.

But if it was Scott, why was he writing? What does he want from me? Certainly not money; Harlan had plenty. Love? Murdoch snorted aloud. Hardly.

“This is silly,” he said aloud to himself. “It's only a letter.” But still he did not open it. He tried to make out the smeared name on the return address, but to no avail. He'd have to open it to find out.

Long seconds ticked on the clock on his dresser, each louder than its older brother. Murdoch stared at the envelope, as if trying to ascertain its contents without opening it. Finally he tore the side. The paper slid out, dropping on his lap. It was only one page, folded neatly into thirds.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch Lancer glanced down at the strong, neat writing, searching for the signature. There it was: Scott Lancer. Murdoch's mouth dropped open. The thing which he'd knew would never happen had just occurred.

He eagerly read:


I am your son, Scott. My grandfather reared me to believe that you did not want a living reminder of my mother's death. I hope that is no longer the case for I desire to establish correspondence with you.

My grandfather recently fell ill and I discovered a great many things which has led to the penning of this missive. If you are amenable towards me, please respond. My wife and I await your reply.


Scott Lancer

Murdoch blinked and reread the letter. “He's married,” he said aloud. Then he realized as he again spoke aloud: “He wants me to answer.” Momentarily stunned, Murdoch just stared at the writing, not really seeing. He thought of his serene Catherine, and the hopes and dreams they shared, how they were dashed with her death, Harlan's treachery and betrayal. And now, after all these years, over a quarter of a century, Scott wanted him.

Murdoch delayed again. What did he want from Scott? Did he love him? He considered the question. He concluded that no, he did not. He knew a father should love a son, and he felt that guilt, but Scott hadn't really been his son, not from his birth anyway. He was Harlan's. Still, he had an obligation to Scott. That he'd always felt. Now was a chance to fulfill that.

Murdoch arose from his bed and taking the letter and a lamp with him and made his way down the stairs to his desk in the great room. He took pen in hand and began to write a most difficult missive:


It was with great

Here he stopped. What word should he use? ‘Trepidation'? ‘Anxiety'? He chuckled. No, those weren't quite right. He poured a shot of Scotch. He needed inspiration. Finally, he again picked up his pen and continued:

pleasure that I read your letter this evening. I apologize for not answering sooner; I have experienced health problems of late, but I am better now.

Thank you for writing to me.

Yes, that was good. But more was needed. How should he breach the subject of his absence from Scott's life? Another sip. He continued:

Please accept my deepest apologies in being remiss in my duties toward you. It is not your fault, nor do I blame you in any way for your mother's passing.

There. That was good. Very diplomatic. But how should he end it? He wasn't sure. Invite Scott to visit? No. That was too aggressive, and besides, he wasn't sure he wanted Scott here—yet.

I would like to correspond with you more, but please understand that I may not respond in a timely manner. We are experiencing some difficulties now—land pirates trying to take over—but when they are defeated and life is back to normal, then I will have more time.

With anticipation,

Murdoch Lancer

Murdoch re-read his letter. He liked it. Not too much information, not that committal, but encouraging. He stuffed it in an envelope to be posted tomorrow.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott Lancer discharged his driver in front of the Garrett mansion. The butler opened the door. “Thank you, James,” Scott nodded as the servant took his winter gear, his coat and his hat. He stood in the entry and sighed tiredly. It had been a long, difficult day of endless meetings. Forcing energy, he trudged upstairs to refresh himself before dinner.

“Scott, wait,” Abby gently called. She rose from her chair in the parlor. Scott turned toward his wife and smiled. His fatigue lifted. Her smiled brightened his day.

“I have something for you,” the brunette teased, her smile infectious.

“And what would that be, Mrs. Lancer?” Scott's voice teased back. He strode toward her and pulled her to her feet, embracing her. He sniffed. “Mmm, you smell nice.”

Abby laughed. “Not quite what you think. Its this.” She reached on a table for the mail, picking up one letter. “All the way from ... California.” She waved it in front of him. Her brown eyes twinkled.

“Ca—” Scott started. He glanced to the letter and back to his wife. “California?” Abby nodded. Nervously Scott took the envelope. It was marked Special Delivery. From Murdoch Lancer, Morro Coyo, California.

The blond drew a deep breath and again met his wife's sparking eyes. “Well, open it, silly. You waited long enough.”

He smiled. She knew just what to say. Without refinement he tore into the brief letter.

“Well?” Abby asked.

Scott grinned. “He doesn't blame me for Mother's death. He apologized to me.”

“Is that all?”

Scott re-read. “There's precious little here. I guess I shouldn't complain; my letter to him was also brief. He's having trouble with land pirates—whatever that is—trying to take over.” Scott paused, thinking.

Abby saw that look in her husband's eye. It was different. It conveyed a sense of purpose. She smiled.


Scott grinned at his wife. “We shall go and help him. I know a thing or two about military maneuvers.” He laughed as he picked her up and twirled her around, his fatigue gone.

“When?” she asked after he'd put her down. She already knew the answer.

Chapter Two: A Decision

Murdoch was disturbed. Pardee had hit again today, ripping a break in yet another fence that would take extra days, money and men to fix. Another hand quit in frustration this morning. And, on top of it all, the letter from Scott he read indicated the young man and his wife were willing to come help him defend his ranch.

He did not want Scott or Abby in harm's way. If something happened to them, Harlan would have a fit.

Yet, as he eyed the note, Scott relayed his experience in the war and made a convincing argument that having him there would be a great benefit. But Day Pardee did not have a disciplined army like Scott had seen in the war. Pardee was different.

Would his son really be of help?

“Why the frown, old friend?” Dr. Sam Jenkins asked. Sam had come to check on Murdoch's leg and, being the friend he was, had been invited to stay for dinner. Now, having their after-dinner Scotch, the two friends talked.

Murdoch hesitated. He had not told Sam yet the news regarding Scott. He hadn't told anyone. Not even Teresa.

“Come on, Murdoch. I don't have all night.” Sam smiled. Of course he did. He would spend the night at Lancer before heading back to Green River and his practice in the morning.

“We-ll,” Murdoch dragged out the word. “I got this letter...” He went on to explain about Scott.

Sam leapt out of his chair. “Jumpin' Jackalopes, Murdoch! This is wonderful news!” He clapped Murdoch's arm, grinning from ear to ear. “When is he coming?”

“I'm not sure I want him here.”

“What? Of course you do!” The doctor sat down his drink. “You've always wanted him here!”

“Yes, when he was younger. When....” He stopped, unable to say ‘..when I loved him.' He turned to the doctor. “Sam, he's a grown man now. And he's married. He has a responsibility to his wife. And with this Pardee business...”

Sam understood Murdoch's concern. It was a situation just as this that led to his beloved Catherine's departure and subsequent death. “But he has to come, Murdoch. You need him. He was Cavalry. He can help. He'll be okay.” Sam waited, then continued in a smaller, softer voice: “He's not Catherine, Murdoch. I'm sure he is capable.”


“But nothing.” Sam's voice boomed again. “Get him here. Now. And spread the news. Pardee will be quaking in his boots to hear of you getting fresh help, from a seasoned army man, and your son to boot!”

Murdoch smiled. “You think?” Scott's presence may indeed tip the scales in his favor.

The doctor nodded. “I know,” he said wisely.

Murdoch drew the last of his drink, sat down and considered. “Okay, I'll ask him, but I won't tell anyone he's coming until I hear that he's on his way.”

“Fair enough, old friend. And congratulations!” Sam shook his hand.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“You will hire protection, Scotty. I insist.” Harlan briskly folded his paper as he stood. Now facing his grandson and wife, he stood arms akimbo, that ‘do not defy me' look in his eyes.

Harlan had been strictly opposed to Scott's going to California. He'd thrown a screaming blue fit when learned of Scott's correspondence with the man he considered an oaf. But after Scott—and Abby—calmly explained to him that his permission was neither wanted nor needed and made it clear to Harlan that they would indeed travel to California, Harlan's main concern was keeping Scott well.

“I don't need protection, Grandfather. I can protect myself.” Scott stated calmly. He sipped his drink and remained seated.

“Yes, here in Boston. Or New York. Or Philadelphia. And perhaps even Chicago. Harlan paced the room. “But soon after that, I demand that you hire a professional to look after you. The West is still a lawless land.”

“Perhaps he is right,” Abby quietly murmured. She hated disagreeing with Scott, but Harlan did have a point.

Scott looked from his grandfather to his wife. “What's the harm?” she shrugged. The blond reflected.

“Okay, but when we get to Missouri. Not a mile before.”

“That's my boy!” Harlan smiled.

While he wasn't pleased that Scott would be taking this journey, at least his fears were more allayed. He'd already convinced the couple visit Abby's family in Philadelphia first. They would then go west to Chicago. And then on to Missouri and west to Denver, going north to catch the Transcontinental Railroad to California. It would take them about two weeks, counting the time spent in Philadelphia. Now, with the reassurance that they'd have professional security for the most difficult parts, Harlan at least felt better about the trip.

Planning the trip had been a challenge. Railroad travel, while not in infancy, was still a hodgepodge across the country. They would take no less than ten railroads to get deep into CalIfornia, then stagecoaches to the closest town to Lancer. They had purchased travel guides and books, all aimed to make them the best experience. They looked forward to their great adventure.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch now faced Pardee's attacks with a renewed grim determination. Soon he'd have help, military-trained help, in the form of his son. While he didn't yet understand, or even consider, the emotional ramifications of having his son by his side, he hoped with Scott's expertise Pardee would soon be running. He looked forward to his son's arrival and shared the good news. He counted on Pardee hearing the news too, and hoped the outlaw would rethink his plan to oust Murdoch from Lancer.

Friends, townspeople and associates completely misunderstood Murdoch's reasons for having Scott visit. They all assumed it was a family reunion, to bring his family—what was left of it—back together. Murdoch didn't correct them; as far he was concerned, Scott was coming to help him save the ranch.

Aggie Conway came over in her buggy as soon as she heard the news. “Why, Murdoch! This is most wonderful! I'm sure he'll help you with this Pardee business and I can't wait to meet him!” She lunched with Murdoch before returning to her own ranch, not yet under Pardee's fire.

Teresa, too, misunderstood like all the rest. She was overjoyed at the news, and soon was busy readying the rooms, making the plans, and thinking about possible impacts of Murdoch's first son—and his wife—coming to Lancer. She was young and held romantic dreams of a loving family reunion.

Pardee heard of an imminent arrival of the Lancer heir and stopped his actions. His men wanted to escalate the job, but Pardee knew he had to plan for this change. He had known that taking Lancer wouldn't be a quick job, done in a matter of a few weeks, but a long-term strategy, made of little incidents to wear the old man down. Now with fresh, young blood coming, his entire thinking would have to be altered. He rode to Green River to confer with his employer.

Chapter Three: The Trip Begins

It was a cool morning in late March when Scott and Abby boarded the New York, Providence and Boston railroad with their trunks and other luggage. They brought with them two trunks, one apiece—but Scott's held some of Abby's overflow—and two large bags and one small each. Not sure of what to bring, they packed a small assortment of “the necessities,” that included only one dress outfit each. They were assured by friends and family that the frontier was more casual in attire.

Abby beamed in her green traveling suit. It was a three-piece outfit: a solid emerald skirt, white ruffled blouse and emerald velvet jacket. Her jacket accentuated her curves perfectly. Her hat was adorned with ribbons that cascaded down to her shoulders, blending in with her hair that was pulled back and dropped softly.

Scott's traveling suit was in russet browns, with plaid slacks, a white shirt and the deep brown jacket. His hat was the same rich color as his jacket. He carried their small bags in one hand and the tickets in the other as he escorted Abby to their luxury seats.

They had first class accommodations all the way through, and had planned several overnight stays in cities to break up the monotony. Yes, it would take them a little longer, but they would arrive more refreshed, they hoped, to face the challenges at Lancer.

“How do you like our new ‘home'?” Scott quipped as he stowed their small bags on the floor at their feet. Their accommodations included two pew-like red-cushioned benches facing each other, a huge window which slid open and plenty of leg room. Although their little alcove could seat two more people, Scott had purchased those seats to give them a bit of privacy.

“It's quite comfortable,” Abby smiled up at her husband. “And a bit crowded,” she murmured as she looked around. The luxury train car held only ten such double seats, but most were filling up rapidly.

“I know, but we discussed a private car and decided against it.” They had weighed the benefits of privacy and considered they wanted to meet new people along their trip.

“Yes, and I still stand by our decision, but...” Abby's eyes met her husbands, “...I guess I'm used to having you to myself.” She smiled.

Scott laughed as he sat next to her. “And you have me. Right here.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

They heard a whistle sound and with a jerk, their train began to move. “Here we go,” Scott smiled.

The NYP&B railroad had taken over the various “shore lines” of several smaller railroad companies. It ran south and west from Boston to Providence then along the southern edge of Connecticut before entering New York. It was a trip the couple knew well due to their frequent trips to Philadelphia.

Scott and Abby ticked off the cities in their guide: Quincy, Stoughton, Attleboro. With brief stops at each town, they were out of Massachusetts and into Rhode Island in under two hours. Their stop in Providence was longer, over an hour, to give time for lunch and for some engine maintenance. But soon they were underway again and into Connecticut.

At Groton, they crossed the Thames River, that bridge being one of the first railroad bridges in New England. New London, on the west side, was a half-hour stop and Scott and Abby stretched their legs along the waterfront. The yachting season had yet to begin and with it being a chilly Spring day, there were few strollers to join them. The crisp wind played with the ribbons on Abby's hat.

The ride through Connecticut was a little slower, due to the many towns and frequent bridges. At Old Lyme, they crossed the Connecticut River and at New Haven, the New Haven Harbor Bridge over the Mill and Quinnipaic rivers. Stratford brought another bridge across the Housatonic River and Bridgeport a few miles later boasted a brand new bridge across the Pequonnock River. Their train crossed more rivers at Southport and Norwalk.

To amuse themselves, they counted the bridges while reading the guides for the more unknown parts of their trip. Strange-sounding names like Medicine Bow and Chillicothe intrigued them. They speculated on the origin of the names. Before they knew it, they'd crossed the Byram River and chugged into New York state.

In the city, they disembarked and arranged for their luggage to be transported to their hotel, the Astoria. They dined well on lobster—their last for quite a while, they surmised—before taking a romantic carriage ride around the city. They retired early in anticipation of the next day's travel which would take them into Philadelphia.

In the morning, they switched railroads to the Pennsylvania railroad. The Pennsy took them into central and southern New Jersey and through Trenton, where a 45-minute stopover allowed them time to grab a quick bite at midmorning.

As they crossed over the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania, they knew they had less than an hour before arriving in Abby's home city. She looked forward to seeing her family again but they both were anxious to continue their trip West.

Abby's parents arranged for their transportation from the railway depot to their home on North 7th Street, an 18th-century red brick Georgian townhouse trimmed with white shutters. Scott and Abby rushed up the four steps to the front door. Abby's family was happy to see them, but sad that they would be going all the way to California. Like Harlan, her parents shared the sentiment that the West was unsafe and were relieved that the couple would be hiring protection for the more dangerous part of the journey. It was a short four-day visit, then they saw their daughter and son-in-law off at the train station.

“Well, we're really on our way now,” Scott smiled to Abby as the train jerked forward. She returned his smile and laced her fingers through his. He wore his brown traveling suit again, a white ruffled shirt and carried his hat in his hand.

There was so much to see that they didn't talk much this first part of the trip. Excitement about finally being on their way West, toward something new and unknown, filled them both. Scott felt, for the first time since he'd join the Union army, that he had a purpose. Abby understood; she had the same feeling. Their upper crust society life was ending, at least temporarily, as they headed west.

In minutes they stopped briefly at King of Prussia, a name Scott found amusing, then they were on to Amish country in Lancaster. They quickly jumped off the train so Abby could purchase a few of those colorful Amish quilts she adored so much. Breathlessly, they boarded nearly at the last minute and fell into their seats for the forty-mile trip to Harrisburg.

So far, their trip was through land that was fairly flat, but as they left Carlisle they crossed the Appalachians, meandering through the various passes until they reached Bedford, where the train had a long scheduled stop. They enjoyed a light lunch at the Bedford Springs Hotel, an upper-class resort near the area's famous mineral springs.

“These mountains are so beautiful,” Abby remarked. They were sitting next to a window which gave them an excellent view of the tree-covered Appalachians. “I wonder how the trains will cross the mountains on the way west. They are quite high.”

“I'm sure they'll do so magnificently,” Scott answered. “I've been reading about it. Crossing the Rockies won't be as difficult as it seems. We'll go north of most of the peaks.”

“Going across these here are difficult enough. Did you notice the engine working so hard?”

“Yes, I did. But there was only one engine. I understand they are going to couple another for the rest of the trip across this range.”

Abby nodded, reassured. Not that she had been particularly worried, but the unknown was strange.

Sure enough, when they boarded they noticed a second engine. The addition made the half hour trip through the passes faster and easier. They soon were into the piedmont area of western Pennsylvania. In Pittsburgh they would have to change railroads again.

They had to hurry in Pittsburgh because their new train was leaving in under two hours. While so long a layover would seem like leisure time, but arranging for their luggage and trunks to be ferried to the other railroad station and boarding there took longer than anticipated. Scott and Abby soon settled into their new accommodations, a larger sleeping berth with a small sitting area and tiny table for private dining.

“Oh, how nice,” Abby remarked as they entered their berth. “Cozy.”

“Cozy is right,” Scott agreed. It would be their first time to sleep on the train. They would ride all night through Ohio and Indiana to arrive in Chicago in the wee hours of the morning. While sleeping on a train was difficult at best, the advantage of fewer stops meant a shorter ride. Most trains did not stop during the night at all the little towns, and in fact, their Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago railroad train only stopped in Fort Wayne, and only for twenty minutes.

They were one tired couple as they detrained in Chicago at 2:30 in the morning. Taking one of the few cabs to their hotel, they tried not to fall asleep on the way. They checked in and flopped on the big comfortable bed to finish their sleep.

Six-thirty came early but they were all breakfasted and a little more rested when they boarded their Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad train by an eight a.m. departure. The motion of the train on the tracks made them sleepy in the warm car. They barely noticed the stops that morning—Plainfield, Wilmington, Pontiac, Bloomington and Peoria—as they napped leaning on each other's shoulders. But they were caught up with their sleep by the lunch stop at Galesburg.

Luckily, there would be only one more time when they would overnight on the train—through Nevada. They wisely figured it would be more comfortable to cross that hot terrain after sunset.

Their train slowed measurably as they crossed the Mississippi. “Wow, that's a wide river,” Abby remarked as they both gaped out the window. Burlington, Iowa was on the western side. “This was the first bridge across the Mississippi,” Scott informed her. They watched the muddy waters swirl in little eddies as the river rolled southward. It looked solid, as if they could walk over it.

The western bank of the Mississippi was considerably higher than the eastern, with the bluffs overlooking the expanse. They got a nice view of where they had been as they chugged southward toward Hannibal, Missouri. They had planned to detrain in Hannibal and had booked a room at the Riverboat Hotel.

Eager to be off the moving train and to sleep in a stationary bed for an entire evening, Scott and Abby checked into their accommodations, a large room with a seating and dining area, a separate bath area and a soft, wide bed.

After soothing baths, they dressed for dinner and sat in the grand dining hall of their hotel. The food was delicious, and while the train's sustenance was passable, this experience was well within what they were used to in Boston or Philadelphia. Back in their room, they dressed for bed, enjoying each other and all that space of their bed.

The next morning, after breakfast, Scott went off in search of that protection he'd promised Harlan and Abby's family he'd get. Walking into the local Pinkerton office, he inquired about guards.

“Where ya goin' to, son?” the crusty gentleman asked. He'd offered Scott coffee and they were both seated at his desk, topped with several small stacks of paper.

“California, sir,” Scott replied, his Eastern manners showing.

“That's a long way, son. You're smart to hire protection, although I don't think you'll need it in Missouri. Why don't you wait until you're in Denver?”

Scott nodded in agreement and left. He wasn't anxious to have a third person in their party of two just yet and news that one wasn't necessary thrilled him.

“Pinkerton man said we didn't need protection yet,” he told Abby. He explained to her that Missouri and Kansas were a lot tamer than they had been just fifteen years ago. She agreed to let him make the decision for she, too, was enjoying their twosome.

The trip across Missouri, aboard the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad, was indeed uneventful. In a mere two hours they were changing railroads in Cameron to go southwest into Kansas City, where they could cross the Missouri River.

They had planned on a longer stop in Kansas City so they could enjoy the town and sure enough, when the train pulled into the station at around six in the evening, they knew they'd have enough time to check in their hotel, bathe and rest a bit before evening then walk around the city. They'd heard so much about Kansas City and they wanted to see it for themselves. Besides, Denver was their next major stop and this was their last evening alone.

The city bustled, thanks to the Hannibal Bridge, the first bridge over the Missouri River. Prior to that bridge, Kansas City was a sleepy little town, but now, not quite four years after its erection, the population has blossomed, and with that growth came a boom. It was indeed a modern city, complete with trolley cars and traffic jams. It reminded Scott and Abby of Boston, minus the influence of the ocean. They enjoyed their evening in the city.

Their Kansas Pacific train pulled out on time that next morning at eight and took them clear across the state, passed Lawrence, Topeka, Manhattan, and through Fort Riley, Abeline and Salina, climbing in elevation all the while. Scott and Abby didn't notice it, though; the rise was only four hundred feet in those two hundred fifty miles. They stopped for lunch in Ellsworth. They barely noticed the train working a little harder on the way to Russell, rising over two hundred feet in the forty mile trip.

The rest of their way through Kansas was a steady upward climb, not steep, but slowly measurably at the speeds they were traversing. They stopped quickly at Hays, Wakeeney, Oakley, Winona and Wallace before crossing into the Colorado territory less than two hundred miles later, and two thousand feet higher.

“We're really in the West now,” Abby remarked as they approached Cheyenne Wells. “This is our first territory, not state, we've been in.”

“Yes, it is. Wyoming and Utah are also territories. I wonder what differences we'll see.”

Cheyenne Wells, at 4200 feet elevation, was the first Colorado station, a ten-minute water stop. Twenty minutes later, they detrained at the town of Kit Carson for late dinner. While they were eating, the railroad workers added another engine. When the train began to move again, they noticed it turn northward and it worked harder, for the uphill grade became a little steeper. Limon, their next stop in forty miles, was over a thousand feet higher in elevation. They slowed. The engines were working hard.

The small town of Strasburg was only fifty miles from Limon, and with the elevation leveling, they were able to make up some time. But by then it was after nine pm. The train stopped for water and to allow a few quick passengers to board or depart. Soon they were on their way to Denver.

Chapter Four: Protection

The largest city in the West, Denver, was also one of the newest, its founding being less than fifteen years ago, its growth due to local gold mining. When Western Union established its terminus there it added to Denver's prominence. Now Denver was the territorial capital and bursting with activity.

But as Scott and Abby hailed a cab, the city was dark. There were noises, of course, from the rowdy saloon district, but most of the city was quiet at this late hour. As they checked in to their hotel, all the couple wanted to do was enjoy a warm bath and a good night's sleep.

After breakfast, Scott went in search of his long-promised protection. Again, he chose the Pinkerton Agency and found a bald man in his 50s sitting behind a well-organized desk. The man looked up at the Easterner. “Yes?”

Scott removed his hat and nodded to the man. “Good morning, sir. My name is Scott Lancer and I am seeking to hire protection for the rest of my trip to California.”

The man looked Scott over, sizing him up. “You don't look like you need it, son.”

“I don't think so, personally, sir, but my and my wife's family back East insist, so here I am.”

“Got your wife with you?”

“Yes, sir.”

The man nodded. “I understand. I'd want an extra gun...” he stopped in mid-sentence. “I see you're not wearing a weapon.”

“I have this.” Scott produced a derringer from his pocket.

The man shook his head. “Nope. That won't do. If you're not going to wear a gun, then you'll probably need to hire one. Let me see what I have.” He opened a drawer. “My name's Benson, by the way. Don Benson.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Benson.”

Benson nodded again. He pulled out a folder and opened it. Scott watched him go through the papers. Benson would mutter “no” occasionally and move on to the next one. Finally, he smiled. “Aha! Found one.” He looked up triumphantly. “Where in California ya headed, if I might ask.”

“To Morro Coyo. Its in the San Joe-a-quin valley.”

“It's pronounced ‘hwa-keen'. It's Spanish. The ‘j' sounds like an ‘h' and the ‘oa' like ‘wa.'” He didn't explain the other syllable.

Scott nodded. “Do you know where it is?”

In response, the Pinkerton agent opened a cabinet door and withdrew a large rolled map. He spread it out on top of the folder on his desk. “Right here,” he pointed.

Scott looked at the area. It was a large valley between major mountain ranges, with more mountains to the south. Several rivers ran through it. It looked like it would be good land.

“This here's a good man.” Benson waved the paper from the folder. “He works for me from time to time. He's heading to Reno, Nevada anyway and he can take you that far. He'll help you find someone there for the rest of your journey.” Scott agreed and the Pink said his man would meet him at his hotel the following morning.

With security now in place, Scott and Abby could spend the rest of their day exploring the town. It bustled with activity, not unlike Boston. But Denver was a Western city. What would it be like in California?

At breakfast the next morning a clean-cut young man strode to their table. He wore sturdy brown pants, a tan cotton shirt and a leather vest. He carried a cowboy hat and wore a Colt around his hip and sported high heeled boots. “Mornin'. Y'all must be th' Lancers. Ah'm Jim. Jim Carrick.” He held out his hand.

Scott rose, taking the man's hand. “Hello Jim. Yes, we are. I'm Scott and this is my wife, Abigail. Are you from the Pinkertons?”

“Right ya are, Mr. Lancer. Ah'm here to es-cort y'all up to Reno. But don't y'all worry none. Ah'll get y'all someone there to finish th' job.” The man's Southern accent was heavy.

“Are you from the South, Mr. Carrick?” Abby asked, smiling sweetly.

“How'd you guess, Miz Lancer? Yes'm, Ah'm from Alybamy but my folks, well, they lost ever'thin' durin' th' wahr, ma'am. So Ah came out heah to th' West. “

“Well, you make a good cowboy, Mr. Carrick.”

“Thank ya, ma'am.” Jim nodded. He turned to face Scott. “M'gear is a'ready at th' train station, Mr. Lancer, so Ah'm ready when y'all are.”

“Thank you, Jim. We'll be there shortly.”

Jim nodded once more then turned on his heels, striding out.

Abby watched him leave. “I sure hope we fit in,” she mused. They couldn't be more unlike Jim Carrick if they tried.

Scott laughed. “Me, too.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Jim Carrick proved to be a good companion. He was friendly but he knew his place: he never dined with them unless invited and always called them ‘mister” and “ma'am.”

“Those there,” Jim pointed West. “Thems th' Rockies. Talles' mountains Ah eveh seen. Rough country, too. But don't y'all worry none. We'll go north o'them. It won't be so bad.”

Abby eyed the snow-covered peaks. Jagged and menacing, they exuded their own kind of beauty. “They are very beautiful.”

“Yes, they are,” agreed Scott.

The three of them sat in an observation car so they could take enjoy the spectacular views. “We're a mile high,” Jim said. “Denver, that is. But we're gonna get higher. Cheyenne is ‘most a thousand feet higher. Y'all can feel th' train climb?”

“Yes,” Scott answered. The engines chugged heavily, making thick black smoke.

“It's just over a hundred miles north,” Abby said, looking at her guide. “It's a short trip this morning.”

“Yep,” Jim chimed. “Then we get on th' Trans-cont-i-nen-tal rail-road.” He smiled.

“We have a three-hour stop in Cheyenne to transfer our luggage.” Scott told them. “That should give us time.”

With Jim's help, they made the change to the Union Pacific Railroad easily. They even had time to walk around Cheyenne, the largest city in the Wyoming territory and a true Western town. Here they saw everyone wearing a weapon on their hip and truly felt out of place. Would it be like this in California, they again wondered?

Settled into their seats, Scott and Abby smiled at each other as the train pulled out.

“Woo-wee!” Jim cheered. “We're off!”

“We're really getting there now,” Abby grinned to Scott. “I'm so excited.” She squeezed his arm.

“Me too, darling. Me, too.”

The train climbed as it headed west. Sherman was their first stop on the Transcontinental Railroad, only thirty miles from Cheyenne, but nearly two thousand feet higher in elevation.

Jim named various sights to the couple. “There's th' Buttes,” he pointed to some mountains just before they neared Laramie. “Lots of rattlesnakes there, Ah heah.” If he was hoping Abby would cringe in fear, he was disappointed. She was too excited with their adventure to be afraid.

Traveling through Wyoming territory was mostly westward with the occasional turn to the northwest or southwest around a group of mountains. Jim had time to explain how things were in the west, the lack of organized law and how to dress. “Most men wear a six-gun on a holster,” he said. “Ya never know when ya need a gun. Some women, too, carry a small ‘un. That derringer ya have, Mr. Lancer, that's a good woman's gun out heah.”

“You'll have to teach me how to use it, Scott,” Abby said, her eyes twinkling.

Scott frowned. He didn't want to strap on a weapon again unless he had to. And he didn't like the idea of arming his Abby either. “We'll see.”

Soon they were nearing Medicine Bow. “Now how did that place get its name?” Scott asked Jim. “Abby and I have been talking about that for days.”

“Well,” Jim pushed up his hat. “They say its cause of th' Injuns. They found some good trees there to make bows from. An' anythin' that has a good purpose, well, its good medicine. So, Medicine Bow.” He smiled.

“Is that so?”

Jim shrugged. “So they say.”

As they turned a little south toward Rawlings, they saw some peaks to the northeast. “Look! More mountains!” a young boy cried.

The three of them watched the boy, about ten years old, grow fascinated with the sights. In his hand was a book, a dime novel. He dropped it to the floor.

Scott picked up the book and read the title “Johnny Madrid Border Gun. Where do they get these from?” He returned the book to its owner.

“Oh, he's real,” Jim answered. “But not as real as them gunfighter stories make ‘im out to be. Ah saw Johnny Madrid draw jes' last year. He's fast. Real fast. But he's still got both o'his eyes. And he ain't no six feet tall. ”


“Yah, he's nowheres near that tall, but he's cold and ruthless and don't nobody mess with him.”

“You think he'll be a problem for us?”

“Nah. He won't bother y'all none. He gets paid to kill. Don't do it for fun. Just don't get nobody real mad at cha so's they'll go an' hire ‘im.” Jim chuckled.

Scott's smile was thin. “We'll try not to.”

They stopped in Rawlings, halfway through the Wyoming territory, to spend the night. It was cold outside. Abby shivered; Scott offered her his coat.

They dined in their hotel and Scott invited Jim for a drink afterwards, while Abby went up to their room. Something had been bothering him ever since the boy with his book. He wanted to know more. “So tell me about these gunfighters. Are there really men who make their living killing people? Paid assassins?”

Jim picked up his glass. “You bet. Most of ‘em came out of th' Civil War. Ya know, people who got used to fightin', came home an' found nothin' left.” He paused and took a sip. “Like me,” he finished softly.

Scott's eyes grew wider. “You're a gunfighter?”

Jim slowly brought his glass to the table. He looked up at Scott and found his eyes. He saw surprise there, and curiosity, too. “Ah have bin. But not no more. Ah work for Pinkerton mostly now. Ah have a wife now. An' a baby on th' way.”

Scott nodded. He understood the needs of a family. Still, there was much more he needed to know. “What kinds of things do gunfighters do, besides kill.”

Jim shrugged. “Lots. They can do hired security—like me—or work with th' law. Bounty hunters. A lot are outlaws, pure an' simple. But if they want to live longer they'll find a way to be more legal than not. Some even become sheriffs.”

“Know any? Besides this Madrid fellow.”

“Well,” Jim drawled. “Ah don't ‘sactly know Johnny Madrid. Ah only saw him in a gunfight. But Ah've heard of Jeff Ake down in Texas. And Clay Allison. He generally stays in th' Colorado-New Mexico-Texas area. Now Clay is a bad, bad man. Ya don't wanna get in his way.”

“So I take it there are a lot of these men.”

“Yah, prob'ly. Most of ‘em aren't very good shots. But Madrid, phew, he is deadly accurate. So is Wild Bill Hickock. Ya heard of him, right?” Jim figured everyone knew about Hickock.

“Can't say that I do.”

“Well, Hickock is kinda well-known around Kansas-Missouri. Thought y'all woulda heard his name on your way out.”

Scott shook his head. “We've been enjoying the scenery, the adventure.” He looked up at Jim. “What other kinds of things do gunfighters do? Would they try to take over a large ranch?”

Jim smiled. “Why Mr. Lancer! Ya surprise me. An' here Ah thought ya was a greenhorn. You know ‘bout land pirates.”

“Only to have heard of the phrase.”

Jim considered, nodding his head. “Well, Ah guess a few might hire on to do that. It would take a large crew an' be purty well fi-nanced. It would take patience. Taking over a major ranchero isn't something ya do in a day.”

“Then what other type of person would be a land pirate?”

“Well, an outlaw could try, but th' thing is, he'd need that crew, time an' money. Mos' outlaws are loners, or have a small gang an' Ah've not known of them holdin' on to money for long. Its not like they have a bank account, ya know.”

Scott laughed. “Probably not.” So Lancer is probably dealing with a gunfighter. Or gunfighters. Hired.

“Who would hire a gunman—gunmen—as land pirates?”

Jim shrugged. “Ah dunno. Anyone with money who wants th' land. For any reason. But Ah do know this: they'd keep their name out of it ‘til it was all over.”

“So it would be difficult to discover who's banking the takeover.”

Jim cocked his head. “Ya know of a ranch being threatened by land pirates, Mr. Lancer?”

“Yes, I do.” Scott drained his glass. “My father's. That's why I'm going to California.”

Jim nodded thoughtfully. “Well, Mr. Lancer. Some of them gunfighters are bad, bad people. Cruel. Mean. Vicious. Its not a situation Ah'd bring a pretty lady into.”

“I'll try to remember that.”

Chapter Five: On to Reno

Scott's discussion with Jim left him with more questions than answers, questions about Lancer and what Murdoch had already endured. He'd said precious little in that letter. And he wondered if bringing Abby was the right thing.

“Well, of course it is, darling.” Abby protested when he voiced his feelings. “My place is at your side. Helping you in any way possible. I'll be all right. We will be all right.”

Scott nodded, but as he lay beside his wife in their compact bed he wondered if it was true. Had he made the right decision to bring her?

Morning broke, crisp and cold. They shivered as they boarded the train. This was going to be a long day. The second and last time they'd spend the night aboard, going from mid-Wyoming to Reno, on the far side of Nevada. They settled in their seats with Jim once again pointing out the sights.

They stopped in Separation, Washakie and Bitter Creek. In Point of Rocks then Rock Springs. “That there is White Mountain,” Jim said as they entered a pass on their way to Green River, some 20 miles from Rock Springs. Bryan and Granger were the last two stops before lunch at Fort Bridger, elevation 7000 feet. Jim advised, “We'll go downhill most of th' rest of th' day so we'll pick up some speed.”

The decrease in elevation wasn't noticeable through Aspen and Evanston and into Utah territory but once they passed Wahsatch and Echo—“Devil's Slide is ‘bout nine miles west,” Jim pointed—and entered into Echo Canyon, the most beautiful area of their trip so far, they dropped over two thousand feet in elevation.

Soon they were through the canyon and entering into the Salt Lake basin. The tracks led around the lake, to the north, through Weber, Ogden and Corrine. They passed Promontory Point—”We're on th' Central Pacific Railroad now,” Jim announced—and stopped for quick stops in Monument and Kelton where they headed southwest around a group of peaks.

Dinner was in Terrace, a small railroad town with nothing much to boast except an almost-passable cafe near the tiny Central Pacific station. It was still warm out, a stark comparison to their crisp, cold morning so many miles ago in Wyoming. Again, they were grateful to be passing through the Nevada desert during the night. Their last stop in Utah territory was at Lucin.

The train made quick stops in tiny railroad towns of the state of Nevada: Tecoma, Toano, Wells, Tulasco, Deeth, Elko and Carlin before their final stop around nine at Palisade. The scenery was much the same, areas of flat desert as they wound around small north-south mountain ranges.

Scott and Abby said goodnight to Jim and headed to their sleeping berth. The rest of the towns in Nevada were all like the previous ones—tiny railroad towns to service the needs of the railroad and passengers. Since it was after nine, they didn't stop at any except Winnemucca, and then only to take on water. They slept through that stop.

The train kept moving westward, chugging through Humboldt, Rye Patch, Oreana, Brown's Stop and Desert, all without even slowing. But they did pause in Wadsworth some thirty miles east of Reno to take on water. At Wadsworth, south of Pyramid Lake, they picked up the fast-moving Truckee River, which would accompany them into California. To get to Reno they'd have to climb over some mountains, about five hundred feet in elevation.

Reno lay in a high desert valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It had began as Truckee Meadows, a small farming area, but when the nearby Comstock Lode treasure, one of the greatest silver mining bonanzas of all time, was discovered, it became the largest town in the county. It officially became Reno, named after a Union general, only five years previously. Reno had become the principal settlement on the transcontinental railroad between Sacramento and Salt Lake City.

Their train arrived in Reno around midnight. A very tired Scott and Abby said goodnight to Jim as he went home to his wife, saying he'd meet them at their hotel after finding them his replacement. Scott nodded to him; he was too sleepy to say much. The two of them detrained to spend the rest of the night at a nearby hotel. It had been a long, long day of travel. All of them were ready to sleep in a more comfortable bed for a few more hours.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Jim's regular job was to provide security between the rich mineral fields nearby and the city, with occasional travel to Denver, which is why he happened to be there when Scott and Abby were passing through. But this next morning, he had a more pressing matter: finding his replacement for the rest of their trip.

He walked into the local Pinkerton Agency. “Howdy, Tom!” he belted, scaring the tall, thin gentleman with his back to the door. Tom spun around, his coffee spilling, and cursed softly as the hot brew scalded his hand.

“Damn you, Jim,” he answered, shaking his hand. He put the mug down and grabbed a dirty towel to mop up the mess. “Look what you did.”

“Me? Ah didn't spill your coffee. You did!”

Tom harrumped as he dabbed the floor with the stained rag. Satisfying himself the job done, he kicked the towel to a corner. “You're back early. Wasn't expecting you for another day or so.”

“Ah took this job on th' way back, es-cort duty for this Eastern couple. On th' train. They were in a hurry.”

“Ah,” Tom nodded, sipping his coffee. “Have a seat. I take it you want a day or so with your wife before heading down to Virginia City and the mines.”

“Ah do, but,” Jim said, removing his hat as he eased himself into a wooden chair that looked hard and uncomfortable but was anything but. “This couple, they still need an es-cort to Californy, an' down th' central valley a ways. He looks green as they come, but Ah ‘spect he's got some fire in him. But neither of ‘em really know how it is heah.”

“I see,” Tom nodded. He rifed through some papers. “I can't spare anyone, though, Jim. Why don't you try the sheriff? He might know of someone.”

Jim left the office worried. He preferred Pinkerton people. He knew most of them, knew their reputation, knew they'd do a good job. The sheriff's people, well, that was a different story. You never knew who the sheriff might recommend.

Jim Carrick walked into the Reno sheriff's office. “Howdy,” he greeted. Sheriff Black nodded. Jim explained his purpose. “So, do y'all got anyone for security? Ah gots this Eastern couple who needs a bodyguard to Californy.”

“Security, huh?” Black asked. He flipped through some papers. “Nope. No one is available for that trip. Try the Silver Spur saloon. I saw a couple of guns there yesterday.”

Jim raised his eyebrows. A hired gun? For these refined people? He wasn't sure about that.

He entered the Silver Spur and stopped in the doorway, surveying the room. Sure enough, he saw two of them, sitting at separate, but adjacent, tables. They were both unmistakable. While he couldn't see the gun on one of them, he had that look: hat down, face inscrutable, that dangerous look gunfighters were so good at.

Jim swallowed, drew himself up, and headed to the first table. “Howdy,” he greeted, extending his hand. The gunfighter looked up at him but made no other movement. Jim coughed to hide his embarrassment. “My name's Carrick. Ah need to hire some protection. For a couple travellin' to Californy. Interested?”

The man looked Jim up and down, before picking up his beer. “Nope,” he said, taking a sip. “Ain't goin' to Californy.”

Jim nodded and strode to the second table. “I'm not too interested either, amigo ,” came the soft drawl, even before Jim could ask.

Chapter Six: The Hired Gun

“You don't want to Californy? It's on th' train. First class accommodations. Easy duty. Good pay.”

The second gun looked up at him. Jim stepped back, noticing the sapphire blue eyes on that Mexican face. “You're Johnny Madrid.”

“That's right.” Johnny sipped his beer, never taking his eyes off Carrick. “Is that a problem for you?”

“No, sir. It isn't. It's jes' that me an' Mr. Lancer—that's th' gentlemen who needs th' protection—were talkin' about ya th' other day.”

Johnny's interest peaked at the name ‘Lancer' but he didn't show it. “You were, were you?”

Jim swallowed. Hard. He'd said the wrong thing. “Not bad things, Mr. Madrid. No. No. He jes' wanted to know ‘bout ya, that's all.”

“And how did this Eastern gentleman come to know about me in the first place?”

Jim smiled. “Well, Mr. Madrid. You're kinda famous an' all. An' there's these books written ‘bout ya.”

Johnny toyed with his mug. “Mr. Lancer read one of them?”

“Oh, no, sir,” Jim shook his head. “A boy on th' train was. He jes' saw th' book, that's all. That's what started th' conversation.”

“I see.” Johnny sipped his beer. He didn't get it. His father had been in the west too long to be considered an easterner.

“So, tell me more about this couple.” Johnny kicked out a chair and indicated with a nod that Jim should take it. He did. Quickly before Madrid would change his mind.

“They's from th' East. Boston, Ah think. They're headin' to Californy. First time. He don't look too...well, ya know...western savvy.” Jim smiled a bit.

“Old?” Johnny didn't look up from sipping his beer.

“Nope. Young. Probably 25 to 30.”

“Twenty-five and he can't take care of his own wife?” He looked at Carrick incredulously.

“Well, prob'bly back in Boston...” Jim laughed. Then he sobered up. It was bad form to make fun of his employers, even if they weren't there. “Ah think he jes' wants to make sure they get there in one piece.”

Johnny stared hard at Carrick, trying to read the man. Was this the truth? He noticed the man fidget. He'd made him uncomfortable. Well good. He stared a couple of minutes more before quietly remarking, “I see.” Johnny went back to his beer.

Jim fiddled with his fingers. He was nervous. He was sitting at Johnny Madrid's table and the man had just stared him down. He had to find security for the couple or go to California himself and he didn't want to do that. His family was here, in Reno, and his wife was due in a few weeks. But he didn't say anything. He didn't want to push Johnny Madrid.

After long minutes, Johnny put down his beer. “Ok. I'll do it. But,” he paused, pointing at Jim. “My horse goes on the train, they pay my expenses, and they pay my way back to Mexico.”

“Ah think that can be arranged.” Jim stood and offered his hand. Johnny just nodded. Again Jim coughed to cover his embarrassment. “Well, Ah'll go tell ‘em. Th' train leaves tomorry mornin' at eight.”

Johnny nodded again and Jim hurried out of the saloon.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Wait.” Scott grabbed Jim's arm. “You mean you hired that gunfighter to protect us? The one from the book? Him?” He couldn't believe it.

Jim knew the Lancers wouldn't take the news well, and while he broke it easy, the man was still stunned.

“Yes, sir. He's quite capable, sir.”

“But he's a ... a gunfighter!” Abigail shivered at saying the word.

“Yes, ma'am, he is. But he's reputable. An' ya won't find anyone finer.”

“Finer?” Scott raised his eyebrow. “You said he was cold and ruthless. I do not consider those to be ‘fine' qualities.” He crossed his arms over his chest.

Jim nodded. He fiddled nervously with his hat in his fingers. “Ah know, sir, but what Ah meant was he's good. Real good. He'll protect y'all better'n anyone.”

“I'd rather have someone else...anyone else.” Scott started pacing the room.

“Ah understand, Mr. Lancer, but ya see, he's th' only one. None a th' Pinkertons were available an' th' sheriff, he didn't have no men to spare, an' there was only this one other gunfighter..” he paused before adding quickly. “An' Ah found out from th' Sheriff that Johnny Madrid was here collectin' his pay from a job guardin' a silver shipment from Virginny City. He usually don't work this far north so we got really lucky.”

Scott stopped his movement. “Lucky, huh?” He stared at Jim, dumbfounded. He finally sighed. “So, I guess we have no choice.”

“Not really, no, Mr. Lancer, sir.”

Scott glanced at Abby. Her face indicated concern. Then she smiled nervously, silently giving her tentative consent. “I guess he'll have to do,” he said flatly.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Lancer, sir.” Jim breathed relief. “Y'all'll be jes' fine, sir. Ah've already told him th' particulars.”

“Good,” Scott said absently. “Good.”

Jim took that as a dismissal. “All right. Well, Mr. Lancer. Ah guess that's th' end a th' line for me.”

“Right.” Scott glanced at him. Jim looked expectant. “Oh, right. Your pay. My apologies.” He counted out the bills.

“Thank you, Mr. Lancer. Thank y'all very much.” Jim's face brightened. He pocketed the money. “See y'all ‘round.” He nodded and left, closing the door softly behind him.

Scott and Abby breakfasted without tasting their food. The thought of a gunfighter—one with the darkest of reputations—being their escort for the rest of the trip took much the adventure out of their trip. What would their families say? Johnny Madrid. Cold-blooded killer. He was to be their protection?

Who would protect them from him?

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

They half-expected him to be late, but no, there he was at the train station, at 7:45 waiting for them. While they had never seen him, Jim's description was enough for them to recognize him. He lazed against the station house with one foot crossed over the other, in a Mexican style short black jacket, a faded red shirt, and black pants with fancy silver buckles or whatever down the side. His hat was tipped down so they couldn't see his face, but that gun, that Colt slung low on his hip, that was the giveaway. Just how fast was he? How ruthless? How accurate?

Deadly, Jim had said.

“Mr. Madrid,” Scott grimly nodded as they approached.

“Yeah, that's me.” He uncrossed his legs but didn't really stand that much straighter. “You Lancer?”

Scott noticed the lack of manners. “Mr and Mrs,” he answered, tipping his hat slightly. It was a hint.

Madrid didn't take it. He pushed off from the against the wall. “Ok. Well, my horse is already on the train. I'm ready when you are.” He eyed Abby Lancer appreciatively. She had a trim figure and pretty brown hair. Nice, eyes, too.

Abby frowned but said nothing. While she was used to mens' looks, she didn't like this man's leer.

“That's my wife,” Scott jumped in. Madrid didn't answer. He just picked up a saddlebag and fell in after her. Scott was left wondering what the hell was going on. After a second, he ran to catch up with Abby, and taking her arm, led her onto the train. Johnny followed.

They settled in their seats. On this car the seats were not all facing the same direction; they were arranged in groups of four so they were able to sit all together. Scott would have liked this idea with Jim, but with the gunfighter, he was unsure. He was even more so when the gunman insisted Scott sit across his wife while he took the one next to Abby.

Scott watched Johnny settle into his seat. He was on the aisle, his right side to the walkway. The gunman arranged his holster and Colt for easy access. At least he's getting prepared, Scott mused.

If they were expecting Johnny to point out sights like Jim did, they were mistaken. Johnny appeared to lounge in his seat and tipped his hat down as if he were going to go to sleep. That action did little to instill confidence in neither Scott nor Abby.

The train jerked as it pulled out of the Reno Central Pacific station. Abby tried to ignore the gunfighter at her side and consulted her guide. “Verdi is our last Nevada stop. Its in about ten minutes, I think.”

Scott nodded absently. He was lost in his concerns about Madrid.

Nearly immediately they noticed the engines working hard, for in that ten minutes they'd climb over two hundred feet. They were entering the Sierra Nevadas.

“There's the Truckee,” Scott said without much interest, pointing to the fast-moving, shallow river paralleling them. “Jim mentioned we'd follow it into California.”

“Yes, he said it emptied into Pyramid Lake. I wonder where it's source is.”

“Lake Tahoe.” Johnny's response startled them both. They had not expected him to be listening. In fact, they figured him to be asleep.

“Where is that?” Abby asked.

“We'll go north of it,” was Johnny's only answer.

The train clacked up the mountains. After a few minutes, Abby broke the silence. “So where are you from, Mr. Madrid?”

Johnny slowly raised his head, tipped his hat up with a finger. Abby looked into deep sapphire blue eyes and nearly shuddered. They were cold. “Mexico.” He pulled his hat back down again.

Determine not to appear unnerved, Abby pressed on. “I'm from Philadelphia and Scott here was raised in Boston.” When Johnny said nothing, she continued. “But he was born out here, in California.”

Johnny raised his eyes once more, staring at Scott. “Is that so?” he drawled.

Scott nodded. “Yes, but I was taken East almost immediately. I have no memories of California.”

Another silence. Abby and Scott looked out the window. The snow-capped Sierras were breathtaking.

Verdi, Nevada was a quick stop and soon they were on their way again. Turning south, they followed a canyon through a pass, still accompanying the Truckee River. Neither Scott nor Abby could pull their eyes from the beauty of the mountains.

Johnny watched Lancer from under his hat, unable to figure the man out. Why was he here? And what was he, if anything, to Murdoch? While he wanted to appear aloof, he had to get some answers.

The train turned west again just before stopping in Truckee, California. Scott, intrigued with the Mexican gunfighter, asked, “So what brings you this far north, Mr. Madrid? I understood you work primarily along the border.”

Johnny perused the other passengers before answering. “Came up here for some silver. Then did security for some mineral shipments.” He stared at Scott. “What brings you out West?”

“We are visiting my father. He owns a ranch in the San Joaquin valley.” This time Scott pronounced it right.

Johnny almost gulped, but he held his surprise in check. Could it be? Trying to appear as uninterested as he wanted to be, he grunted, “Must be Murdoch Lancer, then.”

“Yes. That is my father. He calls the ranch after himself, ‘Lancer',” Scott chuckled. “Must have a big ego. You know him?” As soon as Scott asked the question, he mentally kicked himself. Of course, his father wouldn't know someone like this.

What the..? Johnny did well to hide his astonishment. This was his... brother? “No. I don't. I've heard of him, though. A big shot rancher. Muy importante.

I have a brother? This man? Madre de Dios!

Scott digested this bit of news. The fact that a his father was well known he knew, but that a gunman from the border would know of him? Murdoch must be more well-connected than he thought.

“Oh, how beautiful!” Abby's sigh took out of his reverie. He glanced out the window. They were in the Donner Pass now, and a large body of water was to the south. “Is this Lake Tahoe?”

“No. Don't know what it is. Tahoe is larger. And south.”

Scott consulted his guide. “Could be Donner Lake.”

While Scott and Abby discussed the view, Johnny reflected. If this was his brother, why was he here now? What did their father want with him? Their father. He'd long stopped thinking of Murdoch Lancer as his father, but now with Scott's arrival the phrase crept into his thoughts. He had wanted to kill Murdoch Lancer; it was his duty to his mother, but he hadn't yet come up with a plan that would allow him to walk away clean. Now with Scott into the picture...did he still want him dead?

Johnny remembered Scott's words ‘must have a big ego.' Did he not know the man? Jim had mentioned this was their first trip West. But surely, he'd had contact? Hadn't Scott been East for an education? And what did he do for me, other than kick me and Mama out? Johnny couldn't keep the bitterness out of that thought.

The train stopped again, at Cisco. Again, the couple remarked about the scenery. It was pretty, Johnny conceded. But cold. Too cold for his taste. He hadn't liked working in Virginia City. Too cold there too.

They turned a little southwest and chugged on to Emigrant Gap. It was not much of a town, just a tiny station and a few buildings. It was named for the gap on a ridge where early pioneers crossed on the California trail. Emigrants had to lower their wagons by rope as the path was too steep for horses.

The train began that sharp descent. Their next stop, Alta, was nearly fifteen hundred feet in elevation lower but only twelve miles away. Along the way they heard other passengers talking about the ‘Camel's Hump' and agreed that's what it looked like when they saw the arched ridge to the north.

Soon they stopped in Gold Run then turned southwest again toward Sacramento. While they had a few stops left, both Abby and Scott lamented the end of their long, but adventurous, train ride to California. “We're almost there,” Abby smiled.

“Yes. Sacramento is about an hour away.”

Chapter Seven: Sacramento

The Central Pacific train continued its descent past Gold Run and Colfax, another California town with a gold rush history, to Clipper Gap. Now in California's Central Valley, the terrain began to level. It would still continue to descend all the way into Sacramento but not sharply as before.

Two more stops and they finally made it to Sacramento. California's new capital city was named for the Spanish word for ‘sacrament' because of pioneer friars were able to grow wheat and grapes there, which they used to celebrate the sacraments.

The city had grown from the small Sutter's Fort established at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers to the bustling area boasting a broad economic base. It had gained importance because of its location near the California gold fields and its terminus of the transcontinental railroad. Its population now exceeded 10,000.

Scott and Abby detrained, happy once again to be on solid ground, at least for the rest of the day. They gathered their belongings, their trunks and luggage and waited at the station.

Johnny went to retrieve his horse, a healthy black steed he'd named Sombra, from the boxcar set up for horses. He traveled light, with only only his saddle, saddlebags, his horse and gun.

In contrast, Scott and Abby had their dual trunks, four pieces of luggage and a couple of small bags.

The three of them entered the Golden Spike Hotel, one of the city's finest establishments. Johnny, behind them, stopped at the doorway. He paused, looked around and saw no one to be a threat. He noticed the opulence of the hotel. It was far beyond his means and he felt extremely out of place. But one of the patrons sitting on a sofa looked up at him and gasped. Johnny inwardly smiled. He liked that response. Shifting his saddlebags, he walked confidently to the front desk.

Scott registered for them, handed Johnny his key, then escorted Abby to their room. Johnny was surprised to find his room across the hall from theirs; he had expected to be housed in a lesser-quality area. The couple unpacked and Johnny left to board his horse at a nearby livery.

He returned to find Scott and Abby waiting in the hotel lobby. They were looking at a guidebook and discussing sights they wanted to see. He followed the couple on a tour of the city, appreciatively eyeing Abby's figure from the back.

Walking around Sacramento was a challenge, for the city was in the process of raising the level of the town due to frequent floods from the nearby rivers. In the areas where businesses had already been raised, the first floors had become basements. Confounding the difficulty, some streets and walks used pavement and others used more durable but uneven cobblestones. Still, Scott and Abby were able to enjoy a more-or-less modern city, the first such since Denver, and took in the sights. Johnny, ever vigilant to possible problems, followed and kept a watchful eye.

He had time to ponder the situation. This man—this tall, blonde well-educated Easterner—was his brother. As a child, he imagined what it would be like to have siblings—all of his friends had several—but he never considered one like Scott. Scott was proper, a real gentleman, and a dandy to be sure. But still, the man gave him pause. He could not be so easily dismissed. His wife adored him, as wives should, but it was more than that. She also admired and respected him, and that led Johnny to begin to consider he was more than he looked like.

In their room Abby dressed for dinner. Scott sat in a chair admiring his wife. “Help me with this dress,” she asked, trying to pull the light blue number over her head.

“With pleasure,” Scott smiled. He assisted her into the thing which made her look angelic and peaceful.

“I don't want him at our table,” Abby said, straightening out the folds of her skirt. “I'd like to have dinner with just you.”

“That can be arranged.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Forced to dine in the grand dining room of their hotel when he would have preferred a Mexican cantina, Johnny chose a small table in a back corner. While it was far from the best table, from his vantage point he could see the entire room and watch for dangers to both himself and his charges.

Johnny took his job seriously. Their safety was his responsibility. This work was infinitely easier than a range war, but it was still his job and he intended to do it well.

He frequently glanced at the two of them laugh as they enjoyed their meal. They chose a ‘better' table near the middle of the room, seemingly unconcerned of any danger. Not that there was any; Sacramento seemed to be a tame town.

“What do you think it will be like?” Abby asked. “The ranch, I mean.” She picked at her salad.

“I don't know. Its in the valley so I imagine it will be flat.”

“I know, but, the land pirates? What can we expect?”

Scott cut his steak. “Well, I suppose they will be something like the marauders we saw during the War. They would raid homes that had already been hit by the army and take whatever was left. Ruthless sort, they were.” He popped the meat into his mouth, enjoying its unique flavors. Beef out here just tasted better than at home in Boston.

Abby smiled. “You'll be able to help, then. You sorted that group out in, what was it, Virginia?”

“Yes, a small band of them in the Shenandoah Valley. They were Union deserters. Rogues giving us a bad name. We took care of them all right.” He didn't tell her everything: their mission was to kill them if they gave any trouble. Abby didn't need to know that.

She sat her wine glass down. “Your father seemed glad we were coming.” Abby referred to the telegraph they had received once Murdoch had accepted Scott's help.

“Yes, but he cautioned that life here was different. I can see that.” He looked around the room, his eyes coming to rest on Johnny. “If many men are like him.”

Abby's eyes found their protector. “He's staring at me again, like I'm this piece of meat. It makes me uncomfortable.”

Scott glared at Madrid, who smiled and looked away. “He needs to learn manners.”

“I wonder what made him become what he is.”

Scott shrugged. “Circumstances, probably, dear. Most boys don't dream of growing up to become a killer.” He hoped not, at least.

“He's so famous. Or would that be infamous?” She took a bite of potato.

“Probably ‘infamous' would be correct, from what Jim said. I don't know though. I haven't made up my mind about him yet. I know I don't like how he looks at you.” Scott sipped his merlot. He inspected the wine, swishing it around the glass then took another sip. “This red has more flavors than the reds at home. The steak is better, too.”

“One thing is for certain,” Abby cut her meat. “With your father being a cattle rancher, we'll enjoy good meals.” She laughed.

Scott's laughter joined hers. “Don't you know it!”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Abby retired early. Scott, however, felt it necessary to have a little talk with his protection detail. He'd grown tired of Madrid's not-so-subtle scrutiny of his wife and resolved to deal with it. He knocked on the gunfighter's door.

Johnny opened his door. “Lancer.”

Grim-faced, Scott didn't wait for an invitation. He muscled his way in. Johnny stepped back, surprised at Scott's forcefulness. He gave his brother room. “Come on in,” he said sarcastically, his eyes narrowing. He'd not expected such an aggressive move from this dandy.

Scott spun around to face the gunfighter. He jumped right into it. “You've been leering at my wife ever since you first saw her. I want it stopped.”

Johnny laughed. “Surely I can't be the first man...”

“Enough, Mr. Madrid. My wife is a lady and I will not have anyone treating her with such disrespect. Even you.”

“Really now?” So his brother was challenging him.

Scott stood straight. “You will apologize to her.”

“For being a man? For her being a good-looking woman?” He looked away, chuckling. If he only knew...

Johnny didn't have time to finish that thought. Scott jabbed with his right arm, assailing Johnny in the chin. He fell backwards, groping for the wall to break his fall. He slowly stood and faced his brother, who now had both fists up, ready to strike again. Scott's face was severe; he meant business.

So the fop had some fire in him. Not many men would have the courage to blindside Madrid like that. He admired him for his spunk. Johnny raised both hands, surrendering. “Ok, Lancer. You win. I'll apologize to your wife.”

Scott relaxed his stance a little. “And?”

“And treat her with respect.”

“You'd better.” He punctuated his words with a finger to Madrid's chest.

Madrid struck instinctively, grabbing Scott's wrist. The Easterner startled, both at the gunfighter's speed and the strength of his grip, but maintained his composure. “You hit me once,” Madrid warned. “I deserved it. Don't touch me again, Lancer.”

The two men stared at each other for a long minute, both unyielding. Johnny relaxed his grip and let Scott's arm fall.

“As long as we understand each other,” Scott said. Johnny slowly nodded.

Scott closed the door behind him and expelled a breath. He grinned. Mission accomplished, he returned to the room he shared with Abby.

Johnny, too, smiled as the door closed. He was beginning to like his brother.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

They had one last train to catch, the Southern Pacific branch of the Central Pacific Railroad, which would carry them most of the rest of their way. That train left at eight, but there was much to do in the morning before boarding.

Sleep came easily for the couple. Johnny, however, was restless. Shirtless but still in his concho pants, he tossed and turned, got up and leaned out the window. The night air was too cool so he closed the window. But after a while it got stuffy so he cracked it a little. He lay back down again.

His thoughts wandered again to Scott and then to his father. What would happen when they all arrived? Would he tell Scott who he was? Would his father somehow know? Would he still want to harm Murdoch Lancer? Why had he sent for Scott but ignored him? But had he ignored him? He remembered the Pinks in Mexico, looking for him as Johnny Lancer. Too many questions and no answers.

Johnny heard footsteps in the hall and his thoughts vanished. He sat up abruptly. Hearing footsteps wasn't a bad sign—this was a busy hotel after all—but these stopped at the door. His or Scott's? He couldn't be sure. He silently rose from the bed, grabbed his Colt from its holster, slipped barefooted toward his door and pressed himself against the wall next to his doorknob. He listened. His senses were on alert now.

He heard talking in hushed tones. Concentrating, he distinguished two voices. Male. He heard more shuffling of feet. The two men were definitely closer to Scott's door. But had they just stopped in the hall to talk or did they have something more sinister planned?

He got his answer when he heard Scott's door creak. It was only a small sound, and it stopped immediately; the men must have paused while opening the door. The creak probably surprised them.

He needed to get out there.

When he first entered his room that afternoon he had noticed several things: the location of all the furniture, the window and its view, the sound of his door as it opened and closed. Those things were all automatic to him, habits honed from years on the job as precautions which may save his life one day. Now they proved helpful to aiding Scott.

He knew he could open his door soundlessly; it did not creak. But he still had to worry about his movement which he was sure would attract the mens' attention. Well, it would his.

He waited until he heard Scott's door creak once more. He figured they'd be too busy trying to be quiet to notice him. He jerked his door open in one fast move and stepped into the hall. “Gentlemen,” he softly drawled, his Colt drawn on them. “Are you sure that's your room?”

The pair whipped their heads to him, shock on their face at being caught. They looked both to be around his age—lower twenties—and needed a shave. The one wearing a plaid shirt had his own Colt in his hands, but it wasn't pointed at Johnny. He had surprised them.

“Uh,” the unarmed man paused. His eyes wide. Looking down the barrel of Johnny Madrid's gun left him speechless.

The other man recovered quicker. He smiled a little, did a small shrug and holstered his weapon. “Guess not, huh?”

Johnny's face was a mask, showing no emotion. “Go away,” he ordered. “ Ahora! ” They hesitated for a second. “Unless you want me to use this?” He raised his gun.

They needed no other encouragement. “Excuse us,” they stammered. Scampering away, they hurried down the hall and disappeared down the stairs.

“What's going on here?” Scott demanded. He drew his the sash of his robe into a knot as he peered out the doorway at the two mean escaping. “Well?” He looked at Johnny. His young protector was barefoot, barechested and still held his Colt.

Johnny dropped his gun arm, pointing the weapon to the floor. “Seems they thought you wanted some midnight company, Lancer. I just reminded them that you needed your beauty sleep.”

Scott took one more look down the now-empty hallway before turning back to Johnny. “Thank you. And we do.” He smiled. The blond offered his hand.

Johnny shook his brother's hand, realizing it was the first time they'd touched like that. Nope, it didn't feel special. He was disappointed. He had thought some he'd feel something, that there'd be something in his body that sensed a relation. But no. It was just a handshake.

“Well, good night,” Scott stepped back into his room. He closed the door. Johnny stared at the door a few more seconds before standing down and returning to his own room.

Chapter Eight: Going South

Scott and Abby rose early. They packed from their night in the city before going down for breakfast. They chatted excitedly; today was their last day on a train. It would take them less than seven hours to travel deep in the San Joaquin valley. They were happy their trip was nearing an end.

Johnny did not breakfast with them. They assumed he was already awake, but they had not yet seen him. “I hope he makes the train,” Scott worried. He looked around. They were outside the hotel, waiting for transportation to the station. No Johnny.

“Your luggage, sir?” the cabbie asked. He had pulled up his carriage to them.

“Please,” Scott replied, still looking for Johnny.

“What if he doesn't show?” Abby asked nervously.

“Then he won't get paid,” Scott's demeanor was grim. After last night, his confidence of the gunfighter was secure but now...

“So, what are you waiting for?” came the soft drawl that was distinctly Johnny's. They spun around and saw Johnny astride his beautiful black stallion. He leaned on crossed arms on the pommel.

Scott smiled. “Nothing now.” He helped Abby into the carriage. The trip to the station wasn't a long one, but the streets were already crowded this early in the morning. Johnny rode along side them, looking relaxed and seemingly unaware. But that was all a charade; he noticed everything: every look, every face, every gun, every alley. He quickly assessed who was a potential threat, either to himself or to his charges. Seeing none, he didn't relax his guard. He kept looking.

Back at breakfast, Scott had told Abby of the encounter in the hallway during the night. She was shocked. “Who would do such a thing?”

“I don't know,” Scott had replied, taking a bite of his eggs. “But I'm very glad Madrid was awake and has such good ears.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The Southern Pacific station shared with Central Pacific. The two companies had merged operations a few years back but had not yet consolidated names. While the Central Pacific ran roughly east-west, the Southern Pacific was mostly north-south. Their tracks merged for a few miles when crossing each other.

The station was busy, with passengers unloading from carriages, scurrying to find their seats and get their luggage aboard. Johnny left them to get his horse settled, then rejoined them once they were seated, all ready to go. He again sat on the aisle, his gun arm free, but sat alone this time. Abby sat next her husband.

“Ma'am,” Johnny nodded to Abby. “Before we get started today, I want to apologize to you. I've treated you wrong and I'm sorry. You're a lady. You deserve better.”

Abby showed her surprise but recovered quickly. “Thank you, Mr. Madrid. I accept your apology.” She wondered what brought that on and looked at Scott, who was smiling ever so slightly as he gazed out the window. She beamed. She knew her man had stood up to the notorious gunfighter. Abby grabbed Scott's arm and squeezed it. He turned and smiled at her.

A few minutes after eight the train jerked forward. “We're on our last ride,” Abby said brightly. The day was bright and crisp, but would soon warm to a delightful temperature.

One of their fellow passengers, a middle-aged businessman named Addison, found out they were from Boston. He took it upon himself to educate Scott and Abby about California. “Spring in California's Central Valley is very mild,” he said. “Summers, however, that's a different story. It gets mighty hot during the day, but it will cool down in the evening.”

The towns clicked by. Florin, Gatt, Lodi. Across a shallow river. Most stops were brief, only ten minutes, but the larger settlements demanded more time. They paused in Stockton for twenty minutes just over an hour after leaving Sacramento. Johnny went to check on his horse. Sombra was restless after a day on the train.

Back in motion, Scott and Abby watched the scenery. Mostly flat and grasslands, the valley seemed huge. They could see the Sierras in the East but only the purplish outlines of the jagged edge. The stop at Lathrop wasn't more than the station and a store. “Where are the towns?” Abby asked. “I thought California was more settled than this.”

“The railroad is new, Mrs. Lancer,” Mr. Addison explained. “It was only built in the last year or two. Towns haven't had time yet to build around these stops.”

“So they built a station in the middle of nowhere?”

“Sure did.”

The crossed another river before Modesto, which was actually a town. Or at least, more than one store. Crossing another shallow river, Abby remarked, “Lots of rivers. They look like creeks, though.”

Again it was Mr. Addison who explained. “When the snow melts in the mountains they'll swell up. And fast, too. These here rivers are fed by snow melt from the Sierras. Right now, the snow has only begun to melt, so there's more than usual water in ‘em, but come a few more weeks, they'll be really flowing.”

“I wonder if Lancer has this many rivers.” Scott mused to Johnny.

The gunfighter shrugged. “Dunno. Never been there.”

They stopped briefly in Turlok, just a tiny place. Then crossed the Merced River at Cressey. Mr Addison told them how the stop at Atwater was named for a local farmer who had donated land for the station. It boasted a small store.

Just seven miles down the track lay Merced, a thriving new town thanks to the railroad. Their stop was a half-hour, allowing a quick sandwich lunch at the newly-built Grapevine Hotel then back on the train for the rest of the trip.

Thirty miles later, they stopped in Sycamore, just a tiny little place on the banks of a small creek, to take on water. Then they were on their way to Madera. Madera, the Spanish term for wood, was so named for the many trees in the area and was already a growing lumber town along the Fresno River.

At Fresno Station, just seventeen miles down the track, Scott and Abby saw one of the newest railroad stations, having been built just a few months earlier. The place wasn't even a settlement yet; it consisted of just the station and a tiny hotel and even smaller cafe.

Fowler and Selma were similar stops, consisting of little more than a station and a store. Their Mr Addison once again came to the rescue with stories about the names of the towns. “Fowler,” he said, “is the name of the rancher who gave the land for the station. He's an influential man. Selma, well, there's this theory that Selma was the mistress of one of the railroad executives, but I won't go into that.” He chuckled.

Kings River Switch was just a small station and a bridge across the Kings River. It didn't even have a store. The bridge still smelled of fresh paint.

The next town, Goshen, would be their final stop on the train. Workers were still in the process of building the railroad heading south. Work was also underway for a spur track to Visalia, the largest city between Sacramento and Los Angeles.

“I wonder why they didn't build the railroad to go through Visalia, instead of Goshen,” Abby mused. “It's so much bigger.”

“I don't know,” Scott answered. He looked around for Mr Addison for an explanation but he was on the other end of the car, boasting loudly about his hotel and business in Visalia.

The train came to a final stop a little after four; all of the passengers disembarked and collected their belongings. For some, Goshen was their final destination and they were greeted by family or friends. A few headed to the small livery to find horses. Some trudged to one of the town's two hotels. Still others ambled over to the Wells Fargo Stage Line to arrange passage to other towns. Scott, Abby and Johnny followed those trekking to the stage line.

Scott had wired the stage line so their tickets were waiting for them. Several of their train passengers were not so lucky; they had waited to buy their passage and were disappointed when the first stage filled up quickly.

Scott came back to Johnny and his wife all smiles. “We got them. The stage leaves at five. That gives us about a couple of hours.” They left their luggage at the station and headed to a nearby cafe.

“Please dine with us,” Abby graciously offered to Johnny. He agreed, but insisted on selecting the table. The small cafe only had five, but he was lucky in that his favorite site—in the back—was available. He sat in the corner; he had views on all sides.

“Why do you sit there?” Scott pulled out Abby's chair.

“Safer,” Johnny answered, adjusting his holster. “When you're a gunfighter, there's always someone wanting to try to take you down. Sitting here, in the corner back, I can see everything, everyone. No one can sneak up behind me.”

A woman with graying hair wearing an apron came up to them. “Today's lunch is bean soup. Drinks?”

Abby looked at Scott, who shrugged. “My wife and I will both have lemonade.”

The woman nodded. She looked at Johnny and noticed him for the first time. The smile left her face, replaced by a spark of fear in her eyes, but she held her own. “You, sir?”

“Beer.” Johnny didn't smile. Why ruin his effect?

While they were waiting for their food, Abby started a conversation. “What's the stage like, Mr. Madrid?”

“Bumpy. Slow. Uncomfortable.” Johnny hated the stagecoach. He'd rather ride alone.

“Is there a faster way?” Scott asked him.

“Riding may be. You're on your own timetable, but you can't push your own horse like they push stage horses, at least not all day. They change their horses con frecuencia.

“Pardon?” Scott's French, which he had relied upon to translate Johnny's Spanish phrases, failed him.

Johnny smiled at his brother. “Frequently.”

The food arrived, steaming bowls of white bean soup with chunks of crusty bread. “It smells delicious,” Abby smiled at the woman. She nodded.

The food was plain, but lived up to its aroma. Crisp bacon and sautéed onions flavored the beans. And it was filling. It would hold them until their next meal.

Back at the stage depot, they hear a father talking to the agent. “But all we need is one more seat,” he argued. “I can't leave my son.” The agent explained again, tiredly, that there were no more tickets.

Johnny looked at the family. There were five of them, the father, wife and three kids. The daughters looked about six and eight and they would probably be riding on someone's lap, but there wasn't another lap for the son. Besides he looked too old for that, about ten. “He can have my ticket,” Johnny volunteered.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Scott interjected. “You're not leaving us.”

“I don't intend to, Lancer. But that kid needs to be with his family. Besides, I have a horse. I can ride.”

“But you said riding wasn't as fast. You won't be able to keep up.”

“I have my ways,” Johnny grinned. “You'll still be protected. Better, probably. I can keep an eye on the stage and everything that happens around it. Besides, Sombra is very fast.”

Scott begrudgingly agreed and Johnny gave his ticket to the boy's father, who thanked him profusely. “ De nada, ” Johnny replied.

When the stage arrived they loaded all their luggage, including Johnny's heavy saddlebags. The lighter his horse the better. Johnny mounted in one fluid movement. Sombra pranced, eager to be off. “ Calmar, mi amigo ” Johnny murmured to the horse. “ Pronto.

The stage driver tipped his hat to the agent as soon as everyone was on board. He slapped the reins on the horses back. They took off at a canter. They would accelerate slowly to traveling speed.

Johnny kneed Sombra and he started forward at a light gallop. His plan was to take a slightly shorter route, allowing him to run his horse easier yet still keep an eye on the stage. He figured Sombra was up to the challenge, after a few days of inactivity and he'd be able to more or less keep up.

The stage took the road, winding around trees, rocks and other obstacles, but on a westerly course more or less parallel to a creek. Johnny surveyed the lay of the valley and chose a more direct route closer to the creek. Sombra easily loped through the grasses while Johnny kept looking out for potential problems all while watching the stage rumble on.

He didn't envy them at all. Nine passengers, three abreast in the three bench seats. The first row sat backwards and the passengers would have to interlace their feet with those in the middle seats. But it was those in the middle who had it worst. While they faced forward, not only did they have to share footspace with the front seated passengers, they had no hard backs to lean on; only leather straps. Sleeping was out of the question, besides it was bad stage protocol to fall asleep on your neighbor's shoulder. Those in the backmost bench had it best—a sturdy back to lean on, more leg room, but they caught most of the dust that the horses kicked up. Nope, stage travel was hardly ideal. But it got the job done.

He'd tipped off Scott and Abby about the seating and advised them to board first to get their pick, but Abby pulled Scott aside, allowing the family of five to select first. They chose to sit all together, in the front and middle rows, leaving Scott and Abby the dusty back row. An tall and thin older gentleman shared their seat; he needed the leg room. A priest selected the middle row and, after the initial introductions were over, he opened his prayer book and tried to read during his journey. It was hard, though, with all the bouncing around they did on their seats.

No sir, Johnny did not envy them. He'd much rather be on the trail, easy in the saddle, with the wind, his horse and nature as his companions. He surveyed the valley, looking West. It was primarily flat, with a few bunches of sagebush, some outcroppings of rock, a copse or two of trees, and the occasional small rolling hill. Trees and taller grasses lined the creek bed. The only places that looked dangerous were the rocky outcrops and the trees. There, outlaws could hide and stop the stage. But all looked peaceful now as they headed West.

Johnny loped Sombra closer to the creek, allowing himself a better view of the area and affording his horse the coolness of the shade. He occasionally allowed Sombra to take a brief drink in the creek before riding on. The stage was only slightly ahead of him as it wound its way along its path. He was making good time.

Scott and Abby soon learned that conversation was nearly impossible on the stage, with all its bumps and dust and noise. Abby took out a book and, like the priest, tried to read. Scott amused himself by occasionally pulling the shade and taking a peek out the window. More than once he saw Johnny, or rather he saw a black dot moving in the distance that he assumed was Johnny's horse. He began to feel they'd gotten the short shrift.

An hour later the sun was low in the West and shadows were lengthening. It was a good time for a robbery, Johnny was thinking when he caught a glimpse of something moving up ahead along the creek near some rocks. Alerted, he turned Sombra into the trees and trotted him softly, peering to get a better look. The stage rumbled to the north, circling around a larger outcropping of rock.

Chapter Nine: Trouble

Johnny came through some trees and saw three horses tied to a log. He slowed Sombra, not wanting to alert the other animals. He found a man, leaning against a tree, a rifle in his hands. He must be the backup, Johnny mused. Dismounting, he moved quietly through the soft grass.

The outlaw's back was to Johnny, his attention focused on the coming stage. It had finished its wide turn around the rocks and headed toward the creek. Johnny hadn't seen the other two men but assumed they were hiding, ready to pounce on the stage, or perhaps had felled a tree across its path already. He waited.

A few minutes later, the stage approached. Johnny heard the driver yell “Whoa!” and the horses snort as they were pulled up short. The outlaw against the tree stood up straight and aimed his shotgun. It was beginning.

“Everybody off!” yelled an unseen outlaw. Johnny heard lots of voices in confusion, followed by another ruffian yelling “Now!”

“Ok, ok,” the driver agreed. “We're getting off!” He engaged the brake and tied off the reins. He jumped down and said to the passengers, “Do what they say and we'll all be ok.”

Scott and Abby looked at each other grimly. “It'll be all right,” Scott whispered. “Madrid is out there.” Abby somberly nodded to him and stood quietly.

Johnny figured the time was right, as his outlaw's attention was totally on the passengers coming off the stage. Quickly, silently, he gained on the man, and in one swift motion, jerked his head back and slit the man's throat with his knife. He didn't have a chance to utter a sound of warning; he merely slumped to the ground.

Johnny wiped the blade on the man's shirt and sheathed the weapon. Returning for Sombra, he mounted and trotted through the trees to where he could witness the robbery. Two men were there; the one in a blue shirt had a gun out and pointed in the general direction of the passengers and driver, who all stood in a row. He saw Scott and Abby, standing together, grim-faced. They were removing their valuables as the other man, a blond, came around with an upturned hat.

Neither could see Johnny. Still hidden in the trees, he quickly thought of a plan. HIs first instinct was to go to the men and surprise them from behind. But if any of the passengers saw him first—and that was likely—his surprise would be gone. Approaching from another angle was out of the question; the trees and rocks provided a good background.

He considered Blue Shirt with the gun. Shooting him outright would make things easier, but it wasn't really a necessary killing like the first man had been. The fewer bodies left behind the better, Johnny had always thought. Not that the killing bothered him, when justified he was ok with it, but bodies meant burials and questions to answer. No, he'd give them a chance to walk away, even if it meant losing his surprise.

He kneed Sombra and walked into the clearing. The horse was silent and Johnny's good fortune continued: no passenger saw him; they were too scared to look up.

“You're really gonna rob women and children?” Johnny's soft drawl asked the outlaws.

Both men looked at him in surprise. Blue Shirt turned his gun toward him. Johnny's Colt was out in a flash and the man's mouth dropped even further. “I wouldn't if I were you.”

The men froze for an instant. Johnny watched the man lower his gun about a foot, but not completely away. He was unsure. Blondie saw his friend back down a bit. Wanting the upper hand, he dropped his booty and grabbed Abby. He drew his gun and held it to her head, using her as a human shield.

Scott's heart stopped. He instinctively lunged for Blondie but the outlaw stepped away, dragging Abby with him. “No, Scott!” she cried. He paused, wanting to help but not wanting to make the situation worse. Desperately he glanced from Abby to Johnny to Blondie. Abby looked at Scott pleadingly. “Stay,” she mouthed.

The other passengers backed away. The mother grasped her two smaller children tightly; her husband grabbed his son.

Blondie glared at Johnny, visually daring him to do something.

“Now, that's real courageous of you, hiding behind a woman,” Johnny drawled calmly. “You know that's gonna make me shoot you.”

“You do and my friend here will blow your head off,” the man yelled back. He trembled. Facing Johnny Madrid wasn't part of the plan.

Johnny sat back a little in the saddle. “Nah. I'm faster than he is.” Johnny's tone was soft, but deadly and matter-of-fact. “I can tap you right between the eyes and still have plenty of time to pop your friend in the chest before he can bring that gun back up.” Johnny let that digest before continuing. “You don't want to die today. Let the woman go. Get on your horses and get outta here.”

Blondie found his courage. “We're not alone.” He indicated the trees.

“You sure about that?” Johnny questioned. “If your third man was still alive, don't you think he woulda joined us by now?”

Blue Shirt hesitated. His friend saw he was wavering. “No, Lee. We need this money.” To Johnny he yelled, “I'll kill her!”

“No, you won't,” Johnny said softly. An instant later Johnny fired twice, the first shot putting a neat, round hole in the outlaw's forehead. The second blasted Blue Shirt off his feet, a red stain growing on his chest.

The mother screamed and turned away, burying her children's faces in her skirts. Her husband pulled her to him. Abby fell into Scott's arms. He pulled her close, kissing her cheeks before looking up at Johnny, finally able to breathe again.

Johnny dismounted and crossed over to the couple. “Are you ok?”

Still frightened, Abby nodded. “Yes,” Scott answered, his voice a little shaky. “Thanks to you. Again.” He tried to pull Abby even closer and grasped her around her tiny waist. He could still feel his heart pound. Scott was grateful to find that Madrid was as ‘deadly accurate' as Jim Carrick had described.

Abby found her voice. “Thank you so much,” she smiled thinly. “We were so scared.”

“It's all over now,” Johnny said. “Make sure you get your things from that hat.”

“We will,” Scott promised. He turned Abby back toward the stage and helped her get on. He returned to Johnny, who was still watching. He indicated Johnny's gun. “You're, uh, very good with that.”

“Of course.”

“Well, I'm impressed. Very.” He offered his hand. “Thanks again.”

Johnny shook his brother's hand. “ Da nada. ” He wanted to add ‘Brother' but didn't. Now wasn't the time. If it ever would be.

Scott lingered. “I, uh, I didn't know what to do,” he admitted. He'd never felt so powerless before.

“You did the right thing, Lancer. Sometimes just being there is all you need to do.”

Scott stared at the dirt and nodded, saying nothing.

The stage driver came into view, again all business. “Ok, everyone. Show's over. Let's get going.” The priest was giving Last Rites to the fallen men. “You too, Padre. Don't worry, we'll send someone to bury them when we reach Cross Creek.”

“Now go be with your wife. She needs you now.”

Scott looked up and smiled. “Yes, she does.” He tipped his hat. “Until tonight, Mr. Madrid.”

Johnny nodded. He turned Sombra away and went back to the camouflage offered by the trees along the creek, heading West again.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Inside the stage, the passengers couldn't stop talking about the incident. They wanted to know how Abby was, who the stranger was, why Scott and Abby talked to him, everything. The father pointed to Scott and said, “He called him ‘Madrid.' That was Johnny Madrid! The famous gunfighter! I thought I recognized him.”

For the next half hour, they traded stories they'd heard about Johnny Madrid. Scott and Abby got an earful. They heard tales of Johnny Madrid taking out five men at a time, all quick kills, without so much as a scratch. How he beat an entire firing squad by untying his binds and stealing a gun, blasting his way out. And the time he shot a man for accidentally running into his horse. It was clear from their talk that they admired Madrid but feared him and in some cases, were repulsed by him.

Scott reasoned that most of what they said was hyperbole or legend that probably was based on some fact, but distorted and skewed for the sake of the tale. The man he knew was careful, with both words and gun, but not a superman. Yes, he was fast and deadly, but neither cruel nor vicious. He couldn't decide if he liked him or not. He'd certainly proven useful.

An hour later, the stage pulled up at the Wells Fargo station in the small town of Cross Creek. “Twenty minutes!” the driver yelled as he jumped off his perch. “Eat fast, we're runnin' late.” Two men came from the barn area, one leading another team, already hitched together. They would make quick work to unhitch the tired team of four with a fresh group.

The passengers hurried into cafe next door. It was a small place, with only three regular sized tables and a long bench table along one side. It was already set with several place settings and dotted with bowls of crusty bread with a huge steaming soup pot at one end.

The woman running the cafe announced to everyone, “I'm Mrs Abrams. You're late gettin' here, so we have dinner all ready for ya. Just pay your twenty-five cents each in the bowl here at this table and sit down. Kids are just a dime. Eat all you want.”

Scott and Abby paid their fare. He escorted Abby to her seat and went out to wait for Johnny. “Don't be too long,” she warned. “We don't have much time.”

“I know,” Scott replied. He hoped Johnny would be joining them.

Within a minute or two, Johnny came ambling in. He gave Sombra a long drink before joining Scott.

“Thank you again,” Scott greeted. Johnny nodded. “We've heard all about you for the past hour,” he grinned.

Johnny raised his eyebrows. “All lies, probably.”

“I'm sure some were,” Scott laughed. He led Johnny into the cafe.

Johnny paused at the doorway and assessed the situation. The passengers were seated at the bench table eating their soup, talking loudly. A middle-aged woman was pouring beer and some other drink. They all stopped talking when they looked up and saw Johnny.

The priest stood up and nodded to Johnny. “Mr. Madrid, we are so glad you are joining us tonight.” The padre indicated that he should join them at their table. Most uncomfortable with the attention, Johnny gently tried to break away.

Scott saw his unease and offered a solution. “Let's give Mr. Madrid some air, please. Let him eat at this table.” He pointed to one of the smaller tables on the other side of the room. To Johnny he promised, “Abby and I will join you.”

The three of them ate quickly, with minimal conversation, while the rowdiness at the other table resumed. “Are you really all right?” Johnny asked Abby. “He didn't hurt you, did he?”

Abby's smile was genuine. “No, Mr. Madrid, he did not. I was scared, very scared, but I'm just fine now. You and Scott have seen to that.” She squeezed Scott's arm.

The driver came in to eat giving the passengers extra time. Abby and Scott walked around, arm in arm, stretching their legs. The kids bolted from the table, ran outside, and started a makeshift game of tag in the dusk. Their parents emerged from the building and leaned against a rail, halfway watching the youngsters. Johnny went to check on his horse.

“How far have we come?” Abby asked, watching Johnny stroke Sombra's neck.

“About fifteen or so miles,” Scott answered, consulting his guide.

Abby was stunned. “That's all? We bounced around enough to have gone at least thirty!” She was exhausted. The past two hours had been difficult for her.

Scott smiled. “Johnny did say it would be rough.”

The driver emerged from the cafe and put his hat back on. “Time!” he yelled. Parents scrambled for their kids while the other passengers trekked back to their coach. Johnny remounted Sombra and loped off.

With a fresh team, the stage jolted even more as it rushed down the rutted road. It had been a few days since the last rain and while the ground was hard, so were the ruts, carved deep from the spring rains. Now almost dark, the full moon would rise soon to give them plenty of light.

Inside the stage, Abby leaned against Scott. She yawned. “I can't wait to get some sleep.”

“The driver said we spend the night at our next stop. Another two hours.”

“Hold me,” Abby requested. Scott threaded his arm around her, pulling her close. The staged bumped down the rutted road, but Abby didn't notice. She fell asleep against Scott's chest, his heart's thumping acting as her lullaby.

Chapter Ten: A Conversation

Another two hours later, the stage slowed and halted at a way station, their only one on this leg of their trip to Green River. “We'll spend the night here,” the driver explained. “Sol has everything ready for ya. Sleep fast, now, ‘cause we leave at dawn.”

The way station was a low-lying building, with a slanted tin roof and aged wooden slats. To the right was a small corral and beyond that, a barn. A very tired Scott and Abby departed the stage, gathered their small bags and trudged into the old building.

It was cozy inside, with a roaring fire to take off the evening's chill. A long trestle table occupied the middle and bench seating was built in along one wall. In the back, a small bar area and a door leading to the kitchen. There were doors on either side as well. Two pies sat on the long table, with stacks of small plates for serving.

Sol greeted them heartily as they entered. “Dessert is on the table! Enjoy!” He pointed to the side doors. “Men and boys over twelve to the left,” He announced. “Women and children to the right. Sorry, I have no rooms to accommodate married folk.”

Scott and Abby decided to have a slice of apple pie, not because they were hungry but to spend some last moments together before going to bed.

Sombra loped into the station a few minutes after the stage. The driver and Sol were unhitching the team. He looked up and greeted their savior. “Hello, Mr. Madrid! You're welcome to spend the night with us here. I've already told Sol about your heroism.”

Johnny nodded. “Just gonna take care of my horse.”

Sol stepped up. “Of course, Mr. Madrid. Anything you need, its in the barn. Take whatever stall you want. And feed, too. We have top-quality oats here.”

Johnny again nodded and led Sombra away.

The barn was nice and warm, with a soft glow from a lantern. Johnny surveyed the empty stalls and found one with the freshest-looking hay. He removed Sombra's tack, hefting the saddle on a rail, and got him fresh water. The horse nickered in appreciation and nuzzled up to Johnny.

Johnny spent the next half-hour grooming his horse. He brushed him until his black coat glistened, then checked each leg and hoof. Sombra stood still eating his oats while Johnny administered to him, occasionally gently blowing in contentment.

When he finished, Johnny stroked Sombra's muzzle then gently slapped him on the neck. “ Dormir bien, amigo mío. Tenemos un largo día de mañana.” [Sleep well, my friend. We have a long day tomorrow.]

Johnny entered the way station, pausing again at the door to survey. Scott stood in front of the fire. He was alone in the station.

Hola ,” Johnny greeted. He crossed over to his brother.

“Good evening,” Scott turned and smiled. “Is your horse settled?”

Si, gracias. He will sleep well tonight.”

Scott gazed into the fire. “Good, good.” He nodded to the table. One slice of pie remained. “For you. I saved it.”

Johnny smiled. “ Gracias .” He walked to the table and picked up the slice in his hands, no plate. He took a bite. Apple. It filled his mouth with flavor. Tart and sweet at the same time.

Delicioso .” Johnny said with his mouth full.

Scott laughed and return his gaze to the flames. Johnny could tell Scott had something on his mind so he waited for the blond, munching on his pie.

“You were very effective today,” Scott began then stopped, unsure of where to begin.

Johnny said nothing; he waited.

Scott took a breath. “You've been around, so...I was wondering if you'd had any experience with land pirates.” There it was out. Scott looked at Johnny expectantly.

The gunfighter finished chewing. “Some.” He took another bite.

Scott had expected a longer answer. He fired his questions. “What are they like? What sort of tactics do they use? How long do they keep it up?”

Johnny chewed again, savoring his last morsel. He licked his fingers. “Are you sure you wanna know this?”



Not used to an underling questioning him, Scott was taken aback. Reconsidering, he reasoned that it was a valid question. He was an Easterner, on his first time West. Why would he have these questions? “My father's ranch is under siege.” He wasn't sure if that was the accurate situation; he really didn't know what was happening.

Johnny stopped licking his fingers. He wiped them on his pants. So, Murdoch Lancer is in trouble. That's why he sent for Scott. But how could he help? “What's your experience, Lancer? Have you ever fired a gun, cuz it will come in real handy.”

Indignant, Scott stood straight. “I am ex-Cavalry. I fought under General Sheridon in the War Between the States. I have experience.”

Well, well, well, Johnny was surprised. The man was even more than he appeared. “Okay, then. Do you know who's running things? Who's in charge?”

Scott seemed perplexed. “My father.”

Johnny chuckled. “No. The gang. Who's el jefe?

“No, I don't.” Scott shook his head.

“That would help.” Johnny took a seat. “Not knowing, I can only give you general information.”

“Anything would be better than what I know now.”

“Okay, well...Most are outlaws. Some better than others with a gun. El jefe will be smart, be able to plan, be able to keep his men in line, but when they cut loose, look out. They could very well be ruthless, cruel, probably sadistic, and determined. They will do anything and everything to win. Nothing is safe.”

“Would they...kidnap?” After today, he had real questions.

Johnny nodded. “Possibly. It's a cowardly act, though.” He looked up at Scott. “Expect them to kill, people and cattle. They'll burn buildings and not think twice about what or who else gets hurt. You are talking about really bad men here, Lancer.”

Scott digested this news. Abby wouldn't be safe. Not alone, anyway. He considered his father. So this is what he's had on his mind. “What about their tactics? To the ranch, I mean.”

Johnny gazed at the fire. “Well, if it was me on a spread like Lancer, I'd start with a devastating blow to the man. Burn the barn, kill a bull, stampede the herd. Something to get his attention, draw him out when he doesn't yet know what's going on. Someone else might kill a few top hands.”

“You wouldn't kill them?”

Johnny shook his head. “Not unless I had to. Better that they leave on their own. More demoralizing, I think.”


“Then I'd lay low for a little while. Let him sweat, recover a little from his licking. Let him think it was just a one-shot attack. But I wouldn't wait too long before I'd go at small things: tear down a fence, damage a bridge, let loose a few cattle. Things that could be explained as accidents or part of ranch life. So he doesn't suspect I'm still there. But I am, and he's having to reallocate his men to other duties. And its getting to him.

“Next, I'd go after bigger things, ones that can't be explained by accidents: burn a line shack, shoot a few cattle, dam up a stream. If he's smart, he'll put two and two together. His men will see, too, and they will start to leave him. Why work a hard job when it gets harder?

“He may start to get help from the neighbors, the army. If he tried, prevent it. I'd want him to feel he's alone in the world. When the time was right, when most of his men had left, when all there is is him and his ranch, that's when I'd get him.”

“Would you kill him?”

Johnny shrugged. “Maybe. If he gave me no choice.”

Silence engulfed the room as both men considered. The fire crackled. Finally, Johnny asked softly, “What has happened to your father?”

“He was wounded. That's all I know. He didn't explain.”

The news surprised Johnny. “He didn't tell you when he sent for you?”

Scott's head went up. “He didn't...” then stopped. How he decided to come West was none of Madrid's business.

“I see.” So big shot Murdoch Lancer sends for him cuz he's ex-Cavalry, but doesn't let him know what he's in for. It figures.

Chapter Eleven: Green River

The stage pulled into Green River a few minutes after ten in the morning. It had been a long five hours and after sitting — or rather, being bumped around — so much, Scott and Abby were anxious to put their feet down on solid ground for a little longer than ten minutes.

“My, it's quaint here,” Abby remarked as Scott helped her from the stage. They noted the few buildings in an assortment of varieties. There was a dress shop, a cafe, a Protestant church, a saloon, a bank, a lumber yard, a livery, telegraph office, a general store and two hotels—one under repair. Houses occupied the outer rim area of the town, even branching off onto a couple of side streets. A few people walked the streets, some kids played tag in a small yard, and a man in a dark suit stood across the street with his back to them.

“There's no sheriff,” Scott observed as he perused the businesses.

“Towns like this, Lancer, may not have one,” Johnny explained, dismounting Sombra. He'd rode in just after the stage.

“What do the people do for law?”

“They enforce it themselves. Usually the big dog makes the law. That'd probably be your daddy, Lancer, beings how he owns the biggest spread in these parts.” He rubbed Sombra's legs, checking them for any soreness. The horse was sound. Satisfied, he patted the animal's rump, slipped his bridle and watched him drink from the water trough.

“Well, at least they have a doctor,” Abby nodded at a sign reading ‘Sam Jenkins, MD' in front of a small yellow house. A man in a black suit exited the house and started walking their way.

“He's probably the only doctor for miles,” Johnny surmised.

“Then he should know everyone,” Scott said. He led Abby purposefully toward the doctor. “I bet he can tell me about my father.”

Johnny hung behind, wanting to overhear but not be obvious about it. He pretended to be interested in his horse but he listened intently.

“Good morning, sir,” Scott greeted, doffing his bowler hat.

“And you too,” the man answered.

“I'm Scott Lancer and this is my wife, Abigail.” He was about to go on, but stopped short, seeing the man's face light up.

“Well, hello there, Scott!” The man took his hand. “I'm Sam, Sam Jenkins. It's mighty good to have you here you at last. I know your father is most anxious to see you!”

“That's good to hear,” Scott smiled.

Yah, Johnny thought. Bet he don't wanna see me, though. He smiled at that thought.

“Have you had a good trip?” Sam was asking.

“Yes, very much so. It's been...enlightening.”

“Is Mr. Lancer doing better?” Abby asked.

“Oh, yes, ma'am,” Sam answered. “He's very much up and about; he's been energized since he heard you two were coming. He walks with a cane, though. He was wounded in his leg a couple of months ago.”

Abby sobered. “Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that.” Murdoch hadn't mentioned a serious injury, only ‘health problems.'

“What about this other situation with the land pirates?” Scott was all business.

Sam grew serious too. He brought his voice down low. “It's been real quiet, Scott. Too quiet. Something's gonna break soon. Everyone is on edge, and, awaiting your arrival.”

“Well, we'll be there later today.”

“Good. Good to hear—” Sam was cut short by the stage driver.

“Ever'one in!” the driver shouted. “We're leavin'!”

“I guess that's our cue,” Scott took Abby's arm. “So nice to meet you, Doctor.” He offered his hand.

Sam took the firm handshake. “It's Sam. God speed, young man.”

Scott nodded and led Abby back to the stage. Johnny mounted Sombra, taking a last glance at the doctor.

Sam noticed Johnny for the first time. He frowned. What's a gunfighter doing here? he thought. Watchful, he noted that Johnny followed the stage out of town. That can't be good, he said to himself.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The stage rumbled into the small Mexican-influenced town of Morro Coyo a couple of hours after lunch, which was served at a ramshackle way station about 12 miles southeast. It had been beans, which were filling, but not exactly tasty and certainly not what Scott and Abby were used to eating for most of their trip. They hadn't appreciated the gas it produced in the bodies on the stage, either. So it was with more than relief that they hopped off the coach in this tiny town, elated to be finished with stagecoach travel. Their next stop would be Lancer Ranch.

Oh, how they longed to be there already! The arduous journey from Boston, which flew by in the first days, had become a crawl the last couple. California was beautiful, with wide spreads of land and few settlements, but they were ready for a hot bath, a good meal, a soft, warm bed and no more wheels.

Scott gathered their luggage while Abby perused the hamlet. A Catholic church, not much more than a mission, stood at one end, its bell tower prominent. A livery and corral occupied the other end, and in between was a hodgepodge of simple adobe buildings, including a saloon, Baldemero's General Store, a hotel, a small cafe and a cantina with brightly colored blankets adorning the windows. Scattered there and about were small adobe houses, some with tiny gardens, where the townsfolk resided.

A teenage girl approached Abby. She wore a simple dark blue skirt, banded at the waist, and a white button-up blouse. Her dark hair was pulled back and up, away from her face but fell down in soft curls past her shoulders. She looked young, but acted older.

“Mrs. Lancer?” the girl asked, looking at Abby.

Abby nodded. “That's me.”

The girl smiled and extended her hand. “I'm Teresa. Teresa O'Brian. Mr. Lancer's ward. My father was his foreman for many years. I'm here to take you and Scott to Lancer.”

“That's very kind of you, Teresa. My name is Abigail, but you may call me ‘Abby;' everyone else does.”

“Abby, then.”

Scott approached the two women. “Hello,” he greeted.

“You're Scott Lancer,” she greeted, extending her hand. She introduced herself to Scott, almost repeating herself verbatim.

“We appreciate the ride, Teresa.” Scott pronounced her name ‘Te-ray-sa.' “I just need to finish getting our luggage, and I have some other business to attend.”

Teresa nodded. “That's fine. The wagon is across the street. I can move it closer to the stage depot for you.”


The girl left Abby and crossed the dirt main street where two men on horseback waited with an open wagon with a long bench seat. “She seems like a nice girl,” Abby told Scott. “I hope she likes us.”

“Who can resist you, my love?” Scott asked, lifting her chin with his finger.

Abby laughed. “Certainly not you, darling.”

Scott squeezed her hand and once more turned toward the stage depot. Johnny had ridden in and was checking Sombra again for any sight of soreness. Finding none, he stood up to face Scott.

“This is where we part ways, Mr. Madrid.” He fished in an inner pocket of his traveling coat and pulled out an envelope. “You'll find your pay all here, in cash, of course. Enough for your trip back to Mexico, as promised. And, a little something extra for providing such excellent security.”

Johnny took the envelope. Paper money. He mentally sighed. “Are you sure you don't want me to go along to this ranch?”

“I don't think its necessary, Mr. Madrid. We're very close now and the girl has a couple of men with her. I don't think whoever is behind this will attack us in broad daylight this close to the ranch.”

Johnny knew better but he didn't voice it. If Scott didn't want him around he wouldn't impose. “Ok, Lancer. You and your wife stay safe. Adios .”

Scott nodded his goodbyes and hefted a heavy bag, returning to his wife. Teresa had expertly maneuvered the wagon behind the stage. The two men followed her. Scott threw the bag into the back of the wagon and went back for more. One of the men dismounted to help him.

Teresa jumped off the driver's seat and stood next to Abby. She noted Johnny, his dark Mexican looks and standout clothing, and his low-slung Colt. She recognized the look. Turning to Abby, she asked in a low voice, “What was Scott doing talking to that gunfighter?”

Abby glanced at Johnny then back to the girl. “Oh, he was our security guard, Teresa. He's been with us since Reno, Nevada. His name is Johnny Madrid.”

Teresa's eyes grew wide. “Johnny Madrid? The Johnny Madrid?”

“Yes, that's him.”

“I can't believe you hired that killer to protect you! It's a miracle you arrived here at all. That man is dangerous! He's immoral!” Teresa's whispered excitedly.

Abby smiled. “We thought so too at first, but he's not that bad,” she reassured the girl. “He was quite the hero on occasion.” She told the stories of the events in the Sacramento hotel and on the stage, leaving out the fact that it was her the outlaw had grabbed.

Teresa looked skeptical. “Well, I'm glad you two came out all right. Just don't tell Mr. Lancer. He despises gunfighters. Thinks they are the scourge of the West. ”

Scott came up to them. “All done!” he announced, slapping his hands together. Their trunks and all their luggage loaded down the wagon.

“Okay then, are you ready to go to Lancer?” Teresa grinned.

“Are we ever!” Scott laughed. He helped both ladies onto the wagon's bench seat. It was tight, but they all three fit. Teresa slapped the reins on the backs of the two horses pulling. They were a pair of matched duns, strong-looking and capable. The two men guarding followed on horseback.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny watched them ride off to the north. He never once considered heading back to Mexico. Scott may think himself safe now, but Johnny knew their danger was more now than ever. He was determined to find out who was the cause of it.


Lancer: A New Era
Part Two: Into The Fire

Poor man wanna be rich,
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied
Till he rules everything
Badlands, Bruce Springsteen

Chapter Twelve: Arrival

Chapter Thirteen: Drink?

Chapter Fourteen: Day Pardee

Chapter Fifteen: Sam's News

Chapter Sixteen: The Old Man

Chapter Seventeen: Where There's Smoke...

Chapter Eighteen: Rice for Dinner

Chapter Nineteen: A Little Fun

Chapter Twenty: The Line Shack

Chapter Twenty-One: Consequences

Chapter Twenty-Two: Day's Revenge
Warning: Graphic Violence and Imagery
      Sexual Situations
      Rated R

Chapter Twelve: Arrival

Johnny rode slowly, his horse walking down Morro Coyo's main street to the livery. Sombra needed a good rest, with plenty of high-quality oats and fresh hay. It had been a long, hard ride and he needed to care for his mount. He would have preferred to walk beside his horse given how he pushed him the past two days, but Johnny Madrid always needed to be seen in a position of power. It added to his mystique and kept the foolish young gunfighters from challenging him. He promised to spend a little extra time with Sombra as payment.

As he passed, townspeople hurried out of his way, or hid behind posts, ducked into buildings. Children stared wide-eyed, until they were yanked away by their parents. He was used to this. The easily-intimidated tried not to be seen, but he saw everything without appearing to look at all. Their reactions always amused him.

As he rode past the saloon, he noticed some men lounging in front. They had the look of bandito about them and if he were a betting man, he'd place a hefty wager that those were some of the men behind Lancer's troubles. They watched him, he saw, but made no sound, no movement. They were not intimidated, but neither were they aggressive. No, they just watched.

Johnny dismounted at the livery and, after taking notice of the layout, seeing no danger, he entered the establishment. An older man in torn overalls greeted him. He quickly made arrangements for Sombra's care. He unsaddled the black steed and rubbed him down himself, taking care to tend to the horse properly. Only then did he take his heavy saddlebags to the hotel.

He checked into a room facing the front. He wanted a clear view of what was going on in the town. If those men were indeed the land pirates attacking Lancer, he wanted to be able to keep and eye on them. He needed to know who their leader was and, if possible, discover the immediate plans for Lancer, and for Scott.

He had a thought, that if he could learn what the next move was, he could offer his services to old Murdoch Lancer himself. That would be such irony, he thought, if the son the old man had thrown out would help save him. Then he'd tell him who he was and walk away. But he had grown to like Scott, and was intrigued with the idea of having a brother. So he wasn't sure exactly how to proceed. He needed to think on it some more.

This indecisiveness was new to Johnny, and it disturbed him. In the past he'd always known what to do and how to do it, the only exception had been how to kill Murdoch Lancer. Once he found out how influential the man had become, he knew he couldn't just call him out. He still hadn't come up with a good way to get revenge for his mother.

But now he was unsure about many more things, Scott primarily. The Easterner now was a prominent player in the drama that was Johnny's life and the gunfighter wasn't ready to give him up yet. He'd made that decision back in Sacramento, when Scott had stood up to him. He'd always believed that if a man was willing to fight for what he thought was right, he should support that man.

Not returning to Mexico was about the only thing of which Johnny was certain; everything else was in flux. He was playing it by ear, day by day, even hour by hour. And since he was staying around, he knew he should find out about those banditos at the saloon. It was a good first step, he thought, and he now felt better about having some kind of a plan, even though it was only the beginnings.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Teresa kept Scott and Abby entertained with stories about Murdoch and the ranch as they rumbled down the uneven road, still muddy in places from the shower early this morning. She carefully avoided the current difficulty and her own father's death. It was still too painful for her to discuss with strangers.

Scott felt a few pangs of jealousy because this girl, not even a relative, knew more about Lancer than he did. But he quickly reminded himself: had he been reared here, he would not have met, wooed and married Abby—a fact for which he was most pleased.

About an hour into the drive, Teresa pulled up atop a bluff. “Lancer,” she said with a grand gesture, “As far as the eye can see.”

Scott stood to get a better view. There across a rolling green valley was a most beautiful land. Verdant grasses, nourished by the Spring rains, waved in the wind. In the distance, purple mountains scratched the sky. “The Coast Range,” Teresa explained, “It's between here and the ocean.” Every now and then a copse of trees signaled a creek or natural spring. “And there's more,” the girl went on. “The ranch is over 100,000 acres. Beyond those trees are pastures where most of the cattle are grazing. We rotate them to keep the grasses growing.”

When they had taken in their fill of the magnificent landscape, Teresa slapped the reins and they lumbered down the road again, a little faster downhill, heading toward the estate that Teresa now was describing. “The hacienda is so large. It's mainly two stories, with two wings for bedrooms—not to mention the bedrooms in the main portion of the house. Mr. Lancer must have planned for a big family!” She grew quiet, knowing the story of how those plans turned out. She had not told Scott about his half-brother who was probably dead; she figured that was up to Murdoch.

Soon they rounded a curve and a house began to come into view. Or rather, a community, it seemed to Scott and Abby. First they saw a tower with three arched windows all around. Then other parts of the hacienda came popped up: lush trees, multiple roof angles, high walls. They entered the rock-paved road and drove under a large archway, onto the hacienda lands proper. Now they had a good look. The house was indeed large and imposing; it dominated the landscape and was nestled among trees with the foothills of the Coast Range serving as backdrop.

Around the house were several outbuildings. A barn and several corrals on the left, with other buildings peeking out from behind trees and around angles. He surmised that was where the farm hands lived, along with the household help. It was a symbol of a wealthy and influential man, and it rivaled—no, it outclassed— Harlan's mansion in Boston. Scott was impressed.

As they grew closer, they saw cowboys, mostly Mexican in looks, come forward, smiling and greeting them. They looked truly happy to see them. That surprised Scott. Why would they be so joyous to see him? They'd never met him before, but it was like they were greeting an old friend.

Teresa pulled the wagon up to the front garden and immediately several hands ran up to help. Two unhitched the team, another two started unloading their baggage, and one came to help them down. Within minutes they were standing in the front garden admiring the efficiency of the ranch hands. The wagon was gone, the team already being cared for, their luggage on the way to their rooms.

“This way,” Teresa led. She was so happy they were finally here. And, with the addition of another woman in the house, she felt relieved to get some help. Maria, the cook, was a blessing, but being mistress of this great hacienda was too much for the young girl. She was happy to pass it on to an older woman.

Teresa led them to a walled courtyard, through a large oak door to a foyer and another archway where she indicated they should go. She vanished into an unseen room, leaving the couple alone. Scott took Abby's arm. “This is it,” he said. He was nervous.

“Relax, honey.” Abby patted his arm. “It'll be all right. I bet he's as anxious as you are.”

They passed through the doorway and down three steps. Scott looked up and saw a huge arched window behind a desk. A man, the largest he'd ever seen, stood near that desk, staring out the window. He stifled a gulp. So this was his father.

Chapter Thirteen: Drink?

Murdoch stared out the window behind his desk. He knew Scott and his wife had arrived from the sounds coming from the courtyard in front. His men were happy; delighted to have the son and heir home at last. He knew they had wanted this, for it represented continuity, a security of sort, that the ranch would go on. They did not know the primary reason for his coming. Nor did they realize that his stay may only be temporary. He wasn't sure himself what he wanted past his immediate need. Time would tell.

Murdoch heard the pair descend the steps, the sounds of their footsteps echoing in the large room. He turned toward them, leaning on his cane for support. He hated the thing. The cane made him feel old, inadequate, impotent. Those were feelings he was not used to having. It irritated him.

He looked at the couple. Scott was blond, like his mother had been, and tall and straight, like her. He had her kind, gentle eyes. It took his breath away. It was like Catherine was standing in front of him after all these years. He blinked and jerked himself back to reality. This was not his Catherine, but her son.

He noticed Abby, a trim, pretty brunette with large green eyes. She was smiling. She held his arm like she was born to. They made a lovely couple.

Scott was assessing him; he could tell.

Murdoch appraised, too. A second look revealed an intelligence behind Scott's blue eyes and he sensed that the man was careful with both words and actions. Those qualities would serve Murdoch well. But beyond the attributes he saw in his son, he could muster no feelings for the man.

He tried to wrangle with his apathy. He had adored Catherine, almost idolized her. She had been his calming rock, the one he turned to after a struggling day and would make whatever it was that bothered him feel trivial. But this man, Scott, was a stranger to him. He felt nothing. And that made him feel empty. He should feel something. This was his son, after all.

It made for an awkward moment. He needed to do something with himself. “Drink?” he offered, limping toward them.

“No, thank you.” Scott removed his gloves and stowed them into his hat. “My wife Abigail,” he presented. His voice was steady, not so with his nerves.

The woman strode confidently to meet Murdoch. Her smile was infectious, her manner gracious. “Sir,” she greeted. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

He nodded to her, taking control. “I'm sure you'd like some refreshment. Maria has some lemonade in the kitchen.” He gestured toward the back. “You can join Teresa there, too.” It was almost an order.

Abby was surprised. This was not the warm welcome she and Scott had expected. She glanced at Scott before excusing herself and leaving to search for Teresa, whoever Maria was, and the promised lemonade.

“You have your mother's eyes,” Murdoch stated flatly after the woman had left. There was little emotion in his statement.

Scott said nothing. He'd heard that before.

Murdoch turned back toward the the desk. He knew things should be different, but they weren't. He felt himself floundering and he didn't like it. “I want a drink.” He needed to fill his emptiness. He poured himself a measure of whiskey and walked to the window. “Come over here,” he commanded.

Deciding a drink may help calm his nerves, Scott began to walk to the table where the bottle was. “I think I'll settle for that drink.”

Murdoch spun around. “You'll do as you're told!” People usually did what he wanted, when he wanted. Still, his voice was more autocratic than he'd like. He mentally kicked himself.

Scott stopped short, raised an eyebrow in surprise, and gazed back at his father. “Will I?” he parried. He wondered just what the hell was going on.

Murdoch sat down. He wanted to make it clear to Scott why he was here. “I want no favors from you.” He knew his voice was too brusque, but the words were already out.

Scott stared for a beat then chuckled. If that's the way he wants it... “Far be it from me to spoil a family reunion.” He crossed over to where Murdoch sat and threw down his hat and gloves. “What do I call you? Under the circumstances, ‘Father' hardly seems—”

“Call me anything you like,” Murdoch interrupted. “We are strangers to each other.” He looked away, his tone still short. “Maybe that's my fault, maybe it isn't.”

“No apology necessar—” Scott was still trying to make heads or tails of this.

“You'll get no apology from me!” Again Murdoch rudely interrupted. He stood, suddenly feeling the need to explain. “The air needs clearing. Let's clear it.” He walked around to face Scott. “Your mother's family thought she was daft to marry me, not a year off the boat from Inverness. Maybe they were right. You were born. She died. I left you in their hands. Period.” His manner was straightforward, matter of fact.

Scott stared at his father. This was not what he expected. The man was truculent and cold, commanding and imposing. His letters hadn't seem so extreme.

Murdoch continued. “It's past, bad or good, right or wrong; it's past and gone. We're talking about now!” He walked over to the window. “What's happening out there, to this ranch.” Murdoch became all business; the awkwardness gone. Now he felt in control, back to his old self. His irritation faded along with his emotions.

Scott adapted quickly to the change. Putting aside his feelings, he leaned a hip on the table. “Your letter said you were having some trouble.” He didn't let on what all he had learned.

Murdoch launched into the story. “At the end of December somebody made off with one of our horses. A prize stallion. My foreman and I trailed them to Morro Coyo. We walked right into it. O'Brien was killed and I ended up with this leg that's gone sour on me. Since then, my fences have been cut, beef stolen, workers frightened off, burned out. Three months ago I had 150 vaqueros. Now I have eighteen.”

“You've been worrying about your ranch.” Scott was beginning to understand Murdoch.

Murdoch glanced at Scott then back out the window. He grew pensive. “I love this ground more than anything God ever created. I've got a grey hair for every good blade of grass you see out there. They're trying to drive me off this place.”

If Scott had entertained any thoughts of love from Murdoch Lancer, they vanished. This man seemed only to care for his ranch.

Scott recovered, hiding his emotions and displaying surprise. “These land pirates? You tell me that men can just come along and drive you off your land?” Jim Carrick's words came back to him.

“They're doing it. Since I was hit they've taken two other estancias.”

“What about...” Scott didn't finish. He recalled Johnny Madrid saying there was no law.

“...the law?” Murdoch read Scott's mind. “There isn't any.” He walked over to the bottle to refill his glass and went on. “They've killed a rancher already: Peterson from Fresno. The other quit, found business elsewhere. The only law we got here is pack law. The big dog gets the meat.”

Murdoch took a sip and continued explaining the situation. “They left me alone after that first hit, then came back after the other two ranches fell. But the past two weeks they've been rather quiet. I have a feeling that something big will happen soon.”

Scott listened carefully, now in his military mode. Remembering his conversation with Johnny, he asked: “Do you know who's in charge?”

“Pardee. Day Pardee. Gunfighter.” Murdoch scowled. “The worst kind of individual.”

“How many men does he have?”

“Twenty, twenty-five.”

Scott laughed. “That doesn't exactly put him in a class with Attila the Hun.”

“You've got the floor.” Murdoch wanted to see what Scott's plan was.

“Well it seems to me you have a very simple military problem here.” Scott walked over to the map of Lancer on the wall and slapped it. “One, find the enemy. Two, engage him. Three, destroy him.” He spoke with conviction.

Murdoch chuckled.

“Something funny?” Scott hadn't been joking.

“It's not that kind of a fight.” But Murdoch stopped, reconsidering. Scott was showing the mettle he'd hoped for. “But I could be wrong. I've got eighteen good men. Only the best stayed. You make nineteen.” He paused before continuing. “But I want more than your gun.”

“How much more?” What was this about now?

“I want your arms and your legs and your guts, if you've got any. And in return, I'm offering one-third.”

“One-third of what?”

Murdoch gestured to the window. “Of everything you see out there. One hundred thousand acres, twenty thousand head of beef, and the finest horses in the San Joaquin.”

Murdoch reached into his inside pocket and pulled out his wallet. He withdrew a paper, folded in thirds, and handed it over. Scott scanned the document. It was all in order, but it wasn't signed. Murdoch continued. “It's a partnership. I call the tune. Agree?”

Scott smiled. This could be what he was looking for all this time, that sense of purpose, that calling for his life. “I'll have to discuss it with my wife.”

“Fine,” Murdoch nodded. “But you won't get your share until you prove to me you're man enough to hold it.”

“When will you know that?”

“When you get the man who put the bullet into my leg.”

Chapter Fourteen: Day Pardee

Scott found Abby upstairs, in one of the larger bedrooms on the East side of the hacienda. It's lone, double-paned window faced the East so the morning sunrise would filter in the room. It was furnished with a double bed, covered in colorful Mexican blankets; a mirrored triple dresser boasting twelve drawers; a comfortable-looking rocking chair, cushioned in the same bright colors; an upholstered side chair in light blue; and dual tiny side tables with lamps. The colors of the curtains and other fabrics offset the dark wood of the walls and furniture. It felt inviting and homey.

Abby was unpacking, stowing their clothing in the drawers and hanging things in the adjoining walk-in closet. She glanced at him as he closed the door and smiled.

“Well, that was interesting,” he said, entering the room. He tossed his gloves and hat on the dresser.

Abby was standing in front of her trunk. She turned to him still holding a half-folded blouse in her hand. “Oh, Scott. I'm so sorry. Your father seemed so...curt. Boorish, almost.”

“You forgot ‘rude' and ‘autocratic',” Scott added with a smile. He bounced on the bed, laying down with his hands folded under his head, his legs crossed at the ankles.

Abby grinned, indicating with a finger that he get his shoes off the bed. He complied. “Well, the lemonade was refreshing. I met Maria. She is a wonderful Mexican woman who does most of the cooking. Her husband is the seg... segundo ? here. That's the foreman. It means the ‘second.'” She left to hang the blouse in the closet.

Scott stood up, frowning. He waited until she returned. “I just realized that he was rude to you, practically ordering you to leave the room. I'm sorry. I should have said something. I was so overwhelmed by the moment...”

“Shhh...” Abby placed a finger on his lips. “Don't even think about it. I had a fine time with the ladies. Much better than you did, I believe.”

“Oh, it got worse,” Scott handed her a shirt. She took it into the closet. “He wasn't remorseful about anything. He made me even more nervous. He didn't want to discuss the past; he practically barked out what little he did say. Now I have even more questions for him about that.” Scott sighed. “Anyway, he was more interested in discussing the situation with the ranch now. Then he was all business, no awkwardness there. He relaxed and so did I. He even seemed to appreciate my expertise.”

“So what's going on?” Abby asked as she came back into their room.

“Definitely land pirates. Trying to take the ranch. Led by a gunfighter named Day Pardee. They've already taken over two ranches, he said. Like Johnny Madrid told us, there is no law to stop them. If you can't defend what's yours, they can just take it.”

“Oh, my! Barbaric!”

“Yes, it is. I'm beginning to think that everything Jim Carrick and Johnny Madrid said about these men and this land is true.” He handed her another blouse.

“We could be in for quite a fight.”

“We? Not you, darling.” Scott shook his head as he caressed her cheek. “I want you to stay out of it. Stay here and help Teresa. She's just a girl, and being mistress of this ‘estancia', as Murdoch called it, takes a woman.” He fingered her neckline. “Oh, and just so you know...he plans to ‘pay' me for helping him.”

Abby raised an eyebrow. “Pay you? In what way? You're his son!”

“By giving me one-third of Lancer.”

“Oh!” Abby sunk into the blue upholstered chair. She forgot about the clothes. “What did you say?”

“I told him we'd talk about it. And we will.”

“Why one-third?” Abby asked, leaning forward. “Not that I'm greedy, but since you're his only son, I would think he'd offer one-half.”

“That's a good question. One I didn't think to ask at the time. Not sure it even would have been appropriate. Is there a polite way of asking ‘why not half?'” Scott laughed. “I don't think so.”

Abby grinned. “So when would you get it, the one-third, that is.”

Scott sobered again. “When I ‘get the man who put the bullet in his leg',” he quoted.

“He wants you to kill him?” Abby's eyes grew wide.

“He didn't say that. I think he meant that figuratively, when we stop Pardee and his men.”

“I don't know, Scott. Perhaps you should talk to Mr. Madrid. He knows about these things.”

“Madrid probably headed straight back to Mexico. His job here was finished.”

“Oh no!” Abby's hand flew to her mouth. “I just had a horrible thought.”

“What's that?”

“What if Mr. Madrid joins up with this Day Pardee?”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny stopped in the doorway of his hotel, scouring the street for activity. The men outside the saloon were still there, taunting an old Mexican man carrying water buckets. They played with him, shooting at his feet. The old man begged in Spanish for them to leave him alone, but they didn't. They continued to taunt him. It had been Johnny's experience that these kinds of juvenile tactics indicated men who lacked discipline, men who were bored and wanted action. It told Johnny that if these men were some of the land pirates, they had not struck in several days. But why?

The men's laughter at the old man's plight irritated Johnny. He wanted to stop it. Now was as good a time as any to find out who they were. He straightened his hat and sauntered over to the man with the buckets. Saying a few words in Spanish, Johnny took one of the buckets in his left hand. He walked casually toward the men and the saloon.

He took only a few steps before one of the men shot the bucket, spilling water. Johnny stopped for a second then continued walking toward them, saying nothing. He knew that would get their attention.

The men stopped their taunts and watched, wondering who this was challenging them. Johnny paused in front of them. Again, he remained quiet. He just stared at them. He wanted to unravel them a bit.

“Just what do you want?” a man snarled.

Johnny slowly looked them up and down. They were gunmen, that was certain, but where they Lancer's attackers? “You got bad manners,” he softly drawled. He was cool, detached, steady.

A blond chuckled. Another, in a black suit and string tie, removed the cigar from his mouth. “You gonna teach us some good ones?”

Johnny glanced over to the suited man. “Maybe.” He liked this kind of dance, this taunting. It lulled his opponent into a false sense of security, made them feel like they had the upper hand. It would ultimately lead to their downfall.

A third one, with his arms crossed over his chest and a grisly beard, chimed in. “Well, well. I do believe we got us a hard one here.” So they wanted to play. Good. His plan was working.

The blond chuckled again. A fourth stepped up. He wore a vest and his hat slightly back on his head. “Let's see how long it takes to make a dog outta you.”

Johnny glanced down for just a second, then back up at the one in the hat. He never once thought of the craziness of challenging six men at once. He'd done so before and won. “Okay.”

The man in the hat continued, “That's my water. Bring it here.”

Johnny stood still. He stared at each man, unmoving, waiting for a reaction. The man in the hat laughed. He turned to his friends then back at Johnny. “Dog wont fetch. He's gotta be taught.” He stepped down off the sidewalk, moving closer to Johnny. When he was a few feet away, he stopped, his hands loose by his sides. “Now hand me that water, mister. I mean to have that for my tub.”

“I doubt it,” Johnny quickly answered. His words were soft, his face almost smiling. None of them could guess how dangerous he really was.

“Oh, do you now?” the man challenged.

Johnny continued, “You think they got bathtubs in hell?”

Startled, the man blurted, “What's that?”

Johnny sprung into action. He threw the bucket at his adversary, distracting him. In a flash he had his gun out and aimed it, but did not fire. “You're dead,” he said flatly, every muscle tensed.

“So are you, sonny.” It was the man on the porch with the beard. His gun pointed at Johnny.

Johnny relaxed and looked up at the clear blue sky. He smiled. “Well, I picked a good day for it.” He oozed cool.

The bearded man continued, his voice cold, “You better believe me, sonny boy.”

Johnny's smile never faltered. “I do, I do. Only question now being how many of you are going with me?”

“Take him down, Coley.”

Coley pointed his gun again.

“I wouldn't,” came a new voice. A man emerged from the saloon. He wore a black hat and a fringed leather jacket. His mustache partially covered a scar on his face. He was clearly their leader. Coley paused, his gun still ready. Their boss glanced at his men then looked at Johnny.

“Day,” Johnny grinned.

“Long time, Johnny Madrid,” Day Pardee answered. At hearing the name, some of the men on the porch startled. Coley and one other hid their surprise better.

“Yeah, long time.” Johnny was remembering when Day had asked him to help on a job about six, maybe eight months ago.

“Care for a drink?” Day's slight Southern accent showed.

“Yeah, sure.” Johnny relaxed his gun arm, but did not holster his Colt. He walked slowly toward the saloon, the men parting for him to pass through, showing their respect for the notorious gunfighter. When he got to the doorway, Day stepped to the side.

“Madrid,” Day asked. “Are you lookin' for me?”

Johnny glanced back at the gunmen then to Day. “No, but I had a feelin' I'd find ya.” Or someone like you. He holstered his weapon.

Johnny walked into the saloon, noticing everything as usual. They were the only patrons. Day followed soon after with an Indian cradling a rifle. The Indian hung back while Day took the rear seat at a table, a bottle of tequila and bowls of salt and lime wedges in the middle. Johnny had no choice but to take the chair with his back to the door, and to the Indian. He did not like it.

They talked as they took tequila shots. The Indian watched, his rifle resting in his arms. Johnny turned to see him once, to let the man know he knew he was there.

Day started with small talk. “Heard you got shot in Mexico last year.”

“Almost,” Johnny replied, opening the bottle. “It was a revolution.” Day always liked to chit-chat at first. It was the Southerner in him. Johnny would play along.

“Any money?”

“Turns out they didn't have any. That's why the revolution.” Johnny grinned. He poured shots for the two of them.

“Plenty money here, John.” Day downed his shot. “You interested?”

Johnny sucked a lime. Now he was getting down to business. “This the same job you asked about before?”

Day grinned. “Yep, only now it's even better.” He fiddled with his glass.

“Why so?” Johnny grabbed the bottle again.

“More money,” Day laughed.

Day likes his job a little too much, Johnny thought; it made him more dangerous. He licked his finger and sprinkled salt on it. He downed his tequila and immediately sucked on a lime wedge.

Day watched Johnny with the lime. “We're hitting a rancher named Lancer. Biggest spread in the valley. He's almost done in, sent for his son to help. But the skinny is the kid's an Eastern dandy. He'll be easy pickin's.”

“That why you let up on your raids? Waitin' for the kid to show up?” He sat back in his chair a little.

Day sat up straight. “How'd you know we stopped?”

Johnny tilted his head toward the men outside. “Your men out there. They are bored.”

Day chuckled. “You always notice everything, don't you?”

Johnny downed another shot. He didn't answer.

Day got back to business. “So, you want in? I could still use you.”

Johnny sat all the way back. “I'll think about it.” He was playing it cool.

Day grew concerned. “You haven't made any other plans, have you Johnny?”

Johnny looked him in the eye. “Nope. I said I'd think about it and I will.”

Day stood. “Someone'll be here when you make your mind. But don't think too long, Johnny. You don't wanna miss out.” He grinned.

Johnny nodded. He grabbed the bottle again. Day indicated to the Indian rifleman and they both left. Johnny put the bottle down. He didn't want another drink. He had been right. Day was the one after Lancer. Lancer was in for some big, big trouble.

And so was Scott.

Chapter Fifteen: Sam's News

Teresa knocked on Scott and Abby's bedroom door. “Dinner's ready,” she called out. Downstairs, Murdoch slowly walked to the table, a long, sturdy piece of Spanish influence. Its chairs were ornately carved and upholstered with needlework. He stood at its head, propping his cane within easy reach. Three other places were set.

Teresa loped downstairs and entered the great room, smiling at Murdoch. “They should be coming down soon.” She took her place to Murdoch's left. She was excited to have them both here, especially Abby, another female in the hacienda.

Scott and Abby, having washed quickly and donned fresh clothes, came down the stairs together. They looked tired after their long journey but happy to have arrived.

“Here they are!” Teresa announced.

Murdoch nodded to Scott and indicated the table. Scott, ever the gentleman, pulled out the chair next to his for Abby before taking his place at Murdoch's right. Murdoch took his seat last and began pouring the cabernet. It was Lancer's own vintage, made from the small vineyard he purchased several years ago in the foothills.

Maria, the Mexican cook who Abby met earlier, entered from the kitchen. She smiled as she carried a platter loaded with sizzling inch-thick steaks. A second Mexican woman carried another platter with serving bowls of creamed corn and lima beans and a plate of sliced oranges from Lancer's grove.

They feasted on the well-prepared meal, fresh-tasting and perfectly cooked. The conversation was light, because of the women present, and mostly centered on Scott and Abby's trip. Remembering Teresa's advice, they did not mention Johnny Madrid or his part in their journey.

Teresa did comment about their clothing and suggested that they all make a trip into town in the morning and buy more appropriate items. “That's just not the style,” she said, having noticed Scott's plaid pants. “You'll need good, sturdy work clothes, too.” That convinced them to go, but Murdoch bowed out.

“Sam's coming in the morning,” he explained. “You three go.”

“Should we take some men with us?” Teresa asked.

“I don't think that'll be necessary,” Scott replied. He was sure of his abilities.

Murdoch nodded and drained his wine.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Breakfast was a casual affair, in a room off the large kitchen at a well-used round table. Maria again cooked; Teresa served the coffee. She was pouring the hot beverage into steaming mugs when Scott and Abby came down the stairs.

“Smells good,” Abby sniffed.

Gracias, señora, ” Maria smiled. She loaded Scott's plate with eggs, then offered them to Abby.

“Just one,” Abby said. She wasn't a big eater.

Scott reached for a biscuit and some bacon. The three of them sat down and ate. Well, Scott and Abby ate. Teresa sipped coffee.

“You're not eating?” Scott asked the girl.

“I've already eaten with Mr. Lancer,” she replied, “We wake up pretty early here and get started early. The buggy is all ready to go; I was just waiting for you two.”

“Our apologies,” Abby smiled. She took a biscuit. “We weren't aware of the schedule.”

“No matter,” the girl said lightly. “Enjoy sleeping in now. Soon you'll have to get an early start, too.”

Half an hour later, they climbed into the buggy, a different one from the day before. This one was lighter and meant for four people, with only a small payload area in back. Scott took up the reins as they headed south toward Morro Coyo.

“I know you just came from there yesterday,” Teresa explained, “but it's the closest town. It's tiny, but Baldamero's store will have everything you need. If there's something else you want, we may be able to arrange a trip to Green River.”

Shortly after passing through Lancer's arch, they met another buggy heading in. It was small, black and covered with a black canopy. One black horse pulled. The man driving wore a black suit.

“Hello, Sam!” Teresa greeted as he drove by. “Murdoch should be at his desk by now.”

The doctor nodded and clicked to his horse. He continued to the hacienda as the threesome drove toward town.

Sam Jenkins had been Murdoch's friend for over twenty-five years. The two frequently met for dinner, with Sam spending the night at Lancer before moving on to his next patient. They discussed much, and few subjects were off the table, so when Sam finished his physical exam of the rancher he didn't feel awkward about bringing up his meeting Scott and Abby in Green River.

“Well, I'm afraid that leg still needs more time. I'm still not sure what's causing your pain. I wish I could see inside to look at the bone itself. It's not healing right and I don't know why. And no riding with your back the way it is, either. And I want you to take small amounts of Laudanum at night if the pain keeps you awake.”

“Don't need the medication, Sam, but thank you.” Murdoch lounged in his big chair. “How have you been?”

Maria had brought them a midmorning snack of cheese and grapes. Sam picked up a morsel of cheddar. “I am wonderful. Been busy. I saw Scott and Abby in Green River when they were coming in. She is a beautiful woman.”

“Yes, she is. Scott chose well.”

“We had a nice little conversation before the driver got them back on the stage.” He took a bite. The cheese was mild.

Sam continued, “I saw something that day that disturbed me, Murdoch. As Scott and Abby were walking back to the stage, I noticed this gunfighter. He looked Mexican, wore a bright colored shirt, fancy concho pants, gun slung low. Instantly recognizable as a gunman. Anyway, he watched Scott and Abby. Closely. Too closely for my book. Then, as the stage pulled out, he mounted his black horse and followed.” Sam leaned forward. “I am worried, my friend, that he may be part of Pardee's gang.”

Murdoch sat back, digesting this news. He tapped his fingers together. “Well, it wouldn't surprise me. Pardee heard of Scott's imminent arrival. If I was in his position, I'd put a man on them, to look for the right opening to get to Scott before he can be of any help.”

“This morning I saw Scott and the two women heading into town. Alone. Do you think that is safe?”

“Well, I did, but with this news, I don't anymore. I'll send a couple of men after them. Thank you, Sam.”

Murdoch followed Sam out to the front courtyard. As the doctor rode off, he called for his segundo , a Mexican man in his fifties named Cipriano. He ordered Cipriano to send two men into Morro Coyo to keep and eye on his family. Satisfied with that job done, he returned to the cool depths of the hacienda and contemplated Sam's bit of news.

So Day had probably hired a man to follow Scott. It made sense. And it made Day more dangerous. Perhaps the gunfighter would try something more sinister. He'd have to be even more careful now.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The morning stage from Green River roared into Morro Coyo as Johnny left the hotel for the cantina he'd seen the day before. Tired of gringo food, he wanted a good Mexican breakfast. He'd slept in, common for his job since he usually worked at night or evening, so he saw lots of people in town going about their business. It was nearly noon and a couple of Pardee's men were out in front of the saloon already. He glanced at the stage passengers, assessing them as usual. They were no threat: a businessman and two women with a boy who looked about twelve. He entered the cantina.

Johnny warred with himself over his huevos rancheros and coffee, trying to decide his next move. Pardee could be brutal and merciless, he knew. The man was willing to do anything—including murder—to get the job done. That was one of the reasons he'd turned him down in Nogales all those months ago.

Now he was torn. He liked the idea of having a brother and he liked Scott; he even admired the man. He stood up to him. And it took guts to leave a comfortable life behind for the unknown, walking into a bad situation with little to go on. He wanted to support him.

But helping Murdoch Lancer was another thing entirely. For as long as he could remember, he hated the man. He had wanted to kill him. Maybe he still did. Scott's presence muddied the waters, so he was unclear on that topic. But to go as far as assisting the man responsible for abandoning his mother, well that wasn't as appetizing.

Still, there might be some fun in that after all. To help him, then let him know it was his rejected son who did so, may be the compromise he was after. It wasn't the first time he'd had that thought since learning about Scott. The plan didn't take Lancer completely down, but it might drop him enough notches to have serious regrets about his past actions.

Would that be enough for Johnny? For Maria?

It took a shot of tequila poured into his last cup of coffee to make up his mind for him. He'd go check out the situation at Lancer. If it looked like they needed an extra gun, he'd offer—for his usual fee; the old man wouldn't get his gun for free. If they were in good shape, he'd stay out of it. That he could live with. What he'd eventually do with Murdoch Lancer, well, he left that up in the air.

He made discreet inquiries and learned the general location of the hacienda. He would take a back road, not to be seen by anyone, especially Pardee's men. The last thing he needed was that man on his back now.

Johnny walked to the livery on the boardwalk opposite the saloon. He noticed that there was only one of Pardee's men outside now. He was idly wondering what happened to the other when a small boy ran into him.

“Oh, sorry Mister. Me and my friend—” the boy pointed to another who had run up behind him, stopped short and stood stock still staring at Johnny, a look of shock on his face, “Matt, what's goin' on?” he asked his friend.

Matt stared at Johnny a few more seconds before he ran away in the opposite direction. The first boy shrugged and took off after him, without a second glance at Johnny. Johnny chuckled. He wondered when the first boy would realize why Matt had run.

Johnny entered the dark, cool livery to get his horse. He paid the owner and entered Sombra's stall, giving him an apple and morning rubdown. He usually enjoyed this task; it was a special time for both Johnny and Sombra, but this morning he felt uneasy, as if he was being watched. Shaking off the feeling—it was probably because Pardee and his men were so near, or in anticipation of what he was about to do—he finished his task and saddled the horse.

Sombra was ready to go. He chewed the bit and wanted his head. Johnny would give it to him, but only for the first half-mile. He held him back the rest of the way. The situation was a powderkeg and he didn't know when he'd need the most from his mount.

Johnny galloped out of town to the west as a small buggy on the eastern side rounded the last curve before entering the village. Scott, Abby and Teresa neared Morro Coyo.

Chapter Sixteen: The Old Man

The buggy wheeled through the quiet streets of the small town, its occupants chatting happily. “You two will need all sorts of things,” the girl was saying, “Jeans, work shirts, jackets, hats...” They didn't notice two men leaning on the posts outside the saloon.

Bolman and Leeds lounged on the saloon porch. They watched the buggy and its occupants intently, recognizing the Lancer girl as the one talking. The other two people, though, they didn't know. Pardee would have to hear of this. “You wanna go?” Bolman asked.

“No,” Leeds replied, his hands up. “I've gotten into enough trouble with the boss today.”

“That's what you get for losing your man,” Bolman chuckled and headed inside the saloon. He found Pardee sitting alone at a table, a bottle in front of him with two empty glasses. “There'a a couple going to the general store,” he reported. “They're with that girl from Lancer. What should we do?”

Pardee frowned and stroked his mustache. “We need to know who they are. Go lean on them.” Pardee stood and motioned to his men inside the saloon. He followed Bolman to the porch, mounted his horse and led his men out of town.

“Mr. Baldemero!” Teresa called as she bounced the store. “Mr. Baldemero!” She was like a kid, brimming with happiness.

“Yes, my child.” A Mexican gentleman in his forties emerged from the back. He recognized the girl. “Oh, Señorita Teresa! It is so good to see you today.”

Teresa did the honors. “Don Baldemero, this is Scott Lancer and his wife Abigail. They need to buy everything!” She flung her arms wide.

Scott and Abby greeted the man and perused the store. It was jam-packed, with two tables in the center, both laden with goods. Around them on shelves and tables against the walls were stacks of other products, only semi-organized. The food stores piled against one wall, horse and saddlery gear on another. Stacks of hats occupied one of the tables in the center.

“Quaint,” Abby noted.

“And cozy,” noticed Scott, feeling a little claustrophobic in the cluttered store. He picked up a hat. Two men entered the store, unnoticed by the other occupants. They studied the couple.

Baldemero greeted Scott and Abby but was cut short by Teresa, who led him toward the clothing area. “First they need work clothes.”

“Of course, Señorita Teresa! The son of Mr. Lancer and his wife must have the very best!”

Bolman and Leeds glanced at each other, understanding the storekeeper's words. So it was true: Lancer had sent for his son and he was here. Bolman stepped forward as Scott was trying on a hat. When Scott reached for a second one, the outlaw grabbed it. “I was looking at that hat.”

“Oh, were you?” Scott picked up anther one.

“And I wanted that one,” stated Leeds.

Scott found himself sandwiched between the two men. They were dirty and they smelled and it was clear they wanted to tussle with him. He remained calm, detached. “Where I come from there are two ways to settle this situation,” he began. “One is—” Scott threw a hat into Bolman's face as he elbowed Leeds to the floor.

Bolman came after him. Scott backhanded him, sending him down. Leeds got up and lunged at Scott. “Stop it!” screamed Teresa. Abby knew better than to distract Scott. She hung back, praying for her husband to win.

Mr. Baldemero joined the chaos, screaming “Please! Por favor! ” for the men to stop tearing up his store. They ignored him as they threw punches and knocked over merchandise. Scott held his own until Leeds grabbed him from behind. Bolman knocked him out of the store and onto the dirt of the street. The outlaws walked away, back to their horses. They laughed at the greenhorn in the dirt.

Teresa ran out to the street, with Abby following. They helped Scott up. He was dazed and unsure on his feet. “Let's get you home,” Teresa said.

But Abby knew her husband. “No,” she corrected.

Confused, Teresa studied both Abby and Scott. Scott focused on his wife. “You're right. I came to buy clothes and clothes I shall buy.” He straightened and together with his wife, re-entered the disheveled store. Teresa, surprised at the turn of events, followed them in.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny dismounted. He had stopped on a bluff with the Lancer hacienda in view and stared. The hacienda screamed of wealth and prestige, and it cut Johnny to the core to know he and his mother had been banned from its benefits. He looked away; his hatred too strong to continue gazing at the community. His desire to kill Murdoch Lancer grew with each passing moment. The image of Scott popped into his mind. Scott Lancer, his brother. Just getting to know his father. He couldn't take that away from him.

Johnny drew deep breaths to calm himself. He needed to be cool, to think clearly. He was grateful in that moment for Scott because his brother gave him that steadiness he sorely needed. In the past, he'd been able to draw on his gunfighter persona for that distance, but these emotions were too strong, too ingrained, for the Madrid persona to control alone. He needed Scott's memory.

It surprised him that someone he barely knew could have such an effect on him. Only once in his life had that happened; it was his great-uncle Esteban, the man who had found he and Maria after his “stepfather” Luis died, who took care of them until Maria's death, who found a home for him until he ran away at age 14 to join Esteban. Johnny had been immediately drawn to the flamboyant gunfighter who entered his life at a turbulent time.

Maybe it was something about Scott, almost the opposite of Esteban in nature, that he somehow sensed was a good fit with him. He didn't know, but he did realize that now was not the time to ponder such thoughts. He shook it off.

Back to business, Johnny studied the hacienda and its layout, picking up details that he'd missed before in all his emotion. The high walls and that tower would make great defense positions, but they were empty; no one patrolled. The only defensive move he saw were at the bridge just beyond the Lancer arch. There two men were blocking the access road with a laden cart. They were armed with rifles only. For a man under siege, Lancer was taking an awful lot of chances. That or, he simply didn't have the manpower to properly defend his home.

Johnny snorted at that idea. Lancer was the largest ranchero in the San Joaquin valley. He had to employ well over a hundred men, some of them with families, perhaps teens who could take up arms as well. Then again, he had been hit these past few months. Maybe Pardee was running a game of attrition and most of Lancer's men had left already.

If that was the situation, then he was definitely needed. His gun, expertise, and knowledge of Pardee and his range war tactics would be huge assets to Lancer and his ranch. With grim determination, he steeled his emotions and mounted his horse.

He was stopped at the arch. Joe, one of the two rifled men, hailed him. Johnny stopped. Joe stepped closer to the horse. “Your business, sir?”

Johnny surveyed the man. He was a cowboy, not a gunman, easily taken and intimidated. Johnny turned his horse so his right side faced the cowhand. With the gunfighter's Colt in full view Joe got the idea. He took a step back. “I'm here to see Murdoch Lancer,” Johnny drawled softly.

Joe nodded and waved him past. The other hand moved the cart from his way. It was so easy. Pardee could have gotten past these two in a heartbeat. Lancer should be ashamed of himself for having such poor security.

He rode slowly in, expecting to see more riflemen, but there were none. A couple of hands worked a horse in one of the corrals, another watched but didn't look his way until he stopped Sombra in the front courtyard. The courtyard was pretty, with yellow flowers in pots and red bougainvillea draping its arches. Still, no armed men. He couldn't believe the hacienda was this defenseless.

A Mexican man in his fifties approached him from the barn. He, too, was unarmed. Had Pardee been here instead of Johnny the man would be dead. “¡Hola! ” Cipriano called out. “What brings you to Lancer, amigo ?”

Johnny dismounted, a slow graceful drop to the dirt. He gazed at the men in the corral who finally stopped their work to watch. “Murdoch Lancer?” he asked.

“In the hacienda, señor.

Johnny said nothing but tied Sombra to a hitching post. He walked toward the arches. Cipriano stepped up to stop him. “You cannot go in, señor .”

“I think I can,” Johnny replied and brushed by the man. He was not going to be denied entry into what should have been his own home. He opened a double arched door and stepped inside. He was in a tiled entry garden, private with adobe walls. More plants in pots decorated the area. Very nice, he assessed, trying not to think of the tiny house Luis, his mother and he lived in all those years ago. He drew a deep breath to calm himself. A massive front door was to his right. He reached for the knob.

The dark coolness of the adobe structure assailed him. Standing for a moment to let his eyes adjust, he took notice of the room. Another entry room. Just how many rooms would he have to go into before he actually got to the heart of this damn house? A mirror occupied one wall, stairs in front of him, with a door behind them, and one more door to his right. He opened it.

He stopped in the arched doorway to a great room. It was huge, larger than any he'd ever seen before. Toward the back an expansive arched window, with views of another corral and rolling hills. A bookcase walled one side, with a long trestle-type dining table in front of it. On the other side, an alcove with a huge fireplace. Above the fireplace a large circle with an L in it. Lancer's brand.

“Who are you? How did you get in here?” an old man clamored. He had been at the desk in front of that window but now stood. He was tall, one of the biggest men Johnny had seen. He'd taken Lancer off guard and he could tell the man didn't like it.

Johnny took the steps into the room slowly, never taking his eyes off his father. What had his mother seen in this tall, gruff man? She had been beautiful and vivacious. He couldn't figure it out.

Lancer grew even more irritated. “I said, who are you?”

Johnny smiled ever so slightly. So he really had the man on edge. Good. “I'm Johnny Madrid.” He figured Lancer would relax once he learned he was the one who provided protection for Scott and his wife.

“You're a gunfighter,” the old man snarled. “Get out of here. I don't want your kind here.” He waved to indicate Johnny should leave and made a move to sit back down.

Johnny was surprised, but he didn't let on. Murdoch didn't seem to know about his duties to Scott; maybe his brother hadn't had time to mention him. His stare was unwavering. “Oh, I think you do.”

Murdoch stopped, pulling himself up again, suddenly aware of this man's look. He remembered Sam's warning. ‘He looked Mexican, wore a bright colored shirt, fancy black pants, gun slung low. Instantly recognizable as a gunman.' That described this man. Murdoch took the offensive.

“Why were you following my son in Green River?”

Johnny hesitated only slightly. If Scott hadn't told him anything, how did he know about him being with Scott in that other town? He chose to ignore the question. “I hear you have some trouble here.”

Murdoch was annoyed Madrid didn't answer. “What's it to you? And I asked you a question!”

Johnny decided to tell him some of the truth. “Your son hired me to protect him. I'm offerin' you a similar opportunity. You need guns. I have one.”

Now it was Murdoch's turn to be surprised. He didn't hide it. “My son would never hire scum like you. You work for Pardee. Get out!” He pointed to the door.

Johnny ignored him again. “Pardee is vicious, unrelenting and cruel, Old Man. And that son of yours has military experience but it don't put him on par with Day. You need me. I can help you get rid of Day and his men. But I ain't cheap. You'll have to pay.”

“I'm not paying you anything, Madrid. I said get out. Now go. I don't want your kind here.”

Two men rushed into the room. They held rifles on Johnny. He held up his hands. “Ok, I'll go, Old Man.” He pointed to Murdoch. “But you'll be comin' ‘round to me soon. Better make it before something happens to that precious son of yours.”

“Don't you threaten my son!”

“It ain't a threat, Old Man, not by me. Pardee will rip him apart. You'll find him face up in a ditch, ants crawlin' over his eyes.” Johnny turned, leaving.

“Don't you ever come back to my house, damn you, Madrid!” Murdoch barked after him.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny had galloped away from Lancer, but now out of the hacienda's view, he slowed Sombra to a walk. Not in a hurry, he pondered his meeting with his father. The man was big. Big and loud. And in a mood. The man needed sex, that was certain, if he was that ornery. He idly wondered what kind of woman Lancer preferred. Maybe the girl. In his inquiries, he'd learned that the daughter of his slain foreman now lived in the hacienda with him. Maybe something was going on there. He didn't put it past the Old Man.

Johnny disliked his father. He was abrasive and authoritarian. Well, it had been Johnny's experience that big ranchers tend to be that way. It comes with the territory. Just as gunfighters can turn off their emotions to get a job done, an influential rancher has to be gruff and tough to get where they are.

And the man definitely disliked him. Or rather, what he was. Gunfighter scum, he'd called him. Most people didn't like men in his profession, but Lancer's feelings were more than that. He really despised gunmen. All of them, it seemed. He wondered what could have caused such intense hatred in the man. Either way, it would be funny when he found out who Johnny really was. He laughed out loud, startling Sombra.

Calmar, amigo, ” Johnny soothed his horse. “ Lo siento. ” He patted the animal's black, shining neck.

Well, one thing was for sure. Lancer didn't want to hire him but he desperately needed his help. Maybe Scott would see Lancer's weaknesses and act accordingly. He hoped so, for his brother's sake. Whatever the reason, Lancer was underestimating Pardee. He just hoped Scott wouldn't get hurt in the process. Johnny decided to stick around a few more days. Maybe he could find out more about Pardee's plans, or where his men were hiding, or anything he could pass on to Scott. Scott didn't mind getting help from ‘gunfighter scum.'

He kneed Sombra and loped toward Morro Coyo.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott laughed as he wiped off his face with the cool bandana. They were stopped by a small lake on the way back to Lancer. “I knew it would be a rough fight, I just never figured those two were that strong.”

“You held your own, darling,” Abby smiled. “I'm proud of you.”

“Until they threw you out in the street!” laughed Teresa.

“Yes, but he got up and completed his mission. Just like the Cavalry man I married.” Abby gathered her skirts and climbed up the incline back to the main road.

Scott continued to tend to his wounds. Teresa followed Abby. The women stopped when they saw a rider coming toward them. “Why, hello Mr. Madrid,” Abby greeted. She stepped forward; Teresa hung back.

Johnny stopped short of the buggy, eyeing the two rifled men on horses watching from behind the vehicle. He tipped his hat. “Ma'am.” He looked at Scott. His brother stopped his ministrations and ran up the bank, joining his wife.

“Mr. Madrid. I would have thought you would have left for Mexico by now,” he smiled.

Johnny looked around. “I wanted to check out the situation with your father's ranch first.”

“You talked to him?” He realized Johnny must have been coming from Lancer.

“Oh, yeah, I talked to him. But he wasn't listenin'.” He dismounted and pulled Scott away from the women. “Look, Lancer. You don't know what Pardee is capable of. You need help, but he's too proud to lower himself to hire ‘scum' like me. So you watch yourself. You and that pretty wife of yours. Pardee won't hesitate because she's a woman.”

Scott swallowed, remembering the stage robbery. “I thought of that.”

“And one more thing, Lancer.” He nodded toward their escort. “Those men? They aren't guns. They are cowboys. I could have taken them out before they even saw me.”

“I see.” Scott's worry showed. “Thanks for the warning, Mr. Madrid.”

“I'm Johnny. The job is over, Lancer.”

“Scott, then.” He offered his hand.

Johnny shook his brother's hand for the second time. “Scott.” He mounted Sombra and clicked him to moving. “Ma'am,” he said as he tipped his hat again. He nodded to Teresa and once more turned Sombra toward town.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott tried to concentrate on Johnny's warning over the chatter of the two females in the buggy. If Johnny thought he needed help, then Lancer must really be hard up, security-wise, or Pardee was just that good. A little of both, maybe.

He realized he must formulate a plan, maybe several, to defend the hacienda. He wondered what kind of protection Murdoch had in place already. Scott kicked himself for not noticing Lancer's defensive tactics yesterday when Teresa brought them in. He'd look into that now, for certain.

And Johnny had been right about their escorts, too. They weren't soldiers, they were cowboys. He needed to train them, at least give them the basics, so they'd be effective at the proper time. He also knew he'd have to rely on Murdoch to know his men and be able to relay to him their expertise. He just hoped he had time.

Again Scott questioned Abby's presence. He had brought his wife into a hostile situation without realizing the severity of it. Not that he had a choice. He chuckled inwardly: it hadn't really been his decision; she never once considered not coming. She had spunk, his wife. He'd have to watch over her, as Johnny had suggested, but he knew she wouldn't tolerate being coddled. He'd have to tread carefully to find the right balance of protection and yet allow her independence, else he find a personal battle on his hands.

And that war, Scott Lancer knew, was one he could not win!

Chapter Seventeen: Where There's Smoke...

The firebell warning rang out as the buggy passed under the Lancer arch. Scott immediately slapped the reins and the vehicle surged forward. Teresa and Abby held on as Scott pushed the horses hard. They followed the vaqueros to a smoky hillside north of the hacienda.

A field of hay, almost ready for harvest, was aflame. The three of them jumped out and ran to help. Murdoch was already there, barking orders, and women and children also pitched in, carrying water from a nearby creek, digging up the ground with shovels, beating flames with jackets and blankets—anything to assist el patron .

Abby took charge of the women and children, organizing a triage area where the men who were overcome with smoke could get water and rest. Teresa drove the buggy back to the hacienda for more blankets and medical supplies. Working side by side, the two of them cared for the injured or indisposed.

Scott led some men over to the northern edge of the fire, where it threatened to spill over to another field. They worked hard to keep it manageable and to stop it from spreading.

After nearly three hours of hot, exhausting, smoky work, Murdoch gave the order to retreat. They had managed to control most of the fire. “The rest will burn itself out by nightfall,” he said. Dog-tired and drained, everyone backed away, coughing from the smoke. Abby sent three girls around with buckets of water and ladles, offering respite to the weary workers.

Murdoch rode back to the hacienda with them in the buggy. In contrast to the unending chatter from town earlier in the day, no one said a word going home until they arrived at the courtyard. Murdoch gave orders to give special attention to clean the buggy of its smoky odor. Scott himself brought their purchases inside, not wanting to burden another Lancer hand.

“That's the third field Pardee's burned,” Murdoch told them as they entered the hacienda. “A few more like that and our cattle won't have feed for the winter.”

“We need to stop him before that happens, Sir,” Scott said grimly, more determined than ever to plan Lancer's defense.

“You will,” Abby supported. She grabbed one of the packages and started upstairs.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch's angry rebuff had done little to weaken Johnny's resolve. In fact it was stronger than ever. Gone was the ambivalence and questioning; his father's reaction convinced him of a different plan. He would help Murdoch come hell or high water just to have the satisfaction of throwing it back into his face. His son, his unwanted and tainted gunfighter son, would be the one to save him. Revenge would be sweet.

And in the process he'd help Scott also. That made it even better. He looked forward doing his job.

Johnny emerged from his hotel and sauntered to the saloon with one goal in mind: to gain information about Pardee's hideout. The outlaw always had a man or two at the saloon, sometimes more, but this afternoon he'd been watching from his hotel room. There was only two.

Two would be easier to ply with drink than three or more. It was hard getting that many men tipsy without arising suspicion. One or two was ideal. Of course, there may be more men inside the saloon who hadn't shown themselves, but that was unlikely, given how long he'd been watching. If that was the case, he'd just go in for a drink and try later.

He approached the saloon's porch, not bothering to greet the men. He knew they'd talk first. He was right. His boot had just set foot on that first step when one of them opened his big mouth.

“Pardee ain't here, Madrid,” he snarled.

Johnny kept walking, continuing up the steps.

The man jumped in front of Johnny. “Did you hear me? I said he ain't here.”

Despite his disgust, Johnny eyed him warmly. He had to play a part to get them to talk. “Not looking for Pardee. I'm looking for a drink. Wanna join me?”

The man relaxed his stance and smiled, a wicked grin displaying several missing teeth. “Always liked a man who offered drinks.” He stepped aside, grandly gesturing for Johnny to enter first.

That was too easy, Johnny warily thought. “After you,” he insisted. He didn't need to be hit from behind. He nodded to the other gunman, “You gonna stay out here or come in and drink?”

The two men glanced at each other and shrugged. “Why not?” They hurried up the steps into the saloon.

Inside it was dark and comfortable. Johnny sat at a table in the corner, in his usual position, and ordered a tequila setup. For an hour the three men drank, reminiscing over past jobs, past women. Johnny used the alcohol and his charm to gain their trust before carefully plying them for real information.

But Johnny learned little that he truly wanted to know. One started to tell about their hideout in the foothills, but to Johnny's disappointment, the other jabbed him in the arm and stopped him from saying more. It took another bottle before the man's tongue loosened enough to offer one interesting and unusual tidbit. Their assignment the next evening was to be at Lancer's Briar Creek line shack.

Johnny knew something was planned, but the banditios offered no clues as to what it was. They probably didn't know themselves. Pardee was like that; he gave out just enough information to his men, but little more. Day liked keeping them in the dark.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

After baths, a change of clothing and dinner, Scott and Murdoch sat in the great room enjoying a nightcap. Murdoch's favorite in the evenings was his single-malt Scotch and Scott was giving it a try. “Smooth,” he remarked appreciatively. He mulled over the day's events and wanted to breach the subject of the hacienda's security but hesitated.

Murdoch seemed pre-occupied. Scott let it go; he assumed it was because of Pardee and the fire, but after a few awkward moments of silence, the older man spoke up. “I had a visitor today,” he began. “A gunfighter named Johnny Madrid. He offered his gun. He wanted me to believe that you'd hired him for protection on your journey here. I knew he was lying. He works for Pardee, I'm sure of it. But why he was really here, I don't know. Maybe to appear to work for us, but act as a spy for Pardee.”

Scott had forgotten that Johnny had seen Murdoch today. The incident flew out of his mind when he heard that firebell. “We did hire Mr. Madrid for protection, Sir. And I don't believe he'd hire on with Pardee. He wants to help us.”

Murdoch sprang to his feet. “Why on earth would you employ such vermin as that gunfighter, Scott? I've seen him in a gunfight. I found it quite disgusting. He killed a man with no remorse, Son. None whatsoever.”

“Well, Sir,” Scott drew a deep breath. “At the time, there was no one else. Believe me, I was more than skeptical at first, but after a while he proved himself. He thwarted two attempts against us, one in Sacramento and the other while we were on the stage.”

“He did, did he?” Murdoch thoughtfully put down his glass. “Did you ever think that those incidents were staged to make him appear to be the hero to gain your trust?” Scott's eyebrows flew up. Murdoch continued. “That's how men like that work. They appear to be your friend, to have your interests at heart, and when you really trust them, they turn on you. They are really good at it, too.”

Scott knew of men who did such things, but he did not believe Johnny to be one of them. “Johnny isn't like that, Sir.”

Now it was Murdoch's turn to be surprised. “Johnny? You're on a first name basis with him? When did this happen?”

Scott felt uneasy being interrogated by his father like he was a disobedient child. “Well, today, I guess. He met us at the lake on the way back from town. We talked briefly and suggested I call him that.”

“You talked to him today? Do you realize he was nearby when that fire was started? He could have been the one to do it!”

“I don't believe he'd do that, Sir.”

Murdoch shook his head. “You don't know him that well, Son. I know the type. I know what they can do, what they actually do. It makes much more sense that he's Pardee's man than yours. You're going to have to trust me on this. I know. Why would he offer his gun to me otherwise?”

“To help us?” Scott knew he sounded naive.

Murdoch snorted. “Hardly. Men like that don't want to save a ranch. They want money and the big money is in taking it down, selling the cattle, its other assets. Running a ranch takes time and effort. They don't want to do that. They want the quick payoff.”

Still, he couldn't believe Johnny was the same sort as Pardee. “Well, I like the man, Sir. And I don't see why we can't hire him on. We need all the help we can get and he's quite capable.”

“Absolutely not, Scott. His loyalties aside, gunfighters are the lowest trash in the West. I will not have one on this ranch. Never.”

Murdoch was adamant, but Scott needed to understand his reasoning. To him, his reaction wasn't rational. “But, Sir, why? What have you got against gunfighters?”

Lancer looked up at Scott. His mien was so earnest that Murdoch found it hard to be angry at the continued inquiry. Instead, he softened, poured himself another drink, downed it then gazed out the dark window. Long minutes ticked by before Murdoch answered. When he finally did, his voice was low, as if confessing. He drew a deep breath. “Gunfighters are the reason your mother died in Carterville, Scott. Had they not laid siege to this ranch, I would never have sent her away. I would have been with her when you were born. She may not have died.” His voice softened to almost a whisper. “Things could have been totally different.”

Nonplussed, Scott could only nod. Now he was beginning to understand. Johnny, no matter how well-intentioned, would not get the chance to prove himself to Murdoch. The man's prejudice ran too deep, involved too much emotion.

“Time for you to get to bed,” Murdoch thickly announced, putting an end to their conversation.

Scott didn't like being dismissed like a child, but he reasoned that his father's emotions were running rampant now and needed to be alone. “Goodnight, Sir,” he said, putting down his glass. He trudged up the stairs to join his wife.

Abby had put away all of their new clothing and was in bed, her back to him. She was asleep already, exhausted from the day's activities. Tired as well, he quickly undressed and joined her. Safe and warm nestled close to his wife, Scott fell asleep.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

In his hotel room, Johnny tossed and turned, unable to turn his mind off. He kept thinking of his Old Man, of Scott and the situation with Day Pardee. Rarely had he been in such a state when on a job. He'd almost always been able to fall asleep quickly. In his line of work, that ability was almost as prized as marksmanship.

He knew he'd be a wreck tomorrow if he didn't sleep and wanted to do a little exploring in the morning, getting the lay of the land. A little reconnaissance was always a good thing. But he needed to be on top of his game.

Finally he gave up, got out of bed and re-dressed. There was a bordello on the outskirts of Morro Coyo and he knew he'd find distraction there. And it may be just enough of one to allow him that elusive sleep.

The streets were nearly deserted this time of night, but that didn't mean Johnny Madrid wasn't aware, even on this kind of mission. Never taking anything for granted, he noticed every shadow where a man could hide.

He glanced over at the busy saloon. A few of Day's men were there, enjoying the beer and the saloon girls, but he knew Pardee had many more somewhere. Day was always good at hiding his true numbers. He'd take to a town like this one, and keep a few men visible, but always hold some in reserve, hidden away, so his enemies never knew how many they faced. Johnny knew he had to find that hideout tomorrow.

La Puerta Cerrada [The Closed Door] was a good name for a bordello. He'd never known one that didn't have more than a few closed doors. Walking in, he noticed four women in the lobby area, one behind the bar. That was a lot of working girls who weren't working.

It wasn't a fancy place, just a moderately-sized functional room with minimal decoration, Mexican blankets that would have been brighter had the lighting been better. A single lit candle occupied the middle of each of the four tables, providing the only light. Johnny frowned. It had been his experience that a bordello with such sparse lighting didn't offer the best girls.

“What's your pleasure, handsome?” a too-thin blonde breathed as she sashayed toward him, her breasts almost bursting out of her tight bodice. “Whatever it is, I'm sure I can accommodate you. I'm real good at what I do.”

She was more than obvious and instead of appealing to him, it had the opposite effect. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.

“Down, Anna,” said the voice behind the bar. The woman circled around with a couple of glasses in her hand. “Go wash yourself,” she told the blonde. She offered Johnny a drink. “Care to sit a spell, honey?”

Anna pouted as she trod to the back, disappearing behind a door. Johnny almost laughed. The new girl was a little older, but somehow looked fresher. Her dress was revealing, but not overly so, as if she knew her assets were desirable, but didn't have the need to give them completely away. She smiled sincerely at him. Wisps of her light brown hair fell over her large brown eyes. “I'm Eliza,” she said as he took the glass and led him to a table.

“We need more candles,” Eliza began as they sat, “But business has been rather poor lately. It's that Pardee and his men. They run off all the best customers, and they don't always pay.”

“Well, I always pay,” Johnny sipped his drink. It wasn't watered down. He was surprised. “And I'm here tonight.” He smiled.

“That you are, honey. That you are.” Eliza laughed.

Chapter Eighteen: Rice for Dinner

Scott left his wife at the breakfast table, intent on going outside to where Cipriano had cut some horses for him to try. The sun was bright, even though it was still early morning, and would burn off the chill before too long.

He crossed the courtyard, reveling in the beauty that assailed him. Wide, open spaces greeted him in stark contrast to Boston's confinement and congestion. His home city would be still be a study in grey this time of the year, but California was bright and colorful, with purple mountains, green hillsides and a beautiful clear blue sky.

Buenos dias, Señor Lancer,” Cipriano greeted. “Here are the horses.” He pointed to a smaller round corral where three steeds pranced in anticipation. Two were chestnuts, one with a long blaze down his face; the other had four white feet. The third was a dapple grey. “They are good mounts, Señor . Strong. Spirited. They were only broke last week. El Patron , he told me you were Cavalry in the gringo war, no?”

“Yes, Cipriano, I was.” Scott nodded to the horses, “And those are some fine examples of horseflesh. Thank you.” Scott eyed them appreciatively. The grey trotted around nervously but the stockinged chestnut appeared to look right at him. “I think I'll try that one first,” Scott pointed.

Cipriano nodded and motioned to a hand. Paco came running. Speaking in rapid Spanish, he told him to cut out the preferred horse and saddle him for Scott. Paco nodded his acquiescence and ran off to do his chore.

Scott turned to the segundo . “I would like you to find a mount for my wife as well, Cipriano. She is an excellent rider and would prefer a good mare if you have one.”

“I do, Señor , I do.” Cipriano withdrew to the right, into the barn and disappeared into its cool darkness.

Paco brought the saddled chestnut to Scott. “ Para usted, Señor. El caballo con las patas blancas. ” [For you, Sir. The horse with white feet/legs.]

Gracias. ” Scott had already learned the Spanish word. He took the reins; swiftly and cleanly he mounted the white-footed chestnut. It half-reared at first then sidestepped a few feet before he began picking up his feet in anticipation. Scott took a firm grip and kneed the horse. It took off. Running at full speed, the chestnut fled down the lane and under the arch.

The men watched, unknowing if the son of el patron would be able to command the horse. They soon got their answer as they saw the horse returning, skimming under the arch and flying over a fence before coming to a halt under Scott's expert rein.

“A good horse,” he remarked, dismounting. “I'll take him.”

“Oh, Scott that was wonderful!” Abby clasped her hands. She had emerged from the hacienda as he first flew under the arch. “You haven't lost your touch.”

“Never,” Scott smiled. “I asked Cipriano to get you a mount, too. You'll be riding more here.”

Abby smiled. “I plan to. In fact, Teresa wanted to show me where she goes to harvest wild rice. We were going to go shortly.”

Scott's face grew somber, remembering Johnny's advice. “Don't go alone, darling. Take a good man or two with you.”

“Don't worry, my Love. We will.”

Murdoch limped forward to them, leaning heavily on his cane. “I see you found yourself a horse.”

“Yes, Sir. He's a fine animal.”

“Good, good.” Murdoch seemed to be distracted for a moment. He glanced around the ranch. Men were busying themselves in the usual manner, nothing looked out of place, but he felt uneasy. It was a feeling he'd felt since Pardee had first hit.

“...our defenses?”

Murdoch startled out of his reverie. “What? What about our defenses?” he asked Scott.

Scott had been talking for a good five minutes, yet the man had not heard a word. “I wanted you to show me our defenses, Sir. What assets we have, where likely avenues of attack would be, what our weaknesses are. In case we have to defend the hacienda.”

“Oh, that. Of course,” Murdoch complied. He lead Scott around to the back.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny rose early and breakfasted quickly, scarfing down the gringo fare at his hotel. He needed to find that line shack, and if possible, snoop around and locate Pardee's hideout. He was sure Scott would want to mount a surprise attack where the outlaws thought they were safe.

He slipped out the back of the hotel and eased around through hidden alleys and side streets to the livery. He did not want to arouse the suspicion of any outlaws in the saloon, should they be up already.

Sombra was ready to go. The black horse stomped impatiently as Johnny saddled him. Soon they were off toward the northwest, avoiding the area of the Lancer hacienda, but heading in a direction to take them to the foothills near where he'd been told Briar Creek ran.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Lancer's best gun, Nate Simpson, hand-picked by Murdoch, arrived to escort Teresa, Abby and Josefina, Maria's youngest daughter, to the Soledad marshes. He brought the three horses, including a spirited young mare that Cipriano had selected for Abby.

As they passed under the Lancer arch, Nate tipped his hat twice. “It sure is gonna be a scorcher today, isn't it, Miss Teresa.”

Teresa looked at the unclouded blue sky. “Sure looks that way.”

“Then we'd better hurry so we'll be back before it gets that hot,” Abby grinned. She kicked her horse to a gallop.

Abby was indeed an excellent rider. She had competed in riding expositions before meeting Scott and the two of them had a regular routine of Sunday afternoon riding excursions back in Boston. Then she had to wear proper clothing, but today she felt freer in Teresa's suggestion: jeans and a shirt with her hair tied back. She was glad the girl had talked her into buying the casual wear.

The four of them headed south, toward the area called Soledad, Spanish for ‘sadness' or ‘loneliness.' The area was beautiful but isolated; the name fit. It was a lowland field, frequently flooded, and yielded fine, nutty-tasting wild rice. An hour's gentle ride brought them to the edge of the marshes. They skirted around to the wild rice field, which was heavy with harvest.

“Oh, my,” Abby remarked. “It is so beautiful here!” They dismounted and the women tugged on knee-high waterproof boots to began their work, filling the sacks of rice for tonight's dinner. Nate kept watch. He stayed on his horse for a better view.

“How did you and Scott meet?” Teresa asked as she began to pick the rice.

Abby positioned her sack to stay open and started to yank the grasses. “He was in Philadelphia for business with my father and came to dinner. It was almost love at first sight.” She laughed, remembering.

The women conversed until almost eleven in the morning as they picked their bounty, covering such topics as men, housework, California, and men again. Teresa and Abby worked well together and included Josefina in their chat. When they had collected all they needed, Nate carried their round sacks to his and Josefina's mounts to carry back to the hacienda.

¡Hola! ” a man cried, galloping up on his horse. Nate was finishing tying the last of the sacks to his mount. He paused. Before him was a wiry man, about forty or so, with several days' growth on his face.

Before he could react, the man yanked Nate's gun from its holster and held it up. “Don't even think of trying anything.”

Nate did as he was told. He backed away, standing in front of the three women, his arms spread as if to protect them all.

“Move away,” the gunman ordered, flicking Nate's gun to indicate to the left.

Nate hesitated. He didn't want to expose the women.

“You have a death wish?” The outlaw snarled.

“Don't hurt these ladies,” Nate implored. “They ain't done nothin' to you.”

The man laughed, displaying his stained teeth. His startled horse pranced, but he got the animal under control quickly. “Weren't plannin' on hurtin' anyone, boy. Jus' takin' one of ‘em.”

Both Abby and Teresa gulped. Josefina looked down. She was the youngest, barely fourteen, but she understood the dangers.

“You there,” he pointed to Abby. “You Miz Lancer?”

Teresa's fingers snaked around Abby's arm. “Don't say anything,” she whispered.

Abby glanced at the younger girl. “I am not afraid,” she whispered back, even though her heart raced. She looked straight at the man, meeting his eyes defiantly. “I am Mrs. Scott Lancer.” Abby wished with all her might that Scott had come with them. Or for Johnny Madrid to suddenly show up. But he didn't.

The outlaw grinned. “You're the one I want. Mount up, Lady.”

“Don't go, Miz Lancer,” Nate pleaded.

The gunman once again turned his visage on Nate. “There you go again, wanting to see hell before noon. Stay out of this, boy.” He kicked out his boot, smacking young Nate in the face. The youth went down. Blood flowed from Nate's temple. He was out cold. The gunman flicked a paper on the boy's chest. Josefina dropped to her knees in fear.

“Now, Miz Lancer, if you don't mind,” he gestured grandly toward the horses, indicating that she should get on.

Abby strode bravely to her horse, desperately trying to think of a way out of this situation.

“You can't do that!” Teresa yelled. She ran up to the man.

“Why, ain't you full of spunk?” The man leaned down, leering at the girl. “I'll bet you'd be a really wild ride.” Teresa gasped and backed away. The man laughed. “If only I had time...” the man muttered as he turned his horse toward Abby.

He watched the woman. Abby fumbled with the reins. “Sometime this morning, Miz Lancer.” She shot him a look of disgust and hopped up, catching her boot in the stirrup. Before she could get a good grip on her reins, the man grabbed them. “No ideas, now Miz Lancer. You don't wanna be no trouble, do you?” He kicked his horse into action and Abby was jerked into motion. They galloped away.

For half an hour he led them in a mostly northwestern direction. He spurred his horse to a faster and faster gait, pulling the mare. She was a good rider, but being unused to this Western saddle and not in control of her horse put her at a disadvantage. Abby held on to the pommel with both hands, not wanting to fall off. As they rode, her initial fear faded, replaced by a drive to escape.

When she could, Abby concentrated on her surroundings, trying to figure out a way back to the hacienda, should she be able to get away. It was difficult, though, for the man kept changing directions and speed and she was having an increasingly tough time staying in the unfamiliar saddle.

They entered the foothills. Here, he slowed to a fast walk. Abby was grateful for the change and allowed herself to relax a little. At least she didn't have to try so hard to stay on.

He stopped under a tree's canopy and dismounted. “Get off,” he ordered, his manner gruff. Abby glanced around, wary again. Would he violate her? “Turn around.”

Abby's heart pounded as she was certain he would begin to tear off her clothes. But he did not. Instead he threw a dirty bandana over her eyes and tied it tight. “Don't take this off, now. If'n you see, we'll have to...well, you know,” She could sense him leer.

He shoved her back on her horse and led the mare in the foothills, around rocks and under trees. Abby ducked close to the mare's mane. It helped her remain steady on the horse with all these obstacles. She wished the man would slow down so it would be easier for her, but she didn't want to do or say anything to anger him.

After what seemed like hours, they stopped again. “Get off,” he ordered. Abby slid down to the ground obediently. “We're gonna walk the rest of the way.” He grabbed her reins and pushed her forward, guiding her roughly from behind with his free hand.

Unable to see the path, her rubber-booted feet stumbled over and over. The outlaw pulled her up each time, grabbing her arms forcefully. “Miz Lancer, you don't walk so good,” he laughed.

She felt herself growing angry at this brute who was taunting her. And truly lost. She now had no idea where she was or what direction they traveled. But he knew where he was going and within another half hour he stopped. She could hear water running and horses nickering. A gentle breeze cooled the air. She was in the shade, she could tell. She didn't feel the sun on her face.

“Welcome, Mrs Lancer,” came a voice. “I'm Day Pardee.”

Chapter Nineteen: A Little Fun

Satisfied and with full knowledge of the hacienda's defense positions, Scott headed to his room to formulate a plan. He knew they'd need a well-rehearsed course of action, one they could quickly learn and implement on a moment's notice.

Murdoch had briefed him on the general abilities of all of his men. That made it easier for Scott to start training. Most of the cowboys needed more practice with their weapons and Murdoch had agreed, seeing the need for better-trained men. Murdoch had even given his approval for an attack on Pardee, should they find his hideout. Scott's head filled with ideas.

He got so far as the front garden when shouts rang out over the sound of galloping hooves. Three horses ran at top speed toward the hacienda. The lookout on the roof—Scott's first idea, already implemented—waved the signal to let them in and the men at the gate moved away their laden cart just in time to let the three pass.

The horses continued their dead run into the main yard, a direct violation of Murdoch's rule regarding fast riding so close to the hacienda. Scott could now see who was riding in: Teresa, with their escort and the other girl. But no Abby. Hadn't Abby said she would go with her to get rice? Scott ran up to the horses.

He could see Nate's bloodied face. Teresa's hair had come down and now spilled over her face. Red stained the other girl's white blouse as well. What had happened?

“Scott! Scott” Teresa yelled. She threw herself off her horse and continued running into his arms, her momentum carrying him back a step. “They got Abby!” she cried, tears beginning to stream.

“Who? What? ” Scott couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Murdoch emerged from the hacienda, ready to pounce angrily at those violating his rule, but stopped short when he saw the blood and the women. “What's going on here?” he yelled.

Teresa lunged at both men. “They got Abby! A man—”

“Just one man?” Scott asked incredulously. How could one man take down Lancer's best gun? Murdoch had vouched for him. Said he could protect the women better than even Johnny Madrid.

Teresa nodded, tears making a path down her dusty face. She panted. “Yes. He kicked Nate. Knocked him out. He made Abby get on her horse. They took off to the mountains.”

Scott's thoughts ran wild. Was Abby safe? Only one kick had taken Nate out? Where had they taken her?

“Who, sweetheart?” Murdoch asked Teresa softly. “Who did this?”

The girl took a crumpled paper from her pocket. “He left this.”

Murdoch read the note then handed it to Scott.

Lancer—We have your son's wife. If you want her back, give up the hacienda by tonight. Leave. We will be watching. She will be returned to you.

If you do not leave by dusk, we will have ourselves a little fun tonight.

Scott looked at Murdoch. “Pardee,” he said grimly.

Murdoch nodded. “Pardee.”

Scott didn't hesitate. He didn't wait for permission or ask advice. He immediately ran to the barn. His new horse stood in his stall, munching on hay. “Come on, boy!” he said to the animal. “I'm gonna see what you're made of.”

He rode out of the barn, pausing only to grab a rifle from Nate's saddle. Murdoch yelled to him, “Stop! You don't know where you're going.”

“Yes, I do. I'm going to get her!”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Abby heard laughter. Someone shoved her against a rock. Unable to see, she grasped the stone to steady her. The next voice she heard gave her a chill.

“Well, ain't you a purty one. C'mon, Day. Let us have some fun with her now.”

“Not yet, Coley,” Day drawled. “You'll get your chance tonight. Lancer won't cut out just for her. He don't even know her.”

“Then why kidnap me?” Abby found her voice. It was strong and steady, unlike the way she felt.

“Because, little lady,” Pardee leaned toward her. She recoiled from his reeking breath. “My men here, they like a little action now and then.”

Abby shuddered. It was a foregone conclusion. She would be raped. Her heart raced in fear.

“If'n he ain't gonna leave, why don't we take the woman now?”

“Let's give the man a chance,” Day answered. Abby could sense his sinister smile. “He's got until nightfall. Let him sweat. Besides, won't she be more terrified if we wait, then take her at night? Won't that make it more exciting?”

The outlaws chuckled in lurid sadism. Abby shuddered again. She knew her fate, but she'd be damned if she let it happen without a fight. She started working on her binds, trying to get enough room to slip one of her tiny hands out.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott's only plan was to ride toward ‘the mountains.' But as he left sight of the hacienda, he stopped short. Murdoch was right. He didn't know where he was going. He didn't know the land or have any intelligence regarding Pardee or where he could be. But he did have an idea. He shifted his direction and galloped toward Morro Coyo.

Johnny Madrid was there, or at least, had been. If he could find the gunfighter he knew together they would be able to get Abby. With no time to waste, he kneed his mount. The chestnut was game and leveled out in an all-out run. Scott leaned forward in the saddle, close to the horse's flying mane.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch cursed under his breath. He hadn't wanted Scott to run out, to go off half-cocked in search of his wife. They needed a plan. With Scott gone, he'd have to come up with one by himself. This was one of the reasons he'd wanted his son to come here in the first place.

First he attended to the wounded. Nate wasn't hurt badly, but he was sporting one hell of a headache. Murdoch sent him to his bunk once Maria cleaned him up and bandaged him.

The girl Josefina was all right. The blood on her blouse had come from Nate. She was shook up, though, and Maria sent her to bed also.

Teresa insisted on helping with the others before cleaning herself up. She was scared, but her fears ran deeper; she had read the note.

They had to leave by dusk. Someone was watching. Those words suck in Murdoch's head. If only Scott hadn't ran off.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny returned to Morro Coyo disappointed. He'd found the line shack by Briar Creek but saw nothing there to indicate anyone was there or had been there. Nor did he see any preparations for the future. He wondered, not for the first time, that the banditos had given him bad information, drunk as they were.

He had spent valuable time scouting much of the surrounding area, looking for Pardee's hideout. He saw no evidence of the camp, but that wasn't surprising. Given the kind of country it was—broad, mountainous and rocky—dozens of men could be hidden and he wouldn't have found them.

Later he would follow some of Pardee's men and see if he could find their hideout that way. But for now, he was hungry. He hitched Sombra to the hotel's post and went to the cantina.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

As Scott galloped toward the tiny town, he smiled at the idea of running to a gunfighter for help in spite of Murdoch's advice. But Johnny just couldn't be an ordinary gunfighter. Oh, he could kill, and do so efficiently, but there was something more about this young man.

It intrigued Scott how quickly he had grown to like Johnny Madrid. After he got that little thing settled about his attitude toward Abby, that is. But now, riding to ask his assistance, Scott reconsidered that entire episode in a new light. The outcome of his encounter with Madrid over Abby had left them with a mutual respect and he wondered if Johnny had planned it all to begin with. He had not seen Johnny act in like that with any other woman; in fact, the gunfighter's manners with regard to women almost matched his own. So then, he concluded, it had been a test. One which he was sure he'd passed.

He and Johnny appeared to be opposites, if one didn't look deeper. While he could only guess at the gunfighter's background, he was sure it wasn't as sterling as his own. Johnny must have had a hard life and a difficult childhood. Yet from seemingly opposite histories, they both grew to be similar in character, or so it looked from Scott's point of view.

Yet, he realized he was new to the West and to the idea of gunfighters in general. Murdoch hated them, and people seemed to be wary or even afraid of them. Certainly in Day Pardee, if he was a prime example, then that fear, hatred and wariness was definitely warranted. But Johnny somehow seemed different.

Maybe Johnny viewed gunfighting like a job, not unlike he had view the killing he had done in the War. It was something he didn't enjoy, but it had to be done. Good men do perform seemingly bad acts, just as even the most unsavory will occasionally do something good.

He slowed his horse as he neared Morro Coyo. Sweat and lather covered the chestnut's neck and he breathed hard, but he still had something left in him. He entered the town at a gentle lope.

Scott saw Sombra tied to a hitching post in front of the hotel and sighed in relief. Thank God! Johnny was still here. He jumped off the chestnut and tossed the reins over the hitching post. The horse dipped his head into the trough, drinking deeply.

Running inside the hotel, Scott looked around. No Johnny. Five long steps and he was at the registry, scanning the names for Johnny's. He took the stairs by two and was outside Johnny's door in seconds.

He knocked.

No answer.

Where was he? Scott knocked again. “Johnny!” he called out.

“What's your hurry, Scott?” came a soft drawl from behind. “You ran in here like a chick—”

“They've got Abby!” Scott exclaimed, grabbing Johnny by the shoulders. “They're holding her hostage.” His stare was firm.

“All right, Scott.” Johnny's tone was easy, relaxed. “We'll take care of them. Together.”

Scott looked into Johnny's eyes and knew he had made the right decision in coming to the man. “Thanks,” he breathed.

Johnny nodded. “I want to know everything. Leave no detail out.” He led Scott into his room. Once inside, Scott related the story, about the rice, Nate, the hard ride back, the blood, and lastly the note.

Johnny sat still, silent throughout the telling and for minutes after. That tidbit he learned from Pardee's men last night was beginning to make sense. But there was no need to tell Scott about it yet.

“Any ideas?” Scott asked.

“Yes, but you ain't gonna like it.”

“Let's hear it,” Scott said grimly.

“You said they are watching. That means one of two things: they have a man posted literally keeping an eye on things or...they have an inside man. Or both.”

“A spy.”

“Yes. Anyone hire on recently? Just before all this started?”

“I don't know. Murdoch hasn't discussed...”

“All right.” Johnny stared at Scott. “I want you to go back to Lancer.”


“We have to assume that they have a mole. You'll go back, say you tried to find her alone, you failed. You're the greenhorn who ran off and got lost. Play the part. Think you can do that, Scott?

Scott nodded. He could act the fool if he needed to save his wife.

“You did not come to me. They can't know you have help—any of them. Not your father, not that girl, no one. Convince your father to make it look like he is obeying their demand. Pack wagons. Saddle horses. Announce it to the men. No one knows its all for show except you and your father. No one, Scott.”

“And just before dusk, leave. Make a big show of it. When you get to the curve around that lake—the one with the large rock. Where we talked yesterday?”

Scott nodded.

“Good. When you get there, I want you to stay. Say you need some time alone. You're worried about your wife, pretend to break down, whatever, just let them go on without you.”

“Play the fool again,” Scott said grimly.

“Yes. If they have a spy, he may be playing it out too. I'll be there waiting for you. When they are out of sight, we'll take off to their camp. But Scott, keep up your act until you see me.”

“You know where they could be?”

“I found something out yesterday. Pardee hires men who talk too much when they drink.”

“Okay, but why not break out of the greenhorn act as soon as they go on? Why wait for you?”

“We have to assume that they'll have someone watching.”


“I'll kill him, Scott.”

Scott paused. Johnny's matter-of-fact statement regarding taking a life caught him off guard. His talking of killing in such a nonchalant way surprised him. Maybe we aren't as much alike as I thought, Scott entertained.

Johnny went on. “Have your father continue until he gets to that path in the woods, the one that cuts to the back road to Morro Coyo then double back to the hacienda. He should pull the wagons into the barn and hide them. So when Pardee comes to take Lancer he'll think it easy pickins.”

“How do you know all these paths, these back roads, Johnny? You told me days ago you'd never been here before.”

Johnny smiled. “I wouldn't be much of a gunhawk, Scott, if I didn't get to know the lay of the land when planning a range war.”

Scott thought back to his Cavalry days. “This really is war, isn't it?”

“Yep, Scott.”

Scott stood up. “Then I am in need of a sidearm.”


“Now,” Scott said, arms akimbo.

“But—” Johnny thought they should put their plan in action quickly.

“But nothing.” Scott interrupted. “Now,” he said firmly. He knew he needed to be armed to go into battle.

Having no choice, Johnny reluctantly accompanied Scott as he trekked to Morro Coyo's gunsmith, a refined old gentleman named Leandro. No one knew if that was his first name or his last. All people ever called him was Leandro. He was Mexican, and had evidently come from the monied class, before they lost political favor. He carried himself in that manner, and dressed like a South-of-the-Border dandy, but he did know more than his share about weaponry.

Scott and Johnny walked into the store. Johnny paused, smiling slightly, taking in the sights. Against one wall rose columns of rifles: Henrys, Winchesters, Remingtons. Holsters adorned the opposite wall and behind and under the glass counter were handguns of all shapes and sizes.

Scott walked up to the counter. Leandro looked up from wiping down a Colt. “Hello!” he called. “I am Leandro. Welcome to my store!”

“Leandro, I'm Scott Lancer—”

Leandro beamed. He immediately opened his arms in greeting. “Mr. Lancer! I have heard of your return to your home! Welcome to California, señor .”

“Thank you.” Scott gestured toward Johnny. “This is Johnny Madrid.”

Leandro's eyes flashed fear but only for a moment then he collected himself. “ Señor Madrid,” he spoke respectfully. Johnny nodded slightly.

“I am here to purchase a sidearm, Leandro,” Scott stated. “And Mr. Madrid will be assisting me.”

“Of course, of course. I have many models to—”

“And we're kinda in a hurry,” Johnny added. “He doesn't need anything fancy or overly expensive. Just a well-made weapon with true aim.”

“Yes, yes. I see. Well, we have—”

Johnny pointed to a Colt under the glass. “We'll look at this one. Do you have a shooting range out back?” When Leandro nodded, Johnny continued, “Good. Let him try it out.”

The gunsmith, forced to speed up the sale by Johnny Madrid, did as he was told. He handed Scott the heavy weapon and grabbed a box of bullets.

Johnny perused the practice area. It was enclosed in high adobe walls, with several targets to chose from. “Ok, Scott. Shoot something.” Johnny impatiently waited, his arms crossed.

But Scott wasn't quite ready yet. “What about the other guns in the case?”

“I liked this one the best, Scott. Shoot.”

Scott smiled. “You're the expert.” He took a stance, aimed at a painted target and fired. He missed the center, hitting an inch or two to the right.

“Were you aiming there?” Johnny asked.

“No, but that's not the gun's fault. I'm better with a rifle.”

“Do you like how it feels in your hand? Is it smooth? Is the trigger adjusted to your liking?”

Scott turned to Johnny. “It's a handgun, Johnny. It works. You try it.”

Impatient, Johnny took the weapon and slipped it in his holster, handing Scott his own Colt. He lifted it out of the leather two or three times before drawing. He fanned the hammer twice, hitting the target dead center both times. “It's pretty good,” he said as he holstered the weapon.

Santa Maria! ” Leandro exclaimed. “ Muy rapido! ” His eyes glowed in admiration.

Johnny frowned slightly. He wasn't trying to draw fast, only to get the job done.

“He'll take it,” Johnny told the gunsmith. They walked back in the store. Johnny returned the Colt to Scott, taking back his own weapon. “It has nice action, feels pretty smooth and good response. And it's aim is true.” He slapped his brother on the stomach with the back of his hand. “You need to practice,” he grinned.

Scott spent another thirty seconds selecting a holster, again with Johnny's help. He would have liked to have taken more time, but there was this matter of needing to find his wife. They left the gunsmith a scant ten minutes after entering.

“Ok, Scott. Now get back to Lancer. Leave the gun with me. Let's keep this purchase a little secret for now.”

Chapter Twenty: The Line Shack

Sweat ran off Abby's forehead. It trickled down her face and neck and was beginning to drop between her breasts. Her place against that rock was now in full sun. She didn't know how long she had been in their camp, surreptitiously struggling to free herself, but it had to be way past noon now.

Her wrists were sore and her arms ached from her efforts. She wasn't sure if she'd be successful in her attempt, but she did know it gave her a sense of purpose, a bit of hope in a near-hopeless situation. If nothing else, she'd be able to fight back and inflict a few injuries of her own.

Someone had come along and offered her nourishment, a sour-smelling thing she rejected immediately. They had laughed, saying something like she'd need her energy for later, and left the food—or whatever it was—on the ground not too far from where she crouched. It positively reeked now, turning her stomach.

Another man approached her. “Water?” he offered. He wasn't Pardee; she'd come to recognize his drawl. But whoever he was, he sounded kind.

“Yes, please,” she answered. She felt a ladle to her lips and drank gratefully. She nodded when finished. “Could you pour some over my head?” she asked. “It's quite hot.” She had a plan.

The man did as she asked, dousing her with the cool water. Instantly she felt refreshed, but more importantly, the water soothed her hands and she was able to work on freeing herself again.

She had counted over fifteen men, based on their voices, but she couldn't be sure. The thought of ‘entertaining' that many men spurred her efforts. Her wrists were almost rubbed raw, but she was making progress. She could almost slip one of her tiny hands out. But what to do once she was free? She had heard horses but she couldn't isolate the origin of their sound. If they were hidden she'd need to know where they were in order to run. But ride to where? She had no idea where the hacienda was, and at one hundred thousand acres, it could be a long time before she found help. And she had no weapon nor much expertise in how to use one should she be able to arm herself.

But still she tried to get herself free. She had no other choice.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

On the ride back to Lancer, Scott pondered the best way to reveal his plan to his father. He admitted he didn't know the man well enough to foresee his reaction, but he guessed he wouldn't take it well. He wanted to break it to him gently, but time, he knew, was running out; dusk would come before they knew it. He realized that he wouldn't have the luxury of taking it easy. He just hoped Murdoch would be understanding.

He contemplated Johnny again. The cold-blooded way he talked about killing a man bothered him, yet he jumped right in to help him rescue Abby. Didn't even think about it. And he sure knew handguns. He'd never purchased anything so important so fast. Johnny was right, too. He did need to practice.

But he wondered why Johnny had thought it important not to tell anyone he was helping. He didn't understand why the gunfighter wouldn't want credit, especially when it may get Murdoch to see him in a better light.

Scott's horse trotted under the Lancer arch; he was determined to play his part well. He would be a convincing fool, the greenhorn who bit off more than he could chew. No one would know his true mettle. No one except Johnny.

Inside the Lancer courtyard, he looked around. Nothing looked out of place, yet there might be a spy here or someone watching. He scanned the horizon. Not that he'd be able to see anyone; they'd be well-hidden.

Joe came to take his tired horse. Scott walked dejectedly toward the door. Nate ran up to him. “You didn't find her, sir?”

Scott put his hand on the boy's shoulder. He looked terrible. His face was bruised and swollen under the bandage. He imagined the boy still had one huge headache. And yet he was concerned for Abby.

“No, Nate, I did not. I got lost instead,” Scott lied. “Thank you, though, for all you did.”

“I didn't do anything, sir. Except get myself kicked.” Nate looked down in shame.

Cipriano came to him next, the look on his face telling all. The segundo dismissed Nate. “You tried, señor . You had to try.” Cipriano admired the young man for making the effort, at least.

Scott nodded. He found Murdoch inside, sitting at his desk, scowling again. “About time you come back. I need you here, clear-headed, to help me think.”

So much for a warm welcome. It was all about the ranch, still. Scott let it go. “I am now, Sir, and I have a plan.” He sat next to Murdoch and began abruptly. “We have to get away from the hacienda.”

“Never!” barked Murdoch. He bolted from his chair with a burst of speed Scott hadn't thought possible for a man with a bum leg. “I will never leave this ranch! If that's your great idea, then you aren't worth anything to me.”

Scott shook his head. He hoped Murdoch was playing a part, too, for everyone to hear, but somehow he didn't think so. “Please sit, Sir. I have thought of everything. Listen.”

“Have you now? Have you thought of how that would ruin the morale of my men? What that would do to the families of the men who work here? Have you considered what kind of message that sends to the surrounding ranches?” Murdoch shook his head.

Scott doubted Murdoch's motives were that altruistic. “Sir, if you'll just hear me out—”

“Obviously you've not thought of this ranch, the hours, the sweat, the lives it took to build it up.” Murdoch rose and gazed out his big window. “You don't know what it's like here. What it's been like.”

“Sir, please. I am new to California, true, but I do know tactics and strategy. Just give me five minutes to explain.”

Murdoch remained silent, gazing out his window. A horse trotted by. It was a black and white paint. A Lancer horse. His horse. He was not about to give it up. Abby was probably dead already, anyway.

“You are thinking with your heart, Scott.”

“No, Sir. I am not. But you are. All your reasons are emotional. You haven't even heard what I plan.” What we plan, Scott thought, considering Johnny. He knew now why Johnny hadn't wanted him to mention his involvement. Murdoch would balk even more. It surprised him that Johnny knew his father better than he did.

“I have too much invested in this ranch to just give it up.”

Scott rose, walked behind Murdoch and whispered slowly. “We won't really leave. We'll just make them think we are.”

The big man spun around, confusion on his face. “What?” he asked, matching Scott's soft voice.

Scott was grateful his father gave him the benefit out the doubt, even for a moment. He continued talking softly, so as not to be overheard. “That's the strategy, Sir. We'll go through all the motions. Tell the men. Pack. Head on out. We'll make it look good so whoever is watching—from the inside or from afar—thinks we are going.”

Murdoch stepped back, his mouth opening in surprise. “You think there's a spy.”

“Could be.”

“I've allowed for that myself.”

“That's why no one but us knows the truth. We'll pack just enough to make it look real, evacuate, then cut over to the back road and double back. If there's a spy, maybe he won't leave with us and we'll find out who he is.”

Murdoch pushed his lower lip up, thinking, nodding. “It may work.”

“It has to,” Scott said grimly. His wife depended on it.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch gave the order. He round up the few men he had left, their families and his other support staff. “We're abandoning Lancer,” he announced.

“No!” Teresa screamed. This was her only home she'd ever known.

“We have to, sweetheart,” Murdoch continued. He looked to the men. “Pack up your things, hitch up the wagons. Be quick about it. We need to be out of here in three hours.” He turned and walked back inside, his shoulders hunched. He hated doing this, but at least it wasn't for real.

“This is your fault,” Teresa accused Scott. “If you hadn't come...” She stood there defiantly, her arms crossed, tears forming in her eyes.

Scott looked around. He could tell that many of the men felt the same way. He addressed them all. “I know you blame me, or my wife, but the real culprit is Day Pardee. He started this.” He followed Murdoch into the house. He hated deceiving everyone, but they would understand soon enough.

Murdoch was in his room, packing a bag. “We have to make it look good,” He told Scott as he stuffed a framed photograph of a dark-haired woman inside.

“I agree,” Scott nodded. He went to pack a enough of their things as well.

Teresa's tears flowed as she filled a trunk. She had neither the time nor the space to take everything. Her decisions were hard. “Hurry up, sweetheart,” Murdoch soothed. He longed to tell the girl it was all a sham, but couldn't. He couldn't risk anyone overhearing. And he needed the girl's reactions to be true.

The hands piled trunks and crates into wagons, making them creak from the weight. Families packed too, taking whatever they could into their carts. Three hours later, Murdoch gave the order and Lancer started the move.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Up in the hills beyond the hacienda, a lone man watched. When he was satisfied everything was as it should be, he mounted his black horse. Speaking in soft Spanish, he urged the horse to move.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Abby jerked her hand free and almost called out in joy. She couldn't let the men know so she kept her hands behind her. Now she truly concentrated on the sounds, listening to learn where the horses were kept.

An outlaw offered Abby a plate of something that smelled like beans. Even though she was rabidly hungry, she shook her head, not wanting to be fed like a baby. That close of contact was more than she could stand. The man shrugged and moved on.

The sun was setting; the night's chill was beginning. Frantic now to locate the horses by sound, Abby listened actively, but her pounding heart interfered. She was panicking, she knew, and tried to calm herself, to no avail.

“Time,” Pardee's voice called.

Abby stiffened, her heart skipped a beat. Was the assault to begin? Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her up. She instantly grabbed the ropes with her free hand and pretended to be still tied. At least she'd surprise them. She'd fight back with all her might.

“We're taking you somewhere else,” Pardee drawled to her. “Someplace more comfortable for our little party.” He leered. A man bent over and picked her up, carrying her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She endured the indignity of it, biding her time.

But her opportunity never came. Not on the horse, nor where she was led to some sort of building, nor stumbling inside, not even when they shoved her onto the bed, a sort of cot. Her heart felt as if it would jump out of her throat and her breath was jerky. She silently prayed for Scott to enter the room and sweep her away. Or to awaken from this horrible nightmare.

But neither happened. Swallowing hard, she tried once more to be brave and sat up, her body quivering.

“Not yet,” Pardee was ordering his men. “Cav and Abe, you two stay here. Leave her alone. I want to be the first. The rest of us will go wait for our man watching Lancer. Then we can all come back here and have her.” The men laughed.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott tried to take notice of the vaqueros along the trail, to see if anyone was missing, but he didn't know them well enough. He saw the young Nate, the cowboys Joe and Paco, Cipriano and the housekeeper Maria with their brood, but recognized only a few others. He knew Murdoch was doing the same; searching for a missing person, someone behaving suspiciously.

The old man rode his horse, a rare thing since his injury, but he wanted mobility and visibility so he put up with his pain. No one stayed behind, no one cut out. Everyone was here, acting normally. There was no inside man. Murdoch smiled inwardly. At least he chose his men well.

They reached the lake where Scott was to stay behind. Murdoch ordered the men to stop for water; the overloaded wagons taxed the horses. A few minutes rest and they were on their way. Scott went into his act.

“I can't continue,” he told Murdoch, his voice loud so others could hear. “What if she...” He ducked his head, pretending to be overcome with emotion.

Murdoch didn't understand this move. Was his son really this emotional? HIs plan had seemed so rational. Now what was this? “What's going on, Scott?”

Scott didn't look up for fear of giving himself away. Instead he kept his face down and looked away. “Leave me alone a few minutes, Sir. Keep moving. I'll catch up.” He dismounted, leading his horse away. He braced his hand on the large rock, as if he needed support.

Murdoch shook his head, misunderstanding, and looked down the road. “Okay men. Let's move on.” He waved for the wagons to start moving again. Each man passed by, each gave Scott a passing review. A few shook their head in disgust, others merely shrugged. Teresa kept her head forward, trying to be stoic, while tears still streamed down her face.

The last of the horses passed. Scott kept his stance, his back to the road, leaning over the rock. Where was Johnny? How long did he have to pretend to be the lovesick weakling?

After what seemed like hours, he heard the jingle of spurs. “No one's here, Scott. Just you and me.”

Relieved, Scott shoved himself away from the rock. He smiled at Johnny, atop his black horse, holding out Scott's new holster and Colt. He took the weapon, strapped it on and mounted his chestnut stallion. “Let's go get my wife.”

Johnny nodded. “ ¡Vamos! ” he ordered Sombra.

The two men rode in silence in a Westwardly direction, the moon guiding them. They crossed rolling hills and dodged around rocks, forded streams until they reached the foothills. There they dismounted.

“Was anyone watching us leave?” Scott whispered.

“Yes. He's gone.” was Johnny's answer.

Good, thought Scott. So they know. They won't hurt Abby.

They walked their horses through a copse of trees, stopping when they saw smoke coming from a chimney.

“Their hideout?” he whispered.

Johnny shook his head. “It's one of Lancer's line shacks,” he replied.

How ironic, thought Scott, that they'd use this building. Pardee continually surprised him.

Johnny motioned for Scott to be quiet and follow him. They creeped toward the shack, moving soundlessly. When they reached the clearing where the shelter stood, Johnny turned to Scott and whispered. “I'm going in for a look. Stay here. Let me know if you see anyone.”

Scott nodded. He watched Johnny sneak up to the shack, press himself against the wall and inch around a corner. A few minutes later he saw Johnny return, moving quickly but silently back to him.

“Abby is here,” he whispered. “She's guarded, though. Two, maybe three men. I think we are lucky. It looks like we beat the rest of them.”

“Did you see her? Is she okay?” Scott asked. Johnny didn't answer. He merely put his fingers to his lips. Scott understood. They had to be quiet. But he was dying to know.

Together they stepped to the line shack, creeping silently and watching for movement indicating anyone else. They came upon a window.

Scott peeked inside, confirming Johnny's report. Abby sat on a cot, her arms behind her back. She has a bruise on her face and her hair was partially down but otherwise looked all right. One man leaned against the doorway, a rifle cradled in his hands. Another was pouring coffee. They didn't see anyone else. The outlaws seemed quite relaxed, very assured that all was going well.

They crept around to the shack's porch. Johnny motioned for Scott to follow as he drew out his knife. His footsteps silent, Johnny hurried to the open doorway where the rifleman lounged. He didn't think, he didn't stop. He reached out with his knife and slit.

The rifleman fell to the porch in a thud, his throat cut. “What the—” was all the other man got out before Scott fired his new Colt twice, hitting him square in the stomach. The outlaw clutched his gut and fell to the floor.

At the sound of gunfire, Abby forgot to pretend to be tied. Instinctively she brought her hands to her face and tore off her blindfold. She gasped, covering her mouth with three fingers. There was so much blood! Arterial spray covered the doorway and more rapidly puddled under the gunshot man. Scott lunged through the doorway and grabbed his wife, holding her tightly for long minutes. Abby sobbed in relief, shutting her eyes to the violence. “Oh, Scott! Scott!” she cried. Her ordeal was over.

Chapter Twenty-One: Consequences

The three of them rode quickly, Abby riding double with Scott, not because she lacked her mare—they were leading her horse—, but because she wanted to be close to him. He was her hero. She held him tightly. Sure, Johnny had helped, but it was Scott who had eliminated the last of her captors and swept in the line shack to get her.

Scott was thrilled to have found her, safe and sound. He had Johnny to thank. He tried not to think of the life he'd taken. It had been necessary to free his wife. He concentrated instead on his wife's arms, securely around him.

They had left the line shack quickly, to stay ahead of Pardee's men, but once they were safely away and in a secure spot, Scott made Johnny stop so Abby could recover emotionally. She sobbed in Scott's arms, relieved to be out of harm's way, for what seemed to Johnny a long, long time. He tried to wait patiently while he stood guard, but he kept glancing back at the embracing couple every few minutes. He knew Pardee was coming. Seconds may count.

Finally, Abby's cries slowed to sniffles and Johnny heard them softly talking, not listening well enough to make out the words, but hearing them gently chuckle on occasion. Now he really wanted to get going. If she was feeling good enough to laugh, she could ride. But still he didn't interfere. Abby was a real lady who had been through a terrifying ordeal. He figured Scott would know when she was well enough to ride. As hard as it was for him to hold, he did.

He didn't have to wait much longer. Walking together they approached Johnny. “Thank you, Johnny,” Abby smiled. Her eyes and nose appeared red in the moonlight. From crying, he knew. “I don't want to think of what would have happened had Scott not found you.”

“Anytime, Ma'am.” He gathered the horses. “Are you ready to get back to the hacienda?”

“Am I ever!” Abby almost laughed. The three of them mounted and began their race back to Lancer.

They rode fast, trying to outrun both the waning moonlight and Pardee. They didn't know how far ahead they were from the outlaws and none of them wanted to find out. Their horses barely trampled the knee-high grasses of the rolling hills and wide open valleys. Scott let Johnny lead, hoping he knew the way back to the hacienda. It seemed that he did, as he never stopped or hesitated to get his bearings. They only slowed down slightly to ford the same streams Scott and Johnny had crossed hours earlier.

By now Murdoch would have doubled back and be waiting, the clever plan now clear to all of Lancer. Pardee would be riding into a trap. Scott wanted to be there for the battle; he urged Johnny even faster.

Suddenly Sombra stumbled and nearly went down, throwing Johnny over his head. “Whoa!” Johnny cried. He thudded on the ground, knocking the wind out of him. The horse hobbled, favoring a leg. Johnny picked himself up and shook his head. He stepped to where Sombra stood on three legs. Johnny felt Sombra's left front leg. The horse lunged at his master, teeth bared. “ ¡Maldito! ” [Damn!] Johnny muttered. He backed away, breathing hard.

“Is he ok?” Scott asked.

“Broken leg,” Johnny answered. “Gopher hole.” He muttered more Spanish.

“I'm so sorry, Johnny,” Abby said softly. She knew what this meant.

Scott dismounted. He moved Abby and the two horses away to give Johnny privacy.

Johnny moved softly, but quickly. Sombra had been his best ride; he didn't want him to suffer more than he had to. He removed his rifle from its scabbard then uncinched the saddle, grabbing it so it didn't fall and startle the doomed horse. He lay the saddle gently on the ground and tossed the blanket across. The gunfighter came around to Sombra's head. He knew he'd have to end his misery soon, but he had to say goodbye first. He slipped the bridle, caressing his horse's velvety soft muzzle. Sombra blew, as if in understanding. Time seemed to stand still.

Johnny reached for his Colt.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Ride my horse,” Abby gently suggested, after watching Johnny cover Sombra's head with his blanket.

Johnny drew a deep breath, said one last silent goodbye for his friend then mounted the mare.

“Let's slow it down,” Scott suggested. After a few minutes he apologized. “I'm sorry, Johnny. I know how you take care of your horse.”

Johnny's voice was thick. “Riding in the dark is always dangerous, Scott. Can't be helped sometimes. Its the chance you take.”

Scott felt guilty; it was his fault Johnny was even out here in the first place. Changing the subject, he asked, “What do you think Pardee will do once he finds Abby free?”

“I don't know.” Johnny was grateful for the change. “He may shrug it off and go to Lancer to claim his victory. Or he may want revenge and raid Morro Coyo thinking your father went there.”

“You said ‘thinking'? Wouldn't his man watching have reported to him where we headed?”

“That man never made his report.”

“How do you know?” Abby asked.

“I know.” Johnny's statement was flat.

“Oh,” Abby understood. Johnny must have killed him.

“If he raids Morro Coyo, a lot of innocent people will be killed. Why didn't you tell me that was a possibility before we started all this?”

“I told you back in my hotel room, Scott, you wouldn't like the plan.”

“You could have at least mentioned that part.”

“And what would you have done, Scott? Not gone after your wife? Hardly. You did what you had to do, what any man would have done.”

“Yes, but so many people now will pay.”

“We don't know that for sure. Pardee may decide to forget Abby. Lancer was his real prize anyway. He'll think he has that if Murdoch followed the plan.”

They reached the bluff overlooking the hacienda. The house and surrounding buildings were completely dark;. Anyone riding up to it now would think it deserted. Johnny stopped the mare. “You two go in alone.”

“Where are you going?”

“I'll be around. Remember, no one can know I helped you, Scott. You tell nobody, Ma'am.”

Abby didn't understand but she nodded. Scott tipped his hat to his friend. They took off at a light canter.

Johnny led the mare up on a hillside, under the shelter of thick trees, where he could keep an eye out and be alone. He needed to be alone now.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Quiet!” Murdoch ordered. His men were positioned on the roof, awaiting Pardee's arrival. A sentry announced the arrival of a horse. Murdoch peered into the darkness. The moon was on its last legs, only allowing for the tiniest sliver of light, but it was enough for Murdoch to see there were two people on one white-footed horse.

“Well, I'll be,” Murdoch muttered to himself. “It's not Pardee,” he said quietly. “Cipriano, send a man to the barn. I think it's Scott and Abby.”

“Scott and Abby?” Teresa whispered. “We left him by the lake. He wasn't able to rescue her.”

A few others murmured their approval. The lovesick puppy had some grit after all. They were proud of el hijo del Patron .

A few minutes later a very tired Scott and Abby climbed on the rooftop to join the others. “Greetings can wait,” Murdoch said. “We have to be on the alert.” He noted Scott was now wearing a holster but said nothing. It wasn't the time.

Scott positioned himself on the wall, his rifle at the ready. Abby sat next to him. “What are you doing? Go back by Teresa.”

“I am not a child, Scott Lancer. I can at least help you load. Besides, don't you think I want a little revenge of my own?”

Scott smiled at his wife. She had grit too.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Pardee waited at his hideout past the appointed hour. His man watching the hacienda was late. Figuring it was time for that promised romp with the Lancer woman, he led his men to the line shack.

What he found there surprised him. Two dead men. And the woman gone. He walked around looking for signs. Nothing. His men were angry; they felt cheated out of the woman. They wanted action.

Pardee had to calm them down. He again reminded them of the real goal: Lancer ranch. They should ride to the hacienda, to find out for themselves if the old man had left. Maybe, just maybe they'd get their prize anyway.

They'd ridden only a half mile when Pardee stopped short. He cut a man out, sending him to Morro Coyo. He had a feeling who could be behind the woman's escape.

The rest of the gang rode quickly and silently, each with their own thoughts. While they had wanted the Lancer woman, once they got their pay they'd be able to buy plenty of women. The moon slipped over the horizon, leaving them to ride in the darkness. They slowed to a trot. They didn't want to lose a horse due to a misstep.

The group rode past where Sombra's body lay in the grass. They were within fifty feet and would have seen his glistening black body had it not been so dark. Another half hour later the sun peeked over the distant Eastern mountains. It was dawning. They breached the crest overlooking the hacienda.

The house was dark. Nothing moved. It looked deserted. “Well, it looks like Lancer did as he was told,” Pardee drawled. “Let's go in and take her.” He kneed his horse.

The men galloped down the hillside coming closer and closer to the hacienda. Dreams of looting the buildings filled their heads. It looked like it would be an easy take.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Wait,” Murdoch ordered softly. “Let them get in range.” The men paused, but they were anxious, nervous. While they were good men, they were not gunmen. They felt fear.

A shot rang out early. Murdoch looked around for the culprit but found no one. Someone had warned Pardee.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Pardee's men reined up. They were still out of range. “Go back!” he yelled. “It's a trap! Lancer's still here!” The men turned around, angry at being shortchanged again.

He regrouped in the shelter of a copse of trees on the other side of the valley they'd just galloped through. His men wanted answers and he didn't have any. They did not want to wait any longer. Pardee held them back once more, promising them even more of a revenge when they finally did take Lancer. “The next time,” he promised, “we'll get Lancer's blood. His, his son's, that wife's and the girl's. We'll kill them all.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

From his hiding spot, Johnny put away his rifle and watched Pardee's retreat. He figured the man would have his hands full handling his men after that botched invasion and decided to take that time to get some much-needed rest. He mounted the mare and turned toward Morro Coyo, taking the shorter back road.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The Lancer hands yelled in jubilation. They'd won. With only one shot fired, too! Murdoch called their attention. “All right, men. Whoever fired that shot did us all a favor, I guess. Let's get everything unpacked and move back in to Lancer. No one takes us without a real fight!”

The men busied themselves with the job assigned. They wouldn't go back to their normal ranch duties now until this Pardee business was finished once and for all.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott found Murdoch on the veranda, giving orders to Paco, Nate and Smitty. “I want to talk to you about hiring help,” Scott began.

Murdoch turned to him. “Not that gunfighter again, Scott.” The other men backed away a few feet, giving el Patron some privacy.

“Yes, him. Do you know he's the one who helped me find Abby?”

Murdoch pointed to the weapon on Scott's thigh. “Did he help you buy that Colt, too?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, he did.” Scott stood up straighter. “Sir, he led me right to her, killed one of the men guarding her and helped us get back. He lost his horse doing so, too. Poor thing stumbled on a gopher hole and broke his leg. He had to put him down. That's all my fault, Sir. I went to him and he helped me. I— we —owe him.”

Murdoch let Scott say his peace. “Was it really that easy, Scott? He just led you to where she was? Killed the man that easily? Got you both back out without a scratch? Did you ever stop to think why it was so easy? Can't you see that it's like I said, he's working for Pardee, and he did all that as part of some grand plan?”

Murdoch continued. “And did you think that perhaps he was the one watching us? He seems to know quite a lot about Pardee, us, and you in particular. And maybe he's the one who fired that shot warning Pardee.”


“We could have finished Pardee this morning. Your Johnny Madrid stopped that.”

“You can't be sure he's with them.”

“You can't keep trouble from visiting, Scott, but you don't have to offer it a chair.”

“I trust him.”

Murdoch stared him down. “Trust? A stranger you barely know?”

“No. It's more than trust. I feel like I've known him all my life. I trust him and I always will. You hate him because of what he does for a living.”

“You can't see the truth, Scott. You're not used to the ways out here.”

“Please don't!” Abby pleaded from the doorway. “Stop arguing. We need to be on the same side, united against Pardee and his men. If it takes hiring help, we should do it.”

Murdoch stared at the woman. She had been through so much, so quickly. He didn't want to upset her more. “You're right. We shouldn't fight each other. And we may need help. I'll go talk to our neighbors, Gaspar and Maria De Salvo, after we eat.”

Murdoch dismissed the men, who still stood a few feet away, pretending not to hear. The hands headed for the bunkhouse for some much-needed rest. After dining, Murdoch ordered everyone to take a nap. Although it was still early in the day, Lancer settled down. It had been a long, long day and night.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

As the hacienda slept, a man crept into the barn, unseen and unheard. He needed a fast horse. Quickly saddling the one to his liking, he eased out of the barn. He ran beside to the animal until they passed under the Lancer arch. No one heard him gallop away.

Chapter Twenty-Two: Day's Revenge

Johnny fell onto his bed, exhausted from the night's activity, both physically and emotionally. Sombra had been his closest friend for nearly four years; his companion who had kept him alive on more than several occasions. And now he was gone. He tried not to think about it.

Abby's kidnapping had surprised him. He hadn't thought Day would resort to that tactic. It seemed too cowardly for him, but then the Day Pardee he knew had been willing to try almost anything to get the job done. Still, it seemed more like an act of desperation rather than a planned maneuver. Or someone else's idea.

He wondered what Day would do now. His men were bound to be frustrated and wanting to take it out on someone. Maybe now he'd raid the town. I should get up and see, he thought as his head hit the pillow.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

A rider slipped into Morro Coyo, unnoticed by its inhabitants on this busy morning. He first went to the livery then to the hotel. Finding what he wanted, he left, galloping once he disappeared from view.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Lancer spent a quiet day in recovery mode. The previous day and night had taken an emotional and physical toll on everyone, including the hands. The workers were happy their patron gave them much-needed time to recuperate. Now they did minimal work, just enough to keep the ranch going, the animals sustained.

Scott visited his new horse; the game chestnut had served him so well already. The horse neighed at him, already recognizing his master. “You need a name,” he told the animal. The chestnut snorted, as if agreeing. Scott chuckled. “You remind me of General—” he paused, his face brightening. “That's what I'll name you, Rienzi! That was General Sheridon's horse!” Rienzi bobbed his head up and down, liking the name.

He left the barn and sought the men, organizing them for target practice. They trekked away from the buildings and whitewashed several circles on tree trunks. He saw some of them improve but others still needed more time. The young Nate shined; he was proud of him. Smitty, however, would require many more hours to be up to speed. His skills lay with horses. Remembering Johnny's advice, Scott took some time to get a few shots in himself.

Satisfied with the mens' progress for today, Scott retired to his room to draw up ideas for defense. He planned to fortify the perimeter as well as a main line at the hacienda itself, making use of the house's tower, uneven lines and thick adobe walls. His idea was to recreate a fort-like barricade so Pardee's men would have to overcome two strongholds to take Lancer. He wished for more men, though, and he hoped Murdoch would be able to convince the De Salvos to help.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The day's second rider entered Pardee's camp. He whispered his information, making Day smile. It was the outlaw's second piece of good news. Now things were looking better. “Let's ride!” Day called. “It's time we get some real action.”

His men whooped as they mounted. Day had something in mind, they could tell.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch slapped the reins on his buggy, satisfied with himself. He had talked with Gaspar. The man had agreed to send four men and his oldest son to Lancer. Diego was an excellent shot; he'd bagged many a rabbit for his family's dinner. Murdoch was pleased; they were coming over that evening. Lancer would be relieved to have additional, fresh guns.

Gaspar and Maria De Salvo had both been at Lancer before Murdoch, serving the land's previous owner who died in a fire. They stayed on, often with little or no pay, so when they married a few years later, Murdoch cut out a few acres of the ranch as a present for their loyalty. The older couple quickly began a family, having two sons and a daughter before time caught up with Maria. Now Diego was sixteen, their daughter a year younger and the boy only twelve.

Their small ranch had prospered, too, earning enough to hire on more men. Gaspar now employed eight hands, all bachelors. He hadn't hesitated to offer help. Diego insisted that he go with them, convincing both Murdoch and his own father, saying he was the best of them all with a gun.

Murdoch couldn't stop thinking about Scott's growing relationship with the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid. It irritated him that Scott wasn't heeding his advice but it purely angered him that Madrid was hanging around, making himself available to Scott, even helping him buy a handgun.

He had wanted that experience with his son! It was the one father-to-son rite of passage he would have been able to have with Scott and that damned Johnny Madrid took that away from him. Didn't he realize the importance of that moment? Murdoch snorted. Of course not. Gunfighters don't take those things into account.

He was more convinced than ever that Madrid was working for Pardee. Everything Scott told him fit right into that theory: how readily available he was, how easily they rescued Abby, how he knew exactly where to go to find her. Scott didn't even question those coincidences. And he knew, just knew, it was Madrid who fired that shot early this morning, warning Pardee.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Lancer finished a late lunch; a light affair consisting of sandwiches and a few extras to round it out. Expecting the new men from Gaspar's, the atmosphere in the hacienda was almost giddy with anticipation. To pass the time, Murdoch decided to walk around the garden.

“They should be arriving any minute now,” he said to Scott, who followed him out. The mid-afternoon sun's heat caused some of the flowers to begin to wilt.

“Good. We need them.” Scott was about to remark about watering the flowers when he saw a rider in the distance galloping toward them. “Look! Is that one of them?”

Murdoch glanced up. The direction was right, but it was only one horse; he was expecting more. The rider was yelling, but he couldn't make out the words. A few minutes later they could hear him shout “ Señor Lancer! Señor Lancer!”

“Something's wrong,” Murdoch said, nearly dropping his glass. “That's one of Gaspar's men.”

The man rode in fast, dropping to his feet when Murdoch and Scott ran out to meet him. “ Señor Lancer! Señor Lancer!!” he called excitedly. He was bloody and favored a left arm. “ ¡Es horrible! ¡Tan horrible! ¡Los banditos!

Murdoch and Scott glanced at each other, both realizing what must have happened. They separated, Scott to the barn for mounts, Murdoch to sound the alarm.

The two of them took about seven hands and raced to the De Salvo farm. Billowing smoke guided their way the last mile. They crested a small hill and stopped in horror.

Gaspar De Salvo was hanging upside down from the barn, blood pooling on the dirt below him. His throat had been cut, but not before the man had been beaten and tortured. Diego's hands had been chopped off. His body lay next to a bloody tree stump, an axe embedded deep into his chest.

They found the younger boy's body stretched out, his hands tied together and evidence he'd been dragged repeatedly across the yard. He'd also been shot in each shoulder before his throat, too, had been sliced open.

They saw the bodies of two other hands, both trampled by horses before being shot in the gut, left to die.

Murdoch hurriedly limped toward the house. Maria and the girl would have been inside. He opened the door and saw Maria's body, spread across the dinner table, naked. She'd been raped repeatedly before being mutilated and left to die. He feared looking for the girl.

Selena De Salvo was a pretty girl and had caught the eye of several boys in town. He prayed her death had been quick, but given the level of brutality and sadism he saw here, he doubted it.

Johnny rode up on Abby's mare. “A man rode like hell into town, yelling about murders here.” he explained, jumping off to help. Murdoch's men were already taking Gaspar's body down. Scott covered the young boy with a blanket, not believing the savagery. He'd seen barbaric acts in the War, of course, but not to this extreme.

“They were going to help us,” Scott told Johnny. He perused the death area, seeing and not really seeing.

“They are brutal men, Scott,” Johnny softly drawl. “If you didn't already know, you do now.”

Scott nodded, swallowing hard.

Murdoch shut the door on the house, his head sagging. Scott ran up to him. “Sir?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Maria...Maria's dead. I couldn't find the girl.” He glanced up and saw Johnny, his mood instantly changing. “You!” he accused. “You were part of this!”

Taken aback, Johnny sparred. “Is that what you think of me?”

Murdoch went for his gun, but before he even touched his weapon, Johnny's deadly Colt stared at his chest. “Now wait a minute,” Scott interrupted, his arms spread to separate the two men. “There's been enough violence today. There'll be no more.”

Johnny kept his gun level for a few seconds more. When satisfied Murdoch wasn't moving, he relaxed, bringing the weapon to his side. “Ok, Scott, I'll back off...but for you, not him. I've been wanting to kill that old man for most of my life.” He spun around, heading back to the mare.

Scott chased after him. “What do you mean you been wanting to kill him most of your life? You just met him!”

“Yeah, Scott. I did just meet him. And that's a lot of the reason.” He holstered his weapon.

“He doesn't need a reason, Scott,” Murdoch started in. “He's a gunfighter. A killer. You see evidence of his work all around you.”

Johnny twisted back around, his finger jabbing Murdoch's chest. “I had nothing to do with this, Old Man! This was Pardee. I tried to tell you about him, but you, you who know everything, you didn't want to hear it!”

Johnny stepped back. “Well, now you really need me, you got a good look at what Pardee is capable of and if you don't want that to happen to you, to Scott, his wife and that pretty young girl you keep at your feet you'll beg me to help.”

“You stay away from Teresa!” Murdoch bellowed.

“Want her for yourself?” Johnny sneered.

Murdoch lunged for Johnny but Scott intervened again. “Stop it, you two. My word! You'd think you two were related; you're both just the same!”

Johnny softened his voice. “We are.”

“What?” Scott asked.

“Related.” Johnny reached for the mare's saddle, Scott pulled him away.

“What did you say?” Scott asked.

Murdoch was indignant. “There's no way on earth you have my blood!”

Johnny smirked. “Well, according to my mother— the wife you kicked out —we do. And now, ain't it so sweet, that you need me, the son you didn't want, to save your precious ranch. Well, good luck, Old Man.” He mounted the mare and with one last passing look at Scott, took off toward Morro Coyo.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott stared at his father, dumbfounded. “What did he mean, Sir? You kicked out his mother? Your wife?”

Murdoch waved his arm, dismissing Johnny. “Never mind him, Son. He was talking wildly. We need to clean this up and go home. It'll be dark soon.”

“No. I'm going after him. I want to talk.”

Murdoch started to protest, but Scott was on his chestnut before he could stop him. “C'mon, Rienzi; let's go!” He kneed the animal and it surged forward.

Scott hoped his horse could catch up to Abby's mare Johnny still rode. He knew his mount was fast but he didn't know that mare's speed. He got his answer when he saw Johnny up ahead when he crested a small hill. “Johnny!” he cried out, knowing his brother— was he really his brother? —probably wouldn't hear him this far away.

Johnny heard pounding hooves behind him and turned to look. He pulled the mare up when he recognized Scott. He waited.

“You want to explain all that?” Scott asked as he pulled up alongside Johnny.

“Nope.” Johnny kneed the mare forward. He looked straight ahead as the horse walked toward Morro Coyo.

“Well, you're going to have to.”



Johnny stopped the mare. He twisted in the saddle to face Scott. “What, Scott? Do you need a roadmap? I thought you were smart.”

“You are my brother.” Scott realized it was the truth.

Johnny said nothing. He just looked straight ahead as his horse started walking again.

“When did you know?”

“Back on the train. That first day. When you said Murdoch Lancer was your father.”

“You knew all this time and never told me?” A vein popped into view at Scott's temple.

“What was there to tell, Scott? That I hated your old man. I wanted to kill him, had wanted to most of my life?”

The venom in Johnny's words cut short Scott's anger. “Why didn't you?”

“He was too important. I couldn't just call him out, ya know. I needed a plan.”

Why did you want to kill him? What did he do to you?”

“Not so much to me, Scott, but to my mother. He kicked her out. Well, me too. He didn't want her for his wife because she was Mex.”

“But he knew that when he married her.”

Johnny sighed. “You don't get it, do you? He married her because he got her pregnant. Her father probably held a shotgun to him.”

Scott tried to comprehend that. “Murdoch? Are you sure?”

“I ain't been to Harvard, Scott, but I can do math.”

“I never knew.”

“There are more horses asses than horses, Scott.”

“Come back to the ranch with me. We'll sort this out with Murdoch together.”

Johnny shook his head. “No.” He kneed the mare and galloped away, leaving Scott shaking his head before he slowly turned Rienzi around.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Day Pardee and two of his men waited in the alley next to the hotel in Morro Coyo. They had the De Salvo girl with them. Day had hit her, knocking her out to shut up her screaming when they rode away from the farm. She had seen what the brutes did to her family; watched her father tortured, her brothers attacked, her mother raped and had been terrified when they took her.

Day had a plan.

Along the way into town, Day had been careful to avoid roads. He knew two men got away from the farm. One had ridden in Lancer's direction, the other toward town. He figured men from the hamlet might be riding to the farm to help. He was right. Safely hiding in trees behind a rock he saw what he wanted: Johnny Madrid riding all-out. Now was the time to put his plan to motion.

Under the safety of darkness, they entered the hotel's back door, climbed up the back stairs, picked a lock and waited, just Day and the girl. He sent his men to join the others at his hideout. His prey would enter the trap.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

A tired Scott climbed down from his horse. He didn't know whether to be angry or confused. What Johnny had said made sense, but it made the man he'd grown to know as his father seem like a cad, and he just couldn't see that. Murdoch Lancer was stubborn and sometimes autocratic, but he as a fair man and well-respected. He bore no prejudice against Mexicans.

He was also angry at both of them. Johnny for not telling him sooner and Murdoch for denying Johnny. Johnny had no reason to lie. Why wouldn't Murdoch own up to a second son?

“You're back!” Abby ran to him as he entered the great room. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. “I was so worried!”

Scott kissed her automatically, his face still in a scowl. “What's wrong, sweetheart?” Abby asked. “Was it that bad at the farm?”

“Huh? No, I mean, yes, it was horrid at the farm, but—” he stopped. Facing his wife, he continued, “I need to talk to Murdoch first. Then I'll explain it all to you, okay?”

Abby nodded. Something was troubling her Scott.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny brought the mare to the livery, making sure she had fresh hay and plenty of water. He spent twenty minutes grooming her. She may not be his horse, but he was damn sure he'd take good care of her.

He walked through Morro Coyo's deserted streets, heading for his hotel. He hadn't been awake long today, but he was still tired. Too much had happened.

He trod up the hotel's stairs. He tried not to think about his father and the things he'd said. It was time to put a stop to Pardee once and for all. Then he could get away. Away from all this emotional baggage.

Johnny entered his room, closed the door and stopped cold.


Lancer: A New Era
Part Three: Blood Brothers

We made a promise we swore we'd always remember
No retreat no surrender
Like soldiers in the winter's night with a vow to defend
No retreat no surrender
No Surrender, Bruce Springsteen

Chapter Twenty-Three: Nightcap

Chapter Twenty-Four: Morro Coyo

Chapter Twenty-Five: Surprise!

Chapter Twenty-Six: The Palomino

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Reconnaissance

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Pinned Down

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Revenge
WARNING : Sexual Violence, Foul Language
      Rated PG 13

Chapter Thirty: A House Divided...

Chapter Thirty-One: Blame

Chapter Thirty-Two: Aggie

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Shooting Lesson

Chapter Thirty-Four: Preparations
WARNING: Graphic Violence

Chapter Thirty-Five: Dawn

Chapter Twenty-Three: Nightcap

Scott sought Murdoch, intending on having a little talk with his father. The older man sat at his desk. He saw the scowl on his son's face. “I told you to leave the gunfighter alone, Scott. He's nothing but trouble. What he did at Gaspar and Maria's place—”

Scott's defense was passionate. “He did nothing to them, Sir. He was there to help. Didn't you hear what he said? He's your son! How can you say such things about him?”

Murdoch rose. “Do you believe that claptrap?” He limped over to the table and poured drinks for Scott and himself.

“It isn't rubbish, Sir. Let me ask you, did you have a second wife? Was her name Maria? Did she give you a son?”

Murdoch downed his Scotch. “Yes, yes. All that is common knowledge. He could have learned that from anyone.”

“Not from me. I didn't know any of it. You never bothered to tell me.” Scott was indignant.

“Well, I'll tell you now.” He crossed back to the desk and withdrew a file from a bottom drawer. He slapped the papers on the desk. “Here. Pinkerton reports. On Maria and our son. She left me. No note. Nothing. Took our two-year-old son with her. God knows why. She never really wanted the boy.

“I sent the Pinks to find them, several times. No luck. Years later, I learned she died. Some sort of accident. The boy was gone. No word. Pinks couldn't find a grave, so I kept looking, not always, but every few years. Nothing real came of it. A few leads, but they never amounted to anything. They reasoned the boy was dead.”

“But you had no proof.”

“No, I didn't. The boy would have been young when his mother died. About ten. No ten-year-old boy could have survived in those border towns alone.”

“Maybe he had help. Maybe someone took him in.”

“There was no evidence of it.”

Scott picked up his Scotch and thought for a moment. “Johnny looks like a mix of Mexican and—”

“I know.” Murdoch cut in. “Those blue eyes. But Scott, mixed children are common along the border. Madrid probably thinks he can try to worm his way into a good deal here.”

“He doesn't want that. He wanted to kill you. Because you kicked his mother out.”

Murdoch's reaction was sharp. “I did not kick Maria out! She left!”

Scott smiled. He sat his drink down. “So Maria was his mother.”

Murdoch stopped, caught in Scott's logic. He shook his head. “He's fed you lies, Scott. Lies that fit the story. You can't believe any of it.”

“Why? Because you just won't acknowledge you have a son who's a gunfighter?”

“I'm finished with this discussion, Scott. I don't want you to bring it up again. Madrid is not your brother, not my son, and I prefer not to hear his name again.” He limped out of the room.

Scott picked up his glass and sipped his drink. He'd find a way for Murdoch to listen, he had to. He believed Johnny. He found a brother and he wasn't about to let him go. Not without a fight.

Abby creeped into the room, the darkness hiding her. She touched Scott's arm. He turned to her, smiling. “Hello.”

Abby smiled. “I overheard. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help myself. Johnny Madrid is your half-brother?”

“Yes, he is.”

“Are you certain? Your father is quite adamant he's not.”

“My father is wrong.”

“How can you be sure? You barely know either of them.”

“Murdoch hates gunfighters. He blames all of them for my mother's death. He's so prejudiced he can't see behind the label.” Scott chuckled. “Of all the groups to be prejudiced against—colored people, foreigners, Mexicans—for him to pick gunfighters makes as much sense: none. Especially when you stop to think that the ones responsible for my mother's fate are most likely already dead.

“Johnny's story matches Murdoch's telling,” Scott continued, “and his reactions to our father are quite reasonable, given what he's been told.”

Scott pulled Abby into his arms. “I'll make Murdoch come around, darling. Johnny belongs here, with the rest of us, and I'll make sure that happens.” He kissed her and took her to bed.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Morro Coyo was quiet. Even the saloon was dark. Pardee had sent his men to their hideout and with it being a weeknight, no cowboys were around either. The establishment closed early. Around town, all businesses were closed and homes began to turn in for the evening. But up in a second floor room of the town's only hotel, a little drama began to play out.

“Buenas noches, Johnny Madrid,” Day's Southern drawl greeted.

“Day,” Johnny coolly nodded. Moonlight spilled into the room from the window. He could see Pardee sitting at the small table, his gun on Johnny. He silently cursed himself for not noticing the lock had been picked. Now he walked into it. On the bed was a body. “Who's that?”

Day smiled. “Your date.”


“For the evening, Johnny. You and the De Salvo girl are gonna have yourselves a good time in bed tonight. Then, in the morning when all the good people of Morro Coyo find you together—well, let's just say they ain't gonna wait for no marshal. They're gonna string you up for rape. Hell, they'll probably blame you for all that trouble on her family's farm today.” He laughed.

“I have no intention—” Johnny began.

“Oh, you won't actually do the honors, Johnny-boy. That privilege goes to me. I get the girl's innocence, you get the rope. Kinda fair, considerin' how you've been playin' me.”

“How have I been playing you?” Johnny needed time. He tried to think of a way out of this that didn't involve him needing a doctor.

“Don't insult me, Madrid. You pretended to be interested in gettin' in with me, all the while you been helpin' the Lancers. I know things. I have ways.”

“Your spies.” If only he could distract Day...

“More than you know. And the men you—ha ha—got drunk. They were supposed to tell you exactly they did. So's I could see if you really were helpin' out Lancer. And you fell right into my little trap. That Lancer kid came straight to you and you brought him right to where his wife was. Nice move, Madrid. Why did you think it was all so easy?”

Johnny cursed to himself again. He should have known better when things that evening fell into place so quickly. But there was a bright side: “You lost two men.”

“Two idiots who no longer will share in the profits.” Day smiled. “You shouldn't try to outfox me. Now, let's get on with the festivities, shall we? Have a drink, Johnny.”

Day gestured to the glass of liquid on the table. Whatever it was, Johnny was sure it would knock him out. And when he would awake, the ruined girl would be next to him in bed. It was a nice, neat little package.

“You don't expect me to—”

“Drink it or die.” Day cocked his Colt.

Day wouldn't miss at this close range. Playing the outlaw's game seemed like a good idea. At least it would buy him more time. And right now he needed every second he could get.

“But first, Johnny, please remove that gunbelt. Not that you'd try anything, but let's not take any risks, shall we?”

Johnny did as he was told. He stared straight at Day while his fingers found the buckle, unfastened it, He held out to his left.

“Hang it on the bedpost.”

Again Johnny obeyed. He wildly thought of scenario after scenario but each one ended in disaster for him.

“Now sit.”

Johnny took the chair opposite Day. “Good boy, Madrid. Now about that drink—”

Johnny picked up the glass and examined it. It was nearly full with an amber liquid.

“Drink it all. If you can.” Day laughed again.

In the middle of Day's laugh, Johnny threw the contents of the glass in Pardee's face. “Goddammit!” Day sputtered. Johnny grabbed for Day's gun and the two men tussled, the table still between them, both vying for the gun. One of them knocked the table away. It skidded on the floor, coming to rest by the window. The gun went off, sending a bullet into the wall. Now people were alerted. Day cursed again and threw Johnny off, wildly firing a shot toward his adversary. He yanked the door open and fled the room, leaving Johnny sprawled on the floor on his butt.

Johnny rolled to his feet and grabbed his gun. He stumbled out the door but Pardee was already gone.

Benito, the hotel's owner, dashed up the stairs. The shootings had aroused him from his slumber with his fat wife. He saw Johnny in the hallway with his gun drawn. “ Señor Madrid!”

Lo siento, señor. I had some trouble in my room.” Johnny tried to think of an explanation for the girl. He decided to go with the truth. “The outlaw Pardee was here. He brought the De Salvo girl. She's on my bed, out cold. He was planning on blaming me. We fought. He's gone now. Is there a doctor who can see the girl? She might be hurt.”

Si, ” Benito nodded. “ El médico Jenkins is in town tonight. I go get him now.”

Johnny nodded. While Benito was on his errand, Johnny strapped his Colt back on just in case. He left the door open while he took a look at the girl. He saw a nasty bruise on her face. That must have been where Pardee had hit her. Johnny lit the bedside lamp so the doctor would be able to examine her.

Sam Jenkins rushed in the room, his eyes surveying the damage. He saw the overturned table and chairs, the glistening liquid on the floor and the girl on the bed. He looked Johnny over, too, noticing a cut above his eye and the beginnings of a bruise on his jawline. He'd been in a fight.

“You ok?” he asked Johnny.

“Yep. Take a look at the girl. Pardee hit her.” Johnny stepped out of the room to give the doctor privacy. Sam sat on the bed and turned the girl over. It was Selena De Salvo all right. Her clothes were disheveled and she was sporting a dark bruise across her face, but otherwise looked all right. He would have to examine her further to know more. “Go get Señora Mendoza,” he ordered Benito.

Sam stood. “You're Johnny Madrid,” he stated. When Johnny nodded, he went on. “How do I know you didn't do this?”

“You don't.”

Sam stared at the gunfighter. He didn't know what to believe. He trusted Benito, who said he heard two gunshots. And there was evidence of a fight. And it looked like this girl had been out for a long time.

“You know what happened to this girl's family.”

“I do.”

“How do I know you didn't have a hand in that?”

“You don't.”

Damn him, thought Sam. He wasn't making it easy.

Señora Mendoza rushed into the room. She was a middle aged woman, about forty-five, a widow who sometimes helped Sam out as a nurse. “Good, Delores. Help me with this girl.”

Johnny closed the door and waited outside in the hall. After several minutes he heard the girl's cry. They must have roused her, he thought. Good. She can tell what happened, too. He hoped so. It would be tragic to have Pardee's sinister plan work after all.

Ten minutes later the three of them emerged from his room. The girl leaned heavily on Señora Mendoza's shoulders. She was sobbing. The two females went downstairs.

“She's taking the girl home with her tonight. We'll figure out later what to do about her.” Sam told Johnny and Benito. “She seemed to collaborate your story, Madrid. She didn't even know you. Besides, other than that bruise on her face, she's physically all right. Thank you for getting her help.

“Now,” Sam continued, “Are you sure you're all right? That cut on your face is bleeding. Come back in here and I'll patch you up.”

Chapter Twenty-Four: Morro Coyo

Murdoch slept late. He'd not been able to fall asleep after his row with Scott. His son's insistence about Johnny Madrid annoyed him. How could that gunhawk possibly claim to be his missing Johnny! Because he has no conscious, he answered his own question. Men like Johnny Madrid would do anything to get the job done and since he was a Pardee spy, that included befriending Scott and infiltrating the hacienda, even if it involved claiming to be a long lost son and brother.

Murdoch thought of his blue-eyed toddler. He'd been so alive, so full of laughter and joy. The boy would be a man now, he thought, and twenty-three years old, if by some miracle he was alive. But his Johnny had probably died around age ten or eleven.

The Pinkerton reports said Maria's accidental death was in early 1861 in Nogales, a dangerous border town, just south what was at that time the Confederate Territory of Arizona. The area was in unrest on both sides of the border, with battles of the American Civil War raging on the American side and Mexican-French conflicts beginning south of the border. It would have been a horrible place to raise a child and a child left to his own devices could not have survived.

That Johnny Madrid had somehow obtained this personal history and was using it to his advantage outraged Murdoch. It intensified his hatred for the man.

He sure had Scott captivated. Scott, who'd shown such good sense, had rational ideas and surprising grit, was so taken by Madrid's act it surprised him. Madrid was very good at what he did, that was sure. He could admire that much about him, even if it all disgusted him.

However, now wasn't the time for anger or disgust. It would be a day of mourning for the De Salvo family and their hands. Their funeral would be today. And maybe in town they'd find some information about the missing girl.

He shook off his distaste for Johnny Madrid and hurried to dress. He hated being the last one up.

Abby and Scott sat at the breakfast table sipping coffee. Murdoch limped into the room. Scott smiled faintly. He remembered last night's conversation, but was determined not to let his displeasure with his father known to anyone else. “We're learning to get up early.”

“I see that,” Murdoch acknowledged. “Good morning.”

Maria served them bacon, eggs and biscuits. Teresa bounced into the room. “Well, this is a surprise! Good to see you two.”

“Thanks. We'll let you know when we really wake up,” Abby laughed. She picked up her coffee mug.

Murdoch grabbed a biscuit. “The De Salvos and their hands will be buried today.”

“That soon?”

“Have to. I want us to go to the services. The padre from the mission will lead them, I suspect. They were Catholic. We need provisions anyway. After the funeral, we'll get our supplies and return home.”

“Did they ever find the girl?” Abby asked.

“I don't know. Hopefully, we'll hear something in town.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch left orders with Cipriano to defend the hacienda should there be an attack while they were away. The rest of them, Scott, Abby, Teresa and three hands drove into town. Scott rode point, along with Nate, who shed his bandage this morning. Murdoch drove the buggy with Teresa and Abby. The cowboy Smitty drove the supply wagon with Joe on horseback bringing up the rear. They were quite the progression.

Morro Coyo was quiet; people milled around, still not believing what had happened at the De Salvo place. Murdoch stopped at the mission to learn when the service would be. He came out smiling, almost jubilant, confusing his party.

“Why the grin?” Scott asked, thinking it was most inappropriate.

“The girl is alive, Scott! And she's all right. Barely even hurt. She's at Señora Mendoza's home.” Murdoch climbed into the buggy and slapped the reins.

Sam Jenkins was coming out of the tan adobe house when they drove up to see Selena. “Sam!” cried Murdoch. “We just heard the good news!”

“Yes, it is good news,” Sam nodded. “Selena is all right. Just a bruise from where that brute hit her. But thanks to Johnny Madrid she's otherwise untouched.”

Murdoch's visage darkened upon hearing the gunfighter's name. “What does he have to do with that? He's part of that gang that murdered her family.”

Sam shook his head. “I don't think so, Murdoch. Pardee went after him last night. He was waiting in the room, with an unconscious Selena. He was planning on raping the girl and blaming Madrid. He managed to fight Pardee off. He's a surprising man, that Johnny Madrid.”

“Good for Johnny!” Scott praised, helping Abby down from the buggy.

Murdoch was unsure of what to say, a rare event for him. He remained silent, pondering Sam's positive appraisal of the gunfighter.

“Selena,” Murdoch smiled when he saw the girl. “I'm glad you're all right.”

“Gracias, Señor Lancer. It is because of Señor Madrid,” the girl nodded to her left. Johnny was standing next to the wall, a cup of coffee in his hand. “ Señor Madrid fought off ese perro [that dog] Pardee and got Doctor Sam to help me.”

Murdoch glared at Johnny, but said nothing. Johnny stared back, his eyes ice cold.

“Johnny!” Scott clasped his brother's hand. “Good to see you.”

Johnny softened. He smiled and nodded at Scott. “Good to be alive, Scott.”

Señora Mendoza came in and offered Murdoch's party coffee. “Poor Selena, she doesn't want to go back to that farm, not even to get her things. She spent the night here; we don't know where to look for any family.”

“She'll go to Lancer, Delores,” Murdoch broke in. He smiled at Selena, “And don't you worry, we'll get you new things.”

“Yes, we will,” affirmed Abby. “Come on, Selena, Teresa and I will get you everything you need.” The girl shyly accompanied them to Baldemero's store.

“You better watch out, Murdoch,” Sam laughed. “Those two will buy the place out for the girl.”

“I don't mind,” Murdoch said. “That girl's parents were loyal to me. They died a horrific death because they wanted to help.” He glanced again at Johnny. “How can you stand there drinking coffee knowing what you did to them!”

Johnny didn't react, other than returning to his ice-cold stare at his father.

“Not that again,” Scott began tiredly. To Sam, he explained, “My father still thinks Johnny is one of Pardee's men. Last night's move on him proves otherwise.”

“I'd have to agree with you, Scott. I evaluated the situation and heard from both the girl and Benito Mendez at the hotel. Pardee tried to frame Johnny because he helped you.” He turned to Johnny. “I was wrong about you. I thought you were with Pardee. I'm sorry.”

Johnny softened again and nodded to the doctor. Scott stepped up next to him. “You're not safe in town either anymore, ” he mentally added ‘brother.' “You should be at the ranch, too.”

“Never!” stated Murdoch. “I'll not have that gunfighter in my house.”

Scott looked defiant. “It's my house, too and I'm offering him protection.”

“He doesn't need it. If Pardee kills him, good. One less gunman in the world.”

Johnny resisted the urge to return the barb. Instead he spoke coolly, “Okay. I think I'll go get a beer.” He set the coffee cup down, turned on his heels and left the house, slamming the door behind him. Scott stared dumbfoundedly at his father before going after Johnny.

“Wait!” he called. Johnny was crossing the street, heading to the cantina. He didn't look, he just kept walking.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Sam stared at his friend, shock on his face. He grabbed Murdoch's arm. “What are you saying? The man was right there! He almost was killed for you.”

“Did you know he's claiming to be my Johnny? Maria's boy!” When Sam blinked, Murdoch continued.“Yes, he told that to Scott. And Scott believes this killer.”

Sam thought about it for a minute. “Well, he does look a lot like her.”

“Don't you start, Sam. Not on this.”

“You think he's trying to claim part of Lancer.”

“No. Maybe. He told Scott he wanted to kill me.” Murdoch related Johnny's story.

Sam registered surprise again. “Why would a complete stranger want to kill you? Now as your son, thinking you threw Maria out, I could understand it then.”

“Sam,” Murdoch warned.

Sam held up his hands. “All right, all right. But something tells me you haven't seen the last of him. He's a very impressive young man.

“And one more thing, my friend,” Sam continued in Murdoch's ear. “Regardless of how you feel about Johnny Madrid, Scott likes him. It would be in your best interest to ease up a bit for Scott's sake. Unless you want to drive him to return to Boston.”

Murdoch's scowl melted into a worried frown.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny paused at the cantina door, surveying the room. This gave Scott the chance to catch up with him. “Hold up, brother.” Johnny ignored him, walked confidently to a back table and chose the chair facing the door. Scott, left at the door, watched him take his seat. He joined him. “Two beers,” he signaled to the girl.

About thirty seconds ticked by. “I really don't want to be with anyone right now, Scott.”

“Probably not.”

Another minute on the clock. “And yet, you're still here.”


A buggy drove by on the street. Some kids in the alley laughed. “Why?”

“I'm waiting for my beer.”

Johnny sighed. “What do you want?”

Scott smiled. “First of all, I want you to forget about Murdoch Lancer. His problem with you isn't personal.”

The girl brought them two mugs. Scott pulled out a coin.

“Sounded pretty personal to me.”

“He's stressed.” Scott mentally cringed. How lame was that?

“Really, Scott? Is that the best you can do?”

“All right. I have no excuses for him. He's being ridiculous.”

Johnny stared at Scott. “Never miss a good chance to shut up, Scott.”

Startled by the dead-panned one-liner, Scott laughed. He started to speak but clamped his mouth shut. Johnny chuckled at his brother's antics. The laughter released the tension.

Scott sobered first. “There's something more important right now than Murdoch Lancer: Pardee.”

Johnny sipped his beer. “You have a plan?” More than anything, he wanted Pardee gone. It had become personal for him.

“Yes, but you won't like it.”

Johnny grinned. “I deserve that.”

Scott laughed. He raised his beer in salute and took a sip. When he put the mug back down, he grew serious. “Here's what I was thinking...”

Chapter Twenty-Five: Surprise!

Johnny rode out of Morro Coyo just as the services for the De Salvo family were beginning at the mission church. He'd checked out of the no-longer-safe hotel and stopped off at Baldemero's for supplies. Now, with his saddlebags full, he was prepared to find a good place to camp.

Still riding Abby's mare, he took the back road toward the Lancer hacienda. There was a cut off heading west about half-way there. The path led past Lancer's line shack in the southwestern corner of the estancia before disappearing into the foothills and over the Coast Range mountains. Scott told him he could use the shack and Johnny wondered what the old man would say if he knew.

He couldn't understand all of his father's hatred of him, but it tied in well with the story he'd learned when he overheard Maria to his uncle Esteban: Murdoch was an up-and-coming rancher who didn't want to be saddled with a Mexican wife and half-breed kids.

Now, having learned about Scott, Johnny was even more sure of his mother's story. Why raise a mestizo when you already have a white kid?

Johnny rode quietly, enjoying the afternoon. A light shower had moistened the ground during the night and the day still had that clean feeling about it. The mare was a good mount, too. Surefooted, well-muscled and boy, could she sprint! Abby would be wanting her back soon.

He remembered Sombra and some of the good times they had together. He could run all day at a nice clip, rest at night and be ready to do it all over again the next day. Great endurance, he had. He hoped Scott had sent someone out to take care of his body. And his tack; he missed that saddle.

He found the cut off and started the turn when he heard the shots, rifle reports and plenty of them. Bullets whizzed by Johnny's head as the mare, frightened by the volley, jumped sideways and bolted. Johnny was knocked him off balance and nearly fell out of the saddle. He grasped the mare's mane in a desperate attempt to stay on. The horse took off at full-speed down the main road, but her gait wasn't steady. She'd been hit, he was sure, and she was scared. Her erratic pace and top clip made it difficult for him to reseat himself. Finally, after nearly a half mile of her fastest speed, she began to slow a little and he was able to pull himself back into the saddle.

When he regained control, he slowed her down to a more manageable pace but didn't stop. He was too exposed on this road. Whoever shot at him may have followed. But he knew he should stop soon and examine the mare and assess the extent of her injury.

He was nearing Lancer when he spotted a good place to hide. He pulled the mare over and up a slight hill behind some trees and a few large rocks. The horse was in pain, he could tell, and when he looked he saw a deep gash high in her left flank, almost to her hip.

Johnny quickly calmed the horse, grabbed his Winchester and waited, poised to see if anyone had been following. As the seconds ticked his own composure returned and he felt his left arm throb. He looked and saw blood. A cursory examination revealed a flesh wound. He cursed.

A half-hour passed. He saw no one. Figuring that whoever had shot at him wasn't on his tail, he went back to the mare. She needed attention, but he didn't have the necessary salves with him. The closest place was at Lancer. Now wouldn't that make his old man happy if he just showed up with an injured Lancer horse?

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The ride back to Lancer was mostly in silence, in deference to Selena. The girl sobbed quietly for most of the trip, dabbing her eyes with Scott's handkerchief. The services had been beautiful and most of the town as well as many of the ranchers had attended. Gaspar and Maria had been popular.

Selena rode in the buggy with Abby and Teresa, driven by Murdoch. Scott rode point but Joe switched to be by his side and Nate rode the rear behind the supply-laden wagon.

As the hacienda came into view, Scott felt relief. It had been another hard, emotional day and he would be glad to get dinner, a stiff drink and go to bed. The horses, sensing home, quickened their pace and soon they were driving into the Lancer courtyard.

Cipriano was there to greet them. He reported to Murdoch that there had been no Pardee activity at the ranch. It had been a quiet day. Murdoch was grateful for that, but still had an uneasy feeling.

“There's one thing more, Patron ,” Cipriano pulled Murdoch aside. “The gunfighter Johnny Madrid is in the barn.”

“What?” Murdoch exclaimed. Scott, who was helping his wife down from the buggy, raised an eyebrow at Murdoch. The rancher growled. “What is he doing here? Scott!”

Scott gave Abby a quick shrug and ran to Murdoch. “What's wrong, Sir?”

Murdoch frowned at him, trying for control. “You're—you're— friend Madrid is here.” He marched to the barn, throwing open its big heavy doors. It was dark inside and he had to wait for his eyes to adjust. At first he didn't find Johnny but after a few seconds, he saw him in a stall, tending to a horse. “Why—are—you–here?” he enunciated every word, his wrath barely in check.

Johnny ignored the bellow; he finished applying a salve to the mare's injury. It would reduce her pain and help it heal, or so Cipriano said. He sure hoped so. She was a good horse. He walked out of the stall, wiping his hands on a cloth.

“I asked you a question!”

“No,” Johnny's eyes shot daggers, but his voice was soft and calm. “You barked a question. And before you explode, I wouldn't be here except Pardee's men shot at me and the mare got hit.”

Scott stepped forward. “Will she be all right?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Johnny glanced back a the mare. “She's a real trooper.”

“You probably shot her yourself just to have an excuse to come here,” Murdoch said disgustedly.

Scott's glower at his father was icy. “How can you even think that?”

“Scott, he can think whatever he wants. He's always thought the worst about my mother. It's no surprise he feels the same about me. He made up his mind about us even before I was born. He probably thought my mother was a puta because she was intimate with him before they were married.”

Murdoch reddened. “Just get on with it and go,” he growled, mainly to cover his embarrassment. Then he got a thought: if Madrid knew enough about Maria's story to know that, well— he shook his head. No, he couldn't be.

“He'll go when the mare is better,” Scott asserted.

“Then get him another horse. I want him out of here tonight!”

Johnny shrugged and winced. Scott saw the blood on his arm. “You're hurt!”

“It's only a flesh wound. Sometimes you get and sometimes you get got.” Johnny laughed.

Scott ignored Johnny's humor. “You don't need infection to set in. Come inside, I'll have Abby take a look.” He took Johnny by the shoulders and led him toward the door.

Murdoch started to object, but remembered Sam's words. “Make it quick, then,” he grumbled.

Scott smiled. “Come on, Johnny. Abby will tend to you.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Hold still!” Abby applied a cleaner to Johnny's wound. She'd already ripped open his shirt arm much to the gunfighter's lament: he only had one other shirt. They sat at the breakfast table.

“Here are fresh bandages,” Teresa said. She and Selena came in with armloads of white.

Murdoch, who had been leaning against the other doorway watching glumly, stood straight. “Get out of this room, both of you!” He barked.

Teresa looked up at him, surprise and confusion on her face. She didn't understand; she'd tended wounded men before. She waited.

Selena expressed the same confusion; to her, Johnny was a hero. But having been taught not to defy her elders, she quietly placed her bundle on the table and returned upstairs.

“Go, Teresa!” he ordered again, pointing upstairs.

The girl tossed the strips on the table, turned wordlessly and stalked out.

Scott ground his teeth but ignored Murdoch. “Didn't anyone ever teach you to duck, Johnny?” He asked.

Johnny laughed. “Guess not.”

“So much for our plan,” Scott said wryly.

“We'll just alter it a bit,” Johnny smiled.

Abby reached for the strips and began to bandage. “It's clean now. I want you to change these bandages every day and immediately if they get wet.” She tied off the last strip. “There. Done.”

Gracias , Señora. ” He inspected his new bandage. “You'd make a good nurse.”

The housekeeper Maria sashayed through the breakfast room on her way to the dining table. She carried a bottle of wine and a corkscrew. “ ¡Santa Maria! ” she exclaimed, seeing Johnny. The wine and utensil slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor. “ ¡Mi pequeño Johnny! Que han regresado a casa por fin! ” [My little Johnny! You have returned home at last!] She ran to him, grabbed him and pulled him to his feet, hugging him. Johnny stood there, confusion on his face.

Scott and Abby exchanged shrugs. What did she say?

Murdoch once again indignantly stood up straight, angered by Maria's outburst. “This is not my son, Maria. He is a gunfighter, Johnny Madrid.”

Maria frowned at her employer. “Why you say that, Señor Patron ? Can you not see the woman in the man? Su amada [Your beloved] Maria was not forgettable, es cierto? ” [is it true?] She turned back to Johnny. “He may be el pistolero famoso Johnny Madrid, but he is most certainly the son of Maria Cecilia Inez Reyes y Santiago. Anyone can see that!”

Chapter Twenty-Six: The Palomino

“You see what you want to see, Maria,” Murdoch asserted. He left the room, going outside the French doors to the back patio.

Maria watched her boss leave, shaking her head. She muttered something in rapid Spanish while retrieving the wine bottle. “Dinner will be in a few minutes, Señor Scott.”

“Thank you, Maria,” Scott acknowledged. He turned to Johnny. “I don't understand Murdoch.”

“Oh, I do, Scott. More than you know.” Johnny shook his head. He didn't tell him why.

“Let's get you settled,” Abby said. “There are guest rooms in the north wing. Your father can't possibly object to you staying there.”

“Wanna bet?” Johnny grinned.

Scott's look was stern. “Abby, go with Johnny. I want to talk with our father. Again.” He followed Murdoch outside.

His father leaned against the adobe half wall, gazing out at Teresa's garden, watching her and Selena pick flowers for the dinner table. “Sir, how can you continue to ignore the obvious? But more importantly, how can you treat anyone like you're treating Johnny, especially considering all that he has done for us?”

Murdoch continued his watch the girls. “What's obvious, Scott? That he has you under some sort of spell? That you are so taken in by his ‘kind acts' that you can't see the truth? He is a gunfighter. They are the worst kind of scum. He will do anything, say anything to get you to fall for his line. He is working for Pardee, I am sure of it. He is their spy.”

Scott shook his head. “No, he is not. Pardee has attacked him twice now. The man wouldn't do that to one of his own crew. And tell me, how could Maria have fallen under his ‘spell', as you call it, when she first saw him tonight and immediately recognized him?”

Murdoch turned to face Scott. “You aren't from here, Scott. You don't know the ways out here. You see the good in everyone. Your mother was like that. I believed her and she died because of my mistake. And it was men just like Johnny Madrid who caused it all.”

“You keep saying that, Sir, but Johnny had nothing to do with my mother's death. You can't blame him for that.”

“Gunfighters are all alike.” He turned back to the garden.

“Can't you see how ridiculous that statement is? Would you say ‘all Mexicans are alike'? ‘All colored people are alike'? No, you wouldn't and you know it.”

“That's different, Scott. They don't choose what they are. Johnny Madrid chose his profession. He became a gunfighter because he wanted to. Something in him saw that as an acceptable profession. And whatever that something is, Scott, it's evil.”

Scott shook his head. “Johnny is not evil.”

“Maybe not all of him. But part of him must be.”

“Because he's a gunfighter.”


“So, he's a gunfighter because some of him is evil and he's evil because he's a gunfighter. Your logic is skewed, at the least.”

Murdoch didn't reply. He watched a falling star.

“He's your son.”

“No,” Murdoch said softly.

“How can you deny that? Didn't you see Maria? Wasn't his story about his mother and you true? I saw you blush, Sir. It must be the truth. How would he know that if he's not your son?”

“Maria is mistaken. And I will not discuss my private life.”

Scott lost it. He faced Murdoch directly. “Of course not. There's never anything wrong about you at all. You're the perfect one. Johnny said you claim to know everything, but you don't. You don't know a damn about people. I tell you, Johnny's more of a human being than you are right now. He is continuing to help us with you attacking him day and night. Would you be so broadminded? I don't think so.

“Furthermore,” Scott continued. “I believe him. Every word. And if you don't stop treating him like dirt you can bet on one thing: he, Abby and I will leave you. You'll be left to deal with Pardee by yourself. I wonder how long this ranch of yours would last.”

Murdoch turned to hide his gulp. He didn't want that.

Scott kept it up, his teeth gritting, “What will it take for you to see the truth, Sir? Must he die for you? Will you then believe he is your Johnny?”

Murdoch spun around to Scott, red-faced with grief. “He is not my son! He can't be! He's a gunfighter!”

Scott stepped back, finally seeing. “So that's it, isn't it? You don't want a gunfighter for a son? It's not about him. It's about you and what you want. I have some news for you, Sir: you can't pick your children's career. Especially when you kick them out as babes.”

“I did not kick my wife and son out!”

“Then why didn't Johnny grow up here?”

“She took him, Scott. She took him. She ran off with a gambler. And she took him,” Murdoch cried.

“Your wife Maria ran off and took Johnny.”

Murdoch nodded, his face to the ground.

“Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch's head flew up. He gaped in astonishment, but quickly recovered. “No. Johnny Madrid is not my son.”

“So you say.”

Murdoch stepped up. “Scott, you will believe what you want; I can't help that. I see that now. You want to befriend Madrid, go ahead. I won't stop you. But you'll see, when he reveals his true colors. Just do me the favor of not discussing this again with me.”

Scott drew a deep breath, knowing he'd won. “By the way, Johnny will be dining with us this evening. I expect you to be a pleasant host.” Scott reached the French door before Murdoch could voice an objection.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The sun's rays fingered at Johnny's eyelids, disturbing his sleep. He hadn't slept well and had just entered into that wonderful dreamless stage of sleep after a restless night. He twisted his head, but within seconds the relentless ray found his eyes again.

He blinked and found the source of his discomfort. The shade of his open window billowed in the morning breeze, allowing a sliver of sun to frolic over his eyes. He lay still, enjoying the softness of the bed and the clean lavender smell of its linens to engulf him. He'd been blessed with such luxury only a few times in his life and he relished it now.

He listened. He heard men's voices, whooping and the unmistakable thud of hooves hitting the hard ground. Someone was breaking a horse this early. He thought of the mare and rose from his cocoon. He needed to check on her. Quickly dressing he left the room.

“Oh, good, you're awake,” Abby greeted him. She'd been heading to his room. “I was about to check on you. Come down for breakfast. Sam's here.”


“Dr Sam Jenkins. He's the doctor from yesterday. He came this morning to examine Murdoch's leg and while he was here, I thought he may take a look at your arm.”

Johnny lifted his left arm to look. “It's fine.” It still hurt, but not as much now.

“Why don't we let the expert be the judge of that?”

Abby's manner was so sweet and her smile so genuine he couldn't refuse her. “Sure.”

They walked in the breakfast room. “Maria, here is our sleepyhead.” Abby turned to Johnny, “I'm going to let Sam know you're up.” She left Maria in charge.

Maria said little to him, but smiled broadly. Her Johnny was home. She was too pleased to talk. She put a plate of bacon, eggs and biscuits in front of him. Johnny reached for the coffee pot.

He was just finishing his last biscuit when Sam Jenkins walked in. “So this is my new patient?” He held out his hand. “Good to see you again, Mr. Madrid.”

Johnny nodded and shook the doctor's hand. Not one for small talk, he drained the last of his coffee.

“Let's take a look at that arm,” Sam said.

A few minutes later, Sam pronounced him healing and re-bandaged his arm. “No infection. Everything looks good. Change the bandage daily and when it gets wet.”

Johnny grinned. “That's what Abby said.”

“Speaking of Abby, she wanted to see me this morning. Goodbye, Mr. Madrid.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny walked out of the hacienda. He saw the men in the corral, the same men he heard while still in bed, probably. He watched them breaking a paint horse for a few minutes then headed to the barn to check on the mare. Scott saw him and joined him in the barn.

“She's doing fine, Johnny,” he said. “I checked on her this morning. Cipriano did too. She's going to be all right.”

“That's good news.”

“Yes, it is, and I have some more for you,” Scott said with a twinkle in his eye. Johnny was suspicious but went along with his brother's game. He followed him to another corral where four horses were nervously running around. “For you,” he said. “Pick one.”

“What?” Johnny was dumbfounded. Was his brother giving him a horse?

“You earned it. Pick the one you want. These were caught a few days ago. But I'd stay away from that palomino if I were you. Murdoch said he's too much of a problem. He'll probably release him later today.”

Johnny leaned on the corral and eyed the horses. They all looked good, but the palomino was by far the best of them. “I'll take a crack at him,” Johnny said, smiling.

Scott shook his head. “Ok. Your funeral.” He crossed to the other corral and called one of the men to help. They roped Johnny's selection and led the animal to the other corral.

Johnny entered the corral and started talking to the horse in a mixture of English, Spanish and some other language Scott didn't recognize. His voice was soft, with a light cadence. The horse watched him nervously as he pranced around the enclosure. Johnny kept it up, getting the horse used to the sound of his voice. Occasionally, he stepped in front of the animal, causing him to change directions, but never stopped talking to him.

Johnny got closer and closer to the horse until he was able to caress his back. The animal flinched but didn't move. Johnny kept up his litany of words as he touched the back, sides and front of the horse. A crowd began to gather around the corral to watch the gunfighter break the troublesome horse. Johnny called for a bridle. He distracted the horse by fiddling with one of his ears while he slipped the bit into his mouth. He let the reins drop and went back to fondling his coat.

The animal didn't like the blanket and shied away a step when Johnny placed it on his back, but he didn't kick it off. All the while Johnny kept talking to him, touching him. When he threw his own saddle on his back, the horse kicked it off. Johnny repeated the procedure. After the fourth time, the saddle stayed on long enough for Johnny to cinch it before the palomino bucked.

Murdoch walked out in the courtyard to see what all the commotion was about. He saw Johnny in the corral with the palomino he had ordered released. A few strides later, he was at the fence, watching along with the others, with a frown on his face. The frown disappeared, though, replaced with admiration, as he watched the gunfighter work magic with the animal.

Johnny again distracted the animal while he stepped into the saddle, settling quickly. The animal took a second before he realized the weight on his back was Johnny. He began to buck. Johnny was ready. Throwing his hand up in the air for balance, he rocked with the horse. The palomino gave buck after bone-jarring buck, but Johnny stayed on. Finally, tired, the horse stopped and walked around the corral. The crowd cheered.

Murdoch left the corral and headed back inside. He puzzled over Johnny. If the man could do such wonders with a horse, he thought, why did he decide to become a gunfighter?

Johnny motioned for someone to open the corral. He spurred the palomino and he took off at a dead run, away from the hacienda. He jumped an outlying fence and turned around, jumping the same fence on the way back. He brought the animal to a stop next to Scott.

“That's a fine piece of work, Johnny,” Scott admired.

“He sure is a good horse.” Johnny dismounted and admired his new ride. “Thanks. For the horse and for retrieving my saddle.”

“No, Johnny. Thank you .”

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Reconnaissance

Murdoch poured a coffee for Sam and one for himself. “You examined everyone, including Selena?”

“Yes. They are all fine. Just fine. Selena is obviously still a little withdrawn, but I'm sure she'll come around in time. Teresa is good for her so make sure they get to spend time together. Selena can help Teresa with her chores. And giving her a job will help her transition better.” Sam suggested. He took the cup.

“Good, good. We'll do that,” Murdoch said absently. He sipped. “Did you see Madrid break that palomino? We all thought he was unbreakable. Yet Madrid did it. Easily, too.”

“Yes, I watched from the courtyard. It was beautiful work.”

“So tell me, Sam: why does a man who can perform that kind of magic with a horse pick up a gun?”

Sam set his cup down on the saucer. He shrugged. “I don't know. Circumstances? What makes any of them do? Who knows?”

“Well, I know. Because something in him is evil. And I tried to tell Scott. He won't listen. He's still wrapped up in this ‘he's my brother' nonsense.”

“Maybe, Murdoch, it isn't nonsense.”

Murdoch gave Sam a stern look. “That boy is no more my son than you are!”

Sam chuckled. “Well, we know that's not the case.” Sam sobered. “But still, you never learned the truth about your Johnny. This one is about the same age, and he does look like Maria—”

“No!” Murdoch cut him off. “He doesn't. He isn't. He just isn't.”

Sam scratched his head. “Well, Murdoch, tell me. If he isn't Scott's brother, and he came here to kill you, why hasn't he done so already?”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“We know he has men watching Lancer,” Scott said.

“And probably still has a man inside as well,” Johnny added.

They were in Johnny's room, in the north wing, separated from the rest of the house and from all other listening ears. “Yes,” Scott nodded. “I just don't know who, though.”

“What does Murdoch think?” Johnny had taken apart his Colt and was cleaning it.

Scott scoffed. “He thinks you are the spy.”

“Damn,” Johnny muttered. “That's no help.”

“No, and now that Pardee is on to you, you are stuck here.”

Johnny finished cleaning and began to reassemble his weapon. “During the day, yes. But I think I can sneak out at night.”

“You think you can find the man watching?”

“I'll have to.” Johnny reloaded the gun.

“Don't kill him, Johnny.”

Johnny grinned. “Not yet.” He holstered the Colt.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch pondered Sam's question. Why hadn't Madrid killed him already? The gunfighter must have had enough chances; there were plenty of times when he was alone or lightly guarded. He could have done so quickly and efficiently with no one the wiser.

But that begged a prior question: why did Madrid want to kill him in the first place? It wasn't a job; if that was the case, he'd be dead already. The same if it was part of this Pardee business.

But didn't he say he'd wanted to kill him for most of his life? Something must have happened early on to cause Madrid's macabre desire to fester for so long. Had he wronged someone the gunhawk knew? Had it been something he himself had done to Madrid? Murdoch gasped at that thought; if he had created Madrid's personal mission, did that mean he himself had something to do with the man becoming a gunfighter?

Determined to find some answers, Murdoch wrote a telegram. When he saw Sam off, he handed his good friend the folded paper and an envelope of cash. “Wire this for me, Sam. To the Pinkerton Agency in San Diego. You know the address.”

Sam smiled, nodded and took the paper, stuffing it in his coat pocket. “Will do.” He slapped the reins and headed back to Green River.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny spent most of the day training his new Palomino, who he named “Barranca,” which means ‘gully' in Spanish. He chose that name because he hoped the horse would serve to drain his grief over losing Sombra. The two of them worked throughout the afternoon until Johnny was satisfied the horse had mastered some of the rudiments he liked his mounts to know.

He returned to his room, tired and sore. He splashed water on his face, careful to keep his arm dry. There was a knock at his door. He opened. It was Abby.

“How's your arm?” she smiled.

“Good.” He flexed the arm. “A little sore after working with Barranca.”

Abby came closer and reached for him. “Want me to check for bleeding?”

“No. The bandage is dry.”

“Good.” She hesitated, looking about his sparse room. It contained so few of his personal items. “I have a favor to ask of you,” she began.


“Would you... teach me how to shoot? I mean, I can shoot, I'm just not all that good and I'm used to a Derringer, not a heavy thing like you're wearing.” She gave him a beguiling look and he knew instantly why his brother was so in love with her.

Johnny came back to earth. “Does Scott know about this?”

“No. And I know he would probably disapprove, but Johnny, when I was Pardee's prisoner, I never felt so scared and helpless in my life. I was able to untie my bindings, but ...well, I need to be able to defend myself better.” That look changed now to determination. He smiled. He knew that look in a woman, too.

Johnny wanted to argue, but he knew there were two theories to arguin' with a woman. Neither one worked. Besides, she had a point. A woman living out here needed to be able to use firearms. But he didn't like going behind Scott's back. “I'll do it, but only if Scott says ok.”

Abby knew his request was reasonable. “I'll discuss it with him. Later.” She closed the door behind her.

What are you doing, Johnny-boy? Helping Scott was one thing, but teaching his wife how to shoot? This was far beyond what he'd bargained for. When he'd conceived this plan, he hadn't figured on getting this close. It was dangerous to get this involved. He wanted to help Scott then ... then what? Move on? Stay? No, that was impossible, particularly with Murdoch's attitude.

Invited again to dinner, he wondered if tonight would be different from the previous evening. Murdoch, not wanting to dine with the gunfighter, had taken his meal in his room. Scott, Abby and Johnny had eaten alone, in the great room. Both Teresa and Selena had been ordered by Murdoch to eat upstairs too; they ate together, bonding in Teresa's larger room at her small table.

He met Scott in the hall, at the top of the stairs, just going down for dinner. “Maria told Abby she prepared all Mexican dishes tonight, Johnny, to please your palate.”

Johnny wondered what a palate was but didn't ask. As long as it was being pleased, he didn't mind. “Wonderful! I'm looking forward to it.”

Johnny got the answer to his earlier question when he saw the table set for three again. “I don't understand that man,” Scott said. “He'll extend every courtesy to anyone but you.”

“I tend to have that effect on people,” Johnny grinned. He saw the table, laden with tamales, beans, tortillas and flavorful rice. All his favorites. “ Se ve delicioso, ” he said, licking his lips. He would be sure to thank Maria for her trouble.

After dinner he and Scott enjoyed a drink before Scott joined Abby in their room. Johnny had his own plans. He waited in his room until the moon had set. Then he gathered his gear and crept out a back door, keeping in the shadows, to the barn.

Barranca was waiting for him. Johnny produced an apple scarfed from the kitchen earlier and the horse eagerly sniffed it before munching gladly on the treat. Johnny quickly saddled his new mount. “We are going out tonight. Hope you don't mind working at night, boy. You and me have a job to do.”

Keeping hidden, Johnny rode Barranca around the hacienda's perimeter. He found the subtle evidence of two cold camps, both abandoned, and he surmised that Pardee's spy had used both of them in his duties watching Lancer. He left them untouched.

He was sure Pardee's man was watching tonight as well. The abandoned camps only indicated that the man was changing his location frequently, either to avoid discovery or to get a different view on things. Or, Johnny had a sudden thought, there could be more than one man spying. The hacienda area was quite large; it would make sense to employ two or even more to keep a good eye on things.

He was up in the foothills behind the hacienda, riding hidden in the trees when he got his answer. A horse's soft nicker led him to a third cold camp. Johnny dismounted and slid around to the animal, finding a second horse tied with him. He moved quietly, careful not to step on anything that would make a sound, until he spied the camp's clearing. He saw the outline of one body sleeping and the empty bedroll of a second man.

Johnny waited. Barranca was tied off far enough away not to give away his presence should the man on duty decide to go on a patrol. The sleeping man snored and Johnny resisted the urge to chuckle at the sound. Finally he was rewarded. The guard returned to the camp and kicked the sleeping man. “Your turn,” he gruffly said.

For a few minutes both men were up and Johnny got a decent look at their faces. Even in the dark his eyes, accustomed now to the lack of light, could see enough to be able to recognize them. One he remembered from that long ago scene in front of the saloon. The other was younger and unknown to him.

“It's quiet,” the guard was saying. “Nothing moving tonight.”

“Things'll get more lively tomorrow,” the waking man said. He chuckled. “Yeah, they'll be too afraid to go out.”

“Take the Spencer,” the guard said, indicating the carbine he'd propped against a rock. He nestled into his bedroll and prepared to sleep.

The new guard grabbed the weapon and left the camp. Johnny waited several more minutes until he felt it safe to get back to his horse.

While he had the information he'd come for and more, Johnny continued to ride the perimeter, making sure there were no more camps and no more men watching. He found neither. An hour before the first pinkness of dawn would show, he rode back to the hacienda, via a route he'd safely stalked before.

He put Barranca to stall, giving him a quick but thorough rubdown. The horse had served him well and he'd owned him for less than twenty-four hours. He was satisfied in his choice.

Johnny figured Scott may be awakening soon—a ranch sure woke up early—so he quickly returned to the house and made his way to his brother's room after dropping off his gear.

He moved silently through the house. Turning a corner, he almost ran into Murdoch, who was nearly dressed; his shirt was only partially buttoned.

“Watch it, Sco— Oh. It's you.” Murdoch scowled when he recognized Johnny. “What are you doing up so early? I thought your kind preferred to sleep in.”

“Haven't gone to bed yet, Old Man. Been out looking after your ranch.” Johnny kept his voice just under a snarl.

Murdoch harrumphed. “More likely you've been telling Pardee about our defenses.”

“Believe what you want, Old Man, but I learned a few things tonight. You will want to listen when I tell Scott.” Johnny breezed past Murdoch.

Johnny knocked on Scott and Abby's door. “Scott,” he called softly. “Come see me pronto . It's important.” He turned on his heels to return to his room. Murdoch stopped him.

“If you have information about the safety of this ranch and its people, you'll tell me now.”

Johnny's smile was more like a sneer. “I never was any good at taking orders.”

“Can't you two ease up this early in the morning?” Scott yawned. He closed the door to his room and continued buttoning his shirt. “What did you find out, Johnny?”

“In my room,” Johnny said. “No ears there.” He brushed past Murdoch again.

“Scott?” Murdoch asked. “What is going on?”

“You're welcome to come, Sir.” Scott went after Johnny.

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Pinned Down

“Something is planned for today,” Johnny said. Murdoch stood by the closed door. Scott half-sat on the bed. “I found three camps. Two abandoned. Two men. They talked about us being ‘too afraid to go out' today. I don't know the details, but I don't like it.”

“Any ideas?” Scott asked.

“A few, but I'd only be guessing.” Johnny fingered his Winchester.

Scott smiled. “Your guesses tend to be pretty good.”

Johnny glanced at his brother. “They could attack a crew out in the field, or on their way to their work sites, chase them back here. But I don't know what they'd actually do. Pardee has been doing this for a long time; he has lots of tactics up his sleeve.”

“But you think it involves our work crews?”


Murdoch reached for the doorknob. “I'll have to warn the men.”

“No!” Johnny grabbed his arm. “Don't. I know you want to, but if you do, their spy will know we were sneaking out at night. It'll make it harder to go out again.”

Murdoch twisted free. “You expect me to expose my men to unnecessary danger?”

“Yes, for the time being.”

Murdoch glared. “Now I'm convinced you're one of them.”

Scott intervened, standing and positioning himself between the two. “Sir, that kind of talk isn't helpful. Johnny's right. We have to act like we're ignorant until we find out who their man is. And don't insist it's Johnny because if he was, do you think he'd tell us about this?”

Murdoch remained silent. He crossed his arms. “So what's the plan?”

“We sit tight. Continue operations as normal,” Scott suggested. “Post the usual guards but we keep an eye on the men. If one of them acts suspicious, we'll investigate.”

Murdoch nodded to Scott. “Okay. For now. We'll play it your way.”

Scott glanced at Johnny. “Good with you?” When Johnny nodded his acceptance, Scott clasped his hands together. “Let's get breakfast.”

“Not me, brother,” Johnny yawned and removed his gunbelt. “I'm gonna try to get some sleep before whatever happens today, happens. I'll wait to eat.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

It began just after eight that morning. Murdoch had sent a crew out to check on a fence line. It had taken everything he had not to give them a warning other than his usual ‘be careful.' They returned to the hacienda early, much earlier than expected, “Mr. Lancer!” Nate exclaimed. “Someone was taking potshots at us! He shot all around us, almost hitting but never connecting. It was nerve-wracking. It only stopped when we decided to head back here.” The boy was still shaking.

“That's odd,” Murdoch mused. Madrid hadn't mentioned Pardee doing that. He figured Pardee would be more likely to shoot to hit, not miss. He hoped this was all that would happen this morning, but had an uneasy feeling there would be more.

“I swear, Mr. Lancer. We were scared.” The other men nodded. They were cowboys, not gunmen. The shootings had unnerved them.

Murdoch was deciding what to do. Sending the men out to get shot at again would only encourage them to quit, but he couldn't have them all hanging around doing nothing. He was about to say something when it started there.

A shot hit six inches from Murdoch's left boot. He jumped. “What the—?”

“That's what we're talkin' about!” Smitty yelled, running for cover, as a barrage of shots pinged the courtyard.

Johnny came running from his room and stood in the doorway. He was only half-dressed, with his shirt unbuttoned, his rig fastened around his hips and grasping his Winchester. Clearly, he'd been roused from his slumber by the gunfire. He scanned the horizon but saw nothing. A bullet dug into the ground at his feet; instinctively Johnny jumped back. “¡Maldita!” he exclaimed. He led the others back into the house.

The shots continued steadily for another hour, effectively keeping all of Lancer indoors and away from windows. Every time one of them attempted to venture out, even to tend to an animal or the garden, the shooting started back up again. The shots never connected; but there was still the fear that it would only be a matter of time.

At first they all huddled inside, but after a few minutes, Abby suggested they go about their normal routine inside the house. Maria started lunch; Teresa and Selena cleaned their rooms, and Abby saw to the rest of the household. Murdoch sat at his desk, busying himself with the ledgers, trying to ignore the shots. Scott and Johnny sat at the long dinner table, making plans for the hacienda's defense. It was an attempt to bring normalcy to the day.

But every time the shots rang out again, it caused them all to jump. Soon it became harder and harder to keep cool. Maria wasn't able to make a complete lunch without supplies from outside the hacienda; it frustrated her. Teresa and Selena only half-finished their chores when they grew too upset. Abby gathered them and returned to the great room. Scott and Johnny stopped their planning; concentration proved to be difficult. After a while even Murdoch couldn't keep up his work.

It was worse for Selena, the poor girl, who began to panic at the sound of the gunfire. Abby tried to calm her, but it took Murdoch, with his big arms and commanding voice, who assured her that he would take care of her and she'd be fine. She stayed close to him.

Johnny grew tired of the waiting in the great room and wandered into the kitchen. He'd not eaten yet today and his stomach was reminding him. Maria was there, sitting at the breakfast table, wringing her hands, her half-made lunch simmering on the stove. “ No te preocupes, por favor. [Please don't worry.]” he comforted her. “Estaremos a salvo. Nadie saldrá herido. [We will be safe; no one will get hurt.]”

Maria looked up at him and smiled. “ Gracias por las amables palabras. [Thank you for the kind words.]” She sniffed and wiped her face on a cloth. “Me siento mejor ahora ¿Tienes hambre? ¿Puedo obtener algo de comer? [I feel better now. Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?]”

Johnny returned her smile. She read his mind. “ Si, por favor. No he comido hoy. [Yes, please. I have not eaten today.]”

Maria hopped up, her face beaming. She was going to get to feed her not-so-little-anymore Johnny. Over at the stove, she moved aside the unfinished meal, put on a fresh pot of coffee and set the biscuits from earlier in the oven to reheat. She cracked the last of this morning's eggs in a well-used skillet and began scrambling them, adding peppers, onions and leftover salsa because she knew he would enjoy it. She did not have any bacon available, but sizzled thick slices of ham in the same skillet as the eggs. Within a few minutes, she placed the makeshift feast on the table.

“Wow!” Johnny grinned. “It looks delicious— delicioso .” He tucked in, making short work of the belated breakfast. Maria refilled his coffee, keeping her smile to herself; she felt that if she let her feelings known too much, it would break the magic and her Johnny would disappear again.

When he cleaned his plate, Maria began cleaning up. She slapped him on the wrist when he got up to help her, then immediately regretted the recrimination. But he only laughed and sat back down, happy and sated.

Once she was finished with her chore, she glanced back at him, still seated. He had been watching her, his eyes neutral, showing nothing. “Sit down with me,” he asked in soft Spanish. She complied with a slight smile on her lips.

“Tell me something, Maria,” he continued, but in English, “When you first saw me, you were happy, elated. You called my mother Murdoch's beloved. Why?”

Maria frowned in confusion. “I do not understand.”

“Why did you use the word ‘beloved'?”

Maria was at a loss for words. “ Lo siento, Johnny. Please explain. Why wouldn't el Patron call his lovely wife beloved?”

Johnny nodded in thought. She probably didn't know the truth. But still he had to ask. “You were here before, when I was born, yes?”

Si , of course. I bathed you, I tended you as a babe.”

“Did you like my mother?”

Maria beamed. “ Si , very much. She was a beautiful woman.”

“What did you think when Murdoch kicked her and me out?”

Maria stood in surprise. “No, no, no! Why do you say that? El Patron would not do such a thing!” She was close to tears now. “It was la señora , your mama, she left. In the middle of the night. She took you away. El Patron searched, he sent men. But we never saw you or her again.” She started to sob.

Johnny was sorry he made Maria cry. She had been kind to him. He crossed to her and put his arm around her shoulders. “ No llores, por favor, señora. Yo no quería hacer sentir triste . [Please don't cry. I didn't mean to make you sad.]” His voice was soft, his touch tender.

Murdoch entered the room and saw Maria crying at the table and Johnny's arm around her, speaking in soft Spanish. “What's going on here?” he frowned.

Johnny looked up, his eyes icy to his father but said nothing. Maria smiled through her tears at her boss. “It is not Johnny's fault, el Patron , but mine. I was remembering the lovely señora and it made me sad.”

Murdoch opened his mouth to speak, but clamped it shut. He mumbled something intelligible before turning on his heels to return to the great room. Johnny was surprised that the old man didn't get angry.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The shots continued to ping the hacienda, not always, but just enough to let Lancer know Pardee was still out there.

When Teresa was foolish enough to gaze wistfully out the French doors at her wilting garden, they shot at the door, splintering the wood and forcing the girl in the shadows. “Teresa!” Murdoch shouted. “Stay away from there!”

“They want us to stay nervous. So we'll make a mistake,” Johnny explained. “It's tactic Pardee learned from me.” He had followed Murdoch back to the great room at Maria's insistence.

“You?” Murdoch gaped. He furrowed his brows.

Johnny shot Murdoch a warning look. “We have worked together before.”

Scott watched his brother and father. Were they going to go at it again? “We need to keep our heads, not let them get to us.”

“But they are!” Teresa cried, almost in tears. The incident at the door had terrified the girl.

“Please calm down, Teresa,” Abby implored, noticing that her disquiet was affecting Selena, who had crouched in a corner. “Why don't you see if Maria can make us some tea?” She grasped herself in a hug, one arm around her chest, the other around her midsection. It was a gesture Scott recognized when she was anxious. He crossed over to her.

“Don't worry, Darling,” he whispered.

“Don't treat me like a baby, Scott Lancer. I can handle this.” She drew a deep breath. “I just need a moment to collect myself.”

Scott smiled. He knew she'd be all right. All he had to do was suggest coddling her and she'd realize her inner strength.

Teresa re-entered the room. “The tea's on,” she stated, her voice a little cold. She had not liked being dismissed from the room.

“Good,” Abby forced a smile. To Selena, she asked, “Would you like some tea? Let's go pour a cup.” She gently urged the girl to leave her corner and walk to the other room. Abby ended up walking next to the frightened girl, her arm around Selena's waist. The three of them withdrew from the great room, leaving the men alone.

A volley of shots rang, nipping on the adobe outside. “What's going on?” Murdoch asked as Cipriano threw open the door and hurried inside. “Cipriano! Are you loco ?”

The segundo entered, out of breath, holding his hat in his hand. “The men, they are very upset, Señor Lancer. They are talking about running away from the ranch. They are throwing their hands up in the air and wanting to quit.”

“We can't have that,” Murdoch said. He looked first at Scott, who shrugged, then at Johnny. “Can't you do something about this?” he ground out.

Instantly irritated, Johnny snarled, “Like what, Old Man?”

“You're the gunfighter! Do what you do best.”

“You want me to kill them for you?”

Murdoch hesitated. That was exactly what he wanted Johnny to do, but he couldn't voice it. “Just make them stop.”

Johnny smiled. “Are you hiring me?”

Murdoch looked aghast. “No!”

“Then forget it,” Johnny shrugged. “I don't work for free.”

Murdoch took a step toward Johnny. “You've been helping Scott. Has he been paying you?”

Johnny faced his father. “No, but he's my brother. All he has to do is ask. You don't claim me so if you want my help, you're talking gun money. And like I said before, I don't come cheap.”

Murdoch was torn. He was faced with two bad choices: admit the notorious Johnny Madrid was indeed his son by his second wife or hire the same gunfighter, an idea he abhorred, and would tarnish his reputation.

Scott wanted to jump in and ask Johnny himself, but couldn't. This was a seminal moment for Johnny. He remained quiet.

It was Cipriano who broke the silence. “The men, Señor .”

Murdoch looked at his segundo . “Yes. We will do something. We'll send a man to town and bring back help.”

Scott's heart fell. He had hoped Murdoch would have turned a corner regarding Johnny. He drew a breath. “They won't be expecting a flank attack. Johnny? What do you think?”

Johnny smirked. “I don't know Scott. The last time the Old Man asked for outside help, it ended so well.”

“We've got to do something and since you won't help...” Murdoch grasped Cipriano's arm. “Nate's our best gun.”

Si, Patron, but Smitty is our best rider.”

“Send Smitty,” Scott advised. “We need someone who can ride. And put him on our fastest horse.”

Murdoch nodded. “Agreed.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Revenge

With help from Lancer rifles, which drew Pardee's fire and occupied their attention, Smitty galloped out of the barn back door and headed straight for Morro Coyo, taking the shorter back road. It wasn't as well-maintained as the main road, but it was faster and time was not on his side.

The slim rider made it to Morro Coyo in record time, with no resistance once he was away from the Pardee gunners trained on the hacienda. He raced right to Baldemero's store, throwing the reins over the store's hitching post as he ran in. The tired horse drank the cool water in the trough.

The merchant was a well-respected town leader, and a good friend to Lancer. Within a half-hour of hearing the news, Baldemero banded together a group of town men and lead them himself to help Murdoch Lancer.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

At the hacienda, Murdoch readied the men for the coming assistance. Cipriano broke out the rifles and ammunition that Scott had thoughtfully stashed in the bunkhouse, where most of the men had taken cover. The segundo sent men to the windows and doors, getting them in position.

Those in the barn weren't left to their own devices, either. Scott's preparations included that destination. The men were ready at either barn door, for whatever Pardee brought their way. In the mean time, they filled their time caring for the horses, soothing the animals' frazzled nerves.

Murdoch took position in the great room, near the front door, ready to run out into the courtyard when necessary. Scott and Johnny grabbed boxes of shells and would defend from the bell tower, but would not make that trek until the assault force arrived; the steps leading up were outside.

Abby organized the females for the certain medical situations that would arise. She had Teresa and Selena get bandages and salves while Maria started boiling water, both for sanitation and to make willow bark tea. When the assault would begin, Murdoch insisted they head to a safe room to wait it out until it was over.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Smitty and Baldemero led the offensive, riding in from the east, providing that flank attack Scott had wanted. Lancer fired back as well: Johnny and Scott from the bell tower, Murdoch from the courtyard, and the men from the bunkhouse and barn.

The townsfolk started firing from their horses, but ended up taking defensive positions against anything they could find: a tree, a wagon, the well, a cart, the water trough, even a corral post.

The extra firepower aimed at the hills above Lancer proved effective. But the loud repeating report causing Selena to burst into uncontrollable tears. Both Abby and Maria tried to soothe her, with Teresa caressing her hair. Abby tried to hide her own fears as she helped calm the girl.

The firefight was intense. The townsfolk and Lancer blasted Pardee with everything they had. Day's men, led by his lieutenant Coley, returned with their own barrage, aiming to hit this time. It wasn't long before the outlaw realized that the tide had turned. Coley pulled back his men, not wanting to lose any guns. They ran to their horses and disappeared into the trees.

With Day's men on the run, Lancer broke out in cheers. The men yelled and hooted, congratulating each other and those who had saved them. Scott and Johnny scampered down from the tower. “Let's go after them!” Johnny yelled. “They're on the run!”

“No,” Murdoch shook his head. He knew his cowboys needed a release. The day, only half done, had been full of tension. They deserved a break. He joined in the exuberance. “Let's celebrate!” he yelled, throwing his hat in the air.

Murdoch ordered someone to break out a cask of wine and once everyone's glass was full, he hefted his own in a toast. “Thank you, Baldemero, Gonzales, Tasman, Sanchez...all of you. We'd still be pinned down if not for you.”

The men from Morro Coyo laughed. It had felt good, coming to the aid of their friend, one who frequently helped them out. Now they were paying him back. “It is nothing,” Baldemero said, sipping his wine. “We owe you so much, Señor Lancer.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Goddamn,” Coley cursed loudly. He was tired of being thwarted by Lancer. He round up the gang and ordered a regroup at their hideout. “They got to us again,” he reported to Day. “They keep getting help. This time it was men from that town who came.”

Day nodded in thought, keeping his cool. He knew he had to remain in control, at least outwardly, or he'd lose his men. He drew a deep breath, thinking. The men looked around, afraid to disturb their leader. “Well,” Day finally drawled, “We'll just have to keep teaching them that lesson.” He mounted his horse. “Let's ride!” he ordered.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

After their celebration of wine and food, Baldemero led his men back to town. Their good deed done, they were a happy band. They laughed and joked, proud of their accomplishment and feeling satisfied in their abilities to help their neighbor.

A few miles out of town they saw a horse running straight at them at breakneck speed. Sanchez recognized Miguel, one of the boys from the mission orphanage. He was only twelve but he rode that roan like a hellcat, bareback and laying low.

“Señors!” he yelled. The boy was covered in soot, his clothing torn and singed, and he was bleeding from several cuts on his arms and legs. “The banditos ,” he cried. “They are burning the town! Padre Flores sent me to get you and Señor Lancer!”

“Oh, God!” the men cried, spurring their horses onward. While they were celebrating with Lancer, Pardee and his men were exacting their revenge. Remembering what the outlaw had done to the De Salvos, they prayed they could save their loved ones.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Miguel continued his journey to Lancer, kicking the roan to an even faster gallop. The townspeople would arrive sooner, but getting to Lancer quickly was an even higher priority: they had longer to go.

It was Abby who saw Miguel ride up first. She was up in the bell tower with Teresa, picking up shell cartridges. “A rider!” she called out to Scott below in the courtyard. “He's coming fast!”

Scott yelled for the men to take cover. He was worried it might be one of Pardee's men. Murdoch recognized the youth from the mission. “Miguel!” he called when the boy was within range.

Señor Lancer!” Miguel shouted. He jumped off the horse and ran excitedly to the Patron. “The banditos ! They raided us! The town is burning!”

Murdoch refrained from cursing. “Smitty! Nate! Joe!” he ordered wagons and had them loaded with supplies.

“Don't do this, Old Man,” Johnny warned, grasping Murdoch's arm. “Don't split up your men. Pardee will be watching.”

Murdoch glared. “I will not stand by while the people who risked their lives for me are suffering. I will send aid.” He ordered the women to pack the bandages, salves and medicinal supplies.

Johnny ran to Scott, who was helping load a wagon. “Don't go, Scott. We don't have enough men to properly defend the hacienda and send help to Morro Coyo.”

Scott paused his work. “I understand, Johnny, and any other time I would side with you. But those men dropped everything to come help us out of an untenable situation. We owe them.”

Within a few minutes Scott had a rescue party ready to go. “You coming?” he asked Johnny. The gunfighter shook his head. Scott started to try to convince him.

Murdoch pulled Scott away from Johnny. “Let him be, Son.” He looked in Scott's eyes. “Make sure to help everyone you can. It's our turn again.”

Scott nodded and lead the men out, riding as fast as the wagons would allow. They wouldn't arrive in time to repel the outlaws, but would be there to give aid to the survivors.

Johnny stalked to his room and slammed the door. Lending assistance was a noble idea but not this time. He was sure Pardee would try something. He heard Scott lead the men out and made a decision. He grabbed his Colt and reloaded it, then did the same for his Winchester. Grabbing extra ammunition in his saddle bags, he snuck out to the barn.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott and the Lancer men arrived in Morro Coyo to find half the town smoldering. The mission and orphanage were intact, as well as the livery, cantina, hotel and Baldemero's store, but nearly everything else—including many of the homes—was either destroyed or partially so. Some women and children hugged each other, their tears dry, but still in shock.

“Baldemero!” Scott called out. The man came running.

Señor Scott! Look what the bandito Pardee has done! Come to the hotel; we have turned it into a hospital.”

Scott ordered the men to scatter and help whoever they could but bring the medical supplies to the hotel. Most of them did so. One, still on his horse, rode like he was checking out the mission, but slipped out of town instead.

In the makeshift hospital what Scott saw brought back memories of the War; burned bodies, the stench of charred flesh, and wails of pain assaulted him. The doctor was not present; Sam was still in Green River, helping the petite Mrs. Reynolds deliver her first baby—twins. The townspeople were taking care of their own the best they could.

Scott directed the medical supplies to be put on the hotel counter, within easy reach of everyone. Women thanked him profusely and grabbed bandages, ointments and herbal salves to care for their patients.

He went to help steady a boy who had a broken leg while someone fastened on a splint; he looked around to see where else he could help. Over in one corner, behind a makeshift curtain, Mrs. Baldemero stopped him.

“Do not go in there, Señor ,” she laid her hands on him. “Those men were so cruel to the girls.”

Scott drew back, not wanting to go, but unable to draw his eyes from the curtain. He heard sobbing. “What happened, Señora Baldemero?”

“They rode into town. We hid. They ordered everyone out in the street. At first we were too scared, but they grabbed Pablo, Pablo Hernandez. He was trying to hide behind a horse. He is only five, señor . They threatened to slit his little throat unless we came out.

“So we did, all of us. We did not know what they would do. Then he had some of the señoritas go into the hotel. If they refused, or their families stopped them, they torched a house or store or shot them dead. Some of the bad men stayed out with us, their guns aimed at our hearts. The rest went to the hotel where the girls were. The screams, señor , they will forever haunt me.” Mrs. Baldemero hung her head. shaking it in sadness.

Scott swallowed hard. He wondered if there was anything Pardee wouldn't do.

Mrs. Baldemero continued, “When they were done, they laughed as they rode out, throwing torches on most of the other buildings in town. We were left like this.” She finally looked up, and gestured around, indicating the damage.

Scott fixed his gaze down the ruined street. He couldn't imagine such savagery. Then again, those were the same people who tortured and mutilated the De Salvo family.

“The padre is with the girls, Señor Scott. He and their mothers are tending to them. Do not disturb them, por favor .”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny rode up into the hills; the same area where Pardee's men had been hiding while taking potshots at Lancer. He saw the scattered shell casings and scouted the area. Noticing tracks and other markings on the ground, he estimated that it had only been about two-thirds of Pardee's forces involved.

He glanced around. It was a prime area to stage an attack. He had full views of the front and south sides of the hacienda, the bunkhouse and barn. The back of the hacienda was hidden, however, as was much of that area. It explained why Smitty had been able to ride out so easily.

Or had he? Johnny wondered. Knowing Pardee as he did, he understood that the man was rarely surprised. The treachery he revealed in his hotel room that night reminded him. Had Pardee wanted Lancer to send for help so he could then devastate whoever would come, just like he'd done to the De Salvos?

It sure seemed that way. And now, thanks to Murdoch's sense of obligation, Lancer's forces were divided. It was a tactic he would use himself, but not to the extreme Pardee went. He wouldn't kill for the sake of killing, nor take perverse pleasure in so, but he would do whatever he could to divide his enemy. Just like Lancer was now partitioned.

And if he was in charge of the assault on Lancer, he'd use this time to go after the hacienda. That's why he had come up to the hill, to try to outthink Day and defend Lancer for Scott.

Scott was the entire reason he was doing all of this, he told himself. But was it? When he'd first started, he realized he would want to take some pleasure in being the one to help his old man save his precious ranch, but that was so long ago. Just a few short days on the calendar, he reminded himself.

Scott had gone off and done the noble thing. Now it was up to him to protect Scott's interests: the hacienda, Abby, and yes, Murdoch Lancer. For whatever reason, Scott didn't hate the man. He didn't think Scott liked their father that much, but he was willing to stay at the ranch and build a life here.

But was there more for Johnny? The words of the housekeeper Maria troubled him. She said Murdoch loved his mother, that she had left with a gambler. Murdoch's response to her crying—saying nothing, walking away—indicated confirmation.

His mother had never directly told him why they lived away from his father; he'd assumed it was the usual story so when he overheard her tell her tio Esteban, he accepted her words without question and vowed revenge himself.

So, why would his mother lie? He pondered that now. Esteban was a gunman, like himself, and an outcast from their family, but he loved Maria, in a way Johnny now knew wasn't proper, but as a boy he didn't understand. He had assumed Maria's expanding belly had been the result of her love for Luis Madrid, the man he regarded as his stepfather, but as he learned more of those things, he realized that could not have been possible; Luis was killed too many months before.

That's when Esteban came along. Johnny remembered meeting his mother's tio and seeing him surprised to find Maria living in the squalor they'd been reduced to after Luis' death; he'd assumed she'd be the big rancher's wife. Could his mother have told him that story to stop his questioning, to defend her having lived with the forbidden love of her life all those years?

With Esteban's love for his mother so strong, why hadn't he gone after Murdoch in revenge? Had she seduced her own tio to prevent him from leaving her? He had always thought retaliation against Murdoch Lancer belonged to him, the wronged son. Is that why Esteban was so eager to train him with a gun when he ran to him years later? He would never know. Maria was long dead, the victim of a fall down a flight of rickety stairs when she was great with child. The accident had sparked the birth, and both mother and baby died as a result. And Esteban had died in a gunfight six years ago. Johnny was left with nothing but questions.

However, Murdoch's behavior toward him was in stark contrast to the housekeeper's words and actions, even though his father's lack of a response to them seemed to confirm them. If Murdoch had loved his mother, why did the man now hate him? He didn't think it was solely because of his occupation; Murdoch hadn't given him one word of encouragement for anything. He'd only stopped—or rather, nearly stopped—verbally attacking him after Scott had defended him in the barn, when he brought the injured mare back to Lancer.

So, Johnny was confused. He wasn't able to resolve the Murdoch issue, however there was one thing he was clear on and that was Scott. His brother was a good man, a strong man, and he deserved his help. And that's why he waited atop this hill when he'd rather be somewhere else—like in a soft, warm bed delving into an equally soft and warm woman and forgetting all about the past and Murdoch Lancer.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Still stunned at the destruction of both property and lives, Scott and his men began their return to Lancer. It was near dusk. Each of them welcomed the long, long day to end. What had begun a bright sunny morning had turned into the kind of nightmare only whispered about.

They rode in silence, each man with his own thoughts. Scott could not believe that California was so frontier that a gang of outlaws could just ride into a town and do what they wanted with the property and townspeople. He wanted to change that; he would change that, he vowed.

He hadn't seen such destruction since the war, when battles took their tolls on small towns and villages. He hadn't worked so hard since then, either. He took command of not only Lancer's force, but the groups from all the other ranches that eventually sent aid as well.

Bringing aid finished the job of exhausting Lancer's men, both emotionally and physically. They had worked to put out out the remaining fires, rescue trapped townsfolk, administer to the injured, and just about anything else the town needed to begin its rebuilding. All they wanted to do was enjoy a good meal and crawl into bed. And the sooner the better, Scott included.

They were a half-mile or so from the lake when it happened. Shots came from behind rocks, scattering the men. Juan and Ace were hit; they fell from their saddles. Juan did not move. The others jumped from their horses and took cover wherever they could in the trees.

“Regroup!” Scott ordered. “Fire back when ready!” He tucked behind a tree and assessed his situation. They hunkered down and prepared for a fight, a fight none of his spent men wanted to have. Angry at his lack of foresight—the men only had handguns—Scott fired back and prayed for a miracle.

The volley from their attackers continued, pinning the men down again. When Ace tried to crawl to safety, he was shot again, a single shot to his head. Down two men, Scott didn't think their chances were all that good.

Chapter Thirty: A House Divided...

The thunder of hooves brought Johnny out of his reverie; he jerked toward the sound. In the waning sunlight, he saw a near-dozen riders coming in fast from the northeast valley. He recognized the leader, Coley, one of Pardee's trusted lieutenants, on his grey Appaloosa. Why the man chose such a recognizable and conspicuous horse was beyond Johnny, then he glanced at his own golden Palomino, partially hidden in the safety of the trees to his left, and smiled. Never mind.

Coley's troop charged toward the hacienda at full speed. From his hideout in the trees, Johnny saw them split, striking at the house from the front and left. Lancer's lookout in the bell tower noticed them and fired the warning.

Johnny watched Scott's defensive plan go into action. The former Cavalry officer had trained the men to run to a specific spot either on the hacienda wall or in a building and take position. Rifles and ammunition were stashed in each location, giving the men the arms they needed. It was a simple idea but a good one and each man remembered where they were to go.

Johnny waited, knowing this wasn't Pardee's full force. He wondered where the rest of them were, along with their leader. With Scott and so many Lancer men away, he'd thought for sure that Pardee would hit the hacienda hard; he had enough men for a three-pronged attack. Maybe Day was with the rest and would strike a second wave. If so, that's when he would join in and finish off the outlaw. He wanted to get Day himself.

He watched as Lancer did its best to fight off the outlaws, who were now shooting to kill. The hacienda was built for defense and an assaulting force, even an overwhelming one hitting from two fronts, would have a tough time of it. Pardee would have to work hard to get what he wanted.

The outlaws left their horses for some of the same positions the townspeople had taken earlier; they sought cover at the well, behind trees, an outbuilding, a cart, a wagon. Lancer fired from their posts, but they were undermanned. At the rate the outlaws were going, the great advantage of the hacienda would soon erode.

This was the time for that second wave. Lancer was on the edge of cracking and fresh guns would tip the scale, overrunning the hacienda, but Johnny saw no evidence of Pardee and the rest of his men. He knew that if he waited much longer, Coley's force just might win right now. Concerned, he began shooting from his post behind a tree on that hill. He provided a counterattack with his Winchester, quickly downing two men.

Murdoch, firing behind the adobe wall of the courtyard, noticed a new rifle joining on their side. He realized it was Johnny from the flash of gold of Barranca's coat as the horse danced behind the trees. Spurred on by the addition of a professional gun, he renewed his own attack, and his men were inspired as well.

Lancer wasn't the only one to notice the new gun. Coley saw the two men go down and realized they'd been shot from a different angle. He shifted his own fire toward his new adversary. Johnny returned the barrage, forcing Coley to move to a safer position.

Coley reevaluated his situation. While it wasn't his mission, he'd had a chance of taking the hacienda before this new rifle joined in, but he doubted it would work now. Instead, he gave the order to withdraw when it looked like he would lose more men than Pardee had allowed. The outlaws backed off, mounting their horses and running away to the north, firing from their saddles as they retreated.

Johnny sprinted down to the hacienda as the last of Pardee's men rode out of sight. Murdoch was already in the courtyard, giving orders. “Check for any wounded. Bring them into the house,” he told Cipriano.

Johnny came up on Barranca. “Is everyone okay?” he asked from his horse.

“I don't know yet,” Murdoch answered. “The women ran to a safe room as soon as the shooting started. They will be fine.” Murdoch knew he had Johnny Madrid to thank for helping to drive Pardee's men away. He looked up at the gunfighter and began to speak. “I—”

“That wasn't all of Pardee's men,” Johnny interrupted. He spurred Barranca southward before Murdoch could say anything more.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Pardee himself lead the attack on Scott and his men, striking at the reduced Lancer group when they were least likely to defend: tired, exhausted, hungry, with darkness closing in. His timing couldn't have been more perfect. Defeating them would mean the end of Lancer. The big man wouldn't stand a prayer after this.

He ordered his men to kill everyone, to leave no one left alive. He had plans for their bodies. When he was finished, not only would Lancer quit, but he'd run from county and then the state. They'd get the hacienda, the ranch and all the women on it. Day laughed at his own genius.

With Lancer split, Pardee had ordered Coley to take some of the men to the hacienda while he led the rest to hit the group returning from the town. He knew the hacienda assault would probably fail, but it would succeed at its main goal: to prevent Lancer from sending aid to the rest of their men should Madrid figure out his plan.

Things were going well. Day had them pinned down in the trees. The Lancer men only had handguns so it was just a matter of time. No one would be able to come rescue them. And all thanks to his inside man sneaking out of town to tell him that Lancer had split his forces.

Pardee wouldn't have thought that of Lancer. He knew Johnny Madrid was helping them and Madrid would never have let that happen. Maybe Johnny was slipping. Or maybe Murdoch Lancer had a thing for always being the savior. Either way, he now had the upper hand and smiled at his good fortune. Even the moonlight was on his side, just now rising and providing too little light for his enemies.

He had just ordered an advance when rifle shots came from the North. Surprised, Day looked but saw no one, only seeing the flash from a Winchester.

“Fall back! Take cover!” Day ordered, angry. He wanted to get his men out of sight from that rifleman. Whoever he was, he was wrecking Day's plans for a massacre.

Pardee's men withdrew to the main rocks where they'd be hidden from both Scott's men but the new rifleman, but as each outlaw fired their weapon, the shooter was ready. He either hit or just missed, the bullets twanging on the rocks as they ricocheted.

Scott noticed the rifleman, too. He said a quick ‘thank you' to God and renewed his energies at Pardee's men. “Fire,” he ordered. “But only when you have a good shot.” No sense in wasting ammunition. He saw one of the outlaws in the open and aimed. The man fell.

The rifleman picked off two of Day's men before the outlaw ordered a retreat. The new arrival changed the balance of power and Day now knew he could not secure the kind of victory he wanted. Lancer was wounded, maybe critically, but if he continued his assault he'd be in dire straits as well. His men fired one last barrage before running to their horses and galloping away.

Scott stood up and watched Pardee's men disappear into the darkness. He resisted the urge to fire a shot at the back of the last rider, but noticed their redeemer did not. The body fell from its horse as whoever was behind that rifle killed his third outlaw.

The men cheered and ran back to the road.

“Stop!” Scott shouted. “Go back! Take cover!” He didn't know for sure if the rifleman was on their side or not. It could have been a sick Pardee tactic to get them in the open. He wouldn't put it past the man. Not after today.

They waited. Nothing. “We can't wait forever, Mr Lancer,” Smitty called. “Some of our men are hurt bad.”

Scott surveyed the area one last time and convinced their aid was no longer present, sighed in relief. “Okay. Load the wounded in a wagon. How much farther to Lancer?”

“It's still over an hour, Sir” Smitty answered. “The Conway place is closer, and it's on the way to Green River where Doc Jenkins is.”

“Okay,” Scott thought. He wondered if the doctor was still in the town. He was too tired to recall if someone from Morro Coyo had sent for him or not. It was a chance he'd have to take. “Isaac and Henry, get the wounded into a wagon. Isaac can drive them. Smitty, you go now; ride to the Conway ranch and let them know what we're doing then continue to Green River and bring the doctor there.”

Smitty needed no other encouragement. Mounting his horse, he took off for Aggie Conway's ranch.

It took Scott and his men another ten minutes by torchlight to provide first aid and load the wounded into a wagon to get them off in the same direction as Smitty. After, he walked around to the rocks where Pardee's men had been, looking for their wounded. What he found surprised him.

The last of Pardee's dead was young Nate Simpson, shot in the back from the saddle as he rode away. Nate had been Lancer's best gun, and the one who had guarded the women when his Abby was taken at the rice fields. Nate had volunteered to ride to Morro Coyo with them, but Scott now realized he hadn't seen the young man once they entered the village. He must have slipped out of town and warned Pardee that they were split and now vulnerable. Scott left his body there with the rest of the outlaws. Nate had been Pardee's inside man.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott and Henry rode back to Lancer. The report wouldn't be good: four wounded, two dead—three if he counted Nate. Of the eleven healthy Lancer men who rode to Morro Coyo, only four survived intact. Murdoch wouldn't be happy.

Scott rode under the Lancer arch verbalizing the situation. “Well, we lost seven men that we couldn't afford to lose. Pardee lost five. We've not significantly cut into his forces. He's barely wounded. We are critical.”

“He still has around twenty, Scott,” Johnny's drawl came from behind the arch. “But they aren't all healthy. You did a good job from those trees.”

Scott drew up his horse. Johnny, barely visible in the darkness, casually sat on his golden palomino behind the shelter of the adobe landmark, his wrists crossed over the saddle horn. “That was you? You were the rifleman?”

Johnny nodded. Henry smiled. “Thanks, Mr. Madrid. We sure needed you.”

De nada .”

Scott sent Henry on ahead and stopped to talk to his brother. “I didn't think you wanted us to go to Morro Coyo.”

“I didn't. But since you were so all-fired-up to help, I figured you might need a little backup.”

“What if Pardee would have struck the hacienda instead of us?”

“He did. Why do you think it took me so long to get to you?”

“Oh, my God!” Scott exclaimed. He hurriedly studied the hacienda, lit by a few lamps in several rooms. Nothing looked out of place. “Is Abby...?”

“She's fine, Scott. Lancer says the women hid in the safe room. The hacienda is built like a fort. And your plan worked. The men ran to their places on cue. They did a fine job, too.”

Scott breathed easier knowing his wife was safe. He looked at Johnny. “You knew he'd try something.”

“It only made sense.” Johnny moved Barranca to so he would face Scott.

Scott stopped short. “Wait! You shot Nate in the back. He was the last one escaping. He was Pardee's mole.”

“Well, well, well. Good,” Johnny smiled. “One less thing to worry about.” He patted Barranca's neck.

“But you shot him in the back.”

Johnny gave his brother a curious look. “He would have shot you in the back, Scott. Do unto others before they do unto you, right?”

“That's not the way I heard it.” Scott's voice had an edge to it.

“Oh, so you're angry now?” Johnny shot back. “Disappointed in me?”

Scott rubbed a gloved hand on his thigh. “Yes, a little of both, I guess.”

“Why, Scott? That's what I do. I kill people. It isn't always so cut and dried. You can't always have a fair fight. Sometimes killing is a nasty business. When you're after the bad guy sometimes you have to do things you wouldn't ordinarily do. Surely you saw some of this in the war, maybe you did some of it, too.”

Scott said nothing. He had; he hadn't liked it.

“I'm sorry you didn't like what I did. I didn't know he was the inside man, but knowing that now, I don't regret shooting him. And you'll be glad he's gone too, once you think about it.”

“I don't have a problem with him dead. My problem is that you shot him—”

“In the back,” Johnny finished the sentence, sighing, “I know.” He resisted rolling his eyes.

Neither brother spoke for long seconds. Barranca shook his head and snorted. Rienzi swished his tail. Finally, Johnny spoke. “You okay with me?”

Scott drew a deep breath. “Not yet, but I suppose I will be.”

“Good enough. Now, tell me what you found in the town.”

Scott shook his head. “It was bad, real bad. Come with me. I only want to say this once.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Day Pardee regrouped again at his hideout. Coley and Ford, his two best men, were at the breaking point. If he didn't end this soon, they'd mutiny or worse. He still outgunned Lancer, but losing Nate had been a blow.

“Johnny Madrid had to be shooting the rifle, both at the house and on the road,” Coley groused. “No one else is at Lancer is that good.”

Ford scoffed. “Naw. Madrid is aces with a Colt, but I ain't never heard of him being no rifleman.”

“You think Lancer hired another gun?”

“I don't think Lancer hired Madrid,” Day broke in.

Coley turned sharply to Day. “What do you mean? Madrid is helping him.”

“I know. But from what Nate was reporting, Lancer hadn't paid him any money.”

“Well, that doesn't make sense, Day. Johnny Madrid doesn't work for free.”

Day cocked his head. “He has before. That revolution down in Mexico. Last year.”

“Yeah, but why would he help Lancer for nothing?” Ford asked.

Day pondered. “I don't know. Nate said Madrid was staying in the hacienda, and he and Lancer's kid were real chummy.”

Ford laughed. “The high and mighty Murdoch Lancer has a live-in gun for free?”

Coley chuckled. “It does seem unlikely.”

“Yes, it does,” Day mused. Something odd was going on at Lancer.

Chapter Thirty-One: Blame

Dinner was a quickly-prepared repast, a cold meal consisting of beef sandwiches, cheese wedges and sliced fruits. Maria did not have the time to make a proper meal and no one was really that hungry anyway; the day had exhausted everyone.

They had eaten quietly, all of them—Scott, Abby, Murdoch, Johnny and the girls—at the large table. Murdoch had neither given objection to, nor made any comment about, the gunfighter's presence. In fact, he said very little for the entire meal. Abby had gamely tried to start several conversations but they all died out quickly. After a while, even she gave it up and concentrated on her plate.

One by one they finished, eating half-heartedly, and pushed their plates away, most of them with food left. Abby nodded to the two girls and they excused themselves from the table, taking the mens' plates with them.

Scott waited for the ladies to make it safely upstairs and out of earshot before going to the mantle to retrieve Murdoch's bottle of Talisker's and three glasses. He poured drinks for all of them and sat back down, finishing his drink first before launching into the story of the town.

As Scott told of the events, both men sat in silence, their heads bowed. He quickly reiterated what he'd seen and how they'd helped, trying to gloss over the worst parts, but making sure they all knew the extent of Day Pardee's cruelty. He finished quietly and waited.

Murdoch was aghast; unable to speak. He drained his first drink and quickly downed a second. All he was able to do was look away and peer into the darkness through the window.

Even Johnny was stunned. “ Dios, Scott. I never figured Pardee would do something that...” Johnny had to search for the word, “...medieval. I thought he'd just hit the hacienda hard; I never once considered he'd raid the entire town and do those...horrible things. Taking over a town this far north isn't normally done.”

“No, Madrid, it isn't,” Murdoch finally found his voice. “But he's done it before, just not...violently. I should have seen it coming.”

“What do you mean, he's done it before, Sir?”

Murdoch poured his third Scotch. “It was the night Teresa's father was killed. Late December, last year. I didn't know it then, but that was the beginning of Pardee's attack on Lancer. I thought it was just horse thieves.”

He took a sip of his drink. “That night, I heard a commotion in the courtyard and ran to the door. I saw two men leading my prize stallion in the moonlight. I wasn't about to let them get away with it; that purebred cost me a fortune. We fired at them, Paul and I. They started running. We tracked them all the way to Morro Coyo.” He looked at Scott. “I believe I told you some of this on your first day here, Scott.”

Scott nodded. He remembered that awkward meeting.

Murdoch gazed at Johnny. “But you don't know this, Madrid. Paul O'Brien was my foreman. Knew him for over twenty-five years. Good man. The best.” He drew a breath. “When we got to town, it was all quiet. No one was about, even though it was dawn. Someone should have been out. At least a lamp lit. Something. But it was all dark, streets empty. I should have noticed, I should have realized something else was afoot, but I was too focused on retrieving my horse. We heard him whinny in the livery and that's when Paul and I were shot.

“But what I didn't know, and I found out later, was that Pardee had sent his men into Morro Coyo earlier in the night, roused the townsfolk from their beds and herded them all into the mission church. They kept them there the rest of the night, hidden under blankets. They were too afraid to make a noise. Baldemero was the brave one who ventured out first, well after they heard the shots. By then, the outlaws had left. Baldemero found us lying in the street, Paul dead and me unconscious. He sent for Sam.”

Murdoch finished his drink. “So, you see, he has taken over the town before.”

“But, like you said, not violently,” Scott assured. “We had no indication that he'd do what he did today.”

Murdoch looked at Johnny again. “You did. You tried to warn me about getting help.”

Johnny played with his empty glass. He shook his head. “Even I didn't think Pardee would go that far.”

Scott drew a breath. “So we all underestimated the man.”

“Yes,” Murdoch sighed, “And too many people paid for it. For my mistake.”

Johnny stared at Murdoch. “You can't blame yourself. This was Pardee's doing. The responsibility is his.”

“But I should have—” Murdoch began.

“No, Sir. Johnny's right. You did the right thing, getting help. Pardee was terrorizing us. You had to act. What he did in retaliation was unconscionable, uncivilized.”

“I should have foreseen—”

“No one could have, Sir,” Scott firmly asserted. “This is not your fault.”

The three of them sat in silence, not looking at each other. The bottle sat in the middle of the table but no one reached for it.

Murdoch broke the silence. “He would have defeated us tonight, had you not intervened,” He nodded to Johnny. “I saw you up on that hill firing. You got two or three. You inspired us to keep fighting.”

“You sure saved our hides,” Scott smiled. He turned to Murdoch and quickly briefed him about the ambush on their way home from Morro Coyo.

“Well, Scott, you did hire me to look after you,” Johnny quickly grinned. The two brothers nodded to each other, too tired to do much more. Johnny glanced at his father. “You maybe could have fought off Coley without me. This hacienda is built like a fortress. And Scott's plan worked perfectly. The men did a fine job.”

Murdoch gazed at Johnny Madrid, realizing he was trying to minimize his contribution, a notion which struck him odd for a gunfighter, especially given the fact that he himself hadn't wanted him here. “Scott's plan was brilliant. I never would have thought of assigning posts to the men and stashing munitions right there for them. But you're wrong, Madrid. We were losing. We just didn't have the manpower.”

Scott beamed at his brother. “Johnny Madrid, hero.”

Johnny shook his head. “I ain't no hero, Scott. We just got lucky. Very lucky.”

“I believe in something greater than luck,” Murdoch stated. He drew a breath pushed his chair away. “If you two will excuse me, I'm going to thank the Almighty for what He's done for us and ask Him to watch over all those who were harmed today.” He stood.

“I'd like to join you in that prayer,” Scott said. He, too, stood as he looked at Johnny.

Johnny shook his head. “Maybe next time,” he mumbled.

Johnny stayed at the table, toying with his glass before grasping the scotch for one last drink. As he lifted the bottle to pour, he heard Murdoch's soft voice by the fireplace.

“Almighty Lord,” the man began. Johnny turned and saw his father and brother kneeling together in front of the mantle. Carved into the oak, was the shape of a cross. He'd never seen that before. Feeling like an intruder, Johnny left the bottle on the table and softly padded upstairs to his room, his father's voice droning in the background in a prayer of thanks and beseeching.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch sat in the dark great room, with only the dying fire to give him light. Scott had long gone to bed, quietly excusing himself after their prayers. They had given thanks for their own safety, but mostly they invoked the Lord's mercy and healing upon the good people of Morro Coyo.

In spite of what both Johnny and Scott had told him earlier, Murdoch fully blamed himself for Pardee's raid on Morro Coyo, for the lost innocence of all those girls. Nine in all. Nine beautiful, wonderful girls who's lives were forever changed. All because of him.

He had sent for help. His men were pinned down in a psychological war of nerves. He had wanted Madrid to stop it but could not bring himself meet Madrid's terms. His pride had caused all of this. Maybe if he had hired Johnny Madrid, or claimed him as his son, the gunfighter could have stopped it then. Maybe it would be all over now. Maybe Pardee would have been defeated and those girls would still have their innocence.

He couldn't imagine the horror they had endured at the hands of those brutal men. He tried to think of Teresa, should something like that happen to her and he buried his face in his hands, unable to even conjure the thought. And Selena? How could he face her tomorrow? Her mother's fate had been much the same. All because of him.

Selena, the poor girl, had only escaped that destiny because of one thing: Johnny Madrid. Pardee had taken the girl unharmed because of the Madrid. He wanted to use the girl to exact revenge because Madrid was helping Scott. And Madrid had rescued her. Pardee came after him again, attempting to bushwhack him and Madrid escaped. But at no time did Madrid run. No, he stayed on, continuing to help Scott, despite the danger to himself, and despite how Murdoch himself had treated him.

He remembered the last part of Scott's prayer. His older son had thanked the Creator for “my brother, Johnny Madrid Lancer, who has a caring and giving heart, and, for whatever reason you have chosen to give him, a talent with weapons. Without his contribution none of us may be here tonight.”

Murdoch had never thought to thank the All Powerful for someone's ability with a gun before. He would have considered it almost blasphemous, a contradiction at least, to thank the Prince of Peace for the ability to wage war. Yet, in this instance, Scott had deemed it appropriate. Murdoch had to agree.

Murdoch had long believed that the Lord Almighty doled out the gifts among His children. His own mother and father had taught him that. Why, his eldest brother Connell, was talented with a rifle as well. But Connell used his talents for good; he had been the best hunter in the highlands.

Madrid, on the other hand, offered his gun to anyone willing to pay. No, not anyone, he corrected himself. Madrid had turned down Pardee. He wondered who else the gunfighter had rejected. But Madrid also offered his services for free, a fact Murdoch well knew. And he certainly put his expertise to good use today, helping to save the hacienda and providing Scott with valuable assistance as well.

Those were both good deeds. As were the many times he had helped Scott since arriving in Morro Coyo: rescuing Abby, planning the hacienda's defense, providing reconnaissance for the hacienda. The more Murdoch thought about it, the more blurred the lines became when it came to Johnny Madrid.

Not that long ago Murdoch had a clear cut view of what a gunfighter was: they were evil. He had been certain of it, so positive he would have staked his own life on it. He'd almost driven Scott away because of it. Now, he wasn't so sure. Yes, there were gunfighters like Pardee; men so ruthless and barbaric it defied reason. And then there was Johnny Madrid. Madrid, who could, and had killed, seemingly coldly, yet who broke that Palomino gently, who befriended his son, who worked overtime today saving both Scott and the hacienda.

Johnny Madrid was a mystery.

Could Johnny Madrid really be his son? Scott believed it. Maria certainly did. Even Sam had questions. But did he? He pondered that idea and came to the conclusion that he did not. It was simply not possible. His Johnny had died, years ago.

But there was no evidence of his Johnny's death. The Pinkertons he sent could find no information, no grave, only that of Maria's death. Some accident, they had reported. No one knew what happened to the boy. They didn't find him in Nogales, though they searched for days. He couldn't have left on his own. But then again, would there have been a marker on his grave? Who would have paid for it for an orphaned peon? No one. But nothing was certain.

Johnny Lancer's fate was a mystery.

He drew a ragged breath, grateful now that he had that thought, that idea to get Sam to wire the Pinkertons in San Diego to research Johnny Madrid, to see if it were possible, even the slightest chance, that he had been born John Reyes Lancer.

Murdoch sat in the dark as the embers began to glow, the fire almost out. His head dipped to his chest as sleep overtook him.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny tore through the house, his little bare feet pounding on the wooden floor. A beautiful Maria chased him, laughing, up the stairs. Murdoch grinned as his dark-haired dynamo fell to all fours to climb. But when he reached the top, he was no longer the laughing toddler scrambling to his Papa, but Johnny Madrid, gunhawk, his icy blue eyes staring behind a drawn Colt, rock-steady, pointed inches from his nose. Murdoch gulped. Maria fell backwards, her arms spread wide, a look of terror on her face, as she disappeared into the depths, leaving only him, that Colt and Johnny Madrid. He watched in horror as the hammer cocked back. “This is for those girls, Old Man,” Madrid laughed as the gun exploded.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch awoke with a start, sweating and instantly chilled, his breath fast and shallow. He shivered. The fireplace was dark. He'd fallen asleep in his chair and had a nightmare. He shook his head, trying to shake the image of Johnny Madrid's sneer, his Colt, and that open barrel pointed at his nose.

He stood and reached for the bottle of Scotch, normally on the mantle. Feeling nothing, he realized they must have left it on the table. He shuffled in that general direction, forgetting his cane, stumbling into an end table along the way. He cursed, turned and retrieved the cane. His eyes adjusted and he looked, seeing the outline of the bottle atop the table. A few minutes later he was pouring a drink, to drive that nightmare from his memory.

He limped to the French doors. It would be dawning soon. A new day, a fresh day. He had believed that every new dawn was a new beginning; the past wiped clean and only a blank slate on which to start anew. He didn't feel that way today. Today's slate was already red with blood and shrouded in guilt. And he was tired, tired and suddenly feeling much older. He set down his drink and trudged upstairs.

Chapter Thirty-Two: Aggie

Scott told Abby the next morning, as they cuddled in bed before rising to meet the day. In her husband's strong arms, she sobbed gently, because of the danger her husband had been in and for the injured girls of Morro Coyo. “We must do something for them,” she told Scott as he wiped her eyes.

Scott nodded. “Whatever you decide, Darling, we will implement.” He kissed her gently at first then more passionately. Abby responded by first opening her lips, then her body to him.

Breakfast was a solemn affair. By now everyone had heard of yesterday's events and were too absorbed in emotions to talk. So much had happened: Morro Coyo devastated, nine young women destroyed, six loyal Lancer men killed or wounded, and Day Pardee was still out there.

Murdoch seemed calm, but inside his feelings were in turmoil. He blamed himself for much of what happened yesterday. He wanted this Pardee business over, and over now, but he didn't know how to end it without more pain and destruction, and he wanted things to return to normal, a fact he knew would never be for some.

But to all present, he acted his normal self–albiet a more subdued version—by taking control of the situation, quietly giving orders to Cipriano. He wanted the hacienda put back in order and the armaments replenished after yesterday's battles. And he told the segundo to take care of Pardee's dead. “Put their dead in a wagon. Have Henry and Cobb drive to the ambush site and gather those bodies as well. Take them all to Morro Coyo for burial. Including Nate's body.” Cipriano nodded his acceptance and silently quit the room.

“How long,” Scott asked, “had Nate been at Lancer?”

“Almost a year,” Murdoch answered, taking some bacon. “He came last Summer. Pardee must have been planning this that far back.” Murdoch was hurt by the young man's actions; he'd trusted him and here he'd been with Pardee all the time.

“Day came to me last year, too.” Johnny said between bites. “He said he'd been hired to steal a large rancho in California. This has been in the works a long time.”

“Hired, huh?” Scott buttered his biscuit. “I wonder who's behind it. You have any enemies, Sir?”

Murdoch sipped his coffee. “Any man in my position has enemies. But those willing to go this far? I can't think of any.” He sure hoped he didn't know anyone else like Pardee.

Abby sat down next to Scott. “You said before that other ranches have been hit. Maybe this isn't personal. Maybe it's just an attempt to acquire land.”

“Yes,” mused Murdoch. “Could be. But if so, God help this state if he wins.”

“Which is why, Sir, we have to stop him.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Pardee managed to calm his men down enough to leave them and ride into Green River. He needed to get some answers. He found the situation with Lancer and Madrid just a little too curious. HIs employer would know how to discover the truth. And he needed to know.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Aggie Conway arrived a little after nine, driving her wagon filled with supplies, along with ten of her men and the two Lancer cowboys returning with the Lancer wagon, also laden with provisions. Murdoch was in the courtyard when he saw her.

He hobbled out to her wagon. “Aggie! What are you doing here?”

Aggie halted the team. “I'm here to help you, Murdoch. These are my best men with a gun. We are your reinforcements.”

Murdoch balked, throwing up his hand. “No, Aggie. I can't involve you. Look what happened when I asked for help twice before. Go home. Tend to my wounded. That's how you can help me.” The last thing he wanted was for Aggie to get hurt. She had been his friend for too many years.

Aggie climbed down from her seat. “Sam took your men into Green River with him early this morning.” She slapped the dust from her skirt. “And I don't care what's happened before. Pardee doesn't scare me. He's just a big bully. My men and I are staying.”

“No! Not you.” Murdoch almost panicked. “I don't want you here when it happens.”

Aggie cocked her head and looked at him curiously. “Haven't you learned yet, Murdoch Lancer? You don't control me.” She straightened and faced him. “I want to help and I will. I can shoot almost as well as you can and you know it.” She ordered her men to unload her wagon and marched into the house. Murdoch was left with little choice but to follow her.

She continued talking as she breezed into the house. “I brought more guns, ammunition and some food. I thought you may be getting low.” She paused when she saw Scott and smiled, then continued walking to him, thrusting her hand out to him. “Hello, we haven't met. I'm Aggie Conway. You must be Scott. I'm a long time friend of your father's.”

Scott nodded and took her hand, turning it to kiss the back of the glove. “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Conway. May I present my wife, Abby?”

Abby came forward to greet Aggie. “Ma'am,” She smiled and nodded. “It's a pleasure.”

Aggie pulled her hand from Scott and touched Abby on the shoulder. “Call me Aggie, please. I know Murdoch has been wanting you here for a long time. I'm very glad you are here for him now.” She turned to Johnny, her arms clasped in front of her. “And who are you, young man?” Aggie was very direct.

Scott did the honors. “Aggie, this is Johnny Madrid.”

Aggie's eyebrows raised. “ The Johnny Madrid?”

“Yes, ma'am,” Johnny answered in his soft drawl.

Aggie turned to Murdoch, silently asking the question. He shook his head. “Madrid is not here at my request, Aggie. Although he did prove invaluable yesterday.”

She peered at Johnny. “So it was you with that rifle. I heard all about it. But I am curious, don't gunfighters work for pay?”

Johnny smiled and looked away. Scott again leapt to the rescue. “Johnny was our escort the last part of our trip, Aggie. Since then I've learned that he is—”

“—willing to help,” Murdoch interrupted. He stepped in front of Aggie. “We are happy to see you, but please, you shouldn't stay. It isn't safe.”

Aggie frowned at her friend. “This world isn't safe, Murdoch. And you know you won't convince me to leave so you may as well face facts. I'm here to stay.”

With the introductions over, Aggie briskly commanded her men and soon Lancer was restocked. She got Teresa and Selena to work with Maria preparing a feast for the men. She ordered two calves butchered and began roasted them over a pit. It would provide Lancer with meat for a day or two. She and Abby worked well together to get the hacienda back in order.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny and Scott spent much of the morning planning Lancer's fortifications. Aggie had brought enough ammunition to start a war, it seemed, and Scott wanted it to be distributed all around their fortifications, just like he had with the hacienda previously. Johnny ordered carts and other items to be readied to set around the hacienda, creating a physical perimeter that Pardee would have to breech, but building it would have to wait until dark, when Pardee's lookout men wouldn't be able to see.

Scott planned to place shooters in the two places on the perimeter, to be a first defense, so he designed two small forts to be made of hay bales, each to house two men, to best protect them from the assault.

Both men knew Pardee wouldn't attack as long as they thought Aggie and her men were there. “He has a man watching again today,” Johnny told Scott. “I can feel it.”

“Me too,” Scott agreed. “But you heard Aggie. She won't go.”

“We'll just have to charm her into it,” Johnny smiled.

Scott laughed. “You do the charming. If my wife catches me doing that, I'll never hear the end of it.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Mrs. Conway,” Johnny addressed Addie at the dining table. They had just finished lunch; Teresa and Selena were clearing the dishes. “You need to take your men and leave.”

Aggie bristled. “Now listen here, young man. Murdoch Lancer couldn't make me leave. What makes you think you will?”

Johnny grinned. “Perhaps because I'm not asking you to leave permanently. Just make a big show of going. You can double back using the back trail and sneak back in after dark. “

“Why do I need to do all that?”

“Because, Aggie,” Scott joined in. “We are being watched. Pardee knows when people come and go. He won't do anything to us if you are here but he'll probably attack your place just to teach you a lesson.”

“I see.” Aggie sat back. “You want him to attack you.”

“Yes,” Scott nodded his head. “We do. With your help, Lancer is defendable again and we'd much prefer he try something now rather than later. He thinks we are weak, or will be once you leave. We believe he will come at us then.”

Aggie turned to Murdoch. “What do you think?”

Murdoch drained his wine. “You know I want you to leave and not come back until this is all over.”

“Well, you know I'm not about to do that.”

He sighed again. “Then I guess that idea is a good one, then.”

Aggie nodded. “Ok. I'll play along.” She rose and swept her skirt free of wrinkles then headed out to the courtyard. Aggie called her men. Once they were gathered, she told them the plan, using low tones so no one could overhear. The men gathered their mounts and hitched up her wagon. They left shortly afterward, kicking up a trail of dust on the dry road.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Right after Aggie left, Dr. Sam Jenkins arrived on his buggy. Murdoch threw up his arms and lamented, “Why is the entire world coming today? Don't they realize we could be attacked at any moment?”

Sam smiled. “I thought you'd want to hear about your men and the good people of Morro Coyo, Murdoch. And, if you are expecting an attack, don't you think immediate medical care would be a good thing?”

Murdoch grumbled, but agreed with his friend. Yes, when the shooting started, they'd need a doctor. And he was anxious for news from Morro Coyo.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Before reporting to Murdoch, Sam marshaled the girls, Teresa and Selena, to again prepare for the medical emergency, knowing it be necessary. Selena tore more strips for bandages and organized salves and herbal treatments with Sam. Teresa put together a light beef broth and brewed more willow bark tea. Both would simmer all day and night and be ready in the morning.

Maria and another Mexican woman prepared more bread and put the finishing touches on the vegetable dishes to go with the beef Aggie had started on the spit. All of Lancer would eat a proper meal tonight.

Inspired by Aggie's can-do attitude, Abby went on her search for Scott. With the battle looming, she felt it was imperative that Johnny give her some pointers on shooting. But Johnny had wanted Scott's approval, so she sought her husband.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Okay, Sam, give it to me straight,” Murdoch requested. They were seated in front of the fireplace away from the hustle and bustle of a hacienda preparing for battle. “How are the girls in Morro Coyo?”

Sam sighed. “I knew you'd ask about them first. Let me tell you about your men. They are doing well. Mrs. Henderson is looking after them. When I left they were settling into their beds in my office. Barring no complications, they should be back to work within a week.”

“Thank you, my friend, but—”

“I know, I know,” Sam held up his hand. “The girls.”

Murdoch bit his lip. He knew they weren't, but he somehow hoped they were okay.

“They are doing as best as can be expected. There were lots of physical injuries; I'm sorry I wasn't able to get there sooner than this morning, but with the Reynolds twins—boys, by they way, tiny, but doing fine, mother too, thank God, she had a rough time of it—and your men being shot, I just couldn't break away.

“Anyway, in addition to the obvious, the girls have deep bruises and they are in pain. Luckily, there was no torture, other than...” He let the sentence hang, looking away for a second. “They've been cleaned up and I gave them each some laudanum. Physically, they will heal.

“Psychologically, those scars will be there a long time. They feel ashamed, dirty, and used. They are afraid and jump when they hear loud noises, much like Selena in that respect. But if we all treat them well, don't ostracize them, and give them plenty of care and attention, they should recover. It will just take time, lots of time.”

“Could any of them be...pregnant?” Murdoch hated to ask.

Sam drew a breath. “Maybe, but don't worry about that now. We have other things to be concerned about. That's what I told their mothers. One day at a time, one thing at a time. You, too, friend.”

Murdoch dropped his head into his hands. “This is all my fault.”

Sam stood, grasping Murdoch's arm and pulling him upright. “Murdoch Lancer, you look at me and look at me good. This is not your fault. No matter what you did, what you didn't do, what you may have done, whatever. This is squarely on Pardee's shoulders. He and those men of his are animals. I won't let you blame yourself.”

“If I had hired Madrid, he could have stopped them. I wouldn't have had to send to town for help. Those girls wouldn't be hurt.”

Sam slapped his leg in anger. “You can't possibly know that. Madrid is good, but he is only one man. If you would have hired him, he most likely would have been killed. You still would have had to go for help and the same thing would have happened, only you'd be down one very good man.” Sam paused. “Your son.”

Murdoch stared out toward the kitchen. “He said he would have done it for free if I claimed him.”

“Well, then, I'm glad you didn't, at least, not yet.”

“You think I should.”

“I think you should wait for that Pinkerton report. For your own sake. Get it clear in your mind. Then there would be no ambiguity.”

“You know he saved the hacienda last night? And Scott, too. We were both attacked. His gun made the difference.”

Sam smiled. “I'm glad you are finally seeing that Johnny Madrid is not your average gunfighter.”

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Shooting Lesson

Determined to get Scott's approval, Abby went in search of her husband. She never again wanted to feel helpless like she had in Day's camp. She first went to their room then to Johnny's. No Scott. She looked through the rest of the house. No Scott. Running outside, she scanned the corrals. Still no Scott. Where was he?

Pausing for a moment, she realized just how much she had changed in the few days she'd been at Lancer. Never one to be a wallflower, Abby recognized that she had developed a grit all to her own, a toughness to help her see her way through a situation and a grim determination to get the job done. Yes, the young society woman with big brown eyes had come a long way in a short time.

“There you are!” She smiled at Scott in the barn, helping taking down hay bales that they'd use for the forts tomorrow. “I've been looking for you.”

Scott looked up from his work and grinned. “That's good to hear. It was always a pleasure seeing my wife in the middle of the day.” He strode to her, resting his left hand on her shoulder.

Abby laughed. “Not for what you think. This is serious.”

“Oh?” Scott moved a lock of hair out of her eyes.

“Yes, I've been thinking...”

“Uh-oh,” Scott smiled. “That can't be good.”

Abby punched him in the arm. “Hey!”

“Ouch!” Scott feigned pain in the arm, overly rubbing it. But he stopped his joking when he saw her face. She had that look about her again. He'd seen it several times since her rescue.

“I want to help when the final battle comes.”

“And you will.” He watched the men hefting another bale.

“Yes, but not on the sidelines. I want to shoot.”

That got Scott's attention. He moved her into the tack room so they could be alone. “You want to fight? Why?”

“Because...Pardee is strong, his men are tough, they're gunmen. We need everyone helping fight them off. All hands on deck, so to speak. And you know how one extra person might make a difference? Well, what if that person is me? I want to be prepared.” It wasn't her first reason, but she thought it might work.

“I see.” Scott removed his gloves. “Abby, you won't be shooting targets, you realize. These will be men. You'll be taking lives. Are you sure you want to do that?”

She shifted her feet. “Well, I'd rather not, but I want to be prepared just in case.”

“I don't think...”

“Scott, listen.” Abby stood with her legs slightly apart, her arms akimbo. “When I was a captive, I was scared, terrified at times, and not because of my situation. Part of it was because I had no way to defend myself when I broke free.”

When you broke free?”

“Yes. I managed to untie my binds,” she rubbed her wrists, remembering, “but I had to pretend to still be bound because I wasn't sure how to escape or to shoot if I needed to.”

Scott took a step back and contemplated. “Well, that makes more sense. You want me to show you?”

“No. I want Johnny Madrid.” Her arms were akimbo again.

Scott raised an eyebrow. “Johnny? Does he know about this?”

“I asked him. He said you'd have to approve.”

“Well, he's right.” It seemed she'd already worked this all out. She was one strong-willed woman, his wife.

Abby stroked his arm. “So...?”

Scott still had doubts. “We are expecting them to attack tomorrow morning. How much do you think you can learn before then?”

But she had already thought of that. “Enough at least to hold the gun correctly, aim and fire. And maybe, just maybe, hit what I'm aiming at.”

He mulled that over. A woman knowing weapons wasn't necessary back East, but this wasn't Boston. Out here in California, a woman may need those skills. Would he be okay with it being his own wife with that ability? He discovered that he had no legitimate objection, at least in this case. “That sounds like a fairly reasonable goal.” He smiled at her. “Ok. I approve. But two hours, that's all I can give you. I need Johnny, too.”

Abby smiled. She bestowed one of her best kisses for him. “Thanks. Let's go get him.” She turned to leave.

He stopped her. “Now? I'd rather kiss you again.”

“You're the one who seems pressed for time.” She grinned.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The two of them found Johnny in the bell tower, perusing the property, visualizing how the battle might play itself out. “Good afternoon,” Abby greeted.

Johnny eyed at his sister-in-law, seeing Scott with her. “You here for your lesson?”

Abby laughed. “How'd you know?”

Johnny shrugged. “Just did, that's all.”

“You think we have time now, Johnny?” Scott asked.

“Sure. Got lots more daylight left. I'll saddle the horses. You—” he pointed to Abby, “—get out of that dress and something more fitting.”

“I'll find a spare holster,” Scott volunteered.

The three of them rode out behind the hacienda, up in the hills, to a box canyon toward the north. It wasn't a long ride, but it was far enough to mask the noises of gunshots.

Scott's job was a lookout, giving Johnny and Abby the chance to concentrate on the task at hand. Two hours wasn't much time.

Johnny first had Abby strap on the spare holster Scott borrowed from Lancer. She had changed into jeans. “It's heavy,” she remarked, feeling the weight on her hips.

“Yes. Walk around a bit. Get used to how it feels.”

Scott turned and watched his wife. She looked positively frontier in that holster. He frowned. Johnny saw him and took a guess, “Don't worry, Scott. She won't go around every day like this.”

“I hope not,” Scott replied. He turned back to watch the road.

Johnny instructed Abby on how to hold the weapon. He wanted her to get the feel of it in her hands. He showed her the parts of the revolver and how they worked. It was a crash course, but she was a quick learner.

The gun felt oddly cold and yet warm in her hands. It was smooth, almost toy-like except for its weight. A solid piece, it was in good condition. She practiced pulling the gun out of the holster a few times, learning how it felt, experiencing the tug of muscles in her arm she'd not used before.

Johnny had her hold it level, or attempt to. It was wobbly at first; she wasn't used to holding such a heavy thing at this angle.

“Don't worry,” Johnny said. “It's ok to use two hands. You're just learning.” He showed her how to put her left hand under her right to steady the gun. Using both hands helped, but she could feel the muscles in her arms again.

“It'll be ok,” Johnny reassured. “I know it's heavy. Just imagine holding an iron skillet.”

Abby smiled at his reference. It was about the same weight. Having something she knew to compare with helped.

Once she was more or less comfortable with holding the Colt somewhat straight, he had her squeeze the trigger with no ammunition in it, just to get the feel of how it worked and how much pressure she'd need.

She practiced with the trigger over and over. “Don't be so fast, Abby. Squeeze it slowly, gently. Pretend there's an egg behind it that you don't want to break. If you pull it fast, you won't hit your mark.”

Abby visualized his suggestion and found that worked better. “I get it now,” she smiled.

Finally came the meat and potatoes of their lesson. Johnny wanted her to know how the weapon felt when fired first, then teach her how to aim it, and finally to practice hitting what she aimed at.

“You're going to fire at that tree over there. Don't worry about hitting it. I just want you to shoot. Stand with your feet a little apart, about the same distance as your shoulders are. Now, whenever you're ready, fire. It's going to recoil a little. And it's probably gonna be a little loud.”

Abby nodded and took a stance. She pointed the Colt at the tree and squeezed the trigger. She jumped back, surprised by both the loud noise and the backlash. Unaccustomed to weapons, the Colt jerked her hands back. “Ouch!” she cried. It didn't really hurt, but it did startle her.

“I told you,” Johnny reminded.

“I know. I just didn't expect it to be quite like that.”

“It's okay. You're doing fine.”

Abby glanced at Scott, who nodded his assurance. She returned his smile and concentrated.

“Steady,” Johnny cautioned. “Hold it firmly, but don't grip it tightly. Remember to place your left hand under your right to stabilize it.” He put her hands in place.

“Do this, Abby: Take a breath, breathe out a little, aim, then fire. Remember to squeeze the trigger slowly. Lastly, breathe out. We don't want you turning blue.”

Abby laughed. She took her stance and practiced breathing. She nodded when she was ready. Johnny stood back.

After firing more shots, Abby began to manage the recoil, but she hadn't yet hit a target. And they weren't tiny tin cans, either. Johnny had drawn large circles with chalk in a few trees for her to hit.

Scott glanced at the two of them. He watched for a few minutes. She really wanted to do this. And Johnny was infinitely patient. He smiled.

“Be careful with your aiming. Don't close one eye. Just hold it steady. You'll hit something.”

She whooped when she hit her first tree. But it was outside the circle. Still it was a victory. Scott laughed.

After two hours, Abby was ready to quit. Her arm ached from holding the heavy Colt, her finger hurt from pulling the trigger, and her ears were ringing from the loud report of the weapon. But she had advanced from not hitting any targets at all to hitting one twice with her last reload.

“Very good, for a first quick lesson,” Johnny encouraged on their ride back. “You'll do okay tomorrow. Remember to relax and not panic, steady the weapon and don't shoot unless you are pretty sure you can hit your target.”

Scott chimed in. “And remember, Abby, you'll be shooting men tomorrow, not circles on trees.”

She understood. Killing was serious business.

“Aim for their chest,” Johnny advised. “That way you're bound to hit something that'll disable them. Once they are down, you can finish them off if you need to.”

As they neared the hacienda, Abby felt a renewed sense of accomplishment and confidence. Gone was her feeling of helplessness. She smiled.

Chapter Thirty-Four: Preparations

It was late afternoon when Day returned from his trip to Green River. He'd met with his employer and learned a little more about Madrid and the Lancers, but it wasn't enough to answer all of his questions. He wasn't completely satisfied and he felt a little uneasy about that. He didn't like being in the dark. But there was a bright side; he'd gained valuable intel about something entirely different. And this information made him very, very happy. It would soon make him very, very rich.

“So, what did the boss-man tell ya, Day?” Ford asked as Day rode in.

Pardee dismounted and handed off his horse. “Some interestin' facts,” he responded, taking a pull from an offered flask. “Madrid was Scott Lancer's escort on the train. Hired bodyguard. Boss said he found out when he tried to get to Lancer and his wife twice and Madrid stopped it. Ran off two thugs in their hotel in Sacramento, killed three who tried to get them on the stage outside of Goshen.”

“Okay,” Coley shrugged his shoulders. “So the Lancer kid is paying him.”

Pardee shook his head. “Nope. Nate told me a few days ago that he saw Lancer givin' Madrid an envelope when they arrived in Morro Coyo. That was the payoff.” Pardee was a little concerned. He knew there had to be more. Johnny Madrid didn't just hang out at a beleaguered hacienda for no reason. Too bad Nate had gotten himself shot before he could find that out himself.

“Well, did you learn anything useful then?” Coley asked.

“Sure did.” He smiled as he addressed his men. “You'll get your revenge,” Day promised. “We will attack at dawn.”

“We tried that before,” Coley snarled. “It wasn't successful.”

“Yah, but now Lancer is down more men than we thought. While I was in Green River, I found out we took six of them out on the road yesterday. They have at most ten or twelve guns. We will overwhelm them.” He paused. Hoofbeats approached. A rider was coming in.

It was Frank, the man Day had assigned to spy on Lancer today. He rode in and jumped off his horse, nodding to Pardee.

“What's the report, Frank?”

“Good news, Day,” Frank smiled. “The Conway woman came with some men, but they left a few hours ago. Went back to their ranch. Guess they were too afraid of us.” The men all chuckled. Frank continued, “The doc is there, though.”

Day laughed. “Good. They will need him. Now here is the plan...”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Dusk was upon them. Aggie would be returning soon. Scott wanted to talk with Johnny but finding his little brother—for the second time today—proved difficult.

He finally saw him in the barn, grooming Barranca in his stall. “You sure take care of that horse.”

Johnny smiled. “He takes care of me.”

Scott leaned on the stall door. “Are you certain they'll attack tomorrow?”

“I am.” Johnny combed Barranca's mane. “At dawn.”

“How can you be so sure, and so precise?”

“Because right now he thinks we are half-beaten. If he waits, the wounded men could come back and make things harder for him. He thinks he'll have an easy time of it, and there's one thing Day likes, that's for a job to go easy.

“And, in case you haven't heard, we thwarted him twice yesterday. His men are good, but they aren't the disciplined army you were in, Scott. They will be angry, frustrated and out for blood. He won't be able to keep them idle long. In fact, I was surprised he didn't try anything today. He must have needed more time to regroup.”

“So why dawn?”

He stopped combing and turned to face Scott. “Same reason your enemy in the war would, Scott. Plus, people won't expect gunfighters at that time 'cuz everyone knows we like to sleep in.” Johnny grinned.

Scott smiled, seeing the humor. “I see,” He picked up an apple and extended his hand to Barranca. The horse snapped at the fruit, almost taking Scott's fingers with it. “Whoa!” Scott exclaimed. “I need those fingers!”

Johnny laughed. “Then let me give him the treats. He likes me.” He grabbed the brush and began on Barranca's coat.

Scott gave the palomino a sideways frown and continued his talk with Johnny. “We need them to make a frontal assault.”

“Yep.” Johnny brushed some more.

“Any ideas on how to make that happen?”

“Nope.” Johnny continued his brushing.

“Well, I have one.”

Johnny stopped grooming and leaned against the stall door. “Let ‘er rip, Scott.”

Scott drew a deep breath. “Live bait.”

Johnny smiled at the straw on the ground. He lifted his eyes to Scott. “Guess I don't have to ask. I'm the bait.”

“Not that I don't care, brother, but this horse is pretty damn fast.”

Johnny admired Barranca. Yep, he was speedy. “Go on.”

“You stake out atop that hill on the south. When Pardee comes, start shooting. Kill as many as you can, but if they start to spread, cut in front and lead them into Lancer.”

Johnny looked up at Scott. “So they'll be firing at me. At my back.”

“Yes, they will. I understand your concern. However, it has been my experience that a man has difficulty connecting to a moving target when he himself is also in transit.”

Johnny took a minute to decipher Scott's big words. “This is true.”

“Plus, we'll be covering you.”

“I was hoping for that.”

“And the doctor is here just in case.”

“Gee, thanks, brother. You think of everything.”

“That I do.” Scott grinned. He turned to walk away.

“Scott!” Johnny called. “You forgot one thing.”

“Oh?” Scott spun around. “What's that?” He started back to his brother.

“Their lookout. We start moving around tonight and he's gonna see us in the moonlight. He'll report back what we're doing and Pardee will change his plans.”

“I hadn't thought of that. Do you have a idea?”

Johnny smiled. “I could take care of him.”

Scott drew a deep breath. “Want some company?”

“No, I figure it's a one-man job.”

Scott nodded. “Let me know when you get back.”

“Will do.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Night had fallen. The Conway party was due back any moment. If he was going to take care of Pardee's lookout, he'd have to go now. Clicking to Barranca, Johnny led the palomino out the back of the barn.

He knew of their camps from his earlier reconnaissance so he knew where the closest one was. It was high above the hacienda, among the trees, not far from where he'd be at dawn with his rifle. He headed there first, riding around the long way so he could sneak in from the back.

He was about two hundred feet from the camp when he saw their horses. Two chestnuts, tied off to trees. Happy to have found them right away, Johnny slid off the saddle and tied Barranca. He circled around their horses so he wouldn't startle them and came into the camp from the other side. The two of them were there; one looking toward the hacienda, watching; the other sat with his back to a boulder; he looked like he was dozing.

Johnny knew he should take out the sleeping guard first, but from the man's position it would be difficult without causing commotion. The rock he sat against made it impossible to come around his back and take him out silently. And, if he threw his knife, he risked missing or worse, connecting but not killing and the man could call out, alerting his friend.

If he just shot the two men, someone in the hacienda would hear the noise. Lancer's cowboys were just green enough to think it was the beginning of an attack and go into motion. He didn't want that.

His only other option was to creep up to the man on watch, take him down and hope the other stayed as he was. Then he could take him out from the front. It wouldn't be neat or even clean, but it just might work. It was risky, though. If the other man woke up...

Johnny was about to move when he heard a noise, just a faint one, coming from his back; it surprised him. He froze, barely breathing, and listened acutely. He heard it again, a definite footfall in the leaves, and closer this time. Whoever the man was, he was trying to get to him. Johnny crouched, pretending to be unaware, but easing his hand down his trouser leg to his boot, intent on retrieving his knife. He had his fingers on the silver hilt when he smiled and stood.

“Scott Lancer, you should know better than to try to sneak up on me like that,” he whispered.

He heard a light chuckle. Then a few more steps and his brother came into view. “How'd you know it was me?”

“Barranca,” he said.


“He didn't sound the alarm. I left him on guard. When I realized he hadn't warned me, I knew it must be you.”

“Ahhh, right.” Scott didn't believe him one minute, but he let it go. “What's the situation here?” He pointed to the camp.

“Two men,” Johnny reported. “One lookout, the other asleep against that rock. Can't figure out the best way to take them out.”

Scott perused the area. “I see your problem. Let's each take one. Which do you want?”

Johnny gave his brother a sideways glance. “You any good with a knife?”

Scott smiled. “Good enough for this.”

“Okay, then.” Johnny considered. The sleeper would be trickier. He pointed to him. “I'll take that one.”

Scott nodded and they both started to move, Johnny around the back of the boulder, Scott toward the front where the guard stood. Each being as quiet as possible, knowing that their lives depended on surprise.

Johnny reached the rock first, crouched just behind and to the outlaw's right, and waited for Scott. They would have to work in unison, else risk one guard alerting the other. He saw Scott get into position and moved.

Scott stepped behind his target. In one quick movement, drew his knife across the man's throat. The outlaw slumped to the ground soundlessly.

Johnny grabbed his man's face with his left hand, pinching his nose and mouth shut against any outcry. He pulled his knife backwards across the doomed man's neck, severing the aorta, and threw him down. The man looked up at him for a few seconds and tried to choke out some words before he bled out.

That bloody chore done, the brothers nodded to each other, cleaned off their knives, and returned to their horses. Now the preparations could begin.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The Conway party completed their roundabout circle and entered the Lancer community once full darkness had set in. They rode in quickly. Lancer men unhitched their horses efficiently and put them into the barn. They all set about to fortify Lancer.

Under the cover of darkness, the men pulled wagons, carts, crates, and other assorted bulky items together fulfilling Johnny's plan to create a physical boundary around the hacienda and its forward outbuildings. This would make Pardee's job harder as he'd have a barricade to breech before getting to the hacienda courtyard. They erected Scott's little forts using the hay bales and stocked them with plenty of ammo. The two men stationed in the forts would be able to fire from a protected forward position, and more importantly, provide cover for Johnny.

Murdoch watched the plan come together. He was proud of Scott; the ex-military man had done himself proud. Then again, Johnny Madrid had a lot to do with this as well. Even without paying the gunfighter, he knew he'd owe much of tomorrow's success to him. He was glad he'd sent that telegram via Sam to San Diego. He needed a clear answer.

Around midnight, Cipriano reported that all plans were complete. Murdoch ordered the hacienda to take to bed, saying everyone needed sleep.

Scott and Abby, though tired from the day's exertions, made love in their big bed. They cuddled together afterward and drifted off to sleep easily.

For Murdoch, sleep was elusive. Tomorrow would be a turning point for his ranch. If successful, Lancer would go on and he'd have a junior partner. If not, well, he didn't want to think about that.

Johnny went to his room carrying an extra Winchester he'd borrowed from the hacienda. He lay on the bed what he would need—two blankets, his own rifle and the spare, and plenty of ammunition.

From his saddlebags, he withdrew a moleskin pouch, in the shape of a large envelope with a flap. The flap closed with a cord winding around a button sewed on the bottom. He unwound the cord and flipped the flap open. Inside was his working gun, a perfectly-balanced Colt 45 hand-made to his specifications. He commissioned it from Dodge City gunsmith Frederich Zimmerman just last year. It fit him like an extension of his arm. It was designed to be drawn fast but maintain accuracy. He didn't think he'd need the fast draw in the battle tomorrow, but he wasn't taking any chances.

He sat on the bed, took out his kit and began cleaning the weapon. When he finished he holstered it, replacing his normal Colt. Lastly, he gathered his supplies, including his regular handgun, and headed out to the barn. He would be sleeping in Barranca's stall tonight. They would be the first on the move tomorrow.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Prior to dawn, Johnny saddled Barranca, grabbed his gear and rode out to the south hill. He staked the horse in the trees on the protected side, away from any stray shots, and lay on the Indian blanket he'd spread on the dewey grass. He covered himself with the brown blanket and waited in the pre-dawn chill.

He saw the first pinks of daylight out of the corner of his eye and knew the time would come soon. Day Pardee would want to take Lancer when he thought most would be asleep and least prepared. However, since Lancer had spent most of the previous day either planning or getting ready for this battle, its men were more than ready. Day would have several surprises.

He reached into a bag for a breakfast of cold biscuits, prepared by Maria the night before. Washing his mouth out with water from his canteen, he threw away the last of the biscuits and readied himself.

In the hacienda, everyone ate the same leftover biscuits Johnny had, but they enjoyed fresh brewed coffee to get them going. Cipriano came in and Murdoch ordered him to get the men to their posts so they'd be ready when the outlaws came.

“Pardee better come this morning after all this,” Sam chuckled. “Not that I'm anxious for the inevitable wounds that will come, but we've all put in a great deal of effort here.”

Scott laughed. “I know. I felt the same way before each battle in the war.”

Selena, quiet and withdrawn, barely ate any of her breakfast. Abby noticed the girl's reactions and tried to reassure her. “Everything will be all right, Selena. Pardee and his men won't get near the hacienda.”

The girl looked up at Abby and half-smiled. “ Si, Señora, but I am still scared.”

“So am I,” Abby confessed. She squeezed the girl's shoulder.

“We all are, Selena,” Aggie joined in. “We just don't let it show.”

Teresa was quiet too, but put on a brave face. She really wanted to withdraw like Selena had, but felt it was her duty to show the younger girl a positive attitude. She remembered the last time she had lost it—she had frightened Selena—and didn't want a repeat of that.

“Time,” Murdoch said, rising from his chair. He strode into the great room to grab a rifle.

Sam led Maria and the girls into the center of the hacienda, into the safe room where they'd be the most protected when the attack came. There they would all wait until needed. They nervously sat and alternately paced the room.

Scott kissed Abby on the cheek. “Oh, no, mister. You can do better than that,” she argued. He smiled and complied by taking her out of view from the others and planting a big deep kiss on her. “That's better,” she smiled.

He grinned then followed Murdoch to get his own rifle, returning with it and the Colt and holster Abby had used yesterday. He watched her strap it on. “You're job will be to defend the front door. Don't let anyone get close. Oh, and keep it closed. If you have to fire, use the slide-hole.”

Abby saluted. “Yes, sir, Lieutenant Lancer.”

Scott grinned at her and kissed her forehead.

Scott took his place on a landing on the steps outside the hacienda in the front. They led to the roof, should he need that advantage. He was protected by chest-high wall of adobe. Murdoch was behind the courtyard wall, his rifle pointed out a small opening in the adobe.

Abby closed the heavy front door and opened the slide-hole. It was just large enough for a man to stick a rifle through it and see what he was looking at, but it was too high for her to use with a hand gun. She looked around for something to gain her some needed height and spotted a table.

Made of solid oak, the four by eight table was sturdy and heavy and would be perfect for her to kneel on if she needed to shoot. It wouldn't rock or sway. If only she could find a way to shove it to the door. Not wanting to hurt herself, she called for Sam to help. He did most of the work, letting her guide him as to where she wanted it. Once in place against the heavy door he helped her to climb on by steadying her as she stepped on a chair. She thanked him for his efforts and readied herself.

Abby grinned at her idea. Not only did the table afford her the necessary height to use the slide-hole, it was heavy enough to bolster the door, should anyone try to force their way in. She wondered what her husband would think of her ingenuity.

Scott perused the area around the hacienda. He noticed the men in their assigned positions: four in the bell tower, two in each small fort, and the others spread out either on the roof or at strategic areas in Johnny's makeshift barricade. He smiled. The plan was coming together.

Aggie surprised Murdoch by joining him in the courtyard. “What are you doing here?” he jumped.

“There's another of those openings, Murdoch. I'm taking it.” She held two Winchesters and her own box of ammunition.

“You should be inside where it's safer.”

“No. I shouldn't.”

Murdoch wanted to argue, but didn't want to be distracted. Resigned to her presence, he gazed out front and waited for Pardee to appear.

Chapter Thirty-Five: Dawn

Johnny lay prone on his blanket, propped on his elbows, both rifles to his right, ready to grab one and aim. His working gun rested in his holster; his normal Colt was shoved down the front of his pants. That would be his backup today. As he waited, he thought about some of the other times he'd done just such a thing: lay in wait, as a sniper, to take the first crack at the enemy.

Most of the time, he'd been able to kill or wound enough men to tip the scales in favor of his own forces, although there had been a time or two when the odds were so overwhelming, not even he made much of a difference. This wasn't one of those times. He knew Pardee's numbers and they rivaled Lancer's now that Aggie Conway had lent her support.

Pardee's main strength lay in his men's abilities; they were professionals. Their lives and livelihood depended on their prowess with weapons, just as his did. And Day had one other thing in his favor: his men had proven themselves to be capable of doing whatever it took to get the job done. Defeating them would not be easy.

Lancer's primary advantage was the hacienda itself. Built of strong adobe with six-inch-thick walls, the estate was a fortress. And with it's design of uneven walls, that bell tower and other elements, it resembled one, too. It would not be easy to penetrate.

Another boon to Lancer was the fact that those men, too, were fighting for their lives and livelihoods. If Murdoch Lancer were to fall, his men would lose their jobs as well as their lives, and most likely those of their families. They understood what was at stake and would fight accordingly.

He hoped. Lancer's men were amateurs and it was always difficult to predict the behavior of the inexpert. Scott was a pro, having served as an officer in the Union during their Civil War. But he didn't know the expertise of the rest of the men fighting for Lancer. He cursed himself for not learning that valuable piece of information.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott stood on his landing, his rifle at the ready, leaning against the adobe wall which would protect him from the bullets sure to be headed his way in a short time. He was nervous, and a little scared, but not terrified or unsure. It was just the pre-battle jitters which he had sought to calm during the War. He knew once the shooting started, he would be calm and deliberate, able to assess the situation and make quick command changes if necessary.

He knew their plan would work. The men stationed along the barricade were well-armed and well-protected. Pardee would have to penetrate both their efforts and those at the hacienda to take this estancia. It would be most difficult, particularly if they were to rush head-on into the fray. That was Johnny's job: to make sure that's exactly what Pardee would do, regardless of any plans to split up and come in from the side as well.

He also knew his men weren't the best of shots, but they had improved a little since he first saw them in action. And they were well-motivated; they wanted to win. Pardee had inflicted too much damage to this community and they wanted to be the ones to finish him.

Scott wasn't as sure of the Conway men as he was of his own, but he had been assured by Murdoch that Aggie wouldn't have brought them if they weren't capable and willing to fight. It was reassuring, but not the same as first-hand knowledge. It would have to do, though. They were out of time.

He glanced to his left, to the roof of the portico over the front door. Smitty was there, lying prone, with his rifle at the ready. Three hay bales, stacked in a pyramid, protected him from the front. Smitty noticed him looking and gave him a mock salute, grinning. Scott nodded in return.

Below that roof, behind the front door, was his wife. She was the only one he really worried about in this battle. He hoped she would stay behind the door and not open it, and that she wouldn't feel the need to shoot. If only she would have been content to wait in a safe room inside the hacienda with Sam and the other females. But no, not his Abby. She wanted to be involved.

He understood her desire to protect herself, but he wished she would be content to leave that job to him. He did not want her in harm's way. But, there she was, and he realized he wouldn't have the luxury of worrying about her once the shooting started; if he did, he'd be in trouble.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Abby knelt on top of her table, her gun laying next to her along with an extra box of shells. She was glad Johnny had taught her how to reload, but she hoped she wouldn't have to fire her weapon at all. She was not comfortable with taking a life, but she knew she may have to do so to protect herself, her husband and their new home and family.

She drew deep breaths to steady herself. It was early yet, and she knew it would be several moments after Johnny started shooting before Pardee's men would even be in range of the hacienda. She said a little prayer to calm her nerves, and prayed for the safety of all of Lancer, but especially her Scott and his new-found brother, Johnny, who would be taking a great risk this morning.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Aggie stood a few feet from Murdoch, behind the courtyard wall, in that walled patio which afforded them near maximum protection. They were open to the sky, but an outlaw would have to be behind them on the roof to get to them. If things got that bad..., well, she didn't want to have to think about that.

She rested her rifle on the sill of her little gunport, waiting for the battle to begin. She glanced at Murdoch, in much the same posture as she was, and thought of their friendship. They'd known each other for many years, way back when her husband was still alive, and had helped each other through some very difficult times. She was grateful for his counsel and she knew that he respected hers. Sometimes she had toyed with the idea of their friendship growing, but he had never seemed interested in romance.

“Murdoch,” she called softly. “I've had something I've wanted to ask you for some time now, and I guess now's as good a time as any.”

“What is it, Aggie?”

She opened her mouth to say, then thought of their situation, waiting for a battle to begin—it wasn't a romantic setting at all—and shut it. “Never mind,” she muttered. “It'll wait.” She looked back through her gunport and drew a deep breath.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch frowned in confusion. Obviously something had seemed important enough for Aggie to say, yet she changed her mind. He considered pressing her, but thought better of it. She was already concentrating on the upcoming fight.

He should be thinking of that, too. He knew Scott had planned well and his men—along with Johnny Madrid and Aggie's men—were ready for Pardee. He was more than ready to end this. Pardee had been a thorn in his side for too long, had done too much damage to his friends, his town, and he wanted the man dead. Not brought to justice, no, that was too good for Pardee. He wanted to see the man buried.

He thought of Johnny Madrid out there on that hill alone, knowing what the plan was, what his role would be. Madrid was taking one hell of a chance for Scott—and by extension, him. He knew this went well beyond friendship, that Johnny Madrid must truly believe he is Scott's brother, to take this kind of a risk.

He again glanced at Aggie and smiled. She had been his friend for so very long, helping him whenever he needed it, and here she was again, this time risking her life for him. She was one hell of a woman. A man would be proud to call her his own. He turned his head back to the courtyard and nodded, vowing that once this was all over, he'd ask her if she was interested.

But now, he had to concentrate on Pardee. Pardee simply had to go.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The dawn's pinkness spread across the tops of the mountains, creeping lower to highlight more and more of the peaks behind the hacienda. Birds began their morning chatter and a soft breeze tickled Johnny's hair. The world was awakening.

He felt the ground vibrate, a slow pulsation. It was Pardee's men, galloping toward the hacienda. Johnny checked his rifles one last time. Both were loaded and ready. He closed his eyes and waited, concentrating on the rumblings he felt. A few seconds later he heard them, soft sounds at first then rising across the grasses. Johnny drew a deep breath, said a silent prayer and opened his eyes. He could just make out the first of them. They were still out of range, so he waited, hoping Lancer was ready.

He did not like being the bait, but it made the most sense. Barranca was fast, very fast, and he knew he could outrun any of Pardee's horses. The only question was when would be the right moment to start his ride. Start it too soon, and they split up anyway; wait too long, and they are upon him. It was a tricky decision.

He took Lancer's rifle, got it into position, and took aim at the man closest to him. It was neither Ford nor Coley, but it didn't matter. Making a kill—any kill—with his first shot would heighten Lancer's morale and inspire them to win. Johnny kept the man in his sights, following his motion with the rifle until he knew they were within range. When he was sure of this mark, he fired. One round.

He missed.

The outlaws didn't break ranks, a tribute to Day's discipline. They didn't even change their stride, but continued their thundering toward the hacienda, as if Johnny wasn't even there.

Johnny cursed and re-aimed, locating Coley's distinctive Appaloosa. Being one of Pardee's lieutenants, he would be an excellent first kill. Johnny fired again. This time he saw Coley fall from his horse, trampled by the rider behind him. The body rolled over once before lying still in the grass.

Pardee's men barely acknowledged the lost man, but pulled closer together, as if drawing strength from a tight group, and focused on the looming hacienda. The Appaloosa kept with the group, held in place by the closeness of outlaws as they rode.

Johnny pulled the trigger again, aiming at a man in a dark shirt. He saw him rock in the saddle, then lean forward a little, but the wounded man stayed on his roan, keeping with the group barreling toward the hacienda.

Johnny admired Day's discipline at keeping the men together, but now was the time to shake them up a bit. He shifted his position and fired rapid shots toward the group, not aiming at any one in particular, until he emptied his rifle. He saw two men flinch when they were hit. He grabbed the other rifle, his own Winchester, positioned himself and shot once more.

Day raised his arm, pointing toward Johnny's hill. His men broke in two groups. The majority of his men continued with him toward the hacienda, but five formed a flank headed toward Johnny. That was his cue.

Grabbing his still-loaded Winchester, Johnny made a run for Barranca. The palomino seemed to sense being needed and stood alert and watching, snorting and pawing the ground with his front foot. He was eager to go!

Johnny grabbed the pommel and, with graceful fluidity, swung around into the saddle using the momentum from his run, sheathing the rifle as he came across the animal's back. He gathered the reins and kicked with his spurs. Barranca jumped into motion. They rode head on toward the flanking group.

Using his handgun pulled from his waistband, Johnny fired repeatedly straight into the group, confusing them. They stopped short in surprise, broke apart and turned around to rejoin the other group. Only one managed to get off a shot in Johnny's direction, turning and firing after his retreat. He missed.

Johnny and Barranca tore down the hillside. He cut in front of Pardee and his men, coming alarmingly close, kicking up dust. He could hear Pardee's shouts behind him. The outlaws began firing at him.

He spurred Barranca on. The palomino surged forward, widening the gap. Johnny lay low in the saddle, making himself as small a target as possible. A couple of times he turned and fired. He missed, but it had the effect of slowing Pardee a little.

Scott scanned the area from his stance on the landing. He saw Pardee's men regroup into one crowd again. He smiled. Johnny had done his first job. He watched Barranca thunder down the hill and cut in front of Pardee's men.

“Come on, Johnny, ride!” Scott yelled. Lancer would have to wait until Johnny cleared the barricade to shoot; to fire sooner would risk hitting him or the horse. He hoped the men would obey his orders. It also meant Johnny was still on his own against Pardee's men. Scott hoped he'd be okay.

“There's Madrid!” Aggie cried, watching Johnny riding in front of the outlaw gang, leading them in a frontal assault, just like Scott wanted. She readied her rifle, taking aim.

“Wait to shoot,” Murdoch told her, “until they are in range.”

Murdoch watched the gunfighter ride his golden horse in harm's way, risking fatal injury to himself and his palomino to help him save his ranch. Was he his Johnny? He shook his head, throwing off that thought; now wasn't the time.

“Kill Madrid!” Pardee yelled. His men concentrated on firing at Johnny, each one wanting to be the one to down him. But they were riding hard, over slightly uneven ground. It was difficult to shoot and ride.

Johnny felt Barranca's stride change momentarily. He guessed the horse had been hit. He mumbled a curse, turned and fired directly at Pardee himself. He missed.

The palomino approached the barricade with alarming speed. He felt the horse gather his muscles and soon he soared over the carts. Barranca landed gracefully without breaking stride. Johnny guided him toward the barn.

The moment the horse cleared the hurdle, the men in the forts started shooting at Pardee. Johnny thundered into the courtyard and the rest of the men on the barricade took aim. They joined the fight. As Johnny approached the barn, the rest of Lancer fired. Pardee was riding into a storm of rifle fire.

Scott took out Ford, galloping on Pardee's left. The man thudded to the ground, his body rolling away. Pardee reined up and took refuge behind Lancer's arch, aiming at whomever he could find. From the number of shots coming at them, he realized he'd been duped; Lancer was stronger than he had thought. He cursed.

Joe and Coop opened the barn doors for Johnny, standing to the side to give the horse maximum width. Barranca came in at full speed with Johnny low on his back. They hurriedly closed the door. Safely in the barn, Johnny guided Barranca to a stop. The horse blew hard, his flanks heaving.

Johnny jumped off Barranca and grabbed his Winchester. He quickly searched him for signs of injury and found a slight graze on the horse's right hip. It wasn't threatening; it could wait. “ Lo siento, mi amigo ,” he apologized to the animal. Promising to care for him later, Johnny patted his tired mount and ran to the barn door.

The battle was full-on. Lancer and Conway fired shot after shot at the gunmen as they tried to breech the barricade. The first few in the crowd fell to the ground, short of their goal, clasping wounds and trying to roll out of the line of fire. They scurried to safer cover behind trees and bushes.

Scott saw an outlaw scampering on all fours toward a tree. He sighted the man and fired. He watched him drop and lay still. He looked for Pardee himself, but did not see him behind the arch.

Some managed to jump the barrier, but many of them collapsed soon after, either as a result of the jump itself or from wounds. They, too, tried to fire back, but shots came from nearly all directions. Too late, they realized that once in the Lancer front yard they were at the mercy of many more rifles than they had expected. Left with no other choice but to fight, they took cover where they could.

Aggie fired at an outlaw jumping the barrier and saw him topple. His body crumpled in a heap. She grinned. “Got one!” she cried to Murdoch.

Murdoch glanced over at the woman. She was grinning widely. He shook his head and smiled himself. She was enjoying herself too much. While there was a certain satisfaction in successfully fighting off an enemy, Murdoch didn't take pleasure in a kill. Nor did he really think Aggie did; she was just caught up in the excitement.

Scott fired at the men riding in, hitting more than he missed. His aim was deliberate and steady, but quick enough to be effective. Pardee saw him, noticed his prowess with his rifle and turned to fire on the young Lancer. The shell hit the hacienda wall behind Scott. Scott ducked, readjusted his aim, and set his sites on Pardee. Day turned away, hiding once more behind the arch, cursing Lancer and his kid.

The last few of Pardee's men tried jumping the barricade. Henry, in one of the forts, shot one of them from the side in mid-jump. He tumbled over in the opposite direction, knocking a colleague off his horse. The wounded man lay where he fell, covering his head with his arms; he was right in the path of more jumping horses. The one he'd knocked into landed next to the other fort and tried to scamper out of the line of fire.

A bandito managed to break away from the others and ride close to the portico over the front door. He slid off his horse, intending on penetrating the house. Abby, positioned behind the oaken door, panicked when she saw his wild grin. She pulled away, turning her back to the door, breathing in short, fast breaths.

Abby closed her eyes. “Get ahold of yourself, girl,” she spoke aloud. “You can do this.” Another fast breath. “You have to do this.” Forcing herself to calm down, she remembered Johnny's words: “Aim for their chest. That way you're bound to hit something that'll disable them.” She turned back to the slide-hole. The man had almost reached the door. Abby drew a breath. Releasing some of it, she took careful aim at the center his chest, supporting her weapon with her left hand. She gently squeezed the trigger. Her prey grasped his left side and fell, writhing in pain before tumbling off the porch. He lay bleeding on the dirt. Abby turned back around. A feeling welled from her stomach: relief. Sliding to her bottom behind the safety of the door, she whispered “Thank you, Johnny.”

Johnny and the two Lancer men, Joe and Coop, defended their position at the barn door. Down on one knee, behind a hastily-pulled hay bale, Johnny emptied the Winchester before switching to his Colt. He was more effective with the handgun anyway, picking off man after man.

The battle raged. Lancer's rifles, grouped with Aggie's men, were pounding the outlaws. Pardee watched from the safety of the arch. He saw his men go down like a slaughter, with Scott Lancer's rifle being a main culprit. He was licked and he knew it. Swearing to get even, he used the confusion and the smoke to slip away, off to the north while his men took the brunt of Lancer's fury. No one noticed his escape.

Murdoch took aim at the last bandito jumping the barricade. Before he could shoot, the horse stumbled upon landing, sending his rider over his head. The horse tumbled and fell on top of him. The man yelled out in pain. The animal scrambled to his feet and trotted away, unhurt, but the outlaw remained on the dirt, shaking his head back and forth in pain. Murdoch backed off. Scott saw another man take aim at Johnny, who was distracted by the tumbling horse. He quickly brought up his rifle and dispatched the man, sending him sprawling backwards in the dirt.

A fallen raider crawled on his stomach under a cart through the barrier. He positioned himself next to one of Scott's forts and drew his gun, his sights on shooting inside the fort. Scott, from his landing on the steps, aimed, but before he could fire, the man crumpled into a heap, hit from another bullet.

By now, most the outlaws had taken what little cover they could find, but with guns all around them, no place was safe. Scott surveyed the courtyard. Bodies lay strewn around, smoke filled the air. Lancer had the men surrounded. There was no hope for them. It was time to end this. He cupped his hand around his mouth and yelled, “Cease fire! Stop shooting! Cease fire!” After three times, the gunfire slowed to a halt.

He yelled again, this time at Pardee's men. “You are surrounded. Surrender now or die.” He waited. A minute later, he saw one of the doomed men toss his handgun into the dirt and raise his arms. More followed. After an intense half-hour, Lancer was won. The last of Pardee's minions either surrendered or escaped, running for their lives. Lancer cheered. Scott smiled; it was over.


Lancer: A New Era
Part Four: Land of Hope and Dreams


When you need me call my name
'Cause without you my life just wouldn't be the same
If you want me come sunny skies or rain
When you need me just call my name
When You Need Me, Bruce Springsteen

Chapter Thirty-Six: The Smoke Clears

Chapter Thirty-Seven: The Partnership

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Johnny

Chapter Thirty-Nine: The Telegram

Chapter Forty: Called Out

Chapter Forty-One: The Gunfight

Chapter Forty-Two: In the Garden

Chapter Forty-Four: Beeves

Chapter Thirty-Six: The Smoke Clears

The cheering stopped almost as soon as it began. One by one, Lancer took notice of the real-life toll of the battle. They saw men on the ground—either laying still or writhing in pain—and horses trotting around, unridden and frightened. Their noses curled from the acrid smell of gunpowder; it filled the air.

“Tend to the wounded first,” Murdoch ordered, emerging from the walled courtyard. He still carried his rifle. “Then gather up the dead. Cipriano, capture these horses and check the buildings for damage.” The segundo nodded, took two men with him and began corralling the loose animals. Other men, both from Lancer and Conway, began picking through the bodies looking for those still alive.

Scott clambered down the steps into the confusion of the courtyard. He helped locate wounded men and transport them into the house. It was a huge undertaking; there were many bodies and wounded all around.

Sam and the girls came out of their safe room to care for the needy. “Bring the most injured to me first,” he ordered. Abby got a couple of hands to move her table back so they'd have a more efficient way to get in the hacienda. She started a triage. There was no time to think about the battle.

Lancer's great room and kitchen became the makeshift hospital. Healthy men carried the wounded into the house so Teresa and Selena could clean and bandage them. Sam treated the worst of them in the kitchen. Aggie joined the girls in tending to the wounded. Murdoch would only let the girls help with the Lancer and Conway injured; he did not want the innocents getting too close to the bandits.

The principals in the battle—Johnny, Scott, Abby, Murdoch and Aggie—all appeared to be injury-free. Smitty sustained an arm wound, but it wasn't bad; Sam had him fixed up in no time. Paco and Ben were both grazed in the head so Sam ordered them to bed to watch for concussions. Abby used two of the rooms she had readied the day before. A couple of Aggie's men needed treatment as well, but they would recover soon. Pardee's men had the worst injuries and would need longer term care.

Johnny stayed in the barn, tending to Barranca's wound. He applied the same salve Cipriano had recommended for Abby's mare. He gave the horse a thorough rubdown and a fresh, crisp apple. The animal would fully recover.

Coop and a Conway cowboy moved the carts blocking the area between the two forts. Scott began scouring the area outside the barricade for wounded and dead. What he found surprised him. There was only one body. He was sure that there were a few of the banditos outside the barricade, including Pardee, but he saw no evidence of them. They must have escaped.

He frowned. Pardee escaping was bad, real bad. From what he knew of the man, he would seek revenge, but probably not alone; he didn't think Day Pardee was the type to start a war by himself. He'd be back. And with a new, probably more fortified crew.

When all the men were accounted for, Lancer realized that Pardee had suffered fourteen dead and seven wounded. The rest had scattered. Murdoch made sure that the Pardee injured received the same treatment as his own. Sam put them in guest cottage to recover and Murdoch posted guards.

Aggie sent one of her men to Green River to wire for a US Marshall to take Pardee's captured men. By the time the marshall would arrive, the wounded would be well enough to travel. Murdoch ordered the dead to be transported to Morro Coyo for burial like he had those from the ambush on the road a few days ago.

The rest of the men began to break down the barricade and forts. Aggie's men helped put the hacienda back in order. Ranch operations could return to normal as soon as possible. Maria made sandwiches and brewed tea. The other women of the hacienda community went around with trays and made sure everyone had something to eat.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny sprinted up the back stairs to his room. He was exhilarated; he always felt this way after a job, a huge surge of energy brought on by the adrenaline, the smell of battle, and the satisfaction of a job well done. He should be exhausted; his sleep had been interrupted too many nights of late, but he knew he wouldn't sleep now. It was always the case. He wouldn't sleep until he was away from the job.

Away. Johnny stopped removing his gunbelt; this was the time for him to leave. A gunfighter never overstayed his welcome, he knew that well. He'd take his pay and go, quickly and quietly, because as soon as the last bullet was fired, he knew he was no longer wanted or needed.

Sure, this hadn't been a regular job but it varied in just one respect: he wouldn't get paid. The work he did for his brother was pro bono, done without expecting consideration, but it was a job nonetheless. And the rules still applied.

It had been fun and exciting getting to know his brother and his wife but he'd known from the beginning that he would walk away. Only back then that scenario included throwing his identity in his father's face. Well, he'd already let the cat out of that bag. Besides, he no longer felt like doing that.

He'd given Murdoch Lancer the chance to claim him and his father had done as he expected he would: which was, of course, nothing. He still had many questions, but one thing he'd learned in his life was that not all questions have answers.

Scott was happy. He would adjust well to ranch life. Abby seemed to fit in as well. But Johnny didn't. He'd always be the gunfighter, the one with the dark reputation, the one no one wanted around once the shooting stopped.

At least he no longer had any desire to shoot Murdoch Lancer. Let the man be, he figured. They each had their own troubles.

Johnny re-strapped on his gunbelt, grabbed his saddlebags and began packing.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott found Murdoch in the kitchen, helping Sam with the last patient. He waited for his father and the doctor to move the man—one of the Conway hands—to a bedroom Abby had readied the day before. They returned to the kitchen, Scott handed them a cup of Maria's fresh-brewed coffee and they all sat on the table to rest.

“I have bad news,” Scott began. Murdoch and Sam looked up wearily from their cups. “It's about Pardee. He was not among the dead. It appears that he escaped.”

“Oh, God,” Sam murmured. He shook his head. This was not over.

Murdoch drew a deep breath. “Well, that's unfortunate. If he's out there, he's still dangerous. We'll have to watch ourselves. But I'm not going to let that get in the way of running this ranch. We've put it on hold for far too long now. We'll just have to be careful and keep and eye out.”

Scott nodded. “Makes sense. We can't stop the business forever. Should we continue to post guards?”

Murdoch considered. He looked at Sam for advice. The doctor shrugged. “Yes,” he told Scott. “I think so. But just two: one at night and the other during the day.”

“Okay.” Scott nodded. “I'll go get Cipriano.” He withdrew from the room.

As soon as he left, Sam let out a breath. “I hate to think of what that man would do now.”

Murdoch nodded. “Me too, Sam. Me too.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Abby wandered outside to stretch her back and get away from the house and it's aroma of medicine. Maria was already airing out the place, opening windows and propping doors, but she needed to get out of the hacienda for a while. The cowboys were still busy setting the grounds back in order, but the smell of smoke was gone and all the horses had been corralled.

Scott, having dismissed Cipriano, noticed his wife stretching in the sun. She'd removed the gunbelt and let her hair down. It flowed freely across her shoulders. He trotted over to her.

“Hey, Sunshine,” he smiled.

“Hey, yourself, Cowboy,” she grinned back. It was the first time she'd called him by that particular nickname.

He laughed. “I like the sound of that.” They embraced quickly before strolling around to the rear of the hacienda, where they could gain some privacy in Teresa's garden.

“I was so worried about you,” Abby murmured. She was tucked safely under his arm as they strolled near the marjoram.

“Same here. If something would have happened to you...” Scott could not finish that thought. He squeezed her tightly.

“Nothing did, and I stopped one of them from entering the house.”

“You did? Well, well, well. I'm proud of you. How did that go?”

“Johnny is a good teacher. I panicked at first when I saw the guy's face, but I got control. I just relaxed, held the gun steady like Johnny showed me, aimed for his chest and squeezed. I hit him on the left side, up here—” she indicated just under the rib cage. “And he fell. I was glad when it was over.”

He chuckled. “I know what you mean.”

“But the best part: I didn't feel helpless. And that was good.” She spun to face him. “Thanks for letting Johnny teach me. I hope I never have to do that again.”

He smiled. “Me too.” He brushed a lock of hair away from her face.

Abby fell into his arms again and they continued strolling. “What's going to happen with Johnny? Now that it's over, I mean.”

“I'm not sure it is over, darling.”

She looked up at his face, alarm showing. “What do you mean?”

“Pardee is still out there. He wasn't among the wounded or the killed. And, whoever hired him is still loose. We don't even know who that is.”

“Do you think he'll attack again?”

“Maybe, if the man behind all this wants Lancer badly enough. And Pardee will have to get a new crew together first so that'll take a while.”

“I hope it's a long while.”

He agreed, taking her into his arms and kissing her.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott dropped by Johnny's room to get him for dinner. It was to be a celebratory meal. Maria and Teresa brought out the fine linen, candles and the good china. Murdoch opened a couple bottles of fine wine. Aggie was joining them and Scott wanted Johnny to share in the festivities.

He knocked on the door. It opened. Scott peeked inside. “Johnny? Dinner!” There was no answer. He stepped in and noticed the room was empty. His brother's few possessions were gone. “What the—?” he murmured.

He jogged out to the barn, taking the back stairs around the hacienda. No Barranca. Johnny was gone. Scott stood at the entrance to Barranca's stall wondering just what was on his brother's mind to leave like that, without saying anything.

He sighed and returned to the hacienda. They were already seated, waiting for him. “Where have you been?” Murdoch asked. “We're about to have a toast.”

“I went to get Johnny, but it appears he is no longer here.” Scott took his seat next to Abby. “Strange that he didn't tell me he was leaving.”

“He's gone?” Murdoch asked.

“Yes. His room is empty and Barranca is not in his stall.”

Murdoch gazed at his son. “I'm sorry to hear that, Scott. I know you were looking forward to celebrating with him.”

Scott nodded and busied himself by putting his napkin in his lap.

Murdoch cleared his throat, raised his glass and stood. “To everyone here, thank you for helping defeat the land pirates and restoring Lancer. Cheers!”

The glasses clinked. Aggie smiled. She was happy to have been a part of this. “It was our pleasure, Murdoch.”

Scott joined in the toast, but only half-heartedly. His joy at defeating Pardee had vanished with his brother.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch stared out the French doors, gazing out into the darkness. Everyone else had retired; he was the only one awake. He liked this time, when the hacienda was dark. It was peaceful, a feeling he'd not felt in a long time.

So Johnny Madrid had left. And without saying a word. He was confused. If the gunfighter felt he really was his son, why did he leave? And why, if Scott meant so much to him, why leave without at least saying goodbye? That sounded like someone who cared nothing for other people, like what Murdoch first thought of all gunfighters, not Johnny Madrid, who'd proven himself to be a different kind of gunman. Well, maybe he's not so different after all, Murdoch thought. Or maybe he was.... He didn't finish that thought. He couldn't imagine what the young Madrid was; he'd never met anyone like him.

He didn't know if Madrid's leaving was good or bad. He had wanted to talk with the young man after the battle, but on the other hand, now with him gone, it would be just he and Scott, and Abby and Teresa, of course. But they could begin to build their family and get back to making Lancer Ranch the best in the state.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Abby awoke with a start. She sat upright in their bed, sweating profusely, her heart pounding her breath coming in short pants. Scott groaned and turned over, opening his eyes. “Are you all right, sweetheart?”

Abby nodded, but she was anything but fine. She'd had a nightmare. She'd dreamt the man she'd killed was coming at her, the wound in his side poured blood but that didn't stop him. He kept coming, that wild grin on his face. She fired shot after shot but the bullets went right through him. He laughed, a wicked, cruel laugh. He extended his arms to grab her...and she awoke.

Scott saw his wife in distress. He sat up to join her. “You don't look all right.” He put his arms around her. “Tell me what's wrong.”

But she couldn't. Her fear too real; it made her mouth dry. Instead she buried her face in his chest. They fell back onto the bed. It was a long time before she fell asleep.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Aggie stood in the courtyard, her bonnet on to block the sunshine which would become bright in the next hour. She supervised her men load their gear into their wagon. Murdoch walked up to her. She turned to him.

“I wish you wouldn't leave so soon, Aggie,” he voiced. They'd just finished breakfast, the day was in its infancy; the sun barely up.

“I know, Murdoch, but it's time. Your ranch is won, and mine needs my attention. Pardee won't be back for a while at least. It's time things return to normal.”

But he wasn't ready for them to return to normal. He remembered his thoughts before the battle. “I'd like to talk to you before you go.”

Aggie nodded and he led her through the hacienda to the quiet of Teresa's garden. It was quite cool in the shade. He offered her his jacket; she accepted.

“Before the battle, Aggie, when you and I were together behind the wall, I was thinking...”

Aggie looked up expectantly. “Yes?”

“...about....,” he kicked a small rock. Dammit, he cursed to himself. Get it said, man!

Aggie waited patiently, saying nothing.

“...well, I was wondering...ifyouwouldn'tmindifIwastocallonyou.” The words came out in a rush. He mentally kicked himself for acting like a schoolboy.

“What?” Aggie asked. “I didn't understand what you said.”

Oh, sweet Lord, Murdoch thought. I'm going to have to say it again. He drew a breath, turned to face her and gazed into her eyes, drawing strength from her earthy brown orbs. “We've been friends a long time, Aggie. And, well, I was thinking that...” he deliberately slowed down. “Would you mind if I was to call on you?” There it was out. He refrained from blowing out all his breath.

Aggie beamed. “Why, Murdoch Lancer! I'd be delighted.”

Murdoch grinned like a monkey. “Thank you. I will.” He put his arm around her waist and drew a deep breath, expelling it happily.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott rested his arms on the rail of Barranca's stall. His brother had left. Ran off without saying a word. He didn't understand it. He thought they had something together, a bond, a friendship that went beyond brotherhood. But a true friend, a bonded brother, wouldn't just run away like Johnny had. No, he should have given Scott the common courtesy of talking to him first.

Yes, Scott was angry. Angry at his brother. At first he denied Johnny's leaving. He searched the house and the barn, not believing until this morning when there was still no Johnny at the hacienda, no Barranca in the barn.

He tried to think of why Johnny would leave and drew a blank. Could he have gone after Pardee alone? Maybe, but did Johnny even know the snake had escaped? He didn't know himself until well after the smoke had cleared, until he'd investigated all of the wounded, all of the dead.

He tried to remember the events after the battle, when they tended the wounded, secured the men who surrendered, gathered the dead, corralled the horses. He hadn't seen Johnny at all. The last he saw of his brother was him fighting from the open barn door, behind a hay bale, firing with his revolver.

No, Johnny couldn't have known Pardee was alive, unless...unless he saw him escape. But in the confusion of the battle, could Johnny have even recognized Pardee, been watching him all the time, notice his escape? Unlikely. Like all battles, it had been too chaotic to keep track of one man the entire time. And with what he saw of his brother fighting, Johnny had been concentrating on shooting the outlaws, not looking for Pardee.

So, where had he gone, and, more importantly, why? Why had his brother left him? Scott's anger returned, unable to make sense of it all.

Scott heard the barn door open and watched Cipriano enter. He smiled thinly. “Morning, Cipriano,” he greeted, although he didn't feel like being pleasant at all.

Cipriano nodded to Scott. “ Buenos días, Señor Scott. Are you thinking of Johnny Madrid?”

Scott startled. How could the man be so perceptive? He regained his composure quickly though. “Yes,” he answered. “I was.”

The segundo nodded. “I thought as much. This was the stall of his palomino.”

Scott nodded absently. Of course. He gazed into the empty recess. The hay still held Barranca's hoofprints.

“The young gunfighter, he is gone, is he not?”

“He left yesterday. Right after the fight, apparently.”

The older man touched his chin. “I thought as much.”

Scott turned to him. “Did you see him leave?”

“No, Señor, I did not,” he shook his head.


“How do I know?” Cipriano smiled, but it was a sad smile. “It is the way of the gunfighter, Señor . You would not know, coming from the East, but when the fight is over, the gunfighter, he has to go. His job is done.”

“But Johnny is more...” Scott paused. Cipriano didn't know Johnny was his brother and he wasn't sure Murdoch would approve of him spreading that news. Nor was he sure Johnny would like it either. “I thought he was my friend,” he finished lamely.

Cipriano nodded. “ Si , it did appear that way, but el pistolero , Señor , he has no true friends. It is a lonely life.”

Chapter Thirty-Seven: The Partnership

Lancer returned to business as usual, but with an extra guard or two. No one questioned it, they all just figured Murdoch was a little gunshy. They didn't know Pardee had escaped.

For better or worse, Murdoch decided that Lancer shouldn't tell anyone else about Pardee. He didn't lie, but no one asked if the man was dead. For all he knew, Pardee could have sustained a life-threatening injury and have gone off and died on his own. He didn't believe that's what happened, but it was possible.

Scott, Abby, Aggie and Sam all agreed to keep quiet on the subject, but Murdoch did let one other person in on it: Cipriano. He thought his segundo needed to be aware of the possibility of a threat, but he ordered the man not to spread the news around.

With word out that the land pirates were defeated, many of its hands returned as well. They apologized for leaving and asked for their old jobs back. Murdoch, who understood why they'd jumped ship, easily hired them back on. They and their families moved back onto the hacienda property, going back to work quickly. Within days Lancer was running two crews with hopes of a third when more men came back.

Without the imminent threat of Pardee and his men looming over Lancer, the atmosphere on the ranch felt decidedly less stressful, less tense and more free and, at least for Scott and Abby, more exciting. Now they could really see how beautiful Lancer was. They took long rides together, sometimes with Murdoch or another hand to be their guide, and began to enjoy the delights of the western San Joaquin valley.

They enjoyed riding through the lavender which grew wild on the rolling hillsides, turning the entire ground purple with its blooms; its scent lingered on their boots and horses long after they came into contact with it. They awed at the stunning golden California poppy, a native plant, which seemed to pop out anywhere, bringing a burst of unexpected color amid the lush greens of the valley. The texture of the ranch's landscape was breathtaking, from crooked oak limbs to contrast the smoothness of the rolling hills. The jagged skyline of the mountaintops added an extra layer of interest to the scenery, and provided the perfect backdrop to the expansive ranch. Lancer Ranch was a most beautiful place. And it was now their home.

While delighted with the beauty of his new home, Scott couldn't help feel abandoned by Johnny. His anger subsided, to be replaced with plans of somehow finding him again, and if so, making some sort of arrangements for his brother to return. He was sure that if he could get Johnny back at Lancer, that he could make it all work out. He did not like losing his brother.

But Johnny had disappeared. In all his riding around the ranch, he found no evidence his brother was still on the property. Of course, Lancer was a huge place and Scott had not even explored a tenth of it.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

That first Saturday after the battle with Pardee, Murdoch came down to breakfast in his Sunday best, a dark suit and ribbon tie. “Well, don't you look nice!” Abby complimented.

“Thank you,” he replied, his face sober. “I think all of you should dress. We are going to Green River today. It's time we signed that partnership agreement.” He nodded to Scott then smiled to the group. “And, while you're at it, pack an overnight bag; we may as well spend the night rather than go back again tomorrow for church services.”

Scott smiled at Abby, who nodded. “Yes, Sir,” he said, rising.

Teresa and Selena looked at each other excitedly. They were going to town! And spend the night in the hotel! Green River was far more sophisticated than tiny Morro Coyo and the girls squealed with delight. They quickly excused themselves and ran up the staircase, into Teresa's room to put together their plans for the visit. They forgot the rest of their meal.

Murdoch chuckled at the girls' antics. Their youthfulness, energy and excitement amused him. Abby laughed, too. She rose to go to their room to ready for the trip. This was no ordinary trip to town.

Abby pulled out her newest dress, purchased just weeks prior to leaving Boston. It sported the latest in fashion: a white bodice with a vibrant green jacket tailored like a man's with lapels and narrow three-quarter sleeves. The skirt flowed from the waist, with only the smallest of bustles in the same green fabric as the jacket. Her hat was high and narrow, with netting arranged to form a ruffle. It tied with a bow at her neck to resemble a man's cravat. She'd never worn it, but today was the occasion. She lay the garment on the bed while she packed suitable outfits for both her and Scott for church tomorrow.

Murdoch drove Lancer's black surrey for Abby and the girls; Scott rode on Abby's side of the vehicle on his chestnut, Rienzi. Scott, too, dressed in his dark grey suit, but adopted the Western style ribbon tie rather than the Eastern four-in-hand or cravat he would have worn in Boston. Teresa and Selena chatted endlessly in the back seat. The weather cooperated: sunny and with a cool breeze; it would warm up during the day.

Green River was a longer trip than Morro Coyo by about an hour and since the Conway ranch was on the way, they stopped at Aggie's ranch. She was waiting with her own buggy to accompany them. Murdoch slid out of the surrey and took up Aggie's reins, riding the rest of the way with her. Scott took Murdoch's place, driving the surrey and leaving Rienzi in the Conway barn.

“Big day,” Aggie remarked to Murdoch as they got underway.

“Yes, it is.” He slapped the reins. The horses began to trot.

Aggie gave him a sideways glance. “You don't sound so confident. Concerned you made the right decision to sign this partnership?”

Aggie could always read him like a book. He didn't answer her; he merely glanced her way.

“I see,” she said. She settled into her seat. “Well, if you want my two cents, Murdoch, I think he'll make a fine rancher. He and that wife of his will be good for you—and Lancer.”

“I hope so,” was all Murdoch said. Scott had done an excellent job saving Lancer, but it remained to be seen how good he could become at ranching.

Over in the surrey, the girls continued their chatter, creating background noise for Scott and Abby's conversation. “Any last thoughts?” she asked

“I don't think I have any,” Scott said after a minute. “I've earned this partnership and even though Pardee isn't dead, he was defeated and that's what's important. And I'm not afraid to learn the business. All of it, including the cows.” He laughed.

“God bless the cows,” Abby laughed.

Dr. Sam Jenkins met them in Green River. He was standing outside the lawyer's office, a white clapboard house with a sign on the front ‘Alexander Ramsey, Attorney-at-Law.'

“Good morning,” Sam greeted, helping the females from the surrey. “Abby, you're looking positively radiant. Green is your color!”

“Thank you, Sam,” she beamed. He escorted her in the house. A woman ushered them all into Ramsey's inner office. Abby was surprised at the lawyer's appearance; he looked to be only a few years older than Scott. She would have thought Murdoch Lancer would have an attorney at least his own age.

Twenty minutes later, after Alex Ramsey had read the document fully, both Murdoch and Scott signed the paper. Sam and Aggie signed as official witnesses. Scott was now a one-third partner at Lancer.

Murdoch had arranged for a celebratory lunch at the Ryder House hotel, Green River's finest. They dined on roast chicken, rice, vegetables and fruit with caramel flan for desert.

The conversation ranged from reviewing Pardee's Last Stand, as Aggie liked to call it, to Abby's new green dress. Aggie surprised everyone by asking Selena if she'd like to live with her. Murdoch endorsed the idea; Selena would be able to finish her education in Green River and be a great help to his long-time friend. The girl reluctantly agreed; she and Teresa had become good friends and she wasn't too willing to part with her yet. When Murdoch suggested the two girls meet frequently—now that the Pardee trouble was over, travel would be safer—Selena nodded enthusiastically.

Abby noticed Scott grow quiet when they discussed the friendship between the girls. She guessed at the cause: while he was happy about owning part of Lancer, Scott missed his brother.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott spent his days learning about Lancer. Murdoch showed him his ledgers and Scott, with his experience with Garrett Enterprises, needed very little time to understand the financials in his new partnership. Soon after, he read all the contracts, learning all of the business obligations Lancer had and the benefits and consequences. Ranching, however, was a different story.

Murdoch assigned him to a crew with Cipriano. The segundo took Scott under his wing, letting him learn at his own pace. He practiced herding and roping. Herding was fairly easy to learn as the horse did most of the work, but throwing that rope so it landed on the cow's head, well, that was a challenge. And both required muscles Scott hadn't used in a long time—if at all. He came home sore and bone tired. Abby would rub him down almost every night after he'd had a long hot bath.

Her days were busy as well. She had been mistress of the Garrett mansion, so she knew much about running a household and the Lancer hacienda was not that different. But Lancer had fewer servants so she did more of the day-to-day chores than she had in Boston. She didn't mind. Working hard gave her a satisfaction she enjoyed.

Part of her job was to tend to the families of Lancer. She and Teresa would check on the sick and the injured, bringing broths, salves, healing herbs and bandages as necessary. She also tended to their emotional state as well, visiting briefly with the wives and children of Lancer's caballeros to get to know them and to allow them to know her as well.

Murdoch was already beginning to feel more comfortable with Scott owning part of Lancer than he was at the partnership signing. At that very first meeting with Scott he had made it clear why he was there: to rid Lancer of Pardee, but now with that threat no longer loomed, he began to see more to Scott that his military abilities. He began to learn what else he brought to the ranch. He saw how hard he worked to learn ranching and how much of an asset he would be to the business.

And Murdoch saw the value in Abby as the ranch's mistress as well. She was well-liked and well-respected by his men and their families and she could charm his colleagues and their families, too. She was a tremendous asset to Lancer. Aggie had been right, as she nearly always was.

But Murdoch had not reached the point of valuing Scott or Abby for just themselves; he still saw them in terms of how they could help him, and help Lancer. There was no love, although he liked them and had grown to respect them. He did not see anything wrong with this. For too long now Murdoch had not allowed himself to love anything other than his ranch.

Scott wondered about his relationship with his father, but being so busy learning the ranch, he had neither the time nor the energy to discuss it. He knew he would have to broach the subject once he was more comfortable as a rancher.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

When the next Saturday rolled around and Murdoch mentioned going into Morro Coyo for supplies, Scott was ready for the break. Abby announced she wanted to get some fabric to make different curtains for their room. Teresa needed more yarn; she was knitting a scarf for Selena. Murdoch drove Teresa in the buggy. Scott and Abby both rode their horses. Ben and Paco followed driving the wagon for the supplies.

Morro Coyo was rebuilding. The burned-out homes and businesses were coming back to life as those not harmed pitched in to help those who were less fortunate. The injured girls were recovering, too, but not as quickly. Their damage was longer lasting and more devastating. Most of them stayed inside, rarely venturing out in public.

Abby and Teresa went into Baldemero's store to get their things. Murdoch and Scott went to Lopez Supply where Murdoch placed his order. Lopez was one of those who's home was burned, so Murdoch did not haggle over the prices.

Murdoch noticed Sam's buggy outside a home. Leaving Scott to supervise Ben and Paco load the wagon, he walked to the vehicle and waited for the doctor. “Care for cup of coffee?” he asked when Sam emerged.

“Love one,” the doctor answered. The two of them walked to the hotel. Seated at their table, Sam pulled an thin envelope out of his bag. “This is for you,” he said, presenting the paper to Murdoch. It was a telegram.

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Johnny

When Johnny left Lancer after the battle, he had no clear destination in mind. All he knew was that it was time to go, to get away, away from ‘respectable' people and back to his world.

In the past, after a range war, he would leave the area quickly and hole up in a saloon of a favorite town, looking for his next job or, if injured, find a friendly doctor if one was available, and traveling whenever possible. But here, the closest town, Morro Coyo, was too Lancer-friendly, too much involved in Pardee's fight, to make that his destination. Green River, farther away, was somewhat removed, but not far enough. And neither were the kind of town where he felt comfortable plying his trade.

So, instead, he took to the range, riding away from Lancer, but not really noticing the direction. He wanted to avoid the two towns so he stayed off any path or road, but his pace wasn't fast enough to reach anything by dusk.

Johnny camped out that first night not far from the hacienda, maybe three or four miles. He lay on his bedroll, propped up by his saddle and gazed at the stars. He pulled the blanket over; he was chilled, and for yet another time that night, cursed himself for not building a fire. But he hadn't wanted to be seen, and a cold camp was the best way to ensure privacy.

Barranca was staked out a few feet away; he could hear the horse's soft footsteps as he settled. “Sorry, amigo ,” Johnny said to the horse. “No warm stall for you tonight. Not for a long time either. It will be rough for a while. I hope you don't mind.” The palomino snorted in answer and shook his head as if disagreeing.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Breaking camp in the morning was easy. No fire to put out, no ashes to spread. He just fed Barranca, ate his own jerky breakfast, picked up his gear and saddled the horse. He was ready to ride as the sun came up.

Johnny couldn't help thinking of where he'd been twenty-four hours earlier. Then he'd been anticipating a battle, unknowing if he'd come out safe or not. He was fairly sure of what the outcome would be, but still, there was an element of the unknown. It had been an exciting time.

Now, however, there was no expectancy, just a big nothingness. He felt let down, by both the events and...what? He couldn't quite put his finger on it. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and clicked to Barranca; they headed out.

Johnny rode absently, again with no clear direction in mind. The sun warmed the air and made for a most enjoyable morning. He enjoyed the singing of the birds and they fragrance of the Spring flowers in bloom. At midday, he stopped Barranca for a drink in a creek.

He walked the horse through the tall grass toward the water, hidden behind rocks and a twisted oak trees. Was this Hidden Creek? He'd heard Murdoch Lancer talk about it, but he couldn't remember what he said. Johnny shrugged; it didn't matter. But before he reached the babbling brook, he stopped Barranca short. The horse tossed his head in protest, but Johnny soothed him, stroking his neck. He listened intently.

He'd heard a sound, one not found in nature. Concentrating, he thought it could be a man's voice, but he couldn't quite make it out; the sound of the fast-running water interfered. Johnny slid out of his saddle and automatically loosened his Colt. Ground-tying Barranca, he eased his way toward the sound.

He heard it again. It was a man's voice. Talking to... someone else? To himself? He couldn't tell. Moving silently, he stepped through the grass edging closer to the sound, taking care not to trip or stumble. He was nearly parallel to the creek now and its bubblings along its path would have been soothing if not for the possible danger. He knew he was still on Lancer land. It could be one of their hands, or even Scott. But it could also be a threat. He had to be careful.

Johnny crept closer. He caught a glimpse of a man's arm from behind the trees. Johnny froze, using a tree for cover. He listened again. The man was talking to another man, he was now sure. He was able to distinguish two separate voices, but he couldn't recognize either. Needing to be closer still, Johnny stole to the next tree.

Johnny moved stealthily from tree to tree, a few more yards, until he was able to see the face of one of the men. Johnny started, throwing himself around, with his back to his tree. It was one of Pardee's outlaws. Johnny was close enough now to hear the voices better. He concentrated. Within a few minutes he was rewarded, but he didn't smile. Instead he ground his teeth in grim realization. The other man was Day Pardee. Somehow Pardee had survived the battle with Lancer and escaped. Johnny was stunned.

His breath came fast, in small pants. Pardee was alive. This meant Lancer was still threatened. Did they know? Of course, by now they would have done a body count, investigated the wounded. They had to know. Would they be on the alert? Maybe. Maybe they considered Day no longer a problem with his crew decimated, but Johnny knew better. He may not be able to raid Lancer, but Day was still trouble. Big trouble. Scott was in danger. Johnny had to hang around; leaving the San Joaquin was out of the question.

Johnny remained still, his back to that tree, for a few more minutes, listening. He could not make out the words, but it seemed to him Day was trying to round up his surviving men. There couldn't be more than three or four, Johnny estimated, given the level of destruction yesterday at the hacienda. But still, that was enough for a guerilla war. A war of terror. And that kind of war Day Pardee excelled at.

Deciding it was time to go, Johnny left the protection of his tree and made his way quietly back to Barranca. The horse needed water and he didn't want to risk the palomino making his way to the creek alone, causing any commotion which may raise the alert of the two bandits. He breathed a sigh of relief at finding Barranca where he'd left him, then headed downstream, away from the men, to care for the needs of his horse.

He found a spot where he was safely away, yet because of the bend in the creek, could see if either Pardee or his companion left the cover of the lushness near the water for higher ground, at least heading East. If they went in the direction of the mountains, well, he would have to play catch up to find them.

Barranca finished drinking and Johnny ate his jerky. He was still hungry, but that would have to suffice; he had work to do. He would follow Pardee and the other man, assuming they stayed together, until he could find a way to eliminate either. If they split up, he'd have to chose one. But he sincerely hoped they'd stay together long enough to discover where they made camp. Knowing where they'd stay would make it infinitely easier to keep track of them.

He saw both of them ride off up the hill, but maintaining a roughly parallel course to the creek, heading North. This was good. It allowed him to follow in the shadows of the trees around the water and stay out of sight, just like he'd done when following the stage all those days ago and come across the bandits trying to rob it.

He followed them for another two hours until they turned East, riding for a few more miles. Johnny recognized the area. They were near the Briar Creek line shack, where he and Scott had found Abby. Day's original hideout must be nearby. Johnny urged Barranca faster so he could get closer. He didn't want to lose them now.

Pardee and his companion rode around trees, bushes and rocks, winding away from the line shack on Briar Creek, up into the hills. Johnny followed discretely, not wanting to be seen. It was hard work and required precise timing. From time to time, he stopped and turned Barranca away, taking cover behind some large rocks or a copse of trees, in case Day's sixth sense was working and he felt someone tailing him.

But Pardee made no movements that he was aware of Johnny's presence, which made Johnny even more wary; Day rarely was surprised. He'd learned that the hard way. His senses were on high alert and he noticed everything, including the fact that Day continued not to feel someone in the area.

The two men disappeared into what looked like a crevice in the rocks, a path leading inside. Johnny stopped Barranca and tied him off to a tree, hiding him in a nearby grove. He slipped his Winchester from its boot and followed on foot.

He surveyed the rocks and decided they were climbable, which he preferred to following Day into that crevice where anyone could be waiting for him when he emerged. He scampered up to the summit quickly and quietly, careful not to dislodge any pebbles which may alert someone to his presence.

Luck was on his side and he reached the top without incident. Johnny peered over the edge. Inside was a beautiful box canyon; a perfect hideout complete with its own water source—a small pond which disappeared into the rocks—trees and plenty of grass for the animals.

He saw evidence of a large camp, with several fire pits, and even a hastily-setup tent. Two horses grazed in the remuda area, Day's and the other man's. There were no other survivors here. The pair must be in the tent, Johnny surmised; he did not see either of them. But that alerted his senses as well; they may not be in the tent and may be looking for him instead.

He waited; watching, listening, looking for signals. He was soon rewarded by the other man emerging from the tent. Johnny sighed half a sigh in relief. But where was Day? The man could strike like snake. Until he located him, Johnny wouldn't feel safe, even up where he was.

Finally, he saw the tent flap move and Day came out as well. The two of them prepared to light a fire. This was Johnny's signal to scamper back down the boulder and get back to Barranca. He didn't want to be on this rock after sundown; getting down would be murder in the dark.

Johnny and Barranca spent the night in the Briar Creek line shack. It was much as they'd last seen it, but someone from Lancer had cleaned up the mess and the blood and hauled off the bodies. He bedded Barranca down in the lean-to stall next to the shack and gave him a good rubdown and a bucket of feed from Lancer's supply. The horse deserved it all. Inside the shack, Johnny found a larder of food and made himself a feast of beans, bacon and steaming hot coffee.

Awakening at dawn, Johnny tended to his horse before making his own breakfast—more coffee, beans and bacon—and getting himself ready for the day. He had a plan. He would follow Pardee around, keeping an eye on him, to learn his plans. Maybe, just maybe, Day would meet with his boss and he'd find out who was behind all this mess at Lancer. And, if along the way, he managed to kill—accidentally, of course, any of Day's men, well, so much the better.

Each day Johnny arose in the line shack, cleaning up all evidence he'd been there—in case any of Lancer's men stopped by—and followed Day. Pardee located one other of his defeated cronies and the three of them sometimes rode together, sometimes not. It appeared to Johnny that they were scoping Lancer out again, looking for areas where they could strike. Not massive attacks, but individuals, riding alone, or working alone, would be vulnerable.

The next morning he followed one of Day's comrades out of the camp and caught sight of two riders in the rolling hills. He kept an eye on both parties; the two new ones were definitely from Lancer and Johnny didn't want any confrontation between them and the outlaw. But that was not fate's plan. The man saw the riders and began his approach. Johnny pursued him, trying to think of a plan to dispose of the outlaw accidentally again and not alarm the Lancer pair.

As they approached each other, Johnny recognized the couple as Scott and Abby and a flutter of panic hit his heart. He knew the outlaw would want to either take them or kill them; they would be a prime prize for Day.

Johnny hit upon an idea. He cut in front of the outlaw before Scott or Abby saw the man, enticing him to follow him instead. Johnny knew he, too, would be a prize for Day. The man bit. He took off after Johnny, close on his heels.

Johnny headed for cover of trees, making the man's weapon unusable and giving him time to set up his kill. Riding fast, he advanced far enough in front to set a trap. It was tricky as he didn't want to lose his quarry or injure the outlaw's horse but he definitely wanted the man dead, and for it to look like an accident. Stopping Barranca short, he jumped out of the saddle and he strung a wire—scrounged from the line shack—between two trees along the path where a large rock was nearby. If all went well, he could get the man to come running toward him and make him fall, using the rock as a weapon.

Johnny saw him coming and waited, next to Barranca, just beyond the wire. He pretended to be checking out his horse's leg, as if Barranca were hurt. With luck, the man would keep coming, thinking Johnny was easy pickings. It worked. The bandito noticed him and spurred his horse. Johnny pretended not to hear the hoofbeats. He looked up at the last minute with fake panic on his face. The outlaw was laughing as he ran into the wire, falling to the ground with a thud. It stunned him.

That was all Johnny needed. He hurried to the fallen man, grabbed him by the hair and shoulders before the thug realized what was happening and slammed his head against that rock in the grass. Johnny left him there and removed the wire, making it look like the man had merely fallen from his horse and hit his head. Tough luck. Satisfied with a job well done, Johnny cleared from the area and rode back to check on Scott and Abby.

The couple were farther away, still riding together, as if nothing had happened. Good, he thought, they weren't threatened. He wanted to ride to them and warn Scott about Day being around but stopped. Over to the left, out of sight of Scott and Abby, Day Pardee and his other comrade were riding back to their camp. Johnny decided to follow them instead.

He made sure they hadn't seen Scott as he tailed them, then when he saw them headed for the same copse of trees, Johnny knew they'd stumble upon the body. He spurred Barranca on, to get their first. He wanted to see Day's face at losing one-third of his forces.

Pardee discovered the body and stopped, dismounting to investigate. Johnny stifled a snicker as Day cursed his luck and ordered the other man to dispose of the body. Johnny was not surprised to see the raider merely roll his dead associate down a hill into shallow ravine. So much for a proper burial.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

It was another week before Johnny had the opportunity to kill the second outlaw. He and Day were in the camp; Johnny was watching from above. He'd grown to like that position, he used it so often. He couldn't tell what they argued about but from what the man's actions were, it looked like he was leaving Pardee.

Johnny watched him pack up his meager belongings, saddle his horse and mount. He was surprised Day didn't stop him, or kill him for leaving, but Day stayed in his tent, alone.

What Johnny couldn't see was Pardee was drunk; drunk on his ass, having taken to the bottle since early morning. He'd taken that day to feel sorry for himself and when his colleague had seen him incapacitated, the thug argued with him before deciding this was a losing proposition for him and he was leaving.

Johnny scrambled down the rock and ran to Barranca. With Day's follower leaving, he had no reason to make this kill look accidental, but he did need to make it look as if the outlaw did indeed left. He would tail him and when the opportunity was right, kill him outright. The only problem was what to do with the horse. He didn't want Day stumbling upon the man's horse.

Johnny followed Day's colleague from a safe distance. He was heading South, but avoiding all contact with other people. Johnny chuckled. Of course he would. The last thing he'd want was to get caught and put on trial. When he was sufficiently away from the hideout, Johnny spurred Barranca. His intent was to catch up with the fleeing outlaw and surprise him.

The bandito heard Barranca's approaching hoofprints, stopped his horse and turned around. Too late. Johnny had his Colt out and fired, once. The man fell to the ground, a large red stain growing on his chest. Johnny caught up with the body and watched him die, taking just a few last ragged breaths before his eyes went dark.

Hefting the dead man's body onto the other horse, Johnny turned Barranca toward the mountains. His plan was to dispose of the body among the rocky outcrops in the foothills and cover it with rocks. He'd leave the tack there as well and set the horse free.

Johnny chose a remote place where the body and his gear were unlikely to be found by humans. If los gatos grandes got him, he didn't care. But they probably wouldn't; the mountain lions prefered live food. Now, los busardos, those scavengers would eat anything but this man would probably make them throw it back up. Johnny chuckled at that though: buzzards vomiting. Was it even possible?

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

A couple of days later, Johnny guessed it was Saturday, given the way Lancer's cowboys worked—he saw a crew mending a fence and, boy, they were in a hurry. Johnny knew crews worked a short day on Saturday to give them the night off in town. Lancer's men wanted to get done even faster.

He followed Day out of his hideout. He hoped the man would lead him somewhere relevant, so Johnny was careful not to lose him, or be seen. It was tricky. If he got too close, Day would know about it. If he followed from too far away, he could lose Pardee in all the hills and trees.

They were riding southeast, in the general direction of Morro Coyo. Johnny's hopes rose; perhaps he was going to see his boss. Johnny had always believed that the man who had hired Day was watching things from a safe location, like in Morro Coyo or Green River.

Johnny crested a ridge and saw the road from Lancer going to Morro Coyo and he knew he'd guessed right, at least about Pardee's destination, unless the man suddenly took a curve. Which was possible; this was Day Pardee after all. But Johnny had gotten to know the man in his surveillance of late and somehow just knew today was a special day.

Johnny headed down the hill but stopped suddenly, veering off to the left into a grove of wild oaks. Someone was coming down the road from Lancer. It was a buggy, a rider and a wagon, but Johnny couldn't make out who. He had a good idea, though. He glanced toward Pardee, but didn't see the man. It could be the trees prevented him from seeing the outlaw. He waited. A few seconds later, he saw Day gallop fast toward the East, away from Morro Coyo.

This surprised Johnny; Day was never one to run from a situation. But since his goal was to find out what the man was up to, Johnny set off after Pardee, forgetting about the Lancer party.

Johnny followed Pardee at a rather fast clip; the man was almost racing. Over hills, around rocks, through fields of golden poppy, the man never let up. Johnny lost sight of him once or twice but was relieved to see him again, farther up ahead. The road to Green River from Morro Coyo loomed ahead and he saw Day ride parallel to it.

Now he was sure Pardee was meeting his boss. Why else would he head so quickly toward Green River? Johnny quickened his pace again, spurring Barranca to an even faster clip. He followed the path Day took, on the other side of some hills from the road.

Johnny and Barranca entered a broad valley filled with tall grasses, lavender and poppy. He pulled his horse up shortly, surprised at what he saw, or didn't see. No Pardee. Where was the man? He should be seeing him near the end of this valley, still heading toward Green River.

Had Pardee sensed Johnny was after him? He'd been careful, but less so since Pardee's run toward the town. Could be he was hiding. Or, maybe there was a gap in the hills he wasn't seeing from his angle that Pardee could have slipped into. He moved forward, slower now, looking for places for Day to hide or disappear into.

Chapter Thirty-Nine: The Telegram

Murdoch glanced at the envelope then at Sam. “What's in it?”

Sam shrugged. “I didn't open it. I only agreed to deliver it.”

The waitress came over. Sam ordered two coffees while Murdoch looked at the blank envelope. “Aren't you going to open it?” Sam asked when the woman left.

Murdoch hesitated. “Telegrams usually mean bad news.”

“Don't tell me you're afraid of a piece of paper?” Sam teased.

Murdoch laughed. “No, I guess I'm not.” He tore open the envelope and scanned the brief message. His jaw dropped. “My God!” he breathed. The telegram fell to the table.

“What's wrong?” Sam looked at his friend, who had turned ashen.

Murdoch didn't answer. He only shook his head.

Sam grabbed the telegram and read it himself:

Re: Inquiry Johnny Madrid and John Reyes Lancer STOP

Preliminary findings indicate Madrid and Lancer are same STOP Further investigation necessary STOP Report to follow by courier STOP

Pinkerton Agency San Diego END

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Well, well, well,” Sam mused, replacing the telegram on the table.

The waitress brought their coffees. “Are you all right, Mr. Lancer? You look like you just seen a ghost.”

Murdoch stared at the cup, unresponsive. Sam nudged him. He glanced up at the woman and smiled absently. “I'm fine, thank you,” he murmured.

“Okay,” she said, not believing it for a minute. She returned to her duties.

Sam waited for his friend. He stirred his coffee. He thought about saying ‘I told you so' but didn't. So many people had tried to tell Murdoch this—Scott, Maria, himself—and yet Murdoch denied it. Well, now it was in black and white, preliminarily at least.

“I can't believe it,” Murdoch finally said. He reread the telegram, hoping it would magically say something different.

“He does look like his mother,” Sam said. “Didn't you say Maria recognized him right off?”

Murdoch nodded. “Yes, and I dismissed it. He just couldn't be. Of all the people for him to be, a gunfighter! You know how I feel about them.”

Sam sipped his coffee. “I think you'll need to put aside your prejudice now.”

“No. It isn't prejudice. I've seen gunfighters. Pardee was one. You saw the kind of things he did. I can only imagine the things Madrid did.”

“You son,” Sam corrected.

“My son,” Murdoch repeated. He drew a deep breath. “What will people think? I have friends in high places—Senator Casserly, and the Governor, for God's sake! What will he think when he learns of this?” Murdoch tapped the telegram.

Sam put down his cup. “Murdoch, you are not responsible for what your son became. They will understand that. They know Maria left you and took Johnny. For that matter, everyone will understand. They may not accept Madrid as part of this community yet, but they will all realize that you had nothing to do with his choosing a gunfighter's life.”

“Choosing is right. My son, my little Johnny...he chose to be a killer.” He shook his head.

Sam leaned in, tapping Murdoch on the arm. “Maybe, Murdoch, he didn't have that much of a choice. Maria died when he was still young, didn't she? He was what, ten or twelve?”

“Ten, the last report on her said.”

“Ten,” Sam repeated. “What kind of a life would a ten-year-old have on his own on the border? Maybe he saw gunfighting as the only way to survive. You don't know. Don't assume it's because he has some innate desire to kill.”

Murdoch only shook his head. Sam went on. “You saw him do good things here, didn't you? He helped Scott—for free! He helped you, too, even though you didn't want it. Did he ever make any threats against you or anyone at Lancer?”

Murdoch looked directly at Sam. “He told me he wanted to kill me.”

Sam sat back in his seat. “He had plenty of chances, didn't he? The fact that he helped you save Lancer instead speaks volumes toward his character.” He leaned forward again. “Murdoch, I'm the one who warned you about him at first. And I feel really bad I let my imagination run away with me. He's been nothing but good for you, for Lancer and for Scott.”

“He's killed people. I saw him gun down a man in Los Angeles, at the Cattlemen's Convention there a few years ago. Hershaw was just providing security for Cale Dawson—you know the Dawson spread, south of Visalia?—and Madrid called Hershaw out. I swear he looked cold-blooded staring down at the man as he died in the street. Then he tossed a coin and turned away.”

A gunfighter calling someone out wasn't shocking. “We don't know his reasons, Murdoch. He probably was on a job.”

“Yes, as a hired killer! “ Murdoch slammed down his coffee cup, spilling some over the side. “That's the kind of man my son is.” He put his head in his hands, closed his eyes and shook his head. “I'll never get him back. Johnny is lost to me. He's as good as dead.”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “Now you don't mean that, Murdoch. I believe there is still plenty of Johnny Lancer in Johnny Madrid. He turned Pardee down, he helped you, helped Scott. Dang it, Murdoch, he even saved the De Salvo girl. Now those aren't the actions of a ‘lost' man or a killer.”

Murdoch stared at his coffee and the beads of liquid he'd spilled on the table. They were consolidating, forming larger puddles. “Sam, I am a well-respected man. I cannot have a son with his reputation. I just can't.”

“So, you're gonna ignore your son because he's become something that might—might, mind you—look bad for you? You're bigger than this, Murdoch.”

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott strode into the hotel cafe, removing his gloves. “There you are!” he said to the pair at the table. “The wagon's all loaded and the ladies are finished. You'll never believe what it took to get Teresa out of Baldemero's.” He stopped, noticing the somber mood at the table. “Something wrong?” he asked.

Murdoch grabbed the telegram and stuffed it in his pocket, but not before Scott noticed what it was.

“Hiding things from your partner already, Sir?” he asked suspiciously. He pulled out a chair and sat down with them, slapping his gloves down on the table.

Sam saw the change in Scott and backed off. This was between these two. “Well, I have patients to see.” He pulled a coin out of his pocket. “Goodbye.” He walked out of the hotel and stretched his back on the boardwalk.

“Well?” Scott asked again. His jovial mood gone. “What was in that telegram?”

“Nothing.” Murdoch wiped up his coffee spill. “We should go.” He pushed his chair out as if to leave.

Scott grasped Murdoch's hand, stopping him. “It didn't look like ‘nothing' to me.”

Murdoch's head snapped up, his face hard. “Don't take that tone of voice with me.” He shook his hand free.

“I won't, when you decide to be honest with me.”

Murdoch glared at his son. Scott's face showed anger, but it was controlled. He sat back. “Well, if you must know it was about your...Johnny Madrid.”

“Johnny?” Scott grew concerned. “Is he in trouble? Does he need my help?”

“No, no. It isn't like that.” Murdoch hesitated. “Several days before the last fight with Pardee, I asked Sam to send a telegram to the Pinkertons in San Diego.”


“Johnny Madrid.”

Scott waited, but Murdoch didn't continue. “And?”

“And his claim to be my son. My Johnny.” Murdoch blew out a breath.

Scott leaned back, guessing the truth. It was all clear now. “And they confirmed what he told us.”

“They need to check it out some more, but....” He avoided looking at Scott.

Scott shrugged. “They'll come to the same conclusion.”

Murdoch glanced at Scott. “You are certain.”

“Yes. Johnny is my brother. I've accepted that. And your son.” He waited. “So what are you going to do about it?”

“Do? Why, nothing.”

Scott's eyebrow flew up. “Nothing? He's your son. Don't you want him here with you? Or would you prefer he continue living his dangerous life?”

Murdoch leaned forward. “He cannot live here. He would ruin me, ruin us. Why, his reputation alone is... You don't know it, Scott. You haven't heard the tales of Johnny Madrid.”

Scott smiled. “And ‘tales' is the operative word there, Sir. I'm sure most of them are lies or at the very least, exaggerations.”

“I saw him kill a man once, Scott. Me. Saw him call out a man for no reason. And kill him. Why, the man never even got his gun up. Then I watched as he walked calmly to the bleeding man and watched him die. Right there in the street. And without so much as a word, tossed a coin for his burial and walked away. He was cold, calculated. And that's no exaggeration.”

Scott swallowed hard. “I'm sure he had a reason,” he choked out when he found his voice.

Murdoch looked away, saying nothing. Scott continued, his voice stronger now. “The man I know is a decent, honest man. Yes, he's dangerous. Yes, he can kill without seemingly being remorseful. But so have I.”

“You were a soldier, in a war,” Murdoch pleaded. “You can't compare the two.”

“Can't I? We both are warriors. I wore a uniform and Johnny doesn't. That doesn't make a difference. He's a soldier of fortune, but I got paid as well.”

“You fought for a cause.”

“Yes, and a good one. But that's not to say that Johnny may also fight for a cause as well. He recently fought to save Lancer. Was that not a just cause?”

Murdoch again looked away. “That's not the point.”

“Then what is?”

“You don't understand,” Murdoch finally said.

Scott leaned forward. “It's all about you, isn't it? You and the ranch. You said it yourself that first day. Why, I wouldn't be here if you hadn't needed me, needed my expertise, would I? Johnny brings much of the same, but he's so tainted, so dirty, so contaminated by being a gunfighter that you don't want him to get too close. You're afraid he'll sully your reputation. And that means more to you than he does, and more than I do.” He pushed his chair back, knocking it over.

Murdoch rose. “No, Scott. Don't go.”

“I believe my wife wants me,” Scott said dully. He grabbed his gloves and stalked out of the hotel.

Murdoch sat there a few minutes with his eyes closed. When did this get so difficult? He was still pondering the answer when he heard a voice in the street.

“Scott Lancer!” Day Pardee yelled. “I'm callin' you out!”

Chapter Forty: Called Out

Murdoch gasped. He backed away from the table so fast he knocked his chair over. He left it down. Not bothering to pay for his own coffee, he ran to the cafe front as fast as his gimp leg allowed. He threw open the door and stepped onto the boardwalk. What he saw chilled him to his bones.

Pardee stood in the middle of the street, his feet apart, his back to the sun, smiling wickedly at Scott. His mouth partially open, his smile showing only the faint hint of teeth. His eyes, though, were deadly cold. Black and lifeless.

He saw Scott, still on the boardwalk, staring at his adversary, stunned surprise on his face.

“No, no...” Murdoch mumbled. “Not Scott!”

Murdoch felt he had to do something, even though he knew it was useless. There was nothing he could do. Gunfighting was legal, even in broad daylight in the center of the street, and if Scott accepted the challenge, Pardee would kill him. The man was too good.

And while Scott had a small chance, his expertise was with a rifle, not a handgun. He didn't even recall ever seeing Scott fire that Colt, let alone draw it fast.

If his son didn't accept Pardee's call, he would get a reputation for being a coward, at least among some of the townspeople. Could Scott live with that? Could he?

Murdoch glanced around frantically, looking for someone— anyone —who could help. The pickings were slim.

Sam had stopped his buggy on his way out of town, shock on his face, too. He awaited the outcome; his hand on his bag.

Baldemero stood in his doorway slowly shaking his head. He made the sign of the cross over his chest.

Ben held Abby by her horse, a look of horror on her face, trying to keep her out of the way. Paco waited by the wagon, he too, looked shocked.

Other townspeople scattered behind doors and into alleyways, afraid to get involved, not wanting to be hit by a stray shot, but he knew they were watching. Waiting. Waiting just like him.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Well, Scott Lancer?” Pardee taunted. “Are you man enough to face me?”

“It's hardly a fair fight,” Scott yelled back.

Out of the corner of his eyes Scott saw people scramble to hide, trying to get out of the way. He fixed his stare on Pardee, though, not daring to look away.

Pardee shrugged. “Seems fair to me.” He flexed the fingers of his right hand.

“You know what I mean.”

Scott was stalling for time and he knew it. He hoped for some kind of miracle. Lightning. Lightning would be good. One good sturdy bolt to come down from the Holy Heavens and scare the living daylights out of Day Pardee.

But the sky was blue and cloudless. Only a slight breeze which caught his hair. The Almighty wouldn't be raining down any terror today, not in Morro Coyo, that is.

Pardee smiled broadly, a wicked grin showing off his dingy teeth. “You don't have to dance with me now, Lancer muchacho . You can go home with your rich daddy. I'll find you another day, another time. And maybe get your pretty little wife in the bargain.” He laughed.

Scott swallowed hard. He realized the consequences. If he didn't fight Pardee now the man would hunt him down. At least here the damage could be mitigated. The doctor was here and his wife was safely held at bay. He'd probably die, but no one else would. It would be over.

He wished he had time to talk to Abby. There was much he wanted to say. Their short life together had been filled with love, laughter and understanding. They had anticipated a long future, raising children, seeing grandchildren even. But that wouldn't happen now. He longed for her caress, her kiss, just one last time.

He regretted his argument with Murdoch just seconds ago. How petty it all seemed now! He wanted to glance at his father, to convey his apologies, but didn't dare risk breaking eye contact. Pardee was just ruthless enough to gun him down where he was.

“No! Stop!” Abby broke free of Ben's hold and ran down the street, toward Pardee. Both Paco and Ben lunged after her, dragging her back, out of danger.

Pardee laughed. “So you want your woman to fight for you, Lancer? Do you hide behind her skirts like a cobarde ?”

Scott swallowed again. Abby's plea, though heartfelt, didn't help his situation. He truly had no choice now. He stepped off the boardwalk and into the street.

Chapter Forty-One: The Gunfight

Scott walked slowly to the middle of the street, his heart pounding, his breath ragged. His hands shook even though he desperately tried to still them. He was scared—no, terrified. He'd been in life-or-death situations before, in the war, but this was different. There he was accompanied by his men, and men of other units. He had their comradeship, their unity of purpose, on his side.

Here in this dusty street, he was all alone. He walked to this dance by himself, with nothing other than cold, hard courage making him take step after step.

It seemed to take forever to get to the middle of the street, each footfall seemed as if in slow motion. He saw the dust rising as he put each foot down; it swarmed around his boots in small swirls before settling to be disturbed again.

His heart beat double-time, racing in contrast to his movements; its drumming filled him until he could hear little else. All other sounds seemed to be distant, as if from another place, another time. As did the buildings, the people, their horses; they all faded into a blurry background, as if they were ghosts, calling to him.

Abby sobbed. She broke down against her horse, shielding her face with her arms. Teresa tried to soothe her to no avail.

Murdoch gulped, glancing frantically from Pardee to his son. Pardee smiling, Scott trying to control his emotions. His son would die today. Right in front of his eyes. And he was helpless.

Sam prayed. Prayed for that miracle that Scott hoped for.

No one heard any noise, no birds chirping, no horses neighing, just the soft crunch of Scott Lancer's feet on the dirt.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Just what do you think you're doing, Scott?” came a soft drawl from Scott's left.

Pardee jerked his head and saw Johnny Madrid step out of the shadows onto the boardwalk and continued to the street. “You stay out of this, Madrid.” Day yelled. “This isn't your fight!”

Murdoch breathed a long sigh of relief. Johnny Madrid was here. Madrid with his blinding fast draw would save his son. Never had he been so happy to see a gunfighter before.

Abby looked up, tears streaming down her face. “Johnny!” she breathed. She smiled. There was hope. He'd always come through for them.

Sam glanced up at the heavens and mouthed ‘thank you' to God. His prayers had been heard.

Scott watched his brother come to meet him. Johnny looked not at him, but at Pardee. “He called me out,” he answered lamely.

“I saw that. But that don't mean you have to be the one to dance.” Johnny said when he reached him. Scott noticed the younger man looked calm, relaxed. He smiled even.

His brother's ease helped Scott to calm a little. “It didn't look like I had a choice. God wasn't sending down any lightning,” he quipped.

Johnny laughed. “Lightning, huh? Maybe He heard you all right.” He took his stance facing Pardee. “You did say my draw was lightning fast.”

Scott gulped. He'd gotten a reprieve, but could not accept it. “You can't do this for me.”

“Watch me.” Johnny's voice was soft and conversational.

“He called me out, I said.”

“Do you wanna die today?”

“No, but...”

“Then get out of the street, Scott. Don't do anything to distract me. Pardee is good. I'll need to focus.” Scott realized for the first time how serious Johnny was despite his smile.

Scott hesitated briefly. While he didn't want to ‘dance' with Pardee himself, he didn't want his brother taking on the job either.

“Go...please,” Johnny asked, softer this time.

Scott nodded grimly. He walked to his father. When he reached the boardwalk, Murdoch grabbed his arm. “You're all right,” he breathed.

“Yes, but will he be?” Scott asked, indicating Johnny with his head.

“He will. He's a professional,” Murdoch answered. Inside, Murdoch hoped he'd be good enough. For Johnny's sake as well as Scott's.

Johnny raised his voice to Pardee, “It's you and me, Day. Scott Lancer would be too easy for you. No pleasure in taking him. Now, me...well, if you take me, you get lots of satisfaction plus a nice, juicy reputation to go with it.”

Day's smile faded briefly then came back full force. “I can do that, Johnny Madrid. I can do that real easy.” He re-settled his feet.

“I just have one question to ask you, Day.”

“What's that, Madrid?”

“What do you want on your tombstone?”

Day gritted his teeth. His eyes flickered and Johnny knew.

The two men drew. Pardee was fast, but Johnny Madrid's gun cleared leather first. Johnny aimed for the man's chest, hitting him slightly to the left, straight through the heart. Pardee's bullet whizzed by Johnny's ear, glancing through his hair. Day Pardee fell backwards with a jerk. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Morro Coyo cheered. The hated Pardee was gone. They came out of the shadows, from behind their hiding places, out to the street. Some raced to Pardee's body. They stood around it, as if afraid to come close. A small Mexican boy wormed his way through the throng and kicked the body. He spat.

Others stared at Johnny Madrid in awe and respect. They dared not approach him. Not that they feared for their lives, but a man like him demanded reverence. Some of them even made the sign of the cross for him, or said a little prayer.

Johnny holstered his Colt. He did not walk to Pardee's body. Instead he grinned at Scott.

Sam took his bag and jogged to the body. He shooed the crowd apart, making way. He knelt, intent on listening for a heartbeat, but when he saw the bloodied wound in the chest, he knew. He felt for a pulse in Pardee's neck, just for protocol. “He's dead,” he pronounced when he stood up. Ruiz, the undertaker, was already there with his helper. They carried the body away.

Scott beamed. He stepped down from the boardwalk and trotted to his brother. “Good job, Johnny!” he greeted.

“Thanks,” Johnny grinned. “Was kinda worried there a little.”

“Were you? It didn't show.”

“Not for me, Scott. For you. Thought you'd start to dance before I could cut in.”

“Well, what took you so long?” Scott teased.

Johnny grinned. He started to reply when Abby ran up. She threw her arms around the gunfighter “Oh, thank goodness, Johnny! Thank you, thank you! I'm so glad you're all right.” She fell into her husband's arms and gazed into his eyes. “I was so distressed! You could have been killed.” She jabbed a finger to his chest. “Don't you ever do that to me again!”

Scott laughed. She was a feisty one, his wife. “I won't,” he promised.

Murdoch was elated. Scott was saved and Johnny seemed unhurt. Sam came up to him. “Well?” he prodded. “Go to him.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don't want to interrupt.” Truth was, he felt awful about the way he'd treated Johnny before in light of him saving Scott like this. He was ashamed.

“Since when has that stopped you?” Sam teased. Murdoch didn't move. Sam tried another tactic. “Don't you remember the old adage, Murdoch: Forgive your enemies. It messes with their heads. This one isn't even your enemy. He's your son .”

Murdoch chuckled in spite of himself. Sam was right. He needed to thank Johnny. He smiled and walked to his sons. Both of them. Resting a hand on Johnny's shoulder, he was gracious. “Thank you, Johnny. You were an answer to all our prayers.”

Taken aback by his father's choice of words and sincere attitude, Johnny was careful not to show it. His face displayed nothing and said nothing. He called me Johnny, not Madrid. This is different.

Sam prodded Murdoch again with an elbow to his ribs. He furrowed his brows to the doctor then turned back to Johnny all smiles again. “You must come back to Lancer and dine with us tonight. It's the least we can do for you.”

“Of course,” Scott beamed, happy that his father was beginning to come around. He looked at his brother. “And you can tell me why you left so abruptly and where you've been all this time.”

Chapter Forty-Two: In the Garden

Johnny rode to Lancer next to Scott, well behind the wagon which carried the supplies. Murdoch and Teresa sat in the buggy in front again, followed by Sam in his buggy; he'd been invited also. Their mood was relaxed and happy.

Teresa talked Murdoch's ear off about the gunfight, praising Scott for his cool and Johnny for his timely assistance. Murdoch didn't even frown when she raved about Johnny's draw. He had wanted to temper her a bit though, but she was so jubilant, so bubbly, he couldn't shut her down. It had been a while since the girl had seemed so happy. And besides, he, too, was in awe of Johnny's speed—his son's speed, he corrected.

Johnny tried to sort out his feelings. He felt relieved to be able to get to Scott in time. By the time he realized that Day had given him the slip and had doubled back to Morro Coyo, he was sure Pardee would try something. He wasn't sure he'd make it in time, even on Barranca. When he got to town, Day had already made his play and Scott was stalling for time.

Johnny's heart had skipped a beat at the sight. It raced, constricting his chest and causing him to breathe faster. He'd been scared for his brother. He had needed a few seconds to prepare himself mentally before retrieving his working Colt and stepping onto the boardwalk.

Now, with it all over, both the fear and his subsequent huge rush of relief came as a surprise to him. He'd gotten to like Scott a lot, admired and respected the man, and felt a special bond with him he'd not felt many times in his life. But he still had not expected to feel such strong emotions at almost losing his brother. Exhilaration came to his mind, intense and nearly overwhelming. He had a hard time controlling it.

His relief was compounded by his confusion about Murdoch. He read meaning into the man's use of his first name and wondered if he should. But his voice —softer than he'd ever used with him — added to the story. And the man even thanked him; he'd never done that before. But what was more, he thanked him for his gun. Given how Murdoch Lancer felt about gunfighters, this was a huge admission. But what did it mean? Did he even want it to mean something? His feelings regarding his father had not changed that much — he still disliked the man — and that had been easy when coupled with Murdoch's attitude, but now...what did he feel now? What did he want to feel?

He was also apprehensive about the questions Scott had asked him. Explaining why he'd left wasn't something he was used to doing. He just did it and everyone expected it. He wasn't sure how to put that in words.

This whole thing had him reeling and Johnny Madrid didn't like that. It was easier, better, to bury any sentiments. Emotions could get you killed. They would distract you and when you lived one second at a time, each one is critical. Focus is an absolute. Without it, you're dead.

Like right now, he realized. They'd traveled at least a mile while he'd done all this thinking and not once had he scanned the horizon for trouble, eyed the boulders for possible enemies, listened for tell-tale noises. You're not gonna live long like this, Johnny-boy. Watch! Look! ¡Estar alerta!

“Something on your mind,” Scott smiled at him.

“Huh?” Johnny questioned back, jerked back into the present.

We —” he waved his finger to indicate the three of them. “—have been talking for half an hour now.”

“Oh, sorry. I was thinking.”

“About what?”

Johnny shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Right,” Scott nodded and looked knowingly at Abby. “

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Dinner was a joyous affair. Maria had fixed her Saturday evening feast: roast beef with roasted potatoes and carrots, served with a thick brown gravy; steamed broccoli with melted butter; a salad made with garden-fresh greens and mango slices; and for desert, warm cherry pie with fresh cream on top.

While Johnny would have preferred Mexican fare, Maria's gringo cooking was excellent. He dug in, eating nearly everything on his plate. He went easy on the broccoli though, never having acquired the taste for the strong vegetable.

Scott and Abby cleaned their plates like good Eastern-bred stock, with Abby taking much smaller portions than her husband. Scott had learned to eat hearty in the West; his workload was far more physical now.

Conversation, of course, focused on the day's events. They rehashed the gunfight with Scott's re-telling of his view. “I had no idea what was going on,” he began. “I didn't realize what he meant by ‘calling me out! It wasn't until I saw people scrambling for cover did it dawn on me what I was expected to do.” He took a bite of his meat.

“I couldn't believe he did that either,” Murdoch said. “I was shocked. And scared.”

“You have no idea,” Scott laughed. “My hands were shaking!”

“We didn't notice, Scott,” Abby smiled. “We were too stunned. You were so brave, darling. Without Johnny, I don't know what would have happened.”

Scott picked up his wine. “I can tell you that: Pardee would have killed me.” He lifted the glass up as a toast and looked across the table at his brother. “But thanks to you and your impeccable timing, I am alive and well.”

Johnny grinned. “Glad to help out, Scott. I don't know about im-peck-a-what timing, though.”

Everyone laughed heartily, except Murdoch. He tried to get into it, but his voice was more restrained than the others.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Sam found Murdoch sitting on a bench in Teresa's herb garden, next to a large rosemary plant which had been trained and pruned to resemble a Joshua tree. The unusual shape provided visual interest and enhanced the earthy fragrance of the herb. Wordlessly, he sat on a white, flat rock, across from the bench which served as a table or extra seating in the grouping.

“You're not joining the party,” Sam opened. Murdoch had left shortly after dinner, leaving the young people in the great room to celebrate the day.

The patriarch didn't answer right away. Murdoch took a draw from his drink, his customary after-dinner Scotch, and sat the glass down on the bench next to him. “Not in the mood, I guess,” he finally said.

“What happened? You seemed elated earlier. And it has been a good day, old friend.”

Murdoch sighed. “I was...I am happy. But it's more complicated than that. You should know.”

Sam nodded his head. “Johnny.”

The breeze rustled the flowers. A cricket sang. “There's that.”

“He's your son.”

Murdoch took another sip. “I know.”


“And what, Sam?” He sat down his glass again and stared at his friend. “Do I just forget what he is, what he's done, what he's capable of doing? How can I, in good conscience, embrace that man as my son?”

Sam smiled. “You just do, that's all.”

Murdoch grunted. “It is not that simple.”

“It can be. What's stopping you?”

“You know very well what.”

Sam cocked his head to the side, questioning, “Your reputation? What happened to Catherine?”

“Yes, yes, and more.”

“So, you're going to let the past govern your—and that boy's—future?”

“He isn't a boy, Sam. Not anymore.”

Sam smiled ruefully. “Okay, so he isn't. He isn't your little boy anymore. He doesn't adore you and follow you around like a lost puppy, doesn't sit on your knee. And yet that's the image you've carried of your Johnny all these years. You never considered that the boy, in fact, was growing up, changing, becoming someone you don't know.”

Murdoch grumbled, but Sam continued. “What's more, as he did grow up, he never came for your advice, never asked for your help with his schooling. You never got to shape that man into what you dreamed he'd be when he was sleeping in a crib. Someone else did. And that's bothering you more than what he became, I think. I think you're angry about it.”

“Why would that be an issue? I never had that with Scott either.”

Sam smiled. “But Scott wasn't yours, ever. Not really. He was gone before you arrived in Carterville. All you were left with were the dreams without any of the reality. Your Johnny was a real live boy, who you got to hold and love and enjoy. You had more of an investment in him than you did in Scott.”

A fountain bubbled a few feet away, drawing Murdoch's attention. Sam continued. “And now accepting the truth, that the infamous Johnny Madrid is who your Johnny grew up to be, it's very hard to take, isn't it?”

Murdoch drew a long breath. “Yes.”

“How do you think he feels?”

Murdoch glanced sharply at Sam. “What do you mean?”

“You said he wanted to kill you. Do you know why?”

Murdoch recalled the heated exchange at the De Salvo place. “Yes, he claimed I kicked Maria—and him—out.”

Sam nodded. “Makes sense,” he mumbled. “Makes a lot of sense.”

“What do you mean?”

“His hatred of you. He blames you for whatever happened to his mother, to him. Because you were here, at this grand rancho, while they were eking out a living, I'd bet. Life couldn't have been too kind to Maria.”

When Murdoch just shook his head, Sam continued. “In fact, I'd bet that's part of the reason he became a gunfighter, to give him the skills to act on that hatred.” Sam chuckled wryly. “Kind of ironic, isn't it? You having help shape him after all.”

Murdoch stared at Sam like he was loco. “I did nothing of that sort!”

“No, but he thinks you did. Isn't that the same thing to him?”

“It is not! It's a lie.”

“And have you tried to straighten that out with him?”

Murdoch grunted again. “No.”

“Sounds like you probably should, you know.”

“Why? It's not like he'll be staying.”

“Oh, that's right.” Sam shook his head in disgust. “Your reputation and all.”

Murdoch said nothing, but stared into the darkness at the unseen fountain. Sam stood and sighed. “You know, I was never blessed with a family but if I had a son—even Johnny Madrid—I wouldn't turn him away.” The doctor stretched his back and walked toward the house. “Goodnight, friend.”

Chapter Forty-Three: The Payoff

Murdoch shuffled down to breakfast. He'd slept late and was mad at himself for it. He felt it was his responsibility to be one of the first ones up each morning. Now, treading down the stairs, he could hear laughter in the kitchen and knew he was among the last.

In fact, he was last. Sitting at the giant kitchen table were Scott and Abby, sharing a plate of eggs; Johnny, blowing on his coffee, obviously not quite awake himself; Maria turning bacon at the stove and Teresa just setting down a plate of fresh, steaming biscuits. Cipriano stood in the corner, his hat in his hand, awaiting the morning orders. The segundo nodded to his boss.

“Well, look who's awake,” Scott grinned. He winked at Abby.

Murdoch tried to combine a smile and a scowl but didn't quite pull either of them off. “Some of those eggs, Teresa, please. And coffee. Lots of coffee.” He pulled out a chair but did not sit. Instead he walked to Cipriano and dispatched the orders, keeping his voice low but well within an aura of authority. The segundo nodded occasionally and when dismissed, quietly left the room to carry out his patron's wishes. Only then did Murdoch sit down to his breakfast.

Teresa had loaded his plate with eggs, bacon and two hot biscuits. His coffee cup was filled with the black, steaming brew. He gathered the cup in his hands, wrapping his fingers around its warmth and blew before taking his first sip.

Teresa was surprised. Usually Murdoch's mood was more cheerful and he ate quickly and heartily. Today, however, he looked sluggish and ate as if he was only doing so to sustain himself. “Are you feeling well, Mr. Lancer?” she asked.

“Fine, Teresa, just fine,” he automatically answered, buttering his biscuit.

Teresa glanced at Scott who shrugged. The girl raised her eyebrows but didn't mention it again. She sat for her own meal.

Johnny hadn't done much eating. On his plate was a half-eaten biscuit, his fork inside his eggs. He concentrated on the coffee. It was good and strong, and he needed it to wake up. After all those days on the line shack cot, that soft bed he slept in last night had been heaven but today he felt as if he'd been dragged out of bed by his horse.

“I think, Sir,” Scott began, “that we should try to find out who hired Pardee and get to the bottom of this.”

Murdoch stabbed his eggs. “No,” he disagreed. “That Pardee business is finished. It's time to get back to running the ranch. We've let so much go these past weeks and now that we have two full crews and more hands returning daily, we need to catch up.”


“No buts, Scott. We may never know and there's no sense in wasting our time and resources when we have little of each right now. We have a ranch to get back going and I intend to do so. Won't be long before we'll be rounding up last year's calves for market.”

“Don't you think they'll try again?” Abby asked.

Murdoch stopped chewing. “I can't dwell on that. If we don't finish our work there won't be a ranch to defend.”

“Well, I for one would like to know if we're going to be threatened again,” Scott said.

“We will, son. Eventually. That's why its important to get back into business. Remain vigilant, but don't stop the ranch.”

Scott nodded. It made sense. A place the size of Lancer would always be a prize. They would always be targets, as long as the West was this lawless.

Johnny sat down his coffee and finished working on his eggs. They were beginning to cool and he'd never enjoyed the taste of cold eggs. He remained silent, not sure of his place and not really wanting to butt in anyway. This food was too good to waste.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch sat at his desk. He concentrated on his ledgers, not liking what he saw. Expenses, except for payroll, were up. Income was down. He'd been right at breakfast, they needed to get back to the business of ranching. Still, there was one expense he yet needed to pay, though he inwardly loathed to do so.

He'd spent much of the previous evening pondering the Johnny issue. Much of what Sam had said was spot-on. If Johnny was his son—and he was fairly convinced of that—he deserved more than what he'd been given so far. But he couldn't in his good conscience allow the gunfighter to remain at Lancer. He simply couldn't get around the man's past.

Now if Johnny had ever expressed any regret, wanted any atonement for his sins, Murdoch knew he would have found a way to open his arms to the young man. But he hadn't. Johnny Madrid was unapologetic for his life. He hadn't bragged about his accomplishments, but neither had he shrunk from them. It was simply the way it was.

And that, Murdoch concluded, was his big barrier. A reformed gunfighter he could handle. A man with a past that he wanted to overcome, yes, he could see himself in that role, shaping that man into becoming more than he had been. But Johnny Madrid had never indicated any such desires, not to him, not even to Scott.

That Johnny Madrid was a different kind of gunfighter was an accepted fact. He'd seen evidence of it. He'd thought about it and decided he didn't hate the man; but he wasn't sure he liked him either. He did know the man was capable of killing ruthlessly, but more importantly, had expressed no desire to change.

And that person simply could not remain at Lancer.

“You wanted to see me, Old Man?” Johnny asked. He stood across the room, half leaning on the back of a chair, his arms crossed over his chest. Murdoch could not read his face; it was expressionless.

“Yes, Madrid. Come here.” Murdoch picked up an envelope he'd prepared late the previous night.

So, we're back to using Madrid again, Johnny thought. He separated himself from the chair and sauntered to Murdoch's desk. His walk was careful, deliberate, yet soft and catlike. If not for the jingle of spurs, Murdoch would not have heard.

Murdoch grabbed the envelope and stood. He gazed at the young man, finally seeing his Maria in Johnny's face. He gulped, but if Johnny noticed, he did not react. “I—” he began. Murdoch frowned. He wasn't used to stumbling around his words. He drew a breath and began again. “I have this for you.” He offered the envelope. “It's—”

“I know what it is, Old Man.” Johnny interrupted. “You want to pay me off. You know who I am, what I am, to you. But you can't stand it. And you can't in good conscience just kick me out again, can you?”

“I didn't kick you out. I loved you and Maria. It devastated me when she left with you. I looked for years. I wanted you both back.”

Johnny laughed. “She left this?” He looked around. “For what she got? I doubt that very much. Unless, well, unless you were the kind to take what you wanted.”

Murdoch glared. “I never, ever hurt her!”

“There must have been something, Old Man. A woman doesn't leave a good home for something unknown out there.”

Murdoch hesitated, unsure of how to explain. “She—she had trouble adapting, Johnny. And I confess, I didn't help her much. I thought she would get used to it here.”

“What do you mean?”

Murdoch turned to face the large window. This was painful for him to share. “She wanted more than Lancer or I could offer. She wanted to be lady of the manor and that's just not how it was in those days.

“There was work, and plenty of it. She preferred—was expecting—to be waited on. And I found out later, much later, that some of the women in Green River were...were unkind to her.”


“Yes, they never came out and insulted her or treated her badly. They knew better than that. But they did little things, like turn their head, stop talking when she walked by. That sort of thing.”

“And you did nothing to stop that?”

“I didn't know about it. Maria never told me. I only found out later. That's part of why I kept looking for her. I wanted to bring her back, to prove to her that she was worthy, that I could be a better husband. But I never found her. Until it was too late.” Murdoch sat down, dejected. “And you were gone, too. But I'd still look. I sent Pinkerton men whenever I could afford it. I looked for years for you. Once, they thought they were close, but...”

Now it made some sense to Johnny. The Pinks had looked for ‘Johnny Lancer', almost found him once, but he made sure they got on the wrong track. Now he knew why. “I'm not sure I believe you, Old Man. She said you didn't want a Mex wife and mestizo kid.”

“Is that what she told you, to your face?”

Johnny hesitated. “Well, no. Not to me. To Esteban. He wanted to know why she had been with Luis and not you.”

“Esteban?” Murdoch reached back into his memory, trying to place the name.

“Diaz. My mother's tio .”

“Ahh,” Murdoch sighed, the name finally ringing a bell. Diaz had been the outcast family relation Maria's father had mentioned long ago. He was a gunman. Murdoch's head snapped up. “You knew Esteban?”

“Of course. He practically raised me after my mother died.”

“I don't see a man with Diaz' reputation taking on a child.”

Johnny grinned. “Well, he didn't at first. He put me with a family on a ranchero. When I was older I ran off to be with him.”

So that's how Johnny became Madrid. It all became clear to Murdoch. “And you followed in his footsteps...” Murdoch let the thought trail. “Any regrets, Johnny?”

The question surprised Johnny. After a few seconds, he shook his head. “No.”

Murdoch nodded absently. “I didn't think so.” He offered the envelope again. “For you.”

Johnny didn't take the money. He shook his head.

“You did a good job here.”

A faint hint of a smile graced Johnny's lips. “ Gracias . But you did not hire me. I did what I did for Scott. Because he's my brother.”

“Then take it anyway.”

Johnny smiled fully this time. “No. You want to appease your guilt, don't ask me to help.” He turned.

“What will you do?” Murdoch gulped.

“What I do best.”

Chapter Forty-Four: Beeves

Scott and Abby walked hand in hand, in step, smiling and grinning at each other. They felt almost giddy, childlike and yet felt an awesome responsibility. They had been in the garden, talking, most of the morning, and were anxious to spread their news.

They searched for Johnny. His room had been cleared out and his bed made. He wasn't in the kitchen, the garden or near the corral. They found him in the barn, saddling Barranca.

Johnny looked up at the smiling couple. “Well, don't you two look pleased as a pup with two tails.”

Abby grinned. She squeezed Scott's arm.

“Going somewhere?” Scott smiled. The barn was cool inside with the horsey smells which reminded Scott of his Cavalry days.

“Leaving, Scott.” Johnny adjusted the leg of his saddle. It was too long.

That brought a sharp reaction. Scott let go of Abby and strode to Johnny. “What do you mean?”

Johnny continued making his adjustments. “It's time to go. The job is completely over. Pardee is dead.”

“Yes, but...aren't you staying?” Abby came to Johnny, too. She petted Barranca's soft nose.

“Here?” Johnny shook his head. “No.”

Scott stood straight. “Don't tell me our father...”

Johnny interrupted, facing his brother. “He can't deal with it, Scott. With me. Who I am. What I am. Let it be. It's his problem.”

“Yes, but you're the one suffering.”

“Do I look like I'm suffering?” Johnny grinned.

“You know what I mean. You don't have to go out there, peddling your gun, risking your life. You can be here.”

“Risking my life..”

Scott laughed. “Yes,” he conceded, “But for a better cause.”

“Some cattle? A ranch?” Johnny doubted it.

“A good life. Respect. A future.”

“I have that.” Johnny tweaked his saddle adjustments once more.

Scott tried another tactic. “You'll be dead before you're thirty.”

“Well, brother, that comes to us all.”

Abby jumped in. “You have to stay! I'm going to have a baby.”

Johnny stopped fiddling with his saddle. He walked around the horse and smiled at Abby. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks. He—or she— is going to want to know his uncle,” she pointed at his chest.

“This isn't permanent,” Johnny told Abby. He glanced at Scott. “What you said this morning at breakfast made sense, Scott. We should find out who hired Pardee.”

“You mean you're going to keep looking?”

“Yes. I'd like to know who's behind all this myself.”

Scott nodded. At least his brother had a purpose. “If you need anything...”

“I'll let you know.”

“Keep me informed.”

“You bet.”

“You need money?”

“Nope. I'm good. Thanks.” Johnny gave Abby a hug. “Take care of that little one.” He shook Scott's hand. “And you take care of her. And yourself. Watch out for those beeves. They don't like people.”

“That's because we eat them,” Abby laughed.

Johnny laughed. “That we do.” He walked back around Barranca and mounted. He gathered the reins and leaned over. “I'll be back.”

Scott and Abby walked out the barn and watched Johnny ride off. He trotted out of the courtyard, down the path and under the arch. They stood arm in arm, waist to waist and each wondered if they would really see Johnny Madrid Lancer again.

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Up in the bell tower, Murdoch Lancer glanced down across his dominion, Lancer Ranch. It was vast and beautiful and he had a grey hair for every blade of grass out there. But somehow it felt a little less so as he watched the magnificent golden horse take his rider away.




  The New Era story continues in The Man from Visalia. Coming soon.






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