Part One : Leap Of Faith
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
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.
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.
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?”
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?”
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.”
“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.”
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.