The Man from Visalia
by  JenniferB

 

This story is the continuation of my previous story, Lancer: A New Era. It begins immediately after. The “first” chapter is, in fact, a repeat of the last chapter of New Era.

Again, 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 have made a few changes, but my location is more-or-less the same as theirs.

This story takes place in Spring to Summer of 1873.

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

This publication was originally written and edited on a Mac Mini with an Intel Core 2 Duo running OS X 10.7.2–10.7.4, using Apple’s Pages 09 word processing software with further editing on both an iPad 2 and iPhone 4 (iOS 5.1.1) using Apple’s iOS Pages App.

 

Prologue: Beeves

Scott and Abby walked hand in hand, in step, smiling and grinning at each other. They felt almost giddy, childlike and yet felt an awesome responsibility. They had been in the garden, talking, most of the morning, and were anxious to spread their news.

They searched for Johnny. His room had been cleared out and his bed made. He wasn’t in the kitchen, the garden or near the corral. They found him in the barn, saddling Barranca.

Johnny looked up at the smiling couple. “Well, don’t you two look pleased as a pup with two tails.”

Abby grinned. She squeezed Scott’s arm.

“Going somewhere?” Scott smiled. The barn was cool inside with the horsey smells which reminded Scott of his Cavalry days.

“Leaving, Scott.” Johnny adjusted the leg of his saddle. It was too long.

That brought a sharp reaction. Scott let go of Abby and strode to Johnny. “What do you mean?”

Johnny continued making his adjustments. “It’s time to go. The job is completely over. Pardee is dead.”

“Yes, but...aren’t you staying?” Abby came to Johnny, too. She petted Barranca’s soft nose.

“Here?” Johnny shook his head. “No.”

Scott stood straight. “Don’t tell me our father...”

Johnny interrupted, facing his brother. “He can’t deal with it, Scott. With me. Who I am. What I am. Let it be. It’s his problem.”

“Yes, but you’re the one suffering.”

“Do I look like I’m suffering?” Johnny grinned.

“You know what I mean. You don’t have to go out there, peddling your gun, risking your life. You can be here.”

“Risking my life..”

Scott laughed. “Yes,” he conceded, “But for a better cause.”

“Some cattle? A ranch?” Johnny doubted it.

“A good life. Respect. A future.”

“I have that.” Johnny tweaked his saddle adjustments once more.

Scott tried another tactic. “You’ll be dead before you’re thirty.”

“Well, brother, that comes to us all.”

Abby jumped in. “You have to stay! I’m going to have a baby.”

Johnny stopped fiddling with his saddle. He walked around the horse and smiled at Abby. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks. He—or she— is going to want to know his uncle,” she pointed at his chest.

“This isn’t permanent,” Johnny told Abby. He glanced at Scott. “What you said this morning at breakfast made sense, Scott. We should find out who hired Pardee.”

“You mean you’re going to keep looking?”

“Yes. I’d like to know who’s behind all this myself.”

Scott nodded. At least his brother had a purpose. “If you need anything...”

“I’ll let you know.”

“Keep me informed.”

“You bet.”

“You need money?”

“Nope. I’m good. Thanks.” Johnny gave Abby a hug. “Take care of that little one.” He shook Scott’s hand. “And you take care of her. And yourself. Watch out for those beeves. They don’t like people.”

“That’s because we eat them,” Abby laughed.

Johnny laughed. “That we do.” He walked back around Barranca and mounted. He gathered the reins and leaned over. “I’ll be back.”

Scott and Abby walked out the barn and watched Johnny ride off. He trotted out of the courtyard, down the path and under the arch. They stood arm in arm, waist to waist and each wondered if they would really see Johnny Madrid Lancer again.

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

 

Up in the bell tower, Murdoch Lancer glanced down across his dominion, Lancer Ranch. It was vast and beautiful and he had a grey hair for every blade of grass out there. But somehow it felt a little less so as he watched the magnificent golden horse take his rider away.

 

Part One: Spirit in the Night

Through the Looking Glass

Johnny Madrid loped his palomino Barranca in a direction away from the Lancer estancia, his hat securely on, his back to the sprawling hacienda and his father, who only now began to regret sending the young man away, watching from the bell tower. While his leaving wasn’t permanent—he’d promised Scott he’d be back with news regarding the man who hired Pardee—he didn’t have much hope of ever being a part of the family. Not that he’d ever had that feeling. Up until the age of ten or so, he’d not even known of Murdoch Lancer’s existence; he’d thought his mother’s partner, Luis Madrid, was his father, that they were married, and he had a safe home.

It had not been a wealthy household, but it was happy. Luis had owned a saloon in Nogales and the three of them lived above it. His mother had to work, but she enjoyed being the lady of the house, the center of attention; she was by far the most beautiful woman in town. She and Luis were indescribably smitten with each other, their only disappointment had been the lack of further children. At least that was his point of view.

He knew his mother had become pregnant twice, and both times it had not resulted in a birth. He had not known of his mother’s drinking—an occupational hazard when owning a saloon—and how it affected the developing baby. Her miscarriages were the result. He didn’t know either, that Maria herself did not want another child. If she managed to cause either miscarriage, well, that was unknown to him as well.

So it was with shock that he overheard his mother tell her tio, Esteban Diaz, about Murdoch Lancer. It was after Luis had been killed—shot by a gambler in the saloon over an accusation of cheating—and they had lost the saloon and its apartments. Her tio had ridden into Nogales by chance and found Maria in the same saloon, drunk. He’d discovered their hovel where they’d taken shelter and immediately moved them out, into a nicer adobe in a better part of town.

He remember that his mother and Diaz had been arguing about their living conditions when he first heard the name ‘Lancer.’ “Why are you living here?” Esteban had roared. “Why aren’t you with Lancer on his rancho grande in California?”

That had stopped Johnny. He wondered who was this Lancer and why should his mother be there. Then he heard her explanation: “He kicked me out, Tio! Me and our Johnny! He no longer wanted a Mexican wife and half-breed son. Murdoch Lancer had only wanted my body!” she had sobbed.

He remembered feeling as if he were kicked in the teeth, stomach and knees all at once. He’d slid down to his bottom and sobbed. So his real father was a rich gringo who had discarded his mother and him as if they were trash. When he stopped his crying, he angrily vowed revenge upon the man.

He hadn’t heard the rest of his mother’s conversation with Esteban, how he had threatened to go to Lancer himself to seek retribution, how she’d stopped him by seducing him, making him swear not to ever go, that it was young Johnny’s responsibility when he grew up. All he knew was from that moment until his mother’s death, Esteban was a daily part of his life, a father figure who captivated a young boy with his laughter, his charisma and his attention.

After her death, he’d remembered his vow to himself on behalf of his mother and resolved to find a way to do so, even after Esteban had arranged for him to stay at a rancho as a stable boy.

The rancho had been good for him. He worked hard with the horses, learning how to care for them properly, how to work with them, and as he grew older, even how to train them. The owner had seen his potential with the animals and let the young Johnny Madrid—he vowed never to use his real surname—go as far as the boy wanted with them.

But Esteban and his charisma tugged at him. Whenever the gunman would visit, the young Johnny would always beg him to take him. Finally, at the age of fourteen, Johnny ran away from the rancho, following Esteban when he’d left after a visit, and convincing him to take him with him, to learn the ways of a pistolero so he could avenge his mother.

Esteban objected at first, but when he saw young Johnny’s determination and sincerity, he agreed and became better than his word. Johnny learned his trade well, practicing day after day to learn the weapon; how to draw, aim, sight, fire, and hit his targets with a speed and precision Esteban found astonishing. Johnny was a born gunman, he decided, and the tio taught him everything he knew.

So, why hadn’t he gone after Murdoch Lancer then, after he’d learned his trade? Johnny didn’t know. He’d told himself he had to establish a reputation, so he could put fear in his father’s heart with just the mention of his name. But after he’d built that fearsome notoriety, he still did not venture into the San Joaquin to carry out his love-bound mission. The closest he’d come to the Lancer Ranch was to San Diego, for a job. He made it a point to stay away from California this far north.

So when Scott Lancer had hired him to escort them on their trip out West from Reno, Johnny had agreed, but only because that man Carrick had mentioned Scott’s surname and it intrigued Johnny. It roused his curiosity to learn more about this Scott Lancer: who he was, why he was going West and, more importantly, what, if any, was his relationship to Murdoch Lancer.

Little had he known that he’d find a brother with whom he would develop a bond like no other, not Luis, not even Esteban. And he felt bound by that brotherhood, even though Murdoch Lancer seemed not to want him in his family. He had to help Scott, no matter the cost. He valued his brother too much.

 

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

 

Scott and Abby, after saying their goodbyes to Johnny in the barn, strolled around the back of the hacienda holding hands. They headed in the general direction of the French doors and Teresa’s garden, but ambled as they had no clear destination.

While disturbed by Johnny’s leaving, they knew he had a purpose: he went to find who had hired Day Pardee. Scott knew Murdoch didn’t approve of that search—he didn’t think it was important enough, that they would always be targets—so he himself couldn’t make that journey, but Johnny was perfect for it. He was part of the family and yet not part of it, Johnny was compensated by the freedom to do as he pleased. And it delighted Scott that his brother was on the job, so to speak, having his back and working to solve the mystery once and for all.

“How long do you think he’ll take?” Abby was asking, “To find Day’s employer?”

“I don’t know,” Scott replied. “Right now, we have nothing to go on. There are no leads.”

“Does he know where to look?” She glanced up at him.

Scott kept his eyes on his boots. “I would assume so. We didn’t discuss it.”

“What did you and Johnny talk about?” Abby referred to the time after Johnny had stepped in when Pardee had called her husband out. Johnny had left the hacienda after the last battle with Pardee and his men and just showed up in Morro Coyo to take Scott’s place in the street.

Scott sighed. “Precious little. I wanted him to tell me why he left before, where he went, what he was doing, but I guess it doesn’t matter now. He came back when it was important. And now he’s gone again.”

“Well,” Abby stated firmly. “He’d better be back soon. I want this baby to know his uncle.”

Scott smiled. “So do I.”

They hadn’t told anyone else their joyous news, only becoming sure of it themselves recently. Abby had hoped Johnny would opt to stay once he knew, but Scott realized that he had to go if they were to have peace of mind on the Pardee issue.

“When do you want to tell them?” Scott meant the rest of the family, pulling her arm in his, bringing her closer.

Abby smiled. “Tonight. At Dinner.”

“At dinner it is, my love.”

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

 

Murdoch came down from the tower, his uneven footsteps heavy on the adobe stairs. He saw Scott and Abby strolling below and paused, not wanting to interfere. He didn’t feel like being with anyone just now.

He hadn’t liked seeing the palomino take its rider away like that. While he knew that was the only option, it surprised him to feel so bereft, as if he was losing something precious. Well, he surmised, he was. His son. Because not only did Johnny Madrid, the notorious gunfighter, ride away, so did Johnny Lancer, the bright, happy toddler. Perhaps forever. And at his own choosing.

He missed that toddler, and while he knew his Johnny had grown up and obviously changed, it was what he’d changed into that bothered Murdoch. His being a gunfighter was bad enough, but that he had no regrets, that he hadn’t expressed any repentance, that made it impossible for Murdoch to allow Johnny to stay. But now, after watching until Barranca was out of sight, Murdoch felt an emptiness he hadn’t felt since..., well, since he’d discovered Maria had taken the boy and was gone.

Murdoch waited until Scott and Abby disappeared into the depths of Teresa’s garden to continue his journey down the steps. Stairs were difficult for him; it hurt his back and leg something awful. He’d need a drink when he sat down. Maybe two.

 

Searching So Long

Johnny rode to the Briar Creek line shack, already deciding to make that his base  of operations. He planned to spend the night and stable Barranca there, just as he’d done following the final battle for Lancer, when he followed Day around. It had been deserted then and he saw no reason for it to be occupied now. Murdoch was still working on rebuilding the ranch from all Pardee’s raids.

He arrived at the line shack and left Barranca out front, intending only being there a few minutes. He found an unused cupboard and stashed his gear, so he wouldn’t have to pack that around all the time. He left his working gun in his saddlebags though, wanting it nearby just in case he needed it.

He mounted Barranca again and set about finding and exploring Day’s canyon hideout. He loped through the rolling countryside until he approached the mountains. It didn’t take him long to find the crevice which lead to Pardee’s nest., noting how it only was wide enough for one horse, with tall walls to provide maximum protection. Day must have spent a fair amount of time on Lancer property last year, scouting out the perfect hideout, before making his move to steal Murdoch’s grey stallion.

That alone told him that whoever was behind Day had spent far more money than they originally thought, and had done so with great patience. Of course, taking over a vast rancho like Lancer would require more than a few weeks planning, but this, coupled with what they already knew about Pardee’s actions—particularly the planting of an inside man the summer before the stallion’s theft, indicated someone who was prepared to wait to get what he wanted, to spend a lot of money to take Lancer and bring down Murdoch. Yes, Lancer’s troubles these past few months were long in the making, at the hand of someone cunning and patient.

Inside the canyon, Johnny unsaddled his horse and let Barranca roam freely in the remuda area of the hideout. He walked around the place, noting that the outlaws’ gear was still there, weathered a bit, stashed about where they had left it that fateful dawn a few weeks ago.

For the next couple of hours he rummaged through their belongings, looking for clues, anything, really, that would lead him to find out who had hired Pardee. He found the usual items—extra shirts, socks, jerky, whiskey, ammunition—and the odd book or two, a few extra knives or other small weapons, a pocket watch, two gold chains with crosses on them, and an old, torn letter.

Hope shone on his face as he opened the letter, but he was immediately disappointed. It was personal and not related to Pardee or Lancer at all. He stuffed it back where it came from.

Johnny wanted to keep looking, but his back ached from all that bending over. He stood up straight, stretched out and glanced around the hideout. He saw other stashes he’d not seen before and vowed to go through those after lunch. Now, though, he was hungry. Digging through his own saddlebags, he found a suitable lunch: jerky, leftover biscuits from this morning and a couple of apples. He strolled to the water’s edge and chose a spot next to a small boulder, under a tree. He sat on the ground, leaning against the rock. It was cooler there and the sound of the running water soothed him.

He finished one apple and offered the other to Barranca. The palomino had been cropping grass and came over to take the fruit. One good chomp and it was gone. Johnny chuckled. The horse did love apples. He’d have to find a steady supply.

Safe in the canyon, under his tree, with the sounds of the water behind him, Johnny let his mind wander. He again pondered his father. Murdoch Lancer was enigmatic, to say the least. Headstrong in his opinion against all gunfighters, he’d seemed to warm up to Johnny, especially after saving Scott. Johnny snorted. He should have. Damn, but the man got all uppity again the next day when he offered that payoff. Johnny wasn’t about to take the money, even if he had needed it, which he didn’t—he still had almost all of the generous amount Scott paid him back in Morro Coyo all those weeks ago.

He rehashed their last conversation. Murdoch had been trying to explain about his mother’s departure, taking some of the blame but not all. He had started the discourse by calling him Madrid, the best indication that the Old Man had gone back to his gunfighter-hating thoughts. But, Johnny now remembered, his father had slipped, just once, and called him by his Christian name: “She—she had trouble adapting, Johnny. And I confess, I didn’t help her much. I thought she would get used to it here.” Could it be that his father had meant something by that slip?

But he still didn’t understand Murdoch’s account of their life together from what he knew of his mother’s life. She had been deliriously happy with Luis. Murdoch hadn’t mentioned happiness, on either of their parts. Maybe that was the real problem.

Johnny didn’t know much about marital relationships, but he did understand personal happiness and he’d known his mother, if only briefly. Her emotions ruled her and if she wasn’t happy, she would do just about anything to change that.

Shaking his head, Johnny rose from his after-lunch rest. He brushed off his pants and stretched again, heading once more to the abandoned banditos’ gear. He was intent on finding something to tie Pardee to whoever hired him, no matter how remote or obscure it may be. He methodically searched through each saddlebag, carpetbag and any other kind of baggage in the hideout. He found little to provide him with clues.

By late afternoon, only two areas were left to search: the bedrolls and Day’s tent. Johnny hadn’t searched them first because he realized they were the most likely places to find clues and he felt if he found something right away, he may miss something else. Starting at the least likely place gave him the opportunity for a more thorough search. It was twisted logic, but it worked for him.

He sat up again, stretching. Man, his back hurt. He wished now that he’d taken the shorter route and searched Day’s tent first, but he knew if he’d done that, he may have to return here to rummage through all this anyway so he wanted to get the hard part over first. But now it was late in the day and he had little to show for it.

He saddled Barranca and headed back to the line shack to make his supper. Along the way he got an idea. Instead of bacon and beans that he’d have to cook, he’d enjoy tamales and rice in the cantina, and, while he was in Morro Coyo, he may as well visit the bordello. A nice, soft woman would feel very welcome after a day like today. Johnny shifted Barranca’s direction and galloped toward town.

 

The Good, the Bad and the Talisker’s

Murdoch didn’t like drinking before dinner. He felt it was indicative of a weakness, that somehow one wasn’t strong enough to last until the shank of the evening to partake of spirits. Of course, that hadn’t stopped him several months ago, when he was recovering from that bullet he got on the night Paul was killed.

He’d told Scott and Johnny the gist of it, so they could understand more about Day Pardee, but he hadn’t told them of his feelings, the gulf of emptiness that devoured him when he learned of Paul O’Brien’s death. Paul had been his longest, dearest friend. A man with whom he’d shared a lifetime. He’d been bereft at the loss of his trusted ally.

It began a rough time for him, trying to recover from that wound in his lower back while attempting to deal with Paul’s death, running the ranch and helping Teresa cope with the loss of her father. Somehow they had made it through, but it had been one of the darkest chapters of his life.

It had left him with little desire to do anything but the business of ranching. He had virtually stopped all other aspects of his life; he’d even cut back on church attendance from weekly to about once a month. He would have cut it out completely but his boyhood training forbade it. (‘Give the Lord his due, Murdoch!’ his father had often said.)

Teresa had pulled him out of the worst of his malaise, forcing him back into the social world his wealth and status required and for that he was grateful, for it had lead to correspondence with Scott and his older son’s ultimate return to Lancer.

And his younger son’s return as well.

Mrudoch sighed as he surveyed the dark great room. Only minutes had passed since that last discussion with Johnny, the coming to an impasse and his forcing the issue whereby the dark-haired man had decided to leave. Yet it seemed like hours, days even. He had not realized he would feel so deep a loss at seeing his younger son depart his home.

Murdoch eased himself into his favorite chair, an overstuffed Queen Anne by the fireplace. He poured the drink he’d been reluctant to take, enjoying the gargle of the amber liquid as it splashed into the glass. He carefully replaced the bottle stopper and picked up his shot glass, holding it up as he examined the drink. Talisker’s. His favorite from Scotland. Paul had given him this bottle last Christmas. Their last Christmas together.

He sipped, remembering that time.

Christmas at Lancer Ranch was always a festive affair. Everyone pitched in to decorate the hacienda: Paul and Teresa, Maria and her family, the wives of the cowboys and their children. And Murdoch, unhurt and able, joined in the fun by helping to bring boughs of pine from the verdant forests of the foothills to festoon the house. Teresa and Maria placed white candles, in every shape and size, throughout the house and kept them lit, replacing them when necessary. The hacienda glowed with anticipation and excitement.

The Mexican families on the estancia erected a Nativity scene in early December. Beginning on the sixteenth, they took part in las posadas, or the re-enactment of Joseph and the Virgin Mary looking for lodging. The religious ceremonies brought the estancia together as a community.

Murdoch Lancer, in his role as the wealthiest rancher in this part of the San Joaquin valley, was expected to and enjoyed playing host to the families of the area. The celebrations began the first Saturday in December with a party at Lancer and continued throughout the month. Murdoch journeyed to both Green River and Morro Coyo with wagons loaded with foodstuffs and drink for the townspeople and little hard candies for the children.

The central themes were generosity and sharing among families. Those who were able to give did so and those who received did so graciously and without greed. Murdoch rewarded his men with an extra financial bonus for the month and only minimal work on Christmas Day—feeding and caring for the animals.

Murdoch attended the Noche Bueno services at the mission in Morro Coyo on Christmas Eve in deference to his many Catholic employees. After, in the small town, he feasted on holiday tamales with his friends before returning home late. His good friend, the merchant Baldemero, traditionally gave Murdoch a poinsettia, called a Catarina in Mexico, in honor of his first wife, Catherine.

Murdoch was Anglican, having come from Scotland, and his home church was the protestant community in Green River. It had been his tradition to go there for services on Christmas Day, taking Paul and Teresa and meeting up with Aggie Conway along the way. They, along with old friend Dr. Sam Jenkins, celebrated the day at Lancer with a feast of Christmas goose, stuffing and traditional pudding while opening the token gifts they gave each other.

That year, Murdoch had enjoyed his duties immensely. His life was going well, his estancia even better. He had much to celebrate as 1872 had been a wonderful year for Lancer. The new stallion he’d purchased the previous summer looked promising and Murdoch had looked forward to breeding him to more mares in the coming year.

Then came New Year’s Eve when all Hell had broken loose. His life fell apart. Again.

 

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

 

Abby strode down the hall to the room she shared with Scott. She heard his voice from behind the door and paused, her ear to the wood. Was he talking to himself? She listened, but was unable to make out the words. Deciding to figure out what was going on, she quietly turned the knob and pushed in the door.

She saw Scott in front of the mirror, a cup in his hand, talking to his reflection. No, she corrected herself; he was practicing. “I am pleased to announce ...” he stopped, clearing his throat and trying again. “I am pleased to announce what I hope is welcomed and wonderful—” he stopped again, noticing his wife at the door. Scott spun around guiltily. “Abby!”

“Hello, Love,” Abby breathed, suppressing a laugh. She closed the door behind her and approached her husband. “Are you practicing your toast?”

Scott nodded as he replaced the cup on the dresser. “Yes. You’d think making a toast would be second nature to me now, having done so many of them in Boston.”

“But this one is different.” Abby’s eyes sparkled with amusement.

“Yes, it surely is,” he grinned.

She gave her husband a smooch on the cheek before turning away. “I won’t stop you, dear. You continue your practicing.” She flounced from the room, closing the door behind her before succumbing to girlish giggles.

Alone now, Scott shook his head at his wife’s antics. Life was so much fun with her.

 

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

 

Teresa’s cheerful voice calling them all to dinner roused Murdoch from his musings. He set the empty glass down and lumbered to the table. Scott and Abby arrived arm in arm, smiling. They looked happy and content. Murdoch took solace in their peace.

Maria and another woman served the repast: beef in a red wine sauce, vegetables and sliced fruits and cheeses. As Murdoch lifted his glass for the toast, Scott interrupted. “May I?” he asked.

A little surprised, Murdoch deferred to his son and nodded. “Of course.”

Scott stood, took his glass in his hand and glanced down at his wife. She smiled up at him and nodded, her shoulders doing that little shrug she does when she’s about to burst out laughing. He cleared his throat, suddenly anxious again. “Well, I want to say how pleased—” That’s as far as he got out before Abby’s soft giggle reached his ears. She was delighted he was still nervous. Scott shook his head and gave up. “There’s no other way to say this.” He sat back down, smiled at his lovely wife as he put his arm around her and announced, “We are going to be adding to the family. Abby and I are expecting a child.”

Abby smiled shyly. Teresa squealed and clapped. Murdoch’s weathered face broke into the broadest grin Scott had ever seen.

“This is good news!” Murdoch sounded. He lifted his voice. “Maria!” he called.

When the older woman poked her head into the great room she saw Murdoch grinning like a monkey, Scott and Abby dissolved in giggles and Teresa bouncing up and down on her seat clapping. Clearly they had all gone mad. “Si, Patron?” she asked, a little fear in her voice.

Murdoch continued to grin. “Bring a bottle of champagne, por favor.” He boomed. “We are celebrating tonight. I’m going to be a grandfather!”

Now Maria understood. Her own wrinkled face beamed with excitement. “Si, señor,” and she hurried to get the wine. It would be a happy time in the hacienda tonight!

 

The Pursuit of Togetherness

Johnny leaned back in his chair, his dinner finished, his appetite sated. He sipped on his tequila. The cantina was quiet tonight—it was a weekday, after all. By the time he’d made it into town, the tiny restaurant was about to close from a lack of business. Johnny Madrid’s popularity after killing Day Pardee enabled the owner, tiny Rosa Montero, to keep it open just for him.

Rosa was five-foot-flat on a good day and weighed less than a hundred pounds soaking wet. Everything about her was petite, except her heart. That was as large as the ocean. In her mid-forties, she’d lived through her husband’s early death and her only surviving son going off to seek his fortune and yet remained devoted to her work, her customers and her relationship with God.

She herself took his order, made his food and served it to him. “Gratis,” she smiled as she set the plate on the table. He nodded. He had not wanted free food, but neither did he want to insult her. He dug in.

The tamales were excellent; some of the best he’d had, and the rice—spiced to perfection. She’d thrown in a side of tortillas with green chile salsa and finished the meal with a favorite of his: cinnamon and sugar sprinkled churros.

He knew he should be leaving; Rosa would be wanting to go home. It was getting late, but she wouldn’t ask him to go. No, that would be rude. But he didn’t want to impose on her hospitality, so he finished his drink and pushed his chair away from the table. He walked up to Rosa and thanked her personally for her attention, taking her tiny hands in his and kissing them lightly, bestowing upon her his most brilliant smile. She smiled shyly and blushed. Lastly, he tipped his hat to her and strode out, his spurs jingling as he walked. Rosa’s smile turned wistful as she watched him go.

Outside in the evening air, Johnny collected Barranca and walked toward the end of town. Though it was just after sunset, he could see that the people were continuing to rebuild. Pardee and his men had raided it in retaliation for the townspeople coming to Lancer’s aid during one of his sieges. He had burned many of the structures, beaten and battered some of the citizens but most horrifying, he and his men had taken seven innocent señoritas into the hotel for their own sick pleasure.

Scorch marks still scarred the adobe structures. A few homes were completely in ruins, but he could tell that neighbors pitched in to help each other. That was one of the good things resulting in such an event; the community came together as one.

Johnny arrived at the livery and stopped. An old man hurried outside to greet him, “¡Bienvenido, Señor Madrid! How can I help you tonight?”

“I need a good stall with fresh hay and plenty of high-quality oats, Señor Orozco.” 

“Of course, señor, anything for you, señor. Gratis.” He nodded and smiled.

Johnny did not want to take the old man’s business free of charge, but he knew just like in the cantina, it would be an insult to insist payment. “Gracias, señor. I will care for him myself. He’s a might caprichoso—temperamental. He may bite.”

The old man nodded, understanding, and led Johnny to his best stall before quietly withdrawing. He returned with a bucket of oats and one of fresh water. “The best we have, this.” He nodded to the oats as he set the buckets down before making one last hurried trip for grooming supplies. After handing Johnny the implements, he again withdrew, leaving the revered gunfighter alone with his horse.

Johnny loosened Barranca’s cinch before hefting the leather saddle on the rack. He did the same with the horse’s blanket and bridle, then placed the oats and water side by side in the stall. Barranca dug in, snorting in pleasure at the tasty meal. Johnny set about grooming him, taking his time brushing off the road and combing his coat until it gleamed. He slapped the horse on the back. “Sleep well, mi amigo.”

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

 

“I think they took the news rather well,” Abby giggled as she readied for bed. She was combing her hair, a chore Scott thoroughly enjoyed watching. Her long brown tresses fell over her shoulders and back with each rhythmic stroke of her brush.

“They were delighted, of course,” he flopped on the bed “Almost as delighted as we are.”

“We are, aren’t we?” Abby stopped brushing. She looked at him through the mirror, apprehension on her face.

Scott jumped up immediately and rushed to his wife. He rested his hands on her shoulders, seeing her uncertainty in the mirror. “I’m thrilled, Love. I can’t wait.”

Abby smiled again. “Just checking.” She set the brush down and smoothed her nightgown down over her stomach. “I’m gonna get pretty big, you know. My mother, with her last pregnancy, was as big as the house!”

Scott wrapped his arms around her still-tiny waist. “I don’t mind, Darling. As long as both you and the baby are healthy.”

She frowned again. “What if it’s a girl?” Didn’t all men want sons?

“Then it’s a girl,” Scott laughed. “A beautiful brunette who looks like you. Who could complain about that?”

“But what if she is tall and gangly like you?” She teased.

“Then she’d better become a really good cook,” Scott grinned back.

Abby’s mouth flew open. “Why, you!” She turned and playfully beat her fist on his chest. “You’re incorrigible!”

 

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

 

Murdoch sat in his favorite chair again, sipping his final Scotch of the night. He couldn’t stop smiling. A baby. His grandbaby. Scott’s baby. Catherine’s grandbaby. Even remembering his dead first wife didn’t erase his grin tonight. She would be so proud, so happy. She’d already be making plans, driving poor Abby crazy with her ideas.

He chuckled aloud. That he would have liked to see.

Plans would have to be made, of course. Scott and Abby’s room, while large, wasn’t nearly big enough. He’d have to call in a carpenter and have some work done, maybe use the room next to theirs as a nursery, or create a new suite of rooms just for them. His head swam with his own ideas.

He would be the one to drive poor Abby crazy. He laughed out loud at that.

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

 

The last time Johnny used the bordello in Morro Coyo it had been rather dark and dismal-looking. Eliza, the gringa madam, had blamed it on bad business because of Pardee’s men, driving off all their regular customers. As he entered this evening, he noticed a pronounced difference. The main room was brighter, livelier, the girls somehow looked fresher, and there were other customers. Eliza stood behind the counter pouring a drink.

She saw him enter and smiled. “Howdy, Mr. Madrid!” she greeted when he reached the bar. “How can I help you today?” her eyes flashed mischievously.

“A drink, Eliza, and some...companionship,” he grinned.

 

Thoroughly Modern Murdoch

Murdoch was the first one down for breakfast. “Buenos dias, señor Lancer,” Maria greeted. She was at the stove, frying bacon. The aroma made his stomach rumble.

He was hungry. Famished, it felt like. He hadn’t had an appetite since...well, he couldn’t really remember. “Load me up, Maria,” he requested. “I could eat a horse this morning.”

Maria smiled. She liked it when el Patron smiled and ordered a man’s breakfast. For too long now he’d picked at his morning meal or forced himself to eat. It was good to have the old Murdoch Lancer back. “Pronto,” she replied as she hurriedly broke the eggs in a black iron skillet.

Teresa came next, bouncing in with her hair in a ponytail. She looked so young like that. “Mornin’!” she greeted, reaching for the coffeepot and filling a mug for Murdoch.

“Same to you,” he grinned back. He took the mug and blew on it. “Ahhh, smells good.”

Teresa stopped where she was. She stared strangely at Murdoch. “You’re in a good mood today. It wouldn’t have anything to do with Scott and Abby, would it?”

“I believe it would indeed, Teresa. It would indeed.” Maria placed a plate of hot, steaming biscuits on the table and he reached for one. Teresa set the honey jar and butter for him. He loaded his bread then took a bite. “Ohhh, so good,” he pronounced while chewing.

Teresa didn’t quite know what to make of Murdoch’s behavior. Could a simple baby produce such ...what was the word she was looking for? Joy? She shook her head. Maybe. And it was good. A happy Murdoch would be a most welcomed change, even better than the way he was before all this Pardee mess started. Smiling, she busied herself with helping Maria finish breakfast.

Scott and Abby came down together, still grinning. “Come on in,” Murdoch greeted. He jumped up to pull Abby’s chair out for her. “Have a seat. These are the best biscuits Maria has ever made!”

Now it was Scott and Abby’s turn to be surprised. They’d never seen Murdoch so jolly. They glanced at each other and shrugged, having no explanation for the change. Maria finished the bacon and set it on the table. Teresa sliced some fresh oranges and put them down, too. All that was left were the eggs, which came soon after. It was a fine breakfast feast.

“I’m going to Morro Coyo this morning,” Murdoch announced. He sipped his coffee.

“Oh?” Scott countered, buttering his biscuit.

“Yes. I want to hire Ignacio Torres. His carpentry skills are excellent. You’ll be needing more room, a nursery, or perhaps an entire new set of private quarters. Maybe a suite of rooms. We could redo the west wing. Whatever you want.”

Abby lifted her eyebrows. “This is a surprise.”

Murdoch stabbed an egg with his fork. “I don’t mean to overstep, but I want you to know that whatever you want or need in preparation for the baby, well, I can accommodate, and I’m very happy to do so.”

Scott looked at Abby. She smiled. “That sounds like fun.”

Scott grinned. “I’ll go with you.”

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

 

Johnny stretched out his arms, trying to awaken. He had never been a morning person; daybreaks, even those that came later in the day, were always hard for him. The bedsheets, once crisp and cool, were now crumpled from the workout he and Eliza gave each other the previous night. He’d paid for the entire night and he would be the first to say that he got his money’s worth.

He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, bracing his hands on the mattress to steady himself. He was a little dizzy. Once his head cleared, he checked the bed. Eliza was gone; he wasn’t sure she’d be back anytime soon. His gun belt hung where he’d left it: on the bedpost near his pillow, its holster empty. His Colt was still under his pillow.

He surveyed the room. Its whitewashed walls reflected the sunlight streaming from the window. There was a breeze bringing in fresh air and making the threadbare curtain dance to some unknown rhythm. On top of the hand-painted dresser was a large, chipped bowl and a pitcher, for washing. A long, thin mirror stood in the corner and a seemingly-rickety table and wooden chair occupied the space under the window.

He assumed this was Eliza’s own bedroom, not just a room for clients, but he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t about to open a drawer and find out; he didn’t live as long as he had by being nosy when it came to women.

Between couplings, they’d talked. Johnny had wanted to know more about Pardee’s men, any information he could get, which may lead him to find out who had hired the ruthless gunfighter. At first Eliza didn’t think she knew anything, but he finally was able to get her to open up.

“Well, there were a few of them who bragged more than others,” she finally had said. “This one guy, called himself Drake, bragged about being the one to ‘bag’ Murdoch Lancer. He kept going on and on about it, about how he waited in the mission bell tower with his rifle and nailed both Lancer and the guy he was with in just two shots.”

“What did this Drake look like?” Johnny had known a killer named Drake but he wanted confirmation.

Eliza thought for a minute. “Tall. Dark hair. Johnny Reb hat. Wore it while we were...together. That’s all I remember. He only came in once. I think he left Pardee before you got here.”

Johnny nodded. It was the man he knew. Ex-confederate soldier. Sniper. Liked his job too much. It was a good thing he’d left Pardee after the horse theft; Lancer would have been sitting ducks with the likes of him behind a rifle.

“Was there anything else?” Johnny still had no idea who was behind it all.

Eliza sat up. “Do you want me or information, Johnny Madrid?”

Johnny laughed. “Both.” Then he took her again.

But now, in the morning, she was gone. He slowly dressed, slipping on his concho pants, and stuffing his red shirt into them. He needed a bath. That would have to wait. He was hungry; last night’s exertions gave him an appetite. He fastened on his gun belt, stomped into his boots and exited the room.

“Johnny Madrid!” Eliza called from behind the bar. Johnny had been on his way out of the bordello. He turned and smiled at the girl. “Come here and get your breakfast.” She poured a beer.

Johnny sauntered to the bar, pushed aside the mug. “Tequila,” he requested. Grinning, she obliged, filling a shot glass with the clear liquid.

“Oh, I thought of something this morning,” she smiled as he sipped. “Something about that horse they stole. Pardee had wanted to kill it but said the orders were changed. ‘The boss wanted it for himself.’ Those were the exact words.”

“Pardee told you that?” Johnny doubted Day Pardee would have let something like that slip to a whore.

“No, silly. He never came in here. Some guy who called himself Bolman said that. I heard he got his throat slit at one of Lancer’s line shacks.” She fingered his shirt. “You wouldn’t happen to know how that happened, would you?”

Johnny smiled, finished his tequila and shook his head. “Nope. Not a thing.” He set the glass down. “Thanks, ‘Liza.”

Johnny ate breakfast at Rosa’s cantina. A young woman with bright eyes served him a good, hot Mexican feast to go with that tequila he had with Eliza. While he chewed, he considered what he’d learned. Drake had been the sharpshooter who killed Paul O’Brien and wounded Murdoch back at the end of December. Drake didn’t hang around with Pardee’s gang, though, when Day came back for business. He didn’t know why the sniper had left. It didn’t much matter. He had an idea where to find the ex-Rebel soldier if he needed him. He was fond of a particular saloon in San Diego.

The news that he got this morning had promise. If the boss man wanted the horse, chances were that the animal was still alive, secured in a safe spot, away from prying eyes. An expensive well-known purebred like that wouldn’t be sold, not just yet anyway, and wouldn’t be transported until it was safe to so do. That wouldn’t be for maybe a year. If Johnny could find where the horse was, that may lead him to Pardee’s employer. And now he knew definitely that Pardee had en employer.

He’d been almost sure, as Day Pardee rarely raided a rancho as vast as Lancer for himself, but he’d not seen confirmation, at least not of this nature. Now he was absolutely certain. Someone had hired Day, hired him to lead an attack on Lancer, for the purposes of taking it over. His only clue right now was the horse.

The stallion whose theft had started it all was somewhere, but Johnny knew nothing which could even remotely lead him to the animal. He had to do more searching. Perhaps there was more at Day’s hideout. It was possible; he hadn’t finished going through everything yet.

 

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

 

Murdoch and Scott entered town on the buggy. Scott would have preferred to ride, but with Murdoch’s bum leg, that would have been difficult; riding was painful for his father. He should see a specialist, Scott thought. Surely San Francisco had a few. Murdoch had too many good years left in him to go around limping in pain forever. Perhaps before the baby came he could get Murdoch to take that trip. He’d have to ask Sam about that.

“Where can we find this Torres fellow?” Scott asked as he tied up the buggy’s reins. He and Murdoch climbed out of the vehicle in front of Mendez Supply.

“He usually works for Mendez, when he’s not doing carpentry,” Murdoch nodded to indicate the supply shop. We’ll go in and see if he’s there today.”

Scott nodded and took a step, then paused, looking in another direction. “There’s Johnny.” Scott pointed toward the cantina just before jogging over to its entrance. He was thrilled to see his brother so soon and relieved to see he was still in the area like he said.

Johnny had emerged after enjoying his breakfast and stretched. He saw his brother speeding toward him. “Well, well, well. If it ain’t the daddy-to-be,” he grinned.

Scott met up with Johnny, slapping him on the back. Hard. “Ouch, Scott. I just ate breakfast.”

“You’re getting up late,” he teased.

“Was busy last night,” Johnny grinned, nodding toward the bordello.

“I see. Will fatherhood be in your future as well?”

“Hell, no, Scott. I ain’t that stupid.”

Scott was about to reply when Murdoch joined them. He smiled at the gunfighter, genuinely happy to see him. “Johnny!” he enthusiastically greeted. “Good to see you again.”

“Ah-huh,” Johnny replied, unsure of what just happened. Only yesterday his father had turned him out. He turned to his brother, slapping him on his arm. “What brings you two to town?”

Murdoch answered the question. “We’re going to meet with a carpenter. We have to make some changes in the hacienda to prepare for the new baby.” He glanced at Scott. “I’ll go see if I can find Torres.”

After he left, Johnny frowned at Scott. “What’s with him? He’s....”

“Happy?” Scott offered.

“Strange, I was going to say.”

Scott laughed. “That, too.”

Johnny leaned in closer and said softer, “Listen, brother. I think I found something out.” He told him about the horse. “I’m going back to Day’s hideout. I was looking there for a clue yesterday. Gonna search some more today. I’ll let you know if I find anything.”

“You do that, brother,” Scott responded quietly. “And take care of yourself.” He jogged back toward Mendez Supply to join Murdoch.

+++NOTE: For those of you who are Disney Zorro fans, you may recognize the name Ignatio Torres. He was a central character in the first story arc of the 1957-59 TV series. I borrowed the name for this story.

 

Give the Devil His Clue

Barranca loped over the rolling hills, heading northwest toward the Briar Creek line shack Johnny was using as headquarters. The horse had spent the night in the warm livery stable, had himself a grand breakfast and a good rubdown and now he was ready to run. He wanted his head but Johnny held him back. “Easy, amigo. I may need you later today.” Barranca snorted in reply, anxious to go. Johnny laughed at his antics.

It was a beautiful late Spring day, Summer was almost upon them, but the days had not yet begun to get too hot. A nice breeze blew across the valley, causing the tall grasses to sway in rhythm. There were clouds, but not too many; just enough to punctuate the bright blue sky with formations in white.

Johnny continued his ride across Lancer, enjoying the beauty of this vast land with its verdant greens, the cool purples of the Diablo range to his west, and little pockets of the native golden poppy and darker green signaling a copse of two of oak.

At the line shack, Johnny stabled the horse in the attached lean-to and went inside. He would have preferred Barranca to romp in a corral, but as there wasn’t one at the shack and having his horse visible would have alerted anyone passing by of his presence anyway; he thought it better to hide him, at least today.

Now he had his own needs to attend. He dug into the stores at the shack and found soap and a towel. He grabbed clean clothes for himself and headed for Briar Creek, having decided to take that bath after spending the night with Eliza.

The water was shallow and cold. He sat on a rock and soaped up, rinsing in the clear-running, ice-cold water, cleaning himself from head to toe. It wasn’t the nice soaking baths he’d enjoyed at the Lancer hacienda, but it didn’t need to be, either. The cold water helped clear his mind and set himself to the task at hand. He had much to do. He didn’t stay at the creek too long.

Invigorated and freshly-scrubbed, Johnny dressed in a new shirt and pants, washing out his dirty garments with the soap he’d used on himself and rinsing them in the brisk, running water of the creek. With his laundry dripping, he headed back to the line shack.

“Damn,” he cursed himself. He’d wanted to let Scott know where he was staying. Well, he’d mentioned the hideout; maybe Scott would put two and two together and figure it out; his brother was a smart man.

Johnny snapped his clothes in the wind, getting some of the moisture out. Inside the shack, there wasn’t a good place to hang them up to dry and keep them out of sight. He investigated the lean-to stable. There he found a hidden corner and put up his wet things.

He made one more trip to the creek for water, filling up a bucket he’d found in the shack. He heated some of the cold liquid for shaving, the rest he used to fill his canteen and finish his morning ministrations. Lastly, he cleaned up the shack and with one last glance around to make sure there was no clear evidence of his presence, he closed the door.

His chores completed, he retrieved Barranca and re-saddled him. Intent on heading for the hideout, he once again rode through the narrow crevice opening into the canyon sanctuary. After he removed the horse’s tack and set him free in the remuda area, he set upon the job of rummaging through the last of the saddlebags before checking out Day’s tent.

Like yesterday, the things he found in the saddlebags were mostly the same: clothes, odds and ends, personal items. He went through them mechanically, overturning everything onto the grass, kicking through the debris, tossing it onto the pile before starting on another. If he found something interesting he held it to the side, but nothing he saw was enough to stop his searching. One, two, three saddlebags down. Four, five, all the same. But sometime after he stopped counting, he found something different. It was a map.

Johnny stood up as he unfolded the paper. The hand-drawn map depicted a small ranch or a farm north and east of ‘Vizalya’, near some hills. He tried to make out the writing: Vennis Hills, it looked like. The person who had drawn it hadn’t been properly educated; the ‘n’s were backwards. He doubted the spelling, too, as Visalia was clearly incorrect.

There was a name near the middle: Ortega. Was that another town? He doubted it, but not being familiar with California he couldn’t be sure. It could be the name of the owner of a farm or ranch. Yah, that was probably it. Johnny turned the map over but the back side was blank. It wasn’t much, but it was better than old shirts and socks. Maybe Murdoch could make something of it. He pocketed the map and whistled for Barranca.

Johnny rode toward the hacienda. He wanted to check out what was there in Visalia, but as it was a long ride, he felt it wise to get more information from Murdoch. Maybe his father already knew the significance of the map. That would save him a trip and valuable time. He crested a hill and caught sight of the hacienda.

He reined Barranca to a stop; the beauty of the hacienda taking his breath away. This was his home. Or should have been. He paused while he gathered himself together. Now was not the time to think of such things. He put that, along with everything else emotional, on his pile of “later.”

He urged the palomino forward and, seeing dust on the horizon, stood in the saddle to make it out. It was Murdoch and Scott, returning from Morro Coyo in their buggy. Good, Johnny thought. He could make this quick. He changed directions and headed for the vehicle.

Hola, Scott!” Johnny called a greeting. Scott had already seen him and elbowed Murdoch to stop the buggy.

“Long time, no see, brother,” Scott grinned. Murdoch nodded his greeting.

Johnny glanced at his sire then smiled at his brother. “You took a long time to find a carpenter,” he noticed. It was a good three or four hours since they met in town.

“There was much to discuss,” Scott replied. “Lots of ideas, plans, you name it.”

“Well,” Johnny hesitated a little. He fixed his eyes on his father. “I’ve been searching Pardee’s camp near Briar Creek. He and his men left their things there. I’ve been going through the saddlebags. I think I found a clue about the man who hired Pardee or maybe where to find the stallion.”

“You mean Plata Viento?” Murdoch leaned forward.

“That’s the name of the horse Pardee stole?”

“Yes. Don De La Cruz from San Diego sold him to me last year at this time.”

“Wait,” Scott cut in. “What does Plata Viento mean?”

“Silver Wind,” Johnny answered. He continued with his story. “I found a map showing a ranch or farm near Visalia. Name on it was Ortega.”

Murdoch looked away, thinking. He brought his eyes back to Johnny. “I can’t place that name. It must have been a small place. I know all the big ranchers in the San Joaquin.”

Johnny shifted in the saddle. “Could that be a small village near the town?”

“No,” Murdoch shook his head. “The closest place to Visalia is Goshen. Ortega is definitely a name of a person. May I see the map?”

Johnny fished the paper out of his saddlebags and passed it to Scott, who in turn handed it to his father. Murdoch opened it and noticed the errors. “Those are the Venice Hills,” he said, spelling it out. “I don’t know how they got their name.” He tapped the map. “Yes, that’s got to be a farm or ranch and Ortega simply must be the owner.” He returned the paper to Johnny.

“Nothing about this rings a bell to you?”

“No, why? Should it?”

Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. I figured you may know something about what it means. If not...” He let the thought go unspoken. He’d made up his mind then. If his father couldn’t enlighten him, he’d have to make the trip and see what it meant. He would check out this farm or ranch, and see what the significance of Ortega was. This could be where the man who hired Pardee was, or where horse was stashed. Or it could be nothing or something else entirely. He’d never know unless he took a look.

Murdoch was apologizing. “No, sorry. I don’t know anything other than to correct the misspellings.”

“Well, that’s something,” Johnny smiled. He refolded the paper and stuffed it into his saddlebags. He petted Barranca on the neck. “Anyway, I’m going to look there. See what it all means, if anything. I’ll be back in a week or so.”

“Take care, brother,” Scott nodded. “Good luck!”

Gracias,” Johnny smiled in return.

“Do you need anything?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny paused and stared at his father, stunned at his offer. “No, thank you.” He nodded to both of them and spurred Barranca, turning toward the East and Visalia.

 

Best Laid Plans

Scott and Abby poured over ideas for their new rooms at the hacienda. Señor Torres had come later that afternoon and looked over the place, making several suggestions giving them much food for thought. They had many choices.

They could continue to use their current room, adding a door leading to the adjacent room which would be then made into a nursery. This was the simplest and easiest idea to implement, but was only a short-term solution; what would they do for a second child or subsequent children?

They could opt for an Eastern way, and build a nursery away from their room, with adequate space for more children and room for a live-in governess. This was how both Scott and Abby were raised, in separate quarters with their own care provider. The separate nursery would provide a perfect environment for their children to learn and grow with care at their fingertips, and give the parents some much-needed space of their own. However, they wouldn’t be involved in the day-to-day care, an idea which had both good and bad points on its own.

Or, they could take apart several rooms in the west wing, as Murdoch offered, and create a sort of compromise: a large suite of rooms for both them and their children, with play space as well, and a room for a governess. This seemed an ideal solution, but it would separate them a little from the rest of the family.

The couple had much to think about. Torres had indicated that he would be able to create whatever they decided, but if they wanted a more elaborate plan, they should decide quickly in order to have it finished before the baby’s birth. They discussed the pros and cons all afternoon until they grew tired of talking.  Deciding to sleep on it, Scott walked outside for some much-needed sunshine.

He found Murdoch leaning against the corral fence, eyeing a new batch of horses  Paco and Ben had just brought in from the Mesa. The Mesa wasn’t really a true mesa, it was a mountain in the Diablos that sort of resembled one and the name had stuck. It’s canyons were well-known for being a source of excellent wild horses. Johnny’s Barranca had been roped there as well as Scott’s chestnut stallion, Rienzi.

“Nice looking horseflesh,” Scott appraised, joining Murdoch in leaning against the rail.

“Yes, they are. But we need a good wrangler to break them.”

“We don’t have a wrangler?” Scott was surprised. He would have thought that a ranch of this size should have a good horseman in charge of mounts with several assistants to help.

“We did. Owen was one of the first to leave when the Pardee business started, back before we really knew what was happening. He came primarily to work with the grey stallion and his offspring. When the horse was stolen...” Murdoch let the thought drop.

“So who’s been breaking our horses since?”

Murdoch pushed away from the fence. “Aggie Conway has been loaning us her Roberto. He’s good, but we need our own.”

“Well, with Pardee gone, we could hire one again.”

“Yes, but...”

“But what?”

Murdoch paused. He knew what he wanted to say. He wanted a wrangler who had a way with horses like Johnny Madrid. But he didn’t voice that. “Later, I suppose. We have other things more important. Like getting this ranch running smoothly and getting ready for that baby!” Murdoch grinned again. He just couldn’t stop being so darned happy about that.

Scott laughed. “Don’t get me started on the preparations. Abby and I have been going over ideas all afternoon. Ignatio Torres has proven to be quite an asset. Thank you for recommending him.”

Murdoch turned to his son. “Whatever you want to do, Scott, we’ll do it. I want the best for this baby. Have you written Harlan or Abby’s family yet?”

Scott grinned. “I brought the letters with me to town this morning. I posted them myself.”

“Good, good. They have a right to know.” He gave one last look at the corral and slapped Scott on the back. “I’m going to Aggie Conway’s for supper tonight; I’ll be home late. I updated the books this afternoon in preparation of doing that work on the hacienda. The money’s there.” He turned to walk back inside. Scott hesitated a little, then followed his father.

 

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

 

Aggie was delighted to hear the news. “A new grandbaby, Murdoch! You must be so happy!”

“I am, I am.” He sipped his coffee. They’d dined on the Conway patio under the glow of Chinese lanterns. “I’m so thrilled I’m nearly beside myself. The last time I felt this way was when I learned of Teresa’s impending birth.”

“A baby coming does brighten things,” Aggie smiled. “You needed some good news. It’s been a long, rough stretch, my friend.”

“That it has, Aggie. That it has.”

The two of them rose and, leaving their coffee cups, began strolling through Aggie’s garden. Not too unlike Teresa’s counterpart at Lancer, it was filled with a mix of herbs and flowers, but it featured an elderberry shrub twisted in an unusual shape supported by native Pacific bleeding hearts and golden California poppies. Flanked on the north, a thirty-foot-tall incense cedar provided straw for the garden paths and offered protection from the cool north wind.

“I saw Johnny Madrid today in Morro Coyo,” Murdoch began.

“Oh?” Aggie knew better than to say much more.

“Yes.” He took a few steps. “You know, when he left, I was surprised.”

“Surprised he left?” Aggie raised an eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t approve of him.”

“No, not that. I was surprised at...how,” Murdoch gulped. He continued bravely. “How I...felt.” It was still hard to open up to anyone, especially a woman, even Aggie. “I...there was a sadness, an emptiness almost.” It was easier to speak of his feelings in the third person.

Aggie nodded. “I understand. He’s your son.”

“But this baby...well, I think it’s helping to fill that emptiness. And when I saw Johnny today, I was so happy that he hadn’t left the area. I, well, it’s just hard to explain.”

“You don’t have to explain it to me, Murdoch. I understand. All you have to be with me is you.”

Murdoch grinned. It was like that with Aggie. He could just be. He gave her shoulders a squeeze.

They walked silently, his arm still around her shoulders. It felt good to be holding a woman like that. It had been too long, far too long, to have such a friendship with a woman. No, he rethought, this was beyond friendship, beyond companionship even. This was something more precious. With Maria it had been all passion. This was more like what he’d had with Catherine, a deeper, more open relationship. Murdoch smiled. Aggie smiled back at him. Things were indeed looking up.

 

The Reverend Timothy Root

That Saturday was a blur to Scott and Abby. Ignacio Torres braved the surprise rainstorm that hit the valley and spent nearly the entire day at Lancer, bringing more ideas for the nursery for them to discuss. Every time they settled on one thought, a new one would enter into the mix, bringing them back to square one. They spent the entire day and most of the evening talking about it all until they felt totally confused.

It was Aggie Conway who provided the way to an answer.

They were on their way to church in Green River, after having stopped at the Conway Ranch to pick up Aggie and Selena, the De Salvo girl who was living at Aggie’s because her family had been tortured and murdered by Pardee. She and Teresa were good friends, having become so in the painful days following her family’s death when she stayed at the Lancer hacienda.

Murdoch had felt guilty; he had asked the De Salvos for help in fighting Pardee. In response, Day had raided their small ranch committing unspeakable acts and taking her for his own sick purposes—to frame Johnny and to punish them for wanting to help Murdoch. Johnny had managed to escape Pardee’s plan and save Selena in the process. She came out physically unscathed but it had been too late for her family. Murdoch bore that burden alone.

Unbeknownst to Selena, he had begun work on restoring the De Salvo hacienda and grounds, removing all evidence of the horrors that occurred there. His plan was to offer Selena a choice of selling it or keeping it for herself, with him overseeing a tenant until she was of age. He owed her that much, and more.

Aggie had elected to take on the girl and Selena had been a wonderful addition to the Conway household. Aggie treated her like a daughter and gave her support and comfort, enabling her to properly grieve so she could get on with her life. Aggie was determined that Selena have opportunities that she wouldn’t have had before.

That grey Sunday morning, Murdoch rode along with Aggie in the Conway buggy, with Scott taking over the Lancer carriage with Abby and the two girls. Despite the continued dark weather, the girls chatted endlessly, keeping each other up to date on the events in their lives. Abby smiled at their cheerfulness and hoped to have at least two girls of her own to enjoy their sisterhood like these two.

The cool, depressing weather promised rain, like the previous day, and was quite unusual this late in the season. Everyone was bundled up in blankets with extra protection brought along for the almost-certain later precipitation. They wore their Sunday finest and the ladies didn’t want their outfits ruined by the foul weather.

Murdoch discussed the nursery situation with Aggie during the final leg of the trip and by the time they arrived, she had an idea. She crossed to the Lancer carriage, arriving just as Scott helped Abby down. “I hear you have nursery problems,” she began.

“Yes, Aggie. We can’t decide what we want to do,” Abby replied. “It is a tough decision.”

Aggie nodded. “I understand. So tell me, Murdoch says you both had the same type of nursery back East, right? What did you think of it?” Abby and Scott looked at each other, both suppress grimaces. Aggie smiled. “That bad, huh?”

“Yes,” Abby said. “We didn’t like being apart from the family. I’m sure it worked well for our parents, though.”

Aggie shrugged in her matter-of-fact way. “Forget about how your own parents did things, and how your grandfather arranged it for you, Scott. Don’t raise your children like that if you didn’t like it that way yourself. Make your nursery, your rooms, fit your lives, not someone else’s way of thinking.” She patted Abby on the back. “This is the time to have things your way.” Aggie didn’t wait for an reply, she lifted her skirts and headed over to see Dr. Sam Jenkins, who was talking with Murdoch.

“Why didn’t we think of that?” Abby asked Scott.

“Oh, I think we did, we just hadn’t realized it yet.” He took her arm and escorted her inside the church.

 

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

 

The Green River Community Church, on the corner of the main road and Church Street, stood at the end of town. It was a small building, erected in the Gothic Revival style—a sharp contrast to Morro Coyo’s Spanish-style mission church—and reflected Green River’s English background. It’s whitewashed clapboard siding complemented the wood-shingled roof, now grey with wear.

The church featured sharp gables consistent with its architecture and long narrow windows—two in the front, four on each side. Two side bays, each with a pair of the same long windows, provided access to either the side street or the wooded picnic grounds on the edge of town.

The grey front door was contained within a bell tower and set recessed to provide shade or protection from the elements. Above the door, curved triangular window, divided into three panes, provided light.

Inside, it was a simple building, with exposed beams in the roof to provide interest. The structure was only large enough for ten rows of pews in front of the altar, but each pew could hold up to twelve friendly people. Behind the altar was a large window with a heavy wooden cross in front. Two chairs sat on either side of the altar, one for the minister, another for a visitor.

The minister was new, and everyone was anxious to hear him preach. Timothy Root had come well-recommended, having graduated from Oberlin college with honors and having the finest of pedigrees. His great aunt was the first wife of famous Charles Grandison Finney, revivalist minister and President of Oberlin. He was a follower of his uncle’s teachings and anxious to prove himself. However, due to a scandal, they’d had to leave the East. They came to California to start afresh.

Reverend Root had met the old minister, Reverend Gilley, months ago Sacramento. They began a correspondence. Through his letters with Gilley, Root got to know the community. He even visited Gilley a few times. When Gilley faced retirement, he invited Root to join the up-and-coming Green River community. Root jumped at the chance, leaving Sacramento just two days later. He and his wife moved into the new Cattleman’s Hotel while they searched for suitable lodging in town.

On the frontier, with a new future ahead of him, Timothy Root wanted nothing more than to shape the community as he saw fit. He envisioned himself as the moral compass of the area, as a guiding father to the lawless West. A small town like Green River was the perfect fodder for him; why, it didn’t even have a sheriff! What a wonderful blank slate!

 

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

 

Scott and Abby took their seats next to Murdoch and Aggie. Sam Jenkins occupied the space next to Aggie and the girls rounded out their party. They had to squeeze in. The church was crowded, this being the first day for the new minister and all. Everyone wanted to meet him and to see what kind of a preacher he was.

Root looked out into the crowd from his alcove and smiled. “Darling, look how many people! So many who need my guidance!”

Elizabeth Root assessed the congregation. “Yes, and you can be sure the coffers will be full today.”

Root laughed. “The money is good, Elizabeth, but the opportunity to shape this community, to lead these lost sheep, that is the real reward.” He nodded to her and she took her seat, on the front pew, showing she was his most ardent fan.

The singing stopped and Root took the pulpit. “My new neighbors!” he began. “I am most happy and excited to be your minister, your leader as you forge your way through this violent and unstable world. Rest assured that you can always come to me for my support.” He introduced his wife and Elizabeth stood, turning to face the congregation for a moment before demurely re-taking her seat. She faced her husband, her eyes bright with admiration.

Root began his sermon in ernest. “My children, my first few days in Green River have brought me distressing news. By now I am sure you have heard of the horrible display in neighboring Morro Coyo not that long ago. Why a wild gunfight, in the middle of the street, in the presence of innocent young women and children! I am sure that you, as much as I, abhor this violence.”

Scott glanced at Murdoch, a questioning look in his eyes. Murdoch shrugged. They returned their attention to the minister.

Reverend Root continued. “Yet, it happened, and when it was over, there was cheering and good will for the victor. My children, please understand that such violence and temper must not be rewarded. For the Bible says, in Proverbs chapter 16, verse 29 ‘A violent man enticeth his neighbour, and leadeth him into the way that is not good.’

“While I understand that the man who died was a known man of violence, the ruthless gunfighter Day Pardee, the man who slew him was also a killer, a notorious gunman in his own right, a man well-known for his sins, the infamous Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch froze. Scott gritted his teeth. Abby gripped his hand.

“My children, this cannot continue!” The minister admonished. “The admiration and cheers brought to the sinner Madrid is just what the Lord warned in Proverbs. Madrid deceived the good people of that town, and maybe some of you as well, and led them and maybe some of you to reward him for his sinful deeds.”

Murdoch glanced around furtively, noticing the subtle and not-so-subtle nods of the congregation. He could see a muscle in Scott’s jaw working, indicating his anger. Abby held his hand tightly and busied herself by smoothing the wrinkles in her skirt. Sam frowned but Aggie’s face was unreadable. Both Selena and Teresa showed outward shock. Murdoch turned back to face the minister.

Root went on: “Proverbs 22, verses 24 and 25 goes on to advise that you ‘make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man thou shalt not go: lest thou learn his ways, and get a snare to thy soul.’ This means, my friends, that you should not befriend the likes of the evil Johnny Madrid. You could begin to follow his sinful habits and the Lord may turn away from you. The very fact that the good citizens of Morro Coyo cheered Madrid is evident that he has already become friendly with them, and those who follow him may already be in his trap. You must not be like them.”

It took Abby’s quiet hand squeezing Scott’s to keep him from standing up and walking out. She slowly shook her head when he glanced at her. He drew a deep breath and kept his seat.

The minister concluded: “It is your duty to turn away from such people, to let them know they are outcasts, not suitable for civilized society, until they repent from their sins, express regret for their past actions and a have a desire for change. Then only can we permit such men to walk our streets, among our innocents and young women, and into our hearts and lives. Let us pray.”

Root began a long prayer beseeching the Lord to forgive those taken in by Madrid and others like him, begging forgiveness for the sins of the people of Green River and Morro Coyo. He concluded by invoking God’s wrath upon those who continue to befriend evildoers.

At the conclusion of the service, the congregation murmured. Murdoch heard sounds of agreement with the minister, some louder than others. They filed outside, to greet and be greeted by Reverend Root. Most expressed their approval with the sermon, at finally having a community leader intent on ridding the area of violent men and making the streets safe for all.

Scott and Abby joined the crowd, but evaded the reverend by exiting through the side door in the bay leading to Church Street. It was raining by then; a steady fall making them all miserable. Scott jogged to their carriage to retrieve a tarp to put over Abby’s head.

Murdoch usually would have at least shaken the minister’s hand as he walked out of the church and making a positive comment, but today he did not. He merely nodded at the young reverend and walked out into the rain, placing his hat on his head and pulling on his gloves. Scott met him with protection for Aggie and the six of them walked back to their respective carriages.

Murdoch was silent as they left the church. Aggie was smart enough not to bother him when he brooded like this. She knew him well and realized the minister’s words had an affect on him, and it wasn’t a good one.

+++NOTE: Charles Grandison Finney was a leader in revivalist ministry, and a believer in the Christian Perfectionism movement, where the born-again Christian achieves perfection by faith alone, filling his/her heart with a total love of Christ and others. Salvation and repentance are overwhelming themes of his teachings. He and his first wife, Lydia Root Andrews, had six children. Finney was president of Oberlin College from 1851-1866.

I gave the minister Timothy Root a pedigree involving Finney. I made him related through a grandfather, who I have as the brother of Lydia Root Andrew’s mother, hence the common surname “Root.” He would have been greatly influenced by his charismatic “relative.”

 

The Murdoch Dialogues

The rain continued to fall during their journey back to Aggie’s ranchhouse, the clouds opening up on them like Root had done in his sermon. They drove back carefully, lest a horse stumble on the wet ground and fall. No one talked, letting the events of the morning sink in, like the wind and rain were doing now.

Huddled under the blankets and the tarps, they all managed to stay reasonably dry on the trip, but Aggie’s hat got ruined by the rain as she hurried from the buggy to her front door, and Teresa stepped into a puddle, soaking her slipper. The small accidents seemed to punctuate the good reverend’s sermon even more.

They had lunch at her ranch, giving the teen girls a chance to visit more. Selena was getting better daily, becoming happier and more accepting of her life now. Of course, she still missed her family, but Aggie had worked wonders with the girl. She and Teresa spent their time together in Selena’s room, chatting like teenage girls like to do.

After the meal, Aggie took Murdoch to the barn, avoiding the weather as much as possible. “Come see my new foal,” she invited, although that was not the reason she wanted Murdoch Lancer alone.

“He got to you, didn’t he?” she started when they entered the dark, cool barn. They were alone, the sounds of the raindrops amplified by the barn’s tin rooftop. The smell of hay was sweet and slightly damp. Aggie rubbed her upper arms.

“Who?”

“Reverend Root. What he said about Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch remained silent. She’d hit a nerve.

“Well, he may be off his mental reservation, but if you ask me, Murdoch, the man’s drawn a line in the sand.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s made Johnny Madrid the enemy, along with anyone who’s aligned themselves with him. And Root has dared the good people of Green River to come down hard against not only Madrid, but against Madrid’s friends as well.”

She waited. Murdoch gritted his teeth.

“And that includes us, my friend.”

“You?” He spun around, facing her. “No, not you. Madrid was helping me.”

“Yes, but I was there, too. I declared myself squarely on your side, along with Madrid. We were your allies. Both he and I fought for you.”

“If the reverend makes an issue out of this—” Murdoch stopped.

“Go on.”

Murdoch expelled a deep breath. “I could be ruined. Scott would be also, and their baby as well.”

“But when Madrid leaves...”

“He isn’t leaving. He’s helping us get answers.”

“What do you mean? I thought he was going.”

“He and Scott think it’s important to find out who hired Pardee. He’s been searching Pardee’s hideout for clues. Right now, he’s on his way to Visalia; he thinks he has way to find a name, or maybe discover some information about the stolen stallion. He’ll be back.”

“Why didn’t you stop him? Send word not to bother with this investigation, or be truthful and warn him about Reverend Root.”

“I’m not sure I want to stop him. And Scott and Johnny are—,” he hesitated.

“Are what? Friends?”

Murdoch breathed shallow breaths. Did he dare tell her? Would she understand?

“Are they more than friends, Murdoch?” Aggie’s voice had grown small, almost girlish.

He didn’t answer.

“Murdoch?”

His eyes slid shut. “Yes,” he breathed, the words barely a whisper.

“Are they...brothers?”

Murdoch’s eyes flew open. He gasped at her. “You ...knew?”

Aggie shrugged. “I guessed as much. He looks a lot like his mother. And you always kept her picture on your desk, along with Catherine’s. It’s gone now. I figured something must have happened to make you remove it. It made sense.”

“But...” he had no words.

Aggie smiled. “Does it bother me? Not one darn bit. He’s a good man, in spite of his profession. And you know I don’t give one whit about a man’s past. It’s how he behaves today that’s important. He came through for you. That’s enough for me.”

Murdoch managed a weak smile. “Thank you,” he breathed.

“Don’t mention it. Does anyone else know?”

“Sam, Scott and Abby. And Maria. She guessed it, too. When she saw him.”

“Okay, Murdoch. I’ll keep your secret. But with Reverend Root, I don’t know how long you can keep it yourself.”

“I’ll never tell,” he vowed.

Aggie laughed. “Never say never, my friend.”

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

 

Truth was, Murdoch was less angry about Root’s sermon than he was embarrassed. He himself had said roughly the same words to Johnny on their last conversation. He, too, had wanted the gunman to express regrets, in other words, repent, and his son had not. Murdoch had dismissed Johnny then much as the minister asked his congregation to do to unrepentant sinners.

But now, seeing his own feelings expressed in a slightly different way, with a slightly different goal, made him seem shallow and pompous, that if someone couldn’t live up to his high standards, well, then that person just wasn’t worthy of his companionship.

He understood Root’s sermon quite well, his own father had droned the message to him as a youth, and while it held godly aspirations, those teachings seemed less important here in the dynamic West where someone could just move to a new area and begin life anew than they had been in the Old Country, or even in the East.

Still, the message made sense. How could someone honestly change their life if they didn’t express regret or ask forgiveness—at least to themselves? And if they did not do that requirement, how were others to know of their redemption or their salvation?

Root’s delivery made the passage seem autocratic and domineering, and a person’s adherence to it to be arrogant and egotistical. That was not his belief. He had been taught, and he firmly believed, that repentance was merely the necessary first step toward redemption. After a transgression, one could simply not go on as if everything was fine without first apologizing to someone—the injured party, to God, to himself.

Had he failed to get the entire message to Johnny in much the same manner as Root had today? Had he emphasized the repentance to such a degree that he’d come across as egotistical? He didn’t know. He hoped not, for that was not his intention. He wished no ill will toward his son; in fact, he wanted the young man at home, where he belonged.

Root may want the same thing, but somehow he doubted it. The man was good at rallying his troops, as a good minister should, but that ability coupled with his fiery message made him a dangerous man as well. He would have to be watched.

And he, Murdoch, would have to try again to reach his younger son, to make him realize his obligations in the Christian world, even if all Johnny did was to make the necessary steps privately and only to God. That would be good enough for Murdoch.

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

 

“I take it you understood the not-so-veiled threat against us today in church?” Scott asked Murdoch. They were back at Lancer, having made the wet trek late in the afternoon. It was after supper and everyone else had gone to bed, wanting it to be tomorrow already and the rain gone. Only the two men sat next to the dying fire sipping their Scotch.

“Yes, I did.”

“That sanctimonious man! How dare he! Why he judged Johnny guilty. Without even knowing him!”

“Scott, calm down, son. You won’t be able to sleep if you get all riled up.”

Scott banged his fist on the arm of his chair. “But we should be alarmed, sir.”

“We are on notice, that is clear. But I think ‘alarmed’ is going a bit far.”

He gritted his teeth. “What are we to do, then?”

“We wait.” Murdoch sipped his drink.

“For?”

“To see what happens next. I’ll wager Root didn’t necessarily want to start a war, but to gather his flock against a common enemy. A little law and order wouldn’t hurt Green River, or Morro Coyo either. Sam told me today that Visalia is getting a US Marshal. If we would have had that resource before, things may have been different.

“This is good.” Scott nodded. “When is this marshal arriving?”

“A week, maybe two, Sam said. It’ll be nice having law and order just a few days’ ride away.”

Scott stood up. “But until then, we have Reverend Root stirring up trouble.”

“Yes, the reverend, well.. the point of his message is good. He just chose Johnny Madrid as his fodder.”

“No, it was more than that.”

“Maybe. That’s another thing we’ll have to wait on.”

Scott turned around and stared at his father. “Aren’t you just a little bit angry?”

Murdoch stood. “I was, yes. But remaining all upset about it won’t help. There isn’t anything we can do, and the good reverend does have a point. It’s best that we stay calm and play it out. Isn’t that what Johnny would suggest?”

Scott was about to reply but stopped. Of course Johnny would. He sighed. “You’re right. Johnny would take that route. We’ll wait.”

“And watch,” Murdoch advised.

“Yes, definitely watch. And watch out.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Murdoch lifted his glass.

 

Torres of Rain

Barranca walked over one of the wooden bridges that led into Goshen that Sunday evening. Goshen, a small town on a marshy island, was the current terminus of the Southern Pacific railroad. A spur line heading east was under construction by a private company to Visalia, the largest town between Stockton and Los Angeles.

Southern Pacific had selected Goshen as its terminal over neighboring Visalia because Goshen was largely unsettled and the railroad would have more control over the land. Additionally, Visalia, some nine miles west, was farther out of the way for the railroad and would have cost them more money to build there.

But right now, a very tired and wet Johnny Madrid didn’t care about the railroad or its interests. He was only concerned with his own wellbeing and that of his horse. He began looking for Goshen’s livery.

He had originally planned to make it all the way to Visalia by tonight, but like the previous day, the weather had not cooperated; it rained most of the way. Johnny was cold and wet and so was Barranca. Two days of grey skies and rain made Johnny feel rusted. Luckily, he found a good livery quickly and secured provisions for his golden amigo. He brushed the palomino dry and gave him plenty of fresh hay, oats and water.

Now all Johnny had to find was food and lodging for himself. Goshen was larger than Green River, but not by much. It boasted only one hotel, though—the Tule Grass Inn—so Johnny entered that establishment. He arranged for a room and a hot bath.

An hour later and changed into dry clothing, a clean and soothed Johnny Madrid emerged from the hotel in search of sustenance. He wanted a good cantina, but in this small town, more Anglo than Mexican, he doubted he would find such a place. His fears were realized, as he neared the end of the main street. There were only two choices, both promising gringo fare. Resigned to the blander food, Johnny selected the one closer to his hotel and entered.

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

 

Johnny rose late the next morning; the sun was already warming his window. He could have slept longer had not an annoying sunbeam been to torturing his eyelids. He yawned sleepily, stretching his body to force it to rouse.

Normally, Johnny had no problem waking, but after the two days of inclement weather, all he’d wanted to do was get warm and dry and stay that way. He wasn’t used to rain and cold; Mexico and the southwestern US didn’t have much of a rainy season. And rainy weather always made him feel depressed, lethargic and cranky. He was glad the sun was out today.

His wet clothing, which he’d rinsed out the previous evening and hung up against the window, had now dried, the sun finishing the job and giving the dark concho pants welcomed warmth as Johnny slipped into them this morning.

He took out the map and studied it once more. Not that he needed it. He’d studied it so many times on his journey, careful to keep it dry in the rain. Visalia. Venice Hills. Ortega. He knew it all. And it didn’t say much. He hoped it would be enough, though, to find something, anything, to make this miserable trip worthwhile. He gathered his belongings and checked out of his hotel.

He finished a quick breakfast of bacon, eggs and biscuits at the same gringo cafe he’d eaten the previous night. It was filling and the coffee hot.

He set out toward Visalia, some nine or ten miles away, but it would take him three or so hours. While the sun was out, the road was still quite muddy from the previous rain and going was slower than usual. Johnny did not want to risk injury to his horse on the crowded, rutted road. He kept Barranca to a walk. For once, the horse didn’t mind walking. It was as if he understood the reason for it. Either that, or he, like his master, hadn’t liked the weather nor the subsequent slipperiness of the muddy road as a result.

 

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

 

Ignacio Torres spent the morning at the Lancer hacienda. Abby told him excitedly about their decision. They would re-purpose the west wing into a large bedroom for themselves and a full nursery, with access to the nursery via a private corridor. The nursery would be large enough to house several children, and have a room for a governess. It was the best of both worlds. And the fact that it was farther away from the family was proving to be an asset, not a liability, as the work would be loud, and so would the children.

They drew up plans until Scott and Abby both liked them, making a few suggestions for changes they wanted. By late afternoon, they had most of the problems ironed out. Work could begin soon.

Ignatio promised to hire only the best men, men he trusted, who would do an excellent job. Abby made sure that he understood they were to clean up after themselves daily; she didn’t want to make extra work for Maria. Scott promised a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Ignatio left them smiling.

 

Miss Kitty

Scott drove the wagon into Morro Coyo, going to Mendez Supply to meet with Ignacio—”Nacho” as they now called him—Torres to purchase the first items for the changes to the hacienda. The preliminary plans were drawn and he wanted to begin deconstructing the upper floor of the west wing right away. It was a lot of work and he needed to make sure it was completed before the baby’s arrival.

Scott and Abby’s plans involved completely remaking the second floor of the west wing from a series of bedrooms with a central hall into two main areas: a large master suite with a sitting alcove and oversize wardrobe space, and an even larger nursery area, featuring four bedroom recesses, an enclosed room for a governess and a large central play and learning area for the children.

The nursery could be accessed in two ways. Scott and Abby could walk from their suite down a small, private, connecting hallway along the outside wall or anyone could get to the nursery from the main wing hallway, which would be relocated from the center of the wing to the inside wall.

It would accommodate up to four children at one time. Should they have more, or as the children grew older and no longer needed the nursery, they would address that issue at that time.

Abby busied herself with selecting fabrics and color schemes for the rooms. She ordered catalogs with ideas and supplies; realizing that just about everything would have to be ordered from either the East or possibly San Francisco. Mrs. Baldemero in Morro Coyo offered to help her with coordinating the ordering.

Teresa shared in the planning as well and, of course, Murdoch got in on the discussions, suggesting various woods from local forests, recommending other craftsmen and women who may prove useful to the project.

 

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

 

Johnny entered Visalia late in the afternoon and selected a small hotel on the outskirts of town. He boarded Barranca close by, not wanting to go into the heart of the town. He didn’t want to alert the population of his presence. He preferred to be as inconspicuous as possible. Hard to do, he realized, but he would try his best.

In his hotel room, Johnny changed clothing again, into his plainest pants—no conchos—and light blue shirt he’d taken from Scott’s room. He wanted to fit in, as much as possible. He hoped that change would be enough, with Visalia being so metropolitan, for the West, anyway.

Visalia was located on the western edge of the Sequoia Valley, a region known for agriculture. Many small and large farms operated out of the town. And it was close to the Sierra Nevada mountains, the tallest range in the United States. It had been founded only twenty years ago as Four Creeks. A pioneer named Nathaniel Vise built a fort and named the growing community after his ancestral home in Visalia, Kentucky.

And grown it had. For in that small span of time Four Creeks had become Visalia, the largest and most important town between Los Angeles and Stockton. It boasted many hotels and establishments, and drew businessmen, farmers and ranchers from the entire southern San Joaquin on a daily basis. It was the seat of government for nearly the entire valley. And it was just the kind of place Johnny  Madrid preferred to avoid.

Johnny found a small cafe and strode inside, ordering his lunch and eating quietly and quickly. He had other plans for the afternoon. He needed information about a farm and there were two possible sources. The first choice, the Land Agent, was one he loathed to visit. That meant officials and officials always kept records, remembered visitors, particularly those who asked questions. Johnny did not like that.

His other choice was to gain information in a roundabout way, from someone who may not have all the answers, but could provide some, and be discreet about it. Someone who would not reveal his visit or the nature of it. He needed a bordello.

Brothels were always a good choice for information-gathering. Most of the time, the women would be grateful for the chance to talk rather than perform, so they tended to be more than willing to share their knowledge. Also, clients tended to spill secrets to that type of lady, and most of the girls, while not admitting it, would tell on their johns for a price. He’d learned a long time ago not to reveal much to a whore.

Johnny set about to find such a house. He didn’t have to look far. Down a side street and across an alley he found Sophie’s Room and Board. Although the name suggested a legitimate lodger, he had learned better. The place looked like its name suggested with its homey curtains he could see on its windows, but he realized that was for the benefit of those on the outside. Once in, he saw it for what it was: a whorehouse.

He saw four girls, two of them entertaining men, one behind a bar and another sashaying toward him. “Get you a drink, cowboy?” the girl asked coyly. She looked too young to be a working girl, but her low-cut garish dress told him otherwise.

Johnny smiled at her, his most charming smile. It had an effect: the girl melted, releasing an audible “ohh” from her lips as she kind of went into a daze. Surprised by her reaction, he realized it was not quite what he wanted. The girl was too young for that particular smile. He toned it down a little.

“Yes, tequila would be fine,” he murmured. She reluctantly turned away to get his drink.

Another woman, the one from behind the bar approached next. “I’m Kitty. I run this place. Who can I get for ya, handsome?”

Kitty was older, red-headed, and definitely someone who may be able to help him. He turned that charming smile on again, full-blast this time. “Are you available?” he asked boyishly.

Kitty smiled, totally captivated. “For you, handsome, anytime.” She extended her arm and Johnny, into his role now, kissed the back of her hand. Kitty laughed. “Oh, you are a charmer!” It was working. She led him upstairs, stopping only for a few seconds while he collected his drink from the still-swooning younger girl.

Her room, a small, but tidy white box, contained minimal furniture: the requisite bed, a small dresser and an even smaller chair and table. The bed quilt was white and red, fashioned in a double wedding ring design, and Johnny smiled at the irony.

He finished his tequila and she offered him more, from her private stash. He declined, displaying his smile again. He needed to be direct with her from the beginning, but was unsure of her reaction. Sometimes when he wanted information from a whore, she balked, as if offended. Other times, she was relieved to have an easy client.

“What I really want, Kitty, is some information.” There, it was out. How would she react?

“What kind of information?” Kitty asked reservedly.

This one was smart. He couldn’t tell if she was happy or not. “Nothing scandalous, I assure you. I need information about a farm or ranch. Some time ago; I’m not sure if it’s been only months or a few years. What happened to it, where I could find the hacienda or farmhouse.”

“Is that all?”

Boy, she was a coy one. “For now,” he smiled again.

“Why don’t you try the Land Office?”

“Well...I want someone more discreet.”

“I see.” Kitty poured herself a drink. “Well, it’ll cost you.”

He was expecting that. “I’m prepared to pay. Your time is valuable.”

That did the trick. They agreed upon a price, Johnny put the money on her table and they sat down, he on the bed; she pulled the rickety chair over.

“How can I help you?” She leaned in. Had he been in the mood, he would have enjoyed the view she displayed. Her low-cut dress left little to his imagination.

He jerked his mind off her wares and showed her the map. “Does this name mean anything to you: Ortega?”

Kitty held up the old paper. “Maybe.” She traced her fingers over the upside down V’s next to the words ‘Vennis Hills’ and tapped them. “It’s spelled V-E-N-I-C-E. Like the place in Italy,” she told him.

Johnny didn’t tell her he already knew. He knew better than to interrupt.

She went on. “This could be the Ortega Ranch. It was a small place, maybe 5,000 acres. They had only a few cattle; mostly grew crops. It was more of a farm than a ranch.”

He leaned forward. “You speak as if it’s gone. What happened?”

“Well, they sold out. I can’t remember who bought it. But whoever it was, they sold parts of it to the two bordering farms. Tore down the barn and other buildings. Sold all the equipment. The hacienda is probably still there, though. It was adobe.”

“Any idea where it is?”

Kitty shook her head. “Probably along the St. John’s river. That’s north of here a little. Around these Venice Hills.” She tapped the map. “They are East of town. Can’t miss ‘em. But the Land Office would know exactly where.”

Johnny shook his head. “No. No land office.” He folded up the map and rose. “Anyone else come around, say a few months ago maybe, and ask questions about this place?”

Kitty cocked her head to the left. A few seconds later her eyebrows rose. “Come to think of it,” she said thoughtfully. “Someone did. Not as handsome as you, cowboy, but a man who wore his gun low like you. Dirty. Smelly, too. And he didn’t pay the girl, either. Scum ran out on her.”

“Did she remember his name?” Johnny knew it was far-fetched, but he had to try.

Kitty smiled. “You don’t visit cathouses often, do you?”

He laughed. “I was hoping I’d get lucky.”

“Well,” Kitty stood, smiling knowingly. “If you want to get lucky, it’ll cost you another two dollars.”

He laughed again. “I’ll keep you in mind.” He took her hand and kissed it. “Thank you.”

The woman blushed, to her own surprise. “No, thank you,” she replied. Before he left her her room, she grasped his arm and pulled him closer to her bosom. “You sure that’s all you want, honey?”

Johnny glanced down at her chest; it was ample and ripe. He’d love a romp, but he was here on business. He smiled. “It isn’t that you’re not charming, or that I’m not interested, Kitty, but I’m working today.”

She smiled fetchingly. “One can always mix business with pleasure.” She drew a painted nail along his arm. It sent shivers up his spine.

“Yes, I suppose one could.” He grinned. He considered taking in her delights; it wouldn’t be inconvenient, but it would delay him and he was curious to see what was going on at that hacienda. “Maybe another time,” he kissed her hand again, sighing as he closed the door on her.

 

Plata Viento

The midday sun was heating the back of Johnny’s shirt as he rode out of Visalia—the same direction he’d come. Again, he didn’t want to attract attention. Even dressed as he was, in plain black pants and his brother’s blue shirt, the palomino stood out. So did the way he wore his Colt. People were bound to notice. He didn’t want to ride through the town, even though it was a more direct route to where the Ortega farm had been.

He’d checked out of his hotel after leaving Kitty, intent on riding around the town, through the magnificent oak forests to its north. Still wishing to be as invisible as possible, he again resisted the land office, favoring to try to find the Ortega hacienda by himself.

He considered everything Kitty had told him. So someone had asked about Ortega’s place before. From what she said it made sense that it was one of Pardee’s men. Maybe that’s when they brought the horse here. It was entirely possible that the stallion was hidden in this area and he had a map leading directly to it!

Within an hour he found the St. John’s river. It flowed west, like all the other rivers in this part of the San Joaquin; its source somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range. They were breathtaking and he found it difficult to keep his eyes off their snow-covered peaks directly in front of him.

He followed the river eastward. Once he was past the town, he began to look for a road or path or some indication of one which may lead to where the hacienda could be. He could see the Venice Hills directly ahead, foothills to the majestic Sierras, and knew it was somewhere between where he was and those hills. He also reasoned that there probably wasn’t too many other roads in this area. Another several minutes of riding and he found what he thought was it.

The path was overgrown, with grass and weeds growing over its ruts, but it was a road nonetheless, a north-south road. He guessed it would intersect with the main road out of Visalia going East. It’s destination had to be the Ortega hacienda.

He crossed the river and followed the path, sure with each passing mile that he was on the right one. However, when it began to peter out late in the afternoon, he realized this was not the correct road. He doubled back to the river, riding Barranca at a canter. By the time he returned to the river, it was near dark. He made a quick camp, tended to his horse and rustled up some bacon and beans for his dinner.

It was cold that evening. He pulled his blanket snug over him and moved his bedroll a little closer to the fire. While still in the valley, the higher altitude this close to the Sierras influenced the nighttime chill. He wished he’d stayed another night in his hotel and it’s soft, warm bed, or better yet, shared Kitty’s, where he’d not only be warm and cozy under that double wedding-ring designed quilt, but sexually sated as well.

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

 

Early the next morning Johnny started out again, heating up his leftover beans and bacon for breakfast with plenty of hot, steaming coffee. He needed it, both to wake up and to warm up. It was still cold, but he knew it would warm up quickly and soon he would be sweating.

Even Barranca was sluggish today. He didn’t seem to want to start moving. “You miss your nice, warm barn?” Johnny asked the animal. “That lean-to was cozy, too.” He petted the horse. “You’ll soon be sleeping in more comfort, boy, I promise.” Barranca snorted in reply.

He again followed the river, this time on the north bank, still heading eastward, with the Venice Hills in his sights. About an hour later he found another path, also looking rather abandoned, but not as much as the one yesterday. Yet, he followed it, heading north.

He had to try all these paths for he didn’t know which one may lead him to his goal. He hoped to find the old Ortega hacienda that had been left standing. That was his best place for a clue. He wasn’t sure what he would find there, maybe nothing, but he’d come all this way, he may as well see it through.

This time the path didn’t peter out. It remained as overgrown as before, some places more so than others, but still a highly discernible road. The grass on either side was nearly hip high and Johnny was glad to be atop his horse and have such a good view of the landscape.

It was more rolling hills, like at Lancer, only this time not as many, nor were they as high. This had definitely been farm land. Ortega may have had a few cattle, but mostly he grew crops, of that Johnny was sure. He could still see deep ruts in the grasses where the fields had once been plowed.

The sun was high in the sky when he rounded a curve and saw it, an old two-story hacienda in the distance. It was fully encased in an adobe wall, just like the Spanish haciendas of old that he’d seen in Mexico as a child. There were no outbuildings, nothing but the hacienda and its surrounding wall. It looked deserted. This had to be it.

Johnny found a copse of oaks and hid Barranca, taking off his hat and watering the animal. He pulled several long drinks himself; he was thirsty. He waited in the shade, watching the old hacienda for any sign of life, but the high adobe walls prevented him from seeing much, just the L-shaped hacienda, an oak tree in the center of the front courtyard, and two arched gateways, one in front of the hacienda, one on its south side. The southern entrance, being twice as wide, must have been where the stables once stood.

Johnny waited the rest of the day, taking a snack of jerky strips under his hideout among the trees. It cooled off under the shade and they were perfectly hidden. If this place held some clue to find the stallion or Day’s employer, there must be someone around, or someone who would come in due time.

 

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

 

Johnny’s patience was rewarded about an hour before dusk when a rider approached from the north. Johnny watched him—a teen boy—tie his horse outside the front gate and use a key to gain entrance. The boy opened the gate carefully and slid in quickly, as if he didn’t want to be noticed. Johnny couldn’t see over the adobe walls to discover what, if anything, was inside. From this distance he couldn’t hear anything either. So he waited. Again.

About a half-hour later, the boy emerged from hacienda’s walls, opening and shutting the same gate with ease, again locking it back up and mounting his horse, riding back in the direction from which he came. Johnny waited until he was out of sight.

It was near dusk. If he was going to make his move, it had to be now. Johnny left Barranca under the trees and ran through the thigh-high grass toward the hacienda. He crouched as he ran, just in case the boy turned around and returned. He needn’t have bothered; the boy was long gone.

As Johnny approached the hacienda more details became clear. The adobe wall rose to two heights; about twelve feet high to the north of the main gate, about ten feet high until the second gate, then rising again to twelve around the back. Vines and bushes were overgrown in front of, and rising over, the adobe span. The hacienda’s roof was in need of repair; he noticed at least two patches where the red Spanish tile was missing.

He stopped at the main gate to listen. He had to focus on his breathing first and get it under control. He heard nothing. It was like a ghost house, yet Johnny knew something was there or else a rider wouldn’t have entered so cautiously. He listened again, pressing his ear to the wood of the gate. This time his trained ears picked up soft sounds, but was unable to make them out.

Johnny examined the lock. It was new. Now he was certain something valuable was inside. He tried to pick it, but was unsuccessful. Needing another way in, he examined the shrubbery. Most of the vines around the adobe wall were bougainvillea, a lovely green climber with vibrant reddish blooms. But Johnny knew the beautiful bougainvillea hid multiple sharp thorns which would rip him to shreds. He looked for another way over the wall.

He found an unpruned grapevine espalier, trained in an octopus pattern. It was overgrown, but the sturdy vines would provide him with a ladder. Johnny also knew that such untended vegetation could be unstable. He tested it first, and climbed carefully, misstepping once and almost falling.

When he reached the top, he was rewarded with a view of a once-beautiful courtyard. Circling the stately old oak in the center was a planter base of more adobe, about a foot or two high to provide seating for anyone so inclined. He saw a couple of oversized urns that had evidently once stood in the corners of the courtyard, but now lay on their side, one of them cracked open, its shards of clay strewn around it.

He noted with sadness an old, broken fountain against a staircase along the short side of the hacienda’s L, its bright blue tile now faded. It surely had been a delightful feature in its heyday.

His eyes followed the staircase up. All the rooms on the second floor opened to a porch running the length of the hacienda shaded by its roof. Most of the doors were missing; the only one which looked serviceable was partially open. No one had been in any of them, he bet, for months, if not a year or more. It had just been left, abandoned, with no care at all.

Looking downstairs, he saw the sala of the house on the first floor. It featured a large picture window facing the courtyard. Many of its frames were broken. The front door was ajar, but from where he was on the wall it seemed to be in decent shape. There was another door on the staircase wall, between the fountain and the porch. That door was closed.

Johnny shimmied on the rim, sitting atop the wall; it is about a foot wide. He looked for a way to climb back up the wall before jumping down. He didn’t want to be trapped inside. He saw a vine with white flowers growing on the far side of the wall, and since he’d never seen bougainvillea with white blooms, he assumed it would be a safe choice.

Johnny dropped down onto the courtyard. It was mostly dirt now, hardly any grass grew and what did grow, was cropped short. He also saw hoof prints in the dirt, and plenty of them. His hopes rose as he realized that a horse lived here. But where? The stables had been torn down.

He looked around, peering through the front picture window. There was bits of furniture in the sala: an old bench, a rustic table and very little else. What was there was broken. Even the fireplace looked unused. Johnny skulked to the door under the staircase. He listened. Hearing the same soft noises again, this time louder, he concluded this must be where the animal is hidden. But who would hide a horse in a room of a house?

Johnny examined this lock. It, too, was new, and looked just like the one on the gate. He tried to pick it, again with no luck. With darkness closing in, he felt he had few options, so he lifted his Colt and, standing to one side, fired at the lock. It fell to the ground in pieces, swinging the door wide. It banged on an opposite wall and bounced back.

Inside a horse neighed wildly, and Johnny heard the unmistakable sound of heavy hoof beats. Was this the grey stallion? He threw open the door again and the animal ran out, its silvery coat shining even in this dim light.

Johnny approached the horse cautiously. The stallion’s eyes were wide and wild-looking; he was clearly afraid. Johnny’s soothing voice soon had the animal calmed. Lighting a match, Johnny examined his coat. The stallion’s condition needed tending; he clearly needed more exercise. Johnny surmised that he was only allowed in the courtyard area around the hacienda each day; not enough for a robust stallion such as this.

He examined the horse’s left flank. Johnny saw a brand, but it wasn’t one he’d seen before. It was some sort of a design in a circle. He lit another match and brought it closer. Only then did he see evidence of double-branding. Some sort of brand was applied on top of what looked like a Lancer L. He had found Plata Viento.

 

Love and Pain and the Whole Sam Thing

Sam Jenkins arrived at Lancer late in the afternoon. He drove his little black buggy in the courtyard, coming to a halt in front of the main door. A Lancer hand greeted him and led his black mare to the barn.

Sam glanced around the busy hacienda. A couple of hands were sharpening implements, another small group was at the corral working on the new horses, the children of the hands who lived in the cottages and outbuildings ran around playing tag over near the other side of the barn. It was nice to see the ranch back to normal business; he was glad all that horrible mess with Pardee was over.

Sam had come to examine Abby and a couple of Lancer men who had been in scrapes earlier. He planned to stay for dinner and have a talk with Murdoch. Ever since Sunday services he’d been anxious to speak with his friend, but Murdoch had left so suddenly after church he didn’t get a chance then.

Not that it would have been a good idea. He saw Murdoch taking furtive glances around the congregation, noticed Scott’s reined-in anger, and he realized how upsetting parts of the sermon had been for his friend. He’d learned a long time ago to leave the man alone in that state, to give him a couple of days to think about it, then have a discussion.

He knocked on the door and a smiling Abby opened it wide for him. “Good afternoon, Sam. We’ve been expecting you. The injured men are in the guest cottage.” She led him to the small house adjacent to the hacienda. It had been the home of Teresa and her father, before he was killed.

“Sam!” Murdoch stood when he saw Sam at the cottage door. “Come on in. It seems like young Cal and José here got themselves tangled in some thorny brush. Cal injured his ankle trying to get out of it. Teresa and Abby have been tending them, but we’re all anxious for you to take a look. Some of these cuts look mean.”

Sam took over the medical duties, caring for the men, cleaning out the wounds, applying salves and such. He examined Cal’s tender ankle and found it sprained so he wrapped it well and told him to stay off of it for a week.

Outside the cottage he let Murdoch know the situation. “Keep José here at the hacienda a day or two, Murdoch. He can work, just close to home. The bandages  on the cuts on both of them need to be checked several times a day. We don’t want an infection to set in. Cal needs to have that foot propped up for about seven days. He’s to keep it wrapped. Light duties after that first week.”

Murdoch agreed and promised to give his men the proper care. It didn’t make sense to do anything otherwise. He needed his men healthy. Cal could help Maria shuck peas or something for dinner while he sat. That would give the young man something to do so he wouldn’t go stir crazy.

Teresa took over the nursing duties while Sam examined Abby in her bedroom. Scott was in the room with her. “Well, Abby, it looks like you are growing a healthy young Lancer there,” he said as he put away his stethoscope. “Don’t lift anything heavy and keep resting as often as you need it. You’re going to be tired a lot; that’s natural. You’ll be fine.” The young woman smiled. He turned to Scott. “She’s doing wonderfully, Scott. Healthy as a horse.” He knew Scott’s history and understood if the young man had some trepidation about his wife’s impending childbirth. “Have you been sick at all, Abby? Any nausea?”

Abby shook her head. “Nope. Not a bit. Just really, really tired.”

“Well, like I said, fatigue is natural. Just eat well and rest when you need it, otherwise, just go about your normal business. I’ll want to take another look at you in a few weeks, but if you notice any bleeding or pain, send for me right away.”

Abby nodded. “Of course, Sam. Thank you for coming.”

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

 

Sam followed Murdoch out the French doors and toward Teresa’s herb garden. Dinner had been delicious, with everyone complementing Abby’s cherry pie. On that back patio, the doctor glanced over the plantings, still visible in the fading light. There, still holding his glass of port, he felt it safe to breech a tender subject. “So, it seemed that you took some issue with our new minister’s message yesterday.”

Murdoch gave a grunt. He pointed to the small path meandering through the garden took a step toward it. Sam followed.

“That much, I see.” Sam sipped his Scotch.

Murdoch grunted again. “Scott was livid. He kept it hidden at lunch while at Aggie’s, but later that evening, he got a little out of hand. I had to calm him down.”

“That’s understandable. Our new minister came down quite hard on Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch sat his glass down on an old stump. He eased himself onto the small adjacent bench. “Yes, he did.”

“But he had some good points, too.” Sam took the bench opposite Murdoch on the small path.

“Yes, yes. Green River—and Morro Coyo, too—need law and order.”

“But?” Sam leaned toward his friend.

“Not at the expense of creating a war among the congregation.”

Sam relaxed a little. “Is that what you think it was?”

“I definitely got an ‘us vs them’ feeling.”

Sam let that digest, giving his friend time to expand.

“He made it clear that there’s a line and whoever is standing next to Johnny Madrid is on the wrong side of it. And that includes us.”

“Maybe he’s just trying to establish himself as a moral compass, a leader.”

“Moral compass, I can live with. That’s his job. But if he feels he needs to fabricate an enemy just to make himself a leader, well, that’s just wrong. You don’t demonize someone like that. It isn’t Christian.”

Sam shrugged. “He did have an awful lot of Bible verses supporting his point of view.”

Murdoch shook his head. “You mean he twisted them around to make his point. And to vilify Johnny to such extremes...that was hard to stomach.”

Sam smiled. “I seem to recall you doing the same thing a few weeks ago.”

Murdoch looked down. “Yes, I did. I was wrong to be so prejudiced, just as Reverend Root is wrong now. Johnny is a man who has done bad things, true, but he’s not the devil incarnate like the minister implies. Even I never thought him to be that bad.”

Sam nodded, saying nothing. He let Murdoch think about that. A few minutes passed, he began again. “Speaking of the devil, do you know where Madrid is?”

“Yes. He’s gone to Visalia. He found a map among the things left behind by Pardee’s men. He thinks it may lead to something.”

“Visalia? Isn’t that where our friend Buck Addison lives? The one who bought the old hotel and renovated it into a branch of his Cattleman’s Hotel?”

“Yes. One and the same.”

Sam chuckled. “You think he’ll stay in Addison’s hotel?”

Murdoch threw back his head, laughing. “Now I’d like to see that. Someone as rough around the edges as Johnny Madrid in such fine and luxurious surroundings.”

Sam angled his head. “He might surprise you, Murdoch.”

Murdoch smiled. “He’s done that before.” But his smile faded. Murdoch glanced away.

Sam noticed the change. “Something else bothering you?”

Murdoch said nothing. He rose and stood with his arms akimbo, staring out into the evening.

Sam smiled grimly. “I thought as much. Want to tell me?”

“It’s about Johnny Madrid,” Murdoch reluctantly admitted.

“Something else about him?”

Murdoch turned toward Sam. “You know what the reverend said about how we should make sinners like Madrid outcasts...”

“Yes, he did say that.”

“...until they repent, want to change their life, become good citizens.”

“Yes.”

Murdoch expelled a breath and looked down. “Well, that’s more or less what I told Johnny Madrid that last day he was here. I asked him if he had any regrets.”

Sam stood, surprised. “You did? Toward what purpose?”

“If he did, then he may want to change, make amends, and so forth. I could help him with that. I’d be able to accept him then.” His head rose, gazing at Sam.

“And therefore become a good citizen...and a good son.”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“Well, Murdoch, it seems you have a good deal in common with our new minister after all. Why were you so anxious then?”

Murdoch’s voice betrayed frustration. “Because he said no. Johnny had no regrets. He doesn’t want to change.” He clinched his fists.

Sam sat back, nodding. “Ah, I understand now. And with him not wanting to become that citizen who can walk among the innocents, you won’t have the opportunity to be his savior, the one who can lead him into the light. Instead you feel you’ll be blacklisted by your own friends in Green River. Particularly if they find out he’s your son.”

Murdoch expelled a ragged breath. “Something like that.” He sounded defeated.

Sam scratched his head. “I’d say you have one heck of a problem, Murdoch. Have you told anyone else who Madrid is?”

“Yes. Aggie.”

“How did she take it?”

Murdoch chuckled. “Well, you know Aggie. She was feeling the ‘us vs them’ too, with her on the ‘us’ side. She’d already guessed his relationship to me.”

“Aggie is a good woman. And Johnny Madrid does look a lot like his mother.”

“That she is, and he definitely does.”

Sam waited a few minutes. “So, the question remains, my friend, what do you want to do regarding Johnny? Do you still insist on change?”

Murdoch ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I don’t know. After he left I was so sad. I felt so empty. Worse than when Maria left before. I didn’t know what to do. I was helpless, like I felt when I couldn’t find Maria.” He sighed.

“Then came the news from Scott and Abby about the baby and I was overjoyed, elated, like I was when Catherine told me she was expecting.” He shook his head, remembering. “I’ve never gone from such depths to such heights in such a short time before. I’m usually well in control of my feelings, you know that.”

“You’re confused.”

“Yes.”

Sam smiled. “Well, don’t worry about it, Murdoch. Confusion tends to work itself out. Just enjoy this time now with the baby coming. Enjoy your feelings. Focus on the positive. You have much to be happy about.”

“And what about Reverend Root?”

“Let him be for now. Root may prove to be as popular as a wet dog at a parlor social.”

Somehow Murdoch doubted that. Root had too many sympathizers in the congregation today.

He nodded goodnight to his friend, purposely not mentioning everything he’d thought about yesterday. He wasn’t ready to voice those feelings, those intentions just now. But he knew he wanted to talk to Johnny again when he returned. By then he would know what to say.

 

The Horse Thief

Johnny had a problem. Having found Plata Viento in such poor conditions he couldn’t very well leave him in this abandoned and decaying hacienda, primarily alone and with only minimal care. Horses are social animals and need companionship; it was downright cruel to keep the stallion away from not only humans but other horses as well. He couldn’t in good conscience leave him and continue his suffering.

Besides he’d blasted the lock off the damn door to the horse’s ‘stall’. If he left the animal here after that little incident, the boy who cared for him—cared? Johnny snorted at that notion—would learn someone had been here. The horse would be moved. Johnny couldn’t have that. He might never again find the animal. As it was, finding him was mostly luck.

Plus, he was sure the boy would report the missing horse to whoever wanted the grey stallion kept here—he’d have to or face dire consequences. Johnny doubted the boy was keeping Plata Viento alone at this hacienda for himself. So, he’d tell someone. And that someone just might put two and two together and come up with Lancer. Things might heat up there again. Johnny definitely didn’t want that. Not with Abby being pregnant and all.

On the other hand, Johnny had never stolen a horse before in his life. He’d done a lot of other bad things, but he’d never resorted to horse thievery. He didn’t feel comfortable doing so now, even if he was nearly one hundred percent certain this was Plata Viento, his own father’s horse.

He stood for a moment, weighing his decision, staring down at the dirt in the old courtyard.

Leaving the horse there was morally wrong, he felt, and it perpetuated the original theft. It was bad for the horse and bad for Lancer.

Yet removing him was thievery in the eyes of the law. He could be hanged if caught. Hanging was a ghastly way to die; Johnny had always thought he’d go out in a gunfight, doing was he was best at.

Wrestling with himself, he thought of what Scott would do.

He knew Scott, being all proper and legal, would leave the horse here for now and ride immediately to the local sheriff in Visalia. He’d report the animal’s condition and state his belief of the true owner. He’d get the sheriff to start an investigation. He’d do things by the book and get to the bottom of this.

Once it was proven that the horse was indeed Plata Viento, Scott would take possession of the animal and return him to Lancer with the law’s blessing, maybe even with a deputy escort. He wouldn’t go off half-cocked and just take the horse. Not Scott. He wouldn’t even think about doing it that way.

But Johnny knew that doing it proper-like would take time. Lots of time. Lots of money, probably, and a great deal of legal effort. And who’s to say whoever was keeping him here wouldn’t steal him in the middle of it all and hide the horse from them all over again? Then they’d have to start from square one, and then they may not even find him a second time.

The horse needed better care now, that much was certain. Why not tend to the needs of the horse first, and leave the legal battles to the lawyers to sort out? Because no jury’s going to give Johnny Madrid the benefit of the doubt; he could be hanged before all that was done, that’s why.

Then there was the remote possibility that this horse wasn’t Plata Viento. It was entirely possible—but not plausible—that he was just another grey stallion. In the darkness, he could have been mistaken about the overbranding. If Johnny just took the animal to Lancer and found out that he wasn’t Murdoch’s stallion, then Johnny would really be in trouble—and he wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on. It would take all of Murdoch’s influence to help him and even though his father had seemed to have thawed when it came to him, he was still certain that Murdoch Lancer wouldn’t go out on a legal and public limb for him. He’d be acting alone and he knew it.

Johnny drew a deep breath, agonizing over this moral dilemma for a full ten minutes. In the end, his desire to get the horse into better conditions and back with his rightful owner won out over his trepidation at being caught as a horse thief. Once he reached that conclusion, he acted decisively and quickly. He knew his time was limited before the authorities got involved. Johnny wasn’t fond of being on the wrong end of a swinging rope.

He searched the animal’s “room” and found a lead for his halter. Thank God for small miracles. He wouldn’t have put it past the boy to have completely inadequate gear for the horse. The lead made his job a little easier.

Johnny called the grey to him, using his true name. At first the animal didn’t respond, then to Johnny’s near-constant urging in both Spanish and English, the horse lost his fear. He dropped his head and took that first tentative step.

Johnny didn’t move; he didn’t want to spook the horse. He kept up the soft Spanish and English mix with his hand held out, reaching toward the animal. Plata Viento took a second step, then a third. By then, Johnny felt it safe to approach the grey slowly, careful not to scare him. He didn’t want him to bolt and have to start over.

Plata Viento responded positively. He must have decided that Johnny was a friend. He allowed Johnny to feel his soft muzzle and stroke his head then his neck. “There, there,” Johnny crooned. “I’m bringing you home, boy. Wanna go see Murdoch? He’s been missing you.”

The horse answered by raising his head repeatedly and stomping the near-bare ground. Johnny laughed. Maybe Plata Viento understood him.

Snapping on the leather lead, Johnny led him to the side gate. “Let’s go, boy. Gonna get you outta here.” Like the front, this gate was secured with a new lock as well. He could see it from behind in the gap between the two doors.

Johnny figured he’d have to blast this lock, like he did the one on the door. At least by destroying the lock on this gate instead of the one on the front gate, the boy wouldn’t notice a problem for a few seconds longer. He felt pushed for time even though he was fairly certain the boy wouldn’t return until morning.

Johnny knew that once he took the horse, he had to get out of the Visalia vicinity fast. The farther away he was by dawn the better. He’d have to ride all night, but he’d take it easy; he didn’t think the stallion was in good enough condition for a hard run, not that he’d run the animals fast at night; it was just too dangerous, especially over open ground like this. He wasn’t sure how far he’d be able to get at a slower pace, though. The last thing he needed was a posse after him.

Johnny gripped the animal tighter, soothing him again. “Okay, Plata, I’m gonna have to fire at this lock. It’s going to make a lot of noise like I did before, but don’t you be afraid. I have you. You’re gonna be safe.” He held the lead with his left hand as he drew his gun with his right.

Johnny lifted his Colt carefully aimed between the gate. He wanted to hit only the padlock’s shank, in order to make as little of a mess as possible. He fired. His aim was true and the body of the lock flew out and banged back against the wood. The double gate held; it opened only slightly due to gravity.

Plata Viento reared and neighed in fear, but Johnny held him. It took both hands to bring the horse’s hooves down to earth. He crooned to the animal again, soothing his fears, stroking his soft muzzle.

Once the horse calmed down again, Johnny pushed open one side of the gate and led the animal out of the hacienda’s courtyard into the tall grass. He closed the door and arranged the shank of the broken lock as if it were still locked. He wanted to conceal the damage he’d done so everything looked all right from a distance.

Johnny grabbed the animal’s lead and guided him to the copse of trees where Barranca was hidden. He walked quickly in the dark. He elected not to ride the stallion for that short distance; he didn’t want to take the risk of being thrown and losing the animal. He figured the grey was at least green-broke; he could tell by the way the horse reacted to him. At least Plata Viento was following him willingly.

They reached the copse without incident. Johnny tied the stallion to a tree branch while he saddled Barranca as fast as he could in the darkness. Once the palomino was readied, he grabbed his rope from Barranca’s saddle and made a loop. He placed it over the grey’s head and removed the lead from his halter, stuffing it into his saddlebags, just in case he needed it later. He mounted Barranca and started the race back to Lancer.

Some race. He mostly had to walk the horses for fear of injuring them. He cut across the open land as there were no roads through the area and that was always even more dangerous in the dark. He remembered Sombra, his beloved black stallion, who he’d lost on just such a night galloping through an open field. He was not about to risk that happening again.

It was fully dark now, with only a partial moon promising to rise in an hour or so. Johnny pressed on, riding slowly due West through the high grasses of the farm valley. He hoped not to run into any cultivated land; he would have to go around it and that would take time. He wasn’t going very fast as it was.

When the moon did rise, Johnny increased the pace to a trot, still erring on the side of caution, but knowing he had a long way to go in a very short time. He’d taken much of the day to ride from Goshen to Visalia on the damp and rutted road. He knew it would take nearly all of the night to get back close to that area. And, remembering how marshy some of the land around Goshen was, he’d have to be even more careful as he neared the small town.

His luck held and all he found was fallow ground, covered in the same high grasses he’d seen around the hacienda. Whoever farmed this area must not be doing so this season. He was able to make decent time, considering. He kept looking to the south, at the forests between him and Visalia. They petered out before Goshen, he remembered. He looked for evidence that they were thinning and smiled once he was able to see more open area than trees. He was nearing the marshes. He was nearing Goshen.

He heard the sucking and squishing noises of the horses’ hooves in wet, muddy soil before he realized Barranca was already heading into a swamp. Turning north, he rode what he hoped was around it. He listened carefully for that tell-tell sound, happy when he no longer heard it.

He rode north for about a half hour more, thinking he was beyond the swamp now. He turned back West. He listened again. No squish. He smiled; no marsh. Just good hard land. He continued to listen, though, just in case. He was in a hurry, but he wasn’t going to endanger his horses.

It was nearly three in the morning when he crossed the Southern Pacific railroad tracks that led south to Goshen. He sighed in relief at being this far from the Visalia area, this far from that posse he was sure would come. He’d left after dusk and now, seven or so long hours later, he was beginning to feel more at ease. He still had a long way to go before he felt secure enough to stop and camp, though. He could just imagine a posse riding in on him sleeping in camp. No sir, that wasn’t going to happen to Johnny Madrid.

He needed to get around the marshes on the western side of the railroad. He’d camped in a marshy area once before and swore it off. He’d been wet and cold, and constantly worried about snakes and other unwelcome visitors. No, he would put off making camp until he was beyond the marshes to the west of Goshen, even if it meant driving tired animals farther than they wanted to go.

Again, he listened for the squishy sound to indicate the swamp, but Barrana’s footfalls indicated only solid ground. It meant he was farther north than he needed to be and would have to angle a little southward to hit Lancer. That was a  course correction for another day, though. His only concern tonight was being out of a posse’s—and sheriff’s—jurisdiction so he could rest.

Johnny continued his riding, ever heading westward, walking or trotting the animals. He stopped and made camp only when he was certain he was beyond all of the marshes on the west of Goshen. He found a small creek and dismounted near it’s banks, giving the animals a good, cool drink before brushing both of them and bedding them down. They had had a long, long night.

With the horses tended, Johnny took to his own needs. He visited the creek, refilling his canteen. He would have loved to splash around and clean up, but the water was too cold and he knew he’d end up freezing all night. No, it was better to do all that in the morning. He spread his bedroll. He was too tired to eat. Johnny was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the side of his saddle.

 

The Price You Pay

Young Peter Harlow glanced across the early morning pinkish-blue sky as he drove a wagon from his family’s farm. It was beginning to be a beautiful day. The morning still had the chill on it from the previous night but that would burn off, he knew, and it would shape up to be another fine day here west of the Sierras.

The wagon lumbered slowly across the fallow fields, its team of nearly-matched buckskin geldings almost knowing the way without guidance. The fourteen-year-old was headed toward the old Ortega hacienda, bringing oats and water for his charge. He’d done the same thing every morning before school for months now, and was paid handsomely for it by the man from Visalia. He didn’t even know who the man was, but his father did. His father had ordered him to do the job. And Peter had learned long ago to do everything his father said or face painful consequences.

So, every morning when it was still dark, Peter would load that wagon with implements, a bucket of oats, fresh hay and a keg of water. He’d hitch up the same buckskin team and drive to the hacienda. There, he’d unlock the larger side gate, drive the wagon inside and unload his goods. He’d muck out the room which served as the stallion’s stall while the animal ran around the courtyard. Then he’d feed him the oats and change the water before leaving the horse outside during the day. He would have liked to spend time grooming the animal, but his father had told him it wasn’t necessary; the man from Visalia hadn’t requested that. Beside, his father told him, taking the extra time would make him late for school.

In the evening after supper, he would ride back on his favorite pony and return the stallion to his “room,” still wanting to spend more time with the magnificent animal, but he was never allowed to do so. He always had to return home immediately. Peter would have loved to groom the grey on his second trip, but without his father’s permission, he wasn’t about to act alone.

Those were part of his daily chores, taking up a large amount of his time each and every day. He wondered again for the hundredth time why.

Why didn’t the man from Visalia, whoever he was, keep the horse in a livery? Or even a real stable or a real barn, around other horses or where he could be properly exercised? Surely a man who owned such a magnificent stallion had the means to care for it better than what Peter was allowed to do.

But as always, there were no answers. Peter didn’t know who to ask. He’d posed those same questions to his father long ago and gotten snarled insult and a backhand across his face for his effort, so he never asked again. Peter was no fool.

This morning he followed the same routine; the same buckskin team, the same laden wagon, the same early morning dewy trip. He crested a small rise and the hacienda came into sight, looking as forlorn and lonesome as ever. It had been a beauty in its day and the Ortega family had been wonderful neighbors. He remembered the Ortega patriarch as a kind old Mexican gentleman.

But the old man had died, leaving only four surviving daughters; his two sons had preceded him in death. His widow, unable to continue running the farm, had sold the property. He never knew the purchaser.

Whoever bought the old Ortega farm kept it only a short time. Almost immediately they partitioned the farm, selling half to his father and the other half to neighboring farmer. It was right after that big earthquake, the one on the other side of the Sierras, in the tiny town of Lone Pine, just north of Owens Lake in the Owens Valley. That earthquake had been devastating, not only to Lone Pine some 50 miles east, but here in the Visalia area as well. Peter’s family was lucky. They only lost their barn. Their house remained more or less intact.

Now only the hacienda remained, although Peter knew not why. Probably to house the stallion, he shrugged. While it was all interesting speculation, it really was none of his business.

All he knew was his daily routine, unaltered and unfailing. And it had become a bore. If he didn’t enjoy seeing the beautiful stallion each day, he would have given this chore to his younger brother. It was the same thing every day. The same humdrum thing. It never changed. Not ever.

But today he pulled the wagon around the corner of the adobe wall and immediately noticed something different. The gate looked slightly askew. Curious, Peter halted the horses and jumped down from the wagon to investigate. When he got there he saw the problem: the gate was merely closed, not locked. Its two sides were pulled together and not even tightly; one side was slightly ajar.

He maneuvered it open — no small task for the wiry teen. The double-wide gate was solid oak and quite heavy. Neither side wanted to budge. He had to push hard. The wood dug an arc in the ground thanks to the impaired hinge. Peter looked down and saw the remnants of the lock on the ground. It had been blown off, probably by a shotgun or a pistol, it looked to Peter. Scared for the horse, Peter ran around the L of the hacienda, skirting the fountain on the wall of the adobe staircase. The door to the stallion’s room was open. It’s lock blasted off, too. He stepped inside. No horse. He called for the animal, using the nickname he’d given him. No response. The magnificent grey stallion was gone. Someone had stolen it.

Peter was in trouble and he knew it. His father would skin him alive, but he knew he had to report this. To keep it a secret was unthinkable. Besides, a horse like that one wouldn’t be hard to find; it was even branded. He dashed back to the wagon and turned it around, racing back to his family farm.

 

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

 

Johnny reluctantly rose around seven, awakened by the morning sun as it broke through the leaves of the small tree he’d used as shelter. The sun mercilessly tickled his eyes until he was forced to open them. He yawned, still sleepy. When he realized the approximate time, he quickly became eager to get on his way. He knew Barranca was tired, and the grey stallion was out of shape, but he had to pick up speed and put many more miles between him and that hacienda before too much longer. He didn’t want a posse to come after him now after all that work last night to avoid that very thing.

By now, he was sure, someone must have discovered the missing horse. If that boy was the one who returned to the hacienda each morning, he’d do so early, before school if he attended. Dawn had been some two hours ago. It was entirely possible that the authorities had been already been alerted.

He hoped he had a few more hours, though, before they began tracking him, but he couldn’t be certain. He simply didn’t know the routine. He cursed himself for not doing that reconnaissance before going to the hacienda, for not waiting until morning and learning everything he could before going in, but he couldn’t have known that he’d discover the stallion, housed under unacceptable conditions and would have to act fast. Still, he was unprepared and didn’t like it.

Johnny was hugely concerned that the sheriff of Visalia would send telegrams about the missing stallion and alert Goshen and other surrounding communities. If Goshen authorities sent out a posse, he could be in serious trouble; he wasn’t that far from the island town. The last thing he wanted to do was to try to outrun an armed posse riding one tired horse and leading an out-of-condition one. He was fairly sure of that outcome and it wouldn’t be pleasant for him.

He rummaged through his saddlebags, seeking the bag of oats he carried for Barranca. He didn’t want to take the time for a full feeding, so he gave half of what the animals would usually eat now. He’d give them the rest later, once he had some more miles under his belt.

His own breakfast consisted of a piece of jerky washed down by a swig or two from his canteen. He quickly picked up his camp and began making preparations to get underway. As soon as the horses were finished, he led them to the stream and, once they’d drank their fill, he urged them forward. It was time to move on.

 

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

 

Scott followed the sound of metal striking metal until he found Murdoch, banging away at a red-hot horseshoe, trying to bend it into the proper shape. He waited until his father took a break to speak. “I just finished talking with Nacho.” He gestured toward the man riding away from the hacienda. “The work will begin tomorrow,” Scott told him. “Nacho has hired a couple of men to help him demolish the interior of the upper floor of the west wing. Are you certain about this?”

“Absolutely,” Murdoch nodded. He put down the hammer. “I want this baby to have the best start possible in life and if that means creating new living space for you and Abby, so be it. You’ll have your privacy this way and still have your children nearby. We’re not usually using the west wing rooms anyway.”

Scott clapped his hands. “All right, then. But just so you know. Abby plans to talk with every workman who enters this house, to let them know in no uncertain terms that they aren’t to track in any dirt or mud, and to clean up after themselves each and every day.”

Murdoch chuckled. “She does, does she? That I want to see!”

Scott laughed, too. “Well, she doesn’t want to burden Maria or the others with any more extra work than they have to. It’s bad enough Maria will have to feed them lunch.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ve already asked Josefina if she’ll help out her mother with meals for the workers. She’ll serve them out on the back patio.”

Scott was taken aback. “Isn’t Josefina rather young? Doesn’t she go to the mission school in Morro Coyo?”

“She is fourteen. School will be over for the summer in a few days . She has decided, with her parents’ blessing, not to return in the fall. They feel she’s had enough education and she is ready to begin contributing to the family.” When Scott started to protest, Murdoch continued, “Scott, this isn’t Boston. Josefina has already gotten a better education than most boys in California. She’ll be fine. And we need her. She wants to do this. And she’ll be paid. She’ll be contributing to her family.”

 

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

 

“What do ya mean he’s not there?” Riley Harlow boomed. Peter had ridden in like a crazy man on that wagon, scaring the chickens and the younger kids. The birds were still scattered around the farmhouse, the buckskins still blowing.

“The stallion was stolen, Pa. Someone blasted the lock off the gate.”

“Are you sure you locked it?” Harlow snarled.

“Yes, sir. I always do. I check both gates before leaving. All the time.”

Harlow grumbled. This was bad. Now he’d have to make a trip to Visalia. “Damn. Get me my horse. Now, boy!”

Peter ran to the barn, grateful not to be punished. He’d been expecting a licking. Moments later, his father’s gelding saddled, he led the animal to the front of the house. Riley Harlow hurried to the animal, and mounted it, barely acknowledging his son. Peter sighed in relief as the horse galloped away. He was spared. For now, anyway

+++NOTE: According to Wikipedia, the Lone Pine earthquake was one of the largest to hit California in recorded history. Striking at 2:35 in the morning on March 26, 1872 (a Tuesday), it is estimated to have been at least a 7.6 on the Richter scale (similar to the 1906 SF quake.)

The earthquake was strongly felt as far away as Sacramento. Naturalist John Muir, living in Yosemite Valley, was awakened by giant rockslides. The earthquake awakened people and stopped clocks as far south as San Diego, north as Red Bluff (Ca) and east as Elko (NV). Most of California and much of Nevada felt the shock. Aftershocks were severe.

 

Slap in the Face

Riley Harlow took off for Visalia without thinking. About ten minutes into the ride, however, he changed his mind. He needed to check out his son’s story first. Maybe the horse wasn’t stolen, but merely missing. He would need all the facts before heading into town.

He approached the hacienda carefully, looking around the surrounding area for any indications that something had gone wrong. He just couldn’t believe the boy. Someone blasting off the lock? Ridiculous. More likely the boy had let him out, accidentally or purposefully, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was getting the horse back before...well, he didn’t want to think about that.

Riley was a big man, tall and stout, and not one to take any quarter from anyone. He worked hard and he played hard, often drinking and gambling at Visalia’s Sierra Saloon. He was a difficult taskmaster and he swore that when he got home after finding the escaped animal, that useless son of his would pay.

He slowed his horse to a walk, surveying the hacienda with a practiced eye. He hadn’t been here since that cold night in January when he’s first housed the magnificent stallion in that room under the stairs. Nothing seemed out of place now. He spurred the gelding on, approaching the front wall. It was a still morning, only a few birds sang to interrupt the quiet.

His horse drew next to the front gate. It seemed just fine. The lock intact. So much for the boy’s lies. Still, there was another gate. He had to check that one. He rounded the far wall and stopped.

The near side of the double gate was fully open, having been pulled with effort against a failing hinge. He saw the dugout arc in the ground. The other side was still closed, but looked slightly crooked, as if one of its hinges was damaged as well. That shouldn’t be. He’d purchased new hinges and a lock when he secured the stallion; its door shouldn’t droop or sag. Peter should have had no problem open this gate, even with its bulk and weight.

Riley dismounted and walked to the gate, inspecting it quickly. Both its hinges were indeed damaged as if they’d endured a great shock. He glanced down and pulled back. His son hadn’t lied. Remnants of the new lock littered the sparse grass. He gasped in fear. For the first time he gave credence to his son’s claim that the horse had been taken.

Like Peter before him, Riley hastily rounded the L of the hacienda looking for the horse. He paused at the door to the stallion’s room and shook his head at seeing its lock blasted to bits as well. “No, no, no!” he cried as he hurried around the hacienda in a futile attempt to find the horse. “It’s can’t be!” He stopped in the middle of the courtyard with his arms akimbo. He was in trouble now.

 

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

 

Riley Harlow slowed his horse to a trot as he entered the outskirts of Visalia. The gelding blew hard, his flanks heaving. His master had ridden him hard and fast. He wasn’t used to such treatment. He was a farm horse, employed at pulling a plow or the buggy used by the family. When he was ridden by Riley Harlow, it was more often at a gentle rate. A hard gallop like the previous hour had been was rare indeed.

Harlow reined his horse up in front of Visalia’s Cattleman’s Hotel and tied him to the hitching post. The gelding, grateful for the respite, dipped his muzzle into the cool waters in the trough and drank deeply. His master patted him on the shoulder, absently thanking him for his service before stepping onto the boardwalk.

Riley drew a breath as he stopped near the entrance to the grand hotel. He dreaded revealing this news. He wasn’t sure what the man would say. He’d been most adamant back in early January when he told Riley of his charge.

“Riley Harlow,” the man had begun on that cold day, seated behind his big desk with his fingertips touching, “You’ve been gambling at the Sierra again.”

Riley had shrugged it off. He’d gambled at the saloon before. So what.

The man had smiled at Harlow’s nonchalance. “I bought all your markers, Harlow. You don’t owe the easy-going Daniel Gates anymore. You owe me.” At that point, the man had stood, drawing himself up to his full height.

Normally, Riley wouldn’t have been intimidated by this shorter man’s efforts, but this time he blanched. Harlow’s markers were a tidy sum indeed. This man could make trouble for him. “Yes, s-sir,” he’d stumbled over his words.

That’s when the man smiled, unexpectedly so to Riley. He’d frowned in confusion. “I can see that you’re disturbed, Harlow. Don’t be. I have no intention of collecting the money. It’s a favor I want from you.”

“A f-favor?” What could this fancy hotel man want from a simple farmer?

“Yes, Harlow. You remember the Ortega place, I’m sure.” He’d smiled wickedly then. Riley had nodded, knowing full well the significance. “Good. Because I have something I want you to tend to there.” From then the man went on to tell him about a horse, a grey stallion he’d wanted kept at the hacienda, away from prying eyes, hidden from everyone. The man had made it clear that no one was to know, and that the horse was to be well-fed and watered. His manner indicated that Riley was to ask no questions and do exactly as ordered. Or he’d demand payment in full for Riley’s markers. Instantly. Harlow would lose everything.

Riley had readily agreed to the arrangement, grateful for the reprieve. This was easy work and he assigned his eldest boy to the task. Up to today, nothing had gone wrong and Riley had felt free of his debt. He hadn’t questioned anything and nothing had passed between the two men since. And that was just fine with Riley.

But now, something had indeed gone very wrong. With the stallion missing, Harlow didn’t know what the man would do. He may even accuse Riley of stealing it. At the very least, the man could demand full payment for the markers. He briefly considered riding back to his farm as if nothing had happened, but he knew from past experience that denial and avoidance weren’t good strategies. Sooner or later, the man would learn of the stallion’s disappearance. Riley would rather it be sooner, and from him. It just might lessen the blow. He took off his hat and entered the establishment.

The Cattleman’s Hotel was the finest hotel in Visalia, rivaling those in Stockton, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Its lobby featured a large crystal chandelier, overstuffed chairs and small tables and lush blue draperies, and this was just the entrance. Harlow couldn’t even fathom what the rooms looked like. A place like this was way out of his league.

With a little hesitancy, he strode to the registration desk. Yes, it was a real desk, not merely the bar like most hotels he’d been in, and a carved wood one at that. A man in a dark suit sat at the desk writing on some papers. “H-hello,” Riley said anxiously.

The man stopped his work immediately and beamed a smile, standing and offering his hand to shake. “Why, hello! Welcome to the Cattleman’s Hotel. How may I help you today?”

Harlow tried to smile. “My name’s Riley Harlow. I wonder if I could talk to Mr...to Mr. Addison.”

The clerk’s smile didn’t even waver. “I shall see if Mr. Addison is available. Could you tell me the reason for your visit?” He examined Harlow from head to toe. Riley could tell the clerk wondered what business a man like him would have with the noted Mr. Addison.

Harlow cleared his throat to gain time and spoke the words he’d been told to say if he ever had to come here: “I came about a horse.”

A few minutes later, Riley was ushered into an office off the lobby. It was large and featured windows on two sides. Blue flowered wallpaper, trimmed in white, provided interest on all four sides. A stately oak desk occupied most of the room. Behind it, Mr. David “Buck” Addison stood, his arms akimbo, and a frown on his face. The door closed behind him.

“What about the horse, Harlow?” Addison was all business.

Riley stood as tall as he could, which was saying something as he was over six feet tall, but he still felt small next to Buck Addison. Not that Addison was taller, but he was just that much more commanding. “He’s gone, Mr. Addison. Stolen. My boy, Pete, went —”

“What do you mean, stolen?” Addison boomed. His face was pure rage. He leaned in, causing Harlow to take a step backward.

“Well, Mr. Addison, like I was sayin’, my boy, Pete, he went to care for the horse this mornin’ like always, only he came back too quickly. Came flyin’ in the yard, the wagon rattlin’, yellin’ that the horse was gone. Stolen, he said. Said the lock had been blown clean off. Both of ‘em. Me, I didn’t believe him so’s I went out there. An’ he was right, Mr. Addison. The horse is done gone and them locks are in pieces.”

Addison straightened and stood still, his face still red, his arms crossed. Harlow was even more scared. He could handle being yelled at, but this quiet, that was really frightening. Addison was a powerful man and could make Harlow’s life miserable. The big farmer tried to keep from trembling.

“Go home,” Addison finally said, his words clipped, his voice barely under control. “Get that gate fixed. I’ll find the horse.”

Riley knew when he was dismissed. He fled the room.

 

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

 

Addison turned and faced the windows, thinking wildly. In times like these, he tended to panic, especially when it involved anything related to Murdoch Lancer. Duncan, Gilford Duncan, was the man with the plans. He kept his cool. He would be able to think of reasonable reaction, but Duncan was in Green River. Buck needed to do something now, here in Visalia.

He forced himself to calm down. He even took a sip of the flask he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk. The burning liquid seared his throat, distracting him enough to get a hold of himself.

Wait, he told himself. Think. This wasn’t just any horse. The grey stallion been kept secluded, hidden, out of sight, at all times. The only way someone would have known about him—other than Harlow—was for that someone to go looking, specifically looking for this particular horse. There was only one party who would be interested in finding Plata Viento: Lancer.

Was Murdoch Lancer here? Could he be a guest at his own hotel? Addison blinked. He hadn’t seen the man, but it was a possibility. His hotel was the finest in town and Lancer had stayed here before. He surmised that Murdoch, being as wealthy and prominent as he was, would to seek the best places when he traveled; it was only natural that he would chose the Cattleman’s Hotel.

Addison strode quickly to Jameson, the desk clerk, and curtly demanded to see the registration book. Addison scanned the names. No, Lancer was not registered. He thought briefly and searched again for names of known thieves. Not that he expected any to jump out. A horse thief probably wouldn’t stay in his fancy and expensive hotel.

Buck scanned the names again, looking for any of Lancer’s friends. No, none were listed, at least, none of the friends Buck knew. He dropped the book and withdrew to his office. He needed to think some more.

He dismissed immediately any ideas of going to the town sheriff. He’d stolen the horse—well, had it stolen—in the first place. The last thing he wanted was to draw attention to that fact. After all, he’d spent a great deal of money and effort keeping the stallion hidden. He wasn’t about to bring it all to light now.

There were other hotels in town. Perhaps the person responsible had stayed—or was currently registered—in one of them. Visalia was the largest town between Los Angeles and Sacramento; it boasted several fine establishments and even more that weren’t so. He knew it would an hour, maybe two, to search every hotel.

Still, he had to try. And it was logical. Duncan would be proud of him. Grabbing his hat, Addison hurried out of the Cattleman’s, beginning a systematic search of all the hotels in town. He started at the east end of town and worked his way down, making sure he didn’t miss an establishment. He asked to see each of their registration books, merely saying “please” at their questioning looks. All the other owners knew Addison and complied with his wishes.

Addison visited every hotel, inn or boarding house looking through registers, asking questions, hoping to see or hear a name he may recognize as a friend of Lancer. He grew tired. He’d been searching for over an hour. Finally, in the last hotel in the west end of town, he found what he’d been looking for. There, in the registration book, was a name clear and neat: Johnny Madrid.

Johnny Madrid. He was the gunfighter who killed Day Pardee. His associate, Duncan, said Madrid intervened and took Scott Lancer’s place in the street. It did seem rather odd that the day before the grey stallion went missing, Johnny Madrid, a friend of Scott Lancer, had been in town, staying in this seedy hotel.

Buck panicked again, barely thanking the owner for the courtesy and raced out of that hotel. He hurried along the boardwalk, trying to get to his own hotel as soon as possible, breathing in short breaths, his heart pounding in fear.

The worst thing had happened. Lancer must have hired Madrid to find the stallion. Somehow Madrid or Lancer had learned the horse was nearby. Did they also know he was the one who had the horse?

If Lancer learned he was the one keeping the stallion, he’d jump to the conclusion he was the man behind Pardee. All his dreams would end. He’d be ruined, tried, convicted and hauled off to prison. If only he’d secluded the horse better!

Addison knew he had to get to Green River, and fast. Walking as quickly as he could without drawing attention, he returned to his hotel, sent a man to the Wells Fargo stage office for a ticket and packed a bag. He left orders that he’d be in Green River and for Jameson to be looking for telegrams from him.

On his way to the stage depot, Addison again had a moment of clarity. The horse was taken some time during the night. If it was Madrid, he would be high-tailing it west, trying to get to Lancer as quick as possible. Maybe it was possible to send someone to intercede. He paused at the telegraph station. Duncan would know who to send. He just might recover the stolen stallion without anyone knowing and get rid of that meddling Johnny Madrid in the process.

 

Go West Young Man

Barranca loped westward through grasses and fields of poppy, around rocks and rolling hillsides. The grey stallion, on a rope tied to Barranca’s saddle horn, followed gamely. It would have been a beautiful ride had Johnny not been on the run, on an under-rested horse and leading an easily-winded stolen stallion. Periodically he paused to look around, searching for signs of a posse and felt relief each time he found nothing. He urged Barranca forward; he wanted to put a few more miles between him and Visalia before stopping again.

He wasn’t able to get too far west before he noticed Barranca, with inadequate rest and food, began blowing almost as hard as the grey. Johnny slowed to a walk, preferring to move a little rather than stop completely. His palomino responded well and soon his breathing returned to normal. Still, Johnny knew he’d used the horse a lot lately and under unusual circumstances. First there had been the rainy trip to Visalia, then the search for the hacienda and that cold night, the waiting in the copse of oaks, and the escape in the dark. He still had a long way to go and he didn’t want to push Barranca too much; the horse was too good of an animal for that.

Only an hour or so later, Johnny decided to look for a place to camp. It was earlier than he really wanted to stop, but Barranca needed the rest; Lord knew the grey did. He saw a creek with excellent cover. This spot was peaceful, away from any known paths, and secluded by trees and a couple of larger boulders. He unsaddled Barranca and staked the horses, giving them the rest of their breakfast—Barranca from a feed bag, the stallion from his upturned hat.

He didn’t want to risk a fire lest the smoke indicate his location so he was unable to make coffee or heat any food. Left with cold choices, he pulled out more jerky to complete his own breakfast and spread his blanket under an oak tree next to one of the rocks. He placed the saddle against the boulder to create a softer backrest. Johnny plopped down, under the shade, and with the sound of the bubbling creek as a lullaby, soon fell asleep.

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

 

Gilford Duncan was annoyed. He re-read the telegram from his boss.

On my way to Green River via stage STOP Johnny Madrid stole grey stallion STOP Is en route to Lancer STOP Send men to intercept STOP Eliminate Madrid threat and reacquire horse STOP

The grey stallion? The horse Pardee had stolen from Lancer? Duncan shook his head. It couldn’t be. He distinctly remembered telling Addison that if he kept the horse he should keep it far away from Lancer with no way for the rancher to find him. Had Addison slipped up? Duncan didn’t know; he hadn’t been privy to Addison’s plans for the animal.

Evidently something had gone wrong. Johnny Madrid now had the horse and, according to this telegram, was on the way to Lancer with it. Duncan glanced at the paper again. His boss had given him precious little detail. Where was Madrid? How far west? Without that knowledge it would be difficult to know where to start looking, but he had to try. His boss tended to be difficult to live with if things like this weren’t dealt with efficiency.

Duncan knew a few men in the Green River area who weren’t adverse to tackling a job like this. With no time to waste, he immediately set about to finding them.

 

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

 

Johnny awoke with a start, having realized he’d slept longer than he wanted. The soft sounds of the creek had lured him into a deeper sleep. He jumped up, nearly scaring the grey, and tried to figure out what time it was. He found the sun and counted from the horizon. Two o’clock, thereabouts. He’d slept for nearly six hours. Understanding how much danger he was still in, Johnny quickly made ready to get underway.

He galloped Barranca, leading the stallion on his rope, westward toward Green River and Morro Coyo, paralleling roughly the same path he’d taken on Sombra all those weeks ago when he escorted Scott and Abby on the stage, but this time he avoided all of the roads, not wanting to be seen with the grey stallion, just in case anyone remembered it.

He didn’t know if he was far enough away to relax his vigilance or not. Visalia was more than a day’s ride by now, but Goshen was much closer. Johnny didn’t know if anyone there or in Cross Creek had been alerted to his thievery. He knew he couldn’t risk being seen with this animal, not if he’d been reported stolen. Too much was at stake.

 

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

 

Duncan quickly found the men for whom he was looking. Henry Kidder had sought employment at the hotel just last week and had been assigned to work in the stables. Bill Morse and Dan Logan were cowpunchers for the S Bar ranch. These three men weren’t working in their preferred occupation, though. All of them would rather use their gun to earn a living, thinking the life was glamorous and exciting, but none of them were good enough to get in the game full time. Duncan had met them at separate occasions during his travels for Addison.

He knew they would jump at the chance to take down Johnny Madrid, but they would have to act together and catch Madrid by surprise. Otherwise...well, they knew their chances were remote. Madrid was just that good.

Duncan picked up the pair at the S Bar first, only saying he had a more appealing job for them, and brought them to the hotel stables to meet with Kidder. He introduced them all and made his offer. As expected, the three readily agreed, but they wanted $100 each to do so. Duncan balked at paying that much and they negotiated down to $50 each and they could take whatever spoils off Madrid that they wanted, as long as the gunfighter was dead and Duncan got the grey stallion.

 

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

 

Johnny continued his journey West, avoiding the roads, but running roughly parallel to them as fast as the stallion’s reduced condition would allow. Johnny took this time to continue the work in re-conditioning him. He put the grey through paces, trotting, cantering, and galloping with periods of walking in between to build up his stamina. 

He figured he was more or less north of Cross Creek or perhaps a bit farther west. It was so darned hard to judge his location so far away from the road. He knew he should be closer to one of the stage line way stations, but he’d slept so much of the day. Well, he’d needed it. He and the horses had a rough night.

He started to angle a bit farther to the northwest. He wanted to avoid Green River. He’d be passing through Aggie Conway’s property once he crossed that creek—what was its name? He couldn’t remember, but it ran north-south and was fairly wide even if it was quite shallow.

He camped early so he would have time to rub down the stallion’s legs with liniment. It wouldn’t do for him to turn up lame or injure himself because of a sore muscle. The sun was going down as he lay down on his bedroll. Another fireless night meant no hot food. He would sure appreciate whatever Maria put on the Lancer dinner table when he got back to Lancer, no matter how bland it was. This jerky was tough, near tasteless and he was getting damned tired of it. He took a healthy swig of whiskey from his flask before settling down for the night.

 

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

 

Murdoch drove the Lancer carriage onto the courtyard of Aggie’s ranchouse. It was late afternoon and he was expected for dinner. Aggie had sent a rider to Lancer earlier to invite him for her famous fried chicken. He was looking forward to the meal and the company.

He and Aggie had become close since Pardee’s last raid on Lancer, and if it didn’t feel so right, so natural, it may have scared him how quickly their relationship grew. But Aggie had been his friend for many years and to have their friendship blossom, even this fast, seemed like the proper course of action.

For the first time in many years, Murdoch was able to open up to a woman. He didn’t feel that vulnerability with Aggie that he’d felt with other ladies who’d taken a shine to him. He liked his new feelings and he made a point to enjoy them, to let nature take its course and not be afraid of risk. That in itself was a great leap for him.

Being a wealthy bachelor rancher, Murdoch had been the object of desire of many an eligible woman, and he’d been seen with his share, but he never before had allowed a crack in his emotional walls. His hurt at Maria’s leaving had been so deep, so raw, even after many years, that he’d learned his lesson, or so he told himself.

But it was different with Aggie. He enjoyed her companionship, her openness, her counsel. And his highly developed defense mechanisms just faded away in her presence. He felt lighter, more free, and he relished it.

Murdoch Lancer was changing.

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

 

Scott climbed into the big bed he shared with Abby. She joined him minutes later, after brushing her hair for the evening. “Are you excited about the demolition starting tomorrow?” he asked.

“Yes,” Abby said, stiffling a yawn. She felt so fatigued lately.

Scott laughed. “I can tell. You can hardly keep awake.”

“It’s not that,” Abby mildly protested, yawning again. “I’m just tired. Big day.”

“Tomorrow will be bigger.

Scott waited for a reply. There was none. “Abby?” He looked over at his wife, her back to him, her eyes closed in quiet sleep and smiled. “Good night, darling,” he said softly.

 

Peaceful Easy Feeling?

Johnny was up at first light having enjoyed a good night’s sleep. He roused readily and began to tend to the horses. Barranca was in a good mood, too; he snorted and nodded his head impatiently, eager to be off. Even the grey stallion seemed in better spirits, as if he knew he was going home. Johnny fed them both before fulfilling his needs. He broke camp and they were ready to go within an hour.

Johnny continued angling slightly northwest, on a course to avoid Green River. This drove him farther from the main road, however, and made his location even more difficult to judge. He kept looking for that particular creek which signaled the Conway property line.

He also kept an eye out for a posse on his tail, although with each passing mile that possibility grew more remote. He was far enough away from Visalia and even Goshen now to begin to relax.

By late morning he figured he was north of the way station between Cross Creek and Green River, judging on his guess of his location and the speed he was able to travel, which still wasn’t very fast due to the constraints of the stallion’s condition. He decided to stop when he neared a small copse of oaks and give the animals some rest. It would be a good time to eat lunch—more jerky—and plan his next move: how to cross the Conway ranch in broad daylight without being seen.

If Conway hands were working in the particular area he’d be crossing, he’d run an excellent chance of being seen. They didn’t know him and would probably come to investigate. He didn’t want a confrontation; all he wanted was to get to Lancer as quickly and quietly as possible.

On the other hand, if the Conway cattle were on other pastures, then he wouldn’t have anything to worry about. He wished he knew more about ranching in general, and the particulars of the land here in the San Joaquin. He couldn’t venture a guess where cattle were grazed this time of the year.

He finished his jerky and remounted Barranca, grabbing the rope that led the grey stallion. They passed through the oaks, heading for an open area full of knee-high grasses. In the far distance he could see a dark green line running north to south. That could be the trees lining the creek he was looking for. Smiling, he kneed Barranca and they started to lope through the grasses.

 

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

 

Henry Kidder pulled his dapple grey to a halt. His companions, Bill Morse and Dan Logan rode up to him from opposite directions. They’d been riding since before dawn, heading east-northeast, looking for Johnny Madrid. They’d been told he’d be easy to take: he led a stolen horse and was alone. Still, a man with Madrid’s reputation wouldn’t go down smoothly. They knew they needed the upper hand, even with all three of them. Bill had seen Madrid take two men in a fair gunfight and knew three wouldn’t be much more of a stretch. However, they had no intentions of engaging Johnny Madrid in anything resembling a fair fight.

Their plan, quickly agreed upon, was to find Madrid and watch him, waiting for the right opportunity to ambush. Toward this end, they’d fanned out, searching the countryside for Madrid with his bounty.

At first they went directly east, figuring that Madrid hadn’t made it so far west just yet. After a couple of hours, they fanned out, taking a more northerly direction, in case Madrid was traveling faster than they expected. The relatively flat ground helped them in their search.

Henry had insisted in not using a gunshot as a signal when they found him; he did not want to alert Madrid. Instead, they agreed to ride toward the middle and wave a red bandanna when they were within sight. Near mid-morning, Bill saw a paint horse galloping his way.

“I found him,” Dan announced, his gelding heaving. He pointed slightly to the northeast. “He’s approaching Tule Creek. I saw him almost an hour ago. He should be getting near the water by now.”

“Let’s warn Henry,” Bill replied, kicking his roan. The two of them took off toward where the area where Henry was searching, farther west. A few minutes later, they saw him and Dan waved his bandanna. Henry came running.

As Henry pulled up on his dapple grey, Dan relayed his information. “He’ll soon be on Conway land,” Henry nodded. “If he’s heading toward Lancer, he’ll pass right by their Tule line shack. We can ambush him from there. If everything goes to plan, we’ll be celebrating our Saturday night in Green River in style! Let’s go!” He spurred his horse.

 

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

 

Johnny neared the trees that lined Tule Creek. He couldn’t see the water because of all the vegetation, but the horses smelled it. Barranca quickened his pace and even Plata Viento perked his ears. They were thirsty. It was a warm day.

As Johnny entered the trees, he slowed Barranca to a walk. The shade felt wonderfully cool after the bright midday sun. Johnny picked through the rocks and vegetation until they reached the water. It was the creek he’d been looking for, broad and shallow, signaling the eastern boundary of the Conway ranch.

He dismounted and squat down to drink, splashing his face and hair with the cool, sparkling waters. He briefly considered removing some of his clothes for a more refreshing rinse but dismissed it. As inviting as that sounded, it would take valuable time. While Johnny no longer feared a posse, he did want to reach Lancer by tonight; he was tired of jerky. The horses dipped their muzzles into the fast-moving creek, drinking deeply. Johnny looked across the span, but saw nothing other than a similar line of trees and rocks on the other side.

Beyond those trees lay the Conway ranch. Johnny had decided to travel through as nonchalantly as possible, hoping no one would approach him. It was a distinct possibility, given the vast expanse in the valley, unless a Conway crew was working up in this area.

If he was approached, well, he’d deal with that when it happened. And he just might see Murdoch; his father had been spending a great deal of time with the widow Aggie Conway. Maybe, just maybe, he’d catch him on his way there or back. Johnny snorted at that idea. It was just too remote to consider seriously.

Clicking to Barranca, Johnny approached his horse and mounted. “Let’s get going, mi amigo. We’re almost there.” Johnny figured three, maybe four hours left. He’d be back in time for dinner. Barranca blew as if he agreed and started across the creek. They emerged on the other side without incident and continued picking their way through the rocks and trees on Conway property.

Johnny halted Barranca before they emerged completely from the shade. He surveyed the land. This part of the ranch was relatively flat, with only small slopes and rises to keep it from being fully level. A few oaks, cottonwoods, bushes and rocks scattered around, adding more interest to the landscape. He could see the outline of a chimney and part of a wooden shack. A Conway line shack, no doubt, situated on the eastern border. He didn’t see smoke billowing but then again, he hadn’t expected to. It was the middle of the day. Odds were against anyone occupying the shack right now.

He saw no crews, no cattle, nothing to indicate anyone was in the area. It was quiet and peaceful. Johnny smiled. Maybe this would be easier than he thought. He clicked as he kneed Barranca. They stepped out into Conway land.

They walked, heading more-or-less westward, along a trajectory that would take him passed the line shack. He hoped to parallel the Lancer-Green River road and reach the hacienda by nightfall.

A bird called, catching his attention. Barranca’s ears perked. “Easy boy, it’s only a bird,” he crooned. But something else was there, too. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. A sudden feeling of unease gripped him. This land wasn’t as peaceful as it looked. Something was out there.

 

Morse Attacks!

Henry Kidder waited, hidden behind a tall valley oak near the empty Conway line shack. He glanced southward, toward his ally, Bill Morse. Bill lay prone, bareheaded, on the ground just atop the smallest of rises. Henry could just see the top of Bill’s brown hair, looking like a clump of dirt in the ankle-high grass. He smiled. Madrid would never be able to tell. In the middle and farther away was their other companion, Dan Logan. Dan had taken a spot where he’d look Madrid straight on; he crouched behind a thicket of snowberry bushes, completely unseen. If Kidder hadn’t known he was there, he’d never notice. The three of them formed a triangle for an effective ambush.

Morse and Logan watched their prey emerge from the line of trees along Tule Creek. They would have liked to signal Kidder, who’s view was obstructed by the trees around the line shack, but neither could do so without drawing attention.

They eyed Madrid as his palomino walked toward them. He seemed to be relaxed in the saddle—he nearly slouched. The grey stallion’s lead was tied to the saddle horn as he followed behind and to the palomino’s left. Morse nearly grinned; Madrid had no idea what he was walking into.

Henry Kidder glanced over at Morse. Bill’s body faced him, but he noticed Morse had turned his head slightly eastward. Madrid must be in sight! He peered around his tree, hoping for a peek.

Henry’s plan was to wait to open fire until Madrid was between him and Morse. He’d get hit from both sides and from Logan facing Madrid’s front. There was no way the gunfighter would survive a three-pronged attack like that. Even the weather was cooperating; there was enough cloud cover to keep them from being overheated as they waited.

Kidder finally got a glimpse of Madrid as the gunfighter walked his horse closer, bringing him nearer his fate with each step of that palomino. Henry had always wanted a golden horse and here was one that would be for the taking, once they’d finished off Madrid. He liked that idea. He peered anxiously, awaiting his next glimpse through the trees.

 

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

 

Bill Morse lay on the grass, belly down, his legs spread out behind him, facing Henry. He was positioned to fire as Madrid walked between him and Kidder, but now, faced with the prospect of being this close to taking down Johnny Madrid, Bill questioned the plan. Of the three of them, he alone was situated where he could fire right now. Kidder was behind several trees and didn’t have a clear view; Logan wasn’t yet within range. Morse knew that if he fired first, he’d not only have a clear shot, but would have bragging rights and Madrid’s reputation. The more he thought about it, the better it sounded. He could easily turn his rifle on Kidder and Logan afterwards and get away clean, with everything he wanted.

 

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

 

Dan Logan kneeled on the ground, as still as possible. He didn’t like being behind these bushes—its flowers attracted bees and Dan never liked bees—but he’d picked it because it gave him the best advantage. From his position facing Madrid, he not only had an excellent view of their prey, but of his two companions as well. When Kidder had suggested the plan, he’d objected, but he hadn’t meant it. Henry’s plan was a good one, for it would ensure Madrid’s death, but it put him in the unique position to eliminate his companions once the gunfighter lay on the ground. He alone would walk away, with the stallion, Madrid’s palomino and the gunfighter’s reputation. And if he played his cards right, he would be able to convince Duncan to give him their pay as well. He smiled at his good fortune.

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

 

Johnny walked Barranca westward. He would have liked to lope or gallop, with the intentions of reaching the Lancer hacienda this evening, but he couldn’t, not without knowing what exactly was out there. He knew something was, but it was just a feeling, he had nothing concrete to back it up.

Still, Johnny’s instincts were pretty good, honed from years of looking after himself, and he respected them. If they told him to watch out, he did so, even if it didn’t appear that he was on the alert. He’d long ago perfected the manner to watch and not seem to, to be tense and yet look relaxed.

Johnny swept his eyes left and right, searching for something out of the ordinary, some clue as to what was out there. Was it a danger, or something else? He saw nothing. No indication that—Wait! Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw a faint movement. In the grass. To his left. He resisted the urge to jerk his head in response, instead he scanned the area with only his eyes. There was a slight rise covered with grass, except for a patch of dark brown soil. That looked odd; other bare patches weren’t so dark. He quickly perused the vicinity. The ankle-high grass around the dark area seemed a little different; he couldn’t put his finger on it.

The sun came out from behind a cloud and Johnny saw a glimmer in the grass near that brown spot. It was a rifle! That brown had to be someone’s hair. Acting on instinct, Johnny whooped and kicked Barranca, grabbed his rifle from its boot and threw himself on the ground, rolling away from the now-surging horse.

Two shots rang out. Johnny continued to roll along the grass. He hoped his yell and Barranca’s sudden gallop provided enough of a diversion so by the time his attacker—attackers?— discovered where he’d gone, he would have found shelter.

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

 

Morse cursed. He’d made the decision to fire on Madrid first, shifting his rifle just as the sun came out from a cloud. The damned sun reflected off the rifle as he moved. Madrid had spooked. His palomino surged toward Bill, angling off to his right, taking the grey stallion with him. Bill had fired automatically. Where was Madrid? He’d seen the gunfighter fall out of the saddle but he couldn’t find his body on the grass, not without kneeling or standing and Bill wasn’t about to expose himself like that, not to someone as good as Johnny Madrid.

 

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

 

From behind the snowberry, Logan startled. “What the hell?” He muttered under his breath. He just saw Madrid dive out of the saddle as his horse galloped away. But why? He couldn’t have seen any of them. They were very well hidden. What had alerted the gunfighter? And where had he gone? Logan half-stood, still hidden in his thicket, but couldn’t locate Madrid or his body. Two shots had been fired, not simultaneously as planned but in rapid succession. Morse and Kidder had changed the plan. Well, damn it all!

 

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

 

Kidder cursed. His shot went wild. He hadn’t even had Madrid in his sights, he only reacted to Morse. He scowled at his comrade across the span. What had gotten into the man to break their plan? Henry didn’t even know where Madrid was. He heard the horses run away, but their hooves had faded already. He cursed Morse and the fact that he was in a bind; he couldn’t see what was going on.

The three waited, silent and still, for a sign, a movement, a noise, anything that told them where their prey had vanished. Morse and Logan could see the riderless horses. They were munching at the grass slowly angling back toward the creek. Kidder wanted desperately to move, to find a new place where he could see what was going on but he didn’t dare.

Logan glanced from side to side looking for Madrid’s body. He shouldn’t be hard to spot; his red shirt and black concho pants would stick out in the green grass. Surely one of those round silvery things on his pants would shimmer in the sun, wouldn’t it?

Morse had the best view but even he saw nothing other than the horses cropping the grass in the distance. He kept glancing over to them, thinking that Madrid would somehow creep their way, but he saw nothing. He cursed his bad luck again. If only the sun hadn’t picked that particular moment to show itself.

 

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

 

Johnny lay in the grass, still as if he was dead. He’d stopped his rolling and landed on his stomach. He tried to see his attacker, to no avail. Whoever he was he was either gone or better hidden.

As he scanned the area with his eyes, he realized that he’d rolled down a slight incline. The field he had been crossing wasn’t as flat as it had looked. It could be that this slant was providing him with minimal cover. There had been no further gunshots. Was his attacker still there? Johnny hadn’t heard any hooves running away except for Barranca’s and the stallion’s. No, his nemesis was still out there, waiting. Well, he could wait, too.

The sun warmed his bare head. His hat had fallen off when he thrust himself away from Barranca. He couldn’t see it; not that he would retrieve it even if he saw it. He wasn’t about to make any movement. Not yet, anyway.

 

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

 

Logan looked around but saw nothing. Nervous at being blinded by his surroundings, he slid around the tree searching for a better view. His heart pounded with each anxious step. He peeked again, hoping to see something relevant. He cursed. Again most of his view was obstructed by the other trees around the line shack. Why had he selected this particular spot for himself?

 

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

 

Johnny saw a movement in the oaks near the line shack. It looked like a shadow so he waited, watching. If it was only a shadow, it would dance due to the sun and movement of the limbs. This shadow didn’t move. Johnny smiled. He knew where someone was.

Was this his only attacker? There had been two shots, both from a rifle, but that didn’t mean there were two men. One man could have fired both, if he was good enough. Scott was that good, definitely. So was he. And he knew a number of other men who could have done so. He thought about it for a few minutes.

Neither shot had hit—at least they’d not hit him. Could either of the horses have been hurt? He’d not heard a painful sound from them, but that may or may not mean anything. He let that thought go.

Assuming neither shot had hit anything, one man—even a not-so-good shot could have fired them both. He knew nothing more than he did before. Not so, he corrected himself. He knew where one man was. And that little piece of information was significant.

If he could only decide what to do about it.

 

The Killing Field

The clouds moved off, making way for the sun to shine down mercilessly, driving the afternoon’s relentless heat. Bill Morse cursed again. He felt the brunt of it, lying in the grass on the hot ground with no hat, no canteen, no shade. If he wasn’t so afraid Madrid would shoot him dead, he’d get up and run away. But run where? His horse was stabled in the line shack’s lean-to, a good 500 feet of open land away. There wasn’t even a tree or a bush nearby where he could get some relief from the sun. He licked his lips; they were dry and cracked already. He needed water.

If only he hadn’t gotten greedy and tried to take Madrid first. Or that blasted sun stayed behind the clouds just one second more. This would all be over by now; they would have already plundered the gunfighter’s possessions and, for all he knew, could have been celebrating in Green River’s saloon.

Instead, he lay in the boiling sun, desperately wanting to quench his thirst, afraid to move lest he be gunned down by the dog Johnny Madrid. Morse cursed his luck.

 

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

 

Logan sighed. He was hot and frustrated. Crouching here behind this brake of snowberry was tiring. Several times he alternated his position behind the bushes, even sitting on the hot ground, all the while staying hidden behind their cover. He thought he had it easiest, though. He had a good view, could move around a little and still got a tiny amount of shade. But he was still thirsty.

And those damn bees! Why did they have to be attracted to the small, pink flowers? He hated bees. They were everywhere!

Logan went to change positions again, shoving off the ground with his left hand. He yelped. He turned his hand up and saw a bee that had stung him, hanging on to the tender skin of his palm. He shook his hand to dislodge the insect and  grabbed his injured hand. He scrambled away, trying not to cry out again, the stinger still embedded.

 

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

 

Johnny heard the cry of pain. He concentrated on the sound, trying to determine its origin. It came from a distance, further from where the man stood among the trees. So there were two. And they were spread out. It meant there weren’t many more; a large group of men wouldn’t be so scattered given the dimensions of the area. Besides, a large group would have sought him out by now, depending on their numbers to protect themselves. No, his attackers were few in number. Less than five, he figured. Maybe just those two.

Johnny considered his situation. He was trapped, prone, with his handgun and rifle and a knife in his boot. At least two unknown assailants were still in the area. They could not see him at present but he could see one of them, hiding among the trees near that line shack. If he moved, that person would surely be able to see him. If he stayed there, what could be the resolution? Could he just outwait his attackers? Would they merely give up after all this time? He doubted it. He would certainly be able to see them if they made a move to leave. Their horses were probably housed in the lean-to next to the shack. He had a clear view of that.

It would be dark in a couple of hours. He was sure once the sun went down that they would come after him. After all, they had the advantage. It’s what he would do. He had to do something before it got to that.

What would happen if he moved? If he ran toward the trees? He’d have to kill the one hiding near a tree first. The more he considered that idea the better it sounded. No matter where he moved he was bound to be shot at, he may as well make it useful and get to a better hiding spot. From the trees he could sneak around to the line shack if he needed. Yep, the more he thought about it, that seemed the logical and most advantageous move.

He viewed the area where he’d seen the man in the trees before, looking for that shadow. After studying each of the trees, he saw it, down toward the base of that oak, like a man crouching, unmoving.

Johnny lifted himself slightly so he could maneuver his rifle under his body to his right side. He readied the Winchester, took aim at the shadow, made a curse and fired. The report broke the late afternoon quiet. He heard a muffled cry then saw the shadow crumple to the ground. One down.

 

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

 

Morse heard a rifle shot, a muffled cry and saw Kidder crumple to the ground. His comrade lay on the ground, unmoving. Madrid killed him.

Bill was about to curse his luck when he thought of another possibility. Maybe it wasn’t Madrid who shot Kidder. Maybe it had been Logan. Was Dan the type to murder his companions? He didn’t know the man that well. It was possible. He glanced toward the thicket but saw nothing.

One thing was for sure. It was now two against one. And Madrid was good enough to take the both of them out easily. Morse grew anxious.

 

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

 

Logan had been occupied with his injured hand–it was swelling something awful—when he heard the shot. He looked up and saw Kidder’s body as it fell to the dirt. “Damn,” he muttered. Madrid had gotten to one of them. Or was it Madrid? He glanced over to Morse. His companion was still prone, in the exact same spot where he’d been since they began this ambush.

Ambush, Dan shook his head. Some ambush. They had planned it well enough but something—and he didn’t know what—had spooked Madrid. Maybe it was that sixth sense he’d heard about. Madrid seemed to always know when trouble was afoot. Now instead of having the advantage over the gunfighter, it looked like the tables were turned, especially since one of them was now apparently dead.

He studied Bill Morse as he lay on the ground. It didn’t look like the man had been the one to take the shot, but Bill did have an excellent view of Kidder. But what would that buy Morse? The thicket behind which he hid provided excellent cover. If Bill started shooting, it would be Logan who would finish it. No, it had to be Madrid. At least he hoped it was.

Logan wrapped his swollen hand as best he could and picked up his Colt. With only one hand, his rifle was useless, but he would be damned if he let Madrid come up and slaughter him where he hid.

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

 

Johnny looked around, taking as many chances as he dared, trying to see his other attacker. “Damn it all,” Johnny murmured to himself. He’d have to make a run for it anyway. Grasping the rifle, Johnny slowly lifted himself on all fours like a runner in the starting gate, positioning for a quick run toward the trees.

He drew a deep breath and took off, angling in case any shooting started, heading toward the scattered copse of trees near the line shack. As soon as he took his first step it happened. Gunshots. He continued his running, the bullets making the trip interesting until he threw himself down under the shade of a young oak. He rolled once and stood behind the tree. The shooting stopped.

Johnny saw the body of the man he’d killed. It was slumped over next another tree. It didn’t move, but that didn’t mean the man was dead. Johnny had to assume he was still alive.

He ran from tree to tree, heading in the general direction of the body. Sometimes gunshots would enliven his hops, telling him that in the trees he was hidden from his remaining attacker most, but not all, of the time.

When Johnny was only one tree away from the body, he could see that the man was dead. He breathed a little easier. A little.

With cover from the tree he stood behind, Johnny studied the area where he’d first seen the glint off the rifle. After a few seconds he saw the brown spot in the grass that he knew now was a man’s head. Deciding to act now while he could, he took careful aim and fired. The bullet exploded in the middle of that brown, expelling bits of bone and body. Two down.

But was that all? Were there any more attackers? He’d only known of these two. Johnny stood next to his tree, trying to figure out his next move.

 

Strange Bedfellows

The Green River stage was late, rolling in at nearly six in the evening. Buck Addison climbed down, exhausted and dusty. He’d hardly slept the previous night at the way station, so anxious he was to arrive. And he’d found his traveling companions a bore: a woman and her restless young daughter, and an older man who insisted on engaging both the mother and the young girl in conversation. He’d quickly grown tired of hearing of the child’s so-called cute escapades or how wonderful she was at her studies when he believed none of it. He was glad to get off that stage and to his own hotel.

The Green River branch of his Cattleman’s Hotel was finally complete and it was splendid. It wasn’t as opulent as its brother in Visalia, but it didn’t need to be either; Green River was still a small town. Addison entered and was quickly greeted by his staff. Within a matter of minutes, he was settled into his owner’s suite, with water being heated for his bath.

Soaking in the tub, it felt good to be rid the stage. He’d never really enjoyed traveling, except by train; he felt that was the only civilized way to travel. The occasional horseback ride was acceptable, a buggy or carriage was quite nice, but the stage was positively barbaric with all it’s bouncing and common folk for passengers.

Cleaned and refreshed, he dressed in a dark suit for dinner, making sure he looked every bit the part of the successful hotel owner and businessman he was. In the lobby, he looked around with an eye for detail, searching for anything out of place or needing attention. He found it exactly as it should be; he smiled. This was the way the hotel was supposed to be run.

“Your table, sir,” his manager said. Gilford Duncan was his most trusted associate, a man who had stood by his side for over ten years. He traveled for Addison, was his confidante, helped him open this branch hotel. It was even his idea. Addison rewarded him with the manager’s position. He had not been disappointed.

He nodded and followed Duncan into the dining area. It was small, but adequate, and, like the lobby before, in perfect condition. There were only seven tables, but the cloths were snowy white, the settings in place and the glassware sparkling. He was led to the best table, away from the kitchens, in the center of the room, under an even larger chandelier than the one in the lobby.

A couple stood at the entrance and waited to be seated. Duncan walked by them, an oversight Buck frowned at, but changed his mind when the manager whispered in his ear, “This is Green River’s new minister and his wife, Mr. Addison. I thought you may want to introduce yourself before we seat them.”

Buck nodded. “Of course. Thank you.” He stood immediately, smiled and walked to the couple, his arm outstretched. “Good evening, I understand you’re the new minister in town. My name is Buck Addison. I own this establishment. Would you care to join me?” He gestured to his table.

Reverend Root returned the smile. “Why of course, Mr. Addison. We’d be delighted.” Root pulled out a chair for his wife. He chose the seat next to Buck. Addison followed, motioning to a waiter.

The waiter approached, “Some wine, Reverend? It’s our finest.”

“Thank you.”

The waiter served the wine then discreetly withdrew. Addison picked up his goblet. “To your success here in Green River, Reverend.”

The minister and his wife took their glasses and smiled. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Addison. Your fine establishment has been a most gracious host while we find suitable lodging,” Reverend Root said.

“I am happy to hear that, Reverend. I personally trained the staff to meet the standards set by my flagship hotel, the Cattleman’s Hotel in Visalia. Unfortunately, I was at my home there and did not hear your inaugural sermon. How did it go?”

Elizabeth Root smiled. “It was a rather good one, Mr. Addison. My dear Timothy spoke of the bad element in the area in the form of gunfighters, and a Mr. Johnny Madrid in particular. He warned of the dangers of associating with such violent men.”

Buck hid his flinch at the mentioning of Madrid’s name. He quickly considered what the gunfighter was trying to do at this moment—return Lancer’s stolen horse—before banishing that unhappy thought and concentrating on the present. It seemed the good minister might make a good ally if he, too, hated Madrid. He quickly decided to run with that.

Buck nodded, “I fully understand, Mrs. Root. Such horrors! Why that gunfight in the streets of Morro Coyo was just scandalous!”

“Agreed, Mr Addison,” the Reverend chimed in, “And I assure you, under my watch that sort of filth will be driven out of the area, as well as those who chose to associate with them.”

Addison couldn’t be more pleased, but he dared not show it. Not yet, anyway. He needed to be sure of Root’s intentions. Playing a part, he hesitated, frowning. “But I’m sure, Reverend, you heard that Johnny Madrid stepped in to save young Scott Lancer from almost certain death at the hands of another, the dreaded Day Pardee.”

“Yes, I heard.” Root sat down his glass as the waiter brought salads. “But had the young Lancer been living a pious life and not associated himself with gunfighters, then he would never have been in that situation in the first place.”

So far so good. Keeping up his ruse, Addison smiled thinly. “Well, I assure you that I agree, but I daresay you’ll have a fair time of getting the Mr. Murdoch Lancer to say the same. And, as a word of warning, dear Reverend, Mr. Lancer is the wealthiest, most powerful rancher in these parts. It is not desirable to be on his bad side.”

Root sat back. “I am not afraid of Murdoch Lancer, or his wealth or power. I have the Lord with me. He who walks with filth is filth himself. And it is our duty to rebuke those who do sin, and to do so in public, to instill fear in others that they do not fall into the perils of a sinful life. If that includes Mr Lancer, then so be it. He shall soon find himself cast out if he continues his association with the likes of Johnny Madrid.”

Addison sat back, smiling. “That is a message I would like to hear in the pulpit, Reverend.” Well, well, well.

 

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

 

Dan Logan was scared. He’d seen Madrid coldly take out Morse with one shot and was now certain the gunfighter had done the same to Henry Kidder. He knew he’d be dispatched as easily, once the Madrid got half a chance at him. With his injured hand, he was practically useless—all he could use was his Colt. While the hand gun was good at close range, it was no match for Madrid’s Winchester.

He lay on the ground behind his brake of snowberry wondering what he could do. Madrid’s position, among the oaks next to the line shack, stopped Logan from making a run for the horses. He’d be cut down in seconds. He briefly considered giving up, but having heard stories of Madrid’s ruthlessness, decided that was suicidal as well. He had no choice but to stay where he was, hoping Madrid would make a mistake and give him the opportunity to find a way to gain the upper hand, as unlikely as that sounded.

 

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

 

Johnny waited behind his tree and listened. He was pretty sure there had only been two men attacking him, positioned as they were to hit him from both sides as he rode through the valley, but he wasn’t positive. There could be one or two more. He knew if he waited long enough they’d give themselves away.

But what if there had only been the two? He’d be waiting here for no reason. And surely, one of the Conway hands had heard all that rifle fire. Wouldn’t some of them be on their way? He preferred not to interact with them if he didn’t have to, especially with two dead bodies nearby.

Nope, that wouldn’t do at all. That would require explaining and he wasn’t up to that. Not when he had a stolen horse with him. He listened for a few minutes more and, upon hearing nothing, decided to take a quick look in the lean-to stable of Conway line shack. If there were more than two horses there, he’d have his answer.

He carefully ran from tree to tree toward the line shack. No rifle shots interrupted his trip this time, adding to the evidence that he’d killed all his attackers, but Johnny hadn’t lived this long by taking needless chances. It was relatively easy to see how many guns he still faced once he made it to that lean-to.

He made the last jump, to the back wall of the lean-to, and paused. No shots. All he had to do was maneuver alongside the outer wall toward the front of the line shack. Simple, really. Except he’d be fully exposed. No trees shaded that wall to protect him. If someone was waiting, he’d make a really good target for them.

He stood at the corner, his back to the outside wall of that lean-to, breathing hard, trying to decide. Make a run for it to make it inside the stable, or stay where he was, hoping...hoping for what? He didn’t know. All he knew was that the longer he waited, the more opportunity for someone from the Conway ranch to ride up and find him.

Knowing it had to be done, Johnny took a deep breath and took off, running full tilt, making his body as small a target as possible.

 

Freedom for the Stallion

Johnny ran for all he was worth, holding his breath while exposed along the side of the lean-to. Two shots rang out. He wasn’t hit. Yet. He skimmed around the front and threw himself inside the lean-to, making a roll before coming up on his knees, his Colt drawn, ready to face what was there.

He’d made it.

His eyes adjusted to the dim light and he saw three horses, side by side, still saddled. Now he knew there was exactly one more. But where? And why hadn’t his elusive attacker shot him when he was most exposed?

Not overly religious, Johnny nevertheless crossed himself as he drew a deep sigh. Something was on his side. The third man had missed a clear shot.

Could that man be injured? Or just a bad shot? Johnny had no answers. What he did have was his urgent feeling to get away. He just knew someone from Conway was coming. And the sun was fading. He had to escape.

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

 

Logan had seen Madrid move among the trees heading for the lean-to. He readied his rifle, using his left arm to steady it. The sting still throbbed, his left hand still useless. He knew he wouldn’t be able to hit the gunfighter, but he’d at least make things difficult for him if possible. And maybe, just maybe, he’d get lucky.

As Madrid began his sprint, Logan started firing. Twice. He hit the side of the building, that he knew; he heard the round impact with the wood. Had he been able to use his left hand, he may have hit Madrid, but as it was, he was grateful to have hit something under such conditions.

Now inside the building, Madrid had better shelter, he knew, but Logan refused to be taken without a fight. He dropped the rifle and picked up his hand gun. He’d use every last bullet in his Colt if necessary.

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

 

Johnny didn’t take long to make up his mind. With even more shots fired, he was certain someone at Conway had been alerted. They could arrive any minute. He decided to make a run for it. He untied two of the still-saddled horses and sandwiched himself between them, sliding his Winchester into the rifle boot on the horse to his left. Taking a bridle in each hand, he drew a deep breath. It was now or never. With a whoop, he ran between the animals, leading them around and away from the shack, back toward the creek. He expected rifle fire, but heard none, but he still ran between the horses as a precaution.

As he approached the creek, he whistled between his teeth for Barranca. When the palomino came within reach, Johnny released the horse on his right and grabbed his own horse’s rein. Thankfully, Plata Viento was still roped to Barranca’s saddle horn. Johnny ran with the three animals into the trees near the creek. Only when he was safely within their protection did he release the other horse, after retrieving his rifle.

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

 

Dan Logan gritted his teeth as Madrid escaped. He watched the gunfighter run toward the creek, using the two horses as a shield. He saw him retrieve that palomino of his and disappear into the trees by the water. He sighed in relief. What had begun with hopes of gaining Madrid’s reputation, his palomino and the stolen horse ended up with he himself getting away with just his life. And right now, Logan was just fine with that.

He waited, wanting to make sure Madrid was good and gone. He didn’t want a surprise counterattack from the gunfighter. Madrid knew he was out here somewhere and knowing what he did about the gunman, he just might come back to finish him off.

Logan heard hooves thudding in the distance and froze, listening. At least two horses approached. Fearing being caught by someone new, he threw caution to the wind and ran full tilt to the line shack. He entered the lean-to and mounted he only remaining horse. It was Kidder’s dapple grey, but he didn’t care. It was a horse and he was going to make good use of it. He kicked the animal and headed south toward Green River. Not once did he look back.

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

 

Ralph and Manuel from the Conway Ranch thundered into the vicinity of the line shack. They had been checking for strays when they heard the rifle fire. They dismissed the first two rounds, thinking it could have been from anything or nothing, but when they heard subsequent shots, they realized they could no longer ignore it. They headed straight toward the sound.

They slowed down once they reached the line shack. Manuel dismounted, drew his Colt and crept inside, but found it empty and untouched. He emerged and made his way to the lean-to. He saw evidence where it had been used but that was all. He stepped out, holstered his gun and rested his hands on his hips. He looked around.

Ralph had found the body of Bill Morse, laying on the ground with his rifle. “Over here!” he yelled. Manuel jogged to where Ralph was searching the body. “Ever see him?”

“Hard to tell, amigo. Half his head, it blown off.”

“I know. I’m looking in his pockets for anything that might tell me who he was.” Ralph stood up, his hands empty. “Nothing. Guess we’ll have to bury him nameless.”

Si,” his companion agreed. “You find anyone else?”

“Not yet. He was layin’ there kinda obvious.”

Manuel nodded. “I’m gonna go, take a look-see.” Manuel left his friend and walked the area surrounding the shack. After a few minutes he called out. “Amigo! I find another one! He dead like his compadre.”

Ralph and Manuel found two saddled horses while burying the men in the soft ground near the creek. They fashioned crosses from small branches but couldn’t carve names in either. None had any identification. “We’ll tell Mrs. Conway about this. I don’t know what they were here for but she should know about this.

“Si,” Manual agreed. Señora Conway would be mucho interested. They tied the surplus animals to their saddles and took off toward the hacienda.

 

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

 

Johnny realized he had no hope of reaching Lancer hacienda tonight, but having continued heading north along the creek for another half hour, he felt safe enough to stop and dismount. He listened for any activity.

Night had began to fall and he knew he should make camp, but he wanted to make sure he was clear any fallout from the attack. He didn’t know why the third man hadn’t hit him; it didn’t make sense, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t been followed. Just to be certain, he stayed within the protection of the trees around the creek, electing to spend the night at the creek before moving on at dawn.

It would be another jerky dinner and a cold camp, but right now he didn’t feel deprived, at least he was alive and well. Funny how a little thing like an ambush and narrow escape can turn the tables around and make a person grateful for the very things he’d been grousing about before.

 

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

 

At the Lancer dinner table, Murdoch made a sudden announcement. “I will not be attending services tomorrow in Green River,” he said after he drained his wine. “If the rest of you want to stay home, we can have a Bible study in Teresa’s garden. If the weather holds, it will be delightful. I think we have all been working very hard, and I feel we need a true day of rest.”

Scott and Abby were surprised, but both were relieved. They hadn’t liked the new minister’s sermon the previous week and were glad to get a reprieve. “That’s acceptable to us, Sir,” Scott nodded. “We’d be happy to enjoy an informal gathering this week. It has been rather hectic around here.”

“Agreed,” Abby smiled. She hadn’t been looking forward to being bounced around anyway.

“Teresa, how about you?”

The girl was frowning. “I’ll miss seeing my friend Selena,” she finally admitted.

Murdoch’s face brightened. “I have already solved that for you, dear girl. I invited Aggie Conway to join us and bring her young charge. They will be here tomorrow morning and join us for the day.”

At this news, Teresa smiled broadly. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer! That will be fun.”

“Then it’s settled,” Murdoch stated. He pushed his chair back from the table.

 

Never on Sunday

Dan Logan saddled the dapple grey he’d taken from the Conway line shack’s lean-to stable. It had been Henry Kidder’s mount, but Kidder was dead—killed by Johnny Madrid. Both he and the two dead men had been part of a conspiracy to murder Madrid and take everything he had—two stallions and his reputation among whatever other booty he had. But that plan didn’t go too well. Madrid had been alerted by something and of the three, only Dan ended up alive, high-tailing it away from the ambush site with whatever he could take with him. He just hoped he could get away clean from Green River.

Dan didn’t consider reporting back to his employer. Gilford Duncan was an old acquaintance, but he didn’t want to test those bonds by telling him this bad news. Nor did he want his pay; he hadn’t earned it anyway. He figured he’d just get on his horse and ride away.

He’d ridden away from the ambush the previous night intent on heading into Green River, but stopped just outside of town, waiting for a time when most people would be asleep before venturing into the settlement. He’d stayed in the shadows, not wanting to be seen or to see Duncan, just in case. And he’d slept with his horse in the livery, paying Señor Ortega’s handyman extra to look the other way. He had wanted to get away from town at first light, but not having anything to eat the previous evening, he was famished. so he’d visited a local cafe for a quick breakfast.

Now, as he saddled the animal which had become his, he wondered if riding away like this was such a good idea anyway. It seemed cowardly. Still...

“That isn’t your horse, Logan.”

Dan heard the voice. It was Duncan. Nodding to himself, he turned to face his employer. “Mornin’ Gil.”

Duncan was dressed up in his Sunday best, a dark suit, snowy white shirt and black tie. Even his boots were shined. He was a sharp contrast to Logan’s slept-in dirty clothes. “I take it whatever plan you three had didn’t work out.”

Dan nodded. Duncan was smart. There was no sense lying to him. “Nope. Somethin’ spooked Madrid. He knew about us. Dove off his horse and rolled away. He ended up shootin’ Kidder and Morse, I believe.”

Duncan raised an eyebrow. “You believe?”

“Well, I ain’t entirely one hunnert percent sure it was him who done both of ‘em. I wouldn’t put it past Morse to kill Kidder or t’other way ‘round.”

“It just wasn’t you.” Duncan didn’t sound convinced.

“Nope,” Logan shook his head. “Got stung by a bee.” He held up his injured hand, still wrapped in a dirty bandage. “I couldn’t use my rifle.”

Duncan looked like he was trying to digest this news. “So tell me what happened to Madrid.”

Logan shifted his feet. “He got away. Got to where our horses were. Ran between two o’them. I couldn’t shot him even if I coulda used both hands. He got to his palomino and the other stallion and ran into the trees by the creek.”

“What creek?”

“Tule Creek. By the Conway line shack. We found him headin’ that way. Set up a right good ambush, only...”

“Only Madrid happened.” Duncan shook his head. He would have hell to pay. Addison would not be happy. “So, you did nothing to him. He still has the stallion.”

“Seems that way.”

Duncan turned around, waving his hand away. “Get out of my sight, Logan.”

 

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

 

Duncan knocked on the door to Buck’s private quarters at the hotel. No sense in waiting. He knew he’d better get this over with. His boss would not be happy with what he had to say.

Addison opened the door, surprise on his face. “Why, Gil. I didn’t expect to see you before church.” He smiled as he let his manager in. Buck was finishing dressing for services. “You like them?” He held up a pair of boots. They were shiny and new, black with contrasting stitching in red thread. “I got them a few days ago. All the way from St. Louis.”

“They look wonderful, Mr. Addison.” Gilford didn’t want to break his boss’ good mood, but it had to be done. “I have disappointing news, Sir,” he began, watching Buck stomp into his boots.

“Oh?” Addison looked up. He returned his attention to his footwear, stomping around admiring how they looked under his neatly pressed black trousers. “What is this news?”

Duncan dove right into it. “He got away, Mr. Addison. Madrid. I hired three men to take care of him and somehow he discovered their plan. Madrid killed two of them. The other is leaving town on a dapple grey right now.”

Addison’s smile vanished. He ignored his clothing. “That’s all?” he asked flatly.

Gilford could tell Buck was angry, but Addison kept it under control. He chose his words carefully. “No, sir. Madrid still has the grey stallion. I expect he’ll arrive at Lancer with it some time today.”

“I see.” Addison turned away and stared out a window. “Thank you, Duncan. You tried at least. Thank you for that.”

Relieved that his boss’ anger had passed, Duncan withdrew from the room.

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

 

Dan Logan trotted his horse away from Green River, heading for Morro Coyo. He figured he could pick up a job there to tide him over until he could find something farther south. Without the money Duncan promised him, he’d be hard-pressed to make it all the way out of the San Joaquin.

He was a grateful man, happy to have been let off so easy by the man who hired him. Gilford Duncan had expected results, not failure. He was lucky he didn’t even get yelled at that much. Yep, Gil was all right. He understood that sometimes things go wrong and a job doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to.

He’d not gone far — maybe half a mile — when he noticed his horse’s gait becoming uneven. Logan sighed; he did not need a lame horse. He stopped the animal and dismounted, discovering that the dapple grey had picked up a stone in his right rear hoof. He considered returning to Green River and having the blacksmith tend to the problem. He didn’t posses those skills. But Green River meant the possibility of running into Duncan again and he didn’t want that. He’d been let off the hook and didn’t want to risk being seen and getting back on it.

Instead he retrieved a knife from his boot and tried to pick out the stone. It took a while, but he finally freed the stone from the poor animal’s hoof. He stood upright, grinning at himself for his success. Logan returned the knife to it’s hiding place slapped his hands together in a congratulatory manner before patting the animal on the rump. That wasn’t so bad, he told himself.

Dan Logan continued being pleased with himself right up until the gunshot rang out. He fell to the ground with a thud.

A carriage pulled up and a man jumped down. His boots created little clouds of dust as he approached the fallen man. With a toe, he rolled Logan’s body, making sure he was dead. He continued turning it over and over with his feet until it rolled into a ditch, not bothering to turn it face down.

The man gathered the dapple grey and tied it to the back of the buggy before heading back into town. He would be late for Sunday services and would have to shine his boots. He was not happy.

 

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

 

Sunday morning church services began as usual, with singing and introduction of newcomers. The minister himself introduced Buck Addison, who sat in the back today. Root emphasized Mr. Addison would be a part-time congregation member and he praised Buck’s establishment in Green River.

Buck stood and nodded to the congregation then sat down quietly, basking in the glow of recognition, wishing he could have sat closer to the front like a man of his position should. The minister’s endorsement would surely mean more business for his restaurant and hotel, and, should they venture to Visalia, they may just remember his business there. He would have to remember to thank Reverend Root after the services.

Dr Sam Jenkins sat on his usual pew, along with some members of outstanding Green River families. Sam looked around for his friend Murdoch Lancer; he did not see him.

Root also noticed the absence of the Lancer party, along with Aggie Conway. He was disappointed, for he had a rip-roaring sermon, a followup to the one from last week, and, thanks to Buck Addison’s suggestion, it was directly aimed at Murdoch Lancer himself. He continued with his planned lesson anyway, knowing it would have an effect; it would just take longer.

“My good neighbors,” the Reverend began, “last week, I told you of the dangers of associating with evil and violent men such as the gunfighter Johnny Madrid, that he would deceive you and lead you into a life of sin. This week, I shall be more direct. As you know, not so very long ago, the vile Johnny Madrid killed another violent man, the gunfighter Day Pardee, in a shootout in the middle of a street in neighboring Morro Coyo. Women and children were witnesses. Innocents were subjected to that horrific violence—one evil man killing another.”

Sam Jenkins drew up a sharp breath. He stiffened, angered at the minister comparing Johnny Madrid to the ruthless Day Pardee. The two were nothing alike; anyone who’d spent more than a minute with both would know, but would they remember that now? Root was working on making his case.

Reverend Root continued, “The evil Pardee had challenged someone who we thought was a respected member of our society, Scott Lancer, son of Murdoch Lancer. I ask you this, my friends, how did the despicable Pardee even know of young Lancer? Wasn’t he new to our land? And why did the nefarious Johnny Madrid come to his aid? How did he even know young Scott? Had Scott Lancer, and by extension, his father Murdoch Lancer, been involved with, or perhaps even friends with, either Pardee or Madrid? If so, why? And under what circumstances?”

Sam narrowed his eyes. So, the new minister was now attacking the Lancers? Calling them into question for defending themselves? It’s a good thing Murdoch isn’t here, he thought.

Sam heard murmurs among the congregation. Thanks to the good minister, apparently some of them had the same questions in their mind. Well, they certainly did now, Sam gritted his teeth.

The minister kept it up: “The fact that all those parties were involved with each other speaks volumes. Those wicked men have indeed corrupted the good men. Johnny Madrid and Day Pardee influenced an honored man and his well-bred son to display such violence in broad daylight, in front of innocents, and causing those very innocents to become corrupted themselves.”

Root was wound up now, fully into his sermon, and his voice displayed his vigor.

“You see, my dear friends, how involvements with such wicked men can lead to disaster? We cannot let this happen to the rest of you! I will not let this happen to you!”

The congregation murmured it’s agreement. The reverend smiled and raised his voice to a rally call:

“There is only one conclusion, dear citizens of Green River: we must rid ourselves of these vile men. Pardee is gone, but what of Madrid’s whereabouts? And those he has corrupted—Murdoch and Scott Lancer—where are they this morning? In first Timothy, chapter five, verse 20, it says ‘Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may know fear.’ We must rebuke not only the immoral Madrid, but those he has influenced, the Lancers, until they express regret and repent from their sins. Then we can forgive them, and let them back among our flock. Let us pray.”

 

What, Me Worry?

As Johnny neared the Lancer hacienda he felt more relaxed, his journey was almost over. He began to feel that he would actually make it back in one piece. It had been a tense few days, beginning with his decision to take the grey stallion and not letting up until just now.

He thought of his day. His journey today had taken longer than he had wanted but he could hardly be blamed. He’d camped the previous night under the shade of the oaks, cottonwoods and shrubs that grew on the banks of Tule Creek, the eastern border of Conway Ranch. He’d been up quite late, watching and trying to listen for either his remaining attackers to search for him or for Conway men to investigate the afternoon’s shootings. He’d thought he heard hooves pounding the ground around dusk, but hadn’t seen anyone.

After night fell, it had been cool under those trees so Johnny had bundled up, taking out an extra blanket for himself and throwing another one over the horses, staked next to each other for warmth. The rushing water had added to the chilled atmosphere and made it nearly impossible to hear as he crouched behind a rock.  Without his ears, he’d been extra vigilant, looking in all directions until his fatigue finally caught up with him. Hoping he was safe, he’d reluctantly crawled into his bedroll somewhere well after midnight.

With no sun to torment his eyelids open at dawn, he’d slept on, awakening at an hour long past when he’d wanted to be heading toward Lancer. To make matters worse, when he did rise, he did so slowly, lethargically, with little enthusiasm to lift his heavy saddle onto Barranca’s back. He’d blamed it on the chill.

The horses hadn’t seemed to mind the extra rest either. His palomino hadn’t even tried nudging him awake. It was as if the horse knew his master needed extra sleep.

So it was mid-morning when he emerged from the safety and peacefulness of Tule Creek, taking it slow while on the lookout for Conway hands and wary of danger. He saw no one, no cowboys out on the range, no hands mending fences, nothing to show that he was on a working cattle ranch. That gave him pause. What was going on? Had something happened? He slowed his trek even more, taking even greater precautions.

A couple of hours later he had a thought why he’d seen no workmen today. It must be Sunday. And while a ranch continued to run on the Lord’s day, it did so with a skeleton crew and light duties. Only an emergency would have compelled ranch hands on the range today.

But a Sunday meant other possible problems, most probable was the odds of running into a couple or a group out for a leisurely picnic, particularly in the afternoon. Johnny cursed his morning laziness; he would have surely been back at the Lancer hacienda by now. He periodically stood in the saddle for a better look for anyone on an outing.

 

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

 

Aggie Conway and Murdoch Lancer strolled away from the Lancer gardens. The sun was warm but the breeze cool in the shade of the great oak in front of their path. The morning Bible study had went well, a relaxed, low-key worshipping of the Lord and His bounty.

Now, Scott and Abby were overlooking the progress on the remodeling of the hacienda’s west wing and Selena was with Teresa helping set up for the picnic. Maria had made a ham.

“I had some disturbing news yesterday evening,” Aggie began.

“Oh? Tell me.” Murdoch motioned for her to sit on the bench which rounded the great oak’s trunk.

Aggie settled her skirts. “Two of my men discovered bodies on my eastern border late yesterday afternoon,” she told Murdoch. “Near the Tule Creek line shack. Ralph and Manuel were out riding the line when they heard gunshots. Several shots, they reported, yet each of the two men they found only had one wound.” She left out the grisly parts.

“Were they the bodies of your men?”

“No. They didn’t know who they were. And Ralph couldn’t find anything to lead him to identify them. It looked, Murdoch, like an ambush had taken place.”

Murdoch gulped. “Did they find any horses? Surely those two didn’t walk there.”

“Manuel found two, both drinking from Tule Creek. Fully saddled. They brought them to the ranch.”

Murdoch’s voice grew husky. “Probably theirs.”

“I think so. Neither was a palomino.”

She heard him sigh in relief.

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

 

“Oh, Scott! I can’t wait until it’s all finished! To have our own suite, and the baby so nearby...it’s like a dream.” Abby twirled around in the area that was to become their room. Right now, it was only partially demolished; the wall separating it from the next bedroom had been removed, opening up a large space.

Scott smiled at his wife’s antics. “Yes, it will be wonderful, more privacy and yet still close to our family.”

“This is so much better than what we would have had in Boston!”

“You think so?”

Abby nodded fiercely, “Yes! Most definitely! We have freedom here, and do you really think your grandfather would have allowed us to tear up half his house?”

Scott laughed. “No, he wouldn’t. He is proud of it the way it is.”

Abby ran to the window. It faced east, perfect for awakening them in the morning. “The view from here is magnificent! Just look at all that beautiful land!” She gestured toward the sunlight.

“Yes, it is lovely, but I worry, my love.”

“About what?”

“You, our child, here, in this wild land.”

“It isn’t that wild, darling.”

“Oh?” Scott raised an eyebrow. “It’s wild enough for my wife to have to learn to shoot and to have to kill a man. Wild enough for me to almost lose my life in a gunfight, of all things! Wild enough to not know from one day to the next if my wife will be safe or not.”

Abby grinned. She put a finger on his chest, running it down his shirt. “I know what your problem is, Scott.” She tapped his chest with the same finger. “You aren’t really afraid of the challenges that come with living here in California. You thrive on them. Your problem is that you just don’t want to admit it.”

Scott grumbled as he turned away to the window. Why did she have to be right all the time?

Abby laughed. “I knew it!” She approached him, placing a loving hand on his arm.  “It’s all right, Scott. It’s ok to say that you are enjoying being here, enjoying the risks, the rewards, the freedoms.”

He looked up at her. “You truly don’t miss Boston? Philadelphia?”

“I miss my family, yes, and our friends we made in Boston. But I’d much rather have this life than that one. I love being here. And I love you.”

Scott grinned. That was what he wanted to hear.

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

 

Sam Jenkins headed straight from church out to the Lancer hacienda. Murdoch rarely missed services—not that he blamed him for not coming today, with a message like that one—but he wanted to check his friend to make sure he was well. That and relate to him what the good minister had said. Trouble was afoot again in the guise of a man of God, and this kind of trouble was more dangerous than the Pardee kind. At least Pardee had been open.

His buggy rolled into the courtyard and he saw Aggie’s carriage. Of course. She was here, too. It made sense. They both were absent this morning, so it was natural that she was here with him.

A vaquero came to tend to his horse. Sam recognized the man as one who had left Lancer shortly after Pardee began making his raids. “Diego! Welcome back,” he called. “How is your wife and your children, are they okay, too?”

“They are all well, Señor Doctor. And we are happy to come back. Señor Lancer is most gracious to forgive me and allow me my job again.” He led Sam’s mare to the hitching post where she could get a drink.

“Of course he did,” Sam smiled. Diego had to leave early in the raids; his children were small and frightened easily. Sam patted the man on the back as he headed into the hacienda.

“Oh, Señor Doctor,” Diego called after him. “They are on the patio in the back. They have a picnic. I show you?”

“Not necessary, Diego. I know the way. Thank you.”

Sam walked through the great hacienda, entering the large oak door in the front and exiting the French doors on his way to the patio. He saw them all outside, Scott and Abby, Selena next to Teresa chatting endlessly with her friend, and Murdoch and Aggie all in a circle enjoying their picnic.

Murdoch stood when he saw his friend. “Sam! Come on and join us. We have ham and boiled eggs and plenty of fresh fruits. And you’ve got to try Selena’s corn salad. It’s delicious!” He pointed to a side table laden with food.

Sam eyed the food hungrily; it had been a long time since breakfast. His stomach growled, giving himself away. “Don’t mind if I do!” He picked up a plate and began to fill it, taking a generous slice of ham and a hefty spoonful of Selena’s salad. “It does look good, Selena. What’s in it?”

“It is my mother’s recipe,” Selena smiled. “Corn and onions, with fresh oil and cider vinegar and basil for color and surprise.”

Sam took a bite. It was very tasty. “Mmm,” he smiled. “It’s quite good. You’ll make a wonderful wife one day, Selena. Keep cooking like this!”

The girl blushed at his complements as Teresa grabbed her arm. The two of the dissolved into giggles.

“You attended services?” Scott asked, noting Sam’s church attire.

“Yes, I did,” the doctor said as he took a seat. Murdoch passed him the bottle of white wine. “And I daresay it’s a good thing none of you did.”

“Oh?”

“Yes,” Sam poured himself a glass. “You would have lost your appetite.” He went into a brief description of the reverend’s sermon, leaving out the most disturbing parts.

“So our new minister is still rallying his troops against Johnny, and now us,” Scott observed. “Nice to be the target.”

“That man is dangerous!” Aggie exclaimed. “Why Reverend Gilley recommended him, I’ll never know!”

“Maybe he was so bold because we weren’t there,” Murdoch put in. He had felt good about this morning’s Bible study, but now, guilt assailed him.

Sam shook his head. “I doubt it. He was prepared. Very prepared. He would have said the same things had you been there.”

“And probably looked us in the eye.” Aggie didn’t like the man and wasn’t shy about making her feelings known.

“Well, there’s only one thing we can do about it,” Abby said firmly. “We can’t let him bully us. We have to be there next Sunday and each Sunday afterwards, and hold our heads high.”

“Abby’s right,” Scott agreed. “If we stay home, no matter how appealing that is, it’ll just reinforce what he’s saying and the good citizens of Green River will be lead further astray.”

Sam ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I’m all in favor of making a show, just be careful about it.” He picked up his glass. “Oh, and he introduced an old friend at church today. Buck Addison. Said he would be a part-time congregation member. Means we’ll be seeing more of him.”

 

The Tale of Johnny Madrid

Johnny reined Barranca to a halt. He stood on the hillside overlooking the Lancer hacienda; it’s reddish Spanish tile glistened like the sparkle of diamonds. He had made it back with the grey stallion, a day late because of that ambush near the creek yesterday.

He was tired of the saddle and longed for a decent meal. He spurred Barranca on, galloping that last mile or so to reach his destination sooner.

As he approached the courtyard he saw two vehicles, a buggy and a carriage. He recognized the buggy as the one belonging to Dr Sam Jenkins. The carriage was unfamiliar. Hoping the doctor’s call was social and not medical, Johnny slowed his palomino into a canter.

A vaquero came to greet him. “¡Hola!” Diego called, holding up a hand.

Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop and jumped off, heading for the barn. “Get me Murdoch Lancer. ¡Rápidamente!” He continued into the barn, leading both horses.

Diego ran to the great door and knocked. Speaking rapid Spanish, he told Maria of a pistolero’s arrival and command. Diego stayed at the door, worried that el Patron would be furioso with him for allowing such vermin on his land. Diego had only recently returned to Lancer having left when the trouble with eso perro Day Pardee had first arrived; he had small children to worry about.

Maria entered the Great Room. She was concerned. Diego had spoken of a dangerous pistolero, taking over the barn, with two horses. She could tell the vaquero was frightened. She wondered what Señor Lancer would do. Could this be the start of another siege?

The girls Selena and Teresa were giggling as they entered from the French doors. The adults sat around the room, talking and laughing. Both Señora Conway and el medico Sam Jenkins were among them. She hated to break up the laughter, but Diego’s message must be delivered.

Señor Lancer,” she spoke hesitantly. They all stopped talking and gave her their attention. “Your sentry Diego has seen a rider. A man entered the courtyard and continued into the barn. A man with a gun, señor, and two horses. Diego was afraid.”

Scott stood up, glanced at his father with a questioning look, then faced Maria. “Was it Johnny? Johnny Madrid?”

Maria’s face brightened. “I do not know, Señor Scott. I did not see. And Diego does not know Señor Johnny.”

Scott faced Murdoch. “It’s got to be Johnny. And he’s got the stallion!” He ran to the door. Everyone else followed.

Sam turned to Murdoch. “The stallion, Murdoch? Johnny Madrid found your stolen grey?”

“I don’t know,” Murdoch replied, limping quickly for the door. “He may have.”

They rushed to the barn, its doors already open. Inside, they found Johnny emerging from a stall, carrying his saddle. Barranca happily munched on some hay.

“Johnny!” Scott called, running to his brother. The saddle dropped to the floor as he clasped his brother in a big bear hug. “I’m so glad to see you.”

Johnny smiled. “Me too, brother. It’s been quite a ride.”

“Did you find the stallion?” Scott asked, glancing in another stall where a light-colored horse stood.

“I think so. It looks like someone branded over the Lancer ‘L’, though.”

“I’ll take a look.” Scott strode toward the other stall.

Murdoch entered the barn. He’d tried to hurry only to be delayed by his bum leg. He saw Johnny talking to Scott and smiled, relief plain on his face. It quickly disappeared, though, replaced with curiosity. “Did you find Plata Viento?”

“Take a look,” Johnny gestured toward the other stall Scott was opening. He smiled.

Aggie held on to Murdoch’s arm. She, too, was beaming, knowing what the horse meant to him. The two of them walked to the stall.

Scott was examining the horse’s flank. “There’s sure a second brand on top of ours, he said, running his hand over the animal’s coat. “He looks a little out of condition.”

“Yeah, well, whoever had him wasn’t keeping him in the best of situations.” Johnny explained about the hacienda.

“You mean they were keeping him in a room of an old house?” Abby asked incredulously. “That’s...bizarre.” She shook her head.

“I’ll say,” Aggie frowned. “It’s almost cruel.”

“It was,” Scott stated. “A horse like this, with little exercise, in such surroundings, with no company.”

“Well, that’ll change now,” Murdoch stated. His face was grim.

“Can you just display him in public, though?” Sam asked. “He doesn’t show your brand anymore. You could be accused of stealing him.”

Murdoch stared at the horse. “I’ll dare any man to make that accusation. I have the papers to prove this animal is mine. If necessary, I’ll send for Don De La Cruz in San Diego.”

Scott stepped up. “Oh, I doubt anyone will impeach Murdoch. If he did so, he would implicate himself in the original theft.”

 

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

 

“I’m afraid your old room isn’t available anymore,” Abby told Johnny as they entered the house. “We are remodeling the west wing.” She apologized. “But we can accommodate you in the main part of the house. You’ll be away from the workmen and the noise.”

Johnny jerked his head back toward Murdoch, still walking back to the hacienda. “How will the Old Man feel about that? Me closer to all of you?”

Scott chuckled. “I don’t think he’ll mind. He’s so elated about the baby he’s almost giddy. And with you returning his prized stallion, well, I’d say that earns you an honored bedroom.”

“I don’t know, Scott. This is me you’re talking about.”

“Well, then we just won’t ask, will we?” Abby said sweetly. She smiled so innocently both men had to laugh.

“Johnny!” Murdoch called as the gunfighter began his trek up the stairs.

“Told ya,” Johnny whispered to Scott at his side. “He don’t want me up here with you.” Scott also stopped, and returned with Johnny to the Great Room.

The two brothers faced their father as one, but Murdoch wasn’t angry, he was smiling. “Please,” he invited, “Sit down.” He gestured to one of the chairs. The others filed in from the barn. Abby lingered by the stairs.

“First of all, I want to thank you for recovering my horse.” He turned toward the fireplace mantle. “You drink tequila, don’t you?” When Johnny nodded, Murdoch reached for the bottle and poured a drink. Handing it to the gunman, Murdoch continued. “It couldn’t have been easy. Tell us everything. Don’t leave out any details.”

Johnny hesitated, sipping his tequila as an excuse to delay while he thought. There were some details he needed to omit, particularly those pertaining to Kitty at Sophie’s Room and Board. “Well, when I got to Visalia, I checked into a hotel on the outskirts of town. I wanted as few people as possible to know I was there. Plus Visalia is a pretty big place; I don’t like big towns.”

Johnny sipped again, noticing everyone on the edge of their seats. Abby had advanced to the back of Scott’s chair. “I needed some information and I found out that someone at a...a boarding house may be able to tell me, so I went there. I learned enough to try to find the hacienda.” Johnny was glad they didn’t press for details.

He took another sip before continuing. “It took me over a day of looking, and once I found the old hacienda, I waited, watching it for the rest of the day, making sure it was safe to enter. Near dusk, I saw a boy ride up from the north. He went inside, stayed for a few minutes, then left, locking the gate, and riding back where he came from.

“That’s when I made my move. I ran to the hacienda, climbed over the wall into the courtyard. It looked deserted. I examined the place and I found the horse. I decided to take him so I shot the lock off, ran to Barranca and escaped. We traveled nearly due West back. It took a extra time because the stallion was in such poor condition.” He left out the ambush.

“Did you talk to the land agency?” Murdoch asked.

“No. I didn’t want to involve any officials.”

Scott leaned forward. “So you don’t know who purchased the Ortega farm? Who owned the old hacienda?”

“Nope. It didn’t matter. Once I saw the horse in those conditions, I wanted him out.”

“And you didn’t stay to see what happened when they found the horse missing?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny shook his head. “I had a stolen horse. I wasn’t about to stick around and watch for reactions.”

“So we have the horse, but we aren’t any closer to finding out who hired Pardee.” Scott surmised.

“Not yet, but I have some other information.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I have a name. Probably the name of the man who shot you—” he nodded to Murdoch, “—back in December. Drake. Ex-Johnny Reb. Sniper. I know his favorite saloon in San Diego.”

“Interesting how a lot of this goes back to San Diego,” Abby mused. “The horse is from there, this Drake can be found there...”

“It’s a border town, Abby. Lots of bad people in border towns,” Johnny explained.

“Well, if you ask me that brand on the horse is a big clue,” Aggie pointed out. She’d been silent until now.

“Agreed,” Murdoch nodded. “If we can figure it out. It didn’t look like a letter, just a lot of curls around a square inside a circle.”

They all nodded, knowing the difficulty in deciphering the brand. Johnny finished his drink. Murdoch stood. “Well, I won’t keep you, Johnny. I know you must be tired and hungry. Will you join us for dinner once you’ve washed up?”

Johnny nodded absently, only now realizing that his father had called him by his first name since his return and evidently had no objection to him being there. Scott was right; the man must be so happy about the baby he was forgetting to be cross with him. He didn’t complain, though. He knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. “Yep,” he grinned. “I could use a hot bath, a good meal and a soft bed.”

Murdoch clapped his hands, “Then it’s done. Maria will see to it your bath is drawn.”

The older Mexican woman entered the room beaming. “It is already being prepared for you, Señor Johnny. Come, I show you to your new room.”

The party broke up, but Sam grabbed Murdoch’s arm, leading him out the French doors onto the patio. When they were safely away from the house, Sam expressed concern. “Are you sure you’re doing the right thing, Murdoch? Having Johnny Madrid here, in your house?”

Murdoch looked surprised. “Why, Sam, I thought you approved of Johnny Madrid. You told me not that long ago that I should welcome him into my home as my son.”

“I know, however, with this business about Reverend Root...well, you remember what I told you about his sermon. He’s thrown down the gauntlet regarding Johnny Madrid and put you right in the middle of it.”

Murdoch grew pensive. “I know. I know. But I can’t just throw him out. He’s done me a huge favor returning the stallion. Besides, I think I want him here.” Sam frowned in worry. Murdoch smiled at his hold friend, patting him on the back. “Thanks for your concern, Sam. Truly. And while I am concerned that the minister could be trouble—” He smiled.

“Could be?” Sam interrupted. “He is trouble. He’s put you against him, against the congregation, possibly even against God. Or are you so happy about this baby that it’s clouding your judgement?”

Murdoch laughed. “If you could see yourself, Sam. Just the other week you were spouting the opposite story about Johnny.”

“The situation is a boiler keg. I know Johnny Madrid is a good man at heart, and he deserves to be here, by your side, as your son, but is now the time?”

Murdoch had not seen Sam so entreating. He slapped the doctor on the back. “First of all, old friend, I’ve not gone that far, baby or no baby. I’ve just invited him to spend the night and enjoy a good meal. I owe him at least that much.”

Sam’s voice dropped. “I don’t think you understand, Murdoch. I’m worried. About both you and Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch grew serious. “Is there a problem with Johnny?”

“There could be. If the minister calls for a war against him.”

“I see.” Murdoch nodded in thought. “You think he could be in danger.”

“I know he is.”

 

Part Two: Blood Brothers

 

Trouble with a Capital R

Timothy Root walked the boardwalk along Green River’s main street, his young wife, Elizabeth, on his arm at his side. They strolled together, greeting the community. “Good morning,” he tipped his hat to a woman who nodded in return.

A few steps later he smiled to his wife, “It’s a beautiful day, Elizabeth. It seems like God has made it just for us so we can search for our new home.” They were on their way to look at a house someone had recommended for them. It was down a side street midway between the Cattleman’s Hotel and the church. An ideal location.

Elizabeth laughed. “You are so charming, my dear. But it is a lovely day. And your sermon yesterday was top-drawer. I enjoyed it very much.”

“Yes, it was good. But I saw that there were a few people missing from the congregation.”

“You mean Murdoch Lancer?”

“Yes, he and his family. I wonder why he wasn’t there. I was talking to some people afterwards; they say he rarely missed services.”

Elizabeth smiled. “Maybe he’s feeling a little guilty because of your lesson last week.”

“Could be,” Root grinned.

Elizabeth gave him a pat on the arm. “I suggest you take a ride out and see him, Darling. He may be ill. I noticed he has a limp.”

Root beamed and turned to face her. “Why, Lizzie, dear. That is an excellent idea!”

Elizabeth frowned. She lowered her voice. “Please, Timothy, don’t call me that. I may only be seventeen, but I’m not a child anymore.”

Root smiled. “Of course not, my dear. I shall endeavor to remember.”

They found the house, a small two-story clapboard thing, painted yellow and trimmed in white. The small garden needed tending, but other than that, it looked perfect. After a quick look around, Elizabeth was delighted and Root agreed. They’d make arrangements to move as soon as possible.

 

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

 

The Reverend Root and his wife weren’t the only ones who noticed the absence of the Lancer family. From his seat in the back, Buck Addison had seen that as well. He’d been disappointed, having wanted to witness the minister directly challenge Lancer from the pulpit. But with Lancer avoiding church, Buck now had another idea.

He, too, walked the streets of Green River that morning, but since he was out  and about after the minister’s stroll, he missed seeing his new friend. That didn’t stop him from seeing anyone else, though. Addison moved among everyone he met, greeting and making conversation, making himself more known in the community, promoting his hotel and its lovely dining room. He discussed benign topics with most, but with those he remembered from yesterday’s services, he casually mentioned the Lancers’ absence and idly wondered what it meant, planting little ideas. That was all it took. By mid-day the rumor mill was working and by evening, his little seed had grown into a full-fledged thorny vine. The word was out: Lancer had not only hired Johnny Madrid to kill Day Pardee but kept him on the payroll to intimidate anyone who dared question the great Murdoch Lancer.

Buck almost clasped his hands with glee when the rumors got back to him; his move had been more than a success. Never had he imagined his well-placed musings would give rise to this level. He couldn’t wait to see what would happen the next time Murdoch showed himself in town.

 

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

 

“I want to go with you,” Abby implored. “It’s a long stage ride and—”

“Precisely,” Scott answered, stuffing a shirt into his bag. “It’s a long stage ride. A long, hot, bumpy stage ride.” Scott was packing for Visalia.

“But—” Abby tried again.

“No, ‘but’s,” he interrupted. “Do you honestly want to be jostled around an uncomfortable stage in your condition?”

Abby drew a breath to speak and thought better of it. He was right, of course. And she had hated the stagecoach when they first came to California. “Then why do you have to go? Johnny’s already been there.”

“Yes, but he didn’t talk to anyone, anyone of consequence, that is.” Scott had a feeling Johnny’s source was a lady of the evening but he wasn’t about to voice his opinion to his wife. “He deliberately avoided the land agent. He’s the man who can tell us who legally owns that property.”

“What about Murdoch? He should go.”

Scott smiled. “I know you want me here, with you. I understand that. I want to be here, too. Murdoch has the ranch to run. Besides, I can be more discreet. If Murdoch starts asking around, people are bound to notice. I know how to get information without it raising eyebrows.”

Abby grinned. “You did that enough for your grandfather in Boston.”

Yes, he had. Part of his duties at Garrett and Company had been to act as a spy for his grandfather. He knew the game and played it well. “All the more reason for me to be the one to go, darling.” He snapped his bag shut. Gathering his wife in his arms, he gave her a goodbye kiss she wouldn’t forget.

Their lips broke and Abby smiled lovingly at her husband. “I’ll miss you.”

“And I you,” Scott smiled. He grabbed his bag.

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

 

Scott found Murdoch in his usual place, pouring over the books at his desk in front of the great window. He plopped his bag in a chair next to the desk. Murdoch looked up.

“All ready to go?”

“Just about. I want a word with you first, though.”

Murdoch handed him an envelope. “Here’s two hundred dollars. That’s more than enough for your expenses. I don’t expect you to stay in cheap hotels like Johnny did, but I’m sure you know not to go overboard.”

Scott nodded. “I know.” He stuffed the envelope into his inside jacket pocket.

Murdoch put the pen down. “Now what was it you wanted to say.”

Scott eased himself onto the edge of the seat where his bag rested. “It’s about Johnny.”

“Go on.”

“I know you’ve had your difficulties with him, but I am asking you to let him continue to stay here, in the hacienda, with the rest of us. If you can’t because he’s a gunfighter, then please do so because I need him here. I trust him to watch over Abby—”

Murdoch started to interrupt, but Scott held his hand up. “—I know you have good men, but it’s Johnny I trust with her welfare. Blame it on the overindulgences of an expectant father. I want him here.”

Murdoch smiled. “Of course, Scott. I won’t ask him to leave. He is welcomed to stay. It’s too dangerous out there alone anyway. Sam warned us about that.”

Scott stood and shouldered his bag. “Good.”

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

 

The grey stallion loped slowly around the corral; he wore only a halter. Johnny stood in the middle, controlling Plata Viento with only words, the lead in his left hand. After ten minutes he slowed the horse to a walk, approaching his head and leading him around again by his halter.

Johnny continued this training, alternating a gallop or canter with walking. He was trying to condition the horse. It was much along the lines of what he did along the long ride from Visalia, but the stallion needed more. “See, Smitty,” he told a vaquero. “You need to exercise him daily, at different paces, then make sure he gets a good rubdown. See if Cipriano has some liniment which might help. Once a day, take him on a good, hard run, going a little farther every day. Do this until he is back in condition.”

Smitty nodded, in awe of Johnny’s ability, knowing that while he would try, he did not have the same magic with horses that the pistolero did. It was a gift, his father had told him once, that only a few are born with.

Johnny walked to the hacienda, to be met by Scott on his way out. His older brother carried a bag over his left shoulder, puckering the brown leather jacket that covered his dark blue shirt. Johnny couldn’t help but compare Scott now to the Scott Lancer he’d first met at the Reno train station long weeks ago. Scott dressed like a dandy then. Now, he was a tanned vaquero, in comfortable work clothes, and sported a Colt on his hip. No one would think him a dandy now.

Scott indicated the corral with his head. “Good job with the horse, Johnny. He’ll be in excellent shape in no time.”

Johnny turned back to see. “He’s a fine animal, Scott. It’s a shame he was ignored for so long.”

The two brothers paused, silently watching the animal in the corral. Finally Scott spoke. “I sure wish we could decipher that brand.”

“It would help.”

Scott drew a breath, standing up straighter and securing his hat. “Well, I’ve made a decision. I’ve talked it over with Abby and I think it’s time we find out a name. Murdoch tells me that all brands are registered with the state. I’m going to Green River and ask our lawyer to look into it for us.” He held up a paper. “I’ll give him this tracing of the brand. In the mean time, I’ll take the stage to Visalia and talk with the land agent. I want to find out who bought the Ortega farm, and maybe who still owns that old hacienda.” He took a step toward the barn.

“Wait, Scott.” Johnny placed his hand in front of his brother. “You’re just gonna go off like that?”

“Murdoch knows. He approves. The lawyer Ramsey will be looking for the brand upstate; I’ll be asking questions of the land agent there. One of us is bound to discover a name or something we can connect to all this.”

“But don’t you think it’s a little risky, Scott? Going off to Visalia, asking questions, particularly after the stallion in question was just stolen from there? Surely, whoever was keeping him not only knows he’s gone, but they probably have a good idea who has him.” Johnny did not want his brother to return so quickly to the area where he’d stolen a horse.

“It’s a risk we have to take, Johnny. At some point in an investigation one has to begin to ask questions. Even if it stirs up the pot.” Scott flashed a smile.

Johnny drew a breath and looked in the distance. He knew his brother’s mind was made up; he would not be able to change it. After a few seconds he asked, “You want some company?”

Scott pulled on his gloves. “No. I want you to stay with Abby. I want someone I trust here to protect her.”

Johnny returned his gaze to Scott. He nodded. “You be careful, brother. What you are doing is dangerous. Asking questions. Meeting officials.”

Scott smiled. “I have lots of experience meeting officials. You think I don’t know how to be discreet?”

“It’s not your discretion I’m worried about.” Johnny grinned, but it faded quickly.

 

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

 

Within an hour of Scott’s leaving, a buggy drove under the Lancer arch. Johnny, back at the corral with the stallion, leaned on the railing, watching Smitty put the horse through the paces. Smitty learned fast and would do an acceptable job with the animal.

Johnny twisted his head to see the buggy as it’s driver pulled the horses up short. He didn’t recognize the man and returned his attention to the corral, but he kept an ear toward the man and lowered his right hand close to his weapon as a precaution. He heard Murdoch emerge from the hacienda.

“Well, Reverend Root,” Murdoch greeted loudly. “What brings you to Lancer today?”

Timothy Root tied off his horses and extended his hand for Murdoch. “I noticed your absence from services yesterday. I wondered if you were well.”

Murdoch almost snorted at the question, knowing it was absurd at the least. “Yes, yes. We are all fine. Thank you for inquiring.” He purposely didn’t give a reason for skipping church.

“Ah, well, good. I was worried there,” Root smiled. “I wouldn’t want Green River’s leading family to be taken down—” he hesitated ever so slightly, “—by illness or whatnot.”

“I’m sure you don’t,” Murdoch replied smoothly. He was playing it cool. He knew what the minister had said in church yesterday, about his quite pointed insinuations, and while in general Murdoch approved of law and order, he felt the minister was going too far.

Root looked around the courtyard, noticing the business of the ranch: a young Mexican woman picking flowers, two vaqueros repairing a spot on the barn’s roof, and Smitty working the stallion under Johnny’s supervision.

“My, what a fine stallion!” the minister exclaimed. “Have you had him long?” Root fixated on the horse, watching him trot around the corral.

“Yes, and no,” Murdoch replied. He could tell that Root wanted to go to the corral but Murdoch stayed where he was, forcing the minister to remain as well. There was no sense in exposing Root to ‘the vile Johnny Madrid’ before it was necessary. “I acquired him almost a year ago, but he was stolen from me in late December. He was only returned to me yesterday.”

“Oh?” Root turned back to Murdoch, surprise on his face. “Well, I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m very happy that the wrong was righted.”

“Yes, well, we got him back, true, but the stallion was kept under ... unusual circumstances. He will need training and conditioning to return him to his health and vigor.”

“What sort of circumstances?”

“He was largely ignored, not exercised and given only minimal care. Evidently whoever stole him wanted him alive, but didn’t want to be caught and branded a horse thief.”

Root was taken aback. “That’s a rather radical accusation there, Mr. Lancer. Are you sure he was stolen and didn’t just run off? You shouldn’t rush to judgement, you know.”

Murdoch tensed. The very idea of the minister chastising him for judging others given his own behavior! His words became clipped. “I’m quite certain, Reverend. My foreman and I tracked the thieves to Morro Coyo. We were ambushed. My foreman was murdered. I was left for dead.”

Root turned back to the horse momentarily, then back to Murdoch. “I see. But what about the good people of Morro Coyo? Why didn’t they do something?”

Murdoch almost sighed. Didn’t Root understand how it was? “They were unable to, Reverend. The outlaws who orchestrated the theft sequestered them in the mission church. They were threatened with violence. It was a very well-planned operation.”

“So you’re saying these outlaws just took control over the entire town?” Root’s voice displayed disbelief.

“Yes. And that was only the beginning. But luckily, eventually, Lancer won out.” Murdoch smiled slightly. “We defeated the outlaws only a few weeks ago. It’s over now and things are getting back to normal.”

“Amazing. And you did all this yourself?”

Was the man daft? “No, of course not. We had help. My son Scott arrived from Boston, bringing his military expertise. At times we depended on...” Murdoch struggled to explain Johnny Madrid’s help, “...other assistance. Unfortunately, the aid we received from neighbors cost them dearly. Day Pardee was ruthless.” Murdoch smiled again. “But, like I said, it’s all over now. Except for whoever hired Pardee.”

“So the gunfighter wasn’t working alone?”

“No. They rarely do. There’s almost always someone else calling the tune, pulling the purse strings. We never found out who that person was. But we are moving on.”

“So I see. And now you have your horse back.”

“Yes, we do. It’s another step in the right direction.”

The lunch bell rang. Murdoch’s shoulders dropped slightly. The last thing he wanted was to dine with the reverend, particularly with Johnny there. He would not be able to avoid a confrontation, but he was left with no choice.

“Won’t you join us for lunch, Reverend? Come on in. I’m sure Abby will be pleased to see you.” He gestured toward the hacienda before pointing toward the corral. “I need to take care of some business first; I’ll be right in.”

Root nodded, “I’d be delighted.” He took a few steps toward the door before pausing and turning to watch Murdoch Lancer limp across the courtyard to the corral. He saw him talk to that cowboy who had been leaning against the railing. Root noticed the unknown man’s stance; he seemed cool, confident, almost nonchalant, and that gun of his rode so low on his hips.

With a start Root realized that the man was no ordinary cowboy. He’d seen pictures of men like him. The casual look, the low-slung gun. He was a gunfighter! Root couldn’t believe his eyes. Why, the very gall of Murdoch Lancer! Casually chatting with him while such an evil man lounged not a hundred feet away! He turned away, his back to the corral, his mind racing. Could Lancer be that bold? Could the man think him so naive?

Murdoch returned to where the minister still stood. “Shall we go in?” he asked smoothly.

Root drew a deep breath and smiled thinly. “I’m afraid I just realized I have an appointment. My wife...we have a commitment this afternoon.”

Murdoch smiled broadly. “Then you’d better not keep her waiting. If I know women, they prefer that we bide our time for them.”

“That is true.” Reverend Root untied his reins and climbed back in the buggy, turning it around in the courtyard. He forced a friendly wave as he left.

Murdoch got an uneasy feeling. He should be thrilled with the reverend’s change in plans, but he wasn’t. Something about it didn’t ring true. He shook it off. Johnny came jogging up to him. “The good minister decide not to stay?” he asked in his soft drawl.

“No, he remembered a prior engagement.”

“Or so he said.”

Murdoch paused a moment, thinking. “Never mind him. I’m hungry. Let’s eat.”

Johnny watched until the buggy drove out of sight then followed his father for lunch.

 

A Bee in a Bonnet

Scott dropped Rienzi off at Green River’s livery, with instructions to exercise him daily until he returned. He planned on taking the stage to Visalia. While Scott was fast becoming acclimated to life in the West, he wasn’t yet up to camping out on the ground, as a horse-bound trip would have required. He’d had too much of that during the War.

His next stop was to see Alexander Ramsey, Murdoch’s lawyer. Scott had only been to Ramsey’s house and office once before, to sign the partnership agreement, but he remembered it well: whitewashed clapboard, two story with a large front porch. Most of the downstairs level was his business space, divided into a larger client room with a desk for a clerk and two smaller rooms—the larger of the two was his office.

Alex Ramsey himself was only a few years older than himself and Scott remembered being surprised to see his father had selected an attorney near his age. He thought briefly to ask about his credentials, but that would be rude; obviously Murdoch thought him capable and that was enough for Scott.

“Mr. Ramsey,” Scott greeted, shaking the attorney’s hand. “I’m so pleased you are able to see me without an appointment.” They stood together in the large office.

“I’m always happy to serve the Lancer family, Scott. How’s that lovely wife of yours? Abby?”

“She’s fine, Mr. Ramsey. Thank you for asking.”

“What can I do for you today, Scott?” The chit-chat done, Ramsey got down to business. He gestured toward the chair opposite his desk as he walked around the oak furniture, pulling out his own seat.

Scott took the offered chair and explained about the retrieval of the stallion. “Will Johnny be in any trouble? Did he steal the horse?”

Ramsey sat back, touching the tips of his fingers together. “Technically, no. The horse was identified as property of Murdoch Lancer and he was acting as Lancer’s agent to retrieve stolen property. However, if someone wanted to bring it to trial, a sheriff just might press charges to make Johnny Madrid prove his actions, and the horse’s true owner.”

“I am afraid of that,” Scott frowned. “And it’s part of why I’m here.” He explained about the animal’s altered brand.

Ramsey leaned forward, his elbows on his desk. “Overbranding is illegal. If Murdoch can prove the stallion is his—some unique identifier, paperwork, etc—then we could easily prove our case. However, if we can find the iron used to change the brand, that’s even better. It would make any case against Madrid for horse theft melt away.”

“We don’t have such a thing.” Scott was disappointed.

Ramsey shook his head. “No matter. It’s not necessary; it would only be icing on the cake, that is, if Johnny Madrid is brought to trial, but let’s not worry about that unless we have to.”

Scott digested that bit of news before diving into the main reason he was here. “Murdoch tells me that you may be able to find out who owns this brand. It’s a tracing of what’s on that stallion’s hip now.” Scott handed the paper to Ramsey.

The lawyer glanced at the drawing and smiled. “Yes. All brands must be registered in Sacramento. I can dispatch a clerk immediately to research it.” He indicated the other office with his head. “Young Clark here so enjoys that kind of job. He’ll be delighted to go. Shall I get back to you?”

“Thank you, Mr. Ramsey. If you learn anything in the next few days, you can telegraph me in Visalia. I’ll be staying in the Cattleman’s Hotel. I should be back within a week, though. However, if you could get word to Murdoch at the ranch, I’d appreciate it.” Scott stood, the appointment over.

“Of course.” Ramsey walked Scott to the door, shaking his hand.

Scott stepped outside the lawyer’s office and onto the street. His legal duty done. The bright sunshine hurt his eyes; he repositioned his hat to shade them. Suddenly hungry and realizing he had the time, he found a cafe and ordered a quick lunch. Abby had packed a sandwich in case he needed it en route, but he wanted to save that. The bean soup was filling and perfectly seasoned with ham and salt.

His last stop was the Wells Fargo stage depot. There Scott purchased a ticket to Visalia and sat down to wait, knowing the stage from Morro Coyo was due any minute. The eastbound stage wasn’t often late, at least in Green River, having only to come from Morro Coyo.

As he waited a young man in a greyish-tan business suit ran to the agent, purchasing a ticket of his own. He carried a light carpetbag. He sat next to Scott, panting a little.

“You made it,” Scott started the conversation.

“Yes. I was worried. Only just now got word to be on the stage. I had to run home and throw together a bag.” He nudged the carpetbag with his feet. “Going to Sacramento. You?”

Scott smiled, realizing this must be Ramsey’s clerk. The lawyer worked fast, that’s for sure.

Another man entered the depot. He, too, was dressed for business in a dark suit and ribbon tie. He purchased his ticket and sat across from Scott and the clerk. A few minutes later, the stage rumbled into town, coming to a stop in front of the depot. Dust flew all around the vehicle, choking those who were unfortunate enough to be on the boardwalk at the time.

The driver jumped down and opened the doors. A woman and her son disembarked, taking their baggage and walking a few feet away where a man stood beside a wagon. The couple engaged in a quick hug before the man lifted the boy in the back of the wagon along with their bags. He assisted his wife onto the seat before going around and taking up the reins.

The driver hefted Scott’s bag on top of the stage, followed by the clerk’s and a case belonging to the businessman. He gave a cursory look at their tickets before gesturing toward the open stage door. By the time all three men settled in the cabin, the horses were changed and the driver slapped the reins. They jerked away.

Scott’s day was uneventful. The three men chatted a little, each exchanging the same information: names, destinations and very little else. The clerk seemed excited, but tried not to show it. Scott noticed the businessman pull out a book from his coat’s inner pocket and read. He wished he’d remembered to remove the Cooper novel he brought with him from his bag before the driver had tossed it above.

Left with little else to do, Scott busied himself by gazing out the window. The landscape, verdant and alive, never ceased to amaze him with its beauty or diversity. Oaks, rocks, streams, poppies, and wild lavender filled his venue with interest. It was a far cry from the dirty, gray Boston cityscape.

He thought of Boston, and what he may be doing now if he was there. Probably in a meeting, listening to someone drone on and on about some takeover or new financial opportunity. He’d be wearing a suit, all trussed up, thinking about what he’d do when he returned home. Boy, was he glad he was here in California!

 

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

 

Reverend Root returned the buggy to the livery and hurried to the hotel. He’d been thinking about Murdoch Lancer all the way back to Green River and had made a decision.

He was incensed at the way Lancer defied his sermons, having a gunfighter there on his ranch—right in plain sight along with innocents and pious men. Did he not know the dangers? Or did he not care? More likely he felt himself immune. Well, he could show Murdoch Lancer a thing or two.

Root knew a little about taking down a man. He had been ‘encouraged’ to leave the East because of a scandal; people had threatened to spread it around so Timothy and Elizabeth left, heading West to make their name and a new beginning.

He knew how the townspeople would react to evidence of a gunfighter apparently  making himself at home at Murdoch Lancer’s home, but he wondered what Lancer’s influential friends would think. He was determined to find out.

Dashing into his hotel, he ran into Buck Addison, the owner. “Why, Reverend Root, you’re in a hurry this afternoon.”

“Yes, I am,” the minister automatically replied, already taking steps to go around his host. He stopped, though, changing his mind. “Mr. Addison, might I have a word?”

 

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

 

Grateful to have another chance with the minister, Buck Addison led him into his office. The brightly lit room created a cheery atmosphere. Not waiting to sit yet, Root jumped right into it. “Mr. Addison, I seem to be in a position which leaves me wondering which direction to chose.”

“What do you mean, Reverend?” Addison offered him a chair and waited until the minister was comfortable before taking his own seat. This kind of a seduction needed to be cultivated carefully.

“Well, I have discovered something scandalous about one of our most honored men, something about which I had only fears and suspicions before but now have proof.”

“Just who is this man?”

Root lowered his voice and glanced around furtively, but of course, they were alone. “It’s Murdoch Lancer.”

Buck feigned surprise. “Mr. Lancer? But isn’t he rather above reproach? I mean you’ve hinted in your sermons about the man’s possible dark connections, but...”

“I’ve seen it myself, Mr. Addison! In his own courtyard! Not a hundred feet from me!” Root banged his fist on the chair’s arm.

“Seen what?”

Root leaned forward. “A gunfighter.” He sat back again.

Addison appeared startled. “Are you sure?”

The minister nodded. “I know the look. He wore a bright-colored shirt, dark pants with those silver decorations on the side, and his gun, well, it was very low on his hips, sir. Quite, quite low.”

Addison cocked his head. “That sounds like Johnny Madrid.” Buck didn’t know Madrid personally but he remembered Duncan’s description. “Mexican? Dark hair? Blue eyes?”

“He looked Mexican, but I can’t be sure. Dark hair, yes. I didn’t get close enough to see his eyes.”

“And he was at Lancer’s hacienda?”

“Leaning against a corral fence like he belonged there.”

“Just leaning against the rail? Was he watching you?” Buck knew that it never hurt to instill a little fear in his mark.

“No. His attention was drawn to the horse in the corral. A grey stallion. Mr. Lancer said the animal had just been returned to him after having been stolen.”

“Did you believe that story?”

Root considered. “I think so. He went into details about the theft.”

“Did the horse have the Lancer brand? It’s an L inside a circle.”

“I don’t know...” Root thought back, trying to envision the animal as it ran around the corral. He started to shake his head and stopped. “Wait! No! It didn’t. It was something else inside a circle. Oh, my Heavens! Lancer must have been the one to steal it!”

Addison smiled grimly. “Well, now you know more about what kind of man you are dealing with, Reverend.” Buck nearly laughed; Root made this so easy.

“Yes. One who pretends to be honorable, who wears the cloak of friendship and morality, but is anything but. My, my, my. I just don’t know about this.” He appeared to be agitated.

“I guess it’s like you said in your first sermon. I heard about it from my manager. ‘An evil man deceives his friends.’”

“Yes, yes. I see now.” He nodded. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to know if Lancer has any influential friends, would you?”

“Yes, I do. I believe he knows the governor and one of our senators, Casserly.”

“Oh, my. This does go farther than I thought. With him being corrupted by Madrid, well, if he influences a senator and our governor, I don’t know what repercussions this could have. Our entire state could be in danger!”

Addison leaned forward, suppressing his enjoyment. “What do you have in mind, Reverend?”

+++NOTE: Eugene Casserly was one of California’s two US senators at the time of this story. More about him in a later chapter.

 

A Disturbance in the Force

Abby dismissed the workmen for the day so they could have dinner and enjoy the rest of the evening. They had been toiling very hard, all day long, and had been at it every day, demolishing the west wing, tearing down walls and hauling away debris. Abby had arranged with Murdoch for them to have accommodations at the ranch so they wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to Morro Coyo daily. This meant they ate their morning and evening meals with the ranch hands, but Maria made them for lunch. The girl Josefina proved to be an invaluable assistant.

The men trekked from the hacienda, brushing themselves off once they emerged. Mrs. Lancer had instilled the fear of God in them, lest they make a personal mess in the house and since she paid well and treated them fairly and kindly, they weren’t about to test her resolve. This demolition and remodeling job was the best they’d enjoyed in some time. They weren’t about to cross her. Besides, they liked the young, energetic woman.

Johnny came in as the men left. If the workmen had any questions regarding the gunfighter Johnny Madrid, who apparently was living in the hacienda proper and taking all his meals with the family, they didn’t voice them. As far as they were concerned, if the good Mrs. Lancer approved, so did they.

“Johnny!” Murdoch called as the gunfighter crossed the Great Room to the stairs. “Please come here.” Murdoch sat at his desk, his chair angled so he could see both the room and out of the large, arched window.

Johnny, instantly wary, approached the desk. While Murdoch had been pleasant with him these since his return with the stallion, he still wasn’t quite sure how his sire would react to him. The last time he stayed at the hacienda, his father had made it clear he was no longer welcomed. Was he going to turn him out again? He stopped a couple of feet away from the desk, awaiting.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Please sit down.” He indicated an armchair.

Johnny sat, still wondering what his father had in mind. He’d said ‘please’ twice now. This couldn’t be good. Murdoch offered Johnny a drink, which he refused, adding more fodder to Johnny’s growing ominous feeling.

“Sam and I—you remember Dr. Sam Jenkins?” When Johnny nodded, Murdoch continued. “He and I talked the other day and he said some things I think you should know about.” Murdoch walked around the desk, using the top for support; he’d left his cane somewhere. The elder man eased himself into the opposite chair from Johnny. “It’s about Green River’s new minister.”

“What does that have to do with me? I don’t go to church. I don’t plan to, either.”

“I know. And that’s not it. It’s about what he’s been preaching his first two sermons.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow. “And that is?”

“Well, the first sermon was a little troubling, but mainly it was about the need for law and order in both Green River and Morro Coyo. I agree with him there; both towns need a sheriff and I think it’s time for that, certainly in Green River. It’s a growing town and there’s not even a jail.

“Anyway, getting back to what I want to tell you—his second sermon this past Sunday, which built on some of the things he said the previous week...well,” Murdoch hesitated, unsure of how Johnny would take it. “That, that was more of a pointed attack.”

“On?”

“You.”

“Me?” Johnny pointed to himself. “What did I do to this preacher? I never even met him.”

“I don’t think it’s personal.” Murdoch shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with how to proceed. “I can understand a little of what he’s saying. I used to feel the same way, although not quite like he does.”

“I don’t understand, Old Man,” Johnny ground out.

Murdoch shook his head. “This isn’t coming out right. Let me start over.” He leaned back, settling. “I saw you in a gunfight before, a few years ago, in the Pueblo de Los Angeles. I was there for a cattleman’s convention. You called a man out and, well, it seemed so cold-blooded. After you shot him, you walked over to him, just watching him die, then tossing a coin in the dirt before you walked away.”

Johnny nodded. “Laz Hershaw.”

“Yes, I believe that was his name. A friend of mine had hired him for protection. He’d been threatened by someone; I don’t remember all the details. But, well, your...display...Let’s just say I was more disgusted than impressed.”

Johnny snorted and leapt to his feet. “Is that when you decided I was evil? A vile creature not worthy—” He stopped himself, not wanting to go there. “Do you even know what that snake Hershaw did? Why I was hired to kill him?”

Murdoch blinked at the sudden outburst.

When Murdoch didn’t answer, Johnny continued. “I was hired, by the way.  Although I only took half the pay. He’d taken too much from them as it was.” He drew a breath and began the tale.

“Hershaw took an innocent girl, Old Man. He’d just won a gunfight and I guess he thought he deserved a sweet reward. He grabbed her from her parents, right there on the street, and dragged her to the hotel. He took what he wanted for two entire days, left her in that stinking hotel room, bloodied, half-crazy, half-dead. The girl recovered physically, but later when she found out she was pregnant by the devil, she ran in front of a stage. Her parents had to bury what was left of her. She was only thirteen. Thirteen! She barely had breasts!”

Murdoch sat in silence, as if physically assaulted by the story. Johnny stood, his arms crossed, daring his father to defend himself, the echo of his words filled the quiet.

“I’m sorry,” Murdoch finally said, his voice soft. “I didn’t know. I think I can now understand your apparent coldness. But please, Johnny, realize: I never liked gunfighters; it wasn’t personal against you. Surely you can understand that.”

Johnny shrugged. Where was this going? Did it even matter? “What does all this...” he waved his arm in the air, “...have to do with your new preacher?” He sat back down, arms still crossed.

Murdoch shook his head. “I’m not very good at explaining. It’s...emotional.” He drew a breath, wanting a drink but not wanting to stand up to get one. He wondered if it was worth all the trouble to explain his history as it related to Johnny’s profession. He decided against it. “Suffice it to say that I no longer feel about you the way I did before.”

Johnny uncrossed his arms but stayed leaned back. “What do you mean?”

“You have been invaluable to me, proving yourself as much as your brother has. I realize now that you are basically a decent man, in an indecent profession. And you are my son.”

“You want to change me?”

“No! I mean, yes. But that isn’t the focus of this conversation.”

Johnny, angered, wanted to pursue that line but reconsidered. He resettled in the chair and forced himself to calm down. “What is, then?”

“Reverend Timothy Root.”

“And?”

“He is a danger to you.”

Johnny laughed. “I ain’t afraid of no preacher.”

“Maybe you should be. He has begun to rally his congregation, Johnny. Against you and anyone who supports you, befriends you, helps you. Even me. I fear that someone may act violently because of his words.”

Johnny pondered. Meddling ministers did tend to stir things up. He wished Scott hadn’t left yet; he’d discuss this with him.

“I want you to be extra careful. I know you usually don’t react irrationally, but be warned and be wary. The next few weeks may prove very trying to everyone.”

“I understand.” Johnny nodded. “Thank you.” He started to rise but Murdoch stopped him.

“One more thing, Johnny. It may be related. Or not.” Murdoch held out his hand. “Aggie told me her men had found two bodies by her line shack near Tule Creek.Do you know anything about this?”

“You think I shot two men in cold blood?” Johnny glared.

“No! It’s just that Tule Creek is her eastern border. They found the bodies Saturday evening. You came home yesterday. She said the bodies were positioned as if to ambush someone. Was that you?”

Johnny stood and walked to the fireplace. He rested a hand on the mantle. “I was ambushed, yes. But like you said, this was Saturday. Before the reverend’s sermon. I don’t think the two could be related.”

“Probably not, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try again, or someone else might. And we don’t know who ambushed you or why.”

Johnny laughed, but it lacked mirth. “You don’t think it’s a little coincidental that I was ambushed while returning with your stolen stallion?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Who here would know? The only people who knew you were going on that trip are people I trust completely. And none of us knew you’d actually found the horse or even had him.”

“The person who was keeping the horse knew he’d been taken. Had to. You can bet he was told before I even left the area.”

“Yes, but you were almost here when you were attacked. And how did he know it was you who had taken the animal?”

Johnny shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he has ways. I don’t believe in coincidences, Murdoch. Whoever was behind it all is here, Murdoch. In Green River or Morro Coyo or somewhere else nearby.”

“But that means it couldn’t have been because you stole the horse. No one could have gotten here that quickly from Visalia.”

Johnny shrugged again. “Maybe. I escaped the Visalia area quick enough, but once I felt out of danger, I slowed down. The stallion couldn’t take the pace.”

Murdoch pondered that news. “I just don’t know. But I think you should be extra careful. You’ve been set upon once, and with the Reverend’s latest sermon, there’s more reason.”

“You think I’m going to be ambushed again?”

“Maybe. I want you to be very, very careful.”

Johnny digested this news. “Are you, Scott or Abby in danger, too?”

“I don’t know,” Murdoch shook his head slowly.

 

They Call Him Mr. Tibbetts!

A tired and dusty Scott Lancer emerged from the stage in thriving, downtown Goshen. It was the dinner hour in the small town and most of the passengers—they had picked up two more in Cross Creek—were heading for a nearby cafe. The man in the greyish-tan business suit, who had read almost the entire time, headed in another direction. Scott saw a hotel and smiled. He knew what he wanted: a hot, soothing bath to ease his muscles from the jolting he’d had all day.

It had been a long ride, pausing at the same places they’d stopped when Scott and Abby were first coming to Lancer: two way stations, then the small community of Cross Creek, another way station and finally Goshen, a larger town than Green River and the closest to Visalia. He’d never been to Visalia and he looked forward to seeing it. He’d heard it was a busy place.

But tonight, at the bathhouse in his Goshen hotel, he prepared for that soak. He removed his dusty clothing and stepped into the steaming water, sighing as he eased himself down in the depths.

A little over an hour later, a cleaner and more refreshed Scott trod downstairs to the hotel cafe for a late supper. He dined quickly on a satisfying chicken stew with dumplings before returning to his room for some much-needed sleep stretched out in a comfortable bed. Stage travel was exhausting, he concluded. He was glad he’d persuaded Abby to stay at Lancer.

 

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

 

While Scott had been soaking in his tub, the well-read businessman from the stage visited Goshen’s telegraph office, sending a short but relevant message back to David Addison at the Cattleman’s Hotel in Green River with instructions to deliver it immediately:

Scott L on stage STOP Destination Visalia STOP Will wait for instructions STOP Duncan STOP

GIlford Duncan waited at the telegraph office for nearly an hour before getting a reply. When he read it, he smiled, nodded to the operator and headed out to get his own dinner and accommodations. He noticed Lancer when he came down for dinner, but he thought it wise not to risk contact tonight. He’d see him on the stage to Visalia tomorrow anyway.

 

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

 

Reverend Root helped his wife settle into their new home, that pretty little yellow clapboard house on Lincoln they’d seen before, just off Green River’s main street. They didn’t have much to move; most of their belongings were still in storage in Sacramento. Once finished, he headed to the telegraph office to send notice for the proprietor of the storage facility to ship the rest of their things down. While he was there, he began to implement his idea concerning Murdoch Lancer.

He’d known from nearly the beginning that Lancer was very influential. A man of that wealth and seniority had to be, but it wasn’t until he talked with Buck Addison did he learn just how well-connected the veteran rancher was.

From his own personal experience, he knew had how fragile political friendships could be, and how dangerous they could be if one fell out of favor. He felt it was time to test Murdoch’s connections. He sent two additional telegrams that day: one to Senator Eugene Casserly and the other to California Governor Newton Booth.

Eugene Casserly, a Democrat from San Francisco, was also a member of the United States Senate Committee on Pacific Railroads. Root was hoping if the Senator learned of Lancer’s close relationship with Johnny Madrid, he could influence railroad growth away from Lancer, costing Murdoch potentially thousands of dollars.

Governor Booth was a Republican from Sacramento who hated monopolies. Root was sure that if he knew of Lancer and Madrid, he could possibly go after Lancer as a de facto monopoly in this area and quite possibly end up breaking up the vast Lancer Ranch.

Regardless of potential disasters to the ranch, Root was certain that both of Murdoch’s political friends would distance themselves upon learning that the border’s most notorious gunfighter had taken residence at Lancer Ranch, fully protected by none other than their friend and upstanding citizen, Murdoch Lancer.

Root paid the bill and smiled at his own cleverness. He couldn’t wait for replies. He stepped out of the office and into the sunshine.

 

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

 

Scott continued his journey to Visalia the next morning on the nine o’clock stage. It took over two hours—the road was too busy to run the horses at top speed. It was still an uncomfortable ride; the stage was full. Besides the businessman from the previous day, other assorted passengers accompanied them to the big town. They were mostly men but there was a middle-aged couple among them. Nearly all of them had been on the train down from Sacramento.

It was a little after eleven in the morning when the stage arrived. He took his bag and trekked to the Cattleman’s Hotel. It was the best place in town, and owned by an old acquaintance of Murdoch’s, Buck Addison. Scott remembered that Addison had opened a branch of this hotel in Green River and was anxious to see the flagship site.

The Visalia Cattleman’s Hotel was indeed opulent. It featured a large chandelier in the lobby area, overlooking a room decorated in slate blue and white. The lobby featured with large, comfortable-looking armchairs arranged for cozy seating. Scott smiled. Now this was the kind of hotel he was used to. It rivaled the hotels he and Abby had used in Sacramento and Denver. It wasn’t quite as nice as some others, but for the West, this was one fine establishment. He told himself he’d have to complement Mr. Addison’s tastes the next time he saw him.

Scott checked in and went up to his room. Bright cheerfulness greeted him—the room was decorated in shades of blue, yellow and white, with wallpaper featuring tiny daffodils arranged in stripes. The armchair was royal blue with gold trim and his bedspread matched. A small arrangement of the featured flowers graced the tiny table next to the armchair. He smiled at the homey atmosphere.

Scott was in a hurry to get on with his business so he didn’t linger long admiring the room. He unpacked quickly; he was most anxious to visit the Land Office and learn what he could about the Ortega farm. He left the hotel and found his destination easily, but when he got there, the sign on the door said it was closed for lunch. Looking around, Scott realized he had no choice but to dine prior to talking to the officials. He found a small nearby cafe and ordered fried chicken.

From his table in the cafe, Scott had a clear view of the Land Office. He had time to finish eating long before he saw the agent return, remove the sign and open the door. Scott tossed a coin on the table before taking his hat and exiting the cafe.

Crossing Visalia’s busy streets was a challenge, but nothing like maneuvering around Boston’s crowded thoroughfares. He realized just how quickly he’d gotten used to the pastoral life on the ranch as he narrowly avoided a wagon moving a little too fast for this traffic.

At the door of his destination, he could see the normal sign on the Land Office door: George Tibbitts, Land Agent. Scott reached for the knob.

Tibbitts was removing his suit coat and hanging it on a rack. He turned to see who entered. “Hello there,” he greeted.

“Good afternoon,” Scott greeted formally, nodding his head after he removed his own hat. “My name is Scott Lancer. I came for some information.”

“Of course, Mr. Lancer.” Tibbitts gestured to a chair opposite his desk. “Please sit down. What can I do for you today?”

“I am interested in possibly purchasing some land in this area,” Scott began. It was a well-rehearsed line, enabling him to ask the kind of questions he needed. “I hear that the Ortega Farm was sold some time ago. Do you know who purchased it?”

Tibbitts stroked his chin. “Ah, yes. The Ortega place. Nice hacienda. The family had been in this area for, oh, around sixty years or so. It’s been bought and sold twice now, I believe. Let me check.” He stood, walked a few feet to a filing cabinet and opened a drawer. Tibbitts fingered through the files, finally finding the one he wanted. “Here it is.” He sat back down.

“Ortega Farm. They were awarded the place by one of the old California dons, left to them in his will, for service to the family. When the last Ortega patriarch died, he had no living sons so he sold it. To a...” He stopped reading. “Huh. It doesn’t say. That part of the file is missing. I see information on the second sale –divided between the Rileys and the Pikes, but nothing about the interim sale. You see, someone bought it from Ortega then broke it into two and sold it. About a year or so ago. Maybe longer. About the time of the earthquake.”

Scott gritted his teeth. Of course it wasn’t going to be this easy. “Do you think you could remember who bought the farm from the Ortegas?”

Tibbitts sat back, his finger on his chin, thinking. Scott waited, not displaying his impatience. “I remember now! It was someone I didn’t think would have been interested. Oh, yes. I recall it now. It was Mr. Addison.”

“Addison?” Scott questioned. “Of the Cattleman’s Hotel?” It didn’t make sense. Why would Buck Addison, a respected hotel owner, buy a farm then sell it?

“Yes. Him. Though I can’t imagine how that part of the file went missing. Hmmm.”

Scott tried another question. “Can you recall Addison’s brand image?”

“Brand? I don’t think Addison has one. He didn’t own the Ortega Farm long enough, and he sold all its possessions...Wait! He didn’t sell the hacienda.” Tibbetts shrugged. “Though I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s so beautiful.”

Scott nodded. It was beginning to make some sense. “You mentioned an earthquake?”

Tibbitts shook his head sadly. “Yes, back in March. Last year. Really bad one. Practically destroyed the small town of Lone Pine on the other side of the Sierras. It was so big it hit hard here, too. They even felt it in Los Angeles and up to Stockton.”

“What was damaged here?”

“Lots of places. My front porch fell in. So did a lot of others. Several stores just collapsed. Most rebuilt, but a few cut their losses and left. Even the Cattleman’s Hotel got hit.”

That could be a reason to sell, Scott thought. If Addison needed money....still, if he was in those dire straights, how could he afford to hire Pardee? Scott stood. He got some answers but now had more questions. “Thank you, Mr. Tibbetts. You’ve been most helpful.” The two men shook hands. “By the way, I’d be most grateful if you didn’t tell anyone of my visit or what we discussed. I wouldn’t want land prices to rise on speculation.”

Tibbetts nodded. “Understood. You can rely on my discretion.”

Scott donned his hat as he closed the door. So, Buck Addison, the hotel owner, bought the Ortega Farm. Sold it quickly, but kept the hacienda. Scott pondered this. Buck bought an old hotel in Green River, too. Refurbished it and turned it into a subsidiary hotel. He’d always wondered why Green River for such a nice hotel; it wasn’t that busy of a town.

He felt a sense of foreboding begin to seep into him, like a fog coming in from the ocean, the kind that creeps in slowly at first. Addison’s involvement in the hacienda where the stallion was kept and his opening his new hotel in Green River just didn’t sit well with him.

Scott decided he wanted to examine that hacienda. Johnny said he didn’t look around that much; he’d wanted to get the horse out once he found him. Maybe there was more there, particularly if Addison still owned it. He hoped he’d find something, and if not, that the mere act of doing something active might shake his feelings of unease.

He strode to the livery where he rented a horse. Remembering Johnny’s directions, he galloped East out of town to the second road heading north that looked abandoned. He crossed the St. John’s River and kept going, pushing the horse. By late afternoon he was rewarded with a view of the old hacienda. It was just as Johnny described it.

Scott found a tree for shade and shelter and scanned the area, looking for someone or something. His feelings of unrest had not abated, but neither had they increased. He saw nothing, no indication that anything was out of place nor any danger, so he rode to the hacienda gate. He found both of the locked. So, they had been repaired. Scott tied up his rented horse and climbed the same espalier his brother had done days earlier. He dropped into the courtyard and started looking around.

Again, he saw the same sights Johnny had: the oak tree, the old broken fountain, the cracked urns. He tried the front door and found it unlocked. Scott entered the hacienda’s sala and looked around. Not much was here, just an old bench and an upturned wooden chair. He walked around, inspecting every corner, just in case. He stood up straight when he saw what looked like an iron stick standing next to the fireplace.

 

An Accessory for Abby

In his wood-paneled office in San Francisco, Senator Eugene Casserly sighed as he looked at his pile of telegrams. He received several on any given day, but more when he was in town. Most were requests for something or other, but a few told him of problems or concerns of his constituents.

His secretary had thoughtfully arranged them in importance by sender: political associates, known friends and acquaintances, community leaders and just plain regular folk. Casserly generally started with the higher end, but since he didn’t get through all of them the day before, he picked up the ones from the “regular folk” pile to begin with today.

It took him about a half-hour to go through those, for he diligently made notes on each one that he felt was viable, suggestions that he would give to his secretary to follow up. He stood and stretched, crossed to the window and looked down on the street from his second-story office. He watched the people below go about their busy lives for a few minutes before returning to his desk to tackle another pile.

He reached for the “community leaders” group and glanced through it. He raised eyebrows when he saw one from a minister in Green River. What could be so important in the tiny town of Green River to cause the area’s spiritual leader to contact him?

He tore open the envelope:

Am told you are friend of Murdoch Lancer STOP Johnny Madrid living in Lancer hacienda under Lancer protection STOP Our community threatened STOP Governor Advised STOP Please help STOP Thank you STOP

Casserly sat back in his chair, stunned. He knew Murdoch Lancer well and the man he knew would never protect a gunfighter, regardless of the circumstances. Something had to be wrong. Either this minister—he glanced at the sender’s name again—Reverend Timothy Root, was misinformed or something extremely peculiar was going on at Lancer.

 

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

 

Abby dropped down on a bench in front of the house. Protected by a large oak tree, she enjoyed the coolness after dinner while watching the sights of the ranch closing for the night: a couple of hands rode in late from their daily jobs, Smitty and Johnny rubbed down the stallion, and some of the ranch’s children herded the chickens that had wandered out of their coops. Abby laughed at their antics and sighed, leaning her head back against the tree.

Lately she’d been feeling tired, so very tired, and had needed to rest more and more. And I’m not even showing yet! she thought, wondering how she’d make it through the next six months or so. She hadn’t remembered her mother being so exhausted during her last pregnancy, when Abby was thirteen, but her mother could have hidden her fatigue; she was like that.

For most of the day today, Abby had endured a strange new feeling, a sense that something was wrong, that something dark was about to happen, or just a general feeling of anxiety. She hadn’t been able to shake it. It contributed to her fatigue, she knew and had busied herself to distract her mind. She told herself that it was just because Scott was gone and she was pregnant, and the baby was making her crazy.

Abby watched Johnny rub down the grey horse in the corral before taking him to the barn for the night. Plata Viento. Silver Wind. He was a magnificent stallion and would soon be back in top shape. But it was the large black brand on his flank that bothered her. Every day now she’d tried to figure it out.

She could see the Lancer circled “L” within the brand; that much had been pointed out to her, and having realized the horse had been branded twice, she now could see it in a glance. But what pattern did the overlay brand make? It looked as if someone had taken the Lancer L and added lines, another curl and a circle to form...? What?

The more she looked at it the more confused she got. All she could make out were curls and circles and other lines—and none of it made sense. Sighing, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to forget the puzzle for now. She knew she’d return to it, just as she did almost daily. Besides, she was growing even more sleepy just sitting there. With an effort Abby rose to get herself ready for an early bedtime.

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

 

The sala of the old Ortega hacienda was cool. Even in the heat of the day a breeze could blow across the room through the open door and the broken windows. Scott eyed the iron stick by the fireplace, wondering what it could be.

He strode to the implement, picking it up. It looked like a brand, but none he’d ever seen before. It was just disjoined shapes. Who would have that as their brand? Didn’t they usually make a letter or recognizable shape? He took it outside in the courtyard and pressed it into the dirt, making an impression. He looked at it from all sides and still couldn’t understand it. But, he realized, he was still quite new to the West. Maybe someone else could figure it out. But whom?

The only person he knew in Visalia was the land agent. What did that man know about branding? Probably not much. And if he did go to Tibbetts, he would surely ask questions and Scott was just not prepared to do any answering. Could be the news of the stallion’s theft had spread around town. No, that wouldn’t do at all.

Scott took the iron with him and sat on the adobe around the big oak tree in the courtyard. He stamped it on the dirt and stared at the impression. It still made no sense to him. Sighing, he glanced away and stared blankly at the ground. There were few patches of well-cropped grass but mostly it was bare dirt. He could see Plata Viento’s hoof prints.

Sudden realization hit him hard. The horse! He glanced back at the brand. Of course! This was the iron that changed the Lancer brand to whatever shape it had now! He smiled grimly as he realized: the mark on the stallion must be Buck Addison’s brand. This was the iron that changed the Lancer circle L to whatever Addison used.

He tried to visualize the elaborate brand on the stallion, trying to make out a shape, but nothing came to mind. He gave up and stood, determined to get to the bottom of this.

While he hated doing it, he knew he had to take the iron. It was evidence. He threw it over the adobe wall and climbed out using the white-blossomed vine as a ladder.

Scott picked up the iron and secured it to his saddle horn with a length of leather decoration he’d unraveled from the saddle. He mounted his horse and hurried back into town. The afternoon waned as he urged the horse along, being too concerned with getting back before dark to give into his feelings of unease. He rode with a purpose.

Dusk fell before Scott made it back to Visalia and he had to slow his pace, even on the road that lead into town. He didn’t want to injure the horse.

Just prior to entering the town, Scott slowed his horse to a walk as he realized that he couldn’t just stride into the swanky Cattleman’s Hotel carrying a dirty, stolen branding iron in his hand. He needed a way to disguise it. Hoping that the darkness would hide it hanging from his saddle, he walked his horse into town, looking for a solution to his problem.

The mercantile was still open; Scott thanked his lucky stars. He rode down the alley next to the building and stashed the pilfered item, hiding it between some old barrels. He then rode back to the main street, tied his horse at the post and entered the store.

Pretending Abby had requested a new parasol, Scott purchased one about the same length as his loot. It was light blue with lace. Perfect. He asked the proprietor to wrap it twice in plain brown wrapping so “my wife won’t be suspicious,” he explained. The store owner smiled and obliged.

With the package in his hand, Scott returned to the alley where the iron was stashed. He carefully unwrapped the second, outer wrapping of the parasol and secured the brand in place next to it. He re-wrapped the entire bundle as one package, making sure the brand was completely covered. He returned the horse to the livery, commenting about his wife’s new trinket to the owner, and hurried down Visalia’s main street to the hotel. He had his new purchase under his arm and smiled at his own cleverness.

Inside his room, Scott again carefully unwrapped the package, removing just the brand. He cleaned it with water from his basin and dried it off, deciding at the last minute to stow it between the mattresses on the side of the bed facing the wall, making sure the bed’s quilt covered the brand face. He tore apart the dirty outer wrapping and tossed the pieces in to burn in his fireplace. Satisfied his booty was safely hidden, he headed to the hotel cafe for a late dinner.

 

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

 

Unknown to Scott, Gilford Duncan had spent the day following him. He had watched Scott enter the Land Office, waited until he’d left, and knew he’d rented a horse. Duncan quickly ordered a mount of his own and followed from a safe distance.

Duncan waited behind the same trees that Johnny had used as Scott inspected the hacienda. He noted with interest that Scott had taken something from the old house, but wasn’t able to get a clear view of what it was. He panicked when he lost Scott on the way back to Visalia but sighed in relief when he saw his quarry entered the mercantile. He knew Scott had turned down an alley after making his purchase, but was unable to follow him there because the lane was so narrow; he didn’t want to risk exposure. So he went back to the hotel and waited in the lobby for Scott’s return, hiding behind a newspaper as the young Lancer entered with his wrapped package.

Deciding that Scott had hidden whatever he took from the hacienda in that package from the mercantile, Duncan waited until Scott came downstairs to dine. He lifted the key from his friend Jameson, the desk clerk, and entered Scott’s room. He immediately found the package he’d seen Scott bring in, and with extreme care, unwrapped it. It was a blue parasol, and nothing else.

Frowning, Duncan looked around the room. Nothing looked out of place. He spied Scott’s luggage and searched there. Again, he found nothing out of the ordinary. He looked around again, trying to think of places where someone would hide something. He peeked under the bed—nothing, under the armchair—nothing, behind the curtains—nothing. Realizing the item must still be in the alley, Duncan left the room, making sure everything was back in its place and the parasol rewrapped.

He exited the hotel, noticing Scott finishing up his meal, and went to search the alley. It was too dark to see clearly so he knew he’d have to look again in the morning. His boss would not be happy, but he would have to report this anyway. He headed for the Western Union office.

 

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

 

That evening Governor Newton Booth was working late in his office. It wasn’t unusual for him to be burning the midnight oil, but he yawned as he picked up a telegraph. It was from a Reverend Timothy Root in Green River. The Governor grew worried. Green River was close to his good friend Murdoch Lancer and he knew he attended services there. Booth tore open the envelope, afraid something had happened.

He scanned the paper—worded almost identical to Root’s missive to Casserly except instead of “Governor advised” it said “Senator Casserly advised”—his reaction was the same as Casserly’s: stunned silence. Murdoch Lancer was an old friend, having met the rancher some twenty years earlier when Booth was in the grocery and mercantile business. They’d shared many meals over the years, attended many meetings together. He’d been a guest at Lancer Ranch on many occasions and had extended the same courtesy to Murdoch. He simply couldn’t believe Murdoch Lancer, a staunch opponent of gunfighting and gunfighters, a firm believer in law and order, housed the infamous border gun Johnny Madrid. Something had to be very, very wrong.

+++NOTE: Newton Booth was a lawyer in Indiana who moved to California in 1850. He entered the wholesale grocery business but made his fortune as a saloon owner. He moved back to Indiana and practiced law for a while then returned to California in 1860, where he again opened a mercantile business. He was elected the California state senate before serving as Governor from 1871 to 1875. He resigned upon election to the US Senate. Booth was an anti-monopolist. Incidentally, his nephew was author Booth Tarkington—his full name was Newton Booth Tarkington, named presumably for his politician uncle.

More on Eugene Casserly: A native of Ireland, he emigrated to New York with his parents. He studied law and practiced in New York City before coming to California in 1850. In California, he practiced journalism, printing several publications before going back to law. He was Senator from March, 1869 until his resignation in November, 1873. He was the chairman on the Committee for the Pacific Railroads at the time of this story.

 

Conspiracy Theory

Hank Woden quietly opened the window of his room in the Cattleman’s Hotel. He, his brother and sister had been staying in the Green River establishment for a week, running up a sizable bill for meals and services. They did not have the money to pay; nor had they ever intended to do so.

He poked his head out and looked in both directions, seeing no one in the dusk. Satisfied that the coast was clear, Hank dropped their luggage, one by one, out the window and into the alley below. His brother Lou, caught the pieces and threw them in the back of their wagon.

Their small homestead, a glorified hunting cabin actually, stood in the forests of the Red Hills, south of the Diablo Mountains some forty miles south-southeast of Green River. The brothers made their living hunting the vast array of wildlife which lived in both ranges and selling the pelts. When they amassed enough of the animal skins, they’d travel to a nearby town to hawk their wares.

They’d visited Green River once before, several years ago, with no problem, but hearing about the opening of the grand Cattleman’s Hotel, they could not resist its luxury, even though they knew from the start they would not be able to afford to pay the bill. That didn’t really bother them; they had skipped out of a few hotels before. It was a trick their father, long dead now, taught them as youngsters: check in, act like you belong, sneak your luggage out, stroll away casually.

The three of them were used to taking care of their own. They had few neighbors, due to the frequency of earthquakes in the area. One of the closest was the Rancho Cholame, co-owned by William Hollister and Robert Jack. In fact, their cabin was on what used to be Cholame land, but their father had managed to get the previous owner, Mrs. Charles White, to cede them a small part in return for her rancho getting first choice of his pelts.

Their luggage secure in their wagon and covered with a tarp, Lou drove it to the edge of town. He walked back to the hotel, planning on meeting his siblings where they would pretend to go for a late supper. They would stroll down the streets for a while, keeping up their act, before jumping in their wagon and taking off into the night.

As previously agreed, Lou greeted his brother and sister, Opal, already in the lobby. Telling the front clerk they wanted to dine at a different cafe tonight, they turned to leave. They only got a few steps toward the door when they were stopped by the desk clerk.

“Could you please follow me?” he asked the siblings. Left with little choice—to run would arouse alarm—they shrugged and did as asked.

The clerk led them into Mr. Addison’s office and closed the door. Buck Addison, sitting at his desk, frowned at the trio. He stood, drawing himself up to full height. “It has come to my attention that you three were planning on skipping out on your bill.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That’s a lie!”

“Well, I never!”

The three protested their innocence until the desk clerk returned, with a bellhop carrying two pieces of their luggage. “Their wagon was just outside town, Mr. Addison. These are two of their bags. The rest is still in the wagon, covered by a canvas.”

Hank, Lou and Opal stood stock still, quiet as churchmice. They’d never been caught before.

Addison nodded that his employees should leave. The men closed the door behind them. He turned to the siblings, in full command mode, his arms akimbo. “Well, now what do you have to say for yourself?”

Hank started to speak but clamped his mouth shut. They did not have an explanation. Both he and his brother hung their heads; their sister started to weep silently. Their father had never taught them how to act if apprehended; he assumed they never would be. They didn’t know what to do.

“One of my men watched you drop your luggage from your window. He followed your wagon then ran back to me to tell me his suspicions.” He pointed to their cases. “I sent him back to get this evidence. You do know that I could send all three of you to jail for this,” Addison threatened.

“There is no jail here,” Lou mumbled without looking up.

“I could make one. There is an unfinished room on the top floor. It’s small and there are no windows. Would you like to spend the next few weeks there while I send for a marshall?”

“Oh, no!” cried Opal. “I could not stand that!” She fell to a chair and started to sob in her hands.

A knock on the door interrupted Addison. He looked up; it was his desk clerk. “For you, Mr. Addison. A telegram. It’s marked ‘Urgent.’”

Annoyed at being disturbed, Buck motioned for the clerk to bring him the paper. He dismissed the clerk with a scowl and turned around to open the message. He read it twice, not believing its contents at first. It was not good news.

His old nemesis, Panic, began to creep into his chest. His breath grew more shallow, his heart began to pound. Addison swallowed, attempting to keep calm. He heard one of the Woden siblings shuffle his feet and angled his head slightly their way, his mind now racing, an idea forming.

He had three people in his office who he was sure he could manipulate. They were already in his debt. What if....? His lips broke into a smile and he turned back toward the trio.

Looking up at the three siblings, he offered, “Well, luckily for you, I have a way you can repay me.”

The brothers raised their heads, hopeful for a solution that didn’t involve incarceration; they were mountain men and preferred open spaces. “We will do anything, anything!”

“Yes,” Buck Addison smiled. “You will do it all right.”

 

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

 

Scott rose from his soft, warm bed, stretching in the sunbeam that filtered through the curtains. It was late, he realized with a start. He’d had trouble going to sleep the previous night; he no longer trusted this hotel after learning of Buck Addison’s purchase of the Ortega Farm. He would have changed hotels had it not been so late when he finished dinner.

He dressed quickly, cursing himself as he realized that he missed the morning stage to go back to Lancer. He had vital information for Murdoch and Johnny; he hadn’t wanted to spend more time in Visalia than necessary. He gathered his belongings, remembering to retrieve the branding iron from between his mattresses and stuffing it into his bag before he packed the rest. He would check out and breakfast at another eatery. He’d have to rent a horse to ride to Goshen. He knew he could catch a later stage there.

The ride to Goshen—nine or ten miles—took him less than three hours. While he pushed the paint gelding some, he didn’t ride him hard. He was mindful of the cargo he carried and kept a watchful eye on his companions on the road. Like before on the stage, the road was busy—wagons and riders passed him in both directions.

His feeling of unease, the one that began after learning of Addison’s involvement, continued as he rode away. He couldn’t shake it. He knew it should be fading the further he rode away from Addison’s town, but it wasn’t. Maybe it wouldn’t leave him until he’d safely delivered the branding iron to Murdoch.

 

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

 

Scott was right in his feelings. Gilford Duncan followed him again today, riding out of town shortly after him. The road going East was busy and Duncan had no problem keeping Scott in view while staying far enough back to not arouse his prey’s suspicion.

It was Duncan’s second day in the saddle and he hated it, but like yesterday, it was proving to be a good decision to stick as close as possible to the young Lancer without being seen. He had learned much from Scott’s endeavors, but knew there was more to discover.

Once in Goshen, Duncan found it even easier to follow Scott’s footsteps; the young man seemed focused on his mission. He saw Scott ride to the Wells Fargo office and purchase a ticket before turning his horse into the livery. Duncan smiled, happy to be getting out of the dreaded saddle. He quickly rode to the Western Union office to let his boss know the latest news.

 

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

 

Addison received Duncan’s last telegram from Goshen and smiled. He sent the three Woden siblings on their way, with strict instructions not to deviate from the plan, lest they would regret doing so. He knew from their type—simple country folk—that they were too afraid to defy him. It was all coming together nicely. Soon he’d be back in control again. He smiled at his genius.

+++NOTE: The information about the Rancho Chalome is true. It’s location was in a valley and surrounding mountains and hills near the San Andreas Fault. In fact, the fault crosses it. The men named as owners, William Hollister and Robert Jack did own the rancho at the time of this story.

The former owner, Ellen White, was the widow of Charles White, the first alcalde of San Jose. She and her husband (he died when the Jenny Lind exploded in 1853) were owners (or part owners) of Chalome and two other ranchos. Charles White filed for a claim for the Rancho Chalome in 1852; it was finally granted to Ellen White in 1865. Yes, eleven years after!

Two years later, William Hollister purchased the Rancho Chalome from Mrs. White. Hollister was an wealthy and influential sheep rancher originally from Ohio. (Incidentally, the city of Hollister, California is named for him.)

In 1869 Hollister sold half-interest to Robert Edgar Jack. After Hollister died, Jack purchased the remaining interest from Hollister’s widow, in 1893, making him full owner. The rancho remained in the Jack family until 1965 when the Hearst Corporation purchased it to expand their holdings. (The Hearst Castle isn’t far from there.)

[By the way, actor James Dean was killed at the intersection of California highway 41 and 46; that junction is on what was Rancho Chalome land, and not far from where I placed the Woden cabin.]

 

Something Woden This Way Comes

The stage was late. Scott waited impatiently in the station. He again thought back to the last time he’d taken the stage out of Goshen with Abby, when he didn’t know Johnny Madrid was his brother, when they had no real idea of what faced them at Lancer. How naive they were! But they had come to know much in a matter of weeks and while there was still much Scott had to learn about the West, he no longer considered himself a greenhorn. Perhaps a semi-greenhorn, he thought wryly.

He kept his bag at his ankles as he waited. He did not want to lose that branding iron, nor did he want anyone else to see it. It was stolen property, after all. At least Johnny, when he took Plata Viento, was retrieving something that belonged to his father. He had no such excuse. He was a thief, plain and simple.

He smiled at that thought. If only his grandfather could see him now. He’d be enraged, blaming Murdoch Lancer on his only grandson’s fall from grace. Then again, Harlan Garret didn’t get where he was by following the law to the letter, that much Scott knew.

He noted the other waiting passengers: an older teen traveling alone, an old Mexican man and his grandson. A new man hurried into the station and purchased a ticket. It was the same businessman who traveled with him on the way to Visalia, the one who read a book the entire time. Scott wanted to talk to him but the stage’s arrival interrupted his thoughts. He did not get the opportunity for conversation until they were under way.

Scott got his chance, after a courtesy exchange with the teen and the old man. The businessman smiled, “I’m Duncan, Gilford Duncan. I manage the Cattleman’s Hotel in Green River. I noticed you on the stage the other day. What was your business in Visalia?”

Scott grew wary, but was able to squash the feeling. Telling himself that it was just coincidence, that it was perfectly natural for the manager of one hotel would travel to its brother. He answered Duncan’s questions politely with the story he’d invented just for such inquiries. “I was doing some research for my father. He is interested in investing in a farm or two in the area. You?” He didn’t really think that this man knew of Addison’s illegal activities, but he planned to keep a close eye on him anyway

“Oh,” Duncan replied nonchalantly. “I was bringing some papers to the main hotel. You know, business. I travel a lot for the hotel. It’s part of my job.”

Scott thought on that for a moment. “But you caught the stage in Goshen with me?”

“Yes,” Duncan answered. “I volunteered to deliver a horse to Goshen this morning for a friend. He was going to do it, but he injured his arm last night and couldn’t.” Duncan lied well. “I hope my boss doesn’t mind that I’m coming in a later stage.”

“I’m sure if you were helping a friend, he won’t mind at all.”

The stage rambled into Cross Creek just about on time; the driver had pushed the horses to make up for the lost time. The teen departed, his parents met him at the station and walked to a wagon. With a half-hour for an early dinner, Scott and the rest of the passengers were served ham, beans and biscuits at cafe next door. It wasn’t elegant fare, but it was filling and it cost only a quarter. He even had time to stretch his legs a bit before the driver called time.

Scott knew they had two more way stations before arriving in Green River, and they’d be spending the night at the second one. He had a long way to go. He still felt nervous, but told himself it was because he was carrying contraband; he’d never stolen anything before. Convinced that was the source of his unease, he put away his book and sat back, closing his eyes. Scott fell asleep before he even realized it.

He awoke when they pulled into the first of the two way stations. Sol, the manager, had cherry pie waiting for them. They had just enough time to finish the pie and stretch their legs a little before the driver, Jake, called time.

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

 

Murdoch drove the Lancer carriage away from the hacienda. He smiled as he traveled the Green River road, his destination: the Conway Ranch. He and Aggie Conway were having a dinner out in Green River this evening. It would be their first official outing in town.

They’d been visiting more with each other ever since the final Pardee battle at Lancer. Aggie had come the day before with a small complement of her men and stayed to help with the fighting. She, herself, had fired off a few rounds, fighting alongside Murdoch in the hacienda’s front patio.

The two of them had been friends for many years, but not until that day had their friendship grown to something more affectionate. He admired Aggie and liked how she made him feel: alive, youthful and happy. It was a feeling he hadn’t felt in many years.

He hadn’t allowed himself to feel much, he admitted. He’d been so wrapped up in his ranch, so hurt by his second wife’s leaving, that he built thick emotional walls around himself to protect his heart, just as he’d built the hacienda with thick adobe walls to protect its interior. He’d made friends, of course, and developed both business and personal relationships over the years, but nothing approached the more intimate connection he now felt with Aggie.

He felt liberated. Something about her had touched him in a way no woman had, not Maria nor his first wife, Catherine. He was compelled by some unseen force to pursue Aggie, and each moment he spent with her tore down more of those walls he’d so carefully erected. Sometimes he felt so good with her he knew his heart would burst out of his chest cavity. He smiled.

He smiled a lot these days. He told himself it was because of the baby, and some of it was, but mostly it was Aggie Conway who affected this change in him, converting him from a gruff but fair boss focused on his ranch and very little else to a happy, smiling man who allowed for other niceties to enter his life.

He liked himself. And Aggie Conway was the reason.

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

 

Abby emerged from the hacienda, intent on solving the mystery of the brand. She had with her a paper and pencil. She walked to the corral where Johnny and Smitty were finishing up working Plata Viento. “Evening, boys,” she greeted.

Smitty nodded his hello and held on to the stallion’s halter. Johnny met her at the railing. “What you got there, Abby?”

“Paper,” she answered. “I’m going to trace that brand.”

“Scott already did it. He gave it to that lawyer in Green River.”

“I know. But I didn’t get to see that one. I’m determined to figure this out. Can you have Smitty hold him still for me?” She approached the gate.

Johnny ran to block her. “Oh, no, Abby. I’ll not have you stepping foot in this corral. Scott would skin me alive if that horse did something and you got hurt. I’ll do it.” He took the paper and pencil, walked over to the grey and began tracing. Smitty tried to hold the animal still but it took both of them to calm him enough to trace the brand again. “There,” Johnny pronounced when he was done. He returned the drawing to Abby. She took it.

Looking at the brand on paper had the same affect as looking at it on the horse. It gave her no enlightenment. Abby was disappointed. She dropped her hand. “Well, I was hoping,” she commented, sighing. The paper slipped from her hand onto the dirt. As she bent down to get it, she brightened. “Oh, my!” she said, grabbing the now-dusty paper.

“Look!” She showed the tracing to Johnny, but turned sideways. Instead of lines, curls and finials, it now resembled a fancy A in a circle. “It’s an ‘A’! No wonder we couldn’t figure it out. It’s sideways!”

Johnny examined the drawing, looked back at the horse, turning his head. “You’re right. It is. A sideways A.”

“Murdoch needs to know about this. He may know what it means,” Abby said. “He went into Green River this evening to have dinner with Aggie Conway.”

“I’ll go right now,” Johnny said. He was already stepping between the railings. “Take care of that stallion,” he called back to Smitty as he ran to the barn.

“Be careful!” Abby called after him.

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

 

With fresh horses, Jake pulled out of the first way station and headed for the second one, the one closer to Green River. It would be another two hours to get there and would be quite dark by then. Scott took this time of solace to ponder this trip. He tried to think of the significance of his findings.

Buck Addison purchased the Ortega place. He sold it, in pieces, but kept the hacienda. The stallion had been housed there. And he found this mysterious branding iron in the hacienda. That is, it looked like a branding iron; he wasn’t entirely sure of that, even. He didn’t know what role that strange utensil played, but it sure looked to him that the very same Buck Addison who owned the highly-successful Cattleman’s Hotels was the one who had used that iron to change the brand on Murdoch’s grey stallion, marking the horse as his.

And if he had the stallion, didn’t that mean that he’d hired Pardee? After all, it was Pardee who had engineered the theft in the first place. Could the infamous gunfighter have stolen it for Addison?

He didn’t believe it possible, even as he thought it through. A man like Buck Addison just wouldn’t risk everything he had—property, prestige, wealth—to hire gunfighters and outlaws to...do what? Steal a horse? Or was he the man behind the takeover attempt at Lancer? Was Murdoch shot and Teresa’s father murdered on Addison’s orders?

It seemed improbable. They’d all worked on the assumption that the same man behind the horse theft, Murdoch’s injury and Paul O’Brien’s death was the man behind the subsequent raids on Lancer. Once the raids had begun, Murdoch had linked the events together, but were they really?

Could it just be coincidence that Day Pardee was in charge of both events? Unlikely. But it was just as unlikely that a well-respected man such as Buck Addison had hired the gunfighter in the first place.

Could there be another solution? Did he have it all wrong? Could someone be trying to frame Addison? If so, it was a nice, neat package. The horse was being kept on Addison’s property. Addison’s abandoned property. With what looked like could be Addison’s brand. Did the man even go out there? Probably not. Johnny had said he’d seen a kid, a teen boy, at the hacienda.

Was the brand even Addison’s brand? It looked like it could be, that fancy sideways A. But what if Ramsey’s clerk found something else out. Or maybe someone else registered this brand in Addison’s name. That could point to a frame as well.

As Scott pondered those questions, trying to come up with an answer, a shot rang out, interrupting his reverie. He opened his eyes and sat up, instantly alert.

“Whoa!” the driver called, reining in the horses. The stage lurched to a stop. “Who goes there?”

Scott had a bad feeling about this.

 

Invasion of the Booty Snatchers

Murdoch stopped the carriage in Aggie Conway’s courtyard. Her hacienda was smaller than his at Lancer, but more feminine in its decor, whitewashed a lighter color with oversized urns filled with flowers and herbs. The basic ranchhouse was L-shaped, with a large oak tree featured in its courtyard. The tree was ringed in stacks of flat rocks to create interest and seating.

Many of the hacienda’s windows were floor-to-ceiling, letting in a tremendous amount of light, but creating weak points in its security. Murdoch had warned her about them when she had them installed, but she insisted she wanted the light and he had to admit she was right about that. The inside of her home was bright and cheerful. Like her.

He stepped out of the carriage as a cowboy grabbed hold of the lead horse’s harness, keeping the gelding in place. Murdoch gave the man a cursory nod, indicating he should keep the horse there.

Aggie breezed out of her home, smiling, with her arms open wide. “Welcome,” she greeted. Murdoch’s breath left him as he saw her, in a sunny yellow dress, looking years younger.

“You look wonderful,” he grinned. He just couldn’t help himself. The sight of her in that bright dress just forced it out of him.

“Why, thank you,” she nodded. “Come on in and have a drink. I just need to finish getting ready.”

“You look perfect as you are,” he said, taking her into his arm as he escorted her back into the house.

Aggie giggled. He made her feel like a schoolgirl.

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

 

“Get down from there!”

Scott heard the rough voice shouting. He felt the stage lurch as the driver jumped off, hearing the man’s feet thud to the ground. He wondered what he could do. His Colt was in the gunbox under the driver’s seat. Before he had time to think of something else, the stage door jerked open. “Get out!” cried another voice.

Two men. Scott made a point to remember. It’s two men. At least.

Inside the stage, the boy clung to his grandfather; the old man tried to comfort him in soft Spanish. “It’ll be okay,” Scott told the frightened child. “Just do what they say.” The boy nodded bravely and followed his grandfather out the door. Scott came after. The businessman Duncan was the last one out.

They lined up against the stage, wedged in place between the two left wheels, their hands up high in the air. The boy had fixed a hard grimace on his face to hide his fear. Duncan was white, but stood stoically. The old man kept glancing down to his grandson. The driver stood blocking the front wheel, giving the outlaws a hard glare.

Scott tried to take it all in. He could see the two robbers, but their faces were partially obscured by their bandanas. There wasn’t enough light to see if there were more of them. They could be hidden in the rocks or behind a tree, or even farther away, with a rifle trained on them.

He remembered the time when Johnny thwarted that robbery when he and Abby were first coming to Lancer. He’d been concerned then, but not afraid. Now there was no Johnny now to save him, no one to come to his rescue. He was on his own. He felt that fear now.

“Gimme that strongbox!” the first one yelled. His gravelly voice grated on Scott’s nerves. Jake complied, recovering the locked iron box from under the seat. If only the driver would reach into the gunbox, thought Scott. Then he corrected his thought: he’d be shot trying, killed if he succeeded.

Gravel-voice shot off the lock and kicked open the strongbox. There wasn’t much cash in there; it was mostly papers. “Damn!” he cursed. He recovered what treasures were there before overturning the iron box, not caring that some of the papers scattered in the wind.

The other pointed his gun at the passengers and removed his hat. “If you got somethin’, put it here!” he ordered. He passed the hat down the passengers, holding it in his left hand while his right pointed his Colt at them. Scott had a mind to flip the hat into the air when it came to him and try to wrestle the gun from the outlaw, but thought better of it when Gravel-voice stood behind his partner, his gun aimed directly at Scott’s forehead. Scott gulped and emptied his pockets. Duncan did the same, removing a ring from his right hand.

The two outlaws stepped back, surveying their captives. Gravel-voice smiled wickedly. “Now, we need ourselves a couple of hostages,” he snarled. “Just to make sure we get away clean. Wouldn’t want any of you to play hero.” His partner laughed. Scott grimaced helplessly, wanting to connect his fist with the laughing man’s jaw, knowing he couldn’t possibly. Not and survive, that is.

Gravel-voice flicked his gun toward Scott. “You. You’re one.” His partner grabbed Scott’s arm, jerking him from the lineup. As Scott passed by him, the man raised his Colt. Scott’s world went black.

 

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

 

The stage thundered into the last way station, the driver reining up the horses abruptly, his foot hard on the brake. Jake jumped down almost before they stopped. “Out!” he ordered the remaining passengers as he ran inside.

Ruben, the manager of this way station, stood up to greet the weary passengers as they came in. He was ready to show them to their quarters for the night, but Jake had barreled into the station so fast he rushed to the door.

“Land’s sake!” he exclaimed. He almost ran into the driver. “Jake! Why’d you come in so fast?”

“Robbery!” Jake shouted breathlessly. “And they took two passengers. An old man and a young one. Where’s Davy?” Jake looked around anxiously. Davy was the wrangler at the station.

“He’s gone to Green River, Jake. His mama done took sick. He left this morning. I’ve been changin’ the horses.”

“Criminy!” Jake exclaimed, slapping his hat on his thigh for emphasis. “I need someone to ride to Green River to let them know about the robbery and kidnapping. And send a telegram to Goshen.”

“Well, there ain’t no one here but me, Jake. Want me to do it?”

Jake shook his head. “No, Ruben. You ain’t no rider. You might fall off and get hurt.” He turned as the two passengers came in, Gilford Duncan and the frightened young boy. Jake got an idea. “Y’all get back on the stage.” He told the pair. “We won’t be spending the night; we gotta get on to Green River. Hurry now.” He grabbed Ruben. “Come on. Help me change the horses. Quickly!”

Fifteen minutes later, with fresh horses, Jake pulled the stage out of the way station. It was another two hours to Green River. He knew the station master in the town wouldn’t be expecting him tonight but he had no choice. Company policy dictated that the line be notified immediately in cases such as this. While he didn’t want to drive an extra two hours tonight, Jake would lose his job if he failed to follow policy.

 

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

 

Murdoch and Aggie arrived in Green River just as dusk began to fall on the sleepy little town. Shops were closing; merchants said goodbye to their final customers of the day. People were hurrying along the boardwalk to get home. Only a few places were still fully open: the saloons, two cafes, the telegraph office, the livery and of course, the town’s hotels.

Murdoch eased the horses to a walk. People on the boardwalk slowed and stopped, some pointing at the carriage and whispering as they noticed the pair. A few gave them dark looks and purposely turned away. Others completely ignored them. Murdoch didn’t understand; he was not usually greeted by the townspeople this way.

Aggie leaned toward him. “We don’t appear to be so popular tonight,” she said in a low voice.

“Yes, looks that way. Wonder what’s got into them?” He continued to the Cattleman’s Hotel and stopped in front of the inn’s stables. A teenage boy ran up to secure their horses, a footman stepped forward to assist them disembark. Neither of them fully smiled at the couple.

“Welcome to the Cattleman’s Hotel, sir,” the footman said, but his voice wasn’t friendly, his eyes almost scowled. His forced politeness was obvious.

Murdoch ignored the footman’s demeanor and nodded to the man. “Good evening, Darby. How’s that wife of yours?”

Darby opened the door leading to a hallway into the hotel. “She’s fine, sir,” he said stiffly.

Aggie tried. “You tell her if she needs anything, all she has to do is ask.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Darby answered politely but tersely.

“Well, that was interesting,” Aggie remarked. They walked down the boardwalk toward the hotel lobby. “I’ve known him since he was knee-high to a pup.”

“Yes,” Murdoch agreed. “Me, too. He usually rambles on and on about his wife and the new baby.”

The strange spurnings and pointed whispers continued as they were led to their seats in the hotel’s dining room, toward the rear of the room, at a table in the corner. Murdoch would have normally protested their placement in the room, but let it go tonight. The other patrons gave them dark looks or turned away, speaking only when necessary to the couple. Only the minister and his wife, sitting in a table near the windows in the front, nodded a slow greeting. Neither smiled, however. They merely watched intensely.

“Well, I’ve never seen such a display in my life,” Aggie said as Murdoch settled her into her chair. She smoothed out her skirts. “But I’m not going to let them ruin my evening with you, Murdoch.” She smiled.

Murdoch stopped his frowning and returned her cheery attitude. “Me, neither.” He took his seat. “Let’s order wine.”

 

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

 

Scott Lancer opened his eyes and saw blackness, with only tiny pinpoints of light. A moment later as he was able to focus better he realized that the lights were the stars in the sky. It was night. He shook his head groggily and moaned. Every bone in his body seemed to ache, but it was his head that pounded, like a thousand drummers to an unknown rhythm.

He tried to remember what had happened, but couldn’t yet. “There, there,” a female voice soothed. “You hit your head hard.” She held up a cup and lifted his head. “Drink this.”

Scott felt nauseous as his head was lifted, but took the drink anyway. It tasted bitter, like medicines tend to be, but was cooling and soothing. The last thing he remembered before falling back into blessed sleep was murmuring “thank you” to the woman.

“He’s out again,” Opal called to her brothers. “Try to avoid the bigger holes. That last one jostled him awake. I don’t have much of this stuff left.” She shook a bottle.

“We can get more,” Hank yelled back to her. “We’re almost to that new place, Latache, Lemoore, whatever they’re callin’ it.” They were traveling in their wagon to the tiny community on the edge of Tulare Lake. They planned to take the ferry across the lake in the morning to the Kettleman Hills area, then travel south around the Diablos Mountains through the pass to their cabin. They could be there by tomorrow night if all went well.

 

Oh, Bother!

The road from Lancer to Green River ran from the hacienda to the town in a mostly direct route and a horse could gallop it in under two hours. It was a fairly straight path, with only one significant road angling off: the lane going to Aggie Conway’s ranch.

This evening, Johnny rode Barranca on that road toward the town, slowing as the sun set. He didn’t want to push his horse as it darkened. He brought the palomino to a moderate trot, nice and easy, allowing him to still cover ground but at a relaxed pace which allowed Johnny to watch the road for danger.

He continued riding even as the sun went down, but slowed Barranca a little more. He shuddered from a chill; evenings could get quite cool here in California, even in the summer. It was a far cry from the heat he had grown up with along the border.

Intent on finding Murdoch and Aggie, Johnny wanted to deliver Abby’s decipher of the stallion’s brand. He wasn’t particularly in a hurry; the news wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was something he knew Murdoch had asked to know immediately, so he and Abby had felt it important enough to interrupt their date.

Their date. Johnny snorted at the idea. Murdoch was too old to be courting; that was for the young, wasn’t it? Yet, he did like the moods Aggie Conway brought out in his father. Murdoch seemed more mellow now. Johnny had seen the change in his father’s demeanor since he brought the stallion back. Between Aggie and the baby, well, Murdoch Lancer was downright happy.

Almost giddy, in fact.

The changes were obvious: Murdoch was less irritated, and seemed to take things more in stride. He was less authoritative and more willing to listen, more tolerant. Even with him. Hell, he even put up with Johnny living in the main house—this was a few scant weeks after basically throwing him out. And, Murdoch had taken to calling him by his first name. That in itself was a statement. Johnny wasn’t quite sure what to make of all the astonishing changes in his father, but he wasn’t about to question it. It was nice having a little peace for now.

As Johnny neared the town, he automatically fell into his gunfighter mode. He set his hat firmly on his head, lowering it slightly to hide more of his eyes. He tested the looseness of his Colt in its holster and relaxed his body even more. Barranca sensed his master’s change and tossed his head. “Easy, boy,” Johnny crooned, soothing the animal with the palm of his hand on his neck. “It’s just Green River.”

There weren’t a lot of people out on the boardwalk; the town was in the process of bedding down for the night. There were a few places still open, though—enough to keep Green River from completely shutting down. Still, most of the families were in their own houses, either having their supper or finishing it up. They would soon get ready for sleep.

He wasn’t quite sure where Murdoch was with Aggie, but it was a pretty safe bet that they were at the new Cattleman’s Hotel. He had heard of its finery, and, if it was anything like it’s brother in Visalia, it was just the sort of place a big, influential rancher like Murdoch would pick for an outing with a woman. He tied Barranca out front of the opulent hotel and entered, pausing at the doorway for a quick scan.

The lobby was beautiful and expansive and tastefully decorated. Only two groups  of people occupied the fat armchairs, their conversations ceasing as they saw him. Johnny recognized none of them but immediately assessed them all as non-threatening. He strode through the lobby, getting the looks he was used to getting: the stares, the startled surprise, the bowed head and one or two brave glares. Johnny kept walking, stopping at the cafe doorway.

He didn’t have to look long to find his father and Mrs. Conway. They were seated at a smaller table in a back corner, their plates in front of them. Murdoch glanced up, seeing Johnny. He looked surprised.

Johnny suddenly realized that this was the first time the two of them had met in public in this town. Too late he remembered Murdoch’s warning regarding the minister. He should have sent Smitty instead with this news. Unable to change things now, he drew a deep breath and entered the cafe.

“Mr. Madrid,” Murdoch greeted, standing when Johnny reached his table.

So, he wanted to be formal. Two can play that game. “Lancer,” Johnny nodded slightly. He turned to Aggie. “Ma’am.” Facing Murdoch again he stated, “I have some news regarding that brand.”

Murdoch quickly glanced around, noticing that the other patrons were trying their best not to stare at the gunfighter. “It couldn’t wait?”

“No,” was all Johnny said. He knew he was making Murdoch uncomfortable but right now he just didn’t give a damn. He was already committed.

Murdoch turned to Aggie. “I’ll be just a minute,” he left his napkin on the table.

Aggie grasped his arm. “Nonsense, Murdoch. Let the boy say his piece.” She turned to Johnny and indicated the third chair. “Here, sit with us.” Aggie had no fear.

Now both men felt uncomfortable. This was more intimacy than Johnny had wanted—interrupting their evening was one thing, but intruding on their date by joining them at their table was quite another. Murdoch surprised him by nodding to Aggie. He gestured to Johnny inviting him to sit. He returned to his own seat, sipping some of his wine.

Left with no choice, Johnny pulled out the chair. “I’m sorry to bother you, but Abby thinks she’s figured out the stallion’s brand.”

“What is it?” Murdoch asked, leaning forward and instantly forgetting his trepidation.

Johnny lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “It’s an A. Sideways.” He pulled out the tracing and turned it so they could see.

“Of course!” Aggie exclaimed. “Now I see it!”

Murdoch studied the tracing and shook his head. “I don’t know anyone with that brand. Nor do I have an idea who it could be.” He took the paper, folded it and slipped it into his jacket pocket. “Whoever it is, though, probably doesn’t want us to show it around in public.”

Before Johnny could comment, they were interrupted by a ruckus outside. It was the stagecoach, tearing down the street at breakneck speed. Murdoch gave Aggie a questioning look. “It’s not supposed to come in at night,” she shrugged. They stood to go see what was going on.

So did everyone else. In fact, just about the entire town rushed to their respective doorways, their nightly routine suspended, curious as to why the stage, which should be coming around eight in the morning was arriving now, well after dark, and in a huge rush.

 

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

 

Reverend Root’s draw dropped. Still reeling from the realization that Murdoch Lancer was playing host to the infamous Johnny Madrid at his hacienda, here was the gunfighter in question, confidently swaggering to the table occupied by the very same Lancer and his lady friend, Mrs. Conway. How bold could the gunman be? Did he have no shame? How dare he set himself among the company of good, God-fearing people, in such a fine establishment as Addison’s Cattleman’s Hotel!

And that Murdoch Lancer! How could he simply allow the man to sit at his table, as if the cretin was of the same cloth as the rest of us? Root shook his head at the further proof that Lancer had indeed been debauched by the evilness of Johnny Madrid.

He needed to do something. It was his job as the moral compass of this community to oust the gunman from their midst. He’d said as much in his sermon and now was his chance to practice what he preached. He stood, grim-faced, ready to rage war.

As he tossed his napkin to the table, the ruckus from the stage tearing through town caught his, and everyone else’s, attention. Forgetting about Madrid and Lancer, Reverend Root rushed with everyone to the boardwalk to see what was going on.

Jake jumped off the stage even before it completely stopped in front of the station. “Robbery! Robbery!” he shouted, getting the station master’s attention. “Two men! They kidnapped two passengers!” He opened the coach doors, allowing the Mexican boy and Duncan to emerge.

The crowd murmured. Some came forward to help. Murdoch, Johnny and Aggie threaded their way through the hotel to the street. Sam Jenkins, his medical bag in hand, ran to the stage.

“Is anyone hurt?” Sam asked. He saw the frightened boy. “Are you okay?”

The boy fell into his arms, sobbing. “They...took Abuelo,” he cried.

Duncan scanned the crowd for his boss. Addison shoved his way through the hotel door, bumping into Reverend Root—”Oh, sorry, Reverend,”—as he passed to the street. He nodded to Duncan, who approached.

Murdoch Lancer grabbed Duncan’s arm. “My son, Scott Lancer, was he on this stage?”

“Yes,” Duncan answered. “He was one of those taken during the robbery.” He took a step toward Addison.

Johnny stepped in front of him, blocking his path, his face solemn, stern, his eyes cold. “Tell me what happened. Everything.”

Duncan perused the area, noticing that everyone seemed to be watching, frozen. No one dared interfere. He gulped and faced Johnny again. “Two men, in bandanas. They robbed the strongbox, took our belongings. They grabbed Scott Lancer and hit him. Dragged him off somewhere. Took the boy’s grandfather, too. I don’t know where they went. We high-tailed it out of there as soon as they left.”

Jake joined him. “It happened about a half-hour before Ruben’s Way Station. Two men. They robbed us, then took young Lancer hostage. Knocked him clean out. Then they grabbed old man Garcia, too. Left the rest of us. I drove to the station real fast. We changed horses and came on in here.” He looked around and asked the crowd. “Who’s the telegraph operator? I need to send a message!”

Johnny turned back to Murdoch. In a soft voice, he spoke in his father’s ear so only he could hear. “I’m going after Scott. I don’t think they took him by accident. It probably has something to do with the stallion or his brand.”

“Wait,” Murdoch held him back. To Duncan, Murdoch asked: “Are you sure it was my son Scott?”

Duncan nodded. “Yes. I remember him from before, on the stage going to Visalia. And we talked some today. It was your son. I’m sorry.”

Johnny gave one last look at Murdoch, who nodded to him, before running to Barranca. He was off before anyone could say anything else.

Root watched Madrid ride off before pushing his way through the crowd, stopping at Murdoch Lancer and Aggie. “This is what happens to good men when they receive gunfighters into their lives,” He accused. “Evil men corrupt good men. That Johnny Madrid has befouled you and led to this terrible incident. And now that boy’s grandfather is hurt. How do you excuse yourself?”

“What do you mean, Reverend? Are you saying this stage robbery is my fault?” Murdoch glared at the preacher.

“I don’t know if it is or not,” Root held his ground. “But I’ve seen you with that notorious gunfighter, not only tonight, sitting pretty as you please in the hotel at your table, but at your hacienda as well, looking like he belongs. Does he live there with you?”

Murdoch could see that the crowd, which had initially came into the streets that night for the stage, was now focused on him and the minister, their faces dark and frowning like before. He did not want to have this discussion in public. He moved to return to the hotel.

Root grabbed his arm. “Are you running, Mr. Lancer? You can’t run from God. He demands an accounting!” The crowd began to murmur, inspiring the minister. “Repent, Mr. Lancer!” he asked. “The Lord knows of your sins!”

Murdoch stopped and stared at the minister. “So do I, Reverend. But this tragedy, this robbery and kidnapping aren’t among them.” He took Aggie by the arm and they returned to the hotel, the crowd quietly parting for them.

At their table, Murdoch drained his wine. Aggie sat down and picked up her glass as well. “Well, I never!” she exclaimed. “What a pompous man! That...that minister picking a time like this to—” She didn’t finish; she just shook her head. “I can’t imagine what goes on in his head, Murdoch. He isn’t right. Why, to blame you! Unbelievable!”

“But they were believing it, Aggie. Didn’t you see their faces? They were nodding and agreeing with him. And I didn’t give them a different story.”

“You couldn’t!” She was in a fine state now. “There was no way you could defend yourself to that man. He would have turned your words against you. The only thing you could do is what you did: get out of there before it got worse.”

“Still, I should have said something more.” Murdoch’s regret grew with each passing moment. If the people of the town continued to believe Root, his reputation would be ruined.

“Maybe, maybe not. I still don’t think you could have won an argument with that man. He was out for blood. Your blood!”

Murdoch shook his head. “Maybe I should take you home, Aggie. Abby will have to be told about this.”

Aggie rested her hand on his arm. “Take me with you. She’ll need a woman to help her.”

 

Sudden Impact

Johnny had a problem. He realized it about a half-mile east of Green River. He pulled Barranca to a halt and took a moment to think things through. He was not prepared for this journey. He’d planned a one-evening excursion to town not a cross-country manhunt. He had no bedroll or blanket, nor did he have supplies for a long trip, should he need them. He had almost nothing.

His working Colt was in his bedroom at the hacienda, a two-hour ride in the opposite direction. He did have a handgun, of course, but it wasn’t the one specially modified for him. He would not have the advantage of that special weapon should he be called out in a gunfight.

Barranca wasn’t completely fresh, but he still had enough to give a couple of hours more. And Johnny did have his favorite Winchester, a small amount of jerky and a canteen, and adequate money.

If he chose to return to the hacienda to retrieve his working gun, his bedroll and supplies, he would be behind another four hours, maybe five, and have an extremely tired horse once he reached the way station, assuming he made it to the way station tonight at all. If he continued on, he’d remain ill-prepared until he could re-supply—if he found a place—but he’d definitely make it the two hours to the way station. He considered his options and decided that time was more important than the supplies or the gun. He spurred Barranca onward. He’d wasted enough time.

 

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

 

Sam Jenkins led the grieving boy to his office, a yellow clapboard house just a block away from the Wells Fargo station. The child’s shoulders heaved occasionally, as if he was trying to stifle the sobs. In his office, he examined the boy more carefully and found a bruise on his right shoulder.

“What’s your name?” he asked the boy. He looked about ten.

“I’m Miguel,” he answered, giving a sniff. “Miguel Garcia. My abuelo, he owns the livery.”

“Thank you, Miguel. I know your grandfather. He’s a fine man and runs a clean livery. Now, can you tell me how you got this bruise?” Sam pointed to the injured shoulder.

Miguel puffed up, defiance in his watery eyes. “They hit me, the banditos. I tried to stop them from taking Abuelo.”

“Well, Miguel, you’re very brave. Does it hurt?”

The boy nodded. “A little, Señor Doctor. But I worry for my abuelo. He is sick.”

Sam reached into his bag for a bottle. “How is he sick, son?”

“He has a cough. It gets worse at night. The cold air, it does not like him.”

Sam smiled thinly. “It doesn’t like me, either.” He poured some of the liquid from the bottle on a cloth and applied it gently to the boy’s shoulder. “This should help with the pain, Miguel. It won’t bother you while you sleep tonight. Do you have a relative you can stay with?”

Miguel shook his head. “Not in Green River, señor. My tia, she lives in Morro Coyo.”

“Well, you won’t be going there tonight. I’ll ask Mrs. Henderson if she can take you for the night; we’ll get you to your tia tomorrow, okay?”

“But what about my abuelo?”

Sam smiled. “Don’t worry, Miguel. I have a feeling that someone will find your grandfather very soon and get him back here.” He knew Johnny Madrid wouldn’t stand idle while Scott was in danger. “Shall we go find Mrs. Henderson?”

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

 

Duncan followed Addison into the hotel. The crowd was dispersing; the showdown between the minister and Lancer had ended. While Root continued to grouse about Lancer’s retreat to anyone who would listen, the excitement was over and the tired townsfolk returned to their homes for the night.

In Addison’s office, Duncan told him the entire story. “The robbers took what cash was in the strongbox and our possessions. Then they grabbed young Lancer and that old man. They hit Lancer so he wouldn’t give them trouble but pulled the old man along, hitting the boy when he tried to stop them. Once they were gone, the driver got us back into the stage and we took off for the way station. That boy was a wreck, Mr. Addison. He cried all the way to the way station, and continued on the ride here.”

Addison paced as Duncan related his tale. “What did the Woden brothers take from you?” He was perspiring.

“Some money, a watch and—” he paused. “Wait! You know the outlaws’ names? How?”

Addison didn’t look up. He continued his pacing. For the first time Duncan noticed how agitated he was. “What’s going on, Mr. Addison?” When Buck didn’t answer him, he continued, “What did you do?”

Addison spun around and pointed at Duncan. “This is all your fault! If you hadn’t told me about that horse....” He broke off, turned again and stared out the window into the night.

“All I did was tell you that Lancer’s prize stallion had been stolen and if you wanted it, you could buy it. You’ve been telling me for years that you and he were rivals of some sort. Isn’t that why you bought the Ortega Farm? So you could become a big-shot rancher, too?”

“I bought it to run, yes, but that didn’t turn out well, did it? Thanks to that Lone Pine earthquake and all the damage it caused, I had to sell it, and in parts to make money off the deal. I only kept that hacienda because it would have cost more to tear it down than it was worth.”

“Ahhh,” Duncan sat down, finally understanding. “I think I got it. Lancer got his horse back. And his son went looking and found out you owned the hacienda. You hired some thugs to kidnap him? Are you insane? What do you hope to accomplish?”

“None of this would have been necessary if the men you hired would have taken care of Madrid! Your men were supposed to kill him and that would have been the end of it. This is your fault!”

Duncan ran a hand through his hair. Addison had a point. “Well, there isn’t anything we can do about that. And Logan left the area.”

“You let him go, to run amuck and tell everyone.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Never mind. I took care of him. He’s not a liability anymore.”

Duncan froze. Did his boss mean what he thought he meant?

Addison continued, leaning on his desk. “I had to do something about Scott Lancer. What if Murdoch Lancer finds out I had his stallion? I’d be ruined, particularly if he had proof and, if what you think young Lancer found in that hacienda is what I think it is..., well, Murdoch Lancer will have that proof!”

“I don’t know what our friend did with whatever he stole. It wasn’t among his things in the room. I went back and looked in the alley the next morning and found nothing. Whatever it was, I don’t think he brought it back. So you panicked for nothing.”

When Addison said nothing, Duncan continued. “Who are these people who robbed the stage? What are they supposed to do with Lancer?”

“Their name is Woden. Two brothers and a sister. They were guests here. Tried to skip out on the bill. I told them they were off the hook and they could keep what they stole from the stage if they took Lancer away. They are to keep him at their farm until they get word from me.”

“Then what?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t plan that far ahead.” Addison sat down, suddenly very tired. He looked defeated, and felt that way, too. He now realized just how much trouble he was in. “Will you go after them, Gilford? Keep an eye out for me? Maybe...”

“You want me to kill Scott Lancer?” Duncan’s question was brusque.

Addison was aghast. “No!” He put his head in his hands, swaying from side to side. “Oh, God. You’ll have to, won’t you? And the Woden siblings.” He looked up, tears almost in his eyes. “I can’t have witnesses.”

Duncan stood up, his face grim, his voice showing irritation. “For an astute businessman, Mr. Addison, you sure don’t think things through. At least, not when it comes to Murdoch Lancer. He must really get under your skin.”

 

Under an Influence

Murdoch held Aggie’s arm as he helped her into the carriage. He waited until she was settled before limping around the back. They were going to stop off at her ranch for her to pick up some of her things before returning to Lancer and telling Abby. Aggie would be staying a few days in case the younger woman needed help. They didn’t know how the Eastern woman would take the news.

“Mr. Lancer!” the stage driver called. “Do you want to take this with you?” Jake held up Scott’s baggage from the stage. “It belongs to your son.”

“Thank you, Mr...?”

“Bell, Jake Bell.” The driver hefted the bag onto the back of the carriage. “I’m sorry about your son. The line will refund his ticket money. I know that’s no consolation, though.”

“No, Mr. Bell, it isn’t. But thank you anyway.” Murdoch stepped in the carriage, picked up the reins and started out for the Conway Ranch.

 

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

 

Gilford Duncan grumbled at his fate. Forced by the irrational moves of his frantic employer, he would have to ride to wherever this Woden cabin was, find them and eliminate them all, both brothers, the sister and, of course, Scott Lancer. And it wasn’t only the killing, it was the haphazard way it had had to be. If only Addison hadn’t panicked; if he’d waited to see what Scott Lancer found, what he knew, maybe all of this wouldn’t be necessary. Maybe all the young Lancer had was questions. But no, Addison had gone off the deep end and planned—planned? Duncan snorted—a rash kidnapping, with no resolution in mind. It was up to him to clean up Addison’s mess. Again.

He pulled out a map and, using the information Addison had told him about the Woden siblings, located the rough area where their cabin might be. The gap between the Diablos and the Shale Hills narrowed from point of the Antelope Valley until it widened again at the Cholame Rancho, so their cabin must be there, among those hills. It would not be easy to locate.

He decided to leave in the morning; he wanted sleep comfortably in his bed. Besides, it was already late and he wouldn’t get far before he’d have to make camp anyway. The fewer nights he spent on that cold, hard ground, if any, the better. Duncan wasn’t a country boy.

 

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

 

Hank Woden pulled the wagon into the tiny community of Latache. Only a few months old, the hamlet had been laid out by Dr. Lovern Lee Moore, who had arrived to the area just last summer, finding the farmers and sheep herders rather isolated in the rich land around Tulare Lake. He drew them together, forming some organization. The buildings were all new, and most of them were unfinished, but one of the first things Dr. Moore had done was to open a ferry across the lake.

The ferry made it easier for the citizens of the community to get supplies and mail, from the Cox and Clarke Trading Post, on the other side of the lake, rather than travel all the way to Goshen for services.

The ferry only ran in the daytime, so Hank needed to find somewhere to spend the night. There was only one place to rent a room in this new community, the new Lake Inn. It was a tavern which also served as a hotel, sundries store, and cafe. Hank stopped the wagon outside and entered the establishment.

He’d already thought of a cover story so when the owner asked, he told them that they needed two rooms, one for their sister who would care for their sick brother and a second for he and his other brother, who was well. He explained that they could carry their brother up the stairs so they didn’t need any help. The owner was happy not to help; his back pained him.

Hank returned to the wagon and both he and Lou carried Scott up the stairs to Room Two. Opal turned the key and they dropped his body on the bed. They unpacked the wagon before bringing the horses to the stables to care for them themselves; Latache didn’t yet have a livery.

Hank found the innkeeper before going up to his room. “My sister says we need more Laudanum for our brother. Do you know where we can get some?”

“What happened to him?”

“Oh, he fell off the wagon. We were horsin’ around this afternoon and he hit his head on a rock. He’ll be fine in a couple of days, but it hurts him somethin’ awful and if we don’t have no Laudanum he won’t sleep tonight.”

“I run a small store,” the innkeeper said. “I think we have some.” He left, returning a few minutes later with a brown bottle. “Here it is. It’ll be two dollars.”

“That’s a lot of money!” Hank cried. Their last bottle had cost them less than half that.

“You can get it cheaper at Cox and Clarke, or in Goshen or Green River, but here at my store, it’s two dollars.”

Grumbling, Hank withdrew the coins from his pocket. It was a good thing Mr. Addison had supplied them with money. He wasn’t about to spend his hard-earned coins on no Scott Lancer.

 

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

 

Murdoch slapped the reins and the carriage pulled away from Aggie’s ranch house. Scott’s horse, Rienzi, was tied to the back of the vehicle. Figuring Scott would need him when he and Johnny returned, Murdoch had collected the animal from Green River’s livery as they left town.

Their earlier anger now subsided, replaced with worry and concern. “Do you think Johnny Madrid will find Scott?” Aggie asked. She pulled the blankets up higher; it was a cool night.

“I’m certain of it. He’s only three or so hours behind.”

“But he can’t track them in the night, can he?”

“Probably not; it’s very difficult to track at night, particularly on a night like tonight, where there isn’t much of a moon. If they do anything to obscure their trail, he’ll miss them. He’ll wait until morning to begin that task.”

“But won’t he get farther behind?”

“No. They’ll have to stop for the night, too. They have two hostages; it’s difficult enough to travel with one unwilling companion, two, well, they’ll stop, all right. Plus their horses get tired, too.”

“Why do you think they even took hostages? That doesn’t sound like stage robbers to me.”

“Me either. And two men. I would have thought they would have taken the boy. He would have been easier to subdue if they needed a hostage.”

The two sat in silence, the sound of the horses’ hoofbeats passed the time.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Aggie finally asked.

“What’s that?”

“Scott and that Garcia man aren’t hostages. That old man was taken as a diversion. As was the robbery. Scott was the target all along. This was really a kidnapping.”

Murdoch pulled the reins, halting the horses. “Why do you say that?” He had his own suspicions, but hadn’t thought it through.

“I just find it curious that he was chosen, and selected first, so the driver said. And on the way back from his fact-finding trip to Visalia, where he went to get more information about the Ortega farm and who owned it. I think he discovered something out that someone didn’t want him to know, or tell us about.”

“I hope you’re wrong, because if you’re right, Scott is in greater danger than we thought.”

 

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

 

Scott stirred from his sleep. He heard a woman’s soothing voice, “There, there, it’s going to be all right.” He sighed, but a pounding in his head shattered that contentment. His eyes flickered open. The room was dark and all he was able to see were forms, one form in particular. “Take it easy, now. You’ve had a bad fall,” the voice belonging to that form eased.

Scott tried to remember what happened to him, but it was all a blur. All that came to him was some shouting, an intense pain then nothing. “A...fall?” he asked.

“Yes,” she lied. “My brother found you on the road. Your horse had run off. You were unconscious. We put your in our wagon and took you here. We are trying to get you a doctor, but there isn’t one here.” They hadn’t even bothered to consult Dr. Moore.

“Where....is....here?” Scott spoke slowly, trying not to aggravate his head.

“We are in Latache or whatever they call this village, on the north edge of Tulare Lake. Tomorrow we will take the ferry to Cox and Clarke. They’ll have a doctor there, I’m sure.” She again lied; they had no intention of consulting medical help, nor did she think a small place like Cox and Clarke had such assistance. “You go back to sleep now. Everything will be fine.”

Scott tried to nod but his head hurt too much. He closed his eyes and drifted off. Opal Woden smiled.

+++NOTE: Dr. Lovern Lee Moore was indeed the visionary who knitted the small farms in the area north of Tulare Lake into a community. Barely months old at the time of this story, he laid out a city block and built a post office. For some reason, the US Post Office objected to the name “Latache” and instead chose “Lemoore”, after Dr. Moore. The post office opened in 1875.

 

Late Arrivals

Johnny pulled Barranca up at the way station, not bothering to tie the heaving horse to the hitching post. He leapt off the animal and ran to the door. Banging on it several times, he finally roused the manager, Ruben.

“What in tarnation...?” Ruben asked as he opened the door. He was clad in his nightshirt, barefoot and carrying a rifle.

Johnny barged inside, quickly glanced around and found the place empty. “Tell me what you know about the stage robbery,” he demanded of Ruben. “Everything!” He paced a little.

Ruben studied his visitor. He had the look of gunfighter, but he wasn’t showing that reserve, that coolness, he’d seen them have. This one was agitated, impatient and definitely on edge.

“Who are you?”

Johnny stopped his fidgeting and drew a breath. He knew he had to calm down. It would take patience and perseverance to find Scott. When he steadied himself he replied. “I’m Johnny Madrid. Scott Lancer is my...my friend. I need to find him, him and the old man the robbers took.”

Ruben grew suspicious. “Murdoch Lancer hire you?”

“No. It doesn’t matter. I need to find Scott Lancer. What can you tell me about the robbery?”

Ruben studied the young man again. He seemed earnest, but he didn’t like Madrid’s demeanor; he was still too anxious, as if he would strike at any moment. Not taking a chance, he kept his rifle at hand. He continued warily. “Jake said it was about a half-hour East of here. He tore into here fast, wantin’ Davy to ride to Green River to report it. Davy weren’t here, though, so we changed the horses and he drove the stage on in.”

As Ruben told his tale, he noticed Madrid calming down, seeming more relaxed. The gunfighter nodded with understanding instead of impatience. Ruben propped his rifle against a table and went on.

“He said there were two men. And they took two men hostage, one old, one young. This Scott Lancer must be the young one. He’s Murdoch Lancer’s son?”

Johnny nodded absently; he was thinking. “Half-hour, huh?” He made a move to the door. Ruben stopped him in the doorway.

“You can’t track them in the dark, son, no matter how much you want to. And I bet that pretty horse of yours is tired. It’s very late. Why don’t you stay the night here? I’ll get you off at dawn. You and your horse can rest.”

Johnny hesitated. He didn’t want to wait. He wanted to find Scott now.

“Mr. Madrid? You’re the one who spoiled that robbery all those weeks back, ain’t you?” When Johnny nodded, Ruben continued. “You’re a good man. I know you’ll find Lancer and the men who took him. But you ain’t made of steel. You need rest.”

He knew Ruben was right, but he just didn’t want to waste the time. “I need to go.” He made another step out the door.

“Look at your horse, then. He’s heaving. He’s had it. I bet you rode him hard from Green River. If you want to continue on, I’ll loan you one of ours, but let the animal rest at least.”

Johnny glanced at Barranca. Ruben was right; the horse was beat. And he wasn’t about to leave him. “All right. I’ll stay.” Ruben showed him the barn. Johnny gave the palomino a good rubdown and got him plenty of good oats before he came inside for his own rest.

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

 

Johnny was already asleep in one of Ruben’s beds by the time Murdoch drove the carriage into the Lancer courtyard. Smitty, who had been waiting for Mr. Lancer when to return, ran up to help. He was surprised to see Mrs. Conway and no Johnny, but being the good hand that he was, he held his questions and did his job. “I’ll take the horses, sir,” he said, after helping them down and handing Aggie and Scott’s bags to another hand. He led the team and Rienzi toward the barn.

Aggie smoothed her skirt. “Well, it’s now or never.”

“How do you think she’ll handle the news?”

“I don’t know. I hope she’s strong enough that the shock doesn’t hurt the baby.”

Murdoch froze, stricken. “Oh, God! I hadn’t thought of that.” He could barely breathe. If something happened to that baby....

Aggie saw his pain. “Don’t worry, Murdoch. That’s why I’m here. We’ll tell her gently. It’ll be all right.” She certainly hoped so.

From what Aggie knew about young Abby Lancer, the woman had a quiet fortitude that would see her well during her life in the West, but this wasn’t the kind of news that one could predict the outcome in a pregnant woman. She’d seen seemingly frail women mount surprising strength in times like these, and conversely, the most resolute fall apart, losing the baby and possibly worse. She just didn’t know how Abby would react.

Abby had been in the kitchen making herself a cup of tea when she heard the voices in the courtyard. She met them in the Great Room, her cup in her hand. “Welcome home, Murdoch,” she smiled. “Why, hello Aggie. It’s nice to see you. I wasn’t expecting you tonight.” She stopped her greeting when she saw Ben carrying both pieces of luggage. Her smile brightened when she recognized Scott’s bag. “Is Scott home already? Where is he?” She looked beyond the older couple and Ben, expecting her husband to open the door and enter.

Murdoch glanced at Aggie, who took over. “I’m afraid Scott isn’t with us.”

“What do you mean? That’s his bag.”

“Yes, it is.” Aggie took Abby’s arm. “Please sit down, Abby. We have news.” She took the cup from Abby’s hands.

Aggie led Abby to the sofa where she sat next to the younger woman, angled to face her. “Scott was returning to Green River on the stagecoach and, well, I’m afraid I have some news: there was a robbery.” When Abby gasped, the older woman put her hand on Abby’s arm. “Please don’t think the worst, Abby; it’s not good for the baby. For all we know he’s just fine. The robbers took him with them. He’s a hostage. But everything will be all right, honey. Johnny Madrid left nearly immediately. He will track them down and bring Scott home.” Aggie purposely left out other details and her own conclusions about the robbery. There was no sense in Abby obsessing over what could be when what is was bad enough.

Abby placed her hand over the baby, drew a deep breath and expelled it raggedly. She tried for control. “Well, if Johnny is on the job, then Scott will be fine.” She tried to smile. A single tear threatened to spill over her lids, but she wiped it away.

“No, Abby. It’s okay to cry. In fact, it’s better. You need to let it out. It’s not good for the baby for you to keep it inside.” Murdoch moved from his chair to the opposite side of her on the sofa. He put his arm around her. “It’s never good to keep it inside. I learned that the hard way.”

Abby glanced up at her father-in-law, so tender was his face that she burst into tears, sobbing into his shoulder. He wrapped both arms around the woman, rocking her as she cried. “It’ll be all right, jo,” he crooned, reverting to the old-style Scottish term of endearment.

 

The Old Man and the Tree

Ruben knocked on Johnny’s door before the sun began to peak over the horizon. He’d promised to wake the gunfighter, but Johnny was already awake and getting dressed. He slammed his foot down into his boot. “I’m up,” he called, then added, “Thanks.”

He ate quickly, offering a coin for the breakfast of bacon, eggs and biscuits, but Ruben waved it off. “It’s the least I can do. You’re doing the stage line a favor, Mr. Madrid. If you bring those men to justice, save the two hostages and recover the stolen items, you’ll be a big hero to all of us. I wish you luck.” He handed Johnny a blanket and some food.

“Thanks,” Johnny nodded and went out to the barn to ready Barranca. It was a tall order, he realized when Ruben said it out loud. His only thought had been to get Scott back, but now after hearing Ruben, he understood now that wasn’t enough. He’d have to do it all. He again wished he had at least his working Colt. His responsibility weighed heavy on his shoulders.

It was still dim when Johnny took off toward the east. To his back, the tips of the Diablos were pinking. He trotted Barranca down the road at an easy pace. After thirty minutes, dawn was truly breaking and he slowed the horse to a walk so he could look for evidence of the robbery. The only indication he had of the place was a time frame: the driver Jake had said about a half-hour east of the way station. Johnny looked for signs that the stage had stopped: lots of hoof prints in one space, evidence of braking, the footsteps of the driver and passengers as they disembarked from the vehicle.

After another fifteen minutes of hard searching, Johnny found his indicators. He dismounted and walked around the area, trying to ascertain what happened from the evidence.

Johnny was a pretty good tracker, not the best, but above the average. He didn’t believe the task was beyond his abilities; it never entered into his mind. But as he surveyed the area, he wished he had an old friend with him, a man who was the best tracker he knew, a man who’d ridden with him on several occasions and the only living man besides Scott Lancer who he trusted with his life: Val Crawford.

But Val wasn’t here. The last Johnny had heard about the scruffy older man was that he was a sheriff now, in the small town of Hollister, a couple of counties north an west, having been appointed so after shooting an outlaw after a disagreement over card cheating. That area of California was known for slow creeping of the land instead of sudden earthquakes. Johnny snorted at the thought of his friend, who always preferred stable ground, residing in such an unstable area.

So without Val’s presence, Johnny imagined what his friend might say. ‘Well, Johnny, that there’s where it looks like your brother Scott got hisself conked on the head. See the trace of blood on the dirt? It ain’t much so don’t you worry none about it, but he’s got hisself one hell of a headache right about now.’ And as Johnny looked at the drag marks in the dirt, he envisioned Val commenting, ‘That old man didn’t wanna leave his grandson. See how they had to drag him away? And look, see those small prints there? That’s the boy tryin’ to rescue his granddad. Spunky kid, weren’t he?’ Johnny snorted at his own imagination.

He turned away from the road, following the drag marks behind some boulders. There he found wagon tracks. He mounted Barranca and followed the wheel tracks, heading in a roughly southern direction, mostly toward the expansive Tulare Lake. Johnny wondered where they would ultimately lead.

He kept up his tracking until he heard a muffled sound, a kind of moan, followed by what sounded like a cough. Thinking it could be Scott, injured or ill, he urged Barranca forward.

He heard it again, louder this time, a distinctive cough, long, loud and deep, like someone was coughing up a lung. Johnny rounded a curve and saw a pitiful sight. An old man was gagged and tied against a tree. He was shivering in the early morning cool without a jacket or even shoes on. His clothes were torn, disheveled and damp, as though he’d been in a fight and doused to break it up. He’d clearly spent the night on the cold, moist ground without adequate covering and certainly no food or water.

Johnny slid out of the saddle, grabbed his knife from his boot and began to cut the man free, first removing his dirty, sodden gag. “Don’t worry, old man. I’ll get you to safety.” He cut the binds from the tree, the ties around his hands, and freed his feet. The old man’s wrists and ankles were raw from rubbing against the rope. He was shivering.

Johnny helped stand him up, supporting him. The weak man leaned heavily against him, shaking from the cold. “What’s your name?”

The man couldn’t speak. Johnny propped him up against Barranca. “Steady, boy. Don’t move,” he told the horse. “This old man is depending on you.” He grabbed his canteen and gave it to the injured man, allowing him to drink his fill. He took the blanket Ruben had given him and wrapped it around the man and began to rub his arms.

A few minutes later, the man nodded his thanks. “I am Pedro Garcia.” He said in a rough voice. “I run the livery at Green River.” He stopped speaking to cough again. “My grandson, Miguel, is he all right?”

“Yes, he came in with the stage last night. He was pretty upset but I think I saw Doc Jenkins take him away. He’s being taken care of.”

Bueno, bueno,” the man muttered, taking another swig from the canteen.

Johnny rummaged through his saddlebags and found a couple of biscuits from this morning. “Here,” he offered them to Garcia. “Eat these. They’ll tide you over until we can get some real food in you.”

Gracias,” Garcia nodded. He ate hungrily.

When the man finished his snack, Johnny explained, “I’m going to take you to the way station back on the road. The manager there, his name is Ruben. He’ll take care of you and get you to the doctor. Come on, let’s get you on my horse.”

The two of them rode double, with Johnny in back, quickly backtracking to the road and loping toward the way station. Johnny didn’t want to push Barranca lest the man lose his balance and fall off. He still shivered.

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

 

Opal Woden was up with the sun. She had much to do before rousing her brothers. She dressed quickly and re-packed the few things she’d unpacked the night before, getting her luggage ready to go.

She glanced at Scott Lancer’s still-sleeping form. He was so handsome, she smiled. Maybe she’d convince him to stay with her once they got him to their cabin. She’d like that. She’d like that very much.

She make a quick run downstairs and ordered a gruel for his breakfast. She needed something soft that would hide the laudanum, plus the mash would aid in keeping the illusion that he was injured from an accident. She brought the tray up to their room just as he was beginning to stir again.

“Easy now,” she soothed as she sat the tray down. “Don’t try to get up yet. I have your breakfast all ready.” She turned her back to him and dropped a tiny amount of the drug into the gruel, stirring it in. She hoped the mash would disguise the bitterness.

She eased Scott’s head up slightly and began feeding him small bites, talking softly all the time, mainly to distract him should he notice the drug. She was reassuring, telling him again that she and her brothers were going to help him and get him well.

After he’d eaten about half of the gruel, she noticed his eyelids drooping. She cleaned him up and let him go back to sleep. Now was the time to awake her brothers. It was around seven and they had to hurry to make the first ferry at eight. She ran downstairs a second time to order breakfast for the three of them.

She brought their repast upstairs on a tray herself; the Lake Inn was tiny and had no wait staff other than the owner and his daughter. Knocking on her brothers’ room, she brought them their food, and sat with them to quickly eat.

Lou finished first and hurried down the stairs to ready their wagon. He and Hank would have to carry Scott to the wagon, again using the excuse that he was still unwell after his fall should anyone ask. Opal paid their bill with some of the money Addison had given them. They headed to the lake’s edge, to the ferry depot.

 

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

 

Duncan’s breakfast was delivered at seven, his usual time and he took his time savoring the civilized meal: bacon, eggs, biscuits, fruit and coffee. He normally donned a business suit, but today he dressed casually, in items he almost never wore: plain brown work pants, a light blue plaid shirt with a tan leather jacket. He ate slowly, not wanting to be on the road. He had a long ride ahead of him and he dreaded it.

He strapped on a rarely-worn gun, his own Colt, around his hips, not as low as he’d seen Johnny Madrid wear his, but then again, Gilford Duncan was no gunfighter. He was a fair shot, but much better with a rifle. He grabbed his hat and Winchester and headed to the hotel’s stables to prepare his horse for the trip.

He frowned as he saddled his roan; he did not like riding. This journey promised to be all horseback. It was the second time in just a few days that he undertook riding at the behest of his boss. He was not happy about it.

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

 

Johnny rode into the way station, calling for Ruben’s help. The manager ran outside. “You are back so soon?” he asked. He saw the sick man riding in front of Johnny on the palomino and hurried to help the man off.

“He’s freezing and has a cough. They left him tied up to a tree, no food, no water, no blanket and no shoes. Why they took his shoes, I’ll never know.”

Ruben had a guess but he didn’t want to say it in front of the old man; they wanted the ailing man to die of exposure. “Come, Señor, let’s get you inside in front of the fire. It is nice and cozy.” Between the two of them, they led Garcia to the hearth where he was able to warm up at last.

Ruben went to get steaming hot coffee and hot food. Johnny wanted to head back out immediately, but was stopped when Garcia started to talk. “Gracias, señor,” he said again. “I would have died out there without you.”

De nada,” Johnny answered. He put his hat back on.

“Are you going after the bad men?” Garcia asked.

“Yes. They have my b—my friend.”

“Ah, the young Scott Lancer. A fine man.”

“Yes, he is. I must leave now.”

“Wait, I think I can help you.”

Johnny wanted to be back on the trail but stopped to hear the man out. “How, Señor Garcia?”

“I heard them talking. I think I know where they are going.”

“Go on.”

“I think they said they would take the ferry.”

“What ferry?”

“I don’t know, señor. I do not travel much.”

Ruben came in with the coffee and breakfast. He’d overheard the conversation. “There is a new ferry at the edge of Tulare Lake in the Latache community. It crosses the lake to the Cox and Clarke Trading Post. The doctor Moore had a pair of steamboats made. I’ve not seen them yet, but I hear they are small but serviceable.”

“What’s the quickest way to get there?”

“The road to the east of here goes straight there. It should take you two to three hours.”

“I’m off,” Johnny announced, waving a hand. “Get him to Dr Sam Jenkins in Green River, will ya?” He didn’t wait for Ruben’s nod.

+++NOTE: The Cox and Clarke Trading Post did exist at the time of this story. More on the ferry in a later chapter.

 

Breaking Away

The Woden siblings waited in their wagon. They were the third wagon in line for the ferry, scheduled to depart promptly at eight. Scott lay in the wagon’s bed, nestled in a canyon formed from their luggage and tented with blankets to keep him unseen. Every once in a while, Opal would turn, lift the blanket and take a glance at him to make sure he was still out. She smiled. He was so handsome.

It was the first thing she’d noticed about him, once they were in the room together the previous night. She’d lit a lamp and saw him clearly for the first time, nearly gasping at her luck. Their hostage was blessed with fine features, well-formed muscles and when he awakened, she sighed over the most beautiful blue eyes she’d ever seen. She knew right then and there she wanted to keep him and started scheming as to how the best way to go about that.

A man came by and asked them for payment, bringing Opal out of her daydream. Hank paid the fee and in return, the man gave them instructions. “Follow the wagon in front of you. One of you has to stay with the horses at all times. Do what the ferry master says when you are on board.” He stepped to the final wagon and repeated the same.

They didn’t have to wait long. A few minutes later they saw the gangplank lowered and the first wagon roll on board. The second followed quickly then it was their turn. Hank followed all instructions in leading the team over the boards onto the ferry deck; he didn’t want to attract attention. Once on board, he was reminded to stay with the lead horse of his team. The ferry master put a chocks around the back wheels.

The ferry was new, only in service for a couple of weeks and already had proven itself to be of great value. Now instead of taking a day or two overland for supplies, the people of this tiny community could travel easily to the trading post, across the great Tulare Lake, in a matter of a few hours.

Dr Moore had commissioned two boats to be built, using the same design as the great Mississippi riverboats but on a smaller scale, and none of the ornamentation; these ferries were purely functional. The were only large enough to carry four wagons, but would hold more passengers and several horses—some in stalls for an extra fee—as well as some freight. It didn’t take long to load the last wagon before they allowed the walking passengers and horses to be led on the boat. The ferry departed promptly at eight.

 

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

 

Duncan left Green River a little after eight in the morning, heading almost due south, across open land. With no road to guide him, he used the sun as a compass. It was cool and the riding was not yet unpleasant, although he knew it could become worse as the day wore on.

He had a long way to go. He planned to ride in the general direction of Tulare Lake and angle around it to the west. He would find El Camino Viejo, the old Spanish road, and take it south. While it was more arduous than taking the ferry across the lake, Addison had warned him that the Woden siblings would be going that route. Duncan did not want them to see him. Not yet, anyway. His plan was to surprise them at their cabin, with no witnesses, and do his dirty deed there.

He thought about how he would kill them. He knew he should take out the brothers first, as they presented the biggest threat. The girl would be easy, and Duncan began entertaining the idea of having himself a little fun with Opal Woden before disposing of her. If she looked good, that is.

Scott Lancer was the wild card. He didn’t know anything about the man. Would he fight to save his kidnappers, or fight with him against them? When should he turn his gun on the young Lancer, before the brothers or after? He pondered the possibilities.

Not used to riding, Duncan alternately trotted or walked his horse, with the occasional lope. He much preferred more civilized methods of travel: the new railroad, the stage or at least a buggy or carriage. He found balancing himself on the back of a horse tiring and from time to time, he would dismount and walk on foot, leading his horse. But then his feet would tire and he’d re-mount, riding once more.

With each mile, Duncan cursed his employer for his rash actions. If only Addison would have remained calm, kept his cool and not contracted with amateurs to do a professional’s job, he wouldn’t be in this situation, doing the very same thing.

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

 

Buck Addison enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, taking the time to read the latest newspaper that came on last night’s hurried stage. It was just a few days old and the news was about as current as it gets in this tiny town. He grunted at reading about US Marines landing in Panama — where the hell was that? — to protect citizens caught in the middle of the unrest there. And he noticed that the fight of the Modoc indians up in northern California was still going on. That new barber shop in Visalia finally opened; he’d been waiting for that — they promised a hot towel treatment.

He finished reading and snapped the newspaper to fold it back up. Picking up his coffee cup, he drained its contents and sat back with a contented sigh. Duncan would have left already and his troubles would soon be over.

Or would they? He sat up with a start, remembering something he’d seen the previous evening. He’d watched Lancer leave, with Aggie Conway, and he just now remembered that the stage driver had given something to them. A bag. Scott Lancer’s luggage! What if that contained whatever he took from the Ortega hacienda?

Duncan said he’d found no evidence of whatever Scott took, nor was he even sure the younger Lancer had taken anything at all. But that wasn’t enough for Addison. He’d instructed the Wodens to capture Scott, and they evidently obeyed him there, but he couldn’t remember if he’d included the luggage in those directions. He racked his brains for a few minutes before he realized that it didn’t matter. Scott’s luggage was now in Murdoch’s hands. He grew anxious again.

 

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

 

Aggie let Abby sleep in. The poor woman had trouble falling asleep the night before, even after taking a mild sleeping agent. She was worried about Scott despite her outward faith in Johnny Madrid to bring him home. Aggie understood; she would feel the same way about Murdoch should he be in this situation.

When the young woman finally roused, Aggie brought her breakfast, coddling her with poached eggs, a honey-sweetened cornmeal mush, tea and sliced fruits. Nothing rugged or manly; Aggie wanted to pamper the young mother-to-be. She even placed a small arrangement of blooming lavender on the tray. Abby smiled appreciatively at the offering, but denied being hungry.

“You need to eat,” Aggie gently suggested. “The baby needs food.” With that encouragement, Abby ate part of one of the eggs, drank the tea and ate some of the mush and fruit.

“I’m full, Aggie, thank you,” Abby said. Aggie took the tray then helped Abby out of the bed, pulling her robe around her shoulders. She left the young woman alone to dress.

Abby shuffled over to the window and opened the curtains. The window faced east and the sun shone brightly on her face. For the hundredth time since learning of Scott’s kidnapping, she wondered where he was, if he was safe, what she could do for him, when he would return to her, and if Johnny had found him yet.

She had every faith and confidence in the rough-around-the-edges gunfighter and smiled at that idea. Johnny Madrid was nothing like the men she’d known in Philadelphia and about as far from her dear Scott as possible, yet she liked, respected and admired him, almost as much as she did her husband. Johnny would bring Scott home; of that she was certain. She only hoped he found Scott before anything more happened.

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

 

It was nearing ten in the morning when Johnny walked Barranca into the minute community of Latache, an Indian word which probably meant marsh or lake or something of that nature. He tied Barranca up at the brand-new Lake Inn; it seemed to be one of the few finished buildings in the one-block-long village.

He’d seen the ferry landing at the end of the street, but no ferry. Wondering what the story was, he entered the Inn.

It was a two-story building. To the front and his left, a small tavern boasted five rough-hewn wooden tables. It occupied about two-thirds of the first floor. The other third, over to his right, looked like a small store or supply. His eyes followed the stairs where he saw four doors—the rooms, he presumed. Another door behind the bar was closed. A storeroom, perhaps? A man stood behind the bar wiping off the counter.

“Howdy,” the barman greeted, his smile vanishing when he noticed Johnny’s low-slung gunbelt. He stopped his cleaning and brought his right arm down to within reach of the pistol he kept under the bar.

“Hello,” Johnny returned, noticing the man’s movement but not reacting to it. He smiled instead. “Nice place.” He strode up to the bar and ordered a beer.

“Thank you.” The man remained wary but drew the draft and placed the mug in front of his visitor.

Johnny fished out some coins, dropping them on the bar before pointing south. “Where’s the ferry?” He sipped the beer, doing his best not to alarm his host.

The man cocked his head in the direction of the landing before focusing again on Johnny. “Oh, it’s already left this morning. They’ll be another one leaving at noon. It arrives around eleven. There are two each day; one on Sundays.”

“Ah. I see. I have some time to kill then.” Johnny glanced around. The tavern was empty. “Not much business today.” He made the small talk.

“Nope. Not yet. When the ferry comes in, though, we’ll fill up with a lunch crowd.”

“That’s good,” Johnny drew on the beverage. He put the near-empty mug down. “What’s cooking?”

The missus is gonna be fryin’ up some trout. Fresh-caught this morning. Want to stay for some?”

Johnny didn’t think the man really wanted him hanging around that long. “I might come back. I need to tend to my horse.”

“We’ll be here,” the man nodded.

Gracias, amigo.” Johnny smiled as he left.

Johnny patted Barranca. “Well, boy, looks like we’re gonna have to wait some. I see a nice oak tree down near the lake. Wanna get some shade?” The horse snorted in response. Johnny led him toward the water’s edge. The horse stepped into the shallows, drinking deeply its cool water.

Johnny sat down under the tree and stared out over the surface. The water seemed to stretch forever, gleaming in the late morning sun. He turned to watch the few people who wandered around the tiny community, most seemed to come to and from the new fishery on the other side of the ferry terminal next to the lake. Tulare Lake was famous for its fish and the new business was flourishing.

The lake was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Named for the Tule Rush that lined its edges, it was approximately eighty miles long, but less than seven miles wide. The crossing to Cox and Clarke spanned about 23 miles and would take the ferry a little less than three hours.

+++NOTE: I used a little poetic license regarding the Tulare Lake ferry. The ferry mentioned in the story may not have been established until much later than this story takes place—some sources say the early 1900s, others indicate the lake was already drying up by then due to irrigation drainage and river damming. Then again, I found evidence of a steamboat crossing earlier than this story, so who really knows? (Besides, I like ferries.) To my knowledge, Dr Moore had nothing to do with the Tulare ferry.

More on Tulare Lake: while the lake did support many fisheries in the mid-to-late19th century, they were more famously in the Hanford area, not Latache (which became later became Lemoore.) But Hanford was not founded until 1877; again, I plead poetic license.

US Marines did indeed land in Panama in May of 1873. Using two ships, they came ashore to protect US interests, the consulate, and citizens during the unrest between Colombia and Colombian (Panamanian) rebels. After about 10 days, the rebels quit and US forces withdrew.

The Modoc War was the last conflict between Native Americans and the US Army in California and Oregon. After the natives surrendered, their leader, Captain Jack, and five others were tried for the murder of two peace officers. Jack and three were executed; two were sentenced to life. The remaining 153 Modoc were relocated to Oklahoma.

 

Ferry Across the Tulare

Abby wandered downstairs, taking the stairs slowly, holding on to the rail absently. She’d been staring out the window in her and Scott’s bedroom since she dressed, slowly combing her hair, not really paying any attention. The noise from the renovation crept into the background, reminding her that even though her Scott was missing, the world still revolved, plans are completed, work still progressed.

“Would you like some tea, Señora?” Maria asked her as she passed the kitchen. The older Mexican woman was busy preparing lunch. “I make you some, si?”

Abby smiled wistfully. “Thank you, Maria, but no, I don’t want tea. I appreciate the thought, really.” She touched Maria on the arm.

Maria smiled. “You sit then. Señor Patron and Señora Conway, they are in the Great Room.”

Abby nodded and shuffled into the Great Room.

“You’re up!” Murdoch observed, dropping his pen and rising from his chair. He was behind his desk, the ledgers open.

“Don’t get up on my account,” Abby answered. “I’m just going to sit here a while.” She indicated the couch.

“I’ll join you,” Aggie said. She rose from her chair opposite Murdoch and took a position on the sofa, patting the spot next to her. “It’s nice and comfy.”

Abby smiled again. They were trying so hard. She sat in the offered spot.

Murdoch came over, Scott’s bag in his hand. “I have Scott’s luggage here. I thought you may want to go through it—whenever you are feeling like it.” He sat the case on the table in front of Abby.

“Thank you, Murdoch. I do.” For the first time today, she felt she had a purpose. She began unfastening the case. She found Scott’s traveling things: his shaving kit, a comb, an extra shirt and necessities. And the new blue parasol. “Why, it’s beautiful,” Abby beamed, her eyes beginning to tear. She held up the parasol and twirled it, careful not to open it inside. Her Scott had thought of her.

“There’s another present in there,” Aggie observed, nodding to the case.

A similar-sized package rested on the bottom of the bag. It was wrapped in brown paper. “Indeed there is.” Abby wondered what it could be. She reached to grab it. “My, it’s heavy!”

“I’ll get it then,” Murdoch offered, reaching into the case. “We don’t want you to strain yourself.” The package did have some weight to it. “Hmmm, it feels like...” He opened the paper, inside it was smudged black. He lifted up the iron. “It’s a branding iron.”

Aggie laughed. “A branding iron! Well, I’ll be! Why would he bring something like that home.”

“It must be important,” Abby suggested. “Maybe something to do with that stallion’s brand.” She wiped a tear, careful not to let Murdoch or Aggie see.

 

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

 

Hank noticed his sister Opal leaving the ferry’s sitting area and sneaking looks at their hostage, lying asleep under blankets in the back of their wagon. She had that look in her eye. Their father had called it a man-hungry look, and she’d been getting it since she was thirteen. It spelled trouble for the brothers, as they knew what it meant: they’d have to kowtow to her whims until it all played out.

He elbowed his brother and after getting Lou’s attention, he indicated with his head for him to look at their sister. Lou frowned when he saw her face. “Uh oh,” he said to Hank. “She’s fallin’ in love again.”

“Yah, and you know what that means.”

Lou knew only too well. “Yep. Cold suppers and sleepin’ in the barn. Until she makes her move for him. I just wish it would turn out differ’nt and we wouldn’t have to take care of him.”

“I know. If only one of ‘em would agree to marry her after he comp’omised her, we wouldn’t be stuck with ‘protectin’ her honor.’” He snorted. “I don’t know how many more times she can pretend to be innocent. One of ‘em is bound to notice sooner or later.”

“Is it your turn or mine to bust in on ‘em in the act?”

“Yours. I had the pleasure last time.”

“Mm’ k,” Lou nodded. “I gotta ‘member to keep my shotgun handy, then.”

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

 

Gilford Duncan halted his horse, noticing the tule rush which signaled that he was nearing the great lake. He stood in the saddle, looking around. He could see the water in the distance beyond the tule but not the road which should be curving around it. Figuring he was farther west than he planned, he kneed his horse to a walk, angling eastward through the grass until he found the El Camino Viejo. The old Spanish road was narrow at this point, so it was hard to see from the north.

He turned southward on the road, which took him around Tulare Lake, passed the low-lying Guijarral Hills, foothills to the Diablos, to the west. The Diablos stretched for hundreds of miles along the western edge of the San Joaquin valley, but the Guijarrals, one of several series of foothills in the southern San Joaquin, contributed to only about twenty of those miles.

This portion of El Camino Viejo would take him to the Vaca Adobe, a dugout beside the lake which offered good access to the water. The road went all the way to the Pueblo de los Angeles, but he wasn’t going nearly that far. He hoped to make it to Cox and Clarke before the day was up, but it was still a long ride just to the Vaca. Duncan cursed his boss once more.

 

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

 

Johnny watched the ferry close in on the dock. He frowned at the boat, not sure of its stability. While it was a decent enough size, it didn’t look to him to be a place where a horse would be comfortable, particularly his horse; Barranca tended to be temperamental. The animal snorted as the boat neared, as if sensing this vehicle was in his future. To distract him and realizing that it would be a long time before reaching the other end of the lake, Johnny left the shade and returned to that small tavern for an early lunch, trying to beat the ferry crowd.

 

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

 

At nearly the same time, Opal and her brother Lou watched from the front of the opposite ferry as it approached group of buildings known as the Cox and Clarke Trading Post. They smiled, knowing they were that much closer to home. While their hunting cabin wasn’t much, it was theirs and it always felt good to get back. As they neared the dock, the ferry master signaled for all passengers to return to their wagons or stand away from the front.

Lou Woden drove their wagon off the ferry as Hank walked next to the head of his lead animal. The horses had survived the journey across the lake with surprising aplomb; Hank was proud of them.

The Cox and Clarke Trading Post and Steamboat Landing was founded by Frederick Cox and his partner, Crawford Clarke, cattle barons also involved in the meat-packing industry. In fact, Cox, as a young man, came to California in 1850 and began plying his trade, supplying prospectors. He grew wealthy, and soon partnered with Clarke to build an empire in several California counties as well as parts of Oregon.

Cox and Clarke traded with local rancher Dave Kettelman, a pioneer who grazed sheep and cattle in the nearby hills to the west. Both the hills and the plain to their west bore his name, albeit misspelled.

While the trading post wasn’t a large community, it did contain an oversized warehouse with an attached store, was outfitted from Delano, a farming community on the proposed railroad link from Goshen to Los Angeles.

Lou and Opal walked into that store intent on purchasing supplies which would last them for their next hunting season. Hank, who normally would have accompanied him, was left to guard the wagon and its cargo, mainly Scott Lancer. He was still covered with blankets, in a tent-like structure formed by their luggage. Hank wanted no questions from townspeople.

The warehouse was crowded with customers from the ferry. It took a while for Opal and Lou to find all the things they needed. Once they paid, they carried their treasures to the wagon.

Opal sat in the back of the wagon, on top of the luggage, while the men were packing the wagon with their new purchases. She wanted to make sure they avoided bumping into Scott. Occasionally she peeked at her charge, and once, when he started to stir, she fed him a few sips of laudanum-laced water. He returned to sleep.

As soon as the supplies were loaded, Hank slapped the reins and the Woden siblings, along with their hostage, headed southwest on El Camino Viejo, toward the nearby hills and eventually, by tonight, their home.

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

 

Back in Latache, Johnny finished his lunch and approached the tavern owner to pay. While making the exchange, Johnny asked, “Have you seen two men and a wagon, with a third man, a blond man?” There was a chance that the robbers had stayed here, as it was the only inn, but not likely; if it were him, he would have camped and avoided towns, even tiny hamlets like this one.

“I did have guests last night. They drove a wagon, but there were three men and a lady. One of the men was injured, their brother, they said. They carried him up the stairs themselves.”

Johnny raised his head. “This injured man. He was blond?”

The man thought. “Yes, I think so. I didn’t get a good look at them. It was late and, like I said, his brothers carried him.”

“And there was a woman?”

“Oh, yes. Plain face. Black hair. Nice figure, though. She was in charge of the hurt brother.”

“Okay, thanks,” Johnny nodded to the man. He exited the establishment and untied Barranca.

Walking the horse to the ferry landing, Johnny considered what the tavern owner had told him. Two men and a woman. Neither Jake nor the old man Garcia had mentioned a female. Maybe these weren’t the right people. But they were with an incapacitated blond man. That had to be Scott. Or did it? Was he even on the right path?

But the wagon tracks had led into the town. And it was easy to see that they weren’t here now. They had to have taken the earlier ferry. Even if it wasn’t the people the owner had described, he had to be going in the right direction. There was no other way.

+++NOTE: About El Camino Viejo: this was the old road along the interior of California. (El Camino Real is more famous, and was more well-traveled but it is a coastal route and thus, does not fit into this story.) El Camino Viejo was favored by those who preferred a more private means of travel. The watering holes mentioned did exist and I have described them with as much accuracy as possible. El Camino Viejo and its watering holes will continue in later chapters.

The Cox and Clarke Trading Post did exist and was the terminus of the Tulare Lake ferry when the ferry was running. It was not as large a community, however, as it is in this story. The present-day Kettleman City stands more or less in its location.

Dave Kettelman, by the way, did exist, and is rather accurately described in this story. When the city took his name, they misspelled it for some reason.

 

Questions 67 and 68

Murdoch had been studying the branding iron Scott had in his bag for over an hour now and wasn’t any closer to figuring it out than before. It seemed to be made of curls and lines, not making any sense. He’d stamped it on the dirt so many times, trying to figure it out.

He knew there were basically two types of branding irons. A stamp iron which would stamp an image onto the animal’s hide and what was called a running iron, which rustler’s used to change a brand. The running iron was small and its handle unscrewed, allowing the rustler to alter a brand in whatever manner he wanted. Running irons were the sign of a cattle thief; even the possession of one could result in hanging.

This was definitely a stamp iron, but the image it would stamp didn’t create a letter or recognizable shape. No rancher in his right mind would have this as his branding iron! Shaking his head, Murdoch finally gave up, and walked back to the hacienda with it.

He saw Aggie accompanying Abby outside. The day was beautiful and warm, with California’s golden sun shining against a cloudless blue sky. “Did you figure it out?” Aggie asked.

“No, I didn’t. And I should.” Murdoch was mad at himself.

“Maybe you need a pair of fresh eyes,” Abby suggested.

“Or two!” Aggie joined in.

Murdoch smiled. He offered the iron to Aggie. “You give it a try.” Aggie stamped it on the dirt, much as Murdoch had done so many times before. “Hmmm. Curls and random lines.”

Abby stared at the iron. “I wonder where Scott got this. Why did he bring it back with him?”

“I don’t know,” Murdoch replied. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Was there a note with it?” Abby asked.

“No. Just the iron, wrapped in brown paper.”

“Like the parasol was.” Abby frowned in thought. “The parasol is about the same length, wouldn’t you say?”

“I think so,” Aggie stepped forward. “What are you getting to?”

“I’m not sure. But they were both wrapped in the same paper. That should mean something, shouldn’t it?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Murdoch put in. He hefted the iron. “Could be he didn’t want to get the other things in his bag dirty. This thing tends to blacken everything it touches.”

“So we’re back to where we started from.” Abby was growing frustrated.

“I’m afraid so. I’m flummoxed,” Murdoch sighed.

“Well, that makes three of us,” Aggie smiled grimly.

“I still say it has something to do that the grey stallion,” Abby insisted. “Couldn’t it be the brand that changed the Lancer L to whatever is on the horse now?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No rustler in his right mind would go to the time and expense of making a stamp iron to change the brand on one animal. Besides, whoever did the work to make the iron would know about it and that’s one more loose end for a rustler.”

Aggie nodded. “Murdoch’s right, Abby. A thief would use a running iron so they could mark any brand they want. It’s just not feasible.”

“Still, isn’t it worth a look? Why don’t we stamp some sand or something with Lancer’s brand then overlay it with this one?”

Aggie looked at Murdoch. She wanted to humor Abby. “Why not? Let’s give it a try.”

Murdoch shrugged and ordered a Lancer brand brought to him. One of the vaqueros hurried with the iron. Using his boot, he scraped a bit of the loose dirt to erase all prints then stamped the Lancer circle L. Next he placed the other iron on top and stamped. They all looked at the result.

“It’s not the same,” Aggie reflected. “It was a good idea but...”

“No, try another angle, Murdoch.” Abby suggested. “Maybe it’s just off a bit.”

Shrugging again, Murdoch repeated the procedure, angling Scott’s iron differently this time. It still didn’t match. At Abby’s insistence he tried it once more, again rotating Scott’s iron and this time when he stepped back...

“That’s it!” Abby cried. “Look!” She pointed to the grey. “They match!”

“Well, I’ll be roasted on a spit and carved for dinner,” Aggie grinned. “They certainly do. What do you think of that, Murdoch?”

But Murdoch wasn’t smiling. “Well, that mystery is solved.” He handed the Lancer brand back to the vaquero and took Scott’s brand inside, leaving Aggie and Abby behind wondering what just happened.

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

 

The cab rumbled down Taylor Street, its driver maneuvering the vehicle through the busy traffic. San Francisco was enjoying a beautiful spring day, a rarity this close to summer in the city by the bay, and everyone was out. Senator Eugene Casserly urged the driver to hurry; he did not want to be late for his lunch with the governor.

Governor Newton Booth had contacted him about the telegrams they’d both been sent from a Reverend Timothy Root of Green River concerning their mutual friend, Murdoch Lancer. Booth had wanted to meet with Casserly to see what, if anything, they should do. The governor had arranged a luncheon at the Bohemian Club, a private gentleman’s club, founded just last year.

The Bohemian Club was formed from a regular meeting of artists, musicians and journalists who had an interest in the arts. They soon began admitting businessmen and entrepreneurs as members to boost their coffers. Booth, a San Franciscan, had been one of the first of those to be asked to join. He had been planning on sponsoring Murdoch Lancer as a member but Root’s telegram disturbed him.

The senator’s cab pulled up to the curb at 624 Taylor and Casserly hurried out, paying the driver and entering the building. He passed the owl bas-relief plaque next to the door and nodded to the doorman. “I’m here to meet Governor Booth,” he told the man.

The doorman nodded, and indicated an anteroom to the left. There a uniformed young man took his hat and coat. Another uniformed young man escorted him into the dining area where the governor had a table. He was seated in a corner, away for privacy, where they could talk quietly.

Casserly approached the table. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

Booth looked up and smiled. “No matter. I just got here myself. Please, sit down.” He gestured to the other chair.

Casserly eased himself down and smoothed his suit jacket. “Nice weather,” he began the small talk.

“Yes, it’s delightful. I’m planning on taking a stroll after lunch, take in the sights, enjoy the sun.”

The waiter brought them their drinks then discreetly withdrew. Booth took a sip then dove into the subject of the meeting. “What did you think of that telegram from Green River?”

“I’m troubled, Governor,” Casserly replied. “Murdoch Lancer isn’t the type of man to tolerate gunfighters let alone associate with one.”

“Yes, I agree, especially Johnny Madrid. He’s one of the worst—or rather, one of the best, depending on how you look at it.” He chuckled briefly before returning to seriousness. “If this minister’s report is true—”

“You disbelieve a man of the cloth?”

Booth put down his drink. “I don’t know Timothy Root. I do know Murdoch Lancer.”

“I agree. So what do we do about it?”

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

 

Murdoch knew he should have explained himself to the women, but he didn’t want to alarm them. The iron Scott had in his bag should not have changed the Lancer image. Rustlers and thieves just didn’t use a stamp iron for that; they used running irons. There was only one reason someone would go to the time and expense to make a branding iron like this one: they intended to re-brand many animals and do so quickly.

Whoever ordered this iron planned a takeover of Lancer, or at least had hoped to get many, if not all, of its livestock. If that person was still around and Scott had this evidence, well, it was no wonder he was taken. It put him in much greater danger—all of them, actually—than they’d first considered.

This iron was evidence of a much larger conspiracy. It should be guarded well. He went up to his room and pulled out an old newspaper, wrapping the iron. For now, he stowed it in the bottom drawer of his dresser. Later tonight, he would move it to the attic. He didn’t want anyone making off with it.

+++NOTE: The information about the Bohemian Club is mostly true. I know someone who is a member. He is one of the founders of a company my husband does consulting for. I asked him about it for the scene at the club. He wasn’t able to tell me much, and I embellished a little, but I made it work.

 

Closer, Just a Little Bit Closer

Johnny had been right: Barranca was not comfortable on the ferry. He stamped around nervously, although he tried his best to keep the horse in one place. While the boat wasn’t crowded—there were only two wagons, about twenty walkers and only a few other horses—there were a few children running around and Johnny didn’t want Barranca to accidentally bump into any of them, or the other way around. He kept an eye out for them as well, wishing their parents would do so, too.

He regretted not securing a stall for the palomino. At least in the confined space, he would be more protected and possibly less agitated. It was too late now; all of the stalls were filled.

Johnny did the next best thing. He steered Barranca next to the stalls, close to the railing, where he’d be away from most of the others on the ferry and have the one wall to anchor him. While this area provided some protections, the action of the water against the hull sounded strange to the horse. Barranca remained agitated, even when he turned him around so he no longer faced the water. Johnny distracted the palomino by playing with his ears, talking to him, stroking him and feeding him the occasional apple or carrot from his saddlebags.

Once a young girl of about six or seven cautiously approached Johnny and shyly asked if she could pet his beautiful horse. Johnny wasn’t sure how Barranca would react; normally he wouldn’t even question it—his horse was good with children— but on the ferry, he wasn’t sure. Barranca surprised him by lowering his head to the child and softly blowing. The girl giggled. He nuzzled the girl’s cheeks and she squealed with delight before running back to her parents. Johnny laughed. “You sure can charm the women, Barranca.” The horse snorted and tossed his head.

The ferry pushed on, crossing the lake with surprising speed. Johnny occasionally glanced over the surface of the water. It was a beautiful sight, the shimmering blue of the lake stretching for miles, but it made him uncomfortable. Like his horse, he preferred solid ground under his feet. Johnny knew Barranca was picking up on his own trepidations, mild as they were, so he resigned himself to enjoy the ride.

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

 

Duncan stopped his horse and dismounted, stretching his aching body. This morning’s pleasant ride was turning into the nightmare he knew it would. His body had only just begun to recover from the riding he’d done when he followed Scott Lancer around Visalia, and now this; but this was worse, much worse. He didn’t see an end to it for another few days.

He removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. He’d been riding now for only three or four hours and he was ready to be done for the day, but he had a long stretch ahead of him before he could even consider stopping. He grabbed the canvas bag of water and gave his horse a long drink before taking a swig of the sun-warmed water from his own canteen.

Unwilling to remount so quickly, Duncan led his horse for a while, but the going was slow and the sun too relentless. Deciding that riding was the lesser of the two evils, he lifted his foot into the stirrup and hoisted his body into the saddle. He grimaced as his weight came down on the animal’s back. Cursing Buck Addison yet again, he signaled his horse to move.

Seeing the Polvadero Gap to the west, his spirits rose a little. The gap divided the Guijarral Hills from the Kettleman Hills—one more landmark gone. He spurred his horse in anticipation. He was able to make good time and on occasion he saw another traveller. Around one in the afternoon, he found a shady area and decided to stop and eat his lunch.

The cook from his hotel had packed a nice repast for him. He feasted on two beef sandwiches, a pear, and what the Mexicans call an empanada. It was filled with cinnamon-spiced cooked apples. He again watered his horse, and after more for him from his canteen, he mounted the animal for the rest of his long journey southward.

 

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

 

The sun was still high when the Woden wagon carrying Scott reached the Avenal Gap that afternoon, some ten or so miles south of the Cox and Clarke Trading Post on El Camino Viejo. The gap provided access through the Kettleman Hills westward. The eastern branch of El Camino Viejo followed it along its journey to meet the main road. They continued on the path, heading through the gap.

They saw the sparse Cottonwood tree signaling the Alamo Mocha (Trimmed Cottonwood) watering hole. It was a natural spring located within the Avenal Gap, on the south side of the road. Hank stopped the wagon so they could water their horses and refill their canteens. Lou grabbed a canvas bag of water and filled it with water from the spring, even though there were several of those natural springs along the next part of El Camino Viejo; he didn’t want to be caught without water for the horses.

Opal retrieved their lunch from a basket in the back. While back there, she checked on her patient. Scott was hot in the wagon; she could see his perspiration once she lifted up his cover. She wet a cloth with a canteen and dabbed his face, cooling his skin. He was still asleep from the laudanum. “Ok,” she told her brothers once she had administered to him. “Let’s go.”

They ate on the go; Hank Woden slowed the team down to a walk as they feasted on their lunch of dried meat, raisins and fruit. They passed around a canteen to drink, ever heading south and west toward their home.

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

 

Johnny was never so happy to see the landing up ahead as they approached the Cox and Clarke Trading Post. Barranca’s restless nervousness had required nearly all of his master’s attention during the three-hour voyage across Tulare Lake. Johnny would be happy to give the horse his head on the trail.

There was just one problem to that: he didn’t know which way they’d gone. Cox and Clarke was on the southwest bank of the great lake and roads out of the village led in three directions: one going back north on the east side of the lake, another heading south and west along the foothills, and the last one branching toward Delano heading around the edge of the lake to the south and east.

Johnny walked Barranca off the ferry and into the small community. It was a busy place. When cattle barons Frederick Cox and Crawford Clarke established their many trading posts in California, communities tended to sprout around them. This one was no exception. There was a hotel and a livery, in addition to the giant warehouse which attracted so many. People were loading up on all kinds of supplies, from food and grain to leathers and clothing, and lumber and building materials, too.

Johnny shrugged. It was as good a place as any.

He looked around the warehouse. He found a few things he could use; items he usually carried with him when traveling but didn’t have because he hadn’t prepared for a long trip. He purchased a new bedroll and blanket, rope, a slicker, a canvas water bag for Barranca and an extra shirt for himself. He also picked up a container of salve, a package of bandages, extra ammunition and some food. Lastly, he bought a bottle of whiskey. Now, if only he had his working gun.

As he paid for his items, Johnny struck up a conversation with a clerk. He asked about two men and a woman, in a wagon with an injured blond man. Had anyone seen them?

“You mean the Wodens?” another clerk asked. He sat down a sack of flour for a woman.

“Maybe. They have a man in their wagon? Injured, maybe?”

The clerk closed his eyes, thinking. “Could be. Opal—that’s the sister—she was mighty particular about where we placed their order. Something long and lean was tented in a blanket.”

That had to be them. “Woden, huh? Any idea where they would have gone?”

“Back to their cabin, I guess.” He pointed toward the hills. Follow El Camino Viejo. It’ll lead you to the Kettleman Hills, through Avenal Gap, and onto Kettleman Plain. You’ll go around the bottom of the Pyramid Hills and into a valley we call Devil’s Den. The road crosses Point of Rocks—small sandstone hills, really—into Antelope Valley. Once there, leave El Camino Viejo and head straight west. Their cabin is somewhere in those hills.

“There are some places for water on the road.” He counted them off. “Alamo Mocha in Avenal Gap, Alamo Solo near Dagany Gap in the Pyramid Hills, Aguaje de La Brea at the bottom of those hills—just skim off the oil on the surface; the water below is good. And one more: Las Trinijas de los Indios on the tops of the Point of Rocks. They’ll serve you well.”

Johnny nodded. “Much obliged,” he smiled.

The clerk stopped him, having noticed Johnny’s gun. “What do you want them for?”

“I need to ask them some questions,” Johnny lied. “They may be witnesses to a robbery.”

 

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

 

Gilford Duncan was tired. It was only mid-afternoon and he was sick of riding, sick of the dusty road, and just plain sick: his lunch wasn’t sitting too well with him. He vowed that when he reached the first hotel, inn or tavern, no matter what time, he’d stop for the night. A nice comfortable bed, a hot bath and some rest on his back sounded mighty good to him. Addison’s cover-up would have to wait. He didn’t care right now.

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

 

Having passed through Avenal Gap and finished their lunch, Hank Woden continued the wagon along El Camino Viejo. The road angled southward for some ten miles as it crossed the Kettleman Plain, a three- or four-mile-wide valley between the Kettleman Hills and the Pyramid Hills.

The sky threatened rain, unusual for an area east of mountains, but if it would fall, it would make the roads muddy and difficult to navigate. Hank wanted to make Devil’s Den, a smaller valley nestled at the end of the Pyramid Hills, before any rain came. He slapped the reins and urged the horses faster.

Opal hoped Scott wouldn’t be awakened by the wagon’s quickened pace. She turned frequently to check on her patient, keeping an eye out for any signs of stirring. Scott remained asleep, unmoved by his environment, and Opal smiled again. Things were going to work out for her this time, she just knew it.

 

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

 

Duncan had seen the threatening skies with disdain; he wasn’t prepared for rain. It rarely rained east of the mountains but if it would, today would be the day for it, just because he was there.

Again he cursed Buck Addison. Clearly the man wasn’t used to going beyond the line of the law. Oh, he’d probably skirted it enough, but having possession of a stolen horse was too much for the hotelier and when someone started to snoop, he hadn’t known what to do, so he did the absolutely wrong thing. And here Duncan was, paying for that mistake. Still.

He spurred his horse faster, hoping to outrun any coming rain.

Wanderings and Wonderings

Following El Camino Viejo away from the trading post, Johnny looked for the Woden family’s wagon tracks. They were impossible to find among the others left by multiple wagons on the road, but thanks to that clerk at the warehouse, he had an excellent idea where they’d be heading. He spurred Barranca on, giving the horse his head, allowing him to gallop toward the Kettleman Hills.

The horse enjoyed himself as he ran down the road. He’d been kept pent up for too long today, first while waiting for the ferry, then on the three hour ride. He was happy to be on solid ground and ran for the pure joy of it.

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

 

Duncan finally saw the Cox and Clarke Trading Post on the horizon and nearly hooted. Finally, an end was in sight! He urged his horse faster to reach his haven. While there was plenty of daylight left, he was spent. He was sore in places he’d forgotten existed, and longed for a good hot soak in a deep bath. David Addison be damned!

He found the small hotel and secured a room, requesting that bath while he took his horse to the livery. When he returned, the owner proudly showed him their new bathhouse behind the kitchen. A large, deep tub dominated the small, dark room. A steward was already working on filling it with buckets of steaming water. Duncan barely listened to the owner’s telling of their recent amenity.

When left alone, Duncan stripped to the skin and stepped into the hot, sudsy tub. He audibly sighed as he eased his body into the soothing waters, leaning back as he began his soak.

He again thought of his plan to eliminate his prey. If not for Scott Lancer, it would be easy; he didn’t think he’d have any trouble with the Woden brothers. While they were huntsmen, he knew his abilities would win out. Lancer was the unknown. He wondered how the Wodens were keeping him sequestered. Was he tied up? Blindfolded? If he was incapacitated, his job would be easier.

The water did its magic and Duncan nearly fell asleep. When his tub began to cool, he stood and toweled off. He stepped out and finished the job, donning the clean clothing he wrestled from his saddlebags. Lastly, he tossed his sweat-soaked and dusty things into the tub, giving them a quick wash before wringing them out. He’d wear them again tomorrow on the trail, but for the rest of today, Duncan was to be clean and refined.

He decided a good meal was in order after his soothing bath, so upon entering the only tavern at Cox and Clarke, he selected a prime table. He feasted on fresh fish from the lake, fried up in cornmeal and flour, before going up to his room at the inn and diving into that soft, warm bed. It was still light outside when he fell asleep.

 

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

 

At Aquaje de La Brea, the springs south of the Pyramid Hills, Opal asked Hank to stop. While she awakened Scott long enough to feed him some cold tea laced with laudanum, Hank and Lou skimmed the oil off the top of the pool, allowing their horses to water. Within ten minutes, they were on their way across the tiny valley.

The sandstone Point of Rocks on the western edge of Devil’s Den were easy to cross, but Hank drove slower anyway; he didn’t want to disturb either his passenger or their cargo. He picked up some speed once over the low hills and into Antelope Valley.

Here they left El Camino Viejo, for it continued southward toward Bitterwater and eventually, the Pueblo de Los Angeles. Hank turned the wagon nearly due west. They were almost home.

Antelope Valley was a wider V-shaped plain between the foothills of the southern Diablo Mountains to the low-lying Shale Hills. The hills were famous for earthquakes and this area sparsely populated. Orchard Peak, to the north, overshadowed the valley. The only slice of civilization was a small inn and store at Keck’s’ Corner, owned by Marlin Keck approximately midway between the Diablos and the hills. They would stop there briefly.

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

 

Johnny liked Barranca’s progress as the stallion galloped down the road. He knew they were catching up on the wagon; they were traveling faster. He kept an eye on the clouds, for they looked like rain. His new slicker was in his saddlebags but he hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. That would mean slowing down and losing time.

The weather held and it took him slightly less more an hour to get to Avenal Gap. He found Alamo Mocha easily and stopped for water, giving Barranca a long drink, and refilling his canteen. Back on the horse, he loped through the gap, following the road onto the Kettleman Plain.

 

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

 

Abby awoke from a short nap in time to help put the finishing touches on dinner, with objection from Maria. “I want to keep busy, Maria,” she insisted. “You do a fine job, but I need the distraction.”

Maria nodded, allowing la señora to transfer the rice into a serving bowl. She smiled with Abby topped the brown and white side dish with a spring of green parsley from Teresa’s herb garden, but she put her food down when it came to carrying the food to the table. “No, Señora, you must not carry heavy things.” Abby went to sit at the table instead.

 

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

 

Johnny loped Barranca into the Devil’s Den less than an hour after his quarry. Having stopped briefly for water at Alamo Mocha earlier, he opted to pass on Aguaje de La Brea; Johnny didn’t want to bother with skimming the oil. He slowed to a walk so he could peruse the area, noticing the tiny valley enclosed on most sides by low hills. It was a good spot for an ambush.

Johnny assumed the Wodens would think someone would track them down. After all, they did rob the Wells Fargo stage. The company took those things seriously and only a fool would think themselves free and clear. He knew that he would be on the lookout if he was them, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. The Woden family seemed to be heading straight for their home, and quickly, judging by the speed he was traveling.

Maybe there was something more to this robbery than money. They’d taken Scott and Garcia, but left the old man in the forest to die. An older man, sick like Garcia, would have been easier to contain, made a better hostage. Scott would fight them every step of the way. If he could.

Once again Johnny considered the possibility that his brother was injured in some way. There was evidence of it: the story in Latache about the sick brother, the man at the trading post mentioning the sister watching something hidden in the wagon.

He knew he was nearing their home. Excited about the possibility that his quest was ending, Johnny spurred Barranca, pushing the horse onward.

 

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

 

Hank pulled the wagon to a halt at Keck’s Corner Inn and Store. Opal jumped out  to let the Keck family know they were back; the Kecks were their closest neighbors. She chatted briefly with Marlin before returning to the wagon. They were so near their home now; it was up a tiny valley in the Shale Hills about an hour away. Hank slapped the reins once more. This was the final leg of their journey.

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

 

Abby wandered aimlessly through Teresa’s herb garden. The sun was setting, blocked by the Diablo mountains in front of her and brought a chill with it. She pulled her wrap tighter around her shoulders. She considered the implement Scott had risked his life to bring home. Why had Murdoch acted so strangely after they had figured out its use? What had he done with the iron? Even Aggie had questions in her eyes as he took the brand inside the hacienda.

She wondered about Scott. Where was he? Was he hurt? What other information had he learned in Visalia? Had his discoveries led to him being taken? Or was his kidnapping and the stage robbery merely coincidental, happenstance?

She looked out at the mountains, so beautiful and majestic. When would she see her beloved again? She wanted nothing more now than to hold him tightly against her. She spread her fingers over the lower part of her belly, silently protecting the child she carried from the ills of the world.

 

A Surprise Ending

Johnny and Barranca crossed over the sandstone hills into Antelope Valley and paused briefly for water at Las Trinajas de Los Indios—Indian Tanks—filling his canvas bag, his canteen, himself and Barranca. He didn’t know when he’d find water again. The man at Cox and Clarke hadn’t mentioned any other water holes.

He easily found the Woden wagon tracks where they left El Camino Viejo and noticed they were headed nearly due west through this quiet valley. Johnny put the spurs to his horse and Barranca showed he was game, galloping until a two-story building came into view.

When he arrived at the structure, he saw it was a combination tavern, inn and store, like the one in Latache. Labeled Keck’s Corner, it stood on the junction of Keck’s Road and the Paso Robles road. The Paso Robles road crossed the span of the valley before disappearing into a gap in the Diablos to the north. Keck’s road headed southeast, away from where Johnny had come.

Johnny dismounted, tied Barranca to the post allowing him to drink while he went inside. Sensing he was near his destination, Johnny ordered a drink and studied a map decorating the table. It was a map of El Camino Viejo, but the main route that went north instead of the Eastern route he had used from Cox and Clarke.

The owner brought him his drink. Johnny asked him some questions. “Seen the Woden family today?” he began.

Marlin Keck smiled. “Sure did. Saw Opal Woden not more’n a half-hour ago. They was comin’ home from sellin’ their furs. Hank and Lou are trappers, ya know.”

“Yes, I know,” Johnny lied. “I was hoping to get a pelt or two from them, but if they sold them all—”

“Don’t you worry, sonny. Them boys are good at their job. Just go on to their cabin. They’ll get you one. They always have some curin’ or somethin’. I’m sure they can fix you up.”

Johnny put his beer down. “Where is their cabin exactly?”

Keck pointed. “Go north, on the Paso Robles Road, about, oh, mebbe a mile or two. You’ll see a small valley open up from the hills, and a path headin’ in. Go in that valley. Their cabin is up there in the hills. Look carefully for it, though, ‘cuz it ain’t easy to find. Best go in the daytime. It’ll be gettin’ dark soon. Wanna stay the night here?”

“Maybe. I’ll go try to find it first. If I can’t, I’ll be back.”

Keck nodded. “We’ll be here.”

Johnny nodded to the man as he exited the place. Outside, he took scant seconds to observe the coming dusk. He didn’t have much time. He grabbed Barranca’s reins. “Almost there, amigo,” he told the horse as he mounted. “Let’s go.” He took off to the north.

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

 

As Johnny left Keck’s Corner, Hank Woden turned their wagon into the path going into the small valley leading to their cabin. They could barely see the roof now, up in the hills to the north, and were most anxious to arrive. The horses sensed it, too, picking up speed until they were in front of the cabin.

“Whoa!” Hank hollered to the team. He and his siblings jumped off the wagon, excited and happy to be home. Opal hurried inside to air the place out before it got too cold; they’d been gone for so long she was sure it would be stuffy. Lou started unloading their purchases while Hank unhitched the team and led them to the stables.

 

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

 

Johnny found the gap by following the wagon’s tracks, a task which grew more difficult with each passing minute; it was growing dark. He slowed Barranca to a walk, not wanting to be seen or heard, and entered the gap, looking in all directions, wary of what he might find.

He smelled it before he saw it: smoke from the chimney. Johnny smiled and pulled Barranca away from the path and into the hills. He dismounted and led the horse to a spot up ahead where he had a good look at the cabin. He watched the brothers finish unloading the wagon, carrying crates and packages into the small one-story cabin.

It was now dark; night fell earlier in the mountains and he knew he’d have to find a place to spend the evening. The small area he was in was ideal for watching the cabin but too close and too small to make camp, but he didn’t want to leave until he confirmed that Scott was there. When he was just about to move, he saw the woman emerge from the cabin. She talked to her brothers for a few seconds before they hoisted a rectangular blanketed form out of the wagon. It could be a body, but Johnny couldn’t be sure, and he certainly couldn’t tell if it was Scott. Reluctantly he left his hiding spot and searched for a good place to camp.

Johnny made a cold camp — no fire — in a spot further into the hills from the cabin.  He was hidden here; it was a small clearing amidst the pine trees on the slopes of the Shale Hills. He unsaddled Barranca and rubbed him down, giving him oats from a feed bag he’d purchased at Cox and Clarke. He refilled the bag twice before giving the animal water from the canvas bag.

He sat on a stump and ate his evening meal: cold beans from a tin and the fresh jerky from the trading post. He wanted coffee, but with no fire, that was impossible. He took a swig from his whiskey bottle and settled down for the night.

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

 

The hacienda was quiet; everyone had gone to bed, the day had ended. Only Murdoch sat up in the great room, sipping his evening Scotch. He stared into the dying embers of what was left of the fire, not seeing their glow. His mind was lost in thought. Scott and Johnny were out there. His sons. His beloved children he’d not been able to raise, to see growing up, to shape their beings. They’d grown into men without him. He drained his glass.

He couldn’t be happier with Scott. His own man, Scott was already making his mark on Lancer. His assistance with the Pardee episode had been invaluable, even though Murdoch had to admit, he’d questioned some of Scott’s choices, it all worked out in the end, and they were all better for it. Scott was definitely a Lancer asset.

And how quickly he adapted to Western life! Murdoch knew what it was like in Boston, having lived there a short while himself, and he knew what kind of life Scott must have led there under Harlan Garrett’s influence, but his elder son had come to his aid quickly and stayed on after it was over. He was learning the ranch and how it worked and seemed to thrive. Murdoch was pleased.

Scott’s heart seemed to be open, like Catherine’s had been, as evidenced by his friendship with Johnny Madrid. If there were ever unlikely friends, it was those two. Yet Scott had managed to form those bonds even before he knew Johnny was his brother. It was something his mother could have done. Scott was definitely Catherine’s son.

Johnny was still a puzzle to him. He did not know his dark son’s motivations. The man hadn’t seem to want to be at Lancer, yet stayed on after Scott dismissed him from his services. Johnny certainly hadn’t been entreating to him, Murdoch acknowledged, in fact, he was quite the opposite.

Then again, Murdoch hadn’t been accepting of Johnny either. In the end, he’d wanted his dark son to change, and to want to change, to become Johnny Lancer and that simply hadn’t happened. Murdoch had made it clear Johnny couldn’t stay on under those circumstances, forcing Johnny out. That had been a dark day for Murdoch.

Still, Johnny had stayed in the area, working to solve the Pardee mystery. Murdoch shook his head in admiration. Most men would have washed their hands of Murdoch and Lancer, but not Johnny. He did it for Scott, he presumed, certainly not to get in Murdoch’s good graces; he didn’t seem to care about that. Johnny, too, was his own man.

Murdoch refilled his glass. His sons were not here and he felt their absence. It shook him that in the few short weeks since Scott’s arrival and finding about Johnny that he’d grown accustomed to having them around, as much as it bothered him at first about Johnny. He missed them, it was as simple as that.

He was worried about them, too. Scott had been taken; he may be injured or worse. Johnny was on the path to get him. Had he found Scott already? Or had trouble found Johnny? He’d heard nothing, not that he’d expected to, but still, the lack of word bothered him. He couldn’t help but be concerned for their welfare. Both of them.

He smiled at that thought, but his smile quickly faltered.

He recalled when they’d found out about the kidnapping, how Johnny hadn’t hesitated, hadn’t asked permission or even thought about it. Johnny Madrid went after his brother. He’d ridden out on that palomino in the dark, ready to face whatever was out there. The hardened gunfighter was willing to risk it all for another man—for free.

Murdoch had to admire loyalty like that.

The more he learned about Johnny the more he realized that he didn’t really know his dark son. His preconceived notions were proving to be wrong, all of them. Johnny wasn’t the person he thought he was. In fact, Murdoch now realized, Johnny Madrid was almost exactly the kind of person he had wanted Johnny Lancer to be, minus the prowess with his Colt. He blinked in surprise. That was a notion he’d not considered. Well, well, well, he thought.

He smiled as he sat down his glass.

 

Little Cabin in the Tremblor Hills

Johnny was up shortly after dawn. Not wanting a fire again this morning, he ate jerky washed down with water from his canteen. He fed and watered Barranca. “Be quiet today, amigo,” he told the horse and left him, making sure he was well-hidden, before heading down the spot where he watched the cabin the previous night.

It was quiet. There were no signs of activity except a smoke wisp from the chimney, so he waited. If the brothers were trappers, then they were mountain men, used to living off the land and probably knew these hills like the back of their hands. He was at a disadvantage and he knew it. The sooner he found out what was going on and acted on it, the better.

 

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

 

Duncan stretched and yawned, not wanting to get out of bed. Despite his hot bath the previous afternoon, his legs were still sore. He moved slowly, dressing with care and easing himself down to the tavern for breakfast. It took him more than an hour to leave the trading post and onto El Camino Viejo.

He knew he should hurry, but his body still hadn’t recovered from its punishment of being on a horse so much in the past week. He loped the animal toward Avenal Gap for a few miles before dismounting and walking to stretch his legs before repeating the procedure.

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

 

Scott Lancer tried to open his eyes, they felt heavy and wooden. Forcing himself to do so, he widened them. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. He was in a bed, in a small room, with one small window. It was closed. He was alone.

He tried to sit up, but as soon as he made the effort, his head pounded. Trying to recall, he remembered a voice, a soothing voice, saying all would be well. That was all. He lay back down and closed his eyes again.

A woman came in the room. “I see you woke up again,” she said. Scott turned toward her and looked. She looked a little fuzzy but as his eyes got used to working, she came into focus. She was a little short, with dark, dark hair, tied behind her head. She wore a simple light blue blouse and dark blue skirt. He watched her put a tray down on a rickety table next to the bed.

“I brought you some breakfast. It’s not much, but I don’t know what your belly can hold. I don’t want you throwin’ up.”

“Did I do that?” he asked. He couldn’t remember.

“No, not yet. But that head wound can cause a body to bring his food back up and we don’t want that.” She sat on the bed, smiling.

“What happened?”

The woman cocked her head. “You don’t remember? I told you all that already. You fell off your horse. My brother found you on the road. You were out cold. We tried to find you a doctor but there weren’t none, so we took you home. My brother left this mornin’ to find a doctor somewhere else.” It was all a lie.

“Okay. Where am I?”

She looked around. “This is our cabin. My brother is a trapper. He kills animals and cures their pelts. We sell the furs.”

“Where is this cabin?”

“My, you’re full of questions this mornin’,” she smiled. “We’re in the hills not far from the Rancho Cholame.”

“I don’t know where that is.”

“It’s okay. When you’re stronger you can see for yourself. I have your breakfast.” She lifted the spoon to feed him the gruel. Like before, it was laced with laudanum, but a smaller amount this time. Now that they were home, she wanted him groggy, but not asleep. She needed him awake for her plans to work.

 

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

 

Johnny kept watch on the cabin from his nest in the hills. The stillness annoyed him; he wanted to see something, anything. He got a small reward when he noticed the woman leave the cabin and cross the small clearing to the stable area. The brothers came out to see her. They looked unkempt, like they’d just awakened and he wondered if they spent the night with the horses, as unlikely as that sounded. She talked with them for a few minutes before she returned to the cabin, and they to the stables.

He had to find out for sure if Scott was there, but he knew better than act rashly. He waited. If his brother was in that cabin, he’d have to make a plan to get him out, and sooner was preferable to later. He had to calm himself. Patience.

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

 

Duncan stopped his horse at the Alamo Mocha for a drink. He walked around the cottonwood tree, stretching his legs and back. Already he longed for the day to be over and it was only mid-morning. He put off getting back on the horse for as long as possible.

What in the world was he doing out here in the middle of nowhere? He’d left behind this life years ago for a more sedate existence. He preferred working behind the scenes anyway. He cursed his aching back. He cursed his sore legs. He cursed David Addison.

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

 

After Scott ate his breakfast the woman left him alone. He tried to sit up again but when he felt queasy, he lay back down. He didn’t want to lose what little food he had in him, no matter how bad it tasted. The woman was kind and gentle, but she sure was a lousy cook.

A few minutes later she returned. Scott remembered his manners this time. He introduced himself. “My name is...Scott,” he faltered. It surprised him that he had to work to remember his name.

“Hello, Scott. I am Opal. Opal Woden.” She smiled great big.

“How long have I been here?”

Opal’s smile faltered a little. “Again, with the questions. We brought you here last night. We looked for a doctor all day yesterday.” She lied as she fluffed his pillow. “Now, Scott, I want you to stay here, in this here bed, and not move. It won’t do your head no good for you to be up and about just yet.” She left the room, closing the door.

From time to time, Opal popped into his room, sometimes arranging his blankets, or sitting to chat. He tried to get information from her about his accident, but she steadfastly clung to her story, repeating it if necessary. He finally gave up. She was always smiling and seemed quite pleasant so he didn’t want to upset her.

At lunchtime, she encouraged him to get up and walk to the kitchen. He took a few wobbly steps, leaning against her for support. With her help he made it to the table.

She’d made him a thin broth. It tasted bitter. She said it was from the bitterroot she used. It was a lie; his bowl of soup, like his breakfast, contained a drop of laudanum. Within a few minutes Scott was under its effects. He felt woozy, unfocused.

Not realizing he was drugged, Scott thought he was suffering from a concussion. With that kind of injury, he knew the dangers. He must not exert himself and take it slow and easy. Leaving here would have to wait until he was substantially better. He leaned on Opal to tend his needs.

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

 

Duncan was starving by the time he reached Keck’s Corner; breakfast had been almost five hours ago. He dismounted slowly, not because he wanted to take the time, but because his body protested greatly if he moved any faster. Again he cursed Buck Addison. He shuffled stiffly into the tavern.

Marlin Keck greeted him, “Hello, stranger. How can I help you?” He was thrilled. Two new faces in two days.

“What’s for lunch?” Duncan asked, his stomach overriding his need to be polite. He eased himself into a chair. He nearly groaned at the effort.

“Bear stew,” Keck answered. “Mighty good. My wife makes it.” Duncan would have turned his nose up if he wasn’t so hungry; he preferred more domestic forms of meat. He nodded his acceptance.

Keck brought him a beer first, and within ten minutes, he placed a steaming bowl in front of Duncan, accompanied by fresh, hot biscuits. “Enjoy!”

The stew was actually quite tasty and Duncan found himself liking it. He would have had seconds had not Mrs. Keck shown up with a large slice of cherry pie. Cherry was his favorite and he downed that quickly. Sated, he sat back on his chair and patted his stomach.

“I see you liked the stew,” Keck asked.

“It was very good. My compliments to your wife.” He looked around. “Nice tavern here. You have rooms?”

“Yes. Three. You’re looking to stay? We have vacancies.”

The thought of getting back on that horse so soon definitely had no appeal for Duncan. “I’m saddlesore,” he grinned. “Not used to riding much. I’ve been in the saddle for two days now.”

“Well, we have the space. And we can get you a nice hot bath. That’ll soak the soreness out of you.”

That did it for Duncan. “I’d appreciate that.” He could always ride later. There was plenty of daylight left. “But before I do, I was wondering if you could tell me where I can find the Woden cabin?”

Keck stood up. “Woden again? You’re the second one to ask about them. Young fella just last night, right before dark, asked where they were. Wanted to buy a fur. You don’t look like the type, though. What’s your business with them?”

On the alert now, Duncan sat up. “They were guests at the hotel where I work. We accidentally charged them too much. I came to refund some of their money.”

Keck grinned. “Well, they’ll enjoy that. If there’s one thing I know about Hank, Lou and Opal, it’s that they do like their money.” He told Duncan where the cabin was as he showed him to the bathtub.

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

 

Johnny had been watching all morning long, but only seeing the woman through the small, dingy windows of the cabin. If Scott was there, he was being kept hidden. He didn’t like that. The idea of his brother being a prisoner with a woman keeper could only mean one thing: he was drugged. And that meant he’d have little or no help from Scott when the time came to rescue him.

Finally he saw what he wanted to see, his brother, inside the cabin, being helped by the woman to a chair. He almost laughed in relief, but he quickly sobered, for he noticed a bandage around Scott’s head. His brother was injured. That wasn’t good.

The Woden brothers kept away from the cabin, staying in or near the stables. Their sister brought food out for them, but only when Scott wasn’t visible. Johnny concluded that the woman didn’t want Scott to see them. He didn’t have a guess why.

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

 

Later that afternoon, Opal helped Scott go outside so he could look at the mountains. He tried to recognize any landmarks but felt woefully lost. None of these hilltops resembled those at Lancer.

Lancer! He remembered his last name. Feeling a breakthrough, he called to Opal. She came quickly to the cabin’s porch where he was. “Do you know my father, Murdoch Lancer?” he asked her.

Opal realized that he was coming out of the influence of the drug, she must be underdosing him. In her desire make him like her, she was letting him become too clear. She offered him some lemonade and spiked it with laudanum. Scott soon unfocused again and she helped him back inside the cabin.

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

 

When Johnny saw Scott outside he knew he had to act fast. His brother looked as if he hadn’t improved all day. Now he was certain she was drugging him. He glared toward the cabin, but anger only made him want to sneak up on the men and slit their throats, and that wouldn’t help. He wouldn’t find out why they’d taken Scott or who, if anyone, was behind it. No, he had to take them alive if possible. And that would be difficult to do alone.

 

String Theory

Murdoch sat at his desk, trying to concentrate on his ledgers but his mind kept wandering. He worried, more now than he had when his ranch was threatened by Pardee, worried about Scott, about Abby, the baby she carried, about Johnny Madrid. He snorted at that idea. Madrid was more than capable. Not ‘Madrid’ he told himself; my son. He was still getting used to that idea. Yes, and he was still worried about him, too. It didn’t matter how capable he was.

His mind drifted to the branding iron. Scott correctly thought it important, and took the chance on bringing it to Lancer. Maybe that’s what got him kidnapped. Murdoch didn’t believe for one minute he was a mere hostage. Aggie had pointed that out to him.

It was the brand that changed the Lancer circle L into whoever’s sideways A. And it was a stamp iron. Someone went to a great deal of effort to have a brand made to the exact specifications to make that conversion. This showed time and thought, and, as he’d considered before, that whoever had that brand made, intended on using it many, many times.

Abby and Aggie trouped downstairs. Aggie was bringing a tea tray. “Refreshment?” she asked.

“Of course!” Murdoch beamed, happy for the distraction. He closed his ledgers and rose from his desk, indicating with his arm for the ladies to take the sofa. He sat opposite in a chair.

Aggie served the tea while Abby passed him a small plate of tiny cakes and cookies. When Murdoch looked at her questioningly, she smiled. “I wanted to take my mind off...things. So I did some baking.”

“It looks good,” Murdoch grinned, taking a cookie.

They all settled and began their little repast. Abby replaced her cup in its saucer and looked directly at Murdoch. “Yesterday, after we figured out what Scott’s brand did, you acted all mysterious. What did you not tell us?”

Murdoch blanched. He did not want to alarm the women. “Nothing much,” he lied,  taking a bite out of his cookie.

Abby and Aggie exchanged looks. Aggie took up the cause next. “Murdoch, we both know better. We are not children. Tell us what you think.”

Murdoch sighed and sat his cup down. “If you insist,” he began. He relayed his thoughts quietly, so no one else could overhear, telling them everything he thought about Scott’s stamp iron and what it might mean.

“So you think we’re still in danger from someone like Pardee,” Abby surmised.

Before Murdoch could answer, Aggie piped up: “Maybe it’s the person who hired Pardee. Maybe this brand is his. And he’s still out there.”

Murdoch nodded. “Could be that too. Could be a lot of things. And given the condition of the brand, maybe it’s old. Could be that the threat is already over.”

Aggie laughed. “Now you don’t believe that for one minute, do you?”

“I sure don’t!” Abby stated. “If all was fine, Scott would be home with me now.”

Murdoch smiled grimly. “I agree completely, Abby. I agree completely.”

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

 

After their talk with Murdoch, Abby felt a much-needed push, an energy drive she’d not had since learning of her husband’s kidnapping. She had to do something constructive, other than baking. She climbed the stairs to oversee the work on the west wing, nodding her approval at the changes. The demolition was almost done, with most of the area gutted. Soon they would be able to begin the harder part, rebuilding the space into a bedroom suite for them and a nursery for the baby.

She also felt a strong confidence in Johnny, that he would bring her Scott home to her, and do so soon. She didn’t know where that came from, as just the previous evening she’d been full of questions, but she refused to second-guess herself.

She decided to straighten out their bedroom in anticipation of Scott’s return. She had Murdoch and a hand help with moving the furniture around to a more pleasing arrangement. She liked her accomplishments.

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

 

Buck Addison didn’t know what to do. Murdoch Lancer had Scott’s luggage from the stage. Had whatever Scott had taken from the Ortega hacienda been inside the bag? Duncan hadn’t thought so, and Gilford was more right than wrong, but even he said he couldn’t be sure. Buck had to be sure.

But he had no way of learning such a thing, at least, nothing had come to mind since he last talked with Duncan. It wasn’t as if he could just go out to Lancer and question Murdoch. And he certainly couldn’t go snooping around the hacienda. No, he would have to find another way.

Duncan usually handled these affairs for him but Gilford wasn’t there; he was on another mission for him, one of even more importance. He gazed out his window, aimlessly watching the street below. People milled around, walked on the boardwalks, rode through town. Dr. Sam Jenkins entered town in his black buggy.

Jenkins! Now there was a thought. He knew the man was friends with Lancer; they sat on the same pew at church. Maybe the doctor could be manipulated into snooping for him. It would take a master’s touch, to persuade Sam Jenkins to do his bidding, but he was confident he could do so.

 

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

 

Sam parked his buggy in front of his home. He had one more patient to tend today and he would be done, unless, of course, there was some emergency in the valley. He needed a second doctor in the area and he knew it. One based in Morro Cuyo would be nice. He could take all appointments in that direction, leaving the rest to Sam.

The doctor sighed. It had been a long day. Reed from the S Bar had fallen off his horse and injured himself. Luckily, the youth would recover quickly, but he’d hit his head and needed attention. And he was still treating Miguel Garcia, the man from the stage, for exposure. Mrs. Henderson was looking after him right now.

He grabbed his medical bag and stepped to head inside. “Doc! Doc Jenkins!” someone called. Sam looked toward the sound. It was Buck Addison, angling across the street to meet him. He stopped and waited patiently.

“Mr. Addison,” Sam greeted when Buck came up to him. “What can I do for you today?”

Buck came right to business. “I was wondering how Murdoch Lancer was holding up, with his son Scott being a hostage and all. I was hoping you could let me know.”

“I don’t know, Mr. Addison. I haven’t seen Murdoch Lancer since the incident. I would assume he’s greatly worried, though.”

“Yes, yes. I would think so,” Addison nodded. “I don’t suppose you would have time to go check on him this evening? Several of us at the hotel are concerned. He was a patron of my cafe when the stage roared into town.”

Sam sighed tiredly. “I would love to do nothing else, Mr. Addison, however, I’ve been quite busy today with medical emergencies and I am fairly tired.” Sam had been worried, too, about Murdoch; he’d planned on stopping by the Lancer hacienda but time had not permitted that trip.

“I see. Yes. I know you are a busy man. Are you the only doctor?”

“Yes. For all this area.”

“Well, you need help, my friend!” Addison slapped him on the back. “Say, I have an idea. My doctor in Visalia, Rupert Durant, has a son who just finished medical school back East. He will be looking for a post as soon as he returns to California. Why don’t you send a letter to Dr. Durant asking if Cord—that’s his son—would like to join your practice?”

Sam brightened. “That’s an idea, Mr. Addison. I think I just might do that.” Lord knows another medic would be welcomed.

Addison nodded. “Yes, please do. And, if you can work it into your busy schedule, please drop in on Mr. Lancer tomorrow and inquire as to how he is holding up.”

Sam smiled. “I would love to.”

“Good, good. Well, I have to be running along too, Dr. Jenkins.” Buck took a step away, then turned back. “Oh, and while you’re out there, make sure Lancer got all of his son’s things from the stage. My man Duncan was missing something out of his own bag that night. He thinks the robbers went through the luggage.”

Sam smiled. “Will do that, Mr. Addison.”

Buck nodded. “Of course.” He turned once more and headed back to his hotel.

“Thanks again,” Sam called back at him. Addison held up a hand in acknowledgement.

 

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

 

Sam desperately wanted to go see Murdoch, but he was just too bone tired. After checking in with his patient, Miguel Garcia—who he allowed to go home with instructions to continue resting—he sent Mrs. Henderson to her home so he could enjoy the solitude of his small garden out back. He brought his plate of chicken fricassee with him and sat in his favorite chair, carved from an oak tree that had once shaded his small corral.

It was the cool of the evening, his favorite time of the day, and he allowed himself to relax, to shake the stress of the day away from his bones. Tomorrow, he told himself, he would drive out to Lancer and check on Murdoch. May as well check on Abby, too. The young woman had to be worried sick over her husband. Yep, he sighed, as he sat down his plate, tomorrow. First thing.

 

Confession is Good for the Soul

Duncan spent over two hours enjoying the Keck hospitality and their bathtub. When he finally left, he promised to return as soon as possible. He headed north, to find the valley which hid the Woden cabin.

Wary of the ‘other fella’ Keck had mentioned, Duncan rode slowly and cautiously. He did not want to be seen. He had wanted his mission to be quick and clean—go in, kill everyone, come out—but with another person in the mix, he had to be on the lookout.

He found the valley easily enough, but rather than riding down the center of it, he walked his horse on the south side, as close to the hills as possible, taking whatever cover he could find. When he spotted the cabin he stopped, climbed up to the hills, found a place and watched. There was no sign of anyone else there, just the cabin and the smoke from the chimney. He waited.

 

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

 

Scott did not realize that he was a prisoner. With the dosages of laudanum, Opal had no trouble controlling him. She fed him just enough information to keep him satisfied, but drugged him enough to keep him from fully awakening. It was all part of her plan to make him hers. The fact that Scott’s memory was shaky acted in her favor.

All afternoon she made small advances, showing him just a little more of her body, a little more attention, a little more affection, and watching him carefully for his reactions. So far, he had not seemed put off.

That evening, she decided to make her move. She put on her most provocative blouse, a skin-tight thing in shear snowy white, and left it open to reveal a deep plunge, wearing nothing underneath. If she could get him to make a move on her and have her brothers walk in at just the right time....well, he’d have to marry her, or face her brothers’ shotguns like the others.

She’d done this sort of thing a few times before, in her search for a husband. She would select a man who captured her fancy, bring him to their cabin and lead him on to the point where she’d been compromised. At the proper moment one of her brothers would walk in, be alarmed at his sister’s “ruin” and would demand either a wedding or a duel. In the other cases, her judgement had been off and the men had not been interested in marriage. They chose to duel, much to their undoing. While it would start out fair, one on one, in reality, the second brother would be hidden and he would fire the death shot. No man made a fool of their sister! Her brothers would bury his body in the woods; no one would ever find it.

Only once had there been a problem with her plan. Hank’s timing had been off and her suitor had been able to finish what she started before Hank broke in. After the man’s death, she discovered that she carried his child. She tried everything she could to cause a miscarriage and finally had to tell her brothers the truth. They took it in stride, but as soon as the baby was born, Hank disappeared with the tiny thing and came back alone. It was never mentioned again. After that incident, whichever brother who was supposed to interrupt the couple waited outside her bedroom until the perfect moment. They did not want a repeat of before.

She sashayed into his room, making sure Lou was in the hall waiting. Scott was sitting in a chair. “Hello,” he greeted, smiling. He still had that hazy look to him that told her he was still under the influence of laudanum.

“Hello, Scott,” she smiled, trying to act sexy. She bent over to pick up a fallen object and gave him a good view of her cleavage.

But if Scott noticed, he didn’t show it. He was too anxious to ask his question. “I wonder if your brother could get a message to my father, Murdoch Lancer, and my wife, Abigail. They are at—”

But that was all Opal heard, for as soon as he uttered the word ‘wife’ she froze. Realizing he was married, she knew her plan wouldn’t work. Angered, she turned and left his room, slamming the door behind her.

Scott was confused. She’d not acted so aloof before. He started to stand up but felt dizzy. He eased himself back into his chair, wondering what was going on.

 

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

 

“What’s going on?” Lou whispered, following her down the short hall, his rifle in his right hand. “You left the mark’s room before...”

“Hush up, Lou! He ain’t a mark. His name is Scott. And he’s married!” Opal burst into tears. She ran into the kitchen and stood over the pump, sobbing.

“Married?” Lou didn’t understand. “But did he comp’mise you?”

Opal shook her head, tears still streaming. “He didn’t touch me.”

Lou pulled back. He leaned his rifle against the wall. “Well, now what do we do?”

Opal didn’t answer. She just stood there crying.

Lou was at a loss. This had never happened before. Opal always had an answer when it came to the mark. Wordlessly, he backed out of the kitchen and silently left the cabin via the back door. Jogging to the barn, he shouted up in the loft. Hank was waiting near the loft window. “It didn’t work, Hank. Opal’s cryin’. She says the mark’s married.”

“Married?!” Hank stood, shaking his head in disbelief. He scampered down the ladder and faced his brother. “What’d she say for us to do?”

“Nothin’.” Lou shook his head. “She didn’t say nothin’. She’s just cryin’.” He looked down for a minute. “What did Mr. Addison say to do with him?”

Hank shook his head again. “Nothin’. He didn’t say nothin’ about that.”

“Well, do we kill him?” Killing the man outright didn’t sit too well with Lou.

“No, not unless he gives us a reason to,” Hank responded.

“‘K, good,” Lou nodded. “So’s we just keep on goin’ like we was?”

“Guess so,” Hank shrugged. “Less’en Opal wants us to do sumpin’ with him.”

 

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

 

Johnny decided to take the men that night, to surprise them in their sleep. He retrieved some supplies from his saddlebags and crept around the rocks and trees until he reached the cabin’s stables.

The Woden brothers had used the stables all day so it was a logical place to look for them tonight. He hadn’t seen them enter the cabin so he assumed they were sleeping there again.

He got his answer as he poked his ear into the doorway: snoring. Smiling, Johnny eased into the structure, making no sound, getting close to one of the men. Johnny knew it would be tricky, to capture both men by surprise. He held his breath before making his move.

Quickly and quietly he clamped his hand over Hank’s mouth. Hank awoke and began to struggle. Johnny hit him with the butt of his Colt. With one out cold, Johnny went to the other and repeated his actions. Lou made a little more noise, but soon he, too, succumbed to Johnny’s efforts.

He tied the two men up, their hands behind their backs; he tied their ankles together so they couldn’t walk. Lastly, he gagged them both before going to get Barranca. His plan was to throw them over his horse to remove them from the general vicinity of the cabin. He didn’t want drag marks in case the sister came looking for them. Once away, he would question them.

Barranca was agreeable and with a few grunts and lots of effort, Johnny soon had the men across the horse’s back. He led Barranca out of the stables to his makeshift camp in the hills. There he unceremoniously dumped both men to the ground, leaning them against rocks for support.

Johnny surveyed the two men. Hank, the older, was bigger and taller. Lou seemed small by comparison. Surmising that the small one was the weaker, Johnny pulled Lou up by his collar, the action rousing the man.

“I want information and you are going to tell me.” He slammed Lou’s back against the rock. Holding him up, Johnny ordered him, “You are going to tell me why you kidnapped that man in the cabin.”

Lou shook his head, terrified.

Johnny smiled, a humorless, almost dead smile. He dropped Lou and stepped to Hank. “Then your brother here will die.” He slipped his knife to Hank’s throat.

Lou whimpered, getting Johnny’s attention. “Well?” he asked. “Are you going to talk?” Lou nodded frantically this time, his eyes wide. Smiling evilly, Johnny left Hank, still out cold. He crossed over to the younger brother and ripped down his gag. “Who hired you?”

Scared beyond belief, Lou could only tremble.

Johnny’s open hand tore at Lou’s face, slapping him so hard blood spurted from his lip. “Answer me!” He demanded, hitting Lou again, a backhand to his other ear. Lou cringed, falling to the ground. Johnny went to strike again.

Lou turned his head away, anticipating the blow. “We weren’t paid to do it,” he cried.

Startled, Johnny stopped. He propped Lou back up again. “What do you mean? You kidnapped a man for fun?”

“No. No. We had to. We would have gone to jail.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow. “What sheriff would threaten you with jail time to make you commit a crime?”

“T’weren’t no sheriff. The hotel man.” Lou heaved.

Johnny backed off. Clearly there was more to the story. “Tell me everything,” he ordered.

 

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

 

Duncan grew tired of waiting and watching. It was well after dark and he’d seen nothing to indicate the cabin or its vicinity was inhabited except wispy smoke from the chimney. Since he’d been here no one had come in or go out. He was restless and anxious to see some other sign of life.

He longed for the comfort of that soft, warm bed promised at Keck’s, but he was determined, now that he’d arrived at the cabin, to finish this job as quickly as possible, to get it over with, so he wrapped himself up in his blanket and resumed his watching.

A few minutes later, he got a reward. Someone crept toward the cabin’s stables. He perked, trying to figure out who it could be, but in the dark it was impossible to recognize anyone. All he could tell was that it was a man. He stood, considering following him but rethought it and crouched back down, concluding that this man probably may be that ‘young fella’ Keck had mentioned and not one of the Woden brothers.

A few minutes later, he was again rewarded with another look at the intruder. He watched as the man left the stables, heading for the hills then returned quickly with a light-colored horse. Intrigued, he waited. What was going on?

Duncan saw the man return shortly with two bodies laid over the horse’s back and he startled. Had this man killed the brothers? He smiled; if that’s what happened, half his job was done. He needed to be certain, though. Duncan left his perch and headed in the direction the other man was going, making sure not to make any sounds or quick moves lest he be seen or heard. Stealth was important, because if this ‘young fella’ wasn’t inadvertently helping him, he needed to remain hidden.

Duncan lost him in the trees. He waited, trying to hear where they had gone, but he was not a tracker, so he waited, not wanting to risk disclosure. Soon he heard voices, but couldn’t figure out what was said until he distinctly heard someone say “Answer me!” rather angrily.

Feeling it safe, Duncan crept forward, toward the sound, until he was able to hear them clearly and even sneak a peek on occasion. When he did, he almost audibly gasped, for someone was spilling the beans about the robbery and Scott Lancer’s kidnapping. Now he knew he had a fifth man to kill.

 

Rescue Me

Johnny was stunned. He wasn’t sure Lou Woden was telling the truth. It seemed so unlikely. Big businessman Buck Addison was behind Scott’s kidnapping? It didn’t make sense. “Why?” he asked his prisoner.

Lou shrugged. “Don’t know. He didn’t say. Just said if we didn’t wanna go to jail to do that.”

“And then what? What about after you took the hostages?”

“To get Lancer and...” Lou stopped.

“And what?”

“Nothin’. He didn’t say to do nothin’ else.”

“You’re lying,” Johnny accused.

“I ain’t lyin’! I ain’t stupid enough to lie to Johnny Madrid.” Lou may not have been around that much, but he knew enough to identify the gunfighter when he saw him.

Unsurprised at being recognized, Johnny shook his head, trying to wrap his brain around this information. None of it made sense. A successful businessman like Buck Addison didn’t just order three mountain ne’er-do-wells to commit a stage robbery, kidnap a prominent citizen and keep him hostage. And, on top of that, to have no definite plan in place for afterwards. No, there had to be something else, something that this trapper knew nothing about. What he’d been told simply wasn’t logical.

Johnny knew he had to get Scott away and back to Lancer, but he also needed to bring these three to justice, particularly if Addison was involved. It would not be easy, making the trek back with three prisoners, one of them a woman. He would need Scott’s help, so his brother would have to recover quickly, but first, he had to secure these two for travel.

He checked their bindings, making sure they wouldn’t get away and re-gagged Lou. For good measure, he removed their boots, making it more difficult for them to walk should they escape. Now all he had to worry about was Scott, the girl, and getting them all in that wagon and that long way home.

A tall order.

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

 

Duncan startled. The stranger was Johnny Madrid. Johnny Madrid!

The notorious gunfighter had been in Green River the night the stage ran in, Duncan remembered now. Murdoch Lancer must have hired him then to go after the Woden siblings.

He gulped. While he was capable of the task he’d been given, he was no gunman. Johnny Madrid was a professional, cold and ruthless. He knew Madrid was way out of his league. If he needed any proof, there was that failed ambush where Madrid took out two of his men and ran off a third, getting away clear. He paused, taking several deep breaths.

He knew he was incapable of taking Johnny Madrid straight on. He’d have to rely on another ambush. But where? These hills provided some cover, but there wasn’t enough space to trap them in; they could easily get away and if they did, they had the entire v-shaped Antelope Valley to escape in. He thought of the way back to Green River. He hadn’t noticed that hills were really good enough, nor provided enough cover for an effective ambush. He couldn’t rely on that. He’d have to make his move at night or make none at all. And that meant tonight.

Duncan considered abandoning his mission completely, turning tail and riding back to Green River as fast as possible. Dan Logan had done that and Addison had killed him for it. He didn’t want to face his boss with a similar failure on his part. The man was too volatile. No, he’d have to ride ahead, as fast as possible, and try to find a suitable place.

 

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

 

Johnny returned to the cabin’s stables. Quickly and quietly, he hitched up the Woden team, apologizing to them for disturbing their well-earned rest. He supplied the wagon with feed for the horses, taking extra for Barranca. He lugged the brothers back and dragged them into the wagon’s bed; securing Lou because he was still awake. With that ready, the next part would be tricky: to get Scott out of the cabin and capture the girl.

Johnny hadn’t had to deal with many feminine enemies in the past; usually the women he encountered were either victims or those willing to help him for some reason of the other, but he knew this woman would resist him. He’d have to fight her, and as distasteful as he found that, he knew he had to do it.

He crept over to the cabin’s front door, easing it open, half-expecting it to creak. It didn’t. One little bit of good luck. He’d need a lot more. He glanced around before slipping further inside.

The small cabin was divided in half, with a living area and kitchen to his left and bedrooms to his right down a short hall. He crept down the hall, seeing only two bedroom doors; both were closed.

Johnny listened at the first door he came to, the one on the left. He heard soft breathing sounds, but was unable to determine if they were masculine or feminine. He moved to the other door and listened there. Still unable to tell—not that he expected to, but it would have made his job easier—he turned the knob and opened the door.

Inside he found a form sleeping on the bed, a woman’s form, shown by the moonlight streaming from the window. Johnny smiled grimly. This was the one he wanted. In two quick steps, Johnny was at her face, holding her mouth and pulling her up and out of the bed. She fought him, grabbing at his wrist with her hands, pulling at him with her fingers, but he was too strong. She finally quit, exhausted from her efforts. Johnny released her, pushing her away.

“Get dressed. Quietly. Quickly. Your brothers are knocked out, tied up and gagged. If you want to be treated like them, resist me.” He smiled wickedly. “I will watch.”

Opal’s fright turned to anger. She snarled at him. “I bet you will!” She turned her back to him and began to change, jerking at ribbons, pulling at buttons.

Grinning, Johnny crossed his arms and chuckled at her antics, but he did not afford her modesty; she was too dangerous. When he’d had enough of her delaying, he grabbed her arms. “Let’s go!”

“I’m not finished dressing!” she protested. It was true. Her bodice gaped open, revealing the soft white mounds of her breasts.

Johnny purposely leered, prompting another snarl. He smiled wickedly. “Then you’d better finish—before I decide that you are.”

“You’re horrible!”

“You’d better remember that.” He continued watching while her fingers fumbled. A minute later he stopped her. “You’re done enough.” Her bodice was still open, but at least most of her was covered. He pulled her arms behind her.

“You promised you wouldn’t do that!” she cried.

“No, I did not promise,” he stated, tearing off a long strip for her gag. “I want you quiet, I said.”

“Who are you?” she managed to growl out as he applied the gag. He didn’t answer.

 

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

 

Awakened by the sounds of the scuffle in the next room, Scott took a moment to clear his head before rising. Someone was attacking Opal! He rushed to his door, pausing for a second to look for something to use as a weapon. Finding nothing, he ran to the other door anyway, jerking it open.

He stood there for a few seconds as he recognized his brother. “Johnny! What are you doing?” he cried. Johnny was gagging Opal with a strip of cloth. He’d already tied her hands behind her back.

Johnny glanced up at Scott and smiled. “Getting you out of here, Scott.”

“Well, there’s no need for that,” he pointed to her binds.

“Oh, yes, Scott there is. And you’d realize it if you weren’t still injured.” Johnny paused, assessing his brother in the moonlight. The bandage that had been around his head was missing. He didn’t seem to be hurt. “Or, are you?”

“Am I what?” Scott was still angry at Opal’s mistreatment. “Release her immediately, Johnny.”

“No, I’m afraid I can’t do that. Are you hurt? You don’t look like it now.”

Opal struggled. The last thing she wanted was a clear-headed Scott.

“I said, release her,” Scott took a step forward.

“Scott,” Johnny held out his hand, stopping the blond. “Pay attention to yourself. How do you feel, right now?’

Scott paused. He didn’t like what his brother had done to the girl, but he gave the gunfighter the benefit of the doubt. He assessed his body. “I feel fine,” he stated.

“Good. Then you weren’t really injured at all.” He spun Opal around. “What were you doing? Dosing him?” To Scott, he asked, “Was she giving you food and drink regularly? Did it taste bitter?” Johnny had an idea.

Scott startled. “Uh, yeah. But she was feeding me broth, made from bitterroot, so of course, it would taste bad.”

“Wait here,” he told Scott. “Don’t touch her.” He shoved Opal in a chair and brushed passed his brother on his way to the kitchen. As soon as he left, Opal pleaded with Scott with her eyes.

Scott was torn. His brother, who he trusted, had grossly mistreated a woman he had grown to trust. She wanted his help now against Johnny. He wasn’t sure what to do.

Before he had decided, Johnny re-entered the room, holding a bottle. He shoved it into his brother’s hands. “This is what she was giving you, Scott. Laudanum. It tastes bitter. It’s a painkiller and it makes you foggy and unfocused.”

“I know what Laudanum is, Johnny.” Scott examined the bottle. Still confused, he frowned at Opal, his eyes questioning. She dropped her eyes.

“She’s been dosing you, Scott. Keeping you knocked out or controlled. She and her brothers robbed that stage and kidnapped you. On orders. We have to get you out of here. Now.” Johnny didn’t know what the rest of Addison’s plan was, if he even had one, but he didn’t like being vulnerable up here in the mountains.

Realization dawned on Scott. His face grew stormy. He took an angry step toward Opal. “Why you—”

Johnny stopped him, blocking with his body. “They’ll be time for that later. We need to get going. We’ll take them with us, back to justice in Green River.”

Opal struggled harder. She did not want to go there. Johnny clamped down on her. “Stop moving. I don’t like hitting a woman but I will if I have to. Or,” he held up the Laudanum, “I’ll give you some of this!”

Opal froze. She shook her head rapidly.

“Thought so.” He pocketed the bottle. “This might come in handy.” He grabbed her and roughly pulled her up, pushing her in Scott’s direction. “Go get some clothes on, Scott. We’re going back to Lancer.”

Scott needed no second invitation. He bolted out of Opal’s room.

 

The Escape Clause

Duncan led his horse out of the small valley. While he was in a hurry, he wanted to make as little noise as possible. It wouldn’t do for him to be seen or heard. When he reached the larger Antelope Valley, he mounted quickly and encouraged the animal to a trot, increasing speed the further away he got from the Woden cabin.

Bypassing Keck’s tavern that he promised to return, he rode straight east, toward the Point of Rocks, intending on meeting up with El Camino Viejo as soon as possible. The farther he was away from the Woden cabin when Madrid started his trip to Green River, the better.

Desperation is a great motivator. Duncan didn’t even feel his soreness in the saddle as he rode through the night. His only goal was the sandstone hills in the distance. If he could only make them before Madrid was on his way. He didn’t want to be seen.

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

 

It didn’t take long to get Opal in the bed of the wagon with her brothers. He found the money and goods they stole from the stage and tossed them in a crate in the wagon along with the siblings. Scott drove and Johnny rode point on Barranca. They traveled at a moderate pace, far slower than Johnny had ridden on the way coming, but faster than a walk. It was just as well. Neither man wanted the Wodens to work their way loose. Hank was still out, but he wouldn’t stay that way much longer.

Still, they were on their way. Scott felt relief, that heavy fog of Laudanum continued lifting and he could think more clearly with each passing minute. If only he could remember all that had happened. His last memory was of Abby, and he wasn’t even sure it was real. Well, that would come, he thought. He couldn’t wait to see his wife. He hoped she hadn’t worried too much. It wouldn’t be good for the baby.

Scott blinked. The baby! He smiled, remembering their coming bundle of joy. Yes, it was returning to him. He must have really hit his head to forget that. He’d better not tell Abby; she’d probably be mad. He tried to concentrate on other things, trying to remember.

Johnny only wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. The sooner he was back at Lancer the better. He wanted to get these three jokers in Murdoch’s guardhouse and all the stolen evidence in the hands of...of whom? He didn’t know, but he wasn’t comfortable with it all on him.

This role as a bringer of justice was new to him. Sure, he’d done rescue jobs before, but they’d only involved returning the captive or horse or whatever had been taken. This time he was not only returning Scott but his kidnappers and their stolen loot back, with the purpose of righting the wrong in the eyes of the law. The responsibilities weighed heavy.

They headed out into the Antelope Valley, bypassing Keck’s Corner like Duncan had. It was late anyway. Both Scott and Johnny wanted to be on the road. Johnny knew that as soon as they joined up with El Camino Viejo the wagon would ride smoother and they could go faster, keeping it still safe for the animals.

 

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

 

Duncan joined El Camino Viejo just before he reached the Point of Rocks and followed it across those low sandstone hills. In a hurry, he didn’t stop for water at Las Tinajas de Los Indios. He slowed his horse and looked around the valley called Devil’s Den. Surrounded on nearly all four sides by hills, it looked like a good spot. The broad Wagon Wheel Hill was to straight ahead, behind him were the Point of Rocks sandstone heights, and to the north, a few lower hills. None appealed to him, though. He kept on, looking for the right-sized hill.

This was the best area and he knew it. Beyond Devil’s Den lay the broad Kettleman Plain. It would be impossible to hold an ambush there. His next chance was in the Avenal Gap; Duncan didn’t want to wait that long.

He was riding out of Devil’s Den when he saw it: Emigrant Hill, the southernmost of the Pyramid Hills. It was low enough to climb easily and he could stash his horse on its north end for a quick escape if he needed it. Madrid had no choice but to ride right under it. He smiled. It was perfect.

Hoping he had time, he skimmed off some of the tar at the Aquaje de La Brea watering hole for his horse.

 

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

 

Scott slapped the reins once they found El Camino Viejo. The surge caused the Woden siblings to be jostled a little in the back. All three were awake and none were in the best of moods. Johnny dropped back to check on them but had no sympathy to offer. They’d have to just suffer. As long as they didn’t free themselves he didn’t much care about them. They’d done enough to Scott. They needed a little payback.

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

 

With his horse’s thirst slated, Duncan led him to the north side of Emigrant Hill and staked him, feeding him oats from his upturned hat. He wanted the animal to be well-rested and ready, should he need him for a fast escape.

Duncan grabbed his rifle from its boot and began the climb up the 750-foot-high hill. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t too hard, either; the moon was out. He reached the summit and found it nearly flat and bare, rising to a crown at the south end. He lay prone on the ground, as close to the southern edge as he thought safe. He waited.

 

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

 

It was after midnight when Johnny and Scott crossed the sandstone hills into Devil’s Den. Once in that tiny valley, Scott again increased the wagon’s speed. He was going home. Johnny looked around in the moonlight; seeing nothing, he smiled to his brother. Johnny nodded back to him, unspoken communication of gratitude and acceptance.

 

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

 

Duncan saw the wagon once it made the crossing over the Point of Rocks. He drew a sharp breath; his heart raced. They were getting close! He gritted his teeth.

Madrid was riding a palomino; Scott Lancer was driving the wagon. He watched as Scott hurried the wagon along the valley floor, apparently unaware of his presence.

Scott Lancer wasn’t his main concern, however. It was Johnny Madrid he feared. He watched the gunman lope beside the wagon and wondered if Madrid could sense him. He waited, watching, looking for any sign that Madrid had an inkling he was there. The wagon crossed the valley and, to Duncan’s surprise and delight, Madrid rode along, as if nothing was amiss.

Duncan lay on his blanket, knowing he’d only have one chance, one shot, at the palomino’s rider. If he missed, Madrid would certainly return fire—fast, furiously and accurately. He may not survive the counterattack. Surprise was on his side, however, and Duncan was good enough with a rifle to make a moonlight shot at a lone, unsuspecting rider.

 

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

 

Scott continued pushing the horses across Devil’s Den. They neared Aquaje de La Brea at the foot of Emigrant Hill and he turned to ask his brother about the black pond when he heard it.

A single rifle shot.

 

On Top of Emigrant Hill

The rifle report shattered the night’s silence. Startled, the horses bolted, jostling Scott down onto the wagon’s floorboards and leaving the spooked team fleeing out of control at full speed.

Scott cursed as he bounced, trying to get back in the driver’s seat and grasping the reins at the same time. It wasn’t working. He’d have to do one or the other first. Deciding it was more important to get control of the horses, he made a play for the reins.

The ground was rougher than it looked and the blond had a tough time gathering both of the reins but he finally did. Now all was left was to get control. The horses were full into their run and showed no signs of wanting to stop. Scott finally plopped on the seat and began to work to slow the animals.

 

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

 

The humidity was low and Johnny had heard the crack of the rifle. He instinctively jerked his head down, a split-second before he felt its impact into his hat. He threw himself off Barranca and scampered to the foot of Emigrant Hill. Someone was on top of the hill taking potshots at them!

Johnny assessed his location. It wasn’t nearly safe enough. The hill’s slope on this southern side was too gradual, he couldn’t be sure he was unseen. He maneuvered around toward the west and found a fold, created by erosion. The slope here was more vertical and Johnny was able to stand, his back to the hill, safe from any more gunfire.

This was no potshot, he realized as soon as he made it to safety. His hat sported two holes in a direct line. If he hadn’t had that minuscule warning, he’d be dead. This shooter was good, very good, even in the dark. He stood against the slope, his pistol drawn, breathing hard and fast, knowing he had to do something or he’d be pinned down all night.

Johnny was getting damned tired of this. Only a few days ago he was in a similar situation for hours and he didn’t want to go through that again, particularly when he had prisoners to contend with. He quickly tried to think of a plan.

Scott was away with the wagon; he had his hands full with a runaway team and the Woden family in the back. He would’t be able to help. Barranca had scattered, too. Johnny didn’t see him; besides, he didn’t want to risk the horse being shot by whistling for him just yet.

He waited, standing near the fold of the hill, for inspiration.

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

 

Duncan got off his shot and ducked down, fearing Madrid’s return fire. He wasn’t completely certain if he’d gotten the gunfighter or not. He heard the rumble of the wagon fade into the distance and figured Scott Lancer had urged the horses forward to get away. He listened for gunshots.

His heart pounded as he lay on the ground, waiting. He heard nothing to indicate that Madrid was alive or dead, but he continued to listen. Finally, he decided to take a chance. He poked his head up for a quick look-see.

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

 

Johnny realized that his only option was to climb up there and confront their attacker. He couldn’t stay where he was and he knew whoever was up there wouldn’t come down to him.

He hated climbing a strange hill in the dark, but the moon was already out and it provided decent enough light. He’d have to be extra careful, though. He pushed away from the hill to survey a path. He saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and raised his Colt, firing two shots.

 

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

 

Duncan ducked quickly as two bullets ricocheted off the ground near his head. Madrid was firing back! Gilford cursed; he’d missed! He’d blown his only chance.

Now concerned for his life, Duncan realized he’d made a colossal mistake. He’d die up here on top of this small hill in the middle of nowhere unless he climbed down and made a run for it. He backed away from the edge, keeping low to the ground to stay hidden. When he was far enough away from the edge to stand, he made a run to the north side of the hill and headed down for his horse, half sliding down it’s grassy slope feet first. The animal had enjoyed a little rest, thankfully. Duncan knew he’d have to rely on speed to get away cleanly.

 

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

 

Johnny holstered his Colt and hurried from the safety of his fold to a more gradual slope to the east. He began his climb, wanting to come up to the top behind the shooter. He scampered on all fours to remain hidden.

He finally neared the summit, but waited to poke his head for a peek. He listened. He heard Scott yell in the distance and some muffled hooves; they faded away. Silently withdrawing his Colt, Johnny took a look, raising his head just high enough to see the top. It was vacant. Whoever had been here was gone. Johnny crawled onto the crest and stood, lowered his gun arm and walked around. He looked down toward the north and saw a rider hurrying away, west of the Pyramid Hills, heading toward Sunflower Valley, west of the Kettleman Plain.

Johnny cursed and holstered his Colt.

 

The Road Less Traveled

Scott Lancer was angry, angry enough to spit nails. He’d let the wagon get away from him and then took what he thought was forever to get control again. He finally stopped the team, but they’d ridden hard for at least a mile or two. Johnny was too far away now. Scott couldn’t help his brother.  He had to concern himself with the wagon and its occupants.

The hard gallop had jostled the Woden siblings from their secure spots. He now had the difficult job of getting them back into place all by himself. Hank Woden decided the odds were in his favor and made a play for it but all he got for his efforts was Scott’s fist on his face. He fell backwards, stunned. Scott was in no mood for their antics. With Hank subdued, Lou and Opal submitted with only grumblings.

With his charges under control, Scott turned the exhausted horses around and walked them back toward Emigrant Hill. He saw Johnny riding to meet him and breathed a sigh of relief that his brother seemed all right, but was he? Johnny had the annoying habit of disguising his weaknesses.

¡Hola!” Johnny called as they neared each other. “Glad to see you’re all right.”

“Same here,” Scott answered back, pulling the wagon up to his brother’s palomino. “What happened? Did you get the guy?”

“Nope,” Johnny shook his head. “Whoever he was, he skedaddled off the top of that hill before I was able to climb up. I saw him ride north, going toward that valley on the other side of these hills.” Johnny pointed toward the Pyramid Hills. “We should get out of here in case he comes back. I don’t like the idea of an enemy so close.”

“Me neither, but these horses have had it. They had a long, hard all-out run. If we push them now, we’ll never make it with them. We have no choice but to take it easy.”

“Damn!” Johnny cursed, taking off his hat and swiping his thigh with it for emphasis. “If he comes back...”

“We’ll be on the lookout,” Scott finished the sentence grimly. “I have a rifle up here. I’ll watch.”

“You can’t watch and drive, Scott. I’ll tie Barranca to the wagon and drive. You ride shotgun. You’re better with a rifle anyway.”

Scott nodded. He jumped down off the wagon and they wrestled with the small barrel of water Johnny had put in the wagon, bringing it to the horses so they could drink. They were thirsty after their run. It was much lighter putting it back on.

With the passengers and goods all re-settled, they both climbed onto the seat. Johnny slapped the reins on the team’s back. They started forward, at a walk, with Barranca following behind, tied to the wagon. Scott, rifle in hand, swept his eyes eastward, scanning the Pyramid Hills and its tiny gaps, searching for anything to indicate their ambusher had come back.

 

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

 

Duncan rode along the western edge of the Pyramid Hills in an effort to put as many miles between himself and Johnny Madrid as possible. By now the gunfighter would have noticed he escaped, and may have an idea where he was. He didn’t care; he just wanted to get away.

He considered himself lucky to have evaded Madrid’s wrath. He’d taken his shot and missed, although he wondered how. The moon had been bright and he was so close. Johnny Madrid’s sixth sense must have been working overtime tonight for him to avoid that bullet.

His horse kicked up dust as he rode northward. He knew Madrid and Scott Lancer would be heading the same direction, on the other side of these pyramid-shaped hills. He just hoped he was ahead of them.

Duncan paused to scan for them at Dagany Gap, a small break in the Pyramid Hills which opened into the Kettleman Plain. This was dangerous, because if he wasn’t far enough ahead of Madrid and Lancer, they’d soon stop here at Alamo Solo, the old spring named after the single cottonwood tree he now saw.

He dismounted, his horse blowing from his ride, and approached the tree. Looking southward, he saw nothing and wondered if Madrid and Lancer could have already passed by here. Taking a chance, he led his horse to the watering hole for a quick drink.

El Camino Viejo split here: the Eastern arm angled across the width of the Kettleman Plain toward the Cox and Clarke Trading Post; the main road headed north, bisecting the Plain. He kept his eyes southward, looking for any sign of the wagon in the moonlight. Finding none, he grew braver and mounted his horse, trotting him eastward, looking in both directions for his nemeses.

Seeing no evidence of Madrid or Lancer or their wagon, Duncan urged his horse into a lope, taking it as easy as possible on the tiring animal. He planned to stop for a longer rest period at the next spring, Alamo Mocho in the Avenal Gap, hoping he’d have no trouble.

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

 

Scott perused the area as Johnny guided the wagon through the Kettleman Plain, following El Camino Viejo north. He glanced at their prisoners as they tried to shift around in the wagon to find a more comfortable spot to be. Johnny noticed their movements, too, and turned a more watchful eye on them as he drove, making sure they did not adjust themselves to the point where they would be in a position to untie each other. They kept quiet, a fact which Johnny appreciated. He didn’t care to hear their whining.

They headed north, looking for Alamo Solo at Dagany Gap. The tired horses walked on the road in the darkness, creating the familiar clip-clop and occasional snorting or blowing sounds. The wagon creaked from time to time. They heard few other sounds, save one of the Wodens maneuver around or try to complain. Scott kept a lid on them and Johnny smiled at his brother for doing so.

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

 

Duncan dismounted at Alamo Mocho, allowing his horse to drink his fill at the old spring. He was anxious to get going, even though it was nearly two in the morning, but he allowed the animal his rest. He was tired, too, but not willing to take the time for sleep, not when he didn’t know Madrid’s whereabouts.

Duncan hadn’t noticed them behind him on the road, and by now he knew they weren’t ahead. He didn’t want to take the time to look back, only wanting to put as many fast miles between him and them before finding a place to sleep. He figured they would sleep on the road at some point, but he wanted to find a safe spot for him first.

He climbed back into the saddle and spurred his mount on, angling toward Cox and Clarke. He couldn’t wait to get there.

 

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

 

“Where to?” Scott asked when they paused to water the horses at Alamo Solo. El Camino Viejo diverged at this juncture. He pointed to the road’s fork.

“Depends on where you want to go, Scott: Green River or Lancer,” Johnny explained, his voice intentionally low. He didn’t want any of their prisoners to overhear. “If we turn east, we can go back the way we came: the trading post,  the ferry then Green River once we land. According to that map I saw at the tavern not far from the Woden cabin, if we go north from here, we’ll ride through the Kettleman Plain, coming out of the hills just north of the Lancer Hacienda, I think.”

“You think?”

“I haven’t ridden that part of El Camino Viejo before, Scott. I was following the Wodens. They took the eastward route.”

“Which would you prefer?”

“I want to go to Lancer. I trust Murdoch Lancer more than just about anyone else in Green River, except Dr. Sam Jenkins and, well, I never told you before, but one of the Woden brothers—the short one—told me it was that hotel owner, Buck Addison, who was behind your kidnapping. Now, I’m not sure I believe that, but if it’s true, I’d rather avoid his town, if you know what I mean.”

Scott’s mouth dropped. “Addison! Now I remember.” He pulled Johnny farther away from the wagon. “Addison was the man who bought the Ortega Ranch in Visalia, the hacienda where the grey stallion was kept.”

Johnny nodded. It was beginning to make a little sense now. “So, Addison could have been behind all of Lancer’s troubles.”

“Sounds like it. And now behind this.” He gestured toward the wagon.

“Okay. Lancer it is. Murdoch can put these three yah-hoos in the guardhouse until the army arrives.”

“Good idea,” Scott beamed. He slapped Johnny’s arm.

Johnny yawned, shaking his head.

“Let’s make camp,” Scott suggested. He’d seen his brother trying to rouse himself. “It’s quite late.”

“What about those three?” He pointed to the wagon. The Woden siblings had already fallen asleep, leaning against or lying down in the wagon.

“I’ll keep watch. You sleep. I slept a lot today anyway.”

Johnny nodded his agreement. He grabbed his bedroll and lay it under the wagon. Scott tended to the animals. He unhitched the team, staking them out along with Barranca. He built a fire and made coffee, preparing himself for the night’s vigil.

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

 

An exhausted Duncan rode into the trading post community about half-past three in the morning. In a bid to hurry, he had briefly considered skirting the little hamlet and avoiding its temptations, but his body and horse needed rest. He checked in the tavern, waking its owner, before bunking his horse in the livery. He left the animal and immediately trodded upstairs to his room. He was asleep seconds after falling onto the bed, fully dressed, too tired to care if Madrid caught up with him or not.

 

El Camino Viejo

Scott awoke Johnny as the first lights of dawn turned the tips of the western mountains pink. It was a beautiful sight, but he didn’t have the time to admire it. He’d made fresh coffee and fried up some of the Woden’s beans and bacon. It would have to do for breakfast.

Johnny roused sleepily. It had been a short night. He headed for the spring to wash up. The cold water helped to revive him. When he returned, Scott had a hot mug of coffee for him. “Gracias,” he smiled briefly before sipping the scalding drink. It jolted him fully awake. The two of them ate quickly before Johnny went to the prisoners while Scott tended the animals.

“Okay, woman. You first,” he ordered gruffly, waking Opal. “The spring. Now.”

Opal sleepily rubbed her eyes. Johnny sighed, having no patience with the woman who drugged his brother. He poked her again. “Up!”

Startled, she sat up, focused on Johnny and, seeing his scowl, stared one back. “I’m up, I’m up,” she protested as she tried to rise. “Untie me,” she demanded, turning her back to him.

Johnny slipped off her bindings and she rubbed her wrists and stretched her arms. She scampered out of the wagon. “I need to go alone to do my womanly duties,” she said, adjusting her dress.

“Nope.” Johnny shook his head.

Opal pouted a few seconds. “Then Scott can take me. I trust him to allow me my modesty.”

“Nope. It’s either me or you can skip it.”

Opal threw him a hard glare before stomping toward the water.

At the spring, Johnny made a point never to take his eyes off her, at least while she was looking. He wanted her as uncomfortable as possible, and to think him capable of anything. He needed her compliance. They had a long trip ahead. Opal seemed to be the defiant type and if he could keep her under control, the rest would fall into line. He hoped.

 

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

 

While washing up, Opal had an idea. She’d seen the leer her oppressor had given her back in the cabin when she wasn’t completely dressed. Perhaps if she loosened her bodice a bit she could distract him enough for her brothers to do something, anything, to try to get away. She smiled wickedly as she unbuttoned, opening herself to a scandalous plunge. Maybe if she wriggled just right, she might give him a glimpse of a nipple. That would surely get his attention.

 

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

 

Once Opal finished her ministrations, she stood, looking straight at Johnny. His eyes dropped to the view she was displaying and he smiled. So, she now wanted to play that game, he thought. If that’s the way she wanted it...

Johnny grabbed her by the arm, jostling her to the side and by coincidence, opening her gaping bodice a little more. He easily had a view of whatever he wanted to see, but it wasn’t his attention she’d get. He planned to turn the tables on her. He’d position her in the wagon to where she was giving a grand show to everyone who passed them. She deserved that.

He led her back to camp. She protested all the way. Scott watched over her, noticing the change in her clothing but said nothing. He figured that was between her and Johnny. If they wanted to play with fire like that, it was their business.

She ate breakfast while Johnny allowed her brothers their morning ritual, but for them, he drew his gun. He wanted them to know he was in complete control. They spoke in low tones and kept giving him furtive glances. Johnny didn’t like it. “Shut up, you two. Hurry up!” Lou, the younger brother, showed fear and quickened his movements. Hank scowled and continued at his usual pace. Johnny realized he could be a problem, too.

When they returned to Scott’s camp, Hank and Lou saw Opal and smiled at each other, realizing what she was trying to do. They were on the alert now, looking for any chance either Scott or Madrid would become distracted. Empowered, they considered that their fate wasn’t sealed yet. Even the notorious Johnny Madrid wasn’t immune to a woman’s charms.

 

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

 

Scott and Johnny successfully ignored Opal’s display, causing the Woden siblings disappointment. When they finished the small repast the blond had prepared, Johnny momentarily vanished behind the wagon.

He fished through his saddlebags finding the bottle of whiskey he’d purchased at Cox and Clarke and opened it. He opened the brown bottle of laudanum he’d taken from the Woden cabin and mixed the two liquids, frowning in dismay at ruining the whiskey. It couldn’t be helped, he sighed. He packed the laudanum away and returned to their camp.

“Whiskey in your coffee?” Johnny offered the Woden brothers, shaking the bottle. Realizing his sister’s ploy hadn’t worked, Lou nodded eagerly, even though it was early morning. Hank gave him a look but help up his cup anyway; he hoped being this close to Johnny would afford him a chance to attack should Johnny take a look at Opal. Johnny poured equal measures into their cups, not paying Opal’s open bodice the slightest attention. The brothers drank the spiked coffee quickly, not complaining about the bitterness from the laudanum. Scott led them back to the wagon and tied them up in opposite corners.

“Don’t I get a sip?” she snarled.

“Nope,” Johnny casually replied. “You’re gonna be tied up real good.”

“Why are you so mean?”

Johnny glared, then dropped his eyes pointedly to her wide open bodice. He smiled wickedly as he tightened the ropes on her.

 

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

 

Abby awoke early and stretched, raising her arms into the air. The dawn was just now turning the mountain tops pink and she reveled in the beauty of it. She felt good, energetic and mysteriously happy, as if she knew something good would happen today.

Yesterday had started melancholy but ended well. Now, the new day brought her more hope. She just knew today would be a good day. She hurried with her morning toilette.

 

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

 

The light filtered through the curtains in Duncan’s room as he struggled to stay asleep. It had been too short of a night, filled with a wild escape with the constant fear that he would be caught by Johnny Madrid. He startled at that thought and bolted upright, no longer sleepy. What if Madrid had caught up during the night while he slept? Unable to bear that thought, Duncan hurried to dress and ready his horse.

He ate a quick breakfast in the tavern, keeping an eye out for the gunfighter. As he left, he glanced furtively around the tiny community, and not finding his prey, he hurried to the ferry landing. He had only a few minutes to make the boat.

While waiting, his fear grew, for if Madrid showed up for the ferry, he would have no place to run. He didn’t know if he’d been seen before or not, or if the gunman would recognize him. He continually glanced around, searching for Madrid and his palomino.

The wagons were loaded first and Duncan began to feel relief. Had Madrid taken the Woden siblings with him for the ferry, they would be in the wagon. He smiled when he realized that he’d not seen Madrid nor the Woden wagon on board.

When the ferry left the landing, he finally relaxed, secure in the knowledge that Johnny Madrid was not here. He could enjoy the next three hours across the lake. However, his peace was short-lived; as he rode on the ferry, he kept fathoming scenario after scenario whereby Madrid might catch up with him.

If Madrid had ridden through the entire night, then the gunman just might reach Green River at about the same time as he would. That was unlikely, but possible. Madrid could have taken shifts with Scott Lancer. Duncan would have to resume his fast pace, and his watching, when he landed in Latache.

 

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

 

After a long three hours on the dry Kettleman Plain where cattle grazed, everyone was ready for a drink, so when they approached El Arroyo de Las Garzas, the horses hurried, Scott and Johnny perked up and even Barranca grew restless. Scott, feeling more humane toward the Woden siblings than Johnny, allowed them to drink their fill at the Creek of the Herons and wash the dust off their faces. Johnny would have just passed a canteen to them before re-gagging them with the same dusty cloth. He was still angry with them for what they did to his brother.

Another traveler, heading south, gave them a strange look when he saw the prisoners, but smiled widely upon seeing the condition of Opal’s clothing. With her hands bound and her arms tied behind her, her bodice gaped open even more. The man dismounted and approached Johnny, asking what he’d take for his use of her, but Johnny pointedly glared at him, dropping his right hand casually on the butt of his Colt. The man saw the glare and the movement. His smile disappeared and he hastily mounted his horse, riding away quickly.

Opal was confused. She’d heard the man and knew what he wanted, but was surprised that her captor had driven him away. Given how badly he’d treated her, she was expecting him to turn her over to the stranger. She didn’t know what to make of the gunman. Her brothers had told her he was Johnny Madrid, but wasn’t Madrid ruthless?

 

Keep Your Eye on the Brawl

The ferry stopped at the Latache landing and Duncan waited his turn to get off. He wasn’t hungry, but as this was the only village before Green River, he decided to get something to eat later on the road. He stopped his horse outside the tiny tavern and walked in.

Duncan asked the owner to make him a bag lunch for later and paid the man handsomely for his efforts. It wasn’t even noon when he left the small town, heading nearly due north for the stage road, the same road Johnny had used after leaving the sick old man Garcia at the Way Station.

 

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

 

As Duncan was paying for his bag lunch, Scott pulled the wagon across el Arroyo de Las Canoas, or the Creek of the Troughs. It got its name from the deep furrows cut as the fast-moving creek flowed down from the Keyenhagen Hills to the west. This watering hole was a reliable stop along El Camino Viejo and Dave Kettelman, a cattle baron who had first come to California during the ’49 Gold Rush, used it regularly to water his stock when they grazed on the plain.

By now they realized the man who had ambushed them must have taken the other route; they had not seen him at all since deciding to head north through the plain. No one they talked to coming south had seen a lone man either. They were safe.

They did not stop for long at the creek, just enough time to water the animals and refill canteens. Scott untied the Wodens so they could splash around in the cool waters. He watched the men warily as they spoke in low tones, but due to the sounds of the water, he was unable to make out what they said. Opal joined them briefly then broke away, frowning at her brothers.

She’d wanted to give up her ploy, to button herself up; it wasn’t working and it was drawing unwanted attention. But her brothers insisted that she keep it up, keep her bodice open, telling her that two healthy young men couldn’t resist her forever. They were on the lookout and would take advantage whenever they could.

Johnny talked briefly with a drover moving cattle across the creek. He made inquiries about the road ahead, where it led and the upcoming watering holes. He thanked the man for his information before returning to Scott.

Soon they were on their way north again, the Wodens safely secured in the wagon. Riding through the Kettleman Plain was hot and dusty and every little drop of water helped to ease the discomfort.

About a half-hour later, they came upon el Arroyo de Zapata Chino. They stopped for lunch under the trees that lined the stream, also called Chinese Shoe Creek. This time it was Johnny’s turn to cook while Scott tended the horses and prisoners. More pan-fried beans and coffee, this time paired with jerky, was their sustenance for lunch. While it wasn’t much, they looked forward to making the Lancer hacienda tonight where Scott and Johnny would be assured of a feast.

Scott yawned. He was getting sleepy. While he’d slept a lot yesterday, that was yesterday and now he’d been up all night and all morning. He shook his head to rid the cobwebs. He told himself he could sleep tonight; they must make it to Lancer today.

They again readied to leave. Hank Woden, tired of being tied up and drugged in that wagon, watched for an opening. He’d seen Scott’s yawn and guessed the blond was tired. He knew Madrid was alert, though. Hank kept his eye on both of them, looking for his chance. He saw it when Johnny was washing up in the creek. Opal wriggled her shoulders in front of Scott, who because of his fatigue, glanced down at her chest momentarily. Hank took that opportunity to stand and lunge for Johnny. He rammed into the unsuspecting gunfighter, knocking them both in the water. Too late, Scott turned to see the commotion.

Hank landed a direct hit to Johnny’s face, stunning Johnny. He shoved the gunman down into the water, using his body weight for leverage. He pushed Johnny’s head under the surface with his other hand, intent on drowning his adversary.

Having seen his brother, Lou took out Scott, tackling him to the ground. His fists flayed, striking blow after blow to the blond Lancer. Scott tried to scramble away, seeking to get out from under his nemesis, but Lou was faster. He kneed Scott in the diaphragm, knocking the wind out of him.

Opal stood on the sidelines, jumping for joy and squealing with glee. Her brothers were fighting back! Her distraction had finally worked. “Go get ‘em!” she shouted, encouraging them on.

Johnny fought for breath but it was impossible to raise his head above the water. Hank had him pinned down below the surface and wrapped his hands around Johnny’s neck. Knowing he would soon run out of air, Johnny snaked his hand to his holster, hoping he could reach his pistol before he lost consciousness. His fingers felt the handle and with one last effort, he grasped the Colt. With a grimace, he drew the hand gun and pressed it to Hank’s abdomen, firing one round.

The water-muffled pop of the pistol shocked Lou, who momentarily stopped his assault on Scott. This gave the blond the time he needed to scramble to his feet. He kicked Lou squarely in the face, knocking him backwards, his nose spurting blood as he fell onto the dirt.

Opal screamed at the sound of the gunshot and ran toward the water’s edge. She saw her wounded brother flip into the water, face up, blood pouring from the hole in his stomach. She shrieked a curse at Johnny as he stood up, gasping for air.

Johnny turned his head toward the girl, her face an ugly snarl. “Shut up!” he ordered. Wading out of the water, he glanced at his brother, standing over the prone bleeding body of Lou Woden. Scott’s sides were heaving and his hair muddied by sweat and dirt.

Johnny approached the girl, dripping wet. “Go get him,” he menaced, indicating Hank’s body, now beginning to float away. “Drag him out of the current.”

“No!” Opal stood defiant, but shaking in fear.

Johnny drew his hand back. “You will or I’ll...” He didn’t get to finish.

“Let her be, Johnny,” Scott implored, grasping Johnny’s hand to stop him from hitting her. “She isn’t worth it.” He trudged into the water and grabbed the body, dragging it half on land at the edge of the creek. He turned and flopped into the water, ducking his head and rinsing off the mud and sweat and stench of the fight.

An hour later they left the creek, with Opal and Lou safely tied to corners of the wagon. Scott had allowed Opal to button up and tend to Lou’s wounds, watching her as Johnny buried Hank’s body in the soft dirt near the water’s edge.  The Laudanum-laced whiskey again did its job and they both soon fell asleep, their heads lolling in tune with the wagon.

 

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

 

Duncan sighed in relief when he saw the way station come in sight. He was nearly back to Green River. He’d taken the road north from Latache which joined with the stage route east of the way station. He didn’t even stop to say hello to Ruben, the station master.

Duncan pulled out the lunch prepared for him by the tavern owner in Latache, intending to eat in the saddle. While it had seemed to be a good idea to order the food at the time, now that he was only two hours from his destination, he changed his mind after taking only a few bites, tossing the lunch by the side of the road and spurring his horse on. He would eat in Green River like a civilized man.

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

 

Sam pulled his buggy into the Lancer courtyard. A vaquero ran up to take his horse’s head. Sam smiled gratefully as he eased out of the seat. He saw Murdoch emerge from the great oak door.

“Sam!” Murdoch called. “I’m glad to see you, friend.”

“Same here,” Sam answered, greeting Murdoch with a hearty handshake.

“Come on inside, get out of the sun. We’re about to have lunch. Join us.”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

Abby was on her way to the table when she saw the doctor enter the hacienda. “Why, Sam! I’m so pleased you are here. Do you have news?”

“No, nothing from town, either of them. I came to check on all of you. How are you holding up?”

“As best as can be expected,” the woman answered. “Come join us for lunch.” She led the doctor to the table. Murdoch and Aggie soon brought Teresa in with them.

As they dined on chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, Sam asked the question Addison had off-handedly requested. “I understand you have Scott’s bag from the stage. Was all his belongings there?”

Abby paused, her fork in mid-air. What was he getting at? She glanced at Murdoch and raised an eyebrow.

He took the hint. “What do you mean, Sam?”

“I was talking to Buck Addison. He told me that his man Duncan was on that stage and the robbers went through his bag. He was missing some things. I just wanted to make sure you had everything Scott had.”

“Yes,” Abby said hastily. “Everything was there.” She didn’t elaborate.

Aggie, who had been watching carefully, wondered about the woman’s attitude. She seemed to be suspicious of Sam, but now wasn’t the time to question her about it.

Murdoch, too, noticed Abby’s demeanor, but he understood. The branding iron Scott had was much too precious to be discussed openly, even with a friend. “If Abby said the bag had exactly what Scott took with him, then I’m sure she’s right. She would know.”

“Good,” Sam acknowledged, nodding. “I’m glad they didn’t get anything of his.”

 

Pleasant Valley Day

Johnny rode in silence, his mind whirling. He’d almost hit Opal Woden, but not to restrain her or control her as he’d threatened back at the cabin. No, this was pure rage, an outburst of surging wrath,nearly uncontrollable with its force. He’d never felt such a rampage toward a woman before and it startled him, to think that he was capable of such violence on a woman. True, she’d tortured him all day with her body, but he’d given it back to her in kind. Still, neither action justified his desire. Had it not been for his brother, he may have just beaten the girl to death in his rage.

The more he thought about it the more he admired his brother. Scott had more reason to hate Opal Woden and yet he’d managed to restrain himself. Instead Scott had not only been able to control his own rage, but to help Johnny not act on his as well. Scott was a pretty amazing human being.

He stole a glance at the blond. He was driving that wagon like he’d been born doing so. Johnny was proud of him. He’d changed so much since first seeing him in Reno. He looked like he belonged. Except that he looked awfully tired. Realizing his brother hadn’t slept in a long time, Johnny brought Barranca closer to the wagon.

“Hey, Scott!” He called. His brother only looked at him. “Stop for a minute, will ya?” When the blond did, Johnny rode to the back, dismounted and tied Barranca off. He jogged back to the wagon’s seat and climbed on. “You must be exhausted.” He took the reins and motioned with his head toward the wagon’s bed. “Take a nap. I’ll wake you in a couple of hours.”

Scott nodded, grateful for the reprieve. He climbed over the seat and got himself settled onto the wagon, using a sack of grain for a pillow. Johnny smiled and slapped the reins, continuing their trek north.

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

 

The next water hole along El Camino Viejo was El Arroyo de Las Polvarduras, or the Creek of the Dust Clouds. High winds tended to create dust whirlwinds in this area, fed by the hills and mountains around them. Johnny did not stop, but pressed on, having watered the animals less than an hour before. Besides, he didn’t want to wake his sleeping brother yet.

Johnny noticed changes in the terrain as he drove. All morning they had been heading north through the Kettleman Plain, a flat narrow valley between the Diablo mountains and the Kettleman Hills. Now to the east was a narrow gap, the Polvadero Gap, a misspelling of this creek which crossed it farther east.

The grazing animals changed, too. Before, they were cattle, from Dave Kettelman’s herd, but as he moved north into this new valley—Pleasant Valley Johnny had heard it was called—he saw more and more sheep. A passing drover had told him that this valley was well-known for its sheep population. He’d better watch out for the pesky little devils.

 

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

 

A wheel hit a rock and jostled the wagon. Scott stirred and slowly sat up. The sun was in a new position, he noted as he realized he’d slept over an hour. He climbed back onto the wagon’s seat next to his brother.

“Good nap?” Johnny asked. Scott nodded. He licked his lips.

“Dry?” His brother reached for a canteen.

Scott took a healthy swig. “Much better. Thanks.” He returned the canteen to its spot.

The two sat in silence for a minute or two. Johnny broke the silence. “I want to thank you, brother.”

“For what?”

“Stopping me back at that other creek, when I...” He let the sentence hang, shaking his head.

Scott frowned. “It’s my fault anyway.”

“How so?”

“I fell for her trick. She came up to me and I was tired, not being as alert as I should have. I glanced down. Just briefly, but that’s all it took. They were waiting for us.”

“I know. Don’t worry about it, Scott. It’s over now. Besides, I got more than a few glances at her today.” Johnny grinned.

“So that’s why you fell back so many times, huh?”

Johnny grinned at his brother and turned his head to see their passengers. Both Opal and Lou were still sleeping from the effects of the drug. She was buttoned up properly, too. Good, he thought. For everyone.

“Tell me all that happened,” Scott retrieved the canteen again and took another drink. “The last thing I remember is being with Abby at the ranch. I’ve been trying all day to think.”

“You don’t remember going to Visalia?”

Scott tried to recall. Nothing came to mind. He shook his head.

Johnny continued the story. “You went to talk to the land agent there. On the way back, those three robbed the stage and took you and an old man hostage.”

“What happened to him?”

“I found him. Brought him to the Way Station. I suppose Sam Jenkins took care of him. You don’t remember any of your trip?”

Scott shook his head again. “Maybe...I have a feeling of riding a lot. But that could be the stage.”

“Well, you did something there. You had a branding iron in your bag. Abby figured out it was—”

“The brand that changed Lancer’s brand!” Scott nearly shouted. “Now I remember! It was at the Ortega hacienda. I brought it back wrapped up next to a parasol I bought for Abby.”

Johnny nodded. “So that’s the brand that makes that sideways A. Of course. It makes sense now.”

“Sideways A? A for Addison?”

“Maybe.”

“It’s looking more and more that Addison is the man behind all of this. Certainly this robbery,” he gestured around the wagon. “Probably the theft of the horse, and quite possibly Pardee.”

“Could be.”

“But we need proof. All we have proof of is this.” He indicated the pair in the wagon. And if a jury believes their testimony.” Scott shook his head. “Not sure they’d take the word of two rogues like these over a successful businessman like Addison.”

“Don’t forget that ambush. I’d bet Addison sent whoever that was. Maybe he sent the three men who attacked me on the way back with the stallion.”

“I’d take that bet,” Scott said grimly.

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

 

They crossed through El Arroyo de Jacelitos, the Creek of the Little Huts, stopping only long enough to refill canteens and giving the animals a quick drink. They intended to rest longer at the next watering hole.  They had two to chose from. Johnny mounted Barranca and came up next to Scott. “There’s a little village up here at the next creek, Arroyo Pasajero. Do you want to stop there, or bypass it and just water the horses upstream?”

“What’s the village?”

Poso de Chane. It used to be an Indian village, then Spanish and Mexican. It’s now occupied by Americans in the sheep business. That’s why you see so many sheep here.”

“I was wondering about that. What does it mean, ‘poso de chane’?”

“It’s Spanish for Chane Pool. The Indians called their village ‘Chane’ and since it was around a pool in the creek, the Spanish named it Poso de Chane.”

“I could use a nice pool about now.” He fanned himself.

Johnny laughed. “The pool isn’t there anymore. I asked a drover passing by. It got washed out in some Great Flood in....’62, I think he said. They have to dig wells for water now. But it’s still a village.”

“I don’t think it’s wise to ride through a village, no matter how small, with these two in the back.” Scott nodded in their direction.

“Good idea. We’ll avoid the place and drink upstream.” Johnny spurred Barranca to ride ahead, angling a little west of El Camino Viejo. It was mid-afternoon when they reached the oasis by the creek.

 

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

 

Duncan rode into Green River, hot, tired, thirsty, dirty and very sore. He’d had a rough ride, fueled by his fear of being caught by Johnny Madrid and he needed a hot bath, clean clothes, good food and a long nap. His nap would have to wait, but as he dropped off his exhausted horse at the Cattleman’s Hotel stables, he arranged for a private bath in his quarters and for a maid to bring him a tray.

Staff members brought the portable tub to the small alcove in his room and began to fill it with steaming water drawn from the newly-installed bathhouse water heater. He stood behind the privacy screen, shedding his dusty and dirty clothes. The servants left him alone and he stepped into the soothing waters with a contented sigh.

A few minutes later a maid knocked on his door with the tray. He’d ordered the lunch special, beef tips on wild rice and fresh fruit. He placed the tray over the tub and ate while soaking, slowly returning to the civilized world he knew.

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

 

Arroyo Pasajero, or Traveler’s Creek in English, was a long stream flowing from the Diablos through Pleasant Valley and eventually reaching into the San Joaquin valley and, in years of heavy rain, running all the way to the Fresno Slough. It was a reliable source as it was nearly always filled with sparkling, clean water, at least into the San Joaquin. Scott stopped the wagon under some trees and he checked on their prisoners. Johnny unhitched the team and led them and Barranca to the creek’s cool waters.

They planned a twenty minute rest before beginning the next leg of their journey back to Lancer. Opal began to protest her bindings—again—but Johnny’s quick glare settled her back down. After what had happened at that earlier creek, she was even more afraid of him. Lou, still smarting from his licking by Scott, gave up any thought of escaping. He resigned himself to healthy swigs of Johnny’s doctored whiskey bottle.

It was eight miles to the next watering hole, the Aquaje de Pedro Etchegoen, and for more than half of those miles, the road cut through the lower half of the Anticline Ridge, a descending ridge of peaks beginning at Black Mountain in the Diablo Range down to the lower hills separating Pleasant Valley from the San Joaquin. While El Camino Viejo passed through some of the lowest of those hills, the terrain was still a challenge in some places along the road. The good news was that once they were into those hills, they weren’t that far from Lancer.

They began their ascent into the hills as the skies were just beginning to darken. Even though it was still afternoon, the mountains cast shadows making dusk appear sooner than in the valley. Johnny rode ahead, looking for a way to cut out of these hills to go directly east into the San Joaquin where the Lancer hacienda likely was. They had learned that if they followed El Camino Viejo out of the hills into the San Joaquin, they would miss the hacienda and would have to double back once they reached the valley. Taking a path east probably meant missing the Aquaje de Pedro Etchegoen, a reliable watering place, but with sunset approaching they were anxious to reach Lancer.

Pedro Etchegoen was a Mexican sheep rancher who grazed his sheep along the hills of the Anticline Ridge and into Pleasant Valley. He knew not to let his flock wander into the San Joaquin where cattle was king, but in Pleasant Valley sheep were prominent, with several families grazing their flocks in the area. He’d met Murdoch Lancer once, when his sheep accidentally strayed onto Lancer land. It was not a happy meeting. He made sure that someone patrolled his eastern border to prevent that from happening again.

Scott had driven the wagon about three miles when he saw Johnny come riding back. He didn’t stop the wagon, as Johnny rode Barranca into place next to him. “I found a cut,” Johnny said. “It’s about a half-mile up the road. It’s kind of a sharp descent but it leads us directly onto Lancer land. The hacienda should be due east.”

“Wonderful! I can’t wait to see Abby!”

Johnny grinned. “Well, let’s get on it, then!” He spurred Barranca, riding ahead. Scott slapped the reins and the horses increased their pace.

+++NOTE: All of that history about El Camino Viejo, the Poso de Chane, the men mentioned, etc, is true. Oil is now king in the Pleasant Valley/Kettleman area.

 

If at First...

“What was that about, Abby?” Aggie pulled the younger woman aside as soon as Sam’s buggy left. “Sam is our friend.”

“She was right, Aggie,” Murdoch cut in. “We can’t let anyone know about that brand, now that we know what it means. Even our friends.”

“But to outright lie?”

“Sam will understand,” Murdoch nodded.

“But...”

“Come inside, Aggie,” Abby pulled on the older woman’s arm. Murdoch followed them back to the great room. Once within its cool depths, Abby began whispering. “The brand turns Lancer’s brand to a sideways A. Sam said Buck Addison was asking about Scott’s luggage. We have to be reticent. I think that A stands for Addison. ”

“No!” Aggie was aghast.

Murdoch shook his head. “Can’t be. Buck Addison is much too prominent. He wouldn’t—couldn’t—be involved in this.”

Abby shrugged. “I think so. And when Johnny brings Scott home, we can ask Scott where he got that iron. I bet Addison had something to do with it.”

Aggie shook her head. “You’ve got it all wrong, Abby. I know the man. He wouldn’t do that.”

“Maybe because you know him you won’t entertain that thought. It just makes sense to me.”

Aggie started to speak but Murdoch cut in. “It does seem that way, but we’ll keep an open mind, Abby. All of us, okay?”

 

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

 

Duncan dressed quietly. He was not anxious to meet with his employer and give him a report, saying that he failed in his mission, that it was too much for him, an amateur, to handle. He put it off as long as possible.

Buck Addison was in his private suite, preparing to dine. “Come in,” he said at Duncan’s knock. His messenger stepped in the room as he finished stomping into his boot. “Oh, you’re back. How did it go?” He fully expected a positive report.

“I was...unable to complete the job, Mr. Addison,” Duncan came right to the point.

Addison drew himself up to full height. “Why not?” he asked indignantly.

Duncan stood with his feet slightly apart, his hands clasped behind his back. “I found their cabin, but when I got there I realized I wasn’t the only one. Johnny Madrid was there.”

“Johnny Madrid! I knew it! I knew when he tore out of Green River that night something was up. What did he do?”

“He captured the brothers, and, one of them confessed.”

“C-confessed?” Addison’s eyes grew wide. “What do you mean, ‘confessed’?”

“He told everything. About your threat, that you wanted Lancer kidnapped, hidden away.”

Addison fell in a chair, stunned. He’d been discovered. If Madrid made it back with that information... “Then what happened?” He was almost afraid to ask.

“Evidently he rescued young Lancer, and took the Woden siblings as prisoners.”

“Oh, my God,” Addison exclaimed, his head in his hands. “And you did nothing?”

Duncan opened his arms. “What would you have me do? I’m no gunfighter! I couldn’t take on Madrid.”

“You could have ambushed them. Killed them in their sleep. Something!” Addison was desperate. He began pacing.

“I tried! I found a suitable hill and when they passed under it, I took a shot, but I missed. Madrid fired back. I had to escape before he climbed up to finish the job.”

“You could have taken him on. Killed him right as he reached the top.”

Duncan shook his head. “Madrid is too good for that.”

“No one is that good.”

“Maybe not for another professional, Mr. Addison, but I was never in that game. I am not a gunman.”

“You know them. You told me about Pardee. About the horse. You got me into this mess.”

Duncan could see Addison was about to blame him fully for all his follies. “Sir, let me remind you that you wanted to hurt Murdoch Lancer, that’s all I’ve heard you say every time you’ve seen or heard about him. All I did was provide you with the opportunity for a little payback. You were all right until you sent the Woden family to rob that stage and kidnap Scott Lancer.”

“I was not all right. He had found me out. I am sure of it.”

“Well, even if he did. You could have denied knowing the horse was stolen.”

“I re-branded him! They know that. Isn’t that what Lancer took from that hacienda? The iron I had made?”

“I thought he took something in the shape of a branding iron, but I never saw it up close. And we still don’t know if he brought it or anything else back with him.”

“I had to act! I sent you and you failed. Now I will be ruined.”

Duncan started to say something but Addison raised his hand, cutting him off. He continued to pace, his mind racing. After three or four circuits he stopped and smiled. “Kidnap her.”

Duncan startled. “Kidnap who?”

“Why Scott’s wife, of course! Pardee did it. You can too.”

Gilford was unsure. He’d done a lot of nasty things in his life but never had he hurt a woman of Abby’s status. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. What would it buy us?”

“It would shut them up! No matter what they found they wouldn’t talk about it as long as we have her.”

Duncan could tell this idea, like the last one with the Wodens, wasn’t thought out. “Tell me, sir, was it your idea last time to take Mrs. Lancer or was it Pardee’s?” Had his boss really been the one to hire Pardee in the first place?

Addison turned and gave Duncan a strange look. “Me? No. I wasn’t involved. What makes you think I had something to do with any of that?”

Hmm. That told him nothing. Duncan shrugged. “Pardee may have had a plan when he kidnapped Mrs. Lancer but do you? If we take her, how long do you want to hold her? Forever?”

He wanted to press Addison for details, and not go off half-cocked like he’d done before. But Addison wasn’t having any of that. “I don’t know. Just do it!”

“No.”

Addison was stunned. “No? What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“I am not going to hurt a woman of her rank, and certainly not without a plan in place. We have nowhere to put her, no way to care for her, nothing.”

“Then don’t put her anywhere. Kill her.”

That startled Duncan. Kill Abby Lancer? Was his boss crazy? “I am not going to kill her. No. Absolutely not.” He turned as if to leave.

Addison panicked. He rushed to Duncan’s back. “Wait!” he called, grasping his manager’s shoulder. “Okay, okay. Leave Lancer’s wife alone, then.” He resumed his agitated pacing. “I’m going to be ruined, ruined,” he muttered.

“Not necessarily,” Duncan turned and smiled.

Addison stopped his agitated pacing. “What do you mean? As soon as the Wodens start talking...”

“I don’t think that will be a problem.”

Addison froze.  His voice grew low. “Go on.”

“Well, this new minister you told me about is all against gunfighters. And Lancer has hired himself one. We can get the minister to fight our battles for us.”

“How does that eliminate the Woden family?”

Duncan waved his hand. “They can be dismissed as lying. They are fools. Mountain people who are easily frightened. Who wouldn’t lie to Johnny Madrid if it meant saving their life? We could say that he coerced them into naming you.”

Addison thought about it, nodding his head. “It might work. It just might work.”

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

 

Calmed by Duncan’s new plan, Buck was all smiles as he greeted his guests for the evening. He stood in the entrance to the hotel, saying hello to everyone. He paused as he saw Sam Jenkins’ buggy come down the street and made his way to greet the doctor.

“Doctor! How are you today? Having a better day than yesterday?”

Sam pulled his horse to a stop. “Hello, Mr. Addison. I sure am. I even had time to visit with Murdoch Lancer. He is doing pretty good, considering. So is Scott’s wife. They are all coping as best they can.”

Addison smiled but that wasn’t the report he really wanted to hear. “Why, thank you! That is good news. And the other thing? Was Scott robbed? His bag, I mean? Did you ask?”

Sam nodded. “Yep. Abby said he had everything.”

“Everything? Anything extra?” Addison asked anxiously.

“Extra? What do you mean?”

Addison gulped. He’d given himself away. “I mean, well, I was hoping that Duncan’s missing things could have been accidentally put in Scott’s bag, that’s what I mean.”

“I don’t see how that—”

“Never mind, then. It was a crazy idea. Well, I’m glad they are doing as well as possible, and that Scott’s bag wasn’t robbed.”

Sam looked at him suspiciously. Addison knew he had to do something. He smiled. “Hey, to compensate you for your trouble, why don’t you dine in our dining room tonight? On the house! We are serving a fine roast of beef tonight.”

Sam nodded. “That sounds good.” He slapped the reins again and the buggy moved forward.

Addison sighed in relief. He’d soothed the doctor’s curiosity and it looked like Scott didn’t take the branding iron.

 

Part Three: Held Up Without a Gun

 

Home Again

Lancer hacienda never looked so good! Riding ahead, Johnny was the first to see the familiar mission style stucco. He crested a hill and saw a light in the bell tower. Shouting to Scott, he waved for him to come and see for himself.

“Home!” Scott breathed as he stopped on the hilltop. They were approaching from the back and someone had thoughtfully lit a lamp and placed it in the tower, the highest point in the hacienda. The other buildings and the rest of the hacienda were shrouded in darkness but the light in the tower was enough for both Johnny and Scott. It called to them like a siren. They hurried down the hill for the final push home.

Johnny resisted the urge to ride ahead, to spur Barranca into a fast gallop; he wanted to share this arrival with his brother. They both shouted, though, as they approached the yard, bringing a few vaqueros out of the barn and Murdoch from the Great Room.

“Oh, my goodness,” Murdoch exclaimed. He momentarily hurried back in, forgetting his own rules and shouted, “They’re home. Johnny has brought Scott home!” He hurried back out and, limping as fast as he could, came up to where Scott was now bringing the wagon to a stop.

Abby, having heard Murdoch’s shout, flew down the stairs, her hair bouncing behind her. She had been in their room, getting ready for dinner. Teresa ran out behind Murdoch, holding a stack of folded napkins. Maria followed at a distance, her ladle in her hand and a big smile on her face. Aggie, seated in the Great Room awaiting dinner with Murdoch, jumped up and hurried outside as well. She paused at the garden while Abby flew by them. The younger woman continued running toward the wagon.

Scott, seeing his wife speed his way, jumped off the wagon and ran to meet her. They embraced, with Scott picking her up and twirling her around, kissing her face, her neck, her lips, all of her at once. Abby started crying and he kissed her tears. “You’re back,” she sobbed. “You’re really back.”

Scott placed her down and grinned at her. “Of course. Johnny found me and brought me home.” He glanced at his brother, just now dismounting from his horse.

Abby gave Johnny a cursory grin then turned back to her husband. Her face grew stormy as she began to beat on his arms with her fists. “How dare you make me worry like that!” Scott took her into his arms and soothed her, crooning.

Johnny watched the reunion, with everyone else crowding around Scott and Abby, for a few seconds before broaching the group himself. Tapping Murdoch on the shoulder, he gestured toward the wagon. “Those two and their brother robbed the stage and took Scott. Get them in the guardhouse. I have a lot to tell you.”

Murdoch nodded, his face still alight but understanding the seriousness of Johnny’s words. He motioned to Cipriano, who, along with the other vaqueros, were standing on the sidelines, smiling at the patron’s son’s return. The segundo came running. “Johnny Madrid brought back the persons responsible for the stage robbery. Put them in the guardhouse. See that their basic needs are taken care of.”

Cipriano nodded and motioned to the vaqueros. Giving quick orders, he dispatched his men accordingly. Within minutes, Lou and Opal were imprisoned in the Lancer guardhouse and their bindings removed. Opal started to complain, but her words fell on deaf ears. The door slammed shut, leaving the pair in darkness.

 

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

 

“So tell us everything that happened,” Abby implored. They were at dinner and the young Lancer wife still had her arm threaded through Scott’s. A grin seemed permanently affixed to her face.

Scott’s memory had all returned. His conversation with Johnny earlier had sparked his brain. “Well, when I got to Visalia, I talked with the land agent then I rode out to the Ortega hacienda and looked around. It was pretty much like Johnny said. I went inside the great room and that’s where I found a branding iron. I was bringing it back here.”

“We found it, Scott. Murdoch and Aggie figured it out.”

“Good!”

“Yes,” Abby smiled. “It changes the Lancer brand to a sideways A. Oh, and I liked the parasol, too. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Scott smiled.

Murdoch changed the subject: “So tell us about the kidnapping.”

Scott took a sip of his wine. “It was an uneventful stage ride until two masked men stopped us. It was late and difficult to see. They robbed the stage, then us. I was hit on the head. I don’t remember anything else of the robbery. The next thing I knew, a young woman’s voice was telling me I was going to be all right. I fell back asleep again. Every time I woke up, she told me more of the same story: I’d fallen off my horse, they found me, they were getting me to a doctor. I never knew they were the ones who took me and perpetuated the robbery until Johnny came.”

“But didn’t you remember?” Murdoch asked.

“No. They kept me drugged with Laudanum. Of course, I didn’t know that. I never fully awakened from that fog. I thought I had a concussion. And my memory wasn’t clear. It wasn’t until Johnny showed me the bottle did it begin to dawn on me. And the only one I saw was the woman, Opal. She was very convincing.”

“So how did you find him, Johnny?” Aggie asked.

Johnny shifted his weight. “I followed their trail. The man at the way station told me a little. I found where the robbery had taken place and followed their tracks to where I found the old man. I brought him back to the way station—did he get help? He wasn’t in great shape.”

“Yes,” Murdoch nodded. “Sam came by earlier today. Said he saw him yesterday. He was doing pretty good, considering.” He didn’t mention Sam’s suspicious questions. Yet.

“Good,” Johnny continued. “Anyway, the old man said they were taking the ferry and the station master told me of a road to get there. Once I crossed the lake, I asked some questions at that trading post. That’s when I found out who I was following. I rode El Camino Viejo south and west until I could ask again where the Woden cabin was. Then it was just a matter of reconnaissance and subduing the brothers. But that woman was a hellcat.” He didn’t go into detail about her state of dress on the Kettleman Plain.

“And I didn’t believe him when he said they had kidnapped me.” Scott ran his fingers through his hair. “I almost believed Opal.”

“Well, you were drugged. It isn’t your fault.” Abby smiled.

“What do you plan to do with those rascals?” Scott asked Murdoch.

“I’m not sure. Contact the new marshall in Visalia, I expect. He’s the closest lawman.”

“Is he a friend of Buck Addison?” Johnny asked, his face dark.

“I don’t know, why?”

“Because Addison was behind Scott’s kidnapping.” Johnny dropped his napkin on his plate.

“No!” Aggie was aghast. She and Buck Addison had courted a few years ago, but she turned down his marriage proposal.

“Impossible!” Murdoch startled.

Abby frowned, thinking. She had suspected Addison but when Murdoch and Aggie were so against it, she decided not to bring it back up. Now, with this news....

“That makes sense to me,” Scott nodded. “Addison was the one who owned the run-down hacienda where the stallion had been kept. The land agent told me.”

“Addison was behind all of Lancer’s attacks?” Aggie asked. “He hired Pardee?”

Murdoch sat back. He knew Buck Addison, considered him a friendly acquaintance. “I still find that hard to believe.”

“Well, it sure looks that way,” Scott said. “Pardee stole the stallion. Addison had the horse.”

“Addison rebranded him,” Abby said. “With his brand.”

“We know that’s Buck Addison’s brand? Ramsey’s clerk got back to us?” Scott asked.

“Well, no,” Murdoch restated. “We don’t know for sure that sideways A is Addison’s...yet. But it does fit the pieces, given what you found in Visalia, Scott, and what Johnny tells us he learned from the Wodens.”

Scott turned to look at Johnny. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know, Scott. He could be the man who hired Pardee. It seems likely.”

“But you’re not convinced.”

“Not a hundred percent. Not yet.”

“He went to a lot of trouble to get me out of the way.”

“Did he?” Johnny asked. “From what that Woden boy told me, Addison hadn’t told them what to do with you after taking you. The whole kidnap-stage robbery seemed kinda spur-of-the-moment to me. Pardee was a meticulous planner.”

“Maybe that’s why he needed Pardee.”

“Maybe.”

“Well, I believe he’s behind it all,” Abby stated with finality. “When Sam was here yesterday, he asked some strange questions at the man’s request.”

“What questions?”

“Sam said Addison wanted to know if your bag was robbed, if anything was taken. He suggested it may have looted.”

“Addison knows,” Scott said grimly. “He knows I took the iron.”

“No,” Abby shook her head. “I lied. And Murdoch backed me up. He told him your bag contained only the things you took with you.”

 

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

 

Johnny was bothered. He reviewed the facts. The stolen and rebranded stallion was living in a hacienda owned by Buck Addison. Addison arranged for the Woden siblings to rob the stage and kidnap Scott. It seemed likely that Addison was behind all of Lancer’s woes, but Johnny didn’t like the idea of going to the US Marshal in Visalia. Addison was from there, had influence in the town. Maybe had influence over the marshall. And Johnny had a natural mistrust of lawmen.

The only man who wore a badge who Johnny trusted was his old friend Val Crawford. But Val’s jurisdiction didn’t include the San Joaquin. He didn’t like Murdoch’s plan one bit. He stood in Barranca’s stall combing his mane trying to reason all this out.

Scott entered the barn, with Abby on his arm. Seems those two were glued to the hip. “Hola!” Johnny greeted them, his false cheerfulness showing.

“Despite the seemingly good mood, brother, I think you have something on your mind,” Scott greeted.

“Yeah. I’m worried about Addison and that marshal from Visalia.” He explained his concerns.

Scott shrugged it off. “It’ll be all right. Addison may be important, but he doesn’t have a US Marshal in his pocket.”

“Don’t be so sure, Scott.”

 

Pressure Cooker

Sunday morning dawned, clear and bright. Murdoch roused them to go to church.  They hadn’t attended the previous week and with all that had happened this week, he felt the family had something to rejoice about. Besides, it would give him the opportunity to send a telegram to the marshall in Visalia.

Johnny politely declined attending, which was all right with Murdoch; he hadn’t really wanted the gunfighter to walk into one of Reverend Root’s sermons. That kind of clash would be better served on another day. Everyone else was happy to go.

Along the way, Aggie voiced a concern. “You do remember, Murdoch, what our Reverend Root said in the aftermath of the stage roaring in Wednesday night?”

Murdoch didn’t look at her. “Yes, I do.”

“What was it, Sir?” Scott asked from the back.

Aggie half-turned to face Scott. “He practically accused your father of causing the robbery, your kidnapping and that of the old man. All because of his acquaintance with Johnny Madrid.”

Scott was stunned. “He blamed Murdoch for a stage robbery because we know Johnny?”

“I think that man is—what’s the word Maria would say? Loco,” Abby added.

“He may be touched in the head, but still, that’s no excuse to blame Murdoch!”

“Well, one thing is for certain,” Murdoch said as he slapped the reins. “This will be one interesting day at church.”

 

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

 

Timothy Root was indeed in a state. His friend Buck Addison had dropped by the previous night with horrifying news. “Murdoch’s hired gunfighter,” Addison had told him, “is Johnny Madrid.”

“I know. I saw him sit down with him and Mrs. Conway in the dining room of your hotel just Wednesday, right before the stage came in with that horrible tale of the robbery. Bold as daylight. Pretty as you please.”

“Well, there’s more,” Addison added. “Madrid found Scott Lancer, God knows where. But what he did after that was inexcusable. He tracked three young people, mountain people who were staying at this hotel for a few days, and captured them. He forced them into confessing to the robbery and kidnapping. And, he forced them into naming me as the one who hired them. Me?” He shook his head.

Root dropped into a chair, stunned. “I had no idea.”

“Yes, and that’s not all. He raped the girl. The sister. And he brought them all back. They should be arriving any time.”

“Well, that doesn’t surprise me there. Men like that are capable of doing indecent things to innocents.”

“What can we do about it?”

Root smiled. “You do nothing. I’ll take care of this. And we’ll even get their friend the doctor to help us.”

Addison had smiled all the way back to his hotel.

But now, Sunday morning, as the church was filling up, Root prepared himself for battle. He read his Bible, straightened his tie, stood upright and took deep breaths. He was ready.

The singing stopped. Timothy Root stepped out of the vestibule and onto the platform behind the altar. “Good morning, good citizens of Green River,” he greeted. He looked about the congregation, smiling when he saw not only Murdoch Lancer, but his entire family, and Mrs. Aggie Conway and the doctor, Sam Jenkins. They were all there, all except the gunfighter. Not that he expected him to show up.

“Today I shall read to you again from the book of Proverbs. You will remember me talking on this subject a few Sundays ago. ‘Make no friendship with violent men lest thou learn his ways and get a snare in thy soul.’

“This, my friends, is a warning, to stay away from men who do violence. Gunfighters, mercenaries and the like. If you make friends with one of them, you are in danger of losing your soul and turning to a life of sin.

“If that happens, it is the responsibility of your community to follow the teachings of Timothy, in first Timothy, chapter five, verse twenty: ‘Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.’

“If you have become corrupted by a gunfighter or violent men, you are sinning, and it is up to the rest of us to call you into question, to publicly denounce you for your sins, so you can have a chance to repent.

“Now, I believe that most of you needn’t fear public rebuke, as you are wise enough to avoid gunfighters and men like that. But there is one family, led by a man respected by you all, who has allowed himself to be corrupted. And in doing so, he has sinned, greatly. Let me tell you about him.

“This man befriended the notorious Johnny Madrid. He hired the gunman, let him stay at his house, sit at his table, in public, too! And recently, this Johnny Madrid, on orders from this well-respected leader, has committed gross acts against innocents: kidnapping, torture, killing—all in the name of....Murdoch Lancer.”

The congregation gasped. They all turned to stare at Murdoch, who sat stunned in his pew.

Root continued. “I have learned that Lancer hired Madrid to find his son who, you remember was reported taken when that stage was robbed the other day. He was obviously successful, as young Scott Lancer sits with us today. But what you don’t know is what else he did. He found three innocents and blamed them for that robbery. He beat the confession out of them. Tortured them. And he took them prisoner in return, along with their young innocent sister.” He shook his head in sorrow. “The poor girl...who could stand a chance with Johnny Madrid.

Scott nearly snorted at the notion of Opal Woden being an innocent. He ducked his head to maintain composure. Abby turned her head to him, questioning. He waved her off.

Root paused, allowing the congregation to digest these horrors. He saw Murdoch Lancer biting down on his jaw and went in for the kill.

“I understand Madrid has brought them back, but are they in custody? Are they brought before you to face justice? No! They are not! We do not know where those innocents are. But Murdoch Lancer does. He’s behind all of this, he has become corrupt, as morally sinful as Madrid himself. Show yourself, Murdoch Lancer! Repent of your sins!”

The congregation stood and as one voice, called for Murdoch to stand. Still disbelieving, Murdoch merely sat there, unable to move.

Abby looked around, noticing that the church members were close to becoming a mob. She nudged Scott.

Scott nodded grimly and stood. “Wait! Before you condemn my father, why don’t you listen to the truth. I was there. I know what happened.”

“Do you?” Root challenged. “Have you befriended Madrid as well? If so, your own voice speaks falsehood.”

“I do not lie,” he told the people. “The story you’ve been told is a distortion. Yes, Johnny Madrid rescued me, but I was kidnapped by the Woden siblings. They drugged me, took me across Tulare Lake, into the mountains, to their cabin. I do not know what their intention was. I don’t think they even knew. But Johnny Madrid came and brought me back, and two of them as prisoners and witnesses, against the man who really is responsible for the stage robbery. ”

Root expected this. “Yes, I know. And they will tell a thrilling tale, of being forced to do another’s bidding, am I right? We all know who’s bidding they are really doing! Johnny Madrid’s!”

“That is not true!”

“Then where are they? Why are they not here, in public custody?”

“Because there is no jail here, there is no law.” Murdoch finally stood up. He’d recovered from his shock. “Johnny Madrid acted on his own to rescue Scott. He found him, discovered who is responsible and two of the perpetuators are being held in my guardhouse. They are being treated humanely. I have already sent for the US Marshal to take custody.”

“Two of them? I understand there were three Woden siblings?”

“Yes, their older brother was killed while trying to escape. He attacked Johnny Madrid.”

Root raised his eyebrows. “And you believe that? What kind of crazy fool attacks a ruthless gunfighter like Madrid? More likely Madrid killed him in cold blood!”

“He did no such thing!” Scott interjected. “I was there. We were both attacked. Hank Woden was trying to drown Johnny. He had no choice but to shoot him.”

“Right. That sounds so likely,” Root nodded sarcastically. He turned his attention back to Murdoch. “So, your hired gun saves your son, returns with prisoners who you keep ‘guarded’. I see. How convenient. Are not the people of Green River capable of guarding these evildoers? Can we not lock up those two ourselves? Do you think we are not capable keeping them safe until they can be held for trial?”

“All right, Reverend. You find a secure place to hold them and I’ll have them brought here.”

“I am certain that our good friend Mr. Addison of the Cattleman’s Hotel can keep them under lock and key.”

“No!” Murdoch reacted. “Not there.”

Root smiled. “And why not? Does the fabulous tale that the evil Johnny Madrid spins give you cause?” He was pinning Murdoch against the wall and he knew it. He wanted Murdoch to accuse Addison publicly.

“The guardhouse is safer than the hotel. They cannot escape.”

“I am sure you think you are correct, Mr. Lancer, but if those people did what your son says they did, then you should not be the one to guard them.”

The congregation mumbled. Murdoch knew Root had a point.

“I will consent to guarding the prisoners,” Aggie Conway stood up.

Root smiled condescendingly to her. “I’m sure you will, but as you are a good friend of Mr. Lancer, that should make you suspect as well.”

Aggie startled at the accusation, but she did not challenge him. She sat back down.

“If there is no one else, then after the good doctor has examined them at his office, I will take custody of these two kidnappers.” The way he said ‘kidnappers’ made it clear he did not believe the story.

“And with that matter settled, let us pray.”

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

 

“The nerve of that man!” Aggie Conway was in a state. It was after the services and they were standing by the carriages; the rest of the congregation avoiding her and Murdoch. “He practically accused you of kidnapping, of imprisoning those two, and the things he said Johnny did....Well!”

“Calm yourself, Aggie,” Murdoch soothed. “It won’t do to bring attention. We already have enough. But you’re right, that man is dangerous. And I didn’t like his insinuations about you.”

“Oh, I can take care of myself,” Aggie assured.

Murdoch smiled. “I know you can, but I prefer to.”

Several members of the congregation were greeting Scott and Abby. “Well, at least they aren’t tainted as sinful,” Aggie said, nodding to the couple.

“Yes, they appear to be unscathed, for now.”

“Are you going to deliver the kidnappers to Root?”

“I have no choice.”

“He’ll set them free, you know.”

“Maybe. But I think he’d prefer to have them speak in public against me.”

Aggie’s eyes grew wide. “You think he’d coach them to lie?”

“Of that, I have no doubt.”

“God have mercy!”

The Preacher and the Gunman

Johnny threw a fit. “No! No way in hell am I going to turn those two over to some minister, especially one with an agenda.” He stood with his arms akimbo, his feet apart, his face defiant.

“You have to,” Murdoch tried to reason. “He challenged me. And the things he said about you...”

Johnny snorted. “As if I’m afraid of him.” He crossed his arms.

“You should be,” Scott jumped in. “He can rally the people of Green River against you. He’s quite effective. You should have seen what he was doing to Murdoch.”

“Besides, Johnny, they aren’t your prisoners anymore. You turned them over to me. And I have no choice.”

“This stinks, Old Man. And you know it.”

“Yes, I do.”

“So you’re just gonna take it?”

“For now.”

Johnny glared before shaking his head, first at Murdoch then at Scott. He stalked out of the Great Room through the French doors, heading for the barn.

Scott rose to bring Johnny back. “Let him go, son,” Murdoch stopped him. “Go get Cipriano instead. I’ll have a detail of vaqueros go with me to bring them in.”

“You’re going yourself?”

“Yes. I don’t want the minister accusing me of shirking, or being a coward, or have any excuses to rant from his pulpit like he did this morning.”

“Johnny and I will go with you, then. I don’t trust the man.”

“I’m not sure you can get Johnny to go.”

Scott did persuade Johnny to accompany them back to town. He grumbled about it, but he went, mainly because he didn’t want anything to happen to Scott along the way. Johnny still thought his brother was in danger. Murdoch had only wired the marshall earlier today. Addison was still free, and not even accused.

 

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

 

It was nearly dark by the time they rattled into Green River. Murdoch drove the wagon with an armed Paco seated beside him. Smitty rode point out in front and Scott and Johnny brought up the rear. They had the view of the pair of smirking prisoners who had guessed something was up that their captors didn’t like.

Reverend Root was standing on Sam’s porch, with the doctor grimly waiting for them. “Let’s get these two examined,” Sam said as the wagon approached. A small crowd had gathered as well.

Root had been smiling as the wagon drove up but glared sharply at Johnny when he saw the gunfighter. “I see you brought your hired gun,” he frowned a warning to Murdoch.

Scott lifted his head, “I asked Johnny Madrid to accompany us,” he offered, using a loud voice so all could hear. “I thought it wise considering what those two did to a boy and an old man. If they have no moral objection to hurting the young or the elderly, think of what they could do to you or your children.” The crowd mumbled, remembering the frightened boy and his injured and sick grandfather. Root hadn’t addressed that this morning.

The minister saw that he was losing control. He didn’t like that. “Well, surely you could have found a better way than to let that vermin in.” He nodded in Johnny’s direction.

Johnny smiled at the minister. “You talkin’ to me?” he challenged in his soft drawl.

For a second the minister grew fearful, but he gathered himself. “Evil like you shouldn’t be around good, honest folk. You’ll contaminate the rest of us.”

“Seems to me you’re the one doin’ the contaminatin’,” Johnny replied, his voice still soft, his mien relaxed, leaning in. His arms were crossed over his saddle horn.

“Johnny,” Scott softly warned. No one else heard.

“Why, you ungodly, monstrous...” Root took a step toward Johnny. Murdoch watched warily, wondering just what would happen if he let this go on.

But it was Sam who stepped in, “Reverend, would you like to help me with these two in the wagon? I think the lady could use a little assistance.”

Root stammered for just a second, unsure of what to do, before nodding and agreeing with the doctor. “Yes, yes. I’ll escort the young woman.”

Murdoch nodded to Smitty and Paco and the two cowboys followed the doctor, the minister and the captives inside. They would stand guard. Scott and Johnny rode to the wagon’s seat. Murdoch slid over, getting closer to them.

“You want to challenge the minister here? Now?” Murdoch asked softly.

Johnny shrugged. “I am here. What better time?”

“Well, don’t, please.”

He shrugged again. “Whatever you say.”

Scott shook his head at his brother’s foolishness. “Not a good idea, Johnny.”

Johnny smiled. “All right. I’m backing off.” He peeled Barranca away. “I’ve had enough of this joker anyway. I’ll be in the saloon.”

 

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

 

Sam examined both of the prisoners and pronounced them more-or-less healthy and fit. Lou’s nose wasn’t broken, but he had lost two of his front teeth from Scott’s kick. They had marks on their wrists and ankles where they were bound, but they weren’t bad and they would heal quickly. Sam explained to Root that those marks were normal and not abuse, and that Scott would have been within his rights to inflict far more damage than he did.

Root grudgingly agreed and he walked with them out of Sam’s house. “No need for guns,” he told Smitty and Paco. “You go back to your boss. I will assume sole custody now.”

Murdoch watched Root. The reverend led the pair, now unbound and free, down the middle of the street, to the his home. “Well, that’s the last we’ll see of them,” Murdoch grumbled.

“It sure seems that w—” Scott’s words were cut off by the pop of gunfire. Two shots. Precision hits. Both Lou and Opal fell to the dirt, knocked off their feet by the impact of bullets. Root scrambled out of the street, afraid for his life, falling behind a water trough. The others in the crowd ran, too, taking cover where ever they could. Sam ducked behind a large planter on his porch.

Murdoch dove off the wagon, landing on his hip at Rienzi’s feet. The stallion reared, nearly throwing Scott, who managed to get the horse under control and away from his father. “What the hell?” Scott asked as he dismounted and crouched to the ground next to Murdoch.

Root recovered first. He gathered himself and ran back into the street, where the bleeding bodies of the Woden family lay. Opal moaned. “Johnny Madrid did this!” he yelled, for all to hear.

“Oh, no,” Scott breathed. He prayed that Johnny had indeed gone to the saloon and that there were witnesses there.

Sam ran from his house, his bag in his hand, dropping to his knees at the bodies. Lou Woden was dead, shot nearly in the center of his chest. The girl, Opal, was hit higher, closer to her shoulder. She was bleeding profusely.

“You all right?” Scott asked Murdoch.

“I think. My leg hurts though. And I don’t think I did my back any favors.” He rolled over. Scott helped him stand. He leaned against the wagon.

Secure with the knowledge that his father wasn’t seriously hurt, Scott ran to the girl’s body. “What can I do, Sam?” He asked, kneeling beside the doctor.

“Put both hands—” he grabbed Scott’s hands and directed them onto Opal’s wound— “there. Don’t move.” Sam reached into the bag for a large bandage. When he was ready, he asked Scott, “Move on three. I’m going to replace your hands with this.” On the count, Scott moved away, giving the doctor room. Sam quickly pressed the bandage onto the girl’s wound. “Ok, Scott. Now, come back here and hold this bandage down. Press hard. You’re stopping the flow of blood.”

“Got it.” Scott did as he was told. Sam stood and looked around. He pointed to Root and two others. “You, you and you. Come here. Carry her to my house. I’m going to have to get that bullet out.”

Root didn’t move. “We need to capture Johnny Madrid!”

Sam glared at the minister. “No. We need to get this girl to my house or she’ll die. Now!” His commanding voice left the minister no choice. He followed the other two men to the girl.

They carried her as quickly as possible, but not so fast as to dislodge Scott from applying pressure to her wound. Murdoch limped to the doctor’s front door, holding it open for them. He grimaced from his pain.

They placed Opal on the doctor’s examining table and he readied for surgery. “You’re doing a good job, Scott. Keep it up. It’s bleeding less now.” He left to wash his hands.

Mrs. Henderson, Sam’s assistant in Green River ran to his door. “I’m here, Doctor Sam. What can I do?”

Sam hurried to the woman. “Oh, good, Mrs. Henderson. Wash up. Boil some water. Make the usual preparations for surgery.” The woman rushed to the kitchen.

Root watched from the exam room’s doorway. “You’re going to cut away her clothes?” he asked when he saw Sam with a pair of scissors. Apparently he forgot about Madrid.

“Yes, to get to her wound.” He couldn’t help think that was a stupid question.

“Don’t you think you should have a woman here and not Scott Lancer? For the girl’s modesty.”

Sam stared at the minister, unbelieving. “I’m concerned right now, Reverend, with saving her life. I’d rather have her alive and slightly compromised than dead but with her modesty intact.”

“Maybe she’d rather the opposite.”

Scott shook his head at the minister’s perverse sense of propriety. “Having been around this woman for several days, I disagree, Reverend. She wasn’t that proper. Go ahead, Sam. I’ll close my eyes if the Reverend is offended.”

Sam stifled a smile as he began the ugly work of cutting through Opal’s bodice. He left her covered as much as possible while still allowing him room to work. When Mrs. Henderson was finished, she maneuvered around Reverend Root, who had planted himself in the doorway, and took over for Scott. “I am ready to assist the doctor, now, Mr. Lancer. You can go get cleaned up.”

Scott nodded, grateful to be relieved. He, too, had to edge around the minister to leave the room. “Excuse me,” he said politely, hoping the minister would get the hint and move. He didn’t.

 

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

 

Senator Casserly and Governor Booth met again at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. The governor had invited the senator for an after-dinner drink by messenger, knowing he was in the city by the bay since they saw each other at church services.

As the waiter was bringing them their drinks, the senator asked of his host, “More about water rights in the Sacramento Valley, Governor? I thought we settled that Friday.”

Booth sipped. “No, it isn’t that. I’ll continue to disagree with your stance on that issue, but this is something else. Murdoch Lancer sent for a marshal. Hume, the new man in Visalia.”

“James? I thought he worked for Wells Fargo now.”

“No, his brother. John. Tall. Red hair.”

“Of course.” Casserly picked up his drink. “Wait!” He paused, glass in mid-air. “Wasn’t he just reassigned there a few days ago? I guess Murdoch doesn’t believe in letting the man settle in!” He laughed before taking the sip.

The governor smiled briefly before sobering. “Apparently Murdoch told him it was an emergency. I learned about it earlier today, when I met Judge Morehouse in Lafayette Square. Hume had wired the judge about the request, and left almost immediately for Green River. Apparently there was a stage robbery and kidnapping. Lancer’s son was a hostage.”

“Was? I don’t understand.”

“I don’t know much more. But the judge did mention two other names, Johnny Madrid and Reverend Timothy Root, so you can be sure that this relates to that telegram we got from the minister.”

“Oh, this can’t be good.” Casserly put down his drink.

“I couldn’t agree more.”

“Should we take a trip down there and talk to Murdoch?”

Booth wiped his mouth. “I’m not sure. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. If the marshal is involved, there will be an investigation. Us being there may just confuse things, maybe even make it worse. What do you think? I do want to know what the devil is going on but I don’t want to interfere.”

“Agreed. Maybe we should delay our travel plans, but ask that the marshal—Hume, you said?—to keep us informed.”

“Good idea. I’ll send that request right away.” He stood, having finished his drink. “You go ahead and finish. My wife wants me back early tonight.” Governor Booth nodded as he left.

 

The Shadow Knows

Murdoch wanted to wait and see the outcome of Opal’s surgery, but he had more pressing things to attend. Madrid had been blamed—with absolutely no evidence—and he wanted to make sure that’s as far as it went. He left Sam’s house as soon as the girl was inside and limped to the saloon.

Each step was painful as his leg, hip and back protested the movement. He’d not hurt this much in months, not since the first days out of bed after being shot by Pardee’s sniper. But he was on a mission and determined to finish it.

He sighed in relief when he entered the saloon and saw Johnny there, at his customary corner back table, and a few other customers as witnesses. Mack, behind the bar, was reliable and had a good reputation. He would be believed.

He approached Johnny’s table. “You saw the shooting?”

“Hard not to. Everyone jumped up and ran to the door.”

“You didn’t come to help.” He eased himself into a seat.

“I thought it better to stay out of the limelight.”

Murdoch smiled. “Good call.” He nodded to Mack, who brought over another glass. “Tequila?” he asked Johnny.

“Yep.” He filled Murdoch’s glass.

“Not my usual drink but...” he sipped. “Did any of these people in here see you?”

Johnny smiled. “All of them. But you heard how much that mattered to your minister.”

“Yes, I did. He doesn’t seem to care about the truth.”

“You say that like you’re surprised.”

“I am.” Murdoch took another sip.

“I’m not. It’s been my experience that men of the cloth tend to lie even more, just to make their point.”

“I’m beginning to think this is one of them.” Murdoch assessed his body. The fiery drink was warming him, easing his pain. He sat more comfortably in the chair.

Johnny pressed on. “And I don’t have a lot of faith in that marshall of yours, either. There’s only one lawman I’ve ever trusted.”

“Who?”

“A friend of mine, Val Crawford. He’s sheriff in Hollister now.”

“I know the area. Had the misfortune of passing through there a year or two ago; the buildings are misshapen due to the land creep there. It wasn’t a town yet, didn’t have a sheriff, just a homestead association. How do you know him?”

“He and I used to ride together, some time ago. We went our separate ways but I know I can count on him and he knows the same about me.”

Murdoch thought for a few minutes. “Want to send for him?”

Johnny glanced at his father, wary. “Why are you doing this? Being so friendly? A few weeks ago you couldn’t care less.”

“I deserve that.” He refilled his glass. “Can you allow for a man to change?”

Johnny didn’t answer. Scott had told him of Murdoch’s good mood, and he’d seen the evidence himself, but he didn’t think news of a first grandbaby and having a woman to court stretched quite this far. Murdoch had gone from hate and disdain to tolerance and on to friendliness and willingness to help in too short of a time.

They were saved by Scott, who burst into the saloon. “There you are!” he said, taking quick strides to their table. Mack brought a third glass. “Sam’s operating on the girl, removing the bullet. That minister...” he shook his head. “...he just stood in the doorway, being in the way, taking valuable time questioning if it was proper for me to be there with Sam cutting open her blouse. His sense of priorities is skewed, to the least.”

Johnny snorted. “I’ve seen the type. Blinders. That’s what they have on. They can only see what they are focused on, nothing else.”

Murdoch sat back. “You’re right, Johnny. He does have blinders on. And right now, we’re in his line of sight. You, especially. Tomorrow he’ll go back to blaming you for tonight’s shootings.”

“Whoever did it will get a free ride,” Scott said morosely.

“Whoever?” Johnny asked. “Can’t you figure it out?” Johnny lowered his voice to nearly a whisper. “It was Addison, or he had someone do it. Addison was the only one who benefits by their death. Now they can’t be a witness against him. It’s just my word against him.”

“You’re sure? Could be that man who tried to ambush us on the road back.”

“You think he was working for Addison?”

Scott shrugged. “I couldn’t say. We never saw him again.”

“Could be Addison hired that man to follow you and ambush you,” Murdoch broke in. “We never paid attention to Addison after you took off after the stage, Johnny.”

“There wasn’t anyone on my tail, Murdoch. I would have noticed.”

“Well, I don’t believe it this attack on the Wodens and your ambush on the road is a coincidence.”

The three of them sat, each with their own thoughts.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Johnny finally said.

Scott shook his head. “Me neither.”

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

 

Not wanting to patronize Addison’s place, Murdoch took rooms at the Ryder House hotel for himself and Scott. He sent Paco and Smitty home to tell Abby and Cipriano. Johnny refused to stay in town. He left on Barranca, opting instead to camp out. “I don’t like towns,” was his explanation, but the truth was Johnny needed time to think.

Murdoch’s attitude flummoxed him. When Lancer was threatened by Pardee, his father made it clear that he was not wanted in the hacienda or was barely tolerated and, toward the end when he saved Scott’s life, only mildly appreciated. But just recently, the old man had warmed considerably, until tonight when it appeared that he was not only friendly, but wanting to help, and looking out after his interests instead of his own.That transformation was nothing less than miraculous to Johnny. And perplexing. Had Aggie Conway made that much of a difference? Was indeed the imminent arrival of a grandchild contributing to Murdoch’s mellowness? Could it be that easy? He doubted it. There had to be more.

Sure, Johnny had went off on his own seeking to find whoever hired Pardee and in the process found the stolen stallion instead, but Scott’s followup had led to his  kidnapping. The old Murdoch would have blamed Johnny for that, but this one had no cross words, and in fact, offered to finance the rescue. And tonight, he not only defended Johnny, but did he really offered to get Val Crawford to come to Green River just to make the gunfighter feel better about a lawman?

Johnny shook his head. It was too much to handle, too much he did not understand. Relationships had always been difficult for him, even his with his mother. She had loved him, he was sure, but he was always more or less on the sidelines of his mother’s life. She and Luis had come first.

Johnny dismounted Barranca, easing out of the saddle as he found a good place to camp. He slid his gear off the animal, brushing and grooming him as he tended to his basic needs. Once the horse was settled, only then did Johnny see to his own requirements.

So, what was he to do with Murdoch Lancer? Should he demand a talk, as distasteful as that sounded? He didn’t know. It was the last thing on his mind as he drifted off to sleep.

 

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

 

A shadow moved through the darkness, creeping between buildings and houses, slowly but pointedly making its way through the sleeping town. Most of Green River’s citizens had taken to bed long before; none of them saw the figure.

The shadow reached its destination. It slowly drew a door open, careful lest it creak. It slipped inside the house, easing the door closed behind it.

Several minutes later, the door opened again and the shadow slipped back outside, noiselessly leaving the house and back through the town again. It disappeared into an alley.

 

Bad News and More Bad News

Sam Jenkins woke before dawn, washed up and went to check on his patient. Opal Woden has barely survived the surgery—she’d lost a lot of blood—and Mrs. Henderson had stayed with her until the girl rallied, her condition greatly improving, enough so that Sam felt it unnecessary for someone to stay with her during the night. Sam had checked on her before going to bed and Opal had been doing very well.

The sun wasn’t yet turning the tops of the mountains pink when Sam eased into the sick room. He turned up the wick on the oil lamp and sat it on the bedside table, illuminating Opal’s face. She looked white, probably from the loss of blood, Sam thought, and he bent over to check her.

“What?” he said aloud, surprised and alarmed. She was stable before he went to bed, her breathing normal, her pulse firm and strong, but this morning the girl was dead. Sam examined her, looking for a reason for the sudden turn for the worse and found nothing. She should be alive.

He stood and surveyed the room. Everything looked in its place except a cushion on the floor. It should have been on the chair. He picked it up and found dried blood and spittle. With a start, he realized what had happened: someone had entered the room during the night and suffocated the girl.

“My dear Lord!”

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

 

“Dear God!” Murdoch exclaimed. Sam joined he and Scott at breakfast, finding the Lancer men in the Ryder House dining room. “Suffocated? Are you certain?”

“I examined her myself, Murdoch.” Sam stirred his coffee. “And the pillow was on the floor, with her blood and spittle on it. She struggled, but not for long; she just wasn’t strong enough.”

“Wasn’t someone supposed to stay with her? What about that Mrs. Henderson?” Scott asked.

“I sent her home. The girl had greatly improved by midnight. I just didn’t see the point of Dora missing a night of sleep watching a patient out of danger. Of course, now, in hindsight...”

“Second guessing yourself won’t work, Sam. You did all right. You couldn’t have guessed that a maniac would come in.”

“But I should have been on the alert. Someone killed her brother and shot her.”

“No, Sam, let it go,” Murdoch insisted. “No one could have foreseen what happened.”

“Still...” Sam shook his head.

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

 

Scott and Murdoch strode across the street to Alexander Ramsey’s office. Scott had talked with their lawyer concerning the brand on the stallion. Ramsey had sent his clerk to Sacramento to check with the brand registry. They hadn’t heard anything and Scott was anxious to hear the story from the lawyer himself.

Scott heard his father groan a little as they walked. He surmised his father’s back and leg must still be hurting from his fall the previous night, though Murdoch mentioned nothing of it at breakfast. Then again, Sam’s news had trumped anything either of them had planned to say.

“There’s Mr. Ramsey there,” Scott pointed. The attorney was just opening his office. Scott called for him.

Ramsey turned and smiled at his clients. He waited for them to step onto his porch before greeting. “Good morning, Scott, Murdoch. How are you today?”

“My back’s hurting, Alex, and my leg, but other than that, I’m fine,” Murdoch answered truthfully. Undoubtably the attorney had seen him limp. There was no reason to hide it.

“Sorry to hear that. Was it because of what happened on the street last night?”

Scott was the one to answer. “Yes. My father dove off the wagon to avoid the gunfire. He fell on his hip.”

“That was so horrible,” the lawyer said. He unlocked the door and let them inside. “Such a tragedy. I do hope the girl will survive.”

Murdoch hesitated. He hated being the bearer of bad news. “I’m afraid she didn’t make it, Alex. We just saw Sam at breakfast. Someone broke into his house last night and overcame her with a pillow.”

“Oh, my goodness!” Ramsey startled. “Murdered! In the doctor’s own house! How horrible!”

“Yes, definitely horrible.”

Alex remembered his manners and offered them chairs. “I don’t know what to say. I just can’t believe it.”

Neither Murdoch or Scott replied. What was there to add?

Ramsey shook his head as if to clear it. “Well, I’m sorry about that, but I am glad you two are here today. I have news.”

Scott leaned forward. “About the brand? Have you heard from your clerk?”

“Yes, I did. I stopped by the telegraph office this morning. Clark sent a report. I haven’t even read it yet.” Alex took the message from his coat pocket and handed it to Murdoch. “I hope it satisfies your curiosity.”

Murdoch scanned the note and frowned. He turned the paper to Scott, who after a brief glance, frowned as well. “No, not really,” Scott answered. “He didn’t find a registered brand in that image.” He returned it to Ramsey.

Ramsey read the telegraph. He sighed. “Well, he’s going to keep looking, at least. He’s not gone through the recent filings yet. Hopefully, it will be there.”

Scott and Murdoch exchanged looks. Scott shrugged. With an effort, Murdoch stood and offered his hand. “Thank you, Alex. We’ll hear from you when you know something?”

“Of course,” Ramsey smiled. “You’ll be the first.”

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

 

“Well, that didn’t help,” Scott said morosely. “I was sure counting on having some proof, something in writing.”

“Me, too, but I’m not surprised.” Murdoch eased into a chair. They were in Murdoch’s room, having lit a fire. The heat seemed to help with Murdoch’s pain.

“You want Sam to take a look at that hip?”

“That might be a good idea, but I’m sure with this Opal business, he’s going to have a very busy day.”

“I can get you a drink. The tequila seemed to help last night.”

“It’s too early for that,” Murdoch stopped Scott. “I’ll be all right. I’m already feeling better. It was a little cool this morning. Unseasonably so.”

Scott let his father rest a little before asking the question. “You said you weren’t surprised at the clerk’s findings, or rather, his lack of them. Why?”

“Oh, that’s easy, Scott,” Murdoch smiled. “The man who had the horse—”

“Buck Addison,” Scott broke in.

Murdoch frowned. “I hate to accuse him without further evidence, Scott.”

Scott nodded. “I understand. I’ll keep my conclusions to myself. Anyway....”

“Oh, yes... well, whoever he was, he clearly didn’t want to be known, so it doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t go through the proper channels and register his brand. If he did what I think he planned to do—take over Lancer—he’d have plenty of chances to register it at that time.”

“I see. No need for secrecy then. It would all be out in the open.”

The two men sat in silence. The fire crackled. Outside their window the town went about its business. It was Scott who broke the spell.

“Speaking of out in the open, do you have any idea where Johnny is? I expected him back in town by now.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I’ve not heard from him. I have no idea where he is.”

“I hope he’s not in trouble.”

“Me too, Scott. Me too.”

 

Hume-an Nature

No sooner had the noon stage rumbled in—an hour early—and the US Marshal from Visalia stepped out did Reverend Root, seeing the star on his chest, run up to him. “She’s been murdered!” he cried, having heard the news from Sam. “The last witness against Johnny Madrid was murdered last night.”

Deputy US Marshal John Hume paused on the street, straightening his hat and surveying the town. Jake, the stage driver, dropped his bag at his feet. The two men nodded to each other. Hume turned his attention to the minister.

“Slow down, Reverend. And start from the beginning.” He was tall and lanky, with red hair down to his shoulders. Flamboyant, they called him, but it was only because of the way he looked. He stood out in crowds. Inwardly, John Hume was a quiet, reserved man. He tended to mull things over, to think before acting, to investigate all points of view; he rarely acted rashly. He knew his job was inherently dangerous and to stay alive required patience and thoroughness.

Timothy Root pulled Marshal Hume out of the street and onto the boardwalk. The marshal’s words had done little to quiet his excitement. “It all started...well, I don’t know how it all started, but there was this stage robbery a few days ago—”

“Yes, I know. The Wells Fargo detective took the train to Visalia and interviewed the driver.”

“Then you know it was done by two men. Well, Johnny Madrid, a notorious gunfighter—”

“I know who Johnny Madrid is.”

“Good, good. Well, Madrid was hired by this rancher Lancer—”

“Murdoch Lancer?”

“You know him?”

“I’ve heard of him. He’s not the sort who’d hire a gunfighter.” Hume wondered if this man could be believed, in spite of the evidence of his collar.

“Well, he did this time. Madrid’s been in his employ for several weeks now. I have proof.” Root nodded to accentuate his point. “Anyway, Lancer sent Madrid in search of his wayward son Scott.”

Hume almost interrupted Root again to ask how the son got into this, but thought better of it. The man’s story wasn’t making much sense as it was.

“And Madrid, you know he doesn’t care who gets blamed. He’s worse than a bounty hunter about that. He found Scott cavorting with this young woman, Opal Woden.” Root hung his head, shaking it slowly. “Shame, too, for his lovely wife is expecting their first child.” He looked up abruptly and continued his story. “Anyway, Madrid, to save face for the son, brought Opal Woden and both of her brothers back, saying they are the ones who robbed the stage and that they kidnapped Scott Lancer as part of it. Then he goes and kills one of the brothers–poor Hank—on the way back. Young Scott Lancer beats up the other, Lou. I guess they had to do that to make their story convincing.”

He nodded again and crossed his arms. “If that’s not a story, then I don’t know what is.” He pointed in the general direction of the Ryder House hotel. “Murdoch Lancer brought it all on. He’s standing by that evil gunfighter. And last night is proof of Madrid’s viciousness. He shot the remaining Woden boy just as I was taking custody of them—murdered him right in this here street. He shot the girl, too, but she didn’t die. No, he broke into the doctor’s house last night and suffocated her with a pillow, he did.”

“And did you see all of this yourself?”

Root nodded. “Sure did. All except the pillow last night.”

Hume lifted an eyebrow. “You saw Madrid pull the trigger on the shot that killed Lou Woden?”

“Well, no, not exactly,” Root admitted. “But I know he did it. He was shot full in the chest, through the heart. The boy was killed instantly. You know Madrid shoots true. And he didn’t want either of them talking and telling the truth.”

“I see.” Root wasn’t a witness after all. He was just repeating—or creating—gossip. “Can you tell me who else was in the street last night?”

Root looked indignant. “Well, it couldn’t have been anyone else, Marshal. It was Madrid.”

Hume smiled. “I’m looking for witnesses, Reverend.”

“Oh, I understand. Yes, of course.” Root paused to think. “There were several people on the boardwalk watching. Dr. Sam Jenkins was there. Murdoch and Scott Lancer, and of course, I was.”

Hume nodded. “All right, thank you. I’ll go talk to the doctor now.” He took a step toward the sign noting the doctor’s office.

“Wait,” Root grabbed Hume’s arm. “I just want you to know. The doctor is a good friend of Murdoch Lancer’s. And so is Aggie Conway, should you talk to her.”

“I would imagine, Reverend, that a good many people in these parts are friends with the Lancers. They might even call themselves good friends.”

Root puffed up indignantly. “Well, I wouldn’t. I don’t kowtow to a man just because he’s a big shot rancher.”

Hume smiled mysteriously. “Of course not.” He tipped his hat. “Good day, then.”

 

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

 

“Aha! I caught you!” Reverend Root stormed into the lobby of the Ryder House and accosted Sam. “I told that marshal about you, that you were friends with Lancer.” Scott, Murdoch and Sam were sitting in fat armchairs having coffee.

“The US marshal is here already?” Murdoch sat his cup on a small table. He readied to stand up.

“Yes,” Root puffed up importantly. “I told him everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t arrest you all.”

“What are you talking about?” Scott stood and faced the minister with a look of disdain.

“The Woden girl’s murder, of course.”

“And you think we did it?” Scott shook his head. “Unbelievable.” The other two men came to their feet in support of Scott.

“You’re involved. Madrid did the shooting. And he suffocated that girl.” He pointed at Sam. “You, Doctor, helped by letting him in your house, giving him access to that weakened girl. And you,” he accused Murdoch, “You hired him in the first place.” He focused on Scott. “You and he are such good buddies I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t consider him a brother!”

Scott, Sam and Murdoch shared a look, a look that Root would have caught had he been paying attention instead of indicating smug pride. “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” He challenged.

Sam spoke first. His words icy. “I would comment on your rant, Reverend, if I felt it had some merit, but as it does not, and is solely meant to inflame, I refuse.”

“Ha! I thought as much. Well, that marshal is looking for you right now. I’m sure he’ll have a thing or two to say to you about last night.” Root turned to go but stopped, smiling, when he noticed the lawman in the doorway. “Marshal Hume!” he called, “I found the doctor for you. He was getting his story straight with the Lancers.”

Hume nodded to the reverend and glanced at the men. A big hunk of a man stood in the middle, next to another about the same age, more average height, with greying hair. On the other side of the big man was a young blond.

The lawman walked to the trio. “Mr. Lancer?” When Murdoch nodded, he continued, “You wired me, although I daresay this isn’t the case I was contacted about?”

“No, Marshal Hume, not exactly,” Murdoch replied, shaking his hand. “It was related, as the Woden siblings were the ones who robbed the stage on Wednesday and kidnapped my son.”

“See?” Root broke in. “I told you they’d say that. Now watch them give Johnny Madrid an alibi for the shootings!”

“We don’t have to give Johnny an alibi,” Scott broke in. “He already has one. He was in the saloon. Mack the barman will tell you.”

Hume turned to the minister. “Thank you, Reverend. If I need you, I’ll find you. You may go now.”

Surprised and disappointed at being dismissed, Root nodded politely and turned on his heels. He exited the hotel and stopped, as if thinking of where he should go next.

Murdoch invited Hume to be with them. “Please join us.” He provided introductions. “Thank you for coming so quickly. Would you like for me to tell you the story?”

Hume declined the invitation to sit. “Actually, first I need to know how the girl’s murder ties in with what you wired me about.

“She and her brothers, Hank and Lou, are the Woden family,” Scott answered.

“I see. All right. That’s simple enough.” He turned to Sam. “I’d like to talk to you first, if you don’t mind...in your office, where the girl was killed.”

Sam nodded. “Of course.” He murmured a goodbye to Murdoch and Scott.

Hume turned to the Lancers. “If you two will wait here for me...”

“Absolutely.”

“We’ll be here.”

 

The Marshal Probe

Hume walked around Sam’s office, investigating everything, the front door, his waiting room, room where Sam operated on Opal and the one where she died. He also looked around the rest of the house—the kitchen, and even Sam’s bedroom.

“Why wasn’t someone sitting up with Miss Woden?”  They were in the room where the girl was killed.

“She had stabilized and was much improved. I didn’t feel it necessary.”

“Even when someone had tried to kill her earlier? Killed her brother?”

Sam ran his fingers through his hair. “To tell you the truth, Marshal, I didn’t even think of that. My entire concern was medical: first saving her life then her recovery. It never occurred to me that someone would come in and murder here in my office. Had I given it a thought...”

Hume smiled. “Hindsight, Doctor...”

Sam chuckled. “I know. Murdoch said the same thing. That I shouldn’t dwell on it.”

“And I agree. You’re a doctor. Your perspective is medical. You don’t think about killing; your job is to save lives.”

“Well, thank you, but there are some who have already expressed another idea.”

“There will always be people like that, Dr. Jenkins. Can you tell me where Lou Woden’s body is?”

“It was moved to the undertaker, Josiah Burns. His office is at the other end of town.”

“Were you a witness to the shootings last night?”

“I was, unfortunately. I was on my porch. I watched the minister take the pair down the street. He was leading them in the middle of the street, unbound, angling across toward the house he just rented. There were two shots in quick succession.”

“From a pistol or rifle?”

Sam thought a minute. “Had to be a pistol, Marshal. It didn’t sound like a rifle.”

Hume nodded. “Thank you for your time, Doctor. If I need you again, I know where to find you.”

“If I’m not on a call, I’ll be here.”

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

 

“Ah, Mr. Duncan,” Reverend Root called. “It’s good to see you return. I’d heard you were traveling on business.”

“Thank you, Reverend. I was, but it’s good to be back.”

“Isn’t it, though? Tell me, my friend, have you seen your employer, Mr. Addison, today?”

“Yes, I just breakfasted with him. He’s in the hotel.”

“Thank you,” the minister nodded. Duncan went on his way.

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

 

Hume’s examination of the dead was thorough. He examined Opal’s body first, noticing the probable entry of her gunshot wound. Sam’s surgery had obscured it. He opened both her eyes, seeing a tinge of redness there. In his experience, that indicated suffocation, but would not be admitted in court. He looked at her ankles and wrists to note the extent of the rope burns that the minister had so strenuously objected.

When examining the body of her brother, Hume took note of the injuries, where the bullet had entered, seeing the lack of exit wounds. He ran a small rod through the holes to determine trajectory. He also examined his teeth, nose, ankles and wrists, writing down his findings.

Josiah stood by and watched, a little nervous but very patient. In his line of work, patience was a requirement. When the marshall finished, he turned to the undertaker. “Nice job, Mr Burns.”

“Thank you,” Burns nodded. He took pride in his work.

“Were you by any chance a witness to this shooting?”

“Yes, and no, sir. I was on the street, so I heard the shots, but I wasn’t close enough to see.”

“Can you describe the shots?”

“Two rapports. Very close together. Bang! Bang! And lots of screaming.”

“Did it sound like the shots were fired from a rifle or a pistol?”

Burns shook his head slowly. “That I could not tell you. I am not good with weapons.”

 

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

 

Easing himself into one of Addison’s office chairs, Reverend Root opened with, “That new marshal is in town.”

“Oh?” Addison lit a cigar. “He doesn’t waste time, does he? Lancer wired him just yesterday morning.”

“I heard he stopped young Jimmy on his way to church to open the telegraph office.”

Addison laughed. “You probably didn’t like that.”

“I don’t like much that Murdoch Lancer does. Since coming here I have learned a great deal about the man that he keeps hidden.”

“Yes, the man has many secrets.” Addison had a few himself. And they’d remain secret as long as the reverend was focused on Lancer.

“Well, I don’t want to keep you. I know you are busy.” Root stood up as if to leave.

“”Thank you, Reverend. I do have a full schedule.” The two men shook hands and the minister continued on his mission.

 

Scott Spins His Story

Hume asked Scott to talk in his room at the hotel. The two of them sat at the tiny table under the window. Hume took out a small notebook from his jacket pocket. “Let’s start with the kidnapping.”

Scott cleared his throat. He told of his trip from Visalia on horseback, then the stage from Goshen. He mentioned the other passengers, and Gilford Duncan by name, remembering that he’d traveled with him on the stage going to Visalia as well.

“That is unusual. Did he give a reason?”

“He told me he was ferrying paperwork for his boss. He is the manager for the Cattleman’s Hotel here.”

Hume nodded, and kept writing. “Go on. When did the kidnapping take place?” He already knew most the robbery details, having talked with his brother, the Wells Fargo detective.

“They stopped us before the last way station on the route. It was just dark. There were two of them. I had thoughts of resisting, but my weapon was in the gunbox. They were unhappy with the amount of cash in the strongbox so they robbed us. The last thing I remember was one of them pointing to me and saying ‘You!’”

“Did you see them kidnap the old man?”

“No. I never knew he was taken until Johnny told me.”

Hume nodded. “Tell me about when you woke up.”

“I heard a woman’s voice. It was kind, soothing, but I don’t remember what she said. She stroked my hair, gave me something to drink. It tasted horrible, but I thought it was because of my head injury.”

“Then?”

“Then I fell asleep. When I woke up I heard her voice again, still reassuring. She mentioned something about a doctor. That’s all I remember.”

“And?”

“That pattern continued for some time. I’d wake up, she’d be there, soothing me, talking to me, she’d give me something to eat or drink. It all tasted bad. I’d sleep again. I thought I had a concussion.”

“For how long?”

“For most of my captivity. Even after we made it to their cabin, I continued to sleep much of the day, or be in a fog. The girl tended me. She fed me, took care of me. She explained that I’d been hurt and her brother was looking for a doctor for me. I believed her.”

“Until when?”

“Until I saw Johnny in her room at night. He’d tied her up and was about to gag her.”

Hume frowned. “Explain.”

“Well, I was confused. I knew Johnny wouldn’t hurt a woman, but he was none to gentle with her.”

“This is Johnny Madrid you’re talking about?”

Scott nodded. “Yes. Johnny Madrid. He’s not an ogre, you know. He rescued me. He told me they kidnapped me, her and her brothers, and taken me to their cabin. On someone’s orders. He didn’t say who at the time. I still didn’t want to believe him.”

“What convinced you?”

“He left the room and returned with a bottle of Laudanum. She’d been giving it to me. That’s why the food and drink tasted so bad, so bitter. She was keeping me drugged so I wouldn’t realize I was kidnapped and try to escape.”

“You said they perpetuated this kidnapping on orders. Whose?”

Scott hesitated. “I don’t know if I should tell you.”

“Please do.”

“Okay, then,” Scott drew a breath. “Buck Addison.”

Marshal Hume visibly startled. “Cattleman’s Hotel Buck Addison?”

“Yes.”

“Did Madrid tell you how he knew this?”

“He said one of the brothers told him.”

“Did anyone other than Johnny Madrid tell you this information?”

“No. We left shortly to return home. We tied and gagged the Wodens. I only released them to eat or for short periods of time.”

“And when you got home?”

“Johnny asked Murdoch to put them in the guardhouse.”

“Did you talk to them while they were in the guardhouse?”

“No. I didn’t have the opportunity, nor did I want to.”

Hume continued writing. “So, you really don’t know who performed the robbery, or why. All your information comes from Johnny Madrid.”

“Well, yes. The only first-hand knowledge I have is Johnny showing me the laudanum. I realized what he told me was true.”

“No, you surmised it. You came to that conclusion when presented with evidence of the story. Unless one of the Woden family admitted it to you, you can’t testify of your own knowledge that they were even involved.”

“Of course they were involved! I was there, wasn’t I? How did I get there if they didn’t take me?”

“Well,” Hume smiled. “You could have been having an affair with the girl, and your father could have sent Madrid to bring you back to your wife. They could be spinning this story to save your reputation, your wife her honor.”

Scott jumped up. “That is ridiculous! The stage was robbed! Garcia was left to die. Are you saying those things didn’t happen?”

“No, Scott. I’m not. I’m saying that’s how what happened to you—from your own knowledge—could be explained, by some people.”

Scott sat down again, slowly. “By whom?”

Hume didn’t answer. He changed the subject. “Now, what happened to the other Woden brother? There were two, right? Yet only one was killed here in the street.”

Scott drew a breath. “Yes, there were two. But Johnny and I, well, we made a mistake. Or rather, I did.”

“Explain.”

“It happened on that road, El Camino Viejo, at one of the creeks. We had just finished lunch. Johnny was washing up; it was my turn to watch the prisoners, let them clean up after eating, you know, before we tied them up again.”

“Go on.”

Scott hesitated. “I, I got distracted. I,” He decided to tell everything, “The girl’s blouse was unbuttoned deeply. I’m ashamed to say I glanced at her. It was only for a second, but that was enough.”

Hume smiled sympathetically. “That’s natural. What happened?”

“One of the brothers—Hank—ran for Johnny. He must have shoved him into the water. When I heard the splash I turned to see. That’s when I got hit by the other one. He knocked me down and was on top of me, hitting me everywhere. I was stunned and surprised at both his speed and strength. I wasn’t able to get control until we heard the gunshot.”

“Gunshot?”

“Yes. Johnny shot Hank. Lou Woden turned toward the sound and I was able to scramble up and kick him in the face.”

“That’s how those bruises got there.”

Scott nodded. He looked away, not wanting to say anything more.

Hume let the silence be for a few seconds. Out of the blue, he asked: “Do you consider Johnny Madrid to be a friend?”

Thrown, Scott nodded. “Yes. More than a friend, in fact. He’s—” Scott stopped himself. “He’s done a lot for me.”

“He’s in your employ?”

“No. Not anymore. Not since my wife and I arrived in Morro Coyo.”

“From Boston?”

“You know about that?”

“I’ve done my homework, Scott.”

“Then yes, I hired Johnny in Reno to escort us the rest of our trip. I paid him off in Morro Coyo, weeks ago.”

“Why did he stay and help you—and your father?”

Scott considered. There was much he could say, but in the end, they were all guesses. “I really don’t know why he didn’t return to Mexico that day.”

“So, Madrid stayed, and never told you why?”

Scott became uneasy. “I don’t know why he didn’t return immediately. After a few days, he helped me rescue my wife. Pardee had captured her. After that, well, we became friends, very good friends.”

“There seems to be a lot of kidnapping going on around here,” Hume observed.

Scott didn’t answer. He didn’t want to think about that.

Hume noticed Scott’s silence. He tried a different angle. “Do you know if your father ever paid Madrid anything?”

“No. He did not.”

“You are sure?”

“Without a doubt. Murdoch would never hire a gunfighter. He hates them.” Scott immediately regretted saying that.

Hume picked up on it. “If he hated gunfighters, why does he have a notorious one living at his house?”

“Because Johnny’s helped us. We owe him. And he’s my—”

“Friend,” Hume finished for him. “I know.” He clearly didn’t believe that was all to the story. He sat back, nodding.

“So, let me try to understand the Madrid story. You hired him. Paid him off. The gun-for-hire didn’t leave to find other jobs. He stayed for some unknown reason, with no pay, and ended up helping you and your father. He faced Pardee for you in a gunfight—yes, I know about that—and still stayed around after, again for free. Then, when you get kidnapped, he rescued you. All without being paid. A hired gun. Some hero, that Johnny Madrid.”

“You make it sound so preposterous.”

“That’s because it is.”

“Well, that’s what happened.”

“There has to be more, Scott. People aren’t going to believe that a notorious gun-for-hire like Johnny Madrid happens to befriend a Boston greenhorn, sticks around to help said greenhorn and your big rancher father—people he’s never met, has no relationship to—and is still here, helping the two of you out. And, all the while being blamed for untold miseries by your own minister. That takes some courage, Scott. Or no brains. And Madrid is smart.”

Scott refused to say more. He didn’t want to betray Murdoch or Johnny.

“All right. So tell me about last night. Did you see the shootings?”

“Yes. I was watching the minister walk away with the Wodens. Then I heard the shots: two, in rapid succession. Lou and Opal fell.”

“Pistol or rifle?”

Scott considered a moment. “Pistol.”

“You’re certain?”

“I was in the cavalry in the War, Marshal. I know.”

Hume nodded as he wrote. “Now, why did you move the prisoners from the Lancer guardhouse in the first place?”

Scott considered. “I think Murdoch should be the one to tell you that.”

“Good enough. Well, I have more questions for you, but I want to talk to your father first. Is he still downstairs?”

“I think he’s in his room.”

 

Murdoch’s Tale

“I guess it was the minister’s idea, Marshal. In church yesterday he, well, he implied that perhaps the prisoners should be kept in town.” Hume and Murdoch sat in the comfy chairs in Murdoch’s room.

“Even though there is no jail?” Hume’s powers of observation were acute.

“That was my argument. There is no secure place to hold them here. However, he felt we might somehow injure or intimidate the Wodens because of their involvement — or rather, we said they were involved — in Scott’s kidnapping. I believe the lawyers would call it a ‘conflict of interest’ for us to keep them in custody.”

“All right, so you capitulated.” Hume thought there was more to this story than the big rancher was telling.  “Tell me about bringing them to town.”

“We put them in the back of a wagon. I had two hands with us. Scott and Johnny Madrid rode along to guard.”

Hume wanted to ask the Madrid question but waited. “Go on.”

“We got into town and brought them to Sam’s office. The minister wanted Sam to examine them.”

“Why?”

“To make sure they were healthy, not mistreated. Although we would never harm them. Again, he was thinking we may have done something to them.”

“Did they pass inspection?” Hume smiled.

Murdoch grinned. “Yes. Although the minister had some questions about where the rope had rubbed on their wrists and ankles, and about Lou Woden’ injuries from his fight with Scott. Sam explained it to him. Reverend Root didn’t like it but he seemed to accept it. He untied them and began to lead them to his house.”

“His house?”

“Yes. He wanted be the one to provide secure confinement.”

“Interesting. With their hands untied. Hmmm.” He made a note. “Please continue.”

“Well, that’s when it happened. Two shots. Both very fast. Everyone ran. I jumped off the wagon and hurt my back and leg. When it was over, Lou Woden was dead and the girl seriously injured. Sam ran to help her.”

“Did you see where the shots came from?”

“No. I’m afraid I was otherwise occupied,” Murdoch said grimly. He rubbed his sore leg.

“Could you tell from the sound if they were from a pistol or rifle?”

Murdoch closed his eyes, remembering. “Pistol, definitely.”

“Where was Johnny Madrid in all this?”

“He had gone to the saloon. From when we arrived in town, Reverend Root was blaming him for...for a lot of things. He got out of the line of that fire.” Murdoch immediately regretted that last statement.

“I see. Go on.”

“Well, Sam was trying to save the girl’s life. The minister wanted people to go accost Johnny Madrid; he was sure Johnny had shot them. Scott and a few others helped Sam bring the girl in for treatment. Reverend Root followed, but I don’t know why. Scott told me—”

“Don’t tell me what Scott said. I just want what you saw, what you said and what you heard yourself.”

“All right, well, that’s the end of my part I guess. I left the doctor’s house and headed to the saloon. Scott came after he left Sam’s. We decided to stay in town for the night.”

“Did you see anything during the night? Anybody?”

“No. I went straight to bed. We were at breakfast when Sam came in and told us about the girl.”

Hume flipped back a page in his notebook. He resettled in his chair. “Now tell me why you went to the saloon last night.”

“To talk with Johnny Madrid. The reverend had come down pretty hard. I wanted to make sure...”

“Of what, Mr. Lancer?”

Murdoch drew a breath. “That there were witnesses to the fact that he wasn’t involved in the shooting, that he’d been in the saloon the whole time.”

“You weren’t concerned that he may have been the one to kill that man, and shoot the girl?”

“No. From what I’ve learned about Johnny Madrid, he plays fair. He doesn’t ambush.”

“I see. What does Madrid have to do with all this? Why was he the one who went after your son? Why was he even at your ranch in the first place?”

“That’s a long story, Marshal.”

Hume smiled. “I have time.”

Murdoch opted for the shorter version. “Madrid helped us get rid of Day Pardee and his men. They were attacking my ranch. There was no law to help. You only just now arrived in the San Joaquin.”

“Is that why you hired him?”

“I never hired him!”

Hume raised an eyebrow. “Really? He helps you defeat raiders, fights a gunfight instead of your son, rescues the same son...and all for free? That doesn’t sound like the actions of a gunfighter.”

Murdoch hesitated. “He and Scott have become...friends.”

“I’ll say.”

Neither man said anything more. Hume asked the silent question, Murdoch did not answer.

“Okay then, where can I find Madrid?”

“He left town last night. Camped out on the trail. I don’t know where he is.”

“He left? Alone? Convenient, wouldn’t you say?”

 

It’s a Wonderful Lie

Scott paced in his room, looking out the window for the tenth time. Where was Johnny? It was past noon. He’d expected his brother to return to town today. Not that they’d agreed on meeting or anything, but it made sense. He didn’t mention doing anything else.

Johnny was in trouble. Root wouldn’t stop until he was blamed for the Woden killing. He had to admit, it sure looked suspicious. Two shots in the darkness, one of them perfect. Only someone really good with a handgun could have done that. And Johnny was an expert.

Then again, so was he, at least with a rifle. However, a rifleman hadn’t fired those shots. The sound had definitely been that made by a pistol. And he worried that Green River’s citizens would believe Root just because Johnny was so good with a Colt. Nevertheless, Scott figured that many in this town were handy with pistols as well. Still, with only two shots fired in quick succession. How many could do that? 

While it was more than coincidence he and Johnny they were ambushed on the way back from the Woden cabin and the Wodens were attacked as well, as soon as they were in the open. Scott wasn’t sure it was the same person.

The man who fired on Johnny from top of that hill used a rifle. Johnny showed him the damage to his hat; the man was quite good, probably as good as he was, Scott admitted.

However, the man who fired on the Wodens in the street had used a pistol and was equally as good. How many people were proficient at both weapons? He’d known a few in the war, but they were career men.

Also, it would have made more sense for the man who ambushed them on the trail would have tried again there. They were vulnerable out in the open plain. Someone watching from a distance would have had several opportunities to get to either them or the Wodens then. Why wait until Green River?

However, if it was the same man, then their ambush coming out of Devil’s Den had not been mere happenstance; they were targeted, at least Johnny Madrid was.

Scott considered that. Johnny was definitely the target that night. The good reverend had been causing ruckus in town regarding Johnny. Could someone from town have taken his words further and followed Johnny all the way to the Wodens, only to lie in wait for them on the road? It didn’t seem likely. And Johnny had been adamant that he wasn’t followed.

Then there was the ambush on Johnny as he was returning with the stallion. They still hadn’t solved that issue. Johnny was convinced now that it was Addison, or someone working for Addison, but Murdoch was maintaining Addison wouldn’t have had the time to set that up. And what did he think? Johnny’s conclusion made sense, but so did Murdoch’s point. He didn’t know.

Scott shook his head. Too much to think about. Too many questions. Too little facts to go on.

 

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

 

Root strode purposefully toward the saloon. He had an idea, a brilliant idea that would finish Lancer and Madrid once and for all. He brushed through the doors, swinging them widely. Seeing his prey, he smiled.

“Mack!” the reverend called across the room. Reaching the barman in a few quick steps, he ignored the stares and surprised looks from the few patrons.

The barman stopped cleaning a glass. “Reverend,” Mack greeted solemnly. He was wary. A minister in a saloon was never a good thing.

“I’ve been missing you in church services, Mack. Have you been ill?”

“No, sir. But I work late each Saturday night. It’s hard for me to make it.”

“I understand. It is difficult. Do you think you can make a better effort in the future?”

“Yes, sir, I do.” Mack felt he was let off the hook, but he knew there had to be a catch.

“Good, good. That’s all the Lord can ask.” He picked up a shot glass, idly eyeing it, and lowered his voice. “Tell me, was that evil gunfighter Johnny Madrid here during the shootings last night?”

Mack dropped his cloth on the bar and picked it up again. “Yes, sir. He was. He sat right—” He lifted his arm to point.

The minister pulled his arm down. He spoke quietly, but with authority. “I think you misspoke, Mack. I think you meant to say that Madrid was not here, that he never came in here last night, and that you’ve never seen him in here at all.”

Mack gulped. The minister could make it tough for him. “Why would I say that?”

Root smiled. “Because it’s true.”

“But there were others who saw—”

“Tell me their names.”

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

 

Johnny rose very late, electing to stay warm in his bedroll under a soft blanket rather than brave the unseasonably cool air of early morning. The sun was already up and Barranca was nuzzling at his cheek, quietly demanding to be fed. “All right, amigo. I’m up. I’m up.” He wrangled out of his bedroll and stood, stretching up to the sky. Barranca snorted. “I’m coming, boy. You sure are hungry this morning.” He stroked the animal’s velvety nose.

Johnny tended to Barranca, feeding and caring for the demanding horse before returning to the nearby creek to get water for coffee. After he put out the fire, he saddled the horse, intending on returning to town, but as he mounted he thought better of it.

There really was no need for him to be in Green River, he concluded. He disliked towns anyway; too many eyes, too many whispering voices, and that great humanitarian Timothy Root was there. Johnny snorted and shook his head. He turned Barranca toward the ranch. He’d go to the hacienda and look after the ladies. Scott would like that. And he himself would like it better away from that meddling minister.

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

 

Hume ran into Reverend Root outside the saloon. If the lawman was surprised at seeing the minister leaving the establishment, he didn’t show it. He merely nodded to the man, who returned his nod with a mysterious smile.

John Hume sat at a table and ordered a beer. He took out his notepad and began reading, trying to piece together what happened last night, and before. He knew there was more to the Lancer-Madrid story, but the doctor Sam Jenkins had seemed straightforward. He may be able to shed some light on Lancer and Madrid if the Reverend Root was correct about Jenkins being good friends with Lancer.

“Here’s your beer, mister,” Mack said, placing the cool draft on the table.

“Thank you,” Hume answered. He looked the man in the eye. “Are you the bartender here?”

“Yes, sir, for more’n two years now.”

“Were you working last night?”

Hume noticed the barman shuffle his feet and play with the drink tray. “Yes,” he answered, his eyes on the beer mug.

“I’m John Hume, Deputy US Marshal. I have a few questions for you, if you don’t mind.”

“I see, Marshal. Well, uh, I have to get back to work. Mebbe we can talk later.”

Hume looked around. “There’s only one other customer. This won’t take long.” He pulled out the seat next to him. “Sit.”

Seeing he was cornered, Mack glanced around before taking the chair.

“What’s your name, sir?”

“Mack, Mack Conner.”

“Mr Conner, who was in here last night, about the time of the shooting?”

“It weren’t Johnny Madrid,” Mack answered quickly. He nearly ran the words together.

Suspicious Minds

“Okay, it wasn’t Johnny Madrid, but I asked who was here.” Hume wasn’t fooled one bit by the barman’s quick statement.

Mack was still nervous. “Oh, well, um. Tom and Bill. They work at the S Bar. It’s a small ranch south of here. And, um, Chuck. Yeah, Chuck was here. He owns the supply place.”

“That’s all?”

“Besides me,” Mack managed a smile.

“What did you do when the shots rang out?”

Mack relaxed. “We all ran to the door. Well, we ducked first.” He laughed nervously.

“Did anyone come in after the shooting?”

“Yep. Murdoch Lancer did. Not too long after.”

“What did Mr Lancer do?”

“He sat at that there table.” He pointed to the small table in the back corner.

Hume glanced at the table before returning to his notepad. “How’d he walk? Fast? Slow?”

“Real slow. He had himself a mighty strong limp. More’n usual. And he had his hand on his hip like it hurt.”

“What did Mr. Lancer do at that table?”

“He sat down, real easy-like. He was hurtin’, I could tell.” He nodded. “I brought him a shot glass.”

“Just a glass?”

Mack grew nervous again. “Well, no. He drank tequila. A bottle.”

“A bottle of tequila.” Hume repeated as he wrote it down. “Is that what Mr. Lancer normally drinks?”

“No, sir. He usually has Scotch or a beer.”

Hume nodded his head in thought. He looked up at the bartender, who was nervous again. “It seems an odd thing, doesn’t it? A man with a pronounced limp, in obvious pain, choosing to ignore all the other tables in here and walk all the way to the back to that table there and order tequila, something he never drinks?”

Mack picked at his shirt, greatly interested in a small stain.

“Was he meeting someone at the table?”

The bartender forgot the shirt. His eyes met the lawman’s. “Well, his son Scott did come in after a while. He came to the table, too.”

“Oh? Did he get a drink?”

“I think. Yeah. He did. Well, another glass. They all drank tequila.”

“Did they talk about anything?”

“Probably the shooting. Everyone talked about that. Who might have done it, things like that, you know.”

“But did you hear what the people at that table talked about?”

Mack shook his head. “No. Not them. They all kept their voices low. And besides, I knew better than to listen to him.”

“Why is that?”

“Cuz Joh—” Mack stopped himself. He restarted,  “Well, because Mr. Lancer is such a,” He paused to think of something. “A rich man,” he finished lamely.

“All right. Thank you, Mack.” Hume nodded, dismissing the man. Mack smiled and rose, obviously relieved his interview was over.

 

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

 

Hume had a suspicion. He first checked into his hotel, the one recommended by Reverend Root, the Cattleman’s Hotel. It was the branch of the flagship in Visalia where he’d been staying since his arrival this past week. Leaving his bag behind, he walked to the livery to have a talk with Garcia.

His brother James, the Wells Fargo detective, had not interviewed any of the passengers in the robbery; he only talked to the driver to gain what information he had. He’d been planning on meeting with the passengers, but had been called back to San Jose. Hume figured he’d interview those people for James now.

He found Pedro Garcia in his livery, brushing down a horse. His grandson, Miguel, was helping. “Hello,” he greeted the old man. “I am Deputy US Marshal John Hume. I have a few questions about the stage robbery. Do you have time to talk with me?”

The old man stopped his work and smiled, nodding, “Si, of course, Señor Marshal. I will do what I can.”

“And me, too!” Miguel piped in. “I was there, too!”

“Yes, Pedro,” Hume smiled. “I want to talk to you as well, but now, just your grandfather.”

Disappointed, Miguel took his grandfather’s direction and climbed the ladder to the hayloft. He busied himself by cleaning it up.

“Now, Mr. Garcia, please tell me about the robbery.” He pulled out his notebook and prepared to write.

Garcia related his story, telling of how they were stopped, robbed, of how young Scott Lancer was hit over the head and chosen first. Then he himself was dragged away, his grandson protesting, before being tied and gagged.

“They put us in a wagon, señor, and drove away fast. Señor Lancer was out cold. He wouldn’t remember, but I do. I bounced in that wagon every time it hit a rock or took a curve. It was más incómodo—most uncomfortable. It went on for a long time.” He nodded, remembering. “Then, they stopped. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “They pulled me out of the wagon, took my shoes—why did they take an old man’s shoes?—and tied me to a tree. It was cold, señor, and damp. I had no blanket or jacket. They left me there. I could not call for help. I was gagged. All night I waited. I thought I would die.”

“It was just the two men?”

“At first, si, but then I heard another voice. The voice of a woman. I could not understand what she said.”

Hume nodded. “Go on. Then what happened?”

“Around dawn, I heard a horse. I did not know if I should make a noise or not. But I had to cough. The rider, he came to me. He helped me. He gave me water, a blanket, some food. He took me to the way station. He was Johnny Madrid.” Garcia smiled. “Johnny Madrid is always good to us Mexicans, señor.”

“Is there more?”

Un poco. The man at the way station gave me shoes and put me on the next stage. El medico Sam gave me medicine. Miguel made me well.” He smiled.

Hume stopped writing. He thanked Garcia and called to the boy. Miguel shimmied down the ladder and stood importantly, relating his side of the story.

“I tried to stop them, señor Marshal. I grabbed Abuelo but they kicked me away. They hit me to make me stop. They hurt me. The driver, he held me so they would stop. He made sure I got to el medico Sam.”

“What happened once you arrived in Green River?”

El medico Sam, he took care of me. I stayed the night at the house of Señora Henderson. She help el medico Sam sometime. She fed me. El medico Sam was going to get tia mia in Morro Coyo, but Abuelo, he come on stage that day. I help Abuelo get well.” He smiled.

Hume smiled at the boy. “You are a hero, Miguel. I am proud of you.” He patted Miguel on the head. Miguel beamed.

 

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

 

Root was worried. He intended to rent a horse from the livery but Hume was inside talking to the owner Garcia. He didn’t want Hume to know so he was forced to wait, hoping that the marshal wouldn’t beat him to his destination. He’d already talked with Chuck at the supply house. All he had left to do was to ride out to the S Bar and find Tom and Bill.

He finally decided to go another route. He’d ask his friend Buck Addison if he had a horse he could borrow. Root hurried to Addison’s hotel.

 

Sniffing Around

Marshal Hume strode into the Cattleman’s Hotel looking for Gilford Duncan, the last victim of the stage robbery he needed to interview. He’d been told that Duncan was Addison’s right hand man and his manager for the Green River branch of his flagship hotel in Visalia.

Why Addison had opened his hotel in Green River baffled Hume. The town just wasn’t large enough, it didn’t get enough traffic, to warrant such a fine establishment. Had Addison built a branch north or south of Goshen, along the railroad line—that would have been understandable. But Green River? A small town nestled close to the Diablo Mountains? He didn’t get it.

“Mr. Duncan?” he inquired, upon finding the manager’s office. He stood in the doorway. Duncan was at his desk.

“Yes?” The man looked up.

“I’m Marshal Hume. I’d like to ask you a few questions if you don’t mind.”

Duncan stiffened slightly—a gut reaction—then relaxed. “Of course I don’t. Come on in.” He stood, too quickly, and winced. He was still sore.

Hume noticed the man’s slight apprehension and dismissed it as normal. Most people don’t like to answer a lawman’s questions, but he did make a note of the man’s pain and apparent bodily stiffness. It indicated that he’d recently been engaged in a physical activity that he didn’t normally do.

Hume sat across the desk and pulled out his notebook. “What can you tell me about the robbery?”

Duncan related the same story as Scott and Garcia, with few embellishments. “I had to calm that brat down all the way from that way station to Green River.” Duncan didn’t hide his displeasure.

“What about after the stage made it to town?”

“I reported to my boss, Mr. Addison.”

“That’s it?”

“Pretty much. If you recover my money and my pocket watch, I’d be most grateful.”

“I’ll do what I can. What did you do in the days following the robbery?”

Duncan stared. “I don’t see how that’s relevant?”

Hume shrugged. “It may not be. But why don’t you want to tell me?”

“It’s not that.”

Hume smiled. “Then answer the question.”

Resigned to talking, Duncan admitted, “I went on a trip. On business.”

“Another? You travel a lot for Mr. Addison?”

“Sometimes. Opening this hotel has been a challenge. It still is.”

“Where did you go?”

Duncan was stymied. He tried to think quickly of a place he could have gone that couldn’t be verified. He settled on the story he’d told to Marlin Keck. “To find some former guests. Mr. Addison wanted us to refund them some money. They overpaid.”

“And where were they?”

“Southwest.” Duncan indicated with his head. “In the mountains.”

“Did you find them?”

“Yes,” Duncan smiled to cover his lie. “Sure did. Gave them what they deserved. Everyone was happy.”

Hume changed the subject. He had a hunch. “Is it part of your job to know your guests names, where they are from? What town?”

“Of course.”

“Were the Woden siblings ever guests here?”

Duncan hesitated. If he lied and said no, someone may remember them. If he said yes, he’d invite further questions. He decided to be neutral. “I believe they were. I was out of town so I can’t be sure.”

“When did they leave?”

“I don’t know. They weren’t here when I returned.”

“Who could I talk with who would know those answers?”

“Try Wells. He’s the desk clerk. Cory Wells.”

“Will do, thanks. Oh, one more question: you said opening this hotel was a challenge. Do you know why Mr. Addison chose Green River to open a branch of his grand establishment in Visalia?”

“It’s an up-and-coming town,” Duncan stated firmly.

“It seems to me to be a sleepy little village, on no major routes.”

“I really don’t know, Marshal. You should ask him that.”

Hume stood up. “Thank you. I just might.” He smiled.

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

 

Abby stood in the courtyard and stretched her back. She’d been busy since early this morning, having risen before the sun, unable to sleep without Scott beside her. It had become a routine, her sleeplessness, while he was in captivity, except this time she hadn’t worried so much; she’d known where he was and figured he was safe.

She and Aggie had lingered over breakfast, having talked the older woman out of returning to her ranch. Her foreman was more than capable, Abby had argued, and didn’t she want to be here when Murdoch returned? She was able to convince her friend of the wisdom of staying.

They’d spent most of the morning together, perusing catalogs for fabrics for the new suite under construction. It was difficult, Abby realized, selecting colors and patterns for a nursery without knowing the newborn’s gender. Abby tended toward more feminine fabrics, which in the East, would be satisfactory for both baby boys and girls, but here in California, she wasn’t sure.

“Gingham is always a good choice,” Aggie suggested. “Or, how about this? You can make up two bedrooms now, one for a boy and another for a girl. Make the nursery part in yellow or green with patterns what will work for either sex.”

Abby smiled. “That’s perfect, Aggie. I’m so happy you decided to stay with us another day.” She hugged the older woman.

Abby went outside to stretch her legs and get some sun. She strolled around the courtyard, idly watching the grey stallion in the corral as she took in the beautiful day. The early morning crispness had burned off to what was promising to be a nice, warm day.

She saw a rider approach the hacienda and smiled, recognizing the horse. Abby waited until he came within earshot before calling out. “Johnny! You’re home. Where are Scott and Murdoch?”

Johnny trotted Barranca to meet her. “Still in town, I guess.” He dismounted. Smitty took Barranca to the barn.

“You guess?”

“I didn’t stay there last night. I camped out.”

“Whatever for?”

Johnny smiled. “I like sleeping under the stars.” He brushed passed her into the house.

She got a whiff of him as he passed. “Take a bath, will you?” she called, wrinkling her nose.

Johnny laughed and raised a hand as he walked away.

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

 

Having finished interviewing the stage passengers from the robbery, Hume had a better understanding of the current case background. He wanted to talk to Johnny Madrid, but the gunfighter apparently disappeared. That did not bode well.

Hume did not believe Mack Conner when he blurted out that Madrid had not been in the saloon, but Madrid’s absence today was suspicious, to say the least. Lancer and his son stood steadfast by the gunfighter, a strange occurrence in itself. From what he’d learned of Murdoch Lancer before coming, the man was known to dislike gunfighters.

The minister blamed Madrid for the shootings, and it seemed plausible. Johnny Madrid was a known crack shot; Lou Woden was shot through the heart, his sister’s wound barely missed hers. Witnesses said they were fired in rapid succession, something only an expert could have done with that accuracy. They were fired from a pistol, not a rifle. It seemed likely that Madrid was the one, particularly when you add in the fact that the Wodens could have contradicted his story about the robbery and kidnapping.

But in his world, while plausibility and likelihood mattered, evidence is what was admitted in court. He had nothing to show Madrid was the shooter. Nor did he have even a slight indication of anyone else who could have gunned down Lou and Opal Woden.

Hume needed to know more.

 

Close Encounters that are Not So Kind

Scott knocked on Murdoch’s door. His stomach was rumbling—no wonder, since it was well after noon and he hadn’t eaten much breakfast thanks to Sam’s news. And he was worried about Johnny. Where was he?

Murdoch opened his door and invited Scott inside.

“Lunch?” he asked his father. “I’m starved.”

“I’m hungry, too, What do you say we stir things up a bit and dine at the Cattleman’s Hotel?”

Scott grinned. “I wonder how Buck Addison would react.”

“That’s my idea.”

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

 

Chuck Lansing, owner of Lansing Supply, nervously confirmed Mack’s statement: Madrid was not in the saloon. He wasn’t as bad a liar as Mack, but Hume knew regardless. Everyone had a tell, and Chuck’s tell was that he clenched his fist.

He had an idea who was getting to Mack and Chuck but he needed confirmation. “Slow day?” he asked. There were no customers in the warehouse.

“Yep. No customers as of yet. I think people are too shocked about what happened last night.”

“No, Pa,” a tow-headed boy ran up. He looked about ten. “The minister was here, remember?”

“Yes, son, but he wasn’t a customer. He only wanted to talk shop.”

“Oh. Never mind.” The boy had wanted to help.

But he had. Hume checked off another item on his list.

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

 

Cory Wells merely confirmed that the Wodens were indeed guests at the Cattleman’s, for nearly a week, and when asked, he looked it up and saw that Mr. Addison had signed their bill. Hume thanked him for his cooperation and decided it was time for lunch.

Something else to think about.

He really needed to talk to Johnny Madrid.

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

 

Buck Addison was seated in his customary table, a small round in the front corner, semi-private but with a full view of the room. His steak was cooked to perfection and he enjoyed each bite, but he stopped in mid-chew when he saw Murdoch and Scott Lancer in the doorway waiting to be seated.

They appeared not to see him, at least they didn’t look his way, but he noticed that they selected chairs at their table facing the front, so he was in their view. It was only a matter of time until they realized he was there.

He didn’t know what they knew, other than they had recovered the stolen horse. Did they know the significance of the brand? The hacienda where he had been kept? Did he in fact manage to get the branding iron to Lancer? Had it been with Scott Lancer instead of in his luggage? And most importantly, did they know that he had orchestrated the stage robbery and Scott’s kidnapping?

He wasn’t sure what to do. Duncan would know; he would have a strategy, but when it came to Murdoch Lancer, Duncan was right—Addison lost his senses and tended to react rather than think things through.

He was about to consider signaling a waiter to get Duncan when Marshal Hume entered the dining room. Now his problems compounded. What did Hume know? He’d been asking an awful lot of questions to an awful lot of people. What had he found out?

His heart skipped a beat when he saw Murdoch Lancer wave to Hume to join them and nearly melted when the marshal smiled and took a chair with them. They were all circled around the table, with a view of the full room, and all of them within full sight of his table.

Addison put down his fork, his steak instantly losing its appeal.

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

 

Murdoch and Scott left the dining room, having dined with the marshal. They noticed Addison at his table, watching them. “He pretty much stopped eating once Marshal Hume sat down with us,” Scott chuckled.

“Yes, he did. It was quite a show.”

“So now what?” Scott wasn’t sure what else they could do in town.

“I’m not sure. Things are developing here, in town, with the marshal, but we’ve got a ranch to run.”

Scott was anxious to return to Abby, but he was concerned for Johnny. “I think we need to stick around a little bit longer. If nothing turns up, we can always return home later today or tomorrow.”

Murdoch considered. His son spoke wise words. As anxious as he was to get back to the ranch, Green River was a dangerous place right now. With Addison feeling free and the minister around, the US Marshal may not be enough to keep things cool. “You’re right. We’ll stay. But we’ll send word to the ranch.”

They headed toward their hotel, via the livery, intending on asking Señor Garcia if Miguel would be able to ride out to Lancer with their message. Garcia agreed and Miguel nodded enthusiastically. He was proud to help the friends of Johnny Madrid, who helped save his abuelo.

The chore done, Murdoch and Scott retired to their hotel and established their presence in the lobby. Scott used the time to catch up on the news by reading a San Francisco paper, only a few days old. Murdoch busied himself by watching the people walk by, wondering what would happen next.

Murdoch considered the situation. The only people who could implicate Addison in the robbery and kidnapping were dead. It looked like he would get away with it. Addison had to be the one who arranged their assassination just like he arranged for the Wodens to rob the stage and kidnap Scott.

But did he?

Again, Murdoch realized that all he had were questions, the same questions, the same suspicions, but nothing concrete. No proof of any kind. The only ones who had any proof were dead.

He was back to square one.

Except the minister was now singing a different tune, albeit out of the same songbook. With nothing but his own arrogance as proof, he had singled out Johnny Madrid as the sole cause of all the community’s problems. Johnny Madrid had corrupted Murdoch, so the minister thought, and somehow that corruption had led to the robbery and kidnapping. Not to mention it was Johnny Madrid who the minister blamed for the Woden killings, immediately following the shooting and without proof. Marshal Hume needed to solve the murders soon, or the new reverend would rally the town against Johnny Madrid. And that would be dangerous. Very dangerous.

Murdoch worried about Johnny. This was a new feeling. Since first setting eyes on his younger son, Murdoch’s feelings for him have ranged from near-hatred and contempt to concern and a growing fondness. It confused and frightened him, at least a little. It was a quick transformation.

It really started when Johnny left the hacienda that day, when Murdoch told him if he couldn’t change or didn’t want to change, that he couldn’t stay. Murdoch admitted to himself that he made a mistake in driving the young man away, and his heart tugged at him as he watched that golden palomino take him farther and farther from where he should have been all his life.

Then there was the guilt, his own failings as a husband and father. If he had been more attune to Maria during their marriage perhaps he would have done more to make her happy, to give her the things she needed, to squash the unkind words of the other wives in the community. Then, maybe, she would have stayed. And Johnny would never have become the notorious Johnny Madrid.

All he knew now was that he finally had all of his family around him: Scott and Abby, and their expected child, Johnny at least still in the area, and Teresa, his ward, the girl he considered his daughter. He didn’t want anything to happen to any of them. Just as he wanted to protect and guard Aggie Conway, he fiercely guarded and protected them. All of them.

And Scott! How he owed his elder son! The young man left a comfortable life behind, a career and position that was secure, wealth there to be taken, and for what? The uncertainty of the West? The risk of the unknown? Just as his mother had done years before. He was proud, immensely proud of the young man sitting in the chair beside him, but had he told him that? Not in so many words. Yet the man continued to go on, risking everything on a daily basis for him. Putting his own wife and future family in danger as well. That kind of quiet courage was hard to find and Murdoch was delighted that his son had inherited that from his mother.

“Scott,” Murdoch decided now was as good a time as any. The lobby was empty. It was quiet.

“Yes?”

“I just want to say how proud I am of you. You left everything behind to take a chance out here. You’ve performed beautifully and exceeded all my expectations. You and Abby are such a welcomed addition to Lancer, and to me. I...” he had to stop. He was overcome with emotion.

Scott smiled inwardly. “I understand, Sir. You don’t have to say any more. We are both happy to be here.”

Murdoch nodded, unable to speak. He drew a deep breath.

“Now,” Scott sensed the need to change the subject. “If we can only find Johnny!”

 

The Minister’s Machination

Hume left the dining room in search of Buck Addison. Having learned that the hotel owner was in the dining room at the same time as he was enjoying lunch with the Lancers, the marshal berated himself for not taking the opportunity to interview him then. He preferred to talk to witnesses when they were doing something, especially eating. It helped him determine if they were telling the truth or not, watching their reactions when they weren’t so guarded.

Buck was in his office, a large room on the second floor of the hotel with lots of windows forming an arc. It faced the front, giving him a complete view of the town.

“Mr. Addison,” the marshal said as he knocked on the open door. “I am Deputy US Marshal Hume.”

“I know who you are,” Buck said, rising from his chair. “I’ve been hoping you would come and see me.” He hadn’t; he’d been dreading it, but he would be damned if he let that man know it.

“Good, good. Well, I only have a few questions for you, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.” Addison offered a chair and sent for coffee. “I see you’ve been making the rounds.” He tried to keep his voice calm, casual.

“Yes, there are so many people to talk to.”

“Well, fire away,” Addison said with a bravado he didn’t really feel.

“All right, I will.” He fingered through his notebook. “First of all, tell me about your man Duncan. Gilford Duncan, I believe. What does he do for you?”

Buck was surprised at the question and he raised an eyebrow. “Duncan? He’s the manager here. He was my personal assistant at the hotel in Visalia, and I offered him this position when I decided to open one here. He’s very capable.”

“Does he travel a lot for you?”

“Yes, I’m afraid,” Buck smiled. “Too much. I need to hire someone to do that so Gil can stay here and do his regular job.”

“He recently went on two trips for you, I understand. Can you tell me what they were about?”

Addison shifted in his chair. “Yes, well, the first was a trip to the main hotel in Visalia. That was routine business.”

“And the second?”

Addison hesitated. He hadn’t yet talked to Duncan about a story to tell regarding the trip to the Woden cabin. He didn’t know what his manager had told the marshal. “That was business, too. Something about a guest.” Addison was proud of himself. His answer was vague enough to may have fit with whatever Duncan had said.

“Where did he go?”

Thinking fast, Addison fudged, “I’m not sure of the precise location. You’d have to talk to him. All I know is that he headed south.” That was safe enough.

“You sent him on a business trip and didn’t know where he was going?”

“He was supposed to research it. He left before he could tell me.” He knew Hume was suspicious. It wasn’t good business practice to send an employee on a trip and not know the particulars. “I’m afraid I wasn’t feeling very well the morning he left; rather than wait for me to rise, he left on time.”

“I see.”

Buck realized he needed to explain more. “I know that sounds unusual, but I trust Duncan explicitly.”

Hume smiled. “It’s a great comfort knowing you hired people you can trust.”

Addison nodded. “Truly.” He hoped that satisfied the lawman’s curiosity.

“So, why did you open a hotel here in Green River?”

Again Addison couldn’t tell the real reason. He shrugged to hide the lie. “I felt it was a good place for a second hotel.”

“But it’s not on any major routes, and the railroad is going through the other side of the slough.”

Buck leaned forward, an action that displayed expertise and knowledge. “Yes, and all of that property going for inflated prices, too. I bought the old hotel here for a song and remodeled it. And I have it on good authority that Southern Pacific is bringing a rail line from San Jose down this way.”

“Isn’t that speculation and years in the future?”

“I like getting in on the ground floor.” Addison grinned. He was proud of himself. He’d fielded all of Hume’s questions.

“I see. Now can you tell me what you saw last night. Did you see the shootings?”

This one he had been expecting. He related his rehearsed lie: “No, I did not. I was already in bed. I’ve not been feeling up to par, as I mentioned before, so I went to bed early.”

Hume made the note and looked back to the hotelier. “I have just one more question, Mr. Addison. Your desk clerk, Cory Wells, said you paid the bill for when the Wodens stayed here. Why?”

Addison tried not to react. He inwardly cursed, having failed to caution Wells about letting that information out. “Well, they didn’t have the money and as I was feeling generous that day, I paid it for them. They promised to return and pay me back as soon as possible.” He hoped that would suffice.

“Interesting,” Hume murmured. “These people get a free ride at your hotel then they are brought back by Madrid and Lancer who accused them of robbing the stage. Is that how they were planning on paying you back?”

Addison nearly laughed. The marshal was playing into his story. “I don’t know, Marshal. They seemed to be good people to me. A mite countryfied, though. I thought they were honest.” He shrugged. “But maybe that’s what they were planning when I gave them an out.”

“Are you in the habit of letting customers not pay their bill?”

Addison puffed up importantly. “No, of course not. However, I felt it was the right thing to do for them. They were young, and they seemed vulnerable.”

Hume continued to stare at the hotelier, trying to make sense of that excuse. “I see.”

“I’ll not do that again, that’s certain, Marshal. I see how it worked out this time.”

 

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

 

Root smiled. He’d made it to the S Bar and had a short chat with Bill and Tom. Reassured that the only witnesses to Johnny Madrid being in the saloon at the time of the shooting would deny it, he was congratulating himself on a job well done when he stopped short, his smile melting.

Marshal Hume was riding toward him, loping at a pace which would bring him within shouting distance in seconds. Drawing a breath, the minister decided the best defense was a good offense and forced a smile, greeting the lawman enthusiastically. “Why good afternoon, Marshal! Out for a ride? It’s such a lovely day, isn’t it? The Lord sure does good work.”

“Yes, He does,” Hume replied. “Is that why you’re out and about today?”

Root hoped Hume wouldn’t begin to wonder why he had been to the ranch. “Partially, yes. I do enjoy a nice ride when the weather is good and there is an awful many good days here in California. But I also had some ministering to do at the S Bar.”

“I hope everyone is all right.” Hume showed concern.

“Oh, yes,” Root smiled. “Right as rain.” He changed the subject, going on the attack. He leaned toward Hume. “Have you arrested that evil gunfighter Johnny Madrid yet?”

“No. Should I?”

Root straightened in surprise. “Why of course you should! He shot the Woden boys and suffocated the girl.”

“Reverend, I can’t arrest someone just because they’ve been accused. I need evidence, witnesses.”

“You have witnesses, don’t you?” Root was growing impatient with the marshal.

“Do you know of someone I should talk with?”

Do I have to do all his work? Root thought. “Lancer says Madrid was in the saloon. Was he? Did Mack Conner say he was? What about the others in the saloon: Ben, Tom, and Chuck? What do they say? I daresay, Marshal, you don’t seem to be talking to the right people!”

Hume smiled. “Where can I find this Ben, Tom and Chuck you mention?”

Realizing he’d said too much, Root tried another tactic. “Do you even know where Johnny Madrid is?”

Hume smiled a patient smile. “You enjoy this fine afternoon, Reverend.” He touched his hat, dismissing the man, and urged his horse forward.

 

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

 

At the S Bar, Hume talked to both Ben and Tom, who, just as he suspected they would, denied Johnny Madrid was in the saloon at all last night. They weren’t even the best of liars, being a little too quick on the draw like Mack had been, and just a little too sure of their testimony.

Interesting that in three of the four cases, Hume thought, he’d discovered that the good reverend had been in the vicinity just before his interview. He was certain the minister was tweaking the evidence to show Madrid’s guilt, but other than the man’s fascination with Madrid, he didn’t know why. More importantly, he didn’t have proof of the man’s meddling.

Now he desperately needed to talk to Johnny Madrid. Deciding to take a chance, he rode toward the Lancer hacienda. If Madrid wasn’t in town, he just might be there. It was a long trip, as the S Bar was on the other side of Green River from Lancer, but he urged his horse to a faster gait hoping to arrive before too late in the afternoon.

 

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

 

“Go back to town!”

“No.” Johnny was petulant. He’d had enough of towns, of traveling, and nearly enough of people. He needed to be alone. No, he thought better of it, he needed something to do and be alone to do it. The bath Abby suggested hadn’t been enough and now sitting around this hacienda watching Abby’s workmen wasn’t cutting it.

“Johnny,” Abby entreated, “I’m concerned about Murdoch and Scott. Smitty said they were just spending the night. It’s well after lunch. They aren’t home yet.”

“They’re not in trouble,” Johnny tried to reassure her, keeping his impatience in check. “They’re probably keeping an eye on that minister. Or talking to Sam.”

“Are you sure?”

Johnny stunned her with one of his brilliant smiles. “Absolutely.”

Aggie, who had been silently watching their exchange, turned away, melting in spite of herself at Johnny Madrid’s winning smile. She wanted to agree with him and soothe Abby, but didn’t trust her voice.

Maria came in the great room to bring lemonade. “It is your pregnancy talking, patrona. The baby, he is worried for his papa.”

“You’re probably right, Maria, thank you.” Abby reached for a glass. “But you,” she eyed Johnny, “Are underfoot. Go do something.”

Johnny needed no other invitation. He rose immediately, the speed of his response causing all three women to laugh. It laughter eased Abby’s tensions.

“That one, he needs to keep busy,” Maria nodded toward Johnny’s disappearing backside.

Abby was about to answer when she heard a horse gallop. Worried, she and Aggie jumped up and hurried outside. It was a young Mexican boy. He talked to Cipriano, who had reached the boy before the pair could get through the door.

They saw Cipriano nod and the boy grin. The boy, about ten, saw Abby standing in the doorway, with Aggie beside her, and his smile widened, if that was possible. Then he nodded to them both and turned the animal away, loping under the arch.

Abby took a step forward. “Who was that, Cipriano?”

The segundo turned to Abby. “It was young Miguel Garcia. His abuelo runs the livery in Green River. He brought a message from el patron.”

Concerned, Aggie strode close to the foreman, joining Abby. The younger woman glanced at her friend before turning her eyes back to Cipriano, “Yes?”

Cipriano smiled. “They are staying in town longer. They may even stay another night.”

Relieved, Abby’s face lit up. “Thank you, Cipriano.” She grasped Aggie’s hand as the sequndo returned to his business. “They’re all right,” Abby breathed.

“Seems that way,” Aggie smiled. She, too, had been concerned. “Let’s go check on today’s work progress.”

Abby nodded as they turned toward the house, her worries slipping away.

 

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

 

Root galloped into Green River, angry with Hume. He’d not arrested Madrid. He probably didn’t even know where the evil man was. He was going to have to take matters into his own hands. Again. He dropped off the exhausted horse and made the rounds of the town, first talking to Buck Addison.

“Mr. Addison,” he began, having been let in Buck’s office and seated. A waiter brought them a coffee service. “I am quite disappointed in our US marshal. He doesn’t seem to want to move fast enough to catch Madrid. I just know the gunfighter will high-tail it and run once he knows we’re on to him.”

“He probably already knows. I bet that’s why he’s not here.”

Root frowned. “I am afraid of that. But we still must act. If Hume won’t do it for us, we’ll have to do it ourselves.”

“Do what ourselves? We aren’t the law.”

“No, but we can form a citizen’s committee and empower a leader with the job.”

Addison scoffed. “Do you know of anyone who’s willing to take on Johnny Madrid head on?”

Root smiled. “That’s the beauty of it. Murdoch Lancer will do that for us.”

Addison leaned forward. “What do you mean?”

Root set down his coffee cup and explained his plan. When he was finished, Buck grinned. “Perfect,” he nodded. “I love it. Of course, we’ll cooperate.”

 

The Thinker and the Stinker

Johnny mounted Barranca and lit out for a specific destination. He headed to the box canyon not far from the hacienda, the same place where he’d taught Abby the rudiments of shooting, just prior to Pardee’s last battle with Lancer. He wanted to practice.

He needed to practice. If for nothing else but to calm his mind. Too much had happened—his own ambush returning with the stallion, Scott’s kidnapping, that ambush from Emigrant Hill, and now the murder of Lou Woden. Only Opal Woden survived to tell the tale—he assumed. Sam was a good doctor; if anyone could, he’d save her. But that didn’t mean she would stay alive. He didn’t give her much of a chance.

He didn’t know what to make of it all. It seemed likely that Addison had held the stallion; he owned the hacienda where it was kept. Scott had found a brand there, one that changed the Lancer L to a fancy A. Was it Addison’s brand? It looked that way.

So Buck Addison had the horse. What did that mean? Had he hired Pardee? Maybe. Pardee was expensive, he knew, and to run a crew the size he’d had would cost even more. Did Addison have that kind of money? What was his goal? Why would a successful businessman and hotel owner want a rancho and switch careers in mid-life?

Buck had convinced the Wodens to rob the stage and kidnap Scott. That much Johnny knew as fact. But why? To silence Scott? They weren’t told to kill him, though; just take him, with no other plans. If that was the case, then astute businessman Addison sure didn’t plan well. At least not in his criminal activities.

And who was responsible for that ambush at the Conway line shack? Addison? Maybe. It made sense. If Addison could have recovered the horse before Johnny returned to Lancer, it would be his word against the hotelier. Not much of a question who’d be believed, Johnny knew. But how did Addison hire those three gunmen so quickly?

And just who had ambushed them at the foot of Emigrant Hill? Maybe it was that third man from the previous ambush. Now that made some sense. Why not? If Addison couldn’t recover the stallion, maybe he wanted to get rid of the man responsible for bringing the horse back to Murdoch. It was revenge, pure and simple. Now that was a motive Johnny could sink his teeth into.

And, if the man succeeded in killing Johnny, what would stop him from going after Scott and the Wodens? That would accomplish far more than Addison’s original plan for Scott. But that ambush, had it been successful, was far more planned than Addison’s rash kidnapping. Someone else had to have outlined that. Someone with forethought and cunning. Someone not unlike Pardee.

Had Addison hired another Pardee? He’d not seen evidence of it. At least, not like Day had operated. Maybe this guy was operating more covertly. Yeah, that seemed the most likely. The more Johnny thought of it, the more it seemed plausible.

But it all revolved on the speculation that Addison had hired Pardee in the first place, and Johnny just didn’t quite believe he had. He just couldn’t understand Buck’s motives. Then again, he had no idea why Addison would have wanted the stallion in the first place.

The stallion was a key piece of the puzzle, Johnny reasoned. If he had been leading that raid, he would have taken the horse somewhere and shot him, leaving his body for the rancher to find. He wouldn’t have enjoyed doing it, as Johnny had a soft spot for horses, but it would have been necessary to show who was the new boss. Stealing him for the sake of ownership wouldn’t be prudent.

Keeping a stolen horse, particularly one with Plata Viento’s bloodline and description, would be a long-term project, not merely months, but perhaps years of hiding him. Sure, he could be bred in secret, but only by one’s own mares. Addison couldn’t simply advertise he had a horse of Plata Viento’s caliber for breeding. Addison didn’t seem like the kind of man who was capable of those procedures.

So why did Addison have the horse?

As he arrived at the box canyon, Johnny realized that the only parts of this puzzle that were related were about the stallion. Addison had the horse. Johnny had been ambushed returning with him, probably by someone Addison hired, in an attempt to stop him. Scott had been kidnapped returning from Visalia after discovering the branding iron that had changed the brand on the horse. They had been ambushed returning with the people responsible for the kidnapping. Now two of them were dead, probably the third. Addison was finally successful in beginning to clean up his mess. It was all about the horse.

Pardee’s only involvement was in stealing the horse to begin with. It was entirely possible that Addison had no part in Pardee at all, that somehow he got wind of the stolen animal and arranged to get him. But why? That was still the big unanswered question.

Were he and Scott still in danger? It would seem so, Johnny surmised, if Addison was still cleaning up. Both of them could testify against Addison in a trial related to the stolen stallion. He knew he’d have to warn Scott.

He dismounted and tied Barranca to a tree. Surveying his surroundings, stood with his hands on his hips, deciding how to do this. He had a sack of cans, bottles and other items to shoot tied to his saddle, but he glanced around and found other possible targets: leaves, spent flower blooms, an occasional small rock. All would help him refine his aim. He sat on a large rock and took out his Colt.

It was familiar territory, his pistol. It had been his friend, his savior, his reliable companion through many difficult years. The Colt was so comfortable to him that it felt as if it was an extension of his hand, like the two of them were married, forever joined, till Death do they part. And for many times during their union it seemed likely that Death would indeed separate them.

But things were better now, at least in recent weeks. Since becoming Scott’s escort on his trip to Lancer he’d felt different about himself, about life, and even about his pistol. Finding out he had a brother had been a shock to him, almost as great a shock as coming face to face with the man he’d hated almost all his life. Such a double whammy as that is bound to affect a man, and Johnny was no different.

After Scott paid him off that day, he’d stayed around Lancer out of curiosity. He’d wanted to know what Scott had gotten himself into, and once he found out, he knew he couldn’t leave his brother, even one he didn’t even know, thrown to a wolf like Pardee.

And the relationship grew. He’d developed a bond with Scott Lancer, a mutual trust and yes, even affection. And for his wife as well. Well, he admitted to himself, he’d had to squash his attraction to her. One did not covet one’s brother’s wife, not if one wanted to keep one’s own life. He chuckled at that. Yes, he’d been physically attracted to Abby Lancer, and had used that to test Scott’s resolve and abilities. Scott had passed the test and his own desire toward Abby had evolved into what it should be: familial affection.

But a man can only take so much of relationships, even from a trusted brother. He had to get away and this was his time. Time to rekindle the bond with his oldest friend, his Colt. He staked Barranca safely out of the way and took out his gun kit, cleaning the pistol carefully.

Once put back together, Johnny spun the cylinder and loaded his weapon. He set up the targets. It had been many days since his last practice; he felt rusty. Walking about thirty feet from his first row of targets—tin cans along an edge of a rock—Johnny took his stance, loosened his Colt and prepared to shoot.

 

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

 

At the reverend’s urging, Addison sent people to the merchants of Green River, to the nearby homes, asking the concerned men and women to an impromptu meeting in the dining room of his hotel. He’d even arranged for refreshments. It took nearly an hour, but the room began to fill with the town citizenry, including Murdoch and Scott, who came with the others in their hotel. They partook of the fruits and cheeses offered by Buck’s establishment as they waited for the rest to arrive and for Root to begin.

“My good citizens of Green River,” the minister finally started. “We are faced with a crisis today. Last night, a young man and his sister were shot in our street, both merely accused of perpetuating a terrible crime. The man was gunned down in his prime by none other than Johnny Madrid, the evil gunfighter who has haunted our community and Morro Coyo these past several weeks.”

Addison jumped in, eager to get his licks in. “And to make things worse, to show you just how vile Johnny Madrid is, he broke in to the good doctor’s house, sneaking in the middle of the night and, taking a pillow from a side chair, he smothered that young girl to death. Already weak from her own injury at his gun, she could barely lift a finger to fight him off, struggling only for a few seconds before succumbing to his maliciousness.”

Root saw it was working. A good number of the women were fearful. That was good; he could use that. Most of the men were nodding, also a good sign. Others looked receptive. Only the doctor, in the back corner, seemed unmoved. Sam sat with his arms crossed, his face unreadable. The Lancers both were grim-faced, not happy with where the minister was going.

The reverend continued, “Yes, there is a US Marshal here. Called by none other than the one I consider responsible for Madrid’s presence as well,” Root’s voice turned to sarcasm as he went on, “Our great community leader, Murdoch Lancer.” He gestured toward Murdoch, sitting in the back at Sam’s table. Murdoch shifted in his seat.

Several heads turned toward Murdoch. A few of them glared at him. Root got a few more nods in addition to some murmurs from the crowd. He’d primed them well in church services. It was all coming to fruition now.

“Lancer not only brought Madrid in our peaceful valley—”

“Convenient that he’s ignoring Pardee and what evil he did,” Scott whispered to Murdoch. His father gave him the slightest nod.

“—but befriended the devil himself.” Root went on. “Why, when I visited Mr. Lancer, the wicked Johnny Madrid was lounging on a corral fence, as if he belonged there. And it’s well-known that Madrid has found friendship with the son Scott.” He raised his voice. “If Madrid isn’t stopped, we will all become corrupted. He may even go after us next.”

A woman gasped, turning heads. Root ran with it. He gestured her way. “Already the mere mention of his name brings fear to our women. How long are we going to stand by and let that man ruin us?”

“But the marshal—” someone yelled.

Root nodded. “Yes, there is a marshal. A good man, I am sure. But a man mired in protocol, in following procedure. Where is our marshal right now? Did he arrest Madrid? Has he even looked for him?”

Murdoch glanced about. Root had the people riled all right, just like he did at church, but this was so much worse than his preaching. Marshal Hume needed to get here now and put a stop to this. Only he had the force of law and the objectivity to do so.

 

Practice Makes Perfect

Having been told that the gunfighter had left the hacienda, Marshal Hume talked to several vaqueros before one of them mentioned Johnny heading northwest, not in a particular hurry. Hume had set out and began tracking him. He heard the shots before he saw Johnny.

Barranca’s tracks were easy to find as Johnny had done nothing to obliterate or obfuscate them. He hadn’t been worried about being followed. Hume found him quickly, or rather, heard him, after only a half-hour ride. He quickly deduced what Johnny was doing.

Sneaking to the edge of the canyon, Hume watched Johnny repeatedly draw his weapon and fire, killing target after target with ease and skill. The marshal was impressed. If Madrid was this fast, this accurate...He stopped that thought, not wanting to finish it.

Knowing better than to surprise a gunfighter, Hume backed away, returned to his horse and came in again, this time making as much noise as possible.

Johnny holstered his Colt and turned toward the intruder. He saw the marshal’s badge and frowned. Murdoch’s lawman. He sighed and stared, resting his hands on his hips.

“Johnny Madrid?” Hume called.

Johnny didn’t answer. Nor did he nod. As far as he was concerned, the question was moot.

Hume dismounted. “You’re a hard man to find.” He smiled.

If Hume was hoping to put Johnny at ease, relax the tension or establish a rapport, he failed. Johnny merely continued to stare. Hume cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m Deputy US Marshal Hume. Murdoch Lancer sent for me. Mind if I ask you a few questions?”

Realizing that his practice—and his solitude—was over, Johnny closed the gap to the lawman but did not change his stare. It wasn’t quite the Madrid glare, but it did put the marshal on edge. Again he said nothing.

Hume shuffled his feet, unaccustomed to this feeling of unease. “Well, uh, let me get my notebook.” He turned to his saddlebag.

Johnny ducked his head and smiled, knowing he’d won the first round. He’d shown the man who was boss. Now he had to make him his friend. That was tougher. He raised his head and watched the lawman fumble with his notebook, flipping the pages until he found the right one.

“What do you want to know?” he asked in his soft drawl. He knew the question would surprise the man and it did. Johnny was good at his role.

“Start at the beginning,” Hume requested, his usual finesse gone. He was rattled.

“The beginning of what, Marshal? Lancer’s troubles with Pardee or the more recent events?”

“Pardee? Day Pardee?”

Johnny figured the marshal knew little of Pardee’s recent carnage. “Yes. He ran a crew attacking Lancer. Trying to take the ranch. Scott Lancer came to help. I got involved. He did a lot of damage before we defeated his men.”

“Damage to Lancer?”

“Not just Lancer. He tortured and murdered a family nearby. He took over Morro Coyo, doing despicable things to the señoritas.”

“You killed him.”

Johnny was glad the lawman knew that much. “Yes. He was going to kill Scott Lancer. He’d called him out. Scott’s no gunfighter. He’d be dead if I hadn’t stepped in.”

“Pardee wanted Lancer?”

“Yes, but for someone else. Some think Buck Addison. It seems that way.”

“Some?”

“Scott and Abby. Maybe Murdoch. And a few others.”

“You?”

Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Addison is a successful businessman. He’s a pillar in Visalia.”

“I know. I know. Respected. A civic leader and all that. Why would he hire Pardee?” Johnny shrugged. “It don’t seem likely, but there it is.” He went on to explain about the stallion, how he found it, and why Scott went to Visalia, too.

“So you rode out after the stage came in, to track them down?”

“Yes. I wanted to get Scott back. I didn’t care about anything else until...” Johnny stopped, remembering his conversation with Ruben.

“Until what?”

“That way station manager, Ruben. He thought I was hunting them down because of the stage, to recover the stolen goods, to get the people who did it.”

“And that changed your purpose?”

“That and finding the old man, Garcia. They left him tied to that tree. To die.” Johnny shook his head. “That’s when I really decided to bring them in.” It still angered Johnny that people could treat an old man like that.

“Tell me how you tracked them down.”

Johnny related the story, telling about his journey. “When I found the cabin I waited, I needed confirmation that Scott was really there. All I had before then was a lot of ‘probablys’. It took a full day to see him. He looked like he was hurt. His head was bandaged, he didn’t walk so good. That’s when I knew I had to act fast.” He continued, telling about how he captured the Woden brothers, that he made them talk—but he left out those details—and how he tied them up while he went in to get their sister and free Scott.

“So they told you it was Addison?”

“Yeah. Well, the younger one did. They’d tried to skip out on their bill and got caught. He said Addison was thinking of a punishment when he got a telegram. After that he told them to take Scott off the stage and rob it for good measure. They could keep what they found.”

“Did you recover the stolen goods?”

“Yeah. We brought them back. They are at the hacienda. Murdoch was going to turn them over to you then all hell broke loose in Green River.”

Hume made a note. “Continue with your story. Tell me about the trip back.”

Johnny glanced away and smirked. Hume was subtle. “Well, first of all, we got ambushed. Just after we left the valley they call Devil’s Den, at the foot of Emigrant Hill. One shot, though. Not much of an ambush, but it was enough. If I hadn’t heard the rifle crack and instinctively reacted, I’d be dead.” He showed Hume the holes in his hat. “The team spooked and ran away; Scott had his hands full with them. I climbed up the hill but by the time I got there, whoever shot at me was gone. I saw him running away to the north.”

Hume jotted down his notes. Scott Lancer had failed to mention this episode. “Go on.”

“Well, after that the horses were tired, so we had to walk them to the next watering hole. We spent the night at that one and continued north on El Camino Viejo the next day. We never saw whoever shot at us again.”

“Anything else I should know?”

Again Johnny grinned. “Probably. There was this incident where one of the Woden brothers died.”

“Tell me about that.”

“We had lunch at el Arroyo de Zapata Chino —

“Where?”

“Chinese Shoe Creek. That’s in the north end of the Kettleman Plain. I was washing up. Scott was watching our prisoners clean up after lunch, but I guess he got distracted. Next thing I know I’m being tackled into the water. Hank Woden—that’s the bigger and older brother—had me pinned down under the surface. He was trying to drown me. I managed to get to my Colt and I shot him in the gut. Good thing, too. I was almost out of breath.

“I waded out of the water and saw Scott, bloodied and dirty, standing over the other brother. Scott didn’t look pretty, but the other guy, he was worse.” He chuckled. “Scott’s more than he looks.”

“What happened to the body?”

“We buried it next to the creek. I could probably find it for you if you need me to.”

Hume shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. Go on with your story.”

“Well, that’s about it. Nothing more, really. We followed El Camino Viejo until I found a path that cut down to the San Joaquin west of the Lancer hacienda. We arrived there just after dark. Murdoch put the prisoners in the guardhouse and took the stolen goods.”

Hume nodded, digesting this news. He noticed that Johnny called Murdoch Lancer by his first name, a fact he found interesting as most people were more formal with the rancher. “Let’s talk about the shooting in town. Did you see it?”

“No. I was in the saloon. Drinking tequila.”

“Did you hear the shots?”

“Who couldn’t? Two quick rounds, in the still of the night. One a kill shot, the other awfully close. Whoever fired that trigger is good. Quite good.”

“As good as you?”

Johnny grinned. “No one’s that good.”

Hume laughed, and Johnny knew he had him. He knew the lawman would assume his brag was bravado but somewhere in the back of his thoughts there’d be a nag of just how close to the truth it really was.

“By the way, how is the Woden girl? Did Doc Jenkins save her?”

Hume narrowed his eyes. “Why do you ask?”

“If she’s alive, she’s the only one left who could testify against Addison, although I’d bet he could convince a jury that she’s lying or crazy or whatever so she wouldn’t be believed.”

“You think he’d discredit her?”

Johnny nodded. “In a heartbeat.”

“Do you think he’d kill her?”

“Someone tried,” Johnny shrugged. “Maybe Addison was behind it.”

“Someone succeeded,” Hume replied sadly.

“She’s dead?” Johnny blinked. “Sam couldn’t...?”

“No, someone broke into the doctor’s house and killed her.” Again Hume noticed Johnny using Dr. Jenkins’ first name.

Johnny whistled. “Well, well, well. I guess it doesn’t matter now.”

“Do you have any proof of Addison’s involvement in the robbery and kidnapping?”

“Not one damn bit.” Johnny said bitterly. “With the Wodens gone, all that’s left is speculation and supposition. A lot of coincidences and suspicions but they all can be denied or explained away.”

“So you really didn’t want any of the Woden siblings dead?”

“Hell, no! They were the key to getting Buck Addison, at least for the stage robbery and kidnapping Scott and that old man. Who knows where else it could have led?” Johnny turned away, his anger at losing their best lead creeping up on him. He sighed to regain control.

Hume watched the younger man. “Why did you stay?” he asked curiously.

Johnny glanced back over his shoulder. “Huh?”

“Stay here. After Scott Lancer paid you off.” This was a question he’d been dying to ask.

Johnny hesitated, covering it up by shifting back to face Hume. The Marshal took notice. “I don’t know. Curiosity? I wanted to see what kind of trouble Scott had gotten himself into by coming out here.”

“Yeah, but, you’re a gunfighter. What’s it to you?”

“Does it matter?” Johnny went on the offensive. “I stayed. Good thing, wasn’t it?”

Hume realized he’d touched a nerve but didn’t understand why. He pushed, trying to learn more. “What is your relationship with Scott Lancer?”

Johnny stared at the man, his face hard. “You sure ask a lot of questions.”

“It’s the only way to get answers.” He dropped his hand that carried the notebook. “Why are you avoiding my question?” Hume knew he’d finally gotten control of their conversation.

Johnny rested his hands on his hips. “Scott and I are friends,” was all he said.

Hume pressed the issue, taking the risk. “I think there’s more to it.”

Johnny leaned forward. “Well, I don’t give a damn what you think.”

Hume stood his ground, knowing this was a pivotal moment. “Touchy, aren’t you? It’s only a question.” He knew Johnny was on the edge of revealing something key and if he pushed him just right...

Johnny reversed himself, walking to where his gun kit was. He picked it up and started to put everything away.

Hume took a chance. “He’s your half-brother, isn’t he?”

Johnny’s intake of breath was barely audible. Hume figured he’d guessed it, but waited for more of a response to confirm. The gunfighter’s control was admirable. He let nothing else on, but he didn’t deny it. Instead of reacting further, he spoke in a calm voice. “If you want to get those things we recovered from the Wodens, we should go to the hacienda.”

 

Great Reluctance

The ride to the hacienda was decidedly icy. Johnny said nothing; he didn’t even look Marshal Hume’s way, his expression blank. Hume regretted pushing the gunfighter, even though he learned a lot about the man by doing so. Madrid was a man who acted carefully, who exuded control. Even now, he gave little away. Hume knew his move had cost him some, if not all, of the trust he’d earned with the gunman.

Once they arrived, Johnny disappeared, taking Barranca to the barn. Abby emerged to greet the marshal again. Hume asked about the recovered stolen items and they all set on a hunt, but Murdoch had locked them in his safe. No one knew the combination. Abby showed Hume the stallion and its brand, but she didn’t know where Murdoch had hidden the iron so she couldn’t give that to the marshal.

Aggie went looking for Johnny to ask if he knew the whereabouts of that branding iron and found him in the barn, grooming Barranca.

“There you are!” she greeted warmly. “We’ve been looking for you.” Johnny didn’t answer, he kept working on a knot in Barranca’s tail.

Aggie surveyed the young man. He was troubled, she believed, having been told of Johnny’s habit of paying attention to his horse when introspective. It worried her to see him like this. She forgot her task. Pasting a smile on her face, she remarked lightly, “That horse is probably the most well-groomed animal in all of California. His coat just shines.”

Johnny cast his eyes up to her, but said nothing and returned to his task. He’d worked out the knot and was now brushing long strokes all the way down Barranca’s tail.

Deciding that a smile wouldn’t do it, Aggie approached the stall’s gate. She leaned on it, resting her elbows. “Did that marshal get to you, Johnny Madrid?” she asked softly.

Again Johnny glanced up at her, and this time, seeing her softened face, he stood erect and faced her.

She could tell he was deciding what to do so she said nothing else, waiting on the young man. She kept her mien soft and inviting, compassionate, almost motherly.

“What do you know?” he finally asked, his voice even, controlled.

“About what?” she shrugged.

There was the slightest hesitation. “Me. Murdoch. Scott.”

Aggie smiled. Nearly whispering, she leaned forward just a little. “I know the truth.”

Johnny rested his arm on Barranca’s rump. He sighed. “Well, the marshal guesses it.”

Aggie beamed, surprising Johnny. She stepped back and slapped the gate with the palm of her hand. “Good! About time someone figures it all out. Maybe he’ll tell the rest of the world and give old Murdoch the shock he deserves.”

Johnny laughed, in spite of himself. He shook his head. “You’re somethin’ else, Aggie, you know that?”

 

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

 

Marshal Hume rode back to Green River disappointed and with new questions, but with one key part of the puzzle solved, or it appeared to be.

Johnny Madrid was Scott Lancer’s half-brother. He had to be. It’s the only way all of this made sense. Madrid staying near Lancer, helping out, helping rescue Scott’s wife, even taking his place on the street to face Pardee. And now all this mess with the stallion. No gunfighter would do all that for free, for a new friend.

He’d learned of Murdoch Lancer’s two marriages