He asked himself that question over and over for the past 24 hours, since yesterday afternoon. And he couldn’t answer it. Not to others, anyway. But deep down, he knew the answer. But it wasn’t concrete or solid enough a reason to appease his father. Or even his brother. So he didn’t bother to tell them.
And he realized he wouldn’t understand it, either, if someone were to give him the answer to the question that only he knew, but couldn’t explain.
‘Because. . . something told me not to.’
So instead, he endured the unending ranting of his old man. And along with the ranting, he recognized the disappointment and the bewilderment in his father’s loud, forceful voice.
Even his brother Scott, always his ally in matters such as this, voiced his disappointment of his action, or non-action, if you will.
And Johnny Lancer couldn’t blame either one of them, for as much as his father and brother were disappointed in him, he was disappointed in himself. That a former gunfighter froze when it came to doing something as simple as boarding a train to Stockton puzzled and angered him. But he couldn’t help himself.
And again, he asked himself that simple, and at this point, life-ruining question:
And again, he answered to himself:
‘Because. . .something told me not to.’
Murdoch Lancer had been negotiating for months on the sale of some of Lancer’s finest cattle with Nate Clark, a fellow rancher in the San Francisco area. Mr. Clark was known as a tough negotiator, but Murdoch was just as tough. This particular sale was vital to Lancer’s future the next few months. The last two years had not been as profitable as in the past; inclement weather, low prices in beef, and a swing in the economy caused some lay-offs of ranch hands and a ‘tightening of the belt’ for all of the San Joaquin’s cattle ranches. However, things were looking up, and if Murdoch could get Mr. Clark to agree on some modifications to this contact, things at Lancer would be on the upswing.
Murdoch had planned on making the trip himself, with his sons accompanying him, of course. Ever since Scott and Johnny had ‘come home’ some four years earlier, they had learned, and excelled at, all phases of ranching, from the mundane task of cleaning the barns, to back-breaking cattle drives, to contract negotiations. But recent surgery on Murdoch’s back had put an end to his plans to travel to San Francisco.
So he had decided to send both his sons, but as fate would have it, Scott developed pneumonia and was just now beginning to feel himself.
Which meant son Johnny was to do the work for the Lancer Empire. While honored his father would entrust him with such a tasking (although both sons had proven themselves worthy a long ways back), the dark-haired young man was still a little apprehensive.
‘What if Mr. Clark won’t agree to everything, then what?’ Murdoch expressed his utmost confidence in Johnny. ‘Son, you could sell sand to a camel in the desert.’
Johnny was scheduled to leave on Saturday morning, taking the ‘Silver Express’ train to Stockton, then continuing to San Francisco. The ‘Silver Express’ had been a god-send to the Valley since its completion a year ago. The residents of Morro Coyo, Spanish Wells and Green River could now travel to San Francisco via Stockton on the Express, doing away with the long, uncomfortable stagecoach ride of years past. Passengers traveling to or from Los Angeles to San Francisco could now use the ‘Express,’ making travel up and down the coast more comfortable and timely.
The Lancers had been included on the inaugural ride of the train, along with other of the Valley’s more influential citizens. In fact, Scott and Johnny had ridden the train numerous times to San Francisco, while Murdoch was in physical therapy after his surgery, and the journeys had always been pleasant.
When Saturday morning arrived, though, it was obvious that Johnny wouldn’t be going anywhere. The rains of the past week continued, making a journey into town a sure bet for one to catch their death of cold. By afternoon the rain had stopped, and Jelly drove Johnny into town, where the younger man would spend the night in preparation for travel on Sunday. Johnny changed his travel day and got a new ticket, and confirmed with the San Franciscan Hotel that he would be arriving late Sunday.
On Sunday morning, in anticipation of his early morning departure, Johnny had breakfast in the hotel restaurant and then made his way to the train station. There were more passengers then he thought there would be; he later learned they had arrived on Friday night with a scheduled departure on Saturday morning, but due to the inclement weather, the Saturday train had been cancelled. And this morning, the passengers, including Johnny, were informed that the Sunday train from Los Angeles was delayed for a few more hours.
Moans and groans were heard from the unhappy passengers who had been stranded in Morro Coyo, and Johnny began to wonder if he’d ever make it to San Francisco. And Mr. Clark.
As the morning progressed, the group of 20 or so passengers broke into smaller groups, with people chatting and making friends with those closest to them. Johnny, as his luck would have it, found himself seated near an old woman, who had to be 90 years old. She gave him looks that had the former gunfighter definitely uneasy.
He wandered about, and even considered renting a horse and riding to Stockton. But he figured that was a no-brainer; even if the train left two hours from now, it would still arrive in Stockton before him if he rode horseback.
So he sat down and put his hat over his face, content with the thought that he would be here awhile.
After a short snooze, he took his hat off his face and noticed the old woman staring at him. He shot her a look back, and was surprised when she spoke to him.
“Young man, you’ve been bothering me all day!” she firmly stated.
“I have? Sorry ma’am. Didn’t mean to bother you,” Johnny’s voice apologetic.
“Well, how could you not bother me? After all, anyone wearing pants as tight as yours, showing off your rather. . .fine attributes. . .would bother anyone,” she said, her eyes suddenly sparkling and her voice tinged with laughter.
“I must say, you are one fine lookin’ young one. Makes me wish I was about 60 years younger. My name is Edwina Potts. . .and you are?”
“Lancer, ma’am. Johnny Lancer. Pleased to make your acquaintance,” and at that, gently took the weathered hand of the old woman, and kissed it.
For the next hour, Edwina Potts told Johnny Lancer jokes and stories that made the ex-gun hawk blush like a child. Mrs. Potts was one delightful older woman, with a youthful way about her that made Johnny smile. He knew her whole life history, and an interesting one it was. Edwina was to meet her daughter in San Francisco. She mentioned her daughter was 65, and his quick math told Johnny that this incredible woman had to be at least 85. But she was a joy, and he was glad that she was the one he happened to be sitting near, to pass the time with.
Around lunch time, the passengers were informed their long-awaited train was about an hour away, so Johnny strode over to the saloon for a quick snack and a beer. He figured he would eat a good meal when he arrived in San Francisco that evening.
As he returned to the train station, the anticipation he had felt all morning left him, and in its place, a feeling of nausea, of pure panic, overtook him. He sat down as his stomach reeled; he felt clammy, but warm at the same time, and it became difficult for him to breathe.
Edwina Potts noticed the change in the young man she found so darned attractive, but Johnny informed the old woman he was fine. She offered him a mint in hopes it would calm his stomach, and it did, for a few minutes. But Johnny soon found himself in the alley behind the train station, unceremoniously losing his lunch.
Guess the nachos didn’t settle with the beer, was what went through his mind, but the cleaning of the contents of his stomach didn’t make him feel any better. As he returned to the interior of the train station, he noticed the rain had started again, and thought to himself that once he boarded, he would take a seat in the back where he could lie down, near an exit in case he needed to make a quick escape. He briefly thought of the comfortable hotel room and bed that awaited him in San Francisco, and that hopefully, this 24-hour bug would be gone in time for his important meeting with Mr. Clark.
Finally, the whistle of the ‘Silver Express’ wailed its arrival, and the 20 or so passengers cheered with delight, knowing they would soon be on their way and continuing their journey. Like cattle, they headed for the train, covering their heads from the rain, pushing one another to be the first on board. The concerned Mrs. Potts noticed Johnny hanging back, but he told her he would board after everyone else. She offered him another mint for his stomach, but he kindly declined, and she told him once on board, she would ask the porter for some herb tea for his stomach.
He flashed her a weak, but grateful smile, and told her to get a move on, he would see her on board.
Johnny felt like death warmed over as he made his way to his feet and struggled to walk to the train. He finally made it, and he groaned as the cold rain soaked his clothes and dripped off the rim of his hat.
The porter stood just inside the train, holding the door open, telling Johnny to hurry on, they were ready to depart. But Johnny Lancer’s legs were as heavy as lead, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t lift them on to the train. He just stood there on the platform, angry that his body wouldn’t obey the simple command to step up to the train, where the warmth of the interior beckoned him.
Instead he stood there, looking quite like an idiot, as the rain poured over him. The porter was quite annoyed and asked, “Well, are you coming or not? We have to leave. . .now!”
Before Johnny could stop them, the words poured out of his mouth: “Go on, I’ll catch another train. . . .”
And with that, the porter shut the door, and Johnny watched, rather detached, as the train took off, its whistle blowing and black smoke encircling him. The smell of the coal made him ill; he found his legs as he ran again to the alley and became sick. He was miserable; throwing up in the cold rain in an alley reminded him of his days as a gunfighter, when things like this were commonplace for him.
He managed to make his way inside the station, now eerily quiet, except for Tom, the ticket master. “You all right, Johnny? You missed the train.” Tom led Johnny to a room in the back and offered him a towel to dry off with, and a cot to lie down on. Johnny gratefully accepted the courtesy.
As he dried off his hair and face and stood by the warm fire, Johnny suddenly felt better. True, the cold wetness from the rain on his clothes and boots made him uncomfortable, but the nausea, the clamminess, the sheer panic he had felt just moments before had left as quickly as they came.
Damn, the train. . .wonder if I could catch it on horseback. It can’t be more than five or ten minutes away. . . . .But he realized that thought was for naught. And he realized that he should be on the train on his way to the meeting with Mr. Clark. But he wasn’t. And for the first time, he asked himself the question he would ask over and over. . . .
And for the first time, the answer he couldn’t explain. . .
‘Because. . . something told me not to.’
It was just after dinner when a cold and tired Johnny Lancer stumbled through the front door of the hacienda and found himself surrounded by three surprised and concerned people fussing over him. They removed his wet jacket and boots, plopped him in front of the fire, wrapped a blanket around him, and shoved a warm brandy in his hands.
After a few minutes, Murdoch finally asked what he, Scott, and Teresa had been wondering: “What happened? Was the trip cancelled due to the rain?”
It went through Johnny’s mind that a simple ‘yes’ would be the sensible answer; it would get him off the hook, knowing that his old man couldn’t blame him for not being where he should be by now: In San Francisco.
But Johnny Lancer, and before him, Johnny Madrid, had prided himself in not being a liar, and the thought of lying to the man whose respect he worked so hard to gain for four years was simply not an option. Besides, sooner or later it would be discovered that the trip wasn’t cancelled, and he would catch hell for not telling the truth on top of everything else.
So a soft, hesitant voice simply said, “No, the trip wasn’t cancelled.”
A voice bellowed it’s response: “Well then, what happened? Why didn’t you get on the train? Did you miss it, were you fooling around in the saloon with one of those.. . .women?”
Murdoch’s question that implied Johnny was spending time with one of the ‘girls’ in the back room of the saloon angered him, so a suddenly angry voice responded, “No, Old Man, though that would at least be an answer. The answer is I don’t know. . .I just. . .” and more quietly and subdued, “I just couldn’t. . . .board the train. I. . .don’t know what happened. . . .”
“You don’t know what happened? What’s the matter with you?” And for the next several hours, Johnny endured his father’s anger, bewilderment, and disappointment. Even Scott, though more diplomatic, expressed his disappointment at Johnny’s actions, although it wasn’t so much what Johnny did, or didn’t do, that bothered his brother. It was the knowledge that Johnny had a reason for everything he did, and the fact that his brother couldn’t give one concerned the older Lancer son.
Teresa couldn’t stand the anger directed at Johnny, so she left, tears welling in her eyes.
Finally, in the early morning hours, Johnny was sent to his room, with a final statement from his old man that if he wanted to leave for good, he would hold the door open for him.
Johnny didn’t sleep, though he finally had the chance to change into some dry clothes, and he heard the still-falling rain tap on the roof of the hacienda. He asked himself over and over what the hell happened to him earlier in the day, why he didn’t. . .or couldn’t, as it was, board that train.
‘Because. . .something told me not to.’
A knock at the door at 5 am startled Johnny, and thinking it was Scott, quietly responded, “It’s open.”
But it wasn’t Scott. It was Murdoch, informing Johnny that he and Scott would be heading into town to wire Mr. Clark to inform him that the trip was cancelled due to the rain, and also that Murdoch would contact his lawyer to see if he could act as the Lancer representative in the negotiation of the terms of the contract.
“This is what you’ve reduced me to, Johnny, a liar. You have me lying to Mr. Clark because you didn’t care enough about this ranch or this family to do the job you were given to do. If my lawyer isn’t available or if Clark doesn’t want to negotiate with him, Lancer will be in trouble, and it will be you that will have to deal with the consequences.
Now I want you to go to the east gully and clean out the line shack, as well as the outhouse. I never thought I would give either one of my sons such a demeaning job, but it seems that’s all you’re good for. I want that done by the time I return home this afternoon. Do I make myself clear?”
A nod and a dejected “Yes, Sir,” could barely be heard, but the old man’s response made it quite clear that Murdoch had heard it. “Good. And don’t think I won’t send you back to where you came from. . . .I could spit on you right now. Now get going, stay out of my sight.”
Johnny Lancer never felt so useless in his life.
The rainy weather of the past several days had turned the day hot and humid, and the unpleasant task Johnny was given only added to his disgust in himself. The only one who bid him no ill will was Teresa, who had packed him a lunch that morning.
“It’s not right the way Murdoch treated you, Johnny. I’m not stupid. .I know how important that contract is to Lancer, but I also know you would never do anything to hurt us. I know you had a reason. . . .”
“You know,” Johnny said to the girl as he kissed her on the forehead, “be glad you’re an O’Brien and not a Lancer. ‘Cause bein’ a Lancer ain’t all that great.”
He took the long way home, not wanting to return to what he knew awaited him. And for the first time in a long time, he considered not going back, just riding on, not worrying about jobs or deadlines or contracts or any of the shit he had to worry about now. But he knew that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to go home. . .he just wasn’t sure if he would be welcome. . . .or wanted.
As he made his way through the Lancer arch, he spied the buckboard that Murdoch and Scott had taken to town, so he knew they were home. He wondered if the Old Man had managed to straighten things out, or, if the worst had happened and the contract wasn’t signed, leaving Lancer no choice but to begin laying off its help.
He entered the hacienda through the kitchen and Teresa stood at the sink, her back to him, and he could tell she was crying. He approached her and she looked at him with big, teary eyes.
“Something’s happened, Johnny. It’s awful. Murdoch. . .and Scott. . .they need to talk to you, now. They’re waiting for you in the great room.”
Just as they had a day earlier, Johnny’s legs turned to lead as he made his way to the great room, preparing himself for the whip lashing he knew he was about to receive. All he could think of were the vaqueros and their families who would be homeless because Lancer couldn’t afford to employ them. And he knew the old man was serious when he informed Johnny that any needed funds for the running of Lancer would be taken from his wages.
Well, he didn’t much care about that, for he had gone without for years. But the vaqueros. .the extended Lancer family. .would be the ones to suffer.
And it was all his fault. . . . .because he couldn’t board a stupid train.
He entered the great room and there they sat, Murdoch and Scott, drinks in hand, stone-faced. No emotion at all: no anger, no frustration, just a cold blank stare that made Johnny sick inside.
He stood there for several seconds before anger overtook him, and he spoke: “All right, I know I screwed up. Bad. And I can tell things didn’t go well with the lawyer or with Clark. I feel awful, I don’t know. . . . .”
“Johnny. . .” Murdoch’s voice was soft, almost pleading. “Not now. . .”
Johnny looked at his brother. “Scott, what the hell’s goin’ on? Do you hate me that much?”
Before Scott could respond, Murdoch spoke. “Sit down, Son. We have some bad news to tell you. . . .”
All Johnny could think of was that someone had died. Jelly maybe? God, no. Maybe Sam Jenkins? Cipriano? No, not Maria?!
“What the hell is it?” Johnny asked, confusion in his voice.
“When Scott and I went into town today, it was in an uproar,” Murdoch’s voice was soft; he spoke slowly, as if explaining something to a 5-year old. “We learned that the train that left yesterday afternoon for Stockton. . .the one you were supposed to be on. . .never made it. Whether it was the bad weather, or error on the part of the conductor, or both, no one knows. But when it got to Gulley’s Pass, it couldn’t make the sharp turn, and it derailed.”
Murdoch’s voice was breaking now. “It plunged down the side of the mountain, I hear it’s a real. . .mess.”
Murdoch moved to where Johnny sat on the sofa, and gently placed his hand on his son’s quivering shoulder. Johnny felt the gentle, loving squeeze and somehow knew the words that his father was getting ready to say:
“There. . . .there were no. . . survivors. . . . .”
And through his fuzzy, muddled brain that was attempting to comprehend the heart-wrenching news it was just given, Johnny Lancer finally understood the answer to the question he had asked himself 1,000 times since yesterday:
‘Because. . . .God told me not to. . . .’