Thanks to poor Lacy, my DEFINITELY overworked beta
This is a WHI story for the High Riders
Rated: PG, at least for now
Murdoch Lancer stood in the Great Room of his house, watching the men trying to carry on their normal workload while continually watching the hill beyond. Pardee had become bolder lately, and Murdoch certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see the bunch of cutthroats riding over that hill anytime. He knew the inevitable confrontation was getting closer, he just hoped he could put it off until his younger son was here. Maybe with him on their side, Lancer would have a chance. It was probably the only chance they would have, and Murdoch knew it. They were badly outgunned.
Several months ago, in desperate need of help, he had contacted his older son, Scott, and asked him to come to Lancer. Murdoch knew that his son’s military experience would be invaluable in the current fight, and he was willing to use any and all means at his disposal to win this fight. The wartime experience that Scott had was what Murdoch had hoped would help Lancer’s situation, but so far, Pardee had been too crafty. They needed more help, and both Scott and Murdoch knew it.
Even though it didn’t get the hoped for results, he didn’t regret contacting his older son. He had offered the young man a thousand dollars and traveling expenses to come and talk to him, and the Pinkerton agent that had made the offer had sent a wire to Murdoch saying that Scott had accepted. Murdoch was pleased and somewhat surprised; he knew that his son certainly wouldn’t need the money, and the wilds of California was a far cry from Boston, where his grandfather had raised Scott.
As much as Murdoch despised Harlan Garret, he knew that Scott had been raised as well as possible. He knew that his son had received the very best education, and had been an officer in the war. He had been reasonably sure his son would have impeccable manners. He expected a gentleman, and when Scott had finally showed up at the ranch, Murdoch had not been disappointed. The only problem he could foresee with his older son was trying to convince him to stay.
The work and the primitive surroundings were a far cry from what his older son was used to, and Murdoch wasn’t sure if Scott was staying because he wanted to, or because of his well –honed sense of duty. So far, Scott had done everything possible to fit in and become a part of the ranch, but Murdoch also knew that his son never did anything halfway. A sense of pride swelled in his chest as he thought about his oldest. Scott was a man any father could be proud of, and Murdoch knew it. He was lucky to have a son like him, and he made sure Scott knew it.
A frown crossed Murdoch’s features when he thought about his younger son. He knew for sure that he could expect much different things from him. The boy had literally run wild his whole life, and had gotten into more than his share of trouble. He had quite a reputation as a hired gun, and most of the stories weren’t very encouraging. Johnny had been hiring out for quite a while, and had a reputation for being very good at his job. The Pinkertons had sent a very detailed report about his son’s misdeeds and Murdoch had held off in asking the Pinkertons to look for Johnny; he wasn’t sure if he wanted to take the chance of bringing a man like that to the ranch.
After a lot of thought, however, Murdoch decided to ask the Pinkertons to find his younger son. He knew that if he was ever going to talk to the young man, now was the time to take the step, or he might never get the chance. He had the feeling that unless Johnny changed his ways, the young man would be dead very soon. The life Johnny led wasn’t exactly conducive to longevity.
Of course, Murdoch knew that the fact that his son was a much- feared gunfighter who just might be able to help them against Pardee figured largely in his decision. It was a decision born of desperation, but Murdoch knew their back was to the wall, and they needed an ace in the hole to pull out a victory. After a lot of thought, Murdoch decided that Johnny just might be that ace.
Whether his son would fight for them or against them was the question that Murdoch couldn’t answer, and was causing him many sleepless nights. He hoped that he’d made the right choice, but only time would tell. Murdoch just hoped he’d have that time, and he prayed that he hadn’t made a horrible mistake. Murdoch was under no illusions; he knew that his son would probably have to be bought, and Murdoch was prepared to do just that. He would deal with the devil himself to save this ranch; he just hoped that devil didn’t turn out to be his own son.
The young man knelt in the dirt in the hot sun; hope finally deserting him. He knew he was going to die today, and there was nothing he could do about it. He had played every angle, tried every trick, but there was no way out, and it angered him. He would do just about anything to get out of this place. He smiled slightly to himself; on second thought, he’d do ANYTHING to get free.
He glanced over at the hated guards, and Johnny gave them his best glare, but it had absolutely no effect. They knew he was helpless. He sure would like to get a hold of a gun; he’d bet their expressions would change in a hurry. A dreamy smile formed on his lips as he thought about their reaction if that were to happen.
A man’s voice cut into his musings, and his attention was unwillingly drawn to the scene in front of him. The Mexican peasant shouted in defiance at the guards, and a moment later the bullets found their mark and another prisoner fell in the dust. The gunfighter looked down for a moment, bitter that his life was going to end this way; he knew that things could have been different.
He had grown up in abject poverty and tolerated almost constant abuse. Even though his mother was a Mexican, his father had been white, and his blue eyes made him the object of hatred and scorn. He had survived, barely, but his life had been brutally hard. Not many half-breeds ever even survived to adulthood, and those that he knew of had all turned to violence, one way or the other. Maybe it was a way of trying to get even for all of the beatings they had received when they had been helpless children. He snorted; he guessed he should consider himself lucky for surviving as long as he had, but it looked like his luck was about to run out.
Johnny looked around one last time, trying desperately to think of a way out of this mess, even though he knew in his heart there was none. It was habit born of long practice. He had been in more dangerous situations than he cared to count, but this time, there would be no miracle. He felt angry once more at the way his life had gone. He had never had a chance, and all because of his gringo father, the man who was responsible for making him a half-breed, the man he hated.
The guard came and told the prisoner on his right to get up, but the peasant was frozen with fear. With a sigh, the half-breed decided there was nothing to wait for, and he heaved himself to his feet and received a grateful look from the other prisoner. The young man smiled; what possible difference would a couple of minutes make. The gunfighter squared his shoulders and walked in the direction the guards pointed, determined not to let the guards know he was frightened.
A commotion drew the young man’s attention to the road leading to the prison. A small man in a suit and bowler hat was driving a wagon toward them at breakneck speed, and everyone stopped to watch the strange apparition. The wagon clattered to a halt a few steps away from the guards, and the small man hurriedly climbed down and addressed the guards.
“I’m looking for a man named Madrid. Your captain said he might be one of your prisoners.”
The young man looked around, and then shot a hopeful glance at the driver of the wagon. Maybe, just maybe, this was his ticket out. It was a chance, anyway. “I’m Madrid.”
A look of relief showed on the detective’s face. “Well, I finally found you.” The man in the hat turned toward the guards and started negotiating with them for the gunfighter’s release, while the prisoner watched them carefully. The young man had no idea why anyone would be willing to pay to get Johnny Madrid released from prison, but at this point, he didn’t care why. All he cared about was getting out of this place and putting Mexico far behind him. He never had liked this country, anyway.
The man with the hat came back and started untying the prisoner’s bonds.
Confused but hopeful, the gunfighter asked, “Why are you doing this?”
“Your father wants to see you!”
The young man shook his head in confusion. “My father?”
“Murdoch Lancer! He wants to meet you, and he’s willing to pay a thousand dollars for an hour of your time!”
The prisoner glanced up and saw that the guards were getting their own ideas about making some money, and he grabbed the gun from the man’s holster and began firing. The gunfighter grinned in satisfaction as the guards began to fall and he dream of revenge came true, then he leaped onto a nearby horse and spurred him away from the carnage.
“Should I tell your father you’re coming?” The detective shouted.
“For a thousand dollars, I’d even go to hell!”
As the young man rode off, he wondered if maybe that wasn’t where he would be going after all.
The young man didn’t rest until he had crossed the Rio Grande and was well into Arizona. He was going to take no chance of getting caught again. He had briefly wondered if that dandy that had rescued him had escaped from the rurales, but he quickly put that thought out of his mind. Even if he hadn’t, the man was on his own.
The gunfighter stopped at a small town and rummaged through the saddlebags hoping to find something of value, or at least some food. Finally, just as he was about to give up, he found a couple of coins tucked way down inside one of the pockets. Apparently the money was kept there by the owner of the horse as emergency money. He smiled grimly. That was ONE rurale who wouldn’t have to worry about emergencies anymore.
He counted the change and discovered he had enough for a room, a hot meal, and a desperately needed change of clothes. He was far from rich, but thinking back to the detective’s exact words, he thought that just might change soon. Lancer was willing to pay a lot of money to meet his son, and anyone who could throw away a thousand dollars so casually had to have some serious money behind him. He grinned. He might even be able to get used to his new name for that kind of money. Johnny…Lancer. He shook his head. Madrid or Lancer; it didn’t matter to him. He’d go by that name as long it got him what he wanted. It would sure take some getting used to, thinking of himself as Johnny Lancer, but if this had any chance of working, he would have to do just that.
He headed out the next morning, a lot poorer, but definitely feeling better. He was headed for California and the Lancer ranch. He had heard of it over the years, and thought that it just might be worth checking out. He was going to get that thousand dollars one way or the other, but he thought that the ‘listening money’ just might be the tip of the iceberg. He had the feeling he just might have hit a gold mine. Maybe, just maybe, his luck had finally changed, and he would finally get what he deserved. He kicked his horse into a faster gait. He frowned as he heard the animal laboring underneath him. That rurale should have invested some of his money in a better horse.
An hour or so out of Morro Coyo, his horse finally gave up. Cursing at himself for pushing the animal so hard, Johnny ripped the saddle off and continued on foot. He though briefly about leaving the saddle behind, but it was worth some money, and he wasn’t about to leave it for someone else. He struggled along for a mile or so, and then he saw a road up ahead. Maybe if he was lucky, someone would come by and offer him a ride. He sat down in the grass at the edge of the roadway and waited.
After an hour or so, he heard an approaching stage, and scrambled up the small incline leading to the road. He waved his hands, and he expected the stage to go on by; he sure wouldn’t stop for someone like him. Surprisingly, though, the stage stopped, and he realized with a grin that most robbers wouldn’t try to stop a stage carrying a saddle.
He looked up at the driver. “You going to Morro Coyo?”
“Unless I’m lost.”
“Give me a lift?”
The stage driver nodded, and then held out his hand. “We’ll take your gun.”
The gunfighter hesitated. He NEVER gave up his gun, at least not willingly, but the prospect of walking another ten miles carting that saddle quickly persuaded him, and he handed the driver his Colt.
He opened the door to the stage, and after a quick glance to make sure nobody looked like trouble, he swung aboard. The stage lurched off and deposited him in the lap of a young lady. He smiled at the lady’s discomfort, and couldn’t resist teasing her a little. “Sorry I messed up your dress.”
“Can’t be helped,” came the stiff reply.
Deciding it might be fun to annoy the girl, Johnny plopped down between a padre and the woman, who tried to move as far away from the uncouth cowboy as possible. As he watched the lady’s discomfiture, the gunfighter smiled; the next ten miles might not be so boring after all.
Murdoch sat at his desk, pretending to do paperwork. In reality, he was wondering about his younger son, and worrying once again that he had made a mistake. The Pinkerton Detective Agency had contacted him a little over a week ago, saying that they had finally found the gunfighter in front of a firing squad down in Mexico, and had arranged for his release and given the young man Murdoch’s message. According to the agent, Johnny had agreed to come to Lancer.
Murdoch watched as his young ward scurried around the room, wielding her dust rag with enthusiasm and he slowly shook his head. He hoped to God he hadn’t made a mistake in asking the gunfighter here. He had so much to lose if his son had turned bad. He looked down at the unfinished books. What could Johnny have possibly done to deserve a death sentence? Murdoch was afraid to find out.
He picked up a picture of his second wife and studied it as he remembered the dark –haired toddler who used to run around the hacienda. He smiled as he remembered the young boy’s exuberance and intelligence, and the loving way he would put his arms around his father. Murdoch had loved the boy unquestioningly, and had been so proud of him, but he remembered another side to the boy, too. What he remembered most was the boy’s temper and his stubbornness about getting his own way. Murdoch felt a chill go down his spine, and he looked out the window, halfway hoping the young man would change his mind and decide to not come home.
Johnny stepped off of the stage and then turned around and offered his hand to the young woman. She studiously avoided his proffered hand, and jumped down by herself. The young man chuckled, and then turned toward the driver, who handed back the gunfighter’s weapon. Johnny checked it quickly, and then slid it into the holster and looked around. It sure was a dumpy little town. Personally, he liked a town with a little more action. He waited as the driver lifted down the saddle and then he turned and headed for the saloon. He figured he had enough money for a couple of drinks before going to Lancer.
When he walked into the bar, the barkeeper watched him nervously. Johnny grinned to himself; that wasn’t too uncommon an occurrence. He walked up to the bar and gave the man a grin. “Tequila.”
The man hurriedly filled the order and slid the drink over to the gunfighter. Johnny took a sip and then looked at the bartender once more. “Where is everybody? It’s awful quiet in here.”
The man nodded nervously. “They are gone, but they’ll come back tonight.”
The man seemed surprised. “Pardee and his men. Aren’t you looking for them?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. He had ridden with Pardee for a time, and they had gotten along reasonably well. At least they hadn’t drawn on each other, and in this game, that was the same as being friends. He shook his head slowly. “Actually, I’m looking for Murdoch Lancer.”
That seemed to make the bartender even more nervous, and he began to wipe the bar furiously with his towel. The gunfighter reached out and grabbed the man by his arm, halting the frantic movement. “Where can I find Lancer?” He asked softly.
The bartender swallowed convulsively. “Follow the road out of town to the north. You’ll see the ranch in about twenty miles.”
The gunfighter scowled at the man. “Do you have a horse?”
The bartender nodded his head nervously and Johnny smiled. “Then I’m SURE you won’t mind if I borrow it, now will you.”
The man didn’t answer and Johnny continued. “I’m gonna ride your horse out to the Lancer ranch. You can come either wait until I bring him back into town, or you can come out and pick him up yourself, your choice. Now where can I find him?”
The bartended thought briefly about saying no, but another glance at the man’s low-hung gun made him wisely decide against it. With a sigh, he told Johnny where he could find the horse, and the gunfighter gulped down his shot of tequila and left.
Johnny quickly saddled the horse and rode out of town, his mind working furiously. As he rode, he knew he was taking a gamble, but he figured he didn’t have a lot to lose. Lancer would probably kick him out on his ear, but there was always a chance that it would work, and right now he didn’t have a lot of options. Besides, he needed that money.
Johnny rode through the arch that proclaimed the ranch’s name, and continued on toward the house. He had already seen enough to know that the man he was going to see must be immensely wealthy, and he smiled to himself. So far, so good. His eyes were drawn to some men who were watching him from a nearby field, and he noticed they all were heavily armed. He glanced at the top of the barn, and spotted a man serving as a lookout, with a rifle beside him. Evidently, Lancer was expecting some trouble, and Johnny figured it just might have something to do with the news that Pardee was in town. It also might explain why Lancer had offered a thousand dollars listening money if his son would come home. He would certainly help to even the odds against a man like Pardee.
Murdoch looked out the window and immediately stiffened. There was a rider coming and he certainly wasn’t any of the hands. Murdoch turned to his son.
“Scott, come over here. Is this anyone you know?”
Scott shook his head, and Murdoch studied the rider more carefully. As the man drew nearer, the rancher was able to make out the low-slung gun and the dark hair, and suddenly Murdoch knew who it was. He couldn’t see the man’s eyes, but Murdoch knew they’d be blue. He watched as the man swung gracefully out of the saddle and looked around. After a moment, the gunfighter approached the door and they heard a knock.
Nervously, Murdoch went to get a drink and left Scott to answer the door. Murdoch poured the drink, and took a large gulp before turning around and locking eyes with the gunfighter who now stood in his house. Murdoch froze for a moment, unnerved by what he saw in the young man’s eyes.
The young man nodded slowly. “Murdoch Lancer.” The gunfighter said it like a curse.
Murdoch nodded and held out a bottle. “Drink?”
The gunfighter shook his head. “I only drink with people I know. I came for my money.”
Lancer’s face turned grim and he marched over to the desk and drew out an envelope. He tossed the envelope on the table and then watched as Johnny walked over and picked it up. “Why don’t you count it?” Murdoch said brusquely.
“I plan to.”
The young man counted the bills, and satisfied, looked back up at the rancher. “So what do you want?”
Murdoch turned toward his older son. “This is your brother, Scott. He had been living in Boston until a several weeks ago, when he decided to came here to live.”
The two younger men studied each other, and neither one particularly liked what they saw. The gunfighter turned back toward Murdoch. “Like I said, what do you want?”
Murdoch bit his tongue in an effort to control the anger that was welling up inside him at the boy’s behavior, but he hadn’t really expected anything different.
“A man named Pardee is trying to get control of this valley. He’s killed a dozen good men and run off scores of others. If we’re going to save our ranch, I’ll need your help.”
The gunfighter’s eyebrows quirked up. “Our ranch?”
Murdoch glanced at Scott and his older son shrugged. Murdoch hesitated for a moment, and then looked back at the young man standing belligerently in front of him and nodded. “I’m prepared to give both you and Scott one third.”
Murdoch went to the window and threw back the drapes. “Of everything you see out there: one hundred thousand acres, fifty thousand head of beef, and the finest palominos in the valley.”
Johnny hesitated only a moment before marching over to the window and looking out. He studied the lush pastures and fat cattle, and knew he had finally hit the jackpot.
Johnny wasn’t surprised by the news that Pardee was after the ranch; he figured there had to be a pretty good reason for a land pirate like Pardee to be in a grubby little town like Moro Coyo, and Lancer was the reason. It was a big enough prize to get Pardee interested real fast.
The gunfighter turned around and studied the two men who were in the room with him. Right now they were an unknown quantity. He’d have to find out a little more about them before he decided which side he’d be on in the upcoming fracas. He knew he’d stick around; he just wanted to make sure he was on the winning side. He’d had enough of fighting losing battles, and for once he decided he was going to come out the winner.
Johnny shook his head. “Pardee’s a gunfighter and he’s pretty good.”
Scott looked at him in surprise. “You know him?”
Johnny nodded his head. “Oh yes, I know him. I’d say you have some kind of trouble, Old Man.”
Murdoch stared at him, wondering just how WELL his son knew a man like Pardee, and just how much alike they were. Another veil of doubt settled over him and he wondered for the hundredth time if he had saved the ranch by bringing his youngest son home, or simply sealed its fate.
Scott walked over to the map on the wall. “It seems to me like this is a simple military problem. First, we have to find the enemy, second engage him, and third, destroy him.”
Johnny laughed at the way Scott thought destroying Pardee would be so easy. Pardee was like a snake; he’d keep you busy chopping his tail off and then turn around and kill you when you weren’t looking. Pardee was too sneaky to fall for any of this Boston dandy’s fancy plans. The only way to beat Pardee was to be sneakier and more underhanded than he was. Johnny smiled; that was his kind of fight.
Johnny sat at the big dinner table and watched as the others watched him without trying to get caught. He smiled to himself; he was used to being watched. He looked up and managed to catch the girl, Teresa’s eyes, and he grinned at her. She looked away quickly and he chuckled to himself. He glanced at Murdoch and found that the older man was watching him carefully, an unreadable expression on his face. Johnny grinned to himself; he figured the Old Man was probably trying to figure out just how he ended up with a son like him, when the other son was obviously such a gentleman. Johnny snorted; he’d like to hear that story himself.
Scott decided to break the tension. “So what do you think of Lancer, Johnny?”
Johnny, suddenly wary, shrugged. “Nice spread.”
“Have you done any ranching before?” Murdoch asked.
“Nope, haven’t had time. Been too busy tryin’ ta stay alive.” He looked up at Murdoch. “By the way, thanks for savin’ my hide down there in Mexico. I thought I was a goner for sure.”
Murdoch nodded slowly, and shivered at how close it had been. If he had waited any longer to contact the Pinkertons, his son would have been dead. As it was, they had had a terrible time tracking Johnny down and it had been more luck than anything else that had finally led them to him. He guessed fate had been on their side, at least he hoped it had. He still wasn’t sure about the young man sitting across from him. He had an attitude that he didn’t quite trust, but given his background, he guessed he couldn’t really expect anything different. Murdoch just hoped Johnny would settle down and decide to be a rancher and part of this family.
The next morning, Johnny woke up with a start. For a moment, he didn’t know where he was, and the thought unnerved him a little bit. After taking a quick look around, he remembered the events of the last several days, and he relaxed. Now all he had to do was to figure out just what it meant for him.
He heard Scott moving around in the next room, and decided to go talk to him and see what he could find out about his new family. Johnny pushed the door open, and watched as Scott shot him a disgruntled glare at having his shaving interrupted. Johnny strutted into the room, taking everything in at a glance. He noticed a picture and picked it up, then looked at Scott curiously. “Pretty,” Johnny commented.
Scott took the picture from his brother and put it back on the table. Johnny walked nervously around the room, trying to get a feel for this stranger. Suddenly, the door banged open and Murdoch’s ward came barging into the room. Johnny almost laughed at Scott’s disgruntled expression.
“Doesn’t ANYBODY around here ever knock?” Scott roared.
“Oh, just think of me like a sister,” the girl said flippantly.
Johnny looked appraisingly at the girl as she chattered on, oblivious to his perusal. Just how he’d think of her remained to be seen. He wasn’t sure about these people, and he still hadn’t made up his mind how he felt about any of them.
The girl left and Johnny started pacing around the room once more. Finally, he stopped by the doorframe. “Look, Scott, it’s like this…”
“Get it said, brother!” Scott growled, surprising Johnny a little with his tone. The gunfighter’s features immediately became hard. “It’s just that I was thinkin’ of this as more of a one man deal.”
Scott smiled at the young man. “Now you’re going to make me feel left out, saying things like that.”
“Better left out than in a ditch somewhere, with ants crawlin’ across your eyeballs. That don’t photograph too well.” Johnny slammed the door on the way out, wondering just what he should do.
Scott watched as his brother left the room, and a feeling of disquiet settled over him. He wasn’t sure if he could learn to like that angry young man, brother or not. Johnny wasn’t exactly like he had pictured the brother he had always wanted, and he was unsettled by the boy’s behavior. The truth was, Scott didn’t quite trust him.
Johnny strolled out to the corrals where Teresa said the Segundo had cut out a horse for him. He couldn’t wait to get a hold of one of the good horses on the ranch; the ones he had been riding lately were worse than useless. He stepped up to the corral and watched as a group of horses was being worked by some of the men. They were obviously well-bred, and most of them were palominos. He’d always liked that color, but he’d never owned one.
He watched for several moments until the Segundo, Cipriano, looked up and saw him. The man immediately came over to where Johnny was standing. He pointed to a nearby corral at a beautiful Palomino, but Johnny’s eyes were drawn back to the corral. He had seen a horse he liked much better.
Johnny pointed to the horse in the corral. “I want that one.”
Cipriano shook his head. “Pardon, Senor, but the one I have picked out for you is much better.”
Johnny gazed coldly at the man as he pointed to the horse still running loose in the big corral. “I SAID I wanted that one.”
Cipriano returned the stare for a moment, and then with a shrug nodded his agreement. Johnny hadn’t waited; he was already inside the corral.
“Cut that one out!” He commanded the wranglers.
They looked at Cipriano for approval, and the Segundo nodded. Johnny felt his temper flare. The hands would just have to learn who they’d better listen to, or they might find themselves in a world of hurt. He wasn’t used to taking orders from anybody, or having his word doubted, and he would make sure that didn’t change.
Johnny watched as the wranglers roped the horse and managed to get a saddle and bosal on him. The horse gave them quite a fight in the process, and Johnny knew he’d enjoy breaking this particular animal. The horse finally lost the battle, and as two of the wranglers held him, Johnny quickly stepped up into the saddle. He settled himself in the seat, and then gave a quick nod.
The palomino stood perfectly still for a moment, and Johnny could feel the animal’s muscles bunching underneath him. Johnny tightened his legs, and the horse launched himself into the air. Johnny held on stubbornly, even though it felt like his teeth just might get jarred loose from his head. The palomino sunfished viciously and then settled down into a series of bone-jarring bucks.
Murdoch pulled his buggy to a halt outside the corral and watched as his younger son attempted to break the fighting animal. He was relieved to know that Johnny had at least one skill that would be useful around the ranch after Pardee was defeated.
The palomino started crow-hopping in a last attempt to rid himself of his rider, but the exhausted horse had met his match, and both he and his rider knew it. Finally, the horse stopped bucking and Johnny was able to guide the lathered and blowing animal over to the corral fence where Teresa sat with Scott and several of the hands.
The young man’s pleasure at breaking the palomino was evident as he smiled at his audience. “He’s a fine animal,” Johnny said.
Scott nodded. “Yes, he is, but I’m a little surprised you didn’t take the one that Cipriano chose for you.”
Johnny’s eyes turned hard. “You tryin’ ta tell me what to do, Boston?”
Scott looked at the gunfighter in surprise. He certainly hadn’t meant anything by the comment. “No, just making an observation.”
“Well why don’t you keep your ‘observations’ to yourself.”
Scott glanced at Teresa and then shrugged. Johnny watched them for another minute, and then motioned for one of the wranglers to open the gate.
“Where are you going?” Teresa asked worriedly.
“Tell Lancer I’m goin’ into town ta break up one of them gold pieces.” Johnny nudged the horse in the sides, and the palomino loped off, leaving Scott watching the disappearing rider with a frown on his face.
Johnny heard the gunshots before he was even in town, and as he came closer he heard the raucous laughter of a group of men. He had hung around Pardee’s bunch enough to know that the sounds probably meant that they had found some poor unfortunate victim and were making his life hell.
The gunfighter rode cautiously up the street, until he could see a group of men on the porch and their victim. He watched for a few seconds as the men on the porch took shots at the man’s water bucket, and then he rode slowly forward, trying to figure out the best way to get Pardee’s attention without having to kill any of Pardee’s men or get himself killed in the process.
Johnny dismounted and grabbed the water bucket from the man’s hands. The gunfighter slowly tied his horse to a hitching rail and moved toward the porch, keeping his eyes on the gathered pack.
Johnny locked eyes on the man he had decided was the leader in Pardee’s absence. “You have bad manners.”
“You gonna teach me some good ones?”
“Let’s see how long it takes to make a good dog outta you.”
Johnny smiled. “OK.”
“That’s my water.”
Johnny smiled wider.
“I aim ta have that water for my bath.”
Johnny kept his eyes locked on the other man. “I doubt it.”
“Oh do you now?”
The other man’s eyes cut away for a second, and Johnny saw the opening he was looking for. He threw the bucket at the man and drew his own gun. “You’re dead.”
The gunfighter’s attention was drawn to another man who now spoke up. “So are you, sonny.”
Johnny grinned. “Well, I picked a good day for it. Now the only question is, how many of you am I gonna take with me?”
Johnny’s eyes flicked toward the door as he saw in relief that Pardee had joined the bunch on the porch. Pardee smiled at the young man. “Johnny.”
“Been a long time.”
“Yeah, long time.”
Johnny nodded and the men on the porch backed off and made way for the gunfighter. Johnny walked past them without even hesitating and he smiled at Day.
Pardee watched the young gunfighter for a moment, wondering what had brought him to this town, and wondering why the gunfighter had looked him up. He motioned for Johnny to follow him inside, and Pardee decided he’d have to watch the young man very, very carefully. They had worked together before, but for some reason, this time he didn’t quite trust him.
Johnny followed Day inside the cantina and sat with him at a small table. Pardee called for tequila, and the frightened barkeeper scurried over and set the bottle down and then left. Day watched as Johnny poured himself a shot. “So what are you doing in town?
Johnny shrugged. “Just looking for my best chance, that’s all.”
Day smiled. “Well, ya found it.”
Johnny looked at Pardee questioningly.
“”I could use somebody like you, Johnny.”
“I’ll have ta think about it,” Johnny answered truthfully.
Pardee studied the young gunfighter. “You ain’t tied up with anybody else, are you?”
“No, I told ya I’d think about it, and I will.”
Pardee frowned. “All right, John. Take all the time ya need.”
One of Pardee’s men came in and started taking to Day in an undertone, and Johnny strove to listen, without them knowing. From the whispered conversation, Johnny guessed that Scott and Teresa had wandered into town, and he was stunned at the stupidity of that move. How could Lancer let the two of them come into town, knowing that Pardee had taken over? It was just plain stupid. If Day wanted to, he could grab them and use them as hostages, and defeat Lancer without even firing a shot. It was what he would do if he were in Pardee’s shoes. Johnny shook his head, from what he had seen so far, it certainly didn’t look like Lancer was going to come out the winner in this fight.
With a sigh, Johnny stood up and walked outside, but Scott and Teresa were nowhere around. He caught sight of the buggy in front of the dry goods store, and he walked over to a nearby porch and settled in to watch the confrontation he was sure would erupt.
He saw two of Pardee’s men disappear into the store, and he knew it was just a matter of time before something happened. Several minutes later, he heard shouting and numerous crashes from within the building, and he knew that the fight was on. Moments later, Teresa came running across the street toward him, and he glanced furtively around to make sure none of Day’s men were watching. He noticed with relief that they had made themselves scarce, and he looked calmly at the young girl as she started shouting.
“Johnny! It’s Scott!”
“Yep. I told him not to get involved.”
She looked at him in shock. “Aren’t you going to help him?”
Teresa glared at him for another second, and then turned and ran back toward the store. Johnny watched until Pardee’s two men left, and Scott headed stubbornly back into the building. Johnny had to admire the man’s guts, too bad he was too stupid to know when to quit. Johnny waited for a few minutes, and then he went over to his Palomino and swung up, then headed out of town.
When he was well out if town, Johnny stopped by the side of the road and dismounted. He was upset by what had happened in town, but he knew he couldn’t have handled it any differently. He knew he SURE couldn’t have helped Scott and Teresa without Day finding out about it, and that would NOT have been good. It would have destroyed any chance he had of Pardee to trust him, and would have forced him to side with Lancer, whether he wanted to or not.
He still hadn’t decided just which side he was going to join up with for the coming fight, but he was leaning toward Pardee. The other gunfighter sure seemed to be holding all of the cards, and Johnny was going to make sure that THIS time, he was on the winning side.
As he rode along, he noticed a buggy pulled up next to the small lake next to the road. When he got closer, he recognized Scott and Teresa, and he almost turned around and left, but he figured he might as well get the confrontation over with.
The girl’s glare was enough to stop most men in their tracks, but he had faced worse. He rode closer and then lightly jumped down from his horse. He looked at Scott’s bruised face. “I TOLD ya not to get involved.”
“Well, YOU sure didn’t.”
“Well, if you wanna get yourself killed, that’s your business.”
Scott hung his head for a second, and Johnny glanced over at the girl.
“Thanks for your help, BROTHER.”
Johnny looked back just in time for Scott’s fist to connect with his face, sending him rolling down the embankment. The attack took Johnny by surprise, but he came charging back, determined to teach the Boston dandy a lesson. Before more than a few blows could land, however, the girl stepped between them.
“Stop it! You should be ashamed of yourselves, brothers fighting.”
Johnny stared at the girl for a moment as her words registered, and he dropped his hands. He felt no kinship with this man, and he made up his mind at that point to join Pardee. He should have known this would never work; there was just too much difference between him and the people on this ranch for it too ever work out. He felt a momentary sadness. This was as close as he had ever come to having a family, and the thought that maybe the reason it wouldn’t work out was because of him didn’t set well with him, but he knew he couldn’t change, not at this point in his life.
He went over and picked up his hat, and swung angrily up onto the back of the palomino. He started to ride away, and Scott approached him one last time.
“Wait, we came for the same reason; we should be able to get along.”
Johnny looked back at the young man and decided to tell him the truth. He reached into his pocket and drew out the thousand dollars listening money. “THIS is why I came.”
Johnny watched in satisfaction as Scott’s face hardened. “My mistake,” he muttered.
Johnny glared at Scott for another second, and then nudged his horse into a lope. He had to get away from these people, or he just might make the wrong decision in his life. Again.
Johnny looked up as a rider went charging into the barnyard and started yelling at Murdoch. Even from a distance, Johnny could tell that Lancer was upset, and the older man immediately jumped on a horse and galloped out of the yard, followed by most of the men. Johnny tagged along to see what all of the commotion was about, but he had a pretty good idea that whatever it was, it wasn’t good news, at least for Lancer.
Johnny smelled the smoke before he saw it, and as they rode closer to the burning ranch house, the gunfighter realized it was more of Pardee’s handiwork. He had witnessed many scenes like this when he had ridden with the land pirate, and Johnny had never gotten used to the sheer brutality of the man. He watched as Murdoch’s men cut down a man hanging from the barn, and then turned his attention to the house. Lancer was just approaching the door, and Johnny knew what would probably be awaiting him.
Murdoch stared inside for a moment, and then softly closed the door, his face telling the gunfighter that he had been right. Johnny dropped his head, wondering again if he was making the right choice. Things like the carnage in this small ranch house still bothered him, but he knew if he threw in his lot with Pardee, they would soon become mundane. He knew if he joined Pardee, he would lose his soul, if he hadn’t already.
As he rode back to Lancer, Johnny thought more and more about his choice. He knew that unless a miracle happened, Lancer would lose. Pardee was stronger. Day had more men, and he had better men, but he had another advantage. He was ruthless. He didn’t care what he had to do to gain his objective, or what it cost. He would use every means available to ensure his victory.
Unlike Lancer, he wasn’t bound by a moral code, and that was what was going to make the difference. The Lancers weren’t willing to fight dirty, and it would mean their death. That’s what finally stopped the indecision in the young man’s mind. He knew without a doubt that Pardee would win, and that Lancer would soon be reduced to smoking rubble, the people dead or gone. It wouldn’t matter if he joined the fight on their side, they would still lose, and Johnny had never been stupid. He had no intention of sacrificing himself for a principle. He was going to stay alive, and he was going to be on the winning side for a change.
The three men had been quiet as they entered the hacienda after returning from the horror at the ranch house, each lost in his own thoughts. Murdoch had poured each of them a drink and then gone upstairs to break the news to his ward that good friends had been killed. Scott and Johnny had ignored each other until Murdoch returned, and then Scott announced he was going to try to track Pardee and his men through the endless mountain paths.
Even though Johnny had already decided to join Pardee, Scott’s stupidity shocked him. He shook his head. “They’ll either cut your men to ribbons up there in the dark, or they’ll come back here and attack the ranch when you’re gone.”
Scott hesitated, looking to Murdoch for an answer. “What do you say?”
Murdoch looked at Johnny and nodded his head. “I say you go.”
Johnny slammed his hat down, knowing the confrontation would begin shortly, and Johnny wasn’t sure if he had time to join Pardee before it started.
Scott turned and asked, “Are you coming?”
Johnny glared back, and then Murdoch asked him the same question. “Are you going to go or not?
“Is that an order?” Johnny spat.
Murdoch shook his head. “There’s only one man who gives orders on this ranch.”
Johnny thought quickly about his options, and decided to stall for time. “Do you know what’s going to happen up there, with your tin soldier? You have one chance. Hold up here and wait.”
“Till I find Pardee.”
Murdoch studied the young man in front of him for several moments. Finally he spoke the fear that had been eating at him since Teresa had tearfully told him about what had happened in town. “Maybe you already have found him,” he mused.
Johnny panicked at the thought that Murdoch might know about his plan to join Pardee and stop him from leaving. He kicked his lips nervously. “Well, go on.”
“What were you doing in Moro Coyo?”
“Is that what you think of me?”
“I don’t know what to think of you,” Murdoch answered truthfully. Murdoch had been trying to give Johnny the benefit of the doubt since the young man had first arrived, but there were so many things that bothered him. The boy was a stranger, and Murdoch knew he was a very lethal one. Murdoch was afraid he had made the wrong decision in bringing the boy back here. He thought it just might be too late to tame the young gunfighter.
“Think what you like.” Johnny turned for the door, hoping desperately that the old man wouldn’t stop him.
“Where are you going?” Murdoch asked. Part of him wanted to reach out and stop the angry young man and make him stay here; to hug him and try to make things right, to make him accept that he was part of this family. Another part, a more reasonable part, was telling him to cut his losses and let the boy go, that it would never work out, not for this young man. Finally, Murdoch stood aside and let his son leave, wondering if he would ever see him again, and wondering if there was anything he could have done differently.
Johnny looked back at Murdoch, wondering again if he was making a mistake in leaving, if he had chosen the wrong side once more. He stared at the older man for a moment, and then decided to stick with his earlier decision. “I never was much good at takin’ orders,” Johnny said as he slipped through the door and was gone.
Johnny rode into Moro Coyo and went in the saloon to wait. He hoped that Pardee hadn’t decided to attack Lancer tonight, or he would miss out. He felt guilty, siding with Pardee over Lancer, but he had decided before he even came here that he was going to go with the winning side. Besides, he didn’t owe the Old Man anything. He and his mother had been kicked out by her gringo husband, and left to fend for themselves in the rough border towns. No, he didn’t owe anyone anything.
An hour later he heard the approach of horses, and he strolled out onto the porch. Day spotted him immediately, and came over.
“You made up your mind yet, Johnny?”
“Yeah, I made up my mind.”
“Good. It’ll be light soon. We’ll have breakfast at the Lancer ranch.”
An unexpected pang of regret shot through him. He had eaten breakfast there this morning. Teresa and Maria had fixed a fine table, and Johnny had feasted until he thought he’d burst. With an effort, he shut out the thought of what would happen to those two ladies when Day took over. This was war, and he had chosen his side. It was too late to change now.
By the time dawn broke, the group of riders was on their way to the Lancer ranch. Johnny blocked out all conscious thought as he rode along, content to have his instincts take over when the time came. Beside, if he thought about things, he’d be tempted to change his mind. He’d never been totally callous, and he thought that he’d managed to keep some of his conscience, but he also knew that after today, any chance of redemption would be long gone. He had sold his soul to the devil in Pardee.
Unbidden, a thought flashed across his mind as he rode. As Johnny Lancer, he would stand to inherit the ranch if something happened to the two men below. Maybe there was something more in his future after all. Maybe if he handled this right, he would be able to have the ranch and give up hiring out. The more he thought about it, the more he decided he liked the idea. Pardee might not agree, but to hell with him. He wasn’t afraid of the gunfighter, and if Day wanted to argue about it, he just might be in for a surprise.
Pardee finally came to a halt on a ridge overlooking the house. Johnny dismounted and joined Day in studying the landscape below. Johnny felt once more that this was his destiny, one way or the other. He studied the lush valley with its fat stock, and decided to inform Day of the change in plans.
“What do you want, Johnny?”
“This is my land.”
Pardee looked at him like he might be joking, but Johnny was deadly serious. The land pirate looked puzzled. “Your land?” Pardee looked puzzled for a moment, and then his eyes narrowed. “You another Lancer?”
Johnny nodded. “After we take over I expect to be in charge, and I’m going to keep the ranch.”
Pardee snorted. “”You ain’t in charge, boy. I’ll decide what’s going to be done after we take over, and I don’t care WHAT your name is.”
Johnny saw one of Pardee’s men approaching from the side, and knew he’d have to make his move. He’d called Day’s bluff, and the gunfighter hadn’t backed down as Johnny had hoped he would. Now, with another man standing beside him, he knew Pardee would fight. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and Johnny turned and drew, taking Pardee’s man down. Day drew his pistol, and Johnny swiveled his gun and shot Day in the shoulder.
Pardee yelled for his men, and Johnny knew his only chance was to run. He jumped up on his horse, but the only way open to him was down the hill, toward Lancer. He turned his horse in that direction and spurred him viciously down the hill.
Johnny turned and looked behind him, and saw that Pardee’s bunch was spread out along the road, still in hot pursuit. Johnny had no illusions; if Pardee and his men caught him, he was a dead man. His only hope now was to get to safety, and right now, the closest place was Lancer. He spurred his palomino once more. He heard the bullets whizzing past his head, and he turned in the saddle and returned fire. He saw one of Pardee’s men drop, and then he turned and raced on. As he came up the lane leading to the ranch house at a dead run, he continued to turn and fire. He was taking down as many of Pardee’s men as he could, knowing that was his only chance of survival.
He continued to pound down the lane, and he approached the first fence surrounding the estancia. He headed the palomino toward it, knowing that if his horse refused to jump, he was a dead man. The palomino responded gamely, and cleared the first fence and headed for the second. Johnny heaved a sigh of relief as his horse floated across that one, too, and he breathed a little easier.
Murdoch watched as his youngest son jumped the fences, and came galloping toward the house. Just as he thought the young man was safe, Johnny was shot out of the saddle and lay still on the grass. For a moment, Murdoch’s whole world stopped, and the battle was forgotten as he stared at the motionless body. Scott moved to rush past him, but Murdoch knew it was hopeless.
“Scott, don’t. It’s no use.” Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know what that boy was trying to do.”
Teresa lifted a tear stained face toward him. “He was coming back to us.”
Murdoch closed his eyes. The guilt ate at him. Johnny had been on their side all along, and Murdoch had doubted him. It was his fault that his son had left the night before, it was his fault his son was dead, and all because Murdoch hadn’t trusted him.
Murdoch sat in the Great Room staring out the window. Sam had been upstairs a good long while, and Murdoch was afraid that the battle to save his youngest son was going to be lost. Sam had chased both he and Scott out, and had asked Maria to come upstairs to help him. Maria had helped him countless times before, and the doctor knew he could count on her to do what needed to be done.
Murdoch heard the clink of a glass and turned around to see Scott helping himself to some more brandy. That was his older son’s third glass and Murdoch idly wondered if Scott had a drinking problem. Murdoch snorted. That was just one of the things he didn’t know. These two young men were strangers to him. He had no idea of what to expect from them or what they were like. He wanted to believe the best of both of them, but he wasn’t sure if he was right, one way or the other.
He had accepted Scott almost immediately. Murdoch knew that Scott’s background and training had virtually eliminated any chance that his older son was anything less than honorable and trustworthy. He knew he couldn’t take any of the credit for that; his son had grown into a fine young man in spite of him, not because of him. Still, he was proud of Scott, and justifiably so. He just hoped that Scott didn’t prove him wrong.
Murdoch heaved a deep sigh. Johnny on the other hand... He shook his head. He had been unsure whether to send for him all along. The stories he had heard, coupled with the unflattering Pinkerton reports, had made sending for his younger son sound like an awfully stupid idea. Stupid, or maybe desperate. And that was exactly what had finally prompted Murdoch to go against his instincts and send for the gunfighter; desperation.
While he was waiting for Johnny to arrive, he had convinced himself that Johnny couldn’t be as bad as the stories indicated. No son of his could be all bad. He had decided to give the young man a fair chance and help him to start a new life. That resolve had almost flown out the window that first day. When Johnny had walked arrogantly into the room and had rudely smarted off, Murdoch had been very close to telling him to leave.
Murdoch felt a pang of guilt when he realized that the only reason he hadn’t was because he still harbored the hope that his youngest son would somehow be able to save the ranch for them. It had been a purely selfish reason. He had been under no illusion that a man like his son could ever settle down and be a rancher. He had admitted to himself that he wished it COULD happen, but he had known it was just a dream. His son was Johnny Madrid, not Johnny Lancer, and nothing could ever change that.
When Johnny had refused to go along with Scott’s plan, Murdoch had again doubted his decision, but part of him desperately wanted Johnny to give him some assurance as to what side he was on. When Murdoch had asked him what he was doing in Moro Coyo that day, he had hoped Johnny would reassure him that the gunfighter hadn’t thrown in with Pardee, but instead Johnny had simply told him to think what he liked and stalked out.
At that point, Murdoch was convinced that Johnny had sided with Pardee and that they were all probably doomed. He had felt angry and betrayed. Looking back, he realized guiltily that Johnny probably felt the same way when his own father had doubted him, and it was that hurt and anger that had made the young man leave.
When Murdoch had first seen Johnny heading back, he didn’t understand at first what was happening. He had watched as Johnny had brought down quite a few of Pardee’s men before he himself fell, but it took Teresa to point out the obvious to Murdoch. The boy was coming home to them, coming home to help them save the ranch, and Murdoch knew if the young man died, he would never forgive himself for not trusting his own son.
Scott watched as his father drained his fourth glass of brandy and wondered if his father had a drinking problem. This man was a virtual stranger to him. What had started out with active dislike before he met him had gradually turned to grudging respect, but he still wasn’t sure just what was in store for their relationship. He never knew exactly what the older man was thinking, and he wasn’t quite sure where he stood in his father’s eyes.
Johnny, on the other hand, left no doubt as to just what he thought about Scott. The disdain the gunfighter had shown him still smarted, and Scott vowed that if Johnny lived, he would earn the young man’s respect. Scott felt guilty that he himself hadn’t been more accepting of his brother. He had read the Pinkerton reports and knew that the young man had been abused and mistreated his whole life. Except for a short time when he had been a prisoner of war, Scott had never known abuse or hunger, he had never been cold or even uncomfortable. He couldn’t comprehend what it must have been like for this young man, but instead of welcoming him, Scott had shown disdain of his own.
When Johnny had refused to go with him to draw Pardee out, Scott had been close to calling him a coward, but he knew that accusing his brother of cowardice certainly wouldn’t make Johnny any more eager to join him. As Scott had ridden out, another, more sinister thought had pushed itself to the surface of his mind. Maybe there was a reason that Johnny didn’t want to go with Scott that had nothing to do with the feasibility of Scott’s plan. Scott had wondered if the reason Johnny hadn’t wanted to go was because he was on Pardee’s side and didn’t want to be away from the ranch when Pardee attacked.
Scott was ashamed of himself for those thoughts now, and he fully intended to make it up to his brother. If it hadn’t been for Johnny, there was a good chance that Pardee would have won. Johnny had managed to kill quite a few of Pardee’s men before he himself was shot, and those men just MIGHT have made the difference between defeat and victory. Whether it had or not really didn’t matter. Johnny had proven to them all just which side he was on, and Scott would never doubt his little brother again.
When Johnny recovered, and Scott swore he would recover, he would make it up to his brother. He would make an effort to help him adjust and to become part of this family. Scott knew if he put enough effort into it, it WOULD work, and he was going to make sure his brother got the chance he deserved.
Johnny came to slowly, but he pretended to still be asleep. Long experience had taught him that it was much safer to know what was going on before he let anyone know he was awake. As he lay there, he tried to make his brain work enough to figure out where he was. He was in a bed, of that much he was sure, and a soft one, too. A light breeze was rustling some curtains, and he smelled the soft scent of lavender. Well, at least he wasn’t in jail, but that didn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t in trouble. He lay there for another few minutes, and then he started to remember. Lancer. Pardee. He almost moaned as he remembered the fight. He had tried to intimidate Pardee, and the gunfighter had called his bluff. Johnny had had no choice but to turn and run, and he had flown toward the dubious safety of Lancer.
Johnny cautiously opened one eye, and immediately he heard Scott’s voice.
“Just relax, you’re safe.”
Johnny would have laughed if he had the strength; there was no way he was safe here. They had to know what he had done, that he had abandoned them to join Pardee. They would probably hang him. He started to struggle into a sitting position, and Scott easily restrained the injured man. “Now calm down. You’re going to tear those stitches, and then Sam will have both of our heads.”
Johnny lay back down and studied the man who was keeping him captive. The gunfighter was perplexed when he saw no hate or even anger in those eyes, and he tried desperately to puzzle it out. Johnny shook his head to try to clear it, and Scott offered him a glass of water. Johnny had swallowed most of it before he recognized the familiar taste of Laudanum. That must be it. Scott was trying to calm him down enough so that he’d cooperate and they could get some drugs down him. He fought desperately to stay awake, but the drug finally overcame the young man’s resolve, and Johnny fell asleep once more.
When he jolted awake again, it was dark outside. Johnny felt a little panicky, not knowing how long he had been out, but he swore they wouldn’t trick him again. He would stay awake and figure out a way to escape. He looked around through half-lidded eyes, and made out the shape of Murdoch sitting next to the bed. Johnny didn’t know why they wasted their time guarding him; if they didn’t have a place to lock him up it would be much less work to tie him up.
A soft snore coming from Murdoch’s chair told Johnny that his guard had apparently fallen asleep on the job, and he cautiously tried to sit up. Even that simple task proved to be too much, however, and with a soft sigh of defeat, he sank down into the mattress. He’d have to wait until he was stronger, and if he played possum, he’d hopefully have another chance.
Sam walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table, helping himself to a few pancakes. Scott looked on in amusement as the Doctor didn’t even wait for an invitation, but dug right in. Apparently, the old man was a regular visitor and a good friend of his father’s.
“How is he this morning?” The Doctor asked no one in particular.
Murdoch nodded. “There’s no more fever, but he’s still unconscious.”
Sam’s eyebrows quirked up. “He hasn’t awakened at all?”
“He did for a few moments yesterday, but he seemed pretty agitated, and I was afraid he was going to pull out his stitches. I gave him some Laudanum,” Scott volunteered.
Sam nodded. “You did the right thing. We don’t need him tearing those stitches out. I’ll go up and check him after breakfast.”
As the old Doctor ate, he thought about the young man upstairs. He had heard the stories that had been circulating around town about the gunfighter, and he wasn’t quite sure what to believe. Murdoch had confided in him about the boy’s past even before he had brought him home, and he had also talked to him about whether it was a good idea to have him here at the ranch at all.
Sam hadn’t known what to say then, and he certainly didn’t know what to say now. According to the stories, the young man upstairs was a bomb waiting to go off, and Sam was worried his friend would get caught in the explosion. Murdoch himself had seemed hesitant, at least at first, but since the fight with Pardee, his friend seemed to have accepted Johnny without question.
Sam was a little bit worried about that. He knew that a man couldn’t change overnight, no matter how much he wanted to, and he was afraid Murdoch was in for some rough times. He couldn’t discourage it however, not when he knew just how long Murdoch had looked for this boy and how desperately he wanted both of his sons home.
The talk around town still bothered the Doctor. The story was that Madrid had been hanging around Pardee, and had actually seemed friendly with him. When Pardee and his bunch had ridden out of town to attack Lancer, Johnny had been with them and riding next to the other gunfighter. From Murdoch’s own words, Johnny had been with the land pirate, and then at the last minute had apparently changed sides, shooting several of Pardee’s men. Sam just hoped that was what had actually happened, and that Murdoch wasn’t turning a blind eye to the fact that his younger son had apparently been a traitor.
Sam wanted to talk to the young man upstairs and form his own opinion. He was fairly good at reading people, and he thought he just might be able to tell if Johnny was sincere or not. For Murdoch’s sake, the Doctor certainly hoped that his friend was right about his son. He was afraid it just might destroy Murdoch if he thought that his own son had betrayed him.
Sam pushed the door open to the young man’s room and peered inside. Maria was sitting with him, and he nodded a greeting at her and then motioned for her to leave. She took one last look at the boy and then quietly left the room, leaving the Doctor alone with his patient.
Sam approached the bed and simply studied the sleeping young man for a few seconds. His patient was lying quietly at the moment, and his face showed no sign of the flush of fever. Sam reached down and felt the gunfighter’s forehead to confirm he was cool, and suddenly his arm was grabbed. He found himself staring into a pair of cold blue eyes. The Doctor kept the gaze for several moments before speaking more calmly than he felt, “I’m Sam Jenkins, the local doctor.”
The eyes remained locked on his for another moment, and then Sam felt the grip on his arm loosen and the blue eyes slid away. The doctor was amazed at how quickly Madrid had moved, even when he was hurt. Sam hadn’t even been able to follow the movement when the boy grabbed his arm. If that was any indication of just how fast he was with a gun, then the stories about the gunfighter’s prowess were obviously true.
Sam resisted an impulse to rub his arm, and instead reached down to monitor the pulse of his patient. Once more the hand snaked out and grabbed his before he could touch the boy’s wrist. Sam stared back at the young man, and saw defiance and a little fear in those eyes. The doctor smiled. “I’m only trying to take your pulse. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Sam kept his gaze locked on the young man until Johnny once more let go of his arm. Sam took hold of the gunfighter’s wrist, feeling for his pulse, and was reassured when he found that it was normal. He nodded and took out his stethoscope, all the while feeling those intense eyes on his own.
After listening to the young man’s heart and checking the rapidly healing wound, Sam stood up and considered the angry young man. “How are you feeling?”
The gunfighter shrugged. “Ain’t the first time I’ve caught a bullet.”
Sam sighed. “No, obviously not.”
Johnny kept his eyes glued on the Doctor and Sam started to feel uncomfortable. Finally, he stopped and returned the stare. “You might be happy to know that the rest of your family is all right.”
Johnny ducked his head. “I figured they was.” He shrugged, “I mean, if Pardee had won, I wouldn’t be here.”
Sam had seen something he really couldn’t name in the boys expression. Fear maybe? Guilt? Something. He kept his voice neutral. “Really?”
The gunfighter’s eyes shot up. “Yeah, really.”
Sam nodded slowly. “Everyone was surprised that Lancer was able to defeat Pardee. Most didn’t think it could be done.”
Johnny snorted and nodded his head. “You can say that again. None of us thought Lancer would win.”
Sam watched the young man, troubled by what the gunfighter had said. “Who thought that?”
Sam watched as Johnny froze for a moment, and then shrugged nonchalantly. “Murdoch and Scott and me.” A slow smile appeared on the gunfighter’s face, but Sam noticed that it didn’t touch his eyes. “Now who else would I be talkin’ about?”
Sam locked his own eyes on Madrid and refused to look away, and after a couple of seconds, Johnny turned his head toward the wall.
“Look, I’m tired, OK? I’d like to go ta sleep.”
Sam shook his head. He had the distinct feeling that this boy was hiding something, and worse, he thought that his old friend just might be mistaken as to which side his son had actually been on.
“Why were you playing possum?”
Johnny turned back and glared at the Doctor belligerently. “What makes you think that I was?”
Sam tried to remain calm, although this young man’s attitude was beginning to anger him. “If you just woke up after being unconscious all this time, you sure wouldn’t be this alert.”
Johnny shrugged. “I’ll remember that next time,” he said sarcastically.
“Murdoch is hoping there won’t be a next time.”
Johnny snorted, “Yeah, well the Old Man can’t always get what he wants, now can he?”
Sam felt his temper start to rise. “Murdoch Lancer is my oldest and dearest friend. He’s a good man, and I won’t stand by and see him hurt.”
Johnny stared at the old Doctor. “That a threat?”
“You take it any way you like it. I’m not going to stand around and watch Murdoch get his heart broken again. Not by the likes of you, even if you are his son.”
Johnny smiled. “Now that’s not a very nice thing ta say. My father just might be upset if he knew how you were talking to me.”
Sam’s face started to color. “Just remember what I said.” He turned and strode out of the room, shutting the door a little too loudly on the way out.
Sam stopped on the stairway and tried to compose himself before he went down to give his report to Murdoch and Scott. He knew what Madrid had said was true; Murdoch would be livid if he knew what Sam had said to Johnny, in fact, it just might destroy their friendship. Sam sighed. He’d have to leave it alone for now, but he was sorry that Murdoch had brought Johnny home. Sam was afraid that it was too late for the gunfighter. He had the feeling that the abuse and mistreatment the boy had suffered as a child, and the life he had been forced to lead since then had permanently scarred the young man. It would take a miracle for him to change, to fit in and be a part of this family, and Sam was afraid that by the time Murdoch accepted that truth it would be too late for all of them.
“How is he?” Murdoch asked from the Great Room.
Sam turned toward his friend’s voice and slowly made his way over to the bar. His conscience wanted him to discuss his fears with Murdoch, but he knew it would be an extremely touchy subject. Besides, he wasn’t even sure he was right. All he had to go on was his instincts, and right now his instincts were telling him that Johnny was trouble. Of course, what had he expected? Both he and Murdoch had talked about what to expect, and they had both agreed that even if Johnny wanted to come home, it would be a long, uphill battle to change Johnny Madrid into Johnny Lancer.
Sam knew that fact with his mind, but for some reason, he had hoped that the young man that showed up wouldn’t be quite as bad as the reports had portrayed him. Sam had been present at Johnny’s birth, and he had been out to the ranch frequently after that. He had become very fond of the precocious, temperamental toddler, and had mourned his loss as though he were his own son. Somehow, he had wanted some reassurance that the Johnny he had grown to love was still in there somewhere, that there was still that bond between them.
Sam snorted. How did he expect the boy to remember him? Johnny’s life had been hell since he left this ranch, and if Johnny had gotten a little hard, at least he was still alive. He knew that deep inside, Johnny Lancer still lurked, and he was a good man. They would all just have to be patient until Johnny Lancer showed himself, and he certainly wasn’t going to sow any more seeds of doubt in Murdoch’s mind. Sam would wait and see.
Sam poured himself a drink and smiled at his friend. “He’ll be fine. He’s sleeping again, but he’ll need some broth when he wakes up.”
Murdoch looked at the Doctor in surprise. “He woke up?”
Sam nodded, hesitating, and then decided it wouldn’t hurt to tell Murdoch about his son’s deception. “He was playing possum.”
Murdoch stared at the Doctor in surprise. “He was awake?” At Sam’s nod, Murdoch continued. “Why? Why didn’t he want us to know he was awake?”
Sam shook his head. “I have no idea, but it was probably a survival tactic. He was helpless and he knew it, and he chose not to let anyone know he was awake yet.”
Murdoch bowed his head. “I know he doesn’t trust us.” He looked up at the Doctor. “Sam, I accused him of being on Pardee’s side.”
Sam studied his friend, the thought fleetingly entering his mind that he should share his own suspicions, and then he remembered his earlier resolve to give the boy a chance. “Why did you think that?”
Murdoch walked over and refilled his own glass. “Because he wouldn’t go with Scott and because Teresa and Scott saw him in Morro Coyo earlier that day. Scott had a run in with a couple of Pardee’s men, and Johnny wouldn’t help him.”
Sam looked at his friend, troubled. “So why didn’t he help his brother?”
“Because he was obviously trying to get close to Pardee. His plan wouldn’t have worked if Pardee had known just who he was and which side he was on.”
Sam nodded, wondering again just which side Johnny really WAS on, but he didn’t express those doubts to his old friend. “So he betrayed Pardee?”
Murdoch nodded. “He had his own plan on how to handle thing, but I didn’t trust him. He’ll probably never trust me now, and I’m afraid he’s going to leave as soon as he gets better.”
Sam kept his thoughts on that to himself, and went over and sat on the couch. “Murdoch, you didn’t know, and he obviously didn’t explain his plan to you, so he can’t be upset if you couldn’t read his mind. He needs to realize it takes time to earn trust on both sides.”
Murdoch sighed. “I know. I just hope HE knows that, and is willing to give us another chance.”
Sam sighed and put his hand on his friend’s arm. “Murdoch, I believe everything works out for the best, and you’re going to have to have some faith, too. It’ll work out.”
Murdoch smiled at Sam. “Thanks, Sam. I know, but I just don’t want to lose him again.”
“I know that. I’ll come back out tomorrow afternoon and check him out again, but right now he’s healing fine. He needs to stay in bed for at least several more days of course, but then he can get up with help. I don’t want him doing anything strenuous for a while. Maybe the three of you can talk and get to know each other. You have a lot of time to make up for.”
“I know, and I intend to make it up to both of my boys. They both should have been brought up here, at Lancer. I should have fought harder for Scott, and I should have tried harder to find Johnny and his mother.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Hindsight is always clearer. You did what you could, and you did the best you could. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Murdoch snorted. “I think Scott and Johnny might both disagree with you on that score. But I’m going to make things work this time, no matter what.”
Sam clapped Murdoch on the back. “Good for you. And with your stubborn streak, I know you’ll do it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be back here to check on my patient tomorrow.”
Murdoch shook his friend’s hand. “Thanks, Sam, for everything.”
It wasn’t until much later that Murdoch realized that his friend had never actually reassured him that Johnny would stay. He had merely told him that he thought that things would work out for the best. Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as he remembered the old Doctor’s exact words. Did he know something that Murdoch didn’t? Murdoch would have to talk with him tomorrow and find out just what Sam had meant. For some reason his friend’s words bothered him.
Johnny lay in the bed trying to fall asleep for some time after Sam’s visit, and he realized he shouldn’t have been so rough on the old man. After all, the Doc was just trying to fix him up. The Doctor had hit a few nerves, though. The old man was pretty shrewd, and Johnny doubted if he’d put much past him. He wondered how much Sam would tell Murdoch, and then he figured it really didn’t matter; Murdoch was no dummy either, and probably had already figured things out.
Johnny shook his head. It sure looked like he’d done it again; he had a hell of a knack for winding up on the losing side. He had been so sure that Lancer didn’t stand a chance, and he’d been wrong. Although, he thought wryly, his mad dash to safety when he had taken down several of Pardee’s men had probably helped Lancer’s chances by quite a bit. He should have just let Day shoot him, and then he probably would have been on the winning side. He chuckled to himself over the black humor, and finally dozed off into a fitful sleep.
Johnny was staring out of the window when Scott brought some broth for him a little while later. Johnny cautiously watched him as the older man carefully set a tray down on the bed.
Hungry?” Scott asked.
Johnny merely nodded; wondering when they would all drop the pretense of being friendly. This pretending was making him awfully edgy.
Scott picked up the spoon and started to scoop up some broth, but Johnny grabbed the utensil from his hand. “I can feed myself.”
Scott nodded and gave up the spoon, then sat and watched as his brother ate. He wanted desperately to know this young man, know him and be able to get close to him, but so far Johnny had put up walls that Scott wasn’t sure he would be able to tear down. Scott dropped his head, ashamed of the way he had hit his brother after the fight in town. “I’m sorry.”
Johnny’s head jerked up and he stared at Scott, wondering what kind of a joke was being played.
“I’m sorry I lost my temper, and I’m sorry I doubted you.”
Johnny was stunned by the revelation. Didn’t they KNOW he had been on Pardee’s side? He dropped his head again so he could think. “It wasn’t your fault,’ he managed to spit out.
“Yes, it was. I know now why you couldn’t help me, and I understand. I was wrong; I jumped to conclusions and I’m sorry.”
Johnny couldn’t believe it. Apparently, even though all of the evidence pointed to Johnny’s betrayal, they still chose to believe in him. It was a new feeling, and one he wasn’t sure that he wanted to feel. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to wind up caring for these people, and that wasn’t in his plans. He was a gunfighter, pure and simple, and nothing could change that now. It was too late for him, no matter how much he wished it weren’t.
Johnny sighed. It WAS too late, wasn’t it? He’d killed more men than he could even count. He’d done things that he was deeply ashamed of, things that if these people knew, they would kick him out without a second thought. He hadn’t wanted that life, he hadn’t wanted to do those things and kill those men, but he’d had no choice, and now he’d done too much to ever change.
If only he had grown up here, maybe he would have had a chance. But his mother had made sure he’d grown up in the worst conditions, beaten and abused regularly. He’d never had a chance, and the thought made him bitter. He’d better stop the wishful thinking or he’d wind up dead. He’d learned long ago that you couldn’t trust anyone, even relatives. Especially relatives. If he didn’t look out, he’d slip and start trusting these people and then they’d betray him like everyone else in his life. No, it was better to not give himself, or them, the chance. If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t get hurt.
Scott watched as the emotions flickered across the young man’s face, and for just a second, he thought that he might be able to get through. He saw a look of longing and sadness, but before Scott could react, he saw the familiar closed in look and he knew that Madrid was once more in control.
Scott sighed, “Do you want anything else?”
Johnny shook his head but wouldn’t look Scott in the face. Scott waited for a moment, and then gave up and took the tray from the room. Scott knew that they were in for a long fight if they were going to save this young man from himself, and he was worried that it was a fight they just might end up losing.
Scott took the tray downstairs and set it on the counter in the kitchen. Teresa looked up from the dishes with a worried look on her face. “How is he?”
Murdoch, who was sitting at the table, looked up and waited for his son’s answer.
“Uncommunicative,” Scott replied.
Murdoch put his coffee down. “Maybe I should go up and talk to him.”
Scott shrugged. “Be my guest. Something’s bothering him, that’s for sure.”
“What do you THINK’S bothering him?” Murdoch stormed. “We BOTH practically accused him of being a traitor. How can we expect him to trust us when we’ve shown him that we don’t trust him?”
Scott shook his head. “I think there’s more to it than that.”
“I’m sure there is. With the kind of life he’s had to lead, there’s no telling what’s going on in his mind. But we have to reassure him that we don’t care about his past. All that we care about is here and now, and he needs to let his past go and become Johnny Lancer and a part of this family.”
“Do you think he can?” Teresa asked.
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said slowly. “But I’m going to do my darndest to try. That boy belongs HERE, not out on the street.”
“I agree,” Scott said. “I just hope Johnny does.”
Murdoch walked in to Johnny’s room and sat down at the small table next to the window. His son was sleeping, and Murdoch watched him as he slept. He still didn’t know what to think of the young man, but he was bound and determined to make him part of this family. He knew that Johnny didn’t trust them, and with good reason. Murdoch was going to make sure that his younger son had no reason to doubt them from now on.
As he watched, Johnny stirred, and then slowly came awake. Murdoch saw the grimace of pain that his son made when he tried to stretch, and he was once again painfully aware of life that the boy had been forced to lead. Sam had told him of the many scars on the young man’s body, and the information had both saddened and angered Murdoch, and he had cursed the boy’s mother for taking him away from Lancer and subjecting their son to that kind of life.
Johnny’s eyelids fluttered open, and he started when he saw Murdoch sitting at the table. Immediately the boy’s expression closed off, and he pointedly looked away from the older man. With a sigh, Murdoch stood up.
“Are you hungry?”
Murdoch lifted a glass of water from the table and offered it to the young man, but Johnny refused to take it, and when Murdoch put it to his lips, Johnny shoved it away, spilling some of it on the blanket.
Murdoch reined in his temper and set the glass back down on the table. He sat back down in the chair and simply watched his son. He knew that Johnny wanted him to leave, but he wasn’t going to leave him alone, at least until he had a chance to talk to him. Finally, Johnny’s face turned his way, and Murdoch was startled to see confusion and fear in those blue eyes.
“What’s wrong, son?”
Johnny’s gaze was piercing as he studied Murdoch. “What do you want?”
Surprised, Murdoch wasn’t sure what to say, but he finally shook his head. “I want you to be a part of this family.”
Johnny looked up at him in surprise. “Even after I rode out of here to join up with Pardee?”
Murdoch studied the young man, uncertain of just what to say. Finally he dropped his head. “I’m sorry I doubted you. I know now what you were trying to do, and it probably saved this ranch. Can you forgive me?”
Johnny stared at Murdoch. He was stunned by the realization that they still thought he had been on their side. How could they have that much faith in him when all of the evidence pointed toward the obvious? He looked at Murdoch again, and saw the tension in the older man’s face as he waited for Johnny’s answer.
Johnny swallowed hard. Through no fault of his own he had finally been on the winning side, and had been offered a way out of the life he had been forced to live. Maybe he had been wrong. Maybe it wasn’t too late for him to change. He looked up at Murdoch and stared into the man’s eyes, trying to read them. What he saw there reassured him that the apology was sincerely meant, and it wasn’t some sort of trick. Johnny ducked his head and finally nodded. At the moment he didn’t trust his voice.
Murdoch saw the emotions flitting across his son’s face and prayed that the boy would come to the right decision. When Johnny finally nodded, Murdoch felt a huge weight lift off of his heart. His ranch was saved and his family was whole. It would take some time to become a true family, but Murdoch had no doubt it would happen. He had all of the time in the world now, and he wouldn’t accept failure.
A week later, Johnny was finally allowed downstairs, and he slowly made his way across the Great Room and looked out the large window. Scott and Murdoch had gone into town to pick up supplies, and Teresa and Maria were busy in the kitchen. He was restless, and he needed something to occupy his mind. He had thumbed through a few of the books on the bookshelf, but none of them interested him much. He hadn’t had much schooling, and although he could read and do sums well enough to get by, he didn’t consider reading fun.
He turned and walked over to the large desk and studied the pictures on it. The first was a picture of Teresa, obviously taken several years ago. It was taken in a studio, and she was wearing a dress; something he hadn’t seen her in since he’d been here. The second frame held a smaller picture of a beautiful blond haired woman who he figured was Scott’s mother. She didn’t look very old in the picture, but her clothes and jewelry spoke of wealth. Johnny wondered if her family had money, or if Murdoch had been that wealthy, even back then.
The third picture on the desk caught his eye, and he studied the dark lady who stared back at his from the photograph. She was obviously beautiful, but the black eyes held a look of defiance and rebellion. He picked up the frame to look closer, and a flood of emotions swept through him. He slammed the picture back onto the desk, cracking the glass but not caring. With an oath, he turned and headed outside.
Once outside, he calmed down slightly and looked around. Some of the wranglers were breaking horses, and he sauntered over to watch. He longed to give it another try, but he knew he wasn’t in any shape for that kind of ride yet. He saw the Segundo give him a sharp appraising look, but he studiously avoided looking back at him. He figured he probably owed the older man an apology, but he wasn’t quite ready to admit he’d been wrong.
He looked around the yard at the horses and the many wranglers, and then looked up at the nearby hills. Pardee had been right about one thing; Lancer was a prize worth fighting for. Maybe with any luck he would be able to stay here and enjoy the wealth that Murdoch had built up. It would certainly be a change from having to fight for his very survival. He had struggled against adversity, poverty, and prejudice his whole life. It was about time things changed for him.
Johnny propped his foot up on the rail and watched as the men went about their business, occasionally glancing his direction with a mixture of curiosity and nervousness. He chuckled to himself; it seemed as if Johnny Madrid was pretty well known in these parts, but that was fine with him. If he was going to stay, they needed to know just who they were dealing with, and it wasn’t Johnny Lancer. It might save him from having to prove to some of these idiots just who the Big Dog was around here.
Sam finally released Johnny to work, but Johnny wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. He had never had to do physical labor before, at least not since he was a kid, and he didn’t like it much. Being a gunfighter was a whole lot easier. He was used to doing things on his own time schedule and not answering to anytime, but Murdoch made it clear that was NOT how things were going to be.
The first day Johnny was cleared to work, Murdoch asked him to ride over to the south pasture and check the fence lines. Johnny had ridden out and checked the fence for about an hour before he got bored. The wire had all been fine as far as he could tell, and he thought that it was a waste of time. He had decided not to check the rest of the fence, and instead he had fallen asleep under a tree for most of the day.
When he had ridden into the yard late that afternoon, Murdoch had asked him if the pasture was in order, and Johnny had told him that it was. Unfortunately, when the herd was moved there a day later, the cattle managed to find a hole big enough for several hundred head to get through. Johnny had tried to tell Murdoch that the break must have happened that day, and had almost convinced him, but then Cipriano had spoken up.
“The break was not new.”
Johnny glared at the Segundo. “How do you know that?”
Cipriano returned his stare. “Because where the wire was broken, rust had formed. That takes time. The fence has been down for some time.”
Johnny had stared at the foreman, promising payback with his eyes, but Cipriano had returned the gaze, unafraid. Murdoch had stepped between the two men and had dismissed the Segundo, then turned to Johnny. “I need to talk to you, young man.”
Murdoch had turned and strode into the house, and Johnny had followed reluctantly. Once inside, Murdoch had closed the door and proceeded to give Johnny a tongue lashing. From what Johnny gathered, Murdoch was angrier at being lied to than with the fact that Johnny hadn’t checked the fence. Johnny took it for a few minutes, and then without a word he turned and left the house. Johnny could hear Murdoch’s angry command to come back even out by the barn. Johnny looked over and saw the Segundo watching him with narrowed eyes, and Johnny smiled at him; he would take care of that snitch later.
Johnny had ridden off, and at first he had no intention of returning. He wasn’t going to be someone’s slave, that’s for sure, especially that old man’s. He rode into Green River and went to the saloon, where he spent the evening drinking. He thought briefly about returning to Lancer when the saloon closed, but instead he decided to spend the night with one of the saloon girls. He was sure Murdoch wouldn’t approve, which served to convince him that it was indeed the right choice.
By the time the next morning rolled around, he’d had time to think about his decision and decided that he might have been a little hasty. After all, Lancer WAS a working ranch, and he guessed he’d have to do some of the work so he could learn how to run it. He wasn’t looking forward to working like a dog, but he guessed it was better than his life before. Maybe. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about getting shot in the back every second of the day. He wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to give up his previous life and become a rancher, but he would at least try it one more time.
He reluctantly mounted his palomino and rode back toward the ranch. The horse was chaffing at the bit to run, and Johnny grinned. This was by far the best horse he’d ever had. He’d have to think of an appropriate name for him, one that suited the palomino’s style and temperament. The horse kept fighting the bit, and as they went around a bend in the road, a deer jumped out and tore across the meadow. The horse pranced impatiently, and Johnny decided they both needed to let off a little steam. He let the horse have its head, and the palomino bolted across the pasture after the deer.
The meadow was large, and the deer had no where to run except to the other side of the pasture, with the horse and rider in hot pursuit. The panicked deer started zig zagging to throw off its pursuers, and the cowpony matched the deer’s moves. Finally, the deer turned abruptly to the left, and Johnny hauled sharply on the reins. The horse gallantly tried to obey its rider, but the abrupt turn caused the horse to lose his footing and he fell heavily, sliding on his side into a tree stump.
Johnny was thrown clear, and came to a stop next to his horse. By the time Johnny came to, it was late afternoon, and he sat up shakily. It took him a moment to remember what had happened, and he cautiously moved his arms and legs. He breathed a sigh of relief when everything moved normally. Except for a good sized lump on his head, he seemed fine. He looked around and saw his horse standing a few yards away, and Johnny slowly got to his feet, once more thankful the spill hadn’t been more serious.
He walked quietly over to the palomino and picked up the reins. It wasn’t until he turned the horse to mount that he realized that the palomino was badly favoring one leg. He carefully felt the foreleg, and then stood up, cursing. He rubbed the horse’s nose for a moment and talked softly to him, and then with a sigh he took out his pistol and put it up to the palomino’s forehead. A second later, a gunshot rang out and the palomino fell lifelessly to the ground.
A thoroughly disgruntled and footsore Johnny limped into the barnyard late that evening. If he needed proof that Lancer was a big ranch, he now had it. He couldn’t believe he had walked for miles without seeing anyone. He limped over to the kitchen door, hoping to sneak in and get something to eat without having to talk to anyone. He wasn’t in the mood for any arguments or discussions tonight. All he wanted to do was to pull his boots off and crawl into bed.
He cautiously entered the kitchen and was rewarded with the sight of a plate sitting on the stove. He didn’t know if it was for him, but he was hungry enough that he didn’t care. He snatched the plate and sat down at the table. He had almost finished eating when he heard a sound behind him. His gun was out and pointed in a heartbeat, and he looked up and met the calm eyes of his brother. Johnny slowly holstered his gun and went on eating.
Scott drew up a chair and sat down at the table, helping himself to a piece if bread from his brother’s plate. Johnny continued to eat, ignoring Scott and determined not to get into a conversation. Finally Scott broke the silence. “We’ve been worried about you.”
Johnny looked up in disbelief; he couldn’t comprehend that they might actually be worried. Finally, he shrugged. “I’m OK.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up and he plucked a small twig from Johnny’s shirt. “I’m sure you are.”
Johnny batted Scott’s hand away. “I told you I’m fine. Just had a little spill, that’s all.”
Scott peered at his brother’s face. “That’s a nasty bruise, brother. Maybe you’d better have Sam look at it.”
Johnny stopped and glared at Scott. “I SAID I’m all right. Now drop it. I don’t need nobody playin’ nursemaid.”
Scott nodded. “Have it your way. But remember, you’re a part of this family, and we WILL worry about you, so you’d better get used to it.”
Johnny shrugged. “I can take care of myself. Been doin’ it as long as I can remember.”
“That’s just the point, Johnny,” Scott said in frustration. “You don’t HAVE to take care of yourself any more. That’s what families are for.”
Johnny stared at his brother. “Yeah? Well excuse me for not knowin’.” He bolted to his feet and headed toward the stairs, leaving a bewildered Scott sitting alone at the table.
The next morning, Johnny reluctantly went downstairs. He had purposely waited until he was sure that Scott had left before coming down to face Murdoch. It would be hard enough to tell Murdoch what he had to say without having to say it in front of Scott. Johnny walked into the Great Room and watched as Murdoch worked on the books. Finally, Murdoch realized he wasn’t alone, and he looked up and saw his son. He closed the books with a snap and waited for Johnny to start the conversation.
Johnny stared at Murdoch for a few moments, and then took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I lied to you, and I’m sorry I didn’t check out the rest of the pasture.”
Murdoch nodded slightly and waited for his son to say more, but Johnny remained silent. Finally, Murdoch stood up and approached Johnny. “This is a working ranch. To make it work, we ALL have to do our part. If one person slacks off, it puts more work on the rest. I know this is a change for you, but you have to make up your mind just who you are; Johnny Madrid or Johnny Lancer. I wish I had time to break you in slowly, but I don’t. If you’re going to stay here and be a part of this family, you’re going to have to make an effort to change.”
Johnny nodded his head. “I’ll do my best.”
Murdoch nodded and studied his son. “Scott said you’d taken a spill. Are you all right?”
Johnny nodded. “I’m OK. Lost my horse, though.”
Murdoch took a deep breath in an effort to hold his tongue. That palomino was one of the best horses on the ranch, and had been a valuable breeding stallion. His loss would hurt their breeding program considerably. They didn’t have that many top stallions.
Johnny shrugged nonchalantly. “He slipped and fell. He broke his leg and I had ta shoot him.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “How did he slip?”
Johnny shrugged again. “I was on my way home and cut through the north pasture. He lost his footing and went down.”
Murdoch nodded reluctantly. The north pasture was uneven; it could have happened that way, but he had the feeling there was more to the story. He wouldn’t pursue it now, however. There were more important things to discuss. “Scott and I are going into town this weekend, and I’d like you to come along. Green River is getting a new sheriff, and I want us to introduce ourselves.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “What’s his name?”
“His name is Val Crawford, and he’s supposed to be a pretty good lawman.”
Johnny nodded. “That’s what I hear,” he said flatly.
Murdoch looked at him in surprise. “You know him?”
Johnny shrugged uncomfortably. “No, not really, but he might know me. I think it might be better if you and Scott went into town by yourselves.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I want ALL of us to go into town as soon as possible. He’ll arrive in a day or two, and the sooner he gets to know us, the better. We’ve needed a lawman around here for a long time, and I want to make sure he knows he’s not only welcome, but we intend to support him completely.”
Johnny stared at his father. “Well, that might be a little difficult for me.”
Murdoch stared back at his younger son, his heart in his mouth. “Are you wanted?” Murdoch asked quietly.
Johnny started to reply, and then stopped. He looked at Murdoch for a moment and then dropped his head and slowly nodded.
Murdoch shut his eyes and felt the bottom drop out of his world.
“What are you wanted for?” Murdoch asked quietly, dreading the answer.
Johnny shrugged. “Nothin’ major. A couple of attempted murder charges in a different state.”
Murdoch felt his blood starting to boil. “Nothing MAJOR? You think ATTEMPTED MURDER is nothing MAJOR?”
Johnny glared at his father. “In my line of work it ain’t that unusual. For that matter, neither is a murder charge. Sometimes the man that’s tryin’ ta take you down has a lawman for a friend. Just ‘cause I’m wanted don’t mean I’m guilty.”
Murdoch forced himself to calm down. “Are you telling me you’re innocent?” He asked hopefully.
Johnny shrugged. “I shot a man that was tryin’ ta kill me. It was as simple as that.”
Murdoch sighed deeply, wishing he knew more about his wayward son. “We still have to tell Sheriff Crawford about it.”
Johnny looked at him in disbelief. “WHY?”
“Because, “Murdoch explained patiently, “if we don’t, someone else WILL. It will be better to let him hear it from us.”
“And after you tell him, if the good sheriff wants ta take me in, then what?”
“Then we’ll have to face it.”
“WE’LL have ta face it? Don’t you mean I’LL have ta face it?”
“Johnny, calm down, We’ll figure something out. I have no intentions of letting you go to prison.”
“Well, I have news for you, old man; I have no intentions of lettin’ me go to prison, either.”
Murdoch was trying desperately to hold on to his temper. “What states are the warrants from?”
“Arizona and New Mexico.”
Murdoch nodded. “We’ll go in and talk to Sheriff Crawford when he arrives and see what he suggests.”
Johnny looked at him suspiciously. “And what if he ‘suggests’ that he arrest me?”
Murdoch held his son’s gaze. “Then I guess it will be your decision what you do.”
Johnny dropped his head and nodded. He still couldn’t quite believe the trust and support he was getting from Murdoch and Scott. “All right, but I ain’t goin’ into town with you. I want the chance ta make that choice.”
Murdoch nodded. “All right, you have my word.”
Johnny nodded. He didn’t want Murdoch to go into town and talk to Val Crawford; it just might mean he’d have to leave, but he wasn’t sure how to stop it. He’d have to do some thinking on it. He hadn’t completely made up his mind, but he didn’t think he wanted to leave Lancer.
The next day Murdoch sat at his desk and waited for his youngest son to come home. He had told Johnny to go into Spanish Wells and pick up some supplies, and apparently he had stopped at the local saloon. Murdoch could almost forgive that, it was a hot day, and the road to Spanish Wells was dry and dusty, but apparently Johnny had gotten into a fight and trashed the place while he was there. The hand that had been there had told Murdoch that Johnny was still in town when he had left, and had apparently had a few too many drinks. Murdoch questioned the wrangler at length, and apparently Johnny had started the fight, and he had started it for no apparent reason.
Murdoch wasn’t sure how to handle Johnny. He knew that he’d never had to answer to anyone before, and if his son were pushed too hard, he just might bolt, but Murdoch COULDN’T allow that type of behavior. He would have to talk to him and play it by ear. Hopefully, with time and guidance, his wild son would calm down.
While he was waiting, Cipriano knocked on the door. “Excuse me, Patron, may I have a word with you?”
Murdoch nodded wearily, wondering just what was wrong now. “Come on in, Cipriano, and help yourself to a drink.”
The Segundo took the hat off of his head as he approached the desk. “No thank you, Senor.” He stood nervously kneading his hat with his hands, wondering how to bring up the subject, and finally Murdoch sat back in his chair and fixed his gaze on his friend. “Out with it.”
Cipriano nodded. “Senor, I try not to interfere in the Patron’s life, and I try to be respectful at all times, but…” He hesitated, suddenly thinking it had been a bad idea to come to Murdoch with the problem.
Murdoch sighed. “Is it Johnny?” he guessed.
Cipriano nodded his head. “Si, Senor. He…he needs some guidance.”
Murdoch snorted. “I think that might be the understatement of the year.” He rubbed his eyes wearily. “What’s wrong?”
Cipriano dropped his head. “He is intimidating some of the other men into doing his chores. They are afraid of him, because they know he is…was… Johnny Madrid. If they don’t do as he asks, he threatens to shoot them.” He glanced up at Murdoch and saw his boss’s face starting to turn red.
“What else?” Murdoch ground out.
Cipriano looked uncomfortable. “I know Senor Johnny would never hurt me, but…” He hesitated before sighing and then continuing. “When I approached him and told him to stop, that he must do his own chores, he argued with me. He said he was the boss’s son, and he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to do. When I corrected him, he threatened to fire me, and then…” Cipriano took a deep breath, “… he drew his gun and pointed it at me, and told me to back off or he would shoot me.”
Murdoch was past rage, he felt icy calm. “Thank you, Cipriano, and I’m sorry. I promise you that it WON’T happen again. And if you see ANYTHING I need to know about, especially concerning my boys, don’t be afraid to tell me.”
Cipriano sighed in relief and turned and walked out, hoping that Murdoch would handle his son and he would have no more trouble with the young man, but somehow, he doubted that. Johnny was trouble, and he was sorry Senor Lancer had ever found him. As far as he knew, everyone felt that way. Everyone, that is, except Senors Murdoch and Scott. He was afraid they were blinded to the truth by their need to get the boy back, and he was afraid they just might learn the truth the hard way.
“JOHNNY! I want to talk to you!”
Johnny stopped his horse and looked toward the house, where the voice had come from. He really wasn’t in the mood for a dressing down from the old man right now; he’d had a little too much to drink, and his head was killing him. Knowing his luck, someone had squealed and told Murdoch about the fight, too. With a sigh, he dismounted and looked around for one of the hands to take his horse, but they all turned away and refused to meet his eyes. He glared sharply at their backs, he still hadn’t taught them who was boss, and they’d better watch out, or someone was going to learn that lesson the hard way.
He tied his roan to the hitching post and looked out toward the corral. The Palomino that Cipriano had picked out for him that first day still hadn’t been broken, and had given all of the wranglers a pretty tough time. Maybe if he felt like it, he would give the horse a try tomorrow.
He walked into the house, purposely going through the kitchen to find something to eat on the way through. He grinned at Teresa, who was busy making dinner, and she tentatively smiled back. He reached over her and grabbed a biscuit, hot from the oven, and gave her a peck on the cheek before sauntering past her into the Great room.
Murdoch was standing in his usual spot by the window, his hands folded behind his back. Scott was sitting on the sofa reading, a pastime that Johnny couldn’t quite understand. Murdoch turned around and glowered at the gunfighter. “Well?”
Johnny looked at the big man cautiously, not sure just how much he knew. “Well, what?”
Murdoch drew a deep breath. “Well, is there any particular reason you decided to destroy the saloon?”
Johnny relaxed slightly; at least he didn’t know EVERYTHING. He shrugged, “Somebody else started it; I figured you’d rather I take care of it with my fists than with this.” He pulled his gun out of the holster, catching Murdoch by surprise. Murdoch had seen a lot of gunfights, but he had never seen anyone as fast as the young man who was standing in front of him. Johnny slipped the Colt back into the holster and smirked at Murdoch. “Next time, though, I could just shoot ‘em. It’d be a lot neater.”
Scott chuckled softly from the couch, and Murdoch turned his glare on his older son. “This ISN’T funny!”
Johnny dropped his head. “”Look, I’m sorry, but I didn’t start it, and unless you expected me ta let ‘em beat me up without fightin’ back, I didn’t have a lot of choice.”
Murdoch sighed and looked at his son, who had evidence of the fight on his face. Murdoch took in the black eye and swollen jaw, and felt some of his anger fade.
“Are you all right?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I’m OK.”
Scott spoke up from the couch. “Did you win?”
Johnny smiled. “Yeah, I won. Those guys won’t be startin’ anything for a good long while.”
“Those guys?” How many of them were there?” Murdoch asked worriedly.
Johnny shrugged again. “Four.”
“You beat four men?”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, but I’ve had a lot of practice. Look, if that’s all you wanted to talk to me about, I’d like to go outside and wash up and then change outta these clothes.”
Murdoch shook his head. “There’s one more thing. Cipriano told me that you’d been slacking off and getting the other hands to do your work. Is that true?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “I suppose he told you that I’d threatened them, too?”
Murdoch nodded, keeping his eyes on his son.
Johnny sighed. “Yes, I DID tell a couple of ‘em to do something that I was supposed to do. I was working on that stream bed that you’d told me ta clean out, and one of the hands said a bunch of steers had gotten themselves caught in a mud hole. I told a couple of the hands ta finish clearin’ that stream while I got the steers out, and they refused. Said they’d worked enough for the day, so I convinced ‘em otherwise.” He looked at Murdoch. “If my word doesn’t carry any weight around here, then I might as well just ride on.”
Murdoch sighed and shook his head. “That’s what happened?”
Murdoch kept his head down. “Cipriano said that you also drew on him.”
Johnny watched Murdoch cautiously and slowly shook his head. “I think he got it backwards.”
“What do you mean? Don’t try to tell me he beat you to the draw.”
Johnny snorted. “That old man? No way. I didn’t draw. He told me that he was in charge around here, and that he was gonna stay in charge, and that if I didn’t like it, I could leave. I told him I wasn’t getting’ chased off my own land, and when I turned away from him, he drew. He pointed that gun at me and told me that just because I was fast didn’t mean I still couldn’t catch a bullet.” He smiled wryly at Murdoch. “I don’t think he likes me much.”
Murdoch sat down at his desk and looked at Johnny thoughtfully. One of them was lying, and to be honest, he wasn’t sure who. Cipriano had been with him for many years, and it was just possible that the Segundo was jealous. On the other hand, it seemed as if there was always a lot of controversy surrounding his younger son.
Finally, he nodded. “All right, for now. Just try to stay out of trouble, understand? And if I find out that you’ve lied to me…” Murdoch just shook his head and let the implied threat speak for itself.
Johnny nodded and walked back outside toward the horse trough to clean up.
Murdoch looked over at Scott. “Well, what do you think?”
Scott shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out eventually. I know that Johnny still doesn’t trust us; it’s going to take time for him to calm down and really fit in.”
Murdoch sighed. ”I just hope he does.”
Scott nodded. “So do I. I don’t want to lose my brother after I just found him.”
“And I don’t want to lose my son. I guess all we can do is keep trying, and pray.”
“Believe me, I already am.”
Both men startled as a gunshot sounded from outside, and they ran toward the door, each clutching their pistols. They ran toward the barn, and as they turned the corner, they saw Johnny standing with his gun still in his hand, and Cipriano lying bleeding in the dirt of the corral.
Murdoch and Scott ran up to the corral, and Murdoch immediately knelt by his old friend, who was unconscious. Cipriano was bleeding badly from his upper chest, and Murdoch tore off his shirt and pressed it on the Segundo’s wound. Scott yelled for one of the hands to go get Sam, and the young man grabbed a horse and dashed out of the yard.
“Help me get him into the house,” Murdoch ordered, and Scott stepped up and grabbed Cipriano’s legs. The two men hoisted him up and carried him toward the house. Teresa, alarmed by all of the commotion, came running out, but when she saw Cipriano being carried toward the house, she immediately turned and headed toward the kitchen to get some clean bandages, and she yelled for Marisa to turn down a bed.
Johnny trailed along after the men, ignoring the hostile looks from the wranglers. He followed until Murdoch and Scott started up the stairs, and then he turned toward the liquor cabinet and helped himself to some of Murdoch’s whisky. He regretted his actions now, even though in his mind it was justified. He wasn’t certain that Murdoch and Scott would believe his version of the story, but he was going to stay and at least try to convince them.
For the next hour, until Sam arrived, people were scurrying in and out of Cipriano’s room. Johnny sat forlornly in the Great Room, but he hadn’t had any more to drink. He figured he’d need his wits about him for the upcoming joust with Murdoch, and he knew it wouldn’t win him any points to be drunk.
Sam finally arrived, and walked into the hacienda unannounced. He glanced over at Johnny as he walked through the Great Room on his way to the stairs, but he didn’t say anything. By the expression on the Doctor’s face, Sam evidently knew where he was going and had already been informed of what was wrong. With a sigh, Johnny leaned back on the couch, waiting for the heavy tread announcing Murdoch.
He didn’t have long to wait; several minutes after Sam disappeared, both Murdoch and Scott re-entered the Great Room. Murdoch went right for the bar and poured a drink and then sat down in his chair.
“How is he?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch looked over at his son and stared at him. “I don’t know. He’s lost a lot of blood, and Sam’s taking the bullet out now.”
Johnny dropped his head, waiting for the explosion, but it didn’t come. After a moment he looked up. “I guess you want to know what happened.”
Johnny sighed. “I went out toward the corral, and I heard the sound of a gun being cocked behind me. I whirled around, and saw him standin’ there with a gun in his hand. I shot him before he shot me.”
Murdoch shook his head and returned his son’s stare, troubled. “I didn’t see a gun in his hand.”
Johnny shook his head. “I had already kicked it away. I learned the hard way that a wounded man can still pull a trigger.”
“Where is it?”
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably still out by the corral. I just kicked it away, I didn’t pick it up.”
Murdoch turned toward his older son. “Scott, would you mind going out and getting it?”
Scott jumped up and headed outside as Johnny stared angrily at Murdoch. “You don’t believe me!”
“Right now I don’t know what to believe, but I DO know that the sheriff will want to know that we checked everything out. I want to make sure that none of the evidence disappears.”
“I wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man!”
Murdoch stared at his son. “I sincerely hope not, John.”
Johnny stared back at his father and snorted. “So much for trust,” he said softly.
Murdoch slammed his drink down on the small table next to his chair. “Trust has to be EARNED! SO far, you’ve done nothing to earn it, and until you do, you can’t fault us for making sure of the truth!”
”Takin’ a bullet for the ranch doesn’t count I guess.”
“Is that what you did?”
Johnny’s head flew up, sensing the challenge in those words. “You got somethin’ ta say Old Man, say it.”
“If the air needs clearing, let’s clear it. I don’t know what to make of you, and I still am not sure just which side you were on in the fight with Pardee. I have tried to give you every benefit of the doubt, but it seems like there’s always some question about your loyalty or your motives. I hoped and prayed that the Pinkertons would find you, but when they did, I was afraid to bring you home. Afraid for just the reasons I’ve been seeing since you’ve been back.”
“I don’t know if I made a mistake or not; that’s the problem. I don’t know where we stand with you. I don’t know if you’re really trying to settle down and be a part of this family, or it’s all a sham.” Murdoch slammed his fist down again. “I NEED to know. I need to know just what you’re thinking and where you stand. ARE you planning on staying and being a part of this ranch? Or is this all some sort of game with you?”
Johnny glared at Murdoch. “If I didn’t want ta be here, I woulda disappeared as soon as that bullet wound was healed up. I’ve strung wire, I’ve dug ungrateful cows outta mud holes, and I’ve loaded enough supplies ta give me blisters for a month. I wasn’t doin’ it for my health.”
Johnny slammed his own drink down and stood up just as Scott came into the room. Both men turned in his direction as Scott shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t find anything.”
Murdoch closed his eyes briefly and then kept his head down as he addressed his younger son. “I want you to stay at the ranch. Tomorrow, we’re going to have to ride into town and report this to the new sheriff.”
Johnny looked at him in disbelief. “You’re turnin’ me in?”
Murdoch raised his head and met Johnny’s gaze. “I’m afraid I have no choice.”
Scott met his gaze calmly as Johnny looked back and forth between the two men. “Well, I guess I got my answer, didn’t I?”
“What answer?” Murdoch asked.
“Just how much I mean to the two of you.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Johnny…”
The door burst open, and a young wrangler walked up to Scott and held out a pistol. “Excuse me sir, but I believe you were looking for this? I found it under the horse trough.”
Murdoch met his son’s furious eyes, and then Johnny turned and was gone.
Johnny tore out of the house and grabbed the nearest horse. He jumped on and spurred the animal out of the yard as if the hounds of hell were after him. He wasn’t even aware of where he was heading, he just needed to get away.
Murdoch and Scott stood stunned as they heard the sounds of the retreating horse, but Scott was the first to recover. “We have to go after him or we’ll never find him again. I’ll get the horses.” Scott strode quickly to the door and yanked it open, then disappeared outside.
Murdoch grabbed his gunbelt and then called for Teresa. She appeared immediately. “Sweetheart, tell Sam we had to leave for a little while, and we’ll be back as soon as we can. In the meantime, ask Maria if she’ll stay here until we get back.”
She nodded uneasily. “Don’t worry, I’ll be all right.”
Murdoch kissed her on the top of the head. “I know you will, and we wouldn’t leave now unless we had to.”
“I know. Bring him home safely.”
Murdoch strode toward the door, determined that he was not going lose his son again.
Val watched with interest as the gunfighter rode into his town. As far as he knew the man wasn’t wanted, at least in this state, but he didn’t like gunfighters. They made more work for him, one way or the other, and this one was definitely trouble. Val stepped off of the sidewalk and strolled over to the bar, where the man had disappeared.
Val poked his head in and spotted the man sitting alone at a corner table. Val would have just about bet that was where he’d be. The sheriff pushed the doors open and sauntered over to the table. “Johnny Madrid.”
The gunfighter looked at him and Val immediately saw that the gunfighter’s usual calm was somewhat lacking. He was sure upset about something, that’s for sure. Johnny locked eyes on the sheriff and coolly appraised him. “That a crime, Sheriff?”
Val shook his head. “No, not that I know of, but I still don’t want you in my town.”
Johnny smiled. “I just aim ta have a drink, that’s all.”
Val nodded. “See that you’re outta here by sundown.”
“Now that’s what I like, a nice friendly town,” Johnny smirked.
Val smiled. “We’re real friendly…to friendly people.”
Johnny smiled back at the lawman and raised his glass in salute.
Val smiled back. “Remember, sundown,” he said, and then turned and walked out of the bar.
Johnny sat there for a while longer, and then with a sigh, he stood up and threw some coins on the table. He had been hoping to get a room here for the night, but the nosy sheriff had put an end to the thought of staying here; Johnny knew better than to stay in a town with a hostile sheriff. Maybe it was just as well, it was awfully close to Lancer, and he didn’t want to take a chance on running into anyone from the ranch. He shouldn’t have stopped here in the first place. He’d just have to go down the road a ways and find a place to stay in another town.
Johnny walked over to the door and peered out, making sure nothing was going on, and then he pushed the batwing doors open and strode outside. He was almost across the street when he saw the other gunfighter. Johnny turned and faced him as the other man walked into the street.
The man sauntered to the center of the street, and Johnny watched him warily.
“You think you can take me?”
Val heard the challenge and cursed; he had been hoping that at least his first day here would pass without incident, but that hope was now shattered. He looked outside and recognized the challenger. Just his luck to have two of the most notorious gunfighters alive in his town. He hoped that wasn’t an every day occurrence around here.
Val thought that Madrid would have his hands full with this one. Corrales was not only fast, he didn’t always play by the rules. Val thought that Corrales was wanted, and if he wasn’t, he should be. Val wasn’t about to stop the fight, he had a good idea that Madrid would win, and figured that scum Corrales was finally going to get what he deserved. He watched the drama with interest.
Val heard some horses approaching from the opposite side of town, and he studied the riders as they rode in. They were well dressed and had nice horses. Both of the men carried themselves with confidence, and Val figured they were probably the local bigshot ranchers. He watched just long enough to make sure they saw what was going on and wouldn’t get involved, then glanced back at the two gunfighters.
Murdoch and Scott saw what was happening and were powerless to stop it. They both knew that if they said anything it would distract Johnny, so they kept quiet, their hearts in their mouths. Murdoch had seen the speed of his son, and he also knew his reputation. He knew in his mind that his son would win, but the slight uncertainty made his mouth dry. He glanced at Scott, and saw that his son looked pale and that his lips were moving. Murdoch realized his son was praying, and he sent up his own prayer as he watched.
It happened so quickly that Murdoch couldn’t follow the action, but he saw with horror that his son hadn’t even gotten his gun completely out of the holster before the other man’s gun was clear. There was one report, and time stopped as the two men stood frozen in the street.
Murdoch watched as his son slowly slumped to the ground, and then he saw Scott jump off of his horse and run to his brother. Murdoch quickly followed, and arrived as Scott was picking Johnny’s head up off the ground. Murdoch knelt in the dirt and looked at his son’s still form. There was a small, almost bloodless hole right in the middle of his forehead. The boy’s eyes were still open, but the life they had once radiated with was gone.
Chapter Twenty – One
Murdoch looked over at his elder son in helpless disbelief. The enormity of what happened hadn’t sunk in yet, and both men were in a state of shock. Murdoch scooped his son up and cradled him in his arms as Scott quietly wept. Even though it was obvious the young man was gone, Murdoch still looked desperately for some sign of life. He couldn’t believe his son was gone forever, and he deeply regretted the words that had made his son leave. He knew it was his fault that the boy was dead, and the grief welled up in him and almost choked him. He had prayed for years that the boy would come home, and then when he had, he had been met with skepticism and hostility. Murdoch shook his head sadly. His boy had never had a chance.
Val quickly dispersed the crowd that had gathered and walked over to the two men kneeling silently in the dusty street. He couldn’t quite figure out why they were so upset about the death of that low life, but he was going to find out. Val glanced up as the other gunfighter mounted his horse and rode out of town, and the sheriff sighed in relief that he was leaving. At least there would be no angry confrontations between the survivor and the two men in the street, and Val silently thanked the gunfighter for his discretion. Val had to admit, the fight hadn’t gone exactly the way he had thought it would. He was surprised and shocked at just how fast the winner of the fight really was.
Val waited as the two men picked the young man up and carried him over to the Doctor’s office. He followed them inside, and watched as they reverently laid the boy down on one of the beds.
“Scott, can you go hire a wagon from the livery? We have to take him home.”
Scott nodded, and after a last lingering touch on the still man’s arm, Scott turned and left.
Val watched with interest as the older man stayed, whispering unknown words to the lifeless gunfighter and gently brushing the young man’s hair. Val shook his head. He hadn’t figured out the mystery yet, and he was getting impatient. Finally he cleared his throat. “I’m Val Crawford, the new sheriff. Mister…?”
Murdoch looked up at the sheriff and Val noted that the man still looked dazed. After a moment, however, he finally answered. “Lancer, Murdoch Lancer.”
Val nodded. He had heard of them man. He looked down again at the lifeless form. “”You knew him? Val asked.
Murdoch nodded slowly, tears starting to form. “He’s my son.”
Val kept his surprise to himself. He never figured a killer like that had a family that cared about him. As far as he was concerned, Val thought Lancer was better off without him, but he kept that thought to himself. “I’m sorry about your loss.”
Murdoch looked back at the lawman. “I want the other man arrested,” he said flatly.
Val shook his head. “I’m sorry Mister Lancer, but I can’t do that. It was a fair fight in front of witnesses. Nothin’ illegal about it.”
“He killed my SON and I TOLD YOU, I want him arrested!”
“Mister Lancer, I know you’re the kingpin around here, and people pretty much do what you tell ‘em to, but I’m not gonna be arrestin’ somebody just ‘cause you think I should. I TOLD you, it was a fair fight.”
“He called my son out!”
Val shook his head. “No, sir, he didn’t. Your boy started it, and even if he didn’t, I TOLD ya, there’s nothing illegal about callin’ somebody out. Your son could have walked off and refused ta fight.”
“And then you could have arrested the other man for shooting my son in the back, is that right?”
Val nodded, trying to control his temper. “If that’s what had happened, yeah, then I could arrest him.”
Murdoch’s anger threatened to overwhelm him. “So you’re just going to let that killer ride out of here like nothing happened?”
Val sighed. “Look, Mister Lancer, I don’t like it any more than you do. If I had my way, I’d lock all of them gunfighters up; they’re nothin’ but trouble and I don’t like any of ‘em. But until the law says gunfightin’s a crime, my hands are tied. Besides,” he looked down at the still form. “Your son wasn’t exactly lily white himself.”
Murdoch nodded angrily. “I see I’m not going to get any help from you. I’ll just have to go after him myself.”
“No, you won’t. Because if you do I’ll either have to arrest you for murder or you’ll be joining your son here. Probably the later. Now give it up and go home.”
“So if I killed the man that murdered my son you’d arrest me? Why? What makes it so different?” Murdoch said belligerently.
Val was fighting to keep his temper; he knew he didn’t need to have the most powerful man in the valley angry with him on his first day at work, no matter HOW unreasonable that man was being. “Because, “Val said patiently. “If you managed ta kill HIM, I’d KNOW it hadn’t been a fair fight. The only way you could take him is by bushwackin’ him, and that is DEFINITELY illegal. Now go HOME before I have ta arrest ya for your own good!”
Murdoch swallowed his anger, at least for now. He knew the lawman was right, there was no way he could take the man who had killed his son. The gunfighter’s speed was unbelievable, but he would get his revenge somehow. He would make sure that his son’s killer paid for what he did, one way or the other.
The small funeral was held the next day for the fallen gunfighter. Scott and Murdoch stood next to each other for support, and Teresa cried openly. Some of the others who attended were saddened, not because they had liked the young man, but because they felt his family’s loss. They buried him up on the hill behind the house next to Scott’s mother. Murdoch swore there would be no more Lancers buried on that hill for a long, long time.
Scott walked into the Great Room and glanced over at the desk where he knew his father would be. Murdoch was sitting and looking out the window, a stack of untouched bills piled high on the desk. With a sigh, Scott went over and stood next to his father and looked out at the ranch with him. “Are you all right?” Scott asked quietly.
Murdoch nodded. “I’m fine.” He turned toward his son. “Did you check out the north pasture?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, it needs some work, but the new herd should be able to be moved in there by next week. I’ve got a crew working on it now.”
Murdoch nodded absent mindedly. ‘Cipriano should be able to go back to work in a day or two according to Sam,” he said wistfully.
Scott studied his father. “Something bothering you?”
Murdoch hesitated, unwilling to tell his son. “No, nothing.”
Scott stared at his father and knew he was being lied to. “I have a right to know if it involves this ranch or this family.”
Murdoch nodded slowly but continued to stare out the window. “I talked to Cipriano today. He swears his gun was holstered when Johnny shot him.”
Scott sank into the seat next to the desk. “Do you believe him?”
Murdoch dropped his head into his hands. “I don’t know what to believe any more. The only thing that I’m sure of is that my son is dead, and the man responsible for his death is still walking around somewhere, free.”
“Are we going after him?” Scott asked quietly.
Murdoch shook his head. “According to our sheriff, it would be suicide, and I agree.” He looked at Scott. “You saw how fast he was.” Murdoch shook his head. “No, we’ll have to make sure he pays, but it can’t be in a gunfight.”
Scott looked startled, and asked his father cautiously. “You’re not thinking of doing anything illegal, are you?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No, as much as I would like to, I won’t stoop that low. No, it has to be something legal.” His eyes narrowed. “I wonder…”
Murdoch looked at his son. “Johnny said that he was wanted and that it wasn’t uncommon for gunfighters to be wanted. I wonder if the man that killed him was.”
Scott thought about it for a moment, and then nodded slowly. “If he was, we could arrest him and take him in. It would all be perfectly legal.”
Murdoch nodded. “I wonder if our good sheriff would know what his name was and whether he’s got any warrants out for his arrest.”
Scott shrugged. “We can ask, but I have the feeling he won’t approve.”
Murdoch slammed his fist down on the desk. “That’s too DAMN bad! I’m going to go after him, with or without Sheriff Crawford’s help!”
Scott nodded. “So am I. Why don’t we ride into town and see what we can find out.”
Murdoch smiled grimly. “Let’s go.”
The two men rode into Green River and pulled their horses up to the hitching rack. They dismounted, each of them avoiding looking at the spot where Johnny had fallen. Silently, they opened the door of the jail and walked inside. Val was sleeping with his hat over his face and his boots propped on the desk.
Murdoch looked at him in disgust, and then spoke. “Sheriff!!”
The boots hit the ground with a thud and then Val tipped his hat back to see who had awakened him. He perused the two men, and then sighed. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Yes, it’s us,” Murdoch said in exasperation. He knew that they had erred badly in hiring this man. No matter what his reputation was, he was obviously not qualified. Murdoch glanced around the office in disgust. He was also a slob.
“We want some information,” Murdoch ordered.
“Yeah, what kind of information?”
“We want to know if the man that killed Johnny was wanted by the law.”
Val’s eyes narrowed. “Not that I know of, why?”
“Because we were planning on taking him in if he was.”
Val shook his head. “Lucky for you, I don’t think he is. Never heard of him bein’ wanted, anyway.”
“Why ‘lucky for us?’ Don’t you think we could catch him?”
Val snorted. “Oh, you probably could. I’ve learned one thing about the two of you since I’ve been here; you’re stubborn. The problem wouldn’t be catchin’ him. The problem would be what to do with him once you got him. Sort of like havin’ a tiger by the tail if ya ask me.”
“You sound like you’re afraid of him,” Murdoch challenged.
“Nope, not afraid, just have a healthy respect, that’s all. I didn’t live this long by gettin’ men like him mad at me.”
“So you are afraid of him,” Scott surmised. “Is that why you let him go after he killed my brother?”
Val sprang to his feet. “Now you listen ta me. I AIN’T afraid of him or anybody else. If he woulda done somethin’ illegal, I woulda arrested him, or at least tried to. But I don’t go outta my way ta make enemies like that. Don’t go stickin’ my hands in hornet’s nest, either, it don’t make me a coward.”
“Maybe if we asked someone else, they might ‘remember’ if he’s wanted,” Murdoch said sarcastically.
Val’s temper erupted. “You can ask anybody you want! Right now, I sort of hope you find out he is wanted, so when you go after him he can blow your brains out. Then I won’t have ta deal with you anymore.”
“What’s his name?” Murdoch ground out. He was going to make sure this impertinent sheriff was fired at the first opportunity.
Val looked at him in surprise, and then started laughing. “You don’t even know who it is you’re after?”
“Why is that so funny?” Scott snapped.
“Because, if you knew who you were talkin’ about, ya might not be so gol darned anxious ta catch up with him.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “Just who is he?”
Val shook his head. “Believe me, ya don’t want ta know.”
“WHO?” Murdoch snarled.
Val smirked. “Ever hear of Johnny Madrid?”
“That’s not funny,” Murdoch growled.
Val snorted. “No, I didn’t think you’d think so.”
Murdoch glared at the lawman. “I’m going to ask you again, and if you want to keep your job for even another day, you’d better give me a straight answer this time. What is the name of the man who killed my son?”
Val looked Murdoch straight in the eyes. “And I TOLD you, Johnny Madrid.”
“You’re mistaken Sheriff,” Scott said a lot more calmly than he felt.
“Nope, I ain’t.” He looked at Scott quizzically. “What makes you so sure that wasn’t him, anyway?”
“Because Johnny Madrid was my son,” Murdoch explained.
Val shook his head in confusion. “They were BOTH your boys?”
Murdoch couldn’t believe the stupidity of the lawman. “NO!” Just Johnny.”
“WHICH Johnny? Madrid or Corrales?”
Now it was Murdoch’s turn to look confused. “Madrid.”
Val shook his head. “I’m definitely missin’ somethin’. If Madrid’s your boy, how come you were so all fired upset about Johnny Corrales getting’ killed, and how come you’re bound and determined ta see Madrid dead?”
Scott and Murdoch stared at the lawman, totally confused themselves. Finally Scott tried to explain so the lawman would understand, although he was having doubts about the man’s mental capacity at this point. “Johnny Madrid is my brother, and he was the one that was killed a few days ago,” he explained slowly.
Val shook his head. “I know both of those two men; I’ve known both of ‘em for a long time, at least by sight. We ain’t exactly buddies, but I DO know that Johnny Corrales is the man that got himself killed the other day, and Johnny Madrid is the one that took him down. Damn fool outta a known better’n ta try Madrid.”
Scott looked in confusion at his father, who appeared stunned. “Are you SURE?” Murdoch asked.
Val nodded. “Yep.”
Murdoch grabbed the seat the lawman had vacated earlier and sat down heavily. Was it possible the Pinkertons had made a mistake? Was it possible that it wasn’t really his Johnny that had showed up that day? How could that happen? He would admit, there hadn’t been even a spark of recognition as he looked at the young man. He hadn’t seen the young, brash toddler in the man’s eyes or his mannerisms, but he’d brushed it off to time. People change, and his son certainly had, that much he was certain of.
He looked at Crawford uncertainly. “What color eyes does Madrid have, do you know?”
Val nodded. “Blue. Brightest blue I’ve ever seen.” He shrugged. “Those eyes have gotten him into a lot of trouble. Probably got him beat up good as a kid. Marks him as a half-breed.”
“Watch your language,” Murdoch growled.
Val shook his head. “Don’t be snappin’ my head off. I’m part Indian, myself. Just tellin’ ya the way it is.”
Scott shook his head. “Are you SURE about all this?”
“I said I was, didn’t I?”
“You knew my broth…Johnny Corrales?”
Val shrugged. Like I said, I didn’t go chummin’ around with him, but yeah, we’d met a couple of times.”
“What was he like?”
Val took a deep breath, wondering if they really wanted the truth. “He didn’t have a good reputation.”
Murdoch looked at the sheriff in surprise. “I’ve heard of him. I thought he was supposed to be pretty fast.”
Val shook his head. “That’s not what I meant. He didn’t always play fair, and he’d been known ta turn on his friends. He was known as a back shooter. Nothin’ much was beneath him; he went with the money.”
Murdoch closed his eyes and shook his head. That’s obviously exactly what the gunfighter had done. He felt sick when he realized what kind of a man he’d welcomed into his home and exposed Teresa and the rest of his family to. He shuddered as he thought that they’d gotten off lucky. From what Val said, it could have been a lot worse.
“What about Madrid?” Scott asked. “What kind of a man is he?”
Val shrugged. “Don’t know him very well, just by reputation. He’s supposed to be the best.”
“I don’t mean his gunfighting skills,” Scott said impatiently. “I mean as a person.”
Val snorted. “They’re one and the same. You can’t see the real person behind the mask he puts on.”
“He wears a mask?” Scott asked in confusion.
Val laughed. “You ain’t from around here, are ya?”
“I’m from Boston.”
“Figures. What I meant was that he doesn’t let his real personality show. None of the top ones do. They take on a different character. If they show anything, they’re considered weak, so the top ones are like ice, never showin’ nothin’, and Madrid IS the top.”
Murdoch shook his head impatiently. “But you knew about Corrales; what type of man he was.”
Val nodded in understanding. “I never heard anything bad about Madrid if that’s what you mean. But that doesn’t mean he’s any better. It might just mean that there’s nobody left alive ta make those accusations.”
“You make him sound like a cold blooded killer.”
Val shook his head. “No, or he WOULD be wanted. He’s real careful. As far as I know, he never draws first, and he never starts a fight. But that DON’T mean he’s not bad news. He always wins, and don’t be mistaken; he’s killed more men in one month than the three of us have in our entire lives. He’s certainly no angel.”
Murdoch sighed. He was faced with the unexpected good news that his son was alive after all. Now he had to decide if he wanted to go through it all again and try to bring the boy home, and he wasn’t sure that he did. He had learned a hard lesson with Corrales; that maybe it was better to leave well enough alone and let Johnny live his own life. Maybe it would be better for all of them if he did. He had been lucky once, he didn’t want to take the chance on his luck running out and destroying the family he already had.
Chapter Twenty Four
Scott paced in agitation around the Great Room. “You can’t mean it!”
Murdoch shook his head. “Scott, I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“You thought it was a good idea when you needed his gun,” Scott said furiously.
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, I did. I had hoped he could help us and we could help him. I was hoping we could give him a home and a family. But…Corrales… changed that. I saw what that kind of a man is like, and I’m not willing to endanger you or Teresa or anyone else on this ranch again.”
Scott shook his head. “That’s not fair. You don’t know what kind of man the real Johnny is. You can’t punish him because Corrales left a bad taste in your mouth.”
Murdoch slammed his fist down. “He didn’t just leave a bad taste, he SHOT Cipriano down in cold blood! I’m also pretty sure he sided with Pardee against us.” Murdoch shook his head. “I’m not going through that again; wondering if he’s going to hurt one of you or do something to endanger this ranch.”
“So you’re just going to abandon your own son.”
“No, that’s what you’re doing, and you’re not even doing it because of something HE did!”
Murdoch dropped his head and continued in a soft voice, “All I ever wanted was the two of you to join me on this ranch, to be a family. I know how much you want me to bring your brother home, but there’s no guarantee he’d even COME home. Even if he did, you heard Crawford; Johnny Madrid is way worse than Corrales.”
“That’s NOT what he said. He said he’d never heard anything bad about him.”
“He ALSO said that he was the best, that he was like ice and that MAYBE he hadn’t heard anything bad because there wasn’t anybody alive to say it.”
“Oh, come on! Do you REALLY believe that? We don’t KNOW what he’s like, and we won’t know unless we bring him here and give him a chance.”
Murdoch dropped his head and shook it slowly. “No.”
Scott shook his head in disbelief. “NO? That’s it? No? Well I’m not going to let it go. If you’re not going to go after him, I will. Until I meet him, I won’t KNOW what he’s like, but I intend to find out.”
Murdoch kept his head down. “And what if Johnny Madrid is not really your brother?” He asked quietly.
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that the Pinkertons were wrong once, what if they were wrong about everything? What if Johnny Madrid isn’t even my son? What if we do convince Madrid to come here and then we find out it was all a mistake? What then?”
Scott stopped. He hadn’t thought of that possibility and he shook his head. “I don’t know.” He thought for a moment. “But we won’t know until we at least talk to him, and like I said, I’m not willing to lose my brother just because we MIGHT be making a mistake. Now do I have to go by myself, or will you come with me?”
Murdoch took a deep breath and studied Scott. “I don’t want you going after him. He doesn’t exactly frequent the safest places. For that matter, we don’t even know where he is right now…” Scott opened his mouth to protest, and Murdoch held up his hand. “Let me finish. I think we should hire the Pinkertons to find him and give him the same message that we gave Corrales. Then we can leave it up to Madrid if he wants to contact us.”
Scott didn’t like it, but he also knew that he wasn’t familiar enough with this part of the country to go off and look for him without at least some hint as to where he’d be. Reluctantly, he nodded his head.
“All right, I’ll send a wire tomorrow. But Scott, if he DOES come here and I think there’s ANY danger to anyone on this ranch, or if he causes any trouble, I’m going to tell him to leave, and I don’t care if he is my son. I’m not going to take a chance on losing what I already have. Is that understood?”
Scott nodded reluctantly. “All I’m asking is that you give Johnny…OUR Johnny, a chance.”
Murdoch nodded. “All right, but I have the feeling we’re going to regret this.”
Johnny picked up his gear from the hotel room and headed down to his horse. He had been in this crummy town for almost a week, and even though he knew better than to stay in one spot that long, he had been waiting for a client to make up his mind just WHAT he wanted Johnny to do about a certain problem. In disgust, Johnny had finally told the man to do whatever he wanted, but he’d have to do it without him. Johnny had had enough.
He stopped at the desk long enough to pay his bill and then stepped outside. He wasn’t sure where he was headed; he had counted on this job for some spending money. The last couple of jobs he’d taken hadn’t been exactly profitable, and one of them had come real close to landing him in a Mexican Prison. He had managed to escape before he’d reached the prison, but some of his friends hadn’t been that lucky. Johnny shook his head; Corrales was one of the men Johnny had thought hadn’t made it, but apparently he had been mistaken. He still didn’t know why Corrales had called him out; they weren’t exactly friends, but they had done jobs together in the past without killing each other.
He looked up at the sun and figured he had just about time to make it to the next town before dark, which was fine with him. He just hoped the sheriff there was a little more hospitable than the one back in Green River. That guy had really gotten on his nerves, although he hadn’t allowed himself to show it. He had already been edgy knowing he was so close to Lancer; he had been lucky Corrales hadn’t been faster because he had definitely been distracted. He should have known that anything that close to his old man’s spread would be bad luck. Well, he wouldn’t worry about it any more. He had no intention of going anywhere near that place again.
Johnny rode toward Moro Coyo, determined to avoid the town of Green River and that wise guy sheriff. Just three months ago, he had sworn to himself he’d never come back to this part of the state, but now he was riding straight back into the lion’s den. He wasn’t even really sure he should be coming here at all, but he needed the money and he figured he could always walk out if he didn’t like the deal.
He had been down by San Diego when the man had contacted him almost two weeks ago. It had taken Johnny this long to decide whether to make the ride or not, but a quick check of his finances had finally made up his mind. The last several jobs had gone sour and it had been nearly four months since he had made any money. He had just about decided to go down to Mexico and try his luck, even though that was one more place he had sworn never to return to.
The man had found him in the saloon the night before Johnny was planning on leaving for Mexico and had told him if he was willing to take a ride up north he could make a lot of money in a short period of time. Johnny’s first reaction was to tell the man just what he could do with his money; he had no desire to get mixed up with anything to do with Lancer, but the more he thought about it, the more he thought he would take a ride and see what was going on.
He still had a lot of doubts; after all, he had once sworn to kill the man he was going to see, but you never knew; maybe it would work out, and at least his curiosity would be satisfied. Johnny chuckled. If it didn’t work out, there was already that other offer to be considered. Two men had approached him within a day of each other, and both offers would send him to the same town. He could make up his mind for sure when he got there.
Scott ran his horse into the yard and pulled it into a sliding stop in front of the Great Room door. Murdoch ran to the door and threw it open. “What’s wrong?”
Scott ran toward his father, waving a paper. “Nothing! They found him!”
Murdoch felt his stomach tighten for a moment, still wondering if they had done the right thing by contacting Johnny, but he made an effort to keep his face from showing his doubt. “Is he coming?”
Some of Scott’s enthusiasm waned. “It doesn’t say; it just says they contacted him and told him of the offer.”
Murdoch turned and walked back into the house and headed for the bar. He poured a drink for himself and one for his son. He handed the glass to Scott, who had followed him in and then went over to his desk. He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed that there wasn’t confirmation that the young man was coming, but one look at Scott told him his son was deeply disappointed that they still didn’t know for sure whether Johnny was coming home.
Scott took a sip of his drink and looked at his father. “It says in this telegram that he was spotted down in San Diego. I’m going to take a ride down there and try to find him.”
“No, you’re not!”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Scott, he’s probably long gone by now. In fact, there’s a good chance he’s on his way here. Do you REALLY want to take off now and take the chance of missing him?”
“I won’t be gone that long, and if he comes here he’ll still be here when I get back.”
“Will he?” Murdoch questioned. “What if he doesn’t want to stay? Do you really want to take a chance on missing him?”
Scott sighed and dropped his head. His father was right, but it was so hard not knowing. He guessed he’d wait for a little while at least, and then if he didn’t turn up he could try to find him. He just knew that he wasn’t going to give up. He was going to find his brother no matter what.
Day Pardee sat in a dumpy saloon in a small town about ten miles south of Morro Coyo. He had been sitting and drinking most of the day, but he still wasn’t drunk. He was too full of hate to get drunk. All of his carefully laid plans had been destroyed when that traitor, Corrales, had decided to get greedy. Day laughed at the thought that Corrales had thought Pardee would buy that hogwash about him being a Lancer and back down. Day didn’t care who the hell the man was, he wasn’t getting the Lancer Ranch. Day had worked too hard for it, but the confrontation had cost Day a bullet.
Day looked around at the men sitting at the tables. They were a good bunch, but he needed more help. He had underestimated Lancer once; he wouldn’t do it again. Day had sent a few of his cohorts out to spread the word that there was plenty of quick money to be made here, if they cared to join up with him, but he needed some top talent. Pardee had heard about Corrales’ death, and had been angry that he had been cheated out of killing the son of a bitch himself, but he had to admit, Corrales had been fast and there had been no guarantee that Day would beat him. Instead, Madrid had taken Corrales down, and Pardee had sent someone looking for the gunfighter.
Having Madrid on his side would virtually guarantee a victory. He glanced out the filthy window and saw a familiar figure riding up to the saloon. He watched as the man looked around and then cautiously got off his horse, his senses on high alert. With a smile, Day stood up and went to the doors. It appeared luck was finally on his side. He grinned and greeted the newcomer. “Long time, Johnny Madrid.”
Chapter Twenty Six
Johnny studied the man standing in the doorway of the saloon and finally allowed a small smile to form. “Day.”
Day shook his head. “I’m sure glad you showed up, John. I could use somebody like you.”
Johnny walked past the man and into the bar, and then sat down at a corner table, facing the door. Pardee went to the bar, grabbed a bottle of tequila and walked over to the table. Johnny motioned for him to sit, and Pardee sank into the chair and poured two shots then passed one to Johnny.
Johnny threw back the shot, studied the man sitting across from him and waited for Pardee to tell him what he wanted.
“I was afraid that Carlos wouldn’t find you,” Pardee admitted.
Johnny shrugged. “Is it that important?”
Pardee slammed down his empty glass. “YES! Lancer won the first round because of that traitor, Corrales. He turned on me and made it possible for Lancer to win. I’m not going to make that mistake again. I’m going to take that ranch, come hell or high water.”
Johnny poured himself another shot. “Is it worth it?”
Day snorted. “Biggest damn ranch in the valley; over one hundred thousand acres, prime stock and a hacienda big enough to house fifty people. I plan on retiring there. Seems a fitting place for a man like me. But first I gotta take it. This time I’m waitin’ till I get plenty of help so there won’t be any doubt.”
Johnny’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “Is Lancer that tough?”
Day shook his head. “The old man only has fifteen or twenty men, plus his son.”
Johnny jerked his head up. “His son?” He asked cautiously.
Day laughed. “Yeah. But he’s no threat. Nothin’ but a Boston dandy.” Day chuckled. “Course I heard he can hold his own pretty well in a fistfight.”
Johnny dropped his head, not wanting Day to see his reaction. The news that he had a brother had shaken him severely, and he was afraid that it was apparent on his face, even though he tried desperately to hide it. His mother had told him he was Murdoch’s only son. Of course, she had lied about other things as well. “When are you planning on attacking?”
Pardee shrugged. “I’m not in any hurry. I want to make sure he hasn’t gotten any reinforcements and that nosy new sheriff won’t interfere, and I am also waiting for my brother and his men to show up. They sent me a telegram and they won’t be here for at least a month. I don’t plan on starting anything till they get here.” Day looked at Johnny thoughtfully. “Lancer must know I’m here by now, and he’s probably calling for guns, only smart thing to do. Maybe you can ride over to Lancer and offer to hire on. Sort of get a feel for what’s goin’ on and keep an eye on things for me. I need someone I can trust, not a traitor like that damn Corrales.”
Johnny stared at Day, trying to decide just what to do, but he had to admit, Pardee had just solved one of his problems. Now he could check out Lancer and figure out just what was going on without it seeming suspicious. He nodded slowly. “All right.”
Pardee poured another two shots and handed one to Johnny. Day raised his own glass. “To Lancer.”
Johnny hesitated, and then lifted his own glass, knowing that it would be a while before he knew just what he was toasting.
Johnny sat on the hill overlooking the ranch, wondering what was waiting for him down below. It certainly was as large as Day had described it, and he wondered about the man who had built up an empire like this. He couldn’t be a fool, that was for sure. Lancer was probably doing just what Pardee had said, and trying to hire some guns. After all, what other reason would Lancer have to find him now, after all of these years?
When Johnny was younger, he had dreamed of someday showing up at his father’s door and exacting revenge for kicking him and his mother out. That obsession had driven him for quite some time, but as he got older, he had realized that there MIGHT be more to the story than his mother had told him. She had lied to him all his life, twisting the truth to suit herself, and often changing the story according to her mood. Even if Lancer had kicked them out, he had the feeling that maybe there was a good reason he had done it, something that had nothing to do with Johnny being a half breed, which was the reason his mother had told him. He knew what his mother was, and he realized it was entirely possible Lancer had caught her with another man.
Johnny sighed. He might never find out the real reason. He smiled; he doubted if Lancer was stupid enough to call Johnny Madrid a half breed, no matter what the man thought privately. And what about Lancer’s other son? It didn’t make sense that he had kicked out one son and kept the other. Johnny dropped his head. It seemed that, as usual, luck certainly hadn’t been on his side.
He looked again at the huge estancia, and wondered what it would have been like growing up here, instead of on the streets. His brother was lucky. His brother. Another small detail his mother had omitted or downright lied about. She probably had known that if he knew about him, Johnny would have made an effort to return to Lancer and meet him, and Johnny knew that was the last thing that she had wanted. She had done her best to make sure that never happened, and by the time she had died, his fate had already been mapped out. Even though there were times that he had thought about coming here, he knew that Lancer certainly wouldn’t welcome him, and that reason had nothing to do with his being a half breed. Even if Lancer didn’t kick him off his land as soon as he saw the gunfighter, any life Lancer could offer him was permanently out of his reach, and had been since Johnny had killed his first man at the age of twelve.
Johnny heaved a deep sigh and started his horse down the hill. He would keep this reunion strictly business; he couldn’t afford to let his emotions get in the way, or he would probably wind up getting himself killed. He grinned to himself; hell, he probably would get killed anyway.
Chapter Twenty Seven
Murdoch sat at his desk pretending to be working on the books, but instead he was worriedly watching his son. Scott was sitting on the couch staring at the fire, although there was an open book on his lap. Murdoch could tell that Scott’s mind was miles away, and it didn’t take a mind reader to tell him just what was bothering his son. It had been two weeks since the Pinkerton agent had sent the telegram, and there was still no sign of Johnny. They had both given up hope that he was coming home.
Murdoch knew how hard Scott was taking this, but Murdoch was almost relieved that Johnny hadn’t shown up. After the fiasco with Corrales, he knew that if Johnny did show up, it would mean nothing but problems. He was sad that he had lost his younger son, but he had finally come to terms with the fact that Johnny was lost to him forever. Corrales had proven that. He looked over at Scott and sighed. He was afraid if Scott didn’t come to terms with this, he would lose him, too.
Murdoch stood up and walked over to the couch. “Are you all right?”
Scott nodded miserably. “Yes, I was just hoping he’d come home.”
Murdoch sat down next to his son. “Scott, he’s run wild his whole life. He’s not going to come home just because we’ve asked him to.”
Scott snorted. “Well, he must be doing pretty well financially for him to ignore the thousand dollars we offered him.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “I know how disappointed you are, but it might be for the best.” He put his hand on his son’s arm. “I just don’t want to lose you, too.”
Scott looked up and smiled at his father. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Murdoch looked up when he heard a knock on the door, and then relaxed as Maria went to open it. A moment later he looked up in alarm as he heard Maria’s gasp. Murdoch rushed to the door, cursing himself for his carelessness. Since Pardee’s defeat, he had gotten careless. Scott followed, not sure what was going on, but ready to back up his father. Maria stood by the door, clutching her rosary and quietly muttering a prayer. Murdoch swung the door wide, and locked eyes with his youngest son.
Murdoch knew without a doubt that this was indeed his son. The boy’s resemblance to his mother was undeniable, even down to the accusing eyes. “Johnny,” he breathed.
Scott heard the quietly spoken name and his eyes eagerly sought out his brother’s. Johnny’s eyes skimmed over his brother before returning to fasten on his father. “Can I come in?” Johnny asked somewhat sarcastically.
Murdoch quickly moved aside and motioned for the young man to enter the house. Johnny hesitated for a moment and then entered the house, his customary caution making him glance quickly around the room for any hidden danger.
Shaken, Murdoch went directly to the bar and poured three glasses of brandy. “Drink?’
Johnny stared at the older man for a moment and then nodded. Scott took his own drink and held out his hand to his brother. “I’m Scott Lancer, your brother.”
Johnny took a sip of his drink. “My mother only had one kid, and that was me.”
Scott allowed his hand to drop to his side, disappointed at the young man’s dismissal of his overture. Murdoch stepped in and faced Johnny. “I married your mother several years after Scott’s mother died in childbirth.”
Johnny swirled his drink around the glass and then looked at his father. “The Pinkerton agent said you’d give me a thousand dollars for an hour of my time.”
Murdoch nodded and turned toward the desk, while Scott tried once again. “We want you here for more than an hour, Johnny. This is where you belong. We want you to stay forever.”
Johnny watched as his father hesitated slightly and then continued toward the desk. Johnny studied the man carefully as his father picked up an envelope and returned to where he stood, handing it to him without a word. Johnny stuffed the envelope into his pocket and smirked. “That right, Old Man? You want me ta stay here?”
When Murdoch hesitated once more, Johnny shook his head and turned toward Scott. “It seems you’re mistaken.” He turned hard eyes on his father. “So what’s so important you’re willin’ ta pay me a thousand dollars for? Who do ya want killed?”
“I don’t want anyone killed,” Murdoch snapped.
“Then why did ya hire me?”
“I didn’t ‘hire’ you. I offered the money so you’d come home.”
“Home? I lost my home when you kicked me and my mother out.”
“I didn’t kick either of you out; she ran off and took you with her,” Murdoch fumed.
“That ain’t the way I heard it.”
“Then you heard wrong!” Murdoch exploded. With an effort, he forced himself to calm down. He slowly shook his head. “You’re wrong, son. We do want you to stay here.”
“But somethin’s sure botherin’ you. Since you knew exactly who and what I am before I came here, it can’t be that, or is it?”
Murdoch shook his head but didn’t answer. Scott spoke up. “We don’t care about your past; all we care about is our future.”
“Our future as a family.”
Johnny glanced at his father and once again saw his hesitancy and he turned back toward Scott. “You’re dreamin’. I got no family, I’m a gunfighter, pure and simple.” He pointed toward Murdoch. “Ask him, he knows.”
“That’s not true,” Murdoch protested.
Johnny shook his head, tired of the mixed signals he was getting from his father and determined to push until he got an answer. “You know how many men I’ve killed? That’s what I do; I kill men for money. Even if I wanted ta stop, I can’t. If I don’t want ta fight it don’t matter, they’ll force it. If I stayed here, they’ll hurt one of you ta get to me. I can’t afford ta get close to anybody, and you sure as heck can’t afford ta let me get close to you.”
“We’re willing to take that chance,” Scott protested.
Johnny stared at him for a moment, knowing he was being sincere and he turned back toward his father. Murdoch slowly nodded, but he wouldn’t meet his son’s gaze, and Johnny finally received his answer.
Chapter Twenty Eight
Johnny nodded to himself; he would forget about trying to know these two men and keep this strictly business. “All right, old man, what do you want?”
Murdoch studied his son, and once again was drawn to the young man’s eyes, so full of anger and…what? Definitely his mother’s eyes. Murdoch sighed. The problem was, Murdoch didn’t know what he wanted. He wanted his son back, but he wasn’t sure if that was possible any more. The tough, cold gunfighter certainly bore nothing but a slight physical resemblance to the exuberant toddler he had loved. Murdoch dropped his head and shook it slightly. He had worked too hard to jeopardize everything on a long shot. He wasn’t going to put Scott and Teresa in danger again. “I just wanted to …see you,” Murdoch finished lamely.
Johnny looked at him in disbelief. “See me.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “Johnny, I wanted…I was hoping...that you could stay. I just don’t know if that’s possible any more.”
“Well neither do I, old man.”
Scott stepped forward. “Well I do.” He glanced at his father. “We’re prepared to offer you one third.”
“Of what?” Johnny shot back.
“Now wait a minute, Scott,” Murdoch interjected.
Scott turned toward his father. “No, I’m not going to wait a minute. Johnny has just as much a right to his third of the ranch as I do.”
“Not until he’s earned it.”
“And what did I do to earn it?” Scott asked.
Murdoch shook his head. “That was different.”
Scott was livid. “WHY? Why was it different? You didn’t know me when you offered me a third!”
Murdoch dropped his head, and Johnny spoke quietly. “It was different ‘cause you’re not a hired killer, and you sure ain’t a filthy half breed.”
Murdoch slammed his fist down on the table. “I won’t have you using that language in my house!”
“Why not? It sure didn’t bother you that that’s all I heard the first fifteen years of my life.”
Murdoch strode toward Johnny. “Is that what you think? That I didn’t care?”
Johnny stood his ground and calmly met his father’s furious gaze. “No, that’s what I KNOW.”
Murdoch dropped his head, trying desperately to keep his temper. “I cared more than you’ll ever know. I tried everything to find you…both of you.”
“Why?” Johnny snorted. “Once you kicked us out I’d think you’d be glad for us ta stay lost.”
Murdoch froze. “I TOLD you I didn’t kick you and your mother out!” Murdoch yelled, but something in Johnny’s eyes stopped his rage. Murdoch’s shoulders slumped and the fight went out of him as he implored his son, “Johnny, I NEVER wanted your mother to leave. You have to believe me.”
Johnny shook his head and turned toward Scott. “He kick you out, too?”
Scott hesitated and glanced at his father. “No, I was raised by my grandfather.”
Johnny shrugged. “Same thing.” He turned toward his father. “So why did you conveniently manage ta find us both now? It wouldn’t have anything ta do with Pardee, now would it?”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “You know Pardee?”
“Oh, yes, I know him. He’s a gunfighter, and he’s pretty good.”
Murdoch locked suspicious eyes on his son. “Just how well do you know him?”
“Well enough ta know that you’re still in a lot of trouble. He has no intention of giving up.”
“You’ve talked to him?” Murdoch asked in disbelief.
“When?” Murdoch demanded.
Johnny watched his father calmly. “Right before I came here. Little town called Blue Rock.”
“Why did you talk to him?” Murdoch asked in agitation. “What did he tell you?”
Johnny slowly shook his head. “None of your business.”
“It IS my business! If Pardee is still around and planning on coming after us again, I have every right to know!” Murdoch took another step toward Johnny, and Scott stepped between the two men. “Murdoch, calm down. I’m sure Johnny will tell us everything we need to know.”
“Why should I?” Johnny spat.
“Because we’re your family!” Murdoch stormed.
“Since when? Just ‘cause you’re in trouble now you think I’m gonna forget everything and be your son? I ain’t got no family! I’ve been on my own since I was twelve. I don’t need you.” Johnny slammed his glass down on a nearby table and headed toward the door. “Your hour’s up.”
Scott looked at his father, who was staring at the floor. Desperately, Scott went after Johnny and grabbed him by the arm. “Wait!!”
Johnny swung around and his gun was out and pointed at Scott’s face in a heartbeat. Everyone froze, but Scott didn’t lower his gaze away from his brother. He wasn’t going to back down and let his brother go, not without a fight. He thought desperately and suddenly had an idea. “I’ll give you another two thousand dollars to stay here for one month.”
Johnny stared back at the calm face of his brother for what seemed like an eternity and then finally lowered his gun and slipped it back into its holster. “And do what?”
“And get to know us and let us get to know you.”
Johnny snorted and glanced at his father before he shook his head. “I already know everything I need ta know.”
“Johnny, please, just one month, that’s all I ask,” Scott pleaded.
Johnny glanced at his father, who was watching the two young men apprehensively. The gunfighter couldn’t decide whether his father was more worried that he’d stay or that he’d go. “Well, old man?”
Murdoch nodded cautiously. “I’d like you to stay.”
Johnny thought quickly. No matter which side he ultimately chose to join forces with, staying at Lancer could be nothing but helpful. He would find out all he needed to know in that month and he’d make sure he made the right decision. Besides, the money would be darn useful. “All right. One month, two thousand more dollars.”
Scott grinned and held out his hand. “Done.”
Johnny hesitated a moment, and then finally shook his brother’s hand.
Chapter Twenty Nine
Teresa arose early, wanting to start breakfast before Murdoch and Scott woke up. She had gone to bed early the night before, but the headache that had forced her to retire late in the afternoon the day before had finally left, and she was thoroughly rested. She decided to do some baking today, and then start in on cleaning the guest rooms.
As she hurried down the hall, she noticed that the door was shut to the room she had spent all morning yesterday cleaning. It was the room that Corrales had stayed in the short while he had been at Lancer. She still felt badly about Johnny Corrales, even though she had never felt comfortable around him. She hated to admit it, but even though she was sorry he had been killed, she was glad that he was gone.
As she started by, she decided to look in and make sure all was in readiness in case the real Johnny decided to come home. She turned the knob and breezed into the room, and a short scream of surprise escaped her as she found an almost naked man aiming a gun at her heart.
Teresa froze and looked into the man’s eyes. With a smirk, he uncocked the gun and slid it into the holster hanging on the bedpost, then raised his eyebrows at the girl. “Do you want something?”
Teresa blushed, then spun around as Murdoch came thundering into the room. “What’s going on in here?’ He glowered at Johnny. “What happened?”
Johnny shrugged and pointed toward Teresa. “Ask her.”
Murdoch walked over to the girl and turned her away from his son. “What are you doing in here?”
“I..I.. didn’t know anyone was in here.” She glanced at Scott, who walked into the room, drawn by the commotion.
“What’s going on?” he asked mildly.
Ignoring Scott, Murdoch glared at Teresa and gave her a small shove toward the door. “You go downstairs and get breakfast started!” He turned toward Johnny. “And you get dressed, NOW!” He stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Scott watched them leave and then chuckled. “Congratulations, brother.”
Johnny watched the blond man cautiously. “For what?”
“I believe you have broken dear Teresa of walking into bedrooms unannounced.”
At Johnny’s confused expression, Scott laughed. “Hurry up and get dressed. I’ll explain while we’re doing whatever it is that Murdoch decides we have to do today.”
“Who’s Teresa? She’s not my…our sister...is she?”
“No. She’s Murdoch’s ward. Her father was killed by Pardee.”
Johnny nodded slowly, and then looked at Scott appraisingly. “You always do what the old man wants?”
Scott grinned. “No, but I’ve learned to pick my battles. Murdoch can be awfully stubborn.”
Johnny gave his brother a quick smile. “So can I.”
A few minutes later, Scott breezed into the kitchen, followed by Johnny. Teresa looked up at Johnny and then blushed profusely when he grinned and grabbed the chair next to her. Murdoch glanced up at his sons as they sat down, and then pointedly looked at the gun hanging from Johnny’s hip. Murdoch looked down and took a bite of eggs. “I don’t want you wearing that gun in the house.”
Johnny froze, his eyes locking on his father’s face. “I don’t take this gun off.”
Murdoch looked up, and Scott realized he’d better interfere, or this could get really ugly very fast. His brother wasn’t likely to give in on this, and Scott couldn’t understand why his father was making a big deal about it. “Murdoch, I don’t think…”
Murdoch kept his eyes on his younger son. “Stay out of this, Scott,” he snapped. Murdoch nodded at Johnny. “You don’t need that gun in the house and I have no intention of letting you wear it, especially around the women. While you’re here, you’re a rancher, not a GUNFIGHTER.” He spat the last word. “Now take it off or you can leave right now.”
Johnny stared at his father for another instant and then shoved his chair away from the table before jumping to his feet and stalking out the door.
Scott stood up and went after him, pausing long enough to glare at his father on the way out. He just couldn’t figure out why Murdoch was being so difficult. His father had been patient and more than fair with Corrales, but for some reason, it was like his father was trying to give this Johnny an excuse to leave. Murdoch seemed determined to drive his younger son away, but Scott was just as determined to keep his brother here.
Scott caught up with Johnny just outside of the barn. The gunfighter had stopped his flight and was watching with interest as one of the wranglers was trying to break a palomino stallion. Scott came up and stood next to his brother, but Johnny seemed to not even notice. Instead, his attention was focused entirely on the battle that was being waged in the corral. Johnny watched with interest as the palomino fought his rider viciously until finally the wrangler sailed through the air and landed in a crumpled heap in the dirt.
Johnny walked toward the corral with his eyes glued on the horse, and Scott trailed along behind. Johnny watched as the wranglers lassoed the maddened beast and once more subdued him long enough for another wrangler to drop on his back and try his luck. The end result was exactly the same, and with a slight shake of his head, Johnny turned to leave. He paused momentarily as he passed his brother, and then continued on toward the barn without saying a word.
“Johnny, wait!” Scott followed his unresponsive brother. “WAIT!”
Johnny spun around. “For what? Don’t you get it? The old man doesn’t want me here!”
“Well I do!”
“You’re my brother,” Scott said simply.
Johnny stared at Scott for a moment, and then dropped his head. “I’m a gunfighter.”
Johnny looked at his brother in disbelief, and then shook his head and grinned ruefully. “I think maybe you’re stubborn, too.”
Scott grinned and nodded back, “Little brother, you have no idea.”
Johnny dropped his head. “What’s with the old man?”
Scott sighed. “He’s confused.”
Johnny snorted. “Tell me somethin’ I don’t know. If he didn’t want me here, why did he send the Pinks for me?” When he saw Scott’s hesitation, his eyes narrowed. “Or didn’t he? Was that you?”
Scott shook his head and averted his eyes. “It was both of us.”
Johnny shook his head. “What changed his mind?” He asked quietly.
Scott shrugged. “He didn’t change his mind, he just…he’s afraid.”
Johnny considered his brother’s answer for a moment and then nodded his head. “I guess I can’t blame him for that.” Johnny turned and started to walk away. “See ya, Scott.”
“Johnny, wait. You can’t just leave. We had an agreement.”
Johnny shrugged. ”No reason ta stay; nothin’s gonna change in a month.”
“He just needs to know YOU, not…” Scott clamped his mouth shut.
Johnny studied his brother carefully and knew he was hiding something. “Are ya gonna tell me what’s goin’ on?”
Scott looked down and studied the ground.
“Spit it out, BROTHER.”
Scott sighed, knowing Johnny, THIS Johnny, had a right to know, but unwilling to go into all of the details, at least without Murdoch present. He shrugged. “Come back in the house and let both Murdoch and I explain it to you.”
Johnny hesitated a moment. He really wanted to head out before it got any later, and he planned on covering some ground before stopping for the night. He had decided to just leave this whole mess behind and go back down to Mexico. He certainly didn’t feel any loyalty or love for his old man, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to hook up with Pardee, either.
The gunfighter stopped and thought for a minute before shaking his head. “I don’t have time for games. I tell ya what, YOU talk to him. If he has anything ta say to me, I’ll be at the hotel in Spanish Wells for a day or two.”
Scott shook his head. “The only hotel around here is in Green River.”
Johnny snorted. “Figures.”
“Johnny, stay here. The three of us can talk and get everything straightened out.”
“I doubt it.”
“Murdoch and I both want you here.” He stared hard at his brother. “Please stay.”
Johnny shook his head once more. “Nope. I need ta think. I’ll be in Green River, avoidin’ your sheriff till I decide what to do.” Johnny turned away from his brother and walked into the barn. Scott watched him leave, hoping that Johnny was telling the truth and that he would give him and Murdoch a chance to talk to him. Scott turned and marched into the house. He was going to have a long talk with his father, and make sure Murdoch talked to Johnny without putting his foot in his mouth once more. He swore that if Murdoch said the wrong thing again, his father wouldn’t have to worry about Johnny; Scott would shoot him himself.
Johnny rode into Green River a couple of hours later. He had thought about waiting until dark, but figured in this size town, it really didn’t matter. No matter when he rode in, he would be an object of interest. He had learned a long ago if you couldn’t hide, the next best thing was to be as bold as you could be. He rode down the center of the street, watching the sheriff’s office window for any sign of movement. Although he outwardly showed no emotion, he heaved a silent sigh of relief when it appeared the sheriff hadn’t noticed; he wasn’t in the mood for problems tonight.
He rode straight to the hotel and handed his horse to the hotel hostler, then walked into the building. He signed the register, and the clerk’s eyes widened when he read the name. He looked cautiously at the gunfighter for a few moments, and then he reached back behind him and pulled a key off of the wall. “First door at the top of the stairs. Best room in the house.”
Johnny nodded, “Thanks.”
The clerk nodded nervously. “If you need anything, just let me know.”
“Much obliged.” Johnny picked up his saddlebags and slung them over his shoulder, and then climbed the stairs. He opened the door cautiously, and then checked out the room. Satisfied that he was alone, he plopped down on the bed and tried to figure things out. He was at a point in his life when he knew he needed to get out of the business. He hadn’t slowed down yet, but he knew that time was coming. Right now he was at the top of his game, but his speed, and his luck, was bound to run out sooner or later. The problem was, no matter what he tried to do, he knew it would be impossible to just walk away. Just because he wanted to quit didn’t mean he could, and about the only job open to him would be as a sheriff somewhere, and that would still mean living by his gun. Besides, being a lawman had never appealed to him. The offer from his father and brother had given him a glimmer of hope for his future, and like a fool, he had allowed himself to fall for it.
He lay on the bed and thought about how he had jumped at the chance, even though in his heart he had known it wouldn’t work. He snorted. Even now, he should be riding out and heading toward the nearest range war and instead he was hanging around here. For what? Did he really expect his old man to change his mind and welcome a half breed killer into his home? And even if he did, what then? Johnny knew he couldn’t just quit. Young punks would be hanging around like flies, just waiting for a chance at him. Even if he decided to become a rancher, the other gunhawks wouldn’t let him. If he had any sense, he would just ride out and forget about Lancer, but for some reason, he wasn’t willing to let it go, at least not yet.
Chapter Thirty One
After he watched Johnny ride off, Scott stormed back into the house, slamming the door behind him. He marched into the kitchen and stood in the doorway watching as his father sat calmly finishing his coffee. Scott shook his head in disbelief. “What’s WRONG with you?” He yelled.
Murdoch looked up calmly. “Nothing. But I’m not going to change my rules for your brother. If he wants to stay here, he’s going to have to learn to fit in.” He took a sip of coffee and then reached for a piece of bacon as Scott looked at him in disbelief.
“You expect him to walk in here and fit in just like that?”
“I have no intention of letting him continue his wild ways if he chooses to stay here.”
“He WON’T stay if you don’t lighten up and give him a chance. Right now he’s on his way to Green River. He said IF you want to talk to him, he’ll be there another day.”
“He left, just like that?” Murdoch growled.
“Why shouldn’t he?” Scott yelled back. “You certainly gave him no reason to stay.”
Murdoch snorted. “I THOUGHT he had an agreement with you. Evidently he’s not only a killer, he’s not very honest, either.”
“I don’t BELIEVE YOU! What’s the MATTER with you? You kept telling me how much you wanted to get YOUR SON back, and then when he DOES come home, you do everything you can to chase him away! Aren’t you even the least bit upset that he left? Or are you just angry because you think he went back on his word?”
Murdoch put his mug down. “You don’t understand.”
“You’re right, I DON’T understand. Maybe you could explain it to me!”
Teresa had been sitting quietly, listening to the argument between the two men, and she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She couldn’t contain herself any longer. “Murdoch, what’s WRONG with you? You gave Corrales a chance, and he wasn’t even your own son!”
Murdoch turned toward her, shocked at her outburst. “YOU stay out of IT!” He growled. “I’m doing this for your sake as well as for Scott’s.”
“MY sake?” she asked in confusion.
“Yes, YOUR sake!”
“What do you mean by that, Sir?” Scott asked indignantly.
Murdoch sighed. “I’ve done lot of thinking since Corrales was killed. I was very lucky that nothing bad happened while he was here. I was stupid to bring him here; I was stupid to think that a man like that could change. He could have badly hurt one of you, and I’m not willing to take that chance again.”
Scott shook is head in disbelief. “Corrales WASN’T your SON, Johnny is!”
“That’s not the point!”
“THEN what IS the POINT!” Scott fumed. “You’re not making sense! You’re punishing Johnny for something that Corrales COULD have done!”
Murdoch dropped his head. “Scott, Johnny isn’t like…us. He’s lived a hard and brutal life. He’s had to survive any way he could, and he’s had to kill to survive. I’m sure he’s had to do things that neither one of us would approve of while he’s been on his own, and after a while, the line between right and wrong becomes blurred. I realized that again this morning.”
Scott looked puzzled for a moment, and then realization hit. “You mean when Teresa walked into his room?”
Teresa shook her head in confusion. “Murdoch, I TOLD you, that was my fault. I walked in on HIM! He wasn’t out of line!”
“But he COULD have been! I have no business bringing a man like that into our home. Corrales shot Cipriano for no reason, and Johnny could do the same.” He looked at Scott. “Or he could shoot you, or…hurt Teresa. It’s just not going to work.”
Scott stared at him for a moment, and then dropped his head and nodded. Murdoch watched him with relief, glad that his sensible son finally understood what he was saying. He glanced over at his ward, and realized she was staring at Scott incredulously. He shook his head. “Teresa, you’re too young to understand. I don’t want to take any chance of losing either one of you simply because I’m selfish enough to want something that can never happen.”
Teresa turned toward Scott. “And you AGREE with him?”
Scott brought his eyes up and smiled at the girl before he turned toward his father. “No, I don’t.” He stood up. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going into town.”
“For what?” Murdoch asked suspiciously.
Scott reached over and grabbed his hat and gunbelt from the coat rack. “I’m going into town to visit with my brother.”
Teresa stood up also. “So am I.”
“Oh no you’re not. I won’t allow it!” Murdoch stood up and glared at his ward and then turned his glare on his son.
Scott shrugged. “I’m not a child, and I don’t have to do as you say. And while you’re here alone, you’d better think about one thing; if Johnny leaves, I will too.” He reached over and offered Teresa his hand before turning back to his father. “We MIGHT be home by suppertime, IF we can convince Johnny to come back with us.”
“TERESA! I FORBID you to go!”
Teresa hesitated, and then Scott felt her grip tighten on his arm. With a smile, Scott led the girl out to the barn, expecting Murdoch to follow them, but he remained in the house. Scott quickly saddled two horses, and after helping Teresa mount, he jumped on his horse and the two of them headed toward town.
Inside the house, Murdoch sat fuming at his desk. Since he’d been home, Scott had always been respectful and very seldom challenged him, but what Murdoch had just witnessed was downright mutiny. Not only had Scott defied him, but TERESA had taken part, too! Quiet, gentle Teresa, who ALWAYS did as he asked. Murdoch shook his head. Lately his world kept getting turned upside down, all because he had made the mistake of trying to bring his younger son home.
Chapter Thirty Two
Murdoch sat in the dark Great Room, listening for the sounds that would tell him that his son and ward were home, but the silence was overwhelming. He glanced again at the massive grandfather clock, and felt his temper starting to rise. Scott had no business keeping Teresa in town this late, and when the two of them finally came home, they would both feel his wrath. He looked again at the clock and slammed his hand down on the desk. He hadn’t lent any credence to Scott’s promise about staying in town if they couldn’t convince Johnny to come back to the ranch, but it seemed now that it wasn’t an idle threat after all.
Murdoch stayed up all night, although his common sense told him that Scott wouldn’t bring Teresa home in the middle of the night. He just hoped his normally level headed son hadn’t done anything stupid and exposed Teresa to any danger or done anything to hurt her reputation. He knew that Scott would be a perfect gentleman, but it certainly didn’t look good for the girl to be out all night with his son. The thought that they were with Johnny as well made his temper rise higher.
By the time the sun rose, Murdoch had worked himself into a rage. He nearly ran to the barn and roughly threw a saddle on his horse. The horse spooked from the unaccustomed roughness, and Murdoch did his best to rein in his temper. He finally managed to quiet the horse, and then he swung aboard, trying his best to stay calm. He was going to save all of his anger to unleash on his children.
Murdoch rode into Green River and went immediately to the hotel. He strode in and grabbed the book, turning it around so he could look at the register.
“May I help you?” The clerk asked.
Murdoch didn’t glance up. “I’m looking for my son.”
The clerk grabbed the book away from the rancher. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t let you look at that.”
Murdoch looked up and realized he didn’t know the man. “Why not?” He growled.
“It’s privileged information,” the clerk said importantly.
The worry and anger Murdoch had been fighting since the night before made Murdoch’s temper finally snap. He drew his gun and pointed it at the man’s nose. “All I want is to find my family, and if you’re smart, you’ll let me look.”
The clerk nodded nervously and swung the book back toward the rancher. “Yes, sir.”
Murdoch gave the clerk one last glare and then perused the register. He saw Johnny’s name and he was surprised that his younger son was not only able to write, but he had very nice handwriting. He didn’t waste time on that thought, however, as he scanned the book for Scott’s and Teresa’s name. This was the only hotel in town, and if they had stayed in town, they would have had to stay here. He turned the pages back and forth, desperately looking for their signatures, but found nothing. He looked up at the clerk. “My son and ward were planning on staying in town last night. Did anyone else check in?”
The clerk shook his head. “No sir.”
“Are you sure?”
“Did they come in here at all?”
“Mr. and Mrs…?”
Murdoch clamped his lips together before grinding out, “They’re not married.”
“Oh,” the clerk said with a knowing grin.
Murdoch grabbed the man’s shirt and pulled him roughly toward him. “Don’t ‘oh’ me. There is NOTHING going on between them, understand? They would have checked in individually.”
“If you say so, sir.”
Murdoch felt an overwhelming urge to smash his fist into the man’s face, but he somehow curbed the desire and threw the man away from him. “Is Johnny Madrid still checked in?”
The clerk’s eyebrows knitted in confusion. “Yes.”
“Is he in his room now?” Murdoch stormed.
The clerk glanced down at the gun on the rancher’s hip and shook his head nervously. “No, sir. He didn’t come in last night that I know of.”
Murdoch shook his head as anger warred with concern in his mind. He couldn’t believe Scott would do anything to endanger Teresa, but he couldn’t imagine where they could be. If Scott HAD kept Teresa out all night somewhere with that…gunfighter, he’d have his son’s head. In fact, he’d have BOTH of his sons’ heads.
Finally, he turned and stalked out of the hotel, wondering just where he should start looking for his wayward family. He glanced up and down the street, and his eyes lit on the saloon. With a grim smile, he headed toward the building, certain he’d find at least one of his sons there.
He determinedly strode toward the building and hit the doors hard enough to send them banging into the wall behind them. He stopped just inside the door and looked around in surprise. He had been so angry he had forgotten just how early it was. The saloon was deserted. He looked around in confusion for a moment, and then saw the bartender coming out from the back room.
“Mr. Lancer, may I help you?”
Murdoch nodded. “Have you seen Scott in the last day or so?”
The bartender shook his head. “No, he hasn’t been in.”
“What about Johnny Madrid?” Murdoch asked grimly.
The bartender nodded his head cautiously. “He was in here for a while yesterday.”
“Any problems?” Murdoch asked curiously.
The bartender shook his head. “No. He just sat in the corner and had a few drinks. Nobody was stupid enough to bother him, except of course that new sheriff.” The man snorted. “Thought Madrid was going to shoot him for sure, but instead Madrid just got up and left. Haven’t seen him since.”
”What time did he leave?”
The bartended shrugged. “Don’t rightly remember, but it must have been early afternoon sometime.” He looked at Murdoch curiously. “Is there a problem?”
Murdoch shook his head slowly. “I wish I knew.”
Chapter Thirty –Three
The bartender shrugged as he contemplated Murdoch. “Would you like a drink?”
Murdoch shook his head. “Not at this time in the morning,” he growled. He turned and headed toward the door, and then turned around and headed back toward the bar. “Maybe just a shot.”
The bartender set up a shot, and Murdoch picked it up just as Val strolled into the saloon. The sheriff glanced at the bartender. “Everything all right, Max?”
The bartender nodded in confusion. “Sure, why wouldn’t it be?”
Val nodded toward Murdoch. “Seems like Lancer here attacked the clerk over at the hotel.”
“ATTACKED! I did no such thing!” Murdoch stormed as he slammed his drink down on the bar and turned toward the lawman.
Val shrugged, looking pointedly at the drink next to the rancher. “He said you grabbed him and pointed your gun at his face.”
Murdoch glared at the lawman. “I was TRYING to get some information from him that he was a little reluctant to give me.”
“And you think that was reason ta threaten him?”
Murdoch glared back at the sheriff. “It wasn’t really a threat.”
Val shook his head. “That’s not what Clayton said, and gettin’ a gun pointed at your face sure sounds like a threat ta me.”
“The clerk. He said you not only threatened him but you tore his shirt when you grabbed him. That’s assault.”
Murdoch turned a bright red. “I was just trying to stop him from slandering my family!”
“Oh? Val said calmly. “What did he say?’
“He said…” Murdoch shook his head and glared at the sheriff. “None of your business.”
Val shrugged. “Guess not.” He walked over to Murdoch. “Gimme your gun.”
“WHAT!” Murdoch stormed.
Val shrugged again. “Gonna have ta run ya in.”
“I told ya. Assault.”
Murdoch glared at the lawman. “I was just trying to find out where my family is.”
“Can’t help it. Ya can’t go around threatenin ta shoot people just ‘cause you need some information.”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “Look, sheriff. My son and ward came into town last night, and I can’t find them anywhere. I’m afraid something’s happened to them.”
“What makes ya think that?”
“I TOLD you, I can’t find them, and…” Murdoch clamped his mouth shut, not willing to air his dirty laundry in public.
“And?” Val prompted.
Murdoch once more glared at the man. “And they were leaving to find Johnny and bring him back to the ranch.”
“Why were they tryin’ ta get him back? Did he steal somethin?”
“NO! They…they were trying to convince him to stay.”
Val shook his head. “I still don’t understand why ya WANT him ta stay.”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Your ward is Teresa O’Brien?” At Murdoch’s nod, Val continued. “You sent a GIRL to go after Johnny Madrid? What’s the matter, you scared to go yourself?”
Murdoch opened his mouth and then clamped it shut, refusing to spar anymore with the wiseass sheriff. He glared at the man for a moment, and then growled, “Are you going to help me find my family, or am I going to have to do it myself?”
Val shrugged. “Reckon you ain’t gonna do much searchin’ from a jail cell.”
“You don’t mean you’re really going to arrest me!”
Val reached down and slipped Murdoch’s gun out of the holster. “Fraid so.”
Murdoch thought that the tip of his head just might come off any minute. He couldn’t remember ever being this angry in his life. He couldn’t believe he was the one that had stood in front of the Cattleman’s Association and recommended this man for the job. Right now he was convinced that Toby Jacobs, the town drunk, would make a better lawman, and he was going to tell the Association that at the first opportunity. “You can kiss your job goodbye,” Murdoch threatened.
Val shook his head and smiled. “That’s fine with me. Don’t much like the folks around here anyway.”
Murdoch picked up his glass and downed his shot before turning and stalking out of the bar, with the lawman following calmly behind him.
Scott frantically worked at the ropes that bound him, desperate to free himself and find Teresa. He was scared to death for his adoptive sister and what Pardee had planned for her. He never should have taken her along last night, but he was angrier than he had ever been at his father, and wanted to make the man angry. He knew he had succeeded, but the result of his impulsiveness had been catastrophic.
Evidently, Pardee’s men had been watching the house, or at least the road to town. Four men had appeared out of nowhere shortly after they had left the ranch, and Scott hadn’t even had a chance to draw his gun. If Teresa hadn’t been along, he might have tried to fight his way out of the mess anyway, but he couldn’t take the chance of her getting hurt.
At the time, he had thought they were simply bandits out to rob them, but they soon made it clear they were working for Pardee. If he had known that at the time, Scott might have fought anyway; he had seen the devastation wrought by Pardee and his men on helpless women. Scott’s stomach churned at the thought of Teresa in Pardee’s clutches, and he fought the ropes with renewed vigor.
Since they had been brought here to this decrepit saloon, he hadn’t seen her. The men that had brought him here had separated them and taken him down into the basement. They had tied him securely, and then shoved him into this small room, where they had left him alone. He pulled again at his bonds, feeling the blood start to intermingle with the threads of the ropes. Undaunted, he fought them more frantically, knowing that Teresa was upstairs alone with that animal, Pardee. He knew if anything happened to Teresa because of him, Murdoch would never forgive him. Hell, he would never forgive himself.
Chapter Thirty Four
“Crawford! I demand you let me out of here RIGHT NOW!” Murdoch had been watching the sheriff and the man’s nonchalance had about destroyed any patience that Murdoch might have had. He had watched as the lawman had made some evil looking coffee and then Val had merely stood and looked out of the window for a long while. The lawman finally sat back in his chair and propped his feet on the desk, apparently making himself comfortable for an upcoming nap.
Val looked up, unconcerned. “If ya don’t shut your yap, I’m gonna gag ya.”
Murdoch had never run into anyone as annoying as this sheriff, but he decided to try to reason with the man. “Look, sheriff, I have to find my family. I’m afraid they’re in trouble. I promise I’ll come back once I find Johnny and I know my family’s safe.”
Val looked at his prisoner curiously. “Ya think Madrid hurt ‘em?”
“NO!....I don’t think so…” Murdoch’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t know.”
“I thought he was your son.”
“If ya don’t trust him, why in the world do ya keep him around?”
“I don’t know that I am!”
At the sheriff’s raised brows, Murdoch took a deep breath. “It’s a long story.”
Val shrugged. “We ain’t got nothin’ else ta do.”
“YOU need to go out and find my family!”
“Ain’t my job ta be a babysitter. Maybe if I understood a little more of what was goin’ on around here, I could do a better job.”
With a sigh, Murdoch shook his head, but after a moment, he began to talk. “My first wife died in childbirth, and I let my father in-law raise my oldest boy. A few years later, I met Johnny’s mother down in Mexico. We were married and Johnny was born. Two years later, I woke one day to find her gone, Johnny along with her. I tried to find both Johnny and her, but I had no luck and I finally hired the Pinkertons.”
“Five years ago, the Pinkertons finally found out that my wife had died when Johnny was ten. He’d been on his own since then, and his life was pretty brutal as you can imagine. Last year I told the Pinkertons to find him and offer him a substantial amount of money to come here. They made a mistake, and Corrales showed up instead. I think you know the rest.”
Val studied his fingernails that he was trying to clean with the edge of a wanted poster. “Why’d ya just now send for Johnny? Seems like ya woulda sent for him when ya first knew where he was.”
“By the time the detectives found him, he already had a reputation. I…I wasn’t sure I wanted a man like that around.”
Val’s eyebrows shot up and he studied his prisoner. “And now ya do? What changed?”
“Sheriff, this is getting us nowhere!”
Val shrugged. “Like I said, I MIGHT help ya, that is if ya tell me the story.”
Murdoch’s lips pressed together, and he wished the lawman hadn’t relieved him of his gun. Right now there was nothing he’d rather do than send a bullet into the smart sheriff’s heart. Through gritted teeth, Murdoch continued, “I asked him here because I was having trouble with land pirates and I needed him.”
Val snorted. “Ya mean ya needed his gun.” He looked at his prisoner speculatively. “You’re a cold hearted bastard, ain’t ya?”
“I sent for my elder son at the same time, and I offered BOTH of them a third of the ranch!”
“So ya needed ‘em both.” Val shook his head. “But ya seemed ta hang onto the one ya wanted.”
“It wasn’t like that!” Murdoch stormed. “I don’t KNOW Johnny! He’s a stranger!”
Val shrugged. “If I were Madrid, I’d tell ya just what you could do with your money and your offer. Seems he needed you a long time ago, not now. Maybe if you’d sent for him five years ago, he woulda stayed. He didn’t have that big a reputation back then.”
Murdoch dropped his head. The sheriff had pointed out something that had bothered Murdoch for five years. Every time he heard a new story about his son, he had thought he should send for him before it got any worse, but he never had, and now it was probably way too late.
Murdoch took a deep breath. “Look, would you PLEASE help me to find my family? I’m worried about them, especially with Pardee still around.”
Val’s head shot up and his feet hit the floor. “Pardee? DAY Pardee?”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes!”
“Lancer, I’d be a little more concerned about Pardee hurtin’ your family than I would be about Madrid.”
“I AM! But I need to find them, and I need to start by talking to Johnny!”
Val studied the rancher. “Madrid’s sittin’ across the street in the saloon.”
“WHAT! Go bring him in!”
Val looked at him incredulously. “For what?”
“I don’t care, just do it!”
Val walked calmly over to the cell and studied his prisoner for a moment and the shook his head. “You want me ta walk over and tell Madrid he’s under arrest for no good reason? I ain’t stupid.” He turned to go, and Murdoch felt panic engulf him.
“Wait! I want to charge him.”
Val turned and looked at the rancher. “With what?”
Murdoch ran a hand through his hair. “For…For kidnapping.” At the sheriff’s cynical look, Murdoch continued. “I want you to charge him with kidnapping my son and ward.”
“Got any proof?”
Murdoch stared at the lawman. “Please, sheriff, I HAVE to talk to him before he rides out of town and disappears forever. It’s the only way I can get him to listen.”
Val studied the man for a minute, and then turned and walked toward the door. He opened the door, and then turned and looked at Murdoch. “If he blows my brains out, it’ll be on your head.”
As the door slammed shut, Murdoch went back over to the cot and slumped down on it. He buried his head in his hands, hoping he wouldn’t hear a gunshot signaling the end of the lawman’s life.
Chapter Thirty Five
Johnny sat in the saloon, thinking back on the conversations he’d had with his father and brother and he shook his head. Instinctively, he knew that Scott really wanted him to stay. His brother had been more than fair and had done his best to convince Johnny to give the Old Man another chance.
The Old Man. Now that was a different story. Johnny couldn’t quite figure out what his father wanted. Something didn’t add up. Lancer said he wanted him to stay, and there had been moments the day before when he could have sworn that his father wanted him there. His father had seemed to want him to accept the offer to stay several times, but as soon as he thought Johnny was ready to accept it, Murdoch would back off. He wished he knew the man better so he could figure out the puzzle, but he had the feeling that would never happen.
Even if Scott wanted him to stay, Johnny was under no illusions. He knew that they would all have to want it before he could even give it a try, and even then, the chances were he’d be riding on before too long. It just wouldn’t be that easy for him to change his way of life. Johnny picked up his beer and sipped it slowly. He didn’t usually drink much, especially this early in the day, but he was making an exception today.
He felt disappointed. For some reason, he had expected Scott to come after him and try to talk him into staying. He knew it was unreasonable, but he had felt a connection with Scott and wanted to get to know him better. Johnny dropped his head. He should have known better than to hope for any kind of feelings on Scott’s part. After all, his brother had everything he needed. He didn’t need a half breed gunfighter screwin’ things up for him.
Maybe that was what was wrong with his Old Man. Maybe he had been telling the truth the day before. Maybe his father really did just want to see him before telling him to hit the road. Even though his father had made the offer, he thought that Lancer had finally realized just how difficult it would be. Johnny nodded slightly. He sure couldn’t fault him for that.
Johnny sighed as he took another sip. Now that he knew he wouldn’t be joining his family, he’d have to make up his mind what to do about Pardee. He knew there was no way he could join the land pirate in his attack on Lancer. No matter how disappointed he was, Johnny wasn’t angry about his family’s decision. He understood better than anyone how difficult it would be, and he couldn’t fault them for not wanting to try it. He just wished they hadn’t gotten in touch with him in the first place and raised his hopes. He put his drink down and shook his head. The question was, just how far was he going to go to protect his family?
Taking on Pardee wasn’t the smartest thing he could do. Pardee was a hard and brutal killer, and didn’t care about playing fair. Besides, Johnny was only one man. Without at least some back up, he wouldn’t stand a chance. He shook his head again and tossed some coins on the table and stood up. The best thing he could do for all concerned was to walk away.
He turned toward the door and stopped as the sheriff walked into the bar. Johnny knew immediately there was something on the man’s mind from the way he glanced at Johnny and sauntered casually up to the bar. Johnny took four steps before the lawman’s voice stopped him.
“Yeah?” Johnny almost laughed at the man’s predictability. He had guessed three steps.
The sheriff walked over to the gunfighter. “I’m arrestin’ ya.”
Val hesitated. “Kidnappin’.”
Johnny stared at Crawford, convinced he was kidding.
Val held out his hand. “I’ll take your gun. Nice and slow.”
Johnny gaped at him, his cool demeanor for once deserting him. Finally, he shook his head. “Just who am I supposed to have kidnapped?”
Val sighed. “Scott Lancer and Teresa O’Brien.”
Johnny looked at the sheriff in disbelief before snorting. “Can’t ya come up with anything better than that ta get me in that jail of yours?”
Val shook his head without meeting Johnny’s gaze. “Weren’t my idea.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Just whose idea was it?”
Val sighed. “Murdoch Lancer’s.”
A flash of rage ignited in Johnny’s mind. “I didn’t do nothin’ and he knows it. What kind of game is he playin’ at anyway?”
“You can ask him that yourself. He’s in my jail. Now hand over that gun of yours.”
Johnny glared at the sheriff for several seconds before reaching down and undoing the safety on the holster.
Johnny pulled the gun out of its holster and handed it to the lawman, keeping his gaze on the lawman. “You know I didn’t do nothin’. Why are you doin this? He own you?”
Val glared at the smart mouthed gunfighter. “Nobody owns me, and as soon as we get this straightened out you can go.”
Johnny studied the man. Crawford obviously didn’t like what he was doing, but he was doing it anyway. Johnny noticed a bead of perspiration on the man’s head and grinned slightly. Even though he was obviously nervous, the lawman hadn’t even drawn his gun and more or less left it up to Johnny whether to run or give. The sheriff had to have known that Johnny could have drawn and gotten the drop on him before Crawford could make a move. Johnny’s opinion of the lawman went up a notch, and with a shrug, Johnny turned and walked out of the bar, with Val following him.
Johnny walked into the sheriff’s office and stopped short. He turned back toward the lawman. “He’s a prisoner?” Johnny asked in disbelief.
Val nodded and opened up the cell door. Johnny hesitated and then walked in and glared at his father. “What’s goin’ on, Old Man?”
Murdoch stood up and glared back at his son. “If you hurt Scott or Teresa, I’ll see you hang!”
Chapter Thirty Six
Johnny stopped stock still and stared at the older man. “Is that what this is all about? You think I would hurt them? What reason could I possibly have for kidnappin’ them?”
Murdoch took a step forward. “Where are they? What did you do with them?”
Val took a step closer to the bars. “Lancer, don’t you start anything, or you’ll get a load of buckshot. Is that understood?”
Both men in the cell ignored the sheriff. Johnny shook his head. “Last time I saw Scott, he was at Lancer.”
“What about Teresa” Murdoch growled.
Johnny met the man’s gaze and saw the fear and anger in his father’s eyes. “Is that what you think of me? That I could hurt that girl?”
The question was eerily similar to the one that Corrales had thrown back at him when Murdoch had questioned him before Pardee’s attack. And once again, Murdoch didn’t have an answer. He dropped his head and shook it slightly. “I don’t know what to think of you.”
Johnny stared at his father for another second, and then turned and walked over to the cell door and locked his hands onto the bars. “Sheriff, let me out, NOW!”
Val walked over and shook his head. “Can’t do that. Scott and Teresa are still missin’, and until they’re found or until Lancer here drops them charges, I’m afraid I’m gonna have ta hold ya.”
Johnny whirled on his father. “What makes you think I had anything to do with it?”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “They left right after you did.”
Murdoch met his son’s gaze. “They headed into town to find you and convince you to stay.”
Johnny tried to hide his surprise. He had hoped Scott would come after him, but he never figured Teresa would. “And I suppose you threw a fit about that.”
Murdoch nodded. “I didn’t want them to go.”
Johnny snorted. “At least you’re honest, Old Man.”
“Do you know where they are?”
Johnny thought for a moment. “Yeah.” He dropped his head. “I know.”
Murdoch took a step forward and got in Johnny’s face. “What did you do with them?”
Johnny glared at his father and then noticed the lawman was standing by the cell, quietly watching the exchange. Johnny glared at him too, for good measure. “I didn’t do nothing’ with ‘em. In fact, I haven’t seen ‘em since I left Lancer.”
Val walked interrupted the exchange. “But you said you know where they are.”
Johnny nodded. “I have a pretty good idea. It would be just like Pardee ta grab ‘em and use ‘em as leverage against Lancer.”
Murdoch sat down abruptly. “Are you sure?”
Johnny shook his head. “I ain’t sure about nothin’. But it’s pretty likely.”
“Then we don’t have much time!”
Johnny shrugged. “Pardee won’t kill ‘em, not till he gets what he wants, and he WANTS Lancer.”
Murdoch brought his head up and looked at both the gunfighter and the lawman. “What are we going to do?”
Johnny looked at him incredulously. “What are WE going ta do about it? What makes you think WE’RE gonna do anything?”
Murdoch stared back. “He’s your BROTHER!” he roared.
Johnny shook his head and smirked at his father. “You sure are good at throwin’ that family stuff around when ya need somethin’. Ya make it sound like your family is real important to ya.”
Murdoch glared at his son. “My family IS important to me.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, well, at least some of them are.”
“I resent that!”
“Well I resent that you tossed me and my mother out, and I resent that you let me grow up on the streets by myself, and I resent that you wasted my time getting’ me ta come here.”
“I DIDN’T toss you and your mother out. I spent years looking for the two of you!”
“WHY? For what reason? I don’t understand! You obviously don’t want me here!”
“That’s not true!”
“Yes it is! You pay me a thousand dollars ta come here, and then ya act like your sorry I came.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “I’m not sorry you came.”
Johnny shook his head. “Then why do you act like it?” He asked quietly.
Murdoch kept his head down and sighed. “Corrales.”
Johnny shook his head in confusion. “What about Corrales?”
Murdoch looked at the lawman, as if for help, but Val merely shrugged. Murdoch dropped his head. “I thought he was you,” he whispered.
Johnny just stared at his father until Murdoch finally took a deep breath. “The Pinkertons sent us a wire saying they had found you in front of a firing squad down in Mexico and that you had accepted our offer. I…we couldn’t wait for you to come home.” He sighed once more. “A short while later, Corrales showed up and said he was you.”
“And you believed him, just cause he said it?” Johnny asked incredulously. He shook his head, and then continued. “Yeah, I guess ya did, ‘cause ya didn’t question me, either.” He snorted, “how do ya know I’m really your kid?”
Murdoch met Johnny’s gaze. “There isn’t any doubt in my mind that you’re my son.”
“Did ya doubt Corrales while he was here?”
Murdoch dropped his head. “No,” he admitted.
Johnny snorted. “Great! So you don’t really know if I’m an imposter or not. Is that what the problem is?”
“I TOLD you, you’re my son. “ He shook his head. “You look just like your mother.”
Johnny stared at his father. “I can’t believe you thought that murderin’ son of a bitch was me.” He shook his head, and then he stopped cold and stared at Murdoch, the pieces of the puzzle finally slipping into place. He dropped his head and wrapped his arms around himself protectively. “You think I’m like Corrales.”
Murdoch sighed deeply and then nodded. “Aren’t you?” he asked.
Johnny stared at his father for a moment, and then realized that any hope he had of finding a home here had just been destroyed. He locked his eyes on his father and then sighed. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
Chapter Thirty Seven
Johnny turned away from his father, unable to look him in the eyes. If his father really believed he was just like Johnny Corrales, then there was no use to even try to stay. Johnny had known Corrales for quite some time, and he knew the other gunfighter was a vicious killer. He supposed some people thought that Johnny Madrid was one too, but he liked to think that he wasn’t as bad as the other man. At least, he usually tried to do the right thing.
The first time Johnny had met him, Corrales had signed on to fight a range war. Johnny had been on the side of the rancher and Corrales had ridden in, arrogant and overbearing. He hadn’t known Johnny was already in charge, and had intimidated some of the other men into giving him the prime spot in the tent they were sharing. By the time Johnny had come back from scouting out the farmer’s defenses, Corrales had succeeded in setting himself up as top dog.
Johnny had ridden into camp, immediately sensing the unease of the men, and he’d known that something was up. When Corrales had stepped out of the tent, Johnny had immediately known the reason and had braced himself for a fight. Johnny had dismounted and turned toward the other gunfighter, expecting to have to draw, but surprisingly, Corrales had backed down without a struggle. He hadn’t totally given in, however, and Johnny had a hard time keeping the man reined in and his sadistic side under control. Corrales had a mean streak a mile wide, and had proven that to Johnny during that war. Rape, murder, backshooting; Johnny had seen Corrales do it all, and it never seemed to bother the man.
Johnny snorted; Corrales and Day Pardee would have been a great match. Day definitely had a cruel turn, and he wouldn’t hesitate to use whatever methods necessary to get what he wanted. Johnny’s mind turned to what his father had said. He realized that the chances of Scott and Teresa getting out of this mess without getting hurt, or worse, weren’t very good, with or without his help. He certainly didn’t want to see either one of them hurt, but he didn’t know if he could do anything about it at this point. Day wasn’t stupid, and would be alert to any treachery.
Johnny sighed. He didn’t want his brother to die. He had felt an almost instant connection to Scott. When he was a kid, he had always dreamed of having a big brother, and now he found out he’d had one all along. He’d like to get to know Scott, but he wasn’t sure if that would be possible. If Day had him, he probably wouldn’t be alive for along.
He shook his head; Teresa was another story. She wasn’t related to him at all, but he’d never believed in hurting women or children, and he couldn’t stand by and let anyone else hurt them, either. He knew that Pardee was totally capable of hurting Teresa and killing Scott, even if he got what he wanted. Once Day had Lancer, Pardee would probably kill Scott outright, but he was afraid that he’d leave Teresa alive, at least for a while. Johnny was afraid that both of them would be wishing they were dead long before they got their wish.
Val watched as the emotions played over the gunfighter’s face, and he was surprised. Madrid actually seemed upset about what was happening and he wondered why Madrid cared, the way Lancer was acting. If it were him, he’d tell the son of a bitch to get lost. That is, he’d tell him to get lost after he blew the idiot’s head off. Personally, he wouldn’t blame Madrid one little bit if he killed the man, but somehow, he had the feeling that the gunfighter wouldn’t do it.
In fact, the more Val listened to what was being said in that cell, the more he had to admit he might have been wrong about the gunfighter. He seemed to be a pretty decent man. One thing was for sure; he knew Madrid didn’t have anything to do with kidnapping Lancer’s other son and ward. Whether Madrid decided to help Lancer or not was his business; and Val wasn’t going to go along with Murdoch Lancer’s plans any longer.
He walked over to the cell door and opened it. “You’re free ta go.”
Murdoch stomped toward the opening. “It’s about time!”
Val shook his head, a slight smirk on his face. “Not you, him,” he said, pointing at Johnny.
Johnny looked at the lawman and grinned, and after a moment, Val grinned back. He was beginning to think he could like this guy. Val shot a look at Lancer and received a glare in return. Murdoch was almost apoplectic. “You’re letting him out and keeping me locked up? WHY?”
Val shrugged, trying to keep a straight face. He knew this would probably cost him his job, but right now he really didn’t give a damn. “Cause I don’t think he did anything, while I KNOW you did!”
Murdoch watched in disbelief as his son walked out of the jail cell. “Aren’t you going to help me rescue your brother?”
Johnny turned and looked his father in the eye. “Now why would I do that? After all, I’m just a murderin’ half breed. Besides, why would I rescue ‘em when I would just turn around and shoot ‘em when I got ‘em free?”
Murdoch grabbed the cell bars. “I didn’t mean that and you know it!”
Johnny shrugged and turned away. “Old Man, I really don’t give a damn WHAT you meant. I’m sick of tryin ta figure it out.”
“I’ll hire you!” Murdoch called out.
Val winced when he saw the look of outrage in the gunfighter’s eyes as the boy turned toward his father. “No,” Johnny said quietly. “I only work for people I trust, and who trust me, and that lets you out. Besides, I had a better offer and it doesn’t have all these strings attached.”
“From who?” Murdoch shouted.
Johnny met the sheriff’s eyes for a moment, and then smiled. “Day Pardee,” he said as he walked out the door.
Chapter Thirty Eight
Murdoch grabbed the bars and glared at his son as he walked out. He knew now that he had been right in not trusting the boy, and in spite of expecting betrayal he still felt a sense of loss. Deep inside, he had hoped that Johnny would prove him wrong and not be like Corrales. He had hoped that Johnny would state his intentions to help his brother and stand up for his family, but that hadn’t happened. Instead, Johnny had clearly decided to side with Pardee. Murdoch watched as the outer door slammed shut behind the gunfighter, and then walked over to the cot and slumped down.
He glared up at the lawman as Val walked over to the cell. “Are you going to let me out?”
“I told ya, no.”
“My SON and ward are out there, and if Johnny’s right, they’re in trouble and need help. If anything happens to them because I’m stuck in this cell, I’ll have your head!”
Val shrugged. “If ya feel like that, ya shouldn’t have acted like an ass and gotten yourself in this position.”
“What do you want?” Murdoch snapped.
Val shrugged. “Nothin’. Just wonderin’ just what the boy did ta make ya change your mind about him.”
“What do you mean?”
Val shrugged. “Well, when Corrales got himself killed, you acted like you’d never get over it. You were ready to take on anyone to get revenge for his death. Corrales was a real slimeball. He didn’t deserve nothin’ except what he got, but you still mourned him like you really cared. Then your real son shows up, and you act like you’re ready ta run him outta town on a rail. Just wonderin’ what he did ta make ya hate him.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t HATE him!”
“Ya coulda fooled me. I think ya fooled him, too. Seems like after all the trouble ya went to ta get him here, you’d at least give the boy a chance before ya ran him off.”
“That’s the problem. He’s no boy! He hasn’t been a boy for a long, long time!”
“And whose fault is that?”
Murdoch jumped to his feet. “That is NONE of YOUR business!”
The sheriff shrugged again. “Didn’t say it was. But from what I heard, Madrid didn’t have much choice in the matter.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “He didn’t. From the Pinkerton report I got, he didn’t have much of a choice at all. His mother died when he was young, and he was on his own ever since that time. He picked up a gun in order to kill the man who murdered his mother, and he didn’t put it back down.”
Val shook his head. “So what’s botherin’ ya so much? Why won’t ya give him a chance?”
Murdoch looked up at the sheriff in frustration. “You know what he is. You know what men like him are capable of. Would YOU give him a chance?”
Val snorted. “I wouldn’t a sent for him in the first place. But if I decided to and went ta all that trouble, then yeah, I’d at least give it a try before I kicked him out.”
“Even after Corrales?”
The lawman shook his head in confusion. “What does Corrales have ta do with Madrid?”
“YOU told me they were all alike, that none of them were any good!”
Val shook his head. “Never met one that was, but that doesn’t mean I was right. Doesn’t mean they’re all bad.”
“And you don’t think Johnny is? You were pretty adamant that he was at the top of the heap.”
‘I TOLD ya, I didn’t know him. I ALSO told ya I’d never heard anything bad about him. Just ‘cause he’s the best at what he does don’t mean he’s also the worst of the lot.”
“It doesn’t mean he’s not, either,” Murdoch said quietly.
“Nope, it doesn’t. But right now, you’ll never find out one way or the other.”
Murdoch shook his head. “IF I give him a chance and welcome him into my home, I couldn’t live with myself if I was wrong. If he hurt Teresa or Scott, I…I don’t know what I would do. I’m not going to take a chance on losing either one of them. I don’t need to know that badly.”
“You’re willin’ ta throw your son away, just like that?”
Murdoch’s head shot up. “SCOTT is my son, and no, I’m not willing to lose him.”
“Well, from what you said, SCOTT is willing ta take a chance on findin’ out about his brother, in fact, he was pretty adamant about it. If you’re not careful, ya might wind up losin’ both of ‘em. All I know is ya better think long and hard about it, ‘cause I have the feelin’ Madrid won’t give ya another chance.”
Val looked long and hard into Murdoch’s eyes, and then turned and walked out, leaving Murdoch alone with his thoughts.
Johnny walked out into the sunlight, feeling relieved to be out of the cell. He hated being locked up and he always had to fight hard to keep panic from setting in when he heard the cell door lock behind him. Whenever he was finally allowed to walk out, he always said a quick prayer of thanks.
He stood on the boardwalk for a several minutes, checking things out and making sure there was no threat anywhere. He heard a noise behind him and he turned around, wondering if the sheriff had changed his mind. He looked at Val enquiringly. “Somethin’ on your mind, sheriff?”
Val shook his head. “Nope.”
Johnny grinned. “Just makin’ sure I ride on out and don’t go messin’ up your town?”
Val studied the man intently. “For some reason, I don’t think that’s what you’ve got in mind, is it?”
The gunfighter looked at him in surprise. “What does that mean?’
Val shrugged, “No matter what you told your Old Man, I don’t think you have any intention of ridin’ out, at least not yet.”
Johnny grinned. “And what do you think I’m gonna stick around for?”
“Unless I miss my guess, you’re gonna try and save Scott Lancer and Teresa O’Brien.”
Johnny stared at the man intently. “Now why on earth would I do that? You know what happens ta people that cross Day Pardee.”
Val smiled slowly. “Yep, I do. But I ALSO know what happens ta people that cross Johnny Madrid, and personally, I’d rather take a chance of goin’ against Pardee.”
Chapter Thirty Nine
Johnny stared at the lawman for a moment, and then shook his head. “You’re crazy.”
“Yes.” Johnny hesitated a moment and then shrugged. “Do me a favor?”
Val looked at the gunfighter enquiringly, and Johnny smiled. “Don’t let the old man out until this evening.”
Johnny shrugged. “Cause IF I decide ta go pay ole’ Day a visit, I don’t need him showin’ up and messin’ things up.”
The sheriff shook his head. “Ya shouldn’t be goin’ up there by yourself. Sort of like ridin’ into the lion’s den.”
Johnny grinned at the sheriff. “You offerin’ ta go with me?”
Val’s expression remained serious. “If ya want me to.”
The gunfighter’s smile faded as he studied the man. “You’re serious.”
The lawman nodded, and Johnny shook his head. “Maybe next time, but thanks.”
“All right, but if ya need help, just holler.”
Johnny dropped his head. “I didn’t think you liked gunfighters.”
“I don’t. But right now you seem ta be the lesser of two evils.”
Johnny’s grin reappeared. “Good. I thought ya might be getting’ soft on me.”
Val snorted. “Not likely.”
Johnny turned toward his horse and swung aboard. Before riding off, he looked at the sheriff, who nodded. “Good luck. And don’t worry, your Old Man won’t be getting out till after dark.”
Johnny grinned in reply, and then spurred his horse out of town toward Blue Rock. As he rode along, he tried to come up with a plan, but until he talked to Pardee and saw what the situation was he’d have to fake it. The only thing he worried about was Teresa or Scott opening their mouths and letting Pardee know their relationship. If Pardee even suspected Johnny was against him, he’d be shot down like a dog. The problem was, if either of them HAD talked already, Johnny would never know it until it was too late.
He figured his best bet was to just ride in and pray that Pardee hadn’t found anything out. If Johnny acted hesitant or spooky, it would be a dead giveaway that something was wrong.
Before reaching Blue Rock Johnny dismounted and made sure his weapons were ready. He put more ammunition in his gunbelt and then checked the derringer in his belt. He already had a knife stuck in his boot, but he put another one in his other boot, just in case. Johnny smiled; he wondered if Crawford knew just how well armed his prisoner had been.
Finally, he was ready, and with a last quick prayer, he mounted up and rode toward the town. He hoped that Pardee would have his prisoners close by so Johnny could find out what kind of shape they were in. As he rode into town, he looked around, trying to get a feel of just how many men Pardee had. He was surprised to note that the town seemed almost deserted, except for the saloon, where a number of men were gathered.
Johnny rode up to the building and dismounted, being careful to keep his gun hand free. After taking one last look, he entered the bar and immediately spotted Day sitting at the bar. He looked across the room and saw Teresa carrying a tray of drinks. She looked up, and Johnny caught her eye and shook his head, hoping desperately that she would take the hint. She took a faltering step toward him, but when he turned away, she dropped her eyes and went back to serving the drinks.
With a silent sigh of relief he sauntered over to where Day was seated and dropped into a nearby chair. He grabbed an empty glass, and Pardee motioned for Teresa to come over. Johnny kept his eyes down until the girl was next to him, and then slowly raised his eyes to hers. He noticed her black eye and a dark look crossed his face before he managed to control his feelings and smiled. “Where didja get such a pretty bartender, Day?”
Day’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t know who that is?”
Johnny took a sip, thinking quickly. Finally he grinned. “Sure. It’s old man Lancer’s ward. How didja get your hands on her?”
Pardee relaxed slightly. “She and Lancer’s son were a little careless. I grabbed them on their way into town.”
Johnny took another slow sip. “Didja kill his son?” he asked casually.
The land pirate shook his head. “Nope, at least not yet. I thought I just might need him for bargaining.” Day chuckled. “Course, I wouldn’t give much for his chances after that.”
Johnny nodded. “Whatcha got planned?”
Pardee slammed his glass down in frustration. “I don’t know! I know Lancer isn’t stupid enough to ride into a trap, but I need to get him out in the open so I can take him out.”
Johnny looked at Day in surprise. “I thought ya just wanted the ranch.”
Pardee snorted. “I do. But I’ve heard enough to know just how stubborn those Lancers can be. I have no intention of leaving any of them alive. I don’t want to have to look over my shoulder the rest of my life.”
Johnny smiled and glanced up at Teresa. “Yeah, I heard they was stubborn.” He reached out and grabbed her wrist. She struggled for a moment, and then stood still and stared at him. He smiled at her for a moment, hoping to reassure her, and then turned toward Pardee. “You ain’t plannin’ on killin’ her, are ya?”
Day leered at the girl. “Well, I guess that depends on how friendly she decides to be.” He rubbed his jaw. “So far she hasn’t been friendly at all.”
Johnny chuckled; relieved that except for a black eye, so far Teresa seemed to be all right, but he was sure that wouldn’t last for long. After hearing what Pardee planned, he knew without a doubt that he couldn’t join Day, even if the man weren’t going after Lancer. Pardee’s senseless violence made him sick inside and he knew he could never go along with the land pirate’s plans, but he also knew that he could never join his family; Murdoch had made that clear. The Old Man didn’t trust him and never would, and Johnny had no intention of spending the rest of his life living with a man who despised him. Now, he just had to decide whether he was going to risk his life and try to save Scott and Teresa, or do the smart thing and just ride on.
Johnny watched Teresa for a moment and then leaned over close to Day. “Get rid of the girl. I have a plan and I don’t want her hearin’ it.”
Day contemplated Johnny for a moment and then looked at Teresa. “Go over in the corner and sit down. Me and Johnny here are gonna talk.” He glared at her. “And don’t try anything. I’ll shoot ya if you do.”
Teresa shot a last worried glance at Johnny and then did as she was told. She wasn’t sure what to think. She wanted to trust her adoptive brother, but she wasn’t sure if she could. She wished she could talk to Scott, but she hadn’t seen him since being brought here. She wasn’t even sure he was alive, but she prayed that he was.
The girl dropped her head; she knew Pardee was after Lancer, and because of her and Scott’s carelessness, the land pirate just might succeed. It all seemed to boil down to Johnny. She thought she had seen a flicker of anger in his eyes when he saw her black eye, but she couldn’t be sure. Even so, she felt a little more hope after his arrival. She had been scared to death that Pardee or one of his men would force themselves on her, but so far, that hadn’t happened. It had been close a couple of times, but so far she had managed to discourage them, one way or the other. She felt her tender eye. It had cost her, however, and she was sure her luck wouldn’t last. Now that Johnny was here, maybe he would at least protect her from that fate, even if he chose to side with the enemy. She looked at him hopefully, but he looked away without giving her any kind of sign.
Johnny watched the girl, wishing he could give her some sign as to his intentions, but Day was too sharp, and Pardee wouldn’t hesitate to kill both he and Teresa if he thought there was any treachery going on. With a sigh, he turned back around and looked at Day speculatively. “I might be able ta come up with a plan ta get Lancer out in the open,” he said quietly.
Day’s eyes brightened. “Yeah? What did you have in mind, Johnny boy?”
Johnny shrugged. ‘I think Lancer would do just about anything ta get his family back. If you send word to him that you’d trade their lives for the deed to the ranch, I think he just might go along with it.”
Pardee nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe. But how would that get the old goat out in the open?”
“Well, tell him that you want witnesses to see him willingly sign over the deed to you. Tell him ya want him ta meet you in town, in front of witnesses, and you’ll bring his son and ward and hand them over when you get the deed.”
“He ain’t stupid. He knows I’ll blow his brains out if he shows his face.”
Johnny stared at the pirate and shook his head. “If you’re plannin’ on stayin’ there, wouldn’t you rather have that ranch legally than havin’ ta take it by force?”
Pardee squinted his eyes. “Yeah, I guess. But I still don’t want Lancer ta live; he’d try and get that ranch back one way or the other. I don’t think Lancer’s that stupid ta believe I won’t try nothin’. He’s got ta know better than that.”
“Don’t give him a choice. Tell him ya want ta meet with him right away or you’ll kill his son. He’ll show up all right, just ta check things out. Then only take a few men along when you make the trade. He’ll feel more at ease. Go ahead and let him sign over the ranch, then you can take him down.
Pardee shook his head again. “I still don’t think he’ll go for it.”
Johnny smiled. “He will if he thinks I’m on his side. I’ll be right there next to him, protectin’ him from you. Only trouble is, you and I will know different.”
Day smiled slowly and then nodded. “It just might work.”
Johnny nodded. “Just don’t bring too many men into town.” He snorted, “Even I can’t stop an army, and I want him to feel safe.”
Day nodded. “All right, Johnny. We’ll try it your way.” He studied Johnny for a minute. “You gonna take him the message?”
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t have any reason ta talk to you. The old man would be too suspicious.” He looked around as if thinking, his eyes alighting on Teresa. “Why don’t you turn the girl loose with the message?”
“No way! I’m going to keep my two hostages.”
Johnny shrugged. “Do what ya want, but ya only need one. Two can get too complicated.” He grinned at Day, “Besides, you’ll get her back in a few hours anyway.”
Day chuckled. “You just might have a point.” He thought about the plan for a moment. “All right I’ll turn her loose.” His expression darkened as he thought of something. “But she saw you here. She’ll tell the old man.”
Johnny smiled a slow smile. “I’ll take her back and give her some story ta tell the old man. Believe me, when I get done with her, she won’t say a word. I’ll make sure she’s not alone with Lancer before the meeting, and I’ll make sure she behaves herself.”
Pardee chuckled. “I’m sure you will. Just make sure ya get her back in time for the meeting, understand?”
Johnny nodded. “We’ll make it in Moro Coyo, that way that nosy sheriff won’t be around, and Lancer will feel more secure. I’ll set the meeting for tomorrow morning, just after sunup.” He grinned and glanced toward the girl, “That’ll give me plenty of time ta talk to her.”
Pardee laughed. “Just make sure ya don’t ‘talk’ ta her so long you forget the plan.”
Johnny grinned. “Don’t worry, I know exactly what I’m gonna do.”
Day stood up and clapped Johnny on the back. “All right, I’ll be there, just make sure the old man don’t have any surprises waitin for me.”
Johnny nodded. “Don’t worry Day, only one man will be surprised.”
Chapter Forty One
Johnny took Teresa’s arm and guided her out of the building. She went willingly, but Johnny thought it was a little too willingly. He knew Day would be watching them closely. Johnny reached down and nuzzled her ear, whispering as he did so. “Start fighting me, or Pardee will get suspicious.”
Immediately, Teresa pulled back away from him and struggled to free herself from his grip. He tightened his fingers around her arm and continued pulling. She dragged along behind him fighting and twisting, and Johnny was pleased with the scene she was making, although Johnny could have done without the slap she gave him when he threw her onto his horse’s back. He glared at her and she stopped for a moment, afraid that she’d gone too far, but the small quirk at the edge of his mouth told her he wasn’t really mad, and she resumed her struggles.
Johnny grabbed the reins of another horse and led it forward then swung up behind Teresa. He nudged his horse forward and led the other horse as they rode out of town. After they were well out of sight, Johnny looked down at her worriedly. “Are you all right?”
Teresa nodded, not trusting her voice. She had been so afraid and was so grateful for his rescuing her she didn’t know what to say. Then she dropped her head. “Where’s Scott?”
Johnny shook his head. “Pardee still has him, but he won’t kill him; he needs him for the exchange.”
She looked at him worriedly. “Are you sure?”
He nodded. “Scott’s safe, at least for now.”
She looked at him and smiled. “Thank you for rescuing me!’
He smiled at her impishly, “Who says I rescued you?”
Her eyes widened for a moment and then she slapped him on the arm. “Johnny Lancer, you take me home right now!”
Johnny grinned back at her for a moment, feeling warm inside, until the realization that he would never be able to be Johnny Lancer hit him. His father had made that clear, and nothing that Johnny could do would change that. He would always be a killer, at least in his father’s eyes. Even if he killed Pardee, it would only serve to prove his father’s opinion of him. His grin faded, and he dropped his head.
Pulling his horse to a halt, he grabbed her arm and helped her down, then swung down himself. He walked over to the other horse and picked up the reins and swung them over the horse’s neck. He turned toward the girl and motioned her over.
“Let’s take you home.”
Teresa was confused at the sudden change in him, and couldn’t figure out why. She thought for a moment, and then shook her head. “I’m sorry I slapped you,” she said cautiously.
He looked at her uncomprehendingly for a moment and then shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s get you back to Lancer.”
They rode home in silence, Teresa wondering if she had done something wrong, and Johnny feeling increasingly angry with his father for putting him in this impossible position. His father had no right to play with his life like that.
By the time they reached the ranch, it was dark, and Johnny pulled his horse to a halt. He jumped down and helped the tired girl off of her mount, then guided her up the path. They were just approaching the door when it was yanked open, and Murdoch grabbed Teresa into a bear hug. He stood that way for a moment, then pushed her to arm’s length and studied her. “Thank god you’re all right.”
He crushed her to him again, while Johnny stood calmly watching. Finally his father looked at him. “Where’s Scott?”
Johnny’s hackles went up at his father’s tone. “Pardee still has him.”
“WHAT! Are you telling me that you didn’t bother to help him?”
Johnny turned toward his father. “Day had at least twenty men where Scott is being held. I couldn’t just walk in and turn him loose.”
“You managed to get Teresa.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “I got lucky. Do you want me ta take her back?”
Murdoch leaned toward his son. “Don’t get smart with me, boy!”
Johnny took a step forward, and immediately Teresa stepped between the two. “STOP!” she yelled. She turned toward her guardian. “What’s the matter with you? Johnny saved my life and you’re treating him like a criminal.”
Murdoch looked at her for several moments, then took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Johnny watched him warily until his father dropped his head. Murdoch slowly raised his head and met his son’s cautious stare. “I’m sorry, I’m just upset. Thank you for rescuing Teresa and not leaving when I gave you every reason to.”
Johnny shook his head, not ready to believe the man had really had a change of heart. He watched as Murdoch walked over to the bar and poured two drinks. The older man came back and handed one to Johnny, then motioned for him to sit. Johnny perched on the arm of a sofa and took a sip.
Murdoch watched the liquid as he swirled the liquor around in the glass until he finally raised his eyes to his son. “Is there any chance of getting Scott free?”
Johnny dropped his head, knowing his father would never go along with the only plan he could suggest to save Scott’s life. Slowly he started talking.
“Pardee thinks I’m workin’ for him. He let me take Teresa ‘cause he thought I was gonna bring her here ta give you an ultimatum.
“What kind of an ultimatum?”
Now it was Johnny’s turn to stare into his glass. “Pardee wants you dead, but he also wants the ranch. The deal is this; you come into Morro Coyo tomorrow at dawn with me, and you bring the deed to the ranch. You sign it over to Pardee in front of witnesses in exchange for Scott.”
“That was Pardee’s plan?”
Johnny shook his head and stared at his father. “No, it was mine.”
Murdoch stared at his son. “Then he’ll kill me.”
Johnny dropped his head and nodded, then gulped down the rest of his drink, unable to meet his father’s eyes.
Chapter Forty Two
Murdoch stared at his son, unsure what to say. He was shocked at the admission, but although he hated to admit it, not completely surprised. He shook his head as he studied his son.
“You hate me that much?”
Johnny met his father’s eyes and shook his head. “I didn’t do it ‘cause I hated you. I did it ta save Scott. It’s the only way. Pardee will shoot Scott down like a dog if you don’t show up, then he’ll come out here and take this ranch by force.”
Murdoch went over and poured another shot before turning back toward Johnny. “Even if I do as you say, after Pardee shoots me, he’ll STILL shoot Scott.”
Johnny shook his head in resignation. “Do you really think I’d let Day shoot you?”
Murdoch stared at the boy, unable to answer. Finally, he shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said softly.
“You’re my father.”
“A father you’ve admittedly hated for years. And Day Pardee’s your friend. He trusts you, doesn’t he?”
Johnny slowly nodded and Murdoch turned back toward the bar.
“Johnny wouldn’t hurt any of us!” Teresa protested. She went over and took her guardian’s arm. “Why can’t you trust him?”
“Cause I’m a gunfighter. Ain’t that right old man?”
“I don’t know you!”
“And whose fault is that?” Johnny shook his head in frustration. “Look we’ve already been over this. If you don’t trust me on this, you’re going to lose your son AND your ranch. Pardee will see to that. Now I don’t know just how much you care about Scott, but I DO know how much this ranch means to you.”
“That was uncalled for!” Murdoch snapped. “I love my son!” The second it was out of his mouth, he realized what he’d said.
“Well, you love one of ‘em, anyway.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “Johnny, I…I do …love you. I just don’t know…I’m not sure…”
“If you can trust me,” Johnny finished.
Murdoch nodded miserably, unable to meet his son’s eyes.
Johnny stared at him for a long moment, and then sighed in resignation. “I understand, I really do. I know me sayin’ it won’t make any difference, but I wouldn’t do anything ta hurt any of you.”
Murdoch brought his eyes up and nodded slowly, but Johnny knew he was just agreeing because he thought he should. It took time to grow trust, and the simple truth was; even if he wanted to, his father couldn’t trust him just like that. He had no reason to. Johnny shook his head. “Look, maybe we can figure something else out.”
Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe I could show up and tell Day you refused to come. He’d have Scott with him, and maybe I could take Pardee down before he could kill Scott.”
“He’ll have men with him.”
Johnny smiled. “So I’ll duck.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I’m not going to let you face him alone.”
“Look old man, you’re right. If you show up, there’s a good chance you’ll get yourself killed. Let me handle it. As you pointed out, Day trusts me. When he finds out I’m alone he’ll let his guard down and I can take him. Once Pardee falls, there’s a good chance that at least some of his men will cut and run. Most of ‘em are a bunch of cowards, anyway. I promise I’ll do my best ta protect Scott. No matter what you may think of me, he’s still my brother.”
“I don’t like you facing them by yourself.”
Johnny’s voice turned cold. “It’s what I do. This is just another job, and I expect ta get paid when it’s over.”
“Is that all this is to you? A job? I thought you said you cared about Scott!”
“I’m a gunfighter, and as you pointed out, I’ll always be a gunfighter. It’s what I am, and a gunfighter can’t afford ta get involved. He can’t afford ta care about anyone. It’s too dangerous, both for him and for who he’s tryin’ ta protect. If I start feelin’ anything my mind won’t be on business and I’ll wind up makin’ stupid mistakes and getting both of us killed.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I still don’t like it, it’s too dangerous.”
“I told ya I’d do my best to protect Scott.”
“I’m worried about you, too!”
Johnny snorted. “I’m touched. But save it for the son you care about. Like I said; I expect ta get paid when this is over.”
Murdoch stared at Johnny for a moment, and then shook his head. “When this is over, I’d like you to stay. See if we can work this out.”
Johnny returned the man’s stare and then shook his head slowly. “You were right before; it wouldn’t work. You’ll never trust me and I’m not gonna open myself up ta that. It’s better if I just move on when this is over. That way nobody gets hurt.” He turned to go, and then looked back at his father. “If it DOES work, Scott’ll be back here an hour or so after sunup. Until ya see him, I’d suggest you get the women somewhere safe and get your men ready for a battle. If Day takes me, he’ll be comin’ out here with murder on his mind, and he’ll be comin’ fast. He probably has about thirty men, so be prepared. I’ll take down as many as I can, but you’re still gonna be outnumbered. If I take Day and everything works out, I’ll tell Scott where he can wire my money.” He stared at his father for a minute, and then said softly, “Good luck.”
Johnny turned to do once more, and Teresa ran over and grabbed his arm. “I don’t want you to go!” She tried to keep the tears in check, but they fell anyway.
Johnny touched her nose. “You gonna shed a tear over me?” He kissed her on the forehead. “And wipe your nose, will ya?” He turned away and gave his father one last look, then walked out the door.
Johnny rode into Morro Coyo, wondering just how it was all going to play out. He figured he had about a fifty -fifty chance of saving Scott, but his own odds of surviving weren’t that good. He thought that even if he managed to take Day down, Pardee’s men would polish him off before they cut and run. He thought about going back and trying to talk Lancer into going along with his first plan so he’d at least have another gun on his side, but finally decided it was useless. The man didn’t trust him, and if he didn’t trust him there was no way Lancer would step out into that street when Pardee was there with his men.
He thought about Lancer’s offer for him to stay after the job was over, and wondered if it was sincere. He thought it probably was, at least until the old man realized just how much trouble Johnny would bring with him. Johnny had to admit, the idea of hanging up his gun and settling down somewhere was extremely appealing, but he also didn’t think it was very realistic. The problem was, he was a little too fast for his own good. If he weren’t as fast as he was, men wouldn’t be after him all the time to advance their own reputations. Of course, if he weren’t as good, he’d also be dead.
He knew that Scott and Teresa wanted him to stay; that much was obvious. The old man was another story. He couldn’t even be mad at him for it. Johnny understood why he was so gun shy and didn’t blame him. Lancer had no way of knowing what his son was really like. The problem was, even though his mind accepted it, his heart did not. For some reason it still hurt that his own father didn’t think much of him.
He should be used to that feeling; it was a knowledge that he had grown up with, a knowledge that had been carefully nurtured by his mother and had grown a little more every year of his life. He had never wanted to accept it, however. In some deep recess of his mind, he had always hoped that he was mistaken, that his father would welcome him with open arms if Johnny ever showed up. His mother had lied about so many things that Johnny had hoped that she had lied about this one most important thing.
Johnny’s musings were cut short by his approach into town. He figured Day was too arrogant to send someone into town early, but it always paid to be careful. He checked out the darkened buildings as he passed, but didn’t see anything alarming. Morro Coyo didn’t even have a hotel, so if he wanted to get a few hours shut eye before dawn, it would have to be in the livery.
He rode up to the building and dismounted, calling out softly to see if anyone was around. When no one appeared, he opened the door and led his horse inside, leaving the door slightly open. He found an empty stall across from the door and led his gelding inside. After bedding his horse down, he sat down and watched the darkened street, waiting for dawn.
Murdoch paced around the room, drink in hand, trying to figure out what to do. He knew the survival of his family depended on making the correct decision, but the problem was, he wasn’t sure what was that decision was. Teresa had told him what SHE thought was right, in no uncertain terms, but Murdoch had to use more than his heart to make the right choice.
When Corrales had been here, Murdoch had been deeply disappointed in the actions of the man he thought was his son. When he found out that the man was an imposter, he had felt relief, but it made him rethink his original efforts to bring his gunfighter son home. He had realized he was being selfish. He wanted both of his sons home; he wanted Johnny to be at Lancer, safe from the violent life he had been forced to lead. But he had wanted those things without thought as to how it could affect the rest of his family. The truth was, he was afraid. He was afraid that his younger son wasn’t any more trustworthy than Corrales had been, and he was afraid of finding out that truth for sure.
Now he had a choice. He could sit here at the ranch and hope Johnny could rescue Scott, or he could do what his heart told him to do. He could ride into town and do as Johnny had asked. If he stayed here, he thought he could probably hold off Pardee if the land pirate got by Johnny. If that happened however, the chances were it would mean that at least one of his sons was dead, and his chance at having his family whole would be shattered.
On the other hand, if he rode into town and showed himself to Pardee, there was a good chance he would get killed, along with Scott. He didn’t really believe that Johnny could take Pardee and save both of them in the process. He wasn’t even absolutely sure which side the boy was really on. What worried him most was taking the chance and trusting the gunfighter, and having his dying thought be that he had been betrayed by his son.
The question came down to just how much he was willing to gamble for the biggest prize of all; his family. If he lost, he would lose everything. But if he won… Murdoch shook his head and glanced at the clock. There was only about four hours to sunup. Time was running out. Finally he made up his mind. He went out and woke up Cipriano. “I want you to load up several wagons and get the women over to the Myer’s ranch, and then I want you to round up all the men and bring them into the hacienda. We’ve got to get ready for a battle. Pardee will probably be here soon after sunup.”
Chapter Forty Four
It was almost sunup and Johnny moved over nearer the door so he could get a better view. He figured Pardee would be a little late, a small psychological advantage in a game won or lost by details. Johnny looked around the town and was glad to see no one was stirring yet. It was a sleepy little town, and Johnny would be happy if it stayed asleep until this was over. He didn’t want to worry about some uninformed person getting involved. Morro Coyo was too small to have a sheriff, so he knew there wouldn’t be any interference from the law. He shifted slightly and then his eyes went to the window of the general store. He thought he had caught some movement from inside the supposedly closed building, and he studied it carefully. After several minutes, he thought that he might have been mistaken, but he would keep an eye on it during the meeting, just in case.
As he waited, he went over all of the possibilities of what could happen in his mind. He knew there was a very real chance he wouldn’t get out of this one alive, but he had long ago stopped being frightened by the possibility of his death. He had lived with the specter of death hovering over him for as long as he could remember, and he figured that one of these days, probably very soon, his luck would finally run out. He had no false illusions that he was going to die of old age.
A moment later, he heard the unmistakable sound of horses entering the town, and he saw Day and six of his men ride by, along with Scott, whose horse was being led. Johnny had hoped Pardee would bring fewer men, but had expected him to have more. Of course, Pardee could have men hidden around town, just in case. His eyes wandered back to the general store, but if there was someone there, they were remaining well hidden.
He watched as Pardee pulled his horse to a halt across the street and looked around, obviously irritated that Lancer hadn’t shown up yet. He dismounted and paced up and down for several moments, and then spun around and walked over to where Scott was sitting in his horse. Day reached up and dragged his captive to the ground, then gave him a kick for emphasis. Johnny’s jaw hardened. Scott’s hands were tied behind his back, and his brother was completely helpless. One look at his battered features told Johnny that Scott had probably tried to escape and earned Day’s wrath.
Pardee waited to see if the kick drew any attention from anyone hidden, but all remained quiet. Johnny could see that Day was becoming nervous, and he decided to end the game before Pardee lost his temper completely. He quickly stepped out into the street, taking note of a horse trough on his right and some barrels on his left that could serve as cover. He glanced once more at the window of the store, but it remained still.
“Day,” Johnny said quietly.
The land pirate spun around, his hand going automatically to his gun, but as soon as he realized who it was he relaxed and brought his hand back up. “Johnny. I was beginning to wonder if old man Lancer decided not to show.”
Johnny shrugged. “Something like that.”
Pardee’s eyes narrowed. “You tell him that if he didn’t, he was gonna lose a son?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I told him.” Johnny could see the anger on Day’s face and knew that any minute now Pardee would turn his attention toward Scott. His hand inched closer to his gun.
“He told me!”
Johnny spun toward the sound as his father stepped from between the buildings and walked out into the street. He stopped about ten feet from Johnny and then looked at his younger son. Although he gave no outward sign, Johnny was shaken by the look of confidence his father gave him. Now he just had to earn it. He turned back toward Day, who was grinning evilly at the rancher as he held onto Scott, using him as a shield.
“You had me worried, Lancer. I thought maybe you decided to try something stupid.”
Murdoch shook his head and glanced quickly at Johnny. “No, I just want my son.”
Pardee grinned. “Oh, you’ll get him. I give you my word. You got the deed?”
Murdoch nodded and reached into his pocket.
“Nice and slow,” Day cautioned.
Murdoch pulled out the paper and held it up.
One of Pardee’s men came over and grabbed it from his hand, then took it over to Day. He looked at it a minute, and then cursed. “It ain’t signed. What’re you trying to pull?” He cocked the gun and held it to Scott’s head.
“Nothing for nothing,” Murdoch said. “You hand over my son, and I’ll sign it.”
Day glared at him for a minute, and then slowly let go of Scott. Johnny watched as his brother walked over and stood next to Murdoch. Day threw the paper back at the rancher. “Now sign it!”
Johnny took a step forward, and Day looked at him quizzically. Johnny stared back. “This is my family, Day, and I want you to leave them alone.”
If the situation hadn’t been so serious, Johnny would have laughed at Pardee’s expression. It only took a moment, however, for the look of surprise to be replaced with a snarl of rage. “You’re not a Lancer!”
Day grabbed for his gun. Murdoch shoved Scott out of the way as Johnny yelled, “Down, Scott!”
Johnny ripped his revolver out of his holster and pumped a quick shot into Pardee. As the land pirate fell, Johnny turned his gun on the other men, taking down two more before he finally heard more gunshots being fired. He felt a bullet rip through his chest and went down, still firing, and watched as the last man dropped. He glanced at his father and brother, and reassured himself that they were all right, then, too late, he remembered the man at the window. He saw the flash of muzzle fire aimed toward the street before he collapsed in the dirt, knowing that he had let his family down, and they were going to die.
Chapter Forty Five
Johnny lay in the bed, trying to figure out just where he was. He didn’t want to open his eyes just yet; not until he knew for sure if he was in danger or not. He relaxed his body and let his senses tell him all that they could. He felt the bedding beneath him and knew without a doubt he wasn’t in a jail cell. He had been in enough of them through the years to know their feel. Whatever he was lying on was too soft and sweet smelling to be a jail cot.
He listened to the sounds wafting in through a nearby open window. He could feel a slight breeze on his face, and the smell of jasmine coming from outside, mixed with the unmistakable smell of barnyard. The sounds certainly weren’t from a town. All he could hear was the far off conversation of some men, and an occasional whinny. He opened his eyes a slit and saw a familiar figure sitting by the edge of the bed. His eyes widened slightly as he realized who it was, and his relief at finding that his brother was alive was enormous.
Scott looked up quickly and shut the book he had been reading with a snap. “Well, it’s about time you’re awake.” He reached over and grabbed the water glass that was next to the bed and offered it to Johnny. The gunfighter looked at it suspiciously, and then sniffed it.
“It’s just water,” Scott said, looking at his brother in consternation.
“Just makin’ sure.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up; sure there was a story there somewhere. When Johnny recovered, he would be sure to ask him.
“How do you feel?”
“All right.” He looked at Scott, his heart in his mouth. “Is Murdoch OK?”
Scott nodded. “He’s fine. It seems like you were the only one that was careless enough to get hurt.”
Scott’s attempt at a joke fell flat as Johnny nodded. “Good.” The gunfighter’s eyes slid shut and he drifted back off.
When Johnny came to again, it was dark. He could see the moon out of his window, and now it was his father who sat by the bed, dozing. Johnny studied him with interest. When Murdoch had shown up in town and stepped out to face Pardee, Johnny had been amazed. He couldn’t believe his father actually trusted him, but the older man had proven that he did, without a doubt. Just thinking about it gave Johnny was strange feeling of warmth.
Of course, just because he didn’t think Johnny would kill him certainly didn’t mean he wanted the gunfighter to stay here. It would take a lot more than that to accept a killer into the family. Johnny sighed softly, the familiar itch from the stitches and the dull pain reminding him of just how many times he’d been in this position. The difference was, this was the first time he had felt safe while he was recovering. He didn’t know how, but he knew that his family would watch over him. Usually he forced himself to stay awake as much as possible so he wouldn’t be taken by surprise, but this time he found himself drifting off continually, It didn’t worry him, either, and he wondered if that was what it was like to really trust someone.
He knew that the chances were he would be moving on soon, either at his father’s request or because of his own failings, but he decided it was nice while it lasted. He was glad he had gotten to know his family, and finally learned the truth about his father. Letting go of all that hate he’d carried around for so many years made him feel truly free for the first time in his life. He hoped that maybe they wouldn’t mind if he dropped in on them once in a while for a visit. It would be reassuring to know that he had people that cared, even if he couldn’t be with them. As soon as he thought it, he scolded himself for being too optimistic. He’d have to wait and see just how it went. Even if they liked him, there was a good chance they wouldn’t want him around, and he couldn’t blame them
His mouth felt like a desert, and he reached over for the glass, unwilling to wake his father. As he stretched, the stitches pulled and he gasped softly. The sound was enough to wake Murdoch, and he instantly leaned over and handed the glass to his son.
Johnny drank a few swallows, then laid back and looked at his father before dropping his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” his father asked in a shocked tone.
“For lettin’ you down.” Johnny shook his head. “I left you and Scott wide open. I guess it was a good thing the guy wasn’t a good shot.
Murdoch shook his head in confusion. “Johnny, you didn’t let us down. You saved our lives. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Johnny shook his head. “The gunman in the window. I knew he was there, but I forgot about him when all the gunplay started, and then it was too late; I couldn’t get off a shot. I left you and Scott unprotected.”
Murdoch snorted. “Well, I’m glad you couldn’t get off a shot. That was Sheriff Crawford in that window.”
“Val Crawford?” Johnny asked in shock. “What was he doin’ there?”
Murdoch shook his head. “It seems our brave sheriff heard what was going to happen and decided to lend a hand.”
“But he was shootin’ at us! Everyone else was down.”
Murdoch shook his head. “No, he was shooting at Pardee. Your bullet didn’t kill him. He was ready to shoot you when Val shot him.” Murdoch dropped his head. “I couldn’t have gotten the shot off in time, and I’ve never felt so helpless in my life. I saw Pardee aim his gun at you, and I knew I couldn’t stop him in time. Val saved your life.” He looked at his son. “I owe Crawford more than I can ever repay,” he whispered.
Chapter Forty Six
Johnny shook his head in confusion. “I didn’t think he liked me.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I KNOW he doesn’t like me, but that didn’t keep him from helping us. I guess I misjudged him.”
Johnny remembered back to when the lawman had arrested him, and he smiled. “Well, I knew he was no coward, but I never figured he’d risk his life for me.” Johnny sighed and looked up at his father. “Where’s my gun?” he asked softly.
Murdoch stood up and walked over to the dresser and picked up the holster, then turned around and hung it on the bedpost. “All right?”
Johnny nodded; surprised that his father understood. He felt safer here than anywhere else where he’d had to recover, but he still felt vulnerable without his revolver. “Thank you.”
“You know you don’t need that here.”
Johnny shrugged. He’d always need his gun, no matter where he was.
A soft tap at the door drew the attention of both men, and they looked up to see Sam Jenkins standing in the doorway. Murdoch immediately stood up. “Johnny, I’d like you to meet my good friend, Doctor Jenkins. He’s the one that took the bullet out of you.”
Sam turned toward his friend. “I need to check the wound, I’ll see you downstairs.”
Murdoch knew better than to argue with Sam, when he had, he’d invariably lost. “All right Sam, and I’ll tell Maria to set another place for dinner.”
Sam waited until he heard the door click shut, and then he took a step toward the bed. As he approached, he watched the gunfighter somewhat warily. After his conversation with Corrales, he was more than a little apprehensive about this boy.
Johnny saw the hesitation in the man’s manner, and he dropped his head. “I ain’t gonna shoot ya.” After a small hesitation, he brought his head up. “At least until ya check me out.”
Sam saw the glimmer of mischief in his patient’s eyes and he relaxed. No matter what this boy’s reputation was, he wasn’t anything like the other man. He walked up to the bed and grabbed the man’s wrist, feeling for his pulse.
“So after I look at your wound, then you might?”
Johnny smiled. “Maybe. It depends.”
“On what ya tell me.”
Sam’s eyebrows lifted. “Then I’d better ask you what you want to hear.”
Johnny’s grin widened. “At last, a doctor I can intimidate. What I want ta hear is that I can get up outta this dang bed.”
Sam grinned back. “You get out of this bed before I tell you that you can and I’ll shoot YOU!”
Johnny’s smile faded and turned into a glare. “Then ya better tell me I can get up today,” he growled.
Sam unwrapped the bandage from around Johnny’s chest and studied the wound. It looked all right so far, but he wasn’t going to take any chances. He reached into his bag and brought out some powder. He sprinkled some onto the wound, and then quickly rewrapped the boy’s chest. He stood up and looked at the gunfighter.
“Well?” Johnny challenged, giving the doctor his best glare.
Sam calmly met his patient’s stare, knowing that the next minute or two would tell him exactly what kind of man he was dealing with, and he hoped for Murdoch’s sake his initial assessment of the boy’s temperament was correct. He took a deep breath and shook his head. “IF you continue to improve, I’ll let you get up and sit in a chair tomorrow afternoon.”
Johnny’s glare remained another instant, and then he sighed. “Come on, Doc,” he pleaded. “I’m fine, really.”
Sam shook his head. “Tomorrow.”
Johnny’s head dropped and his shoulders slumped. Sam thought he looked for all the world like a little boy who had been told he couldn’t have any candy. The young man’s transformation from dangerous killer to disappointed child surprised, and for some reason, reassured the old doctor. He put his hand on Johnny’s arm and squeezed slightly. “It will go quickly.”
“Yeah? You’re not the one that’s stuck in this dang bed.”
“Do you want me to give you something to make you sleep?”
“You’d rather suffer?” Sam said lightly.
Johnny glared at the old man once more. “No drugs,” he said adamantly.
“All right. I’ll be back tomorrow. Until then you stay put, or I’ll tie you down.”
Johnny smiled slightly. “I thought doctors were supposed ta be nice to their patients,” he said sarcastically.
“I am. Now give me your word you’ll behave yourself.”
Johnny shook his head. “You don’t miss a trick, do ya?”
Johnny sighed in defeat. “All right, I’ll be good.”
Sam clasped the young man’s shoulder once more. “Good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Johnny nodded, and then looked the old man in the eyes. “Thanks, Doc.”
Jenkins smiled back and the smile was genuine, he liked the young man. “You’re welcome, and the name’s Sam.”
Johnny nodded, and then his eyes slid shut and he settled himself in the bed. For all of his arguments, he wasn’t sure if he could get up anyway. He still felt pretty weak, although he wasn’t about to admit that to the doctor. Johnny was eager to get up and start regaining his strength. He still wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and that uncertainty bothered him. Murdoch hadn’t said anymore about him staying, and now that Pardee was dead, he thought that maybe Lancer had changed his mind. After all, it wasn’t like his father needed him; Scott was here, and more than capable of helping Murdoch take care of things.
Johnny hoped he would still be welcomed, but he had learned to be realistic, and the cold hard truth was, he was still a gunfighter, and he would still cause trouble for his family if he stayed. Even if Murdoch and Scott were willing to put up with it, Johnny wasn’t sure if he would. He had started to care about them, and he didn’t want to cause them any problems.
There would be problems for him, as well. If he stayed here, he would be a sitting duck. Once the word got out that he had hung up his gun, the young punks trying to make a name for themselves would be showing up by the trainload. He shook his head; no matter how much he wanted this, the more he thought about it, the more he decided it wouldn’t work. With a sigh, he snuggled deeper in the soft sheets. At least he’d be able to enjoy it while he was here.
Chapter Forty Seven
“Take it easy,” Scott admonished his brother. “If you fall down the stairs, Sam will have my head.”
Johnny grinned at his brother. “Now don’t be gettin’ all mushy on me, brother.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. Now be careful.”
Murdoch watched his two sons bantering back and forth, and it made him feel complete. He had waited for this day for so long and he had despaired that it would ever happen. Now that it had, he was worried that he had blown the whole thing. He couldn’t believe he had acted the way he had. After Johnny had been hurt, he realized just how badly he had behaved toward his younger son, and now he was afraid they couldn’t get past it. He knew that if he were Johnny, he would ride out of here and never look back, and both Sam and Val agreed with him.
Murdoch shook his head; he couldn’t believe how quickly Sam had become charmed by the young man. The old doctor had been extremely vocal in his support of the young gunfighter, and had told Murdoch he was a fool if he let him go. Murdoch didn’t need anyone else to tell him that; he was already well aware of just how big of a fool he had been. Now he just had to try to convince his son to stay, and he fervently hoped it wasn’t too late.
He needed to talk to his son and tell him just how much he wanted him to be a part of this family, but he was unsure just how to proceed. He was afraid that the gunfighter would tell him what he could do with himself and his offer in no uncertain terms, and Murdoch wouldn’t blame him one little bit. He had said some hateful things to his younger son, and he figured Johnny was just waiting until he regained his strength before he left for good. He didn’t know how Johnny could ever forgive him for the things that had been both said and implied. The more he thought about it, the more ashamed of himself he was, and he found it more and more difficult to even meet the young man’s eyes.
Even Val had been pretty vocal about how he had misjudged the young man, and surprisingly, he and Johnny seemed to be on their way to becoming friends. The sheriff had been out to the ranch several times to visit Johnny as he recovered, and even though they both hid behind a façade of not liking the other, everyone had been able to see through it. Murdoch had to admit, he had been wrong about Crawford, too. After the shooting had stopped, Murdoch had been surprised to find the sheriff had been backing them up, and had saved Johnny’s life.
The next day, Val had ridden out to the ranch, ostensibly to resign as sheriff, but Murdoch was sure he had really used it as an excuse to check on Johnny. Murdoch had invited the lawman in for a drink, and Crawford had cautiously accepted. He had sat down uneasily on the couch and glared at Murdoch.
“I just came out ta say I’m quittin, if ya haven’t already fired me.”
“No one’s firing you.”
“That’s not what you said the other day.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “I was wrong, about a lot of things. I’m grateful for your help, and I’d like you to stay on.”
Val glared at the rancher. “I don’t take orders from nobody. If ya want me ta stay, I do the job as I see fit, and I don’t play favorites. If you or your boys break the law, I’ll arrest ya just like anybody else.” He took a sip of his drink. “Especially that no good gunfighter son of yours.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows lifted. “I thought you told me he wasn’t that bad.”
Val shrugged. “Don’t rightly know yet, but you’re a fool if ya don’t keep him around and find out.”
Murdoch smiled. “So, are you going to stick around and help me keep an eye on him?”
Val glared at the rancher. “Maybe. Somebody’s gotta make sure he doesn’t cause any trouble.”
“All right, it’s a deal. I promise I won’t give you any more orders, and I’ll do my best to obey the law.”
“Well, I’ll think about it. In the meantime, if it’s OK with you, I’ll go up and tell that boy he’d better behave himself if he plans on stickin’ around.”
Murdoch grinned as he remembered the conversation between his son and the lawman. Both of them had done their best to convince the other one that they didn’t like each other, and neither one believed it for a moment.
He was brought back to the present by a scuffle and he watched as his two sons descended the stairs, Scott trying to help his brother and Johnny doing his best to fight him off, and then with a smile Murdoch went back to the books. Several minutes later, the two young men walked into the room. Johnny plopped down on the couch while Scott went and poured two glasses of whisky. He handed his brother one, and then sat down next to him.
Johnny laid his head back against the couch and closed his eyes for a moment, basking in the warmth of the fire and the feeling of safety the room exuded.
“Are you all right,” his brother asked worriedly.
Johnny smiled without opening his eyes. “I will be if ya stop actin’ like a mother hen.”
“Well I can’t help it. The sooner you’re on your feet, the sooner I can slough off some of my chores onto you.”
Johnny opened one eye and glared at his brother, and then looked quickly over at Murdoch. His father dropped his head and started busily shuffling some papers, and Johnny sighed and closed his eyes. Evidently nothing had changed and Scott was the only one who assumed he was staying. The gunfighter closed his eyes again, suddenly feeling tired. It looked as if he the decision had been taken out of his hands. He would be moving on.
Chapter Forty Eight
Johnny walked outside, bored and aching to do something, anything. He had kept his word to the old doctor, but it had been hard. Sam was due out again today, and Johnny couldn’t wait to be released from his prison. He was expecting the doctor to finally give him a clean bill of health, and he wasn’t sure if he would be happy or sad at the news. It would mean that he could do what he wanted to and no longer have to take it easy, but it also meant that there was no longer any reason for him to stay.
He knew that Scott was expecting him to remain at the ranch, and kept talking as if Johnny would be a partner, but his father hadn’t said anything more about it. He figured Murdoch had had time to think about the offer and had second thoughts about it. He knew his father hadn’t told Scott about his decision, and he had no intention of enlightening his brother. He figured his father could explain his reasons to Scott after he left.
He wandered over to the corrals and watched as the men worked some of the horses. He looked around to see if he could see the palomino, but the horse was nowhere to be seen. He saw one of the wranglers watching him curiously, and he walked over to where the man was standing. He nodded respectfully at the older man.
“The palomino that the men were breaking the other day, where is he?”
Cipriano shrugged. “He is in a pen behind the barn. No one could break him and he attacked the last rider that tried. We are waiting for Senor Lancer to tell us whether to shoot him or turn him loose.”
Johnny nodded, and then headed behind the barn to look at the animal. The horse stood proudly, even though he was dirty and there was blood on his coat from the spurs and whips that had been used on him. Johnny looked angrily at the Segundo, who had followed him. “Is that how you treat your horses here?”
Cipriano was surprised the boy cared about a horse, when by all accounts he was a vicious killer who cared nothing about people. “We do what we have to in order to break the animals. It is the only way. This one was treated badly because he refused to give in.”
Johnny shook his head in frustration, and then with a quick look toward the Segundo, he stepped between the bars of the corral and approached the horse.
Cipriano was startled by the movement. “Get out of the corral, NOW! That horse is dangerous!”
“So am I,” Johnny said softly, never taking his eyes off of the animal.
“You have no right to be in there!”
Johnny ignored him and studied the palomino. He heard the rapid footsteps as the Segundo left, and he smiled. He never did like an audience when he worked a horse. He started talking to the animal, and the horse’s ears flicked back and forth nervously. Johnny took another step forward, and the palomino bolted toward the fence, then turned and started running as fast as the confines of the corral would allow. Johnny stood in the middle and kept turning to face the horse, keeping one hand outstretched to urge the horse on. He kept it up for quite a while, until the animal started to slow. Johnny allowed the horse to approach him, and then chased him away once more. He did that several times, and finally the horse came into the center and stopped, facing the gunfighter.
Johnny approached the horse slowly, talking softly, and rubbed his hands down the horse’s quivering neck. After a moment, Johnny deliberately turned his back on the animal, and walked out of the corral. He looked up to see his father watching him, the Segundo at his side. Johnny went over to the man. “You owe me some money. I’ll take that Palomino as part of it.”
Murdoch studied his son, and then glanced around. “Let’s go inside so we can talk.”
Johnny followed his father into the hacienda, figuring he was in for a battle. The palomino was obviously valuable as a breeding animal, even if he couldn’t be ridden, and he had the feeling the old man wouldn’t be willing to give him up.
Murdoch walked over to his desk and pulled out some papers, then reached for a pen. A second later, he handed his son a bill of sale. Johnny glanced at it, his eyes narrowing. “This is made out to Johnny Lancer.”
“That’s your name.”
Johnny shook his head. “It’s Madrid.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” his father said softly.
Johnny looked at his father, startled. “I ain’t stayin’.”
Murdoch’s head dropped. “Johnny, I’m sorry I said those things to you. I don’t know if you can ever forgive me for them, but please give me a chance to make it up to you. We want you to stay.”
Johnny dropped his eyes, not wanting the man to see the emotion there. This was what he had wanted for so long, but his father had to know just what he was getting himself into. “It’s not that easy,” he started.
“I know it will take time to trust me after everything I said.”
“That’s not what I’m talkin’ about.”
Murdoch waited as Johnny collected his thoughts, and then the gunfighter started again. “I’m a gunfighter. Just because I say I’m quitting doesn’t mean I can. Men will come after me, and they won’t care who they hurt ta get to me. They could hurt you, or Scott, or Teresa. They could hurt this ranch. And I can’t refuse ta fight ‘em if I’m called out; it would be suicide. Once word got out that I was yellow, they’d be swarmin’ all over here. I’d always have to be ready, I couldn’t stop practicing. Besides, I don’t know nothin’ about ranchin.” He looked up at his father, expecting the man to withdraw the offer.
Murdoch stared at his son for a moment, and the nodded. “By my reckoning, I owe you at least five thousand dollars.”
Johnny’s head dropped, and he nodded.
Chapter Forty Nine
Murdoch nodded. “I owe you five thousand dollars, but I’d like to make a deal with you.”
Johnny’s eyes shot up and then narrowed. He had never figured his father would try to welsh on the deal. He looked at the rancher suspiciously. “What kind of a deal?”
Murdoch locked his eyes on his son. “I’ll give you that palomino and two thousand dollars…”
“You’d better not try ta cheat me!” Johnny growled.
“…and I’ll give you one third of this ranch and everything on it.”
Johnny froze, certain it was a trick. “Why?” he finally asked suspiciously.
“Because you’re my son, and this is where you belong.”
Johnny’s head dropped once more. “I told ya how it would be.”
“It doesn’t matter; we’ll get through it together.”
“Why the change?”
It was Murdoch’s turn to drop his head. “I found out you weren’t Corrales,” he said simply. “You’re a good man, and I’m proud that you’re my son. I’m sorry for the things I said.”
“Doesn’t change the fact of what I am.”
“You’ve done what you had to do to survive.”
Johnny smiled. “You sure that’s the way it was?”
Murdoch met his son’s gaze. “Yes. I am now.”
Johnny dropped his head and nodded. “For the most part, that’s true. But I’ve done things I’m not very proud of; things no one forced me to do.”
“We all have. I should never have believed any son of mine could have been like Corrales.”
Johnny shrugged. “You didn’t know.”
“Well, I do now. Please, son, stay.”
“What happens when one of you is hurt because of my past?” Johnny asked softly.
Murdoch hesitated, and then shook his head. “I don’t know, Johnny. I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but it wouldn’t be your fault. I know you’d never do anything to hurt us.”
Johnny nodded when he saw the hesitation. “That’s why I can’t stay. Cause I KNOW it’ll happen. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when, and I don’t think I’m willin’ ta take that chance anymore.”
Murdoch felt panic starting to rise inside of him. “Johnny, please.”
Johnny dropped his head. “This place, this family, it’s all I ever dreamed of having.” He brought his head up and looked at his father. “But it’s too late for me. I care about all of you, and I can’t stay knowing I’ll put all of you in danger.”
“Johnny, I don’t want you to leave, none of us want you to leave. We’re willing to take that chance.”
“Well, I’m not. I’d appreciate it if you’d change the bill of sale, and if ya don’t have the money, I’ll take whatever you feel is fair.”
Murdoch’s head dropped. “I have the money.” He brought his head up and pleaded with his eyes. “Will you at least stay for a little while?”
“No. It’s time I moved on.”
Murdoch stared at his son, willing him to change his mind. “Will you promise me something?”
Johnny didn’t answer, and after a moment, Murdoch continued. “Will you promise me you’ll come back to visit?” He hoped that if he could keep contact with his son, eventually Johnny could be talked into staying.
Johnny hesitated for a moment, and then nodded. “If I can.”
Murdoch knew that no matter how much he hated to admit it, in Johnny’s line of work, that was the best he could hope for. Murdoch nodded slowly and reached over and put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Make me one last promise. Take care of yourself.”
Johnny nodded, not trusting his voice. He watched as his father took some money out of the safe and handed it to him. Johnny counted it quickly and gave some back to his father. “Here, you gave me too much.”
Murdoch’s hand closed over his son’s. “No, it’s not. Keep it. Maybe you won’t have to…work for a while.”
Johnny shook his head and pushed the money away. “It don’t work that way.” He shoved the rest of the money in his pocket and turned toward the door. He opened the door and then stopped without looking back. “Thanks, and tell Scott and Teresa bye for me.”
Murdoch flinched as the door shut and he watched as Johnny walked over to the barn. His son talked with Cipriano for a minute and then grabbed a halter from the fence. He went over to where the palomino was being held and ducked under the fence, then cautiously approached the horse and slipped the halter over his head. He led the horse out of the pen, and as upset as he was, Murdoch couldn’t help but notice how docile the palomino appeared to be.
Cipriano led Johnny’s saddled horse out of the barn, and the gunfighter jumped on the horse and took off. Murdoch watched until even the dust from his son’s departure had disappeared and then he went over to the bar and poured a drink for himself. He had had it all; all he had ever hoped and prayed for. His family had been whole, and he had thrown it away because he couldn’t accept his son. Johnny had used a different excuse; had told him that he didn’t want to endanger any of them, and Murdoch supposed that Johnny really felt that way, but he also knew that wasn’t the only reason.
He had treated his son horribly and refused to trust him, and Murdoch knew that was the real reason his son had left. He had seen the hurt in Johnny’s eyes more than once after he had opened his big mouth, and he was deeply ashamed. He cursed the fact that Corrales had pretended to be his son; if he hadn’t come to Lancer first, the trust and welcome that Murdoch had given him would have been given to his son and maybe he wouldn’t have left. He slammed his fist down on the bar and swore. It wasn’t fair
He should have said more; should have insisted he stay. Now that his son was gone, he could think of dozens of arguments to make him stay, but it was too late. His son was gone, and Murdoch was afraid he would never see him again. If there were any justice in this world at all, Johnny would have come home to stay, and Corrales would have been killed in front of that firing squad. Murdoch shook his head; he was afraid the only justice his son would ever get would be the final justice; Corrales would rot in hell and Johnny would be in a better place. Murdoch put his head down and prayed for his son.