This is an alternate reality story that takes place before the High Riders.
Rated PG for content and language
Scott watched as the calf ran bawling back to its mother. The cow shook her head angrily at the cowboy, then turned and led her calf back toward the herd. Scott shook his head. He never could understand how cattle even managed to survive, as dumb as they were. They could think of more ways to get into trouble than any other animals on the face of the earth, and of all of the times he had rescued the stupid creatures, they had never once been grateful.
Scott walked over to his horse and stepped on. He tied his rope back onto the saddle, then reached down and talked quietly to the animal, telling him he had done a good job. The horse was new to the game, but a quick learner. Scott had purchased the horse at a stock auction in Stockton a few months back, and he didn’t regret it. Murdoch had thrown a fit when he found out what his son had paid, but even he had to admit to the quality of the animal. The stallion would make a fine foundation for the new line of horses that Murdoch had been planning.
After calming the horse for several seconds, Scott nudged the chestnut back toward the herd. Scott glanced at the sky and figured he probably had to put in some more time before he could quit. This part of ranching certainly wasn’t his favorite. He much preferred doing the bookwork and taking care of the contracts, but Murdoch still insisted on taking care of most of the paperwork. Scott wondered wryly if the Old Man didn’t trust him or if Murdoch felt the same way he did about the grueling labor involved in the other jobs, and preferred sitting behind a desk. Whatever the reason, Scott knew that with his extensive education, he could better serve the ranch by using his mind rather than by manual labor, but so far Murdoch hadn’t seen it that way.
Scott took off his hat and wiped his arm across his face. He could feel the grime on his skin, and he wiped his face again with the other arm. Finally he gave up; his sleeve was probably dirtier than his face. With a sigh he jammed his hat back onto his head. This was one part of ranching he didn’t think he’d ever get used to, and didn’t want to. He hated being dirty.
He had spent most of his life in Boston, and he had never been allowed to get dirty as a child. His grandfather didn’t believe in such nonsense, and Scott’s childhood games consisted mostly of playing bank and endless lessons. Play for the sake of play was not permitted. It had to serve a useful purpose.
There was a strict code on behavior in the upper echelon of Boston society, and Scott had spent his childhood learning it. Manners were all important. You could be ruining someone financially and running your business in the most unethical way possible, but as long as you maintained appearances it was accepted. Dalliances with the opposite sex were, while not condoned, overlooked, as long as both parties were willing and the affair was discreet. Gentlemen and ladies were civil and at least outwardly accepting of those who were in a lower station in life, but contact was kept at a minimum. Servants were treated fairly, but were never allowed to forget their station.
Although it was in vogue to discuss long and vehemently the rights of individuals and to sympathize with the poor, it was lip service only. Actually interacting with those unfortunate souls was unheard of, and any help was done at a safe distance through donations to charities. Anyone not conforming to society’s idea of blue blooded aristocracy was politely shunned.
When Scott had first arrived at Lancer, he had been stunned at the casual way workers and their betters interacted. Landowners regularly worked side by side by the Mexican laborers, and even occasionally shared meals with them. When he had asked his father about the practice, Murdoch had simply replied, “They’re friends.” Scott had thought long and hard about his father’s response, and although he had been taught that such behavior was wrong, he had shrugged it off as another difference in the way of life here.
The problem was, his upbringing was at constant odds with the accepted behavior here in the west. He knew he was the odd man out; not only didn’t he speak Spanish, but he had a reputation of being somewhat aloof and stiff. He didn’t mean to be, but it was hard to change a lifetime of habit. It had also been difficult for him to get used to the sheer brutality of the land. There was no code of honor out here; at least it seemed that way to him. The only code he had been able to figure out was the one where you did it to them before they did it to you. It seemed to him that everyone lived by that rule.
Out here, there was no pretense. If you didn’t like someone, they knew it. If you were going to try to ruin someone, you did it without excuses or apologies. And if someone made you mad enough, you killed them. If you couldn’t kill them, you hired someone else to do it for you. There was no law out here, and every man made up his own rules. Outlaws and gunfighters were a dime a dozen. It was honest and honorable men who were at a premium.
Scott looked up at the sun again. It was time to go in. He couldn’t wait to get back to the hacienda and clean up, then sit down to a good meal. For some reason, the food tasted better out here, and he wasn’t sure if it was because he was just so much hungrier or because all of the food was fresh. In Boston, there had been one pale scent coming from his plate, and other little pale scents coming from his mother’s and grandfather’s plate. Out here however, the smells of the good food were almost overwhelming and mingled together to whet the appetite.
As he rode toward the house, he thought again about what he and his mother had talked about just the night before. Was he happy here? Did he want to go back to Boston? He knew she did. This land didn’t suit her, and she made no pretense of trying to fit in. As for him, he would wait and see for a little while longer, but right now he was inclined to agree with her. He belonged in Boston as much as she did. He would never fit in out here, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to.
After taking care of his horse, Scott went right to the outside washroom to get the worst of the grime off before entering the house. He knew his mother would have a fit if he tracked any dirt inside. He would have to take a complete bath before supper, but he preferred to use the inside bathroom for that. He quickly washed his arms and face, and brushed off his pants and boots as best he could. Satisfied that he would pass inspection, he headed quickly for the house.
Scott walked into the great room and carefully hung his hat on the rack next to the door.
“Hello, Sir,” he greeted his father, who was sitting at his massive desk, working on the endless paperwork.
“Scott. How was your day? Did you finish checking out the south pasture?”
“Yes, Sir. Everything seems to be in order.”
Murdoch nodded. “You’d better go wash up. You know how your mother is about that.”
Scott turned and walked over to the bar, where he poured himself a glass of brandy, then headed for the stairs. He knew his father wouldn’t say anything, and he was certainly of legal age, but except for wine, his mother abhorred his drinking liquor. It was much easier to just wait until she wasn’t around.
As he passed her room, he saw her sitting by the window, reading. He hurried by her door, hoping she was too engrossed in her book to notice his passing. Apparently she was, because he made it to his room without being stopped. He didn’t know how someone could spend all of their time cooped up in a room with a book. He liked to read, but he also enjoyed the outdoors.
He had never really had the chance to be outside much until he came to Lancer. In Boston, the only time he was really outside was during his unending riding lessons, which he was eternally grateful for. He liked horses, and he liked the feeling of freedom they gave him. He even enjoyed taking care of them, something he had been soundly scolded for back in Boston, but which was expected of him here. He remembered one of the first days he was here, he had casually dismounted after a ride and thrown the reins to a waiting Mexican, then walked into the house. It wasn’t until dinnertime that his father had asked if he had taken care of his horse.
Scott had looked up in confusion. “Sir?”
Murdoch took a bite of the roast and repeated the question. “Have you taken care of your horse yet?”
“What do you mean, Sir?”
Murdoch put his fork down and stared at his son. “Out here, a man’s life might rely on his horse. If you don’t take care of him, he can’t take care of you. Your horse is your responsibility, and you make sure he is groomed and properly fed and watered before you sit down to eat. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Sir.” Scott started to stand, and his mother, who had been glaring at her husband, spoke up. “I’m SURE your father didn’t mean for you to miss super to take care of an animal.”
Murdoch stared at Catherine. “Yes, I did. I think I made that pretty clear.”
Catherine slammed down her fork. “That’s what we have servants for! Let them take care of the animals. Those Mexicans cost us enough; they have to be useful for something. A gentleman NEVER stoops to manual labor. The Mexicans are used to that sort of thing.” She turned to Scott. “Sit down and finish your meal.”
Scott hesitated, and glanced at his father, who was getting ready to explode. Scott stood up and took a step toward the door. “I’ll be right back.” He turned and nearly bolted outside, leaving Murdoch to face his mother’s wrath.
There had been many arguments since then, mostly about what a gentleman should or shouldn’t be expected to do. He thought his mother was going to have a heart attack when she heard Murdoch telling him he’d be working with the rest of the men fixing fences and herding cattle. After a monumental battle, Catherine had finally given in, but her capitulation was far from graceful. She had let Murdoch know in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t happy with the arrangement, and that night she had moved into a separate bedroom.
Scott had tried to talk to her about it, and had told her that he really didn’t mind the work, in fact he rather enjoyed it. It made him feel useful for once in his life. His mother had simply stared at him frigidly for several seconds before replying.
“Ranching is dangerous work. I have no intention of letting you get hurt or killed in some stupid accident. Why do you think your grandfather and I went to such lengths to keep you from having to join the army?
“I WANTED to join,” Scott protested.
“You just thought you did. Look at how many of your friends were killed or wounded during the war. I’m sure you’re grateful now that we didn’t let you join.”
“Not really,” Scott muttered.
Her gaze pinned him. “What did you say?” she asked frigidly.
He stared back for several seconds, then dropped his gaze. “Nothing, Mother.”
She nodded. “Murdoch has to be made to realize that you are far too valuable to do manual labor. That should be left for the Mexicans.”
“Mother…” Scott started.
Catherine shook her head. “I’m tired and I don’t want to discuss it any more. I think I’ll lie down and take a nap before supper.”
Scott had walked out troubled by the exchange. He knew that if his mother and father didn’t come to some agreement soon, he and his mother would be going back to Boston, and he wasn’t sure if that was what he wanted. That was the whole problem. He didn’t know what he wanted. He’d never really been allowed to make any major decision. His life had been mapped out and then run by his grandfather and mother. Now it seemed his father was calling the tune, at least for the moment.
Murdoch watched as his son strode upstairs, drink in hand. He had to admit, he was pleasantly surprised by the boy. Scott had lived his whole life as a gentleman, and had never had to do a day’s work in his life, but he was no shirker. He didn’t know much, but he was a quick learner, and he threw himself into whatever he was doing with a will. If he was given an assignment, he would finish the task no matter what.
Murdoch took another sip of scotch and looked out the window toward the hills. He didn’t know if Scott would stay, but he hoped he would. Murdoch needed him, and he wanted to know that if something happened to him, Lancer would be in safe hands. Murdoch knew that somewhere hidden behind that gentlemanly façade was a fine rancher. He wished Scott could have grown up at Lancer, but at least he was here now. He had a lot of time to make up for, but Murdoch was prepared to do anything to make sure that happened.
Murdoch sighed. Catherine on the other hand… his thoughts trailed off. He didn’t know what he wanted his wife to do. Heaven help him, there were times when he wished she would go back to Boston and leave Scott here, but he knew that would never happen. If she left, Scott would leave too.
Catherine just wasn’t cut out for life in the west. She belonged in Boston, attending parties and wearing the newest creations from Paris. Life out here would never suit her. He just wished he’d realized that sooner, before it was too late, but they had been so much in love that they had both been blind.
When they were first married, she had really tried to go along with his dreams. He realized now that she had probably agreed to go with him out west simply to escape the domineering presence of her father. Harlan Garrett was a hard man, who ruled his kingdom and his family with an iron fist. Back then, Catherine had told Murdoch that she felt stifled living with her father, that she wanted to make some decisions on her own, that she wanted to live her own life. She had said more than once that the idea of going west and starting a ranch seemed so romantic, and he should have realized then just how naive she really was.
Even through all of the hardships, though, she had tried. She had hated ranch life, but she had done her best, although her prejudice and her attitude toward the hired help caused many problems.
Several months before Scott was due to be born, there had been some problems with land pirates. Men were getting killed and ranches burned. Several women had also been violently attacked and murdered, and the thought of losing his beloved Catherine had made Murdoch sick inside. When he had suggested she go back to Boston to have the baby and stay there until it was safe, she had eagerly agreed. Looking back, Murdoch realized she was a little too eager to leave.
She had left two days later, and Murdoch hadn’t seen her again for three years. Three months after she had left, he had received a letter from Harlan. He remembered how he had eagerly torn it open, desperate to find out if he’d had a son or a daughter. Instead he had been slapped with the news that Catherine had died in childbirth, along with her infant son. His world had collapsed at that moment, and the next two years were only a blur in his memory. He had thrown himself into making Lancer the best ranch in the valley, and had pretty much succeeded. He had done nothing but work, and he had risen before dawn and retired well past midnight each day. The only way he could forget was to make himself too tired to think.
Surprisingly, he had received regular letters from Harlan, asking about how he was doing and wanting to keep up on Murdoch’s progress on the ranch. Murdoch had written back and kept the older man up to date on all of his progress, although he was surprised the old man cared.
Almost three years after Catherine had died, he had been down in Mexico on a month long buying expedition, and had met Maria in Matamoras. She was fiery and loving, and had made his vision of Catherine blur in his mind. He knew this was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. They were married in a small Catholic church a week later, and Murdoch happily brought her home to Lancer.
They had pulled through the arch, and his new bride’s gasps of wonder and joy at the scene made his heart nearly burst. She had chattered on about how they would make this a home for their many children and how she would always love him. He didn’t think he had ever been as happy, and he knew their future together was assured.
Maria had fit into the household immediately. She was well liked by the help, and she took pride in doing most of the cooking and cleaning herself. Her cheerful humming was a pleasant change from Catherine’s forced pleasantness. Maria had assured him she would stand behind him as he followed his dreams, and he had believed her. He had been so happy, and he had written Harlan and told him the news, hoping the old man would understand his need for a family.
Five weeks later, he and Maria had come home from church. Maria was happy and chattering endlessly the whole way. The buggy had pulled to a stop in front of the door, and he had climbed down and reached up to help his wife, when he heard the front door open. He had glanced around, then stopped in shock when he saw the apparition of his first wife standing calmly by the door, holding the hand of a little boy.
Murdoch had picked his jaw up off of the floor and stuttered, “Catherine, I…I thought you were dead.”
Maria’s eyes had narrowed, and her gaze went back and forth between the two. “Who is this, Murdoch?”
He looked at his new bride in shock, but couldn’t find his tongue. Catherine had stepped forward. “I’m Catherine Lancer, Murdoch’s wife. And who are you?” she asked innocently. She turned toward Murdoch. “Is she the new cook?”
As soon as he had recovered from his shock, Murdoch had ushered Catherine into the great room, with a plea to Maria to give them some privacy. Surprisingly, his second wife had agreed, and retired upstairs, secure in the knowledge that her husband loved her. She had turned when she was half way up the stairs and shot him a dazzling smile, which he returned. He watched her go, and he knew without a doubt she was the love of his life.
Murdoch had headed straight to the bar and gulped down a huge shot of scotch before turning toward his first wife. “How?” he asked hoarsely.
Catherine sat down and demurely folded her hands in her lap. “It’s complicated,” she started.
“Start at the beginning,” he suggested flatly.
Catherine looked down. “I had a very difficult delivery. I almost died.”
Murdoch glanced at the young boy, and for the first time it hit him. This was his son. He smiled at the toddler, and the blond boy shyly grinned back before ducking behind his mother’s chair. Murdoch turned his attention back to Catherine. “Go on.”
“When I was better, I was…confused. My father wanted me to stay in Boston. He said I should stay there until I was better, and until you had the ranch built up to where I could be comfortable. He pointed out that there wasn’t even a doctor within miles if Scott or I should get sick or hurt.”
“Scott?” he asked, then looked at the boy and smiled again.
Catherine nodded slowly. “It was the name we had agreed on, remember?”
“My father made it sound so right, and he kept nagging at me to stay. He made me feel guilty for leaving him alone, and he made me frightened to bring Scott to such a heathen place. I finally agreed. Because I was still weak, he said he’d write you.” She looked up at her husband. “Murdoch, I had no idea he told you I was dead.”
Murdoch shook his head in disbelief. “Don’t you think I would have come back there, or at least written you in all that time if I’d known you were alive?”
She nodded nervously. “I knew. He told me you had agreed that I should stay in Boston until things settled down here, and you had built up the ranch more. When I didn’t get a letter, he said it was because you were so busy. I believed him for a long time. Finally, I knew something was wrong.” She dropped her head. “I confronted my father, but he still insisted that I should stay in Boston until it was safe for me to be here. He said that’s what you would want. I thought about coming back here, but… she suddenly stood up and began pacing.
“But you liked it better back in Boston,” Murdoch finished for her.
Catherine nodded mutely. “I’m sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”
Murdoch didn’t look at her. “Why did you suddenly decide to come back?” he asked softly.
Catherine’s head dropped. “I think you know why,” she whispered.
Murdoch shook his head in frustration. “What am I supposed to do now?”
Catherine’s head came up. “I’m your wife.”
“So is Maria!” Murdoch exploded.
“No, she’s not,” Catherine said calmly. “Since I’m obviously alive, your marriage to her is not valid.”
Murdoch ran his hand through his hair. “And what am I supposed to tell her?”
Catherine shrugged. “That you made a mistake.”
Murdoch stared at her for a moment, then shook his head slowly. “I’ll have to think about this.”
Catherine’s eyes flashed. “There’s nothing to think about. I’M your legal wife.” She grabbed Scott and pulled him forward. “Scott is YOUR son! Are you going to turn your back on him? Because if you chose that Mexican slut over me, you’ll never see Scott again!”
“She is MY WIFE! Don’t you ever call her that again!” Murdoch fumed.
“She is NOT your wife, but if you chose her, Scott and I will leave tomorrow. Is that your choice?”
When he didn’t answer, Catherine’s voice softened. “I know how much having a son means to you. You won’t turn your back on him.”
Murdoch looked at Scott and he knew it was true. No matter how much he loved Maria, no matter what he had to do, he had no intention of losing his son. He dropped his head and closed his eyes. “I’ll talk to Maria tonight,” he said quietly.
Catherine nodded triumphantly. “Good. And make sure she’s gone by tomorrow. I have no intention of sharing my home OR my husband.” She turned and flounced from the room. Murdoch watched her go, and then morosely stared at his now empty glass, wondering what on earth he was going to say to Maria.
Maria had left the following day. Murdoch had given her all of the money he had in the house, but he knew it wasn’t much. He never felt like more of a cad, but he knew he really had no choice. He couldn’t turn his back on his son, and he knew Maria was young enough and beautiful enough that she would have no trouble finding another husband, even though that thought made his heart clench painfully. Maria left in stiff lipped silence and never looked back as the buggy passed under the arch. When she had finally passed from sight, Murdoch turned and looked at Catherine, and was disturbed to see a look of triumph on her face. He had the uneasy feeling he had made a terrible mistake.
Two months later, Catherine had once again returned to Boston, telling Murdoch she refused to raise her son in such hostile and dangerous surroundings, and had told him that she wanted Scott to have a formal education and learn proper behavior. She had assured Murdoch that she would eventually return, but it was another twenty years before she finally reappeared. In the years between, Murdoch had realized his mistake and looked frantically for Maria, but she had long since disappeared. He just prayed she was happy.
Murdoch’s reminiscings were interrupted by Teresa calling him to supper. He smiled at his ward, and she smiled back slowly. This past year had been extremely hard on her. First her father had been killed by land pirates, and then her world had been turned upside down once more with Catherine’s arrival. Teresa had tried to be friendly to his wife, but Catherine’s condescending and overbearing attitude toward the young girl had effectively stopped Teresa’s efforts.
Murdoch picked up his empty glass and detoured over to the bar to fill it once more. It seemed that since Catherine had returned this last time, he had been drinking a lot more. He knew that she really didn’t want to be here, but Scott had insisted he wanted to meet his father. For once, Harlan and Catherine hadn’t been able to dissuade Scott from what he wanted to do, and Catherine had come along to make sure her son didn’t decide to stay.
Murdoch had long ago lost any love he had felt for his wife, but he had allowed her to stay because of Scott. Of course, he really didn’t have a choice. He also knew that if Catherine left, his son would leave, too. He just hoped that eventually his son would fall in love with the land as much as he had and decide to stay here permanently. Even if Catherine stayed, it would be worth it just to have his son at his side.
Murdoch walked into the dining room, resigned to another formal dinner. Before Catherine had come home, he had happily eaten in the kitchen with his friends, but now his wife insisted on formal settings for every meal. She had tried to insist on formal attire, but Murdoch had adamantly refused. She and Scott dressed for supper, however, and Murdoch kept hoping and waiting for Scott to follow his lead, but so far that hadn’t happened.
Murdoch sat down at the table and watched as his housekeeper, Maria, served the food in tight lipped silence. He knew immediately that Catherine had once more shown her contempt for the woman. He looked at the faithful lady serving the meal and tried to silently apologize, but she was in no mood to be placated. The quietly muttered curses that soon slipped from her lips were said in a sing- song voice, so to someone not knowing the language, it would seem that she was happy. Murdoch nearly choked as he heard the words that were floating around the dining room, and prayed that Catherine hadn’t picked up any Spanish.
“Maria! Stop that nonsense. I’ve told you before I don’t want to hear that jabbering in my home,” Catherine said imperiously.
“Catherine, it’s her native language. Everyone around here speaks Spanish,” Murdoch argued.
“Well I don’t! And I don’t like it when I can’t understand what someone is saying.”
“I’ve told you numerous times that there are many people here willing to teach you the language,” Murdoch said.
“The language used here is English. I refuse to learn their gibberish. They need to learn to speak like civilized people.”
Murdoch darted a look at the housekeeper, whose eyes were shooting daggers at Catherine. “Maria, thank you, everything’s fine,” Murdoch said, hoping to stop the impending bloodshed.
Maria looked at him for a second, then slammed down the plate she was holding and stalked from the room.
Catherine watched as she left, then shook her head in disgust. “I don’t know WHY you put up with such behavior from your servants. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”
Murdoch slammed his fist down on the table. “I’ve TOLD you, they’re not servants, they’re friends.”
“They work for you, so they’re servants. Besides, they’re Mexican.” She studiously speared a morsel of food with her fork. “Of course, you always did have a soft spot for Mexicans, didn’t you?” she asked innocently.
Murdoch shot a look at Scott, but his son seemed to be ignoring their exchange. After all, their arguing was nothing new. Murdoch decided to change the subject.
“We were finally awarded the army contract we were hoping for,” Murdoch stated.
Catherine rolled her eyes at the boring subject, but Scott looked at his father with interest. “What are the terms?”
“What we agreed on. We have to supply fifty horses a month for the next year. Ten of those fifty have to be officer’s mounts, and all of them have to be green broke.”
Scott looked at his father quizzically. “Does Lancer have that many horses?”
“Yes, but we’ll have to catch some of those wild herds to fill the contract. “
“Are those horses good enough quality?”
Murdoch shrugged. “Some are. We’ll have enough.”
Scott nodded, and Murdoch stopped and looked at him appraisingly. “Maybe you’d like to be in charge of it.”
Scott stopped and looked at his father in surprise. “In charge if what?”
“The whole thing. Catching, breaking and delivering.”
“NO!” Catherine shouted.
“Why not?” Murdoch ground out.
“I am not going to let him kill himself breaking a bunch of killer horses.”
“I can do it!” Scott protested.
Murdoch slammed down his fork. “He HAS to learn how to do things if he’s going to be a rancher.”
“Who says he is going to be a rancher?” Catherine asked petulantly.
“I do. He is my only heir. When I’m gone, he’ll have to run this ranch, and to do that, he has to know how things are done,” Murdoch argued.
“Scott certainly isn’t going to stay in this god forsaken country the rest of his life. He has a career waiting for him back in Boston. He is going to run Garret enterprises!”
“He is GOING to run Lancer!” Murdoch stormed.
“Stop it!” Scott finally shouted. “Quit talking about me like I’m not here! What I plan on doing with my life is MY decision, no one else’s.” He turned toward Catherine as she started to open her mouth. “Not even you, Mother. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to turn in. I have a lot of work to do tomorrow.” He stood up and threw his napkin down on the table before stalking out of the room.
Scott stormed up the stairs, angry with both of his parents for always putting him in the middle of their endless arguments. There were times he felt that neither one really cared about him, only the points they could score off of each other. He wondered if they had ever liked each other, or if it had always been like this between them. One thing was for sure, he was tired of always having to choose between them, and he was seriously considering leaving and striking out on his own.
He slammed the door to his bedroom behind him, and stalked over to the window, where he sat heavily in the chair he had placed there. He found that no matter how angry or upset he was, simply looking out the window at the peaceful scene below calmed and soothed him. The chair had been placed there by him the first night he had been here, and had remained there ever since.
Unfortunately, he had spent many sleepless nights sitting here, watching the quiet ranch in the moonlight. He undid a few buttons of his shirt and removed his tie, then threw it on the nearby dresser. He undid his cufflinks and tossed them next to the tie, then he placed his arms on the sill, breathing in the cloying perfume from the nearby jasmine. The blooms did an admirable job of masking the smell of cattle that pervaded the entire ranch, and he suspected that may have been why so many were planted around the windows. He smiled slightly as he remembered the first night he was here. He had made a comment about the smell, and Murdoch had looked at him blankly for a moment before replying. Scott had realized that his father no longer even smelled it, and that thought had made him smile. Murdoch had finally told Scott that he would get used to it, but Scott still was aware of it, at least most of the time.
He watched as the horses in the corral settled for the night, and looked up at the hill where he could see vague cattle shaped lumps dotting the landscape. He took a deep breath and he felt some of the stress from the evening leave him. He hoped neither Murdoch nor his mother would come up and try to talk to him. He just wasn’t in the mood to listen to either of them, or their arguments as to why they were right.
He knew he needed to figure out what he was going to do soon, but he wanted to put the decision off. He knew that no matter what he decided, his parents would take it personally. If he decided to return to Boston, Murdoch would rant and rave, but if he decided to stay here, his mother just might have a heart attack. Either way, it would be very unpleasant and he would be in for a fight.
He thought again that leaving and striking out on his own just might be the easiest choice, but then he’d have two angry parents instead of one, and he knew that it would be a foolish move. Only an idiot would walk away from either of the chances he was being offered, and he had never considered himself to be an idiot. No, he’d have to make a choice; either return to Boston and eventually run Garrett enterprises, or stay here in California and someday take over Lancer Ranch. He was leaning toward Boston, simply because he was more comfortable there. He knew the rules in Boston, and he was accepted. Here he was an outsider, a novice.
Scott shook his head slightly. If he was honest with himself, he knew that his mind was really already made up, but something about this place still drew him. He had also been pleasantly surprised by his father. His grandfather had been less than flattering in his description of Murdoch Lancer, while his mother hadn’t said much of anything about her husband.
Since spending some time with the man, however, Scott had realized that Murdoch wasn’t the man his grandfather had portrayed him to be. He was fair but tough, and a shrewd businessman. A man to be admired and respected. Scott still wasn’t sure about how he felt about him as a father, however. He really hadn’t spent that much time with him, and now he probably wouldn’t get the chance.
A quiet knock interrupted his musing, and he felt a flash of irritation at the expected interruption.
“Come in,” he said, waiting to see which one it would be.
He wasn’t surprised when his mother swept into the room. She walked over to the small table and picked up a book, studied it for a moment, then put it down nervously. She picked up a small paperweight, and looked at it intently. Scott knew she was working up enough courage to say something, and that whatever it was, she was expecting an argument.
Finally, she turned in his direction. “We’ve been here long enough. I think that we should leave here soon,” she said without looking at him, her shoulders stiff with apprehension.
Scott started to protest, then sighed. There was really to reason no put it off. “I suppose you’re right.”
She relaxed noticeably at his response, then looked up and smiled at him. “It’s been a nice vacation, and it was good that you met your father, but it’s time to go home. I’m sure Father misses us. We’ve been gone so long; it’s probably been very hard on him. He’s not getting any younger, you know.”
Scott nodded slowly. “I know. I’ve been worried about him, too. When do you want to leave? I’d like to stay a little longer, if it’s all right. I would really like to help with those horses, at least for a little while.”
Catherine nodded. “We can stay a week or two,” she agreed.
Scott knew that she was being generous because he had agreed to leave so quickly and hadn’t put up an argument about leaving. He still felt a twinge of unease about the decision he’d made. He still wasn’t totally sure, but he figured he was making the sensible choice. He just hoped it was the right one.
Johnny rode into the small town of Green River, keeping the sheriff’s office in his line of vision as he reined his horse toward the local cantina. He took one final look around as he swung down and grabbed his rifle out of its scabbard, then walked slowly into the saloon. He walked over to the bar and leaned against the rail, turning his body so he could see the door. He knew he probably shouldn’t be here, but he needed a drink before he faced his father.
“What’ll ya have?” The bartender looked at the gunfighter expectantly.
A moment later, a bottle of tequila appeared, along with a small dish of salt and a few wedges of lime. Johnny nodded his appreciation and tossed a few coins onto the bar. “I’m lookin’ for the Lancer ranch.”
The bartender studied him cautiously, taking in the low slung gun, then shrugged as a few more coins hit the bar. “It ain’t no secret. It’s just north of here. Follow the main road and ya can’t miss it.”
Johnny nodded. “Much obliged.”
The man nodded slowly, second guessing his decision to give this drifter the information he had asked for. “Just what do ya want with Lancer?”
Johnny studied the bartender for a moment, until the man dropped his eyes nervously. “I heard they was hirin’,” Johnny finally said, and almost laughed at the relief in the man’s eyes.
The bartender nodded. “They can always use some good help,” he said eagerly.
“Even Mexicans?” Johnny asked.
The man looked at him in confusion. “Most of the workers around here are Mexican,” he explained.
“Lancer doesn’t have problems with that?”
The bartender hesitated, knowing that since Mrs. Lancer had come home, the workers hadn’t been real happy.
Johnny saw the man’s uncertainty and smiled grimly. “Thanks for the information. You’ve told me all I need ta know.”
The bartender spoke up, worried he had given this gunfighter the wrong impression of Murdoch Lancer. “He’s a good man.”
Johnny looked at him for a moment and then shrugged. “Is that so?”
“Yep. I’ve known him for quite a while. He’s real popular around here.”
“Yeah, I bet he is, especially with the Mexicans,” Johnny said flatly. He threw back another drink and slammed the glass down on the bar before turning to leave.
“Mister Lancer is real popular, Mister. Now his fancy wife, that’s a different story.”
Johnny turned back toward the man. “What about his wife?”
The man shrugged, wondering if maybe he shouldn’t have said anything. Murdoch would be furious if he found out. “She’s just different, that’s all. Not real friendly with the locals, if ya get my drift. She and that stiff necked son of hers got real fancy manners. Sort of think they’re above everybody, ya know?”
“Yeah, I’m sure I do,” Johnny said coldly. “Thanks.” Johnny turned and walked out of the bar, trying to rein in his anger. His ‘brother’ had been raised in comfort and wealth while he had been tossed out like garbage. Johnny smiled grimly. The time had come to even things up, once and for all.
Johnny stepped onto his horse and headed out of town, heading north. He wondered if he was doing the right thing. After his mother’s death he had sworn he would make Murdoch Lancer pay. He had first picked up a gun to avenge his mother’s death, but he hadn’t put it down afterwards. He had practiced and practiced with it, and with every shot he fired he had imagined Murdoch Lancer at the receiving end.
Over the years, every man he had killed had been his father. He could have put his demons to rest a long time ago by coming here and facing the man, but instead he had welcomed the anger he had lived with for so long. For some reason he hadn’t wanted to give up the rage that drove him, but instead he had fed it and nurtured it until it had all but consumed him. But now it was time, and Murdoch Lancer would pay.
A small frown crossed his face. He also wanted Lancer’s wife and son to pay, but he knew he still hadn’t sunk so low that he would harm a woman, at least physically. As for the son… He shook his head. He would wait and see. As he rode, his mind went over the upcoming confrontation. He had dreamed of this day for a long time, and savored this meeting as a man savored a good drink. He knew he would probably be hanged for the deed, but it would be worth it to watch his father die.
But what about Lancer’s wife and son? Would watching Lancer die be punishment enough for them? For some reason, he doubted it. His mother hadn’t talked much about either his father or his father’s wife, but what little she had said made it clear that Mrs. Lancer wasn’t the type to be overly sensitive. He had the feeling that she might not be too grief stricken if the Old Man was out of the picture, as long as she got the ranch and the money. Lancer’s son just might be rubbing his hands at the thought, too. In fact, he might be doing them a favor, especially if he was obliging enough to get himself hanged for his efforts.
His eyes narrowed. There had to be a way to make all of them suffer, but how? Johnny had learned through the years that there were many ways to hurt a man, but a man like Lancer could only be hurt two ways. The first was physically, but Johnny had the feeling that a man as wealthy and influential as his father just might be hurt more a different way. Maybe hitting him in his pocketbook would be more painful, and he knew it would be much more painful for the rest of the rancher’s family. In fact, by the time he was done with them THEY might be the ones hanging for HIS murder. He smiled with dark humor as he realized that one way or the other, he’d get his revenge.
Johnny sat on the hill looking down at the bustling ranch, and he felt his temper start to flare once more. This was paradise, and he would have given anything to have been raised in such surroundings. Would have given anything to be a rancher instead of a gunfighter. Would have given anything not to have had to fight for every bite of food when he was growing up. Would have given anything to have a normal life. He didn’t even know his brother, but he already hated him for having what he had been denied his whole life. The gunfighter stood staring down at the scene for quite a while, struggling to get his emotions under control, then nudged his horse down the hill.
He rode into the yard, alert to everything around him. it wouldn’t pay to become careless now. He stopped his horse by the house and casually swung down. He threw the reins over the hitching rail, but left them loose in case he had to make a quick getaway. He took several deep breaths, then headed for the house. He could feel the sweat trickling down his back, and he was angry that he was letting this meeting throw him so much. He wasn’t going to be here long enough to make this anymore than a quick job, and that was all it was, another job.
He knocked loudly on the door, and he braced himself to see his father’s face for the first time. Instead, a young girl threw the door open and looked at him expectantly. “May I help you?”
He froze for a moment, wondering if this girl was his sister, then he decided it didn’t make a difference. This was business. “I’m here ta see Murdoch Lancer.”
The girl studied for him for several seconds, and her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What is this concerning?”
Johnny gave the girl a disarming smile. “It’s personal.” He looked at the girl and cocked his head. “You his daughter?”
She blushed slightly and shook her head. “No, I’m his ward. My father was killed and Murdoch took me in.”
Another flash of anger that his father was willing to take in this girl who wasn’t even his while his own son was scrounging on the streets, but he managed to keep his face from betraying his rage. “May I come in?”
The girl hesitated another second, then the door opened wider, and she motioned for him to enter. He stepped into the house and took a quick look around. The opulence was no surprise, and his eyes took in the massive furniture and grand decorations that proclaimed the owner’s wealth.
The girl led the way into a huge room with a large window that took up a whole wall. Another wall was taken up by books, and comfortable furniture filled up the rest of the room. Johnny focused on a massive desk in front of the window, where a man was sitting. The man glanced up as his ward approached, but his gaze immediately went to Johnny. His smile gradually faded as his eyes took in the gunfighter’s low slung holster. He took hold of Teresa’s hand as she walked up, but his eyes never left the stranger.
“And who is this, Teresa?”
Teresa’s smile faltered slightly. “This is Mister…” She looked at Johnny questioningly.
“Madrid, Johnny Madrid.”
Teresa’s eyes widened as Murdoch pulled his hand away from hers. “Teresa, why don’t you go see about lunch.”
She looked at her guardian in alarm, but he nodded reassuringly at her. “Go on. Everything’s fine.” She nodded uncertainly, then headed for the kitchen, pausing several times to look back at the two men.
As soon as she disappeared, Murdoch stood up, glaring at the gunfighter. “What do you want?”
Johnny smiled coldly. “What do I want? Maybe I want you to get down on your knees and beg for your lousy life.”
“Who hired you?” Murdoch demanded.
Johnny shrugged. “Nobody.” His smile grew wider. “This is strictly pleasure.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll ask you again. What do you want?”
“I already told ya. I want ta see you crawl.”
Murdoch’s eyes darted to the nearby rack, where his holster was hanging, and Johnny’s eyes hardened. “Go ahead, old man. Try it.”
Murdoch drew himself up. “I at least deserve to know why you’re doing this.”
“You don’t deserve nothin’,” Johnny spat.
Murdoch kept his eyes locked on the gunfighter, and Johnny glared back. The younger man finally shook his head. “You really have no idea, do ya?”
“Do you know how many beatings these blue eyes cost me when I was a kid?” Johnny asked softly.
Murdoch shook his head in confusion at the seeming change of topic. “I don’t understand.”
Johnny eyes flashed at his father, then he turned and motioned toward the massive room. “You gave your important son all of this.” He looked back at his father, his eyes pleading. “All you gave me were these damn eyes.”
Murdoch slowly shook his head as he realized what the gunfighter was implying. “You’re mistaken, son.”
“DON’T CALL ME THAT!”
“Someone lied to you. I only have one son.”
Johnny snorted. “Only one ya want ta talk about, anyway.”
Murdoch shook his head emphatically. “No. I only have one son.”
“And one wife?” Johnny asked belligerently.
“Of course,” Murdoch replied in confusion.
Johnny’s eyes hardened. “Yeah, I guess getting’ married in the church doesn’t mean nothin’ to you. After all, it wasn’t legal, was it? And it got ya what ya wanted.”
Murdoch shook his head once more, then stopped and stared at the young man in disbelief. “Who is you mother?” he asked softly.
“WAS old man, WAS! She died in a mud shack. She was beaten ta death by one of her customers while she was doin’ the only thing she could ta make money for us ta eat.”
Murdoch’s eyes closed and he swallowed hard. “What was her name?”
Johnny’s head came up. “Maria Espinoza,” he said challengingly.
Murdoch’s eyes came open and he stared at the young man in front of him for several seconds, taking in the gunfighter’s features. Finally, he grabbed the edge of his desk as his legs threatened to buckle underneath him. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t know.”
Johnny took his gun from its holster and aimed it at his father. “Well, now you do.”
Johnny held his gun steady, aiming unerringly at his father’s head. The rancher didn’t even seem to notice the gun, but stared at the young man’s face intently. “Are you really her son?”
“If I wasn’t, how would I know about you?” Johnny shot back.
Murdoch’s head shook back and forth slowly. “How old are you?” he asked shakily.
“You do the math, old man.”
“I NEED TO KNOW!” Murdoch took a step forward, and the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked echoed in the room.
“You think I’m bluffing?” Johnny asked in disbelief.
Murdoch’s gaze didn’t waver. “No, but please, I have to know the truth.”
“Like you told her, right?”
Murdoch’s eyes closed. “I was telling her the truth. I never lied to her.”
Johnny snorted. “So ya told her you was already married? Or maybe ya just forgot that little fact when ya dragged her into that church.”
“No, I… I thought my first wife was dead. That’s what I had been told.”
Johnny looked at the rancher in disbelief. “And you never bothered ta find out?” He shook his head. “You’re a cold hearted son of a bitch, I’ll give you that.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Murdoch ground out. “You don’t understand.”
Johnny took a step closer. “No? Then why don’t you tell me how it was, Old Man, ‘cause I sure as hell DON’T understand!”
The rancher met the gunfighter’s stare. “I sent my first wife back east to have her baby because it wasn’t safe here at the time. Her father told me that both she and the baby had died, and I believed him. Several years later, I met Maria. I swear I didn’t know Catherine was still alive when I married your mother.”
Johnny smiled unpleasantly. “You’d say anything ta save your neck.”
Murdoch stood up straighter and stared into Johnny’s eyes. “I’m telling you the truth.”
Johnny shrugged. “You still kicked her out when you was tired of her.”
“That’s NOT what happened!”
Johnny merely looked at the rancher until Murdoch shook his head and tried to explain. “I couldn’t have two wives. After I was married to your mother, Catherine showed up at the ranch with her…our son. That was the first I knew about her being alive.” He dropped his head. “I couldn’t abandon the boy.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, I guess not. I mean I KNOW you’d never turn your back on a kid.”
“I didn’t know about you! I never would have asked your mother to leave if I’d known she was carrying a child.”
“Somehow, I doubt that. I mean, you said it yourself; you couldn’t have two wives, now could you?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know what I would have done,” he said resignedly.
“Well, I do,” Johnny said coldly. “And I know what I’m gonna do about it. I’ve waited my whole life ta kill you.” He moved the gun closer to Murdoch’s head.
Murdoch met his gaze calmly. “Well, I guess I’ll find out for sure, won’t I?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
A slight smile appeared on Murdoch’s face. “I mean that if you really are my son, you won’t shoot me.”
Johnny looked at the man in amazement. “Why? ‘Cause you’re my father? You ain’t nothin ta me, old man.”
“No, you won’t shoot because no son of mine could be a cold blooded murderer.”
Johnny snorted. “You’re crazy. You don’t even know me.”
Murdoch shook his head. “No, I don’t.” He studied the young gunfighter intently. “But if you are my son, I’d like to. I asked you a question. How old are you?”
Johnny was tempted not to answer the man, but he wanted Lancer to know for sure just who was it was that was sending him to hell. “I’m twenty one.”
“When is your birthday?”
A slow smile formed on Johnny’s face. “December 23rd.” He watched as Murdoch’s eyes closed and Johnny’s smile faded. “Want to know anything else? Like maybe how she had to turn into a whore to put food on the table? Or maybe how the other women would spit on her ‘cause she was the mother of a mestizo brat? Or maybe how many times I was beat up as a kid?”
Murdoch raised tortured eyes to his son. “I didn’t know…I’m sorry.”
“Sure ya are. I’m sure ya lost all sorts of sleep over us.”
“I TOLD you that I didn’t KNOW about YOU!”
“What about HER?” Johnny waved his gun out toward the room. “Did ya even think about her one time when you were sittin’ in this castle of yours?”
“I thought about her all the time! I LOVED her!” Murdoch shook his head emphatically. “I thought she’d remarry. I thought she would find someone else.”
“She could have, except for one little problem.” Johnny spat. “Me. No one wanted a half breed brat, and they made sure I knew it.” Johnny dropped his head. “She should have left me. Maybe then she could have been happy. Maybe then she’d still be alive.” His head came up and he pinned Murdoch with his gaze. “But she didn’t, and she’s dead, just like you’re gonna be. Maybe there’s justice in this world after all.”
Murdoch’s eyes didn’t waver. “I never stopped loving her.”
“Is that why ya threw her out like a bag of garbage after ya used her?”
“I…” Murdoch’s head dropped. “I didn’t want her to leave,” he whispered. “I loved her.”
“Loved who?” Catherine walked into the room and looked back and forth between her husband and the young gunfighter.
Johnny smiled coldly at the woman. “My mother.”
Catherine’s eyes widened and she whirled toward her husband. “Who is this man?”
The gunfighter watched as the woman turned on her husband, and the expression on Murdoch’s face made Johnny smile. He slipped his gun back into its holster and watched the two with interest. This might be even better than shooting the old man. He’d watch Lancer squirm for a while before he killed him.
Murdoch glanced at his wife, then stared at Johnny. “He’s Maria’s boy.” He took a deep breath as he looked into the gunfighter’s blue eyes. “He’s my son,” he said in wonderment.
Johnny looked at the rancher in surprise. He had expected Lancer to deny him just like he had denied his mother, but for some reason the rancher had accepted Johnny’s claim. He stared at the older man for several seconds, but saw only calm assurance in his eyes. The rancher’s admission shook his own decision to harm the man, and he turned and looked at the man’s wife. She was staring at him with an openly hostile look, and Johnny felt his resolve come back. This was the lady who had taken his mother’s rightful place. This was the lady who had lived in luxury while his mother was prostituting herself to survive. He grinned at her and tipped his hat mockingly.
“Ma’am,” his grin become wider. “Or should I call you ‘mother’?”
The slap Catherine gave Johnny reverberated across the room. “How DARE you!” she stormed.
Johnny’s eyes turned cold. “Don’t you ever touch me again,” he snarled.
“I wouldn’t dirty my hands,” Catherine spat back. “Now get your filthy carcass out of MY house!”
Murdoch stepped between the two of them. “Stop it!” He turned toward his wife. “This is my son, and he’s welcome here.”
Johnny looked at Murdoch, surprised at the man’s reaction, although his face betrayed nothing.
Catherine whirled toward her husband, her hands on her hip. “he is NOT welcome here! I will not have that…” she hesitated, then her jaw set “…filthy half breed bastard in MY house!”
Murdoch’s hand shot out before he could stop it, and he slapped his wife across the face.
Catherine’s eyes widened and she looked at Murdoch in disbelief as her hand went to the red mark on her cheek. Her mouth opened and closed several times before she turned and fled up the stairs. Murdoch looked stunned at his own behavior, and watched her until she disappeared, then turned back toward his son, obviously shaken by what he had done.
Despite Johnny’s resolve to remain impassive, the scene that had just played out in front of him left him shocked. He couldn’t believe that Murdoch had stuck up for him. No one had ever done that before, but with an effort, he shook off his feeling of gratitude. He wasn’t going to fall for it; it wasn’t part of his plan. Instead, he smirked at his father.
“Big man with your fists, huh?”
Murdoch glared at his son. “NO!”
Johnny shrugged. “Looked like it to me. Maybe it’s a good thing my Mama left.”
“I have NEVER hit a woman before,” Murdoch ground out.
Johnny shrugged noncommittally. “No, you just throw them out ta starve.”
Murdoch shut his eyes. “I told you, I didn’t know. I thought she’d be ok. I thought she’d find someone else. I thought…” he sighed deeply. “I’m sorry.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah. That’s what you said before.” He drew his gun once more and leveled it at his father. He felt more in control of his emotions now, and he had no intention of shooting Lancer. He was going back to his original plan of just making the old man’s life miserable, but he fully intended to make him sweat for a while. The problem was, the old man refused to be intimidated, and continued to watch Johnny calmly.
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t blow you away right now,” Johnny growled.
“Because it would ruin your life.”
Johnny snorted. “Not ta mention it would sort of mess yours up, too. Besides, you already ruined my life when you kicked me and my mama out.”
“I didn’t kick YOU out! How many times do I have to tell you? I didn’t even know she was with child when she left.”
“I never would have let her leave if I’d known that.”
“Oh?” Johnny asked sarcastically. “What would you have done? Kept two wives? Or maybe you woulda kept my Mama around ta do all the cleanin’. I mean that’s all that Mexicans are good for, right?”
Murdoch glared at Johnny. “I don’t know what I would have done, but you get one thing straight. I loved your mother. I never meant to hurt her, and it didn’t matter what nationality she was.”
“Yeah, well it SHOULD have mattered! Ya should have thought about the consequences,” Johnny spat.
“What consequences?” Murdoch asked, puzzled.
"ME! Or did ya just figure you’d just drown any kids before they could grow up ta embarrass ya?”
Murdoch’s face turned red at the suggestion. “Any children, including you, would have been loved and cherished.”
Johnny snorted. “Like ya cherished my mother?”
Murdoch’s eyes closed. “I told you, I loved her. I didn’t want her to leave, I just didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t have two wives, and I had Scott to consider.”
Murdoch’s eyes locked on Johnny. “Your brother.”
“Oh, yeah, the important one. Guess you’re right, ya couldn’t take a chance on losin’ him.” Johnny took a step closer and cocked the pistol. “The whole time I was growin’ up, I looked forward to this day. Every time I’d get beat up, every time I went ta bed hungry, every time I was cold, I thought about you. You made my life hell, and now you’re gonna pay.”
Murdoch nodded. “I guess it was my fault.” He stared at the gunfighter. “I know you don’t believe me, but I’m sorry. I wish I could change things. I wish I could go back in time and that you could have grown up here. But at least you’re alive, and if you shoot me now, you’ll hang.”
“So what? It’s not like I have that much ta live for anyway and at least I’d get revenge.”
“Don’t call me that!”
“Johnny, please, let’s talk.”
“About WHAT?” Johnny spat.
Murdoch shook his head hopelessly. “There must be something I can do.” .
A slow smile spread over Johnny’s face. “Yeah, you can die.”
Murdoch just stared at the gunfighter, a look of resignation on his face. “Go on, get it over with.” He shook his head. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I do deserve it.
Murdoch shook his head sadly. “Go on and shoot. I guess I was wrong about you. I’m just sorry you’ll have to die, too.”
Johnny smiled at the older man. “I have no intention of dying yet.”
“They’ll catch you if you shoot me. Teresa…” Murdoch instantly realized his mistake and tried to cover it up. “Several of the hands saw you come in. They’ll identify you.”
Johnny smiled. “The only one that saw me come in was your wife. And of course, that pretty little girl.”
He watched the panic surface on the ranchers face, to be replaced a moment later by rage. “Don’t you dare hurt her!”
Johnny let the man sweat for another moment, then smiled. “I thought you were so sure that no son of yours could be a murderer.” Johnny shook his head. “Don’t worry, old man, I haven’t sunk as low as you. I don’t hurt women.”
Johnny watched the man for another moment, then slipped his gun back into its holster. “All right, old man, you want ta talk, let’s talk.” Johnny looked around the room. “You want ta live? I’ll tell ya what I want. I figure half of this ranch would do nicely, at least for now,” Johnny said belligerently.
Murdoch shook his head. “I can’t do that.”
Johnny looked at him in disbelief and he moved his hand closer to his gun. “What?”
Murdoch met his gaze unflinchingly. “I have my other son to consider.”
“Well, if he wants his old man alive he’ll just have ta learn ta live with disappointment, won’t he?”
“I have no intention of cutting him out.”
Johnny snorted. “No, I suppose not. He’s obviously not a half breed bastard.”
“That has NOTHING to do with it, and I won’t tolerate that kind of language in my house!”
Johnny looked at the man in surprise. “What? Half breed, or bastard? Old man, I hear those words every day of my life.”
Murdoch’s head dropped and he closed his eyes. “I wish things had been different.” He brought his head up once more and looked at his son. “I can’t offer you half. Since I am legally married, one half of my estate belongs to my wife. But since her half would go to our son, then I can offer you half of my holdings now – one fourth interest, and my promise that if you stay you would inherit the whole half when I die.”
“Half of what?”
“Everything you see. One hundred thousand acres, fifty thousand head of beef, and the finest palominos in the state.”
“A partner,” Johnny said in surprise.
Murdoch nodded. “Yes.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “You know who I am? What I am?”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “I know.”
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“Of COURSE it bothers me! It bothers me that MY son is a gunfighter instead of a rancher! It bothers me that you didn’t grow up here, where you belong. It BOTHERS me that you hate me!”
Johnny looked at the rancher in disbelief. He had expected an argument or even a flat out refusal. Part of the fun was forcing the old man to do something he didn’t want to do. He couldn’t understand why the old man had accepted him as his son without proof. He smiled slightly. At least the rest of the family wouldn’t be in agreement, and maybe with any luck he could have them at each other’s throats before he was through with them.
Murdoch nodded. “That’s right. But it’s no free ride. You’ll be expected to work just like everybody else on this ranch.”
Johnny smiled. “Who do ya want killed?”
Murdoch slammed his fist down on the nearby table. “No one! If you stay here, you’ll be a rancher, not a hired gun.”
“Until ya need one,” Johnny snorted.
“I will NEVER need you as a gunfighter!” Murdoch snapped. “You’ll work here just like your brother and I work. And I call the tune.”
Johnny’s eyebrows went up. “You want me ta take orders from you?”
Murdoch stared at the angry young man. “There’s no ‘want’ about it. That’s the way it will be if you intend to stay.”
“I could still shoot ya and take it all,” Johnny reminded him.
Murdoch nodded slowly. “You could, but for some reason, I don’t think that’s what you want, is it?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he wondered how the old man could read him so well. “If you go back on your word….” Johnny left the sentence hanging.
“I won’t,” Murdoch snapped. “Will you?”
“Depends,” Johnny smirked. He continued staring at the older man, but this time it was Johnny who dropped his eyes first.
“All right, old man, it’s a deal.”
Murdoch frowned slightly. “I would appreciate it if you would call me something besides ‘old man’.”
“Well I sure as hell ain’t callin’ you “Pa.”
“My name is Murdoch, and if you’re going to stay here, I’m letting you know right now that I don’t tolerate cursing in or around this house or around the women.”
Johnny smiled “Yeah, well I have the feeling that at least one of those women will be doin’ some cussin’ of her own when she finds out about the deal you made.”
“That’s none of your business.”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, since I’m part of this happy family now, I don’t want to cause any problems,” he said sarcastically.
Murdoch met Johnny’s eyes. “Somehow, I doubt that.”
The two men stared at each other for another moment, and then the slamming of a door caused Johnny to spin around and aim his gun at the new threat.
Teresa stopped cold when she saw the gun aimed at her. Johnny glared at her for a moment, then slipped his gun back into its holster. “Don’t ever sneak up on me again.”
“And don’t you ever aim that gun at anyone in this house again!” Murdoch growled.
Johnny turned around and looked at the rancher. He had the feeling they’d be butting heads quite a bit, but this was one fight he was looking forward to, and there was no doubt in his mind that he’d be the one left standing when this fight was over.
Murdoch walked over to the bar and poured himself a drink. He looked down at his hand and saw that it was trembling; no surprise there. He tossed back his scotch and poured another, then shut his eyes for a moment. He had the feeling he had just made a huge mistake. Son or not, he should have told Madrid to leave. Murdoch snorted. He probably would have gotten himself shot if he had. The gunfighter looked like he was capable of shooting him down without a second thought.
Murdoch took his drink and walked back over to the desk and sat down heavily. Madrid was out in the barn bedding down his horse. If Murdoch had any sense, he’d meet the man at the door with a shotgun and tell him to get off of his property and leave him alone. Tell him that he didn’t believe the gunfighter’s story. That was the problem, though. He did believe him. The timing was right, and Madrid was Maria’s mother’s maiden name. Besides, all he had to do was to look at the boy to know the truth. The resemblance to Maria was uncanny, right down to the temper.
He thought back to the things his son had said and he dropped his head. His beloved Maria, living in squalor, trying to bring up a baby on her own, forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive; it made him want to cry. He cursed himself for being responsible for her plight. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how difficult it had been for her. And the boy, of course. He knew for a fact that Johnny hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d described his boyhood. Half breeds…how he hated that word…were ostracized or worse. They were hated by both races, and he had even heard of children being killed simply because they were of mixed parentage. He couldn’t imagine the hell that his son had lived and somehow managed to survive. His thoughts turned to Maria. Obviously, she hadn’t been as lucky, and he wondered how old his son had been when his mother had died. No wonder Johnny had turned to violence. It was probably the only thing he had ever known.
Murdoch buried his head in his hands. He had sure managed to make a mess of his life. Everyone thought that he was so successful; Lancer ranch was one of the most prosperous in the state. He was well respected by the other ranchers, and he had served as president of the Cattleman’s Association.
Professionally and financially he WAS successful. It was only his private life that was in shambles. It would almost be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. He was married to a shrew of a wife who was only interested in spending money and making his life miserable. Their son had been raised as a gentleman, and never had had to do a day’s work in his life before he came here. Scott had yet to show any backbone when it came to standing up to either him or Scott’s mother, and Murdoch was afraid he never would. His hopes that someday Scott would take over running the ranch were beginning to seem more and more far fetched. He had even thought once or twice that it might be better if both Scott and Catherine went back to Boston.
Murdoch took a gulp of his scotch. Now he finds out that his younger boy is a gunfighter. Not only a gunfighter, but possibly the best and most feared gunfighter alive. Two boys, raised in totally different worlds. One with every luxury, the best care, and extensive education, the other with just the opposite. Johnny couldn’t be more different than Scott if it had been planned it that way. He wondered how they would get along, and he shook his head. They wouldn’t. It was as simple as that. He knew exactly what Catherine would have to say about Johnny being at the ranch, and he had the strong suspicion that Scott would be equally angry.
He knew the ranch would probably be turned into a battleground in the upcoming weeks, and he felt tired just thinking about it. He just hoped they would all survive and come out whole, but somehow he doubted it. He thought this might just be the final thing that would tear his family apart irrevocably, but he also knew he had no choice. He couldn’t turn his back on his son without at least trying to get to know him. He would do his best to keep things from turning violent, and he would pray, but he knew the odds were against this turning out anything but badly.
It seemed as though he couldn’t do anything right when it came to his family. The only bright spot in the whole mess was Teresa, and she wasn’t even his, at least technically. Murdoch snorted. Thank goodness for her she wasn’t, or he probably would have ruined her, too. He just hoped she wouldn’t be hurt by his decision. He knew he should be worried about Madrid being around her, but he had seen the truth in Johnny’s eyes when he said he didn’t hurt women. Of course, he could be wrong; when it came to his family, he usually was.
Murdoch frowned. He still wasn’t sure he should have welcomed Johnny into his house. No matter what he had told the young man, he didn’t know anything about him, except what he’d heard, and those whispered comments did nothing to reassure him. There had been several times during their conversation when Murdoch expected the gunfighter to simply blow him away, and to tell the truth, Murdoch wouldn’t have blamed him. But Johnny hadn’t. There had been a second or two when Murdoch had seen a crack in the gunfighter’s cold façade, or at least he thought he had. He sighed again. Maybe he was only fooling himself. Maybe Johnny WAS capable of cold blooded murder. He snorted and tossed back the last of his drink. At least if Johnny murdered him, he’d be out of his misery.
Johnny finished rubbing his horse down, then stood next to him and buried his face in his friend’s mane for a moment. The horse turned and nuzzled his shoulder, and Johnny smiled. Barranca had been his only friend for over three years now. He had taken the young stallion as payment for a job when the horse’s owner hadn’t been able to come up with the cash. At first Johnny had been angry with the deal, but he had soon decided it was the best payment he had ever received.
The owner had admitted he had been unable to break the horse and had used some pretty harsh methods. When Johnny had seen the whip marks on the proud animal’s hide, he had come close to shooting the man, and the rancher had quickly given the gunfighter the horse and counted himself lucky to get away so cheaply. It had taken Johnny quite a while, but gradually the gunfighter had been able to win the horse’s trust, and from there, things had gone smoothly. Now the two of them were inseparable compadres, and Johnny trusted the horse with his life.
Johnny rubbed the horse’s neck and talked softly to the animal. Barranca was used to strange stalls; a gunfighter never stayed in one place for long, but Johnny still tried to reassure his friend that all was well. But was it? Johnny sighed. As long as he could remember, he had dreamed of killing Murdoch Lancer. Maybe that’s what he should have done, instead of toying with him. But Lancer was right about one thing; he wasn’t a cold blooded murderer, although there were times he wished he was. Things would be easier for him if he didn’t have a conscience. He sure as hell would sleep better at night.
His mind drifted back to the conversation he’d had with his father. Father. Johnny snorted. That giant of a man had nothing in common with him. He could see no resemblance at all, except they both had blue eyes. But his father’s were lighter, not the deep blue that he hated when he looked in the mirror. No, they were nothing alike at all, and that was good. He didn’t want any common ground. He didn’t want to find anything that would stay him from his original plan.
Johnny absent mindedly fingered the horse’s white mane. He had sworn to see this through no matter what. But during the confrontation, his resolve had wavered, however slightly. He had expected Lancer to deny everything. He had expected the man to bluster and rage, and then finally, to beg. But the rancher had done none of those things. He had accepted Johnny’s story without question, then apologized. He had actually stood up for the gunfighter against his own wife, then invited him to stay on as a partner. No, the rancher hadn’t done anything that Johnny had expected him to, and that bothered him. It had been a long time since Johnny had been wrong about his quarry.
What had surprised him the most was that even though Johnny knew the man was frightened, Lancer hadn’t begged or broken down and pleaded for his life as Johnny had hoped he would. He had faced the gunfighter as though somehow he knew that Johnny wouldn’t kill him. Johnny had been looking forward to forcing Lancer to give him what he wanted, but instead the rancher had willingly given what the gunfighter had wanted to take. Johnny felt as though he had been cheated somehow, and his resolve to make Lancer’s life miserable intensified. He smiled grimly as he remembered the reaction of Lancer’s wife when she found out who he was. He knew that his being here would make her miserable enough, but he wasn’t about let her off that easy. As for his dear brother, he’d make him pay, too. He’d make sure all of them would.
Johnny threw the brush down and after giving his horse a final pat, he opened the stall door. Suddenly, he spun around, his gun drawn. He stared at the blond standing just inside the barn door, then slowly holstered his gun, a slight smile on his face.
“Shouldn’t sneak up on a man like that,” Johnny observed as he turned back toward his horse.
Scott watched the dark haired man for a moment, then his eyes were drawn to the horse. He walked over and patted the palomino on the neck. “He’s a fine animal.”
“Yes, he is. Now get your hands off of him.”
“You heard me. Leave him alone or you’re gonna end up with a fat lip.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I’m Murdoch Lancer’s son, Scott. My father and I own this ranch.”
Johnny smiled. “Is that so?”
“Yes it is. And you are?”
“Madrid, Johnny Madrid.”
“Well, Mr. Madrid, no hired hand is going to tell me I can’t touch my own horse.”
Johnny’s smile faded and his eyes bored into Scott’s. “I ain’t no hired hand and Barranca sure as hell ain’t your horse.”
“I’m sorry. I just assumed...”
“Why? “Cause I’m a Mex?”
Scott’s face colored slightly. “No.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, sure. You don’t know who I am, do you?”
Johnny shrugged. “It might be healthier for you if you did. Of course, it don’t surprise me that ya don’t. A rancher that doesn’t know his own stock can’t be too bright.”
“I know more than an uncouth saddle tramp,” Scott spat.
“Well, you’re sure uppity, ain’t ya? Think you’re better than everybody else. I guess you take after that bitch in the house.”
Scott launched himself at the gunfighter and the two men crashed into the stall partition. Both scrambled to get the upper hand, viciously throwing punches and rolling over and over on the barn floor. The men fought savagely until they slammed into the stall partition. It gave way, tossing them into the stall and tearing them apart. The two men glared at each other for several seconds, then both made their move, and a gunshot rang out.
Johnny spun toward the sound of the shot, his hand going to his side. He stopped when he saw who had fired the shot, and a sarcastic smile formed on his face as his hand hovered suggestively above his gun. “Change your mind already, old man? Gonna shoot me in the back? Or maybe ya think you can take me.”
Murdoch glared at the insolent gunfighter, his own gun slowly lowering until it was safely back in its holster. “I have no intention shooting you, but I won’t tolerate the two of you fighting, either.”
Johnny smiled as he glanced over at Scott, noting his fancy clothes. “Well, you might just have ta get used to it. I don’t think this dandy and I are gonna see eye ta eye at all.”
Scott drew himself up and glared at the other man. “Likewise.”
Murdoch’s lips thinned as he pressed them together. “I mean it. I want the two of you to at least make an effort to get along. I have no intention of having the two of you at each other’s throats.”
Scott smiled grimly back at his father. “There’s no reason I have to get along with him. I believe I can stay out of our guest’s way for however long he’s here.”
Johnny smirked and looked at Murdoch expectantly. The rancher glared at his younger son for a moment, then turned toward Scott. “I was hoping we could do this under better circumstances, but Scott, this is your brother, Johnny.”
Scott’s mouth dropped open and he looked at the ruffian standing next to him in disbelief. “You have to be kidding.”
Johnny smiled. “Yeah, I can’t believe I’m related to you, either.”
Scott glared at the gunfighter for several seconds before turning back toward his father. “I don’t understand, Sir.”
Murdoch closed his eyes for a moment, then sighed. “When you were born, your grandfather wrote and told me that your mother had died in childbirth, and also told me that you hadn’t survived, either.”
Scott looked at him in shock. “I don’t believe you. Why would he do that?”
Murdoch ran his hand through his hair in frustration. “I don’t know. I don’t think he wanted the two of you to come back to Lancer, but you’ll have to ask him. Anyway, several years later, I met Johnny’s mother down in Matamoras. Because I thought your mother was dead, Maria and I were married in the local Catholic Church. A little over a month later, your mother showed up with you, and Maria left.
“You mean you threw her out,” Johnny spat.
Murdoch nodded slowly. “I didn’t exactly throw her out, but I asked her to leave. I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t have two wives, and I didn’t know…I didn’t know she was with child until you showed up here today.”
Scott’s gaze turned toward Johnny, and his eyes narrowed. “How do you know he’s your son? He could be making it all up, just to get money.”
Johnny grinned and turned back toward Murdoch as the rancher took a deep breath. “I know. He’s my son.”
Scott shook his head. “So he just shows up, and you accept him, just like that?”
Murdoch’s head came up. “I’m accepting him, just like I accepted you here.”
“There was never any doubt about my parentage,” Scott persisted.
“I don’t know,” Johnny smirked. “Your mother don’t seem like the real faithful type. I mean, if she could just run off and abandon her husband, she could sure as heck could fool around on him.”
Scott launched himself once more, and Murdoch grabbed him around the waist, preventing him from reaching Johnny.
The gunfighter stood and watched the two men with a grin on his face, enjoying the wrestling match immensely.
Scott finally gave up trying to get free from his father, and he turned on him viciously. “Are you going to let him talk that way about my mother?”
Murdoch shook his head angrily. “No, I’m not.” He turned toward Johnny. “Just as I have no doubt about your parentage, I certainly don’t have any doubt about Scott’s. And I will not tolerate you slandering my wife.”
Johnny met his father’s gaze. “I have no intention of talkin’ bad about my mother.”
Murdoch’s jaw clenched. “You know exactly what I mean. If you have a problem with me, then you face me. Don’t take it out on the rest of my family.”
Johnny shrugged. “Pretty boy here is the one who started the fight, not me.”
Murdoch’s gaze tiredly moved to his older son. “Well?”
Scott met his father’s stare for several seconds, then he dropped his eyes before turning toward his brother and nodding slowly. “I guess I was out of line. I’m sorry.”
Johnny stared at him for a second, then picked up his hat that had fallen into the straw. He brushed it off, then set it back on and walked cockily out of the barn.
Murdoch and Scott watched him go, and Scott shook his head.
“Are you really sure about him?” Scott asked quietly.
“I’m sure he’s my son, but that’s all I’m sure of.”
Scott shook his head. “He doesn’t seem very eager to get along.”
“No, he doesn’t. I have the feeling he will do everything he can to stir things up.”
“He’s angry with the way I treated his mother, and he has every right to be. I think he wants revenge.”
“I don’t care if you get upset or not. I won’t tolerate him treating my mother with disrespect.”
Murdoch sighed. “No, neither will I. But I won’t tolerate your mother treating HIM with disrespect, either.” He closed his eyes. “I’m afraid she was already pretty hateful toward him, and I overreacted. I owe her an apology for the way I acted.”
Scott nodded slowly as he thought about what his father had said, then he smiled quietly. “I have the feeling things will be pretty stressful around here for a while.”
Murdoch nodded grimly. “I just hope that ‘stressful’ is as bad as it gets.”
Scott walked into the house and immediately headed upstairs to wash up and change for supper. He noticed his mother’s door was closed; a bad sign. Scott hoped things didn’t get too out of control tonight because he was starving, but he didn’t hold out too much hope for a completely peaceful supper. He wasn’t dumb, and he figured having Johnny and his mother in the same room just might be a recipe for disaster. He hurriedly washed and was just buttoning his shirt when there was a knock on the door.
His mother swept into the room and immediately started picking things up and putting them down. Scott slanted a look at her, knowing by her behavior that she was extremely upset. She puttered around, then finally turned to face him, and her eyes widened. “What happened to your face?”
Scott shrugged. “I was in a fight.”
Catherine’s mouth set in a grim line. “With that ruffian that says he’s Murdoch’s son, I suppose. If he hurts you…” She shook her head grimly.
Scott looked at his mother calmly, but ignored her question. He had a more important one of his own. “Why did Grandfather lie about the two of us being dead?”
Catherine looked startled, then waved her hand. “I don’t know. I’m sure he had his reasons, IF he really did it. Actually, I have my doubts.
“Why else would Murdoch remarry?”
“He DIDN’T. I was his wife, not that tramp he brought back to Lancer.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “You were here at the time?”
His mother hesitated. “No, not at first, but I came home shortly after your father brought her here as his mistress. Your father’s infidelity is what made me leave and take you back to Boston. I couldn’t put up with that.”
Scott thought about it a moment and then asked another question. “But how long had you been gone when he brought her here?”
“Scott, I was extremely ill for a long time, and your father is the one who had told me to go back east in the first place. He didn’t want me here, it was just too dangerous. I was just doing what he wanted. I came back her as soon as I could, and the important thing is that I DID come back. Now, I don’t want to discuss those painful memories anymore.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe that your father allowed that half breed into our house. I know the only thing he wants is money, but I won’t let him horn in on your inheritance. This ranch is your rightful birthright.”
“But if he really is Murdoch’s son…” Scott started in a troubled voice.
“NO! There’s no proof of that. Just that ill mannered Mexican’s word that he’s Murdoch’s son. Your father is just too stupid to see through him.” She smiled. “Don’t worry, Scott. We’ll expose him for what he really is and then Murdoch will HAVE to listen to us and send that half breed packing. In the meantime, just ignore him as much as you can. I don’t want him hurting you.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I’m sure you can,” Catherine said smoothly. “But men like that don’t have a gentleman’s sense of fair play, and I don’t trust him.” She looked at her son sternly. “And GENTLEMEN don’t brawl like peasants.”
Scott dropped his eyes for a second, knowing he shouldn’t have fought Johnny, but he couldn’t very well tell her why he had started it. “I’ll do my best,” he assured her.
She nodded. “I know we were planning on leaving shortly, but I don’t want to leave until this matter is taken care of.” She turned and started out of the room before stopping and looking at her son once more. “I would appreciate it if you’d wear a better shirt tonight. I told Maria to prepare a special supper, and I want us to look our best. After all, we don’t want your ‘brother’ to think badly of us, now do we?”
Scott looked at his mother skeptically. He knew she had something up her sleeve, but he wasn’t sure what. For a moment, he thought about defying her, then with a sigh he began unbuttoning his shirt.
Murdoch watched as the gunfighter helped himself to the expensive liquor on the bar. Instead of sipping the imported scotch, Johnny threw it back, draining the glass in one long gulp. He refilled the glass once more, then turned and walked over to the mantel, where he studied the pictures for a moment before turning around and pinning Murdoch with his stare.
“I guess my mama wasn’t important enough ta rate a picture,” he spat.
Murdoch closed his eyes. “I have a picture of her. It was taken right after…after we were married.”
Johnny looked at him skeptically. “Then I guess she just wasn’t important enough ta remember by puttin’ her picture up, I guess.”
“Of course she was. But…” Murdoch’s voice trailed off and he dropped his eyes.
“But Scott’s mother didn’t like it,” Johnny guessed.
Murdoch nodded slowly and Johnny grinned. “Guess ya gotta do what ya can ta stay on the old biddy’s good side, that is if she has one.”
Murdoch’s head shot up. “I won’t have you talking about my wife like that. You show her respect.”
“In my book, people have ta earn respect, and she sure hasn’t done nothin’ ta make me respect her.”
“You’ll respect her because she’s a woman, and because she’s MY WIFE.”
Johnny smirked. “Sorry about your luck.”
Murdoch’s jaw clenched, but a noise on the stairs made him decide to drop it, at least for now. He turned and watched as Catherine glided down the stairs, followed by Scott. Murdoch noted they were dressed more formally than usual, and he knew he was in for a rough evening.
Catherine came over and poured a small glass of wine, then turned toward Murdoch. “I hope you’ll like tonight’s supper. I asked Maria to go all out for supper tonight in honor of our guest.” She turned and smiled at Johnny, who raised his glass at her in a mock salute.
Murdoch walked over to the bar and poured a huge glass of scotch for himself. He had a feeling he’d need it very soon. Johnny and Catherine were still locking stares when Maria came in and announced supper.
“Well,” Murdoch said hopefully. “Let’s eat.”
Johnny slouched toward the table, trying not to stare at the lavish settings. Maria had put out the best china and crystal, along with the silver flatware. Johnny slid into the nearest seat, earning a glare and a sniff from Catherine. Scott hurriedly pulled the seat out for his mother, then sank down in the chair opposite his brother as Murdoch held the chair for Teresa.
Maria walked in from the kitchen, carrying a large covered platter. To Murdoch’s surprise, Johnny immediately jumped up to help her. Maria looked at Catherine in alarm. “I can get it, Senor.”
Johnny gently pried the large serving dish out of her hands and spoke to her softly in Spanish. Reluctantly, she relinquished the dish to the young man, then turned around and disappeared into the kitchen.
Catherine smiled at Johnny as he placed the platter on the table. “It appears you are used to waiting on your betters.”
Johnny smiled back. “No, but I always help my friends. My enemies on the other hand…” he shrugged. “They always get what’s comin’ to ‘em, too.”
Catherine’s smile didn’t falter. “I hope you appreciate the dinner Maria prepared. She made it especially for you.”
“I’m sure it’ll be great.”
Murdoch shifted uncomfortably, wondering what Catherine had planned.
Maria came back in, carrying several more plates, and she placed them around the table, then walked over and lifted the cover off of the large platter. Johnny stared at the food for several seconds, then smiled quietly. “Lobster?” he asked quizzically.
Catherine’s face darkened at the gunfighter’s obvious delight at seeing the dish. “I’m sure Maria could fix some tortillas and beans for you if you don’t like seafood.”
“Actually, I love lobster. I grew up by the ocean, but I haven’t had it for a while. I never expected to eat it here, at a cattle ranch this far from the coast.”
Scott spoke up. “Mother ordered it specially. We used to eat it all the time in Boston.”
Johnny nodded. “It sure beats tortillas and beans,” he smirked, enjoying Catherine’s expression.
“I’m sure it does,” Catherine agreed. “But from now on, if you plan on eating dinner with us, I expect you to dress appropriately.”
Johnny looked down at his clothing, then over at his father and smirked. “You gonna make him starve, to?”
Catherine drew herself up. “I’m not talking about him, I’m talking about YOU!”
“Johnny is dressed just fine,” Murdoch stated. “This is a working ranch, and dressing for meals isn’t a requirement.” He turned toward Johnny. “As long as you’re reasonably clean, that’s all I ask.”
“Well it ISN’T all I ask!” Catherine fumed. “I am making every effort to try to turn this into a halfway civilized place, and you’re undermining me at every turn.”
Murdoch saw the smile on Johnny’s face, and knew his younger son was enjoying the argument immensely. “This isn’t Boston,” Murdoch stated calmly.
Catherine glared at her husband. “You were very explicit that while you in charge of the rest of the ranch, the house was MY territory. Now are you going to go back on your word, AGAIN?”
Murdoch kept her gaze for several seconds, then slowly dropped his head and nodded before looking at Johnny. “Tomorrow, we’ll both dress for supper.”
Johnny shook his head slightly, a look of disgust on his face, then turned and smiled disarmingly at Catherine.
Catherine nodded, sure the young man was planning something, but unable to think of what. She turned toward Scott. “Would you please pass the lobster?”
Catherine helped herself, then passed the dish to her husband. Murdoch grimaced at the offering. He took one small piece, then quickly passed it on. Lobster certainly wasn’t his favorite and his wife knew it. He suspected that she had asked Maria to make the seafood because she was hoping Johnny would balk at eating shellfish. He glanced over as his younger son helped himself to the lobster, then looked over at Catherine and smiled. Her expression left no doubt how she felt at having to share her expensive delicacy with the gunfighter.
After supper, Murdoch hurriedly picked up his wine glass and escaped to the great room. Scott and Johnny followed at a more leisurely pace, while Teresa went in to help Maria with the dishes. Catherine begged off, claiming a headache, and she disappeared upstairs. Murdoch watched her go, and breathed a sigh of relief. Now there was just one to worry about.
Johnny walked over to the couch and plopped down, studying his father and brother. When Murdoch sat down in a chair opposite him, Johnny looked over and smiled. “I thought you said you called the tune, but from what I’ve seen, that sure ain’t the case,” Johnny smirked. “Unless, of course, you LIKE gettin’ dressed for meals.”
Murdoch bristled, then glanced quickly over at Scott. “There’s certainly nothing wrong with dressing for supper.”
“As long as I don’t have ta wear nothin’ like that,” Johnny grinned, pointing at his brother.
“What’s WRONG with the way I dress?” Scott demanded.
“Well, if you’re gonna stay here, this just ain’t the style.”
“Of COURSE I’m going to stay,” Scott glowered.
Johnny shrugged. “I can always hope.”
Scott met his brother’s stare. “So can I,” he ground out.
“That’s enough,” Murdoch bellowed. “I want you boys to make an effort to get along.”
“Tell HIM that!” Scott snapped.
“I’m telling BOTH of you! You’re going to have to find some way to get along.” He turned toward Johnny. “I assume you’ve worked at ranches before.”
Johnny nodded cautiously. “Occasionally.”
“All right. I want you and Scott to go out tomorrow and check the north pasture. Make sure it’s fit to run cattle in. I plan on moving the herd next week.”
“I can do that by myself,” Johnny snapped. “I don’t need no help.”
“You don’t even know where the north pasture is,” Murdoch said impatiently. “Scott can show you.”
“I think I can figure it out. It’s south of here, right?” Johnny asked sarcastically.
Murdoch stared at his younger son. “You’ll go out with your brother tomorrow and help him.” He looked at both boys warningly. “And try to remember, you ARE brothers.”
Johnny looked at Scott’s ruffled shirt and snorted. “Somehow, I doubt that.”
Scott glared back. “So do I.”
Johnny shut the door behind him, taking care to make sure it was locked. They might be family, at least technically, but he sure as hell didn’t trust any of them. He turned in wonder and looked around the room that Murdoch had told him was his. It was larger by far than most of the houses he had lived in when he was growing up. That is, when he was lucky enough to live in a house. Most of the time he slept in a stable, but there were also plenty of times he hadn’t even been able to have that small bit of security. And when he was older…gunfighters didn’t live in houses. They lived in hotels and saloons when they had money, and when they didn’t, they lived on the trail. Johnny was lucky. He hadn’t had to live on the trail for a long, long time.
Johnny studied the room where he would be sleeping for the short time he would be here. The furniture was massive and ornate, and screamed money. Of course, the whole house did. There was nothing small or skimpy about it. Everything was on a grand scale. He walked over to a door halfway along one wall, wondering where it led. He opened the door and peered through, expecting it to lead to another bedroom. Instead, he saw that it was a private bathroom. There was a huge bathtub in the corner of one wall, with shelves of towels and soaps next to it. On the opposite wall, there was an ornate sink and mirror. Next to that stood something that Johnny could only guess was a water closet. He had never seen one, but he had heard about them. He shook his head at the luxury, wondering once more what it would have been like to grow up with these luxuries, then he turned and walked back toward the bed.
He had dumped his few belongings in the room earlier, when Murdoch had first showed him the room. His saddlebags looked lost on top of the massive dresser, and he figured that everything he owned could probably fit into one of the massive dresser drawers. He walked over and picked up the bag, then dumped the contents onto the bed. He plopped down next to the pile and began sorting through it.
When he was done, he sat and stared at the belongings that represented his life. Two shirts, an extra pair of pants, a jacket, a rain slicker, three pairs of socks and a pair of longjohns. Next to that pile was a smaller one, containing a small picture of his mother, a single calfskin glove, several boxes of ammunition, an extra handgun, a needle and thread, a skinning knife, a hatchet, a cooking pan and a small flask of whisky. He also had the clothes on his back, his rifle, his gun and holster, and a derringer and throwing knife that he kept hidden in his clothes. He took off his hat and drew out a large wad of money and threw that on the bed next to his other belongings. He stared at his possessions for several seconds, then started putting them away. He was right; not counting the weapons, they barely took up one drawer.
When he was done, he walked over to the window and looked out at the peaceful scene below. He couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up here like Scott had, with security and money. He snorted; having enough to eat when he’d been a kid would have been nice, but money hadn’t really been a problem for him for a long time. He was the best, and that was a fact. He could demand and receive just about any sum he wanted for his work, and he often did. It seemed that it was usually the rich men who needed his services most, maybe because most of them had to be at least a little crooked to have gone as far as they had, and they had the most to lose. Few were downright dishonest, but most certainly knew how to step over the line when needed.
Johnny looked out at the huge barns and the massive pastures, and wondered about the man who was his father. Had he crossed that invisible line? Johnny shook his head. It really didn’t matter, one way or the other. It was none of his business. He didn’t care how his father had succeeded, all he knew was that he and his mother hadn’t been a part of it. He thought back to the conversation earlier, and realized Scott hadn’t been at Lancer all of his life, either. Apparently, he had spent the first several years of his life away from Lancer, too. But when Scott and his mother had returned, Lancer hadn’t even thought about it. He had kicked his Mexican wife out to face a life of hardship and poverty, and welcomed his society wife and son back with open arms.
His face darkened as he thought about his brother. Brother. He had always wanted a brother, but Scott certainly wasn’t what he’d had in mind. No matter what the old man had said, he couldn’t believe they were really related. Scott was as fair as he was dark, and his build was tall and slender. In fact, just like Murdoch, the only resemblance he could see was that his older brother had blue eyes. Only he was sure those eyes hadn’t been a source of misery for Scott. HE wasn’t a half breed. Johnny was the only one in this family with that distinction.
No, he would make sure he didn’t forget just why he was here. He wasn’t about to be tricked into thinking that any of these people would ever be anything but strangers to him. He would keep this strictly business. He would make their lives miserable for as long as it amused him, and then he would leave. With any luck, he could destroy their family and maybe even the ranch while he was at it, but he’d have to be careful. If he was too obvious, the old man just might run him off with a shotgun. He’d have to at least pretend to be trying to get along, at least most of the time. He grinned coldly. This would be a lot more fun than simply killing them, and a whole lot more satisfying.
Scott came downstairs the next morning in a foul mood. He hadn’t slept much the night before. He’d been worried that he’d oversleep and be shown up by his ‘brother’, and he didn’t know if his temper could take that. He didn’t care what Murdoch said, he still couldn’t imagine that the uneducated, ill tempered cowboy he had met yesterday was related to him. For some reason, his father had welcomed the ruffian into their home, but Scott had no intention of letting Murdoch’s supposed son disrupt his life.
He entered the kitchen, and then stopped short. Johnny was already sitting at the table, finishing up some eggs that apparently Teresa had made him. Johnny looked up and grinned sarcastically.
“I was wonderin’ if I was gonna have ta come wake you up.”
Scott bristled at the suggestion. “Thank you, but I think I’m more than capable of waking up on time without your help,” Scott ground out.
Johnny shrugged. “Just tryin’ ta help.”
“I’m sure you are,” Scott replied sarcastically.
“You ready?” Johnny asked innocently as he stood up.
“I’m going to eat my breakfast, IF you don’t mind.”
“No, I guess not. I just figured Murdoch would want us out early. Go ahead and take your time. I’ll go saddle up.” He hesitated by the door and turned back toward his brother. “Which horse is yours? I’ll saddle him for ya.”
Scott stopped and stared at Johnny. “To borrow your phrase, keep your hands off of him, or you’ll end up with a fat lip.”
Johnny grinned. “Like I said, just tryin’ ta help.” He turned and tipped his hat at Teresa before striding out of the door. Teresa watched him go, and then turned on Scott. “Why were you so hateful toward him?”
“Hateful toward who? Murdoch asked as he walked in and sat down. He helped himself to some bacon and eggs, then turned toward Teresa.
“Hateful toward who?’ he repeated.
Teresa glanced at Scott. “It just seemed as if you were trying to pick a fight with Johnny.”
Murdoch’s head came up and he stared at his son. “Why? I TOLD you I wanted you to try to get along.”
Scott took a deep breath. “I am trying.”
Teresa shook her head in confusion. “Johnny was just trying to be helpful.”
“I don’t need his help, and believe me, I’m sure that being helpful was the furthest thing from his mind.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Scott, you need to give him a chance.”
Scott glared at his father. “I think you’re making a big mistake. I think the only reason he’s here is to cause problems.”
“Maybe. But I DON’T need you to cause them, too. I expect you to act like a gentleman and do your best to get along with him.”
Scott took a deep breath. “I’ll try,” he mumbled.
Murdoch looked around. “Where is your brother, anyway?”
Scott slammed down his fork. “He’s out in the barn, saddling his horse.”
Murdoch glanced at the clock. “Don’t you think you’d better be joining him?”
Scott glared at his father, then silently stood up and grabbed his hat off of the rack before stalking out of the house. He headed for the barn, thinking all sorts of uncharitable thoughts about his brother. He knew that no matter how much his father wanted this to work, there was no way he could get along with Johnny.
He stalked into the barn, and purposely ignoring his brother, he entered Charlie’s stall and began brushing his horse. He hurriedly completed the grooming, aware that Johnny was watching him. Scott threw the saddle on his horse and pulled the bridle on, then gave the reins a yank as he walked out of the stall. Charlie flipped his head up and planted his feet in protest of the unwarranted roughness. Scott was ashamed he had taken his temper out on his innocent horse, and he talked quietly to the animal, then led it out of the barn. He was aware of his brother chuckling quietly, which did nothing to improve his mood. He swung aboard Charlie, then turned his horse in the direction of the arch. Johnny tagged along at his side, with neither man saying a word.
Scott led the way out to the north pasture, then pulled Charlie to a halt next to the wooden gate. He glanced over at Johnny.
“Do you mind?”
Johnny looked at the gate and then back at his brother quizzically. “What’s wrong with you opening it?”
Scott met his gaze. “Murdoch put me in charge, and I don’t feel like opening it.”
Johnny stared back for a moment, and then a small smile appeared on his face. He shrugged and turned his horse away from the gate, then nudged Barranca into a lope. Scott watched with a smile on his face as his brother rode off, and he wondered what Murdoch would have to say when Johnny showed up at the house. Suddenly, Johnny turned the palomino and spurred him back toward the fence. Scott watched as the horse charged the fence, then floated easily over the gate, landing lightly on the other side, the grin on the riders face evident.
Johnny pulled Barranca around and raced back toward the fence, then shifted his weight, bringing the palomino to a sliding stop near his brother. Johnny looked cockily at Scott, the challenge obvious. Scott nodded, then turned Charlie away from the fence. Although he had jumped horses before, he had never had the occasion to try the sorrel gelding. He just hoped the horse was athletic enough to make it over the fence. He wasn’t worried about dying, but losing face in front of his brother wasn’t something he even wanted to think about.
As he approached the fence, Scott felt his horse hesitate and try to swerve away. He tightened the reins and applied his spurs and Charlie swerved back toward the fence. The sorrel slowed slightly, and Scott once more urged the horse forward. Charlie charged toward the wooden barrier, then took off too soon. Scott heard Johnny gasp as Charlie’s feet left the ground and he rose toward the fence.
Scott gave his horse his head and did everything possible to help the horse clear the fence. With a final twist of his body, Charlie barely cleared the gate and landed heavily on the other side. He stumbled and went to one knee before regaining his balance. Scott sat up, relieved they had made it, and he immediately pulled the trembling horse to a stop and jumped down to check Charlie’s legs. Cursing softly at his own stupidity at trying to jump an untrained horse, he went over the sorrel’s legs with gentle hands.
“Is he ok?”
Scott straightened up and looked at Johnny in surprise. “I’m surprised you’d care one way or the other.”
“I happen ta like horses. Hate ta have one hurt ‘cause his rider’s an idiot.”
Scott’s lips pressed together and he glared at his brother for a moment, then shook his head. “I guess I deserve that. I never should have forced him to jump that gate when I had never jumped him over anything before.”
Johnny’s eyebrows went up. “Never?”
Scott shook his head. “Never.”
Johnny smiled and shook his head. “Well, you got guts, I’ll give ya that.” As an afterthought, he added, “And that was some fancy ridin’.”
Scott studied his brother, trying to detect some sarcasm, but finally accepted the praise at face value. “Thank you.”
Johnny looked around. “So this is the north pasture, huh?”
“Obviously,” Scott said dryly as he jumped on Charlie’s back.
Johnny shrugged. “It looks ok to me,” he observed.
Scott turned and looked at him in exasperation. “This is only a small part of it. We have to check the whole thing.”
Scott continued to glare at him. “Because if we don’t, Murdoch will have our heads.”
“You’re really afraid of him, aren’t you?” Johnny smirked.
“No, but I told him I’d make sure it’s done, and I will.”
“Just how big is this pasture, anyway?”
Scott shrugged. “I don’t know exactly, but it will take us quite a while to ride around the whole thing.”
“Then why don’t we split up? You go one way and I’ll go the other. That way we’ll get done twice as fast. Murdoch will never know the difference, and we can meet back here and relax for a while before the old man has us doin’ somethin’ else.”
Scott hesitated, then shrugged. “I guess.”
Johnny nodded, then took off without another word. Scott watched him go, feeling like somehow he’d just made a huge mistake, but he shrugged off his uneasiness. After all, checking the pasture didn’t take a lot of brains. Anyone could do it. He turned Charlie in the opposite direction and headed out.
Several hours later, a hot and tired Scott approached the appointed meeting place. He had been up and down off of his horse a hundred times, fixing fence posts, tightening wire, and moving brush, and he was ready for a break. He glanced up to where Johnny was sitting in the shade and smiled. At least his brother had had a good idea about splitting up. They had gotten through in half the time. He pulled his horse to a halt and looked down at Johnny, who looked up at him with a smirk on his face.
“What took ya so long?”
Scott tiredly dismounted. “The fence was down in quite a few places.” He looked at his brother questioningly. “How about your half?
Johnny shrugged. “Yeah, there were quite a few sections that needed repairing.”
Scott nodded and drew out his lunch. “Good. I want to be able to tell Murdoch that everything’s ok. All we have to do is clear that small stream down below us, and the pasture will be ready. We’ll do it as soon as we’re done eating.”
As Scott approached, Johnny leaned back against the tree and tipped his hat over his eyes.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” Scott asked.
“Ain’t hungry,” came the muffled reply.
Scott sat down several feet away, feeling put out that Johnny obviously didn’t want to eat with him. Scott was doing his best to get along, and had hoped they could talk, but his brother certainly wasn’t making it easy. He dug into his lunch and ignored the napping cowboy. After he had finished eating, Scott waited to see if his brother would be a little more sociable, but the hat stayed firmly in place, and finally Scott gave up. He leaned back in the grass and closed his eyes.
Scott startled and was scrambling to his feet before he was fully awake. His bleary eyes focused on the figure in front of him. “Yes, Sir?”
Murdoch glared at his son. “I THOUGHT you were supposed to be checking out this pasture.”
“We already did.”
“WE?” Murdoch looked around. “Where’s your brother?”
Scott followed his glance. “I don’t know. He was here a little while ago.”
Murdoch glared at his son. “I don’t like you sleeping on the job. It certainly doesn’t set a good example for the men. Don’t let it happen again.” He turned to walk off, and a movement caught his attention. He shielded his eyes and watched as his younger son approached.
Johnny jumped off the horse and looked at his brother. “Well, I’m done.”
“Where have you been?” Scott asked.
“You told me that stream needed clearing out. Anything else before I get ta eat my lunch?”
Scott’s eyes narrowed, but before he could say anything, Murdoch glanced at his watch. “Haven’t you boys eaten yet? It’s pretty late.”
Johnny shrugged. “Scott ate. I didn’t have time. I was too busy checkin’ out that stream.”
Murdoch turned and glowered at his older son. “Is that what you thought I meant when I put you in charge? That you could sit here and sleep while you made someone else do the work?”
“No Sir,” Scott replied as he glared at his smirking brother. “I never told him to clear that stream by himself.”
“Sounded like an order ta me,” Johnny said innocently.
“Did you do ANYTHING today besides take a nap?” Murdoch asked Scott.
“Yes, I did,” Scott ground out. “I checked out the pasture like you told me to.”
“Is it ready to hold cattle?”
Murdoch nodded. “All right. But I don’t want to see you goofing off again, is that clear? ESPECIALLY when someone else is working.”
Scot glared furiously at Johnny who was grinning back at him.
The gunfighter held up a small sack. “Mind if I eat now?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No, go ahead and take your time. You deserve a break.”
Johnny watched as his father rode off, then turned and grinned at Scott. “While I’m eatin’ ya better finish gettin’ that stream cleared.”
Scott’s eyes widened. “You told us that you had cleared it!”
“I told you that I was done. Didn’t say the job was done,” Johnny smirked.
“If the job isn’t done, then you can get up and do it,” Scott snarled. “It was your responsibility.”
“I thought you told the old man you didn’t tell me ta do it.”
“Well I am now!”
Johnny shrugged. “Ok. Guess I’ll have ta tell Murdoch I didn’t get ta eat lunch ‘cause you didn’t want ta work.”
Scott glared at his brother, then took a deep breath, trying desperately to hold on to his temper. “All right, but as soon as you’re done, you’d better join me.” He turned on his heel and stalked off.
Johnny watched him go, then dug into his sack and drew out a huge sandwich. He spread the paper wrapper on his lap, then leaned back against the tree and started to slowly eat.
Scott waded into the muddy stream and began throwing shrubbery and rocks out of the bed. He didn’t think he’d ever been as angry with anyone in his life. From the looks of it, Johnny hadn’t done a damn thing. Except get him into trouble. He was good at that. Another rock flew out of the stream. He couldn’t believe that Johnny had point blank lied both to him and their father about clearing that stream. He didn’t care what the actual words were; Johnny knew very well how his statement had been taken. And of course, if the creek didn’t get cleared, SOMEHOW he’d be in trouble for it, not his lying brother. A branch went flying.
Scott couldn’t understand why his father even allowed that troublemaker to stay. Johnny was obviously doing everything he could just to stir up trouble, and Scott knew that he had seen just the beginning. No doubt his brother would try all sorts of stunts, just to annoy them. At least, he hoped it would stop at that, but he had some serious doubts. He also had serious doubts about the man’s parentage. All they had was Johnny’s word about who he was, and the man hadn’t proven himself particularly honest so far. There was certainly no proof Johnny was really related to him, although Murdoch was satisfied for some reason.
No, his mother was obviously right. Johnny was there for one thing and one thing only. Money. It was the only thing that made sense. Hopefully his father would come to his senses soon and kick the man off of the ranch before he caused some real trouble. Even if it turned out that he really was a blood relation, he didn’t trust Johnny one little bit. He grabbed a handful of brush and ripped it out, then threw it onto the bank.
Scott reached down and tried to move a small boulder out of the stream bed, but it wouldn’t budge. He glanced up toward where he knew Johnny was eating, but there was too much shrubbery in the way and he couldn’t see anything. He stood there, debating with himself, but if the stream was going to be cleared, he’d need some help. He walked resolutely up the bank and stopped dead. He could feel his temper starting to erupt. Johnny was lying in the shade of the tree, his hat over his eyes, apparently sound asleep.
Scott stood there for several seconds, then a wicked grin appeared on his face. He marched back over to the stream and whipped off his hat. He dipped it into the water, and when it was full, he picked it up with both hands and hurriedly walked back to where Johnny was lying. Evidently Johnny was playing possum, because as Scott marched up to him, Johnny sat up just in time to catch the hatful of water in his face.
Scott was taken by surprise at the man’s quick reaction. Johnny launched himself at his attacker, sending them both rolling through the brush. They fought wildly, and their actions sent them down the small hill leading to the stream. They landed in the creek, sending a sheet of water splashing out onto the opposite bank. Both men were throwing punches, trying desperately to get the upper hand.
Johnny lurched to his feet, quickly followed by Scott, and they grabbed each other and started wrestling. The moss covered stones made the stream bed treacherous, and they fell once more into the icy water. Neither man was willing to let go, and their heads went under water. Both men came up spluttering a moment later, and scrambled clumsily to their feet.
Scott immediately threw another punch, connecting with his brother’s jaw, and Johnny reciprocated by smashing his fist into Scott’s gut. Scott doubled over, but managed to straighten in time to fend off another attack by his brother. Scott sent a blow into Johnny’s side, and the gunfighter turned around and grabbed his brother’s shoulder, sending Scott spinning back into the stream. Scott tripped on a rock, and fell heavily, striking his head.
Scott’s eyes popped open, and he looked around in confusion. He turned his neck painfully and Johnny swam into focus. The gunfighter’s face was swollen, and one of his eyes was blackened. A small cut on his lip was still bleeding slowly. Scott lay back down with a groan, and he saw Johnny smile.
“You hurtin’ as bad as you look?”
Scott turned and pierced Johnny with another look. “Are you?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed, and then he shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. You throw a pretty good punch for a Boston dandy.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Scott mumbled through his swollen jaw.
Both men sat in silence for several minutes, and then Scott dragged himself to his feet.
“Where are you goin’?” Johnny asked.
“To finish clearing that stream,” Scott said belligerently as he stared at his brother. “Coming?”
Johnny scowled back for several seconds, and then nodded reluctantly. “I guess,” he said as he scrambled to his feet.
Chapter Twenty One
The two men finished up clearing the stream, then sat down on the bank to rest. Scott bent over and looked at his reflection in a small pool and grimaced. He splashed some water onto his face, trying to clean off the blood, and rinsed the dirt out of his hair He ripped off his shirt and dipped it into the stream, then rubbed it on a rock, futilely trying to get the blood and grass stains out. Finally, he gave up and slipped the wet shirt back on.
Johnny watched him carefully, then smiled. “What’s the matter? Worried your ma is gonna turn you over her knee for fightin’?”
Scott glared at his antagonist. “No, but I don’t have to advertise it, either.”
Johnny chuckled. “I hate ta tell you, but there ain’t no way you can hide that you’ve been fightin’.” He touched his eyes. “Me either for that matter. I think they’ll figure it out pretty quick.”
Scott shook his head ruefully. “I’ve never been in a fistfight in my life, and now I’ve been in two in as many days.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “You’ve NEVER been in a fight?”
Scott shook his head. “Not for real.”
“What about when you were a kid? Didn’t ya ever get into a fight with the other kids?” Johnny asked in disbelief.
Scott’s mouth clamped shut. He wasn’t about to tell this stranger that he hadn’t been allowed to play with other children when he was young. His grandfather thought it was a useless waste of time, and insisted that Scott spend his leisurely time reading or taking various lessons.
Johnny grinned. “What did you do, have your butler fight for you?’
Scott scowled at Johnny, unwilling to admit just how close to the truth he was. “Gentlemen don’t get into fistfights.”
“Well, you sure as hell learned how ta fight somewhere. Or were you only a gentleman when people were lookin’?”
“I took boxing lessons when I was young.”
Scott nodded. “Yes. It’s a type of fighting, but it’s done for sport.”
“Is that how ya learned ta ride, too? By takin’ lessons?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, in fact I went on my first hunt when I was only ten.”
Johnny looked at his brother quizzically. “What does huntin’ have ta do with ridin’?”
“Not hunting,” Scott explained. “A hunt. You know, with horses and hounds.”
Johnny looked perplexed, and Scott explained further. “A group of men would get together on horseback and follow a pack of hounds across country until the quarry went to ground.”
“What were you huntin’?”
“I don’t know,” Scott said in exasperation.
“You were huntin’ somethin’ and you didn’t even know why?”
“It was tradition.”
“So ya chased this fox till it …went ta ground, and then you’d kill it?
“Usually. Not always though.”
“If you weren’t tryin’ ta kill it, why would you go to all that trouble ta catch it?” Johnny asked in confusion.
“Killing it wasn’t the point. The chase was. It was a sport.”
Johnny pointed to the sidearm hanging at Scott’s side. “I suppose you made a sport of shootin’, too.”
Scott nodded reluctantly. “Actually, I learned how to shoot a rifle when I was only sixteen. Mother was very upset, but I became good enough to compete in shooting trials.”
“Yes competition. We’d shoot at clay targets.”
“What would you have ta shoot pieces of clay for? What did they ever do to you?”
Scott sighed in exasperation. “It was…”
“I know, a sport,” Johnny finished.
Scott glared at his brother. “Didn’t you ever compete for anything?”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, for my life.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean when I hunted, it was ta put food in my belly, and when I fought, it was ta keep someone else from killin’ me.”
“How did you learn?” Scott asked quizzically.
“The hard way. When I didn’t fight good, I got my ass kicked, and when I missed a shot, I went hungry.”
“You had to shoot your own food?”
Johnny snorted. “Who else was gonna do it?”
“Couldn’t you buy it?”
“With WHAT? Sort of hard ta buy stuff without any money.”
“What about your mother? Didn’t she get food for you?”
“She tried,” Johnny admitted. “I ate pretty good until she died. Then I was on my own. I learned ta shoot and hunt real quick.”
“How old were you when she died?” Scott asked softly.
Johnny shrugged. “Ten, I think. Not real sure. I’d been mostly on my own for a while before that.”
Johnny glared at his brother. “Cause my mother was busy.”
“DOING WHAT? What could be more important than taking care of her child?”
“She WAS tryin’ ta take care of me. She was tryin’ ta put food on the table!” Johnny growled.
“How did she die?”
“None of your business!” Johnny snapped.
Scott’s face colored. “I didn’t mean to pry. I just can’t believe you’ve been on your own since you were ten. It must have been hard.”
“Yeah, well it wasn’t too bad. I’m a fast learner.” He patted his gun. “Especially with this. It’s done a good job of keepin’ me alive.”
“You hunted with a revolver?” Scott asked in surprise.
Johnny grinned. “Yeah, you might say that.”
“After your mother died, wasn’t there anyone else to take care of you?”
“Like my father?” Johnny spat. “He’d made it pretty clear just where we stood in the scheme of things.”
Scott stared at his brother. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely.
“Yeah, I bet you are.” Johnny jumped up. “I’m headin’ back to the house, BOSS. I’ve done enough work for today.” He stalked over to his palomino and quickly tightened the cinch, then swung aboard. He spurred the horse away from the stream, and Scott watched him thoughtfully for a moment before mounting his own horse and following Johnny back toward the house.
Chapter Twenty Two
Scott caught up with Johnny right after they rode under the arch. “If I said something wrong, I’m sorry.”
Johnny ignored him and kept his eyes straight ahead. Scott nudged his horse up next to his brother. “Look, we ought to be able to get along.”
Johnny yanked his horse to a halt and glared at his brother. “Why? Out of loyalty or love for Murdoch Lancer? Do you know what he did? He kicked my mother out and didn’t even care she was carrying me. He had his important wife and important son. That was all he needed. After all, what use did he have for a Mexican puta and her half breed whelp when he already had such a high toned society wife and her perfect son?”
“I’m sure it wasn’t like that,” Scott protested.
“I’m sure it was,” Johnny shot back.
“Look, I don’t know Murdoch very well, but I’ve been here long enough to know that he certainly isn’t prejudiced against Mexicans.”
“Yeah, well, hirin’ ‘em as labor is a hell of a lot different than havin’ ‘em as part of the family.” He looked at his brother quizzically. “And what do you mean you don’t know him very well?”
Scott shrugged and kneed his horse forward. “I grew up in Boston, not here. I’ve only been here about six months.”
Johnny hesitated, and then urged his horse after his brother. When he had caught up, he slanted a look at the blond. “Why? Did he kick the two of you out too?”
“I really am not sure, but I don’t think so. My mother told me that it was too wild and violent here. That’s why she stayed in Boston all of those years.”
“You believe her?”
Scott stared at his brother. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Johnny shrugged. “It just seems pretty strange for a wife to be away from her husband for what? Twenty years? Maybe the old man kicked you and your mother out, too and she was just too ashamed ta say anything.”
Scott looked thoughtful. “I don’t think that’s what happened. I got the impression that it was her choice more than his.”
“So she went off and abandoned him, huh?”
“NO! I’m sure it wasn’t anything like that!”
“Whatever you say. Just seems strange, that’s all.” Johnny hesitated. “So why did you come back?”
“I wanted to get to know my father.”
“Why? Seems like you had a pretty good life back in Boston, with all of them ‘sports’ you were so good at.” Bet you never even had ta work for your livin’ back there either, did ya?”
“I worked,” Scott grumbled.
“Yeah?” Johnny said brightly. “Doin’ what? Keepin’ the world safe from those vicious foxes?”
Scott took a deep breath in a valiant attempt to hold on to his temper. “I did the books for my grandfather.”
“What did you do to ‘em?”
“I kept them in order!”
“Sounds hard,” Johnny smirked. “So why are out here, punchin’ cows and gettin’ your hair all mussed up?”
“Like I already explained,” Scott ground out, “I wanted to get to know my father.”
“You sure he’s your father?” Johnny asked innocently.
Scott turned and glared at the impudent cowboy. “YES!” A smile came over his face. “Are you?”
Johnny’s face darkened and he glared back. “YES!”
“Well, BROTHER, at least we have one thing in common.”
“That’s the only thing,” Johnny spat.
Scott spurred his horse toward the house, with Johnny in hot pursuit. The two of them thundered into the courtyard, sending men and animals bolting for cover. They both jumped off, but before they could go anywhere, Murdoch stalked out of the great room door and stood glowering at his two sons. “BOYS!”
Johnny and Scott turned toward the bellow, then Scott walked over to his father, with Johnny following closely behind.
“What was that all about?” Murdoch demanded. “You know the rules. No running your horse inside the arch!”
“Sorry, Sir,” Scott said.
Murdoch turned toward his younger son.
“No one told me that rule,” Johnny said innocently. “I was just followin’ Scott here.”
Scott glared at his brother as Murdoch stood glaring at both of them, taking in their battered countenance. “I see the two of you got along fine today. Who won?”
Scott and Johnny glanced at each other, and finally Scott shrugged. “I believe a rematch is in order.”
“Maybe several,” Johnny agreed.
Murdoch shook his head. “I would appreciate it if you’d at least TRY to get along, at least for the rest of the evening.” He looked at Scott. “Your mother is going to have a fit.”
Johnny smirked at his brother, who colored slightly. “Well, I have the feeling she just might have to get used to it,” Scott breathed.
Murdoch smiled to himself. “You both had better get cleaned up and changed for supper.” He looked at Johnny. “And don’t forget, we’re dressing tonight. If you don’t have anything…”
“I do,” Johnny snapped. “Just never heard of gettin’ all gussied up just ta eat “
“I have a shirt you can borrow,” Scott said innocently.
Johnny reached out and lightly touched Scott’s battered shirt. “You’d better keep it. I have the feelin’ you’ll be needin’ it.”
Scott looked pointedly at his brother’s shirt. “The same goes for you, BROTHER.”
Johnny stared at his brother. “Yeah, but at least I don’t have ta worry about getting’ yelled at by my mommy.”
Scott drew himself up, and Murdoch stepped between them, “Go get dressed! Both of you! And TRY not to destroy each other’s shirts or anything else before supper!”
With a last glare, Scott turned and stalked off, followed quickly by Johnny. Murdoch watched them go, and shook his head. At least the fight hadn’t escalated into gunplay, something he had worried about. As long as the two of them were trying to tear each other’s heads off with their bare hands, things couldn’t get TOO out of hand. At least that’s what he fervently hoped. Now if they could just get through another meal without bloodshed...
Chapter Twenty Three
Murdoch stood in the great room, waiting anxiously for his sons to come downstairs. He glanced at his wife, who was sitting serenely on the sofa, sipping a glass of wine. She smiled sweetly at him. “You certainly look nice.”
Murdoch tugged nervously at his collar. “Thank you,” he said as he walked over and poured himself another glass of scotch.
“Why on earth are you so nervous?” she asked innocently.
He stared at her. “I have no idea,” he replied sarcastically.
“You shouldn’t let that uncouth cowboy upset you so.”
“That COWBOY is my son!”
Catherine shrugged. “So he says. Personally, I have my doubts.” She took another sip of wine and looked at him challengingly.
Murdoch’s eyes locked on his wife. “I told you, I have no doubts, and that’s the last time I want to hear you say anything more about it, understand? I’m accepting him as my son and that’s all you need to know.”
“Why? Why are you so sure?”
Murdoch shook his head. “Because I am. Like I said before, the timing is right, and he looks just like Maria.”
Catherine shook her head. “I think you’re being stupid. He has no proof. All you’d have to do is tell him to get lost, and he couldn’t do anything about it.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up. He thought that Johnny Madrid could do plenty about it if he wanted to, but he decided to let that part go. “He’s my son and I want him to stay!”
Catherine shook her head in disgust. “He’s nothing but trouble, haven’t you seen that yet?”
Murdoch sighed. He really didn’t have an argument for that, but he still wanted to get to know his son. He still wasn’t sure if he should have let Johnny stay, but he certainly wasn’t going to tell Catherine that. He just hoped that he hadn’t been wrong about the boy and that his selfishness wouldn’t endanger the rest of his family. He was saved from answering his wife’s question when Scott appeared on the stairs.
Catherine looked up and blanched before getting up and hurrying over to her son. “What happened to you?” She whirled around and faced Murdoch. “Or do I even have to ask?”
“It’s nothing,” Scott ground out.
Catherine glared at her husband. “Are you going to do something about this?”
Murdoch returned her gaze calmly. “I believe the boys can work it out without us interfering.” He looked at his son. “Don’t you agree, Scott?
Scott hesitated, and then a small smile appeared on his lips. “Yes, Sir.”
Catherine’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps you’re right.” She glanced up at the clock. “Well, it’s time to eat. Let’s get to the table.”
Scott looked at her quizzically. “Johnny’s not down yet.”
“That’s his problem. He was told when supper was. He’ll just have to learn to be on time or he can go without.”
Scott glanced at Murdoch, who hesitated. “We can start. If he’s not down in a few minutes, I’ll go get him.”
The three people made their way to the table, and they had just seated themselves when Johnny hurried into the room and slid into his seat.
“What ARE you wearing?” Catherine demanded.
Johnny looked up and smiled at her. “My best clothes, just like you asked me to.”
Catherine looked in disbelief at the flashy embroidered red shirt and the black pants with silver conchos running up the side. “They’re Mexican!” she announced unnecessarily.
Johnny’s grin became wider and he shrugged. “So am I.”
The woman glared at him. “Obviously.” A smile graced her lips as she continued to stare at him. “What on earth happened to you? You look like you got in an argument with a grizzly bear.”
Johnny shrugged. “Not quite.” He looked at his brother appraisingly. “And that ‘grizzly bear’ is definitely worse off than I am.”
Catherine immediately turned toward the kitchen. “Maria! What are you doing in there! Bring supper in, NOW!”
A moment later, Maria appeared. She cast a quick glance at Johnny and smiled, then quickly dropped her eyes as she set a platter on the table. She pulled off the lid, revealing a large mound of tamales.
Johnny’s eyes lit up, and he flashed a huge grin at the cook, who smiled shyly back.
“MARIA! What is THAT?” Catherine demanded.
“Tamales, Senora.” Maria replied nervously.
“You know how I feel about Mexican food. Get rid of it, NOW!”
Maria hesitated, and then reached over to take the food away. Johnny grabbed her wrist. “No, leave it,” he ordered softly, looking at Catherine as he spoke.
“I gave her an order,” Catherine said softly.
“And I want some of the tamales,” Johnny replied, just as softly.
Catherine turned her wrath on the unfortunate servant. “Maria, you’re fired!”
Johnny’s face darkened, but before he could interfere, Murdoch spoke up. “No, she’s not!”
Catherine whirled around to face the new threat. “You told me…”
“I know exactly what I told you. Dressing for supper is one thing, but firing FRIENDS is another. And Maria’s a friend.”
Murdoch looked at the cook. “Thank you, Maria.”
Maria turned and hurried to the safety of kitchen. Catherine glared at her husband. “I refuse to eat those!”
Murdoch shrugged as he helped himself to some. “That’s your choice, but personally, I like tamales.” He handed the dish to Teresa, who helped herself before passing the tamales to Johnny. The gunfighter grinned as he piled some on his own plate before handing them to Scott, a look of challenge on his face. Scott hesitantly took the plate.
“Scott and I will find something else to eat,” Catherine announced.
Scott looked up at his mother, who was staring at him expectantly, and then his eyes cut over to Johnny. The gunfighter was also looking at him expectantly, a smirk on his face.
“Better listen to your mommy, Scott,” he whispered.
Scott stared back a second, and then made up his mind.
“Actually, these look pretty good. I think I’ll try some.”
Chapter Twenty Four
Catherine once again excused herself early and retired to her room. Scott watched her worriedly, but when he made a move to follow her, Murdoch grabbed his arm and motioned toward the great room.
“She’s fine, son. Let her go.”
Scott nodded slowly, then turned reluctantly toward the great room.
Murdoch poured three drinks and handed one to each of his sons. Scott sat on the couch, while Johnny restlessly stood by the fireplace.
Murdoch sat in an overstuffed chair and took a sip of his drink. “I want the two of you to go out tomorrow and scout out some of those wild horse herds and decide which ones seem promising. We’re going to have to start rounding them up shortly in order to meet those army contracts.”
“How many do ya need?” Johnny asked.
“Fifty a month for a year, with ten usable as officers mounts,” Murdoch answered.
“That’s a lot of horses,” Johnny observed.
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, but we have the horses. They just have to be rounded up and broken.”
Johnny shrugged. “Shouldn’t be too hard.”
“I can do it myself,” Scott offered.
“So can I,” Johnny shot back.
“No! I want the two of you to work together.”
“Like that will ever happen,” Johnny snorted.
“If you want to be a part of this ranch, it will,” Murdoch growled.
The two younger men glared at each other for several seconds, and then Scott shrugged. “It shouldn’t take two of us just to scout out the herds, but I suppose he can tag along.”
Johnny shrugged. “Sure, go ahead and lead, then I’ll tell ya if the horses are worth anything or not. That’s not somethin’ you can learn by takin’ LESSONS!”
Scott glared at his brother. “I’ll be leaving first thing in the morning. If you’re not up, you can TRY to find me.” He slammed his drink down and headed for the stairs.
Johnny watched him go, and then casually finished his drink before setting it down on the nearby table. He glanced at his father, who was frowning at him.
“Do you have any reason to be here except to cause trouble?”
“Talk to the two of them! They’re not exactly easy ta get along with!”
“Neither are you.”
Johnny shrugged. “All I’m doin’ is followin’ orders,” he said innocently.
Murdoch glared at the young gunfighter. “If I think for one minute you’re trying to hurt anyone or anything on this ranch, I’ll ask you to leave, son or not.”
“”I assume that goes for them, too?” Johnny asked innocently.
Murdoch’s face darkened, and Johnny grinned. “No, I guess not. Well, ‘night. Sounds like we’re leavin’ early tomorrow.” He turned and walked toward the stairs.
Murdoch watched his son until he started up the stairs, and then gulped down his own drink and poured himself another.
The next morning, Johnny bolted down the stairs and headed toward the kitchen. He slammed the door open, and came to a halt as he saw Scott calmly finishing up the last of his breakfast. The blond looked up and grinned.
“’Ready?” he asked innocently.
Johnny looked at the plate full of eggs and bacon, then shrugged. “Yeah, sure.” He grabbed a couple of biscuits and a few slices of bacon and walked out the door. Scott stood up and took a lunch sack from Teresa before following Johnny out to the barn.
The two men managed to track down and observe several herds, and all of them obviously had good quality animals in them. They reluctantly agreed that any of the herds would be worth catching and breaking, and then immediately began wrangling over who should do the breaking.
“You can try ta break ‘em, Boston, but you’ll probably just wind up killin’ yourself.” He slanted a look at Scott. “Besides, you’re mommy probably won’t let you near those bad old horses.”
Scott glared at the cowboy. “Lay off, Johnny. My MOTHER doesn’t have any say about what I do!”
“Yeah, sure,” Johnny snorted as they rode under the arch. He grinned over at his brother. ‘Race ya!”
Scott shook his head. “You heard Murdoch the other day.”
“You afraid of the old man? What’s he gonna do? Fire ya?” Johnny challenged.
Scott looked back for a second, and then spurred his horse down the road.
The two raced into the yard and pulled their horses to a halt, then jumped down just as Murdoch opened the door.
“BOYS! GET in here NOW!!”
Scott looked at Johnny, who grinned and motioned for Scott to go ahead of him. Scott turned and headed into the house, followed by Johnny. They walked into the great room and stood uncertainly as Murdoch stood facing the window. They glanced at each other, waiting for the eruption. They waited several more minutes, and then finally Murdoch spun around and pinned them with his stare.
“We moved the herd to the north pasture this morning.”
“So?” Johnny quipped.
“SO,” he said, looking at Scott. “You told me it was ready.”
“What was wrong?” Scott asked cautiously.
“The herd went in and an hour later half of the cattle were falling all over those ravines to the west of the pasture. It seems that SOMEONE forgot to check that fenceline. It was down for a good quarter mile.” He glared at his sons.
Scott turned and looked at Johnny, who looked back innocently. Scott stared at him for a moment. The west fenceline was the one that Johnny was supposed to have checked. Finally he turned around.
“I’m sorry, Sir. I don’t know how I missed it.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. You told me you’d checked all of it.”
Scott nodded. “I thought I had,” he replied. “It won’t happen again.”
“No, it won’t. If you’re not up to running a project, Johnny will run the next one.” He turned toward his younger son. “I want you to be in charge of catching and breaking those horses.”
Johnny turned and looked triumphantly at Scott, but for some reason, his victory didn’t feel as good as he thought it would.
Chapter Twenty Five
Johnny hesitated outside of his brother’s door, wondering if he should talk to him, or just leave things alone. Finally, he knocked softly on the door.
Johnny pushed open the door and stepped into the room. Scott was standing by the window, staring out at the scene below. Johnny walked in and started picking things up, studying them before putting them back down, and waiting for his brother to look at him.
“What do you want?” Scott asked quietly without turning around.
Johnny stared down at a picture of a young Scott sitting on a horse. “Why did you cover for me?”
“The hell you didn’t, and I want to know why. Why didn’t you tell the old man whose fault it was that the fence wasn’t fixed?”
Scott turned and looked at his brother. “Why did you lie to me?”
“I didn’t lie to you.”
“The hell you didn’t,” Scott smirked.
Johnny dropped his head to hide a smile. “I never lied. You asked me if I’d checked things out, and I said I did. I told you there were several areas that needed fixing, and you asked if I had any problems. I said I didn’t. You never asked me if I’d fixed those problems. You shoulda been more specific,” he smirked.
“You knew very well what I meant!”
“Yep, I did,” Johnny agreed. “So why did ya cover for me?”
“Because it was my responsibility,” Scott fumed.
Johnny’s eyebrows went up. “So what?”
“So it was my responsibility and I should have checked things out myself. I should never have trusted you to do it.”
“So why did you?”
“I don’t know, but I won’t make THAT mistake again.”
“Good,” Johnny smirked. “Wouldn’t want ya to be gettin’ soft on me.”
“Believe me, that won’t happen!”
“So are you gonna tell the old man the truth?”
“I already did.”
Scott nodded. “I told him the truth when I said it wouldn’t happen again.”
Johnny looked at him quizzically. “He put me in charge of the horses because he thought you were the one that screwed up.”
“I know,” Scott sighed.
“So is that why ya did it? You scared of bein’ in charge of them horses?”
“So if ya want it, why ain’t you gonna fight for it?”
Scott shook his head. “He put me in charge of fixing that pasture. It was my responsibility to make sure it was taken care of.”
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t get you. If you told the old man it was my job, he wouldn’t be mad at ya any more.”
“Is that what you want me to do?”
Johnny grinned. “Nope. Just wonderin’ why you don’t want to.”
Scott glared at his brother. “Believe me, I do. But it was still ultimately my responsibility to make sure that pasture was ready. I should have checked before I assured Murdoch that it was. Now if you’re done talking, I’d appreciate it if you’d leave. I’d like to be left alone.”
Johnny started to say something, and then thought better of it. He looked once more at his brother, but when Scott didn’t look at him, Johnny left, shutting the door quietly behind him. He went to his own room, and sat next to the window, looking out at the peaceful scene below. He sat for a while, trying to figure out what his brother was up to. He couldn’t understand why Scott had failed to tell Murdoch the truth about what had happened. He knew that if he were in Scott’s place, he sure would have squealed.
He heard his father and Scott getting washed up for supper, and then Scott’s footsteps as he headed for the stairs. Johnny decided he wasn’t in the mood for the mental jousting that went on every night at the dinner table. He jumped up and grabbed his hat, then headed downstairs. Scott looked up expectantly when he came down the stairs, and then looked pointedly at his work clothes.
“Aren’t you going to change?”
Johnny smiled. “Nope. I’m goin’ into town for a while. Don’t wait up,” he smirked.
“Did you tell Murdoch?”
“Nope. You can if ya want.” Johnny grinned as he shut the door behind him.
Johnny felt the tension start to leave him as he rode into town. He couldn’t quite understand either Scott or Murdoch, and that bothered him. Catherine, on the other hand, was perfectly clear. She hated him, and the feeling was mutual. In fact, if she were a man, she would already be six feet under, and Johnny wondered if she would be the first woman that pushed him too far. She was trying her darndest, that was for sure, and one of these days, he just might introduce her to Johnny Madrid. Johnny smiled. He was looking forward to that.
He had been prepared to hate Murdoch Lancer, but for some reason he couldn’t quite feel the hate that he had expected to feel. He still didn’t like the man, but he wasn’t quite the ogre that Johnny had expected. In fact, several times, the old man’s behavior had been a pleasant surprise. He wasn’t going to let that keep him from his original plan, however. He was still determined to make the man as miserable as possible, and he figured he was doing a good job of it, with a little help from Catherine.
And Scott… he couldn’t quite figure him out, either. At first he had thought he was nothing but a spoiled mama’s boy, but beneath that dandy exterior a tough cowboy was lurking. Scott had surprised him with his willingness to fight him, and Johnny smiled as he wondered if his brother would be as willing to fight him with guns. He grinned as he thought that he probably would. Johnny had already found out the hard way that Scott wasn’t a pushover. He reached up and gently touched his black eye and smiled. No, his brother wasn’t a pushover, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He shouldn’t be happy about that, but for some reason, he was.
Chapter Twenty Six
Johnny rode into town, no closer to figuring out his brother than when he started. He finally decided to just forget about it for a while and relax. In any fight, the mental games had always been the hardest for him, and he needed a break from the constant jousting that was taking place at Lancer. A cold beer would go down pretty good right about now.
As he entered the town, he looked around, taking note of everything. In his line of business, knowing where possible hiding places and escape routes were located was important. He scanned the streets and the upper windows, alert to any movement that might indicate there was a problem, but the town seemed quiet. He knew looks could be deceiving, however, and didn’t let down his guard.
He guided his horse over to the hitching rack in front of the saloon, and stepped down. He took another look around, but all was quiet, and he stepped into the cantina. He walked over to a corner table in the back of the room, and sat down, facing the door. A minute later, a barmaid approached, looking boldly into his eyes and batting her lashes. “Can I help you?” she asked suggestively.
A slow smile appeared on the gunfighter’s face. “For now, just a beer.”
She smiled back, and went to get his order. Johnny looked around at the other patrons, but didn’t see anyone of interest, and that was fine with him. All he wanted to do was to relax and have a few drinks. He wasn’t in the mood for any more games. The girl brought the drink back, and he handed her a couple of coins. She stood there for a moment, waiting to be asked to join him, but when Johnny remained quiet, she turned with a huff and went back to the bar.
Johnny nursed his drink, trying to keep his mind off of his family, but he wasn’t entirely successful. His father and brother weren’t anything like he had expected them to be, and that bothered him. He still wasn’t changing his mind about wanting to harass them, but after that, he wasn’t sure. He guessed he’d just have to wait and see.
The doors swung open, and Johnny’s eyes narrowed as a man walked in. The badge he was sporting was the first thing the gunfighter noticed, and then his face. It took Johnny a moment before he placed the man, and then he cursed softly to himself. Val Crawford might look like a slob, but he was one of the sharpest lawmen Johnny knew, and it was a well known fact the sheriff hated gunfighters.
Johnny kept his features neutral as the lawman looked around, then honed in on Johnny like a hound after a rabbit. The sheriff slouched over to the table and stood staring down at the dark haired man for several seconds. Finally, Johnny looked up and managed to smile.
“Can I help ya, sheriff?”
Val nodded slowly. “Yep, you can. You can finish that drink, then get on your horse and ride out.”
Johnny managed to look surprised. “Why? I ain’t done nothin’.”
“Not yet, anyhow. And I aim ta keep it that way.”
“Not lookin’ for trouble, sheriff.”
“You don’t have to. It’ll find you if ya stay here.”
Johnny rocked his chair back and stared at the lawman. “I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”
Val shook his head. “You don’t have to. Bein’ Johnny Madrid is enough.”
“Ain’t a law against that.”
“Not yet. But I’m sure if I try hard enough, I can come up with somethin’.”
Johnny studied the lawman, and knew the man wasn’t bluffing. He’d run Johnny in on some trumped up charge just to make his life miserable if he didn’t ride out. A small smile formed on his face. Maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing. He looked at the sheriff and shrugged. “I can’t just leave, much as I’d like to. Murdoch Lancer told me ta stick around.”
Val’s eyes widened. “You’re workin’ for Murdoch Lancer?”
Johnny shrugged. “More or less.” He picked up his drink and took another sip. “So I guess you’d better talk ta him.”
Val’s face darkened. “There’s no need for that. I’m tellin’ ya right now, I don’t want any gunfighters in my town. Now get goin’ or I’m gonna have ta run ya in!”
“What are ya gonna arrest me for? I ain’t broken any laws,” Johnny challenged. “Besides,” he smirked. “I kinda like it around here. In fact, I just might settle down and stay.”
“Over my dead body.”
Johnny looked appraisingly at the lawman, letting his eyes drift down to the sheriff’s gun. “That can be arranged.”
Val grinned. “That sounds like a threat ta me. You’re under arrest for threatenin’ a lawman.”
Johnny’s eyes hardened. “That how you work, SHERIFF?”
Val shrugged. “I do what I have ta do, that’s all.” He held out his hand. “I’ll take your gun.” He held out his hand, keeping his eyes locked unwaveringly on the gunfighter’s eyes.
Johnny stared back, and then smiled slightly as he reached down.
“Slow,” Val cautioned.
Johnny’s smile widened. “Don’t know how ta draw slow.”
The sheriff kept his hand steady, and the gunfighter pulled out his gun and flipped it quickly around so the butt was facing the lawman. Johnny was surprised when the sheriff didn’t flinch, but merely took the offered weapon. Val nodded toward the door, and the gunfighter walked out, followed closely by the sheriff.
Val shut the barred door behind the gunfighter, and Johnny went over to the cot and plopped down, then looked at the sheriff quizzically.
“So how long are you gonna keep me here?”
Val shrugged. “As long as it takes.”
“For what?” Johnny shot back.
“To make sure you’ll never come back once I let you out, Madrid.”
Johnny smiled up at the sheriff. “By the way, the name’s not Madrid.”
“OH?” Val said skeptically.
“Nope. It’s Lancer.”
The sheriff snorted. “You’re not a Lancer.”
Johnny leaned back against the wall and pulled his hat down over his eyes. “Yep, I am, and I can’t wait ta hear you try ta explain ta Murdoch Lancer why ya arrested his son on a trumped up charge. You just might be out a job.”
Chapter Twenty Seven
Scott hurried down to the kitchen, wondering if he would beat his brother downstairs this morning. A small grin showed on his face as he slid into his seat. Johnny’s empty chair had already raised his spirits and made the day brighter. He helped himself to a large helping of scrambled eggs and some bacon and gave Teresa a beaming smile of thanks. He was almost finished before Murdoch dragged in and sat heavily down in his chair.
“Didn’t you sleep well, Sir?” Scott asked.
Murdoch shook his head. “Your brother didn’t come home last night.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Don’t you think he’s a little old to be waiting up for him?”
Murdoch glared at his son. “There are a lot of dangers out there for someone like Johnny.”
“Do you mean because of his smart mouth?” Scott smirked.
“No,” Murdoch said slowly as he glared at his son. “Because of his reputation.”
“What reputation?” Scott asked quizzically.
Murdoch hesitated. “Johnny happens to be a very well known gunfighter.”
“A hired killer?” Scott asked in disbelief.
Murdoch’s head drooped. “A hired gun,” he admitted resignedly.
“Isn’t that the same thing? I can’t believe you let someone like that stay.”
“He’s my son.” Murdoch growled. “I plan on giving him a chance.”
“Even if it endangers everyone else?” Scott asked incredulously.
Murdoch stared at his son. “Has he threatened you or really tried to hurt you?”
Scott stared back, and then with a slight smile, he reached up and touched his bruised face. “No, I guess not. If he really wanted to shoot me, I guess he would have done it before now.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “I’m going to take a ride into town. Did he happen to mention just where he was going last night?”
“No.” He smiled at his father hopefully. “Maybe he just took off.”
“Somehow, I doubt that. He hasn’t gotten what he came here for, yet.”
“And just what is that?” Scott asked quizzically.
Murdoch shook his head slowly. “I don’t really know.”
Murdoch rode slowly into Green River. He had already checked out Spanish Wells, and he figured if he didn’t find Johnny here, he’d stop in Morro Coyo on the way home. He snorted softly. He thought he was too old to be worrying about a wayward son, but he guessed the feeling of protectiveness never went away. He couldn’t explain, even to himself, the need to gamble on the boy and get to know Johnny better. He knew he was probably being unreasonable, but the need to give the boy a chance at a life other than what he was living, and to make him a part of his family was overwhelming. He HAD to give his son a chance.
Murdoch snorted; louder this time. If Johnny had any brains, he wouldn’t WANT to be part of the family, not the way it was now. He had hoped Scott and Johnny would get along and form a bond, but he guessed that was wishful thinking. Right now, it seemed that the best he could hope for was they wouldn’t kill each other. Maybe with time… Murdoch shook his head. He might just have to admit that wouldn’t happen.
He pulled his horse to a halt by the hitching post in front of the sheriff’s office and stepped down. Immediately, Sheriff Crawford opened the door and came out.
“Something I can do for you, Mr. Lancer?’
Murdoch tied his sorrel to the post and nodded. “I’m looking for someone.”
“Oh?” Val said cautiously.
“My son. He left the ranch last night, and he didn’t come back.”
Val shrugged. “Haven’t seen Scott. Not for a couple of weeks.”
“It’s not Scott I’m looking for.”
Val looked at the rancher in surprise. “I didn’t know you had any other sons.”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “Neither did I, but I was mistaken. He showed up a few days ago. His name is Johnny.”
Val’s eyes narrowed. “I’ll be damned.”
Murdoch stared at the sheriff. “What?”
Val shook his head. “That Johnny wouldn’t happen to be Johnny Madrid, would it?”
Murdoch nodded his head in resignation. “Yes, it would. Have you seen him?”
The sheriff slowly nodded his head. “Yeah, I’ve seen him.” He looked at the rancher thoughtfully. “You sure he’s your son?”
Murdoch stiffened. “Yes, not that it’s any of your business, SHERIFF.”
Val shrugged. “Don’t get your bowels in an uproar. The timing just seems strange, that’s all.”
“Why do you say that?”
“There’s been an awful lot of activity up north, and it seems ta be workin’ its way down this way pretty fast, that’s all.”
“What kind of activity?”
Val considered the rancher before answering. “Land pirates. They’re bein’ led by a man by the name of Day Pardee. He’s a gunfighter, and there are a lot of hired guns joinin’ up with him.”
Murdoch shook his head uncertainly. “That doesn’t mean anything. Johnny probably doesn’t even know this…Day.”
Val chuckled. “Oh yes, he knows him. They ran together for quite a while down by the border. They seemed to be pretty good friends. Pardee wasn’t as good as Johnny, but what he lacked in talent, he made up for in sheer aggressiveness. Pardee is one of the most bloodthirsty killers that I know.”
Murdoch studied the lawman. “What about Johnny?” he asked softly.
Val shrugged. “He’s the best. If he decides ta kill somebody, that man had best make his peace with God, because he’s gonna die. Madrid don’t mess around.” He smiled at Murdoch. “You got guts, I’ll give ya that. Bringin’ a man like Madrid into your house is either really stupid or really brave. I guess you’ll find out which eventually”
Murdoch glowered at the sheriff. “You said that you’d seen him. Do you know where he is?”
Val grinned. “Yep. He’s right inside, takin’ advantage of my hospitality.”
Murdoch’s eyes widened. “You arrested him?”
Val nodded. “Yep.”
“On what charge!” Murdoch yelled.
Val shrugged, then smirked. “Threatenin’ a peace officer.” His grin faded. “Mr. Lancer, if I were you, I’d think real hard before turnin’ him loose. I have the feelin’ you’ll be regrettin’ it, especially if he really is hooked up with Pardee.”
Murdoch stared at the lawman for several seconds, and the shook his head. “Let me see him” he growled.
Chapter Twenty Eight
Murdoch watched as his younger son sat slouched on the jail cot, his back resting against the wall. His son met his eyes, a slight smile on his face.
Murdoch walked over to the cell and studied the young man. He seemed perfectly at ease in the jail, which irritated the rancher, although he wasn’t sure why. “The sheriff said you threatened him.”
Johnny snorted. “I don’t make threats. If I wanted him dead, he would be.”
The rancher glanced over at the sheriff, who reddened slightly and shook his head at Murdoch.
The rancher turned back toward his son. “I think you owe the sheriff an apology.”
Johnny shrugged and smirked at the lawman. “I’m sorry I didn’t shoot ya.”
Murdoch glowered at the gunfighter, but for some reason, Val turned and smothered a cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Murdoch glanced at the lawman before turning his attention back to his son. “You’re not making things any easier.”
Johnny shrugged. “Why should I? I didn’t do nothin’ wrong.”
Murdoch ran his hand through his hair. “I’m TRYING to get you out of there, but you have to cooperate at least a LITTLE bit.”
“Tell the sheriff, there. Like I said, I didn’t do nothin’.”
Val watched both men, and then stepped forward with a shrug. He looked at Murdoch. “Personally, I think you’re makin’ a big mistake, but it’s your neck. I got better things ta do with my time than babysittin’ a smart mouthed gunfighter.” He took the keys out of his pocket and slipped them into the lock, then turned toward Murdoch. “He’s your wolf cub, you tame him.”
The door swung open, and Johnny stepped through and grinned sarcastically at the lawman. “Thanks for your hospitality, Sheriff.”
Val grinned back in the same vein. “Anytime.”
The two men locked eyes for several seconds, and Johnny was surprised when the lawman didn’t back down. His grin became genuine, and he touched his hat before turning and walking out of the jail. As soon as he was out of the building, he walked over to the hitching rail and grabbed it with both hands before taking a couple of deep breaths.
“Are you all right?” Murdoch asked as he came up behind him.
Johnny nodded. “I’m fine. Just don’t like bein’ locked up.”
Murdoch looked at him in surprise. “You sure didn’t act like it bothered you.”
Johnny snorted and he looked at his father. “I don’t act like nothin’ bothers me,” he admitted, before walking off. Murdoch watched him for a second, a frown on his face, then hurriedly caught up.
“I would appreciate it if you’d tell me next time you decide to take off,” Murdoch groused.
Johnny turned and stared at his father in confusion. “Why?”
Murdoch stopped and stared back. “So I don’t spend all night wondering where you are or whether you are safe,” he snapped.
Johnny laughed in disbelief. “It’s a little late for that, dontcha think?”
“I’ll always worry about you.”
Johnny’s face hardened. “Like you worried when you kicked my mother out? Like you worried when I was scroungin’ on the streets tryin’ ta keep from starvin’ ta death when I was a kid? Or when I picked up a gun when I was ten and killed the man that had killed my mother? Maybe you worried when I was holed up in a cave by myself after I’d been gut shot when I was twelve? Or how about when I spent my fifteenth birthday in prison, or maybe you worried when I found myself in front of a firin’ squad a few months ago!”
Murdoch’s face paled. “If I’d KNOWN about you before, I WOULD have been worrying!”
“Yeah, right. Just like ya worried about my mother. Save it!”
Murdoch dropped his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say. I DID worry about her, but I really thought that she’d be all right.” He brought his eyes up. “If I had known…” his voice trailed off as he shook his head.
“You woulda done the same thing, and you know it,” Johnny challenged.
Murdoch sighed deeply as he ran his hand through his hair. “I don’t know what I would have done,” Murdoch admitted. “But I KNOW I would have made sure you were taken care of.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you would have, one way or the other,” Johnny snorted.
Murdoch frowned as he puzzled over what his son had said, and then his face reddened. “How dare you imply that I’d…” his face reddened more. “I never would have…How DARE you!” He gave Johnny one last glare and then stalked toward his horse.
Johnny watched thoughtfully as his father stepped onto his horse and rode off, and then the gunfighter headed across the street to the livery stable so he could pick up Barranca. Johnny slowly saddled his horse, then mounted and turned the palomino toward Lancer.
As he rode, Johnny thought about Murdoch and wondered just how sincere his father was. The old man certainly seemed as if he meant it when he said he cared, but Johnny had been lied to before. He snorted softly. Especially when the person doing the talking was looking down the barrel of his Colt. That sight made a lot of men rethink their actions. He had to admit, Murdoch had been in an impossible position. He sure would have liked to have seen the old man’s expression when his two wives came face to face. A small grin formed on his face at the thought.
He was still deep in thought as he rode along, and then Barranca stopped and snorted softly. Johnny’s hand went to his gun and he looked around cautiously. He didn’t see anything, but he noticed his horse was interested in something off to the side, in a small grove of trees. The gunfighter dismounted and cautiously approached the trees, gun drawn and ready.
He hesitated when he saw the familiar sorrel, and he wondered if his father was ill or injured. He slowed his pace, and cautiously made his way further into the trees, then stopped when he saw Murdoch. The rancher was sitting hunched over on a large rock, with his head in his hands. Johnny watched the man for several seconds, puzzled at his posture, and then the gunfighter realized the man was crying. Johnny watched for a few minutes and then turned and quietly walked away.
Chapter Twenty Nine
Murdoch sat in his study, looking out the window at nothing. He heard his wife walk into the room, and with a sigh, he turned around.
Her eyebrows went up at his attire. “Supper will be ready any minute,” she prompted.
“I’m not hungry,” he admitted.
“Is that uncouth cowboy giving you trouble again?”
Murdoch stared at her and shook his head slowly. Catherine walked over to his desk. “I think I’ll have a little talk with him tonight at supper. See what his intentions really are.”
Murdoch said a quick prayer of thanks that he wouldn’t have to hear that conversation. “You won’t be able to. He won’t be here.”
“Well, FINALLY you came to your senses! I hope you didn’t give him any money before you sent him on his way! Now perhaps the three of us can sit down and have a proper meal together!”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Murdoch said quietly.
“What do you mean?” she asked in confusion.
“I mean, Scott won’t be here, either.”
Catherine paled considerably. “What do you mean? Where is he?”
Murdoch took a deep breath, very well aware of what his wife would have to say about his actions. “I sent then both up to Black Mesa to round up one of the wild horse herds up there.”
“You sent Scott up to that God-forsaken country with that ruffian?”
“That ‘ruffian’ is his brother.”
“So you say,” Catherine sniffed. “Why couldn’t you have just sent him up there? Why did you have to send Scott?” she whined.
“Because it’s at least a two man job. They’ll have to work together to get it done, and I figured it was a good way of making them settle their differences.” Or kill each other, he thought tiredly.
“I see no reason they have to work together. Scott will one day own this ranch. He doesn’t need to be out there getting his hands dirty. He can supervise the workers and take care of the books.”
“We’ve already discussed this,” Murdoch growled. “And I told you that an owner has to know all aspects of ranch work. He has to be able to do anything on the ranch, and do it better than most, or he won’t know HOW to supervise! And he WILL have to learn to work with Johnny. One day the two of them will be in charge, and if this ranch is going to survive, they’ll have to learn to get along!”
“Then Johnny is the one who had better learn to get along. Besides, Scott won’t have to get along with him to give him orders.”
“What makes you think Scott will ever be in a position to give his brother orders?” Murdoch asked quietly.
“Because HE’LL be owner of this ranch!”
“So will Johnny,” Murdoch stated.
“WHAT! You don’t mean that!” Catherine said in disbelief.
Murdoch shrugged. “Why not? He’s my son, the same as Scott.”
“He’s NOT the same as Scott! He’s a bastard!”
Murdoch bolted to his feet. “Not in my eyes. As far as I’m concerned, his mother and I were married, and I won’t tolerate you calling him that again!”
“And I won’t tolerate you cheating your REAL son because of that ruffian!”
“No one is going to cheat anyone,” Murdoch said tiredly. “But as long as I’m alive, both boys will have an equal say in things. And when I’m gone, Johnny will be half owner of this ranch, the same as Scott.”
“No, he won’t,” Catherine said coldly. “Scott will own one half through me, and also one half of your part. IF you choose to give Johnny anything, it will be out of your half. Scott will still own more.”
“Not if I choose not to give Scott any,” Murdoch said quietly.
Catherine glared at him. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I plan on waiting to see what happens, with BOTH of them. Now let’s drop it.” He stood up abruptly. “I’m going to take a walk.”
He grabbed his hat and coat from the rack and walked out the door. Once outside, he took a deep breath. He was so tired of the constant arguing. All he wanted to do was to run his ranch and get to know his sons. He snorted. His ranch. That was a joke. In the eyes of the law, half of this ranch belonged to his wife. More than that, he had stupidly used some of her money to start out with, a fact that she reminded him of often. If it ever went to court, he felt sure that with Harlan’s help, his beloved wife would wind up with the ranch. He shook his head as he looked out over the land he loved. He’d put up with the devil himself in order to keep it, and he had. He had hoped she would tire of the game and go back to Boston, but if she did he was afraid Scott would leave, too.
Now he had probably ensured he’d lose his elder son. He was sure Catherine would tell Scott of his plans to leave his share to Johnny, and that would probably be the end of any hopes he had of keeping Scott here. In all probability, Johnny would leave, too. At this point he just couldn’t see the bitter gunfighter deciding to settle down and be a rancher. He knew the only reason Johnny had stayed this long was to stir up trouble, but he had hoped that between he and Scott, he could convince Johnny to stay. Now that hope seemed pretty remote, especially after he’d talked to Val.
Of course, as soon as Catherine figured out that if Murdoch died, SHE would inherit everything, it wouldn’t matter anyway. He snorted softly. If she knew that, he’d probably be dead within a week. He sure wouldn’t put it past her. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Somehow, he would make sure that Johnny got what was coming to him. He’d take a ride into town and talk with his lawyer this week and see if there was something he could do. His face darkened. Besides outright murder, that is.
Johnny sat on his horse, looking down at the distant herd. They hadn’t been able to get very close, but from what he could see, there were some good palominos in the bunch. The group was a bachelor herd consisting of about seventy head, ranging from three year olds to much older horses. It was being led by a wily old stallion that was about as spooky as they came and would be difficult to catch, but both he and Scott had decided this herd had the best horses for their use. They weren’t looking for breeding stock this time, but horses to break to meet the army contract. They’d take what they needed and turn the rest loose. But first they’d have to catch them.
Johnny turned toward his brother. “Any brilliant ideas on how the two of us are gonna run and corral that herd?”
Scott slowly shook his head. “Horse catching wasn’t part of the curriculum at Harvard.”
“I bet they didn’t teach it, either,” Johnny snorted.
Scott smiled. “No. But I’m sure between the two of us we can figure something out.”
Johnny nodded slowly. “Yeah, I guess.” He looked up at the dark clouds forming in the sky. “So where is that line shack we’re supposed ta be stayin’ in?”
Scott looked around for a moment, and then pointed to the south. “I think it’s that way.”
“You THINK? You’d better be right, ‘cause it’s gonna be rainin’ buckets in an hour or two.
Scott looked around again, and then nodded. “It’s that way. I’m sure.”
“OK,” Johnny said agreeably. “”We’ll go that way, but if you’re wrong, I’m gonna shoot ya.”
“Does that mean if I’m right, I get to shoot you?”
Johnny stared at him for a moment, and then smiled. “If we’re inside a nice warm cabin it might be worth it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Scott said as he spurred his horse in the direction he hoped the cabin was in.
The rain was just starting to fall when they reached the line shack. The two men jumped off of their horses and led them into the lean to attached to the shack. Once inside, they unsaddled the animals and rubbed them down, then tossed them some hay that was stacked in the corner before heading toward the main building.
Scott was in the lead, and about to open the door when Johnny grabbed his arm. “Hold up,” he commanded.
“Why? Scott complained. “I’m getting wet.”
“Better’n gettin’ dead.”
“What are you talking about?” Scott asked impatiently.
“All sorts of varmints, including two legged ones, sometimes take shelter in unused shacks.” Johnny drew out his gun, and a moment later, Scott also drew his. Scott cautiously pushed the door open, but there was no sign of life. He walked in, and then holstered his gun, with Johnny following suit.
Scott looked around in disgust. “I guess it hasn’t been used for a while,” he commented unnecessarily.
Johnny shook his head. There was a thick layer of dust on everything, including the empty wood hopper. He turned toward his brother. “I’ll go chop some wood, and you’d better see if you can get rid of some of this dust. And make sure ya clean out the stove,” he ordered.
“Yes, Sir,” Scott said sarcastically.
“Well, I thought house cleanin’ was more your style,” Johnny shot as he escaped out the door.
Johnny walked around the shack and finally found the ax still buried in a lone block of wood. Not only would he have to chop the wood, but he’d have to go find some first. He grabbed the handle and rocked it till it came out, then looked in disgust at the edge. It desperately needed sharpening, but he didn’t have time now. One thing he knew, if he was in charge, anybody that left a line shack in this shape would be shot. With a sigh, he headed out into the nearby woods. He should have stuck Scott with chopping wood.
By the time he had enough wood to hold them for the night, Johnny was wet, cold, and miserable. He kicked open the door to the shack, then walked over and dumped the wood into the hopper. He stood up and looked around.
“See, I told ya cleaning house was right up your alley,” he smirked. “It looks real pretty.”
“Let’s get that stove going so we can eat,” Scott replied impatiently. “You were gone so long I thought maybe you’d gotten lost.”
“Not likely,” Johnny retorted, as he bent and threw some wood into the stove.
“You know how to cook?” Scott asked hopefully.
Johnny grinned. “You got anything TO cook?”
Scott looked crestfallen. “No.”
“Then it’s a good thing I do,” Johnny said as he reached underneath his jacket and pulled out a rabbit and handed it to Scott.
Scott took it gingerly and raised his eyebrows at Johnny.
The gunfighter smiled. “Ever skinned a rabbit before?”
Scott’s eyes dropped. “No,” he admitted quietly.
Johnny stared at him for a minute and then shrugged. “It ain’t that hard. Guess I’d better teach ya if you’re gonna stick around.”
Expecting a snide remark, Scott looked at his brother in surprise, but Johnny had already turned and headed for the door. After a moment, Scott followed him.
Several hours later, the two men sat in front of the stove, their feet up on another chair. The rabbit was long gone, and the old stove had warmed up the cabin and the men admirably. Now they were relaxed, if bored. It was a little too early to go to bed, but there wasn’t much else to do. Suddenly Scott sat up and looked at his brother.
“You play checkers?”
Johnny nodded. “Why? You didn’t find a checker board while you were cleanin’ did ya?”
“As a matter of fact, I did.”
“Find anything else interesting?” Johnny asked hopefully.
“No,” Scott said in disgust. “Unless you count dust and about a million rat droppings. Oh, and a ball of string the size of Texas.”
Johnny snorted. “Somebody was even more bored than we are.” He looked up at his brother. “Where’s the checker board?”
Chapter Thirty One
Johnny pulled his laboring horse to a halt and cursed at the sight of the tail end of the herd disappearing into the distance. Angrily, he spurred his palomino toward the canyon opening. This was the third time he and Scott had tried to corral those horses, and each time they had botched it. He had found a small box canyon off of a narrow valley that would be ideal to corral the horses, and he and Scott had spent the better part of a whole day building a pen and gate across the canyon toward the back. He figured that once the horses were headed into the canyon, they could haze them into the pen without too much trouble. The canyon was narrow, and the horses wouldn’t turn back against the men who were chasing them.
The problem was getting them into the canyon. The opening was at an almost ninety degree angle to the valley where the horses had to be chased. One man and horse could easily turn the herd into the canyon, but that left only one person to do the chasing. Johnny had been willing to try, but he just couldn’t do it. The horses spread out too far and started scattering when he made the final push. There were numerous other canyons along the way, and the horses kept turning off and disappearing.
If he wasn’t the one doing the chasing, he would swear Scott was trying to sabotage him to keep him from catching those horses, just to make him look bad. The problem was HE was doing the chasing. There was no way the blond could be messing things up. In fact, Johnny admitted reluctantly, Scott had been pretty cooperative. The gunfighter shook his head. He couldn’t figure Scott out. He had gone out of his way to make Scott look bad, but his brother didn’t seem to be making any effort to get even. At least not yet.
He saw Scott up ahead, patiently waiting to turn the herd that wasn’t coming. As soon as the blond caught sight of Johnny, he spurred his horse forward to meet him. Johnny vowed to himself that if Scott made one smart comment about Johnny not being able to drive that damn herd, he’d kill him with his bare hands.
Scott pulled his horse up next to Johnny. “It’s not going to work,” he said. “There’s no way one man can drive those horses. It’s impossible, and Murdoch has to know that. We’re going to need more men.”
Johnny was surprised that Scott didn’t try to lay the blame on him, but he was still frustrated that he was going to fail. He didn’t know why it should bother him, after all, that’s what he was here for, to make sure nothing worked. For some reason, though, he wanted to prove he could do it.
“Do YOU want to go back and tell the old man that we can’t do it?” Johnny snapped.
Scott shook his head. “No, but I don’t know what else we can do.”
“We can figure out how ta catch those horses. I ain’t ready ta give up, yet.”
Scott nodded. “All right. Let’s go back to the cabin and think about it. Your horse is about done in.”
Reluctantly, Johnny looked once more in the direction the horses had disappeared, as if he could will them to come back, and then with a sigh he turned the palomino toward the camp.
Once back at the line shack, Johnny gave Barranca a good rub down and plenty of feed. With a final pat, he left the lean to and headed toward the cabin. When he walked in, Scott was sitting at the table with a piece of charcoal in his hand. Johnny pulled up a chair and plopped down across from him.
“What’re you doin’.”
“Trying to figure this out scientifically,” Scott answered. He pointed at the drawing on the wooden table.
“Here’s the box canyon and here’s the watering hole where we start the drive, right?”
Johnny nodded tiredly.
Scott took his finger and traced the path the horses took. “And this is the valley where they start to scatter, right?”
Again, Johnny nodded.
“What if we somehow block the end of the valley where I’ve been standing? Then I could help you drive them.”
Johnny shook his head. “We can’t block it all the way across, and even if we did, what’s to prevent them from turning the wrong way? No, we HAVE to have a man there.”
With a sigh, Scott went back to studying the map. Johnny leaned back and closed his eyes.
“I’ve got it!” Scott exclaimed.
Johnny sat up, startled. “Got what?” he asked suspiciously.
“I think I’ve figured out a way for the two of us to do this.”
Scott smiled. “You know that ball of string?”
“Yeah,” Johnny said slowly.
“We’ll use that!”
“For holding those horses!”
Johnny shook his head. “I know sittin’ out in that sun all day would fry your brain,” Johnny snorted. “Ain’t no way some string is gonna hold a herd of horses.”
Scott shook his head impatiently. “It won’t have to. The horses will never get near it.”
“You lost me.”
“Look, you know how spooky wild horses are, especially that old stallion.”
“Yeah,” Johnny said cautiously.
“If we run that string along one side of the valley, you’ll only have to watch one side. You could do it.”
“Scott, what makes you think that the horses wouldn’t just break through that string?”
“They won’t if they’re afraid of it!”
“Now why would they be afraid of some string?” Johnny asked in frustration.
“We could tear up some rags and tie them to the string. It’s windy in that valley, and the wind would blow the rags, and…”
“The horses wouldn’t get near them.” Johnny finished.
Johnny smiled slowly. “It might work. It just might work. Now whose spare shirts are going to make the ultimate sacrifice?”
Scott smiled back. “Well, since we want them to be colorful…”
Chapter Thirty Two
Johnny tied the last rag to the fence and stood back and looked at his efforts. The string stretched back almost as far as he could see, and the pieces of cloth fluttered madly in the wind. They had spent most of the day running the string and tying the rags to it. In the end, all of their spare shirts and the sheets from the cabin had been sacrificed for their project, as well as some small branches with leaves. But if it worked, it would be worth it. Johnny wondered how a greenhorn like Scott could have come up with something like this. He had to admit, he never would have thought of it. His method was more direct, and he probably would have spent a month futilely chasing the herd and running his horse into the ground. The thought that his brother had come up with this rankled him a little. HE was supposed to be the one that knew how to do things like this.
He swung up on Barranca and headed his horse back to the cabin. Scott had left a little while ago to check the corral they had built in the canyon and make sure it was ready for tomorrow’s drive. Now all they had to do was wait, and Johnny admitted to himself that was the hardest part. It always had been for him, in everything he did. He guessed he’d just have to beat his brother at checkers to keep his mind occupied. A small smile formed. That wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Scott was an excellent player, and they had both won about the same number of games since they’d been here. Their methods of playing, just like catching the horses, were different, and the smile grew wider. He and Scott would make a good team. Suddenly his face darkened and he pushed that thought away. He wasn’t going to be around long enough for that, and he certainly wasn’t going to get close enough to the blond dandy to ever let his guard down. After this horse round up was over, they’d never be partners in anything again. Johnny had different plans.
Johnny slammed the gate shut behind the herd and quickly secured it with a rope. A moment later Scott rode up and Johnny studied him furtively. The dandy sure was messing up his preconceived notion about him. When the herd had come pounding toward the blond, Johnny wouldn’t have blamed him one bit if he’d turned tail, but Scott had held his ground. There was another instant when Scott could have subtly sabotaged their efforts, but he hadn’t. The herd had started to turn the wrong way, and Scott had bravely ridden his horse right into the herd to force them around. Johnny shook his head. He just didn’t understand his brother. Johnny had gone out of his way to make Scott look bad, and now when he had a chance to get even, Scott hadn’t taken it. Johnny decided he’d better keep an eye on him. He must be up to something.
Scott stepped down off of his horse and looked over the rail. “Well, we did it.”
Johnny nodded and glanced at his brother. “Yeah, we did. Now all we gotta do is cut out the ones that are too old or too young and turn ‘em loose, then get ta work breakin’ the rest of ‘em.” He looked over the horses. “Shouldn’t take us more than a week or so.”
Scott snorted. “Do you mind if we have lunch first? I’m starving.”
Johnny shook his head at his brother. “Slacker.” Just then his own stomach rumbled in protest, and a smile formed. “All right, I guess we can eat. These horses need ta settle down a bit anyway before we start workin’ ‘em. But if we’re gonna eat, we gotta go huntin’ first. All we got left in that cabin is beans and jerky, and I’m sick of that. ”
“I agree,” Scott agreed. “Maybe we can slaughter a steer.”
Johnny laughed. “Oh yeah, Eat all the profits. The Old Man would love that. Besides, we’d have ta ride half a day down to the herd, and then cart it all the way back here. No, I was thinkin’ more about some venison steaks.”
Scott nodded. “Sounds good to me. ANYTHING sounds better than beans.”
Johnny looked at him carefully. “You ever actually shoot anything except those clay things?”
Scott grinned ruefully. “No.”
“Well, this should be interesting,” Johnny commented. He double checked the gate to make sure it was secure before stepping onto his horse and heading back to the shack. On the way, he told Scott all the do’s and don’ts about hunting live game.
As Scott listened, he thought that he might just be more in the way than help, but he was determined to try. He always enjoyed learning new things, and even though he doubted knowing how to hunt would come in handy back in Boston, it would be interesting to see how it was done. A frown crossed his face. Boston. He hadn’t even thought about it for a while. Not since Johnny had arrived. He snorted softly. That was probably because he was too busy trying to figure out his little brother’s next underhanded maneuver. If Scott had any sense he wouldn’t have tried so hard to catch those horses. After all, Johnny hadn’t exactly been cooperative when Scott had been in charge. But somehow, he knew it just wasn’t in him to be that petty. He’d do his best no matter who got the credit for it.
He shook his head. Actually, once coming up here by themselves, Johnny hadn’t been too difficult to get along with. Scott had actually enjoyed the quiet nights when they tried to murder each other over a checkerboard. He had been a little surprised at his brother’s skill. He had expected to beat his brother handily, but Johnny had surprised him by his brilliant, if erratic play and the score was about even. He wondered if his brother knew how to play chess and smiled. He would enjoy teaching him if he didn’t. It would certainly never be boring. Suddenly he sighed. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to be around that long. As soon as things calmed down a bit, he was going back to Boston where he belonged.
Chapter Thirty Three
Johnny led the way to a large meadow he had spotted while they had been scouting the herds. There was plenty of forage and a small stream ran alongside it. There were a few trees scattered here and there, enough to give the deer a feeling of security.
They tied their horses well away from the area, then walked in. Johnny looked around, then motioned to a large tangle of shrubs and brush under some trees.
“We’ll wait in there,” Johnny told Scott quietly. “Try not ta make any noise. Deer are even spookier than those wild horses.”
Scott nodded and took a step into the tangle. He had only gone a few feet when a strange buzzing noise started. He looked down and saw that he had nearly stepped on a large snake. Scott froze as the reptile’s head shot forward. Before it could connect, its head disappeared in a spray of blood as a bullet slammed into it. Scott couldn’t believe the swiftness and accuracy of the shot, and he turned to his brother in relief. “Thank you.”
Johnny looked at Scott in disgust. “Don’t ya know better’n ta just walk into a place like this? Ya gotta watch where you’re goin”. Now we gotta find someplace else. Every deer within a mile has hightailed it away from here.”
Scott reddened at the lecture. Actually, he did know. He had learned that lesson very early at the ranch, but in his excitement about hunting, he had forgotten. Now he had ruined their chances.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
Johnny just snorted in disgust and turned and walked back in the direction of their horses, and Scott trailed miserably behind him, determined not to mess up again.
An hour later, Johnny reined his horse to a halt and pointed at the ground. Scott drew alongside and looked to see what his brother was so interested in.
“Deer tracks?” Scott asked
Johnny shook his head. “Nope. Wild pig.”
“How can you tell? It looks like a split hoof to me.”
Johnny shrugged. “The shape of the tracks. The main prints are almost the same, but see those two prints comin’ out like wings from the back? A deer won’t have those. Except when it’s runnin. Then it’ll have two marks behind the main hoof prints where the dewclaws hit. But they’ll be a lot smaller.”
“So are we going after the pig?”
Johnny shook m his head. “No. That print is at least a day old, maybe older. We’ll find some deer tracks soon.”
Scott nodded in agreement, and studied the print as Johnny went on. He wondered how his brother could tell it was old. He opened his mouth to ask, and then changed his mind. He had showed enough stupidity for one day. No sense giving his little brother any more ammunition. He nudged his horse after Johnny.
A short while later, Johnny pulled up and once more studied the ground. Scott looked down and saw some tracks. He stared at them for a few moment. “A deer, right? And it’s not running,” he ventured.
Johnny smiled. “Yep.” He studied his brother. “You learn fast.” He kneed his horse in another direction.
Scott looked at him in surprise. “Where are we going?”
“To find a doe. That was a big buck, probably old and tough. I prefer doe meat.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed, sure he was being teased. “Come on, you can’t tell a buck from a doe by its tracks,” he challenged.
Johnny turned and looked at him, smiled. “Wanna bet?”
Scott looked into his brother’s eyes, still unsure whether he was being teased, but not willing to let his brother get away with it if he was. “Sure.”
Johnny’s grin grew wider. “You’re on. Whoever’s wrong gets ta gut the deer and carry it back.”
Scott nodded uncertainly. Since Johnny had agreed so quickly, he had the horrible feeling he was going to be given another lesson, but he couldn’t back down now. The only problem was that he didn’t have the vaguest idea how to gut a deer. He had the distinct feeling, though, that if he lost, his brother would be thrilled to tell him.
Johnny turned his horse around and followed the tracks. They wove in and out of trees and brush until Johnny held up his hand. Scott stopped his horse and both men carefully dismounted. They went on foot from there, and after about fifteen minutes, Johnny ducked down behind some bushes. Scott followed his example, and a moment later, Johnny nudged him and pointed down a slope. A huge buck was calmly nibbling at some grass in a small clearing about two hundred yards from them. Scott smiled ruefully and shrugged as Johnny grinned. They turned back and looked, and suddenly Johnny tensed. A couple of fat does were entering the clearing from the opposite side.
“Damn,” Johnny cursed softly. “We’ll have ta try and get closer.”
“Why?” Scott asked quietly.
Johnny looked at his brother and shook his head. “Cause there’s no way I can make that shot,” Johnny said sarcastically.
“I can,” Scott whispered.
“Sure you can. Come on, let’s go,” Johnny ordered.
“I said I can make it,” Scott insisted. He looked at his brother and smiled. “And if I do, YOU get ta clean the deer.”
Johnny looked at the deer once more. They were at the far end of the clearing, a good two hundred fifty yards away. There was no way his brother could bring down one of the animals at that distance. He knew Winchesters just weren’t accurate that far away. Of course, Scott carried one of the new Remingtons. He had heard they had a slightly longer range, but his brother would still have to be one hell of a marksman to hit the target from this distance. And he KNEW Scott wasn’t a better shot than he was. No way. Johnny nodded. “Ok. But if you miss, you’ll be doin’ all the cabin chores as long as we’re here, since you’re already gonna be cleanin the deer, WHEN we get one.”
Scott nodded, then wet his finger and tested the wind. Johnny smiled, figuring he was making a pretty good show of it. Johnny glanced at the deer once more, and they were moving away. Scott brought the rifle up to his shoulder and waited for a second before pulling the trigger. Johnny looked back at the deer and started to smile, but a moment later, one of the does jumped up in the air and bolted. Johnny watched in disbelief as the deer made several frantic leaps before crumpling to the ground.
Chapter Thirty Four
Johnny stared at the crumpled animal, and then turned toward his brother.
“Where didja learn how ta shoot like that?” Even though he tried, he couldn’t keep the awe from his voice.
Scott grinned. “From shooting those little clay targets.”
Johnny shook his head, then he nodded at the rifle in Scott’s hands. “Mind?”
Scott only hesitated a second before relinquishing the rifle. Johnny grabbed it and examined it, then looked down the sights. He looked over at Scott once, then aimed at a distant tree trunk and pulled the trigger. A small nick appeared on the edge of the tree, and Johnny shook his head.
“Well, I guess it ain’t ALL the gun,” Johnny admitted reluctantly.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Scott said dryly. “Now may I have my rifle back?”
Johnny hesitated a second and then handed the gun back to his brother.
“Well, I guess I’d better get busy,” Johnny sighed. He shot a glare in Scott’s direction. “Even though I think I’ve been conned.”
Scott grinned. “Did I forget to mention that I was the target shooting champion of Boston? It must have slipped my mind.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, I guess it did.”
Scott smiled at his brother, and then a puzzled look crossed his face. “So how DO you tell a buck from a doe by its tracks? Or were you just bluffing?”
Johnny looked Scott in disbelief. “You think I’m gonna tell you my secrets after I was just suckered into guttin’ that deer?”
Scott looked at him speculatively for a moment and then nodded. “All right, IF there is a difference, and IF you tell me, I’ll help you.”
Johnny studied his brother for a moment, and then nodded. “All right. Come on, and I’ll show you.”
Johnny led the way back to where their horses were tied, then swung up on Barranca and headed down into the glade. When they were almost to the carcass, Johnny pulled his horse to a stop and jumped down, followed by Scott. The gunfighter squatted down next to the tracks of the buck, and pointed to them.
“A mature buck is wider in the shoulders than a doe, so when he walks, his hind leg tracks are on the inside of his front legs. A doe is wider in the hips, so her hind legs swing out wider than her front.” He scouted around and then found the prints of one of the does and pointed them out to Scott.
Scott studied them for a minute and then grinned. “That should be easy to remember. All I have to do is think about is the way Maureen Carter walks.”
Johnny grinned back. “I think I know just who you mean.” He walked over to the downed deer and examined it. The shot had caught it right in the shoulder, and Johnny shook his head.
“Good shootin’ Boston.” He sighed. “Now comes the fun part.” He reached into his saddlebag and brought out a knife sheath. He pulled out a wicked looking knife and looked at his brother.
“I don’t suppose you ever had ta gut any of those clay things, didja?”
Scott shook his head, for once not upset with his brother’s teasing. “I guess you’ll have to show me.”
Johnny nodded, then rolled up his sleeves before bending down. “It’s almost like the rabbit. We ain’t keepin’ the skin, so we’re not gonna have ta be too neat.” He rolled the deer onto its back and slit the underside from breastbone to tail.
“The main thing is ta not cut through any of the guts, and ta get them out as soon as possible.” He made another slit, this time a little more carefully. As he worked, he explained what he was doing, and Scott watched intently as his brother confidently used the knife to gut the deer.
When Johnny finally pulled out the lungs and heart, Scott shook his head. “I didn’t know it was so complicated.”
Johnny grinned. “It’s not. Once ya do it a few times, it’s pretty easy. And YOU’RE gonna be doin’ the next one, so ya better get used to the idea of gettin’ dirty.” With a grimace, he wiped his hands on the grass, trying to get them clean before straightening up. Finally, he gave up and jumped to his feet. “I knew we shouldn’t have used up all those rags,” Johnny groused. He looked speculatively at his brother. “Of course, that shirt would do.”
He lunged at his brother and tried to wipe his hands on Scott’s shirt before the blond twisted away and gave Johnny a push. Johnny stumbled over the carcass and fell, bloodying his hands and shirt even more. He launched himself at Scott and tackled him as the blond tried to run, sending him sprawling. Johnny quickly wiped his hands on Scott’s shirt as his brother tried desperately to move away. The blond lunged to his feet, but had only gone a few feet when Johnny tackled him again. This time it was Scott who fell on the deer. He grimaced as his arms went inside the carcass, and he quickly pulled them out, but they were already filthy. He lunged at his brother’s feet and sent him sprawling once more, then jumped on him as he rubbed his hands on the gunfighter’s shirt. Johnny fought back and managed to smear most of the grime from his hands onto his brother.
Finally, both men sat on the grass, panting. Scott looked ruefully down at his clothes. “I THINK I need to wash up,” he observed dryly.
“Guttin’ a deer is a dirty job,” Johnny smirked. “Thought you’d want ta learn that first hand.”
“Thanks.” Scott looked at Johnny and grinned. He was filthy, tired and hungry, but for some reason, he felt good. He jumped up and offered his brother his hand.
After a moment, Johnny returned the grin and grabbing his brother’s hand, then jumped to his feet.
Chapter Thirty Five
Scott dragged the deer over to where his horse was ground tied and lifted it up to the saddle. Charlie immediately shied away, rebelling at the unfamiliar scent of the bloody carcass. Scott looked at his brother, who was already sitting on his horse, a big grin on his face. Scott’s lips pressed together, determined to do this himself. He grabbed the reins, then talked quietly to the horse before trying again. This time, Charlie grudgingly allowed it. Scott put the doe behind his saddle and then tied it on securely. His horse wasn’t exactly cooperative, but the sorrel finally decided he would probably survive. When Scott was sure the carcass wouldn’t slip, he swung aboard and nudged Charlie back toward the cabin.
Scott glanced over at his brother and smiled quietly. For the first time since Johnny had been here, he felt a connection with the dark haired stranger. It actually seemed possible that Johnny could not only be his brother, but also a friend. He knew they weren’t there yet, but he felt hopeful for the future. At least they were no longer trying to kill each other. He rubbed his shoulder. Well, at least not too much.
They had almost nothing in common; no shared events, no similar experiences to bind them together, but he felt a connection there anyway. As a young boy, he had never been allowed to interact with other youngsters except in closely monitored settings. He had never been allowed to play with any of them. Visits were limited to formal dinners and an occasional meeting during a lesson. His grandfather considered all of the other boys that Scott knew to be uncouth ruffians. Scott smiled at thought of what his grandfather would do if he ever met Johnny.
His face turned thoughtful. He began to wonder if he really wanted to go back to Boston after all. Things had changed. As long as he could remember he had dreamed of having a brother, especially a little brother that he could boss around and protect. He smiled slowly. Well, he knew bossing Johnny around sure wouldn’t work, and Scott doubted that he needed much protecting, but he was still a little brother.
For the first time since Scott had come to Lancer, he thought that he might be able to be happy here. He didn’t seem so alone. He and Johnny had gotten off to a bad start, but since they had come up here, he had seen how it could be if they could get past their differences. He knew that some of what had happened had had probably been his fault, but he vowed he’d do better in the future. He’d get past his brother’s barriers somehow, and maybe together they could make this work.
Johnny allowed Barranca to slow his pace until he was slightly behind Scott. He furtively watched the blond as they rode along, and wondered what it was about his brother that had almost broken through his defenses. He had been prepared to hate Scott, and had made that clear, but for some reason, that’s not what had happened.
Johnny certainly hadn’t been easy to get along with, but for some reason Scott had kept trying. The gunfighter knew his brother wasn’t stupid, but there were times when he acted like it. Johnny had made it plain that he didn’t want to be friends, let alone brothers, and Scott had blithely ignored that fact and had managed to make Johnny forget for a short time that they were enemies.
Johnny frowned. This wasn’t working the way he had planned for it to work. He didn’t want to get close to anyone on the ranch; it would complicate matters too much when he carried out his scheme. But just because things weren’t going exactly the way he had expected it to didn’t mean he couldn’t get back on track.
He glared over at Scott, angry that his brother had made him forget why he was here. That hadn’t happened in a long time. He prided himself on his ability to remain detached and cold, no matter what, and it shook him that the blond had managed to do what dozens of top gunfighters couldn’t.
Johnny glanced at the rifle securely lashed to Scott’s saddle. He was going to get one like that. What he had told Scott was the truth; it wasn’t just the rifle. His brother was a hell of a shot, that was certain, but the rifle sure didn’t hurt. Johnny wondered if the blond knew just who it was that he had out shot, and he grinned to himself. That was one story that wasn’t going to get out. His reputation would be ruined if anyone knew he’d been out gunned by a Boston dandy, even if it was just with a rifle.
He mind skipped over to their efforts to capture those horses and he shook his head slightly. He was supposed to be the one that knew things, not that greenhorn, and yet if Scott hadn’t been along, he never would have been able to capture that herd. The solution Scott had come up with had been simple, but Johnny knew he never would have thought of it.
Johnny snorted softly. Of course, he still wasn’t sure why he had wanted to catch that herd so badly, anyway. He had wanted to mess things up, but for some reason, his pride wouldn’t let him fail. Well, he hadn’t failed. Those horses were safely locked up in a corral, ready to be broken and driven back to Lancer.
Johnny looked at his brother thoughtfully. He had certainly caught the horses; he had Scott as a witness to that. As for getting them back to the ranch, anything could happen to them between now and then. In the meantime, he was going to go back to his original plan, and there was no room in that for a brother. Or a father, for that matter. He had slipped, but he had caught himself in time. He wasn’t going to let anyone get under his skin again. He was going to keep this strictly business, and heaven help anyone that got in his way.
Chapter Thirty Six
“Would you sit down?” Scott said in exasperation.
Johnny turned and glared at his brother. It had been raining solid for two days, and he was as edgy as a caged tiger. He grabbed his hat and jammed it on his head. “I’m goin’ back to the ranch ta get some feed for the horses.”
“It’s still raining!” Scott protested.
“So? Those horses have ta eat whether it’s raining or not. I figure there was enough graze in that canyon to last them a couple of days, and that’s all. At least water’s no problem,” he said darkly.
Scott stood up. “I’ll go with you.”
“NO! Just stay here. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Johnny jerked open the door, then slammed it shut behind him.
Scott shook his head in frustration. Two days ago, he thought that he and Johnny had a real chance of becoming friends. Now he wasn’t so sure. During the hunt, Scott thought they had gotten along just fine, but when they had returned to the shack, the dark haired gunfighter had been angry and sullen. Scott had tried to ask him what was wrong, but Johnny had just glared at him and then ignored him.
Since then, Johnny hadn’t said more than a dozen words to Scott and had done his best to avoid him completely. He had even refused to play checkers or cards, and instead had spent the whole time alternately sulking or pacing like a caged animal. It was enough to drive Scott crazy. He had thought about it almost continually, after all what else was there to do? But as much as he tried, he couldn’t come up with a reason for the change.
Finally, Scott had given up, and simply prayed the rain would stop soon, and they could get to work breaking those horses. This morning, the two of them hadn’t even said two words to the other one, and then Johnny had started pacing once more. Scott had thought that if his brother didn’t quit soon, he just might try to hog tie him to make him quit. Even a fight would be a welcome diversion. He had almost reached that point when Johnny had announced his intention of going back to the ranch and picking up some feed. Although Scott had thought he was crazy to go out in the rain, he was almost relieved that Johnny would be leaving for a while. Maybe his brother just had a bad case of cabin fever, and things would be better when he returned. At least he hoped that was the case. He knew that getting feed for the horses was just an excuse for Johnny to leave for a while. There was plenty of graze and water in that a canyon to last those horses for several more days.
Scott looked around, wondering what he could do to keep himself occupied, and then with a sigh, he grabbed the deck of cards. He sat down in a chair and began to play. The morning dragged on until finally the sun reached its zenith, and then slowly began its descent. Scott walked to the door and looked out. The rain had stopped, and the clouds were scattering under the light wind. He stood at the door for several moments, and then made a decision. He would ride out to the canyon and check on the herd. It was certainly better than playing solitaire.
Scott grabbed his jacket and hat, then picked up his rifle and headed for the lean to. He quickly saddled Charlie and swung aboard, then reined his horse in the direction of the canyon. As he rode, he decided to brush up on his tracking, and looked to see if he could find Barranca’s hoof prints in the muddy earth. After several moments, he found them, and tried to study them to find out what they meant. At first it was obvious the horse was walking, but then the prints changed, and Scott reasoned the horse was going faster. He followed them for several miles, and then realized that if Johnny was headed for the ranch, he should have turned off by now. Puzzled, he continued following the tracks left by his brother’s horse as they led to the small valley where their wild horses were.
Scott pulled his horse up short at the entrance of the canyon. Barranca’s tracks had disappeared, and instead, there was churned up earth and mud as if dozens of horses had run through here. Scott’s head snapped up as he realized what that meant, and he spurred Charlie forward. He rounded the corner and came to an abrupt halt at the sight of the open gate and empty corral.
He stared in shock for several moments, then nudged his horse forward, trying to make sense of what had happened. He slid off of Charlie and examined the gate. It had definitely been opened, not broken. Someone had let the horses out, but who? This was Lancer land, and none of the hands would do it. He shook his head in confusion, wishing his brother was here. He would probably be able to make sense of things from the tracks. Then Scott realized his brother HAD been here, and his eyes narrowed. Why had Johnny deliberately lied to him about where he was going?
Scott studied the ground once more, but saw only tracks from the unshod horses as they had streamed out of the gate. Then he spotted one of Barranca’s tracks, the shoe making it unmistakable. After a moment, he realized that although he could no longer see Barranca’s tracks leading into the canyon, he could see the palomino’s tracks leading out. Barranca’s tracks were on top of the ones the wild horses had left behind, apparently following them out of the canyon. The wild horses’ and Barranca’s were the only tracks in the canyon. The implication stunned Scott. He couldn’t WAIT to see what his little brother had to say about this. He spun Charlie around and headed back to the shack, fuming at his brother’s trick.
Chapter Thirty Seven
Scott forced himself to sit quietly and continue playing solitaire when he heard his brother ride up. He didn’t remember ever being as angry with anyone in his life, but he was at least going to give his brother a chance to explain. Then he’d kill him. He didn’t even glance up when Johnny stormed into the cabin.
“Well, did you get the hay?’ Scott asked calmly.
Johnny slammed his hat down on the table. “No need,” he growled.
“And why is that?”
Johnny stared at his brother. “Because SOMEBODY turned our horses loose, that’s why.”
“Really. Do you have any idea who?” Scott continued to play cards, refusing to look at his brother.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Considering how hard we worked ta get ‘em, it seems to me you’re takin’ the news awfully well.”
Scott shrugged. “I already knew.”
“HOW?” Johnny shot.
“Because I rode out to the canyon.”
“And I saw that the horses were gone. I also saw Barranca’s hoof prints by the corral.”
“Yeah, so?” Johnny asked quietly, his eyes focused on his brother.
Scott shrugged once more. “So besides the wild horses’, those were the only hoof prints that I could find.” He finally brought his eyes up and stared at his brother challengingly.
“So what?” Johnny spat.
“So, it just seems strange that if someone else really turned those horses loose, I would have seen some signs,” Scott said significantly.
Johnny stared back for a moment, then abruptly turned around and headed back outside. Scott jumped up and went after his brother, catching him just as Johnny reached his horse. Scott grabbed Johnny’s arm and a second later, he was looking down the barrel of a gun.
Scott froze, but didn’t let go. His eyes remained on his brother. “Why did you go the canyon?” Scott asked softly. “You told me you were going to the ranch.”
The gun slowly lowered as Johnny glared at his brother. “I saw the tracks of some riders apparently heading toward the canyon and decided to check them out, see who made ‘em. I figured they were hands from Lancer, but apparently that wasn’t the case.”
“How do you know?”
“’Cause I don’t think anyone workin’ for the old man would be turnin’ the horses loose,” Johnny snapped sarcastically.
“I didn’t see any other tracks,” Scott insisted stubbornly.
“Oh, so after one lesson, now you’re an expert?” Johnny spat as he shoved his gun back into its holster.
“The rain will have wiped them out by now. Besides, I don’t have ta prove nothin’ to you.”
“You do if you want me to believe you didn’t turn those horses loose,” Scott said quietly.
“Like I said, I don’t have ta prove nothin. I don’t give a damn what you think. Now let go of my arm,” Johnny growled.
“So where have you been all this time? You’ve been gone for hours.”
Johnny glared at his brother. “I TOLD ya, I was tryin’ ta find out who turned the horses loose.”
“And?” Scott asked sarcastically.
“And I lost the tracks down by the fenceline. They turned off and headed away from the ranch when they hit the pasture.”
“Why would they even go in that direction in the first place? Why didn’t they just take off?”
“How should I know? “ Johnny said grumpily. “I can’t read their minds, all I did was follow their tracks.”
“The tracks that aren’t there any more, right?”
“Believe what you like,” Johnny snarled. He stepped onto Barranca.
“Where are you going?” Scott asked.
“Back to the ranch. No reason ta stay here.” He kicked the palomino into a lope away from his brother.
Scott watched as Johnny disappeared, then slowly returned to the cabin and began packing up. He sure wasn’t going to stay in this miserable place, after all, it was his brother’s project. Johnny would be the one who would have to explain their failure to their father.
Johnny urged his horse back toward the ranch. He was in a foul temper, and the palomino knew it. The horse’s speed matched his master’s angry mood, but for once, the ride didn’t lighten Johnny’s thoughts. Without thinking, he headed in the direction of the pasture where he had told Scott he had lost the mysterious tracks. As he approached the fence line, he saw numerous men working along the fence, and he pulled his lathered horse to a halt before cautiously approaching the workers.
Murdoch and a dozen other men were frantically trying to repair a huge section of wire that had been torn down. Wire was strewn all over the ground, and posts were scattered like matchsticks. Johnny watched for a few minutes, then nudged the palomino closer before stepping down.
“What happened?” Johnny asked his father curiously.
Murdoch glared at his son for a moment before grabbing a downed fence pole and ramming it into the ground. “Maybe you should tell me,” he snapped.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“One of the hands said they saw you here by the fence line a couple of hours ago. He said when you saw him you took off before he could get closer. He left to check out another part of the pasture, then when he came back this way, he saw the whole fence was down.” Murdoch wiped his sweaty brow with his sleeve and nodded toward a nearby cliff. “We’ve lost at least a hundred head down in those ravines.” He brought his gaze back and fixed it on Johnny.
Johnny stared at the angry rancher.
“So, do you deny you were here?” Murdoch asked belligerently.
Johnny glared back. “No,” he said abruptly.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “So what is your explanation, boy?”
“Does it matter? You’ve already got your mind made up, don’t you old man? You and your perfect son are two of a kind, that’s for sure.” He stared at his father another moment, then turned and jumped on his exhausted horse’s back, and spurred the palomino toward town. Nothing was going as he had planned, that was for sure, and he angrily decided to get away and think about what he was going to do next.
Chapter Thirty Eight
Johnny rode into Morro Coyo, still angry with both his father and his brother. Apparently neither one trusted him at all. A grin formed on his face. Well, what did he expect? After the things he had been doing, they’d have to be complete morons to trust him, and he had to admit, they didn’t seem dumb. He hadn’t exactly done anything to win their confidence, and if they knew all of it, they’d probably string him up from the nearest tree. After all, blood only bought you so much.
Johnny snorted. Blood didn’t even buy them that much with him, because he sure as hell didn’t trust either one of them, either. Blood or no, they were strangers, and he had learned long ago it was better to keep everyone at arms length. Saved disappointment later, when they betrayed him. He only had a few close friends, men who had proved their loyalty time and again, and that was the way he liked it. Less complications that way.
Since he had arrived at Lancer, there had been nothing BUT complications, but now he was back on track. He was angry with himself for almost letting that Boston Dandy get to him. He hadn’t let anyone get under his skin like that for a long, long time, but for some reason, he liked Scott. Hell, he had to admit, he even liked the Old Man ok, too. If things were different, he might even be able to become friends with them, but he knew that just wasn’t in the cards. About the only one he didn’t like was that bitch who was responsible for getting his mother kicked out, and he didn’t see his attitude toward her changing anytime soon. Maybe when hell froze, but he doubted it. He just couldn’t understand how a bitch like that could have a son like Scott. He had wanted to hate them all, but that isn’t what had happened.
He shook his head angrily. It didn’t matter; they would all be out of his life soon. Even if he had wanted to take Lancer up on his offer, he knew it would never work, not as long as Scott’s mother remained on the ranch. So, it would be smarter to cut his loses and stick to his original plan, and try not to think about the way things could have been. He’d have to be content with what he had been dealt. It was safer that way. Besides, once Murdoch and Scott knew what he was REALLY like, they’d kick him out anyway. He took a deep breath. It was time to face reality.
Johnny glanced around as he entered the town, and the back of his neck prickled. Something wasn’t right. He pulled Barranca down to a slower pace as he tried to figure out just what it was that was bothering him. It was just a typical sleepy little town, just like hundreds of others that he had ridden into throughout the years, and now he had gotten careless because he was thinking about his so called family. Johnny shook his head. He was getting soft.
He pulled his palomino to a halt and looked around. There were no townspeople in sight, and the town was as quiet as a churchyard. His eyes caught a hint of movement in an upper window, but by the time he brought his eyes up, all was quiet. His hand moved slowly and he unhooked the safety on his holster, then rested his hand against the butt of his gun. He was ready to draw in an instant, but so far, there was no enemy to be seen. He nudged Barranca on, keeping a wary eye out. Finally he heard some raucous laughter coming from the cantina at the end of the street. He guided his horse in that direction, keeping a wary eye out for any unpleasant surprises.
As he drew nearer to the saloon, he slowed his horse and studied the scene. Numerous horses were tied in front, too many for there to be just some cowhands inside, blowing off steam. Something was going on. A few men were lounging in front, but their watchful expressions told Johnny they weren’t there by accident. They were lookouts for the bunch inside. His hand remained on his gun as he approached, and he tried to keep an eye on all of the windows where a gunman could be hiding.
He scanned the scene, trying to get a clue as to who the men were, and then his eyes went to the horses. A moment later a smile slowly appeared as he recognized a tall buckskin tied to the rail. He nudged Barranca a little closer, then pulled him to a halt and casually leaned his arms on the saddle horn, watching the men on the porch.
As expected, the men stood up and took a few steps forward.
“What are you lookin’ at?” one of the men asked belligerently.
Johnny smiled. “You.”
“You better move on. This here cantina is closed.”
Johnny let his glance wander to the building. “Don’t look closed ta me.”
“Well, it is. Now move on before you get hurt.”
Johnny swung down off of his horse and tied the reins to the rail. “Oh, I doubt if I’D be the one ta get hurt, and besides, I’m thirsty.”
The other men stepped up. “You got a smart mouth, boy.”
Johnny nodded in agreement as he turned toward the man. “Yep. Wanna try and close it for me?”
The first man’s eyes bugged out as his hand hovered by his gun. “Oh, yeah. It’ll be a pleasure.”
The door to the saloon swung open, and Johnny glanced in that direction, his smile never faltering.
Pardee smiled back. “‘Bout time you showed up, Johnny boy. I was beginnin’ ta wonder if you’d changed your mind.” Day turned his smile on the two men.
“Not real bright are ya, tryin’ ta goad Johnny Madrid into a fight.”
The two men on the porch looked perplexed for a moment, and then enlightenment dawned. The hands slowly moved away from their guns, and they turned and disappeared inside the saloon. Pardee watched them go, then turned back toward his friend.
“Buy you a drink?”
Johnny nodded. “Sure. We got a lot ta talk about.”
Pardee nodded. “Yes, we do. And the first thing we gotta talk about is Lancer.”
Chapter Thirty Nine
Catherine glared at her husband as he paced angrily while she lounged on the sofa. “I don’t know why you won’t face facts. He’s a troublemaker, and that’s all there is to it. He’s only here to cause as many problems as he can, and he can’t be trusted. I still don’t understand why you didn’t kick him out when he first showed up.”
“Because he’s my son!” Murdoch roared.
“You only have his word for that.”
Murdoch shook his head. “No,” he said quietly. “Too many things fit for him to be an imposter.” His eyes took on a faraway look. “Maria and I had even agreed on that name if we ever had a child.”
“Well, you didn’t,” Catherine snapped. “He’s a gunfighter, a killer, and he has no place around decent people.”
Murdoch stared at his wife. “Johnny is my son, as much as Scott is.” He let his glance slide toward his elder son, who nodded imperceptibly.
Catherine sat up indignantly. “How dare you suggest that Scott and that…that cur have anything in common,” she ranted.
“Actually, we have a lot in common,” Scott spoke up.
Catherine turned on her son, her eyes wide “Don’t you ever say that,” she snarled. “You’re nothing alike.”
Scott shook his head. “I didn’t say we were alike. That would be pretty unlikely since we have such different backgrounds, wouldn’t it?”
Catherine nodded, reassured. “Yes, YOU have manners and an education.”
“Well, it’s not exactly Johnny’s fault that he doesn’t, now is it?” Scott asked quietly.
“Well, it isn’t yours, either,” she snapped.
“I never said it was. But I’m not going to judge him on whether he knows which fork to use with supper.”
“He’s uneducated and stupid.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up, remembering some of the conversations he and Johnny had had, as well as the numerous games that Scott had lost to his younger brother. “Just because he didn’t have the chance at a decent education, don’t ever make the mistake of thinking he’s stupid. He’s one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met, Harvard colleagues included.”
Murdoch smiled quietly, pleasantly surprised by his son’s defense of his brother. He looked over at his wife and saw that she knew she wasn’t likely to get her way on this.
Catherine’s mouth thinned. “I have a headache. I think I’ll go lie down,” she announced dramatically.
When neither Scott not Murdoch made any move to stop her, she stalked off toward the stairs. Murdoch watched her go, then turned back toward his son, eager to find out what had happened between his two sons the last several days. He hadn’t been able to talk to Scott alone since Johnny had stormed off.
“What happened out there?” Murdoch asked quietly.
Scott brought his eyes up to meet his father’s. “I don’t really know,” he said honestly.
“Tell me what happened.”
With a sigh, Scott began to tell his father about the last several days spent with Johnny in the line shack. He told him about catching the horses, the hunting trips, and then Johnny’s sudden change in attitude.
“You can’t think of any reason he would suddenly act like that?” Murdoch asked.
Scott shook his head. “No.”
Murdoch sighed and studied his son carefully. “Do you think he turned those horses loose?”
Scott hesitated. He certainly didn’t want to think so, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t. “I don’t know,” Scott admitted reluctantly.
Murdoch nodded slowly. “It seems that since Johnny arrived, things have been going wrong an awfully lot,” Murdoch mused.
“Maybe there’s another explanation,” Scott said hopefully.
Scott shook his head and shrugged.
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t want to think he’d really betray us, but he DID make it clear from the beginning that he was going to cause problems.” Murdoch walked over and poured himself a glass of scotch.
“That doesn’t means he is really doing those things.”
“It doesn’t mean he’s not, either.” Murdoch sighed deeply. “I was hoping this would work out. I hoped that he would realize that he had a home and a family, and he would decide to stay, but now I don’t think that will happen. Maybe I should tell him to leave,” he said quietly.
“We don’t even know for sure he’s doing anything wrong,” Scott said in protest. “Even criminals get a fair trial before they’re pronounced guilty. We can’t just tell him to leave because we THINK he might be doing something wrong!”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “I’m afraid I have that proof. Whoever is causing the problems has inside information.”
Scott’s head shot up. “What do you mean?”
Murdoch sighed as he swirled the scotch around in his glass. “No one but the three of us knew that you and Johnny were going after those wild horses, and only the three of us knew that that herd of cattle was going to be moved to that pasture today.” He dropped his head. “It has to be Johnny.”
Scott searched for another explanation. He didn’t want Johnny to be guilty, and he realized that he wanted his brother to stay. “There must be another explanation.”
“Believe me, I wish there was, but I’ve been thinking about it all day, and that’s the only explanation I can come up with. The only one that makes sense. I’m afraid we’re going to have to face facts.”
“What are we going to do?” Scott asked quietly.
Murdoch shook his head slowly. “We can’t let him stay here and have him sabotage us at every turn.” His head dropped. “I guess your mother’s right. We’re going to have to cut our losses and tell him to leave,” he said tiredly. “I’ll tell your mother tonight. I’m sure that will cure her headache,” he said sarcastically
Scott felt his throat constrict. He and Johnny had fought most of the time, but for a little while when they had been at the cabin, Scott had felt a connection that he had never felt with anyone else. He knew Murdoch was right, but he didn’t want Johnny to leave. He wanted his brother to stay.
Murdoch paced angrily back and forth in the great room. He wondered if Johnny was even going to bother returning to the ranch, or if he would just openly throw in with Pardee and be done with it. No matter what Murdoch had told Scott, he had still had had doubts about whether he should tell Johnny to leave, but that was before he had talked to Frank.
The foreman had knocked on the door as he and Scott were finishing up their conversation and announced that Day Pardee and his gang were in Morro Coyo. That news had been shocking enough; Murdoch had figured the land pirate wouldn’t arrive this far south for several months yet. But even more shocking was the fact that Frank had seen Johnny having a drink with Pardee, and the two were obviously pretty chummy.
Murdoch stopped long enough to gulp down another swallow of his drink, then began pacing once more. He couldn’t believe he had been that stupid. He had wanted so much to believe that Johnny would settle down and join the family that he had turned a blind eye to the boy’s anger and hatred. He stopped and rubbed his eyes with his hands. He knew Johnny had ample reason to hate him, but he was hoping that somehow they could get past that. It had obviously been a fool’s hope, and now because of his stupidity, he had put everyone else on the ranch in danger.
He glanced over at his older son, who was staring out the window into the darkness. He knew Scott had hoped that it was all a misunderstanding; that Johnny hadn’t been behind all of the problems the ranch had been experiencing lately, but Scott had finally admitted that was the only explanation. Watching him, Murdoch felt a chill go down his spine. He had the feeling that with that admission, Murdoch had lost both of his sons. He was afraid that the disappointment of losing his new found brother would be reason enough for Scott to return to Boston.
Damn Johnny anyway, Murdoch thought as he turned and swept the desk clear of papers and then angrily sat down. He knew he should be coming up with a plan to protect the ranch from those land pirates, but right now his mind was on his lost boy. As angry as he was with him, he was still frightened. Not of him, but for him. Finally, he buried his head in his hands. Tomorrow he would get the hands together and they would figure out what to do to stop Pardee. And Johnny, he thought ruefully.
Murdoch woke abruptly at the first rooster crow the following morning. He tried to sit up, and he hissed in pain as his back gave a painful twinge. He slowly straightened, cursing the fact that he had fallen asleep at his desk. He would pay for that stupidity all week, and now wasn’t exactly the time to be even slightly handicapped. He figured he’d need all of his strength before this week was over.
As he slowly stretched, trying to work out the kinks, he noticed Scott had also fallen asleep in a chair. As he watched, Scott slowly opened his eyes and stretched, then quickly stood up. Murdoch shook his head. Give Scott another twenty years, and he wouldn’t be hopping up quite as quickly, he thought ruefully. Murdoch finally forced himself to his feet and opened the heavy drapes covering the windows. The men were already up and about, getting ready for the day’s chores. He realized he’d better stop them before they scattered all over the ranch. There were more important things to do today than herd cows.
As he walked toward the door, he heard the familiar sound of spurs hitting the stairs, and he whirled around, grabbing for his back when it protested the unexpected movement.
Johnny stepped down into the great room and looked at him, his eyebrows raised and an insolent grin on his face. “You getting’ old, Old Man?”
Murdoch glared at his younger son. “What are YOU doing here?”
Johnny’s expression immediately closed off and he looked at his father guardedly. “I didn’t know I’d been kicked out.”
“You haven’t…yet.” He stared at his son for a moment. “Why did you come back?”
“Like I said, I didn’t know it was a problem, and I figured you MIGHT want ta know what was goin’ on.”
“I KNOW what’s going on,” Murdoch snapped. “My son is good friends with Day Pardee!”
Johnny glanced over at his brother and nodded slowly. “Yeah, we’re friends,” he hesitated and shrugged. “Well, at least we ain’t enemies.”
“And when were you going to enlighten us about your… friend?” Scott asked quietly.
“Didn’t figure it was any of your business.”
“Oh? Murdoch asked sarcastically. “I suppose the little fact that he’s probably planning on taking over Lancer doesn’t matter.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “You know?”
Murdoch slammed his fist down on the desk. “Yes, I know! Why else would he be here! And I know that you’re in on it!”
A cold smile formed on Johnny’s face. “Now what makes you think that, old man?”
“It’s not hard to figure out,” Scott said quietly. “The horses, the fence line, all of the other things that have been going wrong when you’re around.”
“And when Pardee’s been around,” Johnny snapped.
“Pardee just arrived,” Murdoch said uncertainly.
“Yeah, just in time ta turn those horses loose and tear down that fence line,” Johnny stressed.
Murdoch glanced at Scott. “No one has seen him.”
Johnny snorted. “No one would unless he wanted them to.”
Murdoch stared at Johnny and shook his head. “He may have done some of the things, but at the very least, someone from this ranch was feeding him information.” His eyes locked on his younger son. “And the only ones that knew the information are right here in this house,” he said challengingly.
Johnny glanced at Scott, then met his father’s gaze and smiled. “Guess the secret’s out, huh?”
Chapter Forty One
Scott looked at his brother, disappointment etched on his face. “Why, Johnny?”
Scott shook his head. “I thought we were getting along,” he said quietly.
“Well, I didn’t shoot ya, did I?”
“Not yet,” Scott snapped. “Why did you have to throw in with Pardee?”
Johnny stared back, then smiled softly. “Who says I did?”
“You’re denying it?” Murdoch asked in disbelief.
“I hate ta disappoint you, old man, but yeah, that’s exactly what I’m sayin’.”
“Don’t lie to me, boy!”
The two men glared at each other for several seconds, and then Catherine appeared in the doorway. “What is HE still doing here?” she demanded as she swept into the room. “I thought we agreed he was nothing but trouble and needed to be sent packing.”
Murdoch turned and glared at her. “And what are you doing up this early?” he snapped as he looked pointedly at the clock. “It isn’t noon yet.”
Catherine’s head came up and she glared back. “Well aren’t we in a good mood,” she said sarcastically. Her gaze went to Johnny and she looked him up and down. “Of course I can understand why.”
Her attention went back to her husband. “I asked you a question. Why haven’t you kicked him out yet?”
Murdoch returned her stare for a moment. “I’m TRYING to find out what really happened.” He turned back toward Johnny, his hand sweeping through his hair in frustration. “I want an explanation young man.”
Johnny shrugged. “Like I said, how should I know?” he replied defiantly as his eyes flicked over to Catherine. “You’re askin’ the wrong person. Ask her.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean by that?”
“I MEAN she’s the one who brought Pardee here, and she’s the one who’s been feedin’ him information.”
“How DARE you accuse me!” Catherine stormed at Johnny. “I don’t even know this…Pardee.”
“Don’t have ta know him ta hire him.”
“Johnny, don’t,” Murdoch warned.
“Don’t what? Tell the truth?” Johnny shot. He looked at his father. “Don’t you think it’s a little strange that Pardee arrived this fast? He was workin’ up north and had no intention of coming down this far. That is, not until he got a note from your loving wife, saying he could have this ranch if he took you out and made it look like it was just part of a land war.”
Murdoch looked in disbelief at Catherine, who was livid.
“That’s a LIE!” she shouted at Johnny. “YOU’RE Pardee’s friend; you’re probably the one who brought him here! You saw all of this and decided to take it!”
Johnny snorted. “Believe me, MRS. LANCER, if I wanted this place or if I wanted ta kill your husband, I sure wouldn’t need Pardee’s help.” He looked at her appraisingly. “YOU, on the other hand, wouldn’t want ta get your own hands dirty. If you don’t actually pull the trigger, you can convince yourself that you ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”
“You, on the other hand have no compunction about pulling the trigger, do you?” Catherine accused sarcastically.
Johnny smiled slowly as he stared at her. “No, ma’am. Of course, some people are a lot easier to kill than others.”
“That’s enough!” Murdoch ordered.
“What’s the matter, old man? Does the truth hurt?”
“This discussion isn’t about that!”
“Oh, it’s exactly about that,” Johnny snorted. “You better decide just who is more likely ta pull that trigger, Johnny Madrid or your loving wife.”
Catherine turned back to Murdoch. “Are you just going to stand there and listen to him? His story doesn’t even make sense,” she protested. “Why would I offer to just give all of this away?”
“So we would have to go back to Boston,” Scott said thoughtfully.
Catherine whirled toward her son. “You can’t believe that…uncouth BASTARD over your own MOTHER!”
“He’s my brother,” Scott ground out. “And I know how much you hate it here.”
“So you believe I would stoop to hiring someone to kill your father?” she asked angrily.
Scott stared at her for a few seconds, and then looked at Johnny before dropping his head. “I don’t know what to believe,” he admitted.
Catherine whirled back toward Murdoch. “You don’t believe him, do you?”
Murdoch looked at his wife, and then turned toward Johnny, who was staring at him defiantly.
As his father continued to stare at him, Johnny snorted. “I figured you wouldn’t believe me, but I thought I’d give it a try, anyway. Good luck.” He whirled on his heel and headed toward the door.
Murdoch glanced back at Catherine, who was watching him go, a triumphant look on her face. He looked at her in indecision for a second, and then his eyes narrowed as he watched her expression.
“WAIT!” Murdoch ordered.
Johnny hesitated, and then turned slowly toward his father, a suspicious look on his face.
“I didn’t say I don’t believe you,” Murdoch admitted.
“WHAT?” Catherine howled.
Murdoch turned and faced her. “And I didn’t say I didn’t believe you, either. But one of you is obviously lying, and we’re going to get to the bottom of this.”
He turned back toward Johnny. “Can you give me one good reason why I should believe you?” Murdoch asked softly.
The gunfighter stared at his father for several seconds before shaking his head. “Nope, not a one,” he admitted quietly.
“There! I TOLD you!” Catherine said triumphantly.
Murdoch whirled toward her. “And why should I believe YOU?”
She looked at him in shock. “Because I’m you’re WIFE!”
Murdoch snorted. “You haven’t been my wife for a long time, and you would like nothing better than to have me out of the picture so you could take Scott and move back to Boston.”
Catherine drew herself up and glared at her husband. “You’re accusing ME of wanting you dead?” She pointed at Johnny. “HE’S the one who came here to kill you, or don’t you remember that little detail? He had a gun to your head, telling you how much he hated you.”
Scott’s head jerked up and he stared at Johnny, who smirked back at his brother and shrugged his shoulders. Murdoch sighed deeply, his confusion evident.
Murdoch looked back at Johnny as the gunfighter chuckled. “Seems like people are standin’ in line ta do you in, old man. Now all you gotta do is figure out which one’s the most serious about the job.”
“Now that would be me,” a voice came from the doorway.
Chapter Forty Two
Johnny whirled around at the sound of the voice and locked eyes on the man leaning against the door jamb, his gun pointed casually in their direction.
“Day,” Johnny said evenly.
“Hello, Johnny Boy. That conversation you was all havin’ was mighty interestin’.” He shook his head. “Why don’t you introduce me to your FAMILY.”
Murdoch took a step forward. “Get out of my house!”
Day shrugged as he waved his gun in Murdoch’s direction. “Won’t be your house much longer.” His eyes flew to Johnny. “Will it, Johnny?”
A slow smile appeared on Johnny’s face and he shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out, won’t we?”
“Yep, we will,” Pardee smiled back.
Murdoch watched the exchange between the two gunfighters and his jaw clenched. It looked like he had his answer. He didn’t know if he was more disappointed that his son had betrayed him or more relieved that his wife hadn’t.
“What do you want?” Murdoch asked Pardee belligerently, purposely ignoring his younger son.
Pardee shrugged. “I want your ranch.”
“You’re not going to get it!”
Day smiled. “You sure seem awfully confident for somebody whose own family wants you dead.”
Murdoch stared at Johnny before turning his attention back to Pardee. “No one in my FAMILY wants me dead.”
Pardee chuckled. “Well, somebody sure does!”
“Who?” Scott asked.
Pardee turned toward the blond. “That’s none of your business.”
“I think I have the right to know since it looks like I’m going to be killed,” Scott said calmly.
“Killin’ you ain’t part of the deal.” Pardee nodded toward Murdoch. “Just your old man, there.”
“Why?” Scott demanded.
Pardee shrugged. “Don’t know, don’t care as long as I get the ranch.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed and he looked at his mother thoughtfully. “Mother?” he asked softly.
She turned toward him. “Just stay out of it, Scott.”
“It was you,” Scott breathed in disbelief.
Catherine’s head came up. “I did what I had to, to make sure that you got what was coming to you and that you returned safely to Boston.”
“By having my father killed?”
“He has never been a father to you! Your grandfather and I raised you! You didn’t even know Murdoch Lancer until a short time ago!”
“So you figured it was all right to just kill him?” Scott asked in disbelief.
Catherine shook her head angrily. “I wanted to make sure you got what was coming to you! Murdoch was planning on giving half of this ranch to that half breed, and it should all rightfully be yours!”
Scott snorted. “So you gave the whole thing away! That makes sense.”
Catherine shook her head. “You don’t belong out here. I don’t care about the ranch, just the money it represents. Mr. Pardee and I made a deal. He is going to give us a percentage of the profits from the ranch after he takes over.”
Johnny laughed and looked at Day. “You plannin’ on settlin’ down and bein’ a rancher?’
Pardee grinned back. “Now you know me, Johnny Boy. Ain’t my style. But I figured I could break that news to the lady once I’d taken over. Figured I’d come down here and see for myself what was goin’ on. It sounded a little too good ta be true, havin’ a prize like Lancer just handed to me.”
“It’s not going to be just handed over to you!” Murdoch snarled. “This is MY ranch, not hers!” He shot Catherine a vicious look.
“Just one big happy family, huh?” Pardee chuckled as he turned toward Johnny. “No wonder you wanted ta kill ‘em all.”
Scott shook his head slowly as he looked back and forth between his mother and his brother. “You’re BOTH in on it?” he asked in disbelief.
Johnny shook his head. “Like I said, I do my own dirty work. If I had wanted you dead, you would be.”
Catherine smiled coldly. “Mr. Pardee, I would appreciate it if you would kill Madrid, too.”
Pardee looked at Johnny speculatively. “Well, now, that depends. You with me, Johnny?” He laughed. “Or once again are you goin’ ta make the mistake of stickin’ to your principles?” Day shook his head. “I woulda thought that after nearly getting’ yourself killed a few dozen times, you would have figured out by now that the ‘right’ side isn’t always the one that comes out ahead.”
Johnny shrugged. “Maybe not, but I figure I can sleep just a little bit better that way.”
Pardee shook his head in disgust. “That’s always been your problem, Johnny Boy. You always let your conscience get in the way of your good sense.” He sighed regretfully. “It looks like you and me are at the partin’ of the ways.”
Johnny nodded and shifted his weight to face the land pirate more fully. “Looks like.”
“Don’t make the mistake of thinkin’ you can draw before I can pull this trigger. You ain’t that much faster than me,” Pardee warned as he aimed the gun at Johnny’s heart..
“I guess we’ll find out,” Johnny answered.
Scott watched in disbelief, then turned toward his mother. “STOP THIS!”
Pardee answered without taking his eyes off of Johnny. “Too late. The lady ain’t in charge anymore. I’ve decided to take it all.” He shook his head. “Last chance, Johnny, ta join me instead of dyin’ with your FAMILY.”
“I ain’t the one that’s gonna be dyin’,” Johnny answered quietly.
Murdoch went for his gun, giving Johnny the break he needed as Pardee’s eyes flew toward Murdoch. Johnny drew before his father could even touch his Colt, and a moment later, Pardee fell, a bullet hole in his forehead.
Catherine looked in surprise at the fallen man, and then her gaze hardened as she stared at Johnny. “Damn you,” she whispered. Whirling, she grabbed Murdoch’s gun before he could react, then stepped away from her husband and brought the gun to bear on Johnny.
“Damn you,” she repeated.
Johnny froze, refusing to bring the Colt up to defend himself against Catherine. The irony of the situation caused a slight smile to form on his lips. Of all the gunfighters he had faced and conquered, he knew he was about to be killed by a woman. He watched calmly as her fingers tightened around the trigger.
Suddenly he was rammed sideways by a body flying into him, sending him falling toward the floor just as the sound of a gunshot echoed through the room. Johnny rolled over onto his side, shoving the dead weight of his brother off of him.
Chapter Forty Three
“Scott!” Johnny scooped his brother’s head onto his lap, and the blonde’s eyes flickered open.
“You ok?” Scott asked softly. He smiled as Johnny nodded, and then his eyes slid shut.
Murdoch stood, stunned at what had just happened. He was vaguely aware of the sound of the gun hitting the floor, and for a moment, no one moved. A second later, he started toward his sons, but was pushed by Catherine as she ran toward Scott. The woman sank to the floor and tried to grab Scott out of Johnny’s arms as the gunfighter was trying to stop the bleeding.
“Get away from him, lady,” Johnny snarled.
“I won’t have your filthy hands touching him!”
“I’m tryin’ ta save him, now get away from him!”
She jerked on Johnny’s hands once more. “He’s my SON!”
“He won’t be much longer if you won’t let me get this bleedin’ stopped.!”
Murdoch grabbed Catherine by the waist and pulled her away. “We need to take care of him. Now leave him alone and do something useful for once in your life. Go get Sam!”
Catherine stood frozen, and Johnny looked up. “I’ll go,” he said resignedly. When Murdoch looked at him enquiringly, he explained. “Some of Pardee’s men could still be around, and as much as I would LOVE to introduce her to some of them, I don’t necessarily want ta see her dead.” He hesitated a moment, then mumbled, “At least that way.”
Murdoch nodded. “Doctor Sam Jenkins is in Green River.” He looked at his younger son. “Please hurry!”
Johnny nodded. “The bullet is still in there, and from the looks of it, it’s pretty deep. You’d better do all you can ta get this bleedin’ stopped, or there’ll be no need for me ta hurry.”
Murdoch squatted down next to his sons, then turned toward Catherine. “Go get some clean bandages!” he ordered.
“I need to be with him!” she shot back.
“You NEED to do what is necessary to save his life. Now go on, while I move him upstairs.” He picked his older son up and headed for Scott’s room. Johnny watched for a moment, then strode angrily out of the door.
Johnny looked around, hoping to see some of the ranch hands, but there were none in sight. Tracking them down might take as long as finding the doctor, time that Scott couldn’t spare. Frustrated, he spurred Barranca away from the hacienda, his mood blackening with every stride his mount took. Damn Scott anyway! He thought his brother had more sense than that. Why on earth would Scott have stepped in front him? He had to have known his mother was going to fire that pistol. Johnny just couldn’t understand it. No one had EVER risked their life for his before. Why had Scott? Johnny knew he certainly hadn’t given his brother any reason to care about him, so why had he done it?” What Scott should have done was stay out of it. Johnny spurred his horse once more, anger and guilt at war in his mind.
By the time he arrived in Green River, he had calmed down somewhat. He guided his lathered horse over to the doctor’s office and slid off. A few hard raps told Johnny the office was empty, and he looked around desperately. If the Doctor had gone to another town, Scott would probably die. He reluctantly turned toward the sheriff’s office.
“Hey, Crawford!” he shouted as he pushed the door open. Val’s feet hit the floor and he came up, clutching at his gun. When he saw who it was, he stopped and glared at the man.
“What the hell do you want?”
Johnny glared back. “Where’s the Doc? Scott Lancer’s hurt.”
Val rose to his feet. “How?” he asked suspiciously.
“Shot. Now where’s the doctor? He needs ta have that bullet taken out, fast.”
Val glowered at him another second, then shrugged. “I think he’s over at the McGuire’s, just outside of town to the north. Small place, about a mile out. You can’t miss it.”
Johnny nodded. “Much obliged.”
“Are you the one that did the shootin’?” the lawman asked suspiciously as the gunfighter headed for the door.
Johnny hesitated before stepping out. “If I had shot him, there’d be no need for the doctor,” Johnny said icily before slamming the door behind him.
Val stared at the door thoughtfully for a moment, and then sat back down at his desk and propped his feet up once more.
Johnny gave his tired horse a pat. “Sorry, Compadre, just a little more and then you can rest.” He swung up and sent the palomino into a gallop out of town. He had only gone a short way when he saw a buggy approaching and he pulled the exhausted horse to a halt.
“You Sam Jenkins?”
The man nodded and Johnny sighed in relief. “You’re needed out at the Lancer ranch. Scott Lancer’s been shot.”
The old doctor immediately turned his buggy around and headed back the way he had come, and Johnny watched him go. Part of him wanted to follow the doctor and find out about Scott, but part of him just wanted to turn his horse and ride away from this whole mess. He finally realized that he cared about his brother, but he knew there was no room in his life for those kind of feelings. All they would do was to get him hurt, one way or the other. Besides, he was still angry with Scott for pulling such a stupid stunt. He thought his Harvard educated brother was supposed to be smarter than to purposely jump in front of a bullet. What had he hoped to gain?
Johnny shook his head angrily. He didn’t like to be beholden to anybody, and now he was to that Boston Dandy. The thought angered him and he turned his horse away from the ranch. He was going to leave before things became more complicated and he lost sight of who and what he was. He was a gunfighter, and he didn’t need a family. He didn’t need anyone.
Chapter Forty Four
Johnny took one last look at the disappearing buggy, and then guided his horse away from the ranch. If he was going to ride out, he needed some supplies, and he wasn’t in the mood to deal with that smart ass sheriff in Green river. Crawford would probably try to arrest him on some stupid charge, and in the mood Johnny was in, one of them would wind up dead. Johnny smiled. Either way, it would mess up his day even more. No, instead, he’d stop off in Morro Coyo and get the things he needed. Pardee’s bunch would be a lot easier to handle.
As he rode along, his thoughts kept treacherously turning back to his brother. Brother. Boy, that was something he’d never thought he’d have. When he was a kid, he’d dreamed of having a big brother, someone to protect him, someone to confide in. He snorted. He was a long way past a kid now, and it was too late to let a brother into his life. Any ties were dangerous for a gunfighter. No, a brother was just a liability at this point in his life. Maybe if he’d met Scott a long time ago, before it was too late, maybe then things could have been different. Maybe if he’d met his father then, too, things could have been a whole lot different. He shook off those thoughts with a sigh. No sense wasting time trying to change the past. He knew from experience it wouldn’t work.
As he approached Morro Coyo, he slipped the safety off of his gun. He doubted if Pardee’s bunch knew their boss was dead yet, but it never hurt to be careful. No matter what, they’d probably be getting nervous, and nervous gunfighters were dangerous. He reined Barranca in to a slower gait and kept his eyes open when he rode into town. Things seemed quiet, but that wasn’t necessarily a good sign. He pulled his horse to a halt. What he SHOULD do was get his supplies and hightail it out before he was spotted. The mercantile was just across the street. He could get in and out and be gone before anyone else knew he was here. He sat there for a minute, debating, and then with a sigh he nudged Barranca toward the saloon at the far end of town. He guessed it wouldn’t hurt to find out what was going on.
The same bunch of men were sitting on the porch, looking decidedly antsy. Johnny hid a smile. Well, at least they hadn’t heard the news yet, or they’d be shooting by now.
He pulled Barranca to a halt and immediately one of the men stepped out.
“What do you want, Madrid?”
Johnny shrugged. “Tell Day I want ta talk to him.”
The man glanced around. “Day ain’t here.”
Johnny’s eyebrows rose in feigned surprise. “”Where is he?”
The man shrugged once more, trying to be casual, but Johnny could see the nervousness on his features.
“Don’t rightly know.”
Johnny nodded over to the line of horses standing saddled and ready to go. “You boys plannin’ something?”
“That’s none of your business, Madrid.”
Johnny smiled. “It is if I’ve decided to throw in with you. I want to know what I’m getting’ into before I make up my mind.”
The man looked around uneasily, but the other men were no help. The man thought for a minute, and then finally he shrugged. He obviously decided that having Johnny Madrid on their side couldn’t hurt. Besides, he was a friend of Pardee’s.
“Day told us he was going to take a ride out to the Lancer ranch. He said when he got back, we had to take out the sheriff in Green River. Said Crawford was likely to cause trouble if we didn’t. He said if he wasn’t back by ten, to go ahead without him and he’d meet us there.”
Johnny glanced at the clock tower. It was already a quarter till ten.
“Maybe you should wait for Day,” Johnny suggested.
Another man stepped forward belligerently. “No way. If you want ta join us, Madrid, we won’t stop you. But you ain’t gonna come in and take over. We’re gonna do what Day said, with or without him. We’re gonna take out that sheriff, and if Day doesn’t show by then, then we’re ridin’ out to Lancer.”
Johnny looked at the other men, who were nodding in agreement. He smiled. “Well, can’t blame me for tryin’. Guess Day has it handled.” He nodded. “Tell Day I’ll see him around.”
The men looked at him suspiciously, but before they could figure out what to do, he turned Barranca and left. He half expected to feel a bullet in his back any second, but luckily the men’s brains just didn’t work that fast. As soon as he was out of town, he kicked the palomino toward Green River once more, hoping the tired horse would make it.
“SHERIFF!” Johnny threw the door open, and once more Val’s feet hit the ground.
“Damn you Madrid! If you do that one more time, I’m gonna lock you up for disturbin’ the peace, and I don’t care WHAT your daddy says about it!”
“Pardee’s men are gonna be here any time.”
Val looked at the gunfighter suspiciously. “And just how would you know that?”
“Cause they told me. Look Crawford, I don’t have time to give you all the details, but you’d better unlock those rifles, ‘cause I have the feeling we’re gonna need ‘em.”
“WE’RE gonna need ‘em?”
Johnny looked at the sheriff in exasperation. “Yes, WE. Unless, of course, you want me to ride out and leave you to handle them all on your own.”
“Why are they coming here?”
“Would you get those rifles while you talk? They’re coming here to kill YOU!”
“You are the most stubborn, mule headed…. Because they think Pardee already took over Lancer, and they don’t want any trouble from you. Once you’re out of the way, there’s no law around to try to stop them.”
“So why aren’t you out at Lancer, tryin’ to stop Pardee?”
“I already did. He’s dead.”
Val stared at the gunfighter thoughtfully.
Johnny glared back. “Look, sheriff. If I was on their side, would I be tellin’ you to arm yourself?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Pardee and his men are headin’ for Lancer now and you’re just tryin’ ta keep me occupied for a while. Maybe I should be arrestin’ you for shootin’ Scott Lancer.”
Johnny sat down on the desk and glared at the man. “Well, I guess you’ll just have to just make up your mind, because I ain’t gonna fight Pardee’s men all by myself. Either grab those rifles or lock me up. Your choice.”
Chapter Forty Five
Val glared at the gunfighter for several seconds, then sighed and walked over to the gun rack. He unlocked the guns, then turned and looked at Johnny once more.
“Seems like a gunfighter would have his own rifle,” he observed.
“I do,” Johnny answered. “But it never hurts ta have some extras ready and loaded,” Johnny replied sarcastically.
Val snorted. “You ain’t as dumb as you look.” He tossed Johnny a rifle and nodded toward the desk. There’s some shells in the top drawer.”
“You always leave your guns unloaded?”
“Not always,” Val answered mildly.
Johnny began loading the rifle, then put it down on the desk and reached for another one.
“How many men are you figurin’ will be visitin’ us?” Val asked.
The gunfighter shrugged. “Don’t know for sure. Maybe twenty. Less if we’re lucky.”
The sheriff’s eyebrows went up. “I take back what I said about you bein’ smart. Only a fool would stick around and try to fight back against that many men.”
Johnny stopped what he was doing and looked at the sheriff appraisingly. “I don’t see you runnin’.”
Val shrugged. “It’s my job. Besides, I never said I was smart.” He snapped his rifle shut and stood up. “We’d better go board up the back door.”
Johnny nodded and followed the lawman into the back room, then stopped and looked around in amazement. “What the hell is all this?”
“Never mind,” Val grumbled. “Just help me move some of these boxes in front of the door.”
“I can’t even GET to the door. Hell, just leave it open. Anybody trying ta come in this way will kill themselves on all this junk.”
The sheriff turned and glared at Johnny. “Are you gonna help me or not?”
Johnny shrugged and grabbed a box. “Crawford, you ain’t only dumb, you’re also a slob.”
“Yeah, well I like ta be prepared. I never know when I’m gonna need some of this stuff.”
“Indian pots? Blankets? What the hell would you need those for?”
“None of your business,” Val growled. “Now get busy or Pardee’s men will walk in and you’ll still be standin’ there jawin’.”
With a sigh, Johnny grabbed another box and shoved it toward the door.
“So why did ya shoot Pardee? I heard the two of you was friends,” Val asked nonchalantly.
Johnny shrugged. “We were, once.”
“We didn’t see eye to eye on a few things.”
Johnny stopped and glared at the lawman. “That’s really none of your business,” he said coldly.
Val shrugged. “I heard Pardee was a real cold- hearted son of a bitch.”
Johnny grinned at him. “Isn’t that what you heard about me, too?”
Val grinned back. “Yep. So if you’re so mean, how come you’re here riskin’ your life ta help me?”
Johnny shrugged. “I’m beginning ta wonder about that myself,” Johnny admitted. “Maybe I should leave. I wouldn’t want to mess up my reputation.”
Val snorted. “Seems like you already have, when you sided with Lancer instead of Day.”
Johnny shook his head uncomfortably. “Who I sided with is my own business.”
“The men you said were ridin’ in to town might not think that when they find out just who shot their boss.”
“I had my reasons,” Johnny snapped.
Because Pardee shot Scott?” Val asked calmly.
“Then why?” Val pushed.
“Like I said, SHERIFF, I had my reasons.”
“So if Pardee didn’t shoot Scott, who did? You?”
Johnny glared at lawman. “”Did anyone ever tell you how annoying you are?”
Val nodded thoughtfully. “Yep.” He stared at Johnny once more. “So, did ya?”
“Did I what?” Johnny asked irritably.
“Did ya shoot Scott?”
“Well, if you didn’t shoot him and Pardee didn’t shoot him, who did? I don’t think Murdoch shot him.”
“Nope. His mother shot him.”
The sheriff stopped and stared at Johnny. “His MOTHER? Why?”
Johnny snorted. “She THOUGHT she was shootin’ me.”
Val chuckled. “Well, I can sure understand her wantin’ ta shoot you, but how did she confuse the two of you?”
“I guess it’s ‘cause we look so much alike,” Johnny said sarcastically.
“Uh huh.” Val shoved another box next to the door. “How bad is he?”
A dark look crossed Johnny’s face. “Bad enough.”
“So how come you ain’t back at the ranch?”
Johnny turned and glared at the lawman. “If you don’t stop talkin’ it won’t matter, will it?”
Val shrugged. “Just wonderin’ why you’re in town instead of back at Lancer where you belong.”
“I don’t belong there!” Johnny snapped.
Val’s eyebrows went up. “Oh? What happened? The old man finally get smart and kick your sorry ass out?”
“Look,” Johnny said in frustration. “It don’t matter.”
Val shrugged. “Guess not.”
The sheriff studied the gunfighter. So you ain’t gonna stay?”
“Nope.” Johnny heaved a crate onto the pile next to the door.
“Here I thought you might be smart enough ta stay and try ta make a new life for yourself. Guess I was wrong.”
“Yep, you were. No matter what Lancer thinks, you and I both know that it ain’t that easy. Not with my reputation.”
Val snorted. “That’s for sure.” The sheriff stopped and studied the gunfighter once more. “Still, it seems like it might be worth tryin’. Cause you and I both know that if you don’t, you’ll be dead before you’re thirty.”
“Well, that comes to us all, don’t it?” Johnny smirked. “Especially smart -assed sheriffs.”
Val nodded in agreement. “Yep. But you won’t even leave a ripple when you’re gone.”
“Thanks for the observation.”
The sheriff shook his head. “Seems sorta dumb ta me to just walk away from the only good thing that’s ever happened to you.”
Johnny looked at the lawman in exasperation. “Would you quit standin’ around talkin’ and get busy? What I do ain’t none of your business.” He shook his head. “Besides, you don’t know nothin’ about me.”
Val shook his head. “No, I don’t. But I’m startin’ to.”
Chapter Forty Six
Murdoch fought with everything he had to stop the blood that was oozing steadily from the bullet wound in Scott’s back, but he was beginning to panic. He knew the bleeding wouldn’t stop until the bullet was out, and removing the bullet was way beyond his scope of expertise. He had taken plenty of bullets out in his life, but none this deep and never out of someone he was this close to. Never when it was this important. He pressed down harder in a vain effort to stop the bleeding, and tried desperately to ignore the nearly hysterical ranting of his wife. Catherine had swung back and forth between haranguing him for not being able to stop the bleeding to tearfully imploring him to save their son. He had purposely kept his mind away from the circumstances surrounding the shooting. He was afraid if he let himself think about it, he just might strangle Catherine, and he couldn’t let go of his son’s wound for that long.
Murdoch had never felt so helpless in his life. He wondered if he should have gone to fetch the doctor instead of Johnny. He thought bitterly that Johnny was probably capable of taking the bullet out. Murdoch was sure that his gunfighter son had plenty of experience with gunshot wounds. From what he could figure out, his younger son’s life certainly hadn’t been sheltered, and he still wondered if the horrible things Johnny had told him about his life were really true. If they were, he couldn’t blame his son for hating him, and he certainly couldn’t blame him for the life he had been forced to lead.
It had been such a shock to find out that his beloved Maria had given him a son, but more of a shock to find out just who and what his son was. Johnny Madrid. Gunfighter. Not just a gunfighter, but the best. A man who killed other men for money. A man with no soul.
Murdoch shook his head. No, that wasn’t true. In spite of their initial meeting, he had sensed a war going on in Johnny. A war between good and evil, between caring and coldness. He had occasionally seen a yearning look in his son’s eyes, always when he didn’t think anyone was looking. Murdoch knew that his son wanted a home and a family, even if he wouldn’t admit it to anyone, even himself. The question was, would he let himself have one?
Murdoch turned his attention back to his bleeding son. If Sam didn’t hurry, there wouldn’t be much of a family left. Scott was still bleeding profusely, and Murdoch pressed even harder, and said a prayer that his elder son would survive. He was rewarded when the flood turned to a trickle, but he knew his son wasn’t out of the woods yet. Damn Sam, what was taking him? A fleeting thought came unbidden. Had Johnny had simply left without going for the doctor ? No, despite Johnny’s show of indifference, Murdoch knew that Scott had made an impression on his younger son. Scott had made an impression on him, as well.
Murdoch didn’t know Scott very well, even after all of these months, but he knew that he was an honorable, intelligent man. These last few weeks since Johnny had been home, he had seen it even more. Murdoch was no fool. He knew that a lot of the things that had gone wrong in the past few weeks had been Johnny’s fault. After thinking about it more carefully, Murdoch had realized that the part of the pasture Scott had gotten in trouble for not checking had more than likely been Johnny’s responsibility. And yet Scott hadn’t said one word against his younger brother, but shouldered the entire blame himself. That showed some pretty good character.
Murdoch pushed down once more on the wound as he let his mind wander back to that day. With a sigh, he realized it didn’t say too much for Johnny’s character, though. He wondered if Johnny would ever say anything about what had really happened. That is, if he even stayed. Even though Johnny had fought Pardee, Murdoch wasn’t sure if that meant his younger son had decided to stay and really take him up on his offer, or if Johnny just wasn’t a murderer. Either way, Murdoch was grateful. He had been shocked when Johnny had actually killed Pardee without a second’s thought, and he wondered if his son had actually considered Pardee a friend. If that was the kind of friend Johnny had relied on, no wonder the boy didn’t trust anyone.
He shook his head sadly. It could have been so much different. If he had known Maria was with child, he never would have asked her to leave. With a pang of guilt, he realized that if he’d known, he would have sacrificed his elder son. He would have sent Catherine packing. Instead, he had made a choice that had ruined everyone’s lives and probably cost him both his sons.
He still couldn’t believe that Catherine had actually contracted to have him killed. He had known for a long tine that she disliked him, but he never thought she actually hated him. Not enough to have him killed. He guessed he shouldn’t be all that shocked. She WAS Harlan Garrett’s daughter, after all. Garrett’s whole philosophy was to get what all you could any way you could. But murder? He shook his head slightly. At least Scott apparently hadn’t inherited that trait, thank God.
He looked down at his unconscious son once more. He would be the happiest man on earth if he could just have both of his sons at home. A dark shadow crossed his face. He would still have to confront Catherine, but at this point, he wasn’t sure what he could do about it. Pardee was dead, and if Scott died, it would be Catherine’s word against his and Johnny’s. He had the feeling that with Harlan’s help, she would not only get off, but wind up owning the ranch. Even if Scott lived, would he turn on his own mother? Murdoch shook his head sadly. He just didn’t know.
Chapter Forty Seven
Jose Morales led the whooping and yelling raiders into the town of Green River. He couldn’t believe his luck; he was finally in charge, and he wasn’t about to make a mistake now. One of the men who had gone with Pardee to the Lancer ranch had raced into town only minutes after Madrid had left and broken the news that Day was dead by Lancer’s hand. A few minutes earlier, and Madrid would have been running things, but luck had been on Morales’ side for once. Instead of sorrow at the news of Pardee’s death, there had been a fight for leadership and six of the men had been killed. After personally taking down several men, Morales had managed to take over and order had been at least tentatively restored. He had lost several more men who had decided that they’d be better of striking out on their own, but the new leader still had enough men to do what he wanted.
Now the men that were left were out for revenge. They were going to kill that no account sheriff and take over the town, then take over the whole valley, starting with the Lancer ranch. Morales smiled. He always fancied himself in old Day’s shoes, and now he’d gotten the chance. Of course, it would take time to solidify his position as leader, but he had no doubt it would happen. The thought of the riches to be won made his smile grow wider.
Morales watched the sheriff’s office as the men stormed into the town, but the lawman remained hidden. Looking around, he also noticed the town seemed deserted. Evidently, the sheriff had been warned, but it didn’t matter. If the lawman wouldn’t come out to them, they’d just have to go in and get him. With a scowl, Morales fired his gun to get the attention of his rampaging men. It took several minutes to get all of them rounded up and relatively quiet. He knew they were hungry for action, and that he’d have to let them blow off some steam or they’d rebel, and he had no intention of losing his position of power so soon. Once the sheriff was out of the way, he’d let his men have some fun.
“All right, listen up!” he shouted. “For some reason, the good sheriff has decided he doesn’t want to come out and play.” The men laughed and jeered, then Morales continued. “If we get rid of him, we can take over the whole valley and live like kings!” He pointed at a couple of the men. “You boys go around the back of the office while we storm the front. It’ll be over before that old sheriff even knows what hits him.”
The men took off, and Morales watched. Even though the sheriff was obviously a coward, the man would probably at least fight for his life. The stupid idiots that he had sent in the back door would more than likely get their brains blown out.
Morales waited for the men to get into the sheriff’s office, but a few minutes later, the men were back. “It’s all boarded up! We can’t get in!”
Morales scowled. “All right. Evidently the sheriff has some brains after all.” He pulled his gun. “Looks like we’ll have ta go in the front way.” He aimed at the front window of the office and pulled the trigger, and the glass shattered.
“Hold it right there!”
Morales spun around, unable to pinpoint where the voice was coming from.
“Throw down your guns and put your hands up!” Another voice drifted toward them, and Morales and his men looked frantically for the source of the voices.
“I SAID drop them!”
Morales finally looked up and saw a man holding a rifle crouched in the bell tower. His eyes widened when he saw who it was, and Morales brought his gun up, but it was too late. A puff of smoke and a rifle’s report signaled his death. The rest of the men scattered, heading for the buildings to find shelter, firing as they went. Several more were felled by the bullets coming from the tower and the loft in the livery across the street as they sought cover.
When the men reached the buildings, they found that all of the doors and windows had been barricaded and there was nowhere to hide. They turned and returned fire, but without cover, several more fell, and panic began to spread among the survivors as they fought to find safety from the rifle fire raining down on them.
“Drop your guns!” the voice ordered once more, and this time several of the men complied. A few refused, and more bodies littered the streets until the gunfire slowed and then finally stopped.
Johnny climbed down from the tower, keeping his eyes and his rifle trained on the men that were left standing. A moment later, the sheriff joined him.
“Sorry lookin’ bunch, ain’t they?” Val said as he studied the survivors.
“Yeah, not real bright, either,” Johnny responded. He walked forward and bent over to take the gun from one of the wounded men lying on the ground when he heard a shout. He spun around, cursing the fact that he still had a rifle in his hands instead of his handgun, and saw Val level his gun at one of the raiders. The outlaw’s gun swung away from Johnny and turned toward the lawman and two shots sounded almost simultaneously. A second later, both Val and the raider fell in the dirt.
Johnny dropped his rifle and grabbed his Colt. He swung it toward the surviving raiders, daring them to try something, but their hands remained firmly in the air. They had no intention of testing either Madrid’s speed or his temper. He watched them cautiously as he edged over to where the sheriff had fallen and crouched down next to the still form.
“Damn you, Crawford! What did ya have ta go and do that for! Here I thought you was smarter than that!”
Chapter Forty Eight
Johnny scowled at the lawman. “I oughta just leave ya here,” he complained as he helped the lawman to his feet, then steadied him while Val slowly caught his breath.
“It’s all right by me!” Val shot back. “Don’t want any of your help, anyway.”
“You seemed glad enough of it a few minutes ago!”
The sheriff snorted. “You call that help? All you did was manage ta get me shot!”
“Yeah, well I can’t help it if you’re too dumb and slow to duck.”
“Seems like YOU were the one that wasn’t duckin’.”
Johnny glanced back at the sheriff’s office, where he had just finished locking up the prisoners, then he guided the sheriff over to a nearby wagon and eased him into the back.
“Doc Jenkins is out at Lancer,” Johnny explained, a dark look crossing his face as he remembered why. He pushed that thought away and concentrated on the task at hand. “I’ll have ta take you out there; no tellin’ how long he’ll be.”
“I don’t need no doc,” Val argued.
Johnny’s eyebrows went up. ‘Oh? And who do you think is gonna dig that bullet outta you if it ain’t Sam?”
The sheriff glared at the gunfighter. “Well, you’re probably pretty good at it.”
Johnny shook his head. “We’re goin’ for a ride,” he said emphatically as he pulled up the tailgate.
“I can ride my horse,” Val protested.
“The hell you can, and I don’t plan on scrapin’ you up outta the dirt more than once today. You’re gonna ride in the wagon.”
“Bill isn’t gonna like us usin’ it,” Val warned.
“I don’t really care what he likes,” Johnny growled as he stood next to the wagon. “I sure don’t see him around to object. He’s still hiding inside somewhere, and if he knows what’s good for him, he’ll stay hiding ‘till I’m long gone. I ain’t too happy with the good citizens of Green River right now, and it wouldn’t take much for me to blow one away if they gave me any lip.”
“That sounds like a threat on one of my citizens,” Val groused as he eased up against the back of the seat. “You’re gonna make me arrest you, yet.”
Johnny snorted. “Are you ALWAYS this agreeable?”
“Don’t like bein’ hovered over. Now leave me alone before I get mad and shoot ya.”
“You ain’t exactly in the best shape for it,” Johnny said as he handed Val a cloth. “Here, keep this pressed on that shoulder of yours. I don’t want to go to all the trouble of cartin’ your ass all the way out there just ta find out you’ve bled to death.”
“Madrid, I can take you with one hand tied behind my back!”
Johnny grinned. “Maybe, but I doubt you could do it with a bullet in your gun shoulder AND without a gun.” He held up Val’s gun, and the sheriff grabbed it with his good arm, then hissed in pain. Johnny chuckled, drawing another glare from the lawman, then Johnny hopped up on the seat and clucked to the team, starting them slowly out of town toward Lancer.
“Smart Ass,” the sheriff grumped as he shifted his weight in an effort to get comfortable.
Johnny looked over his shoulder at the still form, then pulled the team to a halt. Val had done a pretty good job of stopping the bleeding, at least until a few minutes ago when Val’s hand had dropped into his lap. Johnny knew the sheriff was close to passing out from the pain and the blood loss, and the gunfighter was worried. Johnny hopped in the back and pushed the cloth down harder on the bleeding wound, and Val sat up with a yelp.
“What the hell are you doin?”
“Trying to stop the bleeding, since you don’t seem to be interested in doin’ it anymore.”
The sheriff looked at the gunfighter suspiciously. “Seems more like you’re tryin’ ta kill me.”
Johnny nodded. “Well, who knows, maybe I am.” He grinned. “But in that case, you’d better stay awake. If you pass out on me, it’d be awful easy ta get rid of ya, and nobody would know the difference.”
Val glared back. “Better believe I’ll stay awake, and if you try anything you’ll find out I ain’t so helpless.” He looked around. “How much further?” he asked casually.
Johnny noticed the paleness of the sheriff’s skin and the pain lines around his mouth. “Not too much further. Just hang on.”
“I’m hangin’ on just fine,” Val snapped. “Just quit actin’ like a mother hen and let’s get this over with.”
Johnny climbed back up to the seat and slapped the reins down on the backs of the horses. The team set out a fast walk, and Johnny looked around to make sure Val wasn’t being bounced around too much. The sheriff certainly didn’t look comfortable, but at the moment Johnny was more concerned about getting the sheriff out to the ranch quickly than he was about the man’s comfort. In Johnny’s opinion, Val had already lost too much blood.
Johnny finally allowed himself to think about his brother. Scott had lost a lot of blood, too, and he wondered if he was still alive. Johnny hadn’t wanted to care, and he had told himself that it didn’t matter; he was leaving and he’d never see any of them again, anyway. But now he was heading straight back to where he’d sworn he wouldn’t return, and he realized that he DID care. He didn’t want to go back to the ranch and find out Scott had died. He shook his head angrily. WHY had Scott jumped in front of him?
Johnny turned and he looked at the nearly unconscious man in the back of the wagon. For that matter, why had Val saved his life? If the sheriff hadn’t drawn that outlaw’s fire, Johnny would be the one lying in the back of the wagon, probably dead. The raider had had a dead bead on Johnny until Val had drawn his attention. The gunfighter took a deep breath. He just didn’t understand. He didn’t think either of them was particularly stupid, so that must mean they had a reason for doing what they did, but what? What could they possibly have hoped to gain?
Chapter Forty Nine
Johnny mindlessly brushed his horse, letting the familiar task calm him down. Right now he didn’t want to think about anything. It was just too fresh, and he felt too vulnerable. Once he was safely away from here, then he could think about what had happened and sort out his feelings.
Finally he lowered his head and stood for several seconds, then resolutely picked up his saddle and threw it on the palomino’s back. He reached under the horse’s belly for the cinch, then straightened abruptly when he heard a noise. He whirled around, gun in hand.
Johnny stared at his father for several seconds, then slid the Colt back into place. “You shouldn’t sneak up on a man like that. It ain’t healthy,” he said calmly as he once more bent for the cinch.
“You’re leaving,” his father said quietly.
Johnny nodded without turning around. “Yeah. I figure it’s time to move on.”
“Just like that.”
Johnny stopped for a moment, then pulled the cinch tight. “Nothin’ left to stay for.”
Murdoch thought for a moment. “So you were never serious about making this work at all, were you?”
Johnny whirled around. “Come on, old Man. You’re not stupid. You know damn good and well I came here for one thing, and one thing only. That was ta cause trouble.”
“I was hoping that wasn’t the real reason. And if it was, I was hoping you’d change your mind about that,” Murdoch said calmly.
Johnny snorted in disbelief. “Maybe you ARE stupid! Who do you think didn’t check that pasture fence? It sure as hell wasn’t Scott. I didn’t clear that stream, either. In fact I didn’t do much of anything while I was here.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “I know.”
Johnny looked at him cautiously. “You know?”
Murdoch nodded. “It wasn’t that hard to figure out, but I’m glad you finally admitted it. But what I want to know is why are you leaving now?”
Johnny gaped at his father. “Why am I leaving?”
Murdoch took a step forward. “YES! Why are you leaving? It shouldn’t be a hard question to answer. Why don’t you stay and cause more trouble?”
Johnny shook his head in confusion. “YOU WANT me to make trouble for you?”
“I WANT you to answer the question. WHY are you leaving instead of staying and making things hard on us?”
Johnny opened his mouth, then shut it and shook his head. “I guess I just don’t want to any more.”
“WHY?” Murdoch barked. Why don’t you want to?”
Johnny glared at the rancher, then reached for his horse’s reins. Murdoch’s arm shot out and grabbed his son by the arm.
Johnny pulled free. “Don’t ever grab me like that again,” he spat. “Or you’ll wind up dead.”
Murdoch took a step closer. “I don’t think so,” he said evenly. “Johnny, why didn’t you pull your gun just now? Why didn’t you hit me?” He came in even closer. “WHY don’t you want to cause more trouble for us?” WHY? I want to know.”
Johnny stood with his head down, not answering.
“Why did you endanger your life to help Sheriff Crawford? And once he was hurt, why didn’t you ride out then? Why did you bring him all the way out here? WHY?”
“I DON’T KNOW!” Johnny yelled angrily.
Murdoch took a step backwards and nodded. “I think you do. I think you know why, and I think it’s scaring you.”
“I ain’t scared of nothing,” he spat.
“I think you are,” his father argued. “Now tell me why you don’t want to do anything more to hurt us.”
Johnny dropped his head and shook it slightly.
“I want you to tell me why,” Murdoch ordered softly. “I want to hear you say it.”
“No!” Johnny said angrily. “Now leave me alone!” He went to mount once more, but Murdoch stood in his way. “Get out of my way, old man,” Johnny growled.
“No, I’m not.”
“WHY?” Johnny shouted. “Why can’t you just let me leave?”
“Because I don’t want you to!”
“You’re crazy,” Johnny said hesitantly.
“Am I? Johnny, you’re my son. What’s so crazy about a father wanting his son to come home?”
“You already have a son.”
“Is there a law I can’t have two?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny shook his head. “I ain’t nothin’ to you.”
Murdoch’s chin came up. “Just like we’re nothing to you?” he challenged.
Johnny shook his head in frustration. “You just won’t drop it, will you?”
“No I won’t. I want to hear you admit the truth. That’s all I’m asking.”
“Well, let me tell you, old man, you’re asking a lot.”
Murdoch nodded as he looked into his son’s eyes. “I know I am.”
Johnny dropped his head. “I’m a gunfighter.”
“You’re still my son and Scott’s brother,” Murdoch said implacably.
“It wouldn’t WORK!”
Johnny shook his head in frustration. “It just wouldn’t!”
“Tell me WHY!”
“You think I can quit, just like that? You think there won’t be gunhawks showin up all the time, pushin’ for a fight? They wouldn’t care who they hurt to get to me. Besides, I’ve never had ta work by the clock before, never had ta follow rules.” He snorted. “I’d probably spend half my time in Crawford’s jail! In case you haven’t noticed, gunfighters aren’t exactly his favorite people.”
Murdoch smiled quietly. “I think we can convince Sheriff Crawford to give you a chance.”
Johnny shook his head once more. “What about those other things? My reputation ain’t gonna just disappear.”
“No, it won’t. Not overnight. But with time I think it will, if you want it to. There are a lot of good gunfighters out there who want to stay in the game. After a while, they’re not going to go to too much trouble to find you. Eventually, people will forget about Johnny Madrid.” He studied his son. “At least if you want them to, they will.”
Johnny met his father’s gaze. “I don’t know if that’s what I want or not,” he said softly. He shook his head in confusion. “I never thought about it, because I never figured I’d have a choice.”
“Well now you do.” Murdoch touched his son’s arm. “Johnny, please answer my question.”
Johnny stared into his father’s eyes, then dropped his head. “I care,” he whispered. Then he shook his head and his voice hardened. “But it don’t change anything.”
Johnny quickly turned away from his father and swung up onto Barranca, desperate to get away. To his surprise and relief, his father didn’t try to stop him again. Johnny settled into the saddle before chancing a last look at Murdoch. With an effort, he kept his voice steady.
“Thanks for the offer, but you and I both know it wouldn’t work.”
“It would work, Johnny, if you wanted it to badly enough,” Murdoch insisted.
Johnny hesitated, wondering if his father could possibly be right. If he really COULD change and become Johnny Lancer, rancher. But even as he wondered, he knew it was impossible. He was Johnny Madrid, and always would be. He wasn’t going to open himself up to any more disappointment. He’d had enough of that in his life, and he was sick of being hurt. He was tired of trying to be anything other than what he was; a half breed gunfighter. Johnny shrugged. “I guess I don’t.”
Murdoch stared at him for a moment, the disappointment obvious on his face, and then he nodded slowly. “If you ever change your mind…” he said hopefully.
“I won’t,” Johnny said confidently.
Murdoch tried again. “If you ever need anything – money…”
Defeated, Murdoch’s eyes dropped. “Take care of yourself, son.”
Johnny stared another second, and then kneed the palomino out of the barn, determined not to look back. He knew if he didn’t leave quickly, he might never get away. He kept his mind focused on the distant arch, and tried to block out the memory of the tears he could have sworn were welling in his father’s eyes. He still couldn’t understand why his father cared. Johnny had done nothing to endear himself to any of them, and he had caused nothing but trouble the whole time he had been here.
And why had Scott and then Val both saved his life, getting themselves shot in the process? He still couldn’t understand it. He hardly knew Val, and the little he did know him, he and the sheriff hadn’t exactly hit it off. And what about Scott? He and Scott might be brothers, but they were hardly friends. He shook his head. It just didn’t make sense.
As he rode, he closed his eyes briefly as he wondered if Scott and Val would pull through. Sam hadn’t been very reassuring, but at least both men were still alive, and if Johnny didn’t know for sure, he could pretend everything turned out ok. He tried to convince himself that he didn’t care, but deep down, he knew he did, and that bothered him. He was getting soft. He had to get out of here and back to his own life before he started making mistakes.
“MURDOCH! Come quick. It’s Scott!”
Despite his resolve, Johnny turned around and looked at Teresa as she ran toward her guardian. Even from where he was, Johnny could see the tears streaming down her face, and he pulled Barranca to a halt. The girl ran up to Murdoch and although Johnny couldn’t hear the words, her agitation was obvious.
Murdoch listened for a moment, and then took off at a run toward the house, and Johnny watched as the man disappeared inside. The gunfighter stared in that direction, wavering, and then resolutely turned back away from the hacienda.
“Johnny, please don’t go,” Teresa pleaded. Johnny looked down and saw that the girl had walked up next to him, and he hadn’t even noticed.
“I have to,” Johnny said, keeping his voice neutral as he looked away, refusing to look at the girl.
“He’s asking for you,” Teresa said plaintively.
Johnny took a deep breath, keeping his emotions under control by the barest thread. “He doesn’t need me, he has all of you.”
“Of course he needs you, you’re his BROTHER!”
Johnny shook his head. “We’re strangers.”
“You don’t have to be.”
Johnny whirled around angrily. “What’s it to you? What do you care?”
Teresa calmly met his gaze. “This is my family, too.”
“Well it ain’t mine!” Johnny insisted.
Teresa’s chin came up. “Then I guess we were wrong about you,” she said challengingly.
“Yeah, I guess you were.”
“Your BROTHER saved your life! He’s DYING because of you, and you don’t even care! All he wants is to see you, and you don’t even care enough to talk to him. How COULD you!”
Johnny turned angrily and spurred Barranca forward, eager to get away from the truth. Once more he resolutely headed for the arch, hoping that once he rode through it, he could leave not only the ranch, but also his feelings, behind.
He finally reached his goal and then he pulled Barranca to a halt. He sat there for several seconds with his head down before glancing back at the house. To his relief, he saw that Teresa had disappeared inside. He looked up at the arch, knowing that if he rode through, he could never come back. He stared at the arch and the beckoning road beyond, then with a curse, he yanked the reins to the side and spurred his horse back toward the house. Damn Scott anyway. Damn all of them.
He pulled Barranca to a halt and jumped off, then ran into the house and up the stairs. He stood in the doorway watching as both Teresa and Murdoch hovered around Scott’s bed, then his eyes narrowed as he saw Catherine sitting by Scott’s side, holding her son’s hand.
“Johnny!” The relief in Murdoch’s voice was obvious. Teresa and Catherine looked up, and Johnny’s eyes locked onto Catherine’s. Her eyes flashed hatred and Johnny’s jaw tightened as he returned the look in kind. He opened his mouth, then with an effort, he clamped it shut, knowing this wasn’t the time. He tore his eyes away from the woman and focused on his brother. He walked over to the bed, and then crouched down next to Scott’s side opposite Catherine. He looked at his brother for several moments, and then picked up his brother’s hand and began talking softly.
Chapter Fifty One
Johnny walked over and poured a large shot of tequila from the sideboard in the great room. As he swirled the glass, he studied the liquid, realizing that Murdoch had purchased the bottle for him after he had first arrived at the ranch. Up until now, Johnny had just taken it for granted. The first night he had arrived, he had asked Murdoch if he had any tequila, and at his father’s raised eyebrows, Johnny had been forced to settle for the rancher’s imported scotch instead. The next night, the tequila had magically appeared next to Murdoch’s scotch and Scott’s brandy.
He smiled slightly as he wondered if Murdoch had really purchased the tequila to please him or just to save the expensive scotch for himself. The smile faded as he realized that Murdoch had probably bought it for him to make him happy and for some reason, that realization bothered him. He didn’t want to owe any of them anything; he didn’t want them to do him any favors. He slammed the shot back angrily. For some reason that’s all they HAD done. He hadn’t done anything to deserve the friendship that had been shown by the people here, and he still didn’t understand why they had treated him so well.
At least most if them had. He frowned as he thought about Catherine and he poured another drink. If that bitch were a man, she’d be dead by now, but as much as he hated her, he still couldn’t bring himself to kill a woman. That didn’t mean he didn’t want her to pay for all of the suffering she had caused, though, and he was angry that she was still loose instead of at least locked up. He threw back the shot, then turned as he heard his father’s heavy footsteps on the stairs.
The two of them had been by Scott’s bedside for almost twenty four hours, and Johnny was exhausted. Sam was upstairs now, and he had chased the two men out while he examined Scott. Catherine and Teresa were already lying down, trying to get a few minutes rest. The doctor was surprised that Scott was still alive, but he had cautioned them that if Scott lived, it would be a long recovery and they had better take turns sitting with him. Johnny had spent most of the time next to his brother, but had looked in on Val enough to make the sheriff yell at him to leave him alone.
Johnny looked at his father angrily as Murdoch stepped up to the bar and poured a glass of scotch for himself.
“Why the hell is that bruja still runnin’ around loose?”
Murdoch looked at his son and sighed. “Where am I supposed to lock her up? Our sheriff is a little indisposed right now.”
“So you’re just gonna let her get away with what she did?”
“NO!” Murdoch shook his head. “I have no intention of letting her off the hook, but she’s not going anywhere.”
Johnny snorted. “Don’t mean she won’t try ta finish the job.”
“I’ve locked up all the guns in the house except for the ones we’re wearing. I wouldn’t take a chance on her hurting you or anyone else.”
“I don’t think I was her main target,” Johnny said sarcastically.
“No,” Murdoch said with a sigh. “I believe I have that honor.” He shook his head. “I still can’t believe she would actually try and have me killed.”
“Well, believe it, old man. That lady makes Pardee look like a Sunday school teacher.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “I’m not sure what we can do about it, though.”
Johnny looked at him in disbelief. “What do you mean? She tried to kill both of us, and she shot her own son. If it had been me, I woulda been at the end of a rope, but even if she is a lady, she’ll at least get jail time.”
Murdoch took a sip of his drink. “I’m not so sure about that.”
Johnny’s face darkened. “Sure about what?”
Murdoch absently swirled the liquid around in his glass. “We only have our word about what she did. Pardee’s dead, and Teresa and Maria were upstairs.”
“That’s STILL three against one!”
“Is it?” Murdoch took another drink. “If you leave, it won’t be.”
Johnny shrugged. “Don’t try to guilt me into stayin ’any longer. I told ya I’d stay until Scott was better. Even if I leave, it will still be two against one.”
“Will it?” Murdoch asked calmly. He took another sip of his drink and stared at Johnny. “Do you think Scott will testify against his own mother?”
“She SHOT him!”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, she did. But he also knows she wasn’t trying to.”
“No, she was TRYIN’ ta shoot me,” Johnny snapped.
Murdoch nodded slowly. “I’m still not sure Scott will testify against her.”
Johnny dropped his head and thought about what his father was saying, and to his surprise, he found himself defending his brother. “I think you’re wrong. Scott’s an honest and honorable man, and he wouldn’t lie about what happened.”
Murdoch studied his son, and then nodded. “I hope you’re right.” He put his hand on Johnny’s arm. “Why don’t you go lie down for a little while?”
Johnny allowed the hand to remain a moment before moving away. “I’m fine. You get some rest. I’ll wake you up if anything happens.”
Murdoch hesitated, but knew he needed to get some sleep if he was to keep from falling flat on his face. “All right. Wake me up soon, and then you can lie down for a while.”
Johnny nodded absently as his father left the room. Even though he had defended Scott, his father’s doubts were weighing on Johnny’s mind. The more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed that Scott would side with his mother. Scott had confided in him up at the shack that he was planning on going back to Boston, so he had already chosen between Murdoch and Catherine. And no matter how honorable he was, Johnny doubted his brother would take the side of a troublemaking half breed gunfighter over his own mother.
. He guessed he had been wrong about Scott, after all. With an oath, Johnny slammed the glass down on the table. He never should have come back here. He should have ignored the feelings he was beginning to have for his brother and kept on riding. Everyone else in his life had always let him down, and there was no reason for him to think Scott would be any different.
Chapter Fifty Two
Val looked up as the door to his room swung open. “What the hell do you want now?’ he growled as the man walked into his room.
“I thought you might be hungry,” Johnny shot back. He lifted the towel that was on top of the plate he was carrying and waved it, sending the aroma of beef stew and fresh baked bread in the sheriff’s direction. “Of course, I could take it back into the kitchen if you don’t want it.” He turned back and took a few steps toward the door. He had almost made it when the sheriff stopped him.
“‘Now wait a minute. Since you brought it all the way up here I might as well eat it. Save you a trip downstairs,” the sheriff said resignedly.
“No, that’s Ok,” Johnny argued. “I’m goin’ downstairs anyway,” he grinned. “I’ll just take this tray back to the kitchen.”
Val glared at the gunfighter. “I SAID I’d eat it.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.” Johnny hesitated long enough to see the sheriff’s scowl deepen, and then he turned and brought the tray over to the bed. He set it on Val’s lap, and then fussily tucked a napkin in around the lawman’s neck. With an oath, Val grabbed the cloth out and threw it across the room, then dug into the food, studiously ignoring Johnny.
“Don’t you have somethin’ else ta do besides annoyin’ me?” Val grumbled after several minutes.
Val took another couple of bites before stopping and staring at Johnny once more. “What do you want?”
Johnny bit his lip but didn’t look at the lawman. “Why didja do it?”
Johnny’s head came up and he looked into the sheriff’s eyes. “Don’t play games. You ain’t as good at it as I am. Now why didja take that bullet for me?”
Val looked at the gunfighter belligerently. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Johnny snorted and shook his head.
Val looked at him contemplatively. “So why didja come into town and help me against that bunch? You knew the odds.”
Johnny shrugged, then a small grin formed on his face. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Uh huh.” Val shook his head. “You just won’t admit it, will you?”
“Admit what?” Johnny asked angrily.
“Nothin’.” The sheriff glared at the gunfighter. “Why don’t you go bother Scott?”
A dark look passed over Johnny’s face. “No.”
Val stopped eating and looked at him. “Why?”
Johnny shrugged. “No reason.”
“Uh huh. I thought the two of you were gettin’ along. You’ve sure been spendin’ enough time with him.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Johnny picked up a small statue on the dresser and studied it intently before putting it back down. “Don’t matter. As soon as Scott’s a little better we won‘t be seein’ each other again.”
Val shook his head in disgust. “I guess you’re still leavin’.”
“Yep. No reason ta stay.”
“You have lots of reasons to stay if you weren’t too stupid ta admit it,” Val said in disgust.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “You better be careful who you’re callin’ stupid.”
“Well, if the shoe fits…” Val shot back.
“I ain’t stupid, just realistic,” Johnny growled.
Val swept his arm out. “And I call given up all this, plus a family, stupid! You could be livin’ the good life here instead of fightin’ for your life all the time.”
Johnny grinned at the sheriff. “Aw, sheriff, if I didn’t know better, it sounds like you want me to stay.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I just think you’re bein’ an idiot for ridin’ out and leavin’ all this behind. I told you I hate gunfighters, and you’re DEFINITELY a gunfighter.”
“Good, I’d hate ta think you were goin’ soft on me.”
“Not a chance.”
Val glared at Johnny for a second. “What about Scott? You just gonna go off and leave him?”
“He’s leavin’ too.”
The sheriff looked surprised. “He is?”
Johnny nodded. “He’s going back to Boston.”
“Is that why you’re leaving?”
Johnny snorted. “No. You said it yourself. I’m a gunfighter, not a rancher. And Scott…well Scott belongs in Boston.”
“Seems like he was fittin’ in ok here.”
“Yeah, but his mother sure wasn’t and I don’t think he’ll stay if she leaves.”
Val looked at the gunfighter with narrowed eyes. “Did she really shoot Scott?”
Johnny shrugged and looked out the window, avoiding Val’s eyes. “It was an accident.”
“You said she was trying to shoot you.”
Johnny shrugged once more, avoiding the lawman’s eyes.
“You were pretty adamant that it wasn’t an accident when we were in town.”
Johnny shrugged again. “I was mistaken.”
“Uh huh. You stickin’ with that story?”
“Sure, why not. They’re both leavin’ anyway. Why bother?”
“What about Murdoch? He’s planning on testifying against her. Ain’t you at least gonna back him up?”
Johnny shrugged. “Even if I opened my mouth, it would still be two against two.”
“So you’re just going ta let her get away with attempted murder. Here I was beginning ta think you had a conscience. My mistake.”
“What difference does it make! Scott won’t testify against her anyway!”
“What makes ya think that?”
Johnny snorted. “Why should he? I told ya he and are the bitch are goin’ back to Boston.
“And you don’t think he’d do the right thing and tell the truth?”
Johnny hesitated, then he looked at the lawman before he started talking reluctantly. “I think Scott’s a good man, and I know he’s honest. But that don’t mean he’d side with me against his own mother.”
“You’re his brother,” Val pointed out.
“All I am is a half breed gunfighter that’s done nothin’ but cause him trouble since the first day we met.”
Val looked at Johnny for several seconds, then slowly shook his head. “Boy, you sure do it to yourself, don’t you.”
“”It’s easy enough when you’ve always had it done to you!” Johnny snapped.
“You could at least give him a chance before you write him off. You don’t give him much credit.”
“I don’t give anybody too much credit. It saves a lot of disappointment later.”
Val stared at the gunfighter. “Well maybe it’s time you started,” he said quietly.
Chapter Fifty Three
Johnny lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. Val was leaving this afternoon, and although Scott was still bed ridden, he was well on his way to recovery. Johnny had promised the old man he would stay until Scott was better, and now he was. Murdoch had come up with some excuse that there might be some of Pardee’s men still out there, and with Scott and Val both laid up, the ranch would be a sitting duck against an attack. Johnny knew it was bullshit, but for some reason he hadn’t called the old man on it, and had promised to stick around for a few days. He figured it didn’t matter; he had no where to go, anyway.
But now he had no reason to stay any longer. He knew it was time to move on, but something was holding him back. Before he left, he had to figure out just what had happened here. He snorted softly. This was supposed to have been easy. Just ride in, make as many problems for them as he could, and then ride out without looking back. Simple. The only trouble was, from the beginning it hadn’t gone the way he had planned, and that hadn’t happened to Johnny Madrid for a long, long time.
It had started when Johnny had marched in and held a gun to the old man’s head and Lancer hadn’t even flinched. Didn’t even act like he was afraid, either. Instead he had seemed like he was glad to see his son and had turned around and invited Johnny to stay on. Not only stay on, but be a partner. It had ruined Johnny’s whole plan to force the issue. Johnny snorted again. Johnny Madrid was a gunfighter, not a rancher, but it seemed that his father was too stupid to realize that. Lancer had really seemed to think that it would work out. At the time, Johnny had no intention of taking the old man up on the deal, but he figured it was an easy way to get in closer and cause more trouble. He could do it in comfort, staying at the big old hacienda, instead of camped out in the bush, eating beans. He had agreed, but all the while, he had marveled at the old man’s stupidity. Only now he wasn’t sure Lancer was so stupid after all. Maybe desperate was a better choice of words.
Then there was Scott. Johnny had done his best to dislike the man, had been prepared to hate him, but that hadn’t happened. He had expected a dandified, spoiled rich kid, but had instead found Scott to be a smart and worthy opponent. And that is exactly how Johnny had looked at him. As an opponent. But instead of fighting back against Johnny’s obvious antagonism, Scott kept repaying Johnny’s betrayals with calm support. Johnny reached up and touched his chin. Well, most of the time, he thought ruefully. Boston sure was no pushover, that was for sure. And Scott sure hadn’t been intimidated by Madrid, either. It was almost enough to make Johnny start doubting himself. No one around here seemed very frightened of him, and THAT hadn’t happened in a good long while, either. Hell, even that damn sheriff wasn’t afraid of him. Maybe he WAS losing it.
He couldn’t quite understand Crawford, either. For someone who hated gunfighters, the sheriff had been pretty easy to get along with. For all of his grumbling and tough talk, the lawman had been more than fair with him. And of course, had saved his life, he couldn’t forget that small detail. Just like Scott, the lawman had stopped a bullet meant for Johnny, and it was driving Johnny crazy trying to figure out why they had done it. He had thought about it long and hard, and couldn’t think of one good reason for their actions. They had nothing to gain, and whole hell of a lot to lose; namely their lives. He just couldn’t figure it out at all.
Johnny shook his head. None of them had acted the way he had expected them to. When Scott could have gotten even with Johnny for the stunts he had pulled by messing up the horse round up, he had done nothing but help. Johnny just couldn’t understand that, either. If the roles had been reversed, he sure would have gotten revenge. One way or the other, he thought with a smirk.
The only time Scott had faltered in his support had been when he thought Johnny had turned those horses loose, and the gunfighter sure couldn’t blame him for that. It HAD looked like he had done it, and Johnny certainly hadn’t given Scott any reason to believe he was innocent. Even then, though, Scott had asked him about it instead of just tearing his head off. Johnny wondered if his brother would have believed him if he had stayed and talked to him instead of just storming off. He shook his head. He guessed he’d never know.
He slammed his hand down angrily on the bed. Why was he waiting around? For what? Did he really expect Scott to side with him against his own mother? No matter what Crawford said, Johnny knew that would never happen. His eyes narrowed. Except it already had. His mind went back to the minutes before Scott was shot. Scott had accused his mother of being in cahoots with Pardee. His mother, not his brother. Scott had actually taken his side. Would he again? Would he tell the truth instead of backing his mother? Johnny shook his head angrily. Even if he did, what then? What difference would it make? Scott was leaving, and so was he. They’d both go back to their old lives like none of this had ever happened.
Johnny snorted. Crawford was a fool if he thought for one minute that it would all work out nice and easy. Johnny had learned a long time ago that happy endings were just in fairy tales, and his life sure as hell wasn’t a damn fairy tale.
Chapter Fifty Four
Johnny slouched downstairs, his saddlebags slung over his shoulder. He had decided to take off before Val left; he didn’t want to have to argue with that smart assed sheriff again about staying on. The crazy fool had actually offered Johnny a job as a deputy. Johnny had stared at him in disbelief, then listed all of the reasons it wouldn’t work. The sheriff proved himself just as stubborn as the old man, and said none of it mattered; that it would work out; that is if they didn’t kill each other first. Johnny shook his head. With the mouth on Crawford, that’s probably what would happen. As far as Johnny was concerned, both the sheriff and Lancer were crazy. If Johnny was smart, he’d just leave out the back way and avoid the old man, too, before one of them went and talked him into doing something stupid.
As he stepped down off of the last stair, he heard raised voices coming from the great room and he hesitated. As much as he wanted to sneak out, he wanted to tell the bitch off more. He swung toward the sound and stood just inside the door as Murdoch and Catherine argued. The two of them were going at it pretty good, and neither one noticed the audience. As Johnny listened to them, he shook his head. Personally, he didn’t know why the old man even bothered to try to explain things. That bruja wasn’t going to change and was going to do what she wanted no matter who stood in her way or who she hurt.
Exasperated at his wife’s stubbornness, Murdoch stood with hands on hips, glaring at the woman. “You are NOT leaving here! The sheriff is going to take you into town. I’m pressing charges!”
“The hell you are,” Catherine snarled. “You try it, and I’ll take everything you own, especially this precious ranch. My father will see to that.”
“I’m not going to let you get away with what you did. For once in your life, you’re going to pay the consequences without your daddy bailing you out of trouble.”
“My FATHER cares about me, and that’s more than you can say.”
Murdoch snorted. “I cared about you. In fact there was a time when I thought that I loved you. It just took me a while to realize that you’re incapable of loving someone back. The only person you love is yourself.”
Catherine drew herself upright. “I love people who are worthy to be loved. I love Scott AND my father.”
Murdoch shook his head in disbelief. “You ‘love’ Harlan because he’s just as warped and crazy as you are and he backs your crazy schemes and buys you anything you want. As for Scott, he’s someone who you tried to mold into your and your father’s likeness. Only it didn’t work; Scott’s a decent and honest young man.”
“No thanks to you,” she sniped.
Murdoch nodded in agreement. “No thanks to me. Except I like to think it’s my blood that made Scott turn out the way he did, because it sure wasn’t yours!”
Catherine smirked at her husband. “Of course, according to you, your blood runs in that killer, too. I suppose you’re going to blame his mother for him.”
Murdoch nodded solemnly. “Yes, I do. Maria was a caring and loving person, and I’m sure it was mostly her influence that kept Johnny from turning out bad.”
Catherine looked at him incredulously. “You can stand there in front of me and tell me with a straight face that you don’t think that...that... GUNFIGHTER turned out badly?”
“No, I don’t. I’m sure he’s made mistakes, but I think he’s a good man, no matter how much he tries to convince himself and everyone else that he’s not.”
Catherine shook her head. “You’re insane.”
“Maybe I am. But at least I have my priorities straight. This ranch that you think means so much to me means nothing if I can’t get my sons to stay here with me.”
Catherine’s head came up. “Well, I have news for you, they aren’t. At least Scott’s not going to. He and I talked, and we both agreed to return to Boston. That half breed bastard of yours might not leave, at least for now, but soon you won’t have anything left, and he’ll leave all right. I plan on making sure you lose the ranch and your money. You’ll be left with nothing,” she said triumphantly.”
Johnny turned when he heard a noise above him, and saw Val coming slowly down the stairs. The sheriff looked at him wryly. “I thought I’d better get down here before I had ta arrest Murdoch for murder instead of his wife. They’re shoutin’ loud enough ta wake the dead.”
Johnny looked at him curiously. “You really gonna arrest her?”
Val nodded. “Murdoch is pressing charges.”
“Is there enough to make ‘em stick?”
Val shrugged. “Not unless you and Scott back up your Old Man.”
Johnny snorted. “That ain’t gonna happen. You heard what she said. She and Scott are goin’ back to Boston.”
Val studied the gunfighter. “What about you?”
Johnny shrugged, but his eyes were drawn to the stairs once more and he gasped. “Scott!”
Scott grimly hung onto the rail as he eased his sore body down the stairs. Johnny hurried to his side and wrapped his arm around his brother’s waist.
“What the hell are you doin’ up? You know what Sam said,” Johnny scolded.
“I heard arguing and wanted to know what was going on.”
Johnny tried to smile. “It seems your mother and the old man are having a little bit of a disagreement.”
Scott snorted. “That’s nothing new. What are they arguing about this time?”
Johnny looked at his brother intently. “Whether your mother’s gonna go to jail or whether Lancer’s gonna lose the ranch.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Is that all.”
Johnny nodded and studied his brother, watching for a reaction. “And right now, it sorta looks like your mother just might win.
Scott stared back at his brother. “Really,” he said.
Chapter Fifty Five
With Johnny’s help, Scott haltingly made his way down the stairs. Unlike the other two men, he stepped boldly all the way into the great room and stood watching the confrontation between his two parents.
Catherine looked up and saw him. “SCOTT! What are you doing out of bed? The doctor was very specific that you needed time to rest!”
“It’s rather hard to rest with two people screaming at each other,” Scott said succinctly.
“I’m sorry, son, we didn’t mean to wake you,” Murdoch apologized.
“The argument is over,” Catherine decreed as she turned her attention to her son. “You and I will leave here just as soon as you’re able to travel. We’ll leave this God forsaken country and go back to Boston and live like civilized people.” She walked over and put her hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Now you need to get back upstairs,” she coaxed.
Scott shrugged off her hand and looked at her seriously. “What about the charges against you?” He nodded toward Val. “The sheriff here says he’s going to arrest you.”
Catherine gave the unkempt sheriff a withering stare. “I doubt it.”
Val returned her look. “Oh do you, now?”
“Yes, I do. You don’t have the…” She looked him up and down with a critical look, then smiled slowly. “Nerve.”
“Catherine, I warned you that I was pressing charges,” Murdoch repeated quietly.
“For what?” she asked sarcastically.
“Attempted murder, for one.”
She shook her head. “Don’t waste your time. It won’t stick, and you know it. You’re just doing this because you’re angry.”
“You’re damn right I’m angry!” Murdoch snapped. “And maybe I am wasting my time, but that doesn’t mean I can just ignore what you did. I’m going to do my best to make sure that you’re punished for it.”
“It will be your word against Scott’s and mine.” She looked at Johnny with loathing. “Unless of course, that half breed gets involved.” She shrugged. “But it still won’t do you any good. No one will believe him over Scott. Now if you’ll excuse me…” She attempted to push by Val, but he grabbed her arm.
“Let GO of me!” she demanded angrily.
“Sorry, ma’am, but you’re under arrest.”
“FOR WHAT! I told you, the charges won’t stick.”
“I’m afraid they will, mother.”
Everyone in the room stopped and looked at Scott as he continued. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re guilty of attempted murder and also assault for shooting me.”
She looked at him angrily. “Assault? You’re not serious! You KNOW it was a mistake. I never meant to shoot you!”
“I know that. But I’m still going to press charges.”
“WHY?” she asked in confusion.
Scott took a deep breath and glanced at Johnny, who was watching him intently. Scott nodded his head slightly and then turned his attention back to his mother. “Because you were trying to kill my brother, and if pressing charges against you myself is the only way to stop you from trying again, then I’ll gladly do it.”
Catherine shook her head angrily. “I don’t believe it! You’re not going to let your own mother go to jail just because I tried to shoot that bastard!”
Scott took a step forward. “Don’t ever call him that again, and yes, I WILL let you go to jail because of that.”
She looked at him incredulously. “You’re choosing to side with him over me?”
“Yes,” Scott said simply. “I am.”
“I’ll cut you out of my will and make sure your grandfather does the same. You’ll lose everything,” she snarled.
Scott glanced at his father and brother. “No, not everything.” He looked back at her. “And certainly not my self respect,” he added.
Val grinned at Catherine. “Come on, you and me are takin’ a ride.”
“I’ll come out and hitch up the team,” Johnny offered with a grin of his own.
Catherine shot each of the men a poisonous look before stalking imperiously out of the room.
Johnny stopped and looked back at his older brother. “You ok?” he asked softly.
Scotty nodded, but his shaking legs and the sweat beaded on his forehead told a different story. Johnny took a step toward him, but when Murdoch walked up next to Scott and put his arm around his shoulders, Johnny hesitated a moment, and then turned and headed for the door.
Scott and Murdoch watched as the sheriff escorted Catherine out of the house, followed by Johnny. Murdoch went over to the liquor cabinet and poured two drinks, then came back and handed one to his elder son, who had finally given in to his exhaustion and collapsed onto the sofa.
“I’m proud of you, Scott. I know that wasn’t easy for you, and I wish you hadn’t had to do it.”
Scott nodded slowly as he took a sip of his drink. “I always knew she would do just about anything to get what she wanted, but I never thought she’d stoop to murder.”
Murdoch put his hand on Scott’s arm. “I’m sorry.”
“It certainly isn’t your fault. If it’s anyone’s, it’s Grandfather’s. He would never let anything or anyone stand in the way of what he wanted, and would resort to any means to achieve his goals. He was always preaching that the ends justified the means, which was just a self righteous way of explaining away his cheating and underhanded business practices. I’m afraid he taught her very well.” Scott shook his head. “Neither Mother nor Grandfather ever cared who they hurt as long as they got what they wanted.”
Scott dropped his head for a moment and then sighed. “You know that this won’t be the end of it. Even if she’s convicted, Grandfather will figure out a way to get her out, and then he’ll be out for revenge. He already hates you and I’m afraid now I’ll be added to the list.”
Murdoch studied his son. “You don’t have to testify.”
Scott smiled sadly. “Yes, I do. I can’t let her get away with trying to kill you and Johnny in cold blood even if she is my mother, and I’m not going to let the fear of Grandfather’s reprisals stop me, either.”
Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. “Then I guess we’ll just have to face that together, when and if it happens.”
Murdoch watched his son carefully, waiting for a reply that would tell him what he needed to know; that his elder son planned on staying at Lancer instead of going back to Boston and the life he knew.
Scott looked at his father for several seconds, as though considering the older man’s words, then he looked down and slowly swirled the liquor in his glass before taking a long swallow. He carefully set the empty glass on the nearby table, then leaned back and closed his eyes.
Chapter Fifty Six
Murdoch looked down at his sleeping son. The rancher couldn’t help being disappointed that Scott hadn’t affirmed his intent to stay, but at least he hadn’t said he wouldn’t, either. As soon as Johnny got back from town, Murdoch was going to sit them both down and do his best to convince them that Lancer was where both of them belonged. Now that Catherine was out of the picture, at least for a while, Murdoch once more had hope for the future and he wanted to make sure that both of his sons were there to share that future with him.
Murdoch reached over and picked up a light blanket that was folded at the end of the sofa and drew it over his son. The rancher reached down and felt Scott’s forehead and was reassured there was no fever. Apparently Scott had simply overdone by coming downstairs, and was now worn out. Murdoch said another quick prayer of thanks that Scott was well on the way to recovery. It had been touch and go for a while, and Murdoch had been afraid that he would lose Scott before he really got to know his son. Now it looked he might get another chance after all.
Murdoch glanced at the clock and knew that if Johnny accompanied Val all the way to Green River, he wouldn’t be back for quite a while. He smiled as he recalled the many arguments that Johnny and the sheriff had had while Val had been recovering. They had been loud and long, but underneath the surface, he had the distinct feeling that they were beginning to like each other. He would never have believed it, but it looked like the gunfighter and the sheriff were becoming friends. Murdoch shook his head. Now if only HE could just get through to Johnny he might be able to convince him to stay.
Murdoch looked down at Scott once more to make sure he was sleeping comfortably, then finally gave in to his own exhaustion. He headed for the stairs, thinking he’d take a short nap before Johnny got back.
Scott’s eyes slowly came open, and he stared at the ceiling, his father’s words repeating over and over in his head. He knew what his father had been asking, but he wasn’t ready to answer him yet. He didn’t even know the answer himself. Things had just happened too quickly and he hadn’t had time to sort out his feelings yet. His eyes closed again as he remembered the moments before he had been shot. Although he had been crushingly disappointed that his mother had done the things she had, he hadn’t really been shocked. Somewhere deep inside he had known all along what she was capable of, but had blindly chosen to pretend differently.
He snorted softly. The society lady from Boston was more of a cold blooded killer than the notorious gunfighter. Scott remembered his mother’s reaction to the news that he would testify against her, and her disbelief that he would actually side with Johnny over her. Actually, he wasn’t siding with anyone; he was simply doing what he had to and telling the truth.
As he lay there, his mind wandered over the question she had asked. If it hadn’t been clear cut, if he had to make a choice from the heart, would he side with his brother or his mother? He didn’t know why, but it was important that he know that answer, and he turned the question over and over in his mind.
Val looked on in disgust as Johnny threw the saddlebags behind his saddle and swung up onto the palomino. “You are the most stubborn mule I’ve ever met. I TOLD ya I don’t need no help.” He looked over at Catherine, who was sitting bolt upright on the buggy seat next to him. “I can handle one crazy female.”
“That crazy female is as dangerous as a rattlesnake, and has about as much conscience, and you ain’t exactly at the top of your game right now,” Johnny replied. “I’ll go with you to Green River. I want to make sure she gets locked up and stays that way.”
Val’s eyes narrowed. “Uh huh. And then you’re comin’ back, right?”
Johnny smiled tightly. “Right.”
“Uh huh. Then why don’t you leave those loaded saddlebags here?” Val asked innocently as he started the buggy toward the arch.
Johnny glared at the sheriff as he rode alongside. “Mind your own business.”
The sheriff shook his head. “You ARE a stubborn mule. You could make somethin’ for yourself here.”
Catherine snorted. “He could NEVER make something of himself. He’s an uneducated, stupid half breed who will never amount to anything.”
Johnny smiled coldly. “Hear that, sheriff? Even the bitch knows it wouldn’t work.”
“So you’re gonna go ahead and prove her right.”
“Nothin’ I can do about it,” Johnny shrugged. “It is what it is. I can’t change who I am.”
“I guess you’re right,” Val agreed. “You can’t change who you are. I mean, Scott’s nothin’ but a stiff necked greenhorn dandy and that’s all he’ll ever be.”
Johnny glared at the sheriff. “Watch your mouth. Scott’s tougher than both of us combined.”
Val shrugged. “He’ll still never be a rancher.”
“Thank God!” Catherine exclaimed.
Johnny turned his glare on the lady. “The hell he won’t. He’s already a damn good rancher, and I’m sure he’ll stay here and help Murdoch make this ranch even better.”
“So a person CAN change,” Val mused as he stared at Johnny. “I wonder what would be harder; leaving a life of luxury and wealth and coming over here ta work your butt off in a totally alien land, or staying in a land you know well and just switchin’ jobs.”
Johnny shook his head angrily. “Like I said, SHERIFF, mind your own business!”
“Yes!” Catherine stormed. “Mind your own damned business!” She turned on Johnny. “And it won’t matter if Scott stays for now. He’s a fool if he thinks he and his father can fight Harlan Garret! Murdoch won’t have anything left when my father gets through with him, and as soon as that happens, Scott will realize his mistake and come back with us to Boston! She smiled coldly. “Scott will be in Boston and Murdoch will wind up in the poorhouse!”
Johnny grinned back at her. “But you won’t be there to see it. You’ll be in prison.”
Catherine slowly smiled. “I doubt that. But I don’t doubt that you’ll be back in those filthy border towns where you belong.”
Chapter Fifty Seven
As Johnny rode along in behind the buggy, Catherine’s words kept repeating in his mind. He stared at her back, wishing he had never decided to accompany Val into town. He should have done what Val had said and let the sheriff handle it himself. If he had, Johnny wouldn’t be hesitating yet again. He would have been gone by now, and Lancer would be just a memory. Johnny just couldn’t understand why he kept sticking around. It seemed like every time he made up his mind to leave, something happened that forced him to stay.
He shook his head angrily. No, not forced. Begged was more like it. And that was what was bothering him. Any other time and place, he would have been long gone, but now it seemed as if he was using any excuse to stick around. He realized now he never should have come here. Things hadn’t worked out the way he had foreseen, and his carefully laid plans had gone up in smoke. Murdoch and Scott had waged a war that Johnny had no defense against, and he had been hopelessly outgunned. Hell, even that damn sheriff had joined the battle. Johnny was lucky to have gotten away.
Now that he was leaving, he could finally admit that he didn’t hate the Old Man. He was loud, but Johnny had the feeling Murdoch was more bark than bite. Johnny still hadn’t entirely forgiven the Old Man for what he had done to his mother, but Johnny finally realized that it hadn’t been done with malice. At least from Murdoch, he thought angrily as he shot a fierce glare at Catherine’s back. The rancher had been put in an impossible position, and Johnny realized the Old Man had been expertly manipulated by Catherine.
Of course, Scott had played an unknowing part, too. Johnny couldn’t fault Murdoch for wanting to keep his son. But he hadn’t. That bruja had seen to that. Lancer had lost both of his sons, but at least now there was a chance that he would get one of them back. Johnny wasn’t as sure as he seemed to be when he had told Catherine that, though. He figured there was at least an even chance that Scott would return to the life he knew so well. Why would he stay here and work his tail off when he could live a life of luxury back in Boston? The only reason he might stay is so that he could get to know his father better, but was that enough?
Johnny’s musings were brought up short when Barranca suddenly halted. Johnny looked around, and saw to his horror that they were in front of the jail. He chanced a glance at Val, and the sheriff was looking at him with a bemused expression. Johnny’s face flushed, and he looked away. He couldn’t remember the last time his mind had been so preoccupied that he hadn’t paid attention to where he was. He’d have to stop this nonsense and get his mind back on track or he’d be in big trouble. He turned his head and watched through the window as Val locked Catherine up, then he turned Barranca around to leave.
“So do you hate her enough to prove her wrong?”
Johnny stopped and looked back at the sheriff, who was standing on the sidewalk, regarding him calmly.
“It ain’t that easy!” Johnny snapped.
Val shrugged. “Never said it was, but I never figured you for a coward.” The sheriff turned and walked back into the office, slamming the door behind him.
Johnny glared at the closed door for several seconds, and then angrily spurred Barranca out of town.
Scott startled awake as he heard the door slam, and he struggled to sit up, only to be met with the icy stare of Johnny Madrid.
“What’s wrong?” Scott asked, suddenly fearing this had something to do with his mother.
Johnny continued to stare at him, but the gaze gradually changed.
“Are you stayin’?” the gunfighter asked softly.
Scott shook his head in confusion. “I don’t know.”
“Murdoch will need you here if your mother’s right about your grandfather goin’ after Lancer.”
Scott’s eyebrows rose. “He’ll need you, too.”
“I doubt if it will be that kind of a fight.”
“It doesn’t matter what kind of a fight it will be, he’ll still need all the help he can get.” Scott studied his brother. “Are YOU staying?”
Johnny shook his head, then shrugged. “I don’t know. I still don’t think it’ll work.”
Scott sighed. “I know what you mean. I don’t know if it will work, either.”
Johnny shrugged again. “I guess it would just be easier if we both went back to doin’ what we were before this all started and forget about makin’ a go of this.”
Scott nodded in agreement. “It probably would.”
Johnny looked at his brother for another second, then resolutely turned back toward the door. “See ya around.”
“Easier, but not better,” Scott said softly as he rose slowly to his feet.
Johnny stopped, then slowly turned back, a questioning look on his face.
“Nothing worth having is easy,” Scott continued. “The question is, is it worth it? Is having a family worth taking a chance on?” he mused.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, the way I see it,” Scott said, “the worst that can happen is that we decide it’s not working and we go our separate ways.”
“The worst that can happen is we’ll wind up killin’ each other,” Johnny smirked.
Scott nodded seriously. “Well, there is that.”
Johnny sighed. “So what do we do?”
Scott stared at Johnny for a moment, then turned and walked over to the bar and poured two drinks. Johnny watched him cautiously as Scott returned.
“I’ll give it a try it if you will,” Scott said evenly as he offered the glass to his brother.
Johnny hesitated a moment as he looked in his brother’s eyes, then a smile slowly appeared on his face as he grabbed the drink.