Murdoch paced back and forth in front of the great toom window, trying unsuccessfully to rein in his temper. He glanced at the clock and shook his head. He had given Johnny the simple task of going into town and picking up the mail, and his son had already been gone long enough to go back and forth to town twice. He couldn’t believe that Johnny was doing it again. He had tried his best to cut his younger son some slack, but it seemed as if Johnny was trying to test him at every turn, and Murdoch had just about had enough of the game.
Murdoch knew that Johnny hadn’t had much guidance growing up, and Scott had been quick to point out that it would take time for Johnny to learn responsibility, but Murdoch was growing impatient. While Scott was always reliable and responsible, his younger son was not. Murdoch never knew when Johnny would take off and do something that he considered more important. Not only that, but while he and Scott usually agreed as to how to handle a situation, his younger son always had a different way of looking at things.
Three days ago, one of the hands had taken it upon himself to ignore Murdoch’s explicit orders to shoot a badly lamed horse, and instead had spent all day trying to rig up a device to keep the gelding on its feet. As Murdoch had entered the barn, the horse had gone down once again, and the hand had finally shot him, but not before wasting the whole day trying to help the doomed gelding. Murdoch had been furious and docked the man a day’s pay. When he had told his sons about the incident that evening, Johnny had agreed with the hand. He told his father that a horse’s life was more important than a day’s work, and that he would have done the same thing.
Murdoch had blown up. “You wouldn’t have done it if I told you not to!” Murdoch had roared.
“Wanna bet?” Johnny had calmly challenged.
Murdoch had glared at his son. “I call the tune here, and when I give you an order, it WILL be followed.”
Johnny had shrugged and hadn’t even bothered to stop eating. “Not if it’s a stupid order.”
Murdoch had stared at his son, thoughts of murder on his mind. He was so angry he couldn’t even see straight, and yet for once he was at a loss for words. Johnny however, didn’t even seem upset. Scott had seen the look on his father’s face and quickly intervened. “Johnny, I’m sure you don’t mean that Murdoch’s order was stupid.”
Johnny had stopped eating and looked at his brother, then shrugged. “I think it was.”
Murdoch had slammed down his fist on the table. “I don’t care if you think an order of mine is stupid or not. If I give an order, I expect it to be followed!”
Johnny had glared at his father. “Even if you’re wrong? Or aren’t you ever wrong?”
Murdoch felt his blood begin to boil. “I built this ranch up from nothing. I didn’t get to where I am today by making stupid mistakes. You, on the other hand, seem to have made nothing but stupid mistakes in your life.”
Murdoch waited for Johnny to blow up, but surprisingly, his youngest son had merely stared at him for a moment and then stood up and stalked off, slamming the door behind him. Scott had turned to Murdoch and shook his head. “Congratulations. That went well.”
Murdoch glared at Scott. “Your brother has a smart mouth.”
“Well, maybe if he’d had a father to guide him, he would be a little more respectful.” Scott had thrown his napkin down by his plate and stalked off after his brother. Murdoch watched as his older son left and then turned his gaze on Teresa. “Well?” he asked belligerently.
Teresa dropped her eyes. “I think you’re wrong.”
“I’M WRONG?” he asked incredulously.
She nodded. “Johnny has never had to do anything he didn’t want to do. He IS trying, but you have to meet him halfway.”
“I’m meeting him MORE than halfway,” Murdoch growled. “He needs to meet ME halfway. That boy shows no respect to anyone.”
“That’s not true!” Teresa protested. “He just doesn’t back down when he thinks he’s right.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Well, if he’s going to stay here, he’d better start! There’s only one man that calls the tune on this ranch, and Johnny had better learn that real quickly!” He pushed his chair away from the table and stalked off.
As he had calmed down, Murdoch had begun to wonder whether Scott and Teresa were right. He knew he didn’t want to lose Johnny, and he was afraid if they kept arguing that was just what would happen. Every time his son became angry and stalked off, Murdoch wondered if this would be the time when Johnny wouldn’t come back. Murdoch shook his head; Johnny just had such a knack for making Murdoch angry.
Since that evening, Murdoch had done his best to understand his younger son and had been more than patient. Johnny, on the other hand, had done nothing but push. The more slack Murdoch had given him, the more Johnny had taken it upon himself to do things the way he thought they should be done. With Scott, that wouldn’t be a problem, because Murdoch knew things would get done the right way. With Johnny, however, what was done was usually done exactly opposite of the way it should be done.
Murdoch shook his head and checked the clock one more time. Johnny would have a hell of a lot of explaining to do as to where he’d been all this time. He knew that his son would come riding in with some explanation that would make Murdoch’s blood boil. This time, however, about the only explanation Murdoch was in the mood to forgive was if his son was badly hurt or dead. In fact, even then he might not forgive him.
Johnny rode under the arch, tired and sore and wondering just what his father would have to say about where he’d been. He was sure that Murdoch wouldn’t approve, but Johnny had felt like he hadn’t had a choice. Val was a friend, and he knew the sheriff would do the same thing for him. Murdoch’s disproval wasn’t going to stop Johnny from doing what he thought was right, but he figured that he and his father would be fighting again tonight and that thought made him suddenly tired.
Johnny had ridden into town, intending to pick up the mail and then turn right around and go straight home. He had had no intention of doing anything to upset his father, but of course, he never did intend to. Johnny knew that he and Murdoch hadn’t been getting along, and he figured at least part of the problem was his fault. For some reason, he and his father got along about as well as oil and water.
He knew that all it took was one wrong look or word coming from either one of them to start a major argument. Johnny wasn’t sure why that was, but he knew it was true. Murdoch and Scott, on the other hand, seemed to get along just fine, and Johnny couldn’t quite understand that either, because he and Scott also got along beautifully. Scott seemed to get along with both he and Murdoch, and Johnny wondered how that could be.
This family business was new to Johnny, but he knew that he liked it. No matter how difficult it was, he knew that he’d never go back to fighting, and he would take just about anything before he turned his back on his new life. For the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged, and he had no intention of giving that up.
He was going to do his best to get along with his father and do what Murdoch wanted, but he knew it would be hard. It seemed like he had a knack for always doing the wrong thing, at least as far as his father was concerned. Johnny tried, but it seemed as if he and his father had a totally different way of looking at things. Something that was obvious to Johnny that should be done one way, his father would think should be done just the opposite way.
Johnny snorted; just last week he thought he’d be smart. He had been faced with a decision concerning the ranch and had gone against his own instincts and done what he thought his father would do. Unfortunately, it had been the one time when he would have made the right decision. To add insult to injury, Johnny had had to listen to a lecture from his father about why the choice Johnny had made was wrong. He sighed; one of these days he’d figure his father and this ranching business out.
Johnny rode Barranca to the barn and stiffly dismounted. Jelly came out and offered to take the horse, but Johnny shook his head. He would put his horse away himself; anything to put off the inevitable. After feeding and grooming the Palomino, Johnny finally headed toward the house. He opened the door, and heard the familiar command before he had even gone ten feet.
“Johnny! Come in here!”
With a sigh, Johnny took a long look at the kitchen, where he knew Maria had left some food heating for him, and headed toward the Great Room and his father. He met Murdoch’s gaze, and Johnny knew immediately that he was in trouble. He took a deep breath, waiting for the onslaught.
Murdoch stared silently at him for several moments and then shook his head. “Well?”
Johnny shrugged. “I got tied up.”
“Obviously,” Murdoch said dryly. “You should have been home by early afternoon at the latest.” He looked at the clock. “It’s now, what? Eight o’clock?” He stared at his son.
Johnny shook his head. “Val needed some help.”
“I NEEDED HELP!” Murdoch exploded. “Your first priority is to this ranch!”
Johnny shook his head, trying to keep his temper. “I didn’t know that there were any emergencies at the ranch.”
“That’s not the point!”
“Then what IS the point!”
“The point is you need to be here, helping your family, instead of gallivanting all over the countryside! You have responsibilities now, believe it or not, and you need to show some maturity.”
“Show maturity? I’ve been grown up for a long time. I’ve had ta be mature ever since my Mama died when I was ten years old, Old Man.”
“If you had been responsible, you never would have picked up that gun.”
“I picked up that gun ‘cause it was the only way I could survive. I guess you would have liked it better if I had laid down and died. At least you wouldn’t have ta be ashamed of havin’ me for a son.”
“I’m not ashamed of you, I just don’t understand you.”
“Well, I don’t understand you, either!”
“Well, maybe if you put a little more effort into it you would understand. It’s not that difficult!”
“It is for me!”
“I DON’T KNOW!”
Murdoch dropped his head and took a deep breath. “What happened today?”
“Val had ta ride up ta the Wilkin’s place and arrest old man Wilkins. Seems like the old man got a little rowdy and decided ta rob a store over in Modesto.”
“SO?” Murdoch asked belligerently.
“So, Wilkins has five grown sons. All of them ready ta shoot first and ask questions later. Val asked me ta ride over with him and watch his back.”
“So you just went, not even giving a thought as to whether you’d get your brains blown out or not. Oh excuse me; I guess you have to have brains to lose them!”
“I was helping a friend!”
“Like I said, you need to help your family. I doubt if you would do the same for me.”
Johnny stared at his father for several moments, and then turned and left the room, his earlier thoughts about putting up with anything fast disappearing.
Johnny went up to his room and closed the door. Normally, when he and his father had fought, doors would slam and rafters would raise. This time, however, for some reason he just felt tired. He went over to the window and looked out at the peaceful scene. When he had first come here, he had felt like he was home. For the first time in his life, he had felt safe.
Now he didn’t know what to feel. The ranch was everything he had always dreamed of having, but he had finally realized that a house didn’t make a home. The ranch itself was peaceful and a wonderful place to live. But the serene surroundings were almost always shattered by bitter words and hastily flung accusations.
Johnny had thought he would find peace here, but that peace had never materialized. Oh, he no longer felt as if he had to look over his shoulder all the time, always waiting to feel a bullet slamming into his body, and he hadn’t been called out in months. He thought that the name Johnny Madrid was gradually fading from people’s thoughts. There were other gunfighters out there, men trying desperately to keep their name known, just as he had once done. The up and coming gunhawks would go after them; Johnny Madrid was no longer in the game.
But there was more to peace than not having to watch you back. He longed for the peace that came from sitting quietly in front a roaring fire with a glass of brandy, the peace that came from knowing he was accepted and loved, the peace that came from knowing that his family respected him, trusted him, and that he could trust them. So far he hadn’t had that peace, at least when it came to his father.
Scott and Teresa cared about him, he knew, but their fights bothered both of them. They tried not to take sides, but unfortunately, they were often affected by the fallout. He was sure they were both tired of the constant upheaval in their lives, no matter whose fault it was. He dropped his head; he knew that he was at least partially to blame most of the time. No matter how difficult and unreasonable he thought Murdoch was, it took two to argue. He could ward off a lot of the arguments by simply doing as the man wanted, but for some reason, he was never quite sure what that was.
He sighed as he looked out the window. He’d have to make up his mind soon. As he saw it, he had two choices; he could run or he could give. He could leave this ranch and everyone on it behind and head out on his own, or he could give in and try to do exactly what the Old Man wanted. He would have to stop arguing and stop worrying about what he thought was right and do what he was told. He shook his head; either option would be difficult, if not downright impossible, but leaving things the way they were was impossible, too. It was not only ruining his life, but everyone’s around them. He shook his head; he didn’t want to leave, but he didn’t know if he could give in, either. He guessed he’d know what to do when the time came.
Murdoch answered the knock on the door, wondering who could be visiting them this early in the morning. He opened the door to find Sam standing on the threshold, an expectant look on his face.
“Sam! Come on in!”
Sam stepped into the house. “I just came to check up on Johnny.”
Murdoch stopped and looked at the doctor in confusion. “Johnny?”
Sam nodded. “I just wanted to check the stitches to make sure they’re not becoming infected.”
Sam stared at the rancher. “Yes, stitches.” He shook his head. “Didn’t he tell you?”
Murdoch’s mouth set in a grim line. “He never tells me anything.”
Sam sighed. “He went with Val yesterday to bring in old Bill Wilkins.”
“I know,” Murdoch said sourly.
Sam’s eyebrows went up. “I didn’t think he’d told you.”
Murdoch sighed. “He didn’t tell me he’d gotten hurt.”
Sam nodded. “Evidently, a couple of Wilkins’ boys took exception to their father being arrested and decided to prevent Val from arresting him.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “So I suppose Johnny got into a gun battle,” he said sarcastically.
Sam shook his head, wondering why Murdoch was so upset. “He did what he had to do to save Val and himself. A bullet put a deep furrow along his side, but he’ll be OK.” Sam looked around. “Is he upstairs?”
“Where is he?”
Murdoch glared at the doctor. “He’s out working.”
Sam shook his head. “I told that boy to take it easy for a day or two. I don’t want him to pull those stitches or he could be in trouble.”
Murdoch snorted. “Now why should he listen to you? He sure as hell doesn’t listen to me!”
“Sounds like you’ve been having some arguments.”
“SOME? That’s all we do!”
“I don’t KNOW!”
“Well what do you argue about?”
“Like what?” Sam insisted.
Murdoch glared at his friend, his temper about the situation causing him to rant. “Sam, he always challenges me. He does what he wants, when he wants. He’s irresponsible, immature, and untrustworthy. I can’t trust him to do anything right or to make the correct decision about ANYTHING! I don’t think that he’ll EVER fit in here or be a responsible member of this family!” Murdoch dropped his head. “There are times when I regret ever bringing him here.”
“If you hadn’t, he’d be dead now!” Sam protested, shocked at his friend’s tirade.
Murdoch just dropped his head and shook it slowly.
“Murdoch? You don’t mean that and you know it.”
“Don’t hold your breath, Sam. He means it all right.”
Murdoch whipped his head up and looked into Johnny’s eyes. Johnny shook his head. “I always knew ya didn’t like me much, but I never thought ya wanted me dead.”
“SAVE IT! YA told me everything I needed ta know. Don’t worry; I’ll be outta here by noon.”
Murdoch sat staring disbelievingly at the place Johnny had stood only a moment before. He turned tortured eyes to Sam. “I never meant for him to hear that.”
“Then you shouldn’t have said it!” the doctor snapped.
“I…I didn’t mean it. I was upset.”
“Then go tell him! But for ONCE, you’d better say the right thing, or you’ll lose him.” Sam shook his head, not trusting the rancher to talk Johnny into staying. “Where’s Scott? Maybe he can convince him to stay.”
Murdoch shook his head in despair. “He left yesterday morning for Sacramento.”
Sam sighed. He had a very bad feeling about this. “Go talk to him, Murdoch, but you’d better pray he’ll listen.”
Murdoch nodded his head and headed for the stairs, but before he’d gone a dozen feet, Johnny came breezing down the stairs. His face was totally blank, and Murdoch knew he was no longer dealing with Johnny Lancer. Murdoch also noticed that his son wore the gun that Murdoch had banned him from wearing; the gun he had arrived with.
“Johnny, we need to talk.”
Johnny shrugged. “Nothin’ ta talk about.”
“Johnny, I didn’t mean those things.”
“I’ll need a receipt for Barranca, that is if you’ll TRUST me. I give ya my word I’ll send ya the money for him as soon as I can.”
Murdoch shut his eyes. “I don’t want you to go.”
“No, you just want me dead.”
“NO I don’t!”
“Can I have that receipt or not?”
“NO! You’re not leaving! Not like this!”
“Another order, Old Man?”
Murdoch sighed and shook his head. “Not an order. Please, Johnny, don’t go.”
Sam broke into the argument. “Johnny, you shouldn’t be riding with that wound for at least a few days. You need time to heal. ”
Johnny snorted. “It doesn’t look like I’ll have a horse ta ride anyway. It looks like I’ll be walking. I ain’t gonna be accused of bein’ a horse thief.”
“No one’s going to accuse you of anything!”
“Seems you already have,” he said calmly.
“Johnny, I want you to stay.”
“I have news for you, Old Man. For once, the Great Murdoch Lancer isn’t going to get what he wants.” He turned and walked out of the room, with Murdoch and Sam trailing along behind him, trying to figure out a way to talk the desperate and angry young man out of leaving.
Johnny walked out the door and headed for the buggy. “Will ya give me a lift ta town?” he asked Sam.
Sam looked at Murdoch and shook his head. Murdoch met the doctor’s gaze, a look of desolation on his face, and then he turned toward his son. “Wait a minute, I’ll get you a receipt,” he said in resignation.
Murdoch walked slowly into the house, wondering how he had messed up so badly. He didn’t want Johnny to leave; he loved his son even though he argued with him continually. With a sigh, he opened the safe and pulled out the contents. He looked at the deed to the ranch, mesmerized by signatures.
Johnny stood impatiently next to the hitching rail after tying his saddlebags down behind his saddle. When he had ridden up to the house a few minutes ago, he never thought it would be for the last time. He ran his fingers through Barranca’s mane, trying not to think of anything else. He needed to push his family far out of his mind if he was going to survive. Sam watched him for a moment and then walked up to him. “Johnny, don’t leave. Think about it, at least.”
“I already have.”
“Murdoch loves you.”
Johnny snorted. “Sure he does.”
“Johnny, your father cares about you and wants you here. He told me himself.”
Johnny shrugged; a far away look in his eyes. He turned toward the doctor and sighed. “Sam, this has been coming on for a long time. It’s not just about today. He doesn’t want me here, no matter what he says.” He dropped his head. “I’m tired, Sam. All we do is argue. I can’t please him, no matter what I do, and nothin’ I do is right. I need ta leave, for everybody’s sake, not just mine. It just isn’t gonna work and the constant arguing is getting’ everybody down.”
“What about Scott?” Sam was pulling out every argument he could. He didn’t care if he was playing fair or not. He had the feeling that if Johnny left, the young man would go back to his previous lifestyle and be dead within a year.
“He and Murdoch get along just fine. He’ll be OK.”
“You’re just going to leave without even telling him?”
Johnny sighed once more. He wanted to talk to Scott, wanted to tell him things before he left, but he couldn’t stay another day. “Tell him I’m sorry, but I just can’t stay. Tell him I’ll think about him.”
Sam finally shook his head in resignation. “What about you?”
Johnny smiled a sad smile. “I’m always OK.”
Sam snorted. “Sure you are. Johnny, you take care of yourself, you hear me? If you ever need anything, you get in touch with me, all right?”
Johnny nodded. “Thanks, Sam, for everything.” He held out his hand and after a moment, the doctor shook it, then turned quickly away before his eyes betrayed him.
“Johnny?” The small voice didn’t sound like Murdoch.
Johnny turned around and faced his father. Murdoch held out a piece of paper, and Johnny took the bill of sale and stuffed it into his shirt pocket without even looking at it. He looked at his father for a moment, and then turned toward his horse.
“Johnny, wait.” When his son looked back, Murdoch held out a sack. “There’s ten thousand dollars in there.”
Johnny stared at his father for a moment, and then shook his head. “I don’t want your money.”
“It’s your money. You earned it!”
“That ain’t what you said before. You said I didn’t do nothin’ right.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “I was wrong. Please, Johnny, don’t go. Let’s talk.”
Johnny hesitated, and then looked at the doctor before swinging up on his palomino. “Tell Scott…tell him thanks for bein’ my brother.” He turned Barranca toward the arch and was gone.
“He WHAT? What did you say to him THIS time?” Scott was pacing back and forth in front of the Great room fireplace, his usual calm demeanor totally shattered. He had arrived home an hour ago after stopping in town. When he had ridden through Green River, Sam had told him that Murdoch and Johnny had fought and his brother had left.
Sam hadn’t given him many details, but he did let Scott know that Murdoch was at fault. That was all it took to send Scott running to his horse so he could get back to the ranch as quickly as possible. On the ride back to the ranch, Scott tried to think about what he was going to do when he confronted his father, and just how far he was willing to go to get his brother back. One thing he was sure of, he had had enough.
Scott ran his hand through his hair, and turned and glared at his father once more. “WHAT HAPPENED?”
Murdoch sat contritely at his desk and kept his head down, telling Scott all he needed to know about just whose fault this was. Scott felt his temper trying to erupt even more and he shook his head, trying to control his feelings. He knew that if he let himself become even more upset with his father, he would never find out what happened. His father would simply stomp off and refuse to talk. Scott figured that after he found out everything he needed to know he could tell his father just what he thought of him. He might just punch his lights out as well.
Murdoch sighed. “I was angry.”
Scott snorted. “What else is new?”
“I…said some things I didn’t mean.”
“Again, what else is new?” Scott stared at his father, wondering if the man was that stupid. “Murdoch, what’s the matter with you? WHY can’t you hold your tongue when it comes to Johnny? What did you say to him THIS time?”
Murdoch dropped his head and shook it slowly. “I try. I just…he just…he makes me so mad. He’s irresponsible. I can’t trust him to take care of things. If it were up to him this ranch would be gone in a month.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Murdoch slammed his fist down on the desk. “I KNOW it! He doesn’t care about this ranch!”
Scott shook his head at his father’s ignorance. “I can’t believe you really think that.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I guess he cares, but not enough to take care of business, and I WON’T tolerate that, no matter what! I don’t care if he gets upset; this ranch is too important.”
Scott nodded, his father answering the question that he had been mulling over on the way back from town. “And that’s all you care about. As long as you have your precious ranch, that’s all that matters. I guess Johnny and I were stupid to think you’d ever care about anything else. After all, you warned us how you felt the first day we were here.”
Murdoch had the grace to drop his head. “I didn’t mean that.”
Scott snorted. “Yes, you did. You’ve proved it over and over to both of us, but mostly to Johnny. Now, what exactly did you tell him THIS time?”
Murdoch shook his head, but didn’t answer.
Scott watched him and finally gave up. After all, knowing the gory details wouldn’t get his brother back. “Where did he go?” he asked flatly.
“I don’t know,” Murdoch whispered.
In a rage, Scott took his hand and swept the top of Murdoch’s desk clean. Papers fluttered to the floor, and several pictures crashed onto the tiles.
Murdoch’s head shot up. “SCOTT! I will not tolerate that kind of behavior!”
“Well, I won’t tolerate YOUR behavior any longer! You’ve thrown your weight around for the last time. You’ve opened your mouth and stuck your foot in it for the last time, and you made your very LAST mistake when you drove my brother away.”
Murdoch bolted to his feet and glowered at his son. “Is that a threat?”
Scott kept his eyes on his father. “No,” he said calmly. “It’s a simple fact. I’m going to try to find my brother, and heaven help you if I’m not successful.”
Murdoch kept Scott’s gaze for several moments, and then dropped his head and nodded. “Bring him home, Scott.”
Scott laughed shortly. “Home? Whether I find him or not, I won’t be coming back here, and I’m sure Johnny feels the same way.”
“You don’t mean that!”
“The hell I don’t!” Scott walked over to the safe and twirled the dials. The safe popped open and Scott began shuffling through the papers.
“If you’re looking for money there’s ten thousand dollars in that bag,” Murdoch offered through gritted teeth.
“You can keep your damn money. Where’s the deed?”
Murdoch stood up straight. “What do you want with that?”
Scott yanked the papers out of the compartment and threw then onto the desk. He shuffled through them, and then he pulled out the deed and slammed it down on top of the other papers. He reached over and grabbed his father’s fountain pen, then hastily scribbled on the deed.
“What are you doing?” Murdoch cried in alarm as he tried to snatch the papers away.
Scott pushed his father away using his shoulders and continued to write. “I’m signing off of the deed. I don’t want anything to do with you or this ranch.”
Murdoch’s mouth gaped open. “You’re not serious!”
“I’m deadly serious.” Scott looked down at the paper. “I’m surprised you didn’t make Johnny sign over his share before you made him leave.”
“I TOLD you I didn’t want him to leave!”
Scott shrugged. “You could have fooled me. Good bye, Sir.”
“Scott, don’t. We can discuss this reasonably.”
“Like you discussed it with my brother?”
Murdoch sighed, “Things got out of hand.”
Scott nodded. “Yes, they did. But I promise you, that was the last time.” He stared at his father for a long moment and then turned toward the stairs. “I’ll be leaving in the morning.”
Johnny sat by the fire, staring into the flames and looking for an answer that wasn’t there, and a hope that was turning into dust. All he wanted to do was to go home, but he realized that he no longer had a home to go to. He was at a loss as to just what to do. Just a few days before, he had known what he was going to do for the rest of his life and he had finally felt that he belonged somewhere. Even though there had been problems, he had been confident that they could be worked out eventually. He had tried his best to fit in and become a part of his family, and he had thought things would gradually get better. His father had effectively destroyed those hopes and Johnny’s future in a few horrible minutes, and he was once again lost and alone.
He picked up a branch and stirred the embers as he tried to decide what he wanted to do. Johnny snorted; maybe ‘wanted’ wasn’t exactly the right word. Up until a few days ago, he HAD been doing what he wanted to do. With a sigh, he turned his thoughts back to the problem at hand. The easiest thing to do would be to go back to fighting. He still had his speed and accuracy, and it would take very little effort to get back to the top of his game. The only problem was, he really didn’t know if he wanted to do that anymore. He had been given a taste of a life that he had only been able to dream about when he was younger, and he didn’t want to give it up yet.
Being a gunfighter was a hard and cruel life. No friends, no home, and certainly no family. A life of always moving, always looking over your shoulder and never trusting anyone. The pay was usually good, but money wouldn’t do you a lot of good if you were dead, and dead was how all gunfighters ended up at an early age. When he had lived that life before, he had accepted it because it was the best he had ever known. Now, thanks to Lancer, he had had a glimpse of a better world.
He pulled his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs. Even if he got a job at a ranch, it wouldn’t be the same. He would no longer be the boss; he would just be a hired hand with wages to match. He didn’t need a lot of money, but wranglers barely made enough to pay for their gear. The living conditions weren’t exactly great, either. Vermin infested bunkhouses, cold baths in the horse troughs and nauseatingly predictable meals of greasy bacon and beans.
Johnny dropped his head onto his knees. His options were pretty limited, that was for sure. He supposed he could try to get a job as a sheriff in some out of the way town, but that wouldn’t be his first choice. His idea of a good sheriff was somebody like Val, a man that could keep a fairly decent lid on their temper and remain calm. Val always tried to talk men out of resisting arrest and only if they refused did he resort to blowing their brains out. Johnny, however, figured if he became a lawman it would take only one smart mouthed idiot to make him shoot first and ask questions later. He had visions of mayhem if he ever became a sheriff.
Johnny sighed as he watched the fire slowly die, along with his hopes and dreams. He had camped here for several days and now he resigned himself to the fact that it was time to move on. He had told himself that he was sticking around until he knew just where he was heading, but deep inside he knew that wasn’t the reason. Even though he didn’t want to admit it, even to himself, he had been hoping that Murdoch would come after him. He wasn’t sure if he would have gone home with his father, but he would have at least liked to have had a choice.
Now, he was finally faced with the cold hard fact that his father had meant every word he said and had no intention of trying to get him to come back. That knowledge hurt Johnny more than he ever thought it could. He snorted; it hadn’t been too long ago that he wouldn’t have given a damn what his father thought. In fact, he would have gladly blown the man’s brains out. Now, all he wanted was his father to come and take him home. He already missed Teresa and Jelly, and most of all, Scott. Hell, he even missed his Old Man.
He shook his head; he needed to stop thinking about the past and try to figure out what to do with his future. At least he had a future now, thanks to his father. If Murdoch hadn’t brought him to Lancer when he did, he would have died long ago. He guessed his father at least gave him that. That, and wanting more with his life than what he’d had before.
Exhausted, his eyelids slowly closed as he relaxed in front of the fire. He knew he should get up and unroll his bedroll, but he was just too tired to make the effort. He figured he’d doze where he was tonight and then start out at first light. He still wasn’t sure where he was going or what he was going to do, but he figured it would come to him eventually. Something would point him in the right direction.
Johnny startled awake, his hand going automatically to his gun. The fire was out, and the moon was a mere sliver in the sky. Johnny listened, but the only thing he heard was the soft rustling of leaves in the night breeze. Still, the hairs on the back of his neck went up; he knew he was not alone. Slowly, he got to his feet and walked to the edge of the clearing, where he melted soundlessly into the underbrush and waited, his gun at the ready.
Johnny watched as the man stepped cautiously into the clearing, obviously perplexed that his quarry had disappeared. He smiled as he watched the man look around carefully and then scratch his head in puzzlement. Johnny holstered his gun and then stepped out into the opening. “What’re you doin’ here, old man?”
Jelly jutted his chin out belligerently. “Now what do ya THINK I’m doin’ here? I’m tryin’ ta find you!”
Jelly shook his head. “Now why in tarnation do ya THINK?”
Johnny shook his head. “Murdoch’s gonna have your head for missin’ work.”
“No he ain’t!”
Johnny looked at Jelly skeptically as the old man went over to the fire and nervously stirred the dead coals. “Didn’t nobody ever teach ya how ta keep a fire goin’? I’d better get it goin’ again. I ain’t gonna sleep out here on this cold ground without no fire.”
Johnny shook his head. “Don’t change the subject, Jelly. Now, why won’t Murdoch be upset?”
Jelly looped his fingers through his suspenders and rocked back on his heels. “Cause I told him I was quittin’.”
Johnny dropped his head and shook his head. “Jelly, ya need ta go back.”
“I ain’t goin’ back, and that’s final. I heard what that no good sidewinder said to ya, and I told him exactly what he could do with his job.”
Johnny kept his head down to hide the smile that was forming. He could just imagine Jelly telling off his father. He’d never tease the old man again about being a coward, that was for sure. It seemed as if Jelly Hoskins had more nerve that Johnny Madrid. Finally, he looked up into Jelly’s eyes. “Jelly, I appreciate it, I really do. But ya have ta go back.”
“Why? I’m plannin’ on goin with you.”
Johnny shook his head. “Ya can’t come with me.”
The old man’s eyes narrowed. “Why not? You’re not plannin’ on goin’ back ta fightin’ are ya?”
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do yet.”
Jelly nodded. “Then there’s no reason I can’t tag along.” He nodded his head as if the matter was settled, then turned around. “I’m gonna go get my gear.”
Johnny watched as the old man left the clearing, and a bittersweet feeling came over him. He knew he was lucky to have a friend like Jelly, but he still wished it had been Murdoch that had shown up. He knew that was asking for too much, but it still hurt. He also knew that by the time Scott returned he’d be long gone. Even if Scott tried to find him, Johnny would make sure he never would. His brother’s place was at that ranch. Johnny snorted; no sense letting the Old Man have it all to himself. In the meantime, he’d drift for a while and see what turned up.
Johnny knew that Jelly couldn’t stay with him, especially if he started hiring out, but he didn’t want to hurt the old man’s feelings, either. He guessed he’d have to let him tag along for a while. While he knew that thought should upset him, for some reason it didn’t. He smiled as he started the fire again; he knew that Jelly would want a cup of coffee at the very least. Suddenly, his nomadic life became a little more complicated. He smiled wider. And a whole lot more interesting. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about being bored.
Murdoch sat at his desk and looked out at his ranch. It was all he had now, but for some reason it wasn’t enough. Not anymore. At one time it was all that he wanted; all that mattered. Now, too late, he realized that it wasn’t the most important thing in his life anymore.
The ranch was doing well financially; the last several years had been very profitable, and since Johnny and Scott had come home the ranch had almost doubled in size. The herds had exploded and the ranch was now growing crops as well. And it wasn’t enough.
He picked up a picture of his family and studied it for a moment before slamming it down, cracking the glass even more. It had broken when Scott had swept it off of the desk before leaving, and Murdoch realized his family was as broken as that picture.
First Johnny had left after an argument, and within an hour, Jelly had come in and announced that he was quitting. That wasn’t all he had said, and the rancher’s cheeks blushed as he remembered the language that the handyman had used. As long as Jelly had been at the ranch, Murdoch had never heard Jelly say much more than a quiet ‘damn’, but he had sure made up for it the day he left. He left no doubt in Murdoch’s mind exactly what he thought about the whole situation.
Murdoch snorted; Scott had been next. It seemed like everyone in his family had lost their minds. Scott had actually signed off on the deed before leaving. His older son had been perfectly calm when he had ridden out, but somehow that had bothered Murdoch more than if he had been in a rage. The older man couldn’t pretend his son had left in a fit of anger and would soon calm down and come home. He was afraid that Scott was gone for good.
Teresa had also been annoyingly calm. After moping around the house for several weeks, she calmly broke her self imposed silence by telling Murdoch that she no longer wished to stay at Lancer. Audra Barkley had invited her to stay with her, and Teresa had accepted. Two days later, she was gone as well.
Murdoch listened to the relentless ticking of the grandfather clock and tried to concentrate on the endless paperwork, but it was useless. His mind was on other things. It seemed as if everywhere he looked reminded him of his missing family. The ranch had never seemed so empty, and he finally realized just what he had lost.
Scott rode into the town of Palo Loma and looked around dully, hoping to see a familiar face, but knowing that it was merely wishful thinking. It seemed as if he had been on the road for years, even though it had actually only been a few months. The rough reality of trail life had taken its toll on him, and he wondered how his brother had ever survived living this way before coming home.
Home. Scott snorted . Lancer had never been a home, no matter how much they had wished it were otherwise. He knew how much Johnny had wanted it to work, but Scott realized now that it had been doomed from the beginning.
From the very first day, Murdoch had made it abundantly clear just what was important to him, and it certainly wasn’t his family. As much as both Scott and his brother wanted it to be different, it hadn’t changed as time wore on. Murdoch’s first priority had been and always would be that damn ranch. Scott felt an overwhelming sense of loss; both for his family who he had barely had a chance to know, and for a lifestyle that he had genuinely begun to enjoy.
The blond wondered if Johnny was living on the road just as he was, and Scott hoped he wasn’t. His brother had done enough traveling when he was younger and deserved to have a home. The young man’s mood darkened as he remembered how his father had destroyed Johnny’s chance to have a home; maybe the only chance he’d ever have. Right now, about the only regret Scott had was that he hadn’t decked the Old Man before he left. If there was any justice in this world, Murdoch Lancer would be alone for the rest of his life.
Pushing those dark thoughts away with an effort, Scott rode up to the old hotel and dismounted, grateful that he would be able to sleep in a proper bed tonight.
He took one last look around the almost deserted town, and then went inside to register. Out of habit, he spun the book around and checked the signatures, and then tiredly wrote his own name in the book. The clerk turned the book back around. “Welcome Mr….Lancer.”
Scott nodded. “I’m looking for someone.”
The clerk shrugged. “We don’t get many strangers in this town.”
“The man’s name is Johnny Madrid.”
“I thought he was dead.”
With a sigh, Scott took his head. “You haven’t seen him?”
“Nope.” The clerk handed his customer a key. “First room at the top of the stairs.”
Scott went upstairs and dumped his gear on the chair by the bed, then looked out of the window. He really didn’t feel liked going down to the saloon, but he knew that was the best place to try and find out if anyone had heard anything about Johnny.
He walked into the saloon, and, having picked up the habit from his little brother, he sat down at a table facing the door. After several minutes, the bartender came over and brought him a glass of beer. As Scott sipped his drink, he mulled over just what he planned to do.
He had left Lancer almost three months previously, and had figured he’d catch up to Johnny within a few days, but he had been mistaken. He had ridden away from Lancer and then stopped in Green River to withdraw money from his personal account. While he was there, he had talked to Val, and they had both agreed that Johnny would probably head south.
Scott had left that same afternoon and had covered a good deal of ground that first night. He kept expecting to see Johnny’s campfire around every bend, and when he didn’t, he pushed Charlie on further. Finally, after dawn, he had pulled his exhausted horse to a halt and made a hurried camp.
Early that afternoon he had been back on the road, convinced that he would be running into his wayward brother at any time. His optimism had remained intact for almost two weeks, before slowly ebbing away. He was already down in Tijuana before he was willing to admit to himself that he and Val might have been wrong. Scott figured Johnny could have headed in almost any direction, and if Scott had guessed wrong, it could be months before he chased down his brother, if he found him at all.
Since that realization, he had ridden in a roughly circular pattern from Mexico to Northern California. He was now near where he started, only a hundred miles or so from Lancer, and the trip had been fruitless. There had been no sign of Johnny, and no one had seen him or heard anything about him. In a way that was good news, because if Johnny had gone back to fighting, Scott was sure he would be hearing about it. He hoped fervently that wherever his brother was, he could live peacefully and forget about his violent past.
Now, Scott had a decision to make. He could either continue traveling, hoping to run into his brother eventually, or he could settle down and keep his ears open. He figured if Johnny was around, he would eventually hear about it.
He took another sip of his beer, knowing that the decision had already been made. As much as he wanted to find Johnny, he couldn’t continue this nomadic life. He knew it was selfish, but he was tired of the lousy meals and the hard beds. With a sigh, he finished his drink and stood up, leaving a few coins on the bar. He would get a good night’s sleep tonight and leave first thing in the morning.
He had done a lot of thinking as he had traveled, and he had decided not to return either to Lancer or to Boston. He had decided to strike out on his own, proving to himself and to everyone else that he didn’t need either his father’s or his grandfather’s money in order to succeed. And he vowed that he WOULD succeed, no matter what it took.
Johnny rode into the small town of Lovelock, trying to watch for any problems. He usually listened as well, but with Jelly along, that was pretty much impossible. He had never met anyone who talked quite as much as the old man. It didn’t even seem to matter what he was talking about, as long as he could keep his tongue flappin’. Johnny smiled as he remembered what it was like to be on the road by himself, and how many times he had wished for company other than his horse. Now there were times he wished he could stuff a gag in the old man’s mouth and get a few minutes of peace and quiet.
Johnny still had grave doubts about letting the old man tag along with him, but Jelly really hadn’t given him a choice. He had tried to talk the handyman out of coming with him, but Jelly had been adamant. About the only way Johnny could have prevented it was to sneak off and leave him, but somehow Johnny didn’t have the heart to do that. Jelly had made it clear he wouldn’t return to Lancer, and Johnny couldn’t just go off and abandon him and leave the old man to fend for himself. He’d just have to be careful and try to keep his friend out of trouble.
Of course, that meant keeping himself out of trouble as well, and he figured that was what the old man had in mind all along. The handyman was about as subtle as a buffalo stampede, but his heart was in the right place. If Jelly hadn’t joined him, Johnny knew he would have wound up heading down to Mexico and hiring out again. It wasn’t that he wanted to start again, but he figured it was probably inevitable. It was what he knew best, what he was good at.
Now that option was out. There was no way he would expose the old man to the kind of dangers inherent in that kind of lifestyle. He had briefly considered heading down to San Diego or Los Angeles, but that was a little too close to the border and his old haunts. He knew that if he went south, it was only a matter of time before he’d be called out, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it.
Going north was an option; he knew there were some pretty large ranches up in northern California, but in his opinion, that part of the country was a little too close to Lancer. If he went further north, he would be in Oregon and Washington, and both states were too cold and damp for his taste.
Since he didn’t think he wanted to be a sailor, the only direction that was left was east. Johnny smiled; he could picture the reaction if he and Jelly showed up in Boston. He wondered if Old Harlan would welcome them as houseguests. That thought kept him chuckling to himself for quite a while. He could just imagine how much fun he and Jelly would have back in stuffy old Beantown.
As enjoyable as it would be to go and annoy Scott’s grandfather, he knew that it wouldn’t work for long. It would only be a matter of time before he killed the old goat. After thinking things over in his mind, he finally decided that Nevada would be his best option. The climate was acceptable, and it was far enough away from both Lancer and the border towns.
He had tried to discuss his planned destination with Jelly, but the old man made it plain that he didn’t care where they went, as long as they stayed together. Johnny knew that the old man was afraid that Johnny would dump him, and he vowed once more to take care of his friend as best he could. They had headed east, and Jelly had never once questioned where they were going or what Johnny had planned, and the gunfighter was touched by the old man’s loyalty.
Johnny just hoped that Jelly’s loyalty wasn’t misplaced. They had been in Nevada for several weeks now, and had no success in hiring on anywhere. It seems there was a drought, and many of the ranches were barely holding on. They sure weren’t in a position to be hiring.
Johnny still had enough funds for quite a while, but he didn’t want to wait until they were desperate before finding jobs. He hadn’t been able to shake the habit of keeping some ‘getaway’ money hidden, and he had been able to leave Lancer fairly well set financially. He had thought briefly of stopping in Green River and helping himself to some of the ranch money, but he really didn’t need it, and it had felt uncomfortably like stealing in his mind. He snorted; his Old Man would probably have had a robbery charge out on him if he had tried it.
Johnny glanced over at Jelly, who was still unconcernedly jabbering away. That was one good thing about Jelly; he didn’t seem to care if he was talking to himself when Johnny’s mind wandered. Automatically, Johnny’s hand crept closer to his gun as they rode into town, but the gunfighter didn’t see anything that caused concern. They rode up to the old hotel and dismounted, and after taking one last look around, Johnny walked up the stairs into the building.
Johnny hesitated before signing the register. He didn’t feel like he was a Lancer anymore, but signing in as Johnny Madrid seemed a little foolish. He wasn’t looking for trouble, and there was no sense advertising in case someone should recognize the name. He finally signed it Lancer, but he wasn’t happy about it. He then signed Jelly’s name as well.
The clerk glanced at the register, and shrugged. “Only got one room. Double bed, though.”
Johnny tried to keep his disappointment from showing. He had counted on a peaceful night’s sleep, and Jelly’s snoring would effectively ruin that hope. Trying heroically to keep his voice from betraying him, he answered the clerk. “That’s fine, we’ll take it.”
The clerk nodded and tossed him a key. “That’ll be a dollar. In advance.”
Johnny dug into his pocket and pulled out a coin, then tossed it to the clerk. “Where’s a good place ta eat?”
The clerk shrugged. “Maggie’s. Right next to the saloon, about a block down.”
“Much obliged, and I’d like a bath sent up.”
The clerk nodded, and Johnny turned toward the stairs, with Jelly following faithfully along in his wake.
Johnny and Jelly walked toward the café, both men wondering whether they could find a job in this town. As Johnny looked around, he wondered if he even wanted to settle here even if they could find work. It looked like it was a pretty rowdy place, and he had had enough of towns like this throughout the years. He longed for a nice quiet place where he could live peacefully and maybe start a family of his own, and this place certainly didn’t seem to fit that bill.
He kept a sharp eye on things as they walked, but didn’t see any overt threats. Mostly just a lot of rowdy behavior that needed to be controlled and Johnny wondered if they even had a sheriff here. Johnny shook his head; they would eat their meal and then go back to the hotel. Normally he and Jelly would go and get a drink or two after dinner at the saloon, but not tonight. It was a good way to find out about possible jobs and keep up on the local news, but this town had trouble written all over it, and he wasn’t in the mood. He had no intention of going to the saloon in this place; there was no sense in asking for trouble.
Jelly headed for a corner table in the small cafe, leaving the back chair for Johnny as a matter of course. Johnny took one last look around before sitting down and was relieved to note that the establishment was almost empty, and the few patrons that were there didn’t seem like trouble. He relaxed slightly and looked at the menu. He scanned it casually, not really caring what he ordered, just trying to get something that wouldn’t make him sick. He had eaten at enough places like this to know that the food would all taste the same anyway.
The harried looking waitress came over to take their order, and Johnny watched in amusement as Jelly flirted shamelessly with her. The lady seemed more bored than anything else, but Johnny knew that nothing but a violent refusal would dissuade his friend. The gunfighter watched as Jelly’s chest started puffing up like a turkey’s as he became more and more cocky. The waitress rolled her eyes at Johnny as she left with the order, and he grinned back at her.
The two men talked quietly as they ate, and Johnny was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food. He even took a chance and ordered a piece of chocolate cake for dessert. He looked at it apprehensively for a moment, and then took a cautious bite. A moment later the waitress was rewarded with a glowing smile from a very happy young man. Jelly took his time over his meal, and then ordered coffee and proceeded to dawdle over that. Johnny waited patiently as Jelly’s stories got taller and taller as he tried desperately to impress the lady.
When Johnny finally had had enough and told Jelly it was time for them to leave, Jelly told him to go back to the hotel without him. Johnny thought briefly about teasing the old man and staying put, but he finally took pity on his friend and walked out. He certainly wasn’t going to leave Jelly alone in a place like this, but he didn’t want to make the old man think he was spying on him. He walked over to a nearby bench and sat down, hoping the lady would dump his friend quickly. Johnny listened closely, ready to interfere if the lady got violent, but so far he didn’t hear any screaming or crashing dishes. He closed his eyes and thought about what he would say to Jelly to make him feel better after the lady told him to get lost.
Ten minutes later, Jelly came strutting out of the restaurant. He spied Johnny and hurried over. “We gotta stay here ‘till Saturday.”
Staying in this god forsaken town was the last thing that Johnny wanted to do, and he had no intention of staying for another three days. “WHY?” He exploded.
Jelly stuck his chin out. “Cause I promised Maggie I’d take her to the dance on Saturday.”
“And she AGREED?”
“Shore she did. Why wouldn’t she?” Jelly asked, perplexed.
Johnny shook his head. “No reason, I guess.” He shot a sidelong look at his friend. “How old do you think she is?”
Jelly’s chin came out once again. “Now how should I know? It ain’t polite ta ask a lady her age. It ain’t healthy, either.”
Johnny snorted; even he knew that much. He just wondered what the woman saw in his friend; she was pretty and at least twenty years younger than he was. Besides, it was a complication that Johnny didn’t need right now. Love or not, there was no way Johnny was going to leave Jelly alone in this town, and he sure wasn’t going to haul a female along with them.
Finally, he figured he was probably worrying about nothing. The lady would most likely run screaming from the dance if Jelly was his usual charming self. With a sigh, Johnny decided they could stay a few extra days; it was the least he could do for his faithful friend.
A very grouchy Johnny was up early the next morning. He had hardly slept at all, and he was ready to kill the first person that even looked at him wrong. He glanced over at Jelly, who was peacefully snoring, and felt like heaving both Jelly and the bed out the window. The old man had kept him awake for hours as he extolled the virtues of his lady love, and discussed every aspect of the upcoming dance. Johnny had finally managed to get him to shut up, and Jelly had immediately fallen into a deep sleep. That’s when the snoring had started.
Johnny decided it would be in both of their best interests if he went to breakfast by himself. Maybe after a good cup of coffee and breakfast he would be decent company. He walked across the street, not really paying attention to the surroundings. He was almost across when the challenge rang out.
Johnny turned toward the sound, a sense of disappointment welling up within him. He had hoped that his reputation hadn’t chased him this far, but he realized he was wrong. The man was standing with his back to the rising sun, making it difficult for Johnny to see his features. He tried to shift to the left to get a better angle, but the man’s voice rang out once again.
“Hold it, Madrid. You going to fight, or am I going to have to drop you where you stand?”
Johnny turned fully toward the figure and squinted slightly as he tried to see the man’s face. The voice certainly wasn’t familiar, but that didn’t mean the man wasn’t trouble. The problem was, the challenger’s face was hidden in shadows, and Johnny needed to see the man’s expression and eyes to tell him when to draw. He resigned himself to waiting until he saw the arm move before he responded, but he knew how risky that could be. If the man had any speed at all, it could be fatal.
“Whenever you’re ready, Madrid.”
Johnny didn’t answer, but kept his eyes focused on his opponent’s gun hand. A second later, he saw the movement and drew. The man stood for another second before pitching forward into the dirt. Johnny breathed out the breath that he had been holding, then glanced around to see if there was any more trouble looming. He was surprised to see that although people had stopped to watch the fight, they were now going about their business, studiously avoiding his eyes, and there was still no sign of a sheriff.
He stood there another moment, and then with a shrug, he walked toward the café, deciding that if the local law did show up, he would rather do his talking on a full stomach. He walked into the café and sat at the same seat he had been in the evening before.
When the waitress came to take his order, Johnny noticed that she seemed nervous and he sighed regretfully. He had probably just ruined poor Jelly’s chances of taking the lady to the dance, and he felt badly about that. Jelly had precious few opportunities to step out, and the old man had been excited about his date.
Maggie silently served his breakfast, and then went back behind the counter, where she watched him cautiously. Johnny pretended not to notice and went about polishing off his bacon and eggs. A moment later, a well dressed gentleman walked into the café, and after a nervous glance at Johnny, he hurried over to where Maggie stood and the two whispered excitedly.
Johnny continued eating and trying to ignore the two gossips, figuring he’d find out soon enough if they meant trouble for him. He had barely started in on his potatoes when another man walked quickly into the building and joined the others. Johnny glanced up and found the three in animated conversation, occasionally aiming a quick look in his direction.
Johnny took another couple of bites and then decided he had had enough. He hadn’t done anything illegal and if they wanted to make something out of what had happened, that was their problem. So far, the local law hadn’t made an appearance, and with any luck Johnny could ride out without having to go through an interrogation. Johnny put down his fork and stood up. He sauntered over to where the three townspeople were arguing and realized they had forgotten about him for the moment.
The waitress swung around, startled, and her eyes widened. “Yes?”
Johnny shrugged. “How much do I owe ya?”
The waitress stuttered nervously, ‘um… that’ll be… twenty five cents.”
Johnny nodded and dug into his pocket. He pulled out some coins and handed them to her, then tipped his hat and walked out, aware of their stares digging holes in his back.
He walked quickly over to the hotel, noticing that someone had already cleaned up the street. He hurried up the stairs and entered their room, where Jelly was still snoring loudly.
“Come on, Jelly, wake up!”
Jelly mumbled incoherently, then rolled over and began snoring again.
“JELLY! Wake up!”
The old man sat up and looked around in confusion. His bleary eyes finally settled on Johnny accusingly. “What’s the matter with you? Dontcha know better than ta wake a man like that? I coulda died of shock!”
Johnny picked up Jelly’s pants and threw them at the sleepy man. “Get dressed. We’re leavin’.”
“’Cause while you were busy getting’ your beauty sleep, I was busy getting’ into trouble.”
Jelly’s eyes narrowed. “What didja do? Rob another bank?”
“Funny, old man. I got called out. Somebody recognized me.”
Jelly’s eyes widened. “You OK?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, but I think it’d be better if we left as soon as possible. I didn’t like the way some of the good citizens were lookin’ at me.” He looked at his friend and sighed. “Sorry, Jelly; I know how much you wanted to go to that dance.”
“Durn right I did, but it weren’t your fault. Jelly sighed glumly. “She shore was pretty. Don’t know when the last time I’ve felt like that towards a girl.”
“She’s hardly a girl, old man, and thanks for making me feel guilty.”
The old man grinned. “What are friends for?”
“Come on, hurry up.”
Jelly quickly dressed and the two men walked downstairs and hurried over to the barn to get their horses. They hurriedly saddled their mounts and swung aboard, quickly riding out of the barn.
They were halfway down the street when the three people stepped out from the café and stood in front of their horses. The man in the suit held up his hand. “Hold up there, you can’t leave yet! We need to talk to you!”
Johnny fought an impulse to just spur Barranca on, but he didn’t want Jelly involved in any gunplay or a chase unless it was necessary, so in resignation he drew his horse to a halt, his hand on the butt of his gun.
Johnny stared at the man. “Somethin’ wrong?”
“You just killed our sheriff.”
Johnny glanced around at the gathering crowd, trying to figure the odds of his getting out in one piece. Actually, they were quite good, but Jelly totally messed up the equation. He knew he wouldn’t take a chance on the old man getting hurt in a shootout. Besides, he wasn’t going to be on the run for the rest of his life for something that wasn’t even illegal.
He stared at the man that had made the accusation. “Your sheriff called me out. He didn’t identify himself and he didn’t say I was under arrest. He drew first, so it was more than a fair fight.” He nudged Barranca forward, praying that Jelly was following his lead. “Now if you’ll excuse me…”
The townspeople looked at each other nervously and the man in the suit finally spoke up. “Mr. Madrid, I’m afraid we gave you the wrong impression. We certainly aren’t upset with you. In fact we’re grateful.”
Johnny’s eyebrows quirked upwards as he pulled Barranca to a halt. “You’re GLAD I killed him?” he asked in disbelief.
The man nodded emphatically. “Yes. We didn’t appoint him; he just sort of took over. We’ve been trying get rid of him for months, but no one could do it. Everyone was afraid of him. He turned a blind eye to his friends tearing up the town and allowed them to do anything they wanted to.”
Johnny shrugged. “Well I’m glad I helped ya out.” He kneed his horse forward once more and the gentleman reached out and grabbed Barranca’s bridle. Johnny glared at him coldly and his hand crept toward his gun. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
The man nervously let go and glanced over at Maggie, and then cleared his throat. “Well, actually, we’d like to offer you a job.”
Johnny looked at him skeptically. “Doin’ what?”
The man puffed out his chest. “As sheriff.”
Johnny laughed. “Me? A sheriff? No way.” He turned toward Jelly. “Come on, let’s go.”
Jelly looked at his friend thoughtfully. “Now just hold on a minute, Johnny. Let’s think about this.”
Johnny stared at the old man in disbelief. “What do you mean, let’s think about this? I already have. Ain’t no way I’m gonna wear a badge. You want ta be a sheriff, you take the badge.”
Jelly’s chin jutted out stubbornly. “They didn’t offer it ta me. But we can at least stay here a day or two now. No need ta go ridin’ off in a huff.” He shot a look at Maggie and smiled.
Johnny rolled his eyes. Even though he no longer felt like they were in danger he still didn’t want to stay here, but he had the distinct feeling he was going to be outvoted. From previous arguments, Johnny knew if he insisted they leave, Jelly would make his life miserable for weeks. He could nag worse than an old woman. Johnny tried to intimidate him by staring at him, but the old man just stared back, his chin getting progressively more prominent. Finally, with a sigh, Johnny shrugged. “All right, we can stay till after the dance, but then we’re leavin’, OK?”
Jelly nodded vigorously. “That’ll be just fine with me.”
With a sigh, Johnny turned Barranca round and headed the horse back to the stable. Maybe he could get into a decent poker game while he was waiting for Jelly to get tired of courting Miss Maggie.
Johnny went back to the hotel and checked both of them back in, and the hotel clerk treated him like royalty. He and Jelly were each given a separate room, and when Johnny unlocked the door, he saw that it was obviously one of the hotel’s best. It wasn’t like the ones in Sacramento that he had stayed in when he had attended Cattleman’s Association meetings with his father and brother, but it was still nice.
He flopped down on the bed and put his hands behind his head. He had planned on going over to the saloon and finding a friendly poker game to pass the time, but thought maybe he’d take a quick nap first. He sure hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before.
Johnny smiled as he thought about Jelly. As irritating as the old man could be at times, there was never any question of his loyalty. Besides Scott, Jelly was the best friend he had ever had. He shook his head; he wished he’d met up with the old man when he was younger, before it was too late for him. If he had had some guidance, he probably wouldn’t have been a gunfighter. And if he hadn’t been a gunfighter, he would probably be home right now, loved and accepted by his father.
He sighed and turned his head to the side, looking out the window. He wondered idly just how many hotel rooms he’d stayed in over the years. He snorted softly. He wondered how many he’d snuck out of over the years, too. Both numbers were large, too large. It was time to settle down; he just wished he could. He wanted a permanent home and a family, but so far, both of those goals had been agonizingly elusive. He sighed softly. Maybe one day…
Later that afternoon, Johnny went over to the café for supper. Maggie immediately came over and smiled brightly at the gunfighter. “What can I get ya?”
Johnny smiled. “I don’t know. What’s good today?’
“Since I’m the one that’s doin’ the cookin’, I’d say everything.”
Johnny nodded. “I won’t argue with you there.” He smiled up at the woman. “Surprise me. Just make sure some meat is involved, and make it spicy!”
She nodded. “I think you’ll like the chili.” As she turned to walk away, he looked around and spoke up. “Where’s Jelly? I though for sure he’d be here. You run him off already?” he teased.
Maggie smiled. “He’s over at his office.”
Johnny’s head snapped up. “What office?”
“The sheriff’s office. He’s our new sheriff!”
Johnny walked into the sheriff’s office and stood with his arms folded as he watched Jelly putter around the room. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doin’?”
Jelly didn’t even turn around. “What does it look like I’m doin’? I’m cleanin’ up this mess. Last fella that had this job was a worse slob than Val.”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”
Jelly’s jaw jutted out. “I don’t know what you’re getting’ your feathers ruffled over. They asked ya ta take the job and ya turned it down. Then they asked me and I said yes! What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s WRONG with it is that you’re gonna get yourself killed, that’s what!”
“Ain’t neither! I know how ta handle myself!!”
Johnny snorted, “Sure ya do.”
Jelly glared at the gunfighter. “I’ve took care a you more times than I could count. You’re the one that keeps getting’ all busted up or shot. And when was the last time you had ta bail ME outta a mess?”
“Jelly, I won’t let you do this!”
“Well, Mr. Smarty-Pants, I didn’t ask you!”
Johnny shook his head. “You don’t know nothin’ about bein’ a sheriff. You’re only doin’ this ‘cause you want ta stay here and get ta know Maggie better.”
“So what if I do?”
“There are OTHER jobs. Safer ones.”
“What’s so safe about bein’ a ranch hand? Men get busted up all the time doin’ ranch work, you should know that.”
“Yeah, but they don’t get their brains blown out!”
“Look, I’m gonna do this, with or without your help.”
Johnny froze. “My HELP?”
Jelly shuffled some papers on his desk, refusing to look at his friend. “Yeah, I thought maybe you could be my deputy.”
Johnny looked at the old man like he’d lost his mind. “You’re kidding.”
Jelly shook his head emphatically. “No, sir, I’m not! After all YOU turned the job down. Nothin’ wrong with me takin’ it. I just thought you’d like ta work with me, that’s all. But I guess maybe I was wrong. Maybe you don’t want ta be with old Jelly no more. Well that’s fine with me. If that’s the way ya feel about it, you can just go on and leave!”
“Jelly, we both need ta leave.”
“Nope. I aim ta stay right here.”
“You’re bein’ unreasonable!”
“No I’m not! I found somethin’ here, Johnny. I like the people, and I like the town, and I aim ta stay.”
“Whether I want to or not!”
“Johnny, if it was up ta you, we’d never stop movin’. Ya got yourself hurt and you have no intention of settlin’ down again. Well I’m sick a travelin’ an I’m gonna stay here!” He glared at the young man.
“Fine! Go ahead and get your head shot off! I have no intention of bein’ your flunky! I’m leavin!” Johnny turned and stormed out, slamming the door behind him. Jelly watched him leave, and then his shoulders slumped and he sat down in his chair, wondering if he’d ever see his friend again. Suddenly this job and this town didn’t seem so wonderful.
Murdoch spurred his horse toward Green River, but when the gelding jumped forward, he realized just how hard he had kicked him and tried to calm his mount down. He knew he was in a foul mood. Nothing had been going right lately, and it seemed as if everyone was avoiding him. The hacienda had been as silent as a tomb since his family had gracelessly defected, and the only ones left had been Maria and her husband, Cipriano. He had talked them into sharing meals with him, but the conversations had been strained, and Maria had an annoying habit of breaking into tears at the smallest provocation. After a week of stilted conversation and forced smiles, Cipriano had come to him late one afternoon, hat in hand.
“Senor, I must talk to you.”
Murdoch had looked up from the books that he had been working on since that morning. He hadn’t realized just how much he hated books until Scott had taken over that particular chore. Now he was stuck doing them again, and he wasn’t very happy about it. “What is it?”
“Maria and I have been talking, and we decided that...” He twirled his hat in his hand and looked over Murdoch’s head. “…We decided that it was time to move on.”
Murdoch shifted in the saddle. He was afraid he hadn’t handled his segundo’s news as well as he could have. In fact, he had lost his temper once again and been absolutely hateful toward his old friend. At the time, all Murdoch could see was that more of the people he cared about were going to leave him. He realized now that if he had been able to remain calm and talk to Cipriano, there was a good chance that he would have stayed. Once more, he had let his emotions rule his head and had lost something important because of it.
He pulled up to the hitching post in front of the saloon and dismounted. He was hoping either Val or Sam was in town; he needed to see a friendly face for a change, and the truth was, he was lonely. He had gotten used to the commotion that always seemed to be engulfing the hacienda since his sons had come home, and he missed it. More than that, he missed the laughter.
He walked into the saloon and smiled when he caught sight of the sheriff and Sam sitting together at a corner table. He hadn’t seen Val or Sam since the boys had left, and he wanted to ask the sheriff if he had heard anything from Johnny.
Murdoch walked over and sank into the chair. “Val, Sam,” he beamed. I’m glad I caught you.”
Val stood up. “Actually, I was just leavin’. He slammed his chair backwards and stalked out of the saloon. Murdoch watched in disbelief as his friend left, and then turned toward the doctor. “What’s wrong with him?”
Sam snorted. “If you don’t know that, you’re dumber than I thought you were. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m sure I have a patient to see.”
Murdoch’s mouth dropped open as his last friend turned his back on him and walked out.
Scott sat at his desk and pored over the papers. He had only been with the company for six months, and he had already been promoted several times. It was an impressive feat, considering that he had arrived in Los Angeles without a resume or references. It had taken him several weeks and a lot of elbow rubbing at the better eating establishments, but by sheer tenaciousness he had finally landed a job with a fairly large shipping company.
He had picked L.A. because of its nearness to the Mexican border and its distance from Lancer, and he was generally pleased with his choice. Because of the time he had spent at Lancer and in the company of his brother and Maria, he had a rudimentary knowledge of the Mexican language. The weather was better than either Boston or Northern California, and the city was just starting to gain some decent restaurants and theaters. He had briefly considered going back to Boston, but he knew that he would always be under his grandfather’s thumb back there, and he had decided that he needed to strike out on his own.
He enjoyed the work he was doing, and he felt a sense of achievement when he was able to make the company money. They had consistently made their appreciation for his efforts known, which made him even more committed to their cause.
He snorted; he had felt the same sense of achievement at Lancer, at least at first, but his father had been stingy with his praise and quick with his tongue, and Scott had soon tired of always being wrong. Scott knew that it shouldn’t have mattered, after all, Lancer had been partially his, but the plain truth was that he had needed some encouragement and an occasional pat on the back from his father, instead of the steady stream of criticism.
Looking back, he wondered how he and Johnny had stayed there as long as they had. He shook his head, knowing his brother had borne the brunt of his father’s bad temper. He realized now just what it had cost his brother, and how badly Johnny must have wanted to belong in order to put up with it. Scott hadn’t realized just how bad it had been until he had been away for a while, and then he wished he and Johnny had left sooner.
Johnny. He wondered where his brother was, and even if he was still alive. He had thought that he would hear something, anything, but so far there had been only silence. He had cautiously questioned the local law enforcement officers, and even though all of them had heard of his brother, none of them had heard anything about him lately. In fact, most of them thought he had been killed down in Mexico a year or so ago, and Scott certainly didn’t do anything to destroy those beliefs.
The problem was, Scott couldn’t help but wonder if that lack of news was good news or bad news. He tried to believe that Johnny had succeeded in hanging up his gun and had settled happily somewhere where no one had ever heard of Johnny Madrid. He could imagine his brother happy and secure, but there was the nagging worry of how easily Johnny seemed to attract trouble, only now there was no one to watch his back.
Scott played with the edges of the papers and let his mind wander back to some of the happy times. He realized now that almost every good memory he had of Lancer had something to do with either Johnny or Teresa. While it would be unfair to say that his father was never pleasant, he realized that for the most part, Murdoch was simply less demonstrative. When he was in a good mood, he tended to be quiet. The only time his father was really outspoken was when he was angry or disappointed, and it had been easy to remember only those times.
The first meeting with his father had certainly not been auspicious. In fact, even though he had agreed to stay, by the second month he would have left if it hadn’t been for Johnny. His need to know his brother had overridden any negative aspects of his new family, and had made almost everything bearable.
He dropped his head and sighed. Nothing had worked out the way he had wanted it to. He had hoped he could have a real family, but that dream had been destroyed before it had even had a chance to take root. His grandfather had always been so formal and aloof that he had found his brother’s easy going camaraderie refreshing. He felt as if he and Johnny had a true bond. That is he thought that until the day he came home and found his brother had left without saying even a word of farewell to him.
Even though Scott understood Johnny’s need to get away, it had hurt that his brother had left without saying goodbye. Sam had given him Johnny’s message, and Scott had hoped that Johnny would contact him once he had calmed down, but that hadn’t happened. Johnny had simply vanished without a word. Scott thought that they had been closer than that, but he also knew that once his brother decided to run, he would cut all ties.
Johnny had told Scott once that when he was a gunfighter, he couldn’t let anyone close to him or think about anyone, or he’d get himself killed. He hoped Johnny hadn’t gone back to his old way of life, but he was afraid that was merely wishful thinking. Even if Johnny wanted to, Scott had seen for himself just how difficult it was to quit, at least for his brother. He hoped that somehow, someday, he would run into Johnny again and they could be friends once more, but in the meantime, he had to go about his life and try to forget what might have been.
Actually, things were going very well for him. His salary was rapidly and steadily improving, and several of his friends and business associates had suggested he run for public office. He had every reason to be thankful, but for some reason he wasn’t. He felt absolutely miserable, and he cursed his father for his inability to keep his family together.
Murdoch sat on his sorrel gelding and looked down at the cattle milling about in the small valley. He took off his hat and swiped his arm across his face to try to stop the sweat from running into his eyes, and then fanned himself for a moment with the brim. After a moment, he jammed it back onto his head and continued watching his cattle. They had spent the last several days moving the herd from one pasture to another, and the days had been long and hard. He hadn’t realized just how out of shape he had become in the short time his boys had been home. They had taken care of all of the tough jobs, and Murdoch had been more than happy to let them.
Now he didn’t have that luxury. When Cipriano had left, many of the Mexican workers had gone with him, leaving Lancer frightfully shorthanded. It had taken time to get more hands on the payroll, but they were just hands, no one he could trust to look out for his interests. He no longer knew them by name, and if the truth be told, he didn’t want to. All he wanted to do was to get through each day the best he could, and work hard enough so he could sleep at night.
Doc Benton had told him if he didn’t slow down, he was headed for a heart attack, but Murdoch really didn’t give a damn. In fact, he thought, it would probably be a relief. This ranch that he had thought was so important was all he had left. His family and friends were all gone. He snorted; the only ones that had stayed with him were his enemies, he still had those in abundance.
He suddenly felt very tired, and he wondered if Benton was right. He’d like to talk to Sam, but he’d be damned if he’d make the first move. Almost a month after he had run into the doctor and Val in town, Murdoch had slipped going down the stairs and sprained his ankle. He had asked one of the hands to go into town and get Sam, and the doctor had come out and bound his ankle without saying more than a few words to the rancher. When Murdoch had tried to get him to talk, the old man had simply grunted and ignored him. Murdoch had offered him the usual drink before he left, and Sam had turned him down cold. Then, as he was leaving, Jenkins had turned around and stared at Murdoch.
“I want you to know that I’m limiting my practice to Green River. There’s a new doctor in Spanish Wells that I heard is very good. I’d appreciate it if you’d call him from now on unless it’s an emergency.” With that said, the doctor had turned and left, slamming the door behind him.
It seemed as if just about everyone shared the good doctor’s opinion of him. Murdoch had swallowed his pride and ridden into Green River a week later, hoping that things would be different, but if anything, they were worse. Val had snubbed him completely, and Sam had made sure that he was no where in sight. The few people that had condescended to talk to him were people that he really didn’t want to talk to anyway.
He remembered how Matt Collins had rushed up to him and shook his hand. The rancher had insisted that Murdoch sit down and have a drink with him, and Murdoch had suffered through several hours of listening to the man brag about everything from his dogs to his daughters. His mind had wandered during the monologue, and Murdoch remembered just how much this man had hated Johnny and despised Scott. Murdoch snorted; at least he’d made SOMEBODY happy.
Finally, he had had enough. He had pushed his chair back from the table and walked out, with invitations to join Collins for supper ringing in his ears. He remembered lecturing both Johnny and Scott about being polite to this particular neighbor, making it clear that he valued the man’s friendship. He realized too late that if he had taken the time to talk to the idiot before calling him a friend, the boys would have been saved a lecture.
Sadly, it had been that way ever since. The only people who were more than passingly polite to him were people he didn’t want to be caught dead with. He dropped his head. It seemed that he had been the only one who hadn’t been captivated by the two young men who were his sons.
The person who had surprised him the most was old widow Ferguson. She didn’t like ANYBODY. In the thirty or do years they had been neighbors, he couldn’t recall her saying one nice thing about anyone. As straight laced and proper as the old lady was, he had known she would probably drop dead if she ever ran into Johnny. Although he wasn’t sure, he had suspected that she had been behind some of the talk against the gunfighter when he had first come to Lancer.
He had been oh so wrong. One week after he had sprained his ankle, he had seen her drive her ancient buggy into the yard. She had grabbed a sack from under the seat and climbed down. He had hobbled out to meet her, and before he could get more than a greeting out of his mouth, she had stuffed the sack in his arms.
“Here, Sam said you had sprained your ankle. Here’s a meal for you.” She immediately turned to go.
“Wait,” Murdoch cried. “Please, stay a while and talk. Maybe you would join me for supper.”
She had sniffed primly. “No thank you.” She had put her hands on her scrawny hips and glared at him. “You are a fool, Murdoch Lancer. You wouldn’t be desperate enough to be asking a grumpy old lady like myself to stay for dinner if you hadn’t chased off those sons of yours. This whole valley is mourning the loss of those two young men.” She sniffed again. “They were probably the only two true gentlemen in the whole valley, yourself included. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going home for supper. Good day.”
Murdoch had stood in the yard for a long while after the buggy had disappeared, and then had thrown the dish across the yard. He hadn’t spoken to any of the neighbors since.
Murdoch sat at his desk and stared at the bills piled onto his desk. There had been one catastrophe after another, and he realized with mounting panic that he didn’t have enough money left to pay his bills. He slammed his fist down angrily on the desk, and in a fit of temper, he swept the paper onto the floor.
The boys had been gone almost eight months, and it seemed as if nothing had gone right since their departure. When Cipriano had left, he had left Murdoch in a terrible bind. The Segundo had always watched over the wranglers and had kept them in line, and Murdoch had relied on his friend to watch out for the ranch’s best interests. When Cipriano had quit, Murdoch was forced to promote another old time hand to the position, and it had been a catastrophe.
The man was certainly not dishonest, but he was lazy. Pete would also avoid a confrontation no matter what, so instead of being the men’s boss, he acted like a friend. Whenever something didn’t get done, Pete would make excuses to Murdoch, or try to hide the problem, while the man responsible would get off without any type of reprimand or consequences. Soon the hands learned they could do as they wished, and men were slacking off, stealing from the ranch, and lying about work they were told to do.
A month ago, Murdoch had been told by Pete that the fencing in the upper pasture had been checked and fixed, and Murdoch took it upon himself to lead the drive that took the herd to the pasture. After a three day drive, they had arrived at the pasture, and Murdoch had been shocked to see fences down and piles of dangerous brush choking the waterholes.
Murdoch had made the men stay in the pasture and watch the herd, while he had taken a work crew and tried to fix the mess. It had taken them another three days to fix all the problems, and by then the men were ready to mutiny. Instead of standing by his boss, Pete had been one of the main complainers, stirring up the men even more.
When the cattle were safely ensconced in their new area, Murdoch had gone back to the ranch minus about ten men. He had fired several of them, including Pete, and others had quit. Since then, he had been trying to run the ranch shorthanded, plus keep an eye on everything, and it was an impossible task. He would just put out the fire of one emergency when another would arise, and he could no longer keep up. The ranch was falling apart around him, and there was nothing he could do about it.
This last month had been the final blow. He had needed to drive the herd to market, and out of desperation, he had hired a professional drover to take them. Murdoch knew he couldn’t physically do the work, and he wasn’t willing to trust any of his hands. He knew the cost of hiring someone would cut down on his profits, but it couldn’t be helped.
Once again, it was the wrong choice. The man had worried more about his own personal record of delivering the herd quickly than the safety and well being of the cattle. He had crossed rivers wherever and whenever he found them, rather than trying to find safer crossings, and he had pushed the herd so fast that the cattle that managed to survive had lost significant weight by the time they reached their destination. Murdoch had received less than half of what he had been counting on for the beef, and the amount he had been expecting wasn’t enough to keep the ranch running.
Now he had bills due for equipment and supplies, and because he had barely enough men to take care of the herd, he had been forced to let the crops go. He had to purchase the food from town, and he didn’t even have enough money to do that. Payroll was coming up in a few days, and if he didn’t have the money, there was no doubt in his mind that the men would walk. He shook his had sadly. There was a time his men would have stuck with him and ridden out the storm, but the new hands had no such loyalty. They only cared about their money.
This week, he had visited every single one of his neighbors. He had swallowed his pride and asked them to lend him money to keep the ranch going, and every single one had turned him down. He glanced up at the clock and sighed. He was going to ride into town and beg Sam to lend him some money. He knew the old doctor was very well off financially, and could afford to do him the favor. The problem was, Murdoch wasn’t sure he would. With a sigh, he stood up. He might as well get it over with.
Murdoch stood in Sam’s office and haltingly told the doctor about his problems.
“You’d think that after all these years, at least ONE of my friends would loan me the money. Don’t any of them know anything about friendship? And I don’t know what’s the matter with those hands. They don’t care about what happens to the ranch, as long as they get their paycheck. They don’t have any loyalty either.”
Sam shook his head. “I know of two that did.”
Murdoch stared at the doctor for a moment, uncomprehending, and then dropped his head as the doctor continued.
“Why should anyone show any loyalty to you? You certainly didn’t show any loyalty when you kicked your sons out.”
“I DIDN’T kick them out!”
“Yes, Murdoch, you did.”
Murdoch bit his tongue and kept his temper in check. “Can you loan me the money?”
Sam shook his head. “Actually, I would, but without Scott and Johnny there to help you, I don’t think you have a chance in hell of keeping it, even if I do give you the money. I’m sorry, Murdoch, but the answer is no.”
Murdoch stood in front of the bank, trying to figure out some other way to get money than to borrow it from Mr. Osgill. The banker had been in Green River for almost three years, and Murdoch hadn’t liked him from the moment he saw him, and he certainly didn’t trust him. Osgill went strictly by the rules, as long as those rules were to his advantage. Murdoch couldn’t count the number of men the banker had foreclosed on, but it was all strictly legal. The man might not use the same methods that Pardee had used, but he was the same breed, and now he was Murdoch’s only hope.
Finally, Murdoch walked resolutely up to the bank and grabbed the handle. Hesitating only slightly, he jerked the door open and stepped inside. The banker was sitting at his desk, and the smile he gave the rancher was both gleeful and full of avarice, and Murdoch’s jaw clenched.
The banker stood up and offered a sweaty hand which Murdoch took gingerly and then unobtrusively wiped his hand on his pant leg as he sat down. The man’s smile remained as fixed as a doll’s, and the rancher’s distrust for the man went up a notch.
“Mr. Lancer, what can I do for you?”
Murdoch glared at the man for a moment before telling him of the problems the ranch had been suffering.
Osgill’s mouth turned down in a phony expression of regret. “I’m sorry things aren’t going well for you, but I’m sure we can help you. How much do you need?”
Murdoch dropped his head. “I’ll need a minimum of ten thousand dollars.”
The banker’s eyes widened. “That’s a lot of money.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Not for a ranch the size of Lancer. That’ll keep it going for another six months, if I’m very careful. By then I should be able to sell off another herd and get back on my feet.”
“So you expect to have the money to repay the loan in…what? Six months?”
Murdoch though for a moment and then finally nodded his head. “Six months.”
Mr. Osgill nodded his head. “I’ll draw up the papers.” He brought his eyes up to Murdoch’s. You do realize, I won’t be able to give you that much money without some sort of security on the loan. Naturally I’ll have to list the ranch as collateral.”
“Naturally,” Murdoch ground out.
“If you’d like, you can go over to the saloon and wait while I draw up the papers, maybe visit with some of your friends?”
Murdoch realized he really didn’t have any friends left to visit with and he shook his head. “That’s all right; I’ll sit in here if you don’t mind.”
Osgill shrugged. “It will take a little while.”
An hour later, Murdoch was on his way, the money safely in hand. He had chosen not to keep it in the bank, he was afraid that if it was robbed, he would lose everything. He certainly didn’t feel good about the agreement he had just signed, but he hadn’t had a choice. It was the only way to buy six months worth of time, and with any luck at all, he should be able to pay the money back easily. With any luck.
Scott sat at the table with his friends and graciously accepted their congratulations. Almost as a lark, he had decided to run for the state legislature, and he had scored a victory over the aging incumbent. In a little over nine months, he had become a man of importance and some power in California. He enjoyed politics, and he knew his grandfather would be delighted. Harlan had always told Scott that he was destined for a political career, but at the time he had been too young, and then Scott had decided to go to Lancer. Once there, all thoughts of politics had flown.
Much to his Grandfather’s horror, Scott had enjoyed the manual labor involved in ranching, and had felt a deep sense of accomplishment after a doing a hard day’s work. He only occasionally let himself remember that time in his life, and it had already taken on a dreamlike quality to him. He considered it something he had done for a time that hadn’t worked out; a stepping stone to his true destiny.
It was only occasionally, when he saw two friends laughing together, that he felt an aching sense of loss. He had never had a friend like Johnny, let alone a brother. The two of them had become close almost immediately and Scott knew that Johnny was the one person in his life that would never turn on him, no matter what. He missed him terribly, but he wouldn’t let himself dwell on it. They were from two different worlds, and he counted himself lucky to have even met the man.
He hoped that someday he would run into Johnny again, and they could reminisce and then at least keep in touch. Scott had thought about hiring the Pinkertons to track him down, but he didn’t want to cause problems for Johnny or draw attention to his brother if he was trying to remain hidden. He knew his brother, and he figured Johnny had enough problems without his adding to it. For now, Scott would live his own life and pray that Johnny was safe and happy.
His father, on the other hand, could go to hell as far as he was concerned. If he never saw the man again, he wouldn’t be too sad. He dropped his head at that uncharitable thought. He guessed he did love his father, but he didn’t like him. He had tried, and if he were honest with himself, he would probably still be at Lancer, except for Johnny. He regretted that he couldn’t thank his brother for showing him what a mean hearted son of a bitch his father really was before it was too late. He wished that somehow things could be different, but he knew that was an impossible dream.
Scott brought his mind back to the present just in time to lift his glass in response to the latest toast. He tried to push all thoughts of his brother and father out of his mind as he went back to celebrating his new life, but he wasn’t totally successful.
Jelly moved the blind and cautiously looked out the window as the men rode through town. He watched as the men tied up their horses in front of the saloon and looked casually around the town. Jelly knew they were trouble and he hoped they would just have a quick drink and ride back out, but he figured that was too much to hope for.
He scurried over to the gun cabinet, grabbed a rifle down and checked to make sure it was loaded. When he found out it was empty, he hurried back over to the desk and jerked open the drawer. He pawed through the old wanted posters and came up with a box of shells. He frantically loaded the rifle, dropping several shells in his nervousness.
He finally grabbed the rifle and ran back over to the window and peeked out, hoping that the men would be gone, but their horses were still tied to the hitching post, and they had disappeared inside the saloon. He looked out the window for a few minutes, but when he saw no movement, he decided that he might as well stay put until there was a problem. After all, there was no sense going looking for trouble. He went and sat down at his desk, wishing he could disappear.
The last several months had gone pretty smoothly. There hadn’t been any major problems since he’d taken the job as sheriff for this town. Most of the time his job was to simply walk around and look important. A few times he’d had to run in some drunk or talk to a kid about manners, but that had been it. Most of the troublemakers had disappeared shortly after their protector had been killed by Johnny. There wasn’t a whole lot to keep them in this town, and after Jelly had talked to them, they had run like scared rabbits.
Jelly wasn’t sure that these men would run. They sure didn’t look like they’d be afraid of much, and they also didn’t look like they would be very reasonable. Jelly glanced out the window once again hoping to see a familiar face, but the street was empty. He went back to the desk and sat down, hoping help was on its way, but knowing it was too early in the day for his help to show up.
He watched as the hands on his old pocket watch crept slowly along, and was just beginning to think he might be in luck when he heard some gunshots erupt from across the street. He jumped a little, and then sat more securely in his chair. He waited anxiously, the sweat pouring down his face. Suddenly his door slammed open.
“Sheriff Hoskins, those men over at the saloon…you’d better come!”
Jelly stood up. “Now just hold on there. What’s goin’ on?”
“They’re breakin’ things up and makin’ ole Tommy dance on the bar!”
With a muttered prayer, Jelly glanced once more at his watch, then grabbed his gun and headed for the saloon. He approached cautiously, and peered in through the doors. The town drunk didn’t look very drunk anymore, and was doing a dance on the top of the bar, while the strangers laughed uproariously.
Jelly watched a moment, wondering if he could just let it go; after all, they weren’t really hurting anyone. Another barrage of gunfire erupted from within, along with some shouts and pleading from Tommy. He glanced again at his pocket watch and muttered under his breath, then took a deep breath and stepped inside, leveling his rifle at the men.
It took them a few seconds to notice the bewhiskered sheriff, but slowly they realized that something was different. One by one they turned to face this new threat, sizing up their opponent. Jelly locked eyes with the leader and for a second, time froze. Then the stranger smiled.
“What do you want, old man?”
Jelly’s chin jutted out belligerently. “I WANT you ta get on your horses and ride outta here.”
“Yeah? And who’s gonna make us?”
One of the other men snorted. “You’d better just put that rifle up, old man, before it goes off and hurts somebody.”
“I know how ta use it; and I will if ya don’t skedaddle.”
All three men laughed. “You think that badge is gonna protect ya? Go back to your office and hide; we’ll be done here pretty soon, and then we MIGHT ride out.”
Jelly took a step forward. “I mean it; get yourselves outta here, now!” He pulled the bolt back on the rifle and tightened his grip on the trigger.
The men’s smiles faded, and their hands crept towards their guns.
The batwing doors swung open, drawing the attention of the men, and they turned toward the new threat.
“Hey Jelly, what’s goin’ on?”
Jelly nodded in relief at his deputy. “Nothin I can’t handle. Just tellin’ these boys ta hit the road.”
Johnny nodded and caught the eye of the leader. “Then that’s what I guess they’d better do.”
The stranger’s eyes narrowed as he studied the deputy. The sheriff was a joke, but the deputy was a totally different story. His eyes were drawn to the younger man’s rig, and knew it wasn’t just for show. He brought his eyes back up and felt a flash of uncertainty when he looked into those cold eyes. The deputy was smiling, but his eyes were as hard as rocks, and he was tapping his fingers against his holster in a decidedly aggressive way.
Jelly motioned with his rifle. “Get goin’, and don’t come back.”
One of the other men had been studying the deputy and finally figured out just who he was. He reached over slowly, being careful not to make any quick moves and whispered in the leader’s ear. The first man’s face went pale and he slowly raised his hands. “All right, we’re goin’.”
Jelly nodded his head in satisfaction. “I don’t want ta see ya in these parts again!”
“No, Sir!” The men headed for the door, and Jelly followed them out, keeping the rifle ready in case they changed their minds.
After the men rode out, Jelly turned around and walked back into the saloon, his chest puffed out with pride. The bartender came over and clapped Jelly on the back. “We sure are lucky to have you as our sheriff!”
Jelly nodded, and then turned toward Johnny. “I hope ya watched ta see how it was done.”
“I did, Jelly.”
“Good. And by the way, you’re late.”
Murdoch sat at his desk, looking out the window at his ranch, but his eyes weren’t seeing the empty corrals or the scorched hills. They were looking at the future, and it was empty. It was over. He had come to this country a poor immigrant, determined to prove his father wrong and be a success. He always thought that he would consider his life complete if he could have become more successful than his father, and for a while, he had. He had arrived in America without a penny to his name, and through hard work and sheer stubbornness, he had built up and empire a king could be proud of. And now it was over.
He had built up kingdom of cattle and men, and had become wealthier than he had ever dreamed. Wealthier than his father could have ever imagined, but he had lost it all. He realized now that he had never been successful at all. In the one way that really counted, he had been as much a failure as his father. Sean Lancer had been a hard man, and a harder father. He didn’t know how to show his sons love, but he knew how to be a stern taskmaster and a grim disciplinarian. Murdoch and his brothers had felt the sting of his belt more times than he could count, and their father had finally managed to drive all four of his sons away from their home permanently. Murdoch realized he had been as bad; he had become his father.
Now his sons were gone, probably forever. He doubted if he would ever see them again, and he knew they would never be a family again. He had destroyed any chance of that. He snorted; even if his sons did try to come home, there would be no home to come home to. In two months, Lancer would be history.
He had bet it all on being able to sell enough cattle to pay back Osgill. By all rights, it should have worked, but the last year it seemed as if he were cursed. Since the boys had left, nothing had gone right for him, and his mind fleetingly wondered if one of them had put a curse on him. He realized sadly that he really couldn’t blame them if they had.
The loan was due in a little over two months from now, but he had no cattle left to sell. The drought had hit hard, and then, when the grass and brush was as dry as tinder, a wildfire had taken the little bit of graze that had been left. Cattle had starved by the thousands, and with no money left to buy feed, his hands were tied. He had watched in helpless fury as the animals had dropped like flies, rotting where they fell. There were so many carcasses that the scavengers couldn’t come close to cleaning them up. The stench had been overpowering, and disease had spread quickly.
The few head that had lived had been left weak and sickly. No market would accept them, even if they would have survived the drive. The horses that had weathered the drought had gone to pay for food. He supposed some of the wild herds had survived, but with no hands to round them up, they might as well have been on the moon for all the good they’d do him. Murdoch buried his face in his hands. It was over, but as he sat there, he realized it had been over almost a year before.
That was the beginning of the end; that had been the beginning of his downfall. When the boys had left. He thought that maybe God was punishing him for his stupidity in letting them go. No, not for letting them go, for pushing them away. He had never given them a chance to stay, never given any of them a chance to become a family. He had had it all, and he had thrown it away without a second thought.
He sighed deeply and looked out the window at the empty corrals and deserted buildings. The men were all gone, as were most of the animals. The ranch was a ghost town, deserted by the living and haunted by ghosts. Everywhere he turned, he saw those ghosts. They were in every room, every square inch of this huge ranch. He saw his friends, his companions, and most of all, he saw his family.
He had only to go into the kitchen to see Teresa and Maria happily gossiping while cooking their evening meal. The clanking of the pans and the warmth of the fire were as real as his own two hands. As real as his guilt. He could sometimes smell the bread baking on the hearth and the bacon frying on the stove, even though no meals had been cooked in that kitchen in weeks. It stood empty and cold, dead like the rest of the ranch.
He looked back out toward the barn and could almost hear the yells of the men, the angry squealing of a wild horse that refused to be broken. He could smell the dust from the churning of hooves and the overriding scent of cattle.
And he could hear the other noises; the quiet crackle of the fire on a winter evening, the small noises that were made as chess pieces were moved on a board, the sweeping sound of pages being tuned in a well- loved book, the quiet clicking of knitting needles, and the noisy jangling of spurs on the tile floor. The sounds of his family.
He looked around again at the familiar walls of his dream home and realized that this place hadn’t been a home for a year. The house, the furniture, the knick knacks, they were just things. They had no meaning, no value without someone to share them with.
He dropped his head once more. He had had someone to share them with, someone to enjoy life with, and he had managed to lose them, just as he had lost this ranch. He had lost everything, he was a failure, and he knew that he had no one to blame but himself.
Note: In 1870, the San Joaquin Valley lost one third of their cattle population due to drought.
Johnny lay in his bed, trying to figure out what to do. He wanted to move on; as much as he’d tried, this town just wasn’t home, and he didn’t think it ever would be. He had stayed because of Jelly, but he couldn’t stay here forever. He needed to leave to follow his own destiny, no matter how depressing that destiny was.
The townspeople had turned out to be fine people, and had bent over backwards to treat him right. They knew who and what he was, but they had chosen to ignore the obvious and had welcomed him with open arms. They hadn’t even charged him for the motel room all these months, and when he had tried to pay them, they had refused indignantly. No matter how well he was treated, however, a motel room just wasn’t where he wanted to stay the rest of his life. If he couldn’t have a home, he at least wanted to choose where he would live.
The problem was, he didn’t feel right leaving Jelly, and Jelly had no intention of leaving. Jelly was a respected member of this community and making good money as the sheriff. Maggie was still vying for the position of Mrs. Jelly Hoskins, and he knew the old man was seriously considering becoming a family man. If it hadn’t been for the sheriff bit, he wouldn’t feel too badly about leaving; after all, he could still keep in touch through letters, but he had saved Jelly’s hide several times in the last several months, and he knew if he left, his friend would be in serious trouble.
With a sigh, he closed his eyes and allowed himself to think about his brother. He wondered how he was doing and if everyone was all right. He missed them all, but he knew he couldn’t go back now that he knew what his father really thought about him. He wished he could be with his brother, but Scott belonged at Lancer, and he wouldn’t do anything to mess that up for him.
He knew he needed to figure out what he was going to do, but it was so easy to just keep putting it off. The longer he stayed here, the longer he could pretend things were normal and the longer he would have the last contact with his family in Jelly. Once he rode out of this town, he knew he would never see any of them again. He would drift south and eventually he would begin hiring out again. It was inevitable. And if that was what he was going to do, every day he spent here meant one more day that his skills were getting rustier.
As he lay there, he decided he’d put off the decision long enough. He’d tell Jelly tomorrow that he’d be leaving at the end of the week. He hoped he could talk the old man into going with him, but he knew the chance of that was small. Johnny snorted; Jelly would have to be a fool to leave what he had here to travel with a grumpy gunfighter. He just wished he could talk the old man into resigning as sheriff, because he knew that eventually, without Johnny to back him up, Jelly’s luck would run out.
As he drifted off to sleep, Johnny thought about Lancer and his family, remembering the happy times he had been allowed to enjoy before reality had sent him reeling once again. He wondered if somehow, someday he would be able to see them again, but he knew that was highly unlikely. He was Johnny Madrid, not Johnny Lancer, and Johnny Madrid didn’t have a family.
“Jelly, you have to resign as sheriff.”
The old man’s chin jutted out belligerently. “Why?”
Johnny shook his head. “Come on, Jelly, you know why.”
“No I don’t. Just ‘cause you’re stupid enough ta turn your back on paradise don’t mean I am.”
“This town is hardly paradise.”
“It is ta me.”
“OK, I’m not askin’ you ta go with me. Just get a different job. Maybe you can work with Maggie in the restaurant.”
“I’m the sheriff, and I’m gonna keep bein’ the sheriff. I don’t need no young pup holdin’ my hand.”
“Jelly, it’s DANGEROUS!”
The old man stared at Johnny for a long moment. “Yeah? What about what you’re plannin’ on doin?”
Johnny’s head dropped. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” he mumbled.
Jelly snorted; “Well I do, and I can guarantee you ain’t gonna be no preacher.”
“I can’t stay here and live in a motel the rest of my life.”
Jelly nodded. “Don’t expect ya to. Maggie and I were talkin’.” He bit his lip and suddenly found the papers on his desk intriguing.
“What were you talking about?”
“Well, I asked Maggie ta marry me.”
Johnny’s mouth fell open and then a wide grin appeared. “Good for you.” He looked at Jelly suspiciously. “Did she say yes?”
“Of course she said yes! She ain’t no fool!”
Johnny smiled. “Congratulations, old man.”
Jelly nodded nervously. “I expect ya ta be my best man.”
Johnny shook his head. “When is it?”
The old man looked at him belligerently. “Next month.”
“It’s the least you can do, the way I figure it.”
Johnny sighed. Another month wouldn’t make a difference, one way or the other. “All right, but then I’m leaving.”
“Well, that was what Maggie and I were talkin’ about.”
Johnny remained silent and waited for the old man to continue. Jelly shuffled the papers on his desk some more, and managed to drop several.
“Spit it out, Jelly.”
The old man looked up belligerently. “Well, it’s just this. You know Maggie has that big old house with about a million rooms, and I don’t think we’ll be havin’ any kids, and we need someone ta help us take care of things, and we’d both feel better if somebody was there with us, and we want ya to move in and live with us, after all, you’re family.” Jelly’s face was bright red by the time he had finished his speech.
Johnny looked at the old man, too stunned to reply. “I don’t know what to say, Jelly.”
“Well, then say yes.” He shook his head. “Johnny, you know I ain’t good at speeches, but you’re the closest thing ta family I’ve ever had, and I don’t want you to go. Please stay here with us.”
Johnny dropped his head. He didn’t want to stay in this town, and he didn’t want a pretend family, no matter how much he cared about Jelly. He wanted his own family and his own home, but he figured this was as close as he was going to get. “All right, Jelly, I’ll stay.”
Chapter Twenty One
Johnny walked into the saloon and looked around. It was too hot for many people to be out, and a cold beer was just what he wanted. He went over to his usual chair and after plopping down, he lifted his feet and rested them on the table. The bartender hurried over with his drink, and Johnny smiled at him. “Thanks Jess.”
The bartender nodded. “On the house, Johnny.”
Johnny nodded his thanks. He knew the townspeople were grateful for his presence, but to be honest, he really hadn’t done that much. He’d run a few unsavory characters out of town, but most of the time Jelly had been able to handle things just fine. He was beginning to wonder if he really was needed here. Maybe he’d been wrong; maybe Jelly would be all right here by himself.
He took a sip of his beer. He was happy with Jelly and Maggie, but he also felt he needed to move on. He still didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in this town, and he was thinking more and more that maybe he’d start his own ranch somewhere. He’d brought up the idea to Jelly, and the old man had suggested he buy some property outside of town, but Johnny knew the land was too dry and hot to support much.
He thought maybe he’d take a few trips when he got the chance and check out some of the surrounding areas. Maybe he could buy something close enough to come visit Jelly and Maggie once in a while. He still worried about leaving the old man in charge of the town; Johnny knew that if any really bad characters showed up, Jelly would be in trouble. Maggie knew it too, and had been busy trying to talk her new husband into retiring from law enforcement and helping her at the restaurant. Johnny grinned; knowing Maggie, Jelly would soon be flipping flapjacks instead of rounding up drunks, and both Maggie and Johnny would be thrilled.
Johnny rocked back in his chair, and motioned for Jess to bring over another drink. Jess always said they were on the house, but Johnny made sure he left enough on the table to at least cover the man’s expense. Jess brought over another drink, and Johnny started in that one, knowing he’d have to get back to work shortly.
He looked up as the doors were flung open, then he slammed down his beer and stood up as Jelly came running up to him.
“Jelly, what’s wrong?”
“Look!” He handed Johnny a letter. “Maggie said it was from Val. How did he know where we were? Did you write him?”
Johnny took the envelope and studied the return address. “Yeah, it’s from Val all right, and no, I didn’t write him.” He fingered the envelope and looked over at his friend. “It’s made out to you, not me.”
“Me? Why in tarnation would he write me and not you?”
Johnny shrugged and handed the letter back to Jelly. Jelly looked at him in exasperation and handed the envelope back. “You KNOW I can’t read! Open it!”
“Are you sure? Maybe it’s personal.” Johnny suddenly didn’t want to hear what Val had to say. He had the horrible feeling that it wasn’t good news. After all, Val wasn’t much of a letter writer himself.
“What’s the matter with you, Johnny? What could Val be writin’ me that could be personal? OPEN IT!”
Johnny stared at the envelope for another second, and then reluctantly tore it open and started to read.
“He says he heard from some drifters that you were sheriff here.”
Jelly nodded. “What else?”
Johnny was silent as he continued to read, and Jelly asked again. “What does he say?”
Johnny sank back into the chair and continued to stare at the paper.
“Johnny?” Jelly was becoming frightened; he knew by watching his friend that something was very wrong.
Johnny shook his head slowly. “Val says that Scott left Lancer too, right after I did. He says he was lookin’ for me. Here all this time I thought he was safe and happy at the ranch.”
Jelly sighed. “Maybe he’ll show up here.”
Johnny shook his head once more. “No, I don’t think so.” Johnny looked up at his friend. “There’s more.”
Jelly waited for his deputy to tell him the rest, and after several moments, Johnny continued in a soft voice. “He says that Murdoch’s losin’ the ranch. He says that he owes ten thousand dollars to that damn banker, Osgill, and if the bank doesn’t get the money by the first of October, it’ll go to auction.”
Jelly sank down in the chair next to Johnny. “What’re we gonna do?” He whispered.
Johnny looked up at the old man and snorted. “Nothin’. I sure don’t have that kind of money, and unless you’re holdin’ out on me, neither do you.”
“You’re just gonna let it go?”
Johnny shook his head slowly. “I don’t have a choice, Jelly.”
“Maybe Val can get a hold of Scott.”
“Nope. He says in the letter that he doesn’t know where he is,” Johnny said distractedly as he held the paper and continued to stare at it.
“Isn’t there nothin’ we can do?”
Johnny stayed deep in thought for a few moments, and then looked at his friend. He stared at Jelly for a long time, and then he finally nodded. “I have ten weeks to get that money, but I’m going to have to hurry. If I leave, I don’t want to have to worry about you. I want you to give me your word you’ll quit as sheriff.”
“But I can make some money, too if’n I stay as sheriff.”
“NO! I mean it, Jelly, your word.”
Jelly stuck his chin out and then finally dropped his head. “All right, I promise. But where are you gonna get that kind of money?”
“Don’t worry about it. With any luck, I’ll have it in time. I’ll send you a wire when I’ve got it.”
“Johnny, what’re you gonna do?”
“I SAID, don’t worry about it. I’ve gotta go pack. I’ll leave first thing in the morning.” He stood up and headed toward the door.
Jelly shook his head. Ten thousand dollars was a lot of money, and there weren’t that many legal ways to get it. He thought for several moments, and suddenly Jelly knew what his friend was going to do. He bolted to his feet and ran after his deputy. He caught Johnny just outside the door and grabbed him by his arm. “You can’t do that!”
Johnny smiled at the old man. “Do what?”
“You know what. Murdoch would have a fit if he knew what you were doin’. The ranch ain’t worth it.”
“Jelly, I don’t give a DAMN what Murdoch thinks.”
Jelly’s chin came out. “Well, I know he wouldn’t want you riskin’ your life for a piece of property.”
Johnny laughed. “Really? Since when? The only thing that he would be upset about is me usin’ blood money to save his precious ranch. ‘Course, he wouldn’t care if it was MY blood.”
Jelly pulled on the other man’s arm. “Johnny, PLEASE! The ranch ain’t worth it!”
“It is to me,” Johnny said quietly and pulled away from the old man’s grasp. “I’ll let ya know when I have it.”
Jelly watched as his friend walked down the street and he saw the transformation right before his eyes. A minute ago, he was talking to Johnny Lancer, but it was Johnny Madrid who would be riding out of town the next morning. The gunfighter was back in business.
Scott sorted though the abundant stack of mail on his desk, glancing at the envelopes before placing them in different piles. Even though he had a full time secretary, it seemed as though he was perpetually behind. Unlike some of the other State Senators, he preferred to open and read his own mail, but it sometimes became tiresome.
He opened a letter and perused it quickly, then placed it on one of the piles. He rubbed his eyes tiredly and tipped his head back to relieve his neck muscles, then stretched his arms out and yawned tiredly. He glanced up at the large grandfather clock and realized he was once more unforgivably late for dinner. Mrs. Dawes was going to have his head.
With a sigh, he grabbed a large pile of papers and some of the unsorted mail and stood up. He would go home and eat dinner, then work until bedtime. That is, he’d eat if his cook hadn’t thrown his dinner out. He placed his papers in a briefcase and put on his coat and hat. After turning out the lights, he stepped outside his office and locked the door, then started walking.
He strolled along slowly, savoring both the time alone and the feeling of freedom it gave him. His solitary walks gave him time to think, and although he had solved some pretty knotty problems during his daily trips to and from the office, most of the time his mind was allowed to think of other times.
When he was working, his mind was occupied with his job and he was content. It was only when he allowed his mind to wander that a feeling of sadness crept into his thoughts. If asked, he would say he was happy, and he was. The problem was, he had been happier. One time in his life, he had been happier.
He stopped and stared up at the sky, and wondered why the stars had seemed so much closer at Lancer. Closer, and somehow more reachable. He wondered if Johnny was seeing the same stars wherever he was. For not the first time, he wondered if his brother was even still alive. Johnny had a knack for finding trouble, and he knew his little brother was careless with his life.
With a shake of his head, he continued on, allowing his thoughts to imagine what Murdoch and Teresa were doing, and where Jelly had finally ended up. He sighed again, knowing he’d probably never know. The people that had made up his family were scattered to the four winds, and nothing could even bring them together again.
He finally stopped in front of house he was renting. He supposed he should buy it, but for some reason, he just didn’t care. The house was comfortably and elegantly furnished with all of the modern conveniences, but that was all it was; a house. It would need more than Scott alone was able to give before he could consider it a home.
He turned the key in the lock and stepped into the foyer, the tantalizing aroma of Mrs. Dawes’ cooking wafting in from the kitchen. He shrugged off his coat and hung up his hat, then walked into the study and placed the pile of papers on the desk before turning toward the bar. He poured a snifter of brandy, and took a swallow as his eyes settled on a lone bottle that had been sitting and patiently waiting for almost a year.
He had purchased the bottle shortly after he had arrived in this city. He had seen it, and in a moment of optimism, he had purchased it for when Johnny finally showed up. The tequila had been sitting there ever since, although Scott had gradually reconciled himself to the fact that his brother was long gone. For some reason, however, he couldn’t bring himself to get rid of that bottle. He knew it was childish, but he felt as long as that bottle was in his house, there was still a chance, however remote, that he and his brother would someday be reunited.
Scott looked up, his musings interrupted. “Yes, Mrs. Dawes?”
“Your supper is ready. Would you like it brought into the study?”
“Thank you, I’d appreciate that.”
The lady nodded and then disappeared into the kitchen. With a sigh, Scott walked over to the desk and sat down. He smiled slowly as he realized he was taking after his father. It seemed as if Murdoch had spent all of his time behind his massive oak desk, and now Scott was doing the same. He started shuffling through the papers, and only paused long enough to thank Mrs. Dawes when she brought his meal and placed it in its usual spot on the desk.
A half of an hour later, the cook peeked in to see if he was through, and then shook her head as she watched the man studying the papers in front of him, his untouched meal totally forgotten once again. She clucked softly, wondering how he managed to keep going on so little food and even littler sleep. If you asked her, he was trying desperately to forget someone or something, and she wondered if that someone was a lost love. She shut the door quietly and left the man to his labors.
Scott picked up one of the envelopes and his eyebrows went up. It was from a private investigator he had hired over three months ago. He had instructed the man to make discreet inquiries as to Johnny’s whereabouts, but every month the man wrote that there was nothing to report.
With a sigh, he tore open the letter and started to scan it quickly, but the second sentence stopped him cold. He re-read it and then slowly read the rest of the report, his stomach doing somersaults the whole time. When he was done, he carefully put the letter down and buried his head in his hands. After several moments, he stood up and walked over to the bar. He picked up the cherished bottle of tequila, and with an oath, he threw it into the fire.
Chapter Twenty Three
Murdoch downed the glass of whisky in one long gulp, and then turned and threw the glass against the wall. The heavy glass bounced off and rolled across the rug before coming to a halt at his feet.
“Damn,” he said softly. “I can’t do ANYTHING right.”
He turned and looked out at the purple streaks signaling the end of the day and he shut his eyes. Not only the end of the day, but the end of everything. Tomorrow morning, he would have to leave his home. This place that he had worked and sweated for, that he had bled for, would belong to someone else.
He sank down at his desk and rubbed his hands over the oak finish, coat upon coat of polish lovingly applied over the years. He stared at the wood, seeing the past in its waxy glow. His fingers traced a gouge that had been put there by a two year old boy as he played with a small iron horse. His fingers moved on to a small ripple in the finish where one of Paul O’Brien’s cigars had rolled out of the ashtray and smoldered on the wood while the two men argued about how to handle Pardee. Finally, they came to rest on a long scratch caused by a broken picture frame that had been swept along the desk by his eldest son.
He dropped his head as he remembered that horrible week, and he finally realized that as bad as this day was; as much as he was losing tomorrow, it was nothing compared to what he had already lost. He would gladly give the ranch up if he could have his family back, but he knew that without the ranch, his family would never be together again. He was a failure, pure and simple. He had spent so much time being disappointed in his younger son’s life, and instead he should have been inspecting his own.
He sat at the desk as the sunlight faded, not wanting to turn on the lamps. If the lamps weren’t on, he could imagine his family in the darkened rooms, and could almost hear their voices, but he knew it was nothing but ghosts. For the hundredth time, he wondered where his family was. He knew Teresa was attending school with Audra Barkley up by Stockton; she wrote him regularly once a month. He read the letters eagerly; hoping to assuage some of his loneliness, but all it did was whet it.
He hadn’t heard one thing from his boys, and that is what hurt him the most. He knew he deserved it; there was no longer any doubt in his mind about that, but he had stubbornly refused to believe that they had walked away for good. Now he believed, and it was almost enough to do him in. He prayed they were together, and he prayed that they were happy.
He sat there the rest of the night, reminiscing and unwilling for night to end. When it ended, he would be homeless and broke. But as he sat there, he realized that maybe it was for the best. This place was too full of memories, and Sam had been right; without his boys he could never make it work. The only reason he had built this empire was for his sons and their sons, and now they were gone and so was his dream.
As the orange light crept through the window, he slowly raised his head. He had packed his clothing and his few personal belongings the day before, and Mr. Osgill had made it very clear that everything else was to stay at the ranch. In fact, a month before he had used his power as note holder to force his way in and take an inventory. Murdoch had been furious, but legally, his hands had been tied.
Murdoch went over and picked up the bags and took a last look around. He started out, and then he turned and strode purposely back to the fireplace. He lifted down the custom rifle with the ornate “L” on it that Johnny had given him for Christmas, and turned and picked up the gold clock with the Lancer name engraved on it that Scott had presented him with that same day. He tucked the clock in his bag and grabbed the rifle before striding decisively out of the house for the last time.
He climbed into the buggy and nodded at the driver. “Thanks, Sam, for picking me up.”
The old doctor nodded. “I’m sorry, Murdoch.”
“I thought you’d tell me I deserved it.”
Sam shook his head. “That isn’t my place.”
Murdoch sighed. “Are you sure you don’t mind if I stay with you for a few days?”
“Of course not, and you can stay for longer if you like.”
Murdoch nodded. “Thanks, Sam, but I’ll be moving on as soon as I can get some money. There’s nothing left here for me.”
Sam nodded, but kept his thoughts on that to himself. Murdoch didn’t need a lecture right now, but Sam had to bite his tongue to keep from saying ‘I told you so’.
Murdoch was quiet as they pulled away from the hacienda, and he didn’t look back. That chapter of his life was gone forever and there was no sense dwelling on it. He had had his chance and he had failed. Now he had to start his life over again once more, and once more he would be starting with nothing in his pockets. He had had it all, and he had thrown it away. There was a time he had thought that the world would end if he lost his ranch, but he had already lost everything that mattered to him, and he finally had his priorities straight; now that it was too late. The only thing that he regretted about the whole thing was that damn sniveling Osgill would get it. He smiled ruefully. He should have burned the damn place to the ground.
Johnny dismounted by the stream and let Barranca have a drink of water. He unslung his canteen from the saddle and leaned over to fill it. As he leaned over, a wave of dizziness came over him, and the man grabbed at the saddle to keep from falling. Johnny stood there for a moment, and when the spell had passed, he slowly bent down and filled the canteen.
The gunfighter stayed down for several moments, then struggled to his feet and replaced the canteen on his saddle. He rested his head on Barranca’s neck, trying to gather the strength to mount, but finally decided it really didn’t matter if he stayed here and rested tonight. It was too late, anyway. Johnny led his horse over to a nearby tree and slipped the bridle off, leaving the halter on, and then tied Barranca to the tree, making sure the horse had plenty of room to graze. The man dragged the horse’s saddle off and left it where it fell, simply pulling loose the bedroll and hauling it over to the middle of the clearing. Johnny sank down on the grass and lay down, resting his head on the bedroll. He shut his eyes, knowing he should make a fire before it was too dark to find wood, but even as he thought it, he fell asleep.
The man awoke sometime later, shivering and miserable. He rolled over and struggled to his knees, and then lurched to his feet. The gunfighter slowly walked into the nearby woods and found a small deadfall within a few yards. He pulled some branches loose, then painfully dragged them back to the clearing. Within minutes, he had a small fire, and the man sat there trying to warm up before he went after more substantial fuel for his fire.
Johnny knew he should eat, but his appetite hadn’t come back yet, and he was just too miserable to eat, anyway. The gunfighter was hurting, inside and out. He sighed and buried his face in his hands. The whole thing had been hopeless from the start. There just hadn’t been enough time. It had started well; the gunfighter had reverted back to his old habits with an ease that had both reassured and frightened him. The first five weeks he had made nearly four thousand dollars, simply by hiring out for individual jobs.
Then the gunfighter had been approached by a man named Huesca who needed someone to take charge of a range war. After interrogating the man for quite a while, Johnny had agreed to sign on, reassured that the job would be over in plenty of time to return to California and make the payment before the bank took over the ranch. The amount Huesca had promised him would more than cover the balance of what he needed.
The man had lied. The enemy that Johnny fought against was stronger and better equipped than he had been led to believe, and the fight had lasted much longer than planned. Finally, Johnny’s men had prevailed, but it had been close. Johnny laughed softly; he had been so desperate to end the battle and be on his way that he had done something stupid and desperate, but it had been so unexpected that it had worked, and the enemy had been defeated soundly.
Johnny had ridden into Huesca’s yard to tell him it was over and to collect his money, and instead he had ridden into an ambush. Evidently, the man had second thoughts about the amount Johnny had been promised. Even as the bullets had been flying around him, he had cursed himself for being so careless. Huesca never would have been able to take him by surprise before he had come to Lancer. Even this time he could have made it to safety, but he was so furious at the man he chose to fight instead. He NEEDED the money. He had taken most of them down before he felt the bullet tear into his chest. He slumped over Barranca’s neck, and with his last bit of strength he had spurred the Palomino out of the yard.
Johnny had awakened in a small house, being cared for by a little old lady. Despite his best efforts, it had taken him nearly a week to be able to get out of bed, but he had figured he still had enough time if he rode day and night. First, however, he was going to pay Huesca a little visit; he still needed that money. The gunfighter had prepared to ride out, against the old lady’s protests.
“”You are in no condition to ride, young man.”
“I’m fine.” Johnny was painfully trying to pull on his boots, but the sweat beading on his forehead belied his words.
“You need to stay here at least a couple more days. You were badly injured.”
“I have to go.”
“I don’t know what is so important that it can’t wait a few more days.”
Johnny stopped, partly to answer and partly to keep the room from spinning. After a moment, he answered. “I have to get to Central California by the first, or my family will lose our ranch.”
Johnny nodded. “I need to get the money there by then, or the bank is going to repossess it. My father took out a loan and wasn’t able to make the payment. If I don’t get it there in time, we’ll lose it.”
“The first of what?”
Johnny was struggling with his boots again, and he had to stop and force his muddled brain to focus. “The first of October. I’ve got less than a week to get back.”
The old lady shook her head. “Oh, dear.”
Something if the woman’s tone caught Johnny’s attention and he brought his head up and stared at the lady as she wrung her hands nervously. Johnny felt his stomach lurch. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m afraid I should have told you, but I didn’t think it mattered.”
“Told me what?” Johnny asked, panic starting to make its way to the surface of his mind.
The lady wrung her hands some more. “You were badly hurt, in fact the first week I didn’t think you would make it.” She dropped her head. “You were unconscious the whole time,” she whispered.
Johnny’s boot dropped to the floor, forgotten. “Are you trying to tell me… what’s the date!”
“Yesterday was the first.”
Johnny stirred the fire, then he the lay back down and stared at the stars. He had failed, once again. His father was right; he was irresponsible and a failure, and because Johnny had failed they were going to lose Lancer.
Chapter Twenty Five
Val walked across the street to the saloon. As angry as he was at Murdoch Lancer, he still felt sorry for the man. Now he was going to have to confront him about something he didn’t even agree with. Unfortunately, the law was the law, and as long as Osgill insisted on pressing charges, the sheriff’s hands were tied. He just hoped Murdoch would be reasonable, but knowing the Scot’s temper, he doubted if he would give in easily.
Val shook his head; he despised Wentworth Osgill. If he could find some way to legally ruin the man, he would. As far as Val was concerned, the man was a leech, and deserved about as much respect. Unfortunately, the man was extremely careful, and never quite crossed the line. He might be unethical, but he didn’t do anything illegal, at least as far as Val knew.
As Val walked, he shook his head; he had somehow hoped that a miracle would happen and either Scott or Johnny would show up and save the day, but he knew that had been an idle hope, and now it was too late. Lancer officially belonged to Osgill, though what the man planned on doing with the ranch was beyond him. The sheriff snorted; one thing for sure, he knew the banker didn’t plan on working it himself. He might get those damn hands of his dirty. Of course, in Val’s opinion, Osgill’s hands were plenty dirty, just not with good old honest dirt.
Val walked up to the saloon doors and peeked inside, a habit that he had picked up from Johnny and that had saved his life more than once. The sheriff felt another pang of regret; he missed his friend. He had no idea where he was, and he had hoped that Jelly could somehow get word to Johnny about Lancer, but evidently that had been wishful thinking. Val smiled to himself when he thought about Jelly. When he had heard the old man was a sheriff in Nevada, he had just about choked. He sure hoped Jelly didn’t get in over his head, and he wondered what Johnny would have to say about it.
Val stepped into the room and immediately saw Murdoch sitting glumly at a table, sipping a beer. Val frowned, as far as he knew, Murdoch always drank brandy, and it confused him for a moment. Then he realized the ex -rancher probably didn’t have the money for brandy, and the thought saddened him.
Val walked over and sat next to Murdoch. Lancer looked up with a sigh, and the sheriff was shocked to see just how much his friend had aged in the last several months. Murdoch smiled sadly. “Val, how’re you doing? I’d offer you a drink, but I’m afraid I had to ask Bill for credit for this one.” He dropped his head and fell silent.
Val shook his head. “Thanks, Murdoch, but how about if I buy you another one?” He motioned for Bill to bring over another round.
The rancher shook his head tentatively. “No thanks, Val. One’s enough.” He bit his lip, a gesture that reminded the sheriff of Johnny. “Do you know of anyone that needs some work done? I need some money for…things.”
Val shut his eyes and shook his head. “I’ll keep my ears open.” It was Val’s turn to bit his lip. “Murdoch, I hate ta bring it up, but Osgill came to the office yesterday, and he insists I ask you….”
Bill set the drinks down, and Val paid for the two he had just bought, plus Murdoch’s first drink. The sheriff shoved one of the beers over to Murdoch, and the rancher nodded his thanks.
When Val didn’t continue, Murdoch looked up at the sheriff quizzically. “What?”
Val took a deep breath. “Osgill says there are some things missing.”
Murdoch’s face turned red. “All I took were my personal things!”
Val hesitated, keeping his head down as he spoke. “He says that there’s a rifle and a clock missing, as well as some livestock.”
Murdoch’s face turned a darker shade. “That clock and rifle are MINE! They were gifts to me from my BOYS!”
“Osgill says they belonged to the ranch.”
“They are MINE, not the ranch’s!” Murdoch exploded, pounding his fist on the table.
Val nodded his head in understanding. “Murdoch, believe me, I’m on your side.”
Murdoch’s anger evaporated. “I’m sorry, Val, I’m just upset.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
Murdoch looked up in surprise, and then burst out laughing. “Neither do I, Val, neither do I.”
He sheriff grinned, and then shrugged. “So where did the stock go?”
Murdoch sighed. “I had to sell some to pay for feed for the rest, and some died.” He sighed. “I couldn’t buy enough feed to save all of them.”
Val played with his beer, angry at Osgill for putting him in this position. The sheriff shook his head. “Murdoch, I believe ya, but I’m afraid Osgill is adamant. He had a private company do an inventory, and they say that the clock, the rifle, and five hundred head of cattle are missing.
“I TOLD you what happened to the cattle.”
Val nodded uncomfortably. “Yeah, I know, but the problem is, according to the lawyers that were there with him…”
“Go on,” Murdoch said in resignation.
Val’s eyes stayed down. “They said that after you signed the loan papers, you weren’t allowed to sell or dispose of anything listed as inventory. The clock and the rifle both had the Lancer insignia on them, and belonged to the ranch. That’s their words, not mine.”
“What do they want?”
“They want ‘their” property back.”
“They KNOW I don’t have the money to replace that stock!”
Val sighed. “What about the clock and the rifle?”
Murdoch stared at the sheriff for a long while. “No.”
“Murdoch, I MIGHT be able ta talk ‘em inta forgetting about the cattle if ya give ‘em back the other things.”
“Murdoch, be reasonable.”
“I am being reasonable,” he replied calmly.
Val shook his head. “Murdoch, if ya don’t give those things back, I’m gonna have at arrest ya.”
“Then arrest me! Do you think I care? Those things are the last things I have left from my boys, and I’m NOT going to give them up!”
The sheriff shook his head. “If they want to, they can have you charged with grand theft. You could go to prison.”
“I’m not giving them back.”
Val dropped his head. “Murdoch, I don’t have a choice, but believe me, I wish I did.” He looked at the rancher sorrowfully. “You’d better finish your beer. You’re under arrest.”
Chapter Twenty Six
Barranca wandered along the road, the firm guidance of his master’s hand conspicuously absent. The Palomino stopped occasionally to grab a mouthful of graze from alongside the road, and then sauntered forward once more, the vague recollection of a place with a warm barn and plenty of feed keeping him going in the right direction.
The man shifted in the saddle occasionally, but never looked up. The fever that had taken over his exhausted body was close to winning. Even though he knew it was hopeless, even though he knew that Lancer would be gone before he could arrive, Johnny had pushed himself without resting or eating for too long. The bullet wound had never had the chance to heal, and it had reopened. Infection had invaded his weakened system and was now firmly in control. Johnny rode without conscious thought; the only thing he could focus on was his need to get to Lancer.
Through sheer luck and instinct from long use, Johnny managed to cling to the horse throughout the day as the palomino inched closer to Green River. The steady rain made sure no one crossed his path, and as night fell the horse and rider came to a crossroad. The horse hesitated, waiting for some sign from his master, but when there was none forthcoming, the palomino hesitantly turned down the road toward the closest shelter.
Sam looked out the window, the miserable weather matching his mood. These last several months had seen his world turned upside down, and he was tired. He had lost some of the best friends he had ever had, and he wasn’t likely to get them back. Murdoch had been a friend for almost thirty years, when they had arrived in the small settlement of Green River at almost the same time. Several calls out to the ranch and the Scot’s generous hospitality had sealed the friendship. Two difficult pregnancies and a rambunctious and accident prone toddler had ensured the two men saw quite a bit of the other.
Sam had admired Murdoch back then, and had felt badly that he had lost both wives and sons. He thought then that Murdoch was the innocent party; that Garret had refused to give up custody of his grandson, and that Maria had left for no apparent reason. Now he wasn’t so sure. The rancher’s treatment of both his boys since they had come home was, in his opinion, inexcusable. He had seen the look of pain in Johnny’s eyes more than once when his father had chewed him out for some minor infraction in front of the doctor, and Scott’s grimly set mouth under the same circumstances.
Sam had tried to talk to Murdoch and tell him he was wrong, but the stubborn Scot wouldn’t listen. Johnny hadn’t been the only one who had suffered from Murdoch’s famous temper and furious outbursts. Scott had been on the receiving end a good many times also, but for some reason it was Johnny that bore the brunt of his father’s anger, and Sam really wasn’t sure why. The doctor had warned his friend that one day he would go too far and lose the boys, but at that time, all Murdoch was worried about was the ranch. He explained to Sam that the boys could take care of themselves, but the ranch needed his constant care and concern to keep running. He didn’t have time for both, and he said he didn’t have time to break his sons in slowly. They would either fit in, or they wouldn’t.
Sam shook his head. The thing was, they HAD fit in, with everyone but their father. The two boys were very popular with everyone, but all Murdoch ever saw was a Boston greenhorn and a gunfighter. Now Sam’s prediction had come true, and Murdoch had lost both of his sons, but the doctor certainly felt no joy at being right. Sam knew that it had eaten at the rancher more than he would admit, and for all of Murdoch’s bluster about not caring, he knew the rancher had been deeply hurt. Sam figured the boys’ desertion had a lot to do with some of the bad decisions that had been made at the ranch since they had left.
Now Murdoch had nothing; no family, no ranch, and no friends. Sam wasn’t sure he counted him as a friend anymore. He had seen the rancher turn on his own sons, and he no longer trusted the man. Sam sighed; he missed the good times he had spent with the three Lancers.
He had been expecting the worst when Murdoch had told him about how his grown up sons were coming back home, but he had been wrong. The doctor had expected a foppish self centered dandy in Scott, but he had been pleasantly surprised. The intense young man was a true gentleman and certainly not afraid of hard work. Sam chuckled, well maybe a little bit of a dandy; he remembered the pants the young man had worn when he had first arrived. He had seen them one day when Johnny brought them downstairs to tease his brother, and they had all laughed, even Scott. Johnny too had been a pleasant surprise. Sam had been prepared to dislike the infamous gunfighter, but the boy’s quick wit and inherent gentleness had overshadowed his fearsome reputation.
Sam shook his head slowly. He missed both Scott and Johnny, but it was unlikely he would see them again. When Val had told him that he had managed to contact Jelly, the doctor had hoped that somehow the old man knew where at least one of them was. Sam had halfway expected either Scott or Johnny to show up and save the day, even though in his heart he knew it wouldn’t happen. Now it was too late.
The doctor started to turn away from the window when he saw a horse ambling down the street. Something about the palomino was familiar, and the doctor watched as the horse turned toward the small barn in back of his office. It took another second for recognition to hit, and then the old doctor flung open the door and raced through the rain into the barn, where the horse was standing, patiently waiting. Sam reached up and grabbed Johnny around the waist, and with a great effort he wrenched him from the saddle and laid him in the dry straw of the barn.
In spite of the cold rain drenching Johnny’s body, Sam felt the heat through the young man’s clothes, and when he took away his hands, he saw they were covered in blood. He looked at the man’s face and was surprised to see the blue eyes staring back at him.
Chapter Twenty Seven
“Hey yourself.” Even though Sam was concerned about the young man’s condition, he couldn’t stop the smile that was forming upon hearing Johnny’s familiar greeting. “I have to get someone to help carry you into the house. I’ll be right back.”
Johnny reached out and grabbed the doctor’s arm. “I can make it.”
“I SAID I can make it.” He used Sam’s arm to steady himself as he lurched to his feet, then stood unsteadily for several moments. “Just give me a minute.”
The doctor shook his head, but he knew from experience that Johnny would make it into the house come hell or high water. He waited while Johnny got up enough energy to walk, and then guided the weakened gunfighter slowly into the house. By the time they reached the spare bedroom, Johnny was sweating and his legs were wobbling. He collapsed into the bed and shut his eyes as Sam started fussing over him. For once Johnny let himself relax, knowing he was safe.
The doctor tore open the young man’s shirt and examined the angry looking wound. He shook his head at the pulled stitches and wondered why Johnny insisted on pulling stitches each and every time they were put in. “I have to take out these sutures and put in some more after I clean out the wound. It’s infected, all of which I’m sure you know. What was so all fired important that you couldn’t heal up before riding?”
Johnny forced his eyes open. “Lancer,” he said simply.
Sam met the boy’s eyes and then nodded slowly.
“I didn’t make it,” Johnny whispered as he shut his eyes. “Is it too late?” When the Sam didn’t answer, Johnny opened his eyes once more and stared at the doctor.
Sam concentrated on the task at hand and merely nodded.
“Where are Murdoch and Scott?”
“I don’t know where Scott is. He left the day after you did. We hoped you were together.”
Johnny tried to sit up. “Dammit, why did he leave?”
Sam pushed the young man back. “Lie down!” He shook his head. “And why do you think he left?”
“I wanted him to stay there. He belonged at Lancer.”
“So do you.”
“Sam, don’t. Not now,” Johnny said tiredly. He allowed his eyes to slip shut once more before another thought insinuated itself in his mind. His eyes remained closed as he asked softly, “What about Murdoch?”
“He’s…here in town.”
Johnny’s eyes flew open. “I don’t want him to know I’m here.”
“Johnny, he’s your father. He has a right to…”
“He don’t have any rights where I’m concerned. I mean it, Sam. I don’t want him to know.”
The doctor studied the sick young man, and then nodded reluctantly. Johnny wasn’t in any shape to argue. They could discuss it later. He watched as Johnny finally lost his battle with exhaustion and fever and closed his eyes once more. Sam finished cleaning the wound and began to stitch.
Johnny’s eyes fluttered open and strained to focus on the face swimming in front of him. Finally he smiled. “Val.”
The sheriff grinned. “Doc was worried about ya, but he says you’re doin’ better now. Knew you’d show up eventually, buddy.”
“Yeah, eventually is right. Looks like I messed up, as usual.”
“Don’t you be blamin’ yourself. What happened to Lancer had nothin’ ta do with you.”
“Yeah.” Johnny’s head dropped for a second before he brought his eyes up and locked them on the sheriff. “Sam said it’s too late, that Lancer’s gone.”
Val shrugged. “Murdoch had to make the payment by the first of October. Osgill took control on the second.”
“Osgill!” Johnny spat. “Can’t ya find some reason ta arrest that worm?”
Val shook his head. “Believe me, I’ve tried. Ain’t nothin’ that would make me happier, ‘specially after what he pulled with Murdoch.”
“Ya mean takin’ the ranch?”
“That, and havin your Old Man thrown in jail.”
“For WHAT?” Johnny tried to bolt upright, and this time Val held him down.
“Calm down Johnny. He’s OK. He’s in my jail.”
“What’s he in there for?” Johnny growled.
Val hesitated and Johnny’s expression darkened. “Spit it out, Val.”
The sheriff shrugged. “Grand theft.”
Johnny looked at his friend in disbelief. “And what did he supposedly steal?”
Val looked around uncomfortably before finally answering. “Five hundred head of cattle, a clock and a rifle.”
Johnny continued staring at the sheriff without saying anything and finally Val shook his head. “Oh, hell, Johnny. Osgill had some fancy Dan go out to the ranch and take an inventory when your father signed the loan papers. When Osgill took over the ranch that was what they figured was missing.”
Val watched as Johnny’s eyes turned cold and Johnny Madrid appeared. Val could tell that the gunfighter was furious.
“You tellin’ me that snake charged Murdoch for stealin’ his own things?”
Val nodded slowly.
“All right, Val. How do we get this guy? Cause if you don’t come up with somethin’ I’m gonna handle it my own way, and I have the feelin’ you won’t like it.”
“Johnny, you can’t just gun this guy down, and he ain’t stupid enough ta draw on ya. Besides, he hasn’t broken any laws. Ain’t nothin ta get him on. He’s real careful ta make sure everything’s real legal.”
Johnny shook his head in frustration. “There’s gotta be SOME way ta get him.” He looked up at Val. “What’s he plannin’ on doin’ with the ranch?”
Val shrugged. “He’s gonna sell it.”
The sheriff shrugged again. “Whoever has the most money. It’s goin’ ta auction in a few days.”
Johnny dropped his head while he thought. “Do ya have any details about the sale?”
Val reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper and reluctantly handed it to Johnny. The gunfighter grabbed it and studied it for a long moment and then he looked up at the sheriff. “How far are you willin’ ta go ta help me get the ranch back?”
Val stared at his friend for several moments, and then a slow smile appeared. “What didja have in mind?”
Chapter Twenty Eight
Johnny studied the paper Val had handed him. “It says here that the auction will take place in Green River in one week.”
Val nodded. “Osgill has sent flyers out all over the state and hired some fancy auctioneer ta handle it. He told me he’s not expectin’ many men ta show up, but the ones that do will be serious. He’s expectin’ the ranch ta go for quite a bit, and not many men can afford that kind of money. He’s insistin’ on cash on the day of the sale.”
“It says on the paper that he’s sellin’ everything together.”
“Yep. He figured he’d get more that way and he wouldn’t have ta sit through a lot of little sales.”
“Well, the way I figure it, no one from around here will be bidding on it. No one has the money. It’ll be strangers coming in from other places that will be bidding.”
Val nodded. “That’s the way I figure it, too. No one in Green River has that kind of cash. The only one that comes close is Sam, and he already told me he couldn’t afford it.”
“So all we have ta do is discourage the strangers.”
“There’s too many ways ta come in to this town. We might be able ta ‘discourage’ some of ‘em, but a few are bound ta slip by.”
Johnny shrugged. “Most of those men won’t be ridin’. They won’t be comfortable carryin’ that kind of money on horseback. I figure most of ‘em will be comin’ in on the stage.” He glanced sideways at the lawman. “Maybe we can figure out a way ta stop the stage.”
Val shook his head. “Johnny, if we stop the stage, they’ll figure out another way ta get in. A stopped stage won’t keep ‘em from hirin’ a horse.”
Johnny sighed. “There must be SOME way ta stop everybody from comin’ in.”
“Johnny, even if ya do, Osgill will just postpone the auction.”
“No, he won’t.”
“What do ya mean?”
Johnny held up the paper. “It say here the auction goes rain or shine, and ta be sure and come on time, cause it’ll go to the highest bidder on that day.”
“OK, but if no one shows up, it’ll have ta be cancelled.”
Johnny grinned. “I’ll be there.”
“He won’t go through with it if you’re the only one.”
“He has to! He’s already announced it won’t be cancelled, and we all KNOW he always plays by the rules. ”
Val thought for a moment, and then grinned. “And I can be sure I’m there ta make sure he doesn’t break his own rules.”
Johnny nodded. “Now we gotta come up with a plan ta make sure nobody else makes it to the auction.”
Val sniggered. “Well, I guess Johnny Madrid could call ‘em all out.”
“Yeah, I guess, but I have the feelin’ some of the rich men showin’ up won’t even be carryin’ guns,” Johnny replied seriously.
“I was kidding,” Val said carefully.
“Well I wasn’t,” Johnny snapped. “I’m gonna get that ranch back one way or the other.”
Val studied the gunfighter. “Ya know who you sound like?” he asked quietly.
“Look, Val, I ain’t gonna lose Lancer ta that idiot, Osgill. That ranch belongs to the Lancers. He might not a broken any laws, but he wasn’t exactly honest, and you know it. I’m not gonna stand by and see that ranch ripped apart or destroyed. It means too much to me.”
“And you’d do anything ta keep it.”
“No matter what it costs?”
“Even if it costs you friends or family?”
Johnny stopped and met the lawman’s gaze for a moment, and then dropped his head. “No.”
“Johnny, I know how important that ranch is to ya, but it’s just land. Your father had ta learn that the hard way.”
Val nodded. “Yeah, I think he did. He misses you boys terribly, and everyone in town has been snubbing him, including Sam.”
“Don’t mean he’s changed.”
“Do you know why he took the clock and rifle?”
Johnny shook his head.
“Because he said you boys had given them to him, and it was all he had left of you. He could have taken anything else, but those are the things he chose. Those things, and a few pictures. He misses you all right. He’s just too damn stubborn to admit it.”
“Is that what’s gonna happen to you? You gonna make that ranch your whole life and forget about everybody else? Drive away everybody that cares about ya?”
Johnny sighed miserably. “You’re right. I’m sorry, I’m just frustrated. I don’t want anyone getting’ killed or even hurt over a damn ranch, even Lancer. And I don’t plan on losin any friends, either. ”
Val nodded. “Just don’t forget that.”
“I have the feeling ya won’t let me.”
Sam walked into the bedroom and watched as Val and Johnny were conversing quietly. They both looked up expectantly as the doctor approached.
Sam studied the two men for a moment before approaching the bed. “I have the feeling you two are cooking up a scheme.”
Johnny shrugged. “Maybe.” His eyes sought out the Doctor’s. “Don’t you approve?”
Sam shrugged. “Maybe.” He broke into a grin. “Do I get to help?”
“Sam, you don’t even know what we’re plannin’,” Johnny said.
“No, but I figure if both you and Val are in on it, it ought to be interesting.”
Val snorted. “That’s one way of lookin’ at it.”
“So what are you planning?”
Johnny shook his head. “Well, we haven’t figured out all the details yet.”
“Have we figured out any?” Val asked.
Johnny sighed. “Not enough, I guess.”
“Well, what have you got so far? Maybe I can help,” Sam offered.
Johnny nodded. “Thanks, but remember, I don’t want Murdoch ta know nothin’ about it.”
Sam nodded. “All right. Besides, I don’t want to get his hopes up that he might get the ranch back. Not until we’re sure.”
Johnny stared at the doctor. “Who said anything about HIM getting it back?”
Sam glanced at Val. “I just thought…”
“Well you thought wrong,” Johnny said quietly. “He had his chance.” He studied the two men, then asked challengingly, “You still gonna help me?”
Val nodded, and then after a moment, Sam did too.
Chapter Twenty Nine
“YOU can’t do this!” Osgill nervously paced back and forth in front of Sam. “It will ruin everything!”
The doctor shrugged. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Yes, you do! You can wait a few days!”
“I’m afraid not. If it really is Scarlet Fever, waiting could be disastrous.”
“How about if you let people in?” Osgill suggested frantically. “Then, if it turned out to be something catching, you could keep them from leaving.”
Sam shook his head. “I’m a doctor. My job is to prevent illness. I can’t allow people to come into town when they might get sick.”
Osgill ran his hand through his hair. “You don’t even know for sure why they’re sick.”
“No, I don’t. All I can do is go by their symptoms.”
“COULDN’T it be something else?”
“It could be,” Sam said calmly. “But it could also be Scarlet Fever.”
“No one seemed that sick to me.”
Sam shrugged. “Widow Ferguson seems to be very ill. Also, the Jones family, the Carters, Bill Thomson, Polly Yates. Bill Campbell said that a lot of his men from the Bar T are sick, and The Circle Y is also reporting that men are sick.”
Osgill glared at the doctor. “It seems strange that all the people that are sick happen to be good friends with the Lancers.”
“No one is very friendly with Murdoch anymore, and you know it.”
Osgill sighed and looked pleadingly at the doctor. “Isn’t there ANYTHING you can do?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“And Val has already sent word to the other towns?”
“Yes, he sent telegrams to all of the surrounding towns and notified the stage line.”
“NO one has come in for the auction, have they?” Osgill said in resignation.
“The auctioneer came in yesterday.”
“Great. Now I’ll have to pay him to come back.”
Sam shrugged. “You should still start the auction. Somebody might show up.”
“I doubt it. Besides, I’m not going to hold the auction unless there’s competition.”
Sam walked off. “Well, good luck.”
“Thanks,” Osgill replied sarcastically.
Sam walked back to his office, his conscience only bothering him a tiny bit. After all, everyone he had named had sworn they had the symptoms of Scarlet Fever. He shook his head. The people might be angry at Murdoch, but they were sure eager to help Johnny. He sure hoped this crazy plan worked.
Sam opened the door to the office and stepped in, quietly shutting the door behind him.
Johnny and Val looked up. “How did it go?
“I’m not sure he bought it completely. The man’s pretty sharp. He already figured out that the people who are saying they’re sick are all friends of Lancer.”
Val shrugged. “We only need another hour.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed.” He looked at the sheriff. “Have you talked to the auctioneer yet?”
“Yep. Me and Johnny had a nice long talk with him a little while ago. He’s honest, and he’ll make sure Osgill obeys the rules.”
Sam nodded. “Then it looks like we’re all set.”
An hour later, Val and Sam headed over to the hotel where the auction was supposed to take place. Val had stationed deputies, including several that had complained of certain symptoms, on all of the roads leading to town, just in case.
They walked into the hotel and into the dining room. Osgill was pacing back and forth nervously. He looked up hopefully when he heard the door, and then frowned when he saw who it was. “Oh, it’s you.”
Val nodded. “We came ta watch the auction.”
“There will be no auction if no one shows up.”
“What if two people show up?”
The auctioneer spoke up. “According to the rules Mr. Osgill listed, if two people show up with enough cash to meet the opening bid, the auction has to proceed.”
Osgill nodded. “I’d settle for two buyers. That ranch costs a fortune to run. It’s costing me a bundle.”
Sam sighed. “Well, you can count me in as one buyer. He put a small bag down on the table. “Five thousand, I believe, is the minimum opening bid.”
Osgill stared at him. “YOU! What would you do with a ranch?”
Sam shrugged. “I have no idea, but that’s none of you concern.”
Osgill’s eyes narrowed as he turned his glare on Val. “I KNOW you don’t have the money, so don’t try to convince me that you do.”
“Nope, no way I have that much.”
Osgill nodded. “That ranch is worth a whole lot more, and I’m not going to let it go to you for five thousand because of some trick.”
“Why did you set the opening bid so low?” Sam asked curiously.
“It’s an old trick. You make buyers think they’re going to get it cheap, and you get more interested parties.”
Sam nodded. “It sounds reasonable.”
Osgill looked at the clock. “Well, it looks like there will be no auction. It’s one minute to the hour. I guess it will have to be postponed.”
“I don’t think so,” Johnny drawled.
Osgill spun around. “What are YOU doing here?”
The gunfighter threw the notice down on the table. “I thought I’d come see what was goin’ on.”
“Nothing is going on. The auction will be postponed.”
Johnny dumped a bundle of money down on the table. “I don’t think so.”
Osgill stared at Johnny and then spun to face Sam and Val. “This is some kind of a trick, but it won’t work. I’m canceling the auction!”
The auctioneer broke in. “According to the rules that YOU made, as long as there are two bidders, the auction can’t…”
Osgill spun around. “And YOU shut UP! You work for ME, understand?”
Val shook his head. “I’m afraid the auctioneer is right; you have ta go ahead with it.”
“You can’t make me!”
Val fingered his gun. “Yes, I’m afraid I can. I can arrest you right now on…” he glanced at Sam and smiled, “’breach of faith’. Then the auction can still go on.”
Osgill’s face turned purple. “This was all a set up, wasn’t it?” He turned toward the doctor. “There IS no Scarlet Fever at all.” He turned toward Val. “Some sheriff you are.”
Johnny spoke up. “Are you ready ta start the auction? It’s getting’ late.”
Osgill’s eyes narrowed, and then he smiled. “All right, Lancer, let’s start. And may the best man win.”
The auctioneer looked around. “All right, if there are no objections, we’ll start the bidding. The sale is for the property commonly known as the Lancer Ranch, bordering Morro Coyo on one side, Green River on the other, the Circle Y to the north, and the Bar T on the south. The property consists of one hundred and eighty one thousand acres of land, two hundred and fifty three head of cattle….”
“That’s all that’s left?” Johnny asked incredulously.
“….Four head of horses, three goats...”
“Four horses,’ Johnny whispered in disbelief. He shook his head and turned toward Val. “What happened?”
“… forty seven chickens and one goose.”
In spite of himself, Johnny smiled. Dewdrop was still around.
“A fully furnished eighteen bedroom hacienda is also included. Also included are four barns, twenty two outbuildings, eight windmills, three grain silos, seventeen wagons, three buggies, harnesses, plows, equipment, supplies and other miscellaneous property. All assets are listed in the program. According to the seller’s instructions, the opening bid is for five thousand dollars. Do I hear a bid?”
“Five thousand,” Sam offered.
“Five thousand and one,” Johnny grinned.
“Do I hear any other bids?”
All eyes turned toward Osgill, and he smiled. “There’s nothing in the rules saying that I can’t bid.”
The auctioneer nodded. “I’ve never heard if it happening, but it certainly isn’t against the rules. Osgill can bid.”
Johnny glared at the man. “Six thousand one hundred.”
Osgill shrugged. “Seven thousand.”
Johnny locked his eyes on his competitor. “Eight thousand.”
“Nine thousand,” the banker smiled.
Johnny glanced at Sam. All Johnny had was ten thousand dollars. He’d need Sam’s help to stay in the game. Sam hesitated a second and then nodded.
“Twelve thousand,” Johnny shot.
Osgill smiled wider. “Thirteen thousand.”
Osgill laughed. “Oh let’s stop playing around. Twenty thousand. I think that will be sufficient.”
Johnny glared at the man before dropping his head in defeat. Even with his ten and Sam’s five, he was far short, and Osgill obviously knew it.
The gavel came down. “SOLD! To Mr. Osgill for twenty thousand dollars.”
Johnny felt sick; he had messed up once again. He had been so sure he could get the ranch back, but he had failed. He had tried to think of everything, but he never figured Osgill would or could bid on his own property. It just didn’t seem fair somehow. Johnny took a deep breath. He would get Lancer back, somehow. His first instinct was to call that no good banker out, but he knew that would just get him into trouble. For once he’d have to curb his anger and think his way out. He wished Scott were here, he’d be able to come up with something. Johnny went over the transaction in his mind.
Suddenly Johnny’s head flew up. “Wait!”
“It’s too late,” Osgill barked.
“I don’t think so.” He looked at Val excitedly. “One of the requirements was that the buyer had cash.” He turned toward the banker. “Do you have that much cash, Mr. Osgill?”
The banker’s face turned purple. “I don’t need cash! I’m buying it from myself! No money will change hands!”
“It don’t matter, it was one of the rules, and we all know how sticky you are about rules,” Johnny said sarcastically.
“Do ya have the cash? Val drawled.
Osgill glared at the lawman. “I can get it.”
“Where?” Val asked.
“It’s Sunday. The bank is closed,” Johnny observed.
“I’LL OPEN IT!”
“Is that legal?” Johnny asked innocently.
“I have EVERY right to open that bank anytime I want to. It’s MY bank!”
Sam looked at Osgill thoughtfully. “Do you have that much money in the bank? In your account, I mean.”
The banker glared at the doctor as Sam continued.
“In fact, is there even that much money in the bank? It seems like I remember you saying you were running short of cash when I made my withdrawal the other day, and for some reason, the stage hasn’t come in to bring more money. I have the feeling you just might be a little short.”
Osgill stared at the doctor and then turned toward the auctioneer. “Like I said before, I’m changing the terms, and I have every right to do that. I don’t need the cash for the transaction.”
“I’m afraid you do, Mr. Osgill.” The auctioneer observed. “You can’t change the terms once the sale is over, it would have had to have been done before the bidding started. I’m afraid that if you can’t meet the terms of the sale, the property will go to the next highest bidder.”
“I can get the money by tomorrow!”
“I believe your terms were cash by the end of the auction,” Johnny pointed out.
“That’s correct,” the auctioneer agreed.
The banker glared at the auctioneer and then turned toward Johnny. “FINE!” he fumed. “You can have the damned ranch. I don’t want it anyway. It’s a mess and you’ll never make a go of it now. Not without money behind you.” He snorted. “I’ll get it eventually. Besides, I still made five thousand dollars on the deal.”
The auctioneer licked his lips nervously. “No, sir. I’m afraid you didn’t.”
The banker spun around and faced the man, “What do you mean?”
“Well, since you are defaulting, your bids don’t count. It goes back to Mr. Lancer’s last bid before yours, which was five thousand and one dollars.”
Osgill’s face turned a dark purple and he glared at all of the men before turning around and heading for the door.
“Wait a minute.” Val stepped forward. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Val held out his hand. “The deed. Signed.”
“And I want it made out to Johnny Madrid,” Johnny said, as Val and Sam exchanged looks.
Osgill tore the deed out of his pocket and scribbled furiously on it, then threw it at Johnny. “Here.” The banker turned toward the sheriff. “I assume you’ll act as witness on the transaction?” He stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
Johnny picked up the deed and stared at the name on it. “Johnny Madrid,” he whispered. He brought his eyes up to Val and Sam. “We did it. Lancer’s mine.”
Chapter Thirty One
Val came up and put his arm around Johnny’s shoulder. “Congratulations buddy, you did it.”
Johnny dropped his head, trying to get his emotions under control. The enormity of what had happened still hadn’t fully sunk in. “I can’t believe it’s mine.”
“It’s yours, all right. Now you’re a respectable rancher instead of a disreputable gunfighter,” Val observed.
Johnny smiled. “You tryin’ ta scare me?”
“Maybe. But now that you’re a landowner, you got responsibility. Speakin’ of which, what about Murdoch?”
Johnny’s smile disappeared and his eyes narrowed. “What about him?”
“Aren’t you going to go tell him?”
“Nope. And I don’t want either of you to tell him, either.”
Johnny stopped and looked at the sheriff. “Because it’s none of his business. It’s not his ranch anymore.”
“Johnny, you don’t mean that,” Val said, glancing quickly at the doctor.
Johnny sighed. “Look, I don’t want to have ta fight him the whole time over everything I do. It’s gonna be hard enough ta get the ranch back on its feet without arguin’ about how ta do it every inch of the way. If he’d just shut up and let me run it, or better yet help me, it’d be fine, but you both know that won’t happen. It won’t matter WHOSE name is on that deed, he’ll go right back ta callin’ the tune, and heaven help anybody that doesn’t do as he says.”
Sam sighed. “He’s right. Murdoch won’t stop trying to be the boss, no matter what.”
Val nodded. “He’s gonna have ta be in charge, that’s just the way he’s made.”
Johnny shook his head. “I ain’t gonna let that happen. If he’d a been reasonable about things and listened ta me and Scott once in a while, maybe I’d feel differently. But he didn’t, and he lost that ranch and chased everybody away. Besides, I ain’t gonna live like that again. I ain’t gonna be a slave on my own ranch.”
Val studied Johnny. “So what are you gong ta do?”
“I don’t know.” Johnny smiled. “Any suggestions?”
Val shrugged. “Nope.”
“How long is Murdoch in jail for?”
Val shrugged. “The judge should be in town in a week or so, and as far as I know, Osgill is still planning on pressing charges.”
“Well, let him stay in jail till the judge gets here, anyway. It won’t hurt him none and it’ll give me time ta settle in and think of somethin. I sure ain’t gonna let him go to prison, but I don’t know if I want him at the ranch, either. Not if he won’t behave himself.”
Val nodded. “OK. You don’t want me ta say anything to him about the sale?”
“Not about me bein’ the new owner. You can tell him it sold if ya want to.” He grinned. “Maybe worry him a little bit.”
Sam shook his head. “Johnny, that’s mean.”
Johnny’s eyebrows went up. “You don’t think he deserves it?”
“I didn’t say he didn’t deserve it, but he’s already been through a lot.”
Johnny shrugged. “Look, it’s up to you, but I don’t want him ta know I’m even around, understand? Not yet.”
Val and Sam reluctantly nodded. “Ok, Johnny, it’ll be our secret,” Val finally said.
Johnny nodded glumly. “Besides, if Osgill’s right, I won’t have it very long, anyway. It sounds like I’ll be startin’ over, and I don’t have a lot of money.”
Sam looked at the gunfighter. “Johnny, if you need to borrow…”
“No, Sam, but thanks. That’s how Lancer got in trouble in the first place, and I ain’t gonna make that mistake again. I’ll just have ta take it slow.”
Sam nodded. “That’s probably wise, but if you need it, the offer will still be good.”
“Thanks, Sam. I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Are you going to try to contact Scott?”
Johnny nodded. “If I can find him.”
“I know where Jelly is,” Val said. “He’s a sheriff in Arizona. Scary thought.”
Johnny laughed. “I know where he is, too. I was his deputy.”
Val’s mouthed gaped open. “Deputy? For Jelly? After the hell of a time I had tryin’ ta talk you into bein’ MY deputy?”
Johnny shrugged, and then said seriously, “Well, I only wanted ta work for the best, and I wasn’t real sure about you. Besides, there’s no way I was gonna get stuck drinkin’ your coffee.”
Val swatted his friend with his hand. “You be careful, MISTER Lancer, or you might wind up in that cell with your old man.”
Johnny shivered dramatically. “You ain’t gonna take me alive.”
Val gave him a shove. “Go on, go out to your ranch. I’ll take care of Murdoch.”
“OK. I guess I’d better get ta work. But I need ta send a telegram first.”
Johnny smiled. “Mr. and Mrs. Jelly Hoskins.”
Both Val and Sam gaped at him. Finally Sam found his voice. “Jelly’s married?”
Johnny nodded. “Real sharp lady, too.”
Val shook his head. “If that don’t beat all. Do you think they’ll come?”
Johnny shrugged. “I hope they will, but I don’t know, he’s a pretty big man in that town. He might not want ta come home.”
Sam nodded knowingly. “He’ll come.”
“I hope so.” Johnny turned his attention to Val. “In the meantime, see if you can track Scott down for me. Cipriano, too.” He thought for a moment. “What about Teresa?”
Sam spoke up. “She’s staying at the Barkleys’.”
Johnny nodded. “Good. I’ll write her when I know what’s goin’ on.” He sighed. “I guess I’d better go out to the ranch and see how bad it is.”
Val clapped him on the back. “You’ll make it. Like you said, it’ll just take some time.”
“Wish me luck.” Johnny turned around and walked out, and both Val and Sam watched him leave.
“He’s got a lot of work ahead of him,” Sam observed.
Val nodded. “Yep, but he’s stubborn, just like his old man. He’ll make it.”
Sam nodded thoughtfully. “I just hope that ranch doesn’t change him like it did his father.”
“It won’t. Johnny ain’t like his old man.”
Sam shook his head slowly. “I hope you’re right.”
Chapter Thirty Two
Johnny sat on his horse, looking down into the valley that held the hacienda. He remembered the first time he’d looked down at the ranch. Scott and Teresa had been with him on his first day at Lancer, and he had agreed with his sister that day, it was the most beautiful place in the whole wide world. Now all he saw was work. The main fence was down, and Johnny started a mental list of chores that needed to be done.
He nudged Barranca down the hill and toward the buildings. Johnny stopped and managed to get the fence upright, but he’d have to come back another time with the right tools to fix it properly. Looking around, the loneliness of the previously bustling landscape was haunting.
So far Johnny hadn’t seen any sign of life. No cattle, no horses, no men, nothing. The hill on the far side was burned black, and the pastureland in between was dry and abandoned. He guided his horse to the barn and dismounted. A few scrawny chickens pecked lazily around the yard. They obviously hadn’t been fed for quite some time, and a glance at the henhouse told him it needed some major repairs. That job was added to his list.
Johnny led Barranca to the barn and shoved open the door. The smell of musty hay wafted out and he cautiously led his horse inside. The barn was still and quiet, cobwebs already forming in the corners. Johnny tied the palomino to a hitching post and opened Barranca’s old stall. With a sigh, he grabbed a pitchfork and began cleaning out the old bedding and hay that was strewn around. When that was done, he cleaned out the water trough and refilled it, then finally pitched a new layer of straw into the stall and filled the manger with some hay that he had found in the corner. It wasn’t the best, but it was dry and wouldn’t make Barranca sick.
He pulled off his saddlebags and hung them on the post, then pulled the saddle and bridle off and tossed them in the corner. Barranca seemed eager to get into a familiar place, and Johnny smiled. At least he had one stall back to where it should be, but they all needed to be cleaned out before they could hold horses. Another chore. Spying a bag of grain hanging on a nearby peg, he took it down and carried it outside, then threw it by handfuls onto the ground for the chickens.
When Johnny was done, he went back into the barn to retrieve his saddlebags, and then headed for the hacienda. Johnny glanced at Teresa’s beloved garden, and noticed it was full of weeds and most of the plants were dead. Detouring to the pump, he drew out several bucketfuls of water and threw them on the dying plants. Shaking his head, he decided the weeding would have to wait, and he went into the kitchen.
The room was silent, the welcoming smells of cinnamon and fresh bread long gone. It smelled slightly musty, and a slight odor of decay was present; Teresa’s food cellar obviously needed cleaning out, and he added that to his list of chores. Johnny made his way to the great room, then stopped and stared. There wasn’t any damage, but the room was dark and dead. The pictures that had graced the walls were all gone, and the warmth that the room had always exuded had left along with them. The model ship and the books were still there, but they looked abandoned and lost. Even the grandfather clock had finally wound down, and the familiar ticking had been silenced.
Johnny went over and wound the clock, then walked over to the drapes and threw them open, letting in the light. The movement stirred up a cloud of dust that swirled through the air and settled on the already dusty furniture. He took his finger and ran it along the top of Murdoch’s desk, leaving a streak on the usually polished furniture. He pulled a dirty shirt out of his saddlebags and wadded it up, then ran the cloth along the top of Murdoch’s desk and on the chair that sat next to it.
Johnny went behind the desk and pulled open the drawers, but they were all empty except for a few pencils and some scraps of paper. With a deep sigh, he pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil, then sat down and started making a list of things to do.
Several hours later, Johnny put the pencil down and buried his head in his hands. He wished he had some help. He wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to do this by himself, there was just too much to do. It would take a dozen men a month to do just the little bit that was obvious around the house and barn. What the pastures, bridges and windmills were like didn’t even bear thinking about. At least there really wasn’t any stock to worry about. He wondered where all the animals were, and decided he’d take a ride around the ranch tomorrow. It would be better knowing just how bad it was instead of guessing.
Johnny headed back into the kitchen, hoping that he could find something to eat. Two hours later, he had discovered more chores for his list, the cellar had been cleaned out, but nothing edible had been found. Finally he gave up and dug into his saddlebags, settling for jerky. Johnny drew out a small bottle of tequila, then went over and plopped down on the couch and swung his feet up onto the table, laying his head back on the pillows. He took a swig of tequila and sighed. It would take a lot of work and a lot of money to get Lancer back on its feet, and Johnny wasn’t sure he was up to the task. Maybe he was just kidding himself; maybe it would have been better if Osgill had won the auction. Several minutes later he was sound asleep.
Chapter Thirty Three
Johnny herded the small bunch of cows into the small pasture in back of the house and slammed the gate shut. It had been too difficult for one man to herd them all at once so he had been forced to bring them in a few at a time. He finally had most of them safely locked up close enough to the house that he wouldn’t have to worry too much about predators.
He had been tempted just to leave the few cattle that were left to fend for themselves. They were in poor condition and were obviously worthless, but he finally decided to bring them in. Between those and the chickens, he would at least be able to have meat on the table. He had more important things to spend his money on than food.
He watched the cows for a few minutes and then turned Barranca toward the barn. He had spent one whole day cleaning out the building, and it was all ready for some new occupants. The only problem was, there weren’t any horses around. He had brought in two with the cattle, but they were well past their prime.
Every head of stock that had been worth anything had been sold. Johnny had caught sight of a few small wild herds with some promising horses in them up by Black Mesa, but without more help, they would be impossible to catch. It looked like he was going to have to break down and buy at least a few head.
Since he had to start over, he was going to take his time and make sure he bought the best; both in cattle and horses. He was going to concentrate more on horses than cattle, but he knew he needed both to make the ranch successful. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake his father had and put all of his eggs in one basket.
He dismounted and led his horse into the barn, then pulled the saddle off and threw it over the rail. He felt his chest hitch at the movement, and he swore softly. Sam had warned him it would take time, but he didn’t have time. There was too much to do, and he was getting further behind each day.
He heard a horse coming and he looked up as Val rode into the yard, and he walked out to greet the lawman.
“Hey, Val, what’s up? Decided ta be a cowboy instead of a lawman? I could use some help.”
Val smiled as he swung down from his horse. “Nope. Too much work. But I do have somebody that needs a job.”
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t have enough money ta pay ‘em.”
Val shrugged. “Ya don’t need ta pay ‘em.”
Johnny looked at the sheriff suspiciously. “Who?”
Val dropped his head and took a step back, just in case. “Murdoch.”
Johnny froze for a second, then shook his head. “No.”
“You know why. He wouldn’t help me, he’d try ta run things. I’m havin’ a hard enough time without buttin’ heads with my Old Man about everything.”
Val shrugged. “Well, then I guess he’ll just have ta go ta prison,” he said casually.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talkin’ about?”
“The judge was in town today, remember?”
Johnny shut his eyes and cursed. He had totally forgotten. “What happened?”
“The judge gave Murdoch a choice; he could pay Osgill restitution for the missing items, or he could go to prison.”
“Murdoch doesn’t have a penny to his name, and he refused to let Sam pay the money. Your father said he had no way of paying him back. The judge gave Murdoch till tomorrow morning to come up with the cash. I thought Murdoch could work here and his wages could go to pay Sam back.”
Johnny shook his head in disbelief. “I told ya, I don’t have enough money for wages. I need the little bit I have left ta buy stock.”
“Then you put up the money, and Murdoch can work here ta pay you back.”
“I need that money,” Johnny ground out.
Val shrugged. “So I guess your father goes ta prison.”
Johnny glared at the sheriff. “I know when I’m being set up. Now, who’s brilliant idea was this? Yours, Sam’s or Murdoch’s? Or maybe al three?”
Val smiled. “Murdoch don’t know nothin’ about it. He don’t even know who bought the ranch.”
Johnny continued to glare, but the sheriff returned the gaze. “Johnny, you can grumble all ya want, but we both know you’re not gonna let him go ta prison. Besides, he needs a place ta stay and you need help. It’s perfect.”
“Easy for you ta say. You ain’t the one who has ta live with him.”
Val shook his head and continued staring at the gunfighter. Finally Johnny closed his eyes and sighed. “How much?”
“Well, we convinced the judge that the steers weren’t worth very much ‘cause they were in such poor condition. Osgill finally settled for two thousand dollars total.”
“TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS! Murdoch ain’t worth that much!”
Val ignored his friend’s outburst, knowing Johnny’s bark was far worse than his bite. “So when should I bring him out?”
Johnny sighed. “He don’t even have a horse?”
Johnny shook his head in defeat. “All right, I’ll ride into town tomorrow morning and take care of Osgill.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of that,” Val observed.
Johnny smiled. “I mean I’ll pay him.”
Val looked at the gunfighter in disbelief and Johnny laughed. “Don’t worry, I ain’t gettin’ soft. I’ll make sure he gets what’s comin’ to him, but I ain’t gonna shoot him.” He shook his head. “Val, I’ll go along with it, but Murdoch ain’t takin’ over, that’s for sure. You make sure he knows it before he comes out here, or I’LL be the one ta wind up in prison.”
“I will. I’ll see ya tomorrow morning.”
Johnny nodded. “All right, but just remember, if Murdoch starts throwin’ his weight around, I’m comin’ into town and shootin both you and Sam.”
Val smiled as he stepped onto his gelding. “I’ll be sure and let Sam know.”
The sheriff turned in his saddle and looked back at Johnny.
“Any word yet on Scott or Cipriano?”
Val shook his head. “Not yet, but we’ll find ‘em.”
Johnny nodded. “I could really use some help.”
Val’s eyebrows raised. “I THOUGHT that’s what you was gettin’ tomorrow.”
Johnny snorted and rolled his eyes. “I’d rather have Widow Ferguson. At least she can cook.”
Chapter Thirty Four
Val walked up to the cell and took a deep breath. He had the feeling this wasn’t going to be easy. Murdoch was dozing on the cot, and the sheriff took one last look back at Sam, who nodded reassuringly. Val reached down and unlocked the door, and the noise woke up the rancher. Murdoch sat up and looked at the sheriff quizzically.
Val left the door closed. He was going to take no chances on having the rancher attack him when he told him the news. “Murdoch, I found somebody ta put up the money ya need ta pay Osgill.”
The rancher shook his head. “I told you, Val, I don’t want charity. I have no way of paying anyone back.”
“He isn’t plannin’ on givin ya any charity. You’ll have ta work for him till the money’s paid off.”
Murdoch sighed. There weren’t too many jobs he could do any more, and he knew it. “Doing what?”
Murdoch snorted and shook his head. “Val, there’s no way I can do ranch work any more and you know it. Tell him thanks, but it looks like I’ll have to serve some time.”
Val shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s too late.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
Val shrugged and shot a glance at Sam. “Osgill’s already been paid off and the judge has left town.”
Murdoch turned his attention on the doctor. “DAMN IT, Sam! I TOLD you I didn’t want to owe you!”
Sam shook his head calmly. “You’re a stubborn fool, Murdoch, and too proud for your own good. But you don’t owe me anything. I’m not the one who paid him.”
“Then who did?” Murdoch asked suspiciously. “There’s no one else around here that can afford that kind of money.”
Val hesitated. “The new owner of Lancer paid him off.”
Murdoch bolted to his feet. “WHAT! Is this some kind of joke? There’s no way I’m going to work for him! I’d rather go to prison!”
“Murdoch, calm down!” Sam ordered. The doctor looked at Val. “Tell him!”
Murdoch swung toward Val. “Tell me what?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute. But first, you’d better think about it. You’d REALLY rather go to prison than work at Lancer?”
Murdoch dropped his head and after several seconds he shook it slowly. “No, I guess not.”
Val took another deep breath and relocked the door of the cell just in case. “I don’t want you to get upset.”
“I’m already upset!” Murdoch yelled. “Tell me what?”
“Johnny bought Lancer,” Val admitted, grateful there were bars separating him from the rancher.
Murdoch froze, thinking maybe he’d misunderstood. “Johnny who?” he asked suspiciously.
Val rolled his eyes. “Your Johnny.”
Murdoch took a few deep breaths, trying unsuccessfully to control his temper. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve kept me LOCKED up in here, telling me that Lancer had been sold, leaving me worried to death, and we never lost it after all? What the hell are you playing at?” He took a step closer and grabbed the bars. “Let me out!”
“Now just wait a minute, Murdoch.”
Val darted another look at Sam, and the doctor stepped forward. “Just listen to Val, Murdoch.”
The rancher glared at the lawman. “What?”
Val’s chin came up. “You DID lose the ranch and Johnny came up with the money and bought it. It belongs to him. It isn’t yours any more.”
Murdoch shook his head in a dismissive gesture. “Johnny’s my son.”
Val shook his head. “Is he? You kicked him out and made it pretty plain you didn’t want him!”
“I didn’t kick him out!”
“Yes, Murdoch, you did,” Sam said quietly.
Murdoch stared at the doctor for a few seconds, then dropped his head. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Yes you did,” Val said. “You never gave him a chance.”
“I TRIED! I just…we just… we couldn’t get along.”
“You said you wished you’d never brought him home,” Sam said implacably. “You wished he was dead.”
“I didn’t mean it, and you know it.”
“NO, I don’t know it, and neither does Johnny.” Sam shook his head. “Murdoch, you told me dozens of times that you regret your actions concerning Johnny. That you’d do anything to get him back; to get your family back. Well, now you’re getting another chance. Don’t blow it.”
Murdoch stared at the doctor for several seconds, then nodded his head. “I won’t.”
Val stared at the rancher. “Murdoch, Johnny owns that ranch now. He didn’t have to let you come back there, and he doesn’t have to let you stay.”
“I’m his father!”
“He’s your son, and you still kicked him out! If I were him, I wouldn’t let you within a mile of the place. For some reason Johnny’s willin’ for you ta live there, but he’s gonna be in charge.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I BUILT that ranch!”
“And you LOST it! Murdoch, you’re going ta have ta accept the fact that you’re no longer in charge. It’s Johnny’s ranch now. You no longer have any claim to it, and father or not, if Johnny wants you ta leave, you’ll have to go,” Val said angrily.
Murdoch shook his head. “Johnny doesn’t know enough about ranching to run it.”
“Why don’t you give him a chance?” Val suggested. “After all, you don’t have a lot of room ta talk.”
Murdoch glared at the sheriff for a long moment, then shook his head. “It doesn’t look like I have a choice, does it?” he ground out.
Sam blew up. “You are without a doubt the most pig headed, stubborn and STUPID man that I’ve ever met! You’d better not blow this! Johnny’s giving you a chance to make things right between you, and if you’re not careful you’re going to ruin things again! When in God’s name are you going to learn your lesson? You’d better decide right now just what your priorities are; that damn ranch or your SON, because I have the feeling this is the LAST chance you’re going to get!”
Murdoch dropped his head, knowing that Sam was right. “I’ll do my best.”
“You’d better do better than that,” Val growled, “or I’ll shoot ya myself.”
Chapter Thirty Five
Murdoch had been sitting in the sheriff’s office for the last hour, thinking about what Val and Sam had said to him. He knew they were right; if he wanted his son back he would have to make an effort to hold his temper. The problem was, he didn’t know if he could control himself enough to make it work. Even under the best of circumstances he and Johnny got long like oil and water. He WANTED to get along with Johnny, but for some reason the boy could make him angrier than anyone he had ever known. Well, almost anyone.
His relationship with Johnny was the same as he had had with the boy’s mother. He had loved her more than life itself, but they hadn’t been able to get along, either. While Scott’s mother had been calm and even tempered, Maria had been just the opposite. Catherine had always been able to turn aside Murdoch’s temper with a few well chosen words or a gentle touch, while his fights with Johnny’s mother had been legendary. Neither he nor Maria were ever willing to back down, and compromise was never an option. He was afraid that Johnny had inherited his temper from both of them; the poor boy didn’t stand a chance.
He knew he loved Johnny, and he hoped that despite what had happened that his son still loved him. He just wished they could get along better. He knew he didn’t want to lose Johnny again, and he would do his best to hold both his tongue and his temper, but he also knew that it just might be an impossible task.
He and Scott had always more or less seen eye to eye, and even when they didn’t, they could discuss their differences calmly and rationally. That was something he and Johnny had never done. No matter how determined Murdoch was to keeping the argument from getting out of hand, it invariably exploded and he and his son wound up yelling at each other. It had never turned physical, but Murdoch had always been afraid that one day it might. It sure wouldn’t have surprised him.
Murdoch shook his head. He didn’t know why it was so difficult to get along with his son, but it was. And now, it would be even harder. Murdoch had been in charge for too long to just give in and let someone else run the show, especially HIS show. They had been given a second chance to keep the ranch, and Murdoch was going to make sure they didn’t lose it again. Somehow, he was going to make sure he didn’t lose either the ranch or his son again, and with any luck Scott and Teresa would come home too. Their family would be whole…IF he could hold onto his temper.
Johnny rode slowly into town, wondering just how he had let Sam and Val talk him into this. He knew exactly what was going to happen; if not today then next week. He KNEW he and Murdoch couldn’t live under the same roof, both of their tempers were far too quick and they were both far too stubborn.
Johnny knew his father wouldn’t approve of his plans to raise more horses than cattle, and even though Johnny knew his father no longer had any say in the matter, he still didn’t want to argue about everything. He figured this was the chance he had been waiting for to do what he had dreamed of doing his whole life, and he wasn’t about to blow it.
The problem was, the fact that he was in charge was going to take some getting used to. His father no longer had any say, but Johnny knew Murdoch would still try to run things. He just wished they could talk calmly, like he and Scott had been able to do. He knew his father had a lot of experience, and he would like to be able to have his father’s advice on certain things, but he also knew he couldn’t let the Old Man think he was in control again. He had the feeling that the next couple of weeks the ranch would turn into a battle zone.
He just wished they could get along as well as he and Scott had. It would make it so much easier and more pleasant, but he knew that was wishful thinking. Maybe Val would be able to track Scott down and Johnny could convince him to come back to Lancer. With Scott there, things might be a little calmer.
Johnny rode Barranca up to the hitching post and dismounted, then tied the palomino and one of the other ranch horses to the rail. He looked at the sorrel and knew his father wouldn’t be happy with his mount, but it was the best one the ranch had left. With as sigh, he pulled his hat down over his eyes and entered the building.
Murdoch looked up when the door swung open, and he stood up and looked into his son’s eyes. He was taken aback when he realized that he was looking at Johnny Madrid instead of Johnny Lancer. Johnny stood and looked at him for a moment, then with a sigh, he walked over to his father.
Murdoch smiled as he approached. “It’s good to see you, son.”
Madrid’s face remained impassive. “Did Val tell ya how it was gonna be?”
Murdoch’s head came up. “He told me that you had bought it.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I did, and I’m gonna be the one callin’ the tune.”
Murdoch’s mouth set in a grim line. It seemed as if his son was doing his best to make him lose his temper already. He took a deep breath, then nodded. “As long as it still belongs to a Lancer, it doesn’t matter.”
Johnny stared at him. “It don’t belong to a Lancer.”
Murdoch looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean?”
A slow grin crept across Johnny’s face. “It belongs ta Johnny Madrid.”
Murdoch stared at Johnny for a moment. “How dare you put the ranch in that name!”
Johnny snorted. “Why not? It’s who I am.”
“NO, it’s not. You’re Johnny Lancer! Not some gunfighter!”
“I think ya made it pretty clear that’s EXACTLY what I was before ya kicked me out.”
“I DIDN’T kick you OUT!”
“Coulda fooled me.”
Murdoch glared at his son, trying desperately to keep his temper. “If you’re going to be a rancher, you don’t need to be Madrid anymore. Johnny Lancer is the one who bought the ranch.”
Johnny shook his head slowly. “You’re wrong, old man.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Just how do you think I got the money ta buy the ranch and keep you from prison?”
Murdoch shook his head slowly.
“Johnny Lancer sure as hell couldn’t a made that much.” Johnny’s grin widened. “Johnny Madrid came up with the cash. Your precious ranch was bought with blood money.”
Chapter Thirty Six
Murdoch stared at Johnny, unable to believe what he had said. The truth of his son’s words finally registered and he took a step forward.
“Murdoch, don’t even think about it!” Val threatened.
Murdoch turned toward the sheriff. “But he..he…” he spun back toward Johnny and glared at the gunfighter. “How could you?” Murdoch growled.
Johnny’s eyebrows went up. “Would you rather Osgill still had it?”
When Murdoch didn’t answer, Johnny’s face darkened. “Well, it don’t matter what you think, Old Man. It ain’t your ranch anymore. Now are you gonna come out and work off what you owe me, or are you gonna sit in jail?”
Murdoch glared at the stranger who was masquerading as his son, then finally he took a deep breath. “I ALWAYS pay my debts,” he snarled.
Johnny nodded and stepped aside as his father brushed past him and headed for the door. Johnny turned to follow and Val grabbed his arm. “Lighten up, Johnny.”
Johnny stared at the sheriff. “ME? Why don’t ya tell HIM that?”
“He’s had a rough time, this is hard on him,” Val explained.
“Yeah, well it’s hard on me, too.”
“He’s your father.”
“Then tell him ta act like it!” Johnny exploded. “He’s the one who started this, not me. Why don’t you tell HIM ta lighten up!”
Val looked at Johnny and sighed. “I already did.”
Johnny shook his head. “He’s the one that’s gonna have ta change, Val. I’m NOT gonna give in on this. As long as he keeps actin’ like an ass, then so am I. It’s up ta him.” Johnny jerked his arm away from his friend. “See ya. I got work ta do.” He stomped out of the door and jumped on Barranca to catch up with his father, who was already halfway out of town. Val watched them go and wondered if they would even last one night without killing each other. With a sigh, he turned and went back to his desk and plopped down in the chair. After a moment, he put his feet up on the desk and pulled his hat down over his eyes. He guessed if there was a murder, he’d hear about it eventually.
Johnny spurred Barranca out of town, but he wasn’t in a big hurry to catch up with Murdoch. He had the feeling this was going to be a bad mistake. He just didn’t have the energy to be fighting with his father over everything. He had enough work to wear him out, and he knew he’d have to do most of it on his own. Murdoch just wasn’t strong enough to do any heavy physical labor, and Johnny certainly wasn’t going to ask it of him, although the thought of sending his father out to dig post holes caused a grin to appear. Barranca slowed on his own accord as he approached Murdoch’s horse.
“What’s so funny?” Murdoch asked suspiciously.
Johnny glanced at him, then the smile slipped and he shook his head. “Nothin’.”
“How bad is it?” Murdoch asked worriedly.
“Bad.” Johnny looked at his father and shook his head. “What the hell happened? How did it get run down so fast?”
Murdoch sighed. “I didn’t have the money to keep it up. A ranch that size takes a lot of money to run, and I had no money and no one to help me.” He shot a sideways glance at his son.
Johnny snorted. “And whose fault was that?”
“You didn’t have to leave.”
Johnny glared at his father. “Don’t be turnin’ this around. This is your fault. All of it, and don’t forget it.”
“If I had had HELP, it wouldn’t have happened!” Murdoch roared.
“And if ya hadn’t a chased everybody away, we wouldn’t a left.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Murdoch said sullenly. “It’s just….it’s just that things needed to be done right.”
“Yeah, well fat lot of good it did ya, huh?”
“I built that ranch up from nothing, and I will do it again.”
Johnny reached over and grabbed the reins of his father’s mount, then pulled Barranca to a halt. “No, Murdoch,” he said softly. “YOU won’t. We’re gonna do things my way this time.”
“You don’t have the experience to do it!”
“Did you, when you first came here?”
Murdoch shook his head. “That was different.”
“WHY?” Johnny shot. “Because you were responsible?”
Johnny slowly nodded. “Well, if you’re right, then I guess I’ll lose it. Then you can figure out how ta get it back so you can try again. But in the meantime, it’s MY call.” He spurred his horse forward, and immediately reached down and touched the palomino’s neck. Poor Barranca was getting the brunt of Johnny’s temper. “Sorry, Amigo,” he whispered.
The two men reached the top of the rise and looked down at the ranch. Johnny heard Murdoch’s muttered curse as he caught the first sight of his beloved land, and Johnny smiled. At least they agreed on something. They rode down the hill, and Murdoch immediately started listing things that needed doing.
“They’re already on my list,” Johnny explained.
Murdoch nodded, then caught sight of the few head of cattle in the nearby pasture. “Why are those cows in that pasture?”
“So they’ll be close. They’re not much good, but they’ll keep us fed.”
“You’re going to slaughter them?”
“We can slaughter the steers, but we’ll need the cows for breeding.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“I MEAN, I’m gonna start fresh, with top stock. It’ll take longer, but I figure it’ll be better in the long run.”
“That’ll take money.”
“Yeah, well, I said it’ll take time. In the meantime, I’m gonna try ta round up those wild horses. I’ll break ‘em and the ones that aren’t good for breeding I’ll sell. Then with that money, I’ll get a few mares and stallions.”
“What about cattle?”
“I’ll get some, but that isn’t my first priority.”
“THIS is a CATTLE ranch!” Murdoch shouted.
“Not anymore,” Johnny ground out.
Chapter Thirty Seven
“Johnny, this will always be a cattle ranch, that’s the way it was set up. You NEED to take care of the cattle first, and get a herd built up, then if there’s money you can buy a few horses,” Murdoch suggested.
Johnny chose to ignore his father and turned Barranca toward the barn.
“Did you hear me?” Murdoch snapped.
Johnny stopped and looked at his father. “Yes, I heard you, but that ain’t the way I’m gonna do it.” He stepped down off of the palomino and led the horse into the barn.
Murdoch glared at his son’s back for a moment, and then followed him into the barn. He was trying desperately to keep hold of his temper, but it certainly wasn’t easy. Johnny was pushing him about to his limit, and he was close to blowing up at his son.
Murdoch shook his head; Johnny just didn’t get it, and he tried again. Maybe if he explained his reasoning, Johnny would listen for a change. “We’re going to need the cattle in order to make a profit to keep the ranch going. It takes a long time to turn a profit with horses,” Murdoch continued as he unsaddled his mount. “With cattle, you can sell off the new crop of calves in less than a year. If we have to wait for horses, we’ll starve. The horses have to grow up before you can break them and sell them for any kind of profit. It’ll take years.”
Johnny silently continued to take care of Barranca. He was listening to his father, but he was also convinced he could make the horses work, and he wasn’t going to let anyone talk him out of his dream. He knew there were a lot of wild herds on the property, and he figured he could break and sell those while he was waiting for his prime stock to mature. He was also planning on buying some cattle, but the horses were going to come first.
Murdoch rambled on. “We can go to the big stock auction in Stockton on the first of the month and pick out some stock. You’re probably right; it would be a good idea to start with top stock. I thought we could look into using some of those new Herefords everyone was talking about at the Stockman’s Association last year. Even if we couldn’t afford a lot of them, we could buy a couple of bulls and cross them with some of the local cattle until we can buy more cows.”
Murdoch looked over at his son. “We can probably borrow some money from Sam to finance the herd, and then pay him back when we sell the first crop of steers.” He nodded to himself. “We can probably get back on our feet in a couple of years, if all goes well. Get back to where we were and then we can consider going into horses.”
Johnny walked out of Barranca’s stall and latched it quietly, then poured some oats into the manger before heading out of the barn. Murdoch finished taking care of his horse, and then followed his son. When he caught up, he nodded toward the empty bunkhouse. “We’ll need to hire some more hands; there’s no way we can handle everything. The first thing we have to do is ride around the pastures and make sure they are in decent shape. You can do that tomorrow and I’ll ride into town and get some supplies.”
Johnny turned and looked at his father. “No.”
Murdoch looked bewildered. “What?”
Johnny sighed. “I mean, no, that’s NOT what we’re going to do. I already checked the pastures and fixed the ones that we’re gonna need. The rest of ‘em can wait. And I’ve already got all the supplies we’ll need for a while.”
Murdoch nodded. “Good. I guess you’ve been busy.” He glanced over at Teresa’s garden. “Maybe you can work in the….”
Murdoch stopped and looked at his son, and Johnny shook his head. “I’m plannin’ on fixin’ the barn roof tomorrow, and YOU can work on the vegetable garden.”
“That ISN’T what I had planned! There are other things that I need to work on, the books are one of them.”
Johnny glared at his father. “No, Murdoch, you AIN’T doin’ my books. YOU are doin’ the vegetable garden. We’ll need some greens and I ain’t plannin’ on buyin’ any food.” Johnny grinned. “And until we get a cook, ya better brush up on your bread baking.”
“I have NO intention of cooking!”
Johnny’s face hardened. “You’ll do as you’re told. In case you forgot, I’M in charge here, not YOU!”
“You don’t know what you’re doing!”
“Then I’ll learn! In the meantime, we’re gonna do things my way, and that means when I go to the stock auction, I’ll be buyin’ horses, NOT cattle!”
“You can’t be serious!”
“Yes, Murdoch, I am.”
“I refuse to go into debt to buy horses!”
“I ain’t goin’ into debt. Unfortunately, I spent most of my money on payin Osgill off so YOU wouldn’t go to prison, but I have a little money left, and I’m buyin’ horses,” Johnny said belligerently.
“You’re going to ruin everything!”
“Seems like you already did,” Madrid drawled.
Murdoch’s face turned purple as Johnny continued. “You WILL do what I tell ya to do, or I’ll take ya back and you can stay in Val’s jail. I really don’t care.”
Murdoch glared at the young man in front of him. “FINE!” he ground out as he swung on his heel and headed toward the bunkhouse.
“Where are ya goin’?”
“Since all I seem to be is a hired hand, I figured you wouldn’t want me to stay the house! I’ll sleep in the bunkhouse till you come to your senses!”
“Don’t hold your breath!”
Murdoch’s stride hesitated, and then he charged toward the bunkhouse once more.
Johnny’s temper warred with his conscience as he watched his father head into the dirty bunkhouse, but his temper finally won out. As he had told Val, if his father wanted to act like an idiot, it was his choice. Johnny turned and stomped into the house.
Chapter Thirty Eight
Johnny tossed and turned throughout the night, going back and forth between being angry with his father for being so difficult and feeling guilty about letting him sleep in the bunkhouse. It was before dawn when Johnny finally gave up and stumbled downstairs. He wasn’t looking forward to today; he knew Murdoch would be in a foul temper, and Johnny wasn’t in the mood to argue with him all day. He also didn’t have the time. The horse and cattle auction was coming up shortly, and he wanted to make sure that everything was ready for his new stock. He snorted softly. He just might take the time to ride into town and shoot Val and Sam, though.
Johnny put the pot of coffee on and started some bacon. He shook his head slightly; he’d have to buy a pig or two, because he had no intention of going without bacon, and he wasn’t going to keep paying an exorbitant price for a side of pork. As the bacon cooked, he quickly scrambled some eggs and piled them on a couple of plates, then added the bacon and some slightly stale biscuits. He smiled slowly as he envisioned Murdoch in an apron, but he knew that it would be a fight to make him agree to be the temporary cook. He set the plates on the table, and then went out to tell his father that breakfast was ready.
He walked out to the bunkhouse and pushed the door open. The sound of snoring immediately met his ears, and he hesitated for a moment before heading toward the bunk where his father was sleeping. He stood there for a moment, undecided. As long as he had known him, his father had been the first one up. He couldn’t remember Murdoch ever sleeping in, and as he stood there, he studied his father. Val was right; this had been hard on him, and another wave of guilt washed over him. Murdoch looked if he’d aged ten years since Johnny had seen him last. With a sigh, Johnny turned and left the bunkhouse. He guessed he could continue throwing something together for the meals, and the vegetable garden could wait for a little while. Maybe he could get to it in a day or two, after he finished with the barn.
It was almost two hours later when Murdoch first appeared from the bunkhouse. Johnny was already up on the roof of the barn, replacing some of the missing shingles. “Mornin’,” Johnny greeted his father cautiously.
Murdoch looked up at his son. He had done a lot of thinking last night, and hadn’t fallen asleep until the sun was about to rise. He had been angry with Johnny the night before, and almost ready to head back into town. As the night wore on however, his anger had turned to a grudging respect. It took a lot of guts to try and make a go of a ranch this size with no help and very little money. Even if he knew his son was going about it the wrong way, he had to admire the young man’s determination. He decided to try to hold his tongue and just wait and see. Eventually, Johnny was bound to realize his mistake, and then Murdoch would step in and show his son what to do. It was a good plan, but he wasn’t sure he could hold his temper that long.
Murdoch smiled up at his son. “Good morning,” he replied.
Johnny’s eyebrows raised at his father’s change in mood, but he wasn’t going to question it. “Breakfast is on the stove.”
Murdoch nodded and headed for the kitchen. He hesitated just inside the door and looked around. He never thought he’d see this place again, and he had mixed feelings. He had worked and slaved to make this ranch a success, but in the end he had failed miserably, and not just financially. He sighed deeply. Maybe it would be better if Johnny ran it after all. He just wished Scott were here, too. At least Scott would listen to reason.
Scott ran his hand through his hair and glared at the pile of letters and circulars on his desk. He hadn’t had time to read his correspondence for almost a month because of several important pieces of legislation that he had been working on. Now that the annual session was over, he had plenty of time on his hands. He just hoped there wasn’t anything urgent in the impressive pile. With a sigh, he picked up the first envelope.
An hour later, he decided to read a few more and then take a break. He was almost cross-eyed from reading the many pieces of correspondence, and thankfully, most of them weren’t important. He grabbed the next several pieces of paper and rifled through them casually. They were obviously advertisements, and he started to dump them in the trash can when something on one of the circulars caught his eyes, and he snatched it back. He stared at it in shock, then his eyes were drawn to the date on the bottom of the paper, and he cursed loudly then slammed his fist down on the desk.
Thirty minutes later, he carried a hastily packed suitcase out of the door and jumped into a cab, and an hour later he finally slid onto the seat of a train headed for central California. Scott’s mind whirled with the implications. How on earth could it have happened so fast? He shook his head. He couldn’t believe that Lancer had really been auctioned off. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the back of the seat. He was far too late to do anything about the sale; the auction had taken place almost two weeks ago, but he had to find out what had happened. He had to know who had bought it, and he had to find out where his father was. He was worried about him; Murdoch wasn’t as young as he used to be.
Chapter Thirty Nine
Val rode through the arch, wondering what had been going on the last few days. He knew that both Murdoch and Johnny had been under a lot of strain, and their tempers were volatile even in the best of times. He had told Sam to stand by in case he was needed, and he was only half kidding. He reached into his pocket and patted the newspaper folded there. At least he had some good news.
He rode into the courtyard and pulled his horse to a halt before looking around. He felt a prickle of apprehension as he sat there; he had the funny feeling he was being watched. He looked around and finally spotted his friend sitting on top of the barn, a grin on his face. He shook his head as he dismounted. “Very funny,” Val growled.
“You’re really slippin’,” Johnny observed helpfully.
“Yeah, well maybe it’s ‘cause I’m spendin’ all my time tryin’ ta round up your family that you carelessly misplaced.”
“I’m not the one that lost them. Blame that on Murdoch.”
Johnny climbed down the ladder, jumping the last few feet to land in front of Val.
The sheriff nodded. “Yeah, but you’re the one that wants to find ‘em.”
“So,” Johnny asked. “Did ya find ‘em?”
“As a matter of fact, I did.” He pulled out the newspaper and handed it to Johnny.
Johnny cautiously unfolded it, after studying the sheriff’s face. He didn’t see anything warning him it was bad news, so he scanned the paper hurriedly. A small article about a certain state senator’s quest for reform caught his eye, and a smile formed. “Imagine that,” Johnny said. “Scott’s a state senator.”
Val nodded. “Sam saw the article. I don’t know why we didn’t see anything earlier.” He nodded toward the paper. “There’s an address on the bottom.”
Johnny grinned. “Then I guess I have a letter ta write.”
Val nodded and his eyes shifted around the yard. “Where’s Murdoch?”
Johnny shrugged. “I have him out diggin’ post holes. Figured he had ta do somethin’ ta earn his keep.”
Val gaped at him, and Johnny grinned. “Close your mouth, Val. I was kidding. He’s in eating breakfast.”
Val slapped his friend on the arm, then turned toward the house. He walked a few feet, then turned and looked at Johnny quizzically. “Ain’t you comin’?”
“Nope. I got work ta do.”
“You ain’t made up yet, have ya?” Val asked disappointedly.
Johnny shrugged. “Nothin’ ta make up. He just needs ta learn he ain’t boss any more.”
Val shook his head. “Johnny…”
“Look, like I said, I got work ta do. I don’t have time ta play games with the Old Man. If ya want ta discuss it, you can discuss it with Murdoch.” He turned and walked off and Val shook his head before continuing into the house.
Val pushed the kitchen door open, and walked in. Murdoch sat at the table and never even looked up as Val approached. The sheriff sank down into a chair, and finally Murdoch looked up and started. “Val! I thought you were Johnny.”
“Obviously,” the sheriff said shortly.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, when you thought it was Johnny you never even bothered to say hi.”
Murdoch shrugged. “Don’t have anything to say to him.”
“Except how to run the ranch,” Val challenged.
Murdoch slammed his hand down on the table. “Is that what he told you?”
Val snorted. “He didn’t have ta say nothin. The fact that the two of you ain’t exactly chummy tells me all I need ta know.”
“And just how would you know that?” Murdoch asked icily.
“Because if you weren’t actin’ like an ass, you and Johnny would probably be talking by now.”
“We’ve talked plenty,” the rancher growled. “And he hasn’t listened to a damn thing I’ve said.”
Val sighed, knowing it was useless to try to talk to either one of them. He hoped that somehow, someday, they’d come to some sort of an agreement. He changed the subject. “You might be interested ta know that Scott happens ta be one of our state senators.”
Murdoch’s face brightened. “Can you stay while I write him a letter?”
“Johnny said he planned on writin’ him,” Val said hesitantly.
“Johnny’s busy. I’ll just write a short note, and you can mail it when you get back into town.”
“OK, I guess. I’m goin’ out and talk ta Johnny and I’ll be back in a few minutes ta pick up the letter.”
Murdoch nodded, then stood up and headed into the great room. He stopped just inside and stared at the desolation. He stood for a second, then with a determined stride, he headed for the desk. He sat in his old chair and rummaged in the drawer for a moment before pulling out a brand new ledger. He ran his fingers over it, then put it on the desk and pulled out a sheet of paper and began to write.
When he was done, he slipped the letter into an envelope and set it on the desk, then picked up the ledger and fingered it speculatively. After warring with his conscience for several moments, he picked it up and opened it.
“What the HELL are you doin?” Johnny crossed the room in a couple of long strides and yanked the book out of his father’s hands and slammed it back into a drawer. Still glaring at his father, he picked up the envelope and started to take out the letter.
“That’s personal!” Murdoch shouted.
“So was MY ledger!” Johnny snapped back as he unfolded the letter and began to read. Murdoch leaped to his feet and tried to grab the paper from his son’s hands, but Johnny whirled away and continued to read.
Finally, Murdoch gave up and stood there while Johnny finished reading. When he was done, Johnny stood silently for several seconds with his head down, then he threw the letter down on the desk and stomped out.
The stage lurched into Morro Coyo, and Scott’s mind went back in time to the first time he had arrived in this small town. He smiled quietly as he remembered the first impression he had of his brother, and he shook his head. He certainly hadn’t been impressed with the brash and cocky cowboy who had been unceremoniously dumped in his lap on that fateful day. He shook his head as he realized that he had never been so wrong about anyone in his life. It hadn’t been long before he had grown to admire and respect his brother. Then he had grown to love him. He was still angry with his father for causing the rift that had torn them all apart and he didn’t know if he could ever forgive the man. He dropped his head and wondered, not for the first time, if Johnny was still alive.
When he had received the report from the detective agency a couple of months ago, he had pretty much given up hope that he would ever be reunited with his brother. The report had said that Johnny Madrid was back in business, and hiring out down in Mexico. He had thought briefly of going down and trying to find him, but in the end he had done nothing. His brother was a big boy, and if he had decided to go back to that life, Scott knew there was nothing he could do to change his mind. A part of him had died that day.
Instead of dwelling on it, Scott had thrown himself into his work and used that as an excuse to remain ignorant of what was going on with his family. He figured he couldn’t get a hold of Johnny anyway, and he had no desire to contact his father. Now, too late, he realized just how bad of a mistake he had made. He should have gone after his brother; he missed him terribly and he needed to see him again. He knew that the time he had spent at Lancer was the best time in his life, and he should have done more to keep the family together. Now it was too late. The ranch was gone, as was his brother, and lord only knew what had happened to Murdoch. With a sudden flash of fear, he wondered if Murdoch had died, and that was the reason the ranch had been sold.
The stage pulled to a halt and Scott remained seated for several minutes. He wondered if he should just stay on board and return to Los Angeles. He was suddenly afraid of what he would find here.
The stage driver poked his head in the coach. “You getting’ off?”
After a moment, Scott nodded. He had to know, one way or the other. With a sigh, he grabbed the side of the coach and swung down. An immediate sense of deja vu hit him, and he had to force himself to keep from turning around and looking for his brother. He looked around, and was surprised to see how little it had changed. It seemed as if he had been gone forever, but in reality, it had been a little more than a year
With a sigh, he headed for Val’s office and wondered tiredly if his friend was even still in office. Without Lancer’s strength behind him, it seemed doubtful. He pushed open the door, and smiled as the sound of snores greeted him. He walked over and shoved the sheriff’s feet off the desk, and Val bolted up out of his chair. “What in tarnation….SCOTT!”
Val reached over and gave the blond a big bear hug. “Welcome home buddy! Boy that was fast!”
Scott gently disentangled himself from the lawman’s grip. “What was fast?”
“Well, Murdoch just wrote the letter a few days ago.”
“Murdoch’s alive?” Scott asked delightedly.
Val shook his head in confusion. “Sure, why wouldn’t he be?”
Scott sighed. “I just had a bad feeling. I didn’t receive Murdoch’s letter, but I saw an old ad announcing the sale of Lancer and I came here right away.” He looked at Val in confusion. “What happened? Why did Murdoch have to sell?”
Val went over and poured a couple of mugs of coffee, then came back and handed Scott one. Scott looked at the foul brew for a moment, then bravely held out his hand. Val went over and plopped back down in his chair and threw his feet on the desk. “He borrowed a bunch of money from Osgill, then couldn’t pay it back.”
Scott snorted. “That snake. Murdoch should have known better.”
“He didn’t have a heck of a choice, what with the drought and all. A lot of ranches went under. Murdoch tried ta make a go of it, but most of the hands had already left.”
Scott looked up quizzically. “I know Jelly left, but who else? Cipriano?”
Val nodded. “Cipriano, Maria, Hank, Bill, Corey, Pete; hell, even Teresa left.”
Scott listened in shock to the list of all of his friends that were no longer around. “Where did Teresa go?”
“As far as I know, she’s stayin with the Barkleys.”
Scott dropped his head. “So, where is Murdoch? Is he all right?”
Val smiled. “Well, I can’t guarantee he’s all right, but he’s out at Lancer.”
“It wasn’t sold?”
“Yeah, it was sold. Murdoch’s workin’ for the new owner.”
Scott looked incredulously at the lawman. “Why don’t I believe you?”
Val laughed. “Yeah, it is sort of hard ta believe, isn’t it. But he didn’t have much choice, he owed the new owner some money. But I’m glad you’re here, ‘cause they’re about ready ta kill each other. Murdoch just won’t keep his mouth shut, and he insists on doin’ things his way.”
“Why am I not surprised,” Scott said resignedly. “But I doubt if I can do much good. I doubt if I’ll get along with the new owner, either.”
Val grinned. “Oh, I don’t think you’ll have a whole lot of trouble. After all, you’ve worked with him before.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Oh?”
“WELL?” Scott demanded. “Who bought it?”
Val’s grin widened. “Johnny.”
“Johnny?” Scott asked in disbelief as he plunked the mug down on the desk .
As Val nodded, Scott headed for the door, and within minutes he was headed toward home.
Chapter Forty One
Scott didn’t even stop as he topped the rise leading to the ranch, but a moment later, the sight of all of the abandoned fields and buildings stopped him cold. He sat on his rented horse and gazed around him at the desolation, until a lone figure in a far field caught his eye. With a grin, he urged his horse down the hill and toward the pasture.
Johnny glanced up at the rider approaching, wondering who it could be. He kept hoping some of the old hands would show up, but so far the only help he had was Murdoch. Johnny snorted, he wouldn’t exactly call his father help. He wasn’t even sure what his father was doing; he hadn’t spoken to him since the day he’d caught Murdoch looking at his ledger after specifically telling him not to.
Every morning, Johnny would get up and fix breakfast for both of them. He would put his father’s plate on the stove and then leave the house to go about his chores. He hadn’t asked Murdoch to do a damn thing, and as far as Johnny knew, he hadn’t. Johnny made a point of staying out late each day, and by the time he returned to the house, Murdoch was asleep and Johnny’s supper was on the stove.
Johnny shook his head slightly, hoping whatever the man wanted wouldn’t take too long. He was falling further and further behind with his chores each passing day. As the man rode closer, Johnny froze and stared at the apparition. Slowly, a smile formed on his face, and he leaned back against Barranca and calmly waited for the rider to approach.
Johnny stood silently watching as Scott rode up and dismounted. Scott took a step toward him, then stopped in confusion at Johnny’s indifferent expression.
Finally, Johnny spoke. “Well, you gonna just stand there, or are ya gonna get your lazy carcass over here and help me?”
Scott smiled back slowly. “Actually, I thought I’d just stand here and watch for a while. I’m not sure I remember how to do that.”
Johnny could contain his joy no longer, and he lunged at his brother and grabbed him around the neck. “You ever leave me ta deal with the Old Man alone again, and I’ll kill ya.”
“If I remember correctly, YOU’RE the one that left ME!” Scott protested as he tried to breathe.
“Well, then I guess we just better promise each other not ta leave again.” Johnny’s tone was joking, but his eyes were serious as he stepped back and studied his brother.
Scott’s eyes locked on his brother’s and then they dropped. “”I have responsibilities now, Johnny.”
“What about your responsibility to the ranch; to us?” Johnny asked.
“Things have changed; we’ve changed.”
“And you don’t care about us no more, now that you’re an important man.”
“That’s not true! Johnny, look. I can’t promise anything because I don’t know what I’m going to do. Give me some time.”
Johnny’s disappointment showed on his face, even though he tried to hide it. “All right,” he said quietly.
Scott broke into a grin. “In the meantime…” He launched himself at his brother and bulldogged him to the ground.
An hour later, the two men were sitting in the shade of an old Oak tree, catching up on news and enjoying each other’s company.
“So how are you and Murdoch getting along?” Scott finally asked cautiously.
“We’re not,” Johnny said blackly.
“Why not?” Scott sighed. He felt as though he had never left, and he knew that if he didn’t stay, this would be the reason.
“Ask him!” Johnny grumbled.
“I intend to, but right now I’m asking you!”
Johnny’s voice was soft. “He won’t let go. He still thinks this ranch is his.”
“Johnny, Lancer will always be his,” Scott said gently.
“He lost it and I bought it! It’s NOT his!”
“I know you’re the owner, but think about how Murdoch feels about it.”
“Why? He never thinks about how I feel.”
“That’s not true, and you know it.”
“Do I?” Johnny asked belligerently.
“You know he cares about you.”
Johnny turned and stared at his brother. “No, Scott, I don’t. In fact right now I don’t know nothin’. All I know for sure is that I want ta build this place back up.”
“I’m sure that’s what Murdoch wants to do, too.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, at least we agree on that, but it’s the way ta do it we can’t agree on.”
Scott smiled slightly. “Don’t tell me. You plan on going into horses.”
Johnny grinned. “How did ya guess?”
“Wild hunch,” Scott said dryly.
“Murdoch thinks I’m bein’ stupid,” Johnny admitted, then looked at his brother to catch his reaction. “He says we can’t make money on horses.”
Scott stared at his brother. “DO YOU think we can?”
Johnny smiled, noting that Scott had used the word ‘we’. “Yeah, I do. We’ll need some cattle, but I think we can make it on the horses.”
“Then try it.”
“And if I’m wrong?”
Scott shrugged. “Are you asking my opinion?”
“But you don’t want Murdoch’s.”
“That’s just it, Scott. I do. But he already has his mind made up and won’t even consider another way. If he’d discuss it, I’d be more than willing ta listen, but he doesn’t discuss, he rants and blusters. And he won’t tell me WHY he wants ta do something, he just tells me that’s the way it HAS to be done.”
“And as soon as he starts yelling, you stop listening.”
Johnny looked at his brother angrily. “I don’t aim ta be ordered around on my own property!”
Scott shook his head. “I’m not suggesting that you do. But just because Murdoch doesn’t know how to suggest something without being overbearing about it doesn’t mean you should ignore the advice.”
“So you think I should stick with cattle,” Johnny stated flatly.
“No. But I think you should listen, really listen, to what Murdoch’s saying. Then if you choose to go ahead with horses, at least you’ll be totally informed. You may decide that Murdoch’s arguments aren’t valid, or he might point out something you hadn’t thought of.”
Johnny sighed. “I guess you’re right, but I sure ain’t lookin’ forward to the conversation.”
Chapter Forty Two
Scott and Johnny rode under the arch and headed for the barn. Johnny had made a point of staying away from the ranch house during the day, so he had no idea where his father was. As they approached the yard, Johnny glanced at the corral and noticed the old sorrel was still there. At least Murdoch was somewhere close.
The two men walked into the house and made their way to the great room. Johnny came to a halt as he watched his father carefully placing the pictures around the room, back where they belonged. The rifle and the clock Murdoch had been willing to go to prison for sat in their accustomed spots and Johnny felt his throat tighten. He cleared his throat, and without turning around, Murdoch started to speak. “I hope you don’t mind me putting these things back. I know it’s your ranch, but these things belong here.”
“No, I don’t mind,” Johnny said quietly. “Thanks.”
Murdoch nodded. “I think I’d better move on. I don’t think I belong here any more.”
“That’s not true!” Johnny protested. “I just…want ta get along. I don’t want ta fight all the time.”
“But that’s all we’ll ever do,” Murdoch turned toward his son and suddenly his eyes widened. “Scott!”
Scott nodded his head. “Sir.”
Murdoch visibly wilted. “I guess you’re still angry.”
Scott let out a quiet sigh, and after a glance at Johnny, he walked over to his father. Murdoch pulled him into a bear hug and didn’t want to let go. Scott finally managed to free himself and took a step back.
“I’m glad you’re home, son.”
Scott kept quiet. He really didn’t know if he was home or not. He’d have to wait and see.
“Maybe with you here, we can get the ranch back to normal,” Murdoch continued with a renewed optimism.
Scott glanced at Johnny, who was watching them in tight – lipped silence.
“I’m sure Johnny will get it running again,” Scott offered.
“He wants to raise HORSES instead of cattle. It won’t work! We’ll lose the ranch again!”
Johnny opened his mouth to reply, then hesitated, remembering what Scott had said earlier. “Why do you think we’ll lose it?’ Johnny asked, more calmly than he felt.
“I already told you! We’ll have to wait too long for the horses to mature. We won’t make money on them until they’re broken, and we can’t do that until they’re at least four or five years old!”
“No, but until they’re old enough, I can break and sell the wild horses that are on the ranch. There are plenty of them.”
“And what happens if the market for horses goes sour?”
“The same thing that would happen if the cattle market crashes!”
Murdoch shook his head. “People will always need to eat, but they WON’T need better horses if times are bad.”
“I plan on having both cattle and horses! And when times are good, the percentage of profit is much higher on horses.”
“They are also a lot more fragile!”
“They also aren’t as stupid!” Johnny spat as his temper finally exploded. “We won’t spend all of our time pullin’ ‘em out of mud holes!”
The two men stood there, glaring at each other. Finally, Murdoch turned toward Scott. “Scott, tell him how stupid he’s being!”
“Yeah, Scott, tell me how stupid I am.”
Scott turned his glare on both of the other men in turn. “Personally, I think you’re BOTH being stupid! Can’t you two get along for even five minutes? Why can’t you make even an EFFORT to understand each other instead of being at each other’s throats all the time?”
“Don’t tell me, tell the old man! He’d try the patience of a saint!” Johnny ranted.
“I’m the one who’s TRYING to be reasonable,” snapped Murdoch. “He’s the one that won’t listen to reason.”
“If you were talking reason, I’d listen!”
“ALL RIGHT, BOTH OF YOU SHUT UP!” Scott roared. “If EITHER of you start arguing again, I’ll SHOOT you!
Both Murdoch and Johnny looked at Scott in disbelief, then looked at each other warily. Johnny finally sighed. “Scott’s right. “Let’s have a drink and try to discuss this calmly.”
Murdoch nodded and walked over to the bar. He poured three drinks and handed them to his sons, then started over to the desk.
Scott cleared his throat. “Sir, maybe you should sit over here with us,” he suggested.
Murdoch hesitated, then nodded agreeably. “All right.” He walked over and sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs opposite the sofa where his sons were sitting. “Let’s discuss this reasonably.”
Johnny nodded. “I think the ranch could make money on those horses. There’s less competition, and the army has already told us they’ll buy all the good horses we can supply.”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, but my arguments are still valid. It will take time to build up a herd of good stock.”
“And I told you I can break those wild horses until we build up the herds.”
Murdoch shook his head stubbornly. “But not all of those wild horses are army quality.”
“That’s why I’m planning on buying BOTH cattle and horses to start with.”
“If you waste your money on horses, you won’t be able to afford enough cattle to make a go of it.”
Johnny took a deep breath. “If I have horses to sell, I won’t NEED to make a go of it with the cattle.”
Murdoch shook his head once more and turned toward Scott. “Since it seems as if Johnny and I can’t agree, I guess the decision of what to do is up to you.”
Before Scott could open his mouth, Johnny opened his. “No, it’s not.”
Murdoch looked at him, his eyes narrowing. “What do you mean, no? I’m willing to let the majority rule. That’s more than fair!”
Johnny glared at his father. “I mean, I’M the one that calls the tune. I’ll listen to the two of you, but it’s MY decision.”
“You don’t know HOW to listen!”
“Murdoch, Johnny’s right. It’s his call,” Scott stated, trying to stave off another argument that was sure to come.
Murdoch swung around and glared at Scott. “If you can’t say something intelligent, then stay out of it!”
Chapter Forty Three
Johnny leaped to his feet. “This ain’t gonna work, Scott. I tried, but it’s no use.” He glared at his father. “I’m tired of tryin’ ta discuss this and getting’ nowhere. From now on, there’s not gonna be any more discussions. You can either shut up and do things MY way, or you can just go back to Val’s jail. Right now I really don’t care which, but you’d better make up your mind, cause the next time ya go spoutin’ off, I just might forget you’re my father and shoot ya.” Johnny headed for the door, slamming it angrily on the way out. Scott took a deep breath and looked at his father, who was glowering angrily at the door.
“You need to let him do it his way.”
“WHY?” Murdoch spat.
“Because he’s earned the right!” Scott snapped. “And because he owns this ranch. Not you, not me, HIM!”
Murdoch shook his head angrily. “Do you know HOW he got the money to buy it?”
“By hiring out. He took great delight in informing me he bought the ranch with blood money.”
“So what? At least he got it back.”
“He swore to me he was through with fighting. He lied to me!”
Scott shook his head in disbelief. “Maybe he didn’t have a choice!”
Murdoch looked at his son quizzically. “What do you mean?”
“Murdoch, that was probably the only way he could get the money, and as soon as he had the money, he came home. It’s not like he continued fighting.”
“He still shouldn’t have done it.”
Scott shook his head. “You would rather have lost it to Osgill?”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “I don’t know. At least if it had been that no good banker that had it, I could have gone after him.”
“And get the ranch back any way you could? Fair means or foul?”
“YES! He practically stole it. I’d have no qualms at all of stealing it back!”
“So you’d resort to almost any lengths to get the ranch back?”
“I told you, yes! Short of outright murder!”
“Well maybe Johnny felt the same way. Did you ever think of that? MAYBE he didn’t want to go back to fighting any more than you wanted him to, but he did it to save this ranch. Maybe that was the only way he could think of to keep Lancer in the family.”
Murdoch looked at Scott belligerently. “IS it in the family? Johnny seems bound and determined to do this by himself. And he made it clear it’s owned by Johnny Madrid, NOT Johnny Lancer.”
“They’re one and the same!” Scott exploded. “When are you going to get that through that thick skull of yours?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I want Johnny to be a rancher, not a gunfighter.” He hesitated, then continued, “Every time I see him, he reminds me just how badly I failed him. He should have been brought up HERE, not fighting to survive in some god- forsaken border town.”
“And that’s HIS fault?”
“No! But he needs to decide just who and what he is!”
“He’s TRYING to be a rancher, but you won’t let him!”
Murdoch shook his head. “He’s going about it all wrong. I just don’t want to see him fail and lose this ranch, and he will if he insists on going into horses.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
Murdoch shrugged. “I’ve known men that have tried it, and they couldn’t make it.”
“It doesn’t mean Johnny won’t.” Scott shook his head. “Murdoch, you HAVE to let him at least try.”
The rancher locked eyes on his son. “And what if he fails? What if we lose the ranch again?”
Scott stared back at his father. “You’d better make up your mind what’s more important to you, this ranch or your son.” He turned and walked out.
Scott strode out of the house and headed for the barn. He halfway hoped Johnny would be gone, he didn’t feel like slipping back into his role as negotiator. He hadn’t realized just how much stress it had put on him until he had left, and he knew he couldn’t go through it again. If Murdoch and Johnny couldn’t get along, he knew he’d be leaving shortly.
He walked into the barn, making enough noise that Johnny would know he was there. He had learned that lesson early and well. As expected, he found his brother grooming Barranca.
“I figured I’d find you here.”
“If Murdoch thinks he can make me mad enough ta take off and leave my own ranch, he’s outta his mind.”
“I’m sure that’s not what he’s trying to do.”
“Don’t bet on it, “Johnny snorted.
Scott sighed, unwilling to get into an argument about Murdoch’s motives right now. “When is the stock auction?”
“A couple of days from now, in Modesto.” He slanted a look at his brother. “You comin’ with me?”
Scott shrugged. “I hadn’t thought about it.”
“I could use another set of eyes ta pick out the animals.”
Scott nodded. “All right.” He hesitated. “Are you going to ask Murdoch to come along?”
The gunfighter stopped brushing his horse and glared at Scott. “I have no intention of fightin’ with the Old Man about which stock I should or shouldn’t buy, and you know that’s what would happen.”
Scott nodded slowly. He knew what his brother said was true, but he also knew just how badly Murdoch would take it. “Maybe he can run the ranch while we’re gone.”
Johnny shrugged noncommittally. “Maybe.” He tossed the brush into the corner and faced his brother. “Are you gonna stay?” he asked softly.
Scott wouldn’t meet his brother’s eyes. “I don’t know yet.”
“I’ll split it with ya, equal partners.”
Scott hesitated. “What about Murdoch?”
“NO!” Johnny exploded.
Scott dropped his head, hoping that Johnny would eventually change his mind. He knew that was the only way he’d stay; if his brother and father came to some sort of an agreement. “I’ll think about it.”
Johnny noticed the hesitation and sighed. “Do you think I’m bein’ unreasonable?”
“No,” Scott admitted. “I think he is, but I doubt if he’ll give in.”
“So you think I should?”
Scott shook his head miserably, tempted to say yes and get his family back to normal. “No.”
Johnny nodded. “Neither do I. He’s the one that’s gonna have ta change.”
Chapter Forty Four
The next evening, Scott and Johnny dragged themselves into the house. They had stayed out well past sundown trying to get one of the windmills in the closest pasture to work, and had finally succeeded. As the two men walked into the kitchen, Scott saw two plates sitting on the stove, and he grabbed them and placed them on the table, then sat down next to his brother.
“I wonder why Murdoch didn’t wait to eat with us?” Scott asked.
Johnny shrugged. “He never does. By the time I get in at night, he’s already asleep.”
Scott shook his head. “He’s been under a lot of strain.”
Johnny dropped his head. “Yeah, I know. He probably ain’t sleepin’ real good, either. That bunkhouse ain’t the most comfortable place in the world.”
Scott froze and he stared at his brother in disbelief. “He sleeps in the bunkhouse?”
“Don’t act so surprised. He told ya that in his letter to ya.”
Scott shook his head. “I didn’t receive any letter before I left.”
“Then how didja know ta come?”
“I happened to see an old circular advertising the sale of Lancer.”
Johnny nodded. “That letter was real entertainin’. He spent two pages tellin’ ya how bad I was bein’ to him and what a mess I was makin’ of things. Asked you to come home and talk some sense into me.” His face darkened. “He told ya that the two of you together could force me to do things the right way.”
Scott shook his head. “I still can’t believe you would make him stay in the bunkhouse.”
“I didn’t make him do nothin,” Johnny spat. “That was his doin’. He’s the one that insisted on stayin’ in there when he couldn’t have his way the first day. Sort of like a kid throwin’ a temper tantrum.”
Scott looked thoughtful. “Temper tantrum, huh?” He shook his head. “You said he hadn’t been doing anything to help out, either.”
Johnny shook his head. “Leastways nothin’ I can see, except makin’ supper at night.” He looked down at the plate. “If ya want ta call this supper. I know he can’t do any hard work anymore, and I don’t want him to. I asked him ta work on the vegetable garden the first day here, and he refused. Said he was gonna work on the books instead. I told him he didn’t have any business lookin’ at my books, but later I came in and caught him goin’ through my journal anyway. He’d written that letter to you, too.”
“How did you know what it said?”
“I READ it. Kinda figured I had the right since he was readin’ my personal papers.”
“And you let him send it, anyway?”
Johnny shrugged. “Why not? I didn’t figure you’d believe him.” He looked at his brother cautiously. “Or do you?”
Scott shook his head. “I know you better than that. But the question is, what do we do about Murdoch?”
Johnny shrugged. “You tell me.”
A slow smile appeared on Scott’s face. “I think if he wants to act like a child, maybe that’s just how we should treat him. The best thing to do is to ignore him.”
“That’s kinda hard when he’s yellin’ his head off.”
“You said you haven’t even seen much of him lately.”
Scott shrugged. “He’s expecting me to take his side. He just might be surprised when he finds out I don’t plan on doing that. Maybe we can shake him up enough to make him realize just how stupid he’s acting.”
“I doubt it,” Johnny replied gloomily.
Scott shrugged. “Well, we can at least try.”
Murdoch arose about eight and went into the main house. He was somewhat surprised that Scott hadn’t come out to the bunkhouse the night before and insist he come inside. Evidently, Johnny hadn’t told him their father was sleeping in that ramshackle building, but Murdoch would make sure Scott found out. He walked into the kitchen and saw the accustomed plate warming on the stove, and poured himself some coffee, then sat down and started to eat his breakfast. He sure hoped Scott had been able to get through to his hard headed brother. He knew that his elder son had spent all day with Johnny yesterday, and with any luck he had convinced Johnny that he was acting like an ass.
Murdoch opened up the paper he had brought from town. That stock auction was coming up pretty quickly, and he figured they could buy some prime cattle. Murdoch had seen Johnny’s balance sheet, and figured they could spend at least two thousand dollars on cattle. They would need as few horses, too, for working the range. Maybe Scott would be willing to throw some money in, too. After all, they all had to contribute something.
After thinking about it, he had to admit Johnny was right about one thing, though. They shouldn’t go into debt to buy stock. It was too risky. No, for once, Johnny had showed some brains. He took another sip of coffee and daydreamed about the new stock. He built it up in his mind until he imagined the finest herd in the country. They would start small, but with two thousand dollars, they could at least buy several bulls and enough decent heifers for a grand start.
He thought he might ride into town later and see if he could put the word out that Lancer was hiring once again. Of course, they’d have to be careful and not hire too many men, at least at first, but Scott and Johnny could take up the slack.
He looked up from his daydreaming when he heard the door slam shut, and smiled when he caught sight of his older son.
“Scott! Sit down, we need to discuss a few things.”
“About how we’re going to get the ranch back to normal.”
Scott looked at his father, then smiled. “Actually, Sir, Johnny and I already discussed it and come up with a plan, so you don’t have to worry about it. I came in here to tell you that you need to start working on that vegetable garden. Johnny and I are too busy to work on it right now, and we need it.”
Scott had to work hard to keep from laughing at his father’s expression, and he forced himself to remain serious. “By the way, if you’re planning on staying in the bunkhouse, I thought I’d move into your room.”
Chapter Forty Five
Murdoch’s glare was enough to freeze a lesser man’s soul, but Scott merely stared back as Murdoch tried to find his tongue. Murdoch for once was speechless. His elder son’s abdication was a complete shock, and it took him a minute to realize that Scott was serious. He really had taken Johnny’s side, and that thought sent a surge of anger through Murdoch’s body.
“Just what did Johnny tell you?” he barked.
“The truth,” Scott said simply.
“His version, anyway.”
“Look, he didn’t have to tell me anything. I’ve seen for myself how you act around him.”
Murdoch snorted. “And I suppose you didn’t think he was out of line at all?”
Scott shook his head. “I didn’t say that. I think you’ve BOTH been out of line, but at least Johnny’s trying. You seem to go out of your way to be difficult.”
“Yes, you! You ALWAYS have to be in control, no matter what.” Scott shook his head. “There is more than one way to do things, but not according to you, and heaven help anyone who doesn’t toe your imaginary line!”
“That’s not true!”
“Isn’t it? You could have fooled me. You were so worried about keeping your control you chased your own son away. Just what did you tell Johnny to make him leave last year? You never would tell me.”
“You mean he didn’t tell you? I’m surprised.”
“No, he didn’t, but you are. Now what did you say to him?”
Murdoch lowered his eyes. “It was just a misunderstanding.”
“Somehow, I doubt that. What did you say?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Scott looked at his father in disbelief. “Johnny LEFT because of what you said. I LEFT because of what you said. Everyone left because of what you said. You lost this whole damn ranch because of what you said, and you have the gall to tell me it doesn’t MATTER?”
Murdoch’s eyes refused to meet his son’s. “I was telling Sam that I wished I hadn’t brought Johnny here…that…I…” He stopped.
“Go on,” Scott demanded frigidly.
Murdoch shook his head. “Sam pointed out that if I hadn’t brought Johnny here, he would be dead, and….and I didn’t say anything. Johnny just misunderstood. He thought I wanted him dead.”
Murdoch felt his son’s eyes on him, but he still couldn’t meet Scott’s gaze. “I certainly didn’t mean it that way. I’d never wish he was dead…I just….I was tired of the arguments,” he sighed.
“I’m sure he was, too.”
“Then he should have done what he was told instead of arguing with me all of the time!” Murdoch roared.
“And maybe you should have listened to HIM once in a while, instead of always dismissing him out of hand!”
“I was the one in charge, not him!”
“And now he’s in charge, and it’s his turn to do things his way. How does it make you feel when he won’t listen to you?”
“There’s a difference. At least I knew what I was doing,” Murdoch spat.
“Did you? It seems you made some pretty bad mistakes.”
Murdoch stared at Scott for several seconds before he hung his head. “Yes, I did,” he admitted.
“Well, at least you finally realize it. Now why won’t you admit that you might just be wrong about Johnny’s capabilities?”
“I wish I was, but I don’t think I am.” Murdoch shook his head. “Scott, he HAS to learn to be more responsible.”
Scott snorted. “Since he’s the one that saved the ranch, I don’t see how you can call him irresponsible. If he were, he would have just let it go.”
Murdoch shook his head impatiently. “He certainly wasn’t responsible before. He just wouldn’t settle down.”
“You mean he wouldn’t blindly follow your orders.”
“I was the one calling the tune. He had no right to argue with me,” Murdoch insisted.
“He had every right in the world. He was part owner, the same as you and I. In fact, it was his duty to question how things were done. I certainly did, more than once, and you never got that angry with me. Why?”
“Because you would listen to reason. I could explain things to you without it becoming a shouting match between us.”
“Did it ever occur to you that when you and Johnny argued, it was always YOU who started yelling first!”
Murdoch shook his head angrily. “I couldn’t help it. That boy has a knack for making me lose my temper.”
“And it was easier to get rid of him than change your ways,” Scott said sarcastically.
“I had to think of the ranch!” Murdoch protested.
“Of course, how dare I suggest that your family is more important than this damn ranch!”
“I should be able to have both!”
“You SHOULD, but your lack of diplomacy certainly made that an impossible dream.” Scott shook his head. “The only thing I don’t understand is why Johnny still GIVES a damn about you.”
Murdoch snorted. “What makes you think he does?”
Scott shook his head slowly. “Can you really look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t think Johnny cares?”
Murdoch took a deep breath and he nodded slowly. “I guess he does, but I think he’s more concerned about getting his own way than anything else. He’s bound and determined to do things HIS way, no matter what I think.”
Scott looked at his father in disbelief. “Well that’s calling the kettle black.” He shook his head again. “I can see I’m getting nowhere fast, and I think we’ve discussed this enough.” He turned and headed for the door. “I’m going back to work, and YOU’D better get off your ass and get to work, too. We can’t afford to have anyone slack off. As Johnny pointed out, I believe the vegetable garden is in need of some attention. Now get busy!”
Murdoch’s mouth hung open at his son’s words, and he watched in disbelief as Scott disappeared out the door, slamming it behind him.
Chapter Forty Six
Murdoch sat at the table for a long time, going over in his mind what Scott had said. Finally, he stood up and grabbed his hat from the rack before stepping outside. He glared at the vegetable garden for a long while, then with a sigh he walked over and picked up a rusty hoe.
As he worked, he continued to think about the lecture Scott had given him, and he realized his son was right; he had been acting like an ass. Not only to Johnny, but to everyone, and he wasn’t sure why. Of course, Scott wasn’t the only one who had given him a lecture. Sam, Val, Cipriano, Maria, even Widow Ferguson had yelled at him. He wished now he had listened to them. He knew he’d been wrong, but he wasn’t sure he could change. He’d do his best, but that might not be good enough. He still didn’t think his younger son had the experience to make the ranch a success, but he supposed Johnny had the right to try, just as he himself had had a chance. And failed.
Murdoch glanced up at the sun and moved his head around to work out the kinks. Despite what his sons thought, he hoped Johnny did make a go of it. At least do a better job than his Old Man had done. He snorted. Old Man. He had always disliked that term, ever since his son had spat it at him the first day they had met. Murdoch stopped and his eyes narrowed. Maybe that was one of the problems between them; he always felt that Johnny wasn’t quite respectful enough. Not like Scott. Murdoch always thought that he had to prove something to his younger son; he felt that Johnny was always sizing him up, just waiting for him to show some weakness. He figured that Johnny really thought his father WAS an old man and he had to prove to Johnny that he wasn’t. Maybe that was the whole problem. He had never been able to prove to his own satisfaction that he wasn’t. Murdoch shook his head and sighed deeply. He guessed his son was right; he was an old man.
Several hours later, Murdoch was sweating profusely, but most of the weeds were gone and the garden looked a lot tidier. He stopped and took off his hat and wiped his head with his arm before jamming the hat firmly back on his head. He looked up at the sun, trying to figure out what time it was. He was just too tired to walk into the house to check, but his stomach told him it had to be close to noon. It had been a long time since he’d really done any physical labor; he’d gotten out of the habit when his sons had finally come home. Now he guessed he was just too old.
He threw the hoe down on the ground and started for the house, then his eyes caught some movement. He turned toward the yard and saw a wagon approaching from the arch. He watched for several minutes before he recognized the people in the wagon and his eyes narrowed. He should be glad to see them, and he supposed he was, but he couldn’t forget their running off when he needed them most.
The wagon pulled up and Murdoch and the driver locked eyes for a long time before Cipriano dropped his eyes. “Senor Lancer.”
“Cipriano,” Murdoch said neutrally. He turned toward the lady. “Maria.”
Cipriano brought his head up once more, but made no move to get down. “We heard Lancer was hiring.”
After a long moment, Murdoch sighed and nodded. “Yes, we are. Get down off the wagon and come inside. I’ll see if I can round up something for you to eat.”
Cipriano nodded and climbed down, then turned and helped Maria off the wagon. The two looked around for a second before following Murdoch into the house. Murdoch started poking around the cupboards, but Maria chased him away. “Go sit down, I will fix a meal for us.”
Murdoch nodded and then looked at Cipriano. “I didn’t think you wanted to work for me any more.”
Cipriano hesitated and glanced at his wife. “We heard the boys were back home, and thought they might need some help.”
Murdoch stared at him for several moments, then shook his head slowly. Everyone liked his boys more than they liked him. “Was I that hard to work for?” he asked softly.
Cipriano shrugged. “No, Senor. But after the boys left…you were more difficult. And….this ranch didn’t seem like a home anymore.”
Murdoch slowly nodded. “No, I guess it didn’t,” he sighed. Maria came up and placed a huge sandwich in front of Murdoch and he smiled at the woman. She always fed them as though she thought they were starving. He picked up the sandwich and took a bite, then gave her another smile. “Thank you, Maria.”
Cipriano looked at his former boss hopefully. “So, is there a need for a Segundo and a good cook?”
Murdoch smiled ruefully and he nearly choked on his words. “I know there is a need, but it’s up to the new owner whether he hires you or not.”
Cipriano looked at Murdoch in confusion. “The new owner?”
Murdoch nodded. “Si. Johnny owns the ranch now, and I no longer have a say in running it. You’ll have to talk to him.”
“Surely Senor Johnny doesn’t ignore his father’s advice?” Maria asked.
Murdoch smiled sadly. “Yes, Maria, he does. He doesn’t need me; he has Scott to help him. I’m nothing but an old man. I can’t even do any work to make myself useful.” He pushed the sandwich away. “I’m sorry, but I’m not very hungry. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go lie down. I feel pretty tired. Johnny and Scott should be home in a few hours. I’m sure you can talk to them then.” He stood up and shuffled slowly out of the room.
Chapter Forty Seven
Johnny rode under the arch and headed the palomino toward the house. He had left the house this morning at dawn and it was now well past dark, and he was dead on his feet. He hoped Scott was back; before he turned in he wanted to talk to his brother about the upcoming trip. He had seen Scott midmorning, but for some reason his brother was in a foul mood and Johnny figured it was better to just leave him alone for a while. He knew that he always wanted Scott to leave him alone when he was grumpy
He pulled Barranca to a halt next to the barn and tiredly swung down. He led the horse into the barn and tied him to a rail before lighting a lamp, then leaned against his horse for several seconds. He took a few deep breaths, trying to call up enough strength to finish taking care of his horse. He snorted softly to himself; when Murdoch was in charge, Johnny had complained about the hours his father expected him to put in. Now that he was the one in charge, he was working longer and harder than ever before, and it still wasn’t enough. There were just so many things to do, and not enough hands to do them. He hadn’t even stopped for lunch, and he was starving as well as exhausted. Neither he nor Murdoch were very good cooks, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a decent meal.
With a sigh, he grabbed the saddle and yanked it off, then swung it over the rail. He slipped the bit out of Barranca’s mouth, then pulled the bridle off and replaced it with a halter. He wanted nothing more than to grab a bite to eat and go to bed, but he refused to neglect his friend. He might not take time to clean himself up tonight, but at least Barranca would be comfortable.
When he was done, he tossed the brush in the bucket and led the horse into the stall. He spun around when he heard a noise, and his hand was on his gun before he recognized his brother. He watched as Scott slowly led his horse into the barn.
Scott’s head jerked up when he heard his brother’s voice and he smiled wryly. “No.”
Johnny’s eyebrows went up in disbelief and he stared at his brother.
“Actually, I’m exhausted,” Scott admitted.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, me too.” Johnny rubbed the back of his neck. “I need ta talk to you about that sale.”
Scott nodded. “All right, but how about after dinner and a nice relaxing bath?”
“Sure, I just don’t want the Old Man in on it.”
Scott started to protest, then thought better of it. Johnny was probably right. It would be a lot easier without having to argue about everything. He nodded slowly. “Let’s go eat.”
Johnny nodded back. “I think the first thing we need to do is ta hire a cook. I’m sick ta death of Murdoch’s and my cooking, and I KNOW yours isn’t any better.”
Scott clapped his hand on the back of his brother’s back. “You won’t get an argument from me, there. I think hiring a cook is a top priority.”
The two men walked into the house, and both stopped dead. The unmistakable smell of tamales and chili invaded their nostrils, and they looked at each other.
“Do ya think Murdoch learned how ta cook?” Johnny whispered.
Scott shook his head. “I doubt it.”
Johnny took a step closer to the kitchen. “I smell chocolate cake.”
Johnny sniffed deeply. “No I ain’t.”
Johnny headed for the kitchen and swung the door open. Slowly, a smile spread over his face, and he walked over to the woman standing and stirring a pot on the massive stove. He grabbed her around the waist and reached down and gave her a peck on the cheek. With a frightened squawk, she whipped around, spoon in hand, and a string of Spanish curses assailed his ears
“Where on earth did you learn that kind of language?” Johnny asked in mock horror.
“Where do you think I learned it? From living here, with you ruffians,” she retorted. She looked him up and down. “You have lost weight.” She glanced over to where Scott stood. “You both have. You need someone to cook for you.”
Johnny’s smile got bigger. “You volunteerin’ for the job?”
Maria shrugged. “Maybe.” Her eyes narrowed and she looked at him speculatively. “What will you pay?”
“Pay? I’d think just the pleasure of our company would be good enough,” Johnny said seriously.
Maria swatted him with the spoon, and he yelped and held up his hands. “All right, if both you and Cipriano stay, I guess I can pay ya.” He looked at the woman pleadingly. “Come on, Maria, stay. We need you and Cip.”
She thought for a moment. “I will think about it. In the meantime, go wash up.”
“Aw Maria,” Johnny started.
“NOW!” she ordered. “I will not have pigs eating at my table!”
Johnny knew that Maria wouldn’t give in, so he hurried outside, followed by Scott. They washed up as best they could with the pump by the barn, hoping they could get clean enough to pass inspection. They were both starving, and didn’t want to take time to bathe until after dinner. Finally, they went back into the house through the Great Room door. They figured if they were seated, it would be harder to see their dirt stained clothes.
Maria came in, carrying a dish, and gave them each an appraising look. As the men held their breaths, she finally set the tamales down on the table and went back to retrieve the rest of the food.
“Where’s Cipriano?” Johnny asked the woman when she returned.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full! Have you forgotten all of your manners since I’ve been gone?”
Johnny gulped down the offending food. “Sorry, Maria. So where’s Cipriano?”
“Right here, Senor,” the segundo answered as he walked in from the kitchen. “I went out to tell your father that supper was ready.” He shook his head. “He said he wasn’t hungry and he just wanted to sleep.”
Johnny and Scott glanced at each other. “I guess he’s still pretty upset with us,” Scott stated.
Cipriano shrugged. “Si, he is. He is not taking this well.”
Johnny put his fork down. “I guess I’d better go talk to him,” he sighed.
Cipriano shook his head and reached over and touched Johnny’s arm. “No Senor. This is something he will have to figure out on his own. Let him brood for a while. Maybe for once, he will make the right decision.”
Chapter Forty Eight
Johnny threw back the covers and sat up. He had tossed and turned all night, and hadn’t been able to fall asleep at all. As angry as he was with his father, it bothered him that Murdoch was obviously so miserable and he felt guilty, though he wasn’t sure exactly why. No matter what his father thought, he didn’t think he was being unreasonable. Murdoch was the one who was being difficult, not him. All he was trying to do was to make a go of this. He sighed, knowing he couldn’t leave things the way they were. Somehow he’d have to make this work with his father. He wasn’t ready to give back control to his father yet, though, and he knew that was about the only thing that would make Murdoch happy.
He stood up and drew on his pants and scrubbed his hand over his face. He really should shave, but he figured he didn’t have time. He and Scott would be leaving for the auction tomorrow, and there was still plenty of work that had to be finished today. He grabbed his shirt and quickly put it on, then tucked it in to his pants before buckling on his gunbelt.
He was halfway down the stairs before he smelled the coffee, and he smiled. He had forgotten that for once he would be able to start the day with a decent breakfast. That thought lightened his mood considerably, and he breezed into the kitchen and slid into the nearest chair.
“Good morning, Senor Johnny.” She scooped a huge helping of eggs onto his plate, then placed a plate of bacon next to the biscuits that were already on the table. He took a bite and a smile broke out on his face.
“We sure missed you, Maria.”
The older lady snorted. “You mean you missed my cooking.”
“Well, yeah, that too,” he admitted as he shoveled in the food. “Has Scott come down yet?”
“No, Senor. You are the first one down this morning.”
Johnny nodded. “Is Cip outside yet?”
“Si, Senor. He was anxious to get started.”
“Well, there’s plenty of work ta do.”
“Si, this ranch takes much work to keep it going.”
Johnny nodded as he finished his breakfast, then he stood up and gulped down the last of his coffee before approaching the woman. He bent down and gave her a kiss on her cheek. “Thanks, Maria, for coming back,” he whispered.
She spun around and threatened him with her spatula. “Go on, get out of here. I have work to do. This kitchen is a mess. I don’t know what you did here without me.”
Johnny smiled and grabbed his hat off of the rack before heading out the door. He walked out to the barn, whistling. With the return of Cipriano and Maria, things were definitely looking up.
Cipriano met him just inside the door. “I came out to take care of the animals, but…” his voice trialed off as he looked back into the nearly deserted barn.
Johnny came up and put his hand on the Segundo’s arm. “Scott and I are going to the stock auction tomorrow. In two weeks, you’ll have more stock than you’ll know what ta do with.”
Cipriano’s face brightened. “You will get many cattle? Si?”
Johnny shook his head slowly. “I plan on gettin’ mostly horses.” He watched the segundo carefully to see his reaction. After a moment, Cipriano smiled. “I should have known.”
“Do you think I’m makin’ a mistake?” Johnny asked.
The segundo shook his head. “It is not for me to say, Senor.”
Johnny stared at the older man. “Cipriano, I want your opinion, and as long as you’re here, I want you ta speak your mind, whether ya think I want ta hear it or not, understand? You’re a part of this ranch, and if we’re gonna make it, I’m gonna need your help as well as your guidance. If you think I’m wrong, now or ever, I want you to speak up, and that’s an order.”
Cipriano nodded. “Si, Senor. I believe you can make it, no matter what animals you choose to go with.” He hesitated. “Senor,” he said cautiously. “You said you needed my help, my experience. Why don’t you ask your father for his help?”
Johnny’s face darkened. “I tried. Believe me, I tried. But Murdoch ain’t interested in givin’ me advice; all he’s interested in doin’ is bossin’ me around and tellin’ me what ta do.”
Cipriano nodded slowly. “He has been in charge for a long time. He is a proud man, and it is hard for him to accept that he failed.”
Johnny sighed deeply. “I know. I just don’t know what ta do about it.” He shook his head. “I ain’t gonna just let him take over.”
“No, you should not, but he needs to feel useful.”
“Then why doesn’t he just pitch in and help? There’s enough work here ta keep us all busy the rest of our lives,” he grumbled.
Cipriano shrugged. “I do not know why he doesn’t help.”
“Nether do I, Cip, neither do I. But he’d better start.” As Johnny looked back toward his segundo, he caught a movement out by the arch. He watched with narrowed eyes as the wagon approached, hoping it was some of the hands returning. As the wagon pulled closer, a smile broke out on his face and he turned and grinned at the segundo.
Both Johnny and Cipriano stood and watched as the wagon finally pulled up into the yard, and the driver stopped the team before glaring at the two grinning men.
“Well don’t just stand there gawkin’. Get over here and help the Missus down. Then you can grab those bags outta the back and take ‘em in before ya take care of the horses. Well get busy! You raised in a barn?”
Johnny grinned as he stepped forward. “Yessir, Jelly.”
Chapter Forty Nine
Jelly jumped down and looked around. “So where is everybody?” he demanded.
Johnny shrugged. “Scott and Murdoch aren’t out yet this morning.”
Jelly’s eyes widened. “Scott’s home?”
A grin split the handyman’s face. “Well, if that don’t beat all.”
Johnny reached up and offered his hand to Mrs. Hoskins. “Hello, Maggie.”
“Johnny.” Maggie climbed down and looked around a little breathlessly. “I had no idea the ranch was so big.”
Jelly spoke up. “I told ya it was. That’s why they need me. It takes quite a bit ta run a spread like this, and they need somebody ta take charge, right Johnny?”
Johnny smiled. “Sure Jelly, I told ya we need ya.”
Jelly’s chest puffed out as he appraised the gunfighter. “Gol darned right ya do. Well, you’d better get busy and get ta work. I don’t put up with no slackers.”
“Ok, Jelly. I plan on riding out and making sure the pasture’s ready for the new stock today. That all right with you?” He watched the handyman, a glint of humor showing in his eyes.
“Well I guess that’ll do,” Jelly huffed. “Just make sure ya earn your keep.”
Johnny picked up the bags and headed for the house, and Jelly stopped him. “Just where do ya think you’re goin’?”
Johnny glanced at Maggie and then shrugged. “In the house. Where else would I put the bags, Jelly?”
Jelly stopped and considered the question. Before, he had stayed in a small room adjoining the courtyard, but that space was hardly big enough for two. He hadn’t thought about it, but he guessed Johnny was right, and he was grateful to Johnny for thinking about it, and grateful Johnny was welcoming them into the house, just like family. “Nowhere, just makin’ sure ya knew what you were doin’.”
Johnny turned and carried the bags into the house. There was plenty of room in the hacienda, and there was no reason Jelly and Maggie couldn’t take advantage of its comforts. He felt a flash of unease as he wondered if Murdoch would mind, then he realized it really didn’t matter. It was his call. He chuckled softly to himself as he climbed the stairs. Maybe he should just go ahead and let Jelly take charge of the ranch, it might solve all of their problems. He’d love to see Murdoch having to answer to Jelly. He chuckled again at the thought.
He plopped the bags down in one of the larger bedrooms with its own bathroom. It had a pretty view of the nearby hills with a large Oak tree just outside the window. He looked up as Maggie walked into the room and watched as she looked around. “It’s beautiful, thank you.”
Johnny grinned. “Thank Jelly. It’s his ranch.”
Maggie laughed softly. “Now you and I both know that’s not true, but thanks, Johnny, for letting him feel important.”
“I wasn’t sure he’d come. He liked it in Lovelock, and the people there respected him.”
Maggie nodded. “Yes, they did, but he didn’t hesitate when your letter came. He thinks of Lancer as home, and you’re family, Johnny.”
“He’s a good friend. He stayed with me and kept me from goin’ back ta fightin’. He stood by me when my own father didn’t.”
Maggie smiled. “Jelly needs to be needed. Since he gave up the sheriff’s position in Lovelock, he felt like he wasn’t very useful. He needed to come back here.”
“You understand him pretty well, don’t you?”
Maggie nodded. “Yes, I do, and so do you. For all of his bluster and attempts to make people think he’s tough, he has a soft heart.” She looked at Johnny knowingly. “Just like you.”
Johnny’s eyebrows quirked up. “I know a few people who might disagree, and my father is one of them.”
“Disagree about what?” Scott asked from the doorway.
Johnny grinned at his brother. “Scott, this is Maggie Hoskins, Jelly’s wife. Maggie, this is my brother Scott.”
Scott looked at his brother in disbelief for a second, before turning to the woman. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Hoskins.”
“Please, call me Maggie.”
“All right, Maggie.” He hesitated. “I’m glad you and Jelly decided to come home.”
Maggie glanced at Johnny. “It was very important to Jelly.”
“Well, we’re glad you agreed.” Johnny looked at his brother. “You ready ta get ta work?”
Scott rolled his eyes at Maggie. “My boss is a slavedriver,” he complained.
Johnny hit his brother on the arm. “And don’t you forget it, or you’ll be lookin’ for a job,” Johnny agreed. “Come on, let’s go.” As the two young men walked out of the room, Johnny called out over his shoulder, “See ya tonight, Maggie. Make yourself at home.”
Scott and Johnny walked outside, and Cipriano had their horses saddled and ready. Johnny went over and talked to the segundo for a few minutes to make sure Cip knew what he needed to do during the day. Jelly joined them, but as they were talking, Murdoch walked out of the bunkhouse. He nodded at Scott, then caught sight of Jelly and walked over to the three men.
“Jelly!” Murdoch boomed. “I’m glad you’re back.”
Jelly nodded nervously and glanced at Johnny. “Thanks, Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch nodded. “We can sure use your help. Your old room is waiting for you.”
Jelly bobbed his head and looked at Johnny once more.
“Jelly and his wife are staying in the house,” Johnny stated as he stared at his father.
Murdoch’s eyes widened and he glared at his son. “He’s staying in the house when your own father is staying in the bunkhouse?”
Johnny met his father’s gaze. “That was your choice, not mine. Besides, Jelly’s family.”
“And I’m NOT?” Murdoch roared.
Scott hurried over. “Murdoch, calm down. No one is making you stay in the bunkhouse, and you know it.”
Murdoch continued to glare at his younger son. “Well?”
“Jelly’s stayin’ in the house. If you want to stay in the house, nobody’s tellin’ you not to.”
Murdoch snorted. “Why should I? You obviously have all he family you want.”
Johnny became very still. “That wasn’t my choice, Old Man. YOU kicked me out; made it clear I wasn’t welcome here. Jelly stood by me and stayed with me. He probably saved my life when I didn’t give a damn anymore. He was more of a father to me than you ever were.”
“So that’s what this is all about? You’re trying to punish me because you didn’t grow up here?” Murdoch asked angrily.
Johnny shook his head angrily. “Nobody’s tryin’ ta punish you, and me growin’ up here has nothin’ ta do with what I just said. You had plenty of chances ta be my father after I came home, but you chose not to. You were too damned concerned with getting’ your own way and too busy runnin’ this ranch ta care about me.”
“You sound like a spoiled child,” Murdoch spat.
“I wouldn’t know nothin’ about that. I never got the chance ta be a kid, let alone spoiled. All I know was there was times I needed you, and you weren’t there. And I’m NOT talking about when I was a child.”
“I did what I thought was best for this ranch!”
Johnny took several breaths, trying to rein in his temper, but not succeeding. “That’s all you ever cared about; this ranch. Not me, not Scott. Hell, not even your wives. No wonder my mother left! She woulda been a fool to stay with a cold hearted bastard like you!”
Murdoch lunged at his son, landing a blow that sent Johnny rolling. As Johnny lurched to his feet, Cipriano grabbed Murdoch, and Scott and Jelly grabbed the gunfighter.
Johnny fought to get loose, but finally gave up. He glared at his father. “You got NOTHIN’ Old Man! You lost everything! The ranch, your family, your friends. You were always ashamed of me, said I was a failure. Well what about you?”
Murdoch fought against the Segundo’s arms to reach his son, but Cipriano’s grip was like iron. “I should never have brought you here,” Murdoch ranted. “If you hadn’t of been here, Scott and I could have made it. I never would have lost this ranch. It’s your fault! All of it! YOU were the reason we couldn’t get along, YOU were the reason everyone left.” Murdoch shook his head. “You’re a gunfighter, not a rancher. You’ll never be a rancher. You’ll wind up losing this ranch because you’re too damn stubborn to listen to reason.”
Johnny shook his head, furious. “I thought we could somehow still be a family. I thought MAYBE you regretted the things you said ta me before. I was willin’ ta try, but all you care about is this DAMN ranch! That’s all you’ll ever care about. Well let me tell you something! This ranch is MINE, and Scott’s if he wants it. You’ll never get it back. If you want ta stay, I won’t kick ya out, but you’ll do as you’re told. Ya don’t have any say about anything any more. Not about this ranch, and not about me, not about NOTHIN’, UNDERSTAND? If you want ta stay, you’ll do what I tell ya to and you’ll keep your mouth SHUT!”
Murdoch glared at Johnny then turned his head toward Cipriano. “Let go of me!” The segundo kept his grip on the rancher until Murdoch ordered him to let go once more, then Cipriano cautiously let go. Murdoch straightened up and took a step toward his son. “You’ll never make it. You don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re too damn stupid to learn.” He reached down and grabbed his hat that had fallen in the struggle. “I’ll be taking that sorrel. I’ll leave it in town when I leave, and I’ll send you the money that I owe you as soon as I can.”
“I don’t give a damn about the money,” Johnny growled as he shrugged out of his brother’s grasp and took a step toward his father. “Keep it. You don’t owe me nothin’.”
“Yes I do, and I don’t want to owe you for ANYTHING!”
“Murdoch stop and think about this,” Scott finally interjected. “We can talk this out and make it work. Just be reasonable.”
“I have been reasonable,” Murdoch growled. He nodded his head toward Johnny. “He’s the one who won’t listen.”
“You don’t need to leave,” Scott tried again. “You have nowhere to go and Lancer is your home.”
“It’s Johnny’s, remember?”
Scott shook his head in frustration. “Why can’t you just TRY and get along? You need to lighten up and work with us instead of trying to run everything. If you did that, this would work.”
“No it wouldn’t,” Murdoch spat. “As long as Johnny’s in charge, we’ll always be arguing.”
“We always argued when you were in charge, Old Man,” Johnny muttered. “God could be in charge and we’d argue.”
Scott shook his head. “Johnny’s right. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge, the two of you have to start working together.”
“It’s too late for that,” Johnny said softly.
Murdoch shook his head. “I can’t work with your brother, Scott. We’ll never get along. You know that, and you agreed with me a lot of the time.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Scott. “What about now? Whose side are you on this time?”
Scott shook his head in frustration. “It isn’t about sides,” Scott protested. “It’s about trying to get along and be a family.” He looked at his brother, who nodded slightly. “None of us want you to leave, but we’re sick of all the arguments,” Scott continued. “I’m tired of always having to take sides and listen to the two of you argue all of the time, usually about stupid things.”
“If your brother would be reasonable, there wouldn’t BE any arguments. But I’ve already told you that. Now make your choice. Me or ...” He looked at Johnny. “your brother.” Murdoch stared at Scott, then turned his gaze on Jelly and Cipriano, daring them to make a choice.
“Murdoch, Johnny’s in charge of this ranch,” Scott protested. “It doesn’t matter whose side I’m on, or who I agree with. He has the final say.”
Murdoch nodded. “I realize that. But maybe if Johnny here is made to realize we all disagree with him, he’ll admit he’s been wrong about everything.” He stared at Johnny confidently. “Go ahead, Scott, make your choice.”
Scott stared at his father for several seconds, then took a deep breath and took a step toward his brother. Cipriano and Jelly slowly followed suit and stood next to their friend.
Murdoch widened in disbelief as he saw what was happening. He stared at his younger son for several seconds, but Johnny’s answering gaze didn’t waver. Finally, Murdoch nodded. “Fine,” he ground out, then turned on his heel and stalked off.
Chapter Fifty One
Scott walked into the house and tossed his hat on the table. He glanced around, hoping his brother was home, but he knew he wouldn’t be. Since Murdoch had left three weeks ago, Johnny had been working himself into his grave, and no one seemed to be able to stop him. Johnny was gone long before Scott awoke in the morning, and he seldom saw him much before ten at night. Johnny would drag himself into the house, gulp down a few bites of food and fall into bed. Scott snorted; half the time Johnny didn’t even make it up the stairs to bed, but slept on the couch.
With a sigh, Scott headed toward the kitchen. Maria had long ago given up on trying to serve supper in the dining room, because no one was ever there. Scott nodded to the housekeeper. “Maria.”
“Senor Scott.” She placed a plate in front of him, then poured some coffee. “Is Senor Johnny home yet?” she asked worriedly.
Scott shook his head. “No. He’s out working on the new barn.” He looked out the window. “I don’t know how he can even see. It’s pitch black outside.”
“You need to talk to him.”
Scott slammed his fist down on the table in an uncharacteristic show of temper. “Don’t you think I’ve tried?”
Maria’s gaze never wavered, and finally Scott dropped his head. “I’m sorry, Maria. I just don’t know what to do.”
“Talk to him, Senor. He will listen to you.”
Scott finally nodded. Maria was right. One way or the other, tomorrow he and his brother was going to talk.
Scott watched as his brother frantically nailed boards together for the new barn. No one else was around; Johnny’s short temper had ensured that everyone was giving him a wide berth. With a sigh, Scott walked over and offered his brother a glass of lemonade he had brought from the house.
It was several seconds before Johnny grabbed it and gulped it down, then handed the empty glass back to his brother without even hesitating in his work. Sweat was pouring off Johnny’s body, and his breathing was hard and ragged. Scott set the glass down and grabbed his brother’s arm. Johnny yanked away without even looking at his brother.
Scott grabbed his arm again, and forced his brother to look at him. “Johnny, Stop!”
“I got work ta do. Now let go of me.”
Johnny stopped and glared at his brother. “I said let go of me,” he snarled.
Scott’s voice was calmer than he felt. “What are you going to do? Hit me? We need to talk.”
Johnny pulled his arm away. “Nothin’ ta talk about.” He started nailing the boards once more.
Scott nodded and turned away. “All right. I just thought you’d want to know I’m leaving.”
Johnny dropped the board and whirled around. “NO!”
Scott looked at his brother in disbelief. “No?”
Johnny’s anger evaporated and his face crumpled. “Scott, you can’t leave,” he said plaintively. “Please.”
Scott shook his head. “Will you talk to me?”
Johnny nodded in defeat, and Scott walked over to a small tree and sat down. After a moment, Johnny followed him. When Johnny was seated, Scott looked at him. “Talk to me, brother.”
Johnny fiddled with his pant leg while he tried to figure out what to say. Finally his head dropped. “I’m just as bad as Murdoch,” he whispered.
“How do you figure?”
Johnny looked at his brother as if he were crazy. “I was so mad at him for puttin’ the ranch first. For chasin’ everybody away ‘cause the ranch meant more to him than we did.”
Johnny raised tortured eyes to his brother. “What do you think I did? I could have just let Murdoch have it back. I could have done what he wanted and he would have stayed. Instead, I chased him away because I wanted this ranch and I wanted to do things my way.” Johnny looked out over the surrounding hills. “Part of me wants to prove the Old Man wrong. I want to make this the most successful ranch in the state.” He hesitated several seconds before continuing. “And part of me hates this place for costin’ me my father. Part of me wants to just walk away and leave it.”
Scott shook his head. “Boy, you sure do a number on yourself, don’t you? Johnny, Murdoch’s leaving wasn’t your fault. It was his choice. HE’S the one that was being unreasonable, not you.”
“I coulda just let him have his way,” Johnny said quietly.
“And he could have gone along with you.”
“Scott, you don’t understand. I did the same thing I was so mad at Murdoch for. I chose the ranch over him.”
“Johnny, you stood up for your rights. That’s all.” He looked at his brother. “But you’d better think about the choices you’re making now.”
Johnny looked at his brother quizzically. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, if you don’t change your attitude, you WILL drive everyone away.”
Johnny sighed deeply. “I want to make this ranch a success. I want to make the Old Man eat his words. That takes a lot of work.”
Scott nodded. “So is that more important to you than your friends and family? You’d better think about it and decide, and you’d better do it soon.”
Johnny looked out at his ranch for several seconds and then his head dropped. “I don’t have to think about it.” He brought his head up and looked at his brother. “I’m, sorry, Scott. I’ll ease up, I promise. Will ya stay?”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know if this is where I belong anymore.”
“Sure it is. I told ya, you can have half.”
“And what happens when we start fighting?”
Johnny smiled. “Then we’ll let Jelly decide.”
Scott smiled back. “That should be interesting.”
Johnny looked at his brother hopefully. “So will ya stay?”
Scott stared at his brother for several seconds. “We’ll give it a try, Ok?”
Johnny grinned. “OK.” He stood up and tossed a piece of wood to his brother. “But ya better get busy before the boss finds out.”
Scott shook his head. “I THINK we need to go into town and have a drink.” He stared at Johnny and waited to see his what his decision would be.
Johnny hesitated, and shot a look at the pile of lumber waiting to be used. Finally he shrugged. “OK. Let’s see if Cip and Jelly want ta go, too.”
Chapter Fifty Two
Johnny and Scott sat outside the saloon, drinks in hand. It was just too hot to sit inside the building, but outside they at least caught a little bit of breeze. Cip and Jelly had decided not to come with them; it was one of those days that even moving was an effort, and the two older men decided the drink just wouldn’t be worth the ride. Right now, Scott thought they might have been right. He and Johnny had each downed three beers, and they still hadn’t completely cooled off.
Johnny propped his boots up on the rail leaned back in his chair. Scott glanced over, and soon copied his brother. A few minutes later, Val walked by and studied the two men. “What’re you two doin’ in town? Never thought I’d see ya again.”
Johnny shrugged. “Been avoidin’ you, I guess.”
“Figures,” Val grumped.
“Are you going to join us?”
Val drew out his watch and squinted at it for several seconds. “I got about twenty more minutes ‘till I’m off.”
“Aw, come on, Val what’s twenty minutes?” Johnny urged.
The sheriff shook his head. “Nope. I can do anything I want on my own time, but the good citizens of Green River just might disapprove of me sittin’ and drinkin’ with a couple of reprobates like you when they’re payin’ me.”
Scott grinned. “All right, Val. I tell you what. Johnny and I will wait for you before we have any more to drink.”
Val nodded curtly. “Good. I’d hate ta have ta run the two of ya in for drunk and disorderly.”
Johnny smiled and lifted his glass to the sheriff, who glared back. “I’ll be back in twenty minutes. You make sure ya have a cold beer waitin’ for me, and I MIGHT not run the two of you in.”
Scott watched as the sheriff walked off, then leaned back in his chair once more. Twenty minutes later to the second, Val strode up and plopped down in an empty chair and assumed an identical position as his two friends. He reached down and unhooked his badge, then slipped it into his pocket. “No sense upsettin’ the local busybodies.”
Johnny nodded. “Smart move.” He passed Val a cold glass of beer, and Val gratefully took a long swallow.
A half of an hour later, Johnny glanced over at Val. “Hey, you see those three guys?”
Val and Scott both looked around until they spotted three strangers who had ridden into town from the opposite direction.
“Yep,” Val answered.
“They don’t look like they’re exactly model citizens,” Johnny observed.
“Nope,” the sheriff agreed.
The three man watched as the strangers looked nervously around, then started sauntering casually over in the direction of Osgill’s bank.
Val sat up straight, his boots hitting the boardwalk with a thud, and he watched the men suspiciously.
“Think they’re going to rob the bank?” Scott asked, as he too sat up.
“Maybe,” Johnny answered as he kept his eyes glued on the strangers.
Val continued watching, then without taking his eyes off of the suspects, he leaned toward his friends. “Do you have any money in Osgill’s bank?”
Scott looked at him quizzically, but Johnny grinned. “Nope. It’s safely in the bank in Spanish Wells.”
Val nodded. “Any of your friends have money in there?” he asked calmly.
Johnny’s grin grew wider. “Nope. Most of the people around here were pretty upset with old Osgill after he pulled that stunt with Murdoch. ‘Bout the only ones who left their money in his bank were the ones that were on his side ta begin with.”
Val nodded slowly. “That’s what I thought, but I just wanted ta make sure.”
Scott looked back and forth between his brother and the sheriff in confusion. “What are you two talking about?”
Johnny shrugged. ”Val was just decidin’ if he was still off duty or not.”
Val nodded. “And I’ve decided I’m definitely off duty.” He put his feet back up on the rail and leaned back again.
Scott thought for a moment, the glanced down the street in the direction the strangers had disappeared. After a moment, he smiled and copied Val.
Johnny nodded and eased back once more, calmly sipping his beer.
When the gunshots came several minutes later, none of the men even moved. They watched casually as the three strangers bolted for their horses, canvas bags in hand. The robbers jumped on their horses and hightailed it out of town, the dust billowing out behind them.
Several minutes later, Osgill came running up the street, shouting. He saw the sheriff and changed his direction, and ran frantically up to the three men, who were calmly nursing their drinks.
“Sheriff! Those men just robbed my bank!” he panted.
“What men?” Val asked calmly.
Osgill’s eyes bugged out. “The men that just rode past you!”
Val took a sip of his beer and looked at Johnny. “Did you see anybody?”
“Nope. Never saw a soul.” Johnny glanced at his brother. “See anybody, Scott?”
Scott shook his head and took a drink. “No, I can’t say that I did.”
Osgill’s eyes narrowed. “Yes you did,” he said accusingly. He stared at Val. “You’re the sheriff! It’s your job to go after those bank robbers!”
Val shook his head. “Not when I’m off duty.” He grinned at Osgill. “If I remember correctly, you’re the one who convinced the town council that I shouldn’t be paid to work full time. You said all my sheriffin’ could be done during regular office hours.”
“SHERIFF! They robbed my bank! They took every cent, and if I don’t get it back, I’m ruined! I’ll be penniless! Sheriff Crawford, PLEASE!”
Osgill gave up on the sheriff and turned to looked at Johnny and Scott. “Certainly the two of you aren’t going to just sit there while I lose everything!” he pleaded.
Johnny looked at Scott, who shrugged. Johnny looked back at Osgill. “Yep, I guess we are.”
“I’ll be RUINED!”
Johnny nodded slowly. “Yep, I guess you will. But if ya need a job, we might consider hirin’ ya.” He looked at the banker speculatively. “Know any thing about pigs?”
Chapter Fifty Three
Scott sat at the massive desk and looked out at the rolling hills surrounding the hacienda. The grass on the hillside was lush and green and the cattle were grazing peacefully. The familiar sound of the ranch that came floating in on the soft breeze was music to his soul. Cattle lowing, the shouts of men, horses whinnying; all of the sounds that were a part of his life.
He spun his chair around and glanced at the neat column of numbers in the worn ledger. This year had been the best ever, and the Lancer Ranch was as successful as any ranch in the country. With a smile he shut the book and placed it in the desk drawer on top of a dozen contracts.
Scott smiled as he thought of those first shaky years. For a long time after he and Johnny had taken over it hadn’t looked like they would make it, but the Lancers were nothing if not stubborn, and gradually the ranch started showing a profit. Since then, the profits had steadily risen every year, and the last three years the money had literally poured in. The ranch was over double in size than it had been when Murdoch had been in charge, and money worries were a thing of the past.
Scott shook his head when he thought of his father, and he wondered where the Old Man was, or if he was even still alive. It had been nearly six years since Murdoch had left, and they hadn’t heard from him even once. It had been hardest on Johnny, and he knew his little brother still felt some guilt over Murdoch’s leaving, but no one had blamed him. It had been Murdoch’s choice, and Johnny had done nothing wrong. Scott still wished it had worked, and he knew Johnny did, too, but it had been doomed from the start. For a long time after he left they had expected Murdoch to show up, but it had never happened, and now it was unlikely that it ever would.
Those first few years, Johnny had been a man driven to succeed, although he had been careful not to repeat his father’s mistakes. He was the only one he drove, and he had proven to be a fair and popular boss although he was no pushover. In the last six years, Johnny had matured and grown from a hot headed gunfighter into a respected and very successful rancher. Johnny Madrid had faded away over the years to be firmly replaced by Johnny Lancer.
Scott shook his head. Murdoch had been so wrong about Johnny. He had been wrong about everything. Johnny had proven himself to everyone, including himself. The irony was not lost on Scott. Murdoch would be proud of his younger son now, now that it was too late. Johnny had become one of the most successful ranchers in the country.
After a lot of discussion, and with Scott’s blessing, Johnny had gone with his instincts and concentrated on horses those first few years. He had finally built up one of the best herds of cutting horses in the country, but it hadn’t been easy.
Before his prime stock had matured, Johnny had worked hard to gain a permanent contract with the army. He had supplied them with horses from the wild herds on the ranch that he had broken himself. In those years, Johnny had rounded up and broken hundreds of horses, and had finally been able to hire several top horsemen to help him. The gentle broke horses had been sought after by the army officers, and now Lancer supplied horses to all of the forts this side of the Rockies. Ranches all over the country also bought top quality horses from them, both for working and as breeding stock.
When the bottom had fallen out of the cattle market three years ago, Lancer had survived and even thrived because of the horses. While most of the ranches had been forced to sell out, Lancer had expanded. They had purchased several adjoining ranches that had failed, including some top farmland. They had been able to buy prime cattle for a fraction of their worth, and although it had been slow, they now had huge herds of all prime beef. Johnny had taken his father’s advice and purchased several Hereford bulls and used them as their foundation, and other ranches came to them for breeding stock. Murdoch’s dream had come true, but it had been because Johnny had done it his way. If they had gone with cattle only, Lancer would have been bankrupt.
Scott had never regretted staying with his brother on the ranch. He had resigned his position as state senator and thrown himself into helping Johnny make Lancer a success. The two of them made a good team; Scott had handled the contracts and the money, and he had overseen the building of the dam that had given them double the pastureland they had had previously. Scott had also been in charge of the limited logging and mining operations they had decided to do.
Johnny had managed the rest of the ranch, and had been in charge of the animals and the hired hands. Both brothers still worked next to the men, although as the ranch had grown it had been harder and harder to find time. Most of the time they were tied up supervising and keeping the ranch running smoothly, and taking care of the numerous emergencies that always seemed to come up on a ranch this size.
Despite Scott’s doubts, he and Johnny had never fought; not even once. Scott smiled; he wasn’t sure if it was because he and Johnny just naturally got along or because they were both scared to death of letting Jelly make a decision. Whatever the reason, Scott was thankful he at least still had his brother.
Scott looked out of the window once more. Every night he gave thanks for his family and for his life. He had a wife and little girl, he was wealthier than he had ever dreamed of being, and he had his brother who he loved and admired. Jelly, Maggie, Cipriano and Maria were family, and he had numerous other trusted friends. The only regret he had was that his father wasn’t here to be a part of this family. Scott slammed his fist down on the desk. If only Murdoch hadn’t been so difficult. If only he hadn’t had to have his way about everything. If only he had given them a chance to be a family. If only he had been reasonable and willing to listen to his sons. If only…
Murdoch shifted nervously in his seat. As he watched the still familiar landscape roll by, he thought about the first time he had ever seen this land, and how beautiful he had thought it was. He still thought it was the most beautiful place on the face of the earth, but it was no longer his. He had lost it because of his own stupidity and stubborn pride, but his sons still owned it. It was still Lancer land.
It had only been the last few years that he had slowly come to the realization of what a fool he had been. Those first years after he had left Lancer he had been eaten up with anger. He had cursed his sons for taking his ranch away from him and for kicking him out, and he had turned into a hard, bitter old man. Murdoch snorted. Old man. How he had hated it when Johnny had called him that. It had been a little too close to the truth for Murdoch’s liking, although now he realized that, at least most of the time, Johnny had said it with love. It was only that first day in the Great room and at the very end that Johnny had flung the words at him in spite. And whose fault was that? Murdoch sighed and shifted once more. He hadn’t ridden in a buggy in years, and the seats had become more uncomfortable than ever.
He reached over and squeezed the hand of the woman sitting next to him. She looked up at him and smiled, and he thanked God once more for her. She had saved his life; she had saved his soul. He had been drowning in hate and self loathing, and she had fought her way through and rescued him from his hell. It had taken a long time, and through it all she had wisely kept her accusations to herself, but gradually he had come to see the error of his ways. Whenever he would curse and rail against his sons, she would quietly point out their side of the argument. When he had stormed against the unfairness of it all, she had made him see whose fault it really was. It had taken time, but he had finally realized just what he had done; just what he had thrown away. The loss of the ranch no longer hurt, but the loss of his sons was a pain that would never heal.
He dropped his head as he remembered once more how badly he had treated his younger son. The accusations and curses he had hurled at him that last day still reverberated in his mind. He could remember with frightening clarity the hurt on Johnny’s face as each word had been flung at him. His son hadn’t deserved that. Why couldn’t Murdoch realize that at the time? Why had he always been so hard on the boy? He knew even then that his son was doing his level best to make things work; not only for the ranch, but for them. What had driven Murdoch to be so difficult?
He dropped his head, knowing the answer. Johnny had frightened him. Not his prowess with the gun, or his temper. No, it was Johnny’s ideas that frightened him. Murdoch was comfortable with the way things were. It was proof he was needed, proof he was a success. Johnny’s ideas threatened to turn everything upside down. That, and the fear that he really was an old man combined to make Murdoch desperate to hang on to the old ways. Prove to Johnny and to everyone else that he was still needed; still useful. That they COULDN’T get along without him. But in the end it had turned on him horribly. The simple truth was they could get along just fine without him. They didn’t need him. He was the one who needed them. Only he had lost them, perhaps forever. He gazed out the small window once more. They were getting close.
It had taken the last of his money to come here. He had gambled everything and taken a chance that his boys wouldn’t turn their backs on family. If Scott and Johnny refused him… he shook his head. He knew his sons wouldn’t refuse to let Teresa stay. He glanced down at the young woman’s belly. Not when she was with child. He knew that no matter how much they hated him, they wouldn’t punish Teresa for his sins. He might have to leave, probably would in fact. But at least he would know she was safe.
The buggy topped the rise and he took in the scene below him: the grazing cattle, the corrals full of horses, the new barn. It was obvious that whoever owned the ranch had made it prosper, and the knowledge that he had been wrong was once more driven home. Over the years the Lancer ranch had prospered greatly, and it was common knowledge it was one of the biggest and most successful ranches in the nation. He had finally admitted to himself that he was glad that his sons had shown him up. He was proud of them, and the fact that they were so successful made his heart swell with pride.
He glanced over at the woman once more and she squeezed his hand reassuringly as he dropped his head. He had failed her, too. She had needed help so badly after the accident, but he hadn’t been able to support her. He had barely been able to support himself all these years. It was Teresa that suggested they come here, and she had insisted he come with her. He hadn’t wanted to; he had been so afraid of the reception. But now it was too late, and in a few minutes he would know, one way or the other.
The buggy passed underneath the familiar arch and turned toward the house. It pulled to a stop in the courtyard, and he slowly got down. He reached up to help Teresa down, and she clumsily scrambled out of the buggy. They stood together, trying to gain courage from each other to face what was to come. Murdoch heard a door open, and he turned slowly in that direction and locked eyes on his younger son.
The two men stared at each other for several seconds, and then Johnny’s eyes darted toward Teresa. His eyes widened for a moment, and Johnny turned back toward Murdoch questioningly.
Murdoch put a protective hand on Teresa’s back. “Teresa’s husband was killed a month ago, and she had no where else to go.” His head dropped. “I…I couldn’t support her, and I was wondering…” Murdoch’s voice trailed off and he studied the ground before looking at his son, fear and hope both warring in his eyes.
Johnny’s eyes skimmed Teresa and gave her a soft smile, then the smile faded and his eyes came back to rest on his father. “What about you?” he asked quietly.
Murdoch shrugged and dropped his head. “I can’t expect you to take me in.” He looked around and smiled sadly. “You’ve done a good job here, son, and I’m proud of you. I was wrong, about a lot of things, and I’m sorry for the way I treated you. I…I just wanted to tell you that. If you would let Teresa stay, I’d be grateful.”
Johnny continued to stare into his father’s eyes for a moment, then a small smile appeared on his lips. “Welcome home, Old Man, we’ve missed you.”