Unfinished Business
by  Kathy S.

 

Disclaimer: The Lancer name and characters are the creation of others. This story is written for entertainment purposes only; no infringement of the creatorís copyright is intended.

PROLOGUE

The dark-skinned teenager lifted his head and listened intently to the sounds beyond the crackling campfire. "Mr. Reynolds," he whispered. "Someoneís out there."

Slowly, the middle-aged man rolled over on his blanket. "Youíre imagining things, kid."

"No, SeŮor." The teenager crouched and pulled his pistol from the worn gun belt strapped to his hip. His thin hand curled around the grip, and he squeezed his index finger against the trigger until it was snug.

"Go back to sleep," the man said in a loud, irritated voice.

"Youíre paying me to protect you and your money. And Iím telling you, thereís somebody sneaking up on us." The boy crept away from the wavering flames and edged toward the darkness.

"Come back here."

"Quiet!" The teenager stopped moving and tried to catch the direction of the intruderís footsteps. He pushed the poncho away from his gun arm, while his eyes probed the night.

The man grumbled and rose from his bedroll, coughing as he did. He tossed another piece of wood on the fire, which sent a swirl of sparks flying.

A twig snapped to the teenagerís right, and he whirled with his gun thrust forward. "Show yourself!"

The metallic click of a gun cocking filled the night air. In response, the teenager dropped to the ground and fired once. A second later, he heard a man scream, followed by a thud. "Stay here, Mr. Reynolds. Iím going to check on him, to make sure he donít bother you no more."

Cautiously, the boy moved into the darkness, slowly advancing in the direction he had fired. "Found him, Mr. Reynolds. Heís still alive."

At the sound of another pair of footsteps in the darkness, the boyís head jerked up from the injured man. "Step into the light!"

Two shots rang out in rapid succession. The first one whizzed harmlessly past the teenagerís head, but the second bullet tore into his gut. Staggering, the boy fired one shot and fell forward. The last thing he heard was Mr. Reynoldsí coughing.

 

PART 1

Johnny Lancer used his hat to brush some of the dust from his pants and shirt, but a weekís accumulation of dirt from the trail had hopelessly soiled his clothes. It also had not helped that an hour earlier, a wagon passing by the stockyard had splattered him with mud.

Looking up at the carved sign for the Sacramento Cattlemenís Inn, he muttered to himself, "Looks pretty fancy for cattlemen." The brass lanterns mounted on either side of the front door were more elaborate than any he had ever seen before. For a second, he hesitated before entering. Murdoch said this is his favorite place in town and he wants to stay here.

The trip to the Annual Cattlemenís Convention had been planned for months, and Murdoch insisted they all attend. So, Scott and Johnny spent the last week leading Murdochís prized bull, Hercules, from Lancer to its intended destinationóthe Sacramento stockyardsówhere the animal would be sold at auction. The brothers had made good time and arrived a day early. Murdoch would come on tomorrowís stage and inspect the bull. Johnny grinned, remembering his fatherís words, "Take it easy and try not to work all the weight off him." The old man sure is proud of that bull.

Johnny entered the lobby and studied the ornate draperies, potted ferns, and upholstered chairs that furnished the richly paneled room. With his spurs jingling, the former gunfighter strolled across the burgundy carpet to the registration desk. His eyes swept over the other men in the lobby, noting a group of suited, older men gathered around a bearded gentleman who leaned on a black walking stick with a silver top. The bearded man seemed to be telling an amusing story, for the other men laughed and slapped him on the back. The clerk behind the counter sorted messages into slots along the rear wall, his back turned to Johnny.

"Excuse me," Johnny said, waiting for the clerk to acknowledge him.

The man slowly turned and regarded Johnny over the top of his spectacles. The collar of his starched shirt fit snug against his neck, and the manís face wore a pinched expression.

Johnny wondered how the clerk could breathe with the top button of his shirt done up so tight. "Need two rooms for a couple of nights."

"Weíre full." The clerk returned to the mail.

"Thereís got to be at least one room available." Johnny drummed his fingers against the counter.

"Look, cowboy. All our rooms are taken for the Cattlemenís Convention."

"Thatís why Iím here." Johnny felt his patience slipping and willed himself to stay calm.

"Only rooms we have are for members with cards, and I donít imagine you have one."

Pushing his hat off his head so it hung by its chinstrap down his back, Johnny exhaled slowly. He did not like the clerkís tone of voice, but since Murdoch had not mentioned anything about needing a card, he could not object.

"Reckon I donít have a card, but my old man will be arriving tomorrow and he may have one." At this point, Johnny did not care whether they stayed at this place, and with each passing moment, he decided he would prefer not to be a guest there.

The men who had been swapping stories were now staring in his direction. Silence fell over the lobby, and only the ticking of the massive grandfather clock broke the quiet.

"Weíll still be full tomorrow, cowboy. Try down by the stockyards." The clerk tapped a bell on the counter and signaled for a bellhop. "Room 203 needs a newspaper brought up when they are delivered."

Johnny figured he had been dismissed. He resented the clerkís attitude and would have told him so, but Murdoch had talked so much about the hotel that Johnny decided not to make a scene. With one glance at the group of men, he put his hat back on his head and left.

Outside the Cattlemenís Inn, Johnnyís tension eased and his muscles relaxed. He and Scott would find a room elsewhere. Maybe Murdoch has a card and can straighten things out tomorrow. He thought about searching for a rooming house, but he had to get back to Scott to let him know where to take the bull. In his brief time in the bustling city, Johnny had arranged for a pen for Hercules and stalls for the horses. The former gunfighter had even located a good place for dinner. The only thing he had not completed was securing a room for the night. As he rode out of town, Johnny was pleased with how well the trip was going so far. Except for the room, he had taken care of all their needs in Sacramento.

***

Scott spotted the palomino loping easily toward him and noted Johnnyís relaxed posture. He was relieved to see his younger brother and impressed with the natural grace of the dark-haired man on the golden horse. Scott had to admit that he was sorry their trip to Sacramento was ending. The last week on the trail with Johnny had given him time alone with the brother that until a year ago he never knew he had.

"Almost there, Brother," Johnny said, reining Barranca alongside Scottís horse.

"Iím ready to be out of this saddle." Scott glanced at the bull trailing behind him. "And I think Hercules is getting tired of following. Heís tried to gore my horse twice now."

"Heís probably looking forward to all those new heifers heís about to meet."

"A bull canít tell whatís ahead," Scott said, laughing at his brotherís remark.

"Animals got a sixth sense about things, and they know how to read people. Youíve been telling him all day that things are going to change."

Scott frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Take the way youíre holding the lead rope. All week long, youíve held it with your hand on your leg, nice and easy. When I left this morning, you were gripping it against the saddle horn like you were afraid old Hercules here would pull you out of the saddle. Animals notice things like that."

Glancing down at his hand, Scott realized Johnny was right. He chuckled and relaxed his hold on the lead rope, dropping his hand to his thigh. "And you notice details like that too."

With a gleam in his eyes, Johnny leaned over and removed a piece of grass from Scottís hatband. "Noticing little things can save your life."

"Quite right." Scott reflected on the truth of Johnnyís statement and wondered how many times in his brotherís turbulent life attention to some small movement or detail had meant the difference between life or death.

"Well, somebody has to keep an eye on you," Johnny said.

Scottís head jerked to face his brother. Did he hear Murdoch tell me to keep on eye on him? Murdoch had been worried about Johnnyís experience in Sacramento, and Scott recalled his fatherís directions vividly.

"Scott," Murdoch said, "you were raised in Boston and understand big city ways. Johnny grew up in border towns and drifted through places that donít have much more than one saloon. Sacramento isnít what heís used to. I want you to keep an eye on him."

Those words had been ringing in Scottís ears when Johnny set off alone for Sacramento this morning, and Scott had worried the entire time his brother was gone. On the trail, their days had fallen into a regular pattern with Scott leading the bull and Johnny riding ahead in the early afternoon to scout campsites for the evening. Johnny would set up camp, hunt for dinner, get the fire going, and have the coffee ready when Scott led the bull into camp at the end of the day. So when they were close to Sacramento, they continued their routine of Johnny riding ahead to take care of arrangements. Scott was certain Murdoch would not have approved.

"Are we all set for the night?" Scott watched his brother lower his head and knew something had gone wrong.

"Checked out the stockyards like Murdoch wanted, but they wereÖ" Johnny seemed to be struggling to find the right word. "Iíll show you when we get into town, but thereís no way Hercules belongs there."

Scott respected Johnnyís concern for animals and trusted his assessment. A week on the trail together had shown Scott many aspects of Johnnyís survival skills and animal knowledge. "So, whereís he going to stay?"

His brotherís expression brightened and his enthusiasm was obvious. "Found a nice place on the outskirts of town run by a father and son. They even have a mean guard dog, so no one can get near Hercules without them knowing."

Scott nodded. "And what about our horses?"

"Got a place closer to Main Street. Small barn with two empty stalls. The owner only has two horses of his own but takes good care of them. Thick straw on the floor. Nice shine on his horsesí coats. Seems like a decent place."

Scott knew Johnny was not telling him everything. "And?"

"Well, Brother. You might not like it, but the horses will." Johnny paused, grinning with a lopsided smile. "Itís the undertakerís place. I had to promise to come by everyday and talk to him for a few minutes. Never reckoned Iíd be swapping stories with an undertaker, but heís lonely."

The brothers laughed together, and Scott shook his head at the thought of Johnny striking a deal with the undertaker. Murdoch would not approve of this either.

"Checked out a place for dinner too," Johnny said.

"You ate already?" A week of his brotherís cooking had Scott ready for a meal he could identify.

"How else was I gonna know if the foodís any good?"

A cluster of buildings loomed ahead, and Scott figured they were entering the edge of town. Murdoch might not be pleased with the arrangements, but Johnny had managed to survive his first trip into Sacramento and taken care of their needs. Hercules bellowed once and tugged on the lead rope, but Scott held tight.

"Did you get our rooms?" Scott studied his brotherís crestfallen expression and evasive eyes, and again he knew there must have been a problem. "What happened?"

"That Cattlemenís Inn is one fancy hotel. Never seen a place like that before." Johnnyís voice was wistful.

"Murdoch sure spoke highly of it," Scott said. He knew from Johnnyís tone that his brother must have been impressed.

"Itís full, Scott. They said the only rooms left are for folks with cards."

Furrowing his brow, Scott reviewed his fatherís detailed directions, but he did not recall any mention of a card being required. It sounded suspicious, and Scott wondered if this was what Murdoch had meant about Sacramento being different.

"Did you tell them who you are?" Scott tried to keep his voice light.

"No. Would it make a difference?"

"Maybe. Murdoch said he wired the Inn for them to hold three rooms for us."

"He didnít tell me that." Johnnyís voice held a trace of regret.

"After we get the animals settled, weíll try the Inn again. Once they know weíre Murdochís sons, weíll probably have no problem getting rooms."

"Okay." Johnny sounded less than enthusiastic.

They rode in silence, and Scott wondered if there was something more his brother was not telling him.

"Over to the right," Johnny said, pointing to a modest farmhouse. "Thatís the Anders place."

As they lead Hercules toward the corral by the house, a scruffy black dog charged at them, barking and baring its teeth. Scottís horse shied and Hercules pawed the ground, but Johnny jumped lightly from his horse.

"Careful, Johnny. He could take your hand off."

"Good dog, Buster." Johnny knelt, and the dog wagged its tail, while butting its head against Johnnyís chest. Rising, the former gunfighter motioned to Scott. "Bring Hercules over to the corral."

Eyeing the dog, Scott slowly swung his leg over the saddle to dismount. The bull bellowed again and backed away, pulling on the lead rope, while the dog growled and its hackles rose. Scott glared at this brother.

"Buster, down." Johnnyís voice was firm and commanding. The dog skulked to Johnnyís side and laid down.

Mr. Anders and his son, Bobby, emerged from a shed beyond the corral. The thin man wiped his hands on his baggy overalls and smiled, exposing a row of crooked front teeth. "Welcome," Mr. Anders called. "Buster, in the house." The large dog padded away.

"Mighty fine bull," Mr. Anders said, warmly shaking Johnnyís hand and nodding at Scott. "Bobby and I aim to take good care of him." He ambled around the massive bull and whistled. "Never seen one like this before. Look at the size of him."

Scott led Hercules to the small, fenced enclosure and removed the rope halter. The bull lumbered into the corral and circled the confined space.

"Sorry it ainít bigger," Anders said. "Are you sure this fence is gonna hold him?"

Johnny and Scott exchanged glances and smiled. The blond draped the lead rope over the wooden railing and pulled on the nearest fence post. The wood did not budge, and Scott chuckled. "Mr. Anders, Hercules is the most gentle bull you will ever see. This fence will hold him just fine."

The young boy inched closer to Johnny, and Scott recognized the look of adulation on the youngsterís freckled face. "Mr. Johnny," Bobby said, "me and Buster gonna stand guard for you."

"I want you to be real careful, Bobby." Johnny crouched and looked into the boyís eyes. "Hercules is big, bigger than most bulls. He is gentle like Scott said, but his horns are sharp. He might not mean to, but he could hurt you easy." Johnny rose and went to his saddlebags, removing a small package, which he tossed to Bobby.

The boy opened it and grinned in wide-eyed delight. "Licorice! Thank you, Mr. Johnny."

Scott watched his brother tousle the boyís sun-bleached hair and slip a few dollars to Mr. Anders. As they mounted to leave, Scott began to worry if turning Hercules over to this family was what Murdoch would want. "You sure about this, Johnny?"

His brother only smiled and said, "Follow me." Johnny urged Barranca into a jog, turning in the saddle to wave at Bobby.

 

After seeing the muddy conditions at the stockyard, Scott had to agree the Anders farm was a better arrangement.

"Flies thicker than Teresaís stew," Johnny said, shaking his head in disapproval at the stockyard.

"Teresa might not appreciate that comparison."

"Well, donít tell her. I like to eat her stew, not wear it." Johnnyís blue eyes sparkled.

Scott followed Johnny, who guided Barranca down an alley near the heart of downtown Sacramento. Scott was amazed at how quickly his brother had learned his way around the city. Maybe Murdoch underestimated Johnnyís time in big cities.

"You know, Scott, thereís a store here that only sells sweets."

Scott smiled at the awe in Johnnyís voice. "We had a candy shop in Boston, and every week Iíd get a dime to buy whatever I wanted."

At Johnnyís silence, Scott realized his brother did not have similar childhood memories. They had grown up in such different situations; one in plenty, one in poverty. "Maybe you can take me there tomorrow before Murdochís stage gets in," Scott suggested.

"Sure," Johnny said softly. Dismounting outside a barn behind a two-story wooden building, Johnny handed Barrancaís reins to Scott. "This may take a few minutes. Mr. Jamerson is a talker. Most undertakers Iíve ever met ainít much on gabbing, but Mr. Jamerson ainít like them. Take the horses into the barn and get them settled."

Johnny sauntered to the back door of the building and knocked. A balding man met him at the door, and Scott watched his brother disappear into the undertakerís establishment.

I know about candy shops and Johnny knows about undertakers. Scott shook his head, regretting yet again that they had lived such different lives. He led the horses past a polished hearse and into the small barn. Two black horses whinnied as he entered, and Johnnyís palomino snorted in response. Scott smelled the fresh hay and noticed the healthy sheen on the black coats of the resident horses. This does look like a good stable. Murdoch might not understand, but Johnny did a good job in finding this place.

By the time Johnny left the undertakerís building, Scott had finished brushing both horses.

"Ready to go, Scott?"

After one look at the wan expression on his brotherís face, Scott bit his lip. "Is everything okay?"

"Talking about dead men and sitting across from one under a sheet takes the edge off a manís appetite. And the smellÖ" Wrinkling his nose, Johnny cast a sideways glance at Scott and grinned. "Speaking of smells, thereís a bathhouse near here."

"Are you suggesting I need a bath, Little Brother?" Scott attempted an appearance of mock indignation, but wound up laughing instead. When the laughter subsided, he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. "We probably should go to the Cattlemenís Inn. Iím sure theyíll have a tub room there. Do you know how to get us to the Inn from here?"

"Yes." With his shoulders slumped, Johnny led the way from the undertakerís barn, through several back alleys, and emerged across from a grand building with towering columns.

Scott whistled, impressed with the faÁade of the structure. It was statelier than he expected, rivaling many of the finest hotels in Boston. "Murdoch wasnít fooling when he said it was elegant."

Without a word, Johnny shuffled across the street. He began scrapping his boots against an iron bar mounted outside the Inn for that purpose. "Why donít you go on in, Scott, while I try to get rid of some of this mud?"

"Donít take too long. I think that tub is calling your name." Scott slapped his brotherís back and winked at him.

Inside the hotel, Scott moved swiftly to the mahogany registration desk. "Two rooms for Lancer." He spoke with authority and watched the clerkís reaction.

"Certainly, Sir." The man behind the counter flipped through a stack of registration cards. "I have a Murdoch Lancer and two sons."

"Yes, thatís correct." Scott glanced around the lobby, admiring the crystal chandelier and the paintings adorning the walls. He heard the main door open and watched Johnny enter with his hat in his hand.

The clerk looked up from the register and narrowed his eyes. "Excuse me, Mr. Lancer." The man hurried around the counter and approached Johnny. "I told you, weíre full."

Scott stepped to his brotherís side and glared at the clerk. "Is there a problem here?"

"Iím sorry, Mr. Lancer. I was just explaining to this cowboy that we have no room for him."

Scott detected a note of arrogance in the manís last word. "This is my brother, and you just told me you were expecting Murdoch Lancer and his two sons."

Flustered, the clerk returned to the counter and ran a finger down the registration list. He glanced around the room nervously. "Let me get the manager." He disappeared into an office.

"Scott, I can find another place," Johnny said quietly, twisting the hat in his hands.

Scottís annoyance at the clerk grew. His brother was clearly uncomfortable and with good reason. "We are staying here."

The manager emerged from the office and eyed the Lancer brothers. "Iím sorry for the inconvenience, Sir, but we seem to be one room short for your registration." He spoke directly to Scott, never making eye contact with Johnny.

"Thatís fine," Scott said. "My brother and I will share a room, and our father will take the other one when he gets in tomorrow." He returned the manís stare and adopted the haughty attitude he had seen his grandfather use many times. "Tell the concierge to have hot water drawn for two baths, and a box of cigars brought to our room immediately."

The manager cleared his throat. "We donít have a concierge, but Iíll be glad to take care of your requests."

"What? No concierge!" Scott turned to Johnny. "Can you imagine that?" He saw the puzzled expression on his brotherís face and hoped he would play along.

"No. Hard to believe." Johnny sounded startled, but quickly put on his best poker face.

"That simply would be unacceptable in Boston," Scott said in a pompous voice.

"Iím sorry, Sir. Perhaps a complimentary bottle of champagne might help?"

"Perhaps." Enjoying himself, Scott played the role of the overbearing critic. "Has our trunk arrived?"

The manager prodded the clerk in the ribs. "Oh, yes, Mr. Lancer. It arrived two days ago. Weíll have it brought to your room, along with the cigars and champagne."

"Good man," Scott said, taking the key and stomping to the grand staircase.

Johnny tagged along behind him. When they were out of the clerkís hearing range, Johnny whispered, "Whatís a conÖ a conseeÖ"

"A concierge," Scott said. "Thatís one of several things I need to tell you about a place like this." Scott was beginning to understand what Murdoch meant by keeping an eye on Johnny.

***

After a shave and an extended soak in the hotelís tub, Johnny was ready for dinner. "Come on, Scott. You look plenty smart already."

Scott ran the comb through his blond hair and finished buttoning his shirt. "Iím glad Murdoch suggested having our clothes sent here by freight. I never knew a clean shirt could feel so good."

"Well, Brother. Now that you look good, feel good, and smell good, letís go spread some of those pretty-boy charms around Sacramento." Johnny was ready to get out of the Cattlemenís Inn and find a friendlier place to spend time. He understood what had gone wrong with the registration. One look at the clerkís face the first time he tried to register told him that the Mexican part of his heritage was not welcome here. It wasnít the first time it had happened and he knew it wouldnít be the last. At least he didnít call me a half-breed in front of Scott. Johnny had learned to ignore the malicious comments, but he resented having his brother exposed to such hate on his account.

"Meet you outside," Johnny said.

"Iíll be behind you in just a minute.í Scott sat down to put on his boots.

Johnny nodded and left the room, determined to make the best of the trip. He descended the curved staircase slowly, his eyes noting details about the lobby and the people lounging in the over-stuffed chairs. He studied a tall man in a tweed suit leaning against the wall near the entrance to the card room. Johnny was certain the bulge of his left lapel concealed a shoulder holster. Hired gun. Dressed like a dandy and hiding his gun. Johnnyís hand instinctively checked his pistol for a smooth release. It was a small motion, not intended to startle anyone, but the man in tweed had spotted the movement and pushed away from the wall. Johnny gave him an easy smile and tipped his hat.

Lowering his newspaper, a bearded man seated in a nearby winged-back chair glanced at the man in tweed and then at Johnny. "What is it, Will?"

"Looks like theyíll let anyone in here, Mr. Lowry," Will said.

Johnny chose to ignore his comment and walked across the lobby. His eyes paused on Mr. Lowry, recognizing him as the man with the walking stick from earlier in the day. The bearded man raised his newspaper abruptly, and Johnnyís gaze flashed past him to the dandy hired gun. You can dress him up, but heís no different than me. Than I was. As Johnny left the hotel, he reminded himself that he was no longer Johnny Madrid. That was the past, and it was best to put it behind him.

Waiting on the sidewalk outside the Cattlemenís Inn, Johnny watched the horse-drawn carriages rush by and paced impatiently. Come on, Scott. Something was bothering Johnny, but he could not put a name on it. The uneasiness that he had missed some detail was worrying him. He rapped his fingers against his leg, growing more annoyed at his inability to determine what was wrong. By the time Scott stepped out of the hotel, Johnny was in a dark mood.

"What happened to you?" Scott put a hand on Johnnyís shoulder.

"Iím hungry," Johnny snapped. "Letís go." At the surprised expression on his brotherís face, he stopped. "Sorry, Scott. This place is making me jumpy, I guess."

"Relax, Little Brother. This is my kind of town, and Iíll make sure you have a good time."

"Think you can do that?" Johnny shook off his gloominess and grinned. "Where we going for this good time?"

Scott looked up and down the busy street. "Well..."

Laughing, Johnny started walking away from the Cattlemenís Inn. "Told you I already found a good place for dinner. Are you coming?"

They turned down a side street, crossed a busy intersection, and followed an alley to an older part of Sacramento. The buildings were smaller, more weather-beaten, and some had boarded-up windows. There were fewer people along the street and those they did see scurried by without looking up.

"What kind of place are you taking us to, Johnny?"

"One with the best beer in town." Johnny rubbed his hands together. "After a week with Hercules, and the next few days with Murdoch and his cronies, figure we deserve a round or two."

"I thought you were hungry."

"Did I tell you they have the best food too?" Johnny enjoyed the banter with his brother and reflected on the easy relationship that had developed between them. The week together on the trail had given him time to learn more about Scottís past and share carefully selected stories from his own background. It still puzzled him that his blond brother could listen to some of the sordid details of Johnnyís border town life and not judge him harshly.

Pausing outside a brightly painted, blue door, Johnny flashed a smile at Scott. "Here we are. Anders swears itís the best place in Sacramento."

"And you believe him?" Scottís eyes roved over the exterior of the old building they stood before, stopping at the sign for the Good Eats Saloon. "It does look a little better than the other dumps around here."

Scottís tone roused a sense of defensiveness in Johnny, and the need for his brotherís approval surfaced again. "Anders is a good man and knows this town," Johnny said. The place was better than most Johnny had visited in the past in other towns.

Scottís answer came too quickly. "Iím sure his recommendation will be fine."

With a sigh, Johnny placed his hand on the doorknob. "If you donít like it here, weíll find somewhere else."

"Johnny." Scott grabbed Johnnyís arm. "I didnít mean anything. Itís just that this part of Sacramento makes me nervous."

Johnnyís eyes met his brotherís and saw the concern in his gaze. "Donít worry, Scott. Youíre with me. What could go wrong?" Johnny patted the holster on his hip. "You gonna buy the first round?"

Before Scott could respond, Johnny swung the door open and entered the saloon. A wave of warm air washed over him, fresh with the scent of baked bread and beer. The lighting was dim and he quickly surveyed the room, recognizing that old habits die hard.

A voice from the far corner rose above the buzz of conversation in the room. "Johnny Madrid!"

Scottís quick intake of air vaguely registered in Johnnyís mind. The former gunfighterís full attention was directed across the room at the voice, a voice he knew as it emerged from his memories of harder times.

A chair scrapped against the floor, and a figure rose in the dark corner. Johnnyís heart beat faster, and his hand slipped to the gun by his side.

As a bear of a man with bushy sideburns and a thick mane of hair moved out of the shadows, Johnny smiled and relaxed. "Flint! You old devil!" Johnny sauntered across the room, extending his hand to the large stranger.

The man bypassed Johnnyís hand and wrapped a huge arm around the shorter manís shoulder. "What are you doing this far north, amigo?" He thumped Johnnyís chest with his other hand.

At the sound of Scott clearing his throat behind him, Johnny escaped from Flintís hold. "Want you to meet my brother, Scott."

Scott and Flint eyed each other and shook hands.

"Brother?" Flint glanced at Johnny. "Didnít know you had a brother."

"Neither did I until a year ago," Johnny said, smiling at Scott. "Best thing that ever happened to me."

"Youíll have to tell me about that." He gestured toward the table in the corner. "How long has it been?"

"Too long," Johnny said softly, following behind Flint. "Scott, Flint here saved my life more than once."

"Only after you done the same for me. Grab a seat, Scott. This place has the best beer and food in Sacramento." The man ran a finger through his sideburn and rubbed his jaw.

Johnny glanced at Scott. "See, I told you." Turning back to Flint, Johnny tossed a gold coin at the table. "The first roundís on me."

"As it should be," Flint said. "I bought the last round. Down in Yuma, wasnít it?"

Pushing his hat off his head, Johnny leaned back in his seat. "Sure is good to see you, compadre. What are you doing these days?"

"Working on some unfinished business for the railroad. Keeps me fed and my horse shod." Flint cut a slab of steak and shoved it in his mouth.

The beer flowed that evening, and as the night wore on, the stories grew wilder and the toasts more emotional. It was hours later when the Lancer brothers bid farewell to Flint and wended their way back to the hotel.

"Johnny, my little brother, you truly amaze me," Scott said, slurring his words slightly. "Here we are in Sacramento, and you found us the best food in town."

"And donít forget the best beer," Johnny added. And an old amigo. Maybe this Cattlemenís Convention wonít be so bad.

 

PART 2

Awakening to the morning sunlight stealing through the hotel room window, Scott groaned and rubbed his hands along his aching temples. His head was pounding and his mouth tasted like a bowl of cold oatmeal. He swallowed and tried to recall what had happened last night.

He remembered an excellent steak and bottomless mugs of foamy beer. And stories. Johnny and Flint sharing stories. Scott had listened carefully, gaining insights into his brotherís past. Johnny had included him by having Scott recount some of his war experiences. It was an enjoyable evening, even if the details at the end of the night were fuzzy.

"Johnny?"

Scott rolled over and looked at the tousled sheets where his brother had slept. The bed was empty and Scott seemed to remember Johnny rising early in the morning, saying he was going to check on Hercules and do his "talking time" with the undertaker.

Although too much beer had blurred Scottís thoughts, he did recall Johnny calling out in his sleep during the night, Spanish words Scott did not understand. The blond had been too drunk to grasp how much twisting and turning his brother had done in his sleep, but he sensed Johnny had been troubled by nightmares. That hadnít happened on the trail. Maybe meeting Flint brought back bad memories.

Scott licked his lips and decided breakfast was out of the question for a while. Sleep, he needed more sleep. After seven nights of laying in a bedroll on the ground, clean sheets on a bed were wonderful. Iíll catch up with Johnny in a little while. He rolled over and went back to sleep.

***

Murdoch gazed out the stagecoach window at the looming outline of Sacramento. He had missed last yearís Cattlemenís Convention because of the trouble with Pardee. This year he was looking forward to the annual gathering of cattle ranchers for two reasons. Well, he had to admit to himself, maybe for three reasons.

This was the first year he would be able to introduce his sons to many of his old friends. He thought of the two young men who had joined him in equal ownership at Lancer. My boys. He felt so proud to have them back.

Scott was a fine gentleman and took to ranching faster than Murdoch had expected. Despite his dislike for Harlan Garrett, the cattleman recognized that Scottís grandfather had raised the boy well. Murdoch smiled at the thought of his blond son. Heíll impress the others at the Convention. With his education, Scott will learn a lot from the speeches and meetings.

He stiffened at the thought of his youngest son. He did not imagine Johnny would sit through the long-winded presentations. Chuckling, Murdoch knew he would be using his own lingering soreness from Pardeeís bullet to get himself out of some of those same meetings. Johnny and I will probably miss more speeches than we attend.

Murdochís dark-haired son was still an enigma to him, even after a year. Despite the hard life the boy had survived, he had a kind heart and strong principles. Murdoch closed his eyes and recalled details from the Pinkerton report. If only Johnnyís past would stop reappearing to cause problems. Sacramento is a long way from the border. There shouldnít be anyone from his gunfighter days here.

However, Murdoch was worried about Johnny in Sacramento for a different reason. Scott knew about big cities and would do fine in the state capital. But for Johnny, who grew up in a series of border towns, the bustling community might be a challenge. Murdoch had been so concerned about his youngest son that he took Scott aside before the boys left with Hercules and asked him to keep an eye on his brother. Once the stage arrived in Sacramento, Murdoch would watch over the both of them.

The stage rumbled past the outskirts of town and Murdoch peered out the window, hoping to see Hercules in the stockyards ahead. The boys may still be on the trail, but we agreed they should be here by this afternoon at the latest. Murdoch needed Hercules well rested and fattened for the cattle auction.

He felt a twinge of guilt that he had been less than honest with his sons. He told them the bull was being sold to establish recognition for the Lancer stock, but the truth was more critical than that.

Hercules must be sold at a good price to pay off a loan that was due by the end of the month, just days away. Three years earlier, Murdoch had borrowed money from the bank to buy the Davenport parcel, which gave Lancer access to the river. With waterfront access, the ranch had gained irrigation for the fields and water for the herds during the drought. Lancer needed the Davenport parcel, but the bank would foreclose if the final, large payment were not completed in a matter of days.

Murdoch shifted position in the confines of the stage, careful not to kick the passenger across from him. He sighed and recalled how the money he had been saving for the loan payment was spent. He had no regrets about it and would do it again if he had to, but the Pinkerton agents had been expensive, and paying off the Mexican rurales to release Johnny was an unexpected cost. That, and the thousand dollars he gave each sonó"listening money" Johnny had called itócame from the funds he had set aside for the loan payment. The effort to bring his sons home had depleted the extra cash he had planned to use to pay off the bank. Couldnít be helped. So now, the sale of the large bull meant the difference between water for the ranch and foreclosure by the bank. Not wanting to worry the boys, he had not told them about the loan.

Wrong time to be selling that animal. Murdoch had purchased a gravid Hereford cow, sight unseen, from a cattleman in the East, for a breeding experiment before the trouble with Pardee started. The bull was the offspring of that first acquisition and was only now mature enough to begin breeding. Didnít even get a chance to see if crossing him with a range cow would produce a bigger, more manageable beef that could handle the open range. Well, thereís still the Hereford cow back at Lancer. But none of the shorthorn bulls have gone near her. He shook his head and sighed. Her size must intimidate them.

As the stage rolled to a stop at the depot, Murdoch thought quickly of the third reason he was looking forward to this trip. He planned to spend a little time with Marcy Dane. While he had no interest in marriage, he did enjoy the attractive widowís company. Perhaps we can have dinner together to celebrate the success of the auction. Thoughts of Marcy lightened his mood. With a broad grin on his face, he stepped out of the stagecoach and looked around for his sons.

***

"Hurry up, Johnny!" Scott stood at the door of the candy shop and tried to glare at his brother, but the look of delight on Johnnyís face made Scott smile instead. "Murdochís stage should be in by now, and weíre supposed to meet him. You can come back here later."

Waving to the petite woman behind the jars of penny candy, Johnny joined Scott and held the bag open for him. "Want one?"

Scott shook his head. "Youíll make yourself sick if you eat all those."

"Ainít for me. When I saw Bobby this morning, I promised him more licorice. And I thought some sweets might lighten the undertakerís disposition. Least ways, if Mr. Jamersonís got a sucker in his mouth, he canít talk so much."

The brothers laughed together and hurried toward the stage depot, dodging other pedestrians on the sidewalk. "There he is," Scott said, when he spotted the imposing figure of their father. "Murdoch!"

"Boys," Murdoch said, gripping Scottís shoulder and nodding at Johnny. "Howís Hercules? I didnít see him when we passed the stockyards."

"Got him someplace better," Johnny said.

At Murdochís frown, Scott decided he better intercede. "The stockyards were too muddy, Murdoch. They flooded last week and havenít dried out yet. Johnny found a family farm with a dry corral and a solid fence."

"Johnny found it?" Murdoch stared at Scott.

"Yes, Sir." Scott cringed at this fatherís implication. I know. Iím supposed to be keeping an eye on him. But he doesnít need me watching over him. He recalled his brotherís ease in guiding them from the saloon back to the hotel last night, even in their drunken condition.

"Did Hercules lose much weight on the trail?" Murdoch glanced from Scott to Johnny.

"Heís in good shape, but we may have to pay the Anders a little more for his upkeep. Heís already eaten more hay in one day, than the rest of their stock eats in a week," Johnny said.

"Good. Now letís get to the hotel. After that stage ride, I wouldnít mind a cup of coffee and a comfortable chair."

Scott and Johnny fell in behind Murdoch on the way to the hotel. As they walked, Murdoch pointed out specialty stores and fancy restaurants he had visited in Sacramento in the past.

"Do you think heíd like to try the place with the best food and beer in town?" Scott spoke quietly to Johnny.

"Probably not," Johnny replied in a soft drawl.

Scott winked at this brother, suspecting he was right. "Weíll keep that as our memory of Sacramento." He rubbed his throbbing temples. "At least the part of it I can remember."

Murdoch led the way into the lobby of the Cattlemenís Inn. As he entered, voices rang out in greeting from around the lobby. The clerk quickly retrieved a room key and smiled broadly. Scott exchanged glances with Johnny and noticed how the guests in the lobby nodded and called to their father when he walked across the room.

"Henry," Murdoch said warmly to a portly man seated on a sofa. "Good to see you. Let me introduce my sons. This is my oldest, Scott. He grew up in Boston and has joined me at Lancer."

Scott shook hands with Henry and moved aside for Johnny, who lingered a few steps behind him.

"And this is my other son, Johnny Lancer."

Scott watched Henryís eyebrows rise and noticed the curt greeting he gave Johnny. The manís eyes darted back to Murdoch.

"You brought both of them, Murdoch." Henryís voice asked a question more than made a statement.

"Good for them to make contacts and learn more about the business," Murdoch said. "And wait until you see the bull they brought along. Now, if youíll excuse me, I need to check in."

"See you at dinner, Murdoch. Nice to meet you, Scott." Henry nodded and looked away.

At the registration desk, Murdoch signed the guest book, and the clerk welcomed him profusely, but when the manís eyes fixed on Johnny, he frowned. "We have Room 212 reserved for you, Mr. Lancer, next to your sonís room."

Scott wondered if Murdoch noticed the clerkís reaction or the reference to a single room for the two of them. He saw from the masked expression on Johnnyís face that his brother was keeping his emotions hidden.

Leaving the front counter, Murdoch paused at another group of suited men and greeted them each by name. "Meet my sons," Murdoch said. "This is Scott, my oldest. He was a cavalry officer during the war and has a college education. You should see the young ladies making eyes at him."

Scott flushed, embarrassed by his fatherís words, but pleased with Murdochís obvious pride. "Gentlemen," Scott said, shaking hands with each man.

"This is my other boy." Murdoch waved his dark-haired son closer to the group. "Johnny Lancer."

The former gunfighter pushed his hat off his head and let it dangle down his back, hanging by the chinstrap. Nodding at Murdochís friends, he clutched the bag of candy in a white-knuckled grip and looked down.

Scott saw the small signs of Johnnyís discomfort and wondered about the brevity of Murdochís introduction of his youngest son. Guess he canít brag about Johnnyís past, but he is an excellent horseman and a hard worker. And he has more girls flirting with him than I do.

Murdoch talked with his friends for a few more minutes before excusing himself and heading for his room. At the foot of the sweeping staircase, the older man turned to his sons. "Weíll get together for dinner at six in the dining room. Scott, why donít you take Johnny shopping. See if you can buy him a suit."

"I donít want a suit," Johnny said in a controlled tone.

"Look, Son. Iím tired, and you need a suit. This is a fine establishment, and you have to dress and act accordingly."

"What does that mean?" The edge to Johnnyís voice was unmistakable.

Scott eased between his brother and father. "Johnny and I will go exploring and see what we can find." He saw the challenge in Johnnyís eyes, but pushed him toward the door. "Come on, Brother. Letís go deliver that candy and see the sights."

***

Johnny fidgeted with the ends of the string tie. Why he let Scott talk him into wearing the fool thing was beyond him. The white shirt and suede vest was fine, but the tie was annoying him. It made him think of having a noose around his neck, and he shivered, reliving the memory of an incident he had tried to forget a long time ago.

"Ready, Brother?" Scott slipped into his suit jacket and studied his image in the mirror. "Itís just about dinner time."

With a sigh, Johnny donned the new tan jacket that matched the vest. The hem of the jacket fell below the top of his holster and he knew he would be in trouble if he were called out wearing this jacket. Never be able to draw smoothly in this outfit.

At the firm knock on the door, Johnny pulled the jacket away from his gun and cautiously opened the door. He relaxed at the sight of his father, meticulously dressed in a fine suit.

"You boys ready for dinner?" Murdoch studied both his sons from head to toe.

"Certainly are," Scott said. "What do you think of Johnnyís new clothes? Looks very stylish."

Scottís trying to soften up the old man. Johnny half-smiled at the struggle Scott had put up to get him to buy a herringbone suit. The suede jacket and vest had been a compromise, and Johnny had reluctantly agreed to the string tie in exchange for Scottís promise to take over Johnnyís task of fixing the west fence line. But with each passing minute, Johnny wondered if mending the fence would have been easier than wearing the tie.

"You wonít need that, Johnny," Murdoch said, pointing at his sonís pistol. "Weíre eating at one of the finest restaurants in Sacramento. Thereís no need for a gun."

Tensing, Johnny glanced from his father to his brother. How could they expect him to be in this placeóthis decidedly unfriendly placeówithout his pistol?

"Iím not wearing mine." Scott held his jacket open. "Weíre just going downstairs. Nothingís going to happen over dinner."

Lowering his eyes, Johnny scuffed the toe of his boot against the floor. "Butó"

"No Ďbuts,í Son. Remember what I told you about acting accordingly. This is a business function, not a gunfight. You donít need a gun here."

Johnny wrestled with his emotions. He wanted to please Murdoch and knew how important this convention was to his father. Scott apparently felt comfortable enough that he was not bringing his gun downstairs. But they donít understand. Leaving his gun behind was dangerous. He had survived as Johnny Madrid all those years because the pistol was always at his side, always ready for action. Without his gun, what was he? Johnny swallowed hard. Iím Johnny Lancer, son of a prominent California rancher.

Slowly, he unbuckled his gun belt and removed it from his hips. Without looking at Murdoch or Scott, he hid the gun under the bed. When he glanced up, his father and brother were smiling at him.

"Letís have dinner, Brother." Scott slapped him on the back.

"You look like a successful cattleman," Murdoch said, pride shining in his eyes.

"Thanks," Johnny said softly, but he felt incredibly scared. It had been years since he was so defenseless.

Together, they walked down the stairs and across the lobby to the restaurant, with Scott maintaining a lively discourse on their trip to Sacramento. At the far end of the lobby behind green velvet draperies, the dining room glittered in an array of crystal candelabras, sparkling stemware, and polished silver cutlery. Johnnyís stomach churned at the ordeal he was about to face, and he heard Scottís quiet whistle. Iím in real trouble if this impresses him.

The maitre dí bowed and guided them to a table in the middle of the room. Every muscle in Johnnyís body told him this was the wrong place to be. In a corner or back against the wall, need to be able to see who enters and leaves. But it was not to be.

Johnny slid into his seat and stared at the maze of silverware and glasses assembled before him. Thereís enough metal on this table to arm a small army. He glanced over at Scott and Murdoch, but both of them were deep in a conversation about the merits of something Johnny did not understand. A young man in a white jacket hovered near Murdochís arm, a towel draped over his arm.

"What do you think, Son?"

Scott reached over and tapped Johnnyís arm. "Johnny, which is betterófilet mignon or Delmonico?"

"What?" Johnny blinked, focusing his attention on his father and brother. What are they talking about?

"Which do you prefer?" Murdochís eyes met his, and his father smiled.

Johnny flushed and dropped his eyes. He fingered the collection of knives in front of him. "Reckon I donít know what youíre talking about."

"Iím sorry, Son. We got so caught up in debating types of steaks that we left you out of the discussion." Murdoch sounded contrite.

Johnny sighed. "I like mine cooked so itís still a little red in the middle, but Iíll take it anyway it comes. Just so itís not still moving." He smiled weakly.

"Right you are, Brother." Scott turned to the waiter and placed their dinner order.

Murdoch nodded several times at Scottís selections, but Johnny listened numbly, unfamiliar with most of the words his brother used. Guess now I know how he feels when I speak Spanish. Iíll have to remember to translate for him more often.

Henry arrived in the dining room a few minutes later, and Murdoch motioned him to join their table. The portly man sat in the chair next to Johnny, but turned to face Murdoch, placing his back toward Johnny. "Should be a good convention this year, Murdoch. Anyone whoís somebody in cattle is here this year."

"Good, then the boys will get to meet quite a few ranchers and make some useful contacts," Murdoch said.

Johnny groaned inwardly. More introductions and old men with their attitudes.

"The completion of the railroad has really changed Sacramento," Henry said. "Things are getting civilized here finally. Not as wild as it used to be in the past." He cast a glance over his shoulder at Johnny.

Murdoch shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. "Got a bull you may be interested in, Henry. Itís a special breed from the East. Heís for sale at the auction. Johnny, tell Henry about the bull."

"Hercules is a large Hereford with a wide chest. Looks to weigh over a ton and aó"

"Fine," Henry interrupted. "Scott, how are you finding California?"

Johnny took a deep breath and resisted the urge to tell Murdochís business associate what he thought of his manners. He glanced at his father and saw the warning look in his eyes. Sit on it, Johnny boy. Nothing would be gained by telling him off. Sure, it might make you feel better, but then youíd have to deal with Murdoch. Just forget it.

Behind him, Johnny heard an irregular tread of footsteps and the tap of a cane. He listened carefully as the sound drew nearer. Damn. Canít see who it is.

From the corner of his eye, Johnny finally spotted the bearded man with the walking stick. The hired gun in the tweed suit followed behind him. Johnny felt for his gun, and regretted the decision to leave it in the room.

The pair selected a table in a corner. The bearded man sat awkwardly, swinging his leg to the side and leaning his walking stick against the wall. He removed a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose, followed by a fit of coughing. Narrowing his eyes, Johnny studied the man and glanced at the hired gun.

"Iím sure your father is pleased to have you at the ranch," Henry said to Scott. "Heís probably hoping for grandchildren soon. My own son has--"

"Murdoch," Johnny interrupted. "Whoís that man over there with the cane?"

"Well, I never," Henry fumed. "Some people donít even have the manners of a pig."

"Sorry," Johnny said. "Murdoch, do you know him?"

His father looked over his shoulder and turned back to face Johnny. "Thatís Mr. Aaron Lowry, owns a sizable ranch not too far from Fresno. Why?"

Johnny did not look at Murdoch, but continued to observe the pair in the corner. Something about one or the other man was familiar. "And the man with him?"

"I donít know," Murdoch said, his voice growing tight. "Do you know, Henry?"

"Will Samples, I believe. Heís always at Aaronís side. Associate of some sort, but never says a word."

"Johnny, do you recognize them?" Scott leaned close to his brother.

Shaking his head, Johnny met his brotherís gaze. "Maybe, maybe not."

"Not likely," Henry said. "Aaron Lowryís a wealthy man, bought his ranch outright five years ago. Cash on the barrel head they say."

"What happened to his leg?" From across the room, Johnnyís eyes met Will Samplesí stare, and the hired gun slipped his hand into his jacket. Johnny tensed, but the man smiled and leaned toward Mr. Lowry.

"Aaronís one of the new kind of rancher. He didnít build his place with sweat, but heís made it turn a real profit," Murdoch said, his eyes catching Johnnyís gaze.

"My grandfather calls that Ďnew money,í" Scott said, passing a basket of rolls to Murdoch. "Successful men who have made money fast and love to show it off."

"That sounds like Aaron," Henry added, raising his nearly empty wine glass to his lips.

Their dinner order arrived, and the conversation turned to the quality of the meal. Johnny remained silent, mulling over the feeling that he had met one of the two men in the corner during some earlier part of his life. If he had, it was not likely to be a good situation. He reminded himself that he was without a gun, and the perceptible bulge in Willís jacket remained visible.

The waiter refilled their wine glasses, and it was clear to Johnny that Henry had consumed more than he should have. Henryís words became more slurred and louder as dinner progressed. Finally, the man jerked his fork at Johnny and blurted out, "Murdoch, howíd you ever get yourself a dark-skinned boy like this one? You been messing Ďround with some Mex gal working in the kitchen?"

Johnny flinched and tightened his fingers around the knife he was using on his steak. Scottís hand grasped his arm, and Johnny released his hold on the knife.

"Henry, thatís enough," Murdoch said, his face reddening. "Youíre an old friend, but I wonít have you talking about my son or his mother like that."

"Think Iíll get some air," Johnny said, determined not to let Henry or his family see how much the thoughtless words hurt. "Something stinks in here." Johnny shook Scottís hand from his arm and left the room, storming out of the hotel and into the street.

 

PART 3

Scott shuffled the cards, letting them slide together neatly. He glanced across the felt-covered table at his father and began laying out the cards for another game of solitaire. "You did the right thing. Henry was out of line with his comment about Johnny."

"He was drunk," Murdoch said, examining the glowing end of his cigar.

"I wish Johnny had stayed to hear you chew out Henry, and it doesnít matter whether he was drunk or not. He was wrong and you were right."

Murdoch puffed on the cigar and exhaled a thick haze of smoke. "I was counting on Henry to buy the bull."

"Thereíll be other bidders. Hercules is an impressive animal. And if no one else bids high enough, weíll just take him home."

"Itís not that simple, Son."

Scott frowned at his fatherís remark. "What do you mean?"

"We have to sell Hercules. We need the money."

Setting the cards aside, Scott listened as Murdoch explained about the Davenport property and the looming bank payment. The blondís first reaction was annoyance that his father had withheld this information from him until now, but he fought back the urge to challenge Murdoch on his reticence. Nothing would be gained. Scott then mulled over options and alternatives. "Can we ask the bank for an extension?"

Murdoch lifted his brandy snifter and swirled the amber liquid. "I already did, and they gave us until next week. Enough time to complete the auction and have the funds transferred from one bank to another."

Studying the cards spread before him on the table, Scottís gaze fixed on the ace of diamonds. "Well, then we better make sure Hercules brings a good price at the auction."

With a grunt, Murdoch downed the last of his brandy. "I suppose I can talk to Henry tomorrow."

"Donít waste your breath," Scott said. "As part owner of Hercules, I wouldnít sell the bull to that bigot, unless he apologizes to Johnny."

"Scott, you canít change people like that."

"We have to start somewhere." Scott swept his hands through the cards before him, gathering them into a pile. "Murdoch, did you wonder why Johnny and I are sharing a room here?"

Murdoch shook his head and gestured to the waiter for another brandy.

"When Johnny tried to check in, they wouldnít give him a room. They said he needed a membership card. But when you and I registered, we didnít have any problems."

"Thereís no membership card for this place," Murdoch said.

"Exactly. You and I both know that, but Johnny wouldnít. This isnít the type of hotel he would have stayed at before. Why do you think the clerk gave him a hard time?"

Murdoch stubbed his cigar in the ashtray. "Iíll talk to the management tomorrow about their attitude."

"Are you going to talk to all of them too?" Scott waved his hand toward the other cattlemen sitting at tables around the card room. "Theyíre just as prejudiced." Scott mulled over the rest of his thoughts and cleared his throat. "Maybe you and I need to ask ourselves also if weíre just a little intolerant of the differences between Johnny and us."

"What do you mean?" Murdoch sounded confused.

"Think about the way you introduced us to your friends today. You bragged about me and used my first name. But when you introduced Johnny, it was always as Johnny Lancer, like you had to make sure they knew he was a Lancer, and you didnít say anything nice about him, not the way you spoke about my background."

"What was I going to say? Hereís my youngest son, heís killed more men than you can count on both hands."

"Murdoch, Johnny has lived with you for the last year. Havenít you seen anything good about him in all that time?"

"Of course." Murdochís eyes narrowed and fixed on Scott.

"Right. Johnnyís an excellent horseman and willing to pitch in for anyone who needs help. He has a wonderful sense of humor. Remember the time he told us about rescuing the cat from the tree, only it turned out to be a mountain lion cub?"

Both men smiled, and Scott recalled his brotherís grin as he had told the story.

"Even being good with a gun can sound special," Scott said. "In the East, theyíre called marksmen, and people pay good money to see them perform."

"I never thought of Johnny like thatóa marksman."

"Both of us assumed he would be lost in Sacramento, but at this point, he knows the city better than me, and I suspect heís been in parts of it even you havenít seen."

"I wonder where he is now," Murdoch said.

Scott hoped his brother was enjoying a beer at the Good Eats Saloon, swapping tales with Flint. "He met an old friend last night. Maybe they got together again tonight."

"A friend?" Murdoch looked troubled.

"See, youíre doing it again. You jumped to the conclusion that the only people Johnny knows are gunslingers. Flint works for the railroad and seems like a friendly fellow."

"I guess youíre right, Scott. I tend to think the worst when it has to do with your brother."

"Even when it comes to the ranch. You give me more slack for making mistakes, but you expect Johnny to do everything right the first time.

"Thatís different," Murdoch said. "You grew up in Boston, but Johnnyó"

"Johnny didnít grow up on a ranch either." Scott thought back over the many fights between his father and brother. "Perhaps if you were as patient with him, as you are with me, things might be easier between you two."

The waiter delivered Murdochís brandy and removed the empty glass. "Can I get you gentlemen anything else?"

Scott shook his head and returned to shuffling the deck of cards. I bet he wouldnít have called Johnny a gentleman if he were sitting here. Probably wouldnít even bring him a drink. When the waiter left, Scott glanced at his father. "Care to play a hand or two while we wait for Johnny to return?"

"Sure, Son." Murdoch twisted the remains of his cigar between his fingers. "Maybe I havenít been much better than Henry when it comes to Johnny."

Without meeting his fatherís eyes, Scott dealt the cards for poker and waited for him to continue.

"When your mother died, Scott, I was left cold inside. It was like a part of me died. I threw myself into the ranch, working long hours, never stopping to enjoy the accomplishments. Then I met MariaÖ"

Scott watched his father sip the brandy and wondered if he would say more.

With a sigh, Murdoch picked up his cards and arranged them in his hand. "Maria was so full of fire. I couldnít help but fall under her spell. It was like I was alive again. Everything seemed new and exciting when I was with her. The fact that she was Mexican didnít matter. Then Johnny was born. He looked so much like her. The dark hair, his skin, his smileóeven as a baby. Oh, I loved him right away, but I suppose a part of me had hoped he would look more like me. Not until I saw him looking so dark against the white baby blanket did I realize what we had done."

"I donít understand." Scott had lost the track of Murdochís thoughts.

"Your brotheróJohnnyówas half of two different worlds. When I held him in my arms, I realized Maria and I had created a child who would be a little less than each of us." Murdoch folded the cards in his hand together and dropped them on the table.

"Itís not like that, Murdoch." Scott shook his head, surprised that his father could not see the obvious flaw in his statement. "What you and Maria created was something more than yourselves. Johnny is special because of what he inherited from each of you. Heís more, not less."

Murdochís eyes locked on Scott as if seeing him for the first time, the older man smiled and retrieved his cards. He leaned forward and clasped his sonís arm. "Thank you. I needed to hear that."

"I think Johnny needs to hear it also," Scott said. "Now, shall we play?"

***

The sun had set and darkness gathered along the streets of Sacramento, but the dark-haired man continued to walk in long, angry strides. His boot heels clicked against the sidewalk in a rapid, staccato rhythm that matched his mood. The bitterness had given way to hurt, and now regret. You know better than to let them get to you, Johnny boy. He jerked the string tie from around his neck and shoved it in his pocket. Then, he sighed and slowed his pace, surprised that he had come all the way from the Cattlemenís Inn to the stockyards without thinking why he was heading in this direction.

The wooden plank walkway ended, and Johnny paused before stepping down into the rutted street. The ground was still damp, and his boots sank into its softness. Taking his jacket off, he flung it over his shoulder and decided to check on Hercules. Gone this far. Might as well go the rest of the way to the Anders place.

As Johnny tramped past the stockyards, he studied the cattle milling around in the pens. When the lightís better tomorrow, Iíll check on whatís being offered at the auction. It made good sense to know what potential bidders on Hercules might be comparing him to. Know your opponent. He chuckled to himself, realizing that Murdoch would never think of a cattle auction like a gunfight, but in Johnnyís mind, it was perfectly logical. Make them think youíre the best around, and theyíll treat you with respect. He wondered if that would work with some of Murdochís cronies.

By the light of the full moon, he strolled down the road leading to the small farmhouse. The lights in the house were out, and Johnny figured Anders and his son were asleep. Angling toward the corral, Johnny heard a deep growl ahead. "Easy, Buster. Itís just me." The dog barked once and ran forward until the rope tying it to the corral fence was taut. Johnny bent and scratched behind the dogís shaggy ears. "See they got you standing guard for Hercules."

In the space of a heartbeat, Johnny felt the tingle, the sixth sense that had served him so well in his gunfighter days. Somethingís wrong. From where he crouched beside the dog, his hand slipped to his side and he cringed. Damn! His gun was back in the hotel room, under the bed. Buster whimpered, its nose quivering and ears forward. "You feel it too," Johnny whispered, dropping his jacket to the ground.

From the corner of his eye, the former gunfighter caught a movement to his right, and further away but behind him, he heard a horse stamp a hoof. In the light of the moon, Johnny crept toward the corral, wishing he had more shadows to hide his movement. How many are there? Definitely more than one.

"Madrid!"

Johnny tensed. He had heard that voice before, but the metallic click of a pistol cocking interrupted his thoughts. A flash of moonlight against the polished barrel of the weapon and the roar of a gunshot sent him rolling under the corral fence. Too late, Johnny realized the error of his movement. His forward tumble stopped suddenly as he slammed into the side of the sleeping bull.

Awakening, Hercules snorted, surprised at the unexpected noise and impact of the dark shape on the ground. The bull lumbered to its feet, blowing loudly through its flared nostrils. Johnny sprang to a crouch and peered into the night, intent on finding the location of the intruders.

A second shot rang out, plowing into the ground near the bullís front hoof and sending a spray of dirt into the air. Hercules jerked its massive head away from the dust, catching a horn in the upper part of Johnnyís right arm. The former gunfighter pulled away but stumbled, falling to his back. The bull charged across the enclosure to the furthest corner, his hooves pounding heavily against the ground.

A sharp pain spread through Johnnyís arm, and he clutched his injured limb with his other hand. The warm blood coursed between his fingers, and he felt the jagged edge of his torn flesh. With a moan, Johnny rose and struggled toward the fence, keenly aware the gunman who had fired at him was still waiting, as well as a second assailant behind him, somewhere in the darkness.

He heard another shot fired and Busterís throaty bark. The dog crawled under the fence and snarled at the prowler on the far side of the corral, straining at the end of its rope. A light appeared in the window of the farmhouse and spread across the yard as the door opened wide.

The bull paced restlessly at the far end of the small corral and bellowed loudly. Then, it stood still, nose held high to catch the scent of danger. Searching the shadows, Johnny spotted a figure moving along the edge of the fence approaching the bull. Closer to the farmhouse, a dark form dismounted from a horse. Johnny clutched his dangling arm and winced. What am I going to do without a gun? Or a working gun arm? The assailant across from Johnny slipped through the fence into the enclosure.

"Whoís out there?" Andersí voice boomed across the clearing from the house to the corral. He stood in silhouette against the light from the farmhouse, pulling the strap of his overalls onto his shoulder. The rifle in his other hand pointed toward the barn.

Johnny glanced at the farmer and realized the man was an easy target. "Get down, Anders!" I need a distraction. Lurching to where Busterís rope was tied to the fence, Johnny fumbled with the knot. The dog continued to pull on the rope, snapping and growling at the intruder. Cursing the lack of motion in his right hand, he gritted his teeth and freed the rope with a final jerk.

Buster surged forward toward the invader, the rope trailing across the ground. Another shot rang out and the answering report from the gun of the second stranger added to the sound of horses neighing, pigs squealing, and poultry squawking. Buster leaped at the man inside the corral, but the stranger dodged to the side, running toward the bull.

Startled, Hercules pawed the dirt and lowered his head, thundering away from the interloper. With a rumbling bellow, Hercules swung around in confusion, circling the edge of the corral and charged at Johnny.

In a daze, Johnny reached the fence and leaned heavily against the wooden post. Before he could squeeze between the rails, the bull brushed against him and knocked him into the fence post. With the dog snapping at the stranger, Hercules halted and balked at the menacing shapes in its path. The bull backed away and trapped Johnny against the fence with its broad side. Herculesí weight pinned Johnny to the rough rails, and he felt the pressure against his chest and stomach, knocking the breath out of him. His lungs throbbed, and Hercules shifted his position, grinding Johnnyís body further into the wood.

The intruder vaulted over the fence with Buster chasing after him. The dogís bark faded in the distance. Johnny tried to push against the bullís side, but his injured arm refused to move. As dizziness swept over him, he managed to slap Herculesí rump with his left hand. The animal lumbered away with a low snort. Released from the bullís weight, Johnny collapsed, gasping for air.

Two strong hands grabbed Johnnyís arms and pulled him under the fence. An intense pain shot along Johnnyís bleeding right arm and exploded in his head. His vision faded and the world seemed to tilt in dizzying confusion. He thought for a moment he saw Flintís face peering into his, followed by the sound of galloping hoof beats. Then darkness engulfed him.

 

PART 4

Murdoch yawned and ran a hand over his face. "Sorry, Scott. Thought I could wait up for Johnny, but Iím exhausted after that stage ride."

"Thereís no telling what time heíll be back," his oldest son said.

Nodding, the tall cattlemen tossed his cards on the table. "Maybe we can get together for breakfast tomorrow. I have a Board meeting at nine in the morning, here at the hotel. While Iím doing that, you and Johnny can check on Hercules, and then later we all can make the rounds of the stockyards."

A tall man in tweed marched into the room and past their table. Murdoch glanced at the man, watching him stride to the corner table where Mr. Lowry sat with several other cattlemen, and frowned at the memory of his earlier concern when Johnny appeared to know the man. Henry called him Will Samples. Quickly, Samples bent and whispered in Mr. Lowryís ear, then settled in a seat beside the bearded man.

"Something wrong, Murdoch?"

"No, Son." Murdoch downed the last of his brandy. "Just tired. Iím going to bed."

However, before Murdoch could rise, Mr. Lowry snapped his fingers and Will Samples handed the black walking stick to him. Aaron Lowry limped across the card room and paused before Murdoch. "Mr. Lancer, I hear youíve been bragging about a spectacular bull youíve brought for the auction. No one has seen it in the stockyards."

"Hercules is in an undisclosed location," Scott said, a faint smile on his face.

"Very wise. I am looking to expand my breeding stock and might be interested in bidding on him, but want to inspect him prior to the auction."

"That can be arranged, Aaron," Murdoch said, rising from his chair. "Weíll work out the details tomorrow. Heís a remarkable animal, a new breed from the East. Iím sure youíll be impressed."

"Sounds like it might be worthwhile to get a closer look at your Hercules."

Murdoch was no stranger to auctions and he knew the tactics that were part of the process. "Certainly, but I have to warn you, others are interested too."

"I wouldnít expect anything else, if heís as fine an animal as you claim."

"Iím not sure youíll be able to match the price theyíre projecting," Murdoch said, measuring the cattlemanís reaction.

"Money is no problem for me, Mr. Lancer. Iíll meet and exceed the top price." Aaron coughed, bringing a handkerchief to his mouth. "Please excuse me. The smoke has gotten the better of me tonight. Until tomorrow." He limped out of the room.

Watching him go, Murdoch felt a leap of relief, baiting the cattle baron from Fresno might get him the result he needed. Perhaps there are other likely buyers besides Henry. "Goodnight, Son."

"Iíll walk up with you, Sir. Iím sure Johnny will come back when heís good and ready."

Murdoch hoped so. While he knew his youngest son was a grown man, he still worried about him being alone in Sacramento. Iím not treating him different, because Iíd be worried about Scott too if he were out there by himself tonight.

***

"Johnny, can you hear me?"

Andersí voice nagged at the edge of the former gunfighterís consciousness. Disoriented, Johnny smelled burning kerosene and felt a wet nose bump his hand. He opened his eyes a crack and moaned softly.

"Get away, Buster," Anders said firmly, swatting at the dog.

Johnny heard the animalís whine and the padding sound of its paws against the ground as Buster left his side. The dark-haired man wet his lips and curled forward to sit up. A groan escaped before he could muffle it, and he lay back down.

"Easy, Johnny. Youíre pretty stove up and I canít tell in this light how bad." Anders held the lantern closer, sending beams of light across Johnnyís face and body.

"Help me up," Johnny whispered.

"Maybe I ought to get a doc." The manís voice sounded full of uncertainty.

"No!" Johnnyís anger grew, not at Anders, but at the whole situation. How could I be so stupid to leave my gun at the hotel? Why didnít I hear them sneaking up on me? Careless. Stupid and careless. "Help me, or get out of my way."

The thin farmer put the lantern down and slid his arms under Johnnyís shoulders, lifting gently. The dark-haired man gasped at the pain that radiated from his belly and chest. "Damn!"

"Easy. Let me do the work." Anders propped Johnny into a sitting position and moved behind him. His hands slipped under the shorter manís arms, and with a grunt, he pulled Johnny to his feet. Holding him steady, Anders draped Johnnyís left arm over his shoulder. "Bobby," he yelled. "Come bring the lantern in."

The boy ran from the house and grabbed the light, hurrying to his fatherís side. With his mouth open, Bobby stared at the two men. "Mr. Johnny, what happened?"

"Not now, boy," the boyís father said. "Letís get him in the house."

Johnny grimaced and tried to straighten up, but the effort increased the pain. His right arm dangled limply and warm blood flowed down its length. The injury to his gun arm worried him more than the intense waves of agony throbbing across his torso. Flexing his fingers, Johnny sighed in relief. At least, I can still move them, but lifting my arm is another matter. He gritted his teeth and leaned harder on Anders, staggering toward the house.

"Just a few more steps now, Johnny." Anders shifted his hold around Johnnyís waist and angled him through the front door. "The bedís over to the right."

"Not the bed," Johnny said with a rasp. "A chair." If I lay down, itíll be too hard to get up again.

Bobby scurried around his father and set the lantern on the small table in the center of the room. He pulled a chair away from the table and stepped out of the way, as Johnny dropped onto the seat.

"Throw a few more logs on the fire, Bobby," Anders said. "And light another lamp." Anders slipped the vest off the injured man and tugged the bottom of Johnnyís shirt out of his pants. Then the farmer began unbuttoning the bloody shirt.

As the pain from where he was gored shot up his arm and blazed behind his eyes, Johnny inhaled sharply. "Got any whiskey?"

"Sure, Johnny." The man rummaged on a shelf near the fireplace and returned with a bottle and glass. With a glance at the seated man, he poured the whiskey, filling the tumbler to the rim.

Johnny chuckled and reached for the drink with his left hand. "Youíre a generous man, Mr. Anders." He wrapped his fingers around the glass and lifted, but his wrist shook as he brought it to his lips and half the whiskey spilled down the front of his shirt. He downed the remaining liquid and sighed at the burning sensation in his throat. Setting the empty glass back on the table, Johnny looked down at his shirt. "Waste of good whiskey."

"You want some more?"

"No. Why donít you take a swallow, and letís see how bad the damage is." Johnny pulled open his shirt and examined the growing bruises across his chest and stomach. A little harder and Hercules wouldíve busted my ribs. But no point thinking about that.

Anders was at his side, gently peeling the blood soaked sleeve off his slack right arm. Johnny closed his eyes and balled his left hand into a fist. "Dios!" A wave of dizziness crashed through his head, and the former gunfighter swayed.

With a ragged whistle, Anders moved the lantern closer to Johnnyís seat. "Bobby, set a kettle of water to boiling, and bring me one of them spare flour sacks." The man carefully lifted Johnnyís injured arm and rested his forearm on the table. "This looks pretty bad, Johnny. I didnít see what happened, but it donít look like a bullet wound. Too big a hole."

"I made a fool mistake," Johnny said, looking down at the stream of blood seeping from the torn flesh of his upper arm. "I rolled into Herculesí pen. Thatís from his horn."

"Gonna need a doctor to stitch this up. The bone donít seem to be broken, but this needs to be cleaned real good."

Silently, Bobby brought the flour sacks to his father and then stood across the table from Johnny, staring in wide-eyed fright at the pool of blood spreading across the worn tabletop.

"Bobby," Johnny said softly, catching the boyís gaze. "Buster did a good job warning me that someone was out there."

"Were they trying to steal Hercules?" The boyís eyelids blinked quickly and his fingers clutched the edge of the table.

Johnny looked down and sighed. I might have believed that except one of them called me Madrid. "I donít know, but tomorrow Iím gonna get Buster a real meaty bone to thank him."

Anders retrieved a basin from the dry sink and filled it with hot water from the kettle. After ripping the flour sacks into strips, he bent over Johnnyís arm and began washing the blood away from the deep gash.

Johnny sucked in his breath, but the motion tensed his stomach muscles and he wavered. "Anders," he whispered. "Donít let the boy see this."

"Bobby, take the left-over stew out to Buster. Tell him he done a good job tonight and heís got a treat coming from Mr. Johnny." When the boy left, Anders turned back to the injured man. "Thanks, Johnny. I should have thought of that."

"A boy his age donít need to see how painful life can be." Johnny thought of the cuts and bruises that had been a regular part of his childhood. Doesnít seem right to make him watch all this.

Anders finished cleaning Johnnyís wound and wrapped strips of cloth around the injured arm. "That should hold it till we get you to the doc. Donít think thereís anything I can do for the rest. How do you feel?"

"Not bad," Johnny lied. He felt weak, sick, and sore. More than anything, he felt disappointed. Even here, such a long way from the border, my past is ruining everything. Scott and I had such a good week together, and Murdoch was so excited about this Cattlemenís Convention. But my past is going to destroy all of that. Johnny was also worried. With his right arm all but useless and someone gunning for Madrid, he was as good as dead. And I donít even have my gun with me.

"You want to lay down for a bit?"

"No. I better get back to the hotel." Johnny did not want to risk another attack without having his pistol handy.

His crooked teeth showing, Anders chewed on his bottom lip before speaking. "Maybe I ought to take you to Dr. Ulrich. That arm needs tending."

Johnny shook his head. "Not tonight. Iíll see the doc tomorrow." He smiled at the manís worried expression. "I promise."

Carrying the lantern, Bobby returned from outside with a tan jacket slung over his arm. "Is this yours, Mr. Johnny?"

"Thanks, Bobby." Scott would be mighty upset if I lost that jacket after all the trouble we went through picking it out. At the thought of his brother, Johnny knew he needed to return to the hotel soon or his father and brother would be upset. Johnny tugged at his bloody shirt, trying to pull it over his shoulder.

"You want a clean shirt? I got extras."

"No thanks. Youíve been more helpful that I can ever repay, but I do need one more thing. Can you give me a ride back to the hotel? I walked here, but donít thinkÖ"

"Sure, Johnny." Anders leaned over and draped the stained shirt over Johnnyís bandaged arm. He took the jacket from his son and covered the injured manís shoulders with it. "There. Now, Iíll go hitch the wagon. Son, keep an eye on Mr. Johnny. Come and get me if he needs anything."

After his father left, Bobby inched closer to Johnny. "Do you think theyíll come back?" The boyís voice was hushed.

"Hard to know," Johnny said. "Meant to tell you that youíre doing a great job with Hercules."

The boyís face brightened. "Me and Buster been teaching that bull a trick."

Johnnyís eyes narrowed. "I want you to be careful. Hercules ainít a pet like Buster." He paused, not wanting to scare the boy. "It ainít his fault, all this hurt, but youíre much smaller than me. If he steps on you, thereís no telling how bad it might be." Fool thing to do, rolling into a pen with a Hereford bull in the dark.

"Iím careful, Mr. Johnny. Hercules likes to have the spot behind his horns rubbed. Heís real gentle when I do that."

"For a young one like you, thatís a mighty hard place to reach."

Bobbyís smile beamed across his face. "I first scratched between his eyes by climbing on the fence and reaching over the top rail. He closed his eyes and looked happy."

Johnny laughed, but the pain in his gut flared. Swallowing hard, he fought back a groan.

"Then, my pa, he put me on Herculesí back, and itís real easy to reach his head from there."

"You were sitting on that bullís back?"

Bobby puffed up his chest. "Thatís right."

Mr. Anders swung open the door and stepped into the room. "Wagonís all set, Johnny. You ready?"

Nodding, Johnny clenched his teeth and used his left hand to brace himself against the table. In one painful movement, he rose to his feet. Anders was at his side in an instant.

"I can do it," Johnny said, but his breath came in ragged gasps. With steely determination, he headed for the door. On the front porch, he paused, eyeing the height of the wagonís front seat.

"Maybe itíd be better if you rode in the back?" Anders gestured toward the rear of the wagon.

Johnny flashed him a grateful smile. "Maybe so."

Together, Anders and his son settled Johnny at the end of the wagon so his back was against the side of the bed and his legs drawn across the wooden planks. The effort left a sheen of sweat across Johnnyís forehead. Bobby handed him the rumpled vest, and the injured man used it to wipe his face. Anders ran to the front of the wagon and collected the reins.

"Stay inside, Bobby," the boyís father said.

"And be careful around Hercules," Johnny added.

Anders clicked at the horse and snapped the reins. As the wagon rolled into town, the man looked back at his passenger repeatedly, but the dark head was bowed and the expression on the injured manís face not visible. Anders kept a steady stream of conversation going, rattling on about the people who lived in the buildings they passed.

"That over thereóthe two story house with the shuttersóis Dr. Ulrichís place. Itís a little ways from the hotel, but Iím sure the hotel could send for him."

Johnny looked at the building nestled between similar size homes, noting its location. In the moonlight, the houses all appeared ghostly gray. Glancing down, Johnny flexed the fingers of his right hand and frowned at their limited range of movement. A gun hawk without a quick draw is a dead man. He was worried and the feeling settled like a heavy darkness over this mind. First thing in the morning, he would see the doctor. Right now, he needed to get back to Scott and Murdoch, and his gun.

Outside the hotel, Anders hurried from his seat to help Johnny, but the dark-haired man was already out of the wagon and walking deliberately toward the hotelís front door. Anders pulled the large door open and Johnny nodded.

"See you tomorrow, Mr. Anders." Johnnyís voice was steady, his back straight. He wore the expression he had schooled himself to assume as Johnny Madrid. Without looking at the man holding the door open, Johnny entered the lobby and strolled over to the grand staircase with his head held high. Now to get up the stairs, Johnny boy. He willed the pain to a nameless place in his mind and concentrated on the task before him.

***

Scott awoke at the faint sound of the door closing. He had waited up for Johnny, reading a book, until his eyelids slid closed. The room was dark now, and Scott realized the kerosene in the lamp must be gone. With the heavy curtains drawn, the room was black, and he could barely make out the outline of the figure in the room. "Johnny?"

He heard a noise that was little more than a grunt and listened to the unsteady tread of footsteps across the floor. Then the mattress shifted as Johnny sat down heavily on the bed. A boot dropped to the floor, followed quite a few minutes later by the other boot. With a hiss, Johnny lay down on the bed.

The smell of whiskey drifted in the air, and Scott wrinkled his nose. "Youíre going to be sorry in the morning that you drank so much tonight." Suppose I canít blame him after the way heís been treated here. Scott rolled over and closed his eyes, falling back to sleep quickly.

The sound of Johnnyís voice roused Scott some time later.

"Reynolds. Someoneís out there." The words were strangled, gasped more than spoken.

Scott rubbed his eyes. The room was still dark and he wondered what time it was. Looking toward Johnnyís side of the bed, he could tell his brother was trapped in a dream, probably a nightmare from the harsh sound of his labored breathing and soft moans that he made.

"Johnny, wake up," Scott said in a sleepy voice, rising on his elbow to reach over to this brotherís back.

"Mr. ReynoldsÖ alive." Johnnyís voice faded, but his body jerked suddenly.

"Come on, Brother. Wake up," Scott said in a louder voice.

A cry escaped from Johnnyís mouth, and then the tossing and turning stopped. In the darkness, Scott could not see his brotherís features, but Johnny seemed to be curled into a tight fetal position under the covers.

"Easy, Johnny. Itís over." Scott made his voice sound soothing. He wondered about the nightmares that troubled his brother from time to time. Most of his own dreams were colorful flights of fantasy involving some lovely woman from Boston. Johnnyís always seemed darker and dangerous, but his brother never spoke of them. Scott reasoned that seeing Flint again had opened the memories of some awful time in Johnnyís past. "Sleep easy, Brother. I wonít let anything happen to you."

 

PART 5

Murdoch stirred a helping of sugar into his coffee and set the spoon aside. The collar of his starched shirt chaffed his neck and he slipped a finger between his throat and the collar. Glancing at Scott across the breakfast table, he raised the cup to his mouth, and sipped the gourmet brew. "What time did Johnny get in last night?"

"Iím not sure," Scott said, "but it was more like early this morning."

With a sigh, Murdoch placed his cup back on the table. "That boy wonít be much good today, if he doesnít get some sleep."

"Thatís what I figured. So I made very little noise while I was getting ready this morning and left him sleeping." Scott buttered a breakfast roll and hesitated. "He was pretty drunk when he got in."

"A hangover is a tough way to start a new day." Murdoch wanted to talk to his youngest son about what Henry had said last night, and about his own shortcomings in introducing Johnny to the other cattlemen. Thatís not a conversation I want to have with him while heís suffering from a hangover.

"What are the plans for today, Murdoch?"

"I have a Board meeting here in a few minutes. It should last until noon. Thereís a government procurement presentation at City Hall this morning too. Maybe you and Johnny can attend that. Weíll get together back here for lunch; then head over to the stockyards. At some point, I want to check on Hercules and see how heís looking for tomorrowís auction."

"Sounds like a full day," Scott said.

"Aaron Lowry might be interested in seeing our bull, so keep an eye open for him." Murdoch looked at Scott and grinned. "Iíd also like a few minutes to stop by Marcy Daneís house."

"Ah, yes. She made excellent chowder and Beef Burgundy if I remember correctly."

Murdoch glanced at the entrance of the dining room and spotted Johnny crossing the lobby. "Johnny!" He waved at this youngest son and beckoned him to their table. "Come join us for breakfast, Son."

He studied Johnnyís gait and recognized that something was not quite right. His dark-haired son moved in a slow, stiff rate, both hands tucked in the front of his pants. He wore his bolero jacket, pink shirt and studded pants, with his hat pulled low over his face. The gun belt was slung low along his hip.

Murdoch pushed a chair out for Johnny and watched his sonís careful movements as he sat down. Must be a bad hangover. He waited for Johnny to remove his hat, but the boy made no motion to do so. "Your hat, Son."

With his left hand, Johnny knocked the hat off his head, letting it dangle down his back. Murdoch frowned at his youngest sonís haggard appearance. "How about some coffee, Johnny?" He motioned for the waiter, pointing at his coffee cup.

The man hurried over with a pot of coffee and refilled Murdochís and Scottís cups. After a quick smirk at Johnny, the waiter turned to leave.

"Put the pot on the table." The tone of Murdochís voice was stern, causing the waiter to stop in his steps. The coffee pot was set at Murdochís side of the table, and the waiter scurried away. "Iím going to speak to the manager right after the Board meeting."

Johnny lifted his left hand toward the coffee pot, but Murdoch grabbed it first. "Let me, Son." Murdoch poured the black liquid into Johnnyís cup and watched as he raised the cup to his lips. He looks terrible. "Johnny, why donít you go back to bed for a while?"

"Got things to do," Johnny said in a soft drawl.

Scott frowned at his brother. "Like what?"

"Jamerson."

Murdoch felt excluded from the conversation. "Whoís Jamerson?" He listened as Scott explained about Johnnyís arrangements with the undertaker. The entire time, Johnny never said a word and just nursed his cup of coffee.

Checking his pocket watch, Murdoch rose from his seat. "Iíve got to go now. You boys will be okay?" He waited until they both nodded. "Get some breakfast, Johnny. It may help that hangover." As he walked away, Murdoch regretted not having an opportunity to talk to his youngest son about yesterdayís unpleasantness. That waiter just added to the problem.

***

Scott leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs, studying Johnny closely. "You feeling all right, Brother?"

"Leave it." Johnny set his cup on the table and picked up an uneaten sausage from Murdochís plate. He took a small bite and dropped the rest back onto the dish.

"Murdoch says thereís a government meeting at City Hall heíd like us to attend."

Shaking his head, Johnny pulled the chinstrap around his neck and placed the hat back on his head. "Got to see Jamerson. Catch you later." Slowly, the dark-haired man rose. His right hand remained tucked in his pants, and a moment later, it was joined by the other hand. He turned and shuffled out of the room. His usually graceful stride replaced with a stiff, halting pace.

Not until Johnny was gone from sight, did Scott realize he had been holding his own breath. That must be some hangover. Scott was the last to leave the table and he paid the bill, dropping a penny for the waiter. Even thatís too much.

***

Halfway down the last alley to Jamersonís place, Johnny faltered and staggered to the warped back wall of a building. He sagged against the rough boards and waited for the dizziness to pass.

He still was uncertain why he had not told his brother or father about his injuries. Scott had jumped to the conclusion he had tipped too many tequilas last night, and Johnny had let that assumption ride. Itís an easier thing for them. No need to ruin their trip with some problem from my past.

With a ragged breath, Johnny pushed away from the wall and lifted his foot over the decaying trash in the narrow passageway. I have no plans of dying in a back alley like this. Johnny needed a doctor and he knew it. The rough bandage Anders had wrapped around his wound was soaked with blood, and he could not move his right arm without suffering through sharp jolts of pain that nearly blinded him. When he was changing clothes this morning, the sight of the purple and green bruises across his stomach and chest had worried him, but not as much as the tingling numbness in the fingers of his right hand.

Johnny weaved across Jamersonís backyard toward the barn. His plan was to get Barranca and ride over to see Dr. Ulrich. No talking with Jamerson this morning. His heart sank when he saw the undertaker emerge from the barn door.

"Johnny," Jamerson said with delight. "So glad youíre here. That horse of yours is getting restless. Gorgeous animal. Palominos have always been my favorite, but too flashy for pulling a hearse. Have to settle for basic black horses. No white socks or markings. More dignified, but sometimes itís hard to find a pure black animal." The undertaker paused for a breath and scratched the fringe of hair around his balding head. "Say, you donít look too good. Thereís some sort of flu going around. Business has been brisk lately. Couple of old folks died recently from the flu. Got them inside waiting for me. Hope youíre not coming down with that. Drink plenty of water and get lots of sleep."

At the mention of water, Johnny licked his lips. His mouth was dry; coffee was not what he had wanted this morning. He pushed thoughts about the waiterís attitude and Murdochís reaction to the back of his mind. "I could use some water," Johnny said, resigned to what was coming next.

"Of course, Johnny. Come on in." Jamerson hurried to the back entrance of his business and held the door open. "Iím real busy today, but would love the company. Grab a seat in my work area, and Iíll be right back with a glass of water. Want anything else? Iíve got a few hard-boiled eggs cooling in the kitchen. Or maybe some peach cobbler?"

Johnny shook his head. "Just water." He sighed and turned toward the workroom, preparing himself for the queasy feeling that crept over him each time he entered the area where the undertaker did the behind-the-scenes part of his business. The smell of death and soap hung in the air.

Rows of tables lined the walls of the room, three of them with corpses covered in white sheets. Carefully, Johnny sat in a chair as far from the bodies as he could get. One day youíll be under one of those sheets, Johnny boy. It was not a thought he wanted to dwell on. He had faced his own mortality and knew death would come sooner for him than most. Guess Iím lucky Iíve made it this long. Probably hasnít been luck, as much as skill, kept me alive till now.

Waiting for Jamersonís return, Johnny glanced at the still forms across the room. One body was longer that the other two, and a pair of large, bare feet stuck out from under the covers. Wonder if he died with his boots on?

The undertaker hustled into the room and handed Johnny a glass of water. "Now you just sit and drink that. Youíre looking a little under the weather this morning. Could be the flu. Those two over yonder are poor old Mr. and Mrs. Miller. Flu got them both yesterday. Iím just waiting for their daughter to arrive in town before I take care of the final arrangements. Hard thing when the familyís not in the area. Howís your family doing?"

"Fine." Johnny sipped the water slowly, letting it trickle down his throat. His insides were burning, and the cool liquid felt good. He wondered if Hercules had done more damage than he had first thought. Better get to that doctor soon.

"Good, good. Now this other gent, the marshal brought him in last night. Gunshot victim. Donít get too many of them these days. Sacramento doesnít have as many shootings as it used to. Canít remember when the last one was, but the marshal wants me to check out the wounds on this gent. Seems he was shot twice. Heís going to need a bigger box than most. Larger man than I normally get." Jamerson picked up a yardstick and began measuring from the toes of the bare feet. "Donít know his name. The marshal has his billfold. Says he had money and it wasnít robbery because the cash was still in the billfold. Marshal Burtonís trying to locate any family he might have. Railroadís going to pay for his burial. They sent someone by this--"

"What did you say?" Johnny clutched the glass until the knuckles of his left hand turned white. He had been only half-listening to the undertakerís ramblings, but the mention of the railroad had caught his attention.

"This gent was shot last night." Jamerson looked up, holding the yardstick midway up the body, and opened his mouth to say more.

"About the railroad." Johnny rose from the chair and took a steadying breath.

"Oh. Seems he worked for the railroad, and theyíre going to pay for all his burial expenses."

Readying himself for what he knew he was going to find, Johnny lurched over to the table. "Let me see him."

"Sure, Johnny." Jamerson pulled the sheet away from the corpseís head. "Do you know him?"

Johnny stared at his friendís lifeless face and sighed. "Flint Logan."

"Was he a friend of yours? Always is a difficult thing when someone you know dies, or in this case, is killed." The undertaker continued to speak, but Johnny had stopped listening.

Flint, old buddy. Who did this to you? It was so good to swap stories with you the other night, after all those years. Yuma, Sonora, Rosalinda. We did it all. What happened? The fragment of a memory from last night teased his thoughts. It was you that pulled me out of the bullís pen last night. Wasnít it? And the gunshots. Was it you called my name to warn me? Or were you calling me for help? The questions spun through his head and he found no answers, only more confusion.

"Johnny, youíre not looking very good." Jamerson placed the cover back over the dead manís head and peered at the dark-haired man swaying beside him. "Maybe you should have a seat."

"Would you mind getting my horse, Mr. Jamerson? Think I might take your advice and see the doc."

"Thatís a real good decision. The flu isnít something to be ignored. The Millers over there are proof that the flu can kill you. Wait right here, Johnny, and Iíll get your horse ready for you. Iíd take you to Dr. Ulrichís myself, but Iím way behind this morning. Death always seems to come in threes." The undertakerís voice faded as he left the room and headed to the barn.

Alone with Flint, Johnny bowed his head. The pain of his friendís death rested heavy on his chest. "Vaya con Dios, mi amigo. Until we meet again. Wherever that might be."

 

Snorting at the sound of bells clanking in the distance, Barranca shied and pranced along the busy street leading toward the row of modest homes. As a carriage whisked by, the palomino shook its flaxen mane and sidestepped.

"Steady, feller." Johnny grit his teeth at the jarring gait his usually steady mount was displaying. Iím in no shape to be taking a tumble off your back. The effort to mount the horse in front of Mr. Jamerson, without disclosing the extent of his injuries, had taken more out of the former gunfighter than he cared to admit. "Should be right along here somewhere."

Johnny rode past a yellow house with a picket fence and noted an older woman in gingham tending the flowers in her window boxes. Right next door, he spotted the two-story house Anders had pointed out last night. Dr. Ulrichís place. Hope heís in. Slowly, Johnny dismounted, pausing for a minute to rest his head against Barrancaís neck. The waves of pain shooting up his right arm were growing worse, and the fear of what he would do if his gun arm was permanently disabled had becoming a constant enemy.

"Johnny?" The womanís voice was tentative.

Startled, he snapped his head up and jerked away from Barranca. The sudden movement caused him to bump his injured arm against the saddle. Sharp claws of agony ripped through his brain and he dropped to his knees.

The woman in gingham was at this side in a moment. "Youíre Murdoch Lancerís son. What happened?"

In a blurry haze, he recognized the womanís face. "Mrs. Dane," he whispered.

"Marcy. Now let me help you to Dr. Ulrichís office. Murdoch sent me a telegram that you were all coming to Sacramento, but I never thought I would see you like this."

Despite his efforts not to, Johnny leaned harder on the widowís shoulder than he intended.

***

The air in the City Hall Chamber was overly warm, and the steady roar of snoring from the back row confirmed for Scott that other cattlemen also found the government agentís speech as dull as a butter knife. The blond man shifted positions on the hard wooden bench and fingered the report sitting on his knee. He watched a fly caught in a spider web struggle to escape, while the spider continued to spin additional strands in the upper corner of the room.

The government agent droned on with this presentation. Thatís the third time heís said the same thing! Scottís thoughts went back to Professor Timbleís history class at Harvard. When he repeated his lesson for the third time, I didnít learn anything new.

Scott opened the government report and studied the columns of statistics, pleased with the pricing details about the Armyís purchasing history. This report might be the most useful thing about this morningís session. We can study the trends and price our cattle accordingly. Selling to the government could be good for Lancerís business. Army posts have an ongoing need for meat. He recalled his time in the cavalry and smiled. They need horses too, and with Johnnyís skill at gentling wild horses, Lancer could do well to sell to the Army.

Tucking the report under his arm, Scott rose and escaped through the nearest door. He chuckled at the thought of the fly trapped in the cobweb succumbing with the final sounds of its life being the monotone of the government agentís voice. Well, not me.

Outside City Hall, Scott decided to drop off the government report at his hotel room, and then do some exploring on his own. Sacramento was not as sophisticated as Boston, but it had much more to offer than Morro Coyo or Green River.

As Scott strolled back to the Cattlemenís Inn, he made a mental list of the places he wanted to visit. A bookstore is a definite must. His fatherís collection of books was impressive, but not many matched Scottís taste for contemporary writing. Thereís probably enough time to stop at a tailor. I could use a new suit. Smiling at the reaction Johnny and Teresa had expressed at his Eastern attire last year, Scott decided he would stay away from plaid.

"I wonder if Johnnyís back from Jamersonís," Scott said to himself. He doubted his younger brother would be interested in joining him for a trip to a bookstore, and if picking out Johnnyís clothes yesterday were any indication, he would have no desire to visit a tailor. Scott smiled at the warmth that filled him when he thought of his brother. Accepting his fatherís offer to come to Lancer and meeting the brother he never knew he had were the best things that had ever happened to him.

Opening the door to the hotel, Scott felt his ire flare. If Murdoch doesnít talk to the management here, I will. He added finding a new hotel to the list of things to do before noon. They treat everyone equally, or they wonít have Lancer business. Equalityóthatís what the War Between the States was all about.

Scott climbed the stairs, reflecting on the injustice men inflicted on each other. Johnny, of all the people he knew, was the first to fight to correct wrongs. Yet, here in Sacramento, Johnny was the one forced to endure the intolerance of others. And itís probably not just in Sacramento. Scott chided himself for not paying more attention to how his brother was treated when they went places together.

With the key in his hand, Scott paused outside the hotel room he shared with his brother. If Johnny went back to bed after visiting the undertaker, I donít want to wake him. But startling the former gunfighter was never a good idea. Scott rapped at the door and called lightly, "Johnny, itís me." Receiving no response, he unlocked the door and stuck his head in the room.

The curtains were drawn open and the bed was empty. Scott smiled at the rumpled pile of sheets. Johnny sure isnít one for neatness. He placed the government report on the nightstand by the bed and turned to leave, but a patch of tan on the floor near the end of the bed caught his attention and he frowned. That boy left his brand new jacket lying in a heap. Itíll be all wrinkled for tonightís award banquet.

Scott bent and picked up the jacket, smiling at the strategy he had used to get his brother to buy it. Showing him the herringbone suit first made this one look like a winner. He brushed some dirt from the suede jacket and glanced down at the vest and shirt still lying on the floor. Stooping to scoop up the discarded garments, Scott froze at the sight of bloodstains on the white shirt. He grabbed the vest, checking for bullet holes, and was relieved to find none. The vest bore mud splatters and signs of hard use, but was still in one piece. However, the right side of the shirt was stiff with dried blood and a ragged rip marked the upper part of the sleeve.

Quickly, Scott recalled Johnnyís return to their room last night. He staggered in, and I thought he was drunk. This morning, he was walking strangely, and I thought it was a hangover. He looked at the bloody shirt again. He never used his right hand at breakfast. I misread all the signs. Scott dropped the shirt and hurried out of the room. But why wouldnít Johnny tell me he was hurt?

Scott bounded down the grand staircase, not caring what the cattlemen lounging in the lobby thought. Johnny was going to the undertakerís. Iíll start looking for him there. Grimly, Scott realized it was the last place he wanted to find his brother.

 

PART 6

"Young man," Dr. Ulrich said, peering over the top of his glasses. "That arm needs to stay immobilized. That means donít use it, and keep it in this sling. Youíre lucky the nerves werenít severed." The doctor adjusted the dark blue fabric that supported Johnnyís right arm, and nodded at the gun belt rolled up beside his patient. "You wonít be able to use that."

Marcy glanced from her next-door neighbor to the dark-haired man sitting on the examining table. She saw the question in Johnnyís eyes and her heart ached for him. Murdochís son was a little older than her own boy. Jeff needs a fatherís strong hand, and this oneÖ This one needs a motherís gentle touch.

"Glenn," Marcy said, posing the question she knew Johnny wanted to ask. "Will he be able to move his arm again?"

The doctorís gaze again rose over his glasses. "Hard to say, Marcy. If he lets these stitches do their job and the muscles heal, I should think so. Do you understand, young man?"

Johnny nodded, and Marcy noticed his shoulders relax a bit.

"That means keeping the arm still. Now, as to the other injuries, time will tell. Thereís nothing I can do for the bruises, other than recommend rest. Internal injuries are tricky. If you feel sick or notice any bloodÖ" The doctorís head bobbed toward Johnnyís lap. "You come right back here."

Marcy smiled and patted Johnnyís arm. "I know heíll be fine, Glenn."

"Thanks, Doc," Johnny said. With the doctor and Marcy on either side, he eased off the examining table and stroked the sling that cradled his right arm.

"Now, Johnny," Marcy said, leading him out of the doctorís office. "Youíre coming over to my house. I have a pot of chowder simmering in the kitchen. I remember how much Scott liked it during my visit to Lancer, and I knew Iíd be seeing you all at some time during the Convention, so I made it earlier."

"Maíam," Johnny hesitated and lowered his head. "About what I said when you were at LancerÖ"

"My boy, you didnít say anything wrong. You said what was on your mind." She guided Johnny to the yellow house and into her cozy kitchen. "Oh, I did wonder what it would be like to be Mrs. Lancer, but it wasnít meant to be. How about if you just let me be a family friend who can offer a special young man a bowl of chowder?" She saw his half-smile and laughed. "You are a charmer, Johnny Lancer. Just like your father."

"Me and Murdoch, alike?" Johnny settled into a chair at the kitchen table and yawned. "Donít reckon the old man would appreciate the comparison none."

As Marcy ladled a helping of chowder into a bowl, she wanted to wrap her arms around the young man. "Of course, he would. Heís proud of you." She placed the chowder in front of Johnny and brushed a lock of hair away from his eyes. This boy needs a large dose of mothering.

She sat across from Johnny, and while he ate, she prattled on telling him all the things Murdoch had shared with her about his sons during their time together in San Francisco. Oh, if only Jeff had turned out as well as Johnny. She sighed and watched the young man across from her struggle to eat with his left hand. Most of the liquid dripped off the spoon and fell back into the bowl.

"Johnny, I declare, I am an old fool."

The dark head looked up and frowned. "Maíam?"

Marcy took his bowl and poured the chowder into a mug. "Try sipping it from this. Itíll be much easier." The smile that spread across Johnnyís face warmed her heart. What a charmer! Just like his father.

***

Scott was disappointed but not surprised to find Barranca missing from Mr. Jamersonís barn. With a final thump on his horseís flank, the blond left the stall and trudged to the undertakerís back door. Maybe he knows where Johnny went.

After the second rap at the door, Mr. Jamerson appeared, his sleeves rolled up above his elbows. "What can I do for you?"

"Iím Scott Lancer. I was looking forÖ"

"Oh yes, Johnnyís brother. Come. Come on in. Right this way." Jamerson lead Scott into his work area. "Have a seat. Johnny was just here earlier today. Such an interesting person, your brother. Enjoy talking with him. Makes for a lively conversation."

Scott cleared his throat. Does he ever stop for air? "Mr. Jamerson, I was hoping you could tell me where my brother went."

"Why certainly. He headed over to the doctorís office. Looked poorly, and I told him so. Need to watch out for the flu. Had an elderly couple in here earlier, both of them died from the flu. Theyíre not here now. Their daughter came by and picked them up just a few minutes ago."

"Mr. Jamerson, about Johnny."

"Yes. Nice young man. Seemed very upset about his friendís death. Sad situation. The marshal finally located the next of kin. A sister out in St. Louis. She said bury him here, so I need to make those arrangements."

The smells in the cramped room reminded Scott of the field infirmary during the war, a memory he preferred to forget. Scott puzzled over the undertakerís words and tried to make sense of what he was hearing. Johnny doesnít have the flu. Heís bleeding. And what friend is Mr. Jamerson talking about?

"Marshal Burton came by to collect his personal effects. The sister asked to have them sent to her, and since the railroadís paying, why not."

"Slow down," Scott said. "Letís go back to Johnny. You said he looked poorly."

"My yes, he had a hard time mounting his horse, but Iím sure Doc Ulrich will give him something for his stomach."

Scott was frustrated. This is getting me nowhere. "Where is the doctor located?"

The undertaker proceeded to tell Scott in detail how to reach Dr. Ulrichís office. As Scott started toward the door, Mr. Jamerson put a hand out to stop him. "Tell Johnny that Iíll wait to bury his friend if he wants a few minutes alone with the deceased. He seemed very shaken."

Frowning, Scott turned and looked at the undertaker closely. "What friend are you talking about?"

"Why, Mr. Logan. Johnny knew his name right away. Amazing thing was he seemed to know who it was before I even lifted the sheet. Uncanny, almost like he had a premonition."

The name did not mean anything to Scott, and he tried to figure out who Johnny could possibly know in Sacramento. Except for the man they had met in the saloon their first night in town, he could not imagine his brother having friends here. Thatís itóFlint! "May I see the man youíre talking about?"

"Of course, heís right over there. I just cut his hair and trimmed his sideburns. Watch your step over here." Mr. Jamerson pointed at a wet spot on the floor near the table where the body lay. Then, he lifted the sheet and stepped aside.

"We had dinner with him two nights ago," Scott said in a low voice. Johnny and Flint had such colorful stories to tell, and they laughed so hard at each otherís jokes.

"Marshal Burton is considering it a murder. Apparently, the deceased was investigating some problem for the railroad. The marshal thinks he was shot to stop him from solving a crime. The marshal has the details. He didnít have time to tell me the whole story, but he knew what this poor gent was working on."

Scott nodded, but was more worried about finding Johnny. Maybe heís still at the doctorís office. With a passing thought, the blond wondered if his brotherís injury and Flintís death were related. Johnny and Flint were obviously friends with a long history. Based on what he had seen at the Good Eats Saloon, Scott could not picture either one hurting the other.

"Thank you, Mr. Jamerson. I better get going."

"Remember to tell Johnny, heís welcome to spend a few minutes with his friend before I bury him. Tell your brother I hope heís feeling better. Bed rest and plenty of water for the flu. Watch you donít come down with it too."

Scott left the undertakerís office, and the door swung shut behind him. He could hear Jamersonís voice rambling on even as he crossed the yard to saddle his horse.

***

Marcy clutched the rolled-up gun belt and held her breath, watching Johnny slowly settle into the saddle. "It wouldnít be any inconvenience at all if you want to rest in Jeffís room."

"No thanks, Maíam," Johnny said in a strained voice.

She studied the tight lines around the young manís mouth and knew nothing she might say would change his mind. "Make sure you rest that arm."

Johnnyís lips curled into a gentle smile. "You sure are worrying about me like a mother hen."

"Once a mother, always a mother." She lifted the gun belt and saw the look of frustration on his face. "How about if I buckle this for you?" She fastened the gun belt into a loop and settled it over the saddle horn.

"Appreciate that." Johnny lifted the reins and backed the palomino away from the picket fence.

"Johnny," Marcy said, grabbing Barrancaís reins. "You need to get some sleep."

"Got something to take care of first."

The expression on his face was guarded, and she recalled Murdochís words about Johnnyís past as a gunfighter. The man on the horse was no longer the hurt boy in her kitchen. "Please take care of yourself."

For a moment, Marcy thought she saw the boyís smile return, but then he nodded his head and the fleeting glimpse of vulnerability was gone. She watched him guide the golden horse down the street at a slow walk and head toward the outskirts of town. Then, she hurried into the house for her bonnet and shawl.

Marcy was certain Murdoch did not know how badly injured Johnny was. Otherwise, he would have been with his son. Murdochís telegram said they would be staying at the Cattlemenís Inn, but thatís not the direction Johnny is heading. Murdoch needs to know about this. Draping the shawl around her shoulders, Marcy set out to find her old friend.

***

Leaning back, Murdoch rested his elbows on the padded armrests of the chair and steepled his fingers together. He studied the men gathered around the long table. Every one of them is a successful rancher. Some he knew better than others. Men like Aaron Lowry were new members of the Cattlemenís Association Board of Directors and he was not as familiar with them. Others were old friends. Murdochís gaze settled on Henry Brickman. Used to be friends.

"Tonight, weíre going to name the Cattleman of the Year," the thin man at the head of the table said.

Murdoch recalled his angry words to Henry last night in the restaurant. He had wanted this trip to be a special time for his sons, but Henryís words had spoiled that. The hotel staff was no better.

"Our nominees are Aaron Lowry, owner of the Rambling Acres Ranch, for his tremendous turnaround of that spread." The thin man waited until a round of applause died down.

Aaron stood, leaning on his cane, and acknowledged the recognition. He stroked his beard, coughed once, and sat down.

"Henry Brickman of the Eagleís Roost, for his generous donation to the California Orphans Welfare Board."

Murdoch clapped politely, but wondered how the rancher could give so much money to help others, yet treat Johnny with such little regard. "Congratulations, Henry," Murdoch said in a listless voice.

"And our final nominee for this year is Murdoch Lancer, for all he did last year to stop Day Pardee and his high riders from terrorizing small ranchers."

Flushed, Murdoch nodded to those around the table and shook hands with the cattlemen seated beside him. The nomination was unexpected, and he was flustered. Johnny and Scott did more to earn this recognition than I did.

The man at the head of the table beamed and pulled on the lapels of his jacket. "Congratulations to all our nominees. The winner will be announced at tonightís banquet. Now, letís take a break to refill our coffee cups, and then weíll reconvene to finish our business. I promise we will be done by noon."

Shaken, Murdoch rose and mumbled his thanks to the cattlemen who surrounded him and patted him on the back. He paused when Henry offered his hand. Staring at the shorter man, Murdoch extended his arm.

"Murdoch," Henry said. "Iím sorry about last night. I thought about everything you said and realized I was wrong. I owe you an apology."

At a loss for words, Murdoch sighed. Henryís expression of regret sounded heartfelt, but Murdoch was not easily convinced.

"What you said about all of us being a mix of different cultures is true. I lay awake last night thinking about that. My mother was German and my father English. They were different, and Iím the result of their differences. Johnnyís mother was Mexican andó"

"Henry, I accept your apology, but Iím not the one who needs to hear it." Murdoch recalled Scottís words about not selling Hercules to a bigot. "You owe it to Johnny to tell him youíre sorry."

The portly man relaxed and nodded. "I intend to do that. Will he be coming to the dinner tonight?"

"I hope so."

"Well, Iíll tell him then." Henry shook Murdochís hand again. "Good luck tonight. I hope you win. Standing up to scoundrels like Day Pardee helps all of us."

Murdoch gripped Henryís shoulder and smiled at his old friend. The nomination was an honor, but having Henry apologize to his son meant more to him.

 

PART 7

The palominoís head bobbed with each stride, and its hooves struck the ground in a slow, steady rhythm. The loose reins swung freely, and the rider let the horse pick its own pace. With practiced ease, Johnnyís eyes scanned the horizon and the shadowy spots between buildings and behind trees.

The doctor had offered him some medication for the pain, but Johnny had declined. Need to be clear-headed. No telling whoís gunning for me. So, the pain from his arm pulsed in angry waves whenever he moved. The sling kept his injured arm steady, but the constant swaying of Barrancaís walk never let it be completely still. Focus on whatís next, Johnny boy, not on the pain.

Johnnyís thoughts went to the events of last night. He was certain Flint had been at the Anders farm when the shots were fired, and now he was dead. Someone else had been lurking near Hercules. That someone was the answer Johnny needed, but he had no clue who he was looking for or why. What was Flint doing at Anders place? Johnny reined Barranca toward the farm where the bull was boarded. He hoped he would find some answers there.

He looked down at his right hand, cradled inside the sling. With his jaw clenched, Johnny moved his fingers, willing them to open and close. The range of motion was less than he needed to hold a gun, and he knew he was defenseless.

The gun belt looped over the saddle horn banged against his thigh, and draping the reins over his all but useless right hand, Johnny used his left hand to reposition the holster. He removed the pistol and held it in his good hand. It felt awkward, but at least he was armed. Probably couldnít hit the side of a barn, but with practiceÖ He continued to ride at a slow walk, while getting accustomed to the feel of the gun in his left hand.

As he approached Andersí farm, Johnny slid his pistol back into its holster and took the reins back in his good hand. He had the beginnings of a plan and he felt better working on a course of action. Iíve survived this long because of skill, not luck. No need to change that now.

Ahead, Johnny observed Anders leaning against the corral that contained Hercules, a rifle resting in the farmerís arms. At his side, the black dog rose and barked until Anders silenced it. Johnny smiled at the protection the large bull was receiving. Without lifting its head at the sound of the approaching rider, Hercules continued to graze on a mound of hay.

Carrying a basket full of eggs, Bobby appeared from behind the barn. He began running and waved his hat at the dark-haired man. "Mr. Johnny!" When two eggs fell to the ground, the boy slowed to a walk.

Anders set his rifle by the fence and stepped forward, his eyes fixed on Johnnyís sling. "How are you feeling?"

With a faint grin, Johnny shifted in the saddle. "Reckon I learned never to play around with a bull in the dark." When the concerned expression on Anders face did not lighten, Johnny stroked the sling. "Doc stitched me up this morning. Nothingís broken. Just needs some rest and should be good as new." Johnny hoped the last part was true.

Carefully, he reached inside his sling and removed a package wrapped in brown paper. "Got something for Buster."

The farmer stepped forward to take the offered item and unwrapped it to expose a large bone. Jumping on its rear legs, Buster barked loudly and drooled. With a laugh, Anders tossed the bone to the dog. "You didnít have to do that."

"I gave my word." Johnny watched the dog gnaw at the traces of meat clinging to the bone. "Buster earned it after last night."

Bobby put his basket down and rubbed his hand along Barrancaís muzzle. "Buster and me been keeping a close eye on everyone thatís come visiting Hercules."

Johnnyís questioning gaze met Anders.

"The word must be out about your bull," Anders said. "Thereís been a steady stream of cattlemen stopping by today to take a look at him. I recognized most of them from past cattle auctions."

Johnny rubbed his hand over his face. He was tired and the pain was not easing up at all. "Any of them seem dangerous?"

"No, Johnny. Most years, I work at the stockyards during the auction moving stock around. Iíve seen most of these men before. Donít know their names, but they seem to be regulars. Just before you arrived, there was a pair of young ranchers checking out the bull. Theyíre brothers, but different as night and day. Quite a story Iím told."

"Mister Johnny." Bobby inched closer to Johnnyís leg. "You want to see the trick Buster and me can do with Hercules?"

"Not now, son," the boyís father said.

"Bobby, I told you to be careful around that bull, but I do need your help with something." Johnny grinned at the boyís squeal of delight. "Can you find some empty tin cans? Put them in a sack and come right back here."

The boy scampered off, but turned around to retrieve the basket of eggs before running into the house. Johnny watched the little figure disappear from sight. "Fine boy, Mr. Anders."

"What do you have in mind?"

"Just a little target practice." Johnny lifted the pistol from his holster again and frowned at the awkward feel of his left hand around the grip.

Anders nodded and hooked his thumbs in the straps of his overalls. "I looked around first thing this morning for tracks or any signs of who was out here last night. But didnít see anything that might help."

"Figured as much." Someone was here and I donít have a clue who it was. Flint, old buddy, what is this all about?

With a clatter of cans banging together in a flour sack, Bobby burst out of the house. "Got them, Mr. Johnny."

"Can you spare Bobby for a bit, Mr. Anders?" Johnny returned his gun to its holster.

"Sure, Johnny."

Bobby bounced up and down, causing the cans to rattle together more. Hercules bellowed at the noise and Buster wagged its tail, drumming the ground in excitement.

"Reckon you can ride double, Bobby?" Johnny smiled at the boyís glee.

Anders lifted the boy and settled him behind Johnnyís saddle. Bobby squirmed and wrapped his arm tight around the riderís waist.

Johnny gasped at the pain that shot through his body and grabbed the saddle horn. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

"Let go, Bobby," Andersí voice was sharp, and the boy loosened his hold immediately.

"Mr. Johnny, are you okay? Iím awful sorry."

"Itís fine, Bobby," Johnny said, his words barely above a whisper. He straightened and willed the waves of nausea away.

"He doesnít need to ride, Johnny. Or let me hitch the wagon." The farmerís face tightened with worry.

"Heís good." Johnny lightly tapped Barrancaís sides and the palomino moved forward in a walk. "Bobby, you can hold on to my shirt. Weíre only going to walk, so you donít need to worry about falling off."

The boy laughed and puffed up his chest. "Shucks, Mr. Johnny. I ainít afraid of falling off. If I can ride Hercules, there ainít a horse around that can throw me."

Chuckling, Johnny remembered how boastful he had been as a child. Age and experience had mellowed him. His mamŠ tanning his backside when she had caught him stretching the truth had helped too.

"Where are we going, Mr. Johnny?"

"Need a quiet spot where we wonít disturb anyone."

"I know a place like that. Thereís a hollow near my favorite fishing hole over yonder." Bobby pointed toward a stand of pine trees.

Johnny guided Barranca in the direction the boy indicated. At the smell of water, the palomino quickened its pace.

"What we gonna do when we get there?"

"Well, Bobby. Weíre going to see how far those cans can jump."

"Oh, boy!"

With a sigh, Johnny felt the boy wiggling with anticipation. Wish I had some of his energy. The former gunfighter ached all over, and a nagging weariness had settled upon him.

***

Without too much difficulty, Scott found Dr. Ulrichís office, but the sign in the window said the doctor was out making house calls. He checked around back, but there was no trace of Barranca. Where would Johnny go? Scott decided to ride back to the hotel, although every instinct told him his brother was not likely to do something reasonable like rest in bed, especially if he was intent on avenging Flintís death. Where are you, Brother? After failing to find Johnny at the hotel, candy store or even the Good Eats Saloon, Scott settled on stopping at the jail to see the marshal.

 

"Tell me again why youíre interested in the Logan case," Marshall Burton said, studying the young man seated on the other side of the desk.

Scott inhaled and explained for the third time. "Flint and I had dinner together two nights ago, and now heís dead. I want to know why." He was being careful to avoid mentioning his brother. If this marshal thinks Johnny Madrid is involved, he might try to blame him for this. However, Scott had a growing suspicion that somehow his brother was involved. "Flint told me he was working on some unfinished business for the railroad." Johnny had not asked his friend what the unfinished business was, and since Scott did know the man, he had felt it improper to inquire.

The marshal leaned forward. "What else did he tell you?"

"Stories from the past mostly." Narrowing his eyes, Scott decided to call the marshalís hand. "He was killed because of the railroad job."

Marshal Burton stood and walked around the desk until he was at Scottís side. He spoke in a low voice. "This goes no further. The railroad has a Pinkerton agent investigating. We both believe Flint Logan was killed because he was about to solve a case the railroad has been working on for years."

"Go on," Scott prompted.

"The Pinkerton agent told me a courier for the railroad was carrying a large sum of money about five years ago. The money was to be used to encourage the Mexican government to allow the railroad unlimited rights to operate in Mexico. The courier hired some half-breed gun hawk who could translate and protect him. Sounds like a damn crazy idea to me, but then, no one asked me."

Scott tried to imagine what this had to do with Flint. "What happened?"

"Seems the courier was ambushed and shot. Of course, the money was stolen." Marshall Burton snorted.

"What happened to his protection?"

"Like I said, the courier was shot, but he managed to make it to the nearest town sheriff. He reported the hired gun was killed trying to fight off the robbers. When the courier was well enough to travel, he led the sheriff to the site of the ambush and they found a body. Vultures and wolves had picked the bones clean, so there was no way to identify who it was."

Scott rose and brushed a piece of dirt off his sleeve. "How does Flint tie into this?"

"The railroad must have been suspicious of the courier. Seems he disappeared shortly after that and hasnít been seen since. Logan was hired to find out where he went and locate the money."

"After five years?" Scott was puzzled.

"Look, all I know is what the Pinkerton agent told me. The railroad must have its reasons for pursuing this."

"And you think Flint discovered what happened to the money?"

The marshal shrugged and walked to the window. "Or located the courier." He turned back toward Scott. "Sacramento is the state capital, not a Wild West showdown town anymore. Sure we have crimes, but weíve cut back on killings. A man was shot here last night, and I aim to find out who did it. If you know anything about this, tell me now."

Scott scuffed his boot against the floor and placed his hat on his head. "Afraid I canít help you, but I appreciate the information." Johnny was injured last night too. Scott wondered if there was a connection between Flint and Johnnyís bloody shirt, but he was not about to mention his brother to the marshal. "If youíll excuse me, Iím suppose to meet my father at noon."

Outside the marshalís office, Scott pursed his lips and looked at his watch. What do I tell Murdoch? And where is Johnny? Scott mounted his horse and set off at a quick pace toward the Cattlemenís Inn.

***

Shifting in his seat, Murdoch listened to the discussion concerning an experimental inoculation that was being tested on some cattle owned by a rancher near Modesto. He knew he should be paying more attention because this might be an important break-through in raising a healthier herd, but his mind was elsewhere.

I need to talk to the manager of the Inn about the way Johnny is being treated. He reviewed Scottís observations from last night and his own impressions. Imagine that waiter not serving Johnny this morning, when he obviously needed a cup of coffee. Murdoch remembered the drawn expression on his sonís face. He had seen Johnny after other nights of hard drinking, but he had never looked as bad as he did this morning. Murdoch felt an uneasiness he could not calm that maybe there was more than a hangover involved.

The meeting was running longer than intended, and Murdoch pulled out his pocket watch. It was not polite to be checking the time, but he had made a commitment to his sons for lunch. Glancing at both hands of the watch, he realized it was noon. "Gentlemen," he said in a firm tone. "Youíll have to excuse me, but I have another appointment."

"I think we are done," the thin man running the meeting said. "Weíll see everyone tonight for the awards, and the auction starts tomorrow at eight in the morning."

Amid the noise of chairs being pushed back from the table, Murdoch stepped out of the room and stalked to the front desk. He waited impatiently while a rotund man with a neatly trimmed mustache and a derby finished talking to the clerk behind the counter.

The clerk turned away from the man with the fancy hat and smiled at Murdoch. "Ah, Mr. Lancer. A lady dropped off a message for you earlier today." He spun around to the cubbyholes behind the desk and retrieved a note.

"Lancer. Murdoch Lancer?" The finely dressed man looked up from the register and removed his derby.

"Here you go, Sir." The clerk handed Murdoch the message.

"Thanks," Murdoch said, but his eyes were riveted on the rotund man beside him. Murdoch noticed the expensive fabric of the manís elegant suit, and the high-grade leather gun belt strapped around his hips.

"Let me introduce myself. Iím Bryan Thornton, and I work for the Pinkerton Agency. We need to talk." The manís mustache rose when he smiled.

Stuffing the note in his pocket, Murdoch forgot about his plans to talk to the hotel manager. "Talk about what?"

The man took a step closer and rubbed his hands along his belly. "You donít know me, but Iíve worked for you. Itís always a pleasure to meet a client. Hopefully, a satisfied client." He offered his hand to Murdoch.

Looking down at the manís hand, Murdoch frowned. Thornton. The name sounded familiar, but he could not quite place it. He thought back to the Pinkerton reports locked safely in his desk drawer at home.

The front door opened and Scott rushed in. "Murdoch, sorry Iím late."

The tall rancher motioned his son over, perceiving his agitation. "Scott, this is Mr. Thornton. Heís with the Pinkerton Agency."

"The other son, of course," the man said.

Murdoch exchanged glances with Scott, and suddenly he remembered. Bryan Thornton had signed the last report he received about Johnnyís whereabouts, the report that recounted his son's rescue from the Mexican ruralesí firing squad.

"Perhaps you had better explain yourself, Mr. Thornton," Murdoch said. Scott opened his mouth to say something, but Murdoch held a hand up to silence his blond son.

"Certainly, Mr. Lancer."

With a growing sense of urgency, Murdoch wanted to know who had hired the Pinkerton agent and who he was looking for. Hopefully, not Johnny.

"We were about to go to lunch," Murdoch said. "We can talk while weíre eating." He turned and walked into the dining room, but his appetite was gone.

 

PART 8

Johnny brushed his sleeve across his forehead, wiping the beads of sweat away. Aiming carefully at the row of tin cans on the tree stump, he stilled the nagging voice of doubt that echoed through his head. Relax. Breathe. Sight. Squeeze.

The roar of the gun reverberated through the hollow, and the bullet dug into the tree stump with a dull thud. Johnny lowered the pistol and sighed.

Relax. Breathe. Sight. Squeeze. He repeated the ritual he had practiced as a youngster when he had first learned to shoot, but working with his left hand was more difficult. He was not going for a smooth flow of motion, just accuracy. Again, he raised the pistol and concentrated on the cans. This time, the bullet ripped into the tin and sent the can flying through the air.

"Great, Mr. Johnny!" Bobby jumped and howled.

It had been a frustrating hour for Johnny. The repeated misses were bad enough, but having the young boy witness his failures was embarrassing. He could not even load the cartridges into his own gun. "Thanks, Bobby. Itís about time I hit one. Guess I should have practiced some with my left hand when I was learning to shoot, huh?" Of course, the one I hit wasnít the one I was aiming for!

The next two bullets also found their marks, ringing out with a metallic clank and sending the cans tumbling to the ground. Johnny studied the Colt in his hand. Itís always taken practice. "Time to reload, Bobby."

"How do you know that?"

"It pays to count your shots so you donít run out. A man can get killed by not paying attention to how many bullets are left in his gun."

The boy pulled four cartridges from Johnnyís gun belt and held them in the palm of his hand. "This is the last of them."

Youíre getting careless, Johnny boy. All this target practicing, and youíve only left yourself four shots when you may need them. He gave the pistol to Bobby and supervised the loading of the cartridges into the chamber of his gun. "Always point the barrel away from yourself and others when youíre working on a gun. It doesnít matter whether youíre cleaning, loading, or just admiring it.

"Thatís what my pa taught me," Bobby said, handing the loaded gun back to Johnny. "My pa also says youíre a good man to have on my side."

"Thanks." Johnny lowered his head. But your pa doesnít know me, doesnít know my past. He might think different if he knew I was Johnny Madrid. Exhaustion and pain were taking their toll on the former gunfighter. "Letís get you home, partner. You were a big help today."

Johnny deposited his pistol back in the holster, regretting again the absence of cartridges in the gun belt. After slinging the buckled belt over the saddle horn, he inhaled deeply and mounted Barranca. The wave of pain blurred his vision and he rocked forward in the saddle.

"Mr. Johnny?" Bobbyís voice trembled with worry and he ran to Johnnyís side.

The dizziness passed in a few minutes, and Johnny nudged the palomino toward the tree stump. "Jump up on this, Bobby."

The boy stood on the stump and scrambled behind Johnny. "You okay, Mr. Johnny?"

"Just tired and sore." The former gunfighter recalled Dr. Ulrich and Mrs. Dane telling him to get some rest. After I drop Bobby off, Iíll catch some sleep back at the hotel. Iím not having any luck figuring out what happened to Flint. Maybe when Iím rested, things will make more sense.

***

Watching the Pinkerton agent butter his biscuit, Scott tried to put the pieces of information together into a complete picture, but some critical facts were still missing. He wondered if the man sitting across from him was the agent hired by the railroad, and if he knew what had happened to Johnny last night. However, each time he started to ask a question, Murdoch gave him a warning glance. Scott understood his fatherís concern and suspected Murdoch did not want the agent to know Johnny was in Sacramento. Wherever he is.

"Finding your son was one of the more challenging assignments Iíve ever had," Bryan Thornton said. He laughed and shook his head. "It was a close one. My Spanish isnít that good, and the Mexican general didnít want to release his most famous prisoner."

Putting aside his thoughts about the railroad and Flint Logan, Scott leaned forward and listened closely. Neither Murdoch nor Johnny had provided many details about how Johnny had been rescued from the Mexican rurales. This is the man who saved my brother from the firing squad.

"I didnít put this part in the report, Mr. Lancer," he continued. "My superiors wouldnít have been too happy to know about it, and it was a point of embarrassment for me."

Scott watched the manís checks reddened and wondered what his brother had done that could still make the man flush more than a year after the fact.

The rotund man stroked his mustache and chuckled. "I had just finished paying off the captain of the firing squad and was untying Johnnyís wrists, when your son grabbed my pistol and started firing at the Mexican soldiers. Needless to say, we hightailed it out of there, but not before Johnny helped another prisoner escape. It still makes me smile to think of his audacity."

"Sounds pretty foolish to me," Murdoch said.

"Well, Mr. Lancer. They were prisoners whose only crime was defending their homes against the excesses of the rurales. It was a complicated situation. Did Johnny ever tell you about what happened down there in some of the villages?" The Pinkerton agent glanced from Murdoch to Scott.

"Heís never told us much about his past," Scott said.

"Understandable, I suppose. Sometimes itís best to leave the past alone. Of course, in my line of work, my job often requires digging into the past."

Scott squirmed in his seat. He had been waiting for this moment. "And what sort of job are you working on now, Mr. Thornton?"

"Unfortunately, I canít tell you that. We Pinkerton agents must maintain our clientís confidentiality, unless they allow us to reveal the details, and at this point, I have not been given that liberty. However, I have enjoyed our conversation. Oh, and Mr. Lancer, please tell your son I appreciated his discretion in returning my gun."

At the puzzled expression on both Murdochís and Scottís face, the agent laughed. "You can imagine it was quite embarrassing to have lost my gun. So I immediately purchased another and never let on that an unarmed man had disarmed me. However, a few weeks later, I received a box marked "Confidential" at the Pinkerton office in San Francisco where I was assigned at the time. In it was my gun, with a note from Johnny thanking me for allowing him to use my pistol. How he knew to send it to San Francisco is beyond me."

Leave it to Johnny to know something like that. But Scott still did not have his answer about what this agent was investigating and whether Johnny was involved.

"I really must be getting back to work," the man said. "Hope to see Johnny personally on this trip and thank him myself. I thought perhaps he would be joining you for lunch."

"Weíll let him know that we saw you," Murdoch said in a carefully guarded tone.

Scott watched the Pinkerton agent leave the table after bidding the Lancer men a good day. "Do you think his being here has anything to do with Johnny?"

"I hope not," Murdoch said. "We donít need your brotherís past causing problems at the auction."

Nodding, Scott decided he would wait to say anything about his current fears that Johnny was already involved with some problem from his gunfighter days, and that the death of his friend, Flint, was somehow tied to that problem. However, whether there was a connection between Johnny and the railroad or its Pinkerton agent still confused him.

"I wonder where your brother is?" Murdoch rose from his seat and dropped his napkin on the table. "He was supposed to meet us for lunch so we could check out the stockyards this afternoon."

"Murdoch, why donít we split up. You check the stockyards, and Iíll go take a look at Hercules." Scott needed to be alone if he was going to continue his search for Johnny.

"Right. We will need to move Hercules to the stockyards soon, so heís ready for the auction first thing tomorrow morning."

"Iíll take care of that," Scott said, relieved that his father wasnít suspicious of his desire to be on his own. Now, Little Brother, donít make finding you any harder than it has to be.

***

Murdoch went to his room and changed out of his business suit and into a plaid shirt and jeans. As he placed his jacket over the back of a chair, he heard the crinkle of paper and remembered the note the clerk had handed him earlier. Unfolding the paper, he studied the flowing handwriting and glanced at the name on the bottom of the page. Marcy Dane. He smiled and sat down to read her message.

Murdoch,

Consider me a meddling old friend, but I saw your son, Johnny, this morning, and was concerned. Please come to see me soon. Perhaps Iím more worried than I should be, but as his father, I thought you ought to know that he appears to be in some difficulty.

Your old friend,

Marcy Dane

P.S. My home is on Lemon Street, south of Main. Itís the yellow house with the window boxes.

Murdoch read the note twice; then pulled his boots on and went out to the street. He flagged down a carriage and reread the message two more times before arriving at Marcyís house. Trying to control his fears, Murdoch knocked and waited until the widow opened the door. At the sight of her familiar face, he took her hands in his, searching her eyes for a clue as to the nature of Johnnyís difficulty.

"Murdoch, come in. I hope my note didnít worry you too much. I wasnít sure who might read it, so I didnít want to add many details."

He followed her into the neat front room of her house, noting the comfortable furnishings that were so characteristic of Marcyís style. The lace doilies would have been out of place at Lancer, but were perfectly right here. His eyes swept around the room, half-hoping that there would be some sign of Johnnyís presence. Seeing none, he took hold of Marcyís shoulder and gently turned her around. "Whatís wrong with Johnny?"

"Have a seat and Iíll tell you everything I know." She led him to the settee near the fireplace, and settled into a rocking chair across from him. "Did he go back to the hotel to rest?"

"I havenít seen him since this morning. He was sporting a pretty bad hangover at breakfast."

Marcy smiled and patted Murdochís hand. "That boy of yours and mine are two of a kind. They both know how to take us down the wrong paths. It wasnít a hangover, Murdoch. He was hurt. I saw him this morning outside Dr. Ulrichís. He nearly passed out in the street."

"Where is he? How bad is he hurt? What happened?"

"Whoa, cowboy. One question at a time. I donít know exactly what happened, but there was some sort of accident with a cow. He didnít tell the doctor much, but he wasnít shot, if thatís what youíre worried about." Marcy paused. "His right arm needed stitches and is supposed to be in a sling."

"He wasnít shot." Relieved, Murdoch struggled to remember how Johnny had faked his way through breakfast. "I wasnít paying enough attention to him this morning, Marcy. Scott said he came back drunk last night, and I just thought he had a hangover this morning."

"Let me get you some tea," the widow said. "Or maybe something stronger?"

"Just answers. Thatís all I need." It was hard to imagine his son being injured by a cow. Johnny knows his way around animals. How could this happen?

"Heís strong, Murdoch. He came over for chowder after seeing the doctor. I tried to get him to rest in Jeffís bed, but he wouldnít. Thatís what your son needsólots of sleep. Heíll mend fine, if he lets his body heal."

At the mention of Jeffís name, Murdoch thought about the suffering this lovely woman sitting across from him had gone through with her own son. "How is Jeff doing?"

"Oh, he still doesnít admit he did anything wrong. I visit him in prison, and itís always the same. But your boy, Murdoch, heís different."

Puzzled over why Johnny would deceive him, Murdoch realized that Johnny had done nothing dishonest. His youngest son simply let them believe what they wanted about him, and he and Scott had believed the wrong thing. Closing his eyes, he shook his head. "Itís hard being a parent."

"Yes. It certainly is." Marcy went to the sideboard in the dining room and returned with two glasses of sherry. "Hereís to our sons. May we understand them one day."

"Sometimes, I donít think thatís possible." Murdoch examined the delicate crystal stemware in his large hand. So fragile, just like my relationship with Johnny. I could shatter it with my bare hands.

"Nonsense, Murdoch. Theyíre children, our boys, and they need us to make the effort to understand them."

"But how, Marcy? Johnny is a grown man. I missed so muchÖ Heís not like Scott. Scott I can understand. We think the same way." He recalled the time Scott had committed Lancer funds to help build a jail for Spanish Wells, at the same time he had arranged for the appointment of a marshal. We even joked about our similar thought processes. "But JohnnyÖ"

Marcy stopped rocking and moved from her chair to sit beside Murdoch on the settee. "Johnny needs you to try. I wish you could have seen him this morning. He wouldnít admit it, but I could see he was afraid."

"Afraid of what?" Murdoch studied her expression closely.

"Think about it, Murdoch. You told me Johnny existed for all those years as a hired gun, and suddenly, because of some sort of problem with a cow, he canít use his right arm. The hand that has been so quick with a gun is wrapped in a sling and he has no idea if he will be able to use it again."

"He told you all this?"

"Of course not." Marcy chuckled and smoothed the fabric of her dress. "He didnít have to. I could see it in his eyes."

"Will he be able to use his arm?" Staring at the sherry in the bottom of his glass, Murdoch wondered if limiting Johnnyís prowess with his fast draw might be a good thing, but he realized instantly it could mean his death.

"Dr. Ulrich says he should recover full use, but he needs to keep his arm still. Something heís not going to do if heís out riding his horse. Find him, Murdoch. Make him rest."

Tilting his head back, Murdoch drained the glass quickly. "Did Johnny say where he was going?"

"No, Iím afraid not. He said he had something to do, but he really should be resting that arm."

Murdoch rose to leave and stopped, frowning. "This isnít the visit I had hoped to have with you."

"Thereíll be other times, Murdoch. Go find your son." Taking his arm, Marcy escorted him to the door. "You know my home is always open to you and your family. Donít be a stranger."

At the front porch, he turned and took her in his arms. "Thank you, Marcy." Suddenly, he felt shy and hesitant. "Thereís a Cattlemenís Dinner tonight at six oíclock in the hotel ballroom, and Iíve been nominated for an award. Maybe you would join me?"

"Iíd be delighted. Iíll meet you in the hotel lobby just before six." Her face glowed with the warmth he remembered from all those long years ago.

Murdoch grinned, and then hurried away, trying to figure out where his youngest son would have gone, and what was so important that Johnny had to get it done rather than taking care of himself.

 

PART 9

In the cool stillness of the undertakerís barn, Johnny inhaled the aroma of fresh timothy and was tempted to lie down on the bales of hay stacked neatly by the door. The stiffness in his chest and belly made moving difficult, and the throbbing of his injured arm was worse than earlier in the day. His eyelids drooped and exhaustion slowed his thoughts.

Standing by Barrancaís side, Johnny loosened the cinch and let the girth drop. He grabbed the saddle horn with his good hand and took a deep breath, but the best he could do was to slide the saddle off the palominoís back. It fell to the stall floor with a jingle of metal and a creak of leather. "Poor way to treat a fine saddle." Barranca snorted and pranced away. With a grunt, Johnny dragged the saddle to the end of the stall and propped it against the wall. He hitched the gun belt over his left shoulder and stepped back into the stall.

"Sorry, compadre. Hope you wonít mind if I donít brush you right now." Wearily, Johnny patted his horseís shoulder and watched the palomino dip its muzzle into a bucket of water. "That looks pretty good to me right now." Thirst made him lick his lips, and he shuffled out of the barn. His appetite was absent, but he needed water, and needed it soon. Water and sleep.

Scottís horse is gone. Johnny vaguely wondered where his brother might be, and whether Scott and Murdoch had missed him at lunch. He regretted not telling them about his injuries, although he reasoned he had done it to avoid bothering them. The feeling of letting them down nagged at him. Iíll set it straight when I see them at dinner. He recalled plans for a special banquet that night at the hotel. Murdoch and Henry Brickman had spoken about it at length during dinner the previous night.

Slowly, he trudged away from the barn and headed for the alley leading toward the hotel. Should be able to get a few hours of sleep. With any luck, Iíll be asleep in ten minutes. At the sound of a door opening, Johnny knew luck was not on his side today. Hell, it ainít been on my side since we got to Sacramento.

"Johnny, there you are," Mr. Jamerson called. "Did your brother catch up with you? He was here earlier looking for you. I sent him over to Dr. Ulrichís. Say, what happened to your arm?"

Dragging his good hand over his eyes, Johnny turned to face the undertaker. "Had a run-in with a bull."

"My, my. Well, at least it wasnít the flu. Hey, did your brother tell you about your friendís viewing? Iíve waited to bury him until you had a chance to visit with him. He doesnít have anyone else here but you apparently. Come on in. I think youíll be pleased with what Iíve done with his hair."

Iíve already said my peace with Flint. What more can I do here?

Jamerson hurried over to Johnnyís side and gestured toward his building. "Maybe youíd like some of that peach cobbler now. Right this way. As soon as youíre done visiting with your friend, Iíll load the coffin in the hearse and get him buried before sunset. Actually, will need some extra hands to lift him. Itís a much bigger box than usual."

In a daze, Johnny let the undertaker lead him inside and accepted the glass of lemonade the man thrust into his hand. He drank it without a word.

"You take your time with your friend. Iíll be in the kitchen if you need anything." Jamerson backed out of the front room and closed the door behind him.

Johnny stepped close to the pine box resting on a table in the middle of the dimly lit room, and peered at Flintís chalk white face. Death was no stranger to the dark-haired man, but staring down at its lifeless reality hurt in a way Johnny found hard to deal with. He had left many men dead in the dirt without looking back. Some he had seen laid out on a board for a photographer to capture their image in death, and it had left him cold inside. However, visiting a corpse laid out in a coffin sent chills down his back and twisted his gut in knots.

Brushing the hat off his head, Johnny lowered his gaze and stared at the slicked back hair and manicured sideburns of his friend, but remembered the large man shaking his wild mop of hair and itching his bushy sideburns while proposing a toast over a round of beer. "Donít much look like you, Flint, old buddy."

A smile drifted across Johnnyís lips at a memory from the past. "We had a time in Yuma. Didnít we? You, me, and Wes. Seems like a long time ago." He sighed and turned away, wrapping his good arm around the sling.

"Iíll find out who did this to you, amigo. And Iíll take care of him for you." Johnny slipped out of the undertakerís place without stopping in the kitchen.

***

The mid-afternoon sun blazed high in the sky when Scott rode into Mr. Andersí farm. He was frustrated after having no success in locating his brother, even though he had retraced his route from Dr. Ulrichís to the Good Eats Saloon, the candy store, and a few of the other possible spots Johnny might have visited. The entire time, he kept glancing over his shoulder to see if the Pinkerton agent had followed him. So far, there was no sign of the well-dressed man with the derby.

Reining his horse to a halt by the corral, Scott frowned at the barking dog. Mr. Anders, with Bobby tagging along, stepped from the front porch of the house and greeted Scott, quieting Buster at the same time.

"Have you seen Johnny today, Mr. Anders?"

"Sure thing. He left about an hour or so ago," the farmer said.

"He let me ride his horse." Bobby grinned and pointed his fingers like a gun. "And I helped him with his target shooting."

Scott felt relieved that he had finally found some trace of his brother, but worried about why Johnny would be target practicing. Maybe heís not hurt as bad as I thought. He glanced from father to son and wondered which question to ask first. "Is he okay?"

Mr. Anders set his rifle down and shook his head. "Hercules ripped up Johnnyís arm pretty bad. Heís got it in a sling, but he seemed to be hurting a mite."

Hercules? That bull wouldnít hurt a fly. "What happened?"

Mr. Anders hooked a thumb in the strap of his overalls and told Scott about the events of the previous night. The blond listened without interrupting. When he was through with his account, the farmer hesitated and looked over at the corral.

"What is it, Mr. Anders?"

"Iíve got to go over to the stockyards. Iím supposed to be working the auction tomorrow, but we have things to do this afternoon to get ready for tomorrow. Thereís been a steady stream of ranchers coming by to look at your bull, so I didnít want to leave him alone. Could you stay here for a few hours while I work at the yards?"

Scottís emotions warred within him. He should keep looking for Johnny, but he could not impose on the farmer anymore than they already had. Dismounting, he said, "You go ahead and do your job. Iíll keep an eye on things here."

"Can I go with you, Pa?" Bobby bounced up and down, and tugged on his fatherís sleeve. Buster wagged his tail and barked loudly at the boyís excitement.

"Sure, Son."

Scott eyed the large dog by Bobbyís side. "What about Buster?" He recalled his brotherís firm manner with the animal, but the blond was not looking forward to spending several hours alone with him.

"Weíll bring him with us. Heís good around cattle," Anders said.

The boy flashed a smile at Scott. "When we get back, me and Buster can show you the trick we taught Hercules."

"Iíd like that, Bobby." Scott waved as the father and son set off for the stockyards with Buster bounded alongside them. When they were gone, Scott turned and leaned against the fence, studying the huge bull contentedly chewing its cud. "Who was out here last night? Were they after you and Johnny stopped them? Or was somebody after him?" The bull flicked its tail and continued eating.

***

Glancing at the approaches to the Cattlemenís Inn from an alley across the street, Johnny shifted his weight from one foot to another. No sign of trouble. His left hand reached awkwardly for the pistol in the gun belt suspended from his shoulder. He knew this arrangement was not going to work if a challenger stopped him as he crossed the open street in front of the hotel. Removing the gun from its holster, he slid the Colt into his sling, hiding it, yet making it more accessible.

After a final survey of the street, Johnny decided against entering the Inn through the front entrance. Instead, he angled toward an alley near the hotel and headed toward an open door at the rear of the building. He paused and listened to the easy banter of conversation from inside. Kitchen workers, it sounds like. He smiled at a strong female voice rattling orders in Spanish, and stepped through the door into a beehive of activity.

Johnny watched the kitchen staff stir pots and baste roasts browning on a spit over an open fire. The smell of apple pies, hams, and biscuits merged and roused Johnnyís appetite. He had not eaten anything since Mrs. Daneís chowder in the morning. He was tired and thirsty, but now his hunger pressed like a sharp knife against his insides.

Across the room, he spotted an older woman with gray hair gathered in a bun directing other women who peeled potatoes at a table. She glanced at him and shook a finger in his direction. "Vaya! No tengo empleo para usted."

Johnny smiled and took off his hat. "No necesito un empleo, SeŮora." I must look pretty bad if she thinks Iíve come begging for a job.

The woman frowned and wiped her hands on her apron. A young girl in a white dress with a red sash and colorful embroidery dropped the knife she was using on a pile of carrots and ran to the woman. The girl stood on her toes and whispered in the elderís ear. Instantly, the womanís expression relaxed, and she hurried to Johnnyís side.

"Lo siento, SeŮor," she said. "Estoy SeŮora Gomez. Iím sorry. How can I help you?" She straightened her apron and brushed a hand over her hair.

The young girl giggled and scurried around the room telling the other kitchen workers about the dark-haired man standing by the door. "Heís the one."

"Luisa, silencio!" The older woman scolded the girl.

Leaning against the door frame, Johnny rubbed the arm cradled in the sling and licked his lips. "Agua, por favor."

"Si, SeŮor," the young girl said, grabbing a cup and filling it with water from a row of pitchers lined up on a counter.

"English, Luisa," the older woman said. "The manager wonít fire me for speaking Spanish because he needs me. But you, all of you, he will not tolerate speaking in Spanish." With a shrug of her shoulders, she turned to Johnny. "This is the way it is here."

A murmur rippled through the room, and Johnny sighed. This place treats people worse than I thought. He took the water offered by the young girl and gulped the contents.

The older woman studied Johnny closely. "You need more than water." She whirled to the other women in the kitchen. "Keep working. We have a big dinner to prepare in just a few hours. Luisa, fix a sandwich and refill his cup with more water."

"Gracias, SeŮora Gomez," Johnny said softly.

"De nada." Her voice softened. "You look like you need some rest." She led Johnny to the back staircase, and called over her shoulder. "Luisa, bring the tray to his room when you are done."

Johnny followed the woman up the steep, narrow stairs. Each step sent a shiver of pain through his body. The gun resting against his injured arm poked him in the ribs, so he adjusted its position slightly. With relief, he saw the room he and Scott shared near the top of the stairs.

"SeŮor, the talk among the staff here at the hotel is that you are the first of our kind to stay in one of these rooms. If there is anything you need, you come to the kitchen and I will personally see you get it. Donít ask the waiters or clerk; they are all gringos."

SeŮora Gomez opened the door to Johnnyís room and gestured to the tan jacket and vest draped over the back of a chair. "They are cleaned and pressed. Your shirt is being mended by SeŮora SuŠrez, and she will bring it back when it is done." The woman eyed Johnnyís sling. "Do you need un doctor?"

"No. Already seen him. Just need some sleep." Johnny slipped past the matronly woman and sat on the edge of the bed. He ached all over and the throbbing of his arm had increased since climbing the stairs. Something to eat and a few hours of sleep should help. He dropped the empty gun belt to the floor.

Luisa tapped on the door and entered carrying a tray covered with a cloth. She set it on the table next to the bed and stared at the dark-haired man.

"Help him take off his boots, niŮa," SeŮora Gomez said quietly.

The girl knelt and tugged on Johnnyís boots until both were off. "Anything more I can do for you?"

Johnny smiled at the eagerness in the dark face staring up at him. She canít be much more than Pony Aliceís age, and sheís looking at me like Iím some kind of hero. "No gracias, SeŮorita Luisa."

The girl grinned and dipped quickly in a curtsy. "De nada."

"We have work to do," the gray-haired woman said. "Remember, SeŮor. You come to the kitchen if you need anything." She beckoned to Luisa and shooed her from the room. Then, she smiled and closed the door as she left.

With the room to himself, Johnny laid back on the bed, too tired to lift the cloth from the tray of food. He willed the angry pounding of pain along his arm to slow and was asleep in minutes.

***

The stockyard was busy with cattle milling in the pens and bawling in a noisy medley. Murdoch propped his elbows against the top board of the fence and studied the dairy cow with the large brown eyes. Teresaís been after me for a new milker. Maybe this one would be worth adding to our stock. He moved to the next pen, although his heart was not in assessing the quality of livestock. Finding Johnny was more important, but he had no idea where his youngest son had gone. If heís with Hercules, Scott will be with him and know if Johnnyís hurt as bad as Marcy said.

Murdoch continued down the line of pens, peering over and between the slats of the fences at the confined livestock. After a few paces, he caught a glimpse of a face peering at him ahead. Something about the manís stare disturbed the cattleman, but Murdoch could not see his face clearly.

When Murdoch moved toward him, the man ran and dodged around a farmer in overalls and a little boy. A black dog trotting by the boyís side barked and bounded in front of Murdoch. His heart beating fast, Murdoch sidestepped the animal.

Hobbled by the lingering stiffness caused by Pardeeís bullet, he jogged awkwardly after the escaping figure. Try as he might, Murdoch could not catch up with the man in the dark suit. Iím getting old. Slowing, Murdoch watched the fleeing man disappear behind a barn wall. His chest heaving, he hurried toward the barn, but lost sight of the man. Something was not right. Why would he run?

As the rancher came around the back corner of the barn, he glanced up and down the row of pens, but could not see the man he had been pursuing. Instead, he spotted the Pinkerton agent from lunch talking to the stockyard manager near a water trough. Murdoch stopped in his tracks. Whatís Thornton doing here? He wondered again if the agent was looking for Johnny, but his thoughts were halted by the sound of his name being called.

"Murdoch Lancer," a cowboy dressed in a black vest and gloves shouted. He walked briskly past a loading chute and smiled broadly, extending his hand to Murdoch. A blond cowboy trailed behind him.

Murdoch sighed and turned away from the Pinkerton agent. Taking a deep breath, he tried to calm his frustration at losing the man he was chasing. "Nick Barkley, good to see you again. Howís your mother?"

"Everyoneís fine. Hey, let me introduce Heath, my younger brother. Heath, this is Murdoch Lancer. Runs a large ranch near Spanish Wells."

The blond cowboy bobbed his head. "Nice to meet you, Sir. Havenít spent much time in that area."

Murdoch was puzzled at Nickís introduction of a brother he had never heard mentioned before. He remembered Jarrod and had watched Eugene grow taller each year, but the rancher was certain the blond cowboy had not been at the Convention before. But who am I to question anyone when it comes to family. Murdoch cleared his throat and shifted his weight. "Iíve got my two boys in town with me on this trip. Iíd like you to meet them, perhaps at dinner tonight."

"Sure, Murdoch. Say, I hear youíre in the running for Cattleman of the Year," Nick said in a loud voice, lifting an eyebrow. "And thatís a magnificent specimen of a bull you have for the auction tomorrow."

"Boy howdy, never seen a bull quite like that one," Heath added in a soft drawl.

"Youíve seen him?"

"Murdoch, you didnít really think you could hide a bull that size?" Nick slapped the older rancher on the shoulder. "Keeping him on the edge of town rather than in this mud hole was a great idea. Most of our stock is covered with mud from tail to nose. Reminds me, Heath, you better get to cleaning up those animals."

A crooked smile played across the blond cowboyís lips. "Anything you say, Nick, but maybe you better show me how."

Murdoch grinned at the banter between the brothers, thinking of the way Scott and Johnny often teased each other. "My eldest son, Scott, should be bringing Hercules to the stockyards later today. Heís a Hereford bull, a special breed from the East." Murdoch found himself warming to the subject but felt guilty that he was conducting business when Johnny was somewhere out there hurt and alone.

Nick removed his hat and ran his gloved hand through his black hair. "Murdoch, do you really think anyoneís going to bid on that over-sized excuse for a bull? Why it must cost a fortune to keep him in feed. And you could never travel fast enough on a cattle drive with a herd full of critters like that. Besides, thereís not enough grass between most ranches and the railhead to keep them going."

"I imagine it would take a rancher with vision," Murdoch said. "Breed that Hereford bull with a range-wise shorthorn cow and youíd have a larger, heavier steer that could thrive on the range."

"Thatís a tall order." Nick shook his head and then put his hat back on. "No one is going to spend good money on an experiment like that. The talk is that you realize it too, and thatís why youíre selling the bull. Folks are calling it ĎMurdochís Mistake.í"

Murdoch was disappointed to hear Nickís opinion. The Barkleyís have a good feel for ranching. Maybe I was wrong to think Hercules would go for top dollar. But if he doesnít, weíll lose the Davenport parcel and our water access. Murdoch decided to play his cards like a winning hand. "I bet youíre wrong, Nick."

"Sounds like a wager to me," Heath said.

Nick grinned. "I donít want to take your money, Murdoch. Youíre going to need it to buy feed for that bull."

Murdoch wondered if Nick was right. Hercules is valuable, and someone will see that. But he was beginning to worry just who that might be.

"Say, Murdoch, you got your acceptance speech ready for tonight?" Nick gripped the front of his vest and cocked his head back to eye the tall rancher.

"No. Hadnít given it much thought."

"Well, you need to," Nick said in a loud voice. "The new Cattleman of the Year canít be speechless. Maybe you can convince them to bid on ĎMurdochís Mistake.í"

The Barkley brothers laughed and bid farewell to Murdoch. With their laughter ringing in his ears, the rancher was left to wonder who had been watching him earlier and how he could interest others in bidding on his bull. And there was the nagging concern about where his youngest son was and how he was feeling. Finally, Murdoch returned to the hotel to work on his speech. Not that Iíll need it.

 

PART 10

Scott stood back from Hercules and admired the carefully curried hide of the large animal. "You look very impressive, big boy. Weíre counting on you to bring a good price tomorrow." He moved around to the bullís wide head, avoiding the curved horns. With a few flicks of the brush, Scott finished brushing Herculesí white face. The bull lowered its head and rubbed against the brush.

"Did I find a good spot?" Scott rubbed the area between the bullís eyes and felt Hercules lean into his hand. The bull took a step forward, and Scott backed away. Remembering Johnnyís bloody shirt, Scott shuddered. One more step by the bull and he would be trapped against the fence. Scott rapped the brush against Herculesí muzzle, and glanced over his shoulder at the railing. With a loud snort, the bull twitched its ears and lumbered across the corral. The blond relaxed and exhaled loudly. Johnny wasnít as lucky.

Scott returned the grooming tools to the barn and was heading to the front porch of Anders house, when he heard the clip-clop of a horseís hooves and saw a well-dressed rider approaching. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he recognized the man as Aaron Lowryís associate. Probably stopping to check out Hercules. Lowry said he wanted to see the bull.

As the rider dismounted, Scott stepped forward and introduced himself, extending his hand in the manís direction. The manís expression was cold, and Scott remembered seeing a similar look on his brotherís face when he had been called out as Johnny Madrid not too long ago.

"Samples. Will Samples," the man said, glancing around the farmyard.

"You work with Aaron Lowry, if I recall correctly," Scott said.

"Mr. Lowry has some interest in your bull." The man walked past Scott and stood at the fence, appraising Hercules with a look of disinterest on his face.

The blond remembered his fatherís tactics from the previous evening and followed Will to the edge of the corral. "Heís a quality animal. We expect him to bring a high price tomorrow."

The man looked at Scott with a sneer. "Money is no problem for Mr. Lowry. He gets what he wants." Will watched the bull for another minute and then returned to his horse.

Scott could not understand why the man came all the way to Anders farm, only to spend so little time examining the bull. "Would you like to know more about the Hereford breed?"

"Not necessary." Will put his foot in the stirrup to mount, but the horse shied away from him.

Scott grabbed the horseís reins to steady the animal, glancing at the man who hopped awkwardly toward the saddle. The motion swung Willís jacket open, and Scott spotted the pearl handle of a revolver nestled in a shoulder holster. As the man mounted, the jacket fell back into place, hiding the gun again. Scott recalled the way Johnny had stared at the man last night during dinner. Maybe he knew the man was armed.

Will rode away without another word, and Scott heaved a sigh of relief. However, a sense of foreboding settled on the blond.

***

In his sleep, Johnny shifted position and tugged on the blanket, pulling it tight over his shoulder. He drifted deeper into slumber and his eyes moved rapidly under his eyelids.

A soundóthe slightest whisper of a footfallówoke him from his sleep. He lay still and listened. The crackle of the fire was near, so too was the steady breathing of the man who had hired him. But beyond the glow cast by the campfire, in the darkness of the night, there was another presence. He opened his eyes and waited, waited for a clue. Is it a man or an animal?

Johnny gazed up at the stars and began counting them at an even pace. Stay calm. Be still and listen. Then came the repeated sound of a boot moving in the dry soil, only closer this time, and the faint scent of tobacco carried in the air. Itís a man.

Johnny lifted his head and glanced at the sleeping figure on the other side of the fire. He could barely see the side of the manís face. The light from the flickering flames illuminated Mr. Reynoldsí pockmarked cheek. "Mr. Reynolds, someoneís out there," he whispered.

Slowly, the middle-aged man rolled over on his blanket. "Youíre imagining things, kid."

"No, SeŮor." Johnny crouched and pulled his pistol from the worn gun belt strapped to his hip. His thin hand curled tightly around the grip, and he squeezed his index finger against the trigger until it was snug. He hired me and is going to pay me good. Me, Johnny Madrid, barely sixteen, and he trusts me to do his job. I wonít let him down.

"Go back to sleep," the man said in a loud, irritated voice.

"Youíre paying me to protect you and your money. And Iím telling you, thereís somebody sneaking up on us." Johnny crept away from the wavering flames and edged toward the darkness.

"Come back here."

"Quiet!" Heís going to warn the desperado if he doesnít shut up. Johnny stopped moving and tried to catch the direction of the intruderís footsteps. He pushed the poncho away from his gun arm, while his eyes probed the night.

The man grumbled and rose from his bedroll, coughing as he did. He tossed another piece of wood on the fire, which sent a swirl of sparks flying.

A twig snapped to Johnnyís right, and he whirled with his gun thrust forward. "Show yourself!"

The metallic click of a gun cocking filled the night air. In response, Johnny dropped to the ground and fired once. He heard a man scream, followed by a thud. "Stay here, Mr. Reynolds. Iím going to check on him, to make sure he donít bother you no more."

Cautiously, Johnny moved into the darkness, slowly advancing in the direction he had fired. A few steps away from the light, he heard a moan and knelt beside the prone man. "Found him, Mr. Reynolds. Heís still alive."

At the sound of another pair of footsteps in the darkness, he raised his head from the injured man. Thereís another one! "Step into the light!"

Two shots rang out in rapid succession. The first one whizzed harmlessly past Johnnyís head, but the second bullet tore into his gut. Staggering, he fired one shot and fell forward. The last thing he heard was Mr. Reynoldís deep hacking cough. Lo siento, SeŮor. I didnít get the job done.

 

The rain started as a drizzle in the pale hours of dawn and grew into a steady downpour by mid-morning. The raindrops drenched Johnnyís poncho, making it dark and heavy. His eyelids fluttered open, and he gasped at the sharp pain that tore through his gut. He fought back the tears. "Madre de Dios."

"Mr. Reynolds," Johnny called in a weak voice. He waited, but there was no answer. He lifted his head and looked around, blinking as the rain hit his eyes. Beside him lay a dead body, the eyes half-opened and mouth agape. Johnny had a feeling of grim satisfaction that he had stopped the thief from last night. But there was another one in the darkness.

Dragging himself to his knees on the wet ground, Johnny clutched his abdomen. "Reynolds!" Waves of pain crashed through Johnnyís body at the effort to yell the manís name. Where is he? Did the second desperado kill Reynolds and take his money?

Johnny staggered to his feet and moved haltingly to the cold campfire. The fire had long since burned itself out and the rain had quenched any remaining embers. He tottered to his blanket, the only reminder that two men had made camp there for the night. My horse and saddle are gone. And Mr. Reynolds, too. Johnny moaned and collapsed in the mud.

Fine pistolero you turned out to be, Johnny Madrid. Lost your horse and saddle and the man who hired you. All on your first real paying job as a gun hawk. You didnít even get paid because you agreed to payment at the end when you finished the business with this hombre.

Johnny pulled the poncho away from his belly and opened his shirt to examine the wound. The bulletís still in there, and I ainít nowhere near a doctor. He ripped the bottom of his shirt and folded the strip of fabric into a pad. Pressing the wad of material against the bullet wound, he tried to stop the flow of blood. Pain shot across his abdomen, worse than any beating he had ever taken. He screamed in agony.

***

Johnnyís eyes snapped open and he panted wildly. In desperation, he looked around the room and realized he was in the Cattlemenís Inn, not the rain-soaked flats on the edge of the badlands. It was just a nightmare. Willing his muscles to relax, Johnny sank into the mattress. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead, and he wiped them away with his sleeve.

Havenít thought about Reynolds in years. Wonder what happened to him and his money. Johnny rubbed his good hand across his eyes and recalled his own circumstances following that dreadful night. He had barely survived. Half dead and in pain, he struggled toward the nearest water hole, where an old Mexican couple found him.

Without the benefit of a doctor, they had dug the bullet out, and for weeks, Johnny clung to life, sick with fever and delirium. Finally, with the old coupleís help, he recovered. It took months for him to earn enough money for a horse, a sorry crow bait of a nag that he rode without a saddle. He went looking for Reynolds, but was never able to find any trace of him or his money. He regretted that he had failed miserably at the job and never was paid a peso for all the work he had done before that night. One of the few bits of unfinished business Iíve left behind.

Johnny swallowed and licked his parched lips. Hunger gnawed at his insides, and the steady throb of pain from his injured arm reminded him that he was in sorry shape and needed to take care of himself. Slowly, he rolled to the side of the bed and slid his legs to the floor. He felt stiff, and without looking, he knew the bruises on his chest and stomach would be with him for a long time. His right arm, cradled in the sling, was swollen. He tried to move his fingers, but they barely responded. Damn! What good is Johnny Madrid or Johnny Lancer without a working right arm?

At a light tap on the door, Johnny reached for his gun with his good hand and pushed himself to his feet, swaying as he rose. He took a steadying breath and straightened his shoulders.

"SeŮor," a soft voice said from outside the room. "Itís me, Luisa. SeŮora Saurťz finished mending your shirt."

Johnny moved haltingly around the bed and stilled the angry waves of pain. Opening the door, he looked down at the eager young face and tucked the pistol into his sling.

The girl smiled and peeked into the room. Her expression changed, and she frowned, pointing at the untouched tray of food. "Did you not like the sandwich I made?"

"Well, SeŮorita." Johnny grinned and took the repaired shirt from her outstretched hand. "Reckon now that Iím awake, it will taste mighty fine."

The girlís smile returned and she laughed. "SŪ, SeŮor." She glanced around nervously. "If they catch me speaking Spanish, SeŮora Gomez says I will be fired."

Johnny looked up and down the hallway. His eyes narrowed when he caught sight of a man in a dark suit leaning against the wall near the top of the grand staircase. Their eyes met for a moment and the man fled down the steps. Johnny thought about following him, but the twinge in his belly stopped him. In good time. The man did not seem to be an immediate threat. More like a sacred jackrabbit.

Johnny glanced back at the young girl by the door. "Then youíd better not let them catch you. Comprende?"

"SŪ." Her eyes sparkled and she ran down the back stairs to the kitchen.

Closing the door, Johnny tossed the neatly mended shirt over the chair with his jacket and approached the tray of food. Better eat first. Then get some bullets. Four bullets were not going to be enough for whatever lay ahead.

***

Murdoch awoke with a start. When did I fall asleep? He had returned to the hotel from the stockyards planning to write a few words for an acceptance speech he did not expect to be giving. Settling in the leather chair at the table near the window, Murdoch scratched some lines on a piece of paper and read them with disgust. After several failed attempts to pen a paragraph or two, his eyes drifted closed, his head nodded forward and his chin rested on his chest. He dozed until the crick in his neck roused him. Or was it voices in the hall?

With a grunt, Murdoch stretched and regarded the crumpled sheets of stationery spread across the table. A shaft of sunlight splayed against the wall opposite the window, and he pulled out his pocket watch. Five oíclock. I need to change and meet Marcy downstairs in less than an hour. Dipping his pen in the inkwell, he began another version of the speech, but his thoughts kept wandering back to Johnny and Scott.

***

Johnny ate most of the sandwich and downed the last of the water. Satisfied, he repositioned the pistol in his sling so the barrel rested on his forearm, rather than poking him in the ribs. Although he was still stiff and his arm ached, he felt better after resting and eating. With slightly steadier steps, he headed to the door. Now I need some bullets. He left the room and quietly closed the door behind him. For a moment, he thought about taking the back stairs down to the kitchen, but with a glint in his eyes, he turned toward the grand staircase. Iím done putting up with this place.

It was Johnny Madrid who descended the sweeping stairs into the lobby, with a confidence and control that had been honed by years of experience. He sauntered to the registration desk and leaned casually against the counter. "Whereís the gunsmithís shop?"

Startled, the clerk peered over the top of his spectacles and blinked. "Four blocksÖ down on the right."

Johnny smiled and remembered Luisaís fear of being caught speaking Spanish. "Muchos gracias, SeŮor." He let the words flow slowly off his tongue, pleased with the clerkís shocked expression.

At the sound of glasses and silverware clinking together, Johnny noticed the hurried activities in the dining room and recalled the banquet that evening. Better let Scott and Murdoch know Iíll meet them at dinner. "Get me a piece of paper and a pen," he said to the clerk.

Johnny studied the man and decided the bespectacled man had regained his composure. Sure enough, when the clerk placed the requested items on the counter, his face was set in a scowl.

With his good hand, Johnny tried to write a note, but the letters were irregular and shaky. Ainít going to work like this.

The clerk laughed in derision. "I knew you people couldnít write."

Johnny set the pen down and grinned at the man. He slipped the gun from his sling and held it to the clerkís neck. "I donít write well with my left hand, Ďcause I never practiced. But Iíve been practicing my shooting, and my left hand works just fine for that."

With wide-eyed panic, the clerk blanched. "I didnít mean anything," he stuttered.

"Imagine that," Johnny said in a soft voice. He cocked the pistol hammer. "Now pick up the pen and write what I tell you."

The clerk obeyed quickly, his eyes darting around the lobby. As Johnny dictated, the manís hand trembled. When he was finished writing, the clerk read the words back to Johnny.

The dark-haired man lowered his gun and replaced it in the sling. "See that Scott or Murdoch Lancer gets that note when they get in."

Nodding, the clerk mopped a handkerchief over his sweating brow. "Yes, Sir."

With a final glare at the man behind the counter, Johnny headed toward the door. Donít think Iíll have any more trouble from him.

At the sound of a deep hacking cough, Johnny froze in his tracks. Reynolds. The coughing continued, coming from the card room. How could I forget that sound? He remembered the bullet tearing into his body and the sound of that cough in the darkness.

***

When Scott dismounted outside the undertakerís barn, he was relieved to see the hearse was missing. At least I donít have to talk to Mr. Jamerson. He was even more pleased to see the palomino standing inside the barn in a stall, but the sight of Johnnyís saddle laying on the floor and the horseís dusty condition gave Scott a chill. "Johnny must be feeling pretty bad if he didnít brush you down, Barranca."

Scott picked up his brotherís saddle and placed in on a saddle rack, and then quickly groomed both horses. "Wish you could tell me whatís going on or where that brother of mine has gone now," Scott said, flicking the brush over the palominoís back. When he was finished, the blond hurried from the undertakerís place into the alley leading to the Cattlemenís Inn. In Morro Coyo, Iíd have found Johnny by now.

 

PART 11

Johnny entered the card room, and his eyes fixed on Aaron Lowry sitting at a table by himself with a glass of scotch before him. How did I miss it earlier? The same gray eyes. The beard covers the pockmarks on his cheeks and he didnít limp back then. But that coughÖ "Reynolds, you and me have some unfinished business."

"Have a seat, Madrid. I was wondering when you would realize who I was."

Standing beside the bearded man, Johnny puzzled over why Reynolds had changed his name.

As if reading his thoughts, Aaron said, "You may wonder why Iím Aaron Lowry now, but itís no different than Johnny Madrid showing up here as Johnny Lancer. Sometimes itís best to leave the past behind."

Johnny pulled out a chair and sat down. "You owe me, Reynolds."

"You didnít get the job done, Madrid. However, I think in consideration of your efforts, you deserve payment." The bearded man reached into his jacket pocket.

Johnny tensed and leaned forward.

"Easy, Madrid. Iím just getting my billfold." Aaron removed his wallet and counted out twenty dollars. "Full payment for services rendered, even though you did a miserable job of protecting me."

Johnny stared at the bills fanned out on the green felt of the card table. He had worked cheap in those early days; that was before he had made a name for himself. You were an unknown back then. Just needed enough money to keep you and your horse fed as you moved from job to job.

His gunfighter instincts told Johnny something was wrong. It didnít make sense. Reynolds had changed his name and now he was willing to pay the hired gun who had failed to protect him all those years ago. Johnny berated himself for not recognizing Reynolds sooner. It was a long time ago, but how did I miss the details?

Johnny pushed the money back at the bearded man. "You do owe me something, but itís not money. You owe me an explanation. What happened after I was shot? Where were you? Who took my horse and saddle?"

With a laugh, Aaron Lowry rose to his feet and tapped the black walking stick against his leg. "I was wounded fighting the thief. He took the money and left. My horse ran away, so I took yours to get help. When I returned with the sheriff, you were gone. Thatís all I can tell you."

"You left me to die." Johnnyís injured hand twitched, and a jolt of pain shot up his arm.

"Thatís a hard thing to prove," Aaron said. "Especially, since you are very much alive today." He hobbled away, leaning on his polished walking stick.

Johnny sat and stared at the money still lying on the table. It could have happened the way he said. Johnny had no way of knowing, but he did not trust the bearded man. Slowly, he collected the money and shoved it in his pocket. "Payment for services rendered." He shook his head and shuffled to the lobby. All that pain for $20. Better get those bullets. He left the hotel and hiked to the gunsmithís shop.

***

Shadows darkened the narrow alley and Scott stepped carefully over a smashed crate, its broken boards jutting upward at jagged angles. He lost sight of the late afternoon sun in the narrow passageways and after taking more twists and turns than he recalled from earlier, he knew he was lost. How does Johnny do it? At the next place I find a street, Iím getting out of these alleys. He remembered his brotherís comment about paying attention to details. Maybe thatís how he managed to find his way through this maze.

Scott hurried forward and spotted a carriage rolling past an opening in the alley ahead. Wrinkling his nose at the putrid stench, he walked past a filthy, discarded sack. To his left, he heard a scratching of claws and caught sight of a long tail. A rat! With a shudder, he remembered the rodents that had prowled the prison camp during the war.

Quickening his pace, Scott raced out of the alley and into a street lined with shops. He glanced down the road, made bright by the warm rays of the setting sun, and relaxed when he spotted City Hall. I know how to get to the Cattlemenís Inn from here.

With the sunlight on his back, Scott marched along the sidewalk, his shadow lengthening before him. He passed City Hall and kept walking at a fast clip. He noticed a man in a dark suit leave the government building. A pair of ladies in hoop skirts blocked the way ahead, so Scott stepped into the street to avoid them and caught a snatch of their conversation as they peered in the shop window.

"Weíll come back tomorrow when the store is open," the woman nearest the window said.

"I do so love that blue dress. It would be beautiful for the Spring Cotillion," the other responded.

With a cringe, Scott remembered the Cattlemenís Banquet and hoped his brother had returned to the hotel. Murdoch is going to be furious if both Johnny and I miss it. Taking Hercules to the stockyard and getting the bull settled in one of the small pens had taken longer than Scott expected, even though Anders and his little boy had been a big help. Regardless of what happens at the auction tomorrow morning, we need to do something special to thank Anders. Thinking about the crestfallen look on the boyís face when Scott left, the blond tightened his lips. Bobby certainly was disappointed when I told him there wasnít enough time for him to show me his trick with Hercules. Maybe I better stop at the candy store to make amends.

The columns of the Cattlemenís Inn loomed ahead and Scott began planning his next actions, but his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of running footsteps behind him. Scott whirled around and spied a dark figure duck into a recessed doorway. Heís the man who came out of City Hall. In a moment, the manís head peeked from his hiding place and disappeared again. Scott rushed over to the doorway and stared at the stranger with his handlebar mustache and nervous twitches. The manís eyes blinked rapidly and he looked for a way to flee, but the two ladies strolling along the walkway hindered his escape.

"Stay put," Scott commanded, his voice harsh and firm. He watched the ends of the manís mustache droop, and had to stop himself from smiling. Heís scared.

"Who are you?" Scott took a step closer to the man and rested his hand on the butt of his gun.

"PÖ PÖ Peterson." The man seemed to regain his composure. "Agent-in-Training Peterson, Pinkerton Detective Agency."

Scott leaned toward the man who cowered against the doorframe. "Why are you following me?" Maybe he has answers about what happened to Johnny. Or to Flint.

The Pinkerton agent swallowed twice and stammered. "I canít tell you. Agent Thornton will write me up, and Iíll be thrown out of the agency."

Fighting back a chuckle, Scott thought it might be the best thing that could happen to the man with the now-limp mustache. "Do you work for Thornton?" When the man nodded, Scott continued questioning him. "Where is Thornton?"

"Iím scheduled to meet him at the Cattlemenís Banquet."

"Well then, letís go." Scott grabbed the manís arm and dragged him toward the hotel.

***

The green taffeta dress rustled as Marcy guided the full skirt out her front door. She had not worn the garment in over four years, but it still fit in an alluring way. Murdochís sudden invitation to the Cattlemenís Banquet had caught her by surprise and without enough time to make or buy anything new. She had not been to the Banquet in years, not since her husbandís death. The Banquet was one of the major events of Sacramentoís social calendar. Tomorrow, the newspaper would recount all the details of the elaborate evening.

Her heart beat faster at the thought of entering the grand ballroom on Murdochís strong arm. "Youíre acting like a silly schoolgirl," Marcy said to herself.

She bent and plucked a few hardy marigolds from her window boxes. Gathering the flowers together, she tied them into a nosegay with a ribbon. Not the prettiest arrangement, but this time of year not much else grows. This is a special occasion and there should be flowers. She prayed her old friend would be selected as Cattleman of the Year. He deserves it.

Clutching the bouquet, Marcy stepped off her porch and strolled toward the picket fence. She noticed a buggy waiting outside her neighborís house. Poor Glen. Looks like heís off on another night call. As she neared the gate, Dr. Ulrichís office door opened and the doctor hurried out with his medical bag in hand.

"Marcy, you look lovely tonight," he called.

"Thank you, Glen. Iím going to the Cattlemenís Banquet to meet an old friend."

Dr. Ulrich stowed his black bag in the buggy. "Same friend whose son I treated earlier today?"

"Yes." She wondered how Johnny was doing.

"Tell that young man to stop back tomorrow. I want to check how his arm is healing. Infection is the greatest danger with a wound like that."

Mary nodded. "Youíve been awfully busy recently. Where are you off to now?"

"Most of my colleagues are in San Francisco for the Annual Medical Conference, and Iím filling in for them. Thatís kept me real busy. Right now, Iím off to see Molly Tuttle. She went into labor early. You know she lost her last two babies, and I promised Iíd stay with her all the way through this delivery." The doctor climbed into the buggy and settled beside the farmhand who held the reins.

Mary thought about the young woman in the outlying farm who wanted children so desperately. She had lost a baby herself a long time ago, and still remembered the pain and emptiness. With a smile, she handed the nosegay to her neighbor. "Give this to Molly and tell her Iíll be praying for her."

The doctor gestured for the driver to depart and waved farewell. Marcy watched the buggy until it turned the corner. Glen is such a patient man and caring doctor. She thought about the differences between Murdoch and her neighbor, and then she mulled over the similarities. Such musings filled her head as she strolled to the Cattlemenís Inn. Occasionally, she held her hand up to shield her eyes from the setting sun.

***

Murdoch folded the single piece of stationery with his hastily written speech and tucked it in his jacket pocket. He was certain he would not need it. Twice before he had been nominated for the Cattlemen Associationís highest recognition, but he had never won. Aaron Lowry has done an incredible job of expanding the Rambling Acres Ranch and bringing in new breeding stock. If I could spend the kind of money he has, Lancer would be a showcase too.

Murdoch thought lovingly of his estancia. He was proud of what he had done so far. With Scott and Johnny to help me, weíll make it even better. At the thought of his two sons, he decided to check whether they had returned to the hotel and dressed for the banquet. He brushed a piece of lint from the lapel of his dress jacket and adjusted his tie before leaving his room.

Standing outside Scott and Johnnyís room, Murdoch knocked on the door. When he got no response, he rapped again and called out, "Boys, time to get ready for dinner." He put his ear to the door, but heard no sounds of activity. Scott should have been back from the stockyards by now and Johnny should be resting. He recalled Marcyís description of his youngest sonís injuries and wondered once again how Johnny could have been gored by a cow. Something else must have happened. Johnny is too wise about animals to have been accidentally injured.

Murdoch tramped down the broad staircase, determined to control his frustration at his missing sons. After all, this is my event. How can I expect them to feel the way I do about the Cattlemenís Association? Still, it bothered him that his boys might not be present for the award ceremony.

Lost in his thoughts, Murdoch barely noticed the men in dapper suits and ladies in fancy dresses gathered in the hotel lobby, their voices raised in a blend of laughter, boasting, and camaraderie. He walked under the chandelier glistening in brilliant elegance and past the entrance to the ballroom, flanked by tall vases filled with fragrant bouquets of roses and ferns.

"Mr. Lancer." The clerk at the registration desk gestured urgently.

Working his way through the crowd, Murdoch watched for Marcy and eased his way to the front counter. "Yes?"

The clerk handed him a note, handling it as if it might sting him. "Tell your son I did what he said."

Unhappy with the manís tone of voice, Murdoch glared at the man in the starched shirt, and then opened the paper. His eyes jumped to the bottom of the page, relieved that it was from Johnny. "See you at dinner." Murdoch turned the note over, hoping there was more. Leave it to Johnny to create more questions than answers. Well, dinnerís in a half hour, so Iíll see him then.

"When did he give you this?" Murdoch studied the clerkís uncomfortable expression.

"Within the past hour, Mr. Lancer. That half-breed couldnít even write it himself. Made meÖ"

Murdoch frowned, silencing the man. He remembered his earlier intention of speaking to the hotel manager. "I want to see the manager."

"Is something wrong?" The clerkís hand went to the collar of his shirt.

"Definitely," Murdoch said.

The clerk hesitated, his eyes darting around the lobby. "Please follow me." He led Murdoch to an office near the card room and knocked on the door before entering. In a moment, he returned to Murdoch and said, "Mr. Hendricks has someone with him right now but will see you in just a minute."

Murdoch paced outside the office and mentally rehearsed what he was going to say to the manager about the prejudice the staff had displayed on this visit. When the door opened, he was startled to see Agent Thornton emerge from the office.

"Mr. Lancer," the Pinkerton agent said, lifting his derby.

Murdoch nodded, the hotel manager forgotten. "Didnít expect to see you again today." He glanced away from Thornton, scanning the crowd in the lobby. Now is not the time for Johnny to show up.

***

Closed! Johnny tugged on the locked door and then turned away from the gunsmithís shop. Four bullets ainít near enough. However, his lips curved in a partial smile at the thought of the range war he had stopped with a single bullet. Guess Iíve done okay with less.

The setting sun reflected off the shop windows across the street, and Johnny figured he better return to the hotel if he were going to change into that blasted suit for dinner. He was not looking forward to the difficulty of struggling out of his shirt and pants with an arm that was useless and hurt. He thought about skipping the banquet, but he knew it was important to his father. Maybe Scott can help me with the buttons. At the thought of his brother, Johnny realized he could borrow some bullets from him. Relieved, the dark-haired man started back toward the Cattlemenís Inn.

He did not get more than ten feet from the gunsmithís shop when the familiar sense that danger was near sent his good hand into the sling to make sure his gun was handy. Johnny slowed his pace and casually looked around the street. Unexpectedly, a wave of heat rippled through his body.

"Madrid!" The callous voice came from behind him.

Johnny remembered the same sound from last night at Anders place. So it wasnít Flint calling me. Turning slowly, he squinted into the sun.

Will Samples stood in the middle of the street, dressed in his tweed suit and his right hand lingering near his vest. His face was shadowed and he took a step closer to Johnny.

"You want something, Samples?" Johnny flexed the fingers of his good hand and judged the distance between him and the well-dressed hired gun.

"Weíre going to settle an old score."

"You and I donít have any score to settle," Johnny said in a soft drawl.

"Mr. Lowry thinks we do."

"You mean Reynolds." Keeping his expression calm, Johnny walked along the sidewalk toward Samples. The dark-haired man had no idea what the hired gun was talking about, but he was not about to show his confusion. Reynolds gave me that $20, and if anyoneís been wronged, it was me. He left me to die.

"I donít know who Reynolds is. I work for Mr. Lowry, and you stole a lot of money from him a long time ago."

"He lied to you, Samples. I didnít steal his money." Johnny recalled the conversation in the card room, not more than a half hour earlier. He told me the desperado took the money. "Heís not worth dying for."

"Youíre the one whoís going to be doing the dying. You need a gun, Madrid?"

"Got one." Johnny patted his sling and grinned, but his eyes never left the hired gun. Heís wearing a shoulder holster. Thatíll slow him down. He recalled a gunfight a couple of years before with another gun hawk who used a similar rig. Unless heís patient, heíll pull the trigger while his aim is still a bit to my right. If I move to the left, Iíll be less of a target.

Johnny continued easing down the sidewalk to take the setting sun out of play. He could now see Samplesí face clearly, and he watched the manís eyes. The eyes will give him away.

"Thatís enough talking, Madrid."

"One thing Iíd like to know, while you can still talk," Johnny said, and his lips curved menacingly. "Are you the one who done Flint in?"

"You mean that big oaf?" Samples laughed callously.

Johnnyís eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened. "Was that you last night out at Andersí farm?"

"That was me. I followed you and was going to take care of you, but the big nosy guyóthe one asking all those questions about Mr. Lowryógot in my way."

"Now we can stop talking, Samples. I got what I needed to know." Johnny studied Will Samplesí eyes. They blinked and shifted to Johnnyís sling. Thatís the signal. The man reached into his jacket for his revolver.

Johnny slid his good hand into the sling, darted to the left, and spun sideways. His hand wrapped around the pistolís grip and his index finger settled against the trigger. Inside the sling, he lifted the barrel from where it rested atop his forearm and tightened his finger. The bullet tore through the fabric of his sling, and the heat from the discharge warmed his arm. The first shot missed, and Johnny fired again.

Dropping to a crouch, Johnny watched a circle of red spread across Will Samples chest. Lethargically, the hired gun finished drawing his revolver and squeezed the trigger. His bullet hurtled past the spot where Johnny had been standing. Will staggered and adjusted his aim in Johnnyís direction for a second shot.

"Drop it, Samples. No need to die for Reynolds." Sensing the hired gun was about to take another shot, Johnny fired again. This time, Samples collapsed to the ground.

Johnny sighed and pulled his pistol from the sling. He walked over to the prone body and lowered his gun. "Reynolds lied to you." But this evens the score for Flint. Doesnít make it right though.

A light flashed and Johnny raised his gun instinctively, searching for the source of the popping sound.

"Donít shoot, cowboy," a photographer said nervously. A young man stepped away from the camera tripod and held his hands in the air. "Itís just a picture for the newspaper. I was going to the Cattlemenís Banquet, but this is a better photo."

Johnny stared at the man with the camera and returned his pistol to the sling. His right arm throbbed and he felt hot all over. The banquet would have to wait. If Reynolds is saying I stole money from him, then we do have some more unfinished business between us. Johnny headed for the hotel without looking back at the crowd gathered around the lifeless body in the street.

 

PART 12

Pulling the man in the dark suit by the arm, Scott flung open the door of the Cattlemanís Inn. "Now, Peterson, where are you supposed to meet Thornton?" At the sight of the formally-attired people gathered in the lobby, the blond paused and released the Pinkerton agentís limb. In his work shirt and jeans, Scott felt conspicuously out of place.

"He told me to blend into the crowd, and he would find me," Peterson said.

Scott fixed Peterson with a warning glare and nodded toward the grand staircase. "Come with me."

Halfway across the crowded lobby, Henry Brickman stopped the pair. "Scott, I need to talk to your brother. Have you seen him?"

"No," Scott said in a cold voice and brushed past the portly cattleman. You didnít want to talk to him at dinner last night.

"When you see him, tell him I want to apologize about what I said yesterday."

Scott wheeled around, struggling to understand what he had just heard. "Iíll let him know." When he turned back toward the stairs, the Pinkerton agent was gone. Scott hurried through the crowd, searching for the man in the dark suit, but without success. Cursing his own stupidity, Scott rushed to his room to change into his dress suit.

He unlocked the door and removed his gun belt, flinging it on the bed. I havenít seen Johnny since breakfast. Scott stripped off his work clothes and noticed his brotherís tan jacket and white shirt draped over the back of a chair. Then, he caught sight of the serving tray on the table beside the bed and the half-eaten crust of bread from a sandwich. Heís been here! I must have been just a little behind him all day.

Scott quickly finished dressing and strapped the gun belt back around his waist. Murdoch may not be happy about it. But with a Pinkerton agent skulking around, Flint dead, and Johnny missing, Iím wearing my gun. He remembered his brotherís hesitation yesterday in leaving his pistol behind in the room. Maybe if Johnny had his gun last night, things might have gone differently. Shaking his head, Scott frowned at how little he knew about what actually had happened to Johnny.

He fingered the carefully mended sleeve of the shirt he had made Johnny buy. It was only yesterday that he was flirting with the woman in the candy store and arguing with me about the string tie. Followed by dinner and Henryís bigoted words. Nothing has gone right since then.

***

Murdoch studied his oldest son as he descended the sweeping staircase, his steps slow and listless. Something must be wrong. Scott displays his emotions like a signpost.

"Thornton, I see my son and need to talk to him," Murdoch said.

"Johnny?" Agent Thorntonís eyes darted through the crowd, his expression one of anticipation.

Murdoch did not miss the eagerness in the manís voice. "No. My other son, Scott. Now, if youíll excuse me." He started to leave, but the Pinkerton agent followed.

The noise of the crowd rose in a swirl of voices, making it difficult for Murdoch to hear Thorntonís response. He asked the Pinkerton agent to repeat himself.

"The railroad has given me permission to tell you about the case Iím working on," Thornton said. "But perhaps we can go somewhere quieter."

"Iím expecting to meet someone here." Murdochís eyes swept the mob in the lobby and wondered if he should have taken a carriage to pick up Marcy. He caught Scottís gaze and waved for his oldest son to join him.

"Itís about Johnny." Thornton removed his derby and stroked his hand across the top of his head.

Murdochís heart beat at a faster rate, and he tightened his hands into fists. "Letís step out front." He led the way to the hotelís portico and waited for what he knew would be bad news.

***

Scott watched his father leave the lobby with the Pinkerton agent from lunch. Hurriedly, he scanned the crowd, looking for Peterson. The man in the dark suit was not to be seen amid the festive celebrants starting to drift into the dining room. Scott weaved his way between the people and exited through the front door. He spotted Murdoch and Thornton at the end of the veranda and joined them.

"So, you see, Mr. Lancer," Thornton said. "The railroad suspects its courier, Ben Reynolds, might have arranged the whole robbery attempt to hide his own theft of the money. When the railroad recently received a tip from an informant that Johnny Madrid might have been the gunslinger Reynolds hired, I was brought into the case. As the agent who found Madrid for you, I was the logical choice to locate him again."

Scott felt a twinge of familiarity in something the agent had said. Reynoldsówhere have I heard that name before?

"Are you saying you think Johnny stole money from the railroad?" Murdochís chin jutted forward in an expression Scott had seen at times when the elder Lancer was angry.

"No, Iím not saying that. I hope Johnny can shed some light on what happened. Reynolds reported the robbers killed the gunslinger he had hired. We all know that Johnny Madrid is very much alive. So, if the informant is right that Johnny Madrid was the hired gun, then the courier must have been lying about something. The amount of money was substantial. Iím not at liberty to disclose the amount, but the railroad is anxious to recover its funds."

The agentís words sent a chill down Scottís spine. "Why was Flint Logan killed?"

"How did you find out about that?" Thorntonís eyes fixed on Scott, assessing him closely.

Murdoch looked puzzled and turned to the blond. "Whoís Flint Logan?"

"In addition to the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the railroad hired Mr. Logan," Thornton said. "He was running a lead that we thought might result in locating Reynolds, who disappeared about five years ago, shortly after recovering from the wound he received in the alleged robbery. Logan was killed last night."

"Flint was a friend of Johnnyís," Scott added. Instantly, he realized that making the connection between Flint and his brother might have given Thornton information that could be used against his brother.

"Iím well aware of that," Thornton said. "You forget that I tracked Johnny Madrid across most of the border towns and low spots between here and Mexico. I know his friends, his enemies, even his lovers."

Scott met the Pinkerton agentís stare and did not flinch.

"Iím not after Johnny, except to learn what he may know about a crime against the railroad." Thornton pulled his wallet from his pocket. "Money worked once in getting Johnny to meet you, Mr. Lancer. The railroad is prepared to offer him money to tell us what he knows. Thatís all Iím after, just information."

Scott mulled over what Thornton had said, but could not shake the feeling that he had heard Reynoldsí name before. But when? "And how does Peterson tie into this?"

"Whoís Peterson?" Murdochís eyes shifted from Scott to the Pinkerton agent.

Thornton sighed and tugged on his satin vest. "Heís an agent-in-training. I tasked him to keep an eye on you two, hoping you might lead us to Johnny."

"In the stockyards this afternoon, there was a man who ran away from me," Murdoch said. "I couldnít see his face but he wore a dark suit."

Thornton nodded. "Sounds like him. He tends to run at the first sign of trouble. Training him may be a tougher job than finding Johnny."

Scott doubted the agentís statement. Iíve been looking for Johnny all day and havenít been able to find him. From what Thornton told us, Johnny could be in real trouble. This Reynolds character has already killed one person. Johnny could be next and he may not be in any condition to defend himself.

***

With the light fading, Johnny slipped into the alley behind the hotel. The ache in his arm had become a steady pounding, and the fingers of his injured hand were swollen and numb. The prospect that he might never recover the use of his right arm scared him. I was lucky with Samples, but luck wonít save me for long. He had never relied on luck to run his way. Be a mistake to count on it now.

Johnny entered the kitchen through the rear door and smiled at the sight of SeŮora Gomez directing the kitchen staff like a trail boss dogging drovers on a cattle drive. He nodded at the busy woman and tried to move through the bustling employees without disrupting them. Winking at Luisa, who was slicing loaves of bread on a workbench, Johnny passed the young girl and headed to the back stairs. Climbing slowly, he made his way to the room he shared with his brother.

Inside the room, he searched for Scottís gun belt, desperate to find some bullets. Iím down to one bullet. A single bullet and a bum arm. The odds were not in his favor, no matter how he looked at it. He eyed the clean shirt and pressed jacket. Hardly seems worth the effort, but for Murdoch, Iíll try to get all duded up again.

He eased his arm out of the sling and hissed at the pain the movement caused. Looking at the sling, the ragged hole with charred edges reminded him of the gunfight not more than fifteen minutes earlier. I killed Samples over a lie Reynolds told him. I bet Reynolds lied to me too. He took my horse and left me for dead. Wonder if he took the money too and lied about the desperado?

While he tugged on the buttons of his shirt to undo them, he plotted his revenge for Reynolds. Getting out of his shirt was easier than putting on the clean white one. It took all his concentration to close the middle buttons of his shirt. The collar and top buttons he left open, exposing his dark chest hair. When he was finished, he sat on the bed and took a deep breath. A wave of heat swept through his body, and his vision blurred.

***

Marcy arrived at the Cattlemenís Inn fashionably late. She was relieved to see Murdoch and Scott standing on the veranda talking to another gentleman, but noticed immediately that Johnny was not with them. As she strolled over to the Lancers, the man with them lifted his derby to her and left.

"Hope I havenít kept you waiting too long," Marcy said. Her concern grew after one glance at Murdochís stormy expression, and she glanced from father to son. "Is something wrong? Is Johnny okay?"

"I havenít seen Johnny since breakfast," Scott said, looking defeated. "But he has been in our room and had something to eat."

Murdoch offered his arm to Marcy, but frowned. "Marcy, apparently an incident from Johnnyís past has arisen."

"He didnít tell me anything, other than about the cow hurting him." Marcy remembered the young manís words to the doctor. "He called it a Ďcareless mistake.í"

"It was more than that," Scott said. "It was Hercules that gored Johnny."

"Our bull? Are you sure, Son?" Murdoch sounded worried.

"Andersóthe farmer whoís been taking care of Herculesótold me Johnny was at his place last night; probably went there after he left us at the restaurant. Someone was lurking around the corral and shots were fired. Johnny didnít have a gun." Scott paused and met his fatherís gaze with a shared recollection. "He dodged the bullets by diving into Herculesí corral, but was hooked by a horn in the process. Anders doesnít know who was shooting and whether they were after Johnny or the bull."

"Why would anyone want to shoot Johnny over a bull?" Marcyís brow furrowed in a question.

"Hercules is a rare breed of bull, and I believe quite valuable," Murdoch said. "Someone else may have seen it the same way."

Henry Brickman hurried out the front door of the hotel. "There you are, Murdoch. Theyíre calling all the award nominees into the ballroom now. You better come in."

Marcy squeezed Murdochís arm and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Good luck." This should be a happy time for you, old friend. Youíve had so much grief in your life. "Donít worry about Johnny. Iím sure heíll be fine." However her words rang hollow, even to her own ears.

 

PART 13

The din of voices rose in boisterous conversation and laughter, and guests settled into their seats in the dining room. Beyond the linen-covered tables, heavy brocade curtains were drawn back to expose the sweeping expanse of the ballroom. An elevated stage at one end of the ballroom held a podium, and a thin man in tails stood behind it. Scott surveyed the rows of tables and estimated the attendance at over one hundred and fifty.

The man at the podium began ringing a gold cowbell. The insistent clanging of the bell quieted the crowd, while the last few stragglers wandered to their seats. Murdoch leaned over the empty seat beside Scott and said, "Itís a tradition to start every Cattlemenís Banquet with the ringing of the cowbell. Reminds us how it all started, often with a single cow."

Scott nodded at the information, but his eyes lingered on the empty spot between him and his father. They had saved a place for Johnny, hoping the dark-haired man would join them soon.

Marcy, sitting at Murdochís other side, looked worried. "Murdoch, I do hope Johnny was able to get some sleep today."

To his left, Scott heard the men Murdoch had introduced as his old friends, Clem Carvin and Tim Phillips, discussing the benefits of a new device to trim a steerís horns. If weíd used something like that on Hercules, maybe Johnny wouldnít have been hurt, and heíd be here right now. The blond glanced at the entrance to the dining room yet again, waiting for his brother.

***

While a brass band played a lively tune, the waiters hurried between the tables and placed china dishes piled with thick steaks, steaming mounds of mashed potatoes, green beans, and escalloped apples before each diner. Murdoch declined a plate for Johnnyís empty place. "My son will be along in a little while. When he gets here, bring a hot serving for him."

Murdoch also had refused a seat closer to the front, which was normally reserved for award nominees, preferring to be near the entranceway so it would be easier for Johnny to locate them. He looked toward the lobby, and then returned to the plate of food before him. Where are you, Son?

***

Johnny walked down the main staircase, moving slowly and deliberately toward the jumble of voices emerging from the dining room. The weight of the Colt inside the sling pressed against his injured arm. His gaze flicked around the deserted lobby and settled on the clerk.

"Evening, Mr. Lancer," the man at the registration desk said in a trembling voice. "IÖ I gave the note to your father. HeísÖ heís in the dining room."

"Gracias, SeŮor." Johnnyís lips curled into a faint smile, but his voice held no warmth. Guess I was right. He wonít be troubling me no more. Johnny regretted that it had taken his gun to change the clerkís behavior. Canít call it respect, Ďcause itís not. More like fear.

Johnny stopped at the entrance to the crowded room and scrutinized the gathering of men in suits and ladies in their finery. Reynolds is probably in here somewhere. Along with Scott and Murdoch.

"Johnny!" Scott waved to him and half-rose from his seat.

Continuing to scan the throng of cattlemen for Reynolds, the dark-haired man advanced to the seat his brother pulled out from the table for him. Johnny saw the look of relief on his fatherís face and Marcyís concerned expression.

"Thank goodness youíre okay, Son," Murdoch said, dropping his fork on his plate.

"I was looking for you all day, Little Brother." Scottís eyes fixed on Johnnyís sling. "How are you feeling?"

Johnny slumped into the chair between his father and brother. "Iím good. Sorry if I worried you."

"Did you get some rest, Johnny?" Marcyís voice was filled with motherly compassion.

"Yes. Got a few hours of sleep." Wasnít very restful though. Johnny nodded toward the plates on the table. "You better finish eating before it gets cold."

Murdoch motioned for the waiter to bring a serving for Johnny, but the man seemed to ignore him.

"Donít worry about it, Murdoch. Iím not hungry."

"Nonsense, Johnny. You need to eat." Murdoch pushed his chair back and marched over to the waiter.

Johnny watched his father arguing with the waiter and swallowed hard. Murdochís going to an awful lot of trouble, when I ainít all that hungry.

With his face reddened, Murdoch returned to his seat. "Your meal will be out shortly."

"Murdoch," the man sitting to Scottís left said in a cheerful tone. "Are you going to introduce us?"

"Sorry, Clem," Murdoch replied. "Iíd like you to meet my youngest son, Johnny. Heís been a real help at the ranch this past year. You should see him working with the wild horses. Heís something special, and Iím proud of him."

Johnny lowered his chin to his chest and flushed. Murdoch had never spoken about him in such glowing terms, and the dark-haired man was struggling to understand what had caused his father to change.

"Johnny," Murdoch continued, "Iíd like you to meet two of my oldest friends, Clem Carvin and Tim Phillips."

Lifting his head, Johnny nodded at the two men.

"What happened to your arm?" Clem jerked his steak knife toward Johnnyís sling.

Johnny noticed his father and brother turn expectantly to listen to his response. With a sigh, he explained his accident with Hercules, leaving out the part about Will Samples and Flint. Johnny could tell from Scottís expression that the blond knew something more had happened.

Their conversation was cut short by the return of the waiter, carrying a plate with a generous portion of food. The man in the white jacket deposited it in front of Johnny.

Glancing at the meal, Johnny thought of SeŮora Gomez and Luisa working in the kitchen. He fingered the fork with his left hand and remembered the difficulty of trying to write with his good hand. Donít reckon eating is going to be any better. And how am I supposed to cut that steak? Once again, the overwhelming fear that he might not be able to use his right hand in the future sent a chill down his spine and he shuddered.

Scott leaned close and whispered, "Are you okay? Youíre looking feverish."

The truth was that Johnny felt poorly, and he knew the unmistakable signs that his body was battling an infection. He had suffered through enough bullet wounds to recognize the symptoms. Fever. Chills. Exhaustion. Lack of appetite. All the telltale signs.

***

Scott studied his brother, concerned that Johnny was in rough shape. His eyes are glassy and he seems fatigued. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Johnny struggle to lift a forkful of mashed potatoes to his mouth. Heíll need help cutting his meat. But heís so proud, Iím not sure how heíll take my offer to help.

"Want me to slice that steak for you?" Scott held his breath, waiting for his brotherís reaction.

Johnny surprised him by nodding and pushing his plate over. "Go ahead, Scott. You missed playing the big brother when I was little, so weíll make up for it now."

Scott searched Johnnyís face for some hidden meaning, but his brother was looking away, his eyes roving around the room. Scott reached over and began cutting his brotherís steak. "Are you expecting to see someone you know here, Brother?"

"Maybe," Johnny said quietly and then looked down at his dinner. "Thatís enough, Scott. I really ainít that hungry." He speared a very rare piece of meat with his fork and studied it. "At least itís cooked enough that itís not still alive."

Scottís mouth hung open at the sudden connection Johnnyís words had made for him. Still alive. He recalled Johnnyís nightmare from the previous night. He called out in his sleep. The name was Reynolds and someone was still alive. Johnny does know Reynolds. The information about Johnny Madrid working for the railroadís courier must be true.

"Johnny, we need to talk," Scott said. "Thereís a Pinkerton agentó" Scottís words were drown out by the blare of the brass band playing a triumphant fanfare.

The dark-haired man gave Scott a puzzled look and raised an eyebrow.

"Cattlemen and guests," the thin man at the podium shouted and held a hand up to silence the band. "Welcome to the Annual Cattleman of the Year Award Ceremony. Every year, as part of the Cattlemenís Banquet, we honor a unique individual who is selected for his leadership, innovation, or humanitarian efforts. This year we have three outstanding nominees. Iím going to ask them to stand when I call their names. First, Mr. Henry Brickman of the Eagleís Roost."

A round of applause burst out and Scott noticed the portly rancher at the table near the podium rise and bow.

"Henry is a tribute to the cattle business because of his generosity to help those less fortunate than us. Why last year alone, he made a significant donation to the California Orphans Welfare Board. Beyond that, we all know that Henry isnít afraid to leave behind a sizeable donation in the pot of any poker game he plays."

The room filled with the sound of laughter and amusement. Scott had never played cards with the man, but he assumed Henry was not often a winner. Covertly, Scott stole a glance at Johnny, who continued to scan the tables. I wonder who heís looking foróReynolds?

As the crowd quieted, the man at the podium continued with his speech. "Our second nominee is a relative newcomer to the California cattle scene. Five years ago, he purchased the Rambling Acres Ranch. Since that time, he has invested in substantial improvements and acquisitions, making the Rambling Acres Ranch one of the largest in California. Please recognize Mr. Aaron Lowry."

Again, the dining room echoed with applause and cheers. Scott craned his neck to see where Aaron Lowry was standing. Murdoch and Johnny also searched the crowd. Spotting the bearded man near the door to the kitchen, Scott tapped his brother on the arm and pointed. "Heís over there."

Johnnyís eyes narrowed and his expression grew cold. Scott was confused by his brotherís reaction. I could understand why he might be upset with Henryís nomination. Henry was downright mean to Johnny last night at dinner. But what has Aaron Lowry ever done to him?

Johnny leaned over and spoke so only Scott could hear. "I need some bullets, Brother."

Clapping for Aaron, Scott shook his head. "Not now, Johnny. This isnít the time or the place." Heís not even wearing a gun belt. So what does he need bullets for?

The thin man called for quiet. "Our final nominee is someone we all knowó"

"Scott, just a few untiló"

"Quiet, Johnny. Later." The blond cringed at the dark expression on his brotherís face.

"Mr. Murdoch Lancer!"

Scott watched his father push back his chair and stand, while Johnnyís head whipped around to face Murdoch. Johnny didnít know! Of course, Murdoch didnít have a chance to tell him. A thunderous round of approval exploded through the room.

***

 

Standing awkwardly, Murdoch shifted his weight from foot to foot. He was uncomfortable with all the attention and only half-listened to the words that were spoken about him. Marcy squeezed his hand, and he was glad she and his sons had joined him for this moment.

The words droned on about how he had stopped Day Pardee and his high riders last year when they threatened to take over one estancia after another. Murdoch frowned at the recognition the Cattlemenís Association was bestowing on him. Scott and Johnny had more to do with defeating Pardee than I did. Hell, Johnny almost lost his life, and Paul OíBrien did. When the words were over, Murdoch sat down heavily and turned to his two sons. "Boys, you both deserveó"

The brass band rallied for another celebratory tune. The trumpetís blast was loud and persistent.

"Congratulations," Scott shouted to be heard over the music and offered his hand.

Murdoch grasped his oldest sonís hand in a warm handshake. "Thank you, Son." He glanced at Johnny and his smile faded. His youngest son wore a masked expression, his eyes fixed across the room. "Johnny?" Murdoch hesitated to grip his sonís nearest shoulder, not wanting to hurt his injured arm.

"Sounds mighty important, Old Man." The rest of Johnnyís words were impossible for Murdoch to hear as the band sounded its finale.

The man at the podium waved a large, gold belt buckle in the air. "And the winner of the Cattleman of the Year Award isÖ Murdoch Lancer."

The crowd cheered and people jumped to their feet clapping and chanting, "Murdoch, Murdoch."

The Lancer patriarch rose slowly and glanced at his sons. Scott and Johnny stood beside him with Clem and Tim also climbing to their feet.

"Come on up here, Murdoch," the thin man commanded. "Itís time for your speech."

Murdoch wanted to run from the room. He patted his jacket pocket, satisfied to hear the rustle of the paper containing his brief acceptance speech. Iíd rather trade places with anyone else in the room!

***

"Old Murdoch deserves that award," Clem said, thumping Scott on the back. "You must be proud of him."

The blond turned to the enthusiastic rancher at this side. "He loves Lancer. Iíve heard him say he has a gray hair for every good blade of grass."

Clem laughed and rolled his eyes. "Sounds like something he would say."

Scott swung around to see Murdoch approach the podium. In the next moment, the blond realized Johnny was gone. He stood on his toes, trying to see over the standing cattlemen, to locate his brother. Where did he go now?

Dashing out to the lobby, Scott surveyed the empty room and ran to the clerk at the front desk. "Did you see my brother come through here?"

The man sputtered and pushed his spectacles higher on the bridge of his nose. "Not since he came down the stairs and went into the Banquet."

Scott pivoted on his heels and hurried back into the dining room. Whatís going on?

***

Working his way across the room, Johnny slipped between the standing cattlemen, his eyes fixed on the last spot he had seen Reynolds. As the ranchers began to sit down, he noticed a man in a dark suit moving along the edge of the room. He was in the upstairs hallway earlier. Something about the man troubled Johnny, but he was intent on locating the bearded man with the walking stick. Reynolds, you sent Will Samples after me, and you lied about me taking that money. We have some business to settle, you and me.

His gaze locked on the smiling man, holding a handkerchief to his mouth. Reynolds stopped smiling when he saw Johnny drawing near. Using the black walking stick, the cattleman hobbled to the nearby door and entered the kitchen. Johnny hurried after him, his breath coming in painful gasps. You ainít leaving me behind this time!

Johnny pushed the kitchen door open and stepped into the busy room, looking around for Reynolds. Amid the bustle of carving roasts and ladling portions on plates, SeŮora Gomez frowned at him.

Luisa ran to his side and pointed at the rear door. "The gringo went that way."

"Gracias, SeŮorita." Johnny rushed out the door and into the alley. With his senses on alert, he perused the dark passageway. Danger was near, he felt it. And I only have one bullet.

 

PART 14

Murdoch was stopped repeatedly on his trek to the podium by well-wishers who wanted to shake his hand or pat him on the back. Their enthusiasm embarrassed him and he was flustered when he reached the table closest to the stage.

"Congratulations, Murdoch," Henry Brickman said, a smile beaming on his round face. He leaned toward Murdoch. "Tell Johnny Iíd like to talk to him."

"Thanks, Henry. Iíll let him know." Murdoch shuffled to the podium, his thoughts muddled in a confusion of emotions. Henry must want to apologize to Johnny. I need to apologize to him too. How can I accept this award when Johnny and Scott deserve it more than me?

The man at the podium handed Murdoch the gold belt buckle and shook his hand. Then, he backed out of the way, and Murdoch was alone, standing before a roomful of faces that awaited his speech.

Murdoch stared at the image etched in the gold ornamentóa cowboy galloping after a steer. The belt buckle was heavier than he expected. Carefully, he placed the award on the podium and removed the paper with his speech from his jacket pocket. Looking down at the words, he realized how inadequate they seemed. He refolded the page and set it aside.

***

Scott scanned the dining room, moving between the guests, many of whom were starting to sit down. Where did Johnny go?

As people settled in their seats, Scottís view across the room improved, and he caught sight of both Pinkerton agents in the back of the room. Agent Thornton nodded to his trainee, Peterson, who scurried toward a closed door that Scott suspected led to the kitchen. Then, Thornton headed in the opposite direction to the hotel lobby.

Scott decided to follow Peterson, since the hotel clerk had not seen Johnny leave through the lobby. The blond watched the Pinkerton agent-in-training open the door in the far wall. Through the partially open doorway, Scott glimpsed women with cups and saucers bustling to fill trays for waiters.

"Scott!" Murdochís voice boomed through the room. "Please join me up here."

Hesitating, Scott looked at his father, torn between following Peterson and obeying Murdoch. Cattlemen around the blond twisted in their chairs to gawk at him. He heard the buzz of conversation grow, and he felt a hand on his back, propelling him toward the podium at the front of the room. The door to the kitchen swung shut behind Peterson, and Agent Thornton left the dining room.

"Johnny, I want you up here too," Murdoch called in a loud voice.

Scott cringed and plodded to this fatherís side. "Johnnyís not here," Scott whispered in Murdochís ear. He met his fatherís puzzled gaze and shrugged.

***

Last night at Anders farm, Johnny had cursed the full moon for its brightness. Now, in the dark alley behind the hotel, he wished the moon were overhead so he could see which way Reynolds had gone. The black shadows cast by the looming buildings surrounded him, broken only occasionally by a glimmer of light cast from a second-story window.

Johnny paused and listened intently. To his right, he heard a rustling sound, followed by a rodentís squeal. Then he caught the distinctive tapping of Reynoldsí walking stick as it faded in the distance. The smile that eased across Johnnyís lips was grim. He pulled the pistol from his sling and moved quickly toward the sound.

Up ahead, in a moonlit patch between two buildings, Johnny spotted the fleeing figure of the man he was after. Despite the pain radiating from his bruises, he ran toward Reynolds.

The bearded cattleman turned down another side alley, with Johnny right behind him. Reynolds limped around a stack of crates, but stopped at the end of the alley and turned to confront Johnny.

"Whatís the matter, Reynolds? You reach a dead-end?"

Reynolds stroked his beard. "Samples was supposed to take care of you, Madrid."

Johnny snorted and stepped past the tower of crates. "He didnít complete his last job for you. Itís just you and me left with some unfinished business."

Coughing, Reynolds waved his hand at Johnny. "I already paid you."

Johnny pointed his gun toward the bearded man. "You told Samples I stole that money. Why did you lie to him?"

Reynolds hobbled closer to Johnny and laughed. "You were a fool, Madrid. A dirty, hungry mongrel too anxious to take on a job you couldnít handle."

His eyes narrowing, Johnny let his gun track the manís movement. "I didnít hear you complaining when you hired me."

"Of course not. I needed to make it look good for the railroad. So I hired a two-bit half-breed gunslinger, too desperate for work and too young to ask questions. Admit it, Madrid, you were wet behind the ears and cock sure of yourself. A combination that set you up for failure."

Johnny cringed at the memory of his early days as a gun hawk. "I was good enough to stop that desperado from sneaking up on us."

"Yeah, you were good enough to stop my brother-in-law."

"Brother-in-law?"

"Clay Taylor, the man you shot, was my sisterís husband, and he was there to get rid of you. With you dead, he was going to hide out with the money, while I told the railroad a story about the thief that killed my hired gun and stole the money. Eventually, he and I were going to meet my sister and take off with the railroadís money."

"Guess things didnít go the way you planned," Johnny said with a sneer.

"No, you saw to that. When you shot Clay, I had to act quickly. I thought I could still pull off the plan if you were out of the way. But my aim was off just a little."

"Youíre the one who shot me?" Johnnyís anger flared, and his grip on the Colt tightened.

"Who else did you think was out there?" Reynolds coughed again and reached in his pocket for a handkerchief.

Johnny tensed and lifted his gun higher. "Keep your hands where I can see them."

Reynolds removed his hand from his pocket, the handkerchief trailing from his fingers. "Iím not armed."

"You shot me and left me for dead. Why didnít you finish me off?"

"Obviously that was a mistake. I waited with Clay until it started raining, but he died. You were shot in the belly and I figured you wouldnít make it. I took off with all the horses and planned the story for the benefit of the sheriff. Of course, I needed to have the bullet wound to my knee tended."

A fevered tremor coursed through Johnny, and he frowned in confusion. The weight of the gun in his good hand seemed heavier with each passing minute. "You saying I hit you with one of my shots?"

"Yeah. Your bullet smashed my kneecap. Every day since then, Iíve cursed you. This cane is a constant reminder of you, the mongrel that changed my life forever."

"Call me that again, Reynolds, and Iíll do your other knee for you."

"Look, Madrid. Thereís no need for that. I have plenty of money. The railroad was very generous. They gave me a bank draft for my pain and suffering." Reynolds chuckled and stuffed his handkerchief back in his pocket. "And of course, there was all that money I was supposed to take to Mexico for the railroad deal."

"So you stole the money." Johnny watched Reynolds closely.

The white orb of the moon crested the roof of an adjacent building, and a sliver of light crept into the alley. In its illumination, Johnny noticed Reynoldsí hand linger inside his jacket. "Do I have to tell you again to put your hand where I can see it?"

The tiniest sound of movement behind Johnny set his nerves on edge. He continued to watch Reynolds, but eased toward the nearest wall. Watch your back, Johnny boy.

***

Murdoch cleared his throat and clasped the sides of the podium. After a glance at his oldest son, he took a deep breath and looked out at the expectant faces turned in his direction.

"Members of the California Cattlemenís Association and special guests," Murdoch began. Iíve faced a hundred head of stampeding cattle, desperados, range fires, and an angry wife, yet none of that was as difficult as this.

"Iím honored and humbled by the recognition you have offered me tonight. I arrived in this land as an immigrant who came over on the boat from Inverness. Since then, there have been years of sacrifice and suffering." Murdoch sighed and gave Scott a half-smile. "Through it all, my life as a cattleman has been filled with many wonderful people. People who made a mark, people who helped me, people who are no longer with us, and those who are here tonight."

"The constant during all those years has been the landóa special place I call home. However, until last year, it was a place that was missing something. That missing part was my family. Now I have both my sons with me, and my home is complete."

Murdoch shifted his weight from foot to foot, and was afraid to look at Scott, afraid he would lose what little control he had over his emotions. "A little over a year ago, Day Pardee and his gang of high riders threatened my home, as well as the ranches of many of my friends and neighbors. My segundo, Paul OíBrien, was killed, and I was shot." Murdoch shuddered at the painful memory.

"I was lucky to have two very brave young men for sons. It was only with their help that Day Pardee was defeated. If I am receiving this award tonight because of that event, then the recognition is misdirected. For it belongs to my sons, Scott and John."

***

The stack of crates tumbled over, and Johnny whirled in the direction of the sound, his gun swinging from Reynolds to the figure huddled behind the crates. Johnny recognized him, even in the poorly lit alley. Him, again! The man in the dark suit met Johnnyís eyes briefly before he fled, the back of his jacket flapping as he disappeared into the darkness.

Johnny spun back to face Reynolds. Too late, he saw the Derringer in Reynoldsí hand and the puff of smoke. The bullet hurtled toward him, but missed. Instinctively, Johnny returned fire, sending his only shot in Reynoldsí direction.

***

Scott stood by his fatherís side and locked his fingers together behind his back. He studied the tops of his boots and tried not to grin. Murdochís words warmed him all the way to his core, and he wished his brother were here to enjoy their fatherís gratitude. Imagine Murdoch calling Johnny his Ďfiery hero.í

"I gladly accept this award," Murdoch said. "And plan to share it with both my sons." He lifted the belt buckle from the podium and held it toward Scott.

The crowd applauded and cheered, loudly shouting their approval of Murdochís speech. The cattlemen closest to the front stood and the action flowed like a wave through the room. Scott joined their clapping and smiled broadly at his father, who continued to offer him the golden award. Above the noise of the crowd, Scott thought he heard a muffled pop that reminded him of a gunshot, followed by another slightly louder crack. Then, he remembered his earlier intention of trailing Peterson.

A photographer set up the bulky camera before the podium and motioned for Murdoch and Scott to stand together. He slipped under a black cloth behind the camera and adjusted the lens. "Look over here, Mr. Lancer. Stay perfectly still." A flash of light appeared and the man quickly thanked them for their time, before scurrying away with his equipment.

At a signal from the thin man leading the eveningís activities, the brass band began a lively tune. A group of ranchers surged around Murdoch to congratulate him, and Scott slipped away. He opened the door Peterson had used before Murdochís speech, and the blond entered the kitchen.

"No, SeŮor." An older Hispanic woman with her hair pulled back in a bun rushed to this side. "This place is not for you."

"A man came in here," Scott said. "A man with a moustache." He used his fingers to trace a handlebar moustache above his lip.

The woman shoed him back toward the dining room. "Guests do not belong in here."

The door swung open and a middle-aged man with a large paunch waddled into the kitchen. He glanced from Scott to the woman. "Is there a problem here, Mrs. Gomez?"

"No, Mr. Hendricks." The woman dropped her head and bowed.

The man tapped his belly and offered his hand to Scott. "Iím Mr. Hendricks, manager of the Cattlemenís Inn."

Beyond a workbench, Scott noticed a young girl with braids jumping up and down and pointing toward a rear door. Quickly, Scott shook the managerís hand and glanced at the exit the girl had indicated. If I had the time, Iíd tell this fellow what I think of his attitude, but itís more important right now that I find Johnny.

"I was just leaving," Scott said. "I wanted to thank the kitchen staff for the exceptional meal. Everything was delicious."

The manager beamed and puffed his chest. "We pride ourselves that our steaks and roasts are the best in town."

"It was a wonderful evening, but now I must be going." Scott hurried out the back door, ignoring the cries of protest that arose behind him. You donít know how wrong you are, Mr. Hendricks. I had the best steak in town with my brother and his friend in a place youíve probably never visited.

Outside, Scott debated with himself which way Peterson might have gone. Right or left? He glanced at the trash strewn along the alley in both directions. Finally, he headed to the left.

 

PART 15

With an awkward twist, Johnny hurled his gun at Reynolds. The motion irritated the bruises across his torso, and he gasped in pain. He had thought about trying to bluff the bearded man into believing his pistol had more bullets. But once shots are fired, itís too late to play a bluff.

Johnnyís Colt hit Reynoldsí hand, sending the Derringer flying into the air. Both weapons fell to the ground with a clatter, lost in the debris cluttering the alley.

Iím not in any shape to fight him, but heís not getting away with telling lies about me or setting Samples loose to kill Flint and me. Johnny charged forward, intent on knocking Reynolds over. With that bad leg, once heís down, Iíll stand a better chance.

Less than a step away from the bearded man, Johnny saw Reynolds swing the black walking stick in his direction. He tried to dodge the blow, but his momentum drove him straight into the arc of the cane. The walking stick smashed into Johnnyís injured arm with a splintering thud.

The dark-haired man groaned and collapsed to his knees. He felt the stitches rip apart from the wound Dr. Ulrich had repaired earlier that morning. The flash of pain nearly blinded him, and he reeled backwards. He clenched his teeth and exhaled with a hiss.

"See what I mean, Madrid. You still are a fool and guaranteed to fail." Reynolds held the broken walking stick in his hand and unscrewed the silver top, exposing a dagger. He leered at Johnny and pointed the blade at the former gunfighterís face. "Never underestimate your opponent."

"You taught me another lesson all those years ago," Johnny said in a ragged voice. "Never trust anyone." He eyed the empty crate lying on the ground beside him, easily within his grasp. Grabbing the wooden box with his good hand, Johnny tossed it at Reynolds.

Without a cane, the bearded man staggered to avoid the projectile. He lurched forward and thrust his dagger at Johnny. The blade slashed across Johnnyís neck, drawing blood. The dark-haired man clutched the side of his neck and toppled over.

***

Scott reached the street and slammed his fist into the palm of his other hand. "Where did he go?" He wheeled around and retraced his path down the alley. As he passed the hotelís back door, Scott heard the rousing melody of the brass band and imagined the guests inside dancing in the ballroom. He and Johnny should be in there celebrating Murdochís special moment. Where are you, Brother?

At the sound of voices further down the alley, Scott increased his pace. He heard a crash and shattering of wood emanating from a side alley and hurried toward the sounds, nearly tripping over a pile of rubbish. Then, the hacking noise from a fit of coughing filled the night air.

In the shadows ahead, Scott spotted a dark figure leaning over a still form on the ground. The moonlight flickered off a metal surface, which the blond guessed was a knife raised in an attack on the prone body. Is that Peterson?

From a distance, Scott drew his gun and shouted, "Hold it right there, Mister!"

The man shifted position to face Scott, and the moonlight reflected off the white of his eyes. The figure hobbled away and dropped to his good knee, frantically searching through the trash on the ground.

The sound of a pair of running feet grew closer and Scott was relieved to see the two Pinkerton agents arrive. Agent Thornton pulled a revolver from his gun belt and rushed past Scott, pointing his pistol at the bearded man. "Finally found you, Reynolds."

In the moonlight, Scott came closer and recognized the manís features. "Thatís Aaron Lowry."

"No, Mr. Lancer," Thornton said. "Itís Ben Reynolds, and he stole a large sum of money from the railroad."

"You canít prove that," the bearded man replied coolly. His hand groped under a sheet of newsprint.

Thornton gestured toward the man in the dark suit. "Peterson here heard enough of your conversation to convince me the railroad has a strong case against you. Now, weíll just be going to visit the Marshal. Get up nice and slow."

A low moan escaped from the person slumped on the ground. Holstering his gun, Scott knelt beside the body lying in the filth that covered the ground. Carefully, he rolled the man over. The blondís heart raced as he recognized his brother. "Johnny!"

Reynolds retrieved Johnnyís Colt and swung it toward the Pinkerton agents. The bearded man struggled to his feet with a grunt. "Iím not going to see any Marshal."

Scott reached for his gun, but Reynolds pointed the Colt in his direction.

"Everyone get over to that far wall," Reynolds ordered, waving the pistol toward the opposite side of the alley. A spasm of coughing shook his frame, and the bearded man stopped gesturing with the weapon.

With a quick glance at Johnnyís half-open eyes, Scott leaned over his brother. "Iíll be back to help you in just a minute. Hang on, Johnny."

Johnnyís breath came in short gasps, and Scott saw the blood trickling from the slash along the side of his brotherís neck. With his left hand, Johnny tugged on Scottís jacket. The blond bent closer to his brotherís moving lips. As he realized what his brother was trying to tell him, Scott rose and walked deliberately toward Reynolds.

"Itís over, Lowry or Reynolds or whatever youíre calling yourself today," Scott said. He stepped forward, praying that his brother was right. Remembering Johnnyís words that noticing little details could save a life, Scott hoped his brother had counted the bullets correctly.

"Youíre crazy, Lancer." Reynolds squeezed the trigger, and the hammer fell with a hollow click.

With his heart pounding, Scott exhaled in relief. "Thornton, get him out of here. And send a doctor for my brother." Scott glared briefly at the bearded man as Thornton and Peterson led him away, and then hurried to Johnnyís side.

Scott removed a handkerchief from his pocket and the string tie from around his collar. Quickly, he folded the cloth and placed it against his brotherís neck, keeping the makeshift bandage in place with his tie. "Lay still, Johnny, while I see how bad youíre hurt." In the dim light, it was difficult to judge the extent of the damage, but Scott could see blood soaking through the sling. He felt a bullet hole in the triangular cloth and cringed.

"Scott," Johnny whispered in a weak voice.

"Save your breath, Brother." Scott continued to check his brotherís arms and legs for injuries. The scampering of rodents through the trash sent shivers up Scottís spine.

"Scott," Johnny said softly, but with desperate urgency. Using his good hand, the dark-haired man pulled on his brotherís arm. "Donít let me die here."

"Donít talk like that. Youíre not going to die."

"Ainít afraid of dying. Just not here, not like this. Never wanted to die in a place like this."

Scott closed his eyes briefly and fought for control. His brother had faced death before, but for him to be worried about dying here told Scott what really scared his brotheródying amid the debris tossed out in the back alley. "Stop talking like that, Johnny. Think you can make it to the hotel? Itís just a little ways from here."

With infinite care, the blond eased his brother into a sitting position, then, lifted him to his feet. As they staggered toward the Cattlemenís Inn, Scott supported most of Johnnyís weight. "Stay with me, Brother."

***

"Well, Mr. Cattleman of the Year," Nick Barkley said in a voice that exploded across the room, rising above the music. "How does it feel?"

"I donít think itís settled in yet," Murdoch said, gladly accepting the handshake the loud rancher offered.

"The year my father won, there was no living with him."

Murdoch smiled at the memory of Tom Barkleyís exuberance the year he was named Cattleman of the Year. "I remember that, Nick."

"It was nice of you to share the honor with your sons," Heath Barkley said quietly, barely audible above the dance tune that filled the room.

"They deserve it," Murdoch said, looking past the Barkleys to locate Scott and Johnny. He was disappointed and worried at not seeing them.

"Where are they?" Nickís head followed Murdochís gaze.

"I wish I knew." Murdoch sighed, but smiled as Marcy approached. He held his arm out for the attractive widow. "Marcy, do you know the Barkleys?"

Murdoch went through the motions of being a proper escort, but his thoughts were far from the cattlemen and guests in the room. He was preoccupied with thoughts of what was keeping his boys from the celebration, so he missed the first part of Nickís comment.

"I said, the auction should be interesting tomorrow," Nick repeated.

"In what way?"

"Well, Murdoch. You really donít expect anyone to buy that short-legged, overfed excuse for a bull?"

"You mean Hercules?" Murdochís annoyance flared. He was in no mood for Nickís jokes.

"Murdochís Mistake." Nick winked at Heath and laughed. "Donít go getting upset with me, Mr. Cattleman of the Year. You have no one to blame but yourself."

"Itís called vision, Nick. Your father had it, and when you mellow a little, maybe youíll find some too."

Heath slapped his brother on the back. "He got you on that one, Nick."

Murdoch straightened his spine, extending to his full height. "If youíll excuse me." He led Marcy to the dance floor. First the boys are missing, and now Hercules is becoming a joke.

***

 

Johnny fought back the nausea and willed his feet to move forward, one stumbling step after another. Thankful for Scottís strength, he leaned on his brother. A chill surged through his body, making him tremble. Blood seeped through the bandaged wounds, and he felt the warm flow soaking into the fabric of his shirt.

"Take your time, Johnny. The hotelís just ahead." Scottís voice sounded miles away, the words muddled and disjointed.

All the dark-haired man could do was concentrate on his balance and dragging his next foot forward. Donít want to be left in an alley to die. He clung to the thought of making it to the hotel before the blackness swallowed him. The rear wall of the hotel loomed closer and Scott shifted his hold on Johnnyís waist. Pain throbbed from his arm and along his neck. He sagged against Scott, unable to move another step. In his dizziness, Johnny heard a pounding and realized his brother was kicking the hotelís back door. The former gunfighter closed his eyes, and his legs went numb.

Then, the sharp edge of the pain eased and Johnny felt remote, detached, as if all this was happening to someone else. He watched the door of the hotel swing open and the blond glance nervously at him. But Johnny knew some part of him had gone to another place, a place beyond the bloody agony and the filthy alley, a place he had been to before when his body had simply had enough.

***

Scott held tight to Johnnyís limp body. "Help me," he said to the older woman who stood in the entrance of the hotelís kitchen.

"Madre de Dios," SeŮora Gomez muttered, shoving the door open wider. She issued a string of orders in Spanish and the other women in the kitchen scurried around in a frenzy of activity as a kettle of water was filled and placed over a fire. A young girl cleared stacks of dishes from a worktable, while another worker retrieved a stack of towels.

"Lay him over there," SeŮora Gomez said, gesturing toward the work surface.

Scott struggled to convey his brotherís unconscious body to the long table. SeŮora Gomez slipped to Johnnyís other side and helped support him. Scott was relieved for the help, but worried about the stillness that had come over his brother. In the light of the kitchen, the blond could see the crude bandage on Johnnyís neck was saturated and the flow of blood continued to ooze down his neck, staining his white shirt. Gently, he laid Johnny on the worktable.

The door from the dining room burst open and Mr. Hendricks bustled into the kitchen. "Where are the desserts?" The hotel manager surveyed the room and his face reddened. "Whatís going on in here?"

"My brotherís been hurt," Scott said. "He needs a doctor."

Mr. Hendricks eyed Johnnyís dark skin and shook his head. "Not in here he doesnít. We have guests to serve."

Scott left Johnnyís side and stood inches from the hotel manager, glowering at the man. "My brotherís a guest here too, and he needs help."

"We donít want his kind here. Look, heís getting blood all over the table."

"His kind!" Scottís voice rose in volume. "What kind is that? The hurt kind?"

"You know what I mean." The hotel managerís eyes widened and he shouted at SeŮora Gomez, "Get the desserts served."

"Desserts! My brother may be dying and youíre worried about pastries?" Scottís hands tightened into fists.

"Lower your voice, Sir. Youíll disturb the other guests."

"I want a doctor for my brother. Now!"

 

PART 16

The band played a high-spirited reel, and the dancers swirled around the ballroom. Avoiding the other couples, Murdoch led Marcy off the dance floor and mopped beads of sweat from his forehead.

"You donít look like youíre enjoying yourself, Murdoch." Marcy glanced up at him.

"Iím getting too old for this." The stiffness in his lower back had returned with a vengeance and he silently cursed Pardee.

Marcy laughed and put both her hands on his arm. "Youíre never too old to dance."

"Teresa says the same thing. She reminds me at every social that dancing will keep me young. But it seems to wear me out sooner these days." Murdoch chuckled and guided Marcy to the edge of the dining room.

"How is Teresa? Sheís such a sweet girl."

"Sheís full of plans for the hacienda. I think she wants to replace all the drapes." He shook his head and was glad he did not need to worry about such details. He remembered the lengthy dinner conversation between Teresa and Scott several weeks ago and how they had debated different fabrics and colors. Johnny had merely worn one of his enigmatic smiles during their exchange, never saying a word. The thought of his sons set Murdoch to wondering once again where they were.

"Bring her to Sacramento soon. I know a seamstress who makes lovely curtains, everything from lacy sheers to brocade draperies." Marcy paused and frowned. "Youíre not listening to me, are you?"

Murdoch cleared his throat and focused on the widowís upturned face. "Sorry."

"Itís your sons. Youíre worried about them."

"Does it show?"

"Yes," Marcy said, patting his arm.

Murdoch tilted his head, his attention shifting to a commotion beyond the room. As a waiter entered the dining room with a pot of coffee, voices raised in anger escaped from the kitchen. That sounds like Scott. Murdoch stiffened and headed to the kitchen with Marcy trailing behind him.

"What is it, Murdoch?" Her skirt rustled with each quick step and her heels clicked against the floor in a rapid cadence.

Shoving the door open, Murdoch immediately saw the tense expression on his oldest sonís face and his threatening stance toward a rotund man with his back to the door. Murdochís eyes swept around the room and noticed many Mexican women busy at different tasks. With an unexplained sense of dread, he spotted several grouped together near a long workbench. He stepped forward and gasped at the sight of Johnny lying on the table with a young girl pressing a towel to his neck. Oh my God! Murdoch barreled past the stout man arguing with Scott. "Johnny!"

***

Marcy quickly assessed the situation and hurried to Johnnyís side. After years of living next to a doctor, she had assisted with many medical procedures when an extra pair of hands was needed. She placed her palm on the boyís forehead and noticed the shivers that shook his body. "Heís burning up with fever."

Glancing under the towel the young girl held to Johnnyís neck, she studied the wound and nodded to the brown-eyed girl. "Good job. The slash isnít deep, but it must have nicked a blood vessel." She did not like the way the blood continued to leak from the wound. If Johnny were losing blood at this rate, he would go into shock soon. At least it wasnít a major blood vessel, or heíd be dead already.

"We need several blankets," Marcy said to the girl, who fled up the stairs at the end of the kitchen. "Murdoch, hold this towel firmly in place."

She dared not look at the anguished expression on her friendís face. "Press down on it. We need pressure to stop the bleeding." She was relieved when the tall rancher complied without a word. The slight moan from Johnny assured her that Murdoch was using enough force to make a difference. At least, she hoped that was the case.

A dark, older woman with an air of authority took a position on the other side of the table. Using a sharp knife, she removed the sling and began cutting through the sleeve of the jacket.

"He doesnít belong here!"

Marcy glanced over at the hotel manager. She recognized his baritone voice from Sunday services at the church they both attended, but she did not know his name. "Youíre right," Marcy said.

Scott spun in her direction, a look of disbelief on his face. "You too?"

"He belongs in a bed without all the noise and activity going on here." She swept her arm toward the waiters carrying trays of pastries into the dining room, and was relieved to see Scottís look of comprehension.

"Not in my hotel," the overweight man said indignantly.

At the manís comment, both Murdoch and Scott glared at the proprietor of the Cattlemenís Inn. Marcy sighed. This isnít helping.

With her braids swinging, the young girl ran down the back stairs with an armload of blankets.

"Scott!" Marcyís tone was deliberately sharp. "Your brother needs your help right now. Take one of those blankets and wrap his legs. We need to keep him from going into shock."

The blond cast an angry look at the manager, but followed her directions exactly.

"Keep pressure on that neck wound, Murdoch." Her mind hurried through what the next steps should be.

"Infecciůn," the older woman on the opposite side of the table whispered after removing the bloody bandage from Johnnyís upper arm. She dashed into the pantry, muttering in Spanish.

Marcy examined the angry red gash across Johnnyís arm. She noticed the signs of infection and the torn stitches.

"He was shot in the arm," Scott said.

"I donít think so," Marcy replied. "Thatís the same injury GlenóDr. Ulrichótreated this morning."

Murdochís eyes met hers. "From the bullís horn?"

She nodded and tried to reassure her friend. "I donít see any signs of a bullet wound."

Retrieving the bloodstained sling from the floor, Scott poked his finger through the bullet hole in the cloth. "Then, how did this happen?"

With a shrug, Marcy turned back to the boy on the table. He looked so drawn and spent. "Weíll have to wait for your brother to tell us."

"John." The name escaped from Murdochís lips as little more than a sigh.

"Heíll come through this," Marcy said softly.

The older woman returned from the pantry with a thick paste that smelled of herbs. Marcy nodded her approval at what appeared to be an ointment to combat the infection. After the wound was cleaned, the older woman liberally spread the brown concoction around the ragged edges of the wound and bound Johnnyís arm with a bandage.

Marcy opened the boyís shirt, checking for any other signs of damage. At the sight of the purple bruises across Johnnyís chest and abdomen, she heard Murdochís shocked intake of air.

"Those are also from the bull," Marcy said. "I donít see any other new injuries."

"I want him out of here." The hotel manager pointed toward the rear door.

"Murdoch, my home is right next to the doctorís house. Johnny will be more comfortable there." For a moment, Marcy wasnít sure if Murdoch would agree. Tenderly, she brushed her hand across the unconscious boyís forehead. "Murdoch, he needs a doctor, but Dr. Ulrich is out delivering a baby. From my house, weíll be able to see as soon as he returns." Donít be a stubborn fool, Murdoch Lancer.

When the tall rancher closed his eyes and nodded, Marcy took charge. "Scott, cover Johnny with that other blanket. Murdoch, Iíll take over for you, while you go hail a carriage for us." She slid her hands beside Murdochís large calloused fingers.

Like an enraged bull, Murdoch charged through the door into the dining room. Marcy watched him disappear and turned her attention back to Scott. The blond was obviously upset. She had seen the play of emotions clearly on his faceóconcern for Johnny, anger at the hotel manager, gratitude for those helping his brother, and confusion over the bullet hole in the sling.

"Scott," Marcy said gently, pausing until she had his attention. "Will you be able to carry your brother, or should we get some more help?"

Scottís chest rose in response to her question. "Iíve carried him before."

"Good. Now watch his arm. Iíll have to continue holding this towel to his neck, while you carry him."

The blond slipped one arm under Johnnyís legs and the other beneath his back. With infinite care, he cradled his brother against his chest, and Marcy guided the dark head against Scottís shoulder.

Hesitantly, the young girl with braids placed a brown hand on Marcyís sleeve and glanced at the hotel manager before turned back to Marcy. "SeŮora, take good care of him, por favor."

"We will," Marcy said, fighting back her own tears for the first time since the whole situation started.

***

"Not through the dining room," the hotel manager said in a panic.

"Out of my way, Hendricks." Scott clenched his teeth. Johnny was solid and in his unconscious state, an awkward load to carry. "You can be sure this is the last time Iíll ever be seen in your establishment."

He pushed past the hotel manager toward the door that would take him into the dining room and from there into the lobby. "No more back alleys for you, Brother." He remembered the desperation in Johnnyís voice as he begged to be taken out of the alley.

Once in the dining room, Scott saw the shocked faces of the guests and heard their collective gasp. He held his head higher. What do they know? Johnnyís the best man in the room. He was still trying to piece together what had happened in the back alley and the Pinkerton agentís explanation. Whatever it was all about, Scott was certain his brother had acted on his principles and done a brave thing in confronting the bearded thief.

***

With the carriage flagged down, Murdoch opened the hotelís front door and looked across the lobby. His heart thudded hard against his chest when he saw Scott carrying his brotherís limp body and Marcy trotting beside him with her hand against Johnnyís neck. Dear God, let him pull through this.

As Murdoch held the door, they angled through the opening and moved to the carriage. Once they were settled, with Johnny propped against the padded seat cushion, Murdoch signaled for the driver to get going. Despite the motion, Johnny did not regain consciousness

Murdoch had no idea who had done this to his youngest son and he wanted to know. "Scott, what happened?"

"Iím not certain about all the details. Johnny was in the alley and Aaron Lowry had already stabbed him by the time I got there." Scottís voice was shaky and tentative as the carriage rolled through the city streets.

"Aaron Lowry?" Murdoch furrowed his brow. What would he have against Johnny?

The carriage lurched around a corner and Murdoch reached over to stop Johnny from sliding to the side. "Easy, man!" Murdoch silently cursed the driver, but prayed he would hurry.

***

Each turn of the wheel brought a new jolt of agony. Johnny fought down a scream and tried to still the anger that was only making the pain worse. Should have heard him sooner. Should have known. The wooden wheel of the cart hit a rut, and Johnny could not stop the groan.

"Lo siento, chico," the toothless man in a sombrero said. Then, he tapped a long stick on the donkeyís rump.

His wife murmured soft words of encouragement and slipped a hand through Johnnyís shoulder-length hair. "Pobre niŮo."

Her words stung his pride, and he opened his eyes. "Estoy Johnny Madrid, pistolero." He tried to sit up, but the bullet wound to his gut flared in protest.

"Right now," the woman scolded in Spanish, "you are a hurt boy who doesnít have the strength to lift a tortilla."

His eyelids fluttered closed. She was right; he was in no condition to do anything. He had let Reynolds down.

***

Something was wrong, terribly wrong, and Johnny felt too hazy to sort it all out. He was hurt, but it was not his gut that was burning. It was his arm and his head. He ached all over and each breath meant a new wave of pain.

Johnny knew he was moving, but it did not seem to be the two-wheeled hay cart he remembered. He was leaning to the side and something pressed against the side of his neck. He wanted to shift position to get away from the pain, but he was held in place.

Am I tied up? There was no tight binding to restrict his breathing. In a fleeting moment of awareness, he sensed it was an arm, supporting him, not confining his movement.

The familiar Spanish phrases of the toothless man and his wife were gone, replaced with a confused rumble of voices. Reynolds? What happened to Reynolds? He stole that money and left me to die. Took my horse. Hired Will Samples to kill Flint and me. With a sickening realization, Johnny remembered lying in the alley. A chill ran down his spine and he could not stop the trembling.

In the dark, he stirred, struggling to open his eyes. He barely raised his eyelids halfway before they slammed shut. He had lost the battle for consciousness.

 

PART 17

Murdoch pounded on the doctorís door, but there was no response, no light, and no sign of activity. After a final knock, he trudged back to Marcyís house, watching the windows of her home fill with color. He imagined the widow lighting lamps to guide Scott as he carried Johnny to a bedroom.

Looking up at the stars, Murdoch moved his lips in a prayer. When he was finished, he dragged his hand across his face. How did this Convention go so wrong? All I wanted was for Scott and Johnny to meet some of my friends and learn about the cattle business. Of course, we needed to sell Hercules for a good price too. Instead, his youngest son had been insulted, mistreated and hurt. And now, lying in Jeff Daneís bed, the boy just barely clung to life.

Murdoch rubbed his temples, but could not ease the tension headache that seemed to get worse the more he thought about how disastrous this trip had become. Even winning the prestigious Cattleman of the Year award meant nothing. With only the tiniest regret, he realized he had no idea what had become of the blasted gold belt buckle. I wanted Scott and Johnny to wear it. Johnny likes all those shiny ornaments. He tightened his jaw at the memory of his youngest son leaning against his shoulder in the carriage, unconscious and so deathly still. The damned award doesnít mean anything if I donít have my son. Murdoch sighed and opened Marcyís front door with a growing sense of despair.

***

Marcy lifted the lid of the trunk at the end of Jeffís bed, and a whiff of lavender rose gently to greet her. Fighting back thoughts of her son, she removed the heavy quilt. Since Jeff had been sentenced to prison, she normally left only the light summer coverlet on the bed year round. However, Johnny needed the extra warmth of a thick comforter. The infection appeared to be taking the upper hand, and Johnnyís body was shivering with chills.

"This should help, Johnny." Marcy moved around the bed in the small bedroom, smoothing the quilt flat. "Jeff always complained this was too flowery, but it is good and warm. Iíll have Scott throw a few more logs in the fireplace, and weíll have it toasty in here before you know it."

The dark-haired man continued to tremble and occasionally murmur a few words in Spanish. Marcy was not fluent in the language, but from the tone of his voice, she was glad she could not understand what he was saying. Poor boy. His words probably would either make me cry or blush.

She paused to study Johnnyís fevered complexion. "Glen will take good care of you, as soon as he gets here. I do hope Molly Tuttle isnít in labor too long. Heís a good doctor. Iíve helped him out a number of times, and Iíve seen how gentle and caring he is." She knew Johnny could not hear her prattling, but it made her feel better to think of him as listening.

"If only you had seen your father tonight, Johnny. I wish you could have heard the wonderful things he said about you and Scott at the award ceremony. He bragged about what a great marksman you are and your special way with horses."

At the sound of footsteps entering the room, Marcy smiled reassuringly at Scott and took the basin of water from him. "Thank you, Scott. Why donít you toss a couple of extra logs on the fire? Meanwhile, Iíll try to lower your brotherís fever."

"How is he doing?" Scott peered over Marcyís shoulder, a worried expression on his face.

"He hasnít come around yet." She turned back to look at the injured man. "He really needs a doctor. I can only do so much."

Scott paced back and forth in the narrow bedroom. "There must be other doctors in town. Sacramento is a big city, not some one-doctor crossroads of a town."

Marcy heard the frustration in his voice. "There are other doctors, but most of them are away in San Francisco for a medical conference, just like youíre here for the Cattlemenís Convention. Dr. Ulrich is filling in for most of the other doctors. If I knew of any other doctor who was available, Iíd tell you."

"I know you would," Scott apologized, sounding defeated.

"Now, please add some more wood to the fire. We need to keep Johnny warm."

She watched Scott leave the room and Murdoch take his place, pacing across the bedroom floor.

***

Scott sat in the rocking chair on Marcyís front porch, waiting for the doctor to return. The room where Johnny lay trapped in unconsciousness was too cramped for all of them to sit by his bedside. So, Scott had volunteered to watch for the doctor, even though he would rather have been by his brother in case he roused.

He had stoked the flames in the fireplace until it was so warm in the house that he needed to escape to the cool night air outside. He rocked the chair with nervous energy, rapping his hands against the arms of the rocker. As a military officer, he had been trained on the importance of timing and knew patience could be used to an armyís advantage. But under the current situation, with his brotherís life at risk, Scott had no patience.

The full moon illuminated the scene before him, casting the houses and trees in stark gray. That same moon had shone down on Johnny and Scott just three nights earlier when they camped on the trail before reaching Sacramento and during their drunken return to the hotel from the Good Eats Saloon the night before last. Now, it was shining down on him as he kept his lonely vigil. How did things change so quickly?

That last night in camp under the almost-full moon, after a week of such nights, Johnny and Scott had recounted stories from their pasts. Johnny shared details about his early days as a gun hawk, and Scott listened, entranced in the tragedy that was his brotherís life. Yet, Johnny laughed and said, "Ainít no tragedy. The tragedy would have been if I didnít live to tell about it." Scott smiled at the recollection.

With the moon as his witness, Johnny had made Scott promise never to tell Murdoch. As he rocked, Scott heard Johnnyís words in his head again and hoped his brother was wrong. "The old man would run me off," Johnny had said, "if he knew the things I done for a few pesos." Scott knew Johnny was wrong, but there was no convincing him.

Each time the rocking chair came forward, the porch flooring creaked. The sound annoyed Scott and he stopped the chairís motion. A board probably needs a few nails. Tomorrow, Iíll see if I can fix it for Mrs. Dane.

In the ensuing silence, Scott heard a steady clip-clop of hooves and the rumble of wheels down the street. He jumped to his feet, his eyes searching the road for evidence of the doctorís return. As a buggy slowed in front of the doctorís house, Scott raced across Marcyís yard and vaulted the picket fence.

Before the man could step out of the buggy, Scott was reaching for his medical bag. "Dr. Ulrich?" His voice betrayed his anxiety.

"Yes," the man said wearily.

"You need to come to Mrs. Daneís house."

"Marcy?" The doctorís tone was urgent, and he locked eyes with Scott.

"No. But my brother needs your help. Hurry!" Scott wanted to drag the doctor to his brotherís bedside, but tempered his emotion when he saw the older manís exhausted condition. "It really is an emergency."

"Iím sure it is," the doctor said with an understanding chuckle. "It usually is at this hour." He pulled out his pocket watch and read it in the moonlight. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. "Two oíclock in the morning. Lead me to the patient, young man."

This time, Scott opened the gate to Marcyís yard, but he rushed to her front door. Then, he had to wait for Dr. Ulrich to catch up with him. Patience. Remember, patience. He felt the wave of warm air as he opened the door and entered. Scott desperately hoped the doctor was not too late.

***

Rousing, Johnny felt a red-hot burning along his right arm. For a moment, he thought some wild animal was chewing on his flesh, pulling his skin away from the bone. Then, he heard voices and smelled the medicinal odors that meant a doctor was at work.

"Youíre coming around a little too soon, lad." The voice sounded familiar and soothing.

Johnnyís eyelids fluttered open and he struggled to focus on the shapes before him. He tried to move his head, but found he could not without sending a gnawing pain along his nerves.

"Lay still, lad. Itís Johnny, isnít it? Youíre awfully fortunate. Looks like someone tried to cut your throat. Lucky for you, he was off by a few inches. Iíve bandaged your neck so you wonít move it for awhile."

Johnny blinked and the doctor came into focus. The former gunfighter moved his eyes to survey the surroundings, but they were not familiar.

"There. That finishes it." The doctor snipped the last stitch and began wrapping a strip of cloth around Johnnyís arm. "First time Iíve had to stitch up the same injury in the same day. Donít know if I should charge you twice or write it off as a loss because I didnít do a good enough job the first time." The doctor winked at his patient.

"Thanks, doc," Johnny said weakly, the words catching on his dry lips.

"Marcy, letís get this young man some water. Heíll need plenty of fluids to make up for the blood heís lost."

Johnny heard the rustle of fabric and saw Mrs. Dane lean over him with a spoon.

"Dr. Ulrich doesnít want you to move your head, so let me do all the work." Marcy trickled a few drops of water into Johnnyís mouth.

He was parched and the water soothed his throat. "More," he whispered.

After several additional teaspoons of water, he knew he was losing the delicate control he was trying to maintain over the pain. The throbbing in his arm battled with the pounding in his head, and both sensations threatened to throw him back into the pit where nightmares and reality merged into a confused jumble, where Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer each lost their war with the demons of the past and the fears of the future. The only thing he was sure of, in the foggy existence that took him under, was that his gun arm was useless and he was without bullets. He was going to lose this fight because he was weaponless. Johnny allowed the darkness to swallow him.

***

Murdoch listened to the doctorís prognosis and asked several questions for clarification.

"Please understand, Mr. Lancer. Each individual injury is not life threatening by itself, but the collective effect of multiple wounds, loss of blood, and infection is a dangerous combination. When I saw your son this morning, he faced a manageable recovery to regain the use of his right arm. Now, that is a minor challenge, as compared with what lies ahead."

"Can we do something more for him?" With unspoken anxiety, Murdoch watched Dr. Ulrich close his medical bag.

"Iím afraid thatís not the question. The real question is how much does your son want to live? In cases like this, the patientís will to survive is typically the deciding factor."

Murdoch took a deep breath and studied the motionless figure of his son. "Johnny is a fighter."

The doctor nodded and yawned. "Iíll be right next door should you need me. If someone else comes to get me for an emergency, Iíll let you know how to get hold of me."

"Thank you, Glen," Marcy said, leading the doctor to the door.

Pondering Dr. Ulrichís warning, Murdoch hoped his quick response was right. Johnny has always been a fighter, but is it possible the prejudice here and my own mistakes could have damaged his will to live? God, I never even got to apologize for my thoughtlessness. He mulled over the number of times in the past he had argued with his youngest son and never apologized. They usually let the anger cool and picked up where they left off before the argument, without any attempt at an apology. But not this time! This time, Son, Iíll make it clear how wrong I was.

 

PART 18

Scottís head shot up with a jerk, his eyes instantly wide open. He shifted in the ladder-back chair beside the bed where Johnny lay and stretched slowly to ease the stiffness in his limbs. The morning sun shone across the foot of the bed, and Scott was relieved to see Johnny sleeping quietly, without the fevered nightmares that had caused his brother to toss and thrash around just hours ago. I must have dozed off.

Leaning closer to examine Johnnyís heavily bandaged neck, Scott realized how close they had come to losing him. Dr. Ulrich was right. A few more inches and weíd be at Jamersonís place making arrangements for a coffin. The thought made Scott shudder.

Murdoch stepped quietly into the room and looked down at his sleeping son. The worried expression on the older manís face caused Scott to get up and walk over to him.

"Heís going to be fine," Scott said with an assurance he did not feel.

Clutching his hat in his hands, Murdoch met Scottís gaze. "I hate to leave him, but one of us needs to go to the auction."

"Go ahead, Murdoch. Iíll stay with Johnny, and Dr. Ulrich is just next door if thereís any change."

Scott watched his fatherís shoulders sag as he turned and left the room. He knew Murdoch was right and he did not fault his father. We came here on business, and this business must be finished.

***

At the insistent knocking on her front door, Marcy scurried from the kitchen, wondering why Murdoch was bothering to knock. "Coming," she called out, and smoothed a stray piece of hair back in place. When she pulled the door open, Marcy was startled to see two smartly dressed gentlemen standing on her front step.

The older man removed his derby and bowed his head. "Mrs. Dane? Is Johnny Lancer here?"

Marcy backed away from the door, unsure whether to answer. "Scott!"

The blond appeared beside her before she had a chance to turn around.

"Ah, Scott," the man said, his moustache moving slightly as he spoke.

"Agent Thornton." Scott shook hands with the man and then explained, "These men are Pinkerton agents."

"Have them come in, Scott." She stepped out of the way and regarded both men closely when the blond introduced them.

"Weíre here to talk to Johnny," Thornton said.

"He canít be disturbed right now," Scott replied.

Thornton gestured to the agent-in-training behind him. "Peterson, give Mr. Lancer the newspaper."

Marcy peered over Scottís arm at the bold headlines and photographic images splashed across the front page of the paper. She gasped at the picture of Johnny standing over a dead body, and below it, the jubilant faces of Murdoch and Scott with the Cattleman of the Year belt buckle. The headlines proclaimed, "Lancer Wins!"

"Scott," Marcy said softly. "Why donít you take these gentlemen into the kitchen and have some coffee while you read that. Iíll sit with your brother."

The blond seemed to hesitate, and Marcy gently pushed him toward the kitchen. "Take your time. Johnny will still be here when youíre done." Itíll do Scott good to take a break from sitting with his brother.

Once the men started toward the kitchen, Marcy took her place beside the patient. Sitting in Jeffís room gave her time to think about her son. She wiped a tear from her eye and hummed a lullaby.

"He was such a wild little boy," Marcy said to Johnny, although the injured man did not stir. "Such a bundle of energy." She continued reminiscing about Jeffís childhood, hoping Johnny might respond, but his eyes never opened.

***

"When did this happen?" Scott spread the newspaper across the kitchen table and stared at the picture of his brother standing in the middle of Main Street. Johnnyís right arm was in a sling, while his left hand held a pistol. A crumpled body lay before him on the ground. Scott glanced at both Pinkerton agents and waited for an answer.

"As best we can determine from witnesses," Thornton said. "It was just about six oíclock last night. Several people who saw what happened report Will Samples, a hired killer, drew on Johnny. They tell us your brother fired his gun through the sling."

Scott recalled the bullet hole in the bloody cloth and reread the caption under the photo. "Johnny Lancer, son of the Cattleman of the Year, wins gunfight with murderer on Main Street." Raising an eyebrow, the blond started to ask a question and then stopped.

Thornton cleared his throat. "We told the reporter not to run the story using Johnny Madridís name."

Peterson chuckled, the grin growing wider across his face. "Agent Thornton told the reporter to do it his way if he wanted the inside story on the scandal involving Aaron Lowry."

Scott pulled out a chair from the table and sat down to scan the article about Murdoch being named Cattleman of the Year. An adjacent column recounted how prominent rancher, Aaron Lowry, had been arrested for stealing an undisclosed, but significant sum of money from the railroad. Scott tried to put all the bits of information together, but the facts and sequence of events were confusing. "Maybe you better start by explaining everything from the beginning."

***

The stockyards buzzed with activity and excitement. Finding a seat in the crowded bleachers, Murdoch felt excluded from the camaraderie and good-natured teasing that bantered through the stands. Normally, he would have been a part of the joking.

With the loud bang of a gavel slammed against the auctioneerís table, the hum of cattlemen voices quieted. Murdoch shifted in his seat and watched a thin man in overalls lead a docile milk cow into the pen in front of the bleachers. He studied the animalís confirmation and disposition, noting the fullness of her udder. Thatís the one I was considering for Teresa.

The auctioneer began his spiel, describing the cow in detail and asking for an opening bid. Murdoch found himself not listening to the endless drone of numbers. The sharp rap of the gavel ending the bids for the milk cow caught him by surprise. His thoughts were back at Marcyís house on his youngest son. Johnny, youíve got to pull through this.

***

Scott ran his fingers through his hair and let his eyes wonder around Marcyís tidy kitchen. The room spoke of neatness and order, something that was missing from his life at the moment. Precision and clarity meant the world to him, but trying to find it under the current circumstances was wearing on his nerves.

"Thatís what weíve been able to find out so far, Agent Thornton said, rising from the kitchen chair. "We really need Johnnyís account of what happened to have a strong case for the railroad."

"But you told me Peterson heard everything." Scott studied the nervous man sitting across the table from him.

"I did," Peterson said.

"However, without Johnnyís testimony, in a court of law it will be Aaron Lowryís word against his." Agent Thornton put his derby on and stepped from the table. "Let us know when your brother can talk to us."

Scott nodded. If heís able to. His thoughts returned to Johnnyís precarious condition. The doctor had been less than forthcoming with a prediction about his brotherís chance for recovery. It took Scott a few minutes to realize the Pinkerton agents were gone. He folded the newspaper and carried it to Jeff Daneís bedroom. He stood in the doorway and watched Marcy rub Johnnyís right hand. "Has he come around yet?"

The widow shook her head and continued working her fingers along Johnnyís forearm. "Your brother seemed worried about being able to use his arm again. I thought if we can keep the blood moving to his hand, it might help."

"Sounds reasonable," Scott said. He glanced at the newspaper image of Johnny with his arm in a sling. Scott cringed at the possibility of his brother unable to draw a gun with the lightning speed for which he was famous. How would Johnny handle that? Every two-bit wannabe gunslinger would come gunning for him, wanting to add to his reputation that he outdrew Johnny Madrid. Would it matter to anyone that Johnny would face them using his left hand? Scott remembered Bobby Andersí story of Johnny practicing his target shooting. Thatís how he faced Will Samples.

"Would you like to sit here?" Marcyís tone was quiet. "It might do him some good to hear your voice. Perhaps you can read the newspaper to him."

Scott changed places with the widow. He reached over and felt the warmth in Johnnyís injured hand. It did not feel as lifeless as it had earlier. The blond leaned back in the wooden chair, opened the paper and began reading aloud, adding his own observations to the news articles.

***

Dark figures swirled in the shadows, mixed with flashes of images from years and days past. Faces of friends and enemies laughed and sneered at him, then disappeared to be replaced with disjointed scenes from saloons and campfires. Johnny tried to find something to cling to, something to grasp in the crazy kaleidoscope of people and places that threatened him, but nothing stayed long enough for him to latch on to.

He sank deeper into the darkness. Some part of him was fighting, trying to put the pieces together, but he was drifting away, losing the fight.

Then, he heard the sound, a persistent hum, a steady mumbling, but the words were unclear. Johnny stilled the angry screams of pain that filled his head and concentrated on the sound. The voice was comforting, one he knew well. Slowly, a few jumbled words became distinct. "Will Samples... gunfightÖ deadÖ Aaron Lowry... railroadÖ Ben Reynolds... MurdochÖ CattlemanÖ"

The harder Johnny tried to listen to the voice, the more confused he became. Samples had killed Flint. He saw Flintís dead body. Bare feet sticking out from under the sheet. Where were Flintís boots? Did someone take my boots too? Samplesí gunning for me. Need to practice. The target wavered before his eyes. Despite the pain, he moved his right arm, reaching for the pistol at his hip. His fingers tightened, and he groaned at the agony that accompanied the movement.

Wavering in the darkness, a threatening shadow loomed ahead and emerged as a faceless enemy. Samples? Reynolds? Sexton Joe? Johnny readied for the gunfight. Relax. Breathe. Sight. Squeeze. His pistol did not have any bullets. With growing panic, he realized his gun hand was empty and useless.

The voice sounded closer, more insistent. Someone was calling his name, asking him to do something. What? What do you want? He was certain it was Scott calling him. Scott needs me to go to him. But Iím tired, so tired. Johnny moved his lips to tell Scott he needed to rest, but no sound escaped from his mouth.

***

With a low bellow, Hercules plodded into the pen on a lead rope and paraded in front of the bleachers. At the bullís head, a thin man in overalls patted the animalís neck and smiled a missing-tooth grin.

"Now hereís something you donít see often," the auctioneer said.

Murdoch shifted position on the uncomfortable bleachers and sat straighter. He had heard the snickered comments about "Murdochís Mistake" when Hercules first appeared. Without acknowledging the crowdís reaction, he admired the size of his red and white bull.

"For those of you whoíve never seen one before, this is a fine example of a Hereford bull," the auctioneer said. "The breed originated in England and has been introduced back east."

"Itís got short legs," a voice yelled from the stands. "A cattle drive with a herd of those would take forever to get to market." The crowd laughed and hooted.

After a few minutes, the auctioneer pounded his gavel against the table. "Herefords are bred for their size. Look at the broad chest on this one. Imagine the price per pound the offspring of this bull will bring."

Murdoch held his breath and waited. Breeding Hercules with shorthorns would mean bigger calves with longer legs. Canít they see that?

The crowd was silent, and Murdoch sighed. The man in overalls continued leading Hercules along the edge of the pen. Then a murmur ran through the bleachers. A young boy climbed to the top board of the fence and waved to the man in the pen, while a scruffy black dog crawled under the bottom board.

"Do I have an opening bid?" The auctioneer pointed his gavel toward the bleachers.

"Five!"

Murdochís head shot around to locate who had offered the ridiculous price.

"Come now, gentlemen. This bull is worth more than $5 if you took him to the butcher." The auctioneer looked nervously at the crowd. "Letís have a real opening bid."

Nick Barkley stood up and put his hands on his hips. "That was an opening bid. Five thousand dollars."

The gasp from a rancher seated behind Murdoch made him smile.

"Sorry, Mr. Barkley," the auctioneer said. "We have five thousand. Five thousand. Do I hear six?"

"Six thousand," Henry Brickman shouted.

"Seven." Nickís voice was loud and firm.

Murdoch grinned. Maybe Tom Barkleyís son has some vision after all. The smile faded from his lips when he saw the boy lean over the fence and scratch Herculesí head. Oh my God. Be careful, boy.

The man in overalls lifted the youngster from the fence and placed him on the bullís back. The boy squirmed briefly and nodded at the man.

Murdoch rose, his mouth open but afraid to yell for fear of startling Hercules. "Get that child off the bull. Heíll get hurt." His words were barely a whisper.

"Look at that," the auctioneer said, gesturing toward the pen. "Whatís it worth to you to have a breeding stud so gentle a child can ride him?"

"Eight thousand."

"Ten!"

The bids climbed quickly, and Nickís volume grew with each new challenge. Murdoch brushed past a burly cattleman, desperate to reach the boy before he was hurt. Johnny was gored by that bull.

"Twelve thousand."

The man in overalls dropped the lead rope and stepped toward the center of the pen. With an eager bark, the black dog raced forward and seized the rope in its teeth. Hercules continued to lumber forward with the dog tugging on the lead, while the boy waved to the crowd.

"Fifteen."

"We have fifteen thousand," the auctioneer said. "Fifteen, fifteen. Do we have sixteen?"

"Twenty-five thousand!" Nickís words carried across the stockyard, and a cow in a nearby pen bellowed.

The crowd hushed and every head turned to stare at Nick Barkley. The determined look on his face stopped the bidding. The auctioneer tried to raise the price, but no one challenged the Barkley bid. "Sold!"

Murdoch hurried to the pen, his eyes on the little boy. "Be careful."

"Itís okay, mister," the man in overalls said. "Bobbyís been practicing this trick for a couple of days. Heís been over, under, and around this bull in more ways than you could imagine." He opened the gate, and the dog led Hercules out of the pen.

"Are you Anders?" Murdoch glanced at the man and then swung the boy off the bullís back.

"Sure am."

"Iím Murdoch Lancer."

"Youíre Johnnyís father." The man shook Murdochís hand. "Fine young man. Howís he feeling? Thought he would be here this morning. Bobbyís been wanting to show him the trick he and Buster been working on."

Murdoch ruffled the little boyís hair. "Iím sure Johnny would be proud. You helped us sell Hercules for more than I ever expected." Nickís bid would more than cover the bank payment for the Davenport parcel. Murdoch took out his pocket watch and studied it, lost in thought. "Johnny was hurt last night. I need to get back to see how heís doing."

"Let him know we asked about him." Mr. Anders and Bobby led Hercules to a holding pen.

Anxiety over Johnnyís condition gave Murdoch more speed than usual, and he left the stockyard before Nick Barkley could catch up with him. Hold on, Son. Iíll be there in a few minutes.

 

PART 19

Marcy brought Dr. Ulrich another basin of warm water and set it on the nightstand beside Johnnyís bed. She glanced over the doctorís shoulder and watched him apply salve to the angry red gash on Johnnyís right arm. The swelling around the stitches looked painful and Marcy was thankful Murdochís youngest son remained unconscious.

"Do you think heíll be able to use his arm again?" Her words were little more than a whisper.

"The circulation to his hand seems good. That was my greatest concern." The doctor wrapped a bandage around the wound and secured the ends. Straightening up, he kneaded the small of his back. "The cut to his neck stopped bleeding and looks like it will heal nicely."

"Then why hasnít he come around yet?" Marcy placed a hand on Johnnyís dark hair. His father and brother are so worried about him.

Turning to face her, Dr. Ulrich shook his head and peered over the top of his glasses. "The mind heals at a different rate than the body. Heíll come around when heís ready."

Marcy collected the discarded, bloodstained bandages and smiled at the doctor. "Glen, if anyone can pull him through this, you can."

"Thank you, Marcy. Now, should we go tell the Lancers how our patient is doing?"

She slipped her hand around the doctorís arm and accompanied him out of the bedroom to where Murdoch and Scott waited.

***

 

The ladder back chair creaked and Murdoch stretched his cramped leg muscles. For the fifth time that hour he pulled the watch from his pocket and fingered the fob without glancing at it.

Quietly, Scott entered the room carrying a cup of coffee. "Here you go, Murdoch."

Murdoch accepted the cup and gave his son a half-smile. "Thanks, Scott. My stomach is telling me I should eat, but I canít bring myself to leave him."

"How about if I bring you a sandwich?"

"Maybe in a few minutes." He looked at the still figure of his youngest son before turning back to Scott. "I know the doctor said to be patient, butÖ"

"Itís hard to wait," Scott said, settling gingerly on the edge of the bed. They sat in silence, both studying the pained expression on Johnnyís face. Finally, Scott sighed and looked away. "Murdoch, the Pinkerton agents were here earlier."

Murdoch stiffened and furrowed his brow. He tightened his hand around the coffee cup and waited for Scott to continue.

"Thornton told me they need Johnnyís testimony to convict Aaron LowryóBen Reynoldsóof stealing the railroadís money and hiring Will Samples to kill Johnnyís friend, Flint. Reynolds is in jail based on what Peterson overhead between Johnny and Reynolds in the alley, but they really want to hear Johnnyís account of what happened."

"I would too," Murdoch said with a heavy heart. Will his past ever give us peace? He sipped the coffee and regretted that he had forced Johnny to join him on this trip. If I hadnít insisted he come to the Convention, he would be safe at home right now.

"Thornton also explained how they made the connection between Johnny and Lowry, or should I say, Reynolds."

Murdochís frown deepened and he set the coffee cup on the nightstand. He recalled the Pinkerton agent saying he was involved because he had found Johnny Madrid before. "Thornton mentioned having an informant who tied Johnny to Reynolds."

"Yes. Five years ago, Reynolds was carrying money for the railroad to negotiate a deal in Mexico. He and his brother-in-law planned to steal the money by staging a robbery. Then, they were going to share the money, but they had to make it look believable. So Reynolds hired a poor, young kid who wanted to build a reputation for himself and who could translate Spanish for them."

"Johnny?" Murdoch cringed. His son must have been about sixteen or seventeen at the time. Too young to be risking his life like that.

Scott nodded and continued, "Reynoldsí brother-in-law wrote a letter to his wife, Reynoldsí sister, spelling out the whole scheme. During the staged robbery attempt, they planned to kill the hired gun. Reynolds would tell the authorities they had been attacked and Johnnyís dead body would be his proof. Meanwhile, Reynoldsí brother-in-law would hide out with the money until it was safe for them to split it."

"But it didnít happen that way." Murdoch knew Johnny had somehow changed Reynoldsí plan.

"No," Scott said in a quieter tone. "Johnny holds the rest of the story, but the Pinkerton agents think he stopped the robbery attempt. They donít know positively, but they believe Johnny shot Reynolds and the brother-in-law. He was probably hurt also."

"Shot?"

Scott shrugged. "Reynolds got away with a bullet in his leg and reported to the local sheriff that his hired gun was killed and a desperado escaped with the money."

"Not Johnny?"

"Thornton says the sheriff found a dead body and Reynolds confirmed it was Johnny Madrid."

"Obviously he was lying," Murdoch said, angry at how his youngest son had been used by other people.

"Johnny was young then, Murdoch. Not many people knew him. Our Johnny disappeared from sight, probably recovering from a bullet wound. Meanwhile, the railroad believed Reynoldsí story. Now, they think the dead man was actually Reynoldsí brother-in-law, since he hasnít been seen since then."

Johnny stirred and both men waited to see if he would rouse. When the dark-haired man remained still, Murdoch sighed.

"Some time later, Reynolds disappeared, and Johnny Madrid started building a reputation for himself. The railroad suspected foul play, so they hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to find Reynolds. Thornton said they werenít having any luck, until the letter Reynoldsí brother-in-law wrote surfaced."

"Surfaced?"

Scott bent and pulled the quilt higher on Johnnyís shoulders. "Reynoldsí sister had the letter. When she died recently from the influenza, the letter was found by a neighbor cleaning out her personal effects. The neighbor gave the letter to the authorities, who contacted the railroad."

"But how did they make the connection to Aaron Lowry?"

"Thornton said that was pure detective work. They reviewed property sales records, newspaper articles, anything that might report a sudden large expenditure of money."

Murdoch recalled the Cattlemen Associationís reason for nominating Lowry for Cattleman of the Year. "Aaron Lowry purchased his ranch about five years ago and invested heavily on improvements... using the railroadís money."

"Right," Scott said. "Only they had no way of proving it. Not without getting Lowry to admit it or Johnny to identify Reynolds and testify to what he knew."

Murdoch pulled on his lower lip. "But didnít anyone recognize the resemblance between Reynolds and Lowry?"

"Reynolds dressed like a cowboy and was clean-shaven, but wore his hair longer. Lowry grew a beard and cut his hair. Lowry walks with a cane and is a distinguished-looking gentleman. The Pinkertons suspected they might be the same person, but couldnít prove it untiló"

"Until the letter was found, and the connection with Johnny was found," Murdoch finished.

Again, Scott nodded. They both fell silent.

"The railroad also hired a man named Flint Logan, a friend of Johnnyís. They hoped by having Flint follow Lowry he would get nervous and make a mistake. Instead, Lowry hired Will Samples as his protection. Samples probably murdered Flint, and he attempted to kill Johnny. The Pinkerton agents are hoping Johnny can tell them more about what happened. You saw the newspaper article, so you know how it turned out."

Murdoch rubbed the stiff joints in his knees. "You donít think they want to blame any of this on your brother?"

"I donít think so, butÖ"

"But we better prepare for that." Running a finger along his temple, Murdoch decided to retain the legal services of Jarrod Barkley. Just in case.

"Just in case," Scott said.

"Maybe I will take that sandwich now." Murdoch watched Scott leave the room and then leaned closer to Johnny. "Son, if I could undo the past, Iíd take away all the hurt. You would have grown up at Lancer and none of this would have happened."

***

The aroma of coffee roused Johnny, and he stirred with a groan. He felt drained, weak as a newborn kitten, and it was painful to move, so he lay still without opening his eyes.

"Johnny?"

The worry in his fatherís voice caused Johnny to lift his eyelids slowly. Blinking at the light, he tried to focus on Murdochís face.

"Hello, John. I was beginning to wonderÖ" Murdoch lightly touched Johnnyís forehead.

The younger man licked his lips and grimaced. "About what?"

"If Iíd be able to tell you how sorry I am."

His fatherís face blurred and Johnny closed his eyes, fighting to hang on to the old manís words. Johnnyís arm throbbed with pain and he struggled to ignore it. "Wasnít your fault. Was me, my past."

"Johnny, this wasnít your doing," Murdoch said.

The sound of hurried footsteps made Johnny open his eyes. He attempted to move his head toward the noise, but a sharp pain spread along his neck and he moaned.

"Stay still, Brother." Scott sat on the bed so Johnny could see him without turning his head. "The doctor says you need to keep your head still."

Johnny flashed a partial smile at his brother. "Donít like to take orders."

"Well, you will follow these orders." Murdochís voice was stern.

"Donít have much choice, Old Man." Why do we always wind up fighting? The darkness closed in around Johnny. He tried to push it back, but he was losing the struggle to stay awake.

"John," Murdoch said, kneeling beside the bed and positioning himself so Johnnyís half-closed eyes could see him. He took his sonís right hand in both of his hands. "Iím just worried about you. I donít want to lose you."

Johnny battled through the numbness that wore against his brain. "No fight."

"No, Son. We wonít fight. But I do want you to know how sorry I am about the way I treated you."

Puzzled and confused, Johnny looked at Murdoch, trying to figure out what his father was talking about.

"I havenít treated you right. Even how I introduced you to my friends didnít measure up to how I introduced Scott. I should have treated you like equals, and I didnít."

"Ainít equals," Johnny whispered. "Scottís better."

"No, Johnny!" Murdoch and Scott cried out in unison.

"Need to sleep." Johnny sighed and his eyelids slid shut.

"Not yet, Son. Please listen, then you can sleep. I didnít even realize I was treating you different, until Scott pointed it out. Iím so sorry."

"We may have grown up far apart, but weíre equals," Scott said.

Johnny did not agree, but he was too tired to argue.

"Please forgive me, Son."

Johnny concentrated with all his strength and tightened the fingers of his right hand around Murdochís hand. Then, he fell asleep, knowing his father and Scott would not let the matter rest.

***

"Henry, what are you doing here?" Murdoch left Johnnyís side and herded the portly cattleman out of the room. His son was not an attraction to be gawked at by curious visitors.

"Sorry to disturb you, Murdoch, but I heard Johnny was here and was hoping I could see him."

"Heís not up to having guests right now." Murdoch regarded Henry critically. For hours, he and Scott had sat by Johnnyís bedside, waiting for him to awake again, but the dark-haired man remained asleep.

"Oh." The manís face conveyed his disappointment. "Iíll be leaving Sacramento tomorrow and before I go, I wanted to talk to him, to apologize. And I volunteered to return this to you. In the confusion last night, it must have been left behind." After lifting an object out of his pocket, Henry handed Murdoch the gold Cattleman of the Year belt buckle.

Murdoch nodded and accepted the buckle, but his attention was drawn to a sound coming from Johnnyís bedroom. "Excuse me, Henry. Iíll be right back."

Without waiting for the cattlemanís response, Murdoch hurried into the room he had left a few minutes earlier. He was relieved to see Scott holding a glass of water to Johnnyís mouth, and Murdoch could not stop a smile from spreading across his face. Scott glanced up and grinned too. However, Murdoch was startled when Henry cleared his throat. The rotund rancher had followed him into the bedroom and stood just behind Murdochís elbow.

Henry slipped past Murdoch and stepped close to the bed. "How are you doing, Johnny?"

Johnnyís eyes flickered open and roamed from Scott to Henry.

"Been better," Johnny said in a soft drawl. "Been worse."

Murdoch placed a hand on Henryís shoulder and pulled him away from the bed. Johnnyís in no shape to be dealing with Henry Brickman and his prejudice.

"Johnny," Henry said quickly. "I came to apologize for my poor choice of words."

Murdoch studied both his sons for their reaction to the offered apology. Scott stood stiffly by the nightstand, the glass of water clenched in his hand. Holding his breath, Murdoch considered the expression on his youngest sonís face, but was surprised to see Johnny wearing a faint smile.

"Finding the right wordsÖ" Johnny moistened his lips and closed his eyes briefly. "Can be tough sometimes." Slowly, Johnny opened his eyes and Murdoch recognized the flash of good humor that only his son could convey with those eyes of his.

"I did some hard thinking and some checking around after your father and I spoke." Henry glanced at Murdoch and laced his fingers together. "When Murdoch brought you here last night, rather than staying at the Inn, I knew there must be a serious problem, so I spoke to a few people."

Murdoch watched Henry rock from side to side. Heís usually very direct, but he seems down right nervous.

"And Iíve decided to buy the Cattlemenís Inn and change a few things," Henry said. "Like firing the manager and hiring someone whoís more tolerant of different kinds of people. Someone who will run the hotel for me, so I can run my ranch."

"Do you have anyone in mind?" The angry look on Scottís face eased.

"Not yet."

"Jamerson." Johnnyís voice was weak, and Murdoch shoved past the rancher to get closer to his son.

"Whoís Jamerson?"

Scott grinned and bobbed his head. "Johnnyís right. Mr. Jamerson, the undertaker, would do a great job. He loves to talk to people, always offers you something to eat or drink, and runs a clean business. You should see how neat his stable is."

"Thanks for the suggestion," Henry said. "Well, Iíll let you rest, Johnny. The next time youíre in Sacramento, you come to the Cattlemenís Inn, and your stay will be free, compliments of the new owner."

Johnnyís face darkened and he lifted his good hand off the bed, gesturing for Henry to come closer. When the man leaned down, Johnny whispered words Murdoch could not hear.

"Certainly," Henry said. Then, he turned and strutted out of the room.

"What was that all about?" Murdoch dropped into the chair beside Johnnyís bed.

"Heís going to give SeŮora Gomťz a raise." Despite the drawn look on his face, the gleam in Johnnyís eyes was unmistakable.

"And what else?"

"And Luisa can speak Spanish." Johnnyís smile broadened.

Murdoch glanced at Scott, but he shrugged. Murdochís youngest son was still a mystery. This last exchange with Henry was meaningless to the older man, but he decided not to ask Johnny for an explanation.

"Hercules?" Johnny attempted to shift position, but grimaced at the effort.

"Sold to Nick Barkley for a nice profit," Murdoch said.

"And Aaron Lowry, formerly Ben Reynolds, is in jail," Scott added. "But the Pinkerton agents want to talk to you."

Johnny groaned, knowing what that meant. Digging up the past, answering questions about times Iíd rather forget. "Sounds like unfinished business."

"Son, the only unfinished business that counts is getting you well enough to travel home."

Marcy breezed into the small room, carrying a bowl of chowder. "I heard voices and realized you were awake, Johnny. You can talk about business later; for now, itís time to eat."

Scott took the bowl from Marcy. "Iíll take over here."

"Brother, you ainít aiming to spill that on me, are you?" Despite the heavy bandaging around his neck, Johnny managed to smile at the blond.

"As your big brother, I guess I can feed you some soup."

Murdoch gazed at his two sons, proud of the men they had become. He worried about Johnnyís recovery and Lowryís trial, but already some of the former gunfighterís old fire was returning. He chuckled at the banter between the brothers.

"You look like a proud papa," Marcy said to him as she left the room.

"I am."

 

PART 20

"Itís highly unusual, Mr. Lancer," Jarrod Barkley said, coming around his desk to sit beside the older man.

"Murdoch. Please call me Murdoch. Everyone says youíre the best lawyer in town, and I want the best for my son." One look at the quality of the furnishings in the office told Murdoch the young man beside him must be successful.

"But Mr. LanÖ, Murdoch, your son isnít the one being charged with a crime. Heís a witness."

"Jarrod, I donít know what youíve heard about my son." Murdoch paused. This was harder than he expected, but Johnny was going to have the best legal counsel Murdoch could find. "Johnnyís past has been difficult. Before he came to live with me, he made his living as a hired gun. He went by the name Johnny Madrid."

"Iíve heard some stories, but Ben Reynolds is the one on trial, not Johnny."

"And thatís the way I want to keep it," Murdoch said, shifting in the leather chair. "Johnny doesnít want to testify, but Iím sure he will after we convince him itís the right thing to do. What I donít want is Reynoldsí attorney tearing him apart when he does testify, and somehow turning it around so Johnny looks like the criminal."

"Well, Murdoch, thatís exactly what Reynoldsí lawyer is supposed to do."

"My God, man. Johnnyís trying to put his past behind him. His testimony about his days as Johnny Madrid will make headlines in the paper, and every gunslinger west of the Mississippi could come looking to call him out. I donít want to put his life in that kind of jeopardy." Murdoch flushed with anger. I will not allow that to happen!

Jarrod placed his hand over his mouth and stared at the bookshelves lined with law tomes. "I can approach the railroad about serving as co-counsel. That way I could object if the questioning veers into areas of Johnnyís past that arenít relevant to the case."

"That would help," Murdoch said, and he relaxed for the first time since entering Jarrodís office.

"And the railroad may be willing to ask the judge to close the proceedings to the press. After all, they donít want the word getting out that one of their employees stole money from them. That would cut down on the newspaper coverage."

"Good." Murdoch smiled and admired Jarrodís logical approach to the situation.

"The newspaper will still cover the story, Murdoch. Make no mistake about that. You are the Cattleman of the Year, your son is a key witness in a major case, Aaron Lowry is a prominent rancher, and Johnny hasóshall we sayóa colorful past."

Murdoch nodded. "I understand."

"Iíll talk to the railroadís counselor, Mr. Beamer, right away. I will have to discuss this with your son also."

"Of course. He still is recovering from his injuries, and will need several more weeks before heís ready to testify. Weíre staying at Mrs. Daneís house on Lemon Street."

Jarrod rose and shook Murdochís hand. "Iíll be over later this afternoon."

***

"Johnny, you have to!" Scott hated to badger his brother when he was still in such pain, but without Johnnyís testimony the Pinkerton agents were sure Reynolds would not be found guilty.

"Leave it, Brother. You donít understand." Johnny sat propped up in bed, the bandage around his neck making it difficult for him to follow Scottís pacing around the room.

"I understand you have a responsibility to tell the court what you know about Reynolds or Lowry or whatever you want to call him. You owe it to Flint." Scott knew that was a low blow and he watched his brotherís chest heave with a sigh. In a softer tone, Scott continued, "You owe it to yourself to put this behind you."

"I can deal with Reynolds in my own way." The hardness in Johnnyís face chilled Scott.

"Johnny, he tried to kill you. He sent Will Samples to get rid of you and Flint. You canít let him get away with that."

"He wonít. Samples paid the price, and Reynolds will too."

"Let the legal system take care of him. The railroadís involved also, and they want justice, not your brand of justice, the legal kind."

"You saying what I do ainít legal?" Johnnyís voice held a sharp edge.

"No, Johnny. I just think in this case, thereís a better way."

"Better for who?"

Scott studied his brother. "What are you afraid of?"

"Ainít afraid!"

Despite the bravado, Scott could tell his brother was wearing out. The doctor had reported the injuries were healing and the infection was under control, but Johnny was far from recovered.

"Then youíre not afraid to testify," Scott said.

"No!"

"Good. Then Iíll tell the Pinkerton agents that youíre ready to see the railroadís attorney."

Johnny sighed and closed his eyes. Scott knew he had beaten his brother into acceptance, but he took no pleasure in it. Sorry, Brother, but youíll see itís the right thing to do.

***

"Iím sorry, gentlemen," Jarrod said. "I know thatís not what you want to hear." He opened his briefcase and removed a sheet of paper. Discretely, he stole a glance at the dark-haired man seated across from him on the sofa in Marcy Daneís living room. Jarrod had a good eye for judging people and Johnny was a tough one all right. Twenty-four hours earlier, he had been near death, yet a few minutes ago, the former gunfighter had walked slowly but independently from the bedroom to settle carefully on the sofa. Murdoch and Scott hovered protectively on either side, but Jarrod saw the determined set of Johnnyís jaw and knew the injured man would refuse their help. Heíll need that grit if heís going to testify.

"Johnnyís in no condition to testify tomorrow," Murdoch said in a voice that reminded Jarrod of his brother Nick.

"Apparently, Aaron Lowry used some of the railroadís money to buy some political favors here in Sacramento. The Governor is calling for a speedy trial. Mr. Beamer, the railroadís attorney, isnít happy, but he doesnít have much choice. He has agreed to let me serve as co-counsel and has gotten permission to have the press excluded from the trial."

Jarrod studied Johnny intently. "Do you think you can manage a trip to City Hall tomorrow?"

"Isnít there another way?" Scott looked angry, and Jarrod could appreciate the blondís concern for his brother.

"We could file a deposition, but in light of the magnitude of the charges, that wouldnít be very effective and might be challenged."

"Donít know what that means," Johnny said softly. "But Iíll be ready tomorrow, since Iím told thatís the right thing to do."

Jarrod caught the challenging look Johnny shot in Scottís direction and recognized the unspoken exchange between the brothers. The lawyer knew Johnny was a reluctant witness at best, not the strongest position for a key witness to be in when facing the tough attorney Lowry had hired. Fred Griffin had a reputation as a shark, a cold-hearted man-eater.

"First, letís cover a few minor details." Jarrod jotted a note on his sheet of paper. "I want you to wear a suit tomorrow, Johnny."

The injured man frowned, and Scott quickly interjected, "Johnnyís suit was destroyed. We had to cut the jacket sleeve to get to his wound."

"Well, Scott," Jarrod said. "Your task today is to buy him another one. I want Johnny looking like a successful cattleman."

"Instead of a half-breed gun hawk." Johnny grinned.

Jarrod decided the dark-haired man was testing him, and he smiled back. "Exactly."

"You want that herringbone one we saw in the store?" Scott chuckled and moved away from his brother.

Theyíre just like Nick and Heath, always needling each other over some silly thing. When Jarrod saw the tense look cloud Johnnyís face, he knew the joke was not going over well with the injured man. "No, Scott. A basic suit, nothing too fancy. We donít want folks thinking heísó"

"A dandy from Boston," Johnny added with a smirk.

"Now, we have to get down to work," Jarrod said. The rest of the afternoon was spent reviewing what Johnny knew about Reynolds in the past and what had happened in the alley.

"Jarrod," Murdoch finally said. "Johnny needs to rest."

The dark-haired man looked exhausted, and Jarrod suspected Johnny was so stubborn he never would admit he had to stop. "Right you are, Murdoch. You need to be rested for tomorrow, Johnny. Iíll send a carriage for you at nine in the morning, and meet you at City Hall."

As he left the house, Jarrod reviewed his impressions of the star witness for the railroad. The boy was in no condition to testify, Murdoch was right about that. And dressing Johnny in a suit was not going to take his past away. It would be a difficult day tomorrow for Johnny. Jarrod hoped he was up to the challenge that lay ahead.

***

Johnny could not get comfortable on the wooden bench in the City Hall courtroom. He was going along with this trial because Scott and Murdoch seemed determined that it had to be done this way, but the formality troubled him. He had been to enough trials on trumped up charges, including the one that had landed him in front of the Mexican rurales firing squad, that he had little faith in lawyers and courts. However, as requested by Jarrod, he wore the new brown suit Scott had bought for him, but the buttoned shirt collar and string tie irritated his neck wound.

Dr. Ulrich had come over to Mrs. Daneís early in the morning to change the bandages and offer some pain medication, which Johnny had declined. Donít want to be muddle-headed when Iím being asked questions. He did accept a new sling, and the increasing movement of the fingers on his gun hand gave Johnny some comfort. For a few minutes, he weighed the option of bringing his pistol along, but he was still out of bullets and knew his father and brother would not give him any at this point. So, the gun remained behind, a situation that he was not happy about.

The carriage ride to City Hall tired Johnny more than he expected, but he tried to hide it from Murdoch and Scott. However, the shirt and tie were becoming more annoying with each passing minute. Johnny tugged at the string tie with his left hand, trying to loosen it.

"Whatís wrong, John?" Murdoch leaned over and peered at Johnny closely.

"My neck," Johnny said, hoping his father would ease the pressure against the bandage.

Shaking his head, Murdoch removed the tie and opened the top two buttons of Johnnyís shirt. "Jarrodís not going to like this."

Jarrod seems like a nice guy, but heíll have to hogtie me if he thinks Iím going to wear that blasted thing. Johnny flashed a smile at his father. "Thanks, Murdoch. That helps." The pain did subside and Johnny felt a bit better.

The courtroom was filling slowly with spectators and interested parties. When the judge entered the room to take his place behind the massive desk, everyone rose. Johnny found Scottís arm around his waist, helping him stand. Normally, Johnny would have shaken off the assistance, but he was feeling fatigued already, so he let Scott support him.

The judge sat in a high-backed chair behind a large desk on a raised platform. Johnny studied the man as he rapped the gavel and called court into session. Then, the former gunfighter turned his attention to each of the attorneys at the front of the room. He could only see the backs of their heads, but he quickly identified Jarrod. He also spotted Reynolds sitting next to a broad-shouldered man Johnny assumed was his legal counsel.

As the lawyers began their opening comments to the jury, Johnny found his eyes growing heavy in the warm room. To keep himself awake, he started counting the number of times each attorney called the bearded man Reynolds or Lowry. By the time they summoned Johnny to the witness stand, it seemed to be a draw.

***

Murdoch watched his youngest son on the witness stand. Johnny had been unable to raise his right hand for the oath and the judge seemed understanding of his injuries. Still, Murdoch found himself holding his breath as Jarrod posed questions and Johnny answered. He noticed Scott twisting his hands together in his lap. Weíll all be glad when this is over.

Initially, Jarrodís questions were simple ones requiring Johnny to respond with either a yes or no. But the lawyersí next question surprised Murdoch and made him wince.

"Tell the court, Mr. Lancer, why you went to work for Ben Reynolds." Jarrod stood close to the witness stand, blocking Johnny from Murdochís view.

The elder Lancer wondered if Jarrod was deliberately preventing him from seeing his son. Maybe he doesnít want Johnny worrying about my reaction.

"Take your time," Jarrod said.

"I was sixteen and living on my own, taking odd jobs in one border town after another, making barely enough to get by. Heard a man passing through Sonora was looking to hire a gun. He needed someone who could speak English and Spanish; said he would pay $20 at the end of the job. I took the offer to protect him and his money."

"Did he mention the money belonged to the railroad?"

"No," Johnny said. "Didnít matter to me. Reynolds hired me to protect him and his money."

"And did you do that?" Jarrod moved slightly and Murdoch glimpsed Johnnyís dejected expression.

"I tried." Johnny related the details of guiding Reynolds across a desert and skirting dangers along the badlands. He concluded with the attack by the campfire.

Murdoch cringed at his sonís description of the bullet hitting him in the belly. Oh, Johnny. Sixteen years old and risking your life to earn $20 for food. Murdoch found it hard to listen to the rest of Jarrodís questions and Johnnyís testimony. Prison is too good for Reynolds!

***

"No more questions for this witness, Your Honor," Jarrod said and winked at Johnny.

"Your witness, Mr. Griffin." The judge settled back in his chair and tapped his fingers against the desk.

Johnny swallowed and composed himself. He had been prepared for Jarrodís questions, but it was a struggle to recount the events of his past, especially the details of his recovery from the gunshot wound he now knew was caused by Reynolds. Jarrod had warned him Griffinís interrogation might be brutal.

"Mr. Madrid, how much money did you have when you were hired by Ben Reynolds?" Mr. Griffin rose from his seat beside Aaron Lowry.

"Objection," Jarrod said. "The witnessí name is John Lancer, and his financial status five years ago is irrelevant."

"Your Honor," Mr. Griffin responded. "The charge against my client, Mr. Lowry, is that he had an alternate identity in the past and was motivated by financial gain. Iím seeking to determine whether the same can be said of this witness."

"Objection overruled. You may proceed with this line of questioning." The judge nodded for Johnny to answer.

"Do you need me to repeat the question, Mr. Madrid?"

Johnny regarded the broad-shouldered attorney with disdain. "The nameís Lancer and I heard you the first time." Johnny took a breath. Ainít no different than a gunfight, only instead of bullets, itís words. Relax. Breathe. Sight. Speak. He smiled a cold grinóa Johnny Madrid smile. "I had a horse, a saddle and a gun when Reynolds hired me, and I worked hard to get those. I spent my last pesos on cartridges when I hired on to protect Reynolds."

"So you were broke. And you expect us to believe that a poor, half-Mexican whelp wouldnít be tempted to steal money rather than protect the man carrying it?"

Johnny chuckled, well aware the lawyerís barb about his heritage was intended to rattle him. "You donít know me, Mr. Griffin, but my word is my honor. I gave Reynolds my word I would protect him." He stared hard at the bearded man sitting in the front of the courtroom.

"Mr. Madrid,--"

"Told you itĎs Lancer," Johnny said in a cool voice.

"So you did," Mr. Griffin said, looking away from the witness stand. "Are you jealous of successful men, like Aaron Lowry?"

"Ainít jealous of nobody who comes by what they have honestly." Comparing Griffinís change of questioning to a gunfighter he used to know, Johnny recognized the shift in direction was supposed to throw him off balance. Just like Traveliní Bo. Well, changing directions in a gunfight didnít do him no good. Heís dead now.

The verbal sparring between Griffin and Johnny continued for over an hour with Jarrod frequently objecting to questions that had little bearing on the case. Johnny felt his edge slipping. The pain in his arm was getting worse, and he fought off a wave of dizziness, followed by a bout of nausea. More than anything, Johnny regretted that Murdoch and Scott had to listen to the grim details of his life as a gun hawk.

"When you went into the alley after Aaron Lowry, you were planning to rob and kill him. Wasnít that why you were back there?" The broad-shouldered lawyer was perspiring heavily and he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief.

Despite his exhaustion, Johnny laughed. "Mister, I own a third of the Lancer ranch, home of the Cattleman of the Year. I have more than Iíve ever had in my whole life." Johnny glanced at Murdoch and Scott. He had avoided looking in their direction since taking the witness stand, but he wanted them to know he meant them, not gold coins or cattle.

"When I followed Reynolds into that alley, I had one bullet in my gun. I was there to finish the business we started five years ago. My only regret is for my friend, Flint Logan, and for Will Samples, both died because of his lies." Johnny pointed a finger at Reynolds.

The courtroom erupted in a series of murmured conversations. Banging the gavel, the judge called for order.

"Mr. Griffin," the judge admonished. "Iíve put up with these questions for an hour now. If you donít have any questions that are going to generate new information relevant to this case, Iím inclined to dismiss this witness."

"No more questions, Your Honor." The attorney slumped into the seat beside the accused man.

"You may step down, Mr. Lancer," the judge said.

Johnny willed his legs and his good arm to move, but they buckled under him.

"Your Honor," Jarrod said hastily, stepping toward Johnny. "May we have a brief recess?"

"Good idea, Counselor. Five minute recess." The judge slammed the gavel down hard and left the courtroom.

Johnny relaxed against the seat back and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Murdoch and Scott were gathered around him, and Jarrod was beaming with a smile that intrigued Johnny.

"Letís get you back to Marcyís house," Murdoch said, the concern evident in his voice and face.

"Actually, Johnny." Jarrod peered at him closely. "If youíre up to staying, I could use you here, in case I need to cross examine. You did a great job. Griffin doesnít often confront a witness he canít shake, but you sure showed him."

Johnny nodded and licked his dry lips. Reynoldsí trial was now personal and he wanted to see it through to the end. "Scott," Johnny said weakly, pleading with his eyes for his brotherís help.

Scott slipped an arm around Johnnyís waist and guided him back to the wooden bench. "When this is over, Brother, we need to talk."

"Sure, Scott. Maybe on our way back to Lancer." Johnny wanted to be back on Barranca and heading home.

***

Scott listened to the factual testimony of the Pinkerton agents. Thornton outlined the records search that confirmed there was no evidence of Aaron Lowryís existence prior to the disappearance of Ben Reynolds. Peterson recounted the admission of guilt he overheard in the back alley, collaborating Johnnyís statements.

At some point during the Pinkerton agentsí testimony, Johnny had fallen asleep, leaning heavily on Scottís shoulder. Scott regretted that his brother missed the testimony from the Sheriff of Five Mile Crossings, who displayed the letter Reynoldsí brother-in-law had written to his wife and the wedding photo showing Reynolds, his sister, and the brother-in-law. The judge and jury had looked closely at the photograph and then at Aaron Lowry.

When the closing statements were done and the jury dismissed to evaluate the information, Scott felt good about the likely outcome of the trial. The hasty return of the jury seemed promising.

"Johnny," Scott whispered.

The dark-haired man stirred and took a deep breath. "Yeah?"

"The juryís about to read the verdict. Thought you might want to hear this."

Johnny sat up straighter and rubbed his good hand across his eyes.

Slowly, the jury foreman rose and unfolded a piece of paper. "We find Ben Reynolds, using the alias of Aaron Lowry, guilty of robbery and attempted murder. We recommend his ranch be sold and the proceeds returned to the railroad."

"The prisoner will be remanded for sentencing." The judge banged his gavel to close the trial.

Scott watched the bailiff lead Reynolds from the courtroom. I hope they send him to the penitentiary for the rest of his life.

Jarrod hurried back to join them and grasped Johnnyís left hand. "Congratulations. We did it!"

The former gunfighter turned to Scott. "Reckon this was the right thing to do."

Scott read the exhaustion in his brotherís eyes and knew Johnnyís willingness to bare his past before the whole courtroom had made a difference to the outcome of the trial, but it had taken a toll.

"Iím glad this business is finally finished," Murdoch said. "While a celebration drink might be in order, I think a certain young man needs to get back in bed."

"No argument here, Murdoch," Johnny said wearily.

Scott helped Johnny out of the courtroom and into a carriage. "When youíre ready, weíll go back to the Good Eats Saloon and raise a glass for Flint," Scott said.

"Heíd like that," Johnny whispered and then closed his eyes.

"Sleep, Brother. Youíve earned it."

 

EPILOGUE

The dented and damaged tin cans sat in an irregular row along the stone wall at the Lancer ranch. A tin can sprang into the air, followed immediately by a second and third can. The echo of gunshots faded and the swirl of gun smoke dissipated slowly. Johnny lowered his pistol and smiled with grim satisfaction. He returned the Colt to its holster and flexed his fingers. The aim is back, but I need to keep working on my speed.

He pivoted away from the remaining targets and watched a swallow swoop into the barn. Relax. Breathe. Johnny spun around into a crouch and drew the pistol in a smooth motion. Sight. Squeeze. His index finger tightened against the trigger and a bullet sent the distant can tumbling to the ground. Time to reload.

Johnny rubbed his right arm, pleased with the improvement he had made in the last few days. It had been a worrisome time during the slow, painful recovery, but the worst was over.

"Daggone it, Johnny!" Jellyís voice ripped through the air. "Enough already. You done turned near every can in the place into a sieve." The whiskered old man shook his finger at Johnny.

"Need to practice, Jelly," Johnny said softly.

"Ole Bonnie Bell and her calf donít Ďpreciate all your noise."

"You sure are pleased with that cow."

"And her youngíun too," Jelly jerked a thumb at the large, piebald calf with a white face beside the Hereford cow in the nearest pasture.

Johnny paused from loading his Colt to watch Murdoch and Scott ride through the Lancer arch and head toward the barn. He walked over to meet them, with Jelly tagging along behind him.

"How was Green River?" Johnny held Murdochís reins as he dismounted.

"Quiet," Scott replied. "Business in the saloon is down, since you havenít been there in awhile."

Johnny recognized the teasing tone of his brotherís words. He rotated his right shoulder and bent the fingers of his right hand. "Almost ready to start lifting those glasses of tequila again."

"He done been shooting tin cans all afternoon. Bonnie Bellís worked into a lather," Jelly said.

The men took one look at the placid Hereford cow grazing with her range-ready calf by her side, and everyone laughed.

"Tainít funny." Jelly hooked his fingers around his suspenders and lifted his chin. "Ya want that calf to be jumpy and skittish?"

"You mean like his father?" Johnny smirked, well aware that no one knew which bull sired the mixed breed calf.

"His daddyís got spunk ifín he werenít scared of Bonnie Bell Ďcause of her size." Jelly beamed with pride.

"That calf is the beginning of a new line of Lancer cattle," Murdoch said, clapping Jelly on the back.

"Murdoch, as the Cattleman of the Year, you should make a presentation at the Cattlemenís Convention next year," Scott suggested. "Tell them about your breeding experiment. Maybe you can team up with Nick Barkley, depending upon how heís doing with Hercules."

Johnny scuffed his boot in the dirt. He did not care for the direction the conversation was going. "Iím going to take Barranca for a ride. Need to get back in the saddle sometime."

"Take it easy, Son. Donít overdo."

As he ambled to the barn, Johnny knew they were watching him. Got no need to head back to Sacramento for a long time.

***

At dinner, Murdoch removed a note from his pocket and handed it to Teresa. "I picked up a letter from Marcy Dane today when Scott and I were in Green River."

"How is she?" Teresaís face brightened with interest and she opened the paper.

"Sheís going to get married. She and Dr. Ulrich are planning a quiet wedding, and would like us to attend."

"That would be grand. Iíll need a new dress, of course. And while weíre in Sacramento, I could see that seamstress you mentioned to order some drapes."

"And I could visit the tailor for a new suit," Scott added.

Unexpectedly, Murdoch caught their excitement. "You know, we work awfully hard around here and have earned a trip to Sacramento for fun, rather than business." Murdoch glanced at his youngest son, who had dropped his chin to his chest and was pushing a piece of potato around his plate.

"Iíll see to things here while you have fun," Johnny said softly.

"Nonsense," Scott said. "Jelly can handle the ranch. We need to go back to the Good Eats Saloon together."

Studying Johnnyís reaction, Murdoch was worried. Johnny had a rough time in Sacrament, losing a friend, getting hurt, having to testify at the trial. Maybe he doesnít see any reason to go back there.

"Youíll want to see how Bobby and Buster are doing," Scott continued. "And donít forget the little lady in the candy store."

Johnny lifted his head and gave a crooked smile. "Guess I could have some fun doing that."

"Can we stay at the Cattlemenís Inn?" Teresaís voice sounded eager.

Murdoch stole a quick glance at Johnny. "We can see if itís changed since Henry Brickman took over ownership."

"I have to warn you, Teresa," Scott said. "If Mr. Jamerson accepted the job of hotel manager, you better be prepared to have your ear talked off."

With a gleam in his eyes, Johnny laughed. Murdoch relaxed and decided the trip would do them all good.

***

Johnny paced along the edge of the courtyard and squeezed his right hand into a fist, then relaxed it. A few more days of practice and Iíll be ready. He stopped moving and gazed at the sliver of moon hanging in the sky. Ready for what? More unfinished business from the past?

He heard a stamping of feet and turned to see his father emerge through the French door. In the dark, Johnny smiled. He doesnít want to surprise me. Reckon sneaking up on a former gunfighter could be risky.

"Nice night," Murdoch said.

"Yeah." Johnny leaned against the courtyard wall.

Murdoch joined him and stared up at the sky. "You donít have to go to Sacramento if you donít want to."

"Might be nice to spend some time and catch up with a few friends I know there." Johnny realized his list of friends had grown longer due to the Convention trip. "Murdoch, IÖ"

"What is it, Son?"

"Iím sorry about ruining the Convention for you. Being named Cattleman of the Year must be mighty special, and you didnít get to enjoy that because of me."

"John, you did me proud in Sacramento. Because of you, Aaron Lowry is in prison. A wrong has been righted thanks to you. That means so much more to me than some belt buckle."

"Still, my past seems to keep getting in the way. I donít know how much more of my unfinished business might be lurking around to hurt you or Scott or Teresa."

Murdoch reached over and placed a strong hand on Johnnyís shoulder. "Weíre a family and weíll deal with whatever comes along together."

Johnny faced his father and swallowed hard. "That sounds good." It feels good knowing Iím not alone.

###

April 2003

 

THE END

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