The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Caroline

 

 

FRailroaded

 

With thanks to my betas Linda & Lacy.  As usual I couldn’t have done it without them.
Overall rating PG

***************

Murdoch Lancer rubbed his forearm over his brow and mopped away the sweat that had been trickling down into his eyes.  He flexed the muscles of his right arm and brought the hammer down on the iron, bending it into shape.  The metal rang sweetly like a bell.  For as long as he could remember the sheer creativity of working at the forge had brought him immense pleasure.  The task at hand filled his mind and drove out all the worries that went with running a huge cattle ranch.

Once he was satisfied that the handle for the plough share was the correct size and shape he plunged the hot metal into the large bucket of cold water and watched as it hissed and spat.  He wiped his hands on his leather apron before reaching for his canteen.

As he drank he looked around at the activity in the corral and yard.  He saw Teresa leave the house balancing a large bowl of clean water.  She left the bowl and a clean towel on the stand outside the front door.  Murdoch pulled out his watch, opened the lid and squinted at the face.  He decided that his eyesight wasn’t as sharp as it had been but it still wasn’t bad for a man of his age.

It was almost time for supper which meant that his eldest son, Scott, would soon be home.  He wondered if Johnny would make it in time for the evening meal.  More likely they would have to wait until the next day to see that irresistible grin of his as he teased Teresa and bantered with his brother.

Murdoch wandered over to the back of the corral to stare at the roadway.  He saw a rider in the distance and shaded his eyes against the glare of the sun as it dropped lower in the sky.  As the rider approached he could tell that the horse wasn’t a flashy palomino with its equally flamboyant rider and he gave a small sigh.  Neither was it Scott whose style of riding was unique in these parts.  Although he had a natural grace Scott rode in a very upright fashion courtesy of his time in the cavalry.  Johnny had been known to tease his brother about this, saying that it looked as if he had a plank of wood stuffed up the back of his shirt.

By the time that Murdoch reached the front of the house the rider was pulling up a the front door.

“Val, this is a surprise.  What brings you out here?” Murdoch greeted the sheriff.

“Mr Lancer,” Val acknowledged rather stiffly and with far more formality than was normal.  “Is Johnny back yet?”

“No, although we expect him any time.  Would you be able to join us for supper?  Scott will be home soon and I’m sure Teresa and Maria have made enough food to feed an army as usual.”

Having dismounted, Val pulled off his hat and ran a hand through his unruly hair.  “I wouldn’t mind a drink if you’re offering.”

“Of course.  Come in and tell me what Johnny’s done this time,”  Murdoch said it as a joke and was taken aback to see the stricken look on Val’s face.  Once inside the house Val declined the invitation to sit down while gratefully accepting a large glass of whiskey that he downed in two hefty swallows.

The front door opened to admit Scott.  He placed his hat on the stand and stood unbuckling his gunbelt without realising that his father and Val were watching him.  Murdoch noticed that Scott had his gloves hooked over the handle of his gun, a habit that both he and Johnny had been trying to break him of.  Scott still didn’t quite seem to understand that his gun was a necessary tool for survival rather than being some  convenient place to put his gloves.

Val’s expression had turned even more depressed and Murdoch could feel the cold hand of fear grasping his heart.  Scott looked up, saw that he had an audience, and smiled warmly at the sheriff.

“It’s good to see you, Val.  How are things in Green River?  Johnny and I are planning to get over there on Saturday if the boss will let us have time off for good behaviour.”  The smile he directed toward his father faded as he picked up on the strained atmosphere in the room.  “Is something wrong?”

“It’s about Johnny,” Val began.

“What about him?  Is he hurt?  He’s not….”  Scott couldn’t finish the thought.  Every time his brother was away from the ranch for more than a few days Scott felt a small twinge of fear that something would happen to him.  It was irrational and not something that he had ever discussed with his brother or anyone else.

“He’s not dead and, so far as I know, he’s not hurt either.”

“Out with it man,” Murdoch’s patience had reached the end of its rope.

“I’ve had a telegram from the sheriff in Modesto.”

Scott and Murdoch looked at each other with identical worried expressions.  For the last week Johnny had been in Modesto trying to broker a deal with the Central Pacific Railroad to move Lancer beef to markets in the east.  The town had only been in existence for a little over a year, having sprung up in response to the Railroad’s decision to route its new line through that inhospitable part of the county.  Scott had seen this as an opportunity and the family had thought long and hard about the issue before Murdoch had despatched his youngest son to carry out the negotiations.

From the outset Johnny had proved to be a willing worker, skilled with his hands, a fine horseman and a favourite of the men who could relate to his energy and enthusiasm.  As time had gone on Murdoch had involved Johnny more in the business side of running the ranch with the full agreement and encouragement of Scott who had a high regard for his brother’s brain.  The trip to Modesto had been, by far, the most challenging task yet and Murdoch could still see the joyous expression on his son’s face when he asked him to go.

Murdoch brought his thoughts back to the present and snapped at Val to get on with it.

Val lowered his eyes and began to finger his belt.  “Seems Johnny’s wanted for murder.”

“What?” Scott’s voice was loud in the stillness.  “That’s ridiculous.  My brother wouldn’t murder anyone.  There’s got to be some mistake.”

Murdoch found that his legs wouldn’t support him and sat down heavily in his favorite leather chair.  It felt like an eternity before he found his voice.  “Who is he accused of killing?”

“I don’t have all the details.  The sheriff’s on his way here.  Seems a young man named Billy Ralston was shot yesterday and there are witnesses who swear it was Johnny that pulled the trigger.”

“Ralston? I know that name.  I wonder if he was any relation to William Ralston.  He founded the Bank of California and he’s a Director of the Central Pacific Railroad.”  Murdoch supplied the information almost without conscious thought.

Without a word Scott turned and headed for the front door.  “Where are you going?”  his father queried.

“To find Johnny and warn him to stay away until we can find out what really happened.”

“No, Scott.  Making your brother a fugitive from the law isn’t going to help him and I  don’t think he’d run from this even if you did find him.”

Murdoch’s thoughts drifted back to the last time Johnny had been falsely suspected of murder.  His old friend, Joe Barker, had stopped over at Lancer while escorting a prisoner to Sacramento.  For reasons of his own, he had helped the prisoner, Evans, to escape and during the escape attempt one of Barker’s deputies had been killed.  Johnny had walked in on the aftermath and had been knocked out by Barker only to be found later standing over the dead lawman holding a gun.

Murdoch had been forced to lock his own son up in the old, Spanish guard house while a posse went in search of Evans.  Barker had tried to persuade Murdoch to force Johnny to flee to Mexico.  Murdoch still felt guilty about putting that proposition to his son and was fiercely proud of Johnny’s refusal to run.  He had worried than that he was about to lose his boy to the hangman and now that threat had returned to haunt the family again.

He could see Scott hesitating in the doorway before admitting defeat and returning to the liquor cabinet.  He poured himself a drink, drained it and then hurled the glass at the fireplace in frustration.  Murdoch and Val watched the arc of the glass until it struck the stone and shattered into a hundred tiny pieces.

Val winced and looked pleadingly at Murdoch.  “I’ve gotta take him in and hold him ‘til that sheriff gets here.  If it was anyone else I’d have to stay here and wait.”

“He’ll turn himself in, sheriff, you have my word.”  Murdoch stated strongly, ignoring the pointed glare coming from his eldest son.

“That’s good enough for me, Mr Lancer.  I’d best be getting back before it gets dark.”  Val hesitated on his way to the door, looking for some reassurance from Scott that he wasn’t holding him personally responsible for having to do his job.  He was disappointed as Scott turned his back and ignored him.

Murdoch escorted Val out to his horse and watched as the lawman rode away.  He knew how close Val and Johnny were to each other and how hard this was going to be for the sheriff.

He returned to the great room as Teresa entered it by way of the door leading to the kitchen.  “Supper will be ready soon,” she announced brightly.  Getting no reaction from the two men in the room she looked enquiringly from one to the other.

“I’m not hungry,” Scott snapped.

“Is something the matter?”  Teresa asked.

“It’s nothing you need to worry about, Teresa.”

Scott looked at his father in amazement.  “Johnny’s about to be arrested for murder and it’s nothing for her to worry about?”

“Scott.” Murdoch hissed warningly. “This is neither the time nor the place for this discussion.”  Murdoch smiled reassuringly at Teresa.  “It’s just a misunderstanding, my dear.  We’ll have it cleared up in no time.  Can you tell Maria to start serving dinner, Scott and I will be along in a minute.”

Teresa knew better than to question her guardian when he used that determined tone of voice.  Once she had gone Murdoch turned angrily on Scott.

“That was cruel.  She needed to be told but not like that.  You are not going to be of any use to me, or your brother, if you can’t keep your temper under control.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir, you have made yourself perfectly clear.  As I said before, I’m not hungry.  If you will excuse me, I’m going to my room.”

“I will not excuse you.  You owe it to Teresa to put in an appearance at the table.”  Murdoch softened his tone.  “After supper we’ll discuss the situation and try to work out a plan of action for when your brother gets home.”

“What situation?”  Johnny asked from the doorway.

*****

Johnny sat back in his chair and stared at the food congealing on the plate in front of him.  He had given up any pretence of eating after the first mouthful.  One short hour ago he had been so happy to be nearly home.  He had pushed both himself and Barranca hard, wanting nothing more than to sit down to a meal with his family.

Scott had been uncharacteristically silent as Murdoch had explained about the murder charge.  His brother was now angrily pushing his uneaten food around on his plate while pointedly ignoring their father.  The tension between the two men was clear and it bothered Johnny that he couldn’t interpret it.

Teresa kept darting little glances his way.  He wished that there was something he could say to make her feel better but the truth was that his mind was reeling.  Unable to stand the suffocating silence any longer he pushed his chair away from the table and fled the room.

Ten minutes later Murdoch found his son pacing back and forth along the patio.  “Come inside.  We need to talk about what’s happened and how we’re going to clear you of this ridiculous charge.”

Johnny bowed his head to hide the gratitude in his eyes.  Having his father stand up for him meant more than words could express.  He followed Murdoch into the great room where Scott was waiting.  Murdoch poured three glasses of brandy.  Although not being Johnny’s drink of choice he accepted the glass before sinking tiredly into a chair.  His eyes were drawn to the amber liquid as it caught, and reflected, the light from the lamps to either side of him.  Deciding that alcohol wasn’t what he needed on a empty stomach, he set the glass down on the table in front of him.

He folded his arms tightly across his body, gripping his biceps hard to counteract the tremors of fear that were threatening to tear his body apart.  He had faced death many times, had accepted it as an occupational hazard.  Only once before had he been under threat of dying at the end of a rope.  To die like that was unimaginable and he felt his breathing quicken as the terror took hold and refused to release him.  He raised dark, haunted eyes to his father, silently pleading with him to make this nightmare end.

Murdoch saw the fear on his son’s face.  “Do you trust me, son?”

Johnny nodded.  His throat felt so tight that he couldn’t speak.  He swallowed hard,  imagining the rope around his neck, tightening, cutting off his air supply.  He began to feel sick.

“Johnny.”  The command in his father’s voice brought him back to reality with a jolt.

“Tell us what happened in Modesto.  Did you have any dealings with this Billy Ralston?”

Johnny looked up to find Scott standing in front of him holding out a large glass of water.  After several mouthfuls of the cool liquid he began to feel more in control.

“I don’t think so.  I had the meetings with the railroad people, spent some time in the saloon playing poker and that was about it.  Apart from the railroad the town doesn’t have much going for it.  I certainly didn’t hear about anyone getting shot though.  I left yesterday morning and came straight back here.”

“Would anyone have seen you leave town?”  Murdoch enquired.

“Maybe, although I left kinda early.  There was no one at the livery stable when I collected Barranca and I’d paid the hotel bill the night before.  The night clerk might have seen me.”  Johnny decided against telling his father that he had spent the night with a girl from one of the saloons.  Jess, a cute little red head, had still been asleep when he had eased himself out of bed just before dawn.  The memory of the three nights they had spent together brought a faint flush to his tanned cheeks.

“This isn’t getting us anywhere.”  Scott burst out in frustration.

“We’ll contact a lawyer in the morning and start making our own enquiries.” Murdoch stated reasonably.  “Scott, I think it would be a good idea if you set off for Modesto tomorrow to see what you can find out.  The sheriff won’t be here until late tomorrow at the earliest and I’d like all possible information before he gets your brother back there.”

Scott’s mouth set in a stubborn line.  “I still don’t like the idea of Johnny just handing himself over.”

“Hey, brother, what d’you want me do?  I ain’t gonna run or hide.  We’ll do this the right way so that I can come home when it’s all over.”  The fear on Scott’s face matched his own – that when this was over he wouldn’t be coming home ever again – but Scott just nodded.

“We need to ride into Green River tomorrow,”  Murdoch informed Johnny.  “I promised Val.  We can leave after lunch; he won’t be expecting us much before then.”

“I think I’d rather get it over with.  Waiting around for a few hours ain’t gonna make any difference.”  Johnny stood up,  “I’d like to get some air before I turn in.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

Johnny wasn’t surprised to be joined by his brother.  They sat together on the bench in Teresa’s garden and watched the moon rise.  “How long d’you think I’ll have to stay in jail until the trial?”  He already felt claustrophobic.  He’d served time before and it had always been hard.  He was restless by nature and being penned up was its own kind of torture.  Once, not so long ago, he’d been held in a filthy, overcrowded, Mexican jail sentenced to death in front of firing squad.  He had fully expected his life to end at the ripe old age of twenty one.  The guards had taken great delight in tormenting the half-breed gunfighter who had been stupid enough to take on one of the most important land owners in the district.  At least it would have been a clean death not like…..He pushed the thought away.

“It depends how quickly they can get a judge there.  If the man that was killed was related to some big shot banker then I’d guess it won’t be long.”

Johnny wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or worried at the thought of a speedy trial.  “I didn’t do it.”

“I know and I’ll tear the place apart to find out who did.”

“Don’t go looking for trouble,” Johnny cautioned.  “Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to frame me.  You watch your back.”

“I’ll be careful.  Don’t you do anything to provoke that sheriff when he gets here.  Right now we can’t trust anybody.”

It was the early hours of the morning before they parted company to go to their rooms.  Neither slept.

*****

Murdoch was up and out before the sun rose.  He woke Jelly and explained what Val had told them.  The old handyman was as outraged as the rest of the family at the suggestion that Johnny was a murderer.  Murdoch asked him to have all their horses saddled and waiting after breakfast.

“Scott’s going to Modesto.  I’ll go in to Green River with Johnny.”

“Val’s not gonna lock the boy up is he?”  Jelly was horrified.

“He hasn’t got a choice.  He doesn’t like it any more than we do, but he has a job to do.  It’ll take me a few days to sort things out here and then I’m going to Modesto.  I need you to stay here and take care of Teresa and the ranch.  I don’t want her at the trial in case ….”

“Don’t you even think that, boss.  Johnny’ll be home safe and sound before you know it.”

“I’m going to wire a good attorney I know in Sacramento and if I know Scott he won’t rest until he finds out the truth of what happened.”

Breakfast was, if anything, worse than supper had been the night before.  Johnny and Scott looked haggard and Teresa spent the entire meal snivelling into her handkerchief.  Murdoch’s gentle suggestion that Johnny needed to eat something was ignored.

Jelly’s arrival with the news that the horses were ready was met with silence.  Scott went to his room to collect his saddlebags.  When he arrived back in the front hallway he found his brother standing looking at his gunbelt.  Johnny knew he would have to give it up when he got to Green River and he took his time fastening it around his slim hips.

Scott collected his own gun, hat and gloves and walked out into the bright sunshine.  Murdoch was already mounted on his horse and was giving instructions to Cipriano about the days work for the men.

Johnny hesitated in the doorway and took a last look back before putting his hat on and pulling it down to shade his eyes.  He and Scott would be going their separate ways, at least for a few days, and it was a hard parting.

Teresa followed them out and clung to Johnny until Jelly gently pulled her away.  She buried her face in his shirt and sobbed.  Placing his hand on Barranca’s reins, Johnny looked around.  He had never had a place to call home before; had never had a real family.  This was the first time that he felt he had something to lose.  The lump that settled in his throat refused to budge.  He grasped the saddle horn, put his foot in the stirrup and swung himself up onto Barranca’s back.  He touched the horse’s flanks with his spurs and shot out of the yard as if all the hounds of hell were at his heels.

*****

It was a couple of miles later that Murdoch caught up with his son.  Johnny had pulled up and was waiting for him by the side of the road.  They rode the rest of the way in silence, both lost in their own thoughts.  At the outskirts of town Johnny slowed and looked round at his father.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” he admitted.

“Yes, you can.  If you don’t hand yourself over Val will have to form a posse to bring you in.  Do you want to put him in that position?”

Murdoch didn’t expect to receive an answer.  He knew he’d been heartless, trading on Johnny’s friendship with the sheriff, but something told him that his son would be safer in Val’s jail right now.  He could trust Val to take care of his boy at least until the sheriff from Modesto arrived.

He urged his horse forward, confident that Johnny would follow him.  They dismounted outside the jail and Murdoch put a comforting arm around his son’s tense shoulders.  Val was in his office, looking like he hadn’t slept much either.  He looked up and then quickly away as the door opened.

“I didn’t expect you so soon.”

“I got back last night.  I guess I just missed you out at the ranch.”

A strained silence fell over all three men.  Val pushed himself to his feet.  “You understand I’ve gotta do this?”

“Yeah, Val, I know.  It’s not your fault.”

Val grabbed the keys for the cell.  “I’ll need to take your gun.”

Johnny ran his tongue across his dry lips, his right hand hovering over his colt.  He couldn’t stop his fingers shaking as he undid the buckle of his gunbelt.  He held it for a moment and then turned to his father.  “Will you look after this for me?”

Murdoch took the gunbelt and held it to his chest, unable to watch as Val locked his son up.

Johnny sat on one of the cots with his back to the wall.  He drew his legs up and clasped his hands around his knees.  He closed his eyes and tried to imagine that he was anywhere but in a small confined space.  He’d been in Val’s jail before, on several occasions, when a Saturday night outing had taken a turn for the worst.  He’d always known that he would be released the next morning, with a lecture from his friend, and a fine.  There would be no lecture this time, just an uncomfortable trip to Modesto in the custody of a sheriff he didn’t know and wasn’t sure he could trust.

He heard Val’s voice and opened his eyes.  “Murdoch’s gone to wire an attorney.  He said to tell you he’d be back later.  I’m goin’ on my rounds.  I’ll bring some food back for you.  Dammit to hell, Johnny, I wish I didn’t have to keep you locked up like this.”

Johnny pulled himself out of the black pit of despair that was threatening to swallow him whole.  “It’s ok.  Scott and Murdoch’ll figure it out.  Any news on that sheriff?”

“He reckons he’ll be here by tonight.  He’s bringing two deputies with him.  Sounds like he’s not taking any chances.”

“When he gets here you tell him he’s got nothing to worry about.  I won’t give him any trouble.”

Val wondered how much notice the sheriff would take of that assurance.  The wire had informed him that the man was bringing two deputies with him so as to ensure that Johnny Lancer aka Johnny Madrid was given no opportunity to escape.

*****

Val and Murdoch arrived back at the jail at the same time.  The sheriff was carrying a large bowl of spicy beef stew from Johnny’s favorite cantina.  Balancing on top of the bowl were half a dozen tortillas wrapped in a red and white checked napkin.  Murdoch opened the door and ushered Val inside.

Val laid the bowl down on his desk and reached for the keys to the cell.  Johnny sat where they had left him with his head bowed so that it was almost touching his raised knees.  As the key turned in the lock Johnny lifted his head.

The savoury smell from the food permeated the room and Johnny’s empty stomach rumbled appreciatively.  After placing the bowl on the cot by Johnny’s feet Val exited the cell leaving the door not only unlocked but also wide open.  He jerked a thumb toward the cell and addressed Murdoch.

“You can go and sit with him for a while if you’d like.”

Johnny scooted round and dropped his feet to the floor as Murdoch took a seat at the end of the cot.  He picked up the spoon and dipped it hungrily into the stew.  After several mouthfuls he unwrapped the tortillas and offered one to his father.  Murdoch rolled up the tortilla and used it to scoop up some of the stew.  For a while father and son ate in silence.

As the hot food filled his belly Johnny’s spirit stirred and began to reassert itself.  Once the food was finished Johnny shifted fractionally, allowing his left shoulder to rest against his father’s comforting bulk.

Murdoch smiled down at his son’s dark head, relieved that some of the tension had left the young man’s body.  “I sent the wire to Theodore Young.  He’s one of the best criminal defence attorneys in Sacramento.  I’ve asked if he will take on your case.  We should get a reply this afternoon.  I’ve asked Adam at the telegraph office to bring the wire here when it arrives.

“I’ll need to get back to the ranch before it gets dark.  Once I’ve made all the arrangements I’ll ride to Modesto to join Scott.  I should only be a day or so behind you.”  Murdoch hesitated a moment before continuing.  “You need to co-operate with the sheriff when he gets here.  You don’t want to give him any excuse to….”

“To shoot me in the back?  Don’t worry, Murdoch, I’ll be careful.”

It was several hours before the reply arrived from Sacramento.  Mr Young informed the Lancers that he was delighted to take on the case and said that he would be in Modesto before the end of the week.

Satisfied that he had done all he could Murdoch got up to leave.  Val locked the cell door behind him.  He turned at the front door of the jail for a last look at his son.  Johnny was standing gripping the bars so tightly that his knuckles had turned white.  With a reassuring smile, Murdoch stepped out onto the boardwalk.

*****

Johnny dozed for the remainder of the afternoon.  He was rudely awakened by the door from the street swinging back on its hinges and hitting the wall.  He rubbed his tired eyes and sat up.  Val was sitting at his desk, wrestling with the seemingly never ending paperwork that went with the job.  He scowled at the interruption and looked up.

The doorway was filled by a very large and imposing figure.  The man was easily as tall as Murdoch and broad across the shoulders.  He was wearing black trousers with a matching jacket.  His white shirt was travel stained and the shiny badge on his lapel proclaimed him to be a sheriff.  Trailing behind him were two smaller but no less muscular men wearing deputies’ badges.

The identity of these unwanted visitors was clear and Val risked a glance over toward his friend.  Johnny was on his feet now and the look on his face made Val cringe inwardly.  Johnny had promised to behave yet his stare was an outright challenge.  At any other time Val might have applauded; as it was it was the kind of look that would get the crap beaten out of the young man and might even lessen his chances of making it to Modesto alive.

“I’m Sheriff Clay Driver from Modesto,” the large man announced.  “These two are my deputies.”

Val noticed that he didn’t bother identifying his deputies by name.  “Sheriff Crawford.  I’d like to see the arrest warrant.”  He held out his hand only to find himself ignored as Sheriff Driver walked over to the cell.

“I assume this is my prisoner.  He looks like trouble.”  The sheriff stared at Johnny and received an insolent stare in return.  The larger man was the first to look away.  He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket.  “Here’s the warrant.  It’s all legal.  I’ll leave one of my men here tonight and we’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

Val accepted the paper and took his time reading it.  It was, undoubtedly, legal and he knew that he would have no choice but to turn his friend over to these men in the morning.  “This is my town, Sheriff Driver, and the prisoner is under my jurisdiction until you leave tomorrow.  If you want one of your men to stay here tonight it will be outside the jail.”

A silent battle of wills commenced between the two lawmen.  Johnny watched with interest.  Val was one of the most stubborn men he knew and he would back him against almost anyone.

“Fair enough.  I’ll be over at the hotel if you need me.”

“I don’t see as there’ll be any need to disturb you,” Val responded before heaving a sigh of relief as the three men left the building.

As soon as they were out of earshot Val turned on Johnny.  “What the hell was that all about?  Are you trying to get yourself killed?  I’m sending someone out to the ranch to get Murdoch.  I’m not letting you leave here alone with those thugs.”

“You’re not sending for Murdoch.  If he tags along he might get hurt.”

“And if he doesn’t tag along you might get dead,”  Val burst out in frustration.

“It would be better than being hanged,” Johnny stated flatly.  “I don’t think they’re planning on killing me before the trial.  There’d be too many questions asked.  I’ll make it to Modesto, Val, I guarantee it.”

“I hope you’re right, buddy.”

*****

Val spent the night sleeping in the unoccupied cell next to Johnny’s.  He had established that one of Driver’s deputies was sitting outside the jail and he was reluctant to leave his friend locked up and unprotected.  Since the arrival of the Modesto sheriff a peace seemed to have descended over Johnny and he slept soundly.

Morning arrived all too quickly and, with it, the return of Sheriff Driver and his men.  Seeing that the sheriff was carrying shackles Val interposed himself between the man and the cell door.  “Those won’t be necessary.  Johnny’s an upright member of this community and I’m sure he’ll give you his word that he won’t try and escape.”

“Mr Lancer hasn’t always been a pillar of society, Sheriff Crawford.  I prefer not to take any unnecessary risks.  Kindly unlock the door so that we can be on our way.”

“Val,” Johnny spoke softly.  “It doesn’t matter.”  He turned his dark eyes on Clay Driver.  “I won’t try anything.  I know you don’t believe me and I don’t really care but, if anything happens to me between here and Modesto, you’ll find out just how much weight my father carries in this State.”

Sheriff Driver took hold of the bars of the cell with one hand and scowled at his prisoner.  “Don’t threaten me, boy.  You have no idea who you’re dealing with.” He swung back angrily toward Val.  “We’re wasting time.  Get him out of there.”

Val grabbed Johnny’s hat before unlocking the door.  Johnny took his time about positioning his hat just right and then held his hands out in front of him.  He gritted his teeth as the cold metal snapped shut around his wrists.  The chain was short, allowing for very little movement of his arms.  Sheriff Driver drew his gun.  “Let’s go.”

The two deputies, both armed with rifles, were already outside with the horses,.  A small crowd had gathered in response to the rumor that Murdoch Lancer’s youngest son was accused of murder.  Most of the faces in the crowd were friendly but Johnny caught some comments that cut him to the quick.

“….black sheep of the family.”

“….bad blood.”

A furious Sheriff Crawford had also heard the disparaging comments and he hurried to disperse the crowd with a, less than friendly, warning that anyone causing a breach of the peace would find themselves locked up.

Johnny was pushed toward an undistinguished horse and told to mount up.  With his wrists fastened together the effort was rather less graceful than usual.  The reins were handed to the sheriff with the two deputies taking up position behind.

“See you around, amigo,” Johnny said with more confidence than he felt.

Val watched until the horses turned a corner and disappeared from view.

*****

Scott had made good time since leaving Lancer.  His worry for his brother had spurred him on and he had ridden long into the night.  Only his horse’s obvious exhaustion forced him to stop and make camp.  He had been up and on the road again as the first rays of the sun had touched the sky.  He reached the outskirts of Modesto by mid afternoon of his second day of travel.  It was not a town he had visited before and, if he was being honest; his first impression was of a town he never wanted to visit again.

The buildings looked as if they had been thrown up overnight which might not have been far from the truth.  Many of the buildings had been disassembled in one town and re-erected in Modesto as people flocked to the dusty plain, hoping to make their fortune on the back of the railroad’s expansion.

As Scott rode along the main street he noticed a disproportionate number of saloons, tinny music blaring out into the hot, dust laden air.  A man crashed through the doors leading to one of the saloons and landed in the dirt in front of Scott, causing his horse to snort in alarm and prance sideways.  Without a backwards glance the man picked himself up and headed back into the building from which he had just been ejected.

Scott noticed a large number of Chinese people, men, women and children.  He knew that the railways used a lot of Chinese labor as it was cheaper for them.  He identified the offices of the Railroad Company and a hotel.  He was hot, tired and dirty and he hadn’t yet decided upon the best approach to his investigations.  The sheriff, who would have been his obvious first port of call, was known to be absent and had probably already left Green River with his brother.

Scott decided to check into the hotel, get his horse stabled and then find somewhere for a meal and a nice cold beer.  In a town this size he was likely to learn quite a bit by listening to the locals after which he might have a better idea where to start.

He dismounted wearily, collected his rifle and saddlebags and pushed open the front door of the hotel.  The interior was dimly light and functional.  A thin, pale young man stood behind the front desk looking bored.  Scott propped his rifle up against the desk.

“I’d like a room and I’ll need to reserve a room for my father who’ll be arriving in a few days.”

“You planning on staying long?” the desk clerk asked out of habit rather than any real interest.  He turned the hotel register toward Scott and reached for a key.

“I’m not sure yet.”  Scott signed the register and waited for a reaction.  He got one all right.

“Lancer?” the young man squeaked.  “Are you related to that vicious killer?”

His patience had long ago deserted him so Scott didn’t hesitate before grabbing the man by the front of his shirt and pulling him forward over the desk.  “Johnny Lancer is my brother.  He is not a killer and I don’t ever want to hear you call him that again.  Clear?”

“Yessir.  I didn’t mean no offence.  Here’s your key, sir.  Room 5, top of the stairs and to your right.  I hope you have a pleasant stay.”

 Scott released his grip, took the key and headed for the stairs while reflecting bitterly that nothing about his stay was going to be pleasant.  He just hoped that he could make it more unpleasant for whoever was behind the attempt to frame his brother for murder.

***** 

Sheriff Driver was in no hurry to return to Modesto.  The discovery of the murder followed by the headlong ride to Green River had tired him out.  Now that he had his prisoner safely in custody he could relax.  He kept up a steady but relaxed pace throughout the morning, looking behind him every so often to see how the young man was faring.  He had very little concern for the wellbeing of a cold-blooded murderer but he had his job to do and that included getting the prisoner to Modesto alive and in reasonable health.

He had been disturbed to find that the killer was the son of one of California’s most prominent ranchers.  He had been even more disturbed to find that the boy had previously gone by the name of Johnny Madrid.  When one of the Railroad’s executives had suggested that he take along a couple of extra men, he hadn’t objected.  The two men in question had been supplied by the Railroad as a gesture of support for law and order.

As the sun reached its zenith, he began to look around him for some place to stop for an hour.  He turned off the main path and followed a stream until it widened out into a pool shaded by trees and rocks.

“We’ll stop here to rest the horses and then push on until dusk,” he informed his men.

Johnny sat quietly on his horse.  His back and shoulders were aching and he wondered if he would get out of the handcuffs even if only for a few minutes.  He had made himself a promise that he would try and be co-operative with his captors in the hope that they might cut him some slack in return.

The sheriff looked around and identified a shady spot under a tree.  “Get down and go and sit over there.  Don’t try anything.”

Two rifles swung in Johnny’s direction as he lifted his right leg over his horse’s neck and slid to the ground.  “Mind if I get a drink first?”  Johnny looked at the invitingly cold water in the pool.

Sheriff Driver nodded.  “Seth, keep an eye on him.”

Johnny squatted down beside the edge of the stream and scooped up several handfuls of the sweet water.  With some difficulty he managed to untie the faded pink bandana from around his neck, soaked it and used it to wipe his face and neck.   Before he could stand up the deputy lost patience with him and kicked out, catching him on his right knee.  He landed hard on his backside.

“What was that for?” Johnny asked, aggrieved.

“You were takin’ too long.  Get on your feet and get over to that tree.”

Johnny scowled at the man.  He had a feeling that keeping his promise was going to be harder than he had expected.  Once he was settled against the tree he began watching the sheriff and his deputies intently.

During his recent trip to Modesto he hadn’t seen the sheriff.  The two deputies, however, looked familiar and he spent some time trying to place them.  It came to him eventually that he had seen them at the offices of the Railroad Company the first time he had gone there.  They had been loitering around talking to the secretary at the front desk.  He didn’t recall that they had been wearing badges though.

The pace set by the sheriff guaranteed that they would have to spend two nights out on the trail.  Johnny had mixed feelings about that.  He was in no hurry to occupy a small prison cell but, isolated as he was out here, these men could do anything and he wouldn’t have a prayer of standing up to them.

He was given some jerky and biscuits to eat before being prodded to his feet and told to mount up again.  As the long, hot afternoon wore away Johnny became more and more miserable.  In addition to the ache in his back and shoulder muscles, the handcuffs were chafing the skin around his wrists.  His thoughts turned morbid again and he began to think he might  be better making a break for it even with the risk being shot down in the attempt.  Only the thought of his family held him back.  He wondered if Scott had reached Modesto yet.  His brother had been very angry when they had parted company the previous day.  Scott, in that sort of mood, could be foolhardy and Johnny’s fervent hope was that his brother was going to be careful.

He pulled his thoughts back to his own predicament as he realised that they had stopped.  They were in a small clearing alongside the stream that they had been following for most of the day.  Once again he was ordered to dismount.

“Take your bedroll and saddle over there,” the sheriff pointed to an area right in the middle of the clearing.  He wasn’t going to take the chance of Johnny slipping away among the surrounding trees.  Untying the bedroll and unbuckling the girth was awkward with no one offering either to help or to remove the handcuffs.

Johnny spread out the bedroll and laid the saddle at one end as a pillow.  He had just finished when he heard the clink of chains.  He looked up to see the sheriff standing over him carrying another set of shackles.

“Sit down with your legs straight out in front of you.”

Johnny’s long lashes shielded the dismay in his eyes as he did as he was told.  After locking the shackles around Johnny’s ankles the sheriff grabbed his wrists and unlocked the handcuffs.

“Are you sure that’s wise, Sheriff?” one of his deputies queried.

“He ain’t going anywhere with those leg irons on and someone’ll be standing guard all night so I reckon he’s secure enough.  Get a fire going.  I’m going to see if I can catch a rabbit or two for supper.  Keep a close eye on him.”

Johnny watched with some trepidation as the sheriff collected his rifle and walked out of the clearing.  He inspected his sore wrists before settling back against the saddle and closing his eyes.  The sun was low in the sky and the heat coming from it was pleasant rather than oppressive as it had been earlier in the day.  Johnny began to drowse only to be startled awake as someone grabbed his arm and pulled him roughly to his feet.

He found himself face to face with one of the deputies.  The other man, Russ Singleton, circled round behind and yanked his arms backwards.  “What’s going on?”

“Our employer wants you to understand just what a hopeless position you’re in,” Seth Wilcox informed Johnny, before punching him hard in the stomach.  The air left Johnny’s lungs in a rush and his knees threatened to give way.  “You might as well face facts and plead guilty ‘cause you’re gonna be convicted whatever you do.”  A second blow followed.  “Hanging’s a nasty way to go,” Seth continued as a further blow left Johnny gasping for air.  “Plead guilty and the man we work for’ll see you get a bullet in the head instead.”

Johnny gulped in a lungful of air.  “Go to hell.”

Seth grabbed a handful of Johnny’s hair and pulled his head back.  “You first.  Ever seen a lynching?  It can take a man a long time to die if it’s not done properly.”

Two rifle shots echoed around the clearing and Johnny gathered himself to call out to the sheriff for help in the hope that he wasn’t also working for these mens’ mysterious employer. A hand across his mouth stopped him before he could so much as draw breath.

“Think about it but don’t take too long.”  His hair was released and a final blow to the stomach sent him to his knees as the grip on his arms disappeared.  Seth sank down with him, keeping his hand pressed firmly across Johnny’s mouth to stifle his cry of pain.

“What are you doing?”  Sheriff Driver strode into the clearing carrying a brace of rabbits.

The deputy withdrew his hand and stood up, leaving Johnny to curl up on the ground with his arms wrapped protectively around himself.  “He was smart mouthing us.  We were just teaching him some manners.”

Sheriff Driver dropped the rabbits and his rifle and knelt down by Johnny’s side.  He reached out a hand and Johnny flinched back, defiance and a hint of fear in his eyes.  “It’s all right, boy, I’m not gonna hurt you.  Let me help you up.”   He turned a furious glare on his deputies.  “I don’t want to see either of you lay a hand on him again.  Is that clear? Now get those rabbits skinned and into the pot.”

Johnny allowed the sheriff to get him to his feet and help him cover the short distance back to his bedroll.  He lay down with his back to the campsite.  He began to realise that the corruption in Modesto could be far reaching and that his brother may just have walked into a hornet’s nest of trouble.

*****

By the time Scott had arranged for his horse to be stabled it was early evening.  He headed for the nearest saloon.  As he pushed open the batwing doors he looked around the room, a habit he had learned from his brother.

The bar was full of men drinking and playing cards.  A few saloon girls were hanging around although it was too early for them to see much action.  The air smelt of smoke and cheap whiskey and Scott felt a pang of homesickness for the saloons that he had so often frequented with his brother.

He approached the bar and ordered a beer and a steak.  He lingered at the bar hoping to draw the bartender into conversation.  After serving another couple of customers the bartender wandered back over.

“Not seen you in here before.  You looking for work?”  The tone was sceptical as he took in the cut of Scott’s clothes.

“No, although I’ve got some business to take care of in town.”  For a while Scott asked general questions about Modesto.  After about fifteen minutes he felt it was safe to broach the subject that concerned him.  “I heard you had a murder here a few days back.”  He spoke casually as if the subject was only of passing concern.

“Yeah, we sure did.”  The bartender was happy to have such a receptive audience.  “Young Billy Ralston got gunned down in broad daylight out by the train yards.”

“Broad daylight?  Did anyone get arrested?”  Scott took a sip of his beer.

“Killer took off but they know who it was and the Sheriff’s gone to pick him up.”

“I guess there must have been witnesses then.”  Scott looked round as a man jostled his arm, almost causing him to spill his drink.

“What’s it to you, stranger?” the man growled.

“Nothing.  I was just making polite conversation.  Excuse me.”  Scott turned away from the bar and made his way to one of the few empty tables in the place.  The man that had accosted him was hissing something furiously right in the bartender’s face.  Another man who had been loitering nearby edged round the outside of the room and left with a glance in Scott’s direction.  Scott began to wish that he had booked into the hotel under a different name.  It hadn’t occurred to him that discretion might be called for.

His steak arrived and he ate it half-heartedly.  It was nothing like the prime beef that Teresa served up at Lancer.  He wondered how his brother was doing and whether he would be arriving the next day.  He ordered himself another beer and brooded about the false murder charge.  With no better place to start he decided to call on the Railroad Executives that Johnny had met with and then try to retrace his brother’s movements.

By the time he’d finished his second beer it had gone dark.  He silently berated himself for not getting back to the hotel in daylight.  The threat to his brother had clearly disturbed his thinking more than he had realised.  He kept to the middle of the street on the return journey and heaved a sigh of relief when he entered the building.  The young hotel clerk glanced at him nervously and appeared to be on the point of saying something.  Scott hesitated and the man shook his head and turned away.

Scott climbed the stairs to his room, unlocked and opened the door and found himself face to face with the barrel of a pistol.  His first instinctive step backwards brought him into contact with someone’s chest before he was shoved back into the room.  Two men entered behind him and the door was closed.

He wasn’t entirely surprised to find that the man holding the gun was the same one he had encountered earlier in the saloon.

“Sit down, Mr Lancer.”

Scott made his way over to a chair but remained standing, keeping a wary eye on the gun as it followed his movements.  “What can I do for you gentlemen?”

“You lied to me over at the saloon.  I don’t like being lied to,” the gunman replied.

“And I don’t like people trying to get my brother hanged for a murder he didn’t commit.”  Scott’s anger overcame his good sense and he took a step forward.

“I told you to sit down.” The gun was pointed steadily at his chest.

Hands gripped his shoulders and he was pressed down into the chair.  “Who are you working for?”  Scott asked as he irritably shook himself free.

The man laughed.  “Who says we’re working for anyone?  We just don’t like people sticking their noses in where they’re not wanted.  This is a friendly warning; stop asking questions.”

“My brother’s life is at stake.  You don’t seriously expect me to back off do you?”  Scott’s hands were clenched into tight fists.

The man sighed.  “I guess not.”  He looked toward the other two men in the room.  “Take him out back and make sure he understands what’ll happen if he doesn’t do as he’s told.”

A blow to the side of his head stunned Scott.  He felt himself being lifted out of the chair and dragged across the room.  He heard the man say, “Don’t kill him,” before he passed out.

*****

Johnny’s stomach muscles ached and he kept his knees drawn up close to his chest.  He had barely moved since being rescued by the sheriff from his two sadistic deputies.

The sun had set and the clearing was in darkness.  Johnny could hear the crackling of the small fire and could smell the rabbit stew that had been cooking for some time now.  The smell made his stomach roll unpleasantly and he quelled a surge of nausea.

He sensed rather than heard someone approaching and turned carefully onto his back.  Sheriff Driver held out a plate of stew and waited patiently for Johnny to pull himself into a sitting position propped up against his saddle.

To Johnny’s surprise the sheriff sat down beside him and began to eat his own supper.  Johnny ate slowly as his abused muscles protested.  He managed half the stew before having to give up.

He looked toward the fire where the deputies sat and reflected that they were good at their job.  They knew how to beat a man without leaving any obvious marks.  He was fairly sure that bruises were developing under his shirt but these would not be visible to the casual observer.

“Why’d you stop them?” he asked quietly.

Sheriff Driver put his plate down and pulled a small flask out of his jacket pocket.  He drank deeply before offering it to Johnny.  “Whiskey.  It might help with the pain.”

Johnny accepted the flask.  The liquor might not have been as good as Murdoch’s best whiskey but it was a great deal better than some of the rotgut Johnny had drunk over the years.  “Thanks.”  Johnny studied the sheriff in the dim light cast by the campfire.  “You didn’t answer my question.”

“I don’t believe in beating prisoners.”

“Your deputies seem to have a different view,” Johnny observed.

The sheriff looked over at the two men.  “They’re only temporary.  Just along for the ride you might say.”

Johnny settled back into a more comfortable position.  “I don’t suppose you’re interested in hearing me say I’m innocent.  I may have killed more than my fair share of men but it was always in a fair fight.  I’m not a murderer.”

“That’s for the jury to decide.”

Johnny wondered if the sheriff were really as naïve as he appeared.  “Juries can be bought and not everyone gets to trial.  Your men over there threatened me with a lynching.”

The sheriff’s expression turned thunderous.  “No one gets lynched in my town.”

Despite his first impressions not being favorable, Johnny was starting to trust this man.  “What can you tell me about the man I’m supposed to have killed?  Murdoch – my father –  thought he might have been related to some Banker in San Francisco.”

Johnny still found it strange to refer to Murdoch as his father.  He had grown up without a proper father and hating the man who had sired him.  Over the course of the last few months he had found, to his surprise, that he was proud to be Murdoch Lancer’s son.  He now had a deep seated need to make his father proud of him in return and he felt he had been making progress….until now.  Now he was being dragged back under to a life of violence, fear and uncertainty.  He wasn’t the sort of son any man would be proud to own….not with his past and his ability to attract trouble without even trying.  But Murdoch had been a real father to him for the last couple of days.  He’d stood by him and made him feel safe, and he was going to fight for him, just like Scott was doing.  The thought of his father made Johnny feel warm inside and brought him comfort at a time that he sorely needed it.

The sheriff looked sceptical.  “Are you trying to tell me you shot a man down without knowing anything about him?”

“I already told you that I didn’t kill him.  Aren’t I at least entitled to know what witnesses there are against me?”

Sheriff Driver considered the young man.  There was an openness and honesty about Johnny Lancer that he hadn’t expected.  “All right.  Your father is right about there being a connection. Billy Ralston was the nephew of William Ralston; he was named in his honor.  William Ralston’s a banker in San Francisco and he’s one of the Directors of The Central Pacific Railroad.  He’s credited with founding Modesto.  Billy’d been in town for a couple of months doing bits and pieces of work for the Railroad.  He was out at the train yard the other morning and the witnesses say you walked up to him and shot him in the back.  He never stood a chance.”

“How many witnesses were there?”

“Three.  They all work on the railroad construction crews.”

“I’d only been in Modesto a few days.  Even if it had been me how’d they know who I was?”

“It seems they’d seen you in the saloon and they remembered you because you got into a fight with Billy over one of the girls.”

Johnny’s stomach lurched and he began to feel sick again.  Suddenly he no longer wanted to continue this conversation.  Sheriff Driver looked shrewdly at his young prisoner and saw the change of expression.  Unaccountably he felt disappointed.  He had been starting to think, despite the compelling evidence, that Johnny might be innocent.  Now it appeared he was a smooth talking killer just as his reputation had suggested.

The sheriff’s face turned hard.  “Save your lies for the jury.  My job’s to get you back to town and keep you alive long enough for them to hang you.”  The disgust in his voice was plain.  He got up and walked away, calling to one of his deputies to get his rifle and stand guard.

*****

Scott drifted in a sea of pain, his thoughts chaotic and full of violent images.  Having knocked him out to make it easier to remove him from the hotel his assailants has waited until he recovered consciousness before starting to pound their message into him. He had been powerless to defend himself against the vicious assault and his last conscious memory had been of lying in the dirt in an alleyway.

As his senses gradually returned he found that he was lying on his back on something soft and yielding.  Someone was wiping his face and chest with a cool, damp cloth.  He surrendered to the comfort and started to relax.  He considered opening his eyes and decided that there would be time enough for that later.  He concentrated on the rhythmic movement of the cloth, soothing him and encouraging him to sleep.  The water being used to bathe his battered body carried with it a faint fragrance that he didn’t recognise and that momentarily confused him.

Teresa always used lavender.  Then he remembered that it couldn’t be Teresa.  She was safely at home at Lancer and he was….  Where was he?  It didn’t matter, he told himself. < Just let go of the pain and go back to sleep>.

The next time he reached awareness he could hear voices.  The language was strange and harsh and it startled him.  He tried to raise his head.  His eyes still wouldn’t open.  He felt disorientated and struggled harder to move.  A gentle hand pressed him back down.

“Stay still,”  whispered a soft feminine voice with an unusual accent.  Scott tried to place the voice but had no point of reference.  His momentary panic began to subside.  There had been no threat in the voice.  Whoever it was meant him no harm.

Later – how much later?  He had lost all sense of time and place.  Later he felt an arm slip under his shoulders to raise him up off the mattress.  A cup touched his lips and he obediently opened his mouth.  He gagged as a bitter tepid liquid trickled down the back of his throat.  The sensation of choking led to a coughing fit that he couldn’t control.  He was pushed into a more upright position and someone moved behind his back to hold him steady.  Tears leaked out of the corner of his eyes as he strove to master his breathing.  The voice that he had heard before murmured in his ear and a small hand began massaging his back in a circular motion.

He retched miserably and choked some more.  Gradually he regained control of himself and opened his eyes.  He found to his dismay that his left eye wasn’t working very well.  It wouldn’t fully open and his vision was blurred.  His right eye was better but far from perfect.

The person who had been supporting him wriggled out from behind his back and he found himself being lowered back onto the mattress.  He tried to make his eyes work in tandem and found himself looking at a vision of loveliness.  The girl looked to be no more than five foot tall.  She was slender with long dark hair and gently slanted dark eyes.  Her smile dazzled him and he did his best to respond, wondering just how bad he looked, and then chiding himself for his vanity.

“I apologise for the taste of the medicine.”  Her voice was as exotic as her looks and her words came out slowly as if she wasn’t comfortable with the language.

“Where….where am I?”

“The local people call it Chinatown.  My brother and some of his friends found you and brought you here.”

Scott pushed himself up on one elbow and looked around.  He was in a large wooden room that had been roughly partitioned off to provide some privacy.  He saw a number of children peering at him with unabashed curiosity.  Whole families appeared to be living in the building.  He could smell cooking and there was a faint odour that he recognised from his time as a student; opium.

“Do you live here?”  He couldn’t hide his shock.

The girl looked around her.  “There is no where else.  The men work on the railroad and the women do laundry for the richer people in the town.”

“What is your name?”

“Mika.”

“Mika?  That’s beautiful.  My name is Scott.”  Scott decided against giving his last name; being a Lancer had brought him nothing but trouble since arriving in Modesto.  He looked down and realised that he wasn’t wearing his shirt.  He felt embarrassed to be bare-chested in front of this delicate young girl and he could feel his face going red.

“Your shirt was covered with blood.  I have washed it for you.  It should be dry soon.  You have been asleep a long time.  It is almost time for the men to go to work.”

Scott looked at her in horror.  He had apparently been unconscious all night.  He needed to get back to the hotel, clean himself up and get over to the Railroad offices.  A strong sense of urgency overtook him and he got to his feet, swaying slightly on unsteady legs.

“I have to go.  I am in your debt.”  He fumbled in his pocket for some money and saw the smile disappear from her face.  “I…I’m sorry.  I don’t mean to insult you.  I just wanted to thank you….”

“I didn’t take care of you hoping for payment.”  She was hurt and angry.  “I took care of you because….because I felt sorry for you.”  She turned away, lowering her head.

“Mika, please don’t be angry with me.  I apologise if I’ve offended you.”  He felt dizzy and grabbed onto one of the wooden support posts.  While he waited for the spell of dizziness to pass he ran his tongue across his lips.  They felt bruised and swollen.  He obviously had at least one black eye and his ribs had taken a pounding although he didn’t think any of them were broken.

He wondered what his father would make of him when he arrived.  So much for using his brain!  He’d not only walked right into a trap but, in addition, he had managed to upset the one person who had taken the time to look after him.

While he had been lost in his inspection of his injuries Mika had walked away only to return with his shirt and his boots.  She thrust them into his hands.  “You had better leave now.  Your kind aren’t welcome here.”

Scott bowed his head in shame and, when he looked up again, she had gone.

*****

Scott made his way slowly through the maze of alleyways.  The sky was lightening with the first signs of dawn but until the sun rose high enough the narrow passages would remain shrouded in shadow.  He had found his gun belt lying at the foot of the mattress and the presence of his colt was comforting.  He had never before truly understood why his brother felt naked without his gun; now he did.

He emerged onto a wider street and followed it until he reached the main street where his hotel was situated.  For the last few blocks he had been receiving curious stares from the few people up and about at that early hour.  His fingers itched to get hold of the desk clerk who had clearly let those men into his room and who could have given him some warning.  He needed to know who his assailants were and to whom they were connected.

He reached the front desk of the hotel only to find it deserted.  His irritation rising, he hammered on the bell only to be startled when a middle aged lady emerged from the back room.

“Can I help you?”

“My name’s Scott Lancer.  I have a room here.  I’d like to speak to the young man who was on duty last night.”

“That would be my son.  He’s not here.  In fact he’s gone out of town and won’t be back for a few days.”  The woman was clearly nervous.

“How convenient,” Scott commented snidely.  “Was this trip a sudden decision?”

“I don’t see as how that’s any of your business, Mr Lancer.  Is there anything else I can do for you?  Perhaps you’d like me to direct you to the doctor’s office.”

“No, thank you.”  Scott left the woman and returned to his room.  The door wasn’t locked and he pushed it open cautiously.  The room was empty and he let out a relieved breath that he hadn’t been aware he was holding.

He was very reluctant to look in the mirror and groaned when he saw the extent of his injuries.  His left eye was swollen and almost coal black.  His lips were cut and bruised, and there was a vivid reddish colored mark over his left cheekbone.  He pressed gently causing severe pain but satisfying himself that nothing was broken.  Next he prodded his teeth with his tongue.  A couple of back teeth felt a little loose which meant he was going to have some difficulty eating for the next few days.  Not that he felt like eating anything at the moment.  His head was swimming and his stomach felt rebellious.

His beige shirt, although now clean thanks to Mika, was ripped in several places.  He wondered if Teresa would be able to salvage it.  He undid the buttons and inspected his chest to find he was sporting an interesting array of bruises.  His trousers were covered in dirt and mud and his boots could do with cleaning.  All in all he wasn’t looking nearly presentable enough to call on any of the Railroad Executives.

He poured some water into a basin and washed his face and neck.  He decided that shaving would have to wait as the prospect of causing himself more pain wasn’t appealing.  He sat on the end of the bed and pulled off his boots.  Even that routine task was enough to make beads of sweat appear on his forehead.

After changing his trousers and putting on a clean white shirt together with a dark tie he felt a bit better.  He wiped the worst of the dirt off his boots before returning to the mirror to run a comb through his dishevelled blond hair.  After buckling on his gun belt he regarded his reflection in the mirror.  He could imagine what his grandfather would say about the state he was in and a slight smile graced his lips.  One thing he could say with complete honesty was that his life had never been dull since moving from Boston to California.  He sobered instantly as he brought his thoughts back to the reason he was in Modesto.  No one was going to take his brother away from him.

Thirty minutes later Scott presented himself at the offices of the Central Pacific Railroad.  The building was impressive, much more so than the ramshackle collection of buildings on Main Street.  He walked up a short flight of steps leading to the heavy, wooden front door.  The handle and nameplate were made of brass and shone brightly.

Scott entered the foyer, at the end of which was a reception desk.  Paintings lined the wood panelled walls.  The entire place screamed of money and success.  A young dark-haired woman sat behind the desk.  She looked up as Scott entered and he saw her mouth open in astonishment as she took in his battered appearance.  He summoned up the best smile he could manage in the circumstances and was pleased to see her expression soften.

“I’d like to see Mr Armstrong.”  Martin Armstrong was the Director in charge of operations in Modesto and was the man that Johnny had negotiated with earlier in the week.  “My name is Scott Lancer.”

The name was recognised but without the hostility Scott had encountered up to that point.  “We had a Mr Lancer here a few days ago.  Are you any relation?”  The woman’s voice was soft and melodious.

“He’s my brother.  That’s why I’m here.  There has been some trouble and I’m trying to find out as much as I can about what happened while he was in town.”

“I’m afraid you won’t be able to see Mr Armstrong without an appointment.  I could offer you one for tomorrow afternoon.”  Her fingers flicked through an appointment book in front of her.

Scott placed his hands forcefully on the desk causing her to jump.  “I need to see him now.”

A door on the upper floor opened and closed and footsteps could be heard on the stairs.  “Is there a problem, Francie?” A male voice boomed from overhead.

Scott turned to look and saw an immaculately dressed, middle aged man watching him from part way up the stairs.  “Are you Mr Armstrong?”

“I am and who might you be?”

“Scott Lancer.  I’m sorry to intrude, Mr Armstrong, but I need a few minutes of your time.  It’s about my brother.”

“Ah, yes.  The young man who has been accused of murder.  I must admit I was surprised.  He was very personable and articulate, although he drove a hard bargain.  I would never have taken him for a killer.”

“He isn’t.”  Scott straightened up and looked the man directly in the eye.  “It’s all a mistake.  Someone is trying to make him appear guilty.”

“Perhaps we should continue this conversation in my office.  Francie, could you bring us some coffee?  It looks as if Mr Lancer could do with some.  This way.” Armstrong indicated that Scott should precede him up the stairs.  As Scott passed the man on the staircase something made the hackles on the back of his neck stand up.  He directed a curious stare at the man only to be met with a smile.  It was only as he turned away that Scott realised that the smile hadn’t reached Armstrong’s eyes.

Martin Armstrong’s office reminded Scott of the offices he had visited in Boston during dreary rounds of meetings for Garrett Enterprises.  The huge desk was made of Mahogany with brass fittings.  The chairs were comfortable leather and there were glass doors behind the desk leading to a balcony overlooking the street.  The doors were partly open to admit a small breeze that was welcome as the sun was shining directly into the room.

It took only a few minutes for Francie to bring in a heavy tray containing an elegant silver coffee pot, cream, sugar and two delicate white porcelain coffee cups and saucers.  Scott settled back in his chair and sipped the hot liquid, wincing as it stung his sore lips.

“You really don’t look very well, Mr Lancer.  Would you care to tell me what happened to you?”

“It appears the name of Lancer isn’t very welcome in this town right now.  Some men tried to persuade me that making enquiries about the murder was bad for my health.  As I’m sure you’ll understand my brother’s life’s at stake so I’m not about to be frightened off.”  Scott wasn’t quite sure why he felt the need to make this point so forcefully to a man he had only just met.

Martin Armstrong leaned back in his chair.  “It’s most commendable that you should put your brother’s wellbeing before your own but are you sure it’s wise?”

Scott sat forward and frowned.  “I’m not sure I follow your meaning.”

“There were several witnesses to the murder.  All of them identified your brother.  There is no question but that he is guilty.”  Armstrong held up his hand to forestall Scott’s protest.  “You need to face the facts, Mr Lancer.  Your brother is going to be convicted.  It was cold-blooded murder of a young man who, I might add, was closely related to one of my fellow Directors.  The Judge will have no alternative but to pass the death penalty.  Is it really worth you risking your life for a murderer?”

Scott could feel the color rising in his face as his anger threatened to explode.  He rose to his feet and slammed his cup down.  It teetered unsteadily before falling over, allowing the coffee to spill into the saucer and from there to the top of the desk.  Scott watched as the liquid ran across the surface and then trickled over the edge, dripping toward the cream colored carpet.

“I’ve had enough of threats, Mr Armstrong.  I *will * find out what’s going on in this town and you’d better hope that I don’t find out that you’re involved.”

After Scott had left, Martin Armstrong rang a small bell that was sitting on his desk.  A door at the side of the office opened to admit a man that Scott would have recognised.

“Keep a close eye on him,” Armstrong instructed.  “But I don’t want any more harm to come to him unless I give you a specific order.  I am not pleased with you, Hank, not pleased at all.  You should have reported to me, not taken matters into your own hands. That beating last night has only served to make him more suspicious.”

Hank awkwardly scuffed the toe of his boot in the luxurious carpet.  “Sorry, Mr Armstrong.  It won’t happen again.  Can I go now?”

“Yes, get out.  Use the back entrance.  I don’t want anyone connecting you to this Company.”

Armstrong laced his fingers together and thought hard.  The sheriff should be back by the following day at the latest with his prisoner.  He had no doubt that Murdoch Lancer would be in the process of hiring a good lawyer, and Scott Lancer seemed bound and determined to snoop around asking questions in all the wrong places.

Still, the Judge was beholden to the Company and could be guaranteed to press ahead with a speedy trial followed by an equally speedy hanging.  The evidence against the boy was watertight and liberal amounts of money should ensure that no one said the wrong thing.  Money and influence were a powerful combination.  His eyes narrowed as he considered the memory of the furious young man who had just been sitting in his office.  Clearly the Lancers weren’t a family who took good advice to heart.

Dismissing them from his thoughts he returned to work, satisfied that he had taken all the necessary precautions.

*****

Johnny’s sleep was disturbed as he tossed and turned.  His freedom of movement was severely hampered by the chains on his ankles.  Every time he moved the chains tightened, reinforcing his feeling of helplessness.

Having one of Sheriff Driver’s vicious deputies standing only yards away with a loaded rifle didn’t help either.  Eventually he gave up and lay on his back with his arms behind his head staring sightlessly at the stars.

The knowledge that he had encountered the man he was accused of killing had shaken him to the core.  Given what had happened it would be easy for a jury to find a motive for the killing.

In hindsight he realised he should have told Scott and Murdoch about the incident which, until now, he had dismissed as being unimportant.  He thought back to the day when they had discussed approaching the Railroad about transporting cattle from Modesto to markets further afield.

*****

It had been Scott’s idea initially and Murdoch had not been immediately keen on it.  He had been driving cattle to Stockton and selling them there for years and couldn’t see the need to diversify.  Scott had gone away, sent some telegrams to research the market and had persuaded Murdoch to give the matter further consideration.

They had sat down one night with all of Scott’s facts and figures, and Johnny had watched as his brother brought Murdoch round to his point of view.  There were a number of issues that would have to be resolved with the Railroad Company; the frequency and size of the shipments, cost, and the provision of stock pens.

While Murdoch and Scott debated the cost Johnny thought about how to persuade the Railroad to build and maintain the pens necessary for holding the cattle prior to transporting them on the trains.  The pens would have to be built on land owned by the Railroad, since the Railroad owned most of the land in and around Modesto.

Uncertain at first about offering his opinion Johnny nevertheless decided to have his say.  “How about we offer to pay to have the pens built in return for priority in using them, and a cut of any profit made when they rent them out to other cattlemen who follow Lancers’ lead and ship their cattle from Modesto?”

The silence that followed made him wonder if he had said something really stupid.  He looked sideways at Scott only to find that his brother was grinning broadly.

“I do believe we’ll make a businessman out of you yet, brother.  What do you think Murdoch?”

“I think it’s an excellent idea.  In fact I think we should send Johnny to Modesto to negotiate the contract.”

Johnny had been stunned.  He knew he wasn’t stupid, despite his lack of a formal education. He’d sat in on a few business meetings with his father or brother but that was the limit of his experience.  He fully expected Scott to declare that the idea was insane and had been completely lost for words when his brother had wholeheartedly endorsed the plan.

A meeting was arranged with one of the Directors of the Central Pacific Railroad and the three Lancers spent many hours deciding upon the terms of the proposed contract.  As the time approached for Johnny to leave he began to panic.  What did he know about negotiating contracts?  Not so long ago he had been nothing more than a gun for hire whose reputation had done its talking for him.  After a lot of thought he took his doubts and uncertainties to Scott.

Scott had sat him down and had looked at him seriously; he didn’t for a moment dismiss his brother’s fears or try to belittle them.  “The secret to a successful business meeting is preparation,” he began.  “You need to know what you want and how much you’re prepared to pay.  There is always a bottom line beyond which you are not prepared to go.  In addition you have to try and work out what the other party wants from the deal. You’ve seen Murdoch in meetings.  What’s your impression of how he handles them?”

Johnny frowned.  “He’s firm but fair.  He sets out what he wants and why it’s a good deal for both parties.  He doesn’t give much, though, once he’s had his say and people seem to respect that.  They know he’s honest and that he won’t try and cheat them.”

 

“That’s a good assessment.  What about me?”

This time Johnny smiled.  “Oh, you are charm itself, brother.  You flatter them and get them off guard and then you move in for the kill.  In fact, I’d say you are downright sneaky.”

Scott laughed.  “I hope that’s a compliment.  So what does all that tell you?”  Scott saw that his brother was looking confused.  “Everyone is different, they have their own style.  There is no right or wrong way to do it.  Just be yourself and you’ll have them eating out of your hand.”

*****

Johnny was brought back to the present with a jolt as Seth kicked him in the side.  He grunted and tried to move away from his tormentor.

“Time to move.  The Sheriff wants to get back to Modesto today.  He’s got a nice little cell just waiting for you.”  Seth sneered and dangled the handcuffs in front of Johnny’s face.  “Hands out and make it quick.”

Johnny looked beyond the deputy.  Sheriff Driver was on the far side of the clearing saddling his horse and was too far away to see the physical punishment being meted out by his deputy.  Last night Johnny had felt that the Sheriff could be trusted to protect him.  That was before he had pleaded his innocence only to be caught out by the revelation that something had taken place between him and the murdered man.  Johnny was no longer sure that the Sheriff would feel any pressing need to save him from further harm.

He obediently held out his hands and kept his deep blue eyes firmly fixed on the deputy as the handcuffs were locked in place.  The shackles around his ankles were removed and he was hauled to his feet.  The other deputy grabbed his saddle and bedroll and set about getting ready to leave.  Sheriff Driver walked over to regard his prisoner with an expression of pure contempt.

“I’ve decided that we’re going to press on and get back to town today.  The sooner you’re locked up, the happier I’ll be.”

The Sheriff set a punishing pace throughout the morning.  Johnny hung on tightly to the saddle horn, glad that he was such an accomplished horseman.  They stopped for an hour in the middle of the day to rest the horses. Johnny was offered neither food nor drink and the handcuffs remained firmly in place. As he climbed wearily back into the saddle he remembered his last arrival in Modesto.

*****

He had arrived there the day before his first scheduled meeting with the Railroad Director.  After checking into the hotel he had stepped out into the early evening air and had headed for the nearest saloon.  The atmosphere had been convivial as he downed several beers followed by a number of shots of tequila.

He had been persuaded, without much difficulty, to join a poker game.  The stakes had been low, it being more a case of friendly rivalry, and the men at the table explained that it was still two days until pay day so no one had much spare cash.  He’d ended the evening a couple of dollars down and with Jess on his arm.

He’d spotted her the minute she started her shift.  She was a striking red head, wearing a purple and black dress that left very little to the imagination.  She had been equally taken with him and had spent most of the evening sitting on his knee, whispering distracting suggestions into his ear.  They were both more than a little drunk as they made their way back to his hotel.  He hadn’t set out looking for female company but Jess had made him laugh and forget his nervousness about the business meeting he was facing the next day.

Their lovemaking was enthusiastic and mutually satisfying.  As Johnny lay, languidly stroking Jess’s firm white flesh, he noticed bruising on the top of her arms and her legs.  He was immediately transported back to a dark time in his life when he had regularly seen such marks on his mother and had suffered them on his own body.

His tension caused Jess to open her eyes and he could tell by the way she pulled away that she had seen the fury on his face.

“What’s the matter, honey?” she asked.

“Who did this to you?” Johnny’s voice was low and cold.

Jess shrugged.  “What does it matter?  It’s just an occupational hazard.”

“Tell me who did it and you won’t have to worry about him touching you again.”

She laughed nervously.  “You’re a sweet boy, Johnny Lancer, but you’ll be gone in a few days.  Who’ll protect me then?  You know how it works.  I can tell you’ve been around.  Leave it alone.”

“You don’t have to put up with men like that.  Come on, Jess, let me help.”

“There’s nothing you can do.  If you try, it’ll only make things worse.”  Her hands started doing things to his body that caused his anger to drain away leaving him filled with a different emotion altogether.  After they had finished he had drifted off to sleep.  When he woke up the next morning she had gone.

*****

<Tell me who did it and you won’t have to worry about him touching you again.> How could he have been so stupid as to make a threat like that?  If Jess had told anyone he was as good as dead.

A wave of dizziness hit him accompanied by an unpleasant buzzing sound in his ears.  He tried to swallow only to find that his mouth was bone dry.  He recognised a combination of exhaustion and dehydration.  He tried to tighten his grip on the saddle horn.  Flashes of light went off before his eyes and he passed out.

He woke to find himself lying on the ground with Sheriff Driver kneeling beside him.  A canteen touched his lips; he grabbed it and began to drink thirstily.  The sheriff pulled it away.  “Slow down or you’ll be sick.”

Johnny knew from bitter experience that the sheriff was right, while at the same time resenting the removal of the sweet, life sustaining, liquid.  For the next half hour Johnny was allowed to drink small amounts of water and he started to feel better.  The sun was setting and a breeze had sprung up making conditions bearable again.

“We’re about an hour or so away from town,” the sheriff announced, standing up and dusting his hands off on his trousers.  “Are you up to riding?”

“Yeah, I’ll make it.”

“I’ll see that you get something to eat once you’re settled in jail.”  Sheriff Driver looked into the sad blue eyes of his prisoner, once again wondering about the boy’s guilt.  There was something about him, a genuineness that the sheriff hadn’t expected to find.  He shook his head and decided that he must be getting old and soft.  This boy was Johnny Madrid, a gunslinger with a fearsome reputation.  However young and innocent he might look he had a black heart and no conscience.

It was dark before they arrived in town.  Lights shone from the saloons and the boardwalk was busy with people on their way home or out looking for a good time.  Johnny lowered his head to hide his feeling of despair and dread about what awaited him.  He remembered that Scott was here and cast covert glances to each side of the street hoping to see his fair haired brother.  In that he was to be disappointed; there was no sign of Scott.

They arrived at the jail and he hesitated before dismounting, looking around frantically for a way out of this mess he’d found himself in.  The deputies closed in, one on each side.  A rough jerk on his arm forced him to the ground.  Seth kept a tight grip on his arm as the sheriff unlocked the front door and then he was pushed inside.  The small office was in darkness and, for one suicidal moment, Johnny thought about trying to make a break for freedom.  The thought died even as the light flared in the lamp on the desk.  He hid his panic behind the façade of Johnny Madrid; his face was expressionless while his eyes were cold and hard.

Sheriff Driver unlocked the door leading to the cell area.  The jail held only two small cells with no windows.  Johnny’s fear of confined spaces virtually paralysed him and he found himself unable to resist as he was thrust into one of the cells.  The handcuffs were removed, the cell door locked and he was left alone with the darkness.

*****

Scott left Armstrong’s office with a raging headache.  Although nothing specific had been said he knew that he had just been threatened and that Armstrong was behind, or at least involved, in the plot against his brother. Why a Director of a successful business would be mixed up in murder wasn’t something Scott could explain to himself, let alone anyone else.  He needed to find out more about the witnesses against his brother.  He reluctantly concluded that he would have to wait for the sheriff to return as he was starting to feel unwell and wouldn’t stand a chance if the men from last night caught up with him again.

He returned to his hotel room, locked the door, closed the drapes and lay down.  He was unaware that he had been followed and that Hank was now loitering on the boardwalk in a position from which he could watch the front door of the hotel.

Scott slept for several hours and woke up feeling better than he had earlier in the day.  He made his way down to the hotel dining room and ordered some lunch.  The other diners, all of who appeared to belong to the richer section of the community, sent disapproving glances in his direction.  He ignored them and worked his way steadily through an adequate chicken stew followed by apple pie and cream.

As he ate he found his thoughts turning to Mika.  She was entirely unique in his experience.  His body could still remember the feel of her gentle hands as she nursed him through the acute phase of his injuries.  There had been an innocent sensuality about her that left him feeling shaken.  Other, totally inappropriate, feelings assailed him and he hurriedly sent his thoughts off in a different direction, conscious of the flush that was creeping up his cheeks.

After finishing his meal he returned to his room to collect his hat and gunbelt.  It had occurred to him to wonder, while he was ruthlessly pushing aside his thoughts about Mika, if there might be a local newspaper in town.  He needed information and quickly if he was to be of any use to his brother.

He approached the front desk and the woman he had been inexcusably rude to earlier in the day.  She acknowledged his presence with a frown.

“Ma’am, I would like to apologise for my behaviour earlier today.”  Scott turned on his considerable charm.  “My only excuse is that I was feeling unwell following an encounter with some of the local men yesterday evening.”

He could see that she was thawing.  “Well, Mr. Lancer, it does look as if you had an unpleasant time.  Is there anything I can do to help?  I’m Mrs. Harland.  My husband and I own this hotel.”

“It’s a fine establishment, Mrs. Harland.”  Scott watched her preen with pleasure at the compliment.  “I was wondering if there is a newspaper in town.”

“Why, yes there is.  It’s only recently moved here from Tuolumne.  It was renamed The Stanislaus County News, in honor of Modesto being the County seat.  The publisher is a Mr. J. D. Spencer.  He’s unhappy about the town being called Modesto, you know.  He believes it should have been called Ralston, what with William Ralston being responsible for setting the town up.”

As the woman prattled on Scott reflected that he was getting a little tired of hearing the Ralston name.  “Can you tell me where I might find Mr. Spencer?”  Scott asked.

Mrs. Harland looked at little put out by his interruption but directed him the few blocks to the newspaper office.  Scott strode through the dusty streets past a random assortment of stores mixed in with residential properties, gambling houses and more saloons than he had ever seen in one place before.

The grandly named Stanislaus County News was housed in a small nondescript building behind the undertakers.  The door was open and a strong smell of ink assailed his nostrils.  A balding gentleman wearing thick, round glasses looked up as he entered.

“Mr. Spencer?” Scott enquired.

“I am J. D. Spencer.  What can I do for you?”  The publisher held out a grubby hand then snatched it back and rubbed it on a rag.

As they shook hands Scott introduced himself.  “Scott Lancer.  I was hoping you might be able to help me.”

“Lancer?  I recognise that name and, by the look of your face, I’m not the only one.  Have a seat.”  The publisher pushed a pile of papers off a chair and Scott sat down gratefully.  The short walk from the hotel had tired him as he was still struggling with some unpleasant injuries.

“Are you related to the young man that’s been accused of murder?”  The publisher continued.

“He’s my brother.  So far all we know is that he’s wanted for murder.  I was hoping to find out more before he gets back here with the sheriff.”

“I suggest you read the article I wrote and then we can talk.”

As Spencer searched for the relevant piece of paper Scott took in his surroundings.  The small room was dominated by the printing press.  Bundles of paper occupied every available corner and the whole place gave the impression of organised chaos.

Spencer held out a sheet of newsprint that Scott accepted.  “Thank you, Mr. Spencer.”

“Call me J. D.  Everyone else does.  I have a rather fine bottle of whiskey in the back room.  Would you be interested in having a glass?”

Although it was only early afternoon Scott accepted the offer and settled back to read.

"At precisely 6:20 this morning a young man by the name of Billy Ralston was gunned down while on his way to work.  The murder was witnessed by three of his colleagues, Cort Anders, Frank Morrell and Lee Cross.  Mr. Cross stated that it was an unprovoked attack that left Mr. Ralston dying in a pool of blood.

"The killer, later identified as John Lancer, a rancher from Morro Coyo, fled the scene riding a distinctive palomino horse.

"Sheriff Driver has assured the public that Mr. Lancer will soon be captured and returned to Modesto for trial.  At this time no motive for the killing has come to light

"It appears, however, that Mr Lancer. used to go by a different name, that of Johnny Madrid.  This name will be known to some of you. Madrid was a notorious gunfighter down around the Mexican border.  We can only speculate as to whether or not he has gone back to his original trade."

Scott laid down the paper and took a hefty swallow of the whiskey.  “My brother may have used the name Madrid but he was never a murderer. Being a gunfighter is a legitimate profession; it’s not against the law.”

“I’m aware of that.  I just report the news.  It’s for my readers to make their minds up about its significance.”

“What can you tell me about this Billy Ralston, apart from the fact that he’s related to William Ralston; I already know that part.”

“He’d only been in town a couple of months.  I heard rumors that he was sent here following some sort of scandal in San Francisco.  He wasn’t a particularly nice young man.  He used to hang around the saloons, gambling halls and opium dens but that was nothing unusual.  The sheriff does his best but there’s not a lot of law around here yet and the young men have a tendency to run wild.

“He had no specific enemies so far as I know and I have been doing a lot of asking around.  Like you, I’ve been leaned on, although no one has gone so far as to do more than make some vague threats.  I guess that’s what happens when you’re related to someone important.  Not that Mr. Ralston would be involved in anything like that.”

“What about Martin Armstrong?”

“Now he’s a different story. He has interests in a lot of the businesses and I’m sure he has hired muscle; not that I can prove it of course.  You look like you could use some fresh air.  Let me lock up and I’ll walk you back to your hotel.  Are you staying at Modesto House?”

“Yes, I am.  Are you sure you want to be seen with me?  Having anything to do with the Lancers in this town doesn’t seem to be very healthy.”

J. D. Spencer smiled.  “The press is a powerful weapon, Mr. Lancer, and the powers that be in this town know that.  There are a lot of politicians who’d be delighted to move the County seat from Modesto and too much bad publicity could give them just the excuse they need.”

Scott stepped out into the stifling afternoon heat and put his hat on, glancing around as he did.  He saw a figure slink back into an alleyway.  Somehow he wasn’t surprised to find that he was being watched.  The distance had been too great for him to tell if he recognised the man but he’d have bet any money that it would be one of the three who’d accosted him the night before.

On the way back to the hotel Spencer pulled Scott to a stop.  “There’s one thing that wasn’t in that article.  I only found out about it afterwards.  Your brother had been in a fight with Billy a couple of nights before the killing.”

Try as he might Scott couldn’t keep the look of shock off his face.  They’d asked Johnny what had happened during his visit to Modesto and he hadn’t said anything about being in a fight.  He hadn’t shown any signs of being in a fight either; no cuts or bruises.  Why would he conceal something like that?

“What…what happened?”

“It was in one of the saloons.”  Spencer pointed toward one of the buildings at the far end of the street.  “It appears that your brother had become quite taken with one of the girls who works there.  He walked in on Billy being a bit heavy handed with her.  Billy and she had been seeing one another for a few weeks.  Your brother pulled him off, hit him and told him to stay away from her.  Billy was too drunk to fight back and his friends got him out of there real fast once they saw how your brother was wearing his gun.”

“Do you know the girl’s name?”  Scott asked quietly.

“Jess.  She’s quite well known in certain quarters.”

“I’ll go and speak to her.  Do you know where I can find the men who came forward as witnesses?”

“They all work for the Railroad.  Just about everyone in town does.  I wouldn’t go asking around after them, though, unless you want to find your face being rearranged some more.  Word has it that they’re being ‘protected’ until the trial as they’re afraid some of Johnny Madrid’s friends might come looking for them.”

They arrived back at the hotel and Scott offered his hand to the newspaperman.  “Thank you for your help, Mr. Spencer – J. D.  Would it be too much trouble to ask you to keep me informed of anything else you might find out?”

“On one condition.  You get your brother to give me an interview.”

Scott hesitated.  Johnny wasn’t likely to be happy about that.  On the other hand, having this man on their side might prove to be useful.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

*****

Scott arrived back at the hotel to find a telegram from Murdoch.  His father and Johnny’s lawyer would be arriving in two days.  Weary, sore and frustrated by his lack of progress, Scott lay down on the bed, intent upon snatching an hours rest.  The room was hot and airless.  He got up and opened the window, only to find that the swirling breeze was driving quantities of dust into the room.  Closing the window again Scott irritably tried to imagine a more inhospitable place to situate a town. He could feel rivers of sweat running down his back his hair damp and clinging to his head.

His thoughts ranged restlessly from one incomplete piece of information to another.  There had to be a way to put the pieces together and reach the truth.  It quickly became apparent to him that he was not going to be able to relax.  After throwing some tepid water over his hair he want outside and checked the jail only to find it was still locked up and deserted.  His hope that he might see his brother that day began to fade.

He decided to avoid the saloons until later when he intended to try and track down the girl that Johnny had, apparently, been protecting.  He wasn’t surprised that Johnny would have stepped in to stop someone from abusing a woman; he had very strong views on the subject having watched his mother suffering such treatment while he was a child.  What disturbed Scott was the revelation that the man in question had been Billy Ralston and that his brother had said nothing about it.

He went to one of the local cafes for dinner.  His mouth still hurt and just looking at the food made him nauseous.  The sun had set before he stepped out onto the boardwalk.  His spirits soared when he looked toward the jail and could see lamplight shining through the front window.

*****

Sheriff Driver looked up as the door opened to admit a tall, fair-haired, stranger.  His eyes settled on the man’s face that bore the marks of a recent and severe beating.

Scott, in turn, studied the powerfully built man sitting behind the desk.  He reached up and removed his hat.  “Sheriff?  I’m Scott Lancer.  I’d like to see my brother.”

Scott knew exactly what was coming next as the sheriff looked him up and down and raised an eyebrow.  “You don’t look much like brothers.”

“Same father; different mothers,” Scott responded shortly.  “Can I see him?  I want to make sure he’s all right.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” The sheriff stood up angrily.

“It means that the people in this town don’t seem very well disposed toward the Lancer name.”

The sheriff pointed at Scott’s face.  “Would you recognise who did that to you?”

“One of them.  I didn’t get a good look at the other two.”

Sheriff Driver picked up one of the lamps and a set of keys.  “Leave your gun on the desk.”

The sheriff unlocked the door at which point Scott realised that his brother had been locked up in the dark.  A white-hot anger exploded within him.  It had not been so long ago that Johnny had first started to open up about his childhood.  At first he would make vague comments, watching to see how Scott was reacting.  As the brothers had grown closer, Johnny had started to provide more details.  Scott had realised very quickly that his brother wasn’t looking for pity, and that his decision to talk about his experiences was his way of proving his trust toward his big brother.

Scott’s thoughts turned inexorably to the day that Johnny had finally, and fully, let down his barriers and admitted him to his innermost thoughts and fears.

*****

Teresa stamped her foot and looked furiously at the dark-haired man in front of her.  “Johnny Lancer, you’re just being mean.  It will only take you five minutes to get that trunk down from the attic.”

“I told you Teresa, I ain’t going up there.  Get Scott to do it.”

“Get Scott to do what?” his brother enquired from the doorway.  Scott had arrived in time to witness Teresa’s display of temper and Johnny’s uncharacteristically sullen response.

“I need something from the attic and Johnny won’t get it for me.”

“What’s wrong, brother?  You’re not afraid of the dark are you?” Scott teased only to be struck dumb as Johnny brushed past him with a peculiar look on his face.

Johnny didn’t appear for supper that night so Scott sought him out.  He found his brother sitting by the window in his bedroom with every lamp in the room brightly lit.  Johnny didn’t acknowledge Scott’s presence for a long time and, when he did eventually start to speak, he kept his back turned to his sibling.

“I don’t remember the man my mama ran away with.  She never spoke about him; she always told me that Murdoch had kicked us out and I had no reason not to believe her.  As I got older I realised that there was usually some man around; some were kind to us and some weren’t.  A lot of them didn’t like the fact she had a half-breed, blue eyed-kid around. Those ones didn’t stay for long.”

Scott waited patiently, without interruption, as his brother gathered his thoughts.

“One man – you know what, Scott, I couldn’t even tell you his name now – he was ok to start with.  He treated me and my mama well.  He worked hard so there was food on the table and he never raised a hand to either of us.  One night I had this really bad nightmare. All I wanted was to feel my mama’s arms around me and to hear her tell me everything would be alright, so I crept into her room.”  Johnny swallowed hard as he remembered what happened next.   “I walked in on them making love although I was too young to know what was going on.  My “stepfather” was real angry with me.  He dragged me out of the room and locked me in this little closet in the kitchen.  I was probably only in there for an hour or so but it felt like a lifetime.”

“How old were you?”

“About seven, I guess.”

Scott masked his shock as best he could, relieved that Johnny wasn’t looking at him with that piercing blue stare.  “What did your mother do?”

“She was the one who let me out.  She gave me a big hug and told me that men didn’t like being interrupted when they…..”  Johnny’s voice trailed off and he finally turned to look at his brother.  “After that he’d lock me in there any time he thought I needed punishing for some sin - real or imagined, it didn’t matter to him. It made me real afraid of small, dark places, Scott.  That’s why I couldn’t go up into the attic for Teresa.”

It was in that instant that Scott’s determination to protect his brother was born.  Scott sat with his brother for most of the night.  Johnny was so wound up that it took hours for him to relax enough to sleep.  Even when Scott finally coaxed his brother into lying down Johnny made him promise to stay and to leave the lamps lit. By the next morning Johnny had himself back under control and the brothers had never discussed the matter again.

*****

Scott shook off the memory.  The dark, of itself, didn’t worry his brother but this….being locked up in this small dark cell…..how must Johnny be feeling?  His anger and worry exploded.  The furious words he turned on the sheriff took the man completely by surprise. Sheriff Driver acquiesced without argument to Scott’s demand that he unlock the cell door.

When the door to the outer office opened and light streamed in, Johnny lifted a hand to protect his eyes.  He heard a voice raised in anger followed by a metallic click.  Strong arms pulled him to his feet and guided him to sit on the end of the narrow cot.  He briefly rested his head on his brother’s shoulder as a feeling of safety and security settled over him.

After being left alone earlier in the evening Johnny had worked hard to rid himself of a feeling of almost uncontrollable panic.  His heart had been pounding and his palms were slippery with sweat.  He had rubbed his hands against the side of his trousers over and over again.  Later he had retreated into a corner, wrapped his arms tightly round his body and bowed his head.

Memories that he had worked so hard to suppress had assaulted his mind.  Fears, that had been so deeply buried he had almost forgotten about them, returned to haunt him.  The last time this had happened, over some stupid incident with Teresa, he had been able to take comfort from the sheer strength and love of his brother.  Together they had battled his demons and come out victorious.  This time he was alone.

Then he realised that he was never truly alone – not any more.  He had his brother and his father watching out for him.  He had good friends and an ‘annoying’ little sister that he loved deeply.  With a tremendous effort of will he had sent his thoughts away from his present situation and concentrated on images of Lancer and his family.  And then the miracle had happened and Scott had arrived and he knew that his brother wouldn’t let the dark claim him again.

“Hey, little brother.  What are you doing sitting in the dark?”  Scott brushed a stray lock of hair out of his brother’s eyes.  “How about I make sure the sheriff leaves a lamp in here for the rest of the night?”  Scott kept his tone deliberately calm and even.  Johnny still had his head down and Scott saw a brief nod of acknowledgment.

Sheriff Driver unashamedly watched the brothers.  Scott was full of tense, angry emotion while Johnny had relaxed the instant he felt his brother’s presence.  There was an undercurrent that the sheriff didn’t understand; Scott was protecting his brother from something.

“Let me take a look at you.  They didn’t hurt you on the way here did they?”

In his concern, Scott had forgotten his own injuries.  Johnny turned, his eyes dark and his pupils enormous, and exclaimed in shock when he saw Scott’s face.  Johnny immediately forgot his own fears and Scott felt a chill as he watched his brother change into Johnny Madrid.  The fear he had felt radiating from Johnny only moments before had disappeared without a trace. A slight gasp from the sheriff told Scott that he too had been caught by surprise by the transformation.

“Who did this?” Johnny’s voice was as hard and cold as his eyes.  He sat up straight, a mass of coiled energy and aggression.

“They didn’t exactly wait around to introduce themselves.  I am sure they were working for someone though.  I don’t know what kind of mess we’ve stepped into the middle of, but there are some powerful influences at work.”

“I think you’re right, brother.  Those two deputies that brought me back made it painfully clear their employer would prefer that I plead guilty.”

This was news to the sheriff.  “What did they say?”

“That the man they worked for would see I got a bullet in the head rather than a noose around my neck if I pleaded guilty.”  The lack of emotion in Johnny’s voice as he described this chilling proposal was horrifying to Scott.  His warm, fun loving brother no longer existed in that cell.

Scott turned on the sheriff and his stare was accusing.  “You didn’t know?  They’re your deputies.”  His scepticism was clear.

“I didn’t hire them. They were sent along by the Railroad as extra security,” Sheriff Driver protested.

“No,” Johnny replied slowly.  “They were sent along to deliver a message.”

Scott was reluctant to express his views about the possible involvement of Martin Armstrong in front of the sheriff.  “Could I speak to my brother alone?” he asked.

“I’ll have to lock you in and I’ll be leaving the door to the office open.  You’ve got ten minutes and then I’m locking up for the night.”

The brothers waited for the sheriff to leave.  “I went to see Armstrong this morning.  I just wanted some information about the killing and he as good as told me to stop asking questions.  He said you were certain to be convicted and that I shouldn’t put my own life at risk to help you.”

“He’s right.  They’ve already hurt you.”  Johnny moved further along the cot so that he could get a better view of his brother’s face.  “It’s hopeless, Scott.  They’ve got me right where they want me.  The witnesses are bought and paid for and I can’t prove I didn’t kill him.”

“So you’re just going to give up?  You’re going to deliver yourself to the hangman without even trying to clear your name?  Do you expect me to sit around and watch and do nothing?  I’m going to help you whether you want me to or not.”  Scott’s fear for his brother’s life made him aggressive.

“I’m not giving up but I’m not gonna let you get killed either.  Back off, Scott.”  The tone was designed to intimidate and failed miserably.

“Tell me about the girl,” Scott demanded, not in the least bit daunted by his brother’s display of temper.

Johnny looked away.  “Nothing to tell.”

Scott wrenched his brother round so that he could look at his face.  “Don’t lie to me, Johnny.  I know where she works and I’m going to speak to her.”

Johnny’s expression turned thunderous and he pulled his arm free.  “Stay away from her.  I don’t want her involved.”

“I don’t care what you want,” Scott yelled.  “I’m going to find out the truth and you, brother, aren’t in any position to stop me.  Sheriff?”

Sheriff Driver came in response to the call.  “You ready to leave?”

“NO,” Johnny was desperate.  His defiance crumbled away under the weight of his fear for his brother’s safety.  “I’ll tell you what happened if you promise me you’ll leave her alone and not do anything more until Murdoch gets here.”

The sheriff watched the battle of wills with interest.  Eventually Scott reluctantly nodded his head.  “Can you give us a few more minutes, sheriff?”

“Time’s almost up,” the sheriff warned as he left them alone again.

Johnny rested his back against the wall and rubbed his eyes.  “I met Jess the first night I was in town.  We had fun and spent the night together.  She had bruises, Scott.  Someone had been beating her.  She didn’t deserve to be treated like that; no woman deserves that.”  Johnny’s eyes darkened with remembered pain and helplessness.  “She wouldn’t tell me who it was and she’d gone by the time I woke up the next morning.  I had that business meeting to go to so I decided I’d catch up with her later.”

“If she had told you, what would you have done?”  Scott was almost certain he knew the answer and that he wasn’t going to like it.

Johnny raised his head and looked his brother straight in the eye.  “I’d have made sure he never did that to her again.”

*****

Johnny pushed himself back so that he could rest against the wall.  His fingers restlessly fiddled with the conchos on the side of his pants as he explained to his brother what had happened.

*****

He had left his meeting with Martin Armstrong feeling pleased with himself.  He hadn’t taken to the man on a personal level.  The Director had been overbearing and pompous to start with, obviously sensing an easy target.  This had made Johnny even more determined to drive a hard bargain and it seemed that all the hours of preparation had paid off.  A further meeting had been arranged for the next day at which Armstrong had promised to deliver a decision on Lancers’ proposals.

Johnny had hurried back to the hotel, anxious to get out of the suit that Scott had insisted he wear.  He had tugged at the collar of his shirt and loosened his tie.  It had taken Scott almost as long to teach him how to do up the tie, as it had to talk him through the “etiquette” - as Scott put it - of business meetings.  Johnny had even left his gun behind which was another reason he was keen to get back to the hotel.  Modesto wasn’t a civilised town and he felt naked without his colt on his hip.

Twenty minutes later he was comfortably dressed in a soft dark blue shirt and his favorite leather trousers.  His gunbelt was securely fastened in place giving its customary feeling of security.  He settled his hat on dark hair that had been ruthlessly combed into submission for his meeting.  After checking that his gun was seated properly in its holster he ventured out of the hotel and headed for the saloon.  He was looking forward to seeing Jess again and to spending a pleasant evening – and night – in her company.

The minute he pushed the saloon doors open he knew something was wrong.  The normal noises of customers shouting and laughing, and of music from the out of tune piano, were missing.  Right in front of the bar he could see Jess, tears running down her cheeks, her arm in the grip of a young man who was screaming abuse right into her face.

Johnny didn’t even stop to think.  So far as he was concerned there was nothing to think about.  He felt as if he had been transported back to when he was a child.  How often had he watched as his mother was hurt by one of the procession of men she brought home?  How often had he stood by, helpless to do anything about it?  A blind rage filled him and the only people he was aware of were Jess and the man holding so tightly on to her arm. He had made himself a promise the day he killed the man who had murdered his mother.  No one was ever going to treat a woman like that in his presence and be able to walk away.  He grabbed the man by the front of his shirt.  “Leave the lady alone.”

The young man, who was clearly drunk, started to laugh, as did his companions.  “She’s not a lady.  She’s just a no good whore.”  His speech was slurred and his face was red from too much cheap liquor and the heat in the saloon.

Johnny’s fist connected with the man’s jaw, sending him staggering backward into the arms of his friends.  “You keep your hands to yourself or you’ll answer to me.”

Johnny’s right hand unconsciously strayed toward his gun.  He could see the men eying his rig and, for once, wasn’t unhappy that it marked him as a gunfighter.  He saw fear appear on their faces as they backed away from the confrontation.  His lips curled in an expression of contempt.  He watched as the men made their way, unsteadily, to the door.

By the time he turned back to Jess she had dried her tears and straightened her clothing.  “You shouldn’t have done that, Johnny.  They’re trouble. I told you last night to stay out of it.”

“I can handle myself, Jess.  Let me buy you a drink.”

*****

“And that was it?”  Scott asked as Johnny ground to a halt.

“I swear, Scott, nothing else happened.  I didn’t even know who the man was until the sheriff told me when we were on our way here.”

“We need to get to those three men who supposedly witnessed the killing. I’ve got the names but no one seems sure where they are.  There has to be some reason why Billy Ralston was killed.  If we can find the motive we might be able to find who’s behind all this.”

“I’d say I’ve given them their motive.”  Johnny’s matter of fact tone belied the fear that was building up inside him again.

“There’s more to this than some fight over a girl.”  Scott looked searchingly at his brother.  “Why didn’t you tell us?”

Johnny shrugged. “I didn’t think it was important.  If I’d known who he was I’d’ve told you. Anyway, brother, would you admit to Murdoch that you had spent a few nights with a saloon girl?”

Sheriff Driver returned from the outer office and unlocked the cell door.  “Time to go.  You can see him again tomorrow.”

“Remember your promise, Scott.  You stay away from Jess and out of trouble until Murdoch gets here.” Johnny had tight hold of Scott’s arm and waited until his brother looked at him.

“I will.  Good night, Johnny.”  Scott left feeling very badly about the fact that he’d lied to his brother.  He had no intention of sitting around the hotel for the next two days.  He set off in the direction of the saloon that J. D. had pointed out to him, intent upon finding out what the connection was between Jess and Billy Ralston.

*****

Scott pushed open the doors leading to the saloon, hesitated, and looked around.  Heads had turned in his direction although no one seemed particularly interested in him.  He wondered if he was still being followed.  He didn’t know what his brother would have done if he’d told him that.  He resettled his hat on the back of his head and headed for the bar.

He waited until he was on his second beer before attracting the bartender’s attention.  “Is Jess working tonight?”

The man eyed him suspiciously.  “What d’you want to know for?”

“A friend of mine mentioned that he’d spent some time with her while he was in town.  He asked me to look her up.”  Scott slipped some money across the bar as a gesture of goodwill.

The money disappeared into the bartender’s pocket.  “She should be in later.  If you want to find a table I’ll send her over to you.”

After thanking the man Scott did as he had suggested.  He selected a table where he could sit with his back to the wall, a habit he’d adopted from his brother.  As he idly passed the time watching the comings and goings he found his thoughts turning back again to Mika.  He realised that he wanted to see her again.  He got a warm feeling inside when he thought of her.  He needed to make things right with her and he had an urge to get to know her better, if she would allow it.  He was so lost in thought that he didn’t realise that he was being watched.

Jess turned away from the bar and looked over at the customer pointed out to her by the bartender.  He looked to be tall, with fair hair and would have been handsome but for the bruises and swelling on his face.  Her smile was genuine as she walked over to the table.  “Can I sit down?”

Hearing a feminine voice, Scott instinctively began to stand up, only to hesitate as the woman laughed.  “You’ve got nice manners.”

Scott grinned and sat back down.  “Jess?  My brother, Johnny, told me about you.”

The sparkle in her green eyes died only to be replaced by a look of sheer panic.  “I shouldn’t be talking to you.  I heard what Johnny did.  I told him to stay away from Billy.  He’d no cause to shoot him on my account.”

Scott reached over and took hold of her arm.  “My brother didn’t kill him.  I’m trying to find out who did.  You and Billy obviously knew each other.  I just want to talk to you about him.”

“No, I’m sorry.  I’m not getting involved.  Leave me alone.”  Her voice had risen hysterically leading to a lot of unwelcome attention.  Scott removed his hand.

“If you don’t help me he’ll hang.”

“And if I do help you they’ll cut my throat.  You don’t know what this town’s like.  Whether or not Johnny’s guilty, he’ll hang for the murder.  Why did he have to interfere?”  Tears sprang to her eyes.  “It looks like they already got to you.  Go home or the next time you might not be able to walk away from the beating they give you.”

Scott reflected that he hadn’t exactly been able to walk away from the last one.  Unfriendly eyes were still turned in their direction, leaving him feeling vulnerable.  “Will you meet me later?  You can name the place.  Please.”

Sensing a determination in the blond, and recognising his deep feelings for his brother, her resolve wavered.  “Meet me at midnight outside the livery stable.  I’ll talk to you but I’m not talking to the law.”

“Fair enough.  I’ll see you later.”  Scott finished his beer as Jess left the table and started to circulate among the other customers.  Hers weren’t the only eyes that followed him as he walked out the door.

*****

Joe Crawley left the saloon immediately after Scott.  He stood on the boardwalk looking around.  A low whistle attracted his attention and he joined Hank in the shadows of an alleyway across from the saloon.

“He was talking to the girl,” Joe reported.  “They were arguing and he was looking none too pleased when he left.”

“Did she tell him anything?” Hank growled.

“Don’t know.  D’you want me to catch up with him and ask him?” Joe smiled nastily.

“Mr Armstrong said to back off him.  Seems the Lancers are a powerful family.  Watch what he does.  I’m gonna see Mr Armstrong.”

It was with some trepidation that Hank approached the front door of the Armstrong residence.  He had never been to the house before, and his presence was sure to be unwelcome, but his news couldn’t wait.  He knocked on the door and stood uneasily, shifting from foot to foot.  A maid opened the door and he asked to speak to Mr Armstrong.  He waited for several minutes for the maid to return.  The girl looked down her nose at the scruffy man and ordered him round to the back of the house.

His irate employer met him at the kitchen door.  Martin Armstrong looked at him distastefully.  Hank was useful, prepared to carry out tasks that many other men would refuse.  However, it was unacceptable for the man to turn up at the front door of his house.

“There had better be a damn good reason why you’re here.  I’m in the middle of hosting a dinner party,” Armstrong snarled.

Hank looked at the ground and twisted his hat around in his hands.  “Lancer was talking to that saloon girl – the one that Billy was seeing.  His brother must’ve told him about her.”

“Did she tell him anything?”

“I’m not sure Mr. Armstrong.  Joe didn’t want to get too close seeing as how you told us to keep away from him.”

“It could be embarrassing if she told him what she knows.  Take care of it tonight. I don’t care how you do it; just make sure she can’t talk to anyone ever again.”

*****

The noise of someone hammering on his hotel room door woke Scott. His abused muscles had stiffened overnight, making any movement slow and painful.  It was an effort to open his eyes.  Some of the swelling had receded around his left eye although the tenderness persisted. A hurried glance toward the window told him that it was light and that he had probably overslept.

He mumbled an acknowledgment and stumbled out of bed.  The act of pulling on his pants and shirt caused beads of sweat to appear on his forehead and left him biting his lower lip against the pain.  As soon as he opened the door J.D. Spencer pushed his way into the room.  Scott stared at the man through a haze of sleep-induced confusion.

“Did you speak to Jess yesterday?” the publisher demanded without preamble.

“I saw her and we arranged to meet later but she never showed up.”  Scott began to button his shirt.  “Why?”

“She’s dead.”

Scott’s fingers fell away from their task.  “Are you sure?” His voice was barely above a whisper.

J.D. looked at Scott’s shocked expression and pushed him toward a chair.  “I’ve seen the body.  There’s a stream on the outskirts of town that opens up into a deep pool.  She was found floating face down in the water.”

“Johnny told me to stay away from her.  If I hadn’t gone to see her she’d still be alive. I should have realised, after what happened to me, that those men would stop at nothing to get their conviction.”

“You can’t be sure about that,” J.D. consoled him.  “If she had information that was dangerous to someone her death might only have been a matter of time.”

Scott hung on to his tattered composure as best he could.  “Then I should have protected her. Does the sheriff have any idea who killed her?”

“No one’s saying it was murder.  There were no signs of a struggle.  Seems likely the official story’ll be that she killed herself because she was heart broken about Billy’s death.”

Scott snorted rudely.  “She didn’t seem heart broken last night.  She was scared but she certainly wasn’t suicidal.  Will you ask around?  See if anyone saw anything?”

“That’s what newspapermen do.  I agree with you – I think this is another murder and that it’s linked to Billy’s killing.  If I come up with any new information I’ll let you know.  What’re you going to do?”

“See Johnny and hope he understands.”

*****

“I told you to stay away from her.”  There was no emotion on Johnny’s face and his voice was calm and level.  Scott knew his brother well enough to be glad there were bars separating them.

“I’m sorry.”  Both Lancers felt the inadequacy of that statement.

Sheriff Driver had brought the news of Jess’s death to Johnny with his breakfast.  Johnny had listened in complete silence and had then hurled the tray at the door splattering the sheriff’s shirt with porridge and coffee.  The sheriff had been furious.  After fetching a bucket of water and a mop he had drawn his gun, unlocked the door and forced Johnny to clean up the mess.

By the time Scott arrived Johnny had reached his decision.  He had been on the point of giving up, especially after seeing what had happened to his brother.  Jess’s murder, whatever the sheriff might choose to call it, had changed all that.  He wasn’t going down without a fight – he owed Jess that much.

“When does my lawyer get here?”

“Tomorrow.  He’s coming with Murdoch.”  Scott sensed the change of mood.  He also sensed his brother distancing himself and a feeling of loss swept through him.  Johnny had a right to be upset but this cold withdrawal hurt more than any hot, angry words would have done.  He tried to reach out to Johnny; to make him understand that he had only been doing what he thought was necessary.  “Johnny, I….”

“I don’t want to hear it, Scott.  There’s nothing you can say that’ll bring her back.  You made a promise to me and you broke it.  Go back to the hotel.  I’ll see you tomorrow when Murdoch and the lawyer get here.”  Johnny turned his back to the door, his anger so strong it felt like a living thing eating away at him.  He couldn’t look at his brother any more.  He felt  disappointment, and  betrayal, and he needed Scott to go away before he said the things – the terrible things – that were going round and round in his head.  If he said them they could never be taken back, and even his anger didn’t want to irrevocably destroy his bond with Scott.

Sheriff Driver looked up at the dejected young man as Scott left the cell area and returned to the office.  Scott retrieved his gun from the desk.  “Jess didn’t kill herself.  She knew something…. something that would help clear Johnny and she was murdered.  You’re not a stupid man, Sheriff.  You know there’s something going on in this town.  Just do me one favor….speak to the witnesses against Johnny again.  Push them as hard as you can.  Find out if they’ve been paid to perjure themselves.  And then find out how much the Judge has been paid because I guarantee someone’s got to him too.”

“I don’t need you to tell me how to do my job, Mr. Lancer.  I’d be very careful if I were you about accusing a Judge of taking bribes.”

Scott laughed but without any humor.  “Well, Sheriff, it wouldn’t be the first time an elected official has taken a bribe.  Maybe they’ve paid you off as well.”

Sheriff Driver leaped to his feet, furious at the slur on his character.  “You mind your mouth, boy, or you’ll find yourself in a cell next to your brother.  Somehow I don’t think that’s where you want to be right now.”

Scott shook his head, while refraining from offering any apology. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Sheriff.”  Once outside the jail Scott scanned the street, undecided about his next destination.  His feeling of loneliness wouldn’t be denied and he turned in the direction of Chinatown and Mika.

*****

Sheriff Driver dabbed irritably at the stains on the front of his shirt.  The door opened again to admit his two temporary deputies.

“The undertaker wants to see you.  He needs to know what you want done with the body,”  Seth informed the sheriff.

“I can’t leave the prisoner unguarded.  He’ll have to wait.”  The sheriff’s mood had worsened since Scott’s visit.  He prided himself on his honesty and Scott’s comment about him accepting a pay off had stung.

“We can stay for a while.  Mr. Armstrong said we were to help out until the Judge gets here,”  Seth offered.

The Sheriff looked at the two men, remembering what Johnny had said about the threats they had made during the journey from Green River.  He decided that he had no reason to believe Johnny’s story and he could do with going home and getting washed up and changed.  He pushed his irritatingly nagging doubt to the back of his mind.

“I’ll be gone about an hour.  He’s not to have any visitors.  His brother was here earlier and I doubt if he’ll be back.”

“No problem, Sheriff.  He’ll be quite safe.”

After the Sheriff had left Seth turned an evil grin on Joe.  “That was easier than I expected.  Let’s go and see if Lancer has considered our offer.”

Joe picked up the bunch of keys and locked the door leading to the street.  He selected the correct key and unlocked the door leading to the cells.  As the door banged open Johnny looked up from his contemplation of his hands.  When he saw the two men he knew exactly what was coming.  He stood up and backed into a corner.

“No point calling out for help.  Ain’t no one around to hear you,” Seth informed him as Russ unlocked the door to the cell.  “This doesn’t have to get unpleasant.  Give us the answer we want and we’ll leave you alone.”

Apart from an almost imperceptible quickening of his breathing Johnny showed no sign of any distress.  He watched as Seth advanced into the cell and mentally prepared himself for the attack that he knew would follow.  This time they hadn’t caught him so completely unaware that he was incapable of fighting back.  The confined space would make it difficult for both men to enter the cell at the same time.  Johnny grinned and that incensed Seth.  He couldn’t understand how this half-breed gunhawk could stand there so calmly and smile!

He launched himself at Johnny and was met by Johnny’s fist in his gut.  He fell to his knees, panting for breath.  Johnny tried to sidestep him, aware that he had to get out of the cell.  Joe blocked his path but Johnny was not going to be denied his chance.  A determined swing of his right arm caught the second deputy under the chin and knocked him backwards out of the way.  Johnny wrenched open the door leading to the office and ran for the front door.  He turned the handle only to realise too late that the door was locked.

A flying tackle from behind slammed him into the door and the force of the impact stunned him.  A punch to the left kidney dropped him to floor.  Two pairs of hands dragged him to his feet and he was propelled back toward the cell.  While Russ held his arms Seth rained blows on his chest and stomach, carefully avoiding doing any obvious damage to his face.

When it was over he lay on the floor.  Throughout the beating he hadn’t uttered a sound.  Seth and Joe glared down at him.  “Seems you don’t have no sense, boy.  That was the last time we’re gonna ask.  You’ll swing now for sure.”

Johnny didn’t try to look up.  He heard the door clang shut and the key turning in the lock.  Once he was sure he was alone he pulled himself painfully onto the cot and curled into a ball with his face turned toward the wall.

*****

When Sheriff Driver returned to the jail he brought food with him for himself and his prisoner.  Seth and Russ excused themselves, saying they were in need of a drink after a hard morning’s work.  The sheriff noted the odd comment without being able to understand it.

He carried the plate of food to the cell.  “I brought you some lunch.”  He waited, wondering if his prisoner was asleep.  He could see the rise and fall of Johnny’s breathing and it struck him that it looked erratic.  Suddenly concerned he unlocked the door and quickly covered the short distance to the cot.  Johnny still hadn’t moved.  He reached out and turned Johnny so that he could see his face.

“Oh my god.  What did they do to you?”  He pulled Johnny’s arms away from his abdomen and started to undo the buttons on the shirt.

“D..don’t,” Johnny begged.  “I’ll b…be ok.”

“Like hell you will.  Let me see.”  The sheriff easily fended off Johnny’s feeble attempts to stop him and looked in horror at the existing bruises and the ones that were rapidly forming.

“T….told you.  W…wouldn’t listen.”  Johnny’s eyes rolled up and he passed out.

*****

A breeze wafting in through the open window stirred the drapes and allowed a stray shaft of sunlight to fall on Johnny’s face.  He mumbled unintelligibly and turned his head to burrow deeper into the soft pillow.  If he’d had his wits about him he might have wondered about that.

“’Bout time you woke up.”

The voice, which was male and not unfriendly, caught Johnny’s attention.  As his senses returned, a fierce ache awoke in the muscles of his chest and abdomen.  An involuntary groan escaped from his dry throat and his hands turned into fists as he gripped the sheet covering his body.  An unwelcome memory returned and he screwed his eyes tightly shut.  Maybe if he didn’t open them the owner of the voice would go away and let him slip back into that comfortable place where the pain disappeared.

Something wasn’t right.  He was in jail wasn’t he?  Johnny didn’t remember any jail he had ever been in feeling like this.  He opened his eyes warily and found that he was lying in bed in a room he couldn’t recall having seen before.  His shirt and boots had been removed and he shivered slightly as the breeze brushed across his bare shoulders.

Sheriff Driver watched the play of emotions crossing his prisoner’s face.  “Sit up and I’ll get you some water.”

By the time the sheriff returned Johnny had pushed himself into a sitting position leaning against the headboard of the bed.  He accepted the glass of water and drank deeply.  “Where are we?”

“We’re a couple of miles outside town.  This cabin belongs to a friend of mine who’s away right now.  You should be safe enough here until the Judge arrives.  I’m not taking any chances on a repeat performance of what happened this morning.  I already told you I don’t hold with beating prisoners.”  The sheriff took the empty glass and stood up.  “I’ve got some stew heating and there’s some bread.  Once you’ve eaten I’ll head back to town.”

Johnny’s confusion grew.  “You’re just gonna leave me here?  What makes you think I won’t take off?”

The sheriff had given this a lot of thought while Johnny had been unconscious.  It hadn’t taken him long to decide to move the young man from the jail.  He’d said that it was his job to keep Johnny alive long enough to face trial and he took his job very seriously.  It galled him that he couldn’t guarantee the boy’s safety if he stayed in town. He no longer knew who he could trust and he couldn’t stay awake and on watch twenty four hours a day. He was also laboring under a weight of guilt at having left Johnny alone with his two ‘deputies.’

He’d begun to wonder why the beating had been carried out.  Clearly the intent hadn’t been to kill Johnny so there had to be another reason for it.  He had thought back to the conversation between the brothers and the persistent feeling, that wouldn’t leave him alone, that Johnny was innocent of the murder.

His instincts told him to trust Johnny even while years of experience called him a fool.  He’d debated chaining the boy up to prevent an escape attempt and then decided against it.  If he couldn’t make it back to the cabin, or someone found where Johnny was being hidden, that would leave him in a hopelessly vulnerable position.  Truth be told he was convinced that, innocent or guilty, Johnny Lancer wouldn’t run.

“I trust you.”  The sheriff watched the slow smile of gratitude appear before adding, “and I’ve got your boots.  Don’t reckon you’ll be going far without them.”

Johnny’s smile turned into a genuine laugh that was cut short by a renewed burst of agony.  He doubled over, trying not to lose the water that he had so recently drunk.  It took several minutes for him to regulate his breathing and straighten up. His hand was shaking as he reached up to push the sweat soaked hair out of his eyes.

“Do you want me to bring you something back to help with the pain?”

“Don’t need anything.”

Somehow the sheriff wasn’t surprised. This boy was one of the most stubborn people he had ever met.  “Suit yourself.  Do you feel up to eating? The stew should be ready.”

Johnny didn’t feel like eating, but bitter experience had taught him that he needed to keep his strength up.  After a couple of mouthfuls his hunger asserted itself and he was surprised to find himself finishing the whole bowlful.  He used some of the bread to mop up the last of the gravy and settled back with a satisfied sigh.

Sheriff Driver cleared the plates away and washed up.  “Those two men that did this to you are employed by the Railroad.  I think it might be worth me talking to Mr. Armstrong.  D’you want to press charges?”

“Would it do any good?”  Johnny was sceptical.  “Who’s gonna believe the word of a former gunfighter accused of murder?”

“I’ve seen the bruises, Johnny.  If they hadn’t stopped when they did you’d be dead.”

“They don’t want me dead….not yet anyway.  They need their murder conviction to stop anyone digging for the truth.  You be careful.  Two people are dead already and Scott’s not looking too good.”  The thought of his brother sparked renewed anger, despite knowing in his heart that it was unfair to hold Scott responsible for Jess’s death.

The sheriff looked uncomfortable.  “There’s something I need to tell you about Jess.  I went to see the undertaker and he told me she’d been stabbed before being dumped in that pool.  It was only a small wound and he almost missed it.  Someone used a very thin bladed knife up between the ribs.  The water was so cold that it stopped the bleeding.  When the body warmed up a bit he noticed some blood. The angle of the wound suggests it wasn’t self inflicted so I guess it wasn’t suicide after all.”

Johnny lost all color from his face and Sheriff Driver wondered if he was about to lose his lunch as well.  He grabbed a bowl just in case and pressed it into Johnny’s shaking hands.  “I’m ok.”  Johnny took several gulping breaths.  “You find the bastards who did this to her.”

“We need to figure out what to tell your father and lawyer when they get here tomorrow.  I’m not sure it’s safe for anyone to know where you are.  I’ll be back later on so we can talk about it some more then.  You rest up while I’m gone.”

Johnny’s eyes were already closing and he snuggled back down under the covers.  He was fast asleep before the sheriff got as far as the front door.

*****

Scott did his best to retrace his steps from the day before but soon became hopelessly lost in the maze of alleys.  He wandered around, getting more and more frustrated, until he saw a building he recognised.  As it was mid-morning there were very few people around.  The men were all at work leaving only some of the women and young children who watched Scott warily as he entered the building.  He removed his hat and stood uncertainly in the doorway.  One of the women bent down and whispered to her son.  The boy edged closer to Scott and bowed his head.

“Is there some way I can help you?”  His hesitant English reminded Scott of Mika.

“I am looking for a girl who helped me when I was hurt.  Her name is Mika.  Do you know where I can find her?”

The boy looked toward his mother and translated Scott’s words.  She consulted with some of the other women.  Scott began to feel very uneasy under their intense scrutiny.  They reached a decision which was relayed to the boy.

“She is working in the laundry today.  I will show you.”

“Thank you.”

It wasn’t far.  The laundry proved to be an open fronted building containing large tubs of steaming, soapy water.  Lengths of rope were strung between the adjacent buildings and sagged under the weight of soaking wet sheets, blankets and assorted items of clothing.  A number of young women, Mika among them, were scrubbing the pieces of fabric clean and chattering non stop.  Mika’s pale arms were covered in soap suds, her face flushed and her hair sticking to her forehead and neck.

Scott tossed a coin to his young guide and stood in the shade of the building across the street.  Now that he had found Mika he wasn’t sure what he was going to say to her.  He only knew that there was an emptiness inside him caused by the rift with his brother and that he needed someone to talk to.

He stood watching for a long time, oblivious to the stares he was receiving in return.  One of the other girls spotted him and nudged Mika to attract her attention.  When she looked over toward him, Scott saw the surprise on her face and, just for a moment, a look of pleasure.  She picked up a rag and wiped her hands dry before crossing the street.

“I didn’t expect to see you again.”  Her face and voice were unreadable.

“I wanted to apologise and to thank you for looking after me.”  Scott knew that wasn’t entirely true.  He felt an attraction toward this girl.  She had given him comfort and, now that he was hurting in a different way, he had hoped that seeing her would ease the ache in his heart.

“You have already thanked me.” Mika turned to go and he took hold of her arm.  She stopped and waited for him to speak.

“I….I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have bothered you.”  Scott let his hand drop.  He couldn’t find the words he needed to say.  What right did he have anyway to involve this girl in his problems?  “I’d better go.”

“Scott?  What’s wrong?  Do your wounds pain you?”  Mika’s eyes were dark pools that drew him into their depths.

“A little,” Scott admitted.

“But that isn’t what troubles you.”

Scott shook his head and looked miserably down at the ground.  He felt her hand brush his fingers and captured it with his own.  He couldn’t believe how small and delicate her hands were and he remembered their skill at soothing him.  A flush appeared on his cheeks.  Had he looked at Mika in that moment he would have seen a similar color appear as she thought back to the feel of his skin under her touch.

“Come with me.  I have some ointment that will help the bruising to fade quicker and then you can tell me what burden you are carrying.”  She led Scott back the way he had come, neither one of them aware of Hank’s unfriendly stare following their every move.

*****

Sheriff Driver arrived back in Modesto and headed for Martin Armstrong’s office.  He had no intention of telling the man that Johnny was no longer in the jail but he wanted to make his views clear about the actions of his two unofficial deputies.

Francie smiled when she saw the sheriff and went to relay his request for a meeting to the Railroad Director.  Armstrong had been expecting the visit.  He had tried, on more than one occasion, to find a way to control the sheriff and had failed.  He didn’t like failure.  His efforts behind the scenes to prevent the man’s re-election had also failed.  Sheriff Driver was highly respected for doing a good job in difficult circumstances.  So far the sheriff had been prepared to accept the overwhelming evidence of Lancer’s guilt.  He had questioned the witnesses, who had stuck to their stories.  Having Lancer beaten had been a risk – the sheriff’s views on the treatment of prisoners were well known – but it was a calculated risk.  The fact that it hadn’t paid off was just another reason why Armstrong regretted not having the sheriff in his pocket.  Lancer was proving to be surprisingly stubborn.  Why couldn’t the boy see that this was a fight he was destined to lose?

Armstrong was starting to regret having involved the Lancer family in his business.  The problem with Billy Ralston had blown up so suddenly and his death without a viable suspect wasn’t an option.  Billy’s uncle was one of the senior Directors of the Railroad.  He was an entirely honourable man who had been horrified to hear of his  nephew’s death.  Had the perpetrator not already been identified he would have insisted upon an enquiry that could have uncovered everything that Armstrong was trying to protect.

When his sources had told him about the incident in the saloon he knew he had his scapegoat.  A guilty plea and a quick hanging had been his preference.  If Johnny Lancer wasn’t going to co-operate he might have to resort to his back-up plan.  With all his connections it wouldn’t be hard to incite a riot and, when that got out of hand, who would be surprised if it led to a lynching?

*****

Scott sat on the bed, uncomfortably aware of Mika’s proximity.  As if by an unspoken agreement everyone else had left the communal living space.  Mika was searching for something in an intricately carved wooden chest.  Scott studied it, at first to avoid looking at her, and then in appreciation of the craftsmanship.

Mika saw his interest.  “My father made it.  He could produce the most wonderful shapes out of a block of wood….birds…flowers.  When I was a child I thought the birds looked so real that I expected them to sing for me.  We didn’t own much but my father always made sure we were surrounded by beauty.”

Scott saw the hint of tears in her eyes.  “Your parents are dead?”

She went back to her task and nodded.  “They died two years ago.  Since then it has just been me and my older brother, Hannu.  He works hard and provides for us.  One day soon I’ll marry and then he won’t have to worry about me any more.”

Scott caught his breath, unsettled by her talk of marriage when he had no right to be.  “You have someone you care about?”

Mika hesitated.  What use was there in telling this man that she cared about him?  “The marriage will be arranged for me.  A suitable husband will be found when the time is right.”

The feeling of outrage caught Scott by surprise.  “You’ll be forced into a marriage with someone you don’t love?  What kind of brother would do that to his sister?”

“The kind who cares for her and wants her to be happy and well looked after.  It is the way things are.  I’ve accepted that since I was a child.  Hannu loves me and would never force me to do something I was opposed to.”

Scott shied away from a topic that was quickly becoming too personal for him.  “Have you always lived in America?”

“We came here when I was small.  For a while we lived in San Francisco.  After that we travelled round so that my father and then my brother could find work.  We have lived here for the last six months.”

“How old are you?”  The question arose unbidden and unwanted.  Once asked it was too late for Scott to take it back.

“Seventeen.”

He felt as if the breath had been knocked out of his body.  She was just a child and his mere presence was compromising her.  “I should leave.”  Although the sentiment was heartfelt he made no move to get up from his place on the bed.

Mika stood up from where she had been kneeling on the floor.  In her hands was a round, wide necked jar, the top of which was covered by a white cloth.  She laid it on the bed and untied the rope that had been holding the cloth in place.  The jar contained a white, creamy substance from which arose the scent Scott recognised from his last visit; jasmine he now realised.  She sat beside him on the bed and took gentle hold of his chin, forcing him to turn to face her.  She ran her fingers over the swelling on his cheek before scooping out a little of the cream.  As she reached toward his face again, the cream covering her fingertips, he drew his head back.

“This will only sting a little.”  

Scott realised she was laughing at him and held himself still as she began to rub the cream into the bruising on his cheek.  Her fingers traced the line of his cheekbone.  The touch was so light that it was as if she was brushing his skin with a feather.  Their faces were only inches apart; hers upturned so that she could concentrate upon what she was doing.  He realised he was staring and was overcome by an unexpected and uncharacteristic shyness.

Once she had finished tending to his face she reached across to unbutton his shirt.  “No,” Scott took hold of her hand.  “This isn’t right.”

She raised a finger to his lips, brushing against them softly.  “Shh.  There is no one to see.”  

His self control failed.  He needed this human contact so badly it hurt.  After removing his shirt Mika moved behind him and looked again at the thin, white marks that scarred his back.  She had wondered about those; unable to understand why such a well born man should carry the marks of a whip.  His muscles were tense as she started to work the cream into the vividly discolored areas of his skin.  As her fingers worked deeper and deeper into the muscles she felt him start to relax.  His breathing became more even and he leaned back into her touch as he slipped into a light doze.  She gave into her own impulses and rested a cheek on his back and closed her eyes.

Neither one of them could have said afterwards how long they stayed like that.  Scott was rudely awakened by a man’s voice speaking loudly in rapid-fire Chinese.  Mika withdrew from her place against his back and answered in the same language.  Scott blinked the sleep from his eyes and peered at the stocky young man standing by the bed.  His aggression was palpable and if, as Scott suspected, he was Mika’s brother, it was entirely justified.  Scott rose to his feet and grabbed his shirt, pulling it on as quickly as he could.

Hannu glared at the tall blond as he continued to berate his sister.  “I brought you this stray because he was hurt.  It was an act of charity.  He is no longer needs your help and it isn’t right that he should be here.  He must leave and not return.  Think of your reputation.”

Mika simply smiled.  Her brother’s bark was far worse than his bite in her experience.  “Hannu, calm yourself.” She reverted to English.  “This is Scott.  Scott, this is my brother, Hannu.  He is the one who found you and brought you here.”

Having finished buttoning up his shirt Scott was feeling a little better about this encounter.  He held out his hand.  “I’m very grateful to you.”

Hannu looked at the hand and then pointedly turned away.  Scott allowed his arm to drop to his side.  “Did you see the men who attacked me?”  The lack of an immediate denial gave him hope that this young man might have some information that could help him.  “Do you know them?  Would you recognise them if you saw them again?”  Hannu’s continued silence was frustrating and Scott clenched his fists.  “Do you want to know why they beat me?  My brother is in jail accused of a murder he didn’t commit.  Those men didn’t like me asking questions.  It was a warning.  You’ve got a sister so you’ll understand – I’ll do anything to save my brother.  The only way they’ll stop me is to kill me.”

Scott’s passion breached Hannu’s anger and suspicion and he relaxed his aggressive posture before turning back. “I saw them.  I’ve seen them before among the men who visit the gambling and opium houses.  Who is your brother supposed to have killed?”

“A man named Billy Ralston. He was shot a few days ago.”

Hannu nodded slightly.  “He was a bad man.  Come with me.”

“Where?”

“We will go to one of the cook tents for some food and I will tell you what I know of these men.”

As Hannu led the way toward the door Scott felt Mika’s hand slip into his.  He smiled down at her while wondering if he was finally going to pierce the veil of secrecy that had shrouded everything since his arrival.

*****

Sheriff Driver took a deep breath and stepped into Martin Armstrong’s office.  He detested the man and found dealing with him difficult.  “Mr. Armstrong, it’s good of you to see me.”

“Sheriff.  I trust you had an uneventful trip back from Green River.  Sit down.  Can I offer you a drink?”

“No, thank you.  I want to talk to you about those two men you sent along as deputies.  They’ve beaten the prisoner twice, once on the way here and once earlier today at the jail.  I won’t stand for that and I don’t want to see them around the jail again.  Next time they try anything like that I’ll arrest them.”

Armstrong leaned back in his chair.  “I’ve already spoken to them.  They explained that both times they were punishing the boy for acting up.  Granted they may have been a little enthusiastic but he is, after all, a murderer.”

“They nearly killed him.” Sheriff Driver snapped in reply. “He’s been accused of murder; he hasn’t been convicted and I’m starting to wonder if he might not be telling the truth when he denies being involved.  That brother of his took quite a beating as well.  It looks like someone doesn’t want any questions being asked.”  The sheriff looked steadily at Armstrong, hoping for a reaction.

“I thought there were witnesses to the shooting?  Really, sheriff, I’m surprised to find you being taken in by a smooth talking gunhawk.  I understand he has quite a reputation as a hired killer. I’ll admit he has a way with words but surely you’re not going to believe him over eye witness testimony.  And then there was the incident in the saloon; a clear motive.”

“There was another murder last night.”  Sheriff Driver saw it then….just a flicker of uncertainty in the man’s eyes.

“A murder?  I’d heard that the girl drowned herself.”

“She was stabbed through the heart.  Whoever killed her wanted it to look like suicide.”

“Then you may want to speak to Scott Lancer.  He was seen arguing with her in the saloon last night.”  Armstrong couldn’t suppress a smirk as he realised that this was news to the sheriff.  “It appears the Lancer family may not be as honourable and honest as they appear.  Scott was here yesterday morning, throwing out accusations and refusing to accept his brother’s guilt.  I wonder how far he would go to protect him.”

“I’ll see what he has to say but I’ve no reason to suspect him of committing any crime.”  Sheriff Driver stood up to leave.

“I had a telegram this morning,” Armstrong continued.  “Judge Mickleson will be here on Monday.  He intends to start the trial on Tuesday morning.”

The sheriff frowned.  “Why would he wire you?”

“I’ve known the Judge for many years.  When I heard that he was to be trying this case I invited him to stay with my wife and myself.  There’s no reason why he can’t be comfortable while he’s here.  It’s only a pity it will be such a short visit.”  Armstrong smiled nastily at the sheriff.  “I can’t see any jury having trouble reaching the correct verdict quickly.  You’d better start making arrangements for the execution.  Judge Mickleson likes his sentences to be carried out as soon as possible.”

Sheriff Driver could feel the anger flooding his face.  “If he is convicted there’ll be a decent interval before any hanging.  I’m not gonna be responsible for rushing a man onto the scaffold.  He’ll get time to bring an appeal.  Good day, Mr Armstrong.”

Martin Armstrong watched the sheriff leave with keen speculation in his eyes.  Clearly the Lancer boy was getting to the normally gruff and pragmatic sheriff and that was very bad news.  He decided that he needed to have a word with Hank, not least about his carelessness in disposing of that trollop from the saloon.

On his way back to the jail Sheriff Driver stopped at the saloon where Jess had worked and spoke to the bartender.  The man confirmed what Armstrong had said about Scott.  He sighed as he contemplated the possibility that the Lancer boys certainly knew how to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

*****

Pain dragged Johnny out of a deep sleep.  The room was dark and it took time for him to remember where he was.  He lay still and concentrated on regulating his breathing.  He was adept at controlling pain, having suffered more than his fair share over the years.  He reckoned it went with the territory.

After a while he felt well enough to get out of bed.  He lit a lamp and carried it with him into the small sitting room.  He didn’t bother to put on his shirt.  The cooler evening air felt good on his bare chest and he wandered out onto the porch.  There was a small table and two chairs set outside.  He put the lamp down and sat with his legs stretched out in front of him.  The small cabin was surrounded by trees and he could hear the small sounds of animals and night hunting birds.  These normal sounds told him that no one was near.  He took in the position of the moon and frowned.  He’d expected the sheriff to be back by now.  Cold fear twisted in his gut as he wondered if the sheriff had become another victim of the conspiracy they had all become tangled up in.

His father was due in town tomorrow.  He’d missed Murdoch more than he would ever have thought possible. His father was a pillar of strength and he needed that strength.  For so many years he’d had no one to rely on; had never imagined needing anyone.  The loneliness had become a way of life. To have a father and a brother…..a brother….someone who loved him and would do anything for him.  A brother that he’d turned his back on when he was hurt.  He’d been so angry with Scott; he’d blamed him for Jess’s death.  He shut his eyes against the memory.  He needed to apologise….he needed his brother’s presence and support as surely as he needed his father.  He turned his mind to the problem of keeping his location a secret while still communicating with his family and his lawyer.

*****

 

Despite his initial wariness, Hannu had proved to be as open and warm as his sister and the awkwardness Scott felt in his presence soon passed.  Having spent a surprisingly enjoyable and informative couple of hours with Mika and Hannu, Scott headed back to his hotel.  Mika walked part of the way with him, her hand once again in his.  The revelation that she was only seventeen had shaken Scott and the rational part of his mind was shouting a warning about becoming too involved with her.  Unfortunately for Scott he only had to look at her for rational thought to go flying out the window.

“When you came to find me today it was not just because of your physical pain.  There was a pain here as well.”  Mika laid her other hand over Scott’s heart, causing him to stop and look down at her solemnly.

“I did something that caused my brother more hurt.  It led to a girl he felt responsible for being killed.  I don’t know how to ask him to forgive me.”  They resumed their slow walk through Chinatown.  “I only wanted to help him.”

“Does he know that?”

“I think so, but it won’t make it any easier for him to accept.  He told me to stay away from her and….I promised I would and then I broke that promise.  I’ve never lied to him before.  Johnny has never trusted anyone easily.  We’ve only known each other a few months; we didn’t even know each other existed until our father sent for us both.  He was starting to trust me and I’ve ruined it.”

The revelation that Scott hadn’t grown up with his father and brother intruiged Mika although she sensed that now was not the right time to ask questions about his past. “You must speak to him.” Mika advised.

“Do you think I don’t know that?”  Scott stopped again, ashamed of snapping at her.  He had invited her sympathy and here he was throwing it back in her face.  “I’m sorry.  He’s the most important person in my life and I’m afraid I’m going to lose him.  There’s deep corruption in this town and I can’t see a way to prove his innocence.  Having him mad at me just makes it worse.”

“If he has offered you his trust then he will understand why you lied to him.  You should go and speak to him now; tell him what you have learned.  He is in a very lonely place.  The worst that could happen is that he sends you away.  Would that be any different from what has already happened?”

“No,” Scott admitted.

“But more likely he will be happy to see you and then you will both feel better.”

Scott hesitated, torn between taking Mika’s advice and taking the easy option of returning to the hotel.  In his heart he knew that he wouldn’t be able to settle for the night until he spoke to Johnny again.  He made up his mind and smiled down at the girl.  “You’re right.  I’ll go and see him.  Mika, it would be safer for you if we didn’t see each other again.”

Mika pulled her hand away from him, a hurt expression on her face.  “If it isn’t safe, why did you seek me out today?  Was it because you wanted information?”

“That’s not how it was,” Scott cursed his inability to deal fairly with her.  “I was being selfish; I wanted to see you again.  There are people in this town who are willing to see my brother hang for a murder he didn’t commit.  You saw what they did to me when I wouldn’t stop asking questions.  You shouldn’t be involved.  I would never forgive myself if anything happened to you because you helped me.”

Mika could see that he was sincere yet she was not willing to be appeased.  “It is ok for you to be selfish but not for me to say I would like to see you again.  We protect our own here in Chinatown.  Hannu and his friends will look out for me.  Please, Scott.”

He couldn’t resist her dark, pleading eyes.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”  He took a step toward her, put a hand under her chin and turned her face up to his.  His soft kiss on her lips had no more substance than a feather.  Her heart, had he but known it, was beating a wildly as his.  He caressed her cheek before turning and leaving her.

*****

During his walk to the jail Scott reviewed the information provided by Hannu.  It had only served to reinforce Scott’s belief that the person behind Johnny’s problems was Martin Armstrong.

Armstrong had been careful.  The two men who had taken great pleasure in beating him before dumping him on the outskirts of Chinatown had no obvious direct connection to the Railroad Director.  Those men were known to be on the payroll of a man Hannu knew only as Hank although rumour suggested that Hank worked behind the scenes for Armstrong.

Scott continued to have mixed feelings about returning to the jail ahead of Murdoch’s arrival.  Johnny had made it crystal clear that he had no interest in seeing him again that day.  Scott hoped that the news that he now had a tangible lead would help to mend their relationship.

The front door to the jail stood ajar and the office was in darkness.  Scott fumbled around until he managed to locate and light a lamp.  When he saw that the door to the cells was also unlocked and open a sense of deep unease gripped him.  He picked up the lamp and carried it through to the cells.

He was shocked to find the cells unlocked and unoccupied.  His hand began to shake so much that he had to return to the office and set the lamp down on the desk.  He couldn’t think of a single good reason why his brother and the sheriff should both be missing.  He wondered, fleetingly, if Johnny had been feeling so badly about Jess that he had tried to escape.  He dismissed the thought; Johnny had been adamant throughout that he was going to do this right so that he could return home.

The sheriff’s absence suggested that he had been a party to removing Johnny from the jail and Scott could only think of one reason for that; a reason that left him feeling sick with worry.  As his panic stricken brain tried to make sense of the situation he heard footsteps approaching along the boardwalk.  He blew out the lamp and drew his gun.

The door opened, letting in just enough light for Scott to see that it was Sheriff Driver who had entered the office.  A match was struck and the lamp was lit.  Scott moved to the centre of the room with his gun pointed steadily at the sheriff.  “Where’s my brother?” He demanded.  “If you’ve done anything to hurt him I swear I’ll shoot you where you stand.”

Sheriff Driver stared in shock at the furious young man and moved his hand away from his gun.  “Johnny’s safe.  Put the gun down and I’ll explain.”

The gun didn’t waver.  “You tell me where he is and then I’ll consider putting my gun down.”

“I can’t tell you where he is.  It wouldn’t be safe for him or you.  While I was away from the jail earlier today those two deputies Johnny told you about attacked him again.  They hurt him pretty badly so I decided to move him for his own protection.”

“You left him alone with those men after what he told you?” Scott was incredulous and far from accepting the sheriff’s word about what had happened.

Sheriff Driver unhooked his gunbelt as a sign of good faith and laid it on the desk.  He sank down into a chair in front of the desk, keeping his hands in plain sight.  “I’m not proud of that.  This is a tough town, Mr. Lancer.  Keeping the peace ain’t easy.  You know how strong the evidence is against your brother.  So far as the townsfolk are concerned he shot a man in the back.  Why would anyone believe a word he says?

“I’m a fair man.  I try to do a good job.  Whatever a man’s accused of I believe he has a right to a fair trial.  I’m responsible for the safety of anyone in my custody.  I’ve never brutalised a prisoner and I won’t let anyone else get away with it.  That’s why I’ve moved Johnny and that’s why I’m not telling anyone where he is.”

Scott scowled at the man.  “So you’ve left him locked up somewhere, hurt and alone?  I’m not a fool, sheriff, and I don’t trust you.  I want to know where he is.”

“He’s not locked up and, for the moment, you’re the only other person who knows he isn’t here.  Once it becomes common knowledge that he’s gone someone is gonna do whatever it takes to try and find him.  If they think you know where he is they’ll try and force the information out of you.  Do you want to risk that?  He’s comfortable where he is.  He’s been awake and had something to eat.  He was asleep when I left him which, believe me, is the best thing for him right now.

“When your father and his lawyer get here tomorrow we can figure out what to do next.  I know you’ve no reason to trust me but right now you don’t have a choice.”

A weariness crept over Scott.  The Sheriff seemed sincere and the last thing he wanted to do was put his brother in more danger.  He lowered his arm and holstered his gun.

“How badly was he hurt?”

“His ribs took quite a pounding.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are cracked.  Nothing broken that I could see although his bruises and yours sure make quite a set.”

“What happens now?”

Sheriff Driver gave an unobtrusive sigh of relief.  “Now we try as hard as possible to stop anyone from realising Johnny isn’t here.  What time’s your father due in tomorrow?”

“He’s coming in on the stage that’s due to arrive about eleven o’clock.”

“Then I suggest you get him booked into the hotel and meet me here at noon.”

*****

Johnny found a bottle of whiskey and was well on his way to anaesthetising his physical and mental pain.  He had taken the bottle and a glass outside and sat in the warm darkness.  There were so many thoughts competing for his attention and none of them were welcome.

He thought of Jess….warm, alive and vibrant.  This led to a picture in his mind’s eye of her floating in the icy water, stabbed to death because she had shared his bed and perhaps had also shared a secret too dangerous to reveal.  What had she known that was so damaging as to warrant her death?

He swirled the liquid around in his glass and took another mouthful.  It occurred to him that if he drank enough he wouldn’t have to think at all so he poured himself another generous measure.  He brooded on the problem for some time, finally realising that the alcohol wasn’t going to be a friend to him that night.  He had to confront how he was feeling about Scott.

His anger with Scott was waning although his disappointment remained acute.  He had trusted his brother more than anyone else; more even than his father although that trust was growing daily.  Scott had lied to him.  He’d made a promise and had broken it.  Johnny was used to that from other people….hell, he almost expected it….but he’d never expected it from his brother.  He knew why Scott had lied and acknowledged  that he might have done the same had their roles been reversed.  So why was he finding it unbelievably hard to forgive him?  Perhaps it was because everything else in his life was spiralling out of control and the one constant, his anchor, had been his trust in his brother.

During the course of his solitary drinking session the lamp had burned down and he was just considering going inside when he heard a horse approaching.  His right hand dropped to his hip before he remembered that he no longer had his gun.  He gathered up the bottle, glass and lamp and moved inside.  After rummaging through a drawer in the small kitchen he found, and took possession of, a small knife.

Feeling a familiar pulse of excitement despite the woeful inadequacy of his weapon,  he took up a position to the right of the small front window and waited.

*****

Hank stood in Martin Armstrong’s office.  All the other staff had left for the day and they were the only two people in the building.

“You’re getting careless,” Armstrong admonished.  “The Sheriff knows that girl was murdered.  I think he’s starting to believe that the Lancer boy is innocent.  What’s Scott Lancer been up to?”

“He’s been talking to that newspaperman, Spencer, who’s started poking around now.  It’s not easy to lean on him; he’s got too many connections.  Lancer went to the jail this morning and he wasn’t looking happy when he left.  Funny thing was he went to Chinatown after that and spent some time with a girl.”

“What’s so strange about that?  There are plenty of whorehouses in that part of town.” Armstrong had no interest in Scott’s recreational activities.

Hank shook his head.  “It wasn’t like that.  I did some asking around.  Seems she might’ve been the one who looked after him that first night he was in town.  Later on he was out with her and her brother and he seemed to be getting real friendly with her.  Just before Joe took over watching him he was back at the jail and the Sheriff had just turned up.”

“Could he have found anything out in Chinatown?”

Hank shrugged.  “That’s where he got dumped after the boys had finished with him.  It’s possible someone saw who left him there.”

“I don’t like this.  Put some pressure on this girl.  Warn her off the Lancers.”

*****

Johnny was almost disappointed when he recognised the sheriff who was leading an extra horse with him  The need to do something…anything…was burning away at him. He laid the knife down and stepped out onto the porch.  “I was getting worried.  I thought something might’ve happened in town.”

Sheriff Driver tied the reins to the hitching rail.  “I had some explaining to do to your brother.  He found out you were missing and he wasn’t exactly pleased when I wouldn’t tell him where you were.”

A small smile appeared on Johnny’s lips.  “What’d he do?”

The sheriff entered the cabin with Johnny at his back.  “He threatened to shoot me.” This piece of information was delivered in a very matter of fact manner belying the fear the sheriff had felt when faced with Scott’s gun.  He spotted the bottle of whiskey.  “I see you’ve been making yourself at home.  Mind if I join you?”

Johnny collected another glass and poured them both a shot.  They settled in a couple of armchairs.  “As you’re still walking around I assume you talked him out of it.”

“For the moment.”  Sheriff Driver knocked back the whiskey in one swallow and poured himself another.  “What’s the story with you two?  Never heard of Johnny Madrid having a brother.”

Johnny hesitated.  The complicated Lancer family history was well known around Morro Coyo and Green River.  No one at Lancer made any particular secret about it but no one went out of their way to discuss it either.  Johnny decided that the sheriff had shown enough good faith to hear some of the story.

“Scott’s mother died when he was born and he was brought up in Boston by his grandfather.  I grew up in Mexico with my mother.  After she died I drifted around the border towns leaning my trade as a gunhawk.  I didn’t know about Scott and he didn’t know about me until our father sent for both of us about eight months ago.  Lancer was under threat from high riders and he needed help.  We both stayed on as partners in the ranch once the problem had been dealt with.

“Scott looks out for me, you know?  It was strange at first; now it just seems kinda natural.  It’s like he’s always been there, watching my back.  Only some times he takes risks and gets hurt.”

“And sometimes other people get hurt….like Jess,” Sheriff Driver interjected.

“Yeah.  I seem to have a knack for getting people hurt.  I should’ve protected her.”  A faraway look settled over Johnny’s features leaving the sheriff to wonder just who he was referring to.

It took a while for Johnny to refocus his attention on the sheriff.  “You’re gonna have to take me back to town.  I’m real grateful you brought me out here.  I know you just want to protect me and you gave me a chance to recover.  If anyone finds out what you’ve done you could be replaced as sheriff and then I won’t have anyone to look out for me.

“We’re taking more of a chance staying here than going back.  Murdoch and my lawyer’ll be here tomorrow.  I need to be able to speak to them and…I need to speak to Scott.  I’ve gotta make things right with him.”

Sheriff Driver refilled their glasses and they drank for a while in silence.  The liquor was finally helping to dull the aching in Johnny’s chest and he leaned his head against the back of the chair with a soft sigh.

“At least you can spend one night in a comfortable bed.  We’ll head back in the morning.  The Judge is due on Monday and the trial’ll start on Tuesday.”

As it was Friday night, the news that he only had a few days until the start of his trial shocked Johnny.  With the evidence against him a conviction was pretty much guaranteed.  Whoever was pulling the strings was making sure they didn’t have much time to gather evidence to prove his innocence.

“I sure hope Scott’s come up with something,” he murmured.

“I’ll speak to the witnesses again tomorrow.  If they’ve been bought….well, I’ll see if  I can get one of them to tell me the truth.”

Johnny grimaced.  “I appreciate the vote of confidence, Sheriff, but I’d say I’ve been set up good.”

“Then why not run?” Sheriff Driver asked.  “I’ll give you the chance if you want it.”

“Why?  When you came to Green River you were convinced I was guilty.  What’s changed your mind?”  Johnny asked curiously.

“You have.  You don’t strike me as the sorta man who’d shoot someone in the back.  Someone wants you to plead guilty and they’ve made quite a mess of your brother trying to get him to back off.  That suggests they’ve got something to hide.  There’s a horse out there and I’ll give you my rifle.  If you leave now you’ll get at least a twelve hour head start.”

Johnny stood up and walked to the front door.  He pulled it open and stepped out onto the porch.  He stared out into the darkness while a small voice inside his head urged him to take up the sheriff’s offer and ride away.  His family would understand although Murdoch would be disappointed in him.  He decided he didn’t want to disappoint his father and lose is family so he silenced the insistent voice and walked back inside.

Sheriff Driver nodded as he saw the decision on the young man’s face.  He drained his glass.  “Let’s get some sleep.  We’ll head back at daybreak.”

*****

Scott arrived back at the hotel grateful that his father would be arriving the next day.  He needed to be able to talk through his suspicions with someone he could trust.  Before leaving the jail the sheriff had told him about the Judge’s imminent arrival.  Murdoch had connections that would make it easier to find out about this Judge who already appeared to be in the pocket of the Central Pacific Railroad or, more likely, in the personal pocket of Martin Armstrong.

They needed to know more about Armstrong himself.  All the hints and pieces of information were starting to suggest that Armstrong was running Modesto but in such a way that it was virtually impossible to prove.

As a Director of the Railroad Company he would be personally wealthy.  Maybe that wasn’t enough for him.  Scott had met men in Boston who enjoyed not just the wealth but also the feeling of power they got from manipulating events.  Some were obvious and some so subtle that it could be hard to spot their involvement.

Hannu had told him that the men who ran the games of chance and the opium dens in Chinatown paid for the privilege of being allowed to continue in business.  No one seemed to know to whom the money was being paid.  What they did know was what would happen if they didn’t pay.  Businesses were torched, people and their families were threatened, with those threats being carried out should payment still be withheld.

Someone was making a lot of money and, with Modesto being the County seat, more businesses and money were pouring in every day.  Scott decided to ask J. D. Spencer to make some enquiries among the legitimate businesses to see if they were also making payments.  Scott’s feeling though was that they would have been left alone.  The saloons and whorehouses would be a different matter.  Getting the proprietors to admit as much would be difficult and, as an unwelcome stranger in town, they sure weren’t going to talk to him.

Billy Ralston had been known and hated in Chinatown.  Although he’d had a legitimate job with the Railroad he had also been on someone else’s payroll.  He may only have been in town for a few months but he had become prominent in ensuring regular payments were made.  He had often taken sadistic pleasure in extracting money from reluctant donors.

Scott reflected that whoever had killed him had probably done the people of Modesto a favour.  He let himself into his room and laid his hat and gloves on the bed.  He glanced in the mirror.  His bruising was starting to fade and the swelling around his eye wasn’t as bad as it had been.  He wasn’t looking forward to explaining his appearance to his father in the morning.  Neither was he looking forward to telling him about his fight with Johnny.  On top of all that he had to tell Murdoch that Johnny had been assaulted twice while in custody and that he had no idea where his brother now was.  His worry for his brother hung over him as he undressed and got into bed and it followed him into sleep.

***** 

Johnny straightened up the bed covers, picked up the dirty dishes and carried them out to the kitchen.  He dumped them in a bowl of hot, soapy water to soak.  He was feeling slightly better than he had the night before despite the tightness around the eyes caused by too much alcohol. Sheriff Driver was out seeing to the horses and it would soon be time for them to head back to town.  The sky was a pale washed out blue, cloudless and with the promise of it being another glorious day.  Johnny suppressed a shudder at the thought of returning to his small, dark cell. 

The door to the kitchen opened and Johnny heard the unmistakable clink of chains.  His head shot up and his eyes fell on the set of shackles in the sheriff’s hands.  Sheriff Driver looked apologetic.

“I’m sorry, Johnny, but we need to keep up appearances.  We can’t have you just riding into town.  Like it or not you’re my prisoner and the townsfolk don’t expect to see an accused murderer wandering around free.”

The ride into town was full of uncomfortable silences.  As it was still early on a Saturday morning Main Street was quiet.  The few people around looked at the two men curiously.  There were some whispered comments when Johnny was recognised and it didn’t take long for news to reach the ears of Martin Armstrong.  He hurriedly wrote out a telegram and dispatched a member of his household staff to send it.

Scott had risen early and had eaten breakfast at the hotel.  He was on his way to the newspaper office when he glanced up the street and recognised the unmistakable figure of his brother.  The fact that his brother was well enough to ride was an enormous relief.  He stepped off the boardwalk and headed toward the jail.  He arrived as the sheriff was unlocking the handcuffs.  The brothers regarded each other in silence for a moment, neither one sure how to begin.

Scott cleared his throat self-consciously.  “How are you feeling?”

“Better than you look.  Just added to my collection of bruises.”  Johnny tilted his head slightly to one side.  “At least they haven’t spoilt my good looks.”

This provoked a slight smile.  “Well, brother, we wouldn’t want anyone damaging that ‘pretty’ face of yours, would we?”

“Nope.  There’re a lot of ladies out there who’d be mighty unhappy if that happened.”

They lapsed into silence, uncomfortably aware that they had an audience.  “I’ve got some business to take care of.”  Sheriff Driver crammed his hat back on his head.  “I’m gonna lock the front door while I’m gone.  You can make yourselves some coffee and have a talk.”

Scott watched the sheriff leave, a thoughtful expression on his face.  “He’s not as bad as I first thought.  Maybe he’s one of the few honest men this town has to offer.”

“He gave me the chance to take off last night,” Johnny spoke with his back to Scott as he set about making a pot of coffee.  He wasn’t ready for the reaction.  Scott grabbed his shoulders and spun him round, causing him to hiss with pain.

“Why didn’t you?  With the evidence against you the jury won’t have a choice but to convict.”  Realising what he had said Scott shut his mouth and dropped his hands.

“Thanks for the support.”  Johnny walked to the far end of the office, his back again to his brother and his head down.

“I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have said that.”

“There’s a lot of things you shouldn’t have said and done.”  Johnny regretted the comment the minute the words left his mouth and he turned back to his brother, his hands raised in supplication.  “I didn’t mean that.  This whole thing’s got me right on the edge.  I need your help, brother, more than ever.  Just don’t give up on me, ok?”

“I won’t, and I’m proud of you for staying to fight.  Come and sit down.  I’ve got some information that might help us unravel this mess.”

Scott poured out two cups of coffee and joined his brother at the desk.  “I’m almost certain I know who’s behind this.  The problem will be proving it.”

“Who is it?”

“Martin Armstrong.”

*****

The stage pulled up in front of the depot and Murdoch Lancer stepped out.  He was hot and tired and his back hurt.  None of that mattered to him as he scanned the street and boardwalk for his eldest son.  Since leaving Johnny in Val’s custody in Green River, Murdoch had been prey to a steadily growing apprehension.  He wanted to find Scott and then get over to the jail to check on Johnny.

Theodore Young disembarked after the rancher.  He was fifty years old, medium height with a shock of grey hair.  His record in capital cases was virtually unmatched.  He had known Murdoch for many years and had been delighted to hear that his two sons had returned home.  He hadn’t met either young man and had taken the opportunity during the journey to find out as much as he could from his friend.

He had heard rumours about Johnny’s previous life as a gunfighter.  In his experience rumour and innuendo were dangerous things and he had questioned his friend closely about the truth behind the ‘legend’ of Johnny Madrid.  He had found Murdoch to be uncharacteristically reticent and only realised, as the interminable journey wore on, that this was because Murdoch himself knew very little about his son’s previous life.  He knew what was in the Pinkerton reports and had, inevitably, formed his own impressions about his youngest son, but he appeared not to have broached the subject directly with Johnny.  Having reached this surprising conclusion Theodore had concentrated instead on discussing what little they knew about the evidence against his client.  It appeared, on the face of it, that Johnny did not have much of an alibi and Theodore was anxious to meet the young man for himself to assess his credibility as a witness.

“Scott,” Murdoch shouted as he saw his eldest son approaching from the direction of the jail.  He noticed that Scott didn’t appear to be walking in his usual confident manner.  He had his hat pushed back on his head, giving Murdoch a clear view of his face.  With a shocked gasp Murdoch covered the distance between them and gripped his son by the shoulders.  “What happened to you?” The enquiry came out as a controlled roar and attracted a lot of interested and unwelcome attention from the passers-by.

Scott reached up and tentatively touched his sore cheek.  “I got careless.  Let’s go to the hotel and I’ll explain.”

“Is Johnny all right?”  Murdoch felt badly for asking, given that his other son had clearly been badly hurt, but he had to know.

“Some men got to him too but they didn’t do any serious damage.  Let me get your bag.”

“You’ll do no such thing.  I can manage.”  The bags had been unloaded from the top of the stage and Theodore had already claimed his.  Murdoch steered Scott over to meet the lawyer.  “Theodore, this is my son, Scott.  Scott, this is Theodore Young, the best criminal defence attorney I’ve ever come across.”

“Mr. Young, I’m glad to meet you.  My brother needs all the help he can get.”  Scott shook hands with the lawyer, noting his firm grip and appraising stare.

“It’s good to meet you, Scott.  I take it those injuries weren’t an accident.”

Scott snorted rudely.  “Far from it.  The hotel’s only a few blocks from here.  It’s got a decent restaurant so we can talk while you get something to eat.  I’ve arranged with the Sheriff for us to meet with Johnny at midday.”

*****

Scott contented himself with some coffee as he explained clearly and succinctly all that had happened over the last few days.  He could see the color rising in his father’s face and wondered, despairingly, if he would have to find some way to prevent Murdoch from seeking out Martin Armstrong and beating the truth out of him.

“You say the Judge is due in town on Monday?  That doesn’t give us much time.”  Theodore was also conscious of the rage simmering in the large rancher.  “I’ve heard of Judge Mickleson although I’ve never appeared in front of him.  He has a reputation for being a hard man and there have been rumours that he isn’t above taking bribes.  To my knowledge more men have been convicted in his Court and sentenced to death than in most of the other Courts combined.  I’ll send some telegrams later to friends in San Francisco to see if I can find out anything more.”

“He’s staying with Armstrong,” Scott informed the other two men.  “It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s been bought. Do you think there’s any way to check his bank records?”

“I doubt it.  We don’t even know where he has his accounts.  How is your brother holding up?”

“Not well.  He seems almost fatalistic about the outcome of the trial.  He and I…. we’re not getting on that well since I went to speak to that girl after promising to stay away from her.”

Murdoch slammed down his cup.  “I don’t understand why he didn’t mention her and that fight.”

“He didn’t know it was Billy Ralston,”  Scott replied, defensively.

“That’s not the point.  He should have told us.”  Murdoch pulled out his watch and flipped the lid open.  “It’s time we were getting over to the jail.”

Scott stood up and removed his hat from the back of his chair.  Hearing his name being called he looked up and saw the newspaperman waving at him from the doorway.  He made the necessary introductions.  “We’re on our way to see Johnny.  Have you got anything new?”

J. D. shook his head in frustration.  “Nothing much.  The whole town seems to have clammed up.  The undertaker has confirmed that Jess was knifed before being thrown in that pond so we are looking at another murder.  Beyond that….nothing.”

“I’ve got some information for you, if you’ve got time to meet later.  Will you be at your office if I call round about three?”  Scott asked.

“I’ll make sure I’m there.  Don’t forget our agreement.” Spencer took his leave of them at the front door of the hotel.

“What agreement?” Murdoch asked as they walked along the boardwalk.

Scott looked embarrassed.  “He wants to interview Johnny.  I said I would see what I could do but there hasn’t been a right time to tell him.  In return he’s been asking around for me; people in this town are more likely to talk to him than to any of us.”

 

They arrived at the jail and Scott performed yet another round of introductions.  Murdoch and the sheriff eyed each other warily.  Murdoch’s anger with the man for allowing Johnny to be beaten twice while in custody had been mitigated slightly by the news that the sheriff had taken him somewhere to recover his strength. Sheriff Driver, for his part, wasn’t exactly feeling comfortable at coming face to face with Johnny’s potentially, and understandably, irate father. There was no immediate sign of Johnny, leading Scott to conclude that his brother had been locked up again.  It still bothered him that Johnny was having to stay in such unpleasant conditions.  Sheriff Driver picked up the bunch of keys.

“I’ll go and get him and then I’ll wait outside until you’re finished.”

Johnny followed the Sheriff into the outer office and his face lit up with a smile when he saw his father.  Despite his worry, Murdoch couldn’t contain the smile that appeared on his own face.

“Hey, Old man.  How’re you doing?”  There was deep affection in Johnny’s tone that didn’t go unnoticed by anyone in the room.

The question sobered Murdoch.  “Scott told me what happened, to both of you.  I should have got here sooner.  I didn’t expect…there was no reason to think that either of you was in any immediate danger.”

“There’s nothing you could’ve done, for me at least.”  Johnny reassured his father.  “You might have been able to get Scott to exercise that brain of his, though.”

Scott opened his mouth to protest before realising that his brother was teasing him.  “We’ve got a lot to get through so I suggest we get to it.”  He pointed his brother in the direction of a chair.

For the next hour Theodore Young took Johnny through his previous stay in Modesto, keeping carefully clear of the time spent with Jess.  He questioned him closely about his meeting with Martin Armstrong and pushed him to remember everything he could about the morning he left town.

“I left the hotel early, around 5:30.  There weren’t too many people around at that time.  I wasn’t paying any attention anyway…I just wanted to get home.  I was well clear of Modesto by 6:30 and I never went anywhere near the train yards that morning.”

“Three people say they saw you gunning down Billy Ralston and then riding away on a palomino.  They were very specific about that.  What breed of horse do you ride?”

“Barranca’s a palomino; he’s real hard to miss.  Anyone could’ve seen me riding him into town and he was at the livery stable the whole time.  It would have been easy enough to find out what kind of horse I had.”

“Tell me about Jess.” Theodore Young watched for a reaction.  What he got was a glare from blue eyes that had hardened in a face wiped clear of all expression.

“She’s dead.  There’s nothing more to say.”

Murdoch leaned over the desk, concerned by the rigidity now apparent in his son’s body.  “Whatever you say can’t hurt her so there’s no reason to hold back.”

Johnny leaped to his feet and began pacing.  “This has nothing to do with her and I ain’t gonna tell you, or some stupid jury, about her.”

“She had bruises,” Theodore persisted.  “Bruises that might have been inflicted by the murder victim.  You had a fight with him in the saloon and you threatened him with further violence if he touched her again.  There were witnesses; it gives the prosecution their motive.  If you won’t explain yourself I’m afraid there isn’t much hope of an acquittal.”

Johnny hung his head and fiddled with the conchos on the side of his pants.  “I don’t like violence toward women,” he finally mumbled.

“Jess was a saloon girl…a working girl…”  Theodore stopped talking abruptly.  Johnny looked as if he was about to explode with anger and his expression was murderous.

“So that makes it right, does it?  The fact that she sold her body gave men the right to beat on her?  Would you go along with that Murdoch?”  He spun to confront his father, angry beyond reason and no longer caring who he hurt.

“Of course not,” Murdoch protested.  “Johnny…son…I know it’s hard for you, given the life you led as a child, but these things happen and you can’t protect every woman you come into contact with.”

“These things happen alright,” Johnny burst out.  “They happened to my mama, over and over again.  And they happened to me.  Do you really think I could sit back and do nothing?”

There was complete silence until Scott stood up, scraping back his chair, and went to put an arm around his brother.  Johnny was looking at the floor and breathing heavily.  Scott’s direct gaze begged his father to deal with this properly.

“I know you couldn’t.  Theodore, there are some things you need to be aware of.”

“Murdoch…don’t…please.” Johnny begged his father.  “No one else needs to know.”

“If it has a bearing on your defence then I think I need to hear it.”  Theodore Young wasn’t a man who allowed his clients to tell him half truths or to evade an important issue.

“It’s more likely to get me convicted,” Johnny answered sullenly, not liking the feeling of being backed into a corner.  “You want him to know, Murdoch, you tell him.”

One look at Murdoch’s stricken face convinced Johnny that he’d been unfair.  He straightened his shoulders and Scott took that as his cue to return to his own seat.  “My mama took me away from Lancer when I was real small.  Seems she ran off with someone although I didn’t find that out until recently.  She always told me that my father had thrown us both out; that he didn’t want a half-breed for a son.”  Johnny’s eyes darkened with remembered pain.  “We never had much money so she’d…she’d…well you get the idea.  A lot of the men would slap her around ‘cause she had one helluva temper and never knew when to shut up.  I guess you were right, Murdoch, I do take after her.”  He flashed a tentative smile at his father by way of an apology.

“You need to tell him the rest.”  Murdoch was finding this as painful as his son was but he knew that to keep Theodore in the dark might cause problems later.

“I know.” The admission came out sharper than Johnny had intended.  “Well, the thing is…one of those men killed her.  Beat her to death in front of me so I shot him.”

*****

Theodore Young was beginning to wonder if it had been wise for him to take on this case.  As a lawyer it didn’t matter to him whether his client was innocent or guilty.  If a client insisted upon pleading not guilty he would do his best to secure an acquittal; that was his job.  His initial reaction was that Johnny was telling the truth and that he hadn’t shot Billy Ralston.  However, his evasive attitude when questioned about Jess and this new information about his mother’s death was going to make him a very difficult and dangerous witness.

“Did you kill him…the man who murdered your mother?”

“Yes.”  Johnny’s eyes slid uncomfortably away from his lawyer.

“It was self defence,” Scott interjected.  “Johnny was only a child and that man was going to kill him.”

“I think you’d better tell me everything,” Theodore instructed kindly.

He was fixed with a piercing blue stare as Johnny retreated behind the barriers he had built up over many years.  “There were three of them.  They were drunk.  Raphael and my mother had a fight and he hit her.  He kept on hitting her until he killed her.  One of his friends had hold of me to stop me interfering and….after it was over they tied me up and went on drinking.”

“Did he threaten you?”

“Yeah, he threatened me.  Told me he’d take care of me later.  I managed to get free and got my hands on his gun.  The other two ran and I shot him.”  Johnny had his head up now, proudly admitting to the killing of the scum who had murdered his mother.

“Could you have got away…without shooting him?”

There was no apology in Johnny’s voice as he answered.  “I reckon I could’ve got away but then who would have avenged my mama?”  He heard identical shocked gasps coming from his father and brother.

“I admire your honesty although from now on a little discretion might be called for.  Could anyone else know about this?”

“I don’t know.  I doubt if anyone ever made the connection between a scrawny kid and Johnny Madrid and my mama and I never used the Lancer name.”  Johnny looked in turn at his father and brother.  “I’m sorry.  I know I let you think I had no choice.”

“You didn’t have a choice, son, not really.  You were ten years old, alone and frightened.  If you’d tried to run he might still have caught you and, if he had, I believe he would have killed you.”

Theodore stood up.  “I need to get back to the hotel to start working on the evidence.  We don’t have much time before the trial starts.  I’ll do everything possible to make sure this doesn’t come out.  Scott, can you direct me to the telegraph office first so that I can send those wires?”

“It’s on the way to the newspaper office.  I’ll walk with you.  See if your friends can find out anything about Billy Ralston.  J. D. thought he might have been sent away from San Francisco following some sort of scandal.  Are you coming Murdoch?”

“I think I’ll stay here a while.  I’ll meet you back at the hotel.”  Murdoch smiled at the look of gratitude on Johnny’s face.

Scott picked up his hat and gloves.  “I’ll be back later, brother….if that’s ok?” He still wasn’t entirely sure how his brother was feeling about him and braced himself for rejection.

“Sure, Scott.  I’d like that. It gets kinda lonely here.”  He gave Scott a ghost of his normal smile in token of his sincere wish to start to put the issue of Jess behind him.

Father and son spent the next half hour companionably, discussing anything and everything that wasn’t related to Modesto or Billy Ralston or the threat hanging over the family.  At the end of that time they were joined by Sheriff Driver who had thoughtfully remained outside up to that point.

“I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask you to leave Mr. Lancer.  I need to get Johnny locked up again so that I can go on my rounds.  I want to see if anyone knows where the Railroad’s stashed those three witnesses to the shooting.”

Johnny gave a deep sigh and stood up just as the front door clanged open to admit Martin Armstrong.  His self-satisfied gaze swept over the three men in the room.

“Mr. Armstrong.  What’re you doing here?”  Sheriff Driver saw the change of expression on Murdoch Lancer’s face and moved to interpose himself between the two men.

“Word has reached me that you removed the prisoner from the jail.”

“You know perfectly well why that was necessary.  And, as you can see, I brought him back.”  The sheriff’s tolerance for Armstrong was wearing thin.

“He may be back but he isn’t locked up.  I take it you’re Murdoch Lancer.” Armstrong smiled as Murdoch growled an acknowledgment.  “You’re a powerful man, Mr. Lancer and I’ve already expressed my concern to the Judge that you might be applying undue pressure to the sheriff in order to protect your boy.”

Murdoch took a threatening step forward only to stop as he felt Johnny’s hand on his arm.  “Don’t let him get to you, Murdoch.  He ain’t worth the aggravation.”

“Sound advice, young man.” Armstrong sneered.  “I have here a warrant from the Judge transferring John Lancer into my custody for the duration of the trial.”  He recoiled as Murdoch snatched the paper from his hands.

Murdoch held the telegram so that Johnny could read it at the same time before giving it to the sheriff.  “Is this legal?”

Sheriff Driver read it twice before dropping it on his desk.  “It appears to be.” He turned on Armstrong.  “How dare you go behind my back to the Judge?”

Armstrong wasn’t a man who was easily intimidated.  “I was simply doing my duty as a civic minded citizen.  I have a position in this town and a responsibility to uphold the law.”

Sheriff Driver’s response was rude and to the point and Armstrong colored angrily.  “Whether you like it or not is no concern of mine.  You forfeited your position when you allowed that hardened killer to corrupt you.”

“And who corrupted you?” Sheriff Driver retorted.

“Murdoch?  You ain’t gonna let them take me are you?”  Johnny was pale and shaken.

“I don’t have any choice.  Let’s get one thing straight, Mr. Armstrong.  If anything happens to my son I won’t rest until I personally arrange for you to spend the rest of your life behind bars.”

Ignoring the threat, Armstrong walked over to the door and opened it to admit two of his men.  One advanced on Johnny holding a length of rope.  “Turn round, hands behind your back.”

Murdoch saw a look on Johnny’s face that told him a confrontation was looming that his son couldn’t win.  “You need to do as you’re told, John.” His tone brooked no argument from his son.

Johnny lowered his head and nodded.  All the fight had gone out of him as he did as instructed.  Once he had been tied he was pushed toward the door.  Murdoch and the sheriff watched in helpless silence as he was led away.

*****

After leaving Theodore at the telegraph office Scott continued on his way to see J. D. Spencer.  He was disturbed to see a large crowd of people gathered round the publisher’s doorway.  He pushed his way through with less than his usual good manners and stepped into the office.

J. D. was sitting on the only unbroken chair, polishing his glasses over and over as if unsure what else to do.  Scott surveyed the devastation.  The presses had been smashed, ink splattered the walls and paper was strewn everywhere.  The acrid smell of smoke assailed his nostrils.

“What happened?”  The question was asked automatically.  It was clear what had happened and the real question was why?

Hearing Scott’s voice, J. D. hooked his glasses behind his ears and looked up.  “I found it like this.  Someone had started a fire in the back room but I was able to put it out before too much damage was done.  My presses….they’ve destroyed my presses.”

Scott knelt down by the side of the chair.  “Lancer’ll pay to replace them.  Have you any idea who did this?”

“I can guess but there’s no proof….there’s never any proof.”

“Come back to the hotel and we’ll talk about it.”

“No, Scott, I’m staying here.  No one is going to drive me out. I’m going to start clearing things up.”

“I’ll stay and help,” Scott offered.

“I appreciate it but I’d like to be on my own for a while.”

The mindless violence was sending Scott’s senses reeling.  Everyone who tried to help them was being targeted.  If Armstrong had such a strong strangle hold on the town what chance was there of finding a jury with the guts to find Johnny not guilty.  They still had no evidence they could use.  Hannu and his friends couldn’t testify, they were barred by law from giving evidence in Court.  There was nothing to tie Armstrong to Billy Ralston’s unofficial job as an enforcer.  Trying to blacken the victim’s name would only look like desperation in the absence of any other evidence.

As he angrily pondered the problem his feet led him back to Chinatown.  With a jolt he realised that he would have to sever his growing relationship with Mika for her own good.  He should have stood by that decision yesterday.

He found Mika and Hannu sitting outside the building they lived in and enjoying the afternoon sunshine.  Mika smiled warmly when she saw Scott and stood on tiptoe to kiss him on his uninjured cheek.

“You look better today.”  She took his hand and pulled him over to sit next to her brother.  “Did your father and the lawyer get here?  Did you speak to your brother?  Has he forgiven you?”

Her enthusiastic questioning made Scott laugh, despite the fear deep in his gut.  “Yes… to all your questions.  Let’s go for a walk, if Hannu doesn’t mind.”

Hannu smiled.  “Why ask me.  Once my sister makes up her mind about something she doesn’t listen to a word I say.” He turned serious.  “Scott, get her back before dark.”

Scott allowed Mika to talk, pointing out people and places, without interruption.  He had an arm around her shoulders and he held her close to his side.  Fear for her safety overrode every other concern.  Eventually he knew he couldn’t delay any longer.  He stopped, turned her toward him and put a hand lightly on each of her shoulders.

“The problems in town are getting worse.  Someone tried to burn down the newspaper office…they smashed the presses and….”

Mika reached up to lay a finger across his lips.  “Please don’t say it.”

Scott took hold of her hand.  “I have to.  We can’t see each other again and I don’t want you wandering around on your own.  Once this is over…”

“Don’t make promises to me, Scott.  Once this is over you will go home and forget all about me.”  Tears ran down her cheeks.

“I won’t ever forget you.  You gave me happiness and comfort when I needed it the most.” He bent down and kissed her and her arms crept around his neck, holding him tightly.

It was a long time before they drew apart.  Scott walked with her back to her home.  She pushed past her brother and disappeared inside.  Hannu looked quizzically at Scott.

“It’s best if I don’t come here again.  Keep her safe.”

When Scott arrived back at the hotel he found his father pacing restlessly around the foyer.  “Where have you been?” Murdoch enquired, irritably.

“Seeing a friend.  What’s wrong?”

“Armstrong got a warrant from the Judge.  They’ve taken Johnny.”

*****

Johnny lay back on the cot with his hands behind his head and stared up at the barred window set high in the wall.  His present accommodation was definitely preferable to the small, dark cell he had occupied over at the jail.  The only downside was the presence of two of Armstrong’s hired guards who were playing cards at a table set up some ten feet away from his cell.

When he had been removed from Sheriff Driver’s custody he had immediately assumed the worst.  It had been a surprise, therefore, to be led over to the County Courthouse which looked to be a brand new three storey building.  The courtroom itself occupied a large part of the ground floor and Johnny had climbed the stairs, as ordered, to the top floor.  Three decent sized cells and a guard room took up about half the floor.  Johnny noted various doors leading off the corridor and assumed they were offices for use when the Court was in session.

Armstrong had waited around to see Johnny locked up and had then left without engaging in any further conversation.  Having been left undisturbed for some time Johnny had occupied himself with wondering if this move was a good or a bad thing.  In the end he decided that he was probably safer where he was than at the jail.  Having taken over responsibility for him, Armstrong could hardly have him killed although further mistreatment from Armstrong’s heavy handed employees wasn’t entirely out of the question.  Johnny stood by his initial view that whoever was behind this….Armstrong being the most likely candidate….wanted a conviction and that his unexplained death would be problematic.

He closed his eyes and began to doze.  His chest and ribs still pained him.  The ride back to town followed by his forcible removal from the jail and the strain of the meeting with his lawyer had taken a lot out of him.  He quickly slipped into a deep sleep.

The sound of footsteps and voices roused him and he rolled onto his side so that he could see the door leading from the corridor.  The sight of his father and brother brought a smile to his face.  The smile increased as he smelt the aroma of food and noticed that both Murdoch and Scott were carrying covered dishes.

One of his guards pulled his gun and gestured for him to stand away from the door.  Once the food had been placed inside the cell the door was relocked.

“We thought you might be hungry.”  Scott looked strained. “Are you ok?”

Johnny uncovered a plate of roast beef, creamed potatoes and vegetables.  Someone had already cut the meat up which was just as well as the only utensil he had been provided with was a spoon.  The other plate proved to contain a large slice of chocolate cake and his look of surprised gratitude did much to reassure his family that he hadn’t been further abused.

“I’m fine,” he mumbled around a mouthful of food.  “They didn’t lay a finger on me.”

As he ate Murdoch and Scott pulled chairs up to the bars.  “We’ve been told we can stay for an hour and that Theodore can come and see you tomorrow.  I still don’t like it, though.” Murdoch frowned.

“Reckon I’m safe enough.  Can’t see Armstrong wanting to have to explain if anything happened to me.”  Johnny continued to eat enthusiastically.  “This stuff ain’t bad.  Not as good as Teresa’s but I’ve had a lot worse.” He turned his attention to the cake, heaving a satisfied sigh when he finished.

Murdoch cleared his throat and looked around to make sure the guards were out of earshot.  “Scott and I have been discussing….well we think it might be a good idea if I was to go to San Francisco and speak to William Ralston.”

Johnny went perfectly still.  “You’ve only just got here.  I….I need you.”

In almost any other circumstances that admission would have made Murdoch one of the happiest men alive.  To hear his son say it so forlornly brought a lump to his throat.  “I don’t want to leave you, son, but I think I can do more good asking questions in San Francisco.  We know that Billy Ralston lived there until a few months ago and that he might well have been ‘banished’ to Modesto.  William Ralston is one of Armstrong’s fellow Directors, so if Armstrong is the man behind this he would be well placed to help us find out why.”

“I know but what if I’m convicted and….and….what if you’re not back in time?”

“Oh, Johnny, you can’t think like that.  It’s only a day and a halfs ride away.  If I leave tomorrow I’ll be back before the trial ends.  We need some proof we can use and I’m not convinced we’re going to find it here.  Scott’ll be here and Theodore will take good care of you.  You do understand why I have to go?”

“I guess so.” Johnny’s reply was far from convincing.  “Promise me you’ll get back here soon.”

“I promise.”

*****

Hannu was occupied with some of his friends as Mika slipped out the door and into the balmy evening air.  There had been so many people around, it being a Saturday night, that she had begun to feel closed in.  She wanted some time and space in which to think about her feelings for Scott.  The alleyways were no less crowded than her home had been and she found herself wandering further and further away from the inhabited areas of Chinatown.

She had felt an instant attraction to the tall blond; it was almost as if she had been hit by a bolt of lightening.  To find he had felt the same attraction had made her heart sing with happiness.  She had surprised herself by her reaction to him….normally she was very down to earth and practical with no time for daydreaming.  Now he filled her every thought and the knowledge that she might never see him again was weighing heavily upon her.

An arm snaked around her waist, her startled cry cut off by a large hand over her mouth.  She was pulled back against the man’s body, too shocked and scared to struggle.  Another man appeared out of the gloom.  He reached out and took a handful of her hair, allowing it to spill through his fingers.

Hank and Seth had almost given up hope of catching the girl on her own before they saw her emerge into the alley.  They had been following her for some time, hoping that they would get an opportunity to carry out their employer’s instructions.

Hank drew out a thin bladed knife from a sheath attached to the left hand side of his belt.  He held it up in front of the terrified girl’s eyes.  “See this?” he asked unnecessarily as her eyes were firmly fixed on the blade.  “It slid up between that whore’s ribs like it was cutting through butter.”

A strangled sob escaped from Mika’s throat.

“Course that was quick; quicker than she deserved.  It won’t be so painless for you if you and your brother don’t stay away from the Lancers.”  Hank let the tip of the knife drift down to rest between Mika’s breasts.  “I bet you’re real sweet.  Too bad that Scott Lancer’s too much of a gentleman to have tried you out.  Maybe you’d like to be with a real man to teach you what you need to know.”  The knife began to move down toward Mika’s naval where Hank let it stop.  “You sure are a pretty one.  Don’t worry, I won’t cut your face and if you get a taste for what I can offer you can always go and work in one of them whore houses.”

Hank laughed as Mika’s eyelids fluttered closed and she fainted.  “I think she got the message,” he informed Seth.  “Leave her here and let’s get going before someone sees us.”

Seth lowered Mika’s inert body to the ground.  “Can’t we have some fun with her like we did with Jess before we go?”  He licked his lips in anticipation.

“Mr. Armstrong just said to give her a warning.”  Hank replied regretfully.  “Besides you know what these chinks are like.  If we mess with her like that they’d cut our balls off.  Come on, we’ve got plenty more work to do tonight and you can always scratch your itch later with one of the saloon girls.”

*****

The following morning Murdoch made an early start, promising to wire Scott as soon as he arrived in San Francisco.  Scott took breakfast to the Courthouse for his brother and was allowed to stay for a while.  Arrangements were made with the guard for him and Theodore to visit in the afternoon.

The rest of the day passed quietly with Scott looking in on J. D. to see how he was getting on.  The publisher was in a more buoyant mood having found that his presses had only been dismantled rather than being damaged beyond repair.  He agreed to ask around to see if any of the legitimate businesses were being pressured into paying for ‘protection’, warning that it would likely have to wait until those businesses reopened on Monday morning.

On his evening visit to his brother Scott found himself confessing about his feelings for Mika.  He had mentioned her before in order to explain how he had obtained so much information from her brother.  Johnny hadn’t pressed the point then as they had still been treading very carefully around each other’s feelings.  Now he demanded to know all about her.  Scott didn’t realise how enthusiastic he was being until he noticed the lopsided grin appearing on his brother’s face.  “What?” he asked, defensively.

“Well, big brother, it sounds like you’re kinda attracted to this girl. How does she feel about you?”

“I think she likes me but it’d never work out.”

Johnny got up from his resting place on the cot.  He glared at his brother through the bars.  “Why not?  Don’t Boston bred gentlemen approve of mixed marriages?”

“Johnny, that’s not fair.  You know I don’t have any of those sort of prejudices.” Scott was hurt by the barbed comment.  “She’s only seventeen.  I’m twenty-five.  She’s sweet and innocent and I….well, I prefer my women to be older than that.”  Scott wondered who was more unconvinced, him or his brother.

“Sorry,” Johnny did genuinely look apologetic.  “That was outta line.  But if you like this girl why can’t you give it a chance?  Get to know her better.”

“It’s too dangerous.  She’s already more involved than she should be.  If anything happened to her because of me….” Scott found himself unable to look at his sibling, hearing the echo of Johnny’s concern for Jess.

Johnny sat down hard.  “How’d this happen, Scott?  How does a town get so corrupt that it’s ok to kill women to protect….hell, I don’t even know what it’s meant to be protecting.”

“Money….power.  Those are the usual things that cause corruption and that need protecting.  The power in this town is Martin Armstrong, only he’s hidden it so well that no one can prove it.”

Johnny raised his head, his forehead creased in a frown.  “Billy Ralston was working for Armstrong….that’s the theory, right?”

When Scott nodded Johnny hurried on with his train of thoughts.  “He’d only been here a few months.  What if he was trying to muscle in on Armstrong’s operation?  He’d be perfectly placed to try a bit of blackmail.  It sounds as if he was the black sheep of the family so he wouldn’t care about his own reputation.  What if he threatened to go to his uncle with information about what Armstrong was up to?  Armstrong couldn’t risk that.”

“And Jess had been seeing Billy before you came to town.  She could have known what he had planned.”  Scott could feel himself getting caught up in his brother’s enthusiasm.  “Armstrong had him killed to keep him quiet and then needed to find someone to blame.”

“I handed it to him on a plate.” Johnny shook his head in disbelief at his own stupidity.  “I threatened Billy in front of a whole roomful of people.  I bet he couldn’t believe his luck.”

“We need to let Murdoch know so that he can plan his approach to William Ralston.”

“It’s all just guess work.  Why should Ralston believe anything Murdoch says to him?”  Johnny’s momentary optimism was ebbing away.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to says he’s a decent and honourable man.”  The need to keep his brother focussed on the positive was uppermost in Scott’s mind.

“I sure hope so, Scott, cause I reckon he’s my only hope.”

*****

Monday morning dawned and Scott was up and about early.  He stopped at the telegraph office to send a wire to the Grand Hotel in San Francisco for his father.  If there had been no hold ups Murdoch should be arriving there some time during the afternoon.  He was circumspect about what he said in the wire, simply stating that it was possible Billy had been killed to prevent a blackmail attempt.  He hoped that his father would read between the lines and understand what he was saying.  He was far from certain that the contents wouldn’t come to the attention of Martin Armstrong.

His next port of call was the jail to speak to Sheriff Driver.  Murdoch had told him of the sheriff’s anger at having his authority usurped and of a new found determination to prove that Armstrong was connected to the killings.  Scott wanted to know if the sheriff had found anything of use.  He found Sheriff Driver sitting morosely behind his desk.  Scott removed his hat and took a seat.

“Johnny’s fine,” he began in answer to an enquiring look.  “They’re being real careful how they treat him.  It’s looking like they only took him to make sure he stayed locked up until the trial.”

A sense of relief washed over the sheriff.  He’d been having nightmares about Johnny being hurt or killed because of the decision he had made to remove him from the jail. It was a decision he now bitterly regretted as it had given Armstrong the opening he needed to take control of the young Lancer.  “Coffee?”

Scott had missed breakfast so he accepted the offer gratefully.  He took several careful sips of the hot liquid and was pleased to find that his mouth was no longer painful.  The cream Mika had used on his bruises had worked to reduce the discoloration and it occurred to him that Teresa might be glad of the recipe.  Thoughts of Lancer were bittersweet as he could imagine how hard it must be for Teresa and the others who had been left behind.  Murdoch had sent a telegram to her before leaving for San Francisco but that would have brought very little comfort.

“Did you find anything out?”

The sheriff’s frustration was obvious.  “I asked all over town and no one could tell me where to find those three witnesses.  They’ve just disappeared.  Even their families haven’t heard from them in days.”

Scott slammed his cup down.  “Someone has to know where they are.”

“Well if they do, they ain’t saying.”

“What about Jess?  Did anyone see anything the night she was killed?”

Sheriff Driver looked uncomfortable.  “Plenty of people saw you having a row with her.”

Scott paled.  “You’re not suggesting….you don’t think….?  I had nothing to do with her death.”

“I know that, but rumours have started that you had a motive.  It’s being said that she knew Johnny killed Billy and that she was going to stand up and say so.  You haven’t exactly been subtle in your defence of your brother so the suggestion isn’t falling on deaf ears.  You’re just lucky no ‘witnesses’ came forward to say they’d seen you with her later that night otherwise you’d have found yourself locked up as well.”

Scott was shaken to realise how close he’d come to the same sort of disaster as had befallen his brother.  “I suppose I should be thankful they didn’t try and pin her killing on me.”

“They wanted it to look like a suicide.  By the time it came out that she’d been murdered it was too late to lay the blame on you.  That won’t stop the malicious gossip though.  Make sure you watch your back.”

“I could say the same to you, sheriff.  You’ve put yourself firmly in the camp opposed to Armstrong.”

Sheriff Driver’s laugh was bitter.  “I’ve always been opposed to him, even before I realised what he’d been up to.  He’s a self serving bastard who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.  I don’t like being told what to do, particularly by someone like him.  I went to see J. D. yesterday.  His office was targeted in broad daylight and no one’s admitting to having seen a thing.  He didn’t believe that any more than I do.  There’s a lot of fear in this town right now and there aren’t many people who’re prepared to stand up against the threats.”

“This is getting us no where.”  Scott was thoroughly frustrated.  “Armstrong has this town locked up tight.  Murdoch’s gone to San Francisco to see William Ralston.  I hope he has more luck.”

*****

As Murdoch was approaching the outskirts of San Francisco, tired but determined, Judge Henry Mickleson was arriving in Modesto on the noon stage.  Judge Mickleson was nearing sixty years of age and was looking forward to a comfortable retirement thanks to a substantial payment received from Martin Armstrong.  The payment was said to be in gratitude for the Judge’s past assistance in matters pertaining to the Railroad Company.  Judge Mickleson was no fool and understood exactly what he was expected to do for the money.  He had always enjoyed a lifestyle rather more opulent than might have been expected on a Judge’s salary and his greed had long ago overcome any pangs of conscience he might have had.  In this case the evidence seemed clear and any jury would be bound to convict.  There would be an automatic sentence of death with the hanging being speedily accomplished.  With any luck he wouldn’t have to be away from his comfortable home for much longer than two weeks.

He stepped out of the stage to be greeted by Martin Armstrong who had graciously invited him to stay for the duration of the proceedings.  The Judge was followed by George Lamont, a respected prosecuting attorney also from San Francisco.

“Martin, it’s good to see you again.  I trust you got my telegram and that you took steps to confine the prisoner.  I must say I was shocked to hear of the sheriff’s decision to remove a dangerous man like that from jail.”

“Everything has been taken care of, Henry.  Lancer is locked up in the courthouse under heavy guard.  He won’t be going anywhere.”

Judge Mickleson nodded in satisfaction.  “I’d like to introduce George Lamont.  He’ll be prosecuting the case.  George, this is Martin Armstrong.”

The two men shook hands.  “It’s good of you to put us up, Mr Armstrong.”

“My pleasure.  One of my men will bring your bags to the house.  You must be tired after your journey.  My wife has organised lunch for us.  Do you still intend for the trial to start tomorrow?”

“No reason to delay.”  Judge Mickleson licked his lips in anticipation of a good meal perhaps accompanied by a glass or two of wine.  There was no reason why his stay in this dusty hellhole of a town shouldn’t be moderately pleasurable.  Added to which the thought of a hanging always put him in a good mood.

Martin Armstrong turned his back to the Judge and prosecutor to hide the smile of pure satisfaction that he could no longer contain.  Soon Lancer would be dangling at the end of a rope and everything would get back to normal.

*****

Scott took some sandwiches and coffee to his brother at lunchtime as well as a change of clothes for the start of the trial.  The bag containing the clothes was thoroughly searched and, as on every visit, Scott had to surrender his gun and submit to being searched himself.  The closer they got to the trial the greater the temptation he felt to try and break Johnny out of jail.  He wanted to shake his brother for refusing the opportunity to run.

Johnny was trying to keep his fear hidden but he looked so young and lost.  He set the food aside untouched.  “I ain’t really hungry today.  Did you send the wire to Murdoch?”

“First thing.  The Judge got into town a while ago.  Theodore is going to try and persuade him to delay the start of the trial for a few days to give us more time.”

“That’s not gonna happen.  I….I wish Murdoch was here.  I know why he felt he had to go but….” Johnny lowered his eyes.  “Having him around makes me feel safe.  Kinda stupid, huh?”

“It’s not stupid at all.  Its funny isn’t it?  We both lived for so long without a father, believing he’d abandoned us.  When I was growing up I used to imagine he’d come and claim me then, as I got older, it got to the point where I couldn’t imagine ever meeting him.  I certainly never thought I’d come to care about him.  Just knowing he’s there is all it takes sometimes to make things right.”

“I was gonna kill him, you know?  I hated him, had hated him all my life.  I blamed him for the life I had growing up and for my mama’s death.  I was gonna take that $1,000, listen to what he had to say and then put a bullet in his brain.”

“What stopped you?”

Johnny shrugged.  “I’m not sure.  Finding I had a brother made me think and then I saw how he treated the men.  He didn’t seem like the bigot I was expecting.  And Lancer….boy that place sure gets under your skin….it was so beautiful.  I couldn’t let Pardee take it.  Then after I was shot he’d sit by my bed for hours and he’d tell me things, just little things about the ranch and the people, and I could tell how much it all meant to him so I decided to stay and see if I could finally have a home and a family.  And now I’m gonna lose it all because I couldn’t control my stupid temper.”

“You can’t go blaming yourself.  I’d have done the same, any decent man would have.  We’ll beat this yet, brother.  Don’t give up.”

*****

Theodore Young arrived back at the hotel shortly after Scott.  His face was flushed and his normal equanimity had deserted him.  “That Judge is a disgrace.  I asked him for more time to prepare Johnny’s defence and he said it wasn’t any concern of his if I couldn’t do my job properly.”

Scott steered the irate attorney into the hotel bar.  He ordered a bottle of whiskey which he carried to the table together with a couple of glasses.  He poured them both a shot and watched in amazement as Theodore downed his in one swallow.

“I’m sorry, Scott.  You’d think after all these years practicing law that I wouldn’t let a pompous windbag like that get to me.  He gave me a lecture about my responsibility to the Court and my client and finished by saying that the evidence is so clear cut that anything I might have to say would be a waste of breath.”

Hearing this Scott decided that he was in need of fortification as well and emptied his glass.  He poured them both another.  Theodore ran a finger round the rim of the glass and then pushed it away.

“I need a clear head.  How was Johnny when you saw him?”

“Scared and depressed.  We can’t win this trial, can we?”

“Not unless the prosecution witnesses cave in under cross examination.  Your brother is an honest young man but his past will count heavily against him as will that fight in the saloon.  I got a reply from my friend in San Francisco although I’m not sure it helps much.  The Judge lives well beyond his means which suggests he has other sources of income.  No one seems to know much about the victim.  Whatever happened in San Francisco was comprehensively covered up.  Maybe Murdoch will have better luck finding something out.”

“Will it help Johnny?”

“It might give me the opening I need to question the witnesses about his activities in Modesto.  If we can get it through to the jury that he was up to something illegal it, at least, opens to door to me suggesting that others might have had a motive to kill him.”

“How will that help if these so-called eye witnesses stick by their story that it was Johnny?”

Theodore changed his mind and picked up the glass.  “It won’t help at all.  If they stand by their evidence your brother will hang.”

*****

It was mid-afternoon before Murdoch arrived at The Grand Hotel on the corner of New Montgomery and Market Streets in San Francisco.  He left his horse in the care of the liveryman and carried his bag into the foyer.  The hotel lived up to its name but made no impression upon Murdoch who had too much on his mind.  He had spent the long, lonely journey deciding how to approach William Ralston.  On the way to the hotel he had passed the palatial offices of the Bank of California, founded by Ralston in 1864.  It had taken all his self control not to barge in there and demand a meeting.

Ralston was an entrepreneur with interests in numerous companies.  He was in his mid forties and had made and lost more fortunes than most people could ever dream of.  He was highly in demand and was not the easiest person to gain access to.  Under the circumstances he was highly unlikely to welcome a visit from the father of the man accused of murdering his nephew.

Fortunately Murdoch had many connections.  He sent a message to an old friend, James Robertson, inviting him to dinner.  The desk clerk handed Murdoch a wire from Scott that proved to be unusually cryptic.  He settled into a comfortable chair in his room, read and reread the telegram several times before puzzling out the message.  His sons appeared to have come to the conclusion that Billy had been blackmailing Armstrong.  If that were proved to be true it would provide a motive for his murder.

He settled back and tried to still the fear that had settled over him, increasing with each mile he moved further away from Modesto.  He had loved Johnny from the moment he was born.  That love hadn’t wavered or faded through the long years when he hadn’t known if his son was alive or dead.  The day that Johnny returned home he had looked into the face of a hate filled stranger.  The gradual development of their relationship had been a joy he had never expected to experience.  There had been some rough times, only to be expected given their history, and so many good times.  The trip to Modesto had been designed to show Johnny how much he loved and trusted him and now it looked as if it might lead to his son’s death.  Surely fate couldn’t be that cruel?

A knock at the door distracted him from his morbid thoughts.  The bellboy handed him an envelope that contained a message from James to say that he would be delighted to join Murdoch for dinner at the hotel and would be arriving at seven.

*****

Scott had arranged to meet J. D. and Theodore for dinner in a small café recommended by the publisher.  He had retreated to his room following his earlier discussion with the lawyer, shaken and angry at the injustice that could see his brother convicted of a murder that he didn’t commit.  He had successfully battled a need to go and confide in Mika; he had already involved her too deeply in what were proving to be very murky waters.  He lay on the bed, tossing and turning, and trying to rid himself of the crushing fear that they wouldn’t be able to clear Johnny and that his brother was destined to die at the end of a rope.

Finally he could stand the solitude no longer.  He went back to the bar and ordered a beer.  Word had spread that the trial was to start the following morning; the first trial in the new Courthouse.  People shot furtive glances at Scott and whispered behind their hands.  Anyone brave enough to catch his eye quickly retreated from the glacial stare.  In truth his thoughts were a long way from Modesto; they were firmly fixed on Lancer where he and his brother rode free among rolling hills, lush pastures and clear refreshing streams.

When Theodore joined him for the short walk to the café the lawyer was shocked by the change in Scott.  He appeared lethargic, under the fading bruises his face was pale and drawn.  He was strung so tight that he looked on the verge of collapse.

“You need to rest, Scott.  Johnny is going to need you, particularly now that Murdoch has left.  You have to take care of yourself.”

Scott nodded distractedly.  His own health was only a secondary concern.  He pushed open the door leading to the café and spotted J. D. already sitting at a table in the corner.  He set his hat and gloves down on the table.  “Well?” he demanded.  “What did you find out?”

J. D. turned a concerned look on Theodore.  Scott had always been unfailingly polite during their earlier meetings.  Now he was being brusque to the point of outright rudeness.  Theodore shook his head in warning, pulled out a chair and encouraged Scott to sit.

“Perhaps we should order something to eat first,” Theodore suggested.

“I’m not hungry.  Did anyone tell you anything?”  Scott’s tone was aggressive.

“You have to eat…”

Scott turned a furious glower on the lawyer.  “My brother’s life is at stake and you’re giving me a lecture on my eating habits?  You’re not my father and I don’t need your advice.”

Theodore was used to dealing with distraught family members.  “Yes you do, young man.  You are going to pull yourself together…not because I tell you to but because your brother is relying on you to help him get through this trial.  You’ll have something to eat, after which we will have a civilised conversation and then you’ll go to bed.”

Scott looked at the lawyer in disbelief, an angry retort on the tip of his tongue.  He stopped himself from retaliating as the truth sank in.  Both of these men were going out of their way to help his family and his behaviour toward them was verging on the unpardonable.  He had always prided himself on the strength of his character and that strength had seen him survive a year as a prisoner of war in atrocious conditions.  Why, when he needed that strength more than ever, was it deserting him?  Why did Murdoch have to leave them?  He felt hopelessly alone and out of his depth.

“I…” he began an apology only to find that his throat had closed against the words he needed to say.

Theodore patted his arm reassuringly and signalled for the waitress.  Scott sat numbly as the food was ordered.  He was vaguely aware of Theodore and J. D. carrying on a conversation.  The food arrived and he ate automatically, not even conscious of what was on his plate.

“Good,” Theodore said in approval and Scott raised his eyes from his empty plate.  “Now we can see if Mr. Spencer found out anything of use.”

Scott obediently turned his gaze to the publisher.  J. D. looked as tired as he felt and Scott knew that he had spent hours trying to repair the damage done to his office.

“I asked around.  None of the storeowners had received any demands for money or threats.  It was a different story when I spoke to the saloonkeepers and the owners of some of the whorehouses.  Someone’s been squeezing them.  This man, Hank, that your friend in Chinatown mentioned seems to be the one behind it.  The feeling was that he was answering to someone else.  The problem is no one knows who it is or, at least, they weren’t saying.”

“Did anyone know where to find him?” Scott had the disconcerting impression that he was speaking from a great distance away.

“There were various suggestions although I got the feeling no one really knew.”

Scott felt so tired; he just wanted to lie down where he was and sleep.  A touch on his arm attracted his attention.

“I think we should go back to the hotel.  The trial will be starting at nine o’clock and it wouldn’t do for us to be late.  We can make some more enquiries about Hank and his possible connections to Armstrong when the Court goes into recess tomorrow afternoon.”  Theodore guided Scott to his feet, settled the bill and walked with him to the hotel.

Upon reaching his room Scott pulled off his boots and lay down fully clothed.  His eyes slid closed and he surrendered to his exhaustion.

*****

James Robertson, like Murdoch, had emigrated from Scotland to the ‘New World’ many years before in search of his fortune.  He had settled quickly in San Francisco and had become a respected financier and stockbroker.  Ten years previously he, and a number of likeminded men, had come together to form the San Francisco Stock Exchange Board.  This was the first, although not the last, mining exchange company in America.  It had made him and his colleagues obscenely wealthy.  William Ralston also had an interest in the company, which made James Robertson one of the few people Murdoch knew who might be able to arrange a meeting.

Murdoch was waiting in the hotel foyer a few minutes before seven.  When the doors opened to admit his friend he had to smile at the changes years of good living had wrought.  James had been a slender man of middle height in his twenties.  Now, in his late forties he could only be kindly described as portly.  His ruddy complexion testified to his love of red wine and port but his smile was genuine and welcoming.

He gripped Murdoch’s hand.  “Murdoch, it’s been too many years.  What brings you to our fair city?”

“It’s a personal matter, James.  Let me buy you dinner and I’ll explain.”

*****

After dinner Murdoch and James moved to the lounge for brandy and cigars.  “I don’t know, Murdoch.  William was devastated to hear about his nephew’s death.  What do you think you’re going to achieve by talking to him?”

“Billy Ralston was a bully and a thug.  Something happened here that made his family send him to Modesto.  I want to know what it was.”

“And you seriously expect William to tell you?  Even if he was as bad as you say, how will knowing that help your son?”

“It may put some doubt in the minds of the jury.  It’ll mean that others might have had a motive for murder.  Don’t you see, James, I can’t sit back and do nothing.  I spent eighteen years not knowing if Johnny was still alive.  The Pinkertons caught up with him just before he was due to be executed in front of a firing squad.  We’ve only had eight months as a family.  I can’t lose him again.”

James Robertson sighed and laid down his glass.  “I’ll see what I can do but I don’t want you getting your hopes up and you’ll have to be patient.”

*****

Johnny was woken up early on Tuesday morning.  He was given a bowl of hot water and a razor and was allowed to shave himself under the watchful eyes of his guards.  He washed himself as thoroughly as he could and changed into the white shirt and plain black trousers that Scott had brought for him the day before.  He was feeling tired and light headed from lack of food so he forced himself to eat his breakfast.

A part of him was glad that the trial was about to start; the waiting and inactivity had been slowly driving him insane.  At least this time he was getting a trial.  Last year in Mexico the rurales hadn’t bothered with that formality before sentencing him to death.  Not that he was expecting the outcome to be any different.  A key turning in the lock attracted his attention.

One of the guards gestured with his gun and Johnny walked through the open doorway.  He wasn’t surprised to find the other guard holding a set of handcuffs and he held his hands out without being told.   The click of the locks sounded loud in the silence.

 

Once the door to the corridor was opened Johnny could hear the sound of voices wafting up the stairway.  He was seized by a sudden bout of self-consciousness.  All those people down there would be staring at him, judging him guilty and condemning him without waiting to hear what he had to say.  His hesitancy didn’t please his guards and he was roughly pushed toward the door.  He walked down the two flights of stairs, staring straight ahead and refusing to acknowledge the upturned faces as he descended the last few steps to the corridor leading to the courtroom.

He was taken first to a small room where chains were attached to his ankles.  The  added humiliation left him flushed with embarrassment.  A door in the far wall proved to give access to the main courtroom.  He was reduced to a shuffling walk to accommodate the short chain.  His first impulse was to bow his head; to allow his overlong dark hair to hide his shame. Instead he raised his head proudly, deep blue eyes blazing defiance, and entered the Court.

*****

By five minutes to nine the court room was packed with spectators and was already growing uncomfortably warm.  Scott had arrived early following a disturbed nights sleep, and had taken a seat behind the desk occupied by Theodore Young.  Theodore acknowledged Scott’s softly spoken greeting.  As yet, there was no sign of Johnny. The prosecutor, George Lamont, was sitting at an identical desk to Scott’s right.  Scott was joined by J. D. who pulled out a notebook and pencil.

Sheriff Driver acknowledged the two men as he walked down the center aisle.  Theodore looked up from his last minute contemplation of his notes as the sheriff arrived in front of him.  Sheriff Driver held out several sheets of paper.

“I’ve been doing some digging into the three witnesses to the shooting.  None of them have been in Modesto for more than six months so it wasn’t easy to track them down. Seems they all have records…nothing serious but it might help.”

Theodore leafed through the information.  “Interesting.  It appears the prosecution witnesses aren’t the fine upstanding young men they’ve been made out to be.  Thank you, sheriff.”

As the clock struck nine all eyes turned to the door at the side of the court.  Scott’s fingers curled into the palms of his hands as he saw how his brother had been shackled.  A cold anger against the men responsible pushed aside the remaining lethargy that had been plaguing him since the previous day.  He saw Johnny’s eyes sweep the room before coming to rest on him and he smiled encouragingly.  There was just a glimmer of a response before Johnny was shoved in the back by one of his guards.  He stumbled slightly before catching his balance and glowering at the man responsible.

Theodore glared at the guard, rose to his feet and gripped Johnny’s arm, helping him to a chair.  Before either man could sit, a door in the back wall of the court opened to admit the bailiff.

“All stand.” The man’s voice cut through the undercurrent of sound and brought everyone to their feet.

Judge Mickleson entered the court room and took his first look at the man he was there to hang.  Johnny stared back, his face expressionless and his eyes as hard as blocks of ice.  The judge looked away, settled his robes around him and sat down in his comfortable leather upholstered chair.  With a rustling of clothing everyone else in the room sank back into their seats.

Scott looked to his right and found himself staring at Martin Armstrong.  Armstrong inclined his head and smiled.  Scott held his gaze and then turned away, his heart hammering in his chest.

“Bailiff, read out the charge,” the judge instructed.

Johnny listened with almost detached interest.  So far as he was concerned this whole trial was a farce and his plea of ‘not guilty’ just a minor inconvenience for the men who were determined to see him dead.

“How does your client plead, Mr. Young?”  The judge sounded bored.

Theodore stood up.  “Not guilty, your honor, and, once again I must protest at the unseemly haste with which this trial has been arranged.”

“Noted.”  The judge turned away from the defence attorney.  “Get the jury sworn in.”

George Lamont cast a puzzled look toward the judge.  His curt dismissal of a perfectly valid complaint made the prosecutor uneasy.  However, Judge Mickleson was noted for his abrupt ways and speedy trials so he could hardly be said to be acting out of character.  Lamont looked fleetingly at the Defendant.  The young man was fiddling with the chain tethering his wrists together, his head down, his hair falling across his face hiding his expression.

Once the jury had taken their places Lamont stood up to make his opening speech.  He hadn’t even uttered his first words when the judge interjected.

“No need for long winded speeches, Mr Lamont.  Just call your first witness.”

Theodore was on his feet again immediately.  “I object…”

“You’re wasting your breath,” Johnny’s deceptively soft drawl silenced his lawyer.  “This Court’s already been bought and paid for.”  He lifted his head to stare at the judge who, he noted, had flushed angrily.

“What did you just say, boy?” Judge Mickleson roared, silencing the buzz of conversation that had sprung up in response to Johnny’s announcement.

Before Johnny could answer Scott leaned forward and gripped his shoulder hard enough to cause his brother to catch his breath against the pain.  “Johnny, what are you doing?”

Johnny tore his eyes away from the judge and turned to look back at Scott.  “Just saying it like it is.  It’s time these good people here heard the truth.”

“Any more outbursts like that and I’ll have you removed from this Court,” the judge threatened.

“Don’t reckon it’ll make any difference.” Johnny winced as Scott tightened his grip.

“This is your last warning.  Mr. Lamont call your first witness.”  The Judge turned deliberately away from the insolent boy in front of him and scowled at the prosecutor instead.

Johnny sank back in his seat, satisfied that he had managed to unsettle the judge.  Scott removed his hand and sat back.  As the witness was being sworn in Theodore leaned toward Johnny.  “That sort of performance won’t do you any good.  You will keep your mouth firmly shut until I tell you otherwise.  Is that understood?”

Johnny shrugged and returned to his contemplation of the chain between his wrists.  He had caught a glimpse of Armstrong’s face while he had been speaking to Scott and was content that he had made his point…Johnny Lancer wasn’t going down without a fight.

 

Lee Cross sat stiffly in the hard wooden chair in the witness box.  He was thin, sandy haired and sharp featured.  He was so nervous that he was sweating.  He confirmed his name and address, pausing frequently to clear his throat. He was painfully aware of both Lancer brothers staring at him with expressions of mixed hatred and contempt.  There was an intensity about both men that frightened him.

“You were with Billy Ralston when he was shot?” Lamont asked.

Lee licked his lips.  “Yeah.”  He looked over at Johnny, cringing at the knowing smile that now graced that young man’s face.  “Me, Cort and Frank.  We were on our way to work.”

“How long had you known Billy?” Lamont was concerned to see how unsettled his witness was and wanted to ease him in to his testimony gently

“We met soon after he arrived in Modesto so I guess we’d been friends for a couple of months.”

“Can you tell us what happened the morning he was killed?”

Lee coughed and took a sip of water from the glass placed on the witness stand. “Well, like I said the four of us were going to work.  We heard a horse but didn’t pay it no mind.  Next thing there was a shot and Billy fell down.  There was blood everywhere.”

“Did you see who shot him?”

Lee raised a shaking hand and pointed at Johnny.  “He did.  He was just standing there with the gun in his hand.  He didn’t say nothing…just smiled, got back on his horse and rode away.”

“You didn’t try and stop him?”

“None of us had our guns with us and the way he wore his…low like…we weren’t gonna tangle with him.”

“So he shot an unarmed man in the back and then just rode off.”  Lamont turned to the jury as he delivered this damning indictment and obtained the shocked response he was looking for.  “Had you ever seen him before?”

“A couple of days earlier in one of the saloons.  Billy was talking to Jess…she was his girl…when Lancer came in and hit him, threatened him too.”  For the first time there was the ring of truth in Lee’s voice.

“Why would he do that?”

“Seems Jess had been cheating on Billy with him and he was warning Billy off.”

“Isn’t it true that Billy had hold of Jess and that the Defendant wasn’t happy about that?”

“He may have had hold of her arm, but so what?  She shouldn’t have been two timing him.  If he hurt her some it was her own fault.”

Lamont looked over to see how Johnny was taking that and was surprised by the depth of loathing on the boy’s face.  He filed it away for future reference when it came time to cross examine him.

“Afterwards Billy asked around to see who he was,” Lee continued.  “When he heard the man was supposed to be some big shot rancher Billy decided to leave it alone.  He reckoned Lancer would be leaving town in a few days so why bother?”

“Billy backed off from that fight in the saloon?”

“Yeah, we all did.  We’d had a few drinks and, like I said, Lancer wore his gun real low…like a gunfighter…and none of us was stupid enough to take him on.  Boy, but he was mad though.  If it hadn’t been for all the witnesses I reckon he might’ve shot Billy there and then.”  The obvious sincerity of these words made a damaging impression upon the jury.

“Objection,” Theodore said.  “We don’t need the witness’s opinion; just the facts.”

“The witness will just tell the jury what happened without speculating,” the judge instructed grudgingly.

“The day he died, did Billy do anything to provoke the Defendant into shooting him?” Lamont wasn’t worried about the Judge’s ruling…in his experience once a jury heard something they weren’t going to disregard it.

“We didn’t even know he was there until he shot Billy.  Billy didn’t look at him and sure didn’t say nothing to him.  It was cold-blooded murder, that’s what it was.”

As Theodore started to rise to his feet to protest yet again, Lamont forestalled him, “No further questions,” and sat down.  The judge waved Theodore back into his seat and looked at the clock.

“As it’s almost noon we’ll break for lunch.”  He fixed an unfriendly stare on Johnny who stared back.  “Take the prisoner back to his cell and, as punishment for his disrespectful behaviour this morning, he’s not to be allowed any visitors except his lawyer.”

Johnny’s sneer was anything but respectful.  Even though Scott couldn’t see his brother’s face he could imagine the look Johnny was giving the judge.  He was frustrated that he wouldn’t be able to speak to Johnny during the recess.  He wanted to give his brother a piece of his mind about mouthing off to the judge.

After Johnny had been taken out Scott got to his feet and stretched to ease the kinks out of his back.  He had spent the morning  wound up, listening to all the lies, and his jaw was aching from the tension of gritting his teeth.  As he turned to leave the court room he found his way blocked by Martin Armstrong.  Sheriff Driver and J. D. had already moved away and didn’t notice the looming confrontation.

“Where’s your father?” Armstrong asked harshly.

Scott took a step to one side and found his way blocked by the heavily muscled man who had been sitting with Armstrong.  “None of your business.”

“I want an answer, boy.”

“What’re you going to do, Armstrong?  Get some of your men to beat the answer out of me?” Scott looked down, furiously, at the hand now circling the upper part of his left arm.

“Perhaps he’s seen his son for what he is…a killer…and has abandoned him,” the man who had hold of Scott suggested as he tightened his grip.

“Get your hand off me and get out of my way.” Scott kept his voice low to avoid attracting attention.

“Is there a problem, Scott?”  Sheriff Driver had realised that the young man hadn’t followed him out of the room and had gone back to investigate.

“No problem, sheriff,” Martin Armstrong answered and indicated that his companion should follow him, leaving Scott seething with irritation.

Once they were out in the street Armstrong turned to Seth.  “Find out where Murdoch Lancer has gone.  I want to know what they’re up to.”

*****

 

Johnny took a bite of his ham sandwich and washed it down with a mouthful of coffee.  He wasn’t in the least bit abashed as Theodore’s lecture about his behaviour in Court wound to a close.  He’d been frankly relieved when the judge had barred him from having visitors.  At least it had saved him temporarily from the tongue-lashing he was quite sure his brother had in store for him. He realised, belatedly, that his lawyer had asked him a question.

“Sorry.  I wasn’t listening.”

“Obviously.  This is going to be a hard enough case to win without you antagonising the judge.”

“The judge has been paid off.  You know it as well as I do.  I just wanted the jury to know it too.”

Theodore sighed.  “Don’t do it again.” One look at his client’s face was enough to convince him that Johnny would take any and every opportunity to upset Judge Mickleson.  He wondered if Scott would have any more luck in reining in his impetuous brother.  “I asked if you recognised the witness.  Do you remember seeing him in the saloon when you had that fight with Billy?”

“Nope, never seen him before.  He looks a bit like a weasel.”  Johnny took another bite of his lunch and chewed thoughtfully.  “Course I wasn’t really paying much attention to anyone else….just Billy and…Jess.”  He set his plate aside.  “Not much help, huh?  Look, it was all over in a minute.  I didn’t think nothing of it.”

Their discussion was interrupted by one of Johnny’s guards.  “Time to get back to Court, Lancer.  The judge doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

*****

Theodore Young stood up and walked over to the witness stand.  Lee Cross ran a nervous finger between his collar and neck.  “There are a few things that puzzle me about your evidence.”  Theodore looked sternly at the witness, pleased to see beads of sweat appearing on his forehead.

“You said this morning that you were on your way to work when Billy got shot.  Can you remember what time it was?”

“It was round about six thirty.”

“Interesting.  What I was wondering is this…why would you be on your way to work at six thirty on a Sunday morning?”

Johnny sat forward and rested his arms on the desk, ignoring the metallic clink of his chains.  He hadn’t given any thought at all to what day of the week it had been.  Every day, since his return home from Modesto, had been a blur as he’d seemingly lurched from one crisis to another.

Lee’s eyes darted from one corner of the courtroom to another and finally settled, briefly, on Martin Armstrong.  “I…uh…Mr Armstrong had asked us to check on the supplies so’s everything was ready for work on Monday.”

Theodore turned to look at the Railroad Director.  “Mr Armstrong asked you?  Why would someone as important as he is bother to speak to you?  I’d expect any orders to come through your supervisor.”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant.  Our supervisor gave the order but he said it’d come from Mr Armstrong.”  Lee’s voice had risen in pitch and he cleared his throat noisily.

Scott stole a surreptitious look at Armstrong.  Even in profile he could tell that the Director was scowling darkly.  It was then that Scott realised that the man who had confronted him earlier was missing.  He had the unpleasant feeling that Armstrong was still intent upon finding out where Murdoch was.  He decided that he’d better send his father a telegram to warn him to watch his back.

Theodore had strolled back to his desk to pick up some papers, leaving the witness to wait uncomfortably for the next question.  With his back to the judge, Theodore flashed Johnny a quick smile.  A slow answering grin appeared on Johnny’s face.  He had to give his lawyer credit…the man had style.

The chair scraped across the floor as the witness shifted in his seat.  Theodore turned back to face him.  “Another thing that struck me as odd…how would my client know to look for Billy at the train yards at six thirty on a Sunday morning?  It’s not really the sort of place you’d expect to find anyone at that time is it?”

“Maybe he’d been following him,” Lee suggested after a moments thought but without much conviction.

“You didn’t say anything about anyone following you when you gave your evidence earlier.  Do you want to know what puzzles me most of all about your evidence?”  Theodore didn’t wait for a response. “Why would my client shoot Billy in full view of three witnesses when he must have known that he was likely to be identified?”

“How am I supposed to know what he was thinking?” Lee wiped at the sweat that was now trickling down his face.

“Where had you been the night before?”

Caught off guard by the chance of subject the witness could only manage to stutter his reply. “I…I don’t remember.”

“Perhaps you’d been out drinking, or gambling.  Are you sure you don’t remember?”  Theodore waited until Lee shook his head.  “Or perhaps you and Billy had been in Chinatown pressuring some storekeeper into paying to prevent his business being burned to the ground.”

“Mr Young.” The judge’s voice cut through the protest from the prosecutor.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I withdraw the question, your Honor.”  Theodore walked back to the witness stand.  “Have you ever been convicted of any crimes, Mr Cross?”

This time the prosecutor made himself heard.  “I object to this line of questioning.  The witness isn’t on trial.”

“It’s an issue of credibility,” Theodore addressed the judge.  “My client maintains that he was no-where near Billy Ralston when he was shot.  I’m simply trying to show the jury that this witness may not be entirely trustworthy.”

Judge Mickleson would have liked nothing better than to prevent the questions being asked but he knew he had to tread carefully.  “I’ll allow it.”

“Answer the question,” Theodore fixed a cold stare on the witness.

“Yeah,” Lee mumbled.

“Isn’t it true that you’ve been convicted of assault, on more than one occasion?  And that you’ve spent time in prison for arson?”

“So what?” Lee asked, defensively.  “I did my time; it don’t make me a liar.”

“But you are lying, Mr Cross.  You’re lying about seeing my client that morning.  You’re lying about being at the train yards.  You didn’t see who shot Billy Ralston; you were nowhere near him when it happened.  How much have you been paid to sit there and perjure yourself?”

The buzz of speculative discussion generated by that question was brought to an abrupt halt as the judge banged angrily on the desk with his gavel.  “Enough, Mr Young.  Unless you have evidence to back up that question I’m going to rule it out of order.”

“I’ve no further questions for this witness at this time.  I may want to recall him for further cross examination later.”  Theodore sat down next to Johnny and they both watched as Lee sidled out of the witness stand and slunk down the aisle to take a seat at the back of the Court.

Johnny looked at his lawyer with newfound respect.  “That was quite some performance,” he whispered.  “What happened to your good advice about not antagonising the judge?”

“That’s different.  Not that I’ll get away with it again without some proof.  Men like that don’t keep money in their pockets for long.  We need to find out if they’ve been throwing money around.  I’ll get Scott and the sheriff asking around after court finishes.”

The next prosecution witness was Cort Anders.  He was a large, muscular young man, much more self-possessed than the previous witness.  He stared at Johnny as he was sworn in, not in the least bit intimidated by the hatred blazing from those vivid blue eyes.  He answered the questions put to him by Lamont without hesitation and with a certain degree of arrogance.

As lie upon lie was told to the Court, Johnny began to shift uncomfortably in his seat.  The chains around his wrists were chafing the skin and his right leg had gone numb from his immobility caused by the chains on his ankles.  “How much longer?” he whispered to Theodore.

The judge held up his hand for silence and frowned down at Johnny.  “You have something to say?” he asked, wondering if the boy was going to be stupid enough to give him an excuse to exact further punishment.

Johnny opened his mouth to answer and then shut it again hastily.  He looked down at his hands and shook his head.  The last thing he wanted was to be deprived of a visit from his brother that evening.  He kept his eyes downcast and held his breath.

“Continue, Mr Lamont,” the judge ordered, irritation plain for all to hear.

Johnny let his breath out in a rush and closed his eyes in relief.  Fifteen minutes later the judge declared the Court in recess for the day.  Johnny caught a look of approval from Scott before he was led away.

J. D. put away his copious notes.  “I need to get back to the office to get out tonight’s edition of the paper.  Once I’ve finished I’ll follow up some of those leads on Hank.  Why don’t we meet up later at your hotel?”

“I want to see Johnny and I have to send a telegram to Murdoch.  Armstrong’s sniffing around and it won’t take much for him to find out where Murdoch is.  How about we meet in the bar at nine?”

“Scott, Sheriff Driver.  Can I have a word with you both?”  Theodore finished gathering up his papers.  “Let’s get out of here.  There’s something I need you both to do.”

*****

“No.  I won’t involve Mika any further.”  They had walked from the courthouse to the jail and Scott was now pacing around the sheriff’s office.

“Most of the money that gets spent in this town by men like Cross and his pals gets spent in Chinatown.  If they suddenly came into a lot of money it’s the first place they would have gone.  We need to find out and you’re the only person with access to that part of the community.”  While Theodore had a certain degree of sympathy for the young blond he needed to make use of all their resources and Scott’s friendship with Mika and her brother had already proved useful.

“I told her it wasn’t safe to be associated with me.  Now you want me to go back and put her in danger just to get information.”

“Information that could save your brother’s life.  I made some headway with Cross.  Anders is a different story.  He’s not going to crack under pressure so I need hard facts.  There isn’t a choice here, Scott.  Sheriff Driver can see if they’ve been throwing money around in the saloons.  You’re the only one who can ask the same questions in Chinatown and hope to get an answer.  I know this is hard for you, son.”

“Alright.  I’ll see what I can find out.  Tell Johnny I’ll see him later.”

*****

Scott stopped at the telegraph office to wire his father.  He warned him that his absence had been noticed and told him to be careful.  It was early evening by the time he entered Chinatown.  He noticed immediately that the atmosphere was heavy and strained and that he was receiving unfriendly stares from all quarters.  His guilt over his treatment of Mika intensified as he assumed that word had gone around that he had led her on and then abandoned her.

He was still some distance from where she lived when he found his way blocked by a number of Chinese men.  “I need to speak to Hannu,” he explained and received blank stares in return.  He hesitated, unsure what to do.  “Can you get a message to him?”

“There is no need.”  Hannu pushed through the small group.  “You are no longer welcome here.”

“Look, I’m sorry if Mika is upset with me…”  Scott staggered backwards as Hannu’s fist connected with his stomach.  His arms were seized and he was pulled upright, breathing heavily.

“Your kind are nothing but trouble.  I should have stopped this long before now.  I love my sister, she’s all I have.  I’m not going to see her hurt because she was taken in by a smooth talking rich man.  You have had all the help you’re going to get.  If you come here again it won’t be my fist you feel in your gut, it will be my knife.”

“Hannu, please, I don’t know what you think I’ve done but I swear I would never do anything to hurt her.”  Scott tried to break free of the imprisoning hands.  “I’m only looking for some information…” He stopped speaking abruptly as Hannu pulled out a knife and laid it against the side of his throat.

“I’m going to let you walk out of here because my sister cares about you.  You don’t get a second chance.”

Scott could feel the sharp blade pressing into his skin.  “Alright, I’ll leave.”  The pressure of the knife disappeared as did the restraint upon his arms.  “You may not believe me but I care about Mika too.”

As Scott retraced his steps he had the uncomfortable feeling that he’d been lucky to escape with his life.  Something had happened to make the Chinese community close ranks and he didn’t think it had anything to do with him telling Mika he couldn’t see her any more.  A sick feeling settled into the pit of his stomach as he wondered if Mika was all right and if there was any way for him to find out.

*****

Murdoch had stepped out into a fog shrouded San Francisco morning.  The cold damp air cut through his clothing and penetrated his bones. The gloom had matched his mood.  He had only once before felt his age as keenly as he did that day…when Pardee’s bullet had lodged in his back and he had seen Paul lying lifelessly beside him.  He had almost given up hope in those darkest hours…had believed that he was going to die without ever having a chance to make things right with his sons.

He had thought of Scott, grown to manhood, safe and secure in Boston, unaware then of the hell his eldest son had endured during the war.  And he had thought of his youngest son as he’d last seen him; a dark haired tornado…a loving and boisterous toddler.  He couldn’t bring himself to think of that son as he had recently found him to be…Johnny Madrid, a gunfighter feared on both sides of the border.

As he slowly recovered he had spent many hours agonizing over the decision he knew he had to make.  In the end pure selfishness and need had prompted his decision to send for his sons.  In Johnny’s case it had almost been too late.  He had been standing in front of a firing squad when the Pinkerton agent had bought his freedom.  When the Captain of the rurales had tried to renege on the deal, only Johnny’s skill with a gun had saved his life and the life of the Pinkerton agent.

He had been given a second chance with Johnny and an opportunity to get to know Scott after twenty-four long years without his eldest son by his side.  Now it seemed as if greed and corruption were going to achieve what the Mexican firing squad hadn’t.

He pulled his jacket tightly around him and waited for the doorman to hail him a cab.  James had counselled patience; how could he be patient when every second brought his son closer to the hangman’s noose?  He opened his watch to find it was nine thirty.  The trial would be underway and his guilt at not being by his son’s side was crushing even if his absence was necessary and prudent and…he closed his eyes against the memory of the need and despair on his son’s face when he said he would be leaving.  How could he have left his boy to face this alone?  Not alone, he reminded himself.  Never alone now that he had his brother by his side.  For so many years his sons had survived without him…had believed that he didn’t care about them.  He loved them both so much that it hurt; had always hurt.  It was a pain he could cope with; the pain of loss was something else.

He spent the morning calling on friends and acquaintances and gathering as much information as he could about Martin Armstrong and the judge who was trying his son’s case.  He was not reassured.  Armstrong was a powerful man with many connections and he was warned, on more than one occasion, not to go up against him.  Rumours of Judge Mickleson’s corruption were rife with no proof of wrongdoing.

As the day wore on the sun made a half-hearted attempt to dispel the fog before retreating behind the clouds again.  Murdoch found every glimmer of hope stifled by fear and secrecy as he fought the urge to scream his frustration to the world.  Bowed under a weight of defeat he returned to his hotel to find a message waiting for him from James.  William Ralston was out of the city and was not due to return until Wednesday night.  James promised to try and arrange a meeting for Thursday morning and invited Murdoch to dine with him that evening so that he could impart some information about Billy Ralston.  Murdoch scribbled a hasty note accepting the invitation and thanking his friend for working so tirelessly on his behalf.

*****

Seth caught up with Martin Armstrong in his office late in the afternoon.  Armstrong was in a foul mood following the poor performance of Cross in the witness box and the revelation that Murdoch Lancer was no longer in town.  He didn’t bother inviting Seth to sit down.

“He checked out early on Sunday morning,” Seth reported.  “He rented a horse from the livery stable without saying where he was going or when he’d be back.  D’you want me to put some pressure on Scott Lancer?”

Armstrong tapped a finger on his lips as he considered this.  It was tempting but too dangerous.  “No.  He’s unlikely to talk anyway and we can’t afford for him to turn up in Court tomorrow with more bruises.”  He saw Seth’s face fall with disappointment.  “I think we should have a word with Johnny.  I’m sure we can find ways to persuade him to tell us what we need to know without doing any further damage.  Find Hank and meet me over at the courthouse at ten.  Any visitors will have left by then.”

*****

Scott returned to the hotel, cleaned up and went to find Theodore.  He found the lawyer sitting in the lounge with a large pot of coffee by his side, going over his papers.  He waved Scott over and called for another cup.  He was concerned that Scott was back so quickly and by the fact that the young man seemed to be moving rather stiffly.

After taking several mouthfuls of the coffee Scott began to relax fractionally.  “No one in Chinatown will talk to me anymore.  Hannu warned me off rather forcefully.” He stared moodily into his cup.  “I don’t know what’s happened and I’m worried about Mika.  What if Armstrong’s men got to her?”

“We certainly can’t rule that out,” Theodore replied regretfully.  “I’m sorry, Scott, I know you care about this girl.  I’m sure Hannu is only doing what he thinks is right to protect her.”

Scott’s thoughts had strayed to Jess and what had happened to her.  “I hope you’re right because, so far, all I’ve managed to do is cause people to get hurt or…killed.”

“This is Armstrong’s doing, not yours.  Why don’t you go and see Johnny, maybe take him some decent food?  I’ve got a lot of work to do before we meet with J. D. later.  Tell Johnny I’ll be along to talk to him in the morning before Court starts.”

*****

Murdoch stepped through the doorway of the Tadich Grill Restaurant on California Street and looked around.  There were a number of customers sitting at the mahogany bar that ran the length of the restaurant and many of the tables were already occupied. He spotted James sitting in one of the wooden booths that could be curtained off for privacy.  He wondered if James had chosen this particular location for that reason; Murdoch was starting to feel that being seen with him wasn’t recommended.  Armstrong’s reputation had caused doors to be closed in his face on more than one occasion that day.

He joined his friend, ordered a whiskey and sat back to study the menu.  Food was the last thing on his mind as his concern grew for the safety of both of his sons.  The telegram from Scott, received earlier in the evening, had done nothing to allay those fears. He ordered clam chowder followed by a steak before cutting through James’s well-meaning small talk.  “What have you found out about Billy Ralston?”

James reached over and pulled the curtains round the booth before leaning forward and lowering his voice.  “By all accounts he was a drunken lout.  His father died when he was fifteen and he ran wild for a few years, driving his poor mother to distraction.  Eventually she appealed to William for help and he got Billy a job down at the docks.  He wasn’t fit for much more than manual labor.  He’d have been fired a dozen times if his uncle hadn’t intervened.  He had a quick temper and even quicker fists.  One night he became involved in a fight that ended with his opponent dying from a fractured skull.  The authorities ruled it an accident and no charges were brought against him.  Shortly after that he left town.  My guess is that William sent him to Modesto to keep him out of the way; he was a huge embarrassment to his family.”

“That ties in with what Scott found out.  I need to get this information to him.”  Murdoch stood up to leave.

“You need to eat.  Sit down.  The telegraph office will be shut.  It opens at eight in the morning so you’ll have time to wire your son before he leaves for Court.”

Murdoch hesitated before realising that James was right and that leaving now would accomplish nothing.  He sank back into his seat and took a healthy swallow of his drink.  “I feel as if I’m waiting for the world to end and I can’t do anything about it. I should be with my son, not sitting in a nice restaurant with a glass of good whiskey…”

James Robertson had known Murdoch for many years.  Even in his younger days the rancher had been confident and self-assured.  To see him so shrouded in grief and uncertainty was painful.  “William will be back tomorrow.  I’ll do everything in my power to arrange a meeting.  He’s a reasonable man; I’m sure that he’ll give you a fair hearing.”

“Which is more than Johnny can hope for.”  Murdoch’s thoughts slid deeper into the black hole of despair that was threatening to overwhelm him and his family.

*****

Johnny had been appreciative of the tasty steak pie Scott had brought for his supper.  He ate with one eye on his brother, not liking his distracted air.  “What’s the matter?  I thought you’d have been ready to chew me out for what happened in Court this morning.”

“Um?”  Scott looked up from his contemplation of his hands.  “Sorry, what did you say?”

“Spit it out, Scott.  Something’s happened and I want to know what.”

“Nothing.  It’s nothing, Johnny.” Scott found himself pierced by his brother’s direct blue gaze and fought an urge to squirm uncomfortably.  “I got tossed out of Chinatown.  Hannu says I’m not welcome there any more.”

“So you’re worried about Mika?”  There was an edge to Johnny’s voice that he tried, unsuccessfully, to hide.

Scott frowned.  “Look, Johnny, I know we haven’t really spoken about Jess and…”

“And we’re not gonna…not tonight anyway.  It hurts that she died ‘cause of me and I’m not ready to talk to anyone about it.”

“What you mean is you’re not ready to talk to me.  It was my fault.  You were right…I should have stayed away from her.”

“Leave it, brother.  If I get out of this mess we can talk and if I don’t…well it won’t matter none.”

*****

By the time Scott joined Theodore, J. D. and the sheriff later that evening he was subdued to the point of being monosyllabic.  The issue of Jess had again strained relations between him and his brother.  It was like a wound that had partially healed only to break open again.  Added to that was his worry about Mika and his failure to obtain any information of use.

He ordered a bottle of whiskey and carried it over to the table where the men were gathered.  He downed two glasses in quick succession.  As he reached for the bottle a third time Theodore smoothly moved it to the far side of the table.  “Getting a hangover isn’t going to improve things.  You’ve had enough.”

Scott flushed, angry at being reprimanded in front of the others.  “I think I’m old enough to make my own decisions about that.”

“I need you clear headed.  I assume you’ve had another row with your brother.”  Theodore stared Scott down.  “Don’t glare at me, young man, it won’t help.”

Scott had the nasty feeling that he was being childish although being lectured like a child wasn’t helping.  He subsided back in his chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him.  “Johnny and I’ll work things out.” He pushed his glass away.  “Did anyone find out anything of use?”

J. D. looked at the sheriff who indicated that the publisher should go first.  “I did some more checking on Hank.  He’s been staying at a boarding house in one of the rougher parts of town.  No one’s seen him for the last couple of days or, at least, no one’s admitting to it.  The owner had no idea who he was working for and could only tell me that he always paid his rent on time and never caused any trouble.”

“I had a bit more luck,” Sheriff Driver reported.  “Seems Anders had a gambling habit that was costing him a lot of money.  A couple of weeks ago he was heavily in debt to the sort of people who don’t like to wait to be paid.  A week ago he settled all his debts just in the nick of time.  He was looking at getting a broken leg or worse from these men as an incentive to pay up.  Hasn’t deterred him; he’s still playing high stakes poker and he’s had another bad run of luck.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he tried to screw more money out of Armstrong or whoever it was that paid him to lie about Johnny.”

*****

Johnny had been relieved when Scott left for the night.  He was tired and angry…angry at himself for failing to hide his feelings.  He needed his family and didn’t want Jess to come between him and his brother.  He would deal with her death in his own way.  Scott didn’t understand that.  So many people in his life had died, friends and enemies alike, and he dealt with it by burying his feelings.  Talking about those feelings didn’t help in his experience and he wasn’t about to start now even to make his brother feel better.  He lay down and shut his eyes, allowing his mind to wander where it wanted.  In time he drifted off to sleep.

Armstrong was displeased when Seth met him at the courthouse with the news that he’d been unable to locate Hank.  As he had two men in the building on guard duty it wasn’t as if he was short on manpower but he had come to rely upon Hank in certain respects and his absence was worrying.

The light from a lamp shining into his cell woke Johnny.  Years of practice enabled him to move from sleep to full alertness without difficulty.  He squinted past the light and his gaze settled on Martin Armstrong.

“It’s time you and I had a talk,” Armstrong stated, stepping to one side to allow the door to be unlocked.

*****

Johnny sat on the hard chair, under duress and very unhappy.  When Armstrong had ordered him out of the cell he had stayed exactly where he was, sitting on the cot and glaring defiance.  So, of course Armstrong had sent in two of his men.  Johnny wasn’t stupid enough to ignore a gun pointed at his face even if the logical part of his mind knew that Armstrong would have a hell of a job explaining things if he got shot.

Seth’s hand on his shoulder kept him pinned to the seat as Armstrong sat down on the opposite side of the table.  Johnny tried to shrug the hand away and Seth belted him hard across the side of the head causing a ringing noise in his ear.  He glanced at Armstrong to find that his usual smug expression was missing; the man looked annoyed.  Johnny smiled then, just a brief flash of white teeth and Armstrong’s expression darkened even further.

Deciding that he could wait the man out Johnny relaxed his tense muscles and slouched back in the chair. His years as Johnny Madrid had taught him the value of patience.  Armstrong was just another bully in a long line of bullies who had underestimated Madrid.  Johnny was outnumbered and unarmed yet he was the one radiating controlled aggression.  There was an air of anticipation about him, an excitement, as if he was eager for the coming confrontation.  It was unsettling for his captors and Johnny didn’t miss the nervous glances he was receiving.  He stared at Armstrong and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

Armstrong’s eyes narrowed and he felt a flicker of unease.  The boy was hopelessly outnumbered, with no hope of rescue, yet he was sitting there calmly throwing out a silent challenge.  It was unsettling to have his victim daring him to take his best shot. Well, he’d teach this insolent pup who was in charge. “Your father has left town.  I want to know where he’s gone.”

Scott had told his brother about the confrontation in the courtroom so Johnny wasn’t caught completely by surprise.  The answer came with a hint of amusement and just tinged with the appropriate amount of regret.  “Having a gunfighter in the family was bad enough.  He couldn’t cope with the idea of having a back shooter for a son so he’s washed his hands of me.”

The ringing in his ear from the second blow lasted a long time.  When it finished Johnny turned as far as he could to look over his shoulder, blue eyes glittering like polished sapphire.  “Do that again and I’ll make you eat that hand.”  His voice was low and deadly and sent shivers down Seth’s spine.  Johnny’s reputation had preceded him and Seth heard the echo of his death in that quiet voice. Embarrassed at the weakness he felt in his bowels he raised his hand again.

“Enough,” Armstrong shouted.  He waited until he had Johnny’s undivided attention and suppressed an urge to move further away from the former gunhawk.  “In my line of work I’ve got very good at assessing a man’s character.  You and your brother are two of a kind.  I could have my men beat you both into the ground and it wouldn’t do any good.  So I’m going to explain to you what will happen if you don’t answer my questions.

“Your brother has got a nice little relationship going with a girl in Chinatown.  Has he told you about her?” Armstrong watched for a reaction and smiled when he got one.  “Seth has already paid her a little visit.” His smile broadened as he saw Seth consolidate his grip on Johnny to forestall the inevitable move.  A tightening around Johnny’s mouth was the only sign that he had hit a nerve. “He didn’t hurt her; just scared her a bit.  If I don’t get your full co-operation I’m going to send him back to get her and then I’m going to get some of my boys to collect your brother and he can watch while Seth cuts her pretty face to ribbons.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”  Johnny’s icy composure shattered and he struggled to rise to his feet.

“Sit still.” Armstrong’s order was like the crack of a whip.  “Do you really think I’m in the business of making idle threats?  Have you forgotten so quickly what happened to Jess?”

It took two of them to wrestle Johnny back into the chair as the mention of Jess, and Armstrong’s implied acceptance of guilt, sent him lunging across the table to choke the life out of the man.  He had the satisfaction of seeing real fear on Armstrong’s face before he was pulled back. The handcuffs that he had come to know and hate during the course of the long day in Court were applied to keep him in place and docile, locking his hands to the back of the chair.  His breathing was harsh and uneven, his face flushed with anger and frustration.

Armstrong waited for Johnny to recover some semblance of self-control.  The change when it came was sudden and complete.  Johnny had pushed his feelings to one side, as if his outburst had never happened, and was in total control of every fibre of his being.  Martin Armstrong looked into the eyes of a man who could kill without remorse and felt an unwilling sense of admiration.  “Answer the question.  Where has your father gone?”

Admitting defeat was hard even though Johnny had no real doubt that Armstrong could make good on his threat.  He waited as long as he dared as Armstrong’s scowl deepened and Seth flexed his fingers in anticipation of delivering another blow to their helpless prisoner.  Johnny knew that Seth was afraid of him and that made him dangerous.  Seth would take great delight in hiding his feelings of inadequacy behind a bout of unrestrained violence. It was the look on Seth’s face that finally convinced Johnny; a look of sheer animalistic pleasure at the thought of getting his hands on Mika again.

Johnny’s stare promised retribution.  “San Francisco.”

“Why?”

“He’s trying to find out about Billy Ralston.”  In the circumstances Johnny felt that a half-truth was better than an outright lie.

Armstrong shook his head.  “He could have done that without leaving Modesto.  What else?”

“The judge…he’s making enquiries to see if he’s been bought.”

Armstrong thought about this and for a minute Johnny thought he had got away with it.  “That still doesn’t seem like a good enough reason.  He was in town less than twenty four hours.  He left knowing that the trial was about to start.  There’s something in San Francisco that he thinks will save you.  What is it?”

Seth took a step closer. His proximity would have been intimidating but for the fact that Johnny no longer cared about him.  “William Ralston.”  Johnny pushed the words past gritted teeth as he battled successfully to keep his stare level and unafraid.

Armstrong laughed.  “He’s wasting his time.  He won’t get anywhere near William, I’ll see to that.  Put him back in his cell.”

The handcuffs were removed and Johnny was pulled to his feet.  “It wouldn’t be a good idea for you to mention this discussion to anyone,” Armstrong advised as he picked up his hat.  “It could have unfortunate consequences.  Sleep well.”

After they had gone Johnny flung himself face down on the cot and mumbled curses into his pillow before finally falling into an uneasy sleep.

*****

The following morning Theodore found his client to be sullen and unresponsive.  Even the news that they had information about Anders failed to raise a reaction.  As Johnny was led into Court he searched frantically for Scott, unconvinced that Armstrong wouldn’t have taken some action even though he had obtained the answers he was looking for.  The sight of his brother sitting unharmed in his usual place sent a wave of relief flooding through him. His eyes found and held Martin Armstrong’s gaze until the Railroad Director looked away with a slight smile.  There was no sign of Seth.

Cort Anders took his place in the witness box, appearing as relaxed as he had the previous day.  With a final concerned glance at this client Theodore stood up to commence his cross-examination.

The questions about the day of the alleged shooting were answered smoothly and without hesitation.  The information tallied with that given the previous day by Lee Cross, which came as no surprise.

“You didn’t witness the incident in the saloon?” Theodore asked.

“No, but I heard about it.”

“I’m not interested in what you heard, Mr. Anders.  You have quite a gambling problem I believe.”

George Lamont quickly objected and the judge, who was feeling particularly short tempered, glowered at Theodore.  “Do you have any evidence of this?”

“Yes, your Honor, I do and I’ll be presenting that evidence in due course.”

“Don’t try my patience, Mr. Young.  I know where you’re going with this line of questioning and you had better be in a position to back it up.”

Theodore inclined his head in acknowledgment before turning back to the witness.  “Three weeks ago you lost a lot of money at poker; money you didn’t have.  Is that correct?”

For the first time Anders looked uncertain.  Without knowing what evidence Theodore had he wasn’t sure how far he could stretch the truth.  “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“I’d like an answer,” Theodore pressed.

“Yeah, I lost some money.  So what?”

“It’s not the fact that you lost the money that interests me.  It’s the fact that a few days ago you paid your debt in full.  Do you remember how much it was?”

“Six hundred dollars,” Anders muttered.

“Speak up.  I want the jury to hear you.”  There was nothing pleasant about Theodore’s manner as he looked from the witness to the jury.

“Six hundred dollars.”

“And where, Mr. Anders, did you get six hundred dollars?”

The silence in the courtroom stretched on with everyone’s eyes firmly fixed on the witness.  Finally the answer came.  “I borrowed it.”

“Really?” Theodore’s scepticism was clear.  “Who from?”

Armstrong caught the judge’s attention and Judge Mickleson took the hint.  “He’s answered the question Mr. Young.  Move on.”

George Lamont was getting a very bad feeling about this trial.  He turned round to look at Martin Armstrong only to find the man deep in conversation with the person sitting next to him.  He shrugged off his misgivings.

Having made his point, Theodore moved on to examine Anders’ criminal record.  Like Lee Cross he had been convicted on more than one occasion of assault and had done a couple of short stretches in prison for theft.  Theodore sat down, satisfied that he had at least cast some doubt on the witness’s credibility.

The prosecutor was far from happy with the performance of his first two witnesses and decided to move on to safer ground for a while.  He called Tim Squires, the bartender at the saloon where Jess had worked.

Johnny’s composure was already precariously balanced.  His hands were resting in his lap and he found himself pulling at the chain in annoyance.  Theodore laid a hand on his arm to calm him only to have Johnny jerk his arm away, catching the chain on the edge of the desk with a loud metallic clink.

“Is there a problem with your client, Mr. Young?” the judge enquired.

“Damn right, there’s a problem,” Johnny burst out, only to hesitate as he saw a gleam appear in the judge’s eyes.

“I believe I warned you yesterday about disrespectful behaviour toward this Court.  Remove the prisoner from the courtroom.  He can return when he’s ready to apologise.”

Scott had been concerned all morning about his brother.  He leapt to his feet in Johnny’s defence.  “Be reasonable, Judge.  He’s been under a lot of strain.  Johnny, apologise.”

Johnny’s eyes were cold, his mouth set in a line of stubborn defiance, as he shook his head.

The judge banged his gavel and turned his attention to Scott.  “Sit down, young man, or you’ll be joining your brother in the cells.”

Scott’s momentary thought that it might be worth it just so that he could talk some sense into his brother was interrupted by Sheriff Driver taking hold of his arm and pulling him back into his seat.  The sheriff was a powerful man and he easily contained the slender young man.

“Look at the jury,” he hissed in Scott’s ear.  “You and your brother are doing a great job of distracting them from what they need to be thinking about.”

As Johnny was hustled out of the courtroom Scott looked at the twelve members of the jury and his heart sank.  Unless he and Johnny got their emotions under control they were going to undo all Theodore’s good work.  He swallowed hard to clear his throat, nodded his thanks to the sheriff and apologised to the judge.

Tim Squires took the oath and sat down, ready to give his evidence.

***** 

The remainder of the morning session was taken up by the evidence of Tim Squires.  Scott recognised the bartender from his ill-fated visit to the saloon to speak to Jess.  His description of what had happened was very similar to the version that Johnny had provided.  He explained that Billy and his friends had been in the saloon drinking heavily.  When Jess arrived Billy had turned on her, accusing her of two-timing him with some ‘pretty boy.’  When Jess had told him that it was none of his business and that she was through with his drunken violence he had grabbed her by the arm.  It was at this point that Johnny had walked in on the scene and had hauled Billy off, threatening him and punching him in the face.

Squires described Johnny as being cold and frightening, and recalled the move toward his gun that had sent Billy and his friends scurrying out of the saloon with their tails between their legs.  Although the bartender gave his evidence in a fair manner, Scott could see the effect it was having on the jury and it didn’t help that it came on the back of Johnny’s loss of temper in the courtroom earlier that morning.

When the Judge declared the midday recess Theodore called Scott over and told him to sit.  Scott was uncomfortably aware that he was in for a lecture and that it was well deserved.

“I want a word with you and then we’re going to go and talk some sense into your brother.  I need him in Court this afternoon when I cross-examine that witness.  I wish your father were here.  Perhaps he would have more luck keeping you two in line.  You are behaving like a pair of schoolboys.  Whatever the problem is I want you both to get over it and start concentrating on convincing the jury that Johnny isn’t a cold-blooded back shooter.”  Theodore could see Scott’s head drooping lower and lower as he absorbed the angry words and his heart went out to the young man.  “Scott, trust me, I know what I’m doing.  I need your support when we go to see Johnny.  If there are still issues between you they need to be put to one side until the trial is over.”

Seeing Scott’s slight nod of agreement Theodore heaved a sigh of relief and stood up.  “Come on.  We don’t have much time to convince him.”

***** 

Johnny was sitting on the cot with his back to the bars.  His head was down and his fingers were restlessly playing with the thin blanket that was the only bedding he’d been provided with.  He’d already worried several holes in the threadbare material and was well on his way to destroying it completely.

Scott had half expected to be prevented from visiting but it appeared that the Judge hadn’t given any special orders to exclude him.  “How are you doing, brother?” Scott asked, disconcerted at finding himself addressing the back of his brother’s head.

“Fine.”  Johnny didn’t look up from his labors.

“Do you want to tell me what that was about in Court this morning?”

“Nope.”

Scott looked helplessly at the lawyer and Theodore took charge.  “I need you in Court this afternoon, Johnny, and that means apologising to the Judge.  I’m not sure you realise how much damage this sort of behaviour can do.”

“Don’t matter much.  They’re gonna convict me anyway.”

Theodore had always regarded himself as being slow to anger and in control of his temper.  However there was one thing that was guaranteed to rile him and that was having a client who seemed hell-bent on his own destruction.

“If that’s how you feel then you might as well change your plea to guilty and be done with it,” he snapped.  “You’ll be dead before the week-end of course, and there won’t be time for Murdoch to get back before the execution, but you’ll have saved us all a lot of time and trouble.”

Theodore ignored Scott’s sharp gasp of shock.  “I’d always heard that Johnny Madrid had courage.  I guess the stories were wrong.  If you want to crawl off into a corner like a whipped dog that’s up to you.  I won’t be a part of it and I won’t be the one who has to explain to your father that you didn’t have the guts to stand up and fight for your freedom.  That honor will go to your brother.  Is this really how you want to be remembered…as a cowardly murderer?”

Johnny’s head was up now, his fingers still.  The look he turned on his lawyer would have frozen fire.  “Don’t you speak to me like that.  I ain’t a coward or a murderer and I’ve never backed away from a fight.”

“Then don’t back away from this one.  You’re not just fighting for yourself, it’s for your family and friends as well.  Tomorrow you have to give evidence.  You need to believe in yourself before you can convince the jury.  We have to get you back in the Court this afternoon so that they have a chance to forget your temper tantrum from this morning. We can’t let them form the impression that you have an ungovernable temper; that would be a short step away from them deciding that you are guilty.”

Scott watched as Johnny’s hard, expressionless face slowly changed.  Johnny Lancer emerged from behind the façade of Madrid and he was once again looking at the brother who meant so much to him.

“Armstrong paid me a visit last night.  He wanted to know where Murdoch had gone and…I told him.”

Scott knew there was more to it than that.  Johnny wouldn’t have volunteered the information.  The cold hand of fear clutched Scott’s heart at the realisation that his brother had been alone with Armstrong and his men and helpless to defend himself.  He moved closer to the bars, intently inspecting his brother’s face for any new signs of abuse. “What did they do to you?”

“They roughed me up some.  Nothing serious.  They made threats…Scott; I need your promise that you won’t do nothing stupid when I tell you.”

Scott nodded cautiously; all too aware of what had happened last time he made a promise to his brother.  He could see that Johnny was having trouble finding the right words and his anxiety increased.

“Armstrong had Seth with him, one of those ‘deputies’ I told you about.  He said that Seth had spoken to Mika…he threatened her but didn’t hurt her…and he told me that if I didn’t answer his questions…”

“He’d do what?”  The question came out harsher than Scott had intended.  Hannu’s behaviour was now explained.  If someone had touched Mika because of him Hannu had every right to be angry.  His own anger was growing; he could feel it like a living thing fighting to be released.

“He said he’d send some of his men to kidnap you both and make you watch while they cut her…Madre de Dios, Scott, what sort of animal would do that to a young innocent girl?”

Scott was numb; he couldn’t think or move.  This was the horror his brother had been living with since the previous night.  This was what had almost sent him over the edge in Court today.  This was what was going to seal Armstrong’s fate because he was going to shoot the bastard between the eyes.  He was on his feet now, unaware that he had moved.  He heard his brother’s voice, raised in concern, and sanity returned in a rush.  He gripped the bars so hard that they pressed painfully into his skin.  He needed their support in order to stay upright as the sudden rush of blood drained away leaving him pale and shaken.

Johnny laid his hand gently over his brother’s and allowed the contact to draw Scott back.  He knew where Scott’s mind had gone; it was a dark place full of unreasoning violence and it was somewhere that he had lived in for a long time before finding his family and his home.

“Armstrong can’t find out that I told you.  It wouldn’t be safe for you or Mika and you want to keep her safe don’t you?”

“Yes.” The answer was emphatic.

“They’re trying to back us into a corner.  We have to be smart and play them at their own game.  Theodore’s right, we have to fight them because Armstrong will be doing all he can to keep Murdoch away from William Ralston.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this morning what had happened?”  Theodore asked gently.

“Didn’t want to have to tell you at all.  I guess I thought I could cope without you having to know.  I was wrong.  Tell the Judge I’ll apologise.”

“I’ll get a message to him.  Scott, you need to stay away from Chinatown.” Theodore saw the flash of rebellion.  “If you go there again Armstrong will know Johnny had told us, and there’s a real risk Hannu will kill you.  He’ll protect his sister.  I want your word that you’ll stay away.  If I can’t trust you to look out for your own safety I’m going to have to wire Murdoch and tell him to get back here.”

The threat was underhanded but it had the desired effect.   Scott wouldn’t risk distracting Murdoch from the task he had gone to San Francisco to accomplish.  Satisfied that he now had both Lancer sons compliant, at least for the moment, Theodore went off to seek a meeting with the Judge.

*****

Johnny’s mouth was dry as he stood up in front of the Judge and prepared to make an apology that he didn’t mean.  “I’m sorry for showing disrespect,” he mumbled.  “It won’t happen again.”

Judge Mickleson frowned down at the young man.  Johnny didn’t look apologetic and his tone was anything but humble.  Nevertheless he had uttered an apology and there was no reason to bar him from the Court.

“Very well.  Sit down and don’t give me cause to reprimand you again.”

Theodore approached his cross-examination of the bartender carefully.  There was no point in dwelling upon what had happened that day so he wanted to use the man’s knowledge of Billy Ralston to draw out some unsavoury facts about the victim.  Murdoch’s telegram to Scott about Billy’s history in San Francisco had been brought over from the hotel during the noon recess.

“Was Billy Ralston a regular visitor to the saloon?”

“Yeah, he was in most days, ‘specially after he hooked up with Jess.”

“You said he’d been drinking heavily that day.  Was this usual?”

“He liked his drink but then so do most of the young men in town.  He wasn’t any worse than a lot of others.”

“Did Jess ever complain to you that he beat her?”  Theodore waited for the prosecutor to object only to be surprised by his silence.  He turned briefly to look at his opponent and found that the man had all his attention focussed on Johnny.

“She never said, even though she’d often come in to work with bruising on her arms.  I asked her a few times and she just laughed it off…said it wasn’t nothing she wasn’t used to…just part of the job.”

Theodore risked a glance at his client.  Johnny’s expressive face showed his complete distaste for the nonchalant dismissal of a subject that had shaped the path of his life.

“Did he ever threaten you or any of the other girls or get into fights?”

For the first time Tim wouldn’t look the lawyer in the eye, a sure sign in Theodore’s experience, that he was about to lie.  Tim’s gaze quickly swept the courtroom, coming to rest for a split second on Seth, who was back in his accustomed place at Armstrong’s side.  “No…he never said a wrong word to me. If he got into fights I never heard about it.”

Both Scott and Johnny sensed the lie.  The man was afraid and it didn’t take a genius to work out who he was afraid of.  Scott kept his eyes firmly fixed on the witness not trusting himself to look at Armstrong and Seth.  Johnny held his tongue with a visible effort.  He wanted to shout at the man to get a backbone and tell the truth despite knowing it would be a waste of breath and almost certainly suicidal.

“Can you recall him ever talking about his life in San Francisco?”

Once again Theodore and the Lancers caught the signs of evasion.  “He used to boast about his uncle, saying how rich he was and all.  You should’ve heard him describing his uncle’s house.  Hard to believe there’s a place like that.  Some of the men accused him of making it up and he’d…”  Tim flushed and closed his mouth.

“He’d what?” Theodore enquired.  “I’d remind you that lying under oath is a serious matter.”

“He’d threaten to take the argument outside.  Never did, though. It was all just talk.”

“If he had such a good life in San Francisco why did he come to Modesto?”

“Don’t know.  He never said and I never asked.”

Theodore filed that question away to ask the prosecution’s final witness.  “What happened to Jess?”

Genuine sorrow appeared on the man’s face.  “She’s dead…drowned herself.”

“I’ll be calling evidence to show that she was murdered.  Do you have any idea who might have wanted her dead?”

“Murdered?  I’d heard some rumours but…” Tim turned to look at Scott.  “Why don’t you ask him?  He was in the saloon the night she died…had an argument with her too.”

Scott froze as everyone turned their attention in his direction.  Martin Armstrong leant back in his seat with a satisfied smile…everything was going exactly according to plan.

*****

It took some time for the Judge to restore order to the Court as the spectators eagerly discussed the revelation that Jess had been murdered following an argument with the Defendant’s brother.  After the initial shock of hearing such a public accusation Scott ignored everyone, sitting straight-backed and staring fixedly ahead of him.  Johnny turned a speculative gaze on Armstrong, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth in appreciation of the man’s deviousness.

The final prosecution witness was Frank Morrell.  The stocky young man was clearly nervous as he gave his version of Billy’s murder.  He was unable to look anyone in the eye.  He relaxed slightly when asked to describe the incident in the saloon.  Despite his nerves he stood up well under cross-examination.  He denied any knowledge of Billy’s exploits in San Francisco, admitted honestly to his own petty criminal activities and refused to retract any of his evidence against Johnny.  Theodore sat down, frustrated by the day’s events and Lamont stood up to tell the Judge that he had no further witnesses.  As it was late afternoon the Court was declared in recess for the day and Johnny was returned to his cell.

Long after the Judge and jury had left Scott sat in the courtroom.  Theodore had told him to go back to the hotel to get something to eat so that they could meet with Johnny later for a discussion on strategy.  He was lost in his own thoughts and didn’t realise that Armstrong had also lingered when everyone else had left.

Martin Armstrong studied the blond.  His devotion to his brother was dangerous and he was considering if there was a way to neutralise Scott, legally, for the remainder of the trial.  He had sent a telegram to William Ralston warning him about Murdoch Lancer, a desperate father who would do or say anything to try and save his son.  Armstrong was satisfied that this would prevent Lancer getting to his fellow Director.  Johnny was safely contained leaving only his determined elder brother on the loose as an immediate threat.  Once again he cursed Hank’s heavy handedness in having the young man beaten.  Subtlety had been called for; something for which Hank was not renowned.  He frowned as he pondered Hank’s disappearance.  Seth had spent all morning looking for him without success.

It finally penetrated Scott’s pre-occupation that he was being watched.  He felt his stomach tying itself in knots as he looked at Armstrong, wanting nothing more than to hurt him in retaliation for having Mika threatened and for all his lies and deceit.  He ground his teeth together to stop himself from revealing that he knew about the threats made to Johnny.  He stood up to leave, brushing past Armstrong without a word.

“It won’t be long now.”  Armstrong’s voice stopped him dead in his tracks.  “I wonder if your father will get back in time for the hanging.”

The knuckles of Scott’s hands turned white as his fingers curled into his palms.  He concentrated on his breathing as he turned back to face his tormentor.  “What is so important that you’d sacrifice my brother to keep it a secret?”

“Power, my dear boy, it’s all about power.  Your brother was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and I took advantage of that.”  Armstrong made the mistake of letting his anticipation show on his face.

Scott’s instincts screamed at him to be careful.  He suspected he was being deliberately provoked and made a conscious effort to relax. He saw Armstrong’s face harden in annoyance.

“I’ve come across people like you before and it never ends well for them.  I intend to make sure that you’re no exception.  You’ll have to excuse me; I’ve a lot to do.”  With a cold smile that would have done his brother credit, Scott turned and walked away.

*****

“We need to discuss your evidence,” Theodore informed Johnny later that evening.  “The prosecution is going to make a great deal out of your former occupation.  I would like to pre-empt that and deal with it myself.  I’m going to have to ask you about Jess and that incident in the saloon.  You need to keep a tight grip on your emotions and not give anything away.  We don’t want Lamont to get a whiff of what happened to your mother. The cross-examination is going to be hard for you.  I’ll do what I can although I have a feeling the Judge will let Lamont get away with just about anything.”

Johnny nodded, having already retreated into his protective shell.  It wasn’t Johnny Lancer who was going to be giving evidence.  Years as Johnny Madrid had taught him how to keep his feelings to himself, and to intimidate his opponent.  With his life well and truly on the line he was determined to use all his considerable assets to get himself through the ordeal of giving evidence.  He was still feeling fatalistic about the outcome but no one else in that courtroom would suspect a thing.

Scott watched his brother carefully.  He knew the signs and acknowledged that it was necessary, even as he deplored the need.  Johnny might feel secure enough with his family to acknowledge fear and doubt…it wasn’t something the world at large would ever see.

They spent a long time going over the points that Theodore wanted to make.  “Scott, I need you to give evidence about that beating you got when you arrived in town.  Unfortunately you won’t be able to say anything about what Hannu told you…it’s hearsay and the Judge won’t entertain it for a minute.  Sheriff Driver has agreed to give evidence supporting what Johnny has to say about those ‘deputies’ and J. D. is prepared to give evidence about the damage to his office.  The undertaker will deal with Jess’s murder although that was turned against us rather badly today.  I want to present a picture of violence and intimidation to try and convince the jury that someone is setting Johnny up.  I wish we could name Armstrong but without admissible evidence…”

“There’s a way,” Johnny interrupted.  “Let me tell the jury what happened last night.  It’s the first time Armstrong really got his hands dirty.”

“I don’t know, Johnny, we’d be taking a real risk in more ways than one.  Armstrong is a respected member of this community and coming right out and accusing him is dangerous.  In addition we can be pretty sure he ordered his men to kill Jess.  Do you really want to risk him carrying through on that threat to Mika and Scott?”

“Scott?”  Johnny turned his attention to his brother.  “What do you think?”

Sitting back in his chair and stretching his legs out in front of him, Scott considered the problem.  “Now that we’re forewarned we can make sure his men can’t get their hands on me again.  After my experience yesterday in Chinatown I don’t think they’ll be able to get close to Mika again either.  The risk, as I see it, is that blaming Armstrong without evidence could backfire with the jury.”

“I agree with Scott.”  Theodore said gently and waited until he received Johnny’s reluctant acknowledgment.  “Get a good night’s sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.”

“I don’t like the idea of leaving Johnny unprotected.”  Scott stubbornly kept his seat.

“Don’t worry, brother.  I’ll be fine.  You just watch out for yourself.”  Johnny was in total control of himself and exuded confidence.

His smile was infectious and Scott found himself relaxing.  He was in a thoughtful mood on his way back to the hotel and his mood brightened further when he read the telegram from his father advising that James had been able to persuade William Ralston to see him.  The meeting was scheduled for three o’clock the following day.

*****

Every pair of eyes in the room followed Johnny’s slow progress from his place at the defence table to the chair in the witness box.  He kept his head held high and ignored the ignominy of having to walk with his ankles tethered by a short chain.  The majority of the women in the audience caught their breath at his sheer animal magnetism coupled with a hint of danger.  Scott didn’t miss the appreciative sighs, a fairly natural reaction to his brother’s charms in his experience, and reflected that it was a pity that women weren’t allowed to serve on juries.  What never ceased to amaze him was that Johnny often appeared oblivious to the effect he had on the opposite sex.

Johnny settled himself as comfortably as he could, his hands resting in his lap.  He had spent an undisturbed night and was looking well rested and relaxed.  He’d washed up as best he could and was wearing a clean, dark blue shirt and black trousers.  His vivid blue eyes were clear and, if he felt any apprehension he was hiding it well. He took the oath and confirmed his name.

“You stand accused of the unprovoked killing of Billy Ralston.  Did you shoot him?”  Theodore remained seated at his desk to avoid distracting the jury from his client.

“No, I didn’t.” Johnny’s reply was soft but confident and sincere.

“Did you see him the morning he was shot?”

“I was no where near him that morning.  I was miles away when he was shot, on my way home.”

“How do you explain the evidence of the three witnesses who say they saw you shoot him?”

Johnny shrugged.  “They’re either mistaken or they’re lying.”  He looked toward the public area of the Court and his gaze lingered on each of the witnesses in turn.  None would meet his eye.

“Why would they lie?”

“Someone,” Johnny turned his head slightly to stare at Martin Armstrong, “wants to set me up.”

“Can you think of any reason for framing you for a murder you didn’t commit?”

“There could be any number of reasons.  Fact is I didn’t kill him.”

“Why were you in Modesto?” Theodore was pleased so far with Johnny’s performance.  He was giving his answers clearly and without arrogance or aggression.

“I’m part owner of a ranch near Morro Coyo.  We were looking at doing a deal with the Railroad to ship cattle back east.  I came to Modesto to have a meeting with one of the Directors.”

“And did you conclude your business?”

“Yeah. I got the contract we were looking for.”

“While you were in town did you encounter Billy Ralston?”

Johnny hesitated and looked toward his brother for reassurance.  Scott’s smile and nod of encouragement persuaded him to continue.  “Seems that I did.  I didn’t know who he was until after I’d been arrested.”

“Tell the jury what happened.”

“My first night in town I hooked up with a girl from one of the saloons…Jess.  The next day I walked in on this man getting heavy handed with her.  I told him to back off but he wouldn’t listen, so I punched him.  I warned him to stay away from her.  I only found out later from Sheriff Driver that he was Billy Ralston.”

“Was he hurting her when you intervened?”  Theodore was becoming concerned by a subtle change in Johnny’s demeanour.  However much he tried to hide it there was real anger simmering just below the surface.

“Yeah, he was hurting her.  He backed off real quick when I stood up to him, just like most bullies.”

“Did you see him again during your stay in town?”

“No.”

“Did you go looking for him?”

“Why?  He’d learnt his lesson.”  Johnny’s tone was dismissive.

“How long have you lived at the Lancer ranch?”

“About eight months.”

“You didn’t grow up at Lancer?”

“I was born at Lancer but I grew up in Mexico.”

“What made you return to Lancer?”

“My father sent for me and my brother.  He was having trouble with a group of men who were trying to take over the ranch.”

“When your father sent for you what name were you using?” Theodore glanced at the prosecutor and smiled at his frustration.  They were pulling the rug out from under his feet by introducing Johnny’s past themselves.

“Johnny Madrid.”  There was no hint of shame, only pride for what he had been.  “I was a gunfighter.”

*****

Even though most people in the courtroom knew that Johnny had been a gunfighter there was still a collective gasp of astonishment.  They couldn’t understand how he could sit and admit his past with so much pride.  Gunfighters, as a group, were almost universally despised and feared; despised at least until their services were needed.

“Were you any good?”  Theodore asked.

“One of the best,” was Johnny’s honest answer.  He had never been modest about his achievements, having worked too hard to build up his reputation.

“Yet you gave up that life to become a rancher.”

“I gave it up because I found my family.”  Johnny looked over at Scott and smiled.  “I’d never do anything to hurt my family.”

“When did you find out about the charge against you?”

“When I got home.  Val…Sheriff Crawford had received a wire from the sheriff here.  I turned myself in the following morning.”

“You made no effort to escape?  There were no thoughts of going back to Mexico as Johnny Madrid?”

“I’m not guilty so why would I run?  I’ve never shot anyone in the back.”  The answer had a ring of sincerity to it and Theodore could see that it was troubling some of the jurors.

“Who escorted you back from Green River?”

“Sheriff Driver and two deputies.”  Johnny shot a hard look at Seth who was sitting with Armstrong.

“Did anything happen during that journey?”

“Yeah.  The deputies beat me when the sheriff wasn’t there.  They said their employer wanted me to plead guilty and threatened me with a lynching if I didn’t co-operate.”

“If you had pleaded guilty you would have been hanged anyway.  Why would they think that threat would be effective?”

“They said that if I pleaded guilty they’d see that I got a bullet in the head instead of a rope…quicker and cleaner.” Johnny felt his heart rate increasing as he was forced to confront the reality of what he was facing.

“Are either of those men in court?”

Johnny indicated Seth.  “He was the one doing all the talking.  The other one just held my arms so that I couldn’t fight back.  I had chains on my ankles too, just like this one.”  Johnny looked with distaste at the metal links that were restricting his freedom of movement.

“What did you say in answer to that proposition?”

“Nothing.  Sheriff Driver came back and put a stop to it.”

“Did anything like that happen again?”

“A couple of days later when I was in the jail.  They worked me over pretty good that time.  They didn’t touch my face; they only hit me where it wouldn’t show.  I’ve still got the bruises.”

Theodore turned to the Judge.  “I’d like the jury to see the evidence of abuse suffered by my client.”

“Your client is charged with a heinous crime, Mr. Young.  He may have bruises but who is to say he got them in the way described.  Were there witnesses to these alleged beatings?  Can anyone corroborate your client’s story?  For all we know he was trying to escape or the punishment was necessary to keep him under control.  We have already seen ample evidence of his inability to control his temper or his tongue. I don’t think we need to trouble the jury with this.  Move on.”

Theodore stared the Judge down for as long as he dared.  “I have no further questions.”

George Lamont stood up, eager to start his cross-examination.  Johnny regarded the lawyer in much the same way as a big cat might look at a rabbit.  The calculating stare was momentarily unnerving for the prosecutor.

“I imagine you’ve killed a lot of men in your time.  Taking a life must have become easy for you.”

“I’m no back shooter; never have been.  I’ve killed men in self-defence or in a fair fight.  However it happens it’s never easy…it lies on your conscience…and I reckon I’ll have to answer for it eventually.”

“You killed for money.” Lamont’s glance over at the jury clearly demonstrated his contempt for that concept.

“And you haven’t?  Isn’t that what you’re trying to do now?  The only reason you’re here is to get me convicted and hanged.”

“We are talking about two entirely different sets of circumstances and I find your suggestion offensive.”

“Well I find the suggestion that I shot someone in the back offensive.” Johnny snapped back.

“Don’t lose your temper, brother,” Scott muttered under his breath.  “Don’t let him get to you.”

“Let’s talk about Jess.  Were you sleeping with her?”

Theodore’s objection was overruled, confirming his suspicion that Lamont was going to be allowed to ask anything he wanted.

“What if I was?  We’re both adults.”

“Did you pay for her services?”

Johnny forced his anger down to a place where it couldn’t hurt him.  “I offered.  She said the pleasure had been all hers.” He grinned broadly, his eyes sparkling with mischief.  There was a ripple of laughter around the court causing Judge Mickleson to bang his gavel on the desk in annoyance.

Lamont waited patiently for order to be restored.  “Did she tell you that she was in a relationship with Billy Ralston?”

“She never mentioned him.”

“Did she complain to you that someone had been hitting her?”

“No.”

“Did you see anything to make you think someone had been hitting her?”

Johnny closed his eyes and his long dark lashes caressed his cheeks as he considered his answer.  Finally he decided that he was going to have to tell the truth.  “Yeah.”

“How did that make you feel?”

“Angry.  I don’t like to see men beating on women.”

“So when you saw Billy Ralston hurting this woman you lost your temper.”

“What would you have done?  Stood back and let him get away with it? I was angry, I dealt with it and then it was all over.  I didn’t shoot him.”  Johnny’s temper was surfacing again.

“If you grew up in Mexico who raised you?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”  Johnny was on the defensive.

“Answer the question,” the Judge snapped.

Johnny looked helplessly at Theodore who rose to his feet to object.  “Save it, Mr. Young,” Judge Mickleson snapped.  “This is relevant to motive.”

Johnny’s heart sank with that comment.  It meant that his enemies knew perfectly well who’d raised him and that there was something in his background they could use.  He wondered fleetingly how they had found out.  In hindsight it wasn’t difficult to work it out…the story of Johnny Madrid was well known in certain quarters. “My mother.  I was raised by my mother.” Johnny glanced briefly at Armstrong.  The Railroad Director was sitting back with his arms crossed and a satisfied look on his face.

“What did she think of your decision to become a gunfighter?”

“She never knew.  She died when I was little.”

“That must have been hard for you.” The concern was false and Lamont was scenting blood.  “How did she die?”

“She…she was beaten to death.”  Johnny clasped his hands together to stop them shaking.

“What happened to the man who killed her?”

Johnny shook his head.

“What happened to him?” Lamont raised his voice aggressively, certain now that he had the opening he needed.

“He’s dead.  I killed him.”  All the color had drained out of Johnny’s face as he made the admission that would seal his fate.

“Your Honor, I ask for a recess.”  Theodore spoke with such authority that the Judge found himself agreeing.

Scott reached his brother before the two guards could get to him.  He took Johnny gently by the arm.  “Come on, brother, let’s get you out of here.”

*****

By the time the Court resumed Johnny was perfectly calm.  Inwardly he accepted that he wasn’t going to be acquitted and that he was going to die for a killing that was none of his doing.  Outwardly the fight and determination remained as he took his seat again in the witness box.

George Lamont was somewhat shaken to find himself facing a man whose equilibrium had been restored rather than someone completely destroyed by the weight of the evidence.

“Before the recess you admitted to killing the man who murdered your mother.  Was it a fair fight?”

Johnny took his time to consider that.  “No, I don’t reckon it was.  See I was ten and he was a two hundred pound bully.” Johnny showed his teeth in a feral grin.  “He was planning on beating me to death next only I stopped him.”

“So you’re saying it was self-defence?”  Lamont was clearly disappointed.

“Yeah, it was self-defence.”

Lamont decided to drop the issue before the jury began to feel too much sympathy for the defendant.  “You said earlier that you were beaten twice by the deputies.  Isn’t it true that you were acting up and that they were only taking steps to quieten you down?”

“That’s not how I saw it.”

“The second time, at the jail, they were trying to stop you escaping.”

“I was trying to escape another beating.”

“You have told the jury this fanciful story about the deputies threatening you if you contested the charge against you.  You are pleading not guilty…has there been any attempt to lynch you?” Lamont smiled, knowing perfectly well that there had been no such attempt.

“It’s the truth but…no, there hasn’t.”  Johnny buried the urge to say what else had happened…the threats against Mika and Scott and the incident in the jail with Armstrong and Seth.

“We know your brother is here in Court and that your mother is, sadly, deceased.  What about your father?  Is he here to support you?”

“No, he’s not.”

“Don’t you find that surprising?  If he believed in your innocence…”

“He believes me and that’s why he ain’t here.  He’s in San Francisco.”

Theodore turned a concerned gaze to Scott.  It was obvious that the young man was as worried as he was about what was coming next.  They had both warned Johnny to stay away from naming Martin Armstrong and now it looked as if he was going to ignore them and open up a whole new can of worms.

“He’s meeting with William Ralston.”  Johnny was careful not to look at either his brother or his lawyer.

“Why would he be doing that?  Mr. Ralston is the victim’s uncle.  What on earth could they possibly have to say to each other?”

“Well, you see, Mr. Lamont, it’s like this…I’ve been set up by Mr. Armstrong over there, and my father has gone to present the evidence of that to Mr. Ralston.”

*****

If Scott could have taken hold of his brother and shaken some sense into him he would have done so.  He directed a piercing stare in Johnny’s direction and willed him to look his way.  Johnny kept his own gaze fixed on the prosecutor.  He knew he was taking a gamble although he didn’t reckon he had anything to lose now.  He heard a rustle of movement from the public benches.

Martin Armstrong was on his feet, his face suffused with anger.  “Are you just going to sit there and let him make accusations like that?” He demanded of the Judge.

“What’s wrong, Armstrong?  Hit too close to home?”  Johnny was relaxed and viciously intent upon doing as much damage as possible to Armstrong’s reputation.

“Be quiet,” the Judge ordered.  “Mr. Young, if this is the route you are taking in your client’s defence I must warn you that you are treading on dangerous ground.  Do you have any evidence against Mr. Armstrong?”

“Can I have a few minutes to speak to my client?”

“Make it quick and if you can’t control him he’ll sit out the rest of this trial in his cell.”

Theodore walked the length of the courtroom and bent down to speak quietly but forcefully to his unruly client.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?  We discussed this and you agreed to stay clear of Armstrong.”

“I’m telling the truth.”  Johnny’s answer rang clear round the room.  “It’s time someone did.”

“You’re signing your own death warrant,” Theodore hissed in frustration.  “Take a good look at your brother and tell me you still want to do this.”

Johnny lowered his head.  “I won’t let him get away with this.  I owe it to Jess.”

“Jess is dead.  Delivering yourself to the hangman won’t do her any good.”

“You don’t understand.  Earlier this year I was condemned to death by the Mexican government without them bothering with the formality of a trial.  I didn’t get my say that time.”

“And you’re not going to get it this time…not like this.  I’m going to ask the Judge to have you removed for your own protection.”

Hampered though he was by his chains Johnny still managed to grab Theodore’s arm.  “Don’t.”

“My job is to keep you alive.  Your father is meeting with William Ralston in about an hour.  We don’t know what’s going to come of that.  Throwing out accusations that can’t be proved against a highly respected public figure not only puts you at risk but jeopardises your brother and Mika.”

“Mr. Young!”  The Judge was becoming impatient.

“Two minutes, your Honor.”  Theodore turned back to Johnny.  “Do you want me to be forced to ask Sheriff Driver to put Scott into protective custody?  I don’t think your brother would thank you for that.  Make your mind up, we’re running out of time.”

“You promise me you’ll bring Armstrong down?”

Theodore heaved a sigh of relief.  “We’ll get him…just not today and not like this.”

Johnny capitulated with a brief nod and Theodore straightened up.  “My client withdraws the accusation against Mr. Armstrong.”

Martin Armstrong sat down, anger still bubbling through his veins.  His empire was teetering on the brink of destruction thanks to a worthless piece of trash like Billy Ralston and an arrogant gunfighter and his brother who didn’t know when to keep their mouths shut.  He cast a venomous glare in Scott’s direction.  What evidence had he been able to unearth?  What poison was Murdoch Lancer hoping to whisper into the ear of William Ralston?

Lancer would be convicted, of that he had no doubt.  Threats and money in equal proportions had ensured that the jury knew where their best interests lay.  It was what would happen after that, that was troubling him.  The boy’s death would either destroy the Lancers or make them even more determined to bring him down.  Try as he might he couldn’t imagine them giving up.

He began a mental tally of his assets.  Some could be liquidated quickly and quietly.  Others would be harder to off-load at short notice.  He enjoyed his wealth but, above that, he revelled in his power to control lives.  He had enjoyed playing with Modesto.  Now it was time to move on to bigger and better things…some place in Europe perhaps.  A ruthless businessman with money behind him could easily make London, Paris or Rome his new playground.  His wife wouldn’t take much persuading; not that he would mind much leaving her behind.  A completely new start was what he needed. He’d start working on it as soon as he had watched Lancer breathe his last as the end of a rope.

It hadn’t been personal before…purely a matter of survival.  Life was cheap and he’d felt nothing one way or the other for his chosen victim.  Now he was going to send out a message loud and clear…no one challenged him and survived the experience.

*****

Murdoch sat on a comfortable leather sofa in William Ralston’s outer office.  The long hours since waking at five had passed slowly as he worried about his son and fretted about the length of time he was being forced to stay in San Francisco.  Regular telegrams from Scott had kept him updated as to the progress of the trial.  He offered up a silent prayer that Johnny would keep his notorious temper under control while giving evidence.

The door opened and Murdoch stood to greet the one man who might be able to help them.  William Ralston was several inches shorter than the imposing rancher.  He was well built without being overweight.  His rounded face was framed by a neatly trimmed beard and a receding hairline.  Whatever his thoughts might be about this meeting, nothing showed in his carefully neutral expression.

“Mr. Lancer.”  Ralston extended his hand.

“Mr. Ralston.  It’s good of you to see me.”

Murdoch was ushered into Ralston’s office.  It was plain to the point of austerity…a place of business and nothing more.  James had told him about Ralston’s home, a huge mansion at Belmont, twenty miles or so outside town.  The wealth, James had said, was ostentatious and the lavish parties were notorious.  No conspicuous wealth was apparent in the wood panelled office.

William Ralston sat behind a desk that was smaller and less ornate than Murdoch’s own desk at Lancer.  Apart from a lamp, pens, ink and a blotter, the desktop was empty.  Murdoch folded his large frame into a serviceable armchair, wondering uneasily how to begin.

Ralston studied the man in front of him.  Murdoch Lancer looked tired and haggard.  “I was surprised when James requested this meeting.  I had understood that your son’s trial was to start on Tuesday.  Shouldn’t you be in Modesto?”

“Believe me, Mr. Ralston; there is no place I would rather be than by my son’s side.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Because my son didn’t kill your nephew.”

“How can you be so sure?  I was told that there were witnesses.”

“I know Johnny and he’s no back shooter,” Murdoch growled.

“I mean no disrespect Mr. Lancer but I wonder how well you really know your son.  Hear me out, please.  Your name and reputation precede you.  Everyone I have spoken to has described you as a fair and honourable man.  When I was told that your son was accused of murdering my nephew I found it difficult to believe.  I began to make my own enquiries and you know, of course, what those enquiries revealed.”

“Johnny’s past has nothing to do with this.  His former profession is perfectly legal.”

“I’m not disputing that although there are others who might take a different view.  I only question how well you know a man who has lived that sort of life and has only been at Lancer for a few months.”

Murdoch leaned forward, his hands resting on his knees.  “Johnny is a fine young man.  He works hard and he’s formed a close bond with his brother.  I like to think that he and I are overcoming the pain of our long separation.  It wasn’t easy for him to put his past behind him.  He could have given up any number of times but he didn’t.

“When the Pinkertons finally found him he was minutes away from being executed by a Mexican firing squad.  Do you know why?  He’d been defending helpless peasants from a vicious and corrupt landowner.  It turns out that he’d been doing that sort of thing for years.  He’d used his gun and his reputation to help people.  That is the kind of man who is going to hang if you don’t help me.”

“I have received a telegram from Martin Armstrong warning me that you are going to try and blame him for your son’s predicament.”

“He’s right.  Will you listen to what I have to tell you or am I wasting my time?”

Ralston’s expression was unreadable.  “Would you like some coffee or perhaps something stronger?”

“Coffee, thank you.”  Murdoch would have preferred something a great deal stronger.  Unfortunately he needed a clear head for the ordeal ahead.

*****

Lamont had asked Johnny a few more questions dealing with his departure from Modesto before releasing him to return to his seat.

Theodore called the town’s undertaker to give evidence about Jess’s death and then put Scott on the stand.  Although his facial bruising was much improved it was clear to everyone in court that he had suffered a vicious beating.  Theodore took him through the circumstances of that attack, leaving out his subsequent involvement with Mika and Hannu.

It was a sad fact that the Chinese community was beneath the notice of the majority of the people in that courtroom.  They were treated little better than slaves, working long hours in poor conditions for pitiful wages.  They had no rights and none of the white folk in town would dream of socialising with them. They had their uses on the fringes of society, facilitating gambling and other pleasant pastimes but no decent man would ever admit to his wife that he had visited Chinatown.

Theodore was not a prejudiced man.  He was a strong believer in equal rights and this no nonsense attitude was one of the reasons he and Murdoch got on so well.  He was extremely grateful for the help given to Scott by Mika and her brother and for the information imparted by Hannu.  Scott’s attachment to Mika was obvious to anyone who heard the young Lancer talking about her.

Johnny had met prejudice too often in his short life to care about the color of a person’s skin and Scott had amply demonstrated his views by choosing to fight during the war to free the slaves.  However, the impact of Scott’s evidence would be lessened by an admission of friendship with Mika and her brother.

Scott hadn’t been happy when Theodore had raised this with him although he was smart enough to see the point.  He made it clear that if he were asked by the prosecutor, he would admit the relationship without shame.

Scott explained about his meeting with Jess, casting covert glances at his brother to see how he was taking it.  Johnny’s normally expressive face was like a mask.

When Theodore had finished Lamont stood up and walked over to the self-possessed blond.  “You believe your brother is innocent.”  It was a statement rather than a question.

“Yes, I do.”

“How well do you really know him?  You come from different backgrounds and upbringings.  You didn’t even know he existed until a few months ago.”

“He’s my brother.  I feel as if I’ve known him all my life.”

Johnny’s smile broke through his self-imposed barriers.  It was a simple but heartfelt statement and exactly reflected his own feelings.

“This man,” Lamont pointed at Johnny, “was a gunfighter…a hired killer.  You were brought up in Boston by your wealthy grandfather.  What possible common ground could there be?”

“Johnny *was* a gunfighter and, by all accounts, he was very good at what he did.  He is, and always has been, my younger brother and that’s all the common ground I need.  The fact that we grew up apart is irrelevant.”

Lamont ground his teeth in frustration and tried a different tack.  “You arrived in Modesto only a couple of days after the murder and started asking questions.  Would it be fair to say that emotions were still raw?”

“Mr. Lamont, I was ambushed in my own hotel room a couple of hours after arriving.  I was told not to ask questions and, when I refused, I was dragged out into an alley and beaten senseless.  It had nothing to do with how the townspeople were feeling.  It was a warning.”

“Yet you kept asking questions.  Have there been any further incidents?”

“Not involving me but…”

“I’m only interested in what has happened to you.  You spoke to the girl, Jess, the night she died.”

“I spoke to her briefly in the saloon.”

“You argued.”

“That’s not entirely true.  She was frightened and didn’t want to be seen with me.  She agreed to meet me privately later.  I waited…she didn’t show.  I assumed she had changed her mind.”

“You didn’t kill her to stop her giving evidence against your brother?”

“Objection, your Honor.”  Theodore was on his feet in protest.  “Mr. Lancer isn’t on trial.”

Judge Mickleson had no alternative but to rule the question out of order.  Lamont sat down, satisfied that he had done as much damage as possible.

The last witness of the day was J. D. who described the attack on his office and the non specific threats, attributing them to his decision to help the Lancers.  He detailed his enquiries aimed at locating the mysterious Hank who he had reason to believe might be involved with both murders.  When pressed by the prosecution he was forced to admit that he had no hard evidence to back up that theory.

As the Judge declared the court in recess for the day Theodore leaned over to speak to Johnny.  “I’ll call Sheriff Driver in the morning and then there will be closing arguments.  I believe we’ll get a verdict some time late tomorrow.  Do you want me to wire Murdoch and tell him to come back?”

The implication was clear.  “I reckon he may be able to do more good where he is.  It depends how he got on with Ralston.  If we do get a verdict tomorrow, how soon…?” Johnny left the question unfinished.

“From all I’ve heard about this Judge it’ll be quick…Monday would be my guess.”

Johnny’s courage was breathtaking.  “Then tell Murdoch to get back before Monday.”

*****

The clock in the outer office struck five as Murdoch finished speaking.  For the last hour and a half he had spoken about his sons, Modesto and Martin Armstrong.  William Ralston had asked a number of questions but, other than that, had been prepared to hear Murdoch out.

Ralston stood up and walked to a small table set in the corner of his office.  He picked up a crystal decanter three quarters full of a honey colored liquid.  “Whiskey?”

Murdoch nodded and pushed himself wearily to his feet.  Sitting for so long had caused his back to stiffen up and he wandered over to the window, stretching his muscles as he went.  Court would be over for the day; another day when he’d been away from his sons.  There would be a telegram from Scott waiting for him when he arrived back to the hotel.  He turned away from the view of the city and found his host standing behind him holding out a glass into which he’d poured a generous helping of the liquor.  Murdoch accepted the glass with a nod of thanks and returned to his chair.

As he sipped his drink he studied Ralston carefully.  As an astute businessman, William Ralston was adept at hiding his thoughts and feelings.  Murdoch sympathised with him over the death of his nephew and had been prepared for almost certain rejection.  What he had received instead, to his surprise, was a courteous welcome and the man’s undivided attention.

“I believe I owe you an apology,” Ralston began unexpectedly.  “I have put you through a very difficult ordeal.  You must understand that I loved my nephew dearly although I had no illusions about him.  There was a viciousness in him that no one could really control.  I did my best for him and for my sister-in-law but in truth I failed them both.

“I have known Martin Armstrong for a number of years.  We never became friends.  I think that may have been because I detected the same streak of viciousness in him.  I opposed his appointment as Director in charge in Modesto.  I was worried about what a man like that, an unprincipled man, might do to a fledgling town.  Unfortunately, I was overruled and I have had too many concerns of my own to allow me the luxury of keeping an eye on him.

“A few months ago I began to hear rumours coming out of Modesto and I was deeply troubled.  I regret to say that I decided to enlist my nephew’s help.  He needed to get out of San Francisco following an incident where a man died.  I sent him to Modesto with instructions to try and find evidence against Armstrong.  He wasn’t happy at having to leave town and I had to promise him a substantial monthly income to make him go.

“At first he reported back regularly; nothing of any great use.  Then, after a while his reports stopped.   He ignored all my telegrams so I withheld his allowance.  Even then I didn’t hear from him.  I can only assume that he had found another, better, source of income.  Then, out of the blue, I received a telegram from him.  He said he had information that would be worth a lot of money and that he was coming home to speak to me in person.  That was one Friday.  By the Sunday morning he was dead.”

Murdoch slammed his glass down.  “If you knew Armstrong was dirty why did you just sit there and let me talk?”

Ralston placed his hands palm down on the desk, leaning forward to emphasise his point.  “I suspected Armstrong had Billy killed.  When I found out your son used to be Johnny Madrid I wondered if he had been hired to do the job.  I wanted to find out for myself the sort of man you are and to get a feel for your family.  I accept I may have been out of line.”

“My son is on trial for his life.” Murdoch growled.  “There is deep seated corruption in that town.  What chance do you think he has?  Yet you’ve done nothing to help him.  If I hadn’t come here today how would you have felt when you got the news that Johnny was dead?  Would you have felt sorry?  My son is only twenty-one.  He should have his entire life ahead of him.”

“My nephew wasn’t much older than that and his life is over.  Until I met you I was as convinced as I could be that your son was guilty.  The things you have told me though only serve to confirm my own suspicions about my fellow Director.”

“Then help me.” Rather than a plea it came out as a demand.  “We don’t have much time.”

“What would you have me do?  You know as well as I do that none of that evidence will be admissible in Court.  That, after all, is why you’re here and not with your son.  If a jury convicts him we haven’t got a chance of stopping the hanging.”

“What if we can prove that the Judge is dirty?  If we can show he’s been bribed by Armstrong wouldn’t that give us some leverage to postpone the execution and seek an appeal?”

William Ralston gave this a lot of thought.  “It’s possible.  I’m very friendly with one of the Supreme Court Judges.  Let me speak to him and see what he thinks.  Perhaps we could meet at your hotel tomorrow morning for breakfast.”

Murdoch drained his glass and stood up.  “I’ll be grateful for anything you can do.  I have to leave for Modesto the day after tomorrow at the latest.  I’m afraid the trial is likely to finish tomorrow so we don’t have much time.”  He offered his hand to Ralston.  “You’ve given me back some hope.  Thank you.”

*****

Theodore had excused himself to work on his closing speech leaving Scott to visit with his brother alone.  Scott had sent his daily telegram to his father and had waited at the hotel for a response.  That response had lifted his spirits for the first time in days.  Johnny took the news from San Francisco calmly, refusing to get his hopes up.  Armstrong would be pushing the Judge to set a swift date for his execution, no doubt fearing what Murdoch might be able to accomplish.

“You said some nice things about me in Court today, brother.”  Johnny gave Scott a shy smile to show his gratitude.

“They were all true.”

“Well, I just wanted you to know I feel the same.  It’s been good having a big brother and…”

“Stop it.”  Scott’s raised voice attracted the attention of Johnny’s guards.  Scott irritably waved them away and lowered his voice.  “Stop acting like it’s all over.”

“We need to face facts, Scott.  The jury’s gonna convict me tomorrow and that Judge is just itching to send me to the gallows.  Armstrong ain’t gonna let some Judge in San Francisco spoil his plans or delay things.  Unless a miracle happens, Brother, my luck’s just run out.  Just do me one favour…get Armstrong legally and make him pay for everything that’s happened.  Don’t go taking the law into your own hands…Murdoch can’t afford to lose both of us.”

While Scott wanted to deny his brother’s words he knew Johnny was being realistic.  He wasn’t going to give up on his brother but neither was it fair for him to offer false, meaningless platitudes.  His throat constricted too much for him to speak and he could only nod wordlessly and turn away to hide the glint of tears in his eyes.

*****

The following morning Murdoch and Ralston met as arranged.  “I’ve spoken to the Judge,” Ralston reported.  “He has said that he will look at the case if we can find proof of dishonesty on the part of Mickleson.  I have considerable connections in the banking industry.  I wish I could promise you that this will be easy but a man’s finances are a very private thing and it may be a lost cause.  I’ll do my best and I’ll send word if I find anything out.”

Murdoch nodded, his eyes heavy from lack of sleep.  He pushed his plate away unable to stomach eating and tried to find a patience inside him that he knew he didn’t possess.  All his life he had been active, reaching out and taking what he wanted.  Twice before he had been thwarted, both times in relation to his sons.  He had lost Scott before ever seeing him and had failed in his attempts to retrieve him from his grandfather.  After having the joy of watching Johnny grow for almost two years he had lost him as well and had spent the best part of twenty years looking for him.  Having found his boys and brought them home it was looking increasingly likely that he was going to lose them both again; if Johnny died he couldn’t see Scott staying at Lancer with the memories. He wasn’t sure he could live with those memories either.

*****

Sheriff Driver sat in the witness box and scowled at the prosecutor.  He had answered Theodore’s questions about the two assaults on Johnny and about his abortive attempts to find the person responsible for killing Jess.

“When you arrived in Green River to take custody of the Defendant what was your impression of him?”

“I was wary.  The evidence seemed to point to his guilt and he had quite a reputation as a gunfighter.”

“You kept him chained up during the journey?”

“It seemed a natural precaution at the time.”

“You left your two deputies in charge of him that first night while you went hunting.  The Defendant has said that they beat him.  Did you see what happened?”

“I saw him on his knees.  One of the deputies, Seth, had a hand over his mouth.  When I got closer I could see that he’d been hurt.”

“But you didn’t see either of the deputies hit him or hear them threaten him?”

“No.”

“A few days ago you removed the prisoner from the jail.  Had his brother visited him before that happened?”

Sheriff Driver looked for the trap he was sure was there.  “Yes, Scott had visited him on a couple of occasions.”

“Why did you take a dangerous prisoner out of jail?”

“I’d left him locked up in the charge of those two deputies.  When I got back his chest was covered in bruises.  He passed out on me.  I was worried about his safety.”

“Did you see what happened?”  Lamont was enjoying himself and was looking forward to making his closing speech.  “Did you see them beat him?”

“No, I didn’t, but they were the only one’s who could have done it.”

“The truth is, sheriff, that you have no idea what happened on either occasion.  Some prisoners can be difficult to handle.  Some need rough handling to tame them and keep them in line.”

“Rough handling?” Sheriff Driver burst out.  “They damn near killed him.”

“So you say.  Just so that we have this clear…you removed the prisoner, a man charged with a despicable crime, after you had received a visit from his brother.  Tell me, Sheriff, how much has Murdoch Lancer paid you?”

Theodore put a restraining hand on Johnny’s arm to keep him in his seat.  He turned a furious glare on the elder Lancer son that ordered him to stay right where he was.  They both subsided with very bad grace.

Sheriff Driver was red faced with anger.  “I’ve never taken a bribe in my life, unlike some people.”  He stared furiously at the Judge.

“That morning at the jail…that was the day after Jess was found dead.  Did the Defendant know about that?”

The sheriff thought uncomfortably back to Johnny’s reaction to that news.  “Yes, he did.  I told him myself.”

“How did he react?”

“He was upset.”

“When the deputies arrived I understand there were food and coffee stains on your shirt.  How did that happen?  An accident perhaps?”

Sheriff Driver shot Johnny an apologetic look.  “He threw his breakfast at the bars…after I’d told him about Jess.”

“So he was in a highly agitated state that morning?” Lamont turned his attention to the jury.  “Perhaps it’s no wonder that the deputies had to take steps to restrain him.  I have no further questions.”

When Lamont stood to deliver his closing speech he was confident of victory.  He wasn’t to know that he would have won whatever he said, and that his eloquence was superfluous.  He pointed the jury to the eyewitness testimony relating to the shooting and Johnny’s argument with the deceased in the bar.  Johnny’s own ‘antics’ in Court came in for severe criticism.  “You have seen how volatile he is.  Can you really have any doubt that he is capable of committing the crime of which he is accused?”

Johnny’s past came in for special mention.  “A gunfighter…a man without principle.  Killing was a way of life for this man.  Is it really possible for someone like that to settle down to life as a rancher?  Oh, I know his brother has spoken passionately in his defence but how well does he really know the man sitting before you?  Indeed how much of Scott Lancer’s testimony can you trust?  Can it just be a coincidence that his brother was removed from jail after his visits…or that a young woman was killed shortly after having an argument with him?”

The death of Johnny’s mother was seized upon.  “This young man was permanently scarred by witnessing the murder of his mother.  He killed for the first time as a child…we can’t condemn him for that if it was, as he says, self-defence, but it led him on the path to more and more killing until he could no longer control himself.  The victim here was also a young man.  He may have been guilty of treating this saloon girl with less than the respect the Defendant believed was her due.  Having seen how his mother was treated Johnny Lancer’s reactions tended toward the extreme.  He sought Billy Ralston out and shot him in the back.  An echo of his childhood, perhaps?  He is a dangerous and lethal young animal.  You can’t in all conscience free him to kill again.”

*****

Theodore glanced over his notes for the last time as the Judge returned to Court following the noon recess.  He waited until Judge Mickleson was comfortably settled before getting to his feet.  He was in no hurry and ignored the sour looks from the Judge as he strolled over to the jury.  Johnny was sitting with his hands clasped together and resting on the table.  He appeared perfectly relaxed.  Theodore knew it was an act and that his client was, in reality, coiled as tightly as a spring.  Scott wasn’t faring as well…his worry showed clearly in a face that was now devoid of any color.

In Theodore’s considerable experience most jurors would watch the advocate intently during the closing speech.  This jury was different…only one or two of the men would meet his eye…reinforcing his fear that it wasn’t only the Judge who had been compromised by Armstrong and his underhanded tactics.

Judge Mickleson watched the defence attorney with ill-concealed irritation.  He wanted this trial over and done with so that he could go home.  He couldn’t complain about the accommodation provided by Martin Armstrong.  It was a comfortable home and he had been well looked after.  Nevertheless this case was starting to wear on his nerves and he was planning on taking the morning stage back to San Francisco.  He had decided against staying to watch the execution having belatedly come to the conclusion that he was about to hang an innocent man.  He consoled himself with the fact that it was the jury who would render the verdict.  If they found the Defendant guilty he would have no option but to impose the death penalty.  No one could criticise him for that.

Finally Theodore was ready.  “You have heard a lot said in this court about my client’s former life as a gunfighter.  I would remind you that Johnny Madrid is not the one on trial.  The accused is Johnny Lancer, a rancher who was in Modesto for the sole purpose of concluding a contract with the Railroad.  He is not a hired killer and, even as Johnny Madrid, he pursued a perfectly legal profession.

“It is for you to decide who has told the truth about the tragic events surrounding the death of Billy Ralston.  Three young men have sat before you and have testified that they saw my client shoot Billy in the back.  My client denies the crime and has told you that he was no longer in Modesto when it was committed.  Who do you believe?

“There are puzzling aspects to those witnesses’ stories.  Why, for example, were they going to work in the early hours of a Sunday morning?  I know they have given an explanation but was it credible?  How would my client have known where to look for Billy and why would he have shot him in front of witnesses before calmly returning home?  It doesn’t make sense.

“As soon as he heard about the charge against him he surrendered himself to the law…he made no attempt to run even knowing that there were witnesses who blamed him for the murder.  Does that sound like the actions of a guilty man?  Twice now, while in custody, he has been assaulted by men supposedly sworn to uphold the law.  His brother has been beaten simply for asking questions.  Johnny was threatened with a lynch mob if he didn’t plead guilty.  Your own sheriff became so concerned about the safety of his prisoner that he removed him from the jail for a time to give him a chance to recover from his injuries.

“You have heard evidence from J. D. Spencer, a highly respected newspaperman.  He’s been threatened and his offices have been ransacked.  Jess, that poor unfortunate woman, was murdered to keep her quiet.  What did she know that was so damaging?  Look at this pattern of intimidation and violence.  If Johnny were guilty why go to such lengths to try and prevent this trial and to stop people from asking questions?  Someone was afraid of those questions and even more afraid of the answers should Johnny fight the charge and be acquitted..

“Those three witnesses for the prosecution are not exactly upstanding citizens.  All of them have been convicted of crimes of violence or destruction of property.  Only days after Billy Ralston was killed Cort Anders mysteriously acquired a large sum of money to pay off a gambling debt The implications are clear and you should pay attention to those facts when considering who to believe.

“Johnny hasn’t sought to deny his feelings about a man who would beat up a woman.  Given his background is it any wonder that he would be opposed to that?  Shouldn’t any right-minded person feel the same way?  That incident in the saloon, which he does not deny, was the end of the matter so far as he was concerned.  He had no reason to go after Billy and kill him.  Others may have had a motive for that murder and for covering up their involvement.  What better way to divert suspicion than to find someone else to blame?”

Theodore spun his closing speech out for as long as he could in the hope that the Judge would decide not to send the jury out that day.  On one occasion he even paused to go back to his desk and take a long drink of water.  The Judge by this stage was starting to fidget restlessly.  Eventually it reached the point where Theodore realised he was going to have to wrap things up.

“You have heard the evidence of my client and his brother.  Do they strike you as men who would lie under oath?  Just remember that Johnny Lancer is presumed innocent.  It is for the prosecution to convince you, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he is guilty of this crime.  If there is any doubt in your mind you must find my client not guilty.”

He glanced up at the clock to find that it was almost four o’clock.  On most days that would herald the end of the proceedings for the day.  If the Judge adjourned now it would be Monday before the jury were sent out, giving Murdoch and Ralston some much needed additional time.  His hopes were swiftly dashed as the Judge began giving his instructions to the jury.  His comments were brief and pointed and heavily biased against Johnny.

“You can go now and consider your verdict,” he concluded.  “We’re going to get this case finished today so no one’s going home until you reach that verdict.  The bailiff will show you to the jury room.  Send word as soon as you’ve all agreed.”  With that the Judge stood up and left the courtroom.

*****

Johnny was returned to his cell, grateful at least to be rid of the chains on his wrists and ankles.  He still felt unnaturally calm and detached.  He was joined by Theodore, who pulled over a chair so that he could sit near the bars.

“I’ve sent Scott to get a wire off to Murdoch to let him know that we’ll definitely get a verdict tonight.  He wasn’t happy but he looked as if he needed some air.  I asked Sheriff Driver to keep an eye on him.”

“I’m glad we’ve got a few minutes alone.”  Johnny was sitting hunched forward with his hands dangling down between his legs.  “Scott’s gonna take this hard.  I’m worried about what he might do without Murdoch here to watch out for him.  Will you and the sheriff make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid?”

“Don’t worry, Johnny, we’ll keep him out of trouble.”

“And can you thank the sheriff for all he did for me.  He took a risk in helping me and I want him to know I’m grateful.  That reporter who helped out…Scott says he promised I’d give him an interview.  Can’t see Armstrong allowing that.  He’ll get his story, though, when Armstrong gets brought down.  Tell him I’m sorry I never got to speak to him and that it was real kind of him to put himself out for me.”

Theodore was battling against an almost overwhelming sadness knowing that Johnny and Scott would need him to stay strong to help them through the next few days.  “I’ll tell them.”  His sadness was mixed with a righteous anger that this fine young man should be railroaded to his death by corruption and deceit.

“You will make sure that Murdoch gets back in time?  I don’t want to…die without getting a chance to tell him how I feel and to say goodbye.”  A brief tremor was apparent in Johnny’s voice as he spoke of his father.  “I grew up hating him and I guess it was written all over my face the first day we met.  I need him to know that I…I love him and that I’m sorry I let him down.”

“You’ve not let anyone down. Murdoch knows you love him, Johnny.  I saw it the minute I saw the two of you together.  Never doubt that he feels the same way.  When he was telling me about you…he was so proud of the way you’d survived everything that life had thrown at you.  And he was grateful that you’d come home and given him a chance to be a father to you.”

“There’s one more thing…can you keep Scott away tonight after the verdict?  I…I’d like some time on my own.”

Theodore nodded sympathetically.  “I’ll see to it.”

They lapsed into silence, each lost in their own thoughts.  Ten minutes later they were joined by Scott.  Johnny smiled, comforted by his brother’s presence.  Scott looked like a man about to buckle under the strain; his brow was furrowed and there were deep lines on either side of his mouth.  Theodore excused himself, saying that he needed to take a walk, and left the brothers alone.

“How are you holding up?”  Scott eventually managed to ask.

Johnny sat back and rested his head against the wall.  “I’ve been in this situation before…the surroundings were a lot worse than this though.  What you need to understand, Scott, is that I’ve lived with the idea of dying for as long as I can remember.  Every time I signed on for a range war or stood in the middle of some dusty street in some no account town.  I never liked the idea and hanging isn’t the way I expected to go but dying itself doesn’t scare me.”  Johnny paused to look at his brother.  Scott was pale and tense and didn’t look very convinced by Johnny’s words.

“When I got marched out that day by the rurales and put in front of a firing squad I thought my time had finally come.  I’d made my peace with God and, if that Pinkerton agent hadn’t turned up, I’d have looked them straight in the eye as they pulled the trigger.”  Johnny saw that Scott was at least prepared to accept that as truth.  “What scares me is what’ll happen to you and Murdoch afterwards and I worry about Teresa and Jelly and all those other people that’ve been good to me.”

“Don’t do this,” Scott begged.  “Not now…not today.”

“I’ve got to ‘cause we both know what that verdict is gonna be and we won’t have much time afterwards.  I want you to promise me that you’ll stay at Lancer; that you won’t give up and won’t let Murdoch give up either.  And you make sure that I get buried on Lancer…on that hill overlooking the house so that I can keep an eye on you all.”

A tear rolled down Scott’s cheek and he swiped it away angrily.  “I’m not going to give up.  Even if they do convict you we’ve still got time…”

“No, we don’t.” Johnny spoke gently.  “We never did, Armstrong made sure of that.”

*****

The afternoon stretched into evening.  Theodore brought food for them all and watched as neither brother did more than push it aimlessly around the plate.  In San Francisco Murdoch sat in his room as darkness descended, unable to summon up enough energy to get up and light the lamps.  William Ralston, alerted that the verdict was imminent, redoubled his efforts to find evidence to show that Judge Mickleson had taken bribes only to be frustrated at every turn.

“The jury is coming back.”  The sudden announcement from one of Johnny’s guards cut through the heavy silence.  “You two need to leave so’s we can get him ready to go back to Court.”

Scott felt as if he was in a dream as he followed Theodore down the two flights of stairs and entered the courtroom.  George Lamont was already in his seat and the room was filling up as interested spectators hurried to find a spot from which to hear the verdict.  Scott took his usual place between the sheriff and J. D.  A few minutes later Armstrong arrived with Seth, his ever-present shadow.

Upstairs Johnny waited quietly for the cell door to be unlocked.  He made no protest as the metal handcuffs clicked shut around his wrists.  He walked downstairs oblivious to the people and comments, his mind in another place entirely.  Once the shackles had been fastened round his ankles he automatically adjusted his gait to accommodate them.

Once everyone was assembled the Judge entered the courtroom and instructed the bailiff to fetch the jury.  As soon as they were back in their seats Theodore tapped Johnny on the arm and indicated that they both needed to stand.  The foreman rose to his feet, eyes firmly averted from Johnny and Theodore.

“Have you got a verdict?” The Judge asked and received a nod of assent.  “Do you all agree?”

“Yes, sir, we do.”

“Get on with it then.”

“On the charge of murder we find the Defendant, John Lancer….guilty.”  The foreman sat down with a thump.

The Judge turned his attention to Johnny.  “You have been convicted of a vicious crime for which you have shown no remorse.  The sentence of this Court is that you be put to death by hanging.  The sentence is to be carried out this Monday coming at noon.  Remove the prisoner.”

*****

“No!” Scott’s whispered denial sounded loud in the sudden silence that had greeted the Judge’s words.

Johnny heard a rustle of movement behind him followed immediately by the guards standing by the side wall raising their rifles and pointing them in the direction of his brother.  His attempt to turn was hampered by the chain on his ankles and he stumbled  as his right foot became tangled with the front legs of his chair.

Scott had leapt to his feet as soon as the sentence was pronounced.  He had no clear idea in his head as to what he hoped to achieve.  He only knew that this was wrong and that, somehow, he had to stop it.  His right hand strayed, unconsciously, to the gun hanging at his right hip.  His eyes and all his attention were focussed on the Judge, leaving him unaware of his own danger from the two rifles now pointed at his head.

Forewarned by Theodore, Sheriff Driver stood up and clamped a heavy hand on Scott’s right arm, preventing him from drawing his gun.  The sheriff removed the gun himself and handed it to the startled newspaperman for safe keeping.  Scott’s furious gaze turned from the Judge and bored into the larger man as he struggled against the restraint.  Sheriff Driver gripped his other arm and began to push him toward the door.

“Are you trying to get yourself shot?” The sheriff demanded.  “There’s nothing you can do here.  At the very least you’ll find yourself locked up.  Armstrong would love that.”

“Get your hands off me,” Scott raged, fighting the sheriff’s efforts to remove him from the court.  “I’m not going to stand by and let them get away with this.  LET GO.”

Johnny had regained his balance with help from Theodore, bitterly aware that his brother was playing right into Armstrong’s hands.  “Scott.”

The clear, forceful call penetrated Scott’s blind fury and he hesitated.  Sheriff Driver took the opportunity to tighten his grip, satisfied now that the young blond couldn’t escape him.

“You need to let it go, brother.  Remember what we talked about.  It’s gotta be legal and you can’t do anything with a bullet in you or if you’re locked up someplace.”  The words meant nothing to most people in the room but they gave Scott pause.  “You need to let Murdoch know,” Johnny continued.  “Tell him to come back.”

The tension left Scott’s body in a rush and he bowed his head to hide the misery in his eyes.  He no longer resisted the sheriff’s efforts and allowed himself to be pushed gently toward the door.

Johnny released a relieved sigh.  Meeting Armstrong’s smug stare he wiped all expression from his own face.  The fear and helplessness he felt, deep in his gut, had nothing to do with his own fate…it was a fear for his brother and for his own inability to protect him.

“Get him out of here.”  Judge Mickleson had been shaken by the show of violence and had been unnerved by the deadly intent he had seen on Scott Lancer’s face.  He would need to speak to Martin Armstrong about that young man.

The two guards lowered their rifles, seeing that the immediate threat was passed, and turned their attentions to Johnny.  He found himself very quickly removed from the courtroom and returned to his cell.  As the door clanged shut behind him he sank down on the cot and put his hands over his eyes to try and shut out the reality of what was happening around him.

*****

As soon as they reached the street Scott pulled himself free from the sheriff.  “Who gave you the right to interfere?”

“I’m still the sheriff around here and you were about to do something real stupid.  You’d have wound up under arrest or, worse, with a bullet in the head, if I hadn’t done something.  Go and send that telegram to your father then go back to your hotel and cool off.”

“Is that an order, Sheriff?”  Scott’s bitterness overrode all pretence at good manners.

“No, it’s a suggestion.  I’ll leave your gun at the front desk for you.  I’d advise you not to think about using it.”

“I’m touched by your concern.” The sarcasm dripped off Scott’s tongue.  “I’ll be going back to see Johnny once I’ve sent that wire.”

In addition to warning the sheriff to keep a close watch on Scott, Theodore had also left him with a message to be passed on.  “He doesn’t want any visitors tonight.”

“How do you know?”  Scott’s temper was threatening to overcome his last vestiges of common sense.

“Mr. Young told me while we were waiting for the verdict.  You can see him tomorrow but tonight he wants to be on his own.”

A feeling of rejection and loss settled over Scott.  He backed up a few steps before turning and striding off down the street in the direction of the telegraph office.  Sheriff Driver let him go, went back inside to retrieve the gun from J. D. and then set off to make sure that Scott didn’t get into any trouble.

Martin Armstrong watched from the steps of the Courthouse before turning to Seth to issue instructions with a view to leaving town early Monday afternoon.

*****

As the night became darker Johnny lay curled up as comfortably as possible on his narrow cot.  Chills swept over him despite the warmth in the air.  He pulled the thin blanket closer around his body, retaining just enough awareness to recognise the symptoms of shock.

“Here.”

The voice jolted him out of an uneasy doze.  It was an effort to move as he turned his head listlessly to look.  One of his younger guards had pushed a more substantial blanket partway through the bars.  Johnny sat up and reached for it, wondering if this was some cruel trick and expecting it to be pulled out of reach at any minute.  His fingers curled in the rough wool as he unfolded the blanket and draped it across his shoulders.

“Thank you.”  He was unaccountably touched by the gesture.  The guard looked away in embarrassment and then returned to the table where he and his partner had been playing cards.

The warmth of the blanket and the gesture dispelled the tremors and Johnny fell into an exhausted sleep.

*****

Raised voices and a banging on his hotel room door roused Scott from his stupor.  Having no where else to go after sending the telegram to his father he had taken the sheriff’s advice.  His gun was once again nestling in its holster with the gunbelt being slung over the back of the chair in which he had been sitting for hours.  His determination that he wasn’t going to let his brother hang remained firm…what was missing was a plan to rescue him.

He crossed to the door and pulled it open, irritated by the interruption to his thoughts.  The reason for the disturbance was obvious as he came face to face with a fiercely scowling Hannu and an agitated desk clerk.

“He just barged in, Mr. Lancer, and demanded to know which room you were in.”  The clerk explained hastily.  “I told him to leave…that his kind aren’t welcome in a respectable establishment…but he wouldn’t listen.  Shall I fetch the sheriff?”

Scott regarded the desk clerk with loathing.  “As far as I’m concerned he’s perfectly welcome and you’re attitude is offensive.” He opened the door fully and indicated to Hannu that he should go inside.

Sheriff Driver arrived in the upstairs hallway.  He had been dozing in a chair in the hotel foyer when the altercation had broken out between the two men and he had followed along curiously.  “Is there a problem?”

Hannu hesitated in the doorway.  He had no time for the law as it had never done his people any good.  He could tell that Scott was far from pleased to see the sheriff.

“No problem,” Scott stated firmly.  “You can go home, sheriff.  I don’t need a babysitter.”

“Wait,” Hannu made his decision.  “Can he be trusted?”

Scott’s annoyance with the sheriff warred with his essentially honest nature.  “Yes.”

“Then he should hear what I have to say.”

Having slammed the door shut in the face of the irritating desk clerk Scott pointed his unexpected guests toward chairs and took a seat on the bed.  “The trial ended today,” he informed Hannu.  “My brother has been convicted and sentenced to hang on Monday.”  His stomach cramped as he said those words.

“I know.  That is why I am here.  Understand this, Scott, if it had been my decision alone I would not have come.  I am here because Mika cares about you and she begged me to help you.”

“Is she alright?  I heard that she…” Scott hung his head in shame.  “I shouldn’t have allowed her to become involved.”

“Last Saturday night I found her lying in an alley, unconscious.  Two men had attacked her, held a knife on her and made threats.  They said that they would cut her and…rape her…if we didn’t stop helping you.”

“They didn’t…she wasn’t hurt?”  Scott’s throat constricted with fear.

“She was hurt by their words.  For two days she wouldn’t speak of it.  They had their filthy hands on my sister.” Hannu hissed.  “Do you understand what it felt like to hear that?  To know that I hadn’t kept her safe?”

“Yes,” Scott whispered.  “I know.”

Hannu’s expression softened.  “Yes, I believe you do.  She only got a good look at one of the men…it was the man, Hank, that I told you about.  We had to wait several days before he was foolish enough to venture into Chinatown again.  Mika asked me not to kill him.  She said that he could have information that might help your brother.” Hannu grinned nastily.  “I think he would have preferred a quick death.”

Scott got to his feet.  “What have you done?”

“He was braver than I expected him to be.  It took a long time to break him.  Now he is prepared to tell you what you want to know.  Come, I’ll take you to him.”

“Does he know who killed Billy and Jess?”  Sheriff Driver had been listening with mounting concern to the conversation.  “Will he implicate Armstrong?”

“The knife he held on my sister was the one he used to kill that girl.  He boasted about it.  And he has confessed to shooting the boy and dumping him in the train yards.  He will tell you and then you can write out his confession.  He no longer has the use of his hands.  When the pain got to be more than he could bear he wept like a girl as he blamed Armstrong for everything.”

“We need to be careful,” Scott’s mind was racing and he found himself slipping back into the habit of command he had developed during the War.  “I was being watched.  We don’t want Armstrong to get wind of this until we’re ready.  Sheriff, can you escort Hannu out of here?  Make it look like you’re arresting him for causing a disturbance.  I’ll leave by the back entrance in about half an hour…that should give things time to settle down.  Where should I meet you?”

Hannu named a warehouse close to his home and Scott nodded his agreement.  “I’ll see you shortly and Hannu…this means more to me than I can ever say.”

Hannu bowed slightly from the waist in acknowledgment of Scott’s thanks before allowing Sheriff Driver to take gentle hold of his arm and lead him from the room.

*****

Before leaving his room Scott stuffed some sheets of writing paper, a pen and a bottle of ink in his pockets.  It had been hard to sit and wait for the thirty minutes to pass and he had to keep reminding himself that thinking calmly and rationally was the only way to help his brother.  The thought that they might finally have the breakthrough they’d been looking for excited him.  It also left him with a dilemma…how best to use the information.  He worried that problem round in his mind and was no further forward with solving it as he prepared to leave.  He exited the hotel by the back stairs being very careful to ensure that he wasn’t being followed.

His nerves were on edge the whole way to the warehouse described by Hannu.  There were two men guarding the door.  Their expressions were not friendly and they offered no greeting as he was allowed entry to the building.  The temperature inside the building was noticeably cooler than the outside air causing Scott to shiver.  The realisation that he was in a slaughterhouse did nothing to calm his racing heart as he looked around at the huge joints of meat hanging from hooks set in the ceiling.  He walked toward a circle of light at the rear of the building attempting to ignore the grotesque shadows cast by the lamps.

He heard faint moaning noises and stopped dead in shock when he got close enough to see the man tied to a chair.  Hank’s shirt had been removed and his chest was covered with welts and shallow cuts.  His face was bruised and bloody and it looked as if his nose had been broken. One arm had clearly been broken and Scott had to turn away when he saw the mess that had been made of his fingers.  He swallowed down the bile that had risen into his throat.

Scott wasn’t a violent man by nature, although neither was he known for backing off from a fight.  Even knowing what Hank was guilty of he couldn’t condone the torture inflicted on a helpless prisoner.  He had witnessed such abuse too often while a prisoner of war to ever be comfortable with its use.  He had suffered such treatment himself from time to time during that period of his life.  He still had occasional nightmares about the day when the Camp Commander had taken a whip to his back following the disastrous escape attempt that had left all his men dead.

Before he could turn back there was a rustle of movement and Mika flung herself into his arms, burying her face in his chest.  She clung to his waist, sobbing, as he put his arms around her shoulders and pulled her into a fierce embrace.  Words of apology and comfort spilled from him in a rush.  As she quieted he gently disentangled her and held her at arms length so that he could study her face.  Physically there was no sign of any injury.  However, the innocent sparkle was missing from her eyes.  As he bent down to kiss her she pulled away, wiping the tears from her cheeks with her sleeve.

“I have a present for you.”  Her voice was cold and flat as she turned her attention to Hank.  The lack of emotion frightened Scott and he cast an anxious look at Hannu who was standing by the chair.

“She has been like this since it happened; hard and unfeeling.  This is the first time she has cried.  Soon I will send her to San Francisco to live with our aunt.  There are too many bad memories here.”

“She shouldn’t be here.” Scott couldn’t quite keep the criticism from his voice.

“I know that.” Hannu snapped in response.  “She refuses to leave.”

Hearing Scott’s voice Hank lifted his head, squinting through bruised and swollen eyes.  “Get me away from these animals.” His attempt at bravado was ruined by the whining note in his voice.

Sheriff Driver stood leaning against the back wall with his arms folded.  He too had been shocked by the damage done to Hank and wasn’t prepared to watch any further torture.  For the moment he was content to wait and see what was about to happen.

Scott walked over to Hank and looked down at him dispassionately.  “They were acting to protect one of their own.  What’s your excuse?  You’ve killed and threatened innocent people and were quite happy to see my brother convicted and executed for your crimes.  If…and there is no guarantee…if we take you away from here what do we get in return?”

“A full confession and I’ll give you Armstrong.” Hank licked dry lips.  “Can…can I have some water?”

Hannu handed Scott a canteen and Scott held it to Hank’s mouth, allowing him to take several gulping mouthfuls.  “I need to speak to Hannu.”  Scott didn’t want to find himself making a promise that he was then going to be prevented from keeping.

He drew Hannu out of earshot, aware that Mika was looking at Hank as if he was a particularly interesting bug.  He suppressed a further shiver.  “If I give him my word, and he gives me what I need, I *will* be taking him out of here.  Do you have a problem with that?”

“To keep my honor, I should kill him myself for what he did to Mika.  My one hope for the future and her recovery was her insistence that he be made to talk in order to save your brother.  So long as he pays for his crimes I will be content.”

“He’ll pay for his crimes all right.  He’ll hang and Armstrong will hang with him.” Scott promised.

“Then make your bargain and you’ll be allowed to leave with him.  I am glad that I am dealing with an honourable man.”

For the next hour Hank talked and Scott wrote.  Mika sat beside Scott, close enough to touch, but feeling so far away that it was as if there was a chasm between them. There were frequent pauses to allow Hank to have more water and his voice became weaker and weaker as the time went on.  He described Billy Ralston’s arrival in Modesto where he had come to the attention of Martin Armstrong because of his short temper and violent outbursts.  Armstrong had been wary at first about recruiting him because of his connection to William Ralston.  Hank had been sent to befriend the young man and had quickly established that he would do anything for money.  He had risen rapidly within the organisation and, within months, had become Hank’s second in command.

Then one day Armstrong had sent for Hank.  The Railroad Director had been in a towering rage as he described a meeting with Billy at which time the young man had attempted to extort money from him.  Billy had told Armstrong that he had been keeping notes of all his activities and that he would be taking them to his uncle unless he was paid a significant sum of money and was cut in on a share of the profits.  Armstrong had sent Billy away, saying that he needed time to think.  In reality all he needed to think about was how to dispose of the problem.

Armstrong favored a very public punishment to ensure that no one else ever tried anything similar.  The risk, however, was that William Ralston would launch an enquiry that would uncover all Armstrong’s activities.  The following day Hank had returned with news of Billy’s fight with Johnny Lancer. Armstrong had, for once in his life, failed to think through the consequences of his actions.  He had done some checking on Johnny Lancer before their meetings and was already aware of his background.  What better scapegoat could he ask for than an ex-gunfighter with a temper?  So Billy’s fate, now irrevocably entwined with Johnny’s, was sealed.

On the Saturday night Hank had waylaid Billy with the help of Seth and had put a bullet in his back.  They had dumped the body in the train yards and had then set out to buy witnesses prepared to swear that Johnny had done the killing.  It wasn’t hard to find ‘friends’ of Billy who needed money or who were susceptible to threats and blackmail.

A few days later Jess had been grabbed as soon as she left the saloon to meet Scott. He and Seth had had their fun with her before she had been fatally stabbed and then thrown into the water to make it look like a suicide.  Scott’s hand began to shake as Hank confirmed that she was only killed because she had spoken to him.  Had he never approached her she would have been left untouched.

Once Hank had finished he was untied and managed to hold the pen long enough to make his mark.  Sheriff Driver countersigned the confession to confirm that he had been present while it was made and to witness Hank’s ‘signature’.

“Now what?” The sheriff asked.

Scott stood up and stretched to relieve cramped muscles.  “We need to get him and his confession out of town and get a message to Murdoch.  He and Ralston should be able to use this information to persuade a judge to order a stay of execution.  I don’t want Judge Mickleson or Armstrong to get their hands on that paper or on Hank for that matter.”

“We can take him to Murphy’s Ferry,” Sheriff Driver suggested.  I know the sheriff there and it’s far enough away from Modesto so that we don’t have to worry about Armstrong having influence there.”

Scott considered this and then nodded.  “You and Theodore take him.”

“What about you?”

“I’m not leaving Johnny.  I’ll send a wire to Murdoch and tell him to meet up with you in Murphy’s Ferry.  With the original confession and a judge’s order they’ll have to postpone the hanging.  Get Murdoch to wire me once you’re on your way back here.”

“I don’t like this, Scott.  If Armstrong gets wind of this you could find yourself in serious trouble.  I’d be happier if you came with us.”

“It’s not open for debate.  I’m not leaving.”  Scott’s mouth was set in a stubborn line, sufficient for the sheriff to realise that he’d have to use force to make the young man leave.

Sheriff Driver conceded defeat.  “I’ll go and organise a wagon while you get that message off to your father.  Tell Mr. Young to meet me a mile outside town on the west road.”

After the sheriff had gone Scott offered his hand to Hannu.  After a moment of indecision Hannu accepted and returned the gesture.  Scott then held his hand out to Mika.  She reminded him now of a shy wild animal, distrustful of humans and expecting to be hurt again.  He made no move to go to her, leaving her to make the decision.  He saw the change in her face as the mask cracked, letting her fear escape in a devastating flood of tears.  She rested against him for a few minutes before allowing her brother to draw her into his embrace.

“Keep an eye on him until the sheriff gets back.”  Scott looked distastefully at Hank.  “I’ll bring Johnny to meet you after this is over.  He’ll want to thank you himself.”

Dawn was breaking as Scott left the warehouse.  He was conscious of the need to get a message to Murdoch quickly, before he left San Francisco.  The telegraph operator lived above the office and Scott’s pounding woke him from a sound sleep.  He was intent upon refusing Scott’s request until he was presented with a large sum of money that changed his mind.

Scott returned to the hotel by the back entrance and woke Theodore, explaining what had happened.  The lawyer dressed quickly and Scott accompanied him to the livery stable where Theodore hired a buggy.  He was as concerned as the sheriff to be told that Scott intended to stay in Modesto, and was just as unsuccessful at persuading him that he was wrong.

*****

“Something’s going on.”  Joe had spent another uncomfortable night watching the hotel and was now presenting his report to Seth who had come to relieve him.  “One of them chinamen came by last night kicking up a fuss.  The sheriff carted him off.  Then this morning Lancer and that lawyer hired a rig from the livery stable and now the lawyer’s left town.”

“Where’s Lancer?”

“Back in the hotel.”

“Stay here.  I’m gonna speak to Mr. Armstrong.  If he leaves, follow him.”

*****

Martin Armstrong paced around his drawing room in agitation. “What the hell is Lancer up to now?  Whatever it is we can’t risk allowing him to run around loose until the hanging.  Damn that family.  See that the Judge and Mr. Lamont get on the morning stage then get a couple of the men and bring Lancer here…quietly.  I want a word with him before we lock him up with his brother.  That should keep him out of mischief.  No one will find him until after Johnny Lancer is dead and by then it won’t matter…I’ve got a passage booked on a ship leaving from San Francisco on Tuesday evening.  You’ll be coming with me as my bodyguard.”

Seth grinned with pleasure and started to leave only to be called back with one further instruction.

“Send someone to bring down the telegraph lines.  I don’t want any messages coming in or going out until after this is all over.”

*****

Murdoch sat, unsleeping, in the chair into which he had collapsed upon receipt of Scott’s telegram.  The news that his youngest son had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death had sent a sharp stab of pain knifing through his chest.  He had doubled over in agony gasping for breath.  The telegram had fluttered to the floor where it still lay hours later.  The physical pain had passed quickly; the emotional pain would last for as long as he lived.

It had been too late to set out for Modesto last night so he remained where he was, unseeing through the veil of tears that covered his eyes, and waited for daylight.  As the sun rose he stirred himself to wash, and repack his saddle bags, his movements slow and stiff…the movements of an old man.  He was almost ready to leave when a knock came at the door and a young voice shouted to gain his attention.

“Mr. Lancer…Mr. Lancer…I’ve got an urgent telegram for you, sir.”

Murdoch opened the door and accepted the envelope from the young bellboy.  He pressed a coin into the boy’s hand before tearing the message open.  He had to read the telegram more than once before its meaning penetrated the fog surrounding his brain.  At first disbelief warred with hope, with hope finally winning out.  With a newfound vigour he made his way to the suite occupied by William Ralston.

Ralston had been unable to find evidence of the Judge’s dishonesty and had decided to stay in town in order to resume his enquiries the following day.  Both men had known that it was likely to be too late and Murdoch had fully intended to set out that morning to return to Modesto and his sons.  The information now provided by Scott changed all that.

Murdoch waited in the sitting room while Ralston dressed.  He drank the coffee that Ralston had considerately ordered and felt life returning to limbs that had become cold and leaden overnight.

“We need to take this information to that Supreme Court Justice I was telling you about.”  Ralston finished doing up his tie and shrugged into his jacket.  “If we can get an order to stay the execution you can get on the road and I’ll follow with the Judge.  I’m afraid neither one of us is up to making the journey on horseback so we’ll have to use my private coach.  It’ll take longer so even if we set off by mid-afternoon we won’t be in Modesto until late on Monday.  I suggest you get a message to Sheriff Driver telling him to round up some men so that you have back up when you get to Modesto.  I can’t see Martin giving up easily…not with a murder charge waiting for him.”

“I wish we could just wire the order.”  Knowing that journeys could, and often did, go less than smoothly, left Murdoch concerned that he might still arrive too late.

“We can’t take the risk.  If the wrong person were to get hold of it…we don’t know how far Martin’s influence reaches.  The only safe course of action is for you to take it.  The Judge lives a few miles outside town so it will take me some time to get things organised.  Make sure you’re ready to leave as soon as I get back.”

They left the hotel together and parted company with Murdoch heading off to send the necessary wires.  The one to the sheriff went without incident. When the telegraph operator tried to send one to Scott in Modesto he found that the message would not go through.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer.  It looks like there might be a something wrong with the lines between here and Modesto.  I’m sure someone will be fixing the problem.  Shall I keep trying?”

“Yes, thank you.”  Murdoch left the telegraph office with a feeling of foreboding.  Why today, of all days, would there be a problem with the lines?  The thought of both of his sons trapped in Modesto without any means to communicate with the outside world was worrying and deeply unsettling.

The urge to get on the road was overpowering and useless.  Without the necessary Court order he would be wasting his time.  He stopped off at the hotel livery to make sure that his horse would be ready so that he could leave at a moment’s notice.  He tried to calm his fears and forced himself to remain patient as he waited for matters to unfold around him.

*****

Johnny woke to find that it was daylight.  A distant noise had intruded upon his sleep.  As he lay still and quiet the significance of the noise registered with him, prompting a wave of nausea.  The banging and hammering could only mean one thing…the construction of the gallows where he was destined to die in two days time.  He clutched the blankets more tightly around his body and turned on his side, closing his eyes again in a desperate, and fruitless, attempt to shut out the noise and the knowledge of what was to happen.

The key turning in the lock demanded his attention.  The young guard who had been kind to him the night before placed a plate of bacon and scrambled eggs, and a steaming cup of coffee on the floor before backing out of the cell and relocking the door.  The food smelled surprisingly appetising so Johnny swung his legs onto the floor and sat up.  The guard had gone without a word back to the table to eat his own breakfast with his partner.  Johnny was left with the impression that the second man wasn’t happy with the consideration being shown to him and decided he’d better eat now in case there was no more food forthcoming.

As he ate, battling his rebellious stomach, he thought about what he was going to say to Scott when he arrived.  He felt badly about excluding his brother the previous evening, knowing how much Scott would be suffering.  He had, selfishly, needed the time alone.  He had anticipated the collapse that had occurred…that he had needed to get out of his system.  It would have been harder for Scott to witness that than to cope with being kept away.  Now he was ready to put up a brave front.  He’d been telling his brother the truth the other day when he had said that death didn’t frighten him.  Hanging terrified him but the end result was all the same and any pain would be mercifully brief.  The same couldn’t be said of the pain for those left behind and that he did regret.  In hindsight it might have been better if he’d never been rescued from that firing squad.  If the Pinkerton agent hadn’t saved him there would have been no one to mourn him as no one would have known of his passing.

He surprised himself by finishing the food and having a full stomach made him feel better.  He sat cross-legged on the cot and waited for Scott to arrive.  Several hours later he was still waiting only now he was pacing around the cell, glaring every few minutes at the door leading to the hallway and willing it to open.  He couldn’t think of a single good reason why his brother hadn’t arrived and was starting to wonder if the Judge or Armstrong, in a final act of cruelty, had decreed that he wasn’t to have any more visitors.  The question, fired in desperation at his guards, produced a shrug of the shoulders.  If visitors had been banned, he was told, they knew nothing about it.  No one was inclined to go and find out if there was anything wrong.  His pleas fell on deaf ears.  The alternative, that Scott was in some kind of trouble, wasn’t one that Johnny wanted to consider.  He comforted himself with the knowledge that both Theodore and Sheriff Driver would be looking out for his brother.  Between the two of them Scott would be kept safe.

*****

Scott’s groan was muffled by the fact that his face was pressed down into the cushions of a sofa.  A need to breathe forced him to turn his head to one side, allowing the second groan to come out with more force.  Opening his eyes wasn’t an option as waves of pain crashed around him.  His head felt as if it were going to explode, the agony intense.  It hurt to think so he let himself drift away, back toward the welcoming darkness.

Armstrong watched in annoyance as Scott gave up the effort to awaken.  “You shouldn’t have hit him so damn hard,” he complained to Seth.

“He fought us.  What was I supposed to do?  You said to do it quiet and he sure wasn’t coming quietly.”

“Wake him up.  I want to know what’s going on and I’ve waited long enough.”

Seth pulled Scott into a sitting position, propped up in a corner of the sofa.  Several hard slaps across the face brought Scott round.  His eyelids cracked open revealing dazed blue-grey eyes.  He raised a shaky hand to the back of his neck and gingerly fingered the tender spot he found there.

After seeing Theodore safely out of town he had returned to his room to grab a couple of hours sleep.  It had been mid-morning before he woke up.  Feeling guilty about leaving Johnny alone for so long he had left the hotel without bothering to shave or change his clothes.  His new found optimism had died when he turned a corner and came face to face with Seth.  At gunpoint he had been forced into an alley where he had been told to drop his gunbelt.  He had taken his time with the buckle, hoping that someone might come along. His hesitation hadn’t been appreciated by Seth or his companions.

“I don’t have a helluva lot of patience, Lancer.” Seth had informed him tersely.  “Ask your brother if you get a chance.”

The buckle had slipped free and the gunbelt hit the ground with a thud.  As Seth’s attention was drawn downwards Scott had taken his chance.  Yelling for help he had launched an attack on Seth that had knocked the bigger man back against the wall.  As Scott struggled to gain control of Seth’s gun he had felt a sharp pain to the back of his head. As his senses started reeling a second blow had felled him completely.

Now he pulled himself carefully into a more upright position and looked around.  He appeared to be in Martin Armstrong’s sitting room.  Heavy drapes were pulled shut across the window and the door was closed.  The light in the room was supplied by several lamps leading Scott to wonder just how long he had been unconscious.  The room was fussily over decorated bearing all the hallmarks of vulgar wealth.  The clash of styles and colors in the paintings, furniture and ornaments grated on Scott.  He had learned good taste early in life courtesy of his grandfather.  A large clock dominated one corner of the room, the hands showing it to be fifteen minutes after one o’clock.  Scott fervently hoped that it was afternoon rather than the early hours of the morning.

“Get him some water.”  Armstrong’s voice intruded upon his thoughts.

Seth scowled at his employer but did as he was told.  Through a pounding headache Scott watched Seth approaching him carrying a glass.  Now that he had figured out where he was he had no intention of staying.  As Seth bent down, holding out the glass, Scott pushed himself forward catching the man off balance.  He had almost made it to his feet when he heard the unmistakeable sound of a gun being cocked.

“Sit down and behave yourself.” Armstrong instructed as Seth scrambled to his feet.  “I’d hate to have to put a bullet in you.”

Dizziness and belated common sense combined to send Scott back into his seat.  “What do you want?”  Scott licked dry lips, wishing he’d had a drink before making his ill-timed bid for freedom.

“Information will do to start with.  Where’s your brother’s attorney gone?”

“The case is over…he left.”

“That’s not very convincing, Lancer.”

“I don’t care if you’re convinced or not…it’s the truth.”

“Sheriff Driver’s left town as well.  I don’t suppose you happen to know where he’s gone?”

Scott was too tired and sore to play this game.  His eyes started to drift shut again only to snap open as he received another blow to the face.

“If you think there’s a chance of saving your brother you’re deluding yourself.  He’s been legally convicted in a Court of law.”

“Legally?” Scott would have laughed if he’d had the energy.  “There was nothing legal about it and we both know…” Scott stopped himself on the verge of telling Armstrong that he knew about Hank.  The pain was interfering with his ability to think clearly.

 

Armstrong moved closer.  “What do we both know?”  His voice was deceptively soft.

Scott turned away with an almost imperceptible shake of his head.  “Nothing.”

“Whatever it is you think you’ve found out won’t do you any good.  Before the Judge left he gave me two signed orders.  The first is a warrant for your arrest…he was persuaded that you might try to break your brother out of jail.  It’s a precautionary measure to save you from making a big mistake.  The second…well the second is bringing forward the hanging.  Johnny’s going to swing at sundown tomorrow.”

“No, you can’t do that.”  As a feeling of panic overcame him Scott pushed himself to his feet, swaying unsteadily.  Seth grabbed his arm to stop him reaching Armstrong.

Armstrong regarded the furious but helpless young man. “In case you’re thinking that someone can get a message to your father I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed…the telegraph wires have been cut.  Oh, and I’ve arranged a little diversion for him as well.  I don’t think he’ll be arriving in town until it’s too late.”

*****

J.D. laid down his pen, removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. The words that he had just written were blurred and indistinct and a wave of tiredness crashed over him. Following the verdict he had worked through the night to write his editorial, set the presses and print the morning edition of the paper.  After snatching a few hours sleep he was back at his desk writing the article he hoped to be able to print in the future…the one exposing Armstrong’s corruption and deceit.  He was sorry that he wouldn’t get his opportunity to interview Johnny.  More than that, he regretted the fact that a patently honest and innocent young man was being sent to the gallows.  It was nothing less than judicially sanctioned murder.

His stomach growled with hunger, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten all day.  He pulled out his watch and was surprised to see that it was two o’clock.  After rolling his sleeves down and putting on his jacket he left his office, carefully locking the door behind him.  The dust laden air hit him like a furnace as he walked the few blocks to his favorite café.

He was greeted warmly by the proprietor, Mrs. Douglas, and took a seat at a table by the window.  He ordered chicken pie and casually leaned back, his reporter’s instincts prompting him to listen to the conversations flowing around him.  All the talk was about the trial with there being a fair amount of speculation as to just how much of the defence case had been the truth.  There was a feeling of unease about the verdict and the speed with which the sentence was to be carried out.

The food arrived and J.D. ate hungrily.  The bell hanging above the door heralded the arrival of more customers.  The men, two of the town’s carpenters looked around for some place to sit.  The café was crowded so J.D. motioned them over to join him.  They were both acquaintances of his and he would normally have been looking forward to meeting them and others for their regular Saturday night game of poker.

As Andy and Pete took their seats J.D. decided that he wasn’t in the mood for cards.

“Afternoon, boys.  You look plain worn out.  What’s got you so busy on a Saturday?”

“We’ve been working all day building the gallows for that back-shooting killer.” Andy replied, irritation clear in his voice.  “We need to get back to it too.  That damned Judge has decided he wants the hanging over and done with.”

J.D. almost choked on a mouthful of pie.  He coughed and spluttered and took several sips of water before finding his voice again.  “When?  When are they going to hang him?”

“Tomorrow evening.  I tell you, J.D. we’re gonna be hard pressed to get it finished in time.”  Pete watched in bemusement as the publisher pushed away from the table and grabbed his hat.

“Sorry to run out on you.  I’ve some errands to take care of.  I won’t be at the game tonight either.”  J.D. threw a handful of coins on the counter, touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgment to the café owner and strode quickly out of the premises.

His first port of call was the hotel where he was informed that Scott had gone out several hours before and hadn’t returned.  J.D. assumed, with some justification, that Scott would be over at the Courthouse with his brother.  He wondered if the Lancers knew of the change of plans. On enquiring about Theodore he was told that the lawyer had left earlier in the day and wasn’t due back that night.  This was unexpected until J.D. rationalised that he might be on his way to meet up with Murdoch Lancer who would certainly be on his way back from San Francisco.

A visit to the jail proved equally unfruitful.  There was no sign of Sheriff Driver and no one seemed to know where he was.  The publisher returned to his office, disgusted with a Judge who would not only help convict an innocent man but would also rob him of his last few hours of life.  When he unlocked the door he found that a message had been pushed underneath it.  The message, from the sheriff, explained briefly that they now had proof that Johnny was innocent and that he had taken that evidence to Murphy’s Ferry to meet up with Johnny’s father.

Suddenly J.D. realised why the execution had been advanced…Armstrong was afraid of something coming out and was going to make sure that Johnny was dead before that happened.  He immediately turned round and headed for the telegraph office.  Sheriff Driver needed to know what was happening.  The telegraph operator was apologetic…there was a problem with the lines and, so far, they weren’t sure what it was.

J.D. stood on the boardwalk and considered his options.  There was really only one decision he could make.  He headed for the stable to collect his horse.

*****

Scott lay bleeding and breathless on Armstrong’s expensive Persian rug.  The smug expression on the man’s face as he described the steps taken to prevent a last minute reprieve had driven all thoughts for his own safety from Scott’s mind.  All that mattered was getting free and somehow alerting Theodore or the sheriff to Armstrong’s plans.  His instinctive cry for help was cut off by a hard blow to the stomach that left him retching and on his knees.  Seth had grabbed his collar and pulled him upright.  Too sore and sick to defend himself he had found his hands tied before he was pushed down onto an uncomfortable, straight-backed chair.

Armstrong had explained clearly that calling for help wasn’t an option as the house was empty; his wife had been sent to San Francisco with the Judge and all the staff had been given the week-end off.  Armstrong didn’t think it necessary to add that he would be leaving Modesto on Monday with no intention of returning.

For the next hour Scott had been questioned about the whereabouts of the sheriff and Theodore.  He kept his mouth shut even when Seth went about his job of beating the crap out of him with unwanted enthusiasm.  The last blow had knocked him flying out of the chair.  Unable to save himself he had landed hard on the floor, blood dripping from his nose and a cut above his right eye.

Armstrong looked at him distastefully.  “He’s not going to tell us anything.  Lock him in the cellar then fetch Joe and Russ.  I want them on the road between here and San Francisco to intercept Murdoch Lancer.  We’ll move him over to the Courthouse tonight.  I wouldn’t want to deprive him of the chance to say good-bye to his brother.”

By that stage Scott couldn’t have made it to the cellar under his own steam.  Seth pushed him through the door and he stumbled down the wooden steps before collapsing on the hard packed dirt floor.  He pulled himself painfully over to a corner and wedged himself in a sitting position.  He rested his head on knees drawn up to his chest and gave in to despair.

*****

As the sun started to slip below the horizon Murdoch began to look for somewhere to set up camp.  William Ralston had arrived back at the hotel at eleven o’clock.  He had brought with him the most important piece of paper that Murdoch had ever seen…an order staying the execution and releasing Johnny to his father’s custody.  The Judge had stopped short of overturning the conviction…he wanted to examine the evidence for himself before putting the whole matter to the Governor.  Armstrong’s involvement together with that of the judge made this a tricky political situation. Johnny’s bail had been set at $10,000, a huge amount, and it had taken some time to make the necessary arrangements to guarantee the payment.  Murdoch would willingly have handed over Lancer itself if it could ensure his son’s survival.

Now he had that precious piece of paper in his breast pocket and his heart was singing with joy.  He would be in Modesto in less than a day…in plenty of time to save his son.  The journey was going well, there had been no delays and the weather was fair and warm.  As he settled down for the night he imagined the pleasure of releasing Johnny from that wretched prison and of burying his fist in Martin Armstrong’s gut.  The ordeal was almost over.

*****

Scott looked up without interest as the door opened.  He squinted against the light from a lamp.  He heard footsteps descending the stairs and soon found himself pulled upright.  “Time to go, Lancer.  Your brother’ll be worried about you.”

A cloth was forced between his teeth and tied behind his head.  “We’re gonna do this nice and quiet…just like Mr. Armstrong instructed.”

It was dark when they left the house by the kitchen door.  Scott was pushed into a small, high sided wagon, Seth climbing in beside him.  He was shoved onto his stomach and Seth kept his foot in the small of Scott’s back to prevent any movement.  Unless someone looked closely into the back of the wagon he might as well have been invisible.  The driver kept to the back alleys and avoided the main streets of the town.   They pulled up at the side entrance to the Courthouse.  Seth checked that the area was clear of people before pulling Scott out of the wagon and into the building.  The sound of the door being locked behind them left Scott bereft of any hope of rescue.  So far as he knew no one was aware of his unorthodox ‘arrest’ and only a few people were likely to know that the execution had been moved forward.

They were joined by Martin Armstrong.  “You can remove the gag but keep him tied until we get him locked up.”

The cloth was untied and Scott licked his dry lips.  “You’ll burn in hell for this, you bastard.  I’ll kill you with my bare hands if I have to.”

One look at Scott’s face convinced Armstrong that the young blond meant every word.

*****

Johnny had received his lunch and then his supper without there being any sign of his brother or lawyer.  The panic he had begun to feel as night fell was almost paralysing him.  When Scott did arrive, bound and in the grip of one of the men Johnny very much wanted to hurt, he began to feel physically sick.  Scott bore the marks of a further severe beating.

Johnny gripped the bars hard.  “Madre de Dios, Scott.  What have they done to you?”  He turned his furious glare on Seth.  “You sure are brave…beating a man with his hands tied.  Why don’t you come in here and try it with me?  Let’s see how you like it when someone can fight back.  Come on you cowardly piece of shit.”

Seth ignored the taunts and drew his gun.  “Move away from the door.”

“Make me,” Johnny invited, baring his teeth.

Seth lifted his gun and placed it against Scott’s temple.  “Move away from the door or I’ll blow his brains out.”

A low growl was Johnny’s only response as he backed up.  The door was unlocked and Scott was pushed into his arms.  Johnny steadied his brother and guided him over to one of the cots.  Once Scott was sitting down Johnny worked the knots loose and untied him.  Scott was breathing hard and fast and was very pale.

Johnny looked up at Armstrong.  “What’s this about?  You’ve got what you wanted…you didn’t need to hurt him.”

“I’m afraid you’re wrong about that.  You might like to ask your brother where your lawyer and the sheriff have gone and why it’s been necessary to reschedule your execution.”

Johnny’s eyes widened in alarm.  “Reschedule?”

“It seems your brother has been up to something…he’s been reluctant to tell us what, despite Seth’s best efforts.  You might have more luck in getting him to talk.”

“Scott?”  Johnny’s mouth was dry, his voice little more than a whisper.

Scott looked up and then away, shaking his head.

Armstrong sighed.  “It was worth a try.  He’s going to stay locked up for the next couple of days.  You, unfortunately, don’t have that long.  Judge Mickleson changed the arrangements…you’re to hang tomorrow at sundown.  I’m afraid that means your father won’t get back in time.  Still, I’m sure you can leave any last messages with your brother.”

“Tomorrow?”  Johnny’s mind refused to comprehend what he was being told.

“I’m sorry, Johnny.”  Scott knew that Armstrong had only put in place these additional measures because he hadn’t been careful enough to cover his tracks and looked to his brother for forgiveness.  All he received was a blank stare before Johnny pushed himself to his feet and began to back away, shaking his head in denial.

*****

Armstrong left Seth in charge of the prisoners with instructions to ensure that at least one guard was within ear shot of the brothers at all times.  He wasn’t really expecting Scott to give anything away after withstanding so much punishment but it never hurt to take precautions.  He headed for home to supervise the loading of his most valuable possessions into wagons.  They needed to be on the road by day-break if they were going to get to the ship in time.

Scott lay on his side, miserable and in pain.  Johnny hadn’t said a word since being told that he was to hang the next day.  Knowing that someone would be listening in to any conversations effectively prevented Scott from telling his brother that they had the proof they needed and that now it wasn’t going to help.  He felt an almost guilty relief; to tell Johnny that they had come so close only to fail at the last second would be an unnecessary cruelty. After an eternity of silence Scott felt an arm slipping under his shoulders.

“Can you sit up?  We need to get those cuts on your face cleaned up.”  Johnny gently steadied his brother as Scott pushed himself into a position where his back was braced against the bars.

Scott’s blue-grey eyes were troubled and very sad.  Johnny managed what he hoped was a reassuring smile.  “You did all you could, Scott…so did Murdoch.  I don’t want you living with a load of guilt.”  He touched a finger to the cut above Scott’s eye.  “It’s still bleeding.  They did quite a number on you.  Have a drink first.”  He held a cup of water to Scott’s lips then tore a strip of material from the sheet covering the mattress, dipped it in the remainder of the water, and used it to wipe away the worst of the blood.

Once Johnny had finished he eased himself back so that he was sitting with his shoulder touching his brother’s.  The warmth of human contact was comforting.  He closed his eyes for a second.  “You know, Scott, it might be selfish but I’m glad I’m not gonna be alone tonight.”

Scott felt his throat closing with grief.  “There’s no-where I’d rather be, brother.”

*****

Murdoch was on the road again early on Sunday morning, confident that he had more than enough time to reach his destination.  He was due to meet Sheriff Driver in Murphy’s Ferry before covering the last ten miles or so to Modesto, a trip of no more than two hours.  He turned onto the main street in the early part of the afternoon, tired but exhilarated at the thought that his son would soon be free.  The town was small and he had no difficulty finding the jail.  A dozen horses were tied up at hitching rails in the vicinity with a number of men either standing or sitting on the boardwalk.  He nodded a general greeting to the men before entering the jail.  Inside he found Sheriff Driver, Theodore and, to his surprise, J.D.

Theodore leapt to his feet as soon as he saw his friend.  “Thank God you’re here.”

The air of suppressed panic and the uncharacteristic outburst from the lawyer made Murdoch’s blood run cold.  “What’s wrong?”

“They’re planning on hanging Johnny today…at sundown.  Have you got the order?”  As Theodore was speaking the sheriff was striding outside yelling for his men to mount up.

“Today?”  Murdoch was frozen to the spot with shock.  “They can’t.”

“I’ve got a fresh horse for you, Mr. Lancer.  We need to go now.”  Sheriff Driver pulled Murdoch’s arm to get him moving.

“I’ll follow tomorrow with Ralston and the Judge,” Theodore continued.  “You just make sure you get to Modesto in time to save that boy of yours.”

Operating purely on instinct Murdoch mounted the horse he was given and followed Sheriff Driver in a race against time to reach his son.  Every man riding with them  was conscious of the inexorable movement of the sun through the heavens.  As it was Sunday the road was quiet…most people had ventured no further than their local church.  The posse made good time until they reached a point where the road narrowed, forcing them to slow down and ride no more than two abreast.  It was then that the jaws of Armstrong’s trap snapped shut.

*****

The brothers had spent the night dozing uneasily.  Johnny had eventually fallen into a deeper sleep with his head resting on Scott’s shoulder.  As the morning wore on an unnatural calm settled over both of them.  They spoke, when words were spoken at all, of inconsequential things.  Most of the time they sat in silence simply grateful for each others presence.

As the afternoon wore away Johnny knew that he couldn’t put off any longer the things he needed to say.  “I’ve…I’ve got some messages I’d like you to pass on for me.”

Scott nodded, finally unable to pretend that this wasn’t going to happen…that he wasn’t about to lose his brother.

Johnny ran his tongue over his lips to moisten them and threaded his fingers together to stop them shaking.  “C…can you tell Sam I’m sorry I was so much bother to him.  He’s a real fine doctor and I don’t reckon I’d have made it this far without him looking after me.”

Scott closed his eyes against the hot tears that were threatening to unman him.  He wasn’t going to let his brother see his weakness…Johnny deserved his strength and support.   After taking several shaky breaths he managed to compose himself sufficiently to nod in acknowledgment.

“Make sure Val understands that none of this is his fault.  He had to do his job.  He was a good friend to me.  He,” Johnny cleared his throat, “he pulled me out of more than one tight situation with my hide intact.  He’ll need your support…there’re still those in town that don’t rate him as sheriff ‘cause he doesn’t dress or talk fancy.  You stand up for him, you hear?”

“I will.”

“Dios, Scott, this is harder than I expected.” There was a catch in Johnny’s voice.

Scott put his arm around his brother.  “I know but you’re doing real well.”  He could feel the shudders that were running through Johnny’s body and tightened his grip.

“Tell Jelly that it was an honor to be his friend.  For all his grumbling and complaining he’s got a good heart.  Ask him to look after Barranca and you make sure you ride him sometimes; he won’t understand why I’ve not come home.  Let Cip know that he was the best segundo I ever worked with…and I worked with a few over the years.”  Johnny was gradually bringing himself under control as he spoke but made no move to draw away from Scott. “Maria’ll take it hard.  Make sure she knows how much I love her. She was like a second mother to me…don’t let her give up and leave.  Teresa will need her.”

“I’ll make sure she stays.”  Scott was pleased to find that his voice didn’t betray his feelings.  “We’ll all take care of Teresa too.  You can trust us.”

“I know…I never had anyone to trust before.”  Johnny drew in another shaky breath.  “Tell Teresa I love her and that I want her to be happy.  I can just see her when she’s older surrounded by loads of kids.  Make sure she chooses a good man…she deserves all the best things life can give her.”

Johnny knew he couldn’t say the rest while he was so close to his brother.  He pulled away and walked as far from Scott as the confined space would allow.  He clasped his hands behind his back and used the wall for support.  “Lancer has to go on without me…otherwise there’s been no point to any of this.  You and Murdoch…you promise me.  I know we haven’t been a family for long but Lancer’s your birthright just as it was mine and I don’t want it to go to waste.”

“We’ve always been a family, Johnny.  We just didn’t realise it.  I’m not going to throw it away and neither will Murdoch…you have my word.”

Johnny nodded, satisfied that his brother would keep his promise.  “I want Murdoch to know that I love him and that I’m sorry it took so long for me to find that out.  He’s a good man and I’m grateful that he gave me the chance to come home.  I’m proud to have him as my old man.”

“He knows and he feels the same about you…proud to have you as his son just as I’m proud to have you as a brother.”  Scott spoke with complete unshakeable conviction and sincerity.

“You nail the bastard responsible for this.”  For just a moment the anger at the injustice of it all broke through.

“I will…all nice and legal just like you said.”  Scott knew he was lying; he’d get Armstrong any way he could and to hell with the legalities.

“Having a brother…well, it was better than I ever imagined it could be.  You’re my best friend, Scott, and I’m real pleased we got to know one another.”

“Me too, little brother.”

They both raised their heads as the door to the corridor opened to admit Seth and half a dozen other men.  “I guess this is it.”  Johnny straightened up only to find himself enveloped in Scott’s arms…a final parting between brothers.  Johnny Lancer clung to his brother before, with a sigh, allowing Madrid to come to the fore.

The cell door clanged open and they were pulled unceremoniously apart.  Two men held Scott’s arms as Johnny was pulled away.  While Johnny went quietly, and without outward fear, Scott fought against the hands that were keeping him from his brother’s side.

“You’re staying here,” Seth informed him as he was pushed down onto one of the cots.

The guards were out of the cell with the door closing behind them before he could get to his feet and cover the short distance to the bars.  “This is murder,” Scott raged.  “I’ll see that * you * all hang for it.  How can you be a party to killing an innocent man?”  He saw a number of shame-faced looks but no one, other than Seth, would meet his furious gaze.

Once Johnny’s hands had been tied behind him Seth pointed toward the door.  “Let’s go.”

Johnny twisted round for a last look at Scott as Lancer made a final brief appearance before being replaced by Madrid.  “Bye, brother.”  He turned forward again and walked with confident steps through the door and out of Scott’s sight.

Scott stood, stunned, still gripping the bars.  Afterwards, when he thought about that terrible day, he couldn’t have said how long he stood there.  He only knew that, as he waited, the light left the sky as dusk descended and darkness overwhelmed his heart and mind.

*****

Johnny kept his eyes fixed ahead of him as he descended the stairs.  He was directed toward a back door leading from the Courthouse to a yard at the rear of the building.  His first sight of the gallows caused his steps to falter.  A large man waited for him on the platform as he forced his legs to take him up the thirteen steps.  He found his eyes returning over and over to the rope and the noose waiting to strangle the life out of him.

Having reached the platform, his steady gaze swept over the small crowd below.  He saw Martin Armstrong standing toward the front and Seth moving to stand by his employer’s side.  The other people meant nothing to him as he searched for the face he wanted to see one last time…his father.  His shoulders sagged as he realised that he wasn’t going to be that blessed.  Perhaps it was for the best…he wouldn’t want his father to be a witness to this.

His executioner took his arm and positioned him on top of the trap door.  He offered Johnny a blindfold and Johnny shook his head.  He fixed his eyes on the setting sun as the noose was pulled over his head and tightened with the knot resting just behind his right ear.  His lips moved soundlessly in a final prayer as the man moved away to rest his hand on the lever that would send him to hell.

*****

Time slowed for Johnny between one heartbeat and the next as blind terror washed over and through him.  The rough hemp abraded the skin of his neck, setting sensitised nerves on fire.

Hot bile rose into his throat; his attempts to swallow were frustrated by the pressure of the noose.  The pulse in his neck beat frantically in time with the thundering of his heart in his chest.

His breathing of necessity was shallow…drawing in pitifully inadequate amounts of air to lungs already burning from lack of oxygen.  He felt himself hyperventilating as black spots danced before his eyes.

A slight shifting of his feet caused the wood of the trapdoor to creak alarmingly.  A glance showed him that his executioner was drumming the fingers of his right hand on the lever…waiting impatiently for the signal to send him plunging to his death.  Why, Johnny wondered, was he prolonging the torture?  Soon his legs would give out on him…were already shaking with the effort of holding him upright.

Johnny tried to speak…his throat bruised and painful…his mouth too dry for him to form the words.  The fingers stilled and the man wrapped his hand securely around the lever.  Johnny drew in a last shaky breath and closed his eyes.

*****

Scott flinched when he heard the gunshot signalling his brother’s passing and moved  listlessly to lie on his cot.  With his brother’s death all the joy and laughter had gone out of his life.  He closed his eyes and surrendered to his need for vengeance.  Noises from below wafted up on the gentle evening breeze.  The sounds meant nothing.  The window in the wall was set too high for him to be able to see outside even had he been of a mind to do so.  He wondered if his father was still alive; Armstrong had set up an ambush that could easily have proved fatal.  Was he the last Lancer?  The one left to carry on as if there was a point to living?  He felt himself sinking into a depth of despair that he had never known before, not even in that hell hole during the war.  He embraced the need to kill the men responsible…comforted himself with imagining their deaths.  Revenge would give him a reason to go on and it would be sweet.

*****

Murdoch, the sheriff and their companions thundered round the back of the Courthouse and pulled their horses to a halt.  Murdoch’s eyes were drawn to, and held, by the sight in front of him; the sight of his much loved son standing on the gallows with a noose around his neck.  As people in the crowd started to turn around a gunshot sounded.  Seeing that Murdoch had become almost paralysed with shock, Sheriff Driver had drawn his rifle and fired a shot into the air.

“I have an order from the California Supreme Court to halt this execution.”  His clear tones carried across the crowd and reached Johnny’s ears.

Johnny’s eyes flew open and a look of total confusion settled on his face.  His thoughts had been so far away that it was almost impossible for him to comprehend the fact that he was safe.  The members of the posse fanned out around the square and Murdoch brought his own rifle to bear on the man who had been about to hang his son.

“Get that rope off my son’s neck and untie him,” he ordered.

The man didn’t hesitate.  The noose was loosened and removed and the bonds on Johnny’s wrists were untied.  Johnny stood uncertainly, on shaking legs, until he was swept into a great bear hug by his father.  He held on to his father in unashamed relief while Murdoch spoke soft, soothing words of encouragement to him.

Sheriff Driver and his men began to move through the crowd disarming Armstrong’s men; none put up a fight as most had been horrified at the situation they had found themselves caught up in.

Taking advantage of the chaos, Martin Armstrong pulled Seth round to the side of the Courthouse.  “If they catch us we’ll hang,” Armstrong’s voice was high pitched with fear.  “Shoot the boy; that will throw them into confusion.  Meet me at my house; the horses are all ready to go.  If we can give them the slip we can still make it to the ship in time.”

As he had nothing left to lose Seth agreed and watched with a sneer on his face as his employer scuttled away like a rat.  He took a deep breath, stepped clear of the wall and raised his rifle.  He had a clear shot at Johnny’s back and no one was looking in his direction.  His finger tightened on the trigger.

*****

Sheriff Driver scanned the square, conscious of the fact that they hadn’t yet found Martin Armstrong.  His eyes widened in shock and horror as he saw Seth pointing his rifle at Johnny’s exposed back.  “JOHNNY!”  The cry of warning left his lips even as he raised his own rifle up, too late to do any good.

The instincts that had kept Johnny alive through long years as a gunhawk responded to the shout.  He pulled away from his father, grabbing the gun from Murdoch’s holster.  His quick reflexes saved him as the bullet from Seth’s rifle embedded itself in the upright wooden post. Johnny spun and fired and his shot unerringly found its mark.  The rifle fell from numb fingers and Seth crumpled to the ground.

As the remaining spectators scattered in every direction Sheriff Driver strode over to the fallen man and kicked the rifle out of his reach.  He knelt down and felt for a pulse before looking up into Johnny’s eyes.  “He’s dead.”

“Easier than the bastard deserved.” Johnny’s first words were hard and cold as they pushed past the pain in his throat.  “He hurt Scott…Dios, Murdoch…Scott.”

“Where is he?”  Panic seized Murdoch again.  He had been so focussed on Johnny that he hadn’t had time to register the fact that his eldest son was no where to be seen.

“He’s locked up in the Courthouse.  He thinks I’m dead.”  Johnny hurtled down the steps and barged his way into the building.

Murdoch walked down the steps at a more sedate pace, the adrenaline draining out of his system to leave him feeling light-headed and weak.  Sheriff Driver met him at the bottom.  “There’s no sign of Armstrong.  You see to your sons…we’ll find him.”

*****

Johnny pounded up the stairs, too out of breath to do more than whisper his brother’s name.  He was breathing heavily by the time he reached the top floor.  He stopped suddenly, wondering if anyone had been left behind to guard Scott.  He didn’t want to risk a shoot out in such a confined space, especially while his brother was still locked up.  He tightened his grip on his father’s gun.  It wasn’t as well balanced as his own weapon but Johnny was just thankful to be alive, free and armed again.

He reached the door leading to the cells and cracked it open a fraction, listening hard.  Hearing nothing he crouched low and flung the door open.  His gun swept every corner of the room and found it to be empty.  With a relieved sigh he crossed to the cell containing his brother.  Scott was huddled on the cot seemingly oblivious to Johnny’s presence.

“Scott.”  Johnny received no response and looked around frantically for the keys.  He spotted them on the table only to find that his hands were shaking so much that he had trouble fitting them into the lock.  When he finally managed to unlock the door he fell to his knees beside his brother and placed a hand on Scott’s back.

“Scott...come on, brother, snap out of it.  Murdoch’ll be here in a minute.”  A noise behind him alerted him to Murdoch’s arrival.  “He’s in shock,” Johnny informed his father before moving out of the way.

Murdoch tenderly turned Scott so that he could see his son’s face.  “It’s alright, son.  We got here in time…Johnny’s safe.”

Murdoch’s voice penetrated the fog surrounding Scott’s mind and he concentrated on the words. “Safe?”  Life started to return to his eyes.  “Johnny…safe?”

“I’m right here, brother.”  A wide grin broke out on Johnny’s face as it finally sank in that he wasn’t going to hang.

Scott scrambled to his feet and grabbed his brother by the shoulders, staring intently into warm blue eyes.  “Johnny!”

Murdoch wrapped an arm around each of his sons and held on tight.  His prayers had been answered and his family was safe.

*****

Several hours later Murdoch sat in the hotel bar with Sheriff Driver.  His boys were both fast asleep in a twin room upstairs.  Scott had been seen by the local doctor who had cleaned up his cuts before expressing horrified concern for all the bruising on the blond’s chest and back.  Johnny had been given cream to soothe the rope burns on his neck and had been advised to drink warm water and honey to ease the internal bruising. Both Scott and Johnny had been severely traumatised by their respective ordeals and neither had argued when the doctor had suggested a dose of sleeping powder for each.

Murdoch raised his brandy glass, swirled the liquid around, and sniffed it appreciatively.  He took a sip and let the fiery liquid roll around his tongue for a moment before swallowing.  “I can’t believe Armstrong got away.”

“I’ve got plenty of men out looking for him…he won’t get far.  Mr. Lancer…I apologise for my part in this.  If I’d known…”

“Sheriff, you have nothing to apologise for.  You were doing your job…and you went well beyond the job requirements when you tried to protect Johnny.  Your help has been invaluable.”

“Will they be alright?”

“My sons have a very strong bond.  While they are together they can survive just about anything.  William should be here late tomorrow with the Judge.  Hopefully from that point it will just be a formality to get Johnny cleared.  The sooner I can get Scott and Johnny back to Lancer the better.”

*****

The following morning Johnny opened his eyes and stretched lazily.  A thought intruded…this was a day he should never have seen.  Rather than leaving him cold, that thought brought a delighted smile to his face.  He’d cheated death again…the devil would have to wait a bit longer for his soul.  A deep throated chuckle escaped past his lips.

“What’s so funny?”  Scott’s voice held its own hint of amusement.

Johnny turned his head to look at his sibling.  “I’m alive,” he stated simply.

“Yes, you are.”  Scott’s deep laugh mingled with the lighter tones of his brother and that was the sound that Murdoch heard as he opened the door.

“You two sound better.  How about some breakfast?”

Thirty minutes later the three of them were sitting in the hotel dining room and Johnny was eating enthusiastically.  Mrs. Harland, the proprietor, smiled indulgently at the dark-haired, young man and set down another plate of flapjacks.  “Thank you, ma’am,” Johnny mumbled.

“Don’t speak with your mouth full, John.  How often do I have to tell you?”  There was no censure in Murdoch’s tone, just affection.

Scott had eaten rather more sparingly, still being troubled by the bruises inflicted by Seth.  He had experienced mixed feelings when told that Seth was dead.  The man had been responsible for so much pain, physical and mental.  He doubted if Hannu would be happy to hear of the easy nature of Seth’s death.  Scott was finding it hard to shrug off the dark feelings…the need for vengeance…and it frightened him.  He wasn’t by nature a vengeful man.  He wouldn’t have wondered about this need for revenge if Armstrong had succeeded in having Johnny hanged; the fact that his brother was sitting across the table from him, alive, well and eating enough for two normal people should have made a difference to his feelings…but hadn’t.

Murdoch sat back, cradling a cup of coffee, and watching his sons indulgently.  In the absence of the telegraph system he had sent a rider to Lancer with the good news and had asked Jelly to bring Barranca to Modesto.  He smiled to himself as he imagined his youngest son’s pleasure at that surprise.  Johnny had already taken possession of his gun and had taken his time settling his gunbelt in place before venturing down to the dining room.  Despite the fact that he was still, technically, a convicted murderer, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he would soon be cleared of the charge.

“There’s something that I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Scott said.  “Armstrong told me that he’d set up an ambush to stop you getting back in time.  Was that all just a lie?”

Johnny laid down his fork and prepared to listen.  Scott had given him a highly edited account of Hank’s confession and subsequent events before they had both succumbed to sleep the previous night.

“Oh, he set up an ambush all right.  The thing was he only sent a couple of men; he must have thought I’d be on my own.  They hadn’t bargained on me being accompanied by a dozen crack shots.  As soon as they realised how outnumbered they were they surrendered.  It slowed us down, though.  If it had taken us any longer we’d…”

“Hey, Murdoch, you got here in time.  The rest doesn’t matter.”  Johnny reached over to give his father’s arm a reassuring squeeze.  “Let’s get out of here.  I’ve been cooped up for days and could really do with stretching my legs.”

“There’s something you should know first.”  Murdoch hated having to break this news to his sons.  “Armstrong got away.  They’ve been looking for him all night but so far there hasn’t been a trace of him.”

*****

As they stepped out into the sunshine Johnny took in a deep breath.  The air in Modesto might not be as sweet as at Lancer but, right now, Johnny wasn’t fussy.  Even the news that Armstrong was still on the loose couldn’t dampen his mood.  The three men stood on the boardwalk ignoring the stares.  The story had spread through the town like wildfire and speculation was now rife as to the full extent of Armstrong’s misdeeds.

Seeing a couple of pretty young ladies approaching Johnny touched the brim of his hat and flashed his devastating smile.  They blushed, giggled and hurried past.  Murdoch smiled fondly.

“I’m going over to the jail to speak to the sheriff.  He sent a man back to Murphy’s Ferry this morning to let Theodore know we got here in time.  Armstrong had the telegraph wires cut; it’ll take days to repair them. I want to see if there’s been any progress in finding him.  It would have been a damned sight easier to catch the man if we’d been able to get word quickly to the surrounding towns.”

Johnny shuddered.  “I ain’t going near that place.  Tell the sheriff I’ll see him later.  I reckon I owe him a drink…or two…at least.”

“You two stay out of trouble.”  Murdoch was only half joking.  “Make sure you’re back at the hotel by mid-afternoon.  William and Judge Rutherford should be arriving about then with Theodore.”

The brothers loitered on the boardwalk, watching Murdoch striding purposefully toward the jail.  “So what d’you want to do?”  Johnny asked, looking at the position of the sun.  “How about a drink?”  He licked his lips in anticipation of a nice cold beer…just what he needed to soothe his sore and scratchy throat.

“I…ah…thought we might go to Chinatown.  If it hadn’t been for Mika and her brother you…” Scott didn’t need to finish the thought.

“Sure.  It’s about time I met the girl that’s got my big brother acting like a love sick schoolboy.”  Johnny’s grin disappeared as he saw his brother closing down on him.  It wasn’t hard for him to guess the cause of Scott’s discomfort. “You’re thinking about Jess and feeling guilty.”

“With good reason.  Hank said she was killed because I went to see her.”

Johnny looked around, took hold of Scott’s arm and pushed him over to sit on the steps at the side of the hotel.  Johnny stood in front of him, ensuring that Scott couldn’t escape from what he had to say.

“People get killed all the time.  Some deserve it…most don’t.  Jess didn’t and neither did Billy.  Wishing that things had been different is natural and a waste of time.  Jess is gone and we can’t change that.”

“I didn’t think you were that heartless.”  Scott could have bitten his tongue the moment the words left his mouth.

“I’m not heartless.”  Johnny showed no sign of being upset or feeling insulted.  “It’s just how it is.  Guilt’ll destroy you if you let it.  It’s a dark place and, believe me Scott, it isn’t somewhere you want to stay for too long.  I’ve been there and it rips you to pieces inside.

“Jess was a sweet girl and I hope the men that killed her rot in hell…but you didn’t kill her, brother…they did.  Let it go, Scott.  One way or another they’ll all pay for what they did.”

Scott felt the cruel hand of guilt and vengeance start to loosen its hold.  Johnny was alive as was Mika.  They had both been hurt but they would survive.  To allow this darkness in his mind to consume him would achieve nothing.  It would only succeed in destroying him and his family…something that Armstrong had tried, and failed to accomplish.

“You’re quite a philosopher, brother.”  Scott stood up and Johnny stepped aside.

“Look at it this way, Scott.  It’s a beautiful day, we’re young, free and good looking…” Johnny paused and looked critically at Scott.  “Well one of us is good looking anyway.  Tell me, brother, has this girl of yours ever seen you when you haven’t been all beat up?”

*****

Johnny was fascinated by everything he saw as they walked through Chinatown.  It was a complete world in, but apart from, Modesto.  He lingered by the stalls selling food and laughed at the antics of the children as they ran around playing in the streets.  There wasn’t a lot of work being done in Modesto that day…Armstrong’s downfall had thrown everything into chaos.  Instead of being at work the men were standing around in groups or clustered round games of chance that seemed to be set up on every street corner.

Scott dragged his brother away from yet another tempting diversion, relieved to feel the lack of antagonism that had greeted him on his last few visits.  In contrast everyone appeared to be in a cheerful mood and the brothers received a number of friendly, if incomprehensible, greetings.

Word of their arrival had clearly spread and Scott wasn’t surprised to see Hannu walking to meet them.  He was surprised and pleased to see that Mika was with him and that she was again smiling.  When Mika saw Scott she darted a quick glance at her brother before hurrying forward.  Scott waited until she had almost reached him before holding out his arms to her.  She came into his embrace without hesitation and smiled up at him.  She was just too much for Scott to resist as he bent down and their lips met.

 

Johnny stood back with a joyous grin on his face.  After a while he tapped Scott on the shoulder.  “You might want to let the girl breathe,” he suggested.

Scott pulled away, embarrassed by his actions.  He made no move to relinquish his hold on Mika although he did look toward her brother to see how he was taking it.  Hannu smiled and inclined his head.  Scott broke into a relieved smile of his own.

“Johnny…this is Mika and her brother, Hannu.  They took a lot of risks to help us.”

Johnny held out his hand to Hannu who took it in a firm grip.  “I’m real grateful to both of you.”

He turned to Mika, who was sheltered in Scott’s arms.  “I’m sorry for what you had to go through.  My brother is a lucky man to have a lady like you.”  He bent and kissed her on the cheek.  “Why don’t you two children run along and leave us grown ups to do some talking?”  His cheeky smile brought a groan from his brother.  “Don’t worry, Scott, I won’t tell Hannu all your secrets.”

A deep, appreciative chuckle sounded from Hannu.  “I would be interested to hear what you have to tell me.  Would you like a drink?”

“Would I?  That’s the best offer I’ve had all day.”  As Johnny wandered off with Hannu he began the first of many outrageous, and far from truthful, stories about his ‘not so straight laced Boston bred brother’.

*****

Scott and Mika walked in comfortable silence for a while, neither yet willing to touch on recent events or what the future might hold.  As the day grew hotter they sought some shade and sat down.  Their passage through Chinatown had attracted a lot of attention…not all of it favorable.  There were as many people within the Chinese community who disapproved of their relationship as there would be in the population at large.

“You seem happier today.” Scott broke the silence.

“Everyone is happier today.  People had been living in fear of Armstrong’s men and now they are no longer here.”

“Someone else will move in to take his place eventually,” Scott cautioned.  “They always do.”

Mika sighed.  “I know, but for today we can celebrate.”

“Johnny killed the man who was with Hank the night they attacked you.  He was going to shoot Johnny in the back…it’s a good thing my brother is so accurate with a gun.  It was a clean kill…a part of me wishes that…”

“It was better that way,” Mika interrupted.  “What happened to Hank…it sickens me now to think of it.”

“Hannu said you are going to San Francisco.”  It hurt to say it as it was so far away from Lancer.

Mika shook her head.  “There is no need.  I am not in any danger here now.”

“I’ll be going home in a few days,” Scott saw her disappointment.  “We still have a contract with the Railroad so I’ll have to come back to Modesto regularly.  I don’t imagine Johnny will want to come back.  Would it be alright if I called on you when I’m in town?”

He waited with bated breath for her answer.  When it came it was quite some time before either of them came up for air.

*****

Scott and Johnny made it back to the hotel just as William Ralston’s comfortably upholstered private coach pulled to a halt.  Murdoch scowled at his tardy sons but, in truth, his heart wasn’t in it.

Theodore emerged first followed by J.D.  “Johnny!”  He gripped the smiling young man by the shoulders.  “It’s good to see you.”

“Nice to see you too, Mr. Young.  I guess I wasn’t the easiest client you’ve ever had.  Thanks for sticking with me.”

“It was certainly never dull.”  He shook hands with Murdoch and Scott.  “This is J.D. Spencer.”  Theodore introduced the newspaperman to Johnny.  “You probably saw him in Court but I don’t believe you ever met.  He’s expecting an exclusive interview with you.”

“Mr. Spencer.”  Johnny shook hands with the publisher.  “Scott’s told me about all you did to help.  I’m not sure I like the idea of an interview but I guess you’ve earned it.”

J.D. was almost rubbing his hands together in anticipation.  “Splendid.  How about you come to my office tomorrow afternoon?  Scott can show you where it is and he’ll tell you that I’ve got a very good bottle of whiskey stashed away.  After a few glasses of that you’ll be happy to be interviewed.”

While they had been talking William Ralston and Judge Rutherford had disembarked from the coach.  Ralston and Johnny regarded each other appraisingly.  It was Johnny who made the first move.  “I’m sorry about your nephew.  I guess I owe you my life.  It can’t have been easy for you to listen to Murdoch;  you’re a real honest man and I appreciate all you’ve done for me.”

“It was my pleasure, Johnny.  One young man lost his life because of Martin.  I believe a young woman was also killed.  He has a lot to answer for.  I’m only sorry that you and your family became tangled up in this mess.  I’ll be taking over in Modesto for a while to sort things out.  This is Judge Rutherford…he signed the order to halt the execution and he’ll conduct a full enquiry.  Hank is on his way to San Francisco and all the other prisoners will be sent there as well.  There is far too much corruption in this town to ensure fair hearings.”

Johnny looked at the judge.  He appeared to be in his mid fifties, a tall thin man with sparse grey hair.  “I’m grateful, Judge.”

“I’ll need to take a statement from you and your brother.  There’s a lot to be done before you can petition the governor for a formal pardon.  I spoke briefly to Hank on my way here.  I’m not happy at the methods used to extract his confession and I don’t know how much weight such a confession would have by itself against Martin Armstrong.  However, I suspect that once I’ve spoken to the two of you and the so-called witnesses to the original shooting that there will be more than enough evidence.  Is there any news on Armstrong?”

Johnny and Scott both looked expectantly at their father.  Murdoch scowled. “Nothing.  He’s disappeared completely.  Sheriff Driver is coordinating the search from here and he has men out covering as much ground as possible.  I’d hate for that man to escape after all he’s put my sons through.”

*****

With the help of several glasses of J.D.’s whiskey, and with his brother by his side for moral support, Johnny made it through the ordeal of being interviewed by the reporter.  He found the man surprisingly easy to talk to and it was only when the article was published that he realised how much he’d actually said about his life as Johnny Madrid and his experiences in Modesto.

Scott divided his time between his brother and Mika.  Murdoch had been introduced to the girl and her brother and had been very favourably impressed in addition to being everlastingly grateful to the two young people.  The Judge’s enquiries were progressing well and he finally told Murdoch that he would have no objection to Johnny leaving town and returning to Lancer.  He was still technically on bail which made Murdoch responsible for ensuring his good behaviour.

Now that he had been given clearance to leave Johnny was growing impatient.  He wanted to get back to Lancer…home…more than almost anything else in his life.  He had the feeling that Murdoch was stalling and his temper was starting to fray.

“I don’t see why we have to stay around this dust bowl any longer,” he complained after lunch four days after the judge’s arrival.  “Scott’s horse is at the livery stable.  We can hire horses and be half way home by nightfall.”

“Is that you giving cheek to your pa, Johnny Lancer?  I wouldn’t blame him iffn he took a switch to you, boy.”  The familiar voice stopped Johnny in his tracks.

“JELLY.”  Johnny flung his arms around Jelly’s shoulder and the old handyman sniffled away a tear that was threatening to make itself known.  “What’re you doing here?”

“The boss asked me to bring you something.  He’s outside.”

Jelly staggered backwards as Johnny abruptly released him and ran out the front door of the hotel.  Murdoch, Scott and Jelly all heard Barranca’s excited whinny as the horse was reunited with his master.  By the time they reached the street Johnny had his face deeply buried in Barranca’s mane.  When he lifted his head his eyes were shining with excitement.

“Hey, Scott, want to go for a ride?”

“Don’t you push that horse too hard, you hear me?” Jelly scolded.  “We’ve had a long trip.”

“I won’t.”  Johnny grabbed Barranca’s reins in one hand and took hold of his brother with the other.  “Come on, Scott.”

Murdoch and Jelly watched with matching proud smiles on their faces as the brothers made their way together down the street toward the livery stable.

 

The end

 

Epilogue

Martin Armstrong took a sip of the rotgut that passed for whiskey in that god-forsaken town.  It was unbearably hot and humid, and he waved his hand in irritation to ward off the ever present flies.  His clothes were in tatters and his normally impeccably barbered hair was lank and hanging in his eyes.  The locals regarded him with a mixture of contempt and pity, not emotions that he was used to having directed toward him.  He had been renting a dirty room in a rundown hovel for the last few weeks while he plotted his revenge.

He had been lucky to escape from Modesto with his life.  His first thought had been to try to get to San Francisco to take passage to Europe as originally planned.  He had quickly realised that he had almost no hope of making it to the ship without being captured.  His course had taken him steadily southwards and it was with a sigh of relief that he had crossed the border into Mexico.  The money he had been carrying when everything had gone wrong wouldn’t last for much longer.  He had to find a way to access some of his accounts and investments.  Once he had money at his disposal he could start to rebuild his empire and Mexico was as good a place as any to start.

Armstrong could be a patient man when he wanted to be.  He had found out that Johnny had survived Seth’s attempted assassination and that Seth himself was dead.  He still didn’t know who, or what, had finally betrayed him but he would find out and once he did…He amused himself with imagining ingenious ways to kill everyone responsible for his humiliation and downfall.  It was only a matter of time.

*****

Murdoch looked up from the telegram as he heard his two sons entering the house.  They had been home for two months…two good months in which they had all put the events in Modesto behind them.  During the first few weeks both boys had suffered the occasional nightmare…for the last month their sleep had been undisturbed.  Murdoch was aware of a subtle change in his relationship with his sons.  They no longer feared to display their emotions openly with him and they had, separately, told him how much they relied upon his strength and presence in their lives.  Their love and trust was a precious gift that he accepted with humility and gratitude.

News had poured into Lancer from many quarters as the weeks had passed.  George Lamont, who had prosecuted Johnny’s case had been mortified to find that he had, unwittingly, been a participant in a deadly farce.  He had immediately tendered his resignation.  Johnny had been asked for his views which were that Lamont had only been doing his job.  The prosecutor had sent his personal apologies and thanks.

Judge Mickleson had been persuaded to resign quietly.  Both Scott and Johnny had been upset that no charges were brought against him but were wise enough in the ways of the world to understand how embarrassing that would have been for the administration.  None of the Lancers had been happy to be told that the jury were not to be investigated.  Murdoch hadn’t been in Court, of course, but Scott and Johnny had seen more than enough to convince them that the jury had been influenced.  The supposed impartiality of a jury was one of the cornerstones of the justice system.  The powers that controlled that system did not want it being suggested publicly that a jury could be bought.

Two of the three witnesses against Johnny had admitted perjury and were now serving time.  The third, Cort Anders, had disappeared only to turn up dead several weeks later.  Sheriff Driver was of the view that his death related to yet another large gambling debt; this time he hadn’t been able to buy himself out of trouble.

Hank had tried to retract his confession but, with Armstrong’s stranglehold on Modesto broken, there were enough people prepared to come forward to testify against him.  The Lancers had been invited to witness his execution and had declined.

Scott had visited Modesto on several occasions; Johnny had refused to set foot in the town ever again.  On Scott’s return from his last visit he had asked Murdoch if he had any objections to Mika coming to stay at the ranch.  Hannu was to accompany her for the sake of propriety.  Murdoch had some misgivings about Scott and Mika’s relationship if only because he had seen the sort of prejudices Johnny had faced as a child of mixed heritage.  However, he had seen the two young people together and there was no doubt that they cared for each other.  As Scott was an adult he was prepared to trust his son’s judgement and, for Scott’s sake, would welcome Mika to their home.

The only two outstanding issues had been Johnny’s pardon and Armstrong.  There was nothing that could be done about the latter…he had disappeared without trace.  The telegram in Murdoch’s hands dealt with the other matter.

The sound of his sons’ easy going banter was music to his ears.  The two tired and dusty young men plopped down onto the sofa in the great room.

“The fence line is fine and the roundup’s going well,”  Scott reported, easing his aching back into a comfortable position against the cushions.  They had been working from sunup to sundown for weeks without complaint.

“Any chance of letting us have a few hours off?” Johnny asked hopefully.  “Maybe let us go into town?”  As he was still on bail he was supposed to stay on the ranch.  Murdoch had insisted that he abide by the terms of his release and, so far, Johnny had complied.

“You don’t need to ask me for permission to leave the ranch.”

Johnny looked up, hope flaring on his face.  “It came?”

Murdoch held out the telegram.  “Yes, son, it came this afternoon.  You have been officially pardoned which means you are no longer on bail so…”

He realised that he was talking to an empty room.  By the time he reached the front door his two sons were on their horses and racing down the road leading to the Lancer arch.  With a broad smile he went indoors to tell Teresa, Maria and Jelly that the nightmare was finally over and that Armstrong’s attempt to railroad his son had failed.

Continued in Misplaced Trust

~end~
Oct 05

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