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EM

 

 

Vida Loca

Disclaimer: No profit was made from this story. The Lancer character does not belong to me, I’m only borrowing them.

 

Part 1

Murdoch was still hot under the collar as he made his way up the stairs to the second floor.  He hesitated before opening the door to his bedroom, wondering if it would do any good to try to talk to his younger son anymore tonight.

He stared down the darkened hall and could see a faint light coming from under Scott’s door but from his vantage point, he couldn’t see Johnny’s room.  He started to take a step down the hall, and abruptly changed his mind. Thrusting the thought away, he opened the door and let it shut with a thud.

His anger cooled as he stripped off his shirt and hung it over the straight backed wooden chair.  He sat on his bed and the mattress sank a bit from his weight as he toed off his boots. Standing, he arranged his boots at the end of his bed and walked over to the old maple armoire. It stood as tall as himself and was carved with a pictorial of the California coastline.  He’d bought it early in his marriage to Maria and she’d commissioned the artist to carve it to her specifications.

She had exquisite taste in such detail and he’d allowed this particular piece of her memory to remain in their room after she left.  He opened the door and hung his vest on a peg along with his tan jacket.

He moved over to the window and took a lungful of fresh air which helped evaporate the last of his anger. Closing the window, he finished getting undressed and ready for bed. Soon he was relishing the coolness of the linen sheets, and growing drowsy as he reread the same line twice in the book he was reading.

Giving up, he rubbed his tired eyes, laying the book on the nightstand, he turned down the lamp.  In the half darkness, the moonlight cast shadows around the room, as the patriarch rolled over pulling the blankets over his shoulders and was soon asleep.

*******

Down the hall Scott was trying to relax enough to go to sleep.  He’d read a line and his mind would drift to the confrontation downstairs earlier and the words on the page would blur.  He tried to concentrate; numb his mind to stop the thoughts from crashing like endless waves tossing his troubled thoughts back at him endlessly.

Sighing, he finally put the book down. He’d tried everything. A glass of brandy and a book usually did the trick but tonight he couldn’t push the angry and hurt look on his brother and father’s faces from his mind.

He lay back on the pillows with his hands behind his head and let his mind drift back.  It had started out as an ordinary evening. Supper had gone pretty much as usual. Murdoch asking questions about the ranch and his son’s answering. He clearly remembered his father’s accusing tone when he found that Johnny hadn’t completed one of his duties.

“Johnny.” His father’s harsh voice cut through him like a knife. Scott remembered seeing Johnny glance up and for a moment he saw a flash of fear, before his brother’s face changed to one of wary watchfulness.

Scott mentally cringed when his brother answered, “Yeah Old Man? What’d ya want?” If nothing else that slowly drawled *old man* was usually enough to set Murdoch off and Johnny well knew it.

The evening went downhill from there. He had to admit that Johnny valiantly tried to hang on to his temper and explain why he didn’t finish his chores, but Murdoch wasn’t having any of it. Murdoch finally told Johnny that he expected him to be up at the crack of dawn and back out to complete the job first thing.

Scott remembered tensing as he watched Johnny glare at their father for what seemed like an hour, but in reality could have only been minutes before dropping his eyes and nodding. Giving in once more to the man who called the tune at Lancer.

Scott acknowledged that six months before they’d agreed to Murdoch’s terms. After all both of them were novices when it came to running a ranch the size of Lancer. Still in all it was the heavy handed way Murdoch called the tune that grated on both of them. Scott had grown used to men like Murdoch, as Harlan and his associates often behaved the same way. Scott sighed. He never dreamed that growing up in Boston with all its conventions and rules would make him better prepared for living in California than his brother who grew up in the west.

With new resolve to support his brother, Scott turned down the lamp and it was a long time before he finally drifted off to sleep.

***********

Johnny sat in the smoky cantina idly turning his glass around and around.  Laughter erupted to his left as a player at a poker game triumphantly raked in his pot.  He heard the sound of swishing skirts as Lina brought him another bottle of tequila. She poured his glass full and smiled as she ran her hand through his thick hair.  He leaned away from her and gave her a half smile. “Not tonight Lina.” He was firm but not unkind.

Lina’s dark eyes flashed at him and her pretty red mouth turned into a pout. At Johnny’s determined shake of his head, she left him to himself and found more willing company two tables away.

He licked the side of his thumb and dipped it in salt before taking a lime and sinking his straight white teeth into the fleshy fruit. The tang of the lime mixed briefly with the salt before the tequila washed down his throat with a familiar burn that warmed his insides with a flash of fire.  He felt that floating feeling that let him know he was getting drunk. Tonight he didn’t care. He needed to find a way to stop the voice in his head.

He’d done it again. Failed the old man. Made him mad for no reason other than once in a while, Johnny felt the uncontrollable urge to take back control of his life.  He’d follow the old man’s orders to the letter for weeks then all of the sudden, something would happen and he’d get this urge to buck.

He desperately needed Murdoch to ease up a bit on the reins but he didn’t really know how to tell him….or even if the old man could do it.  Johnny privately doubted that he could.  He’d resigned himself to be the one to adapt to Murdoch as he couldn’t see any chance his father would accommodate him.

Even after six months, Johnny still desperately needed the freedom to do as he pleased. He took secret delight in defying the old man. He knew it was childish but sometimes he just couldn’t help himself.

Johnny reached out and poured himself another glass. ‘This is the last one.’ He thought as he downed it in two gulps.  He replaced the cork and stood suddenly feeling the effects of the liquor. He reached into his jacket pocket and threw a couple of coins on the table and with a nod at Manual tending the bar, left on unsteady legs with the bottle of tequila dangling from the fingers of his left hand.

Johnny pushed open the batwing doors and took a breath of cool night air. His head cleared slightly and he was glad to see the night was clear with an almost full moon to see his way home.  He stood there for a moment before stepping off the wooden boardwalk to get Barranca, then his world went dark. His last coherent thought was a sharp pain in his head and the sound of glass breaking. Then the darkness hit him sending him spiraling into nothingness.

 

Part 2

The next morning, Scott walked out of Johnny’s bedroom and hurried down the back stairs to the kitchen.  Scowling at his father calmly eating his breakfast at the table, he asked, “Where’s Johnny?”

Murdoch looked up at him and carefully took a sip of his coffee before answering. “I told him to be out at French Creek at dawn to get it cleared. I assume he left already.”

Scott could feel the color rise in his cheeks at his father’s cavalier attitude as he watched the man return to eating his breakfast. Scott pulled out a chair and sat heavily, glaring at his father.  “Johnny’s bed hasn’t been slept in. Did you know that?”

Murdoch looked surprised for a moment before he shook his head. “No, I didn’t even know he’d gone out last night.” Murdoch ran his hand through his hair and frowned, “I guess he must have gone into town and he probably went directly to work….at least I hope that’s what he did. For his sake.” He put in meaningfully.

Scott raised an eyebrow, “For his sake or yours?”

Murdoch took another sip of coffee before answering, “Both I suppose.” Not wanting to get into it right now with his older son, he added. “I’ll talk to him tonight when he comes home. He’ll have cooled off by then.” Before Scott could state the obvious, Murdoch continued, “We’ll both be cooled off by then.”

Scott nodded and began eating his breakfast. He felt anxious to get his day started in hopes he’d have time to catch up with Johnny later in the day.

*********

Scott led his tired horse toward the barn.  It had been a hectic day with not much going right. He’d spent a good part of the morning directing various work crews and then one of the buck boards had lost a wheel. By the time the rolls of barbed wire, posts and tools had been unloaded and the wheel reattached, they’d lost precious day light. He’d spent the rest of the day trying to catch up and by the end of the day he felt breathless like he’d been chasing his tail.

He never saw hide or hair of his brother, but they had been pretty much working on opposite ends of the ranch. He looked forward to having a few minutes with him before dinner to gauge his mood.  He’d found his brother could be moody one minute and light hearted the next. He knew he struggled with changing his ways from one of relative freedom to the responsibilities of a family and answering to the tune their father called. From what Johnny said, he’d been as free as an alley cat growing up. Even when he was living with his mother, apparently she’d let him make a lot of his own decisions. Scott still wasn’t altogether sure whether she let him or made him as their circumstances had seemed to be pretty unstable.

Johnny didn’t talk a lot about his childhood, but he’d shared enough with Scott to know that there were times when they didn’t have a roof over their head or enough food to eat. The thought of that made Scott especially angry with Johnny’s mother for depriving him of a safe home where he would have wanted for nothing if she’d either left him at Lancer or brought him back home.

Johnny had made it clear that he loved his mother in spite of her shortcomings and one night when they slept under the stars not too long ago, Johnny confessed that even knowing everything he knew, he would have stayed with her if Murdoch had tried to take him away when he was a kid. Even though things were sometimes hard, he wouldn’t have left her.

Scott had found himself speechless at that and he mind screamed, ‘But she left you!’ that thought never passed his lips as he knew that to voice that opinion would have caused more harm than good in their relationship.

Entering the barn, Scott’s stomach dropped at the empty stall that Johnny used for Barranca. With a feeling that something was wrong, he quickly cared for his horse and lugged his saddle to the tack room. As the sun was quickly setting, he stood just outside the barn and shaded his eyes trying to see if he could see a rider coming down from the hill.  No movement caught his eye and with shoulders slumped he headed for the house.

*******

Scott stopped just inside the front door and removed his gunbelt and hat.  He hoped maybe Johnny had come back during the day and at least checked in with someone. Hanging his hat and jacket up on the coat rack, he walked into the living room.

He saw Rosa setting the table and could smell roast beef being prepared in the kitchen which set his stomach to grumbling as he realized he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Joining his father, he asked. “Have you seen Johnny?”

Murdoch looked up from the newspaper he’d been reading and answered, “No I haven’t.”

“He’s not back. At least Barranca isn’t in his stall.”

Murdoch shook his head and pulled out his pocket watch. “Still a half an hour before dinner. He’ll be along.”

Scott didn’t voice his doubts, instead he left to go get cleaned up for dinner.

********

The next morning after a restless night with very little sleep, Scott was saddling his horse as the first light started filtering through sky. Murdoch stood watching him silently. Worry lines showed clearly on his face. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come help you son?”

“No sir. I’ll check French Creek and then head into town.  Johnny may have just needed some time to think.  He sometimes goes to the line shack in the south pasture, so you should ride up there this morning and check it out.”

“I’m sure he’s fine son.  He’s probably just working out whatever is bothering him.”

“Still it’s not like him.” Scott swung into the saddle and nodded once toward his father before he turned his horse toward French Creek.

An hour later Scott swore as he looked at the untouched creek.  His heart raced as he wondered where on earth his brother was.  This was not like Johnny at all.  His sense of dread on high alert, he turned his horse for Morro Coyo and set off at a fast lope.

**********

Scott slowed his horse to a walk as he rode into the sun baked town.  The merchants were just opening their doors for the day, setting out their wares. The streets were for the most part deserted at this early morning hour, but Scott made a point of checking the side streets as he went by on the off chance Barranca was tied off the main street.

Figuring that Johnny would have gone to the cantina, Scott started there first. Pushing through the door, Scott found Manual sweeping the floor. “We open at 10 senor.”

“I’m not here for a drink. I’m here for information.”

The apron clad man stopped and looked at him warily before dropping his eyes and returning to his task.

Scott reached out and took the broom from his hands. “I’m looking for my brother, Johnny? Have you seen him in the last couple of days?”

“No senor. I have not seen him.”  Scott looked at the man’s dark eyes and the man dropped his eyes to the floor before retrieving his broom from Scott’s hand, and began sweeping with a new vigor.

Scott watched him for a moment and turned on his heel hitting the batwing doors open in his frustration. If he found out the barkeep was lying, he’d be back with a vengeance. For now there were other places he could look.

He walked with fast strides down the end of the street taking the first side street on the right. The livery stable was full of activity. Stock was being fed and Scott slipped into the dark barn. The pungent aroma of horses and hay filled his first breath and he stopped for a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness. As his eyes adjusted, he sucked in a breath as he saw the golden coat of his brother’s horse in the stall at the farthest end of the barn.

With hope in his heart for the first time that day, he walked to the palomino, “Hey boy, where’s Johnny?”  He chuckled to himself that he was actually talking like he expected the horse to answer.

“Can I help you senor?”

Scott turned to see Jose Silverio, the proprietor standing just inside the barn.  He walked back to the man. “Yes, I’m looking for my brother Johnny.  He came into town the night before last and hasn’t come home. I see he stabled his horse here. Do you know where he is?”

The man frowned a bit. “No senor. I do not know where Senor Johnny is.  I found his horse yesterday tied to the hitching rail at the cantina.  I know he would not want him to go hungry or thirsty so I brought him here.”

“When yesterday?”

“In the morning. At daybreak. The horse had pawed a large hole and was fretting.  I took him to the water trough and he drank.” The man’s worried eyes looked into Scott’s. “He was very thirsty. I brought him back here, but Senor Johnny has not come for him.”

Scott reached into his pocket and gave the man a five dollar gold piece. “Thank you for taking care of him.  I’m looking for my brother. If he comes here or you hear anything, let me know. Comprende?”

The man turned the gold coin over and over. “Si Senor. I understand.”

*******

Feeling the rage burning, Scott stormed back to the cantina and flew through the door. He grabbed Manuel by the shirt collar.  “My brother’s horse is at the livery stable.  Senor Silverio said he found the horse yesterday morning tied to your hitch rail. Now I want the truth and I want it now!” he pushed the man down into a chair and stood towering over him.

The man cowered and stuttered, “S…senor, I do not know where he is. Please believe me. Dios, I do not know!”

“He was here!” Scott almost yelled.

“Si he was here. Two nights ago.  He was alone. He left around midnight.” The bartender wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand, “He was drinking senor, but he left alone taking a bottle with him.”

“Why was my brother’s horse still at the hitching rail the next morning if he left?”

“I do not know. You must believe me.  I closed up at two in the morning. I was surprised to see his horse, but thought he must have gone up the back stairs to be with one of the girls. I went home. When I came in the next morning, the horse was gone.  I thought he had gone home. You must believe me senor. I know nothing more.”

Scott felt dread settle again in his stomach. “Where are the girls?”

“In the kitchen senor. I will get them.”

*******

Scott left the cantina feeling extremely frustrated. The girls all denied spending the night with Johnny. Lina mentioned that Johnny told her he wanted to be alone. Scott stood on the boardwalk for a minute just gazing at the town, wondering what to do next. He decided to go door to door and see if anyone had seen his brother. As he stepped off the boardwalk into the street, he heard the crunching of glass. He looked down to see a broken bottle of tequila at his feet.

His heart sank as he tried to read the signs in the dirt. Too many boot prints and hoof prints, he thought as he crouched down for a closer look. His eyes were drawn to two faint marks deeper in the dirt. *Boot heels?* he asked himself. The marks went out into the street for about two feet before they were obliterated by the multiple hoof prints.

With worry gnawing at his gut, he led his horse back to the livery stable.  He needed more help to search. He needed to tell Murdoch that Johnny had disappeared and it looked like he’d been kidnapped. He needed to find his brother!

 

Part 3

Scott collected Barranca and headed for home.  He resisted the urge to dig his heels into his horse’s sides and gallop home. Leading Barranca; such a move could result in two out of control horses. He kept them both to a brisk trot which had him through the Lancer arch in just less than an hour.

Halting the horses in front of the portico, he handed the reins off to Frank. “Take care of them for me and saddle a horse for my father and me.  Is Cipriano here?”

“Yes sir, he’s at the barn.”

“Good. Saddle a horse for him and tell him to meet me at the house in ten minutes.”

**********

“Murdoch!” Scott yelled.

Teresa came running from the kitchen looking scared and worried as Scott never yelled.  “Scott! What is it?”

Murdoch followed right behind her. “Son, I didn’t expect you back so soon. I haven’t even left to check the line shacks…” Murdoch stopped when he got a good look at Scott’s expression.

“Scott…did you find Johnny.” Murdoch fought to keep his voice steady as all morning a little voice told him something had happened to his son. He feared the worst when he saw Scott’s shoulders slump. He rested a hand on each of those usually strong shoulders and barely found his voice. “Is he…” He couldn’t voice it.

“No…no I didn’t find him. I did find his horse in the livery stable in Morro Coyo.”

Relief washed over Murdoch’s face, “Well, he has to be there then. Johnny wouldn’t leave without that horse.”

“I looked everywhere sir, but talking to some of those people is like talking to a starched shirt. They don’t trust me…” He shrugged.

“I finally got the barkeep to admit that Johnny was there the night before last. He said Johnny left at midnight. When he closed at two, Johnny’s horse was still at the hitch rail, and he thought…” Scott’s eyes drifted to Teresa, “Anyway, he thought he’d stayed over in town. When he came to open this morning, the horse was gone. The liveryman, saw Barranca this morning and took him to the stable.”

Murdoch walked over to the blue chair and sank into it as he pondered the news. He was relieved that Scott was not bringing news of Johnny’s death, but this was unsettling. As much as he hated to voice it, he felt he needed to ask, “Scott, you know your brother better than I do. Is there any chance he’s just on a lark? Holed up somewhere?”

Teresa jumped to her brother’s defense, “He wouldn’t do that! He’d never let us worry so.”

“She’s right Murdoch. Even if he wanted to get away for a while, he would have let us know and he wouldn’t have left Barranca tied all night to a hitching rail.” Scott walked over to the side table and poured himself a whisky. He couldn’t care less that it was way too early in the day; he needed the fortification for what he was about to say.

Clearing his throat, “There’s more. Johnny left with a bottle of Tequila. On the street, right near the hitch rail is a broken bottle of tequila.” He glanced up at his father and raised a hand quickly, “I know…I know…that’s not conclusive, but coupled with the fact that Johnny’s horse was left there, and Johnny appears to be missing; I think we have a real problem on our hands.”

There was silence for several minutes as the three of them mulled over the dire possibilities. The grandfather clock continued its cadenced measurement of time, before Murdoch broke the silence.

“We’ll start searching.  I’ll send the crews out to cover all the area between here and Morro Coyo and we’ll search every square inch of territory in this state if we have to. We’ll find him.”

“I think you should start in Morro Coyo. I thought perhaps if you and Cipriano were to ask, they’d be more likely to talk to you than me.”

“All right. Scott, you organize the search parties. I want you to go to Green River and send out wires to all the towns between here and the border. We better just send a description, I don’t want to stir up the rumors of Johnny Madrid.

Scott privately thought that might be impossible to avoid, but didn’t voice his thoughts. “What about hiring the Pinkerton’s?”

 Murdoch pursed his lips, “Maybe we should wait a day or two to see if he turns up.”

 Before Scott could answer, Teresa put in, “What if he’s being held for ransom? Or someone from his past has him….?” She was unable to finish that thought.

 “Let’s hope it’s the former and not the latter, but sir, I think it would be wise to get the Pinkerton’s involved right away. They know Johnny and know who might have a grudge against him. If Johnny turns up, we can call them off, but if he doesn’t, we’ve lost precious time.”

 Seeing the logic of Scott’s argument, Murdoch nodded, “All right. Wire the Pinkerton’s. Also have Frank go to Spanish Wells and search just in case.”

 "Yes, sir.” Scott stood and started for the door, just as Cipriano came into the house as instructed.

 “Scott.” Murdoch called and Scott turned back around, “We’ll find him son. I know we’ll find him.”

 Scott nodded and continued out the front door to organize the search for his missing brother.

***********

Johnny struggled to the surface and for a short while, he couldn’t tell if he was going up or down. He’d been though this several times; in how long he had no idea. Coherent thought had abandoned him for the time being.  He heard voices murmuring, but was unable to sort them out from all the other disjointed thoughts hammering around in his head.

Once again, Johnny fought free of the dark as he tried to push his way toward the light. The harder he pushed, the angrier he got until with a gasp he broke free. His heart was pounding as he struggled to open his eyes and clear his vision.

He stared at the ceiling noting the familiar heavy beams and the white washed adobe walls. ‘Home,’ he thought with relief.  He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he relaxed once more into the comfortable bed and allowed a refreshing sleep to overtake him.

He did not hear the whispered voices in Spanish asking if he should be drugged further. “No, that is enough. Tres dias, he has been medicated. We will allow him to awaken now and see his new home.”

 

Part 4

Johnny woke to the sun streaming though his window.  The warm dry air felt good, and he stretched noting the fine linen sheets which caressed his naked skin.  He still felt groggy and for a moment wondered if he’d been sick or injured, but as he laid there and took stock, he couldn’t find anything to cause him alarm.

He rubbed a hand over his eyes and face and noted how smooth his cheeks were. ‘Musta not been that long, since I shaved last.  His tried to remember and found with annoyance, he couldn’t. ‘Oh boy, I bet the old man’s steamin’ since I’m still in bed long after day light. Musta really been drunk if the last thing I remember is leaving the cantina.”

He glanced around the room and froze as his stomach did a slow flip. ‘This ain’t my room!’ In one movement, he slung off the covers and stood swaying a bit as a bout of dizziness hit him. ‘Where the hell am I?’ he asked himself as he looked around at the unfamiliar room.

With a start, he noticed that the house was decidedly Spanish style in design. White washed adobe like Lancer, but not Lancer.  There were black wrought iron bars over the window and he was swept by the feeling of being confined.

He crossed to the open window and saw he was on the first floor and the window faced a courtyard filled with hibiscus. The sweet scent mingled with another that he couldn’t place, but it was the fresh air that cleared the fog from his mind.

Turning swiftly, he headed for the door. The knob turned easily and Johnny poked his head out seeing no one in the hallway. ‘Not locked and no guard.’ He was amazed to note.  He closed the door with a soft click. ‘Gotta find me some clothes.’

He looked around the room and could find no sign of his clothes or gunbelt.  He opened a drawer in the dresser and found socks and a white shirt embroidered with white thread, so subtle that only a practiced eye could detect the fine detailing. ‘A fine shirt.’ It looked the right size, so he pushed his arms through the sleeves and shrugged it on.

“Pants and boots….’He wondered what had happened to his own clothes and what exactly was going on. He opened several drawers and only found more socks and shirts. He flung open the door to the armoire and breathed a sigh of relief, ‘Pants!’ Not his own, but close enough.  They were dark leather and lined with red silk.  Conchos ran down the side much like his own had. The pants fit like a glove as if they had been custom made for him. They were just the right length, slung low and tight enough to stay in place without a belt if need be.

The problem of boots was taken care of, as on the floor of the closet were a pair of butter soft boots which fit him perfectly. ‘Strange, that all this gear fits me.’ Johnny thought but now was not the time to look a gift horse in the mouth. He’d take whatever small favors he could get, and get out of here, wherever here is right quick.

Suitably attired, he quickly searched the room for weapons or anything he could use as a weapon. ‘Nothing!’ he thought in disgust.

He once again opened the door to the hallway and ducked his head back inside as he saw a woman carrying a tray down the hall. Her dark hair was in two braids down her back and she wore a peasant blouse and skirt much like the women often wore in Mexico.  He waited until she had turned down the hall before he ventured out the door.

He walked carefully; constantly checking his back trail, figuring that at any moment someone would see him and the chase would be on.  He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw he was within feet of the door. He hugged the wall and listened, all his instincts were on high alert. He heard men speaking in Spanish. One man telling the other his duties. “Si Patron.”

He heard the door close and fading footsteps on the stone floor.  Johnny waited, straining to hear more voices, and then took a chance.  He walked boldly across the entry way and out the door. Once outside, he lost a bit of his confidence when he saw the unfamiliar landscape. Escape was the only thing on his mind and he hid behind a flowering acacia tree, while he planned his next move.

His opportunity was not long in coming when a vaquero rode up to the house and dismounted leaving his horse tied to the hitching rail. As soon as he entered the house, Johnny made his move. He ran to the horse and deftly untied it, offering it soothing words to calm the frightened animal. As he mounted, he heard shouts. Not waiting around to discuss it, he headed out at a gallop.

*******

“Don Antonio! Juan has just taken off on Eduardo’s horse.”

The tall Spanish patron frowned. “I had hoped to talk to him, explain the way things are here now…..Ricardo, go after him. Do not try to stop him….just make sure he does not get lost and bring him back when he is ready.”

“Si patron.”

The stocky vaquero left the house with spurs jingling as he hurried to do as his patron had instructed.

*******

Johnny slowed his horse as he didn’t want to run the poor animal into the ground.  He was going to need this horse strong and healthy in order to find his way home to Lancer.  In his headlong rush, he had not really noticed where he was going. His instincts told him to flee fast and far. Now that he was several miles away and there was no sign of pursuit, he slowed the lathered horse and allowed him to catch his breath and recover.

Johnny started to take in his surroundings, and plan his next move. ‘First west then north, then I’ll turn east. I should see something familiar by then.’  Just before he turned the horse, he noticed a flash of sun on metal and dust being kicked up in the distance.  ‘Someone’s followin’ me, but not too fast. If we keep movin’ horse, we should be able to stay ahead of him.’

He kicked the bay gelding into a ground covering trot and his mind vaguely took in his surroundings as the terrain changed from lush pastures to hills with giant rock outcroppings.  He’d climb for half a mile, leaning forward to help his horse as much as possible, then he descended into the next ravine, leaning back as his horse sat down on his massive hindquarters to make their way down the incline.

‘This land is sure all up and all down.’ Johnny thought as he once again grabbed a fist of mane and leaned forward as his horse struggled up another long climb. As they crested the ridge, Johnny’s mouth fell open as he sat stunned at the sight. As far as the eye could see; blue water mingled with blue sky and the sun sparkled on the waves as they crashed into the while sand beaches below.

“Where the hell am I?” he asked himself out loud as he realized he was a long way away from Lancer. ‘Mexico?’ He looked more closely at the country side in the distance as he realized he was seeing the cactus familiar in the arid deserts of Mexico. He shook his head in confusion as he’d spent a lot of time along the coast of Mexico and he couldn’t recall anything that looked remotely like this.  He asked himself again, “Where the hell am I.”

At the sound of a horse climbing the hill behind him, he turned quickly and fought off a wave of dizziness, but the wave of nausea hit him like falling off a bronc.  He found himself kneeling in the rocks and sand, retching uncontrollably. Tremors wracked his shoulders, and sweat popped out on his face.  He finally got hold of himself when he realized his follower was offering him a canteen.

Nodding his thanks, he took a sip and spit it out to wash the fowl taste from his mouth. The second and third sips went down and soothed his parched throat.  Struggling to his feet, he shrugged off the hand of the man who tried to steady him.

“Where am I?”

The man didn’t answer. In frustration, Johnny took a step closer and shouted, “Answer me! Am I a prisoner?....”

“Come back with me and Don Antonio will explain everything.”

“No! I’m getting out of here and you better not try to stop me.” Johnny mounted and headed off north. He glanced over his shoulder to see the man mount up trailing along behind, making no effort to catch up.

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

Johnny put a good half mile between himself and his follower.  His instincts told him the man offered him no harm, and as the drugs cleared from his body, his sluggish mind zeroed in on the fact that the man wore no gun.

He was too tired to sort it all out. He had to head north. North to find his way home, back to Lancer.

 

Part 5

Johnny rode three hours until hunger was causing his belly to feel like it was turning itself inside out. His skin felt dry and thin which he realized was from lack of water. His throat was so sore, he couldn’t swallow without having to brace himself against the pain.

He glanced back at the horseman trailing along behind him. For a moment, he thought of just staying in place. He forced himself to stop thinking about the man’s canteen.  He couldn’t figure out what he was doing, or what he wanted from him. He searched his mind for anything in his past to compare with this situation. ‘Loco.’ He thought as he shook his head and continued his journey. ‘Nothing made sense here. No sense at all.’

**********

His eyes searched the landscape for any sign of water for himself and his weary horse. ‘Not a cactus in sight.’ He thought with a sigh.  This area had short dried grass, the color of sun dried oats.  Off in the distance he saw another mountain range beckoning him with its green trees and he urged his horse toward what he hoped would be water and a place to rest.

He stopped once again, ‘I just need a landmark.’ He thought as he scanned the horizon. This part of Mexico should be more familiar, but nothing looked quite right. He rubbed a hand over his face feeling the grime of dirt and sand and the slight prickle of his whiskers pushing through the skin. ‘Musta drug me.’ He concluded and continued on his way.

Another long climb up, then down, followed by another climb so strenuous that he wasn’t sure his horse had it in him.  He could feel the tremors of muscle as the horse clawed its way to the top. The shale making the climb that much more dangerous and at the sound of a small rock slide, he glanced back, for a brief second concerned about his follower.

As the day progressed, Johnny found himself thinking of the man as almost a friend. Always there, never threatening.  Almost a comfort to have another soul in this strange land, even if he was almost a mile behind him.

As the pair crested the top of the hill, Johnny pulled the tired horse to a halt, and let out his breath, “Dios!”  As far as the eye could see-ocean! Johnny looked down in disbelief at the waves crashing angrily on the rocky shore below.

How long he sat there in stunned silence, he did not know….or even care.  He felt defeated, and it was not a feeling he was comfortable with, and that feeling made him unsure of his next move.  He’d been so sure he was heading toward home, and now this. His sense of direction failed him, and Lancer was as far away from his grasp as it had been when he left the hacienda that morning.

*********

Murdoch and Scott rode back to Lancer. Defeat in every line. They had searched everywhere for Johnny and so far, nothing. No leads, and the trail so cold, they weren’t even sure what to do next.

Neither man had said a word for the last several hours as they rode lost in their own thoughts.  The last time they had talked, they ended up snapping at each other and their frustration and worry about Johnny had boiled over in a torrent of words neither man meant.

Murdoch looked at his son out of the corner of his eye as they rode.  Scott had his head up, eyes focused straight ahead.  It was the set of the mouth and worry lines on the brow that told Murdoch everything he needed to know. Scott seemed almost as though he was in mourning over the loss of his brother.

It had been four days. Four long days with no word and no sign of Johnny.  Cipriano had managed to get a few people in Morro Coyo to talk to him.  They told him that four men; strangers had taken a room on the outskirts of town.  They never shared their business but had seemed dangerous to the few that had seen them.

Manuel finally broke down and told them the men had been in the cantina the night Johnny was there and had left just before him. Lina had been engaged by one of the men for her services a few hours before and she recalled mentioning Johnny to him somehow in the course of the evening.

The men left in the early morning hours that Johnny disappeared and no one had any reason to doubt that those men were responsible for Johnny’s disappearance.  Why was unanswered, and where they went was burning a hole in the minds of all the people who cared for Johnny.

As word spread that Johnny Lancer was missing, the community had sent out search parties. All of the San Joaquin was being searched. No stone left unturned, but as yet no word either.

Scott and Murdoch had searched non stop for the last two days and now needed to head back to rest up and get fresh horses.  They hoped there was some word when they got back, but neither had high hopes.  It was like the boy just disappeared into thin air.

 

Murdoch kept thinking back to the earlier argument with Scott when he broached the possibility that Johnny might have been killed. His body dumped into a mine shaft. Scott had turned on him with such anger and wrath, he hadn’t realized his oldest son possessed. His son’s accusations still burned, “Just like that. You’re giving up? I’m not giving up, not until I find him. One way or the other, I’m not giving up until I know for sure. You gave up on him once, well I’m never giving up on Johnny!”  Then the cold silence from Scott. Murdoch tried to explain that he wasn’t giving up, just facing facts. They might never find Johnny and he wanted to start preparing Scott for that.  The withering look Scott gave him as he loped his horse ahead, told him that his son rejected that idea.

Murdoch hoped and prayed with all his soul that Johnny would be found alive, but knowing the circumstances from which he was taken, four men against one, it was unlikely Johnny stood a chance.

**********

Johnny sat his horse, at a loss as to his next move.  His only choice was to turn south. He  had gone as far north as he could. He must be on some kind of a peninsula; maybe Baja California. If that was the case, then did he need to go south before he could go north?  For the first time in his life, he felt totally turned around.  He double checked the position of the sun and decided to wait for his follower. Now that he was thinking more clearly, he was determined to get some answers out of the man.

It didn’t take long for the man to top the crest of the hill.  His horse was wet with sweat and breathing hard as it made the last scramble to the top. “Hola Juanito.” Johnny noted the flash of white teeth.

“Hola. Took ya long enough to catch up.” Johnny commented.

“Perdone’, No habla Engles’”

Johnny switched to Spanish, “Why are you following me?”

Ricardo wiped the back of his arm across his forehead and smiled, “My Patron asked me to make sure you don’t get lost.”

Johnny couldn’t help but smile just a bit at that comment, “Well, I guess you did a poor job of it then, because I’m pretty well lost.”

“Ah, you may be lost, but I know where you are.” The man countered.

In spite of his uncertain situation, Johnny once again found himself liking this man. “You seem to know my name, what do you go by?”

“My name is Ricardo Enrique Salazar y Vegas.”

Johnny reached his hand out, “Johnny Lancer.” Ricardo grasped Johnny’s hand and they shook.

“We should be returning to the hacienda Juanito. It will be dark soon.”

“I don’t want to go back there. I want to go home. How do I get out of here?”

Ricardo shrugged and turned his horse south and started away from Johnny.

Johnny started his horse after him, “Hey! I asked you a question!” He trotted his horse up to Ricardo’s side. “Answer me.” Johnny said forcefully.

“I’ll tell you what I know as we ride.” Ricardo replied.

Johnny sighed and shook his head. ‘This is crazy.’ He thought.  “Ricardo, where are we? Are we south of San Diego?”

Ricardo looked at him and shook his head, his dark eyes flashing, “I do not know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?  How could you not know such a thing?”

“I’ve lived here my whole life. I have never been anywhere else but here.”

“You mean you’ve never left this area….ever?” Johnny’s voice expressing his disbelief.

“Never.  I’ve never needed to go anywhere else.” He gestured with one arm, “I have everything I need right here.”

Johnny halted his horse in shock as he took the man’s words in.  He trotted once again to catch up. “How far south do I have to go before I get off this peninsula to head north?”

“You can not.”

“What do you mean by I can not?” Johnny felt his anger rising.

“This is an island. There is no way off.”

 

Part 6

Johnny swayed in the saddle. ‘An island! Dios no!’ He was speechless as the world swam around him. He was feeling so disoriented that he had to grab hold of the saddle horn to stay upright in the saddle.

He felt Ricardo’s steadying hand on his arm and nodded once to let him know he was going to be alright. Whether that was true or not was still to be seen.  He felt light headed even as he mustered his strength to straighten in the saddle and raise his head.  He felt Ricardo looking at him with concern.

“Here, drink this.” Ricardo held the canteen out and Johnny drank deeply letting none of the precious water escape.

“Gracias.” He took a deep breath and let it out.

“Feeling better?” Ricardo asked recapping the canteen.

“Si.” Johnny shook his head and regretted it immediately as his vision once again blurred.

“Let’s return to the hacienda.  You need to rest and eat. It’s been several days since you last had any food.  There is a watering hole not far ahead, we can water the horses and then we must go back.”

Johnny was too exhausted to argue so he just turned his horse to follow without a word.

********

Johnny had no idea how he managed to stay on the horse for the rest of the ride back to the hacienda.  The hours were a blur as he concentrated on staying in the saddle.  Every muscle ached and his hunger was causing his stomach to churn and roll. He had gratefully accepted the canteen whenever Ricardo stopped to offer it, but even though he was still thirsty, he would not ask for it.

As they turned into the courtyard, a vaquero took hold of his horse’s reins and with stiff legs, he slid to the ground. As his feet touched the ground, he staggered on shaky legs, but Ricardo was there to steady him and he helped him walk a few steps before Johnny shrugged off the help, “I can make it.” and with that, he made his way on unsteady legs across the portico into the grand hacienda.

“I want to see your Patron.” Johnny demanded with a voice not as strong as he would have liked.

“Si senor.  You will see him after you clean up and eat.”

Johnny was about to demand to see him now, but realized just how lousy he was feeling. Food, sleep and a bath all sounded more important than finding out why he was here.  He strongly suspected this had something to do with Madrid. Why he didn’t exactly know, but as he’d not been harmed really, he suspected this man wanted to hire Madrid and was under the impression that Johnny was still hiring out his gun.  He looked forward to seeing the look on this Don Antonio’s face when he turned him down.

As he followed Ricardo back into his room, he had a niggling doubt that it would be that easy, but his tired mind wasn’t able to sort out any better scenario.

Ricardo clapped his hands, “Trae un baño for our guest.”

Johnny heard the softly murmured, “Si senor,” followed by the sound of young girls giggling as they hurried to do as they were bid.

“Your bath will be ready in a few minutes.  Dinner isn’t served here until nine, so I will have some food delivered to get you by shortly. Don Antonio will expect you for dinner.”

“Gracias. Please tell him, that I will look forward to meeting him, and I expect to be given some answers.”

Johnny noticed a dark look on Ricardo’s generally pleasant face. “Si senor, I will give him your message, but senor, it would be in your very best interests to be most polite tonight to your host.”

“Oh I intend to be Ricardo….I intend to be very polite.”

**********

Johnny sank back into the large tub of hot water and tried to relax his body and his mind. Both were overtired.  The food he’d eaten had gone a long way to making him feel better, and now he just needed to try to get himself back in working order so he could face whatever ordeal lay ahead.  He expected that he would have to set the man straight tonight and hoped he’d be allowed to leave on the next boat out.

Johnny had worked for Spanish-Mexican landowners several times in the past, and they had formal customs and patterns much different than those he had grown up with.  These people could be extremely polite and civilized, while planning to kill you the next day.  He’d been wined and dined at elaborate tables of fine linen and crystal only to have to fight their battles with the coming dawn, and then worry about getting back-shot as he rode away with their gold coins in his pocket.

The Spanish had a superiority unlike any Johnny had ever met. In spite of that fact, they never seemed to hold his mixed parentage against him.  He knew that many Spaniards had sought out marriages with other Europeans as in the early days, there were few suitable choices for the men who won land grants from the Mexican government.

His blue eyes never seemed to offend them the way they did some of the Mexicans, for he knew Spaniards with eyes as blue as his or even green. As he closed his own sea blue eyes, he wondered exactly what lay in store for him this night. One thing he was sure about was there was no way he was going to trust that man.

*******

Johnny woke with a start as he heard Ricardo call his name. “Senor, I have come to shave you.”

Johnny opened his eyes and regarded the man. “Leave everything over there, I can do it myself.”

“No senor, it is my job to take care of you.  I am a very good barber.  Relax.”

I spite of Johnny’s misgivings, he was beginning to like Ricardo, so he settled back into the tub and relaxed as he felt the warm lather being spread across his cheeks and chin. A few minutes later, the sharp blade kissed his skin as Ricardo expertly shaved his young patron.

*********

Lancer-

Murdoch slumped at his desk, just staring at the pile of unopened mail.  He reached for the half filled glass of whisky and took a sip as he tried to muster the strength to open his mail and take care of business.

For the last several days since Johnny came up missing, no unnecessary ranch work had taken place. Every available man was searching for Johnny. When he said no section would be missed in the search, he meant it.

He was aware that Scott was sitting at the long dining room table. He had maps spread out over the table, held down flat by candle holders.  He was checking and double checking that every acre on the ranch was being carefully searched by the hands and volunteers making up the search parties.

“We’ve finished searching the whole south end of the ranch closest to Morro Coyo.” Scott announced rising from his chair. He walked slowly to the sideboard and poured himself a stiff drink and brought the decanter over to refill Murdoch’s glass.

“What do you think the odds are that someone would take Johnny to the north section Sir?”

Murdoch sighed, “It’s not as likely as somewhere south, but I suppose it’s worth a look.”

“I agree. They may be holding him in the foothills to the northeast just waiting for the right time to get in touch with us.”

Murdoch took another sip and looked at Scott with worried blood shot eyes, “Don’t you think they would have been in touch by now Scott, if they wanted ransom?”

Scott sat in the chair by the desk and gazed over his father’s shoulder into the night beyond. He shook his head, “You’d think they would have by now. But….maybe Johnny escaped and they are trying to find him. Maybe Johnny’s trying to get back home….”

Murdoch took another sip unwilling to bring up his thought earlier that had so upset Scott. It was still unbidden in his mind that maybe, just maybe, it was too late and there would be no ransom, and Johnny would not be coming home.

 

Part 7

Johnny dried himself off after his bath and slipped on the warm robe before he went back into his bedroom. His eyebrows raised as he saw a fine jacket hanging from the back of a chair and laid out on his bed were trousers and a clean white shirt.

He glanced around the room and couldn’t locate the clothes he’d worn earlier, but assumed Ricardo had taken them and left these clean ones for him. At this point, Johnny didn’t really care what clothes he wore as he only wanted to confront the man who was trying to keep him here.

He dressed quickly and ran the brush through his thick hair grimacing as he tried to figure out what the next hour would hold for him.  With one more glance in the mirror, he shrugged on the short jacket and left the room.

He stopped short as he almost bumped into Ricardo in the hallway. “Senor, I was just coming to help you dress.”

Johnny almost smiled at the thought and replied, “Ricardo, I’ve been dressing myself for a long time. I do not need help now. Now take me to your Patron.” His voice was quiet, but there was no question he would brook no delays.

“Si senor. Follow me.”

Johnny followed Ricardo out past the door they had used to enter the hacienda and he tried to keep track of where they were going.  After two turns right and one left, Johnny decided to just keep track of exits as it appeared this house wound its way around a large courtyard.

Ahead of them, he could hear the sound of several voices and Johnny wondered if they were servants or his captors.  As he followed Ricardo, he briefly wondered if he was being led into a trap, but shrugged the thought from his mind.

Johnny stopped with Ricardo at a set of wooden carved double doors.  Ricardo glanced at him, “Ready?”

Johnny nodded that he was ready, but inside he thought, ‘Let er buck.’ He took a deep breath as Ricardo opened both doors and Johnny stepped into another world.  As his eyes took in the sight in front of him, he knew Ricardo was waiting at his side, but Johnny was unable to take another step as he struggled to regain his composure.

He felt extremely uncomfortable as he realized that at least twenty people were in the room, perhaps more, and they were all gawking at him! “What’s going on here amigo?” Johnny asked Ricardo.

“Don Antonio will explain everything to you shortly. Now we will go on in and I will introduce you.”

Feeling extremely uncomfortable Johnny stepped into the huge sala and followed Ricardo as he was introduced one by one to each person. For the most part each name fled his mind immediately after hearing it. All he could recall was that Ricardo called each one Don or Dona.

Johnny’s eyes took in the rich clothing; the abalone combs in the women’s dark hair; the silver threaded jackets with pearl buttons in the men’s coats. All speaking Spanish and welcoming him with elegant phrases.

As they made their way through the crowd, he noticed that the crowd parted as they walked through. Johnny’s eye was caught by a man standing a few feet in front of him.  His dark hair was touched with silver, but he seemed ageless to Johnny.  As he got closer, he realized with a start that the man had dark blue eyes, and he was about his own height.

Johnny pulled himself together as he realized Ricardo was introducing him. “Patron, may I present Don Johnny Lancer. Juanito, this is Don Antonio Mateo Estrada y Miramontes.” After the introduction, Ricardo stepped back a few paces to allow the two men to size each other up.

“Juanito, I am most pleased to see you once again.”

Johnny was surprised to have the man offer his hand. ‘All very civilized’ he thought as he clasped his hands behind his back. In English, Johnny responded, “Look Old Man, I’m not pleased to meet you, and I want to know why you brought me here.”

Also speaking in English, Antonio raised an eyebrow and frowned as he drilled Johnny with a glare, “You will keep a civil tongue in your head if you know what is good for you muchacho.  We will discuss your situation after dinner. Until then I trust you will not behave like a heathen?”

Johnny was just about to respond rather quite rudely when his attention was directed by a very large, very old woman speaking in flawless Spanish. “Antonio, this must be our dear Juanito?”

“Si Tia. Juanito, may I present my Tia, Mercedes Maria Miramontes y Santander.”

Johnny had no choice but the take the offered hand. He couldn’t help but notice how small and soft it was and how odd it was in contrast to the bulk of the woman. What really caught his eye was the large ruby necklace hanging heavily around her neck and the piercing dark eyes that seemed to see right through him.

She laced her arm through Johnny’s and bid him, “Come; you may escort me to dinner.”

Johnny found himself being led off into the next room and holding the chair for this commanding bulk of a woman, before seating himself as directed next to her.

********

Johnny’s mind was whirling as he tried to figure out what was going on. He never expected to sit down to a *family* dinner with twenty strangers, but here he was, making small talk with Dona Mercedes.  He kept shooting glances at Don Antonio, but the man studiously ignored him.  All talk at the table was kept to polite murmurs and Johnny was loath to bring more attention to himself.

*********

At last the meal came to an end and Don Antonio rose which signaled the rest of the diners to stand and drift away from the table.  Most were heading into the sala, but Don Antonio motioned for Johnny to follow him.

With a quick glance at Ricardo, Johnny followed Don Antonio through a set of doors into his office. Johnny’s eyes took in the rich surroundings. A bronze sculpture of a man riding a horse briefly caught his eye, but soon his full attention was on the man.

 

“Drink?” Antonio offered.

“Si.” Johnny took the glass of rum. Not usually his drink, but this night he needed the fortification.  Taking a sip, he looked up into Antonio’s dark blue eyes. He took in the long lashes and high cheekbones. ‘Past his prime, but still a man used to commanding respect.’ Johnny thought.

The man was starting to make him nervous, so Johnny sat on the arm of the couch and waited. ‘Two can play this game.’ He thought in satisfaction when he noticed the frown the man gave him.

Antonio took a large sip of his drink and sat it on the end table before walking over to stand in front of Johnny. “You do not remember me?”

Johnny looked up at the man and tried to place him. He finally shook his head, “Should I?”

The man’s mouth worked into a thin smile, “It has been a very long time muchacho. You were very young, but I had hoped you might have remembered me.  Your mother brought you here once, and well, I was hoping she would stay.”

Johnny felt his stomach do a flip at the mention of his mother. He couldn’t help but wonder what on earth this man wanted with him now. Was this one of Maria’s men? Steeling his nerve, he chased away those butterflies and stood up very slowly. He placed the glass carefully on the end table, never taking his eyes off the man.

“She never stayed very long anywhere, though with a place like this I’m surprised she didn’t take you for all she could get. Musta not been any good in bed. Huh?” His voice dripped with insolence.

Antonio’s eyes flared fire and he stepped forward quickly slapping Johnny before he had time to step away. “Do not ever speak ill of your mother again young man! She was my daughter and I am your grandfather! You will keep a civil tongue in your head, and you will behave politely to everyone here or I will make your life very unpleasant until your behavior improves. Do you understand?”

Johnny stood there in shock with the palm of his hand pressed against his flaming cheek. ‘Grandfather?’ he thought trying to recall ever meeting this man or hearing his mother speak of him. A flutter tickled his memory, but he was unable to bring it to the surface as he struggled with this amazing news.

 

Part 8

Johnny rubbed his stinging cheek once more as Don Antonio spoke. “Now, you will sit down and listen.  I suspect you are one to have to learn the hard way.” Don Antonio seated himself behind his massive carved mahogany desk. He pointed to a chair in front of his desk and his eyes commanded Johnny to obey him.

Johnny gathered up his wits and sat as directed. “What proof do you have that what you say is true?” His voice was soft as he tried to take in everything that had been thrown at him this day.

Don Antonio slid his chair back and opened the top desk drawer.  He took out a small miniature painting and looked at it fondly before offering it across the desk to Johnny. “Do you recognize your mother?” he asked.

Johnny stared at the lifelike impression of his mother. He had to blink to clear the unexpected moisture from his eyes and found his throat was too tight for speech so he nodded. He handed the painting back and noticed his hand was shaking.

“I had it painted when she was thirteen. She was so beautiful. Young and innocent.” Antonio took the painting back and looked at it again before stowing it in his desk drawer. He glanced up at his grandson.

“What happened? Why’d she leave?” Johnny asked.

“She was willful, and I gave in to her and allowed her to leave to go to school. She was too wild for the nuns to control.  She ran away when she was fifteen. She met your father at sixteen, and by her seventeenth birthday, she had you.”

“Did you….” Johnny stopped unsure how to say what was on his mind.

“Did I what?” Antonio questioned gently.

“Did you come see us. I mean did you meet my father?”

“No. I waited. I wanted my chica to settle down in her new life with her new husband and new baby. I did not want to interfere……at least until I found out she’d left her home with you.”

Johnny traced the carving on the edge the desk with his forefinger as he listened to a part of his life that he had no memory of. He felt so often that these events, so out of his control had shaped his future, and not for the first time felt extreme frustration over that fact.

He missed most of what his grandfather had been saying when he realized that his grandfather had asked him a question. “Sorry. I wasn’t listening to you.” Johnny confessed.

Antonio cleared his throat and unsuccessfully tried to hide a smile. “That trait seems to run in our family. I was asking if you wanted to go to bed and continue this discussion in the morning.

“I’m not tired. What I want to know is, why did you bring me here? What do you want?”

Antonio smiled, “You are very direct.  You must get that from your father. Did you know that your father is a citizen of Mexico?” At Johnny’s puzzled shake of his head, he continued. “Your father converted to Catholicism when he arrived in California as it was necessary for him to become a citizen of Mexico in order to purchase his rancho.”

Johnny was growing impatient and began shifting in his chair. “I don’t know what this has to do with me or with you forcing me to come here. If you had just asked, I would have come.”

“Would you really?” Antonio’s voice expressed doubt. “You are so much like your mother, you even have the Estrada family eyes.”

That got Johnny’s attention and he looked into his grandfather’s sea blue eyes. “I always thought I got my eyes from my father.”

 “Having an anglo father may have made it possible for you to have blue eyes, but the shade belongs to the Estrada’s.  There is only one other person beside you and I on the island with eyes this color. It does not appear in every generation.”

“Who all lives on this island?” Johnny’s curiosity to learn more about this place apparent.

“Santa Margarita is an old land grant given to three Spanish families. The island is about seventy miles long and forty miles across. You covered many of those miles earlier today.”

“So where is this?.....I mean, are we near Mexico or California…..” Johnny tensed hoping to hear good news.

“We are in a series of islands called the Channel Islands.  Our nearest neighboring island is about twenty five miles to our north. It is uninhabited.  I thought at one time of raising goats on the island as it was very rugged, but it was too inhospitable for the herders. They did not want to stay and work.”

“You didn’t answer my question.” Johnny pointed out with more challenge tinting his words.

Antonio didn’t appear to be fazed, but answered, “We are about fifty miles from the mainland of southern California……and to answer your earlier question, you are here because you are my grandson, and this is where you belong.”

Johnny launched himself out of his chair, “This is where I belong? You must be crazy. I BELONG with my real family. My father and brother at our ranch. That’s where I belong!” He started pacing with pent up frustration.

When his grandfather made no comment, Johnny turned on him. “Just how long are you gonna keep me here?  Answer me that.”

“Sit down nino.”

“No! Answer my question.”

“Very well.” Antonio’s voice was soft. “You have arguments with your father, No?”

Johnny’s head dropped, then his eyes met the older man’s and they locked gazes. “Yeah, but we’re workin’ on that. It’s getting better anyway. He’s givin’ me a chance to change my life.”

“Were you not in a gun fight just two weeks ago? How is that changing your life? Can your father keep you safe?”

“It’s not my father’s job to keep me safe!” Johnny practically yelled, then lowered his voice, “Look, I have this chance to be with my father and brother. I have to go back. You have to let me go.”

“Juanito. You are safe here. No one will ever come after you. No one even wears guns here.  Here you will be safe.  We raise the finest horses from Espania. We raise cattle, sheep, crops. This island provides us with everything we need.  You will soon make friends, and perhaps meet a young woman to marry. You have your whole life ahead of you here.” Antonio raised his hand and stood up. “No!  I will not allow you to go back and risk your life. I will not make that mistake again!”

“Who gives you the right to make decisions for me?” Johnny demanded angrily.

“I have the right. I am your grandfather. Now this discussion is closed. You may remain here if you choose, but it is late and I am going to bed.” With that Antonio left the room allowing the doors to shut quietly behind him.

 

Part 9

Johnny had no idea how long he sat in his grandfather’s office, but he must have dozed as he could see the rays of light streaming through the window. Rubbing his tired eyes he came fully awake, and he stretched as he heard the sound of a male tenor voice singing a Spanish hymn in the distance.  Another voice joined in, and then another.

“It is the tradition here.”

Johnny turned quickly at Ricardo’s voice and raised an eyebrow. Ricardo explained, “The first one up starts the song, and others join in. I think it is a bother, but it’s been this way as long as anyone can remember.”

Johnny walked to the window and looked out to see a woman helping a very old man to a bench next to an adobe wall where the first rays of sun were sending its weak warmth. Johnny could sense that Ricardo was standing next to him watching as well.

“The old one has been here forever. No one knows how old he is, or remembers where he came from. I remember bringing him food as a boy. Now he’s too old to feed himself, so soon someone will be here to take care of him.”

“I’m surprised Antonio would let him hang around.” Johnny mused.

Ricardo glared at Johnny at the familiar use of his grandfather’s name. “The patron is most generous. He has many families working for him. Everyone works, so even though there is a lot of work to be done, it is spread among many people so no one has to work too hard. Our elders are respected and cared for to the end.”

Johnny thoughts flashed back briefly on the ranch. They never seemed to have enough hands and they all seemed to work endlessly and never quite got caught up. Maybe there was something to say for having old traditions such as these. He felt a wave of dread wash over him as he thought of his family back home. They had to be worried sick about him, maybe even think he was dead.  The thought of his father once again looking for him, made him angry with his grandfather.

“Where’s the old man?” Johnny’s glare was enough to cause Ricardo to take a step back.

“He…he’s in the chapel for morning prayers.” Ricardo stammered.

“Prayers huh? He’s going to need to pray when I’m done with him.” Johnny muttered under his breath in English as he stormed passed Ricardo and out the door.

Ricardo dutifully followed his young patron, and sent a quick prayer that he could keep him out of the trouble he seemed to be so intent on rushing into.

*********

Johnny’s first instinct had been to confront his grandfather, but he decided instead to get a better layout of the land. As Ricardo seemed to be a willing ally for now, he’d insisted they make a trip through the kitchen.  Ignoring the protests of the cooks, he poured each of them a cup of coffee and snatched two tortilla’s from the hot grill.  Working quickly, he added eggs and fresh salsa before rolling them up and handing one to a startled Ricardo.

Amid protests in Spanish from the kitchen staff, Johnny left by the back door. “Where’s the barn amigo?” he asked as he took a bite of his tortilla.

Ricardo had his hands full, a cup of coffee in one hand and a tortilla in the other; he shrugged his resignation and led the way to the barn.

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

Johnny balanced his half empty coffee cup on a fence post, and wiped his hands on his pants.  Taking his cup, he swallowed the rest of the coffee before replacing it on the post.

“I need a good horse Ricardo. Muy valiente.”

“Si Johnny. Don Antonio said you can choose from his own manada. We will ride out and take a look.”

Johnny turned to see two nice bay geldings all saddled and waiting. He gave Ricardo a grin and went to the best looking gelding and offered his hand to the horse to sniff. Once the horse accepted him, he checked the cinch and mounted.

“Let’s go.” Johnny gave his fresh horse his head and the two men galloped out of the corral.

********

Tia Mercedes smiled as she watched her great nephew gallop away. ‘So much like his grandfather.’ She allowed herself a small feeling of mirth at how the distinguished Don Antonio Estrada might deny ever being that young and spirited, but she knew the truth and he knew; she knew him very well indeed.

The two had no secrets from each other and the older woman just hoped he could pull this off. She had her doubts about the wisdom of taking Maria’s headstrong son and expecting him to settle in to a life here.

’No matter.’ She thought. It is done. Either Johnny would give in or Antonio would. She suspected it would be a first for either man.  As she watched the two figures disappear in the distance she considered the battles to come. In her heart she knew Antonio would be the victor, but she wished Antonio’s plan to protect his grandson was not so heartless.

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

Murdoch Lancer felt twenty years older as he prepared to face another day without his youngest son. Both he and Scott had barely said a word to each other for twenty-four hours and he worried Scott wouldn’t be able to accept what had to be accepted.

In the late hours of the evening the night before, their silence had been interrupted by a knock on the door. Scott had opened the door to find the sheriff of Spanish Wells at their doorstep.

“Sheriff, come on in.”

Murdoch remembered hearing the distress in Scott’s voice and he rose and prepared himself for bad news……and bad news it was. The worst news in fact.  The sheriff had reluctantly told them that Johnny Madrid had been killed about 10 miles south of Stockton.

The constable in Stockton had received word of a gun battle and when he got there, a drifter showed him three unmarked graves. He’d buried the men where they’d fallen.  He described them as one man in his thirties with reddish hair, another in his twenties with blond hair and the third looked to be in his early twenties. Dark hair, and tan complexion.

“That’s not proof it was Johnny!” Scott insisted.

“There’s more Scott.” The sheriff added apologetically.

“He said the dark haired boy was wearing a faded red shirt with embroidery on the front and dark leather pants with silver studs down the sides.”

Murdoch closed his eyes as the pain washed over him again. He remembered the haunted look in Scott’s eyes as the sheriff added the boy was wearing a gold religious medal and had a bracelet made of blue beads on his right wrist.

At that Scott had left the house, slamming the door behind him and he hadn’t yet returned.

**********

Johnny stopped at a fork in the dirt road leading away from the hacienda. Pointing to his left he asked, “Where does this go?”

“A la puenta.” Ricardo answered simply.

Johnny turned to face Ricardo fully and decided to lay his cards on the table and see which way Ricardo would jump. “I need to go home amigo. My family will be worried about me. Will you help me find a way out of here?”

“I can not.  Don Antonio has been good to me. I can not help you. Please do not ask it of me.”

Johnny once again felt angry and had to use all his self control to keep from lashing out at this man.  He took two deep breaths before answering, “Do you have any family Ricardo?” He saw a hesitant nod. “Don’t you worry about them when they may be lost or hurting?”

Ricardo sighed, “Don Antonio took me in when my Madre died. I was thirteen.  My Padre was a Spanish soldier who deserted many years ago. He married my mother;” He stopped and gave Johnny a defiant glare and lifted his head proudly, “She was Indian.” Seeing nothing change in Johnny’s expression, he continued, “Don Antonio gave him land and put him in charge of the guards. My father died during a battle with pirates when I was 8.”

There was silence for a moment before Johnny spoke, “I’m sorry about your parents Ricardo. I know how hard it is to go on when one dies.”

“Don Antonio took care of us. He made sure we had food, clothes, a home. He made sure I went to school. He gave me everything.”

‘Except freedom.’ Johnny thought but did not voice.

As if Ricardo could read his mind, he added. “You need to speak to your grandfather of this Johnny. It is not my place to do so.”

“I don’t think he’ll listen to me.” He combed his fingers through his horse’s mane.

“How will you know if you do not ask him?”

Johnny thought about this for a moment before turning his horse left, “Good point. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ride down and see the bay. Is this where the ship docked that brought me here?”

“Si. That is where all the ships dock. Do you not wish to see Don Antonio’s manada de caballos?”

“Not right now, maybe on the way back.” He cocked his head and asked, “How come you’ll answer my questions, but you won’t help me?”

Ricardo was silent and the only sounds were the steady beat of hooves as the two horses walked side by side, “Perhaps it will help you understand if I tell you that which I know. Don Antonio has not forbidden it.”

“And if he had?”

“I would say nothing.” Ricardo responded with such intensity that Johnny had no doubt he was hearing the truth.

As the pair worked their way down the road leading to the port, Johnny’s eyes scanned the bay. No ships of any kind were anchored and so far he saw nothing to aid him in his escape.

“How come there are no boats?” He asked Ricardo as they got closer.

“Our people are not fisherman. The sea is too rough.”

“So how do you get supplies and things you need?”

“We raise most of everything we need, but a trading ship comes by every month or so. See that cannon?”

Johnny’s eyes followed where Roberto pointed, before nodding.

“When a ship is spotted, the guard on duty fires off a round to alert everyone the ship is coming in. It takes several hours for them to dock and they stay a day or two so everyone has a chance to buy what they want.”

“How do you get money?” The thought suddenly occurred to Johnny.

“There is no money here. No gold coins like I’ve heard about from Spain.  Anything we want we get from the ship and Don Antonio settles up when he trades hides or tallow. Everything is expensive. That razor of yours cost 300 hides.”

“Three hundred hides?” Johnny was amazed knowing that hides were worth about a dollar each. “Back home that razor would have been only a dollar or so.”

Johnny saw the blank look on Ricardo’s face as he realized the man truly had no concept of anything except this island. This thought more than anything else made Johnny realize how far from home he was as he looked at a port empty of ships to take him home.

 

Part 10

Murdoch looked up as his son walked into the living room.  His eyes took in Scott’s haggard features and slumped shoulders. “I’m glad you’re back son.” Murdoch spoke quietly as though he was trying to gentle a frightened horse.

Scott’s eyes were full of pain and he stumbled on the fringe of the throw rug as he made his way into the room.  Murdoch’s hand steadied him and he guided his fragile son to the couch. “Easy there.  Catch your breath.” Murdoch sat next to Scott and was alarmed by the bowed head and defeated posture.

After a few minutes with no sound except the old grandfather clock ticking away the moments of their lives; Scott raised his head, his mouth set in a grim line. His voice was low and gravely. “I’m going to Stockton to bring him home.” His eyes blazed defiance challenging Murdoch to object.

“We’ll both leave in the morning. I’ll get provisions ready while you get something to eat and get some sleep.” When Murdoch saw a protest coming at the delay he was suggesting, he softened his tone, “Scott….it’s going to be hard enough without us both being exhausted. We need to do this last thing together for your brother. He would have wanted it this way.” Murdoch waited, hoping that Scott could see the truth through his pain.

His faith was rewarded when Scott nodded and straightened his shoulders. “You’re right, Murdoch. Johnny would have wanted us to bring him home together.”

Murdoch put his arm around Scott’s shoulders and the two of them sat together in silence allowing their grief to be salved by companionship.

***********

Johnny walked through the doors into his grandfather’s office without hesitation. He noted with satisfaction his grandfather’s frown at his intrusion and thought, ‘Good. You better get used to it old man. You and me are gonna be bumping heads pretty often, so you better be ready.’ His satisfaction was short lived as the thought of the other old man that he so often bumped heads with flashed into his mind. Pushing thoughts of his family away, Johnny locked eyes with his grandfather before he casually walked to the liquor cabinet.

Out of the corner of his eye he didn’t miss the flash of dismay as Johnny’s hand reached out toward a bottle of scotch. From his grandfather’s reaction, this had to be the most expensive bottle, and while he didn’t really care for scotch, anything he could do to irritate the old man was worth the taste.

“Want one?” He offered.

“Since you feel so at home with my best scotch, then yes.”

Johnny handed over the glass and sat down in front of the desk, casually pushing his chair back, and propping one boot on the edge of the desk. Once again he felt a flush of pleasure at his grandfather’s frown.  He couldn’t help thinking that if his grandfather had brought him here before he’d met Murdoch or Scott, he could have enjoyed this cat and mouse game with the old man.

Don Antonio glared at him, before settling back and giving Johnny an appraising stare. “Make yourself at home hijo.” This last was said gently in Spanish.

That got Johnny’s attention and his dark blue eyes flashed in anger, “I ain’t your son! There is only one man who can call me that, and it sure as hell ain’t you!”

Switching to carefully accented English, Don Antonio replied, “Ah but you are wrong Johnny. I have a story to tell you. Will you listen without interrupting?”

He took Johnny’s nod as agreement and after taking a fortifying swallow of scotch, began his story. “Many years ago, when you were very young, your mother brought you here.  She’d left your father. The pelado who took you both with him had been killed after cheating at cards.”

Johnny now sat with both feet on the floor, head bowed, hands clenched in his lap as the pieces his early life were patched together.

“I had only wanted to help her put her life back together. She refused to return to her husband, so I made plans to secure her happiness and your legacy.” He raised a hand as Johnny lifted his head ready to ask a question, “Uno momento nino.”

Don Antonio took another sip of his scotch as he was finding the telling of this story to be harder than he expected. What he had done couldn’t be taken back and he’d always known that if this moment ever came, he would have a hard time defending his actions.

Johnny would not be put off though, “What did you do?” His voice was flat and had a deadly quality to it.

Clearing his throat, Antonio pushed on, “I arranged a marriage to the eldest son of Francisco Silveria. It was a good match and the man would have been a good father, but…”

“But what?” Johnny questioned.

“Your mother was already married to Murdoch Lancer. A divorce was out of the question.” He hesitated.

“What did you do?” Johnny repeated in a cold voice.

“I had the marriage annulled.” Antonio stated flatly.

Johnny launched himself out of his chair. The chair fell in a crash behind him. He lunged at his grandfather and had him out of the chair by the shirt collar. Practically shaking him in rage, Johnny shouted, “Why did you do that? What were you thinking? How would the church allow it?” Johnny realized he was practically choking the man when he pushed him roughly back into the chair.

He began pacing, vaguely aware of his grandfather straightening his clothes. He turned back to his grandfather. He needed answers and this man was the only one who could give them.  “So this Silveria married my mother and you’re telling me what?”

Don Antonio once again had himself under control, “No chico. Your mother did not marry him. She was outraged when she found out what I had done and refused him. She was so angry she threatened to kill herself, even you…. I had no choice, I adopted you as my son…..to give you the Estrada name.” He stopped to give Johnny a chance to catch up as he could tell his grandson was stunned.

“What about Murdoch? Didn’t he have a say about this?”

“I am a very powerful man, Johnny. There was no need for him to know, but rest assured, in the eyes of the church, the marriage never happened, and you are my son. Once it was done, it could not be undone.”

Johnny righted the chair and sank almost bonelessly into it.  “Murdoch’s still my father.” Johnny’s declaration didn’t come out as strongly as he meant it to.

Antonio waited for Johnny to take it all in. He felt sympathy for the young man. He briefly flirted with allowing Johnny to go back to his old life, but the cold facts of Johnny’s life as a gun fighter wouldn’t allow him to stray from his course. Lancer or Estrada, he would not allow his grandson to be killed in a gun fight….not as long as he had a breath in his body.

Finally, after just a minute actually, Johnny asked, “What about Murdoch? What about my family?”

“I have sent them word so they would not worry about you.”

“How long are you planning on keeping me here?” Johnny’s voice was soft.

“Just until I am sure you will be safe when you go back.”

“And exactly how long is that?”

“A few months….a lifetime. I do not know.”

Johnny frowned as he felt his chances to work something out with the old man plummet. “Look, just tell me what you want from me. I’ll do anything so I can go home.”

“I am sorry nino. This is the way it will be for the time being. Your family is not worried about you; this is where you are safe.”

Johnny’s head came up and he asked, “So they know where I am? They think this is right for me?”

Antonio shook his head, “No they do not know where you are, just that they do not need to keep looking for you.”

Johnny started to rise as his head felt ready to explode from all this new information. His grandfather motioned for him to return to his seat. Johnny settled back and waited, ‘what more?’ he asked himself.

“Don’t leave yet. There is something of great importance.” Antonio waited until he was sure he had Johnny’s complete attention.  “Earlier you mentioned returning to your family. I want to make it clear that everyone in this household is your family and you owe it to them to treat them with respect and courtesy, just as they do you. From what I have seen, you have not had the advantage of growing up in such an environment, so I insist that you make an effort to do as I say.”

Johnny’s eyes glittered, “I’ll do what I want. Your precious daughter didn’t exactly consort with senators and noblemen, so I didn’t get any of them fancy manners you’re talkin’ about.”

Antonio refused to be baited, “I’m well aware of my daughter’s shortcomings. You do not need to remind me. I am also well aware of your independent streak. I’ve been told many times, that I have it as well.” He smiled a thin smile as he thought of Tia Mercedes recent warnings.

“To clear the air, let’s make sure we understand each other. You will do your best to try to leave the island, and I will do everything in my power to keep you here. Is that correct?”

Johnny was not at all sure where this conversation was going. He’d never dealt with anyone like this old man before. He nodded hesitantly, “That’s about it.”

“Good, I’m glad we understand each other.” He glanced at the clock as he heard a muffled knock on the door.  “Now I have someone I want you to meet.”

The door opened and a young man stepped in.  He was dressed in riding clothes similar to those that Johnny was wearing.  He looked to be about 18. He had dark hair and was obviously the third person on the island with those blue, blue eyes.

“You asked for me, Grandfather?”

 

Part 11

Johnny’s eyes raked the new comer. He’d vaguely caught a glimpse of him when he’d had dinner last night, but the boy had arrived late, and had sat at the end of the long table. The boy now looked at him with the same curiosity he felt.

“Johnny, I want you to meet my other grandson, Angelo Alejandro Estrada.”

Angelo reached his hand out and Johnny shook the boy’s hand. “Nice to meet you. Are we cousins?” Johnny asked.

Antonio stepped forward and motioned for the boys to sit down. “Angelo already is aware of this, but you and he are brothers.”

Johnny’s eyes locked with his grandfather’s and he shook his head to clear the cold haze that was trying to take over. “I….I didn’t know my mother had another child.” Johnny spoke slowly.

“Si. You were very young when Angelo was born.”

“So she just left you here…..with him?” Johnny spoke to Angelo.

“I never knew my mother.  She left me here when I was a baby.” Angelo was matter of fact.

Johnny shook his head in disappointment once again with his mother. ‘How could she leave a child?’ As soon as that thought registered, he realized how often lately, he’d wished she’d left him with Murdoch, and he realized that maybe for once she did the right thing.

“So she left you and took me. I wonder why?” Johnny heard his grandfather’s sharp intake of breath and he realized he’d spoken his thoughts out loud.

“I wish to God, she would have left you here Johnny.  If only she had, but my little chica was not right in her thinking. I think she left Angelo because he was so young. His nurse was with him always. You were older; almost three, and by then running more than walking and talking up a storm.”

Johnny suddenly noticed the boy was looking down at the tips of his boots, and was obviously uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken. Johnny felt an unexpected rush of protectiveness come over him. With a flash of insight, he wondered if this is what Scott felt when he became all *big brother* with him.

Johnny realized he’d missed some of what Antonio was saying, but caught the tail end, as he told both of them to spend some time getting to know each other better as he left the room.

**********

Angelo blew out a large breath of air, as he stood and walked over to the bar. “Want something to drink?” He asked as he poured himself a glass of tequila.

Johnny smiled as he poured the expensive rum into a nearby plant, “Sure.”

Once both were settled, a drink in hand, they weren’t exactly sure what to say to each other. Johnny decided to break the silence. “So what do you do around here anyway?”

Angelo sipped his drink and raised an eyebrow, “You mean like fiestas and balls?”

“No, I mean what do you do other than sit around here?” Johnny persisted.

“This is a working rancho amongst other things. My…..I mean our…. grandfather told me you have been living on a ranch with your father. I too work on the ranch.”

“So you build fences and muck out ponds?”

Angelo smiled, straight white teeth flashing, “No, not exactly. For one thing, we have little need of fences.  We only fence out the stock from fields growing crops; we don’t need to fence our animals in. There is no where for them to stray to.”

“When you’re not working on the ranch, what else do you do?” Johnny persisted.

“Twice a year we have rodeos. Everyone gets together to show off their horsemanship. We have horse races too. I won last year on my Palomino. He is muy brio. Lot’s of stamina. He’s the fastest horse on the rancho.”

Johnny’s eyes were downcast, “I have a Palomino too, back home. He’s the fastest on the ranch too.” Johnny cleared his throat and asked, “What else?”

 “There’s a village about 5 miles from here. There’s a cantina and a…a….well…” The boy stopped and blushed which Johnny enjoyed immensely.

Taking pity on the younger man, Johnny offered, “You mean to tell me that Don Antonio Estrada sanctions a brothel in his own back yard?” Johnny chuckled at the look on his brother’s face.

“Well….Let’s just say he is not a man without needs as well.”

Johnny chuckled and took a sip of the fine tequila. “Tell me about him. This grandfather of ours.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Everything I guess. I want to know what makes him tick; you know why he is so determined to keep me here.”

Angelo’s look of comprehension wasn’t hard to miss, “Abuelo is a man used to having power. He is very wealthy now, but he worked hard for everything he has. He comes from a time where the eldest male rules with an iron fist.”

“I don’t take orders too well and I can’t see him and me ever doin’ anything but butt heads if I stayed here. How do you handle it?”

Angelo shrugged, “It is easy if one wishes to avoid confrontation and keep the skin intact on his back. It is much easier and less painful to obey.”

“What do you mean, less painful? He beats you?” Johnny couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Only if I disobey him.”

“But you’re what? Eighteen?”

“Almost nineteen; and no, I am not too old to be punished. Don Diego whipped his son Julio two weeks ago and he’s 27 and married!  Parental respect and obedience is an established custom. Why battle an established custom?  What good would it do? You disobey and are punished, then you end uf obeying anyway. I would think it most unwise not to obey in the first place. No Johnny, I have found it much easier to follow orders.” Angelo shook his head.

“I know I’d never accept that from him.” Johnny said slowly.

“Stay out of trouble and it will never be an issue.” Angelo advised.

“Tell me more about the old man.” Johnny steered the conversation back to Antonio.

“He grew up a second son in Spain. No land and no title.  He met and married our grandmother. She was betrothed to a Quixano, but they ran off and got married.”

“What?” Johnny asked in confusion. “I don’t understand.”

Angelo chewed his lip as he tried to find the words to help Johnny understand the complexities of their culture. “By marrying a woman above his station, a woman betrothed to another man, he brought shame on his family and was disowned.  The story goes that Tia Mercedes took them in and financed his voyage to California. Once he was established here, he sent for his family. Tia Mercedes came with her son Xavier, along with our grandmother and our Uncle; just an infant came over too.”

“Antonio had a son?”

“Si. His name was Angelo.  I was named after him.” Angelo answered softly.

“Where is he now?” Johnny asked hoping that maybe there would be someone to help him make the old man see things his way.

“He’s dead.  He was killed when he was 14 in a riding accident.” Angelo spoke flatly.

Johnny drained his glass and set it on the end table. “I’m sorry to hear that. Did Antonio have any other children other than Angelo and our mother?”

Angelo fiddled with his glass before setting it down. “His second wife, Ana-Lucia, has had 7 girls in 8 years. All either stillborn or died after drawing their first breath.”

Johnny found himself at a loss with this news. What did one say at that? He knew what he wanted to say, but felt it entirely inappropriate, so he found himself grinning when Angelo spoke his thoughts.

“There’s a lot of stud left in that old man.” Angelo’s straight white teeth flashed and his blue eyes sparkled with humor.

Johnny whistled and smiled as the two brothers shared a most inappropriate moment before sobering.

“He’s been desperately hoping for a son. Another heir, but all he’s gotten from Ana-Lucia is dead babies. Ever since he brought her here and married her, he has been unhappy. I think he’d like to get rid of her, but he doesn’t dare. He should have just stuck with Indian women, they’re much more…… hardy.”

“Get rid of her?”

“Have the marriage annulled.” Angelo explained matter of factly.

Johnny felt a flush of anger at his grandfather’s callousness, “So when he doesn’t like something or someone, he just destroys it? Is that how it is?” His anger came through in his voice and he saw Angelo flinch. He immediately felt remorseful, he wasn’t mad at this boy, he felt a cold fury toward his grandfather and he was not here to witness it.

“It’s okay. Forget it. I think I want to have a talk with the old man later today. We have a few more things to discuss.”

“He has gone to Dos Rios on business overnight. It is a rancho on the other side of the island. He will be back tomorrow.” Angelo informed him.

Johnny felt a wave of disappointment. He had been hoping to talk to his grandfather some more, but on second thought, perhaps getting to know his younger brother was a good idea.  He had so many questions, he just wasn’t exactly sure where to start.

Before Johnny could say anything else, there was a knock on the door and Ricardo announced that lunch was ready.

Johnny’s stomach growled at the sudden realization he’d had very little to eat and it was late in the afternoon. Food sounded good so he followed his new brother and his new friend to the dining room. As he followed his brother, a small niggling thought struggled to grab his attention, but his weary mind wasn’t up to paying attention, so he held it at bay while he struggled with his more pressing thoughts of how to get off the island and back home.

 

Part 12

Johnny sat at the long dinner table with twenty strangers who were part of his family. It was almost too much to take in. The more he thought about it the more confused he felt. He reached for the wine glass and took a sip as he pushed those thoughts away. He had more important things to think about and one of the most pressing was his brother, now seated at the far end of the table.

As he’d sat down earlier, he’d wondered if Murdoch was Angelo’s father too. Johnny had missed most of what Tia Mercedes had been talking to him about, as he figured the age difference and tried to put the puzzle together.  He shook his head in familiar frustration that he couldn’t remember his early life. If only he could remember his time with Murdoch at Lancer, or even the time Antonio said he’d spent here with his mother.  His mother must have had Angelo then, but he had no memory of it, other than a brief flash of his mother, one hand on her back, brushing his hair from his forehead, saying she was too weary to sing him to sleep. ‘Be a good boy Juanito and go to sleep for Mama. Mama is very tired and needs rest.’  That memory was one of his earliest, but he couldn’t place it. Maybe it was here, maybe not.

Quickly making a decision, he leaned over toward Tia Mercedes, “Will you speak with me and Angelo after dinner?  I have some questions that I believe only you can answer.”

The old woman looked at him with understanding in her eyes, “Si Juanito.” The older woman had taken over the duties of hostess in place of her absent nephew. She rose, which signaled to the others that dinner was over. Johnny stood and held her chair and caught his brother’s eye. With a slight nod of his head he indicated that Angelo should join them in Antonio’s office.

For someone as old and bulky as their Aunt, the woman moved quickly to the office. Once there she poured whisky for the three of them and settled in the large padded chair she’d long ago claimed as hers.

To Johnny’s surprise, she pulled a small cigario out of a carved box on Antonio’s desk and waited expectantly. Before Johnny could get past his surprise, his brother lit the cigar and Tia Mercedes concentrated on getting it to burn to her satisfaction.

“These are Antonio’s finest cigars. He has them especially imported. Would you like one?”

Both boys shook their heads ‘no’ in unison. Angelo opting for not stepping that far over his grandfather’s line, and Johnny was still too amazed by this woman who talked, drank and smoked like a man.  She’s sure polite out there, but he’d noticed behind closed doors, this lady held her own in any company.

“Now, exactly what questions do you want answered Nino?” She cut straight to the chase as she gestured toward Johnny with her cigar.

“Answers to everything.” He looked at his brother, “Angelo, who is your father? Is it Murdoch Lancer?”

Johnny waited as Angelo seemed lost in the whisky still untouched in his glass.  Angelo’s blue eyes looked worried as he looked up to meet Tia Mercedes dark eyes. He then shook his head. “I do not know. I do not know if anyone knows.”

Both boys looked at Mercedes as she cleared her throat, “The timing is awkward. No one knows how long your mother had been seeing that pelado before she left Murdoch Lancer. It is possible either could be your father.” She stopped as she saw pain on the faces of both young men, “I’m sorry chico.” She stood quickly and cupped one old soft hand to her great nephew’s cheek.  “I know when you were younger, you asked many times and we thought the best thing was to say nothing. Antonio was your father and he has been good to you, has he not?”

Angelo looked up at his Aunt and saw the truth in her words. “Si. He has been a good father to me. Still….I can not help but wonder…I have always wondered.”

“If there is any chance Angelo is Murdoch’s son, he needs to know. He might know…” Johnny cleared his throat, “He’d know if you are his son. Either way, he’d want to know you….he’d want you too.”

“Do you really think so? Would he not see me as another man’s son? A mistake?”

“Never.” Johnny’s voice was firm. “He’s not like that. He’s a good man and he searched for Mama and me for years. He gave me a chance to turn my life around. It’s been hard at times, but he’s been helping me make the right choices.”

Johnny turned back to his Aunt, “I know Antonio feels he’s doing the right thing keeping me here and keeping Angelo from meeting Murdoch, but you have to see that it is wrong. Can you help us? Will you help us?”

“Angelo’s place is here as is yours.”

“No!” Johnny threw his glass turning as it shattered on the floor. “We do not belong here!  Once you get that through your thick head you will understand that nothing….no one will ever get me to agree to stay here!”

“Lower your voice, Nino.  You will remember your place and mind your manners if you expect to receive help from me. Now, it is late, I’m going to bed, and I think you should too.” She paused and pointed at the shattered glass, “After you clean that up of course.”

********

The fragrant cigar smoke still filled the room as Johnny tossed the broken glass into the fireplace. He returned to the couch where his brother sat, staring morosely into his empty glass.

Looking at Angelo with concern he asked, “Are you alright?”

Angelo’s blue eyes looked up at him sadly, “I’m fine.” He sighed deeply obviously far from fine. In a small voice he confessed, “When I was a boy, I wondered about him. I used to make up stories about him. My father couldn’t be here because he was fighting pirates, or had gone to Spain on a mission for the Queen. Anything to avoid the truth.” He swallowed hard.

His words caused Johnny to think of Scott. Scott had mentioned something like this. He’d made up stories like that about why Murdoch couldn’t come to Boston. At the time Johnny had been shocked at how similar Scott’s fantasies had been to his own.  In his own dreams, thoughts of his father had been clouded and overshadowed by his mother’s voice telling him his father didn’t want him….or her.  Still boys always craved their father, and Johnny had formed a few fantasies where his big strong father would come rescue them and take them somewhere safe. Somewhere warm, with plenty of food, where no one would beat him up or hurt him.  Now Johnny realized Lancer was that place and his father had come to rescue him, just like in his dream.  If there was any chance that Angelo was Murdoch’s son, he owed it to both of them to give them a chance to be father and son.

He reached out and put his hand on Angelo’s shoulder, “Hermano. Everything will be alright.  I’ll make it alright. You can count on me, hear?”

His words were rewarded by a smile from Angelo, “You’re sure of that hermano?”

“Of course. I’m the older, wiser brother so that makes me right.”

“Really? Who told you that?” Angelo was rising to the challenge and looking amused at Johnny’s declaration.

“Our older brother, Scott told me that. At the time I thought he was crazy, but now I agree with him.” Johnny cocked his head, waiting for the inevitable question.

“Scott?”

“Murdoch was married before he married our mother.  His wife died in childbirth. Scott is Murdoch’s oldest son. He’s our brother. I can’t wait for you to meet him. He’s…..” Johnny stopped at a loss as how to describe Scott. “He’s the best big brother anyone could have.” The words were inadequate, but it was heartfelt.

“I would like to meet both of them, only…..”

“We have to find a way out of here.” Johnny answered for him.

“Amongst other things. Si that is a problem.” Angelo added.

“Have you ever left this island?”

“No. I know grandfather leaves on business, but other than the heads of the other families, very few people leave. Some come like you and Ana-Lucia from outside.”

“This Ana-Lucia. Do you think she might help us?”

Angelo shook his head, “No. She is a very weak woman. She doesn’t like me, but as long as Grandfather has an heir, he doesn’t necessarily need a male child from her. If we were gone, he’d probably divorce her or something and find another wife.”

“So it’s in her best interests if we stay?”

Angelo nodded, “Si. I would say so. She thinks I’m a spoiled brat, but she knows I serve a purpose.”

Both young men were silent as they were lost in their thoughts. Finally Angelo spoke up, “Johnny, I do not want to hurt Grandfather.  If I were to leave with you, if I showed you a way to leave, I would come back. I would not stay with you.”

Johnny’s hopes lifted, “You know of a way?”

“Si, I know of a possible way. A smugglers cove across the island. Grandfather does not know I know about it.  He allows them to use the cove to hide. They smuggle in goods to the mainland to avoid the tariff and Grandfather sends out whatever he does not want taxed. No one will be expecting us to slip aboard, but we’ll need a distraction.”

Johnny smiled fully at his brother and felt his heart leap at the idea that there was a chance he could leave this place soon. He relaxed a bit as his mind went over plans. Mulling some over, rejecting some outright.

“We’ll come up with a plan. It will work, I know it will.” Johnny abruptly changed the subject as he thought of home, “You’re going to love Lancer! There’s no grass greener, no water sweeter……”

Angelo smiled at Johnny’s excitement when he described the ranch, “First things first, hermano.  It is very important you do not make Grandfather mad before we leave. It would be most unfortunate if he locked you in your room just before we leave.”

Johnny sat back in the chair with a butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth look, “So you’re sayin’ I should be good, huh?  Don’t worry about me brother, I’ll be an angel in heaven.”

Angelo looked at him skeptically, but answered his smile with one of his own, then yawned and bid his brother goodnight.

 

Part 13

The Next Day

Angelo paced in front of his grandfather’s desk wondering why he’d been summoned. His grandfather usually only asked to speak to him in his office when he had something very important to say and with his conversation with Johnny from the night before laying heavily on his mind, he was feeling unsettled.

Waiting was the hardest part.  He never could understand how everyone else in his family could be so calm and accepting, when he himself would often feel like he was jumping out of his skin. From a very early age, he’d heard it all. ‘Sit still Angelo, se sienta. Stop fidgeting Angelo.’  They did not know exactly how hard that was for him.

He stopped at the corner of the desk and his eyes found the paperweight that Johnny had been handling last night and he smiled a crooked half smile.  As his fingers traced the tiny lines of quartz embedded in the stone, he thought of his brother. He noticed the little signs. Even sitting still, Johnny was never still. His fingers flexed, he swung his leg, tapped the chair of the arm. All of these mannerisms were familiar to Angelo as he had them too, but he’d schooled himself to never display them in front of his family.

His attention was diverted by the door opening and he straightened himself up to his full height as his grandfather entered the room.

“Ah Angelo. I have some good news for you. Sit down.” Angelo gestured to the chair in front of his desk and waited until Angelo sat before seating himself.

“News, Abuelo?” Angelo asked with more concern than curiosity.

“Si. As you know, I was visiting Don Diego at Dos Rios.  We have come to an agreement which will be very beneficial for both of our families.” Antonio stopped for a moment and seemed to be gathering his thoughts.

Angelo felt a little warning bell go off at the sound of this. His grandfather rarely talked to him about business so he was feeling out of his element. He tried to swallow, but suddenly his mouth felt very dry.

“As you know, Don  Diego’s daughter, Elena, is almost sixteen years old. She’s a very pretty girl and well bred of course. I have made arrangements for her to marry you on May 24th.”

Angelo was stunned. He sat there as every coherent thought fled his mind. He could tell his grandfather was waiting expectantly for him to say something and his mind screamed at him to protest….Say something!....Anything! He had to move, he couldn’t sit in that chair any longer. He walked three strides away and took a deep breath. He turned and walked back to his grandfather who was now standing looking at him with concern.

“No.” Angelo said flatly.

“What? You are saying no to me?”

“Si. I will not marry her. I do not wish to marry anyone!” Angelo’s blue eyes flashed and met his grandfather’s wintry gaze.

“You will do as I say. You will not embarrass this family, or me by refusing!”

“No! You can not make me.”

“Angelo, stop behaving like a child.  Why fight me? You know you will do as I wish in the end. In three months time you will marry the daughter of Don Diego Reyenosa.”

“Not this time grandfather.” Angelo felt despair at the unaccustomed feeling of disagreeing with his grandfather. “I will decide when and who I will marry. I am sorry if that does not suit you, but you need to fix this with Don Diego. You say you do not want me to embarrass you or the family, if you force me into doing this, I swear you will regret it!”

Angelo forced himself to hold his grandfather’s angry stare and not back down. He almost lost his nerve when his grandfather gave a little chuckle and walked toward him. He flinched when Antonio put his hands on his shoulders. “We will just have to see who is the victor in this battle hijo. I think you may just have a little bit of your grandfather’s temper after all.” He reached up and gave Angelo a playful slap on his cheek.

“Go on now. I have work to do.” Antonio turned to his desk and Angelo was dismissed.

He walked to the door in a daze, opened it and almost walked into Ana-Lucia. “Perdone Dona Ana-Lucia.”

“Watch where you are going nino!” She scolded as she swept passed him into her husband’s domain.

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

Johnny had spent most of the day with Ricardo. They had ridden out to check on the vaqueros moving a large herd of yearlings to fresh grass.  The men had the task well in hand, but it felt good riding a talented cowpony again.  He’d enjoyed the sudden burst of speed as the little powerful mare took off after a stray, and the cat like way she moved to control the steer, and return it to the herd.

He really missed Lancer even though it had been just a short time.  When he was there he hadn’t realized just how much the ranch had grown on him. While he felt like Lancer offered him a sanctuary where he felt safe, it was his father and brother who offered him a chance to change his life. His father had pulled him out. Out of the darkness. Out of that life where it was so dark and cold.  His brother was helping keep him on that straight path. At times it was so hard not to stray, but the steady pull from his family helped him get back on track whenever he faltered.

He looked around at the beautiful flowering vines and bushes. Color everywhere bombarded his senses. ‘Teresa would love seeing all of these flowers.’ He mused. She was always trying to coax Murdoch into letting her order more flower seeds and Johnny had noticed that Miss Teresa could usually get her way with the old man just by smiling. With a sigh, he kicked a loose stone out of his way. ‘How he missed them all!’

*******

Murdoch and Scott rode at a steady pace south to Stockton.  It was about forty miles, so they arrived early in the afternoon. Passing by the livery stable on the outskirts of the bustling town, Murdoch led the way to the town constable’s office.

Scott dismounted and felt a sharp pain shoot through his right knee. It had been bothering him for the last couple of days and the long ride stiffened it up some. He stomped his feet a couple of times to wake his legs up and waited while Murdoch stretched out his back and untied his saddle bags.

“Ready?” Murdoch asked and waited until Scott nodded. His lips set in a grim line, the two men entered the local law’s domain.

The building was fairly standard for a growing city. It looked like it had been built a few years before and had been steadily added on to it as the bustling town’s needs grew. Scott’s eyes took in the neat interior. There were two desks and a locked gun rack on the far wall. There was a heavy safe and a blackened pot bellied stove. At the very back was a door that undoubtedly led to the cells, and Scott had noticed that part of the building was made of brick.

Murdoch pushed his hat a bit off his forehead as he addressed the constable, “I’m Murdoch Lancer and this is my son Scott. We’re here to collect the belongings of my son Johnny, and make arrangements to return him to Lancer for burial.” His voice almost cracked as he said the final words and Scott laid a supporting hand on his arm.

“You’re Johnny Madrid’s kin, huh?”

Scott pushed down his irritation at the man and said simply, “Yes; we are Johnny Lancer’s family.” He stressed the Lancer.

The man stood and went over to the safe. It was unlocked and he pulled out an envelope, “Not much left.” He poured the contents out onto the desk. All eyes stared at the glittering gold medal on a delicate chain and the blue beaded bracelet, Johnny was often playing with.

Scott felt his throat go dry as he reached out and picked up the bracelet. “He wore this every day.” He whispered.

Murdoch picked up the necklace and closed his eyes as he felt another wave of pain. He opened them, “Is this all?”

The constable turned back to the safe and took out a rolled leather gun belt. “I had to force it off the drifter. He wanted to keep it as a prize. In some circles, havin’ Johnny Madrid’s gun would be….” He drifted off at seeing the stricken looks from father and son.

Murdoch changed the subject abruptly, “Were you able to get some men and a wagon lined up? I want to get started and bring my son home.”

“You don’t want to wait until morning? Get a fresh start?”

“There’s plenty of time before dark to get it taken care of and frankly, we don’t want to stay in Stockton overnight if we can help it.” Scott’s voice was matter of fact and Murdoch was grateful his son taking over the reins.

“I’ll meet you at the livery stable while I round up the men. When I got your wire, I got a few men to help out. I figured you’d make it worth their while.” The constable hinted.

“Of course.” Murdoch responded grimly.

“Let’s go.” Scott untied the horses and handed one set of reins to Murdoch and the two men headed down the street to rent a wagon and team to take Johnny home.

 

Part 14

Murdoch and Scott stood by the unmarked graves and watched while Tom Callahan, the constable from Stockton organized the men.

“This is Madrid’s grave.” He pointed to the mound of raised dirt covered by rocks.

Scott stood off to the side, head bowed chewing his lip as he waited for his brother’s body to be uncovered.  A tiny flicker of hope burned within him. Hope that a mistake had been made and it was not his brother in that lonely unmarked grave.

His hand clenched the beaded bracelet, and he welcomed the discomfort as the stones bit into his hand. The reality of those stones were warring with his hope that his brother was still alive.

The three men worked quickly removing the rocks; tossing them behind them. Scott  stood with his eyes closed, but the thud and click of the rocks as they landed and bumped into each other sent a chill down his spine and he felt himself trembling.

He opened his eyes as he felt a hand squeeze his arm. He looked into Murdoch’s solemn eyes and nodded.

“They’re ready to start son.”

Scott looked back to the graves and saw the men pick up shovels and a pickaxe.

The largest man rolled up his sleeves, spit on his hands and rubbed them together before picking up the pickaxe. With a mighty downward stroke, he drove the tool into the earth.

“Careful.” Scott warned.

“Won’t make no difference, boy. He don’t feel nuthin’ now. Sides that pick don’t go down moren’ a foot at a time. Even iffen he’s buried shallow, we won’t hit him yet.” One of the men said as he dug his shovel into the mound and pushed on it with his boot. He grunted from the effort of lifting the heavy clay aside as the large burly man broke up another section of dirt with the pick.

Tom Callahan saw the stormy look on the faces of the Lancer’s and warned the men. “Take it easy boys.”

Murdoch and Scott stood side by side, their eyes no longer focused on the men as they worked and sweated.  Their attention was brought back to the present when one of the men yelled, “Hey Tom! Get over here and look at this.”

Tom walked over to the hole and looked in. Murdoch and Scott followed on his heels and Murdoch gasped as he his eyes focused into the hole. “I don’t believe it.” He breathed.

“No body is buried here.” Tom agreed.

“What about the others.” Scott was struggling to contain his relief just in case.

********

Just as the sun was setting, the six tired men started back to Stockton. The town constable shook his head in dismay that all three graves were empty. Not only empty but they weren’t even graves at all. They’d been dug down just a couple of feet and filled back in and covered with rocks to look like graves.

He’d apologized to the Lancers for bringing them on a wild goose chase, but the two men had just nodded and kept their own council. The drifter was long gone and along with him, answers to where Johnny Madrid was.

The lawman in him wanted to worry it like a dog with a bone, but he had a town busting at the seams to take care of.  He told the Lancer’s he would wire the description of the drifter and see if any lawman had seen anyone by that description in the last week.

A week….a week to get lost in a lot of country. The chances were slim and the lawman knew it. He’d told Mister Lancer that he would send a wire if he heard anything else and the two men from Morro Coyo had parted with the men from Stockton at the crossroads.

**********

Murdoch and Scott had efficiently set up their camp for the night. Murdoch handed Scott a plate of beans, but Scott had only eaten one bite and spent the rest of the time pushing them around on his plate.

“Now what do we do?” He asked without looking up at his father.

Murdoch was silent for a minute before answering, “We wait. We wait and hope that somehow Johnny will find his way home, or there will be some word.”

Murdoch looked at Scott’s bowed head and reached over to take the plate out of his unresisting hands. “Waiting is the hardest. Being left behind to wait and worry is hard to take, I know.”

Scott’s eyes raised at that and he asked, “Is this how it was for you sir? All those years ago when Johnny’s mother took him and left?”

“Yes son, and not only then, When your mother died….well it’s hard to go on when you are the one left behind.” Murdoch bowed his head and the two men sat in silence lost in their sorrow.

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

Johnny walked into the dark cool interior of the barn and he was startled to hear Angelo turning the air blue in Spanish.

“If he thinks he can control me, he’s loco!”

“Who’s loco?” Johnny asked with amusement.

Angelo whirled around with surprise written all over his face.  “Lo siento. I did not know you were around.”

“You sounded pretty upset just now. What’s going on?”

Angelo turned back to his horse and leaned his forehead into the golden coat. He shook his head, and turned back to Johnny. “Abuelo has arranged a marriage for me.”

“What?” Johnny’s voice showed his surprise.

“I suppose it was inevitable. Arranged marriages are common, just the old man had never mentioned it to me before. He says I am to marry on May 24th.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him no.’ Angelo wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. “He was not very happy to hear that.”

“What do you care? You won’t even be here by then?” Johnny pointed out.

Angelo brightened at that thought, “Still, when I come back, that will still be waiting for me.”

“Don’t come back. Look Angelo, once you see what’s waitin’ for you on the other side of that ocean you’ll never want to come back. You can ride for days and still have farther to go. Maybe Scott will even take us to one of those big cities he thinks so much about and we’ll have ourselves a time. I know! We’ll go up to San Francisco. They have a whole section there called China Town where the girls are so tiny you could put one hand all the way around their waist.” Johnny made the motion and at Angelo’s look of disbelief, he added, “Well almost.” He laughed, “You’ll see. You won’t miss this place….by the way is she pretty?”

Angelo shook his head at Johnny’s sudden change of topic and enthusiasm for the subject, “She’s pretty. I’ve known her all my life and…..I don’t know, I just don’t feel that way about her. I don’t want to have a marriage like our grandfather’s. One without love.”

Now it was Johnny’s turn to shake his head. “I’ve never seen one work out. Look at Murdoch and our Mama. Then all her men. None of them ever worked out even when she found a good one, something caused it to turn bad.”

“Did…does your fa…Murdoch have a wife?”

Johnny shook his head, “No….”

“So maybe you’re right, maybe it does not work out very often.”

Johnny sighed, “You might be right about that.” His face brightened, “I guess we just have to keep lookin’. With three good lookin’ Lancer boys around, the ladies of the San Joaquin will all have their heads turned.” Johnny chucked and threw his arm over his brother’s shoulders and the two left the barn in better spirits.

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

Murdoch and Scott made it home the next day by noon. After eating a good meal and giving Teresa and Maria the news, Scott went to wash up while Murdoch began sorting through his mail.

As he worked his way through the mail, his heart almost stopped when he found a well traveled envelope at the bottom of the pile. He vaguely remembered seeing it before he got the message from the constable from Stockton.  He felt his heart beat like it was trying to jump out of his chest as he stared at the familiar writing.

He shook his head to clear it. It couldn’t be Maria’s writing. There was no way. With trembling fingers he used the letter opener to slice open the envelope. His big fingers fumbled with the thin paper as he unfolded the missive and began to read.

With a sudden rush, he stood and his chair rolled back to bump into the window. On unsteady legs, he headed out of the room heading toward the stairs. “Scott! Scott!” He called as he took the stairs two at a time in his haste to see his son.

 

Part 15

Scott had to take a quick step back as Murdoch came barreling through his door. “What is it sir?” Scott’s heart felt like it was going to jump right out of his chest as he took in his father’s flushed face and trembling hand as he offered Scott the letter.

Scott reached out for the paper and scanned it before raising an eyebrow. “Sir, it’s in Spanish.” He said gently and handed the letter back.

Murdoch gave him a half smile and looked even more flustered as his hand clenched the letter even tighter. He walked further into the room and sank into the comfortable padded chair by the window.

He cleared his throat, “It says that Johnny is alive!  This must have arrived just before we got the telegram from Stockton.  It is a warning that we would be hearing of Johnny Madrid’s death, but we weren’t to be concerned.”

“Wait a minute.” Scott interrupted.  Disbelief written across his face. “Not be concerned! Of course we’re concerned! That’s not even Johnny’s handwriting, though it is similar. Who is it from?”

Murdoch turned the letter over and checked the envelope. He shook his head, “It doesn’t say, but listen to this.  ‘You will soon hear of Johnny Madrid’s death. Do not be alarmed, but you must go through the ritual of mourning the death of your son. There are unsavory elements observing your reactions. In order to protect your son, I have taken steps to ensure his safety. He will be returned when I ….’” Murdoch stopped and scowled, he glanced at Scott and then looked back at the letter, “I’m not sure of this word, I think it’s deem or means the same thing.”

“Go on Murdoch, what else does it say? Does it say where he is or who is after him?”

“It doesn’t say anything about where he is, but it does say it has something to do with that revolution in Mexico that Johnny was tangled up in just before he came home.”

Scott blew out his breath and walked over to his open window and leaned against the frame.  He shook his head and turned back to look at Murdoch. “At least he’s alive. It sounds like whomever wrote this letter is trying to protect him, and he’s trying to throw them off the trail by killing Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch locked eyes with Scott, “Yes…..and we just may have spoiled all those plans.”

Scott shook his head in regret, “If only we’d gotten this letter sooner. So now what? If they go to Stockton, they will soon know that Johnny wasn’t killed there and they’ll be looking for him here.”

“I guess we can only hope that when they realize he’s not here, they’ll look elsewhere.”

“But how long can this go on? Just how long does Johnny need to stay away?”

Murdoch shook his head, “I don’t know son. I just can’t believe someone would do this. Kidnap Johnny to keep him safe. What the devil is going on?”

Scott pointed at the letter now lying limply on the end table. “So whomever this is will be the one to decide when it’s safe for Johnny to return? I can’t see Johnny ever to agreeing to this. He’s not one to hide from trouble. He’s got to be trying to find a way to come back.  I know my brother pretty well, sir. He’s not going to stay away if he thinks there are people here looking for revenge against him.”

“I agree Scott, but the way this is written, I don’t think he has any choice….” Murdoch’s words trailed off as he scowled at the letter. He picked it up and looked closely at it again.

“What is it sir?  Was there something else?”

Mudoch shook his head, “No….there’s something about this, I just can’t put my finger on. Maria’s penmanship was very similar to this, but not exactly the same.”

“A relative, maybe?”

“Maria never mentioned any family. When I asked she said she had none. She said he parents were gone.”

“Maybe there were some distant relatives….or….”

“Maybe she lied.” Murdoch finished the thought for him.

Scott felt a little uncomfortable but soldiered on, “It wouldn’t be too surprising, would it? After all she told Johnny you kicked them out and didn’t want them?”

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair and grimaced in frustration, “Nothing much surprises me about her anymore.”

“I guess we’re back where we started. We wait until we hear something more from Johnny, or from whomever wrote that letter. At least we know he’s somewhere safe, though something tells me he’s none too happy right about now.”

Murdoch could only nod, because he felt very torn. If there was truly a danger to his son, then of course he would want him to be safe. Still having his son here where he could protect him was his duty, not someone else’s. The past twenty years just wouldn’t die. Once again his youngest son needed him and another man had taken his place. The old anger came rushing back. Relative or no, he would have his say when he met this man face to face who had the gall to kidnap his son and wrench  him away from his family.  

*********

Johnny walked through the door into Antonio’s office without knocking and noticed his grandfather’s scowl with a deep sense of satisfaction.

“Do you have no manners at all? Do you not realize that is polite to knock and wait for entrance?”

Johnny walked boldly into his grandfather’s lair and helped himself to one of his cigarillos.  He bit off the end and spit it toward the spittoon missing by inches. “Got a match?”

Johnny thought for a second that he had stepped over the line when his grandfather almost seemed to have steam coming out of his ears. He watched in fascination as the man struggled with his temper and mastered it in mere seconds. ‘One thing me and mama sure didn’t get from him.’ Johnny thought as he remembered his mother’s quick temper.

Antonio slowly reached out to an ornately carved box and took out a match stick and tossed it to Johnny.

Johnny deftly caught it, “Thanks.” He spoke casually as he scratched the match across his boot heel and lit the cigarillo.  Once he had it drawing to his satisfaction, he leaned back in his chair and appraised the old man.

“So how ‘bout some straight talk. No more games. Why are you keeping me here?  I mean, after all you have plenty of men to work your ranch, you have Angelo to produce an heir for you, what could make keeping me here worth the trouble I plan to cause?”

Now it was Antonio’s turn to lean back in his chair and take in Johnny’s measure. “You are very direct. I like that.  So, I will answer your question.  I brought you here to protect you….”

“That’s not an answer!” Johnny interrupted angrily. “You already told me that and I’ll believe that when pigs fly….which from what I’ve seen the way people act around here, could be a possibility. Now are you gonna tell me the truth?”

“It is the truth nino. You are in grave danger.” Antonio held up his hand. “No, not just from a gunfight in the street which is bad enough. There is a price on your head. Did you not know that?”

Johnny felt liked he’d been punched as he tried to draw air in to his lungs. He finally got a breath and reached over to ground out the cigarillo in the ashtray on the desk. He shook his head and when he looked at Antonio, his face was expressionless and his eyes are glacial. “Who posted it?”

“The Mexican Government.”

“What?” Johnny’s guard slipped as his surprise showed.

“This is serious Johnny. They have contacted the United States government about returning you for trial.  They want you for murder.”

“I ain’t never murdered anybody, much less someone the government would be interested in.”

“Evidentially you were involved in a revolution against some well to do landowners. They have taken exception to your actions and their complaints along with your escape from custody has embarrassed some people in high places.”

“Guess they don’t like their guards takin’ bribes and then goin’ back on em and getting’ themselves killed.”

“I brought you here for your own protection. You must understand.” Antonio’s voice wavered. “I know you do not believe me, but I only want you to be safe and happy.  I am using my influence to get the charges dropped, but in the meantime, you must stay here where you are safe. If they get hold of you, I would not be able to intercede in time.”

“Who asked you?  I can take care of myself!” Johnny was showing his exasperation with his grandfather’s reasoning.

“I am well aware of your abilities Johnny, but don’t forget, you have a family now.  You are not free to run and hide or even fight like you used to. You have a familia now and those ties could get you killed.”

Johnny felt a wave of dread, “What are you saying?”

“Just that they will be watching your father’s rancho and they’ll be waiting to take you.”

Johnny couldn’t stay seated any longer. “What could be happening is that they could be harming my family, and here I am stuck here!   You’ve got to let me go!  Don’t you understand? They could hurt my father and brother and they don’t even know where I am!”

“Don’t worry chico.  I have taken steps to draw them away while my agents work on this diplomatically. It is only a matter of time, but you must be patient.  I have established the death of Johnny Madrid in a gunfight near Stockton.”

Johnny stopped pacing and whirled around in alarm, “My father and brother think I’m dead?”

“No, I sent word to them. I’m hoping they are convincing as mourner for a lost son and brother.  It won’t fool anyone for long, but I needed to buy some time so this could be straightened out in Mexico City.”

Johnny shook his head, “Grandfather, you don’t know these people. They don’t follow no rules and tradition. They’re killers and they’ll stop at nothing if there’s a peso to be made. My family is in danger. Please let me go to them.”

The two men locked gazes until Antonio shook his head, “No nino. I have taken steps to protect them the best I could, but I will not allow you to risk your life. You will stay here until the danger is passed.”

“If anything happens to my father and brother…..I’ll kill you.” Johnny stormed out of the office.

*****

Mercedes stepped through the partially opened door from the side of the room. Antonio scowled at her. “I suppose you heard it all?” He asked as he poured them each a drink.

“Si, he did not take it as well as you hoped. I think he meant it when he said he would kill you if anything happened to his family because of this.”

Antonio nodded, “I believe him too. I just hope if anything does happen to them, he does not blame himself too badly.”

“I think he is already doing that.” Mercedes replied as she took a sip of her drink.

Antonio nodded and looked worried, “He’s quite a boy. Quite a man.” He corrected. “It  is unfortunate he would not want to stay and settle down here. He would be good for Angelo to be around, and together they would be fitting heirs for my estate.”

“It would never work Sobrino. Do not even think it.” Mercedes warned. “Johnny’s true place is with his family. Perhaps when this is all over, Angelo and Johnny can visit. But one thing, Tonio, Angelo is growing up and he is showing that he has his grandfather’s determination to be his own man. I think you should think long and hard before forcing him into a marriage he is not ready for.”

“Tia.” Antonio gave her his best smile; his straight white teeth flashing. “Have I not always done what is best for my family?”  His sudden smile changed to a frown as he thought of Maria. “Maria was the one time I did not follow my instincts and you know what a disaster it was. If only I had kept her here close to me, she’d still be alive and she wouldn’t have put Johnny through hell as he was growing up.”

“Tonio, even you can not know for sure what would have happened. Johnny has not said anything about his life with her has he? Only he knows for sure if he lived a life in hell. Children often have their own perspectives of their parents and no matter what kind of life she gave him, I believe she loved Johnny and he loved her with all his heart.”

“I believe that too, Tia, but there is no way to justify allowing him to grow up like that. All alone without anyone to guide him and care for him. She deliberately kept him from coming to us or his father. I loved my chica but there was something so very wrong with the girl. I blame myself for the woman she grew in to and for the choices she made.”

“Antonio, I know you will always have regret over Maria, but Johnny and Angelo are not Maria. They are both strong sensible young men and you need to remember they carry the Estrada blood flowing strongly through their veins. They are proud and headstrong. You must handle them carefully so you do not break their spirit.”

Antonio took another sip of his drink and nodded as he heard his aunt muse, “I wish there were another way, Tonio.”

“Yo también , Tia. Yo también.”

 

Part 16

Johnny and Angelo stopped their horses on the bluff overlooking the smugglers cove. They looked down at the isolated stretch with nothing beyond but the blue shimmering ocean as far as they could see.

“There they are.” Johnny whispered quietly even though there was no one else to hear him.

“Si.” Angelo breathed just as quietly. “They never stay more than two days. I have heard they plan to leave on the evening tide tomorrow.”

Johnny turned to his brother, “This source of yours. Can you trust her?” Johnny bit the inside of his cheek as the look on his brother’s face told him he was right on the mark.

“How did you….” Angelo gulped then flashed a cocky grin at his brother. “She’s very reliable….in every way.”

“That’s good, cause a lot’s riding on this. Do ya think we can go a bit closer? Just want to get a real good look at the set up.”

With the horses secured, the two brothers worked their way down the rocky hill side. Sliding and clinging to scrub and being as careful as they could to keep from setting off mini rock slides as they made their way to a better vantage point.

When they arrived at their destination, Angelo rubbed his hands together to take away the sting from holding onto rocks and thorny brush. He glanced ruefully at the slope they’d just descended. “I hate to say it, but I think getting down was the easy part.”

Johnny eyed the slope and nodded before pointing, “Over there. That looks like a goat trail.  It may take us a bit longer, but when we’re ready to head back, we’ll try it.”

Angelo nodded his agreement and settled himself on the ground next to his brother. He glanced at Johnny and was fascinated at the concentration Johnny was putting into noticing every detail. For the first time since he’d decided to help Johnny escape the island, he felt hopeful that they could really do it.  Johnny had a plan and he was checking every detail to make sure nothing went wrong.

********

Several hours later, two hot, sweating young men finally scaled the top of the hill and stood slightly bent over to get their breaths.  Johnny wiped the back of his arm across his forehead and Angelo did the same. “Wooee, them goats of yours must be part mountain goat. That trail ain’t fit for a man in riding boots.”

“We made it anyway and there’s still enough light to check out most of the back trail.” Angelo pointed out.

Johnny nodded and they made their way back to the horses who nickered at their approach.  Johnny untied his canteen and poured some water into his hat and allowed the horse to drink his fill. Once the bay was satisfied, he drank deeply and let a little of the water flow over his head and face.  He shook his head and drops of water went flying all over causing the gelding to toss his head in fright and side step away.

Johnny stepped closer to the nervous horse and stroked his neck for a moment to settle him before checking his cinch and mounting.  He noted in satisfaction that Angelo had taken care of his horse as well and soon the two brothers were riding to check out the rest of the details for their escape plan.

*********

Ricardo stood stiffly in his Patron’s office as Antonio continued to berate him. “Where is he? Did I not instruct you to stay with him at all times?”

Ricardo frowned and looked uncomfortable, “Si Senor. He was with his brother, so I thought he would be alright.”

“It is not alright. Your job is to follow my orders!  From now on, you will be with Johnny at all times when he leaves the hacienda. Is that understood?”

Ricardo couldn’t raise his eyes to meet the angry ice cold daggers of his furious Patron. “Si Patron. I understand and it will not happen again.”

*********

Dinner that evening was subdued as the large family knew there was a strain between Don Antonio and his grandsons.  As the meal began winding down, Don Antonio signaled for the family’s attention.

“I have received word that Captain Santander and his ships will be docking tomorrow morning.  We will be leaving for the harbor at eleven. Make sure you have your lists ready as it may be another month before a supply ship makes port.

“Do you think he has the cloth I ordered from Spain, Antonio?” Donna Ana-Lucia asked.

“I would hope so my wife, but if he does not, perhaps there will be another cloth to your liking.”

Ana-Lucia’s thin lips settled into her usual pout and Tia Mercedes reached over to the woman and gave her hand a squeeze. “I am sure there will be something to your liking my dear.”

Ana-Lucia turned to Antonio, “Husband, what I really want, is to take a trip back to Spain. Why can we not leave all this behind and go home? Even for a visit. I miss my sisters and our homeland.”

Antonio sighed, he’d had this conversation several times with his unhappy wife, “Now is not the time to discuss this. I will take your desires into consideration, but I do not think you are up to such a long voyage in your condition.”

“In my condition! I am ALWAYS in this condition because of you!  I can’t bear it anymore!” The distraught woman’s voice rising as she herself rose from her seat. “After this baby is born, you will make arrangements for me to leave.” With a flurry and rustle of her skirts she left a stunned audience behind.

Johnny was quick to fill in the gap, “Who else wants to leave this prison?” Johnny could hear Angelo choking on a mouthful of water as he tried to gasp as he swallowed, when he heard his brother’s ill timed statement.

Johnny paid him no attention as his eyes were locked in a challenge with Antonio, and neither man blinked.

“You will keep a respectful tone in your voice Johnny if you know what is good for you.” Antonio warned in a low menacing voice that raised the hackles of all except Johnny. “Now if you have nothing further to say, you may be excused to your room.”

He stared Johnny down until, Johnny casually finished his wine and bid the family good night and left the room.

Angelo couldn’t help the small smile that graced his lips as he kept his head down and concentrated on finishing his dinner. He felt a nudge in his side and he looked up into the amused eyes of Ricardo. “What are you laughing at?” he murmured and the two young men shared a moment of amusement at Johnny’s needling of the old man.

*********

Johnny tried to relax on the bed but he was waiting for his brother to come to his room. It was after midnight and he yawned as he propped his arms behind his head. As his eye lids grew heavier, he was almost startled by his door opening quietly and Angelo sneaking inside.

“Anybody still up?”

“Just Tia and Abuelo, I think.  At least there is still light coming from under his office door.”

Angelo settled on the bed as Johnny sat against the headboard. “I just want to make sure we have everything set for tomorrow. Your lady friend sure knows what she’s talkin’ about. I almost choked on my wine when the old man told everyone about the ships docking tomorrow. So tell me again what to expect.”

“Everyone will ride their best horses. Oxen will haul the caritas with the old ones and the children to the harbor.  All the villagers will be out and there will be a big fiesta with food and musica. Lots of people milling about. Even some horse races usually take place.”

“Is it always organized?”

“No. You can count on it though. Tedoro Silvera will challenge Miguel Horca to a race and before you know it a dozen horses are galloping through the village.”

“That’s perfect. It fits with our plans.” Johnny yawned once and rubbed his tired eyes. “Better get some rest hermano. We must be up at dawn to get things set up and get back here in time to go with Abuelo to the harbor. Just think, by tomorrow evening we’ll be on our way out of here, and soon after we’ll be home.”

As Johnny’s eyes closed, Angelo’s voice brought him back to the present. “One thing we’re forgetting brother.”

“What’s that?” Johnny fully awake once again.

“We need money when we get back to the mainland. That is unless you plan to steal horses and food all the way north to Lancer.”

Johnny chewed his lip as he thought over the truth in that. For all his planning, he hadn’t thought of that. He figured he’d improvise as he went, but with what may be facing him when he got back to Lancer, he would need to make sure he was well armed. Before he could say anything more, his brother reached into the waist band of his pants.

Johnny’s mouth made a crooked smile as he watched in consternation as his brother fished around under his waist band for a second longer before he drew out a shining sparkling necklace of exquisite diamonds.

Johnny whistled as Angelo dropped them into his hand. “Where’d ya get these?”

“Grandfather gave them to me tonight. I am to give them tomorrow to my bride to be as a token of my affection.”  Angelo smiled at his brother and raised an eye brow. “I’d rather use our grandmother’s diamonds to finance our escape.”

Johnny shook his head, “I don’t know Angelo.  They’re too precious. We can’t use them like that. We’ll find another way.”

Angelo took the necklace back from Johnny, his disappointment showing on his face. “I just thought I could help.  You have all the experience in this kind of thing hermano, I don’t. I thought I could make a contribution.”

Johnny watched the bowed head and laid a gentle hand on Angelo’s shoulders. “Just coming with me is enough.  Look…” He waited until those sea blue eyes met his own, “If worse comes to worse we’ll use them. But only if we have to. Okay?”

Angelo gave him a smile that turned into a yawn of his own. He slapped Johnny gently on the cheek, “Okay. Now get some sleep.” He rose and headed for the door, just ducking in time to miss the pillow that was flung at him.

As the door closed, Johnny grinned, “Night brother. I can’t wait to introduce you to our other brother….and our father.” At those thoughts Johnny’s resolve hardened once more to allow nothing to stand in his way of leaving this island on the evening tide.

 

 

Part 17

Johnny went over and over their preparations for the day. He and Angelo had left the house before dawn and had spent several hectic hours making sure all was in place. They’d each taken part of the chore and had been able to get back to the hacienda just as the early risers started the morning hymn.

They’d slipped into their bedrooms and Johnny had gotten in another couple hours of sleep when Ricardo woke him with a brisk knock on the door.

“Johnny? You must get dressed. Breakfast is already on the table and we will be leaving in an hour for the harbor.”

Johnny felt a little bad deceiving Ricardo, but he had to keep in mind that the man was really his keeper. He was aware that Ricardo could be in a bad spot when Johnny ditched him later in the day, but he couldn’t let his feelings of friendship toward the man change his mind.

Ricardo was on his own, just as he had been for most of his life.  Now Johnny joined his extended family in what he realized was their monthly trek to the harbor to visit with friends, and acquire the goods not available on the island. He read excitement and anticipation in their faces as more families joined theirs. Their flashing teeth and easy laughter evident all around him.

He glanced at Angelo riding next to him. The boy was lost in deep thought, and didn’t notice his brother looking at him with concern. Johnny hoped Angelo wouldn’t regret the decision he made today. Johnny shrugged that off. He may have regret about leaving behind the only family he had known, but he was going to a new family where he would have the freedom to make his own choices and to be his own man.

As the crowd moved along the rough road, young vaqueros vied with each other showing off their skills of horsemanship. Tedoro skimmed his hat in the air with a quick flick of his wrist and with amazing balance, he leaned down at full gallop to easily pluck it off the ground. With a sliding stop, he turned his horse with a flourish and smiled at the cheering crowd. Not to be outdone, another took up the challenge and kept the crowd entertained all the way to the harbor.

Before long, one of the Indians took up his guitar and began a song, and so they continued as one big noisy happy group. Johnny glanced at his grandfather. He maintained easy control over his magnificent black stallion. He was wearing a gray suit with silver accents that matched the silver in his hair. A man to be admired, Johnny thought and he couldn’t ignore the pang of regret that he and his grandfather would never be family. His grandfather had thrown that chance away when he kidnapped him. No matter what happened, Johnny would never trust the old fox.

********

As the crowd began the journey down the hill to the harbor, they grew quiet as if intent on taking in all the sights and sounds ahead. In the distance, Johnny could hear the church bell ringing and the sudden boom of the cannon signaling the arrival of the ships.

He could just make out the sails as they were being unfurled as the ships made ready to dock in the deep bay.  He was glad to see that they would stay anchored out in the bay as that would mean they would have to take the row boats out to meet the ship.  He was pretty sure his grandfather was going to be watching him like a hawk so he was counting on his plan to work.

As they reached the village, his grandfather broke off steering his horse to a side street. Angelo turned along with the rest of the family so Johnny followed.  A man from the livery stable stepped forward to greet the distinguished Patron and his family, while young boys came out to take care of the horses and the carriages.

Johnny quickly dismounted and helped Tia Mercedes from her carriage. “Gracias Juanito.” She gave him a quick smile as she put a few strands of her grey hair back in place.

“Donna Ana-Lucia, may I help you?”

The pale woman took his arm with out a word and walked off bringing a grin to Johnny’s face at the difficult woman’s behavior.

Tia Mercedes threaded her arm through Johnny’s and smiled at him, “I hope you don’t mind attending the fiesta on the arm of an old lady.” Her dark eyes twinkled at him, “At least until you are introduced to some of the younger ones that is.”

“I’d be honored, Senora…..and those young ones have nothing on you, if I may be so bold as to say it.” Johnny was rewarded by his aunt’s full blown chuckle and a pat on the arm as they made their way into the village.

*********

So far everything had gone on as planned. The whole village turned out for the fiesta. Johnny strolled to a leafy courtyard behind the church, and watched the children hit at a pinata until it burst open. He smiled as he watched their mad scramble to pick up the candy and favors. The simple game reminded him of his childhood. Fiestas were a bright spot in his otherwise dreary life. All were welcome, even a half breed boy and his not so respectable mother. Shaking off those thoughts, he returned to the present.

He’d caught flashes of Angelo as he too enjoyed the fiesta and he knew it wouldn’t be long before they took their leave. Their grandfather had spent several hours onboard the ships, both purchasing goods for the rancho, and making arrangements for tallow and hides to be taken on board.

Angelo had gone aboard to buy new boots and a hat, as he knew it was expected of him. Johnny had begged off with distain, telling his grandfather that he had no need of anything, as he had no intention of staying.  Johnny smiled at the memory of his grandfather’s angry face.  ‘Probably a good thing I’m leavin.’ he thought. The old man may have an apoplexy if I keep this up.

Johnny was always aware of Ricardo hovering nearby and he was pretty sure it was on his grandfather’s orders.  At one point, Johnny had tried to get Ricardo to go talk to a young woman who appeared to be trying to get his attention, but Ricardo had made an excuse to stay with him.

‘Won’t be long now.’ Johnny thought as he could hear the rumble of hooves and yells from the young vaqueros. “What’s goin’ on amigo?”

“It sounds like they’re betting on who has the fastest horse.”

“Can anyone join this race?” Johnny asked while leaning casually against the white washed wall behind him.

Ricardo turned to him, somewhat relieved to see Johnny take an interest in anything this day. So far his charge had been quiet and except for when he was watching the children with the pinata, had bordered on surly.

“Of course. Do you want to race?”

“Where do they race?” Johnny tried to remain casual and at the same time, not reveal that he already knew.

“Usually they head out toward the cannon, and then make a loop back to the village. It’s about a five mile course. There is a small arroyo to jump, though some choose to go around, but it takes longer.”

“What do they win?”

“Everyone pledges something. A new hat, spurs, anything. The winner takes all.”

Johnny scratched his cheek and drawled, “Now that just sounds plumb interesting.” At Ricardo’s questioning glance, he switched back to Spanish, “Let’s go.”

**********

Johnny and Ricardo, met up with ten other riders milling around at what looked to be a make shift starting line. Angelo had joined them and the horses were showing signs of nervousness as the riders prepared to line up for the start.

The crowd got louder as the villagers lined the street and Johnny chanced a look at his grandfather who was standing nearby looking on proudly as his grandson’s easily controlled their spirited mounts.

The caballeros lined up all heading the same way, and a great shout went up, when as one, the horses surged away.  Johnny angled his horse closer to Angelo and the two rode neck and neck right near the front.  Their horses hooves skidded just a bit when they charged around the first corner as they lost purchase on the cobblestone street.

In no time the galloping horses were clear of the village and heading up the first long climb to the cannon that protected the bay.  Most of the riders were allowing their mounts to pick their own pace and by unspoken agreement Johnny and Angelo had allowed their horses to drift back. Now there were five horses between them and Ricardo.

Johnny didn’t miss Ricardo looking back to make sure they were coming and Johnny once again felt slightly bad for what they were about to do to him.  Angelo had called it right. They were now on a narrow trail leading to the arroyo below. The switch backs kept the horses to an extended trot single file and by now, Johnny and Angelo had allowed themselves to be shuffled to the end of the line.

Ricardo was locked into position and unable to change his course as he was pushed on by the eager mounts behind him.  When he looked back, he got a clear view of the switch back behind him, and his heart dropped to his stomach when he couldn’t spot Johnny or Angelo.

He tried desperately to stop his mount but the men pushing him from behind had no plans to hear his shouted pleas before they had finished the mile long decent. As the men took off in a cloud of dust, Ricardo swore at the two boys who disappeared almost into thin air.  Without regard for his tiring mount he headed back up the hill. Once he reached the top, his eyes urgently scanned for any signs of the two missing boys. Nothing moved other than a hawk lazily circling overhead and in the far distance he could just make out the racing horses as they completed the circuit and headed back to the village.

With trepidation, Ricardo started the homebound journey back to tell his Patron he’d failed and the two boys were hopefully doing nothing more than on an innocent lark, but his gut told him that it was more than that and this was only the beginning of trouble ahead for all of them.

*******

Johnny felt elated. For the first time since coming to the island he felt in charge of his own destiny. He showed Angelo how to cover their tracks as they urged their tiring mounts up another long climb to the waiting horses.

Johnny looked at the shadows on the ground trying to figure how much time they had left. “It’s thirty miles as the crow flies to the cove. We should make it with about an hour to spare.”

“I hope none of the horses broke free.”

“Me too.” Johnny grinned. “Now the fun begins.” He led Angelo to the first set of fresh horses they had staked out that morning to ensure they could make the evening tide clear across the island.

“How soon do you think Grandfather will be looking for us?” Angelo asked worry evident in his voice.

“Oh, we probably will have an hour on him. Even if he guesses what we’re doing, he can’t make it around by road to the cove before dark, and if he comes this way, he’ll be doing it on tired horses.”

Seeing the worry on his brother’s face. Johnny tried to assure him. “Look Angelo. You left him a letter explaining. He may come after us, but by then we’ll be at Lancer and ready for him.  It’s going to work out, I know it.”

Angelo smiled and before long they were mounted bareback on fresh horses and heading for the cove on the other side of the island.

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

Antonio was still fuming over his grandson’s behavior. He was sure Johnny had convinced Angelo to play a part but he couldn’t believe that Ricardo fell for a trick as obvious as this as well.

He’d given the man an earful right after he’d sent men to search the boats in the harbor and the village itself in case the boys had some notion of circling back and trying to stow away on the merchant ships.

So far, no one had seen anything and even the men who backtracked the trail couldn’t find any signs of the boys.  He had to give Johnny credit for his ingenuity. He’d outfoxed them all, but he still was confident the boys would be found before the merchant ships sailed.

 

Part 18

Johnny and Angelo arrived at the bluff overlooking the smugglers cove. “They’re still here.” Angelo announced with obvious relief in his voice.

Johnny looked over at him and grinned. “Good thing too. I for one have no intention of hiding out till the next ship leaves or returning to the hacienda. Something tells me the old man is not gonna be in a real good mood for quite a while.”

Angelo laughed at Johnny’s words, but he would feel much better once they were aboard and sailing away. His stomach churned at just the thought of leaving. While his brother looked at it with obvious anticipation, he was more than a little apprehensive.

He’d wrestled with all the *what ifs* until he dropped off to an uneasy sleep last night. His biggest what if, concerned Johnny’s father.  He tried not to get his hopes up that the man would see something in him to convince them all that he was Angelo’s father too, but Angelo kept coming back to his dread that he somehow looked like the gambler his mother had run off with.

He tried not to set himself up to be disappointed, but he hoped and prayed that Murdoch Lancer would at least not reject him on the spot. He hoped he was the kind, compassionate man Johnny had talked about. If he wasn’t, then Angelo wasn’t at all sure what he would do. That uncertainty scared him, even while Johnny had assured him that everything would turn out all right.

His attention was diverted when Johnny pointed, “Right on time. Come on let’s go.”

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

Johnny slid down off his horse and slipped the bridle off the bay’s sweaty head.  He allowed the tired horse to rub against his shoulder before giving him a pat.  He stuffed the bridle behind some rocks and waited while Angelo did the same thing.

Angelo nodded and immediately began following Johnny as they made their way once more down the steep hillside.  Scrambling and clinging to scrub brush, their soft curses filled the air as they clung to anything that would keep them from drawing attention to themselves as they made their way to the cove below.

The tide was coming in and they could see the ship rocking as the waves hit it.  It pushed and strained against the thick rope holding it to her moors, and the chain of the anchor was pulled taut.

Johnny felt the familiar excitement course through his body as his mind quickly reviewed his daring plan.  In his varied experience he had discovered that the bolder the plan, the more likely it was to work, even though the risks were higher.  He probably could have found a way with less risk, but once he had settled on this particular plan, he was loath to let anything stand in his way.

He felt alive for the first time since coming to the island.  He felt that familiar surge just before they had steered their horses off the path during the race and it fueled his enthusiasm for their escape.

He looked back at Angelo; his face smudged with dirt and he smiled. His smile turned into a grin when he saw the flash of Angelo’s teeth as he grinned back at his brother and raised an eyebrow. “Right behind you brother. Lead on.” Angelo encouraged.

Johnny squared his shoulders and looked out around the shrubs they had taken shelter behind.  He could see that their plan was working perfectly.  As they moved from one group of shrubs to the next; sometimes flat on their bellies; other times in a crouch as they ran, they could hear the whistles and cat calls of the sailors.

Johnny and Angelo were in the last bit of shelter before the final dash to the dock. They needed to cross fifty yards of open space and they desperately needed their distraction to work to perfection. With hearts pounding, they gulped in air as they recovered from their scramble down the hill.

The men from the ship began getting louder and Johnny carefully pushed aside some of the branches of the thorny shrub. “Mierda.” He pointed.

Angelo looked through the overgrowth to count eight men fully focused on Juanita and a couple of her friends frolicking on the beach to the delight of their admirers. He started as Johnny nudged him in the ribs with his elbow.

“Come on. That show is for them, not you.”

Before Angelo could think up an appropriate retort, Johnny was gone.  He shook his head and followed his brother at a fast pace across the open space and scrambled across the gangplank to the ship before any of the men saw them.

*********

Antonio paced back and forth in his office.  His agitation had only risen since returning home.  He had pulled up his lathered horse just an hour ago and had sent out several search parties to look for his grandsons.

Thoughts of what he would do to them when he found them brought little satisfaction other than the knowledge that they both would regret their actions today for a long time to come.

The other landowners had tried to placate him with their words of advice concerning high spirited boys. They had offered help in finding the boys and Antonio knew that the island was being scoured as he waited alone in his office.  A gut feeling told him that their search would be fruitless. This was more than a childish prank. Johnny had found a way to escape and taken his brother with him, just like Maria did all those years ago.

His pacing took him once more over to his desk and he looked at the map he’d unrolled on his arrival.  He fingered the curled edges held down by an ash tray and a paperweight. His eyes traced the route overland the boys may have taken and he thought of Ricardo bringing news that the two horses they had been riding had been found. They’d been unsaddled and turned loose which meant Johnny and Angelo had planned this carefully and had fresh horses waiting for them.

He was not at all surprised to hear that another set of horses had been found a little while ago. He shook his head as he thought of how badly he’d underestimated his grandson…..both of them actually.  The fact that Angelo went along with his brother’s scheme made his anger sizzle that much more. He’d expected resistance from Johnny, but Angelo was his!  He would not allow anyone to take Angelo from him….not even his brother. He slammed the flat of his hand on the map and strode out of the room to mount the fresh horse that was waiting for him at the hitching post outside the front door.

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

Johnny and Angelo made their way behind some wooden barrels lashed down with a spider web of ropes.  They heard the raucous laughter of the sailors as they returned to the ship.  As they stayed hidden, Johnny would swear later he could hear Angelo’s heart beating furiously and he wondered if his brother could hear his.

The sun was setting in degrees, and the ship swayed even more as the waves battered it from two sides. Soon they could hear the sound of the anchor chain being pulled through the winch; clattering as it was wound tightly into place.

The sailors were calling to each other as the ropes were untied and coiled on the deck, and soon the ship rose and dropped once as it lurched free of the dock and the receding waves drug her out to sea.

Johnny felt himself grip the edge of a barrel and he noticed that Angelo was doing the same thing, and was now holding it with a white knuckled grip.  Under other circumstances, he would have teased his brother, but in looking at his own tightly clasped hand, his knuckles were showing the strain too.

Over the next hour the two stowaway’s stayed in their hiding place. The sailors spent all their time rigging the sails and before long the ship swung into the breeze and headed north east passing between shadowed islands heading toward their destination.

It was a pleasant evening, though a brisk breeze was blowing which caused the two brothers to be grateful for the jackets they had brought along.  They weren’t enough to keep them warm overnight exposed as they were, but as darkness fell, they planned to move below deck for more protection.

Johnny’s sharp ears and all his senses were on full alert as he motioned for Angelo to follow him.  He could hear the sounds of a guitar being played along with drunken singing as they moved past the galley.

With relief, they settled down on the deck below, glad to be dry and somewhat warm. They were close enough to the doorway that they would be warned if someone came into the hold but were out of sight behind the crates and barrels of contraband.

Soon the gentle rocking of the ship had lulled them to sleep as their overtired bodies took over.  They leaned against each other and Johnny could just barely make out his brother’s whispered words telling him he was just going to close his eyes for a few minutes. His own answer was a smile that turned into a yawn as he felt Angelo relax against him in sleep. ‘He’s just a kid.’ Was Johnny’s last conscious thought as he too surrendered to sleep.

***********

Johnny was startled awake as smelled the aromatic smell of tobacco and the deep voices of men too close for comfort.  He came awake instantly and realized that Angelo was still asleep.  His heart began beating much faster as he realized that any sound from either of them could alert the sailors of their presence.

He carefully put one hand over Angelo’s mouth and with the other, shook him awake.  He could see the fear in his brother’s eyes as they flashed open, and he held him tight as Angelo tensed and tried to struggle free.  Johnny shook his head and carefully removed his hand and silently pointed.

Angelo caught on quickly and froze as he heard the men’s voices coming from the other side of the crates.  Johnny squeezed his brother’s arm to reassure him, though he was not all that sure himself. He held his finger to his lips and waited until Angelo nodded his understanding.

Once again, Johnny thought his heartbeat was all too loud as they listened in to the men and a growing horror overtook them as they heard of the plot being laid out before them.

 

Part 19

“Johnny we have to go back”

“No Angelo. We don’t have time. We have to keep going and then we’ll figure something out.”

“Look, we can’t be that far from the island. Maybe I could swim back? Or maybe I could lower that small boat over the side. I can’t just leave them like this.” Angelo’s voice was showing the strain they were both feeling.

Angelo started to rise and Johnny grabbed hold of him and yanked him back to a sitting position beside himself. “I said no! Now are ya gonna to listen to me?”

Angelo’s blue eyes flashed in the dim light of the early morning. “Johnny…..”

“Just listen.  They said they were going to attack the island on their next trip over. They are bringing more men when they come back in three weeks.  We have a little time. Not much, but a little.  Once we land, we need to get our bearings. We’ll head to Lancer and let Murdoch and Scott know what’s going on. They’ll help us.  Murdoch knows the lieutenant governor and lots of other important people.  He’ll know what to do.”

“It may be too late Johnny. I can’t take the chance.”

“Angelo. Think about it. We can’t do this on our own! We need help and Murdoch can get us that help.”

“What if he doesn’t want to? What if he refuses?”

Johnny wanted to defend his father, but he paused as he contemplated his next words. He scratched the side of his face and sighed. “He’s not like that. He’ll help.”

Angelo’s eyes flashed anger, “You better be right, brother.” His voice was quiet but his eyes never wavered.

A brief moment passed as they locked gazes. Finally, Johnny nodded once and he saw Angelo relax slightly as they reached an unspoken agreement between themselves. The two brothers remained silent as each struggled with the decisions they’d made and the consequences they may have to live with.

***********

Johnny levered himself up and started looking over the crates and barrels sharing space with them in the hold. The ship was not loaded to capacity which allowed it to remain high in the water and it was moving swiftly along the California coastline. The last time Johnny checked they were still heading north which suited him just fine. He couldn’t help but wonder if this was the same ship that had brought him unconscious from his home just a few weeks ago.

Intent on finding something they could use, and maybe even something to eat and drink, Johnny began searching the hold.  His luck continued when he found a short crowbar. He immediately began to pry off the top of the nearest wooden box.

Angelo reached past him to finger the fine bolts of silk cloth inside, and Johnny swatted his hand away as he replaced the lid with a silent thump of his fist.  He beckoned his brother to follow him as they moved to the next set of boxes. These were longer and when Johnny gave one of them an experimental shove, he realized they were much heavier.

He levered the lid up and carefully opened the oil cloth exposing the shiny smooth metal of a gun barrel and highly polished wood of the stock. “Winchesters.” He breathed as he pulled one free handing it to Angelo, before pulling out a second one for himself.

“These are beauties.” He breathed as he admired the workmanship. “I wonder if they have any ammunition?”

“Over there?” Angelo pointed to a stack of smaller boxes that indeed appeared to be ammo boxes.

To Johnny’s delight, he found round after round of ammunition. “They have enough here to start a revolution.”

“What are we going to do?” Angelo asked as he followed Johnny’s example and began loading the rifle.

Johnny looked over at his brother and frowned. “It would be pretty easy to take over the ship…..”

Angelo looked shocked, “Johnny. There’s eight of them and only two of us. The odds are not in our favor.”

Johnny smiled a crooked grin at his younger brother, “I’ve had worse.” He shook his head at the dismayed look on Angelo’s face. “But not this time. I have no idea how to operate this boat, do you?”

Angelo shook his head, “Not a clue. So now what?”

“We wait until we get back to land. Do you know how to use that thing?”

Angelo hefted the rifle. “I’ve used one a time or two to hunt wild pigs. I can hit what I aim at most of the time.”

“But you’ve never shot at a man before, right?”

Angelo’s eyes wavered uncertainly as he bit his lip and shook his head, “No. I’ve never shot at a man before…or had one shoot at me.”

“Hopefully it won’t come to that.” He walked back over to the rifles. “You keep watch. Let me know if you hear anyone coming.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Let’s just say I’m going to make a few modifications and I’m going to need a little time to get them done.”

With Angelo keeping watch Johnny started in on the rifles. One by one, he used the short crowbar to bend the firing pin to ensure the beautiful deadly rifles were worthless unless they were used as a club.

Johnny soon discovered there were six rifles to a box and there were twenty boxes. He worked as quickly as he could, but it was going to take at least another hour to get them all done. He thought briefly of calling Angelo over to help him, but dismissed that as too dangerous.  As he bent another firing pin and replaced the rifle, he heard Angelo’s whispered warning.

“Johnny! Someone’s coming!”

Johnny quickly replaced the rifle he’d been working on and had just enough time to put the lid on the box and duck behind the stack when a sailor came into the hold. He gave a brief prayer that Angelo had found a good place to hide as he once again tried to slow down his frantically beating heart. He tensed and he could smell the man as he walked closer to him.

Johnny almost gasped as he realized he’d left the crow bar on the floor and he heard the sound of it being kicked as the sailor tripped over it.  He held his breath as the man swore, and Johnny saw a meaty hand reach down and pick up the offending object.

 

“Who left this here?” the sailor grumbled. The man stumbled over to a stack of small barrels and hefted one under each arm while Johnny tried to make himself smaller.

With a couple of uneven steps, the sailor walked past his hiding place and left the hold without a glance back.

Johnny let out a long breath of relief and his eyes went over to Angelo’s hiding place. “Come on out brother.” He called quietly, “It’s clear.”

Angelo’s dark head popped around some crates as he checked for himself before coming out to join Johnny. “That was way too close.” He breathed as he wiped the sweat off his face with the back of his sleeve.

“What that?” Johnny teased to take away some of the tension. “I had to stop myself from reachin’ out and giving his pant leg a little tug as he walked by.”

Angelo rolled his eyes, “It’s fine with me brother, if you refrain from such impulses. I wouldn’t want you to go to any extra trouble to keep me entertained.”

Johnny cocked his head and smiled crookedly, “You and big brother Scott are gonna get along real well. You both talk fancy and like usin’ them complicated words.”

Before Angelo could form a retort, they heard a shout from above, “Land Ho.” And the ship was soon rising and falling as it was once again battered by waves as it caught the tide and hurled itself toward shore.

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

Antonio was in his office checking to make sure he had everything he needed for his trip off the island.  He closed and locked the top drawer of his desk as he heard a knock on the door.

“Enter.”

Ricardo slipped through the door looking decidedly nervous.  He held out a piece of paper folded in fours. “Senor?  I found this on Angelo’s dresser. It has your name on it.”

Antonio took the paper and unfolded it. He smoothed the creases and scowled as he read it. He frowned as he glanced at Ricardo. “That will be all, Ricardo.”

“Patron, are you sure you do not want me to accompany you? I could help….” Ricardo was obviously at a loss for words and was trying to make amends for failing his Patron.

Antonio shook his head. “No Ricardo. You stay here and make sure all is well.  I will not be gone long…..and I will bring my grandson back.”

Ricardo turned to leave the room, and stopped just briefly as Antonio asked him to send Donna Mercedes in to see him.

********

Tia Mercedes joined her nephew in his sanctuary. “You will go to Senor Lancer’s rancho?”

Antonio was sitting at his desk. He shrugged and replied, “Si.  I will go to the rancho and hope Johnny and Angelo arrive safely.”

“What about the warrant for Johnny?”

When I arrive on the mainland, I will get updated information on the progress of my agents. I had hoped for a few more weeks in order to get his problem resolved, but my grandson is not a patient man, so I will put more pressure on the government.”

“What about Johnny’s family. What will you tell them? How will you explain to them?”

“I will tell them the truth and try to make amends.”

“And Angelo? What of him?”

Antonio’s sea blue eyes flashed, and he smiled a crooked smile, “He tells me he desired to meet Murdoch Lancer. He wants to find out if the man is his father and he wants to get to know his brother better.” He shook his head and tossed the letter on the desk.

“Angelo will return with me, no matter what.”

 

Part 20

The ship was rising and falling, and the sound of men running on the deck above their heads allowed the two brothers a few minutes to plan their next move. Two dark heads bent toward each other, and one nodded in understanding as the other emphasized his plan.

Johnny’s head jerked up as a loud snap echoed throughout the hold. His blue eyes were wide open as he stared into Angelo’s. “What was that?” He asked more to himself than to his brother.

“The sails, I think.” Angelo responded. “I’ve heard that before when the merchant ships are coming into port…..though not so close of course.” He flashed a crooked smile at his brother, “Or so loud.”

Johnny nodded in relief and handed his brother a small wooden box wrapped in oil cloth. “Don’t lose this.”

Angelo turned the box over and hefted it as he noted it was deceptively heavy. He raised an eyebrow, “What is it?”

“Ammunition.” Johnny stuffed a similar box in the pocket of his leather jacket. “If we have to swim, the salt water won’t do these rifles any good, but at least we can dry them out and maybe they’ll work with dry bullets.”

“And if they do not?”

Johnny smiled, “Then brother, we use them like clubs.” At Angelo’s obvious look of dismay, Johnny added, “Don’t worry….It probably won’t come to that. It’s gonna be hard enough to swim in leather pants and boots, much less keep hold of a rifle.” He reached out and cuffed Angelo on the back of his head, and quickly had him in a head lock.

Angelo struggled free and looked at his older brother as he stood there grinning. Johnny’s sapphire eyes flashed in excitement and Angelo finally shook his head as he realized his brother was in his element. The danger had him feeling a bit queasy, but Johnny was energized by it. He frowned as he had a moment of doubt as he wondered if he would be able to hold up his part of their plan. He’d never done anything like this and for a brief moment he wished he was back home safe and sound.

Johnny seemed to be able to read his mind, when he gave Angelo a gentle shove, “Come on brother. You ain’t never had this much fun.”

Angelo shook his head and rolled his eyes as a smile broke out on his face as once again he felt bolstered by Johnny’s confidence and audacity.

***********

Johnny and Angelo had made it up to the deck without being seen and were huddled behind some crates. They could see land ahead but the thrashing sea was formidable. This was no gentle bay they were approaching, but a jagged coastline.

As the ship plunged down another swell, they could just make out a small harbor along the shoreline.  The ship seemed to be picking up speed as they plummeted toward shore and Johnny wondered if his plan was going to work.

They had discussed at length a couple of different plans to leave the ship and the only one that seemed at all likely was to jump overboard just before it docked and swim in. They knew it was risky, but they were hoping the men would be too busy to notice them slip over the side.

One thing they hadn’t counted on was the huge waves battering the small ship. As they held on to the ropes lashing the crates in place, their eyes were glued to the coast line as if they could will themselves to her safety.

Another wild ride up and down a swell followed by a huge surge toward land brought them close to their mark. Angelo felt Johnny’s hand on his shoulder. He turned his head in time to catch Johnny’s whispered words, “Stay here.” Johnny handed him his rifle.

 

“Johnny….” He called after him, but it was too late. His brother was gone in a blink of an eye.

Angelo felt fear grip him and he struggled to control it.  Johnny had told him that being afraid was alright. It meant he was alive, and that he was afraid too, but he didn’t let it control him.  Angelo took several deep breaths and felt himself relax as the fresh air invaded his lungs.

He felt a wave of relief as Johnny rejoined him. At his questioning look, Johnny smiled, “Just wanted to take care of a few necessities. You know, thank our hosts for the ride.”

Before Angelo could ask, Johnny tugged on his jacket, and took the rifle back. “Let’s go!”

Johnny had a firm grip on his brother’s arm with one hand, his rifle in the other. They scrambled across the deck to the railing. As the ship lurched once more they were almost tossed over the side into the green roiling water.

Johnny no longer had hold of Angelo and he prayed the boy hadn’t been sucked under the ship.  As Johnny went down, he lost track in the darkness of what was up or down.  He felt like he was being held under the water by a weight and he fought to regain control.  With a start, he realized his eyes were clamped tightly shut and as his lungs started to burn, he forced his eyes open ignoring the sting of the salt water.

He quickly focused on the light below him and he struggled to get himself turned around.  He almost let go of the rifle, but he was determined to keep his prize.  With several mighty kicks of his leaden legs, he broke through to the surface.

His lungs were screaming for air and he gulped in several quick breaths before he swallowed a mouthful of sea water.  Coughing and sputtering, he managed to clear his windpipe and he carefully got a few more breaths that helped stopped the pin point lights from spinning behind his eyes.

He tried to raise himself above the water to look for Angelo, but he couldn’t see anything other than the cliffs of the coastline.  He prayed for his brother’s safety and started swimming using his rifle as a paddle toward shore.

*********

Angelo tumbled in the undertow of the heavy surf.  He was so tired he wasn’t sure he had the will to keep going.  His leather pants and jacket felt like they weighed as much as he did as they tried to drag him to the bottom of the ocean.

He’d lost his rifle in the undertow and just now he didn’t give a damn.  He just wanted to get to the shore and rest. At this moment, he didn’t even care if he was captured, he just wanted to get out of the pull of the ocean.

He broke through to the surface long enough to get a big breath of air and then was pulled under once more and pushed to shore. Coarse sand scraped his cheeks, bit into his hands, and lodged under his fingernails. The pain made him fight and kick to the surface and he realized he could stand.

He struggled to his feet and in waist high water, on legs that shook with fatigue, he drug himself to the beach and collapsed in a heap, gasping for breath.

********

Angelo felt a presence before he opened his stinging eyes. His heart leapt as Johnny threw himself on the beach next to him. “Johnny! Agradezca A Dios. I thought you were lost.”

Johnny shook his head and sea water flew off his hair plastered to his head. “We made it. Now we just have to find a way to get out of here.”

Their eyes were drawn to the ship as it drew closer and as they gained awareness, they could hear men shouting and pointing toward them. Angelo made a move to stand, but his brother’s insistent pull on his arm, kept him down.

“Wait a minute.” Johnny urged.

“We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Give it a minute. They can’t get to us yet and well…..” Johnny gave his brother a mischievous grin, “I want to stick around for the show.”

At Angelo’s questioning look, Johnny nodded toward the ship. “It should be anytime now.”

With those fortuitous words, Johnny was rewarded by the sound of an explosion followed by black smoke and before long a fireball of flame shot up from the middle of the ship. Johnny’s smile could light up the sky as he grinned at his brother. They both stood up so they could get a better look.

“Madre de Dios. What happened?” Angelo asked as he watched men jumping from the burning ship into the sea.

Johnny laughed, “They shouldn’t have left the fuses so close to the ammunition. Come on! Let’s get outta here.”

 

Part 21

Murdoch Lancer walked listlessly around his big house once again which he did several times each day. He found himself in the kitchen, but couldn’t remember why he was there. His eyes focused on the coffee pot still on the trivet, left there since breakfast.

He poured himself some of the strong drink and grimaced as the cold liquid assaulted his taste buds. The house was too quiet and closed in. It reminded him of the many times he’d looked around at all his possessions and wondered at the futility of it all when he had no one to share it with.

That had all changed since the return of his sons. Their sounds had opened up the house and made it a home rather than a shell that sheltered a lonely man’s wealth. He’d come to the startling conclusion a couple of months after the defeat of Pardee that he had only used the excuse of building up the ranch to give to his sons at some point in the future, to avoid the sorrow he felt at their loss.  Now that they were home, he could see in the clear, stark light of day that it had only been an excuse; a way of coping with the unacceptable.

He made the mistake of taking another gulp of the cold coffee. With a grimace, he swallowed and tossed the rest out the back door. With a clatter, he dropped the cup onto the saucer and thought about climbing the stairs to Johnny’s room.

He’d spent hours there since returning from Stockton.  It was a nightly vigil that only brought him a measure of comfort. It was the only way he could relax enough to get some much needed rest after the whisky from earlier in the evening had worn off.

‘Johnny’s room.’ Murdoch mused as he made his way back to his desk in the great room. ‘So like the man himself.’ Johnny’s room had its own distinct look. ‘Sparse.’ Was the word that came to mind. ‘No.’ Murdoch corrected himself. Not sparse, but economical. Johnny didn’t have a lot of possessions and Murdoch suspected he’d always traveled light. Everything Johnny owned was of the highest quality.  He spent his money on the things that mattered. His gun and gunbelt were lovingly looked after. His horse was always groomed to perfection and his cowboy tools were always kept in top shape.

Johnny may not be a man of many possessions, but he took great care with all that he owned. This thought struck Murdoch with a sudden flash of insight as he realized that Johnny treated people the same way.  He cherished his family and friends and often placed their needs above his own.  He looked after them all with great care and concern, while at the same time sacrificing his own needs for their welfare.

His thoughts of Johnny made him feel closer to his son and at the same time made his heart ache as he wondered if he’d have the chance to get to know his remarkable son better.  He’s out there somewhere and Murdoch could only hope and pray he was all right and he would be coming home to them soon.

*********

A loud rap on the front door interrupted his thoughts and he pushed his tired body out of the leather chair. The chair groaning as it adjusted to the shift in his weight.  Murdoch pulled his bone handled pistol out of its holster from where his gunbelt hung on the hat stand by the door.

His eyes widened at the sight of the men in dark blue Army uniforms standing in a semi circle just behind the officer at the door.

“Mister Lancer?”

“I’m Murdoch Lancer. How can I help you Captain?”

“I’m Captain Conners from Fort Benson.  I have an arrest warrant for your son, John Lancer.”

Murdoch tensed. He’d been waiting for something like this. His lips formed a thin line, “He’s not here.” He realized he was short with the man but for the moment, he didn’t care. “He left and he’s not coming back. He’s probably deep into Mexico by now.”

“So you won’t mind if my men take a look around.”

“Help yourself.”  Murdoch allowed the men into the house and returned to his desk to stare mindlessly out the large window as the men searched his home.

The Captain approached him and cleared his throat to get his attention, “Sir. We know he didn’t just leave. We also know his death was staged in Stockton. You won’t be helping him by hiding his whereabouts.”

“I told you the truth Captain. My son is not here and I have no idea where he is.”

“Mister Lancer, Let’s be honest with each other. We both know your son was taken against his will. We both want to know by whom, and where he is.  You are not helping his cause by being uncooperative.”

Murdoch stared at the man, “I’m not being uncooperative Captain, but I do resent the United States government giving in to a trumped up charge against my son from Mexico. Whatever my son did, he was only protecting himself from the ruales. We both know they are a corrupt bunch of thieves and murders dressed in uniforms.”

“While I tend to share your views on the situation in Mexico, we have received a legal warrant to arrest your son and present him to the Mexican authorities for trial.”

“You don’t believe any more than I do that he’ll get a fair trial do you?” Murdoch asked more for effect than for actually expecting an answer.

The Captain was silent for a moment and then he spoke slowly, “No, unfortunately I, like you, don’t believe he will get a trial at all, much less a fair one, but I am sworn to uphold the law and follow the orders of my government. As a law abiding man, I would expect you to do the same.”

“Under ordinary circumstances I would support the law and even turn over my own son if he had committed a crime, but I can’t….not without assurances that he would be given a fair trial.  No….Captain…I will not sacrifice my son for your duty.”

The Captain straightened up, “Fair enough.  We will keep looking. I will leave some men deployed around the house in case he comes back here. We have been ordered to take him alive, but if he resists….well I can’t be responsible.”

Murdoch slumped back into his chair and wished Scott was back from escorting Teresa to the Conway ranch.  They had decided to get her to safety much against the young girl’s will. They had left earlier in the day and Scott should be back just before nightfall. He hoped he’d hurry back as he wasn’t sure how much of this silence he could stand.

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

Murdoch’s ears were still burning from the tongue lashing he had just received from Maria after she cleared away another almost untouched meal.  He just didn’t have an appetite these days and his worry over Johnny, and the charges awaiting him were haunting him.

A part of him hoped Johnny wouldn’t come home, but another part of him wished fervently for his return. Before he could sink into further depression, his spirits lifted as Scott walked through the front door.

He hung his hat and gunbelt on the hat stand, “I see we have visitors.” Scott commented dryly as he brushed the dust off his shirtsleeve.

“You met them?”

Scott walked over to the sideboard and poured himself a drink. He silently offered the decanter to his father, and at Murdoch’s nod, poured a second glass.  He handed Murdoch’s glass over and sank into the chair in front of the desk.  Taking a sip he looked over the top of the glass. “More like they met me.  It looks like they have taken up vantage points around the house.” He stopped, but clearly left what was unsaid as a question.

“They showed up this afternoon with a warrant.  They plan to extradite Johnny to Mexico. If he shows up here, they’ll arrest him.”

Scott stared into his whisky and frowned. “We could fight it.”

“How?”

“We could hire a top attorney and challenge the validity of the charge. Find that Pinkerton agent and get his testimony. Maybe there are other witnesses we could find.”

“Good idea son.  We’ll get started first thing tomorrow. There’s an attorney in San Francisco that just may fit the bill.  He’s very aggressive, in fact he’s one of the few to have won against the railroad.” Murdoch’s relief was obvious, and Scott hoped his father’s faith in the man would pay off.

Scott raised his glass, “He sounds like our man.” He took a long sip, and shook his head. “I never thought I’d say this, but I hope Johnny is staying put and not on his way home.”

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

Johnny and Angelo had gotten very little sleep the night before.  They had walked for several hours before the inky darkness overtook them. Bone tired, they were both still too restless to settle down.  That, and their slowly drying clothes added to the discomfort of their hunger.  Water so far had been no problem and they had feasted on wild blackberries until their lips and fingers were stained dark purple. Still, it wasn’t enough to sustain them and they needed to find help soon.

They started out at first light after drinking their fill from the small spring fed stream and continued to walk east. They were still close enough to the ocean so that the morning fog added an uncomfortable chill to the air, and it was almost noon, when the sun finally broke through.

Angelo jumped a foot, when without warning, Johnny raised and fired the rifle. “Come on.”  Johnny took off in the direction of his shot.

Angelo trotted after his brother and soon smiled when he saw that Johnny had managed to shoot a rabbit.  “That was good shooting, brother.”

Johnny grinned as he picked up the rabbit, “Lunch. Let’s get a fire started.”

*******

Angelo relaxed with his back against an oak tree and he couldn’t remember anything tasting as good as that rabbit.  He watched Johnny laying flat out in the grass, eyes closed and legs crossed at the ankles. He looked perfectly relaxed, but Angelo was quite sure his brother was aware of everything around them. One thing he’d learned since meeting Johnny, was that his brother is a remarkable man.

More than once, he had been tempted to ask Johnny about his past, but whenever they touched on it, he saw a flash of sorrow that he couldn’t ignore, while at the same time, he didn’t want to cause his brother pain.

Johnny’s survival skills were amazing.  He’d shown Angelo how to start a fire even though their matches had been thoroughly soaked in the ocean. How to skin and cook the rabbit, which plants were edible, and at one point yesterday, how to find water when there appeared to be none.

His thoughts were interrupted when Johnny suddenly sat up, “We better get going. There’s got to be a town, or farmhouse up ahead soon.”

***********

Johnny was growing hopeful as the terrain changed to gently rolling hills and good grass. He didn’t want to say anything to Angelo to get his hopes up, but Johnny was pretty sure they were finally getting somewhere familiar.

He stopped suddenly and Angelo almost bumped into him. “Look over there.”

“A cattle trail.” Angelo responded with a smile.

“Where there’s cows, there’s got to be horses. Right?” Johnny smiled back.

“As always you’re right brother. Let’s go.”

They followed the narrow zig zag trail for another hour. They scanned the pastures constantly for signs of life and while they saw many red and white cows, no horses so far. Just as they were resigned to spending another night camping out, they were confronted by three armed men.

“Hold it right there.” A gruff voiced older man with a weathered face pointed his pistol at them.

The other two riders had them covered as well. “Drop the rifle.”

Johnny looked over the men and decided they were more likely ranch hands rather than outlaws, so he lowered the rifle to the ground.

“Kick it over here, boy.”

Johnny followed instructions, and before he could begin to identify himself, the older man spoke up, “What are you doing on my land?”

“It’s a long story. My brother and I have been walking for a couple of days and we could really use some help. Do you know Murdoch Lancer?”

“I know Murdoch, but what’s that got to do with you?”

“He’s our father.” Johnny said simply and waited.

The expression on the man’s face changed from surprise to suspicion. “You boys don’t look anything like him, but I remember he had himself a Mexican wife at one time. Ran off on him….”

Johnny toed the ground for a moment before looking up at the older man, “Yeah, she’s our mother.” He met the man’s gaze and didn’t look away until the rancher did.

“Boss, I saw this one before, up at the cattle auction in Stockton. He was with Lancer, so maybe he’s tellin’ the truth.”

The older man appraised his foreman for a moment and nodded. “Good enough for me. I’m Henry Coltrane. This my foreman Clay Robertson.”

“Howdy. I’m Johnny Lancer and this is my brother Angelo.”

“Let’s get you boys back to the ranch and you can fill me in on what you’re doing out here. It looks like you boys could use a bath and a good meal too.”

“We sure could Mister Coltrane.” Johnny responded respectfully.

Henry nodded and looked over at the other hand, “Carl, slide on down off that horse and catch a ride with the fencing crew. Clay keep ‘em working till dark.”

Henry dispatched his men back to work and with curious glances toward the Lancer brothers, now mounted double,  he turned and headed home with his guests following along behind.

 

Part 22

The next morning

 

“You boys need anything else, you just ask.” Henry Coltrane offered as he stood by the hitching rail in front of his house.

“No sir, Mister Coltrane.  You’ve been right accommodating, and we sure appreciate it.” Johnny answered as he tied off the saddle bags on his borrowed bay gelding.

Angelo completed tying his bedroll and securing his canteen over the saddle horn.  He walked back over to Henry Coltrane and in slow heavily accented English thanked the rancher as they shook hands. “Senor, Thank you for your help.”

The older man’s big calloused hand enveloped Angelo’s as he shook it and slapped the boy on the back at the same time. “You boys take care of yourself and tell that father of yours to come along for a visit when he sends these horses back.”

Johnny shook the rancher’s hand and smiled, “We’ll give him the message. Come to Lancer for a visit anytime. We’d be proud to have you.”

Henry chuckled, “I just may take you up on that Johnny. If I remember correctly, Maria is the best cook in the San Joaquin.”

“Yes sir. Maria is a mighty fine cook, and I can’t wait to get back there to get some of that good cookin’” Johnny mounted with a little hop, he turned his horse, and set out to the northeast for home, with Angelo by his side.

***********

As the sun began to set in the west, Johnny called a halt for the night. They could have continued to ride for about three more hours to get home, but as the moon was just a sliver, riding in the dark offered too many dangers.  Johnny also knew he needed to be alert when he arrived at the ranch as there could be trouble waiting for him.

After weighing his options, he decided to call a halt and make camp. One more night out wouldn’t hurt and they could get an early start in the morning. “We’ll set up camp here.”

Johnny swung off the gelding and watched with a small smile as Angelo stiffly swung his leg over the horse.  They had spent most of the day at a mile covering trot which had taken a toll on his brother.  “Sore?”

Angelo glanced up at Johnny just in time to catch his smile as it turned into a full grin, and he scowled. “I am not used to being on such a rough gaited horse all day.”

Johnny’s grin only got bigger and he quipped, “Beats walkin’. Why don’t you gather some wood for a fire while I take care of the horses.”

Angelo nodded and untied his bedroll and saddlebags, before handing the reins to Johnny.  Johnny had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing as Angelo groaned as he bent down to unroll his bedroll.  He watched a moment as Angelo walked stiffly into the brush to begin collecting wood for their fire.

With an amused shake of his head, he unsaddled, watered and, rubbed down the horses.  He picked up each hoof and picked out the dirt with his pocket knife before picketing the animals so they could graze without wandering away or getting tangled up in their ropes.

When he returned, he was pleased to find that Angelo had a decent fire going, and had the coffee brewing.  He was in the process of heating the stew Mrs. Coltrane had packed for them, and setting out some homemade bread and preserves.

Johnny crouched down and spread some preserves on a slice of thick wheat bread. Angelo wrinkled his nose, and Johnny caught the look. “What?”

“Didn’t you just use that knife to clean the horse’s hooves?”

Johnny looked at his knife, now covered in peach preserves and then back at Angelo. “I wiped it off.”

Angelo shook his head and murmured, “Oh, Johnny.”  He turned back to the fire and gave the stew another stir and was unaware of his brother grinning as he ate the bread with relish.

*******

The night was clear and mild. Stars sparkled and glowed on the backdrop of a pitch black canvas. The fire leaped and swayed as a breeze blew through the camp.  Just before dark, Angelo gathered enough wood to keep the fire going through the night while Johnny watered the horses and staked them out in fresh grass.

Angelo leaned up against his saddle and had his hands behind his head.  His eyes tracked a shooting star and he felt totally content. “I’ve never slept on the ground before now.”

“Never?”

“No, never.”

“What do you think of it?”

“It’s kind of hard and lumpy, but I feel so free out here. I never realized how big the sky is before.”

Johnny shifted so he could see Angelo’s expression from where he rested against his saddle. “I know what you mean.  I’ve spent a lot of time out here like this….maybe slept on the ground more than I’ve slept in a bed.”

Now Angelo shifted so he could see Johnny better. Maybe it was the night air or the freedom from the stresses they’d been under since leaving the island, but he couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Tell me about her.” He asked quietly.

Johnny was silent and for a moment Angelo thought maybe his brother had gone to sleep. Johnny finally blew out a breath of air. “I don’t exactly know what to say about her Angelo, or even where to start.”

“Tell me anything, hermano. I have this picture of her, here in my head.” He pointed to his head before continuing, “Grandfather told me stories about her when she was younger, but she must have been…..I don’t know….more.” His loss for words silenced him.

 

Johnny’s voice was soft and low when he began telling Angelo about their mother. He told him how her voice made his heart sing, how safe he felt when she held him close, and he could hear the beat of her heart. He told him about the men that used her and that she used, and those that hurt them both.  Angelo never interrupted or asked questions, he listened, head bowed in silence. Johnny finally stopped and waited for Angelo to say something….anything.

Angelo finally spoke, “Do you wish she had left you with your father?”

“I’ve thought about that a lot.  My life would have been so different. It hurts to think that if she’d left me with Murdoch, I would never have known her. I can’t picture it.” Johnny shook his head, “A big part of me wishes that I coulda grown up at Lancer with Murdoch. But I just don’t think I would have wanted to miss out on growin’ up with Mama. Sure we had some hard times, but she loved me, I know that for sure.”

“I guess she didn’t want to be bothered with another kid, so she left me with Abuelo.” Angelo felt angry much to his surprise.

Johnny sat up quickly when he heard his brother’s anguish. He got up and sat back down next to Angelo with his arm around his younger brother’s shoulders. “Don’t think like that Angelo. You were a little baby. She left you with him because she knew he’d take care of you. He did a good job. You grew up safe and loved. He made sure you always had a roof over your head, family to love and take care of you. You’re mannerly and educated. She did right by you brother.” Johnny rocked Angelo a little from side to side before messing up his hair.  At Angelo’s little laugh, Johnny felt him relax.

“I guess you’re right hermano. We can’t change the past or wish for things that can’t be. Thank you for telling me about her. Still it’s hard to think of her that way….and of the life you had to live….but thank you for telling me.”

“Da nada Angelo. Get some sleep. We’ll make Morro Coyo before noon tomorrow.”

***********

Scott walked out of the telegraph office in Green River.  He had arrived early before the town got too busy.  He sent his wire to Charles Mitchell, the attorney in San Francisco that Murdoch felt could help them with the charges against Johnny.

He’d slowly sipped his third cup of coffee after a leisurely breakfast, before strolling back to the telegraph office. His patience was rewarded as he read the return message. Feeling that something was finally turning their way, he mounted and headed home at a fast clip, anxious to let Murdoch know the good news.

**********

Johnny and Angelo had pulled off the trail at the sound of a horse loping toward them. They had passed the crossroads leading to the ranch, but had turned off toward Morro Coyo.

Out of sight of the trail, they stood holding their horse’s bridles ready to quell a give-away whinny if either of their mounts decided to announce their presence.  As the hoof beats faded away, Johnny carefully checked the trail and decided it was safe to continue.

Angelo was still feeling a bit put out that Johnny wouldn’t let him go with him to Lancer. No matter how much he tried to talk him into it, Johnny was adamant that Angelo would wait for him in town while he scouted out the ranch.

It was still early as they road slowly into Morro Coyo. The sound of their horse’s hoof beats echoed off the adobe walls.  Johnny turned down a narrow alley and pulled up at the back of a low roofed adobe building.

Johnny tied off his horse and scanned the alley while his brother dismounted.  He walked through the door into a kitchen, and smiled as Senora Morales turned toward him with a wooden spoon in her hand and a big smile. “Buenos dias senor!”

“Senora Morales, this is my….amigo, Angelo.  Angelo, meet Senora Morales. She makes the best tamales this side of the border.” He back handed Angelo gently in the stomach and added, “Don’t tell Maria that, or she’ll never feed me again.”

Soon they were settled at a table in the back enjoying the Senora’s tamales and beans. Angelo rolled and unrolled a tortilla until Johnny reached over and took it away from him.

“What’s wrong Angelo? You’re still not mad cause I’m makin’ you stay here are you?”

Angelo glanced up quickly at Johnny before lowering his eyes to his plate.  “You didn’t tell Senora Morales that I am your brother….” He glanced once again at Johnny and began pushing the beans around on his plate. He shrugged and looked once again at Johnny, “I was just wondering why, is all.”

“I didn’t introduce you to her as my brother because we don’t know what’s going on around here.  I want to check things out before anyone knows who you are.” He stopped and looked at his brother’s bowed head. “Come on brother, tell me what you were thinking.”

Angelo kept pushing the beans around with his fork and Johnny had to fight his urge to take the fork away from him, “I just thought maybe you were ashamed to tell people we were brothers, you know in case I’m not Murdoch’s son.”

“That’s crazy! Even if you aren’t Murdoch’s son, you’re still my brother and that’s good enough for me….besides I just know Murdoch’s your father and he’s gonna be one happy man to find out about you.”

Hopeful blue eyes met his, “You really think so?”

“I know so. Come on let’s get you settled in.”

 Johnny had made arrangements for Angelo to stay in one of the Morales’ spare rooms and in short order he had him all settled in.

Johnny was just getting ready to take Angelo’s horse to the livery stable when he noticed that Angelo was standing at the window looking at the goings on in the sleepy little town. “Come on Angelo. It won’t be for long.  Overnight at the most.  I may even be back later this afternoon.  I just have to go to the ranch and check things out and then tell Murdoch and Scott what’s been goin’ on. Then I’ll be back for you. I promise.”

Angelo was standing now with his back to the window and he had his arms crossed over his chest. “Fine.  I’ll see you later today or tomorrow.  Be careful brother.” He added quietly.

Johnny gave him a cheeky grin, “I’m always careful.” He gave his brother a thumbs up sign and headed out the door.

 

Part 23

As Johnny rode toward the ranch, all his senses were on alert and he had to keep pushing down his feeling of excitement as he anticipated seeing his family again.  It had now been almost a month since he’d last seen them and this was the longest time he’d been away from them since coming home.

In spite of his desire to get home, he knew he needed to be cautious, and he began searching for anything out of place.  He took note of birds and wildlife; so far all acting normally.  He came across a small herd of mule deer peacefully grazing in the shade of a grove of large leafy oak trees. They raised their heads as he walked his horse within 200 yards of them, their big ears flicking back and forth. As he went past them he turned to see them still watching him until he was safely out of sight.

Everything seemed in place as he rode another mile. That changed as his senses screamed at him. He pulled his horse to a halt as the hair on the back of his neck rose, and he quickly started scanning the terrain for anything out of place. He flipped off the thong that held his borrowed pistol in place.

With a gentle squeeze of his legs, he urged the horse back into a slow walk.  He felt the horse tremble as it picked up on his heightened sense of danger. He ran his hand down the horse’s neck and gave him a little scratch to the mane just in front of the saddle. The horse relaxed his neck and chewed his bit, but then walked out more freely.

Johnny stopped again and listened. The silence made his skin itch as he sought out whatever was causing the wildlife to avoid this section of the ranch.  Figuring he’d gone as far as he could by horseback, he securely tied his horse with just enough rein to allow him to crop the nearby grass.

On foot he climbed a hill, taking cover behind shrubs and rock outcroppings until he reached the top.  He crouched and listened once again and now he could hear the faint sounds of men talking as well as the smell of wood smoke.  Cautiously he looked over the top and he whistled silently at the sight.

“One, two, three, six, seven, eight.” He counted under his breath the horses tied to a picket line and his eyes took in the unmistakable sight of army tents.

‘Wonder what I ever did to those guys to rile em up this bad?’ he asked himself as he scrambled back down the hill to his waiting horse. 

********

After another hour, Johnny felt certain he’d found all the lookout posts around the ranch. For the most part they’d picked all the places he would use to keep watch over such a large area. While he was dismayed by the presence of the army, he was reassured to some extent that his family was safe and not being threatened because of him.

Those army boys may be a lot of things, but they’d follow orders, and Johnny couldn’t see any of them taking chances with a man of Murdoch’s political standing in the state. His mind made up, he put his plan into action.

Johnny relaxed in the saddle and allowed his body to move with the rhythm set by his horse as he rounded up a few cows and pushed them through a hole in the fence.  He dismounted and twisted the sharp wire back together and managed to temporarily repair the hole.

He pushed the errant cows farther into the field before leaving them to graze contentedly. ‘Hiding in plain sight’, old Josh Harper had called it.  He had taken Johnny under his wing when he was about sixteen and taught him all he wanted to learn about tracking and tactics. Johnny had used this tactic to his advantage many times and he was counting on it to work this time too.

Before long, he found just what he was looking for.  Cipriano was with a small work crew, branding some young calves on the range.  They were on the last one when Johnny rode up.  The men were all smiles as they greeted him in a mixture of Spanish and English.

“Hey, you boys could do me a real favor by not tellin’ anyone you seen me. I saw those army boys stakin’ out the ranch and I just want to get in and see Murdoch to find out what’s goin’ on.”

“You can count on us Johnny.” Cipriano spoke for all of them, but they all nodded their understanding.

Soon they were all mounted and the vaqueros rode together back to the hacienda just as the sun was starting to set.

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

Angelo found himself pacing the small room.  He was growing beyond weary from being cooped up in the small space.  He lost count of how many times he’d gazed out the window, only to see an occasional person stroll by. His attention had  peaked when several young Mexican girls walked by with laundry baskets in their arms. They’d seen him watching them and had flashed smiles at him, so he responded in kind. ‘At least the girls are pretty.’ He thought as he craned his neck to see an occasional flash of brown leg as a brightly colored skirt caught the breeze.

With a final shrug of his shoulders, he grabbed his leather jacket and quickly made sure the five dollar gold piece that Mister Coltrane had given him was still there, he left the safety of Senora Morales’ casa.

Angelo’s heart felt lighter as he walked the wooden board walk. He smiled to himself as he took in the newness of being on his own.  You could get lost on the island and not see a sole for days, but you could always find your way back to somewhere familiar.  This was totally different.

His steps slowed as he neared the building calling itself a mercantile. ‘Baldameros’ he read and he held his hands up to the side of his face as he looked through the window. He’d never seen anything quite like this store. Everywhere he looked there was something on display, or hanging from the walls.

The urge to see it all called him inside so he acted on the impulse. As he entered the store, his mouth dropped open as he saw piles of clothing on tables in the middle, a table holding hats of every type. One whole wall was taken up with canned goods, another filled with sundries. In the back he could see cooking pots and plates stacked neatly on shelves.

“May I help you?”

Angelo shook his head no, and replied in Spanish, “Is it permitted for me to look around?”

Senora Baldamero smiled at Angelo’s question and answered, “Of course Senor. Is there anything in particular you are looking for?”

Angelo looked at all the goods on display.  His grandfather’s majordomo took care of purchasing all the day to day supplies for the estancia. All his clothes were handmade by the excellent seamstresses and leather makers.  Only special items were directly purchased when the ships docked.  He bought books, paper, pencils and ink almost every time they docked, so this display of everyday life was totally foreign to him.

Realizing the Senora was waiting for an answer, he gave her a disarming smile and pointed toward some barrels and a display case, “What is that?”

She raised her eyebrows in surprise, “Those are sweets. Surely you know that?”

Angelo looked uncertain and for a brief moment he wished his brother was there to explain, but before he could decide how to respond, Senora Baldamero had hold of his arm and was leading him to the display.

She reached in and took out a peppermint. “Try this.” At his hesitation, she urged, “Go on it is good.”

He accepted the sticky candy and popped it into his mouth.  The strong taste at first made him want to spit it out, but at the expectant look in her eyes he rolled it around in his mouth. As he got used to the strange flavor, he soon realized it tasted good. “Esto es muy bueno, gracias.” He smiled.

He pointed at the display, “Can I have one of each?”

Senora Balamero laughed and quickly began collecting the assortment of candy. Angelo reached into his pocket for the coin, and the senora shook her head. “No. These are a gift for a young caballero…..just do not eat too many at a time. They will make you muy mal.” She patted his stomach as she handed him the bag.

“Gracias senora.” Angelo smiled and left the store with his first ever bag of candy.

He continued his tour of Morro Coyo and found himself outside the cantina.  He noticed several horses out front and the sound of men laughing inside. He pushed through the batwing doors and took in several men drinking and playing cards. ‘Cowhands.’ He thought, as he went to the bar.

“Cervesa.” He asked of the bar tender.

“Hey, Manual!  That pup don’t look old enough to be off his mama’s teat much less drinkin’ a beer. How old are ya kid?”

Angelo took hold of the glass and took a sip, before eyeing the scruffy man up and down.  He had a hole in the knee of his tan pants, and a button missing from his shirt. He could see some gray chest hairs mixed with brown, where they poked through the gap. His mouth suddenly felt dry as he realized everyone in the room was staring at him.

“Leave the kid alone Jackson. It’s your turn to buy the next round.” One of the cowhands called from two tables away.

Jackson turned back to Angelo, “I asked you a question, kid. How old are ya?”

Angelo just shook his head. His limited English was not enough to take on a bully like this.

“Cat got your tongue? Well let me see if I can’t just loosen it up some.” The older man started to swing his fist at Angelo, but Angelo’s reflexes were much faster. He threw his beer into the man’s face as he ducked under the punch, giving the man a hard one in the gut as he went down.

Before he knew what was happening the men in the cantina were all brawling with each other and him. He got in a few more good punches, but a particularly hard one knocked him right out the door into the street.

He lay in the dirt trying to keep the flashes of light from causing him to lose his lunch. With a groan he sat up and felt his jaw. He’d never had anything hurt that bad before and he looked at the blood on his hand. His knuckles were scraped and bleeding slightly, but the blood was coming from his split lip.

With a groan, he managed to get himself to his feet by holding onto a hitching rail. All thoughts of returning for his beer fled his head as Jackson came flying though the window with glass scattering everywhere.

He turned and faded away into the shadows back to the Morales’ casa. With some measure of pride, he realized he’d just had his first saloon brawl and the only thing it really cost him was a sore jaw, some bruised knuckles, and as he quickly checked his coat pocket, he realized with dismay, it also cost him his bag of candy.

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

Johnny rode in with the men and dismounted by the barn. He worked side by side with them caring for his horse, and when he carried his saddle to the tack room, he was relieved to note that Murdoch and Scott’s saddles were there too. ‘At least they’re home.’ He thought. It would have been just my luck they’d be out somewhere just when I get home.

He took a quick look out of the tack room and stepped out into the fading light. Cipriano approached him and pointed to the stack of firewood by the cookhouse and made a motion toward the back door of the house by the kitchen. With a nod, Johnny collected an armload of wood and took it to the house as directed.

He stacked the wood by the back door under the lean to, and stepped into the warm kitchen. Maria was at the stove with her back to him stirring something that smelled wonderful. Johnny silently crept up behind her and reached over her shoulder to dip his finger into the pot.

She whirled around in surprise and rapped his finger with her wooden spoon before he could retreat to safety.

“Maria! That hurt!” He shook his finger and promptly stuck it in his mouth.”

“Johnny! Where have you been? We have been so worried!”

Johnny accepted her warm embrace, “I’m fine mamacita. I’m home now.” He pulled back from the smiling woman and asked, “Where’s Murdoch and Scott?”

Maria nodded toward the door leading to the living room. “Your Papa and hermano have been very worried about you. They are in there.” She pointed.

“Gracias Maria.” Johnny gave her shoulders another little squeeze and turned to find his family.

*******

Johnny walked into the great room and much to his surprise, every window was covered by the heavy burgundy drapes. He’d never seen all the windows covered at one time, but with the prying eyes of the army nearby, he was grateful for their forethought.

He stood and watched his brother and father for a moment before making them aware of his presence. Murdoch sat in his chair with his feet on an ottoman reading a book. Scott sat at the end of the couch nearest the fire and seemed engrossed with his newspaper.

Clearing his throat, Johnny asked, “When’s supper? I’m starved.”

 

Part 24

Johnny couldn’t help the huge grin that broke out on his face as he watched his father and brother as they looked at him with jaw dropping surprise, and then stumbled over each other to get up.

For one brief moment, he was afraid they’d run him down in their eagerness to get to him. Scott made it first and had Johnny in a bear hug that made his heart sing with happiness.

“Johnny…Johnny….we were so worried about you. I can’t believe you’re back.” Scott’s voice sounded strained.

Murdoch stood back looking a bit awkward, before he stepped forward and pulled Johnny to him in a big awkward hug.  Johnny felt unaccustomed tears form in his eyes at his first real hug from his father that he could remember.

Reluctant to break the spell, but sure he was going to lose control and make a fool of himself any minute, he pushed Murdoch back, “Hey ease up there Murdoch. I can’t breathe.”

“Boy. You are a sight for sore eyes.” Murdoch declared. He threw his arm around Johnny’s shoulders and escorted him into the great room and sat directly across from him.

Scott walked over by the fireplace and gazed for a moment at his brother as the three just looked at each other, and then they all spoke at once.

“Murdoch…”

“Scott…..”

“Brother…”

They all chuckled, “You go first.”

“What’s goin’ on out there?” Johnny gestured toward the French doors. Then he looked around, “Where’s Teresa?”

Murdoch and Scott grew somber, and Johnny tensed at he watched them exchange glances. Murdoch finally cleared his throat, “Son, the army has a warrant for your arrest. They want to take you back to Mexico to answer charges for your escape….” Murdoch looked away and cleared his throat. “Teresa is spending some time with Aggie Conway….”

“What charges?” Johnny asked as he looked from Murdoch to Scott.

“They’ve charged you with murder, Johnny.” Scott answered.

“Murder? Of those ruales? That’s crazy. They double crossed that Pinkerton agent and was tryin’ to kill all of us!” Johnny couldn’t sit still any longer and was pacing with long strides to his father’s desk and back. His fists were clenching and unclenching as he tried to master his anger over the situation.

Scott reached out and grabbed hold of Johnny’s arm as he paced by him. “Hold on a minute, Johnny. We’ve hired a good lawyer to defend you, and they’ve located the Pinkerton agent. He’s already given a statement that it was self defense and if you hadn’t acted so quickly you all would have been killed.”

Johnny’s gaze met Scott’s and then he turned to Murdoch, “Now what?”

“We’re asking the State Supreme court to hear your case and stay the extradition on the grounds that you may not get a fair trial in Mexico. We want them to hear the evidence here.”

“Our attorney feels he has a good chance of getting the warrant rescinded.” Scott added.

Johnny picked at a hangnail on his thumb, and then his blue eyes met his brother’s. “So I gotta stay gone for a while longer?”

You could almost hear a pin drop as the only sound was the familiar ticking of the grandfather clock in the background.  Finally Murdoch answered, “It’s either that or they will arrest you son. We need to buy a little time…..” Before he could continue, Maria announced that dinner was ready and they were to all come before it got cold.

Johnny smiled, “Oh boy, I’ve been missin’ Maria’s cookin’ and I have so much to tell you. Then I can figure out what I’m gonna do.”

***********

Johnny’s mouth was practically watering as he watched Murdoch slice the roast and he waited as Scott checked all the doors to make sure they were locked. If their meal was going to be interrupted, he wanted to make sure they got some warning.

Once Scott was seated, Johnny started eating with relish. Murdoch and Scott exchanged glances as they watched with bemused silence as Johnny demolished his potatoes and gravy along with a generous portion of roast beef.

“More son?” Murdoch offered waving the carving knife.

Johnny pushed back from the table a bit and shook his head. “I’m stuffed. Muy bueno, Maria. Gracias.” He flashed a smile at her, as he drained his glass of milk and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve.

Scott chuckled and shook his head as he finished his wine. He raised his eyebrows, “Ready?”

Johnny shrugged, “Sure.” He pushed away from the table and they all settled back into the great room. Johnny lounged on the couch with his legs stretched out in front of him. Now that he was full and warm in front of the fire, his limbs felt as heavy as his eyelids.

“Son…” Murdoch’s voice was gentle.

Johnny’s eyes popped open as he heard his father’s voice. “Sorry…” he grinned crookedly. He ran a hand over his face, “There’s so much to tell you, I don’t know exactly where to start.”

“How about at the beginning?” Scott suggested with a smile. “What happened in Morro Coyo?”

Johnny’s eyes were planted firmly in his lap as he shrugged, “I don’t really know. I had a few drinks….” His blue eyes met Murdoch’s then dropped back to his lap, as he shrugged, “Well anyway, I left the cantina to head home and that’s all I remember. I think I was hit on the head, but I didn’t wake up for three more days.”

“Three days….” Murdoch repeated in surprise.

Johnny looked at him, “Yeah. Turns out I was taken to an island south of here….belongs to my mother’s father.” His eyes met Murdoch’s warily.

“What? Maria told me…..” Murdoch stopped his outburst, “I mean she told me she didn’t have any family.”

“Well she does….did.” Johnny corrected. “Lots of them in fact. My grandfather heard about the charges against me and decided to hide me on the island. Only thing, he didn’t ask me first if I wanted to be kept hidden.” Johnny smiled a crooked smile at his brother.

Murdoch’s face was growing red as he realized the depth of his wife’s duplicity, “Are you telling me, your grandfather kidnapped you, staged your death, and caused us to worry about you for the last month?” His anger showing through.

“Take it easy Murdoch. Give him a chance to tell us.”

Johnny flashed a grateful smile at his brother and silently thanked him for his support. “All I know is I woke up in a strange place and soon started meeting my mother’s family. Seems she ran away from there a long time ago.” Johnny shook his head as he thought of his grandfather.

“I’ll tell you one thing Murdoch, When it comes to callin’ the tune, you’re a beginner. That old man has tune callin’ down to a fine art. He controls everyone on that island. No one ever leaves, or even breathes without his permission. He told me he was keepin’ me there for my own good. He was working to get the charges dropped, but as soon as I could get away, I came back.”

“Let me get this straight.” Scott started ticking off points on his long slender fingers. “You were kidnapped by your grandfather’s men?” At Johnny’s nod, he held up two fingers, “He kept you prisoner in his home on an island?” Once again, Johnny’s nod followed by three fingers, “He’s trying to get the charges dropped against you?”

“Yes, that’s what he says.”

Scott held up four fingers, “You escaped?”

“Si.”

“How?”

With that Johnny grinned and drew up his left leg and rested his boot on his right knee. He picked at one of the conchos on his pants, “We stowed aboard a smuggler’s ship and got away.”

“We?” Murdoch and Scott said in unison.

“Me and my little brother.”

“Your what?!” Murdoch asked in surprise as his voice rose.

“I told you there was a lot to tell Murdoch.  See my mother had another kid I didn’t know about. She was pregnant when she left here. She took me back to her father’s house and had the baby there.” He chanced a glance at Murdoch and inwardly sighed as he recognized the hooded eyes and frozen, unreadable expression on the man’s face.

Pushing on, he unbuttoned the concho and rebuttoned it, “Angelo’s 18. He….well I think he’s your son Murdoch. My grandfather raised him when my mama took off with me just after he was born. I know the timing’s awkward, but he’s almost 19…..He’s your son, I just know it.”

Murdoch looked at him with such malevolence on his face, Johnny recoiled for a moment, “No! That is impossible! There is no way she stole two children from me! There was no sign she was pregnant when she left….”

Murdoch’s anger took both of them aback, and they watched as their father stomped over to the side board and sloshed whisky into a glass.

Scott was now standing, looking from his angry father to the surprised hurt eyes of his brother. “Murdoch…..think….”

He was cut off by Murdoch’s angry roar, “That boy is not my son! He’s the spawn of that bastard. He’s no son of mine!”

 

Part 25

Johnny stared in shock at his father’s outburst, his eyes followed the angry man as he paced past the couch and once around the room before ending up at his desk staring out the window.

Johnny risked a glance at Scott and saw the same shock on his brother’s face that he was experiencing. Johnny started to say something only to be stopped by Scott’s firm shake of his head.

“Sir. Please calm down and let’s talk about this rationally.” Scott’s voice seemed to relax Murdoch enough so he turned back to them. “I know this is a shock…..all of it and I can’t even imagine how difficult it is for you to know that your wife deceived you to this extent.” Scott watched as Murdoch sank into the leather chair behind his desk and rubbed his face with his hands.

Finally, Murdoch looked up with such sadness in his hooded eyes that both his sons forgave him his momentary loss of control. “I’m sorry Johnny. That was uncalled for. I…I was frankly unprepared for this news. Where is the boy?”

“He’s waiting for me in Morro Coyo.  I left him with the Morales’. I figured I’d need to get the lay of the land before I brought him here….” Johnny stopped awkwardly as he had never considered that his father might have objections to Angelo coming to Lancer.

“I….I was hoping he could live here with us…..even if he isn’t your son.”

Murdoch’s lips pursed and his hands clenched, but he caught Scott’s frown so he took a deep breath and answered in a measured tone, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Son. Why can’t he go back to his grandfather where he belongs.”

Now it was Johnny’s turn to clench his fists and start pacing, “He’s a prisoner there! He has no choice on anything. You know what’s waiting for him if he goes back?” Johnny paused a moment and rubbed his sweaty hands on his pants.  “A whipping, and in two months an arranged marriage with a girl he doesn’t love. That’s what’s waiting for him if he goes back.”

Now it was Scott’s turn to look outraged, “What kind of man would impose his will on his grandson like that? The boy’s underage but still....What about the law?”

Johnny sat down on the arm of the couch and crossed his arms, “There is no law there Scott. The only law is my Grandfather’s will. He controls everything.  I told you that.”

“Are you telling us that there is no one your Grandfather answers to? No government? Nothing?” Scott’s voice was skeptical.

Johnny chewed his lower lip a moment before answering, “About the only one he ever listens to his Tia Mercedes. She came from Spain with him and my grandmother a long time ago. They have their old ways and they’re not about to give them up.”

Johnny stood and walked over to Murdoch and sat in the chair by the desk. “Murdoch, I know it’s hard for you to talk about my mother…..it’s hard for me too, but there are things you need to know…..even if they’re hard to hear.” Johnny’s nervousness betrayed him as he licked his lips and couldn’t hold his father’s gaze.

Murdoch cleared his throat and settled back in his chair as he caught Scott’s eye. “Tell us about it, son.” He urged gently. Murdoch gripped the arms of his chair as he waited to hear what his son was about to tell him.

Johnny was silently cursing himself for bringing it up, even though he knew he had to. Where to begin, he wondered as he gathered his thoughts. “Well, you see my mama grew up on this island. It’s really beautiful there. Her father is wealthy I guess, or he seems to be anyway. He has a big house…..as big as this one, maybe bigger. Lot’s of land. The whole extended family lives there. They follow the old ways. Very traditional in fact.”

There was complete silence as Johnny guided his brother and father into a world so unlike their own. “Sounds like paradise, huh? Only problem is no one can leave. Most of the people there have never been off the island, and have no desire to leave.  My mama was different though. She convinced her father to send her to school in Mexico and as soon as she could, she ran away……and then she met you.”

“I knew she was never settled here, but I could never understand why.” Murdoch murmured more to himself than to his sons.

“I think she needed to be free, more than anything else. Being forced to stay in one place was terrifying to her. Until I met my grandfather, I never could understand that about her, but now I’m starting to realize why she did some of the things she did.”

 

“After she left here, where did she go?” Murdoch’s voice was labored.

“I don’t know for sure. My grandfather said the man she left with was killed shortly after they left here, and she brought us back to the island. She had Angelo a few weeks after we arrived.” Johnny stopped and took a deep breath as he tried to gather his thoughts for what was probably the hardest part of this whole mess.

“I told you the old man is powerful and used to gettin’ what he wants.” He said it as a question and waited until Scott nodded. “He decided to arrange a marriage for my mother with the son of one of the other landowners on the island….”

Johnny was interrupted by Murdoch’s startled, “What?! That’s impossible! She was married to me!”

Johnny couldn’t meet his father’s eyes. His own were planted firmly in his lap and his fingers nervously fiddled with a concho on the outside leg of his pants. “She was married to you, but he had your marriage annulled.” There is was out, Johnny thought as he braced himself for the explosion.

When nothing was said, he risked a glance at Murdoch who sat there looking dumbfounded. Finally catching his breath, “But we were married in the Catholic church in Matamoras. How could he have our marriage annulled?”

“He’s a powerful man, Murdoch.”

“Maybe he’s lying?” Scott asked softly.

Johnny shook his head, “I don’t think so Scott. He’s very traditional. If he wanted to have my mother marry the son of one of his friend’s, he wouldn’t go against the church. I believe him when he says he got Murdoch’s marriage annulled.”

“So, now what? She married this man?” Scott was still trying to collect all the pieces to this puzzle.

“No….she refused. Tia Mercedes told me my mother was furious with her father for interfering in her life and she found a way off the island, and took me with her.”

“So she just….. abandoned her baby?” Murdoch’s voice was harsh.

“I don’t think it was like that Murdoch.  I mean, I know my mama done wrong, but I think she left Angelo ‘cause he was so little and she couldn’t take care of both of us.”

“If she wanted her freedom so much, why didn’t she leave you there too?” Scott was despising Johnny’s mother even more than he had before.

“I don’t know Scott. She had her reasons I guess.” Johnny answered.

Murdoch was finally gathering his thoughts together, “If my marriage was annulled….” He spoke slowly, “Then that means…..” He frowned as he realized the extent of the ramifications caused by one until now, unknown, faceless man.

Before Murdoch could say anything more, Johnny filled in the blanks, “He adopted me. Gave me his name.  If my mother had married as he wanted, her new husband would have adopted me and Angelo, but since my mother ran away, my grandfather adopted both of us.”

“That has got to be one of the most insane ideas I’ve ever heard!” Scott was now almost shouting.  “What kind of a man does something like this? He makes my grandfather seem like a choir boy when it comes to getting his own way.”

Johnny half smiled at Scott’s ability to express himself and defuse the situation at the same time. “I can’t see Harlan Garrett singin’ with the choir, but I noticed those two old goats had something in common.”

Scott flashed a smile at his brother before turning back to Murdoch. “So what are we going to do?”

Murdoch stood up to his full height and straightened his shoulders, while he stretched out his back. “We’ll get through this. My lawyer can straighten out everything in good time. None of this changes the fact that you’re my son Johnny….you’re a Lancer.” Murdoch stated firmly before sitting back down.

Johnny smiled at his father’s assertion and felt comforted by his words. While he’d never had any doubts, still it was good to hear the old man say it.

“Now that that’s settled, let’s get back to Angelo. Does your grandfather know who his father is?” Scott asked the question that just kept coming back to him.

Johnny shook his head, “He doesn’t know. He told Angelo that his father could be Murdoch or…..him.” Johnny’s glanced at Murdoch’s bowed head.

Scott stood up and walked over to stand next to Murdoch, he placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “Sir, there’s no question that this boy isn’t your son? Is that what you’re telling us?”

Murdoch’s eyes raised to meet Scott’s and he shook his head. He sighed, “No….maybe….I don’t ….”

“Well then don’t you think you owe it to yourself and to the boy to at least meet him?”

For a moment, Scott was afraid Murdoch was going to lose his temper again as he watched the veins in his temple throb. A quick glance at Johnny told him that his brother was thinking the same thing.

Scott gave Murdoch’s shoulder a final squeeze and sat in the chair next to his brother. “Well Sir, what are you going to do?”

Murdoch turned the paperweight on his desk around and around for a moment before tapping it with a large index finger. “It’s too late now, but first thing tomorrow, we’ll bring the boy back to Lancer. After that who knows? We’ll just take it one step at a time.”

“Will he be all right there alone for the night, Johnny?” Scott asked.

“Yeah, he’ll be fine. I told him I probably wouldn’t be back until mornin’, and I told him to stay at the Morales’.”

“I think it would be best sir, if Johnny stays here tomorrow and I go in and get him.” Scott suggested.

“Now wait a minute!  He doesn’t even know you. I need to go in and get him.”

Scott was just getting ready to respond when Murdoch broke in, “Neither of you will go. I’ll go in and get him. Johnny you need to stay out of sight until we get this warrant taken care of and Scott, the Army scouts have been following you everywhere. I think you need to keep to your normal routine.”

“What about you, sir? They’ve been keeping a watch on you too.”

“I’m just taking the supply wagon into Morro Coyo. If they want to tag along they won’t see much except a man picking up supplies and having lunch at the Morales’ café.”

“And just what am I supposed to be doing while you’re pickin’ up supplies, and he’s out actin’ normal?” Johnny asked.

“You will stay out of sight and stay out of trouble while I go get your brother. Is that clear?” Murdoch emphasized the final words, sounding so parental that both sons smiled.

“Yes sir.” Johnny agreed. “I guess I’ll get a head start on stayin outta sight and catch me a good night’s sleep in my own bed…..and before you say it, I won’t shine a lamp.”

“Good night son.”

“Get a good night’s sleep, brother. It’s good to have you back.”

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

At dawn the next morning, Murdoch sat at the kitchen table savoring his first cup of coffee. The first one always set the tone for the day. It had to be just right. After that first one, the others could be too hot, or too cool, or too weak, but the first one had to be just right.

Above his head, he could hear the sounds that had been missing from his life for the last month. He could hear slamming doors and the sounds of his sons teasing each other as they did every day since accepting each other as brothers.

While he was uneasy at the idea of bringing Maria’s son to his home, and of having to open his heart to the knowledge that the boy was not his, he knew he had to make the effort. No matter what, Angelo was Johnny’s brother and they deserved to be together no matter what. Brothers belonged together. Scott and Johnny had taught him that.

Just as he finished his thought, his son’s clamored down the back stairs and to the kitchen.  Seating themselves they started digging in to the feast Maria prepared this morning.

Murdoch had just swallowed his third bite of scrambled eggs when they all turned at the sound of someone pounding on the front door.

“Who could that be?” Scott said, tossing his napkin on the table.

“Johnny, you stay out of sight….just in case.” Murdoch instructed as he followed Scott to the front room.

Johnny followed and didn’t miss Murdoch’s scowl as he noticed Johnny right behind him. Before he could say anything, Scott had the door open and Ramon Morales half fell into the hallway.

Upon seeing Johnny he stumbled forward, “Juanito, your hermano.  He was taken by the Federales!”

 

Part 26

Johnny spoke to Señor Morales in quick Spanish as he half carried him into the great room and got him settled into one of the blue chairs.

“Scott bring a glass of water for Ramon.” Murdoch instructed.

Johnny was kneeling on the floor talking to the distraught man. As Scott handed over the glass to the older man, Johnny gave his brother a nod of thanks.

“What happened to Angelo, Johnny?” Scott asked.

Johnny rocked back on his heels and pushed himself to a standing position. “Those Army boys musta thought he was me, and they came and arrested him.”

The older man looked up first at Johnny, then he turned to Murdoch. “Señor Murdoch, there was nothing I could do. I tried to tell them the boy was not who they were looking for, but they took him anyway.  They had rifles, and there were many men! Many men!” He held up both arms, spread wide.

“It’s alright Ramon. There was nothing you could do.”

“Señor Morales, you called Angelo, my brother. How did you know he was my brother? I didn’t tell your wife who he was.”

The older man had his breathing under control now and when he finished the last of his  water, Scott silently took the glass and poured him some more. “Gracias Señor.” Ramon took another sip of water and focused on Johnny. “The boy told us he was your brother last night after the fight in the cantina.”

“What fight?”

“Your hermano went to the cantina and got in a fight. He has a black eye! Mi esposa gave him a steak for it and she got him to tell her what happened. He mentioned he was your brother, Juanito.”

Johnny looked irritated at best, “All these years of doin’ as he’s told and he picks now to do what he wants. I told him to stay put and stay out of trouble…..”

“Takes after his older brother I suppose.” Scott murmured.

Johnny whirled on him, “Don’t start Scott! Just don’t start.” Johnny headed for the door, grabbing his gunbelt, when Murdoch’s words interrupted him.

“Johnny? Don’t you think we need to talk about this first?  You can’t just run right out there. What are you going to do?”

Johnny stopped in the middle of buckling his gunbelt, “I don’t know…..but wait till I catch that kid.”

“What if that’s exactly what the army wants you to do?” Scott’s voice was even in spite of the tension he was feeling, and the concern that his brother might be rushing into a trap.

“If the army wants me, they can have me. I can’t let Angelo take my place.” He pulled the door open and jumped back at the sight of Lancer’s large Segundo filling the doorway, looking equally shocked as the door opened in his face.

“Señor. The Army has pulled out. One regiment left at dawn, and a lone rider returned about an hour ago. They broke camp and pulled out.”  Cipriano reported what he thought would be good news to the Lancer’s only to see more dismay on their faces.

“Cirpiano, please saddle our horses. You’re in charge until we get back.” Murdoch instructed the trusted Segundo.

**********

Angelo was tired. He had spent a fitful night trying to find a comfortable position, but each time he thought he found some measure of comfort, another new bruise made itself known.

The steak Señora Morales gave him had helped keep the swelling around his eye to a minimum, but a quick look in the mirror as he delicately shaved his light beard off, told him he was going to have some explaining to do to Johnny.

“Dios!” he thought. What a way to meet Murdoch Lancer for the first time. And Scott! What would he think of Johnny bringing home a battered, bruised boy who got in a fight on his first night in town?

As he wandered into the Morales kitchen he marveled at the sights, sounds and smells as the whole family hustled to get breakfast served to their paying customers in the dining room.  Angelo had loved to sit in the kitchen back home and sometimes even help stir a big pot of chili. Just the thought of home, brought a feeling of sadness to him. As Señora Morales came toward him waving her big wooden spoon, he brushed those thoughts away and grinned lopsidedly at her as she fussed over his bruised appearance.

 

He was soon seated, enjoying strong café laced with chocolate. He closed his eyes and held the steaming cup to his lips and savored the smell, before taking a sip. His enjoyment was disturbed when there was a loud knock on the outside kitchen door. As Señora Morales was taking biscuits from the oven, he got up to answer the door. “¿Puedo ayudarle? (Can I help you?)” He asked the army officer.

“Johnny Lancer? You are under arrest, by order of the State of California.”

“No! Yo soy Angelo Estrada.” Angelo tried to pull back from the man’s strong grasp. When he made that move, two soldiers rushed forward and manhandled him out the door and soon had his hands cuffed behind him.

“I heard he was tough, Captain, but he’s just a wet behind the ears kid.”

Angelo fought for a moment to free himself before giving up, standing quietly as he struggled to understand the long forgotten words of his English tutor. He knew enough that they had mistaken him for Johnny, but he didn’t know how to make them understand, or if it would be a good thing for them to know.

“Señores!  What is the meaning of this!” Señor Morales cried as he stood outside his kitchen door with his wife looking very scared by the military presence.

“This man is under arrest. You can tell Mister Lancer that his boy is being held at Fort Meyers pending extradition to Mexico.”

“But Señor, this is not Johnny Lancer. This is his brother Angelo. This is not the one you are looking for. Please you must believe me!”

The captain looked uncertain, then made a decision, “You head on out to Lancer and tell them I’ve got the boy. If this boy isn’t Johnny Lancer, he’ll be cleared and released. Maybe Johnny will do the right thing and turn himself in to free the boy…..or maybe this is the one were looking for. All I know is I have my orders and I’m  taking this one in.  Mount up!”

***********

The men from Lancer pressed on heading in the direction of Fort Meyers. Murdoch had the foresight to ask Ramon to send a wire to Charles Mitchell, the lawyer who was working on Johnny’s case in Sacramento. He quickly scrawled a message and handed Ramon a handful of bills.

“Señor, that is too much.” Ramon handed him back most of the money, only keeping a dollar for himself. “I do not require payment to do such a service.”

Murdoch clapped the man on the back, “Gracias Ramon. Gracias”

Now they were fifteen miles away from the ranch heading north to Sacramento. They kept the horses to a quick pace meant to cover ground without exhausting them.

Scott was in the lead and held up a hand, “Let’s walk them for a while. They need to cool off.”

Murdoch and Johnny followed Scott’s lead and dismounted, loosening the cinch a bit before walking off leading their sweating mounts.

Johnny reached down and grabbed a couple handfuls of dried grass and began rubbing the sweat off Barranca’s neck as they walked.  He tossed the reins over the palomino’s head and secured them loosely to the saddle horn. As the horse walked down the trail, Johnny wiped off the lather where it streaked the gelding’s sides.

They walked for half a mile before reaching a water hole. The horses were now recovered enough to drink their fill. Johnny splashed water over Barranca’s chest and hind quarters to cool him down further, and before long Barranca was pawing in the water splashing himself and every one else around him.

Johnny chuckled as Barranca gathered his legs together and began to sink down toward the water. He quickly pulled his head up and turned the big horse out of the water. “No Barranca. I know a roll in the water would feel mighty good, but not today.” He quickly wiped the dripping water off Barranca’s chest and hind quarters before tightening his cinch and mounting.

“You spoil that horse brother.” Scott made the remark knowing it would keep his brother occupied for the next few minutes while he defended his relationship with his trusted horse.

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

It was late in the day when the Lancers reached the outskirts of Sacramento. Murdoch had made it very clear that he was calling the tune and he expected his sons to comply. He led the way to a hotel on J street. The Golden Nugget had once been a first class establishment in Sacramento during the gold rush. Now it was a little threadbare hotel on a quiet street, which suited Murdoch just fine.

As he made his way through the beveled glass doors, he looked around and saw that the hotel hadn’t changed much since his last visit.  He hadn’t stayed in this particular hotel in a number of years as he usually picked one closer to the stockyards whenever he came up on business.

For now, this out of the way place suited him just fine. The fact that the hotel clerk didn’t even glance up when Murdoch signed the ledger as Murdoch Jones and his son Scott Jones. He listed Johnny as John Smith. He smiled to himself as he pondered on the fact that this hotel probably saw more than their fair share of Smith’s and Jones’.

They were quickly settled in their rooms. Murdoch had one to himself, while Johnny and Scott shared one. By mutual agreement, they decided to walk a couple blocks to a new restaurant by the river. Murdoch hoped he wouldn’t be recognized, at least his first night in town.

******

After a pleasant dinner by the river, they walked back to the hotel. Johnny and Scott had wanted to join a poker game at the saloon next door, but Murdoch firmly guided his sons back to the hotel, insisting that now was not the time to be hanging around a saloon.

“There’s never a bad time to be hanging around a saloon.” Johnny murmured as they followed behind Murdoch.

Scott snickered, “You’re right about that brother, but for now we better just keep out of sight. I don’t want to have to see your pretty face from behind bars.”

Johnny chuckled, “You think my face is pretty?” He slapped Scott on the arm and trotted to catch up with Murdoch.

Once he was walking side by side with his father, he got Murdoch’s attention, “I sure hope that lawyer’s gonna meet with us tomorrow and find a way to get Angelo out of this mess.”

“Me too son.”

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

The next morning, Johnny paced the hotel room until Scott was ready to throttle him. “Relax Johnny. Murdoch won’t be back for a while and you’re going to wear a hole in the floor if you keep this up.”

Johnny blew out a breath of air in frustration, “I know Scott, its just that waiting is so hard. I sure hope Murdoch and that lawyer can get him free. If they can’t, I’m gonna go turn myself in.”

Scott stood in Johnny’s path, looking for all the world like Lieutenant Lancer, bigger than life, “You will do no such thing!” he said firmly. “You will do as Murdoch tells you to and stay out of it for now.”

“Scott, I can’t let Angelo suffer for something I did. Don’t you understand? I’m responsible for him. He wouldn’t be in this mess if I had left him on the island.”

“Johnny, you said yourself that he didn’t have much of a life there. No future, no choices. Angelo chose to come with you, didn’t he? You didn’t force him?”

Johnny scuffed his boot against the leg of a chair and thought about Scott’s logic, “Yeah, he made his own decision…..still I didn’t try to discourage him or warn him of any of the problems that might come up.”

Scott took Johnny by the arm and guided him over to the table by the window. “Come on, let’s play cards. It will pass the time.”

They were soon absorbed in their poker hands with a pile of matches at stake in the middle of the table.

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

Murdoch slowly climbed the stairs to reach his son’s room. He wasn’t happy with the way his meeting had gone with the commandant. Even his lawyer had almost lost his temper when they had been turned away from seeing Angelo.

The commandant had made it clear that no one was allowed to see the boy until a hearing had been set, so Charles Mitchell had left immediately to file a petition with the clerk’s office to schedule an emergency hearing.

Murdoch, knocked twice on the door and opened it, all too aware that faster than the eye could see, Johnny was returning his gun to his holster.

“Well?” Scott asked unnecessarily.

“They wouldn’t let me see him. They said we needed a court order……”

Before Murdoch could finish, Johnny was up and pacing, “A court order! Just to see him, you need a court order?”

“Charles has gone to file a motion to hold a hearing immediately so we can establish his identity. The only problem is it’s their word against his.”

“Murdoch! He’s just a kid and he hasn’t done anything wrong! It’s me they want!”

Murdoch had left the door ajar and without warning, they all turned at the sound of a man’s voice, “No, it is me they want.”

 

Part 27

Murdoch and Scott looked at the stranger with curiosity, but Johnny’s expression was a mixture of suspicion and anger.

Don Antonio Estrada stepped into the room and surveyed the three men. His blue eyes met his grandson’s and then moved on to the tall rancher.

Johnny stepped forward, his voice was low, but his anger was bubbling right under the surface. “Old man, you better explain yourself right quick.”

“If I may?” Antonio took off his gray hat and placed it on an end table, before turning to Murdoch. “Senor Lancer?” His attention was only on Murdoch.

Murdoch nodded, and waited for this stranger to continue, but he was sure he knew what was coming.

“I am Antonio Estrada; I am the father of Maria, and I am John’s grandfather.” Antonio couldn’t miss the reaction Murdoch had at meeting him. The sudden flush of red moving up from his neck, should have been a clue, but it was the sudden pain as Murdoch’s fist connected with Antonio’s jaw that knocked him backwards until he hit the wall and slowly slid down to the floor.

Antonio caught himself as he thumped into the wall and his world reeled as he tried to hold onto consciousness. He heard voices in the distance as a black veil surrounded his senses.

“Murdoch!” Scott was shocked to witness Murdoch’s reaction to his former father-in-law.

Murdoch held his right wrist and flexed his fingers as he worked the sting out of his knuckles and stared at the man crumpled on the polished oak floor.

Scott crouched down next to the older man. He glanced at his silent father then at his brother who stood akimbo with what could only be a smug look on his face. Scott shook his head in exasperation at his family, and returned to minister to the older man. “Johnny get some water.”

A few seconds later, Scott jumped back as cold water cascaded over Antonio and splashed on his shirt. “Johnny!”

Johnny stood there with an empty pitcher, looking for all the world like an innocent choir boy. “What? You said to get some water.”

By now Antonio was beginning to come around, and Scott helped him sit up. He glanced once again at his grinning brother, “A glass…..a glass of water is what I meant.”

“Oh, why didn’t you say so?” Johnny handed Scott a glass of water with a shake of his head.

After Antonio took a couple of sips of water and handed the glass back with a shaky hand, Scott asked, “Sir, can you stand?”

“Si. Yes I believe I can.” Antonio responded as he allowed Scott to help him to his feet where he stood swaying for a moment. “If I may?” He staggered over to a chair and sank into it.

He took a couple of deep breaths before focusing on Johnny. “Hijo. The water was not necessary.” He then turned to Murdoch. “Senor Lancer, If I could only know that punch diffused your anger with me, I would gladly accept it….” He rubbed his sore jaw, “But, I fear it is not over.”

Murdoch came closer and towered over the man, “Over? Oh no, it’s not over by a long shot. It will never be over!” Murdoch was building up a head of steam, “You’ve manipulated my son, interfered in his life and ours. Then there’s the matter of the annulment of my marriage and your adoption of my son! What were you thinking? How did you ever imagine you were doing the right thing?” Murdoch’s voice was growing louder and he was pacing the small sitting room.

“Murdoch calm down.” Scott urged.

“No! I will not calm down! This man has interfered in our lives for the last time.” Murdoch rounded on the man and stood clenching his fists as he locked eyes with the man. His felt a cold wave of shock as he looked into eyes the color of his younger son and he felt some of the white heat of anger leave him as he realized that no matter how much he disliked this man, he was Johnny’s family.  He shook his head as he mastered his anger and turned away from the man.

Murdoch pulled out a chair and sat down. He poured himself a drink of water and drank half the glass. Setting the glass down with a thump, “I want an explanation of what’s going on.”

“Good luck gettin’ a straight answer.” Johnny mumbled as he crossed his arms and leaned against the wall.

Antonio frowned at Johnny, and took another sip of his water. “I have much to tell. Several months ago, I received word that Johnny was wanted by the Mexican Government for murder and there was an extradition warrant filed with the United States Government.  I had been given information that Johnny had returned to your rancho and was trying to make a new life for himself. To turn away from the life of a pistolero.”

Antonio took out a handkerchief and wiped the remaining water off his forehead, he shook his head, “I decided to do what I could to have the charges dropped in Mexico. I had hoped to have everything taken care of in a short time, but in spite of my many highly placed connections in Mexico, I was not successful. I got word that the extradition warrant had been successful and I made plans to protect Johnny.” He held up a hand at Johnny as his grandson, pushed off the wall. “I know, you did not need or want my protection.”

“That’s right old man. I can take care of myself….besides you said they wanted you.”

“That is correct, but I did not know that until today.” A slow smile crept across Antonio’s face. His tone was ironic, “It was a masterful trap, and I fell for it. They wanted me and used my grandson to draw me into the open.”

“Who? Who wanted you?” Scott asked.

“The United States Government.”

“What?” Johnny asked as he walked closer to his grandfather. “Why would they want you?”

Antonio’s smile was wry, “Ah Johnny, I have been a thorn in the side of the government of the United States for many years. Ever since California was taken from Mexico. I have never acknowledged allegiance to a foreign country. I have maintained the independence of my people.”

“Are you saying that you have declared independence from the United States?” Scott asked in surprise.

“In so many words, yes.  My island is off the coast of California. I was awarded a land grant by the Spanish government and while I acknowledged allegiance to Mexico, I have never given my loyalty to the new government.  They have been harassing me for twenty years, but it appears they have won. It galls me that I have been out maneuvered, but I will trade my freedom for my grandson’s.”

“How do you know for sure they will arrest you sir?” Scott was intrigued by the man’s story and wanted to make sure he had all the facts.

“They have many charges; some real and some fabricated. I believe I will be charged with treason as well as smuggling.”

“Smuggling?” Johnny asked. “Them ships are yours?” Johnny’s couldn’t hide his amusement as his eyes danced.

“Yes. I have a small fleet of ships, most operating legitimately, but there was one that smuggled goods between the United States and Mexico. I recently heard it sunk. Do you happen to know anything about that Johnny?”

Johnny grinned, “Now that’s just too funny; I blew up your ship!” he chuckled at the look on his grandfather’s face. “I blew up your ship.” Johnny shook his head in amusement.

Antonio glared at Johnny, “That is not amusing Johnny. Do you know how much you cost me?”

“I don’t really care what I cost you. Did you know those smugglers were plotting against you? Angelo and me overheard them talking about coming back and attacking the island. We did you a favor, old man. If I hadn’t done it, you’d be back there tryin’ to defend yourself with a bunch of sheep, and an old rusted out cannon.”

Antonio struggled to his feet and stood toe to toe with his grandson. “What are you saying? Is the island in danger?”

“Maybe. I don’t know for sure. If they are still determined, those men could probably find  some help, but I figure nothin’ will happen for a week or so.”

Antonio turned abruptly and headed toward the door. “I must go.”

Murdoch moved to block the door. His large form effectively blocking the way. “You’re not going anywhere, except to the commandant at the fort.” He pointed his gun at Antonio’s stomach and gestured for the man to move out the door.

Antonio tried to reason with the man, “Senor, my family needs to be warned. Please do not do this.”

“What about your grandson? Doesn’t he need your help too?”

“The army is only holding him hostage to lure me into their trap. They will let him go once they realize their trap failed. I must protect my family.”

“No! Abuelo, for once in your life, you’re gonna do what’s right. You’re gonna stand up for what you’ve done and make things right.” Johnny’s own gun appeared in his hand like magic, “So are you gonna do this the hard way or the easy way?”

Antonio looked at the guns trained on him, and nodded his agreement. He reached for his hat, and bowed slightly, “I will bend to your will, but Johnny, if anything happens to the people on the island because of this, may God have mercy on your soul.”

 

Part 28

Angelo lay on his bunk and focused on a ray on sunlight creeping under a slat in the roof. His mind drifted as he once again started to count the bricks in the wall at the foot of his bed, ‘Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco….’ His eyes grew heavy as his restless mind finally gave in to exhaustion. He started to roll over on his side when he was startled full awake by the sound of a door being unlocked.

His heart raced as he sat up and stared at the connecting door to the office of the guard quarters. He stood as the door creaked open and he heard the footsteps of men entering the cell block.

He moved forward and clasped the bars of the cell and strained to see or hear who was coming.  He hoped it would be someone coming to release him, but he didn’t want to get his hopes up.  Since his arrival the day before, he’d been well treated. Fed and pretty much left alone.  He struggled to understand when they did speak to them, but he was too uncertain of himself to ask the guard to speak more slowly or repeat what he’d said. All in all he must have done as they’d asked as most of their gestures were pretty plain.

As the blue uniform of his guard came into view, Angelo took a couple steps back as he already knew it was expected. What he saw next brought relief flooding through him, “Abuelo!” He called with a smile, but couldn’t understand how his grandfather found him here. What would he say about this predicament?  He’d known from the moment he made the decision to leave with Johnny that he would someday, sometime have to face up to his grandfather; he just never dreamed it would be under these circumstances!

Antonio’s head came up and he smiled a crooked smile at his grandson, “Buenos dias Angelito.”

It was then for the first time that Angelo realized that his grandfather was in handcuffs and leg irons as he was ushered into the cell block. He was speechless as his grandfather was escorted into the cell next door and locked in.

“What is going on? Why have they arrested you?” Angelo asked as he watched his grandfather rub the circulation back into his wrists.

Antonio sat heavily on the cot and surveyed his surroundings, “Sit down hijo.  I must speak to you.” Antonio waited until Angelo was seated.

“For many years I have been the master of Santa Margarita.” He stopped and Angelo acknowledged his statement with a nod. “Many years ago the island was given to me by a  Spanish Land grant; but of course you already know that.”

“Si, Abuelo. I have heard many times how you and Abuela came to the island.  It was almost all jungle and rock and you had to bend the land to your will.”

“My accusers say I bent the people and the law.” Antonio responded softly.

“That is not true! They have no idea what they are talking about.” Angelo claimed, sounding indignant on his grandfather’s behalf.

“There are many truths and half truths nino.  The truth is that I have been exporting goods and refusing to pay duty and taxes to the government of the United States, as well as refusing any attempt on their part to claim governorship of Santa Margarita.”

 

“But I don’t understand. Why are they interested in our island?”

“Angelo, mi hijo. I have done you a great disservice in many ways, but in your education I have failed you the most.  Our island is rightfully part of California, but when Mexico ceded the lands of California to the United States, I fought and kept our independence for over 20 years.  It was a futile fight, but I feared their meddling.  My men attacked and sunk a naval vessel about a year ago when one was spotted outside our bay.”

Angelo felt a cold chill, “Were they….did they die? The men on the ship?”

“I was told no; that all of the men were taken aboard and released on the mainland, but that might be one of the half truths I was speaking of. I knew the time was coming, but I have been trying to negotiate a settlement with the United States Government.”

“What do they want from you?”

“They want me to leave, to return to Spain.”

“No Abuelo. You can not do that! Santa Margarita is your home…and…and… I just don’t know what I would do without you.” Angelo’s voice wavered as emotion flooded his words.

“Angelo.” Antonio’s voice was soothing and gentle as he reached an arm through the bars to comfort the young man. As he stroked his grandson’s silky black hair, possibly for the last time. “Angelo. Listen to me. You are almost a full grown man. It is your turn to take the reins of Santa Margarita. It is your birthright.”

“But grandfather, I do not know if I can handle the responsibility without you.”

“You can handle it. I have faith in you. Besides, you will not have to do it alone.  Yesterday, when  I realized what was at stake and the United States Government had created an elaborate trap to catch me, I found a lawyer and transferred most of my holdings to you and your brother. I still have my interests in Spain and some mining interests in Mexico, but Santa Margarita now belongs to you and your brother.” Antonio held up his hand to stop whatever protest Angelo was going to say. “Por favor nino. We do not have much time.  There is much you need to know and we could be separated at any moment.”

Angelo bent closer to the bars and listened intently as his grandfather told him of their wealth. Who could be trusted and who could be manipulated. The boy learned more in those few hours they were together than in his entire life about the workings of his birthright.

*******

Johnny waited impatiently with his brother and father in the commandant’s waiting room at Fort Meyers.  It had been a long tedious day with visits to the lawyer’s office, then the courthouse. Finally they were in this elegant room waiting for his brother to be released.

“Relax Johnny. It won’t be much longer.” Murdoch smiled as Johnny showed his anxiety by looking out the window.

“I sure wish they’d hurry. It’s been an hour.”

“More like twenty minutes, son.  They should be here soon.” Murdoch himself felt like pacing around the small room, but figured two Lancer’s nervously pacing would be more than the secretary could stand.

Scott was the only one who looked semi relaxed but anyone who knew him well knew otherwise. His shoulders were ramrod straight, and he sat at attention if that was possible in one of the straight back chairs.  His hands lay in his lap, but his clenching fingers gave away his nervousness.

They all looked up as a Sergeant stepped through the inner connecting door, “Gentlemen, if you would follow me, the Commandant is ready to see you.”

All three men crowded through the door and down the narrow hallway in their eagerness to reach Angelo.

Johnny was through the door first and stopped dead in his tracks when he took in the large office. Scott and Murdoch had to squeeze past him as the Sergeant closed the door behind them.

The Commandant quickly made introductions around the room, ending with his final introduction to Federal Marshall Rogers and his attaché.  “I’ll let Marshall Rogers explain the situation.”

“Where’s my brother. That’s all I came for is to get him outta here.” Johnny’s voice was low but had a menacing ring to it.

“Johnny.” Murdoch cautioned and he put a restraining hand on Johnny’s arm urging him to settle down.

“I just want to know where he is, that’s all Murdoch.”

“Your brother is well, and he will be here shortly. The guards are bringing him over now.” The Commandant assured them.

“While we wait, let me explain.” Marshall Rogers was a tall, slender man in his late forties. He had a dusting of gray in his brown hair and a salt and pepper mustache that drooped over his upper lip when he spoke.

“When we found out that Antonio Estrada was Johnny Madrid’s grandfather, we worked with the Mexican government to devise a plan to draw him out in the open. We had information that he had spent many years in a search for his daughter and grandson, so we hoped he would show himself if there was a threat to the boy.” He stopped to see how his words were being received by this family.

He saw anger on the faces of the father and oldest brother, but on the subject himself, he seemed somewhat skeptical. The Marshall wasn’t sure which part of the story Johnny was questioning, but he continued.

“We had clearance at the highest levels I assure you. Once the war was over, we began to ferret out resisters such as Antonio Estrada who were leading rebellions against the country. The sinking of a naval ship was the final straw and we began hunting him down in earnest.”

“Estrada sunk a ship?” Scott questioned and at the Commandant’s nod, he added, “Must run in the family.”

Johnny smiled for the first time since entering the office and relaxed just a bit. “So you used me to get to him?”

“Yes. He out maneuvered us by taking you to the island.  If you had stayed there, he might have gotten away with it. By bringing your brother with you, we knew it was only a matter of time before the old fox made an appearance.”

“I just want to be very clear on this. There are no charges anywhere against my brother?” Scott asked the question, Murdoch wanted clarified.

“We know of no charges against Johnny Lancer….or Johnny Madrid. You are free to go, but as you have been made aware, you must make some decisions to bring your grandfather’s holdings in compliance with the law. Any of his activities that are not lawful must be reported to the army and you Mister Lancer, are responsible for making sure that this takes place.”  This last was addressed to Murdoch.

“As the boy’s legal guardian, you will be responsible for the estate until he turns 21.”

“I am aware of my responsibilities Marshall.” Murdoch almost growled growing impatient at being civil to the man behind the hoax that threatened his family.

“I’ll take my leave then.” The Marshall tipped his hat and left the Lancer’s waiting for Angelo to be released to them.

Murdoch especially was feeling the strain as he waited to meet the boy he’d just pledged to raise to full adulthood.

The door finally opened and Angelo walked through.

“Brother you are a sight for sore eyes.” Johnny declared as he walked over and gave Angelo a big hug. He then turned the boy around so Murdoch and Scott could get their first good look at him.

“Murdoch, Scott, I would like to introduce you to my brother, Angelo.”

 

Part 29

Murdoch stared at the boy who in all rights should have been his….and could be his if not for his wife’s betrayal.  He took in the boy’s handsome features and realized, he was likely getting a glimpse into how Johnny looked at this same age.

The boy had the same build as his brother, but was slimmer, less muscled by long hours of ranch work. His dark hair was as unruly as Johnny’s and he had the same high cheekbones and those sparkling ocean blue eyes were framed by Maria’s thick, long eyelashes.

Murdoch had to swallow a lump in his throat before he could bring himself to speak or even move.  It was when Johnny gave Angelo a little shove toward him and the boy held his hand out to him, that he finally took hold of his senses.

“Buenos dias Senor.  I am very pleased to meet you….though not necessarily under these circumstances.” Angelo’s smile was tentative as he took hold of Murdoch’s hand.

Murdoch started to respond in English when he remembered the boy was more comfortable speaking Spanish, so he answered him in Spanish. “I’m sure we will get to know each other much better when we get back to Lancer.” Murdoch could feel Scott’s presence at his elbow, so he quickly made the introduction, “This is my oldest son, Scott Lancer.”

“Angelo Estrada.” Angelo responded formally taking Scott’s offered hand.

Scott smiled as he returned the strong grip and couldn’t help but notice Johnny’s grin at the stunned reactions Angelo was receiving from his father and brother. As Angelo started to pull away from Scott’s handshake, Scott told him, “I want you to remember that I’m the oldest brother boy, and if Johnny leads you astray, it’s my job to take care of you.” Scott threw a smug look at Johnny.

Angelo gave Johnny a questioning look, and before he could say anything, Johnny quickly translated in Spanish. Angelo stepped back and crossed his arms, “That is not what he said, hermano.” Angelo shot at Johnny in accented English which brought a chuckle from Murdoch and Scott, he then continued in Spanish, “I understand more than I speak, brother.”

Johnny laughed and threw his arm over Angelo’s shoulders. “Come on then, let’s get outta here.”

“One moment please. We are not done.” The Commandant broke in.

“What more do you need, Sir?” Scott asked.

“We need Angelo to pinpoint the exact location on a map of where the island is located. Senor Estrada has given us the location as part of his agreement with us, but we want to make sure he was telling the truth.”

“I don’t understand. You mean to say you don’t know where the island is?” Murdoch looked surprised.

“Actually we never could find the exact location.  It is tucked among a number of islands off the coast, and we’ve never been able to locate it.  That’s why the man eluded us for so long. We lost a ship in the vicinity to pirates. We believe Antonio was responsible, but as there was no loss of life, and he’s turning over control to his grandson’s, we’re not pursing it.”

“No. I will not show you.” Angelo’s voice was quiet but firm.

All eyes turned to him. “Son, your grandfather already gave us the location, we just want you to verify it.” The Commandant was trying to be persuasive.

“Angelo, do as you’re asked and we can leave. The government only wants to locate the island so they can make sure it is secured.” Murdoch urged.

“No.” Angelo crossed his arms and no one in the room had any doubts that his No meant the same in either language.

“Do you want to spend another night in a cell?” The commandant was losing patience with the boy.

Johnny stepped forward and before anyone could do anything to stop him, “Unless, you’d like to be dead, you better stop threatenin’ my kid brother.” His voice was soft, but held a menace the officer recognized. He stepped back behind his desk and tried to compose himself while Murdoch censured Johnny.

“Johnny! That’s enough. He’s just doing his duty.”

“No he ain’t Murdoch. He’s tryin’ to bully Angelo into doin’ somethin’ he don’t want to do…..and I’m gonna stop him. He can’t hold him. We’re leavin’.”

Johnny grabbed his brother’s arm and pulled him out the door, with Scott right behind in a show of support.

Murdoch shrugged his shoulders and picked up his hat. “I’ll see if I can convince him before we head back.”

“Mister Lancer, you better be successful or the boy’s grandfather will be spending the rest of his life in a federal prison. Tell him that and see how fast he hightails it back here.”

“I said I’d handle it!” Murdoch said shortly as he hurried to catch up with his angry sons.

*********

Johnny walked through into the sunshine, relieved to be away from the oppressive presence of the walls of the fort.  He walked quickly, a little afraid he’d hear the sound of soldiers pounding behind him, but all he could hear was the heavy footsteps from his angry father as his long legged strides caught up to the boys.

“Stop right there.” Murdoch’s voice brought the three of them to a halt.

He towered over the three young men and his eyes locked with Angelo’s until, Angelo broke the gaze first. “Scott, you and Johnny return to the hotel and wait for us.  I need to speak to Angelo alone.”

Johnny began to protest, “No Murdoch….” Scott took hold of his brother’s arm and began leading him away.

“Come on Johnny!” Scott’s voice rang with authority.

He led a reluctant Johnny down the street until they were fifty yards away. “Trust Murdoch.” Scott advised and finally Johnny nodded and turned to head back to the hotel, but not before giving Murdoch a look that he was able to clearly understand concerning the welfare of his younger brother.

Once his son’s were out of sight he turned to the boy and motioned to a nearby bench in a shady park surrounded by roses.  “We need to talk.”

Once they were both seated on the smooth wood, Murdoch studied the boy next to him.  Angelo was sitting hunched over, head down concentrating on scraping a boot heel in the worn dirt in front of the old bench.

Murdoch saw the mannerisms of Johnny clearly in this boy and observing them gave him time to collect his thoughts. Speaking in Spanish so the boy would have no trouble understanding him, he laid it on the line, “Angelo. Your grandfather is being released to return to Spain on the condition that he gives over complete control of the island. I am your legal guardian so you have to trust me when I ask you to do something. I expect you to follow orders just the same as I expect your brother to do so. Like him, if you disobey, you will pay the consequences.”

At that, Angelo’s head snapped up and Murdoch felt a flash of satisfaction that at least the boy was listening.  “For now, you must cooperate so your grandfather will be released. Once he’s on his way, we can figure out what is going to happen to the island and sort out our personal issues. You and I will return to the fort now and you will cooperate. Is that clear?” Murdoch’s voice rang with parental authority that Angelo well recognized and Murdoch was more than a little relieved when the boy ducked his head and answered.

“Si Senor.”

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

“Johnny, stop pacing.  Murdoch will take care of him.” Scott advised as Johnny made another circuit of the small sitting room.

Johnny looked at Scott with exasperation, “I can’t help it Scott. I’m not like you. I can’t just sit around waiting. I gotta keep movin’”

“They’ll be back soon. Sit down, let’s play some cards.  Let’s see if I can win my matches back from you. I’m feeling lucky.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow as his brother’s obvious diversion, but instead of commenting, he pulled out a chair and began shuffling the cards, “That’ll be the day.”

Six hands of poker later, Scott was wondering if his idea was all that smart.  He scrawled another IOU to his brother and watched as Johnny carefully read it before folding it and stuffing it under his waistband with the others.  “You’re gonna owe me a whole big box of matches brother when we get back to the ranch. Too bad we’re not playin’ for money. I’d own your next month’s wages.”

“Don’t count on it little brother, when I play for money, then its serious business, and as you know, I win more pots than I lose.”

“In your dreams big brother.” Johnny’s good natured teasing of Scott was interrupted by Murdoch opening the door and ushering Angelo into the room.

Johnny jumped up, “What happened?”

“I showed them the location of Santa Margarita to their satisfaction and they will be releasing grandfather. Could I lie down?”

They were all surprised at Angelo’s cold matter of fact tone and Scott led him into one of the bedrooms, and quickly returned to the sitting room.

Murdoch poured them all a drink before settling in a chair and propping a leg up on the ottoman. “He’ll be all right. He’s had a rough few days, but he did the right thing. Estrada will be escorted to meet his wife and his Aunt and they will be turned over to the Mexican government. He is persona non grata in the United States, but Mexico can have him and good riddance.” Murdoch knocked back his drink in one swallow.

“What does that mean?” Johnny questioned.

“It means he can’t come back to US soil without risking arrest.” Scott answered for an obviously weary Murdoch.

“So we’re done with him? He’s finally out of our lives?” Johnny answered.

“Not quite.” Murdoch answered. “He’s left us an angry sullen boy, an island full of people, extensive business concerns to manage, not to mention a legal mess to untangle. So to answer your question Johnny, he may be gone but his presence will be with us for many years to come.”

“So what do we do next sir?” Scott asked as he realized the enormity of their task ahead.

Murdoch sighed, “For today, I’ll talk Charles Mitchell, then I want nothing more than a good meal and a good night’s sleep. We’ll deal with it starting tomorrow.”

 

Part 30

Murdoch left the hotel shortly after dropping Angelo off as he had legal matters to attend to.  Johnny had been torn between going with him, and staying so he would be there when Angelo woke up.

Johnny was once again feeling restless as he stared out the second floor window. Murdoch had been gone almost three hours and Angelo had been asleep the entire time.

“When do we meet Murdoch for supper?”

Scott looked up from his book and raised an eyebrow, “Six o’clock as you very well know.” His voice was dry.

“Maybe I should just check to see if he’s awake.” Before Scott could say another word, Johnny was across the room and opening the door with no pretense of being quiet. He stood in the doorway and waited.

“Well?” Scott said from the settee amused at his brother’s concern.

With a soft thump he shut the door and turned with a disgusted look on his face. “Still sleepin’”

“He must be worn out. Let him sleep as long as possible.”

“Won’t sleep tonight.” Johnny sat so hard on the end chair, that the chair groaned with his weight and slid back a little on the polished oak chair.

“He’ll be alright. Give him another half hour, then we should start getting ready for dinner.”

“Do you think Murdoch will get everything straightened out?”

“I’m sure he will, but it will probably take some time.”  Scott stopped and really looked at his brother. He saw the shadows under Johnny’s blue eyes and wished his brother would have joined Angelo for a rest this afternoon.

This whole ordeal was a strain on all of them, but the news that Murdoch’s marriage had been annulled, and Johnny had been legally adopted by his grandfather had set them all back. Murdoch was trying to move heaven and earth to untangle the mess Maria’s father caused them.

Johnny was once again fiddling with the deck of cards; not dealing them, but shuffling them over and over.

“Are you planning on shuffling the spots off those cards, or play?”  Scott asked trying to put a light tone in his voice.

Johnny stared at Scott for a moment, then his mouth twitched, “Play.” Then he started dealing the cards.

************* 

Johnny knocked quietly this time and was relieved to hear Angelo’s call to enter. He pushed open the door to see his younger brother sitting on the edge of the bed rubbing his face.

Angelo squinted at him, “What time is it?”

“Almost five.”

Angelo shook his head, “I must have been really tired. I haven’t taken a three hour siesta in years.”

“We’re meeting Murdoch for supper in an hour so you better get ready.” Johnny informed Angelo while trying to assess his brother’s mood.

At the mention of Murdoch, the boy frowned.

Johnny caught it right away and asked, “What is it?”

Angelo shook his head and pushed himself up off the soft mattress.  “Nada….at least not worth worrying over.” He walked to the dresser and grimaced at the sight of himself in the beveled mirror. Even in the cloudy image, he could see his hair was sticking up at all angles and it would take an act of God to get it under control. He ran his fingers through his hair and glanced at Johnny’s expression in the mirror.  This was the stubborn determined look his brother had shown him several times on their journey from the island. Angelo had learned that when Johnny had that look it was only at matter of time before one gave in and followed his lead. ‘Interesting how much he and Grandfather are alike in some ways.’ He smiled. ‘Not that Johnny would thank me for the comparison.’

He turned at Johnny’s question. “What?”

“What had you smiling.”

“Nothing you’d want to know hermano.”

Not to be put off, Johnny dug in. He settled on the bed and waited while Angelo tucked in his shirt tail and put on his boots.  He was reaching for his jacket when Johnny stopped him.

“What did Murdoch tell you?”

Angelo felt his heart beat quicken, and he couldn’t hold down the sudden flip of his stomach as he studied the toes of his boots and chewed his lower lip.

“He….ah he said he was not my father.”

Johnny shot to his feet and crossed the distance between them in seconds. He placed one hand on each of Angelo’s shoulders and gave him a gentle shake. “Are you sure? …..I mean what did he say?”

Angelo glanced at him quickly, “I am sure Johnny.”

Johnny shook his head, “I was so sure…..”

“I know, but it’s alright…..really.”

“What did Murdoch tell you?”

“Just that he wished I was his son by blood, but he and his wife had been having problems for several months before she left and he hadn’t……”

“Oh…..So there’s no way?......He….um is……”

Angelo shook his head, “No.” Angelo finally looked into Johnny’s eyes and read genuine sorrow. “Hey….Johnny….it’s alright; really. I can’t say I’m not disappointed but I always knew there was a chance he wasn’t my father.”

Johnny gave Angelo’s shoulders another squeeze before letting go, “It doesn’t matter, you’re my brother and that makes you family no matter what.” He paced away a few steps, and turned back to see a fleeting smile gracing Angelo’s lips as he shrugged into his jacket.

“What?” Johnny asked.

“That is exactly what your father said, just before he laid down the law and told me exactly how he planned to call the tune.”

*******

Six Months Later~~~~~~~~

Murdoch sat at his desk and marveled at the changes to his family in such a short time. Angelo had come into his home and his heart like a whirlwind. Once the boy had gotten over his shyness, he fit right in as if he’d always been part of the family.

Oh there had been the usual teenage hi-jinks which at the time made Murdoch wonder what possessed him to take on another very active young man, but overall Angelo had enriched all of their lives.

Johnny had matured as an older brother, and Murdoch watched with pride as Johnny led by example, and Angelo willingly followed.

Scott had taken to riding herd on both of them when necessary and at times Murdoch felt he had three rambunctious puppies storming through the house as they challenged and teased each other.

Even though he had spent more than one sleepless night waiting for Angelo to come home from a trip into town, and even once to bail him out of jail after a particularly drunken saloon brawl, he wouldn’t have traded the experience for all the Herefords in Great Britain.

He picked up the court document. Johnny was once again legally a Lancer. The name change went fairly quickly through the Sacramento courts, but as he’d been unsuccessful in restoring the validity of his marriage to Maria, he’d adopted Johnny. It didn’t set well with him, but his lawyer had found no other way to repair the damage done by Maria’s father.

They had all spent time on the island and Murdoch had been amazed by the loyalty of the people. The extended family had welcomed them as their saviors which made them most uncomfortable, but the love they demonstrated for Angelo made him determined to keep the holdings solvent.

Johnny had at first rebelled at the idea of being part of his grandfather’s holdings, but with a little time, and a lot of persuasion from Scott, he had agreed to take part in managing the holdings. Murdoch was proud when he thought of how both his sons were handling this new challenge.

Johnny had suggested that Ricardo take over the day to day operations of the Rancho and so far it had been an unqualified success.  Scott had taken over the financial side of the holdings and had just returned from the island where he had finished brokering a deal that would increase the size of the estate in years to come.

As he turned back to his paperwork wondering what the coming year would bring, he couldn’t help turn his thoughts to a conversation he’d had with Johnny. This whole experience had drawn them closer, but there were still issues between them. The one thing that had brought them closer together was their effort to help Angelo fit into the family. The boy had come to the conclusion that his mother left because she was pregnant with him and it had taken a huge effort on all of their parts to convince him he was not at fault, and that may not have been the reason she left.

Murdoch mulled that thought over and over, and knew that this whole experience caused him to delve into his past with Maria. In the cold light of day, he knew she’d been unhappy for months before she left and at the time, it never occurred to him that she’d leave. It never occurred to him that she would betray him with another man.  For years he’d hid from the truth; blaming everyone and everything for his loss.

‘Pride….Stubborn Lancer pride’ had blinded him from seeing his wife’s unhappiness and even realizing she could find another man attractive. While his first wife, Catherine, had been his partner in life, Maria had been almost a possession. Her beauty made him the envy of all the men who met her, and Murdoch had felt pride on more than one occasion when he had Maria on his arm.  Now knowing her family history, he was acutely aware that his young beautiful wife couldn’t tolerate what she could only see as captivity.

Murdoch was abruptly brought out of his dour thoughts by the sounds of his sons; half running down the stairs.  They each had a suitcase which they dumped just inside the room.

“He’s all packed and ready.” Johnny announced.

Murdoch stood and joined the three young men. It had all been talked out and decided, but he still felt a twinge of concern that Angelo was leaving. Last night he’d given the boy “The Lecture” about behaving himself in the big city. He broached the subject of women and being careful. He knew, even in the dimness of the great room, his face was flushed and he was grateful Scott and Johnny were not there to witness his embarrassment.

“Angelo, don’t forget what we talked about last night. You don’t want me coming to your college and tanning your hide if you misbehave.”

At that, Angelo ducked his head after giving him a small smirk that mirrored Johnny’s. “No sir. That won’t be necessary.”

Scott chuckled as he picked up the suitcase. “We better go if we’re going to catch the train at Cross Creek.”

Teresa came out of the kitchen with a small basket. “Here are some sandwiches for your trip.  Angelo you’ll write us and tell us everything that you’re doing. Right?”

Angelo smiled at the girl who had welcomed him so generously into her family and leaned over to give her a peck on the cheek. “Gracias Teresa. I will write as often as I can. Scott tells me they keep you pretty busy in college.”

Murdoch reached out to shake Angelo’s hand and pulled him into a hug. “You take care of yourself, son.”

Angelo could only nod as his eyes filled with tears at Murdoch’s show of affection. All too soon, the suitcases were loaded, and Scott was clicking to the team to get them moving.

Murdoch and Teresa watched the three young men drive out through the gates.

“I’m going to miss him.” Teresa said wistfully.

“I know honey. I will too. He’s not going away for ever, and we can visit him in San Francisco too. He needs to prepare himself to take over his estate in a few years.”

Teresa smiled at him, “It’s going to be awfully quiet around here until the boys come home.”

“I don’t know about you, but I intend to enjoy it while I can.” Murdoch linked his arm through Teresa’s and walked back into the house knowing that this was a new beginning for all of them.

 

~end~
May 2005

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