The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

JenniferB

 

 

The Man From Visalia
Part One
This story is the continuation of my previous story, Lancer: A New Era . It begins immediately after. The “first” chapter is, in fact, a repeat of the last chapter of New Era.
Again, huge Thank Yous to Ros Hutchison and Linda Borchers for providing the final piece of the puzzle of where Lancer Ranch was probably located. I have made a few changes, but my location is more-or-less the same as theirs.
This story takes place in Spring to Summer of 1873.
I do not own the characters, except for the ones I created. I make no money publishing this work.


Prologue: Beeves

Scott and Abby walked hand in hand, in step, smiling and grinning at each other. They felt almost giddy, childlike and yet felt an awesome responsibility. They had been in the garden, talking, most of the morning, and were anxious to spread their news.

They searched for Johnny. His room had been cleared out and his bed made. He wasn't in the kitchen, the garden or near the corral. They found him in the barn, saddling Barranca.

Johnny looked up at the smiling couple. “Well, don't you two look pleased as a pup with two tails.”

Abby grinned. She squeezed Scott's arm.

“Going somewhere?” Scott smiled. The barn was cool inside with the horsey smells which reminded Scott of his Cavalry days.

“Leaving, Scott.” Johnny adjusted the leg of his saddle. It was too long.

That brought a sharp reaction. Scott let go of Abby and strode to Johnny. “What do you mean?”

Johnny continued making his adjustments. “It's time to go. The job is completely over. Pardee is dead.”

“Yes, but...aren't you staying?” Abby came to Johnny, too. She petted Barranca's soft nose.

“Here?” Johnny shook his head. “No.”

Scott stood straight. “Don't tell me our father...”

Johnny interrupted, facing his brother. “He can't deal with it, Scott. With me. Who I am. What I am. Let it be. It's his problem.”

“Yes, but you're the one suffering.”

“Do I look like I'm suffering?” Johnny grinned.

“You know what I mean. You don't have to go out there, peddling your gun, risking your life. You can be here.”

“Risking my life..”

Scott laughed. “Yes,” he conceded, “But for a better cause.”

“Some cattle? A ranch?” Johnny doubted it.

“A good life. Respect. A future.”

“I have that.” Johnny tweaked his saddle adjustments once more.

Scott tried another tactic. “You'll be dead before you're thirty.”

“Well, brother, that comes to us all.”

Abby jumped in. “You have to stay! I'm going to have a baby.”

Johnny stopped fiddling with his saddle. He walked around the horse and smiled at Abby. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks. He—or she— is going to want to know his uncle,” she pointed at his chest.

“This isn't permanent,” Johnny told Abby. He glanced at Scott. “What you said this morning at breakfast made sense, Scott. We should find out who hired Pardee.”

“You mean you're going to keep looking?”

“Yes. I'd like to know who's behind all this myself.”

Scott nodded. At least his brother had a purpose. “If you need anything...”

“I'll let you know.”

“Keep me informed.”

“You bet.”

“You need money?”

“Nope. I'm good. Thanks.” Johnny gave Abby a hug. “Take care of that little one.” He shook Scott's hand. “And you take care of her. And yourself. Watch out for those beeves. They don't like people.”

“That's because we eat them,” Abby laughed.

Johnny laughed. “That we do.” He walked back around Barranca and mounted. He gathered the reins and leaned over. “I'll be back.”

Scott and Abby walked out the barn and watched Johnny ride off. He trotted out of the courtyard, down the path and under the arch. They stood arm in arm, waist to waist and each wondered if they would really see Johnny Madrid Lancer again.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Up in the bell tower, Murdoch Lancer glanced down across his dominion, Lancer Ranch. It was vast and beautiful and he had a grey hair for every blade of grass out there. But somehow it felt a little less so as he watched the magnificent golden horse take his rider away.

 

Part One: Spirit in the Night

Through the Looking Glass

Johnny Madrid loped his palomino Barranca in a direction away from the Lancer estancia, his hat securely on, his back to the sprawling hacienda and his father, who only now began to regret sending the young man away, watching from the bell tower. While his leaving wasn't permanent—he'd promised Scott he'd be back with news regarding the man who hired Pardee—he didn't have much hope of ever being a part of the family. Not that he'd ever had that feeling. Up until the age of ten or so, he'd not even known of Murdoch Lancer's existence; he'd thought his mother's partner, Luis Madrid, was his father, that they were married, and he had a safe home.

It had not been a wealthy household, but it was happy. Luis had owned a saloon in Nogales and the three of them lived above it. His mother had to work, but she enjoyed being the lady of the house, the center of attention; she was by far the most beautiful woman in town. She and Luis were indescribably smitten with each other, their only disappointment had been the lack of further children. At least that was his point of view.

He knew his mother had become pregnant twice, and both times it had not resulted in a birth. He had not known of his mother's drinking—an occupational hazard when owning a saloon—and how it affected the developing baby. Her miscarriages were the result. He didn't know either, that Maria herself did not want another child. If she managed to cause either miscarriage, well, that was unknown to him as well.

So it was with shock that he overheard his mother tell her tio , Esteban Diaz, about Murdoch Lancer. It was after Luis had been killed—shot by a gambler in the saloon over an accusation of cheating—and they had lost the saloon and its apartments. Her tio had ridden into Nogales by chance and found Maria in the same saloon, drunk. He'd discovered their hovel where they'd taken shelter and immediately moved them out, into a nicer adobe in a better part of town.

He remember that his mother and Diaz had been arguing about their living conditions when he first heard the name ‘Lancer.' “Why are you living here?” Esteban had roared. “Why aren't you with Lancer on his rancho grande in California?”

That had stopped Johnny. He wondered who was this Lancer and why should his mother be there. Then he heard her explanation: “He kicked me out, Tio! Me and our Johnny! He no longer wanted a Mexican wife and half-breed son. Murdoch Lancer had only wanted my body!” she had sobbed.

He remembered feeling as if he were kicked in the teeth, stomach and knees all at once. He'd slid down to his bottom and sobbed. So his real father was a rich gringo who had discarded his mother and him as if they were trash. When he stopped his crying, he angrily vowed revenge upon the man.

He hadn't heard the rest of his mother's conversation with Esteban, how he had threatened to go to Lancer himself to seek retribution, how she'd stopped him by seducing him, making him swear not to ever go, that it was young Johnny's responsibility when he grew up. All he knew was from that moment until his mother's death, Esteban was a daily part of his life, a father figure who captivated a young boy with his laughter, his charisma and his attention.

After her death, he'd remembered his vow to himself on behalf of his mother and resolved to find a way to do so, even after Esteban had arranged for him to stay at a rancho as a stable boy.

The rancho had been good for him. He worked hard with the horses, learning how to care for them properly, how to work with them, and as he grew older, even how to train them. The owner had seen his potential with the animals and let the young Johnny Madrid—he vowed never to use his real surname—go as far as the boy wanted with them.

But Esteban and his charisma tugged at him. Whenever the gunman would visit, the young Johnny would always beg him to take him. Finally, at the age of fourteen, Johnny ran away from the rancho, following Esteban when he'd left after a visit, and convincing him to take him with him, to learn the ways of a pistolero so he could avenge his mother.

Esteban objected at first, but when he saw young Johnny's determination and sincerity, he agreed and became better than his word. Johnny learned his trade well, practicing day after day to learn the weapon; how to draw, aim, sight, fire, and hit his targets with a speed and precision Esteban found astonishing. Johnny was a born gunman, he decided, and the tio taught him everything he knew.

So, why hadn't he gone after Murdoch Lancer then, after he'd learned his trade? Johnny didn't know. He'd told himself he had to establish a reputation, so he could put fear in his father's heart with just the mention of his name. But after he'd built that fearsome notoriety, he still did not venture into the San Joaquin to carry out his love-bound mission. The closest he'd come to the Lancer Ranch was to San Diego, for a job. He made it a point to stay away from California this far north.

So when Scott Lancer had hired him to escort them on their trip out West from Reno, Johnny had agreed, but only because that man Carrick had mentioned Scott's surname and it intrigued Johnny. It roused his curiosity to learn more about this Scott Lancer: who he was, why he was going West and, more importantly, what, if any, was his relationship to Murdoch Lancer.

Little had he known that he'd find a brother with whom he would develop a bond like no other, not Luis, not even Esteban. And he felt bound by that brotherhood, even though Murdoch Lancer seemed not to want him in his family. He had to help Scott, no matter the cost. He valued his brother too much.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott and Abby, after saying their goodbyes to Johnny in the barn, strolled around the back of the hacienda holding hands. They headed in the general direction of the French doors and Teresa's garden, but ambled as they had no clear destination.

While disturbed by Johnny's leaving, they knew he had a purpose: he went to find who had hired Day Pardee. Scott knew Murdoch didn't approve of that search—he didn't think it was important enough, that they would always be targets—so he himself couldn't make that journey, but Johnny was perfect for it. He was part of the family and yet not part of it, Johnny was compensated by the freedom to do as he pleased. And it delighted Scott that his brother was on the job, so to speak, having his back and working to solve the mystery once and for all.

“How long do you think he'll take?” Abby was asking, “To find Day's employer?”

“I don't know,” Scott replied. “Right now, we have nothing to go on. There are no leads.”

“Does he know where to look?” She glanced up at him.

Scott kept his eyes on his boots. “I would assume so. We didn't discuss it.”

“What did you and Johnny talk about?” Abby referred to the time after Johnny had stepped in when Pardee had called her husband out. Johnny had left the hacienda after the last battle with Pardee and his men and just showed up in Morro Coyo to take Scott's place in the street.

Scott sighed. “Precious little. I wanted him to tell me why he left before, where he went, what he was doing, but I guess it doesn't matter now. He came back when it was important. And now he's gone again.”

“Well,” Abby stated firmly. “He'd better be back soon. I want this baby to know his uncle.”

Scott smiled. “So do I.”

They hadn't told anyone else their joyous news, only becoming sure of it themselves recently. Abby had hoped Johnny would opt to stay once he knew, but Scott realized that he had to go if they were to have peace of mind on the Pardee issue.

“When do you want to tell them?” Scott meant the rest of the family, pulling her arm in his, bringing her closer.

Abby smiled. “Tonight. At Dinner.”

“At dinner it is, my love.”


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch came down from the tower, his uneven footsteps heavy on the adobe stairs. He saw Scott and Abby strolling below and paused, not wanting to interfere. He didn't feel like being with anyone just now.

He hadn't liked seeing the palomino take its rider away like that. While he knew that was the only option, it surprised him to feel so bereft, as if he was losing something precious. Well, he surmised, he was. His son. Because not only did Johnny Madrid, the notorious gunfighter, ride away, so did Johnny Lancer, the bright, happy toddler. Perhaps forever. And at his own choosing.

He missed that toddler, and while he knew his Johnny had grown up and obviously changed, it was what he'd changed into that bothered Murdoch. His being a gunfighter was bad enough, but that he had no regrets, that he hadn't expressed any repentance, that made it impossible for Murdoch to allow Johnny to stay. But now, after watching until Barranca was out of sight, Murdoch felt an emptiness he hadn't felt since..., well, since he'd discovered Maria had taken the boy and was gone.

Murdoch waited until Scott and Abby disappeared into the depths of Teresa's garden to continue his journey down the steps. Stairs were difficult for him; it hurt his back and leg something awful. He'd need a drink when he sat down. Maybe two.

 

Searching So Long

Johnny rode to the Briar Creek line shack, already deciding to make that his base  of operations. He planned to spend the night and stable Barranca there, just as he'd done following the final battle for Lancer, when he followed Day around. It had been deserted then and he saw no reason for it to be occupied now. Murdoch was still working on rebuilding the ranch from all Pardee's raids.

He arrived at the line shack and left Barranca out front, intending only being there a few minutes. He found an unused cupboard and stashed his gear, so he wouldn't have to pack that around all the time. He left his working gun in his saddlebags though, wanting it nearby just in case he needed it.

He mounted Barranca again and set about finding and exploring Day's canyon hideout. He loped through the rolling countryside until he approached the mountains. It didn't take him long to find the crevice which lead to Pardee's nest., noting how it only was wide enough for one horse, with tall walls to provide maximum protection. Day must have spent a fair amount of time on Lancer property last year, scouting out the perfect hideout, before making his move to steal Murdoch's grey stallion.

That alone told him that whoever was behind Day had spent far more money than they originally thought, and had done so with great patience. Of course, taking over a vast rancho like Lancer would require more than a few weeks planning, but this, coupled with what they already knew about Pardee's actions—particularly the planting of an inside man the summer before the stallion's theft, indicated someone who was prepared to wait to get what he wanted, to spend a lot of money to take Lancer and bring down Murdoch. Yes, Lancer's troubles these past few months were long in the making, at the hand of someone cunning and patient.

Inside the canyon, Johnny unsaddled his horse and let Barranca roam freely in the remuda area of the hideout. He walked around the place, noting that the outlaws' gear was still there, weathered a bit, stashed about where they had left it that fateful dawn a few weeks ago.

For the next couple of hours he rummaged through their belongings, looking for clues, anything, really, that would lead him to find out who had hired Pardee. He found the usual items—extra shirts, socks, jerky, whiskey, ammunition—and the odd book or two, a few extra knives or other small weapons, a pocket watch, two gold chains with crosses on them, and an old, torn letter.

Hope shone on his face as he opened the letter, but he was immediately disappointed. It was personal and not related to Pardee or Lancer at all. He stuffed it back where it came from.

Johnny wanted to keep looking, but his back ached from all that bending over. He stood up straight, stretched out and glanced around the hideout. He saw other stashes he'd not seen before and vowed to go through those after lunch. Now, though, he was hungry. Digging through his own saddlebags, he found a suitable lunch: jerky, leftover biscuits from this morning and a couple of apples. He strolled to the water's edge and chose a spot next to a small boulder, under a tree. He sat on the ground, leaning against the rock. It was cooler there and the sound of the running water soothed him.

He finished one apple and offered the other to Barranca. The palomino had been cropping grass and came over to take the fruit. One good chomp and it was gone. Johnny chuckled. The horse did love apples. He'd have to find a steady supply.

Safe in the canyon, under his tree, with the sounds of the water behind him, Johnny let his mind wander. He again pondered his father. Murdoch Lancer was enigmatic, to say the least. Headstrong in his opinion against all gunfighters, he'd seemed to warm up to Johnny, especially after saving Scott. Johnny snorted. He should have. Damn, but the man got all uppity again the next day when he offered that payoff. Johnny wasn't about to take the money, even if he had needed it, which he didn't—he still had almost all of the generous amount Scott paid him back in Morro Coyo all those weeks ago.

He rehashed their last conversation. Murdoch had been trying to explain about his mother's departure, taking some of the blame but not all. He had started the discourse by calling him Madrid, the best indication that the Old Man had gone back to his gunfighter-hating thoughts. But, Johnny now remembered, his father had slipped, just once, and called him by his Christian name: “She—she had trouble adapting, Johnny. And I confess, I didn't help her much. I thought she would get used to it here.” Could it be that his father had meant something by that slip?

But he still didn't understand Murdoch's account of their life together from what he knew of his mother's life. She had been deliriously happy with Luis. Murdoch hadn't mentioned happiness, on either of their parts. Maybe that was the real problem.

Johnny didn't know much about marital relationships, but he did understand personal happiness and he'd known his mother, if only briefly. Her emotions ruled her and if she wasn't happy, she would do just about anything to change that.

Shaking his head, Johnny rose from his after-lunch rest. He brushed off his pants and stretched again, heading once more to the abandoned banditos' gear. He was intent on finding something to tie Pardee to whoever hired him, no matter how remote or obscure it may be. He methodically searched through each saddlebag, carpetbag and any other kind of baggage in the hideout. He found little to provide him with clues.

By late afternoon, only two areas were left to search: the bedrolls and Day's tent. Johnny hadn't searched them first because he realized they were the most likely places to find clues and he felt if he found something right away, he may miss something else. Starting at the least likely place gave him the opportunity for a more thorough search. It was twisted logic, but it worked for him.

He sat up again, stretching. Man, his back hurt. He wished now that he'd taken the shorter route and searched Day's tent first, but he knew if he'd done that, he may have to return here to rummage through all this anyway so he wanted to get the hard part over first. But now it was late in the day and he had little to show for it.

He saddled Barranca and headed back to the line shack to make his supper. Along the way he got an idea. Instead of bacon and beans that he'd have to cook, he'd enjoy tamales and rice in the cantina, and, while he was in Morro Coyo, he may as well visit the bordello. A nice, soft woman would feel very welcome after a day like today. Johnny shifted Barranca's direction and galloped toward town.

 

The Good, the Bad and the Talisker's

Murdoch didn't like drinking before dinner. He felt it was indicative of a weakness, that somehow one wasn't strong enough to last until the shank of the evening to partake of spirits. Of course, that hadn't stopped him several months ago, when he was recovering from that bullet he got on the night Paul was killed.

He'd told Scott and Johnny the gist of it, so they could understand more about Day Pardee, but he hadn't told them of his feelings, the gulf of emptiness that devoured him when he learned of Paul O'Brien's death. Paul had been his longest, dearest friend. A man with whom he'd shared a lifetime. He'd been bereft at the loss of his trusted ally.

It began a rough time for him, trying to recover from that wound in his lower back while attempting to deal with Paul's death, running the ranch and helping Teresa cope with the loss of her father. Somehow they had made it through, but it had been one of the darkest chapters of his life.

It had left him with little desire to do anything but the business of ranching. He had virtually stopped all other aspects of his life; he'd even cut back on church attendance from weekly to about once a month. He would have cut it out completely but his boyhood training forbade it. (‘Give the Lord his due, Murdoch!' his father had often said.)

Teresa had pulled him out of the worst of his malaise, forcing him back into the social world his wealth and status required and for that he was grateful, for it had lead to correspondence with Scott and his older son's ultimate return to Lancer.

And his younger son's return as well.

Mrudoch sighed as he surveyed the dark great room. Only minutes had passed since that last discussion with Johnny, the coming to an impasse and his forcing the issue whereby the dark-haired man had decided to leave. Yet it seemed like hours, days even. He had not realized he would feel so deep a loss at seeing his younger son depart his home.

Murdoch eased himself into his favorite chair, an overstuffed Queen Anne by the fireplace. He poured the drink he'd been reluctant to take, enjoying the gargle of the amber liquid as it splashed into the glass. He carefully replaced the bottle stopper and picked up his shot glass, holding it up as he examined the drink. Talisker's. His favorite from Scotland. Paul had given him this bottle last Christmas. Their last Christmas together.

He sipped, remembering that time.

Christmas at Lancer Ranch was always a festive affair. Everyone pitched in to decorate the hacienda: Paul and Teresa, Maria and her family, the wives of the cowboys and their children. And Murdoch, unhurt and able, joined in the fun by helping to bring boughs of pine from the verdant forests of the foothills to festoon the house. Teresa and Maria placed white candles, in every shape and size, throughout the house and kept them lit, replacing them when necessary. The hacienda glowed with anticipation and excitement.

The Mexican families on the estancia erected a Nativity scene in early December. Beginning on the sixteenth, they took part in las posadas , or the re-enactment of Joseph and the Virgin Mary looking for lodging. The religious ceremonies brought the estancia together as a community.

Murdoch Lancer, in his role as the wealthiest rancher in this part of the San Joaquin valley, was expected to and enjoyed playing host to the families of the area. The celebrations began the first Saturday in December with a party at Lancer and continued throughout the month. Murdoch journeyed to both Green River and Morro Coyo with wagons loaded with foodstuffs and drink for the townspeople and little hard candies for the children.

The central themes were generosity and sharing among families. Those who were able to give did so and those who received did so graciously and without greed. Murdoch rewarded his men with an extra financial bonus for the month and only minimal work on Christmas Day—feeding and caring for the animals.

Murdoch attended the Noche Bueno services at the mission in Morro Coyo on Christmas Eve in deference to his many Catholic employees. After, in the small town, he feasted on holiday tamales with his friends before returning home late. His good friend, the merchant Baldemero, traditionally gave Murdoch a poinsettia, called a Catarina in Mexico, in honor of his first wife, Catherine.

Murdoch was Anglican, having come from Scotland, and his home church was the protestant community in Green River. It had been his tradition to go there for services on Christmas Day, taking Paul and Teresa and meeting up with Aggie Conway along the way. They, along with old friend Dr. Sam Jenkins, celebrated the day at Lancer with a feast of Christmas goose, stuffing and traditional pudding while opening the token gifts they gave each other.

That year, Murdoch had enjoyed his duties immensely. His life was going well, his estancia even better. He had much to celebrate as 1872 had been a wonderful year for Lancer. The new stallion he'd purchased the previous summer looked promising and Murdoch had looked forward to breeding him to more mares in the coming year.

Then came New Year's Eve when all Hell had broken loose. His life fell apart. Again.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Abby strode down the hall to the room she shared with Scott. She heard his voice from behind the door and paused, her ear to the wood. Was he talking to himself? She listened, but was unable to make out the words. Deciding to figure out what was going on, she quietly turned the knob and pushed in the door.

She saw Scott in front of the mirror, a cup in his hand, talking to his reflection. No, she corrected herself; he was practicing. “I am pleased to announce ...” he stopped, clearing his throat and trying again. “I am pleased to announce what I hope is welcomed and wonderful—” he stopped again, noticing his wife at the door. Scott spun around guiltily. “Abby!”

“Hello, Love,” Abby breathed, suppressing a laugh. She closed the door behind her and approached her husband. “Are you practicing your toast?”

Scott nodded as he replaced the cup on the dresser. “Yes. You'd think making a toast would be second nature to me now, having done so many of them in Boston.”

“But this one is different.” Abby's eyes sparkled with amusement.

“Yes, it surely is,” he grinned.

She gave her husband a smooch on the cheek before turning away. “I won't stop you, dear. You continue your practicing.” She flounced from the room, closing the door behind her before succumbing to girlish giggles.

Alone now, Scott shook his head at his wife's antics. Life was so much fun with her.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Teresa's cheerful voice calling them all to dinner roused Murdoch from his musings. He set the empty glass down and lumbered to the table. Scott and Abby arrived arm in arm, smiling. They looked happy and content. Murdoch took solace in their peace.

Maria and another woman served the repast: beef in a red wine sauce, vegetables and sliced fruits and cheeses. As Murdoch lifted his glass for the toast, Scott interrupted. “May I?” he asked.

A little surprised, Murdoch deferred to his son and nodded. “Of course.”

Scott stood, took his glass in his hand and glanced down at his wife. She smiled up at him and nodded, her shoulders doing that little shrug she does when she's about to burst out laughing. He cleared his throat, suddenly anxious again. “Well, I want to say how pleased—” That's as far as he got out before Abby's soft giggle reached his ears. She was delighted he was still nervous. Scott shook his head and gave up. “There's no other way to say this.” He sat back down, smiled at his lovely wife as he put his arm around her and announced, “We are going to be adding to the family. Abby and I are expecting a child.”

Abby smiled shyly. Teresa squealed and clapped. Murdoch's weathered face broke into the broadest grin Scott had ever seen.

“This is good news!” Murdoch sounded. He lifted his voice. “Maria!” he called.

When the older woman poked her head into the great room she saw Murdoch grinning like a monkey, Scott and Abby dissolved in giggles and Teresa bouncing up and down on her seat clapping. Clearly they had all gone mad. “ Si, Patron? ” she asked, a little fear in her voice.

Murdoch continued to grin. “Bring a bottle of champagne, por favor. ” He boomed. “We are celebrating tonight. I'm going to be a grandfather!”

Now Maria understood. Her own wrinkled face beamed with excitement. “ Si, señor, ” and she hurried to get the wine. It would be a happy time in the hacienda tonight!

 

The Pursuit of Togetherness

Johnny leaned back in his chair, his dinner finished, his appetite sated. He sipped on his tequila. The cantina was quiet tonight—it was a weekday, after all. By the time he'd made it into town, the tiny restaurant was about to close from a lack of business. Johnny Madrid's popularity after killing Day Pardee enabled the owner, tiny Rosa Montero, to keep it open just for him.

Rosa was five-foot-flat on a good day and weighed less than a hundred pounds soaking wet. Everything about her was petite, except her heart. That was as large as the ocean. In her mid-forties, she'd lived through her husband's early death and her only surviving son going off to seek his fortune and yet remained devoted to her work, her customers and her relationship with God.

She herself took his order, made his food and served it to him. “ Gratis ,” she smiled as she set the plate on the table. He nodded. He had not wanted free food, but neither did he want to insult her. He dug in.

The tamales were excellent; some of the best he'd had, and the rice—spiced to perfection. She'd thrown in a side of tortillas with green chile salsa and finished the meal with a favorite of his: cinnamon and sugar sprinkled churros.

He knew he should be leaving; Rosa would be wanting to go home. It was getting late, but she wouldn't ask him to go. No, that would be rude. But he didn't want to impose on her hospitality, so he finished his drink and pushed his chair away from the table. He walked up to Rosa and thanked her personally for her attention, taking her tiny hands in his and kissing them lightly, bestowing upon her his most brilliant smile. She smiled shyly and blushed. Lastly, he tipped his hat to her and strode out, his spurs jingling as he walked. Rosa's smile turned wistful as she watched him go.

Outside in the evening air, Johnny collected Barranca and walked toward the end of town. Though it was just after sunset, he could see that the people were continuing to rebuild. Pardee and his men had raided it in retaliation for the townspeople coming to Lancer's aid during one of his sieges. He had burned many of the structures, beaten and battered some of the citizens but most horrifying, he and his men had taken seven innocent señoritas into the hotel for their own sick pleasure.

Scorch marks still scarred the adobe structures. A few homes were completely in ruins, but he could tell that neighbors pitched in to help each other. That was one of the good things resulting in such an event; the community came together as one.

Johnny arrived at the livery and stopped. An old man hurried outside to greet him, “ ¡Bienvenido, Señor Madrid! How can I help you tonight?”

“I need a good stall with fresh hay and plenty of high-quality oats, Señor Orozco.” 

“Of course, señor , anything for you, señor . Gratis .” He nodded and smiled.

Johnny did not want to take the old man's business free of charge, but he knew just like in the cantina, it would be an insult to insist payment. “ Gracias, señor. I will care for him myself. He's a might caprichoso —temperamental. He may bite.”

The old man nodded, understanding, and led Johnny to his best stall before quietly withdrawing. He returned with a bucket of oats and one of fresh water. “The best we have, this.” He nodded to the oats as he set the buckets down before making one last hurried trip for grooming supplies. After handing Johnny the implements, he again withdrew, leaving the revered gunfighter alone with his horse.

Johnny loosened Barranca's cinch before hefting the leather saddle on the rack. He did the same with the horse's blanket and bridle, then placed the oats and water side by side in the stall. Barranca dug in, snorting in pleasure at the tasty meal. Johnny set about grooming him, taking his time brushing off the road and combing his coat until it gleamed. He slapped the horse on the back. “Sleep well, mi amigo .”


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“I think they took the news rather well,” Abby giggled as she readied for bed. She was combing her hair, a chore Scott thoroughly enjoyed watching. Her long brown tresses fell over her shoulders and back with each rhythmic stroke of her brush.

“They were delighted, of course,” he flopped on the bed “Almost as delighted as we are.”

“We are, aren't we?” Abby stopped brushing. She looked at him through the mirror, apprehension on her face.

Scott jumped up immediately and rushed to his wife. He rested his hands on her shoulders, seeing her uncertainty in the mirror. “I'm thrilled, Love. I can't wait.”

Abby smiled again. “Just checking.” She set the brush down and smoothed her nightgown down over her stomach. “I'm gonna get pretty big, you know. My mother, with her last pregnancy, was as big as the house!”

Scott wrapped his arms around her still-tiny waist. “I don't mind, Darling. As long as both you and the baby are healthy.”

She frowned again. “What if it's a girl?” Didn't all men want sons?

“Then it's a girl,” Scott laughed. “A beautiful brunette who looks like you. Who could complain about that?”

“But what if she is tall and gangly like you?” She teased.

“Then she'd better become a really good cook,” Scott grinned back.

Abby's mouth flew open. “Why, you!” She turned and playfully beat her fist on his chest. “You're incorrigible!”


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch sat in his favorite chair again, sipping his final Scotch of the night. He couldn't stop smiling. A baby. His grandbaby. Scott's baby. Catherine's grandbaby. Even remembering his dead first wife didn't erase his grin tonight. She would be so proud, so happy. She'd already be making plans, driving poor Abby crazy with her ideas.

He chuckled aloud. That he would have liked to see.

Plans would have to be made, of course. Scott and Abby's room, while large, wasn't nearly big enough. He'd have to call in a carpenter and have some work done, maybe use the room next to theirs as a nursery, or create a new suite of rooms just for them. His head swam with his own ideas.

He would be the one to drive poor Abby crazy. He laughed out loud at that.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The last time Johnny used the bordello in Morro Coyo it had been rather dark and dismal-looking. Eliza, the gringa madam, had blamed it on bad business because of Pardee's men, driving off all their regular customers. As he entered this evening, he noticed a pronounced difference. The main room was brighter, livelier, the girls somehow looked fresher, and there were other customers. Eliza stood behind the counter pouring a drink.

She saw him enter and smiled. “Howdy, Mr. Madrid!” she greeted when he reached the bar. “How can I help you today?” her eyes flashed mischievously.

“A drink, Eliza, and some...companionship,” he grinned.

 

Thoroughly Modern Murdoch

Murdoch was the first one down for breakfast. “ Buenos dias, señor Lancer,” Maria greeted. She was at the stove, frying bacon. The aroma made his stomach rumble.

He was hungry. Famished, it felt like. He hadn't had an appetite since...well, he couldn't really remember. “Load me up, Maria,” he requested. “I could eat a horse this morning.”

Maria smiled. She liked it when el Patron smiled and ordered a man's breakfast. For too long now he'd picked at his morning meal or forced himself to eat. It was good to have the old Murdoch Lancer back. “ Pronto ,” she replied as she hurriedly broke the eggs in a black iron skillet.

Teresa came next, bouncing in with her hair in a ponytail. She looked so young like that. “Mornin'!” she greeted, reaching for the coffeepot and filling a mug for Murdoch.

“Same to you,” he grinned back. He took the mug and blew on it. “Ahhh, smells good.”

Teresa stopped where she was. She stared strangely at Murdoch. “You're in a good mood today. It wouldn't have anything to do with Scott and Abby, would it?”

“I believe it would indeed, Teresa. It would indeed.” Maria placed a plate of hot, steaming biscuits on the table and he reached for one. Teresa set the honey jar and butter for him. He loaded his bread then took a bite. “Ohhh, so good,” he pronounced while chewing.

Teresa didn't quite know what to make of Murdoch's behavior. Could a simple baby produce such ...what was the word she was looking for? Joy? She shook her head. Maybe. And it was good. A happy Murdoch would be a most welcomed change, even better than the way he was before all this Pardee mess started. Smiling, she busied herself with helping Maria finish breakfast.

Scott and Abby came down together, still grinning. “Come on in,” Murdoch greeted. He jumped up to pull Abby's chair out for her. “Have a seat. These are the best biscuits Maria has ever made!”

Now it was Scott and Abby's turn to be surprised. They'd never seen Murdoch so jolly. They glanced at each other and shrugged, having no explanation for the change. Maria finished the bacon and set it on the table. Teresa sliced some fresh oranges and put them down, too. All that was left were the eggs, which came soon after. It was a fine breakfast feast.

“I'm going to Morro Coyo this morning,” Murdoch announced. He sipped his coffee.

“Oh?” Scott countered, buttering his biscuit.

“Yes. I want to hire Ignacio Torres. His carpentry skills are excellent. You'll be needing more room, a nursery, or perhaps an entire new set of private quarters. Maybe a suite of rooms. We could redo the west wing. Whatever you want.”

Abby lifted her eyebrows. “This is a surprise.”

Murdoch stabbed an egg with his fork. “I don't mean to overstep, but I want you to know that whatever you want or need in preparation for the baby, well, I can accommodate, and I'm very happy to do so.”

Scott looked at Abby. She smiled. “That sounds like fun.”

Scott grinned. “I'll go with you.”


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny stretched out his arms, trying to awaken. He had never been a morning person; daybreaks, even those that came later in the day, were always hard for him. The bedsheets, once crisp and cool, were now crumpled from the workout he and Eliza gave each other the previous night. He'd paid for the entire night and he would be the first to say that he got his money's worth.

He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, bracing his hands on the mattress to steady himself. He was a little dizzy. Once his head cleared, he checked the bed. Eliza was gone; he wasn't sure she'd be back anytime soon. His gun belt hung where he'd left it: on the bedpost near his pillow, its holster empty. His Colt was still under his pillow.

He surveyed the room. Its whitewashed walls reflected the sunlight streaming from the window. There was a breeze bringing in fresh air and making the threadbare curtain dance to some unknown rhythm. On top of the hand-painted dresser was a large, chipped bowl and a pitcher, for washing. A long, thin mirror stood in the corner and a seemingly-rickety table and wooden chair occupied the space under the window.

He assumed this was Eliza's own bedroom, not just a room for clients, but he wasn't sure. He wasn't about to open a drawer and find out; he didn't live as long as he had by being nosy when it came to women.

Between couplings, they'd talked. Johnny had wanted to know more about Pardee's men, any information he could get, which may lead him to find out who had hired the ruthless gunfighter. At first Eliza didn't think she knew anything, but he finally was able to get her to open up.

“Well, there were a few of them who bragged more than others,” she finally had said. “This one guy, called himself Drake, bragged about being the one to ‘bag' Murdoch Lancer. He kept going on and on about it, about how he waited in the mission bell tower with his rifle and nailed both Lancer and the guy he was with in just two shots.”

“What did this Drake look like?” Johnny had known a killer named Drake but he wanted confirmation.

Eliza thought for a minute. “Tall. Dark hair. Johnny Reb hat. Wore it while we were...together. That's all I remember. He only came in once. I think he left Pardee before you got here.”

Johnny nodded. It was the man he knew. Ex-confederate soldier. Sniper. Liked his job too much. It was a good thing he'd left Pardee after the horse theft; Lancer would have been sitting ducks with the likes of him behind a rifle.

“Was there anything else?” Johnny still had no idea who was behind it all.

Eliza sat up. “Do you want me or information, Johnny Madrid?”

Johnny laughed. “Both.” Then he took her again.

But now, in the morning, she was gone. He slowly dressed, slipping on his concho pants, and stuffing his red shirt into them. He needed a bath. That would have to wait. He was hungry; last night's exertions gave him an appetite. He fastened on his gun belt, stomped into his boots and exited the room.

“Johnny Madrid!” Eliza called from behind the bar. Johnny had been on his way out of the bordello. He turned and smiled at the girl. “Come here and get your breakfast.” She poured a beer.

Johnny sauntered to the bar, pushed aside the mug. “Tequila,” he requested. Grinning, she obliged, filling a shot glass with the clear liquid.

“Oh, I thought of something this morning,” she smiled as he sipped. “Something about that horse they stole. Pardee had wanted to kill it but said the orders were changed. ‘The boss wanted it for himself.' Those were the exact words.”

“Pardee told you that?” Johnny doubted Day Pardee would have let something like that slip to a whore.

“No, silly. He never came in here. Some guy who called himself Bolman said that. I heard he got his throat slit at one of Lancer's line shacks.” She fingered his shirt. “You wouldn't happen to know how that happened, would you?”

Johnny smiled, finished his tequila and shook his head. “Nope. Not a thing.” He set the glass down. “Thanks, ‘Liza.”

Johnny ate breakfast at Rosa's cantina. A young woman with bright eyes served him a good, hot Mexican feast to go with that tequila he had with Eliza. While he chewed, he considered what he'd learned. Drake had been the sharpshooter who killed Paul O'Brien and wounded Murdoch back at the end of December. Drake didn't hang around with Pardee's gang, though, when Day came back for business. He didn't know why the sniper had left. It didn't much matter. He had an idea where to find the ex-Rebel soldier if he needed him. He was fond of a particular saloon in San Diego.

The news that he got this morning had promise. If the boss man wanted the horse, chances were that the animal was still alive, secured in a safe spot, away from prying eyes. An expensive well-known purebred like that wouldn't be sold, not just yet anyway, and wouldn't be transported until it was safe to so do. That wouldn't be for maybe a year. If Johnny could find where the horse was, that may lead him to Pardee's employer. And now he knew definitely that Pardee had en employer.

He'd been almost sure, as Day Pardee rarely raided a rancho as vast as Lancer for himself, but he'd not seen confirmation, at least not of this nature. Now he was absolutely certain. Someone had hired Day, hired him to lead an attack on Lancer, for the purposes of taking it over. His only clue right now was the horse.

The stallion whose theft had started it all was somewhere, but Johnny knew nothing which could even remotely lead him to the animal. He had to do more searching. Perhaps there was more at Day's hideout. It was possible; he hadn't finished going through everything yet.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch and Scott entered town on the buggy. Scott would have preferred to ride, but with Murdoch's bum leg, that would have been difficult; riding was painful for his father. He should see a specialist, Scott thought. Surely San Francisco had a few. Murdoch had too many good years left in him to go around limping in pain forever. Perhaps before the baby came he could get Murdoch to take that trip. He'd have to ask Sam about that.

“Where can we find this Torres fellow?” Scott asked as he tied up the buggy's reins. He and Murdoch climbed out of the vehicle in front of Mendez Supply.

“He usually works for Mendez, when he's not doing carpentry,” Murdoch nodded to indicate the supply shop. We'll go in and see if he's there today.”

Scott nodded and took a step, then paused, looking in another direction. “There's Johnny.” Scott pointed toward the cantina just before jogging over to its entrance. He was thrilled to see his brother so soon and relieved to see he was still in the area like he said.

Johnny had emerged after enjoying his breakfast and stretched. He saw his brother speeding toward him. “Well, well, well. If it ain't the daddy-to-be,” he grinned.

Scott met up with Johnny, slapping him on the back. Hard. “Ouch, Scott. I just ate breakfast.”

“You're getting up late,” he teased.

“Was busy last night,” Johnny grinned, nodding toward the bordello.

“I see. Will fatherhood be in your future as well?”

“Hell, no, Scott. I ain't that stupid.”

Scott was about to reply when Murdoch joined them. He smiled at the gunfighter, genuinely happy to see him. “Johnny!” he enthusiastically greeted. “Good to see you again.”

“Ah-huh,” Johnny replied, unsure of what just happened. Only yesterday his father had turned him out. He turned to his brother, slapping him on his arm. “What brings you two to town?”

Murdoch answered the question. “We're going to meet with a carpenter. We have to make some changes in the hacienda to prepare for the new baby.” He glanced at Scott. “I'll go see if I can find Torres.”

After he left, Johnny frowned at Scott. “What's with him? He's....”

“Happy?” Scott offered.

“Strange, I was going to say.”

Scott laughed. “That, too.”

Johnny leaned in closer and said softer, “Listen, brother. I think I found something out.” He told him about the horse. “I'm going back to Day's hideout. I was looking there for a clue yesterday. Gonna search some more today. I'll let you know if I find anything.”

“You do that, brother,” Scott responded quietly. “And take care of yourself.” He jogged back toward Mendez Supply to join Murdoch.

+++NOTE: For those of you who are Disney Zorro fans, you may recognize the name Ignatio Torres. He was a central character in the first story arc of the 1957-59 TV series. I borrowed the name for this story.

 

Give the Devil His Clue

Barranca loped over the rolling hills, heading northwest toward the Briar Creek line shack Johnny was using as headquarters. The horse had spent the night in the warm livery stable, had himself a grand breakfast and a good rubdown and now he was ready to run. He wanted his head but Johnny held him back. “Easy, amigo . I may need you later today.” Barranca snorted in reply, anxious to go. Johnny laughed at his antics.

It was a beautiful late Spring day, Summer was almost upon them, but the days had not yet begun to get too hot. A nice breeze blew across the valley, causing the tall grasses to sway in rhythm. There were clouds, but not too many; just enough to punctuate the bright blue sky with formations in white.

Johnny continued his ride across Lancer, enjoying the beauty of this vast land with its verdant greens, the cool purples of the Diablo range to his west, and little pockets of the native golden poppy and darker green signaling a copse of two of oak.

At the line shack, Johnny stabled the horse in the attached lean-to and went inside. He would have preferred Barranca to romp in a corral, but as there wasn't one at the shack and having his horse visible would have alerted anyone passing by of his presence anyway; he thought it better to hide him, at least today.

Now he had his own needs to attend. He dug into the stores at the shack and found soap and a towel. He grabbed clean clothes for himself and headed for Briar Creek, having decided to take that bath after spending the night with Eliza.

The water was shallow and cold. He sat on a rock and soaped up, rinsing in the clear-running, ice-cold water, cleaning himself from head to toe. It wasn't the nice soaking baths he'd enjoyed at the Lancer hacienda, but it didn't need to be, either. The cold water helped clear his mind and set himself to the task at hand. He had much to do. He didn't stay at the creek too long.

Invigorated and freshly-scrubbed, Johnny dressed in a new shirt and pants, washing out his dirty garments with the soap he'd used on himself and rinsing them in the brisk, running water of the creek. With his laundry dripping, he headed back to the line shack.

“Damn,” he cursed himself. He'd wanted to let Scott know where he was staying. Well, he'd mentioned the hideout; maybe Scott would put two and two together and figure it out; his brother was a smart man.

Johnny snapped his clothes in the wind, getting some of the moisture out. Inside the shack, there wasn't a good place to hang them up to dry and keep them out of sight. He investigated the lean-to stable. There he found a hidden corner and put up his wet things.

He made one more trip to the creek for water, filling up a bucket he'd found in the shack. He heated some of the cold liquid for shaving, the rest he used to fill his canteen and finish his morning ministrations. Lastly, he cleaned up the shack and with one last glance around to make sure there was no clear evidence of his presence, he closed the door.

His chores completed, he retrieved Barranca and re-saddled him. Intent on heading for the hideout, he once again rode through the narrow crevice opening into the canyon sanctuary. After he removed the horse's tack and set him free in the remuda area, he set upon the job of rummaging through the last of the saddlebags before checking out Day's tent.

Like yesterday, the things he found in the saddlebags were mostly the same: clothes, odds and ends, personal items. He went through them mechanically, overturning everything onto the grass, kicking through the debris, tossing it onto the pile before starting on another. If he found something interesting he held it to the side, but nothing he saw was enough to stop his searching. One, two, three saddlebags down. Four, five, all the same. But sometime after he stopped counting, he found something different. It was a map.

Johnny stood up as he unfolded the paper. The hand-drawn map depicted a small ranch or a farm north and east of ‘Vizalya', near some hills. He tried to make out the writing: Vennis Hills, it looked like. The person who had drawn it hadn't been properly educated; the ‘n's were backwards. He doubted the spelling, too, as Visalia was clearly incorrect.

There was a name near the middle: Ortega. Was that another town? He doubted it, but not being familiar with California he couldn't be sure. It could be the name of the owner of a farm or ranch. Yah, that was probably it. Johnny turned the map over but the back side was blank. It wasn't much, but it was better than old shirts and socks. Maybe Murdoch could make something of it. He pocketed the map and whistled for Barranca.

Johnny rode toward the hacienda. He wanted to check out what was there in Visalia, but as it was a long ride, he felt it wise to get more information from Murdoch. Maybe his father already knew the significance of the map. That would save him a trip and valuable time. He crested a hill and caught sight of the hacienda.

He reined Barranca to a stop; the beauty of the hacienda taking his breath away. This was his home. Or should have been. He paused while he gathered himself together. Now was not the time to think of such things. He put that, along with everything else emotional, on his pile of “later.”

He urged the palomino forward and, seeing dust on the horizon, stood in the saddle to make it out. It was Murdoch and Scott, returning from Morro Coyo in their buggy. Good , Johnny thought. He could make this quick. He changed directions and headed for the vehicle.

Hola , Scott!” Johnny called a greeting. Scott had already seen him and elbowed Murdoch to stop the buggy.

“Long time, no see, brother,” Scott grinned. Murdoch nodded his greeting.

Johnny glanced at his sire then smiled at his brother. “You took a long time to find a carpenter,” he noticed. It was a good three or four hours since they met in town.

“There was much to discuss,” Scott replied. “Lots of ideas, plans, you name it.”

“Well,” Johnny hesitated a little. He fixed his eyes on his father. “I've been searching Pardee's camp near Briar Creek. He and his men left their things there. I've been going through the saddlebags. I think I found a clue about the man who hired Pardee or maybe where to find the stallion.”

“You mean Plata Viento ?” Murdoch leaned forward.

“That's the name of the horse Pardee stole?”

“Yes. Don De La Cruz from San Diego sold him to me last year at this time.”

“Wait,” Scott cut in. “What does Plata Viento mean?”

“Silver Wind,” Johnny answered. He continued with his story. “I found a map showing a ranch or farm near Visalia. Name on it was Ortega.”

Murdoch looked away, thinking. He brought his eyes back to Johnny. “I can't place that name. It must have been a small place. I know all the big ranchers in the San Joaquin.”

Johnny shifted in the saddle. “Could that be a small village near the town?”

“No,” Murdoch shook his head. “The closest place to Visalia is Goshen. Ortega is definitely a name of a person. May I see the map?”

Johnny fished the paper out of his saddlebags and passed it to Scott, who in turn handed it to his father. Murdoch opened it and noticed the errors. “Those are the Venice Hills,” he said, spelling it out. “I don't know how they got their name.” He tapped the map. “Yes, that's got to be a farm or ranch and Ortega simply must be the owner.” He returned the paper to Johnny.

“Nothing about this rings a bell to you?”

“No, why? Should it?”

Johnny shrugged. “I don't know. I figured you may know something about what it means. If not...” He let the thought go unspoken. He'd made up his mind then. If his father couldn't enlighten him, he'd have to make the trip and see what it meant. He would check out this farm or ranch, and see what the significance of Ortega was. This could be where the man who hired Pardee was, or where horse was stashed. Or it could be nothing or something else entirely. He'd never know unless he took a look.

Murdoch was apologizing. “No, sorry. I don't know anything other than to correct the misspellings.”

“Well, that's something,” Johnny smiled. He refolded the paper and stuffed it into his saddlebags. He petted Barranca on the neck. “Anyway, I'm going to look there. See what it all means, if anything. I'll be back in a week or so.”

“Take care, brother,” Scott nodded. “Good luck!”

Gracias ,” Johnny smiled in return.

“Do you need anything?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny paused and stared at his father, stunned at his offer. “No, thank you.” He nodded to both of them and spurred Barranca, turning toward the East and Visalia.



Best Laid Plans

Scott and Abby poured over ideas for their new rooms at the hacienda. Señor Torres had come later that afternoon and looked over the place, making several suggestions giving them much food for thought. They had many choices.

They could continue to use their current room, adding a door leading to the adjacent room which would be then made into a nursery. This was the simplest and easiest idea to implement, but was only a short-term solution; what would they do for a second child or subsequent children?

They could opt for an Eastern way, and build a nursery away from their room, with adequate space for more children and room for a live-in governess. This was how both Scott and Abby were raised, in separate quarters with their own care provider. The separate nursery would provide a perfect environment for their children to learn and grow with care at their fingertips, and give the parents some much-needed space of their own. However, they wouldn't be involved in the day-to-day care, an idea which had both good and bad points on its own.

Or, they could take apart several rooms in the west wing, as Murdoch offered, and create a sort of compromise: a large suite of rooms for both them and their children, with play space as well, and a room for a governess. This seemed an ideal solution, but it would separate them a little from the rest of the family.

The couple had much to think about. Torres had indicated that he would be able to create whatever they decided, but if they wanted a more elaborate plan, they should decide quickly in order to have it finished before the baby's birth. They discussed the pros and cons all afternoon until they grew tired of talking.  Deciding to sleep on it, Scott walked outside for some much-needed sunshine.

He found Murdoch leaning against the corral fence, eyeing a new batch of horses  Paco and Ben had just brought in from the Mesa. The Mesa wasn't really a true mesa, it was a mountain in the Diablos that sort of resembled one and the name had stuck. It's canyons were well-known for being a source of excellent wild horses. Johnny's Barranca had been roped there as well as Scott's chestnut stallion, Rienzi.

“Nice looking horseflesh,” Scott appraised, joining Murdoch in leaning against the rail.

“Yes, they are. But we need a good wrangler to break them.”

“We don't have a wrangler?” Scott was surprised. He would have thought that a ranch of this size should have a good horseman in charge of mounts with several assistants to help.

“We did. Owen was one of the first to leave when the Pardee business started, back before we really knew what was happening. He came primarily to work with the grey stallion and his offspring. When the horse was stolen...” Murdoch let the thought drop.

“So who's been breaking our horses since?”

Murdoch pushed away from the fence. “Aggie Conway has been loaning us her Roberto. He's good, but we need our own.”

“Well, with Pardee gone, we could hire one again.”

“Yes, but...”

“But what?”

Murdoch paused. He knew what he wanted to say. He wanted a wrangler who had a way with horses like Johnny Madrid. But he didn't voice that. “Later, I suppose. We have other things more important. Like getting this ranch running smoothly and getting ready for that baby!” Murdoch grinned again. He just couldn't stop being so darned happy about that.

Scott laughed. “Don't get me started on the preparations. Abby and I have been going over ideas all afternoon. Ignatio Torres has proven to be quite an asset. Thank you for recommending him.”

Murdoch turned to his son. “Whatever you want to do, Scott, we'll do it. I want the best for this baby. Have you written Harlan or Abby's family yet?”

Scott grinned. “I brought the letters with me to town this morning. I posted them myself.”

“Good, good. They have a right to know.” He gave one last look at the corral and slapped Scott on the back. “I'm going to Aggie Conway's for supper tonight; I'll be home late. I updated the books this afternoon in preparation of doing that work on the hacienda. The money's there.” He turned to walk back inside. Scott hesitated a little, then followed his father.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Aggie was delighted to hear the news. “A new grandbaby, Murdoch! You must be so happy!”

“I am, I am.” He sipped his coffee. They'd dined on the Conway patio under the glow of Chinese lanterns. “I'm so thrilled I'm nearly beside myself. The last time I felt this way was when I learned of Teresa's impending birth.”

“A baby coming does brighten things,” Aggie smiled. “You needed some good news. It's been a long, rough stretch, my friend.”

“That it has, Aggie. That it has.”

The two of them rose and, leaving their coffee cups, began strolling through Aggie's garden. Not too unlike Teresa's counterpart at Lancer, it was filled with a mix of herbs and flowers, but it featured an elderberry shrub twisted in an unusual shape supported by native Pacific bleeding hearts and golden California poppies. Flanked on the north, a thirty-foot-tall incense cedar provided straw for the garden paths and offered protection from the cool north wind.

“I saw Johnny Madrid today in Morro Coyo,” Murdoch began.

“Oh?” Aggie knew better than to say much more.

“Yes.” He took a few steps. “You know, when he left, I was surprised.”

“Surprised he left?” Aggie raised an eyebrow. “I thought you didn't approve of him.”

“No, not that. I was surprised at...how,” Murdoch gulped. He continued bravely. “How I...felt.” It was still hard to open up to anyone, especially a woman, even Aggie. “I...there was a sadness, an emptiness almost.” It was easier to speak of his feelings in the third person.

Aggie nodded. “I understand. He's your son.”

“But this baby...well, I think it's helping to fill that emptiness. And when I saw Johnny today, I was so happy that he hadn't left the area. I, well, it's just hard to explain.”

“You don't have to explain it to me, Murdoch. I understand. All you have to be with me is you.”

Murdoch grinned. It was like that with Aggie. He could just be. He gave her shoulders a squeeze.

They walked silently, his arm still around her shoulders. It felt good to be holding a woman like that. It had been too long, far too long, to have such a friendship with a woman. No, he rethought, this was beyond friendship, beyond companionship even. This was something more precious. With Maria it had been all passion. This was more like what he'd had with Catherine, a deeper, more open relationship. Murdoch smiled. Aggie smiled back at him. Things were indeed looking up.

 

The Reverend Timothy Root

That Saturday was a blur to Scott and Abby. Ignacio Torres braved the surprise rainstorm that hit the valley and spent nearly the entire day at Lancer, bringing more ideas for the nursery for them to discuss. Every time they settled on one thought, a new one would enter into the mix, bringing them back to square one. They spent the entire day and most of the evening talking about it all until they felt totally confused.

It was Aggie Conway who provided the way to an answer.

They were on their way to church in Green River, after having stopped at the Conway Ranch to pick up Aggie and Selena, the De Salvo girl who was living at Aggie's because her family had been tortured and murdered by Pardee. She and Teresa were good friends, having become so in the painful days following her family's death when she stayed at the Lancer hacienda.

Murdoch had felt guilty; he had asked the De Salvos for help in fighting Pardee. In response, Day had raided their small ranch committing unspeakable acts and taking her for his own sick purposes—to frame Johnny and to punish them for wanting to help Murdoch. Johnny had managed to escape Pardee's plan and save Selena in the process. She came out physically unscathed but it had been too late for her family. Murdoch bore that burden alone.

Unbeknownst to Selena, he had begun work on restoring the De Salvo hacienda and grounds, removing all evidence of the horrors that occurred there. His plan was to offer Selena a choice of selling it or keeping it for herself, with him overseeing a tenant until she was of age. He owed her that much, and more.

Aggie had elected to take on the girl and Selena had been a wonderful addition to the Conway household. Aggie treated her like a daughter and gave her support and comfort, enabling her to properly grieve so she could get on with her life. Aggie was determined that Selena have opportunities that she wouldn't have had before.

That grey Sunday morning, Murdoch rode along with Aggie in the Conway buggy, with Scott taking over the Lancer carriage with Abby and the two girls. Despite the continued dark weather, the girls chatted endlessly, keeping each other up to date on the events in their lives. Abby smiled at their cheerfulness and hoped to have at least two girls of her own to enjoy their sisterhood like these two.

The cool, depressing weather promised rain, like the previous day, and was quite unusual this late in the season. Everyone was bundled up in blankets with extra protection brought along for the almost-certain later precipitation. They wore their Sunday finest and the ladies didn't want their outfits ruined by the foul weather.

Murdoch discussed the nursery situation with Aggie during the final leg of the trip and by the time they arrived, she had an idea. She crossed to the Lancer carriage, arriving just as Scott helped Abby down. “I hear you have nursery problems,” she began.

“Yes, Aggie. We can't decide what we want to do,” Abby replied. “It is a tough decision.”

Aggie nodded. “I understand. So tell me, Murdoch says you both had the same type of nursery back East, right? What did you think of it?” Abby and Scott looked at each other, both suppress grimaces. Aggie smiled. “That bad, huh?”

“Yes,” Abby said. “We didn't like being apart from the family. I'm sure it worked well for our parents, though.”

Aggie shrugged in her matter-of-fact way. “Forget about how your own parents did things, and how your grandfather arranged it for you, Scott. Don't raise your children like that if you didn't like it that way yourself. Make your nursery, your rooms, fit your lives, not someone else's way of thinking.” She patted Abby on the back. “This is the time to have things your way.” Aggie didn't wait for an reply, she lifted her skirts and headed over to see Dr. Sam Jenkins, who was talking with Murdoch.

“Why didn't we think of that?” Abby asked Scott.

“Oh, I think we did, we just hadn't realized it yet.” He took her arm and escorted her inside the church.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

The Green River Community Church, on the corner of the main road and Church Street, stood at the end of town. It was a small building, erected in the Gothic Revival style—a sharp contrast to Morro Coyo's Spanish-style mission church—and reflected Green River's English background. It's whitewashed clapboard siding complemented the wood-shingled roof, now grey with wear.

The church featured sharp gables consistent with its architecture and long narrow windows—two in the front, four on each side. Two side bays, each with a pair of the same long windows, provided access to either the side street or the wooded picnic grounds on the edge of town.

The grey front door was contained within a bell tower and set recessed to provide shade or protection from the elements. Above the door, curved triangular window, divided into three panes, provided light.

Inside, it was a simple building, with exposed beams in the roof to provide interest. The structure was only large enough for ten rows of pews in front of the altar, but each pew could hold up to twelve friendly people. Behind the altar was a large window with a heavy wooden cross in front. Two chairs sat on either side of the altar, one for the minister, another for a visitor.

The minister was new, and everyone was anxious to hear him preach. Timothy Root had come well-recommended, having graduated from Oberlin college with honors and having the finest of pedigrees. His great aunt was the first wife of famous Charles Grandison Finney, revivalist minister and President of Oberlin. He was a follower of his uncle's teachings and anxious to prove himself. However, due to a scandal, they'd had to leave the East. They came to California to start afresh.

Reverend Root had met the old minister, Reverend Gilley, months ago Sacramento. They began a correspondence. Through his letters with Gilley, Root got to know the community. He even visited Gilley a few times. When Gilley faced retirement, he invited Root to join the up-and-coming Green River community. Root jumped at the chance, leaving Sacramento just two days later. He and his wife moved into the new Cattleman's Hotel while they searched for suitable lodging in town.

On the frontier, with a new future ahead of him, Timothy Root wanted nothing more than to shape the community as he saw fit. He envisioned himself as the moral compass of the area, as a guiding father to the lawless West. A small town like Green River was the perfect fodder for him; why, it didn't even have a sheriff! What a wonderful blank slate!


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott and Abby took their seats next to Murdoch and Aggie. Sam Jenkins occupied the space next to Aggie and the girls rounded out their party. They had to squeeze in. The church was crowded, this being the first day for the new minister and all. Everyone wanted to meet him and to see what kind of a preacher he was.

Root looked out into the crowd from his alcove and smiled. “Darling, look how many people! So many who need my guidance!”

Elizabeth Root assessed the congregation. “Yes, and you can be sure the coffers will be full today.”

Root laughed. “The money is good, Elizabeth, but the opportunity to shape this community, to lead these lost sheep, that is the real reward.” He nodded to her and she took her seat, on the front pew, showing she was his most ardent fan.

The singing stopped and Root took the pulpit. “My new neighbors!” he began. “I am most happy and excited to be your minister, your leader as you forge your way through this violent and unstable world. Rest assured that you can always come to me for my support.” He introduced his wife and Elizabeth stood, turning to face the congregation for a moment before demurely re-taking her seat. She faced her husband, her eyes bright with admiration.

Root began his sermon in ernest. “My children, my first few days in Green River have brought me distressing news. By now I am sure you have heard of the horrible display in neighboring Morro Coyo not that long ago. Why a wild gunfight, in the middle of the street, in the presence of innocent young women and children! I am sure that you, as much as I, abhor this violence.”

Scott glanced at Murdoch, a questioning look in his eyes. Murdoch shrugged. They returned their attention to the minister.

Reverend Root continued. “Yet, it happened, and when it was over, there was cheering and good will for the victor. My children, please understand that such violence and temper must not be rewarded. For the Bible says, in Proverbs chapter 16, verse 29 ‘A violent man enticeth his neighbour, and leadeth him into the way that is not good.'

“While I understand that the man who died was a known man of violence, the ruthless gunfighter Day Pardee, the man who slew him was also a killer, a notorious gunman in his own right, a man well-known for his sins, the infamous Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch froze. Scott gritted his teeth. Abby gripped his hand.

“My children, this cannot continue!” The minister admonished. “The admiration and cheers brought to the sinner Madrid is just what the Lord warned in Proverbs. Madrid deceived the good people of that town, and maybe some of you as well, and led them and maybe some of you to reward him for his sinful deeds.”

Murdoch glanced around furtively, noticing the subtle and not-so-subtle nods of the congregation. He could see a muscle in Scott's jaw working, indicating his anger. Abby held his hand tightly and busied herself by smoothing the wrinkles in her skirt. Sam frowned but Aggie's face was unreadable. Both Selena and Teresa showed outward shock. Murdoch turned back to face the minister.

Root went on: “Proverbs 22, verses 24 and 25 goes on to advise that you ‘make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man thou shalt not go: lest thou learn his ways, and get a snare to thy soul.' This means, my friends, that you should not befriend the likes of the evil Johnny Madrid. You could begin to follow his sinful habits and the Lord may turn away from you. The very fact that the good citizens of Morro Coyo cheered Madrid is evident that he has already become friendly with them, and those who follow him may already be in his trap. You must not be like them.”

It took Abby's quiet hand squeezing Scott's to keep him from standing up and walking out. She slowly shook her head when he glanced at her. He drew a deep breath and kept his seat.

The minister concluded: “It is your duty to turn away from such people, to let them know they are outcasts, not suitable for civilized society, until they repent from their sins, express regret for their past actions and a have a desire for change. Then only can we permit such men to walk our streets, among our innocents and young women, and into our hearts and lives. Let us pray.”

Root began a long prayer beseeching the Lord to forgive those taken in by Madrid and others like him, begging forgiveness for the sins of the people of Green River and Morro Coyo. He concluded by invoking God's wrath upon those who continue to befriend evildoers.

At the conclusion of the service, the congregation murmured. Murdoch heard sounds of agreement with the minister, some louder than others. They filed outside, to greet and be greeted by Reverend Root. Most expressed their approval with the sermon, at finally having a community leader intent on ridding the area of violent men and making the streets safe for all.

Scott and Abby joined the crowd, but evaded the reverend by exiting through the side door in the bay leading to Church Street. It was raining by then; a steady fall making them all miserable. Scott jogged to their carriage to retrieve a tarp to put over Abby's head.

Murdoch usually would have at least shaken the minister's hand as he walked out of the church and making a positive comment, but today he did not. He merely nodded at the young reverend and walked out into the rain, placing his hat on his head and pulling on his gloves. Scott met him with protection for Aggie and the six of them walked back to their respective carriages.

Murdoch was silent as they left the church. Aggie was smart enough not to bother him when he brooded like this. She knew him well and realized the minister's words had an affect on him, and it wasn't a good one.

+++NOTE: Charles Grandison Finney was a leader in revivalist ministry, and a believer in the Christian Perfectionism movement, where the born-again Christian achieves perfection by faith alone, filling his/her heart with a total love of Christ and others. Salvation and repentance are overwhelming themes of his teachings. He and his first wife, Lydia Root Andrews, had six children. Finney was president of Oberlin College from 1851-1866.

I gave the minister Timothy Root a pedigree involving Finney. I made him related through a grandfather, who I have as the brother of Lydia Root Andrew's mother, hence the common surname “Root.” He would have been greatly influenced by his charismatic “relative.”

 

The Murdoch Dialogues

The rain continued to fall during their journey back to Aggie's ranchhouse, the clouds opening up on them like Root had done in his sermon. They drove back carefully, lest a horse stumble on the wet ground and fall. No one talked, letting the events of the morning sink in, like the wind and rain were doing now.

Huddled under the blankets and the tarps, they all managed to stay reasonably dry on the trip, but Aggie's hat got ruined by the rain as she hurried from the buggy to her front door, and Teresa stepped into a puddle, soaking her slipper. The small accidents seemed to punctuate the good reverend's sermon even more.

They had lunch at her ranch, giving the teen girls a chance to visit more. Selena was getting better daily, becoming happier and more accepting of her life now. Of course, she still missed her family, but Aggie had worked wonders with the girl. She and Teresa spent their time together in Selena's room, chatting like teenage girls like to do.

After the meal, Aggie took Murdoch to the barn, avoiding the weather as much as possible. “Come see my new foal,” she invited, although that was not the reason she wanted Murdoch Lancer alone.

“He got to you, didn't he?” she started when they entered the dark, cool barn. They were alone, the sounds of the raindrops amplified by the barn's tin rooftop. The smell of hay was sweet and slightly damp. Aggie rubbed her upper arms.

“Who?”

“Reverend Root. What he said about Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch remained silent. She'd hit a nerve.

“Well, he may be off his mental reservation, but if you ask me, Murdoch, the man's drawn a line in the sand.”

“What do you mean?”

“He's made Johnny Madrid the enemy, along with anyone who's aligned themselves with him. And Root has dared the good people of Green River to come down hard against not only Madrid, but against Madrid's friends as well.”

She waited. Murdoch gritted his teeth.

“And that includes us, my friend.”

“You?” He spun around, facing her. “No, not you. Madrid was helping me.”

“Yes, but I was there, too. I declared myself squarely on your side, along with Madrid. We were your allies. Both he and I fought for you.”

“If the reverend makes an issue out of this—” Murdoch stopped.

“Go on.”

Murdoch expelled a deep breath. “I could be ruined. Scott would be also, and their baby as well.”

“But when Madrid leaves...”

“He isn't leaving. He's helping us get answers.”

“What do you mean? I thought he was going.”

“He and Scott think it's important to find out who hired Pardee. He's been searching Pardee's hideout for clues. Right now, he's on his way to Visalia; he thinks he has way to find a name, or maybe discover some information about the stolen stallion. He'll be back.”

“Why didn't you stop him? Send word not to bother with this investigation, or be truthful and warn him about Reverend Root.”

“I'm not sure I want to stop him. And Scott and Johnny are—,” he hesitated.

“Are what? Friends?”

Murdoch breathed shallow breaths. Did he dare tell her? Would she understand?

“Are they more than friends, Murdoch?” Aggie's voice had grown small, almost girlish.

He didn't answer.

“Murdoch?”

His eyes slid shut. “Yes,” he breathed, the words barely a whisper.

“Are they...brothers?”

Murdoch's eyes flew open. He gasped at her. “You ...knew?”

Aggie shrugged. “I guessed as much. He looks a lot like his mother. And you always kept her picture on your desk, along with Catherine's. It's gone now. I figured something must have happened to make you remove it. It made sense.”

“But...” he had no words.

Aggie smiled. “Does it bother me? Not one darn bit. He's a good man, in spite of his profession. And you know I don't give one whit about a man's past. It's how he behaves today that's important. He came through for you. That's enough for me.”

Murdoch managed a weak smile. “Thank you,” he breathed.

“Don't mention it. Does anyone else know?”

“Sam, Scott and Abby. And Maria. She guessed it, too. When she saw him.”

“Okay, Murdoch. I'll keep your secret. But with Reverend Root, I don't know how long you can keep it yourself.”

“I'll never tell,” he vowed.

Aggie laughed. “Never say never, my friend.”


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Truth was, Murdoch was less angry about Root's sermon than he was embarrassed. He himself had said roughly the same words to Johnny on their last conversation. He, too, had wanted the gunman to express regrets, in other words, repent, and his son had not. Murdoch had dismissed Johnny then much as the minister asked his congregation to do to unrepentant sinners.

But now, seeing his own feelings expressed in a slightly different way, with a slightly different goal, made him seem shallow and pompous, that if someone couldn't live up to his high standards, well, then that person just wasn't worthy of his companionship.

He understood Root's sermon quite well, his own father had droned the message to him as a youth, and while it held godly aspirations, those teachings seemed less important here in the dynamic West where someone could just move to a new area and begin life anew than they had been in the Old Country, or even in the East.

Still, the message made sense. How could someone honestly change their life if they didn't express regret or ask forgiveness—at least to themselves? And if they did not do that requirement, how were others to know of their redemption or their salvation?

Root's delivery made the passage seem autocratic and domineering, and a person's adherence to it to be arrogant and egotistical. That was not his belief. He had been taught, and he firmly believed, that repentance was merely the necessary first step toward redemption. After a transgression, one could simply not go on as if everything was fine without first apologizing to someone—the injured party, to God, to himself.

Had he failed to get the entire message to Johnny in much the same manner as Root had today? Had he emphasized the repentance to such a degree that he'd come across as egotistical? He didn't know. He hoped not, for that was not his intention. He wished no ill will toward his son; in fact, he wanted the young man at home, where he belonged.

Root may want the same thing, but somehow he doubted it. The man was good at rallying his troops, as a good minister should, but that ability coupled with his fiery message made him a dangerous man as well. He would have to be watched.

And he, Murdoch, would have to try again to reach his younger son, to make him realize his obligations in the Christian world, even if all Johnny did was to make the necessary steps privately and only to God. That would be good enough for Murdoch.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“I take it you understood the not-so-veiled threat against us today in church?” Scott asked Murdoch. They were back at Lancer, having made the wet trek late in the afternoon. It was after supper and everyone else had gone to bed, wanting it to be tomorrow already and the rain gone. Only the two men sat next to the dying fire sipping their Scotch.

“Yes, I did.”

“That sanctimonious man! How dare he! Why he judged Johnny guilty. Without even knowing him!”

“Scott, calm down, son. You won't be able to sleep if you get all riled up.”

Scott banged his fist on the arm of his chair. “But we should be alarmed, sir.”

“We are on notice, that is clear. But I think ‘alarmed' is going a bit far.”

He gritted his teeth. “What are we to do, then?”

“We wait.” Murdoch sipped his drink.

“For?”

“To see what happens next. I'll wager Root didn't necessarily want to start a war, but to gather his flock against a common enemy. A little law and order wouldn't hurt Green River, or Morro Coyo either. Sam told me today that Visalia is getting a US Marshal. If we would have had that resource before, things may have been different.

“This is good.” Scott nodded. “When is this marshal arriving?”

“A week, maybe two, Sam said. It'll be nice having law and order just a few days' ride away.”

Scott stood up. “But until then, we have Reverend Root stirring up trouble.”

“Yes, the reverend, well.. the point of his message is good. He just chose Johnny Madrid as his fodder.”

“No, it was more than that.”

“Maybe. That's another thing we'll have to wait on.”

Scott turned around and stared at his father. “Aren't you just a little bit angry?”

Murdoch stood. “I was, yes. But remaining all upset about it won't help. There isn't anything we can do, and the good reverend does have a point. It's best that we stay calm and play it out. Isn't that what Johnny would suggest?”

Scott was about to reply but stopped. Of course Johnny would. He sighed. “You're right. Johnny would take that route. We'll wait.”

“And watch,” Murdoch advised.

“Yes, definitely watch. And watch out.”

“I'll drink to that.” Murdoch lifted his glass.

 

Torres of Rain

Barranca walked over one of the wooden bridges that led into Goshen that Sunday evening. Goshen, a small town on a marshy island, was the current terminus of the Southern Pacific railroad. A spur line heading east was under construction by a private company to Visalia, the largest town between Stockton and Los Angeles.

Southern Pacific had selected Goshen as its terminal over neighboring Visalia because Goshen was largely unsettled and the railroad would have more control over the land. Additionally, Visalia, some nine miles west, was farther out of the way for the railroad and would have cost them more money to build there.

But right now, a very tired and wet Johnny Madrid didn't care about the railroad or its interests. He was only concerned with his own wellbeing and that of his horse. He began looking for Goshen's livery.

He had originally planned to make it all the way to Visalia by tonight, but like the previous day, the weather had not cooperated; it rained most of the way. Johnny was cold and wet and so was Barranca. Two days of grey skies and rain made Johnny feel rusted. Luckily, he found a good livery quickly and secured provisions for his golden amigo . He brushed the palomino dry and gave him plenty of fresh hay, oats and water.

Now all Johnny had to find was food and lodging for himself. Goshen was larger than Green River, but not by much. It boasted only one hotel, though—the Tule Grass Inn—so Johnny entered that establishment. He arranged for a room and a hot bath.

An hour later and changed into dry clothing, a clean and soothed Johnny Madrid emerged from the hotel in search of sustenance. He wanted a good cantina, but in this small town, more Anglo than Mexican, he doubted he would find such a place. His fears were realized, as he neared the end of the main street. There were only two choices, both promising gringo fare. Resigned to the blander food, Johnny selected the one closer to his hotel and entered.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny rose late the next morning; the sun was already warming his window. He could have slept longer had not an annoying sunbeam been to torturing his eyelids. He yawned sleepily, stretching his body to force it to rouse.

Normally, Johnny had no problem waking, but after the two days of inclement weather, all he'd wanted to do was get warm and dry and stay that way. He wasn't used to rain and cold; Mexico and the southwestern US didn't have much of a rainy season. And rainy weather always made him feel depressed, lethargic and cranky. He was glad the sun was out today.

His wet clothing, which he'd rinsed out the previous evening and hung up against the window, had now dried, the sun finishing the job and giving the dark concho pants welcomed warmth as Johnny slipped into them this morning.

He took out the map and studied it once more. Not that he needed it. He'd studied it so many times on his journey, careful to keep it dry in the rain. Visalia. Venice Hills. Ortega. He knew it all. And it didn't say much. He hoped it would be enough, though, to find something, anything, to make this miserable trip worthwhile. He gathered his belongings and checked out of his hotel.

He finished a quick breakfast of bacon, eggs and biscuits at the same gringo cafe he'd eaten the previous night. It was filling and the coffee hot.

He set out toward Visalia, some nine or ten miles away, but it would take him three or so hours. While the sun was out, the road was still quite muddy from the previous rain and going was slower than usual. Johnny did not want to risk injury to his horse on the crowded, rutted road. He kept Barranca to a walk. For once, the horse didn't mind walking. It was as if he understood the reason for it. Either that, or he, like his master, hadn't liked the weather nor the subsequent slipperiness of the muddy road as a result.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Ignacio Torres spent the morning at the Lancer hacienda. Abby told him excitedly about their decision. They would re-purpose the west wing into a large bedroom for themselves and a full nursery, with access to the nursery via a private corridor. The nursery would be large enough to house several children, and have a room for a governess. It was the best of both worlds. And the fact that it was farther away from the family was proving to be an asset, not a liability, as the work would be loud, and so would the children.

They drew up plans until Scott and Abby both liked them, making a few suggestions for changes they wanted. By late afternoon, they had most of the problems ironed out. Work could begin soon.

Ignatio promised to hire only the best men, men he trusted, who would do an excellent job. Abby made sure that he understood they were to clean up after themselves daily; she didn't want to make extra work for Maria. Scott promised a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. Ignatio left them smiling.

 

Miss Kitty

Scott drove the wagon into Morro Coyo, going to Mendez Supply to meet with Ignacio—”Nacho” as they now called him—Torres to purchase the first items for the changes to the hacienda. The preliminary plans were drawn and he wanted to begin deconstructing the upper floor of the west wing right away. It was a lot of work and he needed to make sure it was completed before the baby's arrival.

Scott and Abby's plans involved completely remaking the second floor of the west wing from a series of bedrooms with a central hall into two main areas: a large master suite with a sitting alcove and oversize wardrobe space, and an even larger nursery area, featuring four bedroom recesses, an enclosed room for a governess and a large central play and learning area for the children.

The nursery could be accessed in two ways. Scott and Abby could walk from their suite down a small, private, connecting hallway along the outside wall or anyone could get to the nursery from the main wing hallway, which would be relocated from the center of the wing to the inside wall.

It would accommodate up to four children at one time. Should they have more, or as the children grew older and no longer needed the nursery, they would address that issue at that time.

Abby busied herself with selecting fabrics and color schemes for the rooms. She ordered catalogs with ideas and supplies; realizing that just about everything would have to be ordered from either the East or possibly San Francisco. Mrs. Baldemero in Morro Coyo offered to help her with coordinating the ordering.

Teresa shared in the planning as well and, of course, Murdoch got in on the discussions, suggesting various woods from local forests, recommending other craftsmen and women who may prove useful to the project.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny entered Visalia late in the afternoon and selected a small hotel on the outskirts of town. He boarded Barranca close by, not wanting to go into the heart of the town. He didn't want to alert the population of his presence. He preferred to be as inconspicuous as possible. Hard to do, he realized, but he would try his best.

In his hotel room, Johnny changed clothing again, into his plainest pants—no conchos—and light blue shirt he'd taken from Scott's room. He wanted to fit in, as much as possible. He hoped that change would be enough, with Visalia being so metropolitan, for the West, anyway.

Visalia was located on the western edge of the Sequoia Valley, a region known for agriculture. Many small and large farms operated out of the town. And it was close to the Sierra Nevada mountains, the tallest range in the United States. It had been founded only twenty years ago as Four Creeks. A pioneer named Nathaniel Vise built a fort and named the growing community after his ancestral home in Visalia, Kentucky.

And grown it had. For in that small span of time Four Creeks had become Visalia, the largest and most important town between Los Angeles and Stockton. It boasted many hotels and establishments, and drew businessmen, farmers and ranchers from the entire southern San Joaquin on a daily basis. It was the seat of government for nearly the entire valley. And it was just the kind of place Johnny  Madrid preferred to avoid.

Johnny found a small cafe and strode inside, ordering his lunch and eating quietly and quickly. He had other plans for the afternoon. He needed information about a farm and there were two possible sources. The first choice, the Land Agent, was one he loathed to visit. That meant officials and officials always kept records, remembered visitors, particularly those who asked questions. Johnny did not like that.

His other choice was to gain information in a roundabout way, from someone who may not have all the answers, but could provide some, and be discreet about it. Someone who would not reveal his visit or the nature of it. He needed a bordello.

Brothels were always a good choice for information-gathering. Most of the time, the women would be grateful for the chance to talk rather than perform, so they tended to be more than willing to share their knowledge. Also, clients tended to spill secrets to that type of lady, and most of the girls, while not admitting it, would tell on their johns for a price. He'd learned a long time ago not to reveal much to a whore.

Johnny set about to find such a house. He didn't have to look far. Down a side street and across an alley he found Sophie's Room and Board. Although the name suggested a legitimate lodger, he had learned better. The place looked like its name suggested with its homey curtains he could see on its windows, but he realized that was for the benefit of those on the outside. Once in, he saw it for what it was: a whorehouse.

He saw four girls, two of them entertaining men, one behind a bar and another sashaying toward him. “Get you a drink, cowboy?” the girl asked coyly. She looked too young to be a working girl, but her low-cut garish dress told him otherwise.

Johnny smiled at her, his most charming smile. It had an effect: the girl melted, releasing an audible “ohh” from her lips as she kind of went into a daze. Surprised by her reaction, he realized it was not quite what he wanted. The girl was too young for that particular smile. He toned it down a little.

“Yes, tequila would be fine,” he murmured. She reluctantly turned away to get his drink.

Another woman, the one from behind the bar approached next. “I'm Kitty. I run this place. Who can I get for ya, handsome?”

Kitty was older, red-headed, and definitely someone who may be able to help him. He turned that charming smile on again, full-blast this time. “Are you available?” he asked boyishly.

Kitty smiled, totally captivated. “For you, handsome, anytime.” She extended her arm and Johnny, into his role now, kissed the back of her hand. Kitty laughed. “Oh, you are a charmer!” It was working. She led him upstairs, stopping only for a few seconds while he collected his drink from the still-swooning younger girl.

Her room, a small, but tidy white box, contained minimal furniture: the requisite bed, a small dresser and an even smaller chair and table. The bed quilt was white and red, fashioned in a double wedding ring design, and Johnny smiled at the irony.

He finished his tequila and she offered him more, from her private stash. He declined, displaying his smile again. He needed to be direct with her from the beginning, but was unsure of her reaction. Sometimes when he wanted information from a whore, she balked, as if offended. Other times, she was relieved to have an easy client.

“What I really want, Kitty, is some information.” There, it was out. How would she react?

“What kind of information?” Kitty asked reservedly.

This one was smart. He couldn't tell if she was happy or not. “Nothing scandalous, I assure you. I need information about a farm or ranch. Some time ago; I'm not sure if it's been only months or a few years. What happened to it, where I could find the hacienda or farmhouse.”

“Is that all?”

Boy, she was a coy one. “For now,” he smiled again.

“Why don't you try the Land Office?”

“Well...I want someone more discreet.”

“I see.” Kitty poured herself a drink. “Well, it'll cost you.”

He was expecting that. “I'm prepared to pay. Your time is valuable.”

That did the trick. They agreed upon a price, Johnny put the money on her table and they sat down, he on the bed; she pulled the rickety chair over.

“How can I help you?” She leaned in. Had he been in the mood, he would have enjoyed the view she displayed. Her low-cut dress left little to his imagination.

He jerked his mind off her wares and showed her the map. “Does this name mean anything to you: Ortega?”

Kitty held up the old paper. “Maybe.” She traced her fingers over the upside down V's next to the words ‘Vennis Hills' and tapped them. “It's spelled V-E-N-I-C-E. Like the place in Italy,” she told him.

Johnny didn't tell her he already knew. He knew better than to interrupt.

She went on. “This could be the Ortega Ranch. It was a small place, maybe 5,000 acres. They had only a few cattle; mostly grew crops. It was more of a farm than a ranch.”

He leaned forward. “You speak as if it's gone. What happened?”

“Well, they sold out. I can't remember who bought it. But whoever it was, they sold parts of it to the two bordering farms. Tore down the barn and other buildings. Sold all the equipment. The hacienda is probably still there, though. It was adobe.”

“Any idea where it is?”

Kitty shook her head. “Probably along the St. John's river. That's north of here a little. Around these Venice Hills.” She tapped the map. “They are East of town. Can't miss ‘em. But the Land Office would know exactly where.”

Johnny shook his head. “No. No land office.” He folded up the map and rose. “Anyone else come around, say a few months ago maybe, and ask questions about this place?”

Kitty cocked her head to the left. A few seconds later her eyebrows rose. “Come to think of it,” she said thoughtfully. “Someone did. Not as handsome as you, cowboy, but a man who wore his gun low like you. Dirty. Smelly, too. And he didn't pay the girl, either. Scum ran out on her.”

“Did she remember his name?” Johnny knew it was far-fetched, but he had to try.

Kitty smiled. “You don't visit cathouses often, do you?”

He laughed. “I was hoping I'd get lucky.”

“Well,” Kitty stood, smiling knowingly. “If you want to get lucky, it'll cost you another two dollars.”

He laughed again. “I'll keep you in mind.” He took her hand and kissed it. “Thank you.”

The woman blushed, to her own surprise. “No, thank you ,” she replied. Before he left her her room, she grasped his arm and pulled him closer to her bosom. “You sure that's all you want, honey?”

Johnny glanced down at her chest; it was ample and ripe. He'd love a romp, but he was here on business. He smiled. “It isn't that you're not charming, or that I'm not interested, Kitty, but I'm working today.”

She smiled fetchingly. “One can always mix business with pleasure.” She drew a painted nail along his arm. It sent shivers up his spine.

“Yes, I suppose one could.” He grinned. He considered taking in her delights; it wouldn't be inconvenient, but it would delay him and he was curious to see what was going on at that hacienda. “Maybe another time,” he kissed her hand again, sighing as he closed the door on her.

 

Plata Viento

The midday sun was heating the back of Johnny's shirt as he rode out of Visalia—the same direction he'd come. Again, he didn't want to attract attention. Even dressed as he was, in plain black pants and his brother's blue shirt, the palomino stood out. So did the way he wore his Colt. People were bound to notice. He didn't want to ride through the town, even though it was a more direct route to where the Ortega farm had been.

He'd checked out of his hotel after leaving Kitty, intent on riding around the town, through the magnificent oak forests to its north. Still wishing to be as invisible as possible, he again resisted the land office, favoring to try to find the Ortega hacienda by himself.

He considered everything Kitty had told him. So someone had asked about Ortega's place before. From what she said it made sense that it was one of Pardee's men. Maybe that's when they brought the horse here. It was entirely possible that the stallion was hidden in this area and he had a map leading directly to it!

Within an hour he found the St. John's river. It flowed west, like all the other rivers in this part of the San Joaquin; its source somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range. They were breathtaking and he found it difficult to keep his eyes off their snow-covered peaks directly in front of him.

He followed the river eastward. Once he was past the town, he began to look for a road or path or some indication of one which may lead to where the hacienda could be. He could see the Venice Hills directly ahead, foothills to the majestic Sierras, and knew it was somewhere between where he was and those hills. He also reasoned that there probably wasn't too many other roads in this area. Another several minutes of riding and he found what he thought was it.

The path was overgrown, with grass and weeds growing over its ruts, but it was a road nonetheless, a north-south road. He guessed it would intersect with the main road out of Visalia going East. It's destination had to be the Ortega hacienda.

He crossed the river and followed the path, sure with each passing mile that he was on the right one. However, when it began to peter out late in the afternoon, he realized this was not the correct road. He doubled back to the river, riding Barranca at a canter. By the time he returned to the river, it was near dark. He made a quick camp, tended to his horse and rustled up some bacon and beans for his dinner.

It was cold that evening. He pulled his blanket snug over him and moved his bedroll a little closer to the fire. While still in the valley, the higher altitude this close to the Sierras influenced the nighttime chill. He wished he'd stayed another night in his hotel and it's soft, warm bed, or better yet, shared Kitty's, where he'd not only be warm and cozy under that double wedding-ring designed quilt, but sexually sated as well.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Early the next morning Johnny started out again, heating up his leftover beans and bacon for breakfast with plenty of hot, steaming coffee. He needed it, both to wake up and to warm up. It was still cold, but he knew it would warm up quickly and soon he would be sweating.

Even Barranca was sluggish today. He didn't seem to want to start moving. “You miss your nice, warm barn?” Johnny asked the animal. “That lean-to was cozy, too.” He petted the horse. “You'll soon be sleeping in more comfort, boy, I promise.” Barranca snorted in reply.

He again followed the river, this time on the north bank, still heading eastward, with the Venice Hills in his sights. About an hour later he found another path, also looking rather abandoned, but not as much as the one yesterday. Yet, he followed it, heading north.

He had to try all these paths for he didn't know which one may lead him to his goal. He hoped to find the old Ortega hacienda that had been left standing. That was his best place for a clue. He wasn't sure what he would find there, maybe nothing, but he'd come all this way, he may as well see it through.

This time the path didn't peter out. It remained as overgrown as before, some places more so than others, but still a highly discernible road. The grass on either side was nearly hip high and Johnny was glad to be atop his horse and have such a good view of the landscape.

It was more rolling hills, like at Lancer, only this time not as many, nor were they as high. This had definitely been farm land. Ortega may have had a few cattle, but mostly he grew crops, of that Johnny was sure. He could still see deep ruts in the grasses where the fields had once been plowed.

The sun was high in the sky when he rounded a curve and saw it, an old two-story hacienda in the distance. It was fully encased in an adobe wall, just like the Spanish haciendas of old that he'd seen in Mexico as a child. There were no outbuildings, nothing but the hacienda and its surrounding wall. It looked deserted. This had to be it.

Johnny found a copse of oaks and hid Barranca, taking off his hat and watering the animal. He pulled several long drinks himself; he was thirsty. He waited in the shade, watching the old hacienda for any sign of life, but the high adobe walls prevented him from seeing much, just the L-shaped hacienda, an oak tree in the center of the front courtyard, and two arched gateways, one in front of the hacienda, one on its south side. The southern entrance, being twice as wide, must have been where the stables once stood.

Johnny waited the rest of the day, taking a snack of jerky strips under his hideout among the trees. It cooled off under the shade and they were perfectly hidden. If this place held some clue to find the stallion or Day's employer, there must be someone around, or someone who would come in due time.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny's patience was rewarded about an hour before dusk when a rider approached from the north. Johnny watched him—a teen boy—tie his horse outside the front gate and use a key to gain entrance. The boy opened the gate carefully and slid in quickly, as if he didn't want to be noticed. Johnny couldn't see over the adobe walls to discover what, if anything, was inside. From this distance he couldn't hear anything either. So he waited. Again.

About a half-hour later, the boy emerged from hacienda's walls, opening and shutting the same gate with ease, again locking it back up and mounting his horse, riding back in the direction from which he came. Johnny waited until he was out of sight.

It was near dusk. If he was going to make his move, it had to be now. Johnny left Barranca under the trees and ran through the thigh-high grass toward the hacienda. He crouched as he ran, just in case the boy turned around and returned. He needn't have bothered; the boy was long gone.

As Johnny approached the hacienda more details became clear. The adobe wall rose to two heights; about twelve feet high to the north of the main gate, about ten feet high until the second gate, then rising again to twelve around the back. Vines and bushes were overgrown in front of, and rising over, the adobe span. The hacienda's roof was in need of repair; he noticed at least two patches where the red Spanish tile was missing.

He stopped at the main gate to listen. He had to focus on his breathing first and get it under control. He heard nothing. It was like a ghost house, yet Johnny knew something was there or else a rider wouldn't have entered so cautiously. He listened again, pressing his ear to the wood of the gate. This time his trained ears picked up soft sounds, but was unable to make them out.

Johnny examined the lock. It was new. Now he was certain something valuable was inside. He tried to pick it, but was unsuccessful. Needing another way in, he examined the shrubbery. Most of the vines around the adobe wall were bougainvillea, a lovely green climber with vibrant reddish blooms. But Johnny knew the beautiful bougainvillea hid multiple sharp thorns which would rip him to shreds. He looked for another way over the wall.

He found an unpruned grapevine espalier, trained in an octopus pattern. It was overgrown, but the sturdy vines would provide him with a ladder. Johnny also knew that such untended vegetation could be unstable. He tested it first, and climbed carefully, misstepping once and almost falling.

When he reached the top, he was rewarded with a view of a once-beautiful courtyard. Circling the stately old oak in the center was a planter base of more adobe, about a foot or two high to provide seating for anyone so inclined. He saw a couple of oversized urns that had evidently once stood in the corners of the courtyard, but now lay on their side, one of them cracked open, its shards of clay strewn around it.

He noted with sadness an old, broken fountain against a staircase along the short side of the hacienda's L, its bright blue tile now faded. It surely had been a delightful feature in its heyday.

His eyes followed the staircase up. All the rooms on the second floor opened to a porch running the length of the hacienda shaded by its roof. Most of the doors were missing; the only one which looked serviceable was partially open. No one had been in any of them, he bet, for months, if not a year or more. It had just been left, abandoned, with no care at all.

Looking downstairs, he saw the sala of the house on the first floor. It featured a large picture window facing the courtyard. Many of its frames were broken. The front door was ajar, but from where he was on the wall it seemed to be in decent shape. There was another door on the staircase wall, between the fountain and the porch. That door was closed.

Johnny shimmied on the rim, sitting atop the wall; it is about a foot wide. He looked for a way to climb back up the wall before jumping down. He didn't want to be trapped inside. He saw a vine with white flowers growing on the far side of the wall, and since he'd never seen bougainvillea with white blooms, he assumed it would be a safe choice.

Johnny dropped down onto the courtyard. It was mostly dirt now, hardly any grass grew and what did grow, was cropped short. He also saw hoof prints in the dirt, and plenty of them. His hopes rose as he realized that a horse lived here. But where? The stables had been torn down.

He looked around, peering through the front picture window. There was bits of furniture in the sala : an old bench, a rustic table and very little else. What was there was broken. Even the fireplace looked unused. Johnny skulked to the door under the staircase. He listened. Hearing the same soft noises again, this time louder, he concluded this must be where the animal is hidden. But who would hide a horse in a room of a house?

Johnny examined this lock. It, too, was new, and looked just like the one on the gate. He tried to pick it, again with no luck. With darkness closing in, he felt he had few options, so he lifted his Colt and, standing to one side, fired at the lock. It fell to the ground in pieces, swinging the door wide. It banged on an opposite wall and bounced back.

Inside a horse neighed wildly, and Johnny heard the unmistakable sound of heavy hoof beats. Was this the grey stallion? He threw open the door again and the animal ran out, its silvery coat shining even in this dim light.

Johnny approached the horse cautiously. The stallion's eyes were wide and wild-looking; he was clearly afraid. Johnny's soothing voice soon had the animal calmed. Lighting a match, Johnny examined his coat. The stallion's condition needed tending; he clearly needed more exercise. Johnny surmised that he was only allowed in the courtyard area around the hacienda each day; not enough for a robust stallion such as this.

He examined the horse's left flank. Johnny saw a brand, but it wasn't one he'd seen before. It was some sort of a design in a circle. He lit another match and brought it closer. Only then did he see evidence of double-branding. Some sort of brand was applied on top of what looked like a Lancer L. He had found Plata Viento.

 

Love and Pain and the Whole Sam Thing

Sam Jenkins arrived at Lancer late in the afternoon. He drove his little black buggy in the courtyard, coming to a halt in front of the main door. A Lancer hand greeted him and led his black mare to the barn.

Sam glanced around the busy hacienda. A couple of hands were sharpening implements, another small group was at the corral working on the new horses, the children of the hands who lived in the cottages and outbuildings ran around playing tag over near the other side of the barn. It was nice to see the ranch back to normal business; he was glad all that horrible mess with Pardee was over.

Sam had come to examine Abby and a couple of Lancer men who had been in scrapes earlier. He planned to stay for dinner and have a talk with Murdoch. Ever since Sunday services he'd been anxious to speak with his friend, but Murdoch had left so suddenly after church he didn't get a chance then.

Not that it would have been a good idea. He saw Murdoch taking furtive glances around the congregation, noticed Scott's reined-in anger, and he realized how upsetting parts of the sermon had been for his friend. He'd learned a long time ago to leave the man alone in that state, to give him a couple of days to think about it, then have a discussion.

He knocked on the door and a smiling Abby opened it wide for him. “Good afternoon, Sam. We've been expecting you. The injured men are in the guest cottage.” She led him to the small house adjacent to the hacienda. It had been the home of Teresa and her father, before he was killed.

“Sam!” Murdoch stood when he saw Sam at the cottage door. “Come on in. It seems like young Cal and José here got themselves tangled in some thorny brush. Cal injured his ankle trying to get out of it. Teresa and Abby have been tending them, but we're all anxious for you to take a look. Some of these cuts look mean.”

Sam took over the medical duties, caring for the men, cleaning out the wounds, applying salves and such. He examined Cal's tender ankle and found it sprained so he wrapped it well and told him to stay off of it for a week.

Outside the cottage he let Murdoch know the situation. “Keep José here at the hacienda a day or two, Murdoch. He can work, just close to home. The bandages  on the cuts on both of them need to be checked several times a day. We don't want an infection to set in. Cal needs to have that foot propped up for about seven days. He's to keep it wrapped. Light duties after that first week.”

Murdoch agreed and promised to give his men the proper care. It didn't make sense to do anything otherwise. He needed his men healthy. Cal could help Maria shuck peas or something for dinner while he sat. That would give the young man something to do so he wouldn't go stir crazy.

Teresa took over the nursing duties while Sam examined Abby in her bedroom. Scott was in the room with her. “Well, Abby, it looks like you are growing a healthy young Lancer there,” he said as he put away his stethoscope. “Don't lift anything heavy and keep resting as often as you need it. You're going to be tired a lot; that's natural. You'll be fine.” The young woman smiled. He turned to Scott. “She's doing wonderfully, Scott. Healthy as a horse.” He knew Scott's history and understood if the young man had some trepidation about his wife's impending childbirth. “Have you been sick at all, Abby? Any nausea?”

Abby shook her head. “Nope. Not a bit. Just really, really tired.”

“Well, like I said, fatigue is natural. Just eat well and rest when you need it, otherwise, just go about your normal business. I'll want to take another look at you in a few weeks, but if you notice any bleeding or pain, send for me right away.”

Abby nodded. “Of course, Sam. Thank you for coming.”


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Sam followed Murdoch out the French doors and toward Teresa's herb garden. Dinner had been delicious, with everyone complementing Abby's cherry pie. On that back patio, the doctor glanced over the plantings, still visible in the fading light. There, still holding his glass of port, he felt it safe to breech a tender subject. “So, it seemed that you took some issue with our new minister's message yesterday.”

Murdoch gave a grunt. He pointed to the small path meandering through the garden took a step toward it. Sam followed.

“That much, I see.” Sam sipped his Scotch.

Murdoch grunted again. “Scott was livid. He kept it hidden at lunch while at Aggie's, but later that evening, he got a little out of hand. I had to calm him down.”

“That's understandable. Our new minister came down quite hard on Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch sat his glass down on an old stump. He eased himself onto the small adjacent bench. “Yes, he did.”

“But he had some good points, too.” Sam took the bench opposite Murdoch on the small path.

“Yes, yes. Green River—and Morro Coyo, too—need law and order.”

“But?” Sam leaned toward his friend.

“Not at the expense of creating a war among the congregation.”

Sam relaxed a little. “Is that what you think it was?”

“I definitely got an ‘us vs them' feeling.”

Sam let that digest, giving his friend time to expand.

“He made it clear that there's a line and whoever is standing next to Johnny Madrid is on the wrong side of it. And that includes us.”

“Maybe he's just trying to establish himself as a moral compass, a leader.”

“Moral compass, I can live with. That's his job. But if he feels he needs to fabricate an enemy just to make himself a leader, well, that's just wrong. You don't demonize someone like that. It isn't Christian.”

Sam shrugged. “He did have an awful lot of Bible verses supporting his point of view.”

Murdoch shook his head. “You mean he twisted them around to make his point. And to vilify Johnny to such extremes...that was hard to stomach.”

Sam smiled. “I seem to recall you doing the same thing a few weeks ago.”

Murdoch looked down. “Yes, I did. I was wrong to be so prejudiced, just as Reverend Root is wrong now. Johnny is a man who has done bad things, true, but he's not the devil incarnate like the minister implies. Even I never thought him to be that bad.”

Sam nodded, saying nothing. He let Murdoch think about that. A few minutes passed, he began again. “Speaking of the devil, do you know where Madrid is?”

“Yes. He's gone to Visalia. He found a map among the things left behind by Pardee's men. He thinks it may lead to something.”

“Visalia? Isn't that where our friend Buck Addison lives? The one who bought the old hotel and renovated it into a branch of his Cattleman's Hotel?”

“Yes. One and the same.”

Sam chuckled. “You think he'll stay in Addison's hotel?”

Murdoch threw back his head, laughing. “Now I'd like to see that. Someone as rough around the edges as Johnny Madrid in such fine and luxurious surroundings.”

Sam angled his head. “He might surprise you, Murdoch.”

Murdoch smiled. “He's done that before.” But his smile faded. Murdoch glanced away.

Sam noticed the change. “Something else bothering you?”

Murdoch said nothing. He rose and stood with his arms akimbo, staring out into the evening.

Sam smiled grimly. “I thought as much. Want to tell me?”

“It's about Johnny Madrid,” Murdoch reluctantly admitted.

“Something else about him?”

Murdoch turned toward Sam. “You know what the reverend said about how we should make sinners like Madrid outcasts...”

“Yes, he did say that.”

“...until they repent, want to change their life, become good citizens.”

“Yes.”

Murdoch expelled a breath and looked down. “Well, that's more or less what I told Johnny Madrid that last day he was here. I asked him if he had any regrets.”

Sam stood, surprised. “You did? Toward what purpose?”

“If he did, then he may want to change, make amends, and so forth. I could help him with that. I'd be able to accept him then.” His head rose, gazing at Sam.

“And therefore become a good citizen...and a good son.”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“Well, Murdoch, it seems you have a good deal in common with our new minister after all. Why were you so anxious then?”

Murdoch's voice betrayed frustration. “Because he said no. Johnny had no regrets. He doesn't want to change.” He clinched his fists.

Sam sat back, nodding. “Ah, I understand now. And with him not wanting to become that citizen who can walk among the innocents, you won't have the opportunity to be his savior, the one who can lead him into the light. Instead you feel you'll be blacklisted by your own friends in Green River. Particularly if they find out he's your son.”

Murdoch expelled a ragged breath. “Something like that.” He sounded defeated.

Sam scratched his head. “I'd say you have one heck of a problem, Murdoch. Have you told anyone else who Madrid is?”

“Yes. Aggie.”

“How did she take it?”

Murdoch chuckled. “Well, you know Aggie. She was feeling the ‘us vs them' too, with her on the ‘us' side. She'd already guessed his relationship to me.”

“Aggie is a good woman. And Johnny Madrid does look a lot like his mother.”

“That she is, and he definitely does.”

Sam waited a few minutes. “So, the question remains, my friend, what do you want to do regarding Johnny? Do you still insist on change?”

Murdoch ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I don't know. After he left I was so sad. I felt so empty. Worse than when Maria left before. I didn't know what to do. I was helpless, like I felt when I couldn't find Maria.” He sighed.

“Then came the news from Scott and Abby about the baby and I was overjoyed, elated, like I was when Catherine told me she was expecting.” He shook his head, remembering. “I've never gone from such depths to such heights in such a short time before. I'm usually well in control of my feelings, you know that.”

“You're confused.”

“Yes.”

Sam smiled. “Well, don't worry about it, Murdoch. Confusion tends to work itself out. Just enjoy this time now with the baby coming. Enjoy your feelings. Focus on the positive. You have much to be happy about.”

“And what about Reverend Root?”

“Let him be for now. Root may prove to be as popular as a wet dog at a parlor social.”

Somehow Murdoch doubted that. Root had too many sympathizers in the congregation today.

He nodded goodnight to his friend, purposely not mentioning everything he'd thought about yesterday. He wasn't ready to voice those feelings, those intentions just now. But he knew he wanted to talk to Johnny again when he returned. By then he would know what to say.

 

The Horse Thief

Johnny had a problem. Having found Plata Viento in such poor conditions he couldn't very well leave him in this abandoned and decaying hacienda, primarily alone and with only minimal care. Horses are social animals and need companionship; it was downright cruel to keep the stallion away from not only humans but other horses as well. He couldn't in good conscience leave him and continue his suffering.

Besides he'd blasted the lock off the damn door to the horse's ‘stall'. If he left the animal here after that little incident, the boy who cared for him— cared? Johnny snorted at that notion—would learn someone had been here. The horse would be moved. Johnny couldn't have that. He might never again find the animal. As it was, finding him was mostly luck.

Plus, he was sure the boy would report the missing horse to whoever wanted the grey stallion kept here—he'd have to or face dire consequences. Johnny doubted the boy was keeping Plata Viento alone at this hacienda for himself. So, he'd tell someone. And that someone just might put two and two together and come up with Lancer. Things might heat up there again. Johnny definitely didn't want that. Not with Abby being pregnant and all.

On the other hand, Johnny had never stolen a horse before in his life. He'd done a lot of other bad things, but he'd never resorted to horse thievery. He didn't feel comfortable doing so now, even if he was nearly one hundred percent certain this was Plata Viento , his own father's horse.

He stood for a moment, weighing his decision, staring down at the dirt in the old courtyard.

Leaving the horse there was morally wrong, he felt, and it perpetuated the original theft. It was bad for the horse and bad for Lancer.

Yet removing him was thievery in the eyes of the law. He could be hanged if caught. Hanging was a ghastly way to die; Johnny had always thought he'd go out in a gunfight, doing was he was best at.

Wrestling with himself, he thought of what Scott would do.

He knew Scott, being all proper and legal, would leave the horse here for now and ride immediately to the local sheriff in Visalia. He'd report the animal's condition and state his belief of the true owner. He'd get the sheriff to start an investigation. He'd do things by the book and get to the bottom of this.

Once it was proven that the horse was indeed Plata Viento, Scott would take possession of the animal and return him to Lancer with the law's blessing, maybe even with a deputy escort. He wouldn't go off half-cocked and just take the horse. Not Scott. He wouldn't even think about doing it that way.

But Johnny knew that doing it proper-like would take time. Lots of time. Lots of money, probably, and a great deal of legal effort. And who's to say whoever was keeping him here wouldn't steal him in the middle of it all and hide the horse from them all over again? Then they'd have to start from square one, and then they may not even find him a second time.

The horse needed better care now, that much was certain. Why not tend to the needs of the horse first, and leave the legal battles to the lawyers to sort out? Because no jury's going to give Johnny Madrid the benefit of the doubt; he could be hanged before all that was done, that's why.

Then there was the remote possibility that this horse wasn't Plata Viento . It was entirely possible—but not plausible—that he was just another grey stallion. In the darkness, he could have been mistaken about the overbranding. If Johnny just took the animal to Lancer and found out that he wasn't Murdoch's stallion, then Johnny would really be in trouble—and he wouldn't have a legal leg to stand on. It would take all of Murdoch's influence to help him and even though his father had seemed to have thawed when it came to him, he was still certain that Murdoch Lancer wouldn't go out on a legal and public limb for him. He'd be acting alone and he knew it.

Johnny drew a deep breath, agonizing over this moral dilemma for a full ten minutes. In the end, his desire to get the horse into better conditions and back with his rightful owner won out over his trepidation at being caught as a horse thief. Once he reached that conclusion, he acted decisively and quickly. He knew his time was limited before the authorities got involved. Johnny wasn't fond of being on the wrong end of a swinging rope.

He searched the animal's “room” and found a lead for his halter. Thank God for small miracles. He wouldn't have put it past the boy to have completely inadequate gear for the horse. The lead made his job a little easier.

Johnny called the grey to him, using his true name. At first the animal didn't respond, then to Johnny's near-constant urging in both Spanish and English, the horse lost his fear. He dropped his head and took that first tentative step.

Johnny didn't move; he didn't want to spook the horse. He kept up the soft Spanish and English mix with his hand held out, reaching toward the animal. Plata Viento took a second step, then a third. By then, Johnny felt it safe to approach the grey slowly, careful not to scare him. He didn't want him to bolt and have to start over.

Plata Viento responded positively. He must have decided that Johnny was a friend. He allowed Johnny to feel his soft muzzle and stroke his head then his neck. “There, there,” Johnny crooned. “I'm bringing you home, boy. Wanna go see Murdoch? He's been missing you.”

The horse answered by raising his head repeatedly and stomping the near-bare ground. Johnny laughed. Maybe Plata Viento understood him.

Snapping on the leather lead, Johnny led him to the side gate. “Let's go, boy. Gonna get you outta here.” Like the front, this gate was secured with a new lock as well. He could see it from behind in the gap between the two doors.

Johnny figured he'd have to blast this lock, like he did the one on the door. At least by destroying the lock on this gate instead of the one on the front gate, the boy wouldn't notice a problem for a few seconds longer. He felt pushed for time even though he was fairly certain the boy wouldn't return until morning.

Johnny knew that once he took the horse, he had to get out of the Visalia vicinity fast. The farther away he was by dawn the better. He'd have to ride all night, but he'd take it easy; he didn't think the stallion was in good enough condition for a hard run, not that he'd run the animals fast at night; it was just too dangerous, especially over open ground like this. He wasn't sure how far he'd be able to get at a slower pace, though. The last thing he needed was a posse after him.

Johnny gripped the animal tighter, soothing him again. “Okay, Plata , I'm gonna have to fire at this lock. It's going to make a lot of noise like I did before, but don't you be afraid. I have you. You're gonna be safe.” He held the lead with his left hand as he drew his gun with his right.

Johnny lifted his Colt carefully aimed between the gate. He wanted to hit only the padlock's shank, in order to make as little of a mess as possible. He fired. His aim was true and the body of the lock flew out and banged back against the wood. The double gate held; it opened only slightly due to gravity.

Plata Viento reared and neighed in fear, but Johnny held him. It took both hands to bring the horse's hooves down to earth. He crooned to the animal again, soothing his fears, stroking his soft muzzle.

Once the horse calmed down again, Johnny pushed open one side of the gate and led the animal out of the hacienda's courtyard into the tall grass. He closed the door and arranged the shank of the broken lock as if it were still locked. He wanted to conceal the damage he'd done so everything looked all right from a distance.

Johnny grabbed the animal's lead and guided him to the copse of trees where Barranca was hidden. He walked quickly in the dark. He elected not to ride the stallion for that short distance; he didn't want to take the risk of being thrown and losing the animal. He figured the grey was at least green-broke; he could tell by the way the horse reacted to him. At least Plata Viento was following him willingly.

They reached the copse without incident. Johnny tied the stallion to a tree branch while he saddled Barranca as fast as he could in the darkness. Once the palomino was readied, he grabbed his rope from Barranca's saddle and made a loop. He placed it over the grey's head and removed the lead from his halter, stuffing it into his saddlebags, just in case he needed it later. He mounted Barranca and started the race back to Lancer.

Some race. He mostly had to walk the horses for fear of injuring them. He cut across the open land as there were no roads through the area and that was always even more dangerous in the dark. He remembered Sombra, his beloved black stallion, who he'd lost on just such a night galloping through an open field. He was not about to risk that happening again.

It was fully dark now, with only a partial moon promising to rise in an hour or so. Johnny pressed on, riding slowly due West through the high grasses of the farm valley. He hoped not to run into any cultivated land; he would have to go around it and that would take time. He wasn't going very fast as it was.

When the moon did rise, Johnny increased the pace to a trot, still erring on the side of caution, but knowing he had a long way to go in a very short time. He'd taken much of the day to ride from Goshen to Visalia on the damp and rutted road. He knew it would take nearly all of the night to get back close to that area. And, remembering how marshy some of the land around Goshen was, he'd have to be even more careful as he neared the small town.

His luck held and all he found was fallow ground, covered in the same high grasses he'd seen around the hacienda. Whoever farmed this area must not be doing so this season. He was able to make decent time, considering. He kept looking to the south, at the forests between him and Visalia. They petered out before Goshen, he remembered. He looked for evidence that they were thinning and smiled once he was able to see more open area than trees. He was nearing the marshes. He was nearing Goshen.

He heard the sucking and squishing noises of the horses' hooves in wet, muddy soil before he realized Barranca was already heading into a swamp. Turning north, he rode what he hoped was around it. He listened carefully for that tell-tell sound, happy when he no longer heard it.

He rode north for about a half hour more, thinking he was beyond the swamp now. He turned back West. He listened again. No squish. He smiled; no marsh. Just good hard land. He continued to listen, though, just in case. He was in a hurry, but he wasn't going to endanger his horses.

It was nearly three in the morning when he crossed the Southern Pacific railroad tracks that led south to Goshen. He sighed in relief at being this far from the Visalia area, this far from that posse he was sure would come. He'd left after dusk and now, seven or so long hours later, he was beginning to feel more at ease. He still had a long way to go before he felt secure enough to stop and camp, though. He could just imagine a posse riding in on him sleeping in camp. No sir, that wasn't going to happen to Johnny Madrid.

He needed to get around the marshes on the western side of the railroad. He'd camped in a marshy area once before and swore it off. He'd been wet and cold, and constantly worried about snakes and other unwelcome visitors. No, he would put off making camp until he was beyond the marshes to the west of Goshen, even if it meant driving tired animals farther than they wanted to go.

Again, he listened for the squishy sound to indicate the swamp, but Barrana's footfalls indicated only solid ground. It meant he was farther north than he needed to be and would have to angle a little southward to hit Lancer. That was a  course correction for another day, though. His only concern tonight was being out of a posse's—and sheriff's—jurisdiction so he could rest.

Johnny continued his riding, ever heading westward, walking or trotting the animals. He stopped and made camp only when he was certain he was beyond all of the marshes on the west of Goshen. He found a small creek and dismounted near it's banks, giving the animals a good, cool drink before brushing both of them and bedding them down. They had had a long, long night.

With the horses tended, Johnny took to his own needs. He visited the creek, refilling his canteen. He would have loved to splash around and clean up, but the water was too cold and he knew he'd end up freezing all night. No, it was better to do all that in the morning. He spread his bedroll. He was too tired to eat. Johnny was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the side of his saddle.

 

The Price You Pay

Young Peter Harlow glanced across the early morning pinkish-blue sky as he drove a wagon from his family's farm. It was beginning to be a beautiful day. The morning still had the chill on it from the previous night but that would burn off, he knew, and it would shape up to be another fine day here west of the Sierras.

The wagon lumbered slowly across the fallow fields, its team of nearly-matched buckskin geldings almost knowing the way without guidance. The fourteen-year-old was headed toward the old Ortega hacienda, bringing oats and water for his charge. He'd done the same thing every morning before school for months now, and was paid handsomely for it by the man from Visalia. He didn't even know who the man was, but his father did. His father had ordered him to do the job. And Peter had learned long ago to do everything his father said or face painful consequences.

So, every morning when it was still dark, Peter would load that wagon with implements, a bucket of oats, fresh hay and a keg of water. He'd hitch up the same buckskin team and drive to the hacienda. There, he'd unlock the larger side gate, drive the wagon inside and unload his goods. He'd muck out the room which served as the stallion's stall while the animal ran around the courtyard. Then he'd feed him the oats and change the water before leaving the horse outside during the day. He would have liked to spend time grooming the animal, but his father had told him it wasn't necessary; the man from Visalia hadn't requested that. Beside, his father told him, taking the extra time would make him late for school.

In the evening after supper, he would ride back on his favorite pony and return the stallion to his “room,” still wanting to spend more time with the magnificent animal, but he was never allowed to do so. He always had to return home immediately. Peter would have loved to groom the grey on his second trip, but without his father's permission, he wasn't about to act alone.

Those were part of his daily chores, taking up a large amount of his time each and every day. He wondered again for the hundredth time why.

Why didn't the man from Visalia, whoever he was, keep the horse in a livery? Or even a real stable or a real barn, around other horses or where he could be properly exercised? Surely a man who owned such a magnificent stallion had the means to care for it better than what Peter was allowed to do.

But as always, there were no answers. Peter didn't know who to ask. He'd posed those same questions to his father long ago and gotten snarled insult and a backhand across his face for his effort, so he never asked again. Peter was no fool.

This morning he followed the same routine; the same buckskin team, the same laden wagon, the same early morning dewy trip. He crested a small rise and the hacienda came into sight, looking as forlorn and lonesome as ever. It had been a beauty in its day and the Ortega family had been wonderful neighbors. He remembered the Ortega patriarch as a kind old Mexican gentleman.

But the old man had died, leaving only four surviving daughters; his two sons had preceded him in death. His widow, unable to continue running the farm, had sold the property. He never knew the purchaser.

Whoever bought the old Ortega farm kept it only a short time. Almost immediately they partitioned the farm, selling half to his father and the other half to neighboring farmer. It was right after that big earthquake, the one on the other side of the Sierras, in the tiny town of Lone Pine, just north of Owens Lake in the Owens Valley. That earthquake had been devastating, not only to Lone Pine some 50 miles east, but here in the Visalia area as well. Peter's family was lucky. They only lost their barn. Their house remained more or less intact.

Now only the hacienda remained, although Peter knew not why. Probably to house the stallion, he shrugged. While it was all interesting speculation, it really was none of his business.

All he knew was his daily routine, unaltered and unfailing. And it had become a bore. If he didn't enjoy seeing the beautiful stallion each day, he would have given this chore to his younger brother. It was the same thing every day. The same humdrum thing. It never changed. Not ever.

But today he pulled the wagon around the corner of the adobe wall and immediately noticed something different. The gate looked slightly askew. Curious, Peter halted the horses and jumped down from the wagon to investigate. When he got there he saw the problem: the gate was merely closed, not locked. Its two sides were pulled together and not even tightly; one side was slightly ajar.

He maneuvered it open — no small task for the wiry teen. The double-wide gate was solid oak and quite heavy. Neither side wanted to budge. He had to push hard. The wood dug an arc in the ground thanks to the impaired hinge. Peter looked down and saw the remnants of the lock on the ground. It had been blown off, probably by a shotgun or a pistol, it looked to Peter. Scared for the horse, Peter ran around the L of the hacienda, skirting the fountain on the wall of the adobe staircase. The door to the stallion's room was open. It's lock blasted off, too. He stepped inside. No horse. He called for the animal, using the nickname he'd given him. No response. The magnificent grey stallion was gone. Someone had stolen it.

Peter was in trouble and he knew it. His father would skin him alive, but he knew he had to report this. To keep it a secret was unthinkable. Besides, a horse like that one wouldn't be hard to find; it was even branded. He dashed back to the wagon and turned it around, racing back to his family farm.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny reluctantly rose around seven, awakened by the morning sun as it broke through the leaves of the small tree he'd used as shelter. The sun mercilessly tickled his eyes until he was forced to open them. He yawned, still sleepy. When he realized the approximate time, he quickly became eager to get on his way. He knew Barranca was tired, and the grey stallion was out of shape, but he had to pick up speed and put many more miles between him and that hacienda before too much longer. He didn't want a posse to come after him now after all that work last night to avoid that very thing.

By now, he was sure, someone must have discovered the missing horse. If that boy was the one who returned to the hacienda each morning, he'd do so early, before school if he attended. Dawn had been some two hours ago. It was entirely possible that the authorities had been already been alerted.

He hoped he had a few more hours, though, before they began tracking him, but he couldn't be certain. He simply didn't know the routine. He cursed himself for not doing that reconnaissance before going to the hacienda, for not waiting until morning and learning everything he could before going in, but he couldn't have known that he'd discover the stallion, housed under unacceptable conditions and would have to act fast. Still, he was unprepared and didn't like it.

Johnny was hugely concerned that the sheriff of Visalia would send telegrams about the missing stallion and alert Goshen and other surrounding communities. If Goshen authorities sent out a posse, he could be in serious trouble; he wasn't that far from the island town. The last thing he wanted to do was to try to outrun an armed posse riding one tired horse and leading an out-of-condition one. He was fairly sure of that outcome and it wouldn't be pleasant for him.

He rummaged through his saddlebags, seeking the bag of oats he carried for Barranca. He didn't want to take the time for a full feeding, so he gave half of what the animals would usually eat now. He'd give them the rest later, once he had some more miles under his belt.

His own breakfast consisted of a piece of jerky washed down by a swig or two from his canteen. He quickly picked up his camp and began making preparations to get underway. As soon as the horses were finished, he led them to the stream and, once they'd drank their fill, he urged them forward. It was time to move on.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott followed the sound of metal striking metal until he found Murdoch, banging away at a red-hot horseshoe, trying to bend it into the proper shape. He waited until his father took a break to speak. “I just finished talking with Nacho.” He gestured toward the man riding away from the hacienda. “The work will begin tomorrow,” Scott told him. “Nacho has hired a couple of men to help him demolish the interior of the upper floor of the west wing. Are you certain about this?”

“Absolutely,” Murdoch nodded. He put down the hammer. “I want this baby to have the best start possible in life and if that means creating new living space for you and Abby, so be it. You'll have your privacy this way and still have your children nearby. We're not usually using the west wing rooms anyway.”

Scott clapped his hands. “All right, then. But just so you know. Abby plans to talk with every workman who enters this house, to let them know in no uncertain terms that they aren't to track in any dirt or mud, and to clean up after themselves each and every day.”

Murdoch chuckled. “She does, does she? That I want to see!”

Scott laughed, too. “Well, she doesn't want to burden Maria or the others with any more extra work than they have to. It's bad enough Maria will have to feed them lunch.”

“Don't worry about that. I've already asked Josefina if she'll help out her mother with meals for the workers. She'll serve them out on the back patio.”

Scott was taken aback. “Isn't Josefina rather young? Doesn't she go to the mission school in Morro Coyo?”

“She is fourteen. School will be over for the summer in a few days . She has decided, with her parents' blessing, not to return in the fall. They feel she's had enough education and she is ready to begin contributing to the family.” When Scott started to protest, Murdoch continued, “Scott, this isn't Boston. Josefina has already gotten a better education than most boys in California. She'll be fine. And we need her. She wants to do this. And she'll be paid. She'll be contributing to her family.”


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“What do ya mean he's not there?” Riley Harlow boomed. Peter had ridden in like a crazy man on that wagon, scaring the chickens and the younger kids. The birds were still scattered around the farmhouse, the buckskins still blowing.

“The stallion was stolen, Pa. Someone blasted the lock off the gate.”

“Are you sure you locked it?” Harlow snarled.

“Yes, sir. I always do. I check both gates before leaving. All the time.”

Harlow grumbled. This was bad. Now he'd have to make a trip to Visalia. “Damn. Get me my horse. Now, boy!”

Peter ran to the barn, grateful not to be punished. He'd been expecting a licking. Moments later, his father's gelding saddled, he led the animal to the front of the house. Riley Harlow hurried to the animal, and mounted it, barely acknowledging his son. Peter sighed in relief as the horse galloped away. He was spared. For now, anyway

+++NOTE: According to Wikipedia, the Lone Pine earthquake was one of the largest to hit California in recorded history. Striking at 2:35 in the morning on March 26, 1872 (a Tuesday), it is estimated to have been at least a 7.6 on the Richter scale (similar to the 1906 SF quake.)

The earthquake was strongly felt as far away as Sacramento. Naturalist John Muir, living in Yosemite Valley, was awakened by giant rockslides. The earthquake awakened people and stopped clocks as far south as San Diego, north as Red Bluff (Ca) and east as Elko (NV). Most of California and much of Nevada felt the shock. Aftershocks were severe.

 

Slap in the Face

Riley Harlow took off for Visalia without thinking. About ten minutes into the ride, however, he changed his mind. He needed to check out his son's story first. Maybe the horse wasn't stolen, but merely missing. He would need all the facts before heading into town.

He approached the hacienda carefully, looking around the surrounding area for any indications that something had gone wrong. He just couldn't believe the boy. Someone blasting off the lock? Ridiculous. More likely the boy had let him out, accidentally or purposefully, it didn't matter. All that mattered was getting the horse back before...well, he didn't want to think about that.

Riley was a big man, tall and stout, and not one to take any quarter from anyone. He worked hard and he played hard, often drinking and gambling at Visalia's Sierra Saloon. He was a difficult taskmaster and he swore that when he got home after finding the escaped animal, that useless son of his would pay.

He slowed his horse to a walk, surveying the hacienda with a practiced eye. He hadn't been here since that cold night in January when he's first housed the magnificent stallion in that room under the stairs. Nothing seemed out of place now. He spurred the gelding on, approaching the front wall. It was a still morning, only a few birds sang to interrupt the quiet.

His horse drew next to the front gate. It seemed just fine. The lock intact. So much for the boy's lies. Still, there was another gate. He had to check that one. He rounded the far wall and stopped.

The near side of the double gate was fully open, having been pulled with effort against a failing hinge. He saw the dugout arc in the ground. The other side was still closed, but looked slightly crooked, as if one of its hinges was damaged as well. That shouldn't be. He'd purchased new hinges and a lock when he secured the stallion; its door shouldn't droop or sag. Peter should have had no problem open this gate, even with its bulk and weight.

Riley dismounted and walked to the gate, inspecting it quickly. Both its hinges were indeed damaged as if they'd endured a great shock. He glanced down and pulled back. His son hadn't lied. Remnants of the new lock littered the sparse grass. He gasped in fear. For the first time he gave credence to his son's claim that the horse had been taken.

Like Peter before him, Riley hastily rounded the L of the hacienda looking for the horse. He paused at the door to the stallion's room and shook his head at seeing its lock blasted to bits as well. “No, no, no!” he cried as he hurried around the hacienda in a futile attempt to find the horse. “It's can't be!” He stopped in the middle of the courtyard with his arms akimbo. He was in trouble now.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Riley Harlow slowed his horse to a trot as he entered the outskirts of Visalia. The gelding blew hard, his flanks heaving. His master had ridden him hard and fast. He wasn't used to such treatment. He was a farm horse, employed at pulling a plow or the buggy used by the family. When he was ridden by Riley Harlow, it was more often at a gentle rate. A hard gallop like the previous hour had been was rare indeed.

Harlow reined his horse up in front of Visalia's Cattleman's Hotel and tied him to the hitching post. The gelding, grateful for the respite, dipped his muzzle into the cool waters in the trough and drank deeply. His master patted him on the shoulder, absently thanking him for his service before stepping onto the boardwalk.

Riley drew a breath as he stopped near the entrance to the grand hotel. He dreaded revealing this news. He wasn't sure what the man would say. He'd been most adamant back in early January when he told Riley of his charge.

“Riley Harlow,” the man had begun on that cold day, seated behind his big desk with his fingertips touching, “You've been gambling at the Sierra again.”

Riley had shrugged it off. He'd gambled at the saloon before. So what.

The man had smiled at Harlow's nonchalance. “I bought all your markers, Harlow. You don't owe the easy-going Daniel Gates anymore. You owe me.” At that point, the man had stood, drawing himself up to his full height.

Normally, Riley wouldn't have been intimidated by this shorter man's efforts, but this time he blanched. Harlow's markers were a tidy sum indeed. This man could make trouble for him. “Yes, s-sir,” he'd stumbled over his words.

That's when the man smiled, unexpectedly so to Riley. He'd frowned in confusion. “I can see that you're disturbed, Harlow. Don't be. I have no intention of collecting the money. It's a favor I want from you.”

“A f-favor?” What could this fancy hotel man want from a simple farmer?

“Yes, Harlow. You remember the Ortega place, I'm sure.” He'd smiled wickedly then. Riley had nodded, knowing full well the significance. “Good. Because I have something I want you to tend to there.” From then the man went on to tell him about a horse, a grey stallion he'd wanted kept at the hacienda, away from prying eyes, hidden from everyone. The man had made it clear that no one was to know, and that the horse was to be well-fed and watered. His manner indicated that Riley was to ask no questions and do exactly as ordered. Or he'd demand payment in full for Riley's markers. Instantly. Harlow would lose everything.

Riley had readily agreed to the arrangement, grateful for the reprieve. This was easy work and he assigned his eldest boy to the task. Up to today, nothing had gone wrong and Riley had felt free of his debt. He hadn't questioned anything and nothing had passed between the two men since. And that was just fine with Riley.

But now, something had indeed gone very wrong. With the stallion missing, Harlow didn't know what the man would do. He may even accuse Riley of stealing it. At the very least, the man could demand full payment for the markers. He briefly considered riding back to his farm as if nothing had happened, but he knew from past experience that denial and avoidance weren't good strategies. Sooner or later, the man would learn of the stallion's disappearance. Riley would rather it be sooner, and from him. It just might lessen the blow. He took off his hat and entered the establishment.

The Cattleman's Hotel was the finest hotel in Visalia, rivaling those in Stockton, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Its lobby featured a large crystal chandelier, overstuffed chairs and small tables and lush blue draperies, and this was just the entrance. Harlow couldn't even fathom what the rooms looked like. A place like this was way out of his league.

With a little hesitancy, he strode to the registration desk. Yes, it was a real desk, not merely the bar like most hotels he'd been in, and a carved wood one at that. A man in a dark suit sat at the desk writing on some papers. “H-hello,” Riley said anxiously.

The man stopped his work immediately and beamed a smile, standing and offering his hand to shake. “Why, hello! Welcome to the Cattleman's Hotel. How may I help you today?”

Harlow tried to smile. “My name's Riley Harlow. I wonder if I could talk to Mr...to Mr. Addison.”

The clerk's smile didn't even waver. “I shall see if Mr. Addison is available. Could you tell me the reason for your visit?” He examined Harlow from head to toe. Riley could tell the clerk wondered what business a man like him would have with the noted Mr. Addison.

Harlow cleared his throat to gain time and spoke the words he'd been told to say if he ever had to come here: “I came about a horse.”

A few minutes later, Riley was ushered into an office off the lobby. It was large and featured windows on two sides. Blue flowered wallpaper, trimmed in white, provided interest on all four sides. A stately oak desk occupied most of the room. Behind it, Mr. David “Buck” Addison stood, his arms akimbo, and a frown on his face. The door closed behind him.

“What about the horse, Harlow?” Addison was all business.

Riley stood as tall as he could, which was saying something as he was over six feet tall, but he still felt small next to Buck Addison. Not that Addison was taller, but he was just that much more commanding. “He's gone, Mr. Addison. Stolen. My boy, Pete, went —”

“What do you mean, stolen?” Addison boomed. His face was pure rage. He leaned in, causing Harlow to take a step backward.

“Well, Mr. Addison, like I was sayin', my boy, Pete, he went to care for the horse this mornin' like always, only he came back too quickly. Came flyin' in the yard, the wagon rattlin', yellin' that the horse was gone. Stolen, he said. Said the lock had been blown clean off. Both of ‘em. Me, I didn't believe him so's I went out there. An' he was right, Mr. Addison. The horse is done gone and them locks are in pieces.”

Addison straightened and stood still, his face still red, his arms crossed. Harlow was even more scared. He could handle being yelled at, but this quiet, that was really frightening. Addison was a powerful man and could make Harlow's life miserable. The big farmer tried to keep from trembling.

“Go home,” Addison finally said, his words clipped, his voice barely under control. “Get that gate fixed. I'll find the horse.”

Riley knew when he was dismissed. He fled the room.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Addison turned and faced the windows, thinking wildly. In times like these, he tended to panic, especially when it involved anything related to Murdoch Lancer. Duncan, Gilford Duncan, was the man with the plans. He kept his cool. He would be able to think of reasonable reaction, but Duncan was in Green River. Buck needed to do something now, here in Visalia.

He forced himself to calm down. He even took a sip of the flask he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk. The burning liquid seared his throat, distracting him enough to get a hold of himself.

Wait, he told himself. Think. This wasn't just any horse. The grey stallion been kept secluded, hidden, out of sight, at all times. The only way someone would have known about him—other than Harlow—was for that someone to go looking, specifically looking for this particular horse. There was only one party who would be interested in finding Plata Viento : Lancer.

Was Murdoch Lancer here? Could he be a guest at his own hotel? Addison blinked. He hadn't seen the man, but it was a possibility. His hotel was the finest in town and Lancer had stayed here before. He surmised that Murdoch, being as wealthy and prominent as he was, would to seek the best places when he traveled; it was only natural that he would chose the Cattleman's Hotel.

Addison strode quickly to Jameson, the desk clerk, and curtly demanded to see the registration book. Addison scanned the names. No, Lancer was not registered. He thought briefly and searched again for names of known thieves. Not that he expected any to jump out. A horse thief probably wouldn't stay in his fancy and expensive hotel.

Buck scanned the names again, looking for any of Lancer's friends. No, none were listed, at least, none of the friends Buck knew. He dropped the book and withdrew to his office. He needed to think some more.

He dismissed immediately any ideas of going to the town sheriff. He'd stolen the horse—well, had it stolen—in the first place. The last thing he wanted was to draw attention to that fact. After all, he'd spent a great deal of money and effort keeping the stallion hidden. He wasn't about to bring it all to light now.

There were other hotels in town. Perhaps the person responsible had stayed—or was currently registered—in one of them. Visalia was the largest town between Los Angeles and Sacramento; it boasted several fine establishments and even more that weren't so. He knew it would an hour, maybe two, to search every hotel.

Still, he had to try. And it was logical. Duncan would be proud of him. Grabbing his hat, Addison hurried out of the Cattleman's, beginning a systematic search of all the hotels in town. He started at the east end of town and worked his way down, making sure he didn't miss an establishment. He asked to see each of their registration books, merely saying “please” at their questioning looks. All the other owners knew Addison and complied with his wishes.

Addison visited every hotel, inn or boarding house looking through registers, asking questions, hoping to see or hear a name he may recognize as a friend of Lancer. He grew tired. He'd been searching for over an hour. Finally, in the last hotel in the west end of town, he found what he'd been looking for. There, in the registration book, was a name clear and neat: Johnny Madrid.

Johnny Madrid. He was the gunfighter who killed Day Pardee. His associate, Duncan, said Madrid intervened and took Scott Lancer's place in the street. It did seem rather odd that the day before the grey stallion went missing, Johnny Madrid, a friend of Scott Lancer, had been in town, staying in this seedy hotel.

Buck panicked again, barely thanking the owner for the courtesy and raced out of that hotel. He hurried along the boardwalk, trying to get to his own hotel as soon as possible, breathing in short breaths, his heart pounding in fear.

The worst thing had happened. Lancer must have hired Madrid to find the stallion. Somehow Madrid or Lancer had learned the horse was nearby. Did they also know he was the one who had the horse?

If Lancer learned he was the one keeping the stallion, he'd jump to the conclusion he was the man behind Pardee. All his dreams would end. He'd be ruined, tried, convicted and hauled off to prison. If only he'd secluded the horse better!

Addison knew he had to get to Green River, and fast. Walking as quickly as he could without drawing attention, he returned to his hotel, sent a man to the Wells Fargo stage office for a ticket and packed a bag. He left orders that he'd be in Green River and for Jameson to be looking for telegrams from him.

On his way to the stage depot, Addison again had a moment of clarity. The horse was taken some time during the night. If it was Madrid, he would be high-tailing it west, trying to get to Lancer as quick as possible. Maybe it was possible to send someone to intercede. He paused at the telegraph station. Duncan would know who to send. He just might recover the stolen stallion without anyone knowing and get rid of that meddling Johnny Madrid in the process.

 

Go West Young Man

Barranca loped westward through grasses and fields of poppy, around rocks and rolling hillsides. The grey stallion, on a rope tied to Barranca's saddle horn, followed gamely. It would have been a beautiful ride had Johnny not been on the run, on an under-rested horse and leading an easily-winded stolen stallion. Periodically he paused to look around, searching for signs of a posse and felt relief each time he found nothing. He urged Barranca forward; he wanted to put a few more miles between him and Visalia before stopping again.

He wasn't able to get too far west before he noticed Barranca, with inadequate rest and food, began blowing almost as hard as the grey. Johnny slowed to a walk, preferring to move a little rather than stop completely. His palomino responded well and soon his breathing returned to normal. Still, Johnny knew he'd used the horse a lot lately and under unusual circumstances. First there had been the rainy trip to Visalia, then the search for the hacienda and that cold night, the waiting in the copse of oaks, and the escape in the dark. He still had a long way to go and he didn't want to push Barranca too much; the horse was too good of an animal for that.

Only an hour or so later, Johnny decided to look for a place to camp. It was earlier than he really wanted to stop, but Barranca needed the rest; Lord knew the grey did. He saw a creek with excellent cover. This spot was peaceful, away from any known paths, and secluded by trees and a couple of larger boulders. He unsaddled Barranca and staked the horses, giving them the rest of their breakfast—Barranca from a feed bag, the stallion from his upturned hat.

He didn't want to risk a fire lest the smoke indicate his location so he was unable to make coffee or heat any food. Left with cold choices, he pulled out more jerky to complete his own breakfast and spread his blanket under an oak tree next to one of the rocks. He placed the saddle against the boulder to create a softer backrest. Johnny plopped down, under the shade, and with the sound of the bubbling creek as a lullaby, soon fell asleep.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Gilford Duncan was annoyed. He re-read the telegram from his boss.

On my way to Green River via stage STOP Johnny Madrid stole grey stallion STOP Is en route to Lancer STOP Send men to intercept STOP Eliminate Madrid threat and reacquire horse STOP

The grey stallion? The horse Pardee had stolen from Lancer? Duncan shook his head. It couldn't be. He distinctly remembered telling Addison that if he kept the horse he should keep it far away from Lancer with no way for the rancher to find him. Had Addison slipped up? Duncan didn't know; he hadn't been privy to Addison's plans for the animal.

Evidently something had gone wrong. Johnny Madrid now had the horse and, according to this telegram, was on the way to Lancer with it. Duncan glanced at the paper again. His boss had given him precious little detail. Where was Madrid? How far west? Without that knowledge it would be difficult to know where to start looking, but he had to try. His boss tended to be difficult to live with if things like this weren't dealt with efficiency.

Duncan knew a few men in the Green River area who weren't adverse to tackling a job like this. With no time to waste, he immediately set about to finding them.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny awoke with a start, having realized he'd slept longer than he wanted. The soft sounds of the creek had lured him into a deeper sleep. He jumped up, nearly scaring the grey, and tried to figure out what time it was. He found the sun and counted from the horizon. Two o'clock, thereabouts. He'd slept for nearly six hours. Understanding how much danger he was still in, Johnny quickly made ready to get underway.

He galloped Barranca, leading the stallion on his rope, westward toward Green River and Morro Coyo, paralleling roughly the same path he'd taken on Sombra all those weeks ago when he escorted Scott and Abby on the stage, but this time he avoided all of the roads, not wanting to be seen with the grey stallion, just in case anyone remembered it.

He didn't know if he was far enough away to relax his vigilance or not. Visalia was more than a day's ride by now, but Goshen was much closer. Johnny didn't know if anyone there or in Cross Creek had been alerted to his thievery. He knew he couldn't risk being seen with this animal, not if he'd been reported stolen. Too much was at stake.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Duncan quickly found the men for whom he was looking. Henry Kidder had sought employment at the hotel just last week and had been assigned to work in the stables. Bill Morse and Dan Logan were cowpunchers for the S Bar ranch. These three men weren't working in their preferred occupation, though. All of them would rather use their gun to earn a living, thinking the life was glamorous and exciting, but none of them were good enough to get in the game full time. Duncan had met them at separate occasions during his travels for Addison.

He knew they would jump at the chance to take down Johnny Madrid, but they would have to act together and catch Madrid by surprise. Otherwise...well, they knew their chances were remote. Madrid was just that good.

Duncan picked up the pair at the S Bar first, only saying he had a more appealing job for them, and brought them to the hotel stables to meet with Kidder. He introduced them all and made his offer. As expected, the three readily agreed, but they wanted $100 each to do so. Duncan balked at paying that much and they negotiated down to $50 each and they could take whatever spoils off Madrid that they wanted, as long as the gunfighter was dead and Duncan got the grey stallion.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny continued his journey West, avoiding the roads, but running roughly parallel to them as fast as the stallion's reduced condition would allow. Johnny took this time to continue the work in re-conditioning him. He put the grey through paces, trotting, cantering, and galloping with periods of walking in between to build up his stamina. 

He figured he was more or less north of Cross Creek or perhaps a bit farther west. It was so darned hard to judge his location so far away from the road. He knew he should be closer to one of the stage line way stations, but he'd slept so much of the day. Well, he'd needed it. He and the horses had a rough night.

He started to angle a bit farther to the northwest. He wanted to avoid Green River. He'd be passing through Aggie Conway's property once he crossed that creek— what was its name? He couldn't remember, but it ran north-south and was fairly wide even if it was quite shallow.

He camped early so he would have time to rub down the stallion's legs with liniment. It wouldn't do for him to turn up lame or injure himself because of a sore muscle. The sun was going down as he lay down on his bedroll. Another fireless night meant no hot food. He would sure appreciate whatever Maria put on the Lancer dinner table when he got back to Lancer, no matter how bland it was. This jerky was tough, near tasteless and he was getting damned tired of it. He took a healthy swig of whiskey from his flask before settling down for the night.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Murdoch drove the Lancer carriage onto the courtyard of Aggie's ranchouse. It was late afternoon and he was expected for dinner. Aggie had sent a rider to Lancer earlier to invite him for her famous fried chicken. He was looking forward to the meal and the company.

He and Aggie had become close since Pardee's last raid on Lancer, and if it didn't feel so right, so natural, it may have scared him how quickly their relationship grew. But Aggie had been his friend for many years and to have their friendship blossom, even this fast, seemed like the proper course of action.

For the first time in many years, Murdoch was able to open up to a woman. He didn't feel that vulnerability with Aggie that he'd felt with other ladies who'd taken a shine to him. He liked his new feelings and he made a point to enjoy them, to let nature take its course and not be afraid of risk. That in itself was a great leap for him.

Being a wealthy bachelor rancher, Murdoch had been the object of desire of many an eligible woman, and he'd been seen with his share, but he never before had allowed a crack in his emotional walls. His hurt at Maria's leaving had been so deep, so raw, even after many years, that he'd learned his lesson, or so he told himself.

But it was different with Aggie. He enjoyed her companionship, her openness, her counsel. And his highly developed defense mechanisms just faded away in her presence. He felt lighter, more free, and he relished it.

Murdoch Lancer was changing.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Scott climbed into the big bed he shared with Abby. She joined him minutes later, after brushing her hair for the evening. “Are you excited about the demolition starting tomorrow?” he asked.

“Yes,” Abby said, stiffling a yawn. She felt so fatigued lately.

Scott laughed. “I can tell. You can hardly keep awake.”

“It's not that,” Abby mildly protested, yawning again. “I'm just tired. Big day.”

“Tomorrow will be bigger.

Scott waited for a reply. There was none. “Abby?” He looked over at his wife, her back to him, her eyes closed in quiet sleep and smiled. “Good night, darling,” he said softly.

 

Peaceful Easy Feeling?

Johnny was up at first light having enjoyed a good night's sleep. He roused readily and began to tend to the horses. Barranca was in a good mood, too; he snorted and nodded his head impatiently, eager to be off. Even the grey stallion seemed in better spirits, as if he knew he was going home. Johnny fed them both before fulfilling his needs. He broke camp and they were ready to go within an hour.

Johnny continued angling slightly northwest, on a course to avoid Green River. This drove him farther from the main road, however, and made his location even more difficult to judge. He kept looking for that particular creek which signaled the Conway property line.

He also kept an eye out for a posse on his tail, although with each passing mile that possibility grew more remote. He was far enough away from Visalia and even Goshen now to begin to relax.

By late morning he figured he was north of the way station between Cross Creek and Green River, judging on his guess of his location and the speed he was able to travel, which still wasn't very fast due to the constraints of the stallion's condition. He decided to stop when he neared a small copse of oaks and give the animals some rest. It would be a good time to eat lunch—more jerky—and plan his next move: how to cross the Conway ranch in broad daylight without being seen.

If Conway hands were working in the particular area he'd be crossing, he'd run an excellent chance of being seen. They didn't know him and would probably come to investigate. He didn't want a confrontation; all he wanted was to get to Lancer as quickly and quietly as possible.

On the other hand, if the Conway cattle were on other pastures, then he wouldn't have anything to worry about. He wished he knew more about ranching in general, and the particulars of the land here in the San Joaquin. He couldn't venture a guess where cattle were grazed this time of the year.

He finished his jerky and remounted Barranca, grabbing the rope that led the grey stallion. They passed through the oaks, heading for an open area full of knee-high grasses. In the far distance he could see a dark green line running north to south. That could be the trees lining the creek he was looking for. Smiling, he kneed Barranca and they started to lope through the grasses.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Henry Kidder pulled his dapple grey to a halt.

His companions, Bill Morse and Dan Logan rode up to him from opposite directions. They'd been riding since before dawn, heading east-northeast, looking for Johnny Madrid. They'd been told he'd be easy to take: he led a stolen horse and was alone. Still, a man with Madrid's reputation wouldn't go down smoothly. They knew they needed the upper hand, even with all three of them. Bill had seen Madrid take two men in a fair gunfight and knew three wouldn't be much more of a stretch. However, they had no intentions of engaging Johnny Madrid in anything resembling a fair fight.

Their plan, quickly agreed upon, was to find Madrid and watch him, waiting for the right opportunity to ambush. Toward this end, they'd fanned out, searching the countryside for Madrid with his bounty.

At first they went directly east, figuring that Madrid hadn't made it so far west just yet. After a couple of hours, they fanned out, taking a more northerly direction, in case Madrid was traveling faster than they expected. The relatively flat ground helped them in their search.

Henry had insisted in not using a gunshot as a signal when they found him; he did not want to alert Madrid. Instead, they agreed to ride toward the middle and wave a red bandanna when they were within sight. Near mid-morning, Bill saw a paint horse galloping his way.

“I found him,” Dan announced, his gelding heaving. He pointed slightly to the northeast. “He's approaching Tule Creek. I saw him almost an hour ago. He should be getting near the water by now.”

“Let's warn Henry,” Bill replied, kicking his roan. The two of them took off toward where the area where Henry was searching, farther west. A few minutes later, they saw him and Dan waved his bandanna. Henry came running.

As Henry pulled up on his dapple grey, Dan relayed his information. “He'll soon be on Conway land,” Henry nodded. “If he's heading toward Lancer, he'll pass right by their Tule line shack. We can ambush him from there. If everything goes to plan, we'll be celebrating our Saturday night in Green River in style! Let's go!” He spurred his horse.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny neared the trees that lined Tule Creek. He couldn't see the water because of all the vegetation, but the horses smelled it. Barranca quickened his pace and even Plata Viento perked his ears. They were thirsty. It was a warm day.

As Johnny entered the trees, he slowed Barranca to a walk. The shade felt wonderfully cool after the bright midday sun. Johnny picked through the rocks and vegetation until they reached the water. It was the creek he'd been looking for, broad and shallow, signaling the eastern boundary of the Conway ranch.

He dismounted and squat down to drink, splashing his face and hair with the cool, sparkling waters. He briefly considered removing some of his clothes for a more refreshing rinse but dismissed it. As inviting as that sounded, it would take valuable time. While Johnny no longer feared a posse, he did want to reach Lancer by tonight; he was tired of jerky. The horses dipped their muzzles into the fast-moving creek, drinking deeply. Johnny looked across the span, but saw nothing other than a similar line of trees and rocks on the other side.

Beyond those trees lay the Conway ranch. Johnny had decided to travel through as nonchalantly as possible, hoping no one would approach him. It was a distinct possibility, given the vast expanse in the valley, unless a Conway crew was working up in this area.

If he was approached, well, he'd deal with that when it happened. And he just might see Murdoch; his father had been spending a great deal of time with the widow Aggie Conway. Maybe, just maybe, he'd catch him on his way there or back. Johnny snorted at that idea. It was just too remote to consider seriously.

Clicking to Barranca, Johnny approached his horse and mounted. “Let's get going, mi amigo . We're almost there.” Johnny figured three, maybe four hours left. He'd be back in time for dinner. Barranca blew as if he agreed and started across the creek. They emerged on the other side without incident and continued picking their way through the rocks and trees on Conway property.

Johnny halted Barranca before they emerged completely from the shade. He surveyed the land. This part of the ranch was relatively flat, with only small slopes and rises to keep it from being fully level. A few oaks, cottonwoods, bushes and rocks scattered around, adding more interest to the landscape. He could see the outline of a chimney and part of a wooden shack. A Conway line shack, no doubt, situated on the eastern border. He didn't see smoke billowing but then again, he hadn't expected to. It was the middle of the day. Odds were against anyone occupying the shack right now.

He saw no crews, no cattle, nothing to indicate anyone was in the area. It was quiet and peaceful. Johnny smiled. Maybe this would be easier than he thought. He clicked as he kneed Barranca. They stepped out into Conway land.

They walked, heading more-or-less westward, along a trajectory that would take him passed the line shack. He hoped to parallel the Lancer-Green River road and reach the hacienda by nightfall.

A bird called, catching his attention. Barranca's ears perked. “Easy boy, it's only a bird,” he crooned. But something else was there, too. He just couldn't put his finger on it. A sudden feeling of unease gripped him. This land wasn't as peaceful as it looked. Something was out there.

 

Morse Attacks!

Henry Kidder waited, hidden behind a tall valley oak near the empty Conway line shack. He glanced southward, toward his ally, Bill Morse. Bill lay prone, bareheaded, on the ground just atop the smallest of rises. Henry could just see the top of Bill's brown hair, looking like a clump of dirt in the ankle-high grass. He smiled. Madrid would never be able to tell. In the middle and farther away was their other companion, Dan Logan. Dan had taken a spot where he'd look Madrid straight on; he crouched behind a thicket of snowberry bushes, completely unseen. If Kidder hadn't known he was there, he'd never notice. The three of them formed a triangle for an effective ambush.

Morse and Logan watched their prey emerge from the line of trees along Tule Creek. They would have liked to signal Kidder, who's view was obstructed by the trees around the line shack, but neither could do so without drawing attention.

They eyed Madrid as his palomino walked toward them. He seemed to be relaxed in the saddle—he nearly slouched. The grey stallion's lead was tied to the saddle horn as he followed behind and to the palomino's left. Morse nearly grinned; Madrid had no idea what he was walking into.

Henry Kidder glanced over at Morse. Bill's body faced him, but he noticed Morse had turned his head slightly eastward. Madrid must be in sight! He peered around his tree, hoping for a peek.

Henry's plan was to wait to open fire until Madrid was between him and Morse. He'd get hit from both sides and from Logan facing Madrid's front. There was no way the gunfighter would survive a three-pronged attack like that. Even the weather was cooperating; there was enough cloud cover to keep them from being overheated as they waited.

Kidder finally got a glimpse of Madrid as the gunfighter walked his horse closer, bringing him nearer his fate with each step of that palomino. Henry had always wanted a golden horse and here was one that would be for the taking, once they'd finished off Madrid. He liked that idea. He peered anxiously, awaiting his next glimpse through the trees.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Bill Morse lay on the grass, belly down, his legs spread out behind him, facing Henry. He was positioned to fire as Madrid walked between him and Kidder, but now, faced with the prospect of being this close to taking down Johnny Madrid, Bill questioned the plan. Of the three of them, he alone was situated where he could fire right now. Kidder was behind several trees and didn't have a clear view; Logan wasn't yet within range. Morse knew that if he fired first, he'd not only have a clear shot, but would have bragging rights and Madrid's reputation. The more he thought about it, the better it sounded. He could easily turn his rifle on Kidder and Logan afterwards and get away clean, with everything he wanted.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Dan Logan kneeled on the ground, as still as possible. He didn't like being behind these bushes—its flowers attracted bees and Dan never liked bees—but he'd picked it because it gave him the best advantage. From his position facing Madrid, he not only had an excellent view of their prey, but of his two companions as well. When Kidder had suggested the plan, he'd objected, but he hadn't meant it. Henry's plan was a good one, for it would ensure Madrid's death, but it put him in the unique position to eliminate his companions once the gunfighter lay on the ground. He alone would walk away, with the stallion, Madrid's palomino and the gunfighter's reputation. And if he played his cards right, he would be able to convince Duncan to give him their pay as well. He smiled at his good fortune.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny walked Barranca westward. He would have liked to lope or gallop, with the intentions of reaching the Lancer hacienda this evening, but he couldn't, not without knowing what exactly was out there. He knew something was, but it was just a feeling, he had nothing concrete to back it up.

Still, Johnny's instincts were pretty good, honed from years of looking after himself, and he respected them. If they told him to watch out, he did so, even if it didn't appear that he was on the alert. He'd long ago perfected the manner to watch and not seem to, to be tense and yet look relaxed.

Johnny swept his eyes left and right, searching for something out of the ordinary, some clue as to what was out there. Was it a danger, or something else? He saw nothing. No indication that— Wait! Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw a faint movement. In the grass. To his left. He resisted the urge to jerk his head in response, instead he scanned the area with only his eyes. There was a slight rise covered with grass, except for a patch of dark brown soil. That looked odd; other bare patches weren't so dark. He quickly perused the vicinity. The ankle-high grass around the dark area seemed a little different; he couldn't put his finger on it.

The sun came out from behind a cloud and Johnny saw a glimmer in the grass near that brown spot. It was a rifle! That brown had to be someone's hair. Acting on instinct, Johnny whooped and kicked Barranca, grabbed his rifle from its boot and threw himself on the ground, rolling away from the now-surging horse.

Two shots rang out. Johnny continued to roll along the grass. He hoped his yell and Barranca's sudden gallop provided enough of a diversion so by the time his attacker—attackers?— discovered where he'd gone, he would have found shelter.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Morse cursed. He'd made the decision to fire on Madrid first, shifting his rifle just as the sun came out from a cloud. The damned sun reflected off the rifle as he moved. Madrid had spooked. His palomino surged toward Bill, angling off to his right, taking the grey stallion with him. Bill had fired automatically. Where was Madrid? He'd seen the gunfighter fall out of the saddle but he couldn't find his body on the grass, not without kneeling or standing and Bill wasn't about to expose himself like that, not to someone as good as Johnny Madrid.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

From behind the snowberry, Logan startled. “What the hell?” He muttered under his breath. He just saw Madrid dive out of the saddle as his horse galloped away. But why? He couldn't have seen any of them. They were very well hidden. What had alerted the gunfighter? And where had he gone? Logan half-stood, still hidden in his thicket, but couldn't locate Madrid or his body. Two shots had been fired, not simultaneously as planned but in rapid succession. Morse and Kidder had changed the plan. Well, damn it all!


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Kidder cursed. His shot went wild. He hadn't even had Madrid in his sights, he only reacted to Morse. He scowled at his comrade across the span. What had gotten into the man to break their plan? Henry didn't even know where Madrid was. He heard the horses run away, but their hooves had faded already. He cursed Morse and the fact that he was in a bind; he couldn't see what was going on.

The three waited, silent and still, for a sign, a movement, a noise, anything that told them where their prey had vanished. Morse and Logan could see the riderless horses. They were munching at the grass slowly angling back toward the creek. Kidder wanted desperately to move, to find a new place where he could see what was going on but he didn't dare.

Logan glanced from side to side looking for Madrid's body. He shouldn't be hard to spot; his red shirt and black concho pants would stick out in the green grass. Surely one of those round silvery things on his pants would shimmer in the sun, wouldn't it?

Morse had the best view but even he saw nothing other than the horses cropping the grass in the distance. He kept glancing over to them, thinking that Madrid would somehow creep their way, but he saw nothing. He cursed his bad luck again. If only the sun hadn't picked that particular moment to show itself.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny lay in the grass, still as if he was dead. He'd stopped his rolling and landed on his stomach. He tried to see his attacker, to no avail. Whoever he was he was either gone or better hidden.

As he scanned the area with his eyes, he realized that he'd rolled down a slight incline. The field he had been crossing wasn't as flat as it had looked. It could be that this slant was providing him with minimal cover. There had been no further gunshots. Was his attacker still there? Johnny hadn't heard any hooves running away except for Barranca's and the stallion's. No, his nemesis was still out there, waiting. Well, he could wait, too.

The sun warmed his bare head. His hat had fallen off when he thrust himself away from Barranca. He couldn't see it; not that he would retrieve it even if he saw it. He wasn't about to make any movement. Not yet, anyway.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Logan looked around but saw nothing. Nervous at being blinded by his surroundings, he slid around the tree searching for a better view. His heart pounded with each anxious step. He peeked again, hoping to see something relevant. He cursed. Again most of his view was obstructed by the other trees around the line shack. Why had he selected this particular spot for himself?

 

*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

 

Johnny saw a movement in the oaks near the line shack. It looked like a shadow so he waited, watching. If it was only a shadow, it would dance due to the sun and movement of the limbs. This shadow didn't move. Johnny smiled. He knew where someone was.

Was this his only attacker? There had been two shots, both from a rifle, but that didn't mean there were two men. One man could have fired both, if he was good enough. Scott was that good, definitely. So was he. And he knew a number of other men who could have done so. He thought about it for a few minutes.

Neither shot had hit—at least they'd not hit him. Could either of the horses have been hurt? He'd not heard a painful sound from them, but that may or may not mean anything. He let that thought go.

Assuming neither shot had hit anything, one man—even a not-so-good shot could have fired them both. He knew nothing more than he did before. Not so, he corrected himself. He knew where one man was. And that little piece of information was significant.

If he could only decide what to do about it.

 

The Killing Field

The clouds moved off, making way for the sun to shine down mercilessly, driving the afternoon's relentless heat. Bill Morse cursed again. He felt the brunt of it, lying in the grass on the hot ground with no hat, no canteen, no shade. If he wasn't so afraid Madrid would shoot him dead, he'd get up and run away. But run where? His horse was stabled in the line shack's lean-to, a good 500 feet of open land away. There wasn't even a tree or a bush nearby where he could get some relief from the sun. He licked his lips; they were dry and cracked already. He needed water.

If only he hadn't gotten greedy and tried to take Madrid first. Or that blasted sun stayed behind the clouds just one second more. This would all be over by now; they would have already plundered the gunfighter's possessions and, for all he knew, could have been celebrating in Green River's saloon.

Instead, he lay in the boiling sun, desperately wanting to quench his thirst, afraid to move lest he be gunned down by the dog Johnny Madrid. Morse cursed his luck.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Logan sighed. He was hot and frustrated. Crouching here behind this brake of snowberry was tiring. Several times he alternated his position behind the bushes, even sitting on the hot ground, all the while staying hidden behind their cover. He thought he had it easiest, though. He had a good view, could move around a little and still got a tiny amount of shade. But he was still thirsty.

And those damn bees! Why did they have to be attracted to the small, pink flowers? He hated bees. They were everywhere!

Logan went to change positions again, shoving off the ground with his left hand. He yelped. He turned his hand up and saw a bee that had stung him, hanging on to the tender skin of his palm. He shook his hand to dislodge the insect and  grabbed his injured hand. He scrambled away, trying not to cry out again, the stinger still embedded.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny heard the cry of pain. He concentrated on the sound, trying to determine its origin. It came from a distance, further from where the man stood among the trees. So there were two. And they were spread out. It meant there weren't many more; a large group of men wouldn't be so scattered given the dimensions of the area. Besides, a large group would have sought him out by now, depending on their numbers to protect themselves. No, his attackers were few in number. Less than five, he figured. Maybe just those two.

Johnny considered his situation. He was trapped, prone, with his handgun and rifle and a knife in his boot. At least two unknown assailants were still in the area. They could not see him at present but he could see one of them, hiding among the trees near that line shack. If he moved, that person would surely be able to see him. If he stayed there, what could be the resolution? Could he just outwait his attackers? Would they merely give up after all this time? He doubted it. He would certainly be able to see them if they made a move to leave. Their horses were probably housed in the lean-to next to the shack. He had a clear view of that.

It would be dark in a couple of hours. He was sure once the sun went down that they would come after him. After all, they had the advantage. It's what he would do. He had to do something before it got to that.

What would happen if he moved? If he ran toward the trees? He'd have to kill the one hiding near a tree first. The more he considered that idea the better it sounded. No matter where he moved he was bound to be shot at, he may as well make it useful and get to a better hiding spot. From the trees he could sneak around to the line shack if he needed. Yep, the more he thought about it, that seemed the logical and most advantageous move.

He viewed the area where he'd seen the man in the trees before, looking for that shadow. After studying each of the trees, he saw it, down toward the base of that oak, like a man crouching, unmoving.

Johnny lifted himself slightly so he could maneuver his rifle under his body to his right side. He readied the Winchester, took aim at the shadow, made a curse and fired. The report broke the late afternoon quiet. He heard a muffled cry then saw the shadow crumple to the ground. One down.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Morse heard a rifle shot, a muffled cry and saw Kidder crumple to the ground. His comrade lay on the ground, unmoving. Madrid killed him.

Bill was about to curse his luck when he thought of another possibility. Maybe it wasn't Madrid who shot Kidder. Maybe it had been Logan. Was Dan the type to murder his companions? He didn't know the man that well. It was possible. He glanced toward the thicket but saw nothing.

One thing was for sure. It was now two against one. And Madrid was good enough to take the both of them out easily. Morse grew anxious.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Logan had been occupied with his injured hand–it was swelling something awful—when he heard the shot. He looked up and saw Kidder's body as it fell to the dirt. “Damn,” he muttered. Madrid had gotten to one of them. Or was it Madrid? He glanced over to Morse. His companion was still prone, in the exact same spot where he'd been since they began this ambush.

Ambush, Dan shook his head. Some ambush. They had planned it well enough but something—and he didn't know what—had spooked Madrid. Maybe it was that sixth sense he'd heard about. Madrid seemed to always know when trouble was afoot. Now instead of having the advantage over the gunfighter, it looked like the tables were turned, especially since one of them was now apparently dead.

He studied Bill Morse as he lay on the ground. It didn't look like the man had been the one to take the shot, but Bill did have an excellent view of Kidder. But what would that buy Morse? The thicket behind which he hid provided excellent cover. If Bill started shooting, it would be Logan who would finish it. No, it had to be Madrid. At least he hoped it was.

Logan wrapped his swollen hand as best he could and picked up his Colt. With only one hand, his rifle was useless, but he would be damned if he let Madrid come up and slaughter him where he hid.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny looked around, taking as many chances as he dared, trying to see his other attacker. “Damn it all,” Johnny murmured to himself. He'd have to make a run for it anyway. Grasping the rifle, Johnny slowly lifted himself on all fours like a runner in the starting gate, positioning for a quick run toward the trees.

He drew a deep breath and took off, angling in case any shooting started, heading toward the scattered copse of trees near the line shack. As soon as he took his first step it happened. Gunshots. He continued his running, the bullets making the trip interesting until he threw himself down under the shade of a young oak. He rolled once and stood behind the tree. The shooting stopped.

Johnny saw the body of the man he'd killed. It was slumped over next another tree. It didn't move, but that didn't mean the man was dead. Johnny had to assume he was still alive.

He ran from tree to tree, heading in the general direction of the body. Sometimes gunshots would enliven his hops, telling him that in the trees he was hidden from his remaining attacker most, but not all, of the time.

When Johnny was only one tree away from the body, he could see that the man was dead. He breathed a little easier. A little.

With cover from the tree he stood behind, Johnny studied the area where he'd first seen the glint off the rifle. After a few seconds he saw the brown spot in the grass that he knew now was a man's head. Deciding to act now while he could, he took careful aim and fired. The bullet exploded in the middle of that brown, expelling bits of bone and body. Two down.

But was that all? Were there any more attackers? He'd only known of these two. Johnny stood next to his tree, trying to figure out his next move.

 

Strange Bedfellows

The Green River stage was late, rolling in at nearly six in the evening. Buck Addison climbed down, exhausted and dusty. He'd hardly slept the previous night at the way station, so anxious he was to arrive. And he'd found his traveling companions a bore: a woman and her restless young daughter, and an older man who insisted on engaging both the mother and the young girl in conversation. He'd quickly grown tired of hearing of the child's so-called cute escapades or how wonderful she was at her studies when he believed none of it. He was glad to get off that stage and to his own hotel.

The Green River branch of his Cattleman's Hotel was finally complete and it was splendid. It wasn't as opulent as its brother in Visalia, but it didn't need to be either; Green River was still a small town. Addison entered and was quickly greeted by his staff. Within a matter of minutes, he was settled into his owner's suite, with water being heated for his bath.

Soaking in the tub, it felt good to be rid the stage. He'd never really enjoyed traveling, except by train; he felt that was the only civilized way to travel. The occasional horseback ride was acceptable, a buggy or carriage was quite nice, but the stage was positively barbaric with all it's bouncing and common folk for passengers.

Cleaned and refreshed, he dressed in a dark suit for dinner, making sure he looked every bit the part of the successful hotel owner and businessman he was. In the lobby, he looked around with an eye for detail, searching for anything out of place or needing attention. He found it exactly as it should be; he smiled. This was the way the hotel was supposed to be run.

“Your table, sir,” his manager said. Gilford Duncan was his most trusted associate, a man who had stood by his side for over ten years. He traveled for Addison, was his confidante, helped him open this branch hotel. It was even his idea. Addison rewarded him with the manager's position. He had not been disappointed.

He nodded and followed Duncan into the dining area. It was small, but adequate, and, like the lobby before, in perfect condition. There were only seven tables, but the cloths were snowy white, the settings in place and the glassware sparkling. He was led to the best table, away from the kitchens, in the center of the room, under an even larger chandelier than the one in the lobby.

A couple stood at the entrance and waited to be seated. Duncan walked by them, an oversight Buck frowned at, but changed his mind when the manager whispered in his ear, “This is Green River's new minister and his wife, Mr. Addison. I thought you may want to introduce yourself before we seat them.”

Buck nodded. “Of course. Thank you.” He stood immediately, smiled and walked to the couple, his arm outstretched. “Good evening, I understand you're the new minister in town. My name is Buck Addison. I own this establishment. Would you care to join me?” He gestured to his table.

Reverend Root returned the smile. “Why of course, Mr. Addison. We'd be delighted.” Root pulled out a chair for his wife. He chose the seat next to Buck. Addison followed, motioning to a waiter.

The waiter approached, “Some wine, Reverend? It's our finest.”

“Thank you.”

The waiter served the wine then discreetly withdrew. Addison picked up his goblet. “To your success here in Green River, Reverend.”

The minister and his wife took their glasses and smiled. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Addison. Your fine establishment has been a most gracious host while we find suitable lodging,” Reverend Root said.

“I am happy to hear that, Reverend. I personally trained the staff to meet the standards set by my flagship hotel, the Cattleman's Hotel in Visalia. Unfortunately, I was at my home there and did not hear your inaugural sermon. How did it go?”

Elizabeth Root smiled. “It was a rather good one, Mr. Addison. My dear Timothy spoke of the bad element in the area in the form of gunfighters, and a Mr. Johnny Madrid in particular. He warned of the dangers of associating with such violent men.”

Buck hid his flinch at the mentioning of Madrid's name. He quickly considered what the gunfighter was trying to do at this moment—return Lancer's stolen horse—before banishing that unhappy thought and concentrating on the present. It seemed the good minister might make a good ally if he, too, hated Madrid. He quickly decided to run with that.

Buck nodded, “I fully understand, Mrs. Root. Such horrors! Why that gunfight in the streets of Morro Coyo was just scandalous!”

“Agreed, Mr Addison,” the Reverend chimed in, “And I assure you, under my watch that sort of filth will be driven out of the area, as well as those who chose to associate with them.”

Addison couldn't be more pleased, but he dared not show it. Not yet, anyway. He needed to be sure of Root's intentions. Playing a part, he hesitated, frowning. “But I'm sure, Reverend, you heard that Johnny Madrid stepped in to save young Scott Lancer from almost certain death at the hands of another, the dreaded Day Pardee.”

“Yes, I heard.” Root sat down his glass as the waiter brought salads. “But had the young Lancer been living a pious life and not associated himself with gunfighters, then he would never have been in that situation in the first place.”

So far so good. Keeping up his ruse, Addison smiled thinly. “Well, I assure you that I agree, but I daresay you'll have a fair time of getting the Mr. Murdoch Lancer to say the same. And, as a word of warning, dear Reverend, Mr. Lancer is the wealthiest, most powerful rancher in these parts. It is not desirable to be on his bad side.”

Root sat back. “I am not afraid of Murdoch Lancer, or his wealth or power. I have the Lord with me. He who walks with filth is filth himself. And it is our duty to rebuke those who do sin, and to do so in public, to instill fear in others that they do not fall into the perils of a sinful life. If that includes Mr Lancer, then so be it. He shall soon find himself cast out if he continues his association with the likes of Johnny Madrid.”

Addison sat back, smiling. “That is a message I would like to hear in the pulpit, Reverend.” Well, well, well.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Dan Logan was scared. He'd seen Madrid coldly take out Morse with one shot and was now certain the gunfighter had done the same to Henry Kidder. He knew he'd be dispatched as easily, once the Madrid got half a chance at him. With his injured hand, he was practically useless—all he could use was his Colt. While the hand gun was good at close range, it was no match for Madrid's Winchester.

He lay on the ground behind his brake of snowberry wondering what he could do. Madrid's position, among the oaks next to the line shack, stopped Logan from making a run for the horses. He'd be cut down in seconds. He briefly considered giving up, but having heard stories of Madrid's ruthlessness, decided that was suicidal as well. He had no choice but to stay where he was, hoping Madrid would make a mistake and give him the opportunity to find a way to gain the upper hand, as unlikely as that sounded.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny waited behind his tree and listened. He was pretty sure there had only been two men attacking him, positioned as they were to hit him from both sides as he rode through the valley, but he wasn't positive. There could be one or two more. He knew if he waited long enough they'd give themselves away.

But what if there had only been the two? He'd be waiting here for no reason. And surely, one of the Conway hands had heard all that rifle fire. Wouldn't some of them be on their way? He preferred not to interact with them if he didn't have to, especially with two dead bodies nearby.

Nope, that wouldn't do at all. That would require explaining and he wasn't up to that. Not when he had a stolen horse with him. He listened for a few minutes more and, upon hearing nothing, decided to take a quick look in the lean-to stable of Conway line shack. If there were more than two horses there, he'd have his answer.

He carefully ran from tree to tree toward the line shack. No rifle shots interrupted his trip this time, adding to the evidence that he'd killed all his attackers, but Johnny hadn't lived this long by taking needless chances. It was relatively easy to see how many guns he still faced once he made it to that lean-to.

He made the last jump, to the back wall of the lean-to, and paused. No shots. All he had to do was maneuver alongside the outer wall toward the front of the line shack. Simple, really. Except he'd be fully exposed. No trees shaded that wall to protect him. If someone was waiting, he'd make a really good target for them.

He stood at the corner, his back to the outside wall of that lean-to, breathing hard, trying to decide. Make a run for it to make it inside the stable, or stay where he was, hoping...hoping for what? He didn't know. All he knew was that the longer he waited, the more opportunity for someone from the Conway ranch to ride up and find him.

Knowing it had to be done, Johnny took a deep breath and took off, running full tilt, making his body as small a target as possible.

 

Freedom for the Stallion

Johnny ran for all he was worth, holding his breath while exposed along the side of the lean-to. Two shots rang out. He wasn't hit. Yet. He skimmed around the front and threw himself inside the lean-to, making a roll before coming up on his knees, his Colt drawn, ready to face what was there.

He'd made it.

His eyes adjusted to the dim light and he saw three horses, side by side, still saddled. Now he knew there was exactly one more. But where? And why hadn't his elusive attacker shot him when he was most exposed?

Not overly religious, Johnny nevertheless crossed himself as he drew a deep sigh. Something was on his side. The third man had missed a clear shot.

Could that man be injured? Or just a bad shot? Johnny had no answers. What he did have was his urgent feeling to get away. He just knew someone from Conway was coming. And the sun was fading. He had to escape.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Logan had seen Madrid move among the trees heading for the lean-to. He readied his rifle, using his left arm to steady it. The sting still throbbed, his left hand still useless. He knew he wouldn't be able to hit the gunfighter, but he'd at least make things difficult for him if possible. And maybe, just maybe, he'd get lucky.

As Madrid began his sprint, Logan started firing. Twice. He hit the side of the building, that he knew; he heard the round impact with the wood. Had he been able to use his left hand, he may have hit Madrid, but as it was, he was grateful to have hit something under such conditions.

Now inside the building, Madrid had better shelter, he knew, but Logan refused to be taken without a fight. He dropped the rifle and picked up his hand gun. He'd use every last bullet in his Colt if necessary.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny didn't take long to make up his mind. With even more shots fired, he was certain someone at Conway had been alerted. They could arrive any minute. He decided to make a run for it. He untied two of the still-saddled horses and sandwiched himself between them, sliding his Winchester into the rifle boot on the horse to his left. Taking a bridle in each hand, he drew a deep breath. It was now or never. With a whoop, he ran between the animals, leading them around and away from the shack, back toward the creek. He expected rifle fire, but heard none, but he still ran between the horses as a precaution.

As he approached the creek, he whistled between his teeth for Barranca. When the palomino came within reach, Johnny released the horse on his right and grabbed his own horse's rein. Thankfully, Plata Viento was still roped to Barranca's saddle horn. Johnny ran with the three animals into the trees near the creek. Only when he was safely within their protection did he release the other horse, after retrieving his rifle.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Dan Logan gritted his teeth as Madrid escaped. He watched the gunfighter run toward the creek, using the two horses as a shield. He saw him retrieve that palomino of his and disappear into the trees by the water. He sighed in relief. What had begun with hopes of gaining Madrid's reputation, his palomino and the stolen horse ended up with he himself getting away with just his life. And right now, Logan was just fine with that.

He waited, wanting to make sure Madrid was good and gone. He didn't want a surprise counterattack from the gunfighter. Madrid knew he was out here somewhere and knowing what he did about the gunman, he just might come back to finish him off.

Logan heard hooves thudding in the distance and froze, listening. At least two horses approached. Fearing being caught by someone new, he threw caution to the wind and ran full tilt to the line shack. He entered the lean-to and mounted he only remaining horse. It was Kidder's dapple grey, but he didn't care. It was a horse and he was going to make good use of it. He kicked the animal and headed south toward Green River. Not once did he look back.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Ralph and Manuel from the Conway Ranch thundered into the vicinity of the line shack. They had been checking for strays when they heard the rifle fire. They dismissed the first two rounds, thinking it could have been from anything or nothing, but when they heard subsequent shots, they realized they could no longer ignore it. They headed straight toward the sound.

They slowed down once they reached the line shack. Manuel dismounted, drew his Colt and crept inside, but found it empty and untouched. He emerged and made his way to the lean-to. He saw evidence where it had been used but that was all. He stepped out, holstered his gun and rested his hands on his hips. He looked around.

Ralph had found the body of Bill Morse, laying on the ground with his rifle. “Over here!” he yelled. Manuel jogged to where Ralph was searching the body. “Ever see him?”

“Hard to tell, amigo . Half his head, it blown off.”

“I know. I'm looking in his pockets for anything that might tell me who he was.” Ralph stood up, his hands empty. “Nothing. Guess we'll have to bury him nameless.”

Si ,” his companion agreed. “You find anyone else?”

“Not yet. He was layin' there kinda obvious.”

Manuel nodded. “I'm gonna go, take a look-see.” Manuel left his friend and walked the area surrounding the shack. After a few minutes he called out. “ Amigo ! I find another one! He dead like his compadre .”

Ralph and Manuel found two saddled horses while burying the men in the soft ground near the creek. They fashioned crosses from small branches but couldn't carve names in either. None had any identification. “We'll tell Mrs. Conway about this. I don't know what they were here for but she should know about this.

“Si,” Manual agreed. Señora Conway would be mucho interested. They tied the surplus animals to their saddles and took off toward the hacienda.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Johnny realized he had no hope of reaching Lancer hacienda tonight, but having continued heading north along the creek for another half hour, he felt safe enough to stop and dismount. He listened for any activity.

Night had began to fall and he knew he should make camp, but he wanted to make sure he was clear any fallout from the attack. He didn't know why the third man hadn't hit him; it didn't make sense, but he was pretty sure he hadn't been followed. Just to be certain, he stayed within the protection of the trees around the creek, electing to spend the night at the creek before moving on at dawn.

It would be another jerky dinner and a cold camp, but right now he didn't feel deprived, at least he was alive and well. Funny how a little thing like an ambush and narrow escape can turn the tables around and make a person grateful for the very things he'd been grousing about before.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

At the Lancer dinner table, Murdoch made a sudden announcement. “I will not be attending services tomorrow in Green River,” he said after he drained his wine. “If the rest of you want to stay home, we can have a Bible study in Teresa's garden. If the weather holds, it will be delightful. I think we have all been working very hard, and I feel we need a true day of rest.”

Scott and Abby were surprised, but both were relieved. They hadn't liked the new minister's sermon the previous week and were glad to get a reprieve. “That's acceptable to us, Sir,” Scott nodded. “We'd be happy to enjoy an informal gathering this week. It has been rather hectic around here.”

“Agreed,” Abby smiled. She hadn't been looking forward to being bounced around anyway.

“Teresa, how about you?”

The girl was frowning. “I'll miss seeing my friend Selena,” she finally admitted.

Murdoch's face brightened. “I have already solved that for you, dear girl. I invited Aggie Conway to join us and bring her young charge. They will be here tomorrow morning and join us for the day.”

At this news, Teresa smiled broadly. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer! That will be fun.”

“Then it's settled,” Murdoch stated. He pushed his chair back from the table.

 

Never on Sunday

Dan Logan saddled the dapple grey he'd taken from the Conway line shack's lean-to stable. It had been Henry Kidder's mount, but Kidder was dead—killed by Johnny Madrid. Both he and the two dead men had been part of a conspiracy to murder Madrid and take everything he had—two stallions and his reputation among whatever other booty he had. But that plan didn't go too well. Madrid had been alerted by something and of the three, only Dan ended up alive, high-tailing it away from the ambush site with whatever he could take with him. He just hoped he could get away clean from Green River.

Dan didn't consider reporting back to his employer. Gilford Duncan was an old acquaintance, but he didn't want to test those bonds by telling him this bad news. Nor did he want his pay; he hadn't earned it anyway. He figured he'd just get on his horse and ride away.

He'd ridden away from the ambush the previous night intent on heading into Green River, but stopped just outside of town, waiting for a time when most people would be asleep before venturing into the settlement. He'd stayed in the shadows, not wanting to be seen or to see Duncan, just in case. And he'd slept with his horse in the livery, paying Señor Ortega's handyman extra to look the other way. He had wanted to get away from town at first light, but not having anything to eat the previous evening, he was famished. so he'd visited a local cafe for a quick breakfast.

Now, as he saddled the animal which had become his, he wondered if riding away like this was such a good idea anyway. It seemed cowardly. Still...

“That isn't your horse, Logan.”

Dan heard the voice. It was Duncan. Nodding to himself, he turned to face his employer. “Mornin' Gil.”

Duncan was dressed up in his Sunday best, a dark suit, snowy white shirt and black tie. Even his boots were shined. He was a sharp contrast to Logan's slept-in dirty clothes. “I take it whatever plan you three had didn't work out.”

Dan nodded. Duncan was smart. There was no sense lying to him. “Nope. Somethin' spooked Madrid. He knew about us. Dove off his horse and rolled away. He ended up shootin' Kidder and Morse, I believe.”

Duncan raised an eyebrow. “You believe?”

“Well, I ain't entirely one hunnert percent sure it was him who done both of ‘em. I wouldn't put it past Morse to kill Kidder or t'other way ‘round.”

“It just wasn't you.” Duncan didn't sound convinced.

“Nope,” Logan shook his head. “Got stung by a bee.” He held up his injured hand, still wrapped in a dirty bandage. “I couldn't use my rifle.”

Duncan looked like he was trying to digest this news. “So tell me what happened to Madrid.”

Logan shifted his feet. “He got away. Got to where our horses were. Ran between two o'them. I couldn't shot him even if I coulda used both hands. He got to his palomino and the other stallion and ran into the trees by the creek.”

“What creek?”

“Tule Creek. By the Conway line shack. We found him headin' that way. Set up a right good ambush, only...”

“Only Madrid happened.” Duncan shook his head. He would have hell to pay. Addison would not be happy. “So, you did nothing to him. He still has the stallion.”

“Seems that way.”

Duncan turned around, waving his hand away. “Get out of my sight, Logan.”


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Duncan knocked on the door to Buck's private quarters at the hotel. No sense in waiting. He knew he'd better get this over with. His boss would not be happy with what he had to say.

Addison opened the door, surprise on his face. “Why, Gil. I didn't expect to see you before church.” He smiled as he let his manager in. Buck was finishing dressing for services. “You like them?” He held up a pair of boots. They were shiny and new, black with contrasting stitching in red thread. “I got them a few days ago. All the way from St. Louis.”

“They look wonderful, Mr. Addison.” Gilford didn't want to break his boss' good mood, but it had to be done. “I have disappointing news, Sir,” he began, watching Buck stomp into his boots.

“Oh?” Addison looked up. He returned his attention to his footwear, stomping around admiring how they looked under his neatly pressed black trousers. “What is this news?”

Duncan dove right into it. “He got away, Mr. Addison. Madrid. I hired three men to take care of him and somehow he discovered their plan. Madrid killed two of them. The other is leaving town on a dapple grey right now.”

Addison's smile vanished. He ignored his clothing. “That's all?” he asked flatly.

Gilford could tell Buck was angry, but Addison kept it under control. He chose his words carefully. “No, sir. Madrid still has the grey stallion. I expect he'll arrive at Lancer with it some time today.”

“I see.” Addison turned away and stared out a window. “Thank you, Duncan. You tried at least. Thank you for that.”

Relieved that his boss' anger had passed, Duncan withdrew from the room.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Dan Logan trotted his horse away from Green River, heading for Morro Coyo. He figured he could pick up a job there to tide him over until he could find something farther south. Without the money Duncan promised him, he'd be hard-pressed to make it all the way out of the San Joaquin.

He was a grateful man, happy to have been let off so easy by the man who hired him. Gilford Duncan had expected results, not failure. He was lucky he didn't even get yelled at that much. Yep, Gil was all right. He understood that sometimes things go wrong and a job doesn't work out the way it's supposed to.

He'd not gone far — maybe half a mile — when he noticed his horse's gait becoming uneven. Logan sighed; he did not need a lame horse. He stopped the animal and dismounted, discovering that the dapple grey had picked up a stone in his right rear hoof. He considered returning to Green River and having the blacksmith tend to the problem. He didn't posses those skills. But Green River meant the possibility of running into Duncan again and he didn't want that. He'd been let off the hook and didn't want to risk being seen and getting back on it.

Instead he retrieved a knife from his boot and tried to pick out the stone. It took a while, but he finally freed the stone from the poor animal's hoof. He stood upright, grinning at himself for his success. Logan returned the knife to it's hiding place slapped his hands together in a congratulatory manner before patting the animal on the rump. That wasn't so bad, he told himself.

Dan Logan continued being pleased with himself right up until the gunshot rang out. He fell to the ground with a thud.

A carriage pulled up and a man jumped down. His boots created little clouds of dust as he approached the fallen man. With a toe, he rolled Logan's body, making sure he was dead. He continued turning it over and over with his feet until it rolled into a ditch, not bothering to turn it face down.

The man gathered the dapple grey and tied it to the back of the buggy before heading back into town. He would be late for Sunday services and would have to shine his boots. He was not happy.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Sunday morning church services began as usual, with singing and introduction of newcomers. The minister himself introduced Buck Addison, who sat in the back today. Root emphasized Mr. Addison would be a part-time congregation member and he praised Buck's establishment in Green River.

Buck stood and nodded to the congregation then sat down quietly, basking in the glow of recognition, wishing he could have sat closer to the front like a man of his position should. The minister's endorsement would surely mean more business for his restaurant and hotel, and, should they venture to Visalia, they may just remember his business there. He would have to remember to thank Reverend Root after the services.

Dr Sam Jenkins sat on his usual pew, along with some members of outstanding Green River families. Sam looked around for his friend Murdoch Lancer; he did not see him.

Root also noticed the absence of the Lancer party, along with Aggie Conway. He was disappointed, for he had a rip-roaring sermon, a followup to the one from last week, and, thanks to Buck Addison's suggestion, it was directly aimed at Murdoch Lancer himself. He continued with his planned lesson anyway, knowing it would have an effect; it would just take longer.

“My good neighbors,” the Reverend began, “last week, I told you of the dangers of associating with evil and violent men such as the gunfighter Johnny Madrid, that he would deceive you and lead you into a life of sin. This week, I shall be more direct. As you know, not so very long ago, the vile Johnny Madrid killed another violent man, the gunfighter Day Pardee, in a shootout in the middle of a street in neighboring Morro Coyo. Women and children were witnesses. Innocents were subjected to that horrific violence—one evil man killing another.”

Sam Jenkins drew up a sharp breath. He stiffened, angered at the minister comparing Johnny Madrid to the ruthless Day Pardee. The two were nothing alike; anyone who'd spent more than a minute with both would know, but would they remember that now? Root was working on making his case.

Reverend Root continued, “The evil Pardee had challenged someone who we thought was a respected member of our society, Scott Lancer, son of Murdoch Lancer. I ask you this, my friends, how did the despicable Pardee even know of young Lancer? Wasn't he new to our land? And why did the nefarious Johnny Madrid come to his aid? How did he even know young Scott? Had Scott Lancer, and by extension, his father Murdoch Lancer, been involved with, or perhaps even friends with, either Pardee or Madrid? If so, why? And under what circumstances?”

Sam narrowed his eyes. So, the new minister was now attacking the Lancers? Calling them into question for defending themselves? It's a good thing Murdoch isn't here, he thought.

Sam heard murmurs among the congregation. Thanks to the good minister, apparently some of them had the same questions in their mind. Well, they certainly did now, Sam gritted his teeth.

The minister kept it up: “The fact that all those parties were involved with each other speaks volumes. Those wicked men have indeed corrupted the good men. Johnny Madrid and Day Pardee influenced an honored man and his well-bred son to display such violence in broad daylight, in front of innocents, and causing those very innocents to become corrupted themselves.”

Root was wound up now, fully into his sermon, and his voice displayed his vigor.

“You see, my dear friends, how involvements with such wicked men can lead to disaster? We cannot let this happen to the rest of you! I will not let this happen to you!”

The congregation murmured it's agreement. The reverend smiled and raised his voice to a rally call:

“There is only one conclusion, dear citizens of Green River: we must rid ourselves of these vile men. Pardee is gone, but what of Madrid's whereabouts? And those he has corrupted—Murdoch and Scott Lancer—where are they this morning? In first Timothy, chapter five, verse 20, it says ‘Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may know fear.' We must rebuke not only the immoral Madrid, but those he has influenced, the Lancers, until they express regret and repent from their sins. Then we can forgive them, and let them back among our flock. Let us pray.”

 

What, Me Worry?

As Johnny neared the Lancer hacienda he felt more relaxed, his journey was almost over. He began to feel that he would actually make it back in one piece. It had been a tense few days, beginning with his decision to take the grey stallion and not letting up until just now.

He thought of his day. His journey today had taken longer than he had wanted but he could hardly be blamed. He'd camped the previous night under the shade of the oaks, cottonwoods and shrubs that grew on the banks of Tule Creek, the eastern border of Conway Ranch. He'd been up quite late, watching and trying to listen for either his remaining attackers to search for him or for Conway men to investigate the afternoon's shootings. He'd thought he heard hooves pounding the ground around dusk, but hadn't seen anyone.

After night fell, it had been cool under those trees so Johnny had bundled up, taking out an extra blanket for himself and throwing another one over the horses, staked next to each other for warmth. The rushing water had added to the chilled atmosphere and made it nearly impossible to hear as he crouched behind a rock.  Without his ears, he'd been extra vigilant, looking in all directions until his fatigue finally caught up with him. Hoping he was safe, he'd reluctantly crawled into his bedroll somewhere well after midnight.

With no sun to torment his eyelids open at dawn, he'd slept on, awakening at an hour long past when he'd wanted to be heading toward Lancer. To make matters worse, when he did rise, he did so slowly, lethargically, with little enthusiasm to lift his heavy saddle onto Barranca's back. He'd blamed it on the chill.

The horses hadn't seemed to mind the extra rest either. His palomino hadn't even tried nudging him awake. It was as if the horse knew his master needed extra sleep.

So it was mid-morning when he emerged from the safety and peacefulness of Tule Creek, taking it slow while on the lookout for Conway hands and wary of danger. He saw no one, no cowboys out on the range, no hands mending fences, nothing to show that he was on a working cattle ranch. That gave him pause. What was going on? Had something happened? He slowed his trek even more, taking even greater precautions.

A couple of hours later he had a thought why he'd seen no workmen today. It must be Sunday. And while a ranch continued to run on the Lord's day, it did so with a skeleton crew and light duties. Only an emergency would have compelled ranch hands on the range today.

But a Sunday meant other possible problems, most probable was the odds of running into a couple or a group out for a leisurely picnic, particularly in the afternoon. Johnny cursed his morning laziness; he would have surely been back at the Lancer hacienda by now. He periodically stood in the saddle for a better look for anyone on an outing.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Aggie Conway and Murdoch Lancer strolled away from the Lancer gardens. The sun was warm but the breeze cool in the shade of the great oak in front of their path. The morning Bible study had went well, a relaxed, low-key worshipping of the Lord and His bounty.

Now, Scott and Abby were overlooking the progress on the remodeling of the hacienda's west wing and Selena was with Teresa helping set up for the picnic. Maria had made a ham.

“I had some disturbing news yesterday evening,” Aggie began.

“Oh? Tell me.” Murdoch motioned for her to sit on the bench which rounded the great oak's trunk.

Aggie settled her skirts. “Two of my men discovered bodies on my eastern border late yesterday afternoon,” she told Murdoch. “Near the Tule Creek line shack. Ralph and Manuel were out riding the line when they heard gunshots. Several shots, they reported, yet each of the two men they found only had one wound.” She left out the grisly parts.

“Were they the bodies of your men?”

“No. They didn't know who they were. And Ralph couldn't find anything to lead him to identify them. It looked, Murdoch, like an ambush had taken place.”

Murdoch gulped. “Did they find any horses? Surely those two didn't walk there.”

“Manuel found two, both drinking from Tule Creek. Fully saddled. They brought them to the ranch.”

Murdoch's voice grew husky. “Probably theirs.”

“I think so. Neither was a palomino.”

She heard him sigh in relief.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“Oh, Scott! I can't wait until it's all finished! To have our own suite, and the baby so nearby...it's like a dream.” Abby twirled around in the area that was to become their room. Right now, it was only partially demolished; the wall separating it from the next bedroom had been removed, opening up a large space.

Scott smiled at his wife's antics. “Yes, it will be wonderful, more privacy and yet still close to our family.”

“This is so much better than what we would have had in Boston!”

“You think so?”

Abby nodded fiercely, “Yes! Most definitely! We have freedom here, and do you really think your grandfather would have allowed us to tear up half his house?”

Scott laughed. “No, he wouldn't. He is proud of it the way it is.”

Abby ran to the window. It faced east, perfect for awakening them in the morning. “The view from here is magnificent! Just look at all that beautiful land!” She gestured toward the sunlight.

“Yes, it is lovely, but I worry, my love.”

“About what?”

“You, our child, here, in this wild land.”

“It isn't that wild, darling.”

“Oh?” Scott raised an eyebrow. “It's wild enough for my wife to have to learn to shoot and to have to kill a man. Wild enough for me to almost lose my life in a gunfight, of all things! Wild enough to not know from one day to the next if my wife will be safe or not.”

Abby grinned. She put a finger on his chest, running it down his shirt. “I know what your problem is, Scott.” She tapped his chest with the same finger. “You aren't really afraid of the challenges that come with living here in California. You thrive on them. Your problem is that you just don't want to admit it.”

Scott grumbled as he turned away to the window. Why did she have to be right all the time?

Abby laughed. “I knew it!” She approached him, placing a loving hand on his arm.  “It's all right, Scott. It's ok to say that you are enjoying being here, enjoying the risks, the rewards, the freedoms.”

He looked up at her. “You truly don't miss Boston? Philadelphia?”

“I miss my family, yes, and our friends we made in Boston. But I'd much rather have this life than that one. I love being here. And I love you.”

Scott grinned. That was what he wanted to hear.


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

Sam Jenkins headed straight from church out to the Lancer hacienda. Murdoch rarely missed services—not that he blamed him for not coming today, with a message like that one—but he wanted to check his friend to make sure he was well. That and relate to him what the good minister had said. Trouble was afoot again in the guise of a man of God, and this kind of trouble was more dangerous than the Pardee kind. At least Pardee had been open.

His buggy rolled into the courtyard and he saw Aggie's carriage. Of course. She was here, too. It made sense. They both were absent this morning, so it was natural that she was here with him.

A vaquero came to tend to his horse. Sam recognized the man as one who had left Lancer shortly after Pardee began making his raids. “Diego! Welcome back,” he called. “How is your wife and your children, are they okay, too?”

“They are all well, Señor Doctor. And we are happy to come back. Señor Lancer is most gracious to forgive me and allow me my job again.” He led Sam's mare to the hitching post where she could get a drink.

“Of course he did,” Sam smiled. Diego had to leave early in the raids; his children were small and frightened easily. Sam patted the man on the back as he headed into the hacienda.

“Oh, Señor Doctor,” Diego called after him. “They are on the patio in the back. They have a picnic. I show you?”

“Not necessary, Diego. I know the way. Thank you.”

Sam walked through the great hacienda, entering the large oak door in the front and exiting the French doors on his way to the patio. He saw them all outside, Scott and Abby, Selena next to Teresa chatting endlessly with her friend, and Murdoch and Aggie all in a circle enjoying their picnic.

Murdoch stood when he saw his friend. “Sam! Come on and join us. We have ham and boiled eggs and plenty of fresh fruits. And you've got to try Selena's corn salad. It's delicious!” He pointed to a side table laden with food.

Sam eyed the food hungrily; it had been a long time since breakfast. His stomach growled, giving himself away. “Don't mind if I do!” He picked up a plate and began to fill it, taking a generous slice of ham and a hefty spoonful of Selena's salad. “It does look good, Selena. What's in it?”

“It is my mother's recipe,” Selena smiled. “Corn and onions, with fresh oil and cider vinegar and basil for color and surprise.”

Sam took a bite. It was very tasty. “Mmm,” he smiled. “It's quite good. You'll make a wonderful wife one day, Selena. Keep cooking like this!”

The girl blushed at his complements as Teresa grabbed her arm. The two of the dissolved into giggles.

“You attended services?” Scott asked, noting Sam's church attire.

“Yes, I did,” the doctor said as he took a seat. Murdoch passed him the bottle of white wine. “And I daresay it's a good thing none of you did.”

“Oh?”

“Yes,” Sam poured himself a glass. “You would have lost your appetite.” He went into a brief description of the reverend's sermon, leaving out the most disturbing parts.

“So our new minister is still rallying his troops against Johnny, and now us,” Scott observed. “Nice to be the target.”

“That man is dangerous!” Aggie exclaimed. “Why Reverend Gilley recommended him, I'll never know!”

“Maybe he was so bold because we weren't there,” Murdoch put in. He had felt good about this morning's Bible study, but now, guilt assailed him.

Sam shook his head. “I doubt it. He was prepared. Very prepared. He would have said the same things had you been there.”

“And probably looked us in the eye.” Aggie didn't like the man and wasn't shy about making her feelings known.

“Well, there's only one thing we can do about it,” Abby said firmly. “We can't let him bully us. We have to be there next Sunday and each Sunday afterwards, and hold our heads high.”

“Abby's right,” Scott agreed. “If we stay home, no matter how appealing that is, it'll just reinforce what he's saying and the good citizens of Green River will be lead further astray.”

Sam ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I'm all in favor of making a show, just be careful about it.” He picked up his glass. “Oh, and he introduced an old friend at church today. Buck Addison. Said he would be a part-time congregation member. Means we'll be seeing more of him.”

 

The Tale of Johnny Madrid

Johnny reined Barranca to a halt. He stood on the hillside overlooking the Lancer hacienda; it's reddish Spanish tile glistened like the sparkle of diamonds. He had made it back with the grey stallion, a day late because of that ambush near the creek yesterday.

He was tired of the saddle and longed for a decent meal. He spurred Barranca on, galloping that last mile or so to reach his destination sooner.

As he approached the courtyard he saw two vehicles, a buggy and a carriage. He recognized the buggy as the one belonging to Dr Sam Jenkins. The carriage was unfamiliar. Hoping the doctor's call was social and not medical, Johnny slowed his palomino into a canter.

A vaquero came to greet him. “ ¡Hola! ” Diego called, holding up a hand.

Johnny pulled Barranca to a stop and jumped off, heading for the barn. “Get me Murdoch Lancer. ¡Rápidamente! ” He continued into the barn, leading both horses.

Diego ran to the great door and knocked. Speaking rapid Spanish, he told Maria of a pistolero's arrival and command. Diego stayed at the door, worried that el Patron would be furioso with him for allowing such vermin on his land. Diego had only recently returned to Lancer having left when the trouble with eso perro Day Pardee had first arrived; he had small children to worry about.

Maria entered the Great Room. She was concerned. Diego had spoken of a dangerous pistolero , taking over the barn, with two horses. She could tell the vaquero was frightened. She wondered what Señor Lancer would do. Could this be the start of another siege?

The girls Selena and Teresa were giggling as they entered from the French doors. The adults sat around the room, talking and laughing. Both Señora Conway and el medico Sam Jenkins were among them. She hated to break up the laughter, but Diego's message must be delivered.

Señor Lancer,” she spoke hesitantly. They all stopped talking and gave her their attention. “Your sentry Diego has seen a rider. A man entered the courtyard and continued into the barn. A man with a gun, señor , and two horses. Diego was afraid.”

Scott stood up, glanced at his father with a questioning look, then faced Maria. “Was it Johnny? Johnny Madrid?”

Maria's face brightened. “I do not know, Señor Scott. I did not see. And Diego does not know Señor Johnny.”

Scott faced Murdoch. “It's got to be Johnny. And he's got the stallion!” He ran to the door. Everyone else followed.

Sam turned to Murdoch. “ The stallion, Murdoch? Johnny Madrid found your stolen grey?”

“I don't know,” Murdoch replied, limping quickly for the door. “He may have.”

They rushed to the barn, its doors already open. Inside, they found Johnny emerging from a stall, carrying his saddle. Barranca happily munched on some hay.

“Johnny!” Scott called, running to his brother. The saddle dropped to the floor as he clasped his brother in a big bear hug. “I'm so glad to see you.”

Johnny smiled. “Me too, brother. It's been quite a ride.”

“Did you find the stallion?” Scott asked, glancing in another stall where a light-colored horse stood.

“I think so. It looks like someone branded over the Lancer ‘L', though.”

“I'll take a look.” Scott strode toward the other stall.

Murdoch entered the barn. He'd tried to hurry only to be delayed by his bum leg. He saw Johnny talking to Scott and smiled, relief plain on his face. It quickly disappeared, though, replaced with curiosity. “Did you find Plata Viento ?”

“Take a look,” Johnny gestured toward the other stall Scott was opening. He smiled.

Aggie held on to Murdoch's arm. She, too, was beaming, knowing what the horse meant to him. The two of them walked to the stall.

Scott was examining the horse's flank. “There's sure a second brand on top of ours, he said, running his hand over the animal's coat. “He looks a little out of condition.”

“Yeah, well, whoever had him wasn't keeping him in the best of situations.” Johnny explained about the hacienda.

“You mean they were keeping him in a room of an old house?” Abby asked incredulously. “That's...bizarre.” She shook her head.

“I'll say,” Aggie frowned. “It's almost cruel.”

“It was,” Scott stated. “A horse like this, with little exercise, in such surroundings, with no company.”

“Well, that'll change now,” Murdoch stated. His face was grim.

“Can you just display him in public, though?” Sam asked. “He doesn't show your brand anymore. You could be accused of stealing him.”

Murdoch stared at the horse. “I'll dare any man to make that accusation. I have the papers to prove this animal is mine. If necessary, I'll send for Don De La Cruz in San Diego.”

Scott stepped up. “Oh, I doubt anyone will impeach Murdoch. If he did so, he would implicate himself in the original theft.”


*** L*** L *** L *** L *** L*** L *** L ***

“I'm afraid your old room isn't available anymore,” Abby told Johnny as they entered the house. “We are remodeling the west wing.” She apologized. “But we can accommodate you in the main part of the house. You'll be away from the workmen and the noise.”

Johnny jerked his head back toward Murdoch, still walking back to the hacienda. “How will the Old Man feel about that? Me closer to all of you?”

Scott chuckled. “I don't think he'll mind. He's so elated about the baby he's almost giddy. And with you returning his prized stallion, well, I'd say that earns you an honored bedroom.”

“I don't know, Scott. This is me you're talking about.”

“Well, then we just won't ask, will we?” Abby said sweetly. She smiled so innocently both men had to laugh.

“Johnny!” Murdoch called as the gunfighter began his trek up the stairs.

“Told ya,” Johnny whispered to Scott at his side. “He don't want me up here with you.” Scott also stopped, and returned with Johnny to the Great Room.

The two brothers faced their father as one, but Murdoch wasn't angry, he was smiling. “Please,” he invited, “Sit down.” He gestured to one of the chairs. The others filed in from the barn. Abby lingered by the stairs.

“First of all, I want to thank you for recovering my horse.” He turned toward the fireplace mantle. “You drink tequila, don't you?” When Johnny nodded, Murdoch reached for the bottle and poured a drink. Handing it to the gunman, Murdoch continued. “It couldn't have been easy. Tell us everything. Don't leave out any details.”

Johnny hesitated, sipping his tequila as an excuse to delay while he thought. There were some details he needed to omit, particularly those pertaining to Kitty at Sophie's Room and Board. “Well, when I got to Visalia, I checked into a hotel on the outskirts of town. I wanted as few people as possible to know I was there. Plus Visalia is a pretty big place; I don't like big towns.”

Johnny sipped again, noticing everyone on the edge of their seats. Abby had advanced to the back of Scott's chair. “I needed some information and I found out that someone at a...a boarding house may be able to tell me, so I went there. I learned enough to try to find the hacienda.” Johnny was glad they didn't press for details.

He took another sip before continuing. “It took me over a day of looking, and once I found the old hacienda, I waited, watching it for the rest of the day, making sure it was safe to enter. Near dusk, I saw a boy ride up from the north. He went inside, stayed for a few minutes, then left, locking the gate, and riding back where he came from.

“That's when I made my move. I ran to the hacienda, climbed over the wall into the courtyard. It looked deserted. I examined the place and I found the horse. I decided to take him so I shot the lock off, ran to Barranca and escaped. We traveled nearly due West back. It took a extra time because the stallion was in such poor condition.” He left out the ambush.

“Did you talk to the land agency?” Murdoch asked.

“No. I didn't want to involve any officials.”

Scott leaned forward. “So you don't know who purchased the Ortega farm? Who owned the old hacienda?”

“Nope. It didn't matter. Once I saw the horse in those conditions, I wanted him out.”

“And you didn't stay to see what happened when they found the horse missing?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny shook his head. “I had a stolen horse. I wasn't about to stick around and watch for reactions.”

“So we have the horse, but we aren't any closer to finding out who hired Pardee.” Scott surmised.

“Not yet, but I have some other information.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I have a name. Probably the name of the man who shot you—” he nodded to Murdoch, “—back in December. Drake. Ex-Johnny Reb. Sniper. I know his favorite saloon in San Diego.”

“Interesting how a lot of this goes back to San Diego,” Abby mused. “The horse is from there, this Drake can be found there...”

“It's a border town, Abby. Lots of bad people in border towns,” Johnny explained.

“Well, if you ask me that brand on the horse is a big clue,” Aggie pointed out. She'd been silent until now.

“Agreed,” Murdoch nodded. “If we can figure it out. It didn't look like a letter, just a lot of curls around a square inside a circle.”

They all nodded, knowing the difficulty in deciphering the brand. Johnny finished his drink. Murdoch stood. “Well, I won't keep you, Johnny. I know you must be tired and hungry. Will you join us for dinner once you've washed up?”

Johnny nodded absently, only now realizing that his father had called him by his first name since his return and evidently had no objection to him being there. Scott was right; the man must be so happy about the baby he was forgetting to be cross with him. He didn't complain, though. He knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. “Yep,” he grinned. “I could use a hot bath, a good meal and a soft bed.”

Murdoch clapped his hands, “Then it's done. Maria will see to it your bath is drawn.”

The older Mexican woman entered the room beaming. “It is already being prepared for you, Señor Johnny. Come, I show you to your new room.”

The party broke up, but Sam grabbed Murdoch's arm, leading him out the French doors onto the patio. When they were safely away from the house, Sam expressed concern. “Are you sure you're doing the right thing, Murdoch? Having Johnny Madrid here, in your house?”

Murdoch looked surprised. “Why, Sam, I thought you approved of Johnny Madrid. You told me not that long ago that I should welcome him into my home as my son.”

“I know, however, with this business about Reverend Root...well, you remember what I told you about his sermon. He's thrown down the gauntlet regarding Johnny Madrid and put you right in the middle of it.”

Murdoch grew pensive. “I know. I know. But I can't just throw him out. He's done me a huge favor returning the stallion. Besides, I think I want him here.” Sam frowned in worry. Murdoch smiled at his hold friend, patting him on the back. “Thanks for your concern, Sam. Truly. And while I am concerned that the minister could be trouble—” He smiled.

“Could be?” Sam interrupted. “He is trouble. He's put you against him, against the congregation, possibly even against God. Or are you so happy about this baby that it's clouding your judgement?”

Murdoch laughed. “If you could see yourself, Sam. Just the other week you were spouting the opposite story about Johnny.”

“The situation is a boiler keg. I know Johnny Madrid is a good man at heart, and he deserves to be here, by your side, as your son, but is now the time?”

Murdoch had not seen Sam so entreating. He slapped the doctor on the back. “First of all, old friend, I've not gone that far, baby or no baby. I've just invited him to spend the night and enjoy a good meal. I owe him at least that much.”

Sam's voice dropped. “I don't think you understand, Murdoch. I'm worried. About both you and Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch grew serious. “Is there a problem with Johnny?”

“There could be. If the minister calls for a war against him.”

“I see.” Murdoch nodded in thought. “You think he could be in danger.”

“I know he is.”

 

To Part Two



Want to comment? Email JenniferB