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JenniferB

 

 

The Man From Visalia
Part Two


Part Two: Blood Brothers

 

Trouble with a Capital R

Timothy Root walked the boardwalk along Green River's main street, his young wife, Elizabeth, on his arm at his side. They strolled together, greeting the community. “Good morning,” he tipped his hat to a woman who nodded in return.

A few steps later he smiled to his wife, “It's a beautiful day, Elizabeth. It seems like God has made it just for us so we can search for our new home.” They were on their way to look at a house someone had recommended for them. It was down a side street midway between the Cattleman's Hotel and the church. An ideal location.

Elizabeth laughed. “You are so charming, my dear. But it is a lovely day. And your sermon yesterday was top-drawer. I enjoyed it very much.”

“Yes, it was good. But I saw that there were a few people missing from the congregation.”

“You mean Murdoch Lancer?”

“Yes, he and his family. I wonder why he wasn't there. I was talking to some people afterwards; they say he rarely missed services.”

Elizabeth smiled. “Maybe he's feeling a little guilty because of your lesson last week.”

“Could be,” Root grinned.

Elizabeth gave him a pat on the arm. “I suggest you take a ride out and see him, Darling. He may be ill. I noticed he has a limp.”

Root beamed and turned to face her. “Why, Lizzie, dear. That is an excellent idea!”

Elizabeth frowned. She lowered her voice. “Please, Timothy, don't call me that. I may only be seventeen, but I'm not a child anymore.”

Root smiled. “Of course not, my dear. I shall endeavor to remember.”

They found the house, a small two-story clapboard thing, painted yellow and trimmed in white. The small garden needed tending, but other than that, it looked perfect. After a quick look around, Elizabeth was delighted and Root agreed. They'd make arrangements to move as soon as possible.


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

The Reverend Root and his wife weren't the only ones who noticed the absence of the Lancer family. From his seat in the back, Buck Addison had seen that as well. He'd been disappointed, having wanted to witness the minister directly challenge Lancer from the pulpit. But with Lancer avoiding church, Buck now had another idea.

He, too, walked the streets of Green River that morning, but since he was out  and about after the minister's stroll, he missed seeing his new friend. That didn't stop him from seeing anyone else, though. Addison moved among everyone he met, greeting and making conversation, making himself more known in the community, promoting his hotel and its lovely dining room. He discussed benign topics with most, but with those he remembered from yesterday's services, he casually mentioned the Lancers' absence and idly wondered what it meant, planting little ideas. That was all it took. By mid-day the rumor mill was working and by evening, his little seed had grown into a full-fledged thorny vine. The word was out: Lancer had not only hired Johnny Madrid to kill Day Pardee but kept him on the payroll to intimidate anyone who dared question the great Murdoch Lancer.

Buck almost clasped his hands with glee when the rumors got back to him; his move had been more than a success. Never had he imagined his well-placed musings would give rise to this level. He couldn't wait to see what would happen the next time Murdoch showed himself in town.


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

“I want to go with you,” Abby implored. “It's a long stage ride and—”

“Precisely,” Scott answered, stuffing a shirt into his bag. “It's a long stage ride. A long, hot, bumpy stage ride.” Scott was packing for Visalia.

“But—” Abby tried again.

“No, ‘but's,” he interrupted. “Do you honestly want to be jostled around an uncomfortable stage in your condition?”

Abby drew a breath to speak and thought better of it. He was right, of course. And she had hated the stagecoach when they first came to California. “Then why do you have to go? Johnny's already been there.”

“Yes, but he didn't talk to anyone, anyone of consequence, that is.” Scott had a feeling Johnny's source was a lady of the evening but he wasn't about to voice his opinion to his wife. “He deliberately avoided the land agent. He's the man who can tell us who legally owns that property.”

“What about Murdoch? He should go.”

Scott smiled. “I know you want me here, with you. I understand that. I want to be here, too. Murdoch has the ranch to run. Besides, I can be more discreet. If Murdoch starts asking around, people are bound to notice. I know how to get information without it raising eyebrows.”

Abby grinned. “You did that enough for your grandfather in Boston.”

Yes, he had. Part of his duties at Garrett and Company had been to act as a spy for his grandfather. He knew the game and played it well. “All the more reason for me to be the one to go, darling.” He snapped his bag shut. Gathering his wife in his arms, he gave her a goodbye kiss she wouldn't forget.

Their lips broke and Abby smiled lovingly at her husband. “I'll miss you.”

“And I you,” Scott smiled. He grabbed his bag.


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

Scott found Murdoch in his usual place, pouring over the books at his desk in front of the great window. He plopped his bag in a chair next to the desk. Murdoch looked up.

“All ready to go?”

“Just about. I want a word with you first, though.”

Murdoch handed him an envelope. “Here's two hundred dollars. That's more than enough for your expenses. I don't expect you to stay in cheap hotels like Johnny did, but I'm sure you know not to go overboard.”

Scott nodded. “I know.” He stuffed the envelope into his inside jacket pocket.

Murdoch put the pen down. “Now what was it you wanted to say.”

Scott eased himself onto the edge of the seat where his bag rested. “It's about Johnny.”

“Go on.”

“I know you've had your difficulties with him, but I am asking you to let him continue to stay here, in the hacienda, with the rest of us. If you can't because he's a gunfighter, then please do so because I need him here. I trust him to watch over Abby—”

Murdoch started to interrupt, but Scott held his hand up. “—I know you have good men, but it's Johnny I trust with her welfare. Blame it on the overindulgences of an expectant father. I want him here.”

Murdoch smiled. “Of course, Scott. I won't ask him to leave. He is welcomed to stay. It's too dangerous out there alone anyway. Sam warned us about that.”

Scott stood and shouldered his bag. “Good.”


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

The grey stallion loped slowly around the corral; he wore only a halter. Johnny stood in the middle, controlling Plata Viento with only words, the lead in his left hand. After ten minutes he slowed the horse to a walk, approaching his head and leading him around again by his halter.

Johnny continued this training, alternating a gallop or canter with walking. He was trying to condition the horse. It was much along the lines of what he did along the long ride from Visalia, but the stallion needed more. “See, Smitty,” he told a vaquero. “You need to exercise him daily, at different paces, then make sure he gets a good rubdown. See if Cipriano has some liniment which might help. Once a day, take him on a good, hard run, going a little farther every day. Do this until he is back in condition.”

Smitty nodded, in awe of Johnny's ability, knowing that while he would try, he did not have the same magic with horses that the pistolero did. It was a gift, his father had told him once, that only a few are born with.

Johnny walked to the hacienda, to be met by Scott on his way out. His older brother carried a bag over his left shoulder, puckering the brown leather jacket that covered his dark blue shirt. Johnny couldn't help but compare Scott now to the Scott Lancer he'd first met at the Reno train station long weeks ago. Scott dressed like a dandy then. Now, he was a tanned vaquero, in comfortable work clothes, and sported a Colt on his hip. No one would think him a dandy now.

Scott indicated the corral with his head. “Good job with the horse, Johnny. He'll be in excellent shape in no time.”

Johnny turned back to see. “He's a fine animal, Scott. It's a shame he was ignored for so long.”

The two brothers paused, silently watching the animal in the corral. Finally Scott spoke. “I sure wish we could decipher that brand.”

“It would help.”

Scott drew a breath, standing up straighter and securing his hat. “Well, I've made a decision. I've talked it over with Abby and I think it's time we find out a name. Murdoch tells me that all brands are registered with the state. I'm going to Green River and ask our lawyer to look into it for us.” He held up a paper. “I'll give him this tracing of the brand. In the mean time, I'll take the stage to Visalia and talk with the land agent. I want to find out who bought the Ortega farm, and maybe who still owns that old hacienda.” He took a step toward the barn.

“Wait, Scott.” Johnny placed his hand in front of his brother. “You're just gonna go off like that?”

“Murdoch knows. He approves. The lawyer Ramsey will be looking for the brand upstate; I'll be asking questions of the land agent there. One of us is bound to discover a name or something we can connect to all this.”

“But don't you think it's a little risky, Scott? Going off to Visalia, asking questions, particularly after the stallion in question was just stolen from there? Surely, whoever was keeping him not only knows he's gone, but they probably have a good idea who has him.” Johnny did not want his brother to return so quickly to the area where he'd stolen a horse.

“It's a risk we have to take, Johnny. At some point in an investigation one has to begin to ask questions. Even if it stirs up the pot.” Scott flashed a smile.

Johnny drew a breath and looked in the distance. He knew his brother's mind was made up; he would not be able to change it. After a few seconds he asked, “You want some company?”

Scott pulled on his gloves. “No. I want you to stay with Abby. I want someone I trust here to protect her.”

Johnny returned his gaze to Scott. He nodded. “You be careful, brother. What you are doing is dangerous. Asking questions. Meeting officials.”

Scott smiled. “I have lots of experience meeting officials. You think I don't know how to be discreet?”

“It's not your discretion I'm worried about.” Johnny grinned, but it faded quickly.


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

Within an hour of Scott's leaving, a buggy drove under the Lancer arch. Johnny, back at the corral with the stallion, leaned on the railing, watching Smitty put the horse through the paces. Smitty learned fast and would do an acceptable job with the animal.

Johnny twisted his head to see the buggy as it's driver pulled the horses up short. He didn't recognize the man and returned his attention to the corral, but he kept an ear toward the man and lowered his right hand close to his weapon as a precaution. He heard Murdoch emerge from the hacienda.

“Well, Reverend Root,” Murdoch greeted loudly. “What brings you to Lancer today?”

Timothy Root tied off his horses and extended his hand for Murdoch. “I noticed your absence from services yesterday. I wondered if you were well.”

Murdoch almost snorted at the question, knowing it was absurd at the least. “Yes, yes. We are all fine. Thank you for inquiring.” He purposely didn't give a reason for skipping church.

“Ah, well, good. I was worried there,” Root smiled. “I wouldn't want Green River's leading family to be taken down—” he hesitated ever so slightly, “—by illness or whatnot.”

“I'm sure you don't,” Murdoch replied smoothly. He was playing it cool. He knew what the minister had said in church yesterday, about his quite pointed insinuations, and while in general Murdoch approved of law and order, he felt the minister was going too far.

Root looked around the courtyard, noticing the business of the ranch: a young Mexican woman picking flowers, two vaqueros repairing a spot on the barn's roof, and Smitty working the stallion under Johnny's supervision.

“My, what a fine stallion!” the minister exclaimed. “Have you had him long?” Root fixated on the horse, watching him trot around the corral.

“Yes, and no,” Murdoch replied. He could tell that Root wanted to go to the corral but Murdoch stayed where he was, forcing the minister to remain as well. There was no sense in exposing Root to ‘the vile Johnny Madrid' before it was necessary. “I acquired him almost a year ago, but he was stolen from me in late December. He was only returned to me yesterday.”

“Oh?” Root turned back to Murdoch, surprise on his face. “Well, I'm sorry for your loss, but I'm very happy that the wrong was righted.”

“Yes, well, we got him back, true, but the stallion was kept under ... unusual circumstances. He will need training and conditioning to return him to his health and vigor.”

“What sort of circumstances?”

“He was largely ignored, not exercised and given only minimal care. Evidently whoever stole him wanted him alive, but didn't want to be caught and branded a horse thief.”

Root was taken aback. “That's a rather radical accusation there, Mr. Lancer. Are you sure he was stolen and didn't just run off? You shouldn't rush to judgement, you know.”

Murdoch tensed. The very idea of the minister chastising him for judging others given his own behavior! His words became clipped. “I'm quite certain, Reverend. My foreman and I tracked the thieves to Morro Coyo. We were ambushed. My foreman was murdered. I was left for dead.”

Root turned back to the horse momentarily, then back to Murdoch. “I see. But what about the good people of Morro Coyo? Why didn't they do something?”

Murdoch almost sighed. Didn't Root understand how it was? “They were unable to, Reverend. The outlaws who orchestrated the theft sequestered them in the mission church. They were threatened with violence. It was a very well-planned operation.”

“So you're saying these outlaws just took control over the entire town?” Root's voice displayed disbelief.

“Yes. And that was only the beginning. But luckily, eventually, Lancer won out.” Murdoch smiled slightly. “We defeated the outlaws only a few weeks ago. It's over now and things are getting back to normal.”

“Amazing. And you did all this yourself?”

Was the man daft? “No, of course not. We had help. My son Scott arrived from Boston, bringing his military expertise. At times we depended on...” Murdoch struggled to explain Johnny Madrid's help, “...other assistance. Unfortunately, the aid we received from neighbors cost them dearly. Day Pardee was ruthless.” Murdoch smiled again. “But, like I said, it's all over now. Except for whoever hired Pardee.”

“So the gunfighter wasn't working alone?”

“No. They rarely do. There's almost always someone else calling the tune, pulling the purse strings. We never found out who that person was. But we are moving on.”

“So I see. And now you have your horse back.”

“Yes, we do. It's another step in the right direction.”

The lunch bell rang. Murdoch's shoulders dropped slightly. The last thing he wanted was to dine with the reverend, particularly with Johnny there. He would not be able to avoid a confrontation, but he was left with no choice.

“Won't you join us for lunch, Reverend? Come on in. I'm sure Abby will be pleased to see you.” He gestured toward the hacienda before pointing toward the corral. “I need to take care of some business first; I'll be right in.”

Root nodded, “I'd be delighted.” He took a few steps toward the door before pausing and turning to watch Murdoch Lancer limp across the courtyard to the corral. He saw him talk to that cowboy who had been leaning against the railing. Root noticed the unknown man's stance; he seemed cool, confident, almost nonchalant, and that gun of his rode so low on his hips.

With a start Root realized that the man was no ordinary cowboy. He'd seen pictures of men like him. The casual look, the low-slung gun. He was a gunfighter! Root couldn't believe his eyes. Why, the very gall of Murdoch Lancer! Casually chatting with him while such an evil man lounged not a hundred feet away! He turned away, his back to the corral, his mind racing. Could Lancer be that bold? Could the man think him so naive?

Murdoch returned to where the minister still stood. “Shall we go in?” he asked smoothly.

Root drew a deep breath and smiled thinly. “I'm afraid I just realized I have an appointment. My wife...we have a commitment this afternoon.”

Murdoch smiled broadly. “Then you'd better not keep her waiting. If I know women, they prefer that we bide our time for them .”

“That is true.” Reverend Root untied his reins and climbed back in the buggy, turning it around in the courtyard. He forced a friendly wave as he left.

Murdoch got an uneasy feeling. He should be thrilled with the reverend's change in plans, but he wasn't. Something about it didn't ring true. He shook it off. Johnny came jogging up to him. “The good minister decide not to stay?” he asked in his soft drawl.

“No, he remembered a prior engagement.”

“Or so he said.”

Murdoch paused a moment, thinking. “Never mind him. I'm hungry. Let's eat.”

Johnny watched until the buggy drove out of sight then followed his father for lunch.

 

A Bee in a Bonnet

Scott dropped Rienzi off at Green River's livery, with instructions to exercise him daily until he returned. He planned on taking the stage to Visalia. While Scott was fast becoming acclimated to life in the West, he wasn't yet up to camping out on the ground, as a horse-bound trip would have required. He'd had too much of that during the War.

His next stop was to see Alexander Ramsey, Murdoch's lawyer. Scott had only been to Ramsey's house and office once before, to sign the partnership agreement, but he remembered it well: whitewashed clapboard, two story with a large front porch. Most of the downstairs level was his business space, divided into a larger client room with a desk for a clerk and two smaller rooms—the larger of the two was his office.

Alex Ramsey himself was only a few years older than himself and Scott remembered being surprised to see his father had selected an attorney near his age. He thought briefly to ask about his credentials, but that would be rude; obviously Murdoch thought him capable and that was enough for Scott.

“Mr. Ramsey,” Scott greeted, shaking the attorney's hand. “I'm so pleased you are able to see me without an appointment.” They stood together in the large office.

“I'm always happy to serve the Lancer family, Scott. How's that lovely wife of yours? Abby?”

“She's fine, Mr. Ramsey. Thank you for asking.”

“What can I do for you today, Scott?” The chit-chat done, Ramsey got down to business. He gestured toward the chair opposite his desk as he walked around the oak furniture, pulling out his own seat.

Scott took the offered chair and explained about the retrieval of the stallion. “Will Johnny be in any trouble? Did he steal the horse?”

Ramsey sat back, touching the tips of his fingers together. “Technically, no. The horse was identified as property of Murdoch Lancer and he was acting as Lancer's agent to retrieve stolen property. However, if someone wanted to bring it to trial, a sheriff just might press charges to make Johnny Madrid prove his actions, and the horse's true owner.”

“I am afraid of that,” Scott frowned. “And it's part of why I'm here.” He explained about the animal's altered brand.

Ramsey leaned forward, his elbows on his desk. “Overbranding is illegal. If Murdoch can prove the stallion is his—some unique identifier, paperwork, etc—then we could easily prove our case. However, if we can find the iron used to change the brand, that's even better. It would make any case against Madrid for horse theft melt away.”

“We don't have such a thing.” Scott was disappointed.

Ramsey shook his head. “No matter. It's not necessary; it would only be icing on the cake, that is, if Johnny Madrid is brought to trial, but let's not worry about that unless we have to.”

Scott digested that bit of news before diving into the main reason he was here. “Murdoch tells me that you may be able to find out who owns this brand. It's a tracing of what's on that stallion's hip now.” Scott handed the paper to Ramsey.

The lawyer glanced at the drawing and smiled. “Yes. All brands must be registered in Sacramento. I can dispatch a clerk immediately to research it.” He indicated the other office with his head. “Young Clark here so enjoys that kind of job. He'll be delighted to go. Shall I get back to you?”

“Thank you, Mr. Ramsey. If you learn anything in the next few days, you can telegraph me in Visalia. I'll be staying in the Cattleman's Hotel. I should be back within a week, though. However, if you could get word to Murdoch at the ranch, I'd appreciate it.” Scott stood, the appointment over.

“Of course.” Ramsey walked Scott to the door, shaking his hand.

Scott stepped outside the lawyer's office and onto the street. His legal duty done. The bright sunshine hurt his eyes; he repositioned his hat to shade them. Suddenly hungry and realizing he had the time, he found a cafe and ordered a quick lunch. Abby had packed a sandwich in case he needed it en route, but he wanted to save that. The bean soup was filling and perfectly seasoned with ham and salt.

His last stop was the Wells Fargo stage depot. There Scott purchased a ticket to Visalia and sat down to wait, knowing the stage from Morro Coyo was due any minute. The eastbound stage wasn't often late, at least in Green River, having only to come from Morro Coyo.

As he waited a young man in a greyish-tan business suit ran to the agent, purchasing a ticket of his own. He carried a light carpetbag. He sat next to Scott, panting a little.

“You made it,” Scott started the conversation.

“Yes. I was worried. Only just now got word to be on the stage. I had to run home and throw together a bag.” He nudged the carpetbag with his feet. “Going to Sacramento. You?”

Scott smiled, realizing this must be Ramsey's clerk. The lawyer worked fast, that's for sure.

Another man entered the depot. He, too, was dressed for business in a dark suit and ribbon tie. He purchased his ticket and sat across from Scott and the clerk. A few minutes later, the stage rumbled into town, coming to a stop in front of the depot. Dust flew all around the vehicle, choking those who were unfortunate enough to be on the boardwalk at the time.

The driver jumped down and opened the doors. A woman and her son disembarked, taking their baggage and walking a few feet away where a man stood beside a wagon. The couple engaged in a quick hug before the man lifted the boy in the back of the wagon along with their bags. He assisted his wife onto the seat before going around and taking up the reins.

The driver hefted Scott's bag on top of the stage, followed by the clerk's and a case belonging to the businessman. He gave a cursory look at their tickets before gesturing toward the open stage door. By the time all three men settled in the cabin, the horses were changed and the driver slapped the reins. They jerked away.

Scott's day was uneventful. The three men chatted a little, each exchanging the same information: names, destinations and very little else. The clerk seemed excited, but tried not to show it. Scott noticed the businessman pull out a book from his coat's inner pocket and read. He wished he'd remembered to remove the Cooper novel he brought with him from his bag before the driver had tossed it above.

Left with little else to do, Scott busied himself by gazing out the window. The landscape, verdant and alive, never ceased to amaze him with its beauty or diversity. Oaks, rocks, streams, poppies, and wild lavender filled his venue with interest. It was a far cry from the dirty, gray Boston cityscape.

He thought of Boston, and what he may be doing now if he was there. Probably in a meeting, listening to someone drone on and on about some takeover or new financial opportunity. He'd be wearing a suit, all trussed up, thinking about what he'd do when he returned home. Boy, was he glad he was here in California!


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

Reverend Root returned the buggy to the livery and hurried to the hotel. He'd been thinking about Murdoch Lancer all the way back to Green River and had made a decision.

He was incensed at the way Lancer defied his sermons, having a gunfighter there on his ranch—right in plain sight along with innocents and pious men. Did he not know the dangers? Or did he not care? More likely he felt himself immune. Well, he could show Murdoch Lancer a thing or two.

Root knew a little about taking down a man. He had been ‘encouraged' to leave the East because of a scandal; people had threatened to spread it around so Timothy and Elizabeth left, heading West to make their name and a new beginning.

He knew how the townspeople would react to evidence of a gunfighter apparently  making himself at home at Murdoch Lancer's home, but he wondered what Lancer's influential friends would think. He was determined to find out.

Dashing into his hotel, he ran into Buck Addison, the owner. “Why, Reverend Root, you're in a hurry this afternoon.”

“Yes, I am,” the minister automatically replied, already taking steps to go around his host. He stopped, though, changing his mind. “Mr. Addison, might I have a word?”


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

Grateful to have another chance with the minister, Buck Addison led him into his office. The brightly lit room created a cheery atmosphere. Not waiting to sit yet, Root jumped right into it. “Mr. Addison, I seem to be in a position which leaves me wondering which direction to chose.”

“What do you mean, Reverend?” Addison offered him a chair and waited until the minister was comfortable before taking his own seat. This kind of a seduction needed to be cultivated carefully.

“Well, I have discovered something scandalous about one of our most honored men, something about which I had only fears and suspicions before but now have proof.”

“Just who is this man?”

Root lowered his voice and glanced around furtively, but of course, they were alone. “It's Murdoch Lancer.”

Buck feigned surprise. “Mr. Lancer? But isn't he rather above reproach? I mean you've hinted in your sermons about the man's possible dark connections, but...”

“I've seen it myself, Mr. Addison! In his own courtyard! Not a hundred feet from me!” Root banged his fist on the chair's arm.

“Seen what?”

Root leaned forward. “A gunfighter.” He sat back again.

Addison appeared startled. “Are you sure?”

The minister nodded. “I know the look. He wore a bright-colored shirt, dark pants with those silver decorations on the side, and his gun, well, it was very low on his hips, sir. Quite, quite low.”

Addison cocked his head. “That sounds like Johnny Madrid.” Buck didn't know Madrid personally but he remembered Duncan's description. “Mexican? Dark hair? Blue eyes?”

“He looked Mexican, but I can't be sure. Dark hair, yes. I didn't get close enough to see his eyes.”

“And he was at Lancer's hacienda?”

“Leaning against a corral fence like he belonged there.”

“Just leaning against the rail? Was he watching you?” Buck knew that it never hurt to instill a little fear in his mark.

“No. His attention was drawn to the horse in the corral. A grey stallion. Mr. Lancer said the animal had just been returned to him after having been stolen.”

“Did you believe that story?”

Root considered. “I think so. He went into details about the theft.”

“Did the horse have the Lancer brand? It's an L inside a circle.”

“I don't know...” Root thought back, trying to envision the animal as it ran around the corral. He started to shake his head and stopped. “Wait! No! It didn't. It was something else inside a circle. Oh, my Heavens! Lancer must have been the one to steal it!”

Addison smiled grimly. “Well, now you know more about what kind of man you are dealing with, Reverend.” Buck nearly laughed; Root made this so easy.

“Yes. One who pretends to be honorable, who wears the cloak of friendship and morality, but is anything but. My, my, my. I just don't know about this.” He appeared to be agitated.

“I guess it's like you said in your first sermon. I heard about it from my manager. ‘An evil man deceives his friends.'”

“Yes, yes. I see now.” He nodded. “Say, you wouldn't happen to know if Lancer has any influential friends, would you?”

“Yes, I do. I believe he knows the governor and one of our senators, Casserly.”

“Oh, my. This does go farther than I thought. With him being corrupted by Madrid, well, if he influences a senator and our governor, I don't know what repercussions this could have. Our entire state could be in danger!”

Addison leaned forward, suppressing his enjoyment. “What do you have in mind, Reverend?”

+++NOTE: Eugene Casserly was one of California's two US senators at the time of this story. More about him in a later chapter.

 

A Disturbance in the Force

Abby dismissed the workmen for the day so they could have dinner and enjoy the rest of the evening. They had been toiling very hard, all day long, and had been at it every day, demolishing the west wing, tearing down walls and hauling away debris. Abby had arranged with Murdoch for them to have accommodations at the ranch so they wouldn't have to travel back and forth to Morro Coyo daily. This meant they ate their morning and evening meals with the ranch hands, but Maria made them for lunch. The girl Josefina proved to be an invaluable assistant.

The men trekked from the hacienda, brushing themselves off once they emerged. Mrs. Lancer had instilled the fear of God in them, lest they make a personal mess in the house and since she paid well and treated them fairly and kindly, they weren't about to test her resolve. This demolition and remodeling job was the best they'd enjoyed in some time. They weren't about to cross her. Besides, they liked the young, energetic woman.

Johnny came in as the men left. If the workmen had any questions regarding the gunfighter Johnny Madrid, who apparently was living in the hacienda proper and taking all his meals with the family, they didn't voice them. As far as they were concerned, if the good Mrs. Lancer approved, so did they.

“Johnny!” Murdoch called as the gunfighter crossed the Great Room to the stairs. “Please come here.” Murdoch sat at his desk, his chair angled so he could see both the room and out of the large, arched window.

Johnny, instantly wary, approached the desk. While Murdoch had been pleasant with him these since his return with the stallion, he still wasn't quite sure how his sire would react to him. The last time he stayed at the hacienda, his father had made it clear he was no longer welcomed. Was he going to turn him out again? He stopped a couple of feet away from the desk, awaiting.

“I've been meaning to talk to you. Please sit down.” He indicated an armchair.

Johnny sat, still wondering what his father had in mind. He'd said ‘please' twice now. This couldn't be good. Murdoch offered Johnny a drink, which he refused, adding more fodder to Johnny's growing ominous feeling.

“Sam and I—you remember Dr. Sam Jenkins?” When Johnny nodded, Murdoch continued. “He and I talked the other day and he said some things I think you should know about.” Murdoch walked around the desk, using the top for support; he'd left his cane somewhere. The elder man eased himself into the opposite chair from Johnny. “It's about Green River's new minister.”

“What does that have to do with me? I don't go to church. I don't plan to, either.”

“I know. And that's not it. It's about what he's been preaching his first two sermons.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow. “And that is?”

“Well, the first sermon was a little troubling, but mainly it was about the need for law and order in both Green River and Morro Coyo. I agree with him there; both towns need a sheriff and I think it's time for that, certainly in Green River. It's a growing town and there's not even a jail.

“Anyway, getting back to what I want to tell you—his second sermon this past Sunday, which built on some of the things he said the previous week...well,” Murdoch hesitated, unsure of how Johnny would take it. “That, that was more of a pointed attack.”

“On?”

“You.”

“Me?” Johnny pointed to himself. “What did I do to this preacher? I never even met him.”

“I don't think it's personal.” Murdoch shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with how to proceed. “I can understand a little of what he's saying. I used to feel the same way, although not quite like he does.”

“I don't understand, Old Man,” Johnny ground out.

Murdoch shook his head. “This isn't coming out right. Let me start over.” He leaned back, settling. “I saw you in a gunfight before, a few years ago, in the Pueblo de Los Angeles. I was there for a cattleman's convention. You called a man out and, well, it seemed so cold-blooded. After you shot him, you walked over to him, just watching him die, then tossing a coin in the dirt before you walked away.”

Johnny nodded. “Laz Hershaw.”

“Yes, I believe that was his name. A friend of mine had hired him for protection. He'd been threatened by someone; I don't remember all the details. But, well, your...display...Let's just say I was more disgusted than impressed.”

Johnny snorted and leapt to his feet. “Is that when you decided I was evil? A vile creature not worthy—” He stopped himself, not wanting to go there. “Do you even know what that snake Hershaw did? Why I was hired to kill him?”

Murdoch blinked at the sudden outburst.

When Murdoch didn't answer, Johnny continued. “I was hired, by the way.  Although I only took half the pay. He'd taken too much from them as it was.” He drew a breath and began the tale.

“Hershaw took an innocent girl, Old Man. He'd just won a gunfight and I guess he thought he deserved a sweet reward. He grabbed her from her parents, right there on the street, and dragged her to the hotel. He took what he wanted for two entire days, left her in that stinking hotel room, bloodied, half-crazy, half-dead. The girl recovered physically, but later when she found out she was pregnant by the devil, she ran in front of a stage. Her parents had to bury what was left of her. She was only thirteen. Thirteen! She barely had breasts!”

Murdoch sat in silence, as if physically assaulted by the story. Johnny stood, his arms crossed, daring his father to defend himself, the echo of his words filled the quiet.

“I'm sorry,” Murdoch finally said, his voice soft. “I didn't know. I think I can now understand your apparent coldness. But please, Johnny, realize: I never liked gunfighters; it wasn't personal against you. Surely you can understand that.”

Johnny shrugged. Where was this going? Did it even matter? “What does all this...” he waved his arm in the air, “...have to do with your new preacher?” He sat back down, arms still crossed.

Murdoch shook his head. “I'm not very good at explaining. It's...emotional.” He drew a breath, wanting a drink but not wanting to stand up to get one. He wondered if it was worth all the trouble to explain his history as it related to Johnny's profession. He decided against it. “Suffice it to say that I no longer feel about you the way I did before.”

Johnny uncrossed his arms but stayed leaned back. “What do you mean?”

“You have been invaluable to me, proving yourself as much as your brother has. I realize now that you are basically a decent man, in an indecent profession. And you are my son.”

“You want to change me?”

“No! I mean, yes. But that isn't the focus of this conversation.”

Johnny, angered, wanted to pursue that line but reconsidered. He resettled in the chair and forced himself to calm down. “What is, then?”

“Reverend Timothy Root.”

“And?”

“He is a danger to you.”

Johnny laughed. “I ain't afraid of no preacher.”

“Maybe you should be. He has begun to rally his congregation, Johnny. Against you and anyone who supports you, befriends you, helps you. Even me. I fear that someone may act violently because of his words.”

Johnny pondered. Meddling ministers did tend to stir things up. He wished Scott hadn't left yet; he'd discuss this with him.

“I want you to be extra careful. I know you usually don't react irrationally, but be warned and be wary. The next few weeks may prove very trying to everyone.”

“I understand.” Johnny nodded. “Thank you.” He started to rise but Murdoch stopped him.

“One more thing, Johnny. It may be related. Or not.” Murdoch held out his hand. “Aggie told me her men had found two bodies by her line shack near Tule Creek.Do you know anything about this?”

“You think I shot two men in cold blood?” Johnny glared.

“No! It's just that Tule Creek is her eastern border. They found the bodies Saturday evening. You came home yesterday. She said the bodies were positioned as if to ambush someone. Was that you?”

Johnny stood and walked to the fireplace. He rested a hand on the mantle. “I was ambushed, yes. But like you said, this was Saturday. Before the reverend's sermon. I don't think the two could be related.”

“Probably not, but that doesn't mean they won't try again, or someone else might. And we don't know who ambushed you or why.”

Johnny laughed, but it lacked mirth. “You don't think it's a little coincidental that I was ambushed while returning with your stolen stallion?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Who here would know? The only people who knew you were going on that trip are people I trust completely. And none of us knew you'd actually found the horse or even had him.”

“The person who was keeping the horse knew he'd been taken. Had to. You can bet he was told before I even left the area.”

“Yes, but you were almost here when you were attacked. And how did he know it was you who had taken the animal?”

Johnny shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe he has ways. I don't believe in coincidences, Murdoch. Whoever was behind it all is here, Murdoch. In Green River or Morro Coyo or somewhere else nearby.”

“But that means it couldn't have been because you stole the horse. No one could have gotten here that quickly from Visalia.”

Johnny shrugged again. “Maybe. I escaped the Visalia area quick enough, but once I felt out of danger, I slowed down. The stallion couldn't take the pace.”

Murdoch pondered that news. “I just don't know. But I think you should be extra careful. You've been set upon once, and with the Reverend's latest sermon, there's more reason.”

“You think I'm going to be ambushed again?”

“Maybe. I want you to be very, very careful.”

Johnny digested this news. “Are you, Scott or Abby in danger, too?”

“I don't know,” Murdoch shook his head slowly.

 

They Call Him Mr. Tibbetts!

A tired and dusty Scott Lancer emerged from the stage in thriving, downtown Goshen. It was the dinner hour in the small town and most of the passengers—they had picked up two more in Cross Creek—were heading for a nearby cafe. The man in the greyish-tan business suit, who had read almost the entire time, headed in another direction. Scott saw a hotel and smiled. He knew what he wanted: a hot, soothing bath to ease his muscles from the jolting he'd had all day.

It had been a long ride, pausing at the same places they'd stopped when Scott and Abby were first coming to Lancer: two way stations, then the small community of Cross Creek, another way station and finally Goshen, a larger town than Green River and the closest to Visalia. He'd never been to Visalia and he looked forward to seeing it. He'd heard it was a busy place.

But tonight, at the bathhouse in his Goshen hotel, he prepared for that soak. He removed his dusty clothing and stepped into the steaming water, sighing as he eased himself down in the depths.

A little over an hour later, a cleaner and more refreshed Scott trod downstairs to the hotel cafe for a late supper. He dined quickly on a satisfying chicken stew with dumplings before returning to his room for some much-needed sleep stretched out in a comfortable bed. Stage travel was exhausting, he concluded. He was glad he'd persuaded Abby to stay at Lancer.


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

While Scott had been soaking in his tub, the well-read businessman from the stage visited Goshen's telegraph office, sending a short but relevant message back to David Addison at the Cattleman's Hotel in Green River with instructions to deliver it immediately:

Scott L on stage STOP Destination Visalia STOP Will wait for instructions STOP Duncan STOP

GIlford Duncan waited at the telegraph office for nearly an hour before getting a reply. When he read it, he smiled, nodded to the operator and headed out to get his own dinner and accommodations. He noticed Lancer when he came down for dinner, but he thought it wise not to risk contact tonight. He'd see him on the stage to Visalia tomorrow anyway.


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

Reverend Root helped his wife settle into their new home, that pretty little yellow clapboard house on Lincoln they'd seen before, just off Green River's main street. They didn't have much to move; most of their belongings were still in storage in Sacramento. Once finished, he headed to the telegraph office to send notice for the proprietor of the storage facility to ship the rest of their things down. While he was there, he began to implement his idea concerning Murdoch Lancer.

He'd known from nearly the beginning that Lancer was very influential. A man of that wealth and seniority had to be, but it wasn't until he talked with Buck Addison did he learn just how well-connected the veteran rancher was.

From his own personal experience, he knew had how fragile political friendships could be, and how dangerous they could be if one fell out of favor. He felt it was time to test Murdoch's connections. He sent two additional telegrams that day: one to Senator Eugene Casserly and the other to California Governor Newton Booth.

Eugene Casserly, a Democrat from San Francisco, was also a member of the United States Senate Committee on Pacific Railroads. Root was hoping if the Senator learned of Lancer's close relationship with Johnny Madrid, he could influence railroad growth away from Lancer, costing Murdoch potentially thousands of dollars.

Governor Booth was a Republican from Sacramento who hated monopolies. Root was sure that if he knew of Lancer and Madrid, he could possibly go after Lancer as a de facto monopoly in this area and quite possibly end up breaking up the vast Lancer Ranch.

Regardless of potential disasters to the ranch, Root was certain that both of Murdoch's political friends would distance themselves upon learning that the border's most notorious gunfighter had taken residence at Lancer Ranch, fully protected by none other than their friend and upstanding citizen, Murdoch Lancer.

Root paid the bill and smiled at his own cleverness. He couldn't wait for replies. He stepped out of the office and into the sunshine.


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

Scott continued his journey to Visalia the next morning on the nine o'clock stage. It took over two hours—the road was too busy to run the horses at top speed. It was still an uncomfortable ride; the stage was full. Besides the businessman from the previous day, other assorted passengers accompanied them to the big town. They were mostly men but there was a middle-aged couple among them. Nearly all of them had been on the train down from Sacramento.

It was a little after eleven in the morning when the stage arrived. He took his bag and trekked to the Cattleman's Hotel. It was the best place in town, and owned by an old acquaintance of Murdoch's, Buck Addison. Scott remembered that Addison had opened a branch of this hotel in Green River and was anxious to see the flagship site.

The Visalia Cattleman's Hotel was indeed opulent. It featured a large chandelier in the lobby area, overlooking a room decorated in slate blue and white. The lobby featured with large, comfortable-looking armchairs arranged for cozy seating. Scott smiled. Now this was the kind of hotel he was used to. It rivaled the hotels he and Abby had used in Sacramento and Denver. It wasn't quite as nice as some others, but for the West, this was one fine establishment. He told himself he'd have to complement Mr. Addison's tastes the next time he saw him.

Scott checked in and went up to his room. Bright cheerfulness greeted him—the room was decorated in shades of blue, yellow and white, with wallpaper featuring tiny daffodils arranged in stripes. The armchair was royal blue with gold trim and his bedspread matched. A small arrangement of the featured flowers graced the tiny table next to the armchair. He smiled at the homey atmosphere.

Scott was in a hurry to get on with his business so he didn't linger long admiring the room. He unpacked quickly; he was most anxious to visit the Land Office and learn what he could about the Ortega farm. He left the hotel and found his destination easily, but when he got there, the sign on the door said it was closed for lunch. Looking around, Scott realized he had no choice but to dine prior to talking to the officials. He found a small nearby cafe and ordered fried chicken.

From his table in the cafe, Scott had a clear view of the Land Office. He had time to finish eating long before he saw the agent return, remove the sign and open the door. Scott tossed a coin on the table before taking his hat and exiting the cafe.

Crossing Visalia's busy streets was a challenge, but nothing like maneuvering around Boston's crowded thoroughfares. He realized just how quickly he'd gotten used to the pastoral life on the ranch as he narrowly avoided a wagon moving a little too fast for this traffic.

At the door of his destination, he could see the normal sign on the Land Office door: George Tibbitts, Land Agent. Scott reached for the knob.

Tibbitts was removing his suit coat and hanging it on a rack. He turned to see who entered. “Hello there,” he greeted.

“Good afternoon,” Scott greeted formally, nodding his head after he removed his own hat. “My name is Scott Lancer. I came for some information.”

“Of course, Mr. Lancer.” Tibbitts gestured to a chair opposite his desk. “Please sit down. What can I do for you today?”

“I am interested in possibly purchasing some land in this area,” Scott began. It was a well-rehearsed line, enabling him to ask the kind of questions he needed. “I hear that the Ortega Farm was sold some time ago. Do you know who purchased it?”

Tibbitts stroked his chin. “Ah, yes. The Ortega place. Nice hacienda. The family had been in this area for, oh, around sixty years or so. It's been bought and sold twice now, I believe. Let me check.” He stood, walked a few feet to a filing cabinet and opened a drawer. Tibbitts fingered through the files, finally finding the one he wanted. “Here it is.” He sat back down.

“Ortega Farm. They were awarded the place by one of the old California dons, left to them in his will, for service to the family. When the last Ortega patriarch died, he had no living sons so he sold it. To a...” He stopped reading. “Huh. It doesn't say. That part of the file is missing. I see information on the second sale –divided between the Rileys and the Pikes, but nothing about the interim sale. You see, someone bought it from Ortega then broke it into two and sold it. About a year or so ago. Maybe longer. About the time of the earthquake.”

Scott gritted his teeth. Of course it wasn't going to be this easy. “Do you think you could remember who bought the farm from the Ortegas?”

Tibbitts sat back, his finger on his chin, thinking. Scott waited, not displaying his impatience. “I remember now! It was someone I didn't think would have been interested. Oh, yes. I recall it now. It was Mr. Addison.”

“Addison?” Scott questioned. “Of the Cattleman's Hotel?” It didn't make sense. Why would Buck Addison, a respected hotel owner, buy a farm then sell it?

“Yes. Him. Though I can't imagine how that part of the file went missing. Hmmm.”

Scott tried another question. “Can you recall Addison's brand image?”

“Brand? I don't think Addison has one. He didn't own the Ortega Farm long enough, and he sold all its possessions...Wait! He didn't sell the hacienda.” Tibbetts shrugged. “Though I don't know why. Maybe because it's so beautiful.”

Scott nodded. It was beginning to make some sense. “You mentioned an earthquake?”

Tibbitts shook his head sadly. “Yes, back in March. Last year. Really bad one. Practically destroyed the small town of Lone Pine on the other side of the Sierras. It was so big it hit hard here, too. They even felt it in Los Angeles and up to Stockton.”

“What was damaged here?”

“Lots of places. My front porch fell in. So did a lot of others. Several stores just collapsed. Most rebuilt, but a few cut their losses and left. Even the Cattleman's Hotel got hit.”

That could be a reason to sell, Scott thought. If Addison needed money....still, if he was in those dire straights, how could he afford to hire Pardee? Scott stood. He got some answers but now had more questions. “Thank you, Mr. Tibbetts. You've been most helpful.” The two men shook hands. “By the way, I'd be most grateful if you didn't tell anyone of my visit or what we discussed. I wouldn't want land prices to rise on speculation.”

Tibbetts nodded. “Understood. You can rely on my discretion.”

Scott donned his hat as he closed the door. So, Buck Addison, the hotel owner, bought the Ortega Farm. Sold it quickly, but kept the hacienda. Scott pondered this. Buck bought an old hotel in Green River, too. Refurbished it and turned it into a subsidiary hotel. He'd always wondered why Green River for such a nice hotel; it wasn't that busy of a town.

He felt a sense of foreboding begin to seep into him, like a fog coming in from the ocean, the kind that creeps in slowly at first. Addison's involvement in the hacienda where the stallion was kept and his opening his new hotel in Green River just didn't sit well with him.

Scott decided he wanted to examine that hacienda. Johnny said he didn't look around that much; he'd wanted to get the horse out once he found him. Maybe there was more there, particularly if Addison still owned it. He hoped he'd find something, and if not, that the mere act of doing something active might shake his feelings of unease.

He strode to the livery where he rented a horse. Remembering Johnny's directions, he galloped East out of town to the second road heading north that looked abandoned. He crossed the St. John's River and kept going, pushing the horse. By late afternoon he was rewarded with a view of the old hacienda. It was just as Johnny described it.

Scott found a tree for shade and shelter and scanned the area, looking for someone or something. His feelings of unrest had not abated, but neither had they increased. He saw nothing, no indication that anything was out of place nor any danger, so he rode to the hacienda gate. He found both of the locked. So, they had been repaired. Scott tied up his rented horse and climbed the same espalier his brother had done days earlier. He dropped into the courtyard and started looking around.

Again, he saw the same sights Johnny had: the oak tree, the old broken fountain, the cracked urns. He tried the front door and found it unlocked. Scott entered the hacienda's sala and looked around. Not much was here, just an old bench and an upturned wooden chair. He walked around, inspecting every corner, just in case. He stood up straight when he saw what looked like an iron stick standing next to the fireplace.

 

An Accessory for Abby

In his wood-paneled office in San Francisco, Senator Eugene Casserly sighed as he looked at his pile of telegrams. He received several on any given day, but more when he was in town. Most were requests for something or other, but a few told him of problems or concerns of his constituents.

His secretary had thoughtfully arranged them in importance by sender: political associates, known friends and acquaintances, community leaders and just plain regular folk. Casserly generally started with the higher end, but since he didn't get through all of them the day before, he picked up the ones from the “regular folk” pile to begin with today.

It took him about a half-hour to go through those, for he diligently made notes on each one that he felt was viable, suggestions that he would give to his secretary to follow up. He stood and stretched, crossed to the window and looked down on the street from his second-story office. He watched the people below go about their busy lives for a few minutes before returning to his desk to tackle another pile.

He reached for the “community leaders” group and glanced through it. He raised eyebrows when he saw one from a minister in Green River. What could be so important in the tiny town of Green River to cause the area's spiritual leader to contact him?

He tore open the envelope:

Am told you are friend of Murdoch Lancer STOP Johnny Madrid living in Lancer hacienda under Lancer protection STOP Our community threatened STOP Governor Advised STOP Please help STOP Thank you STOP

Casserly sat back in his chair, stunned. He knew Murdoch Lancer well and the man he knew would never protect a gunfighter, regardless of the circumstances. Something had to be wrong. Either this minister—he glanced at the sender's name again—Reverend Timothy Root, was misinformed or something extremely peculiar was going on at Lancer.


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

Abby dropped down on a bench in front of the house. Protected by a large oak tree, she enjoyed the coolness after dinner while watching the sights of the ranch closing for the night: a couple of hands rode in late from their daily jobs, Smitty and Johnny rubbed down the stallion, and some of the ranch's children herded the chickens that had wandered out of their coops. Abby laughed at their antics and sighed, leaning her head back against the tree.

Lately she'd been feeling tired, so very tired, and had needed to rest more and more. And I'm not even showing yet! she thought, wondering how she'd make it through the next six months or so. She hadn't remembered her mother being so exhausted during her last pregnancy, when Abby was thirteen, but her mother could have hidden her fatigue; she was like that.

For most of the day today, Abby had endured a strange new feeling, a sense that something was wrong, that something dark was about to happen, or just a general feeling of anxiety. She hadn't been able to shake it. It contributed to her fatigue, she knew and had busied herself to distract her mind. She told herself that it was just because Scott was gone and she was pregnant, and the baby was making her crazy.

Abby watched Johnny rub down the grey horse in the corral before taking him to the barn for the night. Plata Viento. Silver Wind. He was a magnificent stallion and would soon be back in top shape. But it was the large black brand on his flank that bothered her. Every day now she'd tried to figure it out.

She could see the Lancer circled “L” within the brand; that much had been pointed out to her, and having realized the horse had been branded twice, she now could see it in a glance. But what pattern did the overlay brand make? It looked as if someone had taken the Lancer L and added lines, another curl and a circle to form...? What?

The more she looked at it the more confused she got. All she could make out were curls and circles and other lines—and none of it made sense. Sighing, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to forget the puzzle for now. She knew she'd return to it, just as she did almost daily. Besides, she was growing even more sleepy just sitting there. With an effort Abby rose to get herself ready for an early bedtime.


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

The sala of the old Ortega hacienda was cool. Even in the heat of the day a breeze could blow across the room through the open door and the broken windows. Scott eyed the iron stick by the fireplace, wondering what it could be.

He strode to the implement, picking it up. It looked like a brand, but none he'd ever seen before. It was just disjoined shapes. Who would have that as their brand? Didn't they usually make a letter or recognizable shape? He took it outside in the courtyard and pressed it into the dirt, making an impression. He looked at it from all sides and still couldn't understand it. But, he realized, he was still quite new to the West. Maybe someone else could figure it out. But whom?

The only person he knew in Visalia was the land agent. What did that man know about branding? Probably not much. And if he did go to Tibbetts, he would surely ask questions and Scott was just not prepared to do any answering. Could be the news of the stallion's theft had spread around town. No, that wouldn't do at all.

Scott took the iron with him and sat on the adobe around the big oak tree in the courtyard. He stamped it on the dirt and stared at the impression. It still made no sense to him. Sighing, he glanced away and stared blankly at the ground. There were few patches of well-cropped grass but mostly it was bare dirt. He could see Plata Viento 's hoof prints.

Sudden realization hit him hard. The horse! He glanced back at the brand. Of course! This was the iron that changed the Lancer brand to whatever shape it had now! He smiled grimly as he realized: the mark on the stallion must be Buck Addison's brand. This was the iron that changed the Lancer circle L to whatever Addison used.

He tried to visualize the elaborate brand on the stallion, trying to make out a shape, but nothing came to mind. He gave up and stood, determined to get to the bottom of this.

While he hated doing it, he knew he had to take the iron. It was evidence. He threw it over the adobe wall and climbed out using the white-blossomed vine as a ladder.

Scott picked up the iron and secured it to his saddle horn with a length of leather decoration he'd unraveled from the saddle. He mounted his horse and hurried back into town. The afternoon waned as he urged the horse along, being too concerned with getting back before dark to give into his feelings of unease. He rode with a purpose.

Dusk fell before Scott made it back to Visalia and he had to slow his pace, even on the road that lead into town. He didn't want to injure the horse.

Just prior to entering the town, Scott slowed his horse to a walk as he realized that he couldn't just stride into the swanky Cattleman's Hotel carrying a dirty, stolen branding iron in his hand. He needed a way to disguise it. Hoping that the darkness would hide it hanging from his saddle, he walked his horse into town, looking for a solution to his problem.

The mercantile was still open; Scott thanked his lucky stars. He rode down the alley next to the building and stashed the pilfered item, hiding it between some old barrels. He then rode back to the main street, tied his horse at the post and entered the store.

Pretending Abby had requested a new parasol, Scott purchased one about the same length as his loot. It was light blue with lace. Perfect. He asked the proprietor to wrap it twice in plain brown wrapping so “my wife won't be suspicious,” he explained. The store owner smiled and obliged.

With the package in his hand, Scott returned to the alley where the iron was stashed. He carefully unwrapped the second, outer wrapping of the parasol and secured the brand in place next to it. He re-wrapped the entire bundle as one package, making sure the brand was completely covered. He returned the horse to the livery, commenting about his wife's new trinket to the owner, and hurried down Visalia's main street to the hotel. He had his new purchase under his arm and smiled at his own cleverness.

Inside his room, Scott again carefully unwrapped the package, removing just the brand. He cleaned it with water from his basin and dried it off, deciding at the last minute to stow it between the mattresses on the side of the bed facing the wall, making sure the bed's quilt covered the brand face. He tore apart the dirty outer wrapping and tossed the pieces in to burn in his fireplace. Satisfied his booty was safely hidden, he headed to the hotel cafe for a late dinner.


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

Unknown to Scott, Gilford Duncan had spent the day following him. He had watched Scott enter the Land Office, waited until he'd left, and knew he'd rented a horse. Duncan quickly ordered a mount of his own and followed from a safe distance.

Duncan waited behind the same trees that Johnny had used as Scott inspected the hacienda. He noted with interest that Scott had taken something from the old house, but wasn't able to get a clear view of what it was. He panicked when he lost Scott on the way back to Visalia but sighed in relief when he saw his quarry entered the mercantile. He knew Scott had turned down an alley after making his purchase, but was unable to follow him there because the lane was so narrow; he didn't want to risk exposure. So he went back to the hotel and waited in the lobby for Scott's return, hiding behind a newspaper as the young Lancer entered with his wrapped package.

Deciding that Scott had hidden whatever he took from the hacienda in that package from the mercantile, Duncan waited until Scott came downstairs to dine. He lifted the key from his friend Jameson, the desk clerk, and entered Scott's room. He immediately found the package he'd seen Scott bring in, and with extreme care, unwrapped it. It was a blue parasol, and nothing else.

Frowning, Duncan looked around the room. Nothing looked out of place. He spied Scott's luggage and searched there. Again, he found nothing out of the ordinary. He looked around again, trying to think of places where someone would hide something. He peeked under the bed—nothing, under the armchair—nothing, behind the curtains—nothing. Realizing the item must still be in the alley, Duncan left the room, making sure everything was back in its place and the parasol rewrapped.

He exited the hotel, noticing Scott finishing up his meal, and went to search the alley. It was too dark to see clearly so he knew he'd have to look again in the morning. His boss would not be happy, but he would have to report this anyway. He headed for the Western Union office.


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

That evening Governor Newton Booth was working late in his office. It wasn't unusual for him to be burning the midnight oil, but he yawned as he picked up a telegraph. It was from a Reverend Timothy Root in Green River. The Governor grew worried. Green River was close to his good friend Murdoch Lancer and he knew he attended services there. Booth tore open the envelope, afraid something had happened.

He scanned the paper—worded almost identical to Root's missive to Casserly except instead of “Governor advised” it said “Senator Casserly advised”—his reaction was the same as Casserly's: stunned silence. Murdoch Lancer was an old friend, having met the rancher some twenty years earlier when Booth was in the grocery and mercantile business. They'd shared many meals over the years, attended many meetings together. He'd been a guest at Lancer Ranch on many occasions and had extended the same courtesy to Murdoch. He simply couldn't believe Murdoch Lancer, a staunch opponent of gunfighting and gunfighters, a firm believer in law and order, housed the infamous border gun Johnny Madrid. Something had to be very, very wrong.

+++NOTE: Newton Booth was a lawyer in Indiana who moved to California in 1850. He entered the wholesale grocery business but made his fortune as a saloon owner. He moved back to Indiana and practiced law for a while then returned to California in 1860, where he again opened a mercantile business. He was elected the California state senate before serving as Governor from 1871 to 1875. He resigned upon election to the US Senate. Booth was an anti-monopolist. Incidentally, his nephew was author Booth Tarkington—his full name was Newton Booth Tarkington, named presumably for his politician uncle.

More on Eugene Casserly: A native of Ireland, he emigrated to New York with his parents. He studied law and practiced in New York City before coming to California in 1850. In California, he practiced journalism, printing several publications before going back to law. He was Senator from March, 1869 until his resignation in November, 1873. He was the chairman on the Committee for the Pacific Railroads at the time of this story.

 

Conspiracy Theory

Hank Woden quietly opened the window of his room in the Cattleman's Hotel. He, his brother and sister had been staying in the Green River establishment for a week, running up a sizable bill for meals and services. They did not have the money to pay; nor had they ever intended to do so.

He poked his head out and looked in both directions, seeing no one in the dusk. Satisfied that the coast was clear, Hank dropped their luggage, one by one, out the window and into the alley below. His brother Lou, caught the pieces and threw them in the back of their wagon.

Their small homestead, a glorified hunting cabin actually, stood in the forests of the Red Hills, south of the Diablo Mountains some forty miles south-southeast of Green River. The brothers made their living hunting the vast array of wildlife which lived in both ranges and selling the pelts. When they amassed enough of the animal skins, they'd travel to a nearby town to hawk their wares.

They'd visited Green River once before, several years ago, with no problem, but hearing about the opening of the grand Cattleman's Hotel, they could not resist its luxury, even though they knew from the start they would not be able to afford to pay the bill. That didn't really bother them; they had skipped out of a few hotels before. It was a trick their father, long dead now, taught them as youngsters: check in, act like you belong, sneak your luggage out, stroll away casually.

The three of them were used to taking care of their own. They had few neighbors, due to the frequency of earthquakes in the area. One of the closest was the Rancho Cholame, co-owned by William Hollister and Robert Jack. In fact, their cabin was on what used to be Cholame land, but their father had managed to get the previous owner, Mrs. Charles White, to cede them a small part in return for her rancho getting first choice of his pelts.

Their luggage secure in their wagon and covered with a tarp, Lou drove it to the edge of town. He walked back to the hotel, planning on meeting his siblings where they would pretend to go for a late supper. They would stroll down the streets for a while, keeping up their act, before jumping in their wagon and taking off into the night.

As previously agreed, Lou greeted his brother and sister, Opal, already in the lobby. Telling the front clerk they wanted to dine at a different cafe tonight, they turned to leave. They only got a few steps toward the door when they were stopped by the desk clerk.

“Could you please follow me?” he asked the siblings. Left with little choice—to run would arouse alarm—they shrugged and did as asked.

The clerk led them into Mr. Addison's office and closed the door. Buck Addison, sitting at his desk, frowned at the trio. He stood, drawing himself up to full height. “It has come to my attention that you three were planning on skipping out on your bill.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That's a lie!”

“Well, I never!”

The three protested their innocence until the desk clerk returned, with a bellhop carrying two pieces of their luggage. “Their wagon was just outside town, Mr. Addison. These are two of their bags. The rest is still in the wagon, covered by a canvas.”

Hank, Lou and Opal stood stock still, quiet as churchmice. They'd never been caught before.

Addison nodded that his employees should leave. The men closed the door behind them. He turned to the siblings, in full command mode, his arms akimbo. “Well, now what do you have to say for yourself?”

Hank started to speak but clamped his mouth shut. They did not have an explanation. Both he and his brother hung their heads; their sister started to weep silently. Their father had never taught them how to act if apprehended; he assumed they never would be. They didn't know what to do.

“One of my men watched you drop your luggage from your window. He followed your wagon then ran back to me to tell me his suspicions.” He pointed to their cases. “I sent him back to get this evidence. You do know that I could send all three of you to jail for this,” Addison threatened.

“There is no jail here,” Lou mumbled without looking up.

“I could make one. There is an unfinished room on the top floor. It's small and there are no windows. Would you like to spend the next few weeks there while I send for a marshall?”

“Oh, no!” cried Opal. “I could not stand that!” She fell to a chair and started to sob in her hands.

A knock on the door interrupted Addison. He looked up; it was his desk clerk. “For you, Mr. Addison. A telegram. It's marked ‘Urgent.'”

Annoyed at being disturbed, Buck motioned for the clerk to bring him the paper. He dismissed the clerk with a scowl and turned around to open the message. He read it twice, not believing its contents at first. It was not good news.

His old nemesis, Panic, began to creep into his chest. His breath grew more shallow, his heart began to pound. Addison swallowed, attempting to keep calm. He heard one of the Woden siblings shuffle his feet and angled his head slightly their way, his mind now racing, an idea forming.

He had three people in his office who he was sure he could manipulate. They were already in his debt. What if....? His lips broke into a smile and he turned back toward the trio.

Looking up at the three siblings, he offered, “Well, luckily for you, I have a way you can repay me.”

The brothers raised their heads, hopeful for a solution that didn't involve incarceration; they were mountain men and preferred open spaces. “We will do anything, anything!”

“Yes,” Buck Addison smiled. “You will do it all right.”


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

Scott rose from his soft, warm bed, stretching in the sunbeam that filtered through the curtains. It was late, he realized with a start. He'd had trouble going to sleep the previous night; he no longer trusted this hotel after learning of Buck Addison's purchase of the Ortega Farm. He would have changed hotels had it not been so late when he finished dinner.

He dressed quickly, cursing himself as he realized that he missed the morning stage to go back to Lancer. He had vital information for Murdoch and Johnny; he hadn't wanted to spend more time in Visalia than necessary. He gathered his belongings, remembering to retrieve the branding iron from between his mattresses and stuffing it into his bag before he packed the rest. He would check out and breakfast at another eatery. He'd have to rent a horse to ride to Goshen. He knew he could catch a later stage there.

The ride to Goshen—nine or ten miles—took him less than three hours. While he pushed the paint gelding some, he didn't ride him hard. He was mindful of the cargo he carried and kept a watchful eye on his companions on the road. Like before on the stage, the road was busy—wagons and riders passed him in both directions.

His feeling of unease, the one that began after learning of Addison's involvement, continued as he rode away. He couldn't shake it. He knew it should be fading the further he rode away from Addison's town, but it wasn't. Maybe it wouldn't leave him until he'd safely delivered the branding iron to Murdoch.


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

Scott was right in his feelings. Gilford Duncan followed him again today, riding out of town shortly after him. The road going East was busy and Duncan had no problem keeping Scott in view while staying far enough back to not arouse his prey's suspicion.

It was Duncan's second day in the saddle and he hated it, but like yesterday, it was proving to be a good decision to stick as close as possible to the young Lancer without being seen. He had learned much from Scott's endeavors, but knew there was more to discover.

Once in Goshen, Duncan found it even easier to follow Scott's footsteps; the young man seemed focused on his mission. He saw Scott ride to the Wells Fargo office and purchase a ticket before turning his horse into the livery. Duncan smiled, happy to be getting out of the dreaded saddle. He quickly rode to the Western Union office to let his boss know the latest news.


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

Addison received Duncan's last telegram from Goshen and smiled. He sent the three Woden siblings on their way, with strict instructions not to deviate from the plan, lest they would regret doing so. He knew from their type—simple country folk—that they were too afraid to defy him. It was all coming together nicely. Soon he'd be back in control again. He smiled at his genius.

+++NOTE: The information about the Rancho Chalome is true. It's location was in a valley and surrounding mountains and hills near the San Andreas Fault. In fact, the fault crosses it. The men named as owners, William Hollister and Robert Jack did own the rancho at the time of this story.

The former owner, Ellen White, was the widow of Charles White, the first alcalde of San Jose. She and her husband (he died when the Jenny Lind exploded in 1853) were owners (or part owners) of Chalome and two other ranchos. Charles White filed for a claim for the Rancho Chalome in 1852; it was finally granted to Ellen White in 1865. Yes, eleven years after!

Two years later, William Hollister purchased the Rancho Chalome from Mrs. White. Hollister was an wealthy and influential sheep rancher originally from Ohio. (Incidentally, the city of Hollister, California is named for him.)

In 1869 Hollister sold half-interest to Robert Edgar Jack. After Hollister died, Jack purchased the remaining interest from Hollister's widow, in 1893, making him full owner. The rancho remained in the Jack family until 1965 when the Hearst Corporation purchased it to expand their holdings. (The Hearst Castle isn't far from there.)

[By the way, actor James Dean was killed at the intersection of California highway 41 and 46; that junction is on what was Rancho Chalome land, and not far from where I placed the Woden cabin.]

 

Something Woden This Way Comes

The stage was late. Scott waited impatiently in the station. He again thought back to the last time he'd taken the stage out of Goshen with Abby, when he didn't know Johnny Madrid was his brother, when they had no real idea of what faced them at Lancer. How naive they were! But they had come to know much in a matter of weeks and while there was still much Scott had to learn about the West, he no longer considered himself a greenhorn. Perhaps a semi-greenhorn, he thought wryly.

He kept his bag at his ankles as he waited. He did not want to lose that branding iron, nor did he want anyone else to see it. It was stolen property, after all. At least Johnny, when he took Plata Viento , was retrieving something that belonged to his father. He had no such excuse. He was a thief, plain and simple.

He smiled at that thought. If only his grandfather could see him now. He'd be enraged, blaming Murdoch Lancer on his only grandson's fall from grace. Then again, Harlan Garret didn't get where he was by following the law to the letter, that much Scott knew.

He noted the other waiting passengers: an older teen traveling alone, an old Mexican man and his grandson. A new man hurried into the station and purchased a ticket. It was the same businessman who traveled with him on the way to Visalia, the one who read a book the entire time. Scott wanted to talk to him but the stage's arrival interrupted his thoughts. He did not get the opportunity for conversation until they were under way.

Scott got his chance, after a courtesy exchange with the teen and the old man. The businessman smiled, “I'm Duncan, Gilford Duncan. I manage the Cattleman's Hotel in Green River. I noticed you on the stage the other day. What was your business in Visalia?”

Scott grew wary, but was able to squash the feeling. Telling himself that it was just coincidence, that it was perfectly natural for the manager of one hotel would travel to its brother. He answered Duncan's questions politely with the story he'd invented just for such inquiries. “I was doing some research for my father. He is interested in investing in a farm or two in the area. You?” He didn't really think that this man knew of Addison's illegal activities, but he planned to keep a close eye on him anyway

“Oh,” Duncan replied nonchalantly. “I was bringing some papers to the main hotel. You know, business. I travel a lot for the hotel. It's part of my job.”

Scott thought on that for a moment. “But you caught the stage in Goshen with me?”

“Yes,” Duncan answered. “I volunteered to deliver a horse to Goshen this morning for a friend. He was going to do it, but he injured his arm last night and couldn't.” Duncan lied well. “I hope my boss doesn't mind that I'm coming in a later stage.”

“I'm sure if you were helping a friend, he won't mind at all.”

The stage rambled into Cross Creek just about on time; the driver had pushed the horses to make up for the lost time. The teen departed, his parents met him at the station and walked to a wagon. With a half-hour for an early dinner, Scott and the rest of the passengers were served ham, beans and biscuits at cafe next door. It wasn't elegant fare, but it was filling and it cost only a quarter. He even had time to stretch his legs a bit before the driver called time.

Scott knew they had two more way stations before arriving in Green River, and they'd be spending the night at the second one. He had a long way to go. He still felt nervous, but told himself it was because he was carrying contraband; he'd never stolen anything before. Convinced that was the source of his unease, he put away his book and sat back, closing his eyes. Scott fell asleep before he even realized it.

He awoke when they pulled into the first of the two way stations. Sol, the manager, had cherry pie waiting for them. They had just enough time to finish the pie and stretch their legs a little before the driver, Jake, called time.


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

Murdoch drove the Lancer carriage away from the hacienda. He smiled as he traveled the Green River road, his destination: the Conway Ranch. He and Aggie Conway were having a dinner out in Green River this evening. It would be their first official outing in town.

They'd been visiting more with each other ever since the final Pardee battle at Lancer. Aggie had come the day before with a small complement of her men and stayed to help with the fighting. She, herself, had fired off a few rounds, fighting alongside Murdoch in the hacienda's front patio.

The two of them had been friends for many years, but not until that day had their friendship grown to something more affectionate. He admired Aggie and liked how she made him feel: alive, youthful and happy. It was a feeling he hadn't felt in many years.

He hadn't allowed himself to feel much, he admitted. He'd been so wrapped up in his ranch, so hurt by his second wife's leaving, that he built thick emotional walls around himself to protect his heart, just as he'd built the hacienda with thick adobe walls to protect its interior. He'd made friends, of course, and developed both business and personal relationships over the years, but nothing approached the more intimate connection he now felt with Aggie.

He felt liberated. Something about her had touched him in a way no woman had, not Maria nor his first wife, Catherine. He was compelled by some unseen force to pursue Aggie, and each moment he spent with her tore down more of those walls he'd so carefully erected. Sometimes he felt so good with her he knew his heart would burst out of his chest cavity. He smiled.

He smiled a lot these days. He told himself it was because of the baby, and some of it was, but mostly it was Aggie Conway who affected this change in him, converting him from a gruff but fair boss focused on his ranch and very little else to a happy, smiling man who allowed for other niceties to enter his life.

He liked himself. And Aggie Conway was the reason.


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

Abby emerged from the hacienda, intent on solving the mystery of the brand. She had with her a paper and pencil. She walked to the corral where Johnny and Smitty were finishing up working Plata Viento . “Evening, boys,” she greeted.

Smitty nodded his hello and held on to the stallion's halter. Johnny met her at the railing. “What you got there, Abby?”

“Paper,” she answered. “I'm going to trace that brand.”

“Scott already did it. He gave it to that lawyer in Green River.”

“I know. But I didn't get to see that one. I'm determined to figure this out. Can you have Smitty hold him still for me?” She approached the gate.

Johnny ran to block her. “Oh, no, Abby. I'll not have you stepping foot in this corral. Scott would skin me alive if that horse did something and you got hurt. I'll do it.” He took the paper and pencil, walked over to the grey and began tracing. Smitty tried to hold the animal still but it took both of them to calm him enough to trace the brand again. “There,” Johnny pronounced when he was done. He returned the drawing to Abby. She took it.

Looking at the brand on paper had the same affect as looking at it on the horse. It gave her no enlightenment. Abby was disappointed. She dropped her hand. “Well, I was hoping,” she commented, sighing. The paper slipped from her hand onto the dirt. As she bent down to get it, she brightened. “Oh, my!” she said, grabbing the now-dusty paper.

“Look!” She showed the tracing to Johnny, but turned sideways. Instead of lines, curls and finials, it now resembled a fancy A in a circle. “It's an ‘A'! No wonder we couldn't figure it out. It's sideways!”

Johnny examined the drawing, looked back at the horse, turning his head. “You're right. It is. A sideways A.”

“Murdoch needs to know about this. He may know what it means,” Abby said. “He went into Green River this evening to have dinner with Aggie Conway.”

“I'll go right now,” Johnny said. He was already stepping between the railings. “Take care of that stallion,” he called back to Smitty as he ran to the barn.

“Be careful!” Abby called after him.


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

With fresh horses, Jake pulled out of the first way station and headed for the second one, the one closer to Green River. It would be another two hours to get there and would be quite dark by then. Scott took this time of solace to ponder this trip. He tried to think of the significance of his findings.

Buck Addison purchased the Ortega place. He sold it, in pieces, but kept the hacienda. The stallion had been housed there. And he found this mysterious branding iron in the hacienda. That is, it looked like a branding iron; he wasn't entirely sure of that, even. He didn't know what role that strange utensil played, but it sure looked to him that the very same Buck Addison who owned the highly-successful Cattleman's Hotels was the one who had used that iron to change the brand on Murdoch's grey stallion, marking the horse as his.

And if he had the stallion, didn't that mean that he'd hired Pardee? After all, it was Pardee who had engineered the theft in the first place. Could the infamous gunfighter have stolen it for Addison?

He didn't believe it possible, even as he thought it through. A man like Buck Addison just wouldn't risk everything he had—property, prestige, wealth—to hire gunfighters and outlaws to...do what? Steal a horse? Or was he the man behind the takeover attempt at Lancer? Was Murdoch shot and Teresa's father murdered on Addison's orders?

It seemed improbable. They'd all worked on the assumption that the same man behind the horse theft, Murdoch's injury and Paul O'Brien's death was the man behind the subsequent raids on Lancer. Once the raids had begun, Murdoch had linked the events together, but were they really?

Could it just be coincidence that Day Pardee was in charge of both events? Unlikely. But it was just as unlikely that a well-respected man such as Buck Addison had hired the gunfighter in the first place.

Could there be another solution? Did he have it all wrong? Could someone be trying to frame Addison? If so, it was a nice, neat package. The horse was being kept on Addison's property. Addison's abandoned property. With what looked like could be Addison's brand. Did the man even go out there? Probably not. Johnny had said he'd seen a kid, a teen boy, at the hacienda.

Was the brand even Addison's brand? It looked like it could be, that fancy sideways A. But what if Ramsey's clerk found something else out. Or maybe someone else registered this brand in Addison's name. That could point to a frame as well.

As Scott pondered those questions, trying to come up with an answer, a shot rang out, interrupting his reverie. He opened his eyes and sat up, instantly alert.

“Whoa!” the driver called, reining in the horses. The stage lurched to a stop. “Who goes there?”

Scott had a bad feeling about this.

 

Invasion of the Booty Snatchers

Murdoch stopped the carriage in Aggie Conway's courtyard. Her hacienda was smaller than his at Lancer, but more feminine in its decor, whitewashed a lighter color with oversized urns filled with flowers and herbs. The basic ranchhouse was L-shaped, with a large oak tree featured in its courtyard. The tree was ringed in stacks of flat rocks to create interest and seating.

Many of the hacienda's windows were floor-to-ceiling, letting in a tremendous amount of light, but creating weak points in its security. Murdoch had warned her about them when she had them installed, but she insisted she wanted the light and he had to admit she was right about that. The inside of her home was bright and cheerful. Like her.

He stepped out of the carriage as a cowboy grabbed hold of the lead horse's harness, keeping the gelding in place. Murdoch gave the man a cursory nod, indicating he should keep the horse there.

Aggie breezed out of her home, smiling, with her arms open wide. “Welcome,” she greeted. Murdoch's breath left him as he saw her, in a sunny yellow dress, looking years younger.

“You look wonderful,” he grinned. He just couldn't help himself. The sight of her in that bright dress just forced it out of him.

“Why, thank you,” she nodded. “Come on in and have a drink. I just need to finish getting ready.”

“You look perfect as you are,” he said, taking her into his arm as he escorted her back into the house.

Aggie giggled. He made her feel like a schoolgirl.


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

“Get down from there!”

Scott heard the rough voice shouting. He felt the stage lurch as the driver jumped off, hearing the man's feet thud to the ground. He wondered what he could do. His Colt was in the gunbox under the driver's seat. Before he had time to think of something else, the stage door jerked open. “Get out!” cried another voice.

Two men. Scott made a point to remember. It's two men. At least.

Inside the stage, the boy clung to his grandfather; the old man tried to comfort him in soft Spanish. “It'll be okay,” Scott told the frightened child. “Just do what they say.” The boy nodded bravely and followed his grandfather out the door. Scott came after. The businessman Duncan was the last one out.

They lined up against the stage, wedged in place between the two left wheels, their hands up high in the air. The boy had fixed a hard grimace on his face to hide his fear. Duncan was white, but stood stoically. The old man kept glancing down to his grandson. The driver stood blocking the front wheel, giving the outlaws a hard glare.

Scott tried to take it all in. He could see the two robbers, but their faces were partially obscured by their bandanas. There wasn't enough light to see if there were more of them. They could be hidden in the rocks or behind a tree, or even farther away, with a rifle trained on them.

He remembered the time when Johnny thwarted that robbery when he and Abby were first coming to Lancer. He'd been concerned then, but not afraid. Now there was no Johnny now to save him, no one to come to his rescue. He was on his own. He felt that fear now.

“Gimme that strongbox!” the first one yelled. His gravelly voice grated on Scott's nerves. Jake complied, recovering the locked iron box from under the seat. If only the driver would reach into the gunbox, thought Scott. Then he corrected his thought: he'd be shot trying, killed if he succeeded.

Gravel-voice shot off the lock and kicked open the strongbox. There wasn't much cash in there; it was mostly papers. “Damn!” he cursed. He recovered what treasures were there before overturning the iron box, not caring that some of the papers scattered in the wind.

The other pointed his gun at the passengers and removed his hat. “If you got somethin', put it here!” he ordered. He passed the hat down the passengers, holding it in his left hand while his right pointed his Colt at them. Scott had a mind to flip the hat into the air when it came to him and try to wrestle the gun from the outlaw, but thought better of it when Gravel-voice stood behind his partner, his gun aimed directly at Scott's forehead. Scott gulped and emptied his pockets. Duncan did the same, removing a ring from his right hand.

The two outlaws stepped back, surveying their captives. Gravel-voice smiled wickedly. “Now, we need ourselves a couple of hostages,” he snarled. “Just to make sure we get away clean. Wouldn't want any of you to play hero.” His partner laughed. Scott grimaced helplessly, wanting to connect his fist with the laughing man's jaw, knowing he couldn't possibly. Not and survive, that is.

Gravel-voice flicked his gun toward Scott. “You. You're one.” His partner grabbed Scott's arm, jerking him from the lineup. As Scott passed by him, the man raised his Colt. Scott's world went black.


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

The stage thundered into the last way station, the driver reining up the horses abruptly, his foot hard on the brake. Jake jumped down almost before they stopped. “Out!” he ordered the remaining passengers as he ran inside.

Ruben, the manager of this way station, stood up to greet the weary passengers as they came in. He was ready to show them to their quarters for the night, but Jake had barreled into the station so fast he rushed to the door.

“Land's sake!” he exclaimed. He almost ran into the driver. “Jake! Why'd you come in so fast?”

“Robbery!” Jake shouted breathlessly. “And they took two passengers. An old man and a young one. Where's Davy?” Jake looked around anxiously. Davy was the wrangler at the station.

“He's gone to Green River, Jake. His mama done took sick. He left this morning. I've been changin' the horses.”

“Criminy!” Jake exclaimed, slapping his hat on his thigh for emphasis. “I need someone to ride to Green River to let them know about the robbery and kidnapping. And send a telegram to Goshen.”

“Well, there ain't no one here but me, Jake. Want me to do it?”

Jake shook his head. “No, Ruben. You ain't no rider. You might fall off and get hurt.” He turned as the two passengers came in, Gilford Duncan and the frightened young boy. Jake got an idea. “Y'all get back on the stage.” He told the pair. “We won't be spending the night; we gotta get on to Green River. Hurry now.” He grabbed Ruben. “Come on. Help me change the horses. Quickly!”

Fifteen minutes later, with fresh horses, Jake pulled the stage out of the way station. It was another two hours to Green River. He knew the station master in the town wouldn't be expecting him tonight but he had no choice. Company policy dictated that the line be notified immediately in cases such as this. While he didn't want to drive an extra two hours tonight, Jake would lose his job if he failed to follow policy.


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

Murdoch and Aggie arrived in Green River just as dusk began to fall on the sleepy little town. Shops were closing; merchants said goodbye to their final customers of the day. People were hurrying along the boardwalk to get home. Only a few places were still fully open: the saloons, two cafes, the telegraph office, the livery and of course, the town's hotels.

Murdoch eased the horses to a walk. People on the boardwalk slowed and stopped, some pointing at the carriage and whispering as they noticed the pair. A few gave them dark looks and purposely turned away. Others completely ignored them. Murdoch didn't understand; he was not usually greeted by the townspeople this way.

Aggie leaned toward him. “We don't appear to be so popular tonight,” she said in a low voice.

“Yes, looks that way. Wonder what's got into them?” He continued to the Cattleman's Hotel and stopped in front of the inn's stables. A teenage boy ran up to secure their horses, a footman stepped forward to assist them disembark. Neither of them fully smiled at the couple.

“Welcome to the Cattleman's Hotel, sir,” the footman said, but his voice wasn't friendly, his eyes almost scowled. His forced politeness was obvious.

Murdoch ignored the footman's demeanor and nodded to the man. “Good evening, Darby. How's that wife of yours?”

Darby opened the door leading to a hallway into the hotel. “She's fine, sir,” he said stiffly.

Aggie tried. “You tell her if she needs anything, all she has to do is ask.”

“Yes, ma'am.” Darby answered politely but tersely.

“Well, that was interesting,” Aggie remarked. They walked down the boardwalk toward the hotel lobby. “I've known him since he was knee-high to a pup.”

“Yes,” Murdoch agreed. “Me, too. He usually rambles on and on about his wife and the new baby.”

The strange spurnings and pointed whispers continued as they were led to their seats in the hotel's dining room, toward the rear of the room, at a table in the corner. Murdoch would have normally protested their placement in the room, but let it go tonight. The other patrons gave them dark looks or turned away, speaking only when necessary to the couple. Only the minister and his wife, sitting in a table near the windows in the front, nodded a slow greeting. Neither smiled, however. They merely watched intensely.

“Well, I've never seen such a display in my life,” Aggie said as Murdoch settled her into her chair. She smoothed out her skirts. “But I'm not going to let them ruin my evening with you, Murdoch.” She smiled.

Murdoch stopped his frowning and returned her cheery attitude. “Me, neither.” He took his seat. “Let's order wine.”


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

Scott Lancer opened his eyes and saw blackness, with only tiny pinpoints of light. A moment later as he was able to focus better he realized that the lights were the stars in the sky. It was night. He shook his head groggily and moaned. Every bone in his body seemed to ache, but it was his head that pounded, like a thousand drummers to an unknown rhythm.

He tried to remember what had happened, but couldn't yet. “There, there,” a female voice soothed. “You hit your head hard.” She held up a cup and lifted his head. “Drink this.”

Scott felt nauseous as his head was lifted, but took the drink anyway. It tasted bitter, like medicines tend to be, but was cooling and soothing. The last thing he remembered before falling back into blessed sleep was murmuring “thank you” to the woman.

“He's out again,” Opal called to her brothers. “Try to avoid the bigger holes. That last one jostled him awake. I don't have much of this stuff left.” She shook a bottle.

“We can get more,” Hank yelled back to her. “We're almost to that new place, Latache, Lemoore, whatever they're callin' it.” They were traveling in their wagon to the tiny community on the edge of Tulare Lake. They planned to take the ferry across the lake in the morning to the Kettleman Hills area, then travel south around the Diablos Mountains through the pass to their cabin. They could be there by tomorrow night if all went well.

 

Oh, Bother!

The road from Lancer to Green River ran from the hacienda to the town in a mostly direct route and a horse could gallop it in under two hours. It was a fairly straight path, with only one significant road angling off: the lane going to Aggie Conway's ranch.

This evening, Johnny rode Barranca on that road toward the town, slowing as the sun set. He didn't want to push his horse as it darkened. He brought the palomino to a moderate trot, nice and easy, allowing him to still cover ground but at a relaxed pace which allowed Johnny to watch the road for danger.

He continued riding even as the sun went down, but slowed Barranca a little more. He shuddered from a chill; evenings could get quite cool here in California, even in the summer. It was a far cry from the heat he had grown up with along the border.

Intent on finding Murdoch and Aggie, Johnny wanted to deliver Abby's decipher of the stallion's brand. He wasn't particularly in a hurry; the news wasn't earth-shattering, but it was something he knew Murdoch had asked to know immediately, so he and Abby had felt it important enough to interrupt their date.

Their date. Johnny snorted at the idea. Murdoch was too old to be courting; that was for the young, wasn't it? Yet, he did like the moods Aggie Conway brought out in his father. Murdoch seemed more mellow now. Johnny had seen the change in his father's demeanor since he brought the stallion back. Between Aggie and the baby, well, Murdoch Lancer was downright happy.

Almost giddy, in fact.

The changes were obvious: Murdoch was less irritated, and seemed to take things more in stride. He was less authoritative and more willing to listen, more tolerant. Even with him. Hell, he even put up with Johnny living in the main house—this was a few scant weeks after basically throwing him out. And, Murdoch had taken to calling him by his first name. That in itself was a statement. Johnny wasn't quite sure what to make of all the astonishing changes in his father, but he wasn't about to question it. It was nice having a little peace for now.

As Johnny neared the town, he automatically fell into his gunfighter mode. He set his hat firmly on his head, lowering it slightly to hide more of his eyes. He tested the looseness of his Colt in its holster and relaxed his body even more. Barranca sensed his master's change and tossed his head. “Easy, boy,” Johnny crooned, soothing the animal with the palm of his hand on his neck. “It's just Green River.”

There weren't a lot of people out on the boardwalk; the town was in the process of bedding down for the night. There were a few places still open, though—enough to keep Green River from completely shutting down. Still, most of the families were in their own houses, either having their supper or finishing it up. They would soon get ready for sleep.

He wasn't quite sure where Murdoch was with Aggie, but it was a pretty safe bet that they were at the new Cattleman's Hotel. He had heard of its finery, and, if it was anything like it's brother in Visalia, it was just the sort of place a big, influential rancher like Murdoch would pick for an outing with a woman. He tied Barranca out front of the opulent hotel and entered, pausing at the doorway for a quick scan.

The lobby was beautiful and expansive and tastefully decorated. Only two groups  of people occupied the fat armchairs, their conversations ceasing as they saw him. Johnny recognized none of them but immediately assessed them all as non-threatening. He strode through the lobby, getting the looks he was used to getting: the stares, the startled surprise, the bowed head and one or two brave glares. Johnny kept walking, stopping at the cafe doorway.

He didn't have to look long to find his father and Mrs. Conway. They were seated at a smaller table in a back corner, their plates in front of them. Murdoch glanced up, seeing Johnny. He looked surprised.

Johnny suddenly realized that this was the first time the two of them had met in public in this town. Too late he remembered Murdoch's warning regarding the minister. He should have sent Smitty instead with this news. Unable to change things now, he drew a deep breath and entered the cafe.

“Mr. Madrid,” Murdoch greeted, standing when Johnny reached his table.

So, he wanted to be formal. Two can play that game. “Lancer,” Johnny nodded slightly. He turned to Aggie. “Ma'am.” Facing Murdoch again he stated, “I have some news regarding that brand.”

Murdoch quickly glanced around, noticing that the other patrons were trying their best not to stare at the gunfighter. “It couldn't wait?”

“No,” was all Johnny said. He knew he was making Murdoch uncomfortable but right now he just didn't give a damn. He was already committed.

Murdoch turned to Aggie. “I'll be just a minute,” he left his napkin on the table.

Aggie grasped his arm. “Nonsense, Murdoch. Let the boy say his piece.” She turned to Johnny and indicated the third chair. “Here, sit with us.” Aggie had no fear.

Now both men felt uncomfortable. This was more intimacy than Johnny had wanted—interrupting their evening was one thing, but intruding on their date by joining them at their table was quite another. Murdoch surprised him by nodding to Aggie. He gestured to Johnny inviting him to sit. He returned to his own seat, sipping some of his wine.

Left with no choice, Johnny pulled out the chair. “I'm sorry to bother you, but Abby thinks she's figured out the stallion's brand.”

“What is it?” Murdoch asked, leaning forward and instantly forgetting his trepidation.

Johnny lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “It's an A. Sideways.” He pulled out the tracing and turned it so they could see.

“Of course!” Aggie exclaimed. “Now I see it!”

Murdoch studied the tracing and shook his head. “I don't know anyone with that brand. Nor do I have an idea who it could be.” He took the paper, folded it and slipped it into his jacket pocket. “Whoever it is, though, probably doesn't want us to show it around in public.”

Before Johnny could comment, they were interrupted by a ruckus outside. It was the stagecoach, tearing down the street at breakneck speed. Murdoch gave Aggie a questioning look. “It's not supposed to come in at night,” she shrugged. They stood to go see what was going on.

So did everyone else. In fact, just about the entire town rushed to their respective doorways, their nightly routine suspended, curious as to why the stage, which should be coming around eight in the morning was arriving now, well after dark, and in a huge rush.


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

Reverend Root's draw dropped. Still reeling from the realization that Murdoch Lancer was playing host to the infamous Johnny Madrid at his hacienda, here was the gunfighter in question, confidently swaggering to the table occupied by the very same Lancer and his lady friend, Mrs. Conway. How bold could the gunman be? Did he have no shame? How dare he set himself among the company of good, God-fearing people, in such a fine establishment as Addison's Cattleman's Hotel!

And that Murdoch Lancer! How could he simply allow the man to sit at his table, as if the cretin was of the same cloth as the rest of us? Root shook his head at the further proof that Lancer had indeed been debauched by the evilness of Johnny Madrid.

He needed to do something. It was his job as the moral compass of this community to oust the gunman from their midst. He'd said as much in his sermon and now was his chance to practice what he preached. He stood, grim-faced, ready to rage war.

As he tossed his napkin to the table, the ruckus from the stage tearing through town caught his, and everyone else's, attention. Forgetting about Madrid and Lancer, Reverend Root rushed with everyone to the boardwalk to see what was going on.

Jake jumped off the stage even before it completely stopped in front of the station. “Robbery! Robbery!” he shouted, getting the station master's attention. “Two men! They kidnapped two passengers!” He opened the coach doors, allowing the Mexican boy and Duncan to emerge.

The crowd murmured. Some came forward to help. Murdoch, Johnny and Aggie threaded their way through the hotel to the street. Sam Jenkins, his medical bag in hand, ran to the stage.

“Is anyone hurt?” Sam asked. He saw the frightened boy. “Are you okay?”

The boy fell into his arms, sobbing. “They...took Abuelo ,” he cried.

Duncan scanned the crowd for his boss. Addison shoved his way through the hotel door, bumping into Reverend Root—”Oh, sorry, Reverend,”—as he passed to the street. He nodded to Duncan, who approached.

Murdoch Lancer grabbed Duncan's arm. “My son, Scott Lancer, was he on this stage?”

“Yes,” Duncan answered. “He was one of those taken during the robbery.” He took a step toward Addison.

Johnny stepped in front of him, blocking his path, his face solemn, stern, his eyes cold. “Tell me what happened. Everything.”

Duncan perused the area, noticing that everyone seemed to be watching, frozen. No one dared interfere. He gulped and faced Johnny again. “Two men, in bandanas. They robbed the strongbox, took our belongings. They grabbed Scott Lancer and hit him. Dragged him off somewhere. Took the boy's grandfather, too. I don't know where they went. We high-tailed it out of there as soon as they left.”

Jake joined him. “It happened about a half-hour before Ruben's Way Station. Two men. They robbed us, then took young Lancer hostage. Knocked him clean out. Then they grabbed old man Garcia, too. Left the rest of us. I drove to the station real fast. We changed horses and came on in here.” He looked around and asked the crowd. “Who's the telegraph operator? I need to send a message!”

Johnny turned back to Murdoch. In a soft voice, he spoke in his father's ear so only he could hear. “I'm going after Scott. I don't think they took him by accident. It probably has something to do with the stallion or his brand.”

“Wait,” Murdoch held him back. To Duncan, Murdoch asked: “Are you sure it was my son Scott?”

Duncan nodded. “Yes. I remember him from before, on the stage going to Visalia. And we talked some today. It was your son. I'm sorry.”

Johnny gave one last look at Murdoch, who nodded to him, before running to Barranca. He was off before anyone could say anything else.

Root watched Madrid ride off before pushing his way through the crowd, stopping at Murdoch Lancer and Aggie. “This is what happens to good men when they receive gunfighters into their lives,” He accused. “Evil men corrupt good men. That Johnny Madrid has befouled you and led to this terrible incident. And now that boy's grandfather is hurt. How do you excuse yourself?”

“What do you mean, Reverend? Are you saying this stage robbery is my fault?” Murdoch glared at the preacher.

“I don't know if it is or not,” Root held his ground. “But I've seen you with that notorious gunfighter, not only tonight, sitting pretty as you please in the hotel at your table, but at your hacienda as well, looking like he belongs. Does he live there with you?”

Murdoch could see that the crowd, which had initially came into the streets that night for the stage, was now focused on him and the minister, their faces dark and frowning like before. He did not want to have this discussion in public. He moved to return to the hotel.

Root grabbed his arm. “Are you running, Mr. Lancer? You can't run from God. He demands an accounting!” The crowd began to murmur, inspiring the minister. “Repent, Mr. Lancer!” he asked. “The Lord knows of your sins!”

Murdoch stopped and stared at the minister. “So do I, Reverend. But this tragedy, this robbery and kidnapping aren't among them.” He took Aggie by the arm and they returned to the hotel, the crowd quietly parting for them.

At their table, Murdoch drained his wine. Aggie sat down and picked up her glass as well. “Well, I never!” she exclaimed. “What a pompous man! That...that minister picking a time like this to—” She didn't finish; she just shook her head. “I can't imagine what goes on in his head, Murdoch. He isn't right. Why, to blame you! Unbelievable!”

“But they were believing it, Aggie. Didn't you see their faces? They were nodding and agreeing with him. And I didn't give them a different story.”

“You couldn't!” She was in a fine state now. “There was no way you could defend yourself to that man. He would have turned your words against you. The only thing you could do is what you did: get out of there before it got worse.”

“Still, I should have said something more.” Murdoch's regret grew with each passing moment. If the people of the town continued to believe Root, his reputation would be ruined.

“Maybe, maybe not. I still don't think you could have won an argument with that man. He was out for blood. Your blood!”

Murdoch shook his head. “Maybe I should take you home, Aggie. Abby will have to be told about this.”

Aggie rested her hand on his arm. “Take me with you. She'll need a woman to help her.”

 

Sudden Impact

Johnny had a problem. He realized it about a half-mile east of Green River. He pulled Barranca to a halt and took a moment to think things through. He was not prepared for this journey. He'd planned a one-evening excursion to town not a cross-country manhunt. He had no bedroll or blanket, nor did he have supplies for a long trip, should he need them. He had almost nothing.

His working Colt was in his bedroom at the hacienda, a two-hour ride in the opposite direction. He did have a handgun, of course, but it wasn't the one specially modified for him. He would not have the advantage of that special weapon should he be called out in a gunfight.

Barranca wasn't completely fresh, but he still had enough to give a couple of hours more. And Johnny did have his favorite Winchester, a small amount of jerky and a canteen, and adequate money.

If he chose to return to the hacienda to retrieve his working gun, his bedroll and supplies, he would be behind another four hours, maybe five, and have an extremely tired horse once he reached the way station, assuming he made it to the way station tonight at all. If he continued on, he'd remain ill-prepared until he could re-supply—if he found a place—but he'd definitely make it the two hours to the way station. He considered his options and decided that time was more important than the supplies or the gun. He spurred Barranca onward. He'd wasted enough time.


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

Sam Jenkins led the grieving boy to his office, a yellow clapboard house just a block away from the Wells Fargo station. The child's shoulders heaved occasionally, as if he was trying to stifle the sobs. In his office, he examined the boy more carefully and found a bruise on his right shoulder.

“What's your name?” he asked the boy. He looked about ten.

“I'm Miguel,” he answered, giving a sniff. “Miguel Garcia. My abuelo, he owns the livery.”

“Thank you, Miguel. I know your grandfather. He's a fine man and runs a clean livery. Now, can you tell me how you got this bruise?” Sam pointed to the injured shoulder.

Miguel puffed up, defiance in his watery eyes. “They hit me, the banditos . I tried to stop them from taking Abuelo .”

“Well, Miguel, you're very brave. Does it hurt?”

The boy nodded. “A little, Señor Doctor. But I worry for my abuelo . He is sick.”

Sam reached into his bag for a bottle. “How is he sick, son?”

“He has a cough. It gets worse at night. The cold air, it does not like him.”

Sam smiled thinly. “It doesn't like me, either.” He poured some of the liquid from the bottle on a cloth and applied it gently to the boy's shoulder. “This should help with the pain, Miguel. It won't bother you while you sleep tonight. Do you have a relative you can stay with?”

Miguel shook his head. “Not in Green River, señor . My tia , she lives in Morro Coyo.”

“Well, you won't be going there tonight. I'll ask Mrs. Henderson if she can take you for the night; we'll get you to your tia tomorrow, okay?”

“But what about my abuelo ?”

Sam smiled. “Don't worry, Miguel. I have a feeling that someone will find your grandfather very soon and get him back here.” He knew Johnny Madrid wouldn't stand idle while Scott was in danger. “Shall we go find Mrs. Henderson?”


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

Duncan followed Addison into the hotel. The crowd was dispersing; the showdown between the minister and Lancer had ended. While Root continued to grouse about Lancer's retreat to anyone who would listen, the excitement was over and the tired townsfolk returned to their homes for the night.

In Addison's office, Duncan told him the entire story. “The robbers took what cash was in the strongbox and our possessions. Then they grabbed young Lancer and that old man. They hit Lancer so he wouldn't give them trouble but pulled the old man along, hitting the boy when he tried to stop them. Once they were gone, the driver got us back into the stage and we took off for the way station. That boy was a wreck, Mr. Addison. He cried all the way to the way station, and continued on the ride here.”

Addison paced as Duncan related his tale. “What did the Woden brothers take from you?” He was perspiring.

“Some money, a watch and—” he paused. “Wait! You know the outlaws' names? How?”

Addison didn't look up. He continued his pacing. For the first time Duncan noticed how agitated he was. “What's going on, Mr. Addison?” When Buck didn't answer him, he continued, “What did you do?”

Addison spun around and pointed at Duncan. “This is all your fault! If you hadn't told me about that horse....” He broke off, turned again and stared out the window into the night.

“All I did was tell you that Lancer's prize stallion had been stolen and if you wanted it, you could buy it. You've been telling me for years that you and he were rivals of some sort. Isn't that why you bought the Ortega Farm? So you could become a big-shot rancher, too?”

“I bought it to run, yes, but that didn't turn out well, did it? Thanks to that Lone Pine earthquake and all the damage it caused, I had to sell it, and in parts to make money off the deal. I only kept that hacienda because it would have cost more to tear it down than it was worth.”

“Ahhh,” Duncan sat down, finally understanding. “I think I got it. Lancer got his horse back. And his son went looking and found out you owned the hacienda. You hired some thugs to kidnap him? Are you insane? What do you hope to accomplish?”

“None of this would have been necessary if the men you hired would have taken care of Madrid! Your men were supposed to kill him and that would have been the end of it. This is your fault!”

Duncan ran a hand through his hair. Addison had a point. “Well, there isn't anything we can do about that. And Logan left the area.”

“You let him go, to run amuck and tell everyone.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Never mind. I took care of him. He's not a liability anymore.”

Duncan froze. Did his boss mean what he thought he meant?

Addison continued, leaning on his desk. “I had to do something about Scott Lancer. What if Murdoch Lancer finds out I had his stallion? I'd be ruined, particularly if he had proof and, if what you think young Lancer found in that hacienda is what I think it is..., well, Murdoch Lancer will have that proof!”

“I don't know what our friend did with whatever he stole. It wasn't among his things in the room. I went back and looked in the alley the next morning and found nothing. Whatever it was, I don't think he brought it back. So you panicked for nothing.”

When Addison said nothing, Duncan continued. “Who are these people who robbed the stage? What are they supposed to do with Lancer?”

“Their name is Woden. Two brothers and a sister. They were guests here. Tried to skip out on the bill. I told them they were off the hook and they could keep what they stole from the stage if they took Lancer away. They are to keep him at their farm until they get word from me.”

“Then what?”

“I don't know. I didn't plan that far ahead.” Addison sat down, suddenly very tired. He looked defeated, and felt that way, too. He now realized just how much trouble he was in. “Will you go after them, Gilford? Keep an eye out for me? Maybe...”

“You want me to kill Scott Lancer?” Duncan's question was brusque.

Addison was aghast. “No!” He put his head in his hands, swaying from side to side. “Oh, God. You'll have to, won't you? And the Woden siblings.” He looked up, tears almost in his eyes. “I can't have witnesses.”

Duncan stood up, his face grim, his voice showing irritation. “For an astute businessman, Mr. Addison, you sure don't think things through. At least, not when it comes to Murdoch Lancer. He must really get under your skin.”

 

Under an Influence

Murdoch held Aggie's arm as he helped her into the carriage. He waited until she was settled before limping around the back. They were going to stop off at her ranch for her to pick up some of her things before returning to Lancer and telling Abby. Aggie would be staying a few days in case the younger woman needed help. They didn't know how the Eastern woman would take the news.

“Mr. Lancer!” the stage driver called. “Do you want to take this with you?” Jake held up Scott's baggage from the stage. “It belongs to your son.”

“Thank you, Mr...?”

“Bell, Jake Bell.” The driver hefted the bag onto the back of the carriage. “I'm sorry about your son. The line will refund his ticket money. I know that's no consolation, though.”

“No, Mr. Bell, it isn't. But thank you anyway.” Murdoch stepped in the carriage, picked up the reins and started out for the Conway Ranch.


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

Gilford Duncan grumbled at his fate.

Forced by the irrational moves of his frantic employer, he would have to ride to wherever this Woden cabin was, find them and eliminate them all, both brothers, the sister and, of course, Scott Lancer. And it wasn't only the killing, it was the haphazard way it had had to be. If only Addison hadn't panicked; if he'd waited to see what Scott Lancer found, what he knew, maybe all of this wouldn't be necessary. Maybe all the young Lancer had was questions. But no, Addison had gone off the deep end and planned—planned? Duncan snorted—a rash kidnapping, with no resolution in mind. It was up to him to clean up Addison's mess. Again.

He pulled out a map and, using the information Addison had told him about the Woden siblings, located the rough area where their cabin might be. The gap between the Diablos and the Shale Hills narrowed from point of the Antelope Valley until it widened again at the Cholame Rancho, so their cabin must be there, among those hills. It would not be easy to locate.

He decided to leave in the morning; he wanted sleep comfortably in his bed. Besides, it was already late and he wouldn't get far before he'd have to make camp anyway. The fewer nights he spent on that cold, hard ground, if any, the better. Duncan wasn't a country boy.


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

Hank Woden pulled the wagon into the tiny community of Latache. Only a few months old, the hamlet had been laid out by Dr. Lovern Lee Moore, who had arrived to the area just last summer, finding the farmers and sheep herders rather isolated in the rich land around Tulare Lake. He drew them together, forming some organization. The buildings were all new, and most of them were unfinished, but one of the first things Dr. Moore had done was to open a ferry across the lake.

The ferry made it easier for the citizens of the community to get supplies and mail, from the Cox and Clarke Trading Post, on the other side of the lake, rather than travel all the way to Goshen for services.

The ferry only ran in the daytime, so Hank needed to find somewhere to spend the night. There was only one place to rent a room in this new community, the new Lake Inn. It was a tavern which also served as a hotel, sundries store, and cafe. Hank stopped the wagon outside and entered the establishment.

He'd already thought of a cover story so when the owner asked, he told them that they needed two rooms, one for their sister who would care for their sick brother and a second for he and his other brother, who was well. He explained that they could carry their brother up the stairs so they didn't need any help. The owner was happy not to help; his back pained him.

Hank returned to the wagon and both he and Lou carried Scott up the stairs to Room Two. Opal turned the key and they dropped his body on the bed. They unpacked the wagon before bringing the horses to the stables to care for them themselves; Latache didn't yet have a livery.

Hank found the innkeeper before going up to his room. “My sister says we need more Laudanum for our brother. Do you know where we can get some?”

“What happened to him?”

“Oh, he fell off the wagon. We were horsin' around this afternoon and he hit his head on a rock. He'll be fine in a couple of days, but it hurts him somethin' awful and if we don't have no Laudanum he won't sleep tonight.”

“I run a small store,” the innkeeper said. “I think we have some.” He left, returning a few minutes later with a brown bottle. “Here it is. It'll be two dollars.”

“That's a lot of money!” Hank cried. Their last bottle had cost them less than half that.

“You can get it cheaper at Cox and Clarke, or in Goshen or Green River, but here at my store, it's two dollars.”

Grumbling, Hank withdrew the coins from his pocket. It was a good thing Mr. Addison had supplied them with money. He wasn't about to spend his hard-earned coins on no Scott Lancer.


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

Murdoch slapped the reins and the carriage pulled away from Aggie's ranch house. Scott's horse, Rienzi, was tied to the back of the vehicle. Figuring Scott would need him when he and Johnny returned, Murdoch had collected the animal from Green River's livery as they left town.

Their earlier anger now subsided, replaced with worry and concern. “Do you think Johnny Madrid will find Scott?” Aggie asked. She pulled the blankets up higher; it was a cool night.

“I'm certain of it. He's only three or so hours behind.”

“But he can't track them in the night, can he?”

“Probably not; it's very difficult to track at night, particularly on a night like tonight, where there isn't much of a moon. If they do anything to obscure their trail, he'll miss them. He'll wait until morning to begin that task.”

“But won't he get farther behind?”

“No. They'll have to stop for the night, too. They have two hostages; it's difficult enough to travel with one unwilling companion, two, well, they'll stop, all right. Plus their horses get tired, too.”

“Why do you think they even took hostages? That doesn't sound like stage robbers to me.”

“Me either. And two men. I would have thought they would have taken the boy. He would have been easier to subdue if they needed a hostage.”

The two sat in silence, the sound of the horses' hoofbeats passed the time.

“Are you thinking what I'm thinking?” Aggie finally asked.

“What's that?”

“Scott and that Garcia man aren't hostages. That old man was taken as a diversion. As was the robbery. Scott was the target all along. This was really a kidnapping.”

Murdoch pulled the reins, halting the horses. “Why do you say that?” He had his own suspicions, but hadn't thought it through.

“I just find it curious that he was chosen, and selected first, so the driver said. And on the way back from his fact-finding trip to Visalia, where he went to get more information about the Ortega farm and who owned it. I think he discovered something out that someone didn't want him to know, or tell us about.”

“I hope you're wrong, because if you're right, Scott is in greater danger than we thought.”


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

Scott stirred from his sleep. He heard a woman's soothing voice, “There, there, it's going to be all right.” He sighed, but a pounding in his head shattered that contentment. His eyes flickered open. The room was dark and all he was able to see were forms, one form in particular. “Take it easy, now. You've had a bad fall,” the voice belonging to that form eased.

Scott tried to remember what happened to him, but it was all a blur. All that came to him was some shouting, an intense pain then nothing. “A...fall?” he asked.

“Yes,” she lied. “My brother found you on the road. Your horse had run off. You were unconscious. We put your in our wagon and took you here. We are trying to get you a doctor, but there isn't one here.” They hadn't even bothered to consult Dr. Moore.

“Where....is....here?” Scott spoke slowly, trying not to aggravate his head.

“We are in Latache or whatever they call this village, on the north edge of Tulare Lake. Tomorrow we will take the ferry to Cox and Clarke. They'll have a doctor there, I'm sure.” She again lied; they had no intention of consulting medical help, nor did she think a small place like Cox and Clarke had such assistance. “You go back to sleep now. Everything will be fine.”

Scott tried to nod but his head hurt too much. He closed his eyes and drifted off. Opal Woden smiled.

+++NOTE: Dr. Lovern Lee Moore was indeed the visionary who knitted the small farms in the area north of Tulare Lake into a community. Barely months old at the time of this story, he laid out a city block and built a post office. For some reason, the US Post Office objected to the name “Latache” and instead chose “Lemoore”, after Dr. Moore. The post office opened in 1875.

 

Late Arrivals

Johnny pulled Barranca up at the way station, not bothering to tie the heaving horse to the hitching post. He leapt off the animal and ran to the door. Banging on it several times, he finally roused the manager, Ruben.

“What in tarnation...?” Ruben asked as he opened the door. He was clad in his nightshirt, barefoot and carrying a rifle.

Johnny barged inside, quickly glanced around and found the place empty. “Tell me what you know about the stage robbery,” he demanded of Ruben. “Everything!” He paced a little.

Ruben studied his visitor. He had the look of gunfighter, but he wasn't showing that reserve, that coolness, he'd seen them have. This one was agitated, impatient and definitely on edge.

“Who are you?”

Johnny stopped his fidgeting and drew a breath. He knew he had to calm down. It would take patience and perseverance to find Scott. When he steadied himself he replied. “I'm Johnny Madrid. Scott Lancer is my...my friend. I need to find him, him and the old man the robbers took.”

Ruben grew suspicious. “Murdoch Lancer hire you?”

“No. It doesn't matter. I need to find Scott Lancer. What can you tell me about the robbery?”

Ruben studied the young man again. He seemed earnest, but he didn't like Madrid's demeanor; he was still too anxious, as if he would strike at any moment. Not taking a chance, he kept his rifle at hand. He continued warily. “Jake said it was about a half-hour East of here. He tore into here fast, wantin' Davy to ride to Green River to report it. Davy weren't here, though, so we changed the horses and he drove the stage on in.”

As Ruben told his tale, he noticed Madrid calming down, seeming more relaxed. The gunfighter nodded with understanding instead of impatience. Ruben propped his rifle against a table and went on.

“He said there were two men. And they took two men hostage, one old, one young. This Scott Lancer must be the young one. He's Murdoch Lancer's son?”

Johnny nodded absently; he was thinking. “Half-hour, huh?” He made a move to the door. Ruben stopped him in the doorway.

“You can't track them in the dark, son, no matter how much you want to. And I bet that pretty horse of yours is tired. It's very late. Why don't you stay the night here? I'll get you off at dawn. You and your horse can rest.”

Johnny hesitated. He didn't want to wait. He wanted to find Scott now.

“Mr. Madrid? You're the one who spoiled that robbery all those weeks back, ain't you?” When Johnny nodded, Ruben continued. “You're a good man. I know you'll find Lancer and the men who took him. But you ain't made of steel. You need rest.”

He knew Ruben was right, but he just didn't want to waste the time. “I need to go.” He made another step out the door.

“Look at your horse, then. He's heaving. He's had it. I bet you rode him hard from Green River. If you want to continue on, I'll loan you one of ours, but let the animal rest at least.”

Johnny glanced at Barranca. Ruben was right; the horse was beat. And he wasn't about to leave him. “All right. I'll stay.” Ruben showed him the barn. Johnny gave the palomino a good rubdown and got him plenty of good oats before he came inside for his own rest.


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

Johnny was already asleep in one of Ruben's beds by the time Murdoch drove the carriage into the Lancer courtyard. Smitty, who had been waiting for Mr. Lancer when to return, ran up to help. He was surprised to see Mrs. Conway and no Johnny, but being the good hand that he was, he held his questions and did his job. “I'll take the horses, sir,” he said, after helping them down and handing Aggie and Scott's bags to another hand. He led the team and Rienzi toward the barn.

Aggie smoothed her skirt. “Well, it's now or never.”

“How do you think she'll handle the news?”

“I don't know. I hope she's strong enough that the shock doesn't hurt the baby.”

Murdoch froze, stricken. “Oh, God! I hadn't thought of that.” He could barely breathe. If something happened to that baby....

Aggie saw his pain. “Don't worry, Murdoch. That's why I'm here. We'll tell her gently. It'll be all right.” She certainly hoped so.

From what Aggie knew about young Abby Lancer, the woman had a quiet fortitude that would see her well during her life in the West, but this wasn't the kind of news that one could predict the outcome in a pregnant woman. She'd seen seemingly frail women mount surprising strength in times like these, and conversely, the most resolute fall apart, losing the baby and possibly worse. She just didn't know how Abby would react.

Abby had been in the kitchen making herself a cup of tea when she heard the voices in the courtyard. She met them in the Great Room, her cup in her hand. “Welcome home, Murdoch,” she smiled. “Why, hello Aggie. It's nice to see you. I wasn't expecting you tonight.” She stopped her greeting when she saw Ben carrying both pieces of luggage. Her smile brightened when she recognized Scott's bag. “Is Scott home already? Where is he?” She looked beyond the older couple and Ben, expecting her husband to open the door and enter.

Murdoch glanced at Aggie, who took over. “I'm afraid Scott isn't with us.”

“What do you mean? That's his bag.”

“Yes, it is.” Aggie took Abby's arm. “Please sit down, Abby. We have news.” She took the cup from Abby's hands.

Aggie led Abby to the sofa where she sat next to the younger woman, angled to face her. “Scott was returning to Green River on the stagecoach and, well, I'm afraid I have some news: there was a robbery.” When Abby gasped, the older woman put her hand on Abby's arm. “Please don't think the worst, Abby; it's not good for the baby. For all we know he's just fine. The robbers took him with them. He's a hostage. But everything will be all right, honey. Johnny Madrid left nearly immediately. He will track them down and bring Scott home.” Aggie purposely left out other details and her own conclusions about the robbery. There was no sense in Abby obsessing over what could be when what is was bad enough.

Abby placed her hand over the baby, drew a deep breath and expelled it raggedly. She tried for control. “Well, if Johnny is on the job, then Scott will be fine.” She tried to smile. A single tear threatened to spill over her lids, but she wiped it away.

“No, Abby. It's okay to cry. In fact, it's better. You need to let it out. It's not good for the baby for you to keep it inside.” Murdoch moved from his chair to the opposite side of her on the sofa. He put his arm around her. “It's never good to keep it inside. I learned that the hard way.”

Abby glanced up at her father-in-law, so tender was his face that she burst into tears, sobbing into his shoulder. He wrapped both arms around the woman, rocking her as she cried. “It'll be all right, jo,” he crooned, reverting to the old-style Scottish term of endearment.

 

The Old Man and the Tree

Ruben knocked on Johnny's door before the sun began to peak over the horizon. He'd promised to wake the gunfighter, but Johnny was already awake and getting dressed. He slammed his foot down into his boot. “I'm up,” he called, then added, “Thanks.”

He ate quickly, offering a coin for the breakfast of bacon, eggs and biscuits, but Ruben waved it off. “It's the least I can do. You're doing the stage line a favor, Mr. Madrid. If you bring those men to justice, save the two hostages and recover the stolen items, you'll be a big hero to all of us. I wish you luck.” He handed Johnny a blanket and some food.

“Thanks,” Johnny nodded and went out to the barn to ready Barranca. It was a tall order, he realized when Ruben said it out loud. His only thought had been to get Scott back, but now after hearing Ruben, he understood now that wasn't enough. He'd have to do it all. He again wished he had at least his working Colt. His responsibility weighed heavy on his shoulders.

It was still dim when Johnny took off toward the east. To his back, the tips of the Diablos were pinking. He trotted Barranca down the road at an easy pace. After thirty minutes, dawn was truly breaking and he slowed the horse to a walk so he could look for evidence of the robbery. The only indication he had of the place was a time frame: the driver Jake had said about a half-hour east of the way station. Johnny looked for signs that the stage had stopped: lots of hoof prints in one space, evidence of braking, the footsteps of the driver and passengers as they disembarked from the vehicle.

After another fifteen minutes of hard searching, Johnny found his indicators. He dismounted and walked around the area, trying to ascertain what happened from the evidence.

Johnny was a pretty good tracker, not the best, but above the average. He didn't believe the task was beyond his abilities; it never entered into his mind. But as he surveyed the area, he wished he had an old friend with him, a man who was the best tracker he knew, a man who'd ridden with him on several occasions and the only living man besides Scott Lancer who he trusted with his life: Val Crawford.

But Val wasn't here. The last Johnny had heard about the scruffy older man was that he was a sheriff now, in the small town of Hollister, a couple of counties north an west, having been appointed so after shooting an outlaw after a disagreement over card cheating. That area of California was known for slow creeping of the land instead of sudden earthquakes. Johnny snorted at the thought of his friend, who always preferred stable ground, residing in such an unstable area.

So without Val's presence, Johnny imagined what his friend might say. ‘Well, Johnny, that there's where it looks like your brother Scott got hisself conked on the head. See the trace of blood on the dirt? It ain't much so don't you worry none about it, but he's got hisself one hell of a headache right about now.' And as Johnny looked at the drag marks in the dirt, he envisioned Val commenting, ‘That old man didn't wanna leave his grandson. See how they had to drag him away? And look, see those small prints there? That's the boy tryin' to rescue his granddad. Spunky kid, weren't he?' Johnny snorted at his own imagination.

He turned away from the road, following the drag marks behind some boulders. There he found wagon tracks. He mounted Barranca and followed the wheel tracks, heading in a roughly southern direction, mostly toward the expansive Tulare Lake. Johnny wondered where they would ultimately lead.

He kept up his tracking until he heard a muffled sound, a kind of moan, followed by what sounded like a cough. Thinking it could be Scott, injured or ill, he urged Barranca forward.

He heard it again, louder this time, a distinctive cough, long, loud and deep, like someone was coughing up a lung. Johnny rounded a curve and saw a pitiful sight. An old man was gagged and tied against a tree. He was shivering in the early morning cool without a jacket or even shoes on. His clothes were torn, disheveled and damp, as though he'd been in a fight and doused to break it up. He'd clearly spent the night on the cold, moist ground without adequate covering and certainly no food or water.

Johnny slid out of the saddle, grabbed his knife from his boot and began to cut the man free, first removing his dirty, sodden gag. “Don't worry, old man. I'll get you to safety.” He cut the binds from the tree, the ties around his hands, and freed his feet. The old man's wrists and ankles were raw from rubbing against the rope. He was shivering.

Johnny helped stand him up, supporting him. The weak man leaned heavily against him, shaking from the cold. “What's your name?”

The man couldn't speak. Johnny propped him up against Barranca. “Steady, boy. Don't move,” he told the horse. “This old man is depending on you.” He grabbed his canteen and gave it to the injured man, allowing him to drink his fill. He took the blanket Ruben had given him and wrapped it around the man and began to rub his arms.

A few minutes later, the man nodded his thanks. “I am Pedro Garcia.” He said in a rough voice. “I run the livery at Green River.” He stopped speaking to cough again. “My grandson, Miguel, is he all right?”

“Yes, he came in with the stage last night. He was pretty upset but I think I saw Doc Jenkins take him away. He's being taken care of.”

Bueno, bueno ,” the man muttered, taking another swig from the canteen.

Johnny rummaged through his saddlebags and found a couple of biscuits from this morning. “Here,” he offered them to Garcia. “Eat these. They'll tide you over until we can get some real food in you.”

Gracias ,” Garcia nodded. He ate hungrily.

When the man finished his snack, Johnny explained, “I'm going to take you to the way station back on the road. The manager there, his name is Ruben. He'll take care of you and get you to the doctor. Come on, let's get you on my horse.”

The two of them rode double, with Johnny in back, quickly backtracking to the road and loping toward the way station. Johnny didn't want to push Barranca lest the man lose his balance and fall off. He still shivered.


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

Opal Woden was up with the sun. She had much to do before rousing her brothers. She dressed quickly and re-packed the few things she'd unpacked the night before, getting her luggage ready to go.

She glanced at Scott Lancer's still-sleeping form. He was so handsome, she smiled. Maybe she'd convince him to stay with her once they got him to their cabin. She'd like that. She'd like that very much.

She make a quick run downstairs and ordered a gruel for his breakfast. She needed something soft that would hide the laudanum, plus the mash would aid in keeping the illusion that he was injured from an accident. She brought the tray up to their room just as he was beginning to stir again.

“Easy now,” she soothed as she sat the tray down. “Don't try to get up yet. I have your breakfast all ready.” She turned her back to him and dropped a tiny amount of the drug into the gruel, stirring it in. She hoped the mash would disguise the bitterness.

She eased Scott's head up slightly and began feeding him small bites, talking softly all the time, mainly to distract him should he notice the drug. She was reassuring, telling him again that she and her brothers were going to help him and get him well.

After he'd eaten about half of the gruel, she noticed his eyelids drooping. She cleaned him up and let him go back to sleep. Now was the time to awake her brothers. It was around seven and they had to hurry to make the first ferry at eight. She ran downstairs a second time to order breakfast for the three of them.

She brought their repast upstairs on a tray herself; the Lake Inn was tiny and had no wait staff other than the owner and his daughter. Knocking on her brothers' room, she brought them their food, and sat with them to quickly eat.

Lou finished first and hurried down the stairs to ready their wagon. He and Hank would have to carry Scott to the wagon, again using the excuse that he was still unwell after his fall should anyone ask. Opal paid their bill with some of the money Addison had given them. They headed to the lake's edge, to the ferry depot.


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

Duncan's breakfast was delivered at seven, his usual time and he took his time savoring the civilized meal: bacon, eggs, biscuits, fruit and coffee. He normally donned a business suit, but today he dressed casually, in items he almost never wore: plain brown work pants, a light blue plaid shirt with a tan leather jacket. He ate slowly, not wanting to be on the road. He had a long ride ahead of him and he dreaded it.

He strapped on a rarely-worn gun, his own Colt, around his hips, not as low as he'd seen Johnny Madrid wear his, but then again, Gilford Duncan was no gunfighter. He was a fair shot, but much better with a rifle. He grabbed his hat and Winchester and headed to the hotel's stables to prepare his horse for the trip.

He frowned as he saddled his roan; he did not like riding. This journey promised to be all horseback. It was the second time in just a few days that he undertook riding at the behest of his boss. He was not happy about it.


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

Johnny rode into the way station, calling for Ruben's help. The manager ran outside. “You are back so soon?” he asked. He saw the sick man riding in front of Johnny on the palomino and hurried to help the man off.

“He's freezing and has a cough. They left him tied up to a tree, no food, no water, no blanket and no shoes. Why they took his shoes, I'll never know.”

Ruben had a guess but he didn't want to say it in front of the old man; they wanted the ailing man to die of exposure. “Come, Señor , let's get you inside in front of the fire. It is nice and cozy.” Between the two of them, they led Garcia to the hearth where he was able to warm up at last.

Ruben went to get steaming hot coffee and hot food. Johnny wanted to head back out immediately, but was stopped when Garcia started to talk. “ Gracias , señor, ” he said again. “I would have died out there without you.”

De nada, ” Johnny answered. He put his hat back on.

“Are you going after the bad men?” Garcia asked.

“Yes. They have my b—my friend.”

“Ah, the young Scott Lancer. A fine man.”

“Yes, he is. I must leave now.”

“Wait, I think I can help you.”

Johnny wanted to be back on the trail but stopped to hear the man out. “How, Señor Garcia?”

“I heard them talking. I think I know where they are going.”

“Go on.”

“I think they said they would take the ferry.”

“What ferry?”

“I don't know, señor . I do not travel much.”

Ruben came in with the coffee and breakfast. He'd overheard the conversation. “There is a new ferry at the edge of Tulare Lake in the Latache community. It crosses the lake to the Cox and Clarke Trading Post. The doctor Moore had a pair of steamboats made. I've not seen them yet, but I hear they are small but serviceable.”

“What's the quickest way to get there?”

“The road to the east of here goes straight there. It should take you two to three hours.”

“I'm off,” Johnny announced, waving a hand. “Get him to Dr Sam Jenkins in Green River, will ya?” He didn't wait for Ruben's nod.

+++NOTE: The Cox and Clarke Trading Post did exist at the time of this story. More on the ferry in a later chapter.

 

Breaking Away

The Woden siblings waited in their wagon. They were the third wagon in line for the ferry, scheduled to depart promptly at eight. Scott lay in the wagon's bed, nestled in a canyon formed from their luggage and tented with blankets to keep him unseen. Every once in a while, Opal would turn, lift the blanket and take a glance at him to make sure he was still out. She smiled. He was so handsome.

It was the first thing she'd noticed about him, once they were in the room together the previous night. She'd lit a lamp and saw him clearly for the first time, nearly gasping at her luck. Their hostage was blessed with fine features, well-formed muscles and when he awakened, she sighed over the most beautiful blue eyes she'd ever seen. She knew right then and there she wanted to keep him and started scheming as to how the best way to go about that.

A man came by and asked them for payment, bringing Opal out of her daydream. Hank paid the fee and in return, the man gave them instructions. “Follow the wagon in front of you. One of you has to stay with the horses at all times. Do what the ferry master says when you are on board.” He stepped to the final wagon and repeated the same.

They didn't have to wait long. A few minutes later they saw the gangplank lowered and the first wagon roll on board. The second followed quickly then it was their turn. Hank followed all instructions in leading the team over the boards onto the ferry deck; he didn't want to attract attention. Once on board, he was reminded to stay with the lead horse of his team. The ferry master put a chocks around the back wheels.

The ferry was new, only in service for a couple of weeks and already had proven itself to be of great value. Now instead of taking a day or two overland for supplies, the people of this tiny community could travel easily to the trading post, across the great Tulare Lake, in a matter of a few hours.

Dr Moore had commissioned two boats to be built, using the same design as the great Mississippi riverboats but on a smaller scale, and none of the ornamentation; these ferries were purely functional. The were only large enough to carry four wagons, but would hold more passengers and several horses—some in stalls for an extra fee—as well as some freight. It didn't take long to load the last wagon before they allowed the walking passengers and horses to be led on the boat. The ferry departed promptly at eight.


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

Duncan left Green River a little after eight in the morning, heading almost due south, across open land. With no road to guide him, he used the sun as a compass. It was cool and the riding was not yet unpleasant, although he knew it could become worse as the day wore on.

He had a long way to go. He planned to ride in the general direction of Tulare Lake and angle around it to the west. He would find El Camino Viejo , the old Spanish road, and take it south. While it was more arduous than taking the ferry across the lake, Addison had warned him that the Woden siblings would be going that route. Duncan did not want them to see him. Not yet, anyway. His plan was to surprise them at their cabin, with no witnesses, and do his dirty deed there.

He thought about how he would kill them. He knew he should take out the brothers first, as they presented the biggest threat. The girl would be easy, and Duncan began entertaining the idea of having himself a little fun with Opal Woden before disposing of her. If she looked good, that is.

Scott Lancer was the wild card. He didn't know anything about the man. Would he fight to save his kidnappers, or fight with him against them? When should he turn his gun on the young Lancer, before the brothers or after? He pondered the possibilities.

Not used to riding, Duncan alternately trotted or walked his horse, with the occasional lope. He much preferred more civilized methods of travel: the new railroad, the stage or at least a buggy or carriage. He found balancing himself on the back of a horse tiring and from time to time, he would dismount and walk on foot, leading his horse. But then his feet would tire and he'd re-mount, riding once more.

With each mile, Duncan cursed his employer for his rash actions. If only Addison would have remained calm, kept his cool and not contracted with amateurs to do a professional's job, he wouldn't be in this situation, doing the very same thing.


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

Buck Addison enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, taking the time to read the latest newspaper that came on last night's hurried stage. It was just a few days old and the news was about as current as it gets in this tiny town. He grunted at reading about US Marines landing in Panama — where the hell was that? — to protect citizens caught in the middle of the unrest there. And he noticed that the fight of the Modoc indians up in northern California was still going on. That new barber shop in Visalia finally opened; he'd been waiting for that — they promised a hot towel treatment.

He finished reading and snapped the newspaper to fold it back up. Picking up his coffee cup, he drained its contents and sat back with a contented sigh. Duncan would have left already and his troubles would soon be over.

Or would they? He sat up with a start, remembering something he'd seen the previous evening. He'd watched Lancer leave, with Aggie Conway, and he just now remembered that the stage driver had given something to them. A bag. Scott Lancer's luggage! What if that contained whatever he took from the Ortega hacienda?

Duncan said he'd found no evidence of whatever Scott took, nor was he even sure the younger Lancer had taken anything at all. But that wasn't enough for Addison. He'd instructed the Wodens to capture Scott, and they evidently obeyed him there, but he couldn't remember if he'd included the luggage in those directions. He racked his brains for a few minutes before he realized that it didn't matter. Scott's luggage was now in Murdoch's hands. He grew anxious again.


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

Aggie let Abby sleep in. The poor woman had trouble falling asleep the night before, even after taking a mild sleeping agent. She was worried about Scott despite her outward faith in Johnny Madrid to bring him home. Aggie understood; she would feel the same way about Murdoch should he be in this situation.

When the young woman finally roused, Aggie brought her breakfast, coddling her with poached eggs, a honey-sweetened cornmeal mush, tea and sliced fruits. Nothing rugged or manly; Aggie wanted to pamper the young mother-to-be. She even placed a small arrangement of blooming lavender on the tray. Abby smiled appreciatively at the offering, but denied being hungry.

“You need to eat,” Aggie gently suggested. “The baby needs food.” With that encouragement, Abby ate part of one of the eggs, drank the tea and ate some of the mush and fruit.

“I'm full, Aggie, thank you,” Abby said. Aggie took the tray then helped Abby out of the bed, pulling her robe around her shoulders. She left the young woman alone to dress.

Abby shuffled over to the window and opened the curtains. The window faced east and the sun shone brightly on her face. For the hundredth time since learning of Scott's kidnapping, she wondered where he was, if he was safe, what she could do for him, when he would return to her, and if Johnny had found him yet.

She had every faith and confidence in the rough-around-the-edges gunfighter and smiled at that idea. Johnny Madrid was nothing like the men she'd known in Philadelphia and about as far from her dear Scott as possible, yet she liked, respected and admired him, almost as much as she did her husband. Johnny would bring Scott home; of that she was certain. She only hoped he found Scott before anything more happened.


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

It was nearing ten in the morning when Johnny walked Barranca into the minute community of Latache, an Indian word which probably meant marsh or lake or something of that nature. He tied Barranca up at the brand-new Lake Inn; it seemed to be one of the few finished buildings in the one-block-long village.

He'd seen the ferry landing at the end of the street, but no ferry. Wondering what the story was, he entered the Inn.

It was a two-story building. To the front and his left, a small tavern boasted five rough-hewn wooden tables. It occupied about two-thirds of the first floor. The other third, over to his right, looked like a small store or supply. His eyes followed the stairs where he saw four doors—the rooms, he presumed. Another door behind the bar was closed. A storeroom, perhaps? A man stood behind the bar wiping off the counter.

“Howdy,” the barman greeted, his smile vanishing when he noticed Johnny's low-slung gunbelt. He stopped his cleaning and brought his right arm down to within reach of the pistol he kept under the bar.

“Hello,” Johnny returned, noticing the man's movement but not reacting to it. He smiled instead. “Nice place.” He strode up to the bar and ordered a beer.

“Thank you.” The man remained wary but drew the draft and placed the mug in front of his visitor.

Johnny fished out some coins, dropping them on the bar before pointing south. “Where's the ferry?” He sipped the beer, doing his best not to alarm his host.

The man cocked his head in the direction of the landing before focusing again on Johnny. “Oh, it's already left this morning. They'll be another one leaving at noon. It arrives around eleven. There are two each day; one on Sundays.”

“Ah. I see. I have some time to kill then.” Johnny glanced around. The tavern was empty. “Not much business today.” He made the small talk.

“Nope. Not yet. When the ferry comes in, though, we'll fill up with a lunch crowd.”

“That's good,” Johnny drew on the beverage. He put the near-empty mug down. “What's cooking?”

The missus is gonna be fryin' up some trout. Fresh-caught this morning. Want to stay for some?”

Johnny didn't think the man really wanted him hanging around that long. “I might come back. I need to tend to my horse.”

“We'll be here,” the man nodded.

Gracias, amigo. ” Johnny smiled as he left.

Johnny patted Barranca. “Well, boy, looks like we're gonna have to wait some. I see a nice oak tree down near the lake. Wanna get some shade?” The horse snorted in response. Johnny led him toward the water's edge. The horse stepped into the shallows, drinking deeply its cool water.

Johnny sat down under the tree and stared out over the surface. The water seemed to stretch forever, gleaming in the late morning sun. He turned to watch the few people who wandered around the tiny community, most seemed to come to and from the new fishery on the other side of the ferry terminal next to the lake. Tulare Lake was famous for its fish and the new business was flourishing.

The lake was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Named for the Tule Rush that lined its edges, it was approximately eighty miles long, but less than seven miles wide. The crossing to Cox and Clarke spanned about 23 miles and would take the ferry a little less than three hours.

+ ++NOTE: I used a little poetic license regarding the Tulare Lake ferry. The ferry mentioned in the story may not have been established until much later than this story takes place—some sources say the early 1900s, others indicate the lake was already drying up by then due to irrigation drainage and river damming. Then again, I found evidence of a steamboat crossing earlier than this story, so who really knows? (Besides, I like ferries.) To my knowledge, Dr Moore had nothing to do with the Tulare ferry.

More on Tulare Lake: while the lake did support many fisheries in the mid-to-late19th century, they were more famously in the Hanford area, not Latache (which became later became Lemoore.) But Hanford was not founded until 1877; again, I plead poetic license.

US Marines did indeed land in Panama in May of 1873. Using two ships, they came ashore to protect US interests, the consulate, and citizens during the unrest between Colombia and Colombian (Panamanian) rebels. After about 10 days, the rebels quit and US forces withdrew.

The Modoc War was the last conflict between Native Americans and the US Army in California and Oregon. After the natives surrendered, their leader, Captain Jack, and five others were tried for the murder of two peace officers. Jack and three were executed; two were sentenced to life. The remaining 153 Modoc were relocated to Oklahoma.

 

Ferry Across the Tulare

Abby wandered downstairs, taking the stairs slowly, holding on to the rail absently. She'd been staring out the window in her and Scott's bedroom since she dressed, slowly combing her hair, not really paying any attention. The noise from the renovation crept into the background, reminding her that even though her Scott was missing, the world still revolved, plans are completed, work still progressed.

“Would you like some tea, Señora ?” Maria asked her as she passed the kitchen. The older Mexican woman was busy preparing lunch. “I make you some, si ?”

Abby smiled wistfully. “Thank you, Maria, but no, I don't want tea. I appreciate the thought, really.” She touched Maria on the arm.

Maria smiled. “You sit then. Señor Patron and Señora Conway, they are in the Great Room.”

Abby nodded and shuffled into the Great Room.

“You're up!” Murdoch observed, dropping his pen and rising from his chair. He was behind his desk, the ledgers open.

“Don't get up on my account,” Abby answered. “I'm just going to sit here a while.” She indicated the couch.

“I'll join you,” Aggie said. She rose from her chair opposite Murdoch and took a position on the sofa, patting the spot next to her. “It's nice and comfy.”

Abby smiled again. They were trying so hard. She sat in the offered spot.

Murdoch came over, Scott's bag in his hand. “I have Scott's luggage here. I thought you may want to go through it—whenever you are feeling like it.” He sat the case on the table in front of Abby.

“Thank you, Murdoch. I do.” For the first time today, she felt she had a purpose. She began unfastening the case. She found Scott's traveling things: his shaving kit, a comb, an extra shirt and necessities. And the new blue parasol. “Why, it's beautiful,” Abby beamed, her eyes beginning to tear. She held up the parasol and twirled it, careful not to open it inside. Her Scott had thought of her.

“There's another present in there,” Aggie observed, nodding to the case.

A similar-sized package rested on the bottom of the bag. It was wrapped in brown paper. “Indeed there is.” Abby wondered what it could be. She reached to grab it. “My, it's heavy!”

“I'll get it then,” Murdoch offered, reaching into the case. “We don't want you to strain yourself.” The package did have some weight to it. “Hmmm, it feels like...” He opened the paper, inside it was smudged black. He lifted up the iron. “It's a branding iron.”

Aggie laughed. “A branding iron! Well, I'll be! Why would he bring something like that home.”

“It must be important,” Abby suggested. “Maybe something to do with that stallion's brand.” She wiped a tear, careful not to let Murdoch or Aggie see.


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

Hank noticed his sister Opal leaving the ferry's sitting area and sneaking looks at their hostage, lying asleep under blankets in the back of their wagon. She had that look in her eye. Their father had called it a man-hungry look, and she'd been getting it since she was thirteen. It spelled trouble for the brothers, as they knew what it meant: they'd have to kowtow to her whims until it all played out.

He elbowed his brother and after getting Lou's attention, he indicated with his head for him to look at their sister. Lou frowned when he saw her face. “Uh oh,” he said to Hank. “She's fallin' in love again.”

“Yah, and you know what that means.”

Lou knew only too well. “Yep. Cold suppers and sleepin' in the barn. Until she makes her move for him. I just wish it would turn out differ'nt and we wouldn't have to take care of him.”

“I know. If only one of ‘em would agree to marry her after he comp'omised her, we wouldn't be stuck with ‘protectin' her honor.'” He snorted. “I don't know how many more times she can pretend to be innocent. One of ‘em is bound to notice sooner or later.”

“Is it your turn or mine to bust in on ‘em in the act?”

“Yours. I had the pleasure last time.”

“Mm' k,” Lou nodded. “I gotta ‘member to keep my shotgun handy, then.”


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

Gilford Duncan halted his horse, noticing the tule rush which signaled that he was nearing the great lake. He stood in the saddle, looking around. He could see the water in the distance beyond the tule but not the road which should be curving around it. Figuring he was farther west than he planned, he kneed his horse to a walk, angling eastward through the grass until he found the El Camino Viejo . The old Spanish road was narrow at this point, so it was hard to see from the north.

He turned southward on the road, which took him around Tulare Lake, passed the low-lying Guijarral Hills, foothills to the Diablos, to the west. The Diablos stretched for hundreds of miles along the western edge of the San Joaquin valley, but the Guijarrals, one of several series of foothills in the southern San Joaquin, contributed to only about twenty of those miles.

This portion of El Camino Viejo would take him to the Vaca Adobe , a dugout beside the lake which offered good access to the water. The road went all the way to the Pueblo de los Angeles, but he wasn't going nearly that far. He hoped to make it to Cox and Clarke before the day was up, but it was still a long ride just to the Vaca . Duncan cursed his boss once more.


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

Johnny watched the ferry close in on the dock. He frowned at the boat, not sure of its stability. While it was a decent enough size, it didn't look to him to be a place where a horse would be comfortable, particularly his horse; Barranca tended to be temperamental. The animal snorted as the boat neared, as if sensing this vehicle was in his future. To distract him and realizing that it would be a long time before reaching the other end of the lake, Johnny left the shade and returned to that small tavern for an early lunch, trying to beat the ferry crowd.


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

At nearly the same time, Opal and her brother Lou watched from the front of the opposite ferry as it approached group of buildings known as the Cox and Clarke Trading Post. They smiled, knowing they were that much closer to home. While their hunting cabin wasn't much, it was theirs and it always felt good to get back. As they neared the dock, the ferry master signaled for all passengers to return to their wagons or stand away from the front.

Lou Woden drove their wagon off the ferry as Hank walked next to the head of his lead animal. The horses had survived the journey across the lake with surprising aplomb; Hank was proud of them.

The Cox and Clarke Trading Post and Steamboat Landing was founded by Frederick Cox and his partner, Crawford Clarke, cattle barons also involved in the meat-packing industry. In fact, Cox, as a young man, came to California in 1850 and began plying his trade, supplying prospectors. He grew wealthy, and soon partnered with Clarke to build an empire in several California counties as well as parts of Oregon.

Cox and Clarke traded with local rancher Dave Kettelman, a pioneer who grazed sheep and cattle in the nearby hills to the west. Both the hills and the plain to their west bore his name, albeit misspelled.

While the trading post wasn't a large community, it did contain an oversized warehouse with an attached store, was outfitted from Delano, a farming community on the proposed railroad link from Goshen to Los Angeles.

Lou and Opal walked into that store intent on purchasing supplies which would last them for their next hunting season. Hank, who normally would have accompanied him, was left to guard the wagon and its cargo, mainly Scott Lancer. He was still covered with blankets, in a tent-like structure formed by their luggage. Hank wanted no questions from townspeople.

The warehouse was crowded with customers from the ferry. It took a while for Opal and Lou to find all the things they needed. Once they paid, they carried their treasures to the wagon.

Opal sat in the back of the wagon, on top of the luggage, while the men were packing the wagon with their new purchases. She wanted to make sure they avoided bumping into Scott. Occasionally she peeked at her charge, and once, when he started to stir, she fed him a few sips of laudanum-laced water. He returned to sleep.

As soon as the supplies were loaded, Hank slapped the reins and the Woden siblings, along with their hostage, headed southwest on El Camino Viejo, toward the nearby hills and eventually, by tonight, their home.


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

Back in Latache, Johnny finished his lunch and approached the tavern owner to pay. While making the exchange, Johnny asked, “Have you seen two men and a wagon, with a third man, a blond man?” There was a chance that the robbers had stayed here, as it was the only inn, but not likely; if it were him, he would have camped and avoided towns, even tiny hamlets like this one.

“I did have guests last night. They drove a wagon, but there were three men and a lady. One of the men was injured, their brother, they said. They carried him up the stairs themselves.”

Johnny raised his head. “This injured man. He was blond?”

The man thought. “Yes, I think so. I didn't get a good look at them. It was late and, like I said, his brothers carried him.”

“And there was a woman?”

“Oh, yes. Plain face. Black hair. Nice figure, though. She was in charge of the hurt brother.”

“Okay, thanks,” Johnny nodded to the man. He exited the establishment and untied Barranca.

Walking the horse to the ferry landing, Johnny considered what the tavern owner had told him. Two men and a woman. Neither Jake nor the old man Garcia had mentioned a female. Maybe these weren't the right people. But they were with an incapacitated blond man. That had to be Scott. Or did it? Was he even on the right path?

But the wagon tracks had led into the town. And it was easy to see that they weren't here now. They had to have taken the earlier ferry. Even if it wasn't the people the owner had described, he had to be going in the right direction. There was no other way.

+++NOTE: About El Camino Viejo: this was the old road along the interior of California. (El Camino Real is more famous, and was more well-traveled but it is a coastal route and thus, does not fit into this story.) El Camino Viejo was favored by those who preferred a more private means of travel. The watering holes mentioned did exist and I have described them with as much accuracy as possible. El Camino Viejo and its watering holes will continue in later chapters.

The Cox and Clarke Trading Post did exist and was the terminus of the Tulare Lake ferry when the ferry was running. It was not as large a community, however, as it is in this story. The present-day Kettleman City stands more or less in its location.

Dave Kettelman, by the way, did exist, and is rather accurately described in this story. When the city took his name, they misspelled it for some reason.

 

Questions 67 and 68

Murdoch had been studying the branding iron Scott had in his bag for over an hour now and wasn't any closer to figuring it out than before. It seemed to be made of curls and lines, not making any sense. He'd stamped it on the dirt so many times, trying to figure it out.

He knew there were basically two types of branding irons. A stamp iron which would stamp an image onto the animal's hide and what was called a running iron, which rustler's used to change a brand. The running iron was small and its handle unscrewed, allowing the rustler to alter a brand in whatever manner he wanted. Running irons were the sign of a cattle thief; even the possession of one could result in hanging.

This was definitely a stamp iron, but the image it would stamp didn't create a letter or recognizable shape. No rancher in his right mind would have this as his branding iron! Shaking his head, Murdoch finally gave up, and walked back to the hacienda with it.

He saw Aggie accompanying Abby outside. The day was beautiful and warm, with California's golden sun shining against a cloudless blue sky. “Did you figure it out?” Aggie asked.

“No, I didn't. And I should.” Murdoch was mad at himself.

“Maybe you need a pair of fresh eyes,” Abby suggested.

“Or two!” Aggie joined in.

Murdoch smiled. He offered the iron to Aggie. “You give it a try.” Aggie stamped it on the dirt, much as Murdoch had done so many times before. “Hmmm. Curls and random lines.”

Abby stared at the iron. “I wonder where Scott got this. Why did he bring it back with him?”

“I don't know,” Murdoch replied. “It doesn't make any sense.”

“Was there a note with it?” Abby asked.

“No. Just the iron, wrapped in brown paper.”

“Like the parasol was.” Abby frowned in thought. “The parasol is about the same length, wouldn't you say?”

“I think so,” Aggie stepped forward. “What are you getting to?”

“I'm not sure. But they were both wrapped in the same paper. That should mean something, shouldn't it?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Murdoch put in. He hefted the iron. “Could be he didn't want to get the other things in his bag dirty. This thing tends to blacken everything it touches.”

“So we're back to where we started from.” Abby was growing frustrated.

“I'm afraid so. I'm flummoxed,” Murdoch sighed.

“Well, that makes three of us,” Aggie smiled grimly.

“I still say it has something to do that the grey stallion,” Abby insisted. “Couldn't it be the brand that changed the Lancer L to whatever is on the horse now?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No rustler in his right mind would go to the time and expense of making a stamp iron to change the brand on one animal. Besides, whoever did the work to make the iron would know about it and that's one more loose end for a rustler.”

Aggie nodded. “Murdoch's right, Abby. A thief would use a running iron so they could mark any brand they want. It's just not feasible.”

“Still, isn't it worth a look? Why don't we stamp some sand or something with Lancer's brand then overlay it with this one?”

Aggie looked at Murdoch. She wanted to humor Abby. “Why not? Let's give it a try.”

Murdoch shrugged and ordered a Lancer brand brought to him. One of the vaqueros hurried with the iron. Using his boot, he scraped a bit of the loose dirt to erase all prints then stamped the Lancer circle L. Next he placed the other iron on top and stamped. They all looked at the result.

“It's not the same,” Aggie reflected. “It was a good idea but...”

“No, try another angle, Murdoch.” Abby suggested. “Maybe it's just off a bit.”

Shrugging again, Murdoch repeated the procedure, angling Scott's iron differently this time. It still didn't match. At Abby's insistence he tried it once more, again rotating Scott's iron and this time when he stepped back...

“That's it!” Abby cried. “Look!” She pointed to the grey. “They match!”

“Well, I'll be roasted on a spit and carved for dinner,” Aggie grinned. “They certainly do. What do you think of that, Murdoch?”

But Murdoch wasn't smiling. “Well, that mystery is solved.” He handed the Lancer brand back to the vaquero and took Scott's brand inside, leaving Aggie and Abby behind wondering what just happened.


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

The cab rumbled down Taylor Street, its driver maneuvering the vehicle through the busy traffic. San Francisco was enjoying a beautiful spring day, a rarity this close to summer in the city by the bay, and everyone was out. Senator Eugene Casserly urged the driver to hurry; he did not want to be late for his lunch with the governor.

Governor Newton Booth had contacted him about the telegrams they'd both been sent from a Reverend Timothy Root of Green River concerning their mutual friend, Murdoch Lancer. Booth had wanted to meet with Casserly to see what, if anything, they should do. The governor had arranged a luncheon at the Bohemian Club, a private gentleman's club, founded just last year.

The Bohemian Club was formed from a regular meeting of artists, musicians and journalists who had an interest in the arts. They soon began admitting businessmen and entrepreneurs as members to boost their coffers. Booth, a San Franciscan, had been one of the first of those to be asked to join. He had been planning on sponsoring Murdoch Lancer as a member but Root's telegram disturbed him.

The senator's cab pulled up to the curb at 624 Taylor and Casserly hurried out, paying the driver and entering the building. He passed the owl bas-relief plaque next to the door and nodded to the doorman. “I'm here to meet Governor Booth,” he told the man.

The doorman nodded, and indicated an anteroom to the left. There a uniformed young man took his hat and coat. Another uniformed young man escorted him into the dining area where the governor had a table. He was seated in a corner, away for privacy, where they could talk quietly.

Casserly approached the table. “I'm sorry I'm late.”

Booth looked up and smiled. “No matter. I just got here myself. Please, sit down.” He gestured to the other chair.

Casserly eased himself down and smoothed his suit jacket. “Nice weather,” he began the small talk.

“Yes, it's delightful. I'm planning on taking a stroll after lunch, take in the sights, enjoy the sun.”

The waiter brought them their drinks then discreetly withdrew. Booth took a sip then dove into the subject of the meeting. “What did you think of that telegram from Green River?”

“I'm troubled, Governor,” Casserly replied. “Murdoch Lancer isn't the type of man to tolerate gunfighters let alone associate with one.”

“Yes, I agree, especially Johnny Madrid. He's one of the worst—or rather, one of the best, depending on how you look at it.” He chuckled briefly before returning to seriousness. “If this minister's report is true—”

“You disbelieve a man of the cloth?”

Booth put down his drink. “I don't know Timothy Root. I do know Murdoch Lancer.”

“I agree. So what do we do about it?”


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

Murdoch knew he should have explained himself to the women, but he didn't want to alarm them. The iron Scott had in his bag should not have changed the Lancer image. Rustlers and thieves just didn't use a stamp iron for that; they used running irons. There was only one reason someone would go to the time and expense to make a branding iron like this one: they intended to re-brand many animals and do so quickly.

Whoever ordered this iron planned a takeover of Lancer, or at least had hoped to get many, if not all, of its livestock. If that person was still around and Scott had this evidence, well, it was no wonder he was taken. It put him in much greater danger—all of them, actually—than they'd first considered.

This iron was evidence of a much larger conspiracy. It should be guarded well. He went up to his room and pulled out an old newspaper, wrapping the iron. For now, he stowed it in the bottom drawer of his dresser. Later tonight, he would move it to the attic. He didn't want anyone making off with it.

+++NOTE: The information about the Bohemian Club is mostly true. I know someone who is a member. He is one of the founders of a company my husband does consulting for. I asked him about it for the scene at the club. He wasn't able to tell me much, and I embellished a little, but I made it work.

 

Closer, Just a Little Bit Closer

Johnny had been right: Barranca was not comfortable on the ferry. He stamped around nervously, although he tried his best to keep the horse in one place. While the boat wasn't crowded—there were only two wagons, about twenty walkers and only a few other horses—there were a few children running around and Johnny didn't want Barranca to accidentally bump into any of them, or the other way around. He kept an eye out for them as well, wishing their parents would do so, too.

He regretted not securing a stall for the palomino. At least in the confined space, he would be more protected and possibly less agitated. It was too late now; all of the stalls were filled.

Johnny did the next best thing. He steered Barranca next to the stalls, close to the railing, where he'd be away from most of the others on the ferry and have the one wall to anchor him. While this area provided some protections, the action of the water against the hull sounded strange to the horse. Barranca remained agitated, even when he turned him around so he no longer faced the water. Johnny distracted the palomino by playing with his ears, talking to him, stroking him and feeding him the occasional apple or carrot from his saddlebags.

Once a young girl of about six or seven cautiously approached Johnny and shyly asked if she could pet his beautiful horse. Johnny wasn't sure how Barranca would react; normally he wouldn't even question it—his horse was good with children— but on the ferry, he wasn't sure. Barranca surprised him by lowering his head to the child and softly blowing. The girl giggled. He nuzzled the girl's cheeks and she squealed with delight before running back to her parents. Johnny laughed. “You sure can charm the women, Barranca.” The horse snorted and tossed his head.

The ferry pushed on, crossing the lake with surprising speed. Johnny occasionally glanced over the surface of the water. It was a beautiful sight, the shimmering blue of the lake stretching for miles, but it made him uncomfortable. Like his horse, he preferred solid ground under his feet. Johnny knew Barranca was picking up on his own trepidations, mild as they were, so he resigned himself to enjoy the ride.


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

Duncan stopped his horse and dismounted, stretching his aching body. This morning's pleasant ride was turning into the nightmare he knew it would. His body had only just begun to recover from the riding he'd done when he followed Scott Lancer around Visalia, and now this; but this was worse, much worse. He didn't see an end to it for another few days.

He removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. He'd been riding now for only three or four hours and he was ready to be done for the day, but he had a long stretch ahead of him before he could even consider stopping. He grabbed the canvas bag of water and gave his horse a long drink before taking a swig of the sun-warmed water from his own canteen.

Unwilling to remount so quickly, Duncan led his horse for a while, but the going was slow and the sun too relentless. Deciding that riding was the lesser of the two evils, he lifted his foot into the stirrup and hoisted his body into the saddle. He grimaced as his weight came down on the animal's back. Cursing Buck Addison yet again, he signaled his horse to move.

Seeing the Polvadero Gap to the west, his spirits rose a little. The gap divided the Guijarral Hills from the Kettleman Hills—one more landmark gone. He spurred his horse in anticipation. He was able to make good time and on occasion he saw another traveller. Around one in the afternoon, he found a shady area and decided to stop and eat his lunch.

The cook from his hotel had packed a nice repast for him. He feasted on two beef sandwiches, a pear, and what the Mexicans call an empanada. It was filled with cinnamon-spiced cooked apples. He again watered his horse, and after more for him from his canteen, he mounted the animal for the rest of his long journey southward.


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

The sun was still high when the Woden wagon carrying Scott reached the Avenal Gap that afternoon, some ten or so miles south of the Cox and Clarke Trading Post on El Camino Viejo.

The gap provided access through the Kettleman Hills westward. The eastern branch of El Camino Viejo followed it along its journey to meet the main road. They continued on the path, heading through the gap.

They saw the sparse Cottonwood tree signaling the Alamo Mocha (Trimmed Cottonwood) watering hole. It was a natural spring located within the Avenal Gap, on the south side of the road. Hank stopped the wagon so they could water their horses and refill their canteens. Lou grabbed a canvas bag of water and filled it with water from the spring, even though there were several of those natural springs along the next part of El Camino Viejo ; he didn't want to be caught without water for the horses.

Opal retrieved their lunch from a basket in the back. While back there, she checked on her patient. Scott was hot in the wagon; she could see his perspiration once she lifted up his cover. She wet a cloth with a canteen and dabbed his face, cooling his skin. He was still asleep from the laudanum. “Ok,” she told her brothers once she had administered to him. “Let's go.”

They ate on the go; Hank Woden slowed the team down to a walk as they feasted on their lunch of dried meat, raisins and fruit. They passed around a canteen to drink, ever heading south and west toward their home.


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

Johnny was never so happy to see the landing up ahead as they approached the Cox and Clarke Trading Post. Barranca's restless nervousness had required nearly all of his master's attention during the three-hour voyage across Tulare Lake. Johnny would be happy to give the horse his head on the trail.

There was just one problem to that: he didn't know which way they'd gone. Cox and Clarke was on the southwest bank of the great lake and roads out of the village led in three directions: one going back north on the east side of the lake, another heading south and west along the foothills, and the last one branching toward Delano heading around the edge of the lake to the south and east.

Johnny walked Barranca off the ferry and into the small community. It was a busy place. When cattle barons Frederick Cox and Crawford Clarke established their many trading posts in California, communities tended to sprout around them. This one was no exception. There was a hotel and a livery, in addition to the giant warehouse which attracted so many. People were loading up on all kinds of supplies, from food and grain to leathers and clothing, and lumber and building materials, too.

Johnny shrugged. It was as good a place as any.

He looked around the warehouse. He found a few things he could use; items he usually carried with him when traveling but didn't have because he hadn't prepared for a long trip. He purchased a new bedroll and blanket, rope, a slicker, a canvas water bag for Barranca and an extra shirt for himself. He also picked up a container of salve, a package of bandages, extra ammunition and some food. Lastly, he bought a bottle of whiskey. Now, if only he had his working gun.

As he paid for his items, Johnny struck up a conversation with a clerk. He asked about two men and a woman, in a wagon with an injured blond man. Had anyone seen them?

“You mean the Wodens?” another clerk asked. He sat down a sack of flour for a woman.

“Maybe. They have a man in their wagon? Injured, maybe?”

The clerk closed his eyes, thinking. “Could be. Opal—that's the sister—she was mighty particular about where we placed their order. Something long and lean was tented in a blanket.”

That had to be them. “Woden, huh? Any idea where they would have gone?”

“Back to their cabin, I guess.” He pointed toward the hills. Follow El Camino Viejo . It'll lead you to the Kettleman Hills, through Avenal Gap, and onto Kettleman Plain. You'll go around the bottom of the Pyramid Hills and into a valley we call Devil's Den. The road crosses Point of Rocks—small sandstone hills, really—into Antelope Valley. Once there, leave El Camino Viejo and head straight west. Their cabin is somewhere in those hills.

“There are some places for water on the road.” He counted them off. “ Alamo Mocha in Avenal Gap, Alamo Solo near Dagany Gap in the Pyramid Hills, Aguaje de La Brea at the bottom of those hills—just skim off the oil on the surface; the water below is good. And one more: Las Trinijas de los Indios on the tops of the Point of Rocks. They'll serve you well.”

Johnny nodded. “Much obliged,” he smiled.

The clerk stopped him, having noticed Johnny's gun. “What do you want them for?”

“I need to ask them some questions,” Johnny lied. “They may be witnesses to a robbery.”


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

Gilford Duncan was tired. It was only mid-afternoon and he was sick of riding, sick of the dusty road, and just plain sick: his lunch wasn't sitting too well with him. He vowed that when he reached the first hotel, inn or tavern, no matter what time, he'd stop for the night. A nice comfortable bed, a hot bath and some rest on his back sounded mighty good to him. Addison's cover-up would have to wait. He didn't care right now.


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

Having passed through Avenal Gap and finished their lunch, Hank Woden continued the wagon along El Camino Viejo . The road angled southward for some ten miles as it crossed the Kettleman Plain, a three- or four-mile-wide valley between the Kettleman Hills and the Pyramid Hills.

The sky threatened rain, unusual for an area east of mountains, but if it would fall, it would make the roads muddy and difficult to navigate. Hank wanted to make Devil's Den, a smaller valley nestled at the end of the Pyramid Hills, before any rain came. He slapped the reins and urged the horses faster.

Opal hoped Scott wouldn't be awakened by the wagon's quickened pace. She turned frequently to check on her patient, keeping an eye out for any signs of stirring. Scott remained asleep, unmoved by his environment, and Opal smiled again. Things were going to work out for her this time, she just knew it.


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

Duncan had seen the threatening skies with disdain; he wasn't prepared for rain. It rarely rained east of the mountains but if it would, today would be the day for it, just because he was there.

Again he cursed Buck Addison. Clearly the man wasn't used to going beyond the line of the law. Oh, he'd probably skirted it enough, but having possession of a stolen horse was too much for the hotelier and when someone started to snoop, he hadn't known what to do, so he did the absolutely wrong thing. And here Duncan was, paying for that mistake. Still.

He spurred his horse faster, hoping to outrun any coming rain.

Wanderings and Wonderings

Following El Camino Viejo away from the trading post, Johnny looked for the Woden family's wagon tracks. They were impossible to find among the others left by multiple wagons on the road, but thanks to that clerk at the warehouse, he had an excellent idea where they'd be heading. He spurred Barranca on, giving the horse his head, allowing him to gallop toward the Kettleman Hills.

The horse enjoyed himself as he ran down the road. He'd been kept pent up for too long today, first while waiting for the ferry, then on the three hour ride. He was happy to be on solid ground and ran for the pure joy of it.


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

Duncan finally saw the Cox and Clarke Trading Post on the horizon and nearly hooted. Finally, an end was in sight! He urged his horse faster to reach his haven. While there was plenty of daylight left, he was spent. He was sore in places he'd forgotten existed, and longed for a good hot soak in a deep bath. David Addison be damned!

He found the small hotel and secured a room, requesting that bath while he took his horse to the livery. When he returned, the owner proudly showed him their new bathhouse behind the kitchen. A large, deep tub dominated the small, dark room. A steward was already working on filling it with buckets of steaming water. Duncan barely listened to the owner's telling of their recent amenity.

When left alone, Duncan stripped to the skin and stepped into the hot, sudsy tub. He audibly sighed as he eased his body into the soothing waters, leaning back as he began his soak.

He again thought of his plan to eliminate his prey. If not for Scott Lancer, it would be easy; he didn't think he'd have any trouble with the Woden brothers. While they were huntsmen, he knew his abilities would win out. Lancer was the unknown. He wondered how the Wodens were keeping him sequestered. Was he tied up? Blindfolded? If he was incapacitated, his job would be easier.

The water did its magic and Duncan nearly fell asleep. When his tub began to cool, he stood and toweled off. He stepped out and finished the job, donning the clean clothing he wrestled from his saddlebags. Lastly, he tossed his sweat-soaked and dusty things into the tub, giving them a quick wash before wringing them out. He'd wear them again tomorrow on the trail, but for the rest of today, Duncan was to be clean and refined.

He decided a good meal was in order after his soothing bath, so upon entering the only tavern at Cox and Clarke, he selected a prime table. He feasted on fresh fish from the lake, fried up in cornmeal and flour, before going up to his room at the inn and diving into that soft, warm bed. It was still light outside when he fell asleep.


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

At Aquaje de La Brea , the springs south of the Pyramid Hills, Opal asked Hank to stop. While she awakened Scott long enough to feed him some cold tea laced with laudanum, Hank and Lou skimmed the oil off the top of the pool, allowing their horses to water. Within ten minutes, they were on their way across the tiny valley.

The sandstone Point of Rocks on the western edge of Devil's Den were easy to cross, but Hank drove slower anyway; he didn't want to disturb either his passenger or their cargo. He picked up some speed once over the low hills and into Antelope Valley.

Here they left El Camino Viejo , for it continued southward toward Bitterwater and eventually, the Pueblo de Los Angeles. Hank turned the wagon nearly due west. They were almost home.

Antelope Valley was a wider V-shaped plain between the foothills of the southern Diablo Mountains to the low-lying Shale Hills. The hills were famous for earthquakes and this area sparsely populated. Orchard Peak, to the north, overshadowed the valley. The only slice of civilization was a small inn and store at Keck's' Corner, owned by Marlin Keck approximately midway between the Diablos and the hills. They would stop there briefly.


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

Johnny liked Barranca's progress as the stallion galloped down the road. He knew they were catching up on the wagon; they were traveling faster. He kept an eye on the clouds, for they looked like rain. His new slicker was in his saddlebags but he hoped he wouldn't have to use it. That would mean slowing down and losing time.

The weather held and it took him slightly less more an hour to get to Avenal Gap. He found Alamo Mocha easily and stopped for water, giving Barranca a long drink, and refilling his canteen. Back on the horse, he loped through the gap, following the road onto the Kettleman Plain.


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

Abby awoke from a short nap in time to help put the finishing touches on dinner, with objection from Maria. “I want to keep busy, Maria,” she insisted. “You do a fine job, but I need the distraction.”

Maria nodded, allowing la señora to transfer the rice into a serving bowl. She smiled with Abby topped the brown and white side dish with a spring of green parsley from Teresa's herb garden, but she put her food down when it came to carrying the food to the table. “No, Señora , you must not carry heavy things.” Abby went to sit at the table instead.


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

Johnny loped Barranca into the Devil's Den less than an hour after his quarry. Having stopped briefly for water at Alamo Mocha earlier, he opted to pass on Aguaje de La Brea ; Johnny didn't want to bother with skimming the oil. He slowed to a walk so he could peruse the area, noticing the tiny valley enclosed on most sides by low hills. It was a good spot for an ambush.

Johnny assumed the Wodens would think someone would track them down. After all, they did rob the Wells Fargo stage. The company took those things seriously and only a fool would think themselves free and clear. He knew that he would be on the lookout if he was them, but that didn't seem to be the case here. The Woden family seemed to be heading straight for their home, and quickly, judging by the speed he was traveling.

Maybe there was something more to this robbery than money. They'd taken Scott and Garcia, but left the old man in the forest to die. An older man, sick like Garcia, would have been easier to contain, made a better hostage. Scott would fight them every step of the way. If he could.

Once again Johnny considered the possibility that his brother was injured in some way. There was evidence of it: the story in Latache about the sick brother, the man at the trading post mentioning the sister watching something hidden in the wagon.

He knew he was nearing their home. Excited about the possibility that his quest was ending, Johnny spurred Barranca, pushing the horse onward.


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

Hank pulled the wagon to a halt at Keck's Corner Inn and Store. Opal jumped out  to let the Keck family know they were back; the Kecks were their closest neighbors. She chatted briefly with Marlin before returning to the wagon. They were so near their home now; it was up a tiny valley in the Shale Hills about an hour away. Hank slapped the reins once more. This was the final leg of their journey.


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

Abby wandered aimlessly through Teresa's herb garden. The sun was setting, blocked by the Diablo mountains in front of her and brought a chill with it. She pulled her wrap tighter around her shoulders. She considered the implement Scott had risked his life to bring home. Why had Murdoch acted so strangely after they had figured out its use? What had he done with the iron? Even Aggie had questions in her eyes as he took the brand inside the hacienda.

She wondered about Scott. Where was he? Was he hurt? What other information had he learned in Visalia? Had his discoveries led to him being taken? Or was his kidnapping and the stage robbery merely coincidental, happenstance?

She looked out at the mountains, so beautiful and majestic. When would she see her beloved again? She wanted nothing more now than to hold him tightly against her. She spread her fingers over the lower part of her belly, silently protecting the child she carried from the ills of the world.

 

A Surprise Ending

Johnny and Barranca crossed over the sandstone hills into Antelope Valley and paused briefly for water at Las Trinajas de Los Indios —Indian Tanks—filling his canvas bag, his canteen, himself and Barranca. He didn't know when he'd find water again. The man at Cox and Clarke hadn't mentioned any other water holes.

He easily found the Woden wagon tracks where they left El Camino Viejo and noticed they were headed nearly due west through this quiet valley. Johnny put the spurs to his horse and Barranca showed he was game, galloping until a two-story building came into view.

When he arrived at the structure, he saw it was a combination tavern, inn and store, like the one in Latache. Labeled Keck's Corner, it stood on the junction of Keck's Road and the Paso Robles road. The Paso Robles road crossed the span of the valley before disappearing into a gap in the Diablos to the north. Keck's road headed southeast, away from where Johnny had come.

Johnny dismounted, tied Barranca to the post allowing him to drink while he went inside. Sensing he was near his destination, Johnny ordered a drink and studied a map decorating the table. It was a map of El Camino Viejo , but the main route that went north instead of the Eastern route he had used from Cox and Clarke.

The owner brought him his drink. Johnny asked him some questions. “Seen the Woden family today?” he began.

Marlin Keck smiled. “Sure did. Saw Opal Woden not more'n a half-hour ago. They was comin' home from sellin' their furs. Hank and Lou are trappers, ya know.”

“Yes, I know,” Johnny lied. “I was hoping to get a pelt or two from them, but if they sold them all—”

“Don't you worry, sonny. Them boys are good at their job. Just go on to their cabin. They'll get you one. They always have some curin' or somethin'. I'm sure they can fix you up.”

Johnny put his beer down. “Where is their cabin exactly?”

Keck pointed. “Go north, on the Paso Robles Road, about, oh, mebbe a mile or two. You'll see a small valley open up from the hills, and a path headin' in. Go in that valley. Their cabin is up there in the hills. Look carefully for it, though, ‘cuz it ain't easy to find. Best go in the daytime. It'll be gettin' dark soon. Wanna stay the night here?”

“Maybe. I'll go try to find it first. If I can't, I'll be back.”

Keck nodded. “We'll be here.”

Johnny nodded to the man as he exited the place. Outside, he took scant seconds to observe the coming dusk. He didn't have much time. He grabbed Barranca's reins. “Almost there, amigo ,” he told the horse as he mounted. “Let's go.” He took off to the north.


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

As Johnny left Keck's Corner, Hank Woden turned their wagon into the path going into the small valley leading to their cabin. They could barely see the roof now, up in the hills to the north, and were most anxious to arrive. The horses sensed it, too, picking up speed until they were in front of the cabin.

“Whoa!” Hank hollered to the team. He and his siblings jumped off the wagon, excited and happy to be home. Opal hurried inside to air the place out before it got too cold; they'd been gone for so long she was sure it would be stuffy. Lou started unloading their purchases while Hank unhitched the team and led them to the stables.


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

Johnny found the gap by following the wagon's tracks, a task which grew more difficult with each passing minute; it was growing dark. He slowed Barranca to a walk, not wanting to be seen or heard, and entered the gap, looking in all directions, wary of what he might find.

He smelled it before he saw it: smoke from the chimney. Johnny smiled and pulled Barranca away from the path and into the hills. He dismounted and led the horse to a spot up ahead where he had a good look at the cabin. He watched the brothers finish unloading the wagon, carrying crates and packages into the small one-story cabin.

It was now dark; night fell earlier in the mountains and he knew he'd have to find a place to spend the evening. The small area he was in was ideal for watching the cabin but too close and too small to make camp, but he didn't want to leave until he confirmed that Scott was there. When he was just about to move, he saw the woman emerge from the cabin. She talked to her brothers for a few seconds before they hoisted a rectangular blanketed form out of the wagon. It could be a body, but Johnny couldn't be sure, and he certainly couldn't tell if it was Scott. Reluctantly he left his hiding spot and searched for a good place to camp.

Johnny made a cold camp — no fire — in a spot further into the hills from the cabin.  He was hidden here; it was a small clearing amidst the pine trees on the slopes of the Shale Hills. He unsaddled Barranca and rubbed him down, giving him oats from a feed bag he'd purchased at Cox and Clarke. He refilled the bag twice before giving the animal water from the canvas bag.

He sat on a stump and ate his evening meal: cold beans from a tin and the fresh jerky from the trading post. He wanted coffee, but with no fire, that was impossible. He took a swig from his whiskey bottle and settled down for the night.


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

The hacienda was quiet; everyone had gone to bed, the day had ended. Only Murdoch sat up in the great room, sipping his evening Scotch. He stared into the dying embers of what was left of the fire, not seeing their glow. His mind was lost in thought. Scott and Johnny were out there. His sons. His beloved children he'd not been able to raise, to see growing up, to shape their beings. They'd grown into men without him. He drained his glass.

He couldn't be happier with Scott. His own man, Scott was already making his mark on Lancer. His assistance with the Pardee episode had been invaluable, even though Murdoch had to admit, he'd questioned some of Scott's choices, it all worked out in the end, and they were all better for it. Scott was definitely a Lancer asset.

And how quickly he adapted to Western life! Murdoch knew what it was like in Boston, having lived there a short while himself, and he knew what kind of life Scott must have led there under Harlan Garrett's influence, but his elder son had come to his aid quickly and stayed on after it was over. He was learning the ranch and how it worked and seemed to thrive. Murdoch was pleased.

Scott's heart seemed to be open, like Catherine's had been, as evidenced by his friendship with Johnny Madrid. If there were ever unlikely friends, it was those two. Yet Scott had managed to form those bonds even before he knew Johnny was his brother. It was something his mother could have done. Scott was definitely Catherine's son.

Johnny was still a puzzle to him. He did not know his dark son's motivations. The man hadn't seem to want to be at Lancer, yet stayed on after Scott dismissed him from his services. Johnny certainly hadn't been entreating to him , Murdoch acknowledged, in fact, he was quite the opposite.

Then again, Murdoch hadn't been accepting of Johnny either. In the end, he'd wanted his dark son to change, and to want to change, to become Johnny Lancer and that simply hadn't happened. Murdoch had made it clear Johnny couldn't stay on under those circumstances, forcing Johnny out. That had been a dark day for Murdoch.

Still, Johnny had stayed in the area, working to solve the Pardee mystery. Murdoch shook his head in admiration. Most men would have washed their hands of Murdoch and Lancer, but not Johnny. He did it for Scott, he presumed, certainly not to get in Murdoch's good graces; he didn't seem to care about that. Johnny, too, was his own man.

Murdoch refilled his glass. His sons were not here and he felt their absence. It shook him that in the few short weeks since Scott's arrival and finding about Johnny that he'd grown accustomed to having them around, as much as it bothered him at first about Johnny. He missed them, it was as simple as that.

He was worried about them, too. Scott had been taken; he may be injured or worse. Johnny was on the path to get him. Had he found Scott already? Or had trouble found Johnny? He'd heard nothing, not that he'd expected to, but still, the lack of word bothered him. He couldn't help but be concerned for their welfare. Both of them.

He smiled at that thought, but his smile quickly faltered.

He recalled when they'd found out about the kidnapping, how Johnny hadn't hesitated, hadn't asked permission or even thought about it. Johnny Madrid went after his brother. He'd ridden out on that palomino in the dark, ready to face whatever was out there. The hardened gunfighter was willing to risk it all for another man—for free.

Murdoch had to admire loyalty like that.

The more he learned about Johnny the more he realized that he didn't really know his dark son. His preconceived notions were proving to be wrong, all of them. Johnny wasn't the person he thought he was. In fact, Murdoch now realized, Johnny Madrid was almost exactly the kind of person he had wanted Johnny Lancer to be, minus the prowess with his Colt. He blinked in surprise. That was a notion he'd not considered. Well, well, well, he thought.

He smiled as he sat down his glass.

 

Little Cabin in the Tremblor Hills

Johnny was up shortly after dawn. Not wanting a fire again this morning, he ate jerky washed down with water from his canteen. He fed and watered Barranca. “Be quiet today, amigo ,” he told the horse and left him, making sure he was well-hidden, before heading down the spot where he watched the cabin the previous night.

It was quiet. There were no signs of activity except a smoke wisp from the chimney, so he waited. If the brothers were trappers, then they were mountain men, used to living off the land and probably knew these hills like the back of their hands. He was at a disadvantage and he knew it. The sooner he found out what was going on and acted on it, the better.


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

Duncan stretched and yawned, not wanting to get out of bed. Despite his hot bath the previous afternoon, his legs were still sore. He moved slowly, dressing with care and easing himself down to the tavern for breakfast. It took him more than an hour to leave the trading post and onto El Camino Viejo .

He knew he should hurry, but his body still hadn't recovered from its punishment of being on a horse so much in the past week. He loped the animal toward Avenal Gap for a few miles before dismounting and walking to stretch his legs before repeating the procedure.


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

Scott Lancer tried to open his eyes, they felt heavy and wooden. Forcing himself to do so, he widened them. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. He was in a bed, in a small room, with one small window. It was closed. He was alone.

He tried to sit up, but as soon as he made the effort, his head pounded. Trying to recall, he remembered a voice, a soothing voice, saying all would be well. That was all. He lay back down and closed his eyes again.

A woman came in the room. “I see you woke up again,” she said. Scott turned toward her and looked. She looked a little fuzzy but as his eyes got used to working, she came into focus. She was a little short, with dark, dark hair, tied behind her head. She wore a simple light blue blouse and dark blue skirt. He watched her put a tray down on a rickety table next to the bed.

“I brought you some breakfast. It's not much, but I don't know what your belly can hold. I don't want you throwin' up.”

“Did I do that?” he asked. He couldn't remember.

“No, not yet. But that head wound can cause a body to bring his food back up and we don't want that.” She sat on the bed, smiling.

“What happened?”

The woman cocked her head. “You don't remember? I told you all that already. You fell off your horse. My brother found you on the road. You were out cold. We tried to find you a doctor but there weren't none, so we took you home. My brother left this mornin' to find a doctor somewhere else.” It was all a lie.

“Okay. Where am I?”

She looked around. “This is our cabin. My brother is a trapper. He kills animals and cures their pelts. We sell the furs.”

“Where is this cabin?”

“My, you're full of questions this mornin',” she smiled. “We're in the hills not far from the Rancho Cholame.”

“I don't know where that is.”

“It's okay. When you're stronger you can see for yourself. I have your breakfast.” She lifted the spoon to feed him the gruel. Like before, it was laced with laudanum, but a smaller amount this time. Now that they were home, she wanted him groggy, but not asleep. She needed him awake for her plans to work.


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

Johnny kept watch on the cabin from his nest in the hills. The stillness annoyed him; he wanted to see something, anything. He got a small reward when he noticed the woman leave the cabin and cross the small clearing to the stable area. The brothers came out to see her. They looked unkempt, like they'd just awakened and he wondered if they spent the night with the horses, as unlikely as that sounded. She talked with them for a few minutes before she returned to the cabin, and they to the stables.

He had to find out for sure if Scott was there, but he knew better than act rashly. He waited. If his brother was in that cabin, he'd have to make a plan to get him out, and sooner was preferable to later. He had to calm himself. Patience.


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

Duncan stopped his horse at the Alamo Mocha for a drink. He walked around the cottonwood tree, stretching his legs and back. Already he longed for the day to be over and it was only mid-morning. He put off getting back on the horse for as long as possible.

What in the world was he doing out here in the middle of nowhere? He'd left behind this life years ago for a more sedate existence. He preferred working behind the scenes anyway. He cursed his aching back. He cursed his sore legs. He cursed David Addison.


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

After Scott ate his breakfast the woman left him alone. He tried to sit up again but when he felt queasy, he lay back down. He didn't want to lose what little food he had in him, no matter how bad it tasted. The woman was kind and gentle, but she sure was a lousy cook.

A few minutes later she returned. Scott remembered his manners this time. He introduced himself. “My name is...Scott,” he faltered. It surprised him that he had to work to remember his name.

“Hello, Scott. I am Opal. Opal Woden.” She smiled great big.

“How long have I been here?”

Opal's smile faltered a little. “Again, with the questions. We brought you here last night. We looked for a doctor all day yesterday.” She lied as she fluffed his pillow. “Now, Scott, I want you to stay here, in this here bed, and not move. It won't do your head no good for you to be up and about just yet.” She left the room, closing the door.

From time to time, Opal popped into his room, sometimes arranging his blankets, or sitting to chat. He tried to get information from her about his accident, but she steadfastly clung to her story, repeating it if necessary. He finally gave up. She was always smiling and seemed quite pleasant so he didn't want to upset her.

At lunchtime, she encouraged him to get up and walk to the kitchen. He took a few wobbly steps, leaning against her for support. With her help he made it to the table.

She'd made him a thin broth. It tasted bitter. She said it was from the bitterroot she used. It was a lie; his bowl of soup, like his breakfast, contained a drop of laudanum. Within a few minutes Scott was under its effects. He felt woozy, unfocused.

Not realizing he was drugged, Scott thought he was suffering from a concussion. With that kind of injury, he knew the dangers. He must not exert himself and take it slow and easy. Leaving here would have to wait until he was substantially better. He leaned on Opal to tend his needs.


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

Duncan was starving by the time he reached Keck's Corner; breakfast had been almost five hours ago. He dismounted slowly, not because he wanted to take the time, but because his body protested greatly if he moved any faster. Again he cursed Buck Addison. He shuffled stiffly into the tavern.

Marlin Keck greeted him, “Hello, stranger. How can I help you?” He was thrilled. Two new faces in two days.

“What's for lunch?” Duncan asked, his stomach overriding his need to be polite. He eased himself into a chair. He nearly groaned at the effort.

“Bear stew,” Keck answered. “Mighty good. My wife makes it.” Duncan would have turned his nose up if he wasn't so hungry; he preferred more domestic forms of meat. He nodded his acceptance.

Keck brought him a beer first, and within ten minutes, he placed a steaming bowl in front of Duncan, accompanied by fresh, hot biscuits. “Enjoy!”

The stew was actually quite tasty and Duncan found himself liking it. He would have had seconds had not Mrs. Keck shown up with a large slice of cherry pie. Cherry was his favorite and he downed that quickly. Sated, he sat back on his chair and patted his stomach.

“I see you liked the stew,” Keck asked.

“It was very good. My compliments to your wife.” He looked around. “Nice tavern here. You have rooms?”

“Yes. Three. You're looking to stay? We have vacancies.”

The thought of getting back on that horse so soon definitely had no appeal for Duncan. “I'm saddlesore,” he grinned. “Not used to riding much. I've been in the saddle for two days now.”

“Well, we have the space. And we can get you a nice hot bath. That'll soak the soreness out of you.”

That did it for Duncan. “I'd appreciate that.” He could always ride later. There was plenty of daylight left. “But before I do, I was wondering if you could tell me where I can find the Woden cabin?”

Keck stood up. “Woden again? You're the second one to ask about them. Young fella just last night, right before dark, asked where they were. Wanted to buy a fur. You don't look like the type, though. What's your business with them?”

On the alert now, Duncan sat up. “They were guests at the hotel where I work. We accidentally charged them too much. I came to refund some of their money.”

Keck grinned. “Well, they'll enjoy that. If there's one thing I know about Hank, Lou and Opal, it's that they do like their money.” He told Duncan where the cabin was as he showed him to the bathtub.


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

Johnny had been watching all morning long, but only seeing the woman through the small, dingy windows of the cabin. If Scott was there, he was being kept hidden. He didn't like that. The idea of his brother being a prisoner with a woman keeper could only mean one thing: he was drugged. And that meant he'd have little or no help from Scott when the time came to rescue him.

Finally he saw what he wanted to see, his brother, inside the cabin, being helped by the woman to a chair. He almost laughed in relief, but he quickly sobered, for he noticed a bandage around Scott's head. His brother was injured. That wasn't good.

The Woden brothers kept away from the cabin, staying in or near the stables. Their sister brought food out for them, but only when Scott wasn't visible. Johnny concluded that the woman didn't want Scott to see them. He didn't have a guess why.


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

Later that afternoon, Opal helped Scott go outside so he could look at the mountains. He tried to recognize any landmarks but felt woefully lost. None of these hilltops resembled those at Lancer.

Lancer! He remembered his last name. Feeling a breakthrough, he called to Opal. She came quickly to the cabin's porch where he was. “Do you know my father, Murdoch Lancer?” he asked her.

Opal realized that he was coming out of the influence of the drug, she must be underdosing him. In her desire make him like her, she was letting him become too clear. She offered him some lemonade and spiked it with laudanum. Scott soon unfocused again and she helped him back inside the cabin.


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

When Johnny saw Scott outside he knew he had to act fast. His brother looked as if he hadn't improved all day. Now he was certain she was drugging him. He glared toward the cabin, but anger only made him want to sneak up on the men and slit their throats, and that wouldn't help. He wouldn't find out why they'd taken Scott or who, if anyone, was behind it. No, he had to take them alive if possible. And that would be difficult to do alone.

 

String Theory

Murdoch sat at his desk, trying to concentrate on his ledgers but his mind kept wandering. He worried, more now than he had when his ranch was threatened by Pardee, worried about Scott, about Abby, the baby she carried, about Johnny Madrid. He snorted at that idea. Madrid was more than capable. Not ‘Madrid' he told himself; my son. He was still getting used to that idea. Yes, and he was still worried about him, too. It didn't matter how capable he was.

His mind drifted to the branding iron. Scott correctly thought it important, and took the chance on bringing it to Lancer. Maybe that's what got him kidnapped. Murdoch didn't believe for one minute he was a mere hostage. Aggie had pointed that out to him.

It was the brand that changed the Lancer circle L into whoever's sideways A. And it was a stamp iron. Someone went to a great deal of effort to have a brand made to the exact specifications to make that conversion. This showed time and thought, and, as he'd considered before, that whoever had that brand made, intended on using it many, many times.

Abby and Aggie trouped downstairs. Aggie was bringing a tea tray. “Refreshment?” she asked.

“Of course!” Murdoch beamed, happy for the distraction. He closed his ledgers and rose from his desk, indicating with his arm for the ladies to take the sofa. He sat opposite in a chair.

Aggie served the tea while Abby passed him a small plate of tiny cakes and cookies. When Murdoch looked at her questioningly, she smiled. “I wanted to take my mind off...things. So I did some baking.”

“It looks good,” Murdoch grinned, taking a cookie.

They all settled and began their little repast. Abby replaced her cup in its saucer and looked directly at Murdoch. “Yesterday, after we figured out what Scott's brand did, you acted all mysterious. What did you not tell us?”

Murdoch blanched. He did not want to alarm the women. “Nothing much,” he lied,  taking a bite out of his cookie.

Abby and Aggie exchanged looks. Aggie took up the cause next. “Murdoch, we both know better. We are not children. Tell us what you think.”

Murdoch sighed and sat his cup down. “If you insist,” he began. He relayed his thoughts quietly, so no one else could overhear, telling them everything he thought about Scott's stamp iron and what it might mean.

“So you think we're still in danger from someone like Pardee,” Abby surmised.

Before Murdoch could answer, Aggie piped up: “Maybe it's the person who hired Pardee. Maybe this brand is his. And he's still out there.”

Murdoch nodded. “Could be that too. Could be a lot of things. And given the condition of the brand, maybe it's old. Could be that the threat is already over.”

Aggie laughed. “Now you don't believe that for one minute, do you?”

“I sure don't!” Abby stated. “If all was fine, Scott would be home with me now.”

Murdoch smiled grimly. “I agree completely, Abby. I agree completely.”


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

After their talk with Murdoch, Abby felt a much-needed push, an energy drive she'd not had since learning of her husband's kidnapping. She had to do something constructive, other than baking. She climbed the stairs to oversee the work on the west wing, nodding her approval at the changes. The demolition was almost done, with most of the area gutted. Soon they would be able to begin the harder part, rebuilding the space into a bedroom suite for them and a nursery for the baby.

She also felt a strong confidence in Johnny, that he would bring her Scott home to her, and do so soon. She didn't know where that came from, as just the previous evening she'd been full of questions, but she refused to second-guess herself.

She decided to straighten out their bedroom in anticipation of Scott's return. She had Murdoch and a hand help with moving the furniture around to a more pleasing arrangement. She liked her accomplishments.


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

Buck Addison didn't know what to do. Murdoch Lancer had Scott's luggage from the stage. Had whatever Scott had taken from the Ortega hacienda been inside the bag? Duncan hadn't thought so, and Gilford was more right than wrong, but even he said he couldn't be sure. Buck had to be sure.

But he had no way of learning such a thing, at least, nothing had come to mind since he last talked with Duncan. It wasn't as if he could just go out to Lancer and question Murdoch. And he certainly couldn't go snooping around the hacienda. No, he would have to find another way.

Duncan usually handled these affairs for him but Gilford wasn't there; he was on another mission for him, one of even more importance. He gazed out his window, aimlessly watching the street below. People milled around, walked on the boardwalks, rode through town. Dr. Sam Jenkins entered town in his black buggy.

Jenkins! Now there was a thought. He knew the man was friends with Lancer; they sat on the same pew at church. Maybe the doctor could be manipulated into snooping for him. It would take a master's touch, to persuade Sam Jenkins to do his bidding, but he was confident he could do so.


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

Sam parked his buggy in front of his home. He had one more patient to tend today and he would be done, unless, of course, there was some emergency in the valley. He needed a second doctor in the area and he knew it. One based in Morro Cuyo would be nice. He could take all appointments in that direction, leaving the rest to Sam.

The doctor sighed. It had been a long day. Reed from the S Bar had fallen off his horse and injured himself. Luckily, the youth would recover quickly, but he'd hit his head and needed attention. And he was still treating Miguel Garcia, the man from the stage, for exposure. Mrs. Henderson was looking after him right now.

He grabbed his medical bag and stepped to head inside. “Doc! Doc Jenkins!” someone called. Sam looked toward the sound. It was Buck Addison, angling across the street to meet him. He stopped and waited patiently.

“Mr. Addison,” Sam greeted when Buck came up to him. “What can I do for you today?”

Buck came right to business. “I was wondering how Murdoch Lancer was holding up, with his son Scott being a hostage and all. I was hoping you could let me know.”

“I don't know, Mr. Addison. I haven't seen Murdoch Lancer since the incident. I would assume he's greatly worried, though.”

“Yes, yes. I would think so,” Addison nodded. “I don't suppose you would have time to go check on him this evening? Several of us at the hotel are concerned. He was a patron of my cafe when the stage roared into town.”

Sam sighed tiredly. “I would love to do nothing else, Mr. Addison, however, I've been quite busy today with medical emergencies and I am fairly tired.” Sam had been worried, too, about Murdoch; he'd planned on stopping by the Lancer hacienda but time had not permitted that trip.

“I see. Yes. I know you are a busy man. Are you the only doctor?”

“Yes. For all this area.”

“Well, you need help, my friend!” Addison slapped him on the back. “Say, I have an idea. My doctor in Visalia, Rupert Durant, has a son who just finished medical school back East. He will be looking for a post as soon as he returns to California. Why don't you send a letter to Dr. Durant asking if Cord—that's his son—would like to join your practice?”

Sam brightened. “That's an idea, Mr. Addison. I think I just might do that.” Lord knows another medic would be welcomed.

Addison nodded. “Yes, please do. And, if you can work it into your busy schedule, please drop in on Mr. Lancer tomorrow and inquire as to how he is holding up.”

Sam smiled. “I would love to.”

“Good, good. Well, I have to be running along too, Dr. Jenkins.” Buck took a step away, then turned back. “Oh, and while you're out there, make sure Lancer got all of his son's things from the stage. My man Duncan was missing something out of his own bag that night. He thinks the robbers went through the luggage.”

Sam smiled. “Will do that, Mr. Addison.”

Buck nodded. “Of course.” He turned once more and headed back to his hotel.

“Thanks again,” Sam called back at him. Addison held up a hand in acknowledgement.


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

Sam desperately wanted to go see Murdoch, but he was just too bone tired. After checking in with his patient, Miguel Garcia—who he allowed to go home with instructions to continue resting—he sent Mrs. Henderson to her home so he could enjoy the solitude of his small garden out back. He brought his plate of chicken fricassee with him and sat in his favorite chair, carved from an oak tree that had once shaded his small corral.

It was the cool of the evening, his favorite time of the day, and he allowed himself to relax, to shake the stress of the day away from his bones. Tomorrow, he told himself, he would drive out to Lancer and check on Murdoch. May as well check on Abby, too. The young woman had to be worried sick over her husband. Yep, he sighed, as he sat down his plate, tomorrow. First thing.

 

Confession is Good for the Soul

Duncan spent over two hours enjoying the Keck hospitality and their bathtub. When he finally left, he promised to return as soon as possible. He headed north, to find the valley which hid the Woden cabin.

Wary of the ‘other fella' Keck had mentioned, Duncan rode slowly and cautiously. He did not want to be seen. He had wanted his mission to be quick and clean—go in, kill everyone, come out—but with another person in the mix, he had to be on the lookout.

He found the valley easily enough, but rather than riding down the center of it, he walked his horse on the south side, as close to the hills as possible, taking whatever cover he could find. When he spotted the cabin he stopped, climbed up to the hills, found a place and watched. There was no sign of anyone else there, just the cabin and the smoke from the chimney. He waited.


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

Scott did not realize that he was a prisoner. With the dosages of laudanum, Opal had no trouble controlling him. She fed him just enough information to keep him satisfied, but drugged him enough to keep him from fully awakening. It was all part of her plan to make him hers. The fact that Scott's memory was shaky acted in her favor.

All afternoon she made small advances, showing him just a little more of her body, a little more attention, a little more affection, and watching him carefully for his reactions. So far, he had not seemed put off.

That evening, she decided to make her move. She put on her most provocative blouse, a skin-tight thing in shear snowy white, and left it open to reveal a deep plunge, wearing nothing underneath. If she could get him to make a move on her and have her brothers walk in at just the right time....well, he'd have to marry her, or face her brothers' shotguns like the others.

She'd done this sort of thing a few times before, in her search for a husband. She would select a man who captured her fancy, bring him to their cabin and lead him on to the point where she'd been compromised. At the proper moment one of her brothers would walk in, be alarmed at his sister's “ruin” and would demand either a wedding or a duel. In the other cases, her judgement had been off and the men had not been interested in marriage. They chose to duel, much to their undoing. While it would start out fair, one on one, in reality, the second brother would be hidden and he would fire the death shot. No man made a fool of their sister! Her brothers would bury his body in the woods; no one would ever find it.

Only once had there been a problem with her plan. Hank's timing had been off and her suitor had been able to finish what she started before Hank broke in. After the man's death, she discovered that she carried his child. She tried everything she could to cause a miscarriage and finally had to tell her brothers the truth. They took it in stride, but as soon as the baby was born, Hank disappeared with the tiny thing and came back alone. It was never mentioned again. After that incident, whichever brother who was supposed to interrupt the couple waited outside her bedroom until the perfect moment. They did not want a repeat of before.

She sashayed into his room, making sure Lou was in the hall waiting. Scott was sitting in a chair. “Hello,” he greeted, smiling. He still had that hazy look to him that told her he was still under the influence of laudanum.

“Hello, Scott,” she smiled, trying to act sexy. She bent over to pick up a fallen object and gave him a good view of her cleavage.

But if Scott noticed, he didn't show it. He was too anxious to ask his question. “I wonder if your brother could get a message to my father, Murdoch Lancer, and my wife, Abigail. They are at—”

But that was all Opal heard, for as soon as he uttered the word ‘wife' she froze. Realizing he was married, she knew her plan wouldn't work. Angered, she turned and left his room, slamming the door behind her.

Scott was confused. She'd not acted so aloof before. He started to stand up but felt dizzy. He eased himself back into his chair, wondering what was going on.


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

“What's going on?” Lou whispered, following her down the short hall, his rifle in his right hand. “You left the mark's room before...”

“Hush up, Lou! He ain't a mark. His name is Scott. And he's married! ” Opal burst into tears. She ran into the kitchen and stood over the pump, sobbing.

“Married?” Lou didn't understand. “But did he comp'mise you?”

Opal shook her head, tears still streaming. “He didn't touch me.”

Lou pulled back. He leaned his rifle against the wall. “Well, now what do we do?”

Opal didn't answer. She just stood there crying.

Lou was at a loss. This had never happened before. Opal always had an answer when it came to the mark. Wordlessly, he backed out of the kitchen and silently left the cabin via the back door. Jogging to the barn, he shouted up in the loft. Hank was waiting near the loft window. “It didn't work, Hank. Opal's cryin'. She says the mark's married.”

“Married?!” Hank stood, shaking his head in disbelief. He scampered down the ladder and faced his brother. “What'd she say for us to do?”

“Nothin'.” Lou shook his head. “She didn't say nothin'. She's just cryin'.” He looked down for a minute. “What did Mr. Addison say to do with him?”

Hank shook his head again. “Nothin'. He didn't say nothin' about that.”

“Well, do we kill him?” Killing the man outright didn't sit too well with Lou.

“No, not unless he gives us a reason to,” Hank responded.

“‘K, good,” Lou nodded. “So's we just keep on goin' like we was?”

“Guess so,” Hank shrugged. “Less'en Opal wants us to do sumpin' with him.”


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

Johnny decided to take the men that night, to surprise them in their sleep. He retrieved some supplies from his saddlebags and crept around the rocks and trees until he reached the cabin's stables.

The Woden brothers had used the stables all day so it was a logical place to look for them tonight. He hadn't seen them enter the cabin so he assumed they were sleeping there again.

He got his answer as he poked his ear into the doorway: snoring. Smiling, Johnny eased into the structure, making no sound, getting close to one of the men. Johnny knew it would be tricky, to capture both men by surprise. He held his breath before making his move.

Quickly and quietly he clamped his hand over Hank's mouth. Hank awoke and began to struggle. Johnny hit him with the butt of his Colt. With one out cold, Johnny went to the other and repeated his actions. Lou made a little more noise, but soon he, too, succumbed to Johnny's efforts.

He tied the two men up, their hands behind their backs; he tied their ankles together so they couldn't walk. Lastly, he gagged them both before going to get Barranca. His plan was to throw them over his horse to remove them from the general vicinity of the cabin. He didn't want drag marks in case the sister came looking for them. Once away, he would question them.

Barranca was agreeable and with a few grunts and lots of effort, Johnny soon had the men across the horse's back. He led Barranca out of the stables to his makeshift camp in the hills. There he unceremoniously dumped both men to the ground, leaning them against rocks for support.

Johnny surveyed the two men. Hank, the older, was bigger and taller. Lou seemed small by comparison. Surmising that the small one was the weaker, Johnny pulled Lou up by his collar, the action rousing the man.

“I want information and you are going to tell me.” He slammed Lou's back against the rock. Holding him up, Johnny ordered him, “You are going to tell me why you kidnapped that man in the cabin.”

Lou shook his head, terrified.

Johnny smiled, a humorless, almost dead smile. He dropped Lou and stepped to Hank. “Then your brother here will die.” He slipped his knife to Hank's throat.

Lou whimpered, getting Johnny's attention. “Well?” he asked. “Are you going to talk?” Lou nodded frantically this time, his eyes wide. Smiling evilly, Johnny left Hank, still out cold. He crossed over to the younger brother and ripped down his gag. “Who hired you?”

Scared beyond belief, Lou could only tremble.

Johnny's open hand tore at Lou's face, slapping him so hard blood spurted from his lip. “Answer me!” He demanded, hitting Lou again, a backhand to his other ear. Lou cringed, falling to the ground. Johnny went to strike again.

Lou turned his head away, anticipating the blow. “We weren't paid to do it,” he cried.

Startled, Johnny stopped. He propped Lou back up again. “What do you mean? You kidnapped a man for fun?”

“No. No. We had to. We would have gone to jail.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow. “What sheriff would threaten you with jail time to make you commit a crime?”

“T'weren't no sheriff. The hotel man.” Lou heaved.

Johnny backed off. Clearly there was more to the story. “Tell me everything,” he ordered.


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

Duncan grew tired of waiting and watching. It was well after dark and he'd seen nothing to indicate the cabin or its vicinity was inhabited except wispy smoke from the chimney. Since he'd been here no one had come in or go out. He was restless and anxious to see some other sign of life.

He longed for the comfort of that soft, warm bed promised at Keck's, but he was determined, now that he'd arrived at the cabin, to finish this job as quickly as possible, to get it over with, so he wrapped himself up in his blanket and resumed his watching.

A few minutes later, he got a reward. Someone crept toward the cabin's stables. He perked, trying to figure out who it could be, but in the dark it was impossible to recognize anyone. All he could tell was that it was a man. He stood, considering following him but rethought it and crouched back down, concluding that this man probably may be that ‘young fella' Keck had mentioned and not one of the Woden brothers.

A few minutes later, he was again rewarded with another look at the intruder. He watched as the man left the stables, heading for the hills then returned quickly with a light-colored horse. Intrigued, he waited. What was going on?

Duncan saw the man return shortly with two bodies laid over the horse's back and he startled. Had this man killed the brothers? He smiled; if that's what happened, half his job was done. He needed to be certain, though. Duncan left his perch and headed in the direction the other man was going, making sure not to make any sounds or quick moves lest he be seen or heard. Stealth was important, because if this ‘young fella' wasn't inadvertently helping him, he needed to remain hidden.

Duncan lost him in the trees. He waited, trying to hear where they had gone, but he was not a tracker, so he waited, not wanting to risk disclosure. Soon he heard voices, but couldn't figure out what was said until he distinctly heard someone say “Answer me!” rather angrily.

Feeling it safe, Duncan crept forward, toward the sound, until he was able to hear them clearly and even sneak a peek on occasion. When he did, he almost audibly gasped, for someone was spilling the beans about the robbery and Scott Lancer's kidnapping. Now he knew he had a fifth man to kill.

 

Rescue Me

Johnny was stunned. He wasn't sure Lou Woden was telling the truth. It seemed so unlikely. Big businessman Buck Addison was behind Scott's kidnapping? It didn't make sense. “Why?” he asked his prisoner.

Lou shrugged. “Don't know. He didn't say. Just said if we didn't wanna go to jail to do that.”

“And then what? What about after you took the hostages?”

“To get Lancer and...” Lou stopped.

“And what?”

“Nothin'. He didn't say to do nothin' else.”

“You're lying,” Johnny accused.

“I ain't lyin'! I ain't stupid enough to lie to Johnny Madrid.” Lou may not have been around that much, but he knew enough to identify the gunfighter when he saw him.

Unsurprised at being recognized, Johnny shook his head, trying to wrap his brain around this information. None of it made sense. A successful businessman like Buck Addison didn't just order three mountain ne'er-do-wells to commit a stage robbery, kidnap a prominent citizen and keep him hostage. And, on top of that, to have no definite plan in place for afterwards. No, there had to be something else, something that this trapper knew nothing about. What he'd been told simply wasn't logical.

Johnny knew he had to get Scott away and back to Lancer, but he also needed to bring these three to justice, particularly if Addison was involved. It would not be easy, making the trek back with three prisoners, one of them a woman. He would need Scott's help, so his brother would have to recover quickly, but first, he had to secure these two for travel.

He checked their bindings, making sure they wouldn't get away and re-gagged Lou. For good measure, he removed their boots, making it more difficult for them to walk should they escape. Now all he had to worry about was Scott, the girl, and getting them all in that wagon and that long way home.

A tall order.


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

Duncan startled. The stranger was Johnny Madrid. Johnny Madrid!

The notorious gunfighter had been in Green River the night the stage ran in, Duncan remembered now. Murdoch Lancer must have hired him then to go after the Woden siblings.

He gulped. While he was capable of the task he'd been given, he was no gunman. Johnny Madrid was a professional, cold and ruthless. He knew Madrid was way out of his league. If he needed any proof, there was that failed ambush where Madrid took out two of his men and ran off a third, getting away clear. He paused, taking several deep breaths.

He knew he was incapable of taking Johnny Madrid straight on. He'd have to rely on another ambush. But where? These hills provided some cover, but there wasn't enough space to trap them in; they could easily get away and if they did, they had the entire v-shaped Antelope Valley to escape in. He thought of the way back to Green River. He hadn't noticed that hills were really good enough, nor provided enough cover for an effective ambush. He couldn't rely on that. He'd have to make his move at night or make none at all. And that meant tonight.

Duncan considered abandoning his mission completely, turning tail and riding back to Green River as fast as possible. Dan Logan had done that and Addison had killed him for it. He didn't want to face his boss with a similar failure on his part. The man was too volatile. No, he'd have to ride ahead, as fast as possible, and try to find a suitable place.


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

Johnny returned to the cabin's stables. Quickly and quietly, he hitched up the Woden team, apologizing to them for disturbing their well-earned rest. He supplied the wagon with feed for the horses, taking extra for Barranca. He lugged the brothers back and dragged them into the wagon's bed; securing Lou because he was still awake. With that ready, the next part would be tricky: to get Scott out of the cabin and capture the girl.

Johnny hadn't had to deal with many feminine enemies in the past; usually the women he encountered were either victims or those willing to help him for some reason of the other, but he knew this woman would resist him. He'd have to fight her, and as distasteful as he found that, he knew he had to do it.

He crept over to the cabin's front door, easing it open, half-expecting it to creak. It didn't. One little bit of good luck. He'd need a lot more. He glanced around before slipping further inside.

The small cabin was divided in half, with a living area and kitchen to his left and bedrooms to his right down a short hall. He crept down the hall, seeing only two bedroom doors; both were closed.

Johnny listened at the first door he came to, the one on the left. He heard soft breathing sounds, but was unable to determine if they were masculine or feminine. He moved to the other door and listened there. Still unable to tell—not that he expected to, but it would have made his job easier—he turned the knob and opened the door.

Inside he found a form sleeping on the bed, a woman's form, shown by the moonlight streaming from the window. Johnny smiled grimly. This was the one he wanted. In two quick steps, Johnny was at her face, holding her mouth and pulling her up and out of the bed. She fought him, grabbing at his wrist with her hands, pulling at him with her fingers, but he was too strong. She finally quit, exhausted from her efforts. Johnny released her, pushing her away.

“Get dressed. Quietly. Quickly. Your brothers are knocked out, tied up and gagged. If you want to be treated like them, resist me.” He smiled wickedly. “I will watch.”

Opal's fright turned to anger. She snarled at him. “I bet you will!” She turned her back to him and began to change, jerking at ribbons, pulling at buttons.

Grinning, Johnny crossed his arms and chuckled at her antics, but he did not afford her modesty; she was too dangerous. When he'd had enough of her delaying, he grabbed her arms. “Let's go!”

“I'm not finished dressing!” she protested. It was true. Her bodice gaped open, revealing the soft white mounds of her breasts.

Johnny purposely leered, prompting another snarl. He smiled wickedly. “Then you'd better finish—before I decide that you are.”

“You're horrible!”

“You'd better remember that.” He continued watching while her fingers fumbled. A minute later he stopped her. “You're done enough.” Her bodice was still open, but at least most of her was covered. He pulled her arms behind her.

“You promised you wouldn't do that!” she cried.

“No, I did not promise,” he stated, tearing off a long strip for her gag. “I want you quiet, I said.”

“Who are you?” she managed to growl out as he applied the gag. He didn't answer.


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

Awakened by the sounds of the scuffle in the next room, Scott took a moment to clear his head before rising. Someone was attacking Opal! He rushed to his door, pausing for a second to look for something to use as a weapon. Finding nothing, he ran to the other door anyway, jerking it open.

He stood there for a few seconds as he recognized his brother. “Johnny! What are you doing?” he cried. Johnny was gagging Opal with a strip of cloth. He'd already tied her hands behind her back.

Johnny glanced up at Scott and smiled. “Getting you out of here, Scott.”

“Well, there's no need for that ,” he pointed to her binds.

“Oh, yes, Scott there is. And you'd realize it if you weren't still injured.” Johnny paused, assessing his brother in the moonlight. The bandage that had been around his head was missing. He didn't seem to be hurt. “Or, are you?”

“Am I what?” Scott was still angry at Opal's mistreatment. “Release her immediately, Johnny.”

“No, I'm afraid I can't do that. Are you hurt? You don't look like it now.”

Opal struggled. The last thing she wanted was a clear-headed Scott.

“I said, release her,” Scott took a step forward.

“Scott,” Johnny held out his hand, stopping the blond. “Pay attention to yourself. How do you feel, right now?'

Scott paused. He didn't like what his brother had done to the girl, but he gave the gunfighter the benefit of the doubt. He assessed his body. “I feel fine,” he stated.

“Good. Then you weren't really injured at all.” He spun Opal around. “What were you doing? Dosing him?” To Scott, he asked, “Was she giving you food and drink regularly? Did it taste bitter?” Johnny had an idea.

Scott startled. “Uh, yeah. But she was feeding me broth, made from bitterroot, so of course, it would taste bad.”

“Wait here,” he told Scott. “Don't touch her.” He shoved Opal in a chair and brushed passed his brother on his way to the kitchen. As soon as he left, Opal pleaded with Scott with her eyes.

Scott was torn. His brother, who he trusted, had grossly mistreated a woman he had grown to trust. She wanted his help now against Johnny. He wasn't sure what to do.

Before he had decided, Johnny re-entered the room, holding a bottle. He shoved it into his brother's hands. “This is what she was giving you, Scott. Laudanum. It tastes bitter. It's a painkiller and it makes you foggy and unfocused.”

“I know what Laudanum is, Johnny.” Scott examined the bottle. Still confused, he frowned at Opal, his eyes questioning. She dropped her eyes.

“She's been dosing you, Scott. Keeping you knocked out or controlled. She and her brothers robbed that stage and kidnapped you. On orders. We have to get you out of here. Now.” Johnny didn't know what the rest of Addison's plan was, if he even had one, but he didn't like being vulnerable up here in the mountains.

Realization dawned on Scott. His face grew stormy. He took an angry step toward Opal. “Why you—”

Johnny stopped him, blocking with his body. “They'll be time for that later. We need to get going. We'll take them with us, back to justice in Green River.”

Opal struggled harder. She did not want to go there. Johnny clamped down on her. “Stop moving. I don't like hitting a woman but I will if I have to. Or,” he held up the Laudanum, “I'll give you some of this!”

Opal froze. She shook her head rapidly.

“Thought so.” He pocketed the bottle. “This might come in handy.” He grabbed her and roughly pulled her up, pushing her in Scott's direction. “Go get some clothes on, Scott. We're going back to Lancer.”

Scott needed no second invitation. He bolted out of Opal's room.

 

The Escape Clause

Duncan led his horse out of the small valley. While he was in a hurry, he wanted to make as little noise as possible. It wouldn't do for him to be seen or heard.

When he reached the larger Antelope Valley, he mounted quickly and encouraged the animal to a trot, increasing speed the further away he got from the Woden cabin.

Bypassing Keck's tavern that he promised to return, he rode straight east, toward the Point of Rocks, intending on meeting up with El Camino Viejo as soon as possible. The farther he was away from the Woden cabin when Madrid started his trip to Green River, the better.

Desperation is a great motivator. Duncan didn't even feel his soreness in the saddle as he rode through the night. His only goal was the sandstone hills in the distance. If he could only make them before Madrid was on his way. He didn't want to be seen.


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

It didn't take long to get Opal in the bed of the wagon with her brothers. He found the money and goods they stole from the stage and tossed them in a crate in the wagon along with the siblings. Scott drove and Johnny rode point on Barranca. They traveled at a moderate pace, far slower than Johnny had ridden on the way coming, but faster than a walk. It was just as well. Neither man wanted the Wodens to work their way loose. Hank was still out, but he wouldn't stay that way much longer.

Still, they were on their way. Scott felt relief, that heavy fog of Laudanum continued lifting and he could think more clearly with each passing minute. If only he could remember all that had happened. His last memory was of Abby, and he wasn't even sure it was real. Well, that would come, he thought. He couldn't wait to see his wife. He hoped she hadn't worried too much. It wouldn't be good for the baby.

Scott blinked. The baby! He smiled, remembering their coming bundle of joy. Yes, it was returning to him. He must have really hit his head to forget that. He'd better not tell Abby; she'd probably be mad. He tried to concentrate on other things, trying to remember.

Johnny only wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. The sooner he was back at Lancer the better. He wanted to get these three jokers in Murdoch's guardhouse and all the stolen evidence in the hands of...of whom? He didn't know, but he wasn't comfortable with it all on him.

This role as a bringer of justice was new to him. Sure, he'd done rescue jobs before, but they'd only involved returning the captive or horse or whatever had been taken. This time he was not only returning Scott but his kidnappers and their stolen loot back, with the purpose of righting the wrong in the eyes of the law. The responsibilities weighed heavy.

They headed out into the Antelope Valley, bypassing Keck's Corner like Duncan had. It was late anyway. Both Scott and Johnny wanted to be on the road. Johnny knew that as soon as they joined up with El Camino Viejo the wagon would ride smoother and they could go faster, keeping it still safe for the animals.


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

Duncan joined El Camino Viejo just before he reached the Point of Rocks and followed it across those low sandstone hills. In a hurry, he didn't stop for water at Las Tinajas de Los Indios . He slowed his horse and looked around the valley called Devil's Den. Surrounded on nearly all four sides by hills, it looked like a good spot. The broad Wagon Wheel Hill was to straight ahead, behind him were the Point of Rocks sandstone heights, and to the north, a few lower hills. None appealed to him, though. He kept on, looking for the right-sized hill.

This was the best area and he knew it. Beyond Devil's Den lay the broad Kettleman Plain. It would be impossible to hold an ambush there. His next chance was in the Avenal Gap; Duncan didn't want to wait that long.

He was riding out of Devil's Den when he saw it: Emigrant Hill, the southernmost of the Pyramid Hills. It was low enough to climb easily and he could stash his horse on its north end for a quick escape if he needed it. Madrid had no choice but to ride right under it. He smiled. It was perfect.

Hoping he had time, he skimmed off some of the tar at the Aquaje de La Brea watering hole for his horse.


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

Scott slapped the reins once they found El Camino Viejo . The surge caused the Woden siblings to be jostled a little in the back. All three were awake and none were in the best of moods. Johnny dropped back to check on them but had no sympathy to offer. They'd have to just suffer. As long as they didn't free themselves he didn't much care about them. They'd done enough to Scott. They needed a little payback.


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

With his horse's thirst slated, Duncan led him to the north side of Emigrant Hill and staked him, feeding him oats from his upturned hat. He wanted the animal to be well-rested and ready, should he need him for a fast escape.

Duncan grabbed his rifle from its boot and began the climb up the 750-foot-high hill. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't too hard, either; the moon was out. He reached the summit and found it nearly flat and bare, rising to a crown at the south end. He lay prone on the ground, as close to the southern edge as he thought safe. He waited.


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

It was after midnight when Johnny and Scott crossed the sandstone hills into Devil's Den. Once in that tiny valley, Scott again increased the wagon's speed. He was going home. Johnny looked around in the moonlight; seeing nothing, he smiled to his brother. Johnny nodded back to him, unspoken communication of gratitude and acceptance.


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

Duncan saw the wagon once it made the crossing over the Point of Rocks. He drew a sharp breath; his heart raced. They were getting close! He gritted his teeth.

Madrid was riding a palomino; Scott Lancer was driving the wagon. He watched as Scott hurried the wagon along the valley floor, apparently unaware of his presence.

Scott Lancer wasn't his main concern, however. It was Johnny Madrid he feared. He watched the gunman lope beside the wagon and wondered if Madrid could sense him. He waited, watching, looking for any sign that Madrid had an inkling he was there. The wagon crossed the valley and, to Duncan's surprise and delight, Madrid rode along, as if nothing was amiss.

Duncan lay on his blanket, knowing he'd only have one chance, one shot, at the palomino's rider. If he missed, Madrid would certainly return fire—fast, furiously and accurately. He may not survive the counterattack. Surprise was on his side, however, and Duncan was good enough with a rifle to make a moonlight shot at a lone, unsuspecting rider.


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

Scott continued pushing the horses across Devil's Den. They neared Aquaje de La Brea at the foot of Emigrant Hill and he turned to ask his brother about the black pond when he heard it.

A single rifle shot.

 

On Top of Emigrant Hill

The rifle report shattered the night's silence. Startled, the horses bolted, jostling Scott down onto the wagon's floorboards and leaving the spooked team fleeing out of control at full speed.

Scott cursed as he bounced, trying to get back in the driver's seat and grasping the reins at the same time. It wasn't working. He'd have to do one or the other first. Deciding it was more important to get control of the horses, he made a play for the reins.

The ground was rougher than it looked and the blond had a tough time gathering both of the reins but he finally did. Now all was left was to get control. The horses were full into their run and showed no signs of wanting to stop. Scott finally plopped on the seat and began to work to slow the animals.


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

The humidity was low and Johnny had heard the crack of the rifle. He instinctively jerked his head down, a split-second before he felt its impact into his hat. He threw himself off Barranca and scampered to the foot of Emigrant Hill. Someone was on top of the hill taking potshots at them!

Johnny assessed his location. It wasn't nearly safe enough. The hill's slope on this southern side was too gradual, he couldn't be sure he was unseen. He maneuvered around toward the west and found a fold, created by erosion. The slope here was more vertical and Johnny was able to stand, his back to the hill, safe from any more gunfire.

This was no potshot, he realized as soon as he made it to safety. His hat sported two holes in a direct line. If he hadn't had that minuscule warning, he'd be dead. This shooter was good, very good, even in the dark. He stood against the slope, his pistol drawn, breathing hard and fast, knowing he had to do something or he'd be pinned down all night.

Johnny was getting damned tired of this. Only a few days ago he was in a similar situation for hours and he didn't want to go through that again, particularly when he had prisoners to contend with. He quickly tried to think of a plan.

Scott was away with the wagon; he had his hands full with a runaway team and the Woden family in the back. He would't be able to help. Barranca had scattered, too. Johnny didn't see him; besides, he didn't want to risk the horse being shot by whistling for him just yet.

He waited, standing near the fold of the hill, for inspiration.


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

Duncan got off his shot and ducked down, fearing Madrid's return fire. He wasn't completely certain if he'd gotten the gunfighter or not. He heard the rumble of the wagon fade into the distance and figured Scott Lancer had urged the horses forward to get away. He listened for gunshots.

His heart pounded as he lay on the ground, waiting. He heard nothing to indicate that Madrid was alive or dead, but he continued to listen. Finally, he decided to take a chance. He poked his head up for a quick look-see.


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

Johnny realized that his only option was to climb up there and confront their attacker. He couldn't stay where he was and he knew whoever was up there wouldn't come down to him.

He hated climbing a strange hill in the dark, but the moon was already out and it provided decent enough light. He'd have to be extra careful, though. He pushed away from the hill to survey a path. He saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and raised his Colt, firing two shots.


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

Duncan ducked quickly as two bullets ricocheted off the ground near his head. Madrid was firing back! Gilford cursed; he'd missed! He'd blown his only chance.

Now concerned for his life, Duncan realized he'd made a colossal mistake. He'd die up here on top of this small hill in the middle of nowhere unless he climbed down and made a run for it. He backed away from the edge, keeping low to the ground to stay hidden. When he was far enough away from the edge to stand, he made a run to the north side of the hill and headed down for his horse, half sliding down it's grassy slope feet first. The animal had enjoyed a little rest, thankfully. Duncan knew he'd have to rely on speed to get away cleanly.


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

Johnny holstered his Colt and hurried from the safety of his fold to a more gradual slope to the east. He began his climb, wanting to come up to the top behind the shooter. He scampered on all fours to remain hidden.

He finally neared the summit, but waited to poke his head for a peek. He listened. He heard Scott yell in the distance and some muffled hooves; they faded away. Silently withdrawing his Colt, Johnny took a look, raising his head just high enough to see the top. It was vacant. Whoever had been here was gone. Johnny crawled onto the crest and stood, lowered his gun arm and walked around. He looked down toward the north and saw a rider hurrying away, west of the Pyramid Hills, heading toward Sunflower Valley, west of the Kettleman Plain.

Johnny cursed and holstered his Colt.

 

The Road Less Traveled

Scott Lancer was angry, angry enough to spit nails. He'd let the wagon get away from him and then took what he thought was forever to get control again. He finally stopped the team, but they'd ridden hard for at least a mile or two. Johnny was too far away now. Scott couldn't help his brother.  He had to concern himself with the wagon and its occupants.

The hard gallop had jostled the Woden siblings from their secure spots. He now had the difficult job of getting them back into place all by himself. Hank Woden decided the odds were in his favor and made a play for it but all he got for his efforts was Scott's fist on his face. He fell backwards, stunned. Scott was in no mood for their antics. With Hank subdued, Lou and Opal submitted with only grumblings.

With his charges under control, Scott turned the exhausted horses around and walked them back toward Emigrant Hill. He saw Johnny riding to meet him and breathed a sigh of relief that his brother seemed all right, but was he? Johnny had the annoying habit of disguising his weaknesses.

¡Hola! ” Johnny called as they neared each other. “Glad to see you're all right.”

“Same here,” Scott answered back, pulling the wagon up to his brother's palomino. “What happened? Did you get the guy?”

“Nope,” Johnny shook his head. “Whoever he was, he skedaddled off the top of that hill before I was able to climb up. I saw him ride north, going toward that valley on the other side of these hills.” Johnny pointed toward the Pyramid Hills. “We should get out of here in case he comes back. I don't like the idea of an enemy so close.”

“Me neither, but these horses have had it. They had a long, hard all-out run. If we push them now, we'll never make it with them. We have no choice but to take it easy.”

“Damn!” Johnny cursed, taking off his hat and swiping his thigh with it for emphasis. “If he comes back...”

“We'll be on the lookout,” Scott finished the sentence grimly. “I have a rifle up here. I'll watch.”

“You can't watch and drive, Scott. I'll tie Barranca to the wagon and drive. You ride shotgun. You're better with a rifle anyway.”

Scott nodded. He jumped down off the wagon and they wrestled with the small barrel of water Johnny had put in the wagon, bringing it to the horses so they could drink. They were thirsty after their run. It was much lighter putting it back on.

With the passengers and goods all re-settled, they both climbed onto the seat. Johnny slapped the reins on the team's back. They started forward, at a walk, with Barranca following behind, tied to the wagon. Scott, rifle in hand, swept his eyes eastward, scanning the Pyramid Hills and its tiny gaps, searching for anything to indicate their ambusher had come back.


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

Duncan rode along the western edge of the Pyramid Hills in an effort to put as many miles between himself and Johnny Madrid as possible. By now the gunfighter would have noticed he escaped, and may have an idea where he was. He didn't care; he just wanted to get away.

He considered himself lucky to have evaded Madrid's wrath. He'd taken his shot and missed, although he wondered how. The moon had been bright and he was so close. Johnny Madrid's sixth sense must have been working overtime tonight for him to avoid that bullet.

His horse kicked up dust as he rode northward. He knew Madrid and Scott Lancer would be heading the same direction, on the other side of these pyramid-shaped hills. He just hoped he was ahead of them.

Duncan paused to scan for them at Dagany Gap, a small break in the Pyramid Hills which opened into the Kettleman Plain. This was dangerous, because if he wasn't far enough ahead of Madrid and Lancer, they'd soon stop here at Alamo Solo , the old spring named after the single cottonwood tree he now saw.

He dismounted, his horse blowing from his ride, and approached the tree. Looking southward, he saw nothing and wondered if Madrid and Lancer could have already passed by here. Taking a chance, he led his horse to the watering hole for a quick drink.

El Camino Viejo split here: the Eastern arm angled across the width of the Kettleman Plain toward the Cox and Clarke Trading Post; the main road headed north, bisecting the Plain. He kept his eyes southward, looking for any sign of the wagon in the moonlight. Finding none, he grew braver and mounted his horse, trotting him eastward, looking in both directions for his nemeses.

Seeing no evidence of Madrid or Lancer or their wagon, Duncan urged his horse into a lope, taking it as easy as possible on the tiring animal. He planned to stop for a longer rest period at the next spring, Alamo Mocho in the Avenal Gap, hoping he'd have no trouble.


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

Scott perused the area as Johnny guided the wagon through the Kettleman Plain, following El Camino Viejo north. He glanced at their prisoners as they tried to shift around in the wagon to find a more comfortable spot to be. Johnny noticed their movements, too, and turned a more watchful eye on them as he drove, making sure they did not adjust themselves to the point where they would be in a position to untie each other. They kept quiet, a fact which Johnny appreciated. He didn't care to hear their whining.

They headed north, looking for Alamo Solo at Dagany Gap. The tired horses walked on the road in the darkness, creating the familiar clip-clop and occasional snorting or blowing sounds. The wagon creaked from time to time. They heard few other sounds, save one of the Wodens maneuver around or try to complain. Scott kept a lid on them and Johnny smiled at his brother for doing so.


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

Duncan dismounted at Alamo Mocho , allowing his horse to drink his fill at the old spring. He was anxious to get going, even though it was nearly two in the morning, but he allowed the animal his rest. He was tired, too, but not willing to take the time for sleep, not when he didn't know Madrid's whereabouts.

Duncan hadn't noticed them behind him on the road, and by now he knew they weren't ahead. He didn't want to take the time to look back, only wanting to put as many fast miles between him and them before finding a place to sleep. He figured they would sleep on the road at some point, but he wanted to find a safe spot for him first.

He climbed back into the saddle and spurred his mount on, angling toward Cox and Clarke. He couldn't wait to get there.


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

“Where to?” Scott asked when they paused to water the horses at Alamo Solo . El Camino Viejo diverged at this juncture. He pointed to the road's fork.

“Depends on where you want to go, Scott: Green River or Lancer,” Johnny explained, his voice intentionally low. He didn't want any of their prisoners to overhear. “If we turn east, we can go back the way we came: the trading post,  the ferry then Green River once we land. According to that map I saw at the tavern not far from the Woden cabin, if we go north from here, we'll ride through the Kettleman Plain, coming out of the hills just north of the Lancer Hacienda, I think.”

“You think?”

“I haven't ridden that part of El Camino Viejo before, Scott. I was following the Wodens. They took the eastward route.”

“Which would you prefer?”

“I want to go to Lancer. I trust Murdoch Lancer more than just about anyone else in Green River, except Dr. Sam Jenkins and, well, I never told you before, but one of the Woden brothers—the short one—told me it was that hotel owner, Buck Addison, who was behind your kidnapping. Now, I'm not sure I believe that, but if it's true, I'd rather avoid his town, if you know what I mean.”

Scott's mouth dropped. “Addison! Now I remember.” He pulled Johnny farther away from the wagon. “Addison was the man who bought the Ortega Ranch in Visalia, the hacienda where the grey stallion was kept.”

Johnny nodded. It was beginning to make a little sense now. “So, Addison could have been behind all of Lancer's troubles.”

“Sounds like it. And now behind this.” He gestured toward the wagon.

“Okay. Lancer it is. Murdoch can put these three yah-hoos in the guardhouse until the army arrives.”

“Good idea,” Scott beamed. He slapped Johnny's arm.

Johnny yawned, shaking his head.

“Let's make camp,” Scott suggested. He'd seen his brother trying to rouse himself. “It's quite late.”

“What about those three?” He pointed to the wagon. The Woden siblings had already fallen asleep, leaning against or lying down in the wagon.

“I'll keep watch. You sleep. I slept a lot today anyway.”

Johnny nodded his agreement. He grabbed his bedroll and lay it under the wagon. Scott tended to the animals. He unhitched the team, staking them out along with Barranca. He built a fire and made coffee, preparing himself for the night's vigil.


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

An exhausted Duncan rode into the trading post community about half-past three in the morning. In a bid to hurry, he had briefly considered skirting the little hamlet and avoiding its temptations, but his body and horse needed rest. He checked in the tavern, waking its owner, before bunking his horse in the livery. He left the animal and immediately trodded upstairs to his room. He was asleep seconds after falling onto the bed, fully dressed, too tired to care if Madrid caught up with him or not.

 

El Camino Viejo

Scott awoke Johnny as the first lights of dawn turned the tips of the western mountains pink. It was a beautiful sight, but he didn't have the time to admire it. He'd made fresh coffee and fried up some of the Woden's beans and bacon. It would have to do for breakfast.

Johnny roused sleepily. It had been a short night. He headed for the spring to wash up. The cold water helped to revive him. When he returned, Scott had a hot mug of coffee for him. “ Gracias ,” he smiled briefly before sipping the scalding drink. It jolted him fully awake. The two of them ate quickly before Johnny went to the prisoners while Scott tended the animals.

“Okay, woman. You first,” he ordered gruffly, waking Opal. “The spring. Now.”

Opal sleepily rubbed her eyes. Johnny sighed, having no patience with the woman who drugged his brother. He poked her again. “Up!”

Startled, she sat up, focused on Johnny and, seeing his scowl, stared one back. “I'm up, I'm up,” she protested as she tried to rise. “Untie me,” she demanded, turning her back to him.

Johnny slipped off her bindings and she rubbed her wrists and stretched her arms. She scampered out of the wagon. “I need to go alone to do my womanly duties,” she said, adjusting her dress.

“Nope.” Johnny shook his head.

Opal pouted a few seconds. “Then Scott can take me. I trust him to allow me my modesty.”

“Nope. It's either me or you can skip it.”

Opal threw him a hard glare before stomping toward the water.

At the spring, Johnny made a point never to take his eyes off her, at least while she was looking. He wanted her as uncomfortable as possible, and to think him capable of anything. He needed her compliance. They had a long trip ahead. Opal seemed to be the defiant type and if he could keep her under control, the rest would fall into line. He hoped.


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

While washing up, Opal had an idea. She'd seen the leer her oppressor had given her back in the cabin when she wasn't completely dressed. Perhaps if she loosened her bodice a bit she could distract him enough for her brothers to do something, anything, to try to get away. She smiled wickedly as she unbuttoned, opening herself to a scandalous plunge. Maybe if she wriggled just right, she might give him a glimpse of a nipple. That would surely get his attention.


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

Once Opal finished her ministrations, she stood, looking straight at Johnny. His eyes dropped to the view she was displaying and he smiled. So, she now wanted to play that game, he thought. If that's the way she wanted it...

Johnny grabbed her by the arm, jostling her to the side and by coincidence, opening her gaping bodice a little more. He easily had a view of whatever he wanted to see, but it wasn't his attention she'd get. He planned to turn the tables on her. He'd position her in the wagon to where she was giving a grand show to everyone who passed them. She deserved that.

He led her back to camp. She protested all the way. Scott watched over her, noticing the change in her clothing but said nothing. He figured that was between her and Johnny. If they wanted to play with fire like that, it was their business.

She ate breakfast while Johnny allowed her brothers their morning ritual, but for them, he drew his gun. He wanted them to know he was in complete control. They spoke in low tones and kept giving him furtive glances. Johnny didn't like it. “Shut up, you two. Hurry up!” Lou, the younger brother, showed fear and quickened his movements. Hank scowled and continued at his usual pace. Johnny realized he could be a problem, too.

When they returned to Scott's camp, Hank and Lou saw Opal and smiled at each other, realizing what she was trying to do. They were on the alert now, looking for any chance either Scott or Madrid would become distracted. Empowered, they considered that their fate wasn't sealed yet. Even the notorious Johnny Madrid wasn't immune to a woman's charms.


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

Scott and Johnny successfully ignored Opal's display, causing the Woden siblings disappointment. When they finished the small repast the blond had prepared, Johnny momentarily vanished behind the wagon.

He fished through his saddlebags finding the bottle of whiskey he'd purchased at Cox and Clarke and opened it. He opened the brown bottle of laudanum he'd taken from the Woden cabin and mixed the two liquids, frowning in dismay at ruining the whiskey. It couldn't be helped, he sighed. He packed the laudanum away and returned to their camp.

“Whiskey in your coffee?” Johnny offered the Woden brothers, shaking the bottle. Realizing his sister's ploy hadn't worked, Lou nodded eagerly, even though it was early morning. Hank gave him a look but help up his cup anyway; he hoped being this close to Johnny would afford him a chance to attack should Johnny take a look at Opal. Johnny poured equal measures into their cups, not paying Opal's open bodice the slightest attention. The brothers drank the spiked coffee quickly, not complaining about the bitterness from the laudanum. Scott led them back to the wagon and tied them up in opposite corners.

“Don't I get a sip?” she snarled.

“Nope,” Johnny casually replied. “You're gonna be tied up real good.”

“Why are you so mean?”

Johnny glared, then dropped his eyes pointedly to her wide open bodice. He smiled wickedly as he tightened the ropes on her.


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

Abby awoke early and stretched, raising her arms into the air. The dawn was just now turning the mountain tops pink and she reveled in the beauty of it. She felt good, energetic and mysteriously happy, as if she knew something good would happen today.

Yesterday had started melancholy but ended well. Now, the new day brought her more hope. She just knew today would be a good day. She hurried with her morning toilette.


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

The light filtered through the curtains in Duncan's room as he struggled to stay asleep. It had been too short of a night, filled with a wild escape with the constant fear that he would be caught by Johnny Madrid. He startled at that thought and bolted upright, no longer sleepy. What if Madrid had caught up during the night while he slept? Unable to bear that thought, Duncan hurried to dress and ready his horse.

He ate a quick breakfast in the tavern, keeping an eye out for the gunfighter. As he left, he glanced furtively around the tiny community, and not finding his prey, he hurried to the ferry landing. He had only a few minutes to make the boat.

While waiting, his fear grew, for if Madrid showed up for the ferry, he would have no place to run. He didn't know if he'd been seen before or not, or if the gunman would recognize him. He continually glanced around, searching for Madrid and his palomino.

The wagons were loaded first and Duncan began to feel relief. Had Madrid taken the Woden siblings with him for the ferry, they would be in the wagon. He smiled when he realized that he'd not seen Madrid nor the Woden wagon on board.

When the ferry left the landing, he finally relaxed, secure in the knowledge that Johnny Madrid was not here. He could enjoy the next three hours across the lake. However, his peace was short-lived; as he rode on the ferry, he kept fathoming scenario after scenario whereby Madrid might catch up with him.

If Madrid had ridden through the entire night, then the gunman just might reach Green River at about the same time as he would. That was unlikely, but possible. Madrid could have taken shifts with Scott Lancer. Duncan would have to resume his fast pace, and his watching, when he landed in Latache.


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

After a long three hours on the dry Kettleman Plain where cattle grazed, everyone was ready for a drink, so when they approached El Arroyo de Las Garzas, the horses hurried, Scott and Johnny perked up and even Barranca grew restless. Scott, feeling more humane toward the Woden siblings than Johnny, allowed them to drink their fill at the Creek of the Herons and wash the dust off their faces. Johnny would have just passed a canteen to them before re-gagging them with the same dusty cloth. He was still angry with them for what they did to his brother.

Another traveler, heading south, gave them a strange look when he saw the prisoners, but smiled widely upon seeing the condition of Opal's clothing. With her hands bound and her arms tied behind her, her bodice gaped open even more. The man dismounted and approached Johnny, asking what he'd take for his use of her, but Johnny pointedly glared at him, dropping his right hand casually on the butt of his Colt. The man saw the glare and the movement. His smile disappeared and he hastily mounted his horse, riding away quickly.

Opal was confused. She'd heard the man and knew what he wanted, but was surprised that her captor had driven him away. Given how badly he'd treated her, she was expecting him to turn her over to the stranger. She didn't know what to make of the gunman. Her brothers had told her he was Johnny Madrid, but wasn't Madrid ruthless?

 

Keep Your Eye on the Brawl

The ferry stopped at the Latache landing and Duncan waited his turn to get off. He wasn't hungry, but as this was the only village before Green River, he decided to get something to eat later on the road. He stopped his horse outside the tiny tavern and walked in.

Duncan asked the owner to make him a bag lunch for later and paid the man handsomely for his efforts. It wasn't even noon when he left the small town, heading nearly due north for the stage road, the same road Johnny had used after leaving the sick old man Garcia at the Way Station.


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

As Duncan was paying for his bag lunch, Scott pulled the wagon across el Arroyo de Las Canoas , or the Creek of the Troughs. It got its name from the deep furrows cut as the fast-moving creek flowed down from the Keyenhagen Hills to the west. This watering hole was a reliable stop along El Camino Viejo and Dave Kettelman, a cattle baron who had first come to California during the '49 Gold Rush, used it regularly to water his stock when they grazed on the plain.

By now they realized the man who had ambushed them must have taken the other route; they had not seen him at all since deciding to head north through the plain. No one they talked to coming south had seen a lone man either. They were safe.

They did not stop for long at the creek, just enough time to water the animals and refill canteens. Scott untied the Wodens so they could splash around in the cool waters. He watched the men warily as they spoke in low tones, but due to the sounds of the water, he was unable to make out what they said. Opal joined them briefly then broke away, frowning at her brothers.

She'd wanted to give up her ploy, to button herself up; it wasn't working and it was drawing unwanted attention. But her brothers insisted that she keep it up, keep her bodice open, telling her that two healthy young men couldn't resist her forever. They were on the lookout and would take advantage whenever they could.

Johnny talked briefly with a drover moving cattle across the creek. He made inquiries about the road ahead, where it led and the upcoming watering holes. He thanked the man for his information before returning to Scott.

Soon they were on their way north again, the Wodens safely secured in the wagon. Riding through the Kettleman Plain was hot and dusty and every little drop of water helped to ease the discomfort.

About a half-hour later, they came upon el Arroyo de Zapata Chino . They stopped for lunch under the trees that lined the stream, also called Chinese Shoe Creek. This time it was Johnny's turn to cook while Scott tended the horses and prisoners. More pan-fried beans and coffee, this time paired with jerky, was their sustenance for lunch. While it wasn't much, they looked forward to making the Lancer hacienda tonight where Scott and Johnny would be assured of a feast.

Scott yawned. He was getting sleepy. While he'd slept a lot yesterday, that was yesterday and now he'd been up all night and all morning. He shook his head to rid the cobwebs. He told himself he could sleep tonight; they must make it to Lancer today.

They again readied to leave. Hank Woden, tired of being tied up and drugged in that wagon, watched for an opening. He'd seen Scott's yawn and guessed the blond was tired. He knew Madrid was alert, though. Hank kept his eye on both of them, looking for his chance. He saw it when Johnny was washing up in the creek. Opal wriggled her shoulders in front of Scott, who because of his fatigue, glanced down at her chest momentarily. Hank took that opportunity to stand and lunge for Johnny. He rammed into the unsuspecting gunfighter, knocking them both in the water. Too late, Scott turned to see the commotion.

Hank landed a direct hit to Johnny's face, stunning Johnny. He shoved the gunman down into the water, using his body weight for leverage. He pushed Johnny's head under the surface with his other hand, intent on drowning his adversary.

Having seen his brother, Lou took out Scott, tackling him to the ground. His fists flayed, striking blow after blow to the blond Lancer. Scott tried to scramble away, seeking to get out from under his nemesis, but Lou was faster. He kneed Scott in the diaphragm, knocking the wind out of him.

Opal stood on the sidelines, jumping for joy and squealing with glee. Her brothers were fighting back! Her distraction had finally worked. “Go get ‘em!” she shouted, encouraging them on.

Johnny fought for breath but it was impossible to raise his head above the water. Hank had him pinned down below the surface and wrapped his hands around Johnny's neck. Knowing he would soon run out of air, Johnny snaked his hand to his holster, hoping he could reach his pistol before he lost consciousness. His fingers felt the handle and with one last effort, he grasped the Colt. With a grimace, he drew the hand gun and pressed it to Hank's abdomen, firing one round.

The water-muffled pop of the pistol shocked Lou, who momentarily stopped his assault on Scott. This gave the blond the time he needed to scramble to his feet. He kicked Lou squarely in the face, knocking him backwards, his nose spurting blood as he fell onto the dirt.

Opal screamed at the sound of the gunshot and ran toward the water's edge. She saw her wounded brother flip into the water, face up, blood pouring from the hole in his stomach. She shrieked a curse at Johnny as he stood up, gasping for air.

Johnny turned his head toward the girl, her face an ugly snarl. “Shut up!” he ordered. Wading out of the water, he glanced at his brother, standing over the prone bleeding body of Lou Woden. Scott's sides were heaving and his hair muddied by sweat and dirt.

Johnny approached the girl, dripping wet. “Go get him,” he menaced, indicating Hank's body, now beginning to float away. “Drag him out of the current.”

“No!” Opal stood defiant, but shaking in fear.

Johnny drew his hand back. “You will or I'll...” He didn't get to finish.

“Let her be, Johnny,” Scott implored, grasping Johnny's hand to stop him from hitting her. “She isn't worth it.” He trudged into the water and grabbed the body, dragging it half on land at the edge of the creek. He turned and flopped into the water, ducking his head and rinsing off the mud and sweat and stench of the fight.

An hour later they left the creek, with Opal and Lou safely tied to corners of the wagon. Scott had allowed Opal to button up and tend to Lou's wounds, watching her as Johnny buried Hank's body in the soft dirt near the water's edge.  The Laudanum-laced whiskey again did its job and they both soon fell asleep, their heads lolling in tune with the wagon.


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

Duncan sighed in relief when he saw the way station come in sight. He was nearly back to Green River. He'd taken the road north from Latache which joined with the stage route east of the way station. He didn't even stop to say hello to Ruben, the station master.

Duncan pulled out the lunch prepared for him by the tavern owner in Latache, intending to eat in the saddle. While it had seemed to be a good idea to order the food at the time, now that he was only two hours from his destination, he changed his mind after taking only a few bites, tossing the lunch by the side of the road and spurring his horse on. He would eat in Green River like a civilized man.


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

Sam pulled his buggy into the Lancer courtyard. A vaquero ran up to take his horse's head. Sam smiled gratefully as he eased out of the seat. He saw Murdoch emerge from the great oak door.

“Sam!” Murdoch called. “I'm glad to see you, friend.”

“Same here,” Sam answered, greeting Murdoch with a hearty handshake.

“Come on inside, get out of the sun. We're about to have lunch. Join us.”

“Don't mind if I do.”

Abby was on her way to the table when she saw the doctor enter the hacienda. “Why, Sam! I'm so pleased you are here. Do you have news?”

“No, nothing from town, either of them. I came to check on all of you. How are you holding up?”

“As best as can be expected,” the woman answered. “Come join us for lunch.” She led the doctor to the table. Murdoch and Aggie soon brought Teresa in with them.

As they dined on chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes, Sam asked the question Addison had off-handedly requested. “I understand you have Scott's bag from the stage. Was all his belongings there?”

Abby paused, her fork in mid-air. What was he getting at? She glanced at Murdoch and raised an eyebrow.

He took the hint. “What do you mean, Sam?”

“I was talking to Buck Addison. He told me that his man Duncan was on that stage and the robbers went through his bag. He was missing some things. I just wanted to make sure you had everything Scott had.”

“Yes,” Abby said hastily. “Everything was there.” She didn't elaborate.

Aggie, who had been watching carefully, wondered about the woman's attitude. She seemed to be suspicious of Sam, but now wasn't the time to question her about it.

Murdoch, too, noticed Abby's demeanor, but he understood. The branding iron Scott had was much too precious to be discussed openly, even with a friend. “If Abby said the bag had exactly what Scott took with him, then I'm sure she's right. She would know.”

“Good,” Sam acknowledged, nodding. “I'm glad they didn't get anything of his.”

 

Pleasant Valley Day

Johnny rode in silence, his mind whirling. He'd almost hit Opal Woden, but not to restrain her or control her as he'd threatened back at the cabin. No, this was pure rage, an outburst of surging wrath,nearly uncontrollable with its force. He'd never felt such a rampage toward a woman before and it startled him, to think that he was capable of such violence on a woman. True, she'd tortured him all day with her body, but he'd given it back to her in kind. Still, neither action justified his desire. Had it not been for his brother, he may have just beaten the girl to death in his rage.

The more he thought about it the more he admired his brother. Scott had more reason to hate Opal Woden and yet he'd managed to restrain himself. Instead Scott had not only been able to control his own rage, but to help Johnny not act on his as well. Scott was a pretty amazing human being.

He stole a glance at the blond. He was driving that wagon like he'd been born doing so. Johnny was proud of him. He'd changed so much since first seeing him in Reno. He looked like he belonged. Except that he looked awfully tired. Realizing his brother hadn't slept in a long time, Johnny brought Barranca closer to the wagon.

“Hey, Scott!” He called. His brother only looked at him. “Stop for a minute, will ya?” When the blond did, Johnny rode to the back, dismounted and tied Barranca off. He jogged back to the wagon's seat and climbed on. “You must be exhausted.” He took the reins and motioned with his head toward the wagon's bed. “Take a nap. I'll wake you in a couple of hours.”

Scott nodded, grateful for the reprieve. He climbed over the seat and got himself settled onto the wagon, using a sack of grain for a pillow. Johnny smiled and slapped the reins, continuing their trek north.


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

The next water hole along El Camino Viejo was El Arroyo de Las Polvarduras , or the Creek of the Dust Clouds. High winds tended to create dust whirlwinds in this area, fed by the hills and mountains around them. Johnny did not stop, but pressed on, having watered the animals less than an hour before. Besides, he didn't want to wake his sleeping brother yet.

Johnny noticed changes in the terrain as he drove. All morning they had been heading north through the Kettleman Plain, a flat narrow valley between the Diablo mountains and the Kettleman Hills. Now to the east was a narrow gap, the Polvadero Gap, a misspelling of this creek which crossed it farther east.

The grazing animals changed, too. Before, they were cattle, from Dave Kettelman's herd, but as he moved north into this new valley—Pleasant Valley Johnny had heard it was called—he saw more and more sheep. A passing drover had told him that this valley was well-known for its sheep population. He'd better watch out for the pesky little devils.


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

A wheel hit a rock and jostled the wagon. Scott stirred and slowly sat up. The sun was in a new position, he noted as he realized he'd slept over an hour. He climbed back onto the wagon's seat next to his brother.

“Good nap?” Johnny asked. Scott nodded. He licked his lips.

“Dry?” His brother reached for a canteen.

Scott took a healthy swig. “Much better. Thanks.” He returned the canteen to its spot.

The two sat in silence for a minute or two. Johnny broke the silence. “I want to thank you, brother.”

“For what?”

“Stopping me back at that other creek, when I...” He let the sentence hang, shaking his head.

Scott frowned. “It's my fault anyway.”

“How so?”

“I fell for her trick. She came up to me and I was tired, not being as alert as I should have. I glanced down. Just briefly, but that's all it took. They were waiting for us.”

“I know. Don't worry about it, Scott. It's over now. Besides, I got more than a few glances at her today.” Johnny grinned.

“So that's why you fell back so many times, huh?”

Johnny grinned at his brother and turned his head to see their passengers. Both Opal and Lou were still sleeping from the effects of the drug. She was buttoned up properly, too. Good, he thought. For everyone.

“Tell me all that happened,” Scott retrieved the canteen again and took another drink. “The last thing I remember is being with Abby at the ranch. I've been trying all day to think.”

“You don't remember going to Visalia?”

Scott tried to recall. Nothing came to mind. He shook his head.

Johnny continued the story. “You went to talk to the land agent there. On the way back, those three robbed the stage and took you and an old man hostage.”

“What happened to him?”

“I found him. Brought him to the Way Station. I suppose Sam Jenkins took care of him. You don't remember any of your trip?”

Scott shook his head again. “Maybe...I have a feeling of riding a lot. But that could be the stage.”

“Well, you did something there. You had a branding iron in your bag. Abby figured out it was—”

“The brand that changed Lancer's brand!” Scott nearly shouted. “Now I remember! It was at the Ortega hacienda. I brought it back wrapped up next to a parasol I bought for Abby.”

Johnny nodded. “So that's the brand that makes that sideways A. Of course. It makes sense now.”

“Sideways A? A for Addison?”

“Maybe.”

“It's looking more and more that Addison is the man behind all of this. Certainly this robbery,” he gestured around the wagon. “Probably the theft of the horse, and quite possibly Pardee.”

“Could be.”

“But we need proof. All we have proof of is this.” He indicated the pair in the wagon. And if a jury believes their testimony.” Scott shook his head. “Not sure they'd take the word of two rogues like these over a successful businessman like Addison.”

“Don't forget that ambush. I'd bet Addison sent whoever that was. Maybe he sent the three men who attacked me on the way back with the stallion.”

“I'd take that bet,” Scott said grimly.


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

They crossed through El Arroyo de Jacelitos , the Creek of the Little Huts, stopping only long enough to refill canteens and giving the animals a quick drink. They intended to rest longer at the next watering hole.  They had two to chose from. Johnny mounted Barranca and came up next to Scott. “There's a little village up here at the next creek, Arroyo Pasajero . Do you want to stop there, or bypass it and just water the horses upstream?”

“What's the village?”

Poso de Chane . It used to be an Indian village, then Spanish and Mexican. It's now occupied by Americans in the sheep business. That's why you see so many sheep here.”

“I was wondering about that. What does it mean, ‘poso de chane'?”

“It's Spanish for Chane Pool. The Indians called their village ‘Chane' and since it was around a pool in the creek, the Spanish named it Poso de Chane.”

“I could use a nice pool about now.” He fanned himself.

Johnny laughed. “The pool isn't there anymore. I asked a drover passing by. It got washed out in some Great Flood in....'62, I think he said. They have to dig wells for water now. But it's still a village.”

“I don't think it's wise to ride through a village, no matter how small, with these two in the back.” Scott nodded in their direction.

“Good idea. We'll avoid the place and drink upstream.” Johnny spurred Barranca to ride ahead, angling a little west of El Camino Viejo . It was mid-afternoon when they reached the oasis by the creek.


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

Duncan rode into Green River, hot, tired, thirsty, dirty and very sore. He'd had a rough ride, fueled by his fear of being caught by Johnny Madrid and he needed a hot bath, clean clothes, good food and a long nap. His nap would have to wait, but as he dropped off his exhausted horse at the Cattleman's Hotel stables, he arranged for a private bath in his quarters and for a maid to bring him a tray.

Staff members brought the portable tub to the small alcove in his room and began to fill it with steaming water drawn from the newly-installed bathhouse water heater. He stood behind the privacy screen, shedding his dusty and dirty clothes. The servants left him alone and he stepped into the soothing waters with a contented sigh.

A few minutes later a maid knocked on his door with the tray. He'd ordered the lunch special, beef tips on wild rice and fresh fruit. He placed the tray over the tub and ate while soaking, slowly returning to the civilized world he knew.


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

Arroyo Pasajero , or Traveler's Creek in English, was a long stream flowing from the Diablos through Pleasant Valley and eventually reaching into the San Joaquin valley and, in years of heavy rain, running all the way to the Fresno Slough. It was a reliable source as it was nearly always filled with sparkling, clean water, at least into the San Joaquin. Scott stopped the wagon under some trees and he checked on their prisoners. Johnny unhitched the team and led them and Barranca to the creek's cool waters.

They planned a twenty minute rest before beginning the next leg of their journey back to Lancer. Opal began to protest her bindings—again—but Johnny's quick glare settled her back down. After what had happened at that earlier creek, she was even more afraid of him. Lou, still smarting from his licking by Scott, gave up any thought of escaping. He resigned himself to healthy swigs of Johnny's doctored whiskey bottle.

It was eight miles to the next watering hole, the Aquaje de Pedro Etchegoen , and for more than half of those miles, the road cut through the lower half of the Anticline Ridge, a descending ridge of peaks beginning at Black Mountain in the Diablo Range down to the lower hills separating Pleasant Valley from the San Joaquin. While El Camino Viejo passed through some of the lowest of those hills, the terrain was still a challenge in some places along the road. The good news was that once they were into those hills, they weren't that far from Lancer.

They began their ascent into the hills as the skies were just beginning to darken. Even though it was still afternoon, the mountains cast shadows making dusk appear sooner than in the valley. Johnny rode ahead, looking for a way to cut out of these hills to go directly east into the San Joaquin where the Lancer hacienda likely was. They had learned that if they followed El Camino Viejo out of the hills into the San Joaquin, they would miss the hacienda and would have to double back once they reached the valley. Taking a path east probably meant missing the Aquaje de Pedro Etchegoen , a reliable watering place, but with sunset approaching they were anxious to reach Lancer.

Pedro Etchegoen was a Mexican sheep rancher who grazed his sheep along the hills of the Anticline Ridge and into Pleasant Valley. He knew not to let his flock wander into the San Joaquin where cattle was king, but in Pleasant Valley sheep were prominent, with several families grazing their flocks in the area. He'd met Murdoch Lancer once, when his sheep accidentally strayed onto Lancer land. It was not a happy meeting. He made sure that someone patrolled his eastern border to prevent that from happening again.

Scott had driven the wagon about three miles when he saw Johnny come riding back. He didn't stop the wagon, as Johnny rode Barranca into place next to him. “I found a cut,” Johnny said. “It's about a half-mile up the road. It's kind of a sharp descent but it leads us directly onto Lancer land. The hacienda should be due east.”

“Wonderful! I can't wait to see Abby!”

Johnny grinned. “Well, let's get on it, then!” He spurred Barranca, riding ahead. Scott slapped the reins and the horses increased their pace.

+++NOTE: All of that history about El Camino Viejo, the Poso de Chane, the men mentioned, etc, is true. Oil is now king in the Pleasant Valley/Kettleman area.

 

If at First...

“What was that about, Abby?” Aggie pulled the younger woman aside as soon as Sam's buggy left. “Sam is our friend.”

“She was right, Aggie,” Murdoch cut in. “We can't let anyone know about that brand, now that we know what it means. Even our friends.”

“But to outright lie?”

“Sam will understand,” Murdoch nodded.

“But...”

“Come inside, Aggie,” Abby pulled on the older woman's arm. Murdoch followed them back to the great room. Once within its cool depths, Abby began whispering. “The brand turns Lancer's brand to a sideways A. Sam said Buck Addison was asking about Scott's luggage. We have to be reticent. I think that A stands for Addison. ”

“No!” Aggie was aghast.

Murdoch shook his head. “Can't be. Buck Addison is much too prominent. He wouldn't—couldn't—be involved in this.”

Abby shrugged. “I think so. And when Johnny brings Scott home, we can ask Scott where he got that iron. I bet Addison had something to do with it.”

Aggie shook her head. “You've got it all wrong, Abby. I know the man. He wouldn't do that.”

“Maybe because you know him you won't entertain that thought. It just makes sense to me.”

Aggie started to speak but Murdoch cut in. “It does seem that way, but we'll keep an open mind, Abby. All of us, okay?”


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

Duncan dressed quietly. He was not anxious to meet with his employer and give him a report, saying that he failed in his mission, that it was too much for him, an amateur, to handle. He put it off as long as possible.

Buck Addison was in his private suite, preparing to dine. “Come in,” he said at Duncan's knock. His messenger stepped in the room as he finished stomping into his boot. “Oh, you're back. How did it go?” He fully expected a positive report.

“I was...unable to complete the job, Mr. Addison,” Duncan came right to the point.

Addison drew himself up to full height. “Why not?” he asked indignantly.

Duncan stood with his feet slightly apart, his hands clasped behind his back. “I found their cabin, but when I got there I realized I wasn't the only one. Johnny Madrid was there.”

“Johnny Madrid! I knew it! I knew when he tore out of Green River that night something was up. What did he do?”

“He captured the brothers, and, one of them confessed.”

“C-confessed?” Addison's eyes grew wide. “What do you mean, ‘confessed'?”

“He told everything. About your threat, that you wanted Lancer kidnapped, hidden away.”

Addison fell in a chair, stunned. He'd been discovered. If Madrid made it back with that information... “Then what happened?” He was almost afraid to ask.

“Evidently he rescued young Lancer, and took the Woden siblings as prisoners.”

“Oh, my God,” Addison exclaimed, his head in his hands. “And you did nothing?”

Duncan opened his arms. “What would you have me do? I'm no gunfighter! I couldn't take on Madrid.”

“You could have ambushed them. Killed them in their sleep. Something!” Addison was desperate. He began pacing.

“I tried! I found a suitable hill and when they passed under it, I took a shot, but I missed. Madrid fired back. I had to escape before he climbed up to finish the job.”

“You could have taken him on. Killed him right as he reached the top.”

Duncan shook his head. “Madrid is too good for that.”

“No one is that good.”

“Maybe not for another professional, Mr. Addison, but I was never in that game. I am not a gunman.”

“You know them. You told me about Pardee. About the horse. You got me into this mess.”

Duncan could see Addison was about to blame him fully for all his follies. “Sir, let me remind you that you wanted to hurt Murdoch Lancer, that's all I've heard you say every time you've seen or heard about him. All I did was provide you with the opportunity for a little payback. You were all right until you sent the Woden family to rob that stage and kidnap Scott Lancer.”

“I was not all right. He had found me out. I am sure of it.”

“Well, even if he did. You could have denied knowing the horse was stolen.”

“I re-branded him! They know that. Isn't that what Lancer took from that hacienda? The iron I had made?”

“I thought he took something in the shape of a branding iron, but I never saw it up close. And we still don't know if he brought it or anything else back with him.”

“I had to act! I sent you and you failed. Now I will be ruined.”

Duncan started to say something but Addison raised his hand, cutting him off. He continued to pace, his mind racing. After three or four circuits he stopped and smiled. “Kidnap her.”

Duncan startled. “Kidnap who?”

“Why Scott's wife, of course! Pardee did it. You can too.”

Gilford was unsure. He'd done a lot of nasty things in his life but never had he hurt a woman of Abby's status. “I don't think that's a good idea. What would it buy us?”

“It would shut them up! No matter what they found they wouldn't talk about it as long as we have her.”

Duncan could tell this idea, like the last one with the Wodens, wasn't thought out. “Tell me, sir, was it your idea last time to take Mrs. Lancer or was it Pardee's?” Had his boss really been the one to hire Pardee in the first place?

Addison turned and gave Duncan a strange look. “Me? No. I wasn't involved. What makes you think I had something to do with any of that?”

Hmm. That told him nothing. Duncan shrugged. “Pardee may have had a plan when he kidnapped Mrs. Lancer but do you? If we take her, how long do you want to hold her? Forever?”

He wanted to press Addison for details, and not go off half-cocked like he'd done before. But Addison wasn't having any of that. “I don't know. Just do it!”

“No.”

Addison was stunned. “No? What do you mean, ‘no'?”

“I am not going to hurt a woman of her rank, and certainly not without a plan in place. We have nowhere to put her, no way to care for her, nothing.”

“Then don't put her anywhere. Kill her.”

That startled Duncan. Kill Abby Lancer? Was his boss crazy? “I am not going to kill her. No. Absolutely not.” He turned as if to leave.

Addison panicked. He rushed to Duncan's back. “Wait!” he called, grasping his manager's shoulder. “Okay, okay. Leave Lancer's wife alone, then.” He resumed his agitated pacing. “I'm going to be ruined, ruined,” he muttered.

“Not necessarily,” Duncan turned and smiled.

Addison stopped his agitated pacing. “What do you mean? As soon as the Wodens start talking...”

“I don't think that will be a problem.”

Addison froze.  His voice grew low. “Go on.”

“Well, this new minister you told me about is all against gunfighters. And Lancer has hired himself one. We can get the minister to fight our battles for us.”

“How does that eliminate the Woden family?”

Duncan waved his hand. “They can be dismissed as lying. They are fools. Mountain people who are easily frightened. Who wouldn't lie to Johnny Madrid if it meant saving their life? We could say that he coerced them into naming you.”

Addison thought about it, nodding his head. “It might work. It just might work.”


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

Calmed by Duncan's new plan, Buck was all smiles as he greeted his guests for the evening. He stood in the entrance to the hotel, saying hello to everyone. He paused as he saw Sam Jenkins' buggy come down the street and made his way to greet the doctor.

“Doctor! How are you today? Having a better day than yesterday?”

Sam pulled his horse to a stop. “Hello, Mr. Addison. I sure am. I even had time to visit with Murdoch Lancer. He is doing pretty good, considering. So is Scott's wife. They are all coping as best they can.”

Addison smiled but that wasn't the report he really wanted to hear. “Why, thank you! That is good news. And the other thing? Was Scott robbed? His bag, I mean? Did you ask?”

Sam nodded. “Yep. Abby said he had everything.”

“Everything? Anything extra?” Addison asked anxiously.

“Extra? What do you mean?”

Addison gulped. He'd given himself away. “I mean, well, I was hoping that Duncan's missing things could have been accidentally put in Scott's bag, that's what I mean.”

“I don't see how that—”

“Never mind, then. It was a crazy idea. Well, I'm glad they are doing as well as possible, and that Scott's bag wasn't robbed.”

Sam looked at him suspiciously. Addison knew he had to do something. He smiled. “Hey, to compensate you for your trouble, why don't you dine in our dining room tonight? On the house! We are serving a fine roast of beef tonight.”

Sam nodded. “That sounds good.” He slapped the reins again and the buggy moved forward.

Addison sighed in relief. He'd soothed the doctor's curiosity and it looked like Scott didn't take the branding iron.

 

To Part Three

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