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JenniferB

 

 

Lancer: A New Era
Part Two: Into The Fire
Poor man wanna be rich,
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied
Till he rules everything
Badlands, Bruce Springsteen




Contents
Chapter Twelve: Arrival

Chapter Thirteen: Drink?

Chapter Fourteen: Day Pardee

Chapter Fifteen: Sam's News

Chapter Sixteen: The Old Man

Chapter Seventeen: Where There's Smoke...

Chapter Eighteen: Rice for Dinner

Chapter Nineteen: A Little Fun

Chapter Twenty: The Line Shack

Chapter Twenty-One: Consequences

Chapter Twenty-Two: Day's Revenge
      Warning: Graphic Violence and Imagery
      Sexual Situations
      Rated R








Chapter Twelve: Arrival

Johnny rode slowly, his horse walking down Morro Coyo's main street to the livery. Sombra needed a good rest, with plenty of high-quality oats and fresh hay. It had been a long, hard ride and he needed to care for his mount. He would have preferred to walk beside his horse given how he pushed him the past two days, but Johnny Madrid always needed to be seen in a position of power. It added to his mystique and kept the foolish young gunfighters from challenging him. He promised to spend a little extra time with Sombra as payment.

As he passed, townspeople hurried out of his way, or hid behind posts, ducked into buildings. Children stared wide-eyed, until they were yanked away by their parents. He was used to this. The easily-intimidated tried not to be seen, but he saw everything without appearing to look at all. Their reactions always amused him.

As he rode past the saloon, he noticed some men lounging in front. They had the look of bandito about them and if he were a betting man, he'd place a hefty wager that those were some of the men behind Lancer's troubles. They watched him, he saw, but made no sound, no movement. They were not intimidated, but neither were they aggressive. No, they just watched.

Johnny dismounted at the livery and, after taking notice of the layout, seeing no danger, he entered the establishment. An older man in torn overalls greeted him. He quickly made arrangements for Sombra's care. He unsaddled the black steed and rubbed him down himself, taking care to tend to the horse properly. Only then did he take his heavy saddlebags to the hotel.

He checked into a room facing the front. He wanted a clear view of what was going on in the town. If those men were indeed the land pirates attacking Lancer, he wanted to be able to keep and eye on them. He needed to know who their leader was and, if possible, discover the immediate plans for Lancer, and for Scott.

He had a thought, that if he could learn what the next move was, he could offer his services to old Murdoch Lancer himself. That would be such irony, he thought, if the son the old man had thrown out would help save him. Then he'd tell him who he was and walk away. But he had grown to like Scott, and was intrigued with the idea of having a brother. So he wasn't sure exactly how to proceed. He needed to think on it some more.

This indecisiveness was new to Johnny, and it disturbed him. In the past he'd always known what to do and how to do it, the only exception had been how to kill Murdoch Lancer. Once he found out how influential the man had become, he knew he couldn't just call him out. He still hadn't come up with a good way to get revenge for his mother.

But now he was unsure about many more things, Scott primarily. The Easterner now was a prominent player in the drama that was Johnny's life and the gunfighter wasn't ready to give him up yet. He'd made that decision back in Sacramento, when Scott had stood up to him. He'd always believed that if a man was willing to fight for what he thought was right, he should support that man.

Not returning to Mexico was about the only thing of which Johnny was certain; everything else was in flux. He was playing it by ear, day by day, even hour by hour. And since he was staying around, he knew he should find out about those banditos at the saloon. It was a good first step, he thought, and he now felt better about having some kind of a plan, even though it was only the beginnings.

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



Teresa kept Scott and Abby entertained with stories about Murdoch and the ranch as they rumbled down the uneven road, still muddy in places from the shower early this morning. She carefully avoided the current difficulty and her own father's death. It was still too painful for her to discuss with strangers.

Scott felt a few pangs of jealousy because this girl, not even a relative, knew more about Lancer than he did. But he quickly reminded himself: had he been reared here, he would not have met, wooed and married Abby—a fact for which he was most pleased.

About an hour into the drive, Teresa pulled up atop a bluff. “Lancer,” she said with a grand gesture, “As far as the eye can see.”

Scott stood to get a better view. There across a rolling green valley was a most beautiful land. Verdant grasses, nourished by the Spring rains, waved in the wind. In the distance, purple mountains scratched the sky. “The Coast Range,” Teresa explained, “It's between here and the ocean.” Every now and then a copse of trees signaled a creek or natural spring. “And there's more,” the girl went on. “The ranch is over 100,000 acres. Beyond those trees are pastures where most of the cattle are grazing. We rotate them to keep the grasses growing.”

When they had taken in their fill of the magnificent landscape, Teresa slapped the reins and they lumbered down the road again, a little faster downhill, heading toward the estate that Teresa now was describing. “The hacienda is so large. It's mainly two stories, with two wings for bedrooms—not to mention the bedrooms in the main portion of the house. Mr. Lancer must have planned for a big family!” She grew quiet, knowing the story of how those plans turned out. She had not told Scott about his half-brother who was probably dead; she figured that was up to Murdoch.

Soon they rounded a curve and a house began to come into view. Or rather, a community, it seemed to Scott and Abby. First they saw a tower with three arched windows all around. Then other parts of the hacienda came popped up: lush trees, multiple roof angles, high walls. They entered the rock-paved road and drove under a large archway, onto the hacienda lands proper. Now they had a good look. The house was indeed large and imposing; it dominated the landscape and was nestled among trees with the foothills of the Coast Range serving as backdrop.

Around the house were several outbuildings. A barn and several corrals on the left, with other buildings peeking out from behind trees and around angles. He surmised that was where the farm hands lived, along with the household help. It was a symbol of a wealthy and influential man, and it rivaled—no, it outclassed— Harlan's mansion in Boston. Scott was impressed.

As they grew closer, they saw cowboys, mostly Mexican in looks, come forward, smiling and greeting them. They looked truly happy to see them. That surprised Scott. Why would they be so joyous to see him? They'd never met him before, but it was like they were greeting an old friend.

Teresa pulled the wagon up to the front garden and immediately several hands ran up to help. Two unhitched the team, another two started unloading their baggage, and one came to help them down. Within minutes they were standing in the front garden admiring the efficiency of the ranch hands. The wagon was gone, the team already being cared for, their luggage on the way to their rooms.

“This way,” Teresa led. She was so happy they were finally here. And, with the addition of another woman in the house, she felt relieved to get some help. Maria, the cook, was a blessing, but being mistress of this great hacienda was too much for the young girl. She was happy to pass it on to an older woman.

Teresa led them to a walled courtyard, through a large oak door to a foyer and another archway where she indicated they should go. She vanished into an unseen room, leaving the couple alone. Scott took Abby's arm. “This is it,” he said. He was nervous.

“Relax, honey.” Abby patted his arm. “It'll be all right. I bet he's as anxious as you are.”

They passed through the doorway and down three steps. Scott looked up and saw a huge arched window behind a desk. A man, the largest he'd ever seen, stood near that desk, staring out the window. He stifled a gulp. So this was his father.





Chapter Thirteen: Drink?

Murdoch stared out the window behind his desk. He knew Scott and his wife had arrived from the sounds coming from the courtyard in front. His men were happy; delighted to have the son and heir home at last. He knew they had wanted this, for it represented continuity, a security of sort, that the ranch would go on. They did not know the primary reason for his coming. Nor did they realize that his stay may only be temporary. He wasn't sure himself what he wanted past his immediate need. Time would tell.

Murdoch heard the pair descend the steps, the sounds of their footsteps echoing in the large room. He turned toward them, leaning on his cane for support. He hated the thing. The cane made him feel old, inadequate, impotent. Those were feelings he was not used to having. It irritated him.

He looked at the couple. Scott was blond, like his mother had been, and tall and straight, like her. He had her kind, gentle eyes. It took his breath away. It was like Catherine was standing in front of him after all these years. He blinked and jerked himself back to reality. This was not his Catherine, but her son.

He noticed Abby, a trim, pretty brunette with large green eyes. She was smiling. She held his arm like she was born to. They made a lovely couple.

Scott was assessing him; he could tell.

Murdoch appraised, too. A second look revealed an intelligence behind Scott's blue eyes and he sensed that the man was careful with both words and actions. Those qualities would serve Murdoch well. But beyond the attributes he saw in his son, he could muster no feelings for the man.

He tried to wrangle with his apathy. He had adored Catherine, almost idolized her. She had been his calming rock, the one he turned to after a struggling day and would make whatever it was that bothered him feel trivial. But this man, Scott, was a stranger to him. He felt nothing. And that made him feel empty. He should feel something. This was his son, after all.

It made for an awkward moment. He needed to do something with himself. “Drink?” he offered, limping toward them.

“No, thank you.” Scott removed his gloves and stowed them into his hat. “My wife Abigail,” he presented. His voice was steady, not so with his nerves.

The woman strode confidently to meet Murdoch. Her smile was infectious, her manner gracious. “Sir,” she greeted. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

He nodded to her, taking control. “I'm sure you'd like some refreshment. Maria has some lemonade in the kitchen.” He gestured toward the back. “You can join Teresa there, too.” It was almost an order.

Abby was surprised. This was not the warm welcome she and Scott had expected. She glanced at Scott before excusing herself and leaving to search for Teresa, whoever Maria was, and the promised lemonade.

“You have your mother's eyes,” Murdoch stated flatly after the woman had left. There was little emotion in his statement.

Scott said nothing. He'd heard that before.

Murdoch turned back toward the the desk. He knew things should be different, but they weren't. He felt himself floundering and he didn't like it. “I want a drink.” He needed to fill his emptiness. He poured himself a measure of whiskey and walked to the window. “Come over here,” he commanded.

Deciding a drink may help calm his nerves, Scott began to walk to the table where the bottle was. “I think I'll settle for that drink.”

Murdoch spun around. “You'll do as you're told!” People usually did what he wanted, when he wanted. Still, his voice was more autocratic than he'd like. He mentally kicked himself.

Scott stopped short, raised an eyebrow in surprise, and gazed back at his father. “Will I?” he parried. He wondered just what the hell was going on.

Murdoch sat down. He wanted to make it clear to Scott why he was here. “I want no favors from you.” He knew his voice was too brusque, but the words were already out.

Scott stared for a beat then chuckled. If that's the way he wants it... “Far be it from me to spoil a family reunion.” He crossed over to where Murdoch sat and threw down his hat and gloves. “What do I call you? Under the circumstances, ‘Father' hardly seems—”

“Call me anything you like,” Murdoch interrupted. “We are strangers to each other.” He looked away, his tone still short. “Maybe that's my fault, maybe it isn't.”

“No apology necessar—” Scott was still trying to make heads or tails of this.

“You'll get no apology from me!” Again Murdoch rudely interrupted. He stood, suddenly feeling the need to explain. “The air needs clearing. Let's clear it.” He walked around to face Scott. “Your mother's family thought she was daft to marry me, not a year off the boat from Inverness. Maybe they were right. You were born. She died. I left you in their hands. Period.” His manner was straightforward, matter of fact.

Scott stared at his father. This was not what he expected. The man was truculent and cold, commanding and imposing. His letters hadn't seem so extreme.

Murdoch continued. “It's past, bad or good, right or wrong; it's past and gone. We're talking about now!” He walked over to the window. “What's happening out there, to this ranch.” Murdoch became all business; the awkwardness gone. Now he felt in control, back to his old self. His irritation faded along with his emotions.

Scott adapted quickly to the change. Putting aside his feelings, he leaned a hip on the table. “Your letter said you were having some trouble.” He didn't let on what all he had learned.

Murdoch launched into the story. “At the end of December somebody made off with one of our horses. A prize stallion. My foreman and I trailed them to Morro Coyo. We walked right into it. O'Brien was killed and I ended up with this leg that's gone sour on me. Since then, my fences have been cut, beef stolen, workers frightened off, burned out. Three months ago I had 150 vaqueros. Now I have eighteen.”

“You've been worrying about your ranch.” Scott was beginning to understand Murdoch.

Murdoch glanced at Scott then back out the window. He grew pensive. “I love this ground more than anything God ever created. I've got a grey hair for every good blade of grass you see out there. They're trying to drive me off this place.”

If Scott had entertained any thoughts of love from Murdoch Lancer, they vanished. This man seemed only to care for his ranch.

Scott recovered, hiding his emotions and displaying surprise. “These land pirates? You tell me that men can just come along and drive you off your land?” Jim Carrick's words came back to him.

“They're doing it. Since I was hit they've taken two other estancias.”

“What about...” Scott didn't finish. He recalled Johnny Madrid saying there was no law.

“...the law?” Murdoch read Scott's mind. “There isn't any.” He walked over to the bottle to refill his glass and went on. “They've killed a rancher already: Peterson from Fresno. The other quit, found business elsewhere. The only law we got here is pack law. The big dog gets the meat.”

Murdoch took a sip and continued explaining the situation. “They left me alone after that first hit, then came back after the other two ranches fell. But the past two weeks they've been rather quiet. I have a feeling that something big will happen soon.”

Scott listened carefully, now in his military mode. Remembering his conversation with Johnny, he asked: “Do you know who's in charge?”

“Pardee. Day Pardee. Gunfighter.” Murdoch scowled. “The worst kind of individual.”

“How many men does he have?”

“Twenty, twenty-five.”

Scott laughed. “That doesn't exactly put him in a class with Attila the Hun.”

“You've got the floor.” Murdoch wanted to see what Scott's plan was.

“Well it seems to me you have a very simple military problem here.” Scott walked over to the map of Lancer on the wall and slapped it. “One, find the enemy. Two, engage him. Three, destroy him.” He spoke with conviction.

Murdoch chuckled.

“Something funny?” Scott hadn't been joking.

“It's not that kind of a fight.” But Murdoch stopped, reconsidering. Scott was showing the mettle he'd hoped for. “But I could be wrong. I've got eighteen good men. Only the best stayed. You make nineteen.” He paused before continuing. “But I want more than your gun.”

“How much more?” What was this about now?

“I want your arms and your legs and your guts, if you've got any. And in return, I'm offering one-third.”

“One-third of what?”

Murdoch gestured to the window. “Of everything you see out there. One hundred thousand acres, twenty thousand head of beef, and the finest horses in the San Joaquin.”

Murdoch reached into his inside pocket and pulled out his wallet. He withdrew a paper, folded in thirds, and handed it over. Scott scanned the document. It was all in order, but it wasn't signed. Murdoch continued. “It's a partnership. I call the tune. Agree?”

Scott smiled. This could be what he was looking for all this time, that sense of purpose, that calling for his life. “I'll have to discuss it with my wife.”

“Fine,” Murdoch nodded. “But you won't get your share until you prove to me you're man enough to hold it.”

“When will you know that?”

“When you get the man who put the bullet into my leg.”





Chapter Fourteen: Day Pardee

Scott found Abby upstairs, in one of the larger bedrooms on the East side of the hacienda. It's lone, double-paned window faced the East so the morning sunrise would filter in the room. It was furnished with a double bed, covered in colorful Mexican blankets; a mirrored triple dresser boasting twelve drawers; a comfortable-looking rocking chair, cushioned in the same bright colors; an upholstered side chair in light blue; and dual tiny side tables with lamps. The colors of the curtains and other fabrics offset the dark wood of the walls and furniture. It felt inviting and homey.

Abby was unpacking, stowing their clothing in the drawers and hanging things in the adjoining walk-in closet. She glanced at him as he closed the door and smiled.

“Well, that was interesting,” he said, entering the room. He tossed his gloves and hat on the dresser.

Abby was standing in front of her trunk. She turned to him still holding a half-folded blouse in her hand. “Oh, Scott. I'm so sorry. Your father seemed so...curt. Boorish, almost.”

“You forgot ‘rude' and ‘autocratic',” Scott added with a smile. He bounced on the bed, laying down with his hands folded under his head, his legs crossed at the ankles.

Abby grinned, indicating with a finger that he get his shoes off the bed. He complied. “Well, the lemonade was refreshing. I met Maria. She is a wonderful Mexican woman who does most of the cooking. Her husband is the seg... segundo ? here. That's the foreman. It means the ‘second.'” She left to hang the blouse in the closet.

Scott stood up, frowning. He waited until she returned. “I just realized that he was rude to you, practically ordering you to leave the room. I'm sorry. I should have said something. I was so overwhelmed by the moment...”

“Shhh...” Abby placed a finger on his lips. “Don't even think about it. I had a fine time with the ladies. Much better than you did, I believe.”

“Oh, it got worse,” Scott handed her a shirt. She took it into the closet. “He wasn't remorseful about anything. He made me even more nervous. He didn't want to discuss the past; he practically barked out what little he did say. Now I have even more questions for him about that.” Scott sighed. “Anyway, he was more interested in discussing the situation with the ranch now. Then he was all business, no awkwardness there. He relaxed and so did I. He even seemed to appreciate my expertise.”

“So what's going on?” Abby asked as she came back into their room.

“Definitely land pirates. Trying to take the ranch. Led by a gunfighter named Day Pardee. They've already taken over two ranches, he said. Like Johnny Madrid told us, there is no law to stop them. If you can't defend what's yours, they can just take it.”

“Oh, my! Barbaric!”

“Yes, it is. I'm beginning to think that everything Jim Carrick and Johnny Madrid said about these men and this land is true.” He handed her another blouse.

“We could be in for quite a fight.”

“We? Not you, darling.” Scott shook his head as he caressed her cheek. “I want you to stay out of it. Stay here and help Teresa. She's just a girl, and being mistress of this ‘estancia', as Murdoch called it, takes a woman.” He fingered her neckline. “Oh, and just so you know...he plans to ‘pay' me for helping him.”

Abby raised an eyebrow. “Pay you? In what way? You're his son!”

“By giving me one-third of Lancer.”

“Oh!” Abby sunk into the blue upholstered chair. She forgot about the clothes. “What did you say?”

“I told him we'd talk about it. And we will.”

“Why one-third?” Abby asked, leaning forward. “Not that I'm greedy, but since you're his only son, I would think he'd offer one-half.”

“That's a good question. One I didn't think to ask at the time. Not sure it even would have been appropriate. Is there a polite way of asking ‘why not half?'” Scott laughed. “I don't think so.”

Abby grinned. “So when would you get it, the one-third, that is.”

Scott sobered again. “When I ‘get the man who put the bullet in his leg',” he quoted.

“He wants you to kill him?” Abby's eyes grew wide.

“He didn't say that. I think he meant that figuratively, when we stop Pardee and his men.”

“I don't know, Scott. Perhaps you should talk to Mr. Madrid. He knows about these things.”

“Madrid probably headed straight back to Mexico. His job here was finished.”

“Oh no!” Abby's hand flew to her mouth. “I just had a horrible thought.”

“What's that?”

“What if Mr. Madrid joins up with this Day Pardee?”

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



Johnny stopped in the doorway of his hotel, scouring the street for activity. The men outside the saloon were still there, taunting an old Mexican man carrying water buckets. They played with him, shooting at his feet. The old man begged in Spanish for them to leave him alone, but they didn't. They continued to taunt him. It had been Johnny's experience that these kinds of juvenile tactics indicated men who lacked discipline, men who were bored and wanted action. It told Johnny that if these men were some of the land pirates, they had not struck in several days. But why?

The men's laughter at the old man's plight irritated Johnny. He wanted to stop it. Now was as good a time as any to find out who they were. He straightened his hat and sauntered over to the man with the buckets. Saying a few words in Spanish, Johnny took one of the buckets in his left hand. He walked casually toward the men and the saloon.

He took only a few steps before one of the men shot the bucket, spilling water. Johnny stopped for a second then continued walking toward them, saying nothing. He knew that would get their attention.

The men stopped their taunts and watched, wondering who this was challenging them. Johnny paused in front of them. Again, he remained quiet. He just stared at them. He wanted to unravel them a bit.

“Just what do you want?” a man snarled.

Johnny slowly looked them up and down. They were gunmen, that was certain, but where they Lancer's attackers? “You got bad manners,” he softly drawled. He was cool, detached, steady.

A blond chuckled. Another, in a black suit and string tie, removed the cigar from his mouth. “You gonna teach us some good ones?”

Johnny glanced over to the suited man. “Maybe.” He liked this kind of dance, this taunting. It lulled his opponent into a false sense of security, made them feel like they had the upper hand. It would ultimately lead to their downfall.

A third one, with his arms crossed over his chest and a grisly beard, chimed in. “Well, well. I do believe we got us a hard one here.” So they wanted to play. Good. His plan was working.

The blond chuckled again. A fourth stepped up. He wore a vest and his hat slightly back on his head. “Let's see how long it takes to make a dog outta you.”

Johnny glanced down for just a second, then back up at the one in the hat. He never once thought of the craziness of challenging six men at once. He'd done so before and won. “Okay.”

The man in the hat continued, “That's my water. Bring it here.”

Johnny stood still. He stared at each man, unmoving, waiting for a reaction. The man in the hat laughed. He turned to his friends then back at Johnny. “Dog wont fetch. He's gotta be taught.” He stepped down off the sidewalk, moving closer to Johnny. When he was a few feet away, he stopped, his hands loose by his sides. “Now hand me that water, mister. I mean to have that for my tub.”

“I doubt it,” Johnny quickly answered. His words were soft, his face almost smiling. None of them could guess how dangerous he really was.

“Oh, do you now?” the man challenged.

Johnny continued, “You think they got bathtubs in hell?”

Startled, the man blurted, “What's that?”

Johnny sprung into action. He threw the bucket at his adversary, distracting him. In a flash he had his gun out and aimed it, but did not fire. “You're dead,” he said flatly, every muscle tensed.

“So are you, sonny.” It was the man on the porch with the beard. His gun pointed at Johnny.

Johnny relaxed and looked up at the clear blue sky. He smiled. “Well, I picked a good day for it.” He oozed cool.

The bearded man continued, his voice cold, “You better believe me, sonny boy.”

Johnny's smile never faltered. “I do, I do. Only question now being how many of you are going with me?”

“Take him down, Coley.”

Coley pointed his gun again.

“I wouldn't,” came a new voice. A man emerged from the saloon. He wore a black hat and a fringed leather jacket. His mustache partially covered a scar on his face. He was clearly their leader. Coley paused, his gun still ready. Their boss glanced at his men then looked at Johnny.

“Day,” Johnny grinned.

“Long time, Johnny Madrid,” Day Pardee answered. At hearing the name, some of the men on the porch startled. Coley and one other hid their surprise better.

“Yeah, long time.” Johnny was remembering when Day had asked him to help on a job about six, maybe eight months ago.

“Care for a drink?” Day's slight Southern accent showed.

“Yeah, sure.” Johnny relaxed his gun arm, but did not holster his Colt. He walked slowly toward the saloon, the men parting for him to pass through, showing their respect for the notorious gunfighter. When he got to the doorway, Day stepped to the side.

“Madrid,” Day asked. “Are you lookin' for me?”

Johnny glanced back at the gunmen then to Day. “No, but I had a feelin' I'd find ya.” Or someone like you. He holstered his weapon.

Johnny walked into the saloon, noticing everything as usual. They were the only patrons. Day followed soon after with an Indian cradling a rifle. The Indian hung back while Day took the rear seat at a table, a bottle of tequila and bowls of salt and lime wedges in the middle. Johnny had no choice but to take the chair with his back to the door, and to the Indian. He did not like it.

They talked as they took tequila shots. The Indian watched, his rifle resting in his arms. Johnny turned to see him once, to let the man know he knew he was there.

Day started with small talk. “Heard you got shot in Mexico last year.”

“Almost,” Johnny replied, opening the bottle. “It was a revolution.” Day always liked to chit-chat at first. It was the Southerner in him. Johnny would play along.

“Any money?”

“Turns out they didn't have any. That's why the revolution.” Johnny grinned. He poured shots for the two of them.

“Plenty money here, John.” Day downed his shot. “You interested?”

Johnny sucked a lime. Now he was getting down to business. “This the same job you asked about before?”

Day grinned. “Yep, only now it's even better.” He fiddled with his glass.

“Why so?” Johnny grabbed the bottle again.

“More money,” Day laughed.

Day likes his job a little too much, Johnny thought; it made him more dangerous. He licked his finger and sprinkled salt on it. He downed his tequila and immediately sucked on a lime wedge.

Day watched Johnny with the lime. “We're hitting a rancher named Lancer. Biggest spread in the valley. He's almost done in, sent for his son to help. But the skinny is the kid's an Eastern dandy. He'll be easy pickin's.”

“That why you let up on your raids? Waitin' for the kid to show up?” He sat back in his chair a little.

Day sat up straight. “How'd you know we stopped?”

Johnny tilted his head toward the men outside. “Your men out there. They are bored.”

Day chuckled. “You always notice everything, don't you?”

Johnny downed another shot. He didn't answer.

Day got back to business. “So, you want in? I could still use you.”

Johnny sat all the way back. “I'll think about it.” He was playing it cool.

Day grew concerned. “You haven't made any other plans, have you Johnny?”

Johnny looked him in the eye. “Nope. I said I'd think about it and I will.”

Day stood. “Someone'll be here when you make your mind. But don't think too long, Johnny. You don't wanna miss out.” He grinned.

Johnny nodded. He grabbed the bottle again. Day indicated to the Indian rifleman and they both left. Johnny put the bottle down. He didn't want another drink. He had been right. Day was the one after Lancer. Lancer was in for some big, big trouble.

And so was Scott.





Chapter Fifteen: Sam's News

Teresa knocked on Scott and Abby's bedroom door. “Dinner's ready,” she called out. Downstairs, Murdoch slowly walked to the table, a long, sturdy piece of Spanish influence. Its chairs were ornately carved and upholstered with needlework. He stood at its head, propping his cane within easy reach. Three other places were set.

Teresa loped downstairs and entered the great room, smiling at Murdoch. “They should be coming down soon.” She took her place to Murdoch's left. She was excited to have them both here, especially Abby, another female in the hacienda.

Scott and Abby, having washed quickly and donned fresh clothes, came down the stairs together. They looked tired after their long journey but happy to have arrived.

“Here they are!” Teresa announced.

Murdoch nodded to Scott and indicated the table. Scott, ever the gentleman, pulled out the chair next to his for Abby before taking his place at Murdoch's right. Murdoch took his seat last and began pouring the cabernet. It was Lancer's own vintage, made from the small vineyard he purchased several years ago in the foothills.

Maria, the Mexican cook who Abby met earlier, entered from the kitchen. She smiled as she carried a platter loaded with sizzling inch-thick steaks. A second Mexican woman carried another platter with serving bowls of creamed corn and lima beans and a plate of sliced oranges from Lancer's grove.

They feasted on the well-prepared meal, fresh-tasting and perfectly cooked. The conversation was light, because of the women present, and mostly centered on Scott and Abby's trip. Remembering Teresa's advice, they did not mention Johnny Madrid or his part in their journey.

Teresa did comment about their clothing and suggested that they all make a trip into town in the morning and buy more appropriate items. “That's just not the style,” she said, having noticed Scott's plaid pants. “You'll need good, sturdy work clothes, too.” That convinced them to go, but Murdoch bowed out.

“Sam's coming in the morning,” he explained. “You three go.”

“Should we take some men with us?” Teresa asked.

“I don't think that'll be necessary,” Scott replied. He was sure of his abilities.

Murdoch nodded and drained his wine.

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



Breakfast was a casual affair, in a room off the large kitchen at a well-used round table. Maria again cooked; Teresa served the coffee. She was pouring the hot beverage into steaming mugs when Scott and Abby came down the stairs.

“Smells good,” Abby sniffed.

Gracias, señora, ” Maria smiled. She loaded Scott's plate with eggs, then offered them to Abby.

“Just one,” Abby said. She wasn't a big eater.

Scott reached for a biscuit and some bacon. The three of them sat down and ate. Well, Scott and Abby ate. Teresa sipped coffee.

“You're not eating?” Scott asked the girl.

“I've already eaten with Mr. Lancer,” she replied, “We wake up pretty early here and get started early. The buggy is all ready to go; I was just waiting for you two.”

“Our apologies,” Abby smiled. She took a biscuit. “We weren't aware of the schedule.”

“No matter,” the girl said lightly. “Enjoy sleeping in now. Soon you'll have to get an early start, too.”

Half an hour later, they climbed into the buggy, a different one from the day before. This one was lighter and meant for four people, with only a small payload area in back. Scott took up the reins as they headed south toward Morro Coyo.

“I know you just came from there yesterday,” Teresa explained, “but it's the closest town. It's tiny, but Baldamero's store will have everything you need. If there's something else you want, we may be able to arrange a trip to Green River.”

Shortly after passing through Lancer's arch, they met another buggy heading in. It was small, black and covered with a black canopy. One black horse pulled. The man driving wore a black suit.

“Hello, Sam!” Teresa greeted as he drove by. “Murdoch should be at his desk by now.”

The doctor nodded and clicked to his horse. He continued to the hacienda as the threesome drove toward town.

Sam Jenkins had been Murdoch's friend for over twenty-five years. The two frequently met for dinner, with Sam spending the night at Lancer before moving on to his next patient. They discussed much, and few subjects were off the table, so when Sam finished his physical exam of the rancher he didn't feel awkward about bringing up his meeting Scott and Abby in Green River.

“Well, I'm afraid that leg still needs more time. I'm still not sure what's causing your pain. I wish I could see inside to look at the bone itself. It's not healing right and I don't know why. And no riding with your back the way it is, either. And I want you to take small amounts of Laudanum at night if the pain keeps you awake.”

“Don't need the medication, Sam, but thank you.” Murdoch lounged in his big chair. “How have you been?”

Maria had brought them a midmorning snack of cheese and grapes. Sam picked up a morsel of cheddar. “I am wonderful. Been busy. I saw Scott and Abby in Green River when they were coming in. She is a beautiful woman.”

“Yes, she is. Scott chose well.”

“We had a nice little conversation before the driver got them back on the stage.” He took a bite. The cheese was mild.

Sam continued, “I saw something that day that disturbed me, Murdoch. As Scott and Abby were walking back to the stage, I noticed this gunfighter. He looked Mexican, wore a bright colored shirt, fancy concho pants, gun slung low. Instantly recognizable as a gunman. Anyway, he watched Scott and Abby. Closely. Too closely for my book. Then, as the stage pulled out, he mounted his black horse and followed.” Sam leaned forward. “I am worried, my friend, that he may be part of Pardee's gang.”

Murdoch sat back, digesting this news. He tapped his fingers together. “Well, it wouldn't surprise me. Pardee heard of Scott's imminent arrival. If I was in his position, I'd put a man on them, to look for the right opening to get to Scott before he can be of any help.”

“This morning I saw Scott and the two women heading into town. Alone. Do you think that is safe?”

“Well, I did, but with this news, I don't anymore. I'll send a couple of men after them. Thank you, Sam.”

Murdoch followed Sam out to the front courtyard. As the doctor rode off, he called for his segundo , a Mexican man in his fifties named Cipriano. He ordered Cipriano to send two men into Morro Coyo to keep and eye on his family. Satisfied with that job done, he returned to the cool depths of the hacienda and contemplated Sam's bit of news.

So Day had probably hired a man to follow Scott. It made sense. And it made Day more dangerous. Perhaps the gunfighter would try something more sinister. He'd have to be even more careful now.

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



The morning stage from Green River roared into Morro Coyo as Johnny left the hotel for the cantina he'd seen the day before. Tired of gringo food, he wanted a good Mexican breakfast. He'd slept in, common for his job since he usually worked at night or evening, so he saw lots of people in town going about their business. It was nearly noon and a couple of Pardee's men were out in front of the saloon already. He glanced at the stage passengers, assessing them as usual. They were no threat: a businessman and two women with a boy who looked about twelve. He entered the cantina.

Johnny warred with himself over his huevos rancheros and coffee, trying to decide his next move. Pardee could be brutal and merciless, he knew. The man was willing to do anything—including murder—to get the job done. That was one of the reasons he'd turned him down in Nogales all those months ago.

Now he was torn. He liked the idea of having a brother and he liked Scott; he even admired the man. He stood up to him. And it took guts to leave a comfortable life behind for the unknown, walking into a bad situation with little to go on. He wanted to support him.

But helping Murdoch Lancer was another thing entirely. For as long as he could remember, he hated the man. He had wanted to kill him. Maybe he still did. Scott's presence muddied the waters, so he was unclear on that topic. But to go as far as assisting the man responsible for abandoning his mother, well that wasn't as appetizing.

Still, there might be some fun in that after all. To help him, then let him know it was his rejected son who did so, may be the compromise he was after. It wasn't the first time he'd had that thought since learning about Scott. The plan didn't take Lancer completely down, but it might drop him enough notches to have serious regrets about his past actions.

Would that be enough for Johnny? For Maria?

It took a shot of tequila poured into his last cup of coffee to make up his mind for him. He'd go check out the situation at Lancer. If it looked like they needed an extra gun, he'd offer—for his usual fee; the old man wouldn't get his gun for free. If they were in good shape, he'd stay out of it. That he could live with. What he'd eventually do with Murdoch Lancer, well, he left that up in the air.

He made discreet inquiries and learned the general location of the hacienda. He would take a back road, not to be seen by anyone, especially Pardee's men. The last thing he needed was that man on his back now.

Johnny walked to the livery on the boardwalk opposite the saloon. He noticed that there was only one of Pardee's men outside now. He was idly wondering what happened to the other when a small boy ran into him.

“Oh, sorry Mister. Me and my friend—” the boy pointed to another who had run up behind him, stopped short and stood stock still staring at Johnny, a look of shock on his face, “Matt, what's goin' on?” he asked his friend.

Matt stared at Johnny a few more seconds before he ran away in the opposite direction. The first boy shrugged and took off after him, without a second glance at Johnny. Johnny chuckled. He wondered when the first boy would realize why Matt had run.

Johnny entered the dark, cool livery to get his horse. He paid the owner and entered Sombra's stall, giving him an apple and morning rubdown. He usually enjoyed this task; it was a special time for both Johnny and Sombra, but this morning he felt uneasy, as if he was being watched. Shaking off the feeling—it was probably because Pardee and his men were so near, or in anticipation of what he was about to do—he finished his task and saddled the horse.

Sombra was ready to go. He chewed the bit and wanted his head. Johnny would give it to him, but only for the first half-mile. He held him back the rest of the way. The situation was a powderkeg and he didn't know when he'd need the most from his mount.

Johnny galloped out of town to the west as a small buggy on the eastern side rounded the last curve before entering the village. Scott, Abby and Teresa neared Morro Coyo.





Chapter Sixteen: The Old Man

The buggy wheeled through the quiet streets of the small town, its occupants chatting happily. “You two will need all sorts of things,” the girl was saying, “Jeans, work shirts, jackets, hats...” They didn't notice two men leaning on the posts outside the saloon.

Bolman and Leeds lounged on the saloon porch. They watched the buggy and its occupants intently, recognizing the Lancer girl as the one talking. The other two people, though, they didn't know. Pardee would have to hear of this. “You wanna go?” Bolman asked.

“No,” Leeds replied, his hands up. “I've gotten into enough trouble with the boss today.”

“That's what you get for losing your man,” Bolman chuckled and headed inside the saloon. He found Pardee sitting alone at a table, a bottle in front of him with two empty glasses. “There'a a couple going to the general store,” he reported. “They're with that girl from Lancer. What should we do?”

Pardee frowned and stroked his mustache. “We need to know who they are. Go lean on them.” Pardee stood and motioned to his men inside the saloon. He followed Bolman to the porch, mounted his horse and led his men out of town.

“Mr. Baldemero!” Teresa called as she bounced the store. “Mr. Baldemero!” She was like a kid, brimming with happiness.

“Yes, my child.” A Mexican gentleman in his forties emerged from the back. He recognized the girl. “Oh, Señorita Teresa! It is so good to see you today.”

Teresa did the honors. “Don Baldemero, this is Scott Lancer and his wife Abigail. They need to buy everything!” She flung her arms wide.

Scott and Abby greeted the man and perused the store. It was jam-packed, with two tables in the center, both laden with goods. Around them on shelves and tables against the walls were stacks of other products, only semi-organized. The food stores piled against one wall, horse and saddlery gear on another. Stacks of hats occupied one of the tables in the center.

“Quaint,” Abby noted.

“And cozy,” noticed Scott, feeling a little claustrophobic in the cluttered store. He picked up a hat. Two men entered the store, unnoticed by the other occupants. They studied the couple.

Baldemero greeted Scott and Abby but was cut short by Teresa, who led him toward the clothing area. “First they need work clothes.”

“Of course, Señorita Teresa! The son of Mr. Lancer and his wife must have the very best!”

Bolman and Leeds glanced at each other, understanding the storekeeper's words. So it was true: Lancer had sent for his son and he was here. Bolman stepped forward as Scott was trying on a hat. When Scott reached for a second one, the outlaw grabbed it. “I was looking at that hat.”

“Oh, were you?” Scott picked up anther one.

“And I wanted that one,” stated Leeds.

Scott found himself sandwiched between the two men. They were dirty and they smelled and it was clear they wanted to tussle with him. He remained calm, detached. “Where I come from there are two ways to settle this situation,” he began. “One is—” Scott threw a hat into Bolman's face as he elbowed Leeds to the floor.

Bolman came after him. Scott backhanded him, sending him down. Leeds got up and lunged at Scott. “Stop it!” screamed Teresa. Abby knew better than to distract Scott. She hung back, praying for her husband to win.

Mr. Baldemero joined the chaos, screaming “Please! Por favor! ” for the men to stop tearing up his store. They ignored him as they threw punches and knocked over merchandise. Scott held his own until Leeds grabbed him from behind. Bolman knocked him out of the store and onto the dirt of the street. The outlaws walked away, back to their horses. They laughed at the greenhorn in the dirt.

Teresa ran out to the street, with Abby following. They helped Scott up. He was dazed and unsure on his feet. “Let's get you home,” Teresa said.

But Abby knew her husband. “No,” she corrected.

Confused, Teresa studied both Abby and Scott. Scott focused on his wife. “You're right. I came to buy clothes and clothes I shall buy.” He straightened and together with his wife, re-entered the disheveled store. Teresa, surprised at the turn of events, followed them in.

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



Johnny dismounted. He had stopped on a bluff with the Lancer hacienda in view and stared. The hacienda screamed of wealth and prestige, and it cut Johnny to the core to know he and his mother had been banned from its benefits. He looked away; his hatred too strong to continue gazing at the community. His desire to kill Murdoch Lancer grew with each passing moment. The image of Scott popped into his mind. Scott Lancer, his brother. Just getting to know his father. He couldn't take that away from him.

Johnny drew deep breaths to calm himself. He needed to be cool, to think clearly. He was grateful in that moment for Scott because his brother gave him that steadiness he sorely needed. In the past, he'd been able to draw on his gunfighter persona for that distance, but these emotions were too strong, too ingrained, for the Madrid persona to control alone. He needed Scott's memory.

It surprised him that someone he barely knew could have such an effect on him. Only once in his life had that happened; it was his great-uncle Esteban, the man who had found he and Maria after his “stepfather” Luis died, who took care of them until Maria's death, who found a home for him until he ran away at age 14 to join Esteban. Johnny had been immediately drawn to the flamboyant gunfighter who entered his life at a turbulent time.

Maybe it was something about Scott, almost the opposite of Esteban in nature, that he somehow sensed was a good fit with him. He didn't know, but he did realize that now was not the time to ponder such thoughts. He shook it off.

Back to business, Johnny studied the hacienda and its layout, picking up details that he'd missed before in all his emotion. The high walls and that tower would make great defense positions, but they were empty; no one patrolled. The only defensive move he saw were at the bridge just beyond the Lancer arch. There two men were blocking the access road with a laden cart. They were armed with rifles only. For a man under siege, Lancer was taking an awful lot of chances. That or, he simply didn't have the manpower to properly defend his home.

Johnny snorted at that idea. Lancer was the largest ranchero in the San Joaquin valley. He had to employ well over a hundred men, some of them with families, perhaps teens who could take up arms as well. Then again, he had been hit these past few months. Maybe Pardee was running a game of attrition and most of Lancer's men had left already.

If that was the situation, then he was definitely needed. His gun, expertise, and knowledge of Pardee and his range war tactics would be huge assets to Lancer and his ranch. With grim determination, he steeled his emotions and mounted his horse.

He was stopped at the arch. Joe, one of the two rifled men, hailed him. Johnny stopped. Joe stepped closer to the horse. “Your business, sir?”

Johnny surveyed the man. He was a cowboy, not a gunman, easily taken and intimidated. Johnny turned his horse so his right side faced the cowhand. With the gunfighter's Colt in full view Joe got the idea. He took a step back. “I'm here to see Murdoch Lancer,” Johnny drawled softly.

Joe nodded and waved him past. The other hand moved the cart from his way. It was so easy. Pardee could have gotten past these two in a heartbeat. Lancer should be ashamed of himself for having such poor security.

He rode slowly in, expecting to see more riflemen, but there were none. A couple of hands worked a horse in one of the corrals, another watched but didn't look his way until he stopped Sombra in the front courtyard. The courtyard was pretty, with yellow flowers in pots and red bougainvillea draping its arches. Still, no armed men. He couldn't believe the hacienda was this defenseless.

A Mexican man in his fifties approached him from the barn. He, too, was unarmed. Had Pardee been here instead of Johnny the man would be dead. “¡Hola! ” Cipriano called out. “What brings you to Lancer, amigo ?”

Johnny dismounted, a slow graceful drop to the dirt. He gazed at the men in the corral who finally stopped their work to watch. “Murdoch Lancer?” he asked.

“In the hacienda, señor.

Johnny said nothing but tied Sombra to a hitching post. He walked toward the arches. Cipriano stepped up to stop him. “You cannot go in, señor .”

“I think I can,” Johnny replied and brushed by the man. He was not going to be denied entry into what should have been his own home. He opened a double arched door and stepped inside. He was in a tiled entry garden, private with adobe walls. More plants in pots decorated the area. Very nice, he assessed, trying not to think of the tiny house Luis, his mother and he lived in all those years ago. He drew a deep breath to calm himself. A massive front door was to his right. He reached for the knob.

The dark coolness of the adobe structure assailed him. Standing for a moment to let his eyes adjust, he took notice of the room. Another entry room. Just how many rooms would he have to go into before he actually got to the heart of this damn house? A mirror occupied one wall, stairs in front of him, with a door behind them, and one more door to his right. He opened it.

He stopped in the arched doorway to a great room. It was huge, larger than any he'd ever seen before. Toward the back an expansive arched window, with views of another corral and rolling hills. A bookcase walled one side, with a long trestle-type dining table in front of it. On the other side, an alcove with a huge fireplace. Above the fireplace a large circle with an L in it. Lancer's brand.

“Who are you? How did you get in here?” an old man clamored. He had been at the desk in front of that window but now stood. He was tall, one of the biggest men Johnny had seen. He'd taken Lancer off guard and he could tell the man didn't like it.

Johnny took the steps into the room slowly, never taking his eyes off his father. What had his mother seen in this tall, gruff man? She had been beautiful and vivacious. He couldn't figure it out.

Lancer grew even more irritated. “I said, who are you?”

Johnny smiled ever so slightly. So he really had the man on edge. Good. “I'm Johnny Madrid.” He figured Lancer would relax once he learned he was the one who provided protection for Scott and his wife.

“You're a gunfighter,” the old man snarled. “Get out of here. I don't want your kind here.” He waved to indicate Johnny should leave and made a move to sit back down.

Johnny was surprised, but he didn't let on. Murdoch didn't seem to know about his duties to Scott; maybe his brother hadn't had time to mention him. His stare was unwavering. “Oh, I think you do.”

Murdoch stopped, pulling himself up again, suddenly aware of this man's look. He remembered Sam's warning. ‘He looked Mexican, wore a bright colored shirt, fancy black pants, gun slung low. Instantly recognizable as a gunman.' That described this man. Murdoch took the offensive.

“Why were you following my son in Green River?”

Johnny hesitated only slightly. If Scott hadn't told him anything, how did he know about him being with Scott in that other town? He chose to ignore the question. “I hear you have some trouble here.”

Murdoch was annoyed Madrid didn't answer. “What's it to you? And I asked you a question!”

Johnny decided to tell him some of the truth. “Your son hired me to protect him. I'm offerin' you a similar opportunity. You need guns. I have one.”

Now it was Murdoch's turn to be surprised. He didn't hide it. “My son would never hire scum like you. You work for Pardee. Get out!” He pointed to the door.

Johnny ignored him again. “Pardee is vicious, unrelenting and cruel, Old Man. And that son of yours has military experience but it don't put him on par with Day. You need me. I can help you get rid of Day and his men. But I ain't cheap. You'll have to pay.”

“I'm not paying you anything, Madrid. I said get out. Now go. I don't want your kind here.”

Two men rushed into the room. They held rifles on Johnny. He held up his hands. “Ok, I'll go, Old Man.” He pointed to Murdoch. “But you'll be comin' ‘round to me soon. Better make it before something happens to that precious son of yours.”

“Don't you threaten my son!”

“It ain't a threat, Old Man, not by me. Pardee will rip him apart. You'll find him face up in a ditch, ants crawlin' over his eyes.” Johnny turned, leaving.

“Don't you ever come back to my house, damn you, Madrid!” Murdoch barked after him.

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



Johnny had galloped away from Lancer, but now out of the hacienda's view, he slowed Sombra to a walk. Not in a hurry, he pondered his meeting with his father. The man was big. Big and loud. And in a mood. The man needed sex, that was certain, if he was that ornery. He idly wondered what kind of woman Lancer preferred. Maybe the girl. In his inquiries, he'd learned that the daughter of his slain foreman now lived in the hacienda with him. Maybe something was going on there. He didn't put it past the Old Man.

Johnny disliked his father. He was abrasive and authoritarian. Well, it had been Johnny's experience that big ranchers tend to be that way. It comes with the territory. Just as gunfighters can turn off their emotions to get a job done, an influential rancher has to be gruff and tough to get where they are.

And the man definitely disliked him. Or rather, what he was. Gunfighter scum, he'd called him. Most people didn't like men in his profession, but Lancer's feelings were more than that. He really despised gunmen. All of them, it seemed. He wondered what could have caused such intense hatred in the man. Either way, it would be funny when he found out who Johnny really was. He laughed out loud, startling Sombra.

Calmar, amigo, ” Johnny soothed his horse. “ Lo siento. ” He patted the animal's black, shining neck.

Well, one thing was for sure. Lancer didn't want to hire him but he desperately needed his help. Maybe Scott would see Lancer's weaknesses and act accordingly. He hoped so, for his brother's sake. Whatever the reason, Lancer was underestimating Pardee. He just hoped Scott wouldn't get hurt in the process. Johnny decided to stick around a few more days. Maybe he could find out more about Pardee's plans, or where his men were hiding, or anything he could pass on to Scott. Scott didn't mind getting help from ‘gunfighter scum.'

He kneed Sombra and loped toward Morro Coyo.

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



Scott laughed as he wiped off his face with the cool bandana. They were stopped by a small lake on the way back to Lancer. “I knew it would be a rough fight, I just never figured those two were that strong.”

“You held your own, darling,” Abby smiled. “I'm proud of you.”

“Until they threw you out in the street!” laughed Teresa.

“Yes, but he got up and completed his mission. Just like the Cavalry man I married.” Abby gathered her skirts and climbed up the incline back to the main road.

Scott continued to tend to his wounds. Teresa followed Abby. The women stopped when they saw a rider coming toward them. “Why, hello Mr. Madrid,” Abby greeted. She stepped forward; Teresa hung back.

Johnny stopped short of the buggy, eyeing the two rifled men on horses watching from behind the vehicle. He tipped his hat. “Ma'am.” He looked at Scott. His brother stopped his ministrations and ran up the bank, joining his wife.

“Mr. Madrid. I would have thought you would have left for Mexico by now,” he smiled.

Johnny looked around. “I wanted to check out the situation with your father's ranch first.”

“You talked to him?” He realized Johnny must have been coming from Lancer.

“Oh, yeah, I talked to him. But he wasn't listenin'.” He dismounted and pulled Scott away from the women. “Look, Lancer. You don't know what Pardee is capable of. You need help, but he's too proud to lower himself to hire ‘scum' like me. So you watch yourself. You and that pretty wife of yours. Pardee won't hesitate because she's a woman.”

Scott swallowed, remembering the stage robbery. “I thought of that.”

“And one more thing, Lancer.” He nodded toward their escort. “Those men? They aren't guns. They are cowboys. I could have taken them out before they even saw me.”

“I see.” Scott's worry showed. “Thanks for the warning, Mr. Madrid.”

“I'm Johnny. The job is over, Lancer.”

“Scott, then.” He offered his hand.

Johnny shook his brother's hand for the second time. “Scott.” He mounted Sombra and clicked him to moving. “Ma'am,” he said as he tipped his hat again. He nodded to Teresa and once more turned Sombra toward town.

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



Scott tried to concentrate on Johnny's warning over the chatter of the two females in the buggy. If Johnny thought he needed help, then Lancer must really be hard up, security-wise, or Pardee was just that good. A little of both, maybe.

He realized he must formulate a plan, maybe several, to defend the hacienda. He wondered what kind of protection Murdoch had in place already. Scott kicked himself for not noticing Lancer's defensive tactics yesterday when Teresa brought them in. He'd look into that now, for certain.

And Johnny had been right about their escorts, too. They weren't soldiers, they were cowboys. He needed to train them, at least give them the basics, so they'd be effective at the proper time. He also knew he'd have to rely on Murdoch to know his men and be able to relay to him their expertise. He just hoped he had time.

Again Scott questioned Abby's presence. He had brought his wife into a hostile situation without realizing the severity of it. Not that he had a choice. He chuckled inwardly: it hadn't really been his decision; she never once considered not coming. She had spunk, his wife. He'd have to watch over her, as Johnny had suggested, but he knew she wouldn't tolerate being coddled. He'd have to tread carefully to find the right balance of protection and yet allow her independence, else he find a personal battle on his hands.

And that war, Scott Lancer knew, was one he could not win!





Chapter Seventeen: Where There's Smoke...

The firebell warning rang out as the buggy passed under the Lancer arch. Scott immediately slapped the reins and the vehicle surged forward. Teresa and Abby held on as Scott pushed the horses hard. They followed the vaqueros to a smoky hillside north of the hacienda.

A field of hay, almost ready for harvest, was aflame. The three of them jumped out and ran to help. Murdoch was already there, barking orders, and women and children also pitched in, carrying water from a nearby creek, digging up the ground with shovels, beating flames with jackets and blankets—anything to assist el patron .

Abby took charge of the women and children, organizing a triage area where the men who were overcome with smoke could get water and rest. Teresa drove the buggy back to the hacienda for more blankets and medical supplies. Working side by side, the two of them cared for the injured or indisposed.

Scott led some men over to the northern edge of the fire, where it threatened to spill over to another field. They worked hard to keep it manageable and to stop it from spreading.

After nearly three hours of hot, exhausting, smoky work, Murdoch gave the order to retreat. They had managed to control most of the fire. “The rest will burn itself out by nightfall,” he said. Dog-tired and drained, everyone backed away, coughing from the smoke. Abby sent three girls around with buckets of water and ladles, offering respite to the weary workers.

Murdoch rode back to the hacienda with them in the buggy. In contrast to the unending chatter from town earlier in the day, no one said a word going home until they arrived at the courtyard. Murdoch gave orders to give special attention to clean the buggy of its smoky odor. Scott himself brought their purchases inside, not wanting to burden another Lancer hand.

“That's the third field Pardee's burned,” Murdoch told them as they entered the hacienda. “A few more like that and our cattle won't have feed for the winter.”

“We need to stop him before that happens, Sir,” Scott said grimly, more determined than ever to plan Lancer's defense.

“You will,” Abby supported. She grabbed one of the packages and started upstairs.

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



Murdoch's angry rebuff had done little to weaken Johnny's resolve. In fact it was stronger than ever. Gone was the ambivalence and questioning; his father's reaction convinced him of a different plan. He would help Murdoch come hell or high water just to have the satisfaction of throwing it back into his face. His son, his unwanted and tainted gunfighter son, would be the one to save him. Revenge would be sweet.

And in the process he'd help Scott also. That made it even better. He looked forward doing his job.

Johnny emerged from his hotel and sauntered to the saloon with one goal in mind: to gain information about Pardee's hideout. The outlaw always had a man or two at the saloon, sometimes more, but this afternoon he'd been watching from his hotel room. There was only two.

Two would be easier to ply with drink than three or more. It was hard getting that many men tipsy without arising suspicion. One or two was ideal. Of course, there may be more men inside the saloon who hadn't shown themselves, but that was unlikely, given how long he'd been watching. If that was the case, he'd just go in for a drink and try later.

He approached the saloon's porch, not bothering to greet the men. He knew they'd talk first. He was right. His boot had just set foot on that first step when one of them opened his big mouth.

“Pardee ain't here, Madrid,” he snarled.

Johnny kept walking, continuing up the steps.

The man jumped in front of Johnny. “Did you hear me? I said he ain't here.”

Despite his disgust, Johnny eyed him warmly. He had to play a part to get them to talk. “Not looking for Pardee. I'm looking for a drink. Wanna join me?”

The man relaxed his stance and smiled, a wicked grin displaying several missing teeth. “Always liked a man who offered drinks.” He stepped aside, grandly gesturing for Johnny to enter first.

That was too easy, Johnny warily thought. “After you,” he insisted. He didn't need to be hit from behind. He nodded to the other gunman, “You gonna stay out here or come in and drink?”

The two men glanced at each other and shrugged. “Why not?” They hurried up the steps into the saloon.

Inside it was dark and comfortable. Johnny sat at a table in the corner, in his usual position, and ordered a tequila setup. For an hour the three men drank, reminiscing over past jobs, past women. Johnny used the alcohol and his charm to gain their trust before carefully plying them for real information.

But Johnny learned little that he truly wanted to know. One started to tell about their hideout in the foothills, but to Johnny's disappointment, the other jabbed him in the arm and stopped him from saying more. It took another bottle before the man's tongue loosened enough to offer one interesting and unusual tidbit. Their assignment the next evening was to be at Lancer's Briar Creek line shack.

Johnny knew something was planned, but the banditios offered no clues as to what it was. They probably didn't know themselves. Pardee was like that; he gave out just enough information to his men, but little more. Day liked keeping them in the dark.

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



After baths, a change of clothing and dinner, Scott and Murdoch sat in the great room enjoying a nightcap. Murdoch's favorite in the evenings was his single-malt Scotch and Scott was giving it a try. “Smooth,” he remarked appreciatively. He mulled over the day's events and wanted to breach the subject of the hacienda's security but hesitated.

Murdoch seemed pre-occupied. Scott let it go; he assumed it was because of Pardee and the fire, but after a few awkward moments of silence, the older man spoke up. “I had a visitor today,” he began. “A gunfighter named Johnny Madrid. He offered his gun. He wanted me to believe that you'd hired him for protection on your journey here. I knew he was lying. He works for Pardee, I'm sure of it. But why he was really here, I don't know. Maybe to appear to work for us, but act as a spy for Pardee.”

Scott had forgotten that Johnny had seen Murdoch today. The incident flew out of his mind when he heard that firebell. “We did hire Mr. Madrid for protection, Sir. And I don't believe he'd hire on with Pardee. He wants to help us.”

Murdoch sprang to his feet. “Why on earth would you employ such vermin as that gunfighter, Scott? I've seen him in a gunfight. I found it quite disgusting. He killed a man with no remorse, Son. None whatsoever.”

“Well, Sir,” Scott drew a deep breath. “At the time, there was no one else. Believe me, I was more than skeptical at first, but after a while he proved himself. He thwarted two attempts against us, one in Sacramento and the other while we were on the stage.”

“He did, did he?” Murdoch thoughtfully put down his glass. “Did you ever think that those incidents were staged to make him appear to be the hero to gain your trust?” Scott's eyebrows flew up. Murdoch continued. “That's how men like that work. They appear to be your friend, to have your interests at heart, and when you really trust them, they turn on you. They are really good at it, too.”

Scott knew of men who did such things, but he did not believe Johnny to be one of them. “Johnny isn't like that, Sir.”

Now it was Murdoch's turn to be surprised. “Johnny? You're on a first name basis with him? When did this happen?”

Scott felt uneasy being interrogated by his father like he was a disobedient child. “Well, today, I guess. He met us at the lake on the way back from town. We talked briefly and suggested I call him that.”

“You talked to him today? Do you realize he was nearby when that fire was started? He could have been the one to do it!”

“I don't believe he'd do that, Sir.”

Murdoch shook his head. “You don't know him that well, Son. I know the type. I know what they can do, what they actually do. It makes much more sense that he's Pardee's man than yours. You're going to have to trust me on this. I know. Why would he offer his gun to me otherwise?”

“To help us?” Scott knew he sounded naive.

Murdoch snorted. “Hardly. Men like that don't want to save a ranch. They want money and the big money is in taking it down, selling the cattle, its other assets. Running a ranch takes time and effort. They don't want to do that. They want the quick payoff.”

Still, he couldn't believe Johnny was the same sort as Pardee. “Well, I like the man, Sir. And I don't see why we can't hire him on. We need all the help we can get and he's quite capable.”

“Absolutely not, Scott. His loyalties aside, gunfighters are the lowest trash in the West. I will not have one on this ranch. Never.”

Murdoch was adamant, but Scott needed to understand his reasoning. To him, his reaction wasn't rational. “But, Sir, why? What have you got against gunfighters?”

Lancer looked up at Scott. His mien was so earnest that Murdoch found it hard to be angry at the continued inquiry. Instead, he softened, poured himself another drink, downed it then gazed out the dark window. Long minutes ticked by before Murdoch answered. When he finally did, his voice was low, as if confessing. He drew a deep breath. “Gunfighters are the reason your mother died in Carterville, Scott. Had they not laid siege to this ranch, I would never have sent her away. I would have been with her when you were born. She may not have died.” His voice softened to almost a whisper. “Things could have been totally different.”

Nonplussed, Scott could only nod. Now he was beginning to understand. Johnny, no matter how well-intentioned, would not get the chance to prove himself to Murdoch. The man's prejudice ran too deep, involved too much emotion.

“Time for you to get to bed,” Murdoch thickly announced, putting an end to their conversation.

Scott didn't like being dismissed like a child, but he reasoned that his father's emotions were running rampant now and needed to be alone. “Goodnight, Sir,” he said, putting down his glass. He trudged up the stairs to join his wife.

Abby had put away all of their new clothing and was in bed, her back to him. She was asleep already, exhausted from the day's activities. Tired as well, he quickly undressed and joined her. Safe and warm nestled close to his wife, Scott fell asleep.

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



In his hotel room, Johnny tossed and turned, unable to turn his mind off. He kept thinking of his Old Man, of Scott and the situation with Day Pardee. Rarely had he been in such a state when on a job. He'd almost always been able to fall asleep quickly. In his line of work, that ability was almost as prized as marksmanship.

He knew he'd be a wreck tomorrow if he didn't sleep and wanted to do a little exploring in the morning, getting the lay of the land. A little reconnaissance was always a good thing. But he needed to be on top of his game.

Finally he gave up, got out of bed and re-dressed. There was a bordello on the outskirts of Morro Coyo and he knew he'd find distraction there. And it may be just enough of one to allow him that elusive sleep.

The streets were nearly deserted this time of night, but that didn't mean Johnny Madrid wasn't aware, even on this kind of mission. Never taking anything for granted, he noticed every shadow where a man could hide.

He glanced over at the busy saloon. A few of Day's men were there, enjoying the beer and the saloon girls, but he knew Pardee had many more somewhere. Day was always good at hiding his true numbers. He'd take to a town like this one, and keep a few men visible, but always hold some in reserve, hidden away, so his enemies never knew how many they faced. Johnny knew he had to find that hideout tomorrow.

La Puerta Cerrada [The Closed Door] was a good name for a bordello. He'd never known one that didn't have more than a few closed doors. Walking in, he noticed four women in the lobby area, one behind the bar. That was a lot of working girls who weren't working.

It wasn't a fancy place, just a moderately-sized functional room with minimal decoration, Mexican blankets that would have been brighter had the lighting been better. A single lit candle occupied the middle of each of the four tables, providing the only light. Johnny frowned. It had been his experience that a bordello with such sparse lighting didn't offer the best girls.

“What's your pleasure, handsome?” a too-thin blonde breathed as she sashayed toward him, her breasts almost bursting out of her tight bodice. “Whatever it is, I'm sure I can accommodate you. I'm real good at what I do.”

She was more than obvious and instead of appealing to him, it had the opposite effect. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.

“Down, Anna,” said the voice behind the bar. The woman circled around with a couple of glasses in her hand. “Go wash yourself,” she told the blonde. She offered Johnny a drink. “Care to sit a spell, honey?”

Anna pouted as she trod to the back, disappearing behind a door. Johnny almost laughed. The new girl was a little older, but somehow looked fresher. Her dress was revealing, but not overly so, as if she knew her assets were desirable, but didn't have the need to give them completely away. She smiled sincerely at him. Wisps of her light brown hair fell over her large brown eyes. “I'm Eliza,” she said as he took the glass and led him to a table.

“We need more candles,” Eliza began as they sat, “But business has been rather poor lately. It's that Pardee and his men. They run off all the best customers, and they don't always pay.”

“Well, I always pay,” Johnny sipped his drink. It wasn't watered down. He was surprised. “And I'm here tonight.” He smiled.

“That you are, honey. That you are.” Eliza laughed.





Chapter Eighteen: Rice for Dinner

Scott left his wife at the breakfast table, intent on going outside to where Cipriano had cut some horses for him to try. The sun was bright, even though it was still early morning, and would burn off the chill before too long.

He crossed the courtyard, reveling in the beauty that assailed him. Wide, open spaces greeted him in stark contrast to Boston's confinement and congestion. His home city would be still be a study in grey this time of the year, but California was bright and colorful, with purple mountains, green hillsides and a beautiful clear blue sky.

Buenos dias, Señor Lancer,” Cipriano greeted. “Here are the horses.” He pointed to a smaller round corral where three steeds pranced in anticipation. Two were chestnuts, one with a long blaze down his face; the other had four white feet. The third was a dapple grey. “They are good mounts, Señor . Strong. Spirited. They were only broke last week. El Patron , he told me you were Cavalry in the gringo war, no?”

“Yes, Cipriano, I was.” Scott nodded to the horses, “And those are some fine examples of horseflesh. Thank you.” Scott eyed them appreciatively. The grey trotted around nervously but the stockinged chestnut appeared to look right at him. “I think I'll try that one first,” Scott pointed.

Cipriano nodded and motioned to a hand. Paco came running. Speaking in rapid Spanish, he told him to cut out the preferred horse and saddle him for Scott. Paco nodded his acquiescence and ran off to do his chore.

Scott turned to the segundo . “I would like you to find a mount for my wife as well, Cipriano. She is an excellent rider and would prefer a good mare if you have one.”

“I do, Señor , I do.” Cipriano withdrew to the right, into the barn and disappeared into its cool darkness.

Paco brought the saddled chestnut to Scott. “ Para usted, Señor. El caballo con las patas blancas. ” [For you, Sir. The horse with white feet/legs.]

Gracias. ” Scott had already learned the Spanish word. He took the reins; swiftly and cleanly he mounted the white-footed chestnut. It half-reared at first then sidestepped a few feet before he began picking up his feet in anticipation. Scott took a firm grip and kneed the horse. It took off. Running at full speed, the chestnut fled down the lane and under the arch.

The men watched, unknowing if the son of el patron would be able to command the horse. They soon got their answer as they saw the horse returning, skimming under the arch and flying over a fence before coming to a halt under Scott's expert rein.

“A good horse,” he remarked, dismounting. “I'll take him.”

“Oh, Scott that was wonderful!” Abby clasped her hands. She had emerged from the hacienda as he first flew under the arch. “You haven't lost your touch.”

“Never,” Scott smiled. “I asked Cipriano to get you a mount, too. You'll be riding more here.”

Abby smiled. “I plan to. In fact, Teresa wanted to show me where she goes to harvest wild rice. We were going to go shortly.”

Scott's face grew somber, remembering Johnny's advice. “Don't go alone, darling. Take a good man or two with you.”

“Don't worry, my Love. We will.”

Murdoch limped forward to them, leaning heavily on his cane. “I see you found yourself a horse.”

“Yes, Sir. He's a fine animal.”

“Good, good.” Murdoch seemed to be distracted for a moment. He glanced around the ranch. Men were busying themselves in the usual manner, nothing looked out of place, but he felt uneasy. It was a feeling he'd felt since Pardee had first hit.

“...our defenses?”

Murdoch startled out of his reverie. “What? What about our defenses?” he asked Scott.

Scott had been talking for a good five minutes, yet the man had not heard a word. “I wanted you to show me our defenses, Sir. What assets we have, where likely avenues of attack would be, what our weaknesses are. In case we have to defend the hacienda.”

“Oh, that. Of course,” Murdoch complied. He lead Scott around to the back.

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



Johnny rose early and breakfasted quickly, scarfing down the gringo fare at his hotel. He needed to find that line shack, and if possible, snoop around and locate Pardee's hideout. He was sure Scott would want to mount a surprise attack where the outlaws thought they were safe.

He slipped out the back of the hotel and eased around through hidden alleys and side streets to the livery. He did not want to arouse the suspicion of any outlaws in the saloon, should they be up already.

Sombra was ready to go. The black horse stomped impatiently as Johnny saddled him. Soon they were off toward the northwest, avoiding the area of the Lancer hacienda, but heading in a direction to take them to the foothills near where he'd been told Briar Creek ran.

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



Lancer's best gun, Nate Simpson, hand-picked by Murdoch, arrived to escort Teresa, Abby and Josefina, Maria's youngest daughter, to the Soledad marshes. He brought the three horses, including a spirited young mare that Cipriano had selected for Abby.

As they passed under the Lancer arch, Nate tipped his hat twice. “It sure is gonna be a scorcher today, isn't it, Miss Teresa.”

Teresa looked at the unclouded blue sky. “Sure looks that way.”

“Then we'd better hurry so we'll be back before it gets that hot,” Abby grinned. She kicked her horse to a gallop.

Abby was indeed an excellent rider. She had competed in riding expositions before meeting Scott and the two of them had a regular routine of Sunday afternoon riding excursions back in Boston. Then she had to wear proper clothing, but today she felt freer in Teresa's suggestion: jeans and a shirt with her hair tied back. She was glad the girl had talked her into buying the casual wear.

The four of them headed south, toward the area called Soledad, Spanish for ‘sadness' or ‘loneliness.' The area was beautiful but isolated; the name fit. It was a lowland field, frequently flooded, and yielded fine, nutty-tasting wild rice. An hour's gentle ride brought them to the edge of the marshes. They skirted around to the wild rice field, which was heavy with harvest.

“Oh, my,” Abby remarked. “It is so beautiful here!” They dismounted and the women tugged on knee-high waterproof boots to began their work, filling the sacks of rice for tonight's dinner. Nate kept watch. He stayed on his horse for a better view.

“How did you and Scott meet?” Teresa asked as she began to pick the rice.

Abby positioned her sack to stay open and started to yank the grasses. “He was in Philadelphia for business with my father and came to dinner. It was almost love at first sight.” She laughed, remembering.

The women conversed until almost eleven in the morning as they picked their bounty, covering such topics as men, housework, California, and men again. Teresa and Abby worked well together and included Josefina in their chat. When they had collected all they needed, Nate carried their round sacks to his and Josefina's mounts to carry back to the hacienda.

¡Hola! ” a man cried, galloping up on his horse. Nate was finishing tying the last of the sacks to his mount. He paused. Before him was a wiry man, about forty or so, with several days' growth on his face.

Before he could react, the man yanked Nate's gun from its holster and held it up. “Don't even think of trying anything.”

Nate did as he was told. He backed away, standing in front of the three women, his arms spread as if to protect them all.

“Move away,” the gunman ordered, flicking Nate's gun to indicate to the left.

Nate hesitated. He didn't want to expose the women.

“You have a death wish?” The outlaw snarled.

“Don't hurt these ladies,” Nate implored. “They ain't done nothin' to you.”

The man laughed, displaying his stained teeth. His startled horse pranced, but he got the animal under control quickly. “Weren't plannin' on hurtin' anyone, boy. Jus' takin' one of ‘em.”

Both Abby and Teresa gulped. Josefina looked down. She was the youngest, barely fourteen, but she understood the dangers.

“You there,” he pointed to Abby. “You Miz Lancer?”

Teresa's fingers snaked around Abby's arm. “Don't say anything,” she whispered.

Abby glanced at the younger girl. “I am not afraid,” she whispered back, even though her heart raced. She looked straight at the man, meeting his eyes defiantly. “I am Mrs. Scott Lancer.” Abby wished with all her might that Scott had come with them. Or for Johnny Madrid to suddenly show up. But he didn't.

The outlaw grinned. “You're the one I want. Mount up, Lady.”

“Don't go, Miz Lancer,” Nate pleaded.

The gunman once again turned his visage on Nate. “There you go again, wanting to see hell before noon. Stay out of this, boy.” He kicked out his boot, smacking young Nate in the face. The youth went down. Blood flowed from Nate's temple. He was out cold. The gunman flicked a paper on the boy's chest. Josefina dropped to her knees in fear.

“Now, Miz Lancer, if you don't mind,” he gestured grandly toward the horses, indicating that she should get on.

Abby strode bravely to her horse, desperately trying to think of a way out of this situation.

“You can't do that!” Teresa yelled. She ran up to the man.

“Why, ain't you full of spunk?” The man leaned down, leering at the girl. “I'll bet you'd be a really wild ride.” Teresa gasped and backed away. The man laughed. “If only I had time...” the man muttered as he turned his horse toward Abby.

He watched the woman. Abby fumbled with the reins. “Sometime this morning, Miz Lancer.” She shot him a look of disgust and hopped up, catching her boot in the stirrup. Before she could get a good grip on her reins, the man grabbed them. “No ideas, now Miz Lancer. You don't wanna be no trouble, do you?” He kicked his horse into action and Abby was jerked into motion. They galloped away.

For half an hour he led them in a mostly northwestern direction. He spurred his horse to a faster and faster gait, pulling the mare. She was a good rider, but being unused to this Western saddle and not in control of her horse put her at a disadvantage. Abby held on to the pommel with both hands, not wanting to fall off. As they rode, her initial fear faded, replaced by a drive to escape.

When she could, Abby concentrated on her surroundings, trying to figure out a way back to the hacienda, should she be able to get away. It was difficult, though, for the man kept changing directions and speed and she was having an increasingly tough time staying in the unfamiliar saddle.

They entered the foothills. Here, he slowed to a fast walk. Abby was grateful for the change and allowed herself to relax a little. At least she didn't have to try so hard to stay on.

He stopped under a tree's canopy and dismounted. “Get off,” he ordered, his manner gruff. Abby glanced around, wary again. Would he violate her? “Turn around.”

Abby's heart pounded as she was certain he would begin to tear off her clothes. But he did not. Instead he threw a dirty bandana over her eyes and tied it tight. “Don't take this off, now. If'n you see, we'll have to...well, you know,” She could sense him leer.

He shoved her back on her horse and led the mare in the foothills, around rocks and under trees. Abby ducked close to the mare's mane. It helped her remain steady on the horse with all these obstacles. She wished the man would slow down so it would be easier for her, but she didn't want to do or say anything to anger him.

After what seemed like hours, they stopped again. “Get off,” he ordered. Abby slid down to the ground obediently. “We're gonna walk the rest of the way.” He grabbed her reins and pushed her forward, guiding her roughly from behind with his free hand.

Unable to see the path, her rubber-booted feet stumbled over and over. The outlaw pulled her up each time, grabbing her arms forcefully. “Miz Lancer, you don't walk so good,” he laughed.

She felt herself growing angry at this brute who was taunting her. And truly lost. She now had no idea where she was or what direction they traveled. But he knew where he was going and within another half hour he stopped. She could hear water running and horses nickering. A gentle breeze cooled the air. She was in the shade, she could tell. She didn't feel the sun on her face.

“Welcome, Mrs Lancer,” came a voice. “I'm Day Pardee.”





Chapter Nineteen: A Little Fun

Satisfied and with full knowledge of the hacienda's defense positions, Scott headed to his room to formulate a plan. He knew they'd need a well-rehearsed course of action, one they could quickly learn and implement on a moment's notice.

Murdoch had briefed him on the general abilities of all of his men. That made it easier for Scott to start training. Most of the cowboys needed more practice with their weapons and Murdoch had agreed, seeing the need for better-trained men. Murdoch had even given his approval for an attack on Pardee, should they find his hideout. Scott's head filled with ideas.

He got so far as the front garden when shouts rang out over the sound of galloping hooves. Three horses ran at top speed toward the hacienda. The lookout on the roof—Scott's first idea, already implemented—waved the signal to let them in and the men at the gate moved away their laden cart just in time to let the three pass.

The horses continued their dead run into the main yard, a direct violation of Murdoch's rule regarding fast riding so close to the hacienda. Scott could now see who was riding in: Teresa, with their escort and the other girl. But no Abby. Hadn't Abby said she would go with her to get rice? Scott ran up to the horses.

He could see Nate's bloodied face. Teresa's hair had come down and now spilled over her face. Red stained the other girl's white blouse as well. What had happened?

“Scott! Scott” Teresa yelled. She threw herself off her horse and continued running into his arms, her momentum carrying him back a step. “They got Abby!” she cried, tears beginning to stream.

“Who? What? ” Scott couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Murdoch emerged from the hacienda, ready to pounce angrily at those violating his rule, but stopped short when he saw the blood and the women. “What's going on here?” he yelled.

Teresa lunged at both men. “They got Abby! A man—”

“Just one man?” Scott asked incredulously. How could one man take down Lancer's best gun? Murdoch had vouched for him. Said he could protect the women better than even Johnny Madrid.

Teresa nodded, tears making a path down her dusty face. She panted. “Yes. He kicked Nate. Knocked him out. He made Abby get on her horse. They took off to the mountains.”

Scott's thoughts ran wild. Was Abby safe? Only one kick had taken Nate out? Where had they taken her?

“Who, sweetheart?” Murdoch asked Teresa softly. “Who did this?”

The girl took a crumpled paper from her pocket. “He left this.”

Murdoch read the note then handed it to Scott.

Lancer—We have your son's wife. If you want her back, give up the hacienda by tonight. Leave. We will be watching. She will be returned to you.

If you do not leave by dusk, we will have ourselves a little fun tonight.

Scott looked at Murdoch. “Pardee,” he said grimly.

Murdoch nodded. “Pardee.”

Scott didn't hesitate. He didn't wait for permission or ask advice. He immediately ran to the barn. His new horse stood in his stall, munching on hay. “Come on, boy!” he said to the animal. “I'm gonna see what you're made of.”

He rode out of the barn, pausing only to grab a rifle from Nate's saddle. Murdoch yelled to him, “Stop! You don't know where you're going.”

“Yes, I do. I'm going to get her!”

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



Abby heard laughter. Someone shoved her against a rock. Unable to see, she grasped the stone to steady her. The next voice she heard gave her a chill.

“Well, ain't you a purty one. C'mon, Day. Let us have some fun with her now.”

“Not yet, Coley,” Day drawled. “You'll get your chance tonight. Lancer won't cut out just for her. He don't even know her.”

“Then why kidnap me?” Abby found her voice. It was strong and steady, unlike the way she felt.

“Because, little lady,” Pardee leaned toward her. She recoiled from his reeking breath. “My men here, they like a little action now and then.”

Abby shuddered. It was a foregone conclusion. She would be raped. Her heart raced in fear.

“If'n he ain't gonna leave, why don't we take the woman now?”

“Let's give the man a chance,” Day answered. Abby could sense his sinister smile. “He's got until nightfall. Let him sweat. Besides, won't she be more terrified if we wait, then take her at night? Won't that make it more exciting?”

The outlaws chuckled in lurid sadism. Abby shuddered again. She knew her fate, but she'd be damned if she let it happen without a fight. She started working on her binds, trying to get enough room to slip one of her tiny hands out.

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



Scott's only plan was to ride toward ‘the mountains.' But as he left sight of the hacienda, he stopped short. Murdoch was right. He didn't know where he was going. He didn't know the land or have any intelligence regarding Pardee or where he could be. But he did have an idea. He shifted his direction and galloped toward Morro Coyo.

Johnny Madrid was there, or at least, had been. If he could find the gunfighter he knew together they would be able to get Abby. With no time to waste, he kneed his mount. The chestnut was game and leveled out in an all-out run. Scott leaned forward in the saddle, close to the horse's flying mane.

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



Murdoch cursed under his breath. He hadn't wanted Scott to run out, to go off half-cocked in search of his wife. They needed a plan. With Scott gone, he'd have to come up with one by himself. This was one of the reasons he'd wanted his son to come here in the first place.

First he attended to the wounded. Nate wasn't hurt badly, but he was sporting one hell of a headache. Murdoch sent him to his bunk once Maria cleaned him up and bandaged him.

The girl Josefina was all right. The blood on her blouse had come from Nate. She was shook up, though, and Maria sent her to bed also.

Teresa insisted on helping with the others before cleaning herself up. She was scared, but her fears ran deeper; she had read the note.

They had to leave by dusk. Someone was watching. Those words suck in Murdoch's head. If only Scott hadn't ran off.

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



Johnny returned to Morro Coyo disappointed. He'd found the line shack by Briar Creek but saw nothing there to indicate anyone was there or had been there. Nor did he see any preparations for the future. He wondered, not for the first time, that the banditos had given him bad information, drunk as they were.

He had spent valuable time scouting much of the surrounding area, looking for Pardee's hideout. He saw no evidence of the camp, but that wasn't surprising. Given the kind of country it was—broad, mountainous and rocky—dozens of men could be hidden and he wouldn't have found them.

Later he would follow some of Pardee's men and see if he could find their hideout that way. But for now, he was hungry. He hitched Sombra to the hotel's post and went to the cantina.

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



As Scott galloped toward the tiny town, he smiled at the idea of running to a gunfighter for help in spite of Murdoch's advice. But Johnny just couldn't be an ordinary gunfighter. Oh, he could kill, and do so efficiently, but there was something more about this young man.

It intrigued Scott how quickly he had grown to like Johnny Madrid. After he got that little thing settled about his attitude toward Abby, that is. But now, riding to ask his assistance, Scott reconsidered that entire episode in a new light. The outcome of his encounter with Madrid over Abby had left them with a mutual respect and he wondered if Johnny had planned it all to begin with. He had not seen Johnny act in like that with any other woman; in fact, the gunfighter's manners with regard to women almost matched his own. So then, he concluded, it had been a test. One which he was sure he'd passed.

He and Johnny appeared to be opposites, if one didn't look deeper. While he could only guess at the gunfighter's background, he was sure it wasn't as sterling as his own. Johnny must have had a hard life and a difficult childhood. Yet from seemingly opposite histories, they both grew to be similar in character, or so it looked from Scott's point of view.

Yet, he realized he was new to the West and to the idea of gunfighters in general. Murdoch hated them, and people seemed to be wary or even afraid of them. Certainly in Day Pardee, if he was a prime example, then that fear, hatred and wariness was definitely warranted. But Johnny somehow seemed different.

Maybe Johnny viewed gunfighting like a job, not unlike he had view the killing he had done in the War. It was something he didn't enjoy, but it had to be done. Good men do perform seemingly bad acts, just as even the most unsavory will occasionally do something good.

He slowed his horse as he neared Morro Coyo. Sweat and lather covered the chestnut's neck and he breathed hard, but he still had something left in him. He entered the town at a gentle lope.

Scott saw Sombra tied to a hitching post in front of the hotel and sighed in relief. Thank God! Johnny was still here. He jumped off the chestnut and tossed the reins over the hitching post. The horse dipped his head into the trough, drinking deeply.

Running inside the hotel, Scott looked around. No Johnny. Five long steps and he was at the registry, scanning the names for Johnny's. He took the stairs by two and was outside Johnny's door in seconds.

He knocked.

No answer.

Where was he? Scott knocked again. “Johnny!” he called out.

“What's your hurry, Scott?” came a soft drawl from behind. “You ran in here like a chick—”

“They've got Abby!” Scott exclaimed, grabbing Johnny by the shoulders. “They're holding her hostage.” His stare was firm.

“All right, Scott.” Johnny's tone was easy, relaxed. “We'll take care of them. Together.”

Scott looked into Johnny's eyes and knew he had made the right decision in coming to the man. “Thanks,” he breathed.

Johnny nodded. “I want to know everything. Leave no detail out.” He led Scott into his room. Once inside, Scott related the story, about the rice, Nate, the hard ride back, the blood, and lastly the note.

Johnny sat still, silent throughout the telling and for minutes after. That tidbit he learned from Pardee's men last night was beginning to make sense. But there was no need to tell Scott about it yet.

“Any ideas?” Scott asked.

“Yes, but you ain't gonna like it.”

“Let's hear it,” Scott said grimly.

“You said they are watching. That means one of two things: they have a man posted literally keeping an eye on things or...they have an inside man. Or both.”

“A spy.”

“Yes. Anyone hire on recently? Just before all this started?”

“I don't know. Murdoch hasn't discussed...”

“All right.” Johnny stared at Scott. “I want you to go back to Lancer.”

“Why?”

“We have to assume that they have a mole. You'll go back, say you tried to find her alone, you failed. You're the greenhorn who ran off and got lost. Play the part. Think you can do that, Scott?

Scott nodded. He could act the fool if he needed to save his wife.

“You did not come to me. They can't know you have help—any of them. Not your father, not that girl, no one. Convince your father to make it look like he is obeying their demand. Pack wagons. Saddle horses. Announce it to the men. No one knows its all for show except you and your father. No one, Scott.”

“And just before dusk, leave. Make a big show of it. When you get to the curve around that lake—the one with the large rock. Where we talked yesterday?”

Scott nodded.

“Good. When you get there, I want you to stay. Say you need some time alone. You're worried about your wife, pretend to break down, whatever, just let them go on without you.”

“Play the fool again,” Scott said grimly.

“Yes. If they have a spy, he may be playing it out too. I'll be there waiting for you. When they are out of sight, we'll take off to their camp. But Scott, keep up your act until you see me.”

“You know where they could be?”

“I found something out yesterday. Pardee hires men who talk too much when they drink.”

“Okay, but why not break out of the greenhorn act as soon as they go on? Why wait for you?”

“We have to assume that they'll have someone watching.”

“But...”

“I'll kill him, Scott.”

Scott paused. Johnny's matter-of-fact statement regarding taking a life caught him off guard. His talking of killing in such a nonchalant way surprised him. Maybe we aren't as much alike as I thought, Scott entertained.

Johnny went on. “Have your father continue until he gets to that path in the woods, the one that cuts to the back road to Morro Coyo then double back to the hacienda. He should pull the wagons into the barn and hide them. So when Pardee comes to take Lancer he'll think it easy pickins.”

“How do you know all these paths, these back roads, Johnny? You told me days ago you'd never been here before.”

Johnny smiled. “I wouldn't be much of a gunhawk, Scott, if I didn't get to know the lay of the land when planning a range war.”

Scott thought back to his Cavalry days. “This really is war, isn't it?”

“Yep, Scott.”

Scott stood up. “Then I am in need of a sidearm.”

“Now?”

“Now,” Scott said, arms akimbo.

“But—” Johnny thought they should put their plan in action quickly.

“But nothing.” Scott interrupted. “Now,” he said firmly. He knew he needed to be armed to go into battle.

Having no choice, Johnny reluctantly accompanied Scott as he trekked to Morro Coyo's gunsmith, a refined old gentleman named Leandro. No one knew if that was his first name or his last. All people ever called him was Leandro. He was Mexican, and had evidently come from the monied class, before they lost political favor. He carried himself in that manner, and dressed like a South-of-the-Border dandy, but he did know more than his share about weaponry.

Scott and Johnny walked into the store. Johnny paused, smiling slightly, taking in the sights. Against one wall rose columns of rifles: Henrys, Winchesters, Remingtons. Holsters adorned the opposite wall and behind and under the glass counter were handguns of all shapes and sizes.

Scott walked up to the counter. Leandro looked up from wiping down a Colt. “Hello!” he called. “I am Leandro. Welcome to my store!”

“Leandro, I'm Scott Lancer—”

Leandro beamed. He immediately opened his arms in greeting. “Mr. Lancer! I have heard of your return to your home! Welcome to California, señor .”

“Thank you.” Scott gestured toward Johnny. “This is Johnny Madrid.”

Leandro's eyes flashed fear but only for a moment then he collected himself. “ Señor Madrid,” he spoke respectfully. Johnny nodded slightly.

“I am here to purchase a sidearm, Leandro,” Scott stated. “And Mr. Madrid will be assisting me.”

“Of course, of course. I have many models to—”

“And we're kinda in a hurry,” Johnny added. “He doesn't need anything fancy or overly expensive. Just a well-made weapon with true aim.”

“Yes, yes. I see. Well, we have—”

Johnny pointed to a Colt under the glass. “We'll look at this one. Do you have a shooting range out back?” When Leandro nodded, Johnny continued, “Good. Let him try it out.”

The gunsmith, forced to speed up the sale by Johnny Madrid, did as he was told. He handed Scott the heavy weapon and grabbed a box of bullets.

Johnny perused the practice area. It was enclosed in high adobe walls, with several targets to chose from. “Ok, Scott. Shoot something.” Johnny impatiently waited, his arms crossed.

But Scott wasn't quite ready yet. “What about the other guns in the case?”

“I liked this one the best, Scott. Shoot.”

Scott smiled. “You're the expert.” He took a stance, aimed at a painted target and fired. He missed the center, hitting an inch or two to the right.

“Were you aiming there?” Johnny asked.

“No, but that's not the gun's fault. I'm better with a rifle.”

“Do you like how it feels in your hand? Is it smooth? Is the trigger adjusted to your liking?”

Scott turned to Johnny. “It's a handgun, Johnny. It works. You try it.”

Impatient, Johnny took the weapon and slipped it in his holster, handing Scott his own Colt. He lifted it out of the leather two or three times before drawing. He fanned the hammer twice, hitting the target dead center both times. “It's pretty good,” he said as he holstered the weapon.

Santa Maria! ” Leandro exclaimed. “ Muy rapido! ” His eyes glowed in admiration.

Johnny frowned slightly. He wasn't trying to draw fast, only to get the job done.

“He'll take it,” Johnny told the gunsmith. They walked back in the store. Johnny returned the Colt to Scott, taking back his own weapon. “It has nice action, feels pretty smooth and good response. And it's aim is true.” He slapped his brother on the stomach with the back of his hand. “You need to practice,” he grinned.

Scott spent another thirty seconds selecting a holster, again with Johnny's help. He would have liked to have taken more time, but there was this matter of needing to find his wife. They left the gunsmith a scant ten minutes after entering.

“Ok, Scott. Now get back to Lancer. Leave the gun with me. Let's keep this purchase a little secret for now.”





Chapter Twenty: The Line Shack

Sweat ran off Abby's forehead. It trickled down her face and neck and was beginning to drop between her breasts. Her place against that rock was now in full sun. She didn't know how long she had been in their camp, surreptitiously struggling to free herself, but it had to be way past noon now.

Her wrists were sore and her arms ached from her efforts. She wasn't sure if she'd be successful in her attempt, but she did know it gave her a sense of purpose, a bit of hope in a near-hopeless situation. If nothing else, she'd be able to fight back and inflict a few injuries of her own.

Someone had come along and offered her nourishment, a sour-smelling thing she rejected immediately. They had laughed, saying something like she'd need her energy for later, and left the food—or whatever it was—on the ground not too far from where she crouched. It positively reeked now, turning her stomach.

Another man approached her. “Water?” he offered. He wasn't Pardee; she'd come to recognize his drawl. But whoever he was, he sounded kind.

“Yes, please,” she answered. She felt a ladle to her lips and drank gratefully. She nodded when finished. “Could you pour some over my head?” she asked. “It's quite hot.” She had a plan.

The man did as she asked, dousing her with the cool water. Instantly she felt refreshed, but more importantly, the water soothed her hands and she was able to work on freeing herself again.

She had counted over fifteen men, based on their voices, but she couldn't be sure. The thought of ‘entertaining' that many men spurred her efforts. Her wrists were almost rubbed raw, but she was making progress. She could almost slip one of her tiny hands out. But what to do once she was free? She had heard horses but she couldn't isolate the origin of their sound. If they were hidden she'd need to know where they were in order to run. But ride to where? She had no idea where the hacienda was, and at one hundred thousand acres, it could be a long time before she found help. And she had no weapon nor much expertise in how to use one should she be able to arm herself.

But still she tried to get herself free. She had no other choice.

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



On the ride back to Lancer, Scott pondered the best way to reveal his plan to his father. He admitted he didn't know the man well enough to foresee his reaction, but he guessed he wouldn't take it well. He wanted to break it to him gently, but time, he knew, was running out; dusk would come before they knew it. He realized that he wouldn't have the luxury of taking it easy. He just hoped Murdoch would be understanding.

He contemplated Johnny again. The cold-blooded way he talked about killing a man bothered him, yet he jumped right in to help him rescue Abby. Didn't even think about it. And he sure knew handguns. He'd never purchased anything so important so fast. Johnny was right, too. He did need to practice.

But he wondered why Johnny had thought it important not to tell anyone he was helping. He didn't understand why the gunfighter wouldn't want credit, especially when it may get Murdoch to see him in a better light.

Scott's horse trotted under the Lancer arch; he was determined to play his part well. He would be a convincing fool, the greenhorn who bit off more than he could chew. No one would know his true mettle. No one except Johnny.

Inside the Lancer courtyard, he looked around. Nothing looked out of place, yet there might be a spy here or someone watching. He scanned the horizon. Not that he'd be able to see anyone; they'd be well-hidden.

Joe came to take his tired horse. Scott walked dejectedly toward the door. Nate ran up to him. “You didn't find her, sir?”

Scott put his hand on the boy's shoulder. He looked terrible. His face was bruised and swollen under the bandage. He imagined the boy still had one huge headache. And yet he was concerned for Abby.

“No, Nate, I did not. I got lost instead,” Scott lied. “Thank you, though, for all you did.”

“I didn't do anything, sir. Except get myself kicked.” Nate looked down in shame.

Cipriano came to him next, the look on his face telling all. The segundo dismissed Nate. “You tried, señor . You had to try.” Cipriano admired the young man for making the effort, at least.

Scott nodded. He found Murdoch inside, sitting at his desk, scowling again. “About time you come back. I need you here, clear-headed, to help me think.”

So much for a warm welcome. It was all about the ranch, still. Scott let it go. “I am now, Sir, and I have a plan.” He sat next to Murdoch and began abruptly. “We have to get away from the hacienda.”

“Never!” barked Murdoch. He bolted from his chair with a burst of speed Scott hadn't thought possible for a man with a bum leg. “I will never leave this ranch! If that's your great idea, then you aren't worth anything to me.”

Scott shook his head. He hoped Murdoch was playing a part, too, for everyone to hear, but somehow he didn't think so. “Please sit, Sir. I have thought of everything. Listen.”

“Have you now? Have you thought of how that would ruin the morale of my men? What that would do to the families of the men who work here? Have you considered what kind of message that sends to the surrounding ranches?” Murdoch shook his head.

Scott doubted Murdoch's motives were that altruistic. “Sir, if you'll just hear me out—”

“Obviously you've not thought of this ranch, the hours, the sweat, the lives it took to build it up.” Murdoch rose and gazed out his big window. “You don't know what it's like here. What it's been like.”

“Sir, please. I am new to California, true, but I do know tactics and strategy. Just give me five minutes to explain.”

Murdoch remained silent, gazing out his window. A horse trotted by. It was a black and white paint. A Lancer horse. His horse. He was not about to give it up. Abby was probably dead already, anyway.

“You are thinking with your heart, Scott.”

“No, Sir. I am not. But you are. All your reasons are emotional. You haven't even heard what I plan.” What we plan, Scott thought, considering Johnny. He knew now why Johnny hadn't wanted him to mention his involvement. Murdoch would balk even more. It surprised him that Johnny knew his father better than he did.

“I have too much invested in this ranch to just give it up.”

Scott rose, walked behind Murdoch and whispered slowly. “We won't really leave. We'll just make them think we are.”

The big man spun around, confusion on his face. “What?” he asked, matching Scott's soft voice.

Scott was grateful his father gave him the benefit out the doubt, even for a moment. He continued talking softly, so as not to be overheard. “That's the strategy, Sir. We'll go through all the motions. Tell the men. Pack. Head on out. We'll make it look good so whoever is watching—from the inside or from afar—thinks we are going.”

Murdoch stepped back, his mouth opening in surprise. “You think there's a spy.”

“Could be.”

“I've allowed for that myself.”

“That's why no one but us knows the truth. We'll pack just enough to make it look real, evacuate, then cut over to the back road and double back. If there's a spy, maybe he won't leave with us and we'll find out who he is.”

Murdoch pushed his lower lip up, thinking, nodding. “It may work.”

“It has to,” Scott said grimly. His wife depended on it.

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



Murdoch gave the order. He round up the few men he had left, their families and his other support staff. “We're abandoning Lancer,” he announced.

“No!” Teresa screamed. This was her only home she'd ever known.

“We have to, sweetheart,” Murdoch continued. He looked to the men. “Pack up your things, hitch up the wagons. Be quick about it. We need to be out of here in three hours.” He turned and walked back inside, his shoulders hunched. He hated doing this, but at least it wasn't for real.

“This is your fault,” Teresa accused Scott. “If you hadn't come...” She stood there defiantly, her arms crossed, tears forming in her eyes.

Scott looked around. He could tell that many of the men felt the same way. He addressed them all. “I know you blame me, or my wife, but the real culprit is Day Pardee. He started this.” He followed Murdoch into the house. He hated deceiving everyone, but they would understand soon enough.

Murdoch was in his room, packing a bag. “We have to make it look good,” He told Scott as he stuffed a framed photograph of a dark-haired woman inside.

“I agree,” Scott nodded. He went to pack a enough of their things as well.

Teresa's tears flowed as she filled a trunk. She had neither the time nor the space to take everything. Her decisions were hard. “Hurry up, sweetheart,” Murdoch soothed. He longed to tell the girl it was all a sham, but couldn't. He couldn't risk anyone overhearing. And he needed the girl's reactions to be true.

The hands piled trunks and crates into wagons, making them creak from the weight. Families packed too, taking whatever they could into their carts. Three hours later, Murdoch gave the order and Lancer started the move.

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



Up in the hills beyond the hacienda, a lone man watched. When he was satisfied everything was as it should be, he mounted his black horse. Speaking in soft Spanish, he urged the horse to move.

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



Abby jerked her hand free and almost called out in joy. She couldn't let the men know so she kept her hands behind her. Now she truly concentrated on the sounds, listening to learn where the horses were kept.

An outlaw offered Abby a plate of something that smelled like beans. Even though she was rabidly hungry, she shook her head, not wanting to be fed like a baby. That close of contact was more than she could stand. The man shrugged and moved on.

The sun was setting; the night's chill was beginning. Frantic now to locate the horses by sound, Abby listened actively, but her pounding heart interfered. She was panicking, she knew, and tried to calm herself, to no avail.

“Time,” Pardee's voice called.

Abby stiffened, her heart skipped a beat. Was the assault to begin? Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her up. She instantly grabbed the ropes with her free hand and pretended to be still tied. At least she'd surprise them. She'd fight back with all her might.

“We're taking you somewhere else,” Pardee drawled to her. “Someplace more comfortable for our little party.” He leered. A man bent over and picked her up, carrying her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She endured the indignity of it, biding her time.

But her opportunity never came. Not on the horse, nor where she was led to some sort of building, nor stumbling inside, not even when they shoved her onto the bed, a sort of cot. Her heart felt as if it would jump out of her throat and her breath was jerky. She silently prayed for Scott to enter the room and sweep her away. Or to awaken from this horrible nightmare.

But neither happened. Swallowing hard, she tried once more to be brave and sat up, her body quivering.

“Not yet,” Pardee was ordering his men. “Cav and Abe, you two stay here. Leave her alone. I want to be the first. The rest of us will go wait for our man watching Lancer. Then we can all come back here and have her.” The men laughed.

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



Scott tried to take notice of the vaqueros along the trail, to see if anyone was missing, but he didn't know them well enough. He saw the young Nate, the cowboys Joe and Paco, Cipriano and the housekeeper Maria with their brood, but recognized only a few others. He knew Murdoch was doing the same; searching for a missing person, someone behaving suspiciously.

The old man rode his horse, a rare thing since his injury, but he wanted mobility and visibility so he put up with his pain. No one stayed behind, no one cut out. Everyone was here, acting normally. There was no inside man. Murdoch smiled inwardly. At least he chose his men well.

They reached the lake where Scott was to stay behind. Murdoch ordered the men to stop for water; the overloaded wagons taxed the horses. A few minutes rest and they were on their way. Scott went into his act.

“I can't continue,” he told Murdoch, his voice loud so others could hear. “What if she...” He ducked his head, pretending to be overcome with emotion.

Murdoch didn't understand this move. Was his son really this emotional? HIs plan had seemed so rational. Now what was this? “What's going on, Scott?”

Scott didn't look up for fear of giving himself away. Instead he kept his face down and looked away. “Leave me alone a few minutes, Sir. Keep moving. I'll catch up.” He dismounted, leading his horse away. He braced his hand on the large rock, as if he needed support.

Murdoch shook his head, misunderstanding, and looked down the road. “Okay men. Let's move on.” He waved for the wagons to start moving again. Each man passed by, each gave Scott a passing review. A few shook their head in disgust, others merely shrugged. Teresa kept her head forward, trying to be stoic, while tears still streamed down her face.

The last of the horses passed. Scott kept his stance, his back to the road, leaning over the rock. Where was Johnny? How long did he have to pretend to be the lovesick weakling?

After what seemed like hours, he heard the jingle of spurs. “No one's here, Scott. Just you and me.”

Relieved, Scott shoved himself away from the rock. He smiled at Johnny, atop his black horse, holding out Scott's new holster and Colt. He took the weapon, strapped it on and mounted his chestnut stallion. “Let's go get my wife.”

Johnny nodded. “ ¡Vamos! ” he ordered Sombra.

The two men rode in silence in a Westwardly direction, the moon guiding them. They crossed rolling hills and dodged around rocks, forded streams until they reached the foothills. There they dismounted.

“Was anyone watching us leave?” Scott whispered.

“Yes. He's gone.” was Johnny's answer.

Good, thought Scott. So they know. They won't hurt Abby.

They walked their horses through a copse of trees, stopping when they saw smoke coming from a chimney.

“Their hideout?” he whispered.

Johnny shook his head. “It's one of Lancer's line shacks,” he replied.

How ironic, thought Scott, that they'd use this building. Pardee continually surprised him.

Johnny motioned for Scott to be quiet and follow him. They creeped toward the shack, moving soundlessly. When they reached the clearing where the shelter stood, Johnny turned to Scott and whispered. “I'm going in for a look. Stay here. Let me know if you see anyone.”

Scott nodded. He watched Johnny sneak up to the shack, press himself against the wall and inch around a corner. A few minutes later he saw Johnny return, moving quickly but silently back to him.

“Abby is here,” he whispered. “She's guarded, though. Two, maybe three men. I think we are lucky. It looks like we beat the rest of them.”

“Did you see her? Is she okay?” Scott asked. Johnny didn't answer. He merely put his fingers to his lips. Scott understood. They had to be quiet. But he was dying to know.

Together they stepped to the line shack, creeping silently and watching for movement indicating anyone else. They came upon a window.

Scott peeked inside, confirming Johnny's report. Abby sat on a cot, her arms behind her back. She has a bruise on her face and her hair was partially down but otherwise looked all right. One man leaned against the doorway, a rifle cradled in his hands. Another was pouring coffee. They didn't see anyone else. The outlaws seemed quite relaxed, very assured that all was going well.

They crept around to the shack's porch. Johnny motioned for Scott to follow as he drew out his knife. His footsteps silent, Johnny hurried to the open doorway where the rifleman lounged. He didn't think, he didn't stop. He reached out with his knife and slit.

The rifleman fell to the porch in a thud, his throat cut. “What the—” was all the other man got out before Scott fired his new Colt twice, hitting him square in the stomach. The outlaw clutched his gut and fell to the floor.

At the sound of gunfire, Abby forgot to pretend to be tied. Instinctively she brought her hands to her face and tore off her blindfold. She gasped, covering her mouth with three fingers. There was so much blood! Arterial spray covered the doorway and more rapidly puddled under the gunshot man. Scott lunged through the doorway and grabbed his wife, holding her tightly for long minutes. Abby sobbed in relief, shutting her eyes to the violence. “Oh, Scott! Scott!” she cried. Her ordeal was over.





Chapter Twenty-One: Consequences

The three of them rode quickly, Abby riding double with Scott, not because she lacked her mare—they were leading her horse—, but because she wanted to be close to him. He was her hero. She held him tightly. Sure, Johnny had helped, but it was Scott who had eliminated the last of her captors and swept in the line shack to get her.

Scott was thrilled to have found her, safe and sound. He had Johnny to thank. He tried not to think of the life he'd taken. It had been necessary to free his wife. He concentrated instead on his wife's arms, securely around him.

They had left the line shack quickly, to stay ahead of Pardee's men, but once they were safely away and in a secure spot, Scott made Johnny stop so Abby could recover emotionally. She sobbed in Scott's arms, relieved to be out of harm's way, for what seemed to Johnny a long, long time. He tried to wait patiently while he stood guard, but he kept glancing back at the embracing couple every few minutes. He knew Pardee was coming. Seconds may count.

Finally, Abby's cries slowed to sniffles and Johnny heard them softly talking, not listening well enough to make out the words, but hearing them gently chuckle on occasion. Now he really wanted to get going. If she was feeling good enough to laugh, she could ride. But still he didn't interfere. Abby was a real lady who had been through a terrifying ordeal. He figured Scott would know when she was well enough to ride. As hard as it was for him to hold, he did.

He didn't have to wait much longer. Walking together they approached Johnny. “Thank you, Johnny,” Abby smiled. Her eyes and nose appeared red in the moonlight. From crying, he knew. “I don't want to think of what would have happened had Scott not found you.”

“Anytime, Ma'am.” He gathered the horses. “Are you ready to get back to the hacienda?”

“Am I ever!” Abby almost laughed. The three of them mounted and began their race back to Lancer.

They rode fast, trying to outrun both the waning moonlight and Pardee. They didn't know how far ahead they were from the outlaws and none of them wanted to find out. Their horses barely trampled the knee-high grasses of the rolling hills and wide open valleys. Scott let Johnny lead, hoping he knew the way back to the hacienda. It seemed that he did, as he never stopped or hesitated to get his bearings. They only slowed down slightly to ford the same streams Scott and Johnny had crossed hours earlier.

By now Murdoch would have doubled back and be waiting, the clever plan now clear to all of Lancer. Pardee would be riding into a trap. Scott wanted to be there for the battle; he urged Johnny even faster.

Suddenly Sombra stumbled and nearly went down, throwing Johnny over his head. “Whoa!” Johnny cried. He thudded on the ground, knocking the wind out of him. The horse hobbled, favoring a leg. Johnny picked himself up and shook his head. He stepped to where Sombra stood on three legs. Johnny felt Sombra's left front leg. The horse lunged at his master, teeth bared. “ ¡Maldito! ” [Damn!] Johnny muttered. He backed away, breathing hard.

“Is he ok?” Scott asked.

“Broken leg,” Johnny answered. “Gopher hole.” He muttered more Spanish.

“I'm so sorry, Johnny,” Abby said softly. She knew what this meant.

Scott dismounted. He moved Abby and the two horses away to give Johnny privacy.

Johnny moved softly, but quickly. Sombra had been his best ride; he didn't want him to suffer more than he had to. He removed his rifle from its scabbard then uncinched the saddle, grabbing it so it didn't fall and startle the doomed horse. He lay the saddle gently on the ground and tossed the blanket across. The gunfighter came around to Sombra's head. He knew he'd have to end his misery soon, but he had to say goodbye first. He slipped the bridle, caressing his horse's velvety soft muzzle. Sombra blew, as if in understanding. Time seemed to stand still.

Johnny reached for his Colt.

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



“Ride my horse,” Abby gently suggested, after watching Johnny cover Sombra's head with his blanket.

Johnny drew a deep breath, said one last silent goodbye for his friend then mounted the mare.

“Let's slow it down,” Scott suggested. After a few minutes he apologized. “I'm sorry, Johnny. I know how you take care of your horse.”

Johnny's voice was thick. “Riding in the dark is always dangerous, Scott. Can't be helped sometimes. Its the chance you take.”

Scott felt guilty; it was his fault Johnny was even out here in the first place. Changing the subject, he asked, “What do you think Pardee will do once he finds Abby free?”

“I don't know.” Johnny was grateful for the change. “He may shrug it off and go to Lancer to claim his victory. Or he may want revenge and raid Morro Coyo thinking your father went there.”

“You said ‘thinking'? Wouldn't his man watching have reported to him where we headed?”

“That man never made his report.”

“How do you know?” Abby asked.

“I know.” Johnny's statement was flat.

“Oh,” Abby understood. Johnny must have killed him.

“If he raids Morro Coyo, a lot of innocent people will be killed. Why didn't you tell me that was a possibility before we started all this?”

“I told you back in my hotel room, Scott, you wouldn't like the plan.”

“You could have at least mentioned that part.”

“And what would you have done, Scott? Not gone after your wife? Hardly. You did what you had to do, what any man would have done.”

“Yes, but so many people now will pay.”

“We don't know that for sure. Pardee may decide to forget Abby. Lancer was his real prize anyway. He'll think he has that if Murdoch followed the plan.”

They reached the bluff overlooking the hacienda. The house and surrounding buildings were completely dark;. Anyone riding up to it now would think it deserted. Johnny stopped the mare. “You two go in alone.”

“Where are you going?”

“I'll be around. Remember, no one can know I helped you, Scott. You tell nobody, Ma'am.”

Abby didn't understand but she nodded. Scott tipped his hat to his friend. They took off at a light canter.

Johnny led the mare up on a hillside, under the shelter of thick trees, where he could keep an eye out and be alone. He needed to be alone now.

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



“Quiet!” Murdoch ordered. His men were positioned on the roof, awaiting Pardee's arrival. A sentry announced the arrival of a horse. Murdoch peered into the darkness. The moon was on its last legs, only allowing for the tiniest sliver of light, but it was enough for Murdoch to see there were two people on one white-footed horse.

“Well, I'll be,” Murdoch muttered to himself. “It's not Pardee,” he said quietly. “Cipriano, send a man to the barn. I think it's Scott and Abby.”

“Scott and Abby?” Teresa whispered. “We left him by the lake. He wasn't able to rescue her.”

A few others murmured their approval. The lovesick puppy had some grit after all. They were proud of el hijo del Patron .

A few minutes later a very tired Scott and Abby climbed on the rooftop to join the others. “Greetings can wait,” Murdoch said. “We have to be on the alert.” He noted Scott was now wearing a holster but said nothing. It wasn't the time.

Scott positioned himself on the wall, his rifle at the ready. Abby sat next to him. “What are you doing? Go back by Teresa.”

“I am not a child, Scott Lancer. I can at least help you load. Besides, don't you think I want a little revenge of my own?”

Scott smiled at his wife. She had grit too.

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



Pardee waited at his hideout past the appointed hour. His man watching the hacienda was late. Figuring it was time for that promised romp with the Lancer woman, he led his men to the line shack.

What he found there surprised him. Two dead men. And the woman gone. He walked around looking for signs. Nothing. His men were angry; they felt cheated out of the woman. They wanted action.

Pardee had to calm them down. He again reminded them of the real goal: Lancer ranch. They should ride to the hacienda, to find out for themselves if the old man had left. Maybe, just maybe they'd get their prize anyway.

They'd ridden only a half mile when Pardee stopped short. He cut a man out, sending him to Morro Coyo. He had a feeling who could be behind the woman's escape.

The rest of the gang rode quickly and silently, each with their own thoughts. While they had wanted the Lancer woman, once they got their pay they'd be able to buy plenty of women. The moon slipped over the horizon, leaving them to ride in the darkness. They slowed to a trot. They didn't want to lose a horse due to a misstep.

The group rode past where Sombra's body lay in the grass. They were within fifty feet and would have seen his glistening black body had it not been so dark. Another half hour later the sun peeked over the distant Eastern mountains. It was dawning. They breached the crest overlooking the hacienda.

The house was dark. Nothing moved. It looked deserted. “Well, it looks like Lancer did as he was told,” Pardee drawled. “Let's go in and take her.” He kneed his horse.

The men galloped down the hillside coming closer and closer to the hacienda. Dreams of looting the buildings filled their heads. It looked like it would be an easy take.

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“Wait,” Murdoch ordered softly. “Let them get in range.” The men paused, but they were anxious, nervous. While they were good men, they were not gunmen. They felt fear.

A shot rang out early. Murdoch looked around for the culprit but found no one. Someone had warned Pardee.

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Pardee's men reined up. They were still out of range. “Go back!” he yelled. “It's a trap! Lancer's still here!” The men turned around, angry at being shortchanged again.

He regrouped in the shelter of a copse of trees on the other side of the valley they'd just galloped through. His men wanted answers and he didn't have any. They did not want to wait any longer. Pardee held them back once more, promising them even more of a revenge when they finally did take Lancer. “The next time,” he promised, “we'll get Lancer's blood. His, his son's, that wife's and the girl's. We'll kill them all.”

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From his hiding spot, Johnny put away his rifle and watched Pardee's retreat. He figured the man would have his hands full handling his men after that botched invasion and decided to take that time to get some much-needed rest. He mounted the mare and turned toward Morro Coyo, taking the shorter back road.

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The Lancer hands yelled in jubilation. They'd won. With only one shot fired, too! Murdoch called their attention. “All right, men. Whoever fired that shot did us all a favor, I guess. Let's get everything unpacked and move back in to Lancer. No one takes us without a real fight!”

The men busied themselves with the job assigned. They wouldn't go back to their normal ranch duties now until this Pardee business was finished once and for all.

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



Scott found Murdoch on the veranda, giving orders to Paco, Nate and Smitty. “I want to talk to you about hiring help,” Scott began.

Murdoch turned to him. “Not that gunfighter again, Scott.” The other men backed away a few feet, giving el Patron some privacy.

“Yes, him. Do you know he's the one who helped me find Abby?”

Murdoch pointed to the weapon on Scott's thigh. “Did he help you buy that Colt, too?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, he did.” Scott stood up straighter. “Sir, he led me right to her, killed one of the men guarding her and helped us get back. He lost his horse doing so, too. Poor thing stumbled on a gopher hole and broke his leg. He had to put him down. That's all my fault, Sir. I went to him and he helped me. I— we —owe him.”

Murdoch let Scott say his peace. “Was it really that easy, Scott? He just led you to where she was? Killed the man that easily? Got you both back out without a scratch? Did you ever stop to think why it was so easy? Can't you see that it's like I said, he's working for Pardee, and he did all that as part of some grand plan?”

Murdoch continued. “And did you think that perhaps he was the one watching us? He seems to know quite a lot about Pardee, us, and you in particular. And maybe he's the one who fired that shot warning Pardee.”

“But...”

“We could have finished Pardee this morning. Your Johnny Madrid stopped that.”

“You can't be sure he's with them.”

“You can't keep trouble from visiting, Scott, but you don't have to offer it a chair.”

“I trust him.”

Murdoch stared him down. “Trust? A stranger you barely know?”

“No. It's more than trust. I feel like I've known him all my life. I trust him and I always will. You hate him because of what he does for a living.”

“You can't see the truth, Scott. You're not used to the ways out here.”

“Please don't!” Abby pleaded from the doorway. “Stop arguing. We need to be on the same side, united against Pardee and his men. If it takes hiring help, we should do it.”

Murdoch stared at the woman. She had been through so much, so quickly. He didn't want to upset her more. “You're right. We shouldn't fight each other. And we may need help. I'll go talk to our neighbors, Gaspar and Maria De Salvo, after we eat.”

Murdoch dismissed the men, who still stood a few feet away, pretending not to hear. The hands headed for the bunkhouse for some much-needed rest. After dining, Murdoch ordered everyone to take a nap. Although it was still early in the day, Lancer settled down. It had been a long, long day and night.

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As the hacienda slept, a man crept into the barn, unseen and unheard. He needed a fast horse. Quickly saddling the one to his liking, he eased out of the barn. He ran beside to the animal until they passed under the Lancer arch. No one heard him gallop away.





Chapter Twenty-Two: Day's Revenge

Johnny fell onto his bed, exhausted from the night's activity, both physically and emotionally. Sombra had been his closest friend for nearly four years; his companion who had kept him alive on more than several occasions. And now he was gone. He tried not to think about it.

Abby's kidnapping had surprised him. He hadn't thought Day would resort to that tactic. It seemed too cowardly for him, but then the Day Pardee he knew had been willing to try almost anything to get the job done. Still, it seemed more like an act of desperation rather than a planned maneuver. Or someone else's idea.

He wondered what Day would do now. His men were bound to be frustrated and wanting to take it out on someone. Maybe now he'd raid the town. I should get up and see, he thought as his head hit the pillow.

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A rider slipped into Morro Coyo, unnoticed by its inhabitants on this busy morning. He first went to the livery then to the hotel. Finding what he wanted, he left, galloping once he disappeared from view.

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Lancer spent a quiet day in recovery mode. The previous day and night had taken an emotional and physical toll on everyone, including the hands. The workers were happy their patron gave them much-needed time to recuperate. Now they did minimal work, just enough to keep the ranch going, the animals sustained.

Scott visited his new horse; the game chestnut had served him so well already. The horse neighed at him, already recognizing his master. “You need a name,” he told the animal. The chestnut snorted, as if agreeing. Scott chuckled. “You remind me of General—” he paused, his face brightening. “That's what I'll name you, Rienzi! That was General Sheridon's horse!” Rienzi bobbed his head up and down, liking the name.

He left the barn and sought the men, organizing them for target practice. They trekked away from the buildings and whitewashed several circles on tree trunks. He saw some of them improve but others still needed more time. The young Nate shined; he was proud of him. Smitty, however, would require many more hours to be up to speed. His skills lay with horses. Remembering Johnny's advice, Scott took some time to get a few shots in himself.

Satisfied with the mens' progress for today, Scott retired to his room to draw up ideas for defense. He planned to fortify the perimeter as well as a main line at the hacienda itself, making use of the house's tower, uneven lines and thick adobe walls. His idea was to recreate a fort-like barricade so Pardee's men would have to overcome two strongholds to take Lancer. He wished for more men, though, and he hoped Murdoch would be able to convince the De Salvos to help.

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The day's second rider entered Pardee's camp. He whispered his information, making Day smile. It was the outlaw's second piece of good news. Now things were looking better. “Let's ride!” Day called. “It's time we get some real action.”

His men whooped as they mounted. Day had something in mind, they could tell.

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Murdoch slapped the reins on his buggy, satisfied with himself. He had talked with Gaspar. The man had agreed to send four men and his oldest son to Lancer. Diego was an excellent shot; he'd bagged many a rabbit for his family's dinner. Murdoch was pleased; they were coming over that evening. Lancer would be relieved to have additional, fresh guns.

Gaspar and Maria De Salvo had both been at Lancer before Murdoch, serving the land's previous owner who died in a fire. They stayed on, often with little or no pay, so when they married a few years later, Murdoch cut out a few acres of the ranch as a present for their loyalty. The older couple quickly began a family, having two sons and a daughter before time caught up with Maria. Now Diego was sixteen, their daughter a year younger and the boy only twelve.

Their small ranch had prospered, too, earning enough to hire on more men. Gaspar now employed eight hands, all bachelors. He hadn't hesitated to offer help. Diego insisted that he go with them, convincing both Murdoch and his own father, saying he was the best of them all with a gun.

Murdoch couldn't stop thinking about Scott's growing relationship with the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid. It irritated him that Scott wasn't heeding his advice but it purely angered him that Madrid was hanging around, making himself available to Scott, even helping him buy a handgun.

He had wanted that experience with his son! It was the one father-to-son rite of passage he would have been able to have with Scott and that damned Johnny Madrid took that away from him. Didn't he realize the importance of that moment? Murdoch snorted. Of course not. Gunfighters don't take those things into account.

He was more convinced than ever that Madrid was working for Pardee. Everything Scott told him fit right into that theory: how readily available he was, how easily they rescued Abby, how he knew exactly where to go to find her. Scott didn't even question those coincidences. And he knew, just knew, it was Madrid who fired that shot early this morning, warning Pardee.

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Lancer finished a late lunch; a light affair consisting of sandwiches and a few extras to round it out. Expecting the new men from Gaspar's, the atmosphere in the hacienda was almost giddy with anticipation. To pass the time, Murdoch decided to walk around the garden.

“They should be arriving any minute now,” he said to Scott, who followed him out. The mid-afternoon sun's heat caused some of the flowers to begin to wilt.

“Good. We need them.” Scott was about to remark about watering the flowers when he saw a rider in the distance galloping toward them. “Look! Is that one of them?”

Murdoch glanced up. The direction was right, but it was only one horse; he was expecting more. The rider was yelling, but he couldn't make out the words. A few minutes later they could hear him shout “ Señor Lancer! Señor Lancer!”

“Something's wrong,” Murdoch said, nearly dropping his glass. “That's one of Gaspar's men.”

The man rode in fast, dropping to his feet when Murdoch and Scott ran out to meet him. “ Señor Lancer! Señor Lancer!!” he called excitedly. He was bloody and favored a left arm. “ ¡Es horrible! ¡Tan horrible! ¡Los banditos!

Murdoch and Scott glanced at each other, both realizing what must have happened. They separated, Scott to the barn for mounts, Murdoch to sound the alarm.

The two of them took about seven hands and raced to the De Salvo farm. Billowing smoke guided their way the last mile. They crested a small hill and stopped in horror.

Gaspar De Salvo was hanging upside down from the barn, blood pooling on the dirt below him. His throat had been cut, but not before the man had been beaten and tortured. Diego's hands had been chopped off. His body lay next to a bloody tree stump, an axe embedded deep into his chest.

They found the younger boy's body stretched out, his hands tied together and evidence he'd been dragged repeatedly across the yard. He'd also been shot in each shoulder before his throat, too, had been sliced open.

They saw the bodies of two other hands, both trampled by horses before being shot in the gut, left to die.

Murdoch hurriedly limped toward the house. Maria and the girl would have been inside. He opened the door and saw Maria's body, spread across the dinner table, naked. She'd been raped repeatedly before being mutilated and left to die. He feared looking for the girl.

Selena De Salvo was a pretty girl and had caught the eye of several boys in town. He prayed her death had been quick, but given the level of brutality and sadism he saw here, he doubted it.

Johnny rode up on Abby's mare. “A man rode like hell into town, yelling about murders here.” he explained, jumping off to help. Murdoch's men were already taking Gaspar's body down. Scott covered the young boy with a blanket, not believing the savagery. He'd seen barbaric acts in the War, of course, but not to this extreme.

“They were going to help us,” Scott told Johnny. He perused the death area, seeing and not really seeing.

“They are brutal men, Scott,” Johnny softly drawl. “If you didn't already know, you do now.”

Scott nodded, swallowing hard.

Murdoch shut the door on the house, his head sagging. Scott ran up to him. “Sir?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Maria...Maria's dead. I couldn't find the girl.” He glanced up and saw Johnny, his mood instantly changing. “You!” he accused. “You were part of this!”

Taken aback, Johnny sparred. “Is that what you think of me?”

Murdoch went for his gun, but before he even touched his weapon, Johnny's deadly Colt stared at his chest. “Now wait a minute,” Scott interrupted, his arms spread to separate the two men. “There's been enough violence today. There'll be no more.”

Johnny kept his gun level for a few seconds more. When satisfied Murdoch wasn't moving, he relaxed, bringing the weapon to his side. “Ok, Scott, I'll back off...but for you, not him. I've been wanting to kill that old man for most of my life.” He spun around, heading back to the mare.

Scott chased after him. “What do you mean you been wanting to kill him most of your life? You just met him!”

“Yeah, Scott. I did just meet him. And that's a lot of the reason.” He holstered his weapon.

“He doesn't need a reason, Scott,” Murdoch started in. “He's a gunfighter. A killer. You see evidence of his work all around you.”

Johnny twisted back around, his finger jabbing Murdoch's chest. “I had nothing to do with this, Old Man! This was Pardee. I tried to tell you about him, but you, you who know everything, you didn't want to hear it!”

Johnny stepped back. “Well, now you really need me, you got a good look at what Pardee is capable of and if you don't want that to happen to you, to Scott, his wife and that pretty young girl you keep at your feet you'll beg me to help.”

“You stay away from Teresa!” Murdoch bellowed.

“Want her for yourself?” Johnny sneered.

Murdoch lunged for Johnny but Scott intervened again. “Stop it, you two. My word! You'd think you two were related; you're both just the same!”

Johnny softened his voice. “We are.”

“What?” Scott asked.

“Related.” Johnny reached for the mare's saddle, Scott pulled him away.

“What did you say?” Scott asked.

Murdoch was indignant. “There's no way on earth you have my blood!”

Johnny smirked. “Well, according to my mother— the wife you kicked out —we do. And now, ain't it so sweet, that you need me, the son you didn't want, to save your precious ranch. Well, good luck, Old Man.” He mounted the mare and with one last passing look at Scott, took off toward Morro Coyo.

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Scott stared at his father, dumbfounded. “What did he mean, Sir? You kicked out his mother? Your wife?”

Murdoch waved his arm, dismissing Johnny. “Never mind him, Son. He was talking wildly. We need to clean this up and go home. It'll be dark soon.”

“No. I'm going after him. I want to talk.”

Murdoch started to protest, but Scott was on his chestnut before he could stop him. “C'mon, Rienzi; let's go!” He kneed the animal and it surged forward.

Scott hoped his horse could catch up to Abby's mare Johnny still rode. He knew his mount was fast but he didn't know that mare's speed. He got his answer when he saw Johnny up ahead when he crested a small hill. “Johnny!” he cried out, knowing his brother— was he really his brother? —probably wouldn't hear him this far away.

Johnny heard pounding hooves behind him and turned to look. He pulled the mare up when he recognized Scott. He waited.

“You want to explain all that?” Scott asked as he pulled up alongside Johnny.

“Nope.” Johnny kneed the mare forward. He looked straight ahead as the horse walked toward Morro Coyo.

“Well, you're going to have to.”

“Nope.”

“Johnny!”

Johnny stopped the mare. He twisted in the saddle to face Scott. “What, Scott? Do you need a roadmap? I thought you were smart.”

“You are my brother.” Scott realized it was the truth.

Johnny said nothing. He just looked straight ahead as his horse started walking again.

“When did you know?”

“Back on the train. That first day. When you said Murdoch Lancer was your father.”

“You knew all this time and never told me?” A vein popped into view at Scott's temple.

“What was there to tell, Scott? That I hated your old man. I wanted to kill him, had wanted to most of my life?”

The venom in Johnny's words cut short Scott's anger. “Why didn't you?”

“He was too important. I couldn't just call him out, ya know. I needed a plan.”

Why did you want to kill him? What did he do to you?”

“Not so much to me, Scott, but to my mother. He kicked her out. Well, me too. He didn't want her for his wife because she was Mex.”

“But he knew that when he married her.”

Johnny sighed. “You don't get it, do you? He married her because he got her pregnant. Her father probably held a shotgun to him.”

Scott tried to comprehend that. “Murdoch? Are you sure?”

“I ain't been to Harvard, Scott, but I can do math.”

“I never knew.”

“There are more horses asses than horses, Scott.”

“Come back to the ranch with me. We'll sort this out with Murdoch together.”

Johnny shook his head. “No.” He kneed the mare and galloped away, leaving Scott shaking his head before he slowly turned Rienzi around.

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



Day Pardee and two of his men waited in the alley next to the hotel in Morro Coyo. They had the De Salvo girl with them. Day had hit her, knocking her out to shut up her screaming when they rode away from the farm. She had seen what the brutes did to her family; watched her father tortured, her brothers attacked, her mother raped and had been terrified when they took her.

Day had a plan.

Along the way into town, Day had been careful to avoid roads. He knew two men got away from the farm. One had ridden in Lancer's direction, the other toward town. He figured men from the hamlet might be riding to the farm to help. He was right. Safely hiding in trees behind a rock he saw what he wanted: Johnny Madrid riding all-out. Now was the time to put his plan to motion.

Under the safety of darkness, they entered the hotel's back door, climbed up the back stairs, picked a lock and waited, just Day and the girl. He sent his men to join the others at his hideout. His prey would enter the trap.

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A tired Scott climbed down from his horse. He didn't know whether to be angry or confused. What Johnny had said made sense, but it made the man he'd grown to know as his father seem like a cad, and he just couldn't see that. Murdoch Lancer was stubborn and sometimes autocratic, but he as a fair man and well-respected. He bore no prejudice against Mexicans.

He was also angry at both of them. Johnny for not telling him sooner and Murdoch for denying Johnny. Johnny had no reason to lie. Why wouldn't Murdoch own up to a second son?

“You're back!” Abby ran to him as he entered the great room. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. “I was so worried!”

Scott kissed her automatically, his face still in a scowl. “What's wrong, sweetheart?” Abby asked. “Was it that bad at the farm?”

“Huh? No, I mean, yes, it was horrid at the farm, but—” he stopped. Facing his wife, he continued, “I need to talk to Murdoch first. Then I'll explain it all to you, okay?”

Abby nodded. Something was troubling her Scott.

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Johnny brought the mare to the livery, making sure she had fresh hay and plenty of water. He spent twenty minutes grooming her. She may not be his horse, but he was damn sure he'd take good care of her.

He walked through Morro Coyo's deserted streets, heading for his hotel. He hadn't been awake long today, but he was still tired. Too much had happened.

He trod up the hotel's stairs. He tried not to think about his father and the things he'd said. It was time to put a stop to Pardee once and for all. Then he could get away. Away from all this emotional baggage.

Johnny entered his room, closed the door and stopped cold.


To PART THREE

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